Fiction: ‘This Land, Like Death’

By Aristophanes

Before the turn of the millennium, the Wakers were already among us.

The first, twins born September 1999, matured in relative anonymity. The pair, one boy and one girl, belonged to an estranged Kansas midwife, a woman descended from a long line of Mojave Shoshone. The mother paid no heed to their peculiar talents at first. The boy would cry long into the night, like any newborn child; the girl was placid from the get-go, and often soothed her brother’s tears. In the wee hours of the morning, the two could be found out in the fields, playing amidst the weeds. And like weeds they grew, shepherding each other’s trepidation along the way.

Their midnight romps ended, suddenly, never to resume. It was a tactical decision, made for fear of revealing too much. The mother, you see, was never quite well. She had lived a hard life, and was apt to forward those difficulties whenever possible. She accused the two of something outrageous, a state of affairs that just so happened to be true. Two weeks later, the mother was a guardian no longer, just another denizen of the madhouse with a roomful of shrinks and a handful of pills. The children managed as best they could, but, mother gone, were transferred in adolescence to the care of the state. Both excelled in academics, rising above their stations to assume roles beyond belief. College began, with illustrious careers to follow. Of course, you know the story; today, the rest is nearly Gospel.

The second, as much as we can tell, for the exact order is disputed, was born to a wealthy mother and father in the outer suburbs of Shanghai. He, too, excelled in all manner of intellectual activity. The parents grasped the true nature of their begotten long before even he understood his singular peculiarity. Some say they rejoiced; others say they wept. Either way, they were justly rewarded for supporting their spawn. They enjoyed their twilight years living at the behest of their powerful progeny as personal guests in the Zhongnanhai presidential palace of Beijing.

The third, fourth and fifth came from a single household in the Appalachian region of what was then the United States. The sixth was born to the Russian envoy to Brazil. The seventh, belonging to an Israeli kibbutz, killed herself at age 17. The first batch came, staggered, across a period of nearly ten years. Back then, the world had more calamitous dangers to face rather than confront this rising power. The following decade, however, saw the birth of nearly 900 more. By 2020, Waker newborns outnumbered Sleepers two to one. A new age was upon mankind, an era we had stumbled into, blind drunk, without a clue and without a plan.

The scientific community first met the news with a sense of pious skepticism. It took years for Wakerism, a budding scientific field, to gain widespread acceptance. By the time it did, nothing could be done but to study and observe. The world’s wealthiest companies offered top dollar for Waker recruits. By understanding their worth, many Wakers were able to capture leadership positions in finance, education, science and government.

When this new minority, at first a spectacle, transformed into a powerful elite, public sentiment began to turn. First came petitions. Sleepers, understandably, feared scientists’ reports of rising Waker birth rates. The public sought legal protection to secure its own livelihood. This worked well, at least for those in previously established professional trajectories. The new political movement, however, could not forestall the inevitable: Companies wanted Waker workers, and Sleepers soon became a protected class.

The backlash was enormous. Those who had never faced discrimination were caught in the headwinds of an unassailable demographic shift. Protests began. At first, the demonstrations rarely turned violent. That changed when a controversial proposal to establish a Waker registry was defeated in Congress. Lacking a legal obligation to reveal Waker status, most chose to stay quiet, gambling on their ability to work longer and harder than any humans in history, an advantage they reckoned no sleep-shackled competition could possibly overcome.

As self-identification ceased, Sleepers grew paranoid. Those who achieved measured success were often accused, sometimes incorrectly, of secret Waker sympathies. A terse fervor gripped the nation, and domestic terror escalated. The streets ran red with blood. After years of struggle, new political bodies formed only to be charged by Sleepers of illegitimate Waker control. Conspiracy thinking offered a small bit of comfort, but the truth was that Sleepers had long ago forfeited their hallowed perch of power.

The new governments faced crisis: Sleepers were rioting in the cities, tearing up the countrysides, death and destruction flowing in their wake. The only solution, it seemed, was to buckle down. Draconian measures were introduced, civil rights suspended. The bloodshed faded, but so too did political liberty. The remnants of open democratic values had fallen by the wayside. The population of the Sleepers continued to decline, and the whole breed was soon forgotten.

However, the legacy of the Sleepers was resilient and stern. The new world powers, despotic regimes built on the backs of fearful tyrants, did not hold firm. Competition had always been a trait fostered by the Wakers’ lack of rest; now, it promoted naught but international isolationism and foolhardy saber-rattling. Nations warred. Empires fell. The whole Earth suffered.

Thousands of years later, when humanity had at last sunk firmly into its dark, decrepit trough, the Sleepers revived. Newborns once again started to doze. The leaders of the dark saw signs of the divine. A new era dawned, the Age of Sleep, and the Kingdoms of Wakefulness, long jealous of the wonders of this restful bliss, were more than happy to step peacefully aside. ■

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