by Matthew K. Bernstein
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Just calm down, James Wernstorn told himself. Breathe. You’ve been in your leader’s office before. Why are you so nervous? You’re a Selected Officer. Selected Officers don’t get nervous. Just. Calm. Down.
“Now, Officer Wernstorn, please tell me again what you meant when you told my colleague... the earthquake came twenty minutes early?”
Stephen Locke sat in a plush, grey, velvety chair in front of the officer. Large, ornate silver doors fifteen feet high stood behind him. The office was spacious and most everything in it was grey: the desk, the chair, the bookcases, the massive window frame looking over the capital city. Some might call it commodious. Calm. Pleasant. But Wernstorn knew better.
The officer fidgeted nervously in the presence of his superior: one of the Seven Selected of the West. For ten years, Wernstorn had worked for the greatest group of leaders the world had ever seen. He had seen many horrible things in his time, quietly quashed many rebellions, tortured those who refused to recant. He had thus risen through the ranks, become one of the chief Selected Officers for his valiant work. Just a year ago, he had been promoted to western coastline duty. Imagine! Little did he know what trouble that would cause. It was why he had been summoned here today, after all.
And yet, in spite of all his efforts, he still had no idea how to talk to Them. Slip up and you’re dead, he thought to himself.
“Ah, yes, sir,” he began, trying to keep his voice steady. “It appears there was a malfunction with the bombs. They — ah, they detonated early.”
“Detonated early, you say,” the man repeated quietly, venomously. “And who is to blame for this?”
“We’re working on that, sir.”
“Oh, you’re working on it. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that?” Locke spat. “Working on it won’t cut it. We eliminate those who threaten the success of this plan. Surely you understand that?” Locke ended on a saccharine note, thinly veiling his disgust.
“Yes, of course.”
“Yes, of course, sir,” Locke interjected. He raised his right eyebrow slowly. He was a tall, lean man, immaculately groomed. A leader with an austere aura about him. And despite looking eerily similar to his co-Selected, with cold blue eyes and dark brown hair, he seemed the most dangerous of them all. Cruel and cunning, he did nothing to hide his disdain for the incompetents around him. “And what of the East?” Locke asked.
Wernstorn knew one of his leaders would question him about their counterparts, the Executives, and how their operation had gone. But the reports that he had gotten from his subordinates did not bode well. The East’s bombs had not gone off.
“Ah, well, sir...,” Wernstorn stuttered, trying in vain to keep his voice steady. “The reports that I’ve been receiving are saying that, ah.. The-the reports are saying that their operation ran into some trouble—”
“Trouble...,” Locke interjected. His voice maintained an eerie calmness.
“Ah, yes. It appears — and this is just from my data — that, ah, the, um, bombs — they didn’t go off.”
Locke’s eyes pierced Wernstorn. “Officer Wernstorn,” he began, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly, “you do realize that these operations are crucial to our world dominance?”
“Yes, of course, sir, I—”
“Then you must know how each step pans out,” Wernstorn’s superior said. “Our citizens are taught about the Collision from an early age. At the appropriate time, the bombs go off. On. Time. The ‘earthquakes’ happen. West and East. That was our agreement.
“Every one of our foolish citizens thinks the Continents have collided. They know nothing of the bridge that has connected our two societies for decades, now. Our naïve citizens believe it is time for war. The trains that take them to our Compulsory Military Training Program simply... expedite the process.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Do you? Because surely if you understood, then you’d know that I am not allowed to share such information with you.”
Wernstorn inhaled sharply as his stomach plummeted. Something is wrong, his brain told him. Get out of here. How do I get out of here!?
“We were so glad to have you on board, Officer James Wernstorn,” Locke began quietly.
“Were? Sir, I was just reporting to y—”
Locke raised his finger. “You should know by now that we do not accept incompetence. You should know better than to disappoint your superiors.” He tapped the device on his wrist, activating it. A hologram suddenly projected out of the device. James could vaguely make out another one of the Selected through the blue haze emanating from the gadget.
“Hello Agnes, dear,” Locke said coldly. “Are you ready for our friend James?”
Agnes’ cruel titter reached Wernstorn’s ears. “Yes, of course. Bring him in. We have something very special in store for him!”
The hologram shut off. Locke smiled malevolently before speaking again.
“Now, kindly get out of my office, you worthless fool.” He spoke calmly, as if this kind of talk came naturally to him, as if the pleasantries and niceties so many had heard him utter on television and over radio waves were foreign to him.
“Head to your right and go down the hall to see Agnes. She’s a pleasure. Quite fun. She has some games planned for you.”
Wernstorn, trembling, bowed out of the room. “Th-thank you, my dear leader.”
Now is my chance, Wernstorn thought. Upon exiting Locke’s office, Wernstorn looked to his left hopefully. But the hallway was guarded. Four officers cloaked from head to toe in glinting black armor cocked their guns in his direction.
Wernstorn tried desperately to lock eyes with the rightmost guard, who was furiously twisting knots in his uniform with his free hand. The guard kept his eyes averted, grimacing. He was not happy about this, either.
“Don’t even think about it,” one of the other guards said said. “Mister Locke said go to the right. So go.”
Wernstorn obliged. The doors to Agnes’ office opened slowly.
“Hello, dear. Come right in.”
* * *
That was the last I saw of Officer Wernstorn. Officers like him come and go every day of every week of every month of every year: a pleasantly consistent herd of fallen-from-grace officers who enter kind Agnes’ office, never to come back out.
I don’t quite remember how long I’ve been stationed at these doors. It’s hard to count the hours I’ve stood, not saying a word, watching these men walk to their doom. I’ve gotten used to it.
The officers inside are usually nothing more than ashes, maybe a few drops of crimson spattered on the marble floor. Nothing unusual. That doesn’t bother me either — the messes, the cleaning.
I don’t know why that doesn’t bother me. And that bothers me, I think. But I try to avoid dwelling on it. The bothering, that is. “Dwelling on the bad leaves no room for the good. No room for the good means no room for the Selected.”
I don’t remember much before my education. I get flashes here and there in dreams: screaming, a phone call, claw marks on a doorframe. A younger boy’s face, worried. Scared. But it’s nothing tangible, nothing real. As quickly as they come, they go. The images hit a wall. It’s almost like I’m programmed to avoid them, the memories. It doesn’t bother me, really.
There are better things to dwell on.
Those memories get replaced by pages and pages of standardized Western Education Facility textbooks. Disembodied voices, strict yet oddly tender, repeating Western mantras over and over and over and over. There is not one saying I don’t know.
And yet I am constantly reminded of what I have lost. Or what I think I have lost. A family. Maybe even a younger brother. I’ve never known them. At least, I don’t remember knowing them... I remember education. I remember working here.
I remember screaming, I think.
I absently twist the bottom of my uniform into knots.
“Ahem,” a pleasant voice comes from within the office.
I am not often given much time to think. I try not to do it during Cleanup Hours, but sometimes thoughts just come to me. Disturbing, unpleasant, unsophisticated, uncivilized.
But they are still thoughts. Memories, maybe. I often don’t know what to make of them. They’re uncertain territory, like a faint light in the distance that fades each time I draw closer to it. It’s infuriating.
I walk inside the office and get to work.
An unfamiliar feeling washes over me as I sweep away the ash. I realize that it’s sadness, a vague nebulous misery. It’s interesting. It’s new.
I liked Officer Wernstorn. He was... different. As cold and calculating as the next one, but there was something else there. Something warmer. Even though workers are forbidden from conversation, he talked to me sometimes. Always about his cases. Like his first one: getting a frantic call and taking this kid’s brother away from him. To be institutionalized, re-educated.
About the brother screaming, the kid crying. The claw marks on the doorframe.
I never know what to make of that one. The story, the memories, why he brought it up so often.
Why I never heard the ending. Or why it sounded so frustratingly familiar.
I finish sweeping away the pathetic remnants of my officer friend, staring absently into the incinerator.
I twist the fabric of my uniform even tighter. I hope the brother made it out okay.
Copyright © 2015 by Matthew K. Bernstein