Confined Freedom

“Reynolds, Ethan,” a guard called through a speaker.

Ethan approached the counter to receive his personal items taken at the time of his incarceration.

“Sign here.”

He signed the hologram that emitted before him and a container lowered onto the counter. It was a high-security prison. He couldn’t even see who was on the other side of the dark-tinted everglass. If there was anyone. He wouldn’t be surprised if it were run remotely or if this whole interaction was automated. All he knew was it was an actual person. No droids allowed in this prison except the semi-sentient variety that were deemed just sentient enough not to be destroyed. He opened the container and reviewed the items inside: a handful of silver coins, a holosphere he quickly pocketed, and a small comm unit he took and inserted into his ear.

It felt weird after not wearing it for the past decade, but he knew he would get used to it by the end of the day. The cold faded from the unit as it siphoned his body heat and a voice chimed in his ear. Unable to retrieve messages at this time.

“Figures,” he said. He gathered the coins and dropped them in his jacket pocket. The container closed and shot back up the wall after he grabbed the last item. A handle popped out from the wall in front of him.

“Grip the handle, please.” The voice called through the speaker.

“Definitely automated,” Ethan sighed and gripped the handle. As soon as he did, two mechanical arms popped out from each side of the handle and fastened a bracelet on his wrist. The handle quickly retreated.

“Thank you for you stay Mr. Reynolds. You are free to go,” the voice said before a door behind him slid open.

“Hey,” Ethan called, “What is this?”

His words died against he walls and the only response given was the repetition that he was free to go. He left through the door and found himself in a small room with only a chair to furnish it. He sat down and strapped in. The door closed and a green light flickered. Inertia forced him further into his seat and one minute later the door opened again to the view of the prison he’d just left.

It was built inside the center of a large asteroid. Ethan stepped out of the pod that had transported him to one of the small asteroids connected to the prison by a zero-gravity, single unit elevator. Sixteen such elevators webbed from the central asteroid and each one connected to a smaller asteroid making the entire complex look like a model of a mutated virus ready to infect the universe. The elevators were the only way in or out of the prison. They were designed to be easily broken, shooting any contents into the void of space should anyone somehow gain access without permission.

Ethan stared as the entire facility slowly rotated through the dense field of rock that shielded and contained it. He was free and there was only one place he wanted to go. If it still existed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” a voice called.

Ethan turned to see a thin, well-groomed man in an outdated business suit not meant for travel. This was a man who was overconfident he would never be in danger, which made him even more out of place than he already seemed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” the man continued after he had Ethan’s attention, “I am here on behalf of Mr. Dwyer to present you with an opportunity to settle your debt.”

“Debt?”

“Please. Follow me.” The outdated suit spun on one heel and briskly entered a personal transport larger than most public shuttles.

Ethan surveyed the small landing pad. It was vacant with the exception of the personal transport and a station to summon a public transport. He didn’t like the feeling that began to settle into the pit of his stomach. The man had mentioned a debt. He’d settled his debt only hours earlier and it had cost him a decade of his life. He looked at station, the transport, and the band on his wrist.

The inside of the private transport was elaborately decorated. What normally would have held six dozen passengers was a common room surrounded by five suites. The suit was seated on a lounger patiently waiting for him. Ethan sat opposite him feeling like a dung beetle on the newly fabricated cushions.

“Six years ago they decided time served was enough to recondition the criminals of this sector, but the citizens didn’t believe they should pay for this reconditioning. Therefore, each inmate is given the bracelet you now wear as a symbol of the debt you owe.”

Ethan rubbed at the band on his wrist as if to understand the concept as much as to suppress the anger building up inside that the freedom he thought he’d just redeemed was still at risk.

“You currently owe eight million gead. Mr. Dwyer is offering you an opportunity to settle this debt now instead of working the next many years in whatever job you can find to repay the money so you can finally leave this sector behind you.”

“You’re saying I’m restricted to this sector until this debt, which I owe because of my forced incarceration, is repaid?”

“Correct.”

“And you think this bracelet can prevent me from simply disappearing?”

“Many have tried, Mr. Reynolds, and they all end up right back in their cell. Losing more time while adding to their debt. Mr. Dwyer knows very well how skilled you are at disappearing, which is why he is offering you this opportunity to wipe away your debt with one job.”

Ethan stood and wandered to the view port. He looked at the prison that filled it then pulled the holosphere from his pocket and pinched it between his fingers. An image filled the air before him. A woman holding a baby. They were both smiling as the woman strolled through the verdant landscape of their homeworld. His homeworld. A planet Ethan hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years.

He pocketed the sphere and turned his back on the prison beyond the view port. “What’s this job?”

Prototype

Mathias followed his detector over the ridge of scrap to find the target, but it was not what he expected. Before him wasn’t a Viper II or a Leo IV, it was a small shell rummaging through the junk pile. It was one he didn’t recognize, which put him on edge instantly, but there was something about the machine that he couldn’t quite place. It was the strangest sight he had seen in a long time. Perhaps that is why he didn’t kill it right away. Instead, he chose to observe it. Gathering intel on new series was vital in any scenario. The little machine hadn’t noticed him and his detector hadn’t picked up anything else in the area.

Byron caught up to him and quietly readied his rifle putting the small machine in his sights. Mathias placed a hand on the gun and shook his head. Byron gave him a quizzical look and Mathias pulled a comm unit from his pack and typed a message.

‘Never seen this model before. Observe.’

Byron took the unit and typed a message back: ‘Copy. New series?’

Mathias shrugged. Whatever it was, he was sure it wasn’t good. They watched it for an hour before Byron messaged Mathias he was going to rest for a bit and to wake him should anything happen. He retreated down the scrap heap a few steps and found a comfortable piece to rest on. With his dirt stained jacket and boots, he blended into the rusted landscape. Mathias could feel the grime coating his own clothes and knew he was also invisible to the human eye as long as he remained still. He even thought he might be invisible to the scanning eyes of the machines as well. He smirked at the thought, knowing that such thinking would surely get him killed. He checked his detector again to make sure no other machines were nearby.

He observed the little machine for another hour. The entire time the little machine was simply digging through the scraps. Mathias began to wonder what it could be looking for, or if it even knew what it was doing. Perhaps it had malfunctioned. It stood at roughly three feet, had a spherical head, bulky rectangular body with large square feet underneath, and thin, hydraulic arms that were so disproportionate that it almost suggested it wasn’t constructed to hunt humans. This thought scared Mathias into shouldering his rifle. He intended to observe the machine a little longer before making it a permanent addition to the scrap piles. But, he thought, if it is malfunctioning, perhaps we could capture it for analysis.

Linda would go crazy for an operational unit to plug into. She was always asking for one. Complaining that they could never bring her anything intact. Stating she could learn more from a live unit than one thousand fried ones. Maybe today was her lucky day.

The little unit stopped rummaging and held a thin piece of metal in its similarly thin fingers. Then it brought the piece in front of its lenses and scrutinized it. Then the machine let out a laugh that made Mathias freeze. Adrenaline rushed through his body but he remained frozen. He had never in his twenty-four years scavenging heard a machine make such a noise. Mathias kept his eyes glued to the unit below as it giggled again. Then it held the piece of metal aloft and swung it through the air.

The arm moved in a swift, flicking pattern and the box-shaped unit stepped forward. “Fight me you coward.” The word emitted from the spherical head. Mathias almost open fired when he heard the words but soon realized the words were not directed at him. They didn’t seem to be directed at anything. The little unit giggled again, then swung the metal shard through the air. “You cannot beat me,” it echoed. Mathias dropped his rifle and stared at the machine.

Byron was beside him once again. The noise had surely stirred him from his nap. They were used to only the wind when scavenging on the surface. Anything else usually meant a tracker hunting them down, which meant a fight.

‘What is it doing?’ Byron typed into the comm unit.

‘It seems to be’ Mathias paused, thinking for the right word, then typed, ‘playing.’

Byron gave him the confused look he was expecting. A look that could not hide the tinge of fear.

The little unit kept swishing the thin piece of metal through the air and talking to itself randomly. Then they heard the rattle of a tracker through the rubble. It had a distinct sound. Metal on metal as it raced over and through the scrapyard. They both instantly shouldered their rifles. Mathias peeked at the detector. His eyes fixated on the screen as the noise rumbled in his ears. Finally, a green dot appeared from the north. A tag appeared next to the dot. Leo IV. Mathias nudged Byron and showed him the screen. Byron nodded and they both readied their rifles to the north. A Leo was too quick to outrun. They would have to destroy it.

Mathias glanced down at the little unit then had to look again. It was looking toward the north also, but had placed its thing arms atop its head and was rapidly moving from side to side, as if it were quivering.

He looked back toward the approaching Leo. He could see the landscape shifting, bulging as the hunting machine made its way through the pile of metal. It was nearly upon them. Mathias felt lucky the Leo had to exit the scrap in front of them and into the small valley where the unit was playing. Lucky that they had high ground.

The raging machine burst forth from the pile of rubble and was aimed directly at the small, quivering unit below. To Mathias, the next few seconds seemed to extend themselves allowing him to see and assess everything. What he saw was the Leo unit emerging from the scrap pile in front of the small unit. It was already swinging one of its large paw-like limbs. Mathias knew too well the force behind such a swing. He’d once seen a man get caught by one and it had cut through the man’s waist as if it were simply air. The swing would have cut right through a human’s chest, but was too high and missed the little unit. The Leo soared past the unit. As it skid across the dirt and readied itself to leap again and destroy the little unit, Mathias open fired. Byron quickly followed suit and they were able to destroy it before it was able to fully change its momentum. It fell to the ground and became another fixture among the scrap.

He turned his attention to the little unit, which was now looking at them.

“Quickly,” Mathias risked a whisper, “gather what you can from the Leo.”

Byron looked at him and nodded toward the little unit.

Mathias nodded and gestured Byron toward the still smoking Leo. They both descended the ridge of metal and parted ways at the bottom. Byron toward his objective, and Mathias toward the little unit.

He slowed as he neared the boxy figure. The lenses in the sphere followed his movements. He noticed the unit was still quivering slightly.

“What are you?” Mathias whispered. He looked around them to make sure nothing else moved nearby. “Answer quietly,” he added.

The little unit stopped quivering. “Are you a scavenger?” it said.

“Quiet,” Mathias whispered sternly, then answered, “yes, we are scavengers. You know about us?” He couldn’t help but shake a feeling of dread welling in his gut.

“Father used to speak of your kind,” it said at a slightly lower volume. It wasn’t low enough for Mathias’s liking, but he let it continue. “You are fighting against the progress.”

Mathias pointed at the Leo, where Byron was picking through the remains, and said, “That is not progress.”

“That is what protects us,” the unit said.

“What do you mean ‘us’.”

“The real humans. The ones still working.”

“What?” Mathias caught himself from raising his voice. “How can you count yourself among those beyond the wall?”

“You mean within the wall? Of course.”

“But,” Mathias couldn’t understand, “How? You aren’t even human?”

“Of course I am. I was part of the proty type test that father was in charge of. He said I would become the next type of human. The first one, and everyone else would follow me.”

Mathias felt his head spinning. The rumors were true. “How did you get out here?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” the little unit said, “I was talking to Father when they poked me. Then everything went dark. I woke up outside the wall in a pile of machines. I’ve been wandering for a few days now. I’m terribly hungry sir. Do you have any food?”

Mathias stared at the little unit. Byron had finished scavenging parts from the Leo and now stood beside him. No doubt he had heard their entire conversation. “What is it?” he whispered into Mathias’s ear.

“I don’t know, but we need to get it to Linda. It was an experiment beyond the wall.”

Byron nodded and Mathias turned back to the little unit. It stared at him with its mechanical lenses. They were void of emotion yet he couldn’t help but feel the fear and hope hiding behind them.

“Come with us,” Mathias whispered, “We have food back at our camp.”

He offered his hand to the little machine. One of its thin, metal arms reached out, hesitated, then finally took his hand. They turned and headed back up the scrap-heap. As he helped the small machine navigate the metal landscape, Mathias couldn’t help but remember his son.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Andrew.” The machine said.

“Nice to meet you Andrew,” he replied, “I’m Mathias.” He stared as the little machine struggled along with its box figure and wide, metal feet. His heart sank. He didn’t need to wait for Linda’s examination to confirm what he already knew. This little metal box contained the mind of boy. A boy who had once been human. Now trapped inside a rusting piece of metal. Used and discarded like every other piece of trash that littered the surface.

The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesThis week’s book recommendation is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This book was released in 2008 and is the first in a trilogy. It became a popular movies series in 2012. There are four movies total. I first read the books in December of 2011 after I received the trilogy box set as a Christmas gift. I promptly read all three books within a few weeks. My favorite of the trilogy is actually the second book, Catching Fire. This series is well written, captivating, and intense.

In a dystopian future where America is crippled by a war, the land is split into thirteen districts. Every year, two children from each district are chosen to participate in the games, which is a battle royale fight to the death. Pretty insane, I know (and this was well before Fortnite blew up and made the battle royale thing popular). You may have seen the movies. If you have, I hope you read the books as well, though I do think the movies do a good job following the source material.

This book series is surprisingly aimed at young adults, but I think it does a great job focusing on the characters versus the violence and allows the reader to become engrossed in the events that lie outside the main character’s control. Obviously the whole system if messed up, but Katniss, though limited, does everything she can to protect what she loves and improve the dismal world she lives in. She may not go about things in the best way, but it’s never easy going against an established societal norm. This is why I think this series will endure as a popular story. The battles these characters face can be applied as reflections of what we see in our own world.

I know sometimes people don’t want to give something a shot because it was super popular and possibly over-hyped. If you haven’t read this series because of one of those reasons, try it out. I think you may be surprised.

Happy Reading.

 

What If Our World Is Their Heaven?

What If Our WorldThis week’s book recommendation is What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick. This book was one I found randomly at a book store. I had no idea it even existed, and I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say you hadn’t either.

I’ve recommended several books by Philip K. Dick before so of course I am a fan of his work, but this book is different. It’s actually an interview. Published in 2000, this “book” is really just a transcription of taped interviews that Gwen Lee had with Dick two months before he passed away on March 2nd, 1982 from a series of strokes. The transcription is unaltered and includes all “um”s and side-tracked conversations.

What I loved most about this short little “autobiography” of sorts is the glimpse into his mind. One of the key points included in this “book” is that it offers an insight into the book he was working on when he died. A book that was never finished. All we have of that would-be book is from these tapes. He discusses the plot in detail and gives us a glimpse of his writing process. The book would have been titled The Owl in Daylight and would have been an awesome read.

These interviews took place during the production of the Blade Runner movie as well, which is based on Dick’s novel Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? It was really cool seeing how excited he was about the movie. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to see it beyond a few clips. He does discuss his book and the movie in these interviews.

I found it really interesting that he claimed he rarely read fiction. As a science fiction writer, you would think he read a lot of other novels including other science fiction work, but at the time of these interviews he admits he rarely read fiction anymore. He mostly read nonfiction and scientific books or articles. He was definitely an academic and loved learning new things. He mentions he learned Greek so he could read a religious text without a translation to make sure the there was no confusion about the context.

As a writer, I found it really interesting how he wrote his novels. The few details we get state that he would pump out a novel in one go. Write the entire thing within a matter of ten days or two weeks. He would become obsessed with the work until it was finished. Even at the cost of his health unfortunately. This is something that pops up when he talks about The Owl in Daylight and I’m not sure if there was a purposeful connection or not. One character is making incredible art, but it is physically killing him, and the ultimate choice he is given is to continue as he is, making the art until he dies, or go back to making mediocre art and regain his health. The more I think about it, the more I wish the book was completed.

Most of Dick’s work centers on a concept. That’s what I like about it so much. It is a conversation that the reader gets to be a part of. You can finish a short story or novel and you don’t feel like you’ve simply read a story. It gets your mind going. As with most of his stories, even this “book” that is really an interview made me want to write more. To explore concepts of my own and delve into the strange worlds I can create.

I’ll wrap this up before I ramble on too much. If you haven’t read anything by Philip K. Dick, do so as soon as possible. If you are a writer and haven’t read his work, do so as soon as possible or rather this very moment. Even if you have read his work and think it’s not for you, try this one out because it is about the man himself. Too often we enjoy the art, in whatever form, without really knowing anything about who created it. I’m glad I found the man as interesting as his work.

Happy Reading.

 

Best Laid Plans

Jedrek looked up through the clear dome shield and at the moon looming above the surface. It’s size threatened to crash down upon him, but his planetologists assured him it this would not happen for another three thousand years. The planet’s gravity only decreased the distance by a mere three inches a decade, but Jedrek couldn’t help but believe the moon grew larger every day.

Ceroid was a planet rich in carbon-base materials. Its flaxen surface hinted at a low hospitality for life, and this was proven true by the fact water had to be brought in daily to sustain the few inhabited domes on the surface. There was only one reason to come to Ceroid and that was to put your life at risk for a generous paycheck. Jedrek made it as safe as possible for his employees, they were each a valuable asset, but accidents happened. Ceroid was proving to be the most profitable planet in the Galactic Consortium.

Ceroid’s moon, however, was deemed useless by the Vanguard. Bereft of profit, it consisted of a powdery substance that clogged even neutrino engines. Visiting the surface of the moon was costly. Therefore, Jedrek deemed it the most valuable asset against what was coming.

Having the city made was not an issue. The secrecy of it was not hard to maintain either. Ceroid’s moon had minimal rotation. Jedrek’s plans were precise, allowing him nearly two years before anyone on the surface would even have the chance to notice his little operation. Not that anyone would. Nearly everyone on the surface was employed in his factories.

Anyone traveling to the planet would potentially see it, but his calculations only granted visitors from the outer territories the chance, which were few at most and only workers who wouldn’t question anything they saw there. He still took the precaution to hide the parts of the city that penetrated the surface of the small moon. If anyone did notice, they would have no idea what the purpose was.

The city cost Jedrek a fortune even with his own factories supplying the graphene materials used in the construction. His caution added little more cost but gave him enough assurance he deemed it worth the price.

“Father? What are you looking at?” A voice cracked behind him.

“Just the future, son,” Jedrek replied. He looked at his son, barely beginning his journey from boy to man, and smiled.

“And what do you see?”

“A clever question. I cannot say for certain. All the best laid plans do not survive the passing of time. All I can say is that I hope. I hope for an easy future for you.”

His son, Rayner, took his words in silence and looked upon the vast horizon of carbon dust beyond the dome shield. No life existed outside the static screen.

“Are we in danger?” his son asked nonchalantly.

“Why would you ask such a question?”

“You’ve been on edge lately. Expectant. Like you used to be back when you feared a raid from the Okkunan in the forests of Baddan.”

“Things are different now than they had been on Baddan. We are a recognized coalition within the Galactic Consortium.”

“That is not an answer.”

“Perceptive. Good. I’m glad to know your lessons are proving educational.”

Rayner looked at his father and sighed.

“Fine,” Jedrek said, “I see you are finally at an age to comprehend the dangers of the high game. To answer your question, yes, I believe we at risk. Our operations have grown to a noticeable level and have attracted the attention of the elder coalitions. It would be unwise to believe another may try to usurp our position here. Even under the noted doctrines.”

“You expect a hostile union?”

Jedrek nodded.

“When?”

“Within three years.”

“That soon? What can be done to prevent it?”

“Nothing.”

Rayner looked at his father. Disappointment visible in his eyes.

Jedrek laughed. “They will come with a force enough to destroy the scattering of domes we have on the surface. There is no sense in defending them. We will let them take the surface.”

“We will just give it away? Retreat without a fight?”

“Yes. The fight cannot be won and therefore not worth having. We will retreat, then wait a half year before we mount the counterattack. They will believe they took it with ease and we retreated into the outer territories when in fact we will have been here all along. Letting them settle into a comfort that will prove most fatal.”

“Bunkers outside the domes?”

“Go find Mende. Give him this,” Jedrek handed his son a small slip of paper, “he will know what it means. It’s time you learned the real reason we came to Ceroid.”

Rayner walked away in silence. Jedrek watched him, thinking how his son would inherit the planet in due time. He will do well here, he thought, I just have to ensure he has the chance. A beeping sounded from his wrist.

“Yes,” he called into the receiver.

“Sir, four cruisers were just picked up on the long-range scanners.”

Jedrek looked up at the moon. His moon. Then uttered his response into the receiver. “Keep an eye on the scanners. Provide me with updates as more arrive. Contact Rayner and have him meet me at the flight pads in B5. Stop all production and ready the men to evacuate the cities. I want full departure in one hour.”

This may prove easier than expected. He laughed as he strode off toward B5. The fools come from inner territories in full force. They will find an empty planet and let their greed fool them into thinking we ran. They may be cautious enough to scan the surface, but they will nothing. Once their battleships leave, we will make our move.

“Ten more cruisers and three dreadnoughts have gathered on the edge of the system sir.”

Jedrek raised the receiver to his lips. “Where is my son?”

“Last contact had him awaiting your arrival at B5’s flight pad nineteen with Tuhinga Mende.”

“Good. Begin the evacuation. Short range. Lunar sector eighty-six.”

“Sir?”

“Do it. I’ll provide explanation when we land.”

“Full evacuation will be completed in forty minutes.”

“Well done. Ensure comm silence until we are secure.”

“Understood sir.”

Jedrek ushered Rayner into the ship as he approached.

“Get inside. We are leaving.”

“I thought you said they wouldn’t be here for another three years.”

“I said they would be here withing three years. That included every second after the statement.” Jedrek eyed Mende.

“We will have much to review,” Mende stated as they entered the ship.

“Get us off this planet,” Jedrek barked at the pilot.

Jedrek secured himself in a seat. His mind raced through all possible outcomes. They would be secure beneath the moon’s surface before the ships had Ceroid in view. All he needed to know was which coalition had the audacity to attempt a hostile takeover so quickly. Once he had them identified, he could choose the corresponding plan that would annihilate their establishment. Not only the ones they built on Ceroid, but across the known galaxy. He would be ruthless, and it would only be the beginning.