The Winners

How many people miss these letters, anyhow? It's 2095 for fuck's sake. I can't believe we haven't solved the spam problem yet. Our inability to deal with Viagra emails is probably the sole reason the reapers exist at all. You miss the notification for your murder appointment and you only find out when the sky darkens overhead as your skin begins to boil. Anyone next to you is suddenly covered with what used to be inside of you, and all because we lost the spam war. Even worse, your beneficiary doesn't get paid if the reapers have to dispatch you. It's fucked up.

I didn't miss my notification. There was a time when missing a message wasn't the end of the world. Maybe a deal didn't get signed, or you missed a party. That was before the Rejuvenation Office came into being. Now you explode into a pile of goo if you miss a message.

The elections of 2058 will go down in history as the first election won by sheer fire-power. The People's Liberal Party ran on a platform of pure science. Gene splicing, human cloning, laboratory conception, it was all on the table. After two generations of the gods, guns, and bibles of the deeply conservative Nationalist Party, citizens were hungry to reclaim their humanity. Not surprisingly, the Nationals had all the guns and the god-given authority to “save” us and they used every goddamn bullet they could find. Martial law was imposed and nobody was allowed outside for months leading up the election. I still remember the endless gnawing in my gut for lack of food.

It was going to be a landslide victory for the Nats until, two days before the polls opened, the sky darkened and we saw a reaper for the first time. Millions of people just simply disappeared that day. Not quietly – oh god no, not quietly at all. The guns stopped long before the screaming or the scraping of wings against my shuttered windows. I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing the inhuman cry of a reaper swooping out of the sky gleefully chasing its prey.

When it was over and we dared venture outside to vote, it seemed like there were only Libs left. The election results were called within 90 minutes of the polls closing – the Nats had been completely decimated with less than 5% of the vote. We wanted the Libs to win, but now we exchanged haunted looks as we passed in the street, deeply afraid of what we had put in charge. The Libs never spoke about what happened. Cleaning crews just appeared in the morning, sprayed all the goop into the sewer, and that was the end of it.

The first few months of Liberal rule were peaceful and full of change. The Libs immediately struck down decades-old legislation that we were hungry for. Within days of repealing the Religious Obligation Act of 2030 neighbourhoods underwent dramatic changes. Churches that were once required on every block became abandoned shells over night. Women were seen in the streets for the first time in most people's memories, and there was an observable up-tick in people “forgetting” their government mandated personal weapons at home. In addition to repealing Nat laws, the new government was introducing new legislation and standing up new administrations with hurricane speed. It was a hopeful time, full of potential.

But we still kept one eye on the skies.

One of our most pressing problems was overpopulation. Generations of citizens were unable to access contraception due to strict conservative rule which led to a lot of breeding. Humans do what they do, and the Nats took god's command of “go forth and multiply” literally and outlawed contraception decades ago. On reaper night, we learned that the Libs had a very effective solution to overpopulation, but even they knew it would be unwise to make that part of the landscape. Instead, the Rejuvenation Office was created to administer a newly created program named simply “The Draw”.

This isn't the type of draw a sane person wants to win. There isn't a street in town without a refuge on it. Rich, rich, motherfucking rich-ass beneficiaries – fairies – lounging around the place, living out their days on the last breath of whoever died to bequeath them this eternity of uselessness. Most of them didn't even look human any more. The boredom of having more money than anyone has ever spent before led to most disgusting of contests. Contests that usually ended without a clear winner after decades of increasingly bizarre body modifications. Some fairies used their riches for good, most did not.

Libs told us that the draw made sense as an overpopulation solution. Ten die so one can live. Perfect. Perfect opportunity for human greed to get a toehold.

Not everyone is entered into the draw. The whole point of it is to save precious resources, and centenarians don't have a lot of resource-hogging years left; it's the kids that give the biggest bang for the buck. When a 10-year old dies, 120 plus years of resources are suddenly freed up. But the Libs couldn't just kill all the kids. We'd just end up with the opposite problem exponentially compounded by entire generations of angry vilomahs filling the streets. Vilomah. There's a word nobody knew before the Libs took office.

To keep things palatable, the draw was “random”.

Random people received letters to report in for draw. Getting lettered was a bitter-sweet moment. Sure, nobody wanted to die, especially people young enough to matter most. But the opportunity to choose someone to receive the mass riches the Libs dole out to your beneficiary? Well, that was enough money to be a very strong lure. Everyone wants to be a hero. But, of course, not everyone wants to die for money so some run, some hide, and some hire the scum of the world – the draw brokers. The reapers take care of the runners and the hiders, but don't worry too much about the others. As long as one body for each winner shows up at the Rejuvenation Centre, the reapers slept.

Draw Broking is simple. You “win” the draw. You don't want to die. You make a deal with a broker and name them your beneficiary. Someone else shows up at Rejuvie looking enough like you to pass, even through the recent medi-scape scars, and the broker collects. The nicer brokers give you a decent cut. Most don't.

Ten die so one may live.

The reapers are fast; flitting by noiselessly like huge ungainly bats in their winged armoured suits. Suits that look like they should be shiny and catch the sun, but instead just exude a terrifying feeling of black. Ironically, their initial arrival was ponderously slow. Large orbs, miles across, slowly slid into the sky. Their lengthening shadows telegraphed the arrival and gave us lots of time to flee before they disgorged their swarms of reapers. A few months of fruitless hunting trips schooled the Libs in tactics and now the orbs are there all the time, casting permanent shadows across continents and souls.

After the initial election night cull the reapers didn't swarm as much. Most folks went along with their draw letters, reporting for death like good cattle and only the most unfortunate ever found themselves close enough to a reaper to see its eyes and live.

Those most familiar with the reapers can't tell what they know. All they know is that there's always three. A commander of some sort, and two...others. The Others do the brutish work. Flying in a jerky, marionette-like fashion, unpredictable and brutally fast. Those that can still speak after an encounter with an Other tell of spooked, human-like eyes barely visible through the shaded helm. Eyes haunted with madness and confusion. Then, quick flashes of cognition before spinning on their wings and dashing back to their commander's flank to await new orders.

Early resistance groups managed to capture a few triads in the first couple of months. Net missiles proved to the the most successful, expanding in the air to mushroom over a reaper triad and bring them all crashing down. The reapers would all die when they hit the deck and leave behind empty smoking exoskeletons. Whatever the reapers were, they lived their lives inside their black chitinous shells until they simply ceased to be at the whim of some inaudible command. Aside from being able to fly gracefully, the only visible difference between the commanders and the Others was the razor sharp dorsal fin rising from the commanders' backs between their wings. Nobody knows the purpose of that little addition but the best guess is that it gives them the added stability to fly right.

It didn't take long for the resistance to find out that attacking a triad would result in the mother orb darkening what light was left in the sky. The closest orb would react by belching out a seemingly endless stream of reinforcement reapers. Entire city blocks of people would be murdered, rendering the area inhabitable for months until the goo dried up or was cleaned away.

The hunting parties stopped.

That was a while ago. These days things are pretty calm. Hunting runners and hiders is pretty grisly work. The big secret is that 10 don't always die. 7, 8, sometimes 9, but the medi-stim work and psycho-rehab necessary to make a triad kills a lot of candidates before they even get near the armourer. There's a never-ending need for capable bodies and killing all ten every time would deplete the reaper ranks too much. Most of them barely make it as-is and end up on the job with almost no control of their armour, careening insanely through the sky trying to zero in on a runner.

I spend a lot of time screaming instructions through our commlink to keep them afloat. Mostly, I just try to call them back to me to regroup before they flame out into the deck or crash into a building. But, I can only do so much. This ridiculous fucking fin on my back getting hooked up on electrical wires and street lights just makes the whole job harder. But it's better than being one of 7, 8, or sometimes 9.