“Culling Numbers” by Tony Southcotte

TWA 75 Tony-01

The only way to build a utopia is to destroy the dystopia. It’s like a long term construction project on uneven ground. It takes time to set the foundation, to clear out the very particles that cover the bedrock. Unfortunately humanity had been more like a mountain than a glimmering tower. Like Everest, it never spurned a handful of dirt on its way to the top. The species was a leviathan that reigned over a dying planet. Every person believes they are crucial, but with 20 billion souls that could not be further from the truth.

Simon sat in a dimly lit office that he was rather proud of. Several plants basked under lamps and a flat screen behind him played a simulation of the outdoors circa 2020. Squirrels played, birds chirped, and the rain didn’t bleach whatever it landed on. His computer ran simulation after simulation, many that he’d helped program trying to find the key population for human survival. In the top corner of the screen a logo of people holding hands was surrounded by text reading “The Unity Institute.”

The think tank had heavy backers from all over the world. Billionaires and even the first private trillionaire had decided to be a part of it. Their meetings were held in semi-secret locations, usually overtaking five star hotels and lavish resorts. Conspiracy theorists with cameras and stealth drones were never far from the meetings. The lizard accusations had slowed down ever since David Icke passed, but the theories of global bankers ruling the world never seemed to go away.

A prompt appeared on the paper thin monitor bolted to the wall. Simon opened it to look at the results. The model once again predicted a result in the range of 524 million humans being sustainable. Simon rubbed his chin. He wanted the highest simulation score but that belonged to that brilliant but arrogant, and oddly fishy smelling, hack across the hall. Simon shook his head and scoffed at the name. Bart. Who the hell names their kids an anagram of brat? It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prick.

Bart had gotten his numbers past 700 million by adding a variable of no one over a certain height and weight being able to survive. Simon made this cut by one inch, being just barely above five-foot-five, but he still didn’t want to see a world where football linemen were his size. It wasn’t worth sacrificing the whole species to lose that.

Simon shook his head and started to play with the simulation’s variables.

—–

It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. Simon looked at the headline again. “Civilian Repopulation Act Unanimously Passed by UN Resolution,” and a sub-headline that read “Survivors to be picked by occupation, ranking system, and lottery.” The article read with the cold calculation of a press release intended to make people understand the stark reality of the situation. It held no compassion, only statistics. The two major news corporations wouldn’t let anything else run.

The studies were supposed to be reminders to people to reduce, reuse, and recycle. To maybe consider more birth control. To think about adopting one of India’s millions of orphans. It was to flavor the charitable du’jour of the current celebrity class.

Simon sat in the bathtub, fully clothed and rocking back and forth. The tablet and its glowing headline were the only light in the room. He’d spent the morning hugging the toilet, fighting off his hangover. He didn’t remember last night, and that was intentional. The problem with forgetting the previous twelve hours was that he had to face the news again, and this time with home-brew moonshine escaping from every orifice.

He needed another drink. He needed to get to work, too. To see whose simulation was being implemented. In his stupor he thought he could kill Bart. No one would blink an eye at the death of one statistician at this point.

So many years he had tinkered with the numbers, seeing the inevitable extinction of mankind but never feeling it. No one really understands an existential end to their species. Humans can hardly imagine their own deaths, so how could the termination of every human alive being real? He never thought the various world governments could possibly act on it. What was worse was that this was an internal problem. The idea of a streaking meteor or polar reversal destroying the species was easier. It was a passive action for humans, not a direct 95% reduction.

Simon sighed and climbed from the tub. He stepped outside, reeking of booze and hot sauce. There were red fingerprints all over his shirt. He thought there must have been chicken wings in his blackout excursion.

The streets outside were surprisingly quiet. The dull blue-brown smog lingered in the air and people drove. More people than usual crowded the streets, many holding shopping bags on no doubt soon to be maxed out credit cards. A homeless man sat in the same place he always did, leaning on a light pole and endlessly searching his backpack.

Without Simon’s permission, his brain started to pick who would probably be eliminated. If 1 in 20 on a block were to survive, that homeless person would be the first to go. The thick man wearing a bolo and cowboy hat would certainly be on the list, as he had to be at least 50. But what if he had an in-demand skill? Something in the oil industry?

The young brunette with the smart glasses and terrified look on her face? She might make it. Depends on if those glasses were for show, if there was an incredibly intelligent mind behind those curls. The guy attached to her in the Ed Hardy shirt? Not a chance. Woe to any Jersey Shore bro whose fate belonged to people with PHDs in mathematics.

When Simon reached the elevator at his work he felt like the whole city had been staring back at him, somehow knowing he was at least correlated with their doom. The elevator took him up, making his stomach drop. It gurgled with discontent.

When the doors opened he heard the sound of kazoos and party poppers. He was covered in a barrage of confetti and shouts. A banner on the wall read “Solution Simon.”

Realization slapped Simon and he stumbled out of the elevator then immediately threw up.

—–

The party raged in the background as Simon sat in his office staring at the new icons on his phone. One was for applying for survival visas, the other was for the results which were to be announced on New Year’s Day. The drawing was a joyful golden cage with white balls inside of it. At first glance it looked like a game for microtransactions. The kind that hijacked every pleasure chemical in your brain through happy musical notes and minor gains over time. Even this was part of his write up. To encourage the highest number of applicants in the face of total extinction you would have to make everything seem inviting.

He looked over some of the statistics. At least he had kept select athletes in the mix. The value of sporting events in the future could not be overlooked as people would always need distractions. Plus, most of the athletes had college degrees and were genetic gold mines for the species. Breeding protocols would demand their samples. Somehow an entire team in the same division as his own team’s division was left off the list.

He thought back to the age restrictions. No one over 40 unless they had an advanced degree or master level skill. Walmart would have to hire much different door greeters. It was a problem the Waltons weren’t afraid to address since they had been key in the creation of the Unity Institute. The final number would be 1.1 billion out of just over 20 billion people. He’d been able to increase the numbers so high through lab grown meat slurry for most tiers of people and a combination of new green technology.

Bart had pushed the number to 1.4 billion but the program was rejected.

There was a knock at his door. Bart walked in with his awkward little steps and carrying two glasses of champagne. “Hair of the dog?” Bart said. Simon nodded and took the glass, gulping it down in one swig. Bart laughed and handed Simon his own glass.

“Is it weird to feel so bad about rescuing the species?” Simon asked.

“Probably. It’s all math. We should be considered heroes. Not everyone gets to say they literally saved humanity like you can.”

“I haven’t saved anything yet. Right now I’ve just doomed most of the people we’ve ever known. You know I’ve always hated you, right?”

“Yeah, but that’s part of why my plan didn’t get chosen. It’s all math and I’m better with the numbers than you. You know people and what the survivors are willing to sacrifice. Apparently alcohol and entertainment are more important than 300 million people.”

“I mean would you want to live in a world without steak or booze?”

“I just want to live. Be sure to fill out your application. I hear that Jenny’s idea to cut off applications 24 hours early is in effect. The future isn’t for procrastinators,” Bart said as he stood up. The man acted like he was going to offer his hand but shuffled his feet and half burped before walking out. The fish smell lingered.

—–

As anticipated, factions against this government termination sprang up. These people found themselves instantly eliminated from the lottery. Many of these rebels also found themselves eliminated via drone attacks. People fled into the deserts and mountains of their countries, but there was enough wiggle room in the calculations to allow this. In Simon’s models, the ones who survived in the wilderness were strong candidates for the program as it would reveal a level of craftiness and ingenuity. Most wouldn’t last the winter. If they could avoid the culling they would find themselves given vaccines and supplies within two years.

Simon watched all of this from his crappy studio apartment while he filled out his application. He knew that he had put himself on the white list so the temptation to make smart ass answers was overpowering. On several questions to measure his creativity he launched into rambling tirades against the televised talking heads and their inherent devaluing of the human spirit. He wrote about his dog and how they would be dealing with mutant rats when all of the bodies finally dropped. Simon thought all of this was terribly clever until he found himself weeping again.

When he finally submitted the application it made a cash register noise and released digital balloons. The screen wished him the best of luck in the lottery and then closed. All answers were final and that program would never open for him again.

An unease crept over him. He hadn’t designed this software but he felt like people on the white list should already know if they were in. There had to be an official list somewhere. Perhaps at work he would poke around the servers.

—–

On the day of the final drawing, the world had done itself a favor and killed off well over 15 million people in armed conflict. The unease was building as rumors that Pakistan wanted to nuke India to raise the chances of their people being chosen abounded.

Simon sat glued to his phone. He wasn’t sure when the app would give him the confirmation, only that the computers would be sending out messages starting at midnight. This was going to be a really strange start to the year for people. It would be the last for all but a little over 5% of them.

On the TV the New Year’s ball in Time’s Square was poised to drop. The camera panned over the half-crowded streets. The idea of instant violence had scared most people away.

The ball dropped slowly, 10, 9, 8, 7…

Simon’s phone vibrated. The screen was covered in a giant green check mark. It read “Congratulations!” in giant gold lettering. He felt the tension leave his body. Finally, confirmation. He felt like his heart couldn’t take another minute. He leapt out of his seat and hip thrusted.

Then he read further. “You have been added to the lottery wait list. Your position in line is currently 16 of 453,122,002. Please allow the program to process your data.”

3, 2, 1…

The tension ripped back into his heart. Simon’s body was tied in knots. If he was white-listed there was no reason why he should be in the lottery system. It was mostly rigged. Each tier only got so many people. The bottom tiers would have less than 1 in 10,000 saved. He was in a tier right below heads of state.

People in the crowd started to check their phones. No one sang. Most phones glowed green with the same message. A few glowed a dour red, their selection already having been drawn. A man jumped for joy in the crowd and raised his phone showing the soon to be coveted blue welcome screen. A man with a red screen walked over and snatched the phone and smashed it. The disgruntled man then punched the lotto winner in the jaw and walked into the night. The crowd decided to take it a step further.

The TV announcer took a moment to adjust his tie as the cameras cut away. He cleared his throat. “Remember folks, killing those selected will not result in more people being selected, only less people having a future. Accept your fate with dignity.” He then opened his phone and his face went pale. He took the small headset out and walked to the camera and undid his pants. When he was exposed, he yelled “I’d like to extend a special gesture to the station owner, Mister Murdoch.” The man said as he flopped his genitalia. “Fuck you all! See if any of you make it out of this alive!”

—–

Simon sat on the edge of his high rise building, looking over the city. It was a clear day, or what passed for one anymore. 40 floors below him the road was barely visible. Every moment he shifted his weight, that lurching feeling hit his stomach again. His palms sweating as he edged closer.

He’d come up here thinking that once he had the news he would dive gracefully, that he would put those old high-school diving lessons to use and make his last moment a perfect swan dive. Instead he shifted like a three year old afraid to get out of a tall chair. It wasn’t the fear of pain, but the distant smudges of the people who had jumped before him. Undoubtedly their phones had shown a big red X rather than the cheerful blue check mark he was waiting for. It had been 12 hours and only 100,000 applicants remained ahead of him.

For the first time in their lives, conspiracy theorists would be right. Chem trails would soon dissipate across the sky, spreading a slow acting viral contagion over cities. The cleanup was going to be an insane process for the living, but at least the infrastructure would be intact.

He wondered what they would do with all the old buildings. Surely smaller cities would be abandoned. His simulation model was responsible for huge swaths of population, but he had found a way to murder the very cities and towns. Archives of old newspapers and slowly dying websites would be all that remained of millions of cities across the globe.

Chamber of Commerce websites would advertise pizza joints and food co-ops for cities until their credit cards lapsed and they were eventually taken down. Buying domain names would be as easy as it was in the early 90s before every website name had been taken. The digital archives would slowly be wiped and the footnotes of those small town lives would fall into the pre-culling, and eventually into nothing. They should have used stone tablets instead of text files. Something might have remained other than the town marquis and gravestones. Some might still exist as an unclicked link on a Wikipedia page but who knew how long even that would last if certain people didn’t win the lottery.

Inside of him the hollow guilt burrowed. He thought about how soon the city would taste of aerosol spray instead of exhaust and steam. It would start in the next few days, the muck and bleeding and defiant violence. Eventually they would weaken and their rage would be confined to where they fell, and finally squelched. Salvation for the species came at a very high cost.

Simon’s phone vibrated. The result was in. He thumbed his way through the password and opened the app while he held his breath.

—–

Like God before him, he did not want to be part of the world he created. He abandoned it. The phone struck the ground first, showing its blue congratulations window one more time before being silenced. Like most lottery winners, it didn’t really matter in the end.

 

 

 

 


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Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.

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4 Comments

  1. christinadurner

    Fantastic story! I really enjoyed reading it. It gave me that same terrified feeling that I got as a kid watching Twilight Zone episodes about a doomed future for humanity. Very nicely written.

  2. IMHO this is one of Tony’s strongest stories in the arena. The vision of the future is perfectly painted with just the right amount of detail, and the lottery feels like something that real people would come up with. I really liked the detail that the people who resist and run for the hills had been factored into the equation because they would probably be of stronger stock if they survived anyway.

    I also liked that the story didn’t have an agenda. It doesn’t say, “This is good” or “This is bad” it just presents the situation as it is, and shows us how people react to it.

    To top it all off the writing here is strong yet unobtrusive. The only criticism I’d give is that the VERY last sentence felt like a bit too much. Great work this time around from Mr. Southcotte.

  3. I liked this. A lot. It might not be Tony’s strongest work as far as composition goes, but the core concept here is a great take on the lottery prompt.

    So, the weak bits. There’s a lot of throat clearing here, the kind of writing you do when you’re sort of zeroing in on what you’re actually going to write. It should probably be cut. Maybe that’s just me but the opening paragraph, for instance, just seemed like a weird expositional detour with no real point. Just start with Simon in his office and explain the overpopulation thing while watching him work.

    As I said, though, the good bits are definitely plentiful and the notion of everyone applying for life on a smart-phone app was a great thing to read.

    Strong work.

  4. Essentially, Tony, what Joe and Al said is what I’d say too. You have a great concept, well executed, it just takes a paragraph too long to get to.

    Good work.

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