I wrote this for a competition. It’s not the best (I wrote it very late at night), so it won’t win, but I enjoyed writing it, so whatever. Enjoy.
Ben decided to visit London. He hadn’t been back for a long time. Everybody had an opinion about London where he was from. His city had long since solved problems caused by generations of environmental abuse with technology and ideals of fairness and hard work. But London was trailing behind, and Ben was ashamed. On the day he was due to leave, he quickly packed a bag full of recording equipment and a few supplies, and rushed to catch the only public transport of the day.
The softly curved train edged smoothly through the countryside, liked a perfectly compacted globule of food travelling down a gullet. Ben felt himself drifting in and out of sleep, lulled by the gentle hum of halogen lights (eco-friendly, of course). There were relatively few people on this train; after all, who would have much cause to go anywhere else?
When he placed his first foot on London soil, he felt ill. The air was choking. It spoke of the unspoken, of the secret systems in this city that no one wanted you to find out about. The sun hung low in the sky, despite the early time, caressed by plumes of green smog. Shielding his eyes, Ben angled his head so he could gaze, awestruck, at the impossibly large structures cluttering the skyline. To see them in the flesh was something else. The very idea of living in such a behemoth, crammed into a sleek soulless mass, made him shudder. Back home, he had a modest dwelling of his own – light, airy and full of greenery. But London’s past flamboyances meant that its current people had to make do with the austere. Red and purple lights danced in front of his eyes, staccato and glorious. He could see traffic; he could see into peoples windows, lit by neon lights.
He’d been standing still too long; someone’s backpack hit him in the face, and so it was time to move on.
He took a paper-thin piece of plastic out of his bag and unfurled it, revealing a touch-screen. Flat, malleable, waterproof; those extra millimetres less of thickness made all the difference. Ben had studied history at University, and he had marvelled at the clunky electronic music and communication devices of the 2010’s. His fingers danced over the display; from here, you could organize your whole life. From the palm of your hand, you could talk to anyone, and ask permission to gain access to their thoughts; take a photograph of anything in the world via GPS and the security cameras which captured every second and every inch of life on this doomed planet; he could order a can of liquid food, he could apply to be president, he could stream any media for free. After all, what were words and pictures and music but meaningless luxuries? Ben found it hard to believe that people used to pay for those things. Sleep, food, happiness…those were the things worth paying for.
Ben brought up a map on his organiser. He still knew one person living here; everyone else had left, or else sadly died. He’d heard that the gap between men and women had slid ever wider and women effectively ruled the city; odd when where he lived was (some might say violently) egalitarian. Men, women and children- equal powers, equal burdens. The person he knew (Semya, her name was) sent him a pass code to scan so he could get into her house. He made his way through the street, which was deserted. The only real noise he heard as he got closer to where she lived was a faint hum, the source of which Ben couldn’t put his finger on. When he reached Semya’s building, he touched his phone against the scanner just above the door handle so he could enter. The building was a vast white entity, peppered with round windows. It looked smooth and clean to the touch. The halls were dark inside.
Eventually, he reached her compartment. Again, he touched his phone to a sensor, and the door slid open. The room was pulsating with a faint purple glow. Ben held out his hands in front of him. This lighting made his skin look drained, as if to remind him that these were the twilight years of the Earth’s existence, and you must be frugal and restrained. There was a gentle whooshing sound. A door to Ben’s left slid open, and Semya appeared. Her hair was cropped and blonde, and her eyes blazed, looking more green than usual in the dim light.
“Hi Ben” she said, quietly.
Ben nodded. “It’s good to see you again. Nice place.”
Semya laughed. “Nice? It’s just a regulation home. Most people’s interiors look like this. You know, to make sure the city’s space and resources are spread out equally.”
And it did look like a regulation home. As Semya showed him around, he noted that every room looked more or less the same. A square box, with shiny white translucent walls through which a gentle purple haze glowed. All the same size and shape, all mostly empty. Quite depressing.
Semya showed him into the final room. This room was different. The same omnipresent glow was there. But there were red rugs on the floor (or at least they appeared red in the dim light), and there were a few couches scattered about, upon which lay three men, dressed in white, and expressionless. Semya didn’t acknowledge them as they entered. She just walked over to a small round window and yanked it open. The men hadn’t moved.
Ben sidled up to Semya.
“Who are these men?”
“Don’t you know anything, Ben? Every woman has at least one.”
“One what? One…boyfriend?”
She smiled. He eyes became distant. “They…work for me, if you like. We have a more sophisticated societal system here, Ben. And it works.”
One of the men ran a hand through his elbow length hair. Ben bristled.
Semya continued. “After…you know, after 2013…”
Ben nodded sagely. No one liked to speak too explicitly about how close the world was once from ending.
“Well, we started over. Men had messed the world up; the consensus was that women would try to fix it. So that is what we are doing. We’re strategists now, we’re leaders. We have to be strong; we’re preparing for the next generation after all, and they could be this planet’s last, so they need to be ready for what comes. This is not to say that men aren’t useful…”
She threw a caring smile at one of the men. “You must look quite strange to them. With your…”
She reached out and stroked Ben’s face. “…Your beard and your short hair. And those arms…those aren’t the arms of a man who stays in and looks after his female…”
Ben gently removed her hand and her eyes flashed. “What media frequencies do you get on your home projector?”
Semya pressed a button on the wall and a huge rectangular square buzzed into life on an opposite wall. The men sat up on their couches. She gently moved her finger from side to side in the air in front of her to change the images on the screen. Visions of female army camps, a female mayor, and men prancing, marching, and cooking flashed before Ben’s eyes.
“Just the standard London Channels really. 24hr Panic report…the usual.”
Ben nodded. Suddenly, a high pitched whine filled the room.
Semya grimaced. “Power-out time. Everyone has to go to sleep while the power in London goes out for an hour. Necessary but annoying. You might as well go; I have nothing for you to sleep on.”
“Where should I go?”
“Well, if you really want a big story…I shouldn’t really be directing you to this; it’s not something we really talk about. God knows what goes on down there, but we all know it’s bad.”
Ben started to get excited. He thought he knew where this was going. “Are you talking about London Marshes?”
She gave him directions, and Ben set off, leaving Semya to her government-enforced sleep.
To get to the Marshes, he had to leave the safety of the straight, orange-tarmacked roads of the city centre, and follow rudimentary paths through vast areas of overgrown weeds. The ground sloped steadily downwards, and the waist high foliage stopped Ben from seeing what lay ahead, so he was filled with a rising sense of dread. The further he went, the more humid it became, and he found himself jumping over dank pools of brown steaming liquid, and the air was thick with smells that made Ben wish he didn’t have to breathe.
He checked his organiser. He’s gone as far west as he could. This was it. He rushed forwards, and parted the last bit of long grass. Looking down, he could see spread out ahead of him vast valleys of mud, tangled weeds, and what looked like the remains of concrete buildings. An area of London left for dead. The expanse of land looked disgusting, looked rotten. He couldn’t see a soul, although he had heard that people lived in the remnant structures dotted about, living a short, meaningless existence, rendered such by a lack of money, by discrimination, and by bad luck. A feral underclass lived among the squalor. If he could be the one to speak to them, to get the story straight from their mouths, then maybe he could stop being a freelance journalist and finally get a permanent post, and make enough money to be able to afford euphoria.
Trembling, Ben began his descent into the marshes. His city shoes weren’t made for this rough terrain. He was used to smooth, regulated and characterless, in every area of his life. This was something else. At least he wasn’t a Londoner. He felt scornful of those pampered males. Their slim, sinewy arms would be useless here; their manicured nails couldn’t grip rock like Ben’s could. Eventually, he was on the floor of the valley, and already filthy. How could people live like this? He stared longingly back at the smooth, efficient white blocks, jutting proudly across the skyline, humming gently with power. Swallowing terror and nausea, he edged forward, tentatively taking pictures with the equipment he had brought with him. A loud, indiscernible noise jolted him out of his investigative haze; he dropped his recording equipment into the mud. Damn.
A pair of watery eyes appeared, and met Ben’s. His breathing shallow and fast, he managed to splutter, “Who’s there?” He briefly wondered if he was going to die. A woman stood before him, unlike any of the muscular creatures in the city. Her hair was brown and matted, not cropped and dyed blonde. She was thin, pale, and wore wore brown, not white. They had a brief stand-off. Each gazed in an accusatory way at the other, fists raised, shoulders hunched. Ben imagined his friends back home. They would have been shocked to find such base behaviour coming from him, but something in his surroundings made him feel on edge, more emotional, more animalistic, and he mirrored this strange woman’s body language. He felt something he hadn’t felt in a while-instinct. Eventually, the woman lowered her hands and came closer. Ben did the same.
“What are you doing here? Are you from up there?” The woman pointed a shaking finger over the hills, towards the geometric cityscape in the distance.
Ben shook his head. “I’m not from around here. I’m here to do research. For myself, no-one else. I’m not here to do you any harm.”
The woman frowned slightly, and then held out a hand. Ben shook it, embarrassed that he was shocked to find the woman so polite and civilized. He smiled weakly at her.
“So, you want to see how we live? How the poor and marginalised live? We’ll be the first to go when it all goes wrong, you know. The city doesn’t care. No one will protect us. We’re not part of the power sharing schemes, the housing contracts, the safety schemes. We’re invisible.”
Ben involuntarily found himself wanting to cry. “All of this just goes against the ethos of where I’m from. The whole of society is supposed to be protected and furthered, not just some.”
The woman shrugged. “Well, tell that to the Mayor. They call us savage because we refuse to live by their rules. They want us to cut our hair, to emasculate our men. Well, no. We have pride. Its one thing to share, and be one big community acting as one. It’s another to strip people of their identity.”
“So this is self-imposed exile, then?” Ben had said the wrong thing
“What do you think?” she spat back, angrily. She turned away, as if to leave.
“Wait!” Ben called.
“Follow me then.”
He watched as she ran up to what appeared to be a toxic green lake, but was shocked to watch her run across it. As he approached it, he could see it was so thick it was almost solid, and it smelled vile. He took a deep breath, and then launched himself on to it. He was surprised to find it bounced. It was like running on a viscous, undulating jelly. When he reached the other side, panting and still in shock, the woman was staring sadly out over the toxic lake.
“We’re a reminder of Earth’s past, that’s why they don’t like to think about us. The only part of London that isn’t whiter than white, eco-friendly, chemical free. But what they don’t realise is that their efficient, emission free existence is a house of cards, the planet is still dying, and here’s the proof.” She gestured around her. “They dump their waste here, they use us as scapegoats, but the problems still exist, believe me, and this wasteland won’t stay confined forever, it will spread.”
Ben heart began to race. “What can be done?”“Nothing. It will all end up like this eventually. Guess how old I am?”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Um…40, maybe?”
“20. Most of us die at 25.”
“Why won’t people help you?”
“Less people to save, less mouths to feed, less power usage. It can only be a good thing” she said, bitterly.
“I’m going to write an article about this. I’m going to make people see. If Londoners don’t care, the people in my city will.”
The look on the woman’s face made Ben feel naïve, like a small child trying to stop a nuclear war with foolish ideals about peace.
“You can try. Do what you like. It won’t make any difference. Look around you. Who’s going to clean this up? Best keep the dust under the carpet. Now go, foreigner. Stop pulling back the rug, you don’t want to see what’s really underneath.” And she was gone.
Ben was already busy doing background checks on her as he followed his GPS out of the Marshes. But, unlike other people who you could track using an organiser, he couldn’t get a name for her. Just a number and a face. No history, no information. She was invisible.
Ben ached inside. This was so unfair. But what could be done? No leaders would be willing to challenge the status quo at the expense of introducing more power leeches, more resource-users, more people into society. People hardly had children anymore; in fact the idea of having even a nuclear, two-child family seemed quaint. This was 2025, not 2005. Ben shook his head. So much could change in so little time. The sun plunged into the Marshes, and it was night. He looked back; the sky was ethereal, greenish. Organiser in hand, he set about writing an article about this woman and her plight. But, as he approached his city of birth once more, he paused, and felt helpless, dwarfed and drowned by a wall of steely indifference, of compliance, of emotionlessness. The white, aesthetically pleasing buildings became ugly in his head.
What was the point?