“And this one, the one you are having your people experiment on, what of him?”

The new hire, the thirty-something African-American man, Gary was sitting at home watching a baseball game, a ginger tabby in his lap. Apparently, he was something of a Reds fan. Well, everyone had their flaws.

“Again,” Ephram noted. “I have to rely on my people’s experience and their collective judgment. A life hangs in the balance; someone we can help if he is able to do what is asked of him.”

“And they will be responsible if they fail, if he suffers because of it,” his torturer insisted. “Not you?”

Palantine thought about that. Maybe there was some point to this after all, more than just pain, accusation and guilt. Not to mention the torture. He was starting to think he preferred the guilt, self-doubt. His eyes were stinging again from the sweat still streaming down over his brow. The heat had not been turned down one iota.  If anything it had been cranked up again.

“Yes, the will be,” he told the man. “You have to grow up someday, and it’s never pain free. The same thing goes for understanding the universe. It never comes pain free. There is cost. There has always been a cost.”

“Cost in what? Lives, futures, hope, self-worth, self belonging?”

“Whatever the price is,” Ephram asserted, blinked his stinging eyes, licked the sweat from his upper lip. “Faith, blood, trust. Maturity always incites suffering. There is no way around it.”

“You think you are above this, then?” the torturer asked. “Having achieved this maturity of yours?”

“Would I be here if I wasn’t, hadn’t?” he realized as he said the words.

“Now,” the man in the suit smiled. “I do believe we are finally getting somewhere.”

And then he left. But not before one last hit of high voltage that took Ephram’s breath away.

Once he regained consciousness, Ephram relaxed in his chair and watched the scenes play out on the screens before him. His people’s homes, their private lives, things he shouldn’t be watching, things that somehow were part of what this experience was supposed to teach him.

It was cooler as well. Apparently, he’d passed some kind of test.

Flores, sitting in her home office clicked her mouse, scowled at what she was looking at, made notes on her desk pad. This was only interrupted when her phone rang and she answered it. Who was calling? Her husband? Daughter? Mother?

Frank chatted with his wife Cathy in their kitchen, tried some foreplay that was half-heartedly rebuked. He could tell that the man was eventually going to wear his wife down.

Benny mediated in his rock garden. A mosquito landed on his arm, he did not even notice. It didn’t bite him either, just flew away. His teenaged daughter stared at him from their back door, arms crossed, frown on her face. She called out to him, and probably not for the first time.

Nora sat at her desk, at the office for some reason, looking over the small ceramic vase, she believed tied her ghost lover/stalker to the world.

And finally Gary again, staring out at the Columbus skyline from his apartment window. What was he feeling? Was he feeling at all? Did he sense the truth – that he didn’t belong on this Earth?

Was his torturer’s assumption accurate? Did he not look at those five human beings as people at all, just extensions of himself, tools he used for his own purposes. And if so did it matter? A wise man takes care of his tools. Makes sure they are used for the work they were intended for. Wasn’t that just what he was doing? Would a priest take better care of them? A doctor? A friend?

If that was a valid point, then why was he really here? Why was he being compelled to answer for his acts, his judgment, made to suffer. If it wasn’t guilt he should be feeling, then what?

“Come back here!” Ephram called out. “I have a question!”

He yelled three more times. Finally, the doorknob rattled and his torturer re-entered the room. The man had loosened his tie. And spilt something red on the shirt under his jacket. Or maybe he’d extracted something red from another captive.

“Why am I really here?” Ephram asked. “Why are you here? What is your job, really?”

The torturer gazed at him with a bemusement.

“To help you feel, Ephram. To help you see if things are as you claim them to be,” he stated. “If you are being honest with yourself, then when they suffer, and when they die, you will feel it. You aren’t really sure you will, that you can, are you? And other questions?”

Palantine stared at him. Let out a breath, relaxed in his bonds.

“Can I have another glass of water,” he said.

“Certainly,” the torturer said with a smile. He checked the pitcher, frowned. “Just give me a minute.”

Go to Chapter Sixteen

Go to Chapter Eighteen

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