Volume 23, Number 3

The Value of Husbands

Margaret Karmazin

Meizhing had been happy for two years. Now she curled into a ball and sobbed on her bed.

“You should have known better than to expect more,” said her grandmother Quilang. “Life just doesn’t go like that.”

“Besides,” said Meizhing’s sister Ruolan, who had slid up silently like a snake, “how did you expect to be selfish for so long? You want the end of humankind? Just so you can be cozy?”

For a moment Meizhing was silent, then shot up like a swamp demon and went for Ruolan’s throat. Quilang had to use all her strength to separate her granddaughters, whose eyes flared like those of wolves out for the kill.

“You’re just jealous as usual,” spit out Meizhing. A long scratch now bled down her arm while a bruise formed on Ruolan’s leg. “There is no reason a man cannot give semen to New Life Sperm Bank while living at home with his wife! What they are doing is inhumane!”

“Because the men would shirk their duties!” shouted Ruolan. “Yours especially! He was shirking even before the new program!”

“Stop it, you two,” said Quilang. She had just turned ninety-four, and while regularly treated with Divine Juvenation baths, she was growing more weary as each year passed. People said she could pass for sixty, though she often told them she felt a hundred and ten. “You are both right,” she said.

Meizhing shot her a sharp look, while Ruolan rolled her eyes.

“Ruolan is correct in that Jin was not always obedient to his duties. I remember three times the officers had to take him in. But Meizhing is also correct. If the government passed harsher laws against noncompliance and the police were more interested in holding up these laws instead of sleeping in their vehicles, there would be no reason that men could not stay home.”

Meizhing stared out her bedroom window at the mountains. Their covering of trees resembled a soft, green carpet, beckoning and mysterious. She was due at the university in half an hour, but had been intermittently hysterical since they’d come to haul Jin out a little after midnight.

She and her husband were sleeping as they always did, cuddled close. They’d been wearing only underwear, so that when the New Lifers burst into the room, not only was she terrified, but humiliated. Big bruiser females in their tight-necked uniforms, rippling arm muscles and bulging thighs—they wrestled Jin to the ground in seconds, then handcuffed and dragged him to the van as if he were a criminal who had slit someone’s throat!

Her stomach contracted painfully. “Jin!” she cried, before returning to an exhausted weeping. She was so tired, so tired.

She loved him desperately. He was not perfect. Jin tended to laziness and had lost two jobs, though soon found new ones. He was a specialist mechanic for nitrogenblast and manual cycles of all types, while she was assistant to the chairman of her department, Medical Research, at the university. Quite a difference in social status, but Jin possessed wonderful qualities. He was loving, he smelled delightful and enjoyed cuddling, a rare quality in a man. His mind was quick, and he loved hearing a joke or playing one on someone. He could invent entertaining stories and should have been a media writer. But his character was what she most admired—honest and present for her.

She squeezed her eyes shut in pain. Would she never see him again? If she didn’t, what would be her reason for living? She had no children, and though she had planned to eventually be inseminated with Jin’s sperm, they had not gotten around to it. After all, her work at the university was time-consuming and very important to the Cause, and she assumed that Jin’s sperm donations had brought children into the world elsewhere, hopefully some of them male.

“You’d better get to work,” snapped Ruolan. “It is not as if you are indispensable.”

Though longing to give a nasty retort, Meizhing refrained, embarrassed about what had happened earlier. The reasons for her sister being a nasty bitch were myriad. When Ruolan was four, she had lost three of her fingers in a gas explosion. She was stocky and unattractive; her teeth needed attention, giving her foul breath. In all of Ruolan’s thirty-four years, she had enjoyed the attentions of a male only once before he moved on to better prospects. And that was before the plague and its resulting horrors and restrictions. It must have been more than Ruolan could bear, to live with the obvious, though short-lived, happiness of Meizhing and Jin.

“You’re right,” Meizhing said quietly. She shoved her arms into her uniform jacket and bolted out the door. She would have preferred to stay home, cry her heart out and be pampered by her grandmother, but that could not happen with Ruolan around.

* * *

Her superior, Dr. Zhou, noticed Meizhing’s shell-shocked face and pulled her into her office. “Are you pregnant?”

This question was clearly asked with a mixture of fear and pleasure. The chances of Meizhing being naturally pregnant were nearly impossible, but should she be, everyone knew that she would stop working and be coddled for at least a year if the child were male. And Meizhing knew that Dr. Zhou did not want to lose her assistant. Yet what could be more wonderful these days than a woman naturally conceiving? Though rare, it did occur and would have made headlines in their district.

“I am not pregnant,” whispered Meizhing, her voice so low that Dr. Zhou had to lean close. “I only have one ovary and rarely ever menstruate.” Her face crumpled. She told her superior what had happened. “I don’t know if I can go on. I so wish we had not waited to have me inseminated.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Zhou. “At least now you would have that.” She paused. “Is there anything I can do? After all, our research will benefit New Life eventually. Could they not give us something in return?”

“Like what?” said Meizhing, suddenly still. “Do they even know what we are doing?”

“I send them regular reports,” said Dr. Zhou. “But they have never responded. Perhaps I might make a personal visit.”

“They are horrible. You cannot imagine. They would not even understand our work, they seem on so low an intellectual level. You should have seen the brutish manner in which they took Jin!”

After Dr. Zhou poured them cups of steaming tea, they sipped in silence, which had been their custom for the seven years Meizhing had worked there. Normally, this comfortable lull would have been spent thinking about their current project before bringing up issues needing attention.

“I had a lover once,” said Dr. Zhou. “More than a lover, he was the brother of my heart. We were together five years. He was one of the first to go.” Her small, sweetly pretty face remained serene. “Eventually, I had to seek solace with the monastery. My body wasted away; I was in danger of losing everything, but I recovered. As Master Wu said to me, ‘For a time you were allowed a meal of heaven. Be glad. Many never get to enjoy one bite.’”

Meizhing felt honored that her superior would share such an intimacy, but did not concur with the heavenly meal analogy. “It is humans who prevent life from being heaven much of the time,” she said. “They make artificial laws having nothing to do with nature; they create their own miseries!”

“Speaking of that,” said Dr. Zhou, “I am loath to admit it, but it has been a relief to exist without the constant wars and turmoil once created by males.”

Meizhing could not deny this, but her pain was too raw for her to agree. “I might suffer a war to have Jin come back,” she said softly.

“Will you be able to see him?” asked Dr. Zhou. “You are his wife, after all.”

“By law, yes. But you and I know that laws relating to reproduction are strangled in protocol. They will put me off for weeks, and all the while.…”

Neither woman finished that thought. They both knew what happened to men held in New Life compounds, kept as caged cattle, milked for sperm, their humanity taken from them bit by bit until they lost their minds.

Ironically, the plague had been caused by scientists like themselves, trying to aid humanity, not destroy it. Earth’s population had soared to eight billion and China’s alone had reached a point where people joked that if the Chinese walked eight abreast past any given point, the line would never end. The Earth had a limited supply of resources; something had to be done. And since China was one of the worse population offenders, its scientists had gone into overdrive searching for the solution.

“I think that there are no real answers for anything in this world,” mused Dr. Zhou, sipping her tea. “Remember when they first announced The Solution?”

Meizhing had been attending Peking University, majoring in biology and Chinese energy medicine when the announcement came through her media chip. But after all the hoopla, the attempt to lower sperm counts with an injection administered by government medical workers to every male between fifteen and sixty had morphed into a monster. The birth control rode on a designer virus deemed perfectly safe, yet within five months it would kill sixty-three percent of Chinese males and render another twenty-five percent sterile. From China the virus spread like wildfire, creating a similar situation worldwide. Survivors who could still reproduce had no guarantee that their male offspring would be damage-free. It appeared there was every chance Homo sapiens would be wiped out in only a few generations unless one resorted to cloning, which was being done in some areas. The wailing of women was heard round the world.

That evening, Meizhing’s home was tense. The three of them sat at the table, one light stick glowing.

“What will you do?” asked her grandmother.

Meizhing looked up sharply. “What can I do? There is nothing!”

“Are you going to try to spring him?” asked Ruolan, slowly chewing like a cow.

Her voice innocent, Meizhing said, “How would I possibly do that?”

Ruolan shrugged. “It’s been done. You know, those men who escaped near Lanzhou. Five of them, weren’t there?”

“But they were caught,” said Quilang. “And after that, who knows there they put them? Deep in one of those rumored underground laboratories? Maybe they lobotomized them. I have heard terrible things.”

“You mean the ones kept perpetually asleep while they are daily milked?”

Meizhing shuddered to imagine this happening to Jin.

“My point was that it is possible to escape,” said Ruolan as she shoved a chunk of pork into her mouth. “There is Grandfather’s mountain house.”

Meizhing regarded her sister carefully. What was she up to? She trusted Ruolan about as much as New Life itself. Their father’s father had left them his summer house in his will, but they had only gone there once and had not kept it repaired. Was Ruolan suggesting that Meizhing kidnap Jin and hide him there? Then what? Ruolan would report her sister to the authorities so she could watch her being dragged off?

“Nothing is worth a tragic end,” snapped Meizhing. But all the while, her mind was racing. No one spoke for the rest of the meal.

* * *

Dr. Zhou appeared agitated when Meizhing arrived at work the next morning. “I have made arrangements for the Dujiangyan New Life Director to visit us this afternoon. I believe it is important to truly impress upon her what we are doing. Possibly, she is unaware of our potential contribution.”

“I think,” said Meizhing bitterly, “that those people are too moronic to care. To them, men are simply animals to use for fertilization.” After she said this, she had to leave the room because she did not want Dr. Zhou to watch her sob.

The New Life Director arrived, accompanied by five associates, two of whom were brawny goons resembling those who had dragged Jin from the house. Meizhing had to prevent herself from recoiling at the sight of them. She did not want them to guess who she was, the wife of their recently captured Kuang Jin. Apparently Dr. Zhou, in her usual wisdom, had decided the same thing, for suddenly, the doctor introduced Meizhing as “one of my assistants, Ms. Li.”

The Director gave the slightest of nods in Meizhing’s direction and did not bother to introduce her own entourage. “If you don’t mind,” she said firmly, “may we get to what you wish to show us? I have a full schedule.”

Dr. Zhou nodded and led them through the main lab and into her own private one where she and Meizhing spent their days. She motioned for the group to gather around a curious-looking apparatus and asked for a volunteer. The Director waved one of her associates forward and Dr. Zhou instructed her to stand behind a glass screen. The associate looked nervous.

“No need to be fearful,” said Dr. Zhou as she waved her hand over the controls. The screen flashed on and some of the group gasped.

“You can see,” said Dr. Zhou, “the energy pathways which transverse the human body. For centuries, we Chinese have known these existed and worked with them in our medicine. The West at first doubted their existence. Some came to believe after seeing the results of using these pathways to affect pain and disease, though until now no one has been able to demonstrate their existence visually. Director, you are among the first to witness the actual flow of Qi.”

The Director, perhaps not as properly impressed as one would hope, said, “But how does this affect our Cause, Dr. Zhou?”

“’A spark can start a fire that burns the entire prairie,’” quoted the doctor. “An excellent adage. This can revolutionize medicine, Director. Above all, it can possibly aid humanity in resuming normal, or relatively normal, reproduction.”

Now the Director lost her contemptuous expression. “Exactly how, Doctor?”

“The energy body of the individual is affected by the physical environment in which the physical body lives. The antigen that caused the destruction of sperm production and affected the DNA of their offspring also, you can bet on it, affected the pathways of Qi. If we can study men behind our vertical screen or inside the 3-D scan, possibly we can see what these effects were and then, if we succeed, discover how to influence their condition by altering the flow of the Qi.”

The Director looked skeptical. “If that is so, why have traditional Chinese physicians been unable to reverse the damage? Thousands have tried.”

Meizhing flinched at the question. The Director certainly had a point.

“I do not know the answer,” said Dr. Zhou. “But the traditional Chinese doctors have never been able, unless paranormally gifted, to actually see the energy damage. It is possible that they were missing the correct pathways. Now we can discern exactly where they are.”

The goons stood about staring blankly while the Director’s two associates seemed excited. “What do you suggest we do?” said the Director.

“I suggest,” said Dr. Zhou quite firmly, “that you bring the men you have here, and we will see what we can do.”

The Director reared back. “You cannot bring the machines to us?”

“No,” said Dr. Zhou. “That is not possible at this time. They are large and complicated machines, and I will not risk moving them yet.”

Meizhing held her breath.

There ensued a short standoff. Finally one of the associates dared to speak. “Madame Director,” she said, “it would be prudent to take advantage of this offer. Our funding is in question, and if we can generate sperm production over that of the other New Life labs, we will not have to worry about our continuance.”

The Director shot her a look of gratitude before returning her face to its habitual forbidding expression. “All right,” she said. “We will bring over a few of our men.”

“Tomorrow then?” said Dr. Zhou.

The Director nodded. “Eight a.m. They will be heavily guarded. Anyone aiding any of them to escape will be shot.”

Dr. Zhou nodded impassively, though her eyes slid to Meizhing.

The Director and her entourage filed out.

Dr. Zhou ran her fingers through her short, thick hair, leaving it standing in spikes. “I do not know what I am doing,” she said. “Why do I seem to be aiding you in committing a dangerous crime? And even if you were to succeed, where would you take him? I don’t want to lose you. We work well together. I have not always been able to work well with others. You know how I am.”

Meizhing did not know what her mentor and friend meant, since she found her quite easygoing, but her mind was whirling. This would probably be her only chance. How would she manage it?

When the director mentioned shooting a kidnapper, she had undoubtedly been speaking of a stun laser. No one carried kill weapons now. But Meizhing’ grandmother, illegally and against all reason, had kept her dead husband’s antique pistol. She had kept bullets too—Meizhing and Ruolan had played with them when they were small. Shiny, pretty things, they’d thought, not understanding their real use. Meizhing knew where Quilang kept the gun.

“There is no guarantee that Jin will be one of the men they bring,” Meizhing said.

“No,” said Dr. Zhou, “but possibly they will bring their oldest and newest captives. If it were me, that is who I would bring.”

* * *

That night Ruolan came to her in her room. “I know that you do not trust me, but I have this idea. You see, if you could get Jin out and we hid him in Grandfather’s summer house, I would do everything to keep it secret under one condition.”

Meizhing sat up in her bed. “What condition?”

Ruolan flushed. “That he be my husband too.”

“What?” Meizhing could not believe her ears.

“You know other people do it. You know very well those two cousins in our mother’s village did it. ‘Uncle’ was husband to them both.”

“You’re crazy,” said Meizhing. “Auntie Chuntao was like a sister to Uncle. Where did you get such an idea?”

“I saw them in bed,” said Ruolan. “I know what I saw. Ask Grandmother if you do not believe me.”

So this was why Ruolan was being so “helpful.” Meizhing should have known. “Leave me alone!” she snapped. “Get out!”

Ruolan stopped before closing the door behind her. “You really do not have much choice, do you?” she said quietly.

* * *

Meizhing thrashed in her bed through the night. To add to the already well-stoked fire of her fury was this new outrage. Yet, without giving consent to Ruolan’s nightmare idea, Meizhing would have no other way to keep Jin hidden. Jin would most definitely not relish the idea of having to “service” Ruolan. He quite disliked her. Once he said that he found her incredibly stupid. But perhaps for his freedom.…

By morning, Meizhing had grimly decided it did not matter. If keeping Jin meant having to share him with her sister, so be it. Wearing an expression of maddened resolution, she slipped Quilang’s gun, loaded, into her pocket. The chances of her getting him out were extremely slim, but she wanted that gun just in case.

A quiet, watchful Dr. Zhou met Meizhing when she arrived at work. “The Director is on her way. They are bringing eight instead of seven.” She paused. “I want you to stay in the control room, again in case one of the goons recognizes you. If Jin is one of the men, you will be able to see him when he stands behind the screen, while the Director and her associates will not see you. If you keep your voice low, you can speak with him. If she somehow hears, you will simply say that you are repositioning him. We will do the vertical examination before the horizontal, if we even make it to that part of the procedure.”

“What if we find where the Qi blockages are?” asked Meizhing, who was now so anxious that her voice quivered.

“We will mark them and inform the Director that the traditional doctors must come here to consult with us and use the screen before applying acupuncture.”

“So, the men will be coming back then,” said Meizhing impatiently. “If I do not get his attention this time, there will be other chances?”

“That is the plan,” said Dr. Zhou. “But as the saying goes, ‘Man's schemes are inferior to those made by heaven.’” She paused for a moment, looking hard at her assistant. “Meizhing, remember now, I am giving you this opportunity just to speak to your husband, not to do anything rash. You must do nothing to hinder our program. What we are doing could be the very thing to save reproduction.”

Meizhing did not reply since at that moment she heard the approaching footsteps of a small crowd and scurried to the control room. She muttered to herself, “There is no real law against freeing my husband!” Her breathing was ragged and stars flashed in her vision, something that usually only occurred when she was enduring an especially bad migraine.

A flurry of scuffling and barked commands issued from the front door as the Director and her retinue brought in eight men in a line. They walked docilely, giving no indication of being forced. From the control room, Meizhing’s view was partially blocked and so she did not know for almost an hour that Jin was one of the captives, not until Dr. Zhou placed him behind the screen, shooting Meizhing a pointed look though the control room’s little window.

Meizhing’s heart pounded in her ears. Seeing the back of his head, she suffered a longing so intense that she thought she might lose consciousness, yet simultaneously a sense that he had become a stranger. She gathered her courage and whispered his name.

He turned and their eyes met. A world of meaning shot between them.

“My sweet husband!” she cried out in spite of herself.

A look of pain crossed his face, but he had no time to reply. The Director and her goons rushed to surround him, aiming their stuns at the control room window. Dr. Zhou appeared, wringing her hands.

“Meizhing, please!” she cried.

But Meizhing surprised them all, appearing as she suddenly did outside the control room, brandishing her gun.

They all sprang back. “What are you doing?” demanded the Director. “Where did you get that?”

“Stand back! I will kill you all!” cried Meizhing. “There are six of you, and I have six bullets in here! If I don’t kill you, I will wound you badly, and believe me, I will enjoy doing it!”

No one seemed to doubt her. Everyone backed away further except for Jin, whose expression was unreadable.

“There is no real law that says you can kidnap my husband and hold him prisoner! There is no court in the land that would uphold your crime!”

The Director used a different voice now, one that placated. “You are right, child, as of yet you are right. But consider … this is a time of great tribulation. This is not a time to think of one’s own pleasure and comfort. The end of the world is near unless we, your husband and you, do your part.”

“Leave me alone with him!” Meizhing shouted. She waved the gun crazily.

A white-faced Dr. Zhou motioned for everyone to file out. The Director reluctantly acquiesced, and Meizhing and Jin were alone.

“Laopo, my wife that I love,” began Jin, his eyes large and pleading. “Please lay the gun down, let me hold you.” He held out his arms.

“Jin, no time for endearments, we have to go! I know where to hide you, you’ll be safe. I’ll explain everything when we get there, Ruolan will help us, I—”

But Jin lowered his arms and remained still, his eyes on hers. “Put the gun down, my wife. You must understand, this is so much larger than either of us. ‘If a man does only what is required of him, he is a slave. If a man does more than is required of him, he is a free man.’ The fate of the world is in our hands, do you not see, my love? I would like nothing better than to be at home with you until we die. But times are more dangerous now than they have ever been. Our happiness is to do what we can to save the human race.”

Meizhing’s expression was one of disbelief, then horror. All that she had believed, all that she had imagined, was not true. It seemed that reality had cracked; for the moment she did not know who she was. And during that moment, she raised the gun and shakily turned it on herself.

* * *

The Director generously allowed Jin to visit his wife as she lay pale and silent in the hospital, accompanied, of course, by two of the goons, though by now she should have known such measures were unnecessary. No legal action was taken against Meizhing. She did not lose her job at the university.

Everyone felt it was punishment enough for her to learn that she had, against all odds, been pregnant. A miraculous conception, all agreed, perhaps a fertile male, lost to the world. Meizhing would have to live with that the rest of her life.