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The Carmenta Trilogy
Better Dead
Chapter One

When he was still a boy, they made Aleck watch while they executed his brother.

It was a beautiful, sunny day with hard, black shadows and he was only two metres away when the laser bolt burned into Stair’s head and the naked body collapsed within touching distance. But touching wasn’t allowed. Aleck watched as his brother’s corpse was roughly dragged away by the Sergeant-at-Arms and he saw the marks on the ground where the fingers of Stair’s outstretched hand trailed in the dirt.

The numbness Aleck had been feeling for the past few days gave way to a seething anger but the people of Carmenta learned early in life not to show their feelings. He managed to maintain an outward appearance of self-control but his emotions almost overwhelmed him, blotting out the beautiful day and blinding him to the gaze of the members of the local community who had been required to attend as witnesses. In his helplessness, he felt he could taste his hatred of those who had done this to his family – it was an acrid, nauseous poison that nearly choked him.

Silently, he watched as his brother’s body was cast into the gaping maw of the grinder unit where it was pulped and the remains transferred to the polished aluminium cylinder that was sealed and numbered. The law required that it must remain on display at the entrance to Aleck’s home for five Carmentan weeks, a period originally selected exactly to match the traditional biblical period of forty days and forty nights. Now, the five weeks served only as a reminder to everyone of the risks run by all those who might think of mutiny. Eventually, the cylinder would be removed – but not to the care of the family. Aleck didn’t know where it was taken.

Despite his experience of similar executions, Aleck half expected the remains to be the bright colour of fresh blood but, mixed as they were with bones, his brother’s tanned skin and the contents of the bodily organs, it was difficult to reconcile the dirty, brown soup with the vital young man he had known and loved.

In a silence accentuated by the sound of their feet crunching on the gravel path, Aleck and his father carried home his brother’s remains through the lines of sullen spectators. Aleck’s mother and sisters followed in their own silence. As duty demanded, they placed the heavy cylinder, with its saltire shaped cross, on the plinth that had been erected immediately outside the gate of their home. The slightly pinkish glow of the Carmentan sky gave an ironic warmth to the cold aluminium which no-one noticed.

Overt signs of grief were not permitted – indeed, silence itself had, in times past, and in similar circumstances, been interpreted as a sign of protest. Even within the partial privacy of their own home, grief could not be exhibited – Aleck’s youngest sister wasn’t of an age when her discretion could be trusted and even Cassie, three orbits younger than Aleck, was certain to be questioned by teachers at school during the next weeks. And the ever present securi cam in the main room might be monitored at any time.

“Stair was a fool,” said Iain Blackfield, Aleck’s father, with a glance at the securi-cam, once Mattie, the youngest of the family, was in bed and the others had assembled in the living room.

“He did what he thought was right,” said his wife with her eyes averted, hiding her tears. “Command says people must do right, but Stair was wrong.”

“Do you think he was wrong, Mother?” asked Aleck. His dark eyes glistened angrily.

“The Disciplinary Committee decided he was wrong,” answered Alys carefully. She paused and brushed her long hair out of her eyes. “So he was wrong. That’s obvious.”

“Is the Disciplinary Committee always right?”

“No. That’s why there’s an appeal to Command. But Command is always right. Standing Orders are clear. Command is always right.” Alys spoke in a monotone.

“Stair said, in the old days on Earth, people had the right to choose their leaders and that’s what he wanted for us.”

“And look what happened to Earth,” said Tania. “In any case, Stair had no right to think such things. He was wrong and he should have known better.”

“We don’t know what happened to Earth.”

“Well, we know something terrible happened and, whatever it was, Stair was a mutineer and ‘mutineers must pay the price’ so don’t you forget it, Aleck.” Tania, barely half an orbit older than Aleck, was well-versed in Standing Orders.

“He wasn’t a mutineer,” Aleck protested. “He was executed for sedition, and that’s not the same thing.”

“It’s near enough,” said Tania. “Dissent, sedition and mutiny – all steps on the same road.”

“Aleck didn’t mean any harm,” interposed his mother hurriedly, before an argument could develop. “He’s just confused. Stair tried to fill his head with dissent and now he needs help to understand the Right Way. He’s a good lad. But, Aleck, you mustn’t talk like that. Someone mightn’t understand. The Protector will ... protect ... you but he has to fight dissent, wherever it grows, for the good of us all. Long live the Protector!”

“Long live the Protector,” echoed Aleck, but he said it with less than true fervour. He knew his mother was upset and worried. He didn’t believe she would betray him (and he noted with wry cynicism his thought about ‘betrayal’ when the Right Way demanded ‘let the truth be known’) but he had overheard his mother talking with his father and knew she was concerned that the identity of whoever it was that had ‘let the truth be known’ about Stair was still a mystery. “I worry about Aleck. He’s too trusting,” she had said.

“I think we should remind ourselves about the Right Way,” said Mr Blackfield, nervously rubbing his cheek with his thumb. “Aleck, you’re still a boy and Standing Orders permit you some leeway. But you aren’t a child, you’re nearly eight orbits old, and you should understand by now that the Protector and Command aren’t to be questioned. That way lies anarchy and the beginning of the End.”

He paused and gathered his thoughts. Aleck knew he was quoting from the Code.

“We don’t know what happened to Earth and after all this time it doesn’t matter. What does matter is Carmenta and our lives here.” He glanced at the securi-cam again. It wasn’t blinking but that proved nothing. “None of us needs reminding about Standing Orders, Tania. Stair knew them and disobeyed them and he’s paid the price. But Aleck isn’t a dissenter like Stair. Command understands we’re shocked – not by Stair’s death, of course,” he added quickly, “but by his crime – and people who are shocked need time to get their thoughts together again. But it’s important to be careful what we say so we aren’t misunderstood.

“Without a strong Command, the community here on Carmenta would have died out within a few orbits of the last ship landing. That we’ve survived nearly fifty orbits is due to that strength. We lacked many of the things we needed to ensure our survival and it was the wisdom of Command under the inspired leadership of the First Protector that enabled our grandparents to establish the facilities that enable us to live in freedom and comfort now. We owe everything to the Protector and we still depend on him and always will.” He looked hard at Aleck.

Aleck had heard his father say almost precisely the same words many times and he always felt there was a lack of enthusiasm in his manner but he responded dutifully, “Yes, Father. Long live the Protector.”

“Long live the Protector.”

“Long live the Protector.”

Aleck stopped listening. He was remembering Stair. He was remembering swimming with Stair in the lake. He was remembering how, when he was little, three orbits his mother had said, he had hurt his knee while playing, and Stair had looked after him while his mother was out at work. Stair, only an orbit older than himself had brought him home, bathed his knee and made him a drink of coffee. Aleck had loathed coffee at the time but he had recognised his brother’s thoughtfulness and he had drunk it to please him. He remembered how Stair had brought his first girlfriend home and how embarrassed he had been. He remembered Stair’s inane, braying laugh and smiled. Stair – the name kept returning, bringing with it happy memories.

“Are you listening, Aleck?” His father’s words brought Aleck back to the present. “We know something terrible happened on Earth. I don’t believe it was an accident or a tragedy. We were just abandoned. And it was deliberate. They couldn’t have just lost us. And any government system that allows that to happen must be evil so don’t talk to me about people choosing their leader. The Protector cares for all of us. And that’s good. Long live the Protector!”

“Long live the Protector,” chorused the family.

The sun had set during Iain’s homily. “And now,” he said, “I think we could have Last Post early tonight. We’re all tired.”

Last Post was perhaps the most solemn part of the Day Rule. Reveille was often, even in the best conducted households, inclined to be hurried – everyone had their day’s duties beckoning. But Last Post was the opportunity to reflect on the day’s achievements, to renew family unity and to rededicate oneself to the future struggle before retiring for the night. Only small children, such as Aleck’s youngest sister, who needed their sleep, were excused.

Iain Blackfield went to the wall cupboard and brought the plaque from its shelf. It was an exact replica of the original, ornamented, enamel tablet that had hung in the wardroom of the Marco Polo on its first ever visit to Carmenta and which was now kept in Command House in York – ‘that fogging great fortress in York’, Stair had called it when he had thought no-one was listening.

He placed it with careful ceremony on the mantel shelf and, having satisfied himself everyone was in their proper place, he pressed the activator button. After a moment, the penetrating notes of the bugle calling ‘The Attention’ sounded in the room. As they died away, Aleck’s father spoke.

“Today we pay homage to the memory of the First Protector and his successors and acknowledge the rule of our present Protector, the Honourable Danton Towell. We affirm our allegiance to his authority and wisdom. We affirm our commitment to the well being of our community here on Carmenta. We affirm we will strive together to root out mutiny and those who foment it. Carmenta, perhaps the sole galactic custodian of the ancient traditions of Earth, is our mother and we take pride in our duty to maintain those traditions in the face of mutiny and for the benefit of humankind.”

Iain Blackfield cleared his throat and, with a sort of verbal change of gear, continued with the opening words of the constitution that they all knew by heart. Despite himself, Aleck listened as he had always done, his slim body seeming taller as he stood to attention with his eyes on a level with those of his father.

“We declare these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights and that amongst these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Mr Blackfield continued to speak of the values underpinning the constitution: respect for human dignity, the commitment to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. “We affirm that whenever the form of command becomes destructive of these values, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to establish a new command in such a form that will safeguard these values.”

“We so acknowledge and affirm,” responded his audience and even Aleck felt a slight frisson of pride at the solemnity of the words he had heard so often although he was scarcely aware of their irony – or of the subtle changes from the original words that had come down from history.

“We also affirm our unity as a family,” Mr Blackfield looked briefly at Tania, “supporting one another in our life together and recognising the contribution we make to the community of families here on Carmenta.”

“We so affirm.”

“Today has been one of shame for our community and for our family,” continued Mr Blackfield in an unsteady voice after a pause. “One of us has been found guilty of sedition and has rightly been executed. His remains will stay at our gate for forty days as an acknowledgement to our neighbours that we share his guilt and as a reminder to us of his error. I’m ashamed I didn’t see the error of Stair’s ways and that I wasn’t able, therefore, to bring them to the attention of the authorities as would have been my duty and wish. I call on all members of the family to share this shame and to acknowledge their failure.”

Aleck’s mother spoke at once. “I share the shame and acknowledge the failure.”

“I share the shame and acknowledge the failure,” responded Tania in a serious tone, her eyes expressionless.

“I share the shame and acknowledge the failure.” Cassie’s voice was neutral. Normally, Aleck’s younger sister was the most lively and demonstrative of all of them and her now colourless voice emphasised for Aleck the tragedy that had overtaken them.

There was a pause.


“I share the shame and acknowledge the failure.”

Aleck’s casual tone was barely short of insolent and his father couldn’t avoid a frown of anxiety which he quickly controlled for the securi-cam.

He hurried on. “We must discuss what penances we can perform for the benefit of the community and so mitigate our failures.”

As the Rule demanded, each of those present made a suggestion.

“I think we should clean the local walkways,” said Tania. “That will relieve the disposal detail for more pleasant duties.”

“An excellent suggestion,” said her father as if it were something new – Tania had said precisely the same thing on several, lesser occasions in the past.

“I could visit the hospital and read to the old people.” Cassie suggested.

“I could make some cakes for them,” said Aleck’s mother, “I’m sure they would like that.”

Aleck looked at his mother with renewed respect. Community Service had had no real benefit to the community for orbits but, even so, the Rule required it and a little home baking was the least she could get away with and he hoped the defiance would not be too obvious.

“They always get very good food. Command sees to that,” said Mr Blackfield.

“I know, but you always say my Spanish cakes are so nice and it would be an extra treat for them. It’s difficult to think of useful things to do when everything’s so ... well managed – and Mattie can help me. It’s important that she should share our penance.”

“That’s a good thought. I think we should each do something to express our personal shame – something that we’re each best at. Tania can clean the walkways. Mattie can help you with the cakes, Alys. You can visit the old people, Cassie, and I’ll do extra fishing. Aleck! What about you? I think you’d better come fishing with me and help with the boat. That way I can have you where I can see you and be sure you are doing something useful.”

“I’m no good at rowing,” said Aleck, his resentment almost tangible. “You said we should all do what we’re best at.”

“Well, it’s time for you to learn. I want no argument from you. You have to learn obedience to me as well as to the Protector. Now then,” he continued, “I think we can dispense with announcing our Achievements of the Day – it would be wrong to do so on our day of shame.”

Last Post continued with the usual Thoughts for Lost Comrades and Mr Blackfield pressed the activator for the ‘Last Post’ itself. The haunting bugle notes that have stilled the minds of generations of humans filled the room and, if Aleck’s eyes filled with tears, no one could know they were tears for his dead brother. But, today, the notes sounded harsh and discordant, a symbol of the wickedness that pervaded Carmenta.

That night Aleck lay in bed unable to sleep. He saw once more the liquid light of the laser as it burned against his brother’s forehead. He saw again his brother’s hand trailing in the dirt. He heard Cassie in the next room crying quietly to herself. He saw Little Moon creep almost imperceptibly across the uncurtained window of his bedroom, its pale light washing out the posters on the opposite wall, and he watched as it began to disappear from view. As it finally vanished he was jolted into the realisation that he must do something to retaliate for the injustice of Stair’s death. He didn’t know what, but his resolve was no less real for that. Suddenly, he felt at peace. He didn’t think of himself as a hero but he knew he wouldn’t let them get away with it – whatever it took.

He knew what he must do first and he slipped quietly out of bed.

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