REGINA M. JOSEPH
“Missing,” the Magistrate pronounced loudly, followed by a mumbled, “That’s one less.” He tossed his long braid over his shoulder to hide his discomfort. Carefully nestling his stylus between two pudgy fingers, he let his hand sweep down to affix a check beside the name of the missing Outlander. “I’ve eliminated her from the rolls.”
“We need more workers,” the factory foreman protested, not daring to glance up to the podium.
“You have plenty.”
Grumbling, the gray-bearded foreman folded his hands in his blousy sleeves and floated into the shadows.
“We’re done for the day,” the Magistrate intoned. Arising on his transport pillow, he floated from the adjudication room to his private sanctuary. He smiled. Gentle music filled the air. The shutters of the holographic window lay open to a garden overflowing with delicate flowers of every color. Resting on the imagined window ledge, the magistrate drank in the delicate perfume. Releasing a long sigh, he thought, This is how it used to be and how it will be again.
His attendant, dressed in the drab homespun of an Outlander, offered a cup of wine. He bowed from the waist. “Difficult day, my lord?”
Detecting surliness in his voice, the Magistrate accepted the cup and studied his face. His attendant was usually pleasant, one could even say competent. He’d shared many a debate with the man, agreeing on nothing. For an Outlander, he was intelligent and arguably worth saving. Nevertheless, an edict had to be applied evenly. Only one wistful glance at the beauty beyond the window was sufficient to ratify his course. Swirling the wine in his cup, he noticed a defiant glance.
“You know what’s being done, don’t you?”
The attendant stiffened. “We are given provisions for a journey and told that a perfect settlement for Outlanders has been readied. Its décor is plain and utilitarian as our traditions mandate. But the directions to this nirvana are faulty, or false, and Outlanders are unfamiliar with the terrain outside the City walls—as you well know. In truth, the path goes through the sinking land. We go to certain death. Officially, we are missing, as if we deviated from the directions.”
The Magistrate winced. “We’re not responsible for the lost ones.”
The Magisterium’s unanimous edict had been rendered after an intense, but brief, debate. The Magistrate had his moral doubts, but the situation had deteriorated to where reprehensible acts were the only available course. It was kill or be killed. The City’s natives had revolted because the Outlander influence had, they said, ruined their culture. Their society used to be filled with colorful gardens of magnificent beauty, and people wore colorful garments. Music was played everywhere. Now, the beautiful life remained only in hiding. Over time, the Outlanders’ population had reached a tipping point within the City’s walls, and they’d bullied and used their demonstrations to eradicate all that the natives considered beautiful. It was as if a revolution had occurred, stealthily and silently, without anyone even knowing there was a war afoot.
“Not lost. Purged.”
“So,” the Magistrate probed, “is the so-called purge―I admit nothing―common belief among your kind?” The Magisterium had designed the cleansing for secrecy and for avoiding distasteful hands-on bloodshed, thinking that the Outlander bodies would sink into the bogs without a trace. Nature was responsible. But knowledge meant resistance. His stomach knotted. I must warn the Magisterium.
“We all know.”
The Magistrate’s mind raced. We must accelerate the purge. They outnumber us.
The attendant fumed, “You brought us here.”
The Magistrate narrowed his eyes, annoyed that his guilt was so apparent. “We made short-term offers for work that we ourselves could no longer perform. We needed labor and we were willing to afford Outlanders excellent hospitality in return. Your forebears accepted—the offers were the mistake of the old regime. The bargain was made for expediency, and we miscalculated how much you’d breed, as well as how little we would. Before the violence began, we ignored the imbalance and your growing resistance to our authority. We sought to placate you by leaving you alone. Outlanders migrated into ever more neighborhoods, using their numbers for intimidation. Who could have foreseen that you’d ban our wonderful gardens? We’re losing our identity. Since you don’t appreciate our culture, we must be rid of you. But you wouldn’t accept our incentives to leave. Violence could still be avoided.”
“We’ve nowhere to go. We’re generations away from our homeland.”
“After extensions of our bargain, we assumed that you’d appreciate our beauty and become one with us. How can anyone not appreciate beauty? It’s unthinkable.”
The attendant taunted, “You have no right to design your life. Your inability to walk is punishment. Without us, you’ve lost the ability to survive.”