An indeterminate number of years from now, the population is kept at an environmentally safe level by mandatory sterilisation, carried out by civil servants, in return for a decent wage and certain perks. One such operative is faced with a difficult decision. This is his story.


1. Short story - no chapters


The worst thing about the job was the realisation that we'd never know whether it worked. If nothing happened it might mean we'd succeeded, or it could equally mean we were wrong, and the changes we made - the little atrocities we daily committed - were as unnecessary as they were inhumane. The thing was, if we were right, if we really were preventing catastrophe, the only way to prove it would be to stop, and then we'd...well, that line of thinking never got us anywhere. Even if it failed and the very effects we were striving to prevent were too far in motion to be stopped, we'd never see the realisation within our lifetime. Quite a conscience tester though, doing a thankless, controversial job; hated by near everyone whether religious or not and never knowing whether you were a hero or a terrorist.

Getting the equipment was easy enough, I worked with it every day. Sometimes your round would leave you closer to home than to the recharge bay, and you just went straight home and recharged the pod in your own garage. The company paid for the power anyway so it didn't matter to you, just saved you a trip. It was one of the perks of the job that all energy consumption bills were covered by the state, I guess as an incentive to take the job. With fuel prices so high people would do pretty much anything if you gave them it for free. So yeah, the equipment was no problem. Getting it in the house without her knowing, and using it in secret was going to be the tricky part. I'd told her she'd passed. She didn't have to have the procedure. She didn't have to bear the shame of being unfit for purpose. The knowledge would crush her. The damage done by the buffer serum would pale in comparison to the psychological damage of knowing she wasn't good enough, that there was something wrong with her that couldn't be fixed. They called it a buffer to make it sound like a kind of protection, and I suppose in perverse way it was. But to me, buffer had only ever really meant one thing - end of the line.

"Bad day?" she asked
"No", I smiled, realising how sullen I must have looked as I came in, "today I was a hero"
"You always are to me"

The glint of love in her eye was as a sliver of lead through my stomach as the guilt hit me. She meant it, there was no irony yet if she only knew the macabre task that lay ahead of me she'd understand why I didn't feel a hero tonight. Some days you felt the shame of a murderer, other days you realised how essential you were to every man, woman and child the world over. Today had been a good day: I'd seen it all for the best. "I am making a brighter future with each candle I snuff out" I would tell myself, "The prophylactic nature of my job is just and honourable", just like I'd been trained, and today I believed it. Right up until I got back to the office and picked up her results. They usually sent them out by post, but because the lab was in the same building as my department, I'd arranged to pick them up myself. It was still a relatively new procedure at this point, so the protocols and processes weren't yet so rigid that everything had to be done by the book. It wasn't yet so hated that everything had to be done to the letter for fear of the consequences, so it hadn't been seen as untoward, that I was picking up my wife's results rather than have her receive them at home, on her own, while I was out performing the very service she feared she would soon be the unwilling customer of.

I already had a faked success report, in preparation for the worst - whatever the outcome, she had to always believe that she passed. I'd seen and delivered enough of the damn forms to undeserving, arrogant pricks, to have had chance to scan and amend one. The facsimile was good, convincing. It wouldn't convince anyone working in the department, or a judge, but it would be enough for her. It looked completely different to the form I pulled out of the envelope though. The simple, plain form - so plain it almost mocked the cruelty of the news it delivered. she had failed the test. Mentally she was fine; aptitude tests quite a mark above average. She was no Olympian but was in sufficient physical shape to be allowed to carry. The problem was a single dormant gene. She was a carrier of some pretty much unheard-of degenerative disease. She might contract the affliction herself at any time, but had just been lucky so far. So much has happened since I read it I don't even remember what the disease was, now I wish I'd paid more attention - it plagues me every night, trying to remember what it was. Back then it didn't seem important what she had, the only important thing was that she would never be allowed children, and that not only would I be the one to have to tell her, but that I would be the one to perform the procedure.

Some years ago the governments of the world realised that simply being greener wasn't enough. cleaner, more sustainable fuel sources did not change the fact that there were simply too many people. We were not affecting the climate just by our actions or inactions anymore, we were affecting it by our very presence. Scientists had known for years that this was the case and had eventually pressured the governments into encouraging vegetarianism and self sufficiency, hoping against hope that they could reduce the number of other animals, to prevent having to reduce the numbers of the animals causing the most damage. Humans. For a time things looked positive: with fewer livestock everywhere, with food being grown locally and delivered to people's houses to save them all having individual transport, a visible change had taken place, things were improving. But it wasn't long before the governments realised the change was too slow. We had only postponed, not prevented our fate. Action needed to be taken, drastic action, but without causing a panic. A delicately balanced amount of information was systematically introduced into the public domain, pressure applied to the press and the broadcasters to encourage more careful family planning and make smaller families more desirable, more socially acceptable. It was subtly done - TV shows started having fewer people in each family. In children's programming protagonists were rarely shown to have more than one sibling, and often they would antagonise and make the idea of a brother or sister almost repulsive. Planting the seed to prepare people for the next phase. Giving them the subconscious feeling that large families are bad and wasteful. The one real benefit that reducing the animals had had was showing that reducing numbers could have a positive effect. However bitter the pill would be to swallow, it would be difficult to deny that it was probably going to work and as long as the majority of the speculation held hope for a favourable outcome, that should be enough to carry the legislation through with little public resistance.

The end result was that by the time they introduced means-tested sterilisation, a large proportion of the populace was relatively easily convinced that it was for the best and some even volunteered for the procedure before being tested. Debates had raged for months between parliaments to determine how the selection process would be decided. Some had suggested a lottery, arguing that means testing, though more beneficial for the species as a whole, was in itself a genetic lottery - someone who was intelligent, healthy and strong would be more likely to provide intelligent, healthy offspring, but how did that make them more worthy or deserving than someone who had contributed to society's greater good for years, yet carried a dormant defective gene? Others had said that each nation should have to sterilise a percentage of their population and they would each be responsible for making the decision themselves how best to choose. Inevitably different faiths argued different standpoints, according to their own specific dogma, and what was acceptable according to their teachings, but they were eventually shouted down by the scientific community who argued that enough of their rules were already being regularly broken as to render meaningless any opposition to the process on religious grounds. Eventually the squabbling had gone on long enough and the tests were decided upon. As the whole point of the exercise was the survival of the species, it seemed most logical to the majority of debaters, that the process should be a kind of orchestrated natural selection - survival of the potentially fittest. If someone was up to certain standard against a list of desirable criteria, they were allowed to reproduce, if they failed any one of the tests, they would be the end of their line. Knowing how difficult it would be to police and control such a decision, the buffer serum was developed, to painlessly render the subject infertile and unable to reproduce. At least, in terms of the physical it was painless.

As long as we had known each other there had been no question of us growing old without bringing new lives into the world. Unswerved by the negative light society now shone on large families, we still had dreams of nurseries and playrooms, and small voices filling the air with laughter. We both wanted children, lots of them, but had slowly resigned ourselves to the idea that one or two would be all we were allowed. Not being able to have any would be too heartbreaking to bear, and I knew that the guilt of having been the one to prevent it could prove be too much for either one of us to bear. Despite this, I knew that telling her would seem like an accusation, an open declaration of failure, it would be too big a thing for us to have between us, so quite simply, she could never know. I could never tell her the truth. I would tell her she had passed the test. The only flaw in my plan was that just telling her was not enough, she had to believe she was ok, and in the clear, yet never conceive a child, lest the company find out that I had failed in my duty. She still had to undergo the procedure or our offspring would end up orphaned, as both parents spent the rest of their days incarcerated for violating the mandatory sterilisation act. I knew what I had to do, and the night I gave her the results I brought the pod home to charge. We celebrated and although heavy with the weight of the lie, my heart soared to see her so happy and relieved. She was tired before me, as always happens when she drinks, so I tucked her into bed, content and at peace with the world. As I sat in the garage some minutes later, administering the buffer serum to myself, the smile on her face ran through my head and made me glad it was me making the sacrifice instead of her.
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