The Master Clock on the black desk in the office of Federal Executions made a quiet blipping sound. Immediately the lights lowered to Emote Neutral. Long, probing shadow fingers snaked here and there across the floor, and a silence that should have been restful--and wasn’t--descended on the place.
Tony Radek leaned back in his chair and frowned. One-fifteen in the morning. At one-fifteen in the morning no man, no matter who, should be going to his Neg-Emote. Why not hang a man instead? Or electrocute him? Or gas him the way they used to back in the old days? In those old days his grandfather used to talk about, where twelve ordinary citizens said the word that peeled the life off a man like skinning an onion.
He sighed softly and folded his hands across a tiny paunch that was just beginning to show. Tony Radek was getting old. He was a “safe” now. That meant he needn’t worry about the war any longer. He was a nice, mild, peaceable gentleman who stayed at home and thought beautiful thoughts about the younger men out in space. A man his age didn’t feel anger and hate and retribution and lust and treachery any more. He was just a little old fat guy. He was the Federal Executioner.
He frowned again and leaned forward and touched a nacre button on the desk top. That lit up the screen on his left. Not the Master Screen, which was the one on his right. This was the other, the one that could tell him what was going on outside the office, outside in Portal Waiting, where certain peculiar ghouls who derived a measure of excitement from the executions were allowed by the gracious State to hang out.
He stared at the screen. His frown deepened. Portal Waiting should be bare and vacant at this hour, but it wasn’t. This was the third night in a row that it wasn’t. There was a girl out there. A quiet girl, a girl who looked about as ghoulish as one of the nice red ritual roses over in the cooler built into the wall.
Damn the dame, why didn’t she go home? Tony Radek’s upper lip lifted a little, showing small angry teeth.
At once the Emote Neutral lights in the office flickered wildly. Tony pulled his eyes from the screen and glared up at the lights. That’s progress for you. Let a man go on one little momentary emotional binge, like this, and right away spies in the joint start screaming. In a moment now, the one on his right--the Master Screen--would blink into life and old hell-hips himself would start poking around asking questions. Just see if it didn’t.
He turned his head to the right, stared at the Master Screen and waited.
The screen blazed into life. A narrow-faced man with washed-away eyes that looked as though they’d seen sin and hadn’t liked it peered angrily over toward Tony behind the desk.
“Mr. Radek!” he had a thin, thin voice that sounded like a sheet of paper slitting down the middle. “What’s going on down there? Can’t you control your own office? Or maybe you’d like to be back in Training?” The eyes squinted sharply.
Tony worked up an innocent look. He spread his hands on the black surface of the desk, smiled, and said mildly: “Out of your mind. My lights have been as steady as old Emote Neutral herself. Probably that blonde you got Central Direction kidded into thinking you need as an assistant--probably you sneaked up on her when she was in Personal Lok and...”
“What?” The Master Screen trembled a little and the narrow-faced man’s eyes seemed to jerk out of registration for a moment. “Look here, Radek, I’ve stood just about enough of your insinuations!”
“Look who’s making the lights flicker now,” said Tony calmly. He waved an arm around the office. Emote Neutral was flickering rapidly as though controlled by an interrupter switch. “Central Direction should see this,” he observed.
He stared briefly at the contorted face on the screen. That face was working convulsively now, getting red like the ritual roses over in the cooler.
He snorted disgustedly, reached forward and touched the matswitch which threw the Master Screen into visi-lok. At once the screen darkened and all sound left the office.
That was more like it. Let old hell-hips up in Supplies and Control stew if he wanted, there wasn’t anything in the Constitution--not even the old Constitution--that said a man had to sit and look at him.
“Central Direction to Radek!“ a hard voice rapped out of the alternate speaker over in the corner.
Tony Radek jerked, spun around. He swallowed quickly, said nervously: “Yes, sir?”
“Radek, you’re violating Ordinance Six, Code 325, Division of Security! Unlock that visi-screen at once!”
“Yes, sir.” Tony’s hand flew to the matswitch, pulled it. “Sorry. Elbow must have hit it accidentally. Didn’t know it was locked...”
“Radek, there’s a war on. That visi-lok must be used only in emergency. You know that.”
“Yes, sir. Like I said...”
“I heard. In the future, be a little more careful. And, Radek--”
“Ready Cell Two. Execution at one-twenty-seven. John Edward Haley. Convicted of mass interference of morale, City of Greater New Denver, as outlined under Congressional Act of April 12, 2250. Decision rendered equally on all three Final Master Machines.”
“No appeal?” asked Tony very softly.
“No appeal. And, Radek--”
“The condemned is married. Check with Supplies and Control for bill of divorcement. His wife is a young woman, will have to marry again in the morning as outlined under Congressional Act of May 28, 2211. Got that?”
The Master Screen went dead. Tony blinked. Bill of divorcement. Will have to marry again in the morning as outlined under Congressional Act. By God, that’s progress for you! He sat staring at the Master Screen for a long time.
Then he sighed, punched the button on Supplies and Control.
“Hell-hips!” he growled. “Snap it up. Execution at one-twenty-seven. Bill of divorcement.”
The narrow face peered sourly out at him from the Master Screen. It didn’t have much emotion in it now. It was almost blank, like the face of a humanoid robot somebody’d left something out of.
“Been hittin’ the bottle again, huh?” said Tony.
“My name is Clacker, Mr. Radek. Arthur Jared Clacker. Kindly keep that in mind when you address me.”
“Sure, sure. Nice name. Lovely name. Sounds like a stone-boat going over ground glass. Whip up that bill of divorcement.”
“It’s ready, Mr. Radek. Been ready for the last half hour. I suggest that if there were a little of my own well known and demonstrated efficiency in your office, perhaps Executions would be something to be proud of. Instead of what it is. Instead of the foul-smelling, sloppily run, lice-infested...”
Tony’s hand reached out for the button on Supplies and Control. “Watch those lights,” he said tiredly.
He got up from the desk, stretched a little and went across the office to the cooler in the opposite wall. His feet made no noise; he had that quiet tread that all cats, a few men and some women achieve. His hand interrupted the automatic cellgard and a tiny, almost hidden door in the wall swung wide. He reached up, poked his hand in the cooler, felt around. A little smile came into his eyes. He took his hand out of the cooler, got up on tiptoes and looked inside. No roses. Not even one rose.
Not even half of a rose.
Chuckling, he went back to the desk and jabbed a finger at the button over Supplies and Control.
“Hell-hips!” he rapped. “Where’s all that well known and demonstrated efficiency I’ve had to rake out of my ears?”
The narrow face lit up the Master Screen once more. It looked bored now. “Mr. Radek, there was something?”
“Yeah. Something.” Tony’s voice dropped, got deadly soft. “How many weeks since you checked the cooler, boy? There aren’t any ritual roses.”
“There--there aren’t any?”
“That’s right, Mr. Clacker. Now get away from that screen. I’m reporting this to Central Direction.” His finger jammed down on the Supplies and Control button. He watched the Master Screen go blank and grinned. He thought, “Shake a little, Mr. Clacker, shake a little,” because he didn’t dare even whisper to himself.
He sat down at the desk again and thought of something. His finger went out, touched the button on the screen on the left--the Portal Waiting screen.
She was still there, hunched up in one of the chairs like a small child somebody had left in an interplanet waiting room and then gone away and forgotten. Tony frowned once more. Damn that dame, she was spoiling his nights.
He got up, crossed the office on silent feet, opened the door of Executions, went down a bare, silent hall. At the levelators he waited a moment for the platform, took it down, got off again at Portal Waiting, and crossed to the foyer.
She was there, just as she’d been on the screen upstairs, only clearer, more vivid, something witnessed instead of second hand, something with dimension to it. She was in a big chair that could have accommodated two like her. She had her legs tucked under her and her brown eyes that looked up at Tony’s approach weren’t any larger than two full moons.
He said, “Are you Mrs. John Haley?”
The girl nodded. “They--they’ve got Johnny...”
“I know.” Tony dropped into a chair opposite the girl. “It’s late,” he said softly. “You shouldn’t be here this time of night, Mrs. Haley.”
The girl thought about that. “You’re Mr. Radek, aren’t you? In the Execution Office?”
“Call me Tony, Mrs. Haley.”
“All right, Tony. Yes, it’s late. I hadn’t noticed, but I suppose you’re right.”
“You should go home, Mrs. Haley.” He stopped, then lied a little. “They’ll let you know. You don’t have to worry.”
You don’t have to worry. They’re bringing the guy up now, little girl, but you don’t have to worry. Old hell-hips is getting a ritual rose now, little girl, but you don’t have to worry.
As if he’d deliberately telepathed the thought, the girl said suddenly: “Tony, is--is it true about the furious roses? I mean, if a man is found guilty, do they--?”
“The ‘furious’ roses, Mrs. Haley?” He smiled. “I see. You mean because they’re so red. Yes, it’s true. Ritual roses, we call them, but that’s nothing. Nothing at all. A custom only. A symbol handed down. It means nothing.”
“I know.” The girl nodded again. “When we were children, we always called them the furious roses because they were a furious red. We always used to say that if an innocent man was executed, the furious red rose would right away turn white, Tony. To show they’d been wrong about him.”
He shrugged. “Bedtime stories, Mrs. Haley.”
“Not--not that it means anything to me, Tony. They’ll find Johnny innocent, of course. All three machines. The final machines.”
Innocent? Oh, sure.
“A man,” said Tony with a vague motion of his hands. “What’s the difference what man a woman has? In the morning there’s always another--and another name. What’s the difference?” He smiled a small toy smile with eyes half closed so the girl couldn’t look too closely into them.
But it was all right, she hadn’t heard. At least she wasn’t balling those big eyes of hers at him. She was looking down into her folded hands.
He continued, “There’s a war on, Mrs. Haley. It seems there’s always a war on, somehow. And everybody--you, me, the guy down the street who skins ships for a living--we all have to remember that. And yet some of us don’t. Some of us go off on a tangent and try to sell out our country and then there’s hell to pay. And if we’re found guilty, we get the execution. The Neg-Emote.”
The girl’s lips began to tremble. She looked up. “Does it hurt, Tony? I mean...”
“Physically? No, of course not.” A corner of his mouth curled. “We’re humane nowadays, hadn’t you heard? We just strap a man in a chair and press a button and down comes a metal hood over him. We press some more buttons and pull a switch or two, and that’s that. No feeling, nothing. The man’s as good as new except he has no emotions any more. No emotions whatever except personal physical pain, such as he’d need in case somebody stepped on his toe or jabbed him with a pin. The State wants us to protect ourselves, you see. It wouldn’t want us getting hurt because we don’t feel anything.”
He stopped because it was getting harder to continue. “We used to call it ‘stripping,’ but that was long ago before the humane boys decided the term was a little cruel. Now it’s just Neg-Emoting. But the same thing. Just a fancy title.”
Her big eyes were suddenly eating into his. “What do they do with them, Tony?”
He shrugged again. “Send ‘em off to Training. Some can be taught this, some that, but a living death nevertheless. What else can a traitor expect?”
The girl began to tremble all over. “Not Johnny! They can’t do that to Johnny! He’s innocent, Tony--he didn’t do anything! Tony, tell them that! Tell them to let him go...”
He put his teeth together hard. What do you say to a woman who sits across from you, waiting the long, long wait? What do you say to a woman like this when you see the terror--and something else--in eyes like hers?
“You like the guy, Mrs. Haley?” he asked gently. “That’s old-fashioned as hell, you know. We all learn that way back in primaries.”
But the woman wasn’t listening again, wasn’t caring what he’d said. She began to whisper very softly:
“In the nights I used to be frightened. I used to lie there asleep and dream of the ships coming down and spraying the house with the burn-waves. And I could hear the roaring thunder of the jets and the house would start to shake and I’d try to yell, but I couldn’t. Something inside would be choking me. And just when the burn-waves would be coming hot through the window and licking at the walls inside the room, I’d scream myself awake and jump up in bed and the sweat would be pouring off me.”
Tony stared, incredulous, into the big balls of fright that her eyes had become.
“And then the lights would come on again, and there would be Johnny lying next to me smiling a little, and his curly hair would be all tousled from sleep, and he’d say to me, ‘Baby, you’ve been dreaming again. Don’t you know I’m here? Don’t you know I’ll always be here? Don’t you know that, Baby?’ And then it would be all right, and the roaring jets would be only the dawn shift going out on Security Patrol. And then I could go back to sleep again.”
She stopped. Portal Waiting had become a gray ghost of a thing with nothing living in it, only the clouds of memory like smoke veils swirling, drifting here and there, soon gone.
And then: “They’ll let him go, Tony. He’s innocent, you know. They have to let him go.”
He didn’t look at her. He got up from his chair, put his hands rigidly at his sides. Then he did look, just once, and very hard.
“Get out of here!” he growled.
He took a deep breath, turned, went across the foyer to the levelators. As he passed under the huge Master Screen, her voice came again, but quite thin:
“You’ll let me know, Tony? You’ll let me know as soon as you get word?”