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.
“Is the Disciplinary Committee
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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.”
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.