The Next Step

Adam’s world is falling to pieces around him – literally. People are dying in the streets, the world is under populated, and any sickness can be fatal.
So he understands when his wife and friend are concerned each time he coughs. The part he doesn’t understand is why, when he goes to the doctor, the man keeps muttering things like ‘you’ll be lucky to survive.’ His disease is curable. Why would he be in any danger?
Things slowly begin coming together in his mind, and that’s when he discovers the truth. He isn’t safe in his crumbling world – nobody is.
And there’s nowhere to hide.

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2. Chapter Two of Three

‘That’s ridiculous; it’s nothing more than a theory.’

                ‘Sir, when it can be demonstrated, I think it classifies as a law.’

                ‘You haven’t shown anything to me yet.’

                ‘Give me a few months and I’ll show you.’

                ‘I can’t very well give you people to practice on.’

                ‘Of course not. Give me some mice, they’ll do.’

                ‘I hope you realise it’s not me you have to prove things to.’

                ‘I know.’

                ‘So do you think I’m right about things?’

                ‘You mean about cancellation being a causal factor?’

                ‘What else?’

                ‘Oh. Well, then, I think you’re one hundred percent accurate.’

                ‘That’s always comforting, coming from a kid.’

xxx

‘I’m just going to insert the needle now. I know it looks scary, but don’t be alarmed. The removal of the fetus is a simple procedure, and has proved to be perfectly painless.’       

The woman smiled, and turned her head away. ‘Get it over with then.’

The nurse slowly inserted the needle until she had successfully removed the target. It came up slowly, and was so small it could have easily been missed. The nurse preferred these early term procedures rather than late term ones, for they involved no surgery and very little visual trauma to come to terms with.

                ‘It’s over.’ The nurse eventually declared. Turning to the supervising doctor, she handed him the vial. ‘I leave that in your capable hands to dispose of appropriately… in such a way as to not harm the environment, of course.’

                ‘Of course.’ The female patient agreed. But she couldn’t ignore the Doctor. His face had – for a moment – filled with some strange emotion. Anger? Disgust? At what? There was nothing to be angry about.

                The patient left the building distractedly and accidentally crashed into a man passing by. Adam, his name branding read. This man glanced at her name band and apologised for crashing into her, calling her by name. That, he thought, was the only benefit of the name branding. It was no longer necessary to ask a person’s name.

                Adam picked up his feet and continued walking through the crowds. Well, they weren’t really crowds if he could believe a word his grandparents told him.

                ‘Back in my day,’ they’d say, ‘India was so jam-packed you could hardly move.’

                ‘And Australia,’ his parents would add, ‘was actually populated.’

                Ah, yes, Australia, the empty island, with the exception of a few people, of course. America was even worse. These days it was full of sickly creatures desperate to make it even to Mexico. But no-one knew why. Not really.

                Or so he thought.

                Adam avoided eye contact with the beggars on the street, hoping to keep his money. It was a skill that had taken him ages to teach his wife, but was incredibly useful. It seemed odd that in an under populated world, there should still be so many beggars. But there were, and they didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

                ‘Sir, please,’ the young girl pleaded again, hanging onto his coat tails.

                ‘No.’ Adam said for the fourth time, more firmly. He glared at the girl to increase the emphasis and was pleased when she ran away in terror. She wouldn’t be coming back again.

                It wasn’t like he didn’t care for the poor. But he preferred to assist them in less direct ways. Giving to charity was far more effective than giving to beggars who blew all their money at once.

                ‘Adam!’ A man called after him, and he turned around, trying hard not to groan.

                ‘G’day, Raj. How’s it going?’

                ‘Very good thank you. Did you see the Cancellation clinic back there? So much business – it’s excellent – liberating!’

                Adam frowned, surprised at how the new term disconcerted him. Perhaps his grandparents had rubbed off on him after all. ‘Abortion clinic.’ He corrected. ‘And yes I did see it. I’m not so sure I think it’s a great thing though.’

                ‘Oh, it is wonderful.’ Raj returned. ‘You should not be so old-fashioned.’

                Adam turned to his friend quizzically. ‘But you’re a Christian. Aren’t you meant to be against it?’

                Raj only laughed. ‘What, are you living in the dark ages? My friend, God is sovereign; He will do as He pleases. He cannot be beaten by a few surgical removals of fetuses.’

                There it was again. That slight feeling of discomfort, of unease. Something was wrong; something was wrong with the world, but Adam couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

                ‘Hurry up!’ Another man called, this one from a building. ‘You’re going to be late for work!’

                The two men sped up and raced into the office.

                ‘Friend,’ Raj continued speaking, and Adam wished he would go away. Still, Raj was one of the smarter people in this town, even if that wasn’t saying much, so he was partially grateful for his… friendship? Adam didn’t think that was the right word. ‘You must come out with me tonight.’ The Indian continued. ‘Me and some of the other men are celebrating the fact that winter is nearly over!’

                Adam laughed. ‘I suppose that is something worth celebrating.’ But I’m not really much of a party person, he added in his mind. I’d rather not talk to anyone. Especially not people like you. Can’t I have an intelligent conversation for once?

                ‘I’ll see you there then!’ Raj cried triumphantly.

                The two were inside the office now, and were making their way to their own personal sections. Unfortunately – or fortunately, Adam could never decide – for Adam, Raj’s small office was just across from his.

                ‘Just come in to my room if you need to have some fun.’ Raj said as always before they parted. ‘I have…’

                ‘Alcohol, I know.’ Adam tried to smile as if he were joking, but even Raj didn’t seem entirely fooled by this.

                ‘Okay then,’ he replied slowly. ‘See you tonight.’

                The man walked into his office, and Adam instantly closed the door to his own.

xxx

The mice were going feral in their cage, eating one another’s tails and clawing at the sides of their enclosure. The doctor walked in and shuddered.

‘What’s going on in there?’ He asked the scientist – a young boy, about ten.

                The boy eyed the mice intently as he replied. ‘They’re becoming more and more savage.’

                ‘The tests?’

                ‘Came back positive – or negative, depending on how you phrase the question.’

                ‘Can they do it?’

                ‘Do what?’

                ‘The maze.’

                ‘Oh. No. The tests came back negative.’

                ‘Well that’s a crying shame.’

                ‘The whole world’s a crying shame, Sir.’

                ‘You’d be right about that. How much longer before you’re done?’

                ‘A week, maybe less.’

                There was a pause.

                ‘Sir,’ the boy continued, ‘what do you intend to do once this is over? Do you really think the folks upstairs are going to care about a few dumb mice?’

                ‘No.’ The doctor replied. ‘But they just might care about a few dumb people.’

xxx

Adam coughed for the tenth time, making Raj come over to him.

                ‘You right?’

                Adam nodded. ‘I’m fine. Hey, what did he say?’

                ‘The boss? Well, good news for us. We’re two of the only men still employed around here.’

                Adam shook his head tiredly – he didn’t know why he was so tired. ‘How can there be so few jobs available? The world is basically empty.’

                ‘Too empty.’ Raj returned. ‘You don’t need office workers when there’s no paperwork. And you don’t need paperwork when you don’t have customers.’

                Adam sighed. ‘We’re going to get it soon, aren’t we?’

                Raj nodded his head in the traditional Indian fashion. ‘Probably. But for now we are employed. So I was thinking, shall we celebrate tonight?’

                Adam shook his head and coughed again. ‘I’m… I’m not feeling well.’

                Raj smiled. ‘Well, my friend, you had better pray it is not contagious.’

                Adam didn’t know what his friend meant by that, but before he could ask, decided to ask the first question that had come to mind.

                ‘Weren’t we already celebrating tonight?’

                Raj beamed. ‘Yes, but that was celebrating winter. A double celebration is very special – I will shout you two drinks!’

                ‘Raj, I don’t drink.’

                ‘But tonight you do!’

                Adam opened his mouth to object, but the man ran off deliberately before he could.

xxx

                Raj was always on the lookout for a party, and often picked the most pathetic reasons. One day they would celebrate the fact that it was Tuesday, the next they would celebrate the fact that it was Wednesday. Over the five years that Adam had known the man, he’d successfully managed to wriggle his way out of every silly event, but tonight… maybe it was because of the sickening cough he had, but he just couldn’t come up with anything.

                ‘Hurry up friend!’ Raj cried, turning around for the seventh time in five minutes. ‘If we all walked as slowly as you, the bar would be closed by the time we got there!’

                Adam groaned inwardly. I don’t want to be here, he thought. I want to go home, to speak to my wife, the only person around here who seems to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation. The only one who has any intelligence around here… even more so than me.

                ‘Think you’re too good for us?’ Raj teased, but Adam wanted to reply ‘yes’. In fact, he didn’t even think he was too good for these people, he knew he was too good for them. I may not be smarter than my wife, he thought, but I am smarter than everyone else in town.

                He didn’t say this of course. He just smiled and shook his head.

                The bar was noisy, but Raj didn’t seem to mind. Only Adam shied away from everyone and everything, trying to hide in the corner but being pushed to a large circle of men.

                ‘Here he is at last!’ Raj announced him. Adam hadn’t realised he was so famous. ‘The only man in town with a wife!’

                Ah. That explained things.

                The men laughed, and the strongest looking (which wasn’t very strong, Adam figured) grinned. ‘If you die this winter, can I have her?’

                Adam hadn’t been expecting the question, and froze with a mixture of shock and horror. But it was Raj who responded.

                ‘Of course not!’ He cried. ‘I am his best friend, by default he will leave his wife to me.’

                ‘Not fair.’ Another man grumbled. ‘Only five women in this whole stupid country as it is.’

                ‘Probably the world.’ Another agreed.

                ‘Don’t exaggerate.’ Adam finally stammered, his desire to leave growing more intense by the minute.

                Raj finally sensed his discomfort and whispered in his ear. ‘Don’t worry, we’ve been through this before. If you die, I’ll take good care of your wife.’

                Adam stared at the man incredulously. So this was what they did when he wasn’t around: worked out who could marry his wife the minute he was gone.

                ‘Let’s have a drink!’ The largest man cried, and Raj nodded.

                ‘Hey, hey!’ He cried, attracting the attention of a bar tender. ‘Over here!’

                The young man approached moodily and took the order.

                ‘Five beers.’ Raj said repeatedly, and the men cheered.

                ‘Why are you cheering?’ Adam asked, realising he didn’t have a clue what was going on. ‘Is beer special?’

                ‘Yes it’s special!’ Raj declared, and the other men laughed at Adam’s ignorance. ‘Adam, this is one of the only bars left in India, and the only one that sells beer.’

                ‘Oh.’ Adam replied stupidly. ‘That’s good…’

                The drinks arrived, and Adam knew he’d have to try one. But he felt sick already, and his cough was only becoming worse. So, as he fell into a coughing fit, he decided to use it to his advantage.

                ‘I’m sorry,’ he began his excuse, ‘and thank you for inviting me, but I really have to go.’

                Raj scowled, but the other men didn’t care much for him anyway. He left easily, and enjoyed the short, yet pleasingly solitary, walk home.

                The beggars were still out, despite the fact that it was dark, and cold. He had heard the city was on the verge of purchasing those new climate heaters – they’d already flooded the U.S. Shivering, he felt why everyone believed they were so badly needed.

                An older man groaned and fell to the ground without any warning or apparent reason. Adam’s heart leapt to his throat, and he knelt beside the man instantly.

                ‘Are you all right?’ He asked, knowing full well the man would not be. His only reply was a long breath and a howl from the cold breeze.

                Adam’s face hardened – a successful attempt at hiding his emotions - as he stared into the distance. This always happened. In summer, it was because of the heat. In winter it was because of the cold. People just died. Old people, young people. Everyone was sick, living on the verge of death itself. It had to be fixed. The doctors said they were doing their best, but twenty years had passed already, and matters were only getting worse.

                Standing up, Adam realised he didn’t believe they’d ever get better. The human race was doomed to die out, for a reason he would never know.

                He coughed, shivered, hoped (but did not pray) he was okay, and continued on his way home.

                That beggar girl was coming up again, and he growled inwardly. It hurt his throat, growling, but he ignored and concentrated on the problem at hand. She always got the better of him. Probably because he didn’t see many young girls.

                ‘Please, Sir.’ She begged, and he knew she had won. Grudgingly, he handed over all the cash he had in his pocket, and she smiled gratefully at him. That was it, he thought. The reason he always gave in. It was worth it to see her girlish face light up with hope.

                He made his way home quickly now, coughing frequently, readying his key for a quick entrance. The plan worked, and he was soon out of the cold and in the warmth of his home.            

                ‘Adam!’ A sweet voice cried, and he turned to embrace his wife. ‘How was your day?’

                ‘Fine,’ was all he said in reply. He would tell her later of how close he was coming to being fired. ‘How was yours?’

                ‘Great, as usual.’

                Adam smiled warmly at her. He was lucky to have her, he knew that. The men at the bar only confirmed his beliefs. With the impressive number of men in comparison to women, it was really a miracle that he’d ended up with her at all.

                It was hard work though, and he was always very protective of his wife. He knew that if he ever dropped dead on the street like the man he had seen that night she would have a lot to handle. But, on the plus side for her, the shortage of women ensured she was never out of work, as when it came to nurses and receptionists, there was still a definite preference for female workers.

                He coughed, and his wife frowned at him, her warm brown eyes filling with concern. ‘Are you well?’ She asked, pressing a delicate hand to his temple.

                ‘I’ll be fine.’ He promised, but he was not so sure. He’d had the cough for a couple of weeks now, and it only seemed to be getting worse.

                Evlyn’s dark red lips tightened, and he knew she didn’t believe him for a minute. ‘Your eyes have gone ice blue. You’re lying.’ She decided.

                Adam forced himself to smile, relaxing his defined features. ‘I’ll be fine.’ He promised again, and this time his wife believed him. Easing a little, she walked off, causing her nut brown curls to bounce. Smiling at her tenderly, Adam locked the door to the hostile world outside and reveled in the fact that his wife was smarter than anyone he knew.

                And she was his.

xxx

More coughing, this time worse. Even Raj – who (again) wasn’t exactly bright – could not be persuaded that Adam was well.

                ‘You must go to the doctors.’ He insisted.

                ‘No way.’ Adam objected. ‘See this?’ He held out his wrist, showing off his name branding. ‘No doctors’ visits marked on it at all, besides the obvious birth notch.  Do you think I want to ruin that? Raj, how many people do you see around you that actually bother going to the doctors’ these days?’

                ‘Yes, but how many people do you see dying around you?’

                Ah, that was a good point. I hate it when he does that, Adam thought.

                ‘Fine.’ The man gave in, coughing despite himself. ‘I’ll go. But not for you. For Evlyn.’

                ‘The only woman in the state.’ Raj teased, exaggerating even more this time, yet still coming close to the truth.

xxx

The waiting room was like a ghost town, and Adam twitched nervously. Occasionally he’d burst into coughing fits, his entire body racking as he tried to suppress them. The receptionist would eye him strangely then, as if she felt sorry for him. Well, perhaps she did. After all, he was sick. Yes, he’d even begun admitting that to himself now. The longer he waited, the worse his pain seemed to become.

                ‘Mr. Latham,’ the receptionist suddenly said, making him jump, ‘Doctor Louis will see you now.’

                He nodded gratefully and began walking down the hallway.       

                ‘Ah, sir?’

                He paused.

                ‘That leads to the Cancellation clinic. The doctor’s office is that way.’ She pointed in the opposite direction.

                Adam nodded awkwardly. ‘Thanks.’

                The hallway was short and closed in, so that Adam begun to feel like he was walking into a box. What was worse was that the hall definitely narrowed as it progressed, so that he actually had to turn towards the end. 

                ‘Come on!’ A deep voice cried, and he followed it into a room. ‘Hurry up!’

                The first thing Adam saw when he entered the room was a man, about sixty, with greying hair and tired eyes. He couldn’t make out what colour they were. The next thing he saw was branding irons – lots of branding irons – with various things marked on them.

                ‘I’ll have to get one of those won’t I?’ Adam asked stupidly, like a child.

                Doctor Louis chuckled. ‘Yes. If you’re lucky.’

                What was that supposed to mean?

                ‘Take a seat, Adam. My name is Addoff.’

                ‘Pleased to meet you, sir… well, actually, not really. I’d rather not be here.’

                ‘I’d rather you weren’t here, but that’s just the way life works, I guess. What seems to be the problem?’               

                Adam coughed quietly, and the doctor raised an eyebrow.

                ‘I see. Well, this could go either way. Open your mouth.’

                Adam did so slowly, revealing his rather sickly looking teeth.

                ‘Good teeth.’ The doctor complemented him. ‘Much better than most people’s.’

                ‘That’s not saying much.’ Adam managed to reply without closing his mouth.

                ‘Don’t be pessimistic.’ Addoff returned. Then he frowned. ‘Actually, maybe you should be. Things don’t look too good.’

                ‘How can you tell?’ He closed his mouth this time. ‘You’ve only run one test.’

                ‘I can tell because I’ve seen it before, countless times, none of them good.’

                Adam gulped – it hurt his throat. ‘Perhaps this will be the exception.’

                The doctor shook his head. ‘No, now is not the time to start being optimistic. Adam, you are a very sick man.’

                Adam didn’t know how to reply to this. All he could think of was, ‘how sick?’

                The doctor ignored his question, turned to the books on his shelf, and began searching through one of them. Realising the man was not going to reply to his questions, Adam glanced worriedly around the room.

                The sore feeling had spread from his throat to his lungs, so that his breathing had become audible. His head started aching a little too, but he ignored that pain.

                Finally, he set his eyes on one shelf, hidden behind a curtain but clearly visible from where he was, and eased ever so slightly.

                ‘What are those?’ He asked.

                The doctor didn’t even look up. ‘That depends on who you are.’

                ‘I’m Adam Louis. I work in an office as an administrator – high enough clearance for you?’

                ‘That’s not what I mean.’

                Adam thought hard, but could not work out a solution. ‘What do you mean?’ He eventually gave up.

                ‘I mean whether you’re religious or not. Depending on your position, you would say those vials are full of life, or – alternatively – potential life. I, personally, prefer the former.’

                ‘Life? You have life in those tubes? What on earth are you raving on about?’

                ‘That’s what most people say to me, Adam. But, come now, I can’t very well let people kill themselves off. Even while they are foolish, I am saving them.’

                ‘Can you save me?’

                ‘You’ve missed the point. Adam, I work in a cancellation clinic, I’m hardly ever in this room.’

                ‘You mean to say that every one dies before coming to you?’

                ‘Most people are not as ignorant as you, young man.’

                Adam felt a little flame of anger ignite within him. ‘I’m not ignorant.’

                The doctor raised his eyebrows in disbelief. ‘Then you wear a good poker face.’

                Suddenly, there was a thump, as the doctor practically threw a large book onto Adam’s lap.

                ‘Read that page.’ He instructed. ‘You’ll see what your problem is.’

                Adam didn’t like this doctor – not at all – but he felt obliged to do as he was told. And so, reluctantly, he read the open pages aloud.

                ‘Coughing, wheezing… red throat… common cold.’ He glared at the man. ‘That’s all?’

                ‘You’re reading the wrong section. Go on, further down the page.’

                Adam sighed. ‘In cases where the immune system is low, respiratory infections including the common cold may develop into pneumonia, or even tuberculosis, all of which may end in…’ He stopped. ‘What are you saying?’

                ‘I’m saying you’re a dead man.’

                ‘What are you talking about? Of course there’s a cure! People in my grandparents day would live through these things, how could we die?’

                ‘There aren’t any doctors left.’

                ‘What are you talking about?!’ Adam said again, this time frustratedly. ‘We have doctors – scientists – running tests, looking for ways to fix our problems…’

                ‘They won’t find a way.’

                ‘And why not?’

                ‘Because we’ve created our own problems, and they’ve all started right here, in this clinic.’

                There was a long silence, as Adam struggled to understand what the doctor was saying; and when he did work out what the man said he spent a while working on a reply.

                ‘Cancellation isn’t a bad thing.’ He decided on. ‘It gives people freedom.’

                The doctor snickered. ‘Yes, it’s wonderful. But let me assure you, Adam, I think you’ll find it’s only the first step.’

                ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, so I’m going to leave now.’

                The doctor shrugged. ‘Fine. I suppose I’ll be writing your death certificate soon. See you then.’

                He walked out, leaving Adam alone with the book.

                And the vials.

xxx

Adam’s pace quickened, as the doctor’s words ran through his mind. Was he really going to die? Then what would become of Evlyn? No, she could take care of herself, and she would have no shortage of men looking out for her. She’d probably – no, that was a horrible thought. But an almost inevitable one. If he died, there was no way his wife wouldn’t be married again – and quickly.

                Then there was the problem of work. He couldn’t tell Raj about what the doctor had said. His boss was already looking for an excuse to fire him, and he couldn’t let that happen. Once again, there was Evlyn to think about. Just because she could take care of herself didn’t mean he wanted her to.

                Entering the house, he ignored his wife’s greetings and ran to his computer. Something was beginning to come together in his mind, though he was sure he didn’t want to know it definitely. But he had to. If his life was at risk, he had to.

                His eyes flitted through pages and pages of information, until finally he found what he wanted.

                That was when everything seemed to freeze.

                Pupils dilated, mouth agape, skin paling, he read article after article – how had he never heard of this?! – and began to see what Raj and the doctor had meant. He was ignorant. Completely ignorant.

                And dead. So dead. 

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