A terrible epidemic is ravaging the kingdom.
The onset of the disease is sudden. Due to genetic or perhaps hormonal factors. It strikes only males. The victim experiences a high fever, a violent headache, and often a swift death.
The disease does have two hopeful aspects.
First of all, if an individual survives it, he need not fear catching it again: from then on he has immunity.
Secondly, an extremely effective medicine exists. If used preventatively or in the initial stages of the disease, the drug, a tablet made primarily from a plant that grows in the mountains, almost always results in a cure.
Does this mean people can relax, and that there is no need to worry?
Unfortunately not, for an ironic twist of fate is something that life tends to thrust upon people all too often.
The high-altitude plant used to make the medicine that is so effective in prevention and early cure is extremely rare, verging on extinction.
In other words, there is not enough medicine for all the kingdom's subjects, only for certain people.
"Do you see what I mean?" asks Dok, a quiet man on patrol in the capital's marketplace with his fellow military policeman, Kaim.
Sending his sharp gaze down one alley after another, Kaim responds "You're saying they rank people to decide who gets the medicine?"
"Exactly," says Dok.
"In deciding the rank order, they brand us as either 'Subjects Indispensable to the Nation' or 'Other Subjects'."
Capital military policemen will receive their medicine relatively early, which demonstrates their ranking as "Subjects Indispensable to the Nation."
"I guess it makes sense," Dok goes on, "If all of us were to keel over, order in capital would break down like nothing. We always have to be the picture of health as we patrol the city, right Kaim? 'For the sake of the homeland,' as they say."
"I suppose so . . ."
"First the royal family gets the medicine. Then the royal guards. Third comes politicians, and then the financiers who run the country's economy, the police and fireman, doctors, and finally us-the capital military police. There's not enough to give it to just anybody."
Dok all but spat out those final words, and asks, "What do you think, Kaim? Ordinary subjects are people, too. Is it okay to 'rank' them like that?"
In theory, Kaim should be able to reply without hesitation that of course it is not okay.
But, realistically speaking, he says, "There's no way around it." He averts his gaze from Dok's as he hear himself saying these words.
"No way around it huh?" he mutters with obvious distaste.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe there is no way around it."
He sounds as if he is trying to convince himself, in fact it does seem to be the only means open to them.
"The folks here in the marketplace know about the disease, obviously."
"Obviously." answers Dok.
"If their fears get the better of them, they could riot at any time."
"We can just manage to keep the peace by patrolling the streets like this."
"I know what you mean."
"If we were to succumb to the disease, their lives would put them more at risk. If we can't dose every subject in the kingdom, all we can do is think about how best to keep the harm or the impact of the disease to an absolute minimum."
"I couldn't have said it better myself Kaim. You get a perfect score. Good job!"
His words of praise carry obvious barbs.
Sensing their presence, Kaim falls silent. Underlying Dok's sharp comments is not only the pain of biting saracasm but the sorrow of helplessness.
Two children, a boy and a younger girl, run past the men, laughing. Dressed in rags, they have probably come from the slum behind the market to gather scraps of vegetables little better than garbage.
Dok points to their receding forms and says,
"I'd like to ask you a question, Kaim."
"All right . . ."
"Are those kids 'Subjects Indispensable to the Nation?"
Kaim has no answer for him. Because he knows the right answer all too well, he can only lapse into silence.
Responding to Kaim's silence with a bitter smile, Dok goes on,
"According to your logic, Kaim, if those kids fall sick and die. "There's no way around it.' Or at least capital police like us have a greater right to the medicine than those kids do. Am I right, Kaim? Isn't that what you're saying?"
Kaim could hardly declare that he was wrong.
Responding again to Kaim's silence, Dok asks,
"Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not attacking you. It's just that everybody is indispensable to somebody. Even those kids. They may be just a nuisance to the state-poor beggars, but to their parents they are indispensable lives that must be protected at all cost. Am I wrong?"
What a kindhearted fellow, Kaim thinks, maybe too kind - to a degree that could prove fatal for a soldier.
From the direction of the castle comes the sound of the great bell - an emergency assembly signal to the soldiers patrolling the streets.
The medicine seems to have arrived for them.
"Let's head back," Dok pipes up, apparently emerging from his gloom,
"Let's be good boys and take the miraculous medicine that's going to save our lives and protect the kingdom."
The sorrow-filled thorns sprouting form his words pierce Kaim through the heart.
It is the following day when Dok tells Kaim of his plan to desert.
"I'm only telling this to you Kaim," he says when they are patrolling the marketplace again.
"I know the punishment for desertion is harsh. I'm not sure I can make it all the way, and if I'm caught, I know I'll be court-martialed and executed."
He has resigned himself to that possibility, he says, which is why he wants to make sure that Kaim knows the purpose of his desertion.
"I'm not betraying the country or the army. I just have to deliver . . . this."
In his open palm lies the tablet that he was issued the day before.
"You didn't take it?" Kaim asks, shocked.
"No, I fooled them," he chuckles, immediately turning serious again and closing his open hand.
"You're going to deliver this tablet?"
Dok holds out his hand now, pointing toward the mountains south of the capital.
"At the foot of those mountains is the village where I was born. My wife and son are there. He's just five years old and he's been sickly since the day he was born. If he gets the disease. It's all over for him."
"So you're going to give him the medicine?"
"Do you think it's wrong of me to do that?"
Transfixed by Dok's stare, Kaim is at a loss for words.
Suddenly the gentle Dok's eyes betray a murderous gleam.
"I may be a soldier dedicated to protecting the nation, but before that I am the father of a son, and before that I am a human being.
I don't give a damn about the kingdom's ranking of lives according to whether or not they are 'indispensable.'
I want to save the life of one human being who is indispensable to me."
Dok's eyes take on added strength. They are bloodshot now, dear proof of his resolve.
"If I leave now, I can be back in the barracks by roll call tomorrow morning. I'll come home as soon as I give him the medicine, so I'm asking you to do me this one favor: don't cause any commotion until then."
"No, of course not, but . . ."
"I'm not sure I can make it, but I am sure my boy will die if I just stay here. He'll pull through if he has the medicine. If there's even the slightest possibility of that. I have no choice: I have to take a chance."
"They'll kill you if they catch you."
"I don't care. I can die with pride, knowing I did it to save the life of the one person most important to me."
"What if you get sick?"
"All I can do is leave it up to fate."
Human beings can't do anything about fate, but I want to do everything I can as a human being."
This is why Dok has revealed his plans to Kaim.
"One more thing, Kaim. If they kill me or if I get sick and die. I hope I can depend on you to visit my village sometime and tell my wife and son what happened.
Make sure they know that I didn't desert because I got fed up with the army. I did it to save my son's life, which is something that is more more important to me than army rules and even more important than my own life."
He will be satisfied as long as that message gets through, he says with a smile. Kaim has no way to reply to this.
Not that Kaim fully accepts everything Dok has said to him. He is convinced not so much by the man's reasoning as he is overwhelmed by something that transcends reasoning: by the power of life, by the strength and depth of Dok's desire to save a life precisely because it is something that will eventually be cut off by death.
"I'm going to make a run for it for it while we're patrolling the marketplace. I'm asking you to look the other way. Tell them I dissappeared when you took your eyes off me for a split second."
Kaim can do nothing but accept Dok's plea in silence.
He sees that deep in the hearts of those who love, finite life is a place that cannot be entered by those who have been burdened irrevocably with life everlasting.
The two men reach the far end of the marketplace.
"All right then, sorry to put you through this . . ." Dok says.
He turns toward the exit and is about to plunge into the crowd when it happens.
A child comes bounding out the alleyway.
It is the same shabbily dressed girl from the slums who ran past the men yesterday, laughing. Today she is alone and crying her head off.
She looks around with wild eyes, and when she spots Kiam and Dok in uniform, she comes running to them, shouting. "Help! Help!"
"What's the matter?" Doks asks.
She takes his hand and leads him into the alleyway as if to prevent the surronding people from hearing what she is about to tell him.
"It's my brother!" she blurts out. "He's sick ! He's got a high fever and he's shaking all over! We've got to do something or he's going to die!"
Kaim and Dok look at each other.
"How about your parents? Don't you have a father or mother to take care of him?" Kaim asks.
"What parents?" the girl retorts tearfully.
"They both died a long time ago. There's just me and my big brother. Oh please help him, please!"
"But I was just . . ." Dok mutters, fidgeting, ready to run. He looks at Kaim with pleading eyes.
Kaim kneels and down and looks the girl straight in the eye. "When did his fever start?" he asks.
"Just a few minutes ago," she says.
"We were leaving to pick up vegetable scraps, and he fell down . . ."
Only a little time has passed since the disease struck. He could be saved by the medicine.
But of course there is no medicine for slum children.
Judging from the girl's wasted frame, her brother must also be eating poorly. The disease will almost surely ravage his malnourished body and snatch his life in a matter of hours.
The girl will not come down with the disease of course, but even if it cannot attack her directly, once she has lost the only other member of her family and has no one to take care of her, the tiny thing is bound to trace the same fatal path as her parents and brother sooner or later.
"Please help my brother . . . please!"
She clings to Kiam and Dok, huge tears streaming down her cheeks.
Kaim gives her a slight, silent nod. He rises slowly and reaches for a small leather pouch dangling from his sword hilt.
Before he can lay hold of it, he hears saying to the little girl.
Dok is holding out his hand to her, smiling gently.
In the palm of his hand is a tablet.
"Give this to your brother." Dok says. "There's still time to save to save him."
The girl gives him a puzzled look and hesitates until he urges her.
"Hurry. Do it now!'
She reaches for it uncertainly and takes it in hand with great care.
"Hurry home, now!"
Dok says witha smile for her. the girl dashes off.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
Her shrill, tearful voice rings out as she dissappears into the alleyway.
"I'm glad it worked out like this, Kaim."
Dok says with a shrug and a pained smile. "So now I won't be branded a deserter, and I won't have to give you anything to worry about. No, this is a good thing."
He sounds as if he is trying to convince himself. He even nods deeply in agreement.
Surely he cannot have done this without regrets, especially if his son at home should take sick and die.
His voice is calm, however, as he says. "I couldn't help it. When I saw that little girl crying like that . . . I know my son would understand." He gives himself another deep nod.
"Still, Dok . . ."
"Never mind. Don't say a thing." Dok cuts him off and squints towards the alleyway the girl ran down.
"There's absolutely no rank order to lives. The only thing that matters is to save a life you see with your own two eyes."
"I know what you mean." says Kiam
"Just because I saved one slum kid's life, there's no guarantee he'll grow up to be a credit to the nation.
Maybe all I succeeded in doing was prolonging the life of yet another drag on the state. Maybe after I get back to the barracks. I'll start thinking of other people I should have save instead of him."
"On the other hand, Kaim." he says, interrupting himself and turning to look at Kaim as he considers yet another posssibility:
"On the other hand, I look at it this way, too. Maybe it is just a matter of innate human instinct to want to save the life before your eyes.
Maybe we learn those other kinds of ranking later: 'for the nation,' or 'for the people, ' or even 'for my son.'
I may have failed as a soldier or as a father. but I think I did the right thing as a human being."
Dok stops himself there and starts walking without waiting for Kaim to reply. He might be trying to hide his embarrassment at his own tortured reasoning.
Seeing this, Kiam produces a laugh and calls out to to Dok as casually as if he were suggesting they go to the tavern for drinks.
"You forgot this!"
Now Kaim finishes what he interrupted before, reaching for the leather pouch tied to his sword hilt.
From it he takes a small pill.
"What? You mean . . .?"
"I didn't take it either."
Incapable of losing his life to a disease. Kaim has no use for the medicine to begin with.
Of course he has no intention of telling Dok about that. Even if he were to try telling him he had lived a thousand years, it is not likely that Dok would take him seriously.
"You have a family, Dok. Lives you'd give anything to protect.
That is a great thing."
Now Kaim holds out a hand with a tablet in it the way Dok did earlier to the girl.
"I envy you," he says with a smile.
"Wait, Kaim, wait . . . Hey, I mean you . . ."
"I don't have a family," he says, increasing the depth of his smile.
Responding to Kaim's smile, with it's mixture of sympathy and warmth. Dok silently accepts the tablet.
"Well now, would you look at that beautiful blue sky!" says Kaim.
"I think I'll just stand here a while, looking up at it, not thinking about anything at all. This might be a good time for you to run home to your son."
Kaim does as he says, looking up at the sky.
Before long, he hears the sound of footsteps running across stone pavement.
"Make sure you come back alive Dok," Kiam mutters.
Kaim strolls along, looking up at the blue sky, until he dissappears into the marketplace crowd.