In a dark, cold courtroom five judges sat behind five raised desks, draped in shadows. One of the judges, a black woman called Cafferty, yawned behind clenched fist. Another judge, called the Moderator, shot her a glance. And his look hung in the air long after he had turned, reminding Cafferty, and all the judges, the seriousness of this occasion. A man’s life was on the line.
That man, John Park stood before them, flanked on either side by paintings of banal park scenes. Happy families. Fake smiles. He too faked a grin, etching his sickly pale skin into unnatural creases. His desperation fit him more snugly than his sweat stained business suit.
“I’ve taken up painting this year. I think these show my progress,” John said nervously. Every year he went before the council and every year he grew more nervous.
The Moderator’s gaze rose from the paintings to the holoscreen illuminated above John, displaying his various social media feeds. Above John, hanging in the air, were images from his year, each with reaction icons at the bottom and numbers beside them to denote the frequency of that reaction. An image of John in painting class, struggling to hold the brush. John at a party, standing awkwardly beside a table of booze. And John, asleep at his cubicle, which earned the most reactions, thumbs up and frowns. The sad collage of a sad man, bathing him in fluorescents that only made his pale skin shine all the more unhealthy.
“We reviewed your feeds, Mr. Park. No new relationships, promotions, or any meaningful life events at all this year?” the Moderator said with calm certainty.
John fidgeted, his sweat stains slowly growing with the inevitability of a dying star. He had, by this point, become sure they noticed his sweat, his fear. Still John tried. That was what John always did, no matter how poor the result.
“But I’ve taken up new hobbies, you see. And I took another writing class,” John said with a smile that grew bigger the more his balls shrank. The smile, evolution’s answer to the white flag.
The painting beside John, a father and son flying a kite, had the appearance of paint upon paint. Mistakes attempting to be hidden. And father and son both wearing the disturbing smiles that had become John’s trademark.
Cafferty swiped a multi-touch interface holoscreen floating in front of her, confirming what she already knew.
“Your third year in that class and you still haven’t been published?” Cafferty said.
John knew he was blowing it and felt his intestines coiling around themselves, constricting, like Ouroboros the self-cannibalizing snake. He took a step forward and two large bailiffs, having previously belonging to the shadows, emerged behind him.
“My father died in March.” John said, with uncertainty in his voice. “Aren’t I granted a bereavement period?”
The Moderator’s carbon blue eyes could have reflected sympathy or boredom or suspicion. Such was the Moderator that, since birth, none could name an emotion on his unwavering face. The Moderator could bluff the devil in a card game with his soul as the ante.
“We had to terminate that policy,” the Moderator said. “Too many people were murdering their loved ones to stay in the Collective.”
On the large holoscreen above John the collage of his years continued to cycle past. Images of John in archery practice. John playing the flute. John whittling wood. A virtual kaleidoscope of sadness.
“You’re a hobbyist, Mr. Park. Every year you pad your feed with silly diversions to give the illusion of life events. You only added what…” the Moderator looked to Cafferty, who swiped across her touch screen to posit an answer to the unasked question.
“Sixteen adds,” Cafferty said.
“Sixteen friends this year, Mr. Park? That’s almost as many people as you were defriended by this year,” said the Moderator.
“I was going to take a sport but I read everyone was doing tennis this year, so I thought art…” John muttered, more to himself than the room.
The bailiffs took a step closer, flanking John. Suddenly aware of their presence he felt the walls closing in. The sweat grew, the star shrank.
“I know that article. Everyone read it. We had a decrease in people claiming tennis as a new hobby. I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve told them, we have limited resources in the Collective. Anyone who doesn’t post significant life events each year has no place here,” the Moderator said.
The last words of the Moderator echoed like a familiar chorus in John’s mind. Everyone in the Collective knew the motto. John could focus on little else but his suit, now clinging to him like a second skin in need of shedding. And John, feeling the warm, stale breath of the bailiffs, finally, mercifully, snapped. The star exploded. John bolted forward, turning over the witness podium. A vibrant, flashing red light emanated above them and hitch pitched alarm sounded. The council members sprung to their feet. Even the Moderator, for the briefest of moments, registered some concern in his glacial eyes. And like a gnat startling a bear, drove his eyes to anger.
“Don’t send me into the Wasteland! Please! I beg you!” John screamed with a passion unfamiliar to him. For the first time in years he was saying something he unashamedly believed. Ouroboros squeezed tight in his gut. The bailiffs reached him just as he made it to the Moderator’s raised desk.
“I have friends who get married one year, just to divorce the next. And all to fool you with phony life events. They add friends they never met. They buy houses they can’t afford, adopt pets, join clubs just for the post! You must see that?!” John seethed at the unrelenting bullshit of it all. They’re hamsters on a wheel! Do you hear me? Hamsters on a wheel!” John seethed. A man reborn of purpose. A man condemned.
The Moderator stayed standing as the bailiffs dragged John from the darkened room and slammed his gavel without anger. The dull thud echoed through the once still courtroom.
“At least they’re moving, Mr. Park,” the Moderator said with calm disdain. “The council finds you are not living your life to it’s potential and must be purged.”
The four other judges slammed their gavels in unison, seconding that verdict. The Moderator looked to Cafferty. She was glad to meet his gaze, to show she was not frightened. He gestured to the holoscreen hovering above the witness podium.
“Call in the next one, please.”
On a warm summer day the Moderator and Cafferty waited in a well-tended park. They dressed more casually than in the courtroom, both in sunglasses, and in this Cafferty noticed the Moderator was quite younger than she realized. Her admiration for him swelled in time with her envy. For the Moderator’s part, he was, as always, calm. The warmth did not disturb him. Indeed little did.
John approached in dark clothes, wearing a backpack, and escorted by two armed guards. The guards wore sunglasses, John did not. His head cast down, the last forty-eight hours had been a nightmare for John. He had to give away his belongings. His cat turned out to be the hardest belonging to part with and to find a home. Clothes and cooking devices that could easily be tossed out without much thought but his cat needed a proper home. The few hundred friends on his social feeds had de-friended him quickly after word spread of his exile. The cat would fend for itself on the streets of the Collective, just as John would fend for himself in the Wastelands. The cat had the better end of the arrangement. It seemed to John unfair, after all what great accomplishments had the cat made? All it had was a name, which John provided. Now John would be gone and the cat had no name. Life events can be revoked, everyone knew that.
“It still shocks me that people would rather die than live a meaningful life,” the Moderator said with genuine wonder in his voice, like a pathologist diagnosing a strange new disease mutation. Cafferty stood in silence for a moment, puzzling over the Moderator’s words, before realizing she might offer some affirmation.
“I only wish we had learned this secret to Utopia before destroying half our world,” she said. She didn’t even know if that was appropriate for the situation.
John found himself envying his cat when he reached the judges. They parted for him and a wall covered in ivy cracked open. As it rolled apart the vines tore and light spilled in. The light seemed harsher than John had ever known in his life under the dome. As John shielded his eyes he felt something gently thrust into his hands. The Moderator was handing him a black book, a pencil strapped to the spine.
“Die well, John Park.”
John took the book and ventured through the opening in the wall.
Cafferty leaned to the Moderator and whispered, “What’d you give him?”
“A journal. He liked to write. Maybe in death he’ll find the meaning his life lacked.”
Cafferty observed the Moderator as the walls slid closed and the light between them dwindled to nothing. She struggled to reason if the Moderator had intended the gift as a mercy or a sick joke. Before reaching any conclusion the Moderator removed his sunglasses and turned back into the park. The armed guards followed him and a familiar shiver crept up Cafferty’s spine, being so close to the Wastelands, tasting that tainted and stale air. At once she forgot about the journal and its doomed owner and remembered her feed. She needed to get posting.
John only looked back at the Collective only once, when his feet felt like swollen slabs. Even from a distance it looked massive. An unending wall, capped by a nearly translucent dome, and all around it a bitter desert, choked of life and hope. John slipped into his backpack for his water bottle. He meant to take only a sip but drank nearly a quarter of it. The sweats had already begun. John turned back to the white horizon and marched on.
“Day 9,” was scribbled on John’s journal page. “Water rations are gone. The desert is endless. I’ve come to wonder if the Moderator gave me this pencil to impale myself because he appreciates irony. Holed up in my comfortable apartment writing stories no one wants to read, now the instrument that brought me here becomes both my figurative and literal end.”
John transformed his shirt into a headband and continued to trudge through the sand. Frail and sickly, his death seemed imminent.
“Day 21,” read the scribbles, “All my hobbies seem to come in handy.”
John was shirtless, his pale skin darkened, he sat whittling a stick beside a stream. His once nervous smile replaced by steely, tightlipped determination.
“Day 45, radiation levels must be low. Flora and fauna are thriving.”
John, broad-chested and beard full, fired an arrow at a fleeing deer.
The last rays of the sun filtered through the trees, insects and birds sang, and all was calm. John lounged beside a small campfire under a thick tree. Dressed in animal fur he looked like a creature of the forest. The remaining nub of a pencil in his hands. He rested his head against the tree trunk and drifted to sleep. A peaceful smile etched upon his face. Ouroboros loosened. The star blazed.
Scribbled on the last page of John’s journal, “I’ve lost track of the days. The Moderator must know the truth of the Wastelands. What a poor name for it. Far from a waste, I’ve found what I’ve always desired most, an uneventful life.”