How to Be Good

July 20, 2021

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R Gatwood is the emergent consciousness of a spectacularly inefficient library shelving system. More of its fiction can be found on Twitter @iwantanewhead.
Content Warning(s):
Animal cruelty or animal death, Child in peril, Violence

During Renward’s morning visualization session, he hears someone running across the apartment landing, followed by a thump and a shriek of muffled laughter. It’s his landlady’s son, a boy of three or four who likes to play as close to Renward’s door as he can without getting caught. Renward’s landlady has threatened her son with dire consequences for going anywhere near Renward, and no doubt that’s why the boy is so fascinated with him. Sometimes Renward finds a forgotten kill drone on his doormat—children have such ingenious toys—and takes it down to his landlady’s floor, where he leaves it perched on the molding at eye level for a small child.

It’s important to incorporate distractions into the visualization session. Renward accepts the image of the little boy and concentrates on it. He imagines himself running across the apartment landing for the sheer joy of movement, his body still new and uncontrolled, tripping and thudding to the floor and giggling because everything is so wonderfully funny. Then he imagines talking to the boy. Asking him to pay attention. Don’t let the subject go unresponsive, is the rule. Keep him awake and talking.

Another shriek from the landing. Renward listens. He lets the unpleasant shrillness of the sound ring in his bones; he lets the moment pass.

§

Mark steps into his dark kitchen, catches a glimpse of something scurrying, and instinctively stomps. There’s a crunch. He rubs his bare foot against the tile, trying to scrape the damn thing off. Given how much he pays for this suite, he should be able to get rid of the cockroaches, but they keep coming back.

Coffee. A stale danish he doesn’t really want, the last in the box. Mark feels a little sick, but it’ll pass. He might as well get to the agency and figure out what to do with their latest subject. His name is Darryl Graham. They’ve only had him in custody for a day and a half, and Mark already hates him.

§

Renward’s breakfast is whole grain toast, four juiced carrots with vegan protein powder, and half an apple. The chempack in Renward’s surgically implanted arm patch is running low, so he replaces it with a fresh one. On this model, there’s no way to tell from the indicator whether it contains the enhancers he most relies on, so he has to play it safe.

His watch displays a yellow-orange bar, indicating a moderately high alert level. On the newsfeed, an agricultural expert discusses new, more humane methods of raising veal calves; a Buddhist cultural center has opened up in Georgetown; a new species of synthetic algae has been named after a scientist’s mother.

Renward spends a few minutes every morning testing his earpiece. It needs to be ready any time the call comes. He combs his sandy hair over it so there’s no chance of it distracting a subject.

Now it’s time for some studying. Renward is taking conversational Arabic, Korean, and Persian on alternating fortnights. To keep the different languages distinct in his mind, he looks through the files of potential subjects while he studies. He looks at a photo of Mohammed Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi man with two sons, and imagines he’s speaking to him. Ana ahabak, he says. Tell me a story.

Renward hears a tentative tap-tap from the hall and gets up. He opens the door to find his landlady’s little boy holding up a bagged DC City Paper, the one that’s distributed free, in both his small hands. The e-print paper glows in the dim light of the hall.

“Hello.” Renward takes the paper. “Thank you.”

“You weh-come,” the boy says. His eyes are bright. Renward thinks perhaps the boy’s interest in him is not entirely due to his mother’s warnings. Renward has noticed he attracts young children, as well as dogs and cats. He suspects that he gives off an aura of impersonal love and patience—qualities he works hard, very hard, to cultivate. Adults like Renward too, but not for long.

“You’re very kind,” Renward tells the little boy. Renward believes in the power of suggestion. The boy may be a better person for having been called kind once. “Have a good day.”

The paper’s glowing headline reads “Popular Grassroots Leader Vanishes with” above the fold. Renward resists the all-too-human urge to turn the paper over and find out who or what else vanished. He already has his carefully curated newsfeed, which prevents him from being unnecessarily upset or distracted from his duty. He listens for the little boy’s footsteps. When he’s sure the boy is too far away to hear, he inserts the newspaper and bag into the appropriate recycling slots. He takes a moment’s satisfaction in having done exactly the right thing, in having been good.

“Wheeee!” the little boy cries as he runs through the hall.

§

When Renward was that boy’s age, his mother once found him hiding behind his father’s van, carefully dipping a kitten in a dish of gasoline. He had managed to wrap a rag around the kitten so it couldn’t claw him. It mewled and struggled and sent thrills of pleasure through his body. The dish was shallow, so he could only dip one part of the kitten at a time, which made it more exciting. The kitten’s tail curled up to avoid the wet. He had to straighten it out with his fingers to make it lie flat in the dish. He had a box of matches on the ground beside him. He’d learned how to strike matches all by himself, watching his father light the barbecue.

In Renward’s memory, the mother cat was nearby, pacing back and forth with the rest of her kittens huddled behind her. She cried out in a long, high, almost human wail of despair that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. But he’s not sure if that’s really how it happened.

Renward’s mother snatched the kitten away and freed it (she must have freed it) and held her son very tightly, rocking him. Alex, Alex, she whispered into his hair. You don’t know, you don’t understand what you’re doing.

Alex—Renward—squirmed in his mother’s arms. He did understand what he’d been doing, but he didn’t understand why his mother was crying. Did she feel it too, that beautiful tremulous pleasure, almost a pain, of the kitten’s suffering? Sometimes people cry because they’re happy. But his mother wasn’t happy. Her unhappiness made him miserable, and he began to cry too. She seemed afraid, as though there were something looming over both of them, some terrible monster, ready to snatch him away.

You must never, never, never do that again. You must be good, she told him. And crying, his heart aching in his chest, he promised he would be good.

Renward has kept that promise. He’s going to keep that promise forever and ever.

§

Mark opens the file for Darryl Edwin Graham and asks himself for the hundredth time what they’re going to do to this poor man. Orders have been ambiguous. Graham has a three-year-old daughter who was taken into custody at the same time—Christ—and other than that he’s a completely standard American subject. Suspected of vandalizing private property. A wife who’s a member of the same grassroots organization; she’s disappeared, hasn’t been taken into custody yet.

Mark’s team is supposed to obtain the names of other environmentalist troublemakers. So far Graham has been sullenly silent. If they don’t pull anything from him by this afternoon, Mark’s superiors are going to make him use Renward, and Mark dreads that more than anything. He hates everything about using Renward. It’s not even genuine moral scruples—if he could only shunt the responsibility onto somebody else, he would probably sleep like a baby. He’s almost certain he would sleep like a baby.

Lately Mark has been asking himself whether he’s a good person, deep down. The answers he dredges up after several drinks are meaningless. He donates to the local food bank at Thanksgiving. He gets along with his coworkers. People like him.

He tries not to think about Renward.

§

The videos Renward watches are all fairly old. They come from a classified archive dating back to the 1930s. The practices they record have been illegal at least since the passing of the American Honor & Integrity Act, and arguably much longer—illegal because circumstances didn’t warrant such extreme measures. The first time through, Renward always concentrates on the subjects. What are they thinking, what are they feeling? What do they say or hold back? He sometimes develops a psychosomatic ache, the echo of a cracked rib or broken jaw, that lingers for hours.

The second time, Renward watches the practitioners. How are they pursuing their goals? Which opportunities do they take and which do they miss? When do they hesitate, flinch, lose their concentration?

Too many of the practitioners are cold, affectless. Too many swagger with false bravado and cheer for blood. They are not good people. Their insensitivity makes them push too hard, move too fast, fall out of sync with their subjects. Renward pities them. Sometimes he finds tears welling in his eyes, magnifying the screen to a new intensity.

He gets an erection sometimes. He’s learned to ignore it except when it seems useful for a sim or a roleplay session. The mingled pleasure and desire he feels have nothing to do with penetration or titillation; they’re more like the clumsy, immaterial hands of his soul, reaching through him, feeling for others like itself. Trying as hard as he does to be a good person, he has come to believe that even cruelty can be an expression of love.

§

Mark can see they’re not getting anywhere.

§

Renward gets up and steps onto his apartment balcony to inhale the damp, hazy morning air. The sun sharpens and dims as clouds pass over it. Cars trundle by. A dog barks in a flurry of excitement then falls quiet. Somewhere, a child screams.

Back indoors, he hears a soft buzz. The sound of something tiny smacking against the wall. It’s a wasp. Renward wonders if it will fit in a water glass. He fetches an empty margarine tub and a sheet of paper and waits until the little creature lands on the wall and crawls in an aimless circle. Renward’s first attempt fails, and the wasp buzzes away in a wide, alarmed curve, then zooms right at his face.

Renward shuts his eyes reflexively. Something bumps his eyelid. Silence. He holds his breath, still clutching the margarine tub, and feels tiny legs crawl down his cheek. Preparing to feel pain is a large part of the experience of pain. If he’s stung, he’ll still be able to do his job. His arm patch will drip antihistamines into his blood. He’ll still be ready.

After about thirty seconds, there’s a fluttering on his cheek and the buzzing sound resumes, retreating to the other side of the room. He opens his eyes and allows himself to feel grateful.

He was too slow, he thinks. When the moment comes, he must seize it without hesitation.

He raises the plastic tub again. The wasp perches close to the ceiling. That won’t do. The tub needs to clear the ceiling in order to come down fast. Renward waits. His shoulder grows sore. But he’s good at waiting.

The wasp lifts off, circles around, lands again a few times. When it alights on a more accessible part of the wall, Renward slams the tub down. The wasp gives an abortive buzz, knocking itself against the bottom of the tub. Good. That means it didn’t lose a wing in the process, and will probably be fine. Renward believes in never causing suffering unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Slowly, carefully, Renward slips the sheet of paper under the margarine tub and carries it onto the balcony. He sets it down near the sliding door so he can tip the tub over and shut the door. Again he takes a moment’s satisfaction in having done exactly the right thing.

§

Mark changes the alert level to dark orange. He pictures Renward seeing the notification on his watch and smiling that childlike smile of his.

Sometimes at night, when Mark isn’t drunk enough to forget the day’s work, he has the urge to pray. He hasn’t believed in there being anything out there to pray to in years, but he dimly remembers his childhood awe of God and the comfort of being able to confess your sins to a faceless presence. The things he’s done, the things he’s watched, they weigh on him. He knows they don’t weigh on Renward. Renward is innocent.

§

The bar on Renward’s watch is dark orange now.

Some days, Renward practices scenarios with the colleagues who share his duties. There aren’t many, for good reason, and most of them can only interact with him remotely. They roleplay extensively based on what they’ve learned from the archives. Their practice sessions are recorded for quality control and training.

Renward is rarely impressed with his colleagues. They fall into two general categories. The first is the antisocial type who wants to play out trite little fantasies. The second is the dutiful government employee, the type who looks exhausted and haunted at the end of every practice session, the type who dislikes Renward and struggles to hide it.

Today Renward is on his own, so he runs the sim software. He sets it to American English to start out, to make it easier to get his bearings, but leaves the other parameters randomized.

Renward’s plastic VR glasses give him 360-degree video surroundings. He’s now standing in a crude, life-size simulacrum of the waiting room, softly lit, with a couch. Renward has often sat in the waiting room for an hour during one of the false alarms, waiting to see if he can be useful, meditating on the thought of sating his desires in the only ethical way he can. He’s even sometimes fallen asleep there as the rush of adrenaline leaves his system and his chempack drips calmness into his veins.

This time he doesn’t sit down. He opens the door and steps inside a simulacrum of Room A. The wall to the right is dark glass, but it’s covered with a curtain panel at Renward’s insistence. Renward feels that in a single-subject session, a sense of privacy and isolation heighten the effect he’s trying to achieve. In a multiple-subject session, sometimes it’s different. Depending on the circumstances, the secondary subjects may be in Room A while the primary is in Room B, watching through the glass. Other times the glass is slid back into the wall.

Renward has repeatedly asked for a mirror to be installed in Room A. He’s positive that if the subject could see themself, it would heighten the intensity of the experience, making his job easier. But the agency keeps denying his requests.

The sim session is generated randomly. This time it’s a single subject with no preexisting profile in the agency’s records: Isaac Mohammed, Saudi-American male, age twenty-six, 5’10”, average build. No arrest record. Apartment full of books on explosives and blueprints of important buildings. With an unknown like Isaac, Renward prefers to go in knowing only a few essential facts in advance. Isaac’s first glimpse of him is also his first glimpse of Isaac.

The face he’s seeing for the first time is a composite of dozens of real people. Isaac is crudely rendered and strapped to the table, but his body language, generated based on archival videos and practice session recordings, still manages to express raw fear. He is beautiful.

The whites of Isaac’s eyes have a greenish cast because he’s been injected with lethanolol, which prevents the brain from storing long-term memories. It’s useful in case the agency wants to release a terrorist without letting him know he was ever captured, placing him back in contact with his fellow conspirators. Isaac won’t remember anything he’s confessed during the session. He won’t even remember Renward’s face.

§

The call comes.

Mark’s boss, Lyndon, gets right to the point. “Not talking?”

“Not talking,” says Mark.

“What have you tried so far?”

Mark dutifully lists the interrogation tactics his team has deployed. He uses the usual euphemisms, tries not to let the images creep into his head.

“We don’t have time to dawdle,” says Lyndon.

Mark knows what that means: it’s the next-to-last day of the quarter and the team needs to look good on paper. They need to gather intelligence—accuracy be damned—or they lose funding. Intelligence is supposedly their entire reason for existence, after all.

“The daughter?” Lyndon asks.

“We have her,” says Mark, his voice coming out gruff.

Lyndon sighs. “Time for Catalina.”

“Right,” says Mark. He clears his throat. “Right.”

§

The call comes, and Renward is ready. This isn’t the first time he’s been interrupted in the middle of a sim session, and it isn’t the first time he’s answered without hesitation, pressing his thumb to the screen of his watch in a silent Yes. The bar is bright red now.

Renward has done this many times before, maybe a few hundred. They’re always false alarms, but Renward likes to think of them as drills. The adrenaline rush has lost its intensity over the years. In its place, he cultivates calm, self-awareness, moral clarity. The patch on his arm is likely feeding carefully calibrated amounts of caffeine and other alertness enhancers into his bloodstream. During the sessions, false alarm or otherwise, it’s controlled remotely by headquarters instead of by his watch.

The usual black car with tinted windows idles outside his apartment. In the backseat is Mark Conham, the head of Renward’s team at the agency. Renward gets in, saying, “Hello, Mark. How are you?” The driver peels out at a speed that makes Renward’s head bump the back of the seat.

“Right,” says Mark, not looking up from his phone. “State your name.”

This is standard procedure. “Alexander Renward Ingold.”

“Do you consent to enact the Catalina Operation immediately? If not, you will be returned safely to your home with no further obligations.”

“Yes, I consent to enact the Catalina Operation.” Renward has noticed that although Mark is friendlier than most of his coworkers, there are moments, like this one, when he can’t bring himself to meet Renward’s eyes. For a moment Renward places himself in Mark’s shoes. He feels the strain, the awkwardness of talking to someone like Renward at a time like this, during what may or may not turn out to be a drill. He is touched. He says, “You’ve had a rough day, haven’t you.”

“Hell,” says Mark. The word comes out of him as though involuntarily.

When Mark hands him the file, Renward is unsurprised to see that it’s a multiple.

§

Mark finds the name of the Catalina Operation to be a cruel joke. The Catalina comet only crosses Earth’s sky once every ten thousand years. So this is the story they tell, and the sick thing is that a few idealists, like Renward, actually believe it:

Once every ten thousand years or so, a very particular set of circumstances arise. The good guys’ intelligence is good enough to know a massive terrorist attack is going to happen, and good enough to know roughly when it’s going to happen, and good enough to capture one of the guilty parties before it happens. But not good enough to know how to stop it.

Or put another way: A bomb has been planted in a densely populated city. You have captured the terrorist responsible, along with his innocent children, who are his only known weakness. If the terrorist doesn’t tell you where the bomb is within t minutes, thousands will be maimed and killed. What’s the morally right thing to do? The answer, of course, is to call in a specialist. The kind of specialist who’s one of the good guys.

That’s the answer Renward would give you, anyway.

The real answer, the one Mark knows, is: Nothing. You don’t have to do anything. The ticking time bomb scenario has never happened, and it probably never will. The odds against it are astronomical. But the agency needs information to meet their quotas—and more than that, perhaps, the government needs to keep people scared.

§

Renward has no way of knowing the value of t, and it’s none of his business. It’s none of his business whether this is a false alarm or the moment of crisis. He has to move quickly and hope—almost pray—that he can fulfill his duty. The names from the multiple-subject file are humming in his brain: Darryl Edwin Graham, American, environmental activist. Lyssa Eden Graham-Rose.

The atmosphere at the agency is tenser than usual. Everyone here has a higher security clearance than Renward. One hunches silently over a laptop, pretending not to notice Renward, his heel joggling in a steady rhythm against the thin carpet. Others stand around talking in low voices. Everyone avoids Renward’s eyes, even the ones who usually pretend not to dislike him.

In the waiting room, Renward sits on the couch, leans his head back, and closes his eyes, focusing on his breathing. After about a minute, Mark comes in.

“Primary subject is in Room B, watching.” Mark is the only one who looks Renward in the face—for half a second. “We’re ready to roll.”

“Thank you,” says Renward. As the moment approaches—the moment he has been preparing for his whole adult life—he tries to place himself inside these two strangers’ lives, to know their hearts. He wants so badly to be good, even to them, even knowing what he’s going to do to them. He steps towards the door to room A.

§

Renward opens the door and sees Lyssa for the first time.

She hasn’t been restrained. She’s so small that there’s no point. She is sitting beside the restraint table, patting the floor between her legs in time with some music in her head. As the door opens, she turns to look so fast that she almost falls backwards and has to catch herself with one little hand.

She was hoping to see her father, Renward knows. She looks at him blankly for a moment before her face blossoms into a smile. Renward smiles back. He steps inside, shutting the door softly behind him, and drops to one knee.

“Hello,” Renward says.

“Where’s my dad?” Lyssa wants to know.

Renward picks her up and places her on the restraint table, conscious that Darryl is watching. Conscious that the interrogation has begun, even though he’s barely touched Lyssa. The anticipation of what’s to come must be as overwhelming for Darryl as it is for Renward. “He’s watching us,” Renward tells her. He points at the dark pane of glass that separates them from Room B. “Say hi.”

Lyssa stares at the glass, looking confused. She puts her hand in her mouth. Renward knows he has to win her over quickly, lest she shut down and become unresponsive. An unresponsive subject is less likely to produce results.

“Let’s play a game,” he says.

§

Mark hears the door shut behind Renward and his stomach gives a lurch. He half-walks, half-runs to the restroom, knowing with exquisite clarity that he’s going to be sick.

§

It’s over, and Renward has requested a moment alone with the primary subject, Darryl Graham.

“You bastard,” Darryl chokes out between sobs. “You fucking bastard. All of you, bastards.”

The only sound in Room B is Darryl’s sobbing breaths. His whole body, strapped to the restraint chair, is quivering with built-up tension, ready to explode. Renward lets the heat and vibrations and sweat wash over him in waves. He thinks he can smell how Darryl is almost as scared as he is angry; how his nails have drawn blood from his soft damp palms; how he hasn’t wet himself, despite his animal terror and rage.

“Your daughter is going to be okay,” Renward tells him. “She’s being sedated and monitored now. You did the right thing, telling us.” It’s not enough, of course, but it may offer Darryl a scrap of comfort.

He needed to see Darryl, to feel what he’s feeling. Renward loves Darryl now almost as much as he loves Lyssa. Renward has fulfilled his purpose at last—he has been good—and it makes him feel love for the whole world, but he tries to focus on this man, here and now, the one to whom he owes more than he can ever repay. Or perhaps it’s the other way around and Darryl is the one who owes him. They are both monsters of a sort.

“Bastard.” Darryl bares his teeth. He’s trying to control his breathing enough to speak. “You bastard, how many.” He gulps air. “How many little girls have you done this to, you sick fuck?”

Renward smiles faintly. Tears well in his eyes and he fights them back, knowing they can only provoke anger. “None,” he says, though it’s too much to ask for Darryl to believe him. “This is the first time.”

Darryl lets out a bark of disgust, disbelief. Droplets of saliva splatter from his mouth, mixing with the tears on his chin.

“Have you ever heard of the Catalina comet?” Renward asks. He can’t force the man to understand, but he also can’t bring himself to stop talking. “It only passes in sight of Earth once every ten thousand years. That’s how often the world needs someone like me. That’s my one chance to serve the greater good.”

Darryl is looking at Renward now, searching his eyes. Darryl’s red, wet face is still twisted with pain, but Renward thinks he sees a glimmer of comprehension there.

“You are my Catalina comet,” Renward tells him. A tear spills warm down his cheek and he brushes it away. He feels a rush of fatigue and drowsiness. It occurs to him that his patch cut off the flow of stimulants when the session ended. “You’re the first one. The only one I’m likely to see in my lifetime. That’s you. Thank you, Darryl.”

§

Mark stands over Renward in the soft light of the waiting room.

The man sleeps like an angel, is the sick thing. His eyelids don’t even show the soft goldfish-like flickerings beneath the surface that would indicate dreams, mouth relaxed, lips just slightly parted. He’ll wake up soon, refreshed, a little disappointed to go home without having done his work, but accepting. Understanding that not every call turns out to be the real thing. Glad, even, that no one has suffered today.

Mark will say hello. Mark will tell him things went well with the interrogation, no need for Catalina after all. Mark will all but apologize for the inconvenience and Renward, who is incapable of even looking inconvenienced, will smile. Mark will check the whites of his eyes for lingering traces of green, just in case. And then both of them will go home.

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© R Gatwood

1 Comment

  1. Priscilla Bettis

    This is such a good story. I felt the dread building up because I thought it’d end painfully, and it did! Great world building, great story.

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