An Apocalypse Story

I walked into the great meeting room, cold and tall and bare as it was, and I was sweating and shaky. I sat in the chair at the very end of the long curved table, lay down the papers I’d been clutching to wrinkles, and set my damp palms flat on its cool surface. Then I sat there, concentrating on breathing evenly, for the twenty minutes it took the council members to file in and seat themselves. I sat and stared at the huge picture windows on one side of the room, looking not at the bustling city beneath that it showed, but at the reflection of the room and its occupants.

When I coughed, and cleared my throat, not a one of them looked up. They were murmuring, small conversations that buzzed in the big room. Finally I stood, and leaned forward.

“Friends.” I said loudly, clearly, my voice echoing off the high ceiling, and now they looked up at me, “Council members, thank you for coming. We have today to discuss a most important order of business. I have proposed a change that would affect the world and have a huge influence on every living being. We are here today to have a conversation about the ramifications of this change, and any and all of its positive and negative aspects.” Once I finished this introduction, I sat down gratefully, and the buzz mounted again. I called out, “You all have with you copies of the plan, I presume? I would like you to take this time to read it over.”

I leaned back in my chair and watched them all dig out the folder from within briefcases or handbags. They all set the papers on the table before themselves, and read with furrowed foreheads and frowns and the occasional recurring buzz of mutters. Whether they liked the plan or not, I could not tell, though I doubted it somehow. When most of them seemed to have moved their eyes from the pages, and could now find no place to affix their gaze, I stood again and drew the darting glances all in one direction again.

“Men and women of the council,” I said, sounding as calm as I could manage over my anxiety and excitement, “I move that we put this proposal to a vote.”

“This is preposterous!” interrupted a baggy gray-topped man halfway down the table. “This plan should never have seen the light of day, much less be subject to discussion by the sane people in this room—mostly sane, that is” with a pointed glance at me.

I nodded, and sat down. I was almost relieved to have gotten the first objection over with, until the woman across from the paunchy man stood too. “I agree completely. This plan is pure lunacy, and you put it into legalese to make it seem less monstrous. I move that we disregard it completely, as well as any attempt to legitimize it at all.” At once the whole room erupted into outcries, the word “insane” sounding quite a lot from the mouths of these stolid suited people.

After a minute I stood once more. I tried several times to catch the attention of the group, but my quavering voice was not loud enough. I caught a deep breath and shouted, as loudly as I could manage, “Council! Enough. This sort of commotion can lead to no agreement whatsoever. If you will permit, I will explain to you the reasoning behind such a seemingly drastic plan.”

Bit by bit, the council stood down and eventually they sat back, still tense but listening, in their chairs.
“Council,” I began, “You will, I am sure, all agree that the earth nowadays is plagued with many disastrous problems. Overpopulation is among the worst of them, leaving humanity little recourse in its desperation. We also have encountered pollution, and famine, and disease. Neither has war ever left our so-called civilizations. Sometimes the most effective way to solve problems of such severity is to eliminate the causes entirely. As it is, the causes of all of these problems– all of them, ladies and gentlemen—is humankind itself.” I held up my hand as a buzz threatened to turn into shouting again. “No, hear me out. Humans live on this earth with a certain responsibility toward it, would you not agree? And in multiplying beyond possible capacity, in using every resource to its last and sucking the earth dry, it seems that humanity has shirked its responsibility grievously. The only way to eliminate the problems humanity has caused is to eradicate humanity.”

I finished my speech, inhaled and exhaled and felt my heart slow almost to normal. I sat down and almost immediately three people were standing. I raised my hand to stop them once more, and added, “Of course, as the earth is a resource of man, eliminating man completely would not accomplish a goal any more nearly than leaving things as they are. The painless process that would deal with the problem of humanity, leaving the rest of the earth intact, could be adjusted. I move that the wise arbiters of humanity’s fate be spared, in order to lead the remains of the earth into a new world.”

The atmosphere at the table changed quite perceptibly at my words. The tension was there, but rather than fear, I felt the anticipation of the group. Two of the people standing lowered themselves to their seats hesitantly, and the woman remaining said, “You mean, we would leave some people? Which people do you mean, arbiters of fate?”

I smiled benignly at her, heart thumping with enthusiasm now. “Well we are the ones deciding the fate of humanity, are we not, dear Councilmember Karlen? As the council responsible for all of mankind, it seems only fitting that we last into the next wave of humanity to guide it.”

A sigh of relief, or maybe satisfaction, swept around the table, but a balding man near me looked up unhappily. “Our families?” he said.

I looked down at him, allowing a touch of disdain into my face. “Your families are part of the problem, Mr. Rosty. They are not here with the good of humanity in mind, are they? The labs and machines of the world will remain, and you may all recreate those important to you, have new children who will grow up in our triumphant new world. After the change, there will be no misery or pain. You will spare those you love the trauma of a loss they weren’t expecting, and their memories will live on through the people fortunate enough to be born in our golden era. I suppose if you don’t choose this then eventually someone else will, and you can die along with your family.”

I sat, and looked around the room at the speculative faces, the calculating expressions. “Shall we put it to a vote? For a decision of this import, it seems necessary that we reach unanimous consensus on the issue in question.” Several of the members looked up, as if they were startled or suddenly overwhelmed, but I plunged forward. “All in favor?”

Eight hands went up at once. Five more, after seeing the initial favor, raised their hands too. The seven remaining, among them the paunchy man who had first objected and Councilmember Rosty, watched their companions with fear in their faces. They leaned toward the center of the table, and the debate broke out again. Those who had already cast in their votes gave their persuasive arguments, sounding more or less convinced themselves. After two minutes of the persistent buzz, I stood yet again. “Councilmembers. I believe it is time for you to make a choice. I suggest you think about what choice you are making and consider its implications. In voting for this measure, you will be choosing the good of the planet, the good of future generations—indeed, Council, you will be choosing the good of humanity itself.”

I stood and looked at the seven undecided until they cowered under my determined gaze, until one by one their votes joined the rest—all except for Councilmember Rosty. He sat stubbornly, face crumpled in bewilderment, looking around him through the big room and seeing no support left. The room had stopped humming with talk completely, and the Council watched Mr. Rosty. They stared at him, filled with disapproval at his weakness, his preference for humanity’s existence over its benefit. Finally, after interminable minutes, his face crumpled and his head dropped down, and he raised his hand slowly. I nodded, and stood, and proclaimed the measure passed.

For the next fifteen minutes, the Council and I sat in silence and watched out the window as the poison spread through the air and humanity was saved.

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2 thoughts on “An Apocalypse Story

  1. Elea Lee says:

    Like the title, the Shirley Jackson quality, and the strange feeling of the story playing out on C-span.

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