by Rylend Grant & Dikran Ornekian
Today is the day. I decided about halfway through my shift, sometime between when I cracked the third metacarpal in my left hand and when I was forced to remove my worn out left boot because it was filling up with blood. I had committed to a day twice before, but something always seemed to pull me away. Today is going to be different though. This time, my plan is sound. This time, there’s no way out.
I’m limping back to town, beat to shit, completely exhausted, after nearly sixteen hours spent pushing an Irish baby buggy in the northeast quadrant dradium mines. By law we aren’t supposed to be made to work more than twelve, but the law doesn’t exist way out here, four-plus light years from Earth, not in the traditional sense anyway. The Botany Bay Penal Colony has its own rules, its own governing bodies. There is no warden. There are no guards. The lunatics are very much running the asylum.
In the late 21st century, with prison populations spiraling out of control, our government took a cue from the 18th century Brits whom had handily cleaned up their little island by forcing all the riff raff onto sailing vessels and then dropping them in some aboriginal infested shithole halfway across the world. A lot of people don’t know this, but the only reason there are any white folks in Australia today is because the King of England needed somewhere to dump the trash. That first prison colony was called “Botany Bay.” It would eventually become modern day Sydney.
I remember the news reports as a teenager. Then President Rouse’s hatchet squad rounded up nearly a million male convicts, political radicals, basically anyone deemed “undesirable” and shipped them off to Toliman III, a barely habitable planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A, what we now consider to be the closest star to our sun. Ever since then, any man who commits a serious crime, or just happens to piss the wrong, all-too- powerful asshole off, has been dumped here (the women have their own hell). And it’s not just Americans anymore. These days any country that can afford the healthy fee pays Uncle Sam to make their human waste disappear.
When you arrive, you’re given very little instruction. After 21 days spent in a medically induced coma to curb the ill- effects of the trip, you’re revived and then kicked from the Budhai transport, one of only two known ways on or off this delightful little rock, and out onto the laughably unforgiving surface of the planet. Some try their luck out on their own in the barren Omicron deserts, only to be consumed figuratively by hunger and thirst... or consumed literally by the resident wildlife. But most know the drill and find their way. Everyone back on earth knows the drill by now.
Botany Bay is run by particularly ruthless warlord named DeCarlo King. Basically, you can go to work for him, or you can starve. King’s criminal career back on Earth was not terribly remarkable. He had a couple of DUIs, a drunk and disorderly, an assault charge, rinky-dink shit on his jacket before he savagely beat a couple of loudmouths to death in a bar fight in Barrow, Alaska and earned what they’ve come to call the “Blue Ticket,” a one way trip off-world. Twenty years ago, King arrived on a horribly disorganized Tolliman III. Justifiably unsatisfied with the conditions that greeted him, the silver-tongued King managed to organize some of his fellow prisoners. Previously, the planet had just been a sort of free for all, a kill-or-be-killed sort of place. Inmates had no hope, nothing to really live for. But King changed all that. He kind of civilized the place, as much as one could anyway.
It was well known that the planet was one of only three confirmed homes to an element called dradium, a mineral yet to be found on Earth. For a fuel-starved planet, dradium was, and remains, the Holy Grail, a remarkably clean energy source that’s a hundred times more potent than uranium and a thousand times more expensive. That said, the original U.N. surveys of the planet only revealed a negligible amount and so large-scale mining was never considered.
Back on terra firma King kept himself in whiskey and whores working as a muckman. Like his father before him, he mined what little was left of the once massive precious metal and gem deposits in Greenland and Siberia. He wasn’t your average axe picking, dirt-moving grunt either. He was what you call a “powder monkey,” meaning he was good with dynamite and the like. If you gave the fella enough “boom,” he could literally move mountains for you.
With just enough knowledge and absolutely nothing to lose, King threw himself headlong into finding dradium on Botany Bay. It took him and his about five years to do it – it was backbreaking, nut crushing work, many died – but they eventually managed to uncover what amounted to the largest deposit known to man.
Using his contacts in the ever-so-desperate, rapidly vanishing mining industry back on Earth, King was able to cut a deal with an American company called Everstar. King would provide the manpower and expertise to rip the dradium out of the ground. Everstar would provide the required equipment and clear the way politically for import back to Earth.
Today, world leaders are fighting tooth and nail on the floor of the United Nations over jurisdictional and sovereignty claims on off-world colonies like Tolliman III, agonizing over every detail. But back then, a kind of Wild West mentality was applied. Basically, if you got there first and set up shop, whatever you found was yours. Nobody gave a Goddamn until Everstar started making money hand over fist and by then it was almost too late to do anything about it. In just four years, Everstar went from the verge of bankruptcy and irrelevance to being the single biggest, wealthiest company Earth had ever seen. With rapidly growing power and influence, and almost unlimited funds, the rare politician that stood in their way or looked to reform was quickly silenced and/or crushed.
And King? Well, they literally made him a king.
Before dradium, Botany Bay was a barren wasteland. No towns. Very few structures, period. No booze. No women. No contraband at all. No entertainment, unless you’re into watching figurative Neanderthals cave each other’s skulls in. Guys were living in fucking caves, eating c-rations and rank native wildlife, jerking off to “remember when?” stories, and just basically waiting to die. King gave everyone 101 reasons to live. After greasing more than a few political palms, Everstar was able to provide King with most any comfort of home he and his men demanded. They built a bonafide town, called it Kingston. Really subtle, huh? Now, Paris, it ain’t, but it’s got everything a dirtbag rock crusher could need. General store. Mess hall. Saloon. Cathouse.
As I approach the fork in the road near Enrique Pass, I stop. The trail to the left leads to my bunk, another sleepless night, another long, drawn-out dance with guilt, visions of my children screaming, terror on their faces, their Mother’s blood dripping from my shaking hands. The path to the right will take me through Kingston via Worth Street, the main drag. I’ll eventually land at Mitsie’s, the King-owned watering hole where most of the roughnecks go to blow their scrip after they clock out. That’s how shit works here. You slave away in King’s mines and King pays you in scrip, coins King mints, which can only be exchanged for goods and services in businesses King owns. It’s a nice arrangement... for King anyway.
Word has started to spread that I carried a badge back home. Truth be told, I punched more than a few guys’ tickets to this quaint little rock. I put away three of the apes working in my quadrant alone and needless to say none of them are terribly happy about it. I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding them, getting creative with my routes home, being careful not to get left alone below ground. But I’m done with all that pussyfooting now. I stroll into Mitzie’s like I own the place, sit down on a stool, and order a whiskey.
The news broke on my daughter’s 8th birthday.
After the transport bombing in Havana the previous December, the American people said enough is enough. Millions took to the streets to protest the U.S. Government’s arrangement with Everstar and Everstar’s rather monopolous arrangement with the rest of the world. You see, in exchange for alarmingly radical political protections the company had agreed to sell dradium to the United States for a fraction of the cost it sold it to the rest of the world. As a result, the U.S. was swimming in clean energy. If their allies played ball, backed them on the floor of the U.N., they got a good rate too. All the while, the rest of our hopelessly overpopulated world was floundering, drowning in a never-ending energy crisis, dying, slowing but surely.
My grandfather thought the world hated us in his time... If only he could see us now. Planet-wide outrage had given birth to dozens of extremist groups – Bergnon, Cignet, the El Jadeem – bent on seeing Americans pay for the perceived malfeasance of their lawmakers. Havana was the fifth major terrorist attack on U.S. soil that calendar year. It was getting to where regular hard working folk were scared to leave the house.
Something had to be done and the politicians sure as shit weren’t about to risk putting the wood to Everstar. Not that they’d get far if they tried. Many now believed that the president of Everstar was more powerful than the president of the United States. So, the task of quieting the angry mobs - A.K.A. wiping the opposition groups from the face of the earth/making Americans feel safe so they’d shut the fuck up – fell to the Directorate.
On February 1st we kicked off Operation Clean Sweep, a series of meticulously planned drone and special ops strikes on foreign soil. Skip Martinez made a couple of bonehead calls early on. He ignored Rand’s intel, sent Langer’s squad into a hornets nest in the United Arctic, and half the team didn’t come back. Martinez was a hell of a peacetime ASAC, but it didn’t take long for the Attorney General to see that he couldn’t cut it when the stove got hot. Three days in, SAC Hobart was able to convince the DOJ brass to kick Martinez’s broke ass out the door and hand me the chair. It was what Hobart wanted from the beginning anyway. I was his guy. He’d mentored me for years, gave me every break I ever got. He knew me inside and out, knew what I was made of, knew he could trust me implicitly.
It wasn’t long before I had CIRG teams making incursions almost round the clock - smart, surgical strikes – and it was making a real difference. We hadn’t had a bombing in well over six months. We had captured Cignet figurehead Xander Crane and three of his top Lieutenants. We cuffed another 27 of the 52 men and women on the DOJ warrant index. These guys were soft too, singing like birds when you really leaned on them. The intel was pouring in and we suddenly had more targets then we could comfortably eliminate or apprehend.
I was a goddamn hero.
I hadn’t taken a day off in well over four weeks. I didn’t want to, didn’t need to. The work was too important. But Diane guilted me into giving the family a Sunday. Again, it was Cynthia’s 8th birthday. We were having a party. She wanted her daddy there. Hobart thought it was a good idea, said I deserved a little “R&R.” He obviously never had kids.
You think rounding up terrorists is tough work? Try keeping a couple dozen screaming, overly-sugared eight-year-olds from tearing your house apart. Christ... I once spent eight days locked in a 4x4x6 metal box in hundred degree heat with little more than my own piss to drink and I didn’t bat an eyelash. But an hour into that party I seriously wanted to eat my sidearm. I was wrestling with that shithead Grossberg kid, who was literally climbing our living room drapes, when Diane peeked her head in from the kitchen.
“David, you need to see this,” she said, serious as cancer.
I stepped in. Some of the other parents were already gathered around the 20-inch screen that we had hovering above the countertop so Diane could watch that hippie windbag Olly Montcrief while she cooked. The first images from Los Angeles were rolling in. Horrific stuff. Half a city block decimated. People running for their lives. Bodies littered about the streets. And then, the real shocker...
The announcement that President Vasquez was among the dead, that Vice President Rackham was being sworn in that very minute.
We hadn’t lost a sitting President since John F. Kennedy and this one was just as beloved. A young, stunningly beautiful ball of fire, she ousted a corporate-minion-of-an-incumbent by promising massive reform. But like most of these worthless politicians, her bark turned out to be bigger than her bite. It took maybe three weeks for Everstar and the Congress they controlled to put the tough-talking Vasquez on her back, to pacify her completely. You know, folks were crying when she died, talking about how great a woman she was. Well, if you ask me, she was just a colossal waste of space. At the very least, she was a colossal waste of a vote.
That day, in that kitchen, Diane and the others, they looked to me for answers, expected me to say something to comfort them, make them feel safe, but I was completely at a loss. Those “ra-ra,” make-you-feel-good-and-special speeches were never my forte. I basically ended up stumbling through some bullshit like, “We’ll get these guys.” It was half-hearted and they could sense it. As our gut-punched guests started rounding up their kids, my phone rang.
“Sir,” Vartanian said on the other end of the line. “We’re sending a car for you.”
It’s Friday night and Mitzie’s is hoppin’. At least I think it’s Friday night. The days tend to run together here. None of it really matters when you’re made to work seven days a week. I’m only about halfway through that first drink when Bull Mebane, a two hundred and sixty pound tank I’d arrested three or four years back for funneling weapons to one of the Bergnon opposition groups, stomps on up to me, half a dozen ghouls in tow. I recognize most of them from my Directorate days. Lenny Cahil, a wiry keyboard jockey who, back on earth, had an affinity for hijacking government television feeds. Morton Willis, a bomb maker who, like many in his profession, is missing most of the fingers on his left hand. Sandy Robbins. Lincoln Fuller. They all had ties to Bergnon and I put them all away.
“Christ,” I say, “are you guys having a family reunion or some shit?”
Bull doesn’t laugh. He never did have much of a sense of humor. The sloppy fuck gets right up in my grill. He’s breathing all over me, breath that could strip the paint off of a house. It’s clear to me that Bull hasn’t been spending too much of his scrip on toothpaste.
“I been waiting a long time for this, G-man,” he says, unintentionally spitting all over me as he speaks. “It’s good to see you too, Chester,” I fire back, shit eating grin on my face. He’s shaking now, his hands balled up into fists. You see, Bull’s given name is Chester and man, does he hate it. For good reason, it’s a pussy’s name. I’d learned a long time ago that if you really wanted to piss him off all you have to do is drop it into a conversation. He’d earned the nickname Bull for a number of reasons. He’s as big as one, first of all... he stomps around like a bull, and he’s certainly trampled his share of men. But the primary reason they call him Bull, is that he wears a big brass loop in his septum.
As an angry Bull drones on and on about what he and his scumbag friends are about to do to me, painting a pretty gruesome picture, I can’t help but smile.
It’s all coming together.
I had decided hours earlier that I’d finish what I started on Earth. I had decided that this would be the day I die. It’s a coward’s way out, I know. I’m not proud of it. But I just can’t take this pain anymore, can no longer suffer the memory of what I did to Diane. Again, I tried to end things myself more than once and had either chickened out or mucked it up. You’re probably familiar with the term suicide by cop? This is going to be suicide by angry mob.
Eventually, I tire of Bull’s huffing and puffing and decide to speed up the process. He’s right in the middle of a colorful rant – talking about eating my liver or some such – when I reach up and rip that ugly ass brass ring right out of his nose. He screams like a woman. I’ve honestly never heard a man make a noise like that. There is blood everywhere... all over him, all over me.
Peaking on adrenaline now, I deck Lenny and Morton, give Sandy a quick kick to the jewels, and then I just curl up on the ground and settle in for the beating. As the now livid mob descends upon my motionless body, a virtual hurricane of punches and kicks, this sort of calm spills over me. I close my eyes and the memories play like old songs on a jukebox. I see my wife. I see my kids. I can hear them and smell them. I pull them close and I feel them. Diane kisses me full on the lips and I taste her. It’s all so real.
Eventually though, Diane looks deep into my eyes and says, “don’t do this.”
It’s not the first time something like this has happened. When I tried to hang myself in the john, my son, Eric, said something similar. When I tried to down the bottle of morphine I’d swiped from the triage center after the Rottingham cave in, my daughter, Cynthia, whispered in my ear. It’s like their memory, my subconscious, something, will not let me end things. I’m suddenly struck with an overwhelming urge to live, but this time it’s probably too late.
# I hopped a transport at Andrews and met Langer and his team in Los Angeles three hours and sixteen minutes after detonation. The carnage was like nothing I’d ever seen. I mean, I’ve been to hell and back. I’m not remotely squeamish. But what I saw that day... Children, old folks, their bodies completely fused with the pavement. One of Langer’s guys, Dax, I think his name was, this big son of a bitch who’d logged hundreds of hours in hot zones, just started crying. Usually, if a rifle humper pulled some shit like that he’d get a boot stuffed up his ass. But on that day, in that city, you just couldn’t blame him.
Early word on the ground was this: California Senator Jeffery Dyll had just introduced President Vasquez to an adoring crowd outside the World Energy Summit when an EMP device triggered a massive blackout. Four women emerged from the crowd, their heads shaved according to El Jadeem custom. They shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” and detonated an incendiary. And not just any incendiary, mind you. A Neutrino bomb might be the sickest, most twisted device ever devised by man. For the past decade, my number one priority had been keeping such technology out of the hands of groups like the El Jadeem. Clearly, I had failed miserably.
I fight tooth and nail, desperately clinging to life, but there are just too many of them. Bull’s crew is already more than any one man could handle. On top of that, the place is full of convicts. When they find out I’m a cop – well, a former cop anyway – they’re tripping over each other to get their licks in. After what feels like an eternity, they prop me up, blood spewing from my nose like water from a fountain. They’ve knocked out a couple of teeth. At least one has taken a trip down my throat. It hurts when I inhale. I have a few broken ribs. But the worst is yet to come...
Bull has always had a talent for fashioning weapons. Back on earth, as a free man, he had his own metal shop. The lack of resources on Botany Bay has not stunted his creativity. As he approaches, he draws an eight inch-long curved blade that would make Masamune proud. Now, carrying blades in this quadrant is an express violation of the Kingston charter. If you’re caught with one, you’re forced to spend a week in “the hole,” a literal hole in the ground in the center of town into which the drunks like to piss on their way home from Mitzie’s. All that said, it’s common knowledge that Bull and his boys do a lot of King’s dirty work. As long as that’s the case, he looks the other way in terms of their more minor malfeasances.
Bull approaches, lips curling into an almost demonic smile. He places the blade to my throat and turns to the crowd. “What do you think, gents?” he shouts. “Should I cut this pig’s neck?”
There are cheers from the raucous crowd, but Bull isn’t done.
“Or should I take his nuts?!” he continues, gleefully. The gallery erupts, making their thoughts on the matter clear. Bull looks me dead in the eye as Lenny unbuckles my belt and pulls my pants and my drawers down around my ankles. I stare defiantly back at him, dick flapping in the wind, refusing to show an ounce of fear, to give him any sense of satisfaction.
He takes me in his hands. I’m convinced the sick fuck proposed the whole thing because he wanted to feel me up. As the blade makes its way south, most look away. You can tell who the real animals are because they move in for a closer look.
Just as Bull is about to make his incision, a small metal canister crashes through the window and rolls to a stop between his size 16 boots. I know what’s coming. I only have a second or two to react. I clock Charlie to free up my hands and then I slam my eyes shut and cover my ears.
BOOM! The sound is deafening, the flash blinding... It’s a stun grenade. The rogues gallery Mitzies’ calls clientele flops onto the ground like bags of sand, screaming, some crying, blood pouring from their eyes and ears. And then...
They hit the place like a bolt of lightning, a dozen masked men, well armed. I don’t know who they are or what they want, but they’re a Godsend right now. They snatch me off of the ground and drag me out of the place. Once outside, I’m cuffed, a canvas bag is placed over my head, and I’m whisked away in a rover, headed for God-knows-where, destined for God-knows-what.
The details of that night are still foggy, but when you down an entire bottle of Macallan 15, that tends to happen. Look, I hate saying it. I seriously feel like a pussy. But, honestly? The shit I saw in Los Angeles that day... The weight of it... The knowledge that I could have, that I should have prevented it... It was just too much to bear. I still see the victims’ faces when I close my eyes. I still hear them screaming, crying when things get quiet. That guilt had been building for quite some time, too. I mean, we were as careful as we could be with those CIRG strikes, but any time you’re facing an enemy that sets up shop amongst civilians, places military headquarters in elementary schools, there are going to be unwanted causalities. Now, the Directorate’s Media Division worked like hell to keep this stuff from the news outlets and for a while they did, until Veritas reared their ugly heads.
Veritas was an extremely well organized, wildly militant group of anarchic hacktivists who dedicated their lives to being a royal pain in my ass. They used every trick in the book, every bit of latest tech to make sure our every misstep was immediately made public. It eventually got to the point where you couldn’t hop on a computer without reading/couldn’t flip on Olly Montcrief without hearing some poor dead civi’s tragic life story.
Veritas saw to it that we at the Directorate – I more than anyone, because I was calling the shots – were put on trial in the media day in and day out. They called us Everstar’s puppet, accused us of waging a war to protect a private company’s interests. The bleeding-heart fucking radicals were camping out on my lawn, staging rallies outside my daughter’s school. Words are just words. I’m not a sensitive dude, but even the most hard-assed, cold-blooded son-of-a-bitch among us can only be called a “baby killer” so many times before part of him starts to believe it.
I’d been wrestling with the bottle for more than a few months by that point. In ten years together Diane and I had maybe two fights, but I started to unravel, and soon enough we were averaging two a day. Screaming, yelling... I broke things. I’ve never acted like that before. It was like I was channeling my dad or something, scaring my kids, wife cursing my name. It was my worst nightmare come true.
As I said, my recollection of that night is tenuous at best. But this is essentially what the jury heard at my trial. Our transport touched down at Andrews a little after 20:00. I washed the blood out of my hair and picked the little pieces of brain out from underneath my fingernails. I slipped into some sweats, began culling through witness statements and, of course, I started drinking. I really only remember bits and pieces after that.
I got home late. I drove myself. It’s a miracle I even got there in one piece. They told me my blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit when I was admitted to the hospital a few hours later. I made my way into the study where I took hold of my grandpa’s old Meridan Secret Service Special. I pulled a handful of .38 caliber rounds from the lock box in my desk drawer and loaded her up. When Diane walked in on me, I had the barrel in my mouth.
Things got heated.
I didn’t mean to pull the trigger. It kind of just happened. I shot her... and then I turned the gun on myself.
I remember the kids screaming, the police sirens approaching, and then... nothing.
I’d wake up in the hospital a few days later, handcuffed to the bed, guards at the door. By some sick twist of fate, I survived. At least that’s what they tell me. I’d still sooner believe that I had died and gone to hell.
After a few hours in the rover, I’m led into some sort of installation. I can tell from the change in pressure, the moisture on the walls, that we’re underground. The smell of sulfur and oil is in the air. I’m pretty certain we’re in an old dradium mine. They rip the bag off of my head. The lights are way too bright. My eyes struggle to adjust.
My new “friends” cut the clothes from my body and force me down onto a table, naked as a jaybird. The stainless steel surface is bone-chilling, like diving into a snow bank. It’s a cold that just about knocks the wind out of me. I scream at the top of my lungs and the tall one jams a rag in my mouth.
I sure as shit ain’t going down without a fight, certainly not after all I had just been through, the change that had come over me in that bar. Four of them have hold of me now and they are learning pretty quickly that four isn’t going to be enough.
A handsome, substantial blonde woman barks orders like a general. “Get Gupta down here. Makowski. Pryor. NOW.”
As her minions radio for more bodies, I jerk, claw, and yank. The short one loses his grip on my left hand. I bury that fist into the big black guy’s face. His nose explodes, spraying blood all over his compatriots. He necessarily lets go of my right leg and so I stick that foot right up under the tall one’s chin. I see his eyes roll back in his head before he hits the ground.
Backup arrives, but they’re no match for me, my programming. I kick. I punch. All they do is slow me down a bit. I’m inches from the door when that sneaky blonde bitch injects me with something. I suddenly feel light headed. My brain is sending signals to my arms and legs, screaming “kick, damn it! Punch!” but my limbs have stopped responding. Turns out, she hit me with a mean dose of Lupane - a rather complex dendrotoxin I’ve seen used a few times in the field. Lupane numbs the body completely. It makes motor function nearly impossible. The twist is, the patient remains conscious and aware of his surroundings. There aren’t a ton of applications for a sadistic fucking drug like that. While at the Directorate, we only ever broke it out when we wanted to access somebody’s WEEN port against his or her will.
I watch helplessly as the tall one, still a bit dazed and confused after I turned his lights out, and the black guy, bloody wads of cotton stuffed in his nostrils, work quickly to strap me down to the table. They have nothing to worry about – Blondie gave me enough Lupane to put an elephant on its back – but after the little show I put on, nobody’s taking any chances.
The short one runs a length of thick gauge techtine cable from Blondie’s computer terminal over to the table while the guy with the extremely hairy hands pulls my mittre plug from the back of my head, exposing my WEEN port. I’m not sure what they think they’re gonna find. Anything sensitive, anything of real value was no doubt purged when I was prepped for sentence back on Earth.
All you feel is a little jolt, a tiny electric pinch behind the eyes. There is a very subtle momentary shift in your vision. A bitter taste spills across your tongue. Some say they smell burnt hair. That’s not my experience. A couple of keystrokes on Blondie’s computer and they’re inside my head. My memories, in the hands of the capable, are free to be twisted and turned, rewritten and overwritten. I’ll never be comfortable with that sort of vulnerability, nor should anyone be. WEEN ports are common now. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has one. But when I got mine way back when, it was a special deal. To tell you the truth, if it hadn’t been a strict requirement for Directorate assignment, I’d have never had the goddamn thing installed in the first place. It had its advantages, of course. I mean I literally haven’t had to read for the better part of the decade. Briefing notes, any information pertinent to the cases we were working on, was just folded into our daily updates. We plugged into the computer when we walked into the office. We plugged in before we went home at night. Once in a while, if there was something truly pressing, we plugged in here or there throughout the day. You got your update and then the info was just part of you. There was no need to process or interpret it. It was just there for you to act on.
I spent so much of my early life reading, studying, analyzing. High school. Four years at Michigan. Two years at Georgetown law. The Academy. What a fucking joke, huh? Nowadays, we don’t even have schools. Like I said, everybody and their fucking brother has a port now. There’s a massive market to be mined. So, that education I just described? It can be transferred via wire in about 10 minutes. Anything and everything can be known, any skill can be acquired, if you have enough money... or if you’re good enough with a computer to just take it. The world is ultimately better for it, I guess. But the young fucks they’re handing badges to these days? They’re missing something. Sure, they know the shit they need to know to get through the day, but you just can’t download instinct, tenacity, and street smarts. These things are won over time, the fruit of obstacles surmounted and setbacks overcome. When you never had to work for anything, when you had the sum total of your qualifications paid for by Daddy and dumped into your brain via wire, there’s no getting around it, you’re gonna be fighting off of your back.
I feel a sudden searing pain just behind my right temple. I want to scream, to crumble, but of course, I still can’t move. I’m forced to just lie there and watch them remake me. Who knows what will be left when they’re finished...
It’s been a few hours since the procedure and I can feel them creeping in. I’m assuming they are new memories, fabricated memories, but they sure as hell don’t feel that way. The fabricated stuff tends to be light on the detail. It feels plastic, two-dimensional. This stuff – though seems to be creeping into my conscious ever so slowly, though I’m having trouble sorting through all of it – it’s incredibly vibrant. I can feel it, taste it, smell it. Blondie is obviously quite the capable mind hack. This is easily the best work I’ve ever seen, much better than anybody at the Directorate is capable of.
I want to ignore the show that’s playing in my head. I don’t want to submit to the little game they’re playing with my mind. But it’s a losing battle. I eventually just settle in and let the film roll. It’s a new version of the past, quite similar, but different in a number of very important ways.
Langer and his team beat me to Los Angeles by at least an hour and a half. By the time I rolled into town, they had spoken to most of the witnesses and gathered the physical evidence. The cleanup proved to be a real bear. It was damn near midnight. Langer and company had been ready to call things for well over two hours, we were long overdue at LAX, but something just wasn’t sitting right with me. I’ve covered the back end of a lot of shit storms. In my experience it’s rare that you get even two people, shaken up as they tend to be post-catastrophe, to agree on anything, but in Los Angeles, we had two dozen witnesses – young, old, all races and creeds – telling the same goddamn story. The exact same story, mind you, to the fucking letter. It was like they all got together and rehearsed it or something.
Usually, in cases like this, eyewitness accounts are easy to corroborate or discredit. I mean this thing went down right smack dab in the middle of a major metropolitan area, right? There must have been 200+ surveillance cameras rolling downtown alone that day, not to mention all of the news crews covering the Energy Summit, eager to catch the President’s surprise announcement, but none of them caught dick because of that EMP. The question of how the El Jadeem got a hold of a Neutrino bomb was really bugging me. This was not the sort of tech some off-brand canmaker could ever replicate. They were made exclusively in the U.S.A. and sold only to our most trusted allies. Could the El Jadeem have infiltrated an ally army? Not impossible, but definitely a long shot. Maybe one of our allies stabbed us in the back? It was no secret that even our closest friends deeply resented us, but were any of them aggressive, stupid, or suicidal enough to provoke war?
Full of questions, determined to get to the bottom of it all, I was checking and rechecking things, driving my team damn near insane. I couldn’t blame them for being frustrated. They just wanted to wash the stench of death off of their boots, head back home to their families, and think about almost anything else. But I knew what was riding on that investigation.
Finally, though, at 1am, much to my dismay, SAC Hobart ordered us back to Andrews. I’d seemingly find no answers that would satisfy me that night.
Blondie enters the room and sits down across from me. It’s like the worst migraine headache you can imagine. The memories are still coming, kicking me in the teeth one after another. I can’t even pick my head up off of the table.
She reaches over, puts a comforting hand on my shoulder and says, “Just let them come, Quinn. There’s no need to fight it.”
I was grudgingly about to climb aboard the transport at LAX when my handheld rang. It was Calvin “Crave” Tanner calling. I knew it was no coincidence. Not on that night of all nights. Crave, you see, was a rather prolific Los Angeles-based coyote I had busted a few years earlier. Facing a laundry list of charges that would most certainly earn him his Blue Ticket, Crave turned informant. I allowed him to stay in business as long as he supplied me with a list of everyone he and his planned to sneak across the border. If I had reason to believe one of these illegals-to-be was linked to a terrorist group, Crave would hand them over no questions asked. He was the kind of guy who always had his ear to the ground. He’d proven over the years to be a fountain of good information.
“David?” he said as I answered. It was odd. He’d never called me by my given name. Not first. Not last. I mean this was a guy who forced people to call him “Crave.” He didn’t throw government around. He’d always called me “flatfoot,” fuzz,” “five-O,” or some other fit of slang nonsense. “We need to meet, man,” he continued, voice quivering. “I’ve got some shit you need to see.”
I’d never heard him so nervous. Shit, I’d never heard him the least bit shaken, not even when he was staring at life on Botany Bay. “I’m wheels up in five minute, buddy,” I told him. “Give me a call in the morning, we can--“
“--NOW,” he insisted, interrupting me. “You need to see this now.”
Once the onslaught of new memories starts to slow, Blondie looks me dead in the eye and says, “Mr. Quinn... why don’t you tell me what you remember?”
The memories are still coming slowly, but surely, and I honestly don’t know what’s real and what’s not at this point, so I hedge my bets, make her come to me, make her prove it to me.
“Why don't you tell me what you planted?” I say.
“Come on, Mr. Quinn,” she says, her tone telling me to get my shit together. “You spent how many years investigating memory crimes for the Directorate?”
Three. I spent three years specializing in memory crimes. Her point was obvious.
“You know this stuff better than anybody, right?” she continues. “You’ve taken memories apart, put them back together, twisted and turned them... If you can’t sort through what’s real and what’s not, then who the hell can?”
This is going to sound pretty fucking contradictory, but her statement is both extremely comforting and downright terrifying. This is my forte. I have the tools to sort through all of this, to discern what’s real and what’s manufactured.... and I still can’t tell up from down.
Sensing my unease, my mounting confusion, she leans in, shoots me a now I’m going to be straight with you sort of look.
“I’m gonna tell you what you already know,” she says. “The El Jadeem was not responsible for the bombing in Los Angeles.”
“What I know?” I scoff. “This is your play?” I ask. “Find another puppet, lady. I ain’t eating your bullshit.”
Against my better judgment, I sent Langer and the team home and drove out to that hundred and twenty degree hellhole they call “The Valley” to meet with Crave. He was a complete mess by the time I caught up with him, halfway through a bottle of Wild Turkey, blowing lines of the booger sugar. It was a particularly unnerving sight because he’d been almost fanatically sober for the better part of three years, ever since I busted him. Something was obviously very wrong here.
“You should have a drink,” he said, manic, out of his fucking gourd. “You’ll definitely need a drink.” He poured a tall glass of WT and tried to force it into my hand.
“I don’t want a fucking drink, Crave!” I shouted. Truth is, I did want a drink, badly, but I made it a rule long ago never to accept an open glass of something from a dirtbag. You just never know what might be in it. I had a pint of Jamo waiting for me in the car anyway. I hit it before I stepped inside and would hit it again as soon as I got back on the road. I could wait a few minutes.
“It’s been a long day,” I continued, “a terrible day. Now, show me what you have to show me and let me get the fuck out of here.”
“A client, guy I snuck in a few years back, he brought me this,” Crave finally blurted out, slurring his speech, waving a tiny synth drive in front of my face. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. If I had any sense, I’d have tossed it into the fucking ocean. But I saw you on the news, poking around downtown. I figured you needed to see it.”
Intrigued, I snatched the synth drive from Crave’s shaking hands and plugged it into my handheld. There was a video saved on it. I pressed play.
Man, I should have taken that fucking drink...
Crave’s former “client,” a Cabbie at that point, was parked outside the Prism Hotel in downtown Los Angeles the previous evening. His state mandated dash cam just happened to be pointed directly at the Convention Center mere hours before President Vasquez took to the podium.
I watched, mouth agape, as an alliance CIRG team quietly made its way into frame and secured an alleyway adjacent to Hall H, just steps away from where the President gave her speech the next afternoon. They went virtually unnoticed on the sparsely populated street, under cover of darkness. The Tech, easy to spot because he was the only one operating sans-rifle, secured a metal cylinder about the size of a Frisbee to a junction box alongside the building and carefully keyed a sequence into the electronic interface. Once the charge was set, the team leader ordered everyone out and they disappeared down the alleyway. They were remarkably efficient. The whole thing only took about thirty seconds.
I rewound the high definition video and zoomed in here and there. The team leader? Langer. That metal cylinder? You’d need a trained eye to pick it out, but it was a neutrino bomb.
She can tell from the look on my face.
“It’s in there, isn’t it?” Blondie says, “It’s trying to fight its way out. Let it come.”
And then... it comes.
I made a copy of the video, slipped it onto another synth drive. It was the smart play. It was clear the shit was about to hit the fan and you just never know when you’ll need a little insurance.
I couldn’t risk bringing this thing into the Directorate via proper channels. If Langer was dirty, if he was allowed to pull this off, the shit had to be stacked pretty high. Not knowing whom I could trust, I called upon the one man I was sure I could, my mentor for years, SAC Hobart. I had him meet me near John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The Eternal Flame. It was a location that meant something to the two of us. Both career flag-waving Directorate guys, we’d seen dozens of close friends buried in that ground.
I showed Hobart the video and his jaw dropped. I mean, he couldn’t even string words together for a good couple of minutes. Langer was another of his protégés. Hobart had raised him as a pup, shepherded him through the ranks. Hobart looked genuinely horrified at the sight of the video, betrayed, straight kicked in the teeth.
Don’t tell anyone about this,” he said. “I don’t know whom we can trust.”
I almost told him about the copy I’d made, but I hesitated for some reason.
“This could bring the Directorate, the whole fucking administration to its knees,” he continued. “We need to be careful about how we play this.”
There was fear in Hobart’s eyes. He couldn’t hide it, no matter how hard he tried. He pulled me close.
“Thanks for bringing this to me, son” he said. “We’ll sort through it together.”
“Those Directorate boys really did a number on you,”
Blondie says. “They were able to access your WEEN port in the hospital, completely rewrote your memories. It was the only play they had after you survived the attack. Don’t worry. I think we were able to undo most of the damage. It’s the beauty of computers, even that big grey mound of flesh in our skulls... nothing is ever really deleted.”
I hadn’t been home in nearly 72 hours, but the thought of walking in there, having to strap a smile on my face, having to pretend like everything was okay, turned my fucking stomach. I had my assistant call Diane, let her know I’d be wrapped up in debrief for the rest of the day and then I turned the car Southeast.
In this, our brave new world, our safe, controlled new world, there were very few places in which a man could still find trouble in the District. You could count them on one hand, in fact. I’m ashamed to say that I was known by name at all of them. I don’t want to sit here and try to defend myself... but it was how I coped. I was made to chug gallons of the darkest, most twisted brews humanity had to offer, day-in and day-out. For the longest time, I took it home with me, took that shit out on my wife and kids. That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. A few years back, Hobart showed me another way. He pulled the stick out of my ass and taught me that I could burn through the better part of that negative energy before I returned home. Ever since then, I’d been frequenting T’s and joints like it. T’s looked like any other shithole dive bar in Southeast DC. But if you knew what to say to the bartender, knew how to talk your way upstairs, a whole new world awaited you. Women, drugs, gambling... whatever floated your proverbial boat. I was in an aggressive mood that evening, so I decided to take things out on a couple of young Asian women.
Again, this sounds terrible... I feel like a complete scumbag having to explain this shit... but it was how I got right. As bad as things were for me and Diane, they would’a been a whole lot worse without this sort of release. All the piss and vinegar she’d otherwise be made to drink got poured right down the throats of two pay-by-the-hour whores who were more than happy to drink it, as long as I tipped liberally.
After another hour or so, I’m finally able to get control of it, manage the pain, manage the flow of information.
“Who the fuck are you?” I finally get around to asking Blondie.
“Veritas,” she says with a smile.
“I’m serious,” she says. “And we’re here to help.”
“Help? The only people you help are the terrorists, the enemy,” I tell her.
“The real enemy is Everstar,” she says. “We are patriots. Our only weapon is truth.” Saved by Veritas? The same gutless hactivist rats that tried to crucify me over and over again in the media, that dedicated their lives to ruining mine back on Earth? The irony is almost enough to make me believe in God again. Maybe he’s up there now, having one last laugh at my expense.
I’m not giving up anything until I know where this is headed, until I know Blondie’s angle, so she’s forced to lay everything out for me.
“President Vasquez was about to give a very important speech when that bomb went off,” she says.
I scoff. “That hack’s never said anything worth listening to.”
“You don’t understand,” Blondie says. “She was about to stand in front of those cameras, in front of the world, and demand that Everstar’s monopoly be squashed, that their stranglehold on Botany Bay be addressed at the World Energy Summit. She was about to deliver the reform she promised. And they couldn’t let her...”
I was so drunk. I could barely walk, barely see. Still, I drove home.
By the grace of I-don’t-know-what, I made it back and headed inside the house, careful to be quiet, not to wake Diane and the kids. The last thing I needed was another fight. I made for the study and was, by some miracle, coherent enough to slip that extra synth drive with the now infamous video on it into the hidden, sensor-shielded compartment in the East wall and then I poured myself another tall glass of something I really didn’t need.
I was about halfway to the bottom of that cup when they strolled in.
A CIRG team.
The CIRG team.
I struggled as they attempted to subdue me. The Waterford crystal whiskey decanter Hobart gave me when I made ASAC smashed on the ground.
A few seconds later, Diane entered, worry spilled across her face.
BOOM! Her chest exploded.
She took three slugs before she hit the ground.
I turned, completely stunned, to see Langer holding my grandpa’s old Secret Service Special.
He forced the barrel into my mouth and then...
BOOM! The bullet exited on the left side of my upper neck and I crashed to the ground. They didn’t know it then – I was a bloody mess, I had all but stopped breathing – but it missed my brain and spine completely.
They heard sirens fast approaching and got spooked. DC Metro had computer software that pinpointed weapons discharges and their response time was among the best in the country. If Langer and his team were still crawling around the place when the boys-in-blue showed up, shit would obviously get very complicated, so they placed the gun in my right hand and hightailed it out of there.
Blondie leans in close, looks me dead in the eye, and tells me, “Everstar conspired with key members of the Directorate, and possibly even Vice President Rackham, to kill President Vasquez. We believe the key to proving it is in that head of yours and we need your help to get it out.”
She continues, makes a pretty convincing case, but I still don’t know if I can trust her, can trust my memory, my judgment, anything. I don’t want to believe that Hobart, a man I looked up to like a father, turned his back on me, his country, his duty. I have about a million questions. I’m about to speak when--
BOOM! The compound is rocked by a massive explosion. Blondie and I are thrown to the floor. She makes her way over, stares down at me with what looks like genuine concern on her face.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I nod. I’m a bit disoriented, but probably more from the WEEN jack hangover than anything else. A moment later, the tall guy I danced with earlier spills in, completely frazzled, blood pouring down his face.
“It’s King,” he says. “He knows we have Quinn. We need to get him out of here.”
He tosses Blondie a phase rifle. She readies the weapon for battle like a seasoned pro. “King’s in bed with Everstar. He does their bidding here,” she tells me like I don’t already know. “They lose their monopoly, he goes back to being just another prisoner. He has more to lose than they do. You need to come with me. Now.”
With little choice in the matter, I follow Blondie out into the corridor. It’s a goddamn mess. Smoke billowing through the tunnels. Lights flickering, raining sparks down upon us. I hear men screaming, exchanging fire nearby. It sounds like Blondie’s compatriots are taking casualties.
“We need to hurry,” the tall guy says.
We’re in an all out sprint now, turning left, veering right. We’re well on our way out when the tunnel collapses in front of us and we have to double back.
A good thousand yards in the other direction we come to a fork in the tunnel and King’s men are waiting for us. They open fire. Blondie pulls me to safety behind a boulder. The Tall Guy’s not so lucky. He takes a phase beam right to the chest and is dead before he hits the ground. We’re out gunned and pinned down. Blondie’s is the only weapon we have. Much to her dismay, I finally have to sprint recklessly into the open corridor to snag the Tall Guy’s rifle. I just barely make it back behind that rock and she lays into me.
“Don’t ever fucking do that again,” she screams at me. “You’re too important.”
It’s becoming quickly and abundantly clear that we’re not going to make it. I can feel King’s men working their way around us. In a few minutes we’ll be totally surrounded. I have to think fast.
And then I hear it... It sounds like rushing water under our feet. Blondie’s sure I’ve cracked when, while we’re taking heavy fire, I set my rifle aside and put my ear to the ground.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she screams.
It’s music to my ears. Sure as shit, there is a river directly below us. It makes sense. King’s old school mining style – the only real option way out here – requires a shit ton of water. He tends to target deposits near rivers and lakes.
I turn to Blondie and point at the rock beneath us. “Forget King’s men,” I tell her. “Fire at the rock.”
“Are you kidding?” she asks.
“Have you gone completely mad?”
“Maybe,” I say. With no solid alternative, Blondie decides to entertain my flight of fancy. We concentrate our phase rifles at the rock beneath us and pull our triggers--
BOOM! In an instant, the rock gives way. We fall for what feels like an eternity and finally land in an angry rushing subterranean river.
I’m twisted and turned, yanked under water and spit back up repeatedly. I’m certain I’m dead about a half a dozen times and then all at once... I’m spit out into the night...
I spot Blondie struggling to stay afloat about twenty yards away. I make my way over to her and go about pulling her to shore.
We take refuge in a cave about three clicks from where we finally took to ground. It’ll take King’s men a while to figure out where we came to shore and we were careful to cover our tracks after we did. We have a little time to breathe, to carefully plan our next move.
I get to know Blondie, Sarah, I find out her name is finally.
I don’t know if my mind, my memory is playing tricks on me, but she reminds me of Diane. Not in some overly obvious way. I mean Diane was brunette, short, quiet, and delicate. Sarah is a tall blonde stick of dynamite that could probably beat me in an arm wrestling match. But they have a similar way of looking at the world, thinking through things... and they’re both very easy to talk to, they have a way of just pulling things out of you.
I’m ultimately not certain if I can trust her, but what do I have to lose? This version of reality, the one where I didn’t murder my wife, is a whole lot more inviting than the one I subscribed to up until a couple of hours ago. I tell Sarah about the video, about the copy I made. It’s obvious to me now. It could be the key to sinking this entire conspiracy. The issue? It’s four light years away on Earth, in a secret compartment that only I know about, that only I can open.
Sarah doesn’t skip a beat. There’s not a question in her mind. We need to get back to Earth. But that’s obviously easier said than done in the here and now.
No one has ever escaped Botany Bay. There are only two ways off of the planet, both extremely well policed and guarded. Neither is a particularly inviting option. There’s the Budhai transport, the automated shuttle that brings prisoners to the planet... but it’s not programmed to bring folks back to Earth. Climate control and life support is cut for the return trip, a beautifully efficient design. It’d be a 21-day journey in sub zero temperatures with no oxygen to speak of. And then there is the Everstar Freighter... a ship that carries mining supplies and King’s contraband into Botany Bay, and then hauls tons upon tons of dradium back to earth. In a lot of ways, this is the safer, easier bet. But it probably means riding in the cargo hold with tons of radioactive rock. We might make it back, but we wouldn’t last long back on Earth. I’ve seen it unfold. Dradium poisoning is one of the more painful ways to go.
To tell you the truth, the ride home may be the least of our worries right now. According to Veritas’ intelligence network, Everstar has ordered King to find and eliminate us by any means necessary. They’ve told him to spare no expense. They’ve given him anything and everything he’s asked for to aid in our elimination. To speed things along, King has put a price on our heads. I don’t know how he wrangled this, how he plans to actually pull it off, but he has offered a full pardon, a one- way trip back home, to anyone who kills us, or provides information that leads to our capture.
And even if we somehow make it back to Earth, Hobart and the Directorate will be waiting for us...
I’m running for my life now, just praying I can trust the woman next to me, praying I can trust what my head and my gut is telling me.
Death probably figured I’d be an easy assignment. After all, I’ve been praying for him to take me for well over a year. Now, he finally comes a-knocking and I slam the door in his face. I got no interest in dying anymore, not until I see this thing through. Hate to break it to you, Death, but I ain’t going down without a fight.
RYLEND GRANT and DIKRAN ORNEKIAN have been working screenwriters in Hollywood for over a decade, developing film and television projects - much of it based on fiction they've had published - with folks like Ridley Scott, JJ Abrams, John Woo, Luc Besson, Justin Lin, and F. Gary Gray. Their scripts have twice appeared on the Black List.
RYLEND is the Ringo Award-winning creator of comic books like ABERRANT and BANJAX for Action Lab Entertainment. DIKRAN's graphic novel HARBOR MOON was published by Arcana Comics.