by Don Tassone
I woke up. I couldn’t speak or see. But I could hear a woman’s voice.
“Mr. Douglas. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I mumbled, barely able to move my lips.
I heard someone gasp.
“Mr. Douglas. Can you open your eyes?”
My eyelids felt like sand bags. But I wanted to see. Raising my eyebrows, with all the strength I had in the muscles of my forehead, I slowly opened my eyes.
In the dim light, I could see two women, dressed in white, looking down at me. I was lying in bed, and they were standing at my sides.
“Mr. Douglas,” said the one on the left. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said, more clearly this time. “And I can see you now too.”
The two women looked at each other, as if they were not sure what to say.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in a room in a five hundred ward in sector four,” said the woman on the right.
“Brenda!” said the woman on the left, sounding irritated. “He’s not going to know what that means. Let me handle this.”
I looked up at the woman on the left.
“Mr. Douglas, my name is Cathy. Brenda and I are your nurses here. You’ve been asleep, in a coma actually, for a very long time.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Five hundred years,” Cathy said.
“Five hundred years!” I cried. “That’s impossible! Where am I? Where is my wife? Where are my children?”
“Mr. Douglas,” Cathy said. “Let me explain. Five hundred years ago, you were in a car accident. You were brought to a hospital near here. The surgeons were able to save your life, but you slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. Until now.”
I blinked and looked around. I was in a bed with my head and back slightly raised. A plastic tube was taped to my right arm, which looked so thin. Another tube protruded from under the thin blanket which covered me. Both tubes were connected to a device at the foot of my bed. I could see nothing else in the room except two straight-backed chairs, which I assumed belonged to the nurses.
“Where am I?” I asked. “What is this place?”
Brenda looked at Cathy, who nodded.
“Mr. Douglas,” said Brenda. “The world is very different from the one you’ve known. It’s going to take time for you to fully understand the changes. But let me start with the basics.”
“Okay,” I said.
“First, you no longer live in the United States because that country, like all countries from your time, no longer exists. The world is now divided into sectors. We are in sector four.”
“Yes. They were designated about three hundred years ago. There are twelve sectors in all.”
“They were decreed by the tribunal after the great redistribution.”
“Mr. Douglas,” said Cathy, waving Brenda off. “Let’s step back for a moment. When you had your accident, there were nearly seven and a half billion people in the world. Half of the world’s wealth was owned by one percent of those people. About thirty percent of people in the world were overweight or obese. About thirteen percent were starving. About half the world had no access to health care. Our planet was warming at an alarming rate. And we were on the brink of blowing ourselves up with nuclear weapons.”
“The world was a mess,” Brenda chimed in.
Cathy looked annoyed.
“Yes,” Cathy continued. “And people had had enough. They realized that we were on a path to self-destruction. So they began to demand major reforms. But governments weren’t willing to make the kinds of reforms people were after, so the people banded together and took control. They dissolved their national constitutions and set up a tribunal to oversee a new world order. Are you with me so far, Mr. Douglas?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Can you give me a few examples of how the world is now?”
“Certainly,” said Cathy, looking at Brenda and nodding.
“Mr. Douglas,” said Brenda. “Let me start by telling you that our mantra is well-being. Well-being for everyone and everything on our planet.”
“Yes,” Brenda continued. “It has fallen to all of us to take care of every man, woman and child on earth as well as the earth itself.”
“How do we do that?” I asked.
“It’s simple, really,” Brenda said. “For example, every person is given enough food to ensure an adequate number of calories a day and in the right nutritional balance.”
“That alone is a big change,” Cathy chimed in.
Now Brenda looked at Cathy.
“Sorry,” Cathy said. “Go ahead.”
“Income is capped so that a living wage is enjoyed by all. All income is taxed at fifteen percent. All tax revenue is shared to pay for ways to enhance the well-being of people everywhere.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“Food, shelter, security, education, health care and renewable energy,” Brenda said. “These are our common priorities.”
“But if people can make only a living wage, is there enough money to go around?”
“Plenty. Partly because people need far less these days. And partly because there are fewer people.”
“Far fewer,” Brenda said. “The world’s population is back down to about five billion.”
“It’s an optimal number,” Cathy added.
I didn’t have the strength to ask how the world’s population was cut so dramatically or kept in check. So I simply asked, “How is it working?”
“Very well,” Cathy said. “You yourself are a living example of the benefits of the advances we’ve made in health care.”
“How so?” I asked.
“When you had your accident,” said Cathy, “the average lifespan of a man in the United States was about seventy-eight years. Now, we’re not even sure what the upward limit is.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” said Brenda, “for example, you are now five hundred and forty-two years old, Mr. Douglas. And I must say you are still in remarkably good health.”
“You mean there are others as old as me?”
“Not many,” Cathy said. “You’re one of the oldest people on earth. But given the pace of the advancement of our genomic and health care technologies, there is no reason to set an upward limit on life expectancy.”
“Where am I? I mean what kind of a place is this?”
“You are in a special facility dedicated to the care of people who have reached their five-hundredth year,” Brenda said.
“In sector four,” Cathy added.
“What do people like me do here?” I asked.
The two nurses looked at each other.
“Nothing really,” Cathy said.
“Nothing?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Brenda said. “You worked hard as a young man, Mr. Douglas. You provided for your family, and you paid taxes. If would be unfair for us not to take care of you now, just as we would take care of anyone.”
“Anyone?” I asked.
“Yes, anyone,” Cathy said. “That’s the idea. Equality in every way.”
“Total equality,” Brenda added.
I was having a hard time understanding.
“Where is my wife?” I asked. “Where are my children?”
The nurses looked at each other.
“Your wife and children are gone, Mr. Douglas,” Cathy said. “I am sorry.”
“They died more than four hundred years ago,” Brenda said. “Unlike you, they were not able to benefit from the medical advances we’ve made over the past five hundred years. Unfortunately, they died too soon. They were among the last of the pre-tribunal era people, before we could get everything organized and everyone in the system.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Douglas,” Cathy said.
It seemed I had just kissed my wife and children goodbye that morning. I missed them. My eyes welled with tears.
“Then why am I still alive?”
“You survived in a coma just long enough to begin to receive DNA infusions,” Cathy said. “DNA from your younger self, Mr. Douglas. These days, when a baby is born, DNA is taken and injected back into his or her body over the course of centuries. We were able to take samples of your DNA when you were in your sixties. That is the DNA we continue to inject periodically and why you’ll continue to be in your sixties, possibly forever.”
“Well, yes, theoretically,” Brenda said.
“But I don’t want to live like this forever!”
The nurses looked at each other quizzically.
“Mr. Douglas,” Cathy said. “You are in relatively good health. We give you proper nutrition every day. You want for nothing because, in accordance with the rules, others pay for everything you need. The earth is cooling. Our air and water are clean. And the world is at peace. What more could you ask for?”
I looked back at forth at the nurses. I looked more closely at their faces. They were flawless. I could not tell their age.
“But I’m not supposed to live here forever! My wife and children are gone. I should be gone too. I should be with them.”
“But Mr. Douglas,” Cathy said. “You are not with them. You are here, with us.”
“And it is our duty, Mr. Douglas,” Brenda said, adjusting a dial on the device at the foot of my bed, “to ensure your well-being.”
# # #
Don Tassone’s debut short story collection, Get Back, and debut novel, Drive, were published in 2017. He lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Find him at dontassone.com.