Short story

The Vote

The two old friends were making their way along the darkened lane, strolling in companionable silence… until one turned to the other.

“So, who are you gonna vote for, Mike?”

“I don’t know, Dave, I don’t want to vote for anyone, really; I don’t think anyone deserves it this time.”

“Hmmm, I know what you mean. It would be a lot easier if we had someone like Southman; he was an obvious choice.”

“Yeah,” he laughed, “nearly everyone voted for Southman last time, he made it easy. But there’s no-one sticks out like that this time. I think I’ll abstain, to be honest.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I can, it’s allowed.”

“Yeah, it’s allowed, but if you don’t vote… well, it could be chaos. I mean, if lots of people don’t vote… then who knows who’ll get elected, it could be anyone, someone who really doesn’t deserve it, just because they happen to get a handful of votes.”

“But who does deserve it, Dave? I can’t think of anyone.”

“Alright, well… why don’t we start with who doesn’t deserve it.”

“Well, no-one too young, they don’t deserve it.”

“What about Harper?”

“He was the exception that proves the rule. Mostly, though, they shouldn’t be too young.”

“They can’t be very young, you can’t be a candidate ‘til you’re fifty.”

“Yeah, but even that’s too young.”

“That’s what the rules say, you can get elected once you’re fifty.”

“It’s still too young, even in the oldtime that was young.”

“Alright, so what would you say, what minimum age would you set?”

“Christ, I don’t know, Dave. The whole thing’s fucked up, we weren’t supposed to live like this.”

“But it’s been the system a long time, Mike. And it works, everyone’s happy… most of the time.”

“Yeah, most of the time, but when we have to vote, all the knives come out, everyone’s at each other’s throats, telling you who to vote for, telling you their candidate deserves it the most. I’m sick of it, Dave, sometimes I wish we were still living in the oldtime.”

“The oldtime! Are you crazy? No-one wants to go back to that. This way’s much better. Come on, who are you going to vote for?”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“Well, you’d better make your mind up soon, we’re nearly there. I, er… I hear Jane Ferguson’s the favourite this time.”

“Jane Ferguson! There must be someone better than her, surely?”

“Maybe,” Dave shrugged, “but the council seem to think she’s a good choice.”

“But why; she’s never done anything to deserve it?”

“They say she’s been encouraging young couples to start a family, bringing lots of newcomers into the village, and you know what that means.”

“I don’t care, I’m not voting for Jane Ferguson, whatever the council says.”

“It might be the safest way. I mean, the more votes she gets…”

“What are you trying to imply?”

“Well… you did upset Muriel when you didn’t ask her to speak at the bicentennial celebration.”

“Christ, Dave, that was nearly thirty years ago, how long can she hold a grudge?”

“A long time, Mike… a very long time.”

“Hmmm, maybe I should vote for Muriel.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“It’s allowed, everyone over fifty is a candidate.”

“Yes, but it’ll get back to her, she’ll know.”

“It’s a secret ballot.”

“Is it, Mike, is it really?”

“It’s supposed to be, that’s what we’ve always been told.”

“Do you believe everything you’re told?”

“I don’t care, I’m voting for Muriel.”

“It’s your funeral,” Dave shrugged.


The friends reached their destination, a dimly lit hall. Entering, they went straight to the registration desk.

“Name?” asked the clerk.

“David James Grant.”

The clerk handed Dave a numbered ballot paper, then turned to Mike, “Name?”

“Come on, Lenny, you know my name.”

“You have to formally state your name, Mike, it’s in the rules.”

Sighing, he hissed, “Michael Iain Sanders.”

“Thank you,” the clerk nodded. As he passed across the ballot paper, he whispered, “Good luck, Mike.”

“What? Have you heard something?”

“No, er… er, not really. Just, er… well, good luck, that’s all.”

“What are you saying, Lenny, am I…”

“Come on, pay no attention to that old fool,” Dave pulled him away, “it’s almost time, we’d better cast our votes before it’s too late.”

They walked across to the little wooden booths at the far end of the hall. “You’re not really gonna vote for Muriel are you, Mike?”

“Yes, I am, she deserves it as much as anyone.”

“Maybe, but she won’t get elected. Have you never heard of tactical voting? Why don’t you vote for Jane Ferguson, she’s the sensible choice… especially for you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Please, Mike, just vote for Jane Ferguson.”

“I’ll vote for who the fuck I want, you can’t stop me.”

“I know,” sighed Dave, “but God knows I tried.”


The following night, they returned to the village hall to hear the results. Attendance was compulsory for everyone over fifty, optional for the youngsters, though many of them liked to come too: after all, they had nothing to lose.

The annual event was a fixture in the calendar and, for most, a celebration of the newtime way of life they’d come to embrace so fervently. But, for the top candidates, it represented a gauntlet to be run, a night filled with stress and tension, and, for one of them, it would be nothing short of catastrophe.

The stewards checked everyone was present, where obliged, then locked the doors. Lenny took the stage to open the formal proceedings, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to results night for the 229th annual vote for Tadholm Village Ward in the district of North Britannia, South-East. Our honoured senior elder, the venerable Muriel Standish, will announce the results shortly, but first, as stipulated by regulations, I am required to recite the sacred preface.”

“Do we really have to listen to this shit every year,” whispered Mike, “we all know it off by heart.”

“Shush, it’s regulations,” hissed Dave, as Lenny began to recite from the book in his hands.

“In the oldtime, people were born, they lived, and they died, according to the random and unpredictable forces of nature: without thought, without control, without order… and chaos ensued, engulfing the world in its shadow. Then came a new dawn, the first revolution; death was conquered, we were blessed with the promise of everlasting life. But, in the bright fire of that new dawn came the curse of unbridled procreation, an overcrowded world of suffering and misery, and death returned to punish us once more. Then came the great experiment, the fallow time, when none died, but none were born. The great stagnation followed, we lost our way, wallowing in a never-changing world without purpose, without goal… until the second revolution, the beginning of the newtime, when at last we found harmony. One in, one out.”

“One in, one out,” everyone in the hall repeated in unison.

“Thank you, Lenny,” Muriel smiled, as she stepped onto the stage. Turning to face the assembled villagers, she raised her hands, “So, here we are again, sisters and brothers, praise be to the wisdom of the protocol. One in, one out.”

“One in, one out,” everyone chanted together

“Last month, our village was blessed with the arrival of a baby girl, born to Meera Khurana and Peter MacDonald. They have named her in the new way, Spirit of the Hills; long may she live.”

“Long may she live,” repeated the audience.

“To make way for Spirit of the Hills, the newtime protocol requires us to make a sacrifice, someone must leave us. Unlike in the oldtime, we do not rely on the random forces of fate to make an imperfect choice, flawed and unwise, often unwanted. Instead, in the newtime, we choose for ourselves, fairly, democratically: we vote. One in, one out.”

“One in, one out,” the crowd responded.

“Thank you, sisters and brothers, for doing your duty by casting your votes… those of you who have… however,” she paused, glowering at the crowd before her, “I am sorry to say we have a record number of abstentions this year, almost a hundred. We all feel the burden of making this choice, sisters and brothers, but leaving it to others to decide is shirking your responsibility; it is nothing short of cowardice. So, while it is allowed, let me be very clear… it is not encouraged.”

She held the crowd in a stern glare as the uncomfortable silence stretched out longer than most of them could bear. When, at last, she spoke again, her frown deepened yet further, “In addition to the record, shamefully high, number of cowardly abstentions, there have also been a record number of different candidates receiving votes. Someone…” she paused again, her withering gaze roaming the hall, seeking a target, “… even voted for me.”

Mike stared at the floor, avoiding eye contact with the elder. Perhaps Dave had been right, perhaps she did know he’d voted for her. A shiver ran up his spine, it was a frightening thought; she was a powerful woman, her word was law in this village, crossing her was not a good idea.

“However,” she continued, “despite these regrettable shortcomings, I am, in traditional fashion, able to announce the top five candidates, in reverse order, as follows…”

She paused once more, staring down at the paper clutched in her hands. A chill fell across the assembled villagers as they waited to hear her pronounce the results.

“In fifth place, Stag in the Sunset, twelve votes.

“In fourth place, Baxter, William Albert, fourteen votes.

“Third place goes to MacDonald, James Robert, eighteen votes… and now, sisters and brothers, we have an extraordinary, rare situation; seen only once before in 229 years… a tie for first place.”

The crowd gave a collective gasp then fell silent, leaving behind an atmosphere so tense with anticipation, you could cut it with a knife. All eyes were on the senior elder, everyone waiting for her to speak.

“In joint first place, with twenty votes each, Ferguson, Jane Margaret Anne, and…” she looked up, and somehow, Mike knew, with a cold dread, what she was going to say, even before she said it… “Sanders, Michael Iain.”

“What happens now?” hissed someone.

“Er, I dunno,” replied another, “I never seen this before.”

“Maybe we have to vote again?” said a third voice.

“Or, perhaps…” a fourth began.

“Silence,” Muriel raised her arms, glaring at the crowd, “I will tell you what happens now. The senior elder has the casting vote, that’s what happens. And, as senior elder…” she stared at Mike, gazing straight into his eyes, and gave him a smile as cold as the deepest snows of winter, “… I vote for Michael Iain Sanders.”

Before he could move, strong hands had gripped him by the arms, stifling all thoughts of flight before they could even take root in his whirling, frightened mind.

“Take him to the destructor,” shouted Muriel.

“No, wait, no… please, er… er, I demand a recount,” he shouted in desperation.

“Demand? You are not entitled to make demands, Sanders,” she gazed down at him, hands on hips, that terrifying, icy cold smile still on her lips.

“Er, request then; I request a recount.”

“That’s better, you are entitled to make requests.”


“Request denied,” she laughed, “stewards, put him in the destructor.”

“No, please, it doesn’t work right, we all know that. It’s supposed to be painless, but we all heard the way Southman screamed last year; Harper, as well, the year before… something’s wrong with it.”

“I don’t care, Sanders, and neither does anyone else, they’re all just relieved it isn’t them, all happy to watch you fry.”

“No, please… Dave, please tell her,” he stared at his friend, begging in desperation. But Dave just gazed at the floor, “I told you to vote for Jane Ferguson, Mike, why didn’t you listen to me?”

The stewards bundled him into the destructor and slammed the door shut. He stared out through the transparent front of the execution module as it began to hum, warming up in readiness to obliterate him in the white heat of its all-consuming fire. The tears were streaming down his face; it wasn’t fair, he was only 167, there were much older people in the village, Muriel was over…

“Ready on your command,” the senior steward turned to the elder.

“Any last words?” she looked at Mike.

“Go to hell, you bitch.”

She smiled, “You know, sometimes this is more than just a duty, sometimes it’s a pleasure. Prepare to face eternity, Sanders. Three… two…”

“Stop!” a voice shouted from the back of the hall.

Mike looked up to see a young man running towards the stage. As he drew closer, stepped into the light, Mike recognised him, evidently so did Muriel.

“Peter MacDonald, why do you interrupt these sacred proceedings; and how did you get in, anyway?”

“The locks are to keep people inside, my lady, they do not prevent a person entering.”

“Hmm, we may need to install new locks then. But why are you here?”

“It’s Spirit of the Hills, my lady, I have terrible news to impart, news that grieves me to my very core, but which is of great import to these proceedings.”

“What is this news, MacDonald?”

“She has passed from this life, my lady, a birth defect of some kind, there was nothing could be done.”

“Well, you have my sympathy, MacDonald; and I give you leave to apply to the council for permission to bring another child into the village. But I see no reason why this sad news should have any influence on our sacred task tonight. There has been a birth, a death must follow: one in, one out.”

“One in, one out,” the crowd repeated.

“No, wait, there’s been a death,” shouted Mike.

“Yeah,” Dave agreed, “we got one out already, we don’t need another one, we’re done for this year.”

“One in, one out,” Muriel insisted, raising her voice above the growing, discordant hum among the crowd. Some of the audience repeated the chant, but it was hesitant, uncertain, swallowed up by the ever-strengthening cacophony, as many of them questioned what was happening.

“People of Tadholm, the answer is clear,” a strong, female voice rang out. Everyone fell silent; all eyes turned to look at the source as she spoke again, “It’s in the protocol, chapter one hundred and five, verse nine: none in, none out.”

“Thank you, Jane,” Muriel smiled at her, “but I think you’ll find…”

“None in, none out,” shouted Dave.

“None in, none out,” echoed a few others.

“None in, none out,” more joined in, their voices growing more confident.

“None in, none out,” it turned into a chant, getting steadily louder by the second.

“Alright, alright,” Muriel raised her hands and the crowd slowly quietened down. “Release the condemned,” she gestured at Mike, “we have our death, we have one out as required by the protocol.”

The stewards opened the execution module and Mike stepped out.

“Enjoy your extra time, Sanders,” Muriel snarled, “but you should know it’s only a brief reprieve. We’ll meet back here, same time next year, you won’t escape again.”

“Really?” he smiled up at her, “I’m not so sure. A lot can change in a year. Like, maybe some of us might think Jane Ferguson would make a better senior elder. And I for one know who I’m voting for next time, Muriel: one in, one out.”

The sound was deafening as everyone in the hall repeated in unison, “One in, one out.”