"You're free to go."
The voice belonged to Judge Oatley, the man who had sentenced me to life in prison.
"Free to go?"
He stood inside my cell, blocking the open doorway. Instead of answering in words, he stepped aside.
"How come?" I said, although my path to freedom stood before me, unobstructed.
"Father Mortin is dead," Judge Oatley said, unable to stop his voice from cracking. He had served as First Officer on Father Mortin's ship. Although he became one of the most vocal of Father Mortin's opponents (when Father Mortin's words still had enough weight that opponents were needed), he had always treated him with respect. Despite their differences of opinion, Judge Oatley never stopped thinking of Father Mortin as a friend. My trial had tried the Judge's impartiality. "He asked for your release in his will. I've convinced the council to honor his wishes."
"Father Mortin's dead?" Then, "How?" I said, although I was afraid I already knew the answer.
He'd gone after the Redeyes himself. No one else would go, so Father Mortin went after them himself, just like I'd told him to.
Father Mortin, who I had tried to kill for killing Beth. Father Mortin, who I had beat so badly by the time the police found us that the doctors didn't think he'd pull through. Father Mortin, who begged for my release in his will.
Of all the people in the Undercity, I'd hated Father Mortin the most. As a child, when my father wasn't dead yet and my mother still had enough power over me that she could direct how I spent my Sunday mornings, I sat between my parents and pretended to listen to Father Mortin's interminable sermons. Sometimes a spike in his usually calm voice recalled my wandering thoughts. I would stare at him and the thought would go through my head: If you bled just a drop for each person you sent to their deaths on the surface, you'd be dead yourself, maybe twice over.
Back then, Father Mortin still filled his church from pew to pew, still held the Undercity in the palm of his hand and could still, with a call-to-arms sermon, send a half-dozen of our best and bravest to a suicidal fight against the Redeyes. Even as a child, I knew that no human being could challenge a Redeye, no creature of flesh-and-blood could survive a battle against the creatures of metal. It took several years, and the death of my father, but the rest of the Undercity learned what I already knew, and Father Mortin's church became as quiet as did our house, when my father's booming laugh was replaced by my mother's silent depression.
As much as I hated Father Mortin even as an adult, he was the only one who visited me in prison. Loneliness will make you accept just about anyone as a friend. But the Father Mortin who visited my cell was a very different man from the Father Mortin of my childhood. Gone was his arrogance, gone his self-assured half-smile. The Father Mortin of my adulthood was ten years older, his hair greyer, the lines underneath his eyes deeper and darker. Like the people of the Undercity, who had all abandoned him, time hadn't been kind to Father Mortin.
Although I knew that Father Mortin visited me because no one else would suffer his conversation, I was glad for the company. The rats, who lived in holes inside the walls of my hole of a cell, never had anything interesting to say and were poor listeners, scurrying off in the middle of arguments.
Even when he talked about sending me out, I was always careful to feign interest. Never would I have believed that one day I'd find myself on the surface, hunting down the Redeyes.
Before I went after the Redeyes, few had been to the surface in years. But before that, Father Mortin would round up a dozen kids every couple of months and lead them on an excursion that was half field-trip and half history-lesson.
"Will we see a Redeye, Father Mortin?"
I went on six or seven of his expeditions, and that was always the first question.
"No," Father Mortin would say. "We'll be keeping away from the Redeyes." Then he'd move closer to whichever kid had asked the question. In a conspiratorial whisper, but loud enough for every one else to hear, he'd say, "But maybe when you're older—maybe you'll not only see a Redeye, maybe you'll kill one."
I remember the first step I ever took out of the mouth of the Undercity. Although I'd been warned about the bright-white sun, I looked right at it before turning my head away and squeezing my eyes shut. For a moment, with flickering white spots dancing on the insides of my eyelids, I was afraid that I'd made myself blind, like Father Mortin said would happen if we stared at the sun too long. But slowly I opened my eyes and looked down at my fingers, and the white spots cleared away. It was so much brighter than in the Undercity that my head started to hurt.
If only Beth wasn't fascinated with the surface, or I wasn't fascinated with Beth, I never would have set a foot off the paved ground of the Undercity. For the life of me, I couldn't understand why Beth jumped at every chance to accompany Father Mortin on his trips. If it was mere curiosity, there were enough pictures for her to see. You could look at lions all day without having to risk becoming their lunch.
"You can't pet a picture," Beth said, the first time we were about to leave the Undercity, and I still thought I had a chance at talking her out of it.
"I'm not petting a lion," I said. "No way."
"Why? Father Mortin says they're harmless."
"Father Mortin says a lot of things," I said, and Beth gave me a look because at that time he was still very respected.
Despite my protests, whenever Beth went up to pet a lion, I joined her, running my palm over its soft, red mane, but always terrified that the lion would turn its giant head, twice as big as my own, and tear off my petting arm and swallow it whole.
"Don't worry, Jim," Father Mortin said one time, when he saw me keeping a healthy arm's-reach distance (if I had to lose something to prove my love for Beth, an arm was enough, I figured). "It's been years since I've lost anyone to the lions."
Everyone, including Beth, laughed.
"Can we see the spaceship?" I said, in part to take the focus off my reddening face, but mostly because I didn't care about the sun, or the lions, or the Redeyes, or the distant grey hills, but the spaceship was a sight worth seeing.
Father Mortin checked his handheld machine that told him how far away the nearest Redeye was, while some of the other children said, "Can we, please? Can we?"
After what seemed like forever, Father Mortin looked up and said, "Let's go."
Immediately we forgot about the lions, who returned to their peaceful grazing, and followed Father Mortin as he pretended to race us towards the runway, which is what he called the deep crater the spaceship had dug into the ground as it fell from the sky.
"Get inside, quickly." Father Mortin kept checking his handheld machine, as if he half-expected a Redeye to appear and kill everyone in one sweep of its laser gun.
The sight of the spaceship always took my breath away. Standing beside it, even if you craned your neck al the way, you couldn't see its top. Father Mortin said that it was a mere skeleton of what it used to be; that we'd stripped it to make the walls of our homes.
In those days, I had already developed a habit of doubting everything that Father Mortin said, but what I doubted most was that this giant ball of metal could ever fly through the sky, let alone above the clouds. Either way, I'd think, it's on the ground now and it's pretty neat. To my young eyes, it was like an above-ground Undercity.
"Tell us the story," one of the children inevitably said, as we sat in the shelter of the spaceship.
"There are many homes in the Undercity," Father Mortin always began, "and rooms inside each home. So are there many planets in the world." Whenever he took us to the surface at night, Father Mortin pointed out the tiny lights in the sky and said that some were planets, while others were suns that had their own family of planets.
"Our people travel to these different places," he went on. "And when we find a planet that we like and that doesn't have other, different people living there already, some of us go there to make a home. We thought that Bales was such a place, but we were wrong—there was already a people here called the Ninians. We thought that all the Ninians were dead, but after they had made a home here, our people were attacked. They sent a distress signal and a ship came to investigate. All of our people were dead, slaughtered by the Ninians."
Father Mortin paused. He didn't like what came next in his story; that much I could see even the first time I heard him tell it.
"We were sent to destroy the Ninians," Father Mortin said. "We came in this ship you're sitting in, and we circled this planet, and we shot out Redeyes to the ground below."
This part always came as a surprise to the younger children, who hadn't yet realized that we were responsible for the monsters that haunted their dreams.
"The Redeyes did what they were supposed to do—they killed and killed until there were no more Ninians."
Father Mortin paused here too, as if asking his audience to think about what they'd just heard. But the children always accepted this act of genocide with perfect calmness—either they felt the Ninians deserved it, or they couldn't be bothered to worry about something that happened before they were even born.
That wasn't my reaction the first time I heard the story. "You slaughtered them," I said.
Father Mortin nodded but didn't say anything.
"You're a monster," I said, starting to cry. I didn't know the Ninians from anyone else, but the thought that someone would unleash the Redeyes on anyone at all, no matter how bad, made him more horrible in my eyes than even the Redeyes themselves.
"We were outraged at what the Ninians had done," Father Mortin said. "We would have left peacefully once we realized their planet was still inhabited. But they didn't give us that chance; they just came out of their caves"—undetectable, underground caves that we would convert for our purposes and call home—"and massacred the entire colony. Our orders were to pay them back for what they did."
The children were still looking at me, half in horror but also half in awe at what I had said to Father Mortin.
"Pay them back?" I said, trying to hold my tears at bay, but also aware of the other children's (and Beth's) attention, and reveling in it. "How Christian is that?"
"Not Christian at all. It's not something I'm proud of, and if I could change the past, I would do it gladly. We're very different people now."
But just as he'd sent the Redeyes to kill the Ninians, I thought at the time, Father Mortin is now sending people from the Undercity to kill the Redeyes. Two weeks after Beth's seventh birthday, Father Mortin had sent a group (Beth's father among them) to their death. As far as I was concerned, Father Mortin's hands were not only tainted with blood from that one act against the Ninians, but he dipped them regularly in the blood of our own people, the blood of our parents and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers.
"What happened next?" Beth said, who wasn't so much interested in what happened next as she was in trying to deflate a tense situation.
"Once we were sure the Redeyes had killed all the Ninians," Father Mortin said, his eyes still on me, "we brought our ship into low-flight and sent them the signal to shut down. They didn't; instead, they turned their rockets and lasers on us. They brought down our ship."
"What happened after that?" someone else said.
"Some died in the crash; the rest of us escaped to the Undercity."
"If what you say is true," I said, that same time, after our face-off, "why hasn't someone come to rescue us?"
"I wish I knew," Father Mortin said. "We waited for a long time. My guess now is that new people are in power—people who didn't like what we were sent here to do. And maybe for these new people, forgetting about us is the easiest way to deal with us."
He shrugged. "Either way, I don't want to live the rest of my life in that prison, even though it's a nice prison, I know." He paused and looked at us as if seeing us for the first time. "None of you have known any other kind of life. But there is another life, a free life. A life with room enough for your kids and your kids' kids. A life where you can breathe fresh air and feel the sun on your skin anytime you want."
On later trips, when I knew the whole story, I said: "Father Mortin, were you the priest on the ship that released the Redeyes?"
"I only became a priest later," Father Mortin said, looking me in the eyes, knowing that I already knew the answer. "I was the Captain of the ship that released the Redeyes."
Whenever I asked that question, and saw the looks of shock on the faces of the kids who hadn't known the truth, there was no end to my satisfaction, magnified as it was by the gravity and sadness with which Father Mortin made the confession.
When he visited me in prison, Father Mortin did most of the talking. For my part, I ran out of conversation quickly—had gruel for breakfast today, shared some with one of the rats, he left me a gift and I made a sculpture out of it. Father Mortin never could keep the look of disgust from his face, when he saw my recreation of the Undercity: sculpted Ninian rat-turd sur granite floor. But in prison you do what you can to keep busy.
One day, Father Mortin didn't wait for me to finish speaking.
"I've completed the work on the new gun," he said, interrupting my description of the recent additions to the city.
I didn't turn to face him right away. He'd finished working on the gun that would stop the Redeyes, just like the one he'd built for my dad was supposed to stop the Redeyes.
It's over, I thought. It's just you and the rats and your crappy city now.
"I'm not going to the surface," I said, facing him.
Father Mortin's eyes narrowed. "We had a deal."
"I never agreed to go after the Redeyes."
"We had a deal," Father Mortin said again, raising his voice enough that the guard came to take a look. "What have we been talking about here?"
"We've been talking," I said. "Just talking. I'm not going to the surface."
"You'd rather spend the rest of your life rotting in prison?"
"I'd rather keep living," I said. "And that's not going to happen with the Redeyes."
"Only God is perfect," Father Mortin said, repeating a formula I'd heard him utter many times before. "The Redeyes are not God, so they are not perfect. Therefore, despite what everyone has come to believe, victory against them is possible."
"Then go after the Redeyes yourself."
I regretted the words immediately—I didn't want to push Father Mortin even further away, in case there was any chance left that he would still visit me. But he didn't seem fazed at all.
"If I die," he said, "no one will care about getting back to the surface; in a little while, maybe no one will remember that there is a surface to speak of."
"I see. I'm just a pair of arms and a trigger-finger to test your latest prototype against the Redeyes. I'm a disposable hypothesis-tester. Like my father and Beth's father before him. Like Beth."
Father Mortin didn't respond right away. I was afraid that these were the words that would push him over; I was afraid that he'd turn around and walk out of the prison.
Instead, he said, "Beth chose to go to the surface. So did her father; so did yours. They understood that the Undercity is a prison. They weren't afraid to risk their lives in the effort to set us free." He gave me a look of disgust that had nothing to do with the smell of the sculpted rat droppings. "But I suppose some people don't mind living in prisons."
He left without another word and without his usual parting wave at the doors of my cell. It was the last time I ever saw him.
My family home was vacant and waiting. It was the only thing waiting for me after my release from prison. A public trial filled with gruesome descriptions of how you beat a man halfway to death has a way of alienating people.
But because of my time in prison, I found that I couldn't stay in one room too long. Maybe I was afraid that I'd look up to see iron bars blocking the door: I'd be trapped in that room forever, to serve out the rest of my sentence despite Father Mortin's wishes.
It's perhaps ironic that I found relief in Father Mortin's church, which had been left untouched after his death. In a sense, it became a new prison for me, but one I'd chosen for myself. I was comfortable there. I could eat a whole meal there, without having to flee and leave my food half-eaten, to get cold until I returned; I could read entire chapters of books in one sitting; I could sleep without coming awake at regular intervals, soaked in cold sweats.
In this new prison, I'd traded the companionship of the rats for that of the Crucified Christ. There were icons all around the church, painted by Father Mortin and others through the years. But it was below the small wooden cross and the figure crucified on it where I spent most of my time. It was to the Crucified Christ that I spoke; it was to him that I brought the pain of all my losses, to find that his suffering made mine more bearable.
Things would have been very different for us if I'd found refuge somewhere else. But I settled into Father Mortin's church, and to pass the time I read from the library of books he kept in his office, and from his binders full of hand-written sermons.
In one of those sermons I read the following words:
"Christ is the zero-killer. We live shackled to sin, which is a zero multiplied against all of our efforts. Without Him, no matter what we do, or how good we are, the end product is the same: zero. He frees us from bondage; Christ kills the multiplicative zero of sin."
Later that day, I looked at the Crucified Christ and said, "So you're the zero-killer, huh? Are you any good with robots?"
I said the words with a smile—I often joked with the Crucified Christ—but as soon as they were out of my mouth, I knew how to beat the Redeyes.
For a few moments I stared at the Christ on His Cross. Eventually I blinked, then turned my gaze to the large icon at the front of the church depicting the Mother and Child. I stared at them, hardly able to move or think another thought.
Finally, and for the first time in weeks, I left Father Mortin's church. Running through the Undercity, I yelled, "I know how to beat the Redeyes!"
As they came out of their homes, the people of the Undercity formed a circle around me.
"I know how to beat them," I said again, when I saw the distance they kept.
From among the crowd, I spied out Judge Oatley's face.
"I'm serious," I said, speaking to him. I was desperate to tell another human being my idea; the longer they looked at me like I was crazy, the more I believed that maybe they were right.
Judge Oatley looked like he could kill me for singling him out. But everyone's attention had turned to him.
"Everyone go back to bed," Judge Oatley said finally.
No one moved.
"Come on," he said, motioning for me to follow.
He led me to his house. I sat in his living room, with his wife and two young children—a boy and a girl—watching me from the kitchen. While Judge Oatley made us tea and reassured his wife in whispers that I wasn't a danger to her or the kids, I looked at the pictures of his children, of him and his wife, of the family together. I looked at the toys tossed around the floor, and the crayon-painted pictures framed and hanging on the walls.
This is the life Beth and I were supposed to have, I thought, and felt that the depression welling up inside might consume me. With effort, I resisted the urge to flee Judge Oatley's house.
"You know how to beat the Redeyes," he said, handing me a hot cup of lemon tea. I took a long sip, savoring the warmth.
As anxious as I'd been to share my idea, I now felt reluctant to speak it aloud. What if I was wrong? What if it were stupid after all? The longer I held off telling it, the longer I could entertain the notion—if only by myself—that I really had figured it out. That I'd figured out how to stop those who'd stopped my father and Beth and Father Mortin.
"Zero can be the most powerful number in an equation," I said.
If Judge Oatley thought I might be crazy before, he now looked convinced.
"A billion times zero is zero," I said. "A trillion times zero is zero."
"Father Mortin went after the Redeyes with guns," I said. "He tried lasers, with every possible modulation; he tried bullets. He sent large groups, he sent small groups, he sent individuals. He tried going after the Redeyes at night; he tried going after them in bright daylight. Nothing worked. Do you know why?"
Judge Oatley waited.
"Because when you multiply by zero, the answer is always the same. Attacking the Redeyes is multiplying by zero. It doesn't matter if you're bringing five or five billion to the equation—the end product will always be zero."
Judge Oatley leaned back in his chair and sipped his tea.
"To beat the Redeyes," I said, "you need to change the context. For as long as I've lived, we've tried attacking them. It's time to try something else."
"Talking to them."
Judge Oatley's shoulders fell and his eyes closed. He'd followed me, as if into a dungeon, on the promise of a great, hidden treasure. And once we arrived, he'd found—nothing.
"Wait," I said. "Think of the lions."
"What about them?"
"The Redeyes don't attack them. Why?"
His head turned to one side; it was such a slight movement that I wasn't sure it really happened. But I could see that he was thinking the same thing I'd been thinking: how come the killer robots hadn't killed the lions or the other life on the surface?
"Because they're a non-threat," I said. "The Redeyes don't attack hills or trees or rocks. They have a mechanism to decide what's a threat and what isn't. The lions, peaceful as they are, aren't considered dangerous."
Judge Oatley started pacing.
"When the Redeyes reacted with violence to the shut-down signal from the ship," I said, "Father Mortin decided there was something wrong with them and that they needed to be destroyed. His mind was consumed with that single question—'How can we destroy the Redeyes?'"
Judge Oatley nodded.
"But is destroying them really what we want to do? We just want to be released from this prison of an Undercity. We just want to live on the surface without fear of an attack by the Redeyes, right?"
Judge Oatley nodded again.
"Father Mortin told me that the ship and the Redeyes could be ordered through voice commands. What if—"
"But you said it yourself, something's wrong with their wiring."
"But what if whatever's wrong with them is related to the shut-down signal alone? What if they'll respond normally to spoken commands?"
"That was the first thing we tried! They massacred—"
"A well-armed group of people."
Judge Oatley said, "So you'd send someone without any weapons at all?"
"What if you're wrong? They'll be slaughtered."
"How is that different from any other time we've gone after them?"
Judge Oatley didn't answer.
"No creature of flesh-and-blood can survive a battle against the creatures of metal," I said. "Our only chance is if there isn't a battle at all."
Judge Oatley presented my idea to the rest of the people of the Undercity. They were all for it. "Send the boogeyman to the surface," someone yelled, although I was right there, standing in the assembly. "Let the Redeyes have him."
Even when Judge Oatley convinced them it was an idea worth trying, no one would go. It was my idea, they said, so why not go after them myself?
I only resisted initially. I knew that Father Mortin was right—I was in prison, a prisoner of the Undercity and a prisoner of my fears. As long as the Redeyes walked the surface, I'd never be free. Even the worst case—a quick death as their lasers sliced through me—didn't seem so bad, compared to the life I'd been living.
Even so, I was terrified.
Several times, I thought of turning around and heading back home. But I knew I didn't really have a home to return to. I kept going, walking in the stifling heat until I came across them.
It was the first time I'd seen the Redeyes with my own eyes, in person and unfiltered through a camera's lens. A pack of five basked in the sunlight, recharging their batteries.
At that instant when they first discovered my presence, I regretted with all my heart not having brought a gun. They stood to their full height, their telescopic legs pushing their round, metal heads eight feet above the ground. Even in the bright light, each cyclopic eye glowed with a fire-red intensity; I was convinced that the Redeyes would burn me to death just by looking at me.
As the bubbling fear turned into panic inside of me, I wanted to pull out a weapon and start firing—but of course I hadn't brought one. So, instead, I turned and ran, stumbling and running and crawling to put as much distance between myself and the Redeyes as possible.
"You have to go back," I said out loud, when exhaustion brought me to my knees. "You have to try."
I nodded, then vomited at the thought.
Sweat pasting my hair to my forehead, tears staining my cheeks, vomit clinging to my shirt where I'd wiped it off my mouth, I made my way back to the Redeyes. There is a state beyond panic, where you've sweat out and cried out and vomited out fear and every other emotion inside of you. In that state, there is only a weary acceptance of what you have to do.
From that place—a place with its own strange sense of power—I said hello to the Redeyes. They didn't respond, so I said hello a second time, then a third.
Still no reaction. But I'm still not dead, I thought.
I tried to remember what Judge Oatley told me. "I need to run some tests, okay?"
"Lift up your right arm," I said. Most of the Redeyes' weapons were located in their right arms. If I can command those arms, I thought, I can command the Redeyes to do anything I want.
"Do it now," I said, my voice exhausted and drained.
Five arms swung up.
I flinched, expecting to hear the hum of lasers. But the arms went straight up into the air. I stared at them and tried to find my voice.
"Okay," I said, when I could speak again. "Now, remove your right arms."
They did as they were told.
"Very good," I said, right away. "Now set your right arm on the ground in front of me. Good. Now go to sleep and don't wake up until you hear my voice."
They did as they were told and I did cartwheels until I fell over onto the grass, exhausted but not too tired to laugh and shout my joy to the sky and sun above.
This is the letter I wrote to Father Mortin, on the first anniversary of his death:
Dear Father Mortin,
I've never written a letter to a dead person before, not to dad or mom or Beth. You always insisted that death is not the end but the beginning of something new. I'll confess that I never believed you; but I never believed that we'd one day live on the surface, either.
I wish I could go back in time and do things differently. I wish you could've lived long enough to see us on the surface. But you couldn't change your past, and I can't change mine.
We're building new homes here, huge homes each the size of an Undercity neighborhood. We're eating fish we catch from the river, and the children have named all the lions. The birds sing us awake and the stars watch over us as we sleep. There is nothing in the world quite like waking up to a rising sun, with its warm rays touching your cheeks and its bright, natural light—unmatched by anything in the Undercity, which now seems depressingly dark—spreading across the land, chasing away the night's frost.
I hope you don't feel badly for not defeating the Redeyes yourself. It was thanks to you—thanks to your sermon and your Crucified Christ—that we were able to stop them at all. When I returned to the Undercity with the severed right arms of five killer robots, I went from boogeyman to hero. If everyone had avoided me before, no one could stay away now; I told my story a dozen times, to a hundred eager ears. If no one wanted to go after the Redeyes before, no one wanted to stay behind now.
Before two days had gone by, we were burning a small hill of metallic, severed right arms, and not a single Redeye was left walking the surface.
But guess what? Not long ago, I reactivated one of the Redeyes. I can just imagine the look on your face to hear such a statement! But in your Bible, it says, "They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks." He's helping us build our new homes. Once the older people are more comfortable around him, I'll reactivate more of the Redeyes.
All in all, Father Mortin, I think you would have been very proud of us. I think my parents would be proud, and Beth too.
Anyway, I said that I was waiting for the older people to grow comfortable around the Redeye. That's because the children couldn't be more comfortable—they crawl over him and tease him and play with him like one of their lions. A four-year-old riding the shoulders of a reprogrammed robot—it's quite a sight to behold, for someone who grew up terrified of the Redeyes.
It makes you feel like just about anything is possible.
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Copyright 2012, Karl El-Koura. All rights reserved.
Karl El-Koura was born in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). He has published more than sixty short stories and articles. Karl holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate, is an avid commuter-cyclist, and works for the Canadian Federal Public Service.
His books "Ooter's Place and Other Stories of Fear, Faith, and Love" (a collection of 13 short stories) and "The Lost Stories: A Series of CoSmic Adventures" (biblically inspired science fiction humor about a selfish starship captain who encounters God) are available from Amazon and other bookstores across the web.
Visit Karl's online home at http://www.ootersplace.com to discover more work by him and keep up-to-date with his latest news.