A flicker of interest seemed to waken within the somber-visaged new owner. He stared down through the transparent wall at the pageant being acted out below.
It was a historical tale involving the wars of settlement, which ravaged Ganubria IV some two hundred years ago, before the UTW extended its control over all the human-settled worlds. The participants battled only with old-style projectile weapons.
As they watched, a noisy battle scene, which filled the huge recording room, was taking place. Technicians scurried about out of pickup range, adjusting the lighting and rain clouds. As the weapons discharged, several members of the cast fell bleeding to the ground.
“The wounds look real,” Loo-Macklin commented
“Naturally,” said Cairns, surprised. “We pride ourselves on the realism of our productions. As to who gets shot, that is determined by the viewers who run the plot from their home stations and who subscribe to this particular service. We never let the carnage get out of hand. Good actors who are willing or desperate enough to participate in viewerun programming are scarce these days.”
Something more than casual interest had appeared in Loo-Macklin’s face. As he turned to face Cairns, it was clear that the placid, noncommittal expression he’d worn all morning had vanished. In its place was a twisted, almost maniacal stare of glacial fury. Taken aback, the executive stumbled away from him. Even Basright was staring askance at his boss, wondering what on earth had transformed him so.
“Tell them to stop that,” Loo-Macklin said tightly. “Right … now.”
“But … I can’t do that,” muttered the confused Cairns, trying to recover his poise. His eyes traveled from the homicidal expression on the new owner’s face to the scenario in progress below. “They’re right in the middle of a voted plot twist and I…”
“Right now,” Loo-Macklin repeated, somehow colder still. He’d turned back to stare through the viewing glass, his knuckles white where they gripped the guardrail.
Basright stared quietly at his boss. He’s so mad he’s shaking, the assistant thought in amazement. Not in all the years of their association had he seen Loo-Macklin this angry.
Cairns recovered slightly, found himself mumbling into the nearby intercom. “Hold shooting!” His amplified voice echoed through the smoke-filled set below. “This is President Cairns putting a formal hold on set twelve shooting … ’til further notice.”
Far below, a woman turned from her position behind a clump of rocks, put her hands on her hips and yelled up toward the glass.
“What the blazes is going on, Cairns? Who gave you the authority to break into sequence? I don’t give a damn if you are chief administrator, you don’t have the artistic right …!”
Loo-Macklin, his voice trembling slightly as he stared down at her, said softly, “Fire that one.”
“But that’s Weana Piorski,” Cairns protested, wondering what had set the new owner off. “She’s one of our most talented veteran action directors. If I fire her, Ultimac or Enterprex or one of our other competitors will hire her so fast it will…”
“She’s fired,” Loo-Macklin snarled, turning a ferocious glare on the executive, “and you’ll join her unless you do exactly as I tell you.”
“Yes. Yes, _sir,_” Cairns said dazedly.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Loo-Macklin mumbled to no one in particular. “Come on, Basright. I want to inspect the duplication facilities I’ve heard so much about.” He stalked off down the corridor, disdaining the use of the roller. Basright made placating motions toward the executive, added a look of warning, and hurried off after his boss.
“What’s wrong, sir?” he asked Loo-Macklin after they’d turned the far corner. “Surely you don’t feel upset by the bloodshed? It’s common to such entertainments.”
“It’s not the killing.” Loo-Macklin was starting to calm down, no longer looked ready to demolish whatever might cross his path. His fists had unclenched and the color was beginning to return to his fingers.
“It’s just that I will not have that kind of activity taking place under my aegis.”
“Your pardon, sir, I don’t understand.”
“A bunch of smug citizens squat in their hovels and make life-and-death decisions for performers helpless to affect their own destiny. I won’t make money off that.”
“Sir, those performers are free agents who signed contracts. They understood the dangers inherent in such productions, as well as the considerable rewards. No one forces them to accept assignments to viewerun series.”
“I won’t have it,” Loo-Macklin reiterated firmly. “Let the damn mollymits come down here and make their own choices out on that toy battlefield. Or let the performers and writers decide who gets shot and who doesn’t. Not some bored third party. I won’t be a party to it.” He glanced over at Basright.
“A man’s death is his own, even if his life is not.” He accelerated, leaving the older Basright straining just to keep him in sight and still wondering just what his boss was talking about ….
“Pick it up,” the man said.
The stocky, ugly boy hesitated over the bowl and spoon. Other eyes watched him expectantly, eyes of mostly older orphanage mates. The domeister waited and glared down at the twelve-year-old, his helpmate in hand.
“I told you to pick it up.” The helpmate crackled dangerously.
The boy named Kees slowly knelt. The older boy who’d tripped him and caused him to spill bowl and spoon sat at his seat and grinned, enjoying himself no end. Loo-Macklin glanced away from his tormentor and down at the spilled stew which made an abstract pattern against the smooth polytier floor. This was not the first time, only the most recent of dozens of similar incidents, which had made his life a stinging hell since his natural mother had abandoned him years earlier.
Something inside him burst.
He picked up the bowl as ordered … and heaved it straight at the domeister’s face. Taken by surprise, the man screamed as the remnants of the hot liquid and hard glass bowl caught him across the bridge of his nose. He dropped the dreaded helpmate.
Kees picked it up, jerked the control tab all the way over, past the safety catch. The plastic catch snapped. Then Kees shoved the translucent tube against the domeister’s throat.
The man screamed, stumbled backward, and tripped over his own feet, crashing to the floor. Behind them, the other boys were screeching delightedly at this unexpected turn of events. They urged Kees on while staying out of the fray, participating only to the extent of emptying their own bowls on the unhappy domeister, on Kees, on each other as well as the walls and floor.
Again the helpmate jabbed, this time catching the domeister in one ear. He howled, clutched at himself. Satisfied, Kees turned and inspected the riot swirling around him.
The older boy who’d tripped him suddenly turned pale. He started to run, got tangled up with a chair, and fell to the stew-sodden floor.
Kees was on him instantly, stabbing with the helpmate at legs, rump, back, groin. The boy screamed as the rest of the mob howled happily. The sounds of running adult feet could be dimly discerned, still far in the distance.
The older boy rolled over, and Kees began to swing the stick instead of poke with it. He worked methodically, silently. The older boy’s nose shattered, sending blood flying. A cheekbone cracked next, then several teeth. Blood covered his face and he’d stopped screaming.
The amusement was soon gone from the howling and then the shouting itself faded, until the only sound in the room was that of the helpmate stick striking bone and meat. The boy on the ground had stopped moving. Still Kees continued to flail away at him. Aware that something adult and vicious and nasty had entered their midst, the other boys had drawn back from their ugly cluster mate. They were staring at him now with mouths agape in that special childish stare reserved by the young for those who have crossed a bridge in defiance of an unspoken law.
The sound of nearing attendants was loud now. Off to one side the stunned domeister was regaining control of himself. He was a big man and wouldn’t be taken by surprise again.
Panting steadily, the muscular boy named Kees studied the bloody mass beneath him with interest. Then he looked back toward the groaning domeister, then at his cluster mates, letting the hate which had been building all his life come pouring out through his eyes.
No one would ever humiliate him again. There would be no more tripping, no more beatings, no more taunts about his face and body. No more. And no more shocks from the ubiquitous helpmates. Never again. Never, never, never.
He ran forward, jumped atop a chair, which teetered precariously under his weight. Then he was pulling himself nimbly up into a high window box. Two blows of the helpmate cracked the glass. Two more sent fragments showering into the room. A couple cut his face. He ignored them.