This story was originally published in Mythic Magazine, Issue #1, in December 2016. It’s been running through my mind again as many people in my nation celebrate the death of someone we call a terrorist–someone whose (very real and terrible) crimes we see as inexcusable because they were not committed in our interest. It would be quite as relevant if a time ever came when my own country was held to harsh account for our crimes.
This story began about twenty-five years ago with a dream that made me afraid to sleep again for some nights–a dream in which I was essentially the protagonist of this story. I got back to sleeping, but the dream continues to change how I see the world.
The old man sat bolt upright, biting his lips and waiting for his trial to begin. He had always hated speaking publicly as a civilian; he didn’t know what to do with his eyes and hands; and now the stakes were terribly high.
He didn’t expect to save his own life. He had fought with the resistance at the end, had held his own for a long time against greater numbers and better weapons, and he’d pay for that. But if he could command any respect or sympathy, if he could intercede for his friend and co-defendant, the doctor, who had never fought…
Above the bench where his judges would sit were carved the words posted in every public building in every world of the diaspora, the final words of the Great Pledge they all repeated daily: “TO PRESERVE AGAINST ALL MENACE FROM WITHOUT, ALL DISSENSION FROM WITHIN, OUR COMMON AND PRECIOUS HUMANITY.” That was what he and the doctor and all the Pure had been trying to do.
His advocate, a harsh young man appointed by the court, had dismissed this argument. “Stop posturing. Let them see that you’re old, frightened, human. For humanity’s sake don’t quote your omnipestilent Commander.” The old man hoped his judges would prove more understanding.
The judges filed in. Thick-skinned, small-eyed, squat men and women shaped by generations of Ipiu’s harsh atmosphere and fierce insects. None of them were beautiful like his people, who had been shaped by Arraj’s kinder climate before the earthquakes and eruptions forced them to take refuge on Ipiu two generations back.
He joined in the reciting of the Pledge. Like his judges he spoke in the clipped Unic of the Interworld Consortium. He might have solaced himself with the rolling cadences of Arraji, but he needed to remind his judges that they were all humans united against the common enemy.
An evidentiary declaimed the list of accusations.
Breach of the Code of Humanity–well, the Code was always interpreted by the party in power.
Land seizure–how could they claim that? The Ipiu had acceded to the Arraji’s request for a new homeland as the earthquakes devastated Arraj, and the Arraji had never tried to take anything beyond Andek, the barren and esur-infested continent allotted to them.
“Murder; gross inhumanity; cruelty to noncombatants, to children…”
The old man rose. He knew what to do with eyes and hands and voice.
“You must not slander us so! My people have never killed or mistreated children or other noncombatants. Only your soldiers–and a few medics, I suppose–invaded our adopted homeland. None of your children came there. If they had come we would not have harmed them. We never attacked your medics…some may have been accidental casualties of our self-defense…”
Judges, advocates, evidentiaries, reporters, stared at him in apparent bewilderment. Perhaps they were mistaken, not lying. What had they heard?
“We have never neglected our duty toward children and unfortunates. I chaired the Arraji Children’s Aid Board before you destroyed their headquarters and confiscated their funds. I contributed more than my share to the Interworld Relief collections; you have paralyzed or destroyed our databanks, but if the lines of communication ever open again to the Interworld Consortium their records will bear me out.” He took a deep breath, remembered his priorities. “But I am only an ordinary man, doing as all the Pure did. As, no doubt, Your Honors do. My co-defendant is a more striking case. He has devoted himself to medical research for the good of humanity. He has always been a noncombatant. He has a wife and a small son who are now deprived of his assistance, presence and comfort. Is this not cruelty to children?”
“Are you mad?” the old man’s advocate hissed.
“No. Are they?”
An evidentiary rose to speak.
“With the Court’s permission, we will begin by itemizing the evidence against the defendant who has just interrupted the Court’s proceedings.”
“Objection,” the advocate said.
“No objection,” the old man said.
The evidentiary held up a small black-bound book.
“Do you recognize this?”
“What is it?”
“My personal duty log from my time as a sanitary coordinator.”
“You entered this information yourself? You can vouch for its correctness?”
“I will now show the Court an entry from this book. You may inform us if it has been changed in any way.”
The old man nodded. The blank wall at the end of the court lit up, showed an enlarged image of a notebook page covered with his cramped Arraji next to a typed Unic translation.
“Ejeget, 6/17. Standard sanitary operation. Pestilentiaries thermoconverted: 137 mature male, 245 mature female, 44 juvenile male, 56 juvenile female. Energy profit: 46 amplissae.”
“Is this entry correct?”
“It is.” So many days, so many sites, how could he remember? But it was plausible, and there was nothing there that could be used against him.
“You still deny killing children?”
“Of course I do!”
“Would you tell the Court what you did in the process of this ‘sanitary operation’?”
“My unit and I were sent to Ejeget by my superiors. Upon arrival we found the esurin verified and isolated in a warehouse at the edge of the town. That location was too close to human habitations for thermoconversion–exudates might have compromised air quality. My men removed the esurin to a quarry which was abandoned, stripped of useful material, and well downwind from the town.”
“The esurin were marched into the quarry. One rank of my sanitaries stood at the lip of the quarry, prepared to shoot any who offered interference. The rest set up the thermoconversion booth, moved the esurin through in groups of ten, and interred solid byproducts. Then the booth and battery were removed and we set out for the next town on our list. We encountered no children.”
He stopped, thinking.
“No, I had forgotten. There was a young girl, the daughter of a woman who after the daughter’s birth had been seduced by an esur in our collection group. That girl ran after us, shouting. Two of my sanitaries returned her to her mother. She struggled violently, so her wrists may have been bruised, but there was no cruelty.”
“No cruelty, either, to the children who died in your thermoconversion unit?”
“I tell you, there were no children! To thermoconvert humans would be a clear violation of the Code of Humanity. We would never–I would never–have condoned such a thing.”
“Then how would you describe the–juveniles–you killed?”
“They were not children! Not humans! All of them were esurin. This was manifestly obvious in most cases. A few were more… well-disguised… those who had interbred with humans, to our shame and to the danger of humanity–but the selection specialists were highly trained and conscientious. All those collected for disposal were esurin.”
“You have used the Arraji word esurin several times. Can you not find an appropriate word in Unic?”
The old man frowned. Linguistics had never been his strong point.
“Esurin is one of the true names of the Destroyers, the Children of the Lie. They are not human, though they may appear so to the uninformed. There is no exact translation in your language. Your translators have rendered it as ‘pestilentiary”, which is close, but…” He turned toward the doctor, who was better at such things.
The doctor caught his glance, rose, and explained.
“’Pestilentiary’ is often employed as a figurative term of abuse. Even in the literal sense your pestilentiary is most usually a victim of circumstances, someone who is infected through no fault of his own and who infects others unwillingly. ‘Esur’ is always used literally. An esur is by nature diseased, and he deliberately spreads disease to humans. His goal is the destruction of humanity.”
“This is how you define all non-Arraji?”
The old man shook his head. “No! You Ipi are humans like us.“
“And on what grounds do you claim that this is not true of the Verekei?” The evidentiary gave the esurin their false-name.
The answer was too obvious to speak. The old man felt his knees buckle.
“Adjournment requested. My client is unfit.” His advocate’s voice was flat.
In the hallway the doctor came up beside the old man and looked at him with concern before his guards hurried him away. The concern, the old man knew, was not about their impending sentence or the success of the Lie but about his unsteady gait and ragged breathing.
Finally alone, the old man tried to pull his thoughts together. How could he make them see? He could remember pieces of the speeches of the Commander of the Pure, but he could not recall the words, the tones, that had woven the pieces together into a clear and damning whole.
There was history. The esurin, who were resettled on Andek along with the Arraji, claimed asylum on the grounds that their population on Verek was being decimated by a fatal and highly infectious respiratory disease caused by an organism native to the planet. They complied with quarantine procedures before entering Andek. But they had lived four generations on Verek before the disease was identified. If it had been genuine and planet-specific, it should have struck the first settlers. At first some of the Arraji had suspected the disease was a fabrication, a way of claiming sympathy from Interworld Relief and acquiring land on a planet more centrally located than Verek. (Some of the esurin had the gall to draw parallels with the exodus of the Arraji, but that was a different matter; the earthquakes and eruptions that rendered Arraj uninhabitable were verifiable; those who said they resulted from Arraji fuel-extraction operations were politically motivated liars…) When the first generation of refugee esurin lived and died in apparent good health on Andek these suspicions seemed to be confirmed. Afterward, when the gut-wasting sickness struck the Arraji and some of the esurin also pretended to be stricken, the Commander recognized the truth of the situation. The esurin were creators of diseases, which gave them excuses to move into closer proximity to humankind and weapons with which to destroy them.
There was anatomy. The esurin might claim that their large eyes with bloated pupils and shrunken whites, their translucent skin under which the veins showed blue, resulted from living underground to avoid the sickness on Verek’s surface, but after the Commander’s artists’ work was publicized, who could fail to see that these were clear marks of the alien nature of the esurin?
There were the loathsome crimes of the esurin that the Commander’s investigative units had uncovered. Not content to wait for their sickness to destroy true humanity on Andek, the esurin had stolen human children and killed them. The esurin had denied the crimes and alleged a lack of evidence, but the investigators were Arraji of clean descent and good reputations who would not have lied.
The old man repeated the arguments until they were fixed in his mind. He would explain in the morning…
In his dream he was out of prison at last. He walked in sunlight on a high ridge, looking down onto a forest. The breeze sent shivers of silver and shadow through the leaves. Why had he never stopped to see how beautiful the world was?
He couldn’t stop. The men with the guns hurried him along, hurried the others along in the line behind him. He went down into the shade of the trees, to the edge of the old quarry. Something down there was throbbing loudly. He didn’t want to know what it was.
A harsh voice told him to keep going down. The stairs were steep, he wasn’t sure of his balance, but he had to go down or they’d shoot him, he’d fall into the people below him, they’d fall. He went down. Saw the thermoconverter. Kept going. What else could he do?
The thermoconverter’s door opened. The charging chamber was empty. He was in front. If he didn’t walk in they would drag him as if he was an animal or a thing, not a human. He went in, set his back to the wall, turned to see who was with him. Just before the terrible light and the pain began he recognized the doctor.
He woke, sweating and shaking, dressed with unsteady hands, returned to the courtroom. Entry after entry was read out of his book. The evidentiaries refused to call the esurin by their proper name or to admit their inhumanity. When he tried to explain they interrupted him. His advocate did not intervene. At the lunch recess the old man called his advocate for a conference.
The advocate stared at him, looking belligerent even for an Ipi. The old man stared back.
“Why do you not object when the evidentiaries refuse to allow me to explain the basic premise of…”
“You have already done yourself enough harm. Your so-called explanations would make things worse if that were still possible. Your chances…”
“I understand that I will almost certainly be executed. I am merely attempting to clear my people and my cause of the slanders which have been advanced against us. And also, if it is possible, to save the life of my co-defendant–an obvious noncombatant–my friend–the doctor.” He did not say, “Who is young enough to be my grandson, dear enough to me to be the son I never had.”
“I am not here to salvage your delusions. I’m charged with saving your life, if that is possible. You haven’t made that any easier.” The advocate half-smiled. “Or maybe you have. Let me change your plea. Let me argue that you’re mentally unfit. It may even be true.”
“No! I do not want to live because of a lie. For myself I want justice or nothing. For the doctor…”
“Justice!” The advocate rose as he spoke. The old man half expected a blow. His guards had hit him before. He didn’t cringe.
The advocate dropped back into his seat. “Don’t ask for what you deserve.”
“May I ask for a chance to speak?”
“Not at the evidentiary stage. They’ve almost finished questioning you anyhow. They’ll be starting on your–friend–this afternoon. But defendants may make a final statement before sentencing. If you want the slightest chance of living you’ll let me make it for you.”
They watched one another in silence until a guard came to take them back to the courtroom.
When his turn came the doctor explained that he had researched possible cures for the gutwasting plague, which had spread among the Arraji to such an extent that the eradication of the esurin alone did not guarantee control. To that end he had requisitioned juvenile esurin for experimentation, since the worst devastation of the plague had occurred among Arraji children. The doctor’s account was carefully brought down to a level which his hearers could understand.
His advocate interrupted his explanation of the similarities and differences between esurin and humans to remind the court that the children (as the advocate called them) whom he requisitioned would surely otherwise have been thermoconverted.
“That may be,” the evidentiary said. “As some of his victims did not die, we have summoned one of them to appear in court during tomorrow’s session.” The advocate’s hands clenched. The court adjourned.
The old man looked for the doctor as he was led away, but the guards kept them separate. He walked grimly upright to his cell. He slept and he dreamed:
He was in the field headquarters of the Southeastern Sanitary Campaign along with the doctor. This was at the beginning of the end; there were rumors of an Ipi invasion along the northeastern seacoast, but these had not been confirmed, and the old man had not yet begun training his sanitaries as soldiers. The coordinators discussed the rumors, still only half afraid. The old man, listening, envied them, pitied them, and then forgot them. There, across the room, looking out the window, was the doctor. He didn’t know that he was marked for death. The old man didn’t plan to tell him. He only wanted to sit beside his friend once more, to talk about music, mountains, mathematics, all the lovely things that endured. He started across the room.
One of his colleagues asked where he was going. He turned to answer, but the words froze on his lips. Her voice was his colleague’s voice, her uniform and her hair were right, but her veins showed blue under her skin, her eyes bulged obscenely–esur!
He recoiled, trying to see who else had seen, who might help him. All through the room eyes turned toward him, horrible distorted eyes. She had infected them all with something far worse than the gutwaste. She had turned them into esurin. He had to warn the doctor, to get him away before he also was destroyed.
If he took another step he would be able to see himself reflected in the window. If he spoke the doctor would turn toward him. He didn’t want to see the doctor’s face, or his own.
He woke up cold and rigid. He sat up on his cot and tried unsuccessfully to put together some words in the doctor’s defense.
He dragged himself into court for the testimony of the juvenile esur. The ushers treated the juvenile with the gentleness due to a human child, stood close enough to it to be contaminated. It took its place between the old man and the judges, facing the judges. It looked, from behind, very human, very young. The old man swallowed hard and silently recited the Revelation of the Commander of the Pure which he and his sanitaries had repeated daily along with the Great Pledge:
The esurin are Children of the Lie. They practice to deceive. Their aim is the destruction of all human life. The torch that was kindled on the Mother-Earth, the spark that gave light to the worlds, they would extinguish. We must not fear them. We must not believe them. We must not pity them. When they are destroyed the wasting diseases will leave us. Fear, cruelty and shame will leave us. We shall be fully human again. We shall have peace. But until we are free of them there will be no peace. Therefore let us devote our time, our resources, our courage and our strength to the work of Purification. Let us never falter in our resolve to preserve against this worst of menaces our common and precious humanity.
The old man remembered the first time he had heard those words, listening to the transmitter beside his brother, who had turned gray-haired and silent after his child died of the gutwaste, and his cousin, who had been gray-faced and voluble since the esurin’s excessive-resource-consumption complaints to the Interworld Consortium closed the mine where he worked. He remembered the hope in those words. His cousin nodding. His brother’s head lifting.
The young esur spoke in halting Unic. “I saw that doctor when I was in the…the bad place. They had away taken my mother and my father. I was alone with strangers except my cousin. I asked where were my parents and they didn’t answer.” He stopped, his lips quivering. “My…my aunt says they’re dead. A bad way dead.” He gulped and resumed in a higher voice. “They took us to a hospital, but before I had only to go to hospitals when I was sick, and I wasn’t then sick, only scared. They made us line up. My cousin went into the room front of me. I heard him yell. Then they took me in. That doctor was there, in a suit that covered him all over. He weighed me and measured and asked my age, and then gave me a shot. It hurt much, but I did not yell. Then they sent me into a room with beds and no windows. My cousin was there and I sat with him and I told him shots were not to be afraid for and he told me my favorite story about the astronauts. We went to sleep.”
He paused, looked down, continued, “I woke up because my cousin was screaming. When I touched him he was too hot. There were other ones screaming too, or crying, and one shaking so all her bed rattled. So I knew they were sick. My mother said always to watch for sickness and tell her and she’d call a doctor. I couldn’t tell her, but I’d seen the doctor. So I banged on the door and I yelled and I said now there are sick people here and you need to help and he didn’t come, and so I thought maybe it was night and he was gone home, but I looked and found a camera in the ceiling and I stood right under it and said the same thing and then I thought he would come and I went back to my cousin and I said someone would help, and he said no, and I thought he was crazy from the fever, so I told him about the astronauts while I waited for the doctor to come, but he did not come.”
The old man sat with his head in his hands, remembering his nephew tossing in the fever, screaming, then growing silent. Remembering his brother, smiling at the boy, telling him he would feel better soon; weeping, singing a lullaby; stone-faced, staring at the boy’s body.
The young esur’s story went on. The housekeepers shoving trays of food in, slamming the door, not listening to the boy’s–the esur’s–pleas. The orderlies coming in their protective suits, taking temperatures, drawing blood, giving nothing. Telling the boy, when he kept asking why, that they were the control group. The fevers, the screaming, the vomiting, the stench. Many deaths, including the cousin’s. Then, finally, the three children who had not sickened and died being taken away for more tests under the doctor’s supervision. Kept in another room for a week, monitored daily, having blood drawn, screaming at night from dreams not sickness…
“Are you all right? Can you hear me?” the advocate asked quietly. The old man realized that his head was down between his knees. He couldn’t straighten up. He couldn’t answer.
“You’re ill. I’ll call the guard to take you back to your cell.”
The old man rose, lurched, grasped at the guard’s arm. The guard recoiled. The old man fell. Someone lifted him, bundled him into a wheelchair, rolled him away. He kept his eyes down, not wanting to see the disgust on the guard’s face again, not wanting to look at the doctor and feel a similar spasm of disgust crossing his own face.
That night he dreamed. He ordered a file of esurin into the thermoconversion chamber; one looked back at him with his brother’s haunted face. He ordered that an example be made of an esur who had attempted to interfere with a collection, and found himself staring at the doctor’s mangled body. He didn’t notice at first when his victims stopped changing, remained clearly marked as Verekei. When he did notice, his sick horror did not abate.
He called his advocate in.
“Have you decided to let me make your final statement for you?’
“No…that doesn’t matter. I needed to tell you…” The old man groped for adequate words.
“You’ve already told me that your friend deserves to live. I’m not defending him. His advocate is doing what little can be done.”
“No, not that. I had to tell you…I know now…I did not know before, but I know now, that the…Verekei…were human.” He had said it. He had broken the First Law of the Pure. The voices in his memory screamed at him: Traitor! Corrupter! Hater of true humankind! Newer voices, too sure for screaming, called him worse and truer names.
“So you’ve decided it’s safer to admit that after all? And you think this…revelation…will impress the judges? It’s too late.”
“No! It isn’t calculation, I…I did not know and now I do. Too late to save them.”
“You never knew?”
“No! We were told…we were all told…” So they had been. Even before the Commander’s rise to power. He remembered the taunts when he failed a test, the scoldings when he was cross with his younger brother. Don’t be such a verek!
“What do you want now?”
“To confess. To apologize.”
“This is not your time to speak in court.”
“Must I go back and listen while I cannot speak?”
“No. Your part of the evidence is concluded. Let me know if you change your mind about your statement.”
The old man nodded. The advocate left.
The next day was bad. The old man swung between cold horror at what he had done and furtive self-pity for his ignorance. First his statement sounded groveling, then cold, then merely stupid. The night was worse.
Back in court the next day, he listened while the doctor’s advocate spoke unhopefully of the duty of victorious nations to be merciful. He stood when his time came to speak.
“I can say nothing in my own defense. My actions were indefensible. I have told this court what I believed, that the… Verekei were not human, that our campaign against them was waged on behalf of humanity. I know now that I was horribly wrong. I did not know then, but that does not excuse what I did to my… fellow humans. Nothing can do that. I am guilty of murder, indeed, and of defamation as well. I apologize to those Verekei who survived.” He swallowed. “I submit myself to judgment. Whatever sentence I receive, it can be no worse than my actions have deserved. But I ask you to have mercy on my co-defendant, who shared my ignorance, and whose actions, however misguided, sprang from his love for humanity.”
He looked at the judges, who stared coldly at him. He looked at the doctor, who did not seem to see his friend at all.
The sentence was death by thermoconversion. Publicly broadcast. In three days.
His advocate walked into his cell unannounced.
“It’s over, then. Unless you wish to make an appeal.”
“I do not. You are not sorry.”
“Should I be?”
“Not for me.”
“You loathe me. Why did you agree to defend me?”
“You never saw, did you? You stood there explaining the self-evident inhumanity of the Verekei, and you never saw what I was.”
“My paternal grandfather was Verek. He came to Iberra for a scientific conference and met my Ipi grandmother, stayed there to raise his children, left his son there to marry another Ipi, went back to Andek himself as an old man. I have my mother’s features. I was in law school on Iberra when we got word that my grandfather was dead. Accused by your Commander of atrocities he never committed and sentenced to death in a sham trial, with no advocate. Then you were taken. No one wanted to defend you. I couldn’t bear to have it said that you were killed unjustly like my grandfather.”
The advocate left abruptly. The old man looked after him, shook his head, activated the viewscreen in his cell; anything to take his mind from memory and regret…
His own image was all over the newsfeeds, together with images of the doctor and the Verek child. Some of the images were photos. Some were ‘artistic renderings’ which caricatured the slenderness of the Arraji, made him and the doctor look more like insects than men, and gave them expressions that were anything but human.
Ipi commentators and decision-makers, speaking in solemn and elevated tones, discussed the ramifications of the case:
The trial had set a clear precedent for sentencing others complicit in Purification. Mass executions would be more energy-efficient, since so much power was required to activate the thermoconversion unit.
The serum which the doctor had developed showed some promise against the gutwaste. It would be given to the surviving Verekei and, preventively, to the Ipiu presently on Andek, and to other Ipi if they chose to settle there to relieve the overcrowding which had begun to trouble Iberra. It would not be given to the Arraji. Why should they be allowed to profit from torturing children?
The ideology of Purification had spread throughout Arraji society, tainting even those who had not taken an active part in the sanitary campaign. Clearly that ideology posed a fundamental threat to humanity. In view of that threat, might it not be necessary for humanity’s sake to eliminate the threat prophylactically?
The old man deactivated the viewscreen and stared into the dark. When he could find words he sent a message to his lawyer: Have your people decided that we all are esurin? Have you been infected by the madness that possessed us? Where will it end? Can none of us help ourselves? The lawyer did not answer.
He tried to write to the doctor, could not; he didn’t know whether he was writing to his friend or to a true esur.
A fragment of memory came back to him. The doctor, very early in the sanitary campaign, midway through his struggle against the gutwaste, sitting exhausted at the old man’s kitchen table, talking, not meeting his friend’s eyes. “Humanity. Did you know that in the source-language, on Old Earth, the word meant two things? They used it for the species, as we do, but it had another definition. It also meant kindness.”
“They used the species-name for kindness? On Old Earth, where they killed each other over pigmentation and metaphysics?”
The doctor stared at his friend, stalked out the door. He did not turn when the old man called to him. The next day when they met the doctor apologized, saying he had been distraught after the death of three more patients.
The old man sat up straight on his prison cot, pulled out the paper tablet they had given him, wrote a halting message to the doctor recalling that night. He gave it to the guard to deliver. It was returned, unopened, by the same guard, who said that after hearing the old man’s pre-sentencing statement the doctor had refused to receive messages. Since then he had not spoken.
The last morning came. The old man greeted it with relief. The only thing he had left to hope was that Ipiu would be a dead planet before its links to the Interworld Consortium were restored, before the plague he had helped to spread could reach beyond Ipiu. He walked out quietly between his guards.
The doctor walked ahead of him, half carried and half dragged by guards. They reached a flight of stairs. The doctor’s feet dragged, caught. He lurched forward. The guard on his left let go of him. The other guard swung round and took the doctor’s weight before his head could hit the stairs.
The old man saw the brief convulsion of pity on the guard’s face and the hard look that came down over it. He stared, remembering:
He and the doctor sat in the park on a sunny spring morning two months after his nephew died despite the doctor’s efforts to save him, two weeks after the first speech of the Commander of the Pure. They did not discuss death or politics. The doctor talked about a new fugue he had heard, whistled a piece of the theme. The old man nodded, listened, smiled; started when the shouting began.
A Verek man ran past them. A crowd of Arraji pursued him, shouting. Someone threw a stone. Then another. The Verek raised his arms to shield his head, stumbled, fell. The crowd fell on him.
The old man sat staring, cursing himself for a coward and an esur because he did not run to the lone man’s aid, cursing himself for a traitor for pitying one of the esurin who had caused his nephew’s agonizing death. The doctor rose abruptly and set off toward a quieter part of the park. The old man went after him, telling himself It’s all right, what could I have done, it didn’t matter anyway, he isn’t one of us. He swallowed the Commander’s next speech like medicine to cool the fever of self-accusation. In time he taught himself to believe. But he had chosen. He had known.
“Can I speak to my advocate?”
“Not a legal appeal. Just… Can I speak at the end?”
“You’ll have a few minutes while the thermoconverter warms up.”
They were outside, in a hard-floored courtyard. One thermoconverter, humming as it began the activation sequence. Two condemned men, four guards, seven judges, one cameraman, and another man. The old man’s advocate.
“Your grandfather died alone?”
“Surrounded by men who hated him.”
“I am sorry.” The old man tried to meet his advocate’s eyes, turned away, looked into the camera. “I have something to say. I…In court I said one thing that was true: that the Verekei were human, and that I and mine had murdered them. I said something, also, that was false. That I was deceived. That I had been an innocent pestilentiary. And when I saw that your people were beginning to see mine as esurin, to prepare to destroy us before we destroyed humanity, I thought that you were innocent pestilentiaries as well, that you could not help yourselves. But this was false.” He swallowed hard.
“I knew the Verekei were human. And then there were the shortages, and the plague, and the communications breakdowns, and I was afraid. My nephew died of plague, and I grieved. I did not know how to save the people I loved, and I was ashamed–I reproached myself with the name I thought was most shameful– I called myself a Verek. Then I heard the Commander blaming all our griefs and shames on the Verekei, and I wanted it to be true. I told myself the Verekei were not human. I did things that made me unworthy to lay claim to humanity. It… It is a word that meant kindness, once.” He glanced at the doctor’s blank face. “I chose to kill, to lie. I did not have to. Many of my people did not choose what I chose. It is not a plague, a fault in our race. It is not a plague in yours. It is a choice you make. You must not make it. Please do not do what I have done. Do not make yourselves into what I have become. We are all human, after all…the kindness, the cruelty, the cowardice, the courage…it is for all of us to choose, it is all human…Please choose better…”
The words were still wrong. He looked at his advocate, who appeared almost as blank as the doctor.
“Time’s up. Machine’s ready.” The guard turned him away from the advocate and the camera, pushed him–not too hard–toward the open door of the thermoconversion chamber. The old man turned back toward the doctor hanging limply between his guards.
“Come on, my friend,” the old man said. And, to the guards, “Let me take him.” He forced himself not to recoil from the doctor as the guard had recoiled from him. He pulled the doctor’s arm over his shoulders, leaned into the doctor’s weight, moved forward with him. Eight careful steps. One last look back.
Just before the door closed, just before the terrible light and the pain began, the old man saw his advocate’s face streaked with tears.