PWP (title tbd)
The Old Man
The old man woke up.
He opened his wrinkled eyes to the gloom of early dawn casting a greenish hue onto his bed sheets. This day would be no different from the rest. He would prepare himself for labor and then set off into the fields as the sun began its climb over the jagged mountains on the horizon. A few hours later, pain would shoot up his crooked back, and the blisters on his arthritic hands would burn as they were reopened as fresh wounds. The midday break would come as a welcome luxury, allowing him to both avoid the deadly noon heat and to relax his body to soothe the agony. Midday rations would be the largest, hopefully involving fruit and perhaps even a morsel of chocolate. Then it would be back to toiling among the crops, until he returned home as the sun set, without the ability to move a single bone in his body. The old man reminisced about the times when evening rations had been allowed, but he felt that even if they were still provided, he would be too exhausted to consume them. His stomach would rumble with hunger as he drifted off to sleep, just as it did each night.
On this particular morning, the old man was barely able to get out of bed. Sometimes he could move about without the aid of a cane, but the weak muscles left in his legs were so stiff that he almost fell trying to get off the mattress. He lurched forward violently, but managed to get ahold of his walking stick and gain balance. Then he slowly shuffled into the eating area. The old man glanced at the small, gray table on which he would be breaking his fast, where he was startled to find that no morning rations awaited him. Each and every day, they were quietly dropped through the chute above and landed below in an orderly fashion. He no longer knew where the food came from, or who facilitated the process of it appearing in front of him. He no longer cared. The old man had learned, through the wisdom that comes with age, to not ask questions.
But questions were surely prompted by the complete absence of his portions. He hobbled over to the table to get a closer look. It was then that he saw the black envelope that had previously evaded his gaze.
This could only mean one thing.
Slowly, the old man lifted the envelope up and began to tear it open with his fingernail. Inside was a creamy-white sheet of paper that had been folded to a third of its original size. He cautiously unfurled it to discover a simply-formatted paragraph. Holding his breath, the old man began to read.
Congratulations. You have been Selected. Please remain at your residence until 12 hours, when a government official will collect you. We feel honored to have benefited from your paramount character and dedication to the greater good.
The old man was incredulous. Selected at last! So many of his fellow fieldworkers had been Selected long ago, until one day when he looked around himself to find only young, unrecognizable faces toiling among the corn stalks. But now his time had finally come.
He was struck by the bizarreness of it all. He had never guessed that rations wouldn’t appear on the day of Selection, nor that he would be Collected at midday. It was foolish to even attempt to do anything but rest when the sun’s heat was so blinding, but the Council would certainly have a plan for that. He hoped that although he was already starving, and would not have his morning rations, there would be food available wherever he was going.
Excited as he was, the man could do nothing but rest due to his state of hunger. He set the ringer for 12 hours and then fell into a fitful doze. It seemed as if days had passed when he awoke to a knock at the door.
“Citizen,” came a voice from outside. “I have come for your Collection.”
The old man rubbed the sleep from his face and then sat up, croaking a feeble, “Coming.” Which was evidently not heard, as a knock came again.
“Citizen. I have come for your Collection.”
He grabbed his cane and a small bag of clothes that he felt he would have need of. The security thumbprint didn’t register until the third try, as the old man’s thumbs had been eaten at over the years by the crops, but the knocking stopped as the official realized that the old man was on his way.
He flung open the door to the sight of a tall, uniformed officer that quickly gestured for him to follow. Then he saw the car. It was a sleek, black sedan, unlike anything the old man had seen since his youthful days. Elated, he shuffled toward the back door, held open by the other man, and climbed in.
Soon the vehicle was on the North road, zooming along at an incredible speed. Its interior was luxurious; brown, leather seats, unrationed water in one of its compartments, and even enough room for the old man to stretch out his old legs and relax. But even from within the comforts of the car, the midday heat was suffocating. He glanced out his window at the last of the corn fields as it flew by, and caught sight of an unfortunate individual who had lost track of the time and been trapped on the wrong side of the doors to the Sanctuary. He was lying facedown on the ground, his back a deep shade of red from the sun’s poison, but he glanced up at the sound of an engine. Seeing the sedan, the red man stood up and waved his arms desperately while jumping up and down. The officer took no notice, and soon the fields and the doomed figure within were left far behind.
It was time for the usual dialogue.
“Good morning,” the doctor said, smiling at the man who sat on the medical table in front of her. “Congratulations on your Selection. We’re going to proceed with a short physical, just to make everything is in order.”
He was young, but it was difficult to tell. His Assignment had taken its toll on his health and even on the intensity of his eyes. They were a dull gray, almost lifeless, and they hardly moved as she scanned his body and noticed the missing hand, the gash in his leg, the three toes missing from one foot, the crusty blood infesting his clothes.
She might have been able to save him, if it were allowed.
Her hands shaking, the doctor reached into the container for a new syringe. “You’re missing a few vaccinations,” she said as she moved the shot closer to him. “This may hurt slightly, but it will be quick.”
She stabbed the syringe into his skin and pushed down on the plunger, watching the steady descent of the serum inside. The man winced as the freezing liquid began flowing through his veins. Suddenly tired, he closed his eyes and lay back on the operating table.
Soon he was dead.
The doctor felt her body begin to shake and her breaths begin to quicken. Not again, she thought. The panic attacks were more and more common as of late.
She didn’t know when things had changed. Never before had she been so deeply affected by the duties she had to perform for her job. It’s for an important cause, she would tell herself. A necessary sacrifice.
But while her brain understood the justification for actions, her heart understood their significance. It understood how her livelihood revolved around terminating lives.
It was lucky that her shift was over, because the doctor didn’t think she could have gone on working. She felt sick and exhausted. It seemed that every day was now ending like this. She stumbled down the hallways of the medical center and outside into the less lethal, but still intense heat of the evening.
Her favorite part of the day was just after the work, when she waited for the transport to the Dormitory. There was a small, blue bench in the boarding zone that was positioned perfectly so as to take advantage of the view that the medical center’s hilly location. The doctor gazed out every day over the vastness of red, which extended as far as the eye could see in three directions. From the hills, one could see the small patches of civilization that nature was still allowing to exist; some fields, small villages, and a town or two. But beyond, only the desert. According to legend, there had once been a beautiful city in that sea of death. And sometimes, if the weather was clear and the wind wasn’t strong enough to gather up the usual huge swirls of sand, she thought she could see the ruins of great buildings in the distance. But there was no way to be sure. A journey that far out into the wastelands would surely end poorly. The terrain was too rugged to navigate, and the heat could kill both humans and machines.
The transport arrived and the doctor stepped aboard. After a short ride she was let off in front of the Dormitory and headed towards her quarters. She took a few steps inside and then threw herself onto the bed. Because of her high-up position, the doctor enjoyed better living conditions than most. Her mattress consisted of various foams instead of straw, ration portions were high enough that she never went hungry, and while her Assignment certainly required a great deal of training and experience, it was nothing compared to the back-breaking labor that was required of most by the Council.
Yet privileges were always balanced by the burden of knowledge. The doctor wondered if she would have taken a different path, had she known. In the early days of her career, she had been able to handle the liquidation of unproductive persons. She was young in those days, ambitious, and able to turn herself emotionless. Now was different. And trouble could be on the way. The panic attacks and the psychological stress caused by her work had not yet taken a toll on it, but the moment she faltered, even slightly, it would surely be noticed. The doctor knew that if she could not restrain her primitive, human empathy, she could end up on the medical table herself, undergoing Selection with a physician who didn’t suffer from the same disease of unproductiveness.
Long ago, art had been celebrated.
Now it was seen as irrelevant, a vestigial practice. The artist could see this in the way that people looked at him as they walked by, glancing at the multitude of paintings and creations he had on display. It was fascinating to observe how differently they reacted. Some, upon seeing his work, looked at him with creased eyebrows and a burning anger. Some seemed simply to be confused. Others would shake their heads in dismay. And rarely, a passerby would seem appreciative with nostalgia for the old days.
In his youth, the artist had been lauded for his work. He was nominated for art shows. He sold paintings for currency, before it had been fazed out by the Council. Crowds of people would gather around the stand that he held outside of his colorful, now-closed shop, taking time to observe and attempting to find meaning in the beautiful designs.
But as times became more difficult, art became less and less recognized. The City had become more and more grey as fewer and fewer creative minds could afford to continue their lifestyles, opting instead to perform manual labor in the City or out in the Countryside. The artist once had friends who shared his occupation, but one by one they disappeared, without any notice. It had always baffled him how one day, they would be painting, or performing music, or dancing, and then the next, they would have become so utterly convinced that they should pursue a different line of work that they would drop everything they had worked so hard on and vanish.
The artist was different, however. Despite the choices of his friends, regardless of the looks that he received in the street, never mind the incredibly small rations he received that kept him in a constant state of starvation, he continued. The Council always emphasized the need to optimize human resources, but the artist believed that without art, the resources would no longer be human. What was the point of trying to fight and survive the forces of nature- the famines, the droughts, the dust storms, the crippling heat- if art was lost in the process? Why should the human race continue if it had lost the only thing that distinguished it?
These thoughts circled the artist’s head every day, from the moment he woke up to when he collapsed onto the cot under his stand every day. His nights, surprisingly, were peaceful, despite being in a central area of the City. These days, the streets were almost lifeless. The bars and restaurants, which had been so full of life during the artist’s childhood, were now empty and infested with rodents. There was no time for leisure anymore.
The hardest part of the daily cycle by far was midday. The heat was unbearable, even under the awning of the artist’s stand, which acted somewhat as a shield from the sun’s relentless attack. Midday was when the artist most regretted not having chosen or switched into an Assignment, despite the Government having tried to persuade him on many occasions. Even if he was Assigned to the fields, and had to harvest corn all day, he would have larger rations and would also be shielded from the midday heat by some sort of Sanctuary. Here, the artist sometimes feared he would die of thirst. In fact, a few weeks ago, there had been one day of especially deadly heat, on which he had fainted and not awaken until the night, when he fortunately found a container of water among his evening rations. After that, the artist began taking midday naps so as to conserve energy and hopefully ward off the thirst.
But on this day, after waking up from one such naps, the artist found something unexpected. A smooth, black envelope had been mysteriously placed next to his cot. This was not unlike the manner in which he received his rations every day; they always appeared without explanation or any evidence of a delivery mechanism. The artist had only spotted the arrival of his portions once since the Rationing began. It was morning, and he had just woken up. The artist had watched with surprise out of the corner of his eye as a uniformed figure slid his rations onto the small table under the cover of his stand where they always appeared.
This black envelope, on the other hand, was not one of the expected invisible arrivals. It was unlike anything the artist had seen in a very long time. The artist had a feeling of what it might mean, but he didn’t want to assume anything before opening it.
His fingers shaking, the artist slowly ripped the black paper to find a white one underneath, with some sort of message inscribed. He started to read it.
Congratulations. You have been Selected. Please remain at your residence until 20 hours, when a Government official will collect you. We feel honored to have benefited from your paramount character and dedication to the arts of human society.
The artist was stunned. All these years, he had chosen his passion for the arts over the consequence of how lowly he would be regarded in the eyes of others. It was because he truly believed that art was perhaps the most important element of Society, at the same time that the Council advocated for anything else. But never did he expect to be recognized for this bizarre belief. And now it seemed that the Council wanted to reward him for his dedication and perseverance.
As had been promised, a soldier arrived at 20 hours, although it seemed to take an eternity. Although cars could still be found in the City, they were rarely as smooth-looking as was the deep black one that the officer stepped out of.
“Citizen. I have come for your Collection.”
The artist eagerly stepped towards the vehicle. He was suddenly aware of the transformation that his clothes had undergone since he had last needed to look presentable, from tattered, but functional into decrepit rags. Seeming to read his mind, the man stated, “New garments will be available upon our arrival.” The artist had no idea where that arrival might take place, but was willing to place his trust in the Council.
Soon the car was flying smoothly along the road, out of the City and descending into the countryside. The artist felt no need to look at the ugly concrete mess behind him, and instead gazed out into the fields and to the red mountains of the wastelands that lay beyond.
The Old Man
The old man was surprised at the deep redness that now greeted him. It lay in stark contrast with the incredibly deep blue sky.
It couldn’t have always been so red. He remembered from his youth beige sand dunes, intermixed with patches of green life. Things had evidently changed since the last time he had been beyond the crop fields.
The road began to climb to a higher altitude, snaking through the red hills as the old man felt the temperature drop slightly due to the shielding against the sun that the terrain provided. Looking ahead, he squinted and was able to see the outline of a building approaching. Not just any building, he soon found, but a complex of buildings. And although he had never seen it before, he knew for certain, due to its immense size and clean architecture, that it must be the center of operations for the Council.
“Citizen, we have arrived,” came the voice of the uniformed man from the front. As the old man stepped out of the black sedan, leaning on his cane for support, he burned his hand on the door. The sun’s heat, trying to penetrate the inside of the vehicle, had been trapped by the light-absorbing exterior.
“Follow me, please.” He began to stride away, and the old man struggled to keep up. His back ached from the long ride and thus extended period of sitting, and his right leg groaned in protest with every step he took, while his bad leg had gone completely numb. But the old man knew that he had to go on. He had come too far in life for the weakness of age to prevent him from receiving the Recognition he was due.
The officer entered a building and the old man followed. He looked up at a glass ceiling, higher above the ground than he possibly could have imagined. It was a modern miracle; beautifully clear, yet perfectly tinted to block out harmful light. He passed countless individuals, who doubtless had to have been Council members. They wore clean, gray suits with glossy, black shoes. But they did not carry themselves with the grandeur that the old man would have suspected and their outfits suggested. Each seemed more tired than the next, older, more worn out; as if they were all shared a common burden. Some, the old man thought, seemed more exhausted than himself. Perhaps that was simply the nature of Government work, he thought. Several saw him and stopped to shake his hand. The gesture was wordless, but it was enough.
They rounded a corner, turning into a long, narrow highly illuminated by bright, white lights. Some of them had burned out, but the old man gave that little attention. The two continued into a new sector of the Facilities, this one seemingly having something to do with medicine. Red crosses were pasted everywhere the old man looked; more red, he noted, than even the hills through which he had arrived. People wandered about in white uniforms. They looked even more worn than the Council members. When the old man would catch the eyes of one of them, a dull, lifeless gaze would be returned. In some ways, they reminded him of the workers in the fields who couldn’t quite handle the intense nature of the work.
The soldier led the old man under a large sign that read “Selection” and into what seemed to be some sort of physical room. “Good morning,” the doctor said, smiling at him. “Congratulations on your Selection. We’re going to proceed with a short physical, just to make everything is in order.” She seemed as tired as the rest, and although she tried to give an impression of contentedness, she seemed, somehow, extraordinarily sad.
She scanned his body, taking note, he could tell, of his cane and of the injuries that his bad leg had sustained. “You’re missing a few vaccinations,” she proceeded, turning around and reaching for a glass container that was full of syringes. “Let’s get you up to…” The Doctor suddenly paused. She seemed to be struggling for words.
The old man was not one for words, but he suspected that being helpful would help the Doctor to escape whatever the source of her strange demeanor was. He calmly outstretched his arm, and his sense of level-headedness seemed to help the Doctor to regain hers. She took one of the syringes and, her hands shaking slightly, pricked the old man’s skin.
The old man wondered where he would be going next. There was so much more to see, he was sure, so many people to meet before he would be receiving his Recognition, before the true glamour of his Selection would reveal itself. He smiled, for the first time in as long as he remembered, as the world blackened around him.
The doctor shuddered as the light went out from the eyes of the man on the exam table in front of her. He was so old, and his Assignment to the fields had created everything from wrinkles to a permanent injury in his left leg that had made necessary the use of his cane. But somehow, despite the old man’s inability to contribute to the welfare of society, to produce more than he was consuming, the doctor felt worse about his death than all the others. He had seemed to possess such a kind character, and the fact that he had made it through so many years of life, so much intense physical labor, without already having the life sucked out of him astounded her.
The doctor’s breathing quickened. Another panic attack was the last thing that she needed; surely, her underperformance was already being taken note of by the Council. Steadily inhaling and exhaling, the doctor attempted to calm herself, before exiting her office for her daily break. She stared herself in the one-way mirror located on the other side of the room from the exam table. She looked pale, and her poor sleep the night before, due to abundant thoughts and disturbing nightmares, had made itself be known in dark, purple bags under her eyes.
Things were busy as usual, in the hospital sector of the Council headquarters. Doctors and nurses scrambled about carrying vials of substance, bandages, machines, or even pushing patients. Most of her colleagues looked almost as tired as she had in the mirror, but there were the usual few, the young ones, who were incredibly energetic, giving off a white glow of ambition. The doctor sat down at one of the few tables on the large lobby area, an unmoving constant in a sea of activity.
She had no idea how this had come about with this new generation. In her training days, the doctor had been able to deal mentally with the horrors of her Assignment, with the burden of knowledge that it supplied. But even then, work had taken a toll on her, and she had certainly not gone about her days on the job with enthusiasm. These ones were different. It made the doctor wonder what in the education system had changed since the days of her youth, and how the Council was achieving such amazing standards of professionalism among its employees. They seemed completely unaffected by the nature of the System.
The doctor looked at her watch and saw that her break was almost over, despite it feeling like it had just begun. She sighed, accepting that she would have to make it until the end of the day before she could escape from her unbearable daily actions.
But no matter how much the doctor tried, she could not convince herself to get up. She sat, watching the time tick by, unable to move. This was different from the panic attacks. She felt incredibly calm, collected.
Eventually, she stood up and began to walk back to her office. It was at least an hour after the time at which she had been obligated to return. When she arrived at the entrance, an officer was waiting for her. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“I was on my break,” the doctor replied.
“Doctor, you are far behind schedule,” he continued.
“I…I am aware.”
“Get back to work.”
The man stormed off angrily. A chill traveled through the doctor’s spine. She glanced through the one-way mirror to discover who her next patient would be. Oh no, she thought. This one was far too young.
He sat on the exam table, still gazing around the office curiously despite the fact that he had already been there for all the time that the doctor had been in her frozen state. His clothes were in tatters, but physically he seemed to be in okay shape. Too good shape. He was a bit thin, but somehow his Assignment seemed not to have damaged him at all. It didn’t make sense that he had been brought here.
The doctor confusedly entered the room, closing the door behind her before giving her patient another look. “Hello,” he piped up. This one seemed to be more sociable than some of the others she had dealt with.
“Good morning,” the doctor began, as she always did. “You’re missing…” Suddenly the doctor was at a loss for words. How could she nowadays be so incapable at her work that even the memorized script was consistently hard to get through? “Good morning,” she started over again. Now the man on the examination table was giving her a quizzical look. “A few of your vaccinations…” Again, the doctor abruptly paused.
Her curiosity got the better of her. “I see that you seem to be in relatively good health. What was your Assignment?”
“As a matter of fact,” replied the man, slightly embarrassed, “I’ve…uh…I’ve never really had an Assignment.”
Now the doctor was bewildered. Why would a young man in perfect shape be Selected, and, on top of it all, not have ever been Assigned?
Seeing the puzzled look on the doctor’s face, the man continued. “I’ve never accepted any of the Assignment offers that I receive. I-I’m somewhat of an artist. I paint, or I sculpt… I’ve just never felt that an Assignment could be as important, in the general scheme of how things are, as preserving our culture and the practice of creating art.”
An utter fool.