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Sandy pushed the hair out of her eyes and spread her notes across the table. The project was only half-way completed and already she had far too many complications to deal with. The young observer she had just been saddled with sat nervously at her side, a fresh pad of paper set out in front of him, a list of questions no doubt bouncing around inside his head.
“So how much do you know about this project, Tom?” Sandy asked.
“Er, it’s Tim, actually. And I don’t know very much, only that you are searching for the 10 billionth human, but I don’t know why, or how.”
“I see. And who assigned you to this project?”
“Um, the World Food Programme. I started with them four months ago, when I left college.”
Sandy rolled her eyes. A freshman! He had probably never sat through a conference in his life!
“Aren’t you a bit new on the job for such a position?” she asked, wondering if she could draft a memo to a department with the UN and get rid of him.
“Actually, yes,” said Tim, grinning, and opening his jacket. “They thought you’d say something like that, which is why I was authorised to show you this.”
Sandy looked over at the array of miniature recording materials that was taped to the inside of Tim’s jacket. Her estimation of the complexity of the project immediately doubled.
“And who is it that you’re supposed to be reporting on? If the UN want to pull me off the job they’ve only to say the word.” Sandy almost wished they would.
“They didn’t tell me,” replied Tim, but of course he would say that, Sandy thought. “My instructions were to attend all meetings and find out as much as I can about the project,” Tim continued, “something about funding, I think.”
“OK, here’s the quick summary,” explained Sandy. “We’re filming a documentary about the birth and early life of the world’s ten billionth person. It was supposed to be a simple, human interest story but it got hijacked by the politicians.”
“Well everybody wanted their country to produce the most famous human of the century and then all sorts of other organisations jumped on the bandwagon.”
“But how can you tell who the ten billionth human will be anyway?” asked Tim, “I mean, babies are born every second.”
“Ah yes,” said Sandy, “but to be part of this project a country needs to have signed up and met certain conditions, and then each new pregnancy is registered and monitored so that it will be fairly easy to determine who is likely to produce the ten billionth baby.”
“But what about countries that don’t sign up?”
“They were mostly the African countries, and nobody counts them anyway – they’re too busy fighting each other. Apart from Nigeria – we have a group of mothers we’re following there.”
“But I still don’t understand how you can be sure you have the right baby,” said Tim.
“Here, you’ll see when we listen to the reports,” said Sandy.
While she had been talking the room had filled with people carrying folders and laptops; several had cameras slung over their shoulders. Sandy sighed when she noticed that some of her staff were accompanied by government representatives. The days of the simple planning meeting were over.
“Alright everybody, let’s start with the field reports. I see from the number of new faces that this project is gaining publicity. Everybody, this is Tim, sent to spy on us from the World Food Programme.”
The people in the room nodded and smiled at Tim, who went a beetroot red and began to doodle on his notepad.
“We’ll hear from Tim at the end. Harman, can you tell us about China, please?”
A young man on Sandy’s right stood up and opened his computer. He projected several slides onto the wall at the far end of the room and everybody swivelled to look.
“Well as you all know, China solved its population problem in the 20s by sterilising young men at puberty. This was done using radiation in the schools and was about 90% effective. Government officials could of course pay to have their sons be exempt and these men were then issued official breeding licences. All pregnancies were recorded against these licences to ensure that these non-sterilised youths did not father more than one child each. Any pregnancy without a breeding licence was terminated. However, this caused problems when the chosen few refused to travel to the remoter regions of the country and a whole decade went by with no children being born in some provinces until one village discovered that their oldest male could still father children.”
There was a titter around the room, but most of the people had heard this story before. Tim was scribbling furiously in his note pad, his eyes fixed on the speaker.
“So,” Harman continued, pointing up at the slides, “we now have six pregnant women who are likely to give birth in the predicted timescale, and they have all been sent to this guarded facility here.”
Sandy looked up in annoyance.
“But they’re not allowed to do that,” she said, “the agreement was that we’d film these women in their environments, to get an idea of the cultural background the child would inherit.”
“Well you can get all that from party doctrine, because they’re all wives of high ranking party officials,” said Harman. “But that’s not all,” he continued, pointing to another slide. “Here we have a group of 10,000 pregnant women, all stationed at a remote facility in the north, to be used to influence the date of birth.”
A general chorus of surprise and annoyance resounded around the room.
“I was afraid of that,” said Sandy.
“What do you mean, influence the date?” asked Tim.
“Well, we already know the likely date of the ten billionth birth, around 14th August, because all of the world’s current pregnancies are registered in the People database, which Ed monitors.” Sandy nodded at a man at the far end of the room who was wearing headphones and staring at a small screen in front of him. Ed looked up when his name was mentioned and waved.
“If I’d known what this job involved, Sandy, I would never have agreed to take it on,” he said. “At least the Dutch all have microchip implants so their updates are automatic instead of relying on a daily data transmission like some countries.” Ed glared at the lady on his left.
“The United States will not have any sensitive information linked automatically to any external programme,” she said, while the rest of the people in the room chanted along with her in unison. It was a mantra they had heard many times.
“Is August the 14th significant?” asked Tim.
“Not necessarily,” said Sandy, “but the country which claims the ten billionth human is.”
“Because they get to influence many of the UN programmes for the rest of the century, and that of course means controlling lots of money. I would have thought your bosses at the World Food Programme would at least have told you that. Being part of the ten billionth baby programme also means a country’s births must be registered and properly monitored, and we can tell if the birth rate goes up, which automatically triggers a cut in health or aid spending.”
Tim looked properly chastened. Sandy wondered how it was that a huge organisation such as the World Food Programme could send such a dimwit as an observer to this project. But then she remembered the listening devices. Maybe they were not so dumb after all.
“So how do you influence the date?” Tim asked.
“By manipulating the birth and death statistics,” said Harman. “The Chinese have set up this breeding facility with 10,000 women in case they need to bring forward the date, should one of their chosen mothers go into labour too early. They’ll just induce several hundred women, keep the babies alive until the ten billionth is born and claim the prize.”
“And is the ten billionth baby likely to be a Chinese?” asked Tim.
“Not if the Saudis can help it,” said a lady from the far end of the table, “they’e determined to have a Muslim baby so they’re pumping money into all the Muslim countries to encourage births. Indonesia’s registered pregnancies have shot up and so have those of all the Arab countries apart from the Palestinians who don’t have their own register. Naturally the Israelis are showing their disapproval with a few high profile murders.”
“But we can’t prove that, Maura!” said Sandy.
“You can never prove anything with the Israelis,” said Maura.
“I had always thought the ten billionth baby would come from India,” said Tim.
“Well, it could have been,” said Sandy, “but they botched it. Joel will explain.”
A small man with glasses stood up.
“The Indians had a number of potential births, almost 340 registered at one point, but then the mobile ultrasound units were sent around the villages and the next thing we knew, 183 women had abortions because they were carrying girls. India was disqualified after that.”
“But I don’t understand,” said Tim, “if you’re counting people, and have a database all set up, surely the ten billionth person is the ten billionth person, no matter where they are born, even if the country is not participating in your project?”
“Not if the birth is symbolic,” said Joel, “like it was when they celebrated the 6th billionth person, back in 2002. Then the world leaders decided that the symbolic baby should be an Indian one, and a poor one at that.”
“No, Tim, sadly this time the ten billionth person will be determined by money and prestige.” Sandy turned to look at Tim, certain that his hidden microphone was picking up her every word. “That’s probably why they sent you to join our team, to find out who was influencing the project and to decide where to send their aid dollars.”
Tim blushed again and started to protest but Sandy waved her hand at him and took up a sheet of paper from the pile in front of her.
“Right, we’ve heard from China; are there any other country reports?”
A short man with dark curly hair raised his hand.
“The Italians are not interested in babies,” he said. There was a titter from around the room.
“Hey, I said babies, not-“
“Yes, yes, Francisco, go on,” said Sandy, eager to restore the serious tone of the meeting.
“Well, we had a couple of ladies but one, she got run over by her motorbike and the other, well it turned out she wasn’t pregnant, just her mother telling her she was because the mother, she’d had a vision, and she wanted to be the 10 billionth grandmother.” There was more laughter.
“And the British, well they want the ten billionth child to be a mixed race child, to show how they have integrated their different communities.”
“So?” asked Sandy.
“Well, it looks like the public are not all that keen on having mixed race babies to order, especially as the government wants to perform DNA tests on all the unborn children to see if they’ would qualify for the special treatment. They don’t want the embarrassment of a pure white or totally black baby to be born.”
“That sounds just like the US,” said Ed, looking at the lady next to him.
“The US is a land of equal opportunity,” she replied haughtily.
“Come off it Edith, your government was offering cash incentives to women to conceive in time for the ten billionth,” said Ed, “you even wanted to have it born on 4th July. And now you have a race going between all the states with two or three hopeful mothers in each state. I don’t know what you’re going to do with all those surplus babies when August rolls around – you Yanks are going to lose a lot of subsidies.”
“Not when the ten billionth human is born in the land of the free!”
“Yes, and then immediately blown up by the radical fundamentalists,” muttered Maura.
Francisco coughed pointedly and all heads turned again to him.
“The Dutch we know about, in fact Ed here can tell you the exact number of their population, and hour by hour progress of the pregnancies.”
Ed obliged by turning his laptop towards the screen. Large numbers appeared on the wall, 26 million and something or other – the last few columns were changing up and down too fast for Sandy to make out. Then a blurred image of a baby in a womb and more rows of data filled the screen.
“OK Ed, we know the Dutch have it all sewn up; we don’t want the gory details,” said Sandy. “Go on, Francisco.”
“The French are very excited. They are planning big celebrations all over the country. In fact so many people are partying in advance that the 23 mothers are mini celebrities and the babies are going to be born blind drunk.”
Sandy frowned. She did not want the project to be the cause of irresponsible behaviour, yet compared to what some governments and other organisations were doing a few glasses of wine too many was hardly grounds for complaint.
“Harman, any more reports from Asia?”
“Well the Australians are definitely out of the race. They started too late and when they realised they couldn’t speed up the nine month process they planned to induce but they were disqualified on medical grounds.”
“Joel, are you covering the Americas, now that India is not participating?”
Joel opened a notebook in front of him and flipped through the pages.
“Bolivia – we had some problems with Paraguayans paying Bolivian peasants to have babies and pass them off as Paraguayans. The Brazilians say most of their babies are born nine months after carnival so we’ll have to wait a while and of course nobody can get into Colombia since it was closed off by the US five years ago.”
“So there’s no other country still in the running?” asked Sandy.
“Yes, Canada. There’s a large community up in the far north, where there used to be ice. It is all sea now, but the government are recreating igloos made of plastic and flying up stuffed polar bears so that the filming is as authentic as possible. We have forty one potential births there.”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “Could they not have just chosen some women in their major cities?”
Joel shook his head. “Apparently they wanted it to be representative of the first people.”
Joel shook his head. “Apparently they wanted it to be representative of the first people.”
“So now what do you do?” asked Tim.
“Well, we send our teams to cover the lives of the people involved. Let’s see, that’s Harman and a camera crew to China; Francisco will cover France, Britain and Holland; Joel is off to the Arctic, and Emily is covering the US. Maura is there any chance of getting a camera crew to one of the Muslim countries?”
Maura shook her head.
“It’s bad enough trying to do this project as a woman, when hardly any men in those countries will talk to me.”
“Can’t you have a male assistant?” Tim asked. Heads shook all around the room.
“Look what happened to poor Mustafa when he started asking questions about pregnant women,” said Joel, drawing his hand across his throat while making a gargling noise.
Tim shuddered and there was a moment of silence around the table for their unfortunate departed colleague.
“Fine,” said Sandy, “meeting dismissed. We’ll convene again in another month and in the meantime, make sure you all get some camera footage. Something tells me we’re going to need to justify every action, and there is a strong possibility that our material will be used as evidence if there is any dirty work.”
The team members rose, gathered their papers and electronic equipment and left the room. Tim, who had abandoned any pretence of making notes checked his wire set-up.
“So, did you decide who gets the grain from the WFP’s foodstocks? I take it your bosses are concerned that the temporary rise in the birth rate due to this project will cause more famines and migrations?”
Tim nodded. “Something like that.”
“Well, you can go and tell them that it is all under control, and as soon as we have recorded the ten billionth baby we’ll all stop reproducing.”
Sandy laughed at the disbelief on Tim’s face.
“Hey – it’s a joke! Go and get a beer and lighten up!”
Sandy walked the three flights of stairs down to her office, the only exercise she’d get all day. This project was turning from a headache into a migraine, or a nightmare, as the countdown wore on. And soon it would turn into an international disaster if the wrong country won. Only which was the right country, or was there even one? Should the country funding the project get preferential results? Sandy knew Ed could tweak the numbers on the computer faster than she could say byte, and there was no prize for delivering the ten billion and one-th baby.
Sandy kicked her shoes off and flopped onto her couch by the window, her one concession to luxury. She flicked a switch on her wall monitor and looked at her e-mail. Three from the UN, one from the dry-cleaners, one, no two from Edith, a couple of junk adverts and one from her sister.
Sandy waved her pointer at the e-mail from her sister. She missed Karen more than she liked to admit. There was nobody to call up late at night with problems, nobody to co-sign the mother’s day card. Sandy could not even buy a ticket and travel to visit her sister – tourists were no longer allowed at the International Space Centre after the series of bio-terror scares in the 40s. And last week Karen had e-mailed to say she was volunteering for the moon colony.
Sandy opened the e-mail and was surprised to see only three words instead of the reams that Karen normally wrote.
“Aunt. Alexandra. August.”
Her sister only used Sandy’s full name if she was being serious, or trying to evade the snooper software. This time she must be doing both.
Sandy stared at the message, a mixture of emotions clashing inside her.
Who was the aunt? Was it her? If so, that meant that Karen was finally pregnant – yet another pregnant woman. But if she moved to the moon colony then Sandy would never see the baby. Suddenly a thought struck her. What if Karen did move to the moon colony, and had her baby there? August – that must mean the due date! All Sandy had to do was make sure Ed included a feed of her sister’s data into the computer, secretly of course, and he could manipulate the information to ensure that her niece or nephew would be the ten billionth human. Moon colonists belonged to no country so her diplomatic problems would be solved in one fell swoop.
Oh, clever, clever Karen.
Sandy reached for the keyboard to tap in an appropriate response, in code, of course. It would not do to have the likes of Tim monitoring her e-mails.
Meanwhile, in India 23 more baby girls were aborted; in China two girls were locked up for conceiving without certificates, and one party official sued the state when his son was found to be sterile; in Holland the factory producing the microchip implants discovered a virus in its production line; in Canada the northern people refused to move into the plastic igloos; in Egypt the Nile flooded and displaced ten million people; and in sub-Saharan Africa wars continued as before, much as they had over the past century and a half.