Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Atonement Path

To think we used to put young criminals in jail.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to eavesdrop. Or should I say eaveswatch? What is the comparable term for using one’s visual sense in a surreptitious fashion? Dining establishments are a superb venue for such observations.

But it is true, no? What good could their example do if they were shut away from public view?

Ah. I am being rude. My name is Andrew Blankenship. Esquire, in the interest of completeness.

A pleasure to meet you, John. Is my initial impression correct, that you are a visitor to our capital city? When one sees close observation of a walker on the Atonement Path, that is the natural assumption. Citizens rarely scrutinize them so. I fear sometimes we take them for granted, which would be a terrible transgression against the principle of atonement itself. For if they are not noticed, how can their walk be honored?

I do not expect you to understand this immediately. After all, you are a traveler in this land, and grew up among traditions we have left behind. You are a scholar? No? Here on business, then? Of course, and after you have transacted your business you immerse yourself in the culture of a foreign land. The sign of a true traveler and not a tourist. You have chosen an excellent wine, by the way, one of our best. Clearly you are a man of cultured tastes, as I perceive myself to be.

Yes, it is easy to see them as pariahs. Natural, of course, for one unaccustomed to our practice of justice. Their dress, their demeanor, their physical appearance, all are different from the ordinary citizen. This is quite purposeful, and not at all intended to be punitive. If you are interested—as I believe you are—I would be more than happy to represent the practice to you in all its complexities.

Excellent. Permit me to be your guide. This subject is central to my interests as a practitioner of the law, and I confess a personal enthusiasm for it as well. Forthwith:

What do we desire from the criminal?

We must not be motivated by revenge, for that is a relic of savage times and surely improper as a function of a civilized state.

We must free ourselves from the desire to punish, for punishment only teaches the recipient what it is like to be on the weak side of a disequilibrium of power, and inculcates a desire to find a new disequilibrium in which he is on the strong side. I say he, because there is no gainsaying the data. Most of those who become subjects of our practice of justice are male.

Too, both revenge and punishment are things done to the criminal. The question at hand asks what we want from the criminal.

The answer, we have found, contains two parts. We wish the criminal not to commit another crime, and we wish for recompense, remorse. Atonement. Yes?

I am glad you agree.

Then there arises the question of how justice must be administered differently to children, in recognition of their incomplete development both cognitive and emotional. In most cases juvenile criminals—and we, the culture charged with their care—are best served by diversions into service, therapy, and work. These need not concern us since they are broadly similar across our culture and yours. We come now to the difference.

We are primates, no? Barely differentiated from our lower cousins, and certainly still predisposed to their tribalism and violence. Thus we have laws, and consequences for breaking them. But laws are for adults. For hundreds of years, enlightened cultures have recognized they cannot be applied to children the same way.

Yet children do commit crimes, particularly those children in the fraught territory we call adolescence, when their capacity to destroy outstrips their capacity to ideate the consequences of their destruction. This is a problem no society before ours has ever been able to address with fairness, care, and the nurturing strength at the core of any civilized practice of justice. A shocking crime committed by a child is a deep disruption to a society’s sense of itself. It forces us to examine what we might have done to help create an environment in which such a horror might become first thinkable and then real.

It was for these children that we created the Atonement Path. And yes, for us as well.

Who am I to refuse the offer of another glass? Thank you.

What is done with adults who commit similar crimes? That is a bit far afield from our topic, my friend. The administration of justice to adults is quite incommensurate with our practices in juvenile fields. Also I fear you will find it less interesting, since in this area we have not been so innovative as in our development of the Atonement Path. Shall we—I beg your pardon?

You wish to speak to a walker on the Path? I suppose. Shall I accompany you? Not as your minder, no, of course not. Our government does not operate in such a way. Whom it wishes to observe, it observes by means of passive surveillance, which I am sure you have seen is quite pervasive. I meant to help surmount difficulties in communication, as the discourse community of walkers on the Path is quite idiosyncratic. Misunderstandings are common. You will wish to ask questions that walkers on the Path are not permitted to answer, and it is easy to frighten them. If I can, I will help redirect your inquiries onto more profitable paths.

Let us see . . . You. Come over here.

• • • •

I am speaking into your recording device because that is what you asked me to do. I do it willingly and hope it will be of assistance to you.

We are known by the date we chose the Atonement Path, with further identifiers appended to denote how many others made the choice on that day, and where. I am 92209-Sigma-Boston.

How old was I? I do not wish to be disagreeable, but we are taught that question undermines accountability and we are not permitted to answer it. I can say I committed my crime thirty-six years ago. I am among the older walkers of the Path.

I committed sexual violence upon a younger child using objects to substitute for my undeveloped genital function. I inflicted pain and torture on her using other objects. I then tried to kill her with my hands but found that too difficult so I used a plastic bag.

I was male.

Have I been agreeable and contrite?

• • • •

Most of them, as I have said, were male. The truism about violence and the Y chromosome appears to apply even in enlightened civilizations. In this way, as others, the Atonement Path seeks not to make an example of the criminal but provide an example to all. As part of preparation for the Atonement Path, markers of biological sex are elided. The penis and testes are excised, as are breasts. Vaginas are sutured following clitoridectomy. Genetic therapies eliminate other markers including hair growth and developments in facial and pelvic bone structure. Thus walkers on the Path are freed from the tyrannies of gender both internalized and imposed.

It is also true that few of them reach such an age as your interlocutor. The burden of their devotion is too heavy for most to carry into later years. One does not embark on the Atonement Path unwillingly. A choice is offered. There are diversions. The children find them unpleasant. Once they understand their options, the vast majority select the Atonement Path. Of the others I cannot say more.

Initially we provided the choice of the Atonement Path only for those young offenders convicted of the worst crimes. As a society, we conduct an ongoing conversation regarding which offenses should qualify for the Path. Currently there are more than in the first years of the Path’s establishment, as we have found it profitable—in the sense of the commonweal, not financially, of course—to broaden the circumstances under which an offender may choose to embark on the Path. I will be frank here and admit that there is a danger of broadening those circumstances too much, but oversight of the practice is quite rigorous and any missteps will doubtless be corrected quickly. Some regrettably zealous voices in our enforcement communities have advocated selection of the Path even for vagrancy and theft, but I feel certain these authoritarian fantasies will continue to be treated as the extremist jeremiads they are. As a society, we have achieved a healthy balance, and our committed citizenry will see that this continues.

Now then: What is it about the Atonement Path we find superior to other choices?

As I said, it provides an example to all. One can be free of the pressures of socialization, free of imperatives to adhere to fashion or choose a sect. Walkers on the Atonement Path are freed to serve fellow human beings, to subject their personal desires to the notion of the common good. In that subjection, we see the gravity of the offense and we are reaffirmed in our commitment to our principles. We see ourselves more clearly, understand the virtues of the civilization we have created.

They have much to teach us. If we forgave, and forgot—is that not your saying?—we would not learn.

Let me rephrase. I have forgiven them. All of them. They have undertaken a great work on our behalf and for that I am grateful. They atone for their transgressions, and we observe and take inspiration from their selflessness. Any human can serve, and some few devote their lives to it. But walkers on the Path are remade in the image of their service, cannot conceive of themselves apart from it. This annihilation of self by a sense of greater purpose, has it not always been sought by visionaries? It is not the ideal to let go of the attachment to the self and instead understand yourself as an instrument of something greater?

You are correct. There are those who do not forgive, and are unable or unwilling to let go of the desire for revenge. Abuse, the infliction of pain and humiliation, these are known. Understand, it is against the law—though to be frank, rarely prosecuted—to abuse those on the Path. Kindness is not illegal, but is frowned upon. Killing them is considered a kindness.

Yes. I do intervene when I see cruelty. This has made me something of a pariah in certain decadent circles, where those on the path are—this is regrettable but again, I will be candid—they are seen as playthings. Or scapegoats. There are those who use the transgressions committed by walkers on the Path as a pretext to indulge their baser desires. This is our civilization’s failure, and we must work to rectify it. For my part, I have a higher conception of the Path. I do not indulge in barbarities, or sordid shames. To me, the walkers on the Atonement Path are to be celebrated rather than reviled. But in this I too fail my own ideals, for the perfection of the Path can only be achieved when one does not acknowledge those who walk it at all. One sees, and knows, and takes into oneself the lesson—but one neither helps nor harms.

Now that is an interesting question. I am a lawyer, not a demographer, so I don’t know exactly how many of them there are. Since the Path is available only to those who have committed certain offenses, the number of walkers is limited.

You wish to talk to another? Yes, your first walker on the Path was quite atypical. Out in the street there will likely be others.

Let us see . . . there.

• • • •

I am 070443-Rho-Boston. How may I assist you?

It is difficult for me to answer that question because to speak of something as the worst, I must first admit that the treatment I receive on the Atonement Path can be bad. This is not the case. Any action a citizen performs toward a walker on the Path is a reminder of the contrition we owe. Therefore it cannot be bad. Therefore I cannot say what was the worst.

You are asking me to think in a way I cannot think. I do not want to fail you, and if I have, I will be grateful to make redress.


Yes, at times I have experienced events that would be characterized as crimes were I a citizen.

I have not counted them and probably do not remember all of them, as they would not have seemed like bad things to me. I am thankful for each of them. How else am I to be reminded of my commitment to atone?

• • • •

The interview is taking a turn for the distasteful, no? There is so much to commend the Atonement Path, I would be simply sick if you came away with a negative impression. May I suggest you ask the walker about the generosity of our citizens, who feed them and ensure they have shelter at night? Or the walkers’ own contributions to the common good through their donated labor—not to mention the example of selflessness they set? Or perhaps—

Ah. I see. Of course, a complete picture is naturally to be sought after. Very well then, if you wish the walker to understand the question, ask the last event which served as a reminder of the walker’s commitment to the Path.

• • • •

Thank you. Now I understand.

A citizen approached me in the street and required me to accompany him. I went with him and he did what men like him do. I thanked him for refocusing me on my devotion to the Atonement Path. He made a donation afterward, which is customary but not mandatory, and I used my allotted portion to purchase a meal from a vendor permitted to serve such as I am. I was weak and in pain, so I went to one of the permitted rest areas until another citizen required my assistance. This citizen wished me to carry her belongings for some distance, a task I was happy to perform.

When? I do not know. It was a day. This was a day. Others will come. I walk the Path.

I do not understand what you mean when you speak of me as if I am not free. I am not unfree. I am bound only by my knowledge that I must atone. Anyone who offered me what they thought of as freedom would believe they were offering me a gift. If I were to accept it, I would be renouncing the Path, for if I am worthy of a gift, am I not a citizen like you? This is manifestly not the case.

My offense? A child in my care died as a result of my inattention. I allowed myself to be distracted by the attentions of a lover and the child drowned in the bathtub.

I have walked the Path for a year and six months.

You have not spoken in some time. Have I failed to offer you the assistance you require? Have I been humble and—

Yes, I know the hotel you describe.

Yes, I will accompany you there.

• • • •

Sir. John. Surely you don’t mean to . . . this is distressing. Unnecessary. Let the child walk the Path. After our conversation, I had understood you to be a man of intellectual curiosity, a seeker after truth, not a . . .

A tourist.

You will not reconsider?

No, of course not. Such as you never do. I confess myself quite appalled at your mendacity—and perhaps at my own naïveté as well. We idealists are ever taken advantage of by cynics. You will please excuse me. I have a most pressing engagement. We must no longer be seen together.

• • • •

Have I been agreeable? Have I been humble and contrite?

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Alex Irvine

Alex Irvine. A middle-aged white guy wearing a blue and orange winter coat, leaning against basalt columns.

Alex Irvine’s original fiction includes Anthropocene Rag, Buyout, The Narrows, Mystery Hill, A Scattering of Jades, and several dozen short stories. He has also written graphic novels and comics (The Comic Book Story of Baseball, The Far Side of the Moon, Daredevil Noir), games (Marvel Avengers Alliance, Space Punks, The Walking Dead: Road to Survival), and a variety of licensed projects including the best-selling artifactual “metanovel” New York Collapse. Originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan, he lives in South Portland, Maine. Find out more at or on Twitter @alexirvine.