Title: Cotton Wool
Summary: After the invasion began in 2012 disease and destruction led to a massive die off amongst humans. For the people who survived both life was upended, but for the young most of all.
Last updated: August 31, 2014
November 28, 2030
In an unremarkable house on an equally unremarkable road, three people were home at mid-morning. This was an unusual occurrence, but not one that made the inhabitants particularly happy.
"Shh, shh." In a room painted yellow a dark-haired young man swayed, hoping that the child he held in his arms would settle down. This wasn't how he'd hoped to spend his rare afternoon off. It might have been nice to sit and think for once, given he didn't have much time for that where he worked.
His small daughter reared back, seeming determined to squirm out of his arms, even if it meant being dropped on her head. People still occasional spoke of the terrible twos, but Corrine was only sixteen months old and already becoming willful. It worried Will Van De Kamp more than he was willing to admit, because he'd seen often enough what happened to headstrong people. Even children at times. Older than Corrine, it was true, but not so much older that imagining her being dragged away one day didn't have a grim edge of reality to it.
"I wish you could tell me what's wrong," her father muttered. Corrine wasn't hungry, wet, or feverish, or so he'd surmised after checking each of these things in order. She just seemed angry to be expected to nap. Will was trying to figure out how to get her in a better mood when his wife entered the room.
When he looked over at her, Madison wasn't smiling. Before he could ask her what was wrong, she pointed at the crib and said "put her down."
Will looked down at the flailing, tear-stained toddler in his arms. "But-" he started to protest. They'd discussed having the kids cry it out long ago, and he thought they both still agreed that it was a bad idea.
"Put her down," Madison repeated flatly. "If she cries, she cries. Eventually she'll get bored and fall asleep: we want that anyway."
"Madison," Will started, uncertain. They'd talked a lot about not wanting to leave any of their babies in a crib to cry him or herself to sleep, and he was worried about why that might have changed now, a decade into their parenting careers.
"We need to talk." Her tone offered no room for argument. That wasn't like her.
"Okay..." Will said doubtfully as he tried to lower their daughter into her crib. Corrine arched her back and screamed, but he eventually he got her into it. Madison firmly shut the door behind them, muffling the sounds of their daughter's fury.
As they entered their living room Will reflexively looked out the windows, and was mildly relieved not to see any of the SensorShips that had been around a lot the past few weeks. Despite his earlier, morbid imagining, allowances were made for babies…but he wasn't alone in being on high alert lately. The unusually visible presence of the Helpers in the city had a lot of people worried.
"Will," Madison complained, her tone sharp and demanding. Whatever she was thinking about, it was a big deal to her and she obviously didn't like his lack of attention.
Tearing his eyes from the windows, Will tried to focus his attention on his wife. "What's on your mind?" he asked carefully, hoping not to set off an argument carried out in whispers. Maybe he should have listened to Max at Halloween and bought her flowers. He hadn't and now mildly regretted that. When it came to Madison, he had more regrets than he cared to think about, mostly things he'd done or said. Or hadn't done or hadn't said…
The two of them got along as well as you could expect a couple to when all marriages after 2012 were arranged and divorce wasn't allowed. But still, even though neither would ever risk a noisy, attention-drawing fight, their fear of punishment didn't preclude quiet friction. He assumed that he was about to get an earful about something he'd done to spark her ire lately.
"This came today," she said, picking up something as soon as they wandered towards the couch. Staring at him, she held out a creamy envelope to him to take. Her hand was trembling.
Will took it from her and sat, heart sinking as soon as he saw the Helpers' seal. The envelope had obviously been opened, so she knew what the letter said. No wonder Madison was on edge: getting an official notice from their overlords was never a cause for celebration.
He glanced up at her questioningly, and she hissed "just read it.'"
So he did. "What? No...." he complained after he absorbed the first paragraph. "They said three. The rule has always been three."
''Apparently they changed their minds," she said bitterly from the center of the couch.
Once upon a time people used to say that changing her mind was a woman's prerogative. Now a days everyone knew that had been fanciful: it was really Their prerogative to change their minds in the most abrupt and disturbing ways. And everyone had to live with the changes.
Will's eyes continued to scan down the body of the message. "Five?" he squeaked when he found the meat of the announcement. Five. His head swam at the thought. Three had been a harsh enough requirement.
Madison shook her head, earning a sharp look from him. "Keep reading. At least five. It could be more if you're unlucky."
It didn't take him long to find the clarification she meant: a couple must produce five children in total, but now they also must have at least two children of each gender. Will and Madison had two older sons in addition to their daughter, so at least one of their next two children would have to be a girl or they'd have to continue to have babies until they got another girl.
His thoughts went briefly to one of his coworkers. James and his wife had just had their fourth baby, their fourth son, eight months ago. At the time that he learned that they had decided to have another baby Will thought they were insane for voluntarily giving the Helpers another life to have control over, but now… He just felt bad that they were going to have to have at least two more children.
Of course, so were he and Madison. "Damn it," Will muttered. He and Madison loved their children, probably more than each other, but that didn't mean they wanted more. Not when their children would all grow up as he and Madison had, under the watchful, oppressive eye of the alien beings who had invaded when Will was eleven and never left.
"How long can we put it off? Corrine's only a little over a year old," he said, hoping that the age of their little girl would earn them a bit of a reprieve.
Madison sighed and slumped against the back of the couch, all but answering his question before she even opened her mouth. "Everyone who is currently under age forty has a year-" Under forty. Will tried not to shiver when he thought about the Helpers' feelings about genetic defects, and why older couples would be exempt from the new rule. "-unless the family's youngest child is less than six months old. So, we can't wait long."
He knew without asking that his wife meant a year to conceive their next child not to give birth to it, because that policy, at least, remained the same. People who failed to conceive by next November would wish they had: with the Helpers' technology infertility was a thing of the past, but they applied ruthless, and often brutal methods to ensure that there would be more children. More than one reluctant woman had spent close to a year imprisoned and restrained after "accidentally" failing to get pregnant voluntarily. Even couples who had decided to compile feared miscarriage because miscarriages were all considered to be the fault of the parents and drastic measures were employed to ensure the next pregnancy would succeed.
"I guess it could be worse," Will said quietly, giving her a meaningful look. She stiffened, obviously catching his drift.
Neither of them dared say anything in their own home, not when they knew better than anyone that the homes of humans were bugged, but they'd both heard rumors that the Helpers were concerned about the genetic diversity of the tatters of humanity and were poised to "do something" to increase it. Opinions about what that something would be varied, but most thought that spouses would be redistributed, or that the Helpers would raid the old pre-enlightening fertility clinics for gametes or frozen embryos that had been created and cold stored by men and women who were now mostly dead.
Privately, Will found the second possibility less horrifying than the first, though he'd never said as much to anyone. If he'd been able to choose his own life partner he might not have picked Madison, nor her him, but they mostly worked as a couple. It was easier, especially for someone like him who had been aware of his own adoption from an early age, to accept the idea of raising a stranger's biological child than to imagine having more children with someone else. He knew that if Madison died young a new spouse would be assigned to him, but that would be very different than having their family unit broken up by external forces.
Although it was true that for most couples two more children would undoubtedly be an added hardship, at least it was better than the fruition of either rumor being what was announced instead. The thought that the Helpers might welcome the spread of the rumors for just that reason did cross Will's mind. He really wouldn't put the possibility that they'd planted the rumor in order to seem benevolent in comparison to how they might have chosen to act past them. There were enough of them who could look human to cozy up to the discontented and encourage them to take the rumors at face value. Then there were the people who actually liked their alien overlords…
"Right," Madison said shortly, snapping him back to the present. It was clear to him that if she'd made the same mental comparisons as he had, she didn't take much comfort from it. "We'll have to move, you know."
This had him sitting up straighter. "I hadn't given much thought to that," he admitted.
Once upon a time the occasional addition had been placed on a home to accommodate three children, but now it was seen as wasteful given that methods of cleansing existing structures whose old residents had died in had been devised. These days a family that outgrew their homes - something that happened more often than Will had predicted when he was young - was reassigned a new one. No care was taken to relocate the family where they might keep the same job or keep their children in the same school. Or rather, keep the husband in the same job: it was extremely rare for women to be allowed to work outside the home while her children were still under the age of eighteen. She'd have to have unusual skills, and a husband suited to staying home with their children instead: all children were required to have a parent who did not work because the Helpers felt that it's damaging to be cared for by strangers.
"Who knows where they'll put us," Madison said dejectedly. "It could be anywhere."
"If everyone has to have five kids, maybe they'll go back to allowing additions to be built."
"And waste all that labor when they could have people doing other things?" she asked. "I doubt it. There are plenty of houses for families that size just sitting around empty. No, they'll move us, I know it."
"Well," Will said uncomfortably, bothered by the thought of why those houses were empty. "That won't happen for a while yet." Not until they had another baby went without saying.
Madison stood. "Speaking of which, should we get this over with?"
He took her hand and tried not to grimace; he hadn't liked the romances his mother watched back when there had still been a film industry, but he hadn't known then that he'd grow up in a world where children were created out of duty far more often than because their parents loved one another and wanted them.
Of course, it was only their parents' duty to have them because the Helpers had inadvertently killed off more than half the world's population within three months of their arrival.
Much later that night, long after Max and Daniel got home from school and were fed and put to bed, even after Madison had gone to bed herself, Will had gone to the den to sit in a chair and brood as he stared out the window. The odds were remote, but it was possible that he and Madison had conceived their fourth child that day, as they were bid to. The question that bothered him, but hadn't yet seemed to occur to her, was what did the Helpers want more children for?
There were many possibilities, but none of them were good. In the nearly two decades since the Helpers arrived humans had learned very little about their culture. They had learned, however, that they'd been at war on their home planet, and seemed to enjoy conquering defenseless planets like Earth. What if the Helpers had decided to attack more planets than they had the manpower to on their own? If there were extra children, they could have more soldiers, waste some of the lives they'd so carefully guarded since their disastrous arrival.
The thought that he and Madison might soon be breeding expendable children made him feel physically ill. But he didn't throw up until he realized that in the Helpers estimation the expendable children in his family might not be the ones who hadn't been born yet.
It was only as he was getting undressed for the day that Will gave any thought to the bitter irony that the Helpers' new decree had arrived on Thanksgiving. Once upon a time, in a when before They came and changed everything, he might have spent the day eating turkey and watching football. But even though that holiday wasn't banned like the religious ones were, the largely secular Thanksgiving went uncelebrated now.
Because, really, what was there to be thankful for anyway?
A scream, and Will woke in the middle of the night, confused. His heart jack-hammered in his chest, and for one second he found himself remembering the night that they'd arrived and changed everything again. But after a moment he realized that it wasn't one of his neighbors screaming that he'd just heard. Instead, it was one of his sons.
Sitting up quickly, he looked over and saw that Madison hadn't been woken like he had. Sighing, he climbed out of bed and walked down the hall. Max's door was open, and when he glanced in Will could see him sleeping in his bed. That meant it was Daniel, because it hadn't been a baby's cry he'd heard.
He pulled Daniel's door open, and expected to go into the room and comfort the boy after he roused all the way from a nightmare. That was something parents had to deal with, night terrors, probably more often than they did twenty years ago given that there were so many terrors by the light of day too. But when he stepped in, his eyes went wide.
Rather than being groggy and perhaps teary, Daniel was sitting in his bed, wide awake. And he was looking at the objects that hung in the air around him with fear.
Will blinked and felt a slithery feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something like this had happened to him too, when he was very young. He'd been about Daniel's age when he'd knocked a stack of plates off the counter, and worried about getting in trouble he wished harder that they wouldn't break than he ever had for anything else his whole like. And to his great shock they hadn't hit the floor just as he'd really, really hoped for. Instead they hovered several inches about the tiles. His father had reacted faster than him, grabbing them up, then yelling at Will until he was frightened.
What he'd gotten out of the incident was that he had somehow caused the plates to act like that, and it was a sign that he was bad. His father hadn't come out and told him that it was the reason that his real mother had given him away, but the implication had been there. After that Will had vowed never to wish that hard for anything. As he grew older and the days stretched out between the incident and the present, Will had mostly convinced himself that it had been something else that had caused the plates not to fall, and that he'd been dumb for ever believing that he'd had some control over them.
But now clothing hung in the air like limp ghosts, and Daniel was looking at him the same way that he must have looked at his own father twenty-five years earlier. "Dad?" Daniel gasped, obviously hoping that Will had an explanation that he could understand.
He didn't, of course.
"What do we do?" Daniel whimpered.
"Make it stop," Will said without thinking.
For a second Daniel just looked hurt that he'd make such a stupid demand, but then he closed his eyes, and looked like he was concentrating.
Nothing happened at first, but then it did. Everything fell then, landing on the floor or the foot of Daniel's bed.
"Good," Will told him, relieved that the contents of the child's laundry basket were no longer haunting the room.
It was only then that Daniel dared to open his eyes. He glanced at his father, expression awed. "You made it stop!"
Will almost corrected him, telling him that he'd been the one to stop it, but he hesitated. What if he had been the one to force the clothing out of the air? Looking at the window, he had an idea, though. "There must be a SensorShip out there," he suggested. "Somewhere past where we can see from the window."
Daniel looked confused by this claim. "Why? Why do you think there's a ship?"
"Because that's what made everything float, right? I can't make things float, and neither can you. People can't do stuff like that. So it must have been the Helpers doing something outside. Maybe they were testing something in the ship, like an anti-gravity ray. There could be all sorts of uses for something like that." Will hoped that this sounded as logical to the little boy as it did to him. When in doubt, it was best to insist that a new weirdness was caused by a known source of weirdness. Anything to keep his kid from believing that he had some sort of magical power.
"But why did you tell me to make it stop?" Daniel asked, hazel eyes fixed on his face.
Will shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. It was his instinct to tell Daniel that he hadn't been speaking him at all, but had been praying aloud, but that was a can of worms he didn't really want to open at 1 o'clock in the morning. The Helpers couldn't really stop people from believing in God, but they could keep them from worshiping openly. A lot of people were probably still believers, but things like churches and Bible study groups had gone the way of the dodo, and any worshiping was done in complete secrecy. When Will was little one of his grandparents had told him about people dying after being locked into a church that had been set on fire for being Christians, but Will didn't know anybody that brave these days. There had been too many resisters who had been murdered by the Helpers in the early days for anyone to have feet that strong anymore.
Looking at Daniel, who continued to stare up at him, he said instead, "I wasn't asking you to do anything, Daniel. I was just wishing out loud for it to stop before anything got broken." Wishing was still okay. Just as long as you didn't too loudly wish for things to go back to the way they were in the old days. "Looks like I got my wish," he added weakly.
"Oh," Daniel said slowly. He couldn't really tell if his younger son believed this explanation, at least not from the expression on his face. "What kind of things could they do with an anti-gravity ray?" Daniel asked, obviously thinking about Will's explanation. He supposed that if he had been a six-year-old boy, that would've been the most interesting thing to think about too.
"Lift heavy things. Imagine how much quicker you could move something heavy it would just float, and you didn't need to pick it up with a crane."
"Like when they build a new building?" Daniel moved his hands, pantomiming a skyscraper going up. Building blocks were on the list of toys that were acceptable, so like most little boys Daniel could picture constructing something very well. Will knew that They were simply interested in nurturing a child's interest in engineering, but in a way he was glad that his children could still use one of his favorite childhood playthings.
"Sure. Or when they have to put those big cement pipes under the road when there's been road work." Even eighteen years after the aliens arrive there were still plenty of potholes. There were just some things that otherworldly technology couldn't improve. Of course, road construction went much quicker when people were ordered to take a few days off work and remain on their property so that the construction could be done without any traffic at all to hold it up.
"Or fixing a car?" Daniel asked, apparently thinking of having seen a car on a lift. Considering how poorly constructed cars were, he'd gone to the garage with Will often enough.
"That would make it easier, if you could just stand underneath and see problems with the undercarriage," Will agreed.
"Iff'n they're going to use it for all that, I guess they do gotta see if it works…" Daniel yawned, cutting himself off abruptly.
"Hey," Will said then, coming to the side of Daniel's bed. He tucked the boy back in, and gave him a hug. "Don't tell mom or Max, okay? They'll find out once the Helpers begin to use the rays more often, huh?"
For half a second he thought that Daniel might object, but his younger son obviously decided that it wasn't an unreasonable request. "Okay, Dad. I won't. Then it can be a surprise for them too."
If clothing or anything else began to float around again, they would sure as hell be surprised by it.
"Good man," Will praised him, lightly tapping him on the head. Daniel sighed and dropped back down on his bed, smiling faintly when Will pulled the covers up over him again.
After his little boy was tucked in, Will turned to look at the mess. He couldn't just leave the clothes where they were, not when many of them were still on Daniel's blankets. He plucked up the first one, surprised by how viscerally unpleasant he anticipated touching it to be. But it felt the same as it ever had. Whatever had given it temporary agency hadn't made a permanent effect on it.
Trying not to sigh, Will bent down, and quickly gathered as much of the clothing that one time as he could, dropping it all into Daniel's laundry basket. After about ninety seconds, he had picked it all up. It probably would've been better to fold it and put it all in Daniel's dresser, but he found that he was far too tired for that.
Daniel had been watching him. "Good night, Daddy," Daniel said with a yawn.
"Good night," Will whispered as he left the room.
He had no intention of bringing the incident up to Madison. Not unless it happened again. It might not, he'd only had one thing like that happen to him. At least as far as he knew. Deep down part of him still wondered if he'd scared his biological mother by doing stuff like that when he was too small to remember. One of his biggest regrets was hiding in the shadows the day that she'd come to his house instead of demanding something from her, something like answers to questions that had plagued him since the day his parents admitted that he wasn't really theirs.
As he walked down the hallway, Will wondered if his adoptive parents knew more. They claimed that the adoption agency had told him very little about his past, but he had always been suspicious of that. Why would you adopt a baby whose history you didn't know? Frowning, he reached for the doorknob of the master bedroom, and reminded himself that he would never know and there was no sense wondering about the motivations of a woman long since dead.
Madison was still sleeping when he climbed into bed next to her. She seemed relatively peaceful, considering the news they had gone earlier in the day. At least she knew who she came from. That had to bring some level of peace of mind.
It was still dark when Will got to into work the next morning. He yawned as he walked into the large cinderblock building that served as the base of operations for the camera maintenance crew; they spent very little time there, but everyone was required to visit every morning to check in and gather their equipment, which later had to be returned at the end of the day. It was a pain, but they were all used to it and knew full well that they'd be blamed if a camera was tampered with and their equipment wasn't checked in. Far better to do some pointless travel than be suspected of nefarious deeds, that was for sure. Even just carelessness with tools that let someone else do the tampering would have serious consequences.
"Morning, Will," Harry, Will's partner, said as soon as he saw him. Harry was a tall, older, bald guy, and generally speaking Will found him pleasant to work with despite their obvious differences. He didn't cause any trouble, so that made him the best sort of person to be paired up with if you had to work closely with someone. And almost all humans were required to work with others. It reminded him of the buddy system from his days of Cub Scouts, not that such an organization had existed for many years.
Glancing at Harry, Will suddenly thought about the guard who had checked his ID when he and Max had gotten home on Halloween night. There could be things a lot worse than having another person be your partner at work...
"Another beautiful day ahead of us, fixing those cameras again," Harry said with a sigh. It was somewhat daring of him to say something like that, but he wasn't actually using any words that could trigger a report if he had been overheard. The Helpers might be a race advanced enough to travel the stars and enslave planets, but they didn't really grasp the subtlety of tone.
"Sounds like you've been working too hard," Will commented.
Unlike Will, Harry had been working there since just a couple of years after the Helpers arrived. He'd actually been the one who'd showed Will how to do the job, not that it was overly complicated.
"How was your day off?" Harry asked him.
Harry had worked the day before, but he probably didn't mind. They weren't forbidden from celebrating Thanksgiving but most people chose not to; without access to turkey, ham, potatoes, cranberry sauce or pie it just wasn't the same. Football had long been outlawed as too dangerous, so cheering on your team didn't happen either. So, most people who'd taken the day off had been directed to; one could no longer request when they took time off because that could result in labor shortages on some days, but they were allowed some time off, chosen for them.
Will shrugged. "It was okay, I guess," he said indifferently. "I didn't get much sleep, though." Even these days an innocent comment like that might still had led to teasing and suggestive jokes, but not the day after the Helper's notice about changes to their reproductive requirements.
"Baby keep you up?" Harry flashed him a knowing smile. Unlike Will's, all three of Harry's children were under the age of three despite the fact that he was a decade older than Will. Rumor had it that either Harry or his wife had suffered a hard-to-correct form of infertility, which is why the couple had gotten off to such a late start to parenting. They had both just become old enough that the policy about additional children didn't apply to them.
"Uh, no, actually. She was fussy early in the day, but it was actually Daniel. He woke up with nightmares." Will hoped that sounded believable: he wasn't about to say what had really happened in Daniel's room. "It took a while to settle him down."
"That's rough. I used to have night terrors myself at that age, waking up screaming over bad dreams I couldn't even remember. It went on for a couple of years and I'm surprised that my poor parents didn't go completely crazy."
"I guess it could be worse, then," Will said, not looking at the other man. He'd had his own share of nightmares, but most of them had happened between the ages of eleven and twelve, and unfortunately he remembered all of them. That's why he'd screamed into his pillow back then.
When Will drifted into silence, Harry had occupied himself plucking things out of his locker and stuffing them into the satchel they were issued. "Ready to go?" Harry already had everything he needed and was being rather patient with him for delaying them.
Will reached into his locker and yanked out his tools, taking a lot less care than Harry had. "Sure. Where are we headed?"
"Sector eleven," Harry said unhappily. His smile slid off his face.
"Great..." Will muttered. He hated sector eleven, and dreaded visiting it every time.
The Helpers were big on the idea of redistributing wealth, but somehow, there still ended up being places that were more run down than others. Sector eleven was one of those places. It reminded Will a little bit of ghettos from back before. The houses were little bit more run down, the streets a little less fully paved, and the trees a little more stunted. Since that sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen, Will could only imagine that this must've been a poorer part of the city well before anything disastrous happened.
It had gotten light out by the time Will and Harry drove to the correct address. They parked the truck, and didn't bother to lock it. No one was dumb enough to bother a government vehicle. Will ran a hand down the front of his cerulean blue uniform, smoothing out an almost nonexistent wrinkle.
Glancing at Harry asked, "Do you have the order?"
The bald man nodded, and extracted a piece of paper from the front pocket of his own uniform. "Yup." Before either of them knocked, Will and Harry both looked at the number on the house, and compared it to the piece of paper. There could be no mistakes, or they would face harsh punishment.
It was Harry's turn, so he knocked forcefully on the front door. Eventually they heard the sound of the knob turning, and a worried looking woman peered out at them through the partly open door.
"Your camera has an issue," Will said flatly. Once upon a time he had tried to be nice to the people they visited to repair their cameras, but it really wasn't worth the effort. One way or the other, the people they visited made their presence being unwelcomed completely clear. Civility was more or less a waste of time.
"It does?" she asked, voice soft and trembly. Something was obviously bothering her, and somehow Will got the impression it wasn't just the fact that they'd showed up to fix the camera. That wasn't a surprise, after all: cameras were set to alert the home owners when they required servicing, and if the camera had been broken a while the recording had probably played at least a dozen times over at regular intervals.
"We'll have to come in and look at it," Harry told her. He wasn't much for wasting time on conversation either. "We have our tools with us," he added. He showed her the tools, more or less confirming to her that they weren't armed. Some people were terrified that anyone who came to their house was. And probably more so in sector eleven than most.
"Oh," she said softly, moving back words as she spoke. "Oh."
As soon as the door was open, the two men stepped in after her.
Will was immediately struck by the feeling that something was wrong. He looked sharply at the woman, but she didn't seem to present any sort of threat, and he didn't sense that she was even thinking particularly evil thoughts about their presence. In fact, if he didn't know better, he would have worried that she was one of those abused women that they used to have public service announcements about on TV.
But still, he couldn't shake his unease.
Harry was looking down at the sheet of paper. Then he glanced up at Will. "Camera's in the kitchen."
He didn't mean that the only camera was in the kitchen, but that the one that was having an issue was. All the houses had a camera with a microphone in every room of the house. At first people had protested that they were cameras at all, and after enough of them were summarily dealt with by the Helpers, the complaints instead became that they were installed in bathrooms too. Eventually they came to realize that the Helpers did not consider them interesting sexually, so there really wasn't anything different about the Helpers seeing them in states of undress than fully clothed.
"Where's the kitchen?" he asked the woman impatiently.
"Oh!" She jumped like she had been startled. "I'll show you."
Will was closer to her, so he made sure that he didn't hurry after her. He wasn't about to tell Harry that he was worried, but still, he was in no rush. It turned out that she wasn't either, so the three of them slowly made their way into the kitchen. This journey through the home had given him enough time to notice how faded the wallpaper in the hallway leading towards the kitchen was. That struck him as a little bit sad, considering that most people did their best to keep their houses in good repair.
When they finally arrived in the room, they both were surprised to see that it was already occupied. A man sat at the table, staring out the window. He wasn't wearing anything but a pair of faded boxer shorts, so old that they probably should have been turned in and replaced.
Harry nudged Will, pointing at the man with his eyes. Speaking loudly, Harry asked, "Hey buddy, why aren't you at work?"
It was perfectly possible that the man had a legitimate day off, but he just didn't seem right. Even more so than the woman. The feeling of wrongness increased when the man slowly turned his head and looked at them. Will have the sense that he wasn't thinking about them, at least not very much. His eyes seemed very far away. "Huh?"
"Why are you at work?" Harry repeated slowly. "Do you have the day off?"
Once upon a time this might indicate that the man worked nights, but very few people did. Those that did filled essential positions that meant that they were allowed to bypass the nightfall curfew, and frankly, this man did not look like he was that sort of person who had that dispensation.
"So are you home then?" Harry persisted. Will almost told him to shut up. He didn't like the fact that his partner was antagonizing an obviously confused man. No one talked about mental illness anymore, and everyone who was unfortunate enough to have one was required to take medication, the sad truth was some mental illnesses still didn't respond as well as one would hope.
The man looked up at them, but Will didn't really think he actually saw them. His fixed gaze seemed to be on the ugly, fading wallpaper behind them. "I'm not going to do it anymore."
"Do what?" Will blurted out, unable to stop himself. Then he wanted to smack himself on the forehead. He was worried about Harry antagonizing the man?
Still sitting at the table, the man let his hands flutter up, and then drop them back to the surface. "Any of it."
"Any of it?" Harry repeated, throwing a confused look towards the woman.
The timid wife just stiffened, as if she thought she might be in trouble for her husband's strange behavior. Will wish that it was an idle worry, but really, if there was something wrong with her husband she was supposed to have reported upon it before they had to. That she hadn't implied that either she went along with him failing to take medication, or failed her duty to report that medication wasn't working for him. The only hope she had of leniency was if this came upon him suddenly. Maybe it had. Will hadn't gotten as far as being able to take a psych class even at the high school level before the Helpers changed their curriculum radically.
The man looked at them both with dead eyes. "I'm done. I just decided that I'm not going to do this anymore."
"Uh huh." Harry looked at the camera instead after that.
Will could tell that Harry was feigning nonchalance. He thought that was probably a good idea. Maybe the man wouldn't believe that neither of them thought he was broken, but maybe they could at least convince him not to do anything rash if they didn't seem like they were going to themselves.
"Hey, do you mind if I use your bathroom? I should have gone before we got in the truck." Harry offered the man a sheepish look, like he really had drank too much water before they left headquarters.
Wherever the man's thoughts were, they weren't with in the room with them. "Down the hall, on the left."
"Thanks, man," Harry said cheerfully as he walked out of the room.
Will wasn't thrilled about being there alone, but he consulted the sheet of paper that Harry had passed him on the way out of the room. The camera in question was above the refrigerator. It was several inches above Will's reach, so he would probably have to go back out the truck in order to grab a stool.
But that could wait until Harry got back. It was their duty to report issues, not intervene in any way that would put themselves into danger.
While he waited, Will thought as he often did about how conspicuous the camera was. It was about the size of a paperback book, and black, and totally obvious in its placement. He understood that by the time the invasion happened cameras could be very small. They could be so small that no one would ever think to notice them. The Helpers were a race that was far more technologically advance that humanity, so they had to be capable of creating cameras that could also remain invisible. Since they didn't, this implied that they wanted people to know that they were being spied on, that they wanted people to feel uneasy about doing things in secret. Knowing that always left a bad taste in his mouth.
Although Will really doubted that Harry had actually had to urinate, his partner wasn't gone for much longer than one would take to accomplish that task. And Harry's eyes immediately found the camera. It turned out that they wouldn't need to go out for stool after all, because Harry was tall enough, or rather his reach was long enough, that he could grab it himself.
After he unhooked it, both Will and Harry studied it. They had been trained in how to tell if a camera had simply expired on its own, or if it had been tampered with. This camera had small score marks dug into the plastic case. It was fairly obvious that someone had used either a butter knife or a flathead screwdriver to bang on the housing until the camera stopped functioning. It was easy to imagine somebody jabbing at the camera, but harder to imagine what would make a person decide to do that.
The last thing that Will wanted to do was to accuse the man of tampering with the camera. For all he knew the mousy woman had been the one who had done it, and his bizarre fugue-like state was a result of being stressed by her actions rather than his own.
"Looks like this camera is done for." Will glanced at the couple, searching for signs of guilt and finding none. "No worries, we'll go out to the truck and grab another."
The two turned and walked towards the door, and had almost reached it when the man began to shout. "No! I told you, I'm done with this."
It was a good thing that Will was the one holding the camera, because Harry frequently spoke using hand gestures, which he was doing right now. Holding his hands up, he said, "Look buddy, we're just here to deal with the camera."
Apparently, this was exactly the wrong thing to say to the man. He jumped up from his seat at the table, animated for once, and began to shout at Harry. "Oh, it's just your job right? That makes it okay. That makes putting in cameras that spy on people okay."
Neither Harry nor Will said anything. That's what their training taught them: don't respond to people who make accusations. There is no right way to deflect them, and you just end up making the situation worse if you try to defend yourself verbally.
Proper protocol insisted that workers who were being threatened in any way should do their utmost to extract themselves from the situation. And, they probably would've followed protocol had the man not immediately knocked aside the paper they had thought he was looking at, and revealed a rather large knife.
A smart man probably would've ran for the door at that point but, before the Helpers changed everything, Will had seen enough horror movies to suggest that running in fear from an attacker was probably not the right thing to do. And, even after fictional movies became extinct, there were still house cats and he had watched plenty of them kill mice who bolted from them in terror.
So instead of running, Will traded a look with Harry, wondering if he had any bright ideas about what to do next. A seminar about dealing with irrational people who thought you were evil for spying on them probably would've come in handy right then. Maybe he would suggest such a training the next time he was forced to fill out an evaluation.
Harry opened his mouth to say something, maybe to suggest what they could do to save themselves, but he never got a chance to say anything. Because at that very moment the kitchen door slammed open, making everybody in the room jump. Three men wearing hazard gear rushed into the room, and before the man could do anything more than brandish the knife ineffectually at them, they tackled him, and two of them held them down while the third snapped handcuffs on him.
Within ninety seconds both the man and his wife were in handcuffs, and roughly yanked to their feet. The woman whimpered as one of hazard team prodded her to get her to walk in the right direction, and her husband struggled in the grips of the other two team members. The way he struggled implied that either he did not understand that he was making things worse for himself, or that he no longer cared. Either one of these possibilities was rather grim.
Will watch them leave the house, feeling sorrowful. He wasn't happy that the man had threatened them, and truly believed that he had brought everything that was going to happen to him and his wife upon himself, but still, it wasn't every day that you saw somebody be dragged away like that. They were going to be reprogrammed. Everyone feared that. And for this couple, it was going to happen soon.
Harry didn't seem to be as concerned with the couple's feet as he did. In fact, he just looked relieved when he turned to Will and said "well, I guess that's over with."
Will blinked. "Yeah, I guess."
To his mild surprise, Harry told him that he was going out to the truck to retrieve a replacement camera. When he noticed that Will hadn't expected that he smiled grimly and said "even if they're not going to come back here, someone will. I'd rather get replacing the camera over with now, instead of returning later. Right?"
"Sure, right." There was some merit to the idea, but it seemed a little bit wrong. Should they really be helping get the house ready like the couple was never going to come back? No one that Will knew who had been reprogrammed ever returned to where they had been living, but he supposed it could happen.
He wouldn't talk about it, but deep down Will didn't actually believe that anybody was reprogrammed. He thought that was just a way of telling people not to expect the troublemaker back. When they first arrived Helpers hadn't been too concerned about killing off those who were more trouble than they were worth, so it wasn't too hard to imagine that they continued to do so. They had fewer people to kill now, because most people were so worn down that they ended up doing whatever the hell they were told, but there still had to be a few that couldn't be bent to Their will. And what do you do with people like that? Sweep them under the rug, bury them in a pit, forget they ever existed. Forgetting was easier than rehabilitation.
"Be back in a minute," Harry told him.
When Harry brought in the camera, Will helped him put it up. He didn't take very long to install it, and they were able to test it out to make sure that they could see the feed at least. It wasn't their jobs to watch the feeds, and in fact other people in their building stayed there all day to do so, but all technicians have the power to hook into a test feed in order to troubleshoot camera issues.
Later, as they were sitting in the truck and driving back to the headquarters, Harry turned to him and said "Well, that was pretty exciting. I really hope we don't get that sort of excitement again anytime soon."
"I totally agree," Will replied in complete sincerity. "I wouldn't mind never having that sort of excitement again."
"I know what you mean."
Looking out the window, he wondered if Harry really did. Sometimes it felt like he worried more about what could happen than other people. That didn't seem to make any sense, but other people seem to be more accepting, or at least calmer, when it came to thoughts of what could happen. Somehow it seemed like everyone else was convinced that the worst had already happened. But he didn't think it had. He was terrified that it hadn't.
Will glanced at Harry, wondering what he would think if he knew that he had seen people dragged off in handcuffs before, before the invasion. It wasn't something that he talked about, even to Madison, so he had no inclination to tell Harry about what it had been like when he hadn't been completely divorced of the situation, when it hadn't just been like in the kitchen of the couple who had broken their camera.
Madison seemed like she had just a bad a day as he had, at least judging by her mood when he got home. The boys weren't any worse behaved than they usually were, but she snapped at them both several times each before they even sat down to dinner as a family. Will usually didn't mind that families were monitored to make sure that parents ate with their children but that evening he longed for the sort of night when people ate in their rooms or in front of the TV. Doing that too often got your family the sort of attention that no one wanted, so they ate together as usual.
Max didn't make things any easier because he paused mid-meal to ask, "Is it true that people need to have more babies? Some kids at school said that their parents said that they were going to have new brothers or sisters next year."
Madison's dish rattled when she got up from the table abruptly. Corrine called "Mama?" and gave her a concerned look but his wife didn't even look at their daughter on her way out of the room. For a second Will watched as she stalked off, but a whimper from the baby had him turning his attention to her instead.
He managed to pick her up while her lower lip was still quivering as she tried to decide if being ignored by her mother was a reason to cry. He smoothed her soft brown curls before looking over at the boys who were both staring at him. Daniel looked a little scared, but Will was more concerned that Max's expression was guilty.
"I'm sorry I upset Mom," Max mumbled, but it was clear that he had no idea what he'd done to make her react that way.
"Max..." Will sighed and rested his chin on the baby's head. "It's okay to have questions, but for now on I want you to ask me them if the topic is babies, okay?" He glanced at Daniel. "You too, huh?"
Both boys nodded. When they were little they'd both had curly hair like their sister, but regularly scheduled haircuts had seemed to cause those baby curls to give way to straight locks. Will had no idea if there really had been a connection, and it was things like that that made him wish that people could still look up anything they wanted to like they had been able to back before. Rumor had it that several people who ran Google and Wikipedia had been amongst those who had resisted so hard that they'd been eliminated within the first few months after the Helpers arrived. It was probably just a folk legend: there was no way to verify the story one way or the other, which was blackly ironic.
Corrine eventually calmed down enough for Will to put her back in her highchair and interest her in eating again. He looked up from cutting her food and addressed Max. "To answer your question, yes. If the parents are less than forty years old, They'll be having two more babies."
"Forty? That's way older than you and Mommy," Daniel noted.
"It sure is," Will said gloomily. When he was small his paternal grandmother told him not to wish his youth away, but these days he didn't find much appeal in being relatively young. If he and his wife were a decade and a year older, they wouldn't be expected to produce more children, which would have been a welcome exchange for thinning hair and the onset of aching joints.
"How come everyone decided to have new babies?" Daniel asked.
Will glanced around to make sure that Madison wasn't within earshot, before he told him. "You know how all the families you know have three kids?"
"Well, most of them. Some of them only have one or two, like Lacey's family."
Lacey was a twenty-year-old neighbor who occasionally babysat Will's children. Shaking his head, he said, "I actually was talking more about the kids you go to school with. But Lacey is very young. She and her husband will eventually have three children, you understand?"
Daniel thought this over for a moment. "Because… She and Tommy will have been married longer someday?"
Will hoped this explanation would be enough, but Max looked up at them. "I don't get it."
It was hard not to sigh again. "Max, the reason everyone has three children is because that's the rule. The Helpers decided that long time ago, before you were born. So that's why everyone who has been married long enough to have three children has three."
"So why are a lot of people going have four now?" Max asked. "Is it because we still don't have as many people as we used to?"
Although people didn't dare to spend too much time complaining about the atrocities that had killed off so many humans, everyone still knew about it. Even children like Max who had been born years after it had happened. The Helpers might be able to control a lot of things, but they hadn't found a way to make it impossible to realize that the world had been built for more than twice as many people as now roamed it.
Will nodded reluctantly. "Well, that's part of it. But, the Helpers have changed their minds about everyone having three children, Max. Now everyone is supposed to have five."
"Dad, why did the Helpers decid-" Max started to ask, but Will shook his head. "Oh."
Daniel just looked confused but Max was old enough to understand that there were topics that were off limits, and it didn't surprise him that the boy glanced at the room's camera.
Do either of you have more questions?" Will hoped his face convey a 'that I can answer' message.
Max thought a moment and finally asked, "What's a donor?"
"A donor?" Will repeated uneasily.
"Yeah. Trevor's dad died a few years ago so his mom got a letter saying that the Helpers were going to pick a donor for her."
Being widowed was the only reason (abet a temporary one) besides being too old that a person was exempted from the family planning rules - people who had or were carriers for diseases were subjected to IVF to make sure their children would not, which Will supposed was a good thing considering what happened to babies with genetic mutations. But Will put that thought aside and focused on what Max had just said: if Trevor had been telling the truth, and there was little reason to think that he was making it up, then that rule about being a widowed had changed too. It didn't sound like the Helpers were going to take the time to find widows and widowers a new mate before reapplying the family planning rules to them.
Will tried not to let his upset show when he spoke again. "You know that making a baby requires both a man and a woman." Max nodded. "A donor gives the other cells a single person needs to make a baby."
His oldest son still looked confused. "Is that guy going to be Trevor's new dad?"
"I'm not sure but I don't think so." If the woman had been younger, maybe, but she'd have to have a baby every year for the next four years to meet the deadline and even marriages arranged by the Helpers managed to take time because the process was more involved than simply sticking two people in a house and declaring them married: somehow the Helpers seemed to realize that stress affected fertility, and making actual strangers move in together was stressful, so they allowed people time to get to know each other before they were married. In the case of himself and Madison, they'd been introduced two years before they married.
"Oh." Max seemed to finally exhaust his supply of questions, and both boys went back to eating.
Will, on the other hand, listlessly picked at his dinner when not busy trying to cajole Corrine into eating instead of playing with her food. His thoughts keep returning to what he privately deemed the beginning of the end: the night he'd first seen someone in handcuffs in person, not just on TV.
It was probably the couple they'd had to turn in earlier in the day making his thoughts so morbid, but surely the unwelcome news they'd gotten that week that had him dwelling on the night that could have made everything that happened after that completely different.
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