The room was empty except for the mirror, the projector, the chair, the table with two glass rods, and of course, the Tribunal.
It sat across from Bill, clicking its metal fingers and focusing its three electric eyes on him.
"William Angler?" it said.
Bill licked his lips. "Yes, I am."
"Do you know why are here, William Angler?"
"Yes. I've been arrested."
The Tribunal's fingers drummed on the tabletop. Bill crushed his felt hat in his hands.
"The charges against you are very serious, Mr. Angler. We expect your full cooperation."
The machine's beady red eyes were really three cameras recording his every word and move. Officially, the Tribunal was supposed to be a free-willed mechanical entity built to enforce the will of the company, but Bill had heard that it was really just an elaborate puppet run by a team of technicians.
"I understand," said Bill.
"How long have you been an associate of Clark Ashton?" said the Tribunal.
"Clark Ashton is my immediate supervisor in the department of hydration and plumbing, I've worked under him for four years."
"What is your opinion of him?"
This was trickier than it sounded. "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question?"
"Do you feel that Clark Ashton is an effective worker for the company?"
"Clark is one of the best under-execs I've ever worked with. It always surprised me that he had not been promoted to an executive." Bill paused. "Am I allowed to smoke in here?"
"No. When did you first begin to suspect that Ashton was a traitor?"
Bill took off his glasses. "First of all, I don't think that term is really appropriate-"
"Answer the question."
Bill sighed. "Six weeks ago, Clark came to me under the pretense of discussing my career. Before long I realized that his actual purpose was...subversive, in nature"
"Show us," said the Tribunal.
Bill had been expecting this. He rolled up his sleeves and took hold of the glass rods on the table. They felt warm, then cold, then warm again, and after a few seconds the projector sputtered to life, casting a square of light onto the wall. Before long an image swirled into view, and Bill saw himself and Clark just as they had appeared that night six weeks ago. There he was, bespectacled, awkward, and balding, but still handsome in a scholarly way, and there was Clark, a ginger-haired dandy ten years his junior.
They were overlooking the aqueduct, both hugging their overcoats against the wind. A perfect replica of their voices came from the tiny speaker on the projector box:
"This is a hell of a place for a meeting, Clark."
"I like the view. And the privacy." Clark stopped to light a cigar. "It's a good place to think, you know?"
Bill fidgeted with his glasses. "What is it you wanted to talk to me about?"
Clark puffed in silence for a few seconds. "You ever think about the future, Bill?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, your future for one thing. A guy like you shouldn't be slaving away at this peon's job forever."
"I like my job."
"But you'd like mine better, wouldn't you?"
Bill looked startled, and Clark laughed. "Now, now, I didn't mean it like that. I know you're not looking to cut me out. But you're ambitious, I can tell, and that's good. A man should be ambitious, don't you think?"
"If you say so," said Bill.
"Problem is," Clark continued, "the way things are run these days, there's not much room at the top for a guy like you. You deserve it, no doubt about that, but you can't climb the ladder with so many people sitting on the rungs."
Bill kicked at the railing with the toe his business shoes. "What's your point Clark?"
"This company is sick Bill. The company owns the whole country, roof to cellar, so what's bad for the company is bad for the country. You might say it's our patriotic duty to keep this company healthy, yeah?"
"Well, if keeping me in a cubicle is the worst thing the company is doing-"
"But it's not. Do you know how many subversion investigations are going on right now? Tens of thousands Bill, and you and I both know that most of them are bad raps. This company is eating itself alive."
"Maybe there's good reason."
"Did you know that they were investigating you, Bill?"
Bill looked up, speechless.
"Not that you heard it from me of course," Clark said. "But I know people Bill, I hear things. Your name came up. They threw the whole thing out after a week, but you're one of the lucky ones. Most people, innocent or guilty, once their name comes up, that's it, they're gone, out of a job, and being out of a job might as well be the death penalty around here."
Bill stared into the water.
"It's bad out there Bill. People are losing faith in us, and the real subversives are gaining ground. You know there's already rumors of bringing back the vote, and replacing the shareholders with a Congress again. Imagine that! Someone has got to do something."
Bill looked up. "What are you saying Clark?"
Clark flicked his cigar butt into the water. "We're going to make some changes around here Bill. And by we, I mean me and you, and a few other ambitious fellas I've met. It's a dangerous game, but there's something in it for you. Your country needs you. I need you. What do you say, partners?" Clark stuck out his hand.
Bill hesitated. He wasn't quite sure what he was being asked to do, but he was sure that it sounded reckless. He had a wife and kids to look after, and he was a middle manager, not a spy. This kind of cloak and dagger business wasn't for him.
Then he looked into Clark's blue eyes, and without a word, they shook on it.
The projector clicked off. The Tribunal hummed and its cameras whined.
"What did Clark Ashton ask you to do?"
Bill smoothed his slacks over his thighs. "The, uh, identities of executive-class officers in the company are kept secret for security reasons-"
"We are familiar with our own policies," said the Tribunal.
"For his plan to work, Clark needed to be able to finger who the top execs were. It was my idea to use the water meters."
Bill coughed. "Executive suites have luxury baths and high-pressures showers. I know, because I approved their design. So if a home is using twice as much water as that of a comparably-sized family, there's a good chance that someone living there is an executive."
The Tribunal was quiet for a time.
"Simple enough, actually," said Bill.
The Tribunal leaned forward a bit. "Mr. Ashton's plan was to remove the top executives and replace them with his own agents?"
"I was never privy to the full plan, for my own protection, but I believe that was the idea, yes," said Bill.
"Why did you agree to help him?"
"It wasn't about the plan really, it was Clark. I was...interested, in him."
"Yes." Bill grimaced.
"Mr. Angler, are you a homosexual?"
Bill wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Do I have to answer all of these questions?"
"I don't see why it's relevant."
"Was your relationship with Clark Ashton homosexual in nature?"
Bill gritted his teeth. "Yes."
He knew the regs: no prisoner could be forced to submit to the Augur more than three times during an investigation. They were picking and choosing their questions to build the strongest case against him.
He touched the handles, and the projector started up. He saw himself and Clark on the balcony of Clark's suite, looking out over the city and the great pylons sunk into the bay. It was very late, and they had been up for many hours, drinking, talking, reflecting, and planning.
"Are you sure we're safe?" said Bill.
"Sure I'm sure. I've got friends in security and internal, they keep things hush-hush for me. I told you, I've got a lot of friends Bill. We're not alone in this thing."
"That's good," Bill said. He thought for a moment, then said: "Clark, does your wife know?"
"About the plan? No, she doesn't."
"Don't you think you ought to tell her?"
"No, I don't. Bill, you haven't told your wife about this, have you?"
"I haven't, but I was thinking I should."
Clark looked very grave. "Bill, don't do that."
"Well for one thing, you'd be putting her in dangerl think about that, Bill."
They were quiet again for a while.
"Besides," said Clark. "You've got other secrets from her. What's one more?"
Bill looked at him. "What do you mean I've got secrets from her?"
Clark smiled. "I know people Bill, and I know things. Your wife, she's a company lady, am I right?"
"Assigned to you by personnel, yeah?"
A nod again.
"How many kids in the contract?"
"Four. We just had our third last year."
Clark whistled. "Four! Hell of an order. My wife's a company gal too. No kids yet, but we're contractually obligated for two. They're not even born and they've already been signed up for entry-level jobs in the company."
"Clark, you're beating around the bush."
Clark laughed. "All I'm saying is Bill, when I'm in charge, these domestic contracts are the first thing I'll get rid of. And guys like you, well, you'll be able to walk away from those contracts and be honest about who you are, if that's what you want."
Bill shifted in his seat and loosened his tie. "I still don't understand."
"No? Well, how's this for an explanation?" Clark said, and then he kissed Bill on the mouth.
It was like he had been suffocating all his life and this was the first breath of air he'd ever managed to get.
When they broke off Bill turned away, but Clark took him by the wrist and pulled him back. Clark lead him to the bedroom, where they undressed in silence, leaving their belts, shoes, and ties by the door, scattering their shirts and slacks over the carpet and then falling into each other's arms on the bed.
"Don't worry about Bonnie," said Clark, "she's out of town. Besides, she knows."
"She does?" said Bill.
"Sure she does," Clark said as he smoothed his hands over Bill's bare chest.
"You're not afraid she'll turn you in?"
"She can't. If she did, I'd turn her in for the same thing," Clark said, and laughed at Bill's surprise. "I always told you I'm good at reading people. When she and I first met on the day of the wedding, I took one look at her and I knew what the name of the game was. We've got a great arrangement between us."
Bill thought about this, then said: "You know Clark, I'm starting to think you really do have what it takes to be in charge."
Clark winked. "You haven't seen the half of it yet, partner." And then he reached inside the waistband of Bill's briefs, and pulled them down, and circled two fingers around Bill's scrotum, making Bill jump with the little downward tug that he gave.
Clark guided Bill's hand to his cock, and for a while they lay side by side, stroking one another. Bill marveled at the duality of their bodies, seeing Clark as a perfect version of himself. Then-
Bill took his hands away from the rods, and the projector stalled.
"What are you doing?" said the Tribunal.
"That's enough," said Bill, shaken.
"Put your hands back on the controls."
"Why? You've seen enough to convict me."
"Put your hands on the controls."
Bill shook his head.
"Mr. Angler, if we do not complete our investigation to our satisfaction today we will have to seek out other witnesses. Would you like us to bring your wife in? Or perhaps your children?"
Bill's upper lip trembled. For a second he was overcome by the wild, irrational urge to strike the Tribunal, smashing the hateful machine to pieces with his bare hands. Instead he took the controls again.
The project stalled for a few more seconds, then jumped ahead:
Clark kissed the underside of Bill's cock, his lips rough but their touch soft. Bill lay against the pillows. He fidgeted with his hands until Clark said "Relax, will ya?" and licked the head. Bill moaned.
"Here," said Clark, "why don't we try it like this if you're so antsy?" He rolled onto his side and gestured for Bill to do the same, then he lay the opposite direction, swallowing Bill's cock into his mouth while at the same time positioning his own right in front of Bill's mouth.
Bill bit his lip, relishing the firm tug of Clark's lips and the thought, and reality, of another man's mouth on him. He saw Clark's cock, swollen and engorged, bobbing up and down just a few inches away. He kissed it, closing his eyes, feeling the smooth texture of the flesh and the pulse of the throbbing head on his lips
"Do it," said Clark.
Bill extended his tongue, licking the head once, the taste sending an electric pulse through him. He tried again. It was so warm.
"Do it," Clark said again, swallowing Bill's back into his mouth, all the way down. Bill grunted as the muscles of Clark's throat closed around his shaft, milking it. He was already dribbling a little, and he could see a tiny squirt gleaming on the end of Clark's too. He licked it off,.
He stuck the tip into his mouth, then slid down the rest of the way, inch by inch. He gagged, and Clark told him to take it easy. He obeyed, and gradually his mouth filled, his lips stretching around the thick shaft. He slid it in and out. The pressure on his tongue was strange, but thrilling.
Meanwhile, Clark was busy below, bobbing his head with a steady, mechanical motion that sent Bill's cock quivering and made his asshole clench. Bill pushed with his hips, grinding into Clark's open mouth. Bill began to match his pace to Clark's, imitating his slow-then-fast rhythm. He felt Clark's hips roll and opened his mouth wider, letting him go deeper.
Clark began to thrust, and Bill relaxed his throat muscles, allowing his mouth to be fucked, tasting a steady stream of dribbling hotness, swallowing it one drop at a time. Soon they both had to come up for air, red-faced and gasping, hair matted with sweat, and for some reason they started to laugh.
Clark went down and wetted Bill's cock one more time, then, winking, turned around, grabbing the headboard and splaying his legs, arching his ass into the air.
He closed his eyes and bit his lip. "Come on," he said. "I know you want to."
Bill was shaking as he rose to his knees. His cock was throbbing and the pressure pent up inside begging for release, and there was something else too, a tiny voice that had always been there but that he had trained himself to ignore. It had whispered and nagged him his entire life, but now it wanted to shout, to scream, to holler for joy, and he wanted to let it.
The feeling of resistance was alarming at first. He heard Clark cry out and almost stopped, but then Clark said "Keep going!" so Bill pushed harder, and he felt it give, and then he slid in, and then they were together, finally completely together.
Bill pushed harder, and he saw Clark grimace. "You've gotta walk before you can run, Bill." Bill rocked forward again, and the headboard banged the wall. Clark grunted. "Mmph. Marathon ambitions, huh?"
"A man should be ambitious," Bill said. He ran his fingers through Clark's ginger hair and pushed on the back of his head as he thrust again. The traction was unbelievable. Resistance lessened each time, and soon he was able to adopt a steady, rolling rhythm, pushing in and out, in and out, his moans mingling with Clark's as they went along.
It went like that for a long time, their legs tangled, figures gyrating. He watched Clark's ass cheeks quiver with each move of his body. He pounded harder and harder, and he felt alive.
Bill reached underneath, finding Clark's dangling, still-hard cock and wrapping his fingers around it. He gave Clark's balls a squeeze, then stroked the shaft. He thought he could feel the pressure building, and the catch in Clark's voice told him he was right. Clark's mouth gaped open and he panted:
"Oh God, oh God, oh God..."
Bill pounded even harder, and he squeezed Clark's cock just beneath the head, and he felt it begin to pump in his hand, and something hot spilled on his fingers, and Clark nearly fell off the bed thrashing around. Clark buried his face in the pillows to smother a long, ragged moan.
Bill responded to this by raising himself up to get an even more extreme angle. He leaned forward, draping hisbody across Clark's naked back, twining his arms around Clark's, turning Clark's head so that he could kiss his mouth, their tongues meeting, breath mingling.
Bill pushed up, and Clark gasped, and his body went rigid, and Bill pushed again, and he felt his insides roil and quake, and he knew it was coming, and Clark was nodding and saying "Do it!", and so Bill let himself go, and a trembling wave nearly cleaved him in two, and then he was cumming, and Clark's body was receiving him, and they rocked back and forth together until he was panting and listless and sweating.
For an hour after they lay side by side, and Bill stroked the muscles of Clark's strong arms, and then he drifted off to dream peaceful dreams until morning.
The projector clicked off, and Bill was left in the dark with the Tribunal again. It said nothing, so Bill said nothing. Minutes ticked by. Bill coughed. The Tribunal was as silent as the grave.
Then it said: "Do you believe in God, Mr. Angler?"
"Do you believe in God?"
Bill frowned. "I don't know. Does the company have a policy on God?"
"Not officially. But in some divisions they teach people that the company is God. If you believed that, would it affect your answers today?"
The Tribunal sat back a quarter of an inch.
"You were arrested this morning, after an anonymous tipster called the department of the internal and reported you. Mr. Angler, do you know who made that call?"
"Yes," said Bill.
"Who was it?"
"It was me."
"And why did you decide to turn yourself and Mr. Ashton in?"
Bill looked at the floor. "He went too far."
"What do you mean?"
"There were certain things I was prepared to do when all of this started. I knew the risks, and I thought I knew where my boundaries were. But by the end, it was getting out of control."
Bill put his hands to the Augur for the last time, and the projector played out the scene from two days ago: Bill in Clark's office, sitting in a chair, head in hands, Clark pacing back and forth, face red, body trembling.
"You can't mean it Clark!" said Bill.
"Damn it all, I do mean it! It's got to be done."
"But why me?"
"Because you're my right hand guy, Bill."
"But what about the others? You said there are lots of people in this with us, people who can do this sort of thing. Security, or defense forces, or someone?"
"Christ Bill, it's not a matter of knowing how to point and shoot, it's about being trustworthy!"
Bill took a deep breath. "But Clark, why do you want me to kill your wife?"
"Because she knows."
"Knows about the plan god damn it! She knows everything! She's been spying on me Bill!"
"Are you sure?"
"She's company asset Bill. Why do you think the company sticks us with these women in the first place? To inform on us! That's the job of a company wife." He chuckled. "Yours too Bill, in case you didn't know."
Bill floundered. He mopped the sweat off of his scalp with a handkerchief.
"Well, we don't have to kill her for God's sake," Bill said. "Why not just blackmail her with what you know?"
"Because what she knows trumps it. Before we were on an even keel; she's a dyke, I'm a queer, we split the difference. But now she's got me right where she wants me, and nothing I've got on her measures up. If she turns me in, I won't be able to roll over on her just for being a rugmuncher, internal security won't give a shit compared to the charges against me."
Clark stroked his mustache and stared at nothing. Then he nodded.
"Yes, it's the only way Bill. You'll have to do it."
Clark took a snub-nosed revolver from his desk and handed to Bill. It felt like it weighed a million pounds.
"But Clark," Bill said, all the blood draining from his face. "Why don't you do it?"
"Because I've got to know who I can really trust, once and for all Bill. I can't run a ship like this all on my own, I've gotta know there's at least one person I can count on, rain or shine. That man has to be you."
Clark took Bill by the shoulders, almost shaking him.
"You've gotta prove it to me. Prove it to me now. I promise, you do this one thing, you'll have it made for the rest of your life, that's a promise Bill, a promise from me. Think about everything we've meant to each other, and I know you'll make the right decision. I know it.."
Bill looked at Clark, then at the gun, and then...
The projector turned off.
“So you chose to turn yourself and Mr. Ashton in rather than consent to murder his wife?”
“Yes,” said Bill. His throat was dry.
"I realized that the plan wouldn't work. The apparatus was too big to take down the way Clark intended. We would all have been caught eventually, and along the way more people would have been hurt. It wouldn't have stopped with Bonnie, no matter what Clark said.
"Besides," he continued, "that Clark would come to me, ask me to do it, put me in that position rather than take it on himself...I guess it meant he wasn't the man I thought he was."
Bill folded his hands on his lap.
“What if Mr. Ashton had asked someone else to kill his wife?”
Bill paused. “I guess that would be between them. But he didn’t.”
"Thank you Mr. Angler," said the Tribunal. "We are glad that you have been so cooperative. We will remember it when we render our verdict."
“Is it true about corporate spouses? Are they really spies?”
“Yes,” said the Tribunal.
Bill swallowed. "I have another question."
The Tribunal was quiet.
"I think I've earned it," said Bill. "I gave you everything you wanted."
"Have you already tried Clark?"
"We concluded our interview with Mr. Ashton this morning."
Bill's heart sagged. "What was the verdict?"
"Mr. Ashton has received a promotion."
Bill's mouth fell open. "What?"
"Mr. Ashton is now an executive. He has been transferred out of your department."
Bill slumped back in his chair. "I-I don't understand?"
The Tribunal's camera lenses clicked and whirred. "Clark Ashton was not your supervisor. He was a Vega-class internal security operative assigned to root out subversive elements within the company. He spent twelve years in deep cover, four posing as your boss."
"Clark was...a spy?"
"One of the best. Our standard psychological profiling is inadequate for identifying all potential subversives. We need men like Clark Ashton to assist us.”
Bill’s stomach heaved. “So our...relationship, was that part of his cover too?”
“Yes. We’ve always been aware of your latent homosexual tendencies, Mr. Angler. We assigned Clark Ashton to your case because we wanted to see if it could be used to influence you. Thanks to him, we have a more detailed understanding of the subversive mind."
Bill thought that the Tribunal’s recorded voice somehow sounded smug. He dropped his glasses, fumbled with them on the floor, then put them back on with a shaky hand.
“So Clark's finally an executive," Bill said. "He deserves it."
“Indeed. And now to decide what you deserve, Mr. Angler. We will rejoin you with our verdict shortly.”
The Tribunal seemed to turn off, its fingers relaxing and its camera eyes winking out, but then it jerked back to life a second later.
“We have one last question, Mr. Angler.”
Bill blinked. “Yes?”
“Why did you believe us?”
Bill was flabbergasted. “What do you mean?”
“You took our word for it that Clark Ashton had betrayed you, and that your wife is informing on you. We told you that two people you have been intimate with are not trustworthy, and you did not object. Why?”
Bill sighed. “Because I know you signed the order for my execution before this even started. And I don’t see any point in lying to a dead man.”
“Thank you,” said the Tribunal, and went dark.
Bill looked at the mirror. He wondered if he could break it and cut his wrists before they stopped him. Maybe it was worth it to try? There was nothing to do now except die on his own terms-
The Tribunal turned back on.
“William Angler, we have reached a decision. Are you ready to hear the judgment in your case?”
Bill cursed. Too slow.
“Yes,” he said, “I am.”
“Very well then. We find you guilty on all counts, William Angler, and the sentence passed against you is this:
Bill blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“We sentence you to live, Mr. Angler.”
Bill stammered. “I don’t understand. Am I going to prison?”
“No Mr. Angler, you’re going home, and then back to your job tomorrow.”
Bill’s hands were shaking. “That doesn't make sense?”
“If you were executed, we would lose a valuable worker, and you would die confident that everything we had told you was the truth, since, as you have observed, there is no point in lying to a dead man.
"But as you will instead live, the company will continue to profit off of you, and you will go the rest of your life never knowing what the truth is. Never knowing if Clark Ashton betrayed you. Never knowing if your wife can be trusted. Never knowing if anything that you’ve learned is true or if this has all been elaborate sham to make it impossible for you to trust anyone ever again, and thus, to make it impossible for you to conspire against us ever again.
“For your crimes, William Angler, we condemn you to live, in fear and uncertainty, until the day you die."
Bill sat, stunned, silent. The Tribunal’s eyes burned like embers. Bill cleared his throat.
“I think, if you don’t mind me saying so, that I would prefer to be executed.”
“That is why you will not be. Good day, Mr. Angler.”
The Tribunal turned off for the last time, and the door opened, and the guards took him away. They pushed him out the back door, and left him blinking in the glare of the afternoon sun, alone.