Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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A Question of Remembrance

by Kevin Gordon



The kid sat in front of Stewart with the same expression of jovial contempt the dozens before him had worn, and he bored Stewart utterly. A question was asked by the AIR, and the kid spouted off nonsense in reply. The small holoscreen in front of Stewart displayed the assessment of the veracity of the kid's statement, but Stewart didn't need to see the red bars to tell that he and the machine were being fed a lot of horseshit.

"The Enforcement Officer," said the inflectionless synthetic voice known as the Automatic InteRrogator, "is now allowed to ask two questions of the defendant. Please begin."

Stewart leaned forward on the metal desk, as the kid managed to slouch even further back in the small chair. "I'm not gonna waste your time, like you're wasting mine. We got eighteen different gangs of all sizes struggling to control some piece of the territory, with none of them succeeding and all of them managing to make life miserable for the rest of us."

"So?"

"The defendant has volunteered an answer. This will not count against the officer's allotment of questions," interjected the AIR.

"So I'm tired of stupidity, but that's all's anyone's got. There ain't no new ships bein' built, kid. All the rumors of utopia being one more trip off are all lies. We're stuck here, and we've got to make the best of it, and we won't get that chance unless the gangs stop fighting."

The kid shrugged. "Maybe you EOs should help one of us get to the top. Maybe then, the fightin'll stop."

"The defendant has volunteered an answer. This will not count against the officer's allotment of questions," again said the AIR.

"We tried that twenty years ago with the A-lines. They got greedy, and took more than they should have, and killed when they didn't need too, and the gangs came back again." Stewart took a deep breath. "Your generation was supposed to be the one of hope, the promise of something better. And yet here you sit, arrested after carving your initials in the forehead of a girl you just killed."

"She pissed me off! Dumb bitch."

"The defendant has admitted to his crime," said the AIR."Formal interrogation can be -- "

"Halt!" interrupted Stewart. "The EO requests permission to continue interrogation for the purpose of secondary crime."

After the briefest of pauses, the AIR said "Permission granted. Five questions may be used."

The boy spat on the table in disgust. "You gonna ask me anything?"

"Yeah," said Stewart, leaning forward. "What were you doing on the outskirts of Franklin Dome afterwards?"

"Nothin ... whatddya mean?" asked the kid, genuinely confused. "I ain't never been to Franklin Dome! That's all Cretes out there. I'd get sliced up after step one."

"But you were found out there. We searched and found you just below the last docking bay, in service tunnels leading to an exit hatch. Why would you try to go out onto the surface of the planet?"

The kid shook his head. "You crazy! I ain't never --"

"Think dammit, think! You were there; I found you myself. No one put you there; several cameras chronicled your progress once you broke the seal into the service tunnels. Did you have a weapons buy there? A drug buy? Think!"

The kid blinked his eyes, and Stewart could see there was something lurking under the surface. Sweat poured down the kid's forehead, and his hands began to tremble.

"Why would I be in Crete territory?" the kid asked himself aloud. "I don't got no death wish. How ... Who told me to go there?"

Stewart kept silent, knowing he had only one more question. He hoped the kid would be able to get through whatever barrier was in his mind and tell him what he needed to know. He had been following this hunch for several months now, that something was drawing floaters from the Domes over to Franklin. It started out of boredom, but lately he had begun to think there was actually something going on.

"Damn, I had just killed that dumb bitch, and ... was it raining? Yeah, there was rain, and light like the mitters, but it was so warm. And there was some kind of rustling, in the darkness. Something stood in front of me and nothing could have made me look up into its eyes. It had a voice, a terrible voice, that reminded me of --"

The kid collapsed forward, blood leaking from his nose.

"Defendant's vitals have ceased. Log noted with time of death. Visual record will indicate arresting officer had no physical contact with victim. Internal affairs will be notified ..."

Stewart got to his feet, still looking at the kid. You're the third, kid, but you gave me a whole lot more than the other two.

####

After filing a brief report with a subconsul, Stewart sat down at his desk and touched a thin metallic oval with his finger. A holo-image appeared of his wife, Catherine, and he sat back in his chair to admire it. It wasn't a current representation; she had put on a considerable amount of weight since she posed for it some ten years ago. This image was of a youthful, playful woman, before becoming pregnant, before being raped, before stumbling into a crime scene Stewart forgot to tell her about. He partly blamed himself for her weight gain; after all, as a government employee, his family received a generous allotment of real, nutritious food. In fact he had resigned himself to never seeing that lithe, playful figure again, but once in a while his soul needed to feed on the memory.

####

Titanus was supposed to be the pit-stop for the exodus of Earth ships; a place to regroup, repair, rebuild and venture forth. But in the eighty years it took to get here, technology advanced by leaps and bounds, and what was originally a barren, cold rock of a world was transformed within ten years into a safe haven, with fifteen domed cities each with a small synthetic sun, offering parks, farms, rivers and a much reduced sense of claustrophobia. Suicides decreased exponentially and birth rates skyrocketed. Music and art flourished, and for a time people spoke of the rebirth of the spirit of the human race.

That was before a mining crew found small pink crystals growing in a secluded cave in a nearby mountain range, and someone had the bright idea to grind, heat and refine the resultant gas, making for an amazingly effective inhaled depressant calledbeatin. It was virally addictive, with almost eighty-percent of the population inhaling it at one point or another within ten years after discovery. The provisional government outlawed it and in the following five years was almost successful in eradicating the distribution centers, but greed was almost as addictive as beatin, and as subconsul after subconsul supplemented their government income with gang bribes, beatin slowly but surely became intertwined with human life on Titanus.

Stewart stood on the corner of a street on the second level that overlooked the downtown of Janus Dome, wincing a little as micropani scoured under his arms and around his genitals, cleaning those areas deemed 'dirty.' And though the streets were cleaned the same way, along with every other inhabitant of the domes, it all still looked foul and diseased to his eyes.

We were winning, he thought to himself.We had turned the corner, beatin was becoming harder to find and people seemed not to even want it anymore. Yet in these past five years it has surged back stronger than ever.

"Looking down on everyone again," said a woman's voice just behind Stewart.

"Yeah, you might say that," answered Stewart, refusing to turn around.

She came next to him and laid her hand on his on the cold railing.

"Kristi, why are you here?"

"I'm your partner, aren't I?" she asked as she pointed to the badge pinned to her belt.

"It's an antiquated formality that you've never adhered to before. Why now?"

"You want me to say it?" she asked. "Fine; I miss you."

Growing up, Stewart dreamt of a time when a woman would say that to him, and his passionate, romantic response would be to sweep her in his arms and carry her away. But in the reality of the moment, only honesty came out; after all, Kristi was an affair that turned into a mistake and Stewart was eager to distance himself from her.

"I don't miss you."

Slowly, she withdrew her hand, and awkwardly remained at his side. "Well, you need to tell me what's going on. What's with the interrogations of these floaters?"

Stewart leaned forward, over the railing, feeling the circulated air rush by him. "No, I don't. You have your case files, and I have mine."

He turned and walked away, and as he did, Kristi yelled after him.

"Stewart! Stewart, you'll regret leaving me, you cold, emotionlessfake! One day, you'll be alone, and in pain, and needing someone to listen to you, or help you, and I won't be there! One night you'll shake from fear in the darkness and be unable to go asleep, and wish to the heavens that someone could tell you it'll all be alright, but I won't be there!"

####

The corridors under the Franklin Dome were some of the most rundown Stewart had ever seen. Dank sewers, they were lined with concrete and excreted a smell that conjured up memories of films from ancient Earth in which criminals of the underworld ran, ferrying guns and drugs from one city to another. He used to watch hundreds of the old films when he was growing up, and even shared them with Kristi. As he traveled to meet a liaison assigned to him to investigate the floaters, he couldn't help but think on the brief pleasure Kristi gave him, especially since lately he had been striking out with women.

Three large figures rounded a faraway corner, and Stewart instinctually checked his weapon. He hoped they would just pass him by, as he was dressed incognito. Their laughter and talk got louder as they got closer, and Stewart could make out they were probably steroid-enhanced children serving as someone's guard-dogs.

"Lookit the geyser," jeered one, as they got closer. "What turf he be from?"

"Do it matter?" asked another. "Shouldn't be down here."

"I gotta job," said Stewart with a dismissive confidence in his voice. "Keep outta my way."

He passed by them, and they he, and he could see them eyeing him up and down, debating whether or not to do something. A part of him wished they would. Lately, he had gotten sick of the degenerates that made up most of the community. So many people hooked on beatin, so many people in some way or another doing business with the eighteen gangs, it was almost as if Titanus no longer had a government, instead running on the corruption of its people. Every once in a while a muted statement would be released detailing the effects beatin had on the populace, with the few active scientists determining that the human race no longer possessed the necessary brainpower to venture back out into space. Their own vice had been their undoing, leaving them marooned on an isolated alien world.

His hand rested on the handle of his weapon, itching to use it. He thought how disappointed he was that things didn't work out with Kristi, as she was one of the few women he came across who was attractive, intelligent, and not hooked onbeatin and not making money off those hooked on it. One time he actually screamed in bed with pleasure when he was with her; a rare display of passion that, unbeknownst to him, precipitated his rejection of her advances.

"C'mon dogs," said one of the pimple-faced boys, "let's leave the little scrappin' bone for losers who can't do no better."

They laughed, and he seethed, desperate to vent his building anger. In the dank, dark corners of his mind, memory struggled to surface. It pulsed like a thunderbolt against the cavity of his mind, but it wasn't strong enough to overcome safeguards long ago put in place. His hand yearned to hold something, some weapon other than his standard-issue gun. He had felt the same way the night he screamed with Kristi; the urge to hold a weapon he could no longer remember. And it frustrated him to no end, because there was no moving on; he was as stuck as the colony was, and couldn't think of any way out.

####

The liaison assigned to him from the Franklin Dome Prefecture met him in a small briefing room in an office of the engineering substation close to the Dome's outskirts. Xuan wasn't old, but wasn't young; bags hung under her eyes, and her olive skin was sallow and hung slightly off her face and limbs as if she had recently lost weight. But her brown eyes were sweet and kind, and Stewart wondered how she became an EO.

"So we've got two floaters trailing subject D," she said, cuing up several holoscreens above a small metal desk.

"Name?"

"Richard Farnes, a low-level floater from Benny Dome."

Stewart motioned over one of the screens and focused on the suspect's image. "What is he, a ... Harrion, or a Vultra?"

"Good, good," she said, "you've got a good memory for the gangs. We don't actually know his affiliation; Benny Dome has fragmented too much. All we know is that he works on a processing line near the D9 reactor. Before today, he's barely been in any trouble."

"A family man," sneered Stewart, "who helps to manufacturebeatin to keep everyone addicted."

Xuan sighed. "Passionate about the whole thing?"

"How can't you be? This planet was meant to be a rest stop; instead we sit here and regress as a species. What'll happen to us in a hundred years? Two hundred?"

"We'll all be dead."

"And you don't care?"

She shrugged, and Stewart wanted to spit in her face.

Stewart examined the image of Richard Farnes again, as he moved in a seeming trance through territory he surely knew was dangerous for anyone from his gang. "Sometimes I think we couldn't have done this to ourselves."

"What do you mean?" she asked, obviously intrigued.

"We human beings have always been on a straight line up. We might have had wars, or drugs, but it never stopped our learning and growing and pushing on. Isn't it odd that some stupid little drug has beaten us so totally? I mean,beatin was almost eradicated five years ago, yet something brought it back."

"And?"

Stewart paused for a moment, debating about whether to proceed. "I know it sounds ludicrous, but what if some alien species wanted us to stop here? What if they planted those crystals, and helped us to find them? What if, when we fought back and weaned ourselves off it, they did something else to get us back on?"

Xuan thought for a moment as she closed some of the holoscreens. "Is that why you're out here, following these guys who seem to have a death wish?"

Stewart nodded. "They're going out to meet someone, and do something. Some isolated reports show a drop-off inbeatin addiction. You mentioned the guy we're following works to make beatin? Well, tell me; is he an addict?"

"No."

"No, he's not. Most of the 'factory' workers aren't addicts.Beatin has become another kind of commerce, and they are working to make a living."

"So you think they're being brought out here, so this 'alien' can get us all hooked again?"

"Yes." In saying that one word, Stewart was admitting for the first time to another person the suspicions he had for many years. In saying the word, he felt relief spread over him, and felt he could move forward.

She could see it on his face. "You look like a different man, all of a sudden."

"I feel different."

"What will you do now?" she asked in a softer voice.

Stewart centered his gaze on her. "You."

####

It was short and sloppy, but it got the job done. Stewart lounged half-asleep on a stranger's bed, wondering why he felt so much better.

"You wanna go again?" she asked, tracing a line in the sweat on his chest with her finger.

"I wanna get some answers."

"If it's all true, and some aliens are doing their best to keep the human race here, what makes you think you could do something alone?"

Stewart turned to face her. "Would I be alone?"

"I only just got to know you," she said, moving slightly away, "and besides, I'm not your partner. I'm just a liaison assigned to guide you in the right direction. No, what you're talking about is life and death, out on a limb type of investigations. I have a family who needs me, and I'm not about to leave them for a man I had a quick afternoon fling with because he had an epiphany of conscience."

Stewart got up and sat on the side of the bed, feeling frustrated and beaten. And again, a memory tried to surface. The pulse was stronger, and the shell that enclosed his mind fractured under its strength, but didn't break. He looked down at his hands, and knew he should be holding something, some object.

"What's so bad about her anyway?" asked Xuan as she rubbed his back.

"Who?"

Xuan picked up his isopad that had a picture of Catherine as its default image on the top. "Your wife."

Her voice snapped him back to the present. "Nothing; there's just nothing great."

"And what do you see when you look in the mirror?"

"I guess ... I guess I see the potential I'm striving towards. I may not be there yet, but I keep on pushing forward."

"And how do you know she doesn't see the same thing when she looks in the mirror? I don't know -- I'm not one to give out advice like this. But right now, you need to start building alliances with people you can trust. If you feel like this world is a lie, and beings that you can't see are distorting it, then you need to get your hands on solid facts, solid truth."

Stewart flashed her a thin smile. "I think you give out advice pretty well." He took a deep breath. "I think I should start with the gang-lord for this dome. This many kids from that many gangs couldn't pass through unmolested without some assistance. And if this is the point of contact, outside this dome, I'll bet -- what's the dominant gang on this side of Franklin?"

"The Cretes, though I'm not sure who their leader is."

"Well, the leader of the Cretes must be getting some kind of payment."

An audible chime rang from the front door of Xuan's suite. "My husband just parked his olacar. I need you to leave."

Stewart got up, and quickly got dressed. As he searched around to make sure he didn't leave anything, what she just said clicked in his mind.

"You have an alarm to tell you when your husband's coming home?"

They stood in silence for a moment, both looking at each other with open, clear eyes.

"Yeah, well," said Stewart, as he headed for the door, "I'm no saint either."

####

Stewart stood near the bay window of a nearby cafe, leaning against one of the metal pillars. The window opened out onto the naked landscape of the world known as Titanus. In the distance, the twinkling of lights could be seen of the great domed cities of Austin, Merloia, Benlana, and Frankenburg, but it was the three objects in the center that always drew Stewart's eye.

"You never could take your eyes off them," said Catherine, as she came to stand beside him. He didn't actually turn to see her, but he felt her warmth and heard her voice. "Didn't we even come here on our first date?"

"Yeah," said Stewart, as his eyes lingered on the shapes of the three massive ships that brought his ancestors across space from Earth to Titanus. They lay dormant and disused, with the Valiant even listing to one side, sinking down into the rocky mantle of the world. "I could never understand how we can all just let them sit there, when they represent so much."

"Did you say something?"

Stewart turned, and Catherine wasn't there. In her place stood two officers with the downcast eyes of dirty, sad business. Stewart felt like something brittle and old crawled up his spine, and the memory in his mind cackled with dark laughter.

"What happened?"

"Your ex-wife, Catherine Reynolds, and your son, Joshua Reynolds, are both dead."

####

In an hour he stood in what used to be their suite. It was the first thing he bought with his promotion, and she was elated when they moved in. Their son was born a few streets away, and he could still remember the time she went into her last labor, and as he looked on a couch soaked in their blood, he remembered it was on it that Josh had said his first words.

"Where are the bodies?" asked Stewart flatly.

"It ... it was horrible," said one of them, a tall male, with eyes covered in a drug-induced haze. "Just horrible."

Stewart turned to the other officer; a short woman with clear eyes, dressed in a neatly arranged uniform. "Where are the bodies?"

"The chief doesn't want you to see them," she answered quickly. "I'm sorry."

Stewart looked her square in the eyes, and somehow she understood that both her and her partner's lives depended on letting him see the bodies.

She pulled him to the side, as her partner found something amusing in the pattern of blood stain on the ceiling. "The morgue truck is still here. Come down quickly," she whispered, "and by the service elevator. I can't have anyone see you!"

"Fine. Hurry-up!"

In the ride down the service elevator, memories long forgotten began to thump with a relentless drumbeat on the shell of his mind. The lower the lift descended, the stronger the pulses were, until as they reached the bottom floor, his ego shattered, leaving his consciousness in ruin. The blackness that had covered what was known before was pulled aside, revealing a red curtain. A frigid chill crept up his spine and settled there, twisting his lips into a thin sneer.

"This way," she said, motioning him off the elevator. "Are you sure --"

"Lead on."

The truck was backed up against the rear loading dock. A single stretcher sat in the bay, and on it sat a black rubber body bag dripping with blood.

"Why only one?" he asked.

"Like I said, it was horrible."

Stewart quickly unzipped the bag, revealing what once was his wife. Her body was mutilated in a way he had never seen before. Her skull was split open, not by force or by a knife, but by some kind of heat. Her flesh was charred, the bone was burned, and the inside of her head was ... hollow.

"Where ... where is her brain?"

"I ... I don't know, sir," she said quietly. "You really shouldn't be looking at that."

She prattled on about the emotionally precarious place he was in, but it was all so much static, for now he understood. The life he had led up to this point was now over, with the same finality with which he had ended the previous one. Memories long buried became fully integrated in his mind, and for the first time he realized what his hand was missing; the long, laser-tipped knife of the most successful serial killer in human history.Someone deprived me of my pleasure, and I shall deprive them of their life.

####

He sucked on a tangerine as he waited for an audience with the quaestor. For some reason, the taste and the smell of a tangerine dulled the raging inferno of his homicidal desires, so his rational mind could work properly. Before his last kill those many years ago, before the underground hypnosis that buried the beast he was, the only way he could function around normal people was to suck on a tangerine all through the day.

"Come on in, Stewart," said the quaestor, an immaculately dressed man with long, lean limbs and a thick bushy mustache. "Take a load off. Sad business, this," he said, leaning forward on a desk with ten different holoscreens cued on all sides. "I'm sure you read the report by now. Hopefully you understand why I didn't let you see the bodies."

"Yeah, I get it."

The quaestor nodded. "You eatin' tangerines again? I remember back in the academy you couldn't put 'em down."

Stewart shrugged, and kept on sucking at the pulpy fruit.

"Anyway, I suppose you wanna get those responsible?"

"I believe those responsible are those who are involved with mybeatin investigation," said Stewart with precise diction. The quaestor had a bad habit of dumbing-down his speech when speaking to the officers, and Stewart wasn't in the mood. "As I've detailed in my report, there are many inconsistencies and peculiarities that add up to only one conclusion."

The quaestor sat up straight and flipped through several screens, on which several spreadsheets could be seen containing rows and rows of monetary transactions. Stewart tried to casually lean forward to focus on what was being read, but it was too far. "That some external force is invested in the continued addiction of the human race tobeatin?"

"Yes," replied Stewart. "And to my knowledge, I am the first to come to that conclusion."

The quaestor nodded. "You always had a formidable logical mind, unlike your peers. Never once have your conclusions been in error, so despite how far-fetched this report might be, you wrote it before the death of your family. You wrote it of sound mind, not influenced by the need for revenge. I literally have no choice but to approve your further investigations."

For the first few years of service in the praetorian, Stewart had trouble understanding how a police force could be managed by a man who also oversaw a large part of the government's finances. But soon he understood that the quaestor could see the financial dealings for many citizens in a blink of an eye, and have the computer delineate inconsistencies that would underline criminal activity. Ever since then, he always presented logical arguments, and was rarely refused.

Stewart nodded. "One more thing." He placed his isopad on the quaestor's desk, casually pushing aside the holoscreens, with a document cued. "Please approve this."

The quaestor slowly picked it up, and read its meager contents. "You want free-rein to do what's necessary to stop this conspiracy, and bring the perpetrators to justice?"

"Absolute free-rein. No matter what you hear, I am not to be contested. You'll also see that if any of those who suffer by my interrogations prove to be innocent, I will not only turn in my badge immediately and end my investigation, I will voluntarily plead guilty to whatever charge you deem appropriate."

The quaestor eyed Stewart up and down. As an EO Stewart had always been even-handed in his investigations; never one to torture a suspect or strong-arm a perp. Yet he could see something in Stewart's eyes that made him uneasy, but it wasn't enough to prevent his hand from signing his name to the contract of blood and death.

"So what got you all excited now?"

Stewart indignantly harrumphed. "My wife, and my son --"

"Cut the crap, Stewart. I've seen you with Kristi, and Heather, and a number of others over the years. Pretend with the others who fall for your 'grieving husband' act, but give me some respect. You lost the right to feel this passionate a while ago. This feels like an excuse to me, for you to do something you've wanted to for a very long time."

Stewart began to fidget with his hand, itching to hold something. "So why are you letting me do it?"

The quaestor shrugged. "Maybe I've done some looking of my own; after all, I can see financial transactions for public as well as private citizens, and there has been a curious rerouting of funds during the past five years. Maybe I remember what you were like when you used to suck on those tangerines. Maybe I think that kind of man is the only one that could take care of things." He leaned back, rearranging his holoscreens. "I see many things, officer; a good many of which I can't do anything about. The trail of dark finance inevitably leads to one with very dark power, and I don't envy you this task." He leaned forward, pushing aside the holoscreens to face Stewart with unusual candor. "I've learned who you are, but believe it or not, it doesn't scare me as much as who you're going up against."

As Stewart exited the station, he paused at a window that provided a good reflection. Usually he would examine his reflection after leaving work to check for stray marks left by any office dalliances done during the day. He looked hard at his reflection, moving this arm and that, and wondered why he was having such trouble making out the details on his face.

####

Stewart went back to his suite, and by the time he got there the micropani had already cleaned half of it. It was a striking delineation between the pure, white wall and the blood and flesh-stained side, separated by an undulating line of miniature metal. Stewart headed for the bedroom, knelt beside the head of the bed, and pressed on a depression in the floor to activate a hidden panel.

If you were smart, you would've tied up my family and searched for something incriminating. But no, you had to play it stupid.

From a small space within he brought out a sheathed knife. Pulling it out into the light, it appeared a dull grey, almost like it was made of the metal from a commercial kitchen sink.

Technology is a wonderful thing. As he grasped the handle, three microscopic lasers activated, making an almost invisible point at the tip that oscillated slowly back and forth. A commercial-grade utility lance, its tip and blade could cut through the toughest of environment suits, and even slice through shield-tiles on a starship. His particular blade had tirelessly cut through over three thousand men, women and children, and it was showing no signs of wear or tear.

With that blade as his remembered weapon at his side, he ventured back out onto the streets, liberated after so long a sleep. The weight of the knife in its sheath felt good and natural, as if he put back on a piece of himself that was lost. The only condition that soured the experience was that he couldn't kill indiscriminately, that he must be focused on those responsible for his family's death. But it was the thought of being able to play with his victims for as long as his heart desired that made him giddy.

They sat against the walls, shaking like fallen leaves on a windy autumn afternoon, the young mass of humanity.Beatinhad taken its hold firmly on them, and refused to let go. Stewart felt like skipping down the street with his laser-tipped knife, slicing the throats of the dross and dreck, thinking how few would be missed. But with a sneer he shrugged off his homicidal desire, instead ordering Richard Farnes to be brought in for questioning.

####

Richard sat before Stewart with a wide smirk, lounging in the wide metal chair in front of the desk. The AIR did its dance of asking preliminary questions, and all the while Stewart fidgeted with the knife that lay on the table.

"Preliminary identity verified; suspect has not volunteered any information of worth. Releasing interrogation to Carden, Stewart."

"Thank you. Now, what were you doing in Franklin Dome?"

"Fuck off -- none of your goddamned!"

Stewart leaned forward, and with a wide, leering smile said "Wrong answer!"

Stewart's hand shot out like lightning, grasped the top of the boy's head, and slammed it hard on the metal table. By the time the boy recovered and sat back up, Stewart was already standing behind him.

Blood trickled from his nose. "This is harassment! I want protection!"

"AIR," asked Stewart sweetly, "is the young man entitled to protection?"

"Sections 5A-109S of the victim's rights have been suspended for this EO, and this interview. The EO may proceed without intervention."

"What?" screamed Richard.

Stewart leaned in close to the boy's head. "So, in case you don't understand what that means, I can literally peel off your skin with this knife," he said, holding the instrument up, "and feed it to you. In this room, I hold the power not only of life and death, but of torment and pain. Now, shall we play again?"

The youth only had to look at Stewart for a few seconds before he understood how serious he was.

"I ... I don't know how I got there! One minute I'm walking down the narrows with Chelsey, and the next I'm sitting in a squad car!"

"Defendant has given a truthful account," volunteered the AIR.

Stewart picked up the knife and turned it so the laser point oscillated over the boy's hand.

"I told the truth -- you heard what it said!"

"What else should I know?" asked Stewart softly, drooling a little on the boy's arm. "Whom else should I ask? Who is ... who is the leader of the Cretes?"

The boy looked hard at Stewart's clenched hand, and at the pool of spittle dripping off his arm. "I don't talk to no Cretes. But ..."

"But what?"

"You should talk to the Greek kid."

"The Greek kid?" asked Stewart.

"Yeah -- everyone knows him as that. Bucey-V always said that Greek kid'll never be taken down from the top of the Cretes. I don't know why you wanna see him, but that's who they follow."

"Defendant has given a truthful account," volunteered the computer again.

For a few moments more, Stewart kept the knife above Richard's hand. In his mind, the skin was being pulled back, the flesh surgically cut aside, all to the melody of the boy's screams. With a flick the lasers disappeared, leaving Stewart disappointed but hopeful someone would refuse to tell him the truth.

"Why were you outside the dome?"

Richard sneered and snorted. "You got to be crazy!"

Richard did the dance others before him had done, until confronted with the irrefutable facts. It was then that Stewart sat down and listened closely.

"I must have stood there for an hour, while they examined me," said Richard. "They never touched me, yet I felt like I was being invaded. I felt like a thousand rats were crawling inside my skin, under my hair, under my eyes!"

Richard groaned, as blood trickled from his nose. Much to Stewart's surprise, he hung on, refusing to die.

"What do they look like? Where are they from? What do they want?" pressed Stewart, impatient and angry.

Richard shook his head. "All I could manage to look at was their feet, and even they scared me. The thought that something so thoroughly evil could walk on the same ground I walked almost made me run away screaming."

"Why didn't you?"

"Why ... why didn't ... why didn't I?" he asked, until he finally collapsed in a pool of blood on the table.

Stewart got up, and took a deep breath. As the AIR spoke the words he had come to know by rote, pronouncing the ceasing of the defendant's vitals and the time of death, Richard's body stirred. Stewart took a step back, as the computer had pronounced him dead, and wasn't changing its assessment.

Richard sat back up, his face bloody, one of his eyes leaking out of its socket. He opened his mouth to speak, and Stewart smelled something he never had before, and it twisted the courage within him and wrung it dry.

"You are being warned, human," hissed a voice out of Richard's mouth. "Leave us alone, or we will use the worst weapon of all, and bring about your species' downfall."

Richard's head fell back on the table, mute. Stewart fidgeted with his isopad for a moment, and shifted it over his crotch as he left to conceal his excitement.

####

After several days of working with the quaestor, tracking financial dealings within known Cretes in Franklin Dome, a pattern emerged of what they guessed to be their leader, the 'Greek kid.' Stewart had grown tired of looking a holoscreens and sitting at a desk and deciphering numbers and statistics; the computer could only do so much. And the tangerines could only do so much; the bloodlust was within him, and his blade yearned to be set free and plunged into warm flesh.

He stopped by his suite one last time before venturing to Franklin Dome. The micropani finished their job; no trace remained, neither sight nor smell, of the carnage just days before. Stewart pulled a chair into the bedroom and sat down next to the head of the bed, next to where his wife once lay her head.

"Would you really have done it; slaughtered me in my sleep, after all those years?" asked Catherine.

"Yes, I would have," he answered without hesitation. "I would have gotten my knife, and soiled our sheets with your blood."

"Why didn't you? Why all those years and nothing to show for it?"

"You got fat," he said bluntly. "Fat and boring. I kept waiting for another moment of climax, of triumph, with which I could push to even higher ecstasy with your murder. But it never happened. We had a child, you got scared, and withdrawn, and --"

"And you started fucking other women. I didn't get boring; you lost your edge. The fire dimmed and went out within you, and you kept looking for a slut to reignite it."

Stewart grit his teeth and whirled to face her. And somehow, seeing her in the flesh, standing so close to him, reminded him that she wasn't supposed to exist.

"How?"

Catherine stood before him; a youthful vibrant, sexually alive woman. His eyes couldn't take all that he wanted to see as quickly as he wanted to see it. Tendrils of smoky fire danced across the surface of her skin, and he couldn't tell if she was naked or clothed.

As he gawked at her, she burst out in riotous laughter, clapping her hands together. It was so loud that it momentarily shocked him, and he jerked back and winced. Her eyes bulged out of their sockets, her skin was drawn and tight, so cathartic was her glee. Before he could react she ran out of the room, leaving him stunned and unsure of his sanity.

####

The streets were filled to overflow, yet Stewart plowed through without the slightest pleasantry, daring anyone to challenge him so he could let his knife loose in the streets. His skin crawled, as if hundreds of insects swarmed over its surface, picking up the epidermis with their thousands of legs. His eyes faded in and out of focus, and he had to keep rubbing them for his vision to stay clear. The need to kill was like an extreme thirst, leaving him to contemplate if killing a small animal would hold him over. But visual confirmation had been made as to the presence of a Greek youth surrounded by five burly men in a large lounge called the Embellishment. Xuan contacted him, and said she would be on-site in case Stewart needed any help, and that a contingent of officers would be seconds away. He told Xuan she could come, but he wasn't about to lose the Greek kid just because some Johnny-law got an itchy trigger finger and ordered her to come alone.

He chuckled to himself.I actually said those words. Must have watched too many of those old movies.

The Embellishment was upper-class, yet still filled with too many vacuous faces and distant looks. Stewart could see gold-colored beatin inhalers being sold by the waiters. Near the front, next to a window, sat a young Greek boy with black hair and thin limbs. Dressed in a thin, green silk short-sleeved shirt and white linen shorts, the boy was surrounded by five men, each carrying barely-concealed pistols. Once in a while some thin floaters would crouch next to the big men and pass off some 'lottment pilfered from the wasted customers. Stewart pressed through and sat opposite the Greek kid, and three of the burly men rose and stood behind him in response.

"Same old tired petty crimes?" asked Stewart, as he leaned back, almost touching the waist of one of the men. "I expected better from a bright young Greek kid like you."

The kid remained seated, betraying no anxiety or fear. "You lookin' for me?"

"I already found you; no sense in looking."

"You officers reek of arrogance," said one of the bodyguards, shoving Stewart's chair so it sat upright. "Maybe today we cut off that smug smirk from your --"

"Would you like something to drink?" asked a waitress. Stewart was about to dismiss her, but when he looked up, he recognized her to be Xuan.

He took a deep breath. "Yeah, a daiquiri."

"Yes sir," she said, walking away.

"I commend you for finding me," said the Greek kid, "but if you don't want that to be the last accomplishment you're known for, I suggest you tell me why you're here."

Stewart pulled out a tangerine, sliced it open, and dug his mouth into it. He needed the bloodlust to slow to a simmer so his rational mind could interrogate the kid properly, but the tangerine had little effect, leaving his adrenaline pumping and his mind swooning with thoughts of cut flesh and broken limbs. "I'm here because something is happening just outside this dome."

"And?"

"And I think you know what it is. A lot of floaters from other domes have been seen coming and going from here."

"Why don't you ask them?"

"They never seem to remember anything."

"And why would I?" pressed the kid.

"Because you're smarter than them. You aren't the kind of guy who walks around in a daze, absently following someone else's instructions. You're probably the smartest gang-lord I've some across, and I'm wondering if you're not having second thoughts at what you're doing to the human race."

The kid examined Stewart for a few minutes, as Xuan returned with the daiquiri. Stewart downed it, and ate the rest of the tangerine as the boy sat in silence. In his mind, he was cutting apart the boy's skull and picking out the brains, shoving them in the mouths of his bodyguards. While he wanted the information, a greater part of him hoped the Greek kid wouldn't back down, and he would be forced to slaughter them all. Much to Stewart's chagrin, the kid waved his hand, and the five men slowly skulked back to take their seats at two distant tables, out of earshot.

"Flattery will always win over brute force," said the kid, "and you seem to know how to flatter. Yeah, something's happening outside this dome. I went there, once, and for half the trip I was in a beatin-induced daze. Butbeatin doesn't sit well with some people, and I'm one of them. I managed to climb out of the fog just enough to become aware of where I was going and who I was seeing. And even with all the men and guns that I have, what I saw scared me shitless."

"Why not report it?"

The kid shook his head. "You have a dead wife, and you can ask me that question?"

"Who did it?" demanded Stewart, leaning forward. "Who killed my wife and child?"

The Greek kid sat back and examined Stewart with a smile. "You don't really care, do you?"

For the first time since he walked in, Stewart felt his hand slip down to the hilt of his blade. "No matter what you think you know, I care more than you could believe."

The kid's face went blank, as he studied Stewart peering through his brown eyes deep into his soul. "I suppose even filthy rats care about their brood. My people did, at their orders. They gave us tools, and instructions, and ... I'm sorry for the state your family was left in."

Stewart smothered the urge to kill him, as it was finally revealed that there was an external force at work and the kid knew who it was. "Where are they?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because they need to pay -- look at what they've done! Titanus was supposed to be a pit-stop, no more! Instead we've lain down and given up, all because of a stupid drug."

The kid shook his head. "You just don't understand people, do you? Well as young as I am, I'm a student of history. This was bound to happen, and if not by them, then by something of our own doing. The human race is tired, Stewart! I see it every day. The civil war on Earth, the decision to leave, the struggle to build the ships, the struggle to survive the journey, to build on a new world, a new civil war. The human race just wants to forget; they've been beaten by their own travails and need a rest. Just let it be; they'll wake up when they're good and ready."

Stewart shook his head. "That's not what I do. Now, how many are there; where is their ship?"

"Stewart, you seem like a tough guy, but do you have any idea what true viciousness is like? There are only two of them; I'll tell you that. But they are incarnations of violence. When I'm in their presence, it feels as if I am near ultimate evil, something so horrific that my many sins seem like acts of kindness. They make the human race seem like bleating sheep! And it is they who are making the decisions, coordinating the deals."

"Their agenda?"

"To stop us. To mollify us. To dull all our edges and fatten us up, so we'll devolve into some kind of jelly or goo. Not literally, of course, but when you see the piles of people laying on one another in the streets, snorting and sniffingbeatin, you see what they would like for all of us."

"We can stop them; I can stop them," countered Stewart. "They're only two of them."

"And they've been alive for so long!" said the Greek kid with eyes of wonder and disbelief. "They've done so much. They are so far past our conception of darkness, your hand would burn if you touched them. They know of you, and they will deal with you and anyone else who comes in their way."

Stewart smirked. "And yet they're so afraid of us that they work in the darkness to keep us here."

"You still don't understand; theyare darkness! What we might think of as a weakness, or something cowardly is merely their natural state of being. There is no 'coming into the light;' there is only the extinguishment of light." The Greek kid got up, as well as his bodyguards.

"Why did you do what you did to my wife?" demanded Stewart, pulling the knife halfway out of its holster.

"We did that per their request. They have ways with dead flesh. They have ways of making walking, talking weapons more deadly than any particle beam."

Stewart shrank in his seat, distracted.

The kid noticed and shook his head in commiseration. "So you've seen something already? Then they've committed to you. I don't know how much you loved your wife, but they will use every last scrap of her flesh to annihilate you."

"Damn you," muttered Stewart, "damn you for being a stinking collaborator!"

The Greek kid laughed. "Good luck to you, officer. I've told you all this because dealing beatin is only fun if there's a challenge. If everyone's taking it, then it becomes common currency, and I never, ever want to be common." The kid took one last long look at Stewart. "I see it now, the cold behind your brown eyes. I see why you're here, why it's you that must be humanity's champion. I just hope that your limitless fury and sadism is enough to counter their limitless hate ..."

Stewart sat for a few moments more, mulling what he had learned. He got up and made his way to the exit, but Xuan's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Not going to say 'hello' to a girl you slept with?"

"My wife and son were slaughtered; sorry if I forget the social formalities."

"I ... I didn't know," she said, softening. "You must be devastated! If you ever want to talk, just give me a call, or stop by. And ..."

As she prattled on about trying to get him back into bed with her, Stewart's eyes were drawn to the long blonde hair of a woman standing across the bar.

"What is it, Stewart?" asked Xuan, irritated that he was so easily distracted.

The blonde woman turned, and Stewart could see it was Catherine. Even Xuan did a double-take, as she had seen pictures of his wife.

"Isn't that ..."

"You see it too?" he asked, partly relieved that it wasn't some hallucination. He shook his head. "Can't be. I saw what was left of her body."

The woman who looked like Catherine sauntered through the crowd, letting her fingers dance along the shoulders of men who turned to watcher her pass. The tendrils of fire he saw earlier had grown in length, and they danced on the heads and bodies of the people in the club. Stewart had never thought her to be particularly attractive, but now she was irresistible. This wasn't the Catherine of the past few years; this was Catharine at her lithe and sensual prime, with flowing curly hair and brilliant blue eyes that shone as twin jewels. The men reached out to touch her, and she let them, though he had always known her to be conservative. She sat on a fat man's lap and kissed him deeply, to the hoots and hollers of the rest. The club exploded with sexual energy as she laughed at the top of her lungs.

"Catherine!" yelled Stewart with a voice that recalled gods long dead and buried, his hand brandishing the blade in the open for all to see."Catherine!"

Xuan tried to make him put the blade down, but instead she was its first victim. He brought his hand across in a wide arc, cutting deep into her neck so it almost severed her head completely off. As she fell to the ground, a large burly man pulled out a knife of his own.

"So it's that kinda party?" he screamed. "So be it!"

His knife fell down in the neck of another, and everyone ran for cover and weapons. The bar was under assault, as almost a dozen clambered over to grab knives and forks. Catherine's tendrils twisted around the bodies of the running men, pulsing with yellow fire. One man pulled out a gun and fired at Stewart, but he was already on the move. He ran low, rolling on the floor and scurrying under tables. The man fired again and again, but Stewart was too quick. Finally Stewart bright the knife up between the man's legs and pulled quickly towards him, dropping the man into a pool of blood and screams.

"Catherine!"

The woman who looked like Catherine roared with laughter as a dozen men carried her out the back. Stewart tried to pursue, but several well-meaning good-samaritans tackled him, knocking the blade out of his hand.

"No!"

Stewart wrestled with them, struggling to push their bodies off his, but they were heavy and strong. Two men grabbed his arms and managed to restrain him, while another started to punch him in his midsection.

"Catherine!"

Stewart's legs were too quick and strong to be pinned, and he used them to kick off the man who was punching him. He sank his teeth into the man holding his left arm, biting off a chunk of flesh. The man released him, terrified, and Stewart pounced on the other, digging his fingers into the man's eyes. His screams only inflamed Stewart's passion, and within seconds he held his knife again.

"Don't ever leave me again," he whispered, as the men backed slowly away from him. "I'll never let you go."

Stewart ran out through the back door, out onto the streets.

####

From corner to corner he ran, badgered all the while by people sellingbeatin. He pushed them, kicked them, punched them yet still they clung to his limbs. A part of him desperately wanted to stab them, but he was determined to find Catherine, to do to her what he waited all those years to do. He heard her laughter just round every corner, saw the tips of her tendrils that now hung in the air, creeping through windows and up through doors. Strewn on the streets were addicts left in their wake, lucky men who lay with a beaming smile and unzipped pants with their rigid members hanging out.

"Catherine!"

He ran with all his strength, trying to catch up to the wave of sexual energy pulsing just out of sight. Those that weren't satisfied by her lusted for her, and fought with any man, stranger or friend, for the right to pursue her. The streets of the dome were filled with the screams and shouts of men, and Stewart understood what kind of weapon this new Catherine was meant to be.

As he fought through another cluster of boys, he saw a mass of glowing tendrils. He raised his knife and followed them, and around a corner, Catherine waited, her eyes meeting his as he appeared as if she had known he was coming. Ten men knelt as supplicants around her, and she rewarded their veneration by slipping her hands deep down into their pants.

"Would it surprise you to know that I always knew about the knife?" she asked, moving her hands back and forth to the delight of her devotees. "You reek of blood, my dear husband; always have. Did you ever want to kill me after I pleased you? When I lay next to you, naked, my chest exposed to the humid recirculated air, my delicate neck bent carefully over our pillow." She moved her hands faster within their pants. "Would it surprise you to know that I waited for your blade; that I yearned for it!"

"Catherine!" screamed Stewart in a fury both blind and limitless. His rational mind was gone, replaced with a mass of red death and black void. Her tendrils grew exponentially, and she appeared as the eye of a hurricane, the lone point of calm as chaos raged around her. He charged forward, but the men were a thick wall of flesh that rebuffed his advance. Stewart watched as she was carried away on the shoulders of men, laughing. "Let me go!" he yelled.

"No!" answered one of the men. "You would deprive us of our fun? We will deprive you of your life."

Stewart's vision blurred, lost in a blood haze, and all pretense at restraint disappeared. His climax had arrived, and there was no restraining it. The knife became white-hot, so furiously was it drawn through the flesh of others. Stewart danced with jerky limbs, spasmodically prancing on the bodies of the fallen as the few left living struggled to contain him. But he was free, and out of the alley he ran.

"Catherine! Catherine!"

Every face on every degenerate lying on the ground grinned back at him, and in it he saw their pleasure with Catherine. He sliced and hacked at their faces, severing head from torso with his laser-tipped blade. Shouts and screams rose behind him, demanding him stop, but he could hear the fear and knew it would be a while before even the strongest of men mustered the courage to try to stop him. Across the street he saw her naked, pale-skinned body dance to a rhythm he swore he could hear, a rhythm echoed in the pulsing tendrils that now spread through the entire dome.

Over it all was laughter. Laughter from her, from the men she kissed and fondled, laughter from the women who coveted her power, laughter even as man killed man in the hopes of reaching her. He hacked and slashed at them all, jumping from person to person in a bloody echo of a ladder, leading him up or down, he couldn't care less which one, to her.

She rounded a corner into another dark alley, and her laughter was at a violent crescendo in Stewart's mind. He rounded the same corner with his blade drawn back and viciously sliced at the first figure his eyes alighted upon. Back and forth, up and down he hacked and slashed, though he quickly realized it wasn't Catherine. He felt like his hand moved through a sea of vermin, or burnt leaves, or corroded metal; his mind was too fevered to tell which. And when he was done and looked ahead down the alley, all he saw was a brick wall staring back.

He couldn't even form the question in his mind as to where she went, and the confusion bent his head down. His eyes followed the dripping blood from his blade, and beneath his feet lay two things that were distinctly not human. Even the sight of them as dead matter sent such a shiver of terror that it extinguished his homicidal rage. In an instant he understood what the Greek kid spoke of; no human in their right mind would have ever stood against either of those beings. He leaned against the slick, fluid-stained bricks, unable to even summon the courage to step over their bodies.

Above, on the rooftop, his eyes found Catherine's. She lay, half off the roof top, her tendrils becoming faint and thin. She coughed and moaned, and finally screamed into the night, a hideous scream of dying that Stewart felt was both terrible and exhilarating. She fell at last, her body dissolving, and what was left of the old Catherine fell into the street before him.

In the distance sirens wailed, and feet full of courage and determination pounded the pavement leading to him.

"I ... I was right?"

He dropped to his knees and released the blade, as the footsteps rose in volume. The homicidal rage within him died, killed by an alien fear, as he was left wondering if he would be remembered as a monster, or a hero.

THE END


© 2012 Kevin Gordon

Bio: Kevin Gordon's work has appeared in NVF, Twilight Times, The Absent Willow Review, Escape Velocity, and Aphelion (most recently A World of Good, July 2010). His novel Last Man in Heaven was published with DDP.

E-mail: Kevin Gordon

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