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Empathy test

This is so short and so delightful I’m reprinting it in full. If you wrote this and object to my reprint, please let me know. It’s been getting around a lot.


Empathy Test
By George R. Shirer

The assessor is attractive in a button-down kind of way. Blonde hair, pink jumpsuit, digital makeup set to minimal. Her face is a sculpt, something from one of the mid-level catalogues. Attractive, but not too attractive. The same face you see on a thousand other people. Only her eyes, brown and liquid, are original.

“You failed your empathy test, Mr. Clawford.”

Her tone is carefully modulated. No condemnation there, none at all. Just carefully presented curiosity.

“I know.”

“You haven’t been taking your dose.”

It isn’t a question. I shrug.



The assessor leans forward. Her pink uni-suit tightens slightly, emphasizing the shape of her breasts. It’s a cheap trick, meant to distract one, make your interviewer more susceptible to the subharmonic pulses they use in these interview rooms, to make one more compliant.

“Compassion fatigue,” I say.

The assessor arches her brows. “Honestly?”

“Honestly. I’m tired of being chemically forced to care for my fellow man.”

“Are you experiencing nausea? Fatigue? Some people develop a sensitivity to the pills over time.”

“No, nothing like that. I just decided not to take my dose.”

Her carefully modulated expression becomes one of concern.

“You are aware that refusing to take your dose is illegal?”

“It’s a class two offense. I know.”

“Will you take your dose now?”


“Why not?”

“I sort of like feeling like a bastard. Does that make me a bad person?”

“It makes you . . . atypical,” says the assessor. She shifts in the chair. “This is the second time you’ve failed an empathy test, Mr. Clawford.”

“I know.”

“There are three options at this stage,” says the assessor. “You can take your dose and agree to daily monitoring for the next three months.”

“No. I won’t take the dose any more.”

She nods. “Fine. The second option is isolation. You’d be placed under house arrest and not allowed to leave your residence until you resume taking your dose.”

I shake my head. “No, I don’t think so. I think, miss, I’ll go for option three.”

She frowns. “Exile to the Cold Isles?”


“You are aware that if you choose exile, Mr. Clawford, it’s a one way trip?”

“I know.”

“And that is what you want to do? To go and live among the callous and the unfeeling?”



“Because I’d rather be an authentic bastard than a fake nice guy.”

Her grin surprises me. She stands and her suit tightens, turns matt black.

“Good answer. Come with me. We can be in Christchurch within the hour.”

I’m confused. “We?”

She laughs. “What? You didn’t think the fuzzies would trust one of their own to do these assessments, did you?”

“You’re one of the cold?”

“No, Mr. Clawford.” She gives me a look that I’ll get from lots of people over the next few weeks, part condescension, part genuine sympathy. “I’m one of the free.”


Tip o’ hat to EN.


  1. @agorajoe
    @agorajoe January 19, 2014 5:40 pm

    Great short read, I’d love to read more fiction set in this world.

  2. jed
    jed January 19, 2014 6:00 pm

    Compassion fatigue –now there’s an apt concept. These days, you can get hourly updates on all the suffering in the world delivered to your web browser, be it on a PC, tablet, or mobile phone. So eat your vegetables, or Sally Struthers will come for you.

    I wouldn’t mind living in Christchurch, NZ, if I could bring my guns.

    Was there a turtle?

  3. Erin Palette
    Erin Palette January 19, 2014 7:44 pm

    I frequently suffer from “outrage fatigue” where I just can’t deal with hearing about what new violation of our rights Washington is cooking up, or what kind of dirty double deal they’re getting. On those days, I give up on the news, pray for an asteroid strike on D.C., and try very hard to distract myself until a sense of normalcy is regained.

  4. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty January 20, 2014 6:16 am

    That’s great! But if I were writing it, the PC idiots would be the ones headed to the “cold” and the rest of us would stay in the warm… or relative warm. 🙂

  5. Claire
    Claire January 20, 2014 7:05 am

    Good link, Fred. I love Shirer’s bio!

  6. Joel
    Joel January 20, 2014 8:02 am

    I like! Though equating free with uncaring is conceding half the rhetorical battleground, IMO.

  7. LarryA
    LarryA January 20, 2014 9:05 am

    [Though equating free with uncaring is conceding half the rhetorical battleground, IMO.]

    Read the last line again. “part genuine sympathy”

    Who really cared, the people drugged into it, or the lady who freely chose to take time to come to the land of the drugged on a rescue mission?

    This is a core concept. There are many who believe libertarians and freedomistas are “uncaring” because we refuse to force people to live The Right Way.

  8. Matt, another
    Matt, another January 20, 2014 9:11 am

    No compassion fatigue on my part, never had compassion to begin with.

  9. Goober
    Goober January 20, 2014 11:58 am

    If only a totalitarian state was ever so kind as to give you another option, such as exile, even to a horrible place.

    While this is a good bit of fun fiction, a totalitarian state mandating the taking of psychotropic drugs to induce the population to compliance would be far more likely to put this guy against the wall, than they would allow him to leave a free man.

    Free men scare the shit out of totalitarians. Always have. The last thing they would want to do is to create more.

    No, they’d have killed him, right off.

  10. Rick
    Rick January 22, 2014 4:12 am

    Good story, but almost identical to Heinlein’s “Coventry”.

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