Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive men’s sins,
They are forgiven them;
If you hold them bound,
They are bound.
—John 20: 19-23
His eyes opened in a darkness deeper and more absolute than that behind his eyelids. The room was painted entirely black and had no visible seams, and thus seemed to have no boundaries.
In his mind was a void as complete as that which surrounded him. There was no recollection of his name, his occupation, his childhood, or indeed his age. He might have been a child still, for all he knew. Yet he felt that he was a man, and that men of necessity posses such things. He knew what a school, a playground, a church, a mall, were, but he could not say if he had ever been to one.
Though he was aware of this gaping emptiness in his being, he was, curiously, not greatly concerned about it. In fact, he was amazingly calm. Even the fact that he couldn’t move did not greatly disturb him. But that was not strictly true. He found that his right hand was free, his otherwise all-encompassing paralysis ending at the wrist.
Seeking to explore the boundaries of his world, he reached his hand as far as possible—this way and that—finding that when he fully extended his index finger its tip covered a raised circular button. Having nothing better to do, he pressed down upon it.
There was a momentary delay, and then a soothing, androgynous voice said, simply, “Hello.”
Before he could reply or inquire as to why he might be bound in such a manner, the voice enlightened him.
“You have volunteered to serve as an impartial court of last appeal for a condemned killer,” the voice explained. “To render you as impartial as possible, we have removed any memories of previous experiences that may have colored your judgment.
“If you so decide,” the voice continued, “you will be this criminal’s executioner, but it is also within your power to grant life. The person may walk out of this facility with no recollection of the crime or, indeed, the person’s previous life. The person will be given a job suitable to their particular abilities. In time, the person will become, once again, a productive member of society, with friends and loved ones. This has never, in a thousand cases, failed to come to pass. You need not fear that you are releasing a wolf amongst sheep. This person will never kill again.
“There is no reason to doubt the guilt of this person. The conviction was not based on circumstantial evidence, but a freely given confession supported by irrefutable proof. The condemned expresses profound grief over the act, which was committed in the heat of passion, and was in no way premeditated. The condemned realizes that act of killing another human is wrong, and feels no satisfaction over the death of his victim, only remorse.
“You are charged with determining this person’s fate. There is no further appeal. When you have reached your verdict, press the button again.”
His world was once again silence and tranquility. Free from memories and prejudices, he was left to struggle with what he knew of morality, of right and wrong. The decision was not a quick one or and easy one. As is proper with matters of life and death, it was slow and painful.
In his mind, it came down to three questions, which he asked himself repeatedly. Do you believe in the sanctity of human life? Do you believe that people can change? Do you believe in forgiveness?
When at last he had answered these questions in a manner satisfactory to himself, he pressed the button.
“What say you?” the voice answered. “Life—or death?”
He found that he could speak although, until this point, he had not tried to.
“Life.” It was said with the strength of conviction and a conscience at peace with itself.
“Very well,” replied the carefully modulated voice. There was silence.
Slowly, so as not to hurt his eyes, the room became lit. Gradually, in subtle increments, he found that he could move and, eventually, stand.
He walked through a door, which had appeared where none had been evident before, and down a lighted hallway that led him out of the facility and back into the fold of society, secure in the knowledge that justice had been served.
Meanwhile, in a room only scant feet from the one he had just vacated, a woman sat in an identical condition. She had awakened and pressed the button. The voice had told her much the same thing as it had told him, except in the particulars of the crime, which was coldly premeditated, exceedingly brutal, and from which the killer had derived a great deal of satisfaction. There was no remorse.
“When you have reached your verdict, press the button again.”
There was no hesitation, no great debate. To be charged with the fate of a human life! To take that life! Surely, there was only one choice to be made.
“What say you? Life—or death?”
The woman pressed the button convulsively, repeatedly.
“Death!” The woman rasped with finality, with a sense of power—and joy.
“Very well—and may God have mercy on your soul.”
A deadly current surged into her finger, still spasmodically pressing the button, and stilled her heart.
“The Button” was originally published by Minnesota Technolog, after earning first place in its 1999 Science Fiction Contest.