Drafting and Examination
Jaquan woke up. His mind was foggy. He shook his head, trying to understand where he was. He tried to gather his thoughts.
"Alright." He thought to himself. "Where am I?"
A quick look to his right and Jaquan quickly noticed the serum stand connected to his arm through a transparent tube. His eyes went wide open.
"Oh god." He said quietly before returning to his own mind. "I'm in an hospital. This is bad. Really bad. Oh dear god." He took a deep breath and slowed down his thoughts. "It's ok, Jaquan, you're ok. First of all, does anything hurt? No. Okay, now about the limbs..."
He examined his own body without raising from the bed. He turned his eyes to each of his arms, testing them, moving his hands and clutching his fingers. He did the same with his legs before resuming his personal investigation.
"I can still feel everything I look fine. That's good. Now, how the hell did I get here? The last thing I remember is... Damn, I can't remember anything. Maybe I-" He stopped immediately as he felt something weird. It didn't hurt but he still could notice it so very slightly. He reached with his left hand for the base of his neck, right above the bones of his chest. Jaquan felt something smooth. It definitely wasn't skin. "What the hell?"
Suddenly the door opened, and three men entered. One of them was wearing a black suit, white shirt and a red tie. The other two were carrying guns, wearing gas masks and helmets.
Overcoming his immediate fear of the two guards, Jaquan started asking questions.
"Who are you people? Where am I? What do you-"
The other calmly interrupted him with a hand gesture.
"Mister Fronde, due to your experience as a lawyer you have been drafted for the honor of administrator duty. You begin immediately."
That's what Jaquan remembered as his first day as administrator for the Empire. It had been 3 years, and he was yet again called for examination. He had done it some times already, but it was impossible to not be intimidated. A fully armed inquisitor pushed him around with the barrel of a rifle. Jaquan knew very well what the Inquisition did to anyone they didn't think was following Imperial law. And on top of all that, the whole Inquisition HQ compound was frighteningly empty, only equipped the essential items and faceless inquisitors marching around.
"You people should really try arresting an interior designer someday." The administrator mumbled.
The inquisitor kept silent, as always, and pushed Jaquan forward.
A couple of minutes later, they reached the doors of one of the judging rooms. The previous session had just finished. The doors burst open, with two inquisitors dragging another administrator screaming to his 'controlled termination'. Jaquan coughed, straightened his tie, and checked his suit.
A sinister voice came from inside.
Before the inquisitor could shove him, Jaquan was already through the door on his own. The room was mostly dark, with only the center and the raised judge's platform illuminated by bright lights on the ceiling.
"Administrator 752?" The voice asked.
Jaquan answered looking directly at the judge. Inquisitor judges weren't that different from the lower inquisitors, they wore the same black coats and had the same attitude of blind obedience . The only difference was that they actually spoke, and didn't necessarily wear gas masks or helmets all the time.
The judge raised his eyebrows slightly, administrators never stared at the judge, and always finished with the unnecessary 'sir'. The judge didn't mind it much, what truly mattered to him was the examination.
"I suppose you know why you have been brought here."
"Yes, I do."
"Good. But before we continue, Imperial law makes it necessary for me to explain how the examination system works."
"With all due respect, I have done this-"
"Are you about to suggest we go against the law, administrator?" The judge interrupted.
"Ah, uh... No." Jaquan felt his heart stop for a moment.
"That's what I thought." The judge said as he took a sheet of paper to read. "You, as an administrator for the Empire, have the duty of managing your designated zone and making sure it follows all Imperial requirements. To verify this, the Inquisition requires you and all other administrators to regularly come to this installation and have their efficiency evaluated by specialized judges." The bald man coughed and resumed. "After your performance is analyzed completely, the judge will decide whether you have done your job acceptably or controlled termination is required."
Jaquan put his hand on the base his neck, touching the red hexagon, as he heard the words 'controlled termination'. He had never seen it, but he heard a lot from other administrators. Some said it was instant death from suffocation by an internal wire, but the majority said it was a gory decapitation. Jaquan's belief was based on the assumption that the Inquisition must have had a reason to move the termination subjects away from the judges' clean rooms before execution.
The judge was silent, examining the reports of Jaquan's work. After some time, he looked away from the documents.
"Administrator 752, you should be proud of yourself. You seem to have done excellently after your last examination. However, I must ask if you had any special incidents..."
Jaquan knew that trick. Usually administrators would answer a loud 'no', wanting to give a good impression. Then, the inquisitor would find a minor, meaningless, transgression, like a speeding ticket, and accuse the administrator of lying on examination. But Jaquan was a veteran already, he knew exactly what he had to say.
"None as far I am aware. I may have forgotten something though."
"Yes, yes... You have some minor occurrences... But nothing too problematic." If the judge did have any emotion, he didn't show it. "Well, I can safely declare that you are still fit for the position of administrator. No termination is needed."
"Alright. Can I get back to my job now?"
"Before I can let you go, I have to inform you of some recent changes in Imperial policy. The Commandant has deemed necessary to increase military industrial production in all zones. Our current production is not quite enough to keep replenishing our forces."
"You will receive the details on the new requirements once you get back to your designated zone."
"I can't do anything about military production without taking away from something else. My zone is already at the brink!"
"Then I suppose you know what you have to work on for your next examination. Inquisitors, take 752 away."
The local Imperial battalion had blocked the avenue with its jeeps and trucks. The soldiers held their defensive positions with their weapons ready.
"Sergeant, warn them again!" The battalion's captain ordered from behind the blockade.
The sergeant spoke into a megaphone. "Attention citizens! The Empire orders you to disperse immediately! Failure to comply will be considered an act of treason!"
The mob kept marching towards them, shouting and chanting against the Imperial government.
The captain used his radio. "They aren't going to give up. Awaiting orders."
After a couple moments of silence, there was a reply. "Make an example out of them."
"Understood, Mister Fronde." The captain turned to his men. "Open fire!"
Jaquan woke up in his office. He looked down and noticed a small puddle of saliva on his desk. The administrator, tiredly blinking his eyes, pulled the handkerchief out of his suit's pocket and cleaned the liquid. He sat upright and looked at his wristwatch. It displayed 7:34 am. He rubbed his eyes and grunted.
He had been working nonstop since the Inquisition's last examination, trying to find the means to meet the new requirements for his zone. He had read through detailed finances, checked the utility of government programs or committees, and talked to all of his assistants, all in the hope of finding corners to cut. He soon realized that the money he managed to save was far from being enough for the task, so he resorted to raising taxes. The extra income definitely helped, but the increased taxes pushed many of the residents over the edge, making them willing to revolt. Jaquan needed not only to manage the zone efficiently to please the Inquisition's demands, but he also had to cope with widespread civil unrest. This routine of constant stress had been going on for almost three weeks and Jaquan was unsure of how much more he could handle, his only motivation being the belief that once he stabilized the zone he would finally get some rest.
There was a knock on the office's door.
A thin man wearing a suit opened the door.
"Mister Fronde? Did you... Sleep here?" The assistant meekly asked.
"Yes, yes I did." The administrator huffed. "What do you want?"
"Catherine was looking for you."
Jaquan stood up. "Lets get to it, then."
The administrator, followed closely by the assistant, went out into the corridor and called for an elevator. When it arrived, the two quickly entered and Jaquan pressed the button for one of the lower floors.
On the way down, the elevator stopped momentarily and a masked inquisitor joined them and pressed another button.
"Morning." Jaquan greeted casually. "Working hard, I suppose." He said as he noticed fresh blood on the inquisitor's black gloves.
The inquisitor did not acknowledge the administrator's words. Meanwhile, the assistant, affected by the inquisitor's heavy breathing under the gas mask, fixed his eyes forward and was eager to leave the elevator when it reached the duo's destination. The administrator stepped out calmly, fixed his tie, and observed the activity around himself as the assistant ran back to his workplace.
"Catherine!" He called.
A couple of moments passed before he heard a female voice. "Yes, Mister Fronde?"
Jaquan turned to see the redheaded assistant, holding a small tablet with her left hand. "Ah, there you are."
"I was worried. I tried calling you, but you didn't answer."
"Did you try my cell phone?"
"Yes! Many times!"
The administrator pulled out his phone. Pressing the power button, he quickly realized the battery was dead. "Huh." He put it back in his pocket. "I swear I charged it Monday. These things are made to last for at least two days."
"Today is Friday, Mister Fronde."
"Anyway, what do you have for me today?"
She fixed her glasses to read the tablet's screen. "Water supply and education are the only divisions that really need your attention."
The assistant fingers rapidly tapped and dragged along the screen. "One of the water cleaning facilities is down due to some broken valves."
Jaquan rolled his eyes. "Again?"
"Apparently something to do with the water pressure. District 6 will have ration water until we can get new parts."
"Alright. First, tell the media department to blame the Union. Second, increase drafting in District 6, less people means bigger rations. And finally, get a couple tons of bottled water to give away as 'the Emperor's aid to his subjects in need'."
"With what budget are we going to buy that much water?"
"I said get. Not buy." Jaquan then ordered a passing office worker to bring him a cup of coffee while the assistant finished noting down the administrator's instructions. "What about education?"
"Since the last revolts have been led by university students, the Inquisition asked us to-" She paused to read from the screen. "-take action to boost morale and increase loyalty to the Emperor."
"Seems like I got to have a talk with Victor. Do you know where he is?"
"He's probably upstairs, working on this year's vocational tests."
"Upstairs?" Jaquan looked at the elevator doors. "Well, in that case you should send a paramedic team to his office."
"I saw an inquisitor on my way here and, judging by their request, I have the slight feeling he beat the living crap out of Victor."
"Why would he do that?"
"I guess the Inquisition gets really pissed off by student protesters."
"No, I mean why beat him up? That just makes unable to fix anything. It doesn't make sense!"
The office worker came back with Jaquan's coffee and was quickly dismissed.
"Remember, Catherine, the Inquisition's main weapon is fear." The administrator drank from his cup. "After all, fear's the only reason we're ruled by an Emperor."
"I suppose." Through her tablet, she activated one of the emergency teams.
"For the students... Just increase vigilance around universities and disperse any large groups on sight. That should do the job until Victor gets better."
"Should we increase the number of Ethics classes?"
"Not yet. That would only make them more mad at us."
"Alright then, I will go relay your orders."
"Have a good day, Catherine."
She replied with a smile. "You too, Mister Fronde." The redhead walked away a couple of steps before hesitating. "Oh. I didn't get the industrial report. You should probably check on that yourself."
Jaquan set off for the group that was responsible for the zone's industrial production. As he reached the section of the floor where they were working, heads quickly turned to see and respectfully greet their administrator. The assistant responsible for industrial matters greeted him with a handshake.
"Good morning, Mister Fronde, is everything ok?"
"An inquisitor attacked Victor, another water station is out of order, my cell phone is dead, and I haven't gotten good sleep for weeks. Just another day at work, I guess." Jaquan sipped from his cup. "How are the factories doing?"
"Very well. We finished installing the new machines last night, right on time for the arrival of the materials. Right now, we're going at full speed!"
"Ok, but is 'full speed' enough for the Commandant?"
"We managed to reach the new requirements' production levels. Barely, but we did it."
"Get more machines and put us above the minimum."
"I don't think our infrastructure will be able to handle it."
"Expand the infrastructure, then. I shouldn't have to tell you what to do, damn it."
The administrator's irritated tone made the assistant cower. "Sorry, Mister Fronde. It won't happen again."
Suddenly, an Imperial soldier approached Jaquan from the side and saluted. "Mister Fronde, your presence is required by Major Asad."
Without saying a word, the administrator finished his coffee and followed the soldier, leaving the cup behind. The soldier took him to the building's bunker, from where the zone's garrison was organised and contact was kept with the Imperial Central Command.
Upon reaching the bunker's main room, both the major and Jaquan saluted.
"We've got an emergency, Mister Fronde." The major said. "A violent revolt started in District 4, so we followed protocol and dispatched the district's garrison to put an end to it. However, the battalion defected to the revolters' side and now they are all marching together."
"Did you try to put some sense into their heads? Negotiating?"
"You know the Imperial Army does not tolerate insubordination." Asad said between his teeth, almost growling.
"I guess that means you yelled some threats over the radio and left it at that. That's a great way to deal with a battalion of angry soldiers."
The major and the administrator had a long running history of hostility toward each other. One of the reasons was the frustration Asad felt because he was forced by law to obey Jaquan's orders. The only situation where the administrator would ever cease being his superior was in the event of an Union invasion, but unfortunately for Asad, their zone was far from the border, making an actual invasion very unlikely. However, what really made them dislike each other was their highly incompatible personalities as Jaquan had a special pleasure in angering the major by talking down to him.
"Private, give him a radio set to the rebels' frequency." The major ordered. "Have a go at it, Fronde. Show me how it's done."
Jaquan activated the radio. "Come in. Is anybody listening? Hello?"
After a short pause, there was a reply. "Asad? Is that you again?"
"No, this is Administrator Fronde. Who am I speaking with?"
"Captain Biermann, 27th Battalion. What do you want, Fronde?"
"I just want to talk with you."
"We've had enough of the Empire's lies! We will not kill innocents!"
"Alright, Captain, those are very nice things to say, but I don't think you fully comprehend the implications of what you are doing."
"We're not afraid of death!"
"We will die for freedom if we have to!"
While the captain spoke, Jaquan turned again to the major. "Did the mob stop moving?"
Asad looked at the aerial image displayed by one of the room's monitors. "Yes they did. They must be using the squads' radios to listen to you two."
"Biermann, tell me, what happened to your battalion's inquisitor?" Jaquan asked.
"We killed the face of oppression!"
"Alright, what if I told there are thousands more 'faces of oppression', all ready to take his place?"
"We'll fight to the end!"
"What about other battalions? We can always draft more soldiers."
"With all due respect Captain, you are replaceable. We all are. There will always be someone else willing to do the things we won't. You see, the Empire is the greatest war machine in the history of mankind. Not because it's more efficient or more advanced. But because it has plenty of spare parts."
"Well, if those parts keep breaking, they can't keep replacing them forever."
"True. However, what is also true is that the parts are not the same. Therefore, how can you know for sure the next replacement will break too? The answer is you can't because from the moment that faulty part is taken out of the machine, it is absolutely worthless."
"Humans aren't machine parts for the Empire to tinker with!"
"Are you sure? Look at me, for instance. If I don't do what I'm supposed to, I'm automatically considered a traitor and terminated, forcing the Empire to draft another person to replace me."
The captain had lost his enthusiasm. "It's better to die for good cause than live for nothing."
"But, Captain, what good cause would you and your men be dying for if you fought against the Empire and later another battalion was designated to do your job anyway? If you are aware that your sacrifice will accomplish nothing, then what is the point?"
"You say it like there's no option."
"You can still give up and return to your duties. If you're lucky, there will be no repercussions. You don't have to die-"
"We will stand our ground! You and the Empire can go to hell!"
After that, static was all Jaquan could get.
"Should I mobilize the other garrisons?" Asad asked.
The administrator had a cold look in his eyes. "No. We can't risk having them defect too." Jaquan's tone was eerily calm. "Deploy the tridrones."
The major hesitated for a second and used his personal communicator to relay the orders. After some moments, an alarm sounded, accompanied by a deep male robotic voice.
"Warning, tridrone hive has been activated. Targets set. Deploying."
Jaquan approached a monitor that displayed the revolters from above. "They want to fight for their freedom." He said with his arms folded. "I'll let them try."
Meanwhile, in the zone's outskirts, hidden silo doors opened. Using their three flexible sectioned limbs and sharp claws, sphere-shaped robots crawled out of the silos. The car-sized tridrones were relayed their objective and their back armor opened, revealing their built-in jet turbines.
The tridrone swarm flew across the zone's sky. When they reached their destination, the machines flew closer to the ground, forming a rotating circle above the revolters.
Being garrison models, the drones had initiated their psychological warfare protocol. The tridrones played the Imperial national anthem as loud as possible while the rebels uselessly fired their weapons at them. This continued until the anthem's chorus kicked in, at which point the tridrones launched themselves at the mob, ready to tear apart the enemies of the Emperor.
Jaquan turned away from the monitor. "Major, I will be in my office. Report to me when it's over."
A Friendly Conversation
Jaquan laid back on the luxurious red armchair.
"I will notify Mister Cernik of your arrival." The butler said with nod.
The administrator thanked the servant and observed the rest of the room. The walls were hidden behind shelves of books. He looked down and noticed that the rug's pattern was a replication of the Imperial flag. To his left, a lonely window above a wooden cabinet made it possible to see the rainfall outside.
Mister Cernik, known by the Inquisition as "Administrator 643", was one of the few friends Jaquan managed to make after being drafted. He was a tall man with brutish features. His kind and benevolent personality, however, would classify him as "gentle giant". He was a man that many would label as unfairly cursed for having to live in the oppression of the Empire.
Recognizing the friend's brown beard and deep voice, Jaquan stood up.
"It's good to see you, Patrizio."
"It's good to see you too." Patrizio said as they shook hands. "How was the trip?"
They sat down on armchairs opposite to each other. "Pretty good. I managed to get some extra sleep."
"I see. You went on another one of your work marathons."
"Thank you for not assuming I'm lazy."
The friend let out a charismatic chuckle. "The new requirements must have been tough for you."
"Have you reached them?"
"I still need some breathing space... But yes."
"You make miracles with that hellhole. I don't know why they didn't give you a better zone to work with already."
"Well, you seem to be doing fine."
"It's a small population willing to cooperate. Plus I have my wife and two beautiful children... Autocracy aside, I can't really complain." He paused as he noticed Jaquan's eyes going around the room. "You must be wondering about the mansion... Don't worry, I didn't use the zone's budget. I wouldn't do something stupid like that. You see, the previous owner was an intellectual, a philosopher to be precise. Unfortunately, he was also a very influential person that refused to ever shut up."
"One thing led to another and the Inquisition took him out of the picture, confiscating his property. Then, I just seized the opportunity... Free of charge."
"What about the butler? You have to pay him, no?"
"The Inquisition judged him as a case of disloyalty since he didn't denounce his boss and he got drafted into the army. However, I pulled some strings and he got to be part of my personal guard. Now he works as my butler for no cost, and in return he doesn't have to live like the other soldiers."
"That's a very good deal." Jaquan was genuinely impressed by his friend's story. Usually, administrators would get mansions and services like that by diverting government money, which eventually led to termination. Patrizio's method was risky, but perfectly legal under Imperial law.
The conversation paused as the butler came back with a bottle of wine and two goblets. After tasting the wine, the host, noticing Jaquan's usual anxiety-induced impatience, skipped to the main topic. "Well, you came here for work. So let's talk work."
"Yes, my water stations have been breaking down lately and I've run out of parts to fix them."
"Have you sent a request for more?"
"I did, but the main lines are busy with the supplies going to the African Offensive. It'll take too long."
"I'll send you some of mine. Should take a week at worst."
"Enough time for me to figure out what's happening." Jaquan said, looking into his goblet.
"What you do mean?"
"The water stations have been breaking repeatedly for the same reason. Water pressure busting the valves. Pressure that should be under control."
"So you think it's sabotage."
"Absolutely. And the fact that revolters found no problems to heavily arm themselves just serves as further proof for me."
"Is your bet on dissidents or the Union?"
"Whichever the case, I know there's an organized group of people messing around with my zone. And I'm going to find them."
"I don't think that's going to be easy. They must be hiding right now, afraid of your tridrones."
"Don't tell me you're going to hold that against me."
"It's hard not to, but I understand. You did what you had to."
Jaquan looked at his wristwatch and then finished his wine. "Thank you for the wonderful evening, but I better get back to my zone soon. If I stay out too long, the Inquisition might throw some of my assistants into a fire ."
Patrizio accompanied him to the front door. A black car with tinted windows, escorted by two Imperial armored jeeps, awaited Jaquan. The two friends said their goodbyes.
When Jaquan was about to step into the rain with his umbrella, he hesitated and turned with a smile. "Don't you worry about me. No matter what happens, I'll keep hating my job"
Thomas woke up. Startled, he quickly sat upright and lifted his head. He was in a small white room, with only a metallic table with another chair across to his own. Looking down, he saw the handcuffs holding him to the table.
The door opened and an Imperial military officer walked up to his side, followed by the zone's administrator, who sat down on the vacant chair.
"Good afternoon." Jaquan said with a smirk. "I am Jaquan Fronde, Imperial administrator of the lovely zone we live in." He then pointed at the officer. "And that's Sergeant Kopp, who I personally thank for helping capture you." Hearing this, the sergeant nodded respectfully.
Thomas seemed terrified. "Please, Mister Fronde, don't hurt me! I didn't do-"
"Let me stop you right there." The administrator interrupted with a silencing gesture. "We've been collecting information on you for a week, Thomas. We know for a fact that you're involved in the sabotage scheme. I only hope you're smart enough to realize think your acting skills won't get you out of this situation."
Thomas silently eyed Jaquan for a couple of seconds. "Well... Goddamn it." He said, annoyed.
"Good, you understand." Jaquan leaned forward. "Something else we know is that the self-deleting virus wrecking the water cleaning stations was handcrafted to breach Imperial security systems." The administrator stared into his eyes. "Which makes you, my friend, an Union agent."
"Well done." Thomas shrugged with a smirk. "I guess that means I'm screwed."
"Absolutely." Jaquan returned to his normal sitting position. "But first I need something from you..."
"And what would that be?"
"Information on the other agents in your network."
"It's a solo mission."
Jaquan snapped his fingers. The sergeant immediately reacted by punching the agent's face. While he agonized, the administrator continued with the same cold expression. "The Union doesn't do solo missions. They're inefficient."
Thomas blinked rapidly, recovering from the hit. "So... This is how it's going to work, huh?"
"I would much rather convince you only with words, but you have to admit that pain can make a very strong argument."
The agent chuckled. "Maybe if Sarge over here didn't hit like a girl..."
The sergeant looked at Jaquan, who quickly gave an affirmative nod. He then grabbed Thomas's head from behind and hit it against the metal table.
Thomas raised back his head and clenched his teeth. "Very... mature."
Jaquan crossed his arms. "We'll continue like this until you give me what I need."
"I know as much as you about these guys." He rubbed his own forehead. "We take measures to prevent that kind of disaster from happening."
"You can't just coordinate an operation this big without things like telephone numbers, email addresses, home addresses... Even if they're cover-ups."
Thomas grinned. "Anything is possible when you use imagination."
"Nice. I've got a joke for you too." Jaquan snapped his fingers again. The sergeant landed another punch.
Some blood dripped down from Thomas's nose. "You Imperials have a terrible sense of humor."
"And yours is surprisingly positive for someone in your position."
"You people are going to kill me anyway. I might as well die happy."
Jaquan chuckled, slightly shaking his head. "You have no idea, do you?"
The agent's smile weakened. "What do you mean?"
"You're not going to die."
"But you don't imprison agents either."
"Indeed, it's a waste of resources. Instead, we have a special treatment for captured Union citizens: Processing. Have you ever heard of it?"
"I can't say I did."
"Of course not. If they explained it, nobody would ever take the risk. Such is the nature of relying only on volunteers... Are you familiar with the Inquisition?"
"The crazy fanatics wearing creepy gas masks that terrorize and kill in the name of the Emperor? Yea, I think I know them."
"Then you also know they are, quite literally, everywhere. They have to keep their influence strong across the entirety of the Empire, after all. But with such power come great costs... In the form of the uncountable number of inevitable inquisitor casualties as they try to keep the population under control. Which brings me to another question: Where do you think these inquisitors come from?"
"Drafting. Or maybe use the loyalists."
"That first option, along with the military drafts, would create too much pressure on Imperial population growth. And loyalists are a valuable asset since they are slowly changing the majority's ideals. The answer, Thomas, came from the Inquisition itself. They said that instead of training our allies, we should convert our enemies by showing them the truth."
"Their truth at least, about the Emperor being our guide into the next step of human civilization and all that."
"You can't just turn someone into a psychopath like that."
"You would be surprised. They take captured agents, soldiers, abandoned pilots... It can take a while, but everyone has a limit. Once that limit is broken, it's only a matter of time until they start believing what they're told. And then... Well... You get a fresh batch of inquisitors ready to serve their Emperor."
"The Inquisition would never want an agent between its ranks."
"I don't see why not. Who's better to hunt down Union sympathizers than someone who was an actual citizen? Plus, they get the bragging rights of having proven the Empire's way is better."
"I can't see why brainwashing would ever be considered proof."
"Neither do I. The Inquisition, however, doesn't care about what we think."
The two men remained silent while Thomas thought about what he had been told. Jaquan had been studying his behaviour since the interrogation started, and he could see that the agent's will faltered.
The administrator smirked. "What makes you think that?"
"What you just described to me is perfect urban myth material, yet I never heard about it."
"They do a pretty decent job of keeping it moderately secret. Also, most people are just afraid of talking about the Inquisition."
"If you're saying the truth, then what difference does me giving you the info make?"
"There is yet to be an Imperial law that demands us to put up captured personnel for processing. And that's exactly the reason I can help you."
"Really?" The agent faked surprise.
"According to current law, captured Union citizens or associates have to be executed or detained. Therefore, I can spare you from processing by simply executing you."
"You must give me the information on your colleagues, though."
"Let me see if I get this straight: Are you going to kill me if I help you?"
Jaquan shrugged. "I'm afraid such is the state of affairs."
"I'm not just going to betray the others like that."
"What you should be worried about is your future as an Imperial inquisitor. You'll forget who you are, you'll learn to hate everything related to the Union, you'll proudly silence those who question the Emperor, and you'll be sent to hunt down the very agents that you once refused to betray. Tell me, Thomas, would you rather die helping your enemy or live to become part of it?"
Thomas's uncertainty slowly became desolation. "I can't... They-"
"The other agents are already doomed. It's only a matter of time until we find them. Your help would simply speed things up." A soldier opened the room's door and handed some paper to Jaquan. The administrator put it between the cuffs holding the Union agent. "Here, use my pen." He said as he pulled a black pen from his suit's front pocket.
Thomas stared at the paper with a blank expression.
"We'll have to check if the information is true before we can close our end of the deal, so do me a favor and don't lie." The administrator smiled as he got up. Before leaving the room, he hesitated. "Remember, Thomas, that your colleagues' fate is already set. The only decision you can make is about yours and yours only."
Using her computer, Catherine studied the reports she had received from the zone's various administrative divisions. Later she would deliver her own report to Jaquan, informing him of the most pressing matters. The redhead worked alone in her own office while the administrator was busy talking with recently-recovered Victor about the problems related to the zone's college students.
There was a knock on the door.
"Come in." She said as she turned to face the visitor with a smile.
A man wearing a grey suit and a black fedora entered the room. "Good morning." He greeted cordially.
"Good morning. Please, have a seat." She gestured to the vacant chair in front of her desk. After the man sat down, she continued. "How may I help you, sir?"
The man took off his hat and spoke with a warm smile. "My name is Ryan Durant, and I come as a representative of the zone's loyalist group."
Catherine looked at her computer's screen. "Well, I unfortunately must inform you that Mister Fronde won't be able to attend to any more appointments today. If you'd like, I could check tomorrow or the day after for some openings."
"Actually, I have been requested to speak directly to you."
Catherine was confused. "Really? About what?"
"We, the loyalists, believe that in times such as these, with revolts and certain overall instability, it must be made clear that the current administration is prepared to keep order in the name of the Empire."
"I can assure you that Mister Fronde will do everything in his power to support the Imperial cause."
"We have no doubts about the administrator's allegiance, specially after he put an end to District 4's shameful rebellion. Still, the fact of the matter is that Fronde doesn't work alone. And that's why I've been asked to speak to you, his closest assistant."
The redhead, understanding the subject of the conversation, felt uneasy. "You can tell them that they have nothing to worry about. I am a loyal and productive Imperial citizen just like everyone else that works with the zone's administration."
The representative's expression remained sympathizing. "I personally believe you. The others, however, require a more tangible demonstration of such loyalty. I hope you understand."
"You're going to be fine. We just have to sit through this and they'll never bother you again." Jaquan put his hand on Catherine's arm, trying to comfort her.
The administrator and the assistant were sitting beside each other in the back row of the auditorium, guarded by the armed soldiers that surrounded them. All the other seats were occupied by the college students that awaited their scheduled compulsory Imperial Ethics class.
"Are you sure this'll do?" She asked.
Jaquan nodded. "Absolutely. Since you supposedly came here out of your own will, they'll think you agree with what's being taught." The administrator returned to his normal sitting position, taking his hand off Catherine's arm. "I've done this a dozen times. It always works."
"I've never seen an Ethics class." The assistant remarked as she observed the auditorium's central area. "Is it as bad as people say?"
Jaquan shrugged. "It depends on the judge's enthusiasm."
A soldier approached Jaquan, leaning down by his shoulder. "Captain Gray has ordered me to inform you that all entrances are being guarded and you have nothing to fear, Mister Fronde."
"Tell Gray I'm thankful for his protection." Jaquan replied.
The soldier nodded and went off as the room started to quiet down. The administrator looked at his wristwatch. Class had begun.
A cloaked figure walked onto the the center of the auditorium. The judge inquisitor revealed his hairless head.
"Good morning, students." The inquisitor said drily, scanning the room.
The students promptly greeted him back.
"Before we begin today, I would like to direct your attention to the visitor we have today." The judge gestured toward Jaquan. "Your administrator is the role model of a good Imperial. He carries out his responsibilities with such skill and dedication that I must personally thank him for managing to spare some of his precious time to look after our youth's education."
Jaquan silently nodded.
The inquisitor judge continued. "Last class we went over various different types of treachery, their harmful effects on our nation, and how to identify them. Can anyone give me an example of treachery with economic repercussions?"
A student in the front row raised her hand. "Refusing to keep a legal record of commercial transactions."
The inquisitor faced the volunteer. "Why would that be considered treachery?"
"Doing so diminishes the amount of taxes collected, making it harder to finance the Empire's maintenance, development, and expansion." The same student quickly replied.
The judge nodded in approval, but his expression, as always, remained unaffected. "Correct, Miss Nemes." He turned to the rest of the class. "I hope you've studied like your colleague, because today we'll be putting that knowledge to use. Inquisitors, bring in the examples."
Two gas-masked inquisitors escorted a line of three men wearing Imperial prisoner jumpsuits onto the center of the room.
"These are all convicted traitors." The judge announced, walking in front of the prisoners. "Before they're treated accordingly, we will analyse each of their cases." He stepped next to one of them. Although the traitor was noticeably fatter than the other two, he was also the one with the best posture, standing upright and staring straight ahead. The judge continued. "This man is a sergeant in the Imperial Army. As you can see, due to overweight, he has become physically unfit for such duty. Will someone volunteer to explain why that is treacherous behaviour?"
A couple of hands went up and the inquisitor pointed at one picked one. The chosen student stood up and spoke. "A member of the military that fails to stay fit is less effective in combat. Which means he's directly sabotaging the war effort."
"Correct. However, can you tell me what's the penalty for such case?"
The student hesitated. "Death?"
The judge shook his head. "Sit down." He ordered before correcting the student. "Yes, the sergeant's current situation is rather problematic. However, he's still part of the Army and clearly a loyal citizen. He's not a true enemy of the Empire, but instead what we call an accidental traitor. Because of this, he'll stay in custody until he becomes fit to return to military service." While the judged finished his explanation, one of the masked inquisitors took the sergeant away. The judge then walked over to the next prisoner.
The second traitor was a nimble man with not a lot of hair covering the top of his head. Keeping his head down, his whole body shook nervously as the inquisitor approached him.
"Our second example is a crew manager in one of the ammunition factories. His job was to oversee a small group of workers, helping keep everything in order. Nevertheless, he decided to skip some days of work and did it for one year before he was finally caught. The treachery here is clear, but what should be done to him?" The judge's empty look scanned the room for a couple of moments. "I suppose none of you know. In that case, pay attention." He pointed at the prisoner. "Look at him. This is a weak man. It was only natural for him to fall for the temptation of sloth." The judge lowered his hand. "But he can still be saved from uselessness. All he needs is discipline. Which is why he has been given a second chance via the honor of serving in the Army. That way, he'll be able to prove he's a proud and loyal citizen."
While a masked inquisitor took the second prisoner away, the judge stepped toward the last traitor. He was a young man similar to the ones that attended the class, though all of his hair seemed to have been trimmed off, and he held his head upright, but kept his eyes closed.
"This..." The judge took in a deep breath. "This is a special case. Some of you may know our final example. He was arrested by the Inquisition a couple of days ago for selling narcotics to other fellow students." The inquisitor had his back to the traitor. "Your colleague not only dared to disobey Imperial law, but he also tried to make others addicted to his corrupting products. That isn't simple selfishness. It's a direct attack on our society. On you!" He pulled out a metal cylinder from inside his cloak. "He's a true traitor. An enemy of the Empire" The cylinder expanded into a long rod, with its ends erupting with electricity. A prayer escaped from the prisoner's lips in the form of a whisper while the inquisitor spoke. "A miserable disgusting vermin that deserves only one fate. Death."
The judge hit the prisoner's chin with his elbow, making him fall on his back. The inquisitor then held down the stun rod against his chest. The weapon was destined for stunning and crowd control, but in a matter of seconds it electrocuted the traitor, making him scream loudly and painfully while his body convulsed violently on the floor.
The screams echoed across the silent room. Catherine covered her eyes, resisting the urge to stand up and leave. On the other hand, the administrator felt no need to look away or be revolted. He had seen it too many times already. Knowing there was nothing he could do, Jaquan couldn't help but be apathetic. However, seeing Catherine's reaction made him realize how routine death was to him. He hid his anguish behind an impassable expression while he tried to comfort himself in his thoughts, remembering that at least that time he wasn't the one truly responsible.
The screaming ceased. The traitor's body convulsed some more before stopping completely.
The inquisitor judge holstered his stun rod and turned to the students. He had quickly regained his composure. "I believe a review is needed. Open your books in page 365..."
A Short Moment
The black car, escorted by two military jeeps, made its way back to the zone's main administration office. Jaquan and Catherine sat on opposite ends of the vehicle's back seat, without uttering a single word to each other. The convoy stopped in front of a red light and the assistant looked out the one-way window.
She noticed an armored transport parked on the sidewalk in front of an apartment building. Suddenly, from the building's already opened front entrance emerged a group of heavily armed soldiers escorting a handcuffed man toward the transport.
Jaquan considered saying something, but the sight of his assistant's somber expression made him lose all of his courage.
The light soon became green and the convoy resumed its movement.