By Parson Thru
A friendly and familiar voice began wafting its reminder through the apartment and from the face of Tom's watch.
The voice became more insistent as the hour approached.
“You have an appointment with the Department of Population Balancing. Ten a.m. Subject: Sustainment Payment.”
Tom walked into the dining-living room.
“Thank you, Help. Screen on, please."
The screen covered one end of the room. It lit instantly.
Tom called his way through the navigation.
"Services. Gov. Families. Sustainment.”
The appointment appeared in the centre of the screen.
"Begin, please." Ana entered the room speaking clearly and firmly.
A man in relaxed office wear appeared on one side of the screen. On the other, a menu of controls and additional information.
The man spoke.
“Good morning Mr. Scott. My name’s Kyle and I’m your service avatar for this meeting. You are Principal Claimant. My sensors have identified an additional dependant to be present. Name: Ana Scott. Confirmed identity by facial recognition. Do you wish to appeal the observation?”
Tom looked at Ana.
“No. That’s correct thank you.”
Two additional dependants are currently outside the dwelling. Is that correct?”
“Thank you. Please sit down and relax. I’m detecting heightened anxiety arousal. Do you wish to make any changes to your personal status?”
“No. Nothing has changed.”
The service avatar nodded.
“May I call you by your first names?”
“Ana. Would you like to join the meeting formally?”
Ana hesitated. “Yes. Thank you.”
She sat on the sofa beside Tom.
The service avatar quickly summarised the history of the claim, including that of dependants Jimi and Sara.
“Have you done any paid work in the last four weeks, Tom?”
The avatar flashed a kindly smile.
“Today’s meeting has been timed to coincide with the anniversary of your claim for sustainment.”
“Yes.” Tom answered. “I know.”
“Statutory sustainment payments without population balancing interventions are only available for twelve months. You are aware of the payment conditions?”
“As continuing payment is subject to a balancing intervention from today, I need your authorisation to arrange attendance for you and your dependants at a clinic of your choice, free of charge, or terminate sustainment payments from today. Do you understand?”
Ana spoke. “Is there no appeal? This is monstrous.”
Tom looked at his wife. “These are the conditions, love. We’ve tried.”
The service avatar adopted a sympathetic tone.
“Do either of you or the two other dependants have a firm offer of work? I have no employer prompts against your profile, but maybe there’s one outstanding. Please can you confirm?”
There was silence for a few moments.
Tom spoke. “We have no offers. There is no work. I think the Department is fully aware of the situation nationally.”
“I’m sorry. I can only discuss the profile of the dependants at this address. Please can you confirm that you have not had paid work and that you and your dependants have no offers of work?”
“I confirm.” Tom’s throat was tight with exasperation.
The service avatar nodded.
“Good. You may choose not to take part in population balancing and leave the scheme if you prefer. Would you like to leave the scheme?”
“How can we?” Ana shouted. “You’ll end our payments.”
“I’m sorry. Please could you confirm if you would prefer to leave the scheme?”
Tom and Ana looked at each other.
“It’s so unfair that the children have to be done, too. It’s just wrong.”
The avatar spoke. “All dependants of child-bearing age have to enter the programme. The conditions are available from the menu and are well known. The population has to be balanced with the active economy. This has been the policy of successive Governments for fifteen years. Further sustainment payments, for life, are conditional on participation in the programme. Please can you confirm whether you wish to opt out of the scheme now?”
Tom’s head was in his hands.
“What would we live on? I don’t know anyone who’s opted out. I barely know anyone who’s working, but everyone who isn’t is in the programme.”
“Programme?” Ana was close to tears. “It’s fucking sterilisation!”
“I know. What can we do? What can anyone do? Tech has replaced almost everyone. No drivers. No admin. No call centres. Hardly a management job anymore. Anyone working is living up in the gated compounds. Half the population’s in prison. Ana. Oh, my love. We’ve known this was coming. I’m so sorry.”
Tom gripped Ana’s hand. She looked at him and nodded. It was hopeless to try to resist the system.
Ana looked squarely at the service avatar, who seemed moved by what he was seeing.
“We confirm that we will not opt out. We’re moving onto the balancing programme. How else can we live?”
“Thank you Ana.” The avatar replied gently. “I confirm that you, Ana Scott, Tom Scott and your dependants Jimi and Sara are enrolled on the population balancing programme. Please make an appointment to attend a clinic within thirty days. Details are available at the menu. Your lifelong sustainment payments will begin as soon as we receive confirmation from the clinic that the intervention has been completed successfully. Do you have any questions?”
Tom and Ana shook their heads.
“No.” They answered together.
“In that case the meeting is closed. Thank you for attending. Goodbye.”