When the Confederation forces reformed, they came on with a crash. Dodd had heard for months that Fruyling’s World could never stand up to a real assault: he had even thought he believed it. But the first attack had bolstered his gloomy confidence, and the results of the second came not only as a surprise but as a naked shock.
The Alberts in spite of a few fearful masters, had been issued Belbis tubes and fought valiantly with them; the batteries did everything expected of them, and the sky was lit with supernal flashes of blinding color throughout one hard-fought night. Dodd himself, carrying a huge Belbis beam, braced himself against the outer wall of Building One and played the beam like a hose on any evidence of Confederation ships up there in the lightning-lit sky: he felt only like a robot, doing an assigned and meaningless job, and it was only later that he realized he had been shivering all the time he had used the killing beam. As far as he could tell he had hit nothing at all.
The battle raged for six hours, and by its end Dodd was half-deafened by the sound and half-blinded by the sporadic rainbow flashes that meant a hit or a miss or a return-blow, lancing down from the ships to shake buildings and ground. At first he had thought of Norma, safe in the bunkers below Building One. Then she had left his mind entirely and there was only the battle, the beginning of all things and the end (only the battle and the four constant words in his mind): even when the others began to retreat and Dodd heard the shouted orders he never moved. His hands were frozen to the Belbis beam, his ears heard only battle and his eyes saw only the shining results of his own firing.
There was a familiar voice—Albin’s: “ ... get out while you’ve got a chance—it’s over...”
Another voice: “ ... better surrender than get killed...”
The howls of a squad of Alberts as a beam lanced over them, touching them only glancingly, not killing but only subjecting them to an instant of “punishment”; and the howls ceased, swallowed up in the greater noise.
A voice: “ ... Johnny...”
It meant nothing. Dodd no longer knew he had a name: he was only an extension of his beam, firing with hypnotized savagery into the limitless dark.
He heard his own voice answering. “Get back to the bunker. You’ll be safe in the bunker. Leave me alone.” His voice was strange to his ears, like an echo of the blasts themselves, rough and loud.
Dawn was beginning to color the sky, very slightly. That was good: in daylight he might be able to see the ships. He would fire the beam and see the ships die. That was good, though he hardly knew why: he knew only that it pleased him. He watched the dawn out of a corner of one eye.
“Johnny, it’s all over, we’ve lost, it’s finished. Johnny, come with me.”
Norma’s voice. But Norma was in the bunker. Norma had caused the battle: she had made the slaves. Now she was safe while he fought. The thought flickered over his mind like a beam blast, and sank into blackness.
“Johnny, please ... Johnny ... come on, now. Come on. You’ll be safe. You don’t want to die...”
No, of course he didn’t. He fired the beam, aimed, fired again, aimed again. He could die when his enemies were dead. He could die when everyone who was trying to kill him was dead. Then he could die, or live: it made no difference.
He fired again, aimed again, fired...
“Johnny, please...” The voice distracted him a little. No wonder he couldn’t kill all the ships, with that voice distracting him. It went on and on: “Johnny, you don’t have to die ... you’re not responsible ... Johnny, you aren’t a slaver, you just had a job to do ... Killing isn’t the answer, Johnny, death isn’t the answer...”
The voice went on and on, but he tried to ignore it. He had to keep firing: that was his job, and more than his job. It was his life. It was all of his life that he had left.
Dr. Haenlingen had told her she was too close to see properly, and, of course, she was. Perhaps she knew that, in the final seconds. Perhaps she never did. But that Dodd, who wanted to die and who considered death the only proper atonement for his life, could have displaced that wish onto the Confederation, onto his “enemies,” and so reached a precarious and temporary balance, never occurred to her. And if it had, perhaps she could have done nothing better ... time had run out.
Time had run out. Johnny Dodd’s enemies wanted him dead, and so he had to kill them (and so avoid killing himself, and so avoid recognizing how much he himself wanted to be dead). But the balance wasn’t complete. There was still the guilt, still the terrible guilt that made it right for the Confederation to kill him.
The guilt had to be displaced, too.
Norma did what she could, did what she thought right. “You don’t have to die,” she told him. “You’re not responsible.”
That was what he heard, and it was enough. He hadn’t made the Alberts into slaves. He hadn’t made the Alberts into slaves.
But he knew who had. Long before, it had all been carefully explained to him. All of the tricks that had been used...
Of course, Dodd thought. Of course he wasn’t responsible.
He felt an enormous peace descend on him, like a cloak, as he turned with the beam in his hand and smiled at Norma. She began, tentatively, to return his smile.
The beam cut her down where she stood and left a swathe of jungle behind her black and smoking.
Dodd, his job completed, dropped the beam. For one instant four words lit up in his mind, and then everything went out into blankness and peace. The body remained, the body moved, the body lived, for a time. But after those four words, blinding and bright and then swallowed up, Johnny Dodd was gone.
He had found what he needed.
This is the end.
PUBLIC OPINION SIX
From A Cultural Record of Fruyling’s World
Personal Histories of the Natives (called Alberts)
As Dictated and Preserved on Tape by Historical Commission HN3-40-9
Subject (called) CadnanThere is more of this chapter...
When this story gets more text, you will need to Log In to read it