Today was the day I feared the most. For three months, I had been living in a good friend's rundown apartment here in Undercity, hiding like a scared, pathetic little child. I was a hunted fugitive up there in Overworld. Each year, two citizens are randomly chosen from the government database. Our number would be called, so-to-speak, and we would report very early in the morning at the Capitol on Scarlet Thread Day. By the luck of the draw, one of us would be executed in front of the Capitol before thousands of eagerly watching citizens. Those who couldn't be there in person watched from their screens. The other would be sent to the headquarters of SPANS, the Space & Aeronautics National Service, where they would be given a spacesuit, thrown into a prison ship, and flown to our second moon, Artemis II. Once there, he or she is to fend for him or herself in a hostile environment or die trying. Nothing about that appealed to me—neither being executed in public nor being sent to a hostile world alone to fend for myself. So when I received the dreaded notice in my mail, I packed my bags as fast as I could, bringing only the essentials with me. I changed my hair color from black to blonde and my eye color from dark brown to blue and took on a new name and identity. I even underwent a drastic face reconstruction surgery in a seedy part of Undercity to change the shape of my eyes. Sawyer Matsuo died that day. In his place now stood Raymie Tournier.
I was dreaming about my sweet Angela, the girl I left behind at home in Overworld, when my sleep was interrupted by loud bangs against the metal door of Miko's apartment. My heart pounded as loudly as the battering ram that the authorities used. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! Miko rushed out of his room, hand on his pistol, ready to fire in order to defend me. I grabbed mine and adjusted the setting, sliding the switch to Kill. At the same moment, the SWAT team's captain bellowed.
"Prepare the particle cannon!" the captain yelled at the top of his lungs. They were going to obliterate the door if they had to. My heart pounded louder and I began to sweat, beads forming on the nape of my neck and the crown of my head. I could hear my heartbeat thundering like a thousand cavalries inside my chest. The rush of my blood sounded like a mighty waterfall in my ears. Then I heard another sound. I strange high-pitched whirring that could only be the cannon being charged. Without warning, a blinding beam of light shot through the door, obliterating it along with the table, a couple of chairs, a third of the kitchen counter, stove, and sink. It made a huge gaping hole in the kitchen wall. Miko rolled out of the way of the blast, avoiding being melted into nothingness and I did the same, landing safely on my mattress in the living room. I fired at the captain but missed, shooting one of his men instead. Miko fired in quick succession, taking down six Overworld police officers. There were fourteen of them left, including the captain. I fired again, but my target jumped out of the path of the blast and I hit the balustrade on the stairwell outside.
"Enough!" the captain screamed, aiming his pistol at Miko and pulling the trigger. Miko's body became rigid as though struck by lightning during a thunderstorm then promptly went limp. I screamed. One of the cops kicked his dead body aside. "Leave it! Arrest him, you fools!"
In my sorrow and anger, my eyes filled with tears and I couldn't see a thing. It was like trying to see in a pool of chlorinated water. Everyone and everything moved in slow-motion. That's when they grabbed the opportunity to swoop in and take me. But I wouldn't let them. I fought as hard as I could, kicking and punching. I would not be taken alive. I punched one officer in the face and another in his stomach. I viciously attacked another, biting down hard on his neck until I drew blood. Then I spit his blood and my saliva in his face, obscuring his vision. I kicked one in the knee and another in the ground. I employed every martial arts move I could remember. I punched the police captain in the nose, breaking it. Blood poured from it like a faucet. I took the opportunity while he was distracted with his broken nose and dived for Miko's keys on the floor. I rolled out of the open door and ran down the stairwell, sometimes jumping multiple steps at a time, until I reached the garage in the basement. Once there, I frantically searched for Miko's Airspeeder, looking behind me every few seconds to see if any of those goons were after me. They were. I had to find the Airspeeder fast. I had to get the hell out of there. When I found the speeder, I hopped onto it, put the key in the ignition, and started the engine. Then I kicked up the side stand and the speeder rose into the air, taking me to freedom and safety. I zoomed out of that miserable garage and into the nightlike day of Undercity. The city lights and the neon signs of the Red Light District zoomed by me as I flew past with thirteen men at my tail. I tried to confuse them, feinting left as though I were about to take a left turn and then suddenly veering right. I effectively lost two of them. A third policeman slammed straight into a wall, crushing both the wall and his speeder and killing himself on impact. He had the guts to pull up alongside me and ordered me to stop. I nudged his speeder with mine. One down, twelve to go. I had to eliminate them before they caught to me. I was running out of time. And luck. With one hand on the left handlebar and the other on my pistol, I twisted my body to fire at my pursuers. I hit one of them square on the chest, causing him to fall out of his vehicle and deep down into the dark recesses of Level V below. His speeder crashed into a floating garbage barge ahead and exploded on impact, creating a dangerous giant ball of fire and methane gas. The exploding barge took down three of my pursuers, causing three more mini explosions. I heard the captain shouting.
"We'll mourn them later, boys!" he said. "Right now, we have a terrorist to catch!"
I laughed at the absurdity of that statement. Me? A terrorist? I would never commit such an atrocity. I wouldn't even harm a tiny annoying Iq'ath if I came upon it. All I was doing was hiding—avoiding being sent to Artemis II, or worse, executed. With the help of my speeder's headlights, I spotted a hole in the rockface ahead of me. Water was pouring from it so I knew it had to be a sewer system. I also knew it would lead me back to freedom and away from my persecutors. I pressed on, flying into the gargantuan pipe and winding my way through Overworld's sewers. Orange white-tipped Phoxdian rats scurried away at my approach, spooked by the sound of my speeder's engine and the rush of air and dirty water as I flew by. Above me, I saw a glimmer of light through a grate. I pointed my speeder's nose upward and burst through, onto the busy streets of Overworld. People screamed, running helter-skelter as they jumped out of the way of my moving vehicle. As I turned a corner, I was surprised to find the SWAT team captain waiting for me, six of his surviving men standing behind him. They must've found another way out. I swore.
"Halt!" the captain shouted, raising his pistol, pointing it straight at me. "I will not hesitate to shoot!"
"Then shoot me," I challenged him. "I dare you."
That was my mistake. The captain didn't hesitate to shoot. He fired and hit me on my left shoulder. Another officer fired his weapon and hit my right leg. Another hit my right thigh. I fell of my speeder, bleeding and subdued. All six men jumped on me, trapping me beneath a human mountain until the captain yelled for them to make way for him so he could cuff me. The mechanism snapped shut with a buzz and I could no longer do anything. Overworld Police used handcuffs called shockcuffs. Each time you struggled or resisted, the device sent electric shockwaves through your body. There was even a collar. But that was for the really dangerous criminals. Suddenly, darkness enveloped me again, and for a second, I thought I was back in Undercity. It turns out they put a black hood over my head. This was it. I was done for. I was riding to the Capitol to my doom. Under the cover of that dark hood, the streets felt familiar and yet unfamiliar. Now I wasn't sure where we were headed. When we arrived at our destination, my captors removed the hood from over my head, blinding me momentarily. As the sudden brightness decreased, I saw what looked like a magnificent building of glass and steel. The grounds were surrounded by trees and flowers, a fountain, and statues. On the other side of the facilities, I could see hangars dotting the horizon. And then I saw the launchpad that loomed in the distance like an iron giant. At that moment, I knew where we were. We were at the SPANS headquarters. The guards uncuffed me and I was ushered into a fitting room where a grumpy old man took my measurements. He retreated to a back room and reemerged with a spacesuit in his arms, tailored exactly for me. It must have belonged to some poor unfortunate soul my size who had the bad luck of being chosen to go to Artemis II. Once in my suit, I complied and put on the helmet. Then a squad of guards marched me to the launchpad to board The Scarlet Thread waiting for me. I was strapped safely into my seat, the pilot beside me. After that, they sealed the door and the countdown began. Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two… One. The metal prison ship shuddered before launching into air, higher and higher, until we broke through the clouds and into the stratosphere. Soon, we broke through the planet's Ozone Layer until we reach the mesosphere, then finally, the ionosphere. Once we were in space, the pilot took over and we were well on our way to Artemis II. I was well on my way to exile and almost certain death. I could feel it in my bones. This wasn't going to end well for me. I tried not to think about it and unstrapped myself, making my way to the shuttle's sleeping quarters. I slept restlessly that first night onboard The Scarlet Thread. My head was filled with visions of grozells, vrokrons, v'ron, b'zells, temerengi, and many more creatures that roam the surface of Artemis II.
The next two nights weren't easy either. I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and gasping for air like I was drowning. My pilot assured me that I would be safe outside of the Domes as long as I had my suit and an ample supply of oxygen. I asked him about the creatures on the moon.
"Well," he said, in answer to my question. "B'zells are vicious, yes. But only if you disturb their nests. Steer clear of their nests and they will ignore you.
"And the grozells?" I asked.
"About the grozells," he said. "I've read that they can be tamed or even domesticated. After all, they are just winged wolves and our ancestors tamed and domesticated them to create today's dogs. I haven't seen it done before though. Nobody has."
"What about v'ron?" I asked.
"Well, they're an annoyance," my pilot answered. "And they can be quite vicious. But there's no need to fear them. In fact, we Terrans can and have been known to dominate and hunt them down. Eat them, that kind of stuff. If you like rat."
"No thank you," I said, shaking my head. "Have you done this before? Flying exiles to Artemis II?"
"I have," he said. "Year after year."
"How come not many people survive out there?" I asked.
"I offer them advice," my pilot said. "It's up to them to follow it. Or not. Sometimes it has to do with the conditions outside the Domes. Or inside. Sometimes, no matter how skilled or how careful you are, you just get unlucky and nature wins."
"And others?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"Well, others are just overcome with despair and loneliness," he said. "They lose the will to live and just…give up. They take their lives any way they can. They stop eating and drinking, expose themselves to the cruel elements, provoke native fauna, hang themselves, slice their wrists or throats, shoot themselves with their pistol, drown themselves in the bath…"
I hoped I didn't fall into that last category. We made good time and reached Artemis II within three days of leaving Earth-8255. As we entered the moon's atmosphere, I noticed skeletons scattered on the silvery ground. Some were animals but most were human. We also saw eerily torn and empty spacesuits with broken helmets. Throughout the moon's valleys, hills, and planes, there stood empty huts and cottages protected by crystal domes. One of those cottages will have to be my home for the rest of my exile here on Artemis II. As The Scarlet Thread began to make its descent, I put on my suit and helmet, preparing myself for the inhospitable atmosphere. I activated the tank in my pack and was grateful for the invigorating oxygen that it gave me. The pilot unloaded my supplies—food, water, clothing, spare oxygen packs, books to read—and left me on the surface of the moon to lug everything to the nearest available hut. He saluted me once and bade me godspeed before reboarding the ship and taking off to make the return journey back to Earth-8255.
Now I was alone and surrounded by wild and unfamiliar beasts. The sun was setting below the horizon and I had to hurry. I could faintly hear the grozells howling through my helmet. I think those were grozells. It was getting colder now too. I had to find a hut to live in before a pack of hungry grozells spotted me or before I froze to death in the harsh Artemisian night. Found a hut and unpacked my supplies, putting everything in its proper place. Tomorrow I will scavenge for more supplies and raid the neighboring empty cottages in case their former owners left some. Tonight, I will sleep and embrace my destiny as the Scapegoat.