By Hana Isphani
20th May 2022
This story was awarded third place in our spring sci-fi short story competition.
“Evolve,” they pleaded, yet we refused. “Join your kin. In place of dunes, we have steel mountains powering our livelihood, we cure illnesses with knowledge backed by centuries of collaboration.”
“We, too, heal our own using centuries of experience,” we replied. “And though our methods may not match your own, we’re free to live as we wish, untethered by the strings of your forced evolution.”
They laughed amongst themselves, mocking our accents, calling our consonants aggressive, primitive even. Soon after, they boarded the strange vehicle that soared through the cloudless sky faster than an eagle in pursuit of prey, disappearing into horizons we knew little of. Sand whirled around us until the children choked, unable to weep away the grains that clogged their eyes.
The silence returned, the one we prayed to on frigid nights as we nestled close, grateful for its mercy in a world of ceaseless din.
“Isolation is our freedom,” we chanted, the sun’s departure plunging us under an ebony blanket. “Connection is a chain that forever binds its prisoners.”
My eyes opened to birds singing against a shifting cyan sky adorned with pearls of clouds. The display followed a pattern; three clouds passed then the chirps of sparrows, two larger clouds then a robin.
Closing my eyes, I sought a forsaken human fatigue, a desire to beg the elders for more time before the day’s work began. No matter how far I dug, there was only the programme driving me on, my eyelids projecting bombarding reminders.
“DRESS INTO UNIFORM – 10 SECONDS BEHIND SCHEDULE.”
Groaning, I sat up, watching the bed’s drawer open to reveal a white shirt and grey trousers, perfectly ironed by machines while I had been sleeping. They were deprived of my people’s indigo hues, lacking the wear my robes once carried. Changing into them and tying my hair into the required bun, my face felt bare; though weeks had passed, I missed my veil’s soft embrace. When stolen away, I was denied the privileges my people prided ourselves over most: our privacy from the rest of the world and rights over our bodies.
“FILE INTO CORRIDOR – 30 SECONDS BEHIND SCHEDULE.”
I still remember the burning sands against my feet, the stranger’s warm smile as she placed a plaster over my blisters. She handed me a small, white object, telling me that one swallow would take away my pain. I never understood why my father then grabbed it from me, casting it away and berating the woman for interfering with our ways.
The artificial sky continued above as I entered the corridor beyond my room, hundreds ahead of me taking rhythmical steps as duties were announced.
“Khadija Al-Bashir.” No matter how advanced technology became, the automated voice remained stilted as it pronounced my name, emphasising the wrong syllables. “Weather duty. Report to Room 596.”
The sea of identical hairstyles began to ripple as people hastened to their allocations, whispers exchanged before sharp cries of pain echoed amongst pounding footsteps.
“No talking permitted outside work demands until lunch,” the voice announced as I boarded the travelator to Room 596. “To remind you of this, a small shock will be administered at the nape of your neck should this rule be broken. This is for your own benefit – productive completion of work leads to greater dopamine releases. We work for long-term benefits, not passing pleasures.”
“1 minute late,” John sneered before wincing, rubbing his neck as I entered. His blonde hair shone before a vast window, one of our few sources of natural light. Pressing a hand against the warm glass, I smiled at the green shoots bursting through the fields beyond.
“Ten minutes of rainfall to begin with,” he announced.
“This isn’t right,” I whispered, gazing at my faint reflection. I didn’t flinch as the shock came; I had long become used to them. “The weather used to master us – some beasts aren’t meant to be tamed.”
“It’s evolution!” John ambled over to the control panel on the other side of the room, its whirring grating against my ears as flashing buttons depicted various weather states. “Climate change almost meant our end, but now – controlling the weather – that makes us like the gods people once worshipped!”
“Were those gods bound by the whims of a greater authority?” I replied. “Were they punished for doing as they pleased?”
My legs gave way, my arms stiffening as I collapsed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move, my heart and breathing stimulated to slow.
“REFERRAL TO EDUCATIONAL REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS.”
As my eyes closed, the world briefly stilled around me. Once again, I found a cradling silence, its heaviness weeping as though a mother’s lost infant was returned to her.
“Isolation is our freedom,” I thought, darkness enveloping me. “Connected, I’ve become a prisoner.”