Science Fiction

Anvil of the Heart
  
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Master of the Guard
  First Chapter
The Switch of Time
  a short story

 

 

Master of the Guard

 

Introduction

It still feels strange to call myself Master of the Guard. In my own heart I know myself far less courageous than those I lead. We talk of courage and fear, and I tell them of my own fears. But my people do not believe me and only think me brave to have spoken thus. We say that fear is the stallion we must ride, that without fear there is no courage. But I only ride the stallion for fear of being found out.

I recall a time when I chose life over honor. The memory is still vivid: my fingers on the switch, my friends dying before me, the fear for my own life far greater than the horror of my deed. I have been crazy-mad enough times for others to think me brave. Yet that is the one moment I will always live with.

I must have been sixteen when the invitation arrived. Everyone in my family smiled and congratulated me. But their smiles were tight and painful. The next day my father came into my room and sat before me as I answered riddles. He looked troubled, and I put the slate aside. His exact words I cannot recall. It is possible I state the case more eloquently than he did then, for I know how it truly is, while he could only speculate. But I do remember one phrase. He said, "To walk among the stars changes a man." There was more. He said that a few become religious, but many turn hard and cruel inside. To become a Counselor was to put oneself under the authority of the state. When one pledges obedience, sooner or later that obedience is called on. Obedience is only necessary when one is asked to violate what one knows is right. To become an instrument of the state is to live with violence. To exercise power is to kill the humanity within us.

He seemed so small and frightened as we talked. I pitied him and wondered if he was jealous. He said the exercise of power would make me cold and rational. And I became so as he spoke. I did seek power, but most of all, my own importance. All youth do. Which is why so few refuse the invitation. Of course, I told myself I would guard against such things. Which is impossible. There is a price one pays to walk among the stars. I know artists of my own age who play at life with joy and laughter and a childlike sweetness. I cannot understand their rapture. I fear that we who play with power place a mark upon ourselves. In discovering the truth about ourselves and our fellows, something dies inside us. Yet I keep wondering if ours is the only truth. As much as I detest those innocent artists who play at life and swoon over aesthetics, I also envy them.

I walked behind a child and its mother once. They wandered one summer evening through a park on Usa. I was in civilian clothes and they did not know what I was. The child was three or four years old, clinging to its mother's hand, and full of questions. I could not tell if it was boy or girl. I walked a few meters away, looking elsewhere but listening intently to their talk. The child's questions were so clever and so full of wonder that I ached to answer the child and appear wise in his eyes. I wondered what it would feel like to hold such a small hand in my own. There was enchantment in that child, and I looked for such in myself and could not find it. There is little wonder left when one has seen too much.

And yet, to walk among the stars means to become one with them, to expand out into the universe, to take the interstellar dust within the spaces of ones own atoms. To catch a glimpse of the breadth of the Universe, the emptiness between the spaces, almost makes one holy.

So you see, it has not been a dull life. I have a story to tell which will rival any fiction you have ever sensed. I meant to tell the story of the Overseer, at one time ruler of the known universe. I thought that if I were not a true tale-teller, I had best have a momentous theme. But, as you will discover, this is not his story but my own. A far better story than if I had stayed on China and lived my life at sports. Sports are pretend. One must pretend that the game matters. My life played with reality. This is no small thing. It is almost enough.

 

ONE

I think it a testament to our kind that we do not let our machines live our lives for us. There are many, who could subsist nicely on the state, who open shops and engage in commerce. China boasts some of the finest craftspeople in the universe. And those who do not engage in business still participate. The artists create; the sporters play. The latest figures show that only ten percent of the population are full time sensors with surgical implants. Another ten percent are hooked on drugs, but that has always been so. I will not judge such lives, but I think participation more remarkable.

My father was a crystal shaper, our home a wonder of glitter and depth. The walls glowed ruby or deepest blue or danced with a thousand diamonds. Fantastic, delicate shapes hung from the ceilings, the light reflecting through them. I remember father like an elf hunched over his work. He was always creating some new vision, and until he had sold them they graced our home. At times the clutter was annoying, but more often it was like living in a fairyland.

My mother was a philosophical debater, a striking woman with a ramrod back, sardonic smile, and commanding presence. I learned a love of theater from her. She won so often not because her arguments were more telling, but because she entertained. People love to laugh. Let them laugh and they will give you anything you ask. Looking back, it seems to me Mom and Dad were an unlikely combination. Yet they had been together for over sixty years and were still seemingly in love. They were both certified parents, and I was the fourth child they had raised. I once heard them talk of giving up the profession, but after I left the nest they hatched a daughter and began again. In retrospect I think they were very good as parents. And since I never thanked them when I could, perhaps I should do so here.

I think I was very happy as a child. That thought seems quite impossible to me now. I cannot conceive of the millions happily living out their lives in blissful ignorance of the true workings of this universe. I know I was an innocent.

It had never occurred to me to wish to be a counselor. I never thought myself so superior to others to think that I would be chosen. The counselors were remote figures, seen making important announcements in the tele. My father tells me I saw the Governor of China in person when I was quite young, but I have no memory of the occasion. But there was another time I remember vividly. I had just begun high school, and one day after classes was walking down the street of the painters, when I saw a counselor coming towards me. People stopped in their tracks to stare. The world went quiet. He looked very powerful in the black. I had often thought that making it illegal for anyone but a counselor to wear solid black was outrageously silly, but I cannot tell you the electricity of that sight. We all watched as he passed. I spent that night dreaming of how wonderful it would be to feel so important, to be noticed like that. I can imagine how foolish that sounds, but when one is fourteen and shy one has strange dreams.

We were all required to take the test at the beginning of our senior year. I had always assumed that the test selected only the finest, most intelligent, and most ethical amongst us. As I finished the test I remember being bewildered by the experience. To this day I remember some of the questions: Is floating a waste of time? Yes, No, Maybe. Intelligence? Ethics? I was so annoyed by the end of the test that I no longer cared about the outcome. I have since spent considerable amounts of time wondering what they were really selecting for. I have not been pleased with my conclusions. Three months later when my selection was announced, I was sure they had made a mistake.

I had been dating Betty, a girl in my riddle class. I cannot picture Betty now, but I know I thought her rather plain. She was no more popular than myself, yet she was the first person I felt free to talk to openly, and I suspect I was quite in love. I think I was lucky we had entered our relationship before the big announcement. Because as soon as my invitation to qualify as a counselor was announced, my popularity skyrocketed. I was everyone's long lost pal. The most popular girls in school were giving me big friendly smiles. I would like to say that I stayed with Betty out of integrity. I think the truth is the pretty ones terrified me so I was rendered speechless. When the beauties approached my head would buzz and the words would not come. It was only later, after they had passed on, that I would realize that an opportunity had slipped by.

That does not matter. I was important for once. That need to be noticed, which had ached within me for so many years, was being met. I later realized, much to my surprise, that the need then passed. And I was happy with Betty, as happy as I have been in any relationship since. Of course, I did not know that then.

As the year finished and I prepared for leaving, Betty and I agreed the relationship would have to end. I would be gone for at least four years and could not know where I would be sent subsequently. I was secretly pleased. It seemed a painless, guiltless way to let the relationship end. I wanted to put the past behind me and knew that better things lay ahead. I was certain that once I was a counselor, I would be able to attract any woman I wanted. I promised myself I would have scores of women. They would want me because I wore the black, which means I would not have to be appealing in my own right. Since I knew I was not sexy, this was an enormous relief. Yet by the time I was stationed on Usa, I had stopped wearing the black. Perhaps I hoped to find someone who could want me for other reasons. Life is full of surprises.

I spent my last morning on China floating above the city. Betty was afraid of heights, and so this was something I did alone. I was full of the glory of my coming brilliance. I thought back on my life and imagined I could neatly tie up my failures and put them behind me.

When I came back down, Betty was waiting. My folks said their goodbyes at the front door. Mom reminded me that many dropped out. My room would be waiting for me if I needed to come home. Dad was unusually quiet. He gave me a hug and stepped back without a word. Betty rode with me to Citygate. We held hands and said little. Our parting had a strange sense of deja vu. I had experienced this scene many times before in betheres. Only then my leading ladies had always been much prettier. When we live out our fantasies with the most beautiful people in all of creation, reality can become sadly insufficient. For a moment I could better understand those who live their lives wired in to the sensors.

But I had a real adventure before me. I had been off planet a couple of times as a student, but always then I was one of many being shepherded by my elders. Now it was my turn. The trip was uneventful. Four days being pampered, fed, and bored to death in a metal tube. I lived a few romantic betheres which were ultimately boring compared with what I imagined lay ahead. At times I talked to the passengers around me, but I have never been good at small talk and was always relieved when our exchanges ended. One of the stewardesses struck me as exceptionally beautiful, and I wasted quite a bit of time waiting to catch her eye as she passed my seat. If she only knew where I was going, and what I was to become. But I could think of no way to start up a conversation, let alone slip in the important news.

I had a one-day layover on Paris. That was the beginning of my course in reality. I had imagined I was about to become one of the privileged lords of creation. Instead of a quality hotel room, I slept that night in a dorm bed without antigrav. I know it seems a small thing, but I had never slept on a mattress before. There were a dozen other candidates like myself in the room, and two beds down one of them snored. I couldn't fall asleep. By morning my eyes burned, and I was wondering if I had made a serious mistake. By mid-day the rest of the connecting flights had arrived. Close to three hundred of us boarded the counselor ship to Everest. I had expected high spirits and comradery, but everyone was much too nervous to join together. I also suspect anyone with a strong tendency toward silliness had been selected out by the test. That was my impression throughout my years on Everest. We were a terribly serious bunch.

Everest was the real shock. A minute after we landed, ship gravity was shut off and the real thing took over. I had unbuckled my seat and was about to stand when I suddenly sagged back into the seat. Gravity was one-and-a-half times earth norm. China was a shade over norm so I wasn't in as much trouble as some of the students, but still it was tough. You know all those stories of superhuman stunts by counselors? They're true. If you spend four years at one-and-a-half gravity it changes you. Your bones get denser, the collagen in your ligaments toughens, your musculature changes, even your cardiovascular conditioning is affected. All gyms in counselor compounds are set for the heavier gravity to keep our bodies from reverting to the lighter density. Conversely the one location on Everest with antigrav was the gym. At least half the training we went through was done at lower gravities. At first the different gravities were incredibly confusing and people tripped up a lot. Eventually we were able to adjust our behavior very quickly to whatever gravity we were working under. But I cannot tell you how exhausting and disorienting those first few months were.

Instead of a normal exit, we left the ship by climbing down a lower hatch onto the planet itself. It seemed a cold and barren place. We stood on a flat plain with no vegetation. Underfoot the ground felt hard and unyielding. Off in the distance I could see mountains. I suppose through a picture window they would have looked pretty. But then I could not see their beauty. I was too cold and frightened by this world. The icy wind blew through my shirt, and I held my breath against the chill. Surely the next four years would not all be spent in this desolate place.

We were immediately herded into a huge auditorium. Once seated the lot of us only filled in the first ten rows. A woman stood in the front, watching us as we filed in. She was old, her gray hair cut short about a deeply lined face. The look she gave me as I passed was full of kindness. There was no need to quiet us down before she spoke. The room was so quiet I could hear my own heart beating.

"My name is Jenny," she smiled benevolently, "that's what I'd like you to call me. The rest of your instructors here on Everest you will call 'Sir.' Some of you will be here for four years. Most of you will not. Seventy percent of you will leave before your time is up. Only a few of those will be asked to leave. Most will simply decide that becoming a counselor is not worth the price demanded. Regardless of when you leave, I hope you will not regret the time you spend here. This is a unique experience which I believe will serve you well in the course of your life.

"If you are here thinking that being a counselor is glamorous, you may want to leave now and save yourself a lot of disappointment. You are here to become a servant of others. It is hard work, often dangerous. You will not be rewarded for your work. No one will know, and no one will applaud. Sooner or later you will be called on to do something which violates your sensibilities. There will be a reason, but it may not be apparent to you. Unless you are willing to have faith in this organization, this may not be the life for you."

She paused in her lecture, stopping to really study us for a second. Then she looked off into space. Her voice quieted, "To be quite honest with you, I believe civilians have happier lives. If happiness is your goal, there is a flight back to Paris at least once a month. Your return tickets home are paid for.

"I wish you the best of luck here. I'm afraid you have no rights to speak of, and your obedience is assumed. On the other hand, if something happens which you question, you may come to me, and we will talk about it. More than likely I will say, 'Gee, that's too bad," and send you on your way. But I am available, and you will never be reprimanded for stopping by.

"As you leave this room, you will be given a number. That is your room number, your clothes and supplies have already been placed in your rooms, and you have little you need to do except study your schedule. Dinner will be in two hours. We know that many of you are having difficulties with the increased gravity and the demands on you will be minimal this first week. Good luck."

Minimal that first week meant we walked five kilometers a day rather than ran it. I got used to being able to hear my heart beating. It was always running on overload. Fainting was common. Leg pain, from blood pooling in our legs, was a continuing problem for months. At least after our walks the leg pain was gone for a while. I lay down with my legs propped up every chance I could. Even that was uncomfortable. For the first few days, sleep was out of the question. Not a single antigrav bed on the planet. I assume you've never had to sleep on a mattress at one-and-a-half gravities. The nights went on forever. Eventually I was too tired not to sleep. The only place the misery eased was in the pool. We were allowed an hour of that a day.

My roommate was a not unattractive woman named Isadora. I thought we might be able to comfort each other at night, but she would have none of it. Throughout that first year we spent together, she kept her distance. We hardly talked, and by the end of the year I knew her not at all. This did not help my self-esteem. I, of course, assumed her reserve was due to my shortcomings rather than her disposition. While others were happily coupling, I found myself feeling isolated once again. My peers were not impressed with my candidacy for counselorship. As precious as water to a fish in this place. I had nothing but myself to offer and feared that that would be insufficient. My bold new beginning proved for naught. Sometimes I wish I could go back and reassure that frightened youth. If only I could have been then what I am now. Yet I worry whether the change would really be an improvement. I have changed in more ways than one.

We were trained to be manipulators, of force, of opinion, of people. In one sense we became master psychologists, though psychologists would be rightly offended by the description. Even if a psychologist manipulates, it is, in theory at least, to lead the patient to their own true self. We were taught to manipulate so as to achieve our own ends. It is not a respectful approach.

The first half of each day was spent in the gym or its environs. That first year we spent an enormous amount of time wired up to the emg machines. Do you know how many muscles you have in your body? Damn, I can’t remember now. I used to know. Did you know you can learn to turn each and every muscle on and off individually? No sweat. Two fun hours a day staring at a needle swinging across a gauge and within a year, presto. Additional time was spent on the facial muscles. The last three months of the year, we spent an extra hour each day staring into a mirror. Move the left eyebrow one centimeter north. Move the right ear one centimeter south. Flare the left nostril. Dilate the right pupil. Everything they asked us to do seemed impossible at first, and gradually became second nature.

Our activities in the gym itself are more difficult to explain. Much of what we did in the gym that year I still do not understand. The first day they had us crawling around on our hands and knees. From then on my roommate, Isadora, and a number of other victims spent ten minutes a day crawling around the gym. A few people had to kneel and catch balls that were rolled to them. When I asked why, I was told it was none of my business. All of us spent a half-hour a day moving in slow motion around the gym. Don't ask why. We also got to dance together. Which I didn't mind, but what does ballroom dancing have to do with being a counselor? In all my years in the service I have never attended a dress ball. The one regimen which did make sense was gymnastics. They saved that for the last half of the year when we were finally adapting to the higher gravity.

What was most fascinating was the arrogant smugness of it all. If you consider the legends concerning the superhuman physical abilities of the counselors, doesn't it seem odd that the candidacy testing students go through on their home planets did not concern itself with athletic abilities. The Service blindly assumes they can turn anyone into a superior athlete in four years. Anyone.

Afternoons began with political science class. We started learning about the 42 colonized planets from scratch. (Everest, by the way, is not listed as a colonized planet. Very few people even know it exists. There are two other planets like Everest, both of them high gravity and deemed by the exploration teams to be unsuitable for colonization. They are secrets of the Service and are shielded from public view.) Nothing I had learned in school about the colonized worlds seemed to matter anymore. Primary industries, social customs, and famous tourist sights were suddenly irrelevant. We studied power groupings, influence peddlers, terrorist organizations, anarchist groups. I discovered all anarchist groups are not alike. Some actually have goals and belief systems. On China their only goal had been cheap thrills when they blew up a building. Now we listened as a complex web of interrelated power blocks were traced for us. The one true power was hardly mentioned because it was so close to us. The real power on all these worlds is the Service. The reason is not as obvious as one might guess. I'll explain all this when the time is right.

Political Science was followed by two hours of Ethics. Even now, when I have seen the results of their ethics, their arguments make a certain sense to me. We were indoctrinated into the cult of Tough Love. If a terrorist takes a hostage, should the ransom be paid? Obviously, paying the ransom is the humane solution. So let us assume the money is paid, and the kidnapping is a success. Let us also assume the hostage is returned alive. Other malcontents realize this is an effective tool, and other kidnappings follow. On occasion the hostage does not survive. Kidnapping becomes a standard part of the planet's human interest reporting. The population has the fun and excitement of seeing how each new excess comes out, something to talk to your neighbors about. Was the victim raped? Any mutilations? Did you hear the body was found decomposing, floating at 10,000 feet? What a clever place to hide the body.

The alternative is Tough Love. The Service enforces a law which makes it a crime to pay a ransom. This is not a blessing to anyone who's been kidnapped. But it saves probably a hundred lives a year by making hostages useless. The question is, do you have the courage to say no? If not, in that moment of weakness you condemn a dozen other people to death. All this makes utter sense to me now as I explain it. But I know that the system has nothing to do with love. And I have seen the logical applications of this theory and been ashamed.

Our evenings were spent getting together with the people living on our floor and playing parlor games. The staff would do psychic readings on us, or demonstrate hypnosis, or lead us in charades, or storytelling. We even had a magician who taught us a little slight of hand and showed us how to do some magic tricks. At first I thought they were just helping us let off steam. Then I decided they were trying to create a sense of community. Both thoughts captured a little of the truth, but only a little. Then one day I overheard one instructor say to another in parting, "See you tonight at Basic Psych." I assumed she was joking or that they wouldn't be there that night. Except she didn't say it as a joke, and they were both there. By the last half of the year their thrust became much more obvious. They were showing us our own gullibility and then letting us in on the trick.

They began teaching us how to do cold readings. Do you think yourself unique? I know we all did. And we are all the same. If you phrase your comments loosely enough, there is not a personality trait you can mention which will not apply to each and every one of us. Often the evenings turned into group therapy sessions. Each in turn admitting to the same fears and doubts.

The goal was to help us understand others well enough to manipulate effectively. The result on Everest was much more humanistic. We all ended up friends. There wasn't a rotten one in the bunch. After I admitted to being shy, people told me they had assumed my aloofness was simply arrogance. I didn't stop feeling shy as a result, but my peers did seem more willing to overlook it.

One astonishing thing about Everest was the lack of sensory entertainment. The computers that had been so much a part of my life were gone. There were no games and no betheres. Actually in our forth year there were, but not the type to which we were accustomed. The void took some getting used to, but eventually the hunger left and life seemed more peaceful. It is difficult to explain, but my head felt less cluttered. Sometimes after our evening soirees the staff would lead us in sing-alongs. What lives with me still and what I miss most about Everest was the sense of community that developed through those four years.

I guess we had no choice but to become a community. There was no alternative on Everest, just the three hundred of us and the fifty staff members. There was no town to wander through on our one day off. No cute excursions over the holidays. We were stuck in that complex and the only way out was to resign.

So where was everyone? I mean, that auditorium we had entered that first day was big enough to hold two thousand people. Where were the second, third, and forth year students? We found out a week before our first year ended.

The announcement came at breakfast, morning gym was canceled that day. We would be attending a ceremony in the auditorium.

The huge room was quiet as we filed in. This time the first twenty rows were already occupied. The auditorium still looked pretty empty, but at least the mystery surrounding the rest of the students was solved. Here they were. And then I took a second look. These couldn't be the other students. They looked to be at least thirty years old. Later someone suggested that this might be the result of the higher gravity. I would shortly come across a better explanation.

We were seated in the back. The middle of the stage was dominated by a huge arch. To each side of the arch knelt a row of counselors. One of them stepped forward and began a speech about the difficult choices ahead. It sounded like the kind of ominous nonsense they were feeding us in ethics class: Know now that someday you may have to kill your grandmother in order to save an entire planet. Prepare yourself for the moment of trial. I was bored with the routine by now and tuned out. It was later rumored that we had been addressed by The Overseer. Years later I would meet the real Overseer under less auspicious circumstances. I have no idea who we listened to that day.

Then the "seniors" graduated. Where they had been the last four years I had no idea. One by one they stepped onto the stage and knelt before one of the counselors. Two men in black stood on either side. There were whispered words, a hand upon the bowed head, then suddenly the white jump suit was pulled apart by the two men to the side. Beneath the candidate was dressed in black. The newly ordained counselor rose, passed under the arch, and disappeared into the darkness at the rear of the stage. Considering all the rituals our species has come up with in its history, it was a modest ceremony. The rational part of me thought it a little foolish. The rest of me was experiencing extensive gooseflesh. When the first three rows had departed, we were dismissed. I assumed this was our one chance to meet the people ahead of us on Everest. But the senior students filed out, boarded carriers and flew off into the distance. We returned to our usual schedule. Three days later we had another surprise announcement at breakfast. We had two hours to pack. We were being relocated. Old Jenny told us she alone would make the move with us. The staff would stay behind. If we wanted to say goodbye to any of our instructors, this would be our last chance. I chose not to say goodbye. It was hard to admit my indebtedness.

The new complex took an hour to reach. Except for its lack of auditorium, it was a carbon copy of our first location. I was assigned a new roommate. A fellow from Earth named Jimbo. He was a musician and had his portable with him. Thanks to Jimbo our room quickly became the hub of the social life on our floor. Every night before lights out we'd have a crowd in there singing along with Jimbo. That's how I met Donna. I'd seen her around before, but we had never talked. She had lived on another floor the previous year. On the day off of our second week Jimbo had started early. By noon the room was packed. I was sitting on my bed with about seven other people, all of us crammed together. The woman on my right had nestled in quite nicely, and without really thinking about it I had put my arm around her. Suddenly I noticed how good she smelled and I realized my chest felt tight.

I have never tried so hard to sing on key as I did that next half hour. I propped my left elbow on my knee and stuck my left finger in my ear so I'd be able to hear myself. When Jimbo broke for lunch, she didn't move but continued to lean against me as the others filed out of the room. I couldn't have moved if my life had depended on it. When the room was almost empty she turned and said, "Hi, you're nice to snuggle against." I had never known beginning a relationship could be so simple. I was in love.

I suppose Donna was really not that much prettier than Betty back on China, but I experienced her as beautiful. Just seeing her smile could create the most astonishing, unnamable feelings in me. She had short dark hair, big eyes, and an impish grin. I suppose more than anything she made me laugh. I had always tried to be such a serious, important fellow. With Donna I lightened up.

I needed Donna that second year. We needed each other. That was the year half our class dropped out.