They called it Phase One — the Internet Safety Protocol that made it illegal to share any personal opinion online. All digital transactions became heavily policed. A clampdown followed on unauthorised public displays of affection.

Failure to follow the law was punishable by three years in the Desert Camps. Everyone knew that this was a purely political gesture — no one ever came back from the Desert Camps.

The ISP had obvious repercussions, as was the desired effect by the Universal Council — people were terrified to talk to each other.

Phase Two hit even harder and the Compulsory Euthanasia Act or C.E.A. was established. The initiative was pushed through on a global scale after several years of smoke and mirrors; over-complicated bill refining, hard and fast unpopular policymaking, legal lies, bought votes, four threats of world war, and the near-fatal miss of a meteorite almost destroying all life on Earth.

The dark web conspiracy sites claimed to have proof that the events leading up to the initiation of the C.E.A. were fake, much like the Apollo 24 Mars landing of 2039, carefully constructed to instil a sense of insecurity and manipulate popular opinion through fear. Those too scared to question the policy embraced it, placing the C.E.A. on a par with going to war for their country. It very quickly became every man’s common duty.

On achieving the age of forty-four, it was deemed that the human male’s usefulness had peaked, and he was legally required to end his life.

The C.E.A. legislation, later branded as “D-Day”, became big business. How gracefully a man accepted his death, however, was another matter.

#

 “Sign here,” said the agent with a chubby grin. “Also, here.” He turned a page and nodded that everything appeared to be in order. “You’ve chosen well. A splendid package. Passionate, one might say.”

The crow’s feet of Michael’s handsome smile appeared satisfied. A passionate death felt right — the perfect end to the perfect beginning of the rest of his family’s life.

Michael was not only a thoroughly responsible man, but he was also a savvy one. He had paid into the Universal Earth Tax contributions wallet since his first day at the gen-food processing plant at the age of eighteen. Like a good citizen, he had listened to the advice of his personal financial advisor, topped up his ratio by depositing extra points every month, and always making sure that his family had everything they could ever want. He’d taken advantage of the government rewards scheme to triple his end-of-life bonus when he reached twenty-five and now had substantial dividends to redeem.

The agent packed the papers into his traditional black leather suitcase. Strange, thought Michael, how organic materials were so often favoured by the assurance agents. Perhaps it was intended as a humble reminder of the simplicity of death? We are all organic bio-mass at the end of the day; carbon, calcium, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus. We come from the Earth, and on our D-Day, we are born back into it. At least, that’s what the leaflet said. Preparing for his last day was the most responsible thing that a man could do, and he should make sure that it was executed in style and with keen attention to detail.

“Will it hurt?” asked Michael.

The agent accidentally creased a paper. “I’m sorry, my colleague, what do you mean?”

“My death. Will it hurt?”

The agent laughed with a grin. “Who’ve you been talking to?”

Michael knew that it was frowned upon for colleagues of mixed rank to socialise. He also knew that he was expected to keep all personal details to himself, and certainly not engage in casual conversation with a lower-ranking colleague on the factory floor. Being of a similar age, they had connected while comparing D-Day plans. Michael lowered his gaze and wondered if he’d just been red-flagged.

“I can assure you that you have chosen a most elegant package. Your last day will consist of some of the finest activities that the end-of-life service has to offer — extreme sports — with the handicap tipped either in your favour or with the odds heavily against you if you’d prefer to go out in a blaze of glory. It’s our most popular choice. You may also wish to experience passionate sexual relations unlike any that you have had the opportunity to encounter; either with your spouse in attendance or a variety of officially selected participants. Or, why not mix them all together? It is your D-Day, after all. My colleague, you seem nervous?”

The man was right. Michael was breaking a sweat.

“May I also remind you,” continued the agent, “of the less extreme activities that you have at your disposal, such as sentimental farewells with your two beautiful daughters. An approved agent will tell you all of the wonderful achievements that they will be expected to accomplish in their lifetime, thanks to your most generous and unselfish act. Typically, this scenario would be withheld until the last few minutes of your anticipated life as it can be a real tearjerker, but if you wish to concentrate the majority of the D-Day on your family then that is entirely commendable. We can provide a heartfelt encounter filled with tearful congratulations and cheerful celebrations — and Death Day cake, of course.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” said Michael.

The agent paused, shocked. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure that I understand. What’s concerning you, exactly?”

“Will I be able to feel it?” he asked.

“The needle? Oh, no, of course not. It’s very subtle. Just a scratch. In fact, some clients have described the sensation of the intravenous flow right before the moment of their passing as the happiest they have ever felt in their life. Last words. On the record.”

Michael smiled, hesitantly.

“The feeling is not designed to be physical, may I assure you, rather, it is the equivalent of consuming a fine spirit — toxicity refined. The overwhelming essence of death is the most exquisite taste a man can consume. I, myself, look forward to the day that I can redeem my end-of-life points and sample the very best that my assurance policy has to offer. I too have been surging my ratio and am a Gold Class member, just like yourself. It is a most respectable position to achieve after twenty-five years of contribution payments into the Universal Earth Tax.”

Michael realised that he was close to overstepping the mark in what must be considered a civilised conversation about death. The assurance agent was simply doing his job.

“Thank you, my colleague,” he said and looked up to see Rachel’s reflection in the mirror on the corridor wall.

His wife had refused to sit with them and suggested that these decisions were her husband’s alone to make. His end-of-life activities should remain private. It was the least that she could do in return for such a humble sacrifice. But Rachel had been listening from the corridor, and the mirror had just betrayed her indiscreet observation.

#

Every evening, their young daughters, Polly and Samantha, would wait excitedly for Michael’s return, and race to the door to attack-hug him around the waist.

“Daddy, we missed you.”

“What did you learn today?”

Being slightly older, Samantha would interrupt first, keen to impress. “The Moon orbits the Earth at a distance of two hundred and forty thousand miles.”

“Well done, Sam.”

Polly would then blurt out something equally impressive such as, “the thermal energy of our Sun’s solar wind is between one point five and ten electron volts,” before burying her face in the folds of her father’s grey suit.

He would stroke their hair and feel blessed. “How about you young ladies get ready for bed. I’ll take a shower and be up to read you a story.”

It had barely occurred to Michael that by the time his two children would have grown up to become strong, independent women — learned to hyper-drive, form an educated scientific opinion, get matched, perhaps fall in love and raise children of their own — he would no longer be alive to see it. The distraction brought on by the feeling of a deep sense of love, pride, and affection for his family had prevented Mr Michael Keane from fully accepting that he was about to die.

Michael nodded and raised his arm to thank the agent with a firm handshake. Under these particular circumstances, this was allowed. At the front door, he once again squeezed the agent’s hand, almost in an act of defiance, and offered a compulsory smile. The agent left, assured that his client had chosen well and that his death would indeed be a perfect one.

#

Michael woke in a cold sweat. He hadn’t felt as anxious since the birth of their first child — when Rachel had gone into labour and been held in quarantined observation for three months. He’d received daily letters but was convinced that they weren’t actually written by her. Whenever he’d attempted to talk about Samantha’s birth since then, Rachel had just cried.

“You ok?” she asked. “Should I Dial-A-Medic?”

He wiped the sweat from his chest. “I don’t need a medic.” He pulled out a white towel from the bedside table and wiped his brow.

“You must be under such a lot of pressure,” she sighed. She kneeled up on the bed and took the towel. Putting an arm around him in reassurance, she caressed his forehead with the fabric. “It’s the biggest day of a man’s life, I know, but it’s going to be ok. We’re going to be ok. You’ve done so much for us. You’re a good man, Michael.”

He took the towel and offered her a kiss of comfort. “I’m going to go check on the kids.”

With a concerned smile, she watched him leave the bedroom.

The girls were sleeping soundly. The storybook was still open on the last page that they had read together. Michael kissed his fingertips and placed them on each of their foreheads. The window was open slightly to allow in the fresh night air. All was quiet on the street below.

For a cautious moment, he pictured himself pulling his sleepy girls out of bed, helping them into their jumpsuits, and lifting them up onto the ledge. He imagined himself whispering for them to climb along the branch of a tree that was just close enough for them to reach, and then jump down to the soft grass without a sound. Two bags would land on the turf next to them, hastily filled with whatever he could grab — mostly useless items that were scattered around his daughters’ bedroom, but objects that he hoped they would find reassuring. Michael raised the latch and opened the window wider.

Spotlights scanned the street below, carefully painting traces of light on the tarmac that were designed to look as much like moonlight as possible.

It wasn’t far to jump. They could make it without hurting themselves. He would force his way in on the ground floor and retrieve his boots and overcoat. They could reach the coast before the alarm was raised. Once there, he would find a way to access the dark web and get a message out to the counter-resistance.

“Darling?”

He froze. Rachel was standing in the doorway.

“Why is the window open?”

He took a breath. “The girls. They were hot,” he replied. He closed the window. “They’re better now.”

The nightgown clung tight to her thin body, occasionally illuminated by the searchlights outside. She folded her arms and smiled. “It’s certainly getting warmer, isn’t it? Come back to bed now.” She held out a hand.

Michael took a final glance at his children, as his wife pulled the curtains and led him out of their room.

#

“Greetings, colleague.”

Compulsory use of the government-sanctioned title colleague was initiated in Phase Three. It became the expected term of address in the workplace across all employment ranks, from delivery boy to executive director. This, somewhat militarised etiquette, was intended to establish a level playing field. Professional ranks could communicate freely. They could get things done. It was a scientifically proven method for establishing a productive workforce. Anonymity was also a safety net, by not knowing the actual names of your work colleagues, employers adhered to legally binding data protection laws.

“Greetings, colleague,” Michael replied.

The man’s company-issued overalls were blue with two large pockets at the front. There were no pockets at the side, so as to discourage indolence. His accent was unidentifiable — a hint of Central Europe perhaps, as though he had been brought up in a very different location and trained in the Universal Language. It was said that an accent clung to the personality like an unsightly smear on a perfectly clean bed sheet. The elocution teachers always tried to eradicate any traces of origin.

“How are your daughters?”

Michael flinched. Had he really told the man about Polly and Samantha? How could he have been so reckless? “I can’t talk to you anymore,” he hissed, turning his head to see if anyone was near enough to hear them.

“Calm, my friend,” said the man in a hushed tone. “Everyone gets nervous before their perfect day.” He smiled, reassuringly, and opened his palms in a gesture of compliance. They both realised that they were being observed by a remote-controlled camera.

The man squinted a smile that appeared forced and, for a brief moment, uncertain of its own intentions.

Michael took a moment and then reached into his suit pocket. “I’m having a party, tonight, for my D-Day. I would like you to come.” He held up a small, yellow circular token. “This will get you into my quarter. You’ll have curfew privileges until eleven pm.”

The man took the token and then raised his hands, thankful, but reticent. “I can’t go out tonight, my colleague. I have to look after my dear, elderly mother.”

“Bring her along.” Michael took out more yellow tokens. “I have lots of invitations.” He laughed to himself, realising that he’d entirely neglected to invite anyone to the last party he would ever have in his life.

“She is not well,” the colleague in the overalls apologised. “She requires constant care.” He patted himself on the chest, as though to symbolise an illness, and then handed back the token. “I am sorry, my friend.” He smiled and held out his hand to shake.

Michael knew that it was breaking protocol, but he accepted. They shook hands, firmly, but before the gesture was complete the man gripped his hand tighter, pulling him closer.

“My name is Grigory Isodor Petrov,” he whispered. “I am forty-three years old. I give you — your freedom.”

Michael pulled his hand away.

“And so, to work,” exclaimed the man, cheerfully. “Have the perfect day, my colleague.” He whistled as he walked in the opposite direction.

In his hand, Michael now held a different coloured token. This one was clear plastic.

He knew exactly what it was.

#

The cocktail party was in full swing. Groups of smartly dressed men in their early twenties were talking enthusiastically about subjects that Michael had no interest in whatsoever.

Rachel was laughing, touching the arm of a man that he didn’t recognise. In fact, Michael didn’t seem to know anyone at the party that was intended to celebrate the end of his life. His house felt invaded — as though he was already gone.

“Darling, have a drink?” Rachel was standing by his side. She wore a long, flowing dress that showed off her breasts. Unconsciously, his eye flicked down to her left hand. She was no longer wearing her wedding ring.

“Have you seen the girls?” he asked.

“They’re with The Watcher, like we agreed. We’ve got a night off.” She held his hand, concerned. “What’s wrong with you? This is your party, Michael. Live a little.”

He tried to smile.

“Greetings, colleague.”

It had also become common to use the title colleague at formal occasions.

Michael looked up, expectantly.

The assurance agent smiled back. He was standing with two plain suited men. “Colleague. Wonderful party,” they muttered.

“Shall I make official introductions?” offered the assurance man.

Of course, Michael had forgotten. At the D-Day celebration, the host was supposed to introduce themselves to everyone in the room, and for the first time in public — use their full name.

“I am Mr Michael Klayton Keane. I am forty-three years old. Tomorrow, I will be forty-four.” He held out a hand to shake, but the men just nodded.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr Michael Klayton Keane,” they mumbled, with half an eye on Rachel.

The agent shifted the conversation to a subject that he was more comfortable with. “Gentlemen, might I ask how old you both are? When is your D-Day? Might I be of some assistance when the time comes?”

“Twenty-two,” answered one of the suits, “and thank you, my colleague, but I’m already fully covered.” The other suit just smiled.

“Well, if you change your mind, I can cut you a deal,” explained the agent as he handed over a crisp piece of card, on which was typed his name and contact details.

Michael excused himself.

Rachel forced a disappointed smile.

#

He found himself standing in the garage. Considered to be a non-habitable room, it wasn’t hooked up to the Oasis Smart-Home Assistant. It was also the only space that hadn’t been invaded by strangers. He finally had some privacy.

Tall metal shelves spanned the walls, crammed with plastic crates that held everything he’d ever decided meant something to him. These cheap, dusty rectangles contained the sum value of his life; old school reports, torn photographs, rusty trinkets and treasures of sentimental value, small keys to boxes that he no longer owned, memories of days that he no longer remembered.

He reached inside his pocket and dared to touch the clear plastic token between his fingertips. Checking over his shoulder, he took out the device and squeezed the casing, causing the holographic programme to activate. The light shone brightly against the grey garage wall.

“Activate VPN,” he said, under hushed tones.

“VPN activated,” came a voice from the token.

“Show me?” he instructed.

A light flickered as the programme ran a simulation. He watched the detailed proposal that was designed to free him from the fate that he had been prescribed. With a lump in his throat, he acknowledged the plan.

“Sign and accept,” he said.

#

“Where have you been?” cursed Rachel, disappointed that her husband had abandoned her during the most important party of his life. “Everyone’s leaving.”

“Daddy!” shouted Polly and Samantha as they ran up to grab him around the waist.

“Girls! Have you had the perfect day?”

“Perfect,” they replied, together.

The assurance agent tapped Michael on the shoulder. “Farewell, my colleague. Thank you for your kind hospitality. I will be seeing you in the morning.”

Michael watched him leave. “Come on, girls, upstairs with you. It’s time for one last story.”

#

Rachel had laid his black D-Day suit and a leather suitcase on the bed. It was packed with everything he needed for the following day’s events, according to the retirement leaflet. He was expected to leave early in the morning and to spend the day actively participating in the final moments of his life.

In the bathroom, he held a white towel and looked at the shower cubicle. The vacuum-sealed wastewater cabinet provided an award-winning, economically efficient hygiene system, and as the simulation had displayed, was also the perfect location for a domestic accident.

Michael allowed the cabinet door to close with an automated hiss. He stood in the cubicle and tried to come to terms with the fact that the counter-resistance were not offering him a change of fate. Instead, they had simply given him the freedom of choice.

The message had been very specific. The timing was crucial. They only had to access the automated system for a few seconds, but that was all the time they would need to replace the vent of lukewarm H2O splashing down through the pipes with a lethal dose of carbon monoxide from the fuel-burning appliances. A tragic operational failure of the Oasis Smart-Home Assistant would be blamed. As leaks of this kind occurred more frequently than the bio-home architects would care to admit, Michael Klayton Keane’s death would go largely unreported, and he would beat the scheduled event of his D-Day by almost twenty-four hours.

He pressed the activation setting and heard the pump hum above. Warm water began to pour down into the pressurised shower cabinet. Moments later, the system made a coughing sound and the water stopped. The holography programme had explained that he should inhale deeply. He sniffed the air and stuck out his tongue.

Nothing.

Michael felt instantly betrayed — then — he felt nauseous. His heart began to pound violently, throbbing in a womb-like swell as his body was denied oxygen.

He collapsed and gasped, allowing the sensation to overcome him, until, in an unconscious reflex he slammed his hand against the cabinet wall and thrust the cubicle door open to fall, naked and still alive, onto the bathroom floor.

His breathing was shallow and strained as he felt the air rush to his lungs.

Each intake stung his throat.

Climbing to his feet, he stumbled out of the bathroom, down the stairs, and burst through the front door onto the cold street. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew that he had to run.

#

Curtains flicked at windows as the community watched their neighbour tumble helplessly down the tarmac. The searchlights picked him up in seconds, tailing him closely, highlighting the desperate man for all to see.

There were ashamed mutterings.

“Disgraceful behaviour.”

“Calls himself a colleague?”

“It’s the fear of death. Makes ‘em lose all sense of common decency.”

A man was waiting in the middle of the road.

“Greetings, colleague. Going for one last run, are we?” asked the assurance agent.

Michael stopped. He looked back towards his bio-home and realised that he hadn’t come far at all.

Rachel was watching from the bedroom window. She pulled the curtain to prevent two curious children from seeing the pathetic man that their father had become.

The agent handed him a soft, white towel.

Michael wiped his face and coughed up blood. Red stains flecked the normalcy of the perfectly white fabric.

“Come, my colleague,” the agent said, “let’s get you back inside. You must rest. Tomorrow is your D-Day, and we have a perfect day planned.”