Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Ministry of the Eye

Mornings were queues and cigarettes.

Queues for the underground turnstiles and queues for the train, queues for stale bagels and queues for lukewarm coffee at the kiosk outside the station. By the time he queued up at the west gate of the pit, Alexander Gerst — tall and grizzled at forty-five, slope-shouldered and running slowly to fat — was lucky if he wasn’t already halfway through his daily ration of tobacco. He rolled the first one as soon as he woke up and hauled himself out of the corona of Janet’s warmth, smoked it while sitting on the edge of the bed, and mashed it out in the ashtray on the night stand. Then a cold shower and a quick check on Sam, this maybe the best moment of Gerst’s day, standing there in the quiet of his son’s bedroom, breathing of the small boy’s calm and of his warm sleep, as the city bestirred itself around him like a warren of ants. Sometimes it was all Gerst could do to tear himself away, roll another one, and smoke it on the three-block walk to the underground station. Then the chronic irritant of the subway, the press of the platform and, worse yet, the crowded carriage: the stink of too many people, the jerk and clang of couplings as the battered cars leaned into the curves, and the flying bars of light and shadow as another train plunged by in the tunnel, the ashen faces opposite blurring into a single hurtling smear, like the strangled visage of the city itself.

Gerst was already exhausted by the time he emerged from the station. And today was worse than usual. Today brought a lowering sky and a thin, stinging rain, icy against his face and underneath the collar of his woolen overcoat. It was all he could do not to loosen his tie. The goddamn thing was already choking him and the morning not even really begun. Instead, Gerst took shelter beneath the awning of a paycheck-advance dodge and rolled number three. When he was done he flipped it into the frothing brown gutter. And why shouldn’t he? Gerst thought as he wound his way across the clogged street to queue up for coffee.

It was an ugly place, Acheron, a gray place. Crumbling brick walk-ups crowded the narrow thoroughfares. A clamor of rust-eaten cars, sagging panel trucks, and taxis thronged the age-fissured pavement, belching noxious clouds of exhaust. A fug of sewage steamed from the sluggish black river that snaked through the shipping district. And always, at the center of the encircling labyrinth of streets, pulsing like the diseased red heart of the city, seethed the pit.

Against this, frail and stunted, caught in glimpses by those few who had the eyes to see it: beauty. And it was beauty that startled Gerst as he turned away from the kiosk, cheap coffee scalding his tongue: the iridescent swirl of motor oil in a rain-spattered pool, fugitive and ephemeral, color in a colorless place. He stared at it for a heartbeat, and then the rat-faced man behind the counter was shouting at him to move on, he was holding up the line.

“What?” he demanded. “You got a problem with the coffee?”

“No, the coffee’s fine,” Gerst said.

Rat-face merely shook his head, waving his hand in dismissal. When Gerst turned back to the rain, that sheen of color was gone. The puddle was just a puddle again, and he felt the loss of something as the momentum of the street swept him up. It carried him through the forsaken zone surrounding the pit and deposited him ten minutes later at the west gate: a complex network of gates actually, designed with the ministry’s usual efficiency to direct the mobs of pitmen in their insulated blue coveralls — it was shift change down below — and the host of nine-to-fivers like himself who staffed the buildings above. Gerst queued up — again — flashed his ID, muttering “Citizen” to the sentries manning the gate, and slipped into the massive facility beyond, a maze of fourteen-foot fencing topped by coils of concertina wire and anchored by sniper towers. He would have to queue up and flash his ID twice more before he gained the ministry itself, a sprawl of squat soot-streaked brick buildings. In the meantime, wreckage, a blasted wasteland of cinders and iron patrolled by men with dogs and automatic weapons. Here vast heaps of chopped wood, there towering mounds of glittering coal — fuel for the ravenous furnace of the pit — and far in the distance, away to the east, the intake center where the damned arrived every hour, spilling hooded and shackled from cramped semis and cattle cars, to be herded by men with electric prods into the mouth of the abyss itself. The acrid reek of smoke burned in the air, and the miasma of human agony, a stench of blood and charred bone and screams.

By contrast, Gerst’s building exuded the musty odors of floor wax and yellowing files. A deep, pervasive silence reigned there, unbroken but for the constant hum of the fluorescent bars suspended high above. Gerst flashed his ID for the final time at the building’s checkpoint. Then he was inside, plodding down a crowded tiled corridor. By the time Gerst found his cubby and shucked his coat, a woman — a gray, affectless specimen of the sex with whom he had never exchanged a word — had already arrived with a wheeled cart piled high with four-by-eight inch punch cards. Gerst would spend the rest of the day sliding them into the nine color-coded slots in his desk, each a different shade of red. The distinctions were subtle (they ran from rust to dried blood) and the work demanded his full attention. But today, preoccupied with that swirl of color on the puddle, Gerst couldn’t concentrate. Keller, in the next cubicle, poked his head up.

“Lunch?”

“Maybe,” Gerst said, reaching for another card. But it was no good. The coffee sat sour on his stomach. His mouth tasted of stale nicotine. His fingers trembled as he matched each card to its slot, and there was something obscurely unpleasant about the buzz of the hidden teeth that seized it, drew it in, and dispatched it to some unknown destination for some unimaginable purpose. By ten he’d barely made a dent in his day’s quota, and by noon, he saw that he’d have to work through lunch — he sent Keller on without him — if he wanted to get out on time.

At last — it was two o’clock by then — Gerst rolled a cigarette, lit it, and stretched, exhaling a stream of blue smoke at the ceiling. Once again his mind fixed on that eddy of color in the muddy pool. He wished suddenly that he could share it with Janet and Sam, but they were deep into their own days by now, Janet as a cashier at a shabby grocer, Sam at the state-run crèche.

By the time he extinguished the cigarette another ten minutes had slipped by. It would be six-thirty before he got out, maybe seven. But it was nearly seven-thirty when he finally shrugged on his overcoat and trod down the corridor, heels echoing, into the wasteland beyond, virtually empty at this twilight hour: the sentries at their stations, another nine-to-fiver or two running late, a handful of pitmen working their way through the checkpoints. And still that scrap of beauty lingered in his mind.

Maybe that’s why Gerst did what he did next. He didn’t think about it anyway, just leaned down by impulse and hooked a knot of wood from one of the towering heaps as he passed, a whorled chunk the size of his fist and polished to a sheen, so that the grain stood out in lovely swirls. Scooped it up and dropped it into the pocket of his overcoat. Didn’t even look around, just kept walking, head down, another weary bureaucrat homeward bound beneath a heavy-bellied sky.

Gerst steeled himself for the gates, certain that he was going to be pulled aside and searched. Each time, though, the sentries passed him through with barely a glance. Then he was outside in the forsaken zone, still walking, his shoulders hunched in expectation of a cry, the bay of pursuit. But he passed into the maze of surrounding streets unmolested. The crowd of commuters had cleared by now, and without the comforting anonymity they might have provided, the dry certainty that he was being followed — that he’d been seen — more than once seized Gerst. The echo of footsteps behind him, another pedestrian, the passage of a car in the street: these things unleashed new floods of paranoia.

Tension knotted his shoulders, and, despite the cool air, sweat beaded on his forehead. He walked two blocks to the nearest underground station, the chunk of wood swinging in his pocket. It wasn’t too late to step into an alley and chuck it into a dumpster. Rid himself of the evidence at least. It was the only sensible thing. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He ducked into the station instead and pushed through the turnstile. Below, the newsagents and cigarette vendors were closing up for the night. The station was almost empty, maybe a dozen and a half commuters — a woman in gray scrubs by the tracks, a man in an overcoat staring at the platform opposite.

But the great banners suspended overhead, the posters behind their scratched plastic frames — these were still there, had always been there, would always be there, timeless as Acheron itself. They loomed everywhere, sentinels with two vigilant rubies, like tiny red eyes, affixed to their collars. Gerst felt the weight of their blue, bombardier’s eyes, doubled and redoubled, merciless and cold as time.

Ever Watchful.

“Citizen.”

Gerst started as a transit cop strolled by. “Citizen,” he said, half expecting to be asked for his papers, but the cop merely nodded and moved on.

Gerst boarded a local ten minutes later; twenty minutes after that he was home. The third floor apartment was lit up to receive him — the pawn shop below had long since locked its roll-down gates for the night — and he felt a warm rush of relief as he unlocked the street-side door. Two flights of stairs and three locks later, he let himself into the apartment. Sam — four years of boundless energy — launched himself into Gerst’s arms, and Gerst had a sudden sense of just how much he’d put at risk. Gerst lifted him high and swung him in a circle, the boy shrieking —

“Dad, you’re home. We thought you’d never come.”

“Well, here I am,” Gerst said, setting the boy down, and as he did so, he felt Sam’s fingers brush his pocket.

“Hey, what’s that? Did you bring me a present? What did you bring me?”

“Nothing,” Gerst said, but in that moment, he knew that it was Sam’s, that he’d stolen it for the boy, and that a time would come when it would pass into his hands.

“No seriously, Dad. What is it?”

“Nothing,” he said hanging his coat by the door and adjusting it so that the bulge in the pocket would be invisible. He turned and there was Janet, leaning in to kiss him. “Run along,” he said to Sam, swatting him lightly on the rear end, but in a breath — he’d hardly gotten to say hello to Janet — Sam was back, brandishing a coarse page torn from a coloring book. “Look, Dad.”

Gerst took the paper and held it to the light: the black and gray sigil of the Ministry of the Eye, filled in with a four-year-old’s scrawling strokes. Gerst uttered a humorless little laugh, feeling a glacier calve inside his heart. “We’ll have to tape it to the refrigerator,” he said.

They did.

• • • •

In some dead hour of the night, Gerst woke dry mouthed, short of breath. For a moment, he thought he must have dreamed the whole lurid thing — but no, it had been all too real. Janet stirred, mumbling. He’d never hidden anything from her before and he felt now how precarious his condition was, how lie led on to lie and to the final lie at last, yet unspoken, jammed, in haste, by impulse, into the pocket of his coat.

Gerst heaved himself out of bed. He shut the bathroom door behind him and pulled the light chain. The bulb swung, chasing shadows, Janet’s improvised paper shade little softening its glare. He urinated, washed up, examined the sallow stranger in the mirror. He’d once found matching each card to its slot calming, the hum as the mechanism inside seized it and drew it in somehow gratifying. But somewhere along the way — Gerst couldn’t pinpoint when or why — the work had deteriorated into an endless grind that he could neither enjoy nor escape. There was Janet to think of, after all, and there was Sam. His work at the ministry had given them a life of relative comfort and security. But now he’d put it all at risk.

Gerst pulled the light chain.

In the main room — cramped kitchen and living area together — he lit a cigarette and stood at the window, staring out past the shell of his own face. The reflection of the pit flickered like a red eye in a low ceiling of cloud. He studied it while he finished the cigarette. Then he checked on Sam, curled in a tangle of sheets. Gerst straightened them and stood by the bed, taking in the fragrance of his son’s sleep, matching him breath to breath. Something tidal moved within him, ancient, deep. He might have crawled in beside the boy but for the chunk of wood in his coat pocket.

Instead, Gerst turned away to retrieve it and sat on the sofa. He placed it on the coffee table by Sam’s coloring book, and stared down at them side by side, a still life of everything he’d jeopardized: the coloring book and its picture of a black-clad sentinel; the fan of crayons, a palette of blacks, grays, browns; the glossy chunk of wood. And what was he to do with the thing now? Chuck it? Still the wisest course. Hoard it away somewhere for his own miserly pleasure? What pleasure could such peril bring him? Sell it? He snorted softly. What did a man like him know of the street?

Gerst picked it up and turned it in his hands, feeling its weight and heft, and abruptly something came back to him, his own strange thought, that he had done this for Sam, that someday it would pass to him. A paradox. He would not endanger the boy for all the contraband beauty in Acheron. Yet that was exactly what he had done, and for what? A chunk of polished wood so lustrous that he could almost see himself in it, or imagined he could.

And then, pensively:

No, not himself he saw, but something else, a shape inside the grain; maybe that was what he had perceived from the start: not merely the outward allure of the thing, but that inward shape, sensed but yet unseen. He turned the chunk of wood, studying it, held it to the window and the red sky beyond. Yes, it was there. With a blade — the right blade — with time and with skill — he could discover it.

“Alex?”

Janet. From the bedroom, her voice frowzy with sleep.

He stood. “Yeah. Coming.”

In the kitchen, he took out a sheet of butcher paper out of a drawer. He wrapped the lump of wood hastily, opened the coat closet, and shoved it to the back of the upper shelf. He closed the door and made his way to the bedroom.

“Where were you?”

He sat on the edge of the bed. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Something bothering you?” she mumbled.

“It’s nothing. I don’t know.”

“Tell me, hon.”

“I don’t know. I told you. Bad dreams, I guess.” He lay down, the mattress sagging beneath his weight.

“Love you,” Janet murmured, pillowing her head upon his shoulder, and as he drifted into sleep Gerst wondered that he had risked all this and more, and wondered too that he was going to risk still further, and most of all, where he would find a blade.

• • • •

Morning then. Bleary with lack of sleep, Gerst stood at the sticky counter of the street-side kiosk, stirring powdered creamer into his usual swill, and the man shoving in beside him, says, “I saw you.”

Gerst felt something give way inside him, subsidence, the floor dropping out of his heart. He ditched the plastic stirrer in the overflowing bin. Fumbling with a top, he shouldered his way onto the sidewalk. The man stayed at his elbow, a blue-clad shadow, smelling faintly of sulfur, saying, “There’s no use denying it. I saw you.”

“Are you talking to me?” Still not looking up.

“Don’t be a fool,” the man said.

“I haven’t done anything.”

They stopped at the clogged intersection: horns blatting, the stink of exhaust. The light changed. Pedestrians surged into the street. Gerst wove his way through the cars, thinking of Janet and Sam, a kind of numb terror filling him. Surely he would wake up any minute now. But he did not wake. The blue presence stayed at his side, matching his pace, silent now, until at last, midstreet, Gerst turned and confronted him: twenty-something, maybe thirty, close shorn dark hair, with thick work-scarred hands. When he met Gerst’s eyes, Gerst saw that his face too was scarred. A knotty white cicatrix perhaps an inch long ran under his left eye. He stared a moment too long.

“Shiv,” the young man said. “One of them turned on me. Lucky I didn’t lose the eye.”

The buzzer started going. Gerst swung around to see the Don’t Walk sign blaring at him, the flashing countdown commence — 15, 14, 13. . . Another surge of pedestrians, hurrying to beat the light. The young man clapped him on the back, steering him to the curb.

“Let’s not make a scene, shall we?” he said. “Not healthy for either of us. Not safe.”

“Don’t touch me.”

“See, that’s just the attitude I’m talking about, Alex. You’re in it now, like it or not.”

His name. Gerst felt another shock wave roll through him.

“Who are you?”

“Call me Clive.”

“What do you want, Clive? I haven’t any money.”

“You’re richer than you think. You have an eye for the stuff, don’t you? That’s as good as money.”

“Are you —”

“Don’t be a fool, Alex.” Then: “We can be of service to one another. If you don’t want to cooperate, well.” The young man — Clive — shrugged.

“Cooperate?”

“Look close, see well, collect what you can.”

“Beau —”

“Don’t even say the word,” the young man said. “Not here. Don’t be a fool. We can work something out in trade.”

A blade, Gerst thought, risking another glance. He must have said it aloud, for the other man nodded. “Sure,” he said. “I can see why, too. You can keep what you have. Bring something else, bring what you can. I’ll see what I can do.”

“But where?”

“I’ll be in touch. In the meantime, I’ll be watching for you, yeah?”

And he was gone, dropping back into the crowd. But that phrase —

 — I’ll be watching for you, yeah? —

— echoed in Gerst’s head as he passed through the checkpoints and into the ministry itself. When he sat at his desk to begin slotting cards, his hands were shaking.

• • • •

A week passed. The knot of wood remained safely on its shelf in the coat closet, the stranger on the street made no more appearances, and Gerst’s paranoia gradually waned. It never went away — in Acheron such things never did — but the screaming terror of that first night dwindled to a constant subliminal hum, like the buzz of the fluorescent lights suspended from the shadowy heights of the ministry’s ceiling.

His morning routine re-asserted itself. Queues and cigarettes, the throng of the underground at rush hour. Nights, he colored at the coffee table with Sam and talked with Janet, feeling constantly the weight of his deception. Then bed. In the deepest cradle of the morning, Gerst lay wakeful, brooding on the knot of wood hidden away in the coat closet, trying to see the shape hidden in its whorled and polished surface. Twice, he dared to take it from its secret place, unwrap the butcher paper, and stare smoking down at it on the coffee table. The first time, he used a kitchen knife to shave away a single paring of the wood — or tried to, anyway. The knife was dull to the task, the wood too hard. The second time he almost got caught. He was turning the thing in his hands, and teasing out with his eyes the shape hidden within when suddenly Janet’s voice was in the doorway.

“What are you doing, Alex?” she asked.

Casually, he leaned over and slid the chunk of wood under the skirt of the couch, and if she saw him she didn’t say.

“Thinking,” he said.

“What are you thinking about? You seem to think all the time anymore.”

He hesitated. Then, tentatively, like a man making his way step by step across a frozen river, he said, “Do you ever wonder if things could be different than they are?”

She sat beside him. “Different how?”

“I don’t know. Nothing seems like enough anymore.”

“Aren’t we enough, Sam and I?”

“That’s just it, isn’t it? Sometimes I want more for you.”

“Like what, Alex?

“Today” — had the ice grown thinner? —”today, I saw a scrap of fabric —”

“Fabric?”

“That’s right. It was caught in a stunted tree in the forsaken zone. It must have blown there.”

“There’s all kinds of litter in the forsaken zone.”

“No. But this was different.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned to look at her. “It was yellow, bright yellow.”

She simply stared at him, her face flickering with shadow and light. She started to speak — stopped — started again, and he felt the ice groan under his feet. “Yellow,” she said.

“Very bright.” He hesitated. “Like the sun had punched a hole in the sky.”

She laughed humorlessly. “When did you begin to say such things, Alexander Gerst?”

When indeed? The words had risen unbidden to his lips.

“I — I don’t know.”

Her brow furrowed. “Well, you mustn’t, you mustn’t say them,” she said. She said, “You didn’t take it, did you?” and the ice cracked beneath his feet, revealing the dark rushing water underneath.

Gerst turned back toward the distant shore. “No. Of course not.”

But how well she knew him, for hadn’t he had to fight the impulse to snatch the thing from the leaf-barren tree where it twisted like a flag in the cold wind keening across the desolation? There in plain sight of the sentries in their towers, alone on that blasted ring of earth, late again and hurrying back into the endless web of the surrounding city — there, in that forsaken zone, hadn’t he had to resist the overwhelming yearning to possess the thing for himself, to treasure it up as a hedge against the indifferent malice of Acheron? And hadn’t he failed? Wasn’t it even now hidden in his overcoat pocket, a scrap of sun-bright beauty, waiting to be folded with the knot of polished wood into the sheet of wrinkled butcher paper and stowed away on the back shelf of the closet?

And not because of the cold thousand and maybe more that it would fetch on the black market either — double, triple, quadruple their monthly income. Not even because of the scarred man’s imperative.

Because he wanted it.

Yet it was in the former that he sought refuge, saying, “I merely thought of the thing’s value, how much we could use that kind of money.”

He forced a laugh.

Janet laughed, too, a nervous kind of laugh. “Alex, if you see such a thing again, you mustn’t even look at it. It would go hard for us all if they even suspected you. It would mean . . .”

But she didn’t say it. She didn’t need to. They both of them knew it.

“Okay,” he said. “Of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

She took his hands. “Promise me, Alex” — and he thought once again of how lie led on to lie and to still more lies after that.

“I promise,” he said, that too a lie — for it was a promise he knew he could not keep. All his life, Gerst had walked the streets of Acheron blind to their secret beauty. For more than four decades, he’d lived in a city almost devoid of color, and what there was of it so washed out that it might as well have been no color at all — for yellow the lemony blur of its overcast sun, far away and bereft of warmth; for red the brownish rust that everywhere bloomed in its perpetual damp; for blue the gunship gray of its beleaguered inhabitants’ faces. How had such a thing happened? Had he been born blind to color, or had it been drilled out of him in the city’s crèches? He could not say, only that he had not been alone in his impairment. How long had that yellow flag flown from that stunted tree before someone in the passing multitude even saw it for what it was, a dazzling scrap of beauty blown in to brighten this dismal world? And of those few with the power to see, he wondered, how many had the reckless courage to seize it for themselves?

Yet Gerst, who had no courage, could not stay his hand. That iridescent swirl of motor oil had startled him awake. Now he caught fleeting glimpses of beauty everywhere around him — in the reflected neon glare of a rain-slick street, there and gone again in the blink of an eye, or in a blade of grass, that astonishing green that sprang from a crevice in the pavement, wilted, died. He took to wandering the streets after work in search of it, riding the subway to distant boroughs so that he could walk sidewalks he had not walked before. And if each new district of the city was as squat and ugly and impoverished as the last, each too unveiled its own ephemeral wonders. The water-smoothed stones (he pocketed one) he found along the riverbank before the tidal surge swept them away — how could he have missed them before? That scatter of bones, it must have been a bird, bleached white along the shore (these too he gathered up)? The feather of a spendthrift crow (he took it from the air as it drifted down the heavens)? It was everywhere, beauty — in the wind-torn smoke blue above the chimney pots or the diaphanous gossamer of a spider’s nightly labor.

Then, one weary morning on his way to work, a stranger stumbled against him on the rush-hour train —

“Sorry,” he muttered, pushing past Gerst as the doors whooshed open.

— and a few minutes later, digging into his pocket for change, Gerst’s fingers closed about a slip of paper. He withdrew it: a typewritten date — tomorrow — a time, an address. He shoved it back in his pocket, and queued up for coffee, but it tasted bitter and he dumped the cup into an overflowing wastebasket half a block away. He stepped into an alley a dozen yards farther on, rolled a cigarette with shaking fingers — he spilled as much tobacco as he got into the creased paper — and smoked. Then the west gate, his cubby. He was slow that day, his hands tremulous with the cards.

That address loomed in his thoughts. Maybe it wasn’t too late to dump or destroy his cache of contraband beauty. Maybe it was a trap. Maybe the scar-faced man was an agent of the Eye. Yet in the end he knew that he would go. He was too far in it now; he had no other choice. Too deeply he desired to shape the wood and unveil for himself — for Sam — the shape hidden inside it.

That night Gerst slipped out of bed after Janet had gone to sleep.

He stepped into the bathroom with the slip of paper, memorized it, tore it into tiny pieces, and flushed them down the john. Back in the bedroom, he lay down and pulled the covers up. Janet rolled over and hooked her leg across his thighs.

“You all right?” she mumbled.

“Go to sleep,” he said. “I’m fine.”

• • • •

Gerst was loathe to give up his half-Saturday with Sam, but the next morning he embarked on a tangled route of subway lines and diesel-reeking buses. It took him into mean, vicious-looking districts that made his own impoverished neighborhood seem prosperous. This induced new heights of paranoia in Gerst. He found himself scanning the Saturday-morning crowds nervously and waiting until the last moment to dart between the subway’s doors as they hissed closed. He emerged from the final station in a dank borough of the city he’d never seen before, a dying quarter of crumbling houses where shades flapped in broken windows, and somewhere, inconsolably, a baby wailed.

He had begun to despair of finding the address when Clive — if that was really his name — fell in beside him, clad in jeans and an insulated denim jacket, that strip of keloid tissue below his eye, his hands chapped and scarred.

“Wondered if you would show,” he’d said.

Gerst lit a cigarette. “You didn’t give me much choice.”

“You made your choice when you stole that piece of wood.”

“And if I hadn’t come?”

“Doesn’t matter, does it? You did.” Clive stopped in front of a squalid brick row house, shuttered, deteriorating, scrawled with graffiti. “Here we are.” Narrow concrete steps led down to a square of neglected garden, a single barred window, a battered door a dozen feet below the sidewalk. Across the street, a handful of girls, nine, maybe ten years old, skipped rope to the rhythm of some old rhyme. Gerst couldn’t make out the words.

“You haven’t been a fool, have you, Alex?” Clive said.

“Of course I’ve been a fool,” Gerst said. “I’ve been tramping all over the city for days. If someone spotted me —”

“If someone had spotted you, you wouldn’t be standing here now.”

“No,” Gerst said, “I suppose not.” Then: “What about the fellow who cut you?”

“It wasn’t a fellow. It was a child. You needn’t worry. She won’t do it again.”

A child, Gerst thought in shock. A little girl. “What could a child have done —”

“I don’t know,” Clive said. “It’s not my business to know.”

“What did you do to her?”

“You don’t want to know about that, do you, Alex?”

Gerst felt something give way inside him. He thought of Sam and what a man like Clive might do to him. There was knowing and there was knowing, he thought, and he flipped his cigarette into the gutter.

“Let’s go, then,” Clive said, leading Gerst down the moss-grown steps. He knocked on the door.

A tall, heavily muscled man admitted them into the dim interior. “He’s been waiting for you,” he said as he swept aside a beaded curtain. “He’s not happy, either. I mean what the fuck, Clive?”

Clive didn’t answer, merely pushed his way through the curtain into the room beyond. Inside, candles — two dozen or more, on every available surface — and the scent of incense, and beauty. So much that Gerst drew a sharp breath, staggered by the sheer volume of it, the colorful tapestries that draped every wall, the flaring candelabra of polished brass. A fat man — enormously so, his blue eyes slitted, his sensuous mouth a red wound in the flickering light — reclined in a caftan on a chaise of patchwork bright, before him an ebony table of such lustrous beauty that it fairly staggered Gerst.

“You want me to search him?” the muscle said from his station by the wall.

The fat man looked Gerst over, taking his time about it. “Oh, I think he’s harmless enough, Marlon. He’ll surrender his trophies in time.” And then: “This is what you have brought me, Clive?”

“He has an eye.”

“Does he, then? Alexander Gerst, you say. Do you have an eye for pretty things, Alexander Gerst?”

“I don’t know,” Gerst said. “I don’t know what I have.”

“Clive tells me you work in the ministry. The Ministry of Iron. Such a charming name. Such a charming mission. Tell me: Whatever is it that you do there?”

“I sit in a cubicle, slotting punch cards.”

“Punch cards.”

Idiotically: “They’re color coded.”

“Why?”

“I have to make a living.”

“No. Why punch cards? What are they for?”

“I — I don’t know.” This the question that Gerst had shunted aside for seven years now and he wondered suddenly if his hands were any cleaner that Clive’s — if some foul, invisible matter did not besmirch them. A child. Dear God, a child.

“Maybe you should ask yourself that.”

“Is what you do any better?”

“Oh, I think it is,” the fat man said. He lifted his hands to take in the entire room. “I bring some light to the darkness of Acheron, and if I’m well paid for it — well, I take upon my shoulders an enormous risk, do I not?” Then, leaning forward: “What did you do to attain your position?” — this too something Gerst didn’t like to think about.

The answer cleaved to his tongue.

“What’s the point of this, Lewis?” Clive said. “You know what he did. He did the same thing as everyone else.”

“Hush, Clive,” the fat man — Lewis — said. And then, to Gerst, “But it’s true, isn’t it?”

Gerst, stiffly. “Of course, it’s true.”

“And who was it that you surrendered to the fire?”

Gerst hesitated. “I won’t talk about that,” he said.

“Very well.” The fat man shrugged. “I suppose we all serve the pit in our way. Tell me: Will you give me up, as well?”

“No.”

“That’s right. Because to give me up, you must surrender yourself, too.”

The candlewicks sizzled in the silence that followed. Lewis smiled. “But enough. We’re all friends here, are we not? United in service to the rare beauties of Acheron. I understand we are to make a trade. Show me, then, show me what you have brought.”

At these words, Clive leaned forward in anticipation — even Marlon stirred. Gerst felt the weight of their attention and knew that he did not have enough, that his were but paltry gifts, a mere pocketful of pretty things, to offer a man accustomed to such luxury. Yet what choice did he have? Clive was right: He was in it now. And so he fetched out the river-smoothed stone, which he had so often caressed in his pocket. Lewis swept it up in one great hand and held it to the light, and Gerst saw it as he must see it, a smooth gray stone, nothing more.

“Well, this is something, I suppose. But so common. Surely you have done better than this. You cannot expect me to trade for such everyday baubles. Why, this would bring but a pittance on the street.”

Yet he secreted it in the folds of his kaftan all the same.

“What else?”

Reluctant now — what a fool he had been! — Gerst brought forth the scrap of yellow cloth. At this, the fat man leaned forward, abruptly all attention. “Color,” he whispered, and Gerst saw now that his chaise had been upholstered of such patchwork stuff. Lewis reached out and took it. He smoothed the weave between his fingers. “Ah, the feel of it,” he said. “Do you know what this is, Marlon? Clive, do you know?”

Another silence followed.

“Silk,” Lewis said, and he rubbed it once again between his forefinger and his thumb. “Like water on the flesh. Where did you find such a thing?”

“Hung up in a stunted tree in the forsaken zone.”

“Taken right before the ministry, then. You are a foolhardy man indeed.” Eagerly now: “What other pretties have you brought me?”

Gerst reached in his pocket and scattered the gleaming white bones across the table. The fat man laughed. “You bring me bones?”

But Gerst could see their beauty. It shone out at him, as yet disarranged. Lewis was wrong. To prove it, Gerst leaned over the table and shifted the delicate bones until a sense of rightness began to possess him — not yet, not yet. He nudged one bone a centimeter to the left, another to the right — and there, just so. He let out a breath he had not known he was holding, and now the potential he had seen there anyone could see. Gerst knew it to be so, because Lewis let out a bated breath, and Clive, as well, and so it was decided, he would keep the feather for himself.

“Oh, you do have an eye,” Lewis said. “A very fine eye, an artist’s eye. Mounted so — on an ebony square — ah, I do not know if I could bring myself to part with it.” The mercenary cast to his face momentarily departed and a kind of benevolence transformed his features, an appreciation of the thing itself. He exhaled again, and looked up at Gerst from where he leaned over the table. “My friend,” he said, “you have bought yourself a blade.”

• • • •

Blades, actually. An entire set of gleaming miniature tools — scoops and curved scalpels and v-shaped cutting edges, razor sharp — all of them nestled in velvet cradles in a scarred metal box suitable for the streets of Acheron. How well they seemed to fit Gerst’s hands. That night in the sleeping apartment, when he drew the chunk of wood from its hiding place on the shelf, his fingers found a rhythm of their own, as if this all along was the work they had been made to do. He spread the butcher paper at the coffee table to catch the shavings, and let the blades find their way almost without conscious volition. Minutes passed — five, ten, more — between each tissue-thin shaving as it tumbled from his edge. After an hour or so — his hands, unaccustomed to such fine work, had begun to ache — Gerst emptied the handful of shavings into the trash, shoving them down under the day’s refuse. Then he rolled the chunk of wood in its butcher paper and stowed it away. He could not see it yet — he could merely sense it — but already something had begun to take shape there. His tools would find the way.

But soon his post-midnight hours began to take their toll. Things grew strained between him and Janet: muted conversations over Saturday morning coffee, tense meals where Sam alone could find something to say, regaling them with halfway coherent tales of the crèche. Sometimes she called him back to bed at night. She asked him drowsily what kept him up so late, and if she didn’t press, even he could see that his explanations — he couldn’t sleep, he had things on his mind — were inadequate. He looked haggard and pale in the morning mirror when he shaved. His clothes were rumpled, his hair unbarbered and only halfway combed, his fingers tremulous on the cards. His efficiency rate plunged. He fell behind in his daily quota.

“What’s wrong, Alex?” Keller asked, this at rundown diners on the outskirts of the blasted zone or over scalding coffee on the crowded lunchtime streets. What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Nothing, nothing’s wrong, Gerst said, but his heart had turned traitor to his work. Ever more, he hoarded the secret of his sculpture. So he dared now to think of it now. Not the massive, brooding monoliths of Acheron’s crumbling public squares or naked parks, but something delicate and abstract, mere inches tall: a woman, maybe, or anyway the suggestion of a woman, the line of her hips and shoulders lovely as a wind-blown reed.

And Sam? If anything, they grew closer. Tell me a story, he asked one night, and Gerst, who had never told a story before, found himself improvising wild tales of talking rats and crows, and boys on quests for a tribe of lost children in the labyrinth of a vast and crumbling metropolis, and the great dragon shackled at the heart of the pit, the very root of the fire itself, weeping tears of blood. When he finished this last, he looked up to find Janet standing in the doorway to the boy’s room, a shadow against the flickering crimson sky.

“Good night, Sam,” he said, gathering the boy into his embrace, “I love you more than anything in Acheron.”

The boy’s eyes were strange in the half dark, moist and red, as though they had caught some stray reflection of the pit. “I love you, Dad,” he said.

Gerst pressed his lips to Sam’s head and pulled the covers tight around him.

Outside, Janet said, “Where did you learn that story?”

“I made it up,” he said, and only then did he realize how strange the words sounded. I made it up, he said silently, taking the taste of the phrase. I made it up, he thought, and a locked gate opened in his heart on a wide, green country where clear streams ran.

“Oh, Alex,” she said as he took her in his arms. “I don’t want you to make things up. You mustn’t.”

But how could he not, he wondered, if the words were in him?

Turning away, he crossed the room. He lit a cigarette and put his lighter beside the ashtray on the coffee table. Rain pecked at the window, running down the glass like tears. Janet sat across from him with folded hands, and he saw that tears trembled at the corners of her eyes, as well.

“Janet —”

“Don’t,” she said. “Just don’t, Alex.”

They were silent for a time.

“I thought maybe another woman,” she said at last.

“No,” he said, “there’s never been anyone but you.”

“But what was I to think, Alex? You’re late from work every day, you’re up all hours of the night —”

“I’ve told you. Things are difficult at work. I can’t afford to lose my position. We’d lose everything.”

“That’s rich, Alex.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, and she unfolded her hands and he saw that she held the feather.

“I found it in the pocket of your coat,” she said. “It’s quite beautiful. Even I can see that much.”

Gerst swallowed. He did not venture speech. Only the sound of the rain tapping at the glass.

“You have been unfaithful, haven’t you, Alex?”

What could he say?

“Please tell me you haven’t been selling such things.”

“No, of course not. I would never risk —”

“And you haven’t been collecting them, either.”

“No.” Lie upon lie upon lie.

“This is all that you have in this apartment.”

“Yes.”

“I needn’t search. I needn’t turn over my own home like . . . like an agent of the Eye to ensure my family’s safety.”

Yes, and here was the chance to make everything right, he thought. A full confession, an entreaty for forgiveness, a doorway out of this maze of deception. Yet he could not do it. Something in him cried out in anguish at the idea.

“No,” he said. “You needn’t do that.”

“We have to destroy this,” she said. She placed the feather on the coffee table by his lighter, a silvery reflective thing that held the flaming sky inside it — a tool, nothing more, purely utilitarian. Yet it too had its beauty, he now saw, and he saw something else, as well: The crime was not merely in what he had taken and secreted away; the crime was in his heart. An eye for beauty had opened there, and having seen the fleeting loveliness to be had in Acheron — that gossamer web sewn to the fabric of the night, that luminous smoke blue against the evening sky — he could not ever unsee it.

“You do it, Alex,” she said. “I want to see you do it.”

She reached down and extended the feather. He took it from her with a reluctant hand. He held it aloft in the space between them. Her face was hard and vigilant. There could be no lie now. This was a test. He picked up the lighter and held the two together, feather and flame. Flipping back the lighter’s lid, he struck the hateful thing to life. Blue flame snapped upright, unwavering in the still air — and he could not do it. Could not. There was an active resistance in his muscles, a wrestling match in his heart.

“Do it,” Janet said.

Gerst did.

Brought the flame to the feather and held it over the ashtray. Each tiny filament glowed blue and crumbled into ash. The bony stalk between them drooped, and then the fire consumed it. Gerst released it, cursing, for it had seared his fingers, and cursing, too, that he had done such a thing. He let the tiny nub that remained tumble into the bed of twisted cigarette butts. It glowed red for a moment and was gone.

“Daddy,” Sam said.

Startled, they both looked up, he and Janet.

The boy stood there in his pajamas. He rubbed his fists in sleepy eyes and yawned. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Gerst said.

And Janet: “We’re just talking.” She stood. “Come back to bed, okay? It’s late.”

She hurried the boy into his room. Gerst reached for his tobacco pouch and rolled another cigarette. He sat smoking for a long time, listening to rain peck at the window. Let me in, it said. Let me in.

• • • •

So many things clamoring to get inside in those days: Lewis and Clive and Keller, and the boy most of all. How much he looked like Gerst’s brother! And how was it that Gerst had never noticed, or let himself notice, before? He still kept a snapshot of his brother, much creased and faded, tucked in his wallet, in a forgotten sleeve behind his ministry ID, his cash, his official papers. He’d nearly forgotten that, too, until one Saturday morning at the kitchen table, dazed from lack of sleep, his fingers brushed it as he fumbled for a handful of rumpled bills Janet could take to the open-air market: wilted lettuce and gray-tinged meat. They’d once spent that time together. But now Janet did the shopping, and Gerst spent Saturday mornings with Sam, a rare hour, much prized, that he’d carved out of his half-day from the ministry.

But then his fingers brushed the scalloped edge of the photo — they must have done that a thousand times before and him not noticing — and for reasons he could not articulate, Gerst slipped it free and unfolded it. “What’s that?” Sam asked over his breakfast, and Janet said, “I thought you threw that old thing away years ago.”

“I guess not.”

“Well, you should have,” she said, leaning down to kiss him on one unshaven cheek. “See that you do it today. There’s no use hauling it around anymore.”

“Sure,” he said, and she told him she loved him, not to worry so much.

“Love you, too,” he muttered, distracted —

“I love you, Mommy!”

— and then they were alone, he and Sam.

“Let me see it, Daddy,” Sam said.

“Don’t drop it in your cereal.”

“I’m done,” said Sam, and Gerst handed it across the table. He got up and took the bowl. He was straining the milk into a jar when Sam said, “Who is it?”

“Your uncle.”

“I didn’t know I had an uncle.”

“No.”

“What was his name?”

Gerst capped the jar and put it in the refrigerator. “Frank,” he said. “Your uncle Frank.” He sat down beside the boy. They studied the snapshot together: Frank at thirty-six, the guts of a portable radio arrayed on the table — this very table — before him. He’d been handy with mechanical things — he had a job in a garage, working on the sleek Hawks you sometimes saw in the street — and he’d offered to fix the radio for them when it had gone bad. Something about a new tube, Gerst couldn’t remember what, only that the radio still worked. They had it in the living room now: children’s broadcasts and the Governor’s speeches and the occasional program of martial music, fuzzy through the static. They used to drink in those days, back when Gerst still worked as a bartender; sometimes they got to drinking together, Gerst and Janet and Frank and the girl Frank had been seeing — what was her name? — and they would trade rounds long into the morning.

She’d slapped Gerst, the girl, there at the end.

Another memory crying to get in.

“How come I’ve never met him, Daddy?”

“He’s gone now,” Gerst said, folding the photo into his wallet, and what he could not say — damned, consigned to fire — came into his mind, but Sam seemed to have lost interest. He wanted to play a game of Sentinel instead, and that was fine with Gerst. Yet Frank stuck with him as they placed the tokens on the board. He couldn’t focus. He kept coming back to the day he’d put in for work at the ministry — the bizarre application, ministry letterhead, a single line centered on the page below. Name. “Not your name,” the guy behind the counter had said, and without really thinking about it — smote by a swift vision of the way he sometimes caught Frank looking at Janet — Gerst’d scrawled his brother’s name there. Then he was on the street, no regrets, they needed a two-bedroom place, they were thinking of a baby, he and Janet. Frank had evaporated a few days later, and the offer from the ministry had come two weeks after that.

Months had passed — Janet was pregnant, they’d gotten the new place — and Frank’s girl had shown up at the door. She’d slapped him there on the landing. “You monster,” she’d said, and then she’d gone clattering down the stairs to the street, and after that he’d never seen her again. But now the word came back to him — monster — that too clamoring to get it in, and he found himself thinking of Clive, Clive’s thick, scarred hands. Clive, who appeared at his shoulder on Gerst’s homeward commute the following Monday, and steered him into a saloon not two blocks from the forsaken zone: noisy and dim and packed with stained blue coveralls and disheveled bureaucrats fresh off work, hard-faced men and women who didn’t spare them a second glance when they leaned against the bar. The place stank of the beer-soaked sawdust on the floor.

Clive ordered whiskey, doubles with beer backs. He toasted Gerst and grinned. Gerst sipped, whiskey burning in his throat. He fumbled for a cigarette. He said, “I thought we were done.”

“Lewis is never done.”

“Then I’m done with him.”

“Not a wise move,” Clive said.

“What do you mean?”

“Let me put it this way: It’s a fine line you’re walking. On the one hand, Lewis and his friends, who’d as soon kill you as let you get away. And on the other, the Eye. You’d be luckier if Lewis killed you. The Eye isn’t interested in death. The Eye is in the business of suffering.”

“You ought to know something about that,” Gerst said. “What did you do to the girl?”

“Ah, the girl. You keep coming back to that, don’t you?” Clive touched the scar with one finger. “You really want to know, I flayed her fucking hands to the bone, and fed her the flesh. I did that and I do a hundred other things you don’t even want to think about it and I do them every day.”

Gerst felt the shock of it roll through him.

“Oh, it gets worse.”

“I don’t want to know.”

“But you do or you wouldn’t keep asking.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up, Alex. You think you’re any better than me? Who do you think routes me my instructions? Huh? What do you think your cards are for?” Clive threw back his shot, chasing it with a swig of beer. “You think your hands are so fucking clean. They’re soft, but they’re not clean.”

Gerst took a slug of whiskey. “I didn’t know.”

“And now that you do?”

Gerst shook his head in denial.

“That’s what I thought. You applied to the ministry the same as I did. You’re just lucky they didn’t put you in the hole. You’re not careful, you might end up there anyway. Lewis has channels, right? He’s like a fucking spider, Lewis, channels into the ministry, channels into the Eye, channels everywhere in the city. He sits at the center of his web and twitches a thread and somewhere somebody goes into the pit. You’d be lucky if he killed you. You want to think about your family, Alex. Do you understand me?”

Gerst nodded, thinking of Sam. A child. Clive would do something like that to a child. He would do that to Sam. To Frank. Somewhere somebody — maybe one of the men or women in this room — was doing something like that to Frank. Every hour of every day. And once again, the girl’s words came back to him: You monster.

“What I’m saying,” Clive told him. “What I’m saying is this is an opportunity for you — a chance to provide some of the finer things in your life to your family.”

“And risk everything.”

“You’ve already put everything at risk, Alex,” Clive said. “There’s no going back now.”

Gerst sighed. For a breath, they were silent. Gerst finished his whiskey. He mashed out his cigarette. “What does he want?”

“He wants to see the work you’re doing with your tools.”

“It’s mine,” Gerst said, thinking that it wasn’t his at all, not really. It was Sam’s, and someday, when the boy was old enough to understand, it would pass into his keeping.

“Fine. It’s yours. I don’t think he’ll object to that. But you’re not going to stop at one, are you?”

Gerst said nothing.

“I didn’t think so. What are you planning to do with them, decorate your apartment?”

Again, nothing.

“Right. And how do you plan to get wood to make them? Are you going to steal it from the ministry? Because you’re not going to get away with that again.” Clive sipped his beer. “So Lewis gets you wood, you do the carvings, Lewis sells them and cuts you in on the profit.”

“What about you?”

Clive shrugged. “I get my percentage too. A finder’s fee. Everybody wins.”

Gerst turned to look at the other man full on. “Why does he need to see what I’m working on then?”

“He wants to assess your talent, that’s all.”

So this was how it was to be. There would be no hiding it from Janet, would there? How long could he continue to work late into the night before she woke and caught him out? The feather came into his mind, blue flame devouring its filaments one by one. It would be a hard thing. “Tell Lewis it’s an unnecessary risk,” he said at last. “He can assess the second one.”

“Fine. I think he’ll find that acceptable. I’ll let you know. Deal?”

“I don’t have much choice, do I?”

“I don’t think you have any choice at all, Alex.”

“Okay. Fine. It is what it is.” He finished his beer, fumbled for his wallet, threw down a couple of bills. Then he was outside in the cool air, alone in the ashen stench of the pit, steadying himself against the alcohol. He started off to the underground, late again.

That was the night he cut his finger.

• • • •

Some things are better done out of love than anger, he would later come to understand. But it was anger that possessed him that night, an impotent rage that he could neither hide nor control. Over dinner, he snapped at Sam, and later, in bed with Janet, Gerst found himself lying again, an unnecessary lie, wretched and mean. And such a simple thing, too.

“What’s wrong?” she’d asked.

“Nothing,” he’d said. “Just a mood.” And when she did not respond: “A bad day at work, I guess,” which silenced her. Work was off limits, the ministry had sworn him to secrecy seven years ago, when — he thought of Frank with a sudden stab of longing — he’d taken the oath of service. Yet why shouldn’t he tell her? Out and be done with it, this lie of omission. Tell her about the cards and tell her what they meant, and tell her, too, about the carving stowed away in the coat closet. Out with it all, he owed her that.

Yet even simple honesty eluded him, for when she asked if he’d been drinking, Gerst responded with another lie. Lie upon lie upon lie, and afterward a cold fury with Clive, with Lewis, with himself most of all. When Janet’s breathing steadied into sleep, he slipped out through the darkness and took the carving down from its shelf. This was the work he’d been born for, his gift, yet he took up his tools that night with anger, short, sharp strokes of the blade instead of the slow, meditative work of hands guided by an almost unconscious force, apart from him and at the core of his identity both. He profaned the work of his soul, or so he would later — too late — come to believe, so when the blade slipped and sliced deep into his thumb he should not have been surprised. The pain was immediate and sharp. Blood welled up from the wound to stain the pristine wood, and he bit down on his cry so hard that he bloodied his mouth, as well.

Grimacing, he put the sculpture on the table. In the kitchen, he ran cold water over his thumb. When he looked up, Sam stood by the coffee table.

“Did you hurt yourself, Daddy?”

Gerst turned off the water. He reached for a towel, wrapped his thumb, said through gritted teeth: “Go to bed, Sam.”

“But you’re hurt. I should get Mommy.”

“No, Sam — No. I’m fine. Just a little cut that’s all. A boo-boo.” But it throbbed like a bastard, this boo-boo, and the towel was already damp with blood. Gerst squeezed the wound, applying pressure with a sharp intake of breath.

Sam looked at the tools arrayed on the table. He reached for one of the blades, glittering in the red light from the sky beyond the slatted blinds.

“Sam!” Gerst said, and the boy froze. “You’ll cut yourself.”

And Sam — he was a good son, he always had been, loving and obedient — drew his hand back from the razor-edged tools. He took up the sculpture instead, tracing with his fingers the rough edges where Gerst had planned to sand it smooth when the blade-work was done.

“What is it, Daddy?”

“Please, Sam, it’s late. We don’t want to wake your mother.”

“But what is it?”

“A small thing, Sam. It’s nothing. I need you to go to bed.”

“It’s pretty.”

“It’s just a piece of wood.”

Sam turned the sculpture in his hands, studying it, and then he set it upright on the table. Gerst watched him, his thumb throbbing, the towel sodden with blood. He’d cut himself almost to the bone, and already — he couldn’t help himself — he was thinking about how a scar would restrict his range of motion. It would interfere with his work — his true work. He adjusted the towel in something like despair, applying fresh pressure to the wound. “Sam,” he said. “Please.”

Sam met his gaze, his face solemn. “Okay, Daddy.” And then: “Will you come tuck me in?”

“Sure. As soon as I can,” Gerst said. “You go on and try to get some sleep, okay? I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “Goodnight, Daddy.” And with a final glance back at the little carving — woman and reed, neither and both at the same time — he padded back through the shadowy doorway into his room.

Gerst stood looking after him. Then, still clutching his pounding thumb, he leaned his forehead against the cool surface of the refrigerator, fighting back tears. When he pulled away at last, he found himself staring at the picture Sam had torn from his coloring book and posted there so long ago. He found himself staring at the sigil of the Ministry of the Eye.

• • • •

“So what happened?” Keller asked over lunch, two or three blocks south of the forsaken zone, amid the clash of dishes and the clink of silver, the muted din of conversation. The End-of-the-World Café, rundown and drab: rump-sprung vinyl booths and peeling laminate tables, dead flies in the windowsills.

“What are you talking about?” Gerst asked, pushing food around on his plate.

“Your thumb is what I’m talking about. What do you think?”

Gerst had bandaged it hastily in the dark last night. By this morning it had leaked through, staining the gauze a muddy brown, and in the bathroom, alone awake in the dawn apartment, he’d dressed it more carefully, chewing three aspirin for the pain, and pocketing the bottle. When he left, Janet had been stirring. “Love you,” she’d mumbled, half awake in her nest of sheets, extending one arm to him, fingers splayed. He gripped them in his good hand, squeezing, and leaned over to kiss her cheek. Then he slipped into Sam’s cramped bedroom. He stood over the boy tangled in the bedclothes, thinking of last night —

 — what is it, daddy? —

— and longing for his lost life, coffee and cigarettes, the daily slog, innocent of the nature of his job. And his half day on Saturday, just this Saturday last, for instance: Sentinel done (Gerst had let Sam win, he always did), they’d improvised a road on the linoleum in the living room and raced Sam’s secondhand toy cars, a pair of battered and peeling diecast Hawks, simulating the roar of the engines, banging the chassis together, flipping them spinning on their roofs now and again, crash! Boy’s play, Janet said when she came in from the market with a paper sack of drooping vegetables. Swinging through the door, smiling her harried smile, every Saturday morning the same: Boy’s play.

“It must be killing your efficiency,” Keller said.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. You can’t handle the cards with a busted thumb.”

“I handled them fine.”

“Whatever you say. You’re at least an hour behind.”

“How do you know I’m behind?”

“I’m not blind am I?”

“Well, it hurts.”

“Fine. It hurts. How did you do it?”

“In the kitchen. Whatever.”

The waitress swung by to top off their coffee. She laid the check face down on the table.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Keller said. He slumped in his seat. “Look, we’re friends, Alex. I’m worried about you. You’ve really slipped lately.”

Gerst poured creamer into his coffee and stirred. “Maybe I don’t want a future at the ministry.”

“What are you going to do, go back to tending bar? You’ve got a family now.”

And then, like stepping to the edge of precipice, and not even aware that he was about to do it, Gerst said, “Who’d you give up to get your position, Keller?”

For a long time — a minute, maybe two — they stared across the table at one another. Despite the lunchtime rush — despite the clatter of dishes and conversation and the tinny echo of a distant radio in the kitchen — it seemed to Gerst that a bubble of absolute silence had enclosed them.

“You ask me that? We’re friends and you ask me that?”

Gerst said nothing.

Finally, Keller shrugged. “I just wrote down a name is all. I made it up.”

“It doesn’t work that way and you know it.”

“Then it’s none of your business. Who’d you give up, Alex?”

“My brother.”

Keller picked up the check. He flung a handful of bills on the table. “Lunch is on me,” he said. “We have to get back.”

Gerst didn’t move. He just sat there. “I know what the cards are for, Keller.”

“Come on, Alex, don’t do this to me. You’re breaking my balls here.”

“Listen —”

“I don’t want to know, all right?” Keller stood, shrugging on his coat, and started for the door. Gerst sat a moment longer, and then he followed. Outside a thin rain slanted down. Gerst paused under the awning to fumble with tobacco and papers, but his thumb was throbbing and he made a hash of it. “Here, give me that,” Keller said. “Let me do it.” He twisted up a cigarette. Gerst lit it, dragging smoke deep into his lungs. He wanted to cry. He didn’t know why.

They walked in silence. Traffic buzzed and hummed around them, horns blowing. Pedestrians shouldered past, heads ducked in the rain. An old woman without a leg sat at the edge of an alley, holding out a jar, and Gerst, who’d passed her without a glance a hundred times or more during his years at the ministry, stopped and dug in his pocket for a handful of change. Keller stood by watching. When they started moving again, he said, “Please, Alex. You’ve got to get your shit together. They don’t just let you walk away from a job in the ministry.”

Gerst flipped his cigarette into the street.

They’d nearly reached the pit itself when Keller spoke again. “My ex-wife,” he said. “She never did a thing to me.”

They walked on through the blasted zone then, through the rain and the gates and past the mountains of fuel for the pit and the final checkpoint into the ministry itself. Their heels echoed on the tile and everything smelled of wax and damp wool, everything smelled of death.

Gerst did what he could with the cards, but his thumb throbbed and he couldn’t think of much other than what he’d tell Janet about it. He’d have to tell her everything, he supposed. He supposed it was time.

But it turned out he didn’t have to tell her anything at all.

• • • •

They were waiting inside when he got home, two of them. He saw them just as he turned the final lock and swung open the door, ready to catch Sam up in his rain-damp arms, to lean in for a kiss from Janet, to let the day slough away. “What did you do to your thumb?” she would ask and he would tell her the truth. Together they would figure out what to do — a path out of this labyrinth of deception. All this and more but half envisioned, his guts knotting with anxiety as he turned the key in its lock and —

He sensed their absence in the apartment as the door swung open — a hollow echo in the kitchen, a flat lifeless reverberation, the dead air of an abandoned place. Gerst had a moment to think that Janet might have discovered him, the carving and the box of tools, or maybe the blood-sodden dishtowel he’d shoved under the sink to deal with later. Then the two men at the kitchen table stood, jackboots and black tunics with tiny rubies affixed to starched upright collars, faces thin and sharp.

“Papers,” the taller one — they were both tall — demanded, and Gerst, terrified, fumbled his wallet, spilling its contents: a paltry scatter of cash, his ministry ID, his official papers, folded and stamped, everything in order. And the photo of Frank, as well. For a fleeting second — as he went to his knees to scrape it all together — it occurred to Gerst that he might run, but where in Acheron could he flee that the Eye would not follow? And how? They’d catch him before he reached the bottom of the stairs. Then he had the papers. He looked up, unfolding them. The boot caught him full in the chin, spinning him back toward the door. He threw out a hand to catch himself, and his thumb caught the floor, unleashing a wave of agony. Then he was down, curled fetal as they kicked him, back and kidneys, a boot in his solar plexus. His breath burst out of him with a plosive whoosh, and for a heartbeat he was choking, drowning on dry land, papers forgotten. Then he could breathe again, great whooping gasps, begging, “Please, please” — shamed at this cowardice, how easily they had broken him. Then another kick, this one driving into the small of his back — Gerst screamed — then nothing at all. Just silence, a hitch of weeping that he recognized only dimly as his own.

The two men hauled him to his feet. They slammed him into the wall, wrenched his arms behind him, cuffed him, cinching the bracelets too tight. A moment later he was blind, shoved hooded out the door. Hands wrenched at his arms as they wrestled him down into the night. A cold torrent of rain molded the hood clammy against his face. Another shove, his head banging against metal with a flat thud. A car door clapped shut behind him, and his momentum carried him sprawling across the slick bench. The engine roared to life, the jerk of movement leaving a sick lurch in his stomach. He leaned forward in the seat, thinking of the pit, the taste of terror bright and shiny as a new coin under his tongue. He had not known he would be this afraid.

“Please,” he said, “I’m going to be sick.”

Nothing. Only hurtling momentum. Gerst threw up, choking, nostrils clogged. He fell sideways and rolled into the foot well, his jaw pressed into the warm stew of his own puke. After that mere snatches of consciousness. The lurch of traffic. The reek of his own vomit. Rifts of welcome darkness.

Then he was awake again. He didn’t know how much time had passed, only that the pain was back, a raw wire sawing at his guts. The door opened. The sentinels yanked him out of the car. Gerst staggered as they tore the hood away to reveal the intake center. The stench of the pit, sulfurous and ashen, simmered in the air. Fourteen-foot fences, coils of concertina wire, sniper towers stood black against the bloodshot sky. Cattle cars and tractor trailers disgorged endless streams of the damned — hooded, bound, herded by pitmen — into a vast, muddy, chain-link enclosure, like cattle in the killing chute. When someone stumbled or staggered out of line, the air sizzled with the ozone stink of the electric prods.

So this was how it ended, Gerst thought. In conflagration and in torture, inflicted by dutiful men like Clive, with his eye for beauty and horror alike, who followed the instructions whisked to them daily on a thousand thousand red-hued punch cards. An image of the little girl flashed through his mind, flayed hourly alive and forced to eat her own raw and bleeding flesh. He saw them now, the children in the stockade, dozens of them, hundreds, more. Ten-year-olds and toddlers and mere babies clutched to their mothers’ breasts. What could they have done to bring them to such a place? To what terrible fates would the ministry condemn them?

Gerst thought of Sam.

In the next moment he saw him.

The black-clad men unlocked Gerst’s cuffs and thrust him staggering toward the corral. He laced his aching fingers in the metal links and stared as the blue coveralls within slammed two figures into the fence. Janet gazed at him through strands of sodden hair, her eyes upraised, uncomprehending, as the rain hammered down upon her. “How?” she whispered. “Why, Alex?”

But Sam. Sam’s face was cold, his chin lifted in pride, his eyes unforgiving chips of glittering sapphire, and in that moment, Gerst saw how it must have been — the crèche and the sigil of the Eye so proudly displayed on the refrigerator, the prohibition against beauty drilled into him from the start. What is it, Daddy? he’d asked and A small thing, Gerst had said, and afterward the boy, It’s pretty. How could he not have seen?

“Sam,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

Then the press of the dead swept them away, toward the waiting intake officers, to be branded and dispatched into the fire. “Wait,” Gerst cried. He chased them along the fence line, slipped, fell, stumbled to his feet and fell once again. They were gone, disappeared. He pressed his face into the cold mud and wept. When his captors once again lifted him to his feet, they didn’t bother with the handcuffs or the hood. He shuffled like an old man as they led him toward the idling car, and suddenly a terrible understanding seized him.

“No!” Gerst cried, lunging away from them. He wheeled back toward the enormous, brooding facility of the pit, where always streamed the endless deluge of the condemned. His feet slipped in the mud. He threw out his arms too late and came crashing down on his side, his bruised torso screaming as he rolled, clawing for his feet. But it was too late. He was too weak, too tired. All he could do was crawl, groping in the mud for tussocks of wiry grass and dragging himself a foot at a time, two feet, nothing more. He collapsed facedown into the soupy earth to weep.

“Shhh, Mr. Gerst,” said a voice at his ear. “You must calm yourself.”

“No,” he gasped, “my family. I want to burn.”

The voice laughed quietly in the rain. “Sometimes there are worse things than burning, no? You need your rest. You have a long day at work tomorrow. And many days after that. Here now, let me help you to your feet.”

Reeling toward the car, Gerst wept, “It should have been me. My son —”

“Be still now, you will have many years yet to think of your son.”

Clive’s words came back to Gerst then —

 — the Eye is in the business of suffering —

— and he saw how it was to be with him hereafter, queues and cigarettes, and long days at the ministry, dispatching punishments to the pit below, his hands tremulous upon the cards.

Dale Bailey

Dale BaileyDale Bailey lives in North Carolina with his family, and has published three novels, The Fallen, House of Bones, and Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.). His short fiction, collected in The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories, has been a three-time finalist for the International Horror Guild Award, a two-time finalist for the Nebula Award, and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award. His International Horror Guild Award-winning novelette “Death and Suffrage” was adapted for film by director Joe Dante as part of Showtime Television’s anthology series, Masters of Horror. His collection, The End of the End of Everything: Stories, will be out in 2015.