An earlier version of this story was published in Heroic Care: 35 Writers & Artists Show What It Means to Care, A multi-genre anthology edited by Betsy Ellor, 2021.
I wake knowing.
When the Committee knocks at the door, I am clean, dressed, my hands folded in my lap as I sit, waiting.
The chairperson holds out a letter. I unfold it: Dear Citizen. The Committee is here to inform you … I don’t need to read more. I drop it on the side table; a table that soon, along with my living space, will be sterilized, made ready for another resident.
My few journals, my sketches, my unfinished knitting, will be of no use to a new owner and will be incinerated. My private thoughts—the tiny, flashing jewels of my dreams—those will end with me.
Her back straight, flanked by two assistants, the chairperson offers me time to prepare. But I have nothing left undone. My completed scientific research went to the central database last week. My living space is orderly. When I stand to leave, she insists first on explaining the procedure, step-by-step. Citizens must be informed and consenting. We are taught this from birth. It is fundamental to social order.
I am informed. I am consenting. With the chairperson one steady pace behind, I walk down the long corridor to the Exit Wing. It is exactly as she told me it would be. Doors buzz open: we pass into a small room. She shakes my hand, almost meets my eyes. Steps away. Out. The door closes quietly. Alone, I take off my clothes, and enter, as she’d instructed, into a disinfecting shower.
When the shower ends, a door opens on the other side; I step through, and slide into a sterile paper suit the doctor hands me with a gentle smile. I lie on a metal table, feel the intravenous needles poke my skin, close my eyes.
Bright images from a distant past flash against my lids. My childhood was a beaded necklace of sleepless nights and anxious days. Droughts, floods, devastating storms, failed crops, drowned boatloads of humans desperate to escape one misery for another; all of what used to be called the climate emergency and was now simply life on Earth was my personal collection of worry beads. So, barely old enough, barely finished with my education in environmental science, I was among the first to join during the government’s early recruiting drives. Civil Servants Save Citizens.
Not just administrators, but soldiers (superheroes, they told us) in a battle for the survival of the species—of all remaining species—we aimed to give ourselves to the greater good.
It was in another letter, all those years ago, that I learned I had been accepted. Dear Citizen. The Committee is pleased to inform you … I read carefully, read again, delight and bright hope rising as my fingertips stroked the watermarked pages. Citizens must be informed and consenting. I memorized the details of travel to my new off-planet home, packed a few belongings, fiercely hugged my loved ones, and left for the long trip to the newest colony.
We joined to work in science, in communications, in support roles. In our 20s, 30s, and a few youthful 40s, our wave of new bureaucrats brought a bubble of idealistic excitement into the assembly hall where orientation was held. For a per diem (deposited to a dedicated account on our behalf), all meals, and a small living unit, we swore to give our passion and our best mental efforts to improving life on Earth.
We were interviewed, signed the employment contract, then came together to recite a heartfelt pledge to benefit all beings, every day. My voice rang out.
The pledge ended: abruptly, so did dreams of camaraderie and joint effort. Separately, we were processed, disinfected, examined, and either sent left, down the long corridor (to the Exit Wing, I heard whispered), or right, into isolated apartments.
It has been a lonely life, but not terrible. In corridors, around the edges of curfews and solitary meals, we smile, form feathery friendships. Separation keeps us from feeding each other’s fears and discontent. At least I have been privileged to be kept at a peak of mental and physical health, and to avoid the food riots and wasting poverty of the masses of citizens on the home planet.
My body and brain are heavy now. My eyes are shut like the lids of iron chests. I want to fling them open: for one glimpse of the ceiling above, of the doctor’s smile, of anything other than the dark inside of my skull. But I’ve waited too long. I cannot move.
I don’t feel sorry for myself. Anymore. I’ve used my brain to solve problems for the good of all beings; and there is no question that the number of humans alive has crushed the planet. Numbers must be controlled. Longevity is not for all. Some of us must play my role. I have served. I will serve.
My organs and body parts will improve the future of many who haven’t had the fortune of my DNA, of my pampered existence. What more should I want? A love of life is why I joined the civil service.
Citizens must be informed and consenting. Now informed, I consent. Reduce, reuse, recycle is the only way the life I love survives.