All men see themselves as righteous and justified in their actions. Each of us struggles for our own self-approval.
Winslow Rafferty used to maintain that our lives were like films. The film is finished, cube upon cube waiting to be viewed, each frame an inevitable outgrowth of all the frames that came before. And now we get to watch the movie, even play the starring role. And the one true choice we have is to enjoy the drama.
Rafferty, of course, is ancient history. I cannot even prove to the satisfaction of certain historians that he truly existed. Yet in my own heart I know he once walked this earth, and played the role assigned to him. Agreed, what follows is fictional. But how could it be otherwise? It all happened so long ago. Still, the story is true, and I have been faithful in all of the details known to us. The loss of the primary computer for that region was a terrible blow to historical novelists. But there are other sources and other accounts.
If Winslow Rafferty was right, if life is a chain of collisions, each moment begetting the next, then there can be no true beginning. The puzzle of existence is all so tightly knit that the events of each day are themselves no less inevitable than all that is to follow. Yet we must begin somewhere.
What remains of the printout of John Cunningham’s log would suggest that the autumn of 2057 was a beginning of sorts. “Each night I lie awake three or four hours before falling asleep. Each day my eyes burn.” To that extent perhaps the event to be related here truly had become inevitable, his anxiety too corrosive not to find release. Yet it seems to me the upheaval to come can be traced, traced back to the events of one day in particular.
Closing his jacket against the early morning chill, John Cunningham watched through a broken window as the demolition tower rumbled down the street. He should finish soon and get home. It was all just a formality really. There was nothing here worth saving. He rubbed his eyes and headed back down the corridor. No sleep again last night. How could anyone as tired as he not be able to sleep?
On his left a doorway opened on a darkened room. The windows had been boarded up and litter covered the floor. Mattresses were scattered about. It looked like unregistereds had been camped out. That or renegades. Recently too. The air was charged with some illicit wind. To live outside the law. To fight back. It was dangerous breathing such air. Cunningham turned and headed down the metal stairs, the railing loose and twisting free in his hand. On the main floor he headed for the shipping dock. The building had been a warehouse once and now pillaged cartons glutted the floor. At the far end he found the remains of a fire and what looked to be the bones of a dog.
Outside, the demolition tower was waiting. Three men climbed down from the cab. John signed the release form and set off on the two-block walk to the subway station. Thirty minutes later he was safe within the enclave, stepping off the droplift of his own hive.
Turning down the corridor to his apartment he suddenly froze, a clammy breath tingling at the back of his neck. There at his feet lay a body in the silver boots and purple jumpsuit of a police trooper.
John fought down the rising panic which urged him to run. Running would do no good. His wrist droid was constantly relaying his position to Op. From this moment on, he and the body before him were forever linked in the computer's indifferent tracings. Blood pounding in his ears, John stepped gingerly over the body to get a better look. Yes, it was murder. He could see the ends of a thin wire leaving the neck in back and attached to short dowels. Garroted. For a moment John knelt beside the body, fascinated by the bulging, purple face before him. He had never seen a dead man before. Then his fear returned. What would he do if he were innocent? He'd call Op and report it. Maybe then they'd believe he didn't do it. John fumbled hurriedly with his droid.
"Op, I've found the body of a police trooper. He's been murdered. Could you report my position and let someone know?" His voice had been high and nervous. That would be filed with the report, such and such deviation from standard voice print. You could never get around the computer. Maybe here that would help. If Op could just read the truth in his voice.
"John Cunningham," the droid announced, "report noted, 1022-9-28-57. The death has been logged previously. The police should arrive within thirty seconds. Please wait where you are."
Then there was a chance he could prove his innocence. If the death was logged when he was elsewhere.... But who logged it? Op said there were troopers coming. Damn, he'd better get hold of himself. Breathe deep, try to relax. And be polite. Don't crawl, but don't mouth off either. When those bastards felt mean it was easy to get killed.
John could hear running footsteps. Two troopers rounded the corner and braked hard, one dropping to his knees. They both leveled blasters at John's chest. He stared down the tubes, motionless, not even daring to breathe. Two more troopers dashed past him, leaping over their compatriot and continuing down the hall. Soon the corridor was full of men. Someone snapped a hologram. Within seconds the dead trooper was placed on a stretcher, covered, and removed. A sergeant watched them leave and turned to John. "Hackman," the nameplate read. He looked old for a trooper, his hair turning gray, the broad face deeply lined.
Sergeant Hackman seemed to be staring unfocused at the wall over John's shoulder. Suddenly the back of his fist slashed up and caught John across the face.
"That was a buddy of mine," the sergeant said testily, finally studying John's face. "Third one this year."
John was leaning against the wall where he had been knocked, resisting the urge to touch his face. His voice was surprisingly calm, "I didn't do it. I simply reported it to Op."
"I see, how touching, an honest citizen. You're just heartbroken, aren't you?" He laughed brittlely. "If I had my way we'd line you all up and turn the lasers on you."
"Except then you'd be out–" John froze, a smile pasted on his face, his mind reeling back from the precipice in shocked confusion. He had been that close to ending it all. Had he stopped in time?
Hackman waited, poised, his mouth open in anticipation. "Go on."
John shook his head. Steeling himself he waited. Fight back and he was dead. But the seconds passed. The sergeant began to turn away. Just as John allowed himself an inner sigh of relief, the sergeant's knee jerked up, smashing into his groin. John sagged to the ground, secretly relieved. It had hurt, but not nearly as bad as it could have. Moaning, John rolled into a ball. A boot landed smartly on the lower ribs in back. He waited for more to follow, but none did.
The sergeant muttered, "I just hope the director burns him slow. Take him in."
John's hands were clamped behind his back and he was carried to the core. Instead of using a droplift they took the freight elevator up to the roof of the hive. John was tossed into an airvan. Troopers tumbled in after him, taking seats along the walls and using him as a boot rest.
John spent the five minute flight to the Information Service Center loathing what was to come. The sergeant had said he'd face a director, one of the new people. While John knew he'd be safer there than with the troopers, he could smell the sweat of his fear. Those cat eyes and the bulging head-in the full grown the effect was hideous. Why was it that human deformity was such a uniquely stomach wrenching sight? And how could he be so bigoted as to still see the new people as deformed?
He had thought raising the children would help. How could anyone not love their own flesh and blood? But it hadn't helped. Too much had been changed. He could not love those eyes. They were somehow evil, and strange, and unspeakably wrong. His skin crawled when he touched his little girl. With the boy it was much worse. He hated the boy. Hated the child's contempt. The boy was four now, already much more intelligent than John and each day leaving him further behind. Whenever the boy talked to his younger sister it was in Basic, neatly freezing John out of the conversation.
The old shame returned. Two years back John had attempted to learn Basic. The process had become all the more impossible when his son had decided to help. The boy's impatience and disbelief constituting the most humiliating experience of John's life. Yet he must never let anyone see how he felt about the children. One word from the boy, and Fran and he would be out in the suburbs. Still, something inside him screamed for release. He'd heard recently of a parent who had killed her own child. John understood how it could happen. It was not a good time to be alive.