Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


"Dauntless" D.K. brings us a short tale about the end of the world...and a very slippery slope...

Small Sacrifices

By D.K. Latta
About the author

This story was originally published in TransVersions magazine #8/9 (a double issue) in 1998.

I suppose it finally hit me as I watched them euthanise Flakes.

Before that moment it had just been -- not dreamlike, that's too esoteric -- but certainly distant. A concept, not a deed. But as I stroked his thick orange and brown fur, the concept had become concrete.

He stared up at me the way only a pet can stare at its master. The look that says despite the cold walls and bright lights, despite the smell of urine indicating a hundred cats have been here before him, despite the hard, echoing sounds of dogs and cats in other rooms, he trusts. He knows I won't let anything bad happen to him.

And then he let out a harsh meow and his eyes fluttered up into his head.

The needle was calmly extracted. The veterinary assistant slipped gloved hands under Flakes' body and, like loading a sack of flour, casually tossed him onto the mounting pile of dead cats in one corner. The vet looked at me, only her cold, dead eyes visible over her white mask. I wondered if she was even certified.

Owners weren't technically supposed to come inside, of course. It slowed down the process. But I used what little clout my position gave me and insisted. I had to be permitted to bear witness. I owed Flakes that much.

I turned and pushed out through the heavy door, into a grey and marble corridor jammed with hissing, meowing, barking, whining beasts and their tearful, stoic, sobbing companions. I wanted to vomit.

I made it outside without really being aware, my mind corralled by thoughts of culpability. I didn't even glance at the large, full-colour poster of a grinning Meriem Cornweather as it flapped in the breeze, one corner going wap-wap against the brick wall.

The brisk wind whistled as it shot down the street, in a hurry to get wherever it was winds go. As unheeding of its ultimate destination as we mere mortals. I pulled up my collar, but I was glad of the cold and the way it felt on my skin. The air smelled wet and leafy. It was almost refreshing.

I stumbled as a little toy truck whizzed between my legs.

"Hey, watch it!" a voice called.

Instinctively I glanced left, then right. Then I grinned humourlessly. There was no one there, of course. Old habits die hard.

Hunkered over a little, I walked into the wind, down empty, silent streets.

* * *

For a bio-physicist, Meriem L. Cornweather looked a lot like a fried chicken magnate, with a name that had a folksy, Confederate ring to it that went with his spotless white suit -- and spats, of all things. He always had a friendly twinkle in his eye and a grin on his rosey face. Never more so than that snowy New York night before the assembled delegates to the annual World Conference on Population.

"As the old song goes, it's a small world," he said, thumbs snagged in his vest pockets, gold watch chain twinkling in the footlights. "And it certainly isn't going to get any bigger just to accommodate us."

He stood on the stage, the wide screen behind him displaying an animated cartoon of simple children's blocks piled one on top of another. Children's blocks! While the rolly polly man matter-of-factly explained scientific principles that were all but incomprehensible to his audience of diplomats and G.P.s and religious leaders. But principles that would see him the recipient of three different Nobel Prizes before six months had come and gone.

I was there that night, as part of the Canadian delegation. And all I and my colleagues could understand were those children's blocks. How you could move some about, take others away entirely, and then restack the rest. He spoke for over an hour about quarks and asymptotes.

When he finished, he grinned brightly and squinted out at his audience through granny-glasses. Waiting. No one applauded or cheered that night, despite how the story was told later. We were all too stunned.

Finally, Yuriko Akiyama stood up. I recognized the respected nutritionist from the second Cairo conference a few years back. She put her hands on the back of the seat in front of her and stared long and hard at Cornweather. Grinning, Cornweather stared back.

"You have a question, madam?" he prodded in his southern drawl.

Akiyama continued to stare, continued to work up to asking what we all wanted to ask. Finally, she did. "But is this truly possible?"

It was.

* * *

The answer to overpopulation was delivered to us in a blue binder and seven hundred typed pages of scientific gibberish that Cornweather and his team had been working on, so he claimed, for twenty years. The executive committee loved it; the politicians back at our various capitols loved it; the press loved it; and finally, when it trickled down to John and Jane Q. Public, they loved it too.

Because no one was thinking of consequences.

I was one of the first to object, to say that it wasn't a long term solution. It mustn't be. Cornweather agreed, grinning at me from the witness chair across the sub-committee chamber, beaming like a much beloved uncle. Disagreeing with him was a lot like picking a fight with Gandhi. Or Santa Claus. It never ruffled him, of course, nothing ever did, but I know I made enemies among his supporters just by speaking up.

"Quite right, young suh," he said. "It's a stop gap, purely temporary. Buy us some breathing room...not to mention elbow room."

Those around the table chuckled.

"Whatever further policies you and your esteemed delegates deem necessary can be debated to your heart's content...only without everything being quite so doom and gloom."

I should have known better. I should have understood human nature.

I should have worried when the Pope heralded Cornweather as a champion of the people. I should have argued harder when the grinning man started sharing the stage with religious fundamentalists, right-to-lifers, and every other group we had been butting heads with for decades. No one was talking about stop gaps. They were talking solutions.

* * *

A newspaper flipped end over end down the street like a man-made tumbleweed. It was the only noticeable movement. The wind whined plaintively, seeking companionship among the seeming vacant bi-ways. I entered a corner store randomly, the bell jingling loudly, sounding my arrival to no one. The fluorescents flickered overhead and the aisles were still packed with the latest breakfast cereals and spaghetti sauces. No one had bothered cleaning up before departing.

I tucked my hands in my pockets and wondered.

What if I didn't do it? What if I didn't report in? There was hardly anyone left who could enforce it. Just that last group a mile or two away, putting down their family pets. I could walk away, disappear into the hills or something. I would be missed, of course. Eventually. An entry unfulfilled in a computer, a name left unchecked on a clipboard. But so what?

"I thought I spotted someone come in here," called a voice.

I looked around, then slowly, resignedly, down. A three inch man stared up at me, dressed in officialdom grey.

"Let's not dawdle now, fellah. You're one of the last ones."

I stared at him, hands in my pockets. For a moment I thought, what could he do to make me? Just for a moment. Then I sighed. A dutiful government cog, I could hardly bail out now.

Cornweather said the process could be reversed, but will it? Without the grim incentive of necessity, would we change our ways? After all, his process can always take just a little more off the top...once we've exterminated the next level of potential predators, of course.

But hopefully I'll be dead and buried long before we finally find out just how low we're willing to go.

The End.

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Small Sacrifices is copyright 1997, by D.K. Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)