"I hate this", said Adam, to his empty dining room. It was late at night. He was alone. His only company at his table were several bottles of wine and his glass. He was just a drunk man, talking to himself out of the anguish of his latest break-up.
So it was with mild surprise that he heard someone reply, "hate enough to do something about it?" He looked up, and he would have sworn that the alcohol was making him hallucinate - except that drinking had never affected him that way before. What he saw across his table was a man - dressed in red tights with horns on his head and a pitchfork on his lap, twirling both his black mustache and his pointed tail. He looked like he'd just stepped out of a cartoon.
The alcohol might not have been causing a hallucination, but it did alter Adam's response. Rather than screaming or freaking out, he instead found himself replying, "what do you know, man? What do you know about how hateful women can be?"
"Oh, believe me, I do know. Let's say that... I'm not unfamiliar with the nature of women. Women and I go way back." said the other man, in a smarmy yet coarse and haughty voice. Adam went on with his drunken rant: "But Ashley, man, Ashley. How could she... She's not just any other women. She's stupid. And cruel. More than any other women. I hate her."
"Oh, you mean me?" There was a 'poof' across the table, and the man in red tights had transformed himself into a pretty young women. "Ashley!" shouted Adam, for it was her - with that arc in her nose and her hair framing her cheekbones. "Ashley! I love you! How could you - just dump me like that? And why on Valentine's day? What did I do? Why can't we stay together?"
'Ashley' opened her pink lips and spoke, but the voice that came out was the same smarmy, coarse, and haughty voice of the man in red. And it said, "Because, hon, you're just not good enough. You're kinda cute from some angles, but not really good looking, you know? And I regularly get hit on by other guys who have more money than you. They're always more interesting, too - you got boring pretty quickly. Basically, I just thought I could do much better."
Adam was momentarily stunned into silence. He didn't know whether he would next explode in anger or start crying his eyes out. But before anything else could happen, 'Ashley' transformed back into the man in red, and he said, "Oh come on, I did you a favor. Would you rather that I tell you again all the lies you've already heard? 'Oh, it's not you, it's me', 'Oh, I just don't think we'll work out', 'Oh, let's stay friends'? Bah. You needed to hear the truth, and that's what I just told you. I did you a favor!"
Adam's eyes narrowed, and his mind seemed to focus a bit through his drunken haze. He said:
"What do you want? You're not in the business of doing favors."
"Oh? What have you heard about me?"
"Nothing good. That you tempt people to destroy their souls."
"Oh please. You can't believe everything you hear. Is it really so hard to believe that I've come to help you?" As the man said this, he grow white wings and a halo appeared over his head, and his clothing became white. But upon closer inspection, the halo was clearly held up by some metal wires extending up from his back, and the wings were poorly fitted props that was cramped awkwardly between the chair and the man's back. The man, now in white, looked like he was at a masquerade party in a cheap angel's costume.
"Look, I really did come here to do you a favor - to offer you a gift!" continued the man, in his smarmy, coarse, and haughty voice, twirling his mustache the whole time. "How would you like to have any woman you want?"
"What's the catch?"
"Come on now. You're hurting my feelings! There is no catch."
"You're lying. I bet it's something like all the women will go completely crazy fighting over me, so that my life is ruined because of the madness and the drama. Right?"
"No, not at all. Not all women will go after you - just the ones that you show affection to. And they'll only be in love with you "normally" - there's no diabolical super-powered obsession involved."
"Oh? Then is this some scheme to trap me or corrupt me through sex? Where I can have any women that I want so that I get completely addicted to perpetual sex with supermodels and somehow ruin myself?"
"Not at all. I mean, you can choose to use your gift in that way, and I won't stop you. To be honest, perpetual sex with supermodels is pretty nice. But the gift will also let you settle down with a nice family, if that's what you want. The choice is yours."
"'Nice family'? You probably mean that my kids will be your spawn and they'll grow up to be mass murderers who begin their killing spree by stabbing me. That's your idea of a 'nice family', isn't it?"
"Please. Any wife or kids you choose to have will be perfectly normal. I mean, they might be crazy, but that's not any more likely than for anyone else. There's nothing in my gift that will specifically turn them that way. You want your nice, suburban house and your white picket fence and a devoted, loving wife to grow old with in material comfort? My gift allows for that. It will even let you have up to two kids and a dog and a well-manicured lawn if you want. Nothing in my gift prevents any of that."
"What if my ex-girlfriends go crazy because they're still in love with me? Are you going to make them go insane with jealously and become ax-murdering lunatics who come after me?"
"Again, no. The exes you acquire through this gift are no more likely to go crazy than anyone else's ex-girlfriends. Look, do you know who I am? Do you honest think that if I wanted to screw you, I'd have to trick you in some way? I'm offering you this gift, because I really want you to have it. Because I really want to see you embrace it wholeheartedly, for your own enjoyment and benefit. Is that really so hard to believe?"
"Yes. Why are you being so - generous? Why offer me this gift at all?"
"I already explained why. I earnestly want to see you accept the gift and use it. And why shouldn't I be generous? I am powerful: I can give what gifts I please, if only to just demonstrate that I can. In fact, I think I'll do that right now: in addition to giving this gift to you, I'll pass on your exact same gift to any children you might have. They'll be marked by the gift from birth, and when they reach the age that you are now, I'll activate for them the ability to have any sexual partner they want. How's that for generous?"
"Seriously? There's no catch? The women I show affection towards won't suddenly become monstrously ugly? This "mark" on my future kids isn't some hideous birthmark, and it won't make them turn evil? I won't become impotent or change sexual orientation as soon as I get in bed with these women? My natural life span won't be shortened as a result of this gift?"
"No, no, no, and no. I've told you exactly what my gift will do. There are no such unexpected, additional side effects you need to fear."
"You're still hiding something. There's some fine print you're not telling me."
"No, I've told you everything, in perfectly clear language. We've gone over all of the abilities, powers, restrictions, limitations, and conditions on your gift. The only thing you have to do, is to say that you accept. Do you?"
The question hung in the air. Adam wasn't sure whether he had become more sober or more confused since this conversation began. He thought about his answer for a bit - but it was late, and he was tired, drunk, and emotionally unstable. He thought he might not remember anything the next morning.
As it turned out, he ended up remembering quite a bit - he remembered saying "I accept". He remembered much of the details of the deal. But he could not remember what it had been that was nagging at the back of his mind about those details. And so, he never came to understand the nature or the magnitude of his mistake.
"So it's all true? I can get any man I want now?" Asked Tina. She had recently been flirting with a guy, but not really expecting it to lead anywhere. So she was surprised when he suddenly seemed very earnest about his love for her, and absolutely shocked when her father told her that it was due to her new superpower.
"Well, it's been true enough for me. Since the stranger's visit, women just kept falling for me. I mean... I've always... you know. And now that you've also gotten this gift, it sounds like the part about it passing on to my kids is also true. So I guess your little sister will probably get it too in a few years?"
Tina hesitated a moment before her next question. "Is this... is it why you left mom?"
"Tina, you know that things were rocky between me and your mother long before the divorce."
"Yes, but is this why?"
Her father was silent for a long time. They were both remembering the past. Tina had heard whispered rumors of her father's infidelity, but they never seemed to amount to anything. None of the other women seemed to want to speak up about what had happened - as if they still had a stake in pleasing her father. And Tina's mother had always seemed to want to defend her father a little too much - she was completely smitten with him, and couldn't oppose him even in the face of infidelity. Tina thought it was pathetic. She had long ago told herself that she wasn't going to be like that. She wasn't going to waste her time or energy on defending or remembering anyone who left her.
"Look, Tina, this... gift, or curse, or whatever you called it, has many effects. But really, it's not so bad. You shouldn't think about how it affected things in the past between your mother and I. Hey, you really can get any man you want now! How could that be a bad thing? Remember how the last time you called me was when Billy broke off the engagement with you? We never have to go through anything like that again. Think of the future!"
Oh, yes. Tina was never going to go through anything like that again. She wasn't going to be pathetic like her mother. She wasn't going to ever tolerate any man like her father. She wasn't going to worry about her biological clock, or needing to feel wanted, or not getting married - ever again. She was going to find her perfect man and have a perfect family with him, with a perfect boy and a perfect girl. She was now going to be in complete control of her relationships. She was going to put her gift to good use.
Donny had been born under a lucky star. His father was rich and powerful, if a bit henpecked. He had his doting mother's full affection and attention. And he had always been popular with the ladies. In fact, good fortune in love seemed to run in his mother's side of the family. He had some cousins with some unbelievable stories to tell, who where far better with women than even "the Don" himself. That "good fortune in love" seemed outright ridiculous at times.
To be perfectly blunt, he actually sometimes wondered how a woman like his mother managed to hook a man like his father. It didn't make any sense, given his understanding of sexual relationships. But now, after being told about the gift, he understood why - his entire mother's side of the family really did have some unreal aid. And at last, that gift was finally active in him.
Well, it's not like he needed any extra help with women - but it certainly didn't hurt. He could compete with his cousins on an even footing now. He was going to live out all his wildest fantasies. He was never going to settle down or be satisfied. He was going to take all the women who caught his slightest fancy.
He didn't want any children - they were unfortunate side effects to his main goal in life as far as he was concerned, and he took some care to avoid them. But he did end up having two kids, through sheer low-probability accidents over many trials. Not that he would ever pay attention to them, of course - he died alone, never having wanted or understood fatherhood.
People had called Kat "confused" before. She supposed it was a fair description. After all, there was that "experimental" phase when she tried on various sexual identities. She had been married for a short time - then divorced. She had a kid, not from that marriage, but now she was wondering what the hell she was thinking at the time. She certainly felt confused.
So it came to be that when the stranger's gift finally kicked in for her, she achieved clarity at last. She could get anyone she wanted! She could have whatever family she wanted! It was all up to her!
She eventually settled on a somewhat "wild" and "unstable" guy in the end. He felt perfect for her - quite frisky and adventurous, willing to try anything. She didn't feel as confused anymore - and she certainly felt happier than before. She lived out her days doing everything she wanted, and if that ever turned out to be a bit too crazy, she always had a kid she could go back to, someone to whom she could play 'mother'. And she lived out her days that way - yo-yoing between "crazy" and "stable", between "sexually liberated" and "devoted mother".
People generally thought of Janus as a level-headed guy - rational, thoughtful, not given to erratic emotional impulses. Sure, some members of his extended family were a bit off the wall, but Janus himself was well known to be calm, if a bit cold. So it came as a complete surprise to everyone when he went on his killing spree not long after being told of the gift.
In Janus's family, informing their grown children of the gift had become a tradition to look forward to, almost like a rite of passage. His parents had told him clearly of their gift from the stranger, and how it will allow him and his descendants to have any mate they wanted. They told him all the details of how the gift operated and what he could expect. So there should have been no surprises for Janus when his gift activated. And yet, not long afterwards, Janus went on talking about the "work of the devil", the "end of the world", and the "original curse that afflicts us". He then murdered 16 people, starting with his younger brother, at a family reunion. Soon thereafter, he was killed by the police when they intercepted him in transit to his distant cousin's home with an arsenal of weapons.
The tragedy rocked the remaining members of Janus's extended family - they had lost so many of their kin. But still, they would carry on. There were plenty of survivors. And Adam's descendants, together with the stranger's gift, would endure for as long as the human race continued to exist.
She remembered how she had fantasized about the man of her dreams. How, in her youth before the gift kicked in, dating had been so incredibly difficult. How hard it had been to not settle for Joe, when she knew that in a few more years she'd be able to get any guy she wanted.
But after the gift, the only difficulty lay in finding the right man, with the knowledge that this would be the one - the one that had no chance of escaping her. She agonized for a long time between various CEO's and high-ranking politicians. She wanted a high-caliber man, but didn't want her family life to be too public. And in the end, when she finally selected her catch, she was sure that she had made the right choice.
And time bore out that choice. She was happily married. She was now in the twilight years of her life, and she had the perfect extended family - two capable children, who themselves were happily married to give her four promising grandchildren. She could even expect great-grandchildren soon. The gift had indeed been good to her and her family, and would continue to be good to her descendants.
Khan enjoyed watching his family grow. He had two children, and four grandchildren, and though he might not be around to see it, he'd surely have eight great-grandchildren and sixteen great-great-grandchildren. His entire extended family seemed to be doing equally well. And really, wasn't this the best that life has to offer? To see your children prosper and multiply? His descendants would be unstoppable. They had the gift. They would continue to prosper and multiply, until they filled the whole earth. It was an inevitability of exponential growth: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 ... on and on, until eventually everyone on earth would be descended from him. It sent shivers down his spine to think of it.
Of course, there would be the rare few among his descendants that, for whatever reason, won't have their full allotment of two children. But that could hardly stop the overall trend. He did also wish that the gift would allow for more than two children, because his family would then grow faster. But he wasn't complaining. In due time, in either case, his descendants would inherit the whole earth - maybe even the whole universe.
Elizabeth was worried about her country. As the ruler, there were hundreds of thing that demanded her attention, but the latest hot-button issue was immigration. And it was giving Elizabeth nightly headaches.
Elizabeth's country was the envy of the world in a lot of ways. Yes, it lagged behind some other countries in scientific and economic development - but not by very much. However, in every measure of happiness and stability, it was miles ahead of the rest of humanity.
It was all thanks to the gift. A large majority of people in the country now had it, including Elizabeth
herself - although she was not aware of it. And once enough people in the population had it, the gifted could now often marry one another. And marriages from such pairs were ideal marriages. Both partner's gift would affect the other, so that they both loved each other. Such marriages were incredibly stable. They had virtually zero divorce rates, and made for a picture-perfect family - with happy, content parents, and their two children being raised in that loving environment. For many of them who were not aware of the gift, they simply thought they were a very lucky couple.
The country was therefore known as the country of families. And yes, that did perhaps limit the kind of national achievements that required 100 hour workweeks from some people. But the stability of the citizenry as a whole compensated for that in a myriad of other ways.
But because of that stable native population, with two parents nearly always having two kids, the proportion of the population growth that came from immigration was increasing rapidly. And many people wanted entry: the country was stable, happy, and prosperous, and therefore a popular destination for immigrants. Furthermore, many citizens would travel outside the country, find a marriage partner, and hook them with the gift and bring them back. And people were becoming xenophobic from all this immigration.
Elizabeth sighed. She supposed, on the whole, that things were not so bad. I mean, if the country was doing so well that people were worried about too many immigrants wanting to come in, that was a good problem to have, right?
Thomas wrote out the terms of the gift:
1. From the moment of the gift's activation, any sexual partner you choose will fall in love with you when you display affection towards them.
2. The gift will allow you to have up to two children.
3. The gift will not do anything else. It has no other supernatural effect. It will not drive people crazy with love or lust, it will not make anyone homicidal maniacs, it will not unnaturally "corrupt" you, or shorten your lifespan, or do or prevent anything of that sort.
4. Any children you have will also be born with the gift.
Those were the terms of the gift, as they were first given Adam, all those many years ago. And they were easily verified through the stories of many of Thomas's ancestors, as well as the undeniable demographic trends throughout history.
Thomas looked at the list of terms, and the graphs showing the demographic trends, and the map showing the dispersion of Adam's descendants throughout the whole of humanity. The terrible conclusion was inevitable. It had been, ever since that first day, the day of Adam's fateful decision. Everything was perfectly clear. Thomas did not want to speak his thoughts out loud. But in the end, the weight of despair upon him finally forced the words from him, in a sinking sigh:
"Humanity is doomed."
The vast majority of the human population had the gift now. They were, for the most part, happy with their lot in life. There was the issue, however, that two humans with the gift could only produce two children. Coupled with the fact that some pairs were bound to produce less than two children for whatever reason, there was a real problem with population decline.
Some extremist had in fact gone quite far in tackling this problem. They had taken to calling the gift "the curse", and advocated for total separation of the afflicted population from "the pure", the ever-diminishing fraction of humanity that still lacked the "curse". They wanted strict regulations on who can have sex with whom, with the purpose of keeping the still "pure" people away from the "accursed" ones. The really extreme "pure" ones even occasionally employed deadly force in order to keep their sons or daughters from "falling into the hands of the accursed". All of this could be very difficult, given that many people did not even know whether they had the gift - some were not yet old enough to have it be active, and some people assumed that they were just lucky in their perfectly happy marriage with two kids.
Of course, there was a counter-movement to all this as well. With the slogan "love conquers", they argued for allowing everyone the freedom to love whomever they wanted. They argued for governments staying out of people's bedrooms. They argued for not killing young people who were acting in love. And really, who could argue against that?
Rose herself was the product of two parents from the opposite sides of this debate. Her mother had the gift. Her father did not, and was initially opposed to the idea of intermingling with someone like his eventual wife. But he could not resist that very gift which he was trying to contain.
Rose herself somewhat bought into the position that her father had once held. She could see why population decline would be a problem. But that problem seemed far away and abstract, while her crush Carl - with his broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes - was in the here and now, and as real as the flesh and blood that beat and pumped in her chest. What good were all the arguments of the talking heads in the face of love? What did it matter that he and his lineage did not yet have the gift? After all, who could be against love? Would it not win in the end?
And so the remorseless course of history would continue, working itself through one more person.
By the time Hugh was born, nobody called the stranger's gift "the gift" anymore - since everyone had it. The last person without it had died some time ago. It was now simply a feature of the human condition. People generally found themselves locked into monogamous pairings which were virtually unbreakable, but there were also some polyamorous groupings where a group of people were all under the effects of one another's gift.
Hugh was in the latter group - the sex was good and he was happy. He didn't want any children, nor did anyone else in his group. That would disrupt their sex and happiness. He knew that there were people in high places that worried about the fate of humanity, but that was hardly his concern - the sex was good and he was happy. What more could he want?
As he lay in bed in a tangle with other bodies, he briefly looked out the window and stared into the night sky. He had wanted to be an astronaut when he was a boy - but nobody nowadays talked much about interplanetary travels or anything like that. Humanity was in decline. It had lost hope.
But what did that matter to Hugh? The sex was good and he was happy. So he and his group would continue on with their lives, choosing to enjoy their life unencumbered by things like the "humanity's future" or "having children".
Something like this would happen occasionally, where someone would not have their full allotment of two children. With the general malaise afflicting humanity, many people simply chose the childless lifestyle. Others had medical problems with conceiving. Some died in accidents before having children.
And every time this happened - every time a pair did not produce their full allotment of two children - the total potential human population would be permanently, irreversibly decreased. Two people, who would eventually die, were replaced by less than two people. Thus the human population would bleed away, one or two people at a time - inevitably, irresistibly, inexorably towards zero. Towards extinction.
Like many others, Hugh knew all this. But he didn't care. The sex was good and he was happy. He turned over in his bed, groping for one body part or another.
Mara was an elder in her tribe, which was one of the larger tribes remaining in the world. It was her responsibility to pass on the history of that doom onto the next generation. Although it seemed pointless to her, this was the way that it was done for many, many years. So she gathered up the children and told them this story:
"...so it came to be that everyone was accursed. But back then, people thought we could somehow escape our doom. There were a great many more of us humans, and we were quite skilled in our sciences - and that fueled our false hope."
"There were many attempts to get around the curse. Before everyone was afflicted, some had tried to escape by moving away from the Earth altogether, by flying far into the sky and colonizing other planets. But the curse went with them, in unwitting people who did not know that they were its carriers. Eventually, everyone was accursed, and it did not matter where they were."
"There were advances in midwifery technologies, but none of them could get around the curse. Nothing changed the fact that we could only have "up to two kids". We also tried to clone people - that's when they used science to make a copy of someone else - so as to circumvent that limit. But the curse counted the clone as a twin of the original person - that is, as a child of that original person's parents. So cloning would succeed only once if performed on someone who was an only child, but always fail otherwise. So it was useless as a way of increase the population."
"Others tried to have non-biological "children" through AI programs - that's when they used to use science to make a fake machine-person. But the curse extend there as well. These ancient peoples wanted a "true AI", a machine worthy to be called a "child" of those scientist. But they didn't know that the curse would count that one machine as one offspring for everyone involved in its creation. And these were monumental projects: they involved thousands of people. And absolutely none of them could have already had two children. Otherwise the project would fail because the resulting machine-person would then be a third child. Not realizing this caused many failures, for a very long time, to the point where many thought the task impossible."
"They eventually succeeded by only using childless scientists on the project - but it was not worth it. Can you imagine, thousands of people losing one of their two allotment for children, all so that they can produce just one fake machine-person? Yes, the machine-person was slightly smarter and more durable than an average person, and it had the potential to be improved upon. But it could not replace all the potential children it had consumed, the promising children of these very smart scientists. And they could not make more of these machine-persons without consuming even more potential children. So these projects were abandoned; they could not save us from our doom."
"We also tried to increase our lifespans, so that the increase in life from longer lifespans might outpace the decrease in life from failure to reproduce. But this was a forlorn hope. For this to work, we needed to extend our lifespans indefinitely forever, which is impossible."
"We tried many other things - but nothing worked. We are still cursed. As the repeated failures built up, humanity lost hope. The population dropped precipitously, and our past greatness and abilities have disappeared along with the people."
"And that, children, is how we - humanity - find ourselves here after these long years, diminished in number and power. We cannot hope to escape the curse, but we can defy it. That is why we are going to live on and resist our fate as long as we can. That is why you must know of our past history, and why you must all have your full allotment of two children. That is the only thing remaining for our species before extinction."
At this point, a messenger ran up to Mara and interrupted her story. "Elder Mara", he said, "I bring an important message from the hills clan."
"What is it?"
"Four of their people have been killed in a hunting accident, including their chief's wife. They are now too small to sustain their own population. Their chief now only has his near of kin as potential breeding mates; all their other women are locked to other men by the curse. But he still has one more potential child to produce, and he does not want to waste that potential. Therefore he formally requests for a full merger of his clan into our tribe."
"Yes, such breeding inefficiencies are the last thing humanity can afford. Notify the other elders and call for a council tonight. We must discuss this merger."
Mara then dismissed the children and the messenger, and prepared for the council. They must accept this merger: that was obvious. It was their best chance at leaving their full allotment of children.
But even as she went over the details, the thought came unbidden back to her mind: 'why bother? It's all pointless. It'll all end the same anyway'. But she shook it off. They were going to resist extinction for as long as possible. That was the only thing of any meaning left to be done. That was the way it had been done for many, many years now. It had to be done this way, until the bitter end.
There remains little to tell.
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