The Execution Festival
by Brad Andrews
With the first execution a great, sustained cheer arose in the near-drunken atmosphere of the Festival. Those closest to the main gallows could even feel the overspray from the high-pressure water jets as the shell of the condemned was first compressed, then cracked and heat-flashed away from his body. Spectators collected little pieces of shell in plastic sheeting and kept them as souvenirs.
Vanual shuddered, even as he felt the primal exhilaration, at how easily his people could revert to insane barbarity. His main eyestalks took in the immediate area of the gallows and the long line of cowed prisoners, soon to be dead. There were hundreds of them, incarcerated until the time of the Festival.
The Execution Festival occurred every five years and was attended by tens of thousands who made the trek from half a dozen worlds and by representatives from twice as many governments. The main attraction was the execution of 237 criminals.
These, Vanual knew, were the worst of their kind — from murderers to cluster-rapists — and they deserved their fate. However, as Vanual watched the next person vacate his bowels as he was led to Gallows #2, he wondered if there might be a less uncivilized way of going about it.
The executioners lifted the condemned vertically and placed him in a special rack that supported his weight. Almost his entire body was exposed. They began drilling five small holes into his main carapace without precision or gentleness and then inserted small screw-in o-rings. The crowd, realizing what was happening, began to swell, though the spectators were quiet in their anticipation.
To these o-rings were attached chains of different colors. Flowing streamers were woven into the links, all adding to the festive atmosphere. When the executioners were done, without hesitation they began pulling levers. With a wet crack and a sucking sound a large section of the condemned’s shell was wrenched free, exposing the softer pre-shell underneath. The nerve endings were open to the air, and victim’s screams could be heard over the roar of the crowd.
It took another hour, and all but one of the levers were thrown before the victim died. The crowd loved it.
The day continued with people taking breaks from the main and secondary gallows to do some shopping, to picnic on exotic foods with friends and family they had not seen in years — some since the last Festival — as they compared their lives and doted on their first-stage children and how well their shells were hardening, even as screams punched the air, their volume controlled by the method of death.
By morning, Vanual, a senior-caste professor, had had enough of the Festival and its ways. He made plans and initiated them by defecating in four very widely spaced corners of his area, thus providing him with a scent-marked area to work in. As crazy as the people around him were, they dared not intrude upon his space. Even so, many seemed to become very curious and saw Professor Vanual’s work as an attraction in itself.
It was an unwritten rule of the Festival that you were free to ignore or embrace to any degree you liked any wild fantasies and overindulgence. In short, you could do whatever you wanted without worry of consequence or judgment. And Professor Vanual seemed to be setting a most unusual example.
Vanual started by collecting sections of high-strength tubing. He found a base with wheels, but it wasn’t large enough for his liking, and he went hunting through the festival grounds again. When he returned, the crowd that had gathered around his workspace was amazed to see that he had somehow found yet another base, though this one was tracked and had its own power source. He guided it to the middle of his workspace, ignoring the stares of those around him.
Again he disappeared, this time for a much longer interval. When he returned, he had a drone sled full of all sorts of equipment. The crowd swelled as word grew of this new spectacle, and still he ignored all the stares and shouted questions. Even so, it was apparent that he noticed them, for he took the time again to defecate all around his space.
Yet he still felt the need to shield his activities from the assembled crowd. He grabbed some of the tubing and with a great strength that only an adult of his size and age possessed, he broke one of the longest into four sections and anchored them deeply into the ground, forming a wide base.
He then reared his hind section and began to spin a heavy secretion into a netting. An hour later all that could be seen from the outside was moving shadows, and all that could be heard was the muffled sounds and cries of the crowd, who were hissing and yelling at him to stop. As with everything else here, they wanted to watch.
Despite the sound of the gallows in the background as well as the infuriatingly curious crowd, Vanual was eventually satisfied that he had all that he needed. His main sensor cluster worked feverishly to form a mental image of his device, part by part, and all from memory.
He was constructing something that he had seen on a planet called Earth and that had been made almost a thousand years before. Although it was very crude, it was easy to build and extremely effective. It would also be completely unexpected.
The Gallows was still at work. Its water jets had their pressure greatly reduced, and the heat was increased by an order of magnitude. The soon to be dead convict’s shell was a bright pink wherever the water touched him. He was obviously being steamed alive. After another thirty minutes, gallows 1 and 2 had dispatched 87 of the 237. The crowd surged and cried for more.
Afternoon turned to early evening, and as the sun began to set the shadows became somewhat more apparent inside of the “Tent,” as it was now being called. What could be seen was the shape of the elderly Vanual and the object he was building. It was squat and not very large, and it was being constructed on top of the mobile base, apparently the better to move it from the Tent.
Vanual heard a great commotion outside and took a moment to glance at his small vis-screen that was strapped to one of his sub-limbs. The night’s entertainment had begun in earnest. The promoters of the Festival had come up with something new! Vanual sat, ashamedly enthralled as two of the doomed were led to the base of two towers that had been rolled into place, spotlights playing over the two towers and giant screens now showing the two who were about to be killed.
A team of executioners now appeared between the two prisoners. Behind them was a heavily loaded drone sled, its curves and points glistening under the great spotlights. It was an ominous load, and even though no one knew exactly what was about to happen, the crowd went hysterical at the sight.
The team then split into two, approached each of the prisoners, and began pulling equipment from the sled. Vanual zoomed into the scene and instantly recognized a type of harness that was obviously built for his species. He watched with a morbid fascination as a harness was fastened to each inmate. Tiny hard-points on the harnesses caught the light and briefly stole the attention of those watching — until the blades were brought out.
Everyone knew that something special was about to happen, but it was still quite a mystery. The blades were firmly attached to the harnesses, pointing forward. The two condemned were led up to the towers and then winched to the top of each, where platforms had been erected.
Once this step was complete, a telescoping arm rose from both towers, stretching a flexible cable towards the sky until it was taut. The two opposing towers then began to lean towards one another, the cables going even tighter. The two criminals, their shells radiating fear, leaned nearly over the edges of the tower platforms.
The spectacle brought the crowd to an intense frenzy. Vanual, unable to tear himself away from the vision, held his breath and waited while the promoters spoke aloud, denigrating even further those who were about to die. At the crescendo of the show the two convicts were dropped towards one another at a high rate of speed and the blades clipped one another in a shrieking cacophony of pain and mutilation. The blades of one harness sliced off all the main limbs of the other victim, while the other’s harness severed nearly a quarter of the first victim’s shell.
Momentum did the rest, and gore fell upon the delighted crowd below.
Vanual went furiously back to his work, determined to end this savagery!
Throughout the evening and into the night the death continued without pause and with nearly unending creativity. Vanual, a creative man of science, was himself surprised at the number of wicked ways in which a person could be killed. He hadn’t realized that a member of his species could scream so loud, and as the night drew to an end, the deaths were performed with slower, more entertaining, methods but in fewer numbers. Some 186 condemned remained by the end of the night.
Vanual did the numbers: the promoters were fifteen percent slower than at the last festival. He hardly had to wonder about this: as the last scream hit him he realized that the delay was due to the promoters’ unending creativity.
The morning broke with five screams at once: Something new, he thought as he took a bottle of stimulants. Vanual had been up all night working and was nearly finished. Judging by this fresh round of screaming it was none to soon. He broke through his tent wall and briefly beheld the massive crowd staring at him. It had grown to an incalculable number, and for some reason he was now very accepting of this. The more the better, he thought. Let them see!
Vanual turned towards his tent and began to regurgitate a vile dissolvent upon the structure, which began to dissipate into the air around it, like sugar into water. It left nothing but the supporting poles and his creation standing out in the open.
The tracked base followed Vanual as obediently as a pheromone-addicted servant, easily negotiating the trash-strewn terrain and sleeping bodies despite the ungainly burden it carried. Still not recognizing it for what it was, people moved out of its way and simply gawked at it. Only as it neared the Gallows did they begin to realize just what kind of thing the elder caste-member was wielding.
Vanual climbed into the control carousel even as he watched a convict having layers of his shell peeled away by a medical stripper, which doctors used to remove the shell tumors that sometimes infected long-term sleepers on interstellar flights. If the stripper cut too deeply, great harm could be done, and that was happening now.
The poor bastard, Vanual flinched, at the sight of the convict’s curled-up shell landing at the forelimbs of the spectators below, who went mad with joy as they scooped it up for further keepsakes.
It was then that he opened fire. The Gatling gun performed as he expected, its bullets ripping through the first row of the condemned convicts like tiny saviors blowing their shells apart. Mercy had never seen such a sight, and as the criminals realized what was happening, they began to stir, clamber, and fight to be next in line.
Vanual’s first homemade ammunition box emptied and was ejected onto the ground even as another automatically fed itself into the gun and the track moved forward to a better firing position. He had at least another eighty to put down.
The protests, the cries to stop were drowned out as the big gun continued firing, its work determined and relentless. Vanual shrugged off those trying to pull him away from the controls. To be safe, he put the gun into self-guidance mode. No matter what, his work would be done.
As the third ammunition box clicked into place, the hot gun barrel steaming in the morning air, Vanual felt a tremendous sense of relief, and he pressed the trigger for the final burst. The gun made the platform vibrate under him as the rounds pierced the day and swiftly killed the last of the condemned.
It was all over in minutes.
As the drum of the Gatling gun rotated to a stop, the crowd gaped in baffled silence. It seemed that no one knew what to think. How were they to interpret the pre-emptive death of those condemned to die? What to do to the person responsible in a place where, for three days, rules did not apply? How to respond to his scream of purpose?
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Execution Festival is over!”
Copyright © 2007 by Brad Andrews