This is the entire Schism, the first book of the Pearseus series that reached #1 on Amazon, that lays down the back story to Rise of the Prince.
It's New Year's Eve, the year of 2099, but the distinguished guests aboard the Pearseus won't get to countdown seconds; soon they'll be counting bodies and survivors after the spaceship's crash landing on another planet.
The good news? The planet is seemingly hospitable both in resources and in terms of the natives' attitude towards earthlings.
The bad news? They might have come on this planet bare of possessions, but what they haven't been able to shed are the shortcomings of their human nature. Will that be the sole threat to a unified future, or is the new land and its first inhabitants not as innocent as they look?
December 31, 2099 AD, UES Pearseus: Lucas
First came the alarm. Seconds later, the first explosion. It traversed UES Pearseus, bearing an eerie resemblance to ripples caused by a pebble breaking the surface of a still lake. The shockwave made its way along the ship’s axis in confident, devastating strides that disfigured its elegant form and dismembered its hull, sending twisted pieces of flesh and metal to impregnate the void. Alarms blared while pods shot from the mutilated spaceship, carrying people and equipment to the planet below.
Luckily for Second Engineer Lucas Rivera, the main engine in the ship’s bowels exploded seconds before he entered the engine room. A moment later and he would have been vaporised by the explosion or sucked into space. Instead, the violent tremor threw him onto the floor. He watched with horror as the entire section in front of him disintegrated. The pressure sucked his friends out of the ship one after another, their mouths open in silent screams, their faces masks of agony.
Stop him! cried a crystalline voice in his head.
Lucas woke up with a jolt, covered in thick globs of sweat. He lay on the bed panting for a few minutes, then jumped to his feet to stagger to the small sink in the back of his cabin. Splashing some water on his face in a vain attempt to wash the nausea away, he leaned against the sink, head bowed, breath slowly returning to normal. For a moment he considered heading back to bed, then decided the bar would be a better choice. The nightmare had left a foul taste in his mouth; he needed a drink, and to see some people, even the kind of people on UES Pearseus. After all, it was New Year’s Eve.
The ship itself could hardly be described as beautiful. It owed its unusual name to its pear-shaped body, the extra girth necessary in order to accommodate its FTL drive. These recently developed faster-than-light engines bent space around the vessel, allowing it to cover vast distances in the blink of an eye. Of course, this would not be necessary on this occasion. Their destination had been the heliopause, the space at the very edge of our solar system. Since reaching it a few hours before, the ship had stood still, preparing for the centennial celebrations.
There were over five thousand people on board, if one included both crew and the extraordinary menagerie of people crazy enough to spend New Year’s Eve on a spaceship and wealthy enough to afford it. Since the space cruise had been advertised as the place to be, with the new century dawning that very night, the world's most successful businessmen, politicians, actors and celebrities filled the ship. They all looked forward to the party of a lifetime on the edge of the solar system.
Lucas stepped into the narrow corridor and grinned a polite smile to a couple walking towards him. He took a deep breath; the corridor reeked of alcohol. The man tripped, and Lucas recognised a former president. His escort, a beautiful young blonde half his age, held him steady. They both giggled as a bodyguard pushed Lucas aside. He stumbled, yet felt no resentment, his mind stuck at the explosion in his dream. Stop him, the voice had said. Stop whom? He could not shake the feeling something was wrong. My place is at the engine room, not the bar. He glanced at the people heading away from him and spun around, picking up his pace.
At the opposite end of the ship, First Mate Gerard Croix staggered into the graceful bridge; a tall, gruff, heavy man in his late forties, with grey hair that looked yellowish somehow, hair that flowed dirty under his cap. His pale face and long black circles under his eyes bore witness to his lack of sleep. Even the waiter who had served him dinner earlier that evening had informed him that he looked like crap tonight. He had not been surprised. The constant pounding in his head forbade sleep, making it a particularly rare luxury ever since they had started this damned trip.
Every night he thought he might be able to rest, if anything simply out of sheer exhaustion. Instead, as soon as he shut his eyes, the nightmares started. Consisting of nothing but darkness at first, accompanied by a horrifying feeling of loss, dread and loneliness, they had soon changed to include a soft, golden pulsing light. Warmth and relief emanated from it, and he vaulted towards it, when a disorienting voice started whispering numbers in his head. While he paused to listen, the light would fade in the distance, leaving the voice the only presence in the darkness. Louder and louder it wailed, until he screamed, begging for it to stop. The dream ended invariably with a violent explosion that jolted him to his feet.
His lack of sleep made him drowsy and heavy. This is just another dream, he thought as he stepped into the bridge. Despite the late hour, Captain Kibwe stood in the bridge, talking to two ensigns, their eyes glued to his mouth, hanging on his every word. Everyone respected Kibwe; his crew would go to hell and back for him. His nickname, Commander Sisko, had been given to him by Lucas, a short, nerdy Latino engineer whose passion was twentieth century science fiction. Everyone loved Kibwe, but Croix they feared, and that was fine by him. He stumbled to the main navigation grid, voices whispering ceaselessly in his pounding head. Yep. This is just another one of these damn dreams.
The voices reached a crescendo and a vein throbbed on his forehead as he approached the navigation console. He no longer cared what would happen, his only thought to punch in those damned numbers, in the off chance he might return to a peaceful sleep. No one paid any attention to him. The Captain had his back turned, still talking to the ensigns. Croix slinked over to the console and entered the coordinates with trembling hands, before disengaging the FTL alarms. The ship started its silent countdown to the new destination.
For one brief moment, the whispers in Croix’s head finally stopped and his whole body relaxed. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and raised his head to enjoy the feeling of calm. Then Kibwe glanced around, alarmed, sensing the ship’s new mood the second the computer altered its course. He cocked his head first left, then right. Like a dog, sniffing for a new smell, thought Croix.
“Croix, good thing you’re here. Could you check the nav comp? I’ve got a weird feeling the damn thing’s off somehow.”
Croix’s shoulders tightened, but he said nothing. He pretended to examine the navigation data when the FTL engaged with a hard jolt. Since the jump had not been properly calibrated, only the emergency systems prevented crew and passengers from becoming red blots on the walls. Although he had disabled most alarms, various independent systems announced their imminent failure. The noise deafened him, and the renewed pain in his head made him clutch it with both hands and howl as he crashed onto the floor. Deadly sparks danced around, barely visible through the thick smoke that filled the room.
A sudden jerk as the ship ripped through time and space to travel to its new destination threw Croix against the metal wall, crushing his head. Blood gushed, soiling the white of the wall with bright red stains. He blinked, feeling his eyelids hot and heavy, and wiped the wound with his hand. He stared at the red liquid covering his fingers in disbelief. It’s OK, I deserve it. I caused this. This is all my fault. He staggered to his feet in shock.
A moment later, the ship exited FTL with another jolt and a vicious explosion sent him flying over a console. He noticed the Captain lying under a broken beam from the gutted room. Croix had no idea what to do next. His legs hurt as he found his footing, trembling with pain. He stared at the reports coming in from every corner of the injured ship. A monitor displayed the engine room, where a raging fire had erupted. The computer closed the bulkheads and vacuumed the entire compartment in a desperate attempt to stop the flames from spreading. This saved the ship, but killed any surviving engineers. Green lights turned to red, one after another, to signify loss of life support as structural integrity failed. The acrid smoke brought tears to his eyes and his lungs convulsed in a desperate attempt to expel the poisonous air, triggering a choking cough. For some reason, an image of the smoke-filled clubs he frequented as a young man flashed momentarily in his head. Like then, he could barely make out the figures of the dancers around him, only now they wore masks of pain instead of joy.
One of the dancing figures around him crashed onto the floor like a broken mannequin, falling debris piling over him. Cold sweat dripped on Croix’s back as he realised he had just killed dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people. His mind felt numb and he brought his bloodied fist to his mouth to stop a scream, taking an unconscious step backwards. He slipped on the still body of another crew member and crashed onto the floor, eyes inches from the man’s dead eyes and bloody face. The room went dark and he looked around in panic. A reassuring dim light shone nearby and he crawled towards it. He recognised it as part of the escape pods’ navigation system. The voice in his head returned, whispering more numbers, and he cried out in a vain attempt to make it stop. It only got louder though, leaving him no option but to punch the numbers into the computer.
He jumped when a hand touched his shoulder and whirled around to see the injured captain. Glancing back to the console, Croix pushed some buttons with twitching fingers.
“What are you doing?” Kibwe demanded.
“There’s a planet” Croix said with a certainty he did not feel. His voice sounded hoarse. “We have to get down there. The ship won’t last much longer.”
He had no idea why he had said that; it felt like someone else was talking through him.
“Where are we?” Kibwe whispered, trying to make sense of the unfamiliar chart on the radar.
Croix raised his shoulders. He had entered the coordinates as the whispers in his head uttered them, with no consideration as to where they led. The FTL drive could have propelled them to the far end of the galaxy in the short time it was active. “Nowhere close to Earth,” he said, glancing at the screen.
The Captain stared at him with blank eyes for a moment, then stumbled. Croix held him steady, grinding his teeth.
“Come on, sir, we have to leave.”
“How did you know about the planet?”
“I saw it on the nav-grid just before it blew up,” Croix lied.
Kibwe looked uncertain for a moment, then nodded. “Go!”
A computer voice over their heads urged passengers and crew to head to the nearest escape pod. Another explosion threw them against the wall as they stumbled out of the bridge. Mercifully, they found a half-empty pod just outside and the people inside helped them climb in. As soon as they entered, yet another, deafening blast shook the whole ship. Metal trembled and ground against metal, then they were free. As they shot away from Pearseus, a final explosion ripped its hull open from bow to stern. Croix fell back on his seat with a satisfied sigh and closed his eyes, his head finally silent, all pain gone.
The last voice he heard before losing himself to the darkness belonged to a startled passenger: “How can that guy sleep?”
January 1, 2100 AD (1 After Landing), Pearseus: Lucas
January 1, 2100 AD (1 After Landing), Pearseus
Lucas never thought of himself as particularly lucky. He had never won anything, unlike his sister, who used to win everything she wanted. Lucas wished she could see him now, though. He had barely escaped a fiery death in the engineering room, catapulting into the escape pod seconds before it ejected. He had even survived the descent onto the planet without a scratch, whereas most other survivors suffered all kinds of injuries, from concussions to broken bones. That would show her, he thought with a childish sneer, then wondered if he would ever see her again, and a pang of sadness shot through his heart.
He glanced around him to get his bearings, scratching his head. They had landed in a valley on the dark side of the planet. It was a chilly night, with a clear sky and unfamiliar stars. Strange flowery smells filled the air, exotic, yet pleasant. He saw the reflection of two moons in a small pool of water and remembered an old saying. ‘One moon shows in every pool; in every pool, the one moon.’ Well, not in this one… His shoulders sank as the realisation of how far away they were from home hit him. Hearing a faint whistle above, he looked up. Debris from their ship entered the atmosphere, lighting up the unfamiliar sky like eerie fireworks. The stunning effect only made him wonder how they could ever go back.
Not knowing when the sun would rise, he decided to use the lights from the pods and small fires lit by the survivors to work. People gathered around their respective pods like lost tribes around ancestral fires. He helped his people – strange how he now thought of the people in his pod as “his” – get as comfortable as possible, and wondered if there might be something he could do for the rest. The pods would provide them with energy and shelter for years, but the survivors needed to start searching for resources as soon as possible, perhaps even that very morning. They had limited supplies of food and drink, medicine and various portable scanners, as well as a small cache of weapons – although he had not seen anything dangerous yet. These, however, would dwindle fast.
A quick glance told him most pods had made it to the surface, even if some looked half-empty. He wondered how many of the people on board had survived, then his breath caught at the sight of a blinking red light in the distance. Squinting his eyes, he spotted a red cross on its side, illuminated by the crimson glare, and his lips curled upwards. He started towards it, his heart filling with hope. A med-bay would be equipped with all the essentials needed to ensure medical care for the survivors. Pearseus had maybe a dozen of those, but he had no idea how many had survived the explosion.
His steps faltered at the sound of a soft sob. Changing direction, he followed it to a young woman sprawled on the ground, her back against the pod, hands pressed against her face. He leaned down to gently take her hands into his. She plaintively repeated a man’s name again and again between sobs, perhaps a friend or relative.
“What’s your name, love?” he asked in as soothing and calm a voice as he could manage.
“Katie,” she replied with a choked voice.
He caught a whiff of alcohol on her breath and remembered it was still New Year’s Eve. He glanced at his watch; it showed a few minutes past midnight. Not New Year’s Eve, not anymore. It’s the New Year. First day, first year of a new century, first people on a new planet. So where’s the bubbly? He felt like laughing, then something within stirred and he started singing to the woman, softly at first, then louder.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?
He heard a man’s voice join his, slightly off-key, then a broken woman’s voice, followed by a clear soprano one. The woman snuggled in his arms and joined the singing between sobs. Soon the song spread all around, warming them like the soothing glow of the fire that danced on their faces.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
The woman had stopped crying. She now stared with unseeing eyes into the consoling fire. She had not moved, so he kept his arms around her and they sat together for the longest time, until she finally fell asleep. He laid her down as softly as he could and covered her with his jacket. Much as he would have liked to stay there, he could make out smoke coming from a nearby pod and wanted to check it out. He stood up to stretch his arms and legs before walking towards it.
Captain Kibwe lay unconscious next to the fire, face brown with caked blood, and soiled bandages covering the top of his head. A fetching young nurse had placed his arm in a splint and hovered over him like a worried mother hen.
Lucas exchanged a smile with her, then noticed First Mate Croix spread on the ground. He seemed unconscious as well, but when Lucas approached he heard him mumble and saw that the man had no discernible wounds. Sleeping. Well, good for him. He left him alone, picked up with weary hands a toolbox and dragged it around the damaged pod. A movement not too far away caught his eye and he spun around.
His toolbox crashed on the ground, tools scattering everywhere. He blinked at the sight of the biggest, fiercest man he had ever laid his eyes upon. Around him people gasped in alarm, noticing the newcomer approach in slow, uncertain steps. No-one else moved. Lucas’ breath caught as he took a fearful step towards the man. When he looked into his eyes, he saw ferocity and strength, but also compassion and wisdom. The two men stood facing each other for a moment, then the stranger spoke a single word with an unexpected melodic softness.
Lucas’ eyes popped open. At first he felt sure he had misheard, but the monstrous man repeated it, with the same pleasant accent: “Welcome.”
Before he could reply, a loud bang sounded behind him.
Moments earlier, Croix had been dreaming. A joyful light surrounded him as he sat on a hill overlooking a lush forest. The sun warmed his bones and he closed his eyes, stretching cat-like to enjoy it. The light danced on his skin while the grass caressed his body. He could not remember the last time he had felt so serene and sighed contentedly as a deep sense of calmness permeated every fibre of his body, making him lose track of time. A voice called him. He could not see who it belonged to, but did not care either. He shut his eyes and tried to ignore it, succeeding only for a while.
“Gerard?” whispered the voice.
His fists clenched, tearing up a few blades of grass. “Yes…”
“Welcome to your new home.”
“You will make it even more so. Your name will be sung forever.”
A satisfied smile crawled on his face. Then he noticed a second presence; a sweet, sad, melodic voice that chilled him.
“Gerard, don’t listen to them. They lied to you. They made you come here, made you kill everyone.”
“Not everyone! Many survived!” Blood rushed to his head, painting his face crimson.
“For how long? Can’t you see the danger all around you?” the voice insisted.
Darkness rushed to meet him as fear overwhelmed him. He started to tremble when a fog of sadness surrounded him, drowning out the light. The two voices fought in his head.
“Gerard! Don’t listen to them! They are lying!”
“Lying?” the other voice rasped. “The whispers brought you here, didn’t they? Did they tell you why? Did they tell you what was here?”
“A new world, that’s what. A world we’ll help you build. People will remember you forever!”
The voices confused him and he shivered as they now made him feel cold and scared. He jumped to his feet and bolted away from the voices, into a dark forest, away from the light-kissed precipice. Whispers and voices followed him, while strange silhouettes hurried behind him. His heart pounded as fear grew into panic and he stumbled on a root, falling hard on the ground. He bit his tongue and felt the sharp pain as the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and he spat, cursing. He jerked back on his feet, his whole body trembling. The voices around him reached a crescendo, some whispering, others yelling.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as a terrible creature stood over him, a wild man taller and bigger than anyone he had ever seen. The creature raised a huge axe to lunge at him. Croix vaulted to the side, narrowly escaping the first strike, but the man swung his monstrous axe once again. This time it struck Croix right in the chest, almost cutting him in half, and he screamed in agony. Thick blood gushed from the wound as the man removed his axe and whirled it around for the final blow.
Croix woke up with a loud cry. Thick sweat covered his trembling body. In his confusion, he felt certain it was blood. He felt his chest for the wound, his fingers pressing instead against a small gun. His brow furrowed in confusion, then he remembered taking it from the pod’s small armoury before going to sleep. He examined the small but lethal weapon, still trying to tell reality from dream, when he heard alarmed cries. He froze, seeing the creature from his dream about to attack one of the engineers. Why isn’t anyone doing something? Then he realised he probably held the only weapon outside the pod.
Removing the gun’s safety, he held it with both his shaking hands. His finger squeezed the trigger, as a whisper at the back of his head turned into a laugh so loud that it drowned out the cries telling him to stop. The creature growled and spun around. Then he shot again. And again.
18 AL, The Capital: Croix
Eighteen years had passed since the landing, almost to the day. Croix climbed down the stairs leading underneath the wooden platform. Dozens of apprehensive youngsters, all born on the planet, greeted him with excited eyes. They stood upright, chins up. He noticed with satisfaction that they had followed his instructions, wearing hand-made black armbands with UAE Pearseus written on them. My army. My Armbands. They had sheathed on their belts the wooden batons he had given them. He had hand-picked them for their strength and willingness to carry out any order, and had trained them personally for years. All in preparation for this very day.
He beamed his widest smile at them. “My friends, right now you’re the most important people on this planet.” Their faces lit up. “You’re all that stands between order and chaos. Today will be the first day you will serve humanity, but not the last. In a few hours, all of our people will gather here. Although you are too young to remember this, brave warriors like you always protected Earth. You’re here to ensure that peace prevails. Watch for my signal and remember! At the first sign of trouble, I expect you to restore order. Use any means necessary. Is that clear?”
“But, sir, there’s never been any trouble,” someone said.
His eyebrows met as he stared down the short, squinting teenager that had dared interrupt him. The boy cringed behind his smirking classmates. Croix made a mental note to teach the teen a proper lesson afterwards, then wore his sad face. He touched the boy’s shoulder and squeezed, hard, ignoring his painful grimace.
“Sadly, son, that doesn’t mean a lot. We’re now a proud people of thousands. Everyone’ll be here today. Do you know what happens when a crowd that large wants to cause trouble? Do you want to risk it?”
“No, sir,” the boy mumbled, lowering his eyes to the ground. The others snickered at his discomfort.
He let go of his shoulder and rubbed his hands together. “Good. Now, here’s your instructions one last time: surround the square, but don’t move until I give you the signal. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir!” they shouted together.
“What?” he grimaced, pointing an ear in their direction.
“YES, SIR!” they shouted loudly enough to be heard over the entire village.
He threw them a satisfied grin before climbing the stairs up to the platform, where he would meet the others in a couple of hours. He whistled a sprightly melody, remembering an old saying. People are hard to govern when they are clever, they say. Luckily, I don’t need to worry with this lot. If only the rest of them were as accommodating…
Lucas steepled his fingers, pressing his index fingers against his smiling lips. He had dedicated his life on Pearseus to helping the survivors and today they rewarded him with his own statue. Although not a day went by when he did not wish that more engineers had survived the inexplicable accident, the plethora of artists among the survivors meant that beautiful artefacts could be seen everywhere. A large statue of Captain Kibwe, lovingly carved in dark, polished wood loomed over the spacious timber building that served as city hall, assembly and courthouse, celebrating their late captain. Kibwe had been mourned by everyone, and they had embraced the idea of a statue in his honour. A second, smaller statue was now about to be unveiled by Croix, the new captain.
Still, Lucas could also sense the tension in the crowd. Since Kibwe’s death, the political situation had deteriorated rapidly. The community had fractured, perhaps irrevocably. He had accepted the statue in hope that the ceremony would help relieve the strain in their society.
At first, Kibwe had made all decisions – in effect, playing the role of a benevolent dictator. Crude as it was, it had been a successful model for the first year, with Kibwe proving a capable leader. Despite his success, in the second year he had insisted they follow the common three-fold distinction of power. Kibwe was voted to head the executive branch; former High Court Justice Jennifer Barrett the judicial; and Richard Walker led the city council. The latter body’s responsibilities included law-making, and everyone in their small community had the right to participate, although people often found it hard to do so while also hunting, working the fields and growing their food.
They had followed this model until Kibwe’s death. Croix had assumed leadership of the executive branch, based on seniority. Many had demanded elections; Croix’s continued refusal to do so created bitter resentment among many survivors. The city council’s monthly requests for a vote had so far been ignored by Croix and friction between his supporters and Richard’s grew day by day. Lucas tried to see both sides of the arguments, as did Barrett, but it was getting increasingly hard to do so.
He leaned forward to look on at the gathering crowd with soft eyes. In a sense, they were all his children, just as much as the twins. He had taken apart pod after pod in order to ensure their survival and had taught people how to build houses and power them with wind generators and solar panels. They had been able to salvage much from the Pearseus’ debris littering the planet. Even more would surely be found in the next years, as humanity expanded. Unlike meteors that consist of mud and ice and tend to dissolve during their descent through atmosphere, most debris had arrived in pretty good condition. Container crates were designed to withstand space and time. Their most precious find had been a crate filled with e-libs, the descendent of twenty-first century electronic books. Deceptively fragile-looking but in reality almost indestructible, they were ubiquitous back on Earth, capable of storing vast amounts of data, including books, videos and music. Even pried away from the network, their combined memory included almost all knowledge of the human race, fitted within the thin glass frames of these popular and precious items.
The man next to him rose to his feet, interrupting Lucas’ reverie. Farmer Joe, as everyone knew him, had been a simple farmer back in India, before growing his farm into a multi-billion empire. People often murmured that the empty space next to Lucas’ statue would be soon filled with one of Joe. He raised his hands to quiet down the expectant crowd.
“The man standing next to me needs no introduction,” he started, as the last of the voices died away. “Our friend, Lucas. When we first arrived, this man helped me select seeds and grow them. We were lucky enough to land in the fertile valley we now call the Capital. Many of you will remember the herds that roamed here, and how Lucas and I selected those animals that could be domesticated. You already know how we’ve produced drinkable milk. Today, I have a surprise for you: we’ve also managed to create yoghurt, cheese and cream, and Lucas here feels confident that we’ll soon produce enough of them for all of us. And it’s all thanks to this man.”
He waited for the enthusiastic crowd to pipe down before heading back to his seat. Lucas closed his eyes, his mouth watering at the image of a half-melted fudge sundae.
Another man now jumped to the podium, a tall, lean blond with ice blue eyes. Richard Walker had made his vast fortune in California, through renewable energy projects. When it came to energy, he proved to be almost as good an engineer as Lucas himself.
“Hello all,” he started. The crowd cheered. “It’s with this man’s help” – Lucas looked down, embarrassed, as Richard pointed at him – “that we’ve managed to produce the wind turbines that give us the power we need.”
These could be seen on a small number of buildings around the Capital – as the survivors had started half-jokingly calling their village – and covered most of the survivors’ energy needs. They also carried water into the houses, a much-needed amenity and the first to be added to the city.
“I am now happy to announce my next project: a facility to convert waste to energy. This will cover our energy needs for years.” Richard leaned forward. “It’s not been an easy journey, but it’s sure been fulfilling. And we’ve done it without help from anyone. You, and you alone, have been responsible for all this, and for this I applaud you.”
He clapped his hands and everyone mimicked him. Lucas’ mind wandered to the natives. Where have they all gone? The survivors caught occasional glimpses of them, but few natives ever ventured close to the village and none of them spoke their language. Perhaps he had misheard that night, after all. Anyway, hastily abandoned settlements indicated that they had all left. Richard was right: the survivors had made it on their own.
“But we might not have made it,” Richard continued, “were it not for this man. So, I’m pleased to give you the man of the hour, my good friend, Lucas Rivera!”
Lucas looked up in surprise. In a world where everybody was somebody, the survivors had taken to referring to each another using a single name. First or last made little difference, but most considered it pretentious to use both, so everyone knew him as Lucas. He grinned an uncomfortable smile at the formality and took the few steps to the podium, examining the faces around him. Despite their political differences, most seemed jubilant. That had not always been the case. Many had perished in the first year in fatal or near fatal accidents, as people who had never lived in the wild had to re-learn basic survival skills. The second year saw a spate of suicides, as people realised they were never going home. Since then, however, their numbers had been growing fast, and they had managed to rebuild their lives on Pearseus. He had great faith in children, too; children who had known no other home than the planet and were eager to explore it. This faith extended even to the Armbands, or Croix’s scouts, as the rest called them, much as some sniggered at their training’s focus on uniformity and obedience.
His heart raced as he stepped up to the podium. He hated speaking in public, and had to fight a wave of nausea. “When we first came here,” he rasped, then cleared his throat. “When we first came here, I thought of you all as my charges. I was responsible for you. Had to look after you. As time passed, you became more than that. We became partners. You helped me and we looked after each other. Today’s honour is more than I deserve. In truth, every single one of you has earned it just as much.”
The crowd looked at him with sparkling eyes, yet Lucas knew his next words would remind them of the tension boiling just under the surface. He fidgeted with the e-lib in his hands.
“We’ve come a long way together. While Joe and Richard took care of food and power, we arranged a successful administration.”
People tensed and a dark mood descended onto the crowd. He hastened to continue.
“Naturally, we have our differences. But we can rise above them, like we did in the past. If we can overcome our religious problems, we can overcome anything!”
He raised one finger, realised this made him look like a teacher and placed his hand back on the podium. “We’re all equal before God and for the first time in human history, we acted like it. You have no idea how much it means to me to see people of all colours, religions and races working together to ensure everyone’s survival. And it gives me great pleasure to announce that the Asian Temple will soon be finished.”
A warm applause greeted his words. Feeding the survivors had proven as simple as a nun’s prayer, compared to accommodating everyone’s faiths. Pearseus’ passengers had consisted of men and women from all around the world: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Hindus… Hardship rekindled buried religious feeling, and less than a month after landing they had converted one of the pods to a place of worship. When they had to take apart the pods for much needed metals and equipment, everyone agreed to leave that particular pod intact. Nowadays, it stood in the middle of a beautiful, serene garden atop the small hill overlooking the plaza, serving as a fragrant, flower-covered place of worship for everyone.
“You may remember how we first came to build our joined temples. Our limited resources brought our religions closer. Religions that had been fighting for centuries back on Earth. Heck, I’m sure even our temples would’ve sparked a minor holy war or two back in the day.”
People laughed and his shoulders relaxed a bit. Try as he might, the engineer in him could not resist some technical specifications.
“Our temples have three rooms. One with an altar and a Crucifix, another with a bimah and an arc, and a third with a qiblah wall and a Quran. Our ancestors fought amongst themselves, but our temples have a musallah in the middle and an ablution fountain outside, with shelves where shoes can be stored on the walls.”
Richard’s discreet cough behind him stopped him from going into further details and he looked at the beaming faces around him. He waved a hand in the direction of the hill.
“And what about our Asian friends? Remember how they constantly built small shrines around the Capital – significantly adding to the city’s charm, if I may say so.” Some jeered, others laughed. “And now, our Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist friends have built the Asian Temple.”
People had started referring to the hill as the Asian Temple; a strangely popular name, despite the fact that it annoyed or offended almost everyone involved. It consisted of several new temples built in the garden surrounding the original pod. Towards the hill’s foot, the Eternal Flame Falls, as they called them, offered a spectacular sight. It consisted of a beautiful waterfall sitting on a pocket of natural methane gas, which seeped out through a fracture in the rocks behind it. The gas fed an unending fire, and the vision of the bright flame shining through the falling water was as haunting and beautiful today as it had been when the first survivor happened across this enchanted place.
When the enthusiastic applause abated, Lucas continued. “Like I said, we have our differences. What family doesn’t? But I know we can make it work out in the end, if we build on this great tradition we’ve started together.” He waved towards the cloth-covered statue. “Thank you all for this honour. I promise to spend whatever time I have left serving you as best as I can.”
He took a small bow and headed back to his chair as Croix stepped up. His speech had mended fences. Now, if Croix followed his lead and did the same, things might get back to normal at last.
Croix stepped in front of the podium. He pressed his lips together to grin at the crowd. His head hurt again, but he had spent many hours discussing the matter with his advisor and knew what needed to be done. He had grown to love public speeches, and by now considered himself pretty good at them. He drank with eagerness the cool, fresh air blowing from the mountains, hoping it would clear his head, and waved his hands upwards, waiting for the crowd to stop its excited murmur.
“My friends,” he started, “we ended up in this harsh world under the most terrible of circumstances. The accident that led us here, though, proved to be the beginning of something great: the first human colony.”
Jubilant shouts were heard from the crowd, along with some whistles. He waited for them to die out.
“Our brave Captain Kibwe – rest his soul – did everything in his power to keep us safe and sound. He was so successful that our small group is getting stronger every day!”
More applause. How I love their applause!
“In this, he was not alone. We were all there for each other, helped each other out, saved each other’s lives more than once. And much as I would’ve liked to build a statue to each and every one of you…” – he waited for the laughter to subside – “…we’ve come here today to honour the work of one man. My good buddy Lucas. Thank you, my friend.”
An involuntary twitch cracked the edges of his mouth as the crowd cheered much louder for Lucas than they had for him. I have gone too far to share power with a nerdy engineer. He beamed his wide smile.
“Concluding our little ceremony, I want to take the opportunity to announce a few small changes to the way we run things…”
From the corner of his eye he noticed with amusement Richard and Barrett raise their heads as if stung. He made a discreet signal with his hand and his Armbands took their places around the plaza, unnoticed by the crowd. An expectant hush fell.
He steepled his hands and leaned forward, placing his head on his fingers. “The first item in the agenda concerns our e-libs.” He thought it strange that his advisor had insisted so much on this. He seemed to hate those things with a passion that surprised Croix.
“We had a precious few when we arrived, and we need every last one of them. I know they’re almost indestructible, but Mr. Stinson's grandson managed last week to break one.” At the mention of his name, an old man in the crowd lowered his eyes to the ground and shifted his weight uncomfortably. His two-year-old grandson had pounded mercilessly on the glass with a rock until it had shattered into countless sparkling fragments. In a small community like theirs, it had not taken long for the news to reach everyone.
“Therefore, all of you will need to give us your e-libs for safe keeping.”
A murmur of disapproval met his words, as he had expected. He made a reassuring motion with his hand.
“We’ll set up a public library so that everyone can read all they want. Don’t worry, they’ll be in safe hands. Using the new presses we’re building, we’ll publish their contents so that everyone has safe access to our heritage.” He was lying, of course – his advisor had been adamant that no-one should have access to knowledge – but he could see no reason for them to know that.
“Also, everyone can see that the citizens’ council has proven a poor way of dealing with everyday affairs. People need to be in their fields working and in the forests hunting, not in the city hall squabbling. It was one thing when there were just a few of us, but each year it becomes harder to pass laws. How many of you have complained about having to vote for every small ordinance?” He looked at them; some nodded in agreement. He cleared his throat, tapping his fingers on his e-lib.
“Therefore, I propose a new way of doing things. A way that’ll speed things up. For convenience. I suggest we return to the old way of doing things, like back on Pearseus, when the captain and crew made sure you could enjoy the journey without worrying about anything. Wasn’t it better when you simply had a good time and let us take care of things? Won’t that be more efficient, instead of repeating the housing fiasco?”
The houses that the survivors had built at first were nothing but wooden huts with furs inside, to keep the cold out. In their tenth year they had been confident enough to hear Lucas’ proposal for a major redesign. He had suggested they build hives, with hexagonal cells serving as individual housing units. In a fractal-like design, the hives themselves formed larger units, called pods because each would have a square with parts of the original escape pods at its centre. Each pod would include the infrastructure needed to cover the survivors’ food, medicinal, religious and educational needs, with their fields located on the outside. To travel from one unit to the next, one might need a horse or carriage, especially when the weather was poor, but otherwise everything could be found within walking distance.
Although many had received the plan with enthusiasm, some had preferred the old layout and a few had downright refused to part with the houses they had built with their hands; houses that had seen children born and parents, husbands or wives die. It soon became clear that what were shabby huts to some, were palaces of dreams and memories to others. This had sparked furious debates. Despite the fact that the majority repeatedly voted in favour of the plan, the affair had dragged on for years before finally getting implemented, leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. There had been angry accusations of inefficiency, leading to many demanding a way to push through decisions in a swifter manner. The affair had split the community, and the wound had never fully healed, Croix knew. Reminding them of that debacle ensured that many would take a more favourable look at his argument.
He pursed his lips. “I’m not suggesting we create a dictator, of course.”
Nervous laughter met his words.
“The captain will simply propose new laws, and the council will vote for them. All I’m saying is that this will allow you to focus on enjoying your life instead of having to gather here every other day for endless debates.”
People started murmuring, and he gave them a stern look for a moment, before continuing. Now for another nudge. “On another note, I’ve heard many of you complain about some court decisions. I, too, am uncomfortable about any system that gives a single person ultimate power over life and death.” Barrett twitched on her seat, as if the chair were made of pins. Take that, bitch.
“Wouldn’t it be better to have a second arbitrator as well, making sure that everyone has a second chance at being heard? What if a justice has an off day? Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if someone was there to notice it?” He stole a look at Barrett and almost laughed at her hard, ashen face. Then he glanced at people’s troubled faces. He had confused them. That was good: confusion was his ally.
“Therefore, I propose that the captain has a final say on these matters. Just as a precaution, of course. One would hardly ever need to question our good justice’s decisions.” He noticed with satisfaction that people now started murmuring their arguments. “Finally, as we all know, we’re not alone on the planet.” He had to shout to be heard over the commotion. “We saw the monster that attacked us when we first arrived.”
Lucas started to protest, but Croix cut him off with a dismissive wave of his hand. As there had been but a handful of people around at the time and the captain had been incapacitated, it was Croix’s word against Lucas’ on what had happened. By now, the majority of people believed that Croix’s bravery had saved them from an unprovoked attack by savage monsters.
“Sure, they’ve left us alone so far, but how’re we to know this is not because they’re gathering their strength, preparing for an all-out assault – perhaps even as we speak? You’re busy ploughing your fields and raising your children, while an unseen enemy is making plans to wipe us all off the face of this planet.”
He paused to examine their stunned faces. This, too, was good: fear was an even better friend than confusion. “Shouldn’t we have procedures in place for such an event? And that’s just one of the dangers surrounding us. We simply don’t know what we might face in the future. Yes, we’ve been lucky so far. But are you willing to stake your lives – no, your children’s lives – on our luck holding out?”
People twitched and covered their mouths with their hands. Might I even make someone faint? No? Perhaps in a little while…
“I’m not suggesting anything new. In times of crisis, there has to be one person responsible until the crisis is over. On a ship, that’s the captain. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if during the accident we had to co-ordinate our actions with committees and secretaries?” They nodded. It’s time for the final push.
“Therefore, I propose that the captain is solely responsible for keeping peace in the event of a catastrophic event. Just until the crisis is over,” he was quick to reassure them.
His words pushed the nervous crowd over the edge. Someone shouted, another one pushed, and before long, loud arguments broke out. Barrett and Lucas rushed into the crowd, yelling. Richard pulled Croix’s sleeve, but he shoved him off and continued talking, shouting to be heard over the clamour.
“That’s what I’m talking about, people! That’s exactly what I’m talking about…”
He raised his arm to motion the Armbands into the crowd, waving their wooden clubs, their eyes fixed on his hand. When it dropped, they attacked.
The small assembly read like a regular who’s who of their community, with Joe, Richard and Barrett sitting around a small table. Katie sat down next to Lucas. She had discovered her cooking talents on the planet, acquiring quite a reputation among their friends. They had gotten married five years after that first fateful meeting at the crash site. She touched his hand, making a forced smile appear on his face.
The dinner on their plates would have been wolfed down any other day, but now everyone seemed to have lost their appetite, playing with their food. Everyone but Joe; having spent much of his life as a poor farmer, he never let a good meal go to waste. Only the crackle of a small fire in the corner and the sound of Joe’s wooden spoon attacking his clay plate interrupted the quiet of the small, dark room. Lucas was the first to break the silence.
“Thank you all for joining us tonight. I thought it’d give us an opportunity to discuss last week’s riot.”
The riot. That is what Croix called it afterwards, minimising his and the Armbands’ role in it. Mercifully, no-one had died, although a great number of people had been injured. Still, the physical damage was nothing compared to the wedge it had driven among the survivors. Croix had presented it as an affront to both Lucas and the memory of Captain Kibwe, and as an unfortunate proof of the validity of his arguments. Lucas had been surprised at how many supported Croix. Most had been frightened enough by his words to trust him and his new army with the city’s safety. They called themselves Loyalists to display their loyalty for their late captain and, by extension, his erstwhile first mate. Lucas felt pretty sure Kibwe would have resented that, but the man’s statue was unable to protest.
“What can we do? The man will surely come to his senses.” Joe shrugged, then let out a content sigh as he put into his mouth the last spoonful of pumpkin soup with honey and the tangy yoghurt they were experimenting with.
Barrett twitched on her chair to pull out of her pocket an e-lib. “Will he? How many e-libs are left now?”
“I assume all of them,” Richard said in a soft voice. “Unless you mean how many are left out of Croix’s hands, in which case the answer is I don’t know. Maybe a handful?”
“Am I the only one who refused to give it?” Barrett asked, placing the thin glass frame on the table. “My e-lib contains all the legislation from Earth. Without it, there can be no justice,” said Barrett.
“Sure, but what about his Armbands?” Richard asked. “What will you do when they come to your house? You all know what happened to Fred.”
The old man had tried to stop the boys from entering his house. In the scuffle he had hit his head. He was now in the hospital, and Croix had used the incident to declare unlawful any attempt to interfere with the Armbands.
Lucas drummed his fingers on the table, holding his forgotten spoon in mid-air with the other hand. “Do they even have the right to enter your home like that? What does the law say about this?”
Barrett leaned forward to pick up her e-lib. She tapped on it with nimble fingers, a bemused look on her face. “Whose law? With his amendments voted in, Croix dubbed this a crisis and dissolved the City Council. His word’s now law. So, does that make his actions legal? I have an e-lib filled to the brim with legislation. Any law passed by man, from Hammurabi’s code to twenty-first century common intellectual property rights is in here. Thousands of pages dealing with mergers and acquisitions alone. What good does that do us here?”
Shaking her head, she plonked the e-lib back on the table. “On a ship, the captain’s word is law, yet the law’s nothing more than people’s beliefs in what’s right and wrong. As these change, so does legislation. So, what is law? Law’s just people’s preconceptions and common sense put into rules. The law’s what we make of it. Tyrants use it to rule and citizens as protection against them. The worst atrocities have been committed by men believing they were doing what the law, religious or otherwise, required of them.”
“That’s not –” Joe started, but she would not be stopped.
“A nation’s worst shortcoming is when courts uphold the letter of the law instead of serving justice. Man’s natural state is one of cruelty. Only faith in justice can help us overcome this. The first rule of justice is that the law must always be balanced with compassion. Law without compassion allows men to be as cruel as their worst nature. It’s no better than tyranny.”
“Law needs to be strict if it’s to be obeyed,” Joe interrupted her.
“Yes,” Barrett said, “but what kind of law? Allow me an example. A king dreams that a baby boy will destroy him. He orders a general to abandon it in the wild. The general delivers it to a shepherd instead, who raises it as his own –”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Seriously? A fairy tale?”
Barrett’s face tightened. “Actually, it’s told by Herodotus. The story takes place around 550 BC. The king was called Astyages. Now if I may continue…”
She looked around her, but no-one spoke. “As I was saying, when the king discovers this, he punishes his general with unusual cruelty. Not only does he have the general’s own son murdered, but he also serves his body to his father during a banquet. Would you call this justice, Joe?”
He scoffed. “This is ridiculous.”
“Would you?” Barrett insisted, glaring at him.
Joe shrugged. “The general should have obeyed his king. He’s only got himself to blame.”
Katie blushed with anger, while the others looked at him wide-eyed. “What are you saying, Joe?” she rasped. “That it’s OK for everyone to make up their own laws? That we have to obey them, or they’ll murder our children? That’s not law, that’s evil!”
Joe grinned. “Is it? What is evil anyway? It’s considered evil to kill a man, but we’re encouraged to do so in war. In Barrett’s story, the king’s deed is only evil because the boy died so young. Had he died at an old age, it might have been considered natural. And people might consider his death a good thing if he were a criminal. So even death’s not evil in itself. Is there truly evil in the world, or does an action become evil simply because it happens at the wrong time or place?”
Katie’s face turned an even deeper red; she seemed about to have a stroke. “Are you –”
Joe cut her off with his hand and continued. “Anyway, that’s not the point. I grew up a poor farmer’s son in India. I can’t even remember how many times my family almost starved to death. Do you know how we survived? By obeying my father. He made us do things we were not proud of, evil things you might say, but we stayed alive. That’s when I learned my lesson. We must do whatever it takes to survive. Find a strong leader and follow him, that’s my advice. Croix has proven he can be that leader, so I say we let him lead.”
Katie drew a deep breath and Lucas squeezed her hand to calm her down. Barrett spoke before she had a chance to respond.
“Before all this madness, we’d been talking with Richard about starting our legislation from scratch. I believe we all agree that help is not going to arrive after all this time?” She looked around her and everyone nodded. “Then, we agree: we’re probably spending the rest of our lives here. So, I propose we put forward a motion to start our legislation afresh, to write our own Declaration of Independence, so to speak. A constitution to guide us and our children through the days to come. The problem with our legislation is that it’s too detailed and complex. That makes people come up with tricks and ways to ignore it. The more the prohibitions, the more the law-breakers. That’s why law only needs general principles. Judges shouldn’t worry about the letter of the law. They must focus on people’s actions: do they comply with the spirit of the law? I mean, God only gave mankind ten commandments to follow. So few, you may say. And yet, if everyone followed half of these, we wouldn’t be in the sad state we’re in.”
“That’s great, but what if Croix refuses?” asked Katie.
Barrett stroked her e-lib to remove an invisible smudge. “Croix proves how desperately we need a constitution. But that can’t help us now. Even if we accused him of breaking the law, who’s gonna arrest him? We have no police – except for his henchmen.” She raised her eyes and looked at them. “My friends, make no mistake: we now live in a dictatorship. How the hell did it come to this?”
“Even more important, what are we going to do about it?” Richard asked.
Joe looked at the baffled faces around him. “Am I the only one to think this is crazy? Before we do anything rash, can’t we try and reason with him? I’m sure the man’s not the monster you all seem to think.”
“There can be no reasoning with a madman,” Richard retorted. “We should–”
Lucas raised his hand to stop him. “Joe is right. How about the two of us go and talk to him before we do anything drastic?”
Barrett and Richard exchanged uneasy looks. “He has broken every law I know,” she said. “I can’t let him get away with it.”
“Sure, and how’re you going to convince him to surrender?” Richard asked.
Instead of replying, Barrett returned to her preoccupation with the invisible blot on her e-lib. Katie looked away while Lucas rubbed his temples, lost in thought.
“So, we’re all agreed the two of us go and talk to him?” Joe asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“Well, you can go if you wish” said Richard. “Me, I’d rather make an army first. If push comes to shove, I want to know I can defend myself.” He turned to Barrett. “Jenny, I need your advice on this. Will I be breaking the law?”
She sighed and looked up from her e-lib. “I don’t know, Richard. I really don’t know. Let them talk to Croix and see what happens. In the meantime, you do what you must. Speak softly and carry a big stick, as the saying goes.”
They kept talking well into the night, breaking up their gathering long after midnight. Katie cleaned up the table while Lucas did the washing up. It had been their agreement since moving in together. She was a great cook, so it made no sense for Lucas to try that, but he took pride in his washing up, now possible to do indoors thanks to running water, his pride and joy. He placed the leftovers into a wooden barrel for the chicken to eat and spent a minute staring at it with unseeing eyes. His next project would be a plastics factory, he decided.
Katie saw his troubled look. “Are you worried?” she asked.
He knew she was not referring to the plastics or the leftovers. With an absent-minded look on his tired face, he rubbed a dark spot on the clay plate in his hands, until it disappeared under his fingernails.
“Yes. Very,” he said in the end.
When Croix first heard that Lucas and Joe wanted to talk to him, he was drinking from a gold goblet, almost choking. He had expected Barrett and Walker to be the ones to kick up a fuss. Unless they were all in it, of course. Together. He now saw he’d have to proceed with extreme caution. They’d want to undo everything he had accomplished. They were a great threat, just as the whispers had warned him.
At first he considered refusing to see them. Then again, it’s always better to keep your enemies close. He had not accepted right away though; first, he needed to learn more. To make the necessary preparations.
It had taken him a week, but everything was now in place. He sat relaxed on his chair, leaning back, hands locked behind his head, waiting for them. The door opened and a young boy with a black armband showed Lucas and Joe in to his office.
“Thank you,” he said, and the boy saluted before marching out of the office. Turning his attention to his visitors, he beamed a wide smile at them. “Welcome, my friends! Always a pleasure to see you!” He stepped out from behind his desk to shake their hands with both of his, noticing Lucas’ split-second indecision.
He motioned them to sit down in front of his oversized desk. Lucas seemed tense, an uneasy look on his face, while Joe’s features were more relaxed. “What can I do for you on this fine day?” he asked when they had sat down.
Lucas threw Joe an uneasy glance before answering. “Thank you for seeing us, I know you have a very busy schedule.”
Croix circled his wide desk to sink back into his chair with a heavy sigh. “Not enough hours in the day, I’m afraid. But that’s to be expected when one’s responsibilities never end. I’m sure you know how that feels. You’ve both been among our most helpful citizens, working so hard for our survival. We owe you a great deal of gratitude. I’m sure Joe’s statue will be standing right next to yours in no time, Lucas.”
He grinned at them, which seemed to make Lucas uncomfortable. He enjoyed that, letting the awkward silence linger for a moment. Again, Lucas broke it first. Joe had never been one for words and seemed to be there for moral support alone.
“Well, we wanted to talk to you about what happened at the ceremony.”
“Yes… Such a sad affair. It pains me terribly to see people act like that,” Croix said, a deep frown crossing his brow.
“They didn’t so much act as react, actually. It was your Armbands and your speech that started it,” Lucas blurted out.
Croix raised his eyebrows in shock. “Was it? It saddens me so to hear you say that, my friend. The way I remember it, those brave boys were the only thing between us and chaos. You should be thanking them, not accusing them. They saved the day.”
“The way you saved the day when that First talked to me?” Lucas said.
Croix rolled his eyes. That again? For hell’s sake, won’t he ever let go? Fine, the man was an envoy. So we made an enemy. Big deal. We’re strong and they’re weak and that’s that!
When he spoke, however, his voice was sweet like dripping honey. “Another unfortunate incident. I’m sorry you feel that way, friend. I see you still refuse to thank me for saving your life. That’s OK, a leader must be ready to face ungratefulness daily.” He sighed deeply, enjoying the sight of Lucas turning red.
“Leader?” he rasped. “I don’t remember voting for you!”
“Surely you agree that desperate times require desperate measures?” Croix asked, his voice the very voice of reason itself.
“The times are only desperate, because you made them so!”
“I see… Well, let’s agree to disagree.” He turned his attention to an e-lib on his desk and tapped it. “Is there anything else?” he asked without looking at them.
“Yes! Why did you take away our books?”
Lucas’ outburst took Croix by surprise. He had never been one for books, and the survivors’ attachment to them had amazed him. He shook one accusing finger at Lucas. “We have to preserve our civilisation. How can we do that without any e-libs?”
“What are you talking about? One kid breaking an e-lib is just an accident – not an excuse to withhold knowledge from people,” Lucas shouted.
“An e-lib broken today. Another tomorrow. How few should be left before you consent to placing them into safe keeping? A hundred? A dozen? Just one?”
“But we still have hundreds of them! What you’re saying makes no sense! How are we going to educate our children? How can we progress as a civilisation?”
Croix felt the blood rush to his head. This idiot has no idea what we’re up against! “Progress? You want progress? It’s all we can do to survive. Wake up, Lucas! We are stranded in the middle of nowhere on a hostile planet, surrounded by enemies. Making it out of here alive will be hard enough, without worrying about progress.”
“The First are not our enemies! They never attacked anyone. Not once! And the planet’s been great. We can eat almost anything on it, there are no dangerous predators, no diseases… What are you so afraid of?”
Croix drummed his fingers on the desk and stared outside. “There are more things on this planet than you know,” he said in a low, soft voice. “Many more dangers than you realise. Anyway, to answer your question, we’ll set up copying facilities. That way the e-libs will be safe, but knowledge will be preserved. Can’t you see I’m just trying to ensure our survival?”
“How? By sending us straight back to the Dark Ages?”
"I’m doing nothing of the sort!” Croix thumped his fist on the desk, sending a rock paperweight to crash against the floor, but Lucas was unfazed.
“Yes, you are! You are talking about scribes copying ancient documents. That’s exactly like the Dark Ages!”
“We have printing presses now,” said Croix, a sudden smile playing on his lips.
“Do we? I’ve never seen them! Who set them up? Why don’t you show them to us?”
Croix leaned forward. “All in good time, my friend. All in good time. Now, if there’s nothing else…”
Joe coughed to clear his throat, then spoke for the first time since walking into the office. “Actually, there is. Lucas, Barrett and Walker are conspiring against you. I heard them with my own ears,” he said with a calm voice.
Lucas jerked to his feet, sending his chair to crash against the floor. “What are you talking about? I agreed with you that we needed to talk to Croix!”
“And Barrett and Walker discussed forming an army, didn’t they? At your home, I believe? Surely that makes you responsible…”
Croix sank back into his chair to watch Lucas, struggling to hide his amusement.
Lucas glared at Joe, speechless. “Why are you doing this, Joe?”
“He’s right, Lucas. Our survival comes first. I tried to tell you all, but you wouldn’t listen. You’ve all had such easy lives, back on Earth. Me, I was a farmer. A good year was a year when we didn’t go hungry. A bad year, though… I’ve been hungrier than all of you put together. And you know what? I don’t care for it. Putting food on people’s plates and keeping them safe: these are the only things that matter. All else is irrelevant. I’m sorry you can’t see that.”
“What about knowledge? Freedom?”
Joe crossed his arms and looked away. “Pretty words, nothing more. Try eating freedom next time you’re hungry. Then we’ll talk.”
“That’s not true,” Lucas cried out, leaning forward, his face inches from Joe’s. “Freedom’s sacred! It’s the one thing worth fighting for. Worth dying for!”
Time to end this. “Now, now, there’ll be plenty of time for all that,” Croix said, getting up. He walked calmly to the door and opened it. Two Armbands strode into the room.
Lucas took a step back, as if trying to hide behind the desk. “What are you doing?”
“Lucas Rivera, you are under arrest for conspiring against the lawful government of Pearseus,” Croix said. “Take him.” He gave the Armbands a nod as they placed one hand each on Lucas’ shoulders.
“This is wrong! Joe, what’s wrong with you? Don’t let them do this!”
Slamming handcuffs on him, they dragged him through the long corridor that led to the holding cells, his shouts fading in the distance.
“I’m sorry, Lucas,” Joe murmured. “I really am. But I won’t go hungry again. Not for you. Not for anyone.”
Cyrus glared at his father with furious, wide eyes. “How could you, Dad?” he shouted.
Joe shook his head. Cyrus was a good kid, but had no idea how life really worked. “You don’t understand. I did it for you. Everything’s gonna be alright now.”
Azam, Joe’s wife, stayed silent, knitting quietly in a corner.
“But it’s wrong! You taught me to tell right from wrong, remember? And I’m telling you: This. Is. Wrong.”
Joe felt the blood rush to his head, but before he could reply, Azam interrupted them.
“Cyrus, don’t talk to your father that way.” Cyrus threw them both a burning look before storming out, slamming the door behind him.
Joe clenched his jaw, looking at the quivering frame. “Can you believe him?”
“He’s right, you know,” she said, without interrupting her knitting.
“Don’t tell me you’re taking his side now?”
“I’m taking no sides, dear. But he’s right. Croix has finally lost it. He never had all his marbles, but since Kibwe’s death, he’s gone off the deep end. Did you at least ask him what he’ll do with Lucas?”
“I’m sure nothing bad will happen to him,” he rasped, sliding his hands into his pockets. He coughed to clear his throat . “He’ll probably be released in a couple of days.”
She sighed. “Let’s hope so.” Putting her knitting needles down, she walked to him and drew her arms around him. “You should have let them stop Croix instead of encouraging him. I’m afraid this won’t end well.”
Before he had a chance to reply, they heard shouts coming from outside. Exchanging a frightened look, they ran out. A group of Armbands trudged in the thick mud, hauling Walker. Heavy chains covered his wrists. An angry throng of onlookers had gathered to yell at them, ignoring the downpour. Joe stared at the sight in confusion. A loud bang startled him and sent people to run away, while Richard screamed at his captors. An Armband, a terrified boy with a gun, gaped on as two others punched Richard, again and again, until he collapsed in their arms. They dragged him away from the muddy street and the fleeing people returned. Joe noticed them lifting someone from a puddle and approached.
“Well, I hope you’re happy, attacking the officers like that –” he started, then his breath caught as he noticed it was Cyrus they were carrying.
“He tried to stop them from arresting Richard,” someone said.
The boy turned to look at his father and tried to speak, then spat blood. Joe’s face turned white and his legs buckled. He dropped to his knees, splashing mud around. Azam screamed behind him and hurtled to her son.
For a long time after they had all left, Joe stayed on the street, staring at the mud with unseeing eyes while the rain soaked him to the bone. Reaching an abrupt decision, he bolted to his feet and rushed towards the hospital.
The curses of the mob under his window, combined with the whispers in his head, made Croix’s head pound. He scowled and slinked to the window to curse at the stone-throwing protesters, the dull thuds of rocks reverberating in his head as they hit the wood. A stone broke the window to roll next to him, spraying him with broken glass. Screaming obscenities, he crawled behind his desk. An Armband ran into the room.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Ensign Tang, sir.”
“Why aren’t you attacking them, Ensign Tang?”
“Sir?” The young man’s eyes opened wide.
“Attack them! Shoot them! Kill them all!” Croix screamed, a vein throbbing on his forehead.
Tang blinked. “We can’t kill them all, sir!”
Croix stood up to peer out of the window. At least half the survivors had gathered in the plaza. He was surprised to see Joe among them, shouting like the others.
I’ve told you so many times; you should trust no-one! the whisper in his head scolded him.
“I don’t!” Croix cried out.
“Don’t what, sir?” asked the boy.
Croix reached into a drawer to dig inside, pulling out a gun and a slim dagger. He handed Tang the dagger, keeping the gun for himself. “Follow me,” he ordered.
They ran towards the cell where they held Lucas. Croix slammed the door against the wall.
“You bastard! How did you do it?” he asked.
Lucas cringed, holding his hands up to shield his eyes from the blinding light rushing in to the dark cell through the open door. His handcuffs had not been removed since his arrest, and dried blood and pus soiled his wrists. Bruises covered his unshaven face, making him look gaunt and dirty.
“Do what?” he rasped, wetting his lips with his tongue.
“How did you turn them against me?” Croix yelled.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lucas croaked.
“Get up. Up!”
Croix yanked him up by the handcuffs and Lucas screamed in pain as the metal dug into his flesh. Dragging him outside, Croix ignoring the Armband who stood frozen, fidgeting with his dagger, his conflicting thoughts evident on his young face. Lucas was like a father to the community; they had even erected him a statue.
“You’re responsible for keeping the peace,” Croix reminded him, noticing his discomfort. “You obey me and me alone, remember?”
He marched off and Tang hurried after them, a confused look still on his face.
Croix slammed the balcony door open and stepped outside. The crowd howled as they saw him and crashed against the building, like a wave made of flesh. Croix heaved Lucas in front of him and an eerie silence replaced the commotion.
“Is this what you want?” he asked them mockingly.
Barrett stepped out from the crowd. “It’s over, Croix. Let him go.”
“Let him go? He’s guilty of treason.” He pointed an accusing finger towards the crowd. “You’re all guilty of treason! You should all hang!” Spittle ran from the corners of his mouth, and Barrett gaped at him from below with an almost compassionate look in her eyes.
“Don’t do this, Croix. It’s not too late.”
“Is that pity I hear in your voice?” Rage swallowed him at the insult. “How dare you feel sorry for me! You’re the one that caused all this! Traitors, all of you!” His face twitched with fury.
“We’re coming in. Just Richard, Joe and me, just to talk,” she shouted to be heard over the commotion.
“What’s there to discuss? You all want me dead, don’t you think I know that? You’ve wanted that from the beginning. They were right, they’d warned me about you. All of you!”
“Who’s they?” she asked, confused. “No-one wants to hurt you, Gerard. Just let Lucas go and we’ll figure it out.”
He had almost forgotten about Lucas. He stared at his hand holding on to the handcuffs as if it belonged to someone else.
“Release him? He’s behind all this!” The whispers in his head agreed, urging him on. His other hand held on to the gun. He raised it with trembling fingers and pressed it against Lucas’ head. Lucas closed his eyes.
“Please…” he begged.
Croix’s trigger finger twitched and Lucas’ head exploded. Croix heard the howling from the crowd and saw its movement, first backwards, as if to avoid the blood; then forward, like a pack of wolves ready to cut him to pieces. Warm droplets sprayed him, dripping softly onto the crowd below like swirling scarlet raindrops, baptizing them in Lucas’ blood. A giggle rose to his mouth, and he brought his hand to his mouth to drown it.
A sharp pain in his back made him spin around and drop to his knees, releasing the gun. It thunked on the floor as Tang let go of the dagger stuck under their leader’s left shoulder blade. Croix’s blood rushed to leave his body through the open wound, every pump of the heart sending more of it to intermingle with Lucas’ own blood spattering on the balcony floor.
For the first time in a long time, Croix felt no pain, heard no whispers. It was so quiet and peaceful that he smiled in gratitude at Tang as he collapsed on the floor.
His brow creased at a tall, dark shadow with bright red eyes and elongated features hovering behind the boy. For a moment Croix found himself back in the dark forest, running away from the misty monsters chasing him. One of them caught up with him and raised a smoky finger. It morphed into a sharp dagger to stab him in the chest. Panic engulfed him, the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and he screamed his last breath.
Cursed with both a heavy sense of responsibility and a nervous disposition, Jennifer Barrett found it hard to stop her mind from racing. Whenever that happened, she could lay on her bed for hours mulling the events of the day before falling into an uneasy sleep. Tonight was no exception. If anything, sleep proved even more elusive than usual. Every time she closed her eyes, the image of Lucas pleading for his life sent a sob to cling in her throat. She had heard many tales of bravery in which the hero invariably faces death with dignity, or even contempt. Somehow this made it easier. Lucas, however, had begged for his life, and mercy had been denied to him. The surprise and despair on his face could not leave her mind. She cried herself to sleep.
She woke up in the middle of the night, wondering if she was still dreaming. And yet, the grey-haired man wearing a wool robe and a silver amulet felt as real as her sorrow. His presence startled her out of her sleep. Strangely enough, she felt no need to cry for help, although his eerie calmness and unemotional expression, much like a scientist studying his exhibit, unnerved her.
“Who are you?” she stammered.
“Just a friend.” He cocked his head, studying her with deep eyes, eyes older than time itself. “Dreadful business today, simply dreadful,” he muttered, sounding reassuring, yet distant.
“What are you doing in my room?”
He frowned at the question, as if it made no sense. “I’m waiting for you to wake up so we can discuss your verdict. Have you decided yet?”
“No.” She sighed and sank back into her bed.
He nodded in sympathy. “On one hand, these are your people, your children. How can anyone stay mad at children for long? On the other hand, justice must be served. Love and justice, a fine balance indeed.”
He bobbed his head and pressed his lips, reminding her of an old law professor she had, a lifetime ago. She closed her eyes and rested her head, certain she was dreaming, but when she opened her eyelids, the old man was examining her with mild curiosity.
“What do you want?” she moaned.
“Merely to suggest a way that best serves balance. It’s what we do, you know.”
“Is it? Who are you, anyway?”
He made a dismissive motion with his hand and straightened a non-existing crease on his sleeve. “Not important. What’s important is – ”
“I’m sorry, I need more than that.”
He was clearly not used to being interrupted, but she was a High Court Justice, not a little girl to be cowed into submission. When she refused to drop her glare, he relented with a soft sigh. “Very well, let’s just say we’re the natives.”
Her brow furrowed. “You don’t look like a First.”
Amusement followed bemusement in his face and he chuckled. “No, I’m not a First.” He pursed his lips; it was obvious she would not get anything more out of him.
“And your name?”
“Just call me Pratin,” he said, a thin smile crawling on his lips.
“Very well then. Now, why is this case so important?”
His eyebrows drew closer, somehow making his face look like a rubber mask. “Why? Because your decision will cause innumerable ripples. Right now, you’re the most important person on the planet. Generations will be affected by your decision.”
She turned her head away, her eyes suddenly wet. “What’s to decide? The madman’s dead.”
“Ah yes. An eye for an eye, isn’t that the expression? Indeed. Croix found swift justice in the hands of Ensign Tang. Surely Tang must be pardoned, then. Yet, half your people helped Croix. Don’t they bear any responsibility? What’ll happen next time someone decides to turn boys into tyrants?”
She shook her head. “That won’t happen”.
He bobbed his head to do that professor thing again. God, how she missed Earth all of a sudden...
“Won’t it?” he asked. “We’ve watched mankind for a long time, you know. Longer than you can imagine. A fascinating world of cruelty and finesse in equal measure. An unusual balance. Still, there are certain patterns. Like, how societies evolve at an increasing pace, until half the population has nothing in common with the other half. This leads to an interesting conundrum. Move forward, as one half struggles to do, and society will split in two. Stay put, as the other half desires, and you stagnate. Civil war looms any way you look. Do you know how generation after generation has solved this?”
“My dear Justice, surely you are not as naïve as you sound. No, by finding a common enemy. Society has to unite once again, and war serves as a safety valve. It’s a brilliant tactic, you know, and it’s worked countless times.”
She yawned. Seriously? A lecture at this time of the night? “Even if true, that’s not us.”
“Isn’t it? Half your society followed Croix. Why?”
“Fear, I guess.”
“Exactly! Fear, the great motivator. And you think you can overcome it with law? You need an enemy. If only you could fight the natives, but that sly Old Woman has forbidden them from contacting you. So what are you to do?”
She briefly wondered who the old woman was, then shook her head. “I don’t care what you say. The law can achieve this.”
“Too late, the rift is already there. Things will only get worse. Besides, think of future generations! If you decide not to punish the culprits, everyone will assume it’s fine to take authority by force, to help a criminal, to break the law.”
“I can’t imprison half the population.”
“No. Too harsh a punishment and the law is simply seen as cruel. It’s not just your authority that will suffer, it’s the law’s. And we both know we can’t let that happen, right?”
She rolled her eyes. It was too late for a legal debate. “Fine. So what do you propose?”
“A simple, yet elegant solution. People should be free to pursue their ideologies. If they like fascism, set up a nice little place for them to play with it until they tire of it. What harm can there be in that?”
Barrett stayed silent for a while, considering his words. “You’re talking about exile,” she said at last.
The old man nodded with enthusiasm. “It’s the only way. You have no jails. Where are you going to put all those who worked for Croix? Besides, are your resources enough to feed them all if they don’t work for a living?”
She closed her eyes to think about the repercussions. For a split second she thought she heard – no, felt was the right word – a high-pitched sound just at the edge of her consciousness and cocked her head to pinpoint it.
“How about…” she started, then realised the old man had disappeared. She glanced around, surprised. Probably just a dream, she told herself. The whole thing had an unreal, dream-like quality. Unexpectedly, it did not take her long to sleep again. As soon as she woke up she grabbed her e-lib to pound notes furiously.
“I didn’t know,” Joe whimpered. It had been two days since Lucas’ death, but tears welled up in his eyes whenever he brought him to his mind. “I worried about our food. Our security. Lucas knew that without freedom, you lose both. I should have listened.”
Azam held him in her arms, saying nothing. She stole a look at Cyrus, brooding next to them. Except for a broken arm, now mending under a brace, he had only suffered minor injuries.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said, raising his good hand to Joe’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should stay.”
Joe shook his head. “And miss the trial? No, I want to be there. I know they all hate me, but I have to be there.”
“No-one hates you,” Cyrus said with a soothing voice. “They understand.”
Joe wished that were true. Even if it were, it mattered little. He would never forgive himself, even if everyone else could. His son, always eager to fight, had been right all along. He glanced at his son with pride, reaching a sudden conclusion: he would raise him a warrior, not a farmer. The boy, a born fighter, had never shared Joe’s love for farming anyway.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked his wife, realising she had not said a word.
She avoided his eyes, her pretty face scarred by the terrible events. “I think it’s the end,” she whispered. “We’ve seen the last of our little village, the last of civilization. We are all barbarians now.”
Her sadness stung him. He wished he could contradict her, but could not find the words.
“We should go,” Cyrus said after a moment, breaking the awkward silence. “It’s time.”
They approached the plaza. Barrett looked on the crowd from the same balcony where Croix had murdered Lucas, dressed in her official purple cloak with black trimmings. From a distance, Joe could barely make out a recording device in the form of a glowing crystal around her neck.
The entire city had gathered in the square, waiting for the verdict. Boys dressed in white and red surrounded the Justice; her new guards, hasty replacements of Croix’s disbanded Armbands.
She had already started reading the verdict and frowned towards a group of boys standing separate from the rest of the crowd as she read from her e-lib.
“…For the crime of treason, we find the defendants guilty as charged. For the separate crime of murder one, we find the defendant Ensign Tang Wu Wei not guilty. For the crime of assault against the Chairman of the City Council, Richard Walker, we find the defendants guilty as charged. For the crime of grand larceny regarding the theft of e-libs, we find the defendants guilty as charged.”
Every pronouncement was greeted with murmurs from the restless crowd. A few jeered at first, then stayed silent.
She paused for a moment to put her e-lib away, and an expectant hush draped over the plaza. Drawing a deep breath, she stared at the crowd. “It’s now been eighteen years on the planet we called Pearseus. We’ve tried to live our new lives in freedom, and I promise to do my best to ensure that all men and women are free to pursue happiness without fear of persecution. We must, however, also live in accordance to the laws of our forefathers. Croix didn’t just murder one of our most prominent citizens, but also took our e-libs. Our past. Our future. I assure you, we’ll do our best to find them and return them to their rightful owners.”
They had only found a couple dozen e-libs stacked in a cabinet in Croix’s office; no-one knew what had happened to the rest.
“Even Pearseus’ destruction cannot be compared to the darkness we’ve recently witnessed. It’s only by sticking together that we managed to survive then. And that’s why this pains me so much.”
The crowd hung on her every word. Joe’s breath caught, his heart racing with anticipation.
“The penalty is permanent exile,” she continued. “The condemned have twenty-four hours to gather their belongings. Anyone wishing to follow them is free to do so. We will supply you with three e-libs to ensure your survival, but be warned that any information on weapons will be removed from them.”
Some of the crowd cheered, others wept as they realised they might never see friends and family again. Joe spotted Richard Walker in the crowd and approached him, noticing the bruises on his face and a slight limp. What alarmed him, though, was Richard’s expression: his clenched jaw and determined look.
“Hi, Joe,” Richard said.
“Hey, Richard. Listen, I’m really sorry about what happened.”
“I know. Katie told me.” He looked away. “You should avoid her for a while. She’s not in a good place.”
Tears welled up in Joe’s eyes and he swept them away with an angry gesture. If Richard noticed this, he said nothing.
Joe cleared his throat. “You’re looking better.”
“Yes, the doctors said I’ll be able to walk again properly in no time. As for the bruises, they’ll go away.” He licked his teeth, pushing his tongue into a still unfamiliar gap. “They broke a couple of teeth, but I should probably consider myself lucky. Who knew how far gone Croix was…”
“What are you going to do now?” Joe asked after a brief silence. “Rumour has it you’re leaving?”
Richard chuckled. “No secrets around here. Yes, I think I’ll go west, spend my final days at the sea. I’ll have the carpenter make me a surf board before I go. I’ve so missed the sea…” His voice trailed for a moment, his thoughts lost in distant memories. “Back on Earth, I surfed all the time. Man, it’s the greatest feeling. I had all the details for making a killer board in my e-lib, but that idiot took it away. I hope we find them before I leave.”
“The Capital’s just a village. How hard can it be? Even if we find it after you’ve left, I’ll bring it to you. I promise.”
“Sounds good,” Richard said, letting out a tired chuckle.
Just saying the words felt important for some reason, although both men knew Joe would never make such a trip.
“So, what d’ you think is gonna happen to our little world?” said Joe, nodding towards the crowd.
“I don’t know, man. It’s like half are exiled now, and the rest just want to come with me… It’s not gonna be the same.”
“Azam said the same thing. I wonder what our children will think of all this. How we were one, then we were torn. Will they understand?”
Richard pursed his lips. “We just passed our judgment on Croix’s stupid kids. History will do the same with us, I guess.”
Cyrus approached them, gesturing excitedly as he discussed the unexpected verdict with his friends. “Who knows,” Joe said, glancing at his son. “Maybe future generations will be wiser than us.”
Richard shook his head, doubt clouding his eyes.