2051 was a year of stagnation. Ever-present in the air of 2051 was the stale promise of change and growth that had lingered on politicians’ lips before slipping off into the inert atmosphere; only to float foolishly in front of the faces of all who had fought for the furthering of this decrepit earth. Everywhere I turned in 2051, be it around a corner or in line at a hydro station, I was taunted by that floating broken promise. It mocked me as I consumed my lifeless hydro, laughing at my disgust. 2052, though, will be a year of growth. If not by their hands, then by mine.
In the bright light of the incoming day, I laid quietly on my back as the warm earth embraced me with her body. The sun-heated ground felt alive and humble beneath my form, silently easing my thoughts to no benefit of her own. The simplicity of her warm presence comforted me as January 1st washed over the room. If change would arrive in the coming days, it needed to be for her, so that she could grow and inspire once again. The atrocities committed against her were so great that I could hardly remember what she looked and felt like before pollution had infested her pores, leaving her crippled and parched. But there were still fragments of my memories left that I could piece together into something like a craving or a desire within me—a desire to restore the Earth to her former glory.
Like the dry soil beneath my body, I had an overwhelming thirst. But unlike the soil, I was not incapacitated by immobility. I had the power and the will to alter the current human outlook, and to alter the state of the planet. I think, therefore I am. I do, therefore I matter. I have been immobile for far too long.
I took a breath, inhaled the processed air. The hum of the air filter echoed in my brain with the rest of my thoughts as I willed my body to allow me to rise.
“It is in your best interest,” my mind told my body, “for you to stand up.” My body disagreed. The two of them had never gotten along. “At the very least, you should go rehydrate yourself for the day.” That seemed to do the trick. My mind had cleverly induced action in my body by reminding it that the back of my throat felt like sandpaper as it did nearly every morning. And so I rose, my mind and body willing me together to combat the situation at hand.
I walked to the bathroom and allowed myself a cynical chuckle at the thought that every home in America called this space a bathroom when, in fact, baths had not existed for at least a decade. They had decayed with other relics of the past such as air conditioning, paper, and hope. The present existed as a time of air filters and dread.
And hydro. Always hydro. Lifeless hydro. I gazed at my counter-top filled with meticulously stacked vials, picked up the one labeled “1/1/52.” I spun it in my hand for just a few seconds, letting the clear substance inside become as dizzy as I felt holding this inorganic stuff for the thousandth time. It did not catch the light as water would have, did not dance and twirl or exude vitality in the way that droplets of water did when they were held in a small glass vial. It simply spun.
Then my mind reminded my body about the foul feeling creeping its way down my throat, my body let out a dry cough, and I opened the medicine cabinet to reveal a syringe, waiting patiently to be filled. Gripping it tightly with practiced disdain, I inserted the syringe into the vial, drawing out the day’s worth of hydro with perfected precision.
it had been injected into my bloodstream, I felt the cooling hydration snake
its way through my veins, awakening my limbs, my chest, and even alleviating my
throat from the sandpaper seemingly trapped within it. But it did not hydrate my soul. Water had done that. Water had
washed over my fears and worries; quenched my anxiety. Hydro left me with an
inexplicable emptiness, as if my entire self could not come to terms with its
inorganicity and chemical nature. This was the picture of 2052: inorganic, robotic; keeping us alive, but just for the sake of living. Everything worked to keep our bodies ticking, but not our souls, not our minds. As though our vitality was associated only with our fleshy exteriors. The world was sick, its people were suffering, and no one even knew but me. But that was more than I could think about at the present, as I was running three minutes behind schedule and needed to get to work.
“We’re in for it today. I can feel it. I tell you, today’s not going to be like yesterday.”
“Today’s never like yesterday, Raquel. That’s the beauty of a new day, it’s always changing.”
“Today’s different, though. I’ve got this feeling in my gut, the world’s got a surprise for us.”
“Tick off, folk. You’re freaking me out.”
“Just trying to warn you. Maybe it’ll be something good, you know? A real clean surprise.”
I tried my hardest not to eavesdrop on two of my coworkers as we stood in line to scan our fingerprints, clock in, and begin the day’s work at the hydro factory. But I couldn’t help feeling like Raquel was right. Her head was held high as she spoke her prophecy, entirely certain of its truth; unshaken by her friend’s disbelief. The words were real to her as soon as they slipped from her lips, and that sort of certainty was not lost on me. I was moved by it, even if her friend was not. I never did catch her name, Raquel’s friend. A year working together at this factory, and I still only knew her as the woman with the long braid. I suppose from then on I would know her as the woman with the long braid who didn’t think the world could surprise us today.
“Well, if that’s true, there’s nothing we can do about it,” the woman said, with an air of disbelief. “We still have to work just the same.” Ah, a woman after my own heart. How Stoic she must be in all of her actions. Moving with nature, never missing a beat. I imagined that she was not careful or calculating, not paranoid or obsessed with outcomes. She simply took the world as it came and proceeded accordingly. Each situation was only as negative as her attitude towards it, only as positive as she willed it to be. If there was indeed a surprise in our collective future, the woman with the long braid would reason through it, dispel the negative; continue with the natural rhythm of her life. Of course, I did not truly know the woman with the long braid, nor did I ever exchange words with her, but it seemed the sort of thing she would do. To “go with the flow,” as they say. To “work just the same.”
To Raquel’s credit, the day did seem to hold a strange energy. The sun burned hotter on our backs than it had since November, dousing us and the pavement in a warm January glow. It stung our skin, but willed us more than ever to quickly clock in to work and begin our shifts within the protected walls of the hydro factory, safe from the elemental disaster we were currently drenched in.
As the sun began to heat our backs with heightened intensity, the line jutted forward with a sudden increase in velocity, and I found myself at the clock-in station a few minutes earlier than anticipated. This shook me for a second, as I could not remember the last time I had arrived to work before 8:56. For the past 379 days, I would clock in between precisely 8:56 and 8:59 a.m., to ensure that I would have virtually no time between arriving at work and actually beginning my shift. Minimize downtime at the factory, maximize efficiency. Besides, I didn’t want to spend any more time at this place than I was paid to.
But just then I found myself facing the clock-in station at 8:52, frozen for a second as I adjusted myself to the change. Rewired my brain, set my internal clock back four minutes. The sun hastened me: “hurry up, Andrew, relieve yourself of my stinging heat,” it whispered to me with its rays.
“Hurry up, Andrew. Come on, folk,” someone in back of me said.
I pressed my thumb to the scanning pad, allowing the flash of red light to assess my identity, validate my existence. “Andrew Aedus, 17924,” the robotic voice issued forth, ushering me forward. I gave myself a mental kick as I realized that I could have caught the name of the woman with the long braid if I had only taken a moment away from my thoughts to listen to the announcement of the robotic scanner. But that was in the past, and her braid was already disappearing behind the factory doors. There’s no reason to dwell on past mistakes other than to prevent future shortcomings, so I quickly followed suit, disappearing from the outside world for the next six hours. I wondered if the sun would miss me.
As soon as I entered the factory doors, I knew something was wrong. The heat had followed us inside, the air filters unable to keep up with the demands of the strangely sweltering January morning. Technicians were hard at work with various tools, evidently attempting to combat the situation. The atmosphere inside was almost as sticky as it was beyond the walls, and the voices of both the technicians and my fellow ground workers carried the heavy tone of annoyance.
“You’d think with what little they pay us, they could use the savings to keep this damn place cool,” a worker to my left complained.
“I just hope none of the machines get overheated again,” another worker added. “Last time that happened, my shifts got cut for a week. And there’s no telling if my landlord’ll be as nice about late rent the second time around.” A wave of empathy washed over me and I found myself desperately hoping the same with my unknown coworker.
Suddenly, the loudspeaker crackled, and the room was hushed as if by a mighty force. “It is now 8:55 a.m. The day will proceed as scheduled in 5 minutes. We apologize for any inconvenience the current temperature may cause, but assure that it will not directly contribute to any changes in workflow. Daily quota remains unaltered. Thank you.” Then it crackled again, emitted a short click, and fell silent. I wondered if similar announcements were made every day at 8:55, but as I had no way of knowing apart from inquiring with my coworkers, I put the matter aside and stored it in my thought bank for another time. I replaced it with this one: the daily quota never changes. Without that quota, there wouldn’t be enough hydro for every citizen; it was slightly preposterous to even suggest that it would ever be lowered. The whole city would be dehydrated by next week if that happened.
* * *
I was filling a vial with "fresh" hydro when the siren began to wail. It came in short, overwhelming bursts, mimicking the way that the clear liquid poured out of the long, slender plastic tube and into the little vial. Drip drip drip, went the hydro. WRAH WRAH WRAH, went the siren. At first, I continued to hold the “dispense” button down, unnerved by the sudden noise. But then I felt it: the overwhelming heat and the scent of smoke.
“Fire!” someone yelled. “Fire in the B block!” My finger slipped, my heart sank, the flow of hydro came to a halt. For a moment, I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. I had to rewire my brain again, allow myself to adjust to the news. But this time I couldn’t just reset my internal clock, I had to reset my entire disposition towards the events of the day. I imagined Raquel reacting with less astonishment—this was the surprise she had anticipated, although it was not so clean like she had hoped. The woman with the long braid was probably already reacting, her body and mind already adjusted to the natural, albeit disastrous, flow of the day.
My first reaction was to jump up out of my seat, join the flow of workers sprinting to the exit. But B block could need help, could need my help. I halted. “Keep going!” someone screamed, and a forceful shove to my back returned me to the path towards the door. “There’s no time to stop, it could spread to C block!” The large yellow “C” emblazoned on my worksuit was all the reminder I needed that all our lives, if the fire did indeed spread, could be in danger. But what if it could be stopped in its tracks? What if someone in C block could force the fire down?
My coworker was right, though. There was no time to stop. The flow of workers towards the door could not be hindered by a single person’s attempt to turn around. And besides, what if that person was too weak to stop it all by themself, and succumbed to the flames? Then there would be even more death. It was a depressing image.
And so we all ran. With heat and smoke at our backs, with what we could only assume was destruction behind us, with the wail of the siren in our ears, we raced to the exit. Sweat ran down my forehead, stinging my right eye and forcing me to hold it shut. The air around us felt like a furnace, so that as we ran, I couldn’t help feeling as though this factory was some sort of torture chamber. My feet pounded on the hot ground, my breath came in short, fast bursts as I attempted to inhale enough oxygen to get me to the door. Just a few more yards away.
A worker to my left was trying to sprint through the crowd, and in his haste he shoved a woman and elbowed his way in front of her. She toppled into me, causing me to lose my footing and crash to the ground. The cement floor felt hot beneath my hands, and as soon as I touched it I knew that I was not safe with it under my body. I struggled to regain my place in the flow of runners. As I stood, I saw the woman who had been pushed into me lying on the ground with her hands laced behind her head. I could feel her fear racing with my own heartbeat, and I felt I could not leave her there to be crushed by the stampeding masses. My mind had not been wired to make any other decision.
I reached down to grab her by the torso, heaving her up with all my strength. Workers smashed into my shoulders and back as I lifted her to her feet. I could feel the woman’s heartbeat, rapidly firing like a machine pistol beneath her flesh. Her face matched the ferocity of her heart: her eyes wide and unblinking, sweat and tears emblazoned around them. She turned to me for only a fraction of a second before she screamed, “let me go!” I released her to the crowd, and she disappeared into it. No time to ponder. Smoke was rapidly filling C block, according to the coughs and wheezes of the running workers.
I took a step, felt the pressure of a body against my own, fell once again to the hot cement floor. And then, darkness.
* * *
When my eyes finally opened, all I could see was smoke. It was entangled in the air, fighting its way into my lungs. I could taste it on the back of my tongue. There was a pounding in my head, and what I could only assume were a dozen bruises on my back. I knew that I had to stand up, had to once again attempt to get to the exit and escape this furnace, but I could not will myself to move with the amount of pain I was currently consumed with.
There was a sudden crash behind me, and I turned in time to watch several pieces of the ceiling come crashing down only a few feet away from me. But that was not the most frightening part of my vision—the entire room was not only filled with smoke, but was beginning to be consumed by the B block fire. Its flaming fingers were reaching out to grab hold of everything in the near vicinity. And situated between the flames was the outline of a person. Their body was slumped over like they had been tossed aside, thrown to the floor and discarded. I stood, my bones and muscles crying out as I did so. With an ache in each step, I managed to drag myself to where their body lay. It was wrapped in a navy blue worksuit with a large yellow B on it. And resting atop the yellow B, partially singed, was a long braid of dark hair.
My heart dropped. She must have escaped the flames in B block and come running in here, only to find herself trapped within a second fiery furnace. How vicious fate could often be.
I stared at the woman with the long braid for what felt like quite a long time, trying to decide what to do. I squeezed my hands together as if somehow the answer could be wrung out of my sweating palms. I knew I had to do something for her, that I couldn’t leave her to be crushed by the decaying factory or consumed by the fire. Either of those outcomes would ultimately be my fault—would be the product of my incapabilities. No longer was this about my escape; it was about my moral character. The universe had placed her in my care, had trusted me to deliver her from the furnace because any other decision would mean defeat for both of us. It would be her death, and the fall of my morality.
But what could I do? As I stared at the woman, the building continued to collapse around us and the fire continued to blaze. The exit that we were all so desperate to get to was now host to a flaming pile of debris, maliciously blocking our escape. I could attempt to plow through it, could “throw caution to the wind” as they used to say when breezes blew sweetly through the atmosphere. But she would not survive it, could not survive it, assuming that she was still alive as I pondered our course of action.
Assuming that she was still alive! How stupid I had been. In all the time that I had spent staring at the woman, I had never checked for her breath or pulse. I immediately bent down, carefully turned her head to test for exhalation.I gasped, fell backwards, let out a cry of pain and shock as my back hit the hot cement floor. I had expected to see the woman’s dark skin and full lips, to put my hand under her nose or in front of her pink mouth to assess the flow of oxygen in her body. But there was barely any skin on her face, and no mouth to speak of. I knew in that moment that we were both in the midst of our final moments. There was no clear escape route anymore, no path to the outside. So that was how we would end, surrounded by flames in the place that produced my most-hated symbol of this decaying world. And I could do nothing to stop both the world and the factory from falling apart.