By Chloe Kwek (4C 2019), Lin Jiawen (4K 2019), Lin Xier (4K 2019) from the CID4+ English Dystopian Module 2019
“Your latest rating, updated on the twenty-second of May, year 2166, is thirty-seven percent. You do not qualify for entry into this venue that requires a rating of fifty percent or higher. Please attempt again after you have improved your ratings. Thank you and have a nice day.”
How many opportunities has this cold, automated voice denied? How many lives has it destroyed? He pushes hard against the cold metal bars of the revolving door, the only obstacle between him and the interior of the hospital. So near, yet so far! The disappointment leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. He turns around, looking pleadingly at the people standing behind him in the queue. They avoid his gaze. No one will meet his eyes.
His shoulders slump, defeated. His son had a badly botched surgery and urgently needs corrective surgery to survive. Yet, as a father, he can't get his son the help he desperately needs because his own ratings aren't high enough. "I'm sorry," he whispers. It kills him on the inside, not being able to help someone who means so much to him. He hangs his head and slowly trudges the walk of shame away from the building.
After he leaves, the next person silently steps up to get her face scanned as if nothing had happened. It's as if he's invisible. He wishes he were actually invisible - then no one would be able to see his face and rate his appearance.
Because who are they to judge?
✡ ✡ ✡
Weekly tests. Again.
They shuffle in and out of the rooms, their faces a slideshow of emotions. The air is saturated with uncertainty. An incredulous amount of fear swirls in the pits of everyone’s stomachs. Red beams bounce off lifeless faces injected with silicone. The purpose of the silicone was not just to fill the gaps for these people to attain perfection, but also to fill to the hollow gaps in their souls. The beeping noises emanating from the monster known as the rating machine seem to creep into the deepest depths of the human soul.
Beep-beep-beep-beep. The familiar four consecutive beeps signify either the start of a better life or the exact opposite as the cold, emotionless voice reads out the individual’s new rating, along with a brief list of recommended procedures. The individual then walks off, feeling either ecstatic or mortified - never in between.
✡ ✡ ✡
The heavy door swings open noiselessly. A middle-aged man in a pristine white coat enters the room.
He consults his clipboard. "Amelia Lancaster?"
Sitting on the bed, the girl nods after a brief hesitation, as if she is unsure of her own identity.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" The doctor's voice is uncharacteristically gentle.
She twirls a strand of her strawberry-blonde hair around her finger, as she always does when she’s nervous. "Y-yes." Her voice trembles. She clears her throat and tries again. "Yes, I'm sure." This time, delivered with conviction.
"All right then." With the ease of someone who has done this a thousand times before, he picks up the injection needle and fills it with a clear serum before instructing the girl to lie down. As he observes her now-peaceful face, for a fleeting moment, sorrow threatens to overwhelm him. What a shame it is, to end your life this young!
But some things have to be done…
I'm sorry for leaving this world, for leaving you. I really am. I just can't take it anymore. The past year has been a living hell for me, watching my ratings continue to fall despite going through all the recommended procedures. What have I done wrong? My company has even threatened to fire me if my ranking drops below the fiftieth percentile. It wouldn't be good for our image, they tell me. So far I'm just barely hanging on, but my fate is inevitable. The way my colleagues constantly ostracise me about my ratings, it's a miracle I even managed to last this long. Oh Jolie, if you only knew what I’ve gone through!
Beaufort thinks I'm not good enough. He doesn't want people like me to continue existing. Well, he'll get what he wants. I've made my decision. I couldn't tell Mom and Dad, with them being such devout followers. I couldn't tell you either, for I know you'd have tried everything to stop me. Please don't take this the wrong way, but there's nothing you could have said to make me change my mind.
How I wish you'd never have to read these words, never have to know about the dark side of the society that's all you've ever known. But you deserve to know. You don't deserve to be kept in the dark any longer. I just hope you'll forgive me for giving up. I hope you'll be stronger than me. I hope we'll meet again someday, in a better place, in an alternate reality where our society is truly the utopia it portrays itself to be.
Jolie stared numbly at the piece of paper clutched in her hands. This can’t be true, her mind insisted. The last time I saw her a week ago, Amelia was fine! But as she reread the letter for a second, and then a third time, it became increasingly apparent that she had the truth in her hands. Thisletter meant that Amelia was dead. Jolie would never get to see her older sister again.
Tears finally flowed. Burying her face in a pillow, she tried to muffle the sound of herself crying. She hated this side of herself - desperate, helpless, at a complete loss. So she forced herself to stop grieving, to look forward and formulate a plan.
She picked up the letter again and scrutinised it, searching for possible clues. Beaufort thinks I'm not good enough. He doesn't want people like me to continue existing. Clearly, the government had some malicious role to play in all of this. But like everyone else, the motto beauty: order and unity was deeply ingrained in her. It was an unquestionable fact that beauty is based on order. She recalled days at school spent studying how the government determines citizens’ beauty based on mathematical concepts - the golden ratio, harmony, symmetry. It was a fact that plastic surgery aids citizens in striving for perfection, uniting and improving society.
But maybe there was a dark side to the system, as Amelia had mentioned. Maybe the government was hiding something from them. If undergoing plastic surgery had only aggravated Amelia’s condition and drove her to take her own life, then maybe she wasn’t the only one. Maybe hundreds of people every day committed suicide simply because they could no longer withstand the immense pressure of living in such a society. Maybe she, and everyone else, had been brainwashed all along. The thought sickened her. She needed answers.
Her mind churned with internal conflict. She couldn't stay in this house anymore, Jolie decided. Like Amelia said, her parents were of no help. She had to do this alone. But there was no way they’d let her go off searching for answers, seeking the truth.
She had to run away.
The sound of frantic footsteps against the steel pavement reverberates throughout the still night air. Listen closely and you may hear the forced, uneven breathing of a teenage girl. Her strawberry-blonde ponytail swings back and forth with every fleeting step. her footsteps slowed as a house came into view. Staring at the address on the piece of paper clutched so tightly in her hands, a wave of doubt swept through her. “What if… he doesn’t recognise me? What if he reports me to Beaufort?”
Clutching onto the slip of paper as if her life depended on it, she walked towards the metallic porch and a holographic screen appeared in front of her. Two blue laser beams extended out, scanning across her iris and face, taking in every single detail.
“Family - Welcome, Jolie Lancaster, Daughter of Paul Lancaster, Niece to Winston Smith. The master shall be informed of your visit. Thank you.” An automated voice rang out and soon after the holographic screen disappeared, leaving behind a pitch of high frequency. The snitch adorned on the oak door clicked open, and the soft whirring of enclosed wheels started up. The doors buckled open, revealing a long hallway with redwood walls adorned with paintings possibly dating back to the Renaissance and soft velvety Persian carpets, a stark contrast to the exterior of the house. At the end of the hallway was a long winding staircase. Jolie looked up, making out the faint silhouette of a middle-aged man. His prominent belly - the fruition of his love for alcohol - was greatly evident. He hurried down, stepping into an automated fully-transparent glass elevator.
“Jolie! What a surprise to see you here! the last time I saw you, you were still a tiny little baby, barely the size of my belly!” The man spoke in his deep, rumbling voice. His mouth was stretched into a wide smile as he grabbed Jolie by the shoulders and embraced her.
“Ah! Jolie! You have grown so tall! How are you? Goodness, it’s been 16 years? How is your sister Amelia? I remember you followed her everywhere, you were always copying what she did. The two of you were inseparable!” Winston bellowed, his jovial laughter following.
At the mention of Amelia’s name, tears streamed down Jolie’s cheeks. “This is why I came to you. I need your help. Amelia killed herself.”
✡ ✡ ✡
To exist in a world fraught with corruption - that was her worst nightmare.
Sitting in one of many dusty old chairs in his office, she flung open form after form - nothing but pretty face hopefuls... and a promise to the government. The deeper she delved, the more intrigued she became.
Deception. Fraud. They were so deeply entrenched in Beaufort’s system, yet no one ever suspected that anything was amiss.
Everything made sense now.
“Jolie, stop it! I’m dead if they find out -” Winston’s whimpered protests were abruptly cut off.
“Look at it! Just look at it! These people are killing our country. Our people. Our future. And yet you expect me to sit around and pretend that all is well? I can’t. My sister perished under the flawed hands of the government. And it’s not just my sister, hundreds, possibly thousands of people out there are dying every single day because of undergoing botched procedures in dodgy, run-down clinics. Wake up, Winston!” Jolie stared at him so hard that he felt the walls around his heart crumble a little.
As if they were seeking an explanation, her fingers mechanically clicked open more folders. She shut her eyes, letting her lungs expand and rub against the painfully tender wound on the surface of her heart.
She closed the window.
“Are you seeing this?” For the first time in a long while, she felt oddly emotional. Jolie knew she wasn’t one who cried. But it was as if her tears were participating in a protest of their own as they streamed down her face, breaking free of the mould she squeezed herself in to appear as a strong, aggressive and fearless young woman. That was the Jolie she wanted to be. Not this.
✡ ✡ ✡
She was just his eighteen-year-old niece, the daughter of his estranged brother that he had reunited with on the sidewalk outside his house. Was it worth the risk? Was she telling the truth? Was the only form of authority he had ever known how to submit to all a fraud after all? Was the government really helping people commit suicide?
Deep down, he knew that everything added up. He knew what the government officials looked like. He couldn’t believe how ugly they looked at first. But he had always assumed that they never had any procedures done because they wanted to leave the resources for the rest of the populace, instead of wasting them on themselves. How naïve he had been!
“So what do you propose?”
Her head tilted up slightly, face weary from the past few days of nothing but intense analysing of the files thicker than the rimmed glasses that framed his face. He sighed. When they ran out of storage space years ago, Beaufort had entrusted him to bring these files home and keep them for life. All he had ever wanted was to protect the people, but it seemed like all he had been doing for the past few decades was the exact opposite.
“Honestly, I’m not sure. Your connections with the government will definitely come in handy when we try to gain access to the government’s system. But before that, I’ve noticed a prominent trend in the cases I’ve read through again and again…” Jolie’s voice trailed off in Winston’s mind as his once crystal-clear mind clouded with doubt and indecision.
He knew he had to help. His conscience would never stop clawing away at him until he did the right thing. But was he ready to? Would he ever be ready to? Would he ever take the first step if he didn’t do so now?
Realising that her uncle was drifting off to a world of his own, Jolie spoke, a notch louder this time.
“We have to do this.”
He gave her a single nod.
✡ ✡ ✡
A rapid succession of footsteps pounding against the roads leading to Beaufort's Headquarters reverberates throughout the still night. If one listens closely, sharp, irregular intakes of ragged breath can be faintly heard. Watch carefully, and one may catch a glimpse of strawberry-blonde hair as a teenage girl sprints down a long, narrow alley. Her youthful face displays a strange combination of determination and helplessness. Except that now, she isn’t running away to find answers. She’s running to rewrite how they were once written. And now, she’s no longer alone.
Just keep running…