“Paying Paul” by Stephen S. Power

Norman Müller hadn’t been inside a church in decades, but as an auto drove him past St. Peter and Paul in Oberammergau, he suddenly felt blessed: relaxed and safe, like coming home to Dai-Tai. He had some time, so he told the auto to stop and let him out.

He put a few fractions into the donation box with his BitCard, then went to a pew and kneeled. Müller gave thanks for the three things that had turned his life around: his new job at the AmaPrimePost, his new wife and his new workshop.

When he sat back, a man kneeling behind him whispered, “Remember me?”

Müller jumped. A moment earlier the church had been empty. Then he recognized the voice.

“Schwartz,” Müller said, turning around. “From the building department. I should be thanking you too.”

“Actually, my name’s not Schwartz, it’s Schlangen, nor am I with Building, but, yes, I did give you everything.” He smiled. “Care to hear my story of your life?”

Confused and a little scared, Müller was also curious. He nodded.

Schlangen pointed around the nave. “See the cameras? Their software recognizes faces, reads lips and body language, then analyzes them. Anyone flagged as a potential threat, they report to the BvF’s computer, which processes reports from all the other cameras you walk past in a day, plus e-money readers, auto logs, streetlight microsites, cell towers, and social shares, then combines them into a Mizuno network. If that confirms a potential threat, I’m sent a report. A year ago, I got one about you.”

“Me?” Müller said, then whispered, “I’m no threat.”

“Not now,” Schlangen said, “but last year?” No tourist wanted your little wood carvings because 3D printers made better ones for less. No woman wanted a man without steady work. Nobody at Building could deal with you because you’d just rant like you would in the streets and in the cloud about the ‘indignity’ of it all. So to spite you they lost your paperwork and fined you.”

“I was right,” Müller said, reddening. He counted ten breaths as Dai-Tai had taught him and said, “I’m not that person anymore.”

“Thanks to me,” Schlangen said. “My job’s not to eliminate threats. It’s to eliminate potential threats. Rare as full-time jobs are, AmaPrime’s happy to help us because we trade unrevealed consumer preferences for their sales records. Then I gathered data on your type of woman, found a match who liked your type and crossed your paths. Finally, I facilitated your building permit, canceled your fines–“

“And you listened next time I came.”

“That’s all the struggling usually want,” Schlangen said. “Otherwise, why rant?”

The old Müller would have ranted about Schlangen twisting his life, Müller thought. What bothered the new Müller was: “Why would ranting make me a threat?”

“Because rants spark uprisings. A street vendor set himself on fire and ignited the Arab Spring. An American radio host railed against a ‘hijacked’ election and started the Red State Revolt. A Turk graffitied Cologne Cathedral, and mobs murdered 103 Kurds.”

“I wouldn’t have—”

“The computer disagreed,” Schlangen said. “In Oberammergau hundreds also listened to your ranting and identified with you. The computer determined there was a reasonable chance you’d set them off, which could set off millions across Germany and tens of millions across Europe. A new life for you was a small price to pay for peace, don’t you think?” He didn’t give Müller a chance to answer. “Then I determined the larger price.”

“What?”

“Why must the people who aren’t flagged struggle alone for being good? What happens once they discover why you and many others no longer struggle? Think of their fury! I told my superior we had to stop the program. He ignored me. I told different superiors. Nothing happened until last week. I was transferred to Tokyo—where I’ve always wanted to live.”

Müller laughed. “The computer flagged you.”

“Exactly!” Schlangen pounded the pew. “I’m a potential threat, so I’m rewarded? Then why not rant? May the worst person win!”

“Because then everyone would lose.”

“Thank God. You understand.” Schlangen clenched Müller’s shoulder. “Listen. I’m telling you all this because I need your help. Your anger. Your old indignation. I’ll recruit the others too. If everyone starts ranting again, if the program appears to fail—”

“No,” Müller said and stood. “You told me once, ‘Go build your workshop, and rebuild your life.’ I did. I love it. I won’t blow it up, no matter how you helped me.”

“I’m still trying to help. Before the real blow-up happens.”

Müller shook his head and hurried down the aisle, chased by Schlangen’s echoing pleas.

In another auto home, Müller couldn’t help feeling ungrateful. Unpatriotic. He should help. He should do his duty. Then he thought, You can snuff a fuse, you can keep it from being lit, or you can yank it from the bomb. He prayed that the others Schlangen had helped would count their blessings too and refuse to be his bombs because Müller wouldn’t stop them. Schlangen had given him too much to live for. He wouldn’t risk losing it.

He did wonder, however, whether he could look in Dai-Tai’s face and still be happy about it.


More from Stephen S. Power:

For fans of Scott Lynch and Naomi Novik comes a high fantasy epic that blends swashbuckling adventure with a dark tale of vengeance–when a ship captain is stranded on a deserted island by his mutinous crew, he finds a rare dragon egg that just might be the key to his salvation and his revenge.

He only wanted justice. Instead he got revenge.

Jeryon has been the captain of the Comber for over a decade. He knows the rules. He follows the rules. He likes the rules. But not everyone on his ship agrees. When a monstrous dragon attacks the Comber, his surviving crew, vengeful and battle-worn, decide to take the ship for themselves and give Jeryon and his self-righteous apothecary “the captain’s chance:” a small boat with no rudder, no sails, and nothing but the shirts on their backs to survive.

Marooned and fighting for their lives against the elements, Jeryon and his companion discover that the island they’ve landed on isn’t quite as deserted as they originally thought. They find a rare baby dragon that, if trained, just might be their ticket off the island. But as Jeryon and the dragon grow closer, he begins to realize that even if he makes it off the island, his life will never be the same again. In order for justice to be served, he’ll have to take it for himself.


Stephen S. Power is the author of the novel “The Dragon Round,” now available in trade paperback from Simon & Schuster.
His short fiction has appeared most recently at “Daily Science
Fiction” and in “Factor Four.”

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