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    Volume 6, Issue 1 February 28, 2011
    Message from the Editors
 The Untold Story of an Executioner by Dawn Lloyd
 End User by A.L. Sirois
 Birth of a New Day by Fredrick Obermeyer
 What Eats You by Sara Kate Ellis
 Touch of Poison by Jaelithe Ingold
 Special Feature: Author Interview with Mario Acevedo
 Editors Corner Getting Lucky by Lesley L. Smith


The Untold Tale of an Executioner

Dawn Lloyd

         I waited until the pulse ceased and left the body lying on the ground. The crowd snarled but parted as I walked to my flyer. Just as I passed the outermost circles of the throng, a deep voice from the far side began singing. "Through our hills, through our sands, for my country, my homeland." I continued walking, and soon another voice picked up the refrain. By the time I closed the flyer door, blocking the sound, the entire crowd was singing. It was the first time I'd heard the anthem since starting the new circuit a week ago. My predecessor had banned it.
         The execution had been routine. The Skeps seldom challenged the laws anymore, which required a man of sound mind and body, between twenty and forty. No criminals. At any hint of protest, we'd kill two. Open protest meant ten. If they harmed me, the town would be blasted out of existence within seconds of my signaling I was safe. Immediately after the war, we'd demolished several towns like that, but things had quieted in the subsequent decade.
         Outside town, I changed into civilian clothes and clicked the button to turn off the military decals on my flyer. Even the Skeps, who had spent the last century planting mines under shopping centers or highways, had enough sense not to spring traps on random unmarked flyers. En route again, I sent a quick message to my wife and daughter. The job went fine. It's early enough that I should be able to handle one more today. Can't wait to be home next week. Love you. Then I leaned back to take a nap.
         An hour later, my eyes snapped open as the flyer sputtered and bounced to a rough landing. The window was a reddish haze. A dust storm. The filter had plugged. Cursing the storm, and myself for not requesting a new spare, I picked-up my transceiver, noting that my salary had already been credited four fisams from the previous day's execution, but the signal was jammed. I swore again. Here in Skep territory, it could be days before it returned.
         Taking care to remove anything that would identify me, I wrapped a scarf around my blond hair. My blue eyes wouldn't be visible from sniper range. I clipped the transceiver to one pocket and dropped the disrupter in the other, then opened the door into a wall of pure heat. It was only six kilometers to the town, but by the time I set the security system, my clothes were damp with sweat.
         Twenty minutes later, I heard the whirr of an engine. A flyer crawled towards me slowly enough that the filter wouldn't clog. The driver had the dark complexion and sharp features of a Skep. I kept a hand on the disrupter in my pocket.
         When he stopped beside me, I gritted my teeth but forced myself to be civil. "Good afternoon." I spoke in Skeptoni, grateful for having picked it up during the war. At least I could pass for a local Kadian.
         He cleared his throat. "Need a ride?"
         My pride fought the heat, but the heat won. I could always pull out my badge, and he didn't know the transceiver was jammed. "Sure." The door popped open. I climbed in, and the air conditioning rippled cold where sweat had run down my neck.
         He turned his attention to the flight path. When he spoke, his tone was casual. "Storm back there catch you?"
         I wiped my forehead with a sleeve. "Unfortunately."
         Wedging my bag behind the seat, I studied him. Although noticeably shorter than me, he was also in his mid thirties and would have had combat training during the war. His black hair was stark against skin that was darker than mine, but light for a Skep. His narrow shoulders made him look more likely to be carrying a calculator than a disrupter, but I kept a hand by my own.
         "So, what brings a lone Kadian to Ral?" If he took me for anything other than a random traveler, it didn't show. I tried to keep my face steady. It seemed wrong to accept favors from someone when you were going to oversee the death of one of their townsmen.
         "Just trying to drum up business for my cousin. Cattle." A lie to a Skep isn't really a lie, but I changed the topic anyway. "You live in Ral?"
         "Grew up here. Have a brother out in Kensing, and a sister on a ranch just past the cliffs. On my way home from visiting them now."
         I watched the jagged, sprawling acacias and wished I didn't have to say anything. It wasn't that he was a Skep. I'd talked to plenty of them in my line of work. It was that, well, he was a Skep.
         Outside, the waves of heat shimmered along the ground, interrupted by an occasional red-orange boulder jutting upwards. Eventually the silence passed the point of rudeness. "I hope they're both doing well?"
         "They're fine. You have family yourself?"
         "Wife and a daughter." We passed over a deep wadi lined with rocks and silt. My old circuit only got rain about once a year, and I'd seen nothing to indicate this part of the region was any different. "You married?"
         He smiled. "Got a wife. She's a good woman. Keeps complaining that we don't have any kids, though."
         I laughed remembering the same conversations with Shisa when we were younger.
         He stared at me hard, and my laughter died.
         "Ral does the selection by lots." His voice was cold. "The more kids you have, the lower your chances of being selected."
         He glared at me in that sharp way people have when they're calling you a murderer and waiting to see how you'll react. I'd long since learned not to get into these discussions, and I watched the little dust whirlwinds under the propeller.
         He went quiet for a bit, holding on to the steering rod as if he expected another sandstorm. Finally, "How do you people do it?"
         "Do what?"
         "Process the murders."
         My throat tightened. "Our leaders make those decisions."
         "So you're telling me you don't have any say?"
         "Not one that would matter."
         "And no opinions?"
         "Wouldn't matter, either."
         "What?" From the accusation, you'd think it was our fault the Skeps kept attacking our civilians.
         His reflection in the window didn't react, just went on clenching the steering rod. "Not having opinions. Seems like a coward's way out to me."
         My throat tightened more. "Never said I didn't have opinions. I said they wouldn't matter."
         There was a pause, then he grinned and slapped my back. "Glad to hear you don't like it either. Just because our leaders don't get along doesn't mean we have to be enemies, does it?"
         "Not at all. I have several Skeptoni friends." Sitting there in his flyer, hand still on the disrupter in my pocket, there was nothing else I could say.
         "You know how to fix the flyer? Or do you need a mechanic?"
         "I can fix it." The curtness in my tone would have been rude if I'd been talking to a Kadian.
         He tapped the clock on the base of the windshield. It read five. "Shops'll be closed by the time we get back. You'll have to wait until the morning."
         I swore under my breath, then hoped he hadn't heard.
         If he did, he pretended not to. "You know anyone in town?"
         "Not yet."
         He drummed his fingers on the steering rod. "Well, too hot to stay in the flyer if it's broken down. Not safe, anyway. And you don't want to stay in Carren's hotel. They're not real friendly to Kadians."
         The last thing I wanted to do was stay there in a hotel, but I wouldn't want to oversee an execution and then walk back to my flyer in even the most docile of towns.
         I was trying to sort out the problem when he spoke again, cheerful, almost matter of fact. "So you'll have to stay with us for the night."
         That idea held even less appeal than the hotel, but I didn't have any alternatives. Even if I slept in the flyer-a very unpleasant thought without air conditioning, not to mention being seen by some Skep with a pipe bomb-I'd be back where I started in the morning.
         "That's awfully kind of you, but I wouldn't want to impose."
         "Not an imposition at all. My wife keeps complaining that I never bring any friends home."
         I stared out the window. We weren't friends.
         We entered the town and passed empty shops with signs advertising Ral Videoscreens, Jed's Employment Services, and Live Chickens and Fish. All but the latter looked like they'd closed not long after the war. The doors hung loose, revealing vacant rooms and broken, cobweb-covered windows. The live chicken and fish shops flourished no matter how poor the town. They turned my stomach. Our groceries sold perfectly fresh, and dead, meat.
         We parked behind a shop proclaiming Main Street Security Installation & Repair. When he got out of the flyer he looked under both seats. "The wife hides notes for me there sometimes. If I don't find them, I'll never hear the end of it."
         I chuckled and surveyed the shop. A sign taped to the door read Renold Fel will be glad for your business and gave a transceiver code.
         "You're Renold Fel?"
         He shook his head. "I'm Ibral Bas. Renald's a friend of mine." He quirked a brow. "I didn't catch your name?"
         "Atan," I muttered as we walked around the back to a bullet-dented metal door. He pushed it open and I followed him into a small sitting room. He pulled off his shoes, adding them to a line along the wall. I did the same. A tall woman wiped hands on her apron. Her eyes widened when she saw me.
         Ibral smiled. "This is Atan. His flyer broke down, and he needs a place to spend the night."
         She wasn't a very good actor, but she forced a half smile anyway. "Of course. All we have is the couch, but you're welcome to it."
         "Very kind of you." I forced back an equally fake smile.
         She threw a long glance at her husband before disappearing through a door.
         "Don't mind her," Ibral sighed. "She's been in a bad mood lately. I should probably go talk to her, though. Make yourself at home."
         He disappeared, and I sat on the edge of the couch, its blue cushions nearly worn through. A tattered blue curtain covered a hole in the wall where a videoscreen should have been. In front of a bookcase was a jade inlaid coffee table that looked much like the one Shisa had wanted until we'd finally agreed nine fisams was too much. Here, it probably cost more than all the rest of their possessions combined and served only to make the other furniture look even shabbier.
         From the kitchen, a woman's voice rose then dropped as if she'd been shushed. I groaned. The only thing worse than accepting hospitality you don't want is accepting it from someone who doesn't want to grant it.
         I checked my transceiver, but it still wasn't working, so I prowled through his books. Eventually I settled on "Tales of Con Leros," a Skep writer I'd heard of vaguely.
         I'd finished the first story, an utterly predictable and simplistic morality tale about a son who stole from his father, when Ibral came back.
         "You like Conleros?" He ran the name together like one word.
         "He's interesting."
         Ibral beamed as if I'd just said his people were the greatest of literary masters. Sitting down, he waved back towards the door. "Sorry about the greeting. Reni is happy to have you here. She just doesn't do very well with surprises."
         "It's fine." I set the book to the coffee table. "My own wife would probably string me up if I brought home some stranger without at least a day's warning."
         "All the same, aren't they?"
         I tried to grin, picturing Shisa's mouth dropping open if she knew I'd compared her to a Skep.
         He sat there fiddling with loose threads on the armrest or clicking a pen he'd pulled from his pocket. Once he opened his mouth to speak, but he closed it again.
         "Quite a collection of books you've got."
         "Take that one." He pointed at the Con Leros book.
         "Thanks, but I'm afraid I don't have time to even read the books I have."
         He shook his head. "I don't have anything else to give you, and I can't have you leave here without a gift. What kind of a host would you think I was?"
         I scoured my brain, but my training was of Skep weaponry and tactics, not gift-giving protocols. Nevertheless, I thought through the contents of my flyer. I had assorted maps-hardly appropriate gifts. A few changes of clothes and uniforms-also not likely to be appreciated. And several empty canteens, Kadian blue-equally unwelcome gifts. "I'm afraid I don't have anything to give you in exchange,"
         He frowned. "Since when has it been the guest who is supposed to give a gift? You can't shun my hospitality like that."
         Sure there was some part of this ritual I was missing, I gave in. "Thank you. I'll treasure it, and remember my stay with you always." The last part was, without question, absolutely true.
         "Excellent. Hand it here."
         I complied, and he scribbled something in the front cover, then handed it back.
         He'd written in Skeptoni. To my good friend, Aten, he'd used the Skep spelling of my name, who I had the honor of having as a guest. He'd signed his name and written the date as 1389, the old system. The official calendar read 122. I pictured the whispered rumors if any of my guests saw it on my bookshelf, or even if it was found in the trash. I decided to burn it. It was unfortunate. I might have kept and read it out of curiosity otherwise.
         I forced the thoughts from my head, afraid they would show on my face. "Thanks."
         "Of course. I'm just sorry I couldn't give you anything better to remember me."
         We were saved from stumbling through more conversation by Reni announcing dinner. I was glad not because I was hungry, but because it would give me something to talk about.
         Dinner was served from a communal pot, so I put worries of poison out of my mind. The meal was simple. Rice, frozen corn, and fish that didn't taste like it came from the live chicken and fish shop. I complimented her anyway. "Excellent meal. You're a wonderful cook, particularly on such short notice."
         She didn't reply, just glared at her barely touched rice. I wondered if there was some tradition of not finishing food that I didn't know about, so I stopped eating as well.
         At last Ibral pushed back his chair. "Not a problem at all. You're more than welcome. Never mind Reni here." He patted her back. "She's gotten some bad news about the family, and I don't think either of us are quite ourselves this evening." He looked down at her and his eyes lingered for a minute. "It's harder on her than me, I think."
         "Sorry to hear that." I stood, feeling like I should ask if I could do anything to help, but realizing how stupid it would sound by tomorrow.
         "Not your fault." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "If you'll excuse us. I've got some calls to make before it gets late."
         "Anything I can help with?" That seemed a safe offer.
         He shook his head. "That wouldn't be very hospitable of us, would it? Go and read."
         I went back to the empty living room, glad to be alone, and didn't see either of them until later that night when Ibral came back to tell me the shops would open at eight the next morning if I wanted to get an early start. If not, they'd be happy if I stayed longer. He wouldn't be able to give me a ride back to my flyer, for which he apologized, but the shop owner was a friend and would take me.
         If given a choice, I'd have been away from there long before dawn, so I told him eight was fine. He pulled out an extra blanket, apologized for the couch, and we wished each other a good night.


         At six, my transceiver alarm beeped, and I noted with relief that it had regained a signal. I pretended to sleep until nearly eight and declined the three offers by insisting I never ate breakfast. A few minutes later, we walked down the already sweltering street past shops with occasional owners pulling shutters off windows and doors. Merik's Flyer Parts & Repair smelled of grease.
         Ibral and the tall, broad shouldered man I assumed was Merik shook hands and exchanged a string of inquiries about the other's health, and family, and family's health, and business, without bothering to listen to the answers. And when they finished, they started through the whole cycle again. At last Ibral gestured at me as if he needed to point me out. "This is the guest I was telling you about."
         "I'll make sure he's taken care of." Merik looked me over with the same expression he would have given a man who'd raped his daughter.
         Ibral continued, oblivious. "My family's indebted."
         "No, they're not." They shook hands, Merik clasping his left hand over his right in the two handed handshake I'd seen Skeps use before.
         Ibral turned back to me. "It was an honor having you as my guest. I'll see you when you come back, and good luck with the cattle business."
         Not knowing how else I was supposed to part, I mumbled, "thanks," and imitated the handshake.
         Ibral left, and Merik pulled out a parts catalog. "What kind of flyer you got?"
         I told him, and he rummaged through back shelves, returning with the filter.
         "How much is it?" I asked.
         "Ibral's covering it."
         I almost choked. "He's what?" He looked me up and down again. "When he called, I told him I wouldn't sell to a Kadian. Only doing it now as a favor to him, but I'm not taking Kadian money."
         I dug through my wallet and dropped five fisams-at least twice the amount-on the counter. "I'm perfectly capable of paying."
         He shoved it back like it was a dead rat. "I said Ibral's covering it."
         "Then give him back his money." I pushed it back with forced calm.
         He threw it at me. The bills fluttered apart. "I don't want your filthy money."
         "And I don't want your charity." My hand shook.
         "You want to pay? Fine. Give it to the victims' fund."
         "You can give it to them if you want. I don't care."
         "Do it yourself."
         I caught myself only when I'd reached for my disrupter. Slowly, consciously, I released it and shoved the money back in my wallet, keeping my voice measured. "I'll give it to them when I come back."
         He snorted, but pulled a keyring from a drawer. Soon we whizzed down the road in stiff silence until at last I pointed to my flyer, reddish tinged from the dust. He waited barely long enough for me to get both feet on the ground before slamming into reverse, yanking the door out of my hand.
         For a moment, I considered leveling the disrupter at the retreating flyer, envisioned it melting on the road. But instead I clicked the security system remote to scan for tampering. It read all clear.
         Changing a filter isn't hard work, but the heat had sapped my energy, and my temper ebbed away by the time I fired up the engine. I changed into my uniform and drank in the air conditioning.


         I reported that I entered Ral at 10:00, attributing the delay to the filter. In truth, I'd spent an hour staring at the sky remembering a faded blue couch.
         When I parked outside the large square government building that flew the Kadian blue and black flag above a placard that read, Faith, Unity, Freedom, the streets were empty. As I walked into a room of silent desks and cubicles, all eyes fixed on me. The receptionist stood.
         "I'm here to oversee the execution." I spoke in Kadian.
         "Pardon?" He tipped his head as if hard of hearing.
         "The execution," I repeated, louder.
         He tipped his head further.
         "I'm not here to play games." My voice dropped.
         He made a show of noticing my uniform and badge for the first time. "The clerk's over there." He gestured vaguely towards the back of the room.
         As I walked past the postman's desk, a book fell into my path. Any other day, I would have struck him for his insolence, but that day I bent to pick it up. Our eyes met as I laid it on his desk. He looked away.
         When I reached the back, a man pulled the execution files from a drawer and held them out.
         My hands froze. Name: Ibral Bas. Employment: Security Specialist, owner of shop on Main Street. My eyes ran down the rest of the information. Marital and family status, age, place of birth, personal history all as he had told me. He'd spent his compulsory five years in the military as a security systems technician. At the bottom was the key line, to be killed by executioner, using a sword. It had been updated this morning.
         I couldn't look at the clerk as I signed the papers. "The execution will be at two. Have a sword brought."
         I walked out the door with their eyes piercing through me.


         I spent the next three and a half hours in my flyer at the edge of the town square. Halfway through the wait, someone knocked on my window and handed me a shortsword. He didn't speak and I closed the door before he'd turned away.
         By 1:30, nearly the whole town had gathered. I continued to watch, clutching the sword.
         By 1:40, Ibral was walking among the crowd, stopping here and there, a handshake to one individual, a nod to another, a hug to others.
         At 1:55, I stepped out of the flyer and made my way toward the mass of people. They parted, and I walked through waves of hatred. Ibral stood with his family. When he saw me, he gave them all a final kiss, and came to meet me. I couldn't help wishing I felt the composure he showed. Instead, I coughed.
         "You knew the whole time, didn't you?" I asked when he finally stood before me.
         He nodded.
         "When did you figure it out?"
         "I guessed when I went to check that no one was trapped in the flyer and realized it had a military security system. I was sure when I saw you walking on the road."
         "You recognized me?"
         "Do you think we don't have pictures?"
         I looked down at my feet, red dust blowing over black boots. "Then why'd you do it?"
         He paused as if thinking how to explain a decision he'd made long before, and as I waited, a woman near the front of the crowd began slowly, tremulously, "through our hills, through our sands . . ."
         Ibral gestured at the singer. "My sister." Then, with a voice as clear as any I had heard, he joined in, and the song rose around me.
         I waited.
         When the last chorus ended, the crowd began again. Ibral let them sing, looking back at me instead. He waved a hand at the singing crowd. "I did it for this."
         There was nothing I could say to that. Nothing that would have mattered, anyway. He watched me for a long minute before finally reaching for my hand holding the sword. My transceiver buzzed a warning, and I punched the code to clear it.
         "You might as well kill me now."
         "Would you rather be standing? Or kneel?"
         In answer, he reached for the sword and placed the tip at his neck.
         "Do you have any final words?" I took a deep breath and tensed my arms for the thrust.
         "Remember you have several Skeptoni friends." He smiled as he quoted my lie back at me. His eyes seemed to bore into me long after the stroke fell and I caught his body.


         I left his body lying on the ground and strode back to my flyer. For the first time in years, I didn't think of the crowd.
         Starting the engine, I thought of the promised donation I'd never intended to make. Outside the government building, I looked up at the blue and black flag. I was grateful the building was empty when I dropped the five fisams into the victim's fund.
         As I flew past the spot where I'd left the flyer, my mind flipped to his security shop and what he'd said about messages left under seats. With a stomach still churning, I reached down until my hands struck paper. I pulled it out, wondering how I could explain a request to be assigned a new circuit. The black Kadian script glared up at me. "Remember."

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