star

Star

First published in Universe #1

Star

by Damien Walter

Heinrich always volunteers for class activities. The last two study periods of Friday afternoon are put aside for a visit from a policeman. The students ask him why he does not wear a uniform. His answer makes everyone laugh. Criminals, he says, do not wear uniforms. The policeman asks for volunteers.

The icon is pinned to Heinrich’s shirt. The policeman explains that criminals can look like anyone. But they must use icons to recognise their own kind. The students must be vigilant for all icons, even if they do not know what they mean. The policeman makes the class play a game. Heinrich refuses to take his icon off, however loudly the other boys and girls shout at him.

Heinrich makes the icon late on Sunday evening. Heinrich’s family never pray at home, but attend church every Saturday morning. In the afternoon Heinrich and his younger brother attend cram classes in preparation for their Standard Assessment Tests, whilst his parents attend their monthly interview with the local panel of the Neighborhood Security Association. On Sunday morning Heinrich marches with his Youth Scout unit through Hyde Park to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Capitulation Day. In the afternoon Heinrich’s extended family share a roast dinner, before gathering around the television to watch the official celebrations until the state channel closes an hour before midnight. Alone in his room, Heinrich draws the icon on paper first, to be sure he has remembered it correctly.

On Monday morning Heinrich carries his school blazer over one arm, so that his mother will not see. The night before he cut the icon from the yellow cloth of his physical training t-shirt, and stitched it into place with needle and thread from his mother’s sewing box. It contrasts brightly with the charcoal grey blazer. At the school gate Heinrich pulls the blazer on over his shoulders.

The younger children notice him first. Heinrich sits on a wall, so that everyone can see. They come forward in groups and ask Heinrich; what is he doing? Does he have permission? Will he get in trouble? Groups of older girls point and laugh at the boy making a spectacle of himself. Before first bell, a squad of older boys surround Heinrich. They jostle and shoulder barge him as he walks to class. One is the son of a high-ranking officer. He stands in Heinrich’s way and then spits in his face. Heinrich walks around him.

After refusing to remove the icon from his blazer, Heinrich is escorted to the office of the Head Teacher. Waiting with the Head Teacher is the policeman with no uniform. It is explained that last week’s exercise is over. Heinrich agrees that he will not wear the icon again. The policeman shakes his hand before he leaves.

Heinrich’s mother is frantic and this makes his father all the more angry. Heinrich retreats to his room as soon as he has calmed them. After their parents are sleeping, Heinrich’s brother, who knows him better, comes to his room and begs him not to continue. Heinrich tells him to go away.

One week later Heinrich draws the icon on his face with a permanent marker pen, watching the lines reversed in the mirror of the boy’s toilet. People stare as Heinrich walks through the playground. He is completely calm when he spits into the face of the high-ranking officer’s son.

The cuts and bruises on Heinrich’s body throb as he waits outside his father’s study. The policeman without a uniform speaks to Heinrich’s father for a long time. Afterwards Heinrich’s father is terrified and weak. He drags Heinrich to the kitchen and scrubs his face with near boiling water and detergent until Heinrich’s skin screams red and livid. Heinrich is locked in the empty spare room and given no comforts more than his health demands.

Heinrich is moved to a new school, but rumours follow and he is shunned by students and teachers alike. He sits alone in class and spends recess periods alone in a study room. At home Heinrich’s brother will no longer speak to him, and his parents do not know what to say to their son.

A teacher of mathematics takes pity on Heinrich and trusts the boy with minor responsibilities in an attempt to begin re-socialisation. Heinrich repays the teacher’s trust by producing photocopied batches of the icon. After a month he has enough for every student in the school. He hands them out on a Wednesday morning, thanking every one of his peers who accept the gift. Hundreds of students are decorated with the icon before Heinrich is caught.

Two uniformed police officers collect Heinrich directly from the school. He is held in a detention cell overnight then taken before the court. The judge, dressed in full military uniform, reviews the case notes in silence then passes sentence. There is no one to explain to Heinrich what is happening. He wants to see his parents, but the court session is closed.

Heinrich is marched down into the basement of the court through a series of security gates. Heinrich is strip-searched and his head is shaved to begin his processing. In a medical bay he is strapped to a padded chair by orderlies. A doctor enters followed by an official. The doctor methodically prepares a hypodermic needle.

Heinrich is very scared.

Heinrich squeezes his eyes closed tight as the doctor inserts the needle into his neck. When he opens them again the doctor is holding a scanner beside his neck. The official notes the details of Heinrich’s implanted serial number.

The small cell has no window and Heinrich does not know where the train is taking him. When the hatch in the cell door slides open he expects to be given food, but instead a face stares at him. He recognises the eyes of the policeman with no uniform.

‘You must learn your true name.’ The policeman says. ‘There are many to choose from.’

Through the hatch the policeman pushes a slim book, bound in black. The icon is embossed in silver on the cover. Heinrich turns the pages. One side of every page is in an alphabet he has never seen before, the other in the language they have taught him to speak. The policeman is right, there are many true names to chose from.

‘Read it as many times as your journey allows. I will take it away before they find it. There are more of us every day. You must learn to see the truth without icons. Understand?’

Heinrich nods. The hatch is closed. He begins to read.

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