I'd like to thank Mulligan and Steve T for their assistance in turning this into a better story than my initial effort, any errors remaining are of course mine.
Benjamin Brittain parked his car on the drive and entered the semi-detached suburban house he'd worked so hard to keep up over the last five years. The three bedroom house had been his pride and joy when he'd finally taken possession and he'd tried diligently since to make into the perfect family home.
"Pam, I'm home," he called out as he pushed the front door closed behind him.
His bellowed greeting was met by an unusual silence. Unusual considering that even if his wife was out of the house for some reason their two children, William and Gail should both have been home from school by now and they could be relied upon to be making some sort of ruckus.
Benjamin dropped his briefcase beside the mahogany occasional table and tossed his car keys onto its surface as normal and called out again while he hung his crumpled jacket in its usual place on the coat rack next to the front door.
This call was a little louder than his first and may even have carried a hint of irritation.
Still getting no response Ben headed for the kitchen that was his wife's normal hangout at this time of day.
For some reason Ben couldn't understand he started to feel a sense of dread - nothing he could put his finger on - but in the thirty seconds he'd been home he'd begun to feel a sense of loss. Almost unsurprisingly he found that the kitchen was deserted. Looking around he saw nothing amiss but that empty feeling started to grow. Nothing had been amiss but there was no sign of occupation either, no food being prepared or groceries to be unpacked.
Ben left the kitchen and crossed the hallway, looking around for some indication as to the whereabouts of his wife. He entered the living room nervously casting about as though looking for the unexpected.
It too was devoid of human occupation but there was a large grey envelope propped up on the mantelpiece. It was sufficiently large that it would have been almost impossible to miss it when you entered the room.
Swallowing nervously Ben crossed to the mantelpiece and picked up the letter, noting that his own name was typed on the front as he did so. Ripping the envelope open his worst fears were confirmed in simple black on a stark white piece of paper.
It was a standard letter, almost 'the' standard letter if you like confirming that his beloved wife was gone from his life.
'Pamela Alison Brittain, nee Cathcart has agreed to accompany John Frederick Williamson, a volunteer for service in the Marine branch of the Confederacy Armed Forces to the colony of Brakat. Pamela Alison Brittain will be a concubine to the aforementioned volunteer and as such will be unable to communicate with her former relations without the approval of said volunteer.
The above volunteer has agreed to act as a sponsor to the said concubine's dependent minors, William Mark Brittain (male - 11) and Gail Pamela Brittain (female - 9). As such they will be taken to the colony of Brak in the Brakat system and said volunteer will provide for their well being and education until they reach their majority.
In accordance with relevant local, national and planetary laws, all former relationships between Pamela Alison Brittain and others are hereby formally terminated. To see if you are entitled to financial compensation or support, you are advised to seek the advice of your local Confederacy liaison officer.'
Ben stared at the paper before him and wanted to scream, his wife; his children; gone! Just like that, and he knew deep down that there would be nothing he could do about it. It was his turn to live the nightmare that so many men had been put through by the all-powerful Confederacy that was supposed to be here to help the human race!
The microwave meal was almost untouched before the despondent man; a half-empty beer can sat on the table alongside the cold meal getting warm. Ben pushed the insipid peas around the dinner plate and tried not to think about what had happened but it was proving to be impossible.
His wife had effectively run off with another man taking his beloved children with her and he'd had absolutely no say in the matter or any chance to get her back. His feelings were already tending towards violence, which for him was a strange, almost unheard of occurrence.
The letter confirming his fears was spread open just across the table, mocking him in its brevity.
A single sheet of paper cancelled out the previous thirty-four years of his life and informed him that he was 'free' to start again.
'Well, fuck 'em, ' thought Ben as he tossed his fork back onto the plate with a clatter.
Before his anger could take him any further there was a knock at his front door.
Ben glanced towards the door and then returned his attention to the table, intent on ignoring whoever it was.
The knock was repeated more firmly and again Ben ignored it. When it happened for the third time Ben stood up suddenly, his chair falling over behind him and he stormed towards the door.
Yanking the door open he yelled, "What!" without bothering to even look at who was stood there.
The woman in the dark blue police uniform took a step back and bumped into her collegue behind her. As he steadied her the man frowned at Ben and asked firmly, "Are you Mr. Benjamin Brittain?"
"What if I am," snarled Ben ignoring the fact that the two people stood before him were police officers.
The policeman's frown deepened, "I take it, Sir, from your attitude, that you're already aware that your wife has been sponsored to the colonies?"
Ben looked the man in the eye and growled, "Yes, I've received the letter, now what do you fucking want?" The use of profanity was so unlike Ben that it momentarily shocked him, but then the dark feelings of gloom washed his surprise away.
The policewoman had recovered from her initial shock and took a half-step forward. "Sir, we are here to explain what happens next."
"You mean there is a next?" asked Ben sarcastically.
"Let's step inside," said the man, "It'll be easier to explain this if we're all sitting down."
Ben glared at the pair for a moment and then turned away and walked back into his house. Not looking to see if they were following him he pushed the door to the living room open and slumped down on the nearest seat. After the two police officers had found a place to sit the woman began.
"I'm constable Heather Morgan and this is constable Steven Fowler. We, for our sins, are with the Confederacy liaison team for this area," she said by way of an introduction. "May I ask how you found out about your wife's extraction?"
"I found the 'letter' on my mantelpiece when I got home from work," said Ben.
Ben caught sight of the policeman identified as Steven throwing his eyes skywards and asked, "I take it that's not normal?"
"Normal isn't the right word," said Steven, "What's supposed to happen is that we," he indicated his partner, "are supposed to break the news and the official letter acts as a confirmation later."
"And?" prompted Ben.
"Recently the pick up teams have taken to transporting into the person's home and leaving the letter in a convenient spot." Steven scowled, "When you add in the delays that we are experiencing because of the numbers involved we are finding that the majority of people have got the news before we get there."
"Makes your life difficult, does it?" asked Ben, his voice still tinged with sarcasm.
"Yes," admitted Heather, rejoining the conversation. "As you've already found out it is hard for us to offer constructive advice when there is so little that can be done."
"Meaning?" said Ben.
"Well, for instance, if your wife was employed the Confederacy would give you a lump sum that is the equivalent of her annual salary before local taxes," explained Heather. "In addition all of her debts are automatically paid off. Things like credit cards are paid off, hire purchase agreements are completed and what have you."
"So they've bought the slave," said Ben, "lock, stock and barrel."
"It does seem that way to some people," agreed Steven, "but the Confederacy describes it as allowing life to continue with the minimum of disruption to those who remain behind."
"I take it the Confederacy is going to supply me with a maid and children to fill the space that's been left here?" asked Ben.
Heather looked at her shoes and Steven just stared at the angry man and shook his head negatively.
"I didn't think so," said Ben. "I take it there is nothing I can do to change things or get to see them?"
"You can't call them," said Steven, "If your former wife's sponsor allows it, she will be able to call you but that won't normally happen until they reach the colony they're going to."
"When's that likely to be?" asked Ben.
"At least a month," said Heather. "What you have to accept is that they are no longer yours. It is one of the hardest things to understand even though it is well known. If you had been divorced here on Earth, you would still retain some right of access to your children, with an extraction you have none. It's going to seem as though your wife and children had never existed."
"Just like that," said Ben, "and I have to 'accept' that the Confederacy is a good thing."
"Really, yes," said Steven, "anything else will destroy your life and, if you do anything really stupid, you'll end up dead."
"Dead!" gasped Ben wide-eyed.
"Dead," agreed Steven nodding. "The laws are such that any attack against the Confederacy, its people or facilities is considered a capital crime."
"So you're really just here to warn me off?" snarled Ben, his temper rising again.
Steven glanced at Heather before returning his attention to Ben, "Yes. It's not put that way in our training manuals or any of the public briefing but realistically it's what we're doing."
Ben looked from one officer to the other.
Heather spoke softly, "Your family is gone but your life has to go on, it's better in the long run if you let them go completely."
Ben looked from one to the other again and rose to his feet, "Well, thank you very much for your concern," he said from behind a forced smile. "I'll let you get on and give some other poor bastard the good news."
Without waiting for a response from the two police officers he turned and walked towards the front door. The two of them frowned but rose and followed the angry man to the door.
They turned as they left the building to bid Ben goodnight but he just slammed the door in their faces.
As the two of them slowly walked down the path towards the garden gate, Heather turned to Steven, "I hope he's not going to be another one," she said.
"I doubt it," replied her partner, "he's too angry at the moment to commit suicide and by the time he's calmed down he'll have got used to the idea that his family has gone. I just wish there was an easier way to break the news though."
Ben turned his head away from the television just long enough to glance in the direction of the front door but after a slight shake of the head, he returned his gaze to the screen. He had no real idea what the program he was watching was about and to be honest he didn't really care.
The knock was repeated twice more before Ben could be bothered to stir himself from the sofa. The man who rose to his feet looked totally different from the one who'd returned to an empty house only a week before. He was now dirty and unkempt, his hair hadn't seen shampoo or a comb for a week and a dark beard covered his face. His clothes if anything were in a worse state than he was and looked as though they'd been slept in, which they had.
Ben shuffled towards the front door as it was knocked yet again.
"All right," he muttered, "I'm coming.
"What?" he demanded without opening the door.
A female voice from the other side of the door demanded, "Open the door, Benjamin."
Ben closed his eyes in pain; the woman was Helen Cathcart and she'd been his mother-in-law, in some ways, she still was.
"Come on, Benjamin," she called, "It's cold out here."
Despondently, Ben released the safety chain and pulled the door open, hoping that he could keep her outside. As soon as the door started to move a hand pushed the door firmly and Helen swept past him, gracing the poor man with a grim smile as she did so.
The mature woman placed her handbag on the mahogany occasional table alongside Ben's car keys that hadn't moved for a week. Slowly she turned to face the younger man that she still considered her son-in-law. She looked him up and down and her nose wrinkled in displeasure.
Unbuttoning her coat she started in on him. "Go and have a shower and put on some clean clothes," she ordered, "I'll put the kettle on while you're doing that."
"Helen..." began Ben.
"No," said Helen firmly, "do as you're told and we'll talk when you come back down."
Ben didn't have it in him any more to fight; he felt his shoulders slump in defeat as he turned towards the stairs.
"Don't take too long," called Helen when he was halfway up the stairs, "or the tea will have stewed."
After his shower Ben had a quick shave and then pulled on a clean sweat suit and a pair of slippers. Coming downstairs some fifteen minutes after being sent for a shower Ben had to admit that he did feel better for it, though he wasn't looking forward to facing his mother-in-law.
Entering into the kitchen he froze; beguiled by the image Helen presented as she stretched to reach the new bag of sugar.
Helen, like her daughter was best described as short and soft, a little dumpy even, but ultimately the appearence of both invited you to give them a cuddle. They may not have had the figures of catwalk models but both of them had a beautiful face. Helen was perhaps a touch heavier than her daughter had been before her extraction, what Pam looked like now was anyone's guess. There was a definite hint of grey in Helen's flame red hair that had been absent in her daughter's but apart from that they could have been taken as sisters.
Helen had lost her husband before all the fuss about the Swarm had kicked off and had not been caught up in the ensuing circus. Whilst most of the women were doing their best to appear willing and alluring, Helen had stuck to her sensible business attire, her light grey suit comprised a short jacket and a knee length skirt. The lemon blouse was open at the neck but thick enough to preserve her modesty. On her feet she wore a heeled sandal, only two inches high but compared to the flip-flops that most women seemed to have adopted it clearly made her stand out. Whether this was a good thing or not only time would tell.
Stretching to retrieve the sugar had caused her skirt to tighten over her plump posterior and Ben found himself staring with interest at something for the first time in a week.
Turning with the sugar bag in hand Helen saw Ben and graced him with a full power smile, "That's an improvement," she said. "Now take a seat and I'll bring the tea over."
Ben shook his head slightly to clear it and crossed to the kitchen table and sat as he'd been ordered. There was a slight smile on his lips as he watched Helen fussing about the kitchen.
Helen topped off the sugar bowl before she carried the tray of tea things over to the table. Sliding the tray onto the table she stood there just long enough to release the single button that was holding her jacket closed before she sat down opposite Ben.
"Still taking two sugars?" she asked.
Ben shook his head, "No, just the one, I was trying to lose weight but..."
"No buts," said Helen dropping a single teaspoon of sugar into a teacup. "If you needed to lose weight last week you still need to lose weight now."
She poured two cups of tea and added a dash of milk to both of them before passing the cup with sugar across the table to Ben.
After taking a sip from her cup she hardened her look and asked Ben, "You do know it was for the best, don't you?"
Ben's shoulders slumped before he nodded in reply to Helen's question.
"It doesn't mean that your life is over, either!" said Helen crisply.
"It doesn't?" said Ben without a hint of enthusiasm.
"No it doesn't," stated Helen firmly. "Do you think you're the only man who's been treated like this?" She shook her head before continuing, "And what about the poor women who get involved in one of these extraction thingies and then get left behind, how do you think they feel?"
Ben shrugged, "Why should I care?"
"Maybe if you thought about them rather than wallowing in self pity, you'd find something worthwhile to do," said Helen.
"Like what?" asked Ben, "Throw my arms around them and tell them they're better off here than being a slave to some bastard who's just after their body?" Ben looked at his mother-in-law, "Even if it does get them away from the Swarm."
"I wouldn't go that far," responded Helen, "but the women I saw would have been glad to have been offered a cuddle by someone in the same boat as them."
"You saw that?" asked Ben incredulously.
Helen nodded her eyes wide as she stared at her son-in-law.
"Where?" asked Ben.
"I was out shopping with Phillipa and we'd stopped for a bite to eat," she explained softly. "Those Confederacy Marines staged one of their pick ups right there in the food court."
Helen got a far away look in her eye as she relived the moment. "It was like a comedy show and a horror film all rolled into one gigantic mess," she said. "I watched a young boy who could have only just reached his fourteenth birthday pick two women who were old enough to be his mother. All he wanted to do was hold them," Helen blinked away a couple of tears, "it was as though he wanted his mother to comfort him."
Helen glanced up and saw that she had Ben's undivided attention.
"Another man had five women lined up naked and was getting them to, you know, with their mouth," Helen shuddered as she described the scene. "When he'd finished he just pointed at two of them and said, 'the rest of you failed.' The three he'd rejected were left there, naked on their knees for all to see."
"Didn't you..." began Ben.
"No," snapped Helen sharply, "I don't see the point. I'm forty-eight years old and whilst I haven't gone through the menopause yet, I can't be far off it and I just can't see myself as a 'fuck bunny' for some soldier who's splitting his time amongst half-a-dozen women."
"You're good looking," responded Ben without thinking, "and most of the guys only get to take two women with them."
"So what," said Helen, "it's not what I want and as I found out, you're not forced to try."
"No?" queried Ben in surprise.
"Oh, no," said Helen displaying a tight smile. "As the nice man running the extraction pointed out, if you're not interested or too old please step back and give those who are interested some room to make their pitch."
"So Pam had to step forward?" asked Ben slowly.
"Yes," said Helen nodding to reinforce her answer.
"I wondered about that," said Ben, "I know they always say that it's volunteers only but I wasn't sure."
"That's how it was at the Mall," confirmed Helen, "and I'm pretty sure it was the same routine the Marines had always followed."
"You're sure?" asked Ben.
"It looked like it," said Helen. "The officer running the extraction seemed to be reciting a standard speech and looking at the Marines who were with him it looked like they'd heard it all before."
Ben looked down and after a moment picked up his teacup, time passed in silence as the two sipped their drinks and contemplated the recent past.
Helen was the first to break the silence, "Have you spoken to work since Pam left?"
"I left a voice mail message the night I found out," said Ben. "I'm not sure whether they got it." He shrugged, "they could have been one of the people who've tried to call since then but I've been ignoring the telephone."
"Maybe you should go back to work and see what's happening," said Helen, "after all, it's important work that you do."
"You think so?" asked Ben. "It may have been before the Confederacy turned up but I'm not so sure now."
"Come off it, Ben," said Helen, "you know that the defence of the country is important."
"Is it?" asked Ben, "with the Confederacy taking everyone away, is it still that important?"
"They say they're going to be able to take two hundred million people at the most," said Helen. "That means that there will still be roughly six billion people on this planet when the Swarm arrives, including you and me." She stared across the table at the younger man, "I'd say your job is still important."
Ben gave a small smile, "Saving you is important," he said softly.
"Why thank you, Sir," said Helen brightly, "now promise me that you'll at least try to go back to work."
"Good," said Helen, "and while you're there I'll come around and clean up this place."
Sweating lightly Ben climbed off the weight bench and looked around the well-lit gym, as he did so he felt a deep sense of satisfaction wash through him. He had joined the health club the week after Helen had pulled him out of his depression and after a couple of months he was feeling, and looking, better than he had done since he was eighteen.
Around him were people who were sweating hard as they attempted to revitalise bodies that had been abused and neglected for years. For the vast majority of people, the only way to escape the approaching swarm was to be picked by a volunteer during an extraction. Therefore looking good to the opposite sex, even if you were already married became essential to anyone who harboured the slightest hope that they would be picked. Along with the drastic changes to people's mode of dress had come a resurgence in gym memberships as old and young alike attempted to fulfil that need.
The Darjee medical stations may have been able to work what would once have been considered miracles, especially when combined with nano-technology but they were not readily available on Earth. That left people with only two options, stay as they were and hope, or start working their butts off to achieve the desired shape.
Ben often chuckled to himself as he watched a group of middle-aged mothers sweat their bodies as they desperately tried to get back into shape. It wasn't so much their efforts week-in week-out that amused him but the idea that their sponsor could change their appearance to whatever he wanted and all their efforts would come to nought if the volunteer wanted a dumpy little thing with huge tits.
Ben moved to the next piece of equipment in his routine and started to work hard on the cross trainer, as he did so a frown appeared on his brow. Helen had decided that she was moving in with him and he wasn't sure how he felt about that idea. He hadn't objected when she'd told him and in truth she'd been spending more time at his house than she had at her own. It seemed only sensible to make the move and so reduce their costs but Ben couldn't help worrying that there may have been an ulterior motive in her decision.
He couldn't think of one but it didn't stop him worrying about the matter.
"How do you make it look so easy?"
Ben looked around, "Excuse me?" he asked.
"How do you make it look so easy?" asked the woman sweating away on the machine next to him.
"Lots of hard work," Ben replied with a genuine grin. "And a determination to smile no matter how much it hurts," he added.
"Does that make it any easier?" asked the panting woman.
"Not easier," said Ben as his legs continued in their steady rhythm, "but it convinces everyone else who's looking," he raised his eyebrows at the woman, "that I'm doing fine."
"You convinced me," gasped the woman, "I just wish that you'd had a secret that you could have passed on to to make it easier for me."
"Sorry," responded Ben with a smile as he took the time to look the woman over. She had to be at least his age and at a guess at least fifteen kilos over-weight. Even with a sport-bra on her bust was bouncing all over the place and the skin-tight vest she had on over it did nothing to hide the roll of fat that gave her stomach a rounded appearance. The tight shorts did little to enhance her figure as they allowed the bottom of her ass cheeks to peek out for all to see.
She must have been on the cross trainer for a fair length of time as her brown hair was plastered to her head with sweat and there was a growing stain at the top of her tight shorts. She groaned as the machine beeped to indicate the end of her torture session. She slowed down and glanced back to Ben, "This really wouldn't be necessary if my CAP score had been high enough," she said.
"Don't I know it," agreed Ben though he wasn't doing the exercise to improve his chances of being taken along, it was just easier to conform to what other people thought were his reasons than to try explaining his own position.
"By the way," said the woman as she stepped down from the machine, "my name's Mary."
"I'm Ben," said Ben with a slight wave as he continued his exercise.
Mary sighed in what may have been disappointment as the conversation petered out; "I'll see you later."
"OK," said Ben as he flashed another brief smile at the woman. He watched as Mary turned and headed for the exit.
'Now what had that been all about?'
The first month back at work had been hard, initially because of all the sympathy he'd received. But later it had been the sense of despondency that seemed to permeate the entire company. It seemed that the futility that Ben felt about his work was commonplace and it was impacting on the performance of the workforce.
"All right, can I have your attention, please."
As the hubbub around him subsided Ben placed his coffee cup back on the cafeteria style table and turned his attention to the speaker.
Mike Mullwinney was the Chief Executive Officer of the defence firm that Ben worked for and had called all of the senior staff to this meeting. Unusually for Mullwinney he hadn't arranged for the meeting to be in some lavish hotel with all the bells and whistles but had decided on using the Executive Restaurant within the main building. Because of this decision things were a little cramped for all involved and Ben hoped that this meant that this was going to be a relatively short event.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," began the CEO, "the board has decided that for the good of the company we need to make several changes in our operation."
Not beating about the bush, Mullwinney continued, "This includes a major strategic change of direction for the organisation in that we intend to withdraw from the defence market over the next twelve months and move our business towards the needs of the Confederacy."
Ben like most of the people present sat in stunned silence as the CEO continued.
"To this end we are changing the status of various projects," he turned to the screen that had been erected for the presentation and a slide of an assault rifle appeared. "Work on the Simplified Assault Rifle will be suspended as no Government to date has shown any interest in the system."
Ben started to frown, the SAR wasn't his baby but it was a concept that he fully agreed with. Like the old Soviet AK47 the idea had been to develop a simple weapon that could be used by anyone and that was cheap to manufacture and just as easy to maintain. It was pitched to potential buyers as a means of arming their population for the coming war with the Swarm.
"In addition the development work on all versions of the TRIGAT will be curtailed as the board can see no market for this system in the coming years," continued Mullwinney into the silence.
The Trigat was the Third Generation Anti-Tank system the company had been developing that was supposed to replace the majority of anti-tank systems used by the infantry currently in service around the world. Things like the rocket propelled grenade and the Milan and Dragon missile systems. It featured a fire and forget missile and control system that was presently only available for vehicle-mounted systems
"It is hoped that we can persuade the powers that be to move development work on Glovepuppet off planet," said the CEO, "If this can be done, it means we will be moving key elements of the company to one of the colonies."
Ben sat there with his mouth hanging open like most of those around him. Glovepuppet was a control system that could be added to almost any weapons mount and allowed the operator to simply point at the target to engage it. It was considered by most of the engineers in the company as the plum project to be working on and had considerable long-term implications for the organisation as a whole.
And the CEO was looking to take it away!
Pandemonium broke out as people shouted questions; several stormed to their feet yelling in frustration and many more were stunned into silence. Ben sat there and after closing his mouth he started thinking how all of this was going to impact on him. All this did in the short term was generate a lot of questions and not much in the way of answers.
Some of the things that stuck out as far as he was concerned was the idea that the company could get the Confederacy to lift out an entire design team regardless of their CAP scores and the question of whether his own project, which hadn't been mentioned was safe?
As the noise continued Ben wondered if he should be supporting this move by the company or looking at it as a potential disaster?
As Mullwinney tried to regain control of the meeting Ben had a sudden, rather nasty thought, was the board just trying to save itself?
Sitting back Ben relaxed, nothing was going to be decided right here and now and until he knew how the Confederacy would react to the company's request there was no point in getting overly excited. If the Confederacy did accept the argument then it would be down to whether the company would try to get the rest of their projects moved.
At the back of his mind there was a small nagging voice that asked if he was prepared to abandon his home planet?
Rather than answer it Ben turned his attention to the people around him and bided his time.
A proper sit down Sunday dinner had become something of a treat for both Helen and Ben. It was an event that they each looked forward to all week.
Ben and the owner had arranged with a local restaurant to deliver a full meal, ready to serve to their home every week. He and Helen had got into the habit of dressing up for the meal as neither of them were required to work too hard to produce it.
The advantages of doing this at home rather than going to the actual restaurant were that it avoided the fuss of getting a taxi there and back and it also sheltered them from the strange looks they'd got the one time they did go out together. People considered them overdressed because they were covered up, something that just didn't seem to happen any more. The constant stares had put a dampner on the occasion and they'd been fortunate that the owner had offered them the alternative of home delivery.
This evening, Ben had decided that a suit was too formal and had picked a fitted short sleeve shirt that showed off his improved physique and a pair of comfortable slacks that, as Helen put it, allowed his buns to speak to her. Helen for her part was in a pale blue halter-neck dress that fell to mid-thigh and she'd matched that with a pair of pale blue pumps with only a moderate heel.
The restaurant had supplied a cream of tomato and basil soup that had been to die for and had set them up nicely for the rack of lamb with Greek style vegetables. Already they'd consumed the best part of a bottle of Château Neuf-du-Pape and were feeling pretty mellow.
Before collecting the dessert, which was described as sinful amaretto cheesecake, Helen put Ben on his guard, "You know," she said lightly, "this would be even more fun if there was another girl here."
Ben was still staring into the deep red of his wineglass when Helen placed the aromatic dessert in front of him.
"Helen..." began Ben.
"Eat your dessert, sweetness. We don't want to spoil the atmosphere yet," interrupted Helen as she tucked into her cheesecake.
Ben ate his dessert slowly but didn't get to taste it; he was too worried about what Helen had planned for him.
As he dropped his dessert fork onto the empty plate Helen rose and took the plates back to the kitchen. She returned and smiled at Ben as she took her seat. Ben raised his eyebrows in question and Helen sighed.
"Ben, you need to start dating again," she said bluntly.
"Why?" asked Ben.
"Because it's natural," said Helen, "and it would do you good."
"It would?" asked Ben.
"Yes, it would," declared Helen, pausing to take a sip of her wine. "Pam is gone," she continued, "and either she doesn't want to get in touch with you or her sponsor won't allow it and there is nothing you can do about it."
"I..." started Ben.
"No, Ben," interrupted Helen, "I know you've tried and the system has blocked you at every turn." She gave him a gentle smile, "I tried as well but I didn't expect to get anywhere so I wasn't as disappointed as you."
Ben allowed his shoulders to fall, "I can't do it Helen," he declared. "I know Pam's gone and our marriage is over but I still feel married." He looked up and tried to shift the emphasis of the discussion. "Anyway, how can you encourage me to replace your daughter?"
Helen chuckled, "because she's gone and you deserved more than her anyway." Helen held up her hand to stop Ben's reply. "Don't get me wrong, Pam was gorgeous but she didn't have two brain cells to rub together. Sooner or later that was going to start to be a problem between the two of you, just as it was between Bill and I."
Ben frowned, "I never knew you and..." he began.
"We did," responded Helen. "Bill was a big strong man who would do anything for you but he wasn't the brightest spark. He began to resent the lead I was taking in our lives and it led to some terrible arguments. If he hadn't been struck down by cancer, I'm convinced we would have separated."
It was Helen's turn to shrug, "Sooner or later Pam would have felt depressed at how stupid she felt around your friends and colleagues or you'd have given up making allowances for her. Once that started it would have only been a matter of time."
Ben lowered his eyes; deep down he realised the truth of what Helen was saying. If anything that sequence of events had already started as Pam had refused to go to the last two works functions and he'd retaliated by missing her friend's wedding reception. Silly but true.
He raised his eyes and was greeted by Helen's knowing smile.
"What you need now," said Helen, "is to find a friendly woman who will be happy with what she gets."
Ben looked shocked, was Helen suggesting he just picked up any old tramp?
"Don't look at me like that, Ben, the rules have changed," snapped Helen, wiping the look of shock off her son-in-law's face. "Contraception and disease control are almost one hundred percent thanks to the Darjee. Women are having sex in the hope that they can sleep their way onto a volunteers approved list. If the guy they're with isn't a volunteer then they're doing the dirty to improve their own repertoire. They are hoping that when the opportunity presents itself they will be so far ahead of the competition that they are 'saved' from a fate worse than death.
She sipped at her wine before continuing, "You need to get out there and help them achieve their goals."
"What makes you think I'm any good in bed?" asked Ben going for shock tactics of his own.
"Because Pam told me," replied Helen immediately from behind raised eyebrows.
Ben found he was blushing, which only made things worse. Helen laughed at him and then slapped her hand over her own mouth like a naughty schoolgirl.
"Oh, Ben, surely you knew that we talked?" she said.
Ben blinked, "I hadn't, uhmm, realised that you, errrr, went into that much detail," he replied.
He took a deep breath before he continued, "Anyway what has that got to do with it? I'm not ready for another relationship," he declared.
"It doesn't have to be a relationship," said Helen, "If anything it should be a series of casual flings."
Ben realised that his mouth was hanging open again and snapped it shut. "What do you mean?"
"Look Ben, I know you don't want another wife and I can't blame you for that," said Helen, "But it would be good for you to have a woman," she smiled calculatingly, "or two, around to relieve your frustrations."
Ben swallowed, "Are you volunteering?" he asked. Not really sure what he wanted the answer to be.
Helen looked sad, "No, Ben, for the same reason I'm not trying to get extracted and that has nothing to do with you."
The two of them paused for a moment, sipping their wine and going over what had been said. In the end it was Ben who broke the silence.
"So you think I should move a couple of women in here?" he asked.
"The more the merrier," responded Helen to his surprise. "If you find more than a couple we'll sell this house and mine and buy a bigger place."
Ben was stunned; "You want me to set up a harem?"
"That's a pretty good option," said Helen.
"You can't be serious?" responded Ben.
"Very," said Helen. "Look at the way things are going. Men are becoming isolated, most of them are unable to accept that they are stuck here until the swarm arrive and that their women are willing to do just about anything to get off this planet. Most of the women who do admit that are being thrown out on their ear and they aren't used to being single. The whole set-up is making for a lot of depressed men and women, just like you."
Helen took a deep breath and continued, "You could make a few of them happy whilst getting your oats, everyone wins."
"But what if they get picked up?"
"Then they are happy and you can move another woman in to replace the one who left," said Helen.
"Do you think that's ethical?" asked Ben.