Five Minutes of Future
The woman sat on the cot, knees pushed up against her chest, head rested back on the white wall behind her. Her hands were clasped together, one clutched over the other with a grip that cut the blood supply leaving her skin pale, dappled and numb. Her eyes fixed on a point, but were out of focus; staring for the sake of staring, not for the sake of finding out what was there.
She was young enough, slim enough, tall enough, pretty enough to make the vision of her dead eyes haunting. Her still frame, her emotionless expression, and her blank gaze belonged to a statue, not a living, breathing human.
She wore a plain brown tunic with plain, loose beige pants. Her light brown hair was bunched together in a ponytail, tied in place with some scrap of black fabric she'd found in one the holding cells.
Occasionally she blinked, rarely she swallowed, but not once did she speak. She knew they were watching her, they never stopped watching. And she wasn't about to let them make her talk, they'd have to bother to ask the questions first.
After 5 more minutes of dead silence, she finally moved her eyes. She slowly pulled her head forward from the wall and tilted it towards the heavy metal door. She could feel someone coming along the corridor, see them walking into her cell before they'd even opened the door. She concentrated on the image, pushing her mind into the vision till the haze solidified into details. There was the prison warden and two guards. The guards had full black armour on, right down to the masks that covered their whole faces just leaving the bottom slice of their chin the only colour in sight. Even the numbers printed on their chest badges were grey.
They were getting closer, so she concentrated harder on the moment they would arrive, the moment the warden would saunter in, his weathered face warped into a sneer. She saw him lean in over her cot, bring his head next to hers, the skin on his neck stretching under the tight clasp of his black collar.
'You're going-' he began.
But just as she pushed herself deeper into the premonition, the door opened, and the prison warden and two guards walked in.
She pulled herself back with a snap. Sniffing, she parted her lips, ran her tongue over her teeth and let the edge come back to reality.
The warden let out a laugh, low, guttural and cold. 'Playing where you shouldn't be?' he asked, walking over to her as both the black armour clad guards took up position on either side of her cot, weapons pointed her way. He leant down to her level, his wrinkled hands resting on his knees, and slipped his head right next to her own. 'You're going,' he whispered.
She let her lips part and pull-up into what people considered a smile. But she wasn't having any fun. 'I'm probably already there,' she spoke through the smile, her teeth pressed up against her dry lips.
The warden straightened up, inclining his head to one of his guards. 'Funny, isn't she? But I know about you, Anna, and I know your abilities. Your precognition, though it's sharp, is only good for,' he made a face, apparently trying to pull some rough calculation out of the air. But he knew, he knew exactly the level of her abilities – he'd been the one to run the tests himself. But he still played the charade of estimating her, summing her up – yet another act to put her in her place. 'I don't know, maybe five minutes,' he smiled, the genuine smile of someone who lusts after control and has it almost completely. 'Five minutes into the future – that's the full range of your abilities. Too long to make you a good gun man, and far too short to make you any use as a Forecaster. You're stuck in the middle, of no use to the government, but too much of a danger to be let among the people. Making you simply a problem.'
Anna didn't move while he spoke. She didn't make eye contact, and she didn't once give a tremble or a twitch. No satisfaction, no satisfaction. She wasn't going to give these people a thing.
'So you're going, Anna. And don't tell me you already know where, because it is going to take you more than five minutes to get there.'
Anna finally sat forward, finally let a real crack of emotion run across her smooth façade. Her smile froze into a grimace, her blue eyes flickering. 'Warden, I already know where you're going,' she focused her attention on her lips letting them mouth the word before she spoke it: 'hell. You are going straight to hell. And I don't need to see more than five minutes into your future to know you'll die in flames, despair and destruction.' She forced her eyes to lock onto his, to damn the tears of emotion that welled at their edges – to just focus everything she could on holding his stare. 'So I don't give a damn where you're sending me, because it will be away for you and your personal little hell.'
He drew away, face hooded. She'd either rattled him, or he'd had enough of his little game. 'Anna, I'll be seeing you.' He turned on his feet, inserted a finger into the space between his neck and collar, and tugged it to the side. Then he walked from the room without a second glance. The two guards followed his footsteps almost exactly, though the last turned his head as he walked through the door, fixing his masked face in her direction. But the doors closed like a sharp breath of air before Anna had the chance to ask him what the hell he was staring at.
Nameless, faceless guards; vicious, weathered wardens; broken prisoners; brainless scientists – she'd seen it all. Nothing the warden could say, or not say, was going to make her frightened. Anna knew, without seeing it in a vision, what was waiting for her. It was more of the same, it was always more of the same. It would be some new facility on some other planet, or floating prison ship; some soulless pit the government had created to keep its citizens safe from the Future. She would wind up in the same kind of cell, on the same kind of metal cot, staring at the same damn kind of white walls.
The Common Alliance was going to hell, and it seemed no one had bothered to notice. For all its Forecasters, for all its so called 'caring' politicians, for all the vision of the government – it was all going to hell. And Anna, with her limited precog seemed to be the only person who could see it. The widening military rule, the anti sedition laws, the new surveillance techniques, the controls on the media, and, of course, Act 89.
The entire reason she was here – Act 89 – the law that had allowed the military to beat down her door and drag her off to a facility to have her mind analysed, her rights revoked, and her future owned. If it wasn't for Act 89 Anna would still be…. Well, she had never made much of her life, hadn't had a great fortune, a family, a husband, even a career - but at least she'd been free. She'd been free to make her own future, whatever that was. But now she was at their whim – beholden to the government who couldn't find a use for her, but couldn't let her go.
And now they were sending her away again. Off to some other facility…. There'd be more tests, more loneliness, and more white walls.
Anna couldn't see that far into her future, but she still knew what was waiting for her.
But there was one problem. Anna was wrong.
Gethsenamee, Mining Colony on the edge of Common Alliance Space
'Sir, we've got a Military transport coming in at 0800 tomorrow.' The woman turned in her chair and fixed her commanding officer with a serious gaze, her brows knotted and mouth tight. 'Who have you angered now?'
Temporary Colony Commander Bunnings shrugged his shoulders and chucked back the last dregs of his coffee. 'God, the Presidents, my mother,' he appeared to think hard as he sauntered over to his command chair at the centre of the deck, 'you're mother, probably, the tea ladies, the entire Pollaq race.' Bunnings sat roughly in his chair, spinning it until he stared straight out the massive windows that commanded a perfect view of the mining operation below. 'And possibly you,' he finished as he keyed something into his personal consol.
The woman's lips crinkled into a half smile. 'Definitely me,' she said under her breath. 'Sir, they're going to need a place to dock, apparently they have cargo to unload.'
Bunnings appeared to not hear her for a moment, he muttered under his breath instead and stared at some report as it flashed up on his consol. 'Hold on, Carter,' he snapped around, 'cargo? The military are unloading cargo here? They do realise we're a mining facility right, not one of their freaking weapons depots, or black op training planets?'
'I am sure they are well aware of that fact,' Carter's smile began to waver a little, 'and you should be careful about the way you phrase that, the military only act on the orders of our democratically elected government. If they are unloading cargo here then it will be for some very good reason.'
Bunnings ran a hand over his short grey beard and down his neck, the black fingerless gloves he always wore rough against his skin. He liked Carter. She almost had a sense of humour, and she always got her job done. But dammit, she was young, and she'd obviously heard a few too many stories about the glorious Common Alliance protecting its citizens likes so many heroes riding in on white horses. She probably slept soundly at night, safe in the thought that the government knew what was best. Bunnings however slept with a gun under his pillow and half an eye open. He'd been around too long, and seen far too much of the galaxy to believe in fairy tales anymore.
'Of course,' he conceded with a smile, 'ignore my colourful language, Carter.' He took a breath and turned back to the windows, casting a quick glance over the scene below. It was beautiful in its own way: the browns, reds and yellows of the dead planet. The twisted shadows of the equipment littered around the various dig sites like great gnarled trees in a forest touched by fire. It was silent, it was stark... but it was still calming for some reason. Maybe because it was honest in its desolation - he knew what he was looking at down there. This planet didn't have anything to hide, which was more than could be said of the rest of the galaxy.
'They are requesting a meeting with you, Sir. Suggested time 0830. Should I lock that in?'
Bunnings smiled wryly, still fixing his gaze on the planet below. They weren't suggesting a time of 0830, they were giving him an order. He may not be military, but even he could see that. 'Oh, I'll see if I can make it. In the mean time though,' Bunnings continued to flick through the night's status report on his consol, 'find out what this cargo is. Or if you can't do that, at least find out how big it is – I need to know now if we have to clear out one of our depots.'
'Yes, Sir,' Carter's voice was light, easy.
Bunnings bit his lip. So the military were depositing a mysterious cargo on a dead mining planet on the edge of Controlled Space. Carter may have taken the light and easy 'the government knows all and will protect all' approach, but Bunnings was too old for that crack. This was a mining operation, not a battle front. And he wanted to keep it that way. The Military could go and hang, and take their precious cargo with them.
Captain Max Hague's Office, Earth
'I won't work there,' the woman slammed her hand onto the table, 'this is a joke.' She flicked her blonde ponytail over her shoulder and pushed herself around the desk till she was barely a foot from him. 'Listen to me Max, this isn't going to happen.'
Max didn't move for a while, just held her gaze, hands clasped and rested on the clear glass of his desk. 'Carla, sit down, come on.'
'Sit down, Max, what exactly is that going to achieve?' Carla's pretty green eyes were blazing, a sight he'd seen too many times to find attractive any more.
'It's going to stop you from wearing a hole in my carpet. You know how much the military budgets for the replacement of its commanding officers carpets?'
Carla parted her red lips into a pout, readying some suitably wise crack response. But Max put up a hand.
'Nothing, not a damn cent. If, heaven forbid, that carpet gets a hole in it, I'm going to have to replace that with my own poultry salary. Now you really want me to spend all my money on carpets, Carla?'
'Shut up, Max,' she spat, as she finally slumped into the chair. 'You're doing it again.' She ran a thin hand over her hair, looping some errant strands away from her earrings. They were the same earrings Max had bought for her barely five years ago before they're failed engagement.
He'd never figured out why she still wore them.
'What am I supposed to be doing now?' he finally asked.
'You're trying to diffuse the situation by talking about crap that has nothing to do with it,' she crossed her arms, the yellow and blue of her Department of Archaeology uniform rumpling in place.
'Guilty, but only because we have already discussed the situation,' his voice changed in pitch and tone till it hit the note of severity he reserved for insubordinate officers and his ex fiancée. 'Carla, as much as you would like to think this is all my fault, god dammit it has nothing to do with me. I'm just the messenger here. It's your own department that has reassigned you, I'm just the transport.'
She slowly unfurled her arms and leant in over his desk, those gold and blue earrings glinting in the artificial sunlight that shone from above. Gold and blue, he'd bought them because they matched her uniform, and she'd always had a thing for fitting in. 'This has nothing to do with you?' she let out a laugh, low and full of spite, the kind that always made the hair on the back of his neck stiff. 'This has everything to do with you and your stupid war.' Her eyes flickered dangerously. 'If you hadn't destroyed that Pollaq battle ship none of this-'
Max stood up from his chair, hands planted on his desk, face as cold and stony as an asteroid. 'If I hadn't destroyed that battle ship, two of our colonies wouldn't be here anymore. You can question me, Carla, but don't you ever question that. I did what I had to. How was I to know the treaty had already been signed? Hell it wasn't about to stop the Pollaq, so why the hell should it have stopped me?'
Carla seemed to a recede a bit, like a tide lapping away from the shore. She took a deep breath. 'Look, I didn't mean it that way. But you were almost court marshalled, and ever since then your rising star has been falling.'
Max felt a stab of sickly remorse drive through his stomach, though he squared off his jaw and managed to show no sign of it. Before that court marshal he'd been climbing the ranks faster than a meteor shooting through the atmosphere. He'd been the youngest ship's captain in 50 years. They said he'd be an admiral by the end of the Pollaq war. But on the very day the war ended, so had his career. Two hours after Earth had signed the peace accord with the Pollaqs, he'd shot down a Pollaq battle ship engaged in hostilities with two Earth colonies on the edge of Common Space. Neither he nor the Pollaq captain had heard about the accord… till it was too late.
'They shuffled you, Max, right off to the side. You were too big a war hero to land you with a dishonourable discharge, but the Pollaq's weren't going to rest with you getting a slap on the wrist either. You were almost court marshalled, then stuck with a desk job –'
'Really, Carla, I don't need the update – I was there.'
'So was I, Max!' her voice shot up like pocket of gas catching fire. 'I was the one who watched as your medals were ripped from your chest, as your ship was taken from you, as the light went out from behind your eyes, as you desperately tried to find something else to fight but couldn't-'
'No, Max, don't tell me you don't have anything to do with this – you have everything to do with this. They have given you this new "command" to get you further away from Earth, further away from the government, from the Pollaq ambassadors. They want you to disappear, and I'm getting dragged down with you.'
Max reached for the glass of water on his desk, but thought better of it. He'd probably crush the glass before managing to take a sip, or end up throwing it against the wall. He licked his lips instead. 'Carla, I will ask them to leave you out of this. There are still those that owe me favours, big favours.'
She leaned back, looking away from him, her earrings getting caught in her hair. They always got caught in her hair… but she wore them anyway.
'General Takayama owes me a hell of a favour, I saved his squadron from a Pollaq heavy cruiser back in the war… I'll ask him what he can do.'
Carla almost smiled. 'You think that's going to be enough?'
Max finally picked up the glass of water and took a sip, returning it to the table softly. 'No. If the Department of Archaeology want you on that planet, they're going to have more reason than simply wanting to piss me off. You're one of their best, regardless of whether you were once accidently engaged to the disgraced Captain Max Hague. Perhaps there really is something on that planet.'
Carla arched an eyebrow, tilting her head to the side. 'It's a dead planet on the edge of Common Space. They mine heavy metals – what the hell am I supposed to find there?'
'I don't know. But if the military are sending me there to take command, then there must be something up.'
'No, Max, they're sending you there to get you as far away from Earth as possible. They want you somewhere out of the way, and out of the line of fire. They don't want you anywhere where you might come into combat again. They're burying you out there.'
She looked slowly to the side, and he knew what she was going to say before she said it – because she always got that look on her face. 'Max-'
'No, I don't want to hear it-'
'Why don't you just quit?' she looped the hair from her earrings again. 'Just quit. You don't owe them anything. You were a war hero, and they treated you like crap just so they didn't anger the Pollaqs. They hung you out to dry-'
He scratched his neck and readjusted the pips on his collar. 'They did what they had to do – I don't blame them-'
'Yes you do! And you should. But you don't do anything about it! Just walk away. Quit the goddamn military and get your self-respect back.'
'I will not quit the military,' he said quietly, 'that's not how battles are won.'
'You are not in a battle, Max, the war is over. Now the only war you fight is the one in your head…'
'You don't win battles by running away from them,' he repeated, 'I have been knocked down, but by hell I'm going to get back up. And I'm going to do it by playing their rules. You never run away from a fight just because it's hard, Carla.'
'There isn't a fight anymore – you've lost. You can't get back up from this – they're sending you away so you'll never, ever be in a situation to get back up. This mining planet is a joke. There's nothing you are going to do there to get their attention again, to earn back your pride-'
'My pride is the only thing I have left,' he sat up straighter, 'and I'm taking this command. If there is one thing I have learnt about the universe, it's that the future is never fixed. Who knows what I'm going to find on Gethsenamee.'