By Lisa Fox
The SecuriBot’s tinny command barked through the bings and blips of the noisy casino. With a reaper-like metallic claw, it snatched a slip of white paper, no bigger than a banknote, from Allie’s hands and slid it into a slot in its torso.
Allie hugged her arms across her midsection, the coarse fabric of the government-issued Fourthclass attire scratching her skin. She shuddered as the Bot belched out her processed paperwork.
“Line 2. Population Control.”
Grasping the sheet, she moved toward a group of young women, cordoned away from the rest of the casino by a red velvet rope. All wore the same drab jumpsuits, the same expression of wide-eyed hope. And wide-eyed dread.
“Happy birthday, ladies. Lucky number eighteen for us.”
Allie turned toward the voice; a tall Fourthclass whose khaki uniform accentuated her every curve.
“Never dreamed I’d spend it playing Sterility Roulette.” The girl smiled, tossed long, blond locks over her shoulder, and extended her hand to Allie. “I’m Sara.”
“Allie,” she replied, hunching her shoulders to hide the bloated pudge around her belly and hips.
On the other side of the rope, men and women in designer suits sipped martinis at a craps table with the nonchalance of the privileged. Class Two Alpha, Allie thought. Her throat burned with rising bile as she watched a woman, pregnant belly protruding through her chiffon dress, pluck olives from a full glass.
“Amazing how we can be in the same room as them, but on a totally different planet,” Sara said.
“Very little amazes me,” Allie murmured. Her gaze lingered on the casino floor, where ThinkBots congregated, observing the gamblers as if they were on display. She recognized them by their red skull casings; these judges whose mathematical process allocated humans into sects based on their high-level productivity quotient.
Allie’s mother had been a physicist, so valued by the Bots they worked her to death. With the family’s quotient more than halved, she and her father were downgraded from Class Two Theta. Their home and possessions seized, their legacy would be one of sacrifice to a machine’s vision of a greater good, where one’s output was the sole determinant of human worth.
Allie laid a hand on her stomach to stop it from rumbling. Too nervous to eat, she had only nibbled a few bites of dry toast Michael had made her that morning. “Who needs luck?” he’d said as he kissed her, his lips soft. “You have love on your side.”
Raucous whoops burst from the crowd playing craps. They high-fived, back-patted, and bear-hugged, wrapped up in the ecstasy of a win.
“Must be nice to be on the other side,” Sara said.
Allie tugged at the square of paper, curling the corner between her thumb and forefinger. If her mother hadn’t died, she could have easily become one of them. Her stomach roiled in a knot of disgust and jealousy. She swallowed hard to fight the nausea that threatened to overtake her. Our humanity makes us do strange and selfish things, she thought, resting a hand on her belly as she watched the pregnant gambler down another drink.
Allie and Sara took a few steps forward with the moving line as a Bot voice droned through the loudspeaker: “Enjoying your morning at the Sugarloaf Casino? We strive to create a serene and supportive environment. Win or lose, we hope you have a great day.”
“Couldn’t the Bots have called us into some office for this?” Sara said. “It’s all fun and games until someone’s uterus gets fried. But a casino is taking it a bit too far.”
Allie shook her head. “Here, the house always wins.”
“Not true. It’s a 50/50 shot,” Sara said. “The odds are even.”
“Nothing’s even anymore. Didn’t you see those ThinkBots watching? Calculating? Our presence here is a statement to the Alpha Twos.” Allie gestured toward the gamblers. “Out there. One wrong roll of the dice and they’re standing on this side of the velvet.”
Sara nodded, her countenance sobering. She bit her lip. “Mother told me to take the stipend. Trade my fertility for better rations.” She brushed away a tear. “I couldn’t. I needed to take the chance—hold on to my dreams of motherhood for a little bit longer.”
Allie squeezed Sara’s hand.
Sara sniffled. “What about you, Allie?”
“I’m—” Allie stopped herself. She pictured Michael pacing the threadbare carpeting in his tiny apartment, awaiting news. She thought of her father, head in his hands with worry. The table stakes were high. “I’m an only child. There’s no one after me. Besides, if they take our dreams, what do we have left?”
They reached the front of the line, where a bow-tied DealerBot stood behind an old-fashioned roulette table. The kind Allie’s grandmother used to talk about.
“Papers.” He placed Allie’s slip on red, Sara’s on black.
Above them, a hologram flashed the gamblers’ incoming wagers—Sara, favored three-to-one.
“Sudden death.” Sara smirked. “Good luck?”
Allie’s eyes fixed on the spinning wheel, spokes of red and black whirling in a centrifuge of chance. The dealer tossed a pearly white ball into the blur—round and round it orbited her future, and the future of the fetus quickening in her womb.
The dealer waved his hand above the table. “No more bets.”
The wheel slowed. The ball bounced.
Black, red, red, black, red…
Through Sara’s squeals and distant cheers, the bells of workhorse slot machines clanged through Allie’s mind—a death knell.
She clutched the edge of the table. Watched the Bot stamp Sara’s paper; inject a microchip beneath the girl’s skin. “…Approved for five years.”
Allie pressed her palms against the mahogany to stop the world from spinning.
With a giggle and a hop, Sara ran off, without a glance toward Allie.
“Some you win, some you lose.” The Bot grabbed Allie’s paper and pushed it into the slot on the front of its torso. A hope that was once whole disintegrated before her as the tiny paper ran through the Bot’s shredding mechanism.
The remnants fell to the floor, discarded trash.
What a scary, bleak world. This story is timely and horrific. Forced sterilization seems incomprehensible except we have news of it happening in the United States in 2020. I loved how the author used the idea of gambling to decide fates. Such a great reflection of the randomness of life and some of the cards we’re dealt which are out of our control.
That was gripping. I liked the separation of the ‘classes’ and the idea that they too could lose everything.
Almost, not quite, sure of the denouement.
What an amazing story. A picture of a bleak future indeed. Placing it in a casino was particularly inspired. So short but yet it says so much.
This was the best of the lot so far, even with the dismal future it describes. It has a theme, a beginning and an end. It’s not a fragment. It’s a human story.