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a sf short story in the Empire of Time series

by John Argo


Reprieve by John Argo, SF short story in the Empire of Time seriesThe Advocate peered through a slot in the battered steel door and wondered: What is she?

A small woman huddled on a metal bench in a cell whose floor gleamed dully from many washings. A sickening aseptic smell hinted at the morning's cleaning—never quite enough to kill the fetor of old blood in the drains.

The Advocate walked across the echoing corridor to his office. He lit a cigarette and looked through the window at a patch of skyline. Rain trickled down the greasy glass.

Outside, beyond the collection of cubes comprising the Inquiry, stood the Lord's City. The outlines of the immense gray pyramids comprising its defensive perimeter were blurred with corrosive precipitation.

A distant explosion, felt rather than heard, shivered the floor underfoot. Sometimes there were several blasts an hour, but one never got used to them. Each one terrified, each one reminded of the horrendous fate if the infidels broke through the gates.

The Advocate sighed and turned back to his desk. He was a man in his fifties: portly, graying, with a deeply lined face. Smoke twirled forgotten about his head.

On the desk was a comlink with several buttons. He pushed one.

"Have the Questioner stand by. Better yet, have him come now, with his tools. Usually just the sight of them is enough to make these apostates talk."

"Aye, sir."

The interrogator felt a whiff of challenge as he smoothed down his white starched coat with the caduceus emblem on the breast pocket. In pre-Scriptural days, he knew, he would have been known as a psychiatrist. But his training would have been secular and blasphemous. How backward people had been then. But they had not had to live under perpetual siege like this. He, the Advocate, must choose certain prisoners to investigate: what was the enemy doing on the outside? With what sorts of demons did they consort in their false readings of the Book?

Was the woman in cell D-34 a demon? Or was she a messenger from God? During the ten minutes he had watched her she had remained motionless. Nor had she paid the least attention to her cellmates, several gray shapes huddled in distant corners. She wore the faded blue gown they'd given in replacement for her military uniform, which had been of a type never before seen here, with an amazingly compact and effective self-sufficient breathing apparatus. She sat with her hands on her knees, staring down.

Aloof. Untouched.

In shock, perhaps, the Advocate thought.

He considered reciting the Scripture verses for depression, but decided to wait. Against the unknown, observe rather than act.


He turned to the comlink. "Yes?"

"The Questioner is here."

"Send him up."

Shortly the door opened, and a massive figure encased in a thick black rubber suit entered. The Questioner wore a brass helmet like a diving bell, with two tiny black glass eye pieces set close together. In one hand he carried a bucket full of cutting instruments. In his other he carried a bundle of long rods for insertion, some with hooks on their ends. Electrical cords were draped around one shoulder.

The Questioner stepped close and inclined his head.

The Advocate indicated the security monitor, set now on D34. "The one on the bunk," he said. "Just scare her a bit to start."

They went to the cell. The Advocate opened the door and the two men walked up to the silent woman. The Advocate said: "Protect your soul, woman, and break this abominable silence."

The Questioner's electrically proofed rubber boots squeaked on the pitted concrete floor as he moved forward. The objects in his bucket rattled. The other women moaned. One began weeping.

The odd female didn't bother to look up. The Questioner turned to the Advocate and shrugged. He set his gear down with a clatter, then unwound the half inch thick electrical cords and plugged them into ceiling sockets.

He nodded to the Advocate to leave, which the rules required, and turned on a faucet. Water poured out onto the floor, running to the drain.

As the Advocate turned to go he glimpsed the swing of the cords and heard the bark of a short as copper touched water. He smelled brimstone. The flashes were of an infernal color, blue and white, crackling like teeth in flesh. The other women wailed.

A half hour later, the Questioner stood in the doorway, helmet in hand. He was a tall man with a round head, nearly bald. He used a pudgy wrist to wipe sweat from his forehead. "She's yours."


The Questioner shook his head. "I've never seen anyone like her."

"Did you scare her?"

"The others fell apart watching. About that woman, I don't know. I went to the limit with what you ordered. Go see."

They went together and looked at the crumpled figure sprawled on the floor, her shift hiked up around bare thighs the color of yellow wax, with violent blue-black burn marks on them. Her face lay near the drain, eyes closed. A tree of diluted blood grew out of her open mouth, its branches meandering toward the drain.

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Copyright © 2018 by Jean-Thomas Cullen, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.