House of Soldiers – continued

Read Part I  of House of Soldiers, a science fiction story about torture and what can lie in our near future here.

By Claudia Casser

It was hard to keep punching a willing bag. I ate another cookie. Then I doodled with the crumbs on the white tablecloth. We were the only people in the room, but they had built up the fire in the dun brick hearth.

“Even so,” I said finally, “there is no excuse. The Lieutenant could have chosen to act differently.” And that quickly, my neo-cortex sparked. “Unless he was insane, either before or after you drugged him…”

The Colonel looked back at me steadily. He had grass-green eyes, or contacts. “Billy knew what he was doing was wrong. He is not asking to be excused. He is not asking anything to compromise the mission or the corps. He is just asking for an alternate punishment the law previously deemed appropriate.”

I waved my hands to dispel the mist of the Colonel’s barracks lawyering. The issue wasn’t the League’s repudiation of capital punishment twenty years ago. “Truth time. You want him to be executed?” There was a little twist of pain around Watkins’ eyes, maybe a stiffening of the stiff jaw, that was all.

“It’s what he wants.”

“Don’t you think he should be mind-wiped instead? You could even tell him he was going to be executed, then inject a different drug. After all, he’ll never remember.”

A look of revulsion flicked across Colonel Watkin’s face. Of course, he was a Boy Scout too. Even if he had made Scoutmaster, the Colonel was another Soldier conditioned to honesty and loyalty since the age of five, when his mother completed her betrayal of him. “No,” he said.

I raked my hands through both sides of my damp hair. My pigeon Roo made more sense to me than these people. I spoke slowly and clearly: “But the Lieutenant’s choice is based on a mistake, an illusion. He thinks he remembers his real mother and he wants to keep a memory he doesn’t have.”

The colonel just looked at me. His hands were in his lap now. He hadn’t touched his coffee. There were no crumbs by his plate, either.

“He’s wrong, isn’t he?”

“Billy is… unusual. We don’t know what’s possible for him.”

I felt a scream bubbling up inside me; the room was too hot and acid coffee surged up my throat. “That wasn’t the deal,” I croaked, choking on bile. “You promised us, promised all of us Scholarship Girls.”

The Colonel’s face creased. “No one loves Billy more than we do, his fathers and brothers. We’re all we have; there is no one else. But Billy loves his mother, too, or,” he held up his palms to stop my interruption, “his dream of her. We would prefer to keep him alive, even mind-wiped, for us. But he wants something else, and we love him enough to fight to get it for him.”

For the second time that night, my eyes filled, but this wasn’t Brad, this was a stranger. I turned toward the fire, stuffed my napkin in my mouth and bit down on it. I wasn’t sad; I was happy; happy that my son, if he lived, where ever he lived in that stone warren, had fathers and brothers who loved him like this. Since he didn’t have his mother.

Even if they were all deluded whack-os.

I turned back to Colonel Watkins. “Okay. I’ll need to talk to him again tomorrow morning, but I’ll take care of your Lieutenant.”

“Thank you,” said the Colonel. He picked up the cookie tray, held it out to me until I took another delicate wafer, and then took one himself.

***

I sat in my office, Epad in hand, mind wiped as clean as the tabula rasa convicts who had woven my seagrass desk. I had come in late, after lunch, so I could spend the morning with Roo. Brad, of course, never did make it over to comfort the bird, and he was distraught at the overnight absence of both his flock of two. I needed to get Roo an Enhanced® buddy, but I had neither the time nor mental stamina to go through the adoption process again.

After evaluating the arguments the LCLU AI, affectionately known as Douglas, recommended for Lieutenant Budd, I decided I’d told it more than I should have.

Like a good first year associate, Douglas took my facts and matched them to every colorable legal defense they could support. Ranked by client outcome, the first defense was the straightforward argument that the Lieutenant was legally justified to inflict bestial torment upon and permanently cripple a four year old child under a claim of (i) necessity (unavoidable choice of the lesser of two evils) or (ii) defense of others (the passengers and crew of the Springsteen).

The logic was impeccable, but not even the AI’s bad-boy Supreme Court Justice namesake would have considered pleading it. In the real world, not even the most suicidal judge would rule that the Lieutenant should get a medal instead of a mind-wipe.

The seamy underpinning for public acceptance of the House of Soldiers was the fiction they would employ only lawful meanss to pursue terrorists. If legal means were insufficient, each Soldier had to make his own choice about what to do.

The Soldiers “volunteered” themselves as scapegoats of the modern age: each well-conditioned sap accepted personal responsibility for whatever uncivilized act he might perform to save civilization. Society did not condone, excuse or pardon those acts: on the contrary, the law punished Soldiers who acted outside it, and the Soldiers welcomed their punishment.

Ordinary League citizens never had to lose sleep debating whether the ends justified the means. They never had to fret whether they would risk dying (and letting their children die) in a terrorist attack to uphold the civil rights of people dubbed terrorists (or people having the misfortune to be loved by terrorists).

All of which meant, however logical the defenses of “necessity” and “defense of others,” raising them was a non-starter. Which relieved me of the ethical obligation to suggest them to the Lieutenant.

From a political, but not my own moral, standpoint, the AI’s next argument was nearly as tough. Rather than contend the Lieutenant had been right to do what he did, we could just claim he was nuts, and so not criminally responsible. A finding that my client, when he tortured father and son, acted under an “irresistible impulse” within the League definition, would result in mental adjustment for Lieutenant Budd, but adjustment far short of mind-wipe.

Applying the law to the facts, I agreed with Douglas that the Lieutenant was a poster boy for “irresistible impulse.” How could Billy have resisted the compulsion to break the “subject” and save the Springsteen? The best psych-techs in the world had programmed him since he was five years old, too young to consent, to do whatever it took, at whatever cost to body and soul, to thwart WMD terrorist attacks?

Unfortunately, no one would admit that programming created “mental defects.” Society couldn’t admit it intentionally turned little boys into psychopaths, and then ceded them its defense.

Finding Billy “not guilty by reason of insanity” would prove too much: that “irresistible impulse” defense could apply to all the well-intentioned, heinous acts of Soldiers. The public couldn’t pardon their entire stable of designated scapegoats; that would shift responsibility back to them.

Which left Douglas’ final defense, the doctrine of diminished responsibility in the circumstances specific to Billy’s case. In my view, this was the boy’s most realistic shot for a lenient sentence.

Billy’s unknowing ingestion of drugs in his breakfast cereal was a textbook case for involuntary intoxication. Assuming that drugging Interrogators was exceptional even within the House of Soldiers, it would permit the judge to grant leniency to Billy without opening the floodgates for all the other Soldiers. The tricky part was, everyone but Douglas knew the Lieutenant probably would have tortured father and son without the drugs. He just might have done it too late to save the Springsteen.

My headache was pounding in time to the yellow alert light blinking on my dosimeter patch when my boss lumbered into my office. “Gotta get a software doc for that AI,” he joked, “Douglas must have a virus to be spewing that bilge for the Budd analysis.”

I grunted.

Avi’s bulk engulfed my client chair. Jerking his chin at my flashing forearm, he said, “You gotta take care of that. No more travel. One could even construe the LCLU employment handbook to forbid yellow-lighters to pass through the scanner at the courthouse.”

“Oh, one could, could one? Since when?”

“Since your own judgment became as poor as an AI’s. Only radiation sickness could explain why you didn’t flush Douglas’s analysis of the Budd petition. It isn’t even on point. The Lieutenant isn’t contesting the House’s finding of criminal liability; he just wants execution instead of mind-wipe.”

I stopped rubbing my temples and batted my eyes at my boss, adopting my best southern-belle drawl. “Why, don’t you agree our brave Lieutenant is a shoo-in under the classic test for irresistible impulse? Lah, sir, don’t tell me: isn’t that test whether the Lieutenant would have cut up his victim ‘even if a policeman were standing at his elbow?'”

Avi snorted in disgust, but I wasn’t going to let him push me around about how to handle my case. “I do believe there was a whole squad of international policemen standing at dear Billy’s elbow. The very same squad now waiting to escort him to the mind-wipe lab. Don’t you agree it’s my ethical duty to discuss this defense with my client?”

Heaving himself out of the chair, Avi just shook his head. “It’s your funeral, Cassie.”

“No,” I said in my own voice. “It’s my client’s.”

***

I decided to call Lieutenant Budd from my house. Avi could try to intercept the call even from there, but I knew Brad’s counter-snoopers were better than Avi’s snoopers, and I bet Brad left his in place when he moved out.

Besides, Roo needed my company.

Waiting for the call to connect, Roo and I sat in “our” armchair, Roo perching on the stained tapestry arm. I stroked his back, from the iridescent green and purple ruff, down the white line of feathers between the banded gray wings, to the thicker white feathers at the base of his tail. The pigeon swayed with my strokes, wings half-spread so I could smooth his underfeathers.

Lieutenant Budd finally appeared on my Epad screen. Pushing Roo onto my lap, out of my own camera’s pick-up range, I clicked off “privacy” so my client could see me too. I didn’t want to let Mr. Budd into my home even that much, but it was common courtesy.

“Lieutenant,” I began, “is this a good time to talk?”

Dressed in jeans, he sat on his living room floor. Panning his own camera to show me a litter of cups, plates and pizza crusts atop a Dungeons & Dragons board at his feet, he said, “I’m just cleaning up after a visit from some of the guys. I don’t have much to do, these days.”

“Do you feel up to a strategy discussion?”

That got a small smile. “Musashi or Mao?”

“Douglas and Dershowitz.”

He laughed. He was a likeable kid, if you didn’t think about what he did.

“Look, I think we have a good chance of avoiding both mind-wipe and your alternative, if we argue either lack of criminal responsibility or diminished capacity. Are you okay with that?” Roo picked that moment to peck my hand, hard, and I grimaced for the camera.

A wary look sprang into Billy’s eyes. “Is there someone with you, Ma’am?”

I sighed. “Not legally someone,” I said, “just my friend Roo.” I tilted my Epad toward my lap to show the pigeon, now lifting his wing to preen his complicated under-layering of fine white feathers.

“He’s beautiful, Ma’am. Wow, that’s what I imagine an angel’s wing would look like. What kind of bird is he?”

“A rock dove, AKA a pigeon, and smile when you say that.”

He laughed, the first unguarded expression I had seen on his face. Was he even twenty? What had he been like as a little boy? “I love animals,” he said, “even though we only have Enhanced® cavalry horses at the base, plus a couple normal dogs and cats. We never have to hurt animals.”

My sudden sick expression made him realize what he said. “Sorry Ma’am. Uh, what were you saying about my petition?”

I forced my face to courtroom blandness. I needed to focus on the tactical choices at hand, not think about my client’s career. Just like an Interrogator had to focus on the “subject,” not think about the “instrument.” “Lieutenant,” I said over-briskly, “the facts of your case lend themselves to a strong defense of involuntary diminished capacity at the time of the incident, as well as a straightforward, if politically difficult, defense of complete lack of criminal responsibility. I’d like your go-ahead to prepare those arguments.”

“Diminished capacity? You mean you want to say I was insane? Why would you do that? They don’t execute insane people nowadays, do they?”

“No, of course not. But they don’t mind-wipe them either. You’d go into therapy, where they wouldn’t remove your memories, just recondition your behavior.”

“But how is it crazy to save thousands of civilians in exchange for just three people?”

“Three?” There was nothing about a third victim in the file.

“Dmitri X, his son and me.”

I didn’t have an answer. Then I did. “It’s the way you saved the civilians. By doing an act that corrupted their lives. If you showed that little Kazakh boy to the people on the ship, and asked, ‘shall I cut him up in front of you, so his dad might tell us where to find the bomb before it detonates, or would you rather take your chances with just the crew searching?,’ do you think they would say, ‘go ahead and cut him up’?”

He looked puzzled. Then his forehead unwrinkled and he said, “You mean like in the Friedman novel, ‘When True Night Falls,’ when the warrior-priest asked whether it was ‘better to die with a clean soul than persevere through corruption?’”

“Uh, yes,” I nodded.

“Respectfully, Ma’am, that wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether I was crazy to believe that it is better to corrupt my own soul, and pay the price, than to allow innocents to die. And I do believe that’s better, and I don’t think it’s crazy.” His dark eyes blazed with conviction.

“But you make the ones you save complicit in your act.”

“Bullshit, Ma’am, pardon my French, but most of them don’t know about ‘my act’ and never dreamed anything like it.”

I didn’t say, I couldn’t say, “what about the ones who sent you to the House of Soldiers to be brainwashed to think these noble, corrupt thoughts? What about your mother? Don’t you make her complicit?”

Roo finished preening and hopped between me and my Epad, blocking the Lieutenant’s challenging stare. Roo knew I was upset and that the Epad had something to do with it. He pecked at its screen, then flew to the padded nook on my bookshelf between Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” and Dershowitz’ “Full Court Press.” He landed and roocoocooed, inviting me to leave the bad thing and come nest in safety. Or at least that’s what I thought he meant. I was tempted.

Taking a deep breath, I counted as it flowed in, counted as it flowed out. “Let’s start over. Hi, I’m your lawyer. I’m telling you that if you follow my advice, there is a good chance you could get off without mind-wipe, and a decent chance you might just get medical probation with a drug implant.”

“Ma’am, that’s not the way it works. I’m a Soldier. In the course of my sworn duty I broke the law of West Virginia with knowledge and acceptance of the consequences. If Soldiers were immune from the law, we wouldn’t be accepted in the international community, we couldn’t get intelligence from partners outside the League, and it would jeopardize our mission.”

No wonder the government had assigned only a single junior prosecutor to oppose Budd’s petition. The League’s interests were already well-represented by my brainwashed client. For the Attorney General, the case was just another academic squabble over the death penalty.

Clearly, I was the only competent party interested in safeguarding the welfare of my client. I decided to play dirty.

“But your case is different,” I purred invitingly, “because you are special. You have empathy. Did you know that, in order to prompt you to torture the boy, your command gave you drugs? Those drugs you unknowingly ingested altered your judgment, as they were designed to do. As a matter of law, that means diminished responsibility.”

“So?”

“If you really want to follow the law of the League, not dodge around it, it means a sentence of mind-wipe or death would be a miscarriage of justice. According to the norms of the international community, you should be treated, not punished.” I leaned forward until I was as close to him as the Epad screen let me get: “Justice would mean you would be alive, your memory of your mother intact.”

He stared at me, irresolute. “But if the court doesn’t blame me, won’t it blame the House of Soldiers?”

Shit, the kid was quick. “That’s irrelevant to your case. What’s really important,” I added the clincher, the half-lie clincher, “is what’s right. And what your mother would want.”

His brave, young face crumpled. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

***

 

He didn’t get the time. The next morning, when I cycled up to the office, Avi was waiting outside in a three piece suit and unbelted raincoat. “We have an appointment with the judge for the Budd matter in thirty minutes,” he said.

“What are you talking about!” My coat was spattered with mud from the ride, and the wind blew my hair in tangles across my face. I couldn’t believe Avi stood there so cool and pressed.

“The League wants this resolved now, before any well-meaning idiots can publicize the case. Last night, the mother of the kid Budd tortured filed suit in League court for damages. Worse, her lawyer, or her husband’s organization, got Kazakhstan to demand Budd’s extradition. The Lieutenant’s got to be permanently beyond their reach, one way or another, before either of the new cases is heard.”

“I’m not prepared! This denies Lieutenant Budd the effective assistance of counsel!”

“Can it, Cassie. I had Douglas research right-to-die cases last night and print an outline. You have twenty minutes to change into court clothes and review the download.”

I wanted to curse and scream at Avi. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew he set this up right after our chat yesterday, I knew that was why he smiled and waved when I left early. But Avi’s tactics left me no time for temperament before the hearing; payback would have to wait.

On the walk to the courthouse, sunlight peeking through clearing clouds, I refused to listen to a word of Avi’s lying explanation. When he had the gall to grab my arm, I pulled away, ran up the courthouse steps, and passed through security well before him.

In Chief Judge Moraine’s chambers, he waved me to sit at her oblong conference table. Old oak, polished to the sheen its extravagance deserved. If I hadn’t known the antiques in the Chief Judge’s chambers were passed from appointee to appointee since before the hardwood die-off, I’d have thought he was on the take.

Thanks to my gallop to avoid Avi, I’d gotten there first, winning the LCLU the windowed side of the conference room, where backlighting helped conceal our expressions from opposing counsel. Which would have been a tactical advantage, if Avi weren’t in cahoots with them.

My boss tried to whisper in my ear, but I shrugged him off and greeted the baby prosecutor representing the League, sitting alone across the table, glumly shading his eyes from the morning sun. At the foot of the table, opposite Judge Moraine’s seat at the head, was the projection of a windowless white conference room inside the rock headquarters of the House of Soldiers. Billy, Colonel Watkins, and-surprise, surprise-Brad, sat at a skinny pine petitioner’s table facing the judge. Billy had cut his hair.

The judge pattered through the usual introductions and housekeeping matters, and then we went on the record. As petitioner, I went first.

“Your Honor, after an astoundingly brief administrative hearing at the House of Soldiers, at which Petitioner was denied assistance of counsel, Petitioner was found to have violated the West Virginia statutes forbidding torture. He was sentenced to mind-wipe, to be carried out on the fifteenth of March of this year.

“Immediately afterwards, Petitioner hand-wrote paper invitations to his “going away” dinner. One of those invitations went to Bradley Lanister of the firm Dworkin, Hwei and Lannister. Upon routine security scan in their mail room, the invitation was found to contain a handwritten petition for writ of habeas corpus addressed to the League judiciary. In conformance with law and without notice to Mr. Lanister, the firm mailroom forwarded the petition to this Court.

“Petitioner requested substitution of physical execution for the sentence of mind-wipe. On the fourteenth of March, this Court stayed the mind-wipe, and the LCLU accepted assignment as counsel for the Petitioner. Upon review of the facts of the case, we were about to file an amended petition attacking the finding of criminal responsibility for the actions found to be in violation of West Virginia law, when we received notice of this expedited hearing.”

Chief Judge Moraine held up a hand to stop me. “Ms. Mitsos, I understood that the sole purpose of this hearing was the legal determination whether the death penalty may be substituted for mind-wipe at a military defendant’s request. Are you saying my understanding is incorrect?”

“Yes,” I stated at the same time as Avi stated “No.”

I turned away from the judge and rounded on my boss in astonishment. Before I could draw breath for an excoriating whisper, the judge rapped on the table.

“Mr. Gildman,” he said sharply, “is there confusion in the ranks?”

Avi pushed heavily away from the conference table and stood. “My apologies, your Honor. I was unable to reach Ms. Mitsos after she left the office yesterday, and apparently she didn’t get her messages this morning.”

Bastard. Blindsiding, backstabbing bastard.

“Lieutenant Budd has exercised his right to waive the issue of responsibility.”

I looked at Billy, pale and upright three hundred miles away. “Billy,” I pleaded.

The judge cut in. “Ms. Mitsos, that is indeed your client’s call.”

I took a deep breath and pleaded with him. “Your Honor, governing law permits an attorney to raise the defense of non-responsibility against the client’s wishes when she believes that a mental impairment is preventing the client from following legal advice. I strongly believe this is the case here.”

Under the table, Avi kicked me, hard, but I didn’t take my eyes off Judge Moraine. He hesitated, was thinking about it, when Brad’s spectre from West Virginia spoke.

“Your Honor, forgive my interruption, but perhaps we could satisfy any concern about mental impairment right now. Lieutenant Budd is available and eager to establish his rational objections to raising the issue of non-responsibility, including the defense of diminished responsibility.”

Oh God, Brad too. Billy’s last chance was spinning out of control, almost gone. I was the only one he could trust, and his conditioning wouldn’t let him turn to me.

“Your Honor, he’ll say what they’ve trained him to say…”

“Ms. Mitsos, we all say what we’re trained to say. That does not prove mental illness. Your own statement of how your client smuggled out his petition for habeas corpus clearly shows the Lieutenant’s capacity to act autonomously. I’m inclined to let him state his reasons for rejecting your advice.”

All eyes in the room swung back to the projection of the room inside the House of Soldiers, avid attention on the boy who sat erect and composed. To my shame, tears of frustration started to leak out of my eyes. Maybe no one would see them, no one but Billy and Brad; maybe Billy would stop and think…

“Your Honor, I tortured a child. I didn’t do it because I was crazy, or drugged. I did it to save a shipload of civilians, because I thought it was the lesser of two evils. Maybe it was the lesser evil, maybe it wasn’t, but it was still evil, and illegal, and I knew it. No one forced me to torture the child; it was my own decision, and it wasn’t crazy.

“I’m not a priest, or a philosopher, or God; I don’t know whether my decision was right or wrong in some cosmic balance. But I knew I was substituting my own judgment for the law’s, and I deserve punishment for that. I won’t let my counsel lie and say I was insane to avoid the punishment I deserve.”

The room was silent. Through my tears, I looked at the judge, and his eyes were as troubled and sad as any defense attorney could wish. But he said, “So be it. I find the Petitioner’s decision to waive a non-responsibility defense rational. We will proceed with the arguments regarding penalties.”

I was struck dumb.

Avi cleared his throat. “Your Honor,” he said, “our purpose today is to establish the Petitioner’s right to choose execution instead of mind-wipe. As you know, the League removed capital punishment from its traditional place among legal penalties in order to: one, protect the integrity of the legal system from mistakes; and two, protect convicted persons from cruel and unusual punishment.

“Neither concern applies here. The Petitioner does not dispute his guilt. In addition, it is he who claims execution is less cruel than mind-wipe. Finally, he claims the right to die established by Zane v. Gordon. This landmark case holds the right to die critical to the League’s core tenet against slavery. It recognizes that right for every sapient being who can pass the self-persistence test, human, AI, or Enhanced(r).”

They were talking about letting an idealistic kid kill himself in penance for an orgy of civil disobedience he was invited to when he was five years old. For the first time in a hearing, I wished the judge were telepathic and could hear my real thoughts. I wished he could hear Avi’s and Brad’s and Billy’s real thoughts. These men were all throwing away Billy’s life to protect the House of Soldiers.

Maybe the judge was telepathic. He said, “Counselor, aren’t you forgetting the part where the League outlawed capital punishment because it outrages common morality for the State to take life for an act the majority culture forbids? Are you suggesting individual preferences can overrule a fundamental protection for minorities?”

“Your Honor,” countered Avi, “are you suggesting that it would outrage the morality of any of the League’s citizens to execute a man who chopped pieces off an innocent four year old child in front of his father?”

He blinked and Billy winced. Avi continued, “If Your Honor is concerned on that score, may I direct your attention to Appendix D of the Amended Petition, the video of the interrogation, hour six.”

My mouth unfroze. “The video is irrelevant,” I said. “My client has admitted to the acts for which he was convicted.” I had never watched the video.

Before the judge could speak, Avi asked in mock surprise, “Isn’t it up to the judge to review the record and decide whether the video is relevant?”

The fiction, the legal fiction, that judges can’t be swayed by emotion. The fiction that a judge can review evidence for relevance and then, if he excludes it, “disregard” what he has seen in his decision-making.

All heads bent to their Epads. I felt nauseous. I cast an imploring look at Brad, at Billy, at the League prosecutor. None of them looked back. The men had made up their minds; they had decided that I, the one woman in the room, was irrelevant. I pushed back my chair and left.

***

It was a scant week later. The execution was scheduled for ten o’clock at night, like going to sleep. The House of Soldiers blocked my appeals.

I appeared at my office, because there wasn’t anything else to do. Sugar from my morning doughnut frosted the glass surface of my desk, like patches of late March snow. My malleus implant beeped and I tapped acceptance of the call, scattering the sugar with my nail.

“League Civil Liberties–.”

“Cassie, it’s Brad.”

He sounded so normal, as if he didn’t think I should hang up on him. As if he didn’t think he had betrayed me. As if I should respond, “Hi, Brad.”

“Cassie, get down to Dulles now. The boy has been talking about you.”

My heart rate accelerated to normal. “Did he ask me to come?”

“Of course not. He thinks he betrayed you. But you and Roo are all he talked about at dinner last night, when he talked at all. Don’t be a jerk. Come.”

The Lieutenant wasn’t my client. I had cases. I wouldn’t get back until tomorrow and I didn’t have any clothes, except my emergency go-to-court suit hanging on my office coat rack, and Roo would be frightened, being left alone.

The boy would be frightened, being left alone. “Okay.”

“See you at Yeager Airport. I’ll drive you from there.”

I still didn’t know what Brad’s connection was with the House of Soldiers, but whatever it was, they let us drive through the rock defile to the base hotel in his Micro. They let only me inside the “secure facility,” though. I made it to the metal airlock by 8:30 p.m., Epad time.

The subway car ride was short. Colonel Watkins met me at a black-tiled platform and led me up the stairs to a concrete-floored tunnel. We stopped at the first door in the curved concrete wall: smooth, windowless, metal.

“Does he know I’m coming?”

“Just since you arrived on base,” said the Colonel. He placed a palm on the smooth surface of the door, a light flashed at his face, and the door swung inwards.

My boy stood inside dressed in loose civvies, his hair grown out a little since the hearing, just starting to curl again. He looked pale, and resolute, and smiled a lost smile at me.

The room was a white metal cube, punctuated with silver cabinets set flush into the walls, like a morgue. The only freestanding furniture was a medical gurney and a couple of stools. A lab-coated stranger sorted through pressure syringes in a flat drawer pulled out from a wall cabinet.

“Thank you for coming,” Billy said.

I nodded, but couldn’t speak. Stiffly, I walked over to him. My arms ached to hug him but I didn’t know whether it would shame him in front of his Colonel.

“Thank you for letting me come,” I managed.

“I was afraid you were mad at me.”

“I was, I am,” I wouldn’t lie to him now, “but it’s your decision. You’re all grown up and it’s your life. I am so glad you are letting me say goodbye, letting me be here.

He reached out and almost touched one of the tears sliding down my cheeks, then dropped his hand, looking sideways at me from his sloe eyes, an almost-smile curving up his lips.

“I brought you something,” I said, and fumbled in my purse. I drew out a pure white feather I kept in my office desk, one Roo plucked for me from under his wing. Billy took it in his fingertips, careful not to touch my hand.

The down was like a spray of soft white snowflakes, bound together by a stalk almost too slender to see. Billy brushed it over his lips. “Angel wings,” he said wonderingly. “Thank Roo for me.”

Then he braced and turned to Colonel Watkins. “Sir, is there any reason we need to wait until ten o’clock?”

The Colonel made an abortive gesture with his hand toward the boy, came to attention, and said, “No, son. Whenever you want.”

“Now, please.”

The Colonel nodded, and the boy turned away and lay down on the padded gurney, one hand tight around Roo’s feather. The doctor lifted his chosen syringe. “It’s veriserum,” he told the boy and me, “an overdose.”

I don’t know how I got there, but I stood by the boy’s head, then fell onto a stool the Colonel pushed under me. The boy’s arms lay straight at his sides, the fragile skin at the inside of his elbows pointing up. On the other side of the gurney, the doctor placed one hand on the boy’s forearm to hold it steady. “Wait,” I said.

“Please,” I said to the boy, “may I hold your hand?”

“Please,” he said, with the sweetest smile, the saddest eyes, “I’d like that.”

His hand was warm, and strong, and alive. The doctor injected the drug. The boy looked startled, hand clasping mine more strongly for a moment, then it relaxed.

His eyes started to close. I smoothed a dark curl off his forehead.

His eyelids struggled to rise. “Mama?” he said.

It was possible. I would never know. “Sshhh,” I said.

The End

***

Claudia CasserClaudia Casser retired early from antitrust law to fledge her nerdy children on a working horse farm and write speculative fiction. From people to horses to parrots, none of the farm’s denizens could ever be classified as neurotypical. More of Claudia’s stories are available on www.ethicalantics.com