Robby was playing with his cars,crashing the little metal replicas against one another, making smashing noises as he did so. The tiny Ferrari careened across the terrazzo floor, slamming its way into the broadside of the black Porsche, sending it tumbling over the top of the stair, and bouncing down each step. One by one, Robby watched transfixed, imagining Lilliputian figures inside the interior, screaming as they were rattled about within the passenger cage. He could almost hear them. The Porsche continued its descent, almost in slow motion, until it hit the bottom of the stairs. Robby mouthed a silent explosion, imagining flames and black smoke, and smiled.
It was then he heard the noises, coming from one of the rooms. The house was large, and it seemed infinitely larger to a six-year old boy. The sounds were muffled, but it sounded just like screams. He picked up a Lotus and walked rapidly on his short legs into the corridor. It seemed to stretch infinitely into the distance, with doors on either side. The screams - yes, they were definitely screams, he decided - were much louder now. Cries of protest. A heavy thump, like a blow, or a body hitting the floor. More screams. Which room? Which...?
A door slowly swung open, of its own accord. Robby peered into the room, and saw the bulk of a man seated on a bed, his back to him. He wasn't wearing any trousers, and crushed beneath the body, legs splayed wide, was the form of a young girl, lying on the bed face down, struggling and crying out in obvious pain. Robby stood there, wide-eyed, paralysed with shock and confusion. The man seemed to sense something, and turned around, his face contorted in a snarling mask of anger and frustration, hair wet with sweat matted on his brow.
"Everything's fine, Robby!" his father bellowed. The girl screamed once more. Sis? His father laughed as he thrust forward. The room rotated around Robby, and he could see the girl's face. No, not Sis... this is wrong, this is all wrong... I don't have a sister... it didn't happen like this...
Father was laughing as he continued to violate the girl. Tears streamed down her face, and her features began to run, to change...
Into his own.
The Lotus fell, in slow motion, onto the floor. He had been fifteen. Father had been drunk. He had forced him. He didn't want to, Father was too strong, it had happened, they didn't talk about it. He was on the bed now, he was crying, the tears were flowing, he was screaming, the features were changing back to the girl, Father's sweat pouring down his face, rearranging themselves, turning back into him, into Robby, recognising the girl now, recognising himself on top of the girl, recognising his own - oh God he was... like his father had done to him, he was raping his own...
"Daddy, no!" she was screaming.
"I love you, honey," he was saying as he grunted, the whiskey heavy on his breath. They never talked about this either. Shadows fell on the tableau. Robby-six looked up, saw the body swinging from the ceiling light. They never talked about it, not even when she...
Robby-six ran from the room as fast as his short legs would carry him, down the corridor. Running away from the horror, from the realisation of past sins long suppressed, long forgotten. He turned a corner, the tears of guilt blurring his vision. His sneakers caught on the edge of a Bentley left by the side, and he fell, forward. The stairs yawned downward, impossibly steep and at the bottom a dark pit, which he knew now was the blackness within his own soul, was waiting for him. It was a fall he would never complete, and he let loose one last scream...
Stephen broke contact, his eyes snapping open. He stared across at the other end of the bare white room, at the person strapped in the chair opposite him. Robert Kendall's eyes were glazed over, his head lolled lifelessly to one side, and a line of drool was making its way down his shoulder. Stephen pushed himself out of his chair, reaching for a towel to wipe off his own sweat. He glanced at the chronometer above the single entrance to the room, sealed shut by shining steel - the entire process had taken less than five minutes, but it had felt like hours. It always ended this way, with the subject a drooling vegetable, just as good as dead and in fact, legally so, and it never failed to make Stephen feel drained. Still, he mused, It pays the bills. And it's your job, isn't it?
He depressed the intercom switch at the side of the door.
"Stephen here," he said, his voice tired, "Kendall's burned. You can send your boys to get the stiff out of here. Are there any left, because I'm getting damned tired."
"Acknowledged," the metallic voice came back. No matter how they tried they could never make a computer not sound like a computer. There was always something missing, "The subject will be removed. You should not refer to him by his name, you know, he is simply SW237..."
"Look," Stephen snapped, "It's hard to retain a professional detachment when you're inside a man's head and watch his father rape him and then him rape his own daughter, okay? You didn't answer my question. Are there any left?"
There was a pause, almost as if the computer was offended by Stephen's outburst.
"No," it said, finally, "SW237-12 was the last for today. You may go now, Stephen."
"Thanks," Stephen muttered as the door slid open and he staggered out of the room. He wondered, not for the first time, what kind of sadist had come up with the idea of psychic execution. Take a man, make him face the unspeakable darkness of his soul, until his mind recoils into madness as a result. The government reserved it for the most vile of criminals, they said, but still...
He took one last look at Kendall. What had he done to deserve to be condemned to wallow in his own guilt forever? Stephen had been tempted to find out, to probe into the other areas of Kendall's mind, but there hadn't been time. No time to know the man that he had killed. And now it was too late. Stephen shook his head. The computer was right - you needed to retain some form of professional detachment, at least. You couldn't get emotionally involved. Be objective, Stephen.
Stephen walked back to the locker rooms wearily. Above his head, unseen, cameras tracked his every movement, those movements observed by dispassionate electronic circuits that closed silently in the bowels of the prison complex.
The weather outside was cold, and Stephen hunched his shoulders, getting his collar up against the wind. His breath appeared in a frosty cloud in front of him. Below ten degrees, he automatically noted, from the feel of it, more like three. It wasn't normally this cold. In fact, considering that it was the middle of May, it shouldn't have been anywhere near the current temperature. But weather patterns had been changing lately, all across the planet. Crops had been dying off, famines were spreading. The official word was that Weather Control was handling it, but that was several months ago.
He walked along the narrow streets, the grey skies above matching the drabness of the buildings and of the people that he passed. Bodies brushed against one another in the crowds, but nobody looked at each other; it just wasn't done. Each person had their own agenda, their own personal slice of the pie that they had to protect, and that did not involve anybody else except theirs truly. Nearly everything was job-related. There was little time for leisure, and jobs were at a premium nowadays, guarded jealously. That gave the bosses a lot more power. Losing a job was just as good as losing your life.
There were a lot of ways to lose your life, these days. Unemployment was hitting about sixty to eighty percent of the population. Without a job, you could not afford to pay the rent on the government-owned accommodations, but strangely, there were no homeless on the streets. Stephen knew they had to exist, but he never saw them.
If you had a job, you were protected. If you worked with the government, even better - that didn't mean you had fancy cars, or a richly laden apartment. Space was also at a premium. The standard personal cubicles were barely enough for one. Working with the government meant you had a guaranteed credit line, and ostensibly higher priorities when it came to applying for larger living space. Your government credcard could also get you some perks in terms of extra rations, and of course there was the occasional bonus. Government employees were among the elite, whatever that meant when nearly everybody slept in the gutter.
This is no way to live, Stephen thought, But it's the only way we've got.
As he made his way home, the dry wind blowing bits of litter around him, and leeching the moisture from his face, he concentrated on keeping his mental shields up. The thoughts of the people around him weren't particularly oppressive or intense. In fact, most of them weren't really thinking consciously of anything at all except work or their next destination. It was just the sheer weight of thoughts pressing down on him that made him block them out. If he had let them through, he wouldn't even have been able to make sense out of it. The volume would have been such that it would have been like a wall of white sound, and equally as irritating to his own thoughts. Drab people with drab thoughts. Stephen fought down the feelings of disgust that he had been feeling more and more, lately, and tried to think of going home to Michiko.
He had first met her at a bar, one of the few left. Its clientele was almost exclusively government because no ordinary citizen had even the few hours of leisure that government employees had. She was leaning against one wall, contemplating the drink she was holding in her hand, her long, lean body catching his eye immediately, her black hair standing out in stark contrast against the fairness of her skin. His mind caught a snatch of her sadness immediately. It was an odd kind of sadness, mixed with an element of fear, and it drew him to her.
They had started talking. He asked her which department she worked for, and she hesitated for a moment before admitting that she didn't work for the government, that in fact she didn't have a job at all, that she'd just been fired that morning. Stephen already knew this, of course. His low-level probe had picked it up as the reason for her sadness. He didn't want to probe deeper at present because his talent was decidedly unsubtle, and she would notice. She asked him what he did.
This time it was his term to hesitate. It's difficult to say casually, Well, I'm a telepathic executioner. But there was something else he had picked up. He wasn't sure what it was but it made him decide to tell her. Her look of surprise was equally as predictable.
"You're a telepath?" she asked.
He tensed for a moment. The Emergency hadn't been over for that long, and he knew the old prejudices still existed among some normals. Her deep brown eyes held his gaze, and he hoped desperately that she wasn't one of those. He nodded, sipping his drink.
"It depends on which sort you're talking about, really," he said, "Not all telepaths are the same. Some can only broadcast. Others can only receive, while others can do both. Some can only transmit emotions - those are technically empaths, but the Registration Acts dump them under the same category anyway. I developed the talent when I was five and was put in a government-run institute designed to train paranormals."
"I can do both. But I'm not terribly subtle about it. They could never fine-tune my talent. If I probe somebody, they'll know I'm probing them. So the espionage sector was out," he grinned, then it faded, "My particular uh... gift was that I could immediately pinpoint certain areas of the human psyche, specifically those concerning guilt, pain, fear, sadness, all the dark stuff that most people keep hidden away."
"Are those the only areas you can access?"
"Oh no. Of course not. But those I can find almost immediately, you see? It's like some sort of instinct. Then, I uh... show it to them."
"And they die," she said.
"Yes," his voice lowered, and all of a sudden, he could not meet her eyes anymore, "Yes they do. They withdraw into themselves. Become vegetables."
She didn't say anything. He tried to justify what he did, and a part of him wondered why, because he loathed his job too - but it was a job, damn it, and he just couldn't throw that away. The people he killed weren't innocent. They were criminals, for Christ's sake. And it paid well, and he was doing a public service.
And she understood. She said she did, and Stephen knew that she wasn't just saying it. Something told him she was being perfectly sincere. A job was a job. He didn't know whether to feel happy at this attitude or be horrified by it. She understood the importance of a job just like everybody else, maybe even more so, because she didn't have a job now, and her money was slowly running out. As she said these last words, her hand closed on his, and their eyes met once more. He didn't have to be a telepath to know what she was offering.
They went back to his apartment, which was a slightly larger model than the standard one-man variety. He didn't bother to turn on the lights as he guided her towards the bed in the corner. There was an initial moment of awkwardness, as neither had done it for quite some time, but that faded away as they undressed each other, her hands wrapping themselves around the muscles of his back, crushing her breasts against his body, their tongues hungrily devouring each other. He reached into her mind even as he entered her, feeding back the already mounting pleasure as they fell onto the bed and she gasped as she felt him do so. He hadn't been lying - he could access other areas as well. There were times, after all, when being telepathic had its advantages.
He registered her surprise the next morning when he asked her to move in with him. It was something she had not expected, and she said yes before she could even think about it. She needed a place to stay until she found a new job, and his credit line could comfortably provide for two until she did so. And even after she managed to find a job as an assembly line worker in one of the many nameless factories around the city, she stayed on. They had met each other at a time that they needed someone. Their reasons were different, perhaps, but the need itself was not.
Stephen reached the bottom of his apartment block. He stared up at the old building that stretched high into the sky, the top obscured by clouds of smog. He entered his personal access code and the lift door opened to receive him, creaking and groaning like the gears in some ancient, infernal machine. Stephen was tired, and not just by the day's work.
They ate dinner in silence. Michiko recognised the mood in him, and said nothing until the meal was finished. As he put the dishes away, he suddenly felt her hand on his arm.
"It's the job, isn't it?" she asked.
He nodded, a half-smile on his face, "Are you sure you're not telepathic?"
"What's wrong? Lately you've been..."
"Lately," he said, "I've been wondering whether it's worth it. Whether this job means anything at all. Whether I'm doing the right thing."
"What has doing the right thing got to do with anything? You've said it yourself - a job is a job. You're working for the government, getting rid of condemned criminals."
"But what are they being condemned for? 'Iko, I just executed a man today by making him relive an incident that most probably had nothing to do with the crime he was executed for, an incident that he had wanted desperately to forget for years. I don't even know what his crime was!"
"Does it matter?"
"I don't know!" he exploded, "I just don't know..."
"Darling, you can't do this to yourself. You're just a man doing his job - the government is just another boss that tells you what to do. It's not your fault."
He began to say something, but she stopped him.
"Hush," she said, laying a finger on his lips, and pulling him towards the bed, "Let's not talk about this anymore. It'll look better tomorrow, you'll see. Try and get some sleep."
An executioner cannot afford to gain a conscience, his mind kept telling him as he tossed and turned in bed. What are you going to do? Resign? Where can you go? What can you do? You've been trained for this - it's your life. There is nothing else.
The realisation did not comfort him in the least. He slept fitfully until dawn.
Subject SX186-44 sat there strapped in the chair. It was a scene Stephen had played out many times before, and it began in the same way as he entered the room. The subject looked at him with fear in his eyes, the sheen of cold sweat on his body. In earlier centuries, the mode of execution had been a machine. Even earlier, the executioner had worn a mask, so as not to be identified. The government allowed its employees no such luxuries, nor its condemned the privilege of not knowing who it was that killed them. They had to look their executioner in the face, and in the last moment, no matter how brave they were, no matter what they had visualised their last moments to be, it was all the same in the end. They were scared.
Stephen lowered himself into the seat at the far end, facing the subject. He leaned back, closing his eyes to block out any other sensory interference, and reached out with his mind. The initial barrier was always easy to penetrate - people kept their thoughts so close to the surface sometimes, so easily readable.
Already he had found the area which he was seeking. There was no guilt in this one, at least none that was significant enough to use, but there was indeed fear. Not just the simple fear of execution. No, this lay deeper. He began to push his way past the inner barriers, and could almost see his subject wince as he applied the pressure. A fear of being buried alive, was it? Not very imaginative, but it would have to do.
The formlessness of the mental world around him began to blur to take new shape. Carl was there, encased in a coffin of clearest crystal. He began to bang on the glass, rattle the joints, tried to shout, but he was only exhausting oxygen. The procession began to carry him along, and through the casing he could see the long road leading up to the open grave. He was going to have to watch while they piled on the dirt, chunk by chunk, grain by grain. He began to scream...
No! Not this time!
The funeral scene Stephen was forming blanked out, to be replaced by white space. Carl lay on the floor, still in a twisted fetal position, as if he were in the coffin. Stephen walked over to him, and pulled him to his feet.
"We're still in your mind," Stephen explained.
Carl looked at him, uncomprehending.
"They can't see us or hear us. You're going to die, you know."
Carl's eyes narrowed, suspicious. He pulled away from Stephen, began to walk away.
"I want to know why you've been condemned," Stephen asked again, "You can't run away - there's nowhere to run to."
Carl stopped, and turned to face Stephen.
"You want to know why?"
"If I tell you, will you let me go?"
"I'm sorry," Stephen said, "I can't..."
"What difference does it make then?" Carl shrugged.
"I can make it quick," Stephen said, sadly, not believing that he was indeed making such an offer, "It doesn't have to be as horrible as it was just now. I can just... switch off your mental processes. A kind of psychic lobotomy."
"Did you do this for the others?"
Stephen hesitated, considering a lie. He thought better of it.
"No," he said.
"Why did you kill them that way?"
Stephen felt the shame even as he answered.
"Because I was told to."
"Why is it different now?"
"Look, you're supposed to answer my questions, not the other way around. I'm making you a deal now. Do you want it or not? Why are you being executed?"
Carl smiled wanly, "I lost my job."
A long moment of silence passed between them.
"That's it?" Stephen asked, incredulous.
"I lost my job, I couldn't afford the rent, I became... homeless."
A chill crept up Stephen's spine. The hands of his mental image began to tremble, as if they were real. He gripped them to stop it.
"Oh God," he said, his throat feeling suddenly dry, "Oh my God..."
"I didn't really realise this was going on," Carl continued, "But it makes a certain kind of sense, doesn't it, considering the unemployment statistics. Where do the homeless go? Now I know. Now we both know."
"Oh my God," Stephen just kept saying, his legs unsteady. A wave of nausea swept over him.
"I hope that answers your questions, because that's all I know."
Stephen tried to regain his composure, "I... I didn't... I'm sorry. I have to do this."
"I know," Carl said, "I'm sorry for you, too."
The world faded out, and Stephen reached out into the portions of the mind controlling Carl's nervous system and tugged gently. The fabric of his psyche came apart at the seams, fluttered for a while in its death throes, and lay still. Stephen opened his eyes, and saw the familiar glazed look in Carl's eyes. He raised a hand to his mouth, praying he would not vomit.
How many? How many have I killed?
He did not bother to seek the computer's permission, but rang off early, despite the machine's protestations and threats that the time would be deducted from his salary, or worse still, his employment record tarnished. Stephen wasn't listening as he ran home. He had to tell somebody. He had to tell 'Iko.
When he reached the apartment, she wasn't home yet, of course. He paced the room restlessly, standing at the window and gazing down at the congested streets, the people strolling along, oblivious to what was going on, not knowing the horror that awaited them if they simply lost their jobs, and were cast out of their cubicles, classified as homeless...
Strapped in that chair, dying through fear, pain, sadness, guilt, most of all. Their minds shredded by him, putting them through a sadistic moviola of unending agonies, over and over again for eternity. He had never checked. He had never bothered to find out. How many years had he been an executioner? How many innocents had passed through his hands in that fashion? The numbers flashed through his mind, counting the days, the months, the number executed each day, each hour. He had never considered them as human beings before. Even when the computer had accused him of being emotionally involved he hadn't been, really. He'd consider the question for a brief period then cast it aside. In the end, it was only a job.
The word seemed so dirty to him now.
Not all of them were homeless. It wasn't possible. There had to be at least some legitimate executions in the lot. But even then, what was legitimate? What passed for capital crimes, if homelessness itself was punishable by death? Burglary? Jaywalking? Littering? What was the law? He had killed - executed was no longer appropriate. Killed.
The door slid open. Michiko stood there, carrying a bag of groceries. She pressed the button for the door to close, then noticed him. A look of surprise crossed her face.
"Stephen, what are you doing home so early? Did something happen?"
"I've found out something," he said, breathlessly, "Those people I've been killing. They're not criminals! They're just homeless. 'Iko, they're being killed just because they have no place to live! Just to keep the streets tidy!"
She placed the groceries on the table. Stephen stood there, expecting a reaction, any reaction except how she eventually did react.
"I know," she said, simply.
"What?" Stephen said, shocked. Suddenly he remembered what he had read off her when they had first met, when she had lost her job, and was in danger of losing her cubicle. The sadness, and tinged with fear. He had not understood its significance then.
"I've known for years," she continued, unpacking the food, "It's no secret that the homeless are taken away and gotten rid of. It's just that I didn't know that you were doing the executing. Quite a lot of us know."
"I didn't know! The man I killed this morning didn't know!"
"You've just got to keep your ears open, that's all. Of course you don't hear things, Stephen. You're a government employee - all of your kind live in your nice little departmental worlds, with little connection to what's really out there, like the rest of us."
Stephen looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time.
"You approve of this?"
"No," she said, "I understand. In a way, it even improves productivity. People are just too scared to lose their jobs, or else..."
She left the sentence unfinished. Stephen slammed a fist down on the table in frustration.
"No. I'm going to see the Warden. This has got to stop."
Michiko shook her head sadly. The next words she spoke were as if spoken to a child.
"Stephen, do you honestly think it's going to do anything? Who do you think is ordering the executions in the first place? Some mindless computer? The government isn't run by computers. It's run by living beings - your Warden among them. All you'll probably accomplish is get fired. And then where will you be?"
Stephen walked to the door and called the lift.
"Where are you going?" she demanded.
"You know damn well where I'm going," he snarled.
"Don't be a martyr, Stephen. Do you hear me? It's your job!"
Her words rang in his ears as he descended towards the street.
He strode down the corridors of the prison complex, riding the lift to the top floor where the Warden's office was. Stephen stared into the glassy eye of the computerised receptionist that guarded the door.
"I want to see the Warden."
"I'm sorry," the receptionist replied brusquely, "The Warden is busy right now. If you would care to make an appointment..."
"Now, damn it! Tell him it's Stephen Miller - one of his executioners. It's important."
There was a pause, a slight whirring, and then the camera eye lit up again. To Stephen's surprise, the door slid open, revealing a long corridor.
"The Warden is expecting you. Please come in."
When he reached the end of the corridor, another set of doors parted, and Stephen entered one of the largest rooms he had ever seen in his life. It was larger than his own apartment, but sparsely furnished. The stark whiteness of it reflected the sanitised environs of his own execution room. At the far end was a long desk, and seated behind it was the Warden. Stephen had only met him once, years before, when he first took up the position in the prison. He hadn't changed much - with his silvery hair and his chiselled features. The Warden smiled as he saw Stephen come in.
"Come on in, Stephen. What do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
Stephen sat in the chair in front of the desk, "It's about the executions."
The Warden sighed, "Yes, I was afraid that was what you wanted to talk about. You shouldn't have asked SX186-44 about it. That was most definitely against regulations. Oh don't look so surprised. We were monitoring you, like we always do. You forget you're not the only telepath we have, nor the only executioner."
"Is it true? Are we killing the homeless?"
"Vagrancy is a crime," the Warden shrugged, "The Homeless Acts have declared it to be a capital one. I merely implement the legislation. It's my job. And yours also, you would do well to remember. "
"It's murder," Stephen said.
"Don't be so dramatic, boy," the Warden snapped, "It's the law."
"The Confederation would never condone..."
"The Confederation has no jurisdiction over this planet," the Warden shot back, "Nor this system, nor this sector. In fact, it is doubtful that the United Galactic Confederation of Planets exists anymore. The Emergency cut off whole sectors of the Galaxy from each other - we haven't heard from Terra in decades. I imagine it's the same all over, but we're isolated. Thankfully, we also happen to be self-sufficient. The laws here are necessary to maintain the peace. We can't have homeless roaming the streets, asking for handouts, disrupting traffic. I'm sure you understand."
"All of them... executed like this?"
"Not all of them, no. Your form of execution is actually reserved for the vilest offenders, and most of the time, it's still true. The homeless we take care off in another manner - but you know how the bureaucracy is. Sometimes we get backed up. And so we transfer some to your department."
Stephen stood up, "I've heard enough."
"What are you going to do?" the Warden asked, amused.
"Tell them. Tell the people."
"The people?" the Warden laughed, "They don't care, Stephen! They're too concerned about their own lives, their own jobs. Anybody who falls by the wayside is just garbage, as long as it's not them. It's a competitive world, or hadn't you heard?"
"I'm not going to do it anymore," Stephen insisted.
"Frankly, I'd rather you continue. You're one of our more imaginative executioners, and we've spent a lot of time training you. But like I said, you're not the only one, Stephen. There are other telepaths, just as good. You're not indispensable. If you choose to resign, that's your prerogative, but, well, it's a bit of a futile gesture, isn't it? You'll just become one of the unemployed, and maybe even homeless. And then..."
Stephen's shoulders slumped.
"Anything I do is useless."
"I'm afraid so," the Warden said, gently.
"A futile gesture," Stephen went on.
That last word stabbed like a sword through the Warden's mind. Stephen had no time for niceties, no time to search for the most painful, or the least painful method of dispatch. He just took the Warden's mind in his hands and methodically ripped it to pieces.
The Warden slumped forward, yet another drooling idiot, as alarms rang and the computers cried for help. Stephen turned around and saw two guards training pistols on him. He reached out with his mind. When they felt the first instance of mental pressure they opened fire, but Stephen's mind-touch had done its work. The lethal energy of the blasters went wide. The few seconds that it took to steady their aim was all that he needed. The guards went down, like stringless marionettes.
Stephen grabbed a blaster and ran for the door, heart pumping, adrenaline flowing. The high carried him forward as he rolled into the corridor, under the fire of the guns. Spreading his telepathic net wide, he could sense the neurons of the guards flash just a second before they pulled the triggers. He let instinct take over, anticipating the gunfire, dodging the blasts as he turned into another passage.
He fired at the security doors at the end, and they buckled beneath the blasts. He could sense the presence of more guards behind him. There were a huge mass of them, their thoughts a hopeless jumble of confusion, anger, hostility. Feeding into him, weighing him down. He had let down his shields to avoid their fire, and now it was harder to sift through the static.
There was something else, something just at the edge.
Every step now was an effort, every movement agony. He could almost see the street ahead. If he could just step out, lose himself in the labyrinthine alleyways...
You're not the only one, Stephen. There are other telepaths, just as good.
The ground rushed up towards him.
The white room was the same, but this time he was the one strapped to the seat. The door slid open, and a tall young man walked into the room. His hair was closely cropped, and his features were long and thin.
There was something in the eyes, though. A hint of confusion. Stephen tried to read him and found he could not. Of course. There had been one addition to the straps - the inhibitor attached to his temple. They weren't about to give him any chances. He felt like he had suddenly lost the sight in one eye. Curiously, it felt less of a handicap than a liberation.
But there was something in the eyes. There was that desperate attempt at dislocation, at an objective approach to the job. The man was young. He couldn't have been out of the Institute for more than a year or so. The man was staring at the inhibitor as he settled himself in the executioner's chair. He glanced furtively around the room, the eyes changing from dispassionate to flashes of other emotions. Confusion? Resentment?
"Hello," Stephen said, chancing it, "What's your name?"
The man nearly jumped at the voice.
"My name is Stephen," Stephen went on.
"Shut up!" snapped the man.
He knows. He knows who I am. What I used to be. Why I'm here. It's harder if one knows, isn't it? Suddenly, for Stephen, the fear was gone. The man leaned backward, closed his eyes.
"Do you think it's fair?"
"I told you to shut up. We're not supposed to talk. You know that."
"I feel like talking."
Stephen saw the man's hands clench into fists. With a visible effort, he sat up, his jaw set in a grim line, the muscles on his neck taut. Stephen felt like he was falling, as the world blanked out in front of his eyes. So this is what it feels like from the other end.
His eyes opened. The man and him were standing in a telepathic void.
"All right. What the Hell did you think you were trying to do?"
"What's your name?"
"Paul. For God's sake, Stephen, do you know what you've done?"
"You're not afraid of being monitored?"
"That's thanks to you. The Administration has never really trusted us, you know that. Now that one of us has gone rogue, they've placed inhibitors on the rest of us when we're not on duty. You've set us back decades, to Emergency attitudes, you stupid bastard."
"Futile gesture," Stephen muttered, smiling.
"Where did you think you were running to? Where could you run?"
"I don't know," Stephen shook his head, "Maybe sometimes a futile gesture is the only one left worth making."
"It's our job."
"No. It's the system's job. We're just reflections of the system. I didn't want to be a reflection any more. I wanted to cast an image."
"You wanted to be a goddamn martyr."
"What have you accomplished, Stephen? The executions will go on. The homeless will still die. We'll still be feared - even more so now than before."
"They won't have my help, Paul. Not anymore."
"You may have stopped being a reflection of the system, but it was only for a moment."
"I have that moment. Tell me something. What happens when you get tired of this, too? What happens when you decide that the Law is wrong? That there are some things more important than your job, or your life?"
"My job is my life."
"My job was over. And now, so's my life. You'll find out, someday. Think about it, Paul. Think about why you're asking me these questions, if you really don't care about the answers."
Paul let out a tired sigh.
"Let's get this over with."
"Do me a favour," Stephen started to say.
"All right," Paul nodded.
He made it quick. Stephen descended into darkness for the last time. This time, there was no guilt - the passage had been paid for. Paul looked across the room at the body limp in its chair, at the blank eyes that looked back. You'll find out, someday. He left the room, the steel door sliding shut behind him. In the harsh glare of the corridor lights, it shone. It was the final reflection.
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