David A. Jones
PART ONE — DEATH AT HOME
The guards were Warrel, big and brandishing shock-clubs. They didn’t bother to wake Charlie, only dragged him from his bed and bustled him down the secret halls beneath ministry offices. He offered them no resistance.
They brought him to a small white room and forced him to sit in a small white chair.
It was a death room. Charlie knew it when he saw the heavy steel door and hard-tiled walls. It was small and no doubt soundproof. He would not leave here without dying at least once.
Three people sat behind a long plastic table, facing Charlie.
He recognized Holy Father Reece, Auzor of New York, who sat on the far left. The high clergyman wore the bright red robes of his office, with long pointed cuffs and a stubby conical hat, all of it overlain with shiny gold cloth in rich designs. The aged Warrel, who, like all his people, looked human, stared at Charlie with piercing blue eyes like chips of ice.
Beside Father Reece sat a beautiful woman. She looked to be roughly the same age as Charlie — in her early twenties — but if she were Warrel, she might well be nearing her early seventies.
She too stared at Charlie with a fierce intensity, but her eyes were black so that her pupils seemed overly large. Like her eyes, the woman’s hair was the color of midnight. Her nose was pert, her lips full, her breasts ample. Under different circumstances Charlie thought he might be very attracted to a woman like this. But, then, Warrels didn’t mix with humans, did they?
On the far right, seated slightly away from the others, sat Humphrey, the human interrogator who had been assigned to Charlie’s case these last three weeks since armed police had stormed his flat on Eastwater Street, knocking him unconscious and bringing him here to the New York Ministry of Warrel/Human relations. Of the three, Humphrey was the only one to smile, but it was a strained expression.
That smile said, I warned you, Charlie, now look where you are.
“Mr. Parkson,” said Father Reece. His voice was deep, but somehow pervaded kindness and understanding.
Charlie said nothing. They all knew his name.
“The Church is concerned about your life path, Mr. Parkson. Deeply concerned.” Auzor Reece was one of those people in authority who can capitalize the first letter of a spoken word. “The Church” in question was the Church of the All-Point, the only active religion in Warrel, and now Human, society.
“I know,” said Charlie.
Father Reece thumbed a data sheet about the size of his palm. The paper-thin computer flickered as the Auzor cycled through several pages.
“Three weeks you’ve been a guest of the ministry.”
Charlie had never strapped a guest to a bed and pumped him full of barbiturates, forcing him to divulge the names and occupations of every friend he had ever had. And he had certainly never broken a guest’s fingers in the morning, repaired them in the afternoon, only to break them again in the evening.
“Yes,” said Charlie.
“Mr. Humphrey’s report states that you are incorrigible.” The Auzor looked round at Humphrey.
“Ah, yes, Father,” said Humphrey. “Mr. Parkson failed to respond to any form of treatment we provided. He exhibits classic signs of heathenism: disrespect for authority of any kind, abhorrent lifestyle choices — though not homosexual, he refuses to marry and reproduce as is wholesome for a human male of his age. Ah, he chaffs against following the All-Point doctrine, shunning Church practices. Of course, like many of his type, he sought out like-minded individuals with whom he formed a quasi religious sect to denounce religion. Our team has tried, over these last few weeks, to show Charlie that his desire for an assembly is, in reality, a yearning to worship the All-Point. But Mr. Parkson fails to see the resemblance between his activities and those of the Church.” Humphrey shook his head, looking sad. “His type spend their whole lives seeking the All-Point, but all they ever find is disharmony.”
The Auzor returned his gaze to Charlie and said, “Do you wish to recant now, Mr. Parkson? I advise you to accept this invitation.”
Charlie’s heart beat fast. Its rhythm hammered in his head. He figured his chances of leaving this room without dying at least once were now about the same as the chance of the earth falling into the sun in the next two minutes. This was it, everything they had prepared him for. He was going to die.
Charlie began to shake. He made no effort to hide it. Let them see a frightened man before them in all their self-righteous glory — with all their good words about bringing comfort and peace to the galaxy.
“You tremble, Mr. Parkson, and still you say no,” said Father Reece. “But you should understand that it isn’t fear that makes your body react this way. It is the pull of the All-Point, my son. It compels you to submit, to accept and to worship.”
Humphrey, who had been staring at the death room’s door, turned his gaze on Charlie. He mouthed the words, “Do it.”
“No,” said Charlie again, this time looking at Humphrey.
You broke my fingers, you son of a bitch. He tried to convey this thought to the man, who must have read it on Charlie’s face, because he looked away.
Father Reece sighed. It was not a sound of exasperation or even resignation, but seemed to say, see, this is how it is with some of these humans. What can you do?
“In that case, Mr. Parkson, your reconditioning will be raised to a new level.” Father Reece motioned to the guards who stood behind Charlie.
One man placed ham-sized paws on Charlie’s shoulders while the other pressed something cold against his neck.
A mechanical click and a short, sharp pain followed. And then. . . nothing. The guards released him and Charlie rubbed the spot where his fingers expected to feel a foreign object, but his skin was unblemished.
“Have you ever heard of a timetag, Mr. Parkson?” asked the woman.
“No,” lied Charlie.
“It is a non-spatial marker,” said the beautiful woman and for the first time her eyes, those dead, black eyes, seemed to sparkle with something akin to life and interest. “It exists in one hundred millionth of a second. In all other respects it has no existence: no length and no width. It occupies only time. One now exists in the same time-space as your body only a moment ago.”
“What does it do?” asked Charlie. He had only ever seen the schematics; Coalman was too afraid to explain the particulars for fear that someone might leak it outside the resistance. Despite his fear, the reporter in Charlie was curious.
“It marks your place here, in this room, at the instant it was applied, by slightly altering the linear phase of your body. It’s like a bubble, but one so tiny it doesn’t exist in our reality. By using it as a reference point, we are able to send you, or more rightly, your memories and consciousness, from any point in the future to that instant, as if all time were reversed for you.” The woman’s smile had faded as she spoke, until her eyes became like two shimmering blobs of water on a block of stone. She wanted him to understand this very well.
And he did.
“The mechanics of the device do not matter,” said Father Reece, waving his hand as if to dismiss some foul stench. “We shall meet here again soon, and I will ask you to repent before me, ask forgiveness for your heathenism and accept the All-Point. You may be tempted to lie, but it will not work. You must have a conversion of the heart — of the base elements of your being, which belong, even now, to the All-Point.”
Another gesture set the guards in motion. Humphrey came around the table, his every movement speaking reluctance, but still he came. The guards forced Charlie onto his knees, and now, as the moment approached, as his heart gave a mighty lurch in his chest, he finally fought back. But his feeble struggles gained him nothing. The guards were too strong. They didn’t even use their shock-clubs, just kicked his feet out from under him, slamming his knees painfully on the tiles.
Charlie looked up at Humphrey, his fellow human. The man did not hesitate. He had probably done this too many times to have second thoughts now.
In his right hand, Humphrey carried a small object. It was black and had a beveled grip made of hard rubber. Charlie recognized it as a tool used by surgeons and petty criminals. A Laser Razor they called it, though it didn’t use light to cut. Its metal blade bore a filament edge only one micron across. When activated it could cut steel into thin slices.
Humphrey clicked it on with a thumb. It buzzed into life, a sound that seemed to scratch at Charlie’s eardrums.
One guard jerked Charlie’s head back, exposing his throat, while the other held him still. It happened so fast Charlie didn’t think to use his hands which were unbound. Maybe living in a mostly peaceful society had bred him soft. Maybe he was too surprised to move — he hadn’t expected it to be like this. Either way, Humphrey slit Charlie’s throat before he even thought to fight.
The pain came long after the warm wet feeling of blood coursing down his chest to stain his blue prison overalls. It occurred to Charlie, even as his life ebbed away, that he had never really smelled blood, not in this quantity anyway. It really did smell metallic, just like in the novels.
Charlie tried to scream as the first waves of pain arrived, as if his injured throat only now realized it had grown a grinning, lipless mouth. But no sound came, only a gurgling whistle that formed sticky, red bubbles just above his Adam’s apple.
“Lie down,” whispered Humphrey. “It will go easier for you.”
Charlie did it. And why not? He could feel his hands and feet beginning to tingle as the blood escaped him. That’s life’s blood, he thought, as he lay on one side. Above him, Father Reece and the woman watched impassively.
He coughed. Once. Twice. And then the darkness came and with it a cold like nothing he had ever experienced. It was the cold of loss, not just of life, but of everything, of all he had been and everything that is: the Earth, the stars, the universe.