“Your attention please. From 9 o’clock onwards, people from the fourth district are requested to stay inside their homes.”
A black-haired young man glanced at his brunet friend as the announcement was made. This was weird, announcements like these weren’t common, and that it was directed to the fourth district was even more unusual.
“What do you think this is about?” asked the brunet, frowning slightly as he looked up at the sky. They weren’t supposed to be here, at the very edge of the eighth district's East branch, but he wanted to observe the outside world from another viewpoint than the living quarters and common areas, so they had snuck into this restricted area, by now knowing by heart the schedule of guards and the few other people authorised to come here.
“I don’t know,” replied the raven, standing up from the bench they’d been sitting on. “Normally it only happens when they’re in need of an oracle, but they just took one in three months ago.”
“Well, you know that was unexpected too... We’ve had five different oracles in less than two years,” mumbled the other, looking down at his trembling hands.
“Taehyung-ah, there’s no need to worry,” Seokjin turned to his best friend and patted his shoulder, smiling faintly.
He could say not to worry as many times as he wanted, Taehyung was still a potential oracle, and there was no way to change that. So far the brunet had been lucky enough not to be picked, but there seemed to be something going on. Oracles usually lived like anyone else, meaning that Taehyung and him should have known only one, maybe two oracles, but never six. He couldn’t help but wonder what the government was up to. A lot of things didn’t make sense. Oracles seemed to die prematurely, their bodies weren’t returned to their families even if that was the tradition, and no explanation was given.
“You don’t believe it yourself, hyung,” sighed the brunet, standing up as well. “You know I might be chosen this time.”
“I know, but there are still other ones like you.”
“How many? Haven’t you noticed that more and more people in the district are disappearing? Not only our age, but also children. There’s something going on in there, it’s not normal for children to be taken away,” groaned Taehyung, glaring over his shoulder at the trunk of the tree.
“I know that, Taehyung, but what do you want me to say?” sighed Seokjin, looking out through the glass, the sky a dark shade of red, almost reminding him of blood.
The sun was setting far in the West, a rare sight since the nuclear catastrophe that happened centuries ago. Seokjin had always wondered what it was like to live on the outside. All he could see were forests and lakes, and far in the distance he could make out the figure of another tree, probably similar to the one he lived in. A sort of monster made of glass.
From the books that their ancestors had taken with them when they moved in what was considered at the time as safe houses, trees actually quite looked like the glass buildings that could be seen in big cities such as Tokyo and New York in the past. Trees were just way bigger, and in the shape of an oak most of the time. Nowadays though, compared to a building from another time, a single tree housed thousands of people. They had been developed in such a way that it looked like a city made of several layers, those layers being the branches. Every family had living quarters, similar to flats, the difference being that people were kept in a sort of bubble and it was strictly forbidden to go outside. It was even forbidden to be in the area they were in, where they were surrounded by glass, able to see the nature surrounding them as if they were in it. Only high-ranking officials and scientists had access to this zone, although it had never stopped them from sneaking in.
“Have you ever wondered what happened to Jiminie?”
The raven froze when he heard his best friend’s question.
“One day we were playing with him, the next day his mother told us that he couldn’t anymore. Have you ever thought about what truly happened to him?” continued Taehyung, slouching on the bench.
Of course Seokjin had thought about Jimin. He did every day, after all the boy’s quarters were down his hallway, he walked past it all the time.
“We were children, Tae, nothing was happening at the time. It’s been thirteen years since then, we should get over it,” he sighed, glancing at the brunet from the corner of the eye.
He knew the way he phrased it could sound harsh, but it was the truth, they had to move on. Their friend had vanished, they couldn’t do anything about it, especially not thirteen years after.
“He would be twenty-two now. What if he’s in there, with all the others? What if he actually was the first one to never come back?”
Seokjin shook his head, at a loss for words. When they were children, Jimin was like a little brother to him, the same way Taehyung was. Seokjin was twelve and Jimin and Taehyung were only nine when Jimin suddenly disappeared. The raven perfectly remembered how him and Taehyung had kept on asking about their friend for months. They would go to his quarters every day and would ask his mother if the shorter boy was finally back. Now that Seokjin thought about it, Jimin’s mother seemed in grief at the time, but nor him or Taehyung had picked up on that, they weren’t old enough to understand, or maybe they just didn’t want to see it.
“Nine is still quite a young age for an oracle, Tae,” quietly said Seokjin. “He probably didn’t even have visions at the time, they usually come around the age of thirteen. We actually don’t even know if he was a potential oracle.”
The brunet was basing everything on what-ifs, and in Seokjin’s mind, that wasn’t good enough to go against the authorities, especially not for someone who probably was dead now. He knew his way of thinking was kind of cold-hearted, but he had already too many things to worry about to even care about the deads.
“I’ll eventually get chosen, you perfectly know that.”
The raven groaned and let himself fall on the bench, next to the other.
“I just want to know what’s going on in there, hyung,” murmured Taehyung, looking down at his entwined fingers.
“And then what?” snapped the older man. “What will you do once you know what’s up on the inside? You’ll run away? We can’t do shit in here, Taehyung, we’re trapped, and if we go out, we die from exposure to radiation.”
The brunet gaped at his best friend, not having expected such an outburst from him. He felt his ears burn as his face turned red, anger slowly rising inside of him too.
“You really have no fucking clue what it’s like to be an oracle, Seokjin,” he growled, dropping the honourifics. “You want my visions? Because I’ll give them to you, and then you’ll see what it’s like to have a bloody target on your back all the time. You’ll see what it’s like to fear the next harvest, feeling your guts twisting in dread, and then feel that disgusting relief wash over you when someone else is picked, because hey, you managed to get yourself a few more years to live.”
Taehyung stood up and strode away, clutching at the hem of his sweater. He knew that Seokjin wasn’t wrong, but at the same time the raven really had no idea what it was like to live like he did. The government made it look like being an oracle was a privilege, that it was a service to the community, that the chosen ones were saviours, but who really believed it? Certainly not those who had the gene. Once you were chosen, you didn’t see anyone anymore, that was at least one thing the brunet was sure of. Oracles were completely cloistered away from the rest of the population. Taehyung even suspected that they probably weren’t even treated as human beings once in there.
He sighed heavily, but still stopped in his tracks to let his friend catch up to him. He wasn’t expecting anything from the raven, the hug he was pulled into catching him completely off guard.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t understand what good it will do to you to know what they’re really doing.”
The brunet slid his hands around the raven’s waist and hugged him back. “I’ll be able to prepare myself mentally for what’s awaiting me then,” he mumbled before inhaling the other’s scent. He somehow always smelled like flowers, that perfume always managing to soothe the brunet’s nerves.
Seokjin looked ahead, pondering the idea of breaking in another restricted area of the tree. It seemed to be the only way to calm down Taehyung, but would it really do so? What if what they found out was worse than what they had in mind right now? Than what Taehyung had in mind right now?
“What if we first went to Jimin’s quarters? We haven’t been there in a long time, but I think his mother might talk to us, she knows you might be picked after all,” he offered, letting go of the brunet.
“I’m not sure she will tell us much, but it doesn’t hurt to try, I guess,” sighed Taehyung, taking a few steps back.
Seokjin softly smiled at the him, both of them then making their way to the lift. In fact the raven was only buying himself some time in order to think about breaking in the restricted area. He was pretty sure Jimin’s mother wouldn’t be able to tell them much, she probably didn’t know anything, but it was the only thing he could think about to stop Taehyung from taking any rash decision, fear clouded the brunet’s common sense, he just didn’t think straight.
He kept in the defeated sigh that was threatening to leave his lips when they reached the fourth district. Walking out of the lift, they were directly met with the sight of immaculate white walls, neon blue lights and cherry blossom trees in tubes, typical of their district. The more he tried to think of a way to dissuade Taehyung from going in the restricted area, the more he realised there was no way to make the brunet change his mind. He was too stubborn to give up on finding out what was happening in there. However, the only way Seokjin could think about to get in there without being sent to jail directly wasn’t exactly secure either. He would have to use his father’s password, but the man was out of the raven’s life, so he couldn’t be sure that the password he knew was still right. It was one thing to go watch the outside scenery, but getting inside the trunk of the tree was on a whole other level.
“Good evening Mrs. Park, we’re sorry to bother you now, but would it be possible to talk?”
The raven was pulled out of his thoughts when he heard Taehyung talking. He hadn’t even noticed that they had reached the Parks’ quarters. He looked at Jimin’s mother and drastically paled when he saw the state the woman was in. She didn’t look like he remembered at all. She still dressed perfectly, sure, but she looked old, older than she truly was, her hair was dishevelled, and her eyes lacked of light, they were empty of any emotion. Yet, she gave them a small smile as she let them in her quarters.
Both the young adults looked around the place, disturbed by the state it was in. It looked like everything had been moved just recently. Any furniture that could have been in the way to the front door had been pushed to the side. Everything seemed out of place.
“I knew Jimin’s quarters were part of the bigger ones in the tree, but this isn’t even big, it’s huge,” whispered Taehyung to the raven.
Seokjin could only nod in agreement. As he glanced to his right, he could see the living room, and it was already the size of Taehyung’s quarters first floor, he didn’t want to imagine how big the other rooms were.
“I guess you’re here to talk about my son,” said the black-haired woman, looking at them over her shoulder.
“Well, sort of,” replied Seokjin with a small smile, feeling slightly uneasy.
“Follow me, it will be easier to explain if I show you first.”
The raven and the brunet glanced at each other, puzzled, but still went after Jimin’s mother. She led them to the third floor, both of them perfectly aware of where they were going. They knew Jimin’s bedroom used to be on the third floor of his quarters, that floor actually was all his.
“I’m sorry I kept this away from you for so long, boys, but nobody was supposed to know,” sighed Mrs. Park. “However, I know you’re a potential oracle, Taehyung-ah, so I guess you deserve to know what truly happened to Jimin.”
She opened a door and let them in before stepping in after them. Seokjin wasn’t sure this could be called a bedroom to this point. All he could see were medical devices all around the room with one huge king-sized bed in the middle. He slightly frowned as he noticed the crumpled bed sheets, someone had definitely been lying in that bed.
“I never allowed you in here for a reason,” started the raven-haired woman.
Seokjin and Taehyung looked at her. While a frown had twisted the raven’s face, the brunet looked shocked.
“Jimin has always been in his room since that day, thirteen years ago,” she continued.
“What do you mean?” asked Taehyung, disbelief written all over his face. “You’ve locked him up in your quarters for so long?”
“I didn’t lock him up, Taehyung-ah, I didn’t know what was going on until it was too late,” retorted Jimin’s mother, her voice slightly raised.
Seokjin wandered around the room, recognising a few of the devices that were still plugged in. To him there was only one reason for this set-up, but it still didn’t make sense. All these apparatus were normally used to keep someone alive, someone who was in coma most of the time.
“He’s been in a comatose state all this time, that’s why I never let anyone in again after that day,” she explained, noticing how Seokjin looked at the devices. “They call it the ‘oracle state’, but really, how could my son have been useful to them if he was basically brain dead?” she whispered, her voice quivering.
“Brain dead?” stuttered Taehyung, letting himself fall on the bed, his hands shaking uncontrollably.
“And the proof that his state wasn’t normal is that they left him here after they realised something went wrong,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard the brunet.
“Hang on, Jimin was nine years old, how could they know he was a potential oracle? Nobody shows symptoms before the age of thirteen,” interrupted Seokjin, turning away from a bloody needle he had just spotted on the nightstand
Mrs. Park took a frame from the chest of drawers near the door. “Did he ever tell you about his nightmares?” she asked, staring at the photo of her son.
Taehyung and Seokjin glanced at each other. They both perfectly knew what those nightmares truly were, Taehyung had them after all, and he had had his first one when he was sleeping over at the raven’s place.
“He talked about having bad dreams, but as children we didn’t think much of it. It’s normal for children to have nightmares after all,” replied Taehyung, staring into space, twisting his hands. “But I know how visions are, they feel real, and whatever it was that he saw... It must have been pretty violent, and traumatising at such a young age.”
“That’s how the authorities found out about him being a potential oracle,” sighed the middle-aged woman. “I took him to a doctor and he somehow directly understood that Jimin was having visions, not nightmares.”
Seokjin shook his head in defeat, knowing where this was going.
“A week later he was taken in the restricted area to become the new oracle,” she finished.
A deafening silence overtook the room. Taehyung’s ears were ringing, tears welling up in his eyes against his will. Whatever had happened to Jimin in there probably was still happening right now, and the oracles’ bodies weren’t returned to their families for proper funerals because they actually weren’t truly dead. If he was chosen tonight, it would be his fate too.
“But where is he now?” ended up asking Seokjin, staring at the bed. It really looked like someone had just slept in it, and the raven was pretty sure that if he touched the bed sheets, he would feel some lingering warmth.
“He was taken, again,” replied Jimin’s mother, laying back the frame on the chest of drawers.
“Why? If he’s brain dead, he’s of no use to the government,” frowned Taehyung, clapping his right hand on his mouth when he realised what he had just said.
“I don’t know why, Taehyung-ah. When the authorities come and ask something from you, you don’t discuss it, you just obey without a word.”
The brunet smiled apologetically, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Honestly boys, I can only suggest you to run away,” said Mrs. Park, walking out of the room.
“What?” uttered Seokjin in disbelief, following her, Taehyung on his heels. “Run away? How? We’ll be dead the moment we set a foot outside of the tree.”
“How do you know that?” retorted the woman, smiling at him mischievously.
Both young adults froze. That oh-so-familiar smile almost boring a hole in their hearts and minds. They could perfectly remember how Jimin would do something reckless and shot them that smile before going for it. He often ended up hurting himself, but he would always say that it was worth it.
“Just think about it, boys. Although Jimin was taken away today, there will still be a harvest in the fourth district, and the chosen one might as well be you, Taehyung-ah,” she said, looking straight into the brunet’s eyes.
He looked away from that piercing gaze. The woman’s composure had completely changed between when she had invited them in and now.
“Just be selfish for once and save your lives before it’s too late,” she said as they walked out of the quarters. “The outside world isn’t as dangerous as the government wants us to believe.”
She closed the door behind them before they had the time to react. Seokjin glanced at Taehyung, wondering what the brunet had in mind now. They had learnt more than they thought they would by visiting Jimin’s mother, and now they knew how Taehyung would eventually finish. Nobody would ever come out of the restricted area, not potential oracles at least.
“We have to get Jimin out of there, and then we’ll leave,” whispered the younger man, glaring at the ceiling, no doubt wishing he could share a piece of his mind with the government’s officials.
“I don’t care what you think, hyung, I’m doing this, with or without you.”
The raven heaved a sigh, running his right hand over his face. There was no way he would let his best friend do this on his own.