Writing Prompt: Dystopia
As the two clean-suited enforcers marched me through from the exit pod into the magnificent bright, I considered my inevitable death. I’d never seen the sun before — none of us had, other than in videos the director showed on weekends — and I had never seen anything so bright or beautiful. I couldn’t even look at it, not directly, and I longed to feel its heat on my skin. Assuming Gurney was right.
Stalks of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen swayed in the gentle wind, rising to my thighs. They brushed against the legs of my clean-suit as they brushed the round, rusted domes of the exit pod. That pod and the long elevator shaft inside it was the only link between Sanctuary Twelve and the surface world.
I took a long look at the world the Overseer had assured me would kill me, the world his oldest and most trusted servant, Gurney Maynard, had assured me would not. I had to act shocked, because this world did not match the dead plains the Overseer showed us so often below. I felt one enforcer push his staff into the small of my back.
“Move,” the enforcer said.
“Or what?” The head part of my clean-suit wouldn’t turn to look back at him, but I didn’t need to look back to express my disdain. “You’ll execute me twice?
A holo screen flashed in front of me. It was a recording of my son, now thirteen and wiry, as he worked beside the others dredging energy fragments out of the deep shafts. The enforcer made it disappear.
The threat was obvious, and I walked without another push from the enforcer’s staff. I’d already taken steps to ensure the Overseer could never punish Matty for what I was about to do, but I couldn’t let him know that. I had to act like another outspoken problem marching to my inevitable comeuppance.
The outside world was poison without a suit — the sun, the grass, the air — and questioning that was the only way one escaped the drudgery of the crystal mines. We were safe in the mines, the Overseer assured us. We lived by his grace, his generosity. Everyone outside Sanctuary Twelve was doomed.
Soon the enforcers marched me to a clearing, a down swept field of brown stalks crushed beneath dozens of robotic feet, likely less than a day ago. After they poisoned the grass. That streak of death sat in stark contrast to the simple beauty around us. It was a naked, pus-filled scar on a glistening grass plain, but that was the advantage of a narrow camera lens. You could focus on so little and block out so much.
The Overseer had constructed a fake exit pod at the top of the descending plain of dead grass, and I recognized that pod and the dead field from the videos I had seen of the others who dared question the Overseer. People who insisted the world above was alive and safe, like me. Murdered people.
The enforcers would force me inside that dome and strip me of my clean-suit, with dire warnings of what would happen if I went outside. When they were ready for me to make my entrance, they would pump the pod full of something noxious – tear gas? Toxic fumes? – until my heaving gut and shriveled lungs forced me to stumble out of the front door, into the camera frame.
Then I would die. Then my fellow miners would watch as I shrieked, and burst into flame, and melted. They would watch my seared bones pop, my body brutalized by the poisonous world above.
“The outside world is death,” the Overseer would repeat, as those below averted their faces from my melting body. “The claims of Worker 542 are as false as all those before them. Only I protect you.”
They marched me inside the dome, just like Gurney had said they would, and they stripped off my clean-suit, just like Gurney had said they would. All I wore now was my light gray mining jumpsuit, and the air inside the rusting pod was stagnant. I longed to feel the sun on my skin, a cool breeze on my face.
The sun wouldn’t melt my skin, and the grass wouldn’t melt my jumpsuit, and breathing this wonderful air would not shrink and ruin my lungs. Those horrors would instead be caused by the weapons of the Overseer, hidden out of frame. Microwaves. Heat rays. Infrared. I did not know what those words meant, what Gurney had envisioned when he said them, but I knew they offered invisible death.
I waited until the Overseer’s voice echoed through the rusty pod. His voice was pumped up to the surface so the enforcers could hear it, so they could pump in the gas at the proper time. The Overseer was speaking, now, which meant the feed was “live”, as Gurney had called it. Time for me to die.
I burst out of the front of the rusting pod.
That was the difference between me and the other victims, you see — Gurney’s betrayal of the Overseer, the clarity provided by a cancer no Overseer medicine could cure, and the death of the Overseer’s leverage. Gurney’s daughter. Those events conspired to make my death different.
The enforcers had done this a dozen times before. Place the victim in the rusting pod, set up the weapons and the camera, check the camera angle, and then, and only then, pump in the gas. All happened only after the Overseer set the stage, said a few haunting words for this poor deluded fool.
No miner raised as I’d been would voluntarily burst from their safe haven, but I had, before anyone planning to murder me was ready. The outside world felt wonderful. For the first time I felt the gentle heat of the sun on my skin, a cool breeze rushing over my cheeks. Nothing melted. Nothing burned.
That was the other thing victims of the Overseer couldn’t do — run — because when your lungs were full of tear gas you made a very slow, very easy target. I was no easy target. I zigzagged down that field of dead grass toward the small, round ball sitting at its end. Toward what I knew was the camera.
I saw the now panicked overseers struggling to set their weapons up, to bring them to bear — they were mounted, I saw now, on complicated tripods which were still being arranged — and for a moment, I pondered grabbing a weapon. Yet I was not here to kill anyone, and any overseer was easily replaced. I reached the round black dome as the first overseer grounded his tripod and readied his weapon.
“Look at me!” I shouted into the camera. “I’m alive! The world above isn’t killing me! They are!”
I struggled to rip the camera from its mount, but it remained stuck tight. I heard a loud hum and then I felt heat that seared my skin and bubbled my eyeballs. The air was so hot I couldn’t even scream, yet I didn’t die — not immediately — and my rage gave me the strength to turn the lens, not up and out of the ground, as I planned, but sideways. Toward the green fields and the enforcers with their weapons.
Even as invisible death set my skin afire I heard the Overseer shouting over the speakers, not to his enforcers, but to those below. His desperate explanations fell on deaf ears. Gurney had whispered to those below as well, and all they needed to start their riot was proof. My death was that proof.
The boiling heat ended at last, perhaps because the enforcer knew better than to waste power, or perhaps because he heard the masses rioting below and knew that running was better than facing those he’d help imprison. None of it made any difference to me. I drank in the feel of that cool breeze.
I wished I could see the sun and touch the grass, stroke my son’s face one last time, but I was too busy dying. Had I succeeded? Gurney’s crackly voice echoed over the Overseer’s intercom.
“We did it!” Gurney shouted, as my people cheered. “You gave us the truth! You gave us the whole world! We’re free now, all of us!” The cacophony faded as Gurney faded, as he called for silence.
“Thank you,” he said, voice trembling over the speakers. “We’re coming up. We’ll see you soon.”
They wouldn’t. No one would reach me in time to save me, but I didn’t mind. Matty would grow up breathing this clean air, living beneath this warm sun, sleeping in this soft grass. After decades of slavery, it seemed absurd that our freedom required nothing more than a camera, twisted sideways, but that was the beauty of it.
All it took to free us was one traitor. One sacrifice. And one perfect camera angle, everything in frame.
About the Story:
Initially, I struggled with the dystopia prompt. I’ve read so many good dystopias that I had trouble thinking of anything that didn’t feel derivative, and nothing initially jumped out at me. Oddly enough, this rather dark story was partly inspired by a much lighter (but similarly dystopian) story – the ending of Portal 2, or one small element of it.
(Spoilers for Portal 2 Follow)
At the end of Portal 2, GLADOS releases you, her test subject, back into the “real world”. You ride an elevator (serenaded by singing turrets, of course) up to the surface, a seeming paradise filled with tall, flowing grass. You enter that paradise all alone, with no civilization in sight, and the ending is a bit melancholy in that respect.
(Spoilers for Portal 2 End)
Although it is never explicitly stated, the implication of both Portal games is that whatever happened to damage the Aperture Science laboratories also did great damage to the world. Either the vast majority of humanity was wiped out, or have vanished entirely. On the positive side, in the years that followed the world has been “reborn”, having returned to the pristine state in which it existed before industrialization.
The idea of someone who had been below ground for a long time emerging on the surface of an empty, pristine inspired this story. From there, all I had to develop was a protagonist, an antagonist, and their conflict, as well as creating a suitably dystopian situation for my protagonist to struggle against.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40243520@N02/11230150485″>Empire Mine Shaft</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>