Once more, the child began to cry. To Lt. George Maltin of the United States Space Corps, the noise seemed shriller each time. “Not again!” he bellowed, tossing and turning on his uncomfortable cot. After a couple of minutes, he leapt up, pressing his hands over his ears in a worthless attempt to gain quiet. “I’m gonna go nuts!” he screamed. He took a few steps to the wall—the room wasn’t very big—and pounded on it. “Hey, warden! Warden!” he yelled.

With some metallic clangs, the wall rolled back to reveal Crun, his jailer. Crun was a Mingari, and, as such, had a high-domed forehead, three stubby legs, and one tentacle-like arm projecting from the center of his torso. “Is something wrong, Lieutenant?” he asked calmly.

Maltin was incredulous. “Is . . . Is something . . . ” he stammered. “Can’t you hear the crying?”

“Of course,” he responded.

“Can you do something about it?”

“If I wished to,” Crun replied with something resembling a chuckle.

“You son of a—”

“My advice,” his jailer interrupted him, “would be to calm down.”

How?” Lt. Maltin asked, his nerves frayed. “All day, every day, for hours on end, all I can hear in this cell is that crying.”

“Can’t you muffle the sound?” Crun inquired, slightly amused.

“You’ve taken away anything I could muffle it with!” Maltin protested. “I can only press my hands against my ears for so long.”

“I do not feel sorry for you. You are here to serve your punishment for the heinous crime you committed.”

“It was an accident.”

“Of course it was,” Crun replied sarcastically.

“It was!” Maltin pleaded. “The dust storm kicked up when Captain Kittredge and I were landing our ship. Our scanners were inoperative. We couldn’t see the boy.”

“His name was Frad.”

“I know that!” Maltin said. “God, how I know that!”

“So,” Crun went on, “because of your incompetence in landing your craft on my world during a minor dust storm, you crushed a child under one of your landing struts.”

“I told the judge—”

“I was at your trial. I heard everything that was said,” Crun interjected. “You were found guilty. This is your sentence.”

“To listen to a recording of the boy crying for hours on end? It’s . . . It’s inhuman.”

“We are not human,” the Mingari told the Earthman.

The lieutenant paced his small cell. “I . . . I can’t take this,” he told Crun.

“You have the option of choosing death, as your captain did.”

“Oh,” Maltin continued, “you’d like that. Wouldn’t you?”

“How I might feel makes no difference.”

“The captain didn’t know how you’d execute him,” Maltin went on, growing livid at the memory. Was it really only a few weeks ago?

“Turning him over to Frad’s parents seemed the only reasonable thing to do,” Crun said.

“You’re savages.”

We did not kill a child.”

“I’ll go nuts if I have to put up with more of this!” the Earthman screamed.

“You will not,” Crun replied.

“What do you mean?” Maltin asked, a new sense of hope making him look up at his jailer.

“The computer will not allow it.”

“Computer?” he said, confused. “I thought you were the boss.”

Crun explained, “Oh no. I merely tend to the computer. It will not allow you to, as you said, ‘go nuts.’” He paused briefly to swat an airborne buzzing thing that resembled a fly with his tentacle and inserted the carcass into his fanged mouth. “You see,” he continued after chewing, swallowing, and licking his lips, “through a network of sensors in these walls, the computer constantly monitors your condition. It knows how much you can physically tolerate.”

“It has a pretty high opinion of me.”

“Every day, it will mete out your sentence until you think you can’t possibly take any more,” the Mingari continued. “It will push you to the limit, to the very brink of your sanity, and then it will back off and allow you to recuperate just enough to resume your sentence.”

“The judge has to reconsider,” Maltin said emphatically.

“She will not.”

“I can’t take fifty more years of this!”

“Where did you get that figure?” Crun asked, confused.

“I’m. . . I’m thirty,” the Earthman explained. “Eighty years is the average human lifespan.”

“Not on Mingar.”

“What . . . What do you mean?” Matlin inquired nervously.

“We live for two hundred years.”

“Bully for you,” Maltin added sarcastically.

“Now that you are breathing our atmosphere, you will likewise live for two centuries.”

“You’re joking?” he said, shocked.

“Our doctors confirmed the changes happening to your body during your pre-incarceration physical.”

“Two hundred years!” Maltin bellowed. “I can’t . . . I’ll . . . I’ll never survive for that long!”

“The computer will see that you do so you complete your life sentence.”

“I can’t stay in this room—with that noise—until I’m two hundred years old!” Maltin screamed, pacing nervously.

“You will,” Crun responded matter-of-factly.

At that moment, the wall began noisily sliding home. Maltin grabbed at it futilely. “No, no! Wait!” he pleaded.

The wall clicked back into place, and the recording of Frad’s crying grew even louder. Maltin’s body shook uncontrollably, and he let out a scream that, ever so briefly, drowned out the crying.

Zetetic separator

—For several years, Mike has been primarily an author of audio plays. He’s had over 150 of them produced in the United States  and overseas, many for Audible. In 2016 he won two Moondance International Film Festival awards. His script The Candy Man was produced as a short film under the title Dark Chocolate in 2015. Mike lives in Massachusetts (that’s a lot of m’s) with his son, who can survive on much less sleep than Mike can.

Follow him at audioauthor.blogspot.com

Leave a Reply