The trucks rumbled, and the sky answered, the black swollen clouds drifting darkly across the sky like bloated monsters.
The road was rough, uneven and the orange rocks flew from under the fat tires. Minister James Clement sat in the lead truck, arms crossed, a frown wrinkling his forehead and the black hat of his office lying at his feet. It jumped every time they hit a bump, which was often. The driver drove, and they were both silent until they reached a tiny white pebble drive way.
“Yes, here please Mister Hinder,” Clement said, coming out of his trance. They turned, the second truck followed, and they could see the pretty timber house in the distance.
Inside those walls he waited, sweat dripping in fat worms down his face. It was cold, but Bill was frightened, so very frightened. He hadn’t heard the trucks yet, didn’t know they were tearing up his freshly laid pebbled lane, but he knew they were coming. He knew because the minister had told him. He had been told, by that voice, that clear, steady and even voice. It had said they would be coming that very day, that they would expect no trouble, and that if he offered no trouble then he, and he alone, would be considered for re-training. Strength was not something Bill had possessed in large quantities. Like the wife they had given him, it was a small soft thing, easily frightened. Although it was that very same small and soft wife that had announced to him primly the day before, or was it they day before that, that she had told the ministry what she had discovered. She had tilted her head at him, raised her eye brows in that fascinatingly irritating way she had, and smiled. It was astonishing that she seemed perfectly tuned to revolt him in everything she did. Bill supposed they had a reason for that, too. They did for practically everything else. Except, of course, for Karen.
And the trucks came closer.
A sweat trail dripped onto his leg, and Bill tensed in panic, only then realising his left foot had been trembling uncontrollably, and even now he couldn’t stop it. He massaged at the muscles with his hands, but still it trembled. Then the other leg started, and the trembling seemed to be in all parts of his lower body. He gave up. He was terrified, and he stared about in the darkness. All the lamps were out. The ministry didn’t like a waste of power during the day anyway, but Bill Werner was special enough that he usually enjoyed electricity all the day through. He also had hot water and food delivered from town. He was indeed special.
The trucks revved their engines as they came up the final slope before the house, and the heavy diesels sluggishly bellowed.
Bill heard them, and the sweat seemed to go cold on his body, although he for some reason had the clear thought that this was probably just a stupid fantasy, because his blood had to be pulsing at a steady whatever degrees it was.
The wooden chair, ugly, simple, practical, was uncomfortable. He hated it. His wife had bought it for him on the allocated present day to celebrate a completed year of service to the ministry and to her. He truly hated it. Not as much as he hated her, but a lot. He sat it in when he wanted to be uncomfortable, when he wanted to be reminded of bad things, and when he wanted to know what it was like to be especially unhappy. He sat there now. He was already unhappy. He had always been that. Now he was terrified. Slowly he got up. The chair shifted on the concrete, screeching like a beast in horrible death throws. There was a carpet across the floor, but it only covered half the grey expanse and his wife had said it was excessive to think of getting another one. Taking advantage of the ministry, he remembered her saying.
She had gone into town two days ago. Gone to stay with her third allocated friend, Janet. She had used a visit ticket to do so, but had said she expected to be given another one considering the unusual circumstances. Bill expected she was right.
One of the engines cut out, a squeal of truck brakes, and the other died too. Silence drifted around the house, broken by a door opening, feet on gravel, and the slam of metal on metal.
James Clement carefully put his left hand into his left jacket pocket, and his right hand into the right. The grey jacket was ugly, formal and powerful. It reflected admirably what the ministry wanted to say. The jacket gave warmth, and it gave office. The wearer of this jacket obviously did not care for colour, did not care for style, shape or inventiveness. In actual fact, the wearer of this jacket liked art and did indeed like colour, but he frowned at his own thoughts, left his hands in his pockets, and waited for the three men to walk up beside him.
“Alright then”, Clement said after a pause as the boots crunched up to join him. “Let’s go”. They walked towards the house. It was cold and the wind was beginning to shriek. Clement’s coat flapped in the breeze.
Bill stared at the one picture on his walls. It was a portrait. A face that smiled with cold eyes and a clean chin. It perfectly captured The Minister’s ability to have his mouth say one thing, while the rest of him said “strength, strength and more strength. That is why we are great.” Bill remembered this from the one time he had met the great man. It had been a special visit to the farms, so the simple people could see their great representative. There had been quiet cheering, and as one of the elite Bill had been granted the opportunity to sip orange juice – real orange juice, not the orange coloured vitamin drinks most people had to drink – and to salute once ingratiatingly towards the figure. The radiating power had shaken him. No human should be like that. It had left him rubber legged and scared for days. He was worse now. The shakes would not leave his legs, and he could see his fingers were jumping like living creatures too. They leaped away from his hand as if they would run for cover on their own. There was nowhere to run. The little piece of metal in his brain made sure of that.
But Karen, for her, it was different. The little automobile that usually sat outside the house, slowly losing its sheen and becoming more grey than black, was not there now. It was Bill’s pride that only memory said it had ever belonged there, unless you looked closely and saw the small depressions in the road where the wheels had dug little resting place holes. Karen of the brown hair, the eyes that looked at him and said they loved him.
One, then two, the hands came carefully out of the pockets. Clement frowned, stared thoughtfully at the sky that had begun to spit rain at him, and rapped precisely on the door. It was pure coincidence that the sky rumbled and crashed moments later.
The door was not locked. Doors were not allowed to be locked. As against the law as committing any crime was. Prosecutable by firing squad of course, torture a choice of the committee. But then all crimes were. Bill Werner had indeed broken the law, and torture was paying him a visit.
James Clement knocked again, out of politeness. He was always polite. It was not that he himself was a polite man, but he took his job very seriously, and the Minister for Corrections, overseeing the work of hundreds of Junior Correctionists, must set a good example. He hated that he cared. They knew he hated, but they knew he cared. Of course.
The door opened jerkily as the arm that controlled it trembled. Bill had wished to nod to the ministry personnel, to invite them in languidly. To display his superiority and to show that he was above the dirty squabbles and realities of normal life. Instead he stuttered. “H .. h .. hello”, he managed to croak out, obscenely like a toad as it contracted its balloon of a throat. His mouth was dry, and he realised he’d shut his eyes. He opened them and saw the senior Minister for Corrections, a fixed smile on his face, and his hands red with cold.
“Yes,” the minister said, as Bill’s tongue tried to moisten his mouth so he could speak. “We would like to come in. Yes, thank you for the invitation, Mr Bill Werner. That is of course your name, but I just like to confirm these things so we are doing everything by the book. And when I say the book, you know I do indeed mean the book.” Clement tapped the rectangular bulge in his trouser pocket. The book was very specific, and in carrying it he was portraying exactly the form of adherence to the rules the ministry wanted. So they all kept it with them. He of course tapped it at exactly the right time, just when those he was paying a visit to were trying to dart their eyes around the place as panic set in. This brought them back to the present, to him, and to what he needed to do. Which was to torture them.
Bill nodded dumbly, stepping back and to the side. A cold gush of wind was surging into the house. It whined through the doorway, and the blast of freezing air made his skin tingle.
Around the bodies, the big, black coated bodies, he could see the grim day outside. It was harsh, grey and pitiless. It looked like the men he had just let into his house. He could also see the expanse of flat farmland that would normally have been hidden by the car. The car was, of course, gone. That was a strength to him. It was a memory of love, that absent car. It would be belching exhaust fumes right now, those small white hands gripping the steering wheel, the lips pursed together, the eyes squinted in concentration.
Clement nodded his head, walked inside, and looked around. “A pleasant home you have, citizen. Rather nicer than most, I see. To be expected, and to be proud of. I hope you are proud.”
Bill didn’t know what to say, so he just stared at the Minister dumbly, knowing he looked pathetic, but not knowing what to do about it.
“It’s a shame that things turned out the way they did, it really is. People with creativity are so hard to control. They say the same thing about me. Oh, it’s true. Watson here. Big burly man on my left, see him?”
Bill turned his head, unable not to comply. The taller of the two men with the Minister dutifully shuffled his feet. Bill could see that he was shaven, heavy, and that there seemed to be nothing moving in his eyes. No intelligence, no emotion, no soul. Nothing that told him who this figure was.
“Impressive, isn’t he?” Clement continued. Bred and raised that way, of course. Like us all. Not for the same things, of course, but the same technique.” Clement reached into a pocket, and fished out the battered silver case that contained one of the most beautiful things about his job. It was a cigarette case, and inside were fifteen specially prepared ministry rolled filterless cigarettes. The plebs, the working people, the thousands on the streets, they had heard of cigarettes, but had never tried one. Of course not. The Ministry declared them illegal. They were bad for your health and had no positive function. With his other hand he found his black lighter, flicked the flint twice, and slowly sucked the smoke deeply into his lungs.
“It’s a paradox, see”, Clement said to Bill, who coughed explosively. “Just like what I do and why I do it. They made me. They made you, too. There was an eighty percent probability you were going to run off with some girl.”
He saw Bill start, and smiled bleakly. “Oh yes, they tend to have it all figured out. Not precisely, of course, which is why they don’t know when I’ll break. Smoking. It kills. I don’t know which I enjoy more, the thought that I might be eaten slowly by a cancer in my body, or simply the nicotine smoke burning through my lungs. I rather hope it kills me soon. The joy of caring, you see.
Anyway, Watson, back to Watson. He hates me, Mr Werner. He really hates me. He sees me speaking ill of my creators, he sees me smoking that which he knows in his heart is wrong because he is told so. He wants to put a bullet in my back.” More smoke deeply held and slowly released. Clement tilted his head towards the bulky figure next to him. “How badly do you want to kill me, Watson? Don’t be shy.”
Hesitation, the big body tensed, paused, thought passing through the neural pathways. “A lot, sir.”
“There, see,” Clement said, smiling sadly. “Loyalty to the cause, and honesty to a superior. They know exactly what they’re doing. They know what they create.
Which is why, Bill, I’m not going to enjoy destroying your body and killing you, but I am going to do it with all of my skill and the cursed loyalty I have to our Minister and our cause.”
Bill’s mouth was dry. He’d known all along he would die. He knew he could not escape. In his mind was heroic revolt, golden joyous glory. Yet now he felt nothing but worms eating his corpse as this cold man stood before him.
“You don’t have to tell me a thing”, the Minister said. “I really don’t care if you say where she is. I have to torture you anyway. Call it a never ending test of my own purpose, call it practise, call it surety, or call it the beginnings of torture already. Really, call it anything you want. You will be tortured to death by me, and at the end I will know where the woman you have impregnated is going in your Ministry vehicle.
Now, Mr Werner, please take a seat. That’s not really a request. I need you sitting down to begin my work. Watson and Toker will assist you, and Todd is bringing my equipment in now.”
Bill’s mind kept humming a tune to him. It was sweet, simple, and he didn’t know why he was doing it. He allowed himself to be pushed to the chair, and he sat slowly, turning his head left and right slowly, watching placidly as the people bustled around him. There was the sound of boot on gravel, and the third man walked heavily in, his face hidden behind an enormous pack.
“I’ll never tell you, you know,” Bill said, finally managing to make his tongue fit in his mouth and finding he could move his lips.
The pack was dumped on the ground, and the third man leaned over it, breathing deeply. Clement opened a zipper, the dry rasping sound loud in the echoing emptiness of the house. Outside the distant shriek of the wind could faintly be heard, but it was far away. Clement began sorting the contents out, laying boxes and shining metal on Bill’s table.
Clement finally paused, and looked up at Bill, who suddenly felt panic fire him as hands clenched on his arms, vice like, and he felt straps being thrown around his wrists and body. He didn’t want to, but he struggled, his arms thrashing wildly.
“I wish I could believe you’ll keep your secrets deep inside, Bill. I so wish I could. It would make me happy, but you will tell me, sadly, you just will.” There was bitterness and pain in the voice, and Clement frowned at himself.
Bill was trapped in his head now, only his eyes could move, and he was darting them around so fast he nearly threw up from the disorientation as images splashed themselves across his brain, one after the other. Tall cloaked figures, flashing blades, white faces blank and uncaring, a window, the rain outside.
They’re wrong, he thought, deep inside. I will never betray her. The one thing I can offer Karen. My one legacy of strength. Let it be that which lives on in the life within her.
Clement stepped into Bill’s field of view, and held up a syringe. “What I’ve been preparing here, Mr. Werner, is the Ministry’s special serum. We may not have advanced much in regards to the arts, to music, to the beauty of that illegal novel I know almost everyone in the country has read, but we can make a very good pain serum. Being who I am, doing what I do, and feeling as I do, I have been injected with this very poison myself many times. Let me just say that pain becomes agony, and agony becomes the end of the world. Trust me. It makes everything hurt, but for some reason the bodies ability to collapse in defence goes away. Fainting just doesn’t seem to happen. You are awake until it wears off or you die.”
Bill had heard of the Pain Puncture, as it was called, but he had never seen it in real life. He’d never felt the revulsion he felt now, as the long thin needle pushed through his skin, and he felt something sharp, hot and painful push into his vein.
“There we go”, Clement said, standing up and handing the syringe to Watson or Toker, Bill couldn’t tell who, and it didn’t matter. They were all simply death bringers to him. But he would win. He would take victory to his grave in the only way he possibly he could. He looked at Clement and said nothing. That was winning.
“Your collapse has come at a very embarrassing moment for the Minister,” Clement said, looking at Bill and pacing slightly in front of him. “Normally we could take this slowly, and pick up Miss Fisher at our leisure when she, as they always do, accidentally reveals herself. Can’t stay hidden in our country without a certificate of belonging, you know? Of course you do. Well, anyway, what with the Minister’s new push to visit the people coming through, this is just the wrong time, and the only thing we can’t predict accurately is something like when you are going to decide to do something stupid. And you did it at the wrong time. I can’t say I blame you. I pity you, and really am rather envious, too. Me, I’ve got my cigarettes, hopefully they get me there.”
He stopped pacing, leaned closer and looked into Bill’s eyes. They were like search lights that tore into his head. Bill could feel them peering into his soul. He didn’t want to see the pity, but did, he didn’t want to see the compassion, but could. A hand slapped hard across his face, and he screamed. A million needles had punctured his face, it felt raw and bloody and he wondered if he still had his eyes.
“Yes, I can see it’s working,” Clement said. That, poor William, was a gentle slap. You are wondering, no doubt, what I have done to you. I’m sorry to say it’s just the serum at work. You have a marginally red cheek, and will probably bruise by tomorrow morning. A morning you are not going to see.”
Tears were coursing down Bill’s cheeks, and he felt a shudder in his throat.
The bright shiny blades came out. They were put on a tray, and Clement showed them to Bill. “I am going to cut you with these, Bill. It will hurt. It will hurt so much you won’t know what you are thinking. I’m sorry for that, but this is torture after all. Take a good look; I know you won’t be able to do anything. This one is thin and long and sharp. It cuts deep; the soft tissue of the body closing after the tiny blade has passed through. This one, the one with the jaws that are almost at right angles, it tears and bites.”
Clement got to work, and Bill began to scream. He screamed and did not stop.
Keep it inside, Bill thought. The agony was burning through him; there was a screaming sob in the room. He had wondered where it was coming from until he realised it was him. It kept on and on and didn’t stop. Karen, he thought. Be safe; be far along that muddy track. Be safely away where they will never find you. He kept hurting. They cut into him, Clement looked sad as he worked, humming tunelessly and biting his lip, but doing his job the way only way he could. As an artist giving his best performance.
And when Bill finally broke, Clement felt his heart shrink, and his soul weep.
He heard the broken bloodied body crying for its mother and saying exactly where the woman it loved was. Where she was staying, and about the unborn baby that was this broken man’s in her womb. Everyone broke. Clement knew exactly when a man had lost his spirit and become a dog begging for forgiveness. Bill had reached that point. The Minister knew that everything he babbled was the truth. He knew that this wreck would hold nothing back from him, would weep and kiss his hand for mercy, love him and beg for an ending to his suffering.
Clement carefully wiped his hands on the towels held out for him by Watson, a man he despised, and picked up the pistol he always carried in the pack. “Poor poor Bill”, he said. Bill cried and cried. Sobs that were not from pain tore through the battered flesh and cried into the sky. “No,” it moaned. “No”. Inside it were visions of a body with soft lips and a caring smile. And of despair and futility, and the death of beauty.
The bullet Clement fired shattered the skull, and tipped the chair over. Bill’s body flopped in its bonds, and shook slowly as life began to leave it, oozing onto the concrete as Bill’s blood leaked out of his broken head.
“Shut up,” Clement said warningly to Watson, who had looked like he was about to speak. “You can report what you damn well like, you bloody humourless bastard. I’m a minister, and you are no one. Until the day I stop doing my duty you had best remember that.”
Bills memories were becoming fragments as his brain leaked away. It ebbed and soaked and ran in rivulets and dripped along the grey floor. Slowly a smile spread across his face. Deep inside he was happy.
Thank the lord, he thought, thank the lord that Karen is safe. That she will find her mother and that life is good. I have proven myself. I am a man. The man I wanted to be. I did not break, I give my life and they know nothing.
The sadness, the truth, the memory had dripped onto the ground, and Bill died happy.
Clement and his men returned to their trucks and drove. Karen also drove. Grim, sad, frightened. She did not know the trucks were coming. She drove and hoped. There was nothing else she could do. She did not yet know Clement, and in him death, came to her.