[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]
Two weeks into his stay at Haliak Central Social Rehabilitation Center, Zach had fallen into a dismal routine. Awakened minutes after the lunar colony’s artificial sunrise, he was given twenty minutes for personal hygiene, a fresh, olive green sweatsuit and a breakfast selected from “the human menu.” Next, he was hustled off to a session of light exercise and, after a half-hour rest period, he faced a tedious round of psychological counseling.
Given the gravity of his charges and the rapid conviction he’d received in defiance of interstellar law, the local authorities expected him to acknowledge his crime. From the Crelenk point of view, this ought to have been obvious to any sentient who, like Zach, had freely confessed to murder.
That was where the point of contention lay. Zach’s confession had consisted of a document he’d apparently signed in a drugged stupor while in the care of Dalamacras. That was aside from the lack of due process — at least as the term was understood by human society. No wonder Zach’s prison counseling had rapidly devolved into a deft game of gas lighting, in which the phrase “are you sure?” was a recurring feature.
Owing to Zach’s disciplined mind, he was still some distance away from cracking ─ though that was partly due to the Crelenk’s attitude toward him. For the time being, in deference to his potential value to the State, Zach’s captors gave him a fair amount of leeway. Yet as he soon discovered, stubbornness would eventually be his undoing. One bright morning, after breakfast, the prison Warden laid things out for him in stark terms. If Zach accepted the official story of his crime, he could keep his mind intact. But if he continued to resist, he’d feel the full force of Crelenk social engineering.
In a gesture of ritualized compassion for his tortured soul, Crelenk psychiatrists would erase his mind and fill its empty canvas with a complete set of implanted memories. After his recovery, as a ward of the state, he’d carry out tasks too menial to justify their wear and tear on expensive androids. By contrast, if he cooperated with authorities and issued a public statement of remorse, he’d buy himself a position in the Crelenk Science Corps.
All the same, the Warden’s stern warning had been delivered with remarkable restraint. In fact, the only saving grace in the midst of Zach’s devastating loss of liberty was the benign attitude the Crelenk took toward the incarcerated. Though his was a textbook case of judicial malfeasance, once he was in the prison system, he was treated with muted dignity, referred to as “Dr. Griffin,” and subjected to none of the harrowing violence or petty humiliations that still occasionally cropped up in human detention centers. The Warden had even gone so far as to leave Zach’s comstreamer intact, and merely blocked incoming and outgoing signals, for fear of damaging his valuable mind.
All told, the Crelenk’s light touch gave Zach a precious gift: the mental space to strategize. While he had no prospect of “busting out,” he did have the comfort of working out a few if-then formulae on the off chance that he received help from the outside. Other than that, he entertained a vague sense of hope even if, as each day passed, it dimmed a little more.
But surely, he told himself, he must still have advocates. What about Altov and his peers in the Physics Department back home? What of the AI Adjudicator’s report and his blatant abduction from Bohr University campus without a warrant? Yet, as Zach been forced to realize, his cherished assumptions about the world outside Academia had been based on nothing. He now had ample evidence that his rights were only as solid as they were expedient.
Worse, the longer he stayed out of circulation, the more his only claim to exceptional treatment, i.e., his accomplishments in Temporal Physics, would lose its value. Brilliant as he might be, without access to the latest data, he could only maintain a faded imitation of his former stature, as he carried out fanciful “thought experiments” to pass the time.
It was in that frame of mind a month later that his resolve began to weaken. By then, the droning insistence of his male Crelenk psychologist had been replaced by the gentle persuasion of a female human therapist. His mood gradually shifted until, in his latest session, he veered dangerously close to conceding defeat. That night, exhausted, he lay alone in his darkened cell.
No advantage to resisting, he told himself. Not if no one else cares. Crelenk science is science, and they’re hardly destined for galactic domination.
He’d been on the verge of wondering what the harm would be in helping the aliens, until he remembered Dalamacras’ condescending snipes during his first captivity. Serving the Crelenk would be one thing. But what if it netted out to helping the Alegarli? No doubt the “bee people” had a distinct hegemonic agenda. Zach’s advances in any branch of his field would be farmed out immediately for practical applications of the most pernicious kind.
But what was he thinking? The accidental disruption of space-time caused by Ultramat’s poorly regulated latency fields was weapon enough for any killer. If the phenomenon that he’d witnessed in Loor TreVal’s living room could be modulated with pin-point precision and at varying distances, it would be more than enough to bring down the mightiest military forces in the Cosmic Consortium. For that reason alone, he finally realized, he must continue to resist. And now, finally, after several hours of manic non-sleep, the clarity of his resolve enabled him to drift off into a soothing….
The urgent chirp of his comstreamer forced him to sit bolt upright. Someone had broken through! Yet instead of a live voice, he heard the throb of pretentious music, followed by an echoing announcement:
A second later a familiar voice cut in as the music faded out.
“Dr. Griffin,” said the voice. “It’s Paula Altenberg at the Sidereal Chronical. Is this a good time to speak?”
From Paula’s official tone, Zach concluded that this was hardly the rescue call he’d hoped for. It was a carefully brokered interview opportunity, granted by the Haliak Colonial Governor to give the appearance of “cooperation with the interstellar community.” But that didn’t make the sound of Paula’s voice any less delicious.
“Yes,” he said. “Though I would have preferred a bit of advanced notice.”
Listening intently, Zach didn’t fail to notice the slight lilt that entered into Paula’s reply.
“Sorry about that, Dr. Griffin,” she said. “Obtaining permission across multiple interstellar authorities proved more difficult than my service anticipated. However, I hope you’ll consider answering a few questions for our subscribers.”
Zach agreed, with a touch of amused magnanimity that he hoped Paula picked up on. If so, it had no effect on her incisive interview. Was he aware, she asked, of the official protest filed jointly by Bohr University and WorldGov of his conviction without trial? Had he really confessed to the murder of Loor TreVal?
Zach’s answer to the first question was “no,” and he added a note of thanks for everyone in the human sphere who was working on his behalf. What he didn’t let on was his skepticism that WorldGov’s protest was more than pro forma posturing. Would his government really stick its neck out in the competitive interstellar political arena to defend a lone physicist ─ who had yet to cement his reputation? As to Paula’s second question, Zach recognized in it perhaps his last chance to proclaim his innocence before such a huge audience.
“The Crelenk’s say I signed a confession,” he said. “But I have no memory of it.’
“Interesting,” said Paula. “So your assertion is that the murder charge is fraudulent?”
“It’s not ‘my assertion,’” said Zach. “It’s a matter of fact. I did not kill Loor TreVal.”
“That’s news in the making,” said Paula. “You’ve just heard Dr. Griffin proclaim his innocence for the first time. Now, if you can, I need to confirm something for my audience. We have reports that less than seven rotations before your incarceration in Haliak Central Social Rehabilitation Center, you disappeared from Bohr University without notice. Are those reports true? And if so, where did you go?”
Zach breathed deep and tried to address the dilemma spread out before him. While this would have been the perfect opportunity to expose Dalamacras, he had plenty of reason not to tell the whole truth. With no corroborating evidence, his account would be taken as a desperate lie, concocted by a convicted killer. Besides, any mention of Dalamacras would surely have resulted in mind erasure or death. He decided to play it safe.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “My last memory before waking up in prison was walking down a flight of stairs in the Physics Department Annex at Bohr University.”
“Were you assaulted? Drugged?” asked Paula. “Dr. Griffin, the public has a right to know.”
“I … I can’t be sure what to tell them,” said Zach.
“Can’t be sure of the facts?” asked Paula. “Or can’t be sure what the outcome will be of revealing them?”
Zach gulped. His next answer could have life or death consequences. And yet there had to be some way to get his message across.
“I … sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand the question,’ he said.
“Hmm,” said Paula. “That’s surprising, coming from someone so highly regarded for his intellectual prowess. Is it fair to say that prison life has taken a toll on you?”
“Yes,” said Zach. “I’ve been having nightmares.”
“Really?” said Paula. “As a final thought, would you care to elaborate?”
“It will sound crazy, I know,” said Zach. “But I keep having the same dream that … that I’m being held captive by a member of the Alegarli.”
“Fascinating,” said Paula. “Well that’s all the time we have. I’ll have to leave it to our psychologists to make what they will of your nightmare. Thank you, Dr. Griffin. And good luck with your legal appeal.”
“Thank you for listening,” said Zach.
Again the throbbing theme music returned, over which Paula said.
“And that concludes our interview with….”
Zach was only too relieved to have the sound cut off. But he had painfully little time to enjoy the ensuing silence. Within seconds his cell was flooded with light and two Crelenk prison guards stormed in. The first guard through the threshold, who wore the equivalent of a Lieutenant’s uniform, fairly growled at him.
“Griffin Zach Doctor.” she said. “You will accompany.”
Zach stood up and let the two guards hustle him out of his cell and down the corridor, one on each arm. They led him first past familiar sections of the prison, then made an abrupt turn to a maglev lift he’d never seen in use. Five floors up, the lift doors opened onto a suite of spacious offices, decorated in High Crelenk style ─ a glittery mash-up of texture and materials that made Zach wince.
Need sunglasses, he told himself.
The two prison guards marched him into the waiting room of Warden Geel NaJor and stood stock still until a young Crelenk male crept out of the Warden’s office and motioned to Zach.
“You will enter,” he said.
Zach looked up at the guards, who stood at a curious, four-legged form of “attention,” and took their indifference for a signal to follow the young Crelenk. A moment later he was standing in front of a dark neowood desk. Behind it sat an unusually corpulent Crelenk, dressed in a uniform as ill-fitting as it was gaudy. Light from the Warden’s large windows glinted sharply off his brassy buttons.
“Griffin Zach Doctor,” he said. “It has come to our attention that there may have occurred certain irregularities in the processing of your case. You will sit, please.”
His head spinning, Zach perched as well as he could on a bright yellow octagon opposite the Warden’s desk.
“What irregularities?” he asked.
“It is not in my recollection,” said the Warden, “that I to you the permission to speak have given.”
To Zach’s raised eyebrows, Warden NaJor apologized for the misunderstanding and told him that a proper trial would be held “in the future not too distant.” Until then, he was to remain on Haliak and reside in temporary quarters, paid for by WorldGov. He would also be assigned human legal counsel.
“Do not be interpreting this as an … an exoneration,” said NaJor. “You are still under the suspicion. But you have also received the wrong and to that we offer apologizing.”
“Thank you,” said Zach.
“You will exit with Harris Colin, your legal counselor. But first there is someone who wants a word with you.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Zach saw a patch of air appear to blur and then acquire a hint of color. A few seconds later, the blur had resolved itself into a holojection. It was Dalamacras, who appeared every bit as menacing as the last time Zach had seen him.
“That was quite masterful,” said the Alegarli. “You managed to say nothing at all in your interview and yet still rewrite the script for the time being.”
“Don’t know what you mean,” said Zach. “I just told the truth. I don’t remember signing a confession and that bit about the nightmares is also true. Except you look much better in person.”
“Again,” said Dalamacras, “it pains me to see you waste your exquisite mind on such drivel. However, you have chosen your path and bought yourself a temporary respite from the … from the festivities. Your bill, however, is still due and you will pay it. If you’re smart, you’ll avoid all further contact with the press. I won’t be so forgiving next time ─ simply because I’ll have nothing left to lose.”
It was probably for the best that the holojection switched off before Zach could sputter out his sarcastic reply.
“Mr. Harris waits for you outside of my office,” said Warden Najol. “He will help you make the necessary arrangements for your resettlement.”
Without so much as a hand signal, the Warden turned his attention to a large quantum tablet at his left. Not knowing what else to do, Zach stood, gave the portly Crelenk a short bow and headed for the office door, which the Warden’s assistant seemed only too eager to push open for him. Preoccupied with trying to absorb what he’d just heard, it took Zach a few seconds to see the emaciated human waiting for him, dressed in an exquisitely tailored suit of the finest Dolanthian wool. Despite the elegant get-up, Zach recognized his face at once.
“Craig?” he asked. “What are you….’
The man in the suit put a finger to his lips and led Zach by the elbow out of the Warden’s waiting room, into the prison’s main hall, out through its central doors and down to the polyslate tiles that lined Kolaar Boulevard. As Zach couldn’t help noticing, Craig’s previously blue hair was now a natural shade of brown.
“The less anyone hears that name, the better,” he said.
“But which one is the real you?” asked Zach.
“On Haliak I’m Colin Harris,” said Zach’s new legal counsel. “The real Rynerson’s dead, so it hardly matters.”
“Hardly?” asked Zach. “Would you mind explaining….”
So-called “Colin Harris” stopped dead and shook Zach by the shoulders.
“Listen carefully,” he said. “You’re in so much superheated plasma right now that I could melt a bar of titanium on your forehead. So make up your mind. You either focus on what matters or you’ll be picking up leaves in Haliak’s municipal parks before the cycle is over.”
Zach stared at Colin a moment, then nodded. The two of them set off toward Zach’s temporary quarters, a small residence hotel at the edge of town.
“You bought yourself time,” said Colin. “But don’t think you’re in the clear.”
Zach’s eyes widened and he stopped short. He pointed to a small park bench to their left, which was now enveloped in a large patch of sparkling, shimmery air.
“Neither are you,” he said. “Nobody’s in the clear now.”
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, published by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Illustration by 8013345 / Pixabay