'What is it?' Resa asked. It was a Labrador, a Golden Retriever. A beautiful dog, young, intelligent, alert. It looked to her with friendly, innocent eyes. It was more than just a dog, it was a picture-perfect companion that would guide her over.
'A dog,' said her husband. 'Happy birthday,' he added. He leant forward to kiss her. 'It's not every day you turn five-four.' He smiled. Resa stared at her husband. His smile was fixed. It was the same smile he had had since they were married thirty four years ago.
'You've never changed,' she said.
Garson stared at her the way he always stared. He smiled again, glancing down at the dog, as if he were waiting for gratitude. The dogs were not supposed to be given as simple gifts; they weren't flowers or chocolate-sims, they weren't a platitude. Resa felt an annoyance at her husband. She stared at him, shocked.
'What's wrong?' he said.
'Nothing,' she replied. 'I...' She couldn't go on. In that moment his quizzical face was the most annoying thing she had seen since she was under. She looked away from him, her eyes falling on the Labrador. The dog was nothing more than a tired expression of a mile stone on the long road of a mundane life; one that had been nearly lived. Her eyes snapped up and she glared at her husband, wanted to shout at him to stop looking at her, to slap his face, to scratch his eyes and let her nails carve into his cheeks. For an instant she could feel his skin pulling beneath her nails, curling and gathering in ragged bloody strips. Afraid, she stepped back, bumping against the kitchen work surface, the corner of the solid beech top banging painfully against her hip. Again, just for a moment she felt the sensation clearly, as if she was still an under and had fallen. In the space of a few seconds, revulsion, anger, fear and pain. She hadn't felt anything like it since she was under, since she was sixteen, since the day before her seventeenth birthday.
And then she was fine. She straightened, turned to her husband and smiled. The same smile she had used since they were married thirty four years ago. The change was as smooth and fast as her seventeenth birthday when she was joined. 'Nothing at all,' she said.
'So, fifty four,' said Margrit. 'What's it like?'
'Just the same as fifty three,' Resa lied. Margrit nodded, smiling. Resa started to stare at her smile and shook herself to stop. Margrit noticed her attention and smiled more, her mouth impossibly wide. Resa sipped her coffee, to cover her embarrassment.
'What's wrong?' said Margrit. 'You're red.' She nodded at Resa's cheeks.
'Nothing. I'm just...' Resa floundered, panicked. Margrit looked concerned, her eyebrows high. Resa took another sip of coffee, sipped again and tipped the cup further and further till she was drinking quickly, almost gulping.
'Steady,' said Margrit. 'You're only allowed one a day. Shame to waste it.' She leant forward conspiratorially and whispered. 'I hear you can have as many as you like when you go over.' She giggled. 'Imagine it: as much coffee as you can drink. I should be quite light-headed!'
People at other tables glanced over at Margrit's outburst. She looked down, giggling once more. Then the Counter swept their table and they both dutifully looked into it, their irises flashing red for an instance as they were counted for the third time since they had sat down to drink their coffee.
Resa stared at her friend. She was fifty three years and eight months, just four months and one week behind her. As she looked, she regained control, her face losing its inappropriate colour. She smiled at Margrit.
Her friend leaned close again, pleased at Resa's reaction. 'I hear that you can eat chocolate all day long and that milk shakes are as common as water!'
'I've never been bothered about chocolate, simmed or otherwise,' said Resa. 'Or milk shakes.'
Margrit sighed dramatically. 'Sometimes I think I'd give my right arm for an extra bar of real chocolate, especially at Christmas.' She leant even closer. 'One year I stole Caspar's. He's never been bothered; he just eats it because it's Christmas. I ran to the shed like an under chased by the Hunters. It was freezing cold!' She giggled again at the excitement of the memory. 'I sat there for an hour, perched on the lawn mower, shivering with cold and nerves, with this chocolate bar in my lap, just staring at it. The wrapper was red and black and shiny. It was like it was hypnotising me.'
'Did you eat it?'
'No, of course not, silly,' said Margrit, leaning back and waving her hands at Resa. She stage-whispered, causing a few more heads to turn, 'That would be illegal.' Margrit brought herself under control once more as the gentle bleep of the Counter reminded her to look into its redness. She turned back to Resa and nodded at the Golden Retriever sitting at Resa's feet. 'How's it going with the dog?'
Resa looked down at it. 'Fine,' she said.
'He needs a name,' said Garson. 'A dog's not a dog without a name. You've had him a month now and we still don't know what to call him.' His tone was not-quite admonishing. Of course it wasn't. Not a cross word in thirty four years.
'Naming it would make all this feel too real,' said Resa.
'You don't get it yet. You've got another six months.'
'Six months till what?'
'Till you're fifty four.'
He frowned at her, making a show of his confusion, as if it were her that were being obtuse rather than him. 'You said it was just like being fifty three,' he said.
'And you know that I was lying.' There, she had said it. Garson's face was a picture. Resa almost laughed. Humour. It would be nice to have a bit more of that.
Garson had no idea what to say, Resa could see. Suddenly his face was so readable. Had it always been like that or had she simply never bothered looking?
'I'm seven months older than you,' she said, 'so I'm seven months alone with this crazy countdown.'
'I'm here,' he said. Did he say it sadly? Did he say it dejectedly? Did he care at all? Resa suspected that she didn't care for Garson. He had been a solid choice when they were twenty. When she was twenty. He had been nineteen and five months. The difference hadn't bothered her so much then. It had been the tens that made her notice a little more each time. She was first to be thirty, first to be forty, first to be fifty. Each birthday had made her look at him differently, like he somehow had it better than her. Now that she was in her five-four year she saw him as he really was: shallow, uncaring, selfish.
'Not for another six months,' she said. Garson's face showed his ignorance, annoying her more. 'You won't be here for another for six months. I'm fifty four years and one month old. Even when you are here I'll be fifty four years and seven months.' She paused at that. 'Five months till half way through the final year.'
'You make it sound terrible, like you're dying or something. You don't die.'
'I don't need another leaflet or another counselling session. I've enough of those to last me a life time.'
'But you've always known that you'd go first.'
'What, and get it ready for you?' She couldn't keep the sneer from her voice. If Garson was shocked by it, he didn't let it show. Resa tried to remember to when she still fifty three, just five weeks ago. Would she have noticed? She was sure she would; she'd been more and more sure of that sort of thing since she turned fifty. Was Garson the same? Looking at him, his simple friendly smile, his trusting eyes, she doubted it.
The dog had more sense than him. She looked down at the Golden Retriever. 'Sense,' she said.
'Sense. That's what I want to call it.' She looked down at the dog. 'Her,' she corrected herself.
'Funny name for a dog.'
'She's more than just a dog.' Resa reached out to Sense and stroked her head gently. The dog looked up at her, nothing but love and care in her eyes. 'She's going to help me make sense of all this.'
Even the support groups were balanced precisely. Resa was convinced that the meetings were a waste of time. Sixteen five-fours in a red and black wallpapered room once a week, eight men, eight women, eight going over first, eight already had partners waiting for them and in those categories an equal gender split. All of them were there to share their hopes, their plans, their dreams. They all seemed so positive to Resa, like they were too good to be true. Looking around the circle of friendly faces, she wanted to believe that they were lying and that they were just as scared as she was.
John, a five-four just a fortnight from the final quarter, was telling everybody about his ambitions to work with the power industry. He had always been fascinated, he said, by the mechanisms that created power for their world. 'I mean, haven't we all wondered what makes our TVs and fridges work? Where does the power come from? I can't wait to find out.' He smiled broadly as he leant back in his chair, finished for the evening.
It was a question he had asked many times. Sometimes he changed the example to electric cars, computers, mobile phones or floodlights at the Under Games. Whatever he used he got the same reassuring nods in return. Resa thought, as she always did, that she had no interest whatsoever in where power came from. She did wonder, as she always did, about whether or not anyone had the power to change this.
'Thank you, John,' said Giseli , the group's leader. She was only fifty. Resa hated her. The feeling unsettled her, as it always did, and she tried to swallow the following feelings of guilt and wrongness, but as always she could feel herself gagging.
The Counter swept the room, scanning each eye in turn. It was done in seconds, everybody was so used to the process, the counting.
'Do we need a Counter in here?' said Resa. 'I just mean,' she continued under quizzical stares, 'we have to book in, book out, we can easily be tracked and counted without the Counter.'
'The Counters are everywhere, Resa,' said Giseli.
'I know that. I just mean...' Resa ran out of words. 'I don't know what I mean.'
Giseli smiled kindly. 'There's a lot for you to get used to. Now that you're five-four you'll find you'll look at things differently.'
'That's true,' said John. 'I missed a scan the other day. Never made a mistake with the Counters in my life. Even as a baby, my mum said I was always good for the Counters. I went back to be counted again, of course,' he added hastily.
'Of course you did, John,' Giseli smiled indulgently. 'Now, would anyone else like to share before we move on to this evening's topic?' said Giseli . She looked at kindly Resa and Resa, returning the kind look, shook her head gently. Giseli smiled and nodded. 'Okay then everyone, how are we getting on with our guide dogs? I know that this is not necessarily a subject pertinent to all,' she glanced at those without dogs and nodded comfortingly, 'but perhaps you would have some advice from partners who have already gone over, so we can certainly all share.' There was much nodding around the circle as everyone agreed that it would be a fine discussion. As everyone always agreed. Resa wanted to shout at them all, to wake them up, to shake them.
To make them realise this was all an illusion.
That thought shocked her. She had never before considered that any of this might not be real or that it might not need to be real. Just what did happen to people when they went over? Did they all go willingly? She remembered her own mum and dad and Garson's parents going happily. Each of their 364th days were pleasant experiences. Both their mums had summer birthdays so they had had garden parties, while her own dad had an autumn birthday and Garson's spring. They had huddled around a barbeque, savouring the smells and tastes of the extra credits' worth of food for the occasion. Each had had their final meals with their families.
She looked down at Sense, sitting patiently next to her. There were nine other dogs in the room. Not everyone wanted a guide to go over with; some already had people waiting and passed the contingency to others. Resa hadn't been involved in Sense's arrival. Garson had procured her, as was tradition. This partner, this saviour, this guide was chosen for her by someone who would expect her to fill the same role.
'Your guide dogs,' Giseli began, 'are, as you know, a companion to take over with you. They are the only things you can take and so will be the only thing you know on the other side. It's essential that you bond with the animal.' She looked to Resa. 'Have you thought of a name yet?'
'Sense,' said Resa. The rest of the circle looked to her, their faces curious. 'It just seemed right,' she said. She shrugged apologetically.
The others immediately smiled and offered murmurs of congratulations as if she had had another child.
'That's a very interesting name,' said Giseli . 'What made you think of it?'
Resa smiled as she forced a laugh. 'It just seemed to make sense.' The rest of the circle dutifully laughed along and nodded their heads some more.
Giseli began again. 'Your guides will help through the slight turmoil you will feel when you go over. For some the transition can be, well, it can be a little hard.'
One woman's head snapped up at that. She was at the group for the first time, her fifty fourth birthday was just the day before. She had taken the seat of a woman who had gone into the fourth quarter group. 'Turmoil?' she said.
Giseli smiled warmly at her, nodding her head just slightly. 'That's right, Dell. You'll be going through a big change. It will be difficult at first. We don't want to lie to you.'
Resa looked from Dell to Giseli . The fifty year-old had said exactly the same thing at her first meeting. It was hearing it for the second time that made her question. 'Who's "we",' she said.
Giseli turned her smile to Resa. 'We are those who maintain the Balance.'
The whole group looked at her, shocked. She had admitted she was hollow.
Resa was dumb, struck silent by the admission.
'And we are here,' Giseli continued, seemingly unaware of the reaction, 'to make sure that your transition is as smooth as possible after your invaluable contribution to the Balance.'
A talking leaflet. Resa looked back to Dell. The new woman was clearly not listening; she just reached down to her dog and stroked its head absently, forcefully.
'For those of you that don't have your own guides,' said Giseli, 'you know that they will be waiting for you with your partners once you are over. You're very lucky because you will have two friendly faces waiting for you.' She beamed. The eight without dogs smiled back, some of them unconvincingly, Resa thought.
'I've heard,' Resa began, 'that we can drink as much coffee as we want when we go over.' All eyes turned to Giseli. Resa thought that they looked desperate to have such rumours confirmed. Dell looked the most desperate of them all, her eyes pleading to be given some comfort, some compensation.
'It's true that once you move on from your guests that the restrictions on your diets are lifted,' said Giseli. 'However, I would caution you to make sure you maintain a balanced diet. Too much caffeine is not good for you, Resa, not good for your body or for your mind.'
'Is that why we only get ten to fifteen years,' said Dell, 'because we don't live as healthily?'
Giseli smiled again. Resa, just for an instant, wanted to slap the smile from her face. 'You will live as you choose. Just like you do now. The only difference will be that you will not be restricted,' Giseli said. She noticed that John was nodding his head. 'Did your wife share that with you before she went over, John?'
'Yes,' he replied. 'She was looking forward to it. She always enjoyed coffee. I used to...' he stopped and glanced about the room.
'You used to what, John?' said Giseli.
'I don't know if I should say,' he replied, laughing and shaking his head.
'We're all friends here,' said Giseli, 'there's nothing you can say that we won't understand.'
'Well,' he said, 'I used to let her have my caffeine credit. Not every day,' he added hastily, 'just now and then as a treat. She loved her coffee so much. I used to let her have it at weekends and on her birthday.'
The rest of the group seemed to fidget uncomfortably. John, noticing, said, 'It's so hard to treat someone, to make them feel special. You know, when we all feel so okay all the time. Because our guests help us so much.' A few nodded cautiously. Resa thought that she had never wanted to make Garson feel special. 'My wife was so beautiful, so kind, so intelligent,' John continued. 'She was an electrician. I suppose that's why I've always been curious about where power comes from. She would show me sometimes how she fixed things. She repaired our TV and our light switches. She got permission, of course,' he added looking to Giseli, who nodded in return. 'She brought light to us all and I just wanted to give her something special. She always said she wanted to run a coffee shop when she was over. She had heard that shops could be run by individuals. Not like here, I mean.'
'Again,' said Giseli, 'it's true that restrictions on buying and selling are also lifted. Everyone is free to try to make it on their own or to work for others who are already successful. Your wife could already be running her own cafe, John.' She beamed again.
Resa looked hard at John. He was a little awkward but clearly pleased.
The Counter swept the room again. Sixteen pairs of eyes looked obediently towards it. For the first time Resa noticed that Giseli didn't look to it. But she was hollow. She didn't need to be counted.
Dell began, 'I feel like I haven't been making decisions for myself, that now I'm fifty four I need to get ready to be different. As my birthday got closer I was thinking more and more about when I was under and how I used to think that I was making decisions. I realised, just before my seventeenth birthday that nothing I'd done was about me; it was all about getting ready for my guest. Before It was in here.' She touched her hand to her head making the others flinch ever so slightly. Resa leant forward, not affected by the gesture. Dell continued, 'Before It was in here I was excited about the joining, same as everyone else, but I still thought that it was my choice.'
'It was, Dell,' said Giseli.
'I'm not so sure,' said Dell, shaking her head. 'I don't remember ever being asked.'
'Well, it's not about whether or not we're asked,' said John.'It's about doing our bit for Them.' Nods around the circle.
Resa looked quickly to Giseli. The hollow woman scanned the circle, seemed satisfied and then turned back to Dell. 'You will soon fulfil your role and you will have done it well. And then it will be time for you to take your well-earned rest.'
'That's just it,' said Dell. 'I don't remember being an under as restful. It was a crazy time of indecision and pain and sadness.'
'You must have enjoyed your stage as an under. You all enjoy every stage of your lives,' Giseli returned.
The imperatives in Giseli's words were suddenly obvious to Resa.
Dell said, 'Playing music too loud, smashing a few windows or sneaking the odd cigarette and bottle of beer doesn't mean we enjoyed it.' The rest of the circle looked uncomfortable at the mention of the under vices. Resa herself had partaken in a few cigarettes, been to one or two parties where there was alcohol but it was never a big thing, not for her anyway. Garson claimed that he never bothered with any of it, that he had wanted to keep his body pure for his guest. Now that she remembered her husband's claim she despised him for it. Another example of how submissive he was, how he only ever did what was expected.
'Well, thank you, Dell,' said Giseli. 'But we were talking about guide dogs and I think that we should return to that important subject.'
For the rest of the session the group were informed of the extensive training that the dogs were given and how they would live for ten to fifteen years, just the same as their owners would once they were over.
The following week Dell did not return to the group, nor any week after.
Second quarter. Resa was fifty four years and three months old. Nine months left. The same time she had carried her two children.
'Grandma?' It was Alexia, ten years old and her youngest granddaughter. Her two grandsons were six and eight and her eldest, Ava, was twelve. All very regular, exactly as the Balance required. Alexia was the most curious of the four. The boys reminded her of her own son, Harman. He had taken his lead from Garson and was docile. Again she wondered if she had ever thought like this before about her own children. How could she have not seen it? Even her daughter, Guida, never seemed to be anything more than a vessel. I have raised vessels, she thought as she turned to her granddaughter.
'Yes, my dear?' she said.
'What's it like when we're joined?' She was draped all over Sense, the dog happy to let her.
Resa smiled. This was Alexia's favourite conversation and they had discussed it many times. 'It's like a dream,' she said.
'No it isn't!' Alexia giggled.
'No, it isn't,' said Resa, smiling warmly, genuinely. 'It's like waking up from a dream. It's like coming downstairs in the morning to ice cream and strawberry sauce for breakfast.' Alexia giggled again. 'It's like playing with fairies and falling into a night sky where you can fly on Pegasus and touch Orion's belt as you go by.'
'You can't fall into a sky. You fall from a sky, silly,' said Alexia.
'Not when you join. When you join you fly through your whole life.' Resa held her arms out wide. 'Soaring with the birds, swooping with eagles, racing the aeroplanes.'
Alexia gasped, sitting up from Sense before collapsing back onto her again. 'I've never seen an aeroplane, except on the TV.'
'You will. You know what they say?' Alexia shook her head. 'We all see an aeroplane before we go over,' Resa told her solemnly.
Alexia nodded. 'Have you ever seen an aeroplane?'
Resa smiled. 'Not yet. But I will, even if I have to go to Berlin.' She smiled as she reached for a chocolate. The red and black wrapping glinted in the spring sunshine. 'Here,' she said to the girl. 'Don't tell anyone.' Resa held her finger to her lips. Alexia tore off the wrapper and was quickly chewing happily.
'Do you wish you had a summer birthday?' she said to her grandma.
'So that your party could be outside.' Her chocolate-filled mouth made the word party sound like pardy.
'No, inside will be fine. And the Christmas decorations will still be up.'
'But outside is so much better. We can run and play on the grass. I wish you had a summer birthday.'
'Well, your granddad's is in the late spring. It'll be coming soon. What do you want to get for him?'
'I don't know. I never know what to get Granddad. He seems so happy that it doesn't seem worth it.'
'That's because he's flying with the birds.'
'For my birthday I want a holo console.'
'Is your mum still saying you can't?'
Alexia nodded her head miserably.
'Do you want me to talk to her,' said Resa.
'No point,' Alexia sulkily. 'Mum's already told me not to hassle you about it. She told me to remind you that you didn't let her or Uncle Harman have one till they were thirteen.'
'Things are different now,' said Resa. 'When she was girl not everyone had them. I'm sure I could persuade her for you.'
'No, it's okay. I don't want to upset her. She already thinks that I ask for too much.'
'When did she say that?'
'She always says it. She says that me and Gunter...'
'Gunter and I,' Resa interrupted.
'...have too much already and that we shouldn't keep asking for things and that we should be happy with what we have and that we'll never get a guest if all we do is ask, ask, ask.'
'Sounds like you mum has forgotten what it's like to be an under.'
'She said you'd say that too.'
'Did she? Well, your mum's a very clever woman.'
'Can you stay till I get joined?' Alexia looked at her pleadingly, her eyes massive, her hair messy. She twisted her fingers in Sense's fur. The dog didn't flinch.
Resa looked at her, her eyes suddenly hot, moist. She blinked as quickly as she could but Alexia had spotted them, shining like ice in the sunshine.
'I've never seen a grown up cry,' she said.
'I'm not crying,' Resa replied. 'I'm just so happy that you would want me to be there at your joining. It's a magical time.' She wiped her eyes again. 'It's when you learn to fly.'
The little girl leapt up, stretched her arms wide and set off on a lap of the garden, running and making the engine noises that she had heard on TV. Resa spotted Alexia's brother at the window. She waved but he either didn't see her or chose not to wave back. Alexia landed back next to Resa and set to cuddling Sense again in one crash of movement.
Resa reached out to her granddaughter. 'You don't need me there. You'll have your mum and your dad and your brother.'
'They're not bothered,' shrugged Alexia.
'How can you say that? You and your brother are the most precious things in their lives.'
'Only because we have to be. I'm not going to have children. I'm going to get the license.' 'Who's been filling your head with ideas like that?'
'We learnt about it at school. We can be mummies or daddies or we can give what we don't want to others that can't or others that want more. The Balance needs people to take the license, so there's nothing wrong with it.'
Only two of Resa's friends had taken the license and she had lost touch with both of them. Parenting meant a life of duty, staying single meant a life of, what, fun? Resa hoped not.
'My friend Russell says he's going to get the license and that his uncle took the license and he's never regretted it.'
'You've talked about regret?'
'At school,' Alexia nodded. 'We talk about the Balance and the way our choices affect it. As long as you get the right permission it's okay.'
'We're all about permission,' said Resa, sighing and then smiling at her granddaughter. 'I thought you always wanted lots of children. I remember you telling me that you were going to have six boys and six girls.'
'And then I was going to sell them for sweets,' said Alexia, laughing.
'That's right. And you wanted to keep the eldest two for the joining.'
'So that I could see their kids joined. Being a grandma looks lonely. That's why you should wait for mine.'
'I can't. I'm not allowed.'
'But who would stop you?'
'Do you know what I'm going to try as soon as I go over,' said Margrit, leaning forward conspiratorially. Her and Resa were sitting in the window of the coffee shop. They had taken the comfortable seats and were happily lounging in the sun's warm glow. Resa had lifted her skirt just enough so that her knees were bobbing in the heat.
'No,' said Resa. Her friend had turned fifty four the previous week. Resa hadn't been invited. Just family, Margrit had told her.
'Smoking!' A hushed whisper that still managed to float around the whole cafe. A few curious faces glanced their way but they were soon turned back to mugs and glasses and companions.
Resa smirked. 'You always did like a few cigarettes, if I remember right.'
'I certainly did,' Margrit replied, leaning back in her chair. 'I'd have smoked like a chimney if It had let me.' She waved her hand at her head, not quite touching her hair.
'Careful,' said Resa involuntarily. Nobody ever touched their heads in that way. Except when Dell did it and Resa hadn't been concerned.
'Oh don't worry.' Margrit waved her hands some more. 'It can't feel it.'
Was that true? Resa thought to herself. What did It feel?
They both looked up as the Counter swept over them.
The other customer switched from the Counter to Margrit and Resa. Margrit smiled at them all. 'I'm fifty four, you know,' she said in an affected posh, slightly hysterical accent while weaving back and forth in her chair. Everyone turned away. A man with grey hair nodded at her and smiled. She smiled back. 'Come on, Resa, use it for what it's worth. We've had thirty six years of doing as we're supposed to. Now we get to be a little bit eccentric; we finally get to live a little!'
Resa didn't feel at all like living a little. She had eight months left. She stared jealously at Margrit and her fifty one weeks remaining.
'It'll be those ghastly meetings we have to attend,' said Margrit, nodding at Resa's serious expression. 'I've only been to one and already don't feel like turning up to anymore.'
Resa nodded her understanding. 'They're not compulsory. You don't have to go.'
Margrit shrugged. 'It's nice to meet new people. One of them was an older chap, about to go into the fourth quarter group. I swear his hair turned white as we were sitting there. If I didn't know any better I'd say he was scared.'
'We had one ask too many questions. She only lasted one session, then she was gone.'
'Interesting. What do they do with people like that?'
'I don't know.'
'I've heard that some run.'
'Everyone's heard about that. That's what the Hunters are for.'
'That and breaking up under parties. I always wondered what it would be like to be a Hunter. I like a shiny badge.'
'Garson used to say that he liked their cars. They have petrol engines apparently.'
'Explains the noise and stink,' said Margrit, wrinkling her nose in distaste. 'What's going on with the old chap anyway, he made any proposals yet?'
When couples went over separately they were supposed to make a pact. It was encouraged in the sessions. Resa sighed as she thought about Garson's interests. 'He's not bothered about anything, just smiles that stupid smile.'
Margrit smirked at the insult. 'Aren't we the rebel today.'
Resa coloured at the jibe. 'I don't mean it like that. I just mean that he hasn't told me what he wants and I've no idea what that smile of his means. He'll be happy with nothing? Should I get him a job? Should I get him a gym membership? He just smiles and says whatever I think.'
'That makes it a bit easier.'
'Makes it annoying. I've been married to him for thirty four years and I know nothing about him.'
'There's the car. I've heard they have race tracks. Great big bowls of cement tracks and noisy cars.'
'It's not like here,' said Margrit, moving her head in close again. 'You know my Huang went over last year?'
'Well, he got a little out of it by the end of his five-four year. Started spouting all sorts about the end and even spoke about,' Margrit paused, looking about her, and, seeing no one listening, continued, 'death.'
Resa nodded again. Margrit and Huang had always been a bit different to all to the other couples that she knew. They had taken the licence after having one child, giving a little of their responsibility to the Balance to another couple, and so had had a little more freedom than others. In Huang's case that might have meant more time to think. Half the kids, half the grandkids. Twice as much time to dwell on the end and what it meant. Although Margrit seemed okay. Margrit had always seemed okay.
'Huang said,' Margrit continued, 'that he had spoken to some Hunters about running.'
'That seems a bit daft.'
'He was really scared. I think he would have spoken to anybody. I think he did in the end. I think that they found him.'
'Them. The hollow men.'
Resa looked around the cafe. No one was watching them. Margrit's earlier statement of being a five-four meant that they were left alone, like unders, a necessary part of life, there to be endured. The mention of the hollow men set Resa on edge. She was sure that she must have met hollows in her life; there was Giseli for a start. They were the ones who ran the Balance, made it run like clockwork. They must be everywhere. But the idea of an empty grown up was so strange as to be terrifying. How did they cope?
'Anyway,' Margrit continued, 'Huang said that the Hunters told him not all runners were five-fours. Some go when they hit fifty or fifty one. They said that it was very rare for five-twos or threes to go. They didn't know why. But of course the vast majority were five-fours, and five-fours on their 364th day. Dozens of them every night across the continent. They never knew where they would run from but that their guests,' Margrit raised her hand to ever-so-gently tap the side of her head, making Resa force herself to wince, 'told the Hunters who was running.'
'Why would they tell him that?'
'Most of it was what Huang could piece together from small talk. He reckoned they were happy to talk to him as most people never bothered. He put it together from bits with the Hunters and then when the hollows took him in for a chat, he was convinced he was on to something. Drove him over the edge in the end, made him obsessed with death, like he didn't think that we carried on when we went over. For him, his fifty fifth birthday would be his death day.'
Resa considered Margrit as her friend sat back in her chair, a look of triumphant intrigue on her face. She enjoyed it, Resa could see it clearly. 'What did you do?' she asked.
'I tried to help. I researched the over islands as much as I could, finding out about what you can do when you get there. There's not just the race tracks, there are all sorts of sports and entertainments. You remember when we were under and we would read and go to watch movies and play and compete. All that comes back when you go over.'
'I can't imagine many sixty year-olds,' she shuddered at the idea of such advanced age, 'sprinting the 100 metres.'
'There are others, you know, hollows, that compete for our entertainment. We're still well looked after. And then there's food and drink, there are restaurants and bars and clubs, everything you could ever want.'
'Sounds too good to be true.'
'That's what Huang thought. He...' Margrit stopped, suddenly nervous.
'What? What is it?'
'He ran. He was a runner.'
Resa was genuinely shocked. Everyone knew about the runners but no one knew a runner. 'What happened?'
'I don't know. He was there, his last night at home, our families there, then he went to the toilet and never came back. The Hunters were knocking at the door within minutes, talking to me, keeping the families out of it. I'm still not sure if they've ever realised, or at least if they've ever let themselves think about it.'
Resa thought of Alexia and her desire for her grandma to be around for her joining. Maybe that would be the way to make it happen. No. She shook herself at the thought. 'So, you don't know what happened to him?'
Margrit shrugged. 'Why would I? I never saw him again.'
'Is he waiting for you?'
'No idea. I may have to be first and last over.' She looked down at Sense. 'Beginning to think I could do with one of those.'
'I'm so sorry, Margrit.'
She shrugged again. 'I'm looking forward to it in a way. I liked being under. At least, I liked it more than you did.'
Resa could only nod. A lifetime of obedience stuffed into the movement of her head.
Resa glared at her fifty four year old husband standing in the warm sun surrounded by his family. He was smiling while the family gathered around and sang and cheered for him. She wondered if the celebration had sounded so hollow when they had done the same for her. Their voices were raised, their faces were bright, their intention was good but the sound was empty. Except for Alexia. Her voice somehow rose above the others' because of its passion, its heart.
For the first time Resa wondered whether she had lost something when she was joined, just a fleeting thought that slid into her mind and out again as quickly as thought itself.
But it left a question. Am I more or less? Resa had heard talk of souls, had read books when she was under that dealt with the idea of identity and spirit. She had always dismissed it, always done her bit and waited till she got her guest. Her own seventeenth birthday had been a functional affair simply marking the end of her period as an under and the beginning of her life as a host.
Her fifty fifth birthday would be her first day on the over island. No family. Her own mum and dad had gone over twenty years ago and people only got ten to fifteen years as overs.
That was part of the deal: everyone got longer with their guest than without.
Longer with It than without It.
She glanced down at Sense, the guide dog's head was down as if she realised Resa's dark mood. You don't guide so much as show, Resa thought to herself. The only time the dog seemed happy was with Alexia.
Garson was thanking everybody. The Counter swept over him while he spoke, the red beam doing nothing to put him off his stride. He had always been a confident speaker. She heard snatches of 'No different to being fifty three,' followed by a belly laugh. Resa had been attracted to that when they were under. Not for the first time, she thought whether had they met after they were joined she would have looked elsewhere. Looking at him now, she knew she wouldn't have. There was nothing wrong with him, their birthdays were close enough, he would be a good match. He had been a good match.
But now he looked empty. Everyone but the grandchildren looked empty. Alexia smiled up at her granddad, Garson accepting the stare and then moving on. The little girl, so used to the strange behaviour of grownups turned her head and sought others. Her brother and cousins were close by and she ran to them in her strange jumping run, the image of delight.
Garson turned to Resa, smiled the same smile and moved towards her. She pretended not to notice and moved to her daughter, Sense following close.
Garson had chosen a different support group to attend. As husband and wife they had the option to go to the same group but he had said no. It made her mad and for a second infuriated her. She should have been the one to choose. She had had six months of the meetings already. He had chosen.
'Is everything okay, Resa?' Her support group leader, Giseli, had interrupted her thoughts.
'I'm fine, thank you,' said Resa, smiling at the other fifteen members of the group. 'I was just thinking about my husband; he turned fifty four last week.' There were understanding nods around the circle. 'And he decided to join another group.' Again nods of understanding. There was only one couple in this group. Their birthdays were only two days apart. Each week the other fourteen looked at them jealously. No one, of course, made any negative comment, but Resa knew that the dislike was there. As she moved closer to fifty five she could feel other people's emotions, read their faces, their body language. Whether it was her age or just that she had never bothered looking before, she didn't know, but it was there in front of her now, so obvious.
She shrugged. 'I don't mind. I don't know if I would have wanted him here anyway.'
The Counter's red beam moved through the group, each person staring for the quarter-second it took to be counted.
'My wife,' said Weiyuan, a short man with a shock of thick black hair and six months to go, 'she went over last month. We never came to the same meetings. We only made our pacts in the last week. She was scared, I think.' A few people shuffled uncomfortably. This wasn't the place for such words. They had already heard that the fourth quarter groups were where you got to talk like this. 'She said she would wait for me but that I shouldn't rely on her and that she wouldn't necessarily be able to get anything ready for me. She promised to try. We agreed that we would try to start a restaurant. Maybe that's too much.'
'How many restaurants are we going to need?' said a woman, the female half of the couple. 'I mean, we keep hearing plans and pacts about starting our little thing, restaurants, sports teams, power generators, racing drivers. If everyone's setting these things up, who'll be left to use them all?'
'I think, Mei,' said Giseli to the woman, 'that by sharing our hopes and dreams we can all imagine much better what life will be like.'
'But it's simple maths,' said Mei, her voice small and quiet but not easily dismissed. Resa was jealous of her confidence, jealous of her support from her husband. 'There are 4.2 billion people between seventeen and fifty four, that's the magic number. That's a lot of people. That means over one hundred million five-fours at any one time and each day more than three hundred thousand people going over. We all get ten to fifteen years when we go over, that means there are billions of overs, maybe more than two billion. We can't all have our own thing. Not possible.' She folded her arms and sat back in her chair, not at all flustered.
'Well, the over islands are huge, Mei, and all over the world. There's plenty of room for everyone and their dreams.'
'Stop saying dreams all the time.' This from Aalam, a man three months into his final year. Resa remembered moving from the first to the second quarter. A difficult time. 'It's not a dream.'
Giseli smiled, seemingly ignoring the use of the imperative, but turning her stare fully on to Aalam. 'I think that we're all a little upset this week.'
'We're waking up, not going to sleep. We've lived the dream for over thirty years!' Aalam was genuinely upset, Resa could see the flush in his cheeks. Was it anger or fear? She suddenly felt scared for him and wanted to tell him to be quiet for his own sake, that if he continued he would not be in this group anymore. But he had already subsided, seeming to fall back into his chair, shrinking as he gave up.
Giseli smiled. 'I think that we should all consider what Mei and Aalam have said and think about our own dreams and pacts. Next week we can discuss how we might make them work.' She looked pointedly around the group and received nods in return, eventually sixteen nods.
Mei and Aalam were both in the group the following week but they never made another outburst that Resa heard.
'Do you know where we go?' Resa asked Sense, staring into the dog's brown trusting eyes. The golden Labrador cocked its head to one side. 'Do you know how we get there? It's on those trains, I know that. We went on one for a school trip. It was made of shining steel and the inside was decorated red and black. They made us hot chocolate for the journey there and back. I can't remember the process centre. Except that it was big. So big. We went to the one in Zeebrugge. It was on the docks, there were ferries lined up like they were queuing for ice cream. That's all I remember, huge boats queuing for ice cream.'
She glared at the guide dog. 'Guide me.' She sighed as Sense cocked her head the other way and leant forward to sniff her face so gently. They were in the kitchen, Garson was in the garden, trying to tidy autumn's fall. The window was open and she could hear him talking with the neighbour but she couldn't make out the words. A flash of jealousy split her insides as she thought of their forty five year-old neighbour. Ten more years. A whole decade. She was single. Her husband had died in an accident four years earlier. That had made it quite simple for her; she was over forty, so hadn't needed to get a license to forgo his replacement in the Balance.
'How do they make up the shortfall?' she asked Sense. 'When people die, I mean. I know it's not often and I know that most just replace with more children, but what about those like her next door? How many people are lost each year? It must be thousands. They can't all be replaced, can they?' Sense dropped her head, then looked up again. 'Did you just nod?' Resa nodded her head slowly to see if Sense would copy her. The dog didn't. She shook her head instead. Sense didn't.
'I suppose it feels like I don't know where I am, or at least where I'm going.'
Resa stared at the speaker. It was a woman, Achla, her skin was dark and Resa thought it was even darker around her eyes. She was just a week away from going over. This was Resa's first counselling session in her final quarter. It was the same format but halved; four women, four men, and, she supposed, the turnover would be twice as fast.
The faces were older in this group, the eyes were never still. For a people who couldn't ever feel anxious or sad or scared, there were a lot of nerves. Resa could see it in their eyes, at least of those who would meet her eyes. Is this why we need to be so obedient? So that when fear finally comes we will ignore it, or cover it up like a scar or an embarrassing spot.
'We're an embarrassment.' She had blurted it out and now looked around the circle of eyes watching her. Had she really said it out loud?
'What do you mean, Resa?' said Alan. His surname was Hong and he was half Chinese, his mother had been German and his father from the east. Resa had no idea why he had shared that information. His voice was gentle, reassuring, but his face was young, so young.
'I didn't mean to say it. I'm sorry,' said Resa, shifting awkwardly on her plastic chair. 'I didn't mean anything by it.'
'You must have meant something,' said Alan, and when Resa didn't answer he continued. 'It's okay to have those kinds of thoughts, Resa. We all have darker thoughts. We all have fears.' He looked around the group and encouraged them to nod. Some did. 'I see so many of you go through this group and it's only natural that you have questions and that you try to answer those questions for yourself. But that's why we're here, to help you to find the kind of answers that will let you go over peacefully.'
Resa looked at him. He smiled. It was genuine. 'You said 'you',' said Resa.
Alan smiled again. 'I may have done.'
'You did. You said 'you' when you were talking about all of us,' said Resa.
'Does it matter?' he returned.
'No,' said Resa, automatically.
Alan looked around the rest of the group and received shakes of the head from most. The woman who had said she didn't know where she was said, 'Are you...' and then she stopped.
'Am I what?' said Alan, smiling encouragingly.
Resa knew the question: Are you hollow?
'It doesn't matter,' the woman said, quietly. No one would ever ask. Resa was surprised she had got as far as she did.
‘I know what you mean,’ Resa said to the woman, covering for her. ‘I feel like I’m lost, like I don’t know where I’m going, just like you said.’ Nods around the group. Alan nodded encouragingly. ‘None of us know,' Resa finished, quietly.
‘That’s not quite true, Resa,’ said Alan. There was a small hint of admonishment in his voice, just enough to make Resa correct herself.
‘Yes, we know,' she said, 'but what I mean is we don’t know what it’s going to be like. We’re so used to this place, so used to how everything is. When we go over we will have to get used to a new way of doing things, a whole new world.’
The group nodded, some even smiled gratefully at her.
A silence fell and then lengthened, threatening swallow the group. Alan opened his mouth to stop the threat but Resa, her focus on the walls and ceilings, cut in. She didn't notice that she had done it and didn't notice that he sat back with a smile.
'There's no Counter in here,' said Resa as she continued to scan the walls and ceiling.
'We don't need Counters in here,' said Alan. 'We make sure there are as few distractions as possible.'
‘I’ve never seen the sea,’ said one man. He blurted it out. The others looked to him, Alan with a smile. ‘I’ve never been out of this town, never needed to. But when I go over, I leave the continent.’ Nods. ‘I’ve never seen the sea and I’m going to cross it. Does that seem a bit weird? I’m nearly fifty five years old and I’ve never seen the sea. I’m going to see it when I cross it. At least I assume I’ll see it.’ He looked to Alan.
‘Of course you will, Herman,’ said Alan reassuringly. Resa had noticed that he said pretty much everything reassuringly. ‘If you want to, that is.’
‘Why wouldn’t I want to?’ said Herman.
‘Sometimes,’ Alan started, ‘people can find the trip a little disorientating and prefer to stay below deck.’
‘We definitely go over on a boat then?’ said another.
‘Oh yes,’ said Alan. ‘And with every comfort. We’re here to support you through this, Paul. Every step of the way.’
There it was again, ‘we’ and ‘you’. He was hollow. Was this his job? Did he spend all day every day listening to final quarter groups? Resa couldn’t imagine it. Six groups a day, eight in each group, forty eight people a day waiting to go over. Two hundred and forty a week. Ten thousand hours every year. How did he cope? She felt she was going out of her mind just listening once a week. As much as she supposed she could go out of her mind. Hello? she said to her guest. Are you in there? Are you packing your bags? How soon do you get another host? The next seventeenth party? I suppose there must be hundreds of them every day. Thousands. Resa tried to imagine the numbers of Unders and Overs. She tried to picture them queueing for their guests then passing into a vast building to live their thirty eight years. At the other end a conveyor belt, so huge it could hold ten lorries side-by-side, filled with five-fours at the end of their time. She couldn’t; it was too much. Too many. The conveyor belt ran into nothingness, the people just a blur, a smear.
‘Resa?’ It was Alan’s gentle voice bringing her back to the group. ‘Resa?’
‘Mm?’ she said.
‘Herman wanted to know what you meant earlier when you said that you were an embarrassment.’ He nodded his encouragement to answer.
Resa shifted uncomfortably. She knew what happened to recalcitrant people in these groups. ‘Nothing.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Alan. ‘Lots of people have these thoughts and a problem shared is a problem halved. Maybe Herman has had the same thought you’ve had.’
Resa stared around the group, noticing that the others really did want her to talk. ‘I just think that once we’ve done our bit…’ she trailed off. Alan nodded for her to continue. ‘That once we’ve done our bit, we’re not much use and we need to be moved out of the way. We’re a problem and we’re old and we remind people that they’ll be here soon. It’s better for everyone if we’re not seen.’
‘A common thought, Resa, everyone,’ said Alan. ‘It’s okay to have that thought. That’s what these sessions are for, to help you to come to terms with these feelings.’
Herman spoke up, 'What use are we? When we go over, I mean?'
'As much use as you are now,' Alan replied.
'How? We won't be hosts anymore. What use are we if we're empty?'
'You are useful to the Balance for your entire life, Herman,' Alan replied. 'You know that, don't you?' He nodded kindly at the man.
Resa was repulsed by that nod. Herman was cowed by it, he nodded weakly in response. 'I think Herman's right,' said Resa. 'What is the point? What do we do? We can't all do whatever we want to "maintain the Balance".' She waved her fingers in the air marking out the quotation.
'You will all have opportunities,' said Alan.
'Doesn't sound very balanced,' said Achla.
Alan turned to her, smiling encouragingly. 'This is your last session, Achla, and you still haven't told us what it is you want to do when you go over.'
Resa started at that phrase. Sense, at her feet, sensed her discomfort and looked up at her. Resa could see that Achla almost snapped at Alan. She wanted to throw the words back at him, to shout at him that they weren't a bit lost. They were dying.
We are dying, Resa added silently.
There, she had let the word into her head. Without ever allowing herself to properly recognise the thoughts, she had been thinking about dying for months. Sense nuzzled her hand. She looked down at the dog, shocked. Looking back up, she could see that the rest of the group were watching her. Not just looking, watching, waiting to see if she would do anything.
'Are you okay?' said Achla, concern on her face.
'Yes, thank you,' said Resa, her composure returning easily. She smiled at Achla and then at Alan.
Alexia giggled as Sense nuzzled at her face. 'Do you have to take Sense with you, Grandma?' said the girl between her snorts of laughter.'
'Yes,' said Resa, smiling. 'She's going to help me.'
'She could help me. We could live together and I wouldn't need anyone else.'
'Why don't you want anyone else?'
'Because they're not bothered about me.'
'Not that again, Alex.' Resa smiled patiently at the girl. 'Of course they are. Your parents and brother love you very much.'
Alexia looked up at her grandma and then lay her head back down onto Sense's neck. 'Can my mum love?' She mumbled the question into Sense's golden fur.
'What do you mean?'
'She had to have me and Gunter. If she'd had a choice I think she wouldn't have had kids. She doesn't like them.'
'Of course she does.' She didn't. Resa knew it. Just like she hadn't loved her own children. 'Parents are the luckiest people in the world because they get to do their duty to the Balance and they get to have beautiful children who they love and care for.'
Alexia screwed up her face at that. 'I'm getting the license.'
'Yes, you've said. But you might change your mind. Being a parent is wonderful, Alex. I promise you.'
Alexia let out a dramatic sigh and rolled over so that she could stare at her bedroom ceiling while lying on Sense.
'You and granddad don't talk anymore.' She let the words float into the room as if by setting them free her grandma would have to catch them.
Resa smiled. 'Of course we do.' She wondered if she had always lied so easily. Never having needed to before, she hadn't thought about it. Strange how it came so naturally. But then, unders had always been lied to. She had been told that she would fulfil her role and go over happy that she had maintained the Balance. How could anyone be happy living with someone who had six months more? No, they didn't speak. They had nothing to say.
'When did you last talk to him?'
'What did you say?
'I can't remember.'
'That's because you didn't say anything except to ask if he wanted juice.'
'Actually, he got me my juice this morning. We take it in turns.' I could have flung it in his face, she thought to herself. Alexia looked at her closely, trying to see if she was lying. That was what it was like to be under, always questioning, always being fobbed off. Resa looked at her granddaughter and saw the seventeen year-old; all the questions would be gone.
'What about the days you work? Who gets the juice then?'
'Well, we both only have to work three days a week now. That's one of the perks of being five-four.'
Alexia screwed up her face, a sure sign she didn't understand something. 'What's a 'perk'?'
'Something extra. A little bonus.'
'What if you don't want to work all week when you're under five-four? What if you're twenty five and you don't feel like it?'
'Everyone works. Everyone feels like it. Everyone does something for the Balance. We're all important. We're not just hosts.' Now Resa felt like a leaflet
'That's what they say in school.'
'That's because it's true.'
'Not all of the jobs can be as important.'
'Of course they are.'
'What about mum's job? That's not as important.'
'Of course it is. Your mum helps thousands of people. Millions really. Without translators like your mum we wouldn't be able to communicate with each other.'
Alexia adopted a monotone as she spoke. 'When the great joining was finally agreed, some countries wanted to keep their language. France and Belgium are the only French-speaking areas of the world left. Every other country adopted,' Alexia stumbled slightly in her recitation, 'English as their official language so that the Balance could be maintained more efficiently.' She sighed as she finished.
Resa smiled. 'That's right. And that's important.'
'Because they didn't want to. And making compromises is how we maintain the Balance.'
'But it's not as important as the Counters. That's what I want to be, a Counter engineer. They get to see everything.'
'The Counters are important but without translators we wouldn't maintain our unity,' Alexia's screwed her face, 'our togetherness,' Resa corrected herself, 'and so we wouldn't need the Counters because the Balance wouldn't be maintained.'
Alexia begrudgingly nodded her head.
Resa smiled at her. 'What will you wear to my party?'
'And it would be that easy,' Resa said to the microphone, 'to knock the Balance out of balance. Just one thing like that. So easy.'
Alone in a small room, she sat at a small table with nothing but a camera and microphone for company. This was it, her fifty fifth birthday and her last words. Everyone got one final session with a counsellor to say whatever they wanted to say. Resa had been prepared for it in her last couple of group sessions. The importance of these interviews was stressed to her: without her opinions and the opinions of everyone else, how could the Balance be best maintained for the benefit of all? The camera was for everyone's benefit and they were alone to let them speak their mind. Resa couldn't help but think that this was the only time in their lives when they were allowed to speak the truth. But they listened, the hollow people, the ones who watched everything. Would it affect her crossing? Would she get a better placement on the island if she simply said how happy she was to have contributed? As she stared at the camera, she was tempted to do just that; say the words, pass over, live her ten to fifteen years quietly. It would be simple.
'Have you ever had thoughts of the Balance not working before, Resa?' The voice was male, calming, soothing. Resa looked about the room again, trying to find the speakers. But she couldn't see any. The broadcast was clear and could have come from anywhere in the room. She wasn't frightened, couldn't be frightened, not really. But the disembodied voice made her wary.
'No. And I haven't had those thoughts now.' She was scared. She could feel sweat gathering under her arms, her face turning red, her stomach a dull ache, like something was turning very slowly inside her. It made her want to run, to leave this room, go back to Garson and Alexia and Margrit and hide. She should have run. Margrit's husband was never found. Maybe he got away. Maybe he's living out his last years with his guest. She felt guilt at the thought and silently cursed herself. Why should she feel guilty? They were going to take It away and leave her empty, hollow. Why should she share It? Some snotty seventeen year-old would have her guest by this time tomorrow, maybe even today. It's mine. She almost snarled as she glared at the camera, challenging it to accuse her of not valuing the Balance. Why hadn't she run?
Nothing. No response.This was the time when someone like Alan would tell her that it was okay to have those thoughts. But it wasn't. Too many had simply never come back.
'Do you think that it works?' said the voice.
'Yes, of course. I'm here aren't I? I've passed through, made my contribution, never noticed anything that didn't work.'
'You must have noticed in your last year that you had certain feelings? Sensations that you perhaps hadn't had before. We know that you had some valid comments and questions in your counselling sessions. Your experiences could be beneficial for us all.'
'I've been fine. I was glad to have helped.'
'We know that. We want to know what might have given you cause for concern. Or maybe there is something that you would like to do before you go over.'
'Would you let me do it?'
'Not now; it's too late. But others may get the chance. Deep down we're all the same, we all want the same things.'
'So what, this is a survey? Do I give a score out of ten?' Silence. Resa breathed deeply and let out a long sigh. 'I suppose if I had one thing, I'd see Alexia joined. She's my youngest granddaughter. She's only got five years to go. I see all of the questions in her, all of the doubt and I'd like to see it go away. I'd like to see her truly happy like I know that she will be. Like I've been.'
'We want you to be happy, Resa. It's all we ever want.'
Resa looked sharply at the camera. 'You said 'you'. You're different to me, to all the others, the four point two.' Silence. Resa nodded to herself. 'Of course. Can't let anyone else do a thing like this. Can't let fears and dreams into the open. Can't let us know that we're all thinking it, even when we're in our twenties, we're wondering where we'll be when we hit five-five. It's just easier to ignore when you've got plenty of years left.' She looked down at her hands, the fingers spread on the table, pressing the surface, the tips white. 'But not when you've only got hours left.'
She looked around the empty room. 'It's all so fragile. Just one bit of it could bring everything down.'
'The Balance is a flexible thing. Elements can change to make sure it survives. The four point two are not the same. Each is an individual.'
Resa snorted at that. 'Then let this individual have five more years.' She leant forward, her face almost touching the camera. 'I won't tell anyone,' she whispered.
'You know we can't do that.'
'I don't see why. What difference would it make to Them?' She raised her fingers to her temple and tapped lightly, tilting her head at the camera. But there was no one to shock. 'I remember lessons in school about water on the brain and the how difficult it is to achieve dream sleep. I remember thinking I would never be that old. This old. I sleep like a baby! I'll sleep for the whole five years if you want me to.' She leant forward again, her eyes pleading. 'I won't tell anyone.'
'The Balance must be maintained. You start at seventeen and you finish at fifty five. You and your guest get to enjoy your prime.'
'Is that good for me or good for It?'
The voice ignored the question. 'If you could put the way you are feeling into five words, what would they be?'
Resa stared, dumbfounded. 'Are you kidding?'
'No, Resa. It's important that we know how you feel. Important for the Balance.'
Resa sighed but her obedience kicked in. 'Displaced. Alone. Deserter. Coward. Terminal.'
'And if you were to give a rating out of ten for the intensity of these feelings, how would you score each of them?'
'I don't know,' she said, shaking her head. Her eyes were hot. She needed to cry.
'Try, Resa. Your information will help to make the Balance better for everyone.'
'I don't care about everyone. I don't care about anyone. I want to stay!' She rubbed at her eyes, making them sting. 'Ten! Ten for terminal. Ten for coward. Ten for alone. Ten for displaced.'
'You forgot deserter.'
'What do you mean by that word?'
'Isn't it obvious?'
'If it was, I wouldn't ask. We're all different. We all see things differently.'
'So it's 'we' now, is it?'
'It always has been.'
'I want to change the word to deserted. And I give it ten.'
'Thank you, Resa. Is there anything you would like to say?'
Resa shook her head. 'No.'
The door to the room opened. A man in a brown coat waited. He held Sense's lead gently. The dog looked to her mistress, her round brown eyes as trusting as ever.