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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


15. [Plate 46]
The Nightmare Court

With so many nightmares loose in the world, it was inevitable that some should occasionally be captured and brought to justice. But where could they be tried? Nightmares are no respecters of borders. Their crimes affront the sensibilities of all nations. Ultimately responsibility for them must be global.

So an international court was established at the Hague. All the world's most solemn legal minds were gathered together to deplore, to document, and to pass judgment upon the captive nightmares.

These nightmares were always weak and spent, of course. They had to be. A healthy nightmare engaged in mass murder, systematic rape, and ethnic cleansing has no time for courts of law. It is busy, busy, busy! Only when the supporting government has collapsed, the responsible militia have been put down, and the sponsoring nations have taken their money elsewhere is a nightmare vulnerable enough to be taken into custody by mere policemen.

When it is, however, retribution is stern and comprehensive. The trial takes decades. Witnesses are called in. Murderers are given immunity so that they may relate their crimes in sickening detail.

It is possible that one or two of the judges may bear a strong resemblance to the defendants. It is possible that they have in their day killed many innocent people. Possible too that an unemotional account of their careers would fill any humane listener with loathing and disgust. But they are not themselves nightmares — oh, no! Everything they did was perfectly legal.

Anything is legal, so long as it's done by a standing government.


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This is the 15th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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