Red Light Green Light
The room was clean and quiet except for the heavy breathing and stench of cold sweat from the man strapped to the chair in the center of the room. A red light flashed, and the man shuddered at its implications. He strained at his bonds, begging for mercy. But his pleas fell on deaf ears. His hands were wrestled down as a machine slid beneath them. The switch was flipped, and with a flash of light, the convicted trembled and seized at the electronic pulse. He was condemned and convicted, and there was no way out.
Jasper placed his hand on the scanner at the back of the van. It turned green and opened a door, revealing a fairly large box that had his name on it. He picked up the box, struggling for a second to balance it, and marched away from the van as a neighbor arrived to do the same. A young lady walked in front of him as he strained to keep the box from spilling over. He had never been accused of being strong. The young man faked doing the task with ease, avoiding the woman’s eyes. Once he had left her line of sight, he let out frustrated breath and rested the box on his knee to get a better grip.
He opened his apartment with the scanner on the door and entered, kicking the door closed behind him. After setting the box on a counter by the door, he opened the tab to reveal an assortment of cans, bags, and bottles, which he distributed around the kitchen in the drawers and in the fridge. His face took on a grimace when he pulled out a can of soup labeled with the number 6.
Once he’d finished his work, the young man approached the couch that sat in the middle of the small space, and turned on the wall-mounted screen. Images of fire and smoke washed the screen with news headers reading, “Curfew confirmed after another deadly attack.”
Jasper gave a quick sigh of annoyance at the confirmation that they would be under a curfew for who ’knew how long. Something bothered him about the video, however. His eyes focused on the repetitive stream of State buildings on fire and chaos surrounding them. In the repetition came frames that didn’t match with the rest. One bit of footage playing behind the voice of a commentator would show an angry mob, then the next would show the dark of night suddenly illuminated by a fiery explosion. Though the footage wasn’t high quality, he could tell that it was old and definitely not of the recent domestic terrorist attacks.
Why would the networks use old footage? Jasper wondered as he lay back into the couch. He thought for a moment and settled with the idea that whatever attacks had resulted in this curfew must have been so dangerous that the network camera workers wouldn’t even want to get close. Though he had settled with his assumption, something in his mind didn’t allow him to be at peace with it. Ever since he had graduated from the academy and been thrown into the workforce, his attention had been drawn to stark differences between what he witnessed at the State security offices and what he saw displayed on the networks.
Deciding to waste no more time on the topic, he returned to a pile of pictures strewn out on his floor. He picked up a photo of a man’s face, pulled the cap off the pen, and put the pen to his lips. He stared at the picture, which was a still of old security-camera footage that showed a crowd of backpack-laden high schoolers in the hallway of their school. Jasper scanned the picture briefly, but his demeanor changed when he noticed something.
Jasper circled the youth and drew arrows pointing to different areas of the boy’s face. He labeled the lines: “Contempt.” “Anger.” Flipping the card over, Jasper looked at the lettering on the back.
“2024 - Skyler Mason - Green Jacket - Killed 14 with firearm in school hallway.”
Jasper turned the card face up again and confirmed he had circled the correct individual. The art of expression reading was new, but ever since he could remember, Jasper could read people’s emotive responses, even if they were intentionally hidden. His gift had propelled him through the State’s security academies and provided him with a prime job: Facial Confirmation Officer.
During the workday Jasper Wood sat behind one-way glass, looking for a wrinkle, a dilation, a twinge on the face of the person sitting at a metal table, looking to see if the individual posed a threat to the State. If the young confirmation officer detected a threat, the person would be permanently labeled using the recently developed printing procedure, as required by law.
Day after day, Jasper watched the facial expressions of those claiming to be set up, extorted, or misguided, promising that they valued the State and believed in what it stands for. Fear, fear, fear, relief. One by one, people showed fear as they came in, then relief when he pushed the button indicating that the person’s face proved the words to be correct. Sitting behind one-way glass, he did the same thing every day:
Fear, Contempt, Anger
Anger, Anxiety, Contempt
Jasper was thinking it had already been a long day when a man entered the room and was told to sit at the table with anger and disgust plastering his face. The young analyst pushed the red button, indicating there was dangerous intent in the individual. The red light flashed in the room, and the man’s face turned to intense anger, further condemning him to the fate he was assigned. Being restrained by the guard in the room, he had his right hand placed on the machine, which removed his print and installed a new one.
Watching this happen from the window, Jasper muted the sound from the printing room. Listening to screams all day was even less pleasing than listening to the computer technician who sat next to him, breathing through his mouth while eating a sandwich. The sound almost brought him to unmute the condemned man who was making up swear words. When the man was knocked out by an electric pulse at the end of the process, the guards came in to take him to the rehab room. This was the room where interrogated individuals were released back into the world—or where they would consent to the rehab procedure in order to regain State benefits.
“Four reds today. One more and it’ll be a record,” Jasper said to the noisily eating technician who nodded his mutual surprise at the influx of convictions for the day.
While there was no more sound coming from the room, he quickly put on some music before the technician could resume his nauseating feast.
Four weeks of this had flashed by since Jasper had graduated from the State Investigative Academy. For as long as Jasper could remember, he’d had a gift. He was young and talented, but the job was less gratifying than he had anticipated. The repetition of pressing red and green buttons as determined by the motives of the accused became tedious. Working for the State meant security and rare opportunities at every turn. What else could he want from a starting job?
But he could feel the work beginning to take a toll on him. Considering he had always thought of himself as an empathetic person, he found it alarming that he felt a rush of excitement every time he pushed the red button. When he had started, he’d felt only pity. But one emotion that caught him off guard from the first to the last person he had judged was confusion. What is the motivation that compels people to test the law? The State has provided everything they needed, and it’s not like the laws were unreasonable, Jasper thought.
Switching from the thought that had consistently nagged at him, Jasper turned back to the technician. “How many more do we have today?”
The technician stopped eating to look at the data pad.
“Two more. It’s getting close to curfew, so I assume they won’t bring up any more from the waiting rooms.”
The ten-hour shifts left them little time to get home before lights out. The curfew was imposed after the recent assaults on State ministers of justice. It required people to be in their homes by eleven, which was closing in tightly on Jasper.
As if the guard read his mind and was feeling the onset of the curfew as well, he rushed in the next accused. He was a shorter, heavyset man with dark skin and a beard that covered most of his face. Beards made it difficult to read certain expressions because they covered vital muscle points for several emotions. Jasper studied the man’s face, and the technician sent the okay on the data pad for the questioning to begin.
Colonel Bernard Stockton sat at the table in front of the man. Ready, waiting, formulating his approach to discover if this man was a danger to the State. This wasn’t Jasper’s first day working with the infamous Col. Stockton.
Japer had been taken aback when he first met Stockton. He had imagined him as a large, stoic man, with a thick deep voice. None of this was true, however. When the young analyst met him, he was shocked to find that he was a tall, scrawny man with a receding gray hairline. His disposition was also a disappointment. He was energetic, eccentric even. He would laugh louder than anyone else at anything that could be considered a joke and had a politeness about him that seemed forced. It wasn’t, his face showed no sign whatsoever of it being a lie. In fact, his face didn’t give away much of the normal expressions at all.
With a smile on his face, Stockton motioned for the bearded man to sit in the chair in front of him.
“How do you feel about our great country, friend?”
“It’s home!” Fear “I am grateful for the opportunities it has given me and my family. To be honest, I don’t know why I am here.”
“Good, I think we are just about done here”—Stockton looked at the guard—“Quickest one of the day.”
Relief flooded the man’s face, and he began to rise from his seat. The investigator looked at the tablet in his hand and stopped him.
“Just out of curiosity, where are you planning on moving to?”
“Huh?” The man looked surprised, and Stockton turned to face him.
“Moving! You are moving, aren’t you? I mean, these emigration forms indicate you are. You also requested to clean your funds from the bank. So where is it? Africa? South America? Canada? Middle East?”
As Stockton named off options, Jasper saw the bearded man’s face change from relief to fear once he heard “Middle East.” Jasper flashed the green light in the room indicating the correct answer.
Noting the green light, the investigator brought his attention back to the seated man.
“Middle East! Interesting choice. What is it? Is it too cold here in the Northwest? Looking for something warmer? Are you bored in the peaceful utopia that this country’s leaders have provided for you? Do you have a need for some political unrest?”
None of these options got a reaction. No indication on the man’s face. Jasper sent no lights.
“Are you trying to get away from your wife? Because there’s other ways of doing that.”
Still no sign.
“Doesn’t matter really. What interests me the most is the fact that you didn’t go through the emigration office. You went through a private company. Why?”
The man sat in silence, trying to control his facial expressions.
“Was it because you still owe this great nation that invested in your education? Ahh, yes. Two additional years you are supposed to work for our great State. You would be turned away from the emigration office because you haven’t fulfilled your civic duty. Sounds like someone who wants to cheat the nation he said he loves.”
The man reacted slightly, but it seemed unnecessary at this point for him to confirm the emotion as Stockton had already begun his final push. Stockton nodded at the guard to seize him. As the guard put his hands on him, the man broke his silence. “Hasbunallah wa nimalwakil!” the man yelled as his hands were wrestled down with restraints and pressed against the printer.
“Ahh, religion! That’s it! Why didn’t you just say so, old boy? You wouldn’t have had to hear me ramble on trying to guess,” Stockton said as his face became laced with an eerie satisfaction.
Fear, anger, and contempt filled the face of the man as he was printed.
Questions flooded Jasper’s mind. The Middle East? How could he risk so much to go there? Here we have security and peace. Now that he is printed, he won’t have access to State amenities. What of his family? This makes no sense. He’d heard something in secondary school about religions having pilgrimages to areas thought to be holy, but they stopped teaching about religion a long time ago in the school system, so Jasper couldn’t remember why. If that was the case, why wouldn’t he bring his family? Jasper thought.
Answers to the questions teachers asked in school came easily. If you provided what they wanted to hear, then you were good as gold. Outside school, in the real world, many of the answers lapsed into subjectivity. Something Jasper had never had a good relationship with.
The printing commenced, and Jasper muted the sound in the room again.
Jasper stepped out into the hallway to get some fresher air. One more, he thought. I can get through one more, then I can read the expressions of my own eyelids.
A tall and broad-shouldered dark-haired man in his late twenties escorted by a guard walked down the hallway toward the interrogation room. His hands, cuffed in front of his body, indicated he was under more suspicion than normal. The man glanced at Jasper, meeting his eyes briefly as he passed.
This prompted a double take from Jasper. Seeing anyone handcuffed and escorted show genuine happiness startled him.
The guard put his hand on the door’s scanner, and it opened, letting them in, and that meant Jasper’s hallway time was over.
Stockton, who sat in front of the printer, had had a transformation of his demeanor since the bearded man had been taken out. His attitude was chivalrous, innocent, even silly at times in the previous questioning. Now he sat with back straight, shoulders back, and face attentive to the man in cuffs.
Stockton’s gaze lingered, not on the cuffed man’s smiling face but on Jasper, though he couldn’t see through the glass. He flashed his own glare to the analyst in an effort to communicate the direction he wanted the proceedings to go. Contempt covered his face as he looked at the glass.
This look made it evident that the meeting wouldn’t finish with everyone shaking hands. Then the colonel shelved his contempt effortlessly and replaced it with the happy-go-lucky attitude of a child beginning to play with its favorite toy.
“Forty-five minutes until curfew,” Jasper said to the technician, who responded with a sorrowful shake of his head. It seemed he doubted they would be out of there in time.
The man sat down in front of Stockton and provided a sincere, “Hi, how are you?” Happiness remained on his face, and to Jasper’s shock, it still had all the signs of being genuine.
The interrogator rotated his head toward the glass as if, by that one question, the young man could be convicted. After seeing no response from the light bar, he turned back to the data pad where his information was displayed.
“Mr. Emmett Walsh, I speak for all of us here when I say that it’s been a long day and we are anxious to be rested for the next. So please answer these questions honestly and quickly so that we can get on with this.”
Emmett offered a nod in response.
“We will need vocal answers for these questions, friend.”
Stockton said the word friend quietly, but his face was struggling to hold back the disgust that was behind it. What is it about this man that affects Stockton so much? Jasper wondered.
“You are Emmett Walsh?”
“You identify as a straight male?
“Your housing is in Richland, Washington?
“You were born in Boise, Idaho?”
“You work as an educator?”
“When is he going to start the real questioning?” The technician asked him, food still in his mouth. Something wasn’t right about this. The man in the chair was calm and unoffending and showed no signs of stress. Bernie was putting on a show unlike anything Jasper had seen to this point. Every muscle in his face was tense. Though Stockton’s expression showed him to be in a pleasant mood to the eyes of most, Jasper could see the individual muscle patterns behind the face and knew something was wrong.
Disgust, anger, resentment—all swam around in his facial expressions like sharks awaiting feeding at the zoo.
“Ahh, you are a teacher? That takes a lot of patience, courage, and insight. I imagine that you are well respected in your field by the look of the awards you have retained.” Emmett looked back flatly in reply. Stockton continued to scan through his file. “And you coach sports! What an asset you are, Mr. Walsh!”
“Am I here to receive an award, friend?” Emmett asked. His use of friend held no hint of contempt, but it was received with a silent rage by the investigator who sat in front of him.
However, Stockton quickly covered with a nervous laugh and continued. “Our students, as you well know, are growing up in unprecedented times, where their well-being physically and mentally is imperative to keep up with the chaos and injustice this world has to offer. Therefore, our curriculum is specifically designed in the education system to prepare our next generation to build on what we have learned and put into place. This requires everyone working within the system to join together with common cause, for the good of mankind. Correct?” Stockton looked at the man across from him, indicating he wasn’t going to continue until he had some sort of confirmation that the man was following.
“Yes, the curriculum is designed to build on what has been put in place,” Walsh replied carefully.
“I think you are missing the point.” Stockton’s irritation grew, and his friendly guise started to melt like a wax figure in the heat of the day. He stood and paced around Walsh. “We must all do our jobs. Yours is to teach; mine is to protect. My job isn’t as brutal or heroic as that of a general in the field, but it is important, and you could even say I like it. I protect not from foreign powers, guns, bombs, or drones. I protect our State from tyranny, resentment, insurrection, and indoctrination. My shield is words; my enemy is corruption.” Stockton looked up at the light to see if Jasper had found anything in the young man’s face that would lead to a conviction. His pacing grew faster as he continued his lecture.
Jasper was confused by the turn the interview had taken. Stockton typically kept his cards close to his chest, fanning friendship and then pouncing like a cat on a mouse. But here, Stockton was off balance. His tempo of speech. The way he moved around the table. It was all wrong.
No light was lit, and the older man showed annoyance for a moment. Stockton walked behind Walsh to the guard at the door, who quietly gave him a leather-bound book. Opening it he glanced at a bookmarked page. “‘I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. Psalms 139:14.’ How sweet, you have written in the margins, ‘Lord, bless Everette with the understanding of who he is. That he is more than a broken human who can’t do right. Don’t let him get swept by the ways of the world away from who he is in You.’” Stockton walked around the table again.
“He stood directly behind Walsh, took a slow deep breath, and whispered, “What a waste.” He placed the leather-bound book in front of the seated man, whose face slipped into sadness, leaving Jasper bemused. People in Walsh’s position typically broke into fear, contempt, anger, or disgust. Not sadness.
Stockton tossed the book on the table in front of Walsh. “Corruption at its finest. The book that injected so much hate and hypocrisy into the world.”
The book almost slid off the table, but Walsh made the first movement he had in minutes to catch it before it fell off. No fear registered on his face. Jasper was wrong again with his anticipated response to Stockton’s methods. No fear. None, and it ’didn’t take a trained face reader to see the man’s expression and find it lacking signs of anxiety, anger, or frustration.
Stockton looked to the lights to see if he needed to continue but found none as Jasper had nothing to confirm.
Emmett looked down at the old leather-bound Bible, then opened it to find a note that was written on the inside of the cover as if it were for the last time.
Stockton needed no response. He looked at Emmett calmly reading, and something clicked inside him. He gestured to the guard and nodded to him. “Restraints!”
Jasper was frozen in his seat. No light had flashed, no confirmation from himself or the technician, and still Stockton had convicted. Jasper watched as the guard unclasped Walsh’s hands and opened the container for the printing process. Stockton whispered something Jasper couldn’t make out in Emmett’s ear, pushed the preprogrammed selection on the printer, and left the room swiftly.
Emmett didn’t yell; he didn’t scream. There were short jerks of his head as he reacted to the pain, but nothing compared to the anger that most expelled. It didn’t take long, and after a few seconds of stillness, he was taken out of the room. Stunned, but not fully unconscious he slouched in the wheelchair they put him in.
His hands were red from the procedure, yet he still tried to grab the leather-bound book on the way out. It slipped and was kicked across the floor by the guard as he led Emmett to the recovery rooms. Stunned by the erratic behavior of the interrogator, the technician and Jasper looked at each other for answers to what just happened. After a brief second the technician got up to leave. Jasper remained seated, frozen in confusion.
Why? he wondered. After spending day after day witnessing and diagnosing every kind of malevolent emotion of those convicted of beliefs contradictory to the State, he was astonished to see anything different. Anything that resembled peace. And for what? A book? One that had been outlawed because of hate speech? Many people had been printed for social injustice, but they all had one thing in common. They always turned to anger and contempt to fuel their defiance. What drove this man?
Trained to think analytically about the motivations of people to decipher intent, Jasper racked his brain, trying to figure out what propels this man. The interrogation room door shut, leaving Jasper alone with the most dangerous emotion he had encountered in ages. Curiosity.