Preamble: Oh yes, this train keeps rolling. Oh yes, there are more cars to come.
This week's installment came to me while running on a treadmill. Which is probably evident. I don't like treadmills. I'm always afraid I'm going to forget myself and end up being ejected backward off the thing. (Science fiction authors are often terrified of things like that, which is why as a cohort we tend to be portly.)
I'm still working on the next big Mars story, but in the meantime why not taste a little slice of post-panstellar Ilbis? Ilbis last served as a location in my novella Idiot's Mask if you recall or don't. So, Ilbis ho!
(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)
TO BE REAPED
by Cheeseburger Brown
They closed the gates to Dzigai Star. They closed the gates so the galaxy could forget her worlds a while, to let them heal from barbary. Hyperspace was veered away so Dzigai's citizens could not know travel.
Transmissions too were interrupted; everything within the heliopause was sheltered from galactic noise by the shadow of an electromagnetic dunce cap. You could spin the dial all you like -- all you'd ever get were local streams.
The galaxy had turned its back and said, Come back when you're civilized!
Institutions fell. Most of them had been rotten on the inside anyway. The first to go were the justice system and the penal system. Mob judgements filled the void. But as time went on the era of barbary matured the people founded new justice traditions with their own sets of checks and balances against known cheats.
Sometimes these new systems were heavily artifacted by their spotty origins. Consider, for instance, this cohort hearing their sentences pronounced:
Bernard, a scrap hunter, stands accused of theft. Stone Boy, a bush man, stands accused of rape. Hera, a streetwalker, stands accused of manslaughter. Excelsior Super God, a mad man, stands accused of blasphemy.
This is Ilbis. This is Dzigai's modern Athens. This moon world was once a mouse in the game of interplanetary politics but these days has become instead a beacon: an island of order in a sea of violent animal enclaves.
Anarchy is relative.
"The jury hast found thee guilty of thy respective charges," says the judge with a dramatic gyration of her extensively painted pelvis. "Thy peers hath decreed thy crimes intolerable and thy future worth expressible only as puppets in a play for the purposes of youthful instruction," she says, cupping her breasts and throwing back her head. "And so art thy days and hours and minutes forfeit," she shrieks, "and so art thy every coming breath borrowed against the public's favour -- so shall you be mown as you mourn yourself, and we doth scream with hilarity because we are justice-loving!"
The performance climaxes. The gallery goes nuts. The jury is excused and paid off. Wine pours from the ceiling. Outside on the courthouse steps the news-callers start singing.
Four prisoners are conveyed to the justice stadium via secure horse-drawn carriage. When there's room in the schedule they are brought up onto the great round open-air track with several other delegations of contestants. They are led to stand in the shadow of the justice machine's long, serrated maw. The onlookers fan themselves. The air over the sand scintillates.
Bernard, the scrap hunter, leans down and touches his toes. Stone Boy, the bush man, stretches out his legs methodically. Hera, the streetwalker, regulates her breathing as she takes up a starting position and squints along the track. Excelsior Super God, the mad man, stands in the middle of them looking perplexed.
"What's going to happen to us?" he asks.
Bernard points to the business end of the justice machine. "We'll be threshed," he says, "for the good of society. Have you never seen justice before? Didn't your father ever take you out as a boy?"
"I'm not Ilbisoon," he claimed, looking around desperately. "I'm a planetary auditor! I've got to get a signal to my ship and escape from this backward place!"
Bernard nods sympathetically. "You're in luck, friend, as your escape is certainly imminent. Unavoidable, also."
"What do you mean?"
The justice machine starts up with a throaty growl. Greasy black smoke drools from its vents. Slowly at first and then rapidly faster the harvester-like bladed teeth begin to spin and arc and chop. The crowd hoots in approval, stamping their feet on the risers and causing the stadium to shudder.
A canon fires. The prisoners bolt away, leaning into the track's curve. The mad man does a double-take behind him as the justice machine begins to roll forward; he then turns back to the other prisoners and follows them, his flailing feet kicking up clods of sand in a dusty rooster tail behind him.
The shadows of camera drones flit over the crowd as they fly after their subjects.
The mad man catches up with the other prisoners. He struggles to keep his breath regular. "Hey," he gasps. Nobody turns around. He looks over his own shoulder and furrows his brow, his pace somewhat slackening. The justice machine gains only modestly, its pace barely greater than their own.
"It's slow," he remarks, then looks to the other prisoners ahead and struggles to catch up again.
"The stadium's johns need time to place their bets," says Hera, eyes locked straight ahead. "They get a lap to gauge how well we'll put out."
"That's inhumane!" cries the mad man.
"You really are from out of town, eh?" says Bernard.
"Him stupid," says Stone Boy.
"How long do we have to keep running?"
Bernard twists aside to offer him a hapless shrug. "Until we die," he says. "How fit are you?"
"Then you may choose to run for a long time. It's up to you, stranger, how to live what remains of your life. Myself I'm going for a record. I'm going to beat Steady Regina's time."
Hera whistles. "Steady ran for hours, buddy."
Bernard chuckles again. "It's either try or die of boredom. What else is there to do?"
In reply Stone Boy, upon completing the first lap, sits down cross-legged in the middle of the track facing the oncoming blades. He stares the thing down. His lips twitch with prayers to his ancestors. He smiles and his face seems to briefly glow just as he disappears under the machine's lip. A red mist jets from the vents.
It's an upset. A lot of people bet long on the big youth from the jungle. They swear as they shred their stubs.
The mad man blubbers.
"Take deep breaths, Mr. Super God," advises Bernard. "There you go."
"That's not my name! It's a bad translation of something I yell when I'm angry!"
"My name's Bernard," says Bernard, keeping his pace steady and pumping his arms for maximum efficiency. "When I woke up this morning I didn't know it was going to be my last day alive. Had I known I might've been depressed about it. But finding myself here, right now, in the middle of it? It's not such a bad day. Beautiful weather for it."
"Are you insane?" asks Excelsior Super God as he swats sweat from his brow. "Fornicated sweat! Fornicated sand! Fornicated flies! Jesus Hyper-Christ! I can't believe this is how I die!"
Bernard chuckles. "That discomfort won't be troubling you long."
"Stop laughing at me. You said something before about escape. There's a way to escape?"
"This situation is easily escaped," nods Bernard, checking his pulse with a finger pressed to the side of his neck. "Just stop running."
Hera cackles. "I'd have liked you, buddy," she says when she's regained her breath. "I'm going five rounds to give my sisters some leverage at the bets and then I'm letting facts catch up with me. I want to go out on a runner's high."
"Good luck," offers Bernard. "It's a blessing to control your destiny."
She grins then accelerates away ahead of them. Bernard looks back over his shoulder at the staggering mad man. "Oh my God help me," he begs.
Bernard turns around to jog backward. "Help you what?"
He extends his arms. "Run. Help me run. Just let me lean on you. Just for a minute. Give me a minute. To think. Of something."
Bernard slackens his pace and allows the mad man to catch up. The shadow of the gnashing machine chases their heels. Bernard puts one arm around the stranger and hauls him along. People in the stands are standing up. The crowd doesn't know what to make of it.
"They probably think you're my boyfriend," says Bernard.
"So now we've got the death penalty twice, I'll wager." Bernard laughs.
"I can't die here! I can't die in his barbarian desert on a pimple moon! It's not fair! God, no!"
"It's harder to help you along when you're being hysterical, you know."
"There's got to be something we can do!"
"Why does there have to be something we can do? Where is that written?"
"My God loves me. My God protects the good."
"Then I guess you're not so good. Neither are any of us. Welcome to prison."
"But I'm innocent!" he wails.
Bernard smiles supportively. "Listen friend, does your God offer an afterlife?"
"Yes, life eternal for the blessed!"
"So stop running," says Bernard. "Why keep running?" He studies the mad man's miserable face as they shamble along, then nods to himself. "So maybe somewhat less than perfectly innocent, eh? Maybe not sure you'd pass the sniff test?"
"Fornicate yourself, barbarian!"
Bernard withdraws his arm from around the man and resumes his previous form, jogging efficiently around the inside bank. He looks down and makes a face briefly, then dodges a streak of Stone Boy in the sand. Excelsior Super God fails to make the dodge and slides out of control, sprawling to the ground in a blast of flying sand and debris.
The crowd roars. Bernard jogs sidewise and then backward in order to track the action.
The mad man scrambles to his feet and then falls again, his hands swept out by a smear of offal. The justice machine swells behind him. The pebbles by his red-speckled fingers begin to bounce. With a wretched yodel of panic he claws his way to his feet and stumbles ahead, once again reaching out as if Bernard could catch him.
He catches himself instead. He staggers onward. He works to catch up to Bernard again but remains at his heel.
Other prisoners fall around them. Many of them have been in pre-prison for a very long time, and as a consequence of poor diet and spotty access to opportunities for exercise their bodies begin the effort from a deep deficit. Performance begins at exhaustion and swiftly declines.
The sand turns to mud.
The mad man's footfalls fall faster. His torso straightens and he gains some distance, at last coming abreast of Bernard. "I've got my second wind!" he grunts between breaths.
Bernard turns and smiles. "There you go."
"I feel like I could run like this forever!"
"That feeling will pass."
"Don't mess with my hope, man."
"That's the thing about hope, though," says Bernard, "it only exists against a backdrop of hopelessness. I wouldn't dream of interfering with your hope but in return you've got to appreciate the grandeur of that hopelessness. Its completeness should impress you."
The stranger looks over at Bernard and narrows his eyes. "And it's me that gets labeled mad?"
"You don't even know what justice is. You're a space alien. Your name is a swear. Of course you're the mad one."
"I'm a run of the mill scrapper who spent his life hunting down garbage pieces of crappy robots and assembling them into even crappier robots so my no-good brother could cheat me out of the profits but I didn't care because I had sex with his wife all the time." Bernard closes his eyes for the next few strides, then opens them again and grins. "It's been a good life."
"You're already talking about your own life in the past tense. That's sick."
Bernard frowns. "Pardon?"
"You think death's really your due. That's what this barbarian society has done to you. Your essential human rights have been denied to you and you can't even imagine it any other way."
Bernard shrugs. "Well, like I said earlier, whatever happens -- it's a beautiful day for it."
The mad man sniffs. After a moment he says, "Welliot. My name is Welliot."
"Glad to meet you," says Bernard. They shake hands.
They run in silence together a while, dodging debris on the track and hopping over the pools. One hour passes, and then another. Dzigai dips in the sky. The track is a field of red muck and random bones. Bernard and Welliot are the only runners. The justice machine lumbers and chortles without interruption.What remains of the crowd is a rarified contingent of its most enthusiastic. They sing the men on. "Bernard," huffs Welliot, "what if it -- what if the -- machine -- runs out of gas?"
"I suppose they'd refill it."
"But we might -- be pardoned? For beating -- the machine?"
Bernard looks askance at his new old friend. "What? No. Why? How is it you can't let go of this obsession with finding a way out of this? This is the last thing that's ever going to happen to you. You should enjoy it."
"Enjoy it? Are you -- crazy? I'm being -- run -- to death. I feel -- like -- I can barely go on. My feet are bloody. I can't -- breathe. This is -- torture."
Bernard furrows his brow. "So why are you still running, Welliot? Why don't you let yourself off the hook?"
"There's -- no honour -- in suicide."
"But there's honour in complaining?"
They run another lap. Bernard's body feels as if it is made of sneezes. Everything tingles between the edge of pain and pleasure, his limbs threatening to simultaneously turn to lead and dissolve into vapour. He never dreamed he could carry on so long. Every moment of bought time is a victory. As he shambles along with the justice machine growing ever louder behind him he grins like a kid. He feels as if he can fly and buzzes in anticipation of the moment of liberation.
They run another lap. Welliot feels as if the flesh has come loose from his feet and left only bone. He feels sure he staggers forward at the end of a trail of himself. His cracked lips twitch as he makes childish, unanswerable demands of the universe. He cries as he begs.
The ghost of Steady Regina draws abreast of the men. Bernard nods to her. "I'll never beat your record if you don't quit running, ma'am," he says.
"I never quit," she replies, eyes at infinity, arms pumping like pistons. "That's the secret to immortality. Keep on running."
Bernard smiles. "What an honour! Do you mind if I run along with you?"
She glances over at him and smirks. "If you can keep up, baby, you can do anything you want," she says and then hardens her pace, accelerating away around the bend and into the gloomy shadow of the stadium as the sun slips below the rim.
Bernard opens up his pace. He saves nothing for later. He flies. He drinks the distance and soars ahead. Twilight suffuses him.
Welliot shields the sunset's glare from his face with an upraised hand, twisting back to watch as Bernard's prone form is engulfed by the justice machine. He makes no noise when he goes under. Welliot hears himself cry out and watches himself spit up a little string of bile. His pace falters but he catches himself before falling.
He considers the darkening track and his lonesome place upon it. The machine clangs and chomps behind him. More people in the bleachers are picking up their blankets and folding up their umbrellas and going home.
Welliot loses his faith and his heart turns cold. He tries to fall but he keeps falling forward, running on.
It's midnight before the auditors' planetfall shuttle swings over the stadium, floodlights sweeping the scene as gunners lock sights and engage. Ordnance chirps as it tears up the place. Panstellar marines in full battle armour leap to the ground and wade through the mulch. They feed grenades to the justice machine then duck.
The justice machine is the victim of justice. It sloughs apart into tangles of warped metal. Hot sharp parts fall from the sky. A load of cracked skulls cascade from the ruined treads, explaining once and for all that funny grinding noise the maintenance people used to speculate about. The maintenance people are under arrest. They look out from inside of globs of motion restrictive jelly.
The planetfall shuttle makes planetfall. A human executive strides down the ramp as it descends. It is saluted neatly by a marine lieutenant. "Is that the major?" asks the human executive, head panning to track the lone figure continuing to lope around the track.
"Sir yes sir. He won't stop running, sir."
"We have not been able to ascertain that from the individual at this time, sir."
They stand and watch him run a while. The stars wheel overhead. Marines hold the stadium against the barbarian hordes beyond.
Goodness knows when Welliot goes to heaven. Eventually his corpse loses momentum and sprawls, falling to pieces as it does. It has long ago been vacated. Meat hits the muck.
The sun rises again anyway. Everybody goes home.