Immobilizing fear consumes Maeve once the time strikes midnight. She can hear her fellow neighbors rejoicing the New Year in the apartments surrounding her. In any other year, she would have joined in on the celebration, cheering along with screams of joy. But this year is different, this is the year she is turning twenty-five. This is the year her fate will be determined.
In another lifetime, turning twenty-five as a woman was regarded as any other normal birthday milestone. In this life, turning twenty-five to many women means facing the end. The end of the life they wanted. The end of the future they envisioned for themselves.
The death of their freedom and their right to choose.
It’s been decades since the World Population Act (WPA) was enacted. For decades, a woman’s right to reproduce has been determined by an algorithm. An algorithm designed to keep the world’s population in a steady state; enough to keep the human species afloat while also preventing over-population. The Act was created as a last-minute mediation for the rapidly declining environment, as every avenue was tried out and met with devastating failure. The human footprint was too vast and wide that by the time the world got its shit together, it was too hard to mitigate most of its repercussions. The only option left remaining was to control the rate of reproduction. Controlling the human population means controlling the human footprint. And controlling the human footprint means there will be some control of their environmental impact. Thus, hoping to alleviate the disastrous impact they have caused for centuries.
For the first twenty-four years of a woman’s life, they do not know what kind of life they will have. They don’t know if eventually they will be selected.
And that will all change on the year a woman turns twenty-five.
On every New Year’s Day, all women turning twenty-five in that year must go to their designated WPA health clinic and go through a medical exam. The health clinics get blood from these women to input into the algorithm to assess their fertility rate. Those who have a rate lower than 70% will automatically be eliminated from the pool. Those who have a rate higher than 70% are taken into consideration for that year's Reproductive Reading. The women then must wait until the Reading that occurs in the season of their birth, to know if they have been selected. Not only does the algorithm dictate who will have children, but will also determine how many they must have.
Only a small percent of women each year get selected for the Reading’s. And only those selected are authorized to reproduce. The other remaining percent of women simply cannot. It does not matter if they want to, they were not deemed eligible to be selected, thus they cannot have a child.
Each Reading is separated by the seasons. For four times a year, the algorithm dictates who will be included in that year’s pool of potential bearers. With the demand for bearers changing every year, it is always hard to predict what the Reading cycle will be like. One year could require forty percent of women that year to be bearers, while another could require less than twenty. The algorithm takes the ever-changing data of human deaths into consideration for every Reading, adjusting the population count to what is needed.
A long time ago, humans used to mark the Reading days as the beginning of a new season.
Once known as the Spring and Fall Equinox, and the Winter and Summer Solstice, are now known as the Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter Readings. Instead of marking the celebration of the new seasons, they now mark the perseverance and determination of humanity.
There was a time the World Population Act didn’t exist.
There was also a time women had the right to choose.
But for those like Maeve, it’s been years since anyone could remember living in such a time. Now it is hard to fathom a time when the Act didn’t exist.
This year is the year that Maeve is turning twenty-five.
This is the year that she will know if she will be selected. Finally getting her answer on what her fate will be.
As if on cue, her phone dings. She almost misses it from the lingering celebration’s surrounding her, but she has been anticipating this notice. She just didn’t think it would come one minute into the new year.
Maeve picks up her phone and reads the notification of her appointment at the WPA health clinic later today. She, along with every other woman turning twenty-five this year, must give blood and samples.
She attempts to read the appointment’s time and location, but her vision has gone blurry, and her hands are shaking too much to read the words clearly. “8 AM at the Sun Valley clinic,” Maeve reads aloud in a dry, raspy voice once her hands have stopped shaking in what feels like hours later.
She won’t know if she has been selected for another six months, as her birthday resides in June, making her part of the Summer Reading. But today marks the beginning of her year of endless apprehension. The year she will live every moment feeling like she is falling down a dark, endless rabbit hole of what-if scenarios in her head.
Maeve doesn’t even know if she wants to have children. For all her life, it never mattered if she did or not. The choice in the end that determines if she does won’t be made by her. For the first twenty-four years of her life, Maeve tried her hardest to not think about the reading. To not think about if she will be selected. If she will be mandated to have children, maybe even multiple. She also tried to think of her future as little as possible. Deciding to take on the philosophy of living in the moment, she never gave one ounce of her worry to her eventual twenty-fifth birthday.
But now that philosophy has gone out the window. Now she can no longer live in ignorance. The Summer Reading will happen, whether she wants to or not. Her name will be in the selection pool, whether she likes it or not. A choice will be made for her, whether she likes it or not.
Her appointment at the clinic goes by too smooth and quick, that by the time it is late afternoon, Maeve has forgotten that she went. As if the appointment was a little footnote in her day.
If it weren’t for the email confirmation she received by the end of the night that the clinic has successfully obtained and uploaded her biometrics to the algorithm, she would have completely forgotten all about her visit.
And now she must wait exactly 171 days to know what has been decided for her.
It’s now a week until the Summer Reading.
And as much as Maeve has tried to keep her mind from thinking about it, it’s all she has been able to think about.
Today is her actual birthday.
Although she has no ounce of celebration in her body, her friends are still throwing her a small party, as if they know getting sloppy drunk with her friends is the only way for her to cope with this month.
Maeve walks along the sidewalk, making her way to the bar that her friends booked for her party. She stops at the ATM, checks her checking account’s balance, and decides to take out some cash for tonight’s festivities instead of adding another charge to her credit card.
Mindlessly, Maeve inputs her pin code and maneuvers through the ATM screen like a mindless robot, programmed to know the ins and outs of the ATMs functionalities. Once she receives the cash, she is about to log off when something catches her eye. She only has three accounts with her bank: one for savings, one for checking, and her credit card. But the sight of a fourth account makes her heart not only drop but causes her to stop breathing.
She reads the new account that is right underneath her checking account over and over again, thinking her mind is playing games on her. Maeve shuts her eyes tightly and opens them once more, hoping to clear her vision. She then reads the words again and nervously swallows down any bile from rising. Her mind isn’t playing tricks on her, she is reading the account correctly:
WPA Account #2563 - $2,000,000.00
Consumed by denial and disbelief, Maeve struggles to grapple with what is happening. Her head is running too fast that she cannot think clearly and rationally. She knows that those selected in the Reading receive money from the government to support their children. That they receive a million dollars for each child they must have. But how could she have an account now? The Summer Reading isn’t until another week. Unless… she has already been selected and the system in error pre-emptily created her WPA account.
The sound of a car horn breaks Maeve from her stupor, she wipes away the tears that unknowingly have fallen down her cheeks. Nausea building up in her, she logs off the ATM, no longer able to look at that damn account.
She can feel her phone buzz in her pocket, one of her friends most likely calling to see where she is.
But Maeve lost any of the remaining patience she had to be around other people. The last place she wants to be is in a cramped-up bar with her friends, pretending that everything is okay when she now knows for sure that it is not.
Maeve doesn’t know how to feel. She has known all her life that this could happen, but still, to have an algorithm make a choice for her, makes her so furious she could scream her guts out.
Which is exactly what she does in the middle of the city.
She screams for her lack of choice.
She screams for those who have been forced the same fate as her.
As screaming is the only thing she can do.