After centuries of cutting down trees and forests, adding chemicals and other waste into the atmosphere, and not taking care of our environment, the planet Earth's oxygen levels are dropping. With population levels and average lifespans on the rise, more and more humans and other organisms are using up the world's supply of breathable air. With every breath in, there always has to be a breath out, letting more and more carbon dioxide and other chemicals into the atmosphere.
When children turn six years old, they are required to have a "minor surgery", one that cuts away and shrinks the size of their lungs, believed by doctors and government officials to make the individual require less oxygen. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but a law prohibits any scientists from conducting sorts of experiments that oppose the law. Sometimes these surgeries involve more problems that solutions. But since no one has thought of any better ideas, the surgery ritual has stuck.
Along with shrinking the size of lungs, a counter is inserted into the child. These counters measure how many words a person has said during the day, with the limit at 350, by counting the short break in between words. When we speak, we have a slight pause between each word, keeping our sentences from completely slurring together. Somehow, these counters can pick up these miniscule pauses, and keeps track of them. Since the counter is planted inside of the body, there is no way to see how many words a person has spoken. People just have to guess and hope that the can finish their conversation. Once a person has reached their 350 word limit, the counter sends an electric signal to the vocal chords and "turns them off", for lack of a better explanation. A person can be in a meeting, teaching a school lesson, reciting books, or simply talking to friends and family when their voices are shut down. And every midnight, the counter is set back to zero, and a new day begins. Sometimes, words can run out before someone can –
Klessera's alarm woke her up at exactly 4:30 AM, as usual. She started to groan, wishing to go back to sleep, but quickly stopped herself, in case her word counter considered groans and other sounds as words. She pulled herself out of bed, leaving the warmth of her blankets behind, and stumbled towards the kitchen, where she found some bread and a small block of cheese.
There was no note, but Klessera knew that this was her breakfast. Her mother did not need to waste her precious words by telling her daughter the same thing every morning. "I put bread and cheese on the table for breakfast" is ten words by itself. As soon as she took a bite, her younger sister Sable skipped into the room.
"Good morning, Klessie!" She said, getting a knife to cut herself some of the cheese.
"Don't use your words, Sable." Klessera told her sister. Of course, Sable would use up her words by the time dinner rolled around. Not even because she was talking to friends, but because Sable would purposely use up her words. This way, she could study the effects of nonworking vocal chords, although technically, studying and experimenting with the word-counters was illegal. Sable's logic was that, according to the law books, it was illegal for scientists and doctors to study the word-counters, and Sable was not a scientist, or a doctor. Not yet, anyway. But when the time for job choosing came around, a scientist was definitely one of Sable's top choices, and with a brain like Sable's, she could easily be the top scientist in the area.
Sable shrugged. "Commander Westbrock's speech is today. Watching it at school. Said he's saving his words. It'll be a long one."
"So I've heard." Klessera knew how much their mother hated when people did not speak properly, with fragments and leaving out words. She used to be an English teacher, but soon parents complained that by speaking in proper form, their children were using up their words, and my mother gave up with her grammatical preaching. But still, when possible, she would not hesitate to correct her family, especially her daughters.
Commander Westbrock has been in power since before Klessera could remember. Although he should be aging like normal people, he still looks and is as strong as a middle-aged man. He came into power just after the word-counters were proposed, and he approved of them. Some people despised him because of this, but others just let it be. Humans would rather complain than stand up, Klessera had concluded.
He would have speeches on the television that were required to be played in schools and homes around the country. When a person buys a television, it is given a code number, and these codes are kept in a huge computer. When a person uses the television, the electronic signals are sent to this computer and tracked. When the Commander has speeches or other important messages, these computers can check to see which televisions are not turned on. The computer then tracks where the people who own the television would probably be. For example, students would be in school, and anyone at work would have to watch it as well. The only people who would be in the houses would be parents who stayed at home, who were registered. If anyone is found not watching these announcements, they could be jailed or fined.
"Wonder how many words." Sable said, her face having a look of pure concentration. It was as if she was trying to think, or maybe plan, something. But with Sable, Klessera barely knew what her sister was thinking, and truly anything could be happening in that brain of hers.
"Hey" Hannox mouthed towards Klessera as he took a seat next to her. "Luli here yet?"
"Haven't seen her." Klessera replied, watching Hannox smile. He and Luli had never been as close as Klessera would like them to, being her two best friends and all, but they were complete opposites. "Be nice, she's our friend."
"I guess. Ready for the speech? Gets us out of class."
"Wonder what it's about."
"Probably some government thing, or some war against some other country or something."
Not even two seconds after the bell rang, Luli Hayde ran into the classroom and practically slid into her seat. Her multicolored braids bounced against her shoulders as she fell into her seat.
"Hi!" She said, her voice seeming calm despite her panting from running to the classroom before the door was locked. No one was exactly sure why school doors were automatically locked at the sound of the bell, but it makes late students be unable to get into the classroom.
A soldier walked into the classroom using a special key, which was also peculiar because the door handles had no keyholes, like they did during the other announcements. Soldiers always came in to take the class attendance before such announcements, and to bring in and turn on the television. After the announcements were finished, they rolled the screen away and met with the other soldiers to find if any students were missing.
"We are now going to watch a live speech from Commander Westbrock." The soldier spoke with no expression, a monotonous voice. All of these soldiers seemed to sound exactly the same to the students, and since their faces were covered, it was unknown whether each class had the same soldiers every time or if they were changed. "A reminder: no talking, no sleeping, no writing, all heads must be up and off of the desk, and you may or may not be quizzed on the speech afterwards." Of course there were no quizzes, but it was always used to scare students into paying attention.
The national anthem of Terasolus played through the speakers as Commander Westbrock appeared at a podium. After testing the microphone, he began to speak.
"Hello, and good morning to the citizens of Terasolus. Before I begin my speech, I would like to take a moment to thank all of the soldiers who are bringing television screens to the schools and workplaces so that those who are away from their homes at the moment can still hear what I am about to say. I believe that I am the first one releasing the following pieces of information. According to recent studies of our planet's current oxygen levels, the numbers are decreasing more rapidly that we were expecting. The Terasolus Assembly is currently looking for new solutions for ways to halt the use of excessive oxygen. The word counting devices and lung surgeries are helping, but not enough. We need new solutions. One of our proposals is that we ask neighboring countries, and other countries around the planet, to agree to use word-counters and surgeries. Terasolus has the lowest oxygen usage on this planet, we are doing well. But it is our foreign neighbors that are taking the breathable air from us. They need to realize that by not following the same standards that we follow, they are affecting the rest of the world. If these countries do not agree with using our technology to decrease oxygen usage, we are ready to bring troops to forcibly change their minds. Their carelessness is negatively affecting this country, one of the best and most technologically advanced countries in Earth's history. We, the citizens of Terasolus, are doing the world a favor, and some countries dismiss our ideas. Also, until we can convince our neighbors to use more oxygen-conserving solutions, we are going to have to decrease the number of spoken words. I wish that we did not have to do this, and I can guarantee that your local and federal government officials agree with me, but until we can get the majority of the world's population to conserve more oxygen, this is one of the sacrifices that we must give up. Again, the Terrasolus Assembly is working on new and more efficient solutions, but until then, these are the new rules. All citizens are required to visit their local clinic and get their word counting devices updated within the next two weeks. Doctors will visit schools to save the students from the long waits that will be at the clinic. Anyone who does not have their devices updated within that time frame will be fined, and possibly jailed. Clinics will be open 24 hours a day to fit the amount of people within the two weeks. That is all. Does anyone in the press have any questions?"
Usually after Commander Westbrock has important speeches or announcements, no one raises their hand for questions. Whether it is for the sake of their words or their fear of possibly disagreeing with the Commander, the press remains silent. The classroom was silent as well. Not only was their country starting what may soon be a world-wide war, but the amount of daily words is being cut?
The cameras recording the speech slowly panned to a skinny, young man who was holding a small notebook that looked older than he was. The man was slowly raising his hand. Klessera heard someone in the room let out a small gasp, and saw the soldier give the student a menacing glare, silencing them.
"Yes, young man?" Commander Westbrock shouted, peering over the crowd at the reporter.
"Wh-what will the n-new word limit be?" The man looked so frail, as if every word that he said used all of his energy. The symbol on the side of his reporter's jacket had a picture of the town hall of Amissa, to poorest area of Terasolus. Amissa was where the poor and sick were sent. They have clinics, but not nearly enough doctors to take care of the dying. When Klessera was 13, her class community project was to raise money to help send doctors in Amissa, but it wasn't nearly enough as they had hoped.
The Commander tried to hide what looked like an angry scowl. "Although, for oxygen's sake, we would have preferred to lower the word count to a much lower number, we have decided that, for now, the word limit will be 300 words, instead of 350. If we are unable to convince other countries to count their words as well, we may have to lower the limit again, but for now, this will be it. Now, if you all will excuse me, I must go back to the Terasolus Assembly and hear their proposals. If anything else is said that the citizens must hear about, we will air another speech. Thank you."
And with that, the anthem began to play and Commander Westbrock left the screen. The soldier, who had been standing beside the screen this whole time, staring at the classroom of students, turned off the television and rolled it out of the room, without any sort of goodbye or farewell. The students were equally as silent. Some people genuinely needed those extra 50 words. How could teachers finish their lessons? How could doctors talk to their many patients? Will ceremonies and rituals have to be shortened now? These questions were all running through the heads of each student, wondering about their family and friends, and even themselves. There was no way to know when their word limit would be reached, and now they had even less words to speak.
Their teacher interrupted their silent thoughts, beginning to teach her lesson. She seemed so much quieter than usual, her voice was filled with sadness. After about 15 minutes, she realized that no one in the classroom could manage to pay attention, so she said that they can use the rest of the school day to talk before their words were limited to 300. But no one spoke. No one had anything to say. The words of Westbrock's speech kept ringing through their heads, and every student realized how much their world was about to change.