The Wheel of Stars shown prominent on the wall as Cheryl and Hue entered the Office of Population Planning.
“Is that it?” Cheryl asked as she stood staring at the roulette looking pinwheel, its colors muted rather than the garish casino colors, the sequential numbers replaced with random ages paired with letter codes.
“If you choose to use it. Yes, we’ll be using that to determine your child’s future.” The clinician said, polite but business-like. “Won’t you two have a seat. We’ve got a few minor points to clear up.”
Hue noticed that there were four pie-wedges that stood out from the other sections of the Wheel. They were colored bronze, silver and gold — the lucky fates; and the fourth, a solid black slice with a single red dot in its wide end.
“Now then, as you know, you can select from a limited assortment of ages and happiness levels for your child or, you can elect to spin the Wheel of Stars to try for a longer, happier life.” The woman behind the desk, her hair drawn back in a constrictive bun, set her tablet down and looked both expectant parents in the eye. “But, as you’ve no doubt realized, to balance out the world’s population, as agreed to by UN regulation L2055, the Wheel options must, on average, work to forward the UN’s objective.”
Hue glanced back at the Wheel, he couldn’t stop looking at that black dagger looking section. “How often does that black wedge come up?” he asked.
“Well, fifty segments, which would mean, again, on average, we see about one out of fifty fates land on that option.”
The clinician picked up the tablet. “I see here that the both of you have opted for yourselves the joint eighty-four year, reduced happiness LifeLevel, a common selection for couples. When the program was implemented those twenty years ago many chose that exact plan. However, with all newborn citizens, the LifeLevel must be preordained at the time of birth. Have you decided what age and happiness level your child should have, or have you elected to spin the Wheel?”
Cheryl looked down at her fingernails, her left thumb chipped from picking. Hue reached over and gently rested his hand on hers stopping the next flake from falling. He said, “We can’t imagine knowing the exact date of death of our child, our boy Jin.” Hue released his wife’s hand and clasped his together in a sort of prayer. “Knowing when he would die, at least the month…”
“Yes, the bots have a bit of random built in so the exact time of death is within a thirty day range,” interrupted the administrator. Some parents didn’t realize that there was variability built into the system; that the truncation of the telomeres of the chromosomes began in earnest only after the nanobots had expired and that it took time to complete that process.
“Right,” confirmed Hue.
Cheryl exclaimed, “But we would have to live with the knowledge that we picked his final age and how happy he would be throughout his life.” She shook her head seemingly dazed at the possibility.
“So…” began the clinician, “you’ve opted to let the Stars decide your child’s future.”
Both parents nodded.
“Okay then.” The woman placed the tablet face up before them. “If each of you would press your thumbprints there and there. Good. Now, one of you needs to press that red button there on the screen and we will let the Wheel of Stars decide.”
Cheryl reached but hesitated. Hue grasped her hand and the two of them extended their index fingers and together lowered them to touch the crimson square glowing on the device.
The Wheel behind them began to spin. It was a digital version of the Wheel, but it beeped and booped as it spun around. The different colored segments blurred past. The gold and silver were visible as opposing blades, the bronze wedge spun opposite of the black spear head, its red dot a mesmerizing twirl.
The Wheel began to slow. Hue held Cheryl close as first the gold slice slipped past the selector. Gold: One hundred and twenty years of age, with adequate health and a good happiness quotient guaranteed through both fixed income and a nanobot induced chemical joy level.
The black wedge spun past. At each revolution Hue’s shoulders tightened and released.
Silver approached. Silver: An age of one hundred, with good health and a considerable happiness quotient – a bit more than gold’s it was said.
But silver swept past. The other wedges, pastel blue, mauve and sea-foam green had ages ranging from sixty-five to eighty-five, with varying levels of health and happiness; green shorter but happier than the mauve; mauve shorter but happier than the blue. Blue, effectively what both Cheryl and Hue had chosen for themselves.
Next was bronze (‘ninety, high quality health and very happy,’ read Hue on the disclaimer) and yet the Wheel continued to turn, beep-boop-beep, but more slowly. Gold came into view again. ‘Gold, what a blessing that would be,’ thought Hue. But gold clicked past. Blue, green, mauve, blue, green…
The black wedge loomed closer. Its red eye glaring at Hue. Cheryl pinched her eyes shut.
“Not that one. Not that one,” chanted the father as he too closed his eyes.
The Wheel of Stars ceased its noises and stopped. Hue let out a constrained breath. Cheryl began to raise her head.
“I’m sorry,” said the clinician. “But as you know, balance is our goal. We at the Office of Population Planning must accept that all longevities must average out.”
Cheryl and Hue stared at the vertical black wedge, the red dot pulsating.
“Like a shooting star, some have described it.” The administrator had only seen the black wedge selected twice before. “Dazzlingly bright, full of love and joy, more than most people will experience in their entire lifetimes. But, like a falling star, brief.”
Pale, Hue looked up, his hands gripping the edge of the administrator’s desk. “I’ve heard the dark fate offers options. That we can negotiate a different future for our boy.”
The clinician slid her hand across the tablet cutting off the ongoing recording. “We have certain leeway in determining how to best manage the balance of the directive. That is true. But the minimum I might offer is a trade of say, one hundred years.”
Cheryl gasped. “But that would mean…”
“As currently assigned, your child would enjoy one the most pleasurable childhoods offered on the planet.” The administrator’s eyebrows narrowed quizzically.
Hue took his wife’s hands in his. He gripped them intensely and lowered his head to touch hers. “This choice is beyond us. We know that. Jin must live.”
Cheryl grasped her husband and, sobbing, nodded into his shoulder. He raised his chin to look defiantly into the eyes of the Administrator of the Office of Population Planning. “So be it. We grant our combined one hundred years of remaining life to our unborn child.”
The woman smiled grimly. “All right. I see that the child is to be born in six months, that leaves you in deficit of about a half a year,” she said looking up from her inspection of the adjusted contract. “But, I’ll go ahead and wave that given the sacrifice you’ve both just made.”
“He’s beautiful,” whispered Hue to his wife as they held their child for the first and last time.
Cheryl’s tears trickled down to plop onto the forehead of their son Jin. The droplets worked down the child’s cheek causing him to quiver. “He is beautiful isn’t he,” she said as her emotion overwhelmed her. “Will he be all that we dreamed?”
The nanobots had triggered their telomere execution the moment that the child had breathed its first independent breath. The Office of Population Planning had optimized the cell death algorithm. Cheryl’s eye’s drooped and her muscles gave way as Hue responded with his dying words, “Only the stars can tell.”