“No! Mum! Why?!”
I wake up, thrashing, ripping the covers that have entwined themselves around my neck. It was just a dream, this time. I can still feel the phantom touch of her failing grip on mine; the passing of time has worn away her face from my memory but never those last few seconds of her desperate fight to keep holding on.
I sigh and pull my legs from my bed one by one, setting them on the ground with a heavy thud, thud. For what feels like the hundredth time this week I slide a stiff twig down the inside of the boots and scratch my thin ankles, not even reveling in the satisfying scrape of wood on skin any more. Hearing a small snap, I gingerly pull the stick out and check it is still in one piece. It is. The relief I feel is greater than that of the lack of itching in these godforsaken new boots.
You see, we can’t die, but there are worse things than death.
In the Long Ago, there was a man named Nicholas Flamel who, it is said, created eternal life. Rumors say Flamel regretted his creation as he saw how it could tempt those with impure hearts and knew it would corrupt the world. Tried as he may, he couldn’t destroy the Philospher’s Stone, so he hid it in a secret location, which he took to his grave with him. Now, as we all know, a secret is never always secret, and the Stone was eventually found and turned into a government issued substance called “Life”. Once taken, it would halt the users age at the time of taking it, as long as they had completed puberty. It seemed like this was the answer to all our problems – disease, famine, violence and time could no longer kill us. We were immortal and unstoppable.
As time grew on, and we stopped dying, we discovered a terrible side effect to this “gift” – one that we should have realised but didn’t. Once we’d ingested Life, it fused itself to our DNA and was subsequently passed on to our offspring, providing them with Life, from birth. Our world began to rapidly over-populate. Laws were brought in to stop us from having more than one child, but not soon enough. It was spiraling out of control faster than we could handle and we didn’t have the space left on Earth to hold us all, and we also didn’t yet have the technology to travel to space looking for a new home. Soon enough, the peace we had enjoyed for a while came to an end and the world was at war again. We gave up naming the wars after World War VII, instead just naming it War.
You may wonder what all this has got to do with me worrying about a stupid broken stick. I’ll tell you.
Last week Jenny Launds scratched a little too vigorously and broke the sharp end of a stick off in her boots. Over time, this splinter embedded itself in her leg and caused a vicious infection, leading to amputation. As her fever got worse, we all started saying goodbye to her in our heads. It would be easier if we just phased her out. I loved Jenny like an older sister. She would braid my hair for me and scrub my back when I needed her to. We’d sing together and play tic-tac-toe. One day she was showing me how to arrange rocks in whorls and swirls to make a pretty pattern, and then she was fading before my eyes, soon to be gone to the Shelf.
By the time War had started, we had run out of ideas on how to hurt each other. Bio-warfare did nothing as we were immune. We had wrecked our lands with bombs, napalm and terrorism. Hunger was at an all-time high due to lack of food. But we still needed a way to curb our population problem and of course, stay at War. We knew no other way of life any more.
This was when Jack the Ripper came out of his hellhole and provided us with a solution. He had taken to experimenting on homeless Lifers – snapping bones and healing them in odd positions, tying them up in the deep cold and sweltering heat, dressing them in lead armor and forcing them to work on farms and in factories – he said it was for science, but these were the machinations of a madman. One day he realised that we were not immune to infection, and therefore, amputation; we could have a limb here and there removed and live fine, if a bit hampered. He also discovered that if you removed everything except the head, we would survive and the rest of the carcass could be disposed of. We could then be placed on a shelf, taking up less space and less resources and still technically “live”.
The United Front deemed this as a solution to our overcrowding problem, not the ravings of a psychopath, and set to work implementing the process known as Shelving. Originally, this was meant to be a short-term remedy until we could colonise other planets and create some sort of cybernetic body for all those that had been Shelved, but the War saw to it that that may not happen for another hundred “generations”. Now, it has been turned into a lucrative business strategy, with different plans for people from every walk of life. The Upper Classes have Upper-scale digs where they can be ferried about and still socialise, eat, drink and be merry with other Upper Class residents. I’ll leave it to your imagine what the lower down classes get and then remind you that those are the lucky ones.
I’m not an Upper. I’m not a Middler. I’m not even a Lower.
I was Removed from my family when I was a child. Child Number Two, to be exact. As were all of us at Camp Number Two. And here we are, avoiding all reasons to be amputated so we don’t get sent to Shelf Number Two, where Lifers are sent to spend their time in a sound-proof, frosted-glass container. Alive, but with no stimulation, no companionship and no senses, slowly being driven mad by the gift of Life. Why give us any luxury when we aren’t even meant to be alive? This truly was a fate worse than the gift we all truly wished for – Death.
So here I sit, carefully scratching at the lice bites underneath my lead clothing, before my shift at the Ripper Factory of Camp Number Two starts, praying I don’t get an infection.
Please find the original prompt and other submissions here, on Reddit.