[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]
With pressure building from WorldGov and its allies, Zach’s impending trial had taken on the aura of an interstellar incident. Thanks to Paula’s interview, he now realized, his case had become a symbol of government corruption. As Colin Harris, aka Craig Rynerson, pointed out, odds of his exoneration were climbing.
But given what the Alegarli’s willful negligence was doing to the fabric of space-time, Zach could be excused for not celebrating.
“There’s no point in being free in a universe about to implode,” he told Colin. “If I could access the data I collected after I met with Loor TreVal….”
“Forget it,” said Colin. “Whatever else that sparkly thing is, it’s also evidence. Any attempt you make to study it would count as evidence tampering. You’d trash all the good will you racked up with that interview.”
Yet as desperate as Zach was to stop Dalamacras’ reckless abuse of physical laws, he was distracted by a nagging thought.
“Once you discovered Ultramat’s secret,” he said, “why did you bother to pose as Rynerson? The University would’ve given your white paper every consideration. I know Altov. He’d have led the analysis team himself. And why wait five cycles to try again?”
“Five cycles ago,” said Harris, “that was the real Rynerson. We saw the reception he got and decided that Academia wasn’t ready for the truth. Once your story came out, we thought if we could reach you, we’d get some action — but we weren’t ready to show our hand.”
“We?” asked Zach. “Now I know how a football feels, when it’s kicked from player to player. Where are you planning to take me?”
Harris stared at him.
“It’s not like that.” he said. “Come on, you ought to have figured a few things out by now. The treatment you got from the Alegarli is the way of the universe. You think WorldGov doesn’t have a few thousand “suspicious operatives,” in lock-up right now?”
“So you’re the good hijacking kidnappers?” asked Zach.
By now, they’d reached the steps of a small, four-story octagonal building that tapered off at the top to an egg-shaped dome. Colin grabbed Zach’s left forearm.
“Here’s what I am,” he said. “Your last chance to ensure you live long enough to save me from that … sparkly air. Is that honest enough for you? Make up your mind. I can leave you right here for Dalamacras to find, unless Cosmos gets you first.”
Zach wrenched his arm away from Colin’s grip and tugged at his off-blond hair with both hands.
“Do my new quarters have a street view?” he asked.
The two humans walked up a short polyslate stoop and, based on Colin’s retina scan, gained access to the low-rise townhouse. A short ride in a narrow maglev lift later, they emerged on the top floor. Here, too, the Crelenk preference for bold, bright interior colors made him squint. Zach noticed that there was only one door off the corridor.
“You have the whole floor,” said Colin. “Which is good, because you’ll have to stay in until your court date. Anywhere else is too risky.”
A second retina scan unlocked the door to what Zach now saw was a suite of rooms decorated in “human style” ─ or rather the closest approximation the decidedly alien Crelenk could manage. While the oversized, aqua-marine-plaid living room couch was large enough for a pair of hippopotami, the dining room chairs were only suitable for small children. And, had Zach looked, he would have seen that the bathroom was a comedy of errors that barely squeaked by in terms of functionality.
“Better off here than out on the street,” said Colin. “If you stay long enough, I’ll see what I can do about the … irregularities.”
“You mean there’s a chance my trial will be moved up?” asked Zach.
As Colin explained, the Crelenk, as a second-tier political power, couldn’t afforded to be stuck between the humans and Alegarli for long.
“The sooner they release you,” said Colin, “the sooner WorldGov gets off their scaly, cylindrical backs. Of course, once released, you’re fair game for Dalamacras again, this time with no apparent involvement by the Haliak colonial governor.”
“So even my good luck is bad luck,” said Zach. “Can’t you get me a tablet? I can’t spend all day watching Crelenk holovids. They make even less sense when they’re dubbed.”
Colin snapped his fingers.
“That reminds me,” he said. He hurried over to a lopsided, blonde-wood credenza on the opposite wall of the living room and reached into one of its front shelves. He returned with a silvery data cylinder in his right hand, which he tossed to Zach. “I have to step out for a few hours. Take a look at this. We can discuss it when I get back.”
“Discuss what?” asked Zach. “When?”
“Gotta go,” said Colin.
Zach’s sad eyes watched his only contact with the outside world slip into the hallway and engage the electronic door lock. He glanced around the Crelenk’s surreal approximation of human living quarters and sat down gingerly on the ungainly couch.
Prisoner again, he thought.
Far from saving the universe, his mission was to survive. As Colin had warned, winning his trial would win him no protection from Dalamacras. His best bet, ultimately, might be to liquidate his holdings, empty his credit account and buy himself passage on a star liner, headed for the remote regions of the Cosmic Consortium.
Take my chances in the uncharted sectors, he thought.
At that, Zach shuddered. Life on a world without a quantum computing infrastructure was unthinkable. And just as hard to endure would be a population of sentients whose view of the universe was necessarily rather limited. With no knowledge of faster-than-light travel, let alone the wide array of worlds that space-folding ships had opened up, they would likely still be chained to a host of archaic ideas about their place in the universe.
At that thought, Zach was reminded of the general course in cultural evolution he’d taken as a student. As hard as it was to believe, the current theory predicted that every advanced civilization had gone through a phase in which its residents believed the cosmos had been created especially for them. How would he fare amongst people who entrusted every aspect of their lives to the will of one or even several imaginary beings?
Better stay closer to home, he decided.
Yet exactly how far away was far enough from Dalamacras within the Cosmic Consortium? If the Alegarli caught up with him a second time, he’d have nowhere to hide — and least of all, a relatively benign Crelenk prison.
Rather than torment himself further with nightmare scenarios, he decided that Colin’s data cylinder might be distracting enough to clear his head. He glanced around and found a standard-issue holovid player mounted to the wall to his left, almost out of reach. With a flick of his wrist, he inseted the cylinder and stepped back.
A holoimage of a dignified woman in a dark green military uniform emerged less than a meter in front of him. Her snow white hair gleamed from an unseen light source and made Zach wonder if she‘d been standing on the bridge of a starship.
“Good day,” she said, “This is Fleet Commander Alison Dohnányi, WorldGov Sector Three. Though I assume that if you’re seeing this, your “day” is less than optimal. We had hoped, Dr. Griffin, to prevent the events of the past few rotations.’ Obviously, the Alegarli were several moves ahead of us. But to our credit, the minute we saw you in that compromising spaceport video, we knew….”
Zach stopped the holovid.
Has everybody seen that? he asked himself. My parents? My students? Paula?
Yet as humiliating as that thought was, he knew he didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in remorse. He’d just have to make a point of counting his drinks in future. Provided, that is, the universe didn’t collapse before that future could possibly emerge. With a deep sigh, he resumed the holovid.
“…we knew,” Commander Dohnányi was saying, “that you’d been targeted by disruptive forces. Yet, when we saw that you’d been captured by Dalamacras, we were unable to rescue you for fear of compromising our surveillance methods. We apologize for the harm that may have come to you. Rest assured, however….”
Zach listened to the rest of the Commander’s speech in a dark mood, perking up only at the mention of the lander that was scheduled to descend into an octagonal plaza a few hundred meters from his quarters. Though he understood the Commander’s reluctance to extract him by transmat, per protocol, he wished for once that he hadn’t been quite so persuasive in describing the nature of the threat to Colin.
While the thought of immanent rescue filled the young physicist with hope, Zach was troubled by the idea of “skipping bail,” and landing in more legal hot water as a fugitive. But after what he’d seen since he returned from his first trip to Haliak colony, it was clear that the law, as such, had become meaningless.
Focus on survival, he admonished himself.
That is, living long enough to establish a link between the granular effect and Ultramat’s lingering latency zones. Beyond that, he’d ceased caring. After what he’d seen of life, he wasn’t enthusiastic about enduring more of the same. At the moment, however, he was barred from both action and inaction.
“Wish I could get some news,” he said to the four walls.
A mellow machine voice, emanating from the apartment’s concealed entertainment center startled him by replying with a menu of audio or holographic news options, including local, worldwide and interstellar. Considering the sheer volume of information implied by the last option, Zach chose “Sector Court” from a submenu. Almost immediately, a slick corporate holojection filled his irregularly-shaped living room. A smooth-tongued newsreader appeared in the threshold leading to Zach’s still unexplored kitchen.
“… on the docket this arc is the shocking murder trial of Professor Zach Griffin, late of Central Colony Four’s renowned Bohr University. Accused of the brutal murder of the Crelenk singer-songwriter Loor TreVal….”
Zach shook his head. What, he wondered, made the newsnets pepper their stories with irrelevant details? He thought back to the unfamiliar music he’d heard in Loor’s home the one time they’d met, but … but no. The whole point, the only point was the granular effect. He might had drifted off into a lengthy solitary mental rant if it weren’t for the disturbing images that soon flashed in front of him.
What was the news reader saying?
“Apparently riled by the controversial nature of the Griffin case, a crowd of protesters is growing steadily outside a small townhouse on the outskirts of Delubruath, capital city of the Crelenk lunar colony of Haliak As you may recall, it was to Haliak that Griffin was extradited for trial earlier this arc. Was the extradition legal? Well, the jury’s still out on that. But from the look of that crowd, there are a lot of Crelenks and a fair number of humans who think this once-promising astrophysicist is guilty as charged..”
Zach’s eyes widened at the sight of a scraggly mob that, he realized must be right below him. Was the townhouse secure? The next sound he heard was the door to his apartment opening. His heart pounding, he crouched down pointlessly behind the living room’s hideous couch and held his breath. The last thing he expected to hear was a familiar voice.
“Relax, it’s just me,” said Colin.
Zach’s supposed attorney switched off the holojection by voice command and peered around the couch at him.
“Don’t blame you for being scared,” he said. “But the mob has the wrong building. They’re about three blocks away — though I wouldn’t count on them being confused for long. So come on. Time to go.”
To Zach’s puzzled face, Colin explained that the two of them would soon be joining Fleet Commander Dohnányi, whose ship was parked in a geostationary orbit on the other side of Haliak.
“How?” asked Zach. “I guess you’re not really a Worldgov lawyer.”
“Sure I am,” said Colin. “But it’s a sideline. Now move it.”
Zach’s heart sank as he realized his vague hope of returning to his beloved lab on Bohr University campus after a flashy show trial was permanently shattered. After a nerve-wracking ride in the building’s tiny maglev lift, they were down at street level again. At once, Zach was assaulted, not by the mob, but by a confusing tangle of whispered commands from Colin.
“This way. Keep you head down,” said his impossibly thin savior.
The arbitrary nature of the route they followed made Zach’s rational head spin. Yet he knew that nothing but strict obedience would give him the slightest chance of escape. Case in point was the roar of Crelenk and human voices mingling in the distance as Colin hustled him down Delubruath’s twisted back alleys
Never had the 26-year-old run so hard and fast, even as a child. Sweat poured down his cheeks and it was all he could do, in his ill-fitting prison-issue shoes, to keep from falling on his face.
Half an hour later, Colin nudged him around one last street corner and into the large back lot of what Zach assumed was an abandoned warehouse. As they approached the center of the lot, a large military lander lowered its light-cancelling shield just enough to reveal an entry hatch.
“Jump in,” said Colin, who followed close behind. No sooner was the hatch shut tight than the lander lifted off vertically on its whisper-quiet thrusters. A second later it was airborne. But if Zach assumed that the ship’s light canceling tech was foolproof he was quickly disappointed. As the ship rose rapidly above the rooftops of Delubruath, the dull thud of particle gun-fire on the hull broke the crew’s breathless silence.
“Surface-to-air missiles at 130 degrees,” the ship’s second-in-command shouted.
“Since when do the Crelenk…” said the navigator.
The captain’s voice growled out from the forward bulkhead.
“Enough chatter!” he said. “Escape velocity in….”
A flash of reddish-yellow light, accompanied by the sound of crunching hull material filled Zach’s ears as his heart started pumping sheer terror in lieu of blod. As if there was any doubt they’d been hit, the downward tug of gravity instantly confirmed his worst fears.
This is it, he thought. Why not? Entropy is the only cosmic force that counts. What was the point? What was the….
A second missile hit and a gaping hole appeared in the bulkhead behind him. Anything not bolted down flew out into the onrushing air, including the navigator
“Grab hold of something!” Colin shouted.
Zach gripped the arms of his acceleration chair until his fingers turned white and squeezed his eyes shut. A moment later, the lander hit solid ground in a terrific crash and rolled sideways along a wide city boulevard. Jolted out of his seat, Zach’s skull smashed hard against the lander’s ceiling. As consciousness drained out his mind, the final sound to reach his ears was the crackling of an electrical fire ignited by a ripped-out power cable.
And all the while, the lander, a searing pile of twisted carbon composites on the verge of exploding, continued to roll toward an uncertain destination.
(To be continued)
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.
Design by Steven S. Drachman from an original image by Brian Mcgowan /Unsplash