Liv - a short story
Liv tried really hard to remember. Did they take the train or an airplane that summer? At the time this would have sounded like an absurdly trivial choice, but Liv suspected that her very life may well depend on it now.
OK, even all those years ago, there were plenty of warning signs. In their naiveté, Liv and her friends, just tended to do what everyone else was doing. Laugh it off and jokingly proclaim afterwards: At least they can’t take that away from us anymore. Some choices however are like borrowing from the future. In this case, Liv may have accumulated a debt she would be unable to repay. Except with her very life, with her body.
She looked around the cell. It was pretty much an antique. Massive amounts of concrete combined with actual steel doors. The absurdity of it made her laugh. No-one would even be able to afford such a construction technique these days. Modern cells were, as everything else still allowed for construction, the result of a computer program coaxed by an engineer to do exactly two things: One. Perform its function, in this case holding a human against their will while protecting them from the elements. And two, use as little material as possible for that purpose. The machine knew exactly within what range human strength and ingenuity performed and made sure the eventual parameters of the cells were just outside of reach for even the strongest and smartest of prisoners. The resulting cells, by what Liv had heard, felt like they were taunting their occupants. As flimsy as they seemed, no-one was capable of breaking out. Like a branch that feels like it really should break under pressure, but won’t. Ever.
Why Liv was put in this antique thing was a bit of a mystery, but not hard to guess. They were probably scraping the bottom of the barrel and all other facilities must have simply been too full. The logistics of crime & punishment were not to be underestimated. She held her hands on the steel door, its unfamiliar coldness, the humming that seemed to permeate the entire structure. She touched the outside of her pockets and could feel the dried mushrooms therein. Such an odd thing. Even though she was scanned thoroughly during the initial and fully automated processing, the machine had made no problem of the presence of these mushrooms. Liv figured they must have simply gotten the directive to look for anything that might allow a prisoner to break out or hurt any of the wardens, but not much else. She suspected that one of those modern suicide pills would simply be allowed by the watchful eye of the scanner. Prisoners that kill themselves are simply ahead of schedule.
Her mom had shoved the mushrooms in her pockets right as the police forces came knocking on their door. Liv had been so stunned, she couldn’t get them out in time before the door was bashed open. And after that had happened, after the System had come down on them with such efficient violence, she had not dared to take them out, for fear it might just make things worse. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened is something that her mother would say. She was such a hippie. And a bit of a weirdo. And definitely, terrifyingly into psychedelics. Liv had developed a deep seated fear of psychedelics, having observed its effect on her mother from an early age. Although there was the possibility that she had always been this way, Liv had no way of knowing. It had always been the two of them, no grandparents, no father. No one to ask. Why her mother had decided to put a child on this planet, despite the state it was already in, Liv could not fathom. Whenever she’d breach the subject, what came back was simply too confusing for her young mind. “I named you Liv, so you could live”, her mother would say, which felt either cringe or worrying, depending on Liv’s mental state whenever it would come up.
Liv wondered if the cell doors would open automatically during a power failure. She remembered, already a few years back, how a particularly bad cascading failure in the power grid had gone on for weeks. So many people had died, in so many ways, but a particularly gruesome discovery were the dead prisoners that were eventually found in their electronically controlled cells. Under normal circumstances, everything was there to keep someone alive almost indefinitely while their Ledgers were being added. But a lack of electricity didn’t just mean that no-one could open the cells anymore. It also meant that the food delivery system ceased to operate, as well as any airconditioning and ventilation. Eventually there was no water pressure either. So, if a prisoner was lucky enough to have been stationed in a moderate climate region, outside of the “wet bulb death zones”. Places where you’d cook yourself to death because it was too hot and humid for sweat to even lower your body temperature one degree. Of the ones that avoided that fate plenty still died, simply of thirst. A cynic would say dehydration is also a form of cooking.
They’d changed the cells so they would open automatically during power failures after that incident. The System was strange like that. It was fine for prisoners to kill themselves. It was also fine for the System to deliberately kill prisoners, if the Ledgers told them to. But it was not OK if a prisoner died outside of those parameters, through faulty or unintentional design. Even if the prisoners often had nowhere to go when the cells would suddenly spring open, if they died of heat stroke somewhere outside of the System, at least that wasn’t considered a failure of the System anymore. Liv wondered what these old, antique cell doors were programmed to do should a cascading power failure come to pass again.
Energy policy was one of those strange outcomes of the System. On the one hand, it had been decided to rapidly, almost instantly, go fully carbon neutral, in a desperate attempt to save the planet. On the other hand companies had successfully lobbied for a guaranteed capacity growth and permanently fixed prices for energy. Most kids of Liv’s age could easily convert Megawatts to System Currencies, in the end it was pretty much the same. This way, supposedly, existing companies’ business models would not be disrupted and jobs could be preserved. If there was one thing the System was good at, it was making these types of bargains with the devil. It became known as “The Growth”.
As the industry and its hunger for energy kept growing, the System had to get increasingly creative. Windmills, solar panels and - eventually - nuclear power plants were added wherever it was possible at a neck-breaking rate. Whatever waste they couldn’t afford was pumped into the ground, just to maintain The Growth. Liv remembered the absurd ways rules were bent, shortcuts were taken and people were strong-armed, just for that tiny little bit of extra juice. And of course, how it all started to come undone.
The joke that started to go around was this: If there is a mechanical limit to a technology, a temperature or humidity level at which it will fail, the planet’s weather will adapt to meet this requirement. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always a storm surge. Solar panels started to fail in droves from record temperatures on both sides of the scale. Entire windfarms were lost to raging storms coming in from the angriest of oceans. Underground carbon waste disposal sites broke open and undid the entire effort it took to pump that wicked stuff down there. But the worst, the absolute worst were the nuclear power plants that had been built haphazardly on the coasts. As storms found their way over the far too optimistically built dikes, they quickly made short work of these new nuclear plants. And there was always an excuse. An unresponsive safety feature. A landslide that had not been foreseen. Core enclosures that were built to the wrong specs. Over and over, it was rediscovered that radioactive material was really, really bad stuff and that it would corrupt any organisation that dared to put it in their business plans.
As energy production facilities got knocked out by the ever more restless atmosphere, the System scrambled even more fanatically. But any region with a broken nuclear plant, any leaking carbon waste site, was necessarily discarded from further use. The room for expansion became ever smaller. Liv remembered how the politicians, back when there was still more than one party, would shout over one another on the public channels to proclaim that they were the ones that would safeguard the Growth. Even when the blackouts had already started happening. Like a game of dominos, but with electricity stations.
Slowly a solution started to dawn on both the authoritarian right and the wrathful greens. What they needed was someone to blame. “Watch how the world turns its gaze inwards,” said her mother. And so it went. As the world folded upon itself and everything was buried in between.
Liv tried to count the tons. While she knew it was nigh impossible for her to reconstruct her own Ledger, the System had a nearly perfect record of her personal tonnage. She’d even been stupid enough to use customer loyalty cards as much as possible. That plus those last years she spent indulging in equally popular online shopping binges were probably killer. Literally.
The System - the Green-Nationalist coalition that eventually declared themselves as “non-permanent crisis government for as long as needed” - didn’t start there of course. First they went after really big cases of emissions fraud and whoever had been involved in disinformation campaigns and climate lobbying. CEO’s and board members from car, aviation and petrochemical companies and their associated PR firms, going back decades in some cases, were put in prison. But this didn’t abate people’s need for retribution for very long. Waves of food shortages, blackouts and migration made short work of that. Or was it all the dead bodies? Almost everyone Liv knew had long since stopped looking at the news images, but then the bodies eventually started turning up in their own neighbourhoods.
So the retribution just went down the line. Manufacturers of plastic wrapping. Construction companies and their employees. Former pig farmers. Gas station owners. People who hadn’t insulated their houses properly when it was required. Restaurants that had switched to strictly vegan “too late”. As the lobbyists and a few key lawyers were the first to go, it was surprisingly easy going. Even stranger, most people simply accepted their fate with a shrug. You cannot take a future away from someone who doesn’t believe in a future.
For just a brief moment it was possible to pay off your Ledger with money. You could even borrow from a bank to do that. This, however, turned so much wealth into so much debt so quickly that it basically broke the financial system. And, of course, all progress on emissions reduction ground to a halt. They almost weren’t capable of quelling the riots, even with every drone up in the air and every surveillance network dialed to the max. After a year of this the System abandoned the idea and pretended it never happened, effectively resetting all bank accounts and Ledgers to a year earlier.
And yes, the death penalty was reintroduced everywhere. However, as everyone understood, this was strictly a matter of pragmatism. Between the food shortages and the effort, energy and materials needed to build and maintain so many prison cells, it was clear that a (merciful) death was the better way. And so, dying comfortably was first perfected and then industrialised. “The System works,” was the joke that was regularly thrown in whenever the topic of the “Noble Sacrifice” - as this death penalty was officially called - came up. There were persistent rumours about “protein recovery”, but that was too horrible for Liv to contemplate for long.
Why was she so obsessed with her last vacation flight, Liv wondered as she stared at the blank cell walls? For her Ledger it hardly mattered when the emissions were caused. Her rebellious “meat eating phase”, when it was still possible as a late teen, was at least as bad, if not worse. And she so regretted her obsession with avocados, no matter the season. 850 grams of CO₂-equivalent for just two! Why did they taste so damn good?
But she knew it was too late to take any of it back. Once the System swallowed you up, almost nobody came back. Sure, the Ledgers required quite a bit of slow, energy-efficient calculations, but once you were already flagged for arrest, the System rarely reversed its verdict.
Liv counted the dry mushrooms she had laid out on the floor one more time. It looked like a lot, but she had no idea. Liv had always pushed this part of her mother’s life aside. Thinking of this made Liv sink even deeper in the ocean of regret that was being created in her cell. Would the shrooms kill her? Make her go insane?
They sure tasted more bitter than anything Liv had ever tasted. As if it was warning her. She almost gagged, but kept it down and kept going. She ate it all. And waited.
What if it didn’t work on her? What if she somehow became immune because of her mother? Could such a thing be baked into you at birth?
Liv was starting to feel a bit drowsy. She briefly closed her eyes, to take a rest. Oh. There it was. Her mind had found an infinite pool of shapes and colours and was taking a deep dive into it. After a while - how long? - she opened her eyes again.
It felt like being drunk and sober at the same time. The cell walls and steel door started looking wobbly. Had the architect made a mistake here? Was there a floor above hers? Would it come down? She crawled to the walls, trying to use her hands to feel if there was actual movement. But Liv couldn’t figure out where her arms ended and the wall began.
Then Liv saw something unexpected. How did a bee get into her cell? The last time she saw one must have been two or three years ago. Did they even exist still? The bee hovered directly in front of Liv, as if it was staring at her. She could see the tiniest hairs on its back, the way its disco ball eyes reflected the contents of the cell in small, fragmented pieces.
Liv realised the bee couldn’t possibly be real. It must be the mushrooms. But why? Why was it showing her this?
The bee’s wings hummed. Liv had never heard anything so loud.
She cried. No, it was more like her body broke open and released all of the sadness inside of her. It just kept going. It was the sadness of the entire world. She cried for every living thing. For every thing she had helped kill. For the bees. For every species that would never exist on this planet ever again.
Liv felt her face go liquid with tears. She dissolved her body onto the floor.
And then Liv died. She could see it happening, as clear as day. Her body wasn’t hers any longer. There was no more Liv. Just the organic shell, that now belonged to the earth.
And it was fine. It was a release. No, it was better than that. Liv felt her death was the most connected she had ever been to this planet. She was part of its cycle. Life would start again after humans were done. Liv just knew it. She would live as organic matter inside so many other wonderful creatures. She could see how her body was composed of thousands, no millions of animals and plants that died before her, mostly species that had long gone away. How, no matter what, the carbon, water and oxygen atoms she could count inside of her abandoned body would never escape the earth. Liv would live forever. She had always lived.
Time passes strangely when you die. Had she heard something? Liv pushed her eyes open. Was she still hallucinating? Either the cell had gone pitch dark - which had never happened - or she was now in purgatory. Then she saw the sliver of light coming through the side of her cell door. Was it open? The thought sounded absurd, impossible.
Liv dragged her body upright and found her way into the corridor. She could see the rows of doors she’d passed on her way in. All the doors were open, there was no artificial light anywhere, only what little sunlight came in through the old skylights high above her. Not a person in sight. The scanners were off. The System had shut down. No more Ledgers. No more Growth. No more Power.
Liv wandered outside. She took a breath of air. She invited the sun into her body.
Liv had never felt so alive.