Tales from the Tavern

Population Control

 Erica Rahaman

 

No one looks good in yellow.

“Reflection, off,” she frowned. Her image faded into the muted grey wall, vanishing into a thin strip of yellow.

“We’re late,” Hano called from the master suite.

She forced a smile as she entered the room. Hano stood, dressed in blue to match his eyes. When they had first begun dating and still in that passionate phase where you lie in one another’s arms talking after making love, she had told him that when they had children she hoped they would have his eyes. He said he hoped they would have her nose. I hope they have your chin, she had replied. And so it continued, each of them picking features to create the best genetic version of themselves.

“There’s going to be another storm.” Hano observed.  Thick clouds swirled angrily over one another. She joined him at the window. He draped his arm around her and kissed the side of her head. They watched several flashes light the sky beneath in quick succession. Her spirits lifted considerably.

The silence of the car stretched between them like the black asphalt broken by infinite lines of more yellow. Hano rested his hands on the wheel that moved independently beneath his fingers. It was an odd habit he had that she assumed was his way of exerting some form of control.

“Play Puccini,” Hano instructed, and the car was instantly filled with waves of shrill music.

She was grateful. She was full of the type of petulant energy that would not lend itself to conversation. The car slowed, and her stomach was filled with a lurch as their descent ended and the car emerged into the thick haze of brown smog.

“External air conditions poor. Oxygen sensor engaged.” The car said.

“You look lovely,” Hano attempted conversation.

“Thank you,” was all she could manage. She shifted the large, elaborately wrapped box on her lap.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“A mobile. It has jungle animals, so it is gender neutral.” In truth, she had not seen the mobile. She had ordered the online consultant to wrap something popular.

“It’s a girl.” Hano told her.

“Oh,” she returned to looking out the window, struggling to discern the conglomeration of blinking neon signs through the haze. Scientists calculated it would be nearly a century before terra firma would again be fully habitable. In the meantime, those who had the means had built above the smog line (officially referred to as the Environmental Horizon). Those who could not afford to donned masks and went about the arduous task of living on the second tier.

The ground level of the earth had been relegated now to mostly liquor stores and casinos, with the occasional scuzzy hotel or loan company.

She was pushed forward with the deceleration as the car paused at a yellow light. How she hated yellow. It turned red as the car came to a controlled stop and a group of pedestrians crossed in front of them. All the people who lived on the surface dressed in green – an ironic jab. They made no appearance of propriety, staring as they walked by. Only their eyes showed over their white masks, the looks they gave a mélange of anger and disdain. They all had caramel skin and black eyes, all the same color from mingling their genetics into a puddle of mud. The Cloudlings, as the fortunate were known, had almost exclusively white blonde hair and blue eyes – the overwhelming preference of genetic selection.

She had a habit. She counted the green suits whenever she traveled. One-two-three… eighteen… twenty-five… The light turned yellow again, indicating an imminent turn to green, and the last of the pedestrians entered the crosswalk. Among them, a woman in pink — number twenty-seven. She watched the women make her way in front of the car, her pregnant belly illuminated in the headlights. At that moment, a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder caused the sky to open up. In an instant the windshield was a blur, obscuring her view until the sensors activated and she saw the woman disappear into the thickening smog, one hand held protectively over her stomach.

“Shit” Hano cursed softly as the control panel surged white. “We lost power,” he reached for the wheel, guiding the car across the intersection through the green light, his boot hovering over the accelerator. “Damn storms. They claim they don’t affect the performance, but this is the third time this month.”

“I know,” she said, patting his hand and smiling as the rain beat the dusty ground into pools of sludge.  “But you’re a good driver.”

“So,” he took her momentary kindness as an opening, “I know you would rather be anywhere else tonight, but he’s my boss.”

“I know.” She didn’t need his pity.

Hano sighed.

She went back to counting. She was up to eighty-nine when they entered the garage of the building. An oxygen filter switched on with a low reverberation as they were lifted. When they reached the top, they stopped abruptly. After a calculated pause, they began to rotate. Finally, a door opened and a parking space was revealed.

“Your parking assignment is 519-A. Exit onto the moving platform.” they were instructed.

As they stood at the door, they exchanged glances. He searched her face for some sign that she would forgive him later.  He tried so hard, she thought, but understood so very little. She touched his arm and nodded, a feeling of restless anticipation in her throat.

Hano placed his hand on the panel next to the door.

The moment they entered, Hano melted into a sea of blue, leaving her alone in the entryway, her arms burdened with the present. She stepped into the room, hoping to blend, but knowing anonymity was impossible for someone dressed as a biohazard sign.

The flat was the kind of sleek, impossibly clean home that people existed but did not live in. The hologram projectors that were among the only personal accents created miniature three dimensional reproductions of a cherub with a giant flower headband. On a table was a black and white portrait of a fair haired, fair skinned woman with a protruding stomach in a sun drenched silhouette, her arms diffidently crossed over her breasts.

“You must be Hano’s wife…” The life-sized version of the hologram made her way through the crowd with her hand extended.  The bright blue eyes fell approvingly onto the gift, and she waited patiently as it was shifted onto a hip so the handshake could be accepted.Her stomach was flat as a board again already. Most wealthy women had a restorative technician in the delivery room nowadays. She was dressed in red – a mother with a child under ten.

“I’m Jitka,” the woman continued. “Oh, don’t even look at that holo! I was big as a house!” she tapped the edge of the base, and the image dissolved into mother and child.

Hano, who was laughing gregariously and accepting a drink from a man he had clearly identified as important, must have seen Jitka approach. He excused himself quickly, making his way over.

“I see you two have met,” he said robustly, placing a hand on the small of his wife’s back, pushing her forward slightly.

“Yes,” she replied, and then, in the interest of niceties, “Congratulations.”

Jitka beamed.

She was nearly forced to ask to see the baby, but a group of reds entered the door, giggling with their arms full of presents. She was forgotten.

She made her way to the gift table, depositing her burden, then, to the window across the room where rainclouds gathered in a black mass beneath. In the distance, lightning struck the rod of a nearby building.

She was anxious, so she counted. Fourteen blue, including Hano and seven red, including Jitka. Two yellow, including herself. The other yellow caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back, not knowing yet who her husband might be.

It was Desmond Morris who said that man needed an enemy, and in lacking one they would create one themselves. Conversely, people gravitated to the ones who were most like them — the ones most likely to become an ally.

“Hi.” Other Yellow said. She did not have blonde hair, as everyone else in the room did. Hers was carrot red. And, rather than being sleek and straight, it was a mass of unruly curls. She had a bright turquoise drink in her hand — something tropical and unidentifiable, and totally out of place in the setting – which made her slightly more likeable.

“You know,” she continued without provocation, “I don’t understand these pregnancy photos.” She swirled a finger to spin the holo of yet another nude Jitka posed in front of a full length mirror with a look of impending bliss across her perfect face. “I mean, you couldn’t look worse for a centerfold, right? Why don’t we ever take these kind of photos when we’re twenty-two and nubile, and let our guests feast their eyes on that?”

The redhead’s green eyes crinkled at the corners as she received a genuine smile.

“Who’s your husband?” Other Yellow fell into the inane patter of party conversation.

“Hano.” She pointed.

“Ahh, he’s talking to my Cai. I think they’re in different departments, though.”

“Mmm…” she glanced out the window at the gathering clouds, feeling distracted and bored simultaneously.

“Been married long?” Other Yellow persisted.

“Three years.”  Though in truth it wasn’t so much married life as limbo where time didn’t count. In the beginning, before they were married, they had been blissfully in love, consumed by one another like any young couple. Then came the wedding; that idyllic time where the world cannot possibly be so difficult, especially with two. They had honeymooned on Kensota, an island 12,570 feet over Tokyo, entirely contained with sand beaches, wave pools, even surfing. Lounging in a cabana over hot house banana daiquiris they had first discussed the lottery.  ‘I want a child’, he had said, as if it were a simple request. It was after they had settled into a sky-rise in a decent building that the disappointment of unmet expectations had begun to erode their relationship. Each time their wrists vibrated with another birth announcement, it was like an injection of poison into the marriage. Now, three years in, a cloud of bitterness and resentment spewed like the toxic sludge from the surface vents – though which one of them it spewed from she wasn’t sure.

“So, are you on the list?” the redhead asked.

“Yes.” She replied automatically.

“Me too. Fifteen years now.”

“Oh.” Because what else could she say?

“Here’s hoping,” Other Yellow reached for a silver tray, retrieving a flute of champagne. She offered it up in contrast to her own blue fruity concoction. It was accepted, and they clinked glasses.

Other Yellow tipped her pointed chin at Jitka, standing with a group of reds. “I hear she paid to get a number up the list. They’ve only been married a year and a half.”

“The numbers are high this year.” Her words sounded rehearsed and stoic. She couldn’t recall how many times she had stood at parties and had this same conversation with other yellows. It was standard, like, ‘What do you do?’ – their shared experience.

“Well,” Other Yellow finished her drink. “Maybe there will be another plague or something.”

She laughed.

“I’m due for my shot,” Other Yellow handed her another glass of champagne. “I’m thirty-seven next month. If I’m not on the list this time…”

Which lead to another inevitable question, “What’s your number?”

The redhead paused, thinking about it. Perhaps she was drunk.

“89,715,232”

“Oh,” she said. She rarely heard a number that high.  When Population Control had mandated the shot for all fertile women, 50 million slots were allocated for new births per year in the world. That was roughly one third of what it was in the year 2038, the year the Earth reached critical. The equation was simple. Three times the amount of births were occurring as to the number of deaths per year. Earth was dangerously overburdened. All women, from the age of eleven (or first menstruation) were required to receive an injection to prevent pregnancy once every five years. At the age of 23, or after marriage, you were put into a yearly lottery. Fifty-three million is the average number of deaths per year. If there are more, more women are allowed to procreate. If there are fewer, fewer are allowed to procreate. No discrimination based on income, so even the poor were entered in the lottery. The wealthy bought numbers and used genetic modification to choose their children. Some who wanted large families even paid for black market fertility drugs to increase the odds of multiples – an incredibly selfish thing to do, since it was essentially stealing motherhood from another woman. The medication lost its effectiveness almost immediately at the year mark, and ovulation would commence again. You had one year to get pregnant. It wasn’t perfect, no government initiative is, but it had decreased the bloated population steadily over the past three decades. Still, there was tragedy associated with victory. Other Yellow was telling her that nearly double the amount of deaths had to occur this year in order for her to stop her injections and have the chance of ever having a baby of her own.

“Yours?” Other Yellow asked.

“55,560,311.”

Other Yellow whistled. “I’ll drink to that.”

They both took another champagne cocktail.

Yes, it was worth drinking to, and still no word from PopCon had arrived. Every day she waited, hoping to greet Hano at the door with the news. She knew just how she would do it. She had a silver rattle that was his as a baby given to them by his mother on their first lottery day. Here’s hoping. Her number was 67 million that year. Last year, it was high. 72 million. So, they had taken a vacation to New London and redone the living room to distract themselves. She would have the rattle engraved with their number, and would present it to him over a candlelight dinner along with a book of baby names. They would spend the evening picking names and practicing to get pregnant.

A flash of lightning split the sky. A peel of thunder rocked the floor of the room. From a distant room, she heard a baby wail. Jitka rushed down the hall and ducked into a door, blonde head shining.

“I’m sufficiently drunk.” Other Yellow announced. “And, I’ve made enough of an appearance. I’m going to get Cai and go before the storm gets worse.”

“I have to get going myself.” she said, her eyes glued to the window, “Best of luck.”

“And to you,” Other Yellow turned and disappeared into the crowd.

She counted three more lightning strikes, and then scanned the huddle of blue.

“I’m drunk,” she whispered at Hano’s shoulder. “I’m going to go. Can you get a ride?”

Hano turned, smile fastened in place, but azure eyes full of anger.

“You’ve done this the last three times we’ve been out.” He accused, tugging her into a corner.

She shrugged.

He regarded her in resentful silence.

“Go on,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

She made her way out the door.

“Lot 519-A” she slurred. She leaned against the rail as the moving walkway jolted to life.

“You have arrived.” The mechanical voice told her after a few moments.

“I know that,” she told it giggling. She turned to wave at a camera over the walkway. “Bye!”

She climbed into the passenger seat, pressing her index finger against the control panel, and feeling the seat mold itself into her preset.

“Home.” She said.

“Confirm – Home.” the car asked her.

“Confirm.”

The car came to life, the dash panel lighting blue. She reached the surface, and as the car emerged past the protection of the surveillance cameras of the garage she was assaulted with the sound of raindrops pounding the vehicle.

“Weather report” she asked.

“Current temperature: 36 Celsius. Ozone level: Moderate. Smog Level at current altitude: High. Thunderstorm warning in effect. Lightning: Probable. Overall conditions: Poor.”

“Play ‘Braums Lullaby,”

“Playing.”

Music filled the car the lights of the business streaked by in flashes of color. She thought of Hano, and his blue eyes. She would do anything for him still. From her pocket, she retrieved the silver rattle. She placed it in her lap as she sat up, squinting into rain. The headlights cast triangular beams onto the asphalt. Like the wheel, this was a perfunctory convenience; the car would navigate just as well with no light, its sensors avoiding obstructions. She could sleep if she needed to. Or pass out drunk. Lightning burst the world into focus before her momentarily and then plunged her back into darkness. She saw movement on the side of the road. Three greens from the surface, probably waiting on a ride.

‘Now,” she whispered.

She grabbed the wheel, taking control from the navigation system and jerking the car off the road in one quick motion.  The thud sent her collarbone against the seatbelt, and the rattle flew into the passenger seat. The reinforced carbon fiber of the hood likely wouldn’t even have a dent. She smiled as she looked at the dash, the rearview panel showed no movement.

There had been three that time. She added in her head.

“Thirty-five” she counted.

If anyone investigated, which they likely wouldn’t for an incident on the surface, they would see a drunk woman leaving a party. She had likely fallen asleep in the car on the way home when the storm caused a system glitch in the car, causing it to veer off course.

She leaned over and retrieved the rattle, placing it in her pocket. There was another party next week, and storms were forecast. She would have to buy a gift.

2 thoughts on “Population Control

  1. You paint such an interesting and believable future! I loved how everything was explained and also enjoyed the twist. I’ll be looking forward to more of our work.

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