Their planet slowly dying, ravaged by two hundred years of environmental carelessness and governmental greed, a select group of elitists plot to send unwitting crews on what will be a suicide mission. A young Command Pilot and her crew survive and find themselves in a strange world in which they are unprepared to cope. Two more missions follow before help comes from an unexpected source.
First Admiral John Wheeler climbed the wide marble stairway wearily. Shoulders slumped forward, his black polished boots dragged with each step. At a small landing he hesitated, rubbed his set jaw and straightened his tie. His uniform, usually crisp and stiff, hung loose and lacked luster. He’d been up most of the night, wearing a path in his office carpet.
Had he been able to see the sun, Wheeler would have judged it to be after dawn, on February 16, 2142, his sixty sixth birthday. The occasion passed unnoticed in the dimly lit hallway. Early in the morning hours, alone in his office, Wheeler made a decision. It hadn’t come easily. It countered everything in his long and distinguished career; one which he’d spent building what he now wanted to pull down. During those rising years he’d not once shied from hard decisions. His determination, this time, was different.
At the landing, a small window, slightly higher than Wheeler’s head, cast a beam of light across the marble floor. Colored by the atmosphere’s high particulate count, the faded sun drew a dark orange stripe in the white stone floor. Above Wheeler’s head, heavy thick synthetic glass held back the outside air.
Wheeler looked out, remembering, long ago, when it was still possible to go outside. In those days when the wind blew, one could brave the elements. Any gust, Wheeler knew, had been still for years, and the weather remained unchanged from day to day. No wind, no weather, nothing lived beyond the fake glass. An entire generation lived ignorant of life outside the confines of an acrylic dome. Their sky curved above in a maze of plastic triangles.
He continued upward, taking each step on leaden feet, yet not wavering from his purpose. The ache in his heart did not, he knew, come from a fear of death. He feared rather, his inability to stop the madness.
At the top of the stairway, Wheeler surveyed the large reception room. The walls were barren and painted stark white like a morgue. The air hung heavy and oppressive. At the far end, a single desk broke the monotony. A young girl, perhaps twenty, with short dark hair, sat dull eyed behind a wooden desk. She looked bored, passing the time working diligently on a rebellious fingernail. They all look so young he thought.
She looked up when he approached, her expression never changing, looking, but not seeing, or caring, her face blank.
“Yes?” she said, in a tone emphasizing her indifference.
“Is he in?”
“Please tell him that Admiral Wheeler would like to see him.” Wheeler concentrated, trying to keep his voice steady, trying not to think about what he was about to do.
Without answering, the girl pushed a button and spoke into her communicator.
“Sir? Admiral Wheeler to see you…yes, sir.”
The girl looked at Wheeler, seeing him for the first time, gazing in frank appraisal. “He says you know the way.”
She dismissed him, forgetting him casually. She had turned back to her nails when Wheeler shot her, aiming his laser at the narrow part in her hair. She slumped forward quietly, her limp body slipping out of the chair, falling to the floor, out of sight behind the oak desk. Wheeler was thankful that lasers kill silently, without the mess associated with more archaic weapons.
He turned, pocketed the laser, and strode purposefully down the sterile tunnel that led from the reception room to a large metal door. The hall was cold, dimly lit and also without decoration. He felt committed now. There was no turning back and it made him more decisive. His hand held his security card rock steady when he inserted it into its assigned slot.
The door slid on silent rollers, opening into a room not unlike the reception area. This one, though, felt cold and ominous, its sterile walls reflecting the overhead light. The effect reminded Wheeler of a food storage locker. He’d never liked this room or the man who occupied it and today he liked them both even less.
He sat staring at Wheeler, his face hard and questioning, reflecting a silent query. Like his predecessor, he demanded everyone call him ‘Leader’. Short, heavy, with piercing closely set eyes and a long nose, he resembled an overfed rodent. His absolute power over 500 million men, woman and children ran unquestioned for nearly three decades. He stood eleven inches shorter than Wheeler’s six foot height. There were no chairs so Wheeler stood, as was the custom, in front of the desk, hands clasped behind his back.
The Leader stared and said nothing. Sweat ran down between Wheeler’s shoulder blades, caressing the small of his back like a damp, cold hand.
“I’ve come to report.”
“Is the mission ready?”
“Yes. We ran all the crews through the mainframe computer and selected those who met the requirements. The risk will be considerable. I’m afraid many will die.” A vision of the dead receptionist crossed Wheelers mind. One or two bodies, instead of hundreds? Did the end always have to justify the means, he asked himself?
“A necessary expense, don’t you think? Why so negative? Don’t you expect it to work?”
“It’s untested. We don’t know what will happen or when. Perhaps we should postpone the project until all the research is complete?”
“What are you trying to say, Wheeler? Surely a few lives are a small price, given the abundant rewards?”
“A few lives! We’re talking hundreds, maybe even thousands.”
The Leader jumped out of his chair. “Damn it, Wheeler, you’re not going to sabotage my project at the last minute. I’ll see you in hell first! What’s your problem?”
Wheeler didn’t answer right away. He stared a moment at the man he’d help raise to power so many years ago and wondered where it all went wrong. “You,” he said, finally, “you’re my problem.”
An instant of fear crossed the Leader’s face when he saw the laser in Wheeler’s hand. It was too early for security. He’d become careless in recent years. Damn! He had a moment to curse that carelessness before he died.
It was almost a relief for Wheeler, standing looking down at the still body. The launch for today would proceed as scheduled; he knew he couldn’t stop it. One crew lost, but only one, the rest he’d thwart. The council would listen to reason once they knew the Leader was gone.
The body of the girl felt light as he dragged it down the narrow hallway to the leader’s quarters. On the way out he set the security timer on Do Not Disturb. It would be days, even a week or more before anyone dared force the heavy metal door.
Copyright© Dave Folsom. All rights reserved.