Length of Days - The Age of Silence
Doris Gaines Rapp
Copyright 2011 Doris Gaines Rapp
Proverbs 3:1-2 (NIV) My son, do not forget my law
but let your heart keep my
commands, for length of days
and long life and peace they
will add to you.
I had no idea what Silas Drummond wanted from me.
He seemed to appear everywhere. In 2112 people didn’t approach Legacy Citizens, but Silas continued to interrupt the tranquility of my days.
It was Gift-giving Season, during The Age of Silence. The emergency policies established during the crises of the previous century were still in place. That meant my dear grandparents would soon enter the never-ending-sleep, terminating their Length of Days. Even though there were atrocities all around us, none of us knew the evil at the core of our society.
No one saw the gathering darkness. It came slowly, like a fog that shimmers on the horizon before the dense veil overtakes the light. But then, few people were free to seek the glow of truth. In my day most walked in muted tones of gray.
Had I known what evil lurked in the shadows, I would have sought the light. If I had paid attention to my books, I would have seen when the flame began to dim. The last spark of truth was a dying ember, buried but not snuffed out.
Maybe if Silas had explained the true activities at the mountain, a little at a time, I would have been braced for the horror. Had I known the depravity that forced the silence on our people, I would have listened for the angels’ song. But, powers stronger than I could imagine, controlled the darkness and closed our hearts to the light.
Indifference can silently steal our will and freedom. Sometimes, when life is too much to bear, we simply turn our eyes away. Had I known what Silas was trying to tell me, I would have been terrified, unable to stop the terrible fate that awaited us all. I had until the end of December to find a way to overturn the despicable law. Will the solution come in time?
Lady Christiana Applewait
Capitol City, Central Zone, U.S.A.
8:00 a.m. Friday, December 23, 2112
Only seven days left! How could that be? I knew that my loss would be coming soon, but I had avoided thinking about it for a long time. Now, I felt overwhelmed. My heart ached as I struggled with words to explain what I was feeling. Feeling words had vanished from our vocabulary decades ago. No one felt anything anymore, good or bad. I simply couldn’t bear to think about what was coming, so I decided to bury myself in the library, the one safe place where I could always hide . . . where books had the power to release me from the gnawing pain inside that could not be expressed.
As I hurried up the steps to the main entrance to the library, a strange little man charged into my path. “Christiana . . . Miss Applewait . . . My Lady, I must talk to you!”
“What?” I was startled.
“Please,” he begged as he touched my arm.
“Do yourself a favor, Buddy—move along.” The Blue Guard Officer assigned to my protection reached for his prodding stick as he boldly studied the man who appeared to be about forty years old.
“Please My Lady . . .” the man tried to speak again.
“You are free to go, Ma’am,” the officer waved me on. “This man is finished here.”
From behind me, I could hear a struggle but I didn’t look back. The man called out my name again as I dashed into the building. I slipped past the front desk and went directly to the forbidden back room of the library. I felt safe in there. Marge Cummings, the curator, and I were the only ones permitted access to the books, files, and documents locked away there.
I closed the door behind me, leaned against it, and caught my breath. Why did the man on the steps frighten me so? What did he want? I trembled as I latched the door to the back stacks before I went to my favorite brown leather chair. The smooth worn armchair reminded me of the old ones—my grandparents. They had a leather sofa. But it hurt too much to think about them.
This month of December 2112 had come too soon. It was the month of Grand-mère and Grand-père’s final birthdays, when they would be forced into the never-ending-sleep, terminating their Length of Days. Why should my dear grandparents be part of the discarded, the forsaken? Why should they be among the unwanted, defective and overpopulate infants and children? They certainly weren’t unproductive adults like some. No! Not my grandparents. I, Christiana Applewait, was one of the Privileged Legacy Citizens. But, what could I do?
“Christiana, dear, though we are Legacy, your grandfather and I have accepted this edict,” my grandmother had assured me.
“You should fight it, Grand-mère. You have the power.”
“Power, yes, but we are no better than others.”
From beyond the inner door of the library, I thought I heard another scuffle and loud shouts. Did that odd little man call my name again? I recognized the fear in his voice, an emotion everyone still possessed. What was he trying to say? The very thought of discord startled me out of my world of books. Then—I heard nothing more. The man must have managed to get away from the officer, sneak into the building, only to be discovered and forcibly ejected again.
I tried to concentrate on my books, but foreboding thoughts kept tugging at my mind. I knew the chaos of the previous century had set the world spinning into social collapse. In the current era, it was becoming more obvious that life was no longer valued, and empathy had ceased to exist. What was left from the whirlwind of global chaos was an amoral society in which Grand-mère and Grand-père would soon be terminated, cast aside into the chamber portal to the great sleep.
“Grand-mère, please,” I had begged her, “do something.”
“It wouldn’t be proper, Christiana. We’re not above the rules.”
“Acceptable principles of conduct and rules no longer exist, Grand-mère. I know ―”
“What do you know, Christiana?”
“You know I practically live in the library. I—just know.” What could I say? I didn’t know how to respond to her calm acceptance of the Length of Days laws or the unexplained never-ending-sleep in which no one could visit or know if they would ever return.
One day, around Grand-mère’s warm kitchen table, it all seemed so clear. I knew that thousands of years of history had been erased from our books one-hundred years ago with the stroke of a pen. The leaders of the revolution had banned everything written before that point. Only rewritten and newly crafted, politically conforming, texts remained. I could still see Grand-mère’s sad eyes in my mind, as if she felt she had let me down.
What did that man want? Why couldn’t I shake the sound of his pleading voice?
“Lady Applewait!” There was urgency in his voice that had made my body tense with fear.
Doesn’t the man know how dangerous it is to stalk a Legacy Citizen? What does he want from me? Then, I had to reassure myself. You’re safe, Christiana. The door is locked and no one but you and Marge can get in. Now, that strange, frightened man had drawn me into an intrigue by simply calling my name. Somehow, the world from beyond the library walls had found me.
Until now, I had flooded my mind with images from the books I had been reading so I wouldn’t have to think about my grandparents’ fate any longer. Today, too many questions had intruded into my thoughts and wouldn’t let me escape, as I longed to do.
I wanted to save my grandparents, but I didn’t want to be brave. I felt like a walking contradiction, and I didn’t know the real me. I wanted to be counted on, to help my grandparents in some way. I had thought about it all year, then I had procrastinated for months and now it was December already. I had done nothing but bury my head in my books. Here in the library, in my secret place, I had always been able to lock myself away from reality and the staring public. But, today, reality had found me.
Here in the back stacks, in a place far removed from everything else, I could be alone with the feelings I experienced while reading. Once beyond the maze of closed, locked doors, the dark, dimly lit hallway led the way to a mysterious inner sanctum. This part of the library testified to the secretive nature of the old volumes but revealed nothing about the reason for the labels of evil and forbidden they had acquired. I had wondered about all the secrecy concerning the old books and why they had been banned as corrupting literature. Then, I thought of the little man. Was someone trying to reach me because I have access to illegal material? No, I must not allow such thoughts to upset me.
Here, inside the back room, it wasn’t dark or sinister at all. December morning sun streamed through the high, crimson and blue stained-glass windows that faced the east and sent dancing rainbows across the floor. I settled down in my chair and soon became engrossed in the characters in the novel. Chills ran down my back, not from the coolness of the dawn, but from the warmth of the words and excitement of the images that flooded my thoughts as I read. The beauty the images created in my mind mesmerized me as I devoured the vivid descriptions and strong characters on each page of the books now locked away and forbidden.
“I know you have been reading a lot,” Grand-mère had ventured cautiously that day in her kitchen. “What books do you enjoy the most?”
“Oh, I love to read everything I can find—but the novels—they are wonderful! People had such deep feelings.”
“And religion and philosophy, Christiana?”
I hadn’t responded to that question. I’d rambled on about a novel I’d read and didn’t really answer her properly. I had been so starved for the love and affection that the books of fiction had described; they were the ones I had been devouring.
The world inside my books and the reality I tried to avoid, were nothing alike. The present era was so different from anything the books of times past described. I knew that few people had read the wonderful old volumes. Most people had never learned what had happened before the current epoch. Initially, I had only been interested in the everyday lives of people, as played out in the wonderful old stories. I didn’t know what I should, or what I could have known, about history or governments and the rest.
I didn’t have an excuse. I was privileged to be able to explore all the knowledge hidden here; yet, I had squandered the opportunity that my special position had given me. But then, I was privileged in every way.
Like royalty of old, I had inherited a favored place in society, not earned it. I was a Legacy Citizen.
“My dear,” Grand-mère had cautioned, “you were given a wonderful chance to be of service the day you were born.”
“I know Grand-mère,” I had mechanically agreed.
She had taken both my hands in hers. “Christiana, look into my eyes. You were born a Legacy Citizen, not a better person. You were born for service, dear, not entitlements. Do you understand?”
I did. Had I not been born a Legacy Citizen, it would have been impossible to have achieved anything significant enough to merit a place in society in the present age. The masses of people were kept in a controlled state, satisfied with the most mediocre existence possible. Currently, there was no incentive for hard work, no merit pay, only everything equal in every way, including nothingness.
Having access to the forbidden areas of the library, I had soaked in all the knowledge and emotions that were written on the secret pages of many of the books stored here. For fear of detection, I had to hold the mysteries close to my heart. That morning, I hadn’t even told Grand-mère anything more about what I had been reading.
I had recently earned my Master’s degree in Library Science and that, coupled with my Legacy status, had qualified me to carry a master key to the library when I began my research. Members of the Blue Guard escorted me around campus but, once alone in the library my master key gave me access to rooms that held the old texts, documents, and novels of ages past. Even though the old books were not on the bibliography of my University-approved thesis topic, An Argument for a New Form of Cataloging Books, there was no one who really knew what I was reading while tucked away in the back recesses of this old wing.
Oh, to have lived in those olden days talked about in the books of fiction, to have experienced those emotions: desire and hope, expectation and surprise. The more I read about the past, the more I longed to be truly alive as the characters seemed to have been then.
Why didn’t I know I had not been living to the fullest of my emotions? Why hadn’t I noticed that others seemed even flatter in their feelings than I? I had begun to realize that my experience was different from most. I had been living my life inside the pages of books other people never saw or read.
I wondered about the people who lived in my building. They seemed to feel joy, in spite of their drugged state, and I wondered if I was every really happy. What I had read about in the books was more joy than I, and probably others, had experienced.
I was learning about passion and commitment, of people living and learning into advanced old age. People died of natural causes in the arms of their family, not as my beloved grandparents were doomed to leave me, by being locked away in endless sleep.
As I sat there in the library trying to sort out what to think and do, a little pull on the back of my blouse interrupted my thoughts. That spot on my back is catching again. I reached over my left shoulder and scratched at the snaggy spot. A vaccination isn’t supposed to tear at your clothing. Tossing my hair to one side, I reached back again so I could feel around on my old scar. Children were vaccinated when they were infants, but there was a tiny, hard piece of something protruding from my old inoculation site. I’ll have it checked, I promised myself.
I tried to take my mind off my shoulder. But, I had read too many stories about the illnesses in the old days to stop worrying about it. There is definitely a lump. What could it be?
“Christiana Applewait, what are you doing here so early?” Marge smiled as she breezed into the room, as if the morning had just occurred to her.
“What ya readin’?” Marge asked as she glanced at the book I was holding.
“A Woman of Substance,” I answered. “In this novel, Emma Harte falls in love, makes mistakes, works herself out of them and lives to an old age, with all her memories gathered around her like a down comforter on a winter morning.” I closed the book and inserted Grand-mère’s old pink-and-white crocheted cross bookmark in the place where I had left off. I remembered asking her once what the cross meant. She said she would tell me sometime.
“Very romantic, I know. I’ve read Bradford’s books,” Marge paused. “Did you hear all that ruckus earlier, out there in the entry hall? Someone was all agitated and looking for you.”
“I’m sure it must have been a mistake.” I pretended I knew nothing about the man who had tried to get my attention.
Marge leaned in toward me as if someone might hear her. “It was no mistake. He was calling out your name. Then the guard threatened to lock him up if he didn’t go away.”
“I don’t want to think about that now.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “I’ve found something you will be interested in though. No one else knows this stuff even exists.”
Marge inserted a key into a massive wooden case nearby and removed a small, metal box.
“What is that?” I asked as she placed the box on a stand.
“It’s an old operating system of some sort that runs on electricity. Since our generator supplies the alternative energy we need for some of our older devices, I imagine we’re one of the few places that would be able to play something like this . . . our library and the hospital.” She plugged the box in and inserted a disk of some sort into the opening. A moving picture burst forth on the surface with a lilting musical accompaniment.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Marge whispered. “Our telecommunications messages are so stiff. ‘What to do in case of an emergency.’ ‘How to rear your children.’ You know, the same old stuff.”
“And all the games, Marge, thousands of games. People don’t even see the buried images in the game grids.” I threw up both hands, trying to express my disgust with the kind of censorship and indoctrination now forced on the population.
“One book I just finished reading,” I remembered, “described news programs with dozens of commentators, who talked all day. If people weren’t informed back then, it wasn’t from lack of a messenger. It was because they didn’t want to know.”
“That’s why the society stopped all those broadcasts,” Marge nodded. “They said people were restless all the time and anxious about things they didn’t need to think about. The Lawmakers thought no one should spend time worrying about finances, scandals, or the workings of government. They also banned programs that filled the mind with frivolous fluff and programs that told stories.”
“Christiana,” Marge interrupted, “that’s what I found, one of those programs.”
“Marge, you mean a story on film?”
“Watch,” she restarted the little machine.
We sat in front of a small screen and soaked in all the joys and sorrows of the family in the teleplay. The brothers and sisters walked to a friendly grocery in their bare feet, but no one complained. The parents stole a kiss or a hug as they passed each other, just living their lives. My heart stung with unexercised empathy and longing. Stretching it hurt. No one in 2112 demonstrated affection in public.
I shook my head in disbelief. I’d never seen anything so poignant before. “Six children, a mother and father, and two elderly grandparents all lived on a meager income at the foot of a mountain during the Great Depression of the previous International Chapter and yet, they seemed so happy. And, Marge, the old ones! How could they have lived so long?”
“People just lived until they died.” Then Marge shook her head. “What a terrible financial drain they were on their families and the country’s economy. They were too selfish to get out of the way so the next generation could live comfortably.” I knew Marge was speaking out of rote memory, not out of understanding for the dignity of people, or a reverence for life.
“Marge, my grandparents will soon be seventy-five years old. You know what that means.”
“The never-ending-sleep,” Marge said with an indifferent tone. “My parents reached the end of their Length of Days when they turned sixty years old, not seventy-five like the Council members.”
“It isn’t fair,” I whispered, even though I knew I was one of the lucky ones. I would one day be on the Council of Elders, the Wise Ones, like my great-great grandparents before me. Our Length of Days is longer than the rest of the population. But, it still isn’t fair.
“What choice did society have, Christiana? When the decision was made, health care costs were astronomical, insurance was out of reach and the cost for housing prisoners was beyond the average citizens’ imagination. Massive public-funded feeding programs, although well intentioned, had swallowed up a huge portion of the national treasury. Our nation’s debt had surmounted any ability to repay. So, it was decided that each person would be allocated a Length of Days, based on their worth to society. Then, they were put into the never-ending-sleep. My job as curator is unique, so I’m more valuable than some others. I get to live longer than many.”
“But Marge, how can people’s lives be judged this way? Birthdays aren’t even celebrated after a child turns ten years old. A kind of grief sets in. Since people know when they will pass on, they have no hope for a brighter future. There are no surprises in life, only a ticking of the clock. And, my own grandparents’ birthdays are in a few weeks.”
“I know, Christiana, but let’s talk about it more after Gift- giving.” She stood up and bent over to give me a hug. “What’s that?” Marge winced. “I scratched my hand on your shoulder.” Marge pulled her arm back and inspected the small surface wound on her little finger.
“Oh that,” I shrugged it off. ”There’s something caught in my vaccination scar. It catches on my clothes. I’ve snagged several shirts on that little piece that is sticking out.”
“Christiana, you must have that looked at. It could be serious,” Marge turned me around and ran her fingertips around the spot.
“I suppose,” I admitted.
“No ‘suppose’ to it. There’s a new doctor in town and he’s taking patients.”
“Capitol City needed another doctor? With no stress, no worries, and no outliving the energy of our bodies, we were all to enjoy good health.” I felt the hair on the back on my neck bristle. “We weren’t even supposed to need health care providers.”
Marge shrugged. “They thought they could handle the costs of illness for a limited number of years per person, so the weaker, flawed ones are sorted out at birth. But, it’s nothing we should think or worry about.”
Heaven forbid that we should think. I thought it, but didn’t say out loud. “That’s only if the flawed baby is not your older brother,” I mumbled, then added. “My parents never got over their loss.”
“They didn’t have to limit themselves to one child. They could have had another baby after you were born,” Marge stated dryly. “Families are just prohibited from having more than a total of two children and must abort other fetal masses that may form.”
I shuddered as I listen to her. “My parents’ case was too complicated,” I said but didn’t want to share the story. There was too much suffering wrapped up in that one little boy. “Though my family was granted the privilege of living beyond most other people’s Length of Days, they had to terminate the life of a dearly cherished child. It was too hard for them.”
Marge jumped to her feet and smiled, oblivious to the family pain I was feeling. “Well, I hear there is someone in town that is not too hard to deal with, the handsome new doctor I told you about. You start on over to his office, and I’ll call and tell them you’re on your way. As a future Legacy replacement to the Council of Elders, you’ll receive preferential treatment.”
I dutifully grabbed my shoulder bag, red hat, and my green cloak and headed out to do my civic duty by keeping my body healthy.
Outside, the air was crisp, and the earth still clung to the memory of the fall season. It was a glorious winter day. As I walked mechanically up to the corner transit platform, I heard my name again.
“Christiana,” a voice rang out behind me. It was the small man who had tried to stop me this morning. As he hurried toward me, another Blue Guardsman stepped between us and pushed the man aside. He fell to the sidewalk and scrapped the side of his face on the concrete.
I thought I should hurry on until I noticed blood dripping into his eyes. There was something familiar about the man I hadn’t noticed before.
“Lady Applewait,” he called out as he tried to get to his feet.
“Stay down,” the Blue Shirt ordered roughly.
I finally recognized the man. He lived in my building, although I had never spoken to him. “Silas, is that you?”
“Yes, My Lady,” he whispered.
“I’ll keep him down, Ma’am. You can move along,” the Guardsman spoke with authority.
“Wait, please,” Silas begged. “I wrote it out for you.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and started to hand it to me. When the officer reached for it, Silas snapped it back. “No, no!” Fear was in his eyes. “It’s only for Lady Applewait.”
I saw the urgent look on his face. The same fear that had gripped me when I heard him calling to me rose up between us. Just as the uniformed man touched the paper, I snatched it out of his hand. “Thank you, Silas.”
“It’s just a few notes about gift giving in the building you had asked me for the other day, Ma’am.” Silas’s trembling voice threatened to give away his lies. “Tell this Guard he’s overreacting, please.”
“Let me see that,” the Guard insisted.
“No Sir,” I assured him with as much royal privilege as I could muster. “I have it.” I could see panic in Silas’s eyes. I didn’t know what he was talking about or what was going on, but I immediately grasped the grave situation Silas was in. He risked his life to get a message to me. I was sure it wasn’t a Gifting list.
“Thank you. I’ll check it over later. I have an appointment now.” I shoved the folded paper in my bag and hurried up the transit steps.
The note was quickly forgotten as my thoughts turned back to the video Marge and I had seen. The happy family’s expectation of good things to come was intoxicating. Their hope was contagious. I just couldn’t accept the fate of my grandparents. The Length of Days policy was new in the larger pattern of history. I was one of the few who knew that life had been different in the past.
My mind churned as I thought of how the law could be overturned. I didn’t know where to begin. I had read something curious a few months back while I was rummaging through the old files doing research for my thesis. In one of the books, there was something about “inalienable rights.” When I get back to the library from the doctor’s office this afternoon, after I have seen my grandparents, I’ll find the old manuscripts and see if I can understand what I know is there. I have already read it. Maybe wisdom will be gifted to me before the passage of time.
I had no idea that within another day, I would be facing my rebirth, where wisdom would unfold rapidly.
I knew I had to have the spot on my back checked. I didn’t want to go to the doctor, but it was the responsibility of a Legacy Citizen to take care of their health. The Public Transit waiting area wasn’t crowded so I sat on a bench in the warm sunshine and tried to make sense of what this day had meant so far. I would have preferred going most anyplace other than the doctor’s office. Just as my books allowed me to escape the reality of my grandparents’ fate, I also chose to avoid addressing health issues. As a Legacy Citizen, I had been cared for, protected. I didn’t have to face life as most people experienced it. That was just the way life was. Now, I needed to protect the lives of my grandparents by finding a way to use my legacy status to save them.
I’ll think about that tomorrow. But, the truth was, I was running out of time, and so were Grand-mère and Grand-père.
Just as the inverse trolley pulled to my stop, I heard the piercing wail of a Blue Shirt’s strata-car. I thought of Silas Drummond and shuddered. I couldn’t remember ever having been frightened before within the bubble I was kept. I hurried on board the Public Transit where I felt safe. Riding above the streets on the P-T felt serene and peaceful, up in the quiet above the fray. The transit cars floated on electrified steel ribbons, silently crisscrossing the city on a grid that covered the entire metropolitan area. Riding across town with other people, even though they kept their distance from me, was usually pleasant, but my thoughts were preoccupied with my grandparents’ situation and this spot on my shoulder.
Maybe I have cancer, I worried. According to my books, people used to have a disease that destroyed healthy tissue in the body. It often started with a lump.
When the Transit reached my stop, I bounded down the steps from the disembarking area, pretending there was nothing wrong. I had learned a long time ago that Legacy Citizens are constantly under surveillance, not in a threatening way, but I knew to present myself to the public as calm and organized. That day, I felt like I was fooling no one.
As I walked up the broad steps of the medical center, I kept thinking about my grandparents and the old ones in the program Marge and I had watched. The actors looked much older than Grand-mère and Grand-père. How amazing it must have been for them to go on living as long as nature allowed.
Once inside the office, a woman looked up from her work. “Yes?” The woman at the reception desk, in the physician’s suite, questioned in shorthand. She reached in my direction with a detection wand.
“I am Christiana Applewait. Someone called ―”
“Yes, Ma’am. I have your information right here. You can come on back.”
I saw other patients already waiting for their time with the doctor, but I still accepted my place at the head of the line. It had always been that way. I watched as one mother cradled her sick daughter in her arms. The child’s cheeks were red with fever, and her eyes were glazed with pain. I looked away. I had always been taught—it is best to not fill your head with other people’s pain. After all, there was nothing I could do about it.
“Come along, Miss Applewait. Let’s not expose you to germs unnecessarily.” The nurse hustled me out of the waiting room, down the hall and into examination room number two.
I recognized the nurse. She was Dahlia Zoobamba. We lived in the same building, but we had never spoken.
“This is nice,” I said as I looked around the small examination room. I had rarely been sick, and I didn’t realize that Society had redecorated the entire Medical Complex the previous year. The pictures were somehow different from what was usually displayed. “The animal photographs are wonderful, especially the farm scenes,” I remarked.
“Doctor wanted people to remember the animals as they used to be. Many were slaughtered to reduce Carbon Dioxide levels. Look at those brown eyed cows. Can you believe people used to eat those beasts?”
“Thank goodness for chemically processed food,” I mumbled. “This picture of the dog is great. Dogs are so rare now.”
“The government thought they used up too much of our food supply.”
“I saw one the other day,” I reminisced as I remembered the happy, frisky little dog peering at me from a window I had passed.
As the nurse prepared her charts, I noticed the newness of the equipment and the room. Perhaps I could ask a question I had wondered about while she methodically went through her routine. They said this building needed major renovation as a normal part of maintenance. There was a rumor that other motives were at the bottom of the paint cans. “Is the epidemic over?”
“Epidemic? There’s been no epidemic.” Nurse Dahlia’s answer was flat and crisp.
“A friend said two of his cousins needed to be in the hospital but there were no beds,” I said. “It sure sounds like an epidemic to me.” I knew what I had been told.
The hospital had been filled with people so distraught, they couldn’t function. Marge and I had looked in an old medical book for symptoms we had heard about. Depression met all the criteria. It was a disease that had nearly been eradicated by endorphin boosters in the water supply that controlled the old disorder.
“I’ve noticed people arguing in the library, and I’ve seen people crying for no apparent reason,” I told Dahlia. “My friend told me that six young women had made a suicide pact, but the superintendent in their building had discovered their plan and stopped them before it was too late.”
“Suicide? That’s an archaic term,” Dahlia bristled. “People just don’t do that any more. We . . . never mind.” The nurse straightened her glasses and turned to leave. “The doctor will be with you in a moment.”
She bowed out of the conversation with a dismissive tone I didn’t appreciate. I stood there for a moment and wondered if I should leave, but I felt my shoulder again and reconsidered. I gazed out the window and watched the morning move toward noon day. Beyond the building, in the park below that fronted a small, old-fashioned shopping village, a young woman hurried along the sidewalk, then disappeared over a little rise near a wooded area by a fish pond.
Just then I caught sight of a man as he jumped out of his red car. He started to cross the street in the direction of the Medical Center but was stopped by a Blue Shirt who swung his baton with a blow to the back of the man’s knees. As he buckled to the ground, his body turned and I could see his face.
Oh no . . . it’s that man. It’s Silas again. Fear suddenly gripped my heart. Why has he followed me? What is so important he would risk his life to touch mine? I fumbled with my bag until I found the note. It was still there.
Earlier that morning - Before Sunrise
Silas Drummond was never seen around town in the daytime. What had happened that morning to cause him to risk danger to talk to Christiana Applewait? He had never dared speak to her before.
Just hours before he had suddenly appeared in town, Silas Drummond was deep in the bowels of Howard Mountain, going through the routine of his despicable job. He had shuffled as rapidly as his aching legs could carry him, along the sterile tile floor that led back to his post. The bell had rung announcing another delivery for the furnaces. There were arrivals almost around the clock, every day of the week. Silas had been warned not to leave the place or reveal anything he knew, or about his duties there. Some bodies arrived already deceased, needing only to be discarded. The cases that were hard for Silas were the breathing ones who seemed to expect a bed and pillow to rest on, for their never-ending-sleep.
Dark smoke rose from the peak above the vast tentacles of crematorium chambers that were buried in the caverns underneath the once majestic mountain, miles from Capitol City. While death stalked below, purifying snow draped a blanket of white across the slopes above. Death had become so common place the few people who lived near the sickening foulness paid no more attention to what was going on, than those who had lived near the Nazi death camps, more than a century and a half ago. It didn’t matter. Silas had gotten used to the stench long ago. The year 2112 was a new time, but an old evil lurked below the mountain like a putrid mold, while seasons came and went on the surface above.
A wide desolate road ran at the base of the mountain and stretched several miles to the edge of the city. One of Silas Drummond’s jobs was to check the driver’s list of end-travelers as they emerged from luxury vehicles, much like the limousines from the previous era. The list contained the names of those who had reached the age for entering the long sleep that ended their Length of Days. Silas knew that the end-travelers thought they were riding in luxury, like sophisticates of old, to a restful place to sleep for a while, but, Silas knew it was their journey’s end.
Blackened clouds from the mountain top blocked the morning light, as another driver pulled his black stretch limo to the gate and hopped out.
“Watch your step folks,” the driver cautioned. “You don’t want to sleep away your days with a broken leg.” He chuckled to himself but his humor was lost on his passengers.
The tall iron gate swung open and two white-coated burly men helped the travelers into several small electric cars that would deliver them to the processing center.
“You got time for coffee, Silas?” the limo driver spoke into the gate speaker.
“I’ll be able to take a break in a few minutes, Harry. Come on in with the group and then have a seat in the lounge. Be sure to take the back hallway as usual, not the main one. No one’s allowed in that part of the complex.”
“Then why do they call it the main hall?” Silas heard Harry mumbled to himself, but said no more.
Silas stepped away from the communicator and waited near the elevator for the newest arrivals. He longed to leave, to get away from the wretched place, but the new group of end-travelers would have to be processed immediately, before reality had time to register.
The huge ornate doors opened, allowing the citizens to enter the pleasant reception room where Silas was waiting to check them in.
“Silas, I didn’t know you worked here.” A petite blond girl who appeared to be about twenty recognized him. She walked with a severe limp with the aid of crutches.
“The leg still bothering you, Mari?” Silas asked. He knew what that kind of disability meant.
“Some. On rainy days it’s the worst. My medical counselor said it would be best for me to get a long rest.” She smiled as she hobbled along after Drummond’s scuffling steps. “It’ll be okay. It’s not like the endless sleep of the aged. It’s like . . . a long nap.”
Silas was speechless as Mari and the group followed behind him like sheep. Bitter bile rose in his throat where it mixed with fear and anger. “But . . . but,” he stammered and then saw the guard at the enrollment station glare at him.
Silas had little contact with the travelers as he escorted them to the door from which no one returned. His main responsibility was to make constant rounds, checking all of the gages in order to keep the furnaces firing at the right temperature. He wanted to know nothing and to see even less.
I could not strap her to the tray. He shuddered at the very thought of it. Much less keep the flame under her young body at a steady, even temperature. I know her . . . I like little Mari.
They have lied to her. He screamed inside his mind. And, she’s not the only one.
Later, safely concealed inside a locked restroom, he grabbed his pocket knife and scratched another inch-long jagged red mark on his already scarred arm. His dark blood dripped into the bowl then pooled near the drain as he blindly carved on his own body until the knife penetrated deeply enough that he could feel again.
Control yourself, he demanded. If he complained to his superiors about putting his young friend in the furnace, they might place a stripe against him in his employment jacket. If he were caught giving out information, it would mean certain death. He knew the attendants would take Mari’s time piece, belt buckle, and shoes. They took jewelry and anything of value and promised it would be stored. That was something, this time with Mari, he could not accept.
The long nap is a lie. It’s not temporary. It’s permanent! And, the never-ending-sleep is not a gift. It’s extermination. Silas knew, little Mari, these elderly citizens, and many others had been duped and were totally unaware of the real process they were facing.
Silas returned to his desk to pick up his belongings as eerie music lilted through the subterranean lair. These despicable chambers are the only place left in society where music was still played. It was intended to quiet the victims’ fears. Silas muttered to himself, “It’s not a lullaby. It’s a dirge of death.” The ghastly songs were not just for the end-travelers, but also for those whose jobs were to carry out the daily procedures or be eliminated along with their families if they didn’t.
“Silas, there you are.” The limo driver looked up as Silas hurried toward the exit.
Gotta get out of here. Silas hardly knew he was muttering to himself. Gotta tell her. It has to stop. I know I’ll be in trouble for leaving early. If I don’t clock out, maybe I can claim I forgot to have my time card punched. Maybe I can be gone long before they miss me. Then he rushed out, leaving the driver alone in the lounge.
She is the one person who might be able to stop this madness, Silas thought. Lady Christiana is a Legacy Citizen. She was the only person he knew who might listen to him, and perhaps believe his story.
Silas hobbled to his car, always bent in a hurried stance. He deposited something large and wrapped in the old blanket from his resting chamber in the back seat, got in and sat in silence while he fumbled nervously with the car’s ignition. Then he whispered, “It’ll be okay. We’ll get to my sister’s place before everyone starts stirring.”
He would leave the mountain and the stench behind him. As he drove along the road toward the city, he was unaware that another vehicle had pulled away from the mountain at the same time and cast a long shadow behind them. Silas was not alone.
I stood and watched Silas Drummond through the medical office window as I waited for the doctor to come in. I was unable to stop studying the little man. He surely knew what would happen if he continued to pursue me. He had been warned more than once that very morning. I had seen him in the apartment building a few times but we had never even shared a glance. It would not have been proper. In fact, it was unthinkable for someone to try to step into the space of a Legacy Citizen.
Suddenly, my attention was drawn from Silas and back into the doctor’s examining room. “Good morning,” a friendly voice, the texture of warm chocolate, greeted me from behind.
Startled, I spun around to see a tall, athletic man enter the room. I jammed the paper Silas had written more deeply to the bottom of my tote. My heart was pounding. What does Silas want with me? “Good morning,” I said as the attractive, white coated man came toward me.
“I’m Dr. O’Reilly,” he nodded but didn’t extend his hand. “I’m happy to meet you.”
I knew I was trembling from the events of the morning. My world was usually cushioned with the cotton of quiet solitude, above the stratum on which others lived. My bubble had been invaded many times that morning. I tried to control the anxiety that gripped me.
Dr. O’Reilly smiled. His expression was soft as he studied me. “Have we met? You seem familiar to me.”
I didn’t remember having met him—and I would have remembered. There was something in his eyes that was different. He exuded an appeal I could not identify.
Dr. O’Reilly motioned to the examination table. “Jump up here, please. It’s your shoulder that’s bothering you, right?”
I slipped up on the table and removed my outer jacket. “My shoulder, specifically . . . the vaccination site.” My voice sounded shaky to me. Get control of yourself! I didn’t want to have to explain the reason for my anxiety . . . the Blue Guard . . . or the note Silas Drummond had passed to me.
Doctor O’Reilly moved in closer to examine my shoulder. I could smell a faint scent of aftershave, something that had nearly gone out of custom.
“Let’s have a look.” He raised his arms as if ready to help remove my blouse but he didn’t touch me.
I realized he was being respectful of my station in life, so I slipped the sleeve down by myself. I unbuttoned the top of my garment and slipped it off my shoulder. I twisted and turned again but I still couldn’t see the spot.
“You would have to be a pushmi-pull-yu to see the back of your own shoulder,” he smiled.
“A what? A push-pull-what?”
“Just a fictional animal from a book I read. Dr. Doolittle,” he smiled.
“But if the animal was not real, it was not a book of facts or a book of science. I know books. You had to have read a book of fiction, Doctor.”
“Fiction books were banned a long time ago,” he protested with that special tone of authority that medical people often use to claim an expertise on more subjects than just medicine.
“What books have you been reading, Dr. O’Reilly?” I was impatient. I had to know and I certainly wasn’t intimidated by his education. “Which ones?”
“Oh you know, just the usual,” he offered lamely, avoiding the topic and redirected the conversation to the examination.
I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest. There was another stash of books somewhere, outside of the library. I was not going to be dissuaded.
Dr. O’Reilly paused near my ear. “I know this could be risky, but since you know about books of fiction, you may have read some. Books seem important to you.” He paused and looked at me. “It’s not necessarily a secret but few people know the old wing of the hospital has a library.”
I felt my heart catch in my throat. How did he know I lived for my books? “You read them . . . the books?” I kept my voice low and tried not to show any emotion.
His fingers rolled over the lump on my shoulder. “I can feel the sharpness beneath your skin.”
I would not let him change the subject that easily. “Do you read the books, Dr. O’Reilly?” I knew I sounded somewhat demanding and I didn’t want to draw unusual attention to myself, but I had to know. “Please . . . do you read the books?” I couldn’t believe there may be another stash of novels somewhere.
Dr. O’Reilly paused. “They are wonderful,” he whispered.
The door handle rattled and Nurse Dahlia reentered the room. The conversation returned to talk of the bump under my skin. Discretely, Dr. Riley pulled back slightly while still examining the lump on my shoulder.
“Do you need any help Doctor?” the nurse questioned politely but had a puzzled look on her face. “Your voices were not clear over the room monitor.”
“We are fine, Nurse.” Dr. O’Reilly dismissed any concern Dahlia may have had by involving her in the exam. “Come here and take a look at this?” He stepped back and motioned for Dahlia to examine my mysterious lump.
Dahlia looked at me and I sensed by her expression that she recognized me too. Suddenly, I was aware of all of the apartment building neighbors I had never spoken to. They talked and joked between each other but I was always on the outside. Since they would have been forbidden to speak to a Legacy person first, my isolation was of my own making.
“Ma’am, have you fallen or been hit by something?” Dahlia’s questions were professional, and she was careful not to actually touch me. “I haven’t heard of any injury you may have sustained.”
She was right. If a Legacy Council member, or those who would inherit that position through benefit of their birth, had tripped over a curb, all of the people would have heard about it. We were watched, emulated, guarded, secretly envied, and were socially positioned within the circle of the elite, set apart from the masses.
“No, Nurse Dahlia, never. I know I haven’t had any kind of accident, unless I was sleepwalking and didn’t remember it.”
The nurse stepped back quickly and stared at me. She seemed to be surprised that I used her name.
“I know who you are, Dahlia,” I reassured her. “You live in my building.”
“Yes, Ma’am. But I didn’t know ―” She caught herself before she completed that thought. Then she added, “It is a great neighborhood building, isn’t it?”
“It’s nice to finally speak to you.” I looked directly at this woman I saw every day, but had never been in her world of friends and neighbors.
“Yes, Ma’am.” She looked back at my shoulder. “Actually, it doesn’t look like an injury. It looks as if something is trying to work its way out of your body.”
“Oh Dahlia, that sounds awful.” I recoiled at the thought of a foreign body under my skin, trying to emerge to the surface. I thought of the alien beings that possessed the bodies of Earthlings in the old science fiction books I had read.
“You’re right, Nurse,” Dr. O’Reilly concurred. “I found that very curious.”
“Yes, Sir.” She turned and started to leave, “Oh, I reviewed her chart, Doctor. Miss Applewait is twenty-four years old now.”
“Thank you, Nurse.” He turned back to me and patted my shoulder. “Let’s carefully remove that sliver. It shouldn’t leave any more of a mark than the original vaccination did. Then we will address the issue of your age.”
“What issue?” I asked. When Dahlia closed the door again, I whispered, “Tell me about the books.”
Dr. O’Reilly’s words and his gestures suddenly didn’t match. His mouth said, “Well, your age isn’t an issue so much as a milestone,” but his hands were pantomiming another message. He put his index finger to his lips and then opened his hands like he was holding a book.
I nodded and added. “I had a birthday recently but I didn’t know it was any major event.”
“Do you need any instruments?” Dahlia intruded over the room’s two-way monitor.
Dr. O’Reilly muffled a chuckle. “Thanks Dahlia. No, I have what I need.” He applied a cool gauze pad over the site and waited a second. “It will be numb in a moment.” He pointed to his watch, threw up six fingers and mimed sipping a cup of coffee. Then he pointed out the window to the low row of buildings across the street beyond the park.
I knew the little coffee shop. I had been there several times. I especially liked the quaint, old-fashioned design of the entire cluster of businesses. I nodded and smiled that I understood.
Dr. O’Reilly covered the spot on my shoulder with an anti-bacterial solution and draped the area in order to keep it sterile. As he approached me with the scalpel, I turned my eyes away. He made a tiny incision and skillfully removed a small piece of something from my shoulder.
“Well, there it is,” he offered as he held the object with tweezers. “Are you sure you weren’t accosted by a communications monitor? It looks like a little component of some sort.”
“No attacks or encounters of any kind.” I studied the strange, tiny piece in the doctor’s hand. “It looks like a bitty chip, doesn’t it? Why on earth would that be in my shoulder?”
“Perhaps your parents had you tagged when you were a small child, to insure a measure of protection against kidnaping.”
“It evidently is the usual practice with children. I was talking to a pediatrician at lunch the other day. He said he had tagged six babies that morning.” Dr. O’Reilly shrugged. “Not being in pediatrics, I wasn’t aware of the practice.” He started to throw the chip in the hazardous waste container and then stopped. “Do you want this thing? It could be an interesting souvenir.”
“Sure. I’ll ask my parents about it. It’s nice that they may have wanted to keep me safe. I could have it mounted. It’ll be a conversation starter. Goodness knows I could use one.” I knew my face had become red because I could feel my cheeks grow hot. My books called it blushing.
Dr. O’Reilly cleaned the chip quickly and wrapped it in a clean tissue. “There you are, My Lady.” He bowed slightly.
Few people addressed me as Lady Applewait. Silas had. Most people, however, didn’t speak to me at all. It was illegal to intrude on the privacy of the Council of Elders and those, like me, who would ascend to that position. I put the tiny piece in my tunic pocket. “Now, what is this about my age?”
“Oh yes,” Dr. O’Reilly remembered. “None of us in this practice has treated a Council member before, but bulletins have come through regularly to remind us of the protocol. When Legacy members turn twenty-four, they are to begin a regimen of fresh water, eight glasses a day. Since we have additives in our water system, to purify it and to add necessary nutrients, you are to begin diluting your water supply, flushing out the additives. It seems that Legacy Citizens are not to ingest chemicals of any kind and the little pills will turn your tumbler full into fresh water.”
“How?” I asked. “I was never told about this.” It all seemed incredible to me. With all the books I have read, I should have read something about diluting the water.
“With every glass of water, you must drop in a highly soluble tablet. This is a fairly new process. It was only begun a few years ago.” The doctor went to the cabinet and unlocked a small compartment. “Once the pills are started, you are to get them from the same source, so there is a clear record of your taking them. You will need to come back to see me for refills. They are tiny, so there are a lot in each package.” Dr. O’Reilly handed me a small paper envelope full of infinitely small, white tablets.
“What is this all about?” I was beginning to wonder if I had reason to mistrust the doctor.
“As I said, the practice is rather new to this office. I’ve heard not everyone agrees with the policy. Alister Bedlam is not in favor of the detoxification process.”
“Alister Bedlam—the wealthy man who thinks he’s the Master of the Universe? How is he involved in all of this?” I was confused. Bedlam was neither Legacy nor a governmental official.
“It is my understanding Alister Bedlam is not in favor of the detoxification process for anyone. So far, his protests have been over ruled by the Council of Elders.” The doctor patted my arm.
“Bedlam is always behind the scenes, pulling the strings. That’s what great wealth can do for those who are power hungry. At least, that’s what I’ve heard from my grandparents. Bedlam may be the richest man in the world but he isn’t Legacy.”
“Apparently, the Council of Elders wants to insure that none of the side effects of the additives in the water we all are supposed to drink, affect your body. The Legacy Citizens of your parents’ generation began the detox process about four years ago. Even I . . .” Dr. O’Reilly stopped abruptly, then continued. “Bedlam wants everyone to continue with the chemicals, the water additives. He says it is a fair and equal treatment. Up until now, the Council’s support of the detoxification program has kept it going.” Again, he put his finger to his lips. “Just make sure you put a pill in every glass of water.”
I knew the gesture meant that the tablets were important. While I may not have known why I needed to take them, I would follow the doctor’s orders. There was something about his manner that caused me to sense the seriousness of the tablets.
“Nurse Dahlia will check you out,” Dr. O’Reilly instructed. Then, he tapped his watch and pointed his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the shops.
I didn’t hesitate. I returned the gesture with a nod and a smile.
Before I had time to hop down from the table, Dahlia breezed back in the room. “Here, My Lady, drop one of those tablets in this glass of water before you leave. We are supposed to make sure you begin detoxification immediately.” She handed me the glass and added, “Drink all of it. The full effects of the pills build up quickly. You will soon reach the therapeutic level. And, make sure you take them regularly. There can be no drug holidays with these pills. The full detoxification process takes time, so drink it all.”