Falk feared dogs, spiders and large crowds. These were his main fears, which, as far as he knew it, did not differ much from common fears other people had, but he also cherished a special one. He feared forests, especially those dark, wild woods where one can get lost so easily and where all other fears seem to dwell.
It was those four fears that he duly reported every year in his annual fear self-assessment form filed to the State Assessment Service. Of course, he said he had a multitude of other fears so numerous and indiscernible that not even he could distinguish between them. He had some fear of those large, hairy night moths that have an abominable habit of flying into one’s face during sleep. He was certainly a little bit afraid of the dead. He would also avoid deep water. But none of those minor fears amounted to a real dread and hence were not reportable under the law, which entered into force several years ago.
The self-assessment was due each April. Falk completed and posted the lengthy form and then forgot about it, as he had done each previous year. But a few days later his phone rang.
‘Can I speak to Maximilian Falk, please?’ enquired an unknown voice.
‘Yes, speaking,’ said Falk.
‘Good morning, Professor Falk,’ said the voice. ‘My name is Domenico Vondracek. I am the senior assessor at the Assessment Service. I am calling regarding your self-assessment form.’
‘Was I late in submitting it?’ asked Falk anxiously.
‘No, no, professor. It’s just there are some outstanding points in your form that I wanted to discuss. Can you possibly come over tomorrow morning?’
‘You mean, come over to you? To the Assessment Service?’
‘Yes, professor. We do not bite, despite street talk.’
‘But I have lectures tomorrow morning.’
‘I am afraid the matter is more urgent than your lectures, professor,’ said the soft voice on the other end of the phone line. ‘I will be waiting for you here at 9.30 tomorrow morning. Office 254, second floor. Please do not be late.’
This conversation happened before the usual morning lecture. Falk sat down to ponder his next move. The SAS was a scary institution and Falk knew people who genuinely feared it.
He checked on his own fears. There all were there, the entire multitude of them, sitting quietly on their perches, not raising their voices, a whole choir of scary, squeaky voices.
‘Good fears,’ he told them. Then he stood up and walked to the auditorium.
It was full of students. His law lectures always attracted a lot of people. With his jeans, his stubble and his raspy voice, Falk was immensely popular.
He greeted his audience and began: ‘Today we are not going to talk about law. Our topic today is justice. We are all expecting the law to be just, but we’re very much aware of its inherent and continuous unfairness. Hence we are keenly aware of the primary purpose of the law, which is to avoid injustice. This should be the focus of any legal system ruled by clear procedures and based on prescriptive norms. The law is meant to be our friend and, as with a friend whom we ask for a favour from time to time, we ask for justice when we turn to the legal system. Now, for you as future law professionals, the main goal is to find and eradicate the law’s injustice.’
Falk stopped to take a breath and saw a raised hand.
‘Professor, do you think our legal system is fair?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘By far, it is the fairest legal system in the world.’
‘But what about the dispensables? Do you think the system is treating them fairly?’
Pretty girl – dark skin, blue eyes. Isn’t she afraid of asking such questions?
‘The law,’ he said, realising that he sounded utterly unconvincing, ‘treats the dispensables equally and fairly. They…’
She interrupted him.
‘Fairly? They are being murdered without a trial!’
He gave her a long glance. She was gazing back at him, waiting for his answer.
‘You are not quite correct,’ Falk said, coughing cautiously. He felt his audience was disappointed, perhaps for the first time in his many years of teaching at the university. ‘Let’s discuss this after lectures,’ he proposed, feeling that he had just done the wrong thing. And the audience immediately picked up on it. He saw many lips curl in an ironic smile.
He stayed in the auditorium after the lecture, waiting for her, but she never came to him. He saw from his place at the front that she grabbed her bag and left along with everyone else, laughing and gesticulating. Soon he was alone in the large auditorium.
Falk was angry. This was certainly unexpected – a heated discussion between two indispensables about the fate of those wretched ones whose destiny was normally of no concern for anybody. There was a trial, he was going to say to her. It is called the pre-assessment. Personalities, skills, qualities, fears – especially fears – everything is thoroughly measured and assessed before certain individuals get classified as the dispensables. And then, they are not eliminated all at once – no, there is a system to that. Those whom society will never need are terminated first, in an organised manner, and in a phased approach. Those who are thought to be less needed are put on a waiting list to give them a chance to improve.
Why had he let her catch him unawares? He should have anticipated her question – he was supposed to be calling the shots!
And on top of all this, that meeting tomorrow at the SAS.
It was lunchtime, but he was too excited to be hungry. In fact, he needed a drink.
On his way to the local bar past numerous armed militia fighters standing on duty at every corner, Falk checked again whether he was afraid of the upcoming meeting. No. He was not.
At the bar, Maar was sitting at his usual place by the counter. There was no way to tell how long he’d been there, but as Falk looked at him, it became apparent that Maar was already a bit sozzled.
‘Hi, Max,’ said Maar, not looking at Falk. Maar never looked directly at anyone; his glance always roved about the place, seemingly not taking in any details. But Falk knew he noticed everything and instantly spotted every new visitor.
‘Hi, Willie,’ he said, sitting beside Maar. ‘You all right?’
‘Yeah,’ said Maar. ‘Yourself?’
There was a half-full mug of beer in front of him. Falk waved the bartender over, ordering the same.
‘Not too bad,’ he responded. ‘Although…’
‘What?’ said Maar.
‘Well,’ said Falk, ‘I’ve been summoned to the SAS tomorrow.’
‘I don’t know. They want to discuss my fear assessment form.’
‘Discuss your fear assessment form? Why would they need to do that?’
‘I don’t know. They say there are some outstanding points.’
Maar turned his head and gave him a direct glance for the first time since they’d known each other. He had grey eyes – and he was not as drunk as Falk had thought.
‘What are you going to do?’ he asked.
‘I’ll go, of course.’
Maar kept staring at him.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ he said.
‘Strange,’ said Maar. ‘Everyone I know is frightened of the SAS. It’s a scary outfit. Why, I’m afraid of it too! And you don’t give a damn. Strange. You sure you are not afraid of the SAS?’
‘Not at all – so what?’
Maar shook his head.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘I mean, why should you be afraid of anything? You are absolutely fine. You are well-established, a known authority in your field…by the way, will you remind me of your discipline?’
‘Ah yes. Void, that is. You are an expert in the void.’
‘Not really,’ said Falk. ‘There is something in this void and I am trying to find it. Trying to fill the void.’
‘See? That’s what you are. A renowned authority on the void and on all aspects of living in it.’
‘Laugh,’ said Maar. ‘Laugh. That’s all right. But let me tell you something. You are not afraid of anything because you are a conformist, Max. That’s why you are a bit anxious now, when they have summoned you. Calm down – they can’t do you any harm because you have not done anything wrong. You have always been a perfect, loyal piece of crap able to do whatever is ordered. Go home and sleep well, just like you’ve always done.’
Falk looked at him. Maar had many reasons to be bitter. He had lost his job as a television engineer a year ago and had recently been declared a dispensable. That had certainly had its effect on the poor fellow.
‘Don’t worry, Willie,’ he said softly. ‘This is not yet the end. They will reconsider your case.’
‘With me having no job? Bollocks!’
‘You should not give up!’
‘I am not giving up, Max. I am sitting here all day – at least they won’t dare to use their hooks here.’
‘Yeah. Pretty much so.’
They spent another few hours chatting about nothing and finished off several pints. Then Falk looked at his watch and said, ‘All right. I’d better be going home now. It’ll be early in the morning tomorrow.’
‘See ya!’ Maar said grumpily. ‘Tell me afterwards how it all went.’
It was early evening when Falk walked out of the bar. He lived near the university campus, so it was a short walk past student houses with their loud music and bursts of laughter from open windows. Early spring was turning out to be unusually warm. The air smelled like blossoming apples and hawthorn. It was growing dark between the houses, and lamps started to come on. In their flickering light Falk saw a shadow of a man walking ahead of him. The man was walking quickly, as if trying to reach his destination as soon as he could.
But before Falk could see him more clearly, several long hooks suddenly shot out from the roadside bushes and caught the man by his neck, back and sides. There was a stifled cry, a groan – and the man vanished from the road.
When Falk came close to the spot, he saw some movement in the bushes, and the hooks – these were still quite visible, sticking out of the bushes, wavering hawkishly in the air as they were held by dark figures.
‘Hey, you!’ He heard a coarse voice. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’
‘I live nearby,’ said Falk. ‘I am a professor working at the university.’
‘Keep moving, professor!’ said the voice. ‘You did not see anything, understood?’
‘All right, all right,’ said Falk, hurrying along.
He lived alone, his wife having left him a few months ago. She was his third wife and he loved her, but there she was, leaving him as his previous two wives had done. He was not an abominable man – quite the opposite, he was quite likeable. But all of them would say that he was too apathetic, too fireless, too lost in his legal thoughts. That was why none of his wives had wanted children. Each of his marriages had lasted barely two years.
He entered his dark, empty flat and stood in the middle of it, deep in his thoughts. Those hooks. He winced. Could this happen to him? He had not done anything wrong. They’d started catching the dispensables well before dark, although the government had always been clear that the SAS task forces must operate only at night to cause minimal distress to ordinary, right-fearing people. And he was one of them, wasn’t he?
He had not done anything wrong. Nothing bad could happen to him.
* * *
The SAS office was in a large, grey building covered with air conditioners. Falk presented his ID at the reception and waited until it was scrupulously checked and returned to him. The lift was not working and Falk had to climb to the second floor.
Vondracek’s office was small and dusty. And Vondracek himself was a short man with thick black hair and small, close-set black eyes.
‘Sit down, sit down, Professor Falk,’ he said, fixing Falk with his glare. ‘I am glad you have come on time. Much appreciated. Not everybody comes here at the set time. Well now. As I had said, I wanted to discuss your form. For identification purposes, would you please state your three major fears for me?’
‘Dogs, spiders and large crowds,’ said Falk mechanically.
‘And your fourth fear, please?’
Vondracek looked at the papers and nodded.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Now, I’ve been looking at your fear register, professor, and what strikes me most is that your register for recent years looks a bit incomplete. I am not trying to say that you have been hiding some of your key fears from us. You are a law expert and surely know that fear evasion is a serious crime. The problem is that your fear register is incomplete simply because you have been reporting all the fears you have had. In other words, you do not fear some very important things.’
‘What things do you think I should be fearing?’ said Falk.
‘You are the indispensable citizen of our country, Professor Falk,’ said Vondracek, staring at him with his sharp black eyes, ‘and, like thousands of other valuable sons of our motherland, you have been given this status not for nothing. These are the difficult times. The country is surrounded by enemies. You should cherish your status and be fearful of a chance of it being taken from you.’
‘But,’ said Falk, ‘why would I fear this? I have awards for my special services to the state.’
‘This is exactly why you should be fearing it,’ said Vondracek. ‘Because your awards, your job, your degree can easily be taken from you. Everything you have can be taken away in no time. Even the status of an indispensable. So, instead of dreading those negligible things like dogs and spiders, you should nurture real fears. You know that enemies have penetrated all public bodies trying to undermine our power from within. This is who you should be fearing. The enemies of the state. The shrewd foreign agents. The fearless. The mad.’
‘Yes, professor. They are all mentally ill, because fear is a natural state of mind preventing us from doing wrong things, and they have none of it. We are making great efforts to identify and eradicate them, but you should also be helping us. Start fearing them as you would fear a disease. Pay attention to what is being said. Report any suspicious activities. You are working with students, that is, with people granted temporary indispensable status until they can prove their value to the state. We have reports that you are too lax at your lectures. Conceive a fear of enemies being among your students. Be suspicious. Be vigilant. Help us eradicate this disease. The country needs more dispensables to be taken out. We need only valuable people, not this trash. Our country’s resources are too limited.’
He reached out to the pile of yellow papers on his desk, took out a photograph and placed it in front of Falk.
‘We’ve decided to help you conceive the right fears,’ he said. ‘He was your friend, wasn’t he?’
Falk looked at the photo. There was Maar, all covered in blood, penetrated by black hooks. It was a horrible image.
Falk gazed at the photograph. He was not able to utter a word.
‘We thought an illustration might be helpful,’ Vondracek remarked. ‘See what I meant? You should not allow such people to be around. Better be alone than in bad company. So we’ve decided to help you this time. Please take my advice, Professor Falk. Start fearing. We will invite you for some psychological assessments shortly just to check how you are progressing. Hopefully your fear register will soon be updated with the right fears. Do you want to keep the photograph?’
Falk looked at him, feeling an urge to punch this dark face with its small, close-set eyes.
‘No,’ he said finally. ‘Thank you.’
‘You sure?’ said Vondracek, ‘Well, just trying to help.’
* * *
Trying to help! His words were still ringing in Falk’s ears when he came home. He had cancelled his lecture that morning, saying he was unwell. All day long he was thinking about Maar. Contrary to what the SAS had assumed, they were not friends, just drinking buddies who met at the bar counter every other day. Maar had not been an easy character. He was peevish, ill-tempered, gloomy as a dog, but Falk had liked him. And now, when Maar was no more, Falk felt sadness, and bitterness, and a terrible void inside.
Yes, the void. He checked on his fears; all were there. But a fear of internal enemies, desperate dispensables, dangerous lunatics undermining the state was not among them, its voice not being heard in the general choir of terrible voices, its face not visible anywhere, its perch occupied by others. Falk had no such fear, or it was so minuscule, so undreadful, so insignificant that there was not even a chance of any responsibility arising for reporting it. And he had no desire to grow it to the required significance.
That night Falk could not fall asleep until the early morning hours.
The auditorium was resounding with noise when he walked in, but all the voices died away at once when hundreds of eyes saw him. Falk knew he looked different after a sleepless night. He tried to swallow a bitter lump in his throat, and that took a few eternal seconds.
‘Justice,’ he said and stopped, marvelling at the strange word he had just uttered. ‘We have been discussing justice for weeks,’ he continued. ‘Have been trying to define it, understand it, nail it. Have been throwing together law and justice, wondering if they were compatible. Have been looking at justice from different angles, turning it this way and that way like a wondrous apple, not sure whether to bite it or throw it away. All the way through, I’ve been leading you to a conclusion that those two were perfectly compatible under our legal system, making you believe that we were living in an ideal society where justice and the law were going hand in hand.’
He stopped, suddenly realising that he had no strength to continue. After a long, painful pause, he said, ‘I was wrong.’
The silence was deafening.
‘Yes,’ said Falk, ‘I was wrong. The law we are being made to abide by is not just. You surely know what the best proof of that is. Do you?’
Nobody dared to utter a word.
‘The young lady over there!’ said Falk, finding a familiar face among the other pale faces. ‘You were the first one here who dared to raise the issue. The dispensables. They are being murdered without a trial. Is that lawful? Is that just? Think this through thoroughly, because we are going to continue this discussion tomorrow.’
Everyone was silent as Falk left the auditorium.
He fully realised what he had just done. His fears were all crying foul; he was scared to death, so much that he had never been in his life. But somehow he was proud of himself. At last he had done something remarkable. He had finally spoken out.
He was called to the Dean’s office immediately after he had left the lecture.
Dean Lentul was an old, tired man wearing a black skullcap to hide his baldness.
‘What is it you are doing, Max?’ he said. ‘This lecture of yours today. And I’ve just got a call from the SAS. From the SAS! They say you are lacking some important fears. Do you know how dangerous it is not to be a right-fearing man in these times?’
‘I have my fears, Tibor,’ said Falk. ‘And I’ve been duly reporting them to the SAS, as required by law.’
‘This is not what I am saying,’ said Lentul. ‘We’ve long noticed that you’ve been giving too much leeway to your students. Allowing them to argue, hold debates. A university is not a place for discussions, Max. Students should listen and not even dare to open their mouths. Some of your students have never been afraid of doing just that. Have you ever done anything to put an end to this? No. You have been looking favourably at this dissent. Because you’ve never had proper fears yourself, Max, and you are not capable of igniting those fears in those wretched young people. We had tolerated this until recently, but something has happened today that exhausted our patience. You dared to open your own mouth to speak about…well, I won’t even dare to repeat what you’ve said today. It’s fearful stuff to say, but you have still blurted this out.’
‘This is the truth, Tibor,’ said Falk.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ Lentul said incredulously.
‘I am afraid so,’ said Falk.
Lentul was looking at him wide-eyed, and Falk could easily read his mind, ‘A conspiracy…plotting to rise up against…foreign agents…the fearless…’
‘Sorry, Max,’ Lentul uttered. ‘You are terminated.’
* * *
That night Falk saw Maar in his dream. Maar was dancing with Clara, Falk’s third wife, who was dressed in a black evening gown. She was so beautiful that Falk felt regret that she had left him – the first time he’d had such a feeling since she left.
‘Hooks,’ Maar was saying to her tenderly, ecstatically. ‘Everybody is afraid of them. But frankly, they’re nothing to be afraid of. They are actually like vodka. No taste, no smell. A short fire in your throat, an instant pain – and you’re there. Free, unfearful. Isn’t that good?’
Clara laughed and threw her arms around his neck.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘You surely know what you are talking about, don’t you?’
Then Maar saw Falk.
‘Max!’ he exclaimed. ‘Come here, Max. This is Clara. She’s just been hooked.’
‘What?’ said Falk knowing that this was true.
‘Yes,’ said Clara, looking at him lovingly. ‘But that’s okay. Come dance with me, Max. This music, isn’t it beautiful?’
‘I don’t hear any music,’ said Falk, looking around.
‘You should cast away all your fears,’ she said. ‘They deafen you.’
‘I have already done this, Clara, my love,’ he said.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Those fears, they are still there, inside you. You’re using them as a shield, aren’t you? Look here.’
He looked and there was a large, black book lying in front of him with his name on the page before him and a brief list below it.
‘Your fear register,’ said Clara’s voice beside him.
The book was so scary that Falk felt he was about to scream. Clara put her hand on his shoulder.
‘This is just a pile of empty pages. Why are you fearing?’
‘I do not know!’ Falk wailed.
‘Then fear not,’ she said.
He looked at her with tears in his eyes.
‘Burn it, my darling,’ she said. ‘Burn it now!’
He nodded and threw the heavy book into a fire.
* * *
Falk stood in front of the huge audience, acutely conscious that he could not say a word. The Dean had permitted him to say good-bye to his students. Falk had not slept for much of the night, and looked awful, but he did not mind.
He did not mind anything anymore.
‘Fear,’ said Falk. ‘We all know too well how it feels, this anxious concern, alarm or dread of harm, as the legal definition goes. We all need to report any fear if it is significant. Especially if that is a fear of what might happen to you if you would not fear.’
He paused. Nobody in the audience moved or made a sound.
‘But,’ said Falk, ‘what is it actually that we should be afraid of? A thug in black with a hook? A prison? A nut house? I can well imagine that everybody here has a significant fear of these things, otherwise you would be hooked. You just turn on your imagination, and here it goes – anticipated pain, blood, screams, death miserable and unlamentable. All those things you have probably seen after the dark falls on our great country. So is this how our ordinary fear of pain is called nowadays? Does this mean that society should be ruled by a thing as primitive as a fear of physical suffering? You might answer yes to some of these questions. Or even to all of them. But in that case you would need to conform for the rest of your life, just like I did until recently.’
He paused again. A minute, he thought. Or maybe two. That’s how long I’ve got left.
‘Cutting through fear,’ he said. ‘Trying to make its many eyes close, as many as possible. You will never make yourselves free from all fears though, but will achieve much more. You will sweep away your fear registers. And this is going to help you in accomplishing your ultimate goal. Will you tell me how?’
There was a pause and one voice said resolutely, ‘Erasing fear registers is a first step towards eradicating our law’s injustice.’
That girl. Always the first portent.
Falk nodded to her and said, ‘That’s right.’
At that very moment, a door opened and men in black suits started entering the auditorium. They were so many that Falk doubted for a moment that they’d come for him.
But they had.
* * *
He was tucked into a black car, between two men in black suits. The car drove through the city. At first he was still able to recognise familiar streets, but soon they came to unknown suburbs full of smoke-darkened concrete houses and ugly industrial buildings.
After about thirty minutes, they drove into a thick, dark wood. Falk had never known that such wild woods existed within a short drive of the city.
The car stopped at a clearing in the wood. There were two or three men standing there. One of them was Vondracek, who looked bleak and worried.
‘Good morning, professor,’ he said gravely.
Falk got out of the car and stood there, looking at the man.
‘We did not think you would do such a stupid thing,’ said Vondracek, ‘otherwise we would have got there much faster. Wonder why you are here? It’s our burial spot. Are you still unafraid?’
Falk looked around.
‘Lovely place,’ he remarked. ‘You probably thought that taking me to the dark forest of my fears would scare me to death. But it’s actually nice and sunny here. Have you at least got your hooks with you?’
Vondracek gave him a long, weary look.
‘We’ll do without them,’ he said and pulled out a gun. ‘Now, for identification purposes, state your fears for me.’
Fears? Falk checked on them, and they were nowhere to be seen, their stakes empty, their loud voices faded away. A lovely, comfortable void inside.
‘I have nothing to report,’ said Falk happily.
Vondracek was looking at him as if he saw some rare species which had been believed to be extinct for thousands of years.
‘I have never seen the real fearless before,’ he muttered.
‘Hang on for a while,’ said Falk, smiling, ‘and you will see lots of them.’
Vondracek heard him. As if trying to make up for a missed chance, he quickly raised his hand with a gun, the wild fear in his eyes.
Val Votrin is a published author of speculative fiction writing in Russian and English. Outside of his studio, he works as an environmental consultant specialising in environmental due diligence. His English prose has recently appeared in Quail Bell Magazine and Trafika Europe. He lives in Bath, UK.