Deathwatch

MJG Science Fiction, Stories 5 Comments

It’s a beautiful day already. The sun is up and dawning like a golden rip in the pewter and orange sky, leaking rays of light across the blue ocean and bridge.

Everything is still. It’s a beginning, the start of a new day. Strange thing is, everything that matters is already over. The man lies pinioned to the grindstone of the bridge, door heavy over his slack frame, I’m kneeling here beside him, and the kid has gone for coffee and bagels. We’re all ready, in our places, but there’s nothing left to wait for.

The salt sea breeze rubs over my face and hands, itchy and thick with the promise of humidity. I can feel the rising sun striping the back of my neck red.

Here comes the kid now. I can see his black and silvers cresting the walkway onto the bridge, bags in hand. It’s time. I stand up, holster my pistol, and return to my post.

sky_web2

Image from here.

“Got you some bagels, sir,” comes the reedy voice of the kid, snapping along smartly the closer he gets, boot-heels striking sparks from the grindstone below. Decked out and grinning, it’s obvious he’s excited. I haven’t dealt with a minor for 11 years, haven’t seen such excitement for the job in all that time.

“Yeah,” I say, “that’s great,’ and take the round package from his proffered hand. It shakes, even as he unwraps his own, brings it to his thin lips, takes a bite.

“Nervous?” I ask, though of course I know he is.

“Nope, sir, not at all,” he blusters through the crammed mouthful. “My old pops, he told me how it all goes. A Watchman for 15 years, he was, sir. Besides, this is my second, so, well…”

“I see,” I say, watch as he chomps untidily at the bagel. “So, what was your first?”

He swallows, swirls his tongue round the inside of his mouth. “Number 21,” he replies. “You know, the saw and all that?”

“I’m familiar with it,” I say gently. “Over quickly then?”

“Yup, real quick. First guy along just worked at the back for a bit, chopped off some hair, souvenir I reckon, then left it that. Next guy, coupla minutes later, place was just warming up, comes along and does the rest himself. Clean off.” He mimes picking up a severed head. I nod.

“Lot of blood,” he adds.

“There is,” I agree. “20 liters in the average human body. You know that though.”

“Sure do, sir, yup. It was on the DCAT’s. Yeah, requested you special sir, after I heard you was looking for a new minor?”

I sigh. He hears it, but that’s OK. He has no way of knowing his request counted for nothing. It was my request that mattered.

“Of course you did,” I say.

He smiles, though seems a little unsatisfied.

“They say you’re the best sir!” he chimes. “Been present at 1216, total, though that’s not counting today, so 1217. Sir?”

I nod again, turn the bagel packet over in my hand. Looks like, green powder and dough. I only wanted coffee, and where’s the coffee?

“That’s a whole lot, you know, sir!” he says eagerly. “Way more than my old man, and he was on the Watch for 15 years. I reckon one of the most, specially now old Reykavan’s stepped down. You’re a whole case study on the DCAT’s, sir!”

A seagull flies overhead. I watch it. The kid keeps talking. Powder sprays from his mouth, and I can see it as falling motes in the brilliant light. The seagull caws, circles, lands on the door, pecks at the silver handle. Not a sound from beneath. The bird loses interest, flies away, and the kid starts talking again.

“Said in the books they cried out more, sir. Specially a crushing, any weight freaks them out.”

I turn to him, look him up and down. Realise I don’t even know his name. Stood there, boots too bright and spurs too low, grinning up at me shyly.

“Is that right sir? You’ve seen a whole bunch of ‘em, right? They normally cry out more, sir? Suppose you get used to it, right sir? Suppose it doesn’t bother you anymore?”

I have no answer for him. The bagel has gone sticky through the paper wadding. I feel the first thin line of sweat prickle down my spine.

“I hate bagels,” I say, hand the clammy mess back to the kid. He falls silent, takes back the crumpled bag, swallows hard.

The day wears on.

*

I suppose I was like him, when I started. Fresh out of school, full of promise, excited at the start. It wears away, though, he’s right. You change.

I’ve replaced my spurs maybe 16 times. They look strong. They’re made of metal, and they do the job. And yet they wear away.

Same thing, maybe.

*

My first wasn’t as easy as the kid’s. It took a lot more deaths for me to forget the first, dismiss it like he does. Maybe it’s like, you dive in the ocean, and the cold of the water strikes you real hard, but it only goes away if you stay in, swim about. You remember the cold, but it goes away. Like that, and then try and leave the water, and see how cold the air feels.

It was a crucifixion. 2-parter. Not so easy, not so slow, and a helluva thing to deal with off the back of my training. Alone. No doubles for rookies in those days, 14 years ago. Sink or swim, that was pretty much it.

And then the protestors. They must have known, could pick me out the way I can spot the kid now, and knew they could get away with it.

Now, they wouldn’t come near. The kid is smart to request me. This way, with me, there’s no part in the death. It’s only standing by. There’s a weapon in your belt, but that’s it. You don’t need to use it. You shoot your first few protestors, you get a name, and the pistol stays in the holster after that.

Shooting protestors is easy enough. A bullet is tidy, at least for the one with the gun. You pull a trigger, somebody screams, business taken care of.

So.

It’s very different to repair the work of the protestors. You have to pick up the gory nails they pulled out. You have to strap the shivering wreck back down. You have to hold his hand, feel the fingers curl around yours like a lovers, his bearded whisper in your ear, please, then you have to raise the mallet, and you have to hammer the nail right back through his wrist. Maybe you do it a few times, wrist, ankles, each time it’s different protestors, trying to make a point. There are placards, banners, people chanting. They don’t realise how much pain they are causing. Appealing to me like I’m a factor in this.

I’m not. I wasn’t. We never are. It isn’t me hammering these nails. It isn’t me hoisting the cross up again, putting back the spear, I feel nothing either way. There is no me here. There is merely the people, and their desire, and I am merely a guardian of their desires. I only do what has been undone.

That’s it.

That first time, when I got home, there had been blood under my fingernails, scoured into the lines of my palms, clotted blobs clinging to the hairs on my fore-arms like an obscene forest of mushrooms, like red dew on the grass.

But then, that’s the important thing.

It isn’t you.

I never left a shift bloody again. Next time, I used the pistol, and there were no problems. It’s much easier that way.

*

My brother joined the Watch 2 years after me. Our parents were so proud. I gave him all the advice I could, I didn’t want him to go through what I had to, and up until a point, he never did. I assigned myself as his major, called in some favours, helped push it through.

It was like we were kids again, hanging out like we used to. People died, and we hung out. It took the edge off it. It took the sting out of my memories. Those were happy days.

He shot his first protestor with me there. Nothing fatal, just enough. We pack very thin charges, more like a needle than a bullet, so it’s not enough to really injure. It feels like a syringe, maybe. A syringe that goes through you clean.

He never had any trouble after that.

Well, not never.

*

There’s a routine to it. There’s rules. Each death, there’s a different protocol. For each death, a different perceived crime. Everybody’s guilty. Or they’re innocent. The shades of grey, the indistinct boundaries, the fuzzy lines that divide me from the guy tied up under the door, who needs that? Who needs guilt as a measure of degree? Either you die for your crimes, or you live. Black and white. In or out.

So it goes.

I used to believe in the system. I used to think it worked. These days, I’m not so sure.

It’s simple really.

Nobody executes. There is no such thing as an execution. There are merely deaths, and the people.

Some deaths are easy, and some aren’t. It’s a lottery, really.

At toll booths, in public parks, on top of buildings, in front of houses, strapped along highways like billboards, hanging like traffic lights at junctions, on bridges, on boats, mounted on trucks and paraded round the city, in stocks, in malls, on television, on the radio, on the internet, hanging from zeppelins like fly fishing lures.

There are no lawyers, no judges, nothing, only the people, and the Accused, and the men who Watch.

It’s cumulative death. It’s death by accretion.

More nails. More water. More rope. More knives. More twists. More sawing. More height. More stones. More ice. More rats. More revolutions. More spikes.

At the end, you either live or you die. And that’s the matter sealed.

*

-protocols-

CRUCIFIXION

Accused to be strapped to oak cross with rope, cross to be attached to pulley system and rope via hook at apex, rope to be attached to crank through the pulley and supported with iron A frame. Cross to be left horizontal, adequate room on the winch for rope to coil up to the pulley. 4 nails, a spear, and a mallet alongside.

-lies-

HANGING

Accused to be bound firmly with ropes, left lying immobile on wooden platform. Further rope to be left slack and unknotted by Accused’s side, fed up through an A frame mounted pulley system and down to a crank and winch, adequate room on the winch for rope to be drawn up to the pulley. Platform and chocks to be thoroughly greased so as to be easily knocked away.

-philandery-

STONING

Accused to be secured in stocks, head and hands, raised upon a platform if at all possible with either a) a solid brick wall with the owner’s permission having been sought, or b) a wilderness easily vacated of human presence, or c) an open expanse of water where no boats pass, behind. Pile of 300 stones, regulation granite chunks, to be left no less than 100 yards from stocks.

-theft-

BEHEADING

GRADUATED GUILLOTINE

Accused to be pinioned firmly between two pillars of graduated guillotine, head locked in with wooden chocks, slit for the blade. Blade to be sharpened with whetstone before use. Tracking indentations to be secured and blade to be lodged securely in pillar grooves, cog mechanism to be tested for security, crank to be left easily accessible to traffic.

-opinionation 1-

HACKSAW

Accused to be buried in pavement, see section 23b for appropriate locations and approval procedures for the dig. Hole to be filled in with sand, capped with cement manhole cover. Accused to be left with 3 inches of neck but no shoulder visible above the cap. Hacksaw, rusty, to be left at Accused’s left ear.

-opinionation 2-

CRUSHING

Accused to be firmly bound with rope and pinioned to a grindstone surface with metal hooks, see section 23c for appropriate locations and approval procedures for the drilling. Door, 50 pounds, 7 foot by 4, brass handle, to be laid over Accused, obscuring field of vision almost completely. Door corners to be pinioned to grindstone, again see section 23c. 300 clay fired bricks, 1 pounds each, to be left no less than 10 feet away from the Accused in a neat stack.

-betrayal-

And so on. There are hundreds. Many with variations, levels of intensity, levels of pain, but like I said, it’s pretty much a lottery. The crime tags are just there for guidance.

Some are very rarely used. I’ve never seen the INTESTINAL WIND, kind of like a trouser press attached to the end of your small intestine, or the VACULAR IMPALATION, where you’re sat on a widening spike like some jack-in-the-box scarecrow, left to slide down under your own weight until you split apart. I’ve seen a KEELHAULING, and a SKINNING, and a DRAGGING, and an EQUITARIAN EVISCERATION, where 4 horses are attached to each of your limbs and whips are left lying around with which to inflame to horses to gallop. I’ve seen RAT INFESTATION, where rabid rats can be encouraged along tunnels through a series of locked doors, and led to the Accused’s pinioned stomach. I’ve seen almost all of them.

Some are much more common. STAKING, or death by the elements as your levels of shielding are removed, is popular. DROWNING, FREEZING, BURNING and BOILING are all often to be seen. FALLING, LIONS, GAS, ASPHYXIATION, DRAINING are all popular too, though more effort to set up, so less common.

*

I’ve never killed anybody myself. I have no role in the death, other than Watcher. Other than insurance.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

*

My name is Stanislav Uslow. I am 6 foot 2 inches tall. I have black hair and brown eyes, just like my mother. I have a lightning shaped scar on the thumb of my right hand, and a mole in my left armpit, but other than this, no distinguishing features.

I have 3 nieces, though no family of my own. I am not married. The nieces are named Ramus, Yviten, and Sacha. They are all girls, and I love them. The eldest is 7. I am hoping that one day they will all get married, and have more children, then I will have more nieces and nephews to care for. I am hoping that none of them will have to die.

I watch people die every day. I want no black-suited idiots laughing at the screams of my nieces. I have laughed before. My brother has laughed before. Not any more, though.

My mother lives in the country. I hadn’t been to see her for years, up until 3 weeks ago and my father died. I’ll have to go back again soon, for she will hear the news soon enough. Even in that sick community, sitting every day waiting for death to come take her too, she will hear the news.

My mother writes me letters about flowers. I read them, but they mean nothing to me. I find myself wondering, is this really my mother. Did I really come from this.

My father never wrote. He was deaf and half-blind by the end. He used to sit by the fountain in that dying community all day, dabbing at the water with his walking stick. I had sat and watched him do this. My mother used to write that he was too busy to write to me, too busy to write to my brother, even though she knew I’d seen him at his business before. I used to wonder sometimes, if that was what I would one day become.

I had a brother, father to my nieces, husband to my sister-in-law, but he’s dead now too.

*

“He’s very quite, sir,’ says the kid, nodding at the canting door, straining against it’s corner pinions.

People are passing us by. Traffic is flowing. There’s a smog here, on this bridge, that even the sea breezes cannot stir, like a mist rising up from the grindstone itself.

“I know,” I say.

He shifts his weight from foot to foot, twists one leg behind the other, twists it back. There is no slouching on the Watch.

“But it’s unusual, sir, isn’t it? I mean, it’s already pretty heavy. It must be some fifty pounds, sir.”

“55,” I correct, “and yes, it is unusual.”

Watching.

Every few minutes a man will stop as he strolls by, some guy will pull his car over and get out. Survey the scene. Read the name on the sign, eyes skimming the black and white list of deeds and misdeeds. Then he will make his judgement, cast his lot, and either carry a brick from the stack to the door, or get back in his car, return to his stroll, and forget the whole thing.

“I mean, sir, he must want to scream, right? How could he not? Number 32, crushing, that has to be one of the worst numbers available?”

I say nothing. He won’t know about the uncommon ones yet. He wouldn’t be able to finish his bagels if he did.

“It’s supposed to be painful, sir?”

I say nothing.

“He must have done something pretty bad, sir, right? I used to read some of the signs sir,” and he pauses, glances anxiously around, adds hurriedly, “of course, before my training. But I never came close to one of these before. Do you ever wonder about it sir?”

“That isn’t part of the job,” I say smoothly.

“No, of course not sir,” he says quickly, pauses, rolls a spur along the ground. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I say, in the friendliest tone I can muster. “It’s only your second.”

“I’ve never seen a crushing before,” he mumbles

“Well this is it,” I say softly, gesturing to the door. Still, not a sound escapes.

The kid seems almost disappointed.

*

Crushing is a noisy way to die.

The door, creaking under its load, weighs down on the Accused’s chest, see-sawing onto his feet and knees at the lower end. Slowly, ribs begin to crack. The breastplate cleaves. Ribbons of bone splinter, imploding back into the body. These ribbons pierce the lungs, which then fill with blood, or they pierce the heart, which can cause a thrombosis and lead to thrashing and a much quicker death.

The only place you see blood at a crushing is the Accused’s mouth, as the desperate body tries to cough up the killing fluid. Also, at the knees or feet, as the edge of the door rolls into them, spiking splinters of tiny bones through the skin.

Normally the skull exits intact. The face is often garbled, nose pounded flat, but otherwise intact.

Nobody sees any of this, though. They hear the pitiful wailing, the wet popping cries for help, but they never see the Accused. It’s easy to add bricks, when you can’t see the person you’re judging.

I see children add to the load, their parents urging them on like they’re dropping pennies in a busker’s cap. Death as a training ground.

*

I’m watching the city in the distance, over the rails of the bridge, over the bay. A zeppelin glides lazy, like an untethered buoy drifting on a calm sea, over the tops of looming skyscrapers.

It hovers over the tallest, then begins to descend. They’re winding it in, must’ve dropped ropes, hooked them up. Soon, it hangs from the edge of the building’s spike like a deflated balloon, clinging for support to stay in the air. People will be getting off. People will be getting on. People will be going places.

Soon, it’s rising. I see it buffeted by low winds, before it’s engines kick in, propel its outsized bulk back inland.

The seagull swoops again, cawing loudly. Lands by the door, waddles over, pecks at the thin red trail on the grindstone.

People are passing in throngs. It’s gone midday. Sunlight reflects like an endless diamond bracelet from car windshields, flashing across my eyes. Here I stand, guarding a death.

*

“Sir, I can’t even hear him breathing,” says the kid.

I grunt.

“It’s just, sir, if he’s bleeding, shouldn’t we be able to hear him coughing, or something?’

He’s seen the red trail on the ground. It’s fading now, the sun burning up the colour. I turn to face him.

“Maybe he’s already dead,” I suggest.

“It’s only a hundred pounds though, sir, he can’t be dead yet!”

“Maybe not,” I muse. “Could be he’s on drugs. Could be, he’s trained himself for it. Could be he’s killed himself.”

“Killed himself? How, sir? We’ve been here the whole time, it’s not possible!”

I shrug. It’s better I tell him one truth, than another.

“It’s happened before,” I say casually. “High level politics, they might string you up, but they give you a choice at the end. Some of them even get off the charge completely.”

“What?” asks the kid, incredulous.

“Can you see the guy under the door? No? Then how you know he’s the guy with his name on the sign? Not just some other Accused rolled over from another Watch?”

“But, still, he’s, what?”

“The sign,” I repeat, slowly. “How do you know, he’s the same guy as it says on the sign?”

“But, sir?”

“They don’t teach you everything on the DCAT’s, son.”

He stutters something. I turn back to the crowd, streaming by. Each judging a man they do not know. A man whose name they’ve never heard. A man whose crime they’ll never understand.

*

When I was a child, my father used to take us fishing. Me and my brother, down to the pier off old Coney Island, along with all the other fathers and sons, tackle boxes and rods in hand. I had a new Spraycatcher, my brother a Venom 350. Our dad had the oldest, one of the Blacks range. It was rusted at the reel, and the line often snagged on the eyelets as he threaded the nylon through. Compared to mine, and my brother’s, it looked ancient and amateurish. He used to catch more fish though.

We all used the same bait, red or purple rubber worms, set with a few solder balls for weights, plastic red and white buoys for floats. When we caught them, we always threw the fish back.

We used to spend hours down there. I remember the first time he took us with him. He caught a tiny carp, all wriggle and silver in the bucket. I watched wide-eyed as he lifted it, snapped the hook from it’s jaw, tossed it back into the sea.

I’d cried that time. For the pain of the fish, maybe, or my own distress. My father comforted me. He told me fish didn’t feel any pain. It helped, but I couldn’t forget the plastic snap though, as the barbed metal came free, the rabid twitching of the fish.

“This, boys,” he’d say to us, “this is the life,” and sigh happily.

We’d nod, agree. We’d compete, see who could get the most. Always it was our father, though he pretended it wasn’t, claiming to have lost count, or forgotten. He offered prizes to the winner, but somehow he always contrived for it to be a draw.

“This calls for ice cream!” he’d boom, clap his hands enthusiastically, and predictably enough we’d jump to our feet and clap in return, jabber excitedly.

“I think Stanny here caught 2 cod, maybe a jellyfish, hard to be sure really, and an old boot, making him today’s winner!””

At this, my brother’s eyes would sink to the floor, all part of the act.

“But,” my father would continue, “the boot was a little too lively and we had to throw it back before I could weigh it.” (He never weighed any of the fish.) “So I think, maybe, perhaps, that puts Reyk in the lead by a particularly sizable clump of seaweed!”

Then it was my turn to be downcast, my brother’s turn to whoop with joy. And so, we would seesaw back and forth as our father re-tallied the catches, resulting with every time, both of us would get ice cream.

We’d keep fishing while he strolled off to the vendor, way up the beach. We’d jostle each other, get rough with the nylon, cross our threads and often have to re-spool ourselves, muttering feverishly as we watched our father return, dripping ice cream to the sandy pier boards below.

It was our thing. He let us, I think. He knew we loved it, to squabble, to patch things up before he arrived. He understood things like that.

One time though, he didn’t come back fast enough. We were fighting, as usual. My brother took our father’s rod and swept it back over his shoulder, the line lying weighted and hooked at our feet.

“Fly fishing!” my brother cried, and hurled the tip of the rod forward like he was throwing a baseball.

Then he was screaming.

The line had whipped back at him, the hook lodging through his eyebrow, eyelid, part of the eye. Our father was not to be seen, and my brother was shrieking, pawing desperate at his face as blood trickled down his cheek.

For a second I did nothing. It was too fast. From joking and laughing to this. Then I stood up, slapping my brother’s rolling arms from his face, and touched the haft of the deeply embedded hook, felt him shrink away. I saw again my father that first time, snapping free the hook from the fish, telling me they felt no pain, then watching the silver thing buck and squirm in his rough hands.

I knelt, my brother’s eyes wide and watery as he screamed, and picked up the tackle knife. I cut the nylon close to his cheek, took the hook, and thrust it deeper through the ball of his eye. He cried, struggled weakly, tried to twist his head away, but I held him firmly locked under my arm. The hook passed through, the barb bobbling a lump of white as it poked free. I pushed again, feeding the metal through my brother’s eye like I was threading an eyelet.

It came free. A lot of blood followed. My brother dropped to the ground and started to shake. Sweat poured from his whitening skin.

Then our father came back, and it was alright. The ice cream helped. He wasn’t even angry that we used his rod. He stayed calm. He tied cloth round my brother’s head, told him to keep his eye closed. He pointed out the cut on my right thumb, where the hook must have sliced up through the air on its way to my brother’s face, asked if I could bend it. I couldn’t, had to get an operation to reconnect the tendon. My brother had to have stitches in his eye, but there was no permanent damage.

Our father didn’t leave us alone again though, not for a long time. We all went to get ice cream together, after that day.

*

Maybe 150 pounds on the door now, and still no sound. The kid doesn’t like it, rolling his spurs, and I know.

“But sir,” says the kid abruptly, “if it doesn’t say his name on the sign, how can the people judge him?”

I shrug.

“Does it matter?”

He doesn’t answer for a moment, then, in a quiet voice.

“Of course it does. Sir? Of course it does.”

I turn to face him, his eyes watery and afraid.

“How many deaths did you say I’ve watched?” I ask.

“I think, uh, 1216. 1217?”

“And do you know how many of those were guilty? Do you know how many were innocent?”

“Um.”

“Not so ready with that figure?”

“I don’t, they don’t tell,” he stammers, “it’s not for the people to know, is it?”

“You know how many Accused I’ve seen walk away?” I ask, ignoring his question. ” How many I’ve seen live through a Watch?”

He doesn’t answer.

“One,” I say, and should stop at that, but it’s welling up in me too. “So do you think it really matter what it says on the sign? One in 1217 lived. Do you think a name matters?”

The kid is silent. He is thinking. I don’t blame him.

*

That one. The survivor. I wasn’t even there to see it. If I’d been there, none of this would have happened.

He wasn’t saved by the mercy of the people. That never happens. No. He lived because a Watcher intervened. A Watcher saved his life.

Now that Watcher lies beneath the door to my right, 160 pounds and gaining on his chest, and still not a sound. No name on the signs, no picture, no crimes. At least, not his.

*

That day, I know there was nothing else I could do. I know that now. It was bound to have happened, one way or another.

My mother called. She never calls. She told me our father had had a bad stroke. He was going to die, within hours. He wanted to see me, and just me. I wanted to call my brother, tell him, call off the Watch if I had to. But I didn’t. My mother made me swear I wouldn’t tell him, so I didn’t.

I took the monorail to the country, all the while watching fat zeppelins dusting white trails across the open sky, thinking about my father, stroking the scar on my thumb from a fishing hook when we were children.

3 hours. I took a taxi to the community, ran through the reception without a thought. I was in my black and silvers, spurs striking sparks along the marble corridors, old folks with zimmer frames and fear on their faces skittering out of my way.

At the door, I paused for a moment. I knew what to expect on the other side. I’ve seen over a thousand men die. Then I opened the door.

A small figure like a child, wrinkled and pale, swaddled with metal and glowing glass screens, my mother huddled and grey at the side. Windows open, daylight streaming in obscenely.

“You came,” she whispered, stood, hurried over to me. “And in your uniform!” There were tears in her eyes. “He’ll be so proud of you! So proud!”

She stood aside, ushered me forward.

I walked up to him. His eyes were glazed. His mouth was slack. A line of saliva had dribbled down his cheek. He barely moved as I approached, but he knew. I could feel it. I could see the glint of my silver epaulettes in his pupils. He knew, and a tear swelled like a crescent moon against his eyelid, caught up in the lashes. I waited for it to burst, to froth up and flow down his face, but there wasn’t enough. I took his withered hand in my own, and I felt his pride shining up at me. Then he died.

The screens whined, green blips fading from sight. A nurse came rushing in, but I waved her away. She left.

At my side my mother was weeping quietly. I put my arm around her, held her. She felt so frail. She felt like a whole life, a whole person, squeezed into too frail a shell. She was always so much more alive, always, than this body allowed her to be.

“He was at the pond,” she said, and her voice was clear. “You know. You’ve seen him. He was talking to me. Telling me stories. Things he’d never told me before. About you two, the boys. About your scar, your brother’s accident, you saving his eye. I never knew about that. He told me everything, almost as if he knew. I love him more for it. All the while, dabbing his cane in the water.”

She looked up at me, tears burning in her eyes.

“He loved you. He did. He never wrote, but he was so proud, Stanislav. I can’t begin to explain it. Perhaps of you most of all. Did you ever know he tried to join the Watch, as a young man? They rejected him, failed tests. Then to have 2 sons, two, take that position. I think he was so proud, he didn’t have words for it. He didn’t know how to tell you. He loved you so much.”

It was almost too much. The old man’s body right there, before us, and my mother like that. So many words. She fell silent, then reached into the pocket of her blouse, drew out a white square of tissue paper.

“His words, Stanny,” she said. “I wrote everything he could say. Read it.”

I take the crumpled paper. It is soft and thin in my hands. I read the words.

look after your brother, Stanislav. he needs you. he always did. you’ve been like the father I could never be.

I folded the paper neatly, placed it reverently in my pocket. Stepped back over to my father’s body, brushed my palm down his forehead like I’ve done a thousand times before, over his eyes. They closed, and the swollen tear finally burst free.

*

It was that day, the day I left my brother alone on the Watch for the first time in 11 years, that the protestors came. It was a crushing. They kicked over the door before my brother could stop them, the pinions too loose to hold it. The half-broken body beneath was unveiled.

Crumpled nose. Shadowy indentations in his chest, in place of ribs. Thick bubbled lines of blood spuming from his mouth. Feet, ankles, twisted to the wrong angles.

He tried to put the door back. I know, he tried. He shot the protestors. He tried to put the door back. The man was screaming, all red and white noise, and he tried to put the door back, but he couldn’t.

Instead he untied the man, set him in a taxi, and sent him off to hospital. Then he went to the Watch, and offered himself up for judgement.

They held him. They kept it quiet. They told the world, Reykavan Uslow is retiring. Thankyou for your service, Reykavan, and enjoy your retirement. 2 weeks later, they put him underneath a door, on the same bridge, with the dead man’s name and numbers on the boards before him. My brother’s name is Reykavan Uslow, and he’s my brother, but that’s not what it says on the signs.

He’s lying beside me right now, and no-one will ever know. They didn’t even care when I requested the duty.

*

The kid questions me to the end. Why is there no sound? Sure, maybe he’s the wrong guy, but why is there no sound? Nobody can take that much! It’s impossible!

He wanted to take off the weights and check. I said no. I said we can’t. He insisted, cited rules, said he would file a protest, quivering at the thought of challenging the famous Stanislav Uslow. I said I would have his job, and I will.

I have the record, and the contacts. He’ll be off the Watch before tomorrow. He wasn’t man enough for it anyway.

When it’s dark I leave. I don’t stay around for the clean-up. There’s no need.

*

My home is empty. My home was always empty. But now my brother is dead.

His last words to me were: “I’m sorry.”

I told him I understood. I told him that father was proud of him. I told him it was all going to be OK, nobody would judge him guilty. I told him he would be returning home soon enough, reinstated with the Watch. His eyes were brimming with tears, and he knew, just as I did.

Then I ran my palm down his forehead, closing his eyes just as I had my father’s, just as I had a thousand men before them both, and I shot him in the heart.

*

I call his wife. Her voice is raw. I can hear the girls playing in the background. Ramus, Yviten, and Sacha. She hasn’t told them yet.

“He didn’t suffer,” I tell her. She hangs up the phone.

*

I remember my father. He was a good man, but he never made the Watch. I wonder if I will ever get married. I wonder if I will ever have children. My brother did. He was never a Watch man though. Not really.

I think tomorrow, I may walk into the Watch, and hand in my resignation. I killed my first man today. I think, maybe I’m not the man I thought I was. I think, maybe my brother, and my father, were better men than I.

Perhaps that’s what my father meant. Perhaps that’s what I should do. Perhaps that bullet was the best thing I ever did.

The strangest thing. It was such a beautiful day.

END

DARK FICTION

You can see all MJG’s stories here:

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Comments 5

  1. Okay. I have now read all of the scifi stories in your pages. And being honest here, most of this stuff could very well be published. They’re perhaps not the best of the best could perhaps use an editor and might be a little clumsy. But disregarding this – I’ve read a lot of stuff and I’ve read a lot of published stuff that’s a lot worse than these. I enjoyed the majority of them at least somewhat.

    I like the way you usually start the stories without telling how the world behind them operates. It creates a kind of tension element where the reader has to figure out the setting and usually does, before you lay it out. It’s satisfying and didn’t get old. Yet, at least.

    Fortune City: This is the first one I read. I originally took upon it due to recognizing Antifan’s art on the cover page. The commercial catchphrase trick was neat and tied down the story well. The punchline in the end could have been better, but still a good read. Made me read the rest.
    My Kids: Not much substance here. I’m indifferent.
    Freya 13:
    Route 66: Short. Kind of pointless.
    Hunting ground: Entertaining and interesting. You can see the ending coming, but it’s delivery is satisfying instead of lame. Enjoyed it.
    Cullsman #9: Upon reading, I thought this was the best one. Tired idea turned upside-down and made all interesting again. Tie-in with altered Prometheus myth works very well. Story seems larger than it is. Awesome.
    Fade out: Idea is kind of novel but the story is otherwise uninteresting, a conventional post-apocalyptic take. Somewhat enjoyable nevertheless.
    Deathwatch: Hardest-to-predict concept out of the stories here, yet the setting is otherwise very mundane. Pessimistic, bland writing style works very well with the setup. Delivers really hard – ending again visible beforehand but at the same time, satisfying. Almost moving. I’m writing this message in the the page of this story, because I think it’s the best of the lot.
    The Book of All: The concept’s kind of hard to swallow, but the writing works. Ending twist and brother character fail to deliver. Leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.
    Universal Time: Seems clumsier than the others. Has this been written longer time ago? The idea itself could work but the story itself is kind of a setting statement with a bland ending. Bleh.
    The Blue Chipset and the Thing: Too confusing and messy for me. If it had a point or if it was amazing, it was just too difficult. The worst of the lot.
    The Giant Robot and the Myna Bird: Very enjoyable children’s story -feel. Goes and works just as it should. I’ve written one story in the same vein too. Bittersweet and nice.

  2. Post
    Author

    Ian- Thanks a lot 🙂

    ntvr- That’s probably the most thorough review of my short stories I’ve yet received- thank you for taking the time to read them and then to comment here. I’m glad you could enjoy (most) of them, and really appreciate your thoughts on what made them work or not.

    On publication, some of these have been published on websites over the years. Deathwatch was in a literary zine called Amarillo Bay, Fortune City was in Quantum Muse I think, along with maybe Universal Time. Fadeout was published somewhere, and a print publisher a year ago was supposed to include it in an anthology but then that never happened. Route 66 and My Kids likewise appeared somewhere but I forget where- nowhere impressive. The others either were rejected for whatever reason (one publisher said Giant Robot was too boring. I chastened him on that- no need to be so direct to an aspiring writer. He didn’t like my tone and said never submit here again. I said don’t worry, there’s no chance I will!) or I never bothered to submit them (like Blue Chipset or Cullsman #9- because I thought they’d not sell).

    The idea of not explaining the world from the start, and letting it unfold with the story- I’m glad that came across, it’s something I definitely appreciate when I’m reading fiction. It’s a bit like in media res, a bit like raising more questions than you answer. I’m working on a novel now and this sort of thing keeps cropping up. Do I need to explain the world before I start? Ha, no, just start, and explain as we go along.

    Age of stories- Universal Time and My Kids were both very early stories, some of the first ‘completed’ stories I wrote, so I suppose it’s good that those stood out as less good than the others. The most recent one though- Blue Chipset- is the worst in your book! So don’t know what to take from that… (uneasy smiley face here). Route 66 is an excerpt from a longer work that I put to one side years ago- though I’ll come back to it soon I imagine.

    You mention your writings- how might I find some?

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. You’re welcome. I felt obliged to give feedback since I enjoyed some of these, and the comment sections seemed kind of empty. Also, the Freya 13 comment is not supposed to be blank, it’s just supposed to refer to the comment I gave in the page for that story.

    And as for my “stories”, there’s actually only one. I mentioned it because it’s a bit in the same vein as the robot thingy. It’s not very good nor published anywhere, but I pasted it into a story thread in an image board some time ago. The thread is archived here (search for orbiter-tan, images are mine too):
    http://4chanarchive.org/brchive/dspl_thread.php5?thread_id=3261570&x=Today2C+We+Tell+Stories

  4. Post
    Author

    I checked out the orbiter-tan story, I really enjoyed it, and can see how thematically it’s similar to mine. I just wanted more of a resolution in yours, as the story seems to fade out rather than end.

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