Anja stared at the screen. The blue light had flashed on thirty minutes ago, the words TERMINATE in bold black letters had come with it. Her fingers hovered over the control, willing her to do it, waiting eagerly for her to press the button, to watch the light snuff out, to feel the adrenaline surge through her body as she accomplished her task. But she couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t the first time the message had come to her. She had hit terminate exactly 13,771 times in the thirty years she had worked in the Bureau of Population Control. Most of the time she didn’t even blink; she didn’t wonder whose heart beat would stutter in their chest, before constricting painfully. Not once had she ever wondered what the person on the other side of the controls was doing. She never wondered if they were old, or young. If they were alone, or maybe meeting someone for dinner. If they were in the shower, or in traffic, or maybe on their way to pick the kids up from school.

Anja didn’t think about those things because they didn’t matter to her. All she needed to do was press the button. But something niggled at her this time, a small vibration, electricity humming at her fingertips. It was late, and the Bureau building was quiet, empty. Everyone had left long before, rushing home to their families, their companions. 

This was after all the path she had chosen. When the Bureau had approached her decades ago with an opportunity, and more pay than she could have ever dreamed off, she’d said yes. So why was she overthinking the simple command? After all, her job. The Bureau only existed due to hard facts; they had already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, without people like her, they were all doomed to die.

Anja pushed away from the desk. She had been sitting at the desk too long and her shoulders were bunched up, her muscles tight. She needed to get her blood moving again.  On stiff legs and an aching back Anja made her way to the glass wall of her office, outside the city twinkled and glowed, yellows, blues, and greens. It was a vibrant display of color, of life.

It all seemed so far from her, like another world. She had not been part of that thriving, humming world in a long time. At seventy, she had lost the zest for activity. Grateful that the department had let her keep her job, especially after Idris had passed on three years ago. Her position at the Bureau was all she had left. A corner office at the top floor, and her small apartment with its walls covered in pictures, glimpses into who she had been.

Feeling rejuvenated, Anja made her way back to her desk and sat down. The light still blinked.

Here goes. Anja drew in a deep breath, felt it whistle past her teeth as she released it.  Then she clicked the control button.

She leaned back in her desk, satisfied with herself. With that done, it was time for her to head home; Perry, her peregrine was probably hungry by now. She turned off her machine, scooted her chair back and picked up her aged briefcase and cane. As she straightened, a sharp pain shot up her arm and through her chest. She wheezed and stuttered as the pain bloomed across her body. The pain was so sharp Anja worried for a brief second that she had cracked a rib. Another wheezing breath and she clutched at her chest trying to hold in her organs, trying to squeeze the pain out. She felt, she felt as if her heart was trying to burrow its’ way out of her chest. Each sluggish beat rocked through her, making her eyes water, her vision spark with bright points of light.  The pain did not stop.

Anja collapsed back in her chair, wobbling. Saliva trickled out the side of her mouth, tears burned at her eyes. She swiped her hand on her desk, reaching for the communication device. She pressed the button. It beeped once, twice. The pain was already leaving.

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Mila Sankale is a Bay Area based author by way of Kenya. Her stories are a mixture of her hybrid Kenyan-American upbringing, folktales and stories as told by her mother & grandparents as well as her undergraduate studies in biology and anthropology.

Instagram: @Onartandfiction

EDITOR L. Naisula