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July 26 2009

Carl Macek
Based on an Original Idea by Stan Slavutsky

The man was old. He could have been 70 or 80 – maybe even older. He kept looking around the crowded restaurant and shaking his head with disgust. At first the girl watched him from across the room with morbid curiosity. She was the only one who paid any attention to him. Every so often he would see something that forced him to talk aloud to himself. Mostly he would say things like he was glad his daughter didn’t live long enough to see what the world had become.

That the old man kept mentioning his daughter struck the girl as odd. For nearly a century the Government had been introducing chemical contraceptives into the water and food supplies to effectively force a zero population growth. As the girl understood it, every January a random drawing called The Birthright Lottery – based on a complex mathematical matrix that factored in, among other things, the number of deaths the previous year – would determine who would be eligible to attempt procreation during the coming year. Once a person was selected, the Department of Human Husbandry gave the chosen ones a prescription that neutralized the contraceptives. Candidates were then enrolled into social networks designed to match prospective mates in regard to genetic compatibility and other factors. Nothing was left to chance. As soon as a woman was “with child” she was sequestered in a Government facility through the term of her pregnancy. At birth the child became a ward of the state. No one was allowed any contact with his or her own children. Being raised by parents was a thing of the past.

The girl closed her eyes and tried to imagine what life must have been like at the beginning of the 21st Century. She had read about the failed attempts at the re-tribalization of Europe. She was familiar with the famines and epidemics that ravaged Africa. In college she even wrote extensively on the causes leading up to The Great War that left the world under the control of a single, although, at times, dysfunctional, parliamentary government. But now, nearly 135 years later, she couldn’t help wondering how it must have felt to walk into a small boutique and pick out a new dress or buy a pair of high-heel shoes and walk out feeling pretty. And going out on a date with a boy eager to “get to know her” – what must that have been like? Not to mention being lucky enough to have a baby. Convinced that none of this would ever happen to her, the girl’s childhood was filled with vicarious experiences triggered by the few old movies and books that had survived the purge. If the girl thought about it too much she was certain it would break her heart.

Uncontrollable population growth had given way to negative population growth soon after the World Government was formed. At first it was a controversial decision. Scientists had concluded that if something weren’t done to stem the tide of overpopulation, then civilization would simply collapse into chaos. Voluntary birth control did not work – census figures proved that point. And even with all the various wars and widespread famine the planet would soon produce an unsustainable population. At the time, many world leaders were convinced that drastic measures had to be adopted in order to insure the future of humanity. Barring any sort of major catastrophic pandemic, the global call to action had to be swift and, for the most part, irreversible.

The girl thought she knew both sides of the argument. Battle lines were drawn between the Pragmatists and the Naturalists. In theory, what the Pragmatists advocated made sense. But in reality the choice to radically control population went against nature. In the end, the Pragmatists’ point of view won out, and the World Government put into effect a program of forced birth control that stopped just short of complete sterilization. Most people didn’t care – so long as they could still have sex, what did it matter. Those that didn’t agree were branded “enemies of the state”. And their grassroots’ movement was quickly silenced. The few that survived the purge had no choice but to go underground – to simply drop out of society and try to live a normal, natural life. It had long since failed to be an issue.

For her part, the girl’s choice to eventually find a way to go off the grid was not some spur-of-the-moment decision. As long as she could remember, the girl had heard rumors of an underground society that had dedicated itself to living a natural life. She didn’t know if the rumors were true, but somehow the idea of an independent, feral existence – free from the constraints and regulations imposed by The Government in its vain, bureaucratic attempt to stem the overpopulation and general malaise that characterized the current state of global politics – seemed strangely attractive to her.

It was hard to know whom to trust. She was sure there were people out and about who felt the same way as she did. The trick was finding them. The way things were, everyday life didn’t allow much opportunity for casual conversation. Too many people meant too much time waiting around just to get the simplest things done. But the more she thought about it, the more she kept coming back to the same conclusion. It was quite simple - while waiting around in line at the grocery store or the pharmacy she trained herself to keep an ear out for any code words that she might overhear – any sort of sign that there was some dissatisfaction with current Government policies. When she felt comfortable that there was common ground she would approach the person and broach the subject of slipping off the grid with subtle innuendoes. It took her nearly thirteen months and several false starts, but after watching the old man at the restaurant for a few minutes she was certain he could help her drop out of the system.

When he finally left the crowded lunchroom, the girl followed him from a discreet distance. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself on any of the public surveillance monitors. However the old man moved swiftly; so much so that at times the girl thought she had lost him. The girl knew that as long as she had the galvanic microchip embedded under her skin, near her left shoulder blade, her whereabouts could be tracked. If she strayed too far from her normal routine she ran the risk of being flagged, and from that point on her movements would be closely scrutinized. The girl hoped that the old man truly was in contact with the Naturalists. That way, once she convinced him of her desire to drop out of society, she could finally have the chip taken out and replaced with a random transponder. From then on it would be as though she never existed. That would be the easy part. But she was getting way too far ahead of herself. She still didn’t know if the old man was a legit anti-establishment drop out or just plain crazy.

The old man lived in a shabby tenement in the lower Eastside. It wasn’t fair to call the area a slum – for that matter the entire city could be considered a slum. But the neighborhood he lived in was one of the worst the girl had ever seen. She watched as the old man dropped down a flight of stairs and entered a basement apartment. She waited for a few minutes and then followed after him.

She discovered there was only one apartment on the lower landing. The girl couldn’t decide whether to ring the buzzer or leave. Circumstance made the decision for her. The apartment door swung open and a hand darted out, grabbed onto the girl’s arm and pulled her into the darkened room.
“You followed me from the diner, right?” The old man said after he locked the door and turned on the light.
“Anyone follow you?”
“No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“I think you know why.” The old man pulled out a small buck knife and held it against the girl’s abdomen.
“You a cop?”
The girl grinned.
“This ain’t no laughin’ matter, missy.”
“Sorry.” The girl was starting to get frightened. “I just thought you might be able to help me.”

The old man ushered her deep into the cramped studio apartment. “That all depends.” He paused to size the girl up. “I’ll give you two minutes, because you kinda remind me of my daughter. But don’t try anything funny.” He pushed the tip of his knife into her stomach to make his point crystal clear.

It took the girl more than two minutes to tell him her story about wanting to drop off the grid. But the old man didn’t stop her. They talked together the rest of the night. The girl felt good being able to finally tell someone her darkest secrets. Even if the old man was crazy, at least she had found the courage to put words to her feelings.

The girl was relieved when the old man told her he was a member of the Naturalists. Yesterday he had let his guard down because it was the anniversary of his wife and daughter’s death. They had been gone for eight years now; and every year since then, the old man had taken this one special day to grieve over his loss. He knew it was dangerous, but at his age he could well afford to be reckless if only for 24 hours.

The old man had been a doctor until his life was turned upside down by the untimely death of his family. So getting the microchip out of the girl’s back was no problem. Once he was sure the girl was serious about dropping out, he replaced it with a random transponder the very next morning. He told the girl that she would still give off a signal, but if anyone monitoring her movement tried to pull up her vitals the system would throw out an error message.

As an added bit of irony the old man told her he planned to embed the girl’s original galvanic identifier onto the backside of one of the sewer rats he kept for just such an occasion. He joked that it was his way of thumbing his nose at the Pragmatists who, in his opinion, had ruined the world. If left to fend for themselves, these rats could live for years in the fetid tunnels that crisscrossed the city.

The girl never returned to her apartment. The old man took her to a nondescript building in the old warehouse district. He called it “the dorm”, and told her that the Naturalists had several safe houses like it scattered around the city. She was amazed at how adept the Naturalists were at finding loopholes in the system. When she took up residence there, the place had nearly two hundred inhabitants. There was one computer terminal in the place that was manned around-the-clock by a staff of experienced hackers. The girl realized that the Naturalists were anti-establishment, but she came to learn that they were not stupid. As one of the more ominous hand-drawn posters strategically taped on the wall near the dorm’s exit cautioned, “One false move will expose the entire network.” The girl knew instinctively that the sentiment expressed in that simple warning was correct. Say something to the wrong person, and that would be the end of it.

At first the girl wasn’t comfortable interacting with the others who had made the same the choice, like she did, to drop out of the life they’d known. It all seemed like a dream. But, once the girl had healed up and the old man became a less frequent visitor, a profound sense of isolation and loneliness had begun to set in. To combat these feelings the girl made it a point to personally engage the people that lived alongside her in conversation. Before all this, small talk was luxury. Now it was all there was. Those that stayed there were not asked to do anything - no chores, no work, just live. And although a few of them would dip back into the mainstream to forage for provisions and supplies, everyone at the dorm had their news and information about the outside world filtered by the hackers. One of the first things that the girl learned was that anything the top brass felt was pertinent – like significant events or specific warnings – would be scribbled on bulletin boards located at various points throughout the dorm.

After a few months living at the dorm, the girl had almost forgotten what her life was like before. She had found it easier than she had first thought to make friends with the people living there. For the first time in her life she was genuinely happy. The main reason for that was obvious.
She met a man there who had become her lover. They had spoken to each other on several occasions during the communal meals provided for them. He was one of the food servers. The girl thought he was attractive, but was surprised to learn that he was also very funny. In fact, the very first time in her life that she had ever laughed was because of him. She was explaining to one of her new girlfriends, while waiting in the food line, that she had begun to menstruate a few days earlier. The server overheard only part of the girl’s conversation as he was lamenting the blandness of the gruel he was serving to anyone who would listen. He told her that many people had been known to pee their pants with laughter at some of his jokes, but no one had ever bled as a direct consequence of one of his puns. The short snort just came out of her nose without warning. The server took the girl’s reaction as an invitation to expand on his elegant description of the thin porridge he had been plopping on everyone’s plate. In no time at all, everyone in the mess hall was laughing. It was infectious. The girl couldn’t believe how good it felt to laugh. They started seeing each other on a regular basis soon after that. The girl was surprised at how quickly she became pregnant. And she wasn’t the only woman at the dorm who found herself with child. The girl’s lover joked that it must be going around.

Once the pregnant women started to “show”, they were forbidden from leaving the dorm except to deliver the baby. When the first child was due, the expectant mother was taken away. She never returned. Everybody was hesitant to talk about it. But when the same thing happened to the second and third mother, the girl started to get worried. She asked the computer techs to see if they could figure out what had happened to them. They were no help at all.
The last time she saw the old man who had introduced her to the Naturalists, it was almost as if he didn’t recognize her. She was near term and he had come over to check up on her in his capacity as a doctor. But he seemed distracted by the news that the terraforming efforts on Mars were finally paying off.

“It won’t be long now before the Pragmatists start relocating their ‘ruling’ class to Mars.”
“That’ll take years, right?” The girl asked.
“It won’t happen during my lifetime. But it might in your. If not, your child will certainly be a witness to humanity’s expansion to other worlds.”
After he examined her, he told the girl that she would be leaving with him. That meant the baby would be born in a couple of days. In all the excitement, she forgot to ask about the other women who had been taken away to give birth.
But as soon as the girl was wheeled into the panel truck waiting for her at the loading dock, she knew something was wrong. She tried to scream but the Pragmatist EMT inside quickly put her under with a cloth soaked in ether. When she woke up in the government’s maternity ward, she knew the whole thing had been an elaborate ruse. It was so obvious. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t figure it out earlier. The people she’d lived with for nearly a year were not Naturalists. And odds were that the Naturalists never existed in the first place. The dorm was just an intricate scheme set-up up by the Government’s Department of Human Husbandry to lull the people that lived there into a false sense of security. There was no lottery in place. There may have been one at the beginning, but now it was just a matter of the Government fishing for the right candidate willing to put up with all the inconveniences associated with bringing a child into the world. When she took the bait offered by the old man’s rants she had become “randomly” selected by the system to procreate; and the dorm was merely a clever way to keep people who stayed there off guard instead of off the grid. Volunteers were always better candidates that draftees.

The girl’s labor was chemically induced. After giving birth the girl was cleaned up and sedated. She never knew how long she was out, but when she finally regained consciousness she found herself in a small cubicle. Aside from the cot the only other thing in the narrow, rectangular space was a pressurized toilet-sink combo. The door was locked from the outside. The girl noticed that there was a narrow window above the bed. If she stood up on the cot she could just see out. It was night and the clear black sky was filled with stars. There was an emptiness inside her that was indescribable. Much of it was probably due to the hormones still flooding her body, but some of it had to be psychological. The girl couldn’t believe that someone had ripped her child out of her body without ever giving her the opportunity to see it, even for a split second.

To them she was nothing more than a disposable baby-making machine – a means to an end. She wanted to cry. She needed to cry. She needed to scream at the monsters that felt it was right to manipulate her into giving birth. But most of all she wanted hold her child in her arms and smell its breath, see it smile and feel its tiny heart beat with life.

When dawn finally came and she saw the Earth rise over the horizon she knew that would never happen. The Pragmatists were smart. They found people who wanted to make babies and fooled them into a false sense of security. Then once the child had been born the birth parents were shuttled off to the moon so there was no possibility that parent and child could ever be reunited.

Over the years as the girl looked out at the perfect desolation of the moon and the thick crescent-shaped Earth a quarter million miles away, she drew comfort from the fact that every time her child looked out on a nighttime sky she would be up there looking back from the moon.

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Comments from Our Readers

  "Sad but like it or not its coming" - Bob I, August 15 2009 - reply
  "An interesting look at population control and monolthic authoritarian government." - Shade, January 2 2010 - reply
  "Compelling story and very well written. Very disturbing that it could happen very soon." - Kathryn, June 14 2010 - reply

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