by Julie Wornan
“That’s it. We can lock up.”
“Three a.m. It’s been a long day. Get some rest, Janna.”
“You too, sir. Are you biking home?”
“No, I’m too tired. I think I’ll just crash out here. This old lab floor is getting used to me.” He tried to smile but his face was taut.
When he reached for the rolled-up foam mattress he kept on the coat rack shelf, Janna heard herself say, “Why don’t you come home with me?” This surprised them both, but there was no turning back.
“It’s just a ten-minute walk to my place. I have a sofa.” And then, because his eyes didn’t meet hers, she said quickly, “I’m just offering the sofa. No sex.”
He fondled the mattress roll, hesitated. His unruly hair was between blond and white, and Janna thought he could be any age from 40 to 60. Although they had worked together for two months, Janna realized that she knew very little about him except that his name was Simon, although she called him “sir,” and that he was very gentle, usually tired, and oddly shy.
“Hey, c’mon,” she said. “I’ve got a charcoal stove and an extra eiderdown for the sofa. I’ll make us hot chocolates and then we can sleep until ten.”
“True,” he mused, “the Progress Meeting is at eleven and we don’t have to come in much before that. Just to feed the animals. A good night’s sleep! Okay, Janna, you win.
“But no sex, and you must call me Simon.” He looked at her then as though for the first time. As in a sense, it was. Black hair cut page-boy style, serious mouth, smiling eyes. According to her résumé she was 29 and had a masters in statistics with honors, which was why he had hired her. He was amazed at her capacity for work. But hard work meant survival now. Salaries were a thing of the past; pay was strictly for results. And they both felt lucky to have these jobs.
Janna said, “Just one minute” and while Simon buttoned his coat, she opened the rat cage a hand’s breath, pulled a rat out, deftly relieved it of its sad life, rolled the body in a sheet of scrap paper from an old progress report and popped it into her bag.
“So, you have a cat?” he whispered softly when they were outside.
Janna winked. House pets were strictly forbidden. Most had been eaten, anyway.
They didn’t need a torch. The moon was bright and Janna knew her way almost by the smells. The derelict houses all smelled putrid from the floods and from uncollected garbage.
They tried to fill the silent space by talking about the Project. The details, the daily tasks, not the overview. This they knew only too well, and few people cared to talk about it.
The world’s population was six billion now, but the exhausted planet had just enough fertile land, fresh water and sources of energy and minerals to support two billion at most. So the population had to be reduced, and quickly. By wars, famines, epidemics, exhortation or sterilisation. The first three methods had reduced the numbers from nine billion down to six. The fourth was quite useless.
Storms and droughts ravaged the world’s food supply. Economies collapsed, states failed. Lawless bands plundered and murdered. The one positive outcome was that politicians of all stripes left a scene that had nothing in it for them, leaving the political space to a few courageous women and men desperate to save what was left of human dignity. A worldwide government was formed.
Among its most urgent tasks was to impose population control via non-voluntary sterilisation. This was not a time for democracy. The air and water were to be dosed with minute traces of certain substances. The goal was a birth rate of 0.75 children per couple for as long as it would take. One-fourth of the population would be sterile for life, and the remainder would become so at approximately age 30 or upon giving birth.
The researchers’ task was to determine precisely the required dosage. The preliminary experiments used rats and monkeys; later it would be human volunteers. Ten thousand would-be immigrants had already signed up.
The two colleagues shivered in the night wind and fell silent. Then Simon said, “Janna, you mustn’t think I don’t like you.”
“No problem,” she said. “Simon, you’re married, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes... But we’re separated. But, you see, I don’t...”
“Like me!” she said. “I made a chastity vow. You too?”
But now they had reached a small brick building and Janna turned her key in the lock. Soon a fire was crackling in an ancient cast-iron stove. The one-room flat was furnished with old things and smelled like cinnamon. Simon ran his fingers gently over the thick woollen bed cover, richly red like the curtains. “My great-grandmother’s,” Janna told him, stirring their drinks.
Simon didn’t ask her where she’d got the chocolate from, but just let himself enjoy it. Mushika enjoyed the rat. Simon shut his eyes a moment. There was no need to fill the silence now.
Then he opened his eyes to look at Janna in the firelight. So thin she was, and so self-confident. “Why did you make a chastity vow?” he asked. “Are you religious?”
“Oh no,” she laughed. “It was for my self-respect. I thought, While I keep this vow, I know I can control myself, and therefore, my life. Despite the spying, the probing, the forbidding. Here, try on this big old robe.”
She turned her back while she changed into a pair of baggy pyjamas. “Maybe you could call it a superstition,” she continued. “But it has helped, lots. And you, Simon?”
“I... well, I was young, I was an activist for the Cause. Population reduction. Zero Kids. Set the example. But I didn’t trust my willpower. So I... did something to myself... Oh, not with a knife! With chemicals. So now I can’t, you see...”
“And what did your wife think of this?”
“She’d made a vow like yours, before we met. We got along pretty well in those first years. But she couldn’t keep to it and so she left me.”
The fire burned low. Quietly, the two friends slipped into bed under the old thick eiderdown and snuggled into each other’s arms for comfort in the cheerless night, while, from the foot of the bed, Mushika purred them a lullaby.
Copyright © 2012 by Julie Wornan