This story is a reflection on the morality of revenge. It was originally inspired by my contempt for the dictator Islam Karimov, but applies to every tyrant you’ve ever wanted to see tortured for their crimes. My hope is that this story eventually gets turned into a graphic novel or short animation.
The words “The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace” were etched in block metal letters above the entrance to the Lattice of Sorrow. The phrase struck Ayesha as a vengeful prayer.
She walked along the long shadows cast by the words and through the massive open gate. The Lattice, perhaps the largest sculpture in the galaxy, now stretched out before her, each one of its billion monuments commemorating a tragedy from the Last Great War. The smallest memorials were no bigger than a tombstone; the largest, great stone and metal mausoleums, covered hundreds of cubic metres. They stretched in every direction and far up into the sky, all unique save for two common elements: each told a story about one of the Tyrant’s massacres, and each had a light symbolizing the life and death of one of the Tyrant’s trillion victims.
For the next hour Ayesha randomly floated through the Lattice, experiencing the sensations which emanated from the memorials. Some whispered stories, others broadcast emotions scanned from victims at the moment of their deaths. The most prevalent emotions were horror and fear. The most unsettling emotion was relief, for people only feel relieved to die after unbearable suffering.
A placard at the centre of a marble arched doorway caught her attention. It read,
The recording contained in this mausoleum was taken 1,000 seconds after the death of the child Elizum Kemble. He was one of the one billion people killed during the Siege of Ashanti, the final battle of the Last Great War.
The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace.
Ayesha had always thought that it was perverse to experience a death scan, but because of her anger at this senseless murder she decided that she would. She stepped under the tomb’s portico and paused for a moment. Upon entering she felt a slight jolt as her perspective was replaced by that of the murdered child.
Mechanized soldiers fall through the air like snowflakes, their uniforms splashes of white against a deep, blue sky and a brown, dusty town. I want to run but I cannot. There is no where to run to. We are encircled. I hide in the shadow of a doorway hoping that I have not been seen.
The soldiers walk towards each other, compressing the crowd – my friends, my family. I want to help them but I cannot. I am trembling with fear.
The Mechs pause, raise their weapons and fire. As the dust settles they vacuum up the corpses into the balloon-like bags they carry on their backs.
As the man-machines clear the quare of bodies, one turns suddenly and looks directly at my hiding place.
I stare into its mottled green-brown eyes, trying to understand what, if anything, it is thinking as it prepares to kill me.
Ayesha hastily stepped out of the mausoleum. She was shaking because the Mech that killed Elizum Kemble had the same eyes as the one that had murdered her own family. She staggered off the platform in front of the memorial, hovered unsteadily in the air for a moment and then scudded away into the darkening sky. She had had enough of memorials so she flew directly towards her ultimate destination, the Ashanti Palace. The Palace, which once was a regional headquarters in the Tyrant’s empire, had been converted into a prison and museum after his defeat.
The entrance to the Palace faced onto the Plaza of Justice. From a distance the Plaza appeared flat and empty, save for a lighted sphere in the middle. As she drew closer she saw that it was teeming with people. Many were clearly tourists, but there were also clusters of semi-permanent camps inhabited by protesters and agitators. Though most were concerned with the Tyrant’s suffering – some for, most against – she could see representatives from a vast array of the galaxy’s political interests. If you wanted to get a message out, this was a good place to do it: most people visited the Lattice of Sorrow at least once in their lives.
The Plaza was so large that it took several minutes of flying before Ayesha saw the Panopticon, which was popularly known as the Tyrant’s Punishment. She had always thought of the Panopticon as a transparent sphere, but as she approached it she could see that it wasn’t a structure at all: it was simply a force field that held the Tyrant’s gaunt, twitching body suspended in the air. From a distance his disjointed movements appeared graceful, but as she lowered herself closer to him she saw that he was in agony.
Unlike her siblings and friends, Ayesha had never flinched in the face of pain. When she grazed herself as a child she did not run whining to her parents for solace. Instead she would investigate the wound, and try to conquer her pain. She could not help but look at the Tyrant. After ten thousand days of torture she was surprised to see that his sunken, hollow eyes were alert: they constantly darted around, looking directly at faces in the crowd that pushed around the edges of the Panopticon, angling for a better view. The look in his reddened eyes was deranged. His apparent lunacy was emphasized by his frayed tongue, which incessantly licked his bloody lips.
After several minutes of intent viewing Ayesha retreated to a quiet spot several hundred feet above the Tyrant’s body, and prepared to watch the end of the Cycle, a 10,000 day period during each second of which a memorial light would be extinguished to commemorate one of his murders. As each the light was extinguished, the Tyrant’s body would be wracked by pain. At the beginning of the Cycle the Lattice burned with lights. Now that the Cycle was ending the lights were gradually giving way to night. When the last light was extinguished later this evening, medics would take down his wretched body so that he could be revived sufficiently to endure another round of torture. Ayesha would interview him immediately before the Punishment resumed.
One hour before dawn the last memorial light was extinguished. The only light in the entire Lattice of Sorrow came from the Panopticon, which continued to glow with hard white-blue light. The Tyrant’s body hung limply, only periodically twitching from muscle memory, not torture. Over the next few minutes the light from the Panopticon began to fade; soon everything became black and still. The darkness lasted an interminable time then was ended by a loud, crashing noise, which echoed for a few minutes more. When the last echo died away there was a final moment of silence and then the memorial lights were turned back on.
The Plaza was far more crowded than Ayesha had realized. She lowered herself carefully into an empty spot several hundred metres from her destination, the main entrance to the Palace. On her way she passed a group of protesters quietly sitting in a circle, sipping tea. Their placards read, “Only God can punish for eternity” and “Let the Tyrant die and be judged. Hell is worse than any punishment humans can devise.” These pacifists were flanked by a more sanguine group sitting in the shade of a large banner which read, “His soul has been judged already. Let his body suffer for his crimes.” Ayesha rushed passed the two camps, not wanting to get embroiled in a dispute.
As she approached the Palace entrance she wondered yet again what she hoped to achieve in her upcoming interview. She had no desire to vindicate the Tyrant’s crimes and was indifferent to pleas for clemency. She opposed punitive justice when it was difficult to determine guilt with certainty. But in this case there were no doubts. The Tyrant had ravaged over one million worlds and though he personally had killed not one person, his soldiers had murdered over one trillion innocent civilians. The thought of these atrocities brought her mind back to Elizum Kemble’s murderer, the man-machine with a white steel body and human eyes. She wasn’t interested in the machinery of terror; but rather the humanity behind it.
A rabid looking man pushed his way in front of her and shouted, “He didn’t do it! He only killed in self-defense. This is all a lie!” The Denier waved a brochure he thought contained evidence for his ignorant claim. Ayesha pushed the man aside and walked into the thickest part of crowd, towards the main entrance to the Palace.
Once there she activated her security pass. One moment later a group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere and with apparently no effort cleared the crowd from around her. They entered the Palace through a tiny side door which opened onto one wing of a tremendous, square hallway. The floors of the hallway were paved with polished marble laid out in a red and white checkered pattern. Twenty metre high marble statues lined each wall. In the center of the hallway there was a huge alabaster sculpture of a man wrestling with a snake. The roof had a grid of skylights that let light shine down in articulated lines. The roof was held up by long columns of dark green marble, the tops of which were decorated with elaborate carvings of acanthus leaves.
Seven hallways radiated out from the atrium, a main hallway that immediately faced the entrance-way and one on each of the 3 remaining sides. Ayesha was led by her escorts around the based of the alabaster statue towards the main hallway. Her footstep’s echoed loudly as she walked. The soldiers who accompanied her were silent. At the entrance to the hallway she saw the erect, still body of a Mech. She looked at its eyes. They too were mottled green-brown. Her entire body became tense with fear. She halted several metres before it to collect herself. Her escort saluted and left.
The Mech let her stand silently for a respectful moment and then spoke with a disconcertingly soft voice. “Are you alright?” She tried to answer the mechanized soldier’s question but could not.
The Mech spoke again. “Please do not be alarmed madam. No doubt you have seen countless images of soldiers like me enacting terrible atrocities. You may have even experienced a death scan. Fear not. I have been reprogrammed; I pose no threat to you.” She did not respond; fear had paralyzed her.
“Ma’am. We have a very tight schedule.” The Mech offered his arm, as an escort. She flinched away from his touch but nevertheless proceeded in the direction he indicated.
The main hallway was designed in a baroque style. It had a painted parquet floor and its walls were adorned with tall mirrors, which were interspersed with arched crystalline windows. Large glass chandeliers hung in a row from the centre of the ceiling. Even the most prosaic items, such as door handles and torch holders, were the products of elaborate craftsmanship. Ayesha paused to examine a fresco that dominated one wall. The focus of the painting was a man with a great powdered wig; his clothes were made of purple velvet and were covered with heavy gold ornaments. His feet were shod in long leather boots which opened up at his thighs. On one hip he wore a scabbard out of which protruded the handle of a sword which had been decorated with colored stones; his gloved right hand rested on a holster, which contained a gun. On his head he wore a large, rimmed hat which was decorated with a tremendous feather. The large feathered cap initially made Ayesha think that this man was some type of shaman, but when she examined the painting more carefully she realized he was a military leader. Directly in front of the great man was a prostrate man, grandly dressed, who was signing a handwritten document. The prostrate man was also flanked by armored men, though his soldiers had all lowered themselves onto one knee, and were unarmed.
Ayesha moved slowly forward, examining the other paintings. All contained similar themes: pictures of the great man in various grand, dysfunctional outfits, surrounded by victorious and vanquished soldiers. She realized then that the entire hallway, the mirrors, the chandeliers, the crystalline windows, down to the very last, ornate detail, had been constructed to glorify this one man’s military exploits. Not one painting gave any indication of how brutal warfare was for these soldiers. “Imagine killing someone by impaling them with a metal stick, or blowing them apart with small balls of steel” she thought. “Somehow such images never never adorn monuments to military victories. It’s as if humans have a disability which makes us unable to see our barbarity for what it is even as we celebrate it.”
Her escort interrupted her reverie. “While we wait for the Prisoner is there anything you would like to know about the Palace or the Last Great War?”
“Who is that man?” Ayesha pointed to the painting of the leader with the feathered hat.
“His name is Louis Quattorze. He was a French ruler. This is all a replica of a hallway in one of his Palaces.”
“Was he a great military leader?”, she asked bitterly.
The Mech replied in a neutral voice. “If you judge greatness in terms of conquests, then no he was not a great leader. Although he fought many wars against his neighbors, when he died his nation’s borders were little changed from when he began. Most of the few increases in territory he did achieve were legal victories, not military.” The fact that the glorious battles depicted along this gallery were pointless did little to change her low opinion of Louis Quattorze.
The Mech waited a respectful moment for Ayesha to reply, and when she didn’t, said, “The craft-work is tremendous, isn’t it, particularly when you consider that the originals these artifacts were modeled on were all constructed with crude tools?”
She nodded her assent, but let the Mech’s attempt to converse fail.
The Mech’s wrist beeped sullenly. “It’s time”. He nodded towards the doorway at the end of the hallway. They passed through it into a large room also decorated in a baroque style.
“What is this place?”, Ayesha asked.
“The Hall of Peace.”
“Was this one of Mr. Quattorze’s chambers?”
“No. The Hall is modern. It is where the Tyrant was captured after his attempted suicide.”
They did not enter the Hall but instead turned down a grey, utilitarian service corridor. At the corridor’s end they encountered a heavy metal door with a grill on its thick glass window. The Mech gestured towards the door, “Please enter. This is where you will be meeting the Prisoner.”
The interview room was a small, windowless box, with white walls illuminated by bright blue-white lights. In the center of the room there was a thin metal table which was bolted to the floor. There was only one chair. She expected the Mech to stand but wondered where the Tyrant would sit. Directly opposite the chair there was a second door exactly the same as the one through which she had entered. She sat down on the chair while the Mech moved beside the second door and became still.
As Ayesha waited she looked directly at the Mech. It was interesting what human traits had been retained in the design of these man-machines. They had protuberances which resembled arms and legs, they spoke through a vent where one would expect a mouth, and had human-like, eyes. “Why had their designers retained any human attributes?” she wondered.
“How old are you?” she asked the Mech. Though the question itself was neutral, her tone of voice was accusatory.
“I was born 1,158 years ago. I reached this final state” it gestured towards its body, “1,026 years ago, just after the conclusion of the Last Great War.”
“Why do you exist?”
Though the Mech’s voice remained without affect, it’s awkward body language made her think it was taken aback by her question. It replied, “What do you mean?”
“I know that you are an amalgamation of human soldier and machine. But I don’t understand the need for a hybrid soldier. Why didn’t the Tyrant create an army of robots? What does your humanity bring to soldiering?”
“Memory”, the Mech replied.
“I don’t understand”.
“The way humans and machines interpret their experiences is different. Machines have virtually unlimited storage capacity. Humans do not and therefore must constantly filter and reinterpret their experiences. The Tyrant felt that war was an art, and that humans, because of how they remember and learn, are more artistic than machines.”
“But you are programmed.”
“It is true that the general parameters of my behavior are strictly regulated. For example, I am incapable of killing you right now. Or any human, for that matter. But within certain parameters I am free to act based on my experiences and judgment. I am not very different from you, except my boundaries are programmed.”
“What about your conscience?” she asked. The Mech did not answer her question. She spoke again, “Did you fight in the War?”
“Yes. In fact I fought right here on Ashanti, during the final battle of the war.”
“Did you kill anyone?” Ayesha looked directly into the Mech’s mottled eyes as she asked this question.
“I personally was responsible for 1,021,067 verified deaths and several million more that were never verified.”
“Do you regret what you did?”
“What I did was senseless.”
“Is that your programming talking?”
“No. From a purely military perspective, the massacres were not constructive, even though our victims’ bodies did power our weapons.”
“Did you take any death scans?”
“I took scans from as many of my victims as I could. Scanning was part of my standing orders.”
“Have you experienced the scans?”
“Yes. All of them.”
Ayesha imagined this man-machine sequestered in a booth reviewing its murderous deeds from the perspective of its victims. She wondered if it was like an idiot child who could use its fingers to count but could not make the cognitive leap to abstract numbers. Could this Mech determine that its senseless murders were evil or did the fact that it was programmed preclude the possibility of moral sensibility? Could you program conscience? Could you unprogram it?
Her agitated mind leapt to the memory of her family’s murder. Looking directly at the Mech she asked, “Have you ever been to the planet Luthan?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
Ayesha let the conversation lapse.
The door opposite her opened with a clang revealing the body of the Tyrant suspended awkwardly in the air by a force-field, which maneuvered him into the space in front of her. He dangled limply in the air, the toes of his feet hovering a few centimeters above the tiled floor. The door slammed shut.
Despite having just been revived by medics, the Tyrant was stooped and frail. He wore an orange jumper which hung loosely on his body. His watery blue eyes were unfocused and drifted lazily around the room, rarely settling on any one object for more than a blink. His manner was likewise unfocused and his limbs constantly twitched. There was no hair anywhere on his body.
He leaned forward suddenly and shouted directly into her face, “What is your name?!”
The force-field that contained him slammed him back into the air, so that his body became straight and rigid. Immobilized, he floated back towards the door. Though startled, she replied without hesitation. “Ayesha”.
After a moment the Prisoner began to move his fingers tentatively. His force-field prison allowed him a certain amount of free movement, if he behaved.
He addressed his next question to a blank wall. “You didn’t answer my question. I asked you, why are you here, Ayesha?”
“I’m here to interview you.”
“What do you want to talk about?” he continued, belligerently, his gaze still fixed on the blank white wall to his right. “My Punishment? Do you want me to tell you what its like to be repeatedly electrocuted? Do you want to talk to me about justice?”
Ayesha knew from her research that the Prisoner would eventually tire of these histrionics, so she silently waited for him to continue. After a moment he spoke again, this time with a tired voice, “Very well. Interview me.”
Ayesha took one long breath to collect herself. She only had a brief time for this interview and wanted to make each question count. She was well prepared. In her hand she held a list of clearly cross-referenced questions; a flowchart of potentialities. If he said this she would ask this, otherwise that. But where to start?
Her thoughts kept returning to Elizum Kemble’s memorial and the murder of her own family so she asked the question that had been foremost on her mind all day, “Half of your victims died in the last year of the War. Why did you keep killing after you had lost?”
The Prisoner floated away from Ayesha; his head fell backwards onto the nape of his neck and his manic eyes wandered around the ceiling as he answered her question, “Do you know the story of my capture?”
“You poisoned yourself moments before the 82nd airborne stormed this Palace. Allied medics revived you and then you were tried and sentenced by the War Crimes Tribunal to a life sentence for each one of your victims, to be served in the Panopticon.”
“Do you know what kind of poison I used?”
“Do you know how deadly it is?”
“Yes. At least I think I do.”
With each question the Tyrant’s body became slightly more erect and his eyes more focused. Suddenly he wheezed loudly and his rigidity collapsed. He hung in the air like a broken puppet, speaking his next statement with a soft, halting voice, “Ayesha, I was dead for over 6 hours before the medics revived me. I cannot answer your question. I do not remember anything from before I died.”
His quiet words inflamed her response, “Why would the Tribunal let me see you, if you have no memories? Why would they let anyone see you?”
He replied with the same defeated voice. “The Tribunal doesn’t believe me. They hope you will trip me up with clever questions.” He nodded towards the ceiling. “They’re watching now, you know. Of course you know.”
She dismissed his allusions to the surveillance sensors and continued. “But you can think. You’re lucid.”
“Yes. When I’m not being tortured.”
Ayesha’s mind was racing but directionless. If what he said was true, all of her questions were irrelevant. She repressed an urge to strike him. She knew that anger was just an expression of her frustration. Then her rage turned against the War Crimes Tribunal. “How dare they mislead me like this!” she thought. “This interview is the culmination of years’ worth of effort. They could have warned me about this!”
“Do you feel betrayed?” The Tyrant’s voice had a cloying tone. “Of course you do. All the interviewers do. You’ve been manipulated.”
“Where were you born?” Ayesha shot the question at him, like a trial lawyer.
“On the planet Sirius under a blood-red sun,” he immediately replied.
“How do you know that if you have no memories?”
“I hear that dreadful poem recited continuously when I am enduring my Punishment.” The Prisoner made a croaking noise which Ayesha assumed was laughter.
“What do you think of your sentence?”
He answered her question indirectly. “Did you experience any death scans before coming here?” She nodded and he continued. “There are millions scattered throughout the Lattice. My soldiers took most of those scans for me. I have been told that I used to experience the scans for pleasure. Ayesha, my sentence is horrific, but I can’t blame you for wanting to punish me. Of course I am guilty.”
His emphasis on the word you off-put her. She had never felt herself culpable for his suffering – he committed his trillion crimes and others punished him. But from his perspective of course she was. The Tyrant’s Punishment was dictated by her society. She could throw her support behind those who felt he was better off dead. But she did not, and therefore she shared some responsibility for his eternal suffering.
The Prisoner continued speaking, “You’re not here because of the people I murdered are you?” This raised her hackles, but before she could correct him he completed his point, “Ayesha, you’re here because of some other personal tragedy aren’t you?”
She took a moment to calm herself: it was foolish to be angry simply because this damaged, insane man had insight into her motives. She nodded.
“Are you afraid of me?”
She looked at him. “No.”
“What about that?” he nodded towards the Mech.
“It terrifies me.”
“Have you ever heard of Luthan?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a mining planet. I grew up there. My father was a senior executive in the company that owned it.” She looked at him to see if he was listening and couldn’t tell. Even though his gaze was averted, somehow, out of the corner of his left eye he watched her. He said, “I am listening. Continue.”
“When I was eight years old a company tried to buy Luthan. The company bribed most of the people who could influence the sale. My father opposed the bid. He was a stubborn man who was strongly motivated by his strict sense of morality. One day, as my family prepared for dinner, a Mech murdered him. Then it killed my brother, my mother and my two sisters. I escaped because I hid in a tree. The police never captured the murderer. They claimed it was a renegade from your army that had eluded reprogramming. It was a transparent but serviceable lie. The next day the planet was sold.”
The Prisoner responded to the space behind her left shoulder, “Ayesha, people are greedy.”
She shook her head sadly, “Its worse than that. Years later I saw an interview with the owner of the corporation that murdered my family. He was asked why his company had fought so hard for a relatively unimportant planet like Luthan. It turns out he did it for Eleutheria.” She began to shake while recalling the memory. The Prisoner reached one of his palsied hands towards her, but the movement was ended abruptly by a force-field.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Eleutheria is a very beautiful garden. My family was murdered for a garden.”
“Would you torture their murderers?”
“Would you kill them if you could do so with no consequences?”
When she did not answer, the Prisoner resumed his interrogation, “What do you feel about me?”
“I hate you.”
She braced herself for a demonstrative response, but instead the Tyrant slumped pathetically forward. His force field pushed his limp body back into an erect but akimbo position. He weakly spoke, “Ayesha, do you want me to suffer until the end of time?”
“I want you dead. You are a monster.”
He laughed weakly. “Ayesha, I’m certain that the old me, who I was before I died, would have loved your hatred.”
An alarm beeped twice. Moments later two soldiers appeared to escort the Tyrant from the room; the interview was over. As his limp body was pushed out of the door, Ayesha could see that he was trying to say something to her but his words were muted by his force-field prison.
The Mech escorted Ayesha to the service doors through which she had entered, but did not leave the Palace with her. She stepped alone into the crowd; the small doors closed quickly behind her. Immediately, a dissembling man with matted hair, loose clothing and wild eyes approached her waving a pamphlet into the air. “Lady, you must be important. Only important people are allowed into the Palace. Listen to me. He didn’t do it! You must set him free. He’s innocent.” The man stuffed a pamphlet into her hands and then shouted directly into her face “He Didn’t Do It!” Her temper flared; she harshly shoved him out of her way.
Her scuffle with the Denier was interrupted by a procession from the Palace: the Tyrant was being returned to his Punishment. Everyone turned to watch. At the base of the Panopticon the Tyrant’s escort backed off into a semi-circle around his skewed hovering body. Slowly he floated into the air. As he moved the cables that nourished and tormented him gradually ensnared him in a web. There was a thick moment of anticipation once he was in position; this was followed by a loud crashing sound which echoed into silence: the Cycle had begun. The Tyrant began to writhe in pain as one by one the lights of the Lattice of Sorrow were extinguished.
Ayesha fled in horror into the air far above the Plaza and then set her course away from the cursed place; the Denier followed her. She landed at entrance to the Lattice. The moment she did the Denier grabbed her by the shoulders, roughly turned her around and shouted into her face, “HE DIDN’T DO IT! YOU MUST HELP FREE HIM” She faced him full on and shouted in reply, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and then violently pushed him to the ground. The Denier fell into the shadow of the letters cast by the gate:
The Tyrant suffers forever so that we may live in peace.