By: M.A. Lang
Brainard Freeson slowly and methodically put away his tools. He glanced over at the small girl who sat on her bed, quietly sobbing. He snapped the case shut and left the room. The young girl’s mother sat tensely on the living room couch. She looked up when Brainard entered.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but you know the policy.” She nodded stiffly, her gaze looking at Brainard without actually seeing him. His own face was inscrutable, placid, stoic. Rule #1: Show No Emotion. “Your daughter cannot be permitted to pretend to see people who are not really there. She will be going to school soon; she will have real friends then.”
“She’s just a child, Mr. Freeson,” the mother spoke, emphasizing the last word, as if Brainard was not previously aware of this. She’s just pretending.”
“You’ve been warned, Mrs. Artsen, both you and your husband, multiple times. I’ve seen the reports. The Department has been here, what, oh, at least ten times. And you have how many children?”
“Two, Mr. Freeson, two. But you already know that, as you have read the reports and all.”
“Yes, two, which means that you have been failing in your parental duties if there have been five calls each.”
Frida Artsen looked away, staring at the wall.
“Mrs. Artsen, if there is one more call to your house, both you and your husband will be imprisoned, and your children will be placed within one of the Department’s schools, to ensure that they learn the rules. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Freeson, I understand. You told me that the last time you were here.”
“I would not have to be here at all if you were properly attending to your children.” He paused, reflecting on his previous visit. “Your son Leo was forming some dangerous ideas, ideas that you allowed him to have.”
“He was just telling me an idea for a story!” Mrs. Artsen exploded now, shouting. “A goddamned story, Brainard!”
Rule #1. Brainard looked at Frida impassively. “Has he been chosen as a Storyteller, Mrs. Artsen?”
Silence fell, filling the corners of the room.
“Well, Mrs. Artsen, has he?”
“No, he has not.”
“Then you should have deleted the thought the moment he told you. If not you, then your husband should have. I believe you have been issued a Negator?”
“Yes. It is by the door.” She waved vaguely in the direction of the front entrance. “I try to use it as little as possible.”
“You would have saved myself and everyone else a great deal of trouble if you had used it. It took me four hours to scrub your son’s mind clean, the thought had burrowed so deep.”
“Yes. We got the notice.” Mrs. Artsen rose. “Are you quite done, Mr. Freeson? I need to go to my daughter.”
He inclined his head. “Yes, Mrs. Artsen. I thank you for your time.” And before he could offer another reminder, Frida Artsen brushed briskly by him on the way to her daughter’s room.
“You may show yourself to the door, Mr. Freeson.”
Brainard Freeson shut the door to his car and looked into the review mirror. He adjusted his ID badge. Imagination Fidelity Agent. Office of Creative Control. Department for the Maintenance of Realism. It was a great deal of responsibility, Brainard reminded himself, making sure people’s imaginations remained well within the bounds of their assigned occupations. Some days were harder than others. The Artsens were notoriously difficult. Frida Artsen was a secretary at a construction company, and her husband, Hiero, was a clerk at a law office. Their son Leo was marked down for training as a mechanic. He had no business making up stories, and his parents had no business encouraging him. Brainard sighed. The Artsens were good people, and he hated having to upset them once again, but he was just doing his job.
Brainard Freeson was very good at his job. He was a man of little emotion, which became essential on days such as this, days when he had to confront the overarching imaginative ambition of his fellow citizens. He also had little imagination of his own, a fact which allowed him to rise quickly through the ranks of the Department. Government headhunters had easily marked him out as a man likely to excel at ensuring that people did not develop imaginations inappropriate to their stated societal roles. He sighed; he did not understand why people had difficulty accepting this.
He flicked his turn signal on and pulled carefully into the street. He drove downtown to his office nestled deep in the Department headquarters. Brainard Freeson may not have had much imagination, but he did have memories, and facts contained within these memories, and it was through these that his mind walked.
There was Mrs. Miranda, the retired accounting teacher. He had been called to her house many times and had conducted many cleanings. Finally, the day came when he was no longer permitted to clean her mind. He had arrived at her house, solemn, professional, stoic.
“Mrs. Miranda, you know why I am here?”
She had fixed him with an icy, defiant stare. “Yes. Mr. Freeson, I know your purpose here.”
“You were told to stop two days ago. You were given ample time before that to cease. The Department has been very lenient.”
“The Department can go fuck itself.”
So, so rude. Rule #1.
“Mrs. Miranda, reports indicate that your Negator has not been used recently. I did perform a performance check last time and determined that it was indeed operational. Has it since broken?”
“You know very well that it is not broken.”
“Your daily read-out? Have you checked that?”
“I don’t know where my Imagi-whatever-the-hell-it-is-called happens to be located.”
“Your ImagiTracker. “You don’t know where it is?”
“I have conveniently lost it.”
Brainard took a long, steady breath. Rule #2: Be Patient. “You do know that that is against the rules. The Government requires that all citizens keep their ImagiTrackers, along with their Negators, in a prominent position where they may be easily located and used.”
“Do you think I give a fuck what the Government thinks, you bureaucratic son of a bitch? But come, come, do what you are here to do. I’m tired of speaking to you, and your face irks me to no end.”
Brainard blinked once, twice, and then opened his briefcase and removed a paper. Rule #3: Be Resolute. “Mrs. Ellen Miranda, you stand here marked as out of compliance with multiple Government policies. Number one, desisting an order to cease composing music when your assigned occupation is not as a Melody Maker; furthermore, the music which you so unlawfully composed served no purpose in furthering the Government’s, and therefore, Society’s initiatives. Number two, failing to use your Negator the moment, again, that the idea for a song entered your mind, and so taking the personal responsibility that is required of all citizens to erase an inappropriate imaginative thought. Number three, failing to keep in its proper place your ImagiTracker and failing to read its daily read-outs that would warn you to keep any of the aforementioned thoughts under control. Number four, failing REPEATEDLY (he emphasized the word) to maintain these inappropriate thoughts, therefore necessitating repeated cleanings of your imagination.”
Ellen Miranda gave him a maliciously sweet look. “Why, but Mr. Freeson, isn’t that the whole purpose of your miserable, miserable existence?”
“I prefer to think that my job is to help people who cannot, for whatever reason, maintain their imaginations on their own, or those who simply do not want to do it on their own, those who perhaps need a little guidance. THAT is my job. However, I seem to spend much of my time addressing those individuals who CHOOSE not to maintain their imaginations, whether or not they are capable of doing so. It is very tiring.”
“Hmm, perhaps your department should devote some resources to figuring out just why that is.”
Brainard ignored that last comment. “Mrs. Miranda, I’m afraid that you have run the course of your imagination cleanings. I believe you know what is next?”
Ellen Miranda stood up tall, proud. “Let them in, Mr. Freeson.”
The door opened abruptly and three men from the Office of Creative Control entered, eyes hidden by dark sunglasses, features obscured by face masks. The Gatherers grabbed Ellen Miranda by the upper arms and led her to the open rear doors of a large van, emblazoned with the Department’s logo. Brainard walked to the now-open front door and caught a shiny glimpse of the machinery inside. The van doors closed with a sharp snap, and Brainard soon heard a gentle whirring, a sound which gradually rose in a crescendo to a higher-pitched whine before ending in a loud crack. The van quickly pulled out of the driveway. Brainard watched it go. He knew the result of this meeting. Mrs. Miranda would now be Assigned to the Office of Menial Tasks. The Gatherers had seen to it that her mind, that once was capable of instructing students in the ways of financial management and the art of musical composition (illicit musical composition, he reminded himself and that he had written into his final report on the case) was now only capable of completing the simplest and most basic of tasks. Those were the wages of sin, Brainard thought. Mrs. Miranda knew that. She had failed to follow the rules, and now was facing the consequences. Brainard stood in the doorway and shook off the thought. She would be taken care of though; the people in the Office of Menial Tasks always were. All they had to do was wake up, eat, complete their jobs, eat again, complete some more work, eat again, go to sleep. There were even people there to watch over them! This is what they would do until they proved they could no longer even complete the easiest jobs. Then… well… Brainard turned to look back in the house. The Gatherers would return to collect up any physical evidence of Mrs. Miranda’s music and take it to the Department headquarters for further processing before it was eventually destroyed.
Brainard looked to his right, through the passenger side window. The city courthouse rose up proudly from the level of the street. A large banner hung from the front of the façade, hanging down in front of elegant columns. “ALL THAT IS NEEDFUL” was spread across the face of the banner, in large, bold letters. That was the Slogan of the Government, that was the motto by which he and his fellow citizens lived. In the courtyard in front of the wide, sweeping steps that led up to the courthouse doors stood the stout wooden frame of the city gallows. It was empty now. A small shudder went through Brainard as he remembered the last time that the gallows had been occupied. He had been involved in that case, too. Old Mr. Albrecht, the former lawyer. He had secretly been giving dancing lessons to some neighborhood children. That he had thought of doing this, had, of course, been known, but the last straw had come when some of his pupils were observed practicing. They were small children, easily controlled, and they were contrite when confronted, and their parents dutifully Negated the thoughts of dancing from their offspring’s minds. Mr. Albrecht had not been so easily swayed. His case would have been similar to Mrs. Miranda’s, all except for the fact that he had refused Reassignment. It would have been so simple, it only hurt for a second (so Brainard had heard). Albrecht was a cantankerous old man, though, and remained so right up until the very end, unrepentant even as the wedge was kicked out from under his feet and his body swung from the rope upon which he was hanged. The citizenry of the city was gathered in the Watching Place, Brainard among them. Lessons taught, lessons learned. That had been two months ago.
The courthouse and its doleful decoration slipped past as Brainard made his way to his office. He had to make a detailed report of his visit to the Artsen’s. He dearly hoped that he would not have to return there again. But no, he would not; they would follow the rules, they would do what was required by the Government.
Brainard sat down in his office chair and sighed deeply. He turned on his computer and watched as the screen came to life. The seal of the Office of Creative Control blossomed into view. He rapidly typed in his password, little dots in the place of letters and numbers. He opened up his “Reports” file, located a folder labeled “Artsens”, scrolled to the bottom of the document, and began typing, updating the case file. He sighed again. His sighing must have been louder than he had intended, because he soon looked up to see the face of his colleague, Joe Smith, in the crack left by the open door of his office. He silently cursed that he had left his door ajar, suddenly having become aware of an overwhelming desire to be alone. Brainard had been working his way up the cut-throat office ladder ever since he had been Assigned to the Department as a young man. Not yet forty, he was still a young man, and he had his own office. Joe, if he had more ambition (or brains, Brainard thought) would have his own office, too, but he still had a desk in a cubicle, and was forever “popping” into Brainard’s space.
“Tough day, Brain?”
Brainard paused, distracted. “Yea…the Artsens again. You know how they are.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Oh – those guys. Nobody else wants to deal with them, you know. That’s why you always get them.”
Brainard shrugged. “I don’t mind. I’ve known them for quite some time now.” Brainard looked up at Joe, still lingering in the doorway. “Hey, Joe, I have a lot of work to do. Do you need something?”
“Oh, no. Just wanted to check on you, what with your sighing and all.”
“OK then. Joe, could you please close the door on your way out?”
“Sure, Brain. See ya.” Joe closed the door with a quick snap and walked down the hallway to find another Agent to bother.
Brainard turned back to his screen and continued typing up his case notes. Click, click, click, the keys on his keyboard sang their familiar song. Brainard completed the report, hit Save, stood up, and stretched. His eyes met the camera above the door of his office, rather poorly disguised in the middle of the “A” contained within the Government’s slogan, stretched above the door: “ALL THAT IS NEEDFUL.”
The Government had instituted the slogan after The War. It ensured that order, control, and discipline was kept among the people. The War had devasted the country. Millions dead, millions more wounded, land and crops destroyed, burned, stores and businesses pillaged, houses and buildings bombed. Those who survived the fighting were left to fend for themselves in a lawless land, fighting in a battle for survival that was practically equaled in ferocity to The War itself. Brainard himself had not been alive during The War, but his grandfather had. He had been one of the ones to survive the fighting, only to slowly starve in the aftermath. Brainard knew what he knew from the stories his grandfather had told (in addition, of course, to the required lessons on The War every child learned in school); stories told by his grandfather until he put a bullet through his own skull. At the time, people sent his family condolences for the tragic, tragic loss. Brainard, then 15 or so, heard whispers, and was old enough to understand them. Whispers that said that old Cognesco Freeson had been fomenting rebellion against the government and had committed suicide to escape justice, as opposed to the official report that his mind was simply disintegrating. At the time, Brainard believed the former. As an employee of the Government, he still believed that; it was after all, official.
The Government. It kept everyone safe. The venerable graybeards who had lived through the Starving Time could vouch for that. Amongst the chaos and anarchy that had filled the vacuum left by the collapse of society, rose a group of people, who in turn raised an army, who in turn raised the world back up again. Brainard played out the well-learned history in his mind. He smiled. The world that once had almost ended had been saved, saved by that self-same Government that he now served. It had taken time of course. Not everyone was happy. Sacrifices had to be made. The only way to stop a world that had spun out of control was to exert absolute control. There was so much work to be done to rebuild the world and everyone needed to do their part. One of the first initiatives the Government undertook was to assign everyone a job. Brainard frowned, remembering a story his grandfather had told. One of his friends, an artist, had refused the job the Government had Assigned. This friend, his grandfather explained, was also a talented carpenter, building houses in addition to coaxing that same wood he built with to reveal its inner secrets and hidden beauty. It was this latter skill, though, that the government required. Brainard had been confused at the time, seeing no conflict in the acknowledgement of a man’s useful skill. His friend would have been happy to share his carpentry, his grandfather had explained, would have built houses up and down the coast if that was all that was needed. What was the problem, then? Art was the problem. Art? Art was not needful. “All That is Needful” thought Brainard, looking above his office door again. My friend refused to give up his art, his grandfather had said. The second initiative of the Government was to ban all unnecessary pursuits and occupations. Thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, dancers, sculptors, writers, poets, and all others who lived and breathed the imaginative air of life, were culled, through often brutal interrogation, for other useful skills and forced into other jobs. Many complied, Brainard’s grandfather said, for even the creative mind needs to live. Others, like my friend, defied orders. Brainard thought of Mr. Albrecht on the gallows. Actions had consequences. What had happened to him? I watched him swing from the gallows on the courthouse steps. Every schoolchild knew that the courthouse was the first building to be rebuilt and the gallows constructed on the steps soon after. The whispers had said that that would have been his grandfather’s fate. Had he not first stolen that gun.
As harsh as the Government’s initiatives were, they worked. The world revived. People survived. Society rebuilt. Babies were born, new generations that only knew the world that the Government had built. The world before The War was only known as history. A history marked by disorder, uncontrollable and undisciplined behavior. Brainard and his contemporaries had been taught that this was one of the contributing factors that had led to The War. People had become lazy and complacent, and failed to see the danger until it had overtaken them. By then, it was too late. But no more! Order, control, and discipline had been restored. Borders had been strengthened. Walls had been built. The oldest members of society could still reminisce about the freedoms that had been lost. Sacrifices had to be made. Even the most recalcitrant elders had to admit that this was the truth. Those who could not, or would not, accept this could always find a home in the Office of Menial Tasks.
Now, everybody had a purpose. Everybody played a role in keeping society running smoothly. Those with skill with words were the Storytellers, writing textbooks from which children would learn about the triumphs of the Government and composing articles detailing the latest updates to rules and policies. Only what was needful. The Melody Makers wrote songs, patriotic hymns that explained in verse and chorus the exultant rise of the Government’s Army and arranging jingles reminding people of rules and policies. Only what was needful. The Visualists created public murals that depicted the founding fathers of the Government and the Generals of the Army, strong in bold outlines and bright colors and designed posters that prompted people to follow rules and policies. Only what was needful. Brainard was needful. Brainard was always needful.
Brainard returned home that evening. He stepped in the door and hung up his keys. He glanced at the stand next to his door and checked the read-out on his ImagiTracker. Empty. Perfect. He sat down in his favorite chair and removed his shoes. He loosened his tie and began unbuttoning his shirt. He felt strangely tired. Despite the repeat visit to the Artsen’s, his day had not been any more taxing than usual, but he felt exhausted. He reclined in his chair and glanced over at his ImagiTracker and its empty read-out. In order to control the imaginations of its citizens, the government had implemented a third important initiative. Every citizen, upon reaching the age of three, had implanted in their brain a chip, and its corresponding wires, in their frontal lobe. The purpose of this device was to record and capture any impermissible creative thoughts and imaginative tendencies. The sooner the better, was the reasoning for starting at such a young age. Best the children learn while they are young. If they later showed gifts that the Government could use, then they would be Assigned to use them. Otherwise, it was the kindest thing to begin to control them straightaway. Parents were instructed to use the family Negators to erase any of these thoughts as they arose in their children, much as they were instructed to do the same for themselves. The ImagiTracker printed a daily read-out for each family or individual unit to monitor any of these thoughts as they happened to arise. Any illegal thoughts were to be Negated within twenty-four hours. Offenders would be visited by an Agent from the Department. First-time offenders were often seen by a younger, less experienced Agent. The hard cases were handled by Brainard; many people knew him by name. Actions had consequences. Imaginations needed cleaning. Control would be kept.
The next day, after lunch, Brainard stood on a platform, leaning against a metal railing, looking down upon a gigantic, room-sized machine. Gleaming in all its metallic, cylindrical glory, was the Omniopticon. This tower was the beating heart of the Department, and as far as Brainard was concerned, all the Government’s initiatives. It was into this mechanical beast that everyone’s imaginative and creative thoughts flowed, both those permitted by occupation and those not permitted, which were most of them. Signals were sent from every person’s mind to the Omniopticon, which then analyzed those thoughts, and transmitted the results to individual ImagiTrackers. Those citizens who read and heeded the read-outs Negated any improper thoughts. And those who did not, well, that was where Brainard and his fellow Agents stepped in. And there were a great many improper imaginative thoughts. Brainard, his fellow agents, and the Department heads analyzed all of them at daily meetings. Most citizens did their duty, Brainard gratefully realized, and Negated those thoughts. Of those who did not, most simply forgot, or needed help Negating them, or were unwilling to do so themselves. A smaller percentage of those holdouts were a bit more stubborn; that was when Brainard made his visits. He sighed deeply, content. He looked lovingly out at the Omniopticon, small lights blinking upon its surface. Its construction had begun in the days of the Government’s restructuring of society after The War, and improvements and necessary repairs had been made in the many decades since. A small team of Department employees were dedicated to the Omniopticon’s upkeep and were thus highly regarded. Access to the machine was tightly controlled, and Brainard himself had had to work for several years to gain himself access. Even now, he could only look down upon the Omniopticon from above. It was enough, though. Looking upon it gave Brainard a great sense of calm. Which was important because he felt troubled. His grandfather had been much in his thoughts lately, as well as Ellen Miranda and Stephen Albrecht. Brainard ran his hand against the back of his neck and up the side of his head to rub his fingers against the spot on his skull above where he knew his own brain chip was implanted. He could not remember, of course, when it had been done. As part of his training, he had watched the procedure. The child was brought in, sedated, the parents sitting off to the side, nervous. A small incision, a small hole, a small, needle-thin stylus with the chip and corresponding thin, almost invisible wires on the end, a camera catching all the maneuvers, and then, after a few turns and tweaks, it was in! The chip was safely nestled within the brain’s tissue and actively recording all the brain’s creative and imaginative thoughts. The stylus was then removed, the hole patched, the incision closed, and the child and her head allowed to finish healing over the next several weeks. The small child whose procedure Brainard had witnessed was up and running around in the schoolyard only a month later. It was all needful. Brainard sighed and took one last look at the Omniopticon. He turned and left to return to his office. Once there, he saw the light blinking on his office phone. Brainard watched it, annoyed. More and more often, he found himself wanting to be left alone in his office. He pushed a button to listen to the message. It was one of the Department’s secretaries. He picked up the phone and dialed her extension. The phone rang.
“Hello, Jessica Miller.”
“Hi, Jessica, this is Brainard. You left me a message?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Freeson,” she said with a bright, bubbly voice. It irritated him. “You have an assignment. A house call.” She had paused in between, as if to make sure Brainard understood what an “assignment” meant.
He grabbed a pen and a notepad to begin recording the details. “Yes. OK, tell me where.”
“You need to go to a man named Ernesto Dante.”
Brainard paused, puzzled. “Dante? I’ve never been to see him before. He’s not a repeat offender. Send Mark instead.”
“This is apparently a special case, though. Something the Omniopticon picked up about him. Your name came up as the Agent to whom the case was to be referred.” Brainard shrugged. The Omniopticon was never wrong. “OK, I’ll get right on it.”
Brainard gathered up his tools. He climbed into his car, shut the door, buckled the seatbelt (safety first!), and pulled out of the parking lot. He turned on his car’s GPS system and followed the directions to Dante’s residence. He pulled up to a large white house. Nice neighborhood, thought Brainard as he got out of his car and walked up to the front door. He rang the bell. A young, dark-haired man answered the door. Brainard flashed his badge. “Ernesto Dante?”
“Yes. What do you want?”
“May I come in?”
Dante looked at him coldly. Rules 1, 2, and 3. “No, but I will let you anyway. I’d hate to have to your henchmen come after me. You look a bit easier to deal with.” He opened the door wider, and Brainard stepped into a tastefully decorated living room. “Please, sit.” Dante indicated an elegant striped chair. “Would you like something to drink?”
Brainard paused, unaccustomed to such hospitality. “Just a water, please. Thank you.” Brainard sat in the chair and placed his briefcase beside him on the floor. He soon returned from the kitchen with Brainard’s water, and something rather stronger for himself. He sat in a chair opposite and crossed his long legs languidly. Brainard had assumed his drink was to steel his nerves, but if Ernesto Dante was nervous, his calm, almost arrogant demeanor did not suggest it.
“So, Mr. Freeson, how are you?”
Brainard took a sip of his water. “I am well, Mr. Dante. However, you must know why I am here.”
“Yes. I have an inkling.”
Brainard opened his case to remove a report. “Then you know that you have been found in violation of the Government’s initiatives regarding imaginative thoughts. You have been found to be in possession of several imaginative thoughts which are not in keeping with your profession, which is” – Brainard glanced at the report – “a surgeon.” Brainard looked up, adjusting his use of titles. “That is very important work, Dr. Dante, highly respected work. Why would you jeopardize that very work with these inappropriate thoughts?”
“It is also highly stressful work, Mr. Freeson.” He looked down, mournfully. “I’ve lost a couple of patients recently, despite my best efforts.” He looked up again. “One cannot blame me for needing some sort of release.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Dr. Dante, but you of all people should know that there are other ways to cope with your pain. Ways that do not involve flouting the rule of law.”
Ernesto Dante took a sip of his drink and looked shrewdly at Brainard from over the rim of his glass. He slowly placed the glass down on the coffee table between the chairs.
“Mr. Freeson, before you commence with the rest of your business here, may I show you something?”
Brainard Freeson turned in his chair slightly, suddenly uncomfortable. Something about this man’s manner was disconcerting, and he felt his usual steely resolve wavering.
“If you must, Doctor. But then, I must be about my business. You understand.”
“But of course.” He stood up. “Mr. Freeson, if you will, please follow me.”
Brainard Freeson hesitated, and then followed Ernesto Dante from the living room.
The two men walked through other similarly elegantly apportioned rooms until they came to a door at the end of a small corridor. Ernesto opened it, flicked on a light, and stepped inside. Brainard followed him inside. He took in a sharp, short breath. Stretched across almost half the width of the small room was a large canvas resting on an easel. Behind it was the beginnings of a smaller painting, an outline of its scene sketched on the pale surface. Brainard looked at the painting, and felt, almost imperceptibly, something in his mind shift. He let his eyes travel, from left to right, the length of the painting. Within the four boundary lines of the rectangular canvas was described a scene of infinite vastness; a rolling line of deeply wooded mountains with a small, silvery-blue stream cutting its way through a narrow valley. An endless blue sky occupied the top third of the frame. Brainard understood from his history lessons and stories from grandfathers and grandmothers that such places had once existed, but he had never seen anything like it in his almost forty years of life. Neither had Ernesto Dante. Brainard continued staring, transfixed; it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He swallowed, hard, aware of an increasingly uncomfortable tightening in his chest. He closed his eyes, shook his head, composed himself. He jerked his head in the direction of the other canvas. “What’s that one going to be?” Ernesto walked over and picked it up. A faint outline of a young girl’s face was traced out, a pretty, sweet face.
“My niece. My brother’s child.” He tilted his head, smiling. “She’s the most wonderful child, you know. Full of the hope and joy of small children.” He frowned. “It’s a shame that she has to live in such an evil world.” He looked pointedly at Brainard, into his eyes and deep into his soul, a long, searching look that did not waver. Was this what the Omniopticon saw? Brainard felt cracks running through him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. The child is beautiful.
Ernesto turned to place the canvas back on its easel, and Brainard took a moment to gather himself. Rules 1, 2, and 3. “Dr. Dante, please, we must…”
“Come, follow me,” the young doctor broke in, interrupting. “I want to show you something else.” He walked off without further comment. Brainard followed him. Ernesto walked back down the small hallway and opened a door to the left. Ernesto walked over to the room’s sole occupant, and removed a large cloth, revealing a small piano. He sat down on the bench and lifted up a cover and ran his fingers lightly over the keys.
“Where did you get that?” said Brainard, summoning his sternest bureaucratic voice. Instruments were strictly restricted to the Melody Makers.
Ernesto grinned. “I have my ways, Mr. Freeson.”
How has he gotten away with this? How has anyone I’ve visited gotten away with any of this? He thought of Ellen Miranda and Stephen Albrecht. They had clearly been cultivating their talents for years, only to be discovered when, what, they slipped? Ernesto Dante seemed to be able to read Brainard’s thoughts.
“Mr. Freeson, you and your Department do an admirable job. Congratulations. However, the Government has forgotten one very important thing.” He paused, waiting for a response. Brainard was silent. “We are not robots, nor puppets. Sure, we Negate our thoughts every day, many faithfully, and they go away for a while, and we obey. But they always come back.” He emphasized these last words, leaning forward. He gave a rather self-satisfied smirk. “We have, what, a full day to rid ourselves of these thoughts, no? That is plenty of time, day after day, year after year, to build, little by little, our talents and skills before we banish them for a time.”
“But you get rid of them. You Negate them.” Brainard protested, stubbornly.
Ernesto shook his head slowly. “Those faithful to the rules will always Negate thoughts when they arise, every time, like clockwork. But they have to keep doing it again and again and again, but it’s not enough, Mr. Freeson. It’s only temporary.” He paused, looking at Brainard thoughtfully. “Why do you think your Department is so busy? Why do think you make multiple house calls?” Brainard reflected on the long list of violations he and his office analyzed on a daily basis. Ernesto continued, “Why do you think all of those people who condemn themselves to the Menial Tasks Office are older folks?” He continued on, without waiting for an answer. “Because they have realized something in the twilight of their lives. They are tired of hiding, tired of keeping in the shadows that which would enrich and beautify the lives of humanity. They know that their years are almost spent, and no longer wish to spend that which they have remaining wasting their gifts; they have nothing left to lose, in other words.”
“But what about you, you are a young man, Dr. Dante, and have many years remaining; years that you may spend saving countless lives. Why risk your own now?”
Ernesto Dante smiled again. “Perhaps I’m already tired of hiding, Mr. Freeson.”
Brainard straightened up, putting on his best official demeanor. “Dr. Dante, you have dissembled long enough. I am here to…”
“Wait, please, you must listen to this, Mr. Freeson,” and before Brainard could continue, Ernesto Dante had placed his hands on the keys and began playing a song of such surpassing beauty and loveliness that Brainard felt something quietly explode inside his mind. He had never heard anything like it in his life. His grandfather had told him that, at one time, people created such things all the time, that many people made their living, or attempted to make their livings, doing so. All Brainard had ever heard was the propaganda celebrating the Government’s good works. Brainard watched as Ernesto’s long fingers, his practiced surgeon’s hands, moved fluidly up and down the keyboard. When his song was complete, he gently closed the cover and placed the cloth back over the piano. He turned to face Brainard.
Brainard stood there, lost for a moment. “Mr. Freeson.” Ernesto’s voice brought Brainard back to himself. He drew himself up once again and pointed his finger sternly at Ernesto.
“Dr. Dante, you must cease this activity at once.” This time, though, he could not disguise the waver in his voice. Ernesto waved him off dismissively.
“Yes, yes, I know. Well, do what you have come to do, Mr. Freeson. But, please, not here. Let’s return to the sitting room. It is much more comfortable there.” Ernesto got up, and Brainard followed him.
When they returned to the sitting room, Brainard picked up his briefcase and placed it briskly on the table. He opened it up, businesslike. “Dr. Dante, please sit down and be still. Do your best to relax. This will not take long.” Ernesto did as he was told, and returned to his drink, sipping it while Brainard prepared his tools. He continued in this manner, dangling his drink between his long fingers and leaning his elbows against his loosely crossed legs, staring out the window as Brainard stepped up and stood at the side of his head, tools in hand. They shook, with a violence that Brainard did not think he was capable of. He took a deep breath, stepped back, and then stepped forward again, raising his tools to the side of Ernesto’s head. I’ve done this a million times. His hands continued to shake. His vision blurred, and he found himself unable to focus. His mind swirled with visions, memories of his grandfather, Mrs. Miranda, Mr. Albrecht, Ernesto’s paintings, his songs, all were mixed up in a mass of feelings and emotions that Brainard had never felt before. He gripped his tools hard, his heart beating in his chest. Somewhere, in the midst of all that mess, a small voice spoke up. Brainard had no choice but to listen to it. You can’t do this. And he couldn’t. Brainard lowered his hands. Ernesto looked up at him.
“Done? Well, that did not hurt at all.”
“No…well, yes, yes, I am done. Dr. Dante, I could not do it. I could not clean your imagination, not even temporarily.”
Ernesto raised his eyebrows. “Well, well, the great Brainard Freeson has finally met an imagination even he can’t handle.”
“Please, DO NOT tell anyone about this. And, please, please whatever you do, Negate your thoughts tonight. Please, just until I can find a way to destroy any evidence of this.”
Ernesto leaned back, pondering this. “Alright, Mr. Freeson, since you were so kind not to clean my imagination, I’ll do this. But know this – I will not stop. I do not fear the Government, nor you, nor the goons they call the Gatherers. Do what you will; they may send whoever they want to my door, I will not stand down.”
Brainard returned to his car, and peeled out of Ernesto’s driveway, tires squealing. He needed to return to the Department as quickly as possible. He thought of the Omniopticon, and for the first time, he felt fear. He also felt many other things, so many other things that he couldn’t control. They piled in his mind, thick and fast: The Artsens and their children, Ellen Miranda and Stephen Albrecht, his grandfather, that bastard Ernesto Dante and his beautiful art. Soon he was seeing pictures in his mind, imagining things that weren’t really there: soaring mountains, winding rivers, sunlight dappling the leaves of trees, laughing little girls with flowers in their hair. He pulled into the parking lot, panic-stricken. He ran into the building and went straight to the terrace overlooking the Omniopticon. He looked down at the behemoth, suddenly menacing. The blinking lights that had once seemed so comforting now glared at him accusingly. It knows. It always knows. Brainard had said he would find a way to destroy the evidence, but in truth, he had absolutely no idea how. He looked down at the small figures of the workers on the floor. One of them looked up and waved at him, smiling. Brainard went back to his office.
Once there, he shut the door firmly and locked it. He sat down at his desk, turned on his computer, and opened a folder – Dante – and stared at the blinking cursor on the blank document. He continued staring, until a knock on the office door made him jump a mile out of his seat.
“Mr. Freeson, Mr. Freeson?” It was the voice of Tom Glover, an analyst who worked on the Omniopticon. He sounded worried. Brainard turned white.
“Hold on.” Brainard went to open the door. Tom stood there in the doorway, a piece of paper in his hand.
“Mr. Freeson, I thought you should see this.” Brainard looked down at it. The Omniopticon generated reports detailing its findings.
Brainard glanced up and down the hallway. “Please come in.” He shut and locked the door behind Tom. “Please, sit down, Tom.”
Tom Glover sat down and fiddled nervously with the paper in his hand. “Mr. Freeson, I was looking through the reports generated by the Omniopticon, and I came upon this one. When I saw it, well, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, the Omniopticon is never wrong, but well, it is a machine, and machines can malfunction, and well, I thought that you should see it.” He handed the paper to Brainard. It described, in excruciating detail, the events of the day. “I mean, we get many reports, and most of them are pretty garden-variety, so to speak, and can wait to be dealt with, but this one, well…” Tom trailed off.
Brainard looked up at Tom Glover. His panic had actually lessened a bit. Here was now evidence that could be destroyed. And Tom, well Tom was just one of so many Government drones, buzzing about the hive; the veracity of this report was also in doubt. “Has anyone else seen this?”
“No sir, just me.”
“Thank you for bringing this to me, Tom. Yes, I think you are right. There clearly has been a mistake. See to it that the technicians check the Omniopticon fully. We don’t want there to be any more errors.”
“Yes, sir.” Brainard watched as Tom walked back down the hallway. He shut and locked the door. He returned to his computer and began typing. A report would be generated, and it would say what Brainard wanted it to say.
He returned to his apartment that evening, the report stashed carefully in his briefcase. He looked at his front entrance table. His ImagiTracker had spooled out a piece of paper so long that it dragged on his floor. Brainard tore it off and sat down and read it. It detailed every inadmissible thought that he had that day, with reminders to Negate them, and instructions in case he forgot how. No problem. I can do this. Brainard got up, went to the kitchen to pour himself a drink, and returned, picking up the pen-sized Negator and pressed it firmly against his head, right above his own chip. His thumb hovered over the button that would deliver the pulses to his brain that would erase all those thoughts. He took a drink to try to steady his shaking hands and rubbed his thumb over the top of the button, touching it slightly harder this time. He closed his eyes. Then, with a sudden force, he threw the Negator across the room. No. If Ernesto Dante could keep a secret, so could he. What he had seen and heard today was too beautiful, too special. He looked down at the read-out in his hand and thought of the report in his briefcase. He would destroy the evidence. He was a trusted Government employee; he was the great Brainard Freeson.
He returned to his office the next day, and sat down at his desk, turned on his computer, and began checking through department emails as he sipped his coffee. There was going to be a great deal of business to attend to today. He sent replies to a few of the messages, and then turned his attention to what was foremost in his mind. He read through, again, the Omniopticon’s report and his ImagiTracker’s read-out. They were accurate down to every detail. Damned bureaucratic efficiency. Later today, Brainard would take them to the incinerator and throw them in. His office door creaked open as Brainard was reaching the end of the report for the third time, and Joe poked his head in. Brainard jerked so hard that he sent his coffee cup sailing off his desk, splattering brown liquid everywhere. Fuck, Brainard, you forgot to shut the door. “Joe, shit, do you ever knock?” Brainard shouted, glaring. Nosy bastard. He hastily shoved the report and read-out underneath his desk calendar.
“Sheesh, Brain. I’m sorry. Are you OK?”
“I’d be better if you observed proper office etiquette, like everyone else.” Brainard smoothed out the front of his suit and ran his hands through his hair. He paused, forgiving Joe his faults. “Joe, what can I do for you?”
“I was told to come and let everyone know that the Omniopticon is undergoing some maintenance today. I think it’ll be down all day. Apparently, there was some sort of major malfunction yesterday.” He shrugged. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.” He moved forward, peering at Brainard’s desk. “Say, Brain, it looks like you were working on something important before I came in.”
Brainard moved his arms over his desk calendar protectively. “Yes. Important Agent business, Joe.”
Joe was not easily dissuaded. “Well, being that I’m an Agent-in-Training and all, maybe it would be good for me to see what it is. It’d be educational – you could teach me something.” Joe had been in “training” for years now. It was a poorly kept secret that he yearned for Brainard’s office.
“Sorry Joe, but I can’t show you. Besides, I’m not your Trainer. But, hey, thanks for the news about the Omniopticon. I hope that they can fix it soon.” Joe left Brainard’s office, but not before shooting Brainard a withering look. Brainard watched him shut the door and then returned to work.
The rest of the morning was spent answering phone calls, responding to emails, writing reports, attending meetings. Brainard took a lunch break, and on his way back to the office, stopped at the door to the Omniopticon’s terrace. A large sign was on the front of the door: NO ENTRY DUE TO MAINTENANCE. A good sign, thought Brainard. He returned to his office and slid his key card through the slot. He frowned. He slid the card again, expecting to hear the familiar click of the lock. He looked down at the bottom of the door and realized with horror that the door was slightly open and therefore unlocked. I forgot to shut the door all the way. Brainard burst into his office without turning on the light and looked under his desk calendar. The report and print-out were gone. Joe. He’d been so distracted.
“Brainard.” He jumped when he heard his name. He turned to see the face of his supervisor, looking at him with an icy stare. “I need to have a word with you.” There was no choice. Brainard followed him down the hall, and they turned into a large conference room. “Sit.” His boss indicated a lone chair on one side of a large table at which he and his colleagues typically held their daily meetings. Sitting on the other side of the table were, among other Important People, the Director of the Office of Creative Control, and the Chair of the Department. His supervisor took an empty seat on that side of the table. Sitting off to the side was none other than Joe Smith. The Director slid the report and print-out toward Brainard.
“Mr. Freeson, can you please explain this?”
Brainard looked at them, hard. He swallowed. “It appears to be an Omniopticon report and an ImagiTracker read-out, sir.”
“Don’t evade my question, Freeson. Care to explain why they are your report and read-out?”
Brainard desperately searched for an answer. He looked over at Joe, who simply looked back at him. “Where were these found?”
“In your office, Mr. Freeson. I do not think I need to tell you what a precarious position you are in. I suggest that you tell us the truth if you have any hope of making a choice for your future survival.”
Brainard stumbled into the square, blinking his eyes against the bright sunlight. A crowd was gathered in the Watching Place, cordoned off with a bright red rope. Two pairs of strong hands belonging to masked Gatherers held onto his upper arms, his wrists rubbed raw against the scratchy rope that bound them behind his back. He glanced up at the strong wooden frame above him, an oval of rope dangling from it, hanging in the air. He thought of Mr. Miranda. Brainard had been in the crowd that day. He stumbled again as he was hauled up the steps and then up onto the block that stood directly underneath the noose. Brainard stood calmly as the rope was placed about his neck and simply frowned as he felt the heavy press of the knot. He glanced over to his right. Ernesto Dante was not going quite so quietly. His muffled curses and shouts were heard across the courthouse square as he fought against the Gatherers that dragged him, kicking and writhing, to a block set up on a hastily constructed platform. The Government, in all its violent machinations and planning, had never thought that it would be needful to execute more than one person at a time, and so had not created more hanging space. With a swift kick to the back of his legs, The Gatherers forced Ernesto to his knees. They shoved his head down upon the block, turning it so that he faced Brainard. They swiftly bound his chest and upper arms to the block, as well as the top of his head, leaving his neck exposed against the grain of the wood. Behind him, a hooded Gatherer stood, putting some final sharpening touches to a large axe. Even though his features were obscured, Brainard knew the man. His aim was sure and true; he would not miss, nor would he hesitate. Brainard knew these men, knew all these men. The Gatherers kept their offices deep in the basements of the Department; one only went there if it was absolutely necessary. Only doing our job, they had told him when they had taken him from the office conference room, as curious eyes watched from offices, cubicles, computer screens, water coolers. Only doing our job, they had told him when he had been loaded into the back of their van. Only doing our job, they had told him when they interrogated him as to why he had refused to clean Ernesto’s imagination. Only doing our job, they explained when they gave him a choice: Be Reassigned to the Office of Menial Tasks or face the gallows. Brainard stood there, reflecting upon his choice. The Gatherers had been disappointed when he told them. They had sighed deeply. They had even tried to convince him to change his mind. But Brainard’s mind was made up. He had seen Ernesto’s paintings, had heard his music. And he understood. For the first time in his life, he had seen, heard, and felt exquisite beauty, and it was something that he could never forget. Permanently forget he would, though, if he was Assigned to the Office of Menial Tasks, and to him that was a fate worse than death. So, here he stood, facing death. He thought of Mr. Miranda again, and understood, now, his terrible choice. He thought of his grandfather. He hoped that he would be proud. Somewhere in the courtyard, he heard the booming voice of the herald read out the charges and accusations against both himself and Ernesto. He gave a slight grimace as the noose’s knot was once again adjusted and tightened against his neck. He looked out at the crowd before him. Standing in its midst was Joe Smith, arms crossed, staring out at a point in space before him. His face was inscrutable. Brainard turned to watch as The Gatherers tied a blindfold around Ernesto’s face. The hooded Gatherer stepped up to the block and raised his arms. A swift whoosh of air and a loud thud and crack echoed through the air, as there was a sharp collective intake of breath. Then silence. Brainard had closed his eyes at the critical moment, but still was witness to some of the horror. He felt ill. Heavy steps echoed on the gallows platform, and a heavy black cloth was placed over his own face. The solemn form of Joe Smith was the last thing that Brainard saw with his eyes. In his mind’s eye, however, danced the glorious visions of Ernesto’s canvas and the sweet melodies of his song, and it was these things that lingered, sweetly, as he felt his life leave his body.