JOHN PHILLIP BACKUS
© 2017 by John Phillip Backus – All rights reserved.
Jondhi Media Group
P r o l o g u e
THE MASSIVE SHIP SPED SILENTLY THROUGH SPACE, hurtling toward its destination half a dozen light-years away. On board the gleaming craft, thousands of outbound colonists peacefully rode out the voyage encased in deep-sleep suspension chambers, unaware of the enormous distances, or the passing of time. The fully automated, three-million-ton transport was a true technological marvel, outfitted with the latest generation of complex robots and supercomputers. These “artificially intelligent” machines controlled and monitored the vessel’s many complex operating and navigation systems, piloting her safely through the deepest reaches of space while providing ten thousand individual hibernating humans the exact cryogenic environment necessary to maintain optimal health while in stasis.
The cocooned voyagers on board the speeding ship were not the first Homo sapiens to venture so far beyond the relative safety of their Motherplanet. A century-and-a-half earlier (2100), sophisticated science probes had been launched into all quadrants of the known universe to perform mapping and mineralogical surveys. Their exciting data transmissions confirmed the existence and locations of infinite deposits of precious ores, minerals, and other valuable natural resources, located on and within the numerous planets, moons, and asteroids strewn throughout the nearby sectors of the Milky Way. This priceless data stream was relayed—via long-range satellite—to eager monitoring stations back on Earth, triggering a dynamic Human exodus that, even now, gave no indication of abating.
Corporate conglomerates, perceiving the unlimited potential for company growth and profits, poured trillions into Research and Development to create the technology that would enable these vast extraterrestrial resources to be efficiently plundered. Governments from around the globe joined in the fray, subsidizing top secret exploration projects with a view towards colonization and the expansion of their respective land holdings. Even the poorest of nations dreamt of somehow cashing in on the impending rewards of this territorial-grabbing explosion.
More so than in any other era in human history, the international scientific community—with unprecedented resources now at its disposal––made quantum leaps in the fields of deep space travel and navigation technology, perfecting and harnessing nuclear fusion propulsion at long last. In less than four decades, these spectacular technological breakthroughs made manned, long-distance space travel an affordable, everyday reality. Humankind’s long prophesied colonization of Space had finally arrived and it was a race to the stars! Now, a century and a half later, tens of thousands of such transports—filled with slumbering colonists and precious cargo—crisscrossed the Milky Way, destined for frontier settlements and production facilities on distant moons and planets scattered throughout the galaxy.
In the early years of this extra-terrestrial colonial age, sovereign nations offered generous land grants to qualified citizens who volunteered to help establish the initial frontier-like outposts in space. With the official opening of the Out-Colonies (2138), millions of courageous souls immediately signed up to brave the void like the Pilgrims of old, driven by the promise of a better life in the New Worlds. With the development and refinement of long-range transporters, outer orbit space stations, and ingeniously designed, self-contained mini-cities Off Earth, advances in technology allowed adventurous individuals to range ever-farther from the blue-green familiarity of home.
The maiden transports to the out-colonies quickly filled to capacity and left amidst much ceremony and excitement. In spite of the lengthy, hazardous journey to the first permanent colonial habitations, countless multitudes risked it all, clamoring for the never before offered opportunity to own some parcel of dirt or rock anywhere (the price of land back on Earth having reached upwards of 30,000 International Credits per square meter and far beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of citizens).
In the beginning, competition was fierce between rival nations to quickly establish and maintain viable colonies on the most favorable of the three hundred-odd inhabitable moons and planets in the nearby-charted sectors of the Milky Way. Although the Amero/Euro/Asian Accord, signed ninety years earlier (2048), restricted the military activities of Space to mere surveillance and security functions, many nations forged ahead, surreptitiously building up deadly armaments and huge battle cruisers to defend their legal (and not so legal) colonial installations––mine sites, processing plants, military training centers, and stockpiling facilities.
During this period of unparalleled expansion, private-sector business boomed. The screaming demand for goods, services, and raw materials of every conceivable form increased with each tick of the clock, and hotshot entrepreneurs and gung-ho corporate executives alike gambled everything on colonization and for many it paid off. Huge personal and corporate fortunes were amassed overnight while others lost everything in the economic feeding frenzy. Regardless of the risks to life and limb, millions of star-struck believers issued forth in an endless stream of bustling humanity.
In spite of the romantic imagery of this new frontier as depicted in feature films, reality television, and popular songs, life in the initial colonies was harsh; a far cry from the hype and idealism of corporate and national marketing campaigns back on Earth. For millions of colonists living in thousands of far-flung outposts and settlements, the distribution of goods and services was spotty at best and colonial justice was sometimes slow or even non-existent. Well beyond the reach of official law enforcement protection, many individuals and communities were forced to take matters of justice into their own hands, and countless honest citizens, and outlaws alike, died in claims wars and other territorial and personal disputes and skirmishes, as brute force declared a new Manifest Destiny all its own. In spite of these challenges, the early settlers were a hardy breed and the colonies survived and expanded, ever infused with “new blood” from the Motherplanet.
Two decades later (2160), as the numbers of permanent colonists increased and governmental presence in the Colonies became more established, the League of Republics established the Centralized Land Administration Information & Management Service (CLAIMS) Bureau. While the League of Republics expansion division had been previously responsible for resolving matters involving claim disputes, trespassing, boundaries and the like, the incredible rate of colonial expansion had buried the operation in bureaucratic red tape, forcing the creation of a separate entity to facilitate the overwhelming administrative burden.
Like its historical predecessors, (and ninety-nine percent of all previously established government regulatory agencies) the power and influence of the CLAIMS bureau quickly outgrew the original scope and intention of its creators, until it became the sole licensing authority throughout the known universe with the power to approve, disapprove, verify, or authorize a new mining claim, production facility, plant site, settlement, colony, or installation of any kind, anywhere. Registration with the CLAIMS Bureau was mandatory and virtually all real estate in the universe, both known and yet to be discovered, fell under its direct jurisdiction. By the turn of the Twenty-Third Century (2200) its octopus-like cosmocracy had become the largest, most influential (and most rampantly corrupt) regulatory body in existence.
A decade later, overt hostility among Humankind’s political and geographic divisions was peacefully resolved with the Grand Merger of 2210 and the successful establishment of an Interplanetary Coalition Government (ICG). The two-hundred-year-old League of Republics—a remote descendant of the former United Nations—was replaced by a tripartite government consisting of a Representative Senate with elected members from each population district; a Ruling Council acting as a collective executive branch; and a Supreme Constitutional Tribunal responsible for interpreting the validity of lower court rulings, as well as side-checking legislation and executive orders introduced by the other two branches of government.
As its first official act, the new ICG authored and voted into existence a new Interplanetary Constitution designed to facilitate continued expansion and progress, while protecting the basic rights and freedoms of the burgeoning and far-flung human population. It quickly earned the unique distinction of being the first governing body in human history to put a formal end to government sanctioned violence between nations, races, religions, and ethnic groups—for the first time in twelve thousand years of recorded human history, war was no longer an option.
Seated at the helm of the ICG, and ultimately responsible for all interplanetary political and economic decisions, was the venerated Ruling Council comprised of former Heads of State, royal families, the corporate bosses of large international conglomerates, and other powerful individuals of wealth and influence. A position on this elite inner sanctum of the rulers of the Motherplanet Earth and her Out-Colonies was by majority invitation only and appointment thereto was for life.
Historically speaking, human governments had always been designed and dominated by the most powerful special interest groups in any given time and place, and, as we all know, the primary goal of government was to further the plans and purposes of the special powers behind the throne—for the good of the people, of course. As with previous human administrations, the top priority of the newly established Ruling Council was the smooth control and manipulation of the thirty-billion-odd souls now comprising the general human consumer population, thereby increasing social stability and maintaining a balanced business environment, nurturing profits and cost efficiency in the economic sphere. Guided by the formula: Control = Social Stability = Profits, a streamlined Bureau system was swiftly organized with governmental functions performed by private companies and paid for by the end users of the given service. Graft was characteristically rampant and profits remained high.
As one of its initial political priorities, the new ICG expanded upon the policy of the land grants initiated decades earlier, providing additional incentives to anyone who would brave the rigors of the frontier to help establish the Out-Colonies as they were now being called. At once, the already swollen ranks of extra-terrestrial wannabes burgeoned with billions of volunteers: men and women from all walks of life grasping for a chance to begin a new life of adventure and possibility Off Earth.
Politically speaking, this New Colonial Age had arrived with perfect timing, resolving the most serious social dilemma of the Twenty Third Century: overpopulation. By the year 2200, human beings were living longer and healthier lives. A person born at the turn of the century might reasonably expect to reach the ripe old age of one-hundred-and-fifty, barring accidental death, murder, or suicide. Lacking the ravages of war, and with disease almost fully eradicated through the use of cloning, stem cell therapy, genome mapping, genetic (DNA) manipulation, and bionanotechnology, the burgeoning human population had been ready to burst at the seams.
With the many new challenges and opportunities presented by space exploration and colonization, the grasping hand of Man reached ever further into the darkness beyond the stars. And now, just one-hundred-and-forty-years after the first tenuous human settlements appeared on the alien landscape, countless scores of great shining transports came and went, following the trade routes from Earth to the New Territories and beyond. Reaching across the vast distances of space, they crisscrossed the galaxy amidst the dangers and excitement of the greatest continuous expansion that Humanity had ever known.
At the economic heart and soul of this spectacular growth was the United Mining and Processing Guild, which had been awarded the exclusive, perpetual contract for acquiring and extracting all raw materials found Off Earth (ref: Ruling Council Executive Order 23- Mining Space in 2187). This powerful Mining Cartel, with tremendous influence in the Ruling Council, commanded the mining industry with an iron fist. All legally recognized mining outfits were mandatory members of the Guild, to which they paid a sizable percentage of their revenues. In exchange for these “membership dues,” Guild administrators divided up the type and number of newly discovered ore and raw material deposits between Guild members, so each of the hundred or so member companies had an equal opportunity to mine Space and generate revenues. As time went on, through normal business environmental forces and factors such as mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and government seizures, two mighty conglomerates emerged to control over ninety-five percent of the vast mining industry.
But all was not as idyllic as some would make believe. In fact, in spite of the continuing human exodus off-Earth, by the year 2200, the Mining and Processing Guild was facing a very real obstacle that threatened to hobble its ability to continue harvesting (and profiting from) the vast resources of Space. It simply could not hire the numbers of personnel necessary to maximize the potential productivity of its mines and processing plants. In spite of extraordinary advances in engineering and mining technology, resulting in greatly superior methods for extracting and processing ores and other raw materials, mining operations on these sites were far from fully automated.
As advanced as modern robot technology has become, humans were still required to monitor, maintain, repair, and upgrade mine site equipment and facilities. From the huge ore drills, extractors and smelters, to housing, food, and health care services, people were still needed to personally direct and manage the highly profitable mining and processing operations on an on site basis. The deposits of wealth-creating substances were more than plentiful, but employee willingness to relocate to these far-flung sites to perform the human tasks necessary to facilitate their extraction was not so easy to come by.
In the early days, it was fairly simple to lure workers to the mines with offers of extravagant pay and benefits beyond one’s wildest dreams. But over time, mounting evidence of serious long term health risks associated with the mining industry became more and more apparent. Eventually, as returning miners whispered dark tales of brutal working conditions and frequent mining disasters, the volunteer work force dwindled, threatening to bring these highly lucrative mining operations to the brink of financial disaster.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, Human Resource departments surveyed workers only to discover the obvious: that many colonists were willing to endure hardship, homesickness, and the great unknown to establish a pioneer lifestyle of freedom and accomplishment Off-Earth, but due to “quality of life” issues associated with mining it was becoming nearly impossible to recruit sufficient numbers of volunteers to work deep in the distant mines for any amount of pay.
Over ninety-five percent of all workers who finished their three or five-year stints opted not to renew their employment contracts and the extraction and processing of ores and other raw materials began to fall off dramatically. Rumors of labor unrest, strikes, and even uprisings in the Out Colonies began to circulate on the Undernet, although official government and corporate media outlets assured the general population that these were simply rumors and wild conspiracy theories invented by self-serving sociopaths to deceive the intellectually challenged.
With the mining-driven economy faltering, unemployment figures on Earth rose through the roof. Fewer raw materials caused a domino effect of plant closures and layoffs for the first time in decades, and twenty billion restless workers began to point their collective finger at the ruling class.
The associated popular unrest that always accompanied such times was becoming dangerously volatile and threatened to destroy the peace and tranquility so important to the continued success of the Ruling Council. Pressured to quickly avert the developing catastrophe, the Mining Guild hired Theta Solve, a top international think tank, to tackle the problem. And tackle the problem they did, coming up with a simple, yet brilliant solution. Captivated by their daring proposal, the Ruling Council, in the year 2210, immediately established the official government policy now known as the Work Exile Plan. This plan, proposed to the government by the mining concerns, was a creative solution to both parties’ needs and was actually quite simple: You give us your condemned criminals and we will put them to work. We guarantee that they fulfill their sentences, you are no longer responsible for their wholesale extermination, and everybody wins!
In the past, as Earth’s growing populations swelled, individuals convicted of capital crimes and other serious offenses were summarily executed (an unpopular issue in some quarters), as there was no precious room or resources on Earth to waste on such nonproductive elements of society. So the mining concerns that were owned and controlled by the Ruling Council, and the Justice Bureau, which was responsible for seeing that criminals (anyone who rocked the boat and got in the way of profits) received their due, went into business—and the trade was human lives.
By the mid Twenty-Third Century, with colonization again going smoothly and profits at an all-time high, the political situation was back under control. Statistics, as reported by the growing number of out-colony production stations, were climbing. Fresh workers were plentiful and labor costs were low.
The fact that the death rate at these colonial mining installations was extraordinarily high was downplayed by the privileged few in the Justice Bureau and on the Ruling Council who knew the truth. Besides, they argued, why make a fuss? The important thing was that the economic indicators were once again trending into a higher range and profits soared. On the rare occasion when the unpleasant and politically inappropriate subject of felon suffering and death did come up in conversation, it was pointed out that, after all, these were convicted felons, condemned criminals, without rights and without any hope of reprieve.
JEN LEANED BACK, squinting from the glare of the bright ceiling lamps above his head. He could sense the steady drone of the starship’s distant engines vibrating through the smooth composite bulkhead as he tried to rest. After a futile attempt at sleep, he sighed and sat up, beleaguered eyes scanning his austere environment.
He found himself in a long cylindrical compartment—three meters wide, three meters tall, and one hundred and fifty meters long—fitted with fold-down benches attached to the sides facing a center aisle. At both ends, standard airlock doors provided access, and above these portals, data monitors indicated the arrival and departure times of the numerous scheduled flights constantly moving through EarthSide Spaceport 19.
Packed onto narrow benches, two hundred miserable souls—dressed in identical gray jumpsuits with shaved heads—huddled in strained silence. Encircling each man’s neck, waist, wrists, and ankles were thin alloy straps electromagnetically locking them into their seats. For these were condemned men—felons all—tried, convicted, and sentenced for their crimes.
Scattered throughout the crowd were garden variety social predators of every bent and persuasion: murderers, rapists, armed robbers, petty thieves, extortionists, narcotics dealers, kidnappers, human traffickers and child molesters —the scum of any planet—all well represented here. One could also find the usual smattering of political malcontents, and, inevitably, a handful of luckless individuals who had somehow managed to step on the toes of someone more powerful: An affair with the wrong man’s wife perhaps, or a promotion to a job that a more well-connected person had desired. While each case was unique, the specifics of the crime were unimportant. Regardless of individual circumstances, the result in each case was invariably the same. Each had been found guilty of “Crimes Against the Motherplanet” and exiled to one of the out-colony production stations located on planets, moons, and asteroids throughout the vast Milky Way galaxy.
These production stations were generally mine sites and processing plants, owned and operated by private companies with cheap labor supplied by the Justice Bureau. Conditions at these facilities were ghastly––site authorities providing only the barest of necessities. In actuality, management’s only significant legal responsibility in relation to these human dregs was a monthly report to the Justice Bureau specifying which felons had completed their sentences. Ironically, each sentence was identical: “To be exiled from the Motherplanet Earth forever to work at hard labor without the possibility of parole for the remainder of your life.”
One of the most notorious of these prison work camps was a mine site on Antilles 10, a desolate, rock-strewn planet colloquially referred to as Hades. On Hades the ore was uranium and the life expectancy of a felon exiled there was six months max. It was the high level of radioactive material in the extracted ore that did it. Radiation poisoning was always ugly––and always fatal. Of course, the damaging effects could have been rather easily neutralized through the use of radiation shielding devices, but as far as the mining company was concerned, that would have been an unnecessary expenditure. There were always more criminals to fill the ranks of those who had repaid their debt to society.
It was among such a crowd of human chattel that Jen now found himself—bound, shackled and headed to his death on some distant moon or asteroid light-years away. He gave up trying to rest and shifted his weight to ease the numbness in his bruised left thigh. Looking about the cramped confines of the crowded chamber at the scores of silent, defeated men, Jen wondered to himself for the thousandth time why he was here. He strained his mental faculties, grasping at straws in search of some logical answer. Reviewing lists of people he knew, he searched for any possible reason for having ended up in this devastating situation and, for the thousandth time, he came up empty. To the best of his knowledge, he had committed no crime or offense, nor was he aware of any personal enemies or anyone else wishing to seek revenge for some harm or insult Jen may have unwittingly committed.
Stretching his stiffening shoulders, the apprehensive thirty-four-year-old continued his logical yet futile attempt to fathom the living nightmare that had completely shattered his life. The Notice to Appear had arrived two days earlier over the telecom. He thought back to his complete shock and surprise at the time. It was addressed to him and read:
“Citizen Jenson Trevor MacIntosh, Identification #53562986056, you are hereby ordered to report to the Central Hall of Justice on 04/04/2250 at 0900 hours for Interview.”
It was signed by the Senior Justice Clerk and stamped with the Great Seal of the Interplanetary Coalition Government of the Motherplanet Earth. Jen had stood as if frozen, fixated on the letter, momentarily in shock––baffled by what he had just read! Sitting down at the kitchen table, he carefully re-read the notice, thinking that there must be some mistake. But no, it was signed, sealed, and very official-looking indeed!
Not that he had anything to be concerned about, he told himself. He’d certainly done nothing wrong. However, dark thoughts began to stir in his subconscious––fragments of stories he’d heard as a child––whispered things that happened to people who got into “trouble.” It was as if the person had never existed, they simply vanished, no questions asked! An involuntary shudder shook him as he fought off these old childhood fears. It’s no good thinking this way, he reasoned. Besides, he assured himself, there must be a completely logical answer to this whole affair.
He decided to put a call in to the office to speak with his supervisor, but was put on hold and was eventually disconnected. He tried back several times, but his calls were automatically routed to voicemail. Growing more concerned, Jen tried the Justice Bureau line, but only got a frustrating recording which left him no closer to solving the puzzle than before.
“Communication is not permitted between citizens scheduled for Interview and Justice Bureau personnel. All questions will be answered during the Interview.”
The connection was terminated. Interview about what? his mind screamed!
When Julia arrived home that evening, he tried to sound confident.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, hon.”
He stood holding her at arm’s length as she searched his face with her soft green eyes, a concerned look creasing her brow. She is so beautiful, he thought, amazed at how much he loved this woman.
“Don’t worry Jules,” he pulled her close, crushing her warmth to his chest, “It’s probably about that shuttle crash I witnessed last month. More than likely they’re just now getting around to the inquest. You know how backlogged the Justice Bureau system is.”
Julia held on tight and buried her face in Jen’s strong shoulder. She had a sinking feeling and a foreboding that she couldn’t put her finger on; something just didn’t feel right.
When they retired that night, their lovemaking was more passionate than it had been in recent weeks. Afterwards, with his peacefully sleeping wife curled up next to him, Jen wrestled with his troubled thoughts. He knew he had no concrete basis for alarm, yet felt that something was terribly wrong. He kissed Julia gently on the forehead, drifting in the warm aura of comfort and peace that their bonding always provided. They had been together for five years and had made it official only last month. Life had been very good to them: Their love was strong, their careers rewarding—in fact everything had been moving forward perfectly until now.
* * *
THE MORNING OF the dreaded Interview finally arrived. After an hour-long shuttle flight into downtown Government City, Jen arrived at the Justice Bureau HQ and was escorted to large room on the 567th floor and into a small cubicle facing a machine called a scanner-meter. A thin, nondescript man with glasses and pasty skin explained the sensitive device that would record everything that transpired during the Interview. He strapped Jen into an unusual looking chair and fitted him with a helmet containing a retina scanner and alpha wave modulator among other sophisticated technologies. After attaching a series of electrode-like sensors to Jen’s temples, face, and throat, the expressionless little man slipped glove-like appendages over Jen’s hands and quickly exited the room.
Jen glanced about the space with his uncovered left eye and noticed several small cameras attached to the ceiling and walls pointed directly at him. With his apprehension mounting, he forced himself to remain calm and imagined someone observing his reactions in a far off office buried somewhere beneath the sprawling thousand-story complex. Strapped in as he was, and at the mercy of the machines, Jen recognized the universally familiar female robot-voice of the computer as it began the interview: “Are you Jenson Trevor MacIntosh, serial number 53562986056…?”
The entire process lasted less than thirty minutes, leaving Jen more baffled than ever. It seemed that more than anything, the computer was simply verifying his identity. The questions stopped and the faint whirring of the meter faded.
Released and dismissed by the same pale, nondescript clerk, Jen exited the cubicle and headed for the elevator doors at the far end of the hall. As he pressed the lift call button, the doors began to open, but before he could take a step forward, the floor beneath his feet suddenly gave way, spilling him into the darkness below! Tumbling through the blackness, Jen tried to call out, but his yell was stifled as he fell headlong down a steep chute into the depths far beneath the hall. The last thing he remembered was a peculiar odor and a sense of weightlessness before losing consciousness.
When he awoke, he found himself dressed in gray and shackled to a bench in a prison compound buried somewhere beneath the city. At some point during his unconsciousness, his head had been shaved and his citizen authorization number tattooed into his left forearm in dark blue ink. Several hours later, guards brought him, with the others, to this overcrowded chamber to await a fate he could only guess—having been told absolutely nothing about what was happening, where he was headed, or why. From the data monitors, Jen knew that they were somewhere in the maze of corridors and catacombs comprising Spaceport 19, and he assumed that they were awaiting transport to the out-colonies, but exactly where, who could say?
A loud commotion at the far end of the corridor attracted his attention. Four heavily armed security personnel had just entered the chamber, dressed in crisply pressed black uniforms with black, knee high composite boots and matching black helmets emblazoned with the scarlet emblem of the Consolidated Exploration, Mining, and Processing Corporation (CEMPCO). Over the past century, CEMPCO had muscled its way to the top of the Mining Guild by buying out, or engineering the demise of, its competition through the efficient use of stock manipulation, intimidation, and thinly disguised violence. A decade earlier they had merged with their only remaining competitor and now maintained a complete monopoly on mining and processing in the out-colonies. With two seats on the Ruling Council, CEMPCO’s position in the world of raw material commodities trading was smugly secure.
CEMPCO ran 1,219 mine sites and processing plants Off Earth. Its work force consisted primarily of convicted felons, but in addition to this unpaid labor pool, over sixty-thousand security personnel and fifteen-thousand administrative support staff were carried on its monthly payroll. Close to five million condemned criminals slaved to “bring in the bacon” for CEMPCO, and every twenty-four hours, nearly five thousand felons fulfilled their sentences (or roughly one death every 18 seconds).
Between the guards, a large, hooded man stood doubled over in pain. For more than a minute, two of his captors enjoyed taking turns, jabbing the shackled prisoner with powerful stun sticks, eliciting muffled shrieks from beneath the man’s black transport hood. Apparently tiring of their sadistic torment, the laughing guards roughly shoved their victim onto the bench, linked him to the floor loop, and fastened his neck cable to the bulkhead before removing the hood to reveal a bruised and beaten face fitted with a ball-gag, cinch straps holding the sadistic device snugly in place. Witnessing the man’s pain and humiliation, Jen was infuriated, but like the other prisoners, dared not appear to have noticed. Leaving the uncomfortable gag in place, the amused guards exited the room, the silence broken only by an occasional moan or the distant rumble of a starship’s engines.
Hours passed and Jen drifted in and out of a troubled sleep. A lone, surly guard entered the corridor and walked between the rows of felons, inspecting locks and checking cables. Corporal Logan was upset about a sudden personnel transfer, sending him to this miserable duty station. Much better to be back at the Questioning Center, the black hearted bully mused. Checking Jen’s bonds, he looked at him curiously. Seem to remember this one. Reaching down he pulled back the left sleeve of the gray prison uniform, exposing the forearm of the slumbering convict. 53562986056—the dark blue numbers were branded deeply into the man’s skin. The wound looked red and swollen. The guard poked at it roughly with a gloved finger.
Feigning sleep, Jen tried to ignore the waves of pain pulsing through his tender skin and muscle tissues. Knowing the futility of any defense (shackled as he was) Jen withheld his rage, struggling to control a rising urge to respond to his tormentor with force.
“No fun to be a baddie, eh?”
The guard smiled wickedly and pressed his face close to the nameless criminal, increasing pressure on the tender flesh to goad a reaction from this piece of human garbage he was paid to babysit.
“No fun at all!”
Tired of playing, he grabbed Jen by the collar and yanked him partially from the bench. His eyes snapped open and he glared at his tormentor. The guard stared back and the two men locked wills. With black hatred pouring from Jen’s eyes, the guard’s concentration faltered and his gaze wavered and broke.
“Bastard!” He hissed, shoving Jen back down onto the bench. The enraged bully whipped out his stun stick and held it menacingly close to the convict’s jugular. His gloved thumb slipped the power switch to full.
“C’mon, say something you scum! Just give me an excuse to blast your worthless head off!”
Jen just glared at the guard. Speech was punishable by a severe beating on the first offense. A second infraction called for cauterization of the vocal cords. Jen stared at his cruel captor and swallowed, hating him, wanting to kill him with every fiber of his being. He willed himself down, back inside himself, his eyes finally dropping to the floor.
“That’s right scum!” The triumphant guard beamed.
“Just sit there and think about what you’d like to do to me right now if you had the chance.” Laughing, he added,
“And while you’re at it, why don’t you think about what my comrades back at the Questioning Center are doing to your little sweetheart right about now.”
Jen’s rage burst and he lunged forward toward his captor. The guard stepped back, just out of range, and laughed—playing the prisoner like a fish.
“What’s the matter,” he asked with a sadistic grin, “no sense of humor?”
Jen strained against his bonds, gritting his teeth to keep from speaking. He no longer cared about himself. At this moment, his thoughts were only filled with concern for his sweet Julia. He failed to hear a second guard enter from the opposite direction whose stun stick landed hard across Jen’s right temple. His torment was instantly transformed into blinding pain as electronic impulses temporarily scrambled his neural receptors—consciousness once again dissolved into blackness as he slumped over in his seat.
“Stop teasing the baddies Logan,” the second guard chided, jokingly, “C’mon, let’s get moving—it’s almost time for your friend here to be off.”
Logan lifted the criminal’s head by the ears. An ugly purple lump was rising on the unconscious man’s forehead. “Gee,” he said, his voice tinged with sarcasm, “you should really be more careful. You could get hurt!”
The two guards walked down the corridor chuckling. As they reached the airlock, the departure buzzer sounded three long blasts. The guards went out. The airlock sealed shut and the bright overhead lights dimmed. The shackled men looked around in fear as the ship’s engines revved and the corridor trembled. Above the doors, words flashed across the monitors “Flight 666 outbound for Hades now departing…”
JULIA WAS APPREHENSIVE all morning. At noon she barely touched her lunch and when Jen hadn’t called by three, she began to feel distraught. What if something bad had happened? With each passing hour her concern increased along with a growing anxiety that had been triggered deep in her subconscious by the arrival of the official Notice to Appear. Julia tried to calm herself using logic. What could possibly be wrong? Surely Jen was right; it was just that shuttle crash he’d witnessed a few weeks ago. Still, she felt strangely uneasy, as if some unspecified threat to her survival was slowly closing in on her like a circling shark in the open sea.
She took the commuter shuttle home from work, shrouded in gloom and scarcely aware of her surroundings. Even her mind played tricks on her. Had the Chief Communications Officer been acting cool towards her all day, or was she simply imagining things? Each time the telecom sounded at work, she rushed to answer it, expecting it to be Jen telling her that everything was fine and not to worry.
As she neared her stop, the sense of impending doom grew stronger. Finally arriving home, she checked for messages, but there were none. Julia busied herself around the small flat, straightening up and selecting a meal from the freeze dried packets in the pantry. The hours crawled by.
At eight P.M. she finally broke down and called his office. Perhaps after his Interview he’d gotten involved in a top-priority project at work—which sometimes happened in the evenings—and had been forced to stay late to get it done.
“We’re sorry. No one is available to receive your call at this time. If you wish to leave a voice message, press 1 and it will be delivered as soon as your party is available.”
More stressed than before, the worried newlywed walked into the bathroom and burst into tears. Stop it Jules, this instant! Going to the sink, she ran warm water and cupped it to her face and eyes. She dried off with a hand towel and looked at her reflection in the mirror: Her eyes were shiny with welling tears and her lower lip threatened to tremble.
“Get a hold of yourself!” she commanded, glaring into the mirror. Blowing her nose, she turned and started the water in the whirlpool bath, deciding to try to relax in the warm, soothing tub.
Stepping out of her clothes, the twenty-eight-year-old eyed herself critically in the full length mirrored walls. Firm, upturned breasts (or were they starting to sag just a bit?) She scowled and lifted them up a little. Turning, she viewed her rounded buttocks and sleek thighs and calves. Julia had always been active and athletic, and ensured her body’s youthful appearance by vigorous regular workouts at the company gym.
Well if this doesn’t relax me, nothing will. She stepped into the hot bath, sinking slowly up to her neck in the steamy swirling liquid. “Ahhh”
This is nice. She lay back and let the strong jets pulse away her worries. He’ll be back any minute and then… Memories of their previous night’s lovemaking stirred her and she smiled, closing her eyes.
FAR ABOVE IN THE DARKENING WINTER SKY, a nondescript shuttle touched down on the roof of the mile-high residential complex, and two plainclothes agents disembarked, moving purposefully to the vacuum lift. They rode down to the 317th floor, stepped out and began checking doors before coming to a halt at number 68.
One of the agents, a stocky middle-aged male with a neatly trimmed beard, attached a compact sensing device to the door and listened through tiny wireless headphones. Noting the unmistakable sound of water running into a bath, he smiled and nodded to his partner—a tall, thin, clean-shaven fellow with a crooked nose—who slipped a slender card into the locking mechanism, bypassing the security system. With a soft “click” the door opened and the two quickly entered the apartment, quietly securing the door behind them.
Relaxing in the soothing water, Julia thought she heard a noise and opened her eyes.
Seeing two strange men standing over her, she screamed and struck at her assailants with hands and feet, but a strong hand grabbed her by the throat and a sharp hypodermic needle jabbed her throbbing jugular. She instantly went limp.
“Good night my pretty,” the stocky agent whispered as Julia passed into a drug induced sleep. He turned off the jets and opened the drain.
“Bitch!” His thin partner spat, holding his bleeding hand where she had bitten through his glove. Agent Orlin glared at the unconscious girl, sucking his throbbing fingers. Suddenly he smiled to himself and started to undo his trousers.
“Forget it Orlin, we’ve got special orders for this one.” Officer Mesner eyeballed his whining junior partner with thinly-veiled contempt.
“But she bit me, the little slut. I’ll teach her some respect by God…”
“I don’t care if she throttled your dear old grandmother!” Mesner’s harsh tone cut through Orlin’s fantasy like a surgical blade. “I said FORGET IT!”
The two men squared off over Julia’s limp, naked form lying helplessly in the now empty tub. Mesner’s implacable gaze bore into Orlin’s beady black eyes.
Reviewing his immediate options, special agent Orlin realized that he had none. While not his direct superior, the senior procurement officer was still above him in the chain of command and not to be disrespected, if he valued his career. Orlin re-zipped his fly, barely masking his resentment for this prick from Central HQ.
Special orders my ass, Orlin fumed, he probably just wants her all to himself!
He sulked as they lifted Julia from the bath and carried her to the bed. Wrapping the unconscious female in a large comforter, they hoisted her light body to their shoulders and carried her quickly out of the apartment, down the corridor, and up the lift to the shuttle.
Bearing a hidden smile, Special Agent Orlin surreptitiously worked his wounded fingers into the warm space between the young woman’s silky thighs. Leading the way, Mesner pretended not to notice what his junior agent was doing.
Arriving at their transport, the two men loaded their captive into the passenger compartment and Mesner climbed in beside her. Orlin would drive. The junior agent’s anger returned, upset that, due to a last-minute change of orders, Mesner had come along on this trip instead of his usual partner, Phillips. What the hell is so special about this one? Senior officers rarely ventured from HQ unless a subject was considered extremely sensitive.
“Where’s Phillips?” Orlin had inquired while en route to the pickup point earlier.
“He’s not coming tonight. I’m taking his place, do you mind?” Mesner had just looked at him with those ice cold eyes and Orlin knew to keep his mouth shut and attend to his driving.
Christ, he thought, if Phillips had been along, we would have had some real fun, especially with a spirited wench like this one. What a body! Damn, just my rotten luck. He punched the coordinates into the travel terminal. Maybe I can bribe him?
The shuttle stabbed west towards headquarters, its multicolored running lights flashing blue, red and white as it streaked across the traffic-filled sky above the sprawling megalopolis. In the forward cockpit, Orlin piloted the nimble craft with precision. At the back of the ship, a heavily sedated Julia lay strapped into a reclined seat, fast sleep.
Mesner smiled. He had intentionally positioned himself between the unconscious female and the pilot to monitor his sleeping charge while keeping a wary eye on the upset junior agent. Mesner was not easily influenced. Besides, he could read minds. Disgusting human creature, he reflected, viewing the back of Orlin’s head with revulsion, so inferior and grotesque looking.
Orlin made his final entries into the flight terminal and activated the autopilot. His devious mind was set on exacting revenge from this oh-so-sexable female who had dared to attack him. The wound to his fingers was superficial, but the injury to his pride irreparable. Orlin cringed as he recalled the way Mesner had spoken down to him as if he were a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar.
It was all her fault! She dared to bite him! She caused him to lose face in front of a superior! For the past several minutes he had been busy working up what he felt was a very impressive speech designed to persuade Mesner to let him have his way with her. Orlin smiled and swung his chair around, ready to cut a deal.
Facing the senior officer, Orlin’s mind and body froze. Never in a million years could he have anticipated the shocking scene unfolding before his eyes. Eight feet away, special procurement officer Mesner sat stark naked and cross-legged in the middle of the passenger compartment floor! His boots and uniform lay in a disheveled heap nearby. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, Mesner appeared to be in some kind of trance, slowly rocking back and forth and whispering what sounded like a chant or prayer.
Before Orlin could move or speak, Mesner’s body began to vibrate and darken. His facial features and skin appeared to soften and liquefy as he slowly began changing shape. For a few incomprehensible moments, it appeared to Orlin that Officer Mesner’s head and limbs were being absorbed back into his body—as if he were made of wax and was melting in on himself. Finally, all recognizable human features dissolved into a quivering blob of protoplasm!
For agent Orlin time had stopped. Before him, the remains of what had once been senior procurement officer Mesner continued its eerie transformation, as a new form began to take shape from the dark, undulating, semi gel-like mass. Slowly, an alien life form began to emerge, an insect-like creature, hairless and covered in rough plates, light green in color and hideous to behold.
Orlin’s disoriented mind struggled to comprehend the metamorphosis taking place before him. In less than sixty seconds, the human he’d known as senior procurement officer Mesner had vanished, impossibly replaced by a revolting mantis-like creature too terrifying for words. Unable to react, Orlin stared in growing horror as the seven-foot alien curled up on the shuttle floor slowly uncoiled itself and rose, standing upright on two strong hind legs with toe pad feet.
Instead of the usual pair of arms, this species sported two sets, each with hand-like appendages at the end. It’s smaller, short arms and hands were attached at the shoulder and designed to catch and hold food while feeding. The larger, longer arms and hands protruding from its mid-torso were designed for climbing, fighting and carrying heavy objects. Its mantis-like head was slightly larger than a human’s and hosted red compound eyes. But the face—the face was dominated by oversized yellow jaws split into two physically powerful mandibles lined with gleaming black teeth. The monster let out a low hiss and stepped forward towards the paralyzed Orlin.
Startled out of his shock by the sudden movement, the horror-struck human let out a delayed scream and spun around toward the cockpit controls, frantically scrambling for the ejection seat activation lever. Anticipating the inferior human’s every move, the changeling swept past Orlin in a blur of motion, cutting off his retreat and gripping both sides of the human’s repulsive face with vise-like hands. Its lower set held Orlin’s body at the waist.
Disregarding its panicked prey’s pathetic flailing, the alien calmly spread its mandibles, uncurling a long transparent proboscis which punched through the shrieking human’s now-sightless right eye, embedding itself deeply in the gray, gelatin-like brain. There was a loud sucking noise as it fed; Orlin’s body convulsed in several short, erratic spasms and went limp. Not bad tasting though, the alien mused, comparing the flavor of special agent Orlin’s gray matter with that of special agent Phillips and the actual senior procurement officer Mesner, each of whom had been disposed of a few hours earlier in a similar fashion.
The alien creature now commanding the shuttle was, in fact, a female Dorian changeling named Gornik, and not the human senior procurement officer Mesner she’d been impersonating. Weak, silly humans, so easily fooled! Gornik checked the vital signs of the anesthetized human female before reprogramming the travel computer. At once, the shuttle veered south, picking up speed. Gornik was in a hurry and pushed the tiny craft to its limit. Time was running out and she still had one final rendezvous to make before sunrise.
A THOUSAND MILES OFF THE COAST of what was once known as North America, the mammoth Dorian starship hovered motionless in dense cloud cover at thirty-thousand feet. With cloaking activated, her photo-transmutable outer shell thwarted even the most sensitive of Mankind’s advanced detection devices. She was far from home.
On board the multi-million ton craft, Chedroc, commanding officer of the scientific expedition, and his highly competent and dedicated crew of three thousand awaited the arrival of Gornik and the others, and with them, the hope of their dying Race. Red lights washed the optimizing chamber in which the Ancient One rested. For all intents and purposes his body was asleep—virtually dormant as Dorians were apt to be when forced to journey so far from the beloved twin suns of their home universe.
Though his 2,800 year-old body rested, Chedroc’s busy mind was wide awake. In fact, he’d been in constant communication with Gornik and the others since they’d left the ship several hours earlier, via the telepathic link connecting all Dorians, a link unimpeded by distances so minuscule. The massive starship had been scrubbed and prepped for the imminent arrival of the human females. The crew stood by in collective anticipation; a few minutes more and the centuries of waiting would be over. The old Guardian thought back…
For endless millennia the Dorian Race had thrived, far removed from the insignificant events in this sparsely populated far-flung galaxy. And then the Dark Times had arrived. He emitted a long, metallic sigh. It all happened quite without warning, while the Dorians were at the pinnacle of their prosperous and gifted civilization. A mysterious and deadly virus suddenly appeared, attacking the developing embryos within all pregnant Dorian females and causing wholesale stillbirths to occur. Although infected adults continued to be carriers of the disease throughout their protracted lifespan, they were otherwise physically unaffected; yet, an entire generation remained childless to the end of their days.
Dorians were a hardy and long-lived species with a typical lifespan of several thousand years, but as time marched on, the childless centuries began to exact their toll upon Doria’s immense population. Despite a vast collective database of knowledge—both of science and of the mind—gleaned by a progressive culture that had continued forward for hundreds of millennia, the Dorians were unable to discover either source or cure for the dread disease which had taken up permanent residence in its female hosts.
For more than a thousand years, the best and brightest medical and scientific minds labored around the clock to develop an effective vaccine against their microscopic enemy. All efforts to attack and destroy, or isolate and neutralize the virus ended in failure. Resigned to the possibility that a cure might never be found, Doria’s microbiologists and genetic engineers shifted their focus in an attempt to work around the problem.
The Dorian gestation cycle took place in three distinct stages: New life began after copulation and fertilization resulting in conception and the formation of the zygote in a unique pouch in the female’s lower abdomen. This first phase lasted six months, during which the complex DNA sequencing of the changeling larva was fully established. Next was the ninety-day larva stage, wherein the embryonic offspring doubled in size. Finally, the pupae would emerge from the swollen pouch and form a large, rigid chrysalis, where it would remain in a semi dormant state for an additional twelve weeks, rapidly tripling in size and emerging as a beautiful adolescent creature. It was during the initial incubation period—from zygote to fully formed larva—that the lethal virus attacked the developing young, causing deformity and death.
With only the first stage of the gestation period affected, countless mechanical incubation systems were designed and tested without success. In each test case, the embryo would begin to develop normally but would inevitably succumb within the first two months. For whatever unknown reason(s), the growing fetus required a living womb in which to continue its normal growth patterns, a situation which the Dorians themselves could no longer provide. Without a living, breathing mother to carry their young during this early portion of the life cycle, the illustrious Dorian Race faced certain extinction.
Once it was determined that a living organism was required to bear their young, all potentially suitable life forms underwent experimentation to locate an acceptable surrogate mother. Collective hopes soared when a large mammal was discovered on an outer rim planet that seemed to work well from a biological point of view. A zygote was surgically implanted in its womb and the fetus developed normally for the first few months.
During this time, the jubilant citizens of Doria were electrified with the news of success and hung on every thought officially projected from the Palace of the High Sconce, Chisbad III, Emperor of Doria and Her Territories. With the finest surgeons and specialists in attendance, and amidst much publicity and excitement, the larva was transferred to the pouch of a specially prepared and tested female Dorian. With the hope of her race now secure in her lower abdomen, the worried mother was alarmed to discover that she was unable to establish the vital telepathic link by which all intimate Dorian communication took place and the important accumulative, intuitive Dorian historical, scientific, and cultural knowledge was passed on to the next generation.
Subsequent tests proved that the larva was biologically sound and alive, yet as the weeks passed, there remained no response to continued attempts at communication. The distinguished doctors and scientists were perplexed and dismayed as they combed through their medical and psychological data banks for a solution to this new set of problems. The Palace Public Relations department frantically searched in vain for something positive to transmit to the waiting population which was becoming more and more anxious and unsettled as the days passed. Though the doctors continued to hold on to the hope that something positive would turn up, the prospect of yet another failure loomed darkly upon their collective consciousness.
Eventually, the good citizens of Doria realized that hope was lost for this most recent and most promising of experiments. Murmurs of unrest and hints of popular revolt began to be perceived by the Palace Security Forces. Out of the frustration and desperation of a thousand years of trying to find an answer, the High Sconce Himself ordered expeditions to every corner of the known universe, in hopes that a more suitable surrogate hostess would be found. These determined voyagers left at once on scores of starships, prepared to scour the universe for a solution until their last breath. For the hundreds of captains and tens of thousands of crew members embarking into the unknown perhaps never to see their beloved twin suns again, one compelling thought resonated through their collective being: they would succeed or willingly perish in their attempt to save their race from certain extinction.
Chedroc, himself a well-known spiritualist and founder of a revolutionary school of thought and of the mind known as Qwan associated with the ancient monastic Order of Minlok had surprisingly been called out of his exile on Druidis and commissioned to command one of the expeditionary ships. His mate, Cylig, had lost three young in as many seasons, and had become so stricken that she wasted away, finally falling into a coma from which she never returned. With nothing more important now than the preservation of his race, Chedroc sped to the stars on a perilous quest lasting many hundreds of years. The greatest test in their long and gallant history was at hand: to solve the ultimate riddle and save the species from certain extinction before it was too late. And so it was out of this great necessity that Chedroc and his loyal crew had traversed several galaxies, in search of a sentient race that would serve as suitable surrogate mothers for their offspring.
Chedroc had not seen the twin suns for over five-hundred years. Several times he thought that they located a suitable surrogate, but always some peculiar incompatibility came to light which precluded their use. Either the body temperature of the organism was wrong, or the atmosphere was poisonous, or the race itself had no real thought capacity beyond a base genetic urge toward survival. Still, he drove himself and his ship and crew onward, knowing that somewhere, somehow he would eventually find THE ONE.
Long before Earth’s star system came into view, Chedroc perceived the presence of a sentient race of beings. Approaching a rather insignificant galaxy which humans called their Milky Way, he felt something familiar tug at his awareness. Moving toward its outer rim, on the far side of the swirling star pattern, the transmissions became more pronounced. Chedroc headed the starship straight toward his target: a tiny planet way out on the edge of the obscure galaxy, still too far away to register on his ship’s sensitive detectors, but very real to the Seer as he navigated by inner knowingness, his finely tuned receptors, like long range, sophisticated radar, picked up faint thought signatures and guided him in.
The Dorians’ initial contact with the Human Race took place in the farthest flung Colonies. Specimens were taken aboard and tested for biological compatibility. Amazingly, everything checked out fine on all of the initial tests and the hope and excitement pulsing through the crew swelled to an all-time high.
It was ironic that these fragile, short-lived animals, with their barbaric propensity towards war and self-destruction, were a nearly perfect match with the superior Dorian biology. Their biochemical makeup fell well within acceptable parameters in terms of body temperature, enzyme production, physical size, etc, and although Earth’s oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen atmospheric mixture was slightly richer than that on Doria, it was still well within the tolerances.
Quickly determining that humans were indeed potential surrogates, Chedroc proceeded toward the center of man’s activities, guiding the Dorian starship into a quiet orbit around Earth’s sole sun where the crew continued monitoring satellite, radio, and microwave transmissions, effectively eavesdropping on millions of individuals in order to learn everything they could about the peculiar, and sometimes shocking, habits of Man.
This period of study would enable Chedroc and his crew to duplicate human language and customs in order to successfully manipulate their grand illusion. As his crew continued with the numerous scientific and physical tests and evaluations of data, Chedroc experimented with the telepathic abilities of Man, and was relieved to affirm that humans had the ability to send and receive thought waves, although, for the most part, they themselves were apparently unaware of this aspect of their makeup. As pitiful as they were, humans were without a doubt the most potentially suitable race they had discovered thus far on their epic journey.
After a month orbiting the sun alongside the planet Pluto, Chedroc punched new coordinates into his flight control console and deftly moved the ship into a tight orbit around Earth’s solitary moon. They remained thus for several weeks, gathering and analyzing information from thousands of sources, and making final preparations aboard the ship. As these preparations continued, each new bit of data confirmed what Chedroc had already known the moment he’d first picked up the faint thought transmissions from the distant planet. They had finally done it! Against tremendous odds they had found a suitable organism to act as surrogate mothers for their young! The long awaited salvation of his Race was at hand…
Gornik, Chedroc’s chief assistant, flew the tiny shuttle directly into the open doors of the loading bay in the belly of the mothership, setting her down carefully on the landing chocks and cut the archaic power plant. Moving quickly, she opened the shuttle’s rear door and watched as three crew members transferred the still unconscious female onto a wheeled bed, and rolled her down a passageway to a cargo lift where she would be whisked to an infirmary which had been established amidships. Julia was fast asleep. The powerful chemical agent that Gornik had administered wasn’t due to wear off for another three hours. During this time, the medical crew would prepare her for and perform the delicate implant surgery.
Chedroc and Gornik sat in a glassed-in viewing balcony above the operating theater and watched the operation on video monitors to the right of the viewing windows. The long centuries spent in space travel, the seemingly endless search, their intricate preparations, the vast spectrum of research and experimentation, their entire plan of action had all come down to this: one minute frozen zygote implanted inside a fleshy female alien’s warm, moist uterus. They all knew that once the operation was complete, they would just have to wait and let the superior Dorian genetics take its course. Chedroc’s thoughts framed the entire crew’s postulate for success. The experiment must succeed! The future of the Dorian Race depended on it…
End of Sample Chapters…
Anticipated release 2018