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“Prisoner X23-T45, come with me.”

Mary sat up groggily, her vision still blurry with sleep. She blinked the guard into focus as she stretched her sore limbs, bruised from the hard metal bed. For those few minutes of sleep, she had been back home, curled up in the secret room and reading her favorite book. Her heart sank as she returned to the cold metal cell that was now her home. . . at least, temporarily.

“Come with me, I said,” the guard repeated and Mary scrambled to her feet. The man turned and stepped out of the cell, motioning for her to follow. Mary tried not to look at the gun that he carried.

She followed him down the plain corridor, his boots making echoing footsteps, her bare feet silent. Her mind raced as she tried to guess where he was taking her. . . Not to the furnace, she was sure. Her execution had been set for that evening, not morning.

Suddenly, she realized that she had stepped into the interrogation section and that the guard was leading her into the last room. She frowned, looking around at the high, metal walls. The guard positioned himself at the door and Mary went to the now-familiar chair. Over half a dozen times, she had been interrogated in this room. She had thought the last time—that strange interrogation Preston had given her—she had thought that was the final time. Her incineration date had been set directly after he left.

As Mary sank into thought, she leaned forward on the cool table, resting her face in her hands as she tried to block out reality and return to her dream. Slowly, her vision turned golden—lamplight. Pages appeared before her eyes—words dancing on the paper. A hole was in the center of the book, neatly cut through the pages. The leaves of paper turned until one section grew clear enough that Mary could read it: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. . .”

Slowly, Mary became aware of someone speaking and she opened her eyes and straightened, turning towards the voice. A man stood with his back towards her, a Cleric judging by the uniform. Suddenly, Mary’s throat went dry as she recognized his voice. John Preston.

She turned back around, fastening her eyes on the reflective surface of the table. At a word from Preston, the guard left, locking the door behind him—locking them in. Utter silence filled the room and then there were quiet, slow footfalls as Preston walked to the empty chair. He sat down quietly, facing Mary, his hands folded on the table.

Again, silence reigned in the room and Mary grew more and more confused as Preston didn’t speak. At last, she broke the silence. “I don’t understand. My execution is set. Why are you here?”

Preston gazed at her for a long moment, but before he could answer, the alarm sounded for the noon dose.

Mary looked away. She hated watching people inject the drug into themselves, denying their very humanity with every ampoule of the golden liquid. She waited for the sound of Preston injecting himself, but nothing happened. . . the only sound was that of Preston silencing his watch.

Slowly, perplexed, Mary turned back to Preston. He hadn’t moved, but just sat gazing into the table. A thought began to push into Mary’s mind, but she pushed it aside as impossible. Finally, however, as the seconds passed and Preston continued to sit motionless, she broke the silence again and questioned, “Aren’t you gonna dose?”

Again, Preston didn’t respond. Instead, he turned his gaze slowly across the table top, deliberately not looking at the woman in front of him. Gradually, Mary’s mind shifted into full gear, pieces of the puzzle that had been there all along falling into place. Her lips parted, her eyes widening in shock. “You’re. . .” she whispered, and Preston at last looked at her. For a long moment, they stared at each other, blue eyes fastened on brown. Suddenly, tears began to fill Mary’s eyes. For the first time since her arrest she felt hope, and at the same time, terrible fear. She swallowed with difficulty, trying to ask the question, the answer to which she feared.

“What. . . what’ll you do?” she whispered finally.

Preston looked down again, his jaw tightening as he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he responded tightly, speaking for the first time.

Mary gazed at him, her heart swelling with emotion. Gently, she placed her hand on the table, her fingers sliding slightly towards Preston.

Raising his eyes again, Preston’s face crumbled and tears shone in his eyes, but he slowly lifted his hand to the table as well.

Mary slid her hand across the table, reaching towards the man across from her. As her fingers slid slowly across the smooth surface, Mary swallowed, afraid of what would happen if someone decided to glance at the security camera that monitored everything in the interrogation room. . . but no, she didn’t care.

After what seemed an eternity, gently, softly, she touched her fingers against Preston’s, feeling the warmth of his skin against her fingertips.


 



Mary again felt her heart swell and the tears in her eyes overflowed, falling silently down her cheeks. Slowly, Preston drew his hand away and she leaned back once more, dropping her hands into her lap. She gazed at Preston, and he at her.

“Mary. . .” Preston whispered, his voice brimming with emotion. His face was troubled, almost haunted, and he lowered his eyes. “I don’t. . . I don’t know if I can. . .” His voice trailed off, but Mary understood. I don’t know if I can save you.

“I know, Preston,” Mary answered gently, peaceful resignation once more reigning in her heart. “I understand. . . and, I am willing to die if it means the others may be free.”

Preston’s eyes filled with tears again and he started to speak but Mary didn’t let him. She continued, wanting to make him understand.

“Preston. . . Freedom doesn’t come without a cost. I am willing to pay the price demanded for it, but you must promise me something. . .” She gazed at Preston and he nodded mutely, torment clearly etched in his eyes. “Promise me I’m not paying that price for nothing.”

For a long moment there was silence and then Preston nodded again, a single tear sliding down his face. “Yes, I promise. . . it. . . it won’t be for nothing.”

Mary smiled quietly at him, but as she gazed into his grief-stricken face she felt her heart swell with fear again, almost involuntarily. Preston reached out across the table and took her hands in his and as he did so her calm crumbled, tears sliding down her face onto the table and leaving shining droplets on the metal.  “I’m so frightened. . .”

“I know. . .” he whispered, and Mary felt a tear slip down her neck.


~*~*~*~

 
“Mary O’Brian, for ceasing your interval, for the crime of feeling, you stand condemned to suffer annihilation in the city furnaces. You will be taken there immediately, and you will burn.”

A guard lifted the hood of the red cloak that Mary wore and placed it on her head. Before either of the guards could take her arms, Mary started forward down the long corridor, preferring to go of her own will rather than by force.

There was no sound except for the guard’s footsteps, and Mary’s beating heart seemed like a roar in her ears. Her throat was parched with fear, but her mind was clear. She focused her gaze down the hallway, following the gentle curve of the walls that hid the end of the corridor from her view. Mary counted her steps, trying to keep her mind off of where she was going. But then, the corridor straightened and she could see the end—orange flames burning inside a door.

At that moment, her resolve almost failed and she nearly stopped. “Freedom doesn’t come without a cost. . .” Swallowing with difficulty, Mary forced herself to continue forward, although her mind was beginning to reel now, with fear.

The flames grew larger and larger until, at last, Mary was standing only a few feet away from the end of the corridor. For a long, long moment, she stared into the flames, fear growing greater and greater in her heart. At last, she slowly slid the hood off her head, never taking her eyes off the fire. Shaking, she slid the cloak off as well and the guard took it from her. Swallowing, Mary nodded to the technician and he pulled a lever that was on the wall next to the furnace.

Water hissed and the flames died into a cloud of steam. Now there was utter silence—no warmth of the fire, no sound of the flames crackling—only that small room. Her lips trembling, Mary took one step forward. Her breath came hard, fear causing every muscle in her body to lose its strength, only resolve convincing her to go forward.

One more step. . . two. . . three. . . four. . . she was inside the room, inside those metal walls, inside those walls dripping with the water that had briefly extinguished the fires that would claim her life.

Slowly, Mary turned back around, gazing out down the long corridor. The door slid shut and for a moment, Mary couldn’t see. Then she realized that there was a small window—shaped into a ‘T’—in the center of the door. She stepped closer, her face only a foot away from the glass. Suddenly she narrowed her eyes, spotting something in the hallway—someone running: running towards her.

Preston!

Mary’s heart leapt for a brief second, a flicker of hope in her eyes. But now. . . Preston, what are you doing here? Don’t give yourself away! Don’t make this be for nothing!

Preston shouted something at the guard and the guard answered, but Mary couldn’t hear what was said. Slowly, Preston turned to look at Mary. Instantly, she understood. He was too late to save her.

An even, unemotional voice began to speak inside the room. “Machine turbines priming. . . machine turbines priming. . .”

Mary began to tremble and she swallowed hard, feeling a fear unlike anything she’d ever known before swell up inside of her.

“All unauthorized personal clear the area immediately. Turbines primed. Fire in 10 seconds. . .”

Mary could see Preston still gazing at her, his eyes filling with tears as he watched her frightened face and listened to the mechanized voice counting down the seconds left in her life.



 

“Nine seconds. . .”

Mary swallowed. Preston, please. . . don’t!

“Eight seconds. . .”

Please, don’t give up the cause for my sake! Please, please, give the others their freedom. . .

“Seven seconds. . .”

Freedom doesn’t come without a cost. . .

“Six seconds. . .”

Thank you for trying to save me from having to pay that cost, Preston. . .

“Five seconds. . .”

Oh John, I’m so afraid!

“Four seconds. . .”

Mary clutched her cloak, trying to stop the trembling that had started in her body.

“Three seconds. . .”

Preston, promise me it isn’t for nothing. . .

“Two seconds. . .”

In her head, Mary heard Preston’s words: “Yes. . . I promise. . .”

“One second. . .”

It’s the price of freedom. . .

“Turbines. . . fire.”

Mary felt amazing heat fill the chamber and her vision turned gold. Then all went black. . .

It’s the price of freedom, and I pay that price gladly. . .












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