Ethics
rating: +65+x

The man in the bush is sleeping in the fetal position, shivering. A light snow, the first of the year, swirls on the wind. The man's blanket is pitifully thin, and there's only a square of cardboard between him and the frozen ground. Johnson doesn’t have to wake him up. He can feel the man’s wariness, like an animal’s.

“Hi,” Johnson says, casually. “Pretty cold out here, isn’t it? I work for the shelter. Can I take you somewhere you can sleep inside?”

It takes the man almost a minute to sit up. He’s shaking violently. Might not have survived the night had Johnson not come along. He finally pulls himself, coughing, into an upright position. Hugs his knees.

“Do you smoke?” Johnson crouches next to the makeshift bed. The man shakes his head, still coughing.

“Good, good for you. That’s good. Well, how about it? Can we go inside?” The guy nods, once, and struggles to his feet. It’s hard to guess his age through his shaggy beard. He definitely looks under 35, though, which is important. 21 is the ideal age; fully developed physically, with minimal extra wear to control for. Americans 40 and older are always a total crapshoot, in terms of fitness. You take what you can get, in any case, but younger is better. Finding better candidates means doing a better job. Doing a better job means everything.

The van’s about two blocks away. Five others are waiting inside, enjoying the special heaters that work when it’s turned off, so they can’t steal it. The van has numerous anti-vandalism measures like that discreetly worked into its interior. You never know what these people will try to do.

“My name is Ben,” the man says, though Johnson didn’t ask.

Six in one night is a pretty good haul, even for Johnson. Three of them look to be in decent health, including a female. She’s younger than he’d have preferred, but you work with what you’ve got. It’s hard to find females outside the medical system, and they’re always in demand.

“What kind of music does everybody like?” Johnson asks cheerfully as the van pulls away from the curb.

Would you harm one person to save two others from harm?


It’s raining. Johnson always thought it was just something people said, about always raining in Washington, but that’s what the weather’s like every time he comes.

The guards at the prison eye him up and whisper to each other as he passes by. He recognizes a couple of them; he’s been to this prison before. He’s sure the guards hear things, just like him. A secret known by a dozen people just isn’t a secret anymore.

“You again,” the warden says. “I knew it was something when they called me out of bed.” Security knows to wait in the hall, but Johnson can picture them outside, ears cocked, straining to be in the loop.

“I’ve got the forms ready, sir." Johnson reaches into his briefcase. “All I need is your signature, and we’ll be ready to start loading them up.”

“I’ve heard. I can’t believe you have enough helicopters to lift all these men. Where’d you say the crash was?”

“Northwest, by the border." Johnson's answer doesn’t matter; the warden isn’t expecting the truth. “It broke up in midair. We have a large area to cover for survivors. Time is important.”

“Of course." He signs, Johnson hands back the acknowledgment of transfer, and three hundred fates are sealed. “I knew it. Had to be something. This is a huge order, even for you guys.”

The way he puts emphasis on “you guys” makes Johnson look up, makes him really check the man out. The warden’s face is smug, like Johnson’s reaction told him something he wanted to know. He wonders just how much the warden’s in on. Everybody hears things. The warden might know more than Johnson does himself.

He’s never met this one before, only seen his name on files here and there. They wouldn’t normally go to him, but the maximum security pen they normally use just had a shift in management. His employers haven’t had time to establish connections over there yet, and they need subjects right now. They really are going to a forest in Washington, and it’s really to grid search, but they’re not looking for plane crash survivors.

Highly aggressive selenium-based organisms have been coming from somewhere inside. Approximately every three hours, another wave pours from out of the treeline, each exponentially bigger than the last. This morning they were coming 8 at a time. In another ten hours or so, at the current rate, there will be an attack by more of these animals than there are humans on Earth.

Johnson has no idea what his bosses will do when they find the source of the infestation. He's not afraid; they can do anything, once they know where to direct their effort. But first, someone needs to find out where that is. There’s no time to conduct a search with commando teams or set up robots. They need sheer numbers to get the job done in time.

Would you murder 300 citizens to save the country?

“They’ll all be given commendations, and transferred to preferred-treatment facilities for the rest of their sentences,” Johnson lies, “so you won’t be seeing any of them back here again.”

The two men look at each other. Neither one moves to shake hands.

“Well, you’ll find compensation for your time in the mail in about two weeks. You can’t know what a difference you’ve made here.”

That part, at least, is true.


He hates psychiatric hospitals. It’s not the atmosphere, and of course they’re not enough to creep him out; he just never knows what he’s getting recruitment-wise. Prisoners are one thing. They aren’t as dangerous as one would think, and they're usually in good condition aside from drug histories and the odd chronic injury, but most importantly they're predictable. Candidates from the mental health system, on the other hand, could be irrationally defiant. That's bad for timetables.

“I hope the new home works out for her,” the administrating nurse chirps. Johnson was given a list of names that—according to their data mining—might fit the requirements for an urgent research assignment. One of them is on suicide watch in this hospital.

“Yes, well." Johnson snaps open his briefcase. “We have a great volunteer with a soft spot for orphans. When she heard that, um, Michelle had no family to go back to—well, how is she supposed to rejoin society without one?”

“I agree. I totally agree,” the administrator beams. She hands him a thick folder, marked with post-its where he needs to sign. “I’m so glad you could take her. She's been in and out for years. We’ve been trying to find a group home placement for her, but it’s been tough.”

“That’s what we do. Help with tough situations.”

They just contained a statue that women with a particular blood type see in their dreams, once they’ve been near it. When they have the dreams, they wake up pregnant with monsters. They tracked the carving to an empty fishing village in northern Russia, after the dreams started coming to women in the next town. His bosses need to find out why the area of effect is increasing, or in a few more months there won’t be a society for the woman to rejoin. Not woman. Participant. D-249-9907.

“It’s just nice that there are people out there who can help.” the administrator takes the papers back and puts them in her desk. They’ll be stolen and incinerated by the end of the night. The participant will be exposed to the statue, but he’s heard that they’re actually studying whether the anomalous embryo can be surgically removed before it tears its own way out. They have to do this to make an emergency plan, in case the area of effect keeps increasing. Or in case another one turns up in the middle of a city. If the surgery works, and the participant survives, they’ll use drugs to wipe her memory so they can use her for something else.

“I’m glad you’re out there doing it,” she says. “You should be proud.”

Would you commit a rape to prevent an indefinite number of murders?


If a person walks in front of a bus, and you can divert the bus’ path, but doing so has an 80% chance of killing everyone on board, what do you do?

When Johnson got promoted to his security job, they gave him a test where he had to sit in a dark room and answer hundreds of these questions. They did it more than once, sometimes waking him in the middle of the night, dragging him back to the harsh spotlight and uncomfortable stool.

At first, he tried to give them answers they wanted to hear, but the hundreds of questions became thousands of questions, timed, variations repeating endlessly. It was impossible to fake, partly because it was so disorienting and partly because he couldn’t tell how they wanted him to answer in the first place.

During the second week of the evaluation, he realized that he not only didn’t know what he was supposed to tell them; he didn’t know what he really thought. He lost his point of reference, his moral compass disassembled altogether. The answers came easier after that.

Would you allow two men to die to save one woman?

Would you bury 15 children alive to prevent 300 adults being burned at the stake?

By the end of the fourth week, he knew things about himself he never would have discovered on his own. He came out of the interview process stripped of his optimism and with a new respect for the horror simple numbers can hold. He didn’t know what to expect, or what the whole thing was for. He thought they might fire him. Or worse.

For the last interview, they asked him to come in the morning at an ordinary time. There were no clipboards, no lab coats, just a gray-haired woman in a business suit.

She said, “What would you do to save the world?”

Johnson said, “Anything.”

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License