In which Mr. Masterson’s role in the Jury Selection is revealed–along with its true purpose.
It took long, dark seconds for my sight to return. Eventually the room I was now in took shape. It was a study like the ones I had heard were common in the last century. A grandfather chair with padded manchettes sat next to a coffee table on which lay a stack of old print magazines. Smoke from a cigar on a stainless steel ashtray drifted into the veil of light shone of a standing lamp. All nods to nostalgia by the man who stood over me.
“It would have to be you,” Masterson wore a silk robe and comfortable slippers. He reached down with one hand to help me to my feet. In his other he held a riot truncheon.
“You said the time for help was over.” Nevertheless, I accepted his hand.
“That was during the Selection.”
I had just recovered my feet yet at these words, my knees nearly buckled again. I had taken the wrong direction. I needed him to confirm, but for the first time that day my nerves failed. The words would not come.
He must have seen the look on my face. “It’s not what you think,” he walked to the table and picked up a remote lying hidden behind the magazines. At the press of a button, the faux Victorian paintings on the walls slid into the wainscot, revealing Teleflex™ screens behind. Only one painting did not disappear; it was, unsurprisingly, the same portrait of Judge Seagram we had discussed in the vestibule.
“I have a penchant for antiquity, as you can see,” he chuckled to himself. “Yet, technology is inescapable.”
He turned from me and faced the screens, using the remote to change the images on the screens. But each time they only ended at the same maddening swirl of darkness and mercury.
“Come on, you bloody idiots,” he muttered. “Here we are.” He stopped at one channel, a verdigris screen that bobbed as though attached to a float in the Reservoir. Or a runner. A silver flash jostled in the middle.
“This one will do nicely,” Mr. Masterson said and settled down in his chair to watch. “Let’s see what he does.”
A sudden rectangular shaft of light split the screen in two, like a door opening into darkness, which—I realized—was exactly what it was. The sudden illumination revealed the nature of the silver impression in the middle: the sheen of a ClingForm™ uniform. A Prospective Juror, shrunken by distance, squeezed through the door. I knew then, exactly, what we watched.
“The name plates also function as image transducers,” Mr. Masterson explained. The man who had opened the door began to fill the screen as our host closed on him.
“And behind that door….” My gut wrenched at the thought of what lay beyond. I had taken the wrong route. I had arrived at this mad man’s aerie, from which he watched us as a scientist monitors lab rats.
“It doesn’t lead to the prize,” he said flatly.
The man in the screen turned towards us; I imagined his eyes widening beneath the goggles as our host strove to overtake him. He put one shoulder to the door, and with his other hand, ripped the eyewear from his face. Our host stopped—or rather the roiling of the screen ceased. He must have forgotten to divest his goggles. Just as I had been overwhelmed by the sudden light of the den, so too, would he be blinded. There was a flash of silver as the other Prospective Juror turned and caught him full in the face with his forearm. The image listed and collapsed into darkness.
“That’s one way to do it,” Masterson said. “Don’t be shy, Alan. Have a seat.” He indicated the chair. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sat.
“Let’s see if we can find the gentleman in the lead,” Masterson snapped his punched the keys rapidly, sorting through the images provided by the participants, most of whom were still shrouded in darkness.
“This is all for your amusement,” I said. I realized with a pleasant shock that I was growing angry. A heaviness had always laired in my belly, like a stone in a fire. Like the magma that boiled beneath the State, it was dense and furious and inexorable when release. It was this rage that had sustained me through the fractious years of paternal disillusionment; this rage that had steered me through the tautological fabrications of the State Academy and that had landed me here in the Jury Selection.
“You work for the Council.” A question or a statement, I knew not which.
“I don’t work for them, you nitwit” he snapped, suddenly peckish: an old man, “Watch carefully.”
He had found the lead participant’s transducer. The screen was white, as he was now in the chamber at the end of the run. Our host turned and closed the door, which sank seamlessly into the wall.
“What is his…reward for winning?”
“He will receive a cash prize and then be returned to his family.” The man suddenly curled his hands into fists, which we could now see were scarred on the knuckles: a fighter’s hands, “Or the Lowest Level, if that is his point of origin. It never ceases to amaze me: how people will line up, risk life and limb for the chance to judge someone. You’ve seen what happens during Selection, Alan, the depths to which people descend.”
“But it was you who kicked the first man from the ladder, who set the ball in motion,” I blushed as I realized the inadvertent play on words.
“So you do have a sense of humor. Good one, dear, young Alan.” After a fit of chuckling Masterson continued, “That was a corporate raider, as you well know. They infiltrate periodically. They want to upset the Balance, which can’t be allowed.”
“‘All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.’”
“Spare me the homilies, Alan Grimmer III!” He threw the remote onto the chair in frustration. His own face suddenly came on one of the screens. The transducer on my uniform had accidentally been activated: “First son of Alan Grimmer Jr., currently one of the most respected Adjudicators. You have an advanced mandate in Engineering and a respected post as Sinecure of the State’s Perpetual Motion Energy Initiative. You have two children—sons both—and a wife who is—as it happens—a descendent (though distant) of Adjudicator Indra—a much respected individual in his day and a friend, I daresay, of your father’s…and mine.”
He paused, awaiting a response.
“I thought you didn’t work for the Adjudicators.”
“I don’t. Jesus boy, tell me you really haven’t figured it out yet!”
Behind him on the screens, tumultuous blacks, grays and silvers danced on the screens as the contestants raced and fell, crushed beneath the heels of their brethren. How utterly mesmerizing, how strangely beautiful, this fitful, swirling display. Only the Teleflex™ screen with his face and its bulbous nose, made ridiculously large by the fisheye lens, remained still.
Then something extraordinary caught my eye. On one screen, the interstices where the duct’s sections had been joined were apparently descending, not passing horizontally. This could only mean one thing, of course: That particular Prospective Juror was climbing. He or she had somehow divined my and Masterson’s passage. They would arrive soon. I marveled at the thrill that, like a wave, quenched the fire within my being and restored me to pure, adrenal calm.
“The Selection Process is a ruse, then,” I thought I might keep him engaged.
“Of course it is.” He sat down in his chair, a barely perceptible cloud of dust rising about him. He grabbed the cigar took a few long drags. “It’s a rite of passage. Those other idiots, they’re nothing. But us, we’ve all been through it. Myself the first—back when it meant something.” He trailed off, lost in memory.
The smoke floated into the veil of light. Masterson puckered his lips, tasting the synthetic tobacco on them. “It’s all been arranged,” he continued. “You will win the seat. It’s…predetermined.” At this last admission, his voice quavered.
Though he had ceased paying attention to the screens, his head tilted in reverie, the dull thumping that vibrated through the floor as the contestant finally reached the hatch stirred him. They were pounding on it, though to open it required only the rotation of wheel.
Masterson shot out of his chair. He stalked towards it. He leaned over and placed his ear against the cool chrome, listening to the sounds below.
“This is unforeseen.” The old man was gone, replaced by the ageless visage of inquiry and intellect. “Alan, put the chair on top of the hatch. It will serve until I can call an end to the Selection. The Riot Police will intervene and clear the tunnels.”
Amazing the conceit of those who see in other’s only what they themselves desire! In his infinite solitude, Mr. Alistaire Masterson had forgotten a most important lesson: that not all of us are interested in such mindless collusion. So concerned was he with the imminent invasion of his little kingdom that he did not notice me grab the truncheon from where he had lain it—an understandable omission, but dangerous in these uncertain times.