The Untold Tale of an Executioner
I waited until the pulse ceased and left the body lying on the ground.
The crowd snarled but parted as I walked to my flyer. Just as I passed
the outermost circles of the throng, a deep voice from the far side
began singing. "Through our hills, through our sands, for my country, my
homeland." I continued walking, and soon another voice picked up the
refrain. By the time I closed the flyer door, blocking the sound, the
entire crowd was singing. It was the first time I'd heard the anthem
since starting the new circuit a week ago. My predecessor had banned it.
The execution had been routine. The Skeps seldom challenged the laws
anymore, which required a man of sound mind and body, between twenty and
forty. No criminals. At any hint of protest, we'd kill two. Open
protest meant ten. If they harmed me, the town would be blasted out of
existence within seconds of my signaling I was safe. Immediately after
the war, we'd demolished several towns like that, but things had quieted
in the subsequent decade.
Outside town, I changed into civilian clothes and clicked the button to
turn off the military decals on my flyer. Even the Skeps, who had spent
the last century planting mines under shopping centers or highways, had
enough sense not to spring traps on random unmarked flyers. En route
again, I sent a quick message to my wife and daughter. The job went
fine. It's early enough that I should be able to handle one more today.
Can't wait to be home next week. Love you. Then I leaned back to take a
An hour later, my eyes snapped open as the flyer sputtered and bounced
to a rough landing. The window was a reddish haze. A dust storm. The
filter had plugged. Cursing the storm, and myself for not requesting a
new spare, I picked-up my transceiver, noting that my salary had already
been credited four fisams from the previous day's execution, but the
signal was jammed. I swore again. Here in Skep territory, it could be
days before it returned.
Taking care to remove anything that would identify me, I wrapped a scarf
around my blond hair. My blue eyes wouldn't be visible from sniper
range. I clipped the transceiver to one pocket and dropped the disrupter
in the other, then opened the door into a wall of pure heat. It was
only six kilometers to the town, but by the time I set the security
system, my clothes were damp with sweat.
Twenty minutes later, I heard the whirr of an engine. A flyer crawled
towards me slowly enough that the filter wouldn't clog. The driver had
the dark complexion and sharp features of a Skep. I kept a hand on the
disrupter in my pocket.
When he stopped beside me, I gritted my teeth but forced myself to be
civil. "Good afternoon." I spoke in Skeptoni, grateful for having picked
it up during the war. At least I could pass for a local Kadian.
He cleared his throat. "Need a ride?"
My pride fought the heat, but the heat won. I could always pull out my
badge, and he didn't know the transceiver was jammed. "Sure." The door
popped open. I climbed in, and the air conditioning rippled cold where
sweat had run down my neck.
He turned his attention to the flight path. When he spoke, his tone was
casual. "Storm back there catch you?"
I wiped my forehead with a sleeve. "Unfortunately."
Wedging my bag behind the seat, I studied him. Although noticeably
shorter than me, he was also in his mid thirties and would have had
combat training during the war. His black hair was stark against skin
that was darker than mine, but light for a Skep. His narrow shoulders
made him look more likely to be carrying a calculator than a disrupter,
but I kept a hand by my own.
"So, what brings a lone Kadian to Ral?" If he took me for anything other
than a random traveler, it didn't show. I tried to keep my face steady.
It seemed wrong to accept favors from someone when you were going to
oversee the death of one of their townsmen.
"Just trying to drum up business for my cousin. Cattle." A lie to a Skep
isn't really a lie, but I changed the topic anyway. "You live in Ral?"
"Grew up here. Have a brother out in Kensing, and a sister on a ranch
just past the cliffs. On my way home from visiting them now."
I watched the jagged, sprawling acacias and wished I didn't have to say
anything. It wasn't that he was a Skep. I'd talked to plenty of them in
my line of work. It was that, well, he was a Skep.
Outside, the waves of heat shimmered along the ground, interrupted by an
occasional red-orange boulder jutting upwards. Eventually the silence
passed the point of rudeness. "I hope they're both doing well?"
"They're fine. You have family yourself?"
"Wife and a daughter." We passed over a deep wadi lined with rocks and
silt. My old circuit only got rain about once a year, and I'd seen
nothing to indicate this part of the region was any different. "You
He smiled. "Got a wife. She's a good woman. Keeps complaining that we
don't have any kids, though."
I laughed remembering the same conversations with Shisa when we were
He stared at me hard, and my laughter died.
"Ral does the selection by lots." His voice was cold. "The more kids you
have, the lower your chances of being selected."
He glared at me in that sharp way people have when they're calling you a
murderer and waiting to see how you'll react. I'd long since learned
not to get into these discussions, and I watched the little dust
whirlwinds under the propeller.
He went quiet for a bit, holding on to the steering rod as if he
expected another sandstorm. Finally, "How do you people do it?"
"Process the murders."
My throat tightened. "Our leaders make those decisions."
"So you're telling me you don't have any say?"
"Not one that would matter."
"And no opinions?"
"Wouldn't matter, either."
"What?" From the accusation, you'd think it was our fault the Skeps kept
attacking our civilians.
His reflection in the window didn't react, just went on clenching the
steering rod. "Not having opinions. Seems like a coward's way out to
My throat tightened more. "Never said I didn't have opinions. I said
they wouldn't matter."
There was a pause, then he grinned and slapped my back. "Glad to hear
you don't like it either. Just because our leaders don't get along
doesn't mean we have to be enemies, does it?"
"Not at all. I have several Skeptoni friends." Sitting there in his
flyer, hand still on the disrupter in my pocket, there was nothing else I
"You know how to fix the flyer? Or do you need a mechanic?"
"I can fix it." The curtness in my tone would have been rude if I'd been
talking to a Kadian.
He tapped the clock on the base of the windshield. It read five.
"Shops'll be closed by the time we get back. You'll have to wait until
I swore under my breath, then hoped he hadn't heard.
If he did, he pretended not to. "You know anyone in town?"
He drummed his fingers on the steering rod. "Well, too hot to stay in
the flyer if it's broken down. Not safe, anyway. And you don't want to
stay in Carren's hotel. They're not real friendly to Kadians."
The last thing I wanted to do was stay there in a hotel, but I wouldn't
want to oversee an execution and then walk back to my flyer in even the
most docile of towns.
I was trying to sort out the problem when he spoke again, cheerful,
almost matter of fact. "So you'll have to stay with us for the night."
That idea held even less appeal than the hotel, but I didn't have any
alternatives. Even if I slept in the flyer-a very unpleasant thought
without air conditioning, not to mention being seen by some Skep with a
pipe bomb-I'd be back where I started in the morning.
"That's awfully kind of you, but I wouldn't want to impose."
"Not an imposition at all. My wife keeps complaining that I never bring
any friends home."
I stared out the window. We weren't friends.
We entered the town and passed empty shops with signs advertising Ral
Videoscreens, Jed's Employment Services, and Live Chickens and Fish. All
but the latter looked like they'd closed not long after the war. The
doors hung loose, revealing vacant rooms and broken, cobweb-covered
windows. The live chicken and fish shops flourished no matter how poor
the town. They turned my stomach. Our groceries sold perfectly fresh,
and dead, meat.
We parked behind a shop proclaiming Main Street Security Installation
& Repair. When he got out of the flyer he looked under both seats.
"The wife hides notes for me there sometimes. If I don't find them, I'll
never hear the end of it."
I chuckled and surveyed the shop. A sign taped to the door read Renold
Fel will be glad for your business and gave a transceiver code.
"You're Renold Fel?"
He shook his head. "I'm Ibral Bas. Renald's a friend of mine." He
quirked a brow. "I didn't catch your name?"
"Atan," I muttered as we walked around the back to a bullet-dented metal
door. He pushed it open and I followed him into a small sitting room.
He pulled off his shoes, adding them to a line along the wall. I did the
same. A tall woman wiped hands on her apron. Her eyes widened when she
Ibral smiled. "This is Atan. His flyer broke down, and he needs a place
to spend the night."
She wasn't a very good actor, but she forced a half smile anyway. "Of
course. All we have is the couch, but you're welcome to it."
"Very kind of you." I forced back an equally fake smile.
She threw a long glance at her husband before disappearing through a
"Don't mind her," Ibral sighed. "She's been in a bad mood lately. I
should probably go talk to her, though. Make yourself at home."
He disappeared, and I sat on the edge of the couch, its blue cushions
nearly worn through. A tattered blue curtain covered a hole in the wall
where a videoscreen should have been. In front of a bookcase was a jade
inlaid coffee table that looked much like the one Shisa had wanted until
we'd finally agreed nine fisams was too much. Here, it probably cost
more than all the rest of their possessions combined and served only to
make the other furniture look even shabbier.
From the kitchen, a woman's voice rose then dropped as if she'd been
shushed. I groaned. The only thing worse than accepting hospitality you
don't want is accepting it from someone who doesn't want to grant it.
I checked my transceiver, but it still wasn't working, so I prowled
through his books. Eventually I settled on "Tales of Con Leros," a Skep
writer I'd heard of vaguely.
I'd finished the first story, an utterly predictable and simplistic
morality tale about a son who stole from his father, when Ibral came
"You like Conleros?" He ran the name together like one word.
Ibral beamed as if I'd just said his people were the greatest of
literary masters. Sitting down, he waved back towards the door. "Sorry
about the greeting. Reni is happy to have you here. She just doesn't do
very well with surprises."
"It's fine." I set the book to the coffee table. "My own wife would
probably string me up if I brought home some stranger without at least a
"All the same, aren't they?"
I tried to grin, picturing Shisa's mouth dropping open if she knew I'd
compared her to a Skep.
He sat there fiddling with loose threads on the armrest or clicking a
pen he'd pulled from his pocket. Once he opened his mouth to speak, but
he closed it again.
"Quite a collection of books you've got."
"Take that one." He pointed at the Con Leros book.
"Thanks, but I'm afraid I don't have time to even read the books I
He shook his head. "I don't have anything else to give you, and I can't
have you leave here without a gift. What kind of a host would you think I
I scoured my brain, but my training was of Skep weaponry and tactics,
not gift-giving protocols. Nevertheless, I thought through the contents
of my flyer. I had assorted maps-hardly appropriate gifts. A few changes
of clothes and uniforms-also not likely to be appreciated. And several
empty canteens, Kadian blue-equally unwelcome gifts. "I'm afraid I don't
have anything to give you in exchange,"
He frowned. "Since when has it been the guest who is supposed to give a
gift? You can't shun my hospitality like that."
Sure there was some part of this ritual I was missing, I gave in. "Thank
you. I'll treasure it, and remember my stay with you always." The last
part was, without question, absolutely true.
"Excellent. Hand it here."
I complied, and he scribbled something in the front cover, then handed
He'd written in Skeptoni. To my good friend, Aten, he'd used the Skep
spelling of my name, who I had the honor of having as a guest. He'd
signed his name and written the date as 1389, the old system. The
official calendar read 122. I pictured the whispered rumors if any of my
guests saw it on my bookshelf, or even if it was found in the trash. I
decided to burn it. It was unfortunate. I might have kept and read it
out of curiosity otherwise.
I forced the thoughts from my head, afraid they would show on my face.
"Of course. I'm just sorry I couldn't give you anything better to
We were saved from stumbling through more conversation by Reni
announcing dinner. I was glad not because I was hungry, but because it
would give me something to talk about.
Dinner was served from a communal pot, so I put worries of poison out of
my mind. The meal was simple. Rice, frozen corn, and fish that didn't
taste like it came from the live chicken and fish shop. I complimented
her anyway. "Excellent meal. You're a wonderful cook, particularly on
such short notice."
She didn't reply, just glared at her barely touched rice. I wondered if
there was some tradition of not finishing food that I didn't know about,
so I stopped eating as well.
At last Ibral pushed back his chair. "Not a problem at all. You're more
than welcome. Never mind Reni here." He patted her back. "She's gotten
some bad news about the family, and I don't think either of us are quite
ourselves this evening." He looked down at her and his eyes lingered
for a minute. "It's harder on her than me, I think."
"Sorry to hear that." I stood, feeling like I should ask if I could do
anything to help, but realizing how stupid it would sound by tomorrow.
"Not your fault." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "If you'll excuse
us. I've got some calls to make before it gets late."
"Anything I can help with?" That seemed a safe offer.
He shook his head. "That wouldn't be very hospitable of us, would it? Go
I went back to the empty living room, glad to be alone, and didn't see
either of them until later that night when Ibral came back to tell me
the shops would open at eight the next morning if I wanted to get an
early start. If not, they'd be happy if I stayed longer. He wouldn't be
able to give me a ride back to my flyer, for which he apologized, but
the shop owner was a friend and would take me.
If given a choice, I'd have been away from there long before dawn, so I
told him eight was fine. He pulled out an extra blanket, apologized for
the couch, and we wished each other a good night.
At six, my transceiver alarm beeped, and I noted with relief that it had
regained a signal. I pretended to sleep until nearly eight and declined
the three offers by insisting I never ate breakfast. A few minutes
later, we walked down the already sweltering street past shops with
occasional owners pulling shutters off windows and doors. Merik's Flyer
Parts & Repair smelled of grease.
Ibral and the tall, broad shouldered man I assumed was Merik shook hands
and exchanged a string of inquiries about the other's health, and
family, and family's health, and business, without bothering to listen
to the answers. And when they finished, they started through the whole
cycle again. At last Ibral gestured at me as if he needed to point me
out. "This is the guest I was telling you about."
"I'll make sure he's taken care of." Merik looked me over with the same
expression he would have given a man who'd raped his daughter.
Ibral continued, oblivious. "My family's indebted."
"No, they're not." They shook hands, Merik clasping his left hand over
his right in the two handed handshake I'd seen Skeps use before.
Ibral turned back to me. "It was an honor having you as my guest. I'll
see you when you come back, and good luck with the cattle business."
Not knowing how else I was supposed to part, I mumbled, "thanks," and
imitated the handshake.
Ibral left, and Merik pulled out a parts catalog. "What kind of flyer
I told him, and he rummaged through back shelves, returning with the
"How much is it?" I asked.
"Ibral's covering it."
I almost choked. "He's what?" He looked me up and down again. "When
he called, I told him I wouldn't sell to a Kadian. Only doing it now as a
favor to him, but I'm not taking Kadian money."
I dug through my wallet and dropped five fisams-at least twice the
amount-on the counter. "I'm perfectly capable of paying."
He shoved it back like it was a dead rat. "I said Ibral's covering it."
"Then give him back his money." I pushed it back with forced calm.
He threw it at me. The bills fluttered apart. "I don't want your filthy
"And I don't want your charity." My hand shook.
"You want to pay? Fine. Give it to the victims' fund."
"You can give it to them if you want. I don't care."
"Do it yourself."
I caught myself only when I'd reached for my disrupter. Slowly,
consciously, I released it and shoved the money back in my wallet,
keeping my voice measured. "I'll give it to them when I come back."
He snorted, but pulled a keyring from a drawer. Soon we whizzed down the
road in stiff silence until at last I pointed to my flyer, reddish
tinged from the dust. He waited barely long enough for me to get both
feet on the ground before slamming into reverse, yanking the door out of
For a moment, I considered leveling the disrupter at the retreating
flyer, envisioned it melting on the road. But instead I clicked the
security system remote to scan for tampering. It read all clear.
Changing a filter isn't hard work, but the heat had sapped my energy,
and my temper ebbed away by the time I fired up the engine. I changed
into my uniform and drank in the air conditioning.
I reported that I entered Ral at 10:00, attributing the delay to the
filter. In truth, I'd spent an hour staring at the sky remembering a
faded blue couch.
When I parked outside the large square government building that flew the
Kadian blue and black flag above a placard that read, Faith, Unity,
Freedom, the streets were empty. As I walked into a room of silent desks
and cubicles, all eyes fixed on me. The receptionist stood.
"I'm here to oversee the execution." I spoke in Kadian.
"Pardon?" He tipped his head as if hard of hearing.
"The execution," I repeated, louder.
He tipped his head further.
"I'm not here to play games." My voice dropped.
He made a show of noticing my uniform and badge for the first time. "The
clerk's over there." He gestured vaguely towards the back of the room.
As I walked past the postman's desk, a book fell into my path. Any other
day, I would have struck him for his insolence, but that day I bent to
pick it up. Our eyes met as I laid it on his desk. He looked away.
When I reached the back, a man pulled the execution files from a drawer
and held them out.
My hands froze. Name: Ibral Bas. Employment: Security Specialist, owner
of shop on Main Street. My eyes ran down the rest of the information.
Marital and family status, age, place of birth, personal history all as
he had told me. He'd spent his compulsory five years in the military as a
security systems technician. At the bottom was the key line, to be
killed by executioner, using a sword. It had been updated this morning.
I couldn't look at the clerk as I signed the papers. "The execution will
be at two. Have a sword brought."
I walked out the door with their eyes piercing through me.
I spent the next three and a half hours in my flyer at the edge of the
town square. Halfway through the wait, someone knocked on my window and
handed me a shortsword. He didn't speak and I closed the door before
he'd turned away.
By 1:30, nearly the whole town had gathered. I continued to watch,
clutching the sword.
By 1:40, Ibral was walking among the crowd, stopping here and there, a
handshake to one individual, a nod to another, a hug to others.
At 1:55, I stepped out of the flyer and made my way toward the mass of
people. They parted, and I walked through waves of hatred. Ibral stood
with his family. When he saw me, he gave them all a final kiss, and came
to meet me. I couldn't help wishing I felt the composure he showed.
Instead, I coughed.
"You knew the whole time, didn't you?" I asked when he finally stood
"When did you figure it out?"
"I guessed when I went to check that no one was trapped in the flyer and
realized it had a military security system. I was sure when I saw you
walking on the road."
"You recognized me?"
"Do you think we don't have pictures?"
I looked down at my feet, red dust blowing over black boots. "Then why'd
you do it?"
He paused as if thinking how to explain a decision he'd made long
before, and as I waited, a woman near the front of the crowd began
slowly, tremulously, "through our hills, through our sands . . ."
Ibral gestured at the singer. "My sister." Then, with a voice as clear
as any I had heard, he joined in, and the song rose around me.
When the last chorus ended, the crowd began again. Ibral let them sing,
looking back at me instead. He waved a hand at the singing crowd. "I did
it for this."
There was nothing I could say to that. Nothing that would have mattered,
anyway. He watched me for a long minute before finally reaching for my
hand holding the sword. My transceiver buzzed a warning, and I punched
the code to clear it.
"You might as well kill me now."
"Would you rather be standing? Or kneel?"
In answer, he reached for the sword and placed the tip at his neck.
"Do you have any final words?" I took a deep breath and tensed my arms
for the thrust.
"Remember you have several Skeptoni friends." He smiled as he quoted my
lie back at me. His eyes seemed to bore into me long after the stroke
fell and I caught his body.
I left his body lying on the ground and strode back to my flyer. For the
first time in years, I didn't think of the crowd.
Starting the engine, I thought of the promised donation I'd never
intended to make. Outside the government building, I looked up at the
blue and black flag. I was grateful the building was empty when I
dropped the five fisams into the victim's fund.
As I flew past the spot where I'd left the flyer, my mind flipped to his
security shop and what he'd said about messages left under seats. With a
stomach still churning, I reached down until my hands struck paper. I
pulled it out, wondering how I could explain a request to be assigned a
new circuit. The black Kadian script glared up at me. "Remember."