ccording to the newspapers and magazines, everything is swell, perfectly swell, couldn’t be better. There are no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars. All diseases and old age have been conquered. Except for accidents and volunteers, nobody ever dies. The population of the United States was stabilized at two hundred million lives, although most people incorrectly believed it was forty million. The world population was four billion.
There’s a price to living forever: overpopulation. When someone is born, someone has to die. That’s the only way to stabilize the population until the Martian terraforming is completed, and that will take centuries. All nations have stabilized their populations the same way.
Some countries that had been severely overpopulated as far back as the twentieth century, like India, still outlaw procreation entirely, as used to be the case here. China had instituted a “one child policy” in the late twentieth century, long before sickness and death were abolished, because of their severe overpopulation. The policy caused its own problems, including a male overpopulation and a severe female underpopulation. Their one child policy ended in the twenty first century, but today, like India, there are no Chinese babies.
I should move to China. Or India. I hate kids, like any sane person does.
There was a story about people resorting to eating seaweed back in the twenty first century from lack of real food, but most sources say it’s a myth, just government propaganda. The seaweed was a fad back in the day, not from starvation. Overpopulation’s biggest problems are resource depletion, pollution, and destruction of wild animals’ habitats, not hunger. Plants procreate, too, and you can grow them in skyscrapers. But anyway, unless someone volunteers for termination when some idiot has a baby, the baby is killed. As it should be. Babies are just wrong.
I was sitting in an ancient bar, so old the door didn’t even open by itself. I don’t remember the name, but it was pretty crowded. I was talking politics with some really skinny guy who had red hair and green eyes. I wondered why he was wearing an exoskeleton, but I didn’t ask. His arms were outside the exo, its mechanical arms hanging unused.
“The media calls our society ‘utopia’,” I said to him. “What a joke! Christ, I read the newspapers. There was a murder last week! Some guy’s wife had triplets and to keep them from being euthanized at birth like they should have been, the father shot and killed Dr. Hitz and Leora Duncan and then killed himself. Leora Duncan! Of all people! And they let the kids live! What’s wrong with the world today?”
“Who are they? Or were they, rather?” said Red, whose real name I don’t remember.
“What? How can you not know who they are?”
I was incredulous. “Everybody knows who Dr. Hitz and Ms. Duncan were! Dr. Hitz was one of America’s two obstetricians, and Ms. Duncan was head ‘sheep dipper’ at the Federal Bureau of Termination.” The term “Sheep dip” is a bit vulgar, but not nearly as obscene as “catbox”. I prefer the term “Happy Hooligan,” myself. There are lots of euphemisms for the place.
Red answered, “I’ve been on Mars for fifteen years. Just got back yesterday. Haven’t seen a newscast or read the paper.”
“Oh. Is it as bad as I’ve heard there?” I asked. Besides the heinous murder, the paper had said something about some catastrophe on Mars, but there was little information about it. Like I said to Red, the damned media do their best to make it look like this is utopia.
“Worse,” he replied. “A pressure leak in a dome killed fifteen people and sent at least a hundred to the hospital, and many of them are in critical condition. It was a different dome than the one I was in, and I left Mars two days later so I don’t know much.”
“Really?” I was shocked. “That many died? God, nobody on Earth dies unless they want to. Except Dr. Hitz and Ms. Duncan, those poor souls, killed by that evil Edward Wehling. God what a monster! But you were saying?”
“Death’s not uncommon on Mars, and in fact its lack of population is a mark against it. Makes it hard to stay alive, since life is really tenuous in a place without enough air to breathe, and temperatures like Antarctica in August. Staying alive there takes teamwork. At least they got all that water from Saturn’s rings now, and more there if they’re ever in danger of running out. But it’s still really dangerous out there.”
“Well, since nobody dies except by freak accident or the Happy Hooligan, nobody dies here. I guess freak accidents on Mars aren’t so freakish.
“That damned Wehling was a freak, but he was no accident. He was the triplets’ father. He wanted the children to live, the fool. Why on Earth would anyone want to live, except that every one of us is terrified of dying? And a newborn doesn’t know anything about that, does it? End it when it doesn’t know!
“I mean, look, Life is damned boring and meaningless unless you’re born with some sort of talent, like art or music, or are smart enough to be a scientist or an engineer. Or get really lucky like that guy,” I said, pointing to the bartender. “Probably owns the place. Nobody else has jobs.
“And damned heavy,” Red replied. I had wondered why he was wearing the exoskeleton, considering the modern health systems. Like I said before, there aren’t any cripples.
He slapped the contraption’s mechanical arm with his thin, weak, human Martian arm. “Fifteen years on Mars and you’re stuck in one of these things until you get your muscles back.” He took a drink. I first noticed that it seemed like lifting the mug was a great burden to him, as if it were made of something heavier than lead. He used both hands.
“Hmm,” I said, “maybe I should go to Mars despite the danger. Because there ain’t shit here, and there ain’t any kids on Mars.” Have a kid on Mars and whoever comes back to Earth first, you or the kid, goes straight to the Hooligan. I continued.
“And it’s boring here. Sure, there’s enough food and water and living space and you can print almost anything you want off with your plastic printer, but what good is that? There’s nothing to do. Only the freak few like Duncan and Hitz have real jobs.
“Job. That word is hardly part of the language any more, the robots do it all. Nobody has a job except for the lucky ones with brains, or maybe talent, like scientists and engineers and writers and artists and musicians. Maybe I should take piano lessons. But why? There would be so many so much better than me. No, maybe Mars is the answer.”
“Kid,” he said to me, despite his looking ten years younger than I do, and slapped the exo again. “You really want to wind up in one of these? You come back—if you come back, space is still really dangerous—you have to have therapy. I’ll need some work on my eyes, that’s why I came back, and the physical therapy is damned painful.
“Those piano lessons sound like a good idea, kid. You sound like you need a hobby. Ever play golf? Baseball? Bowling? Look, you don’t have to be famous, just find something you’ll enjoy doing. You don’t even have to be any good at it. If you like danger, mountain climbing, skydiving...”
“They all bore me.”
“You think a job isn’t boring? I’ll bet Ms. Duncan’s job bored her to tears sometimes and nearly drove her nuts other times. All jobs are like that, kid.
“Even professional piano players have days where they say ‘man, I do NOT feel like doing this gig but I signed a contract.’ So take lessons, then. Or guitar, anything. Learning it will be a challenge, and you’ll find pleasure doing it. But if it’s a job, you’ll probably wind up hating it. Be your own master! Do what you want! Don’t make it so you have to do what somebody else tells you to. Learn guitar or piano and just play them when you want to.”
As if on cue, someone started strumming a guitar somewhat talentlessly. “See?” Red said, motioning toward the music. “Like that guy, do it because you want to!”
Just then a sad, lonely looking, heavy blonde woman with eyes that matched Red’s, except hers were red, sat down on the other side of me on the only open stool in the crowded place. She ordered a double shot of Bourbon from the burly, bald, gray-eyed bartender. I sipped my beer.
“I don’t know what I want, but I’m finished with skydiving and mountain climbing,” I told Red. “The injuries hurt like hell until a gurney got there. Being in fear and pain’s no fun.”
Red shook his head. “Neither is Mars! Maybe you’re ready for the Lucky Pierre? Took my Uncle Dave there, really weird place. You die where you were born. And get this—they’re so anxious for volunteers they have a phone booth in the obstetrics waiting room to call the bureau! A real antique from the nineteen hundreds, with an old rotary phone hung on the booth’s wall, with a coin slot and everything. The quaint old phone doesn’t work, of course, it’s just there for show. You have to use your own phone. The building’s a historic landmark, built way back in 1962, and the phone booth was there from the start. They try to make it look like the Lucky Pierre was there forever.”
“No, I don’t want to die, I’m not crazy. But what’s a phone booth? And a rotary phone? What, the phone twirls around like a top?”
Red grinned. “A rotary phone has a dial for entering numbers. A phone booth is a closet-sized space you can make a phone call in private and...” Red looked at his phone. “Oops, I’m almost late for therapy. I’d better get going. Good luck with that boredom problem,” he said. He drained his beer mug, again straining to do so.
“Thanks,” I said. He got up, put his arms back in the exo, and hobbled out in it. I noticed when he left he needed its powered assistance to open the antique door. Maybe Mars wasn’t such a great idea...
I ordered another beer. The blonde woman ordered another double Bourbon. I noticed again that her green eyes were red, as if she’d been crying. “Are you okay, dear?” I asked.
A tear tried to escape her eye, and she hurriedly wiped it away. “Yes,” she replied. “A death, but I’m fine. Or will be.”
She must have known one of the Martians that died in that terrible accident, I thought, or at least had met one once. Or maybe somebody she’d met had gone to see the girl in purple, the sheep dip lady. At any rate, it felt really awkward; I mean, nobody’s used to death. I never actually knew anyone who’d died, but I would imagine that it would be painful to you even if it was an acquaintance you barely knew.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. Knowing someone who died would surely be horrible. You would never see them again! I was thinking of Red taking his uncle to the Hooligan. That was probably why he went to Mars, to get away from everything and get it off his mind.
“Thank you,” she said, and started sobbing into a napkin.
Utopia, my ass. If this was utopia, nobody would ever cry. Or get bored. Or lonely, and the woman sitting next to me looked very lonely, indeed.
“Was it someone you knew well?” I asked, and immediately regretted asking, as she began bawling again. The burly bald bartender (shaved, of course; nobody’s naturally bald) came over and asked her if I was being bothersome, while giving me a dirty look.
“She’s suffered a loss,” I said. “I was trying to console her...”
He rolled his eyes. “Wadja lose, honey? Weddin’ ring or sompin?”
“No,” she said, glaring at him. “I lost my wedding!”
The big barkeep turned bright red. “I… I… Oh, my God!” he stammered. “Your husband left you?”
She glared at him even harder and tears started streaming down her face. She ignored them. “He died, you… you...”
She started crying into her napkin again. The barman became gruff again. “Goin’ to the catbox to join him?”
“I can’t!” she screamed at him. “I have three babies to raise!”
I got up and went home without saying anything to anybody. I just got up and walked out, leaving most of my beer on the bar and I didn’t even leave a tip, and that’s not like me. I don’t waste beer and I always tip.
I was disgusted with that woman, that bartender, the world, and myself. Maybe Red was right? I pondered that phone number; the number that called the Hooligan. Everybody knows that number, they advertise it constantly. Two B R nought two B. Like Shakespeare, you know? With that sickeningly sweet little jingle about going to the Hooligan because your lover left so some ignorant brat can be born.
No, I decided. Every time someone goes to birdland, some idiot has a kid. Babies are the most ignorant human beings on Earth. They don’t know anything! Like the stupid world needs more ignorance. Hell, because of Mars there’s going to be fifteen more ignorant, screaming brats. Maybe more. If that stupid woman’s triplets had waited a week they would have lived without her murderous husband killing anyone.
I hate kids, the ignorant little beggars. At least until they’re grown.
Nope, I’m stayin’. Not even going to Mars. I’ll find something to do. The world doesn’t need any kids. Especially babies! I especially detest babies!
|Sentience||The Stories Behind the Stories|