When he saw the return address on the envelope, Derek Hendersen's dark brown eyes widened. An instant later, his pulse accelerated like a race car driver high on speed.
The Draft Commission...
Surreptitiously, Derek glanced across the cluttered dining room table at his wife, Marlene. Bathed in a golden shaft of early afternoon summer sunshine, she flipped through a clothing catalog she had received in the Saturday mail. Her serene gray eyes held no hint she had detected anything awry.
Ignoring as best he could the trembling alarm of his hands, Derek slowly peeled off the top of the official envelope. The ragged ripping of the paper sounded as loud to his suddenly sensitized senses as the thunder of Judgment Day. Nonchalantly, he extracted the neatly folded paper and set the empty envelope atop the already processed pile of bills and solicitations that formed the bulk of his daily mail.
Slowly he opened the sheet of cream-colored paper. Perhaps this missive held no sinister news, at all. Perhaps his local board wanted only to alert him to his upcoming annual physical. Perhaps his small business had finally demonstrated enough community value that his request for an exemption from the Draft had been granted. Perhaps...
Greetings Citizen Derek Henderson, the letter began.
The involuntarily gasp that seized Derek as he read past the salutation clamped iron fingers into his body and sque-e-e-zed. Desperately he fought to unlock the rigid muscles of his chest. Pain ratcheted through his torso as an invisible hand of lead pressed down upon his frozen lungs. As Marlene scrambled around the edge of the antique table, frantic concern marring the beloved perfection of her features, the forgotten announcement from his local Draft Board fluttered from his nerveless fingers and seesawed to the floor.
The message it contained, however, had hardly been forgotten. The key sentence had seared itself into Derek's consciousness, never to vanish for as long as he lived...short though that time now would be.
In the name of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number, you shall please report to Draft Commission Office #1026 on Wednesday, the Fifteenth Day of July, for induction into the Donor Corps.
In his forty-fifth year of life, Derek Hendersen had just received his death sentence.
The quiet stillness of the hospital room pressed in on Derek like a smothering blanket of forboding. A fifteen-year-old should not have to hold his mother's emaciated hand in the last trickling minutes of her life. His father, however, had insisted. I don't give a flying hell what you want, he had growled at Derek and his two sisters in the empty waiting room. She wants to see you before she dies. His father's piercing gaze had held a warning Derek knew he could not resist. You're going in there, and you're going to smile and touch her and be as pleasant and caring as you possibly can be or, by all that's holy, you will live to regret it.
The teenager had voiced no further protest. His father's sleep-deprived eyes had brooked no dissent. Swallowing dryly, Derek had merely nodded and followed two steps behind his father as the soon-to-be widower paced down the carpeted hallway and into the subdued lighting of his wife's darkened hospital room.
Now she lay before Derek, shrouded in a sparkling white sheet that had replaced the blood and vomit stained one that had covered her during the last episode presaging her eminent demise. Her lidded eyes focussed on images Derek could only imagine...if he dared. The faint rise and fall of her diminutive chest alone marked her as existing yet on this side of that eternal, one-way barrier he had no desire to explore.
The young internist, Dr. Banyon, glided into the room as eerily as the ghost his mother would soon become. Her thin, pale features and straggly blond hair had repulsed Derek since he had first met her upon his mother's last admission to the terminal ward.
Extending bony fingers, she solemnly shook the hand of Derek's father. "I'm sorry we couldn't do more for Helen, Mr. Hendersen," she said in hushed, sympathetic tones. "But, of course, as you're well aware, we're desperately short of organs available for transplant. Even though the Virus attacks only one percent of the population, that translates into an unfathomably large number compared to the supply of organs that comes on line. Unfortunately, Helen contracted an unusually virulent form. Her kidneys and liver have already failed. I'm afraid her heart is not far behind."
Mr. Hendersen's jaw bunched. He nodded curtly, abruptly. "I understand, Doctor. You've done all you can. I'm just grateful she can die with dignity here in the hospital."
Dr. Banyon sighed. "I know. In the larger cities, Virus patients are sent home during the final stages. There simply aren't enough beds for them all." Her narrow lips thinned. "I'm not sure how much longer we can afford to maintain our present policy here."
With a sidelong glance, Derek saw his father's spine straighten almost imperceptibly.
"Perhaps we can do something to change that," his father said with hard simplicity.
"Yes, I hope so," Dr. Banyon said distractedly, glancing at her watch. "I'm afraid I must be going," she said, flashing an artificially apologetic smile. "I share your pain."
Mr. Hendersen nodded absently as the doctor exited. A chill slithered through Derek as he studied his father's thoughtful expression. He had seen that determined look far too many times already in his short life. His dad's sudden preoccupation with whatever scheme spun through his thoughts did not bode well. Even if whatever idea his father would soon hatch did not succeed, Derek knew a lot of people would suffer before Mr. Isaac Hendersen's plans played themselves out to their bitter end. Misery -- Isaac's, at least -- loved company.
With subconscious awareness, Derek realized the cool hand he held in his sweaty palm had grown colder still. The muffled sobs of his younger sisters flanked him as they knelt at the edge of the bed.
Tears never marred his father's flinty eyes. Derek knew the elder Hendersen would never be able to express his grief in so direct a fashion. Isaac had always been a man of action and would remain so until he died.
When the first hearings convened in Washington, D.C., on how to handle the Virus crisis and the critical shortage of donor organs needed to combat it, Isaac Hendersen made certain he appeared as one of the first witnesses.
To Derek's modest surprise, this time one of his father's radical notions found a receptive audience. Little did anyone suspect then, however, that the consequences of Isaac Hendersen's personal crusade would one day reach out and enmesh his only son at the age of forty-five.
A pall hung over the dinner table that evening. Despite the furtive, questioning glances of their two teenage sons and their grade-school age daughter, neither parent felt much like talking.
After easing her husband to the floor, Marlene had unbuttoned Derek's shirt and fretted over him, frightened by his sudden attack and her ignorance as to how best to handle the situation. His sweat-drenched face and clothes, his shortness of breath, and his clammy hands all suggested a heart attack -- a myocardial infarction -- must be the explanation.
Struggling for air, Derek managed to call out to her as she reached for the phone."Don't...! No ambulance. No doctor. Please."
Reluctantly Marlene lowered the handset. Derek forced a smile he did not feel and waved her closer. "Help me...to the couch." Fighting against constricted muscles, he sucked in a soothing lungful of air. "Okay...in a minute." Though it proved a struggle to lift him, Marlene half-dragged, half-guided Derek to the aging brown cushions of the couch they had purchased after the birth of their second son, Chad.
Minutes passed, but finally the weight pressing down on Derek's chest lightened then drifted away. With his heart no longer threatening to burst from its cage and his color gradually returning to normal, he tried to regain control of his runaway emotions. Deep down he realized the only attack he had suffered was one of panic.
With an arm flung across his face, he watched Marlene retrieve the dropped letter. The slight stagger in her step told Derek his wife grasped the seriousness of his -- their -- situation as readily as did he. Sitting down precariously on the edge of the sagging cushions, Marlene dangled the refolded announcement between her index finger and thumb as though it held the Virus itself embedded in its threads.
"Is there anything we can do?" she asked softly. Her unfocussed gaze stared across the dining room and into the living room.
Grateful that the children had vanished on their weekend quests for fun, Derek did not respond to what could only be a rhetorical question. Not only did he feel drained of energy for conversation, truly what could they do? A Draft appeal process did exist. Never had he read of such an appeal succeeding, however, for anything other than medical reasons.
For the first but hardly the last time, he wished his collapse had resulted from a damaged heart. Then he might have a real chance to live out a normal lifespan.
"Less than a month before you report. Sixty days after that before you're...pr-processed." Marlene choked on the word. "I don't know how to run your business. What'll the children do? I wish we'd taken out a larger donor insurance policy. It'll barely cover the mortgage. How can I go on without you?"
With a sick pang seeping into his chest where the pain had so recently dwelled, Derek let his wife of twenty-five years ramble on. Each of them dealt with tragedy in their own way. Her tears would flow profusely later, mostly likely that night while they clung to each other beneath the meager shelter of their thin summer blankets. He...he would face the inevitable without tears. Though he wanted so much to cry, to weep his outrage and his fear and his despair, he could summon forth nothing more substantial than a barely noticeable moistness of eye.
The Draft had not been the only legacy his father had bequeathed him.
Even though the cube factory had been a relative bargain, Derek had spent all the money from his father's life insurance policy and borrowed more besides to purchase the buildings and the silent equipment he knew would one day make his fortune.
"You're a shrewd businessman, Mr. Hendersen," Stan Newson said. The realtor and the thirty-year-old novice entrepreneur stood outside the locked gate inspecting the property that would soon boast of a new owner. "A lot of folks would have paid considerably more to obtain this place." A calculated yet appreciative smile wreathed Newson's broad face. "I read that cube storage will revolutionize the computer world." He rubbed at his double-chin. "Beats me, though, how they can cram so much information into such a small space. Sure makes CD's look primitive in comparison."
Only half paying attention, Derek nodded. "Three-dimensional storage is here to stay," he said as much to himself as to the realtor. "We're still magnitudes below the capacity of the human brain, however. Maybe someday. Someday..."
Newson arched a bushy brow and grunted. "Think so, huh?" He narrowed his green eyes and scrutinized the factory abandoned by its bankrupt former owners. The troubled expression on his face suggested that perhaps he had missed a good opportunity here...
Shaking himself from his reverie, Derek glanced at his watch. "The closing is in an hour. My lawyer said he'd meet us at the bank thirty minutes before closing. Shall we go?"
"Huh? Oh. Oh, yeah. Sure..."
As the two men headed for the realtor's luxury car parked in the sheltering shade of a tall maple tree, Derek acknowledged to himself that "shrewdness" might explain part of why he had quit his job at Nutech Industries and struck out on his own path. A desire for independence better explained his motivation; luck, his learning of the impending business collapse of a fellow club member who proved to be a good drinking buddy but a lousy manager. Marlene had gulped at the risk but backed him all the way. After all, they had just passed the Draft age limit of twenty-nine-years. Once again they could breathe freely and enjoy the prospect of a long lifetime together. Too bad about the younger folks, of course, but the Virus showed no signs of abating anytime soon. Better for one person to die so five or ten or even more could live.
Unaware of the faint smile parting his lips, Derek wondered what his father would have thought of his soon-to-be wealthy eldest child.
As his oldest boy, Anders, entered the kitchen, Derek swallowed a mouthful of orange juice and carefully placed the short glass next to the plate of untouched scrambled eggs and toast Marlene had prepared for him.
"Good morning," he said quietly.
Anders glanced briefly in his father's direction. "Morning," he mumbled. Heading across the room, he flung open the refrigerator door and buried his face behind its concealing white enamel. Seconds ticked uncomfortably into the past. At an earlier time, Derek would have scolded his son for "letting out the cold air." Such things seemed of little import now, however.
When the door finally slammed shut, Anders emerged holding a large slice of cold pizza in his teeth and a can of cola in one hand. Popping open the flag-colored cylinder, he took a bite from his impromptu breakfast and headed for the outside door. "Gotta catch the bus," he mouthed around a glob of pepperoni and dough. His eyes darted from direct contact with the man who had helped conceive him a lifetime ago.
As the door rattled shut, Derek tightened his grip on the half-empty juice glass.
A voice sounded behind his right shoulder. "You really should eat."
Derek stiffened at the unexpected presence of his wife, returned from her trip to the laundry room. Only when she dug her strong fingers into the hardened planes of his shoulders did he allow his posture to sag.
"I'm not hungry."
"Losing weight won't help. They'll just --"
Shaking off Marlene's hands, Derek bolted upright and strode four paces away. "Don't you think I know that, damn it?" he shouted. "The last thing I need is your harping at me."
Marlene's eyes glistened as she bit down on her lower lip. Hesitantly, she extended a hand. Derek half turned, anger flushing his face.
Listlessly, Marlene let her arm drop. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... I didn't mean it like that. I just worry about you."
"Well, you won't have to worry much longer," he snapped bitterly. At sight of his wife's crumpling face, Derek instantly regretted his words. Marlene's shaking shoulders and barely contained sobs tore at his outrage, shredding it into tatters that vanished in the wind of the immediate moment. "I'm...I'm sorry," he said, stepping awkwardly forward. Uncertainly he extended his arms.
Rushing forward, Marlene melted into his embrace, her tears flowing more openly as he tightened his arms protectively around her. And he did so badly want to protect her from the future she would now have to face alone. The only problem was...he could not protect her. The situation had spun madly out of his control and into the firm grip of the Draft Commission and its inescapable Donor Corps. That very helplessness fueled the anger and pain he wished he could shelter his wife and his family from.
"It's hard for all of us. I know that," he said through tight lips. "It still hurts, though." Stroking Marlene's hair with one hand, he looked out the window to where his son stood on the curb waiting for the school bus. Anders's narrow shoulders revealed the wire-taut tension digging into them all. "What can we say, what can we do that will change anything? Maybe we should just accept it. I mean, people die in accidents all the time. At least we have some warning, some time to prepare."
"Oh, Derek," Marlene sobbed into his chest. The anguish compressed into those two words spoke for them both. Yet in the whole societal scheme, their agony mattered little. What of those countless others whose lives he would save because he surrendered his own? Surely the spokesmen could not be wrong. The sacrifice had to be worth it all. How could he, a single individual, refuse when duty called?
The greatest good for the greatest number. The principle guiding their nation deserved to be honored. After all, any value exacted a price. His time simply had come to contribute his share to that common good. What else could he do?
"'The greatest good for the greatest number.' Just what the hell does that mean, anyway? What could it possibly mean?" Derek's brother-in-law -- Marlene's middle brother -- practically sneered the question. Frowning, Tom Pendleton swallowed a big gulp of the Irish whiskey he had brought for their Thanksgiving dinner. Derek had lost track of how many shot glasses the two of them had filled.
Despite his heavy lids, Derek pulled back his lips in disgust. "We've been through this before, Tom. What's the point in rehashing it?"
Tom knocked back the rest of the amber fluid in his glass and reached for the bottle and its rapidly shrinking supply. "It's important for me to understand just what it is we're up against. It's the only way we'll be able to win."
Derek blinked then yawned. "'We'?"
Tom waved that aside. "Just answer my question."
Derek's brow furrowed. Discussions with his college-student brother-in-law never ceased to be stimulating...or irritating. What did an overly idealistic academic like Tom know about the real world? He had no conception of the demands and responsibilities inherent in being a husband and a father. All Derek wanted was to reach his thirtieth birthday so he could kiss Nutech good-by and strike out on his own path. He had no time for such dreamy-eyed visions as those Tom spouted.
"It should be obvious even to a college-type like you," Derek said with what he hoped sounded like sarcasm, "that whatever helps the largest number of people is what we should strive for. Our society has always been based on that. It's what drives the Draft. Hell, just ask my dad. He knows all about that."
Tom grinned savagely. "I'd be most happy to if he weren't so conveniently dead. Funny how he managed to avoid all the problems he helped create."
Derek drained the last of his drink. He raised a feeble objection when Tom filled it again to the brim. His brother-in-law ignored him.
"Unfortunately, you're right," Tom said, tilting back the kitchen chair on which he sat. "At least you're correct in one sense."
"Okay. I'll bite. What sense is that?"
With a heavy thump, Tom dropped his chair down on all fours. "Our teachers and parents, the media and the politicians, all of them extoll the virtues of the 'common good,' of 'sacrifice,' of 'altruism.' Those are the catch phrases, the rationale they use to justify everything they do to us."
"You mean 'for us.'"
"I mean what I say. The Draft spreads the body parts around, propping up whatever inflated number of lives they claim are saved from the Virus. All at the mere sacrifice of a single human being. It's no different in principle than the tax collector who steals the wealth of the most productive among us and spreads it around to those who neither earned it nor deserve it. According to them, you are no more entitled to your own body than you are to your own money. 'Society' owns both and is free to dispose of them as it wills. 'The greatest good for the greatest number.' It's sick."
Derek tossed up his hands and laughed incredulously. "I hardly know where to begin pointing out your mistakes! We all pay taxes. We all benefit from them. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Everyone knows that. Same with the Draft. We're all subject to the Draft. We all benefit when more people survive and go on to lead productive lives. As for the common good... Now you're attacking the Constitution! I got to hand it to you. That's a new one, at least."
Wearily, Tom shook his head. "How did things get so screwed up?" he asked the air. He ticked points off on his fingers. "First of all, if you're poor enough, you don't pay taxes. The government pays you. In any event, hiring the government to steal from Peter to pay Paul doesn't alter the fact that taxation is theft. Second, if you're sick enough or are a woman with enough young kids or pump enough wealth into the economy or are over thirty, you're exempt from the Draft."
"What's so bad about that? It's no different than when they drafted people for wars with other nations. We're just engaged in a different kind of war now, is all. The same principle applies."
Tom nodded. "Again you're right...in a perverse sort of way. They are using the same principle...the same erroneous principle. Society doesn't own you any more than it owns your wealth. Taking the latter is robbery. Taking the former is murder."
Derek slammed a fist against the table. The emptying scotch bottle danced a short jig across the wooden tabletop. "We have an obligation -- a duty -- to society. Think of all we receive from our culture. All the wealth and all the knowledge we've inherited from those who came before us. It's a debt we can never fully repay. When our culture -- our society -- needs us, how can we refuse to surrender that which we wouldn't even possess in the first place if it weren't for that society you so detest?"
"But each of those advances, all that wealth comes from the ideas and efforts of individual people."
"Who could not even exist -- let alone create those wonders of civilization -- without the assistance of others and the societal structure we all live in."
Glaring, Tom downed a third of his glass. "But there's literally no such thing as 'society.'"
Derek waved dismissively at his brother-in-law. "Now you're being ridiculous. Of course society exists. We're immersed in it. We're part of it, and it's part of us. We couldn't live without society."
Tom leaned forward and extended his bare arms across the table, his wrists held together, his fingers flaring as he sought to make his point. "Yes, O.K., it exists as an idea, as a description of the relationship among individuals. But it doesn't exist independently above and beyond the people who compose it. Groups don't think or feel or live in any literal sense. Only people do. Individuals are the basic units we need to consider. Not groups." An almost pleading tone laced Tom's words.
Derek grunted. "Ever heard of something being greater than the sum of its parts? Surely that description fits society quite well?"
"All that means is that people can accomplish more together than they can separately. That doesn't alter the fact that the individual is primary. Just like the concepts of left and right. They describe relationships between a person and other things. Yet that relationship is secondary to -- because it depends on -- the individual. Without the single person, right and left have no meaning. You can't create different rules for society while ignoring what's proper for the individual. That's just as wrong as it would be to use algebra while denying the existence or validity of the arithmetic on which it builds."
Exasperated, Derek scrubbed at his face. "You're spouting nonsense. You act as though society is a myth."
"In the sense you and everyone else tries to use it, yes, damn it, society is a myth, and a destructive one at that. Society has no values of its own, no free will, no life. You use metaphors to describe it then confuse the metaphor with the reality. Properly understood, society -- that is, cooperative relationships among individuals -- it's a glorious idea, a celebration of what we can accomplish together, pursuing common goals, sharing our skills and our knowledge, but all as individuals. The result can be wondrous. But used as you use it, society is a grim and terrible thing, a destroyer of individual hopes and aspirations, a shredder of lives and happiness. The 'common good' of the Constitution you mention respects the proper hierarchy. It recognizes that the common good or the greatest good for the greatest number can only exist, can only mean the greatest good as judged by the individual persons themselves. Taking the common good to mean the faceless, soulless standard of society only benefits one group by tyrannizing, terrorizing, and plundering another."
Unsteadily Tom shoved back his chair. The legs scraped preternaturally loudly across the tile in the late night quiet. Weaving, he stood and pointed a finger at Derek's chest.
"I, for one, refuse to sacrifice myself and all my values for strangers who have no legitimate claim on any aspect of my life. I'm not the only one, either. We intend to do something about this travesty. All we ask is all anyone has the right to ask of us: to be left alone to live our lives as we choose -- as I choose -- free from threats and force. I came here this weekend hoping maybe -- just maybe -- you might be willing to join us or at least to help."
With his insides churning from both too many emotions and too much booze, Derek stumbled to his feet. His fists curled into hard balls at his side as he cast about for some appropriate response. When at last he spoke, his words came short and to the point: "Go to hell."
When Derek awoke from his hangover and moaned his way downstairs late the next morning, his brother-in-law, Tom, had vanished. Neither he nor Marlene ever spoke with Tom again.
But hear of him again, they did. A lot.
"I'd like to welcome you all here today." Captain George Parker's gaze drifted across Derek but did not linger. "I realize the heavy burden you bring with you. I sincerely want you to know we're here to help. After we process your forms and you are given your final physicals prior to induction into the Donor Corps, anyone so desiring may visit one-on-one -- for as long as you need to -- with one of our Draft counselors. He or she will be able to answer any and all of your questions and ease you through this difficult transition period." The captain nodded to a non-com standing discretely in the background near the door to the exam rooms.
Derek's eyes followed the sergeant who stepped smartly forward. "Good day, gentlemen." He held up a thick sheaf of papers. "These forms need to be completed by you before we proceed to the next stage of operations. In here you will find..."
The sound of the sergeant's bass voice droned on. Casually Derek observed the "honor guard" stationed by pairs at each doorway. Though the burly soldiers wore no helmets, Derek entertained little doubt that these men had once done so under combat conditions. The dark-metal, laser weapons leaning on their right shoulders appeared to be anything other than ceremonial.
As the sergeant called his name, Derek shoved aside the implications of such thoughts and advanced to the front of the room to accept his forms. A quick scan of his fellow Draftees revealed that his group consisted of at least three dozen men ranging in age from twenty to fifty, the current upper limit.
No one made eye contact.
After completing the forms and enduring a half-hour physical, Derek availed himself of the opportunity to chat with a counselor. Two hours passed before his turn popped up.
"Hendersen!" In a bored tone, a young corporal barked his name.
Startled, Derek rose stiffly from his plastic chair shoved against a wall. The austere hallway painted an innocuous beige did little to stimulate his senses. Stifling a yawn, he followed the soldier's pointing finger.
The counselor's office proved more luxurious. A smiling, gray-haired man rose and extended a hand which Derek shook. Settling back into the proffered leather-upholstered chair, the Draftee noted the discrete name plate perched on the edge of the mahogony desk proclaiming this soldier to be one Major Karl Weatherby.
"So, Derek," Major Weatherby said, steepling his fingers. "How may I be of assistance?"
Wetting his lips, Derek essayed a flickering smile. "As you can imagine, all this comes as a bit of a surprise to me."
The major's white brows rose like twin caterpillars. "How so?"
Awkwardly, Derek waved a hand. "My age. Just five years to go to the limit. My business. I employ twenty people, you know. I thought maybe we could discuss the exemption I applied for. I never did hear whether --"
Major Weatherby lowered his hands to the desktop. "Your application for a business exemption was reviewed by qualified personnel when your randomly assigned Draft number appeared on the current assignment roster."
The counselor spread his leathery hands apart. "And it was denied, of course."
Derek blinked his confusion. "But... Why?"
"Come, come, Mr. Hendersen." The soldier smiled broadly. "Surely you don't think you would be here now if we had granted your request?"
Derek shrugged. "Well... Mistakes happen, you know, and I just wondered if maybe --"
"No. No mistake here." Major Weatherby hesitated then leaned forward on his arms. "We examined your operations quite thoroughly. Cube production is a high priority, I assure you."
"Then why was --"
"We'd like to thank you for the superlative job you did of renovating and modernizing that factory. Indeed, you have created such a magnificant societal asset that we all stand in awe of your achievement. Because of that outstanding work, we believe your factory has, as the experts call it, matured to the point where it can continue to function without your constant attention. Your supervisors and lower level managers have demonstrated quite nicely their ability in operating the facility on a day-to-day basis without your guiding hand."
"But my family. My wife..."
"Will still inherit your share. She is, of course, free to sell to certain other, interested parties should she choose to do so. After all..." He glanced down at a folder opened on his desk. "...Marlene will probably have little desire to become mired in the messy affairs of a thriving business. Better for her to turn over the reins to more experienced hands and invest her funds elsewhere in a more passive fashion."
"'Other parties?'" Derek frowned. True, he had been approached more than once by competitors interested in absorbing his small business into theirs. Indeed, he had refused just such an offer last year. How did Major Weatherby come to be acquainted with who might --
"Any other questions?" The soldier glanced at this watch as he folded his hands before him.
"I'm not sure. I --"
"You are aware, of course, that you have sixty days in which to conclude your affairs before you report to Donor Processing. You may also be aware that if you sell any business assets before that time, you can avoid inheritance taxes." Weatherby winked. "That would be a nice bonus to leave your family, wouldn't it? I'm sure you will be contacted soon by potential buyers." He grinned. "You know how news travels."
"But I --"
Abruptly Major Weatherby stood and extended a hand. Automatically, Derek followed suit. The corporal who had shown him in mysteriously opened the door and directed him out.
"If you have any other concerns, Mr. Hendersen," Major Weatherby called out as the office door closed, "be sure to let me know."
"Omigod. Look at that...," Marlene said breathlessly.
Mildly annoyed, Derek glanced up from the first-year financial figures for his new cube manufacturing business. Sighing, he squinted at the flat-screen covering one wall of the family room. "What...?" And then he saw it. The larger-than-life image of his wife's brother, Tom, occupied the left side of the screen. The grim-faced announcer filling the right side of the picture stared out at his unseen audience. His sonorous tones reverberated through the air.
"The leader of the anti-Draft movement has been identified as one Thomas Pendleton, formerly a student at Eastern State University and currently on the run from local and federal officials for bombing four Draft Commission Buildings in the South and East. Pendleton, originally from Primbroke, New York, issued a video announcement this morning claiming credit for the latest bombing that rocked the quiet suburban community of Eastlake, Georgia."
Tom's frozen visage expanded to fill the entire screen then melted into life. "The Committee to End the Draft and Restore Our Freedoms has struck yet again today at the heart of the corruption destroying the fabric of our society. CEDROF pledges to continue its assault on a government which treats its citizens as cattle to be slaughtered and dismembered. The abomination of committing these atrocities in the name of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' must be opposed at every turn. To that end, I and my followers pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors. We will continue our efforts until the Draft is abolished and our freedoms are once again established throughout this country."
Though Tom obviously had more to say, his face shrank and dissolved into images of charred ruins, rioting citizens dashing across darkened streets, and determined looking police and military units marching in heavily armed groups in front of savagely burning buildings. The announcer's serious words resumed in voice-over.
"The extremist group known as CEDROF joins other fanatical and extremist anti-government organizations which have delayed timely food deliveries, disrupted transportation, and led to a general increase in violent crime in many of our major cities. The recent power outage along the Eastern seaboard has been attributed to sabotage by these suspected outlaws. The President is expected to ask Congress tomorrow for sweeping new powers to deal with what he calls 'threats to the very foundation of our free and democratic society.' Speculations suggest that this radical increase in opposition to the Draft coincides with the recent increase in the age of eligibility to thirty-five. This change, which was passed by Congress during its spring session, is scheduled to take effect on July first.
"In other news..."
Slowly Derek padded down the sound. Turning to Marlene, he felt a shiver shudder along his spine. For a long moment, the spouses searched each others' eyes.
"Do you think they'll connect him with us?" Marlene asked, at last.
With anger submerging the fear bubbling within him, Derek frowned. "I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "But if he ever shows his face around here, he'll wish he hadn't. I never want to see him again."
Unfortunately for Derek, he forgot that we often get what we wish for.
Derek sat rigidly at the table as the legal documents passed from person to person. The bank's board room held him, his lawyer, the vice-president who had handled the financing of this deal, the lawyer for the purchaser...and that new owner of the cube manufacturing business -- the business he had rescued from oblivion and built into a solid concern -- Stan Newson.
"Mr. Hendersen?" His lawyer, Wallace Crandall, cleared his throat and offered his client a pen for the signing.
At least he had the good grace to look embarrassed, Derek thought. That was more than could be said for his one-time realtor. Stan Newson beamed a broad smile as he lounged in the chair across the table from the Draftee.
Snatching the black-barreled pen from Crandall's manicured fingers, Derek held it like a dagger he could plunge into the fat belly of the man whose amused expression told Derek all he needed to know. Seconds passed. An uncomfortable silence ballooned around him, yet Newson seemed unaware of anything untoward.
Swallowing the bile in his throat, Derek finally uncurled his fingers and shifted his grip on the pen. Barely looking down, he scrawled his name in all the spaces his lawyer indicated. When the last signature had been affixed, he clicked the pen closed.
"Glad to do business with you, Derek," Newson said as the two lawyers gathered together their papers. "I --"
Without a word, Derek stood and tossed the pen. His target, Newson, did not flinch as the projectile struck his broad chest and fell impotently to the polished wood of the table. Knocking over his chair, Derek stormed from the room and into the hallway. Seconds later found him outside and headed for his car. Wispy clouds brushed across the penetrating blue of the afternoon sky.
Unlocking his car, Derek clambered in, started the motor, and sped away without a backward glance. Racing down the street, he roared towards home. The possibility of a ticket did not concern him in the least. Where he was headed, the authorities would have a hell of a time collecting.
Their love-making that night had been fierce and frenetic. When at last he and Marlene had separated, sweating and panting, he had drawn her closer and held her tight. For a time, his wife had tried to hold in the tears. At his comforting words, however, they had finally flowed in great sobbing torrents. He had soothed her upset as best he could. There had been little enough he could do for himself.
After Marlene drifted into an exhausted slumber, Derek extricated himself and headed downstairs. Slipping on his robe, he padded into his office and eased shut the solid-core door. For a long moment, he stood with his back pressed against that reassuring solidity. Without realizing exactly how, he made his decision and hurried over to his computer.
Flipping on the monitor, he accessed the net. With an ease that would have surprised his wife, he zeroed in on the site he wanted. For an hour he scanned the information that not even the government had yet been able to eradicate. Though the Draft Commission complained bitterly at the nodes maintained anonymously by Draft resisters, many in law enforcement preferred their prey out in the open rather than totally hidden from view.
After reading the postings and discussions and announcements, Derek entered a privacy room. Even then he hesitated. Though he knew well enough how to utilize the net, he had no great assurance that "secure" rooms truly were. He had little fear for himself any longer, of course. What more could anyone do to him? Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his wife and children. The deal he had signed with Newson combined with his life and Donor insurance policies would see Marlene through the foreseeable future. If her pregnancy went to term, she would pass the Draft age limit before the child entered grade school. They had discussed names for both a son and a daughter. His taped messages would at least give his unknown child some sense of who his/her father had been and why he could not be present for the milestones of --
Slowly Derek closed his eyes. No point in delaying. Risks had never stopped him before. Though he still could not totally accept the philosophical arguments of the resisters, he had no desire to die. Guilt might rack him for abandoning his duty, but better that than oblivion or surrogate existence in the scattered bodies of unknown donor recipients.
With great deliberation, he typed in the message that had gradually coalesced in his brain. As soon as he finished, he fled the net and closed down his machine. For a silent space of time, he sat in the chill gloom, clasping his trembling hands on his lap. Whether anyone would read -- let alone heed -- his appeal seemed a long shot, at best. Whether Tom would respond to the brother-in-law who had once helped him slay a bottle of whiskey, he did not know.
He was out of options, however. Flight would be futile. Without a Donor card, he could not purchase food, rent an apartment, or find work in any reputable business. With one, he would be reported as a dodger in an instant. Perhaps counterfeit cards existed. He had no clue how to obtain one. Not even the resister site openly provided that kind of information.
All of his life he had followed the rules, done his duty, been as good a citizen as he could be. Though the Draft had always existed as a kind of abstract force, its demands had been easily ignored.
In five rows of seven men each, the latest group of Draftees stood in the parking lot of Draft Commission Office #1026. The crisp cotton uniforms of green and white gave the men a disciplined air. Silver pins awarded them by Captain Parker to honor their sacrifice for community and country glittered in the early morning light. An honor guard flanked them as row by row they entered the comfortable, air-conditioned bus that would transport them to the Donor Processing Center.
Numbly, Derek stared at the graying hair of the slump-shouldered man just before him in line. Even now a sense of unreality permeated his blank thoughts and anesthetized emotions. The oddly formal farewells with his wife and children that morning; the cab ride which had brought him to the Draft Office; the discarding of his street clothes and the last shreds of his individual identity; the final breakfast that had gone untouched by nearly all of the Draftees; the rousingly delivered speech presented by Captain Parker reiterating the great good they would accomplish that day; the lack of applause which had done nothing to diminish the captain's bracing demeanor and hearty handshakes; the pin ceremony, and finally this stepping onto the bus, gliding soundlessly from sunlight and fresh breezes into well-modulated gloom and canned air. None of it felt real. None of it drilled throught the ceramic shell of shock that had encased him since he had sent his message winging out into the electronic atmosphere of the net.
No government agents had stormed his home and arrested him. No threatening calls had arrived demanding information on one Thomas Pendleton, extremist leader and danger to national security.
No offers for help had filtered to him via net or phone or visitor in the night.
Weariness pressed down on Derek as he slid into a window seat near the back of the bus. The luxurious cushion and back support eased around his body with a caress like a mother cradling her infant. He paid no attention to the young man who took the aisle seat. Mellow music wafted from concealed speakers. Short minutes passed. Derek barely noted the whoosh of the closing door and the strong, smooth acceleration of the bus.
At a steady forty-miles-per-hour, the transport pulled into the light morning traffic. Block after block of run-down buildings, trash-littered gutters, and abandoned, rusting automobiles blurred past. The unsmiling faces of commuting drivers paced them until divergent destinations peeled the citizens away from the green-and-white painted bus. After awhile, Derek leaned back his head and closed his eyes against the scenery he would soon enjoy no more.
Thoughts swirled chaotically through his mind. Conflicting messages of sacrifice and duty, selfishness and choices warred together on the interior battlefield of his brain. As a hard-working and moral person, he knew he could not refuse to pay the price for the benefits he had enjoyed for so long. After all, someone had to pay the piper. Yet still he had hoped against all reasonable expectations that a member of that small, vocal resistance would heed his tiny plea, would lead him from the path society had decided he should follow. Even as the bus pulled into the parking lot of Mercy Hospital, a guilty corner of his core self toyed with the wild notion that Tom had decided to delay until the last possible moment; had decided to stage a rescue that would provide maximal impact in terms of propaganda; had heard his brother-in-law's impolitic cry for help and would deliver the sinner from the error of his ways.
With imperceptible deceleration, the bus pulled to a stop near the entrance to the Donor Processing Center. There the Draftees would be kept until a final medical evaluation could be performed. Some would be harvested -- "processed" in the official jargon -- immediately for urgent cases needing new organs. Others would be housed for periods ranging from days to weeks until the best matches could be made between donor and recipients. A Draftee never knew precisely when his presence would be required. Few, however, lasted longer than a month before being called into service for the final time.
As Derek stood and shuffled down the bus aisle, a faint trembling welled upward from some deep inner source and set his arms, legs, and hands to shaking like leaves in the faintest of winds. Going down the four steps, he had to grasp the railing for support. The dryness in his throat made the mounting agitation all the more noticeable. Squinting into the painfully bright daylight, he paused for a moment and surveyed the scene.
Another honor guard lined the green-carpeted path the Draftees followed towards the entrance of the Processing Center. No one here smiled. As each Draftee came to the open doorway, a corporal checked each individual's Donor card and matched it against a master print-out.
A gentle hand pressed against Derek's back, urging him forward. Stumbling forward, he swiveled his head and caught the empathetic gaze of the man behind him. With a deep breath, Derek resumed his leisurely march down the carpet. The narrowed gaze an honor guard tracked his progress towards the hospital.
With each step, Derek's thoughts racheted into higher and higher speed. Casting about with his eyes, he searched every sheltered nook or elevation where a marauding band of Draft resisters might be lurking, ready any instant to make their deadly assault against the governmental forces arrayed before them.
Surely it wouild not be so difficult, Derek thought. The dozen members of the honor guard could be mowed down with barely a chance to return fire. The still waiting bus could be commandeered to make their escape. A transfer to other, smaller vehicles would scatter the Draftees around the city, impossible to track, impossible to find. Surely it would be no problem to --
But as each Draftee held out his Donor card for inspection, Derek's suppositions stumbled to a halt. Even if such a blow to free them arrived, how would these nameless men respond? Would they seize the opportunity and flee for their very lives? Would they turn against the destroyers of the accepted way of life? Or would they cower and await the arrival of the governmental representatives who had shaped and molded them all their lives?
Sweat stung Derek's eyes. Only eight men stood ahead of him in the line. His Donor card swung from its chain around his neck, seeming to choke the breath from his lungs as he crept nearer and nearer to his goal. Soon his eyes, skin, liver, heart, pancreas, lungs, kidneys, bones, nerves, and parts of his brain would be excised and scattered to the far corners of the country.
The Greatest Good For the Greatest Number.
All his life he had been exhorted to sacrifice, to give, to obey, to be unselfish. To deny those priorities had been deemed the darkest of sins.
The words of his brother-in-law and his anonymous surrogates on the net reverberated through Derek's clouded thoughts. The leaders of society told him that selfishness was evil. Yet he so desperately wanted to live. Was that selfish? And if so, how could such a desire be so abhorrent? The cultural gurus promised him that if he lived for others, he would be blessed. Yet the only blessing he faced was to die, as well, for people he would never meet or know or love. The voices of responsibility assured him that only those things bigger than himself held truly lasting value. Yet what of the values he had created and shared with his friends and family and associates?
Four men separated him from his fate.
Maybe I am selfish, Derek thought with sudden cold clarity. Maybe I am damned to be a sinner and undeserving of respect in society. Perhaps my adamant protestations against Tom's arguments merely masked my aching desire to agree with all he stood for. Why else did I never report him to the authorities? Criminals have been sentenced to surrender their organs for far less serious offenses than such treasonous talk.
The line in front of Derek shrank to two.
Maybe the greatest good for me...is me, he thought. My life. My choices. My values. Perhaps I am simply unworthy of the honor society has chosen to bestow upon me by selecting me to share my organs with so many desperately needy souls.
Derek slid to a stop. The Draftee behind him bumped into his back and mumbled something that sounded like an irritated insult. The corporal at the door frowned a thin-lipped frown and motioned the recalcitrant Draftee forward. A weary condescension wreathed his face at this all-too-familiar burble.
"Come on, Draftee," the soldier said. "We haven't got all day."
Derek's muscles locked at the words of the round-cheeked corporal. For a brief moment, he shuttered his eyes against the world that had closed in around him.
"Come on. Move it!" the invisible voice repeated.
Inhaling a long breath, Derek nodded once, lifted his lids, and took a step...
...sharply to the left.
Like a string-tethered marionette, he walked woodenly away from the diminished line of Draftees. Unintelligible voices echoed incoherently around him. Though the words launched at him did not penetrate through his suddenly hardened focus, their emotional content stung like agitated bees. Surprise flowed into alarm which melted into anger and outrage.
With each step further from the Donor Processing Center, Derek felt the mental resistance slowing his pace ease as though he moved from viscous honey towards clear water and on into open air. As the stiffness sped from his limbs and body, he concentrated only on the fact that too many questions remained to be answered. He could not yet blissfully hand over his body to whatever tender mercies awaited it behind those imposing cement walls.
Grinning at last, he began to run.
The honor guard had been well-trained. With precision born of practice, each soldier snapped his laser rifle to his shoulder and centered the targeting light on the back of the skull turned towards them. Silent nods granted the shot to the man most directly in line with the target subject. The faintly visible beam bored through wisps of dust in the air and into the brown hair waving in the wind. The lance of light seared through hair and skin and bone and brain and exited the forehead of the fleeing malcontent. Except for some possible brain tissue that might have been used for transplantation, the rifleman knew no major organs would be damaged by this tactical technique.
When minutes later, the radio-alerted Donor Preparation Team rolled the Draftee into their refrigerated cart, Derek's eyes were opened wide.