It was dawn by the time we reached our project site, tucked into a field ten miles south of the city limits. While my partner Thomas checked the ammo in his pistol, I strapped on my pack and gazed into the sky. It glowed in shades of purple and red, with a hint of yellow nudging through the horizon. Thomas appeared calm, almost serene. But all I could think was that somewhere beyond that beautiful expanse above us, God was up there, judging me for my actions, hating me for the violence that I perpetuate.
I told Thomas about my doubts, even as I checked the gauge on my burner and ensured the fuel canisters were locked in tight. Thomas simply rolled his eyes and gave an exasperated sigh.
“Look, George. It’s one thing to believe that God stuff when you’re a kid, your ass parked in a pew on Sunday morning. But another when you’re out on a job.”
“How do you mean?” I said.
“We have no time for lofty ideals out here. This is Darwin’s world, survival of the fittest. All that matters is we’re strong and they’re weak. We’re lions and they’re sheep.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, though I couldn’t help pondering his unintended theological allusions. Because there once was a Lion who was also a Shepherd and never harmed a head of wool. I started wondering—even as we sneaked into the homeless camp of polyester tents and sleeping bags—that maybe it was a sign.
“Burn them,” whispered Thomas.
I counted eight tents in all: half of them singles, but the others big enough to fit whole families. The beggared inhabitants inside were sound asleep, snuggling against the cold and damp of morning. Once Thomas and I activated our boosters, we took aim and pulled the triggers. A plume of fire erupted.
And then the screaming started.
We collected the charcoal corpses and dragged them toward the street, laying them side by side on the dust and gravel of the shoulder. Their faces were so contorted with pain you could hardly see the humanity left in them. Some bodies had fused together from the heat, transforming them into monstrosities—like some macabre exhibit in a modern house of horrors. Only, they were real and it took all my strength to keep myself from washing them in vomit.
I headed to the car to update Dispatch on the results and marked the project site as clean. The Collectors would come by later in their trucks, once their rounds began at seven. As for Thomas and me, it was time for a break.
“Who’s hungry?” he said, tossing me a sly smile and sniffing at a finger he’d broken off a dead woman’s hand.
I slapped a palm over my mouth to catch the rising sick and slinked into the front passenger’s seat.
We cruised back into the city and ended up at a corner booth inside my favorite diner, a place I’d frequented for years. Only most of that time I worked retail at a small mom and pop electronics store in the White Zone. The waitress, Hilda, was nicer then, quick to joke and quicker to laugh. Sometimes she used to bring me free slices of pie. “On the house,” she’d say, flashing a smile. “Us day-wagers have to stick together.”
But that was then. Now, after Hilda took our order, she gave us plenty of space. There was nothing like happiness in her expression, only a hint of scorn behind the blankness of her features and a tremor in her hands that she tried to hide behind her apron.
“You’re working yourself up, George,” said Thomas, after gulping down his eggs. “There’s no God up there looking down and no Devil down below looking up. There’s just those of us who do what our government demands, those who break the law and the day-wagers in between.”
He was still wearing his black kevmex Burner suit, his mask pulled up around his forehead as if it were a pair of sunglasses. Hilda wasn’t the only one affected by our presence. I could see the same expression of false calm on the faces of everyone around us, barely hiding terror. That was why I took my suit off the minute we went on break. But Thomas? He’d wear it on a trip to the grocery store if management allowed it.
“I know, it’s just—”
“Just what, hom?” he said. Hom was short for hominid. It was his way of reminding me that, behind our clothes and tech and culture, we were all still animals at heart.
“Last night I had a dream, a nightmare really. In it, the people we killed collected around my bed and told me that there was a special place set aside for me for when I died. With fire that burns but never consumes, leaving a man to taste his own misery for an eternity.”
“Ah, that’s all just hocus witchus bullshit,” he said, and got to work downing his bacon and sausages. “Besides, what we do is for the greater good. That’s got to count for something.”
Maybe he was right. Every day down at Burner Central, they showed us vids of all the good we accomplished. Crime was down, the economy was soaring, the unemployment rate virtually nil. Nevertheless, I could still hear the cries of men woken by the heat of fire, the sobbing of women who smothered their babies to give them a kinder death, and children who screamed the names of their dead parents into a wall of passive flames. So maybe Thomas was right; maybe they all were. But I couldn’t help thinking I was doing wrong.
Dispatch hadn’t updated our queue with a fresh project so, after breakfast, we cruised along the city streets, keeping our eyes open to the clues of poverty around us. People turned away at our passing. Curtains shut, doors closed. Some even hid inside their cars, behind trees, or in the shadows of alleyways until we were out of sight.
We came across an elderly woman around Tenth and Market, hobbling down the street while draped over a walker. She was dressed in faded moth-eaten clothes, her shoes scuffed up and her hair a mess. Probable cause enough for us to stop her for questioning.
The moment we pulled over, her mouth gaped and a pool of wet spread across the front of her skirt. Thomas laughed and pointed at her indignity, but I didn’t give it a second glance. Once we ran the barcode on her wrist, the scanner light turned blue and scrolled up her information on its inset screen.
“It says you got a part-time job at Henry’s. What’s that?” said Thomas.
She took a sharp breath and managed to stutter out, “Grocery store.”
“$500 a month? Not much to live off of.”
“I have retirement income too, I get by just fine.”
“Make sure that you do,” he said, and sent her on her way.
We climbed back into our car and continued our patrol. The whole time, I stared out the window, pretending to keep an eye out for more potential offenders. But really, I couldn’t stop thinking about the look in that old woman’s eyes. It reminded me of when I was once a day-wager too.
The Burners had always been my greatest fear. I grew up in the light of their fire, even saw the horror of their burnings from the so-called safety of my own front yard. In twenty-five years, there wasn’t a day gone by that I didn’t wonder when they were coming for me next. And when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay laid me off about a month ago, that fear escalated into a crippling obsession. I never left my apartment, barely ate and rarely slept unless it was with the aid of a fistful of pills.
My “salvation” came through Thomas. We had been friends since high school and he stuck his neck out by recommending me for a job to his division leader. Without him, I would have been roadside charcoal by now. Despite it all, I hadn’t forgotten that, or the feeling of relief I’d felt when I realized that all those weeks of misery and despair were finally behind me.
I tried to hold onto that feeling when Thomas spotted another offender, lying in the shade of a bridge in the Red Zone. This time it was a man in his forties, his hair and beard like a mat of moss and his crime as plain as the ragged clothes upon his unwashed body. He made a run for it as soon as he saw us. Thomas slammed the brakes, jumped out of the car and gave chase. They raced a hundred yards before Thomas tackled the man, pinning him to the ground with a forearm and a knee and shoving the muzzle of his pistol up to the man’s temple.
“Come on, hom. It’s grill time,” he said when I caught up at last.
I aimed my burner and then paused and lowered it to the ground. “Are you sure this is right?”
“Again with the moralizing? There is no judgment, just death followed by an everlasting nothing. Once you realize that it all gets easier. Worked for me.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Look, if God’s real then let me take the blame.”
“How do you mean?”
“Like this,” he said, jerking the homeless man to his knees and slapping the man’s chin until they were both staring into the sky. He pointed his burner up and let off a stream of fire.
“Hey up there, it’s me Thomas! If you’re real, turn this fire into snow. Do it and I’ll let this guy live. Otherwise, I kill him.” The fire persisted, falling like rain, dotting the pavement in little white drops of plasma. “See?”
“Yeah,” I lied, but really my attention was drawn to the man. For a moment, I thought I saw the terror on his face gilded by a hopeful light, as if he’d actually expected the miracle to happen. To be honest, I almost expected it too.
“Let’s get this done,” Thomas said, taking a few steps back.
“Right,” I said to Thomas, and to the man I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Our speakers beeped, indicating an update in our queue. This time, Dispatch sent us to the Green Zone for a project by the name of Mackie. He was a rental service manager. For ten years he did good business, until the Green Zone market dried up and the company was put to pasture. He’d lived on welfare with his sons for eight months, but that was one too many according to the powers that be.
We kicked down his door, dragged the family out of their rooms and threw them to the sidewalk in front of their house.
“Ready?” said Thomas.
I stared at Mackie and his sons, watching the panic in their eyes turn red, wet and bestial. I wondered again if I was doing wrong and I stared up at the clouds, pleading for an answer. Something to resolve the conflict boiling up inside me. But the sun shined as bright as any other day, the clouds drifted by soft and white as cotton, and the silence from above lingered on and on and on.
In times like these, it was hard not to suspect that Thomas was right and the only God was nature. And yet I thought about the brutality of the natural world, as cruel as anything we’d done over the past five days. A lioness didn’t cry when she brought down a baby gazelle. A crocodile didn’t weep when he snapped up a mother zebra. So then, why did I feel the razor-sharp edge of guilt for every single time I took a life?
“Burn them,” said Thomas.
God—if there was a God—help us. Because we did.
After work, we headed back to Burner Central and changed into our civvies in the basement locker room. About thirty other men and women did the same, and another thirty or so suited up in preparation for their coming tours. Like every day, they bantered and cracked wise about their projects. Some even bragged about their kills. I could only shake my head at the callousness, the apathy on display, even as I swallowed my conscience further down, to a place I could barely hear it.
“That’s your first week George, how do you feel?” said Thomas.
A look of concern stretched over his face. “Can I be real with you?”
“When I first started out, I went through the same kind of thing you’re going through now. That’s what makes humans a special breed, you know? We fling shit just like any other monkey, only we feel bad about it afterward. But you get used to it; you have to. If you’re not a burner you’re a day-wager, and if you’re a day-wager you’re as good as roasted meat.”
“Survival of the fittest?”
“That’s the world we live in, hom. It is what it is.”
I nodded. It made sense. Maybe one day it would be the only sense I had left inside me. But for now, I still couldn’t help thinking I was doing wrong.
Food for Thought
Morality is often defined by its universality. If it could be said to differ from person to person and place to place, it would be an arbitrary set of rules and regulations, the same as chess or politics. As a religious man, George justifies his morality by divine mandate. That is to say, he believes it’s true because God determined it. And yet George constantly contradicts his own beliefs in order to preserve his life. Do you think that’s an acceptable reason? Can you imagine a set of circumstances that would lead you to change your answer?
George’s co-worker and friend, Thomas, holds a more brutal view of morality, something along the lines of Thrasymachus’s “Might Makes Right.” Nevertheless, he admits to feeling tremendous guilt in the past for the things the Burners are forced to do. Concerning morality, when feelings and reason disagree, which one is correct? Which one would you follow?
Animal activist Lyn White once said, “The greatest ethical test that we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy.” George failed this test, hands down. How would you act in his situation, knowing the powers opposing you are insurmountable? Or that disobeying the law may very well cost you your job, or even your life? Given the option and the consequences, would you choose to be a Burner or a day-wager?
About the Author
Samuel is an Italian / Filipino writer of mostly dark fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shock Totem, Penumbra eMag, Ares Magazine, Stupefying Stories, and more.
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