Editors' Choice (fiction) in the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2019

An abstract background of red, black, grey and blue, with triangles, lines and crescents. The main text says "Luck"

This entry received the Editors’ Choice award in the fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2019.

“When every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove themselves elsewhere… the world will purge itself in one or another of these three ways (floods, plague and famine).” – Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

* * *

Herb watched the queue move forward. The air in the cavernous airport lobby was heavy with an electric silence as nothing, but soft murmurs, clacking keyboards and sporadic beeping transactions, could be heard. The queue was silent in anticipation and desperate to catch a whiff of this week’s numbers. Left, left, right, left, left. No, no, yes, no, no. Left to exit, right to enter. Your choice, your luck, your life.

“Hi, welcome to Universal Airlines, how may I assist you today?” trilled the bubbly stewardess.

“A ticket to Detroit please. What are the numbers?” Herb grunted.

“This week’s chances for a Detroit plane are 1 in 74. Would you like to proceed with these odds?”

“Yes, I’ll take it.”

“Great! That’ll be $202USD,” tap. beep.

“You’re in seat 3C, the gate is number 23, closing at 9:20pm. Please enter through the right here, thanks for choosing Universal Airlines and good luck!”

Ah, ‘choice’, what a beautiful concept, thought Herb, but what exactly am I choosing? He sank into his thinly cushioned seat in the tiny capsule of a plane, inhaled and exhaled a breath of lemon-scented air. If only it wasn’t masking the smell of disinfectant and bleach, which always lingered like a smothering shroud of death and apathy. Across the aisle, a man pulled out a string of talisman and began chanting in a hushed whisper. The Star of David, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Trinity, the Swastika, the Pentagram, the Cross; he prayed to them all. Herb returned his attention to the screen in front, inhaled, and held his breath. He watched the scramble of numbers on the screen as the lottery was drawn. “This week’s number has not been drawn yet!” read a tiny note at the bottom. 1-7-7-5-8-3-0. The final number ticked to a stop. All life seemed to freeze in that moment, the air was thin, as though the cabin became a vacuum, and all eyes fixated on the numbers. Blink. Blink. Flash. Flash. Was he dizzy from anticipation or the lack of breath? “Enjoy your flight!” Crisp, clean letters replaced the numbers. Herb exhaled, and the cabin was suddenly filled with air once again. The plane began to taxi.

Herb bitterly admired the ingenuity of the macabre human mind to design such a machine. There would be no wreckage of a plane if it should be unlucky, it would be too expensive to replace! Its modular internals ensured ease of exchanging damaged or soiled parts for new ones. This plane would not even have to leave the ground. The results were immediate, and the deed was efficient and indiscriminate; passengers and crew, old and young, rich and poor. The vessel was air travel for the fortunate, and a gas chamber for the unfortunate.

As he looked down over the clouds through the plane window, Herb caught himself in awe at how effective the Nietzsche treaty was. Within 20 years, world population had returned to a more sustainable level, global temperatures decreased by half a degree and the sky was blue again. Herb recalled when it first began; the days when technology and medicine became so advanced that death was no longer involuntary. The world population exploded, wars broke out over the lack of resources, forcing world leaders to discuss difficult questions. The question shifted from, ‘how do we accommodate for everyone’, to ‘how do we control the amount of ‘everyone’’. Who was worthy of living, and who was not? How does one decide? Who decides? The debate lasted 300 consecutive days, over protests and riots objecting to every idea presented. The United Peoples finally devised a plan, to ensure fairness across class and race and to emulate the random act of Gods, a lottery system was put in place. At 12am local time every day, the odds are received by smart systems in every aspect of your life. The personal assistant would know the odds of staying at home or leaving home. Every mode of private and public transport would know, public spaces would know, and you would know. You have control of your life, so you choose whether you want to take those chances. Of course, you also have the option of not knowing your chances. His neighbours were of that kind. They were one of those “God has a plan” families. They were his neighbours.

Herb stepped out of Metro Airport and checked the apps on his phone for the latest bus, taxi and subway odds to the conference centre. Although buses typically had lower odds, today the taxi was lower at 1:452. Herb appreciated the unexpected side effect of the Nietzsche treaty. The high turnover rate in each profession distributed demand and supply, employment, expertise and wealth so evenly, one might describe the socio-economic climate as communist. The costs of living that once differentiated the classes were no longer, and the classes themselves were no longer.

* * *

“Mr President, there have been reports that activists are targeting national telecommunication sites and destroying antenna dishes, do you have anything to comment?” Herb thrust his recorder towards the stand.

“These acts of vandalism and property damage are callous and selfish. These people do not care about the wellbeing of others. The antennas are critical tools used to relay odds to everyone in the country. Without them, you and I will not be able to make informed life decisions. We all know what happened without the Nietzsche Treaty 25 years ago, and I don’t intend on returning to those days. Thank you.” The sea of reporters, cameramen and journalists surged into a wave, reaching up to hang on to the last words of the President. A stampede ensued as each news outlet rushed to be the first to broadcast the message.

Herb sought refuge in a corner of the conference room and quickly jotted down some notes, whilst replaying key quotes from his recorder. He slotted his note pad into its place in his brief case and patted his pockets for his phone to prepare for the journey home. His heart sank as he spotted his shattered phone on the floor where he stood amid the crowd. He must have dropped it in the chaos. Herb retrieved the gadget, but it was beyond saving. He wished he knew the odds for phone death. He took a seat and evaluated his options. He could take the taxi to the airport and take a plane or hire a car from there. Herb sighed. He hadn’t made a decision in his life without knowing the numbers before. The thought of this was both terrifying and exhilarating.

“Hi, welcome to Universal Airlines, how may I assist you today?” trilled the bubbly stewardess.

“A ticket to Washington DC please. What are the numbers?” Herb grunted.

“This week’s chances for a Washington plane are 1 in 4. Would you like to proceed with these odds?”

“No thanks.”

“Not a problem, please exit through the left here, have a good day!”

Herb turned on the rental car and adjusted his phone in the phone holder. Although the phone could no longer serve its navigational purpose, he liked the thought that it would keep him company. He could drive 4 hours and have a nap, then finish up the rest, easy. He felt a new confidence rise up his chest, and he liked it. He liked not having to worry about numbers and chances and dying. Maybe he will try Not Knowing and maybe he could be happier like his neighbours. He pulled onto the highway and drove into the night.

He woke up to the light of two suns, and a low trumpet of a new day.