One lives and dies, another
Lives and dies, more live and die;
The tombstones lie
One right next to the other.
The ground is limpid as a glass,
One seeth those killed
And those who killed: on lifeless dust
There glows a mark of good and evil.
Over the Earth the shadows wander
Of generations that went under
They can't escape our condemnation,
Vigilante justice of our own,
But likewise in anticipation
We wait for judgment from unknown.
- That’s my twentieth report like this, - said Simon nervously rubbing the hard hat, – You tell me the boss knows, that they’re gonna fix it. That’s methane, John. That ain’t no joke, damn it.
- I know, Simon, - John lifted up the papers from the table, – So what exactly you got to say?
- Time to stop this, - the miner hit the cabinet wall with his fist before leaning on it. – On your orders the guys switch off methane detectors to keep working. That can’t go on, John. What are you doing? Or it was your aides from... where the hell are they from, Dontgiveafuckistan? Who gives these orders, John? You want us dead?
- Well here’s what I say, - the manager pointed at the worker with the very report, - Don’t push it. You should know better! Myself, and the Pakistani guys, who by the way can drag you to courts for statements like that, we’re all one team. And we care, everyday we’re worried for you. Hell, I go down there myself, isn’t that right?! But there’s nothing to be done – we all need this coal. All of us, Simon. Including you. We’re in the same boat. Do you really wish to argue with Matthew now, while he’s got important business to do in China? We’re living through a bloody crisis, Simon, and Matthew’s giving it all he’s got. Without him that company would’ve kicked the bucket ages ago.
John had a short look at the papers. His experienced eye easily caught the most important numbers right there on the first page of the report. He already knew: he saw ten reports like that before. Yes, it was methane. A lot of methane. Too much. Even he felt uneasy thinking about it. But only a few days left until the quarter’s done. Simon, Burt and the other guys, they’re all experienced and solid, he knew them well. They shouldn’t mess up. “But what if they do?”
No. All of them know the mine as the back of their hand.
But conscience wouldn’t shut up. “Well what if someone dies? How would you look Simon’s wife in the eyes? They just had a baby. You didn’t even give Simon the congrats card!”
The manager pondered on this for a second, opened the table drawer and pulled out the card he bought specifically for the occasion.
- That’s for you, - said John with a tired voice and handed the card over to Simon. - Congratulations. Having a son is a great moment. Mine’s already eight. Simon, I beg you, go down one more time. Next week Matthew will be back from the trip and I promise, that report would be the first thing he’ll see.
Simon gave the boss a gloomy eye.
- I heard that last time already.
- This time for sure, Simon. Last time I screwed up, Matthew has already gone to China. Come on, buddy, just wait a tiny bit.
The worker gave him a reserved nod and prepared to leave the room.
- I’m not your buddy, - that suddenly burst out of Simon when he was already in the doorway. – Go to hell, John. Choke on your fucking coal.
- You… you’re leaving us?
Simon slammed the door. John fiddled with the report for a little before angrily throwing it into the rubbish bin.
- Don’t touch him! Pug! Pug!
The sun slowly sank below the horizon, but the air stood scorching hot without a hint of breeze.
- Ya see him crying like a pussy! – the leader of the gang laughed.
- Ussy, ussy, ussy, - the echo rattled over metal garage roofs.
- Yo, Pock, so whadda we do with him? – a sturdy boy asked, pointing at the whimpering cur.
- Gimme a second, - the leader’s named was Boris, but they called him Pock.
The boy went out from the brick-wall dead end and had a look inside one of the open garages. – All clear, lads. Awe-sum. Heh! Found it!
He jumped inside the empty garage and for a few seconds remained out of sight. When Boris left the garage, he had a canister of gasoline in his hand.
- Well come on, get him here, - Pock lifted the canister up, the lads took a step away and the boy poured gasoline over the yelping dog. The beaten animal shrieked one more time, but after getting another strong kick fell and kept whimpering.
- Don’t! – cried the little boy held captive, he was terrified.
The other boys’ faces were full of disgust and only that.
- Don’t fuck with us no more, got it, bitch? – hissed Pock, then took out a match from his pocked, lighted one up and threw at the dog.
The animal caught fire in an instant. It jumped, it ran past the boys howling from unbearable suffering. Some boys even closed their eyes, they did not expect it. No one followed it, but the echo – a high, dying squeal – rolled over the garages for several minutes.
- Got that, dweeb? – Boris made an intimidating step towards the crying little boy, – You got no dog ‘ny more. So watch out, wimp, or you’re next!
Boris poured some gasoline on the boy’s pants.
- Look lads, that one’s a piddler!
Boris laughed. The others did not laugh at first, but soon all of them joined in.
- Now fuck off! Go cry to ya mommy, dork, - Boris grabbed the little boy on the shoulder and forcefully led him out of the dead end.
The boy couldn’t see anything because of the tears, but he heard the roaring laughter of the five very well.
- Sucker! – he heard from behind, while he was running away.
At the very end of the garage block, where you could see a flat line of newly-erected buildings beyond the giant waste grounds, the boy slowed down and had a look behind. He stinked, that was gasoline.
The sun already went down, but it was still bright as day. Summer twilight’s always long. The boy remembered how he first met the dog on one of those long summer evenings, and the tears started running over his dusty cheeks again.
The waste grounds were already well behind him when he heard a bloodcurdling many-voiced howl from the garage cooperative.
- Harry! Yo! Stop it now! – he cried in the radio, - Donahue! You hear me?!
The machine didn’t stop. Burt cursed. Must be John asking Harry to not give a damn ‘bout the readings again. Thanks to his attitude Simon already packed and left. Who’s next? Maybe himself. He had enough.
Suddenly there was loud thud in the distance. Burt could only realize that the stones are flying towards him. Perhaps it would’ve been better if he did not realize anything. Harry probably died faster. Burt, however, had the time to realize there’s nothing to breathe with. Nothing at all. Dust was everywhere. It was in his lungs, in the air. He did not open his eyes. His chest was squeezed, so he could barely breathe at all. And then fear struck – uncontrollable panic. His family! Jacqueline, Antony... The parents...
Soon even that slipped away from his mind. He just wanted to breathe, and breathed dust again and again… Cough and breathe… But the oxygen in the air was gone.
- So did you see them at that moment? – a man with shoulder straps asked Valera again.
The little boy shook his head.
- Valera, - the man with shoulder straps looked at the boy intently, – Don’t lie.
- I’m not lying, - said the boy with a calm voice, – I really couldn’t see them at the time.
- But you saw them right before it happened.
- Yes, - Valera looked the policeman in the eye, - They kicked Pug. Then Pock poured gas all over him and… set him on fire. They beat me up too, but then let me go.
- You say you were already next to your house when you heard the screams. So who do you think could’ve killed them? – the policeman seemed really upset.
- No idea, - the boy shrugged, - Well, not me. You said there were witnesses who prove I couldn’t do it...
- I said, all right, - grumbled the policeman, - Well, then, could Ryabinkin have killed them? Pour gasoline over them all, then burn them? And then… burn himself?
- You mean Pock? – Valera raised eyes to the ceiling, - Well... maybe he could. He poured it on me. For a second I feared he’d burn me alive like he did to Pug. But Pock would never burn himself. Certainly not himself.
- But there were only four others. You’ve seen any other men around there?
- Nah, - Valera stopped for a moment to think, - Nope, there was nobody. They killed Pug, but no one came. There was a guy, but that was when I only first came to the garage block to play with Pug. That guy left his garage open and left. Maybe he was drunk?
The policeman reached for cigarettes in his front pocket, but then slapped his own hand.
- Tryin’ to quit, - the man said into nowhere.
The boy was silently observing the national leader portrait on the wall.
- So what then, it was an act of god? – muttered the policeman to himself.
- God? – Valera asked, – Is that the god they tell us about at school?
Man with the straps, all sullen, looked at the boy again.
- Then god it is.
The boy shrugged again, he didn’t know what to say.
- Okay, you can go now, - policeman checked his watch for the time. - Next!
The boy left, and then Boris’ mother entered. Her face was pale.
- Ryabinkina Tatiana, - man in the uniform made some notes in a big notebook, - Please, take your place.
Then the policeman went silent. While the woman went to the chair right opposite the table, he was contemplating the options. What to say? That god killed her son by boiling him alive, like food in a microwave oven? Canister, gas, dog… Seems like complete nonsense.
Boris’ mother sat in the chair.
- You... – the policeman’s words were cut short.
There was a blot of blood on his uniform, growing bigger and bigger. The woman cried and ran out of the room. The man in uniform thought in his final moment that the boy was probably right.
in vicinity of Northern Mariana Islands.
Yashio Tsukuba closed the binoculars on his eyes. After a minute he lowered the glass and tried turning it around. But there was nothing there, the lens was perfectly fine. The chief mate rubbed his eyes and in the blink of an eye he was looking through the binoculars again.
Simon gave the boss a cold look. He suddenly thought that not every person that he had invited to sit at his table over the years was truly worthy of being invited.
- So you’ve thought everything through? You’re not coming back? – Burgess lifted the fork and carefully pierced a piece of fish, - You know, I just talked to Matthew on the phone. He’ll make things right.
Of course John was lying, and he knew it. In reality the CEO just shouted at him over the phone, reminding the manager that he needs the coal this quarter and not when the devil’s gone blind. Because the presentation for investors is now – and not when pigs fly. There were some other unflattering descriptions that the Chief Executive found for John himself and for Simon and all the other workers.
- I’ve thought everything through, John, - the engineer cut his fish in the plate with a knife, - I’ve explained everything to Susan. She supports me, John. And I was thinking you just came to say good bye.
- The guys are down there now, - John said quietly, - They need your help. You and your experience.
- What is that, John? – Simon looked at the boss with an honest feeling of dislike, - You’re trying to blackmail me with the lives of my coworkers? That is… low.
At that second Burgess thought that he went a bit too far indeed. But just a few hours ago Matthew demanded to have Simon return to the mine.
- Guys! – they heard Susan’s frightened voice from the cooking area, - Turn on the TV! I’ve got it on now.
- Done, - Simon grabbed the remote from a cupboard near the wall and turned on the living room TV set.
- ...the number of victims is so far unknown, - the anchor finished reading, - Dozens of miners may still be trapped underground.
Behind her, in the darkness, they could recognize the Keep Lake Coal building. Simon gasped for air. Burt. Harry. Stan.
John Burgess stood up and walked to the TV, shaking visibly.
- That can’t be, - he whispered, - That’s not real...
- Bastard, - said Simon loud enough to be heard over the TV, - Burgess… you bloody murderer.
But John ignored these words. He seemed to be deaf. Only after five minutes when the news started repeating itself and the faces of many witnesses who were on the road when the explosion happened started rolling on the screen like a carousel, John dropped to the floor like a heavy bag. Simon brought the boss some water. Susan sat on the sofa, completely silent, and from time to time raised her hands to cover the face in shock.
- Simon, - the boss finally managed to squeeze some words out of himself after another five minutes of silence, - Forgive me.
- God will, - replied Simon quietly, – May God forgive you John. I called the police.
In ten minutes the cops were there, sitting on Simon’s sofa and asking the miner and his shocked superior about all the circumstances of the tragedy.
- So when Mister Just here informed you that he is leaving because the management refuses to stop the work, what did you tell him, Mister Burgess? – the police guy asked bluntly.
- I told him the crew’s going down anyway.
- Have you seen the report Mister Just handed to you before you made that decision?
- I have seen it, - Burgess covered the face with his hands, his voice trembled, - I’ve seen it. Oh Lord my God please forgive me. Simon! You forgive me, please. You all…
He suddenly stuttered and coughed.
- What’s wrong, Mister Burgess? – the policeman leaned to hit Burgess on the back, assuming the man choked on something, - Are you all right?
John leaned forward and fell down on the floor.
- Can’t… breathe… - he spoke hoarsely, - No… air...
Some of the policemen in the house ran out to grab a first aid kit. Simon Just stood confused over his suffocating boss. Burgess’ face became red and strewn with burn blisters.
- S... – John was twitching in agony on the floor trying to breathe. – Sor… ry...
When the first aid kit was there, Burgess wasn’t twitching any more. His glassy dead eyes still looked right at the television screen. Half of his face was scorched.
- ....if the obstructions are not removed as soon as possible, more than thirty men can die from lack of breathable air, - someone spoke on the newsreel, maybe an anchor, but possibly an industry expert or politician.
Simon Just was still staying right there in the middle of the room, hugging his terrified wife. His gaze was wandering aimlessly. The miner was absorbed in deep thoughts.
in vicinity of Northern Mariana Islands
Yashio Tsukuba went over the deck to the side with an even stride. It was hard to remain calm. The crew were holding their breath, watching their commander’s every footstep. They were probably no less scared than old Yashio.
To the right overboard there was a sphere around a hundred meters wide hanging over the surface of the sea. Very close to the ship. It looked as if it was made from metal, but the surface was perfectly smooth. The strange metal was lusterless, too, not giving any bright highlights or reflections.
The object did not move. Captain was right there at the board, looking at the giant ball with a mix of fear and curiosity.
The chief mate came closer to the object. Then he reached out with his hand, just like the captain already did, and touched the surface of the object. Hard to say what caused captain Tamifuji and mate Tsukuba to risk their lives – their ship was not a military one, neither a research vessel. The should’ve just made some photos, for what its worth, and ran like hell away. But then again, aren’t they somewhere in a hellish place already?
Nothing happened after the touch. But the surface truly felt like cold metal. Yashio carefully moved his hand over the surface of the sphere. No sound, no vibration. The sphere was motionless; cold. If it weren’t hanging in the air over the ocean without the slightest hint of a foundation, chief mate would’ve assumed that this is nothing but some fool’s joke.
But the sphere inexplicably remained in the air, still and intimidating. Worried whispers went around the crew.
Soon enough SS Daifuku Maru moved away a cable’s length. The captain decided to continue observation. Came sunset; Tsukuba was bewitched by the sight of a massive shadow stretching over the water towards him, as if it was trying to touch their ship.
When night fell, the sphere burst with colored lights. The sea was alight with red, green and orange.
The US forces on Guam were already alerted to its presence, so at midnight their drones were circling in the air over the shining sphere like a pack of vultures. Their long and narrow bodies pierced the red-light clouds like arrows.
Some time after midnight the chief mate covered his window with the curtain. That sphere is no longer any of their little business. The Big People will deal with it now.
One month later.
- We’re just a bit late. You did lead the very first investigations in Tver, right? – he asked Stoliarov.
- I can’t guarantee one hundred percent those were the very-very first ones, though. It seemed this devilry is going on all around the world, - the investigator hemmed, - But so what?
- So that. These are no longer isolated cases – since yesterday. Over a thousand reports came in during the last twenty four hours, and the number’s growing today. We created a special unit which separates these reports from ordinary killings. Trying to find some system.
- Any success? – Stoliarov asked, - Some hints maybe? Cause, you know, after five dead little children I’m in a really crappy mood right here.
- Uh… smart people will now explain everything to you, - muttered Vitaliy, - You just nod, agree, and be ready to answer all their questions.
- Can I ask some?
- As many as you wish, - Vitaliy was a bit at a loss, - That’s a no tie session. The situation demands…
They entered a large hall full of people in black suits. But this time the people did not behave like they usually did during sessions in the Kremlin – they did not imitate attention, no. They truly held their breath and were grasping every word.
- ...as of now the object is located in the Pacific Ocean. The United States have very kindly shared with us some information at their disposal.
A murmur rolled over the hall.
- So, these are the facts we know, - a man with a look of steel near the screen spoke with precision, pointing to the image of a metallic sphere hanging over the waters, - The object is impervious to human probes. An attempt to drill through the surface failed. The United States are not very eager to talk about that. Therefore we suspect that this science mission ended with the loss of all hands. The media started calling this object “the Arbiter”. Here is why…
Stoliarov noticed a young major sitting between the old and fat generals. Some were old, others fat, some combined both qualities. The major seemed a newbie here, he was gazing around, probably trying to remember faces and names on the plastic stands next to the people.
- Please, may I have your attention, comrade Fomin, - the steel-eyed man spoke to the major, irritated at his looking-around, and then he continued telling the story, – Not too long before the object was discovered people started dying all over the world. Usually these were ixeplicable deaths in rather mundane conditions. Example: five juvenile victims in Tver, one of the frist cases. They were, it seems, boiled alive while being outside. During investigation we discovered an iron rule: the victims had committed a murder or were somehow complicit in a murder not long before death. So they die in the exact same way as their own victims died, in the exact same fashion. Any active participation in making a decision that later leads to human death can cause the object to intervene with a probability of one in ten…
- Rapes, beatings and torture as well, - Stoliarov interjected, - Today’s news from the Middle East: mysterious deaths of low-ranking fighters and government executives alike led to a complete ceasefire in Syria. In Italy two rapists handed themselves over to the police, they were completely and utterly horrified.
- Thank you for these valuable additions, - the suit-man gave the investigator a cold nod, - Initially the time after which the retribution came was around fifteen minutes. Can you confirm, comrade Stoliarov?
- True enough, - Stoliarov nodded, - However, the interval started growing. One victim, a policeman, died only a day after he killed a recidivist, a hardcore criminal during a gunfight. Cause of death: gunshot wound… without any trace of a bullet.
- Thank you, - steel gaze travelled over the room, capturing the officials’ scared faces, - Currently the number of cases is ever-growing. I hope you understand. Our analysts have confirmed a correlation between the time interval that we have called a postponement...
The room could not stay silent at these words.
- Quiet, please, - man at the screen called up the next image.
Now the metallic sphere was small and only occupied a corner of the screen; the rest was filled by a huge step diagram.
- The interval grows in leaps and bounds, - the presenter pointed at the first step with his finger, - At fifteen minutes we have discovered these anomalies. It is possible that the retaliation happened before, but was too fast for us to be able to notice such cases. But here comes the important part: an increase to two hours of postponement increased the number of victims by the same order of magnitude. The same applies to the jump from two hours to a day. In other words, the number of people that are killed or maimed by the object is growing in parallel to the growth of the interval. And the interval grows ever bigger. The next leap...
- Are we only approaching the next leap, or?.. – some general interrupted the man, looking right at the diagram.
- Or, comrades. The last leap is long behind us, - the man in the suit shrugged, - But retaliation now comes only after two complete weeks, according to our calculations. It is hard to estimate the number of future victims, but...
Suddenly the man in the suit exploded. Stoliarov ran out of the hall into the corridor. It took some minutes to regain his senses. When the investigator returned to the hall, only half of the initially present remained. The young major whom he noticed leaned over someone’s dead body. Stoliarov came closer and recognized that it was the body of an old general, he looked as if he was beaten to death.
- And I thought that old fellow would never die, - whispered the major, awed.
Stoliarov looked at the blood-splattered screen. Under the shroud of red blood one could still see the ominous silhouette of the metallic sphere.
Plus one day.
Susan looked at him, mistrustful.
- You are saying the Arbiter is God?
- Is he not? – Simon closed the Bible, - Susan, I heard what John said before dying. He sent those guys into the mine. And he suffocated and burned alive just like they did. Is it not rightful retribution? Is it not the righteous judgment God was speaking of?
- John had a family...
- Didn’t all the guys have families? – Simon raised a newspaper; at the front page an aerial photo of ships roaming the seas around the Arbiter sphere like sharks, - Burgess and Matthew could’ve bought their freedom from a human court. But you cannot bribe the Arbiter. Punishment is inevitable.
- It doesn’t look that inevitable to me, - countered Susan, - This morning in the news they said the Arbiter only retaliates in ten percent of all cases of murder. If he is truly God, why has he not punished those who start wars in which millions perish?
- A week ago those were two percent, Susan, - whispered Simon, - Tomorrow it will be twenty two, the day after - fifty...
He rose from his chair.
- The day of righteous judgment has come.
- So what you’re planning to do? – Susan asked.
- I cannot stand in the way of divine punishment, - Simon replied, - But I can preach. I feel that I need to. It was no coincidence I was the witness of the first punishment.
- It wasn’t the first, - his wife corrected him, mildly irritated, - There were reports of deaths in Russia, Africa...
- Well, one of the first, - admitted Simon completely unfazed, - This is not a god for belief in whom you have to imagine something, Susan. It is the only god in which one would be a fool not to believe, for it is real. And He chose me by showing His power. I feel it.
- But where are your signs, if you are a prophet? – said Susan pointing at the newspaper, - A feeling’s not enough. There are thousands, if not millions, of people who saw how the Arbiter punishes murderers.
Give me a sign, the miner thought. Show me I am right.
The bell rang.
- Who is it? – Simon opened the door.
- Mister Just? – a stone-faced military man stood before him, a corporal as far as Simon could see, - Please remain inside your houses. A curfew has been placed.
- And why is that?
The soldier ignored him and went on to the next house.
- Why is that? – shouted Simon loud, - I can come out, and you won’t do me a thing. Because if you do… He will do the same to you.
Simon spoke “He” with such an intonation that it was immediately clear what he was talking about.
- The country is under attack, - spoke the corporal, finally deciding to answer, - Several top military officials in charge of our Afghan troops have been instantly killed. That is all I can say.
- But is it the country that is under attack? – Simon quietly asked himself.
The miner closed the door and laughed.
- Susan, He answered my doubts. He answered. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off, - he quoted from the Bible again, - You have a good camera in your smartphone, right? Bring it! I want to record my preaching.
Plus three days.
- The president... all, who had been one way or the other involved in coordinating the active combat of our forces since last month... this is a direct attack on the United States of America… - the news anchor kept mumbling from one of the screens. – An emergency has been...
- I see the object, - hissed a voice in the girl’s headset, - Locking on target...
And then came silence.
- I can’t, - the pilot suddenly broke in again, - Andersen, my systems failed. You copy?
- Roger that, Rider, - said the girl, she was about to break down and cry. – Rider 21, you hear me?
- Andersen, please respond, - there was a cackling sound in the headset, - I am on a return route. I don’t know how I was placed here. I cannot control my fighter. I don’t understand what happened. All missiles are gone. I repeat, Andersen, I’m empty.
This was the last bit of communication she could get. After that the headset only buzzed with static. The girl took them off and came close to the colonel who explained something to three officers near the room’s exit.
- Sir, Rider 21 could not engage target, - she spoke softly, - Sir? Colonel Targetson?
The colonel suddenly disappeared turning into white vapor. She saw it happen. In a few seconds the same happened to other officers the colonel had been talking to.
It took the young girl some time to realize that she became the senior officer on the entire base.
“Simon says” channel.
Plus one year.
Simon Just closed his eyes for a moment.
- Who knows, my friends. Perhaps He awaited in the oceanic depths until the cup of mankind’s evil deeds was overflowing, and it became intolerable to Him. “The Arbiter is a false god who allows people to kill innocents. Because punishment will not return those who died to their loved ones”, writes Caroline from Texas. My dearest Caroline, all the powers that be and all the strong men of this world have recently witnessed the righteousness of the Great Arbiter. Allow me to try and convince even you, and let me quote from the Psalms. “The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.” So you see, my dear Caroline, He never kills until guilt is established with absolute certainty. This is the great paradox. The Arbiter does not punish wicked thoughts, only wicked deeds. For each can, before committing a sin, renounce the evil deed. Punishment awaits only those that go forward and do the actual crime.
Simon let out a sigh. His metal beads made three clicks, after which he continued.
- Alas, this means that the Arbiter cannot extinguish all suffering of the world in an instant. But that is not His job, dear Caroline. It is our job. The Arbiter shall see, so that murder, violence and evil perish from the face of the Earth. How? For the righteous shall fear the Arbiter, the sinners and the wicked evildoers then shall be annihilated. We, humans, shall learn to be better. Year after year there will be less and less evil men, until finally they are completely gone. Then humans shall reach the promised paradise.
The picture glitched slightly - it seemed like Simon cut out a part of his preaching.
- And one last question for today. “Why does the Arbiter repay pain with pain? Sometimes people accept the pain! Why has our God put an end to ice hockey and football? The non-contact hockey in full armor suits is no longer that interesting”, I read in a letter from… Brothers from Washigton, DC. It delights me to hear, dear brothers, that you have taken the Arbiter in your heart as the True God. But please understand then that He is not a human. His ways are inscrutable. In the eyes of man one can find an excuse – pain is caused for sport… For professional sport. For achievements… - Simon stopped for a while.
- And pain is caused for a great cause. Torture for the great cause. Murder. Evil. Violence. War. Exploitation. This is where this path leads to.
The preacher sighed again.
- Humans… are weak. They accept excuses, they can have pity. This is why He came. An iniquitous judgment of man was all we had before now. But He is never wrong. For He knows the thoughts of every man, and punishment cannot be avoided. So stay clear of evil, brothers and sisters, and do good in all your beginnings. May the Arbiter forever guard your peace.
Plus two years.
- Hey, what are you doing here? – Stoliarov looked at the person next to him and recognized the young major he first met during that fateful meeting in the Kremlin.
- I am the vice-commander of the Space Forces of the Russian Federation, - he said, visibly anxious, - All high-ranking...
- I know, - interrupted Stoliarov harshly, - Clearly this thing did not limit itself to the Kremlin officials. But why are you here now?
- Word goes, this... Agarkov, is a big UFO buff, - said the major pointing at an old dry man standing on the scene, - And he’s got a theory explaining the Arbiter’s behavior.
- So, then, - Stoliarov took a closer look, then turned back to the major from the scene, - What rank are you in now, by the way?
- None, - the major scoffed, - What ranks? Comrade Stoliarov, wake up! After the Arbiter arrived the armies are being hastily disbanded. Same with the police. You damn well know there’s all sorts of hell going on in the world. Animal slaughterhouses close down, the mafia’s trying to find people with suicidal tendencies to do their work…
- The mafia won’t last long that way, it is damn hard to control a person ready to kill himself. As for the meat, I heard there’s a boom in soy production. And synthetic vitamins, of course. They’re getting loads of cash.
- Only those whose workers don’t die or get maimed in production plants, - the major laughed, - The others often end up having no time to use their newfound wealth.
- Hunger is coming, - spoke Stoliarov seriously.
- Everything and that, - muttered the major, - I heard a real bloodbath, a culling went over Africa. However, now it is a lot safer than before. Everywhere is safe now. All turned to… what’s that religion...
- Jainism, - Stoliarov helped, - The religion of non-violence. That was how they called it before.
The dry old professor took the mike.
- Welcome, my dearest gentlemen. I hope none of you did something bad exactly one month ago? Didn’t beat up people, and God forbid kill someone or order someone to go die?
The hall murmured “No, no”.
- And that is great news, my dear, cause otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hear my lecture to the very end! – the old man laughed and turned on the projector.
Images of dead people rolled over the wall. Photos of military bases where few survivors gathered lots of dead bodies. Finally a photo of the Arbiter still hanging there in the Pacific surrounded by military ships.
- All this, my dear, is the work of the Arbiter. So what do we know now? Not much, hum-hum. It seems that this object is very much like those that appeared over Iran in 1976. The Pentagon people have been kind to share some information with us, heh-heh, right before their untimely death. The object emits light at night, which disappears during the day. We could not locate the power source of the object neither the way it is transmitted over distance for… uh, exerting punishment. I think by now we all agree that the Arbiter avenges the suffering caused.
- What is the Arbiter? – someone shouted from the banks.
- You, my dear, are too impatient, hum-hum. Planning to kill someone, are you? – the professor burst with laughter, which seemed more like croaking of a giant crow, - If not, I will ask you to listen on. I will come to your question soon enough. So, the Arbiter is the avenger. But there are some peculiarities that I want to draw your attention to. First, the Arbiter only avenges the killing of beings with a sufficiently high nervous activity organization. Using antibiotics to wipe out billions of bacteria goes unpunished, hum-hum. The other side, of course, is that the Arbiter does not punish unintelligent life forms like the bacteria. Only sentient beings. Perhaps he does this to keep the ecosystem functioning. The only other act of the Arbiter that we know of is that he wiped out the killer whales.
The hall went silent.
- Oh yes, the killer whales are all but gone. It is confirmed by oceanologists all across the world. And the killer whales died as if they were torn apart by other killer whales. Do you understand, dear audience? A real tragedy: the Arbiter considered them sentient and punished very much like he punishes us. But the carnivorous whales cannot stop preying on other kinds of whales. Which the Arbiter, it seems, also considered either sentient or close enough to that… I only hope the few surviving killer whales manage to adapt their rations under this extreme artificial selection…
- Why then the Arbiter kills humans who only killed animals? – someone asked, grabbing a microphone from a pretty assistant standing near the seats.
- Depends on what animals we’re talking about. The organization of higher nervous activity, my dearest, please keep that in mind. I slap mosquitoes day and night, but as you can see I’m still limping around, heh-heh. But the slaughterhouses, indeed, are not doing good. It seems that higher life forms are judged more harshly by the Arbiter, - the professor used his hands to imitate a level-up, - Let’s say a tiger kills a human, but it is not sentient. However, it is not good for a human to revel in pointless sadism by causing pain to a tiger, even though it’s merely an animal. It is still capable of understanding its own pain.
- Why weren’t all humans who ever fought in wars killed? – came another shout from the hall, - My grandfather is a veteran and he’s afraid...
- Fear not, - the professor corrected the position of his glasses, - At least for now. The Arbiter only punishes suffering caused right now, it is monitoring the world in real time. After all, it can only judge the past by human memories, which are often incomplete or wrong. And he is either incapable of or unwilling to start a total purge of this magnitude.
Stoliarov called the girl with the microphone. The major gave him a confused look – like, why do you even need it, what kind of question can you even ask?
- So why did the Arbiter start this… purge? – said Stoliarov very clearly, clutching the mike as if it was a weapon.
- Good question, - the professor pointed at the investigator with his crooked finger across the scene, - And we are finally coming to the key points. What is the Arbiter? Where does it come from? My theory is that it is a device from beyond Earth. Possibly manufactured on another planet, although we cannot rule out it coming from another universe, too. It is, perhaps, merely a probe, a sentient machine sent to collect information on sentient species. Why I am so sure about that? Why I do not consider it, as it is popular these days, a god, a divine judge? Please recall: at first the vengeance came quickly, while the number of cases reviewed by the Arbiter was very small. Today the Arbiter controls the entirety of the human race, but the postponement has grown to a full month and remains at that. It is most likely a question of calculation speeds attainable. Please consider that the thoughts and acts of all mankind represent an enormous amount of data. Even the Arbiter is not omnipotent. So, where was I? It came to our planet from beyond. Possibly – way before we think it came. At first it was merely observing, but then…
The old man made a dramatic pause, looking sternly at the audience.
- It could not bear it. Humanity was so disgusting that the Arbiter started to act. Indeed, try to place yourself in his shoes: you are the representative of a sentient species that has long renounced violence, and you meet a species that revels in it. You are very much like a pioneer who discovers a tribe of illiterate, vicious cannibals. Almost apes. But you can still see that these are humans… and you begin to act. You begin a civilizing mission. Those who cannot accept the rules you impose, the cultural restrictions, are inevitably destroyed.
- This is colonization then? – suddenly said the major in full voice, - Our planet has been captured?
- Heh-heh, captured, eh? Au contraire, my dear, au contraire. The key feature of colonization is lacking… the colonists. No one is moving to Earth. And indeed, what can you offer to a civilization, whose single – as we presume – exploration device can execute trillions of operations a second? Nothing, nothing at all, - the scientist walked across the scene, - Those cheap scares about some super-critical resources being needed on Earth? Please go see a movie then. But, of course, the changes in society are radical, hum-hum, rather so. The fact that the Arbiter decided not to punish past sins and never kills unless your actions directly lead to death allowed some share of politicians, businessmen to survive. Even medicine and surgeons survived due to the analysis of intent. In other words, thanks to this we evaded a total collapse of society. But! The foundation of our society, capitalism, is being destroyed from a totally different direction.
The scientist changed the projected image. Now the screen showed a mass of people entering elite housing.
- The Arbiter accepts the right of life as an absolute right, but it is completely oblivious to our concept of property. And therein lies a paradox: the life of man is protected as the apple of one’s eye, but property is trampled on every corner. No armies can and wish to protect private property now, for a bullet sent into the crowd flies back to the one who fired it. A broken hand means your own hand broken. Every baton hit will come back and you will feel it on your own skin. On their own the rich are completely helpless. The poor don’t touch them, of course, fearing for their own life, but property prices have totally collapsed. Borders between nations and countries are no longer and cannot be any longer guarded. Formerly indomitable oasis nations are now flooded with the poor coming from everywhere. The great equalization, heh-heh… All that caused a collapse of the financial system, too, and that collapse is final since property is no longer rising in price. Ever. We are returning to barter, my dear. The world is in a state of emergency comparable only to what happened during World War Two. And yet because the Arbiter punishes always, people never kill each other. They try to avoid violence even when put on the brink of hungry death, and they always seek to solve problems together. The world, the whole world, has never been a safer place.
The professor took off his glasses and sighed quietly.
- By applying incredible cruelty to those that use violence in our society, the Arbiter made the human race better. The only question is what’s next.
Wellington, New Zealand.
Plus five years.
- Brothers and sisters! – he spoke after coming up, - Today is a glorious day. Even the world media reported that murders in the world stand at nigh zero. It is impossible to deny that we enter a new age. No need for government, for He protects us. No need to fear, for only Him should all wrongdoers and evil men fear in their hearts.
- Your god is cruel! – cried someone from the first row.
Simon couldn’t react fast enough. A man jumped onto the scene and pointed a gun in his face. The crowed gasped, someone screamed.
- Can you beg for me, can you ask your god to grant me forgiveness? – asked the man, speaking with a strong accent, - Can you forgive me?
- What did you do? – Simon just raised his hands, in which he held the metal beads.
- I killed a man… I did not want to! It was mistake! Accident! I was drunk… I could not remember myself, I feared nothing! – the man shook his gun, - And your god gave me a month. A whole month yet to live! This is torture!
- What is it you ask of me? – Simon opened his hands, - You ask me to forgive you? I forgive you, whoever you are.
The man started crying, but would not lower the barrel of the gun.
- And he? Will he forgive? Your god?
- No, - said Simon with visible regret, - He will not forgive.
- But where is then his mercy?! – the man cried, – Gods of old were merciful! They forgave the sinners!
- Mercy, you say? – Simon looked the man right in the eye, - But by forgiving evil we open a path for it. Impunity opens a path for evil. Could you five years ago walk freely in the slums of Caracas? In the poorest villages of Myanmar?
- N-no, - said the man, less certain now, - I could not.
- Now you can, - Simon said, - Now we all can.
- But my time is almost up, - whispered the man, - I can no longer do anything. I don’t want to die like this…
- The Arbiter gave you time, - Simon said, applying pressure to the voice, - He gave you one month. To all of us He gives the postponement, if we ever fall astray. The Postponement is His Mercy. For you can say farewell to your relatives. Did you do that, did you prepare to depart? Did you complete all your worldly deeds?
- I can kill you, I am a walking dead anyway, - the man said, - Why aren’t you afraid?
- I am afraid, - Simon gave a honest answer, - We all are afraid. But the Arbiter protects not individual lives but the new world order. Even my death shall change nothing. In this world evil no longer rules. It is a new world. His world. You want to kill me? I am nothing. Only a human just like you. Why would you do it?
The man threw the gun away and fell to the floor. Some people from the crowd wanted to grab him, but Simon stopped his followers with a wave of the hand.
- We all forgive you, brother, - Simon came closer and kicked the gun away into the crowd, where the Arbiter’s followers immediately discharged it, - How much have you got?
- A week, - the man said quietly, - Only one week.
Simon Just pointed at a small group of bald-shaven people in the crowd.
- These are the brothers and sisters whom we call the Departing. They all live through their final days. We do not tell them what to do or how to live their lives. They can do whatever they want. The Departing support each other… in various ways, in the final hours, and they try to lessen the suffering when death finally comes. They can help you find your relatives.
The preacher reached out to the man and helped him rise.
- Brothers and sisters! – he said to the Departing, - Help him. He is afraid. He is lost. Help him just like we helped you. When you depart, we shall remember you.
Plus twenty years.
- A good day to you brothers and sisters, - on the screen Simon Just stood in front of a massive crowd, - Today I preach to you from the beautiful city of Nairobi. It is not the first year I travel the whole world in mere sandals to be a witness to the great change the Arbiter has brought. Our God has reached with his hand to every corner of this planet, transforming it: violence and cruelty perished from the face of the Earth. Nations and kingdoms have fallen, their borders smashed. All who desire to do evil have gone, gone like the snow on a hot day of spring. The long winter of humanity came to an end, brothers and sisters. A new day awaits…
- See that? – Fomin waved at the screen, as if Stoliarov wasn’t already looking there, - That’s one sleazy tongue this devil has. He learned to pick his words well, heh, he had many years to perfect the art! Just like Mohammed, but just one problem – behind him there’s a very real and very cruel Allah. And that machine has millions of servants now. They also have these… Departing. Damned kamikazes, ready to do anything! They usually have a month till death – well damn right you wouldn’t be afraid of anything at all in this case. Word goes, the Church of the Arbiter even learned to… remove undesirables with their help. They’re like the Inquisition. We gotta be ready, Serega.
Stoliarov took a look at the test range outside. Soldiers were shooting at moving targets – realistic humanoid robots that looked like living mannequins. A bullet hit one, and he fell, bleeding. Desperately trying to survive the robot grabbed a wall and kept crawling to the entrance of a mock-up building. A second bullet hit his head and he stopped moving just like a real man killed.
- Ready for what, buddy? – Stoliarov went through his pale beard with long fingers, - Why are you doing this?
- See, I’ve been thinking a lot about that, - said Fomin completely calm, - Back when the Arbiter hacked down the governments, slaughtered soldiers, bandits, bureaucrats, dangerous psychopaths… No one understood the consequences. But I did. Remember us on that lecture Agarkov gave?
- Sure I do, - Stoliarov hemmed, - Though it’s been quite a while.
- So here’s what, the old man was right, - Fomin pointed at the soldiers who practiced melee combat with a squad of androids, - I thought about what’s happening. You see, by extinguishing violence that thing is doing artificial selection. We, humans, are the lab rats. You noticed too, didn’t you? Ever ask a twenty-year old to hit you in the face, just for the sake of it? Do ask. Even if he doesn’t wear those stupid metal beads, he’ll never do it.
- So what?
- So that, - Fomin took a huge glass and drank it all in one go, then creaked, - It’s breeding, Serega. Nothing more, nothing less. Humans are essentially apes, a violent predator species. But then the Arbiter arrives. And his only actions are… the creation of stimuli. You’ve read about Pavlov and his dogs, right? And now the violence that’s typical for our species is no longer encouraged. It is punished, and quite severely. People develop a conditioned reflex – you cause pain, you experience the exact same pain. The Arbiter has no carrot in his stimuli set, but he has one hell of a stick! And this is where we give word to good old Charles Darwin. There are people not responding to stimuli. Crazies, as you’d say. Murderers. They cannot be programmed. But what does the Arbiter do? He simply annihilates them, because such a man would inevitably slip somewhere. And the genes of the more primitive humans, apes, as we like to call them, are being slowly washed out from our species. From human barbarian who can crush the competitor’s skull with a club and take all that one had, we are turned into human milksop. We once destroyed the Neanderthals – that was when the history of humanity’s triumph on this planet began. But give it a bit more time and we – all of us! – can no longer kill even a fly.
- What’s so bad about that? – Stoliarov shrugged, - That’s why you called me here? I recall you were never a fan of scuffles – so what grief is that to you if those who love a good old scuffle are exterminated from the Earth via, hmm… selection?
- Good grief, Serega, - an unkindly light flashed in Fomin’s eyes, - Good grief. I cannot stand scuffles. And those stupid monkeys, dumb gorillas running outside the window I hate, too. But none of this is going to end good. We were the top predator and that’s how we became number one on good old Earth. Now we’re herbivores. And I am kind of wondering, you know…
Stoliarov smiled, but Fomin was dead serious:
- Why would anyone turn a whole predatory species like ours, essentially the Tyrannosaurus Rex of this planet, into harmless, helpless Diplodocus? Cause in just a few generations, Serega, at most a hundred years or two mankind will lose the very ability to make violence. On a genetic level! And then they will come.
- Who will come? – Stoliarov took his vodka glass and made two big gulps.
- They, - Fomin pointed at an old poster on the wall with huge letters XCOM, - The aliens. Agarkov said back then that this is just a probe. Imagine that just one probe of theirs can disarm whole civilizations. Then they come here, where hordes of slaves are ready just in time. Unable to resist from birth, bred like horses on a farm. Like dogs.
Stoliarov was thinking. The dreadful picture painted by Fomin suddenly seemed quite real. Indeed, if it is just a drone, a research machine, why did it intervene? Why did it remake a whole race? And what if those who created it, will really come… later? When the process of altering the human will be complete?
- These soldiers there are the last line of defense. We will perfect this game from generation to generation, involving the descendants of these soldiers and their descendants... – said Fomin suddenly.
- That sounds like some kind of Lebensborn , - Stoliarov winced, - You’re trying to breed a race of aggressive humans just to spite the Arbiter without breaking its rules? Doesn’t it make you laugh, man? The Arbiter reads the minds of every human. Reads them all the time, every second, even in this very moment. We’ve established this empirically, remember. It somehow weighs the suffering, as if it had some sort of scale there, and retribution is carefully measured. He decides who is responsible for what. Calculations are non-trivial, but all Congressmen, all ministers and generals who gave the green light for that attack on the Arbiter… are dead. Smart guys who thought they could torture and kill people by denying them food – as if, like, they didn’t die from direct action – are by now all on the other side as well. One former colleague of mine told me stories. He travelled all over the Middle East, seen a whole lot of shit… the stuff people tried to invent. But none of the inventiveness helped, heh.
- Robots are non-sentient. Cannot feel pain or suffering, - Fomin’s voice was ice, - And we established in the very same empirical fashion that the destruction of such forms… of life? Artificial life? Irrelevant. It is unpunished.
- And you... – Stoliarov pointed at the people running outside, - want to fight this power? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no coward. Just be honest with yourself – such technology for us is same as magic. And that’s where that beads guy’s right. For us it is god.
- We’ll fight them back when they come, - said Fomin with strong conviction.
- Well, to your success, - Stoliarov raised the glass. Fomin filled himself another one and they clinked glasses.
By late evening they ran out of drinks. The general could not convince the former investigator to become a part of their group. There was no one to drive Stoliarov back to town, so Sergei decided to sleep at the military barracks.
That night he had a dream. In this dream he saw himself being the Arbiter: as if he arrived into a tribe of barbarians on a space ship, installed his own rules and was declared a god. The role of Merlin at King Arthur’s side in this dream was played by the now-late professor Agarkov. Looking at how Stoliarov rules the strange tribe – they were like Chukchi, or maybe Vietnamese or even Africans – professor Agarkov kept saying: “We do all of this out of compassion… From pure compassion, my dear.”