The harsh metal edge of the steps bit into the flesh of his shin as the masked guard pushed him roughly into the transporter. Blood oozed lazily through the ragged fabric of his trousers, but the pain barely registered. The inside of the transporter was a seething mess of decrepit human life, men and women of all ages packed into a space far too small to afford privacy or comfort. The air was thick with rank odour, a smell that betrayed the lack of access to sanitation. There was no need for hygiene, or any of the other tenets that used to be basic human rights. You don’t need to be clean to die.
Cortez stumbled forward, trampling over groaning forms and prone limbs, eventually collapsing against the metal wall of the small metal enclosure that functioned as a holding cell. A barred window gave a tantalising view of the outside world as the transporter whirred into life, rising slowly into the air. He remembered when the transporters were invented, designed as luxury vehicles carrying holidaymakers to exotic destinations far and wide, a replacement for the outdated, slow aeroplanes and their primitive fossil fuel technology. A sad grimace twisted his gaunt face as he reflected on the events of the past thirty years. Nobody outside the towers went on holiday any more.
Nothing in his life bore any resemblance to the world that he remembered. Born into Tennessee farming stock, he had known little outside the family tobacco ranch and the small town of Fairview, but his childhood memories were happy ones. Unlike many of their neighbours the family lived a frugal yet comfortable existence, primarily a result of the toil both his mother and father invested in their little patch of earth. The farm was run as a tight ship, and turned a small profit almost every year. Everything had changed in the year 2139, when Cortez was 19 years old. That was the year the war started, and part of America disappeared.
Of course, America wasn’t the first country to disappear. As early as 2086 the country formerly know as Bangladesh had been wiped off the map, and in the intervening years the sea had claimed much of southern and southeast Asia. The resulting human migration was like nothing seen before, with hundreds of millions of survivors attempting to find sanctuary in the drier lands of northern Asia and Europe. The effects were catastrophic. Cortez remembered watching the 24/7 rolling news channels, filled with tales of death and suffering on a planetary scale. Many millions died in the desperate act of fleeing this most unnatural of disasters, and a combination of disease and famine claimed an equal number. The impending disaster had been predicted since the late 20th century, but a combination of ignorance and political posturing meant that no attempt was made to reverse the problem until it was much, much too late. The orange man on the television had made it sound as though the little brown people on the other side of the world deserved their fate, and his followers lapped it up. There had been dissident voices of course, but they were shouted down by those in power. Those who had sworn to protect them. The orange man was long dead now, but by the time the west realised the recklessness of their actions it was too late. The environment was broken, far beyond the wit of man to repair.
The transporter vibrated noisily as it flew fast and low over the barren landscape, the mechanical sound melding with the noises of human suffering. He had tried desperately to evade capture, spending weeks hiding in the sewer system with other like-minded rebels for whom the government’s ‘ultimate answer’ held little appeal. The current leader was clean-cut and emotionless, very different to the orange man of his childhood, but the rhetoric was just as savage. For those outside the towers there were two stark choices: work or die. The bitter irony was that they’d work you until you dropped dead, when another unwilling volunteer would take your place. The model was based on those trialled by the Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s, and the ruthless brutality of the current regime had several parallels with Mr Hitler’s form of fascism. This was no attempt at engineering a master race, Cortez thought sadly. This was genocide as population control, nothing more. Fewer people meant less competition for resources, you see.
In some parts of the ravaged world, the broken climate had taken population control into its own hands. Much of the population of Africa had died out long ago, a result of extreme heat causing desertification and famine. The kind of famine that no televised charity fundraising event could touch. The kind of famine that dried up lakes, killed crops and starved livestock. The kind of famine that killed everyone. Whilst the hot places got hotter, the cold places fared no better. Much of the places formerly called Russia, Scandinavia and Canada had long since become inhospitable to human life, meaning that the more temperate zones of the USA and central and southern Europe had become more densely populated than ever. The competition for resources became unsustainable, large tracts of land becoming the scenes of pitched battles between newly formed tribes. These minor tribal scuffles escalated exponentially until things came to a head in 2139. This was when China and the USA decided to fire missiles at each other, which did surprisingly little to help the situation.
‘Peacekeepers’ was the name that the government had given to the groups of armed militants that implemented the ‘work or die’ order. It was a much gentler term than ‘death squads’, although the results were often much the same. Fourteen men, women and children had died in the raid that had been the start of Cortez’s journey to the transporter, a journey broken only by a three-week spell of imprisonment and torture. In all honesty he had preferred the sewer life.
The work element of the ‘work or die’ programme meant one of two things, and neither was a 9 to 5 office job. The majority of ‘candidates’ were sent to work on vast farm complexes that were solely devoted to maximising yields of food for the massive population, and which bared little resemblance to the tobacco farm of Cortez’s youth. The second option, reserved for the most physically capable of candidates, involved the repair and upkeep of the crumbling concrete and steel walls that lined tens of thousands of miles of coastline. These vast flood defences, commissioned in a fit of Canutian folly by the remaining 49 states of the union after Florida was lost some 30 years previously, were in perilous condition in places as a result of perpetual seawater corrosion and bombardment by monstrous waves. Many breaches has occurred in recent years, and many lives had been lost. It was widely recognised that maintaining the sea defences was perhaps the most treacherous of all possible assignments, and the register of those killed extended to many leather bound volumes in the tower vaults. The towers themselves, in which the powerful resided, were naturally designed to sit high above the surrounding land to provide brief respite should the seemingly inevitable happen.
Cortez mindlessly fingered the concealed blood on his wound as the transporter began to descend. Soon the sorting would commence, with the feeble bodied and feeble minded separated from potential workers. It was an open secret that nobody ever saw or heard from one of these groups again. The side of the transporter swung open like a cattle truck, and he made no attempt to conceal his limp as he shuffled sadly out. The injury had been acquired several years before during a clash with a Peacekeeper, and he had always suspected that it would seal his fate. During the intervening years had had come to accept it, and felt strangely calm as he neared the front of the queue of broken souls. He had no desire to live in the burning embers of a dying planet, and he pitied the misguided fools that would try in vain to reverse the irreversible. He shuffled forward awkwardly, his deformed leg obvious to the guard, and was ushered left to join the rest of the crippled and mad.