by Stephen Sottong
The guard led me down a narrow path between a series of anonymous, razor-wire-topped chain-link cages until, somehow, he knew the one that was mine. The cage was a three-meter square with a concrete floor sloping to a hole in one corner large enough to function for sanitary needs — if one could function in the total lack of privacy. The hole stank of previous use. The guard pushed me inside — not roughly but decisively. I made no protest, too drained to care. My family and my life’s work were gone. The irony struck me — I was a historian and now my life was merely history.
I sat on the cold concrete, waiting, dozing only to be awakened randomly by screams, or a single gunshot, or guards taking prisoners away.
The sun was barely high enough to shine into my cage when the gate opened and a boy of about eight was thrust in. He stood there, small, thin, dressed in old but serviceable clothes, shivering, although this winter morning was not particularly cool courtesy of the warming that had caused this chaos. The boy and I stared at each other. He was about the same age my son would have been. Patting the concrete next to me, I made room for him. He sat, leaving a gap between us, and continued shivering. I lifted my arm, offering to put it around him. He hesitated and, when a gunshot rang out, finally leaned into me.
We sat, waiting, not speaking, perhaps afraid to interact in this perverse place.
Half an hour later, a guard came around, opened the gate and handed me a small loaf of bread. I took it. It was still warm. Its heady scent masked the stench of filth and decay around me. I wanted to tear into the bread, ravenous, but, instead, moved it to the hand still around the boy, broke the loaf in two and gave the larger piece to him. The guard watched this tableau and left.
We ate. I wished I had water.
The sun rose, baking the concrete expanse. By the time it was too warm for me to have an arm around him, two guards arrived. We got up, me stiffly after sitting on the still cold concrete. The boy offered me his hand and helped me up. A woman took the boy, and a man marched me down the long rows of cells with their seated occupants, some silent, some weeping. I trembled in spite of the heat contemplating what awaited me.
The guard escorted me to a building. At the entrance, he presented me with a bag. Inside were my notebooks. Here rested the sum total of my worthless, lifelong pursuit of the past, preserved on the one media that could survive the disruptions of these times – ink on paper. I held the bag closer than I had the boy, afraid that both I and my life’s work might be destroyed at any moment. The guard deposited me in a room with two chairs, one in front and one behind a desk.
I sat, waiting, clutching the bag.
Two guards entered through a side door and examined the room. A uniformed man followed. When I finally recognized the man was The Leader, I was too surprised to react. The guards on either side of him precluded an assassination attempt — not that I had the energy or will to try.
“Don’t get up,” The Leader said and took the seat behind the desk. He looked older than his years, military hat low over his eyes, uniform faded. The scar running the length of his right cheek appeared even redder and more ragged than in his pictures. “Feel free to take notes,” he continued.
In spite of my shock, I managed to pull out one of the notebooks and found a pen at the bottom of the bag.
He sat back in the chair, steel-gray eyes focused on me, “I read in your journals how you’ve documented the warming climate and loss of prime land with sea level rise. So you realize that means current population levels can’t be sustained. I feel I’ve been tasked to ensure that whatever part of humanity,” he stared directly at me, eyes stern but sad, “if any, that survives will be the best possible. Without intervention, the strongest and cruelest tend to survive. I’m trying to preclude that by testing for empathy and altruism. Congratulations. You passed the test. Had you not shared the bread with the boy, you would have been culled from the survivor stock.”
My hand trembled, but my fingers somehow transcribed his words.
“So, I have an offer for you. You’re a historian. I want an honest, factual account of events. I know I’ll come off as one of the monsters of history. I don’t want you to sugarcoat the facts, just be open-minded. If you accept, you’ll be assigned a place where you can observe and record these crucial times.” He leaned forward, arms on the desk. “Understand, you will likely be considered complicit and your observations suspect.” He paused, still staring at me. “Will you take the position?”
My life was history. How could I refuse such a vantage to record it? “Yes.”
He rose. “Good. You’ll be taken to a room where you can rest and clean up.” With that, he and the guards departed, leaving me, for brief seconds, alone, rooted to my chair in shock.
A guard eventually escorted me out of the building, past only empty cages — perhaps fearing I’d give away the secret to survival. He made no attempt to restrain me and seemed more guide than minder.
We had nearly reached the gate of the facility when we passed an enclosure where boys of perhaps six to thirteen were kept. The one who’d been my companion pushed his way through the milling group to the chain link. I stopped. He stared at me, wide-eyed, clutching the wires. We held each others gaze. The guard made no attempt to move me along.
I queried the matron, pointing to the boy. “Does he have family?”
She shook her head. “All dead.”
The longer I looked at the boy, the more he resembled my own — before the plague took him. “I’ll take him.”
She frowned and turned to my guard who pulled out his radio, spoke briefly into it and then shrugged at the matron. She beckoned the boy to the gate, releasing him to me.
Notebooks under one arm, boy under the other, we walked toward our escape, exchanging glances, evaluating each other. With all we’d both lost, we could do worse.
Stephen Sottong lives in beautiful northern California behind the Redwood Curtain. He is a 2013 winner of Writers of the Future and has been published in several journals and websites. A full list is on his website: stephensottong.com.