By John McLaughlin
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The worst part about the job, and you might be surprised to hear this-- the worst part isn't the actual killing (if you could even call it that). No, it's when a customer breezes through the office with the whole family in tow, like they're all headed on a big, happy field trip. It's like, buddy, you saw the sign out front, right? The big, chunky government-approved typeface that spells out Euthanization Center in neon red? This ain't the candy store-- no place for kids, probably not your wife either. Can't you all share those last goodbyes at home?
Because I'm the one who has to drag the guy's weepy-eyed ass away from his family, over to the check-in desk, examine his paperwork, discuss his options. And then he has a decision to make, a big one. We tally up his remaining life-years and look at the current market rate; the price fluctuates, like any commodity, but it usually hovers around two thousand a year. Nine times out of ten, he'll take that buyout. So I make the wire transfer to an account of his choice, congratulate him on the wise financial decision, and then we shake hands.
The guy who steps in just now, he ain't that dumb, thankfully. He comes alone. The door clangs shut behind him-- dark features, mostly hidden by a gray, wide-brimmed hat pulled low over the eyes. But there's something strange about him; his posture, his self-assurance, maybe. Spine stiff, shoulders pulled back, cords of muscle taut across the neck. Doesn't strike me as a man going to his end. Former UN commando? Obviously, life has thrown him a few punches-- why else would he be in here, after all-- but not enough to break the man under that ragged coat.
"How can I help you, sir?"
"This is the Columbus EC, right?" he says, finally meeting my eyes. "I'd like to take my buyout."
And now I get a better look at his face. Green eyes-- and I mean green, like the algae they grow for food in those ten-story vats-- clean-shaven, smooth features stretched across razor-sharp cheekbones. This fella is only pushing his mid-thirties, max; his family will earn a nice pay day.
See, when you turn eighteen, you can sign up for the dole and get your thirty quality-adjusted life years. And you should take those years, because private jobs don't exist anymore, except at the pharma compounds, and only then if you know a guy who knows a guy. So you can trade your years, sell 'em, accept a lump sum buyout from the US government. Most of the old-fashioned family guys take that last option. The way they see it-- and the math seems to agree-- they're more use to their kids dead and disassembled than out breathing what's left of our HEPA-filtered air. Or, you can keep all your QALYs, live the hedonist life, go crazy. But when your time is up, you go in the box and you don't whine about it. Because what good would that do you?
"Certainly," I answer, and nod toward his coat sleeve. "May I?"
He extends me a bare arm, turns his hand palm up so I can swipe the social security chip buried in his flesh. My scanner unit starts at mid-forearm, searching, searching, and then lights up as it passes over a knot of pale veins at the wrist. Well, I'll be damned; he's only twenty-eight. A buyout for twenty QALYs will make a hell of a Christmas gift.
"Thank you, Mister...Hayden." I place the scanner back on the counter. "So, a full buyout-- let's see: a balance of twenty years, at the current rate, that comes to forty thousand dollars. Would you like to proceed?"
"Wonderful. Now, just step through here--" I point the way toward the back office-- "yes, that door right there, and see Dr. Glenn, our board-certified psychiatrist. He'll take you through the rest of the procedure."
Hayden sidles past the rent-a-cop posted at the shrink's door, takes in the office surroundings for a moment and then shakes the good doctor's hand. The box is right in plain sight-- a polished, translucent coffin propped against the corner wall, its PVC tubes snaking into rusted carbon monoxide tanks. Hayden doesn't flinch.
"Once things are underway, it's really quite painless," Glenn reassures him. "Now, sir, repeat after me: I, being of sound mind..."
Following the doctor's instruction, Hayden recites aloud the social security contract. It's no Declaration of Independence, but I'll admit, it's got a certain poetry to it.
"...and I thus accept this one-time, tax-free payment in exchange for liquidation of my remaining QALYs."
Hayden finishes the oath, and then everything happens fast.
He whips around to face me, gray coattails billowing, and before I can blink twice there's a hand-cannon out in his grip. He flexes, puts one slug through our security guard-- a dull, sickening thud-- which then passes straight through the drywall and ricochets sparks around the waiting room. Must have been one of those new Chinese rounds, because the poor guy's abdomen just kind of dissolves, and now he's slumped inside the doorframe cradling what's left of his lower half, a thick brown sludge that crawls between his fingers. Glenn lets out a shriek like a schoolgirl.
"You," Hayden commands, leveling the barrel between my eyes now, "show me the completed transaction."
The portable display is shaking in my hands but the lunatic can at least make out his digital receipt of payment, enough to satisfy him. And then he's backing up, backing up, out the door, gone.
"Shit!" It's all I can manage, a few moments later-- doubled over and out of breath. "How'd he get the drop on us like that? This is bad. Bad!"
Glenn staggers from his office-- stepping gingerly around the steaming torso-- and leans one arm against the front desk. "QALY misappropriation, as you're well aware, is a capital offense."
I swallow, hard. The feds don't joke around when it comes to even the whiff of embezzlement. The 2037 famine put an end to that. "Okay, so where are we gonna find twenty extra years?"
The front door rattles open and another bloke walks in. Alone. "Uh," he starts, glancing around at the wreckage. "Are y'all still open?"
Glenn and I turn to each other and exchange that knowing look, the kind only passed between government employees. We both smile like our QALYs depend on it. "Right this way, sir!"
Like I said, I hate this job.