“It’s your first day, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Ah, actually, I’m just an intern. I’m supposed to be working with Dr. Simonetti.”
“Simonetti? He’s on the second floor. Just take those stairs, then follow the hall to room 216. The door says ‘Director of Genetic Integrity’, you can’t miss it.”
“Thanks! I’d better hurry, I’m almost late.”
Paul tramped up the stairs, plastic soles announcing his hurry to everyone in the echoing, cold-walled office. The second floor had a carpet, thank the Presidency, and he was at 216 before he had time to process it. He wiped the sweat from his hands and knocked.
“Come on in.”
Simonetti, a large man in a brown-mustard suit, looked up from behind the desk. He rose, shook Paul’s hand; his grip engulfed Paul’s slim fingers, wrapped around his whole palm. “The new intern, right? Great to have you, great. Always glad to see youngsters take an interest in their government. So many people are happy to just let us work that they forget there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’, you know? By the people and all that. Some citizen’s gotta push the buttons. Come on, let me show you around.”
Dr. Simonetti led Paul, the intern rubbernecking, still clutching his work documents to his chest, into a metal room of computer stations and clicking keyboards. “Records processing,” Simonetti explained. “Every time someone gets a Breeding Marriage License rejected for genetic reasons, we have to know it. Pretty soon we’ll be doing tests at birth to see what got past us, too. Make marriage licensing a lot simpler when the kids grow up, let people plan ahead. You’ll probably be working in here some of the time.”
Past that room, another hallway: offices, names on walls, framed pictures of nothing in particular. “These are the regional officers ... the medical labs, we are a research facility as well ... cafeteria, but we’re building a new one soon ... field phone calls from hospitals, concerned patients ...” Paul could tell that he wouldn’t remember half of the rooms, but he felt obliged to try. Internships with the hottest government agency since the founding of Homeland Security didn’t come easily, and he knew what’d happen if he slowed the operation down. He recognized a hallway – success! – and realized that they were back at room 216.
“So that should give you a rough idea. You’ll mostly be working with me in the beginning, just running papers and things like that. Once you get used to the place, we’ll probably set you up doing data entry. We’re such a new department that we haven’t processed half of the data available to us.”
* * *
Paul plucked his mp3 bud from his ear and glanced up at the man leaning on his monitor, minimizing the Excel window. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Dr. Simonetti would like to speak with you when you’ve finished this set of data. He’ll be waiting in his office.”
In room 216, Dr. Simonetti was eating lunch. He waved Paul inside, offered him a cup of the wine he was drinking; Paul refused. “I understand you’re getting married,” said the Doctor, always terse.
“Yes,” said Paul, ducking his head in a half-nod. “My fiancée and I have been seeing each other for about a year and a half, and we decided it was time to do something about it.” He couldn’t help smiling.
“Good man,” said Simonetti. “And the pre-marriage screening ...”
Paul wondered how close an interest the Director took in his staff. “You’ve seen the results, haven’t you, sir.”
“I have. I asked you in here to ask if you have any thoughts on the matter – if you’re disappointed that you can’t have children, if you’re feeling cheated, if your wife is getting cold feet, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Thank you, sir, but I’m doing fine. My wife and I were disappointed, of course, but it’s what’s best. We have no reason to complain.”
Simonetti waved away the “sir” with his hand. “Call me Claude. We’re not on work time now, and you can be honest. I’m not asking whether you have reason to complain: I’m asking what you feel. You were just denied a Breeding Marriage License! Are you angry, frustrated, sad? You can talk to me, Paul. I know you.”
Paul shook his head. “If I thought that the genetic standards were unfair, I wouldn’t work here. I know that the government has established these standards for our good and for the good of our children. I don’t feel cheated.”
Simonetti took a sip of his wine. “I almost believe you, kid. It’s tough to work in a place like this and be turned down for a breeding permit, I know. You’re a good kid, though. You’ll be all right.” He finished the cup. “Sure you don’t want anything to drink?” Paul nodded. “Then get the hell back to work. I’ll see you at the meeting.”
Paul stood, nodding his thanks again. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, kid. And listen, my door is always open. Right?”
“Right, sir. Thanks again!”
* * *
In his new office in the public relations department, Paul couldn’t let his phone rest in its cradle for more than a few seconds. His ear ached and the phone was as hot as his blood. “I’m sorry if you have an objection to the procedure,” he was saying to a woman in Tennessee, “but pre-birth screenings for genetic disease are now mandated by the National Genetic Safety Act. ...Don’t worry about expense. I understand that the procedure is still expensive in many regions, but your health care provider is required to cover the costs of this mandated testing.” Peter, who worked at the desk beside him, shot Paul a sympathetic glance. Paul smiled back gratefully.
“Your doctor can answer all of these questions, ma’am, and with more information about your region and your personal situation than I have. I encourage you to make an appointment as soon as possible. After all, not only are these tests now required, but they’re more effective than ever now that we can detect mutations. Please, get the tests as soon as possible so that your options will still be open when you receive the results. Remember, forewarned is forearmed.” One green light on his phone’s cradle ceased to flash and another flickered to life. “Now, if you don’t have any further questions, I’m afraid I must be going. Is there any other issue with which I can help you or department to which I should forward you? …Thank you for calling the Department of Genetic Integrity, ma’am.” He switched ears and opened the second line. “Good morning! Department of Genetic Integrity, Paul Eggleston speaking.”
* * *
“I’m sorry, ma’am. As my secretary informed you, the Genetic Standards Act clearly states that if a parent cannot afford to meet genetic minimums, the child must be aborted. I’m afraid that there are no exceptions. Your health care provider is required to cover the cost of the abortion, so you don’t have to worry about money.”
Paul squeezed the phone into his shoulder, scribbling a few notes on his screen. Through the glass walls of his office, he watched a group of staffers making their way to the cafeteria that had been built when he worked in the phone offices. Trying not to tune out the chattering in his ear, he reflected that the only real difference between that job and this was the number of secretaries between him and the public.
“I understand how emotionally difficult this must be, ma’am. However, I assure you that current medical procedures are entirely safe and future pregnancies will be unaffected by the abortion. And after all, think of the child – do you really want to give your child a life hampered by genetic deficiency? What kind of a life would that be?”
A message from the labs popped up on his screen and he typed a few quick lines as he spoke.
“Please stay calm, ma’am. Remember, it’s now statistically almost impossible for a Breeding Marriage License to produce a genetically deficient fetus. I advise you to make an appointment for the abortion as soon as possible, so that you and your husband can – ”
She had hung up on him. He laid the phone back in its cradle. Immediately it rang.
“Department of Genetic Integrity, Director Eggleston speaking.”
“Paul? Listen, this is Peter Giles. We just got a call from the Hill. They’re letting us in on a something so that we can be ready before it hits the press.”
“You remember the belligerent tendency screenings? Apparently they were tested on several sample populations in the last decade. This was after they’d been cleared for safety but before their effectiveness had been proved.”
“That’s going to cause a little stir. But still, the safety tests had already been completed. What’s so bad about a little study?”
“I think that what has the PR people worried is the fact that every test group was pulled from low-income urban populations.”
Paul paused to process that. “Well, urban populations are famous for belligerence. Maybe they wanted to be sure of the sample.”
“That’s poor procedure. A sample is supposed to be random – if the urban population is really more likely to be belligerent, that’ll skew the data.”
Paul is ready before Peter has finished speaking: “The environment is more conducive to expression of the trait. The study is to determine whether the detected genotype increases belligerent tendencies; an environment in which the genotype is likely to express would be ideal because in a peaceful environment, carriers might never express the traits and the genotype might go unidentified.”
“ ...You’re a spin doctor, Paul. Full Ph.D. Thanks.”
Paul set the phone down. In his head, he corrected Peter: he wasn’t a spin doctor. The trick was simply to remember that the administration was the peoples’ servant; that’s what “administer” means. It’s from the Latin minister, a servant. The peoples’ servants always consider and attend to the needs of the people, even when the people don’t see their need. If one looked with a bit of attention, Paul knew, one could find the true motive behind any governmental action, no matter how odd or unexplained it might be.
His watch chirped at him: time for lunch. Setting the phone onto automatic answer, he pulled on his coat and headed to the cafeteria.
* * *
Paul tucked a napkin into his collar, covering up the tie that cost more than his entire outfit had cost when he was an intern. His lunch was as simple as ever: an apple, which he was still able to eat with his original teeth thanks to modern dentistry, a sandwich – today, he treated himself to a Reuben – a glass of water and a glass of milk. As usual, he was seated at the corner table under an old Department poster. The current poster, from about five years ago, read, “Bless your Child with a Peaceful Future – Test for Belligerence TODAY!” Under that was the Department slogan, “For the good of the species.”
Seeing the new face in the office, a kid named Anderson who was fresh out of college, Paul waved him over to his table. What was the kid’s first name? Paul wondered if his memory was declining already. Anderson glanced around, made sure that he was really being summoned, nervously walked over and set his tray on the table.
“Hello, Anderson! How’s work here treating you so far? Enjoying yourself?”
“It’s fine, sir ... nothing to complain about.” The kid had a slice of pizza, glass of Coke, cup of French fries. It wasn’t the healthiest option available, but it wasn’t unlike what most of Paul’s contemporaries ate when they were that young.
“You’ll have to forgive me – I can’t quite recall your first name. Ian?”
“Jon. That’s okay, though. I’m impressed that you remembered Anderson!”
“It’s my job, son. That and signing papers. I understand they have you fielding calls. That used to be my department.”
“So I heard, sir.” Anderson looked as though he had something on his mind, and Paul wanted to tease it out. The kid was shy, though. After a few minutes, in a pause, Anderson finally spoke up.
“I’ve been wondering something since I got here, sir. I hope you won’t mind, it’s ... kind of a personal question.”
“Shoot, son. You go ahead and ask, and if I don’t want to answer, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”
“I heard that you were denied a BML when you got married. Is it ... what’s it like to work in this department and know that you’re shut out of what we’re all working for?”
Paul nodded; it wasn’t the first time a staffer had asked him that question. “It’s true, and I don’t mind talking about it. When my wife and I applied for our Breeding Marriage License, we were rejected because of a slight genetic degradation in a strand of my DNA that regulates physical development. I grew up fine, but there’s a chance that any child would be crippled. Even by the standards then, I was unsuitable.” He took out his pocket knife and began peeling his apple. “I don’t bear a grudge, though, because that rejection has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the future of my potential children and our species itself. Why would I give life to a child who would suffer every day of his life and never be able to procreate himself? The law makes sense. As for my being in the Department – on my first day of work, a man named Claude Simonetti, the original director of the Department, told me something about government. In this country, it’s not that the people are ruled by the government; the government is the people. In a sense, it’s an expression of the popular desires as measured in elections. In another sense, we the people literally make up the government. Someone has to be in here pressing the buttons. Does that answer your question, son?”
“I guess so, sir. …Thank you.”
“Nothing to it. An old man likes to tell his stories sometimes. Now, isn’t it about time for you to be back at the phones?”
Anderson checked his watch and started. “Set me up the bomb! Yeah, I should get moving. I’ll see you later, sir.”
“Good luck, Anderson. I’m glad we talked.”
* * *
Pushing himself up with his silver-capped cane, Paul rose from the cafeteria chair and began slowly treading back to his office. He silently thanked the government for having installed escalators, as he did every day.
Deposited by the moving stairway at the mouth of his hall, Paul noticed two men standing beside the door to his office. One of them carried a manila folder. It’s here already, he thought, and continued calmly toward them.
“Mr. Eggleston? New legislation requiring your activation, sir.”
“Thank you, son. Please, step inside. Let’s not be hurried about this, eh? The wheels of government turn implacably; they have no need for haste.”
He let them inside and took his seat, indicating that they should follow suit. “Anything to drink? No? Very well.” With a sigh, he settled into his chair. It was as if his bones had curved into its shape since he became Director twenty years ago. “Now, let me have a look at this new legislation, son.”
He took the manila folder and briefly reviewed its contents, assuring himself that all the proper forms were signed. It was the bill, all right. He knew that it had passed, but somehow it still surprised him to be holding the final copy. He noticed that the Capitol office had a new notary. The review was mostly a formality, but Paul liked to observe the forms of conduct. He found them to have a calming effect. Seeing that the new directive was accompanied by the proper documentation, he lifted his pen and signed at the bottom of the final page, underneath the legend, “Congressional Act for the Removal of Non-Compliant Genotypes”.
“I guess you should probably tell the co-director to start moving his things, then.”
“He has already packed his office, sir,” said the officer who’d brought the files.
“Am I to wait here?”
“We’re instructed to escort you to the Compliance center immediately, sir. The Act does not permit delay.”
“Very well. I suppose that’s for the best, right? Efficiency and all – and one wouldn’t want a great line of people at the doors.”
“No, sir. If you would hand the documents to my partner, we’ll get going immediately.”
“Of course.” Paul passed the activated legislation back over his desk and stood, picking up his cane.
“We’ll have to ask that you leave your cane here, sir. Also, please hold out your hands so that we can restrain you. ... I’m sorry about this, sir. It’s only a formality.”
“I don’t ask for any special treatment, son. If I were given special dispensation, we’d have favoritism, and then where would we be?”
Closing the handcuffs, the officer glanced for an instant over his glasses and met Paul’s eyes. Paul noticed that the man’s eyes were a kind of crystal-blue – genotype 844g, if he wasn’t mistaken. Always one of his favorites. “You’re a rare man, sir,” said the agent. “I might even go so far as to say you’re a hero. You’ve given your life to the department. We won’t forget you.”
“Thank you, son,” said Paul. “That’s flattering, even if the chances of an officer-level genotype forgetting an arrested individual are less than one in a hundred.”
They shared a quick smile before the other officer cleared his throat and all three straightened, recalling the task at hand. “Please accompany us the rest of the way in silence, sir,”said the first officer, once again businesslike. “It’ll take about ten minutes to get there; it’s just up the road.”
“I do have one more question,” said Paul. This had been bothering him for some time. He’d checked over his estate that morning, set the files for his successor, done everything that a man could ... but he was still a man, and after almost eighty years, he still loved his life nearly as much as his government. “Will it hurt?”
“We really shouldn’t be talking any more, sir. I’m sorry. Please come with us now.”
They opened the door and Paul walked out, taking a final glance at the “216” as he walked toward the escalator. For the good of the species ...