Henry awoke with a start. He rolled over and glanced bleary-eyed at the clock on his bedside table; it was still an hour before the alarm was set to go off. Through the partially closed blinds, he could see the night sky beginning to lose its daily battle with the morning, the inky blue/black giving way to the steely gray shades of dawn. It would be Henry's last dawn; today was the day that Henry was going to die.
It was this fact more than any other that motivated Henry to leave the comfort of his warm bed so long before the prescribed time. That, and his uncomfortably full bladder.
Henry flicked on the bathroom light, squinting at its sudden brightness, and proceeded to relieve himself; he sighed contently as he finished and flushed the toilet. It may well be the last pee he'd ever have and he was determined to enjoy it. As much as one could enjoy such things, anyhow. Once his bladder was blissfully empty, he staggered, still half asleep, to the sink to wash his hands, as his mother had always taught him. Funny, the things that stick with you no matter how old you get: never hit girls; righty-tighty, lefty-loosy; and wash your hands after using the toilet. He looked up into the face that stared back from the mirror. It was a deceptively old face. There was a time in history when someone who looked as old as he did was said to be on the downward slope of middle age. If they discovered you were older than you looked, you were said to be aging gracefully. By all outward appearances, Henry looked to be somewhere just north of sixty-years-old. In reality, today was Henry's two-hundred-and-thirteenth birthday. In times past, Henry would have been held as a marvel, an impossibility, or even something divine in origin. But in the world of today, people's life expectancy pushed the boundaries of conventional life spans.
The number of bicentennials like Henry ranged somewhere in the tens of millions. Small compared to humanity's population of seventeen-and-a-half billion, but then again, there just hadn't been enough time yet for more citizens to reach their second century. There was a whole generation less than two decades away from just that achievement. And old Henry wasn't even the oldest out there. Some old-timers still lived from Generation One, the first generation that managed to stave off death. The oldest confirmed human being in history was an Austrian man named Gregor Schmidt. He recently celebrated his three-hundred-and-fourth birthday.
One may wonder why, if people could measure their life spans in centuries instead of decades, Henry is going to die at the relatively early age of two-hundred-and-thirteen when he is the very picture of good health and could expect, barring unfortunate accidents, to live for potentially a great many more centuries. The answer is The Balance. In a world where natural death may take hundreds of years, the generations begin to pile up like the derailed cars of a train. Traditionally, one generation dies and makes way for the next. But in a world where death has been curbed indefinitely, certain safeguards have to be installed to regulate population growth.
By the late 21st century, mankind had begun to approach its population threshold. The regular sleeper ships ferrying citizens to the new Martian colonies helped to relieve some of the pressure for a time, as did the Lunar settlements. But the Earth was still becoming dangerously overcrowded. And then, in 2102, gene therapy was perfected in humans and people simply shed the terminal disease that was age. With most illness all but eradicated in the decades before, people just stopped dying and the planet was presented with a fresh problem. When age and disease are no longer an issue, population explodes. Once the fifteen billionth citizen was born, so too was The Balance, which stated that for every three births, two citizens over the age of one-hundred-and-twenty must die. Thus, a death rate is maintained and population growth is regulated at a more manageable pace.
Upon reaching the age of one-hundred-and-twenty, each citizen's name is entered automatically into a lottery. Every new pregnancy draws from this collection of names and chooses one at random. This is to ensure both parties have the opportunity to meet one another prior to the child's birth, which is also the day of the Balancing ceremony. The two families are forever bonded and often times go on to remain close for generations.
Nine months ago, Henry's number had been drawn by the pregnancy of Alison Stengel and her husband James. Henry had met with them many times and liked the young couple very much. They were sweet, just beginning their lives. Henry had no regrets. He'd lived a long life, sired two children, five grandchildren, and a great many more descendants all the way down to a seventh-generation grandson born earlier in the year. His wife had been subject to the Balancing some eighty years before, just five years after she turned the qualifying age of one-hundred-and-twenty. Henry missed her still, but if the religions of the world were to be believed, he'd soon be with her again. Today was the day Alison Stengel would give birth to her baby and Henry, in the next bed over, would breathe his last.
Henry dressed and took a slow tour of the apartment he'd lived in for the last seventy years. He'd lived alone all those decades but had never felt lonely. He was good friends with his neighbors and his family was only a short call away. His children, grandchildren, and even some of his great-grandchildren had been after him for years to move in with one of them. But he liked his privacy and his independence. Besides, he liked to remind them, even his youngest great-grandchild was over the one-hundred-and-twenty year mark. Any of them could be chosen for Balancing at any time. It would be easier for all parties if a modest distance was kept. Just last year, Freddie, one of his closest grandsons, had been Balanced. It had been very painful for Henry. He shuddered to think how much worse it would have struck him had they lived together for the last decades of Freddie's life.
He paused in the hallway outside his bedroom and ran his fingers tenderly over a large framed photograph of his late wife. It had been taken when he had surprised her with a lunar cruise for her one-hundredth birthday. How beautiful she was, her red hair as fiery and vibrant as the day they met all those long years ago. They were married for just shy of one-hundred years. Even in a time when death is all but cured, one-hundred years of marriage is a landmark. Increasing people's life spans hadn't correlated in longer marriages, simply an increase in the number of times one could marry in the span of their long life. Couples like Henry and Jessica (Jessie to her friends) were still celebrated.
"I'll be seeing you real soon, kiddo," he said softly with that smirk that she had always loved. She told anyone who would listen that it had been that smirk that had melted her heart when she'd first met Henry when she was a girl of twenty.
The hallway down which he strode was positively plastered with framed images, most depicting friends and family, but more than a few were of exotic locales from around the globe. Jessica had been bitten by the travel bug early in life and had taken Henry along for the ride. And what a ride it had been, from the ancient pyramids of Egypt to the crumbling castles of Ireland to the battlefields of the American Civil War. Nothing seemed outside of her interests. And he loved her all the more for it, even if his bank account didn't. So many good times were had in his two centuries of life. Henry had lived exactly the life he'd dreamed of, full of friends and family, laughter, and good times.
By the time he'd finished the final trek around his home of seven decades, the sun was already well on its rise into the early morning sky. He checked his watch; the Stengel baby was scheduled to be delivered in less than six hours. Henry's family would assemble here at his home in another hour or two, spending all the time they could with him before he was ushered into the Balancing room, which was restricted to spouses and children of the individual being Balanced and whomsoever was witnessing the corresponding birth.
The two events were held together for a number of reasons. Firstly, the person being Balanced often developed a strong emotional bond with not just the couple but with the unborn child for whom he or she was dying. It would be cruel to deny them the right to view the next generation brought into the world. It had also been determined that the joy of childbirth helps to ease the emotional pain of Balancing experienced by the family. The ceremony is really a celebration of life, the new and the old.
As Henry made himself the last breakfast he'd ever eat, he allowed himself, for the first time, to consider whether or not he actually wanted to die. He was prepared, resigned, but did he want it? Or more importantly, did he want to live? It wasn't a question anyone ever asked, at least not aloud. Everyone was just expected to accept the Balancing once they were called. It was just the way things were, and had been for generations.
He supposed on some basic level, nobody wanted to die; that was, after all, why so much time and effort went into stopping the process of dying for as long as possible. Did Henry want to die? No, he didn't. He was burdened with the same selfish impulses as everyone else; he wanted more time with his family and friends, he wanted to experience more of the world. Like so many before him, he wondered what marvels the future would bring. With such amazing technology that once found life only in science-fiction now a part of every day reality, Henry could scarcely conceive the miracles of tomorrow. And he really did want to see them. There was certainly a quantum of frustration, even anger. But such thoughts were brief, for Henry knew that the Balancing was important to the very fabric of society. If one person refused to accept it, then what would stop another from following suit? And if it caught on, the results would be disastrous. Immortality had a price, and that price was death.
So Henry drank his final cup of coffee and bit into his last piece of toast. He drove away all selfish thoughts with speculation of what the Stengel child would do with its guaranteed long life. Henry had grown quite close to the couple since he was chosen. They were smart, kind, and very much in love. It warmed his heart to know that his death would usher in a new life to such a wonderful family.
Henry was joined by his family as he was washing up his breakfast dishes; both sons and their wives, his grandchildren and their spouses, and even two of his great-granddaughters, both of whom were pushing one-hundred-and-forty. Their father had been Henry's grandson Freddie, who had undergone the Balancing the previous year.
The time spent with his family really helped to calm Henry's nerves. Though he was mentally prepared for his imminent death, knowing exactly when the end would come and watching the minutes tick off the clock had made him anxious. In many ways, he very much just wanted to get it over with.
Henry and his family spent his remaining time laughing and telling stories of years past, stories that had been told dozens of times but never seemed to get old. And as often happens when one is surrounded by the laughter and smiling faces of loved ones, the hours flew by with alarming swiftness. Before long, he received the call; Alison was expected to deliver within the hour. With a surprisingly high spirit for a man heading off to his own death, he bade a tear-filled good-bye to all but his sons, who would remain with him throughout the birth and Balancing.
The journey to the B&B center was bittersweet; he knew his sons would grieve him and his heart ached for them. What father wanted to cause his children pain? But he reminded them that death was the natural end for all things and that it was how you spent your life that mattered. He told them that he had led a good life; he had loved and been loved in return. He carried no regrets in his heart.
When they arrived at the center, Henry changed into his finest suit. He'd rarely ever had the occasion to wear one in his life and considered his Balancing to be one of those few times that warranted him looking his best. Henry was shown into the room in which the Balancing was to be carried out. Alison was nearing the end of her labor; she sat upright in a hospital bed and was surrounded by attendants and midwives who eased her through the painful process. Her husband James stood by her side, holding her hand and whispering soft encouragements into her ear. His face lit up when he saw Henry.
He shook Henry's hand, then Henry's sons'. The expression of pure joy on James' face melted away any anxiety Henry felt. This was a day of celebration, not of sadness. He offered the young man his sincerest congratulations and made his way to the made-up bed beside Alison's.
Arranged on a bedside table were framed photos of Henry's family, with a portrait of Jessica standing prominently in the forefront. Henry mounted the bed as his sons took their seats beside him and waited.
It wasn't long before word was sent to the Balancer that the child was only moments away. A young woman with kind eyes and a warm smile entered the room and walked directly up to Henry.
She introduced herself as Dr. Friedman and explained the Balancing process. Just after the baby was delivered, Henry would receive a small injection. He would have a minute at most before he drifted peacefully off to sleep, at which point he would be given another injection, which would stop his heart. Dr. Friedman asked if he had any questions and he said that he didn't. It was a simple procedure and he had witnessed it first-hand before. It was quiet, peaceful, and dignified.
Henry's heart began to race as Alison let out one final prolonged grunt of pain and, seconds later, a baby was crying. Alison and James both openly wept with joy and even old Henry found himself wiping back the odd tear or two.
James stepped over to Henry's bed just as Dr. Friedman administered the first injection. In the young man's arms was a tiny undulating bundle, crying its first cry of what would surely prove to be a long and happy life.
"Before you go," James said through the tears, "I want you to meet our son, James Henry Stengel."
As the fog of sleep washed over him, Henry smiled. It had been a good life. He closed his eyes, still smiling, and knew no more.