This title is part of the Bliss universe.
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They're always happy.
Rory James has worked hard all his life to become a citizen of the idyllic city-state of Beulah. Like every other kid born in the neighboring country of Tophet, he’s heard the stories: No crime or pollution. A house and food for everyone. It’s perfect, and Rory is finally getting a piece of it.
So is Tate Patterson. He’s from Tophet, too, but he’s not a legal immigrant; he snuck in as a thief. A city without crime seems like an easy score, until he crashes into Rory during a getaway and is arrested for assaulting a citizen. Instead of jail, Tate is enrolled in Beulah’s Rehabilitation through Restitution program. By living with and serving his victim for seven years, Tate will learn the human face of his crimes.
If it seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Tate is fitted with a behavior-modifying chip that leaves him unable to disobey orders—any orders, no matter how dehumanizing. Worse, the chip prevents him from telling Rory, the one man in all of Beulah who might care about him, the truth: in a country without prisons, Tate is locked inside his own mind.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Rory hadn’t expected his fresh start to begin with a concussion.
After all, the city-state of Beulah had a reputation for being the safest in the world. More than that, it was a community. The kind of friendly, picket-fence place that used to exist only on syrupy old television programs. It was clean, energy efficient, and had a nearly negligible crime rate. It was Rory’s fresh start, away from the polluted, crime-ridden place he’d grown up in. Beulah didn’t even have graffiti or loitering teens, let alone the carjackings and rapes at knifepoint Rory had grown up with in Tophet. He had been lucky enough never to have been a victim of a violent crime at home, and he wasn’t sure what had shocked him the most when the man had hit him: the sudden excruciating pain as something crunched inside his nose, or the sheer ludicrous fact that he’d come all the way to crime-free Beulah and then gotten mugged.
Or not mugged, since apparently he still had his ID.
“Mr. James?” the voice repeated.
Rory squinted into the torchlight. He raised a hand to try to bat it away, but only succeeded in smacking himself in the chin.
“You’re in the hospital, Mr. James. Can you tell me how you’re feeling?”
“Like I should have stayed where I was.”
The nurse circled his wrist with her fingers and drew his arm back down. “It’s terrible, what happened. Just terrible.”
“What did happen?” he asked, relieved when she finally moved the torch and he could see again. Well, see everything other than what was behind the floating blobs the torch had left in his vision.
“You were assaulted,” the nurse said, her tone becoming almost breathless. “It’s all over the news already.”
“What?” Rory frowned and winced at the pain that shot through his forehead. “I’m newsworthy?”
“It never happens,” the nurse told him. “I can’t even remember the last time we had an assault victim brought in.”
“Really?” The nurse’s horror seemed genuine, like Beulah really was as safe as everyone said. Rory tried to take some comfort in that. Which was difficult, since his head hurt so much. And since he was the lucky exception to the rule.
“The police are waiting to talk to you,” the nurse said, “but Mr. Lowell says they’re not to bother you until you’re ready.”
“Mr. Lowell? He’s here?” Rory struggled to sit up, but the nurse put a hand on his shoulder and eased him gently back down. “Why would he . . .?”
“It never happens,” the nurse repeated in a low voice.
Rory had spoken to Jericho Lowell a few times by telephone when he’d applied for the job as the man’s executive assistant. Lowell was the chief justice, both a judicial and political appointment in Beulah. Rory knew Lowell’s position had helped secure his visa, so the nearest Rory could figure was that he was a cross between a judge and a mayor. Lowell had been impressed with his credentials—Rory had majored in political science and media relations at university and had the volunteer hours to prove he was no armchair expert—and the usually painstaking process of applying for residency in Beulah had been fast-tracked so that Rory could start work as soon as possible.
He was looking forward to meeting Lowell, but not like this. He was a mess. His shirt was bloodstained, and he hated to think what his face looked like.
“He came as soon as he heard,” the nurse said, a note of pride in her voice. “He’s a good man and, just between us, he’s very upset about what happened to you.”
Rory was pretty upset by it himself, even though he was sketchy on the details. He tried to remember the man who’d hit him, but everything was a blur. He’d been standing next to his stack of luggage at the train station, trying to figure out the way to the taxis and fumbling in his pocket for his paperwork at the same time. No point getting a taxi if he didn’t know the address . . . He’d also been wondering if his house would be as nice as it looked in the pictures he’d been sent, and his stomach had been growling a bit. Shower or meal first, when he got to his new home? Suddenly he’d become aware of a flash of nearby movement, the shape of a man running toward him, and then that blinding shock of pain . . . and then the hospital.
The pain was bad enough, but he was more concerned that this might reflect badly on him in Lowell’s eyes somehow. After all, if there was no crime in Beulah, then maybe Rory had brought this on himself. Brought the violence with him from Tophet like it was a contagion.
A worry that was very quickly vanquished when a man swept into the room. He was tall, broad, and in good shape for his age. He had a little extra weight around his middle, but he carried it well. His dark hair was graying at his temples and there were laugh lines around his eyes. He wasn’t laughing at the moment. His face was strained with concern.
“Rory,” he said warmly, reaching down to shake his hand. “Jericho Lowell. Son, I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am that this happened. Please accept my sincerest apologies.”
Rory tried to smile. “There’s no need to apologize, Mr. Lowell. You weren’t the one who hit me.”
Lowell smiled and gripped his hand tighter. “Well, you’d better get used to hearing it because a lot of people are going to tell you the same thing. You see, here in Beulah we all take responsibility for everything that goes on in our community. The crime committed against you rests on all our shoulders, not just those of the man who attacked you.”
“The man who attacked me,” Rory interrupted, latching on to the topic. “Who was he? What did he want?”
“An outsider,” Lowell said, grave. “Came here because he thought our lack of crime meant we must be easy targets, I’d wager. As to what he wanted, the police are talking to him now so you needn’t worry about that.”
“Will there be a trial? Will I have to go on the witness stand? I don’t want to press charges if it’s going to cause trouble for you. I’d like to just move on from the whole thing and start my job.”
“These things rarely go to trial,” Lowell said. “Not here. Here, men confess to their crime. It’s what’s right and just, after all.”
Rory frowned. “But . . .”
“The incident was captured on camera at the train station,” Lowell said. “I’ve seen the footage myself. Terrible stuff, and he’ll surely face consequences for what he’s done. As for you, you’ll be able to start your job, I assure you, but when it comes to ‘moving on’ . . .”
Rory’s heart leaped. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t even name the strange horror and fear rising inside him.
“Well, I suppose there’s a trade-off, you could say. Where you come from, you do the trial and then you ‘move on,’ as you say. Part ways with the criminal and that’s the end of it. But you likely never get justice, and he goes on to commit more crimes. Here, we require a long-term involvement on your part as the aggrieved.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I imagine you wouldn’t, growing up in Tophet.” Lowell patted him on the arm. “The whole system would be completely foreign to you, what with that meat grinder system the rest of the world runs on. Well, there are no prisons in Beulah, Rory, because our convicted felons are expected to repay their debt to society through labor and service. Rehabilitation through restitution, as the sign in the Hall of Justice says. Which means, in practical terms, that in order to repay his crime against you, and to know his victim as a man, your assailant will be required to fulfill a period of service to you. In fact—” Lowell’s eyes twinkled almost naughtily. “—I’d dare say that other than the injury, you’re almost lucky this happened to you. Now you’ll have your very own rezzy—that is, a person doing restitution labor—at your beck and call. Have him keep your house clean, cook you dinner, maintain your yard, run your errands, that sort of thing. Of course, it’s not just about him paying back the price of your injury or else he could just pay your medical bills and be done with it. A personal relationship between victim and perpetrator, that’s the ticket. Once he sees what a pleasant young man you are, his crime suddenly has a face.”
Rory was stunned. He didn’t know what to object to first. “But I don’t want the man who hurt me in my life . . . or my house!”
“He’ll be no danger to you at all,” Lowell said. “He’ll be assessed to make sure he’s not violent.”
Rory was pretty damn sure he was violent, and he was the living proof.
“It’s difficult, I know,” Lowell said. “You’re conditioned to believe that most offenders are recidivists because that’s what the prison system outside our borders makes them. You send a man to prison once and chances are he’ll go there again and again. Prisons and punishments create criminals; they don’t deter them. But you give him the chance to rehabilitate himself in a meaningful way and everyone wins. You do, he does, and so does society as a whole. I know it’s not an easy thing to get on board with, particularly when you’re still in pain, but the results speak for themselves.”
Rory supposed they did, although it did nothing to ease the worry in him. The guy had hit him. For no reason. “I wouldn’t even know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Ah, see, that’s why I hired you, Rory. You’re self-sufficient. Hardworking. It’s almost a relief to hear how uncomfortable you are with this proposition. But don’t worry. Ask for help when you need it, and if you don’t, the man should keep himself busy. He’ll be fully educated on his duties and responsibilities as a part of his plea deal.” Lowell smiled. “And I should add that this won’t cost you a thing. Everything he needs, from food to clothing to medical expenses, is covered by the government.”
Rory wondered if this would make any more sense when his concussion healed. “I don’t feel very comfortable with this at all.”
The understatement of the century.
“You wait and see,” Lowell said, his tone warm. “In the meantime, maybe the fact that today’s lead news story is a man getting punched for no reason will indicate to you just how well the system works. We’re unused to violence here, Rory. It still shocks us, when I think the rest of the world has been unshockable for a very long time.” He smiled. “Now, I’ve got a lot of work to do today. I was hoping my new executive assistant would be starting tomorrow, but I see that he needs at least a few days off. You get yourself better, and come in to the office when you’re ready and not a minute before.”
“Thank you,” Rory said.
Lowell turned to the nurse. “Look after Mr. James for me. When he’s ready to leave, call my office and I’ll have a car sent to take him home.”
“My luggage . . .”
“Is waiting at the police station to be collected,” Lowell assured him. “I’ll have it taken to your house so you don’t need to worry about that.”
Rory was relieved. Some good news, at last. “Thank you,” he said again.
He closed his eyes.
Maybe shit would start making sense once he’d gotten some sleep. Or maybe it would take another punch to the face.
Tate could still feel the bruise on his spine where the cop with the bony knees had knelt on him. His shoulders hurt from having his arms wrenched back. He’d caught a glimpse of the poor bastard he’d hit, lying on the platform with blood pissing out of his nose, and then the cop had pushed Tate’s face down again and scraped it across the rough concrete.
Six hours later it was still stinging, but Tate wasn’t complaining.
He was in shock.
“What do you mean I should take the plea bargain?” He felt the blood drain from his face.
His lawyer, Cal Mitchell, leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I’m saying, Mr. Patterson, that I would strongly advise you not to go to trial.”
It would have been smarter to look up the peculiarities of the Beulah legal system before arriving, but he hadn’t really thought it would come to this. He knew there were no prisons in Beulah, and that was good enough for him. It hadn’t occurred to him until he was talking to his government-appointed lawyer that maybe the locals had come up with a system of punishment altogether more cruel and unusual.
Not that he was innocent in any way, shape, or form but surely he had a better chance with a jury.
“If you go to trial and you lose,” Mitchell said, “you’ll get life servitude. No parole.”
Tate swallowed. “What?”
“That’s how things work here in Beulah. Just as a man is rewarded for taking responsibility for his crimes early on, he is penalized for tying up the system with lies.”
Tate’s jaw dropped. Never in all his life, and in all his run-ins with the law, had he heard the right to trial referred to as tying up the system. What next? A perjury charge for pleading not guilty?
“If you take the plea bargain,” Mitchell drawled, “you’ll be free in seven years.”
Seven years. Tate’s vision swam. It was better than life though, wasn’t it?
“But, um, what would my chances be at trial?” His chest hurt. Was he having a heart attack? Every breath stabbed him.
“Take the plea bargain, Mr. Patterson.” Mitchell reached over the scratched surface of the table and patted Tate’s cold hand. “You’re young.”
Tate tried another tactic. “But what if I’m innocent?”
“You do realize the attack was recorded by CCTV, don’t you?” Mitchell raised his bushy eyebrows. “You’re not innocent.” He smiled slightly. “But then, nobody ever is. That’s why they always take the plea bargain.”
God. Tate squeezed his eyes shut. Not happening. Not happening.
Mitchell patted his hand again. “It’s not so bad. You’ll do your seven years, and then you’ll be a free man. All will be forgiven.”
Tate’s guts twisted. He wanted to laugh, it was so absurd. So he’d hit some guy. How was that worth seven years? Or life? He clenched his jaw. Only in a self-proclaimed paradise like Beulah would that shit fly.
He’d been in Beulah for two days. In and out, that was the plan. And it had been working too, right up until the out part. Five grand wasn’t a lot of money, but Beulah had been easy pickings. Shit, these people left their doors unlocked. Unlocked. They might as well have laid down the welcome mat. Tate had hit a few places and filled his bag up with cash and valuables, and then he’d headed for the station to catch a train to Tophet.
Why they’d chosen his bag to search, Tate didn’t know and didn’t much care. He’d concentrated on getting some distance between him and the cops when the bright idea had hit him: what he needed was a distraction. And there he’d been: a young guy standing on the platform staring at a piece of paper in his hand. So engrossed that he’d been chewing his lip.
Tate had punched him, seen him go down, and in the ensuing chaos had figured it had been a good plan. Until that bony cop had come out of nowhere and flattened him.
“What . . . what happens if I take the plea bargain?”
Mitchell smiled at him. “You’ll undergo the induction program, and then you’ll begin your sentence.”
“It takes a couple of days,” Mitchell said. “Then you’re assigned to your restitutional duties.”
“Like what?” Tate asked. “Like hard labor? Breaking rocks in a chain gang or something?”
Mitchell looked shocked. “Certainly not. This is to rehabilitate you, Mr. Patterson; it’s not barbarous. You’ll be expected to perform basic domestic tasks. Cooking, cleaning, perhaps some gardening . . .”
Tate raised his eyebrows. “Like a maid?” Or a slave?
“Like a functioning, contributing member of a family unit.”
“What?” He was even more confused.
“You’re not being punished, you’re being rehabilitated. If you feel your duties are too onerous or that you’re being mistreated, you always have the right of complaint.” The lawyer smiled. “And what’s worse, really? You’ll get to live in a nice house and be treated with dignity. Seven years in Beulah sounds a lot better to me than seven years in the concrete torture boxes they have in Tophet.”
Tate shifted uneasily. Yeah, there was that.
“All of the rezzies I’ve spoken to have been nothing but grateful for the chance to rehabilitate themselves. Even once they’re free, they speak highly of the program. You should take the plea bargain, Mr. Patterson. That’s my advice to you.”
“I get to live in a house?” Tate had been picturing, well, not a prison since Beulah didn’t have those, but some sort of labor camp. “With a family?”
Crazier and crazier.
“That’s right. Well, I don’t know if your sponsor has a family, but you’ll get to live in his house.”
“The person who has agreed to oversee your rehabilitation, yes.”
“No, I can’t . . . Seven years cannot be my best option!” He slammed a fist on the table, his cuffs rattling.
“Once you get there, you’re going to wish for longer than seven years.” Mitchell sat back in his chair with a lazy slouch that spoke of absolute sureness. “But look. I’m your lawyer, and it’s my job to defend you. I’ll do my job if you want to take this to trial, I will. But seriously, confess. Take the plea bargain. It’s only seven years, and they may well be the best seven years of your life.”
Tate didn’t believe that for a second.
But what if he went to trial and lost? Seven years or life. Right now they both sounded impossible. In seven years he’d miss so much . . . But life? He couldn’t do life. Couldn’t take that risk.
“Fine,” he rasped. “I’ll confess. Accept the plea bargain. All of it.”
Mitchell’s face lit up with a smile, and he shook both of Tate’s hands. He seemed elated, ecstatic, a little like a guy who’d drunk seven cups of coffee in short order. “You won’t regret this,” he blabbered, rifling through the folders and papers that had half spilled out of his briefcase. “Now, just let me gather all of the required paperwork for you to sign, and you can be on your way to your new life.”
Tate put his head in his hands.
Yeah, well, that had been the point of coming to Beulah in the first place, right? Get enough to pay off his debts, maybe even move away from Tophet. Five grand wasn’t much, but it would have been enough. Enough for a new start someplace where the air didn’t stink. Someplace where there was more to a neighborhood than concrete and razor wire and fucking dealers pushing their shit day in and day out.
And now what?
No fucking clue.
But he signed the papers anyway. He didn’t have any other choice.
“Hi!” The face that poked around the hospital room door was a little anxious, a little impish, and topped with spiky hair. “I’m Aaron. Mr. Lowell sent me to come get you. Wow, your face looks pretty bad.”
And just when Rory had been telling himself that the swelling really was going down. “You’re the driver?”
Aaron stepped inside. “Actually, I’m the intern. So I guess that makes me the driver. And the coffee boy. And the guy who does the photocopying.” But he didn’t seem disheartened by his long list of lowly, unpaid duties at all. Absolutely overjoyed, more like it.
“Wow, Mr. Lowell must be some kind of a boss.”
Aaron smiled. “Yeah, he’s great.” He flushed. “Uh, I mean, it’s an honor and a privilege to work for him. I mean, he buys the whole office pizza on Friday nights, and he’s really cool and stuff. And smart. And so charismatic. I don’t think Beulah could even exist without him, and— Oh God, I’m gushing, aren’t I?”
Rory smiled. Lowell had seemed nice enough on his visit to the hospital, but Aaron was talking about the guy like he’d hung the moon. Someone had a touch of hero worship going on. It was a little . . . nice. Yes. Safer to go with nice than with weird. Maybe it was a cultural thing. Maybe people here were just . . . happier. Or maybe it was just Aaron.
“Mr. Lowell says I’m to take you home and help you unpack, and then I have to go get your groceries and whatever takeout you want.” Aaron’s smile grew. “He gave me his credit card.”
“I don’t think I need the taxpayers of Beulah to pay for my groceries just because I got hit in the face,” Rory said, scrunching up his nose before he remembered how much it hurt.
“No, his credit card. Mr. Lowell is really careful about stuff like that,” Aaron said proudly.
An honest judge? Beulah really was paradise.
“So have you got everything here? I’ve already got your luggage in the car.”
“I guess,” Rory replied. It wasn’t like he’d come here with much. Nobody had much of anything in the outside world. What you had got stolen, or you pawned it to pay off your debts—to the protection rackets or the bank, depending on who had your balls in the tightest vice. The fact that his hospital room had a nice TV over the bed, one that hadn’t been busted or stolen, was a whole new experience for Rory. And the fact that his stay here was free. No insurance reps lurking around like vultures, trying to convince him to sell blood or organs to pay his medical debts. Still not worth getting punched in the face, but it was nice to know that the things he’d read about Beulah hadn’t been exaggerated. It really was close to perfect. A hell of a lot closer than anything Rory had ever known before.
Aaron held out a bag. “I got you a new shirt. Mr. Lowell worried your old one might have blood on it.”
“Thanks.” Rory shrugged off his hospital gown and pulled the shirt on. He wondered what had happened to his old shirt. Even if there was blood, he might be able to clean it. To throw it out seemed wasteful. Groceries, a shirt . . . Rory felt a little uneasy with this sort of generosity. No such thing as a free lunch, his grandmother had always said.
Aaron followed Rory to the nurses’ station, where he signed his release form, and then they took the elevator down to the parking bays. Rory couldn’t help smiling as they passed the rows of cars, every one a hybrid.
“These take ethanol, right?”
Aaron nodded, opening the passenger-side door for Rory and helping him in. “We make it ourselves, from sugarcane. It’s not perfect, but it’s cheap, and it’s better than relying on oil. We’re self-sufficient here in Beulah. We pretty much have to be, honestly. If we start tangling our economy up in the outside world’s, pretty soon we’d inherit the rest of their baggage, too.” He winced. “Sorry. Not trying to imply that you brought baggage with you. What happened to you was totally abnormal, I mean. Violence doesn’t normally follow immigrants in, you know? Since the vetting process is so thorough. All you people usually bring with you is new perspective and fresh ideas.”
“No, I get what you mean,” Rory said.
Protectionist. Elitist. Creepy perfect. A lot of people said a lot of sneering things about Beulah. But Beulah was also safe. Safe and clean and— Wow. Green. The car had pulled out of the parking garage, and Rory was stunned by the beautiful foliage lining the roads. Trees and shrubs and flowers, all well maintained and perfectly landscaped. People here didn’t live in massive, towering apartment blocks; they lived in beautiful condos with green roofs or in houses with sprawling yards and riotous gardens. Solar panels gleamed and windmills spun in the breeze.
Rory’d never seen anything like it in his whole life. He wanted to know more. In fact, as a new citizen, it was practically his duty to know more. “Is all of your power solar or wind generated?”
“There’s a big hydro scheme up north,” Aaron said. “But most houses and businesses generate at least eighty percent of their own energy. It’s better with the newer houses, but the technology wasn’t as advanced twenty years ago.”
“It doesn’t look like a city at all,” Rory marveled.
Aaron smiled. “No skyscrapers, you mean? We live densely for the good of the community and the planet, not because landlords are packing people into slums for maximum profit. That’s why we have to keep a cap on immigration. Grow too fast and it gets messy. Overcrowding. Not enough resources to go around. And then there’s the possibility of the wrong people coming in. Not like you, of course—Mr. Lowell says you came here with high recommendations and impressive credentials—I mean people like the man who assaulted you. Anyway, a few years of restitution and rehabilitation, and he’ll be as valuable to the community as you are. But too many others like him, and the system gets strained. You know?”
“Makes sense,” Rory acknowledged. It was brutally pragmatic, but he could see the point. If Beulah opened its borders, it’d be overrun. Already, people on the outside were banging down the city-state’s door trying to get in. Rory knew; he’d been one of them.
“So,” Aaron said, flashing him a smile, “your house is nice and new, with enough solar panels that you’re feeding power back into the grid. It’s over by the university. The train station is only about a block away. You’ll need a card to use the transport system, but they don’t cost very much. I think Mr. Lowell will be providing you with a company car anyway. As his assistant, you’ll probably do near as much running and fetching as me. But you know, for a salary.”
Rory laughed. “Are you still a student?”
“Yeah, I’m working for Mr. Lowell for the summer. I was really lucky to get an internship. My whole class put in for it, and I didn’t even have the best results. I guess I just interviewed okay or something.” He grinned. “You should have seen the look on Alexandra Holt’s face when she found out I got it. She looked like she was gonna throw up! Or punch me in the head, but I guess she thought better of getting stuck as my rezzy for the next seven years.”
“What are you studying?”
“Environmental law. Which is why I can rattle off statistics about solar panels. It’s just . . . It makes me mad sometimes that we’re doing so well here in Beulah and it makes no difference in the outside world. What I’d like to do, one day, is set up a program to send out our best and brightest as emissaries to teach the rest of the world, instead of always just letting their best and brightest in. Or hell, arrange a system where people like you come in but also return to where they came from periodically to bring back their learnings. Share the wealth of knowledge, you know?”
Rory smiled at the passing landscape. “Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. They could use a lot of help out there.”
They. Not we. Rory felt no sense of loss for the outside world, or for the life he’d had there. And what kind of life had it been anyway? Working sixteen-hour days in data entry for the Interim Government, removing people from the social security database. Criminals, loan defaulters, political agitators—the people the government felt were no longer eligible for assistance. Nothing to show for his degree except a piece of paper and a student debt that was rapidly bankrupting him. One of his former professors had told him about the job in Beulah, and Rory had applied. He hadn’t expected to make the shortlist, let alone actually land the thing. Beulah was his salvation. He could be happy here.
They turned off the main road into a narrower street. They passed a school where kids ran around on the green playing fields. There were no chain-link fences, no battered old basketball hoops. Then a shopping mall and a street of restaurants.
“If we turn left here, that takes you to the university,” Aaron said and turned right. Another right turn and then a left, and the car slowed to a crawl and pulled up outside a small house.
God. It was better than the pictures.
“This is mine?”
It was perfect. A sleek, modern design, set in a yard full of shady trees.
Aaron handed him a key. “I’ll bring your bags in.”
Rory’s eyes stung as he walked up the front path. The lawn was a little overgrown compared to the neighbors’ yards, but that was a luxury in itself. Thick green grass. Potted trees on either side of the door. Neat red flowers planted the whole way up the path to the house, bright and fresh. He could hear birdsong.
“You have a vegetable garden in the back, too. The more you grow yourself, the less you have to buy, right?” Aaron lugged a suitcase up the path behind him. “And you can keep a couple of chickens, if you like.”
“Right,” Rory said, a little dazed at the possibility. He unlocked the front door and pushed it open. The small house was light and airy. Louvers set around the ceiling allowed both the light and the breeze to enter. The living room and kitchen were open plan. He could see gleaming appliances and a polished stone countertop. There was a fireplace in the living room, and a big sectional sofa. Nothing looked cheap or like it had been made in a sweatshop.
“Is this a . . . a standard house?”
Aaron nodded, his face falling. “Is it okay? Mr. Lowell doesn’t like to play favorites. In fact, he lives just a couple of houses down in a pretty similar setup.”
“Oh fuck.” Rory sucked in a shaking breath. “Language. Sorry. No, it’s perfect. It’s better than I’d dared hope for.”
Aaron beamed. “I’m glad you like it.”
Rory wanted to cry. His last month in his old bed-sit, he’d had to sleep with his bed shoved up against the door because someone had broken the locks while he’d been at work. Lying there every night, listening to the doorknob rattle and people laughing in the hallway. “Come out and play, neighbor.” He’d been terrified.
And now this. It couldn’t be real.
“It’s perfect,” Rory repeated, gazing around in awe. “It’s just perfect.”
Would it still be perfect once he was sharing it with the man who’d nearly busted his head?
“Get the fuck off me!”
Right up until his lawyer had left, everyone had played nice, including Tate, more or less. But as soon as he’d signed the plea agreement, as soon as Cal Mitchell had shaken his hand, wished him well, and walked out the door, it’d started.
Tate didn’t even know who these guys were. They weren’t cops; their uniforms were wrong. More like doctors in a mental hospital, maybe. Some One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest kinda shit. But they’d barreled into the room, uncuffed him only long enough to pull his hands behind him and slap the cuffs on him again, and shoved him onto the floor. One of them was kneeling on the back of Tate’s neck to keep him down.
“Get the fuck off me!” he yelled again, the noise muffled as his face was pressed into the concrete.
“Shut your mouth, rezzy.”
Tate bucked but couldn’t dislodge the guy. He should have known there was something fucking fake about how nicey-nice and perfect this place was.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” the guy said. “Not pleasant, is it? You’ll learn to behave soon enough.”
“Where’s my lawyer?” Tate shouted. “He said this wasn’t a punishment! He said I’d be okay!”
“You will, rezzy, you will,” the man said. “Just as soon as the chip’s in.”
Tate froze. “The fucking what?”
The man stood up and pulled Tate to his knees. He grinned down at him. “Just a little chip. Goes in the back of your neck and turns you into a nice boy.”
Tate knew about chips. They had them back in Tophet too, if you had the money. Chips to make you lose weight, chips to make you quit smoking, chips to make you a better public speaker. And then there were the black market versions: chips to make you a ruthless killer, chips to make you a shameless whore, chips to make you a card counter. But they were expensive and fucking patchy at best. Which explained the number of fat, smoking stammerers still around the place, right?
“That’s fucking bullshit!”
The man grinned at the other two officials, then narrowed his eyes at Tate. “You kiss with that mouth, rezzy? Your master’s not gonna like hearing language like that when your lips should be around his dick.”
The blood drained out of Tate’s face. “You’re fucking kidding me. This is a fucking joke.”
Master. My master? No. My sponsor. My sponsor! I’m supposed to be a member of the family, not—
God, why had he even fallen for that fucking sales pitch in the first place? Hadn’t he told himself not to get caught up in any of Beulah’s bullshit? Hadn’t he decided it was all a front, all too good to be true?
“Oh, I’m not kidding. Maybe you get a master who likes his dick sucked, maybe you don’t. Maybe you spend the next seven years on your knees, maybe you spend them at a sink washing dishes. Whatever. That’s up to him, though, not you. And I ain’t met anybody who didn’t wind up using their rezzy to get off one way or another.”
“Fuck you,” Tate said. “I don’t suck dick!”
The men laughed.
“If he tells you to, you’ll fucking love it,” the first man said. “You know what this is, rezzy? This is my favorite part of this job. Where I see some vicious, violent piece of shit like you and he swears he’s gonna be different. That he’s gonna keep his pride and his dignity and he’s not gonna let the chip rule him, he’s not gonna become some rezzy robot. And then we stick the chip in him, and you know what? He’s just like every other piece of shit rezzy who went before. Picking up trash and sucking dick and begging to do it all day long, because guess what else? It feels good, rezzy. Feels good when you do what your master says.”
“Fuck off. I don’t believe you.”
One of the other men grinned. “They always say that too.”
“I want to see my lawyer,” Tate managed, his voice hitching.
It couldn’t be true. No way in hell. Cold dread filled him.
“You will,” the first man said. “You’ll see him in a few days, and you’ll be so fucking happy to be a part of the rehabilitation program that you’ll thank him for it. You’ll even thank the cops that arrested you. Good guys, those cops. Makes them feel like they’re doing a worthwhile job when a rezzy apologizes for all the trouble he gave them.”
“Why . . .” Tate sucked in a shallow breath. “Why the fuck are you even telling me this?”
“Mostly to see the look on your face,” the man said. “To see how fucking outraged you are, because you sure as hell won’t be doing anything but smiling once you’re doped up on the chip.”
“I’m sorry,” Tate babbled. “Please, I want to go to trial!” He’d throw himself on the fucking mercy of the court. Tell them what it was like out there, where life was filthy and squalid—not like here, where everything was open and so, so clean—and Tate had been desperate. Not just for himself, but for Emmy. “I want to tell the judge I’m sorry, and—”
“Tell what judge?” the man cut in. “The judge whose new assistant you punched unconscious at the station? You fucked up, rezzy. You came into Beulah, and you fucked up. Now you have to take the consequences. And I promise you, you’ll be happier than you’ve ever been.”
“Even if you are sucking dick,” the second man leered. “Best place for an animal like you, on your knees for a decent man.”
“Groveling,” the third added with a laugh.
Tate’s stomach clenched. He’d had nothing to eat or drink all day except for the weak coffee the cops had given him. Not enough in him to vomit back up but, shit, it was trying. “No . . . I can’t . . . I’m not like that.”
“Hey, it’s not so bad,” the first man said. “That’s the smartest thing about the chip, rezzy. It doesn’t care what you like and what you don’t. It rewards you for doing what your master says. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never sucked dick in your life before. Your master tells you to do it, and doing it is gonna be the best feeling in the world. Best sex of your life, I bet.”
“Impossible. It’s fucking impossible.” Tate couldn’t meet the man’s eyes anymore. He fixed his gaze on the floor. “It’s wrong.”
“What’s that? A moral judgment from the piece of shit who punched a guy just for standing there?” The man reached down and gripped Tate’s hair, twisting his head up. “You could have killed him, you know. It only takes one punch. What if it had been a woman or a child?”
Tate’s voice rasped when he spoke. “I wouldn’t have . . .”
“And why the fuck should I believe that? You’ve earned your punishment, rezzy. Men like you are the reason people in that shithole Tophet are afraid to leave their own homes. You’re like a fucking cancer on society. You need to be cut out.” The man wasn’t grinning anymore. None of them were. “And you should be thankful that in Beulah we don’t answer violence with violence. You should be thankful we’re better than you.”
Better? Tate wrenched his head free, not caring about the pain. These people actually thought they were better? Okay, so hitting that guy had been wrong, but no way in hell did that make this right. Fuck, he’d just wanted to get home, pay off all the money he owed, and move out of the city. Just wanted to be free of fucking debt collectors, free of threats of violence. And everyone said that Beulah didn’t even have prisons . . .
Stupid of him. Unbelievably fucking stupid.
“Please . . .” He swallowed and looked at the floor again. “I’m sorry. Please.”
“That’s good. Begging. Apologizing. You’ll be doing a lot of that over the next seven years, so you might as well get used to it.”
Seven years. Seven. Bad enough that he was losing seven years of his life, but to be living them as someone else entirely . . . Tate couldn’t even begin to wrap his mind around that. He hunched over, shaking his head uselessly.
“Okay.” The man’s voice was softer now, and Tate wondered if that was because they’d broken him enough for one day. “We’re gonna give you a sedative. It will sting a little. You hearing me?”
Tate nodded, tears filling his eyes.
“We’ll walk you out of here, and we’ll transport you to the facility. Tomorrow you’ll get your chip, and after that you’ll go home with your sponsor.”
Oh, back to sponsor now, not master. Back to pretending this is somehow civilized.
Tate flinched as one of the men knelt behind him, shoved his pants down, and jammed a syringe into the fleshy part of his ass.
The drug began to work immediately. Tate slumped forward, but the man caught him and hauled him to his feet. He tried to fight the effects of the drug. He didn’t want to go quietly, didn’t want to go peacefully. This was wrong.
One man on each side of him, arms under his, they walked him out of the station.
Tate stared up at the sky. Blue and free of smog. Kind of pretty, except he couldn’t focus on it. Beulah was really pretty, and everyone was really nice, except for those guys . . . those guys back at the . . . back somewhere. Shadow men.
Where was he going now?
They loaded him into the back of a van, onto a mattress, and Tate sank into it.
The hum of the engine put him to sleep instantly.
Tate fought them when they came for him, but it made no difference. It took four of them to manage it, but in a few minutes they had him strapped facedown to a gurney and were wheeling him into surgery.
The procedure itself was painless. He watched as a nurse slid a needle into the crook of his elbow, and he didn’t remember much else after that. Some pretty colors, some weird dreams, and maybe some people talking. He didn’t know if that was in his head or if he’d actually heard the surgical team talking. He couldn’t remember anything they’d said, and it wasn’t important. Just weird, he’d thought at the time, that he could hear anything at all. A general anesthetic wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He’d had better blackouts on alcohol. The headache after surgery was milder than after a bottle of vodka, though.
He lay awake on the narrow hospital cot and wondered if he should feel any different. Shit, there was a chip in his head. A chip. In his head. Crazy.
And maybe it wasn’t working because he wasn’t thinking any differently than usual. Maybe it was all bullshit. Maybe the technology just didn’t work on him. Maybe he didn’t have the sort of brain that could be rewritten to make him a happy slave.
He wasn’t thinking any differently.
He didn’t want to get on his knees for anyone. Didn’t want to suck anyone’s dick.
Maybe if he played along, if they thought it had worked, maybe he’d be able to get out of here.
Because it hadn’t worked. There was no way in hell that he was a slave. Not now, and not fucking ever.
When he was a kid, he’d had seizures. He’d grown out of them, but they’d been frightening. He’d never known when they would come. And, for years, he’d never trusted that they’d stopped. He wasn’t like the other kids in his neighborhood. Didn’t think he was invincible. Never did drugs to lose control, to get out of his own head. He hated that sensation, that weird dizzy prickliness that preceded a sudden loss of consciousness. Strange electrical misfires somewhere in his brain that he’d been held ransom to. It wasn’t until he hadn’t had a seizure in years that he’d even started to drink alcohol.
Maybe it was what was saving him now. That brain of his that never worked exactly the way it should. Because he didn’t feel any different.
Fuck Beulah, and fuck their legal system, and fuck their chip. They hadn’t gotten into his head at all. He forced himself not to smile and give the game away.
“All right,” said the surgeon who came to inspect the stitches in the back of his neck. “That seems to be healing well. How do you feel?”
“Fine,” said Tate, keeping his voice respectful. Happy slave, happy slave.
“Good.” The surgeon smiled. “Let’s activate the chip.”
Aaron was as good as his word with the groceries, meaning that Rory woke up on the first day in his new house—he still couldn’t stop the thrill of excitement that ran through him every time the realization struck that he had a house—to kitchen cupboards packed with enough basics to see him through the next few days. He made scrambled eggs and toast, simply because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to afford the luxury of eggs, or any fresh food, really. Produce was too expensive in Tophet even if his debts hadn’t been bleeding him dry.
He ate standing at the sink, staring out into his back garden—his back garden—and decided that yes, he’d get chickens. He’d figure out how to build a coop to keep them out of the vegetable garden and everything.
The only dark cloud on his horizon was the . . . What had Lowell called Rory’s assailant? The rezzy. Because sure, maybe the system worked. And sure, maybe Rory wanted to do his part to be a good citizen and help rehabilitate the guy, but to have him in his house? God. He didn’t even know why the guy had hit him. He wasn’t sure he’d ask, either, because if he’d driven the guy to violence just by standing there, imagine what talking to him might do. Rory would be afraid to wander around his own house if his assailant was sharing it with him.
Which one of them was getting the prison sentence, exactly? Because it felt as though he was being punished for something that wasn’t his fault at all.
He sighed, left his dishes in the sink, and went to try to reclaim some of his prior good mood by inspecting the house again.
Last night, eating takeout, he and Aaron had poked around a little. There was the main bedroom, a spare bedroom that he decided he could use as an office, and a smaller, narrower room behind that. Aaron told him it was a storage closet, which was hard to believe since Rory had rented rooms that were smaller than that. It would be perfect for the rezzy, Aaron had said. But a narrow, windowless room? It seemed a little too much like a cell to him, but then Aaron had pointed out that the rezzy was an outsider as well. It would seem more like a palace than a prison to him. And it wasn’t too small to fit a bed.
The house also had a neat and tidy laundry room with a new washing machine. No dryer though.
“Sunlight,” Aaron had told him with a grin. “Why waste power on something the sun will do for free?”
Rory liked that. He liked the marriage of technology and simplicity here. He liked that it was second nature for people in Beulah to think about their impact on the environment. And a part of him even liked the idea that they thought people could be rehabilitated, educated instead of punished, even though he really didn’t want to be a part of the process in his assailant’s case. He liked it in the abstract at least.
Which, Rory supposed, would be the first test of whether he would embrace his new life as a citizen of Beulah or if he’d remain an outsider at heart.
So he’d do his best to help rehabilitate the man, to put aside his old prejudices. He’d do his best to trust the system that had delivered such a high standard of living to the citizens of Beulah. This place had given him a fresh start, hadn’t it? He could at least try to show the same courtesy to his assailant.
A fresh start.
All it took was a couple of taps to the doctor’s keyboard. This wasn’t sci-fi, just an ordinary medical procedure. It was practically routine, except for the part where it was supposed to turn him into a slave. Deceptively ordinary, almost infuriatingly ordinary. To do something like this to a person . . . It should be dramatic, shocking, terrifying to see. But it wasn’t. All the terror was trapped inside Tate’s head.
“Almost there,” said the surgeon.
It didn’t . . . didn’t hurt, but he was aware of the strangest sensation of falling, like he felt sometimes in that weird place just before sleep. Like he had to reach out desperately to hold on but there was nothing there.
And then it was done.
He was there, but he wasn’t.
His consciousness, his self-awareness, the part of him that translated to a snarky voice in his head, all still there. All there but so far away.
Not . . . not at the front anymore.
“You may feel disoriented,” the surgeon said.
Tate blinked at the man. There was a fog in his head.
There was a fog and . . . and closed doors. He rattled the doorknobs. The real Tate was just behind the doors, but they were locked. Locked. And receding into the fog.
Lost. He was lost and afraid.
He sank to his knees.
Less frightening on the floor. Not as far to fall.
No. It was less frightening because the surgeon had told him what to do. Until then, he hadn’t known. He was still lost but it was okay as long as someone told him what to do.
The distant part of his mind, the part that was still his, fought for a moment, pushed futilely against those locked doors. Couldn’t get through to him.
He looked up at the surgeon.
“Good boy,” the man said, turning from his keyboard. He patted Tate on the head.
Warmth spread through him.
Somewhere through the fog, he knew this was wrong. He knew this was the chip, but it didn’t matter. His own consciousness had been locked away. He had to listen to someone; otherwise, there’d just be nothing. He couldn’t let himself be nothing. He couldn’t. He had to hold on to this new feeling or lose himself entirely.
“You did a bad thing,” the man said, patting his head again. “But you’re very sorry now.”
“Yes,” he agreed, relieved.
“Take your clothes off, Tate.”
He froze for a second, just a second. No longer than the space of a heartbeat. Then he tugged his shirt over his head, the pull of the stitches in the back of his neck breaking him out in gooseflesh. He lifted himself up far enough to shove his loose pants down, almost tangling himself up in his hurry to get them off. Then knelt there, expectant and hopeful and so fucking pleased that he’d done the right thing.
“Now, if your head hurts, it’s because you’re not doing something right. You’re thinking the wrong things or you’re doing the wrong thing or there’s something you ought to be doing that you’re not. These are like hunger pains, Tate. You need to listen to what your body is telling you and learn how to avoid the pain. Do you understand?”
“Very good, Tate.” The doctor spun his chair so he faced his computer and recorded something into a form. “You’re taking to this very well. Most everyone responds positively to simple commands after the procedure, but once it escalates to things that skirt the edges of propriety, things that people find humiliating or degrading, malfunction—pushback—becomes more common. Tell me you have a small dick.”
His eye twitched, but then his mouth opened. “I have a small dick.” How could he feel so horrible and so relieved at the same time?
“Yes, yes. You’re doing very well.” More typing. The doctor’s voice was cool and clinical, but there was a lizardlike quality to it too, a sort of lazy, hungry pleasure that simultaneously disgusted Tate and made him so, so happy. “All right, now I want you to crawl across the floor to that table there.” He pointed at a medical tray on wheels, draped in that antiseptic blue paper.
“How did that feel? Be honest.”
The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. “I hate it. I want more.”
Tap tap tap went the keyboard. “Yes, that’s normal. All to be expected. Now, if those last few actions have a four percent malfunction rate in initial tests, this next one has a twenty percent chance of malfunction. Of failure, Tate.”
The words twisted somewhere in his gut. He didn’t want to fail. He wanted to please the man. He wanted the man’s praise to deaden that abortive knocking in the back of his head. To silence the part of him that was still screaming and searching for a way out.
“It’s not really your fault, although you’ll feel like it is. Honestly, it’s just a matter of human nature that the self-preservation instinct is one of the hardest for the chip to override. Far more difficult than the need we all feel to preserve our dignity—a much more modern concern, you understand.”
Tate listened avidly, but he didn’t understand at all. He just wanted to do well. To be good.
“Stand up, Tate.” The doctor smiled. “Now take the cover off and tell me what you see.”
He obeyed. A scalpel gleamed on the metal tray. “A . . . a blade.”
“Good. Pick it up.”
The metal was cold in his fingers.
“You have two choices, Tate,” the doctor said. He had the kind of voice you’d hear on those old hypnotize-yourself-at-home sound files. “A scalpel is just a tool. It serves a single purpose: to cut. Human flesh, specifically. But like any tool, it can be turned to another purpose. To harm rather than to heal. If you wanted to, you could hurt me with that.”
He stared at the scalpel in his hand. His heart clenched.
“It’s a tool, Tate,” the doctor repeated. “You’ve picked it up, so now you must use it. Two choices.”
The doctor, who’d humiliated him, who’d degraded him.
For a moment, rage welled inside him. He gripped the scalpel tightly and imagined what it would be like to shove it into the doctor’s gut. Or to slice it across his throat in a sudden, sharp motion. But as soon as he saw it in his mind’s eye—the awful spray of arterial blood arcing across the room—it sickened him beyond anything he’d ever felt before. Not only the blood but the betrayal. And what was worse, he didn’t even know if it was his old self—his old self who did have morals, really, who didn’t want to hurt anybody, not ever—or his new one, resistant to ever causing a master harm. God, no, he couldn’t hurt this man. He needed this man.
Tate turned the blade inward.
“Just there next to your groin, if you please,” the doctor said, smirking.
He pressed the blade against his inner thigh. Drew it across the skin. The pain was sharp and biting. The blood welled up dark and thin, streaking down his leg. The relief was instantaneous.
“Oh, you are a perfect little pet, aren’t you? You’ll do very well, Tate. Your seven years will pass in dream.” The doctor smiled. Typed one last thing into Tate’s file, then hit Print. The 3-D printer on the shelf whirred to life and spat out what looked like a pair of inch-thick plastic circles. Wrist cuffs, he realized, as the doctor buckled them around Tate’s forearms. They locked into place, their seams solidifying into a single, continuous circle. “These let everyone know your status and can be scanned to reveal all of the information I’ve recorded about you here. Why you’re a part of the program. Your sentence. Your scores. Who owns you now: the man you hit, that immigrant man. I almost wish I’d been at the station the other day. Maybe then you would have hit me, hmm?”
Tate flinched despite the praise. The thought of hitting the doctor—of hitting anyone—was abhorrent. Inhuman.
“Then I could have you all to myself. Seven years of you instead of a day. Seven years of you naked at my feet. Wouldn’t that be nice? You could greet me at the door after work every evening like a good little pet . . . Ah, that would be the life.” He shook his head.
Tate placed the scalpel back on the tray and dropped to his knees again. He peered up anxiously at the doctor, and the man’s delighted smile warmed him.
“Ah, well, one more trick for the road, eh, pet? Wipe your hand through that blood on your leg like a good lad and jerk off your tiny cock for me. It’s not strictly a part of the standardized postimplant tests, but you’ll indulge an old man, won’t you?”
He was shocked at the vehemence of the thought. He pushed it away. He was being good, so good. His hand shook as he wiped the cut on his thigh, coating his palm in hot, dark blood.
“That’s it,” the doctor coaxed.
Yes, Tate liked the sound of that. Liked the pleasure coiled in the man’s voice. Liked knowing he was satisfying the man’s lizard hunger. Tate let out a sigh as he wrapped his hand around his cock and gave it a tentative stroke. The hot, tight wetness of his hand felt good, especially if he closed his eyes and blocked out the red. His cock thickened.
“That’s it,” the doctor said again.
His breath caught at the doctor’s tone. So pleased with him, so proud. He grew harder.
“It feels good, doesn’t it, to do what you’re told?”
“Y-yes.” He released himself for a second and swiped his hand through the blood again. Gripped his shaft and began to stroke.
“Almost a sexual pleasure, isn’t it? You may notice yourself getting the occasional erection in response to following orders. You mustn’t tell your new master why. You mustn’t tell him anything about any of this, you understand? As far as anyone else knows, the chips are purely to ensure you don’t try to escape or use violence against him. For both your safety and his, you understand? You must never tell anyone outside of this building the true extent of the behavior modifications we have programmed you with.”
Tate didn’t quite understand, but it felt good to agree. The sudden rush of pleasure made him dizzy. “Yes.”
“You’ll find that if you do try to talk about the chip, it will feel bad. If you try to go against the chip, it will feel bad. Very bad. And it’s far better to feel good, isn’t it?”
He opened his eyes, nodding quickly. “Yes. Yes, sir.”
“Tell me what the chip really does, Tate.”
He opened his mouth. Tried to push the words out but couldn’t. Not pain exactly, but the edge of it, like the twinge of a strained muscle warning against further exertion. He closed his mouth again.
The doctor’s smile widened. “Good. What a quick study you are, Tate. Now, you mustn’t be embarrassed to tell people what you did, how you hurt a man.”
Tate’s rhythm faltered. God, he’d hurt someone.
“Keep going, that’s a good lad.” The doctor’s voice was soothing. “People are very interested in knowing about such things. It is very rare for most citizens to even come into contact with someone who has committed a crime. When you are asked, you will answer in a polite, respectful tone and tell them how sorry you are and how glad you are that you are being rehabilitated. You are glad, aren’t you, Tate?”
“Yes,” he gasped. He was suddenly desperate to show the doctor how grateful he was and how good it felt. The shallow wound on his thigh was already drying, but Tate smeared what blood he could find over his palm again. Wrapped his fingers back around his cock. “Thank you!”
The doctor smiled at him. “So clever, Tate. Your master is a lucky man. Other than the broken nose, that is.”
Guilt bit at Tate. “I’m sorry!”
“Of course you are,” the doctor said. “You’re a better person now. I am very pleased at the change in you, and your master will be pleased, as well. That feels good to know, doesn’t it?”
The pleasure swept back in and drowned the guilt, carrying Tate over the edge. He came with a groan, blood and cum seeping through his fingers. He panted, holding his hand up and staring at it. He was bleeding?
I’m fucking bleeding.
Then the moment of horror vanished.
“Good boy,” the doctor said, his voice low with pleasure.
Tate smiled with pride.
“Next time, no tears,” the doctor said. “Just a little adjustment, and it won’t be a problem.”
Tate raised his clean hand to his face and was surprised to feel the dampness there.
When had that happened?
And why had it happened when he was happier now than he’d ever been in his life?
That afternoon, despite Jericho Lowell’s insistence that he take time off from the job he hadn’t even started yet, Rory walked to the train station by the university and bought a transport card. The light-rail system was another marvel of Beulah’s: it was cheap, reliable, and energy efficient. In less than twenty minutes, Rory was in the center of the city, wondering how to find the Hall of Justice. He wanted to at least stop in, get his bearings, and possibly meet a few colleagues before he officially started his work.
The day was too nice to rush, though, and Rory found himself detouring through a large park. There was a lake in the middle, with rowboats and people sitting around in the shade laughing and talking as they ate their lunches. Cyclists made use of the many smooth concrete paths that cut through the landscaped greenery.
Even in the center of the city there wasn’t a single building that appeared to be more than four of five levels high. Certainly none tall enough to keep the sunlight from reaching the streets. Many of the buildings had roof gardens, practical in terms of insulation and pleasing to the eye. There was no smog in the air, no haze hanging over the city. No snarling traffic, and no continuous wail of sirens in the distance. It was beautiful here.
The weather was perfect. The day was warm, and the breeze was light. A few clouds chased across the brilliant sky.
The Hall of Justice, when he found it, was an impressive building, with a domed roof and columns reminiscent of another time. The building’s grandeur was softened by the sheer number of trees and shrubs lining the path from the street. Purple blossoms, not garbage, littered the ground. The doors of the building opened into a large high-ceilinged foyer. Rory was reminded of museums and old libraries. Or a church. The place seemed venerable, not like any other government building he’d ever been in, where workers jostled for office space and people waited on hard, plastic chairs to be seen.
But even justice was different in Beulah, wasn’t it? It was Rory’s understanding that the courts dealt mostly with civil matters—in the interpretation and application of legislation. Criminal law, in Beulah, was almost entirely unnecessary. Almost. His nose still hurt, after all.
He looked up at the words set high on the foyer wall, carved in the stone: Rehabilitation through Restitution.
“Can I help you, sir?” the older woman behind the reception desk asked.
“I’m Rory James,” he said. “I’m Mr. Lowell’s new assistant.”
“Oh, of course,” the woman said, smiling and extending her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. We’re all so sorry about what happened! Let me take you through. You’ll be needing this.” She opened a drawer and pulled out a lanyard with an ID card attached. “Mr. Lowell said he thought you might come by, even though he told you not to. This is yours. You can use the card to swipe in anytime, and it also gets you a discount at the coffee shop across the street, which is much more useful in my opinion. I’m Margaret, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, taking the card and slipping the lanyard around his neck. “This is a great building.”
“It’s very old,” Margaret told him. “Many of the government properties are, which makes them terribly expensive to heat in the winter and cool in the summer, but you can’t just knock down all of your history, can you?”
“No,” he agreed, following her deeper into the building.
Margaret gave him a running commentary as they went: the courtrooms, public facilities, and press rooms on the ground floor, the stairs to the basement where the records were kept for twelve months before being moved out to a different facility, then up the stairs to the second level where the justices and their staff worked.
“Now, each justice runs his department a little differently,” Margaret told him in a low voice. “Mr. Foster makes his staff bring in their own pens if they ask for too many! But you’ve been very lucky with Mr. Lowell. His staff speaks very highly of him. I’ve never heard a bad word.”
Rory was glad to hear that. Also, he had the impression that Margaret knew absolutely everything that went on in the place. Which was a relief because Rory didn’t know much at all. He’d gotten this job with only the most basic understanding of the legal system in Beulah—whatever he could pick up online mostly. But then, it wasn’t like the ways of Beulah were well-known in the outside world. There was a lot of speculation that Beulah was a secretive, closed society set so far apart from everything else that it couldn’t be right because it was so different. Rory wondered now how much of that was jealousy. What if Beulah did have all the answers? What if it really was possible to build a happy, clean, productive society? What if Tophet and the rest of the world just didn’t want to admit all the ways they had fucked up?
From what Rory had seen, Beulah was genuinely perfect. He felt like he was in one of those old martial arts films where a lowly pilgrim would ascend a towering mountain, seeking the teachings of a wiser race. Please, I’ve come so far from such abject beginnings. Let me walk among you and learn your ways.
Rory had been nervous about coming here, not knowing anything much at all and half convinced that the pictures in his immigration package had been lies, and it was a relief to find that everyone had been friendly and welcoming so far. He’d been afraid he’d be treated like an outsider from the start, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, everyone here recognized he was new, but that only meant they put in the extra effort to nurture and guide him.
“These are Mr. Lowell’s offices,” Margaret said. “Now, when you’re here officially, make sure you grab a coffee with me one morning.”
If it weren’t for the fact that everyone in Beulah was so damn friendly, Rory might have thought she was coming on to him. “I will, thanks.”
He took a breath—fresh start, fresh start—and pushed the door open.
Aaron was on the other side, mug of coffee in hand.
“I knew it!” he said with a laugh.
“He’s here?” a male voice called from somewhere out of sight. Lowell’s voice, Rory was pretty sure.
“You betcha, Mr. Lowell!” Aaron replied. He held the mug out to Rory. “We had a little office wager about whether you’d come in today.”
“You did?” Rory took the mug of coffee, dumbfounded. Obviously Aaron had won that bet, since he’d made Rory a coffee and all. “Who bet against me?”
Aaron laughed, clutching at his slim waist as if he were going to burst at the seams. “Well, that’s the thing. Nobody did! Mr. Lowell eventually did the honors just to round out the pool. He’s buying us all lunch.”
The man himself stuck his head out from around his office door. “I’m buying, Aaron, but you’re going to collect it.”
“Happy to, sir!”
Lowell shook his head and smiled fondly at the intern. Then at Rory. “Well, since you can’t be trusted to stay at home and rest up like I told you to, what would you like for lunch?”
“I, uh,” Rory stuttered. Back in the outside world, he’d liked the food truck two blocks down, where he could get tacos dirt cheap. He wasn’t sure what they ate in Beulah. Did their commitment to environmentalism extend to them all being vegetarian? “I’m not sure, sir. What do you suggest?”
“I suggest you have a look in Aaron’s drawer,” Lowell said with a wink. “If there’s a takeout place within a five-block radius and Aaron doesn’t have their menu, I’ll be struck down where I stand.”
Aaron shrugged. “He’s got me.” He gestured toward a small but sturdy-looking office desk that was tucked into the corner of the room. Which, sure enough, had a top drawer packed full of takeout menus. “Go on. Just take the pile. I’ll come by before lunch, and you can tell me what you want.”
Arms full of flyers, Rory wandered, bewildered but blessed, into the first day of his new life.
Creepy – beautifully written – absolutely gripping!
When you read a book like this, you think to yourself: it would be so simple for the world to be a completely, bone-chillingly horrifying place...Yep, you should read this.
...I couldn't stop reading. The story is as compelling as it's frightening, it dives into the dark end of the human soul, and I had to ask myself more than once, how will they get through this? If you are looking for a dark read, this is the book for you.
Interesting, dark, twisted, gripping & way-too-hot. I was hooked from the very beginning...
...what I like best about these authors; they individualize their characters, give them their own voice, sometimes they are humorous, sometimes peansive and sometimes they’ll break your heart, usually all of the above.