Some survive their meeting with the machine. They are taken out through the vestibule where I wait, which resembles nothing more than a high school hallway with bulletin boards tacked full of government-issue posters scabbing its sallow walls. Already ragged from malnutrition and exhaustion following months in Prep Cell, they emerge preceded by a bow wave of silence. I see three, in my time.
The first is the longest. Though I never met him (preferring, in those days, a certain solitudinous brooding) in caff or on the grounds, everyone knew of Sanchez, old for Prep, greying at the temples, good-naturedly rebuking the dicers. “Gambling gets you nothing, nothing but more trouble,” he would repeat week after week, mostly to himself, as five by five men half his age would be taken and never return. The machine was said to choose the order of its own meetings, safely placing the workings of justice out of human hands, and they said Sanchez had been in Prep long enough to grow ceiling-high plants in his room from potatoes, rotating them in front of his window. He, more than anyone, had made Prep his home.
He, like everyone, is broken.
His paper slippers drag along the foot-square tiles as two of the machine’s lackeys, faceless behind their drooping white hoods, haul him. They treat him as if he is dead, and he plays along. They do not look at him, and his eyes, unblinking, seem to gaze upon something peaceful. His mouth hangs slightly open. I expect him to drool, like some of the patients in Elmwood’s special ward, but he doesn’t. He is not vacant. He is there, in body and mind, as best as I can tell, for the thirty seconds I watch him recede down the hall. His hands clench and unclench.
I stand and crane my neck to get a better look, eliciting exhalations from the men and women next to me on the bench. The lackey at the entrance does not even seem to notice behind her veil of white cloth. Emboldened, I stand, feet aching from cold in their own paper slippers. I take one lurching step down the hall, toward what’s left of Sanchez, away from the grey metal entrance to the tunnels I was led through with four others, fear exploding in my gut, hours earlier.
My foot (I think it was my left) touches the tile and Sanchez and his attendants disappear, along with the entire hallway before me. I am at a wall, covered with bulletin boards reminding the lackeys to shower properly and double-check the clasps on their collars before donning their robes and never to speak in the vestibule if they ever wished to speak again. To say the wall was solid would be to mislead you. When one sits at home, one does not think of one’s bedroom as “solid.” It is there. It is as true as anything as I have ever known. It is. I reach out and touch it and worry. I lean in and smell it, the industrial cleaners, the cork.
You may think you have seen such things in stage acts or on the latest holos. I am certain you are mistaken. Though we may not, in our surface thought, know how the illusionist conjures, there is something within us, in our caverns, that knows we are watching not creation but transmutation, an exchange. One thing becomes another. Even when the ball is gone from beneath the cup, it is replaced not with nothing, but with negative space. Remember this until your dying day: You will know if you ever see a wall created from nothing. There is no transition. There is no sound, no flash of it moving into place. Even your memory begins to doubt. This, I think, is why they bring the survivors through the waiting room. So the fear, already sapping at your meager defenses, can be joined by doubt and certainty, which, in a way, are the machine’s left and right hand.
I hear gasps from behind me, wordless shock, and I know the others see it too. I turn. The lackey has not moved. The bench is now a meter from a wall, where the hall had been.
Sanchez is gone.
The machine took him as sure as it took the hallway. To it, there is no difference, which is why Congress passed the New Justice Act in the first place.
I was a surgeon once, and I watched the Act pass on the waiting room holo with little concern. It’s never you until it’s you, you know?
It was the usual bipartisan crock. One side inched ever-closer to outlawing punishments outright, preferring rehabilitation and, recently, exile, over causing pain to any being. The other would do anything to tame the chaos bubbling out of every crack in their sidewalks. As usual, it was the techs who came to the rescue. In addition to the algorithmic panopticon and their friendly drones, California finally produced a device the size of an office building, other properties top-secret, that could reprogram a human being from the ground up. First it took your mind, then it reshaped your body into someone new. Someone less broken.
I was one of the strange few who still believed in something like the human soul, and I scoffed and doubted and took the next patient. My life was enough. Maggie, the kids, the work. I was satisfied.
Then Winston turns up like a bad shilling at closing time one day and says he acquired some new drug with nano-tech, something that can beat the machine, but it has to be injected into his spinal cord and he’s known me since high school and no one would ever find out, right?
I’d been too curious and like a fool had scheduled Winston an O.R. on our scheduling computer. Never one for breaking rules, I forgot that only illegal silicon remained disconnected from the algorithmic panopticon. The motions of my patients, like all customers, where noted, tabulated, predicted. I had no one on record receiving surgery that Tuesday. Winston did not show up. Two officers of the state came with questions and eventually gently held in front of my eyes their compulsor, bright, inscrutable, from which I could not tear my eyes until they shut it off in my cell. There was a trial before my peers at which the machine itself provided prosecution by holo, as part of its training in humanology. I was charged for conspiracy against the law, sentencing to be determined by the machine.
I found that criminal, Winston, on my row in Prep Cell. The machine, it appeared, had a sense of humor.
He watches with me as they bring out the second survivor, he cries out with me as, before our eyes, the wall reverts to the long hallway, and our voices choke at the collapse of the second survivor into a pile, rattling with death, the lackeys picking through it, looking for its legs to drag. Then the entrance attendant points to him, and when Winston doesn’t move, reaches for the slab of his compulsor. I don’t want to have to be weaned away from the side-gleam, so I look at my feet. The tiles are ever-so-clean.
I find my courage in memories of my old friend. He is not a good man, but he does have a certain pleasing grit; he is the sort of person it is very difficult to anger, infuriatingly so. We were not close in school; I was a perfect student and he skipped class. I got to know him when he became my source for focus aids before Junior exams. It was when I learned that nothing in the world could change Winston Cole. There is some sort of mental disengagement in his head that presents as irritating eccentricity, and I would’ve sworn he’d be just as abrasive fly fishing in his eighties. Some things change, but some remain the same, I told myself.
When, twenty minutes later, they bring Winston out, I stand and approach him, and am just getting into slapping his face, looking for a response, any response, any recognition in his eyes, when the finger is pointed at me. Rather than face the compulsor, I look at Winston, or the husk of him, a body from my past, able to rescue me as much as my past, and go with the man in white through his door.
I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to the timing of the previous three; I know just how quickly the machine approaches, down the circular metal hall. I know it waits, slavering. I know its power extends even to the vestibule, and that as I grow closer to the focus point of its otherworldly presence it is ever-more aware of me. The cameras in the ceiling turn to watch the attendant and I pass. My head feels full of buzzing ghosts. Doom is the emotion when both feet have left the cliff and only gravity has us.
The entrance to the end chamber is not directly ahead, but a nondescript door to the right of the infinitely long tunnel, which I find riotously annoying. They cannot even provide us the symmetry of a proper execution. There is to be no poetry to it whatsoever. That’s probably what they discovered after scanning the brains of people executed in chambers with straight entrances.
The room is disappointing. It is small. There is a stainless steel folding chair and the walls are off-white and in one of them is a two-way mirror. My courage fails me and I try to struggle past the lackey, who, implacable and brimming with experience, has already prepared the compulsor. I am blissfully lost in that great light until it dwindles and I find myself sitting in the chair. The attendant beats a quick exit – I think I sense fear bleeding through her gait, and the door shuts out all light and sound.
For a moment, nothing happens. “Come on,” I say, wondering whether anyone is observing me from the glass, or whether I’m truly alone for the first time in months. I cannot wait for it, whatever it is. I embrace it. I accept it. A year ago, I could not have imagined the end I now saw as the goal of all my life’s struggles. “Do it,” I say, gritting my teeth.
The machine says hello.
I see the face of God.
I am knocked to my knees inside my own head. My control of my own thoughts is wrested from me. Terrified, I fight back. Not with thoughts (those no longer belong to me) but with something deeper, with my self. I rage against it, like a fish against the net, like a finger against the rock, like a splinter against the tweezer. I cannot scream louder. I cannot focus myself any more powerfully. I have lost.
My body falls from the chair, and the machine accepts the pain.
The attendant opens the door, helps my body to its feet (it clutches at the chair without me), and leads it, compliant as a duckling, from the room. I feel no connection to it, not a thread. The machine tells me – in its wordless way; I would more accurately say the awareness became immanent in me – that it’s on its way to becoming whole once again, apart from me.
The room is then suddenly gone as well; the machine has taken all awareness. I am made to know, through experiences I could not explain with all the time in the world, that it is the truth both beyond me and within me. I am shown, in that first veil of ignorance, that the machine is the highest thing I can ever know, and the deepest part of my own existence.
I cannot resist any longer. I am the machine’s. I will be the machine’s. I have been the machine’s, always.
You are wondering, I can see, why I’m telling you all this.
I am telling you all this for the same reason they bring the survivors through the vestibule.