by Jonathan Last
Mitchell Adams chewed his Imitation Wheat Flakes while staring out at the never-ending neon and chrome skyline. It didn’t work. He could still see the reflection of the gestation countdown grid in the dirty window. The bloody thing took up the entire kitchen wall; Mitchell hadn’t been able to enjoy a peaceful breakfast in months – more than nine months, as a matter of fact. He squeezed his eyes shut and told himself that tomorrow he would finally rip it down. Because today would be the day, it had to be. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.
The grid cost ten weeks’ wages and had dominated the couple’s attention since the day it had been installed, back when they were still trying to get pregnant. Going out was no escape, thanks to the live feed app on their Z-12s. No doubt this was all good preparation for life with a demanding child, Mitchell mused ruefully.
When he opened his eyes and turned away from the window, his attention was drawn – as it always was, as it was supposed to be – to the grid’s countdown display. The number had changed, of course. The data it pulled in had so many variables that the display was in a continual state of flux. Mitchell couldn’t remember all of the salesbot’s boasts, but the device’s main selling point was that it accessed the latest birth and death statistics on national, local and micro-local levels and was attuned to even the most minor shift in atmospheric pressure. It then fed all of this information, and more, into one central report.
Currently that report read 0d-15h-46m-43s.
Mitchell turned his left hand over and glanced at his palm-grafted Z-12. The time was 07:17 now, so that would make delivery… just after eleven o’clock, nearly midnight. Tight. Too tight. This time last week it had been predicting that the baby would come today with several hours to spare; since then, it had been edging closer to tomorrow, closer to disaster, every time they checked it.
‘Come on, you – let’s get this over with.’
Her voice was croaky; Mitchell looked up as his wife entered the tiny room. She hadn’t slept well again. Sympathy rose through Mitchell, which turned into amusement when he saw the glint in her eye.
‘What?’ he smiled innocently.
‘Let’s hear it.’ Kaylee waddled through the doorway, one hand on her bump as usual.
‘Let me see,’ he said slowly, getting up.
She was waiting, arms crossed.
She arched her eyebrows.
She frowned. ‘A swan?’
‘Yes,’ he said, moving one arm around her waist and the other across her stomach, ‘because you’re elegant and dignified, but with—’
‘But with a plump middle that I hide well.’
‘Yes.’ She turned her head up and rewarded him with a kiss.
‘And to you.’
He pulled away, and when he was out of range, couldn’t resist adding, ‘I was going to say “hippo” but changed my mind.’
Kaylee gasped and reached out to pinch him, and they both laughed as she only snapped air.
‘What’s this – crab?’
Mitchell realised his mistake in the microsecond before they both felt their left hands buzz.
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ Kay said as she turned hers over to find out the impact of her husband’s carelessness on her Z-12.
‘I can’t be worrying, on this of all days.’
‘I know, I’m sorry, it was an accident.’ Mitchell turned his own hand over. One of the twelve circles, the one with the crab symbol, now displayed a 1. He sat down at the breakfast bar again but found that he had lost his appetite. ‘It was only one mention, surely you’ll be alright to—’
‘Now I have to worry about it, and I have to re-organise my mentioning plan for the day, and you know I’ve got baby brain.’
‘Yes, I know. Please, kitten, come here.’ She stepped forward and allowed him to cuddle her. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’
‘Yes, today.’ He stroked her hair.
Then she jerked away and stiffened.
Dread covered Mitchell like a sheet of ice. She must have seen the gestation grid change to an even more pessimistic report. Now she was upset and he’d have to stay and console her and he would be late for work. It didn’t matter how often he reminded Kay that it was only predicting when their child would be born, despite all the data it pulled in.
But when she stepped back, it was joy he saw in her face.
‘Look.’ She pointed.
‘It’s jumped,’ he said with a glimmer of hope. ‘It’s jumped closer, further into today.’
‘Do you think,’ Kaylee turned to him, ‘do you think we’ll be okay? That our little two-X-chrome will be born on time?’
Mitchell stared at the pulsating mass of lines and numbers, the multi-coloured highway that was by now burned onto the inside of his eyelids.
‘I think there’s a good chance,’ he said evenly. Then, with a smile, ‘And I told you, it’s a Y-X-chrome. Not,’ he added quickly, ‘that I have any preference either way.’
‘Nor, of course, do I,’ agreed Kay. They were both speaking with their palms turned up.
Kay arched her eyes at her husband, then she rolled up her sleeve so the grid could take her daily DNA reading, giving it something else to add to its myriad of information.
The Adams lived on the seventy-second floor of a creaking mecca-block in Sector SW16, South London. Towering though it was, their block was not tall enough to have its own rooftop bullet bus stop, which meant that every day Mitchell had to travel all seventy-two storeys down in the packed glass lift, walk a hundred yards to the nearest stop, and then travel up another eighty floors to catch his bus.
The ‘spectacular views’ that the government had promised when it unveiled its plans for the BulBus network had ceased to take Mitchell’s breath away during the five years he’d been using it. And yes, the buses were quick, the air highways turning what used to take an hour into a mere fifteen minutes. But Mitchell hadn’t wanted to speed up his commute. He enjoyed the travel time: it was time to himself, the chance to quietly read, to think. Any snippets of isolation would become even more cherished when the kid came along – according to Bryant at work, who had twins.
And the commute was pretty much the only time Mitchell managed to forget his life’s other great responsibility, the one he’d been cursed with at birth, he and every other soul. Although he should have realised that on today of all days that was going to be impossible.
Mitchell squeezed onto the 133A1 and wedged himself between a fat woman wearing a touch-screen dress and a businessman in a triple-breasted suit. He tapped his Z-12 to load up his book, a historical mystery, flicked to close the ads – and frowned. One ad would not go away; it was going to make him watch it. He glanced up; the bus’s vid screens were all showing the same footage, as were any of the other passengers’ Z-12s that he could see.
The ad shouted in bold yellow letters: HAPPY GOLDEN BALANCISM DAY!
He had learned to live with the Balancism way of life; it was all he’d ever known, after all, and most of the time he managed to not think about it too much. He’d done okay out of it, too: dull but steady job, lower-middle-, potentially middle-middle-class lifestyle.
But Balancism’s intrusions into day-to-day life were definitely a pain, not least maintaining the twenty-four-hour balance ratio. Like this morning – he knew that his animal game with Kaylee risked them mentioning out loud one of twelve Signs that were associated with animals, but he had started it anyway. Maybe he did it because of the danger, as an act of defiance. But now he had got Kay worried, and that wasn’t good in her condition. If they really were going to have a Piscean baby of whichever sex (pre-natal scans were banned because they could be used to influence the balance) then sometime today they would be in a hospital, answering questions from staff, under stress, emotional. It would be hard to watch what they said, to keep from mentioning any of the Signs more often than the others.
The ad on his palm Z-12 was now telling the history of Balancism – even though everyone had had it drummed into them as soon as they’d learned to talk, the government never missed an opportunity to go on about it all over again. Overpopulation on an unmanageable scale had led to more and more variations of race, creed, gender and lifestyle. This meant more perspectives, more opinions, and more things about which people could fight about. After the conflict had reached its catastrophic, global apex, Balancism rose from the ashes. It recognised the twelve core types of person, those that had once been known as the Signs of the Zodiac, which superseded all other classifications – its labels were found to be the ones least likely to cause offence when used to describe an individual or group. All other ways of classifying people were outlawed. The history of persecution was finally over, and maintaining a harmonious balance of each Sign in the population was essential – hence the gestation countdown grids, along with fatality countdown grids – as was making sure that each Sign was spoken out loud or written down an equal number of times by every living person each day – hence Kaylee’s anxiety this morning.
The phrase ‘history of persecution’ that the ad used made Mitchell recall the time when once, during his lunch half-hour, he had come across a group of protestors who were threatening to start World War IV if their demands weren’t met. The Balance Police swooped in with their usual brutal efficiency, but Mitchell had got the gist of the unrest. Some Capricorns wanted the government to acknowledgement how their birth-period once overlapped with an old religious festival at the end of the Gregorian calendar, known as ‘Christmas’. Apparently, back then those born within the earliest days of the Capricorn cycle would receive fewer born-day gifts than other Signs, owing to the fact that their gifts were often combined with those given as part of the religious festival. So the group were after ‘proportional compensation’ for this past oppression.
Mitchell glanced up from his Z-12. They were passing over the Great Monument, down there on the bank of the Thames River. Mitchell barely noticed the grand tribute to Balancism usually, but today it stood out. The enormous concrete disc had had its twelve equal-sized segments painted different colours to mark fifty years of Balancism. Mitchell smirked as he remembered the news report last night that had detailed the national dissatisfaction with the choice of colours. Each of the twelve groups had something to complain about. The Leos were adamant that the Geminis’ yellow was a more fitting shade for their Sign; the Cancers claimed that their purple absorbed sunlight whereas the lighter colours reflected it, making them seem less important. Everyone thought that they were being marginalised and treated unfairly.
Mitchell was aware of a phase that people used to use: ‘life’s not fair’. Maybe that passed muster way back when, but in today’s world such an idea was scandalous. Everything was now completely fair, even and equal – perfectly balanced. The government had the statistics to prove it.
Mitchell’s palm buzzed. He immediately knew what the message would be about.
Due time’s gone up again! Can’t stop checking every two seconds!!
Mitchell sighed. Was the stress that the contraption caused worth its so-called reassurances? It didn’t actually influence when their child would be born, and in fact its predictions could very well be completely arbitrary. Mitchell had heard rumours that, pre-Balancism, doctors used to not only estimate the due time but were authorised to medically induce a child if they saw fit! But this was before there were population stats displayed on the side of every building. And it was definitely before the unavoidable adverts that bellowed things like London needs Pieces, do your duty! and Too many Aries, keep the balance! The Signs went in and out of favour but the ads’ imagery was consistent. Depicted was either a well-to-do family with a new-born being showered with gifts by well-wishers, or a family dressed in rags being cast out of their home, the Balance Police pursuing them with their electro-clubs.
Mitchell turned back to his palm and tapped out his return message. Try not to worry. Then, with a grimace, he added, Balance will be.
After a pause, he received a one-word reply: Chicken.
Mitchell smiled wanly, then replied: No – sheep.
Mitchell squeezed off the BulBus onto the roof of the Ministry of Balance headquarters. It was London’s most lauded building: an equal-sided dodecagon, made entirely of steel-glass to honour the transparent truth of Balancism. The Ministry proudly declared itself to be the most balanced place in the whole country: not only in terms of employing an equal spread of Signs, but with every other conceivable facet, no matter how minor. The air temperature was consistent; the desks were all identical; even the number of pieces of toilet paper in each roll in each cubicle of each bathroom was monitored and kept the same.
Mitchell’s department, According Representation, was buried deep within that grandiose exterior. He entered the lift, nodding hellos to colleagues, and descended eighty-seven floors to five below street level in less than a minute. The doors opened and he stepped out into the first of several bare-walled corridors, plodding his way along and nodding further hellos as he went.
Halfway up the final corridor he was met with his first friendly face.
‘Alright, Mitch,’ said Bryant. He was carrying two cups of near-coffee and handed one over.
Each man took a sip with his right hand. Mitchell scratched his hairline with his other hand, palm out toward Bryant. His friend adjusted his collar, exposing his own palm to Mitch in return. The gestures were well-rehearsed and furtive, too brief to draw any attention but lingering long enough for both to see what the other had to show him.
Mitchell nodded to himself, then asked, ‘How’s it going?’
‘Not bad. Bit of a sore head.’
‘Must be all that over-analysing you do – classic Virgo.’
‘Ha, more like I was too stubborn and wouldn’t refuse a drink – like a Taurus, you could say.’
‘Diplomatic as ever – anyone would think you were a Libra.’
‘Well, my advice to you, my friend, is to have a Sagittarian’s positive outlook. Especially regarding your expected bundle of joy.’ Bryant paused, frowned. ‘I’m sure it will be before midnight, mate.’
Mitchell looked at him. ‘Thanks, mate. If not, you can have the rest of my canteen tokens.’
‘They will, mate. You know they will.’
Bryant nodded. ‘Balance will be,’ he said, one eyebrow raised.
But Mitchell offered only a weak smile by way of reply. Then he patted his friend on the arm and resumed the walk to his cubicle. Bryant moved on towards the non-fiction department. Both examined their palms as they went.
Mitchell didn’t find his job very fulfilling, but it was possible to lose himself in the work. He’d always liked reading, and now he did it for a living, sometimes famous pieces – and what’s more, he got to edit them.
Today he leaned over his screen and resumed working on a novel from the popular early 21st century conspiracy thriller genre, this one involving corruption in a sport called ‘football’. The main character spent the story straining to make sense of events around him, so naturally Mitchell described him as Scorpioian. But not too often, since this necessitated inserting the same number of references to each of the other eleven Signs across more than sixty thousand words. Keeping track could be a nightmare.
Figuring out how to amend pre-Balancism texts in ways that read naturally wasn’t easy and Mitchell needed to concentrate. Interruptions from Kay didn’t help, and today his Z-12 was buzzing like crazy. She was still obsessed with the due time; Mitchell replied as politely but bluntly as he could throughout the day between switching sentences about loyalty to be about devoted Leos and changing the insult ‘two-faced’ to ‘like a Gemini’.
Then, just as he was logging off, Kaylee video called him.
‘It’s being a difficult bugger.’ The doctor looked up at them and grinned. ‘Whichever chromosomes it has.’
Kay and Mitchell, she in a hospital gown on a gurney, he holding her hand, both smiled weakly.
‘Doesn’t want to do what it’s told – like an Aries, one might say.’ The man glanced at his left palm while pretending to adjust a dial next to the bed.
‘Doctor,’ Kay wheezed. ‘The last thing we want is for the baby to be an—to be one of those.’
‘Ah yes, I see.’ The doctor consulted his Z-12 again. ‘It’s eleven thirty-seven. I would advise you to prepare for the worst.’
‘Is there any way—can’t you make sure that—’
‘What my wife means,’ (Mitchell shot her a severe look) ‘is that perhaps she could be made more comfortable to help balance take its course?’
The cold expression that had consumed the doctor’s face melted back to a jovial mask. ‘Certainly. A midwife will be right with you.’
The doctor left to attend to another patient. Now alone, Kaylee returned Mitchell’s harsh look.
‘What?’ he said. ‘You want to get us thrown in jail?’
‘You should have bribed him. Everyone knows they can still induce. I read on MumsChat that—oh, oh!’
‘Shh, duckling,’ Mitchell whispered while Kaylee rode the contraction, gripping her husband tightly.
‘Mitchell… what if it is too late? What will happen to us?’
Mitchell’s face hardened. ‘I don’t know. But we’ll be fine. Whatever happens, I promise you, we will be fine.’
‘My loyal Labrador.’
‘Shh, panda.’ He rubbed her forehead and kissed her hand.
‘Feels—more intense this time—I think—Mitchell, I think this is it!’
Mitchell let go of her and spun around, just as the doctor and two midwives burst in.
Mitchell let the professionals work, his hand never leaving Kay’s. Every few seconds his eyes shifted to his Z-12.
The contractions came; the midwives told Kaylee to push.
The midwives announced that baby had entered the birthing canal.
More contractions, more pushing.
The midwives told them that baby was crowning.
But baby just didn’t want to come out.
In his mind’s eye, Mitchell saw the dreaded advertisement. The man and the woman being forced out were he and Kaylee: she cradled a bawling new-born while he tried to shield them from the Balance Police’s weapons and the missiles being thrown by their friends and neighbours.
Maybe they could run. Maybe, if they got to the roof, jumped in a helicab...
Or he could redress the balance himself – trawl the hospital, find some elderly Aries patient, push a pillow into his face and hold it there...
‘It’s coming. Come on, one big push!’
And Mitchell watched the midwife pull a wriggling purple thing out of Kaylee and before he knew what was happening, he was staring into a screwed-up, angry little face.
A beautiful little face, staring up at him from a bundle in his arms.
He found his wife’s hand again.
‘Congratulations, you have a healthy baby with two X chromosomes.’
Mother and father were overjoyed.
But only for a second.
‘The time!’ Mitchell almost dropped the bundle. ‘What’s the time of birth?’
‘Eleven fifty-eight,’ a midwife told him. ‘A much-needed Pisces child. Well done, Mrs Adams. In the name of Balancism, we thank you.’
The exhausted Kaylee pulled an it-was-nothing face.
‘Happy Golden Balancism Day,’ the other midwife said.
‘Yes,’ laughed Mitchell, preparing to pass the baby to Kay, ‘Happy—’
But something was wrong.
Kaylee cried out. The midwives sprang into action.
‘What—what is it?’ Mitchell stammered.
‘She’s not done yet.’ The midwife took the now-silent new-born from Mitchell and placed him in a cot.
Kay screamed. This one, it seemed, was not so reluctant to come out.
Mitchell stepped backwards slowly as the midwives worked around him in a blur.
‘Mitchell!’ Kaylee cried, her hand grasping for his.
But her husband was moving further and further away.
When his back touched the door, it was all over.
Nothing could be said. But one of the midwives managed, ‘I’m sorry.’
Mitchell exhaled slowly. When he looked up at her, Kaylee was staring at him with dead eyes.
He had shown his heart and his world had changed. The few feet he travelled back had left him a million miles away.
The surviving twin started to cry.