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The Toll

by Edd Vick

Here sit Judith and Clay Adams in a private room at Gobi Starport. There is no public waiting area; only children fly to the stars. The Trei, Earth's benefactors, say a certain flexibility they can not or will not explain is necessary for infraspace travel.

The Trei have visited Earth eight times now, at five year intervals. They bring riches. Efficient orbiting power generators, pollutivores, matter assemblers, all bring the Earth back from the brink of destruction.

Judith paces while Clay sits staring out the window at the cuboid spaceship. "He'll be fine," she mutters. "Healthy and wealthy and wise." Then she flings herself into the chair next to his and buries her face in her hands. "He's only nine! Couldn't they wait until he's a little older?" This scene, with variations, is playing out in twenty other waiting rooms.

One month ago the Trei transmitted a list of twenty-one names of children from Sicily and South Africa, from China and from Chile, from the US and the UK and the UAE. Each is an only child, each has two parents, each lived a life of doting privilege.

Each family is about to be destroyed.

The Trei have made their promises. The children will live for a thousand years, in absolute health, and will be surrounded by the wonders of the galaxy. But none will ever visit the Earth again.

Clay and Judith have not come to terms with their loss. Put simply, they grieve. He holds her and she holds him, both of them crying now and both trying to be stoic for the sake of their son who they will soon see for the last time.

And here it is, the time. A polite tap on the door, and there's Grace Bakunov, the facilitator. "He's on his way now," she says. A sober expression on her face, she adds, "Remember, excess emotion will just confuse him. He'll still know who you are, of course, but the Fidelity Chip has already been implanted and he's been imprinted on his Trei Master."

Standing, they await the approach of them son. Soon comes the measured tread of the Trei and the eager patter of young feet.

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