Twelve Billion. That was the tipping point. That number was officially hit on September 18, 2018, the day everything changed.
The Water Wars began six months later and left twenty-six million dead and a continent abandoned. Antarctica was gone. Africa was uninhabitable. We were heading quickly toward the extinction of mankind, and everyone knew it.
April 23, 2026. That was the day Zero Growth was instituted. Population growth had reached unsustainable levels. Deaths were down dramatically due to advances in genetic medicine. The average life span was now 108.7 years of age. There was only one enemy now. One enemy that would destroy us all.
Too many people.
I am Solomon. I hunt Illegals.
9:17 PM. I was at a memory bar. STATION 13. And even though their electrode helmets were old and the green screens stained, they still did the trick just fine.
I was currently watching a certain Friday night with Elena from six years ago. My memory of this night was still so clear that the images unfolding before me had only a very slight halo effect. We were in my old apartment on James Street. We were laughing. We were happy.
And as I stood there, cloaked in the darkness of my own private memory booth, watching the past unfold before my eyes, I couldn't help but wonder how it all went so wrong.
The first call of the night came in at 10:13 PM. The call can come any time, day or night. But for some reason, it seems to always come at night. Right after I've had a couple of shots of bourbon. Maybe it's bad timing. Maybe it's just too much bourbon. But whatever it is, I was craving sleep in the worst possible way.
Alexi was laughing at me. He hasn't slept for twelve years now. Most people don't these days. "Live the other third of your life." That was the mantra these days. Designer drugs like Vigilin and Prosilax had made sleep a thing of the past for all but a few of us diehards.
Alexi picked me up at 10:24 PM. Our destination was a burlesque club down in Alphabet City. THE EGYPTIAN. We caught wind that a payoff was about to take place. For anywhere between half a million to two million or more, you could pay for someone to die in your place.
His web glasses lowered, Alexi's night vision lights up the road on his left lens, while his right lens scrolls through the night's basketball highlights.
Our target was seated alone in the back of the club. They call him the Prophet. I don't really know why. Nor do I care.
Alexi continues past as I sit next to this tall, skinny man. I notice the LED tattoo on his arm. Two dark intertwining snakes curling around his arm in continual motion. I pretend I'm a lucky father. Alexi waits to blow the guy's brains through his nose.
"You don't look like a Prophet," I say, unable to help myself.
"A prophet connects you to God." He says.
"And you can do that?"
"For the right price, I can do just about anything."
I look up. Pretending to be nervous. I swear to God I should've gone into acting instead of this racket.
"How much?" I inquire.
"You need a ninety-eight year old white male, right?"
"Yes, that's right."
"I can get you one for seven."
When a couple is granted a birth permit, they have three days to designate a family member to die in the child's place. One birth. One death. Perfectly. But sometimes, people get greedy. Turn to the black market. They meet with a broker, and hire a Shell to die in place of a loved one. In this particular case, $700,000 will buy me a ninety-eight-year-old white male. No questions asked.
"I can give you five. No more," I counter.
"Will I ever meet him?" I ask, pretending not to know.
I hesitate. Pretending to think it over. Then I reach into my pocket. Peeling seven bills off my wad of cash. I lay the money on the table. The Prophet lingers on me. His instincts starting to kick in. But as usual, cash overrides instinct.
He checks my ID. Scans the identity chip under my wrist. He takes the money. And the second he does, Alexi sticks his HK65 assault pistol directly into the back of the Prophet's head.
"You're under arrest under Article 7, Code 16B of the Zero Population Act of 2027," he calmly informs the Prophet. Under the Zero Population Act, the person who reports to the Nocturne Center must be a blood relative of the newborn.
Alexi smiles. Praying the Prophet makes a move. Praying he can shoot him. But then I notice. The Prophet. He's smiling too.
"GET DOWN!!" I hear my own mouth say without even realizing.
Alexi and I hit the ground. But the Prophet. He just sits there. Confident as hell. The bullets flying around us. He pops some peanuts in his mouth, like he's watching a fucking TV show.
A single bullet. Right between his eyes. The blood pours out. So much blood.
Alexi and I are as low as we can get. Face to face. Glass and bullets flying all around us. Alexi flips his web glasses down. Scanning outside in real time. "Six in front. Looks like five in back. Heavily armed."
POP. POP. POP. POP.
More bullets. Then, FZZZ. FZZZ. FZZZ. Fuck. Trojan Horses. Mean little bastards. Smaller bullets bursting out of the larger ones. Exploding in every direction.
The Prophet's body tumbles on top of us. It's the only thing that keeps us alive, as his entire body spikes and spasms with the violent metal shards.
"NOW!! NOW!!" Alexi yells, still scanning the perimeter in his glasses.
We grab the Prophet's body, using it as a human pin-cushion as we dart toward the back door, the Trojan Horses still exploding like firecrackers all around us.
We race outside. There they are. On the rooftops. It was an ambush. The Prophet was their bait. His body now useless, torn to shreds, we drop him. Ducking behind the garbage bins. TING! TING!
I'm alive. I'm happy. I'm an adrenaline junkie and I know it. If I'm not being shot at, I feel numb.
And then. The bullets stop.
They simply. Stop.
We can see them. On the rooftops. Guns in hand. Just watching us.
"Why the fuck aren't they shooting??" Alexi asks.
And then we see. They are laughing.
"We're the entertainment." I say. They're playing with us. Toying with us. It was the Prophet they were after. Brokers are a dime a dozen. He was probably skimming a little off the top. Setting up deals on the side. Who the fuck knows.
And us? We're irrelevant. The stage show. They walk away. Off the rooftops. Laughing. The black market's not going anywhere, and everyone knows it. This was simply the dance. We had to pretend we were trying to stop it. And they had to pretend they cared.
April 13, 2026. The world's first official birth permit was granted to Ms. Sylvia Iris Massey, 28, of Brookline, MA. Ms. Massey gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Imoda the following January 9, 2027. Three hours later, her paternal grandfather, Mr. Harold A. Bercholz, reported to the world's first Nocturne Center in Saugus, Massachusetts, where he was put to sleep in the most beautiful way one could ever wish. Surrounded by loved ones. Calm, relaxed and completely at peace.
12:19 PM. The next call comes in. An Illegal has been reported in the Upper West Side. A twenty-six-month-old female. We don't have a name. We never have a name. If we have a name, she becomes a person. And the day Illegals become people is the day we seal our fate as a species.
"Fifty grand says it's a second." Alexi utters as we shoot down the government lane along Columbus and 33rd.
"No way," I say as I strap on my holster. Nobody has a second child these days. It's too dangerous. Hell, you're lucky enough if you get a permit for the first.
Only 10% of those wanting to bear children are granted birth permits. Only those with the best genes. And best connections. Darwinism at its finest. Maybe she has bad genes. Maybe she looked at the interviewer funny. Who the hell knows?
1:48 AM. I just lost fifty grand to Alexi. It was a second child after all. They already had a beautiful little boy. Legal and all. Then they got greedy. They screamed. They begged us not to take it away. They always beg us.
Alexi and I have been together for nearly five years now. I became a cop because I believed in what I was doing. Alexi became a cop because it lets him kill people. I never met anyone who actually enjoys killing people. Until I met Alexi.
I used to think he was a sociopath. Now, after five years, I swear to God, there's nobody on earth I'd rather have by my side. If you're good with Alexi, you're good forever. I trust him more than I trust myself. And I mean that quite literally. With cop stuff, I mean. Not with women. Never with women.
4:29 AM. I stop at Jasmine's before going to bed. Jasmine puts up with me. She doesn't like me, I'm fairly certain about that. But she does sleep with me. I have no idea why, but I don't really care. Beggars can't be choosers, I figure.
"We should get married," Jasmine utters from deep within our post-coital bliss.
"But we don't even like each other."
"I want to have a baby."
I laughed. It made my ribs hurt.
"You're a cop."
And in this fleeting moment of drunken clarity, I finally understood why this woman was lying naked next to me. I was her ticket to offspring.
"You're a bartender." I said. "Your alcoholism risk alone is nearly 40%." This was my defense and I was sticking to it.
"Doesn't matter. You're a cop."
And she was right. Cops get priority. Cops get the permit. A fringe benefit of devoting your life to snatching babies out of their mothers' arms.
"Fuck you," she mutters as she climbs out of bed, searching my bedroom for her clothes. Or my gun. I'm still not sure which. Fortunately, the phone rings. I answer quickly, figuring that shooting me then would be impolite at the very least.
5:42 AM. Alexi and I are on our way to the next job. The sun was just starting to rise over the shimmering glass skyline of rotating condos and vertical farms. I thought of Elena. Like I do every morning.
They say if you can love one person without condition in your lifetime, you should consider yourself lucky. For me, this person was Elena.
She wanted to get married. She wanted a child. Our child. But I was a cop. I had already seen too much. I couldn't bring another life into the world. Not into this world. And then one morning, she was gone. No note. No nothing.
"Jasmine called me this morning," Alexi says as we approach the Hudson River levees. But I didn't have the energy to respond. I was tired. My head hurt. And I was on my way to kill another baby.
Not that I minded. I took pride in what I did. Illegals are not people. Everyone knows that. Since an Illegal has no ID chip, they cannot ever go to school. They cannot receive health care, immunizations, or even see a dentist. They cannot work. They cannot marry. In short, giving birth to an Illegal is the worst curse a parent could ever bring to a child.
"She's a fisher," I tell Alexi.
"What are her numbers?"
"How the hell would I know?"
By numbers he means her chart. DNA chart. Genetic medicine can clean up cancer or diabetes or heart disease, but your code is your code. The DNA's still passed down. So if you're a carrier, you're flagged. Weak DNA equals no permit.
But there was something far, far more disturbing happening here. Something that I could not possibly ignore.
"You want to be a father?" I ask Alexi as we shoot west on 13th toward the Hotel Gansevoort. The levees in plain sight just a couple blocks away, keeping the swollen Hudson from swallowing Manhattan whole.
"Sure. Why not?" The car parks itself just in front of the old hotel.
I honestly can't tell if he's joking or not. But I sure as hell hope he's joking. When I think about Alexi and Jasmine as parents, I understand instantly why the human species is in such peril. A fisher and a cop. Having a kid. Just what the world fucking needs.
Everyone watches as we cross the lobby. In silence. They know what's about to happen. They know another Illegal's about to be taken away.
The maid turned them in. It's a male, approximately six years of age. Imagine trying to hide an Illegal for six long years. She walked in on them this morning. Glimpsed the boy. Said he was clean. No certification mark on his arm. None that she could see, at least.
We knock on the hotel room door. Guns drawn. Alexi looks over at me. I can see the gleam in his eye. This is the moment he lives for.
There's no answer. Time to move. We kick the door in. Storm inside. Guns drawn. It's dark. The blinds still closed. You can always tell an Illegal's room. The blinds are always closed. It's always dirty. Smelly. A life lived in the shadows.
We search the apartment. My adrenaline surging. This is what all cops live for. The adrenaline rush that comes with a job. It's the only time I feel alive. It's the only time any of us feel alive.
A shadow darts through the blackness before us. The door closing. They're in our sights. And there's no escape. Which means one thing and one thing only.
We're about to get shot at.
Alexi and I step deeper into the darkness. They're right on the other side of the door. We can sense them. Alexi swears Illegals smell different than the rest of us.
The door is gone. Obliterated. Courtesy of one .84 caliber blast from the other side. Alexi and I smile to each other. This is going to be a good one. We storm the room before they can reload. An .84 takes 1.1 seconds to reload. Of course we don't think about this anymore. We don't have to. It's like breathing for us.
It's funny how life changes in an instant. Well, not funny exactly. Torturous. It's torturous how life changes in an instant. Standing before us is a woman. Long hair. Thirties. Pretty.
The Illegal is gripped tightly in her arms. Six years old. Big brown eyes. He's terrified. He knows he's an Illegal. He knows we're cops. And he knows what cops do to Illegals.
Alexi raises his gun to terminate the mother. "My turn," he says. I notice something. The window behind them. It's open.
"The father," I say.
"I got him." Alexi shoots back. "Do me a favor?"
"Save her for me."
"Not a chance."
Alexi smiles. Understanding fully. The rush. It's all about the rush. Alexi takes off in search of the father. And as I stand there, gun raised, staring at the woman and the Illegal cradled tightly in her arms, I know Alexi will never find the father out there. And the reason I know this is simple.
The woman standing before me. Is Elena. And the boy. He looks like me. Exactly like me. And this is the moment Elena utters the words that will haunt me until the day I die.
"Say hello to your father, Ethan."
From day one, a cop is taught one thing and one thing only. Keep the population down. This was our mission. This was our calling. We were the ones who were going to save the planet. Keep the delicate balance. If the balance is lost, then we are all lost.
And even now. Now that I stand before the woman I never stopped loving and the child born out of that love. Even now I know. I cannot let them go.
I look into Elena's eyes. I cock the gun. I can hear Alexi in the hallway. Coming to tell me he couldn't find the father. It's time. Time for the screaming. The begging.
That was all I said. Check that. I didn't say it at all. My mouth said it. Before I even knew it. Before I could even stop it.
Elena and the Illegal duck out the window. Alexi shoots back into the room. Winded. And noticing. The boy and his mother. Gone.
"I heard something in the bathroom. I only turned away for a second." I muttered.
Alexi looked at me. He would never guess what really happened. Never in a million years.
And as I stood there, the strangest thing happened. I felt free. Free in a way I had never experienced before. I had no clue what was happening to me. Maybe this is what having a breakdown felt like.
"Let's go," Alexi said. "We'll get 'em." Like it was nothing. And it was nothing. Just another day at the office.
It makes no sense that you could possibly love someone you do not even know. Someone who did not even exist to you five minutes earlier. Alexi and I crossed toward the car. It was cold out that morning. I remember that. I was numb. Numb to the core. It was 6:29 AM.
And that was the moment it hit me. I was about to sacrifice everything. I was about to seal my own coffin shut. All for the son I never even knew I had.
I love him. I don't even know him. But I love him. He is not only an Illegal. He is a stranger. A complete and total stranger to me.
They say if you can love one person without condition in your lifetime, you should consider yourself lucky. Well, I love two. And I feel like the luckiest bastard to ever walk the face of the earth.