Saturday, November 13, 2004

Shadow of Death


Starbuck was alone in his cell, feeding a pet rat, when the door swung open and another inmate was shoved inside.

"Looks like my dear captors brought me a cellmate to keep me company!" said Starbuck.
"Yes...considerate bunch, aren’t they?" said Hornblower.
"Guess that’s why nobody ever leaves--can’t beat the room service!" said Starbuck. "Cosmo and I were getting downright lonely before you showed up--ain’t that so, Cosmo?" he said, rubbing noses with the rat and assuming a baby-talk tone of voice.
"Cosmo, eh? Isn’t it dangerous to name a rat after our esteemed leader?" said Hornblower.
"Just between one counterrevolutionary and another, what’s a subversive like me got to lose?" Starbuck said, in mock-hushed tones. "Besides, the family resemblance is sooooo striking! No offense, Cosmo," he said, turning to the rat.
"Well, then, let me introduce myself. I’m Starbuck, Undersecretary of the Secretariat of Public least, that’s what I was before this terrible misunderstanding."
"Name sounds vaguely familiar. As for me, I was a gunnery sergeant in the People’s Republican Army. Hornblower’s the name."
"How’d you wind up here?" Starbuck asked.
"My CO screwed up and then screwed me over to cover his own screw-up. So what’s your story?"
"Don’t know for sure. They won’t tell me. Last month these two blue suited goons came for me, right there in my office, in front of God and everyone, and hauled me off. I suspect it was that smarmy new Assistant Undersecretary...the one I was assigned a few weeks before, who secretly denounced me--one of those...oh, you know...eager-beaver types...could cut his own throat on that steam-creased collar of his."
"Yeah, I know just what you mean. I always promote ‘em to the frontlines first to spend some enemy rounds before sending in my own boys," Hornblower said, in a wheezy, tobacco-saturated laugh.


The door opened and yet another inmate was shoved inside.
"Another addition to our exclusive club!" Starbuck exclaimed, as all three shook hands. "My name’s Starbuck, and this here is Sgt. Hornblower".
"Call me Dunkelmann."
"So what did you to do deserve such an honor?" Hornblower asked.
"I was Deputy Director of the Directorate of Internal Security. Can't say why I’m here. They didn't tell me."
"No, they never give a reason, do they?" Starbuck interjected. "I was Undersecretary to the Secretariat, while Hornblower here was with the People’s Republican Army." Hornblower stood at attention and salutes.
"How long have they kept you here?"
"Going on two years now. Hornblower joined me a month later."
"What’s the disposition of your case?"
"I met with my lawyer a few times, but he dropped the case."
"What did he say?"
"You can’t defend yourself unless you deny the charge, you can’t deny the charge unless you say you were falsely accused; as soon as you say you were falsely accused, they say you’re impugning the system of justice, which proves you were justly indicted in the first place."
"Ah, yes, that’s the beauty of the system," said Dunkelmann. "Heads or tails, it always comes up off with their heads!"
"It gets worse. Even your lawyer can’t defend you without complicity. That’s why mine dropped out of sight," said Starbuck.
"It don’t ever pay to be right when the paymaster’s wrong!" Hornblower interjected, running a finger across his neck.
"So what do you guys to for fun and games," Dunkelmann asked.
"We’ve got a lovely view of the firing squad," said Starbuck, taking him over to the window. "On your left you can just make out the gallows. Unfortunately for us, the cell next door has a better view of the gibbet. And sometimes our caregivers even favor us with a beheading or two for holidays and other festivities."
"So there’s more than one form of execution?"
"They like a little variety to liven things up a bit," Starbuck continued. "If you’re just some run-of-the-mill subversive, they hang you or shoot you. It’s cheaper, you know. If you’re something special, then the guillotine awaits! And if you’re extra-special, they fry you alive. On a busy day the whole cellblock takes on that mouth-watering, hickory-smoked aroma!"


"Hey, Dunkelmann. Looks like they’re bringing Starbuck back alive!"

Starbuck stumbled in through the door, shaken, sinking to his knees.

"What happened?" Dunkelmann asked. "Did you get a reprieve, a pardon, a..."
"Reprieve is too nice a word. They stayed my execution. That’s what they do around here: string you out while you hope against hope for a pardon, then schedule an execution, strap you in the chair, then cancel it at the very last minute—like a cat toying with a rat."
"At least you escaped the noose to live another day!"
"Yeah, if you can call this hellhole living. After all I’ve..." Starbuck jumps at a flash of light and crackling sound from the electrocution chamber
"Uh…after all I’ve done for the State, and this is how they reward me! I can’t tell you how many hours I spent..." Hornblower pantomimes a violin while Dunkelmann daubs imaginary tears. Starbuck rises to his feet and glares at both of them.
"What do you two think is so goddamn funny?" Starbuck demanded.
"Sorry, Starbuck," said Dunkelmann, "but sometimes you talk as though the universe were delinquent on your paycheck. How can you expect justice in a world like this?"
"That doesn’t make it one whit more fair!"
"I know how you feel, but it’s a funny feeling, all the same. Why do we so often feel out of our element? Does a guppy curse his fate because the water is wet?"
"He’d have plenty to gripe about if he had to swim in this cesspool of ours!"
"I don’t know. So often we act as if we were born for another world."
"Can’t spare a tear for either one of you, if you ask me!" said Hornblower.
"What’s that supposed to mean?" said Starbuck.
"You and Dunkelmann sent many a good man to an unjust death. You make the mistakes and make the foot soldier pay."
"I never condemned an innocent man to death!" said Starbuck, indignantly.
"Oh, yes...yes you did. No, not in so many words, of course, but every time you wrote one of your pretty little speeches for Cosmo, every time..." Another flash of light and crackling sound interrupted his train of thought.
"And every time Dunkelmann did the dirty work for Cosmo, you signed another man’s death warrant."
"Why you treasonous little scumbag!"
"Horny’s right, you know," said, Dunkelmann, lighting a cigarette. "We had it good at the expense of others. We had our little moment in the sun."
"More seditious speech! I can’t believe my ears!" Starbuck exclaimed.
"Don’t you think it’s time to drop the pose?" said Dunkelmann. "You played your dutiful role to the hilt, and look where it landed you?"
"If you never believed in the revolution, how could you serve in the Directorate all those years?"
"It’s not about believing, but surviving. We were both playing our part. The difference between you and me is I know I was play-acting the whole time. That’s the only choice in life--either play the fool or play another for the fool!"
"You dirty little hypocrite!"
"To the contrary, you’re looking at a man of moral consistency. I’m only hypocritical when I need to be!"


Starbuck, Dunkelmann & Hornblower were playing cards, using cigarettes as chips.

"I call your cigarette and raise you half a butt," Hornblower said to Starbuck.
"Starbuck, you afraid to die?" Dunkelmann asked.
"Oh, I don’t know," said Starbuck, turning misty-eyed. "Death is such a natural part of life. Without death there is no life. We’re stardust gazing at stardust. When we die we return to the to the very stuff that gave us birth and being, and our mortal remains are...well are recycled to make a another generation of dusty stargazers--yes, billions and billions of dust particles composing billions and billions of dusty stargazers, all perched atop a speck of spinning stardust, and gazing at billions and billions of twinkling stars!

Dunkelmann folded his hands in mock prayer while Hornblower flapped his arms like angel wings.

"‘Scuse me for asking," said Hornblower, "but isn’t that just a pretty way of saying that when you die you turn to dog crap?"
"Now, now, my dear Hornblower," said Dunkelmann, patting him on the shoulder while assuming an indulgent tone of voice, "remember that our beloved Starbuck used to work for the Secretariat. They can make a dunghill smell like rose garden"
"Would you rather jawbone or place a bet?" said Starbuck, huffily.
"I fold," said Hornblower.
"You’re bluffing," said Dunkelmann to Starbuck.
"Try me!"
"I’m running low on cigarettes."
"I thought you had an outside source?"
"I did, until my contact fell out of favor with the Subcommissioner to the Commissar. I think he’s now in the prison block just down the hall."
"What’ll we do for a smoke?" Hornblower asked.
"Rumor has it the guy in the next cell has a rendezvous with Old Sparky this week," Dunkelmann answered in a low tone of voice. "Maybe we can bribe the guard to give us his leftover pack."
"So, what about you, Horny?" said Starbuck.
"What about what?"
"About your own appointment with Old Sparky? It’s only a matter of time, you know."
"Well, death is a damn bloody nuisance, if you ask me. But it’s no use our wasting any womanish fears and tears over the whole affair. Gird up your loins like a man! That’s what I say. Better to build on a firm foundation of unyielding despair. I was dead a...
"It’s your bet," Starbuck interrupted. Hornblower paused, tossing another cigarette into the kitty.
"Where was I?"
"You was dead!" said Dunkelmann.
"Ah, yes, that’s right, I was dead. How could I forget a thing like that! Anyway, as I was saying, I was dead all right--dead a billion years before I was born, and it never inconvenienced me a bit. After snoozing through the eons of time I woke up for a wink of an eye. I’ll die, but only ‘cause I got to live. For every one of me a million squiggly little sperm cells never had a damn chance."

Dunkelmann salutes Starbuck, behind Hornblower's back, who returns the salute.

"So, Dunkelmann, what about you?" said Starbuck.
"Sorry, but I don’t have any flowery speeches to make. This is my creed: first you die, then you rot! Direct and to the point!"
"Yeah, but you leave out all the spunk and all the valor," Hornblower objected. It’s not like we’ve got to face our fate like a dog. "Go not gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying light!"
"’The boy stood on the burning deck’, and all that confounded crap?" said Dunkelmann. "You make it sound like the bloody charge of the light brigade!"
"And what if I do?" said Hornblower, voice raised and eyes ablaze. "Maybe we’re on a death march into a dawnless night, but we can summon the courage to lift a fallen comrade or give him a decent burial. That’s the true baptism by fire into the company of the blood-washed martyrs!"
"O may I join the choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence!" said Starbuck.
"Truth is," said Dunkelmann, "you two talk like a pair of drunken choirboys. Such high-flown speeches are for the living, not the dead. Come to think of it, wasn’t the Devil a demoralized saint?"
"It's not about you and me only, but about our part in the whole grand and glorious scheme of things," said Starbuck.
"Oh yes, yes, it is, it is about me, and me alone. That’s exactly what it’s about, all right! We’re all by ourselves out here, shivering in the lonely, cold, and silent spaces of black infinitude--from one end of nothingness to another. And we’ll all die alone, walking the valley of the shadow of death in single file.

Who are you two trying to impress, anyway? The stars? The tombstones? No one’s listening! The graveyard has no ears. The cosmos has no ears. You both got a great way of dressing up the corpse with your eulogies. But face it, guys, life’s a bad joke told by a dead comedian."
"Maybe we’re not all alone. Like, I mean...what about life on other worlds?"
"Guardian angels by another name. Or just another chain-gang doomed to die. What a pair you make--of fat and happy lab rats..." gesturing to the execution room, "but I’ve got news for you--the vivisection table awaits!"
"Really, my dear Dunkelmann," said Hornblower, "you do have a way of ruining a perfectly good game of five-card stud! If that’s how you feel, why not hang yourself and get it over with?"
"That’s a good question. Sometimes I think that suicide is the only question. The mistake was being born. The very first step was the fatal misstep, the original sin. My little pet rat was better off than me for never knowing any better. The only way forward is backward."
"So why don’t you cut your own throat?"
"Because I’m a coward--like everyone else."

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