A man in a blue jacket glanced up at the starry sky. Although the constellations could be clearly made out, the sun was in a position that suggested it was noontime, and the ground was illuminated as such.
The man was watching a small point of light, moving across the sky and growing larger all the time.
"Okay, R9 completed," crackled the radio next to him. "I'm coming in."
Michael J'aime slowly brought the cruiser down on the landing pad. During real flights, he knew, he would be guided by a landing beam, but for the test he had to do it by hand. He stepped down on to the blinking pad as the ship powered down and waited for the word from the man in the blue jacket.
The man looked down at his notebook.
"Well," he said, looking up, "you turned a little sharp at point six, probably because of your experience with military planes, but other than that, I see no reason not to pass you. Here, take this," he handed Michael a faintly glowing green card, "bring it to Paul. If you don't know the way, just plug it into any mapping console. He'll get you in anywhere possible... he respects my recommendations. You'll probably get a ferrying job for that new military outpost they've got up now."
The man smiled, and was about to walk away when he remembered something.
"By the way," he said, "I don't believe I caught your name."
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Michael, "Michael J'aime... and you're Ryan, right?"
"Michael J'aime? Is that what you said?"
Michael looked up and suddenly noticed that Ryan's jaw had dropped and an almost comical look of surprise had come over his entire face.
"Uh, yeah, that's what I said... why?"
"How is it spelled?"
Michael spelled it out.
"Mike? Whoa... hey..." Ryan stammered, "I told you my name was Ryan... but you might know me better as S'Jak."
Now it was Michael's turn to be surprised.
"Man," said S'Jak, "It sure brings the memories back, doesn't it?"
Michael just stared off into space.
He was running as hard as he could. The devices attached to him wouldn't let him stop anyway. He knew they were monitoring him, finding out all the could about the human race and it's limits in their own twisted way. He knew he would eventually drop from exhaustion, and that when he did, it would be on to more and worse experiments. Just like everyone else here, he couldn't remember a time when life was not like this. But today, his cellmate S'Jak, he didn't know how, had managed to block the mental monitors that had replaced all other security measures in the TOG camp...
Michael looked up.
"Yeah," he said, "Yeah, it sure does."
Somewhere nearby, the sleeper awakens for a short time.
"Where am I?"
"All will be made clear in time."
"Why is it so dark?"
"You haven't been connected to his eyes yet."
"What? Whose eyes?"
"As I said, all will be made clear in time."
"But-but who are you? Who am I? Why can I remember nothing?"
"You haven't been born yet. Now relax, you must sleep again before your time comes."
He never got used to it. Although Michael had been flying this route for seven years, ferrying people back and forth from the outpost, he still felt a sense of awe whenever he made the landing run. He didn't know what it was there for, or what lay inside, but he knew from what the news media had been allowed to say about it that it was one of the greatest technological achievements of the Carsan civilization, and the most deadly. Yet it seemed to hold that fact in a kind of modest grace as it floated over what the Carsans had called Earth until they found out that it's name to the rest of the galaxy was K'talah 3.
Michael looked around his ship and reflected that he might never see it again... As S'Jak had predicted, the man Paul, now his boss, had given him this job as soon as he could, but had still left a lot to be desired as far as pay went. Still, he had been able to support himself for the last seven years, and even having a job in today's economy was something 25% of the people should be extremely happy about, and the rest could only wish for. The economy in a system based on working to eat wasn't holding up too well when work was no longer required of 75% of the population, but eating was still a must-have for everyone.
Michael could count himself doubly lucky. Not only had he been able to hold on to a job, he had been offered a better one. The Carsan Security Forces had offered him a job doing basically the same as what he was doing now, ferrying for the outpost, the only difference would be that it would be much more high-profile people. He knew that he would have to take it. The Security Forces considered themselves the best of the best and paid as much. And there was Sarah... If he was ever going to marry her as he had planned, he couldn't support them both on his current salary. He sat back and thought about seeing her again when he got home for the rest of the auto-landing.
"Michael, you know very well that the only kind of 'security' the Security Forces are interested in is the security of their mining profits! I've heard it said, and I agree wholeheartedly, that if someone found a reliable way to mine Rinn from asteroids, The Security Forces would blow this whole planet up to get it more easily! They don't care about people's lives down here on the planet, just because that People Of the Universe Democracy thing put them in charge doesn't mean they can do anything they want! And you know they do, too. Why the last time the courts tried to impose law on them-"
Michael sighed. He had hoped for a quiet evening with Sarah, but once again it had turned into an argument about his getting a job at the Security Forces.
"Now, Sarah, I won't be a part of any of that. It's just the same job I had before, but now I cart their people back and forth to that military outpost."
"I still don't like it."
"Listen, you said we should get married, didn't you? Well, in order to do that, I'll have to either get a mysterious million dollar check in the mail or take this job."
"I could get a job, Michael."
"Not easily. You know the state of the economy... This opening in the Security Forces could be the last one in years."
"Oh, I don't know... be careful, Michael."
"Hey, don't worry about me... I'll be fine."
Michael sat down in the luxurious office across from the Security Forces recruitment officer, a Mr. Willis.
"Are you quite comfortable, Mr. J'aime?"
"As you know, there is a shortage of qualified pilots for the position we are offering you."
Michael raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"No, no, there is no shortage of workforce, what is short is our criteria. Which you, sir, fully meet, and even surpass."
He flipped, over a piece of paper on his desk and read it.
"Let's start with military experience. You were extremely active in the war for K'talah 4, or as those who now own it call insist upon calling it, Mars." He nearly spat the word. "Why they would choose to name their planet after an archaic mythological deity is beyond me, unless they want to pick a fight with the POUD. In which case, it is strangely appropriate that they chose the name of the god of war. But never minding the outcome of the war, you did recieve valuable experience. You were even commended for being a technical genius.
"But that's not all. After the war, you went on to get your commercial license, scoring very highly on the test, I might add. You received a job ferrying people to the very station we need you for. That was seven years ago, and your record has been perfect ever since."
He pushed the piece of paper aside and leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk.
"This breaks standard recruitment policy, Mr. J'aime, but you are a very valuable person to us as far as this job goes and if you need any special... benefits to convince you, I'm sure they could be arranged. If I have evaluated your character correctly, Mr. J'aime -- and I believe I have -- than you are not the kind of person to rush into a decision like this. However, even if you have made your decision already, I encourage you to go home and sleep on it before answering."
Michael shifted his weight in his chair.
"Well, Mr. Willis, you've told me about the good side of working here, now let me tell you about my reservations. Here's the main one: your reputation. You must know already that the public opinion of you is genuinely horrible. Many people I know well believe that you are just in it for the mining profits. They-"
"Yes, I've heard that around," said Mr. Willis icily. "Let me propose to you a hypothetical scenario, Mr. J'aime. What if the Security Forces ceased to exist tomorrow? Do you know what would happen? Chaos. None of these countries get along without a guiding authority, just as on a smaller level people cannot get along without a police force to make sure they do. We directly control the flow of money between nations. If that were to fall apart, so would the economy, and money would become meaningless. You think the economy is in a bad state now, try imagining it controlled by mobsters who were constantly at war and whose only interest is to gain themselves power. We have an extremely large job to do, and what do you think funds it? Mining profits, that's what. And not only that. We represent the human race in front of the POUD. I know a lot of people don't like them, but they are MUCH better to have as a friend than an enemy."
"Yes, but what about the TOG? By aligning ourselves with the POUD, we are picking some very nasty fights with some very nasty races, who are also not good to have as enemies."
"Ah yes, the TOG. They've been doing pretty well against the POUD, until now. Now is when we play OUR part. The Carsan civilization will have a good seat with the POUD when our Genome Project is complete."
"Genome?" Michael asked, suddenly surprised, "Wasn't genetic engineering on live organisms banned over a millennium ago?"
"But these TOG are different! They don't play fair! We must fight them on their own ground!"
"Wait. Stop right there. I know this trick and don't even think about it. You're trying to give me classified information so I'll have to work with you. Won't work. My ears are CLOSED. I heard nothing about any genome project or any other illegal activity that you are participating in. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going home. I believe I've made my decision, but if I change my mind, I'll contact you."
Michael hadn't brought money for riding home, so he had to walk the several blocks back to his apartment. After a while of walking, he began to feel a creepy sensation that he was being followed. He looked behind him and noticed a Security Forces officer, seemingly patrolling, glance at him. He became scared, and decided to duck into an alley to catch his breath.
As he walked into the space between two old broken down buildings, he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he jumped and spun around.
"S'Jak!" he said in a loud whisper.
"Michael, you have to get out of here, now. Sarah too. Get out, Michael, I'm not kidding. You are in very real danger."
"Wha- h-how? How do I get out?"
"You come with me."
"I'll explain it to you when we get there."
"W-wait a second-"
"Out of time, Mike... sorry. Turn around."
Michael turned around and saw three Security Forces officers running into the alley. When he turned his head and looked behind him, S'Jak was gone.
"You, sir, are under arrest. Please hold all questions pertaining to your detainment until you have fully submitted to us at the local station. Every word you say is being recorded, and is legal to be used as evidence in a court of law. Saying anything at the current moment will be considered as resisting arrest. Now, put your hands on your head and step out of the alley."
"All right, I'm at the station. Now do you think you could tell me what I did?" said Michael. He was sitting in a chair across from the Security Forces Chief Officer in the city's police station, with his hands locked in beams which would not allow him to move them from behind himself.
"Don't worry, Mr. J'aime, you are just what we call a 'Preliminary Unlikely Suspect,' which means we think that you probably didn't do it, but we need to ask you some questions anyway."
"So, what's the crime?"
"Breaking and entering and murder. The victim being the late Sarah Carlson."
Michael's eyes grew wide and he passed out.
The Chief Officer gestured to the two guards standing at the door.
"Put him in a stasis cell until he wakes up, then bring him back here for further questioning."
Mr. Willis called the Chief Officer into his office.
"Do you have him?"
"Yeah, he passed out so we put him in a stasis cell."
"Good. Now listen carefully. He doesn't leave that cell. Ever. Everything about him is completely deleted, except that he is a convicted murderer to be kept in maximum security for life. I'll handle the press side of things. Expect the 'CITY MAN MURDERS GIRLFRIEND' headlines soon, and don't answer any questions. Understand?"
The Chief Officer sighed heavily and got to work. He always hated these deletion jobs. But he sure didn't want to be next.
TO BE CONTINUED...