Devil Shredder

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Temo Lund’s climb up the apartment complex stairwell was not uncommon. To the thousands of residence who dwell in these sprawling complexes, seeing him coming or going at any time during the day garnered little interest. He scaled the stairs with purposeful steps, one hand on the railing, his eyes always scanning his surroundings, taking in every detail. Any change in the familiar world noted and filed away in his busy mind. If you offered him a greeting, he respectfully returned it, but seldom initiated one himself. His demeanor conveyed a desire to be alone with his own thoughts, unapproachable without being menacing.

Most folks if pressed could not remember Temo walking up or down the stairs with his free hand empty. He always carried something in it, a package, grocery bags, old books, and on occasion an interesting looking case the size of the average suitcase. Little signs that his ventures from the sprawling complex that held his home served a purpose. Those same neighbors will also tell you that each multiplex provides at least seven elevators, never in all the years that Temo lived in multiplex four, block one, thirty sixth avenue complex was he ever seen using one.

Today was no different, he was returning home from one of his daily errands, in the left hand a new book, a rare sight in today’s world of digital everything, but he preferred paper books. An e-reader only took up so much space on ones shelves and offered little satisfaction as a trophy. Every book that Temo read he proudly displayed in his mid-sized apartment on homemade shelves. Shelves that used up any wall space not occupied up by dozens of miniature habitats.

As he climbed the nine stories to his apartment’s level, Temo did as he always did, sorted, catalogued, and occasionally, discard the hundreds of ideas and concepts that constantly ran through his mind. New ways to build his habitats, cultivate food for his charges, and inventive ways to get a hold of any new species he learned about through the explorers guild net.

A mischievous chuckle sounded deep in his throat, quickly but discreetly he scanned his surroundings to see if anyone noticed. The involuntary chuckle was the result of some of the thoughts running through his mind. Thoughts of how freely the government disseminated information, some ancient law he noted, allowed him to learn what new life forms explorers were discovering. The Earth Infectious Control Ministry deemed nearly every new discovery Terran Hazard-Do Not Import. Yet Temo freely searched the unclassified exploratory reports and learned of each and every new discovery before the EICM could label it safe or unsafe. Import was illegal before EICM made and official determination, but as long the DNI classifications didn’t come up when Terran Customs agents scanned his packages, they usually let them pass.

Temo lost a couple of critters to young overzealous customs agents’. Now he was more careful to find the old timers who were just working for their pensions.

All the planetary government would need to do; he thought to himself, is classify each discovery DNI until the bureaucrats at EICM could make their determination. Of course, he thought to himself, he would fail to pass that on; such changes would kill his business. The black-market for forbidden off planet pets was a thriving trade, especially if you were genius enough to keep such critters alive and in some cases propagated them.

“Something I have quite the knack for.” He boasted just under his breath.

He bit his tongue against any further comment as that part of his mind that told him, “We shouldn’t be doing this.” Alerted him to her presence before his other senses picked up on her presents. Air currents carried the delicate scent of her perfume down the last couple of flights that separated them. The barely audible sound of a woman’s high heel scraping the landings faux granite floor echoed off the block walls.

As he reached the last half flight of stairs separating him from her, he felt her presence, the self-assuredness that came from living among a class of people several steps above those billeted in these sprawling complexes. That same pomposity he picked up from her killed the naughty fantasy’s that started to grow from his loins. Fantasy’s that sprang from a gentle whiff of her expensive perfume.

Obviously designed to elicit that very response from helpless males as myself, Temo though as he turned to climb the last flight to his level.

That little scraping sound again escaped the three-inch heel of her left foot as she pivoted to meet him. The sight of her caused him to freeze, his left foot one-step higher than his right, his right hand firmly gripping the railing.

Her beauty stunned him like no other before. Aside from a little around her eyes, Temo detected no makeup, yet her complexion radiated. Simple round glasses framed sky blue eyes that shimmered with their own brilliance. Thin shapely lips formed a knowing smile that reignited a mischievous spark within him. All this framed by a sandy blonde mane that swept her shoulders when her head moved.

The sound of her voice finally broke Temo of the trance her beauty induced.

“Mr. Lund I presume?” Her smile returned and she tilted her head inquisitively.

Absently, he raised his back foot to the landing she stood on, bringing himself to her level. As he continued to gaze at her, she tugged up the sleeve of her Federated Nations issued jumpsuit and activated her personal area computer. The lenses of her glasses darkened as they went into data screen mode. Temo could tell by the subtle movements of her head that she was shifting focus between him and the data displayed before her eyes. This went on for several seconds before her glasses cleared and she again addressed him.

“You must be Mr. Temo, even though…” Again, she consulted her glasses, this time he could see data flashing across her lenses, but couldn’t interpret it since the focus was for her eyes only. “It says nothing here about you being mute.”

Her tone and demeanor cooled his initial erotic response and awakened deep-seated resentments, and shame. She watched uncomfortably as his features changed from those of a man stunned by her beauty, to a proud man scorned. So quickly did his posture become threatening, it forced her to step back involuntarily.

“It is generally considered bad manners to insult someone before you introduce yourself ma’am.” Temo said biting off each word.

His forceful tone triggered another involuntary step back. She took a moment to regain her composure before replying.

“My name is of little importance Mr. Lund, I am just a messenger, and if the need arises…a political cut out.”

Again, Temo found himself on his heels, but this time by the weight of her words and not her stunning beauty. He glanced at her right breast to the place where her nametag should be worn; only a naked black Velcro rectangle gave hint to it existence. Temo continued a quick scan of her form fitting navy blue jumpsuit; it was bereft of all markings and insignia. It became quickly apparent that she wanted her government affiliation known, just not her rank or position.

She arrested his curiosity by explaining farther. “I am on my own time right now. I did not come to you as a Federation representative.” She paused, looked around, reached into a thigh pocket, and extracted a small device. The beautiful stranger then activated a function of her PAC and made a circle while holding the device at arm’s length shoulder high. After completing a three hundred and sixty degree sweep, she scanned the data on her glasses. Looking satisfied with what she saw, she attached it to the wall were she could quickly reference it.

“I represent a group that needs the assistance of your special talents.” She finally said.

“What group would that be?” He asked his sarcasm thick, making it clear he was not buying the cloak and dagger crap.

“I can’t get into that here.” She looked down the stair well, then up and then followed up with a glance at quick scan of the blue characters that danced across the lower half of her glasses. “I also don’t have time to explain what it is we want from you.” Instead, she produced flash drive from her right breast pocket.

“Do you have equipment to extract the data from this?” She asked holding out the long obsolete technology.

Temo slowly nodded an affirmative. However, because of the bemused expression on his face she felt she needed to explain.

“This is untraceable. If I transmit the data to your PAC, someone could pick it up, encrypted, or not, they could intercept.”

“I have some USB adapters available, yes.” He said reassuring her. Normally he used them for converting old digital books to printed form.

“This,” she whispered leaning closer to him now, “will tell you everything you need to know, the who, what, when, where, and why.”

As if on cue, the sound of a door opening echoed throughout the stair well. At first, it was difficult to tell whether it came from below or above. Temo listened, holding a hand up to the nameless beauty to keep her quiet and still. With practiced ease, Temo listened to the shuffle of sandaled feet on the fake granite. In seconds, he identified the source and indicated the direction with a thumb pointing up, he held up three fingers to indicate the number of floors.

The navy blue clothed women nodded and held out her hand, Temo accepted it and she pulled him closer to her. She brushed her lips close to his ear, her aroma filled his nostrils, and silken skin brushed his while her soft corn silk hair tickled his nose and lips. “We need your help! Please look over the info with an open mind.” She conveyed her impassioned plea through there contact as well as her whispered voice.

Suddenly she broke contact and stepped away, leaving him feeling momentarily empty, longing for the little bit of intimacy she shared with him. With cat like quickness, she snatched the device from the wall and tugged the door to his level open. Before she could signal her intentions, Temo picked up on them and stepped through the door. As the door closed, he could hear her hurried footfalls making their way down the stairs. Temo knew she wanted it to sound as if one person opened the door and headed down the stairs, not two people ending a meeting on the landing. Though Temo doubted that the slipper wearing women passing by the door that separated them would notice. Most people in these massive complexes went through life like the cattle they were, never seeing anything beyond their little patch of grass.

Temo shook his head in sadness at the thought and turned down the hall towards his own little patch of grass.

* * * * *

Temo stared at the frozen video image of the women who less than an hour ago shared a stairway landing with him. He now had a name, her code name at least, to put with her beautiful face, Tigress.

He shifted his gaze from Tigress’s image staring back at him and looked to the ceiling of his cramped little apartment. Accessing the flash drive was no easy task. First, he tried playing it in an old multi-format video player he had laying around, but just got the unknown format message. The video players response was no surprise, he just wanted to try the quick and easy route first. It was time to switch to his personal computer.

His computer could read the data on the drive, but it lacked the software to play the video files. A popup prompted him to download one. He did so, scanned it for viruses, and installed it. Within seconds, the software sealed his PC off from the outside world and his own network so quickly and thoroughly that Temo was sure he was the victim of carnivore worm. He watched helplessly as it scanned his drives, peripherals, and any networked systems before easing its grip on his computer one system at a time. The software promptly flashed a message telling him that the system was free of bots, bugs and snoops then displayed the resume icon.

Temo ignored the resume query from the newly installed software for several minutes while he checked the life support functions of each and every habitat in his apartment, all controlled by the PC just recently released by the newly installed software.

“Note to self,” Temo called out to the life forms around him. “Use portable PC to open files on a flash drive given to you by very attractive women, not the PC that keeps most of you alive.” Exasperated, he sat down in front of his computer and begrudgingly tapped the resume icon on the display.

The flash drive contained a poorly produced video, something probably done with PAC and pirated newsreels. Images of combat and protests flashed across his monitor. Some he was familiar with, others he had not seen before but he knew of the story. A male voice narrated the production. The narrator spoke of a world no longer free, its citizens oppressed by a monolithic Federated Nations that lost touch with its reason for existence decades ago.

For ten minutes, Temo listened to the jingoistic pap that was intended to make viewers become sympathetic to a group called the Founders. A group formed to restore liberty to the nations of Earth, whether it was under the current world government or not. Temo’s interest started to wane, but then, Tigress appeared on his monitor. Her part was a simple plea directly into the camera, addressed to him personally. At this moment, she gazed back at him waiting for his response.

Tigress had just simply asked him for his help. She gave him no details as to how he could help this group or their cause, but she did caution him, leaving him with his first decision.

He could shut down the software now, remove it from his computer, and forget he ever saw it as it destroyed itself. Or he could tap the Yes icon and agree to help her and her cause because it was the principled thing to do.

“Horse crap!” Temo said aloud venting his frustration.

He knew why the Founders sent Tigress; his thoughts leaned toward helping just in the hopes that he would see her again, though no such possibility was even implied.

“Horse crap!” He growled again, thumping his fist on a stack of old catalogues.

Temo leaned back in his chair stretching his spine until a rapid sequence of popping sounds eased the tension that started to bunch his muscles. As he twisted and jerked in an attempt to crack his neck, he pondered the current political climate and life under the watchful eye of the Federated Nations and President Wiseicklson. Fear was the dominant sentiment of the day. Most any citizen, no matter their stature, was just one finger pointing away from facing charges that could mean life in an off planet prison, never to be heard from again.

But, Temo thought, what could they want from him, he was just a… Before Temo could finish the thought, he looked at the banks of miniature habitats that filled his apartment. He now had an idea what it was they wanted.

He tapped the Yes icon.

Temo only afforded Tigress’s digital image the occasional glance as she rambled on, her features brighter having received the hoped from response from him. As he scanned the scores of artificial habitats that filled nearly every nook and cranny of his apartment, in his mind, he played a game. It was a race to see if he could guess which of his critters she wanted before Tigress finally asked.

He spotted it long before Tigress could get to the conclusion of her long-winded request. As he rose from his desk chair, he glanced very briefly at the rambling image of Tigress, irritation swept across his features.

“Get to the point.” Temo whispered hoarsely.

His attention refocused on the thick glass habitat that drew him from his desk in the first place. Trance like, he walked to the habitats location on the far wall only half listening to Tigress now. Temo stopped, his nose just centimeters from the glass, It ignored him. Those explorers who survived its discovery named it Necare Chalybs; postings on the explorers net nicknamed it Devil Shredder.

Temo marveled over the creature, his newest acquisition. A recent discovery its uncanny ability to murder three explorers in seconds moved a massive bureaucracy to make a decision in record time, the EICM decreed the Necare Chalybs Terran Hazard-Do Not Import in two short weeks. His was well on its way to Earth before those two weeks passed.

That thought alone gave him doubts about them wanting it. How could they know he already has one? Just as quickly he dismissed the thought, if they know of his collection, then they know of this little guy.

After a little study, Temo saw that it was not ignoring him. One of its preposterously long tufted ears focused on him while the other shifted every few seconds to scrutinize a new part of the room.

Temo clicked his tongue in hopes of eliciting some response, the creature obliged. Slowly it lifted a thick leathery eyelid to reveal a serpent like eye. Deep set it gleamed with the desire to tear Temo’s throat out, to emphasize the point the creature partially lifted a section of its leathery lip to reveal metallic colored fangs. So intimidating was the gesture that it overpowered Temo’s self-assurance, forcing him to take a step back. Seemingly satisfied with itself, it resumed its snoozing.

It took Temo a couple more seconds to recover his cool then he noticed that his computer fell silent. He walked over to his computer, all the while fighting the urge to look over his shoulder to see if the creature was laughing,

Tigress’s image stared back at him, her nose, and mouth hidden by a Yes or No popup. He responded by activating the rewind function to find out what he missed. Once it reached a sequence number that looked familiar, Temo restarted it.

Tigress rambled on about how her group learned of him through mutual contacts in the Ministry of Exploration and the black market.

“Therefore if you should decide to refuse our request we have enough on each other to assure mutual silence.” She said, a knowing smirk twisting the corner of her pretty lips.

She followed up with an understanding that he may not share her group’s views, therefore she is fully prepared, and authorized, to offer him compensation.

“Based on what I have said so far, are you interested enough to hear are proposal?”

The Yes or No popup reappeared; Temo leaned back in his chair to ponder her last question.

“What could a group with claims to greatness but no public recognition offer me?” Temo asked aloud.

He doubted they were well funded enough to offer him enough Federated Nations credits to make the risk of losing everything worthwhile. As he looked around, he calculated how much potential revenue filled this apartment. More than the Founders could or would muster. No, it had to be something more valuable to him than money. Absently he focused on the habitat containing the creature in question; though his eyes looked right at the tank, he did not see it. Slowly his mind ticked, tugging at the very beginnings of an idea. Most of the group’s leaders are government officials and they know a lot about him. Therefore, his thoughts continued, they would know what in this galaxy was of the most value to him.

Suddenly his eyes lit up in realization. So forcefully did he stab the Yes icon that he jabbed his pointer finger painfully and rocked the flat panel to the point of near destruction. Temo steadied it with shaking hands and watched with anticipation.

Joy spread across Temo’s features as Tigress gave her spiel. Something’s money just cannot buy, Temo thought to himself.

* * * * *

Temo looked about the transit station with the practiced casual air of a young man adept at flying under the radar. The place was typical public transit busy. A mass of humanity, all trying to get somewhere they were not. He sat away from the center of activity in one of many thermoformed plastic seats, his feet propped up on a travel case. In the public side of his PAC, Temo had a ticket to Chicago; he was going to visit his brother at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station, if anyone asked.

Within minutes of arriving at the transit station Temo located and catalogued all the local, and Elite Federal Guard, authorities patrolling the station. Quickly he located and kept a wary eye on any in his immediate vicinity. Satisfied that no one paid him particular attention, he activated a program on his PAC. Via tight beam microburst encrypted transmissions, Temo’s PAC received an instant update to the creature’s life support system. Its vitals displaying on the contacts he wore for discretion.

In the travel case below his heals, the creature rested comfortably, at least according to its vitals, it was resting. An intelligent creature, Temo imagined it was biding its time, waiting for the opportunity to exact its revenge for all its humiliation and confinement. The fact that it lay in his case, in this station, bore proof that it was perfect for the task the Founders selected it for.

All transit stations protected their perimeters with bio detectors. Ultra-sensitive instruments that sniffed out even the faintest hint of unlawful life forms. Devices whose very existence emerged from the first assassination of a high profile person using an extraterrestrial life form.

The EICM classified Temo’s creature more quickly than any other life form in agencies history. A big reason was that it failed to appear on an explorer’s bio detector scopes. One of the creature’s genus members massacred the three person explorer team in mere minutes. So alien was the Necare Chalybs biological makeup that it would be months if not a year before EICM successfully tuned their bio detectors to its unique biomarkers.

By then it would be too late for the creature’s intended target.

Temo felt her presence before he caught the motion of her movements in his peripheral vision. Her city issued license labeled her a street performer, pan handler is the ancient term many still used to describe her and her ilk. She wore the costume of a mid-evil jester, complete with a three pointed hat.

Temo focused his attention on her as she moved through the ranks of plastic chairs and their sparse occupants. As she moved her multi colored uni clung in places to reveal a very thin figure, dark eyes looked out from gaunt features. Reflexively she pushed her long dark hair back behind ears surgically altered into elfin points. Her jester’s hat, colored to match the uni danced about her head, its bells adding a musical score to her erratic movements.

Temo caught her attention and they locked gazes for several seconds before she winked her left eye at him, he responded in kind. She continued her aimless track through the chairs until she stood before Temo.

“Lonely travelers are known for their generous gifts?” She queried holding out her battered old pie tin, its bottom smattered with credit notes and coins.

“Not all those who travel alone are lonely.” He replied tossing a quarter credit coin into the pan, it landed with a timbered metallic clunk.

She stood motionless, leaning into him, pan still extended to him. Her dark penetrating eyes searching deep into his soul for some hint of treachery, a look of feigned disgust held her features. Again, she winked at him with her left eye, stood and pirouetted. She stopped facing the center of the transit station.

Temo knew that she was giving some sort of signal to his drop, though you could not tell by watching her. The few seconds that she stood, scanning the terminal, seemed like eons to Temo as he waited for her next move. Without warning, she spun on him, placed the now empty pie tin on the seat next to him, grabbed both his hands in hers, and yanked him to his feet.

“We will dance the dance of the Weyer and scare away the spirits whom aim to thwart your travels.” She cried loud enough for half the terminal to hear.

Initially Temo fought against her as she pulled him this way and that, urging him to spin and leap with strength uncharacteristic for a woman of her slight frame. Eventually though, he remembered his mission and moved with her smoothly as she led him through erratic gyrations.

Together Temo and the performer nearly collided with a man whose cloths clearly displayed a station in life many levels above Temo’s. Initially Temo felt and looked embarrassed as the wealthy stranger showed his utter contempt for the pair, then he noticed the man’s travel case. So identical was the wealthy stranger’s case to his that Temo could not help but steal a sidelong glance at his own case sitting under the featureless rows of plastic seats.

The man made a snobbish noise of disgust, lifted his nose a touch higher, and took an exaggerated detour around the couple. About halfway between the gyrating pair and the seats, the stranger looked over his shoulder at them in feigned disgust, what he was really checking was that all attention was on the performer and Temo.

To make sure it was, she tugged at Temo, and he followed her into an even more elaborate display of whirling and jumping.

Less than ten minutes later Temo returned to his seat puffing for air and sweating profusely. He looked about to see people resuming their mundane existents’, their brief distraction over. The stranger had moved on, as did the vagrant and her battered pie tin.

He reached to his case, unzipped a side compartment, removed a towel that resembled the one he was told to pack there, and wiped his brow before returning the towel to the travel case. A part of him wanted to check other pockets of the case, but he knew it was not his case. He did not see the exchange; he had been too busy warding off evil spirits. Temo could see the subtle differences. To dig through the pockets and flaps after being a part of the recent display would draw to much attention. He assured himself that he did not need to confirm what he already knew.

Temo knew the well-dressed stranger had the creature now. In a few days, hell, Temo thought, it could be weeks. He was not privy to the timeline once he delivered the Devil Shredder. However, once it performed the task the Founders set it upon, if successful, then the rest, as they say, will be history.

At the designated time, Temo rose from his seat and headed for his boarding gate, the new case in tow. He would spend a few days at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station and visit his brother. Then he and his new case would return home and wait.

* * * * *

The thundering roar of the world tearing from its foundations wrenched Temo from his sleep. Disoriented, momentarily trapped in the gray world between sleep and wakefulness, he scrambled for his robe and fumbled it on, his hands quickly knotting the tie at his navel. As he scrubbed the sleep from his face, Temo stumbled to his bedroom door; slowly he cracked the door and peeked into the main part of his apartment.

The soft light of the hallway silhouetted half a dozen heavily armed soldiers, soldiers that stood where the wall once had. For just the briefest moment, he stared in disbelief at the crimson colored body armor of the Elite Federal Guard, then the space separating him and the squad of soldiers filled with a blinding white light. Reflexively Temo threw himself back into his bedroom to escape the sudden assault of white hot light. The sound of several rifles charging and the click of a helmet mike opening quickly followed the sound of him hitting the floor.

“Citizen Temo Lund, we have a warrant for your arrest, we know your here…it is futile to hide.”

Temo’s mind raced as he tried to blink away the large black spots that refused to clear from his vision. How could this be? He thought frantically to himself. There was supposed to be a dozen political cutouts between him and the authorities.

“Lock and load troops.” The squad leader ordered in a business as usual tone. The click whir sound of urban assault rifles charging to life quickly followed the squad leaders order.

“Citizen Temo…”

“No!” Temo cried aloud, this isn’t real! A part of him searched through his frazzled mind. Then he found it, the boundary between dreams and reality, the subconscious and the conscious. With what seemed like an impossible effort he forced himself across the barrier into wakefulness.

In the world of reality, dreams just now left behind, Temo found himself lying on his back, covered only in a sheet. He knew the rest of his blankets would be on the floor. His right arm lay across his eyes, shielding them from that brutal light that existed only in his dreams. With just a mental nudge Temo’s arm slid from his face and thumped lifelessly on the bed next to him.

The room was dark with enough ambient light to help his keen night vision see that all was as it should be. No intense white light, no haze from the smoke and dust, and most importantly, no amplified voice threatening his life and freedom.

A shiver ran through him, prompting him to get up and fix the sweat soaked sheets before he really got a chill. Just as he made the decision to get up he felt a change in the room, a shift in the currents, an unfamiliar sound. Like a shot, he sat upright to come face to face with night vision goggle wearing intruder

“Freeze!” The intruder commanded, a blaster held at arm’s length in Temo’s general direction backing up the command.

Temo did, the blaster was department issue, and with practiced precision, he scanned the officer and her uniform moving only his eyes. In two blinks of an eye, Temo determined that this was a first year officer out to make a name for herself. Some clues, a slight waver in the forced command, a blaster that trembled slightly, and the subtle movement that told Temo the officer was constantly checking the bottom of her glasses. Comparing what she saw there, his mug shot, with the man she held at the end of her blaster.

“Citizen Temo Lund?” The young officer asked.

“Yes.” Temo answered flatly.

Shifting her attention rapidly from the PAC display in her goggles, then to Temo, and back, the officer began to recite her mantra. “Citizen Lund you are under arrest for conspiracy to overthrow the government of the…”

The officer began to read off a litany of practiced lines, as Temo watched this he became first amused at the cops ineptitude then irritated by it, as he became more irritated something inside his head snapped.

Slowly but with deliberate enough motions to catch the officers attention Temo rose to his full seated height and made a show of looking over the cops shoulder and into the main room . Immediately the officers full attention settled on Temo, her voice trailing off as Temo’s actions became more important than a proper arrest.

“Citizen Lund,” The officers voice wavered more now than before. “I strongly advise you to remain absolutely still until I finish reading you the charges you face and your rights as a citizen.”

Having never used NVG’s Temo was not sure how much detail was available to the officer, but because he was still breathing, he was pretty sure the officer could not read the tomfoolery that burned in his eyes.

“Why officer…” Temo paused looking inquisitively at the cop waiting for her to fill in the gap.

“Trailman” The officer obliged.

“Trailman,” Temo continued. “This all sounds very by the book.” Again, Temo made show of looking over Trainman’s shoulder. “But shouldn’t you have back up.” Temo swallowed hard as he realized his tone was more threatening than he intended.

“A young badge out to make a name for herself…huh?” Yet to his consternation, he continued to challenge the officer.

The two stared at each other for several moments, and then in frustration Temo said. “Fine.”

He reached across his body with his right hand, his intention to yank back the sheet that had collected in folds around his waist. Before he completed the move, realization awakened in his head, spreading through his conscious like wild fire.

Temo knew he just made the biggest and final mistake of his life.

His mind accelerated into hyper drive slowing the world around him to instant replay speed.

Temo watched in horror, frozen in fear as officer Trainman’s right arm first stiffened then rose a few inches. Slowly the officer pulled the trigger back into a momentary dip switch that issued a faint click. Temo’s ultra-sensitive ears picked the sound up, a click that told him the dip switch sent a signal to the blasters microprocessor. The processor acknowledged the simple command by sending its own command to the blasters firing circuitry.

Temo watched the results as the blasters barrel filled with lethal raw energy. Even though time seemed to remain frozen all Temo could manage in the fraction of a second it took for the officer to pull the trigger until it erupted with violent energy, was “NO!”

Pain was what Temo expected when he awoke, chilled dampness and complete disorientation was what he found. He did not look at the ceiling of his room back on Earth, but instead the roof of his domed tent. His ears picked up the sound of the tents comfort circuitry struggling to speed up the evaporation of excess moisture, his fear reeking sweat. These clues alone assured him that this time he was truly awake.

With effort, he worked himself into a seated position scrubbing his face with his hands. A little additional effort allowed him to swing his legs off the cot and onto the cool floor. He sat like this for several minutes, elbows on knees, and head in hands.

Silently he rose, wrapped a robe about his lean muscular body, and headed out the dome tents door. Temo stopped directly outside the tents door and scanned the Explorers complex.

As Temo expected now one else was about at this late hour. The eight other tents sat quietly in a cluster around the administration dome. He shifted to his left to see if any lights burned in the much larger dome, Temo saw none.

He leaned back against his tent and looked up at Belle, it was mid sky, the moons half phase reflecting enough light to move about without a light. His payment for providing the Chalybs to the Founders, all his life he wanted to be an Explorer, the founders made it possible. In Temo’s mind, he got the better end of the deal.

With a slight adjustment to his robe, he headed in the direction of the Admin dome. As he crossed the short distance, he made note of the various sounds that came from the woods that surrounded him, for the countless time he thanked the genius of the low power energy field that kept insects and most native critters at bay. Belle’s light was good, but not good enough to spot a stealthy creature before it pounced.

Once inside the Admin dome he grabbed a hot coffee from the cafeteria and headed to the communications room. He could access the Explorers net from several of the terminals in the rec hall but he liked the more private confines the communications room provided at this hour.

On one terminal, he logged onto the explorers net while on another he opened the Command Channel message server. The news postings were as much as a week old this far out, but command messages traveled through priority servers and if a warrant was issued for his arrest, it was the command server the warrant would be posted on.

Enough time passed that he felt a warrant for his arrest was unlikely, but after nightmares like those he just experienced, he was a little jittery. With a harrumph of satisfaction, he logged off the command server and shifted his focus to the other terminal.

Temo started by reading the dailies, most of these postings were five to seven days old. All touted the same theme, the president was being fair, and just in his continued pursuit of any one even remotely connected to his assassination attempt nearly a year ago.

A part of Temo understood the President of the Federated Nations desire to keep punishing, it was a poorly kept secret that the president suffered intense pain every day. Suffering to such a degree, that rumor claimed, the president once told an aid he wished he had not survived the attack. Pain so acute, that almost daily the president ordered executions with barley enough evidence to justify the order.

Temo leaned back in his chair and reflected on how glad he was to be so far away from that cauldron. Absently he recalled the chain of events that led him to this far away planet free of political strife.

A week after he delivered the Chalyb, an acceptance letter to the Explores Academy arrived in his in box, his payment. The letter arrived a day before the president’s life was nearly ripped from his body by the same Chalybs. As Temo read the letter, replied and made final plans to enter the Explorers Academy, only machines, nanotechnology, and the best doctors the world had to offer kept the President alive.

A month after the assassination attempt, Temo returned to his apartment to find it bereft of the few habitats left remaining, panic gripped him until he spotted the blinking icon on his computer. It opened an encoded message from Tigress telling him that they cleaned up his apartment and any loose ends so that he could ship off to the academy worry free. She signed off with a personal thanks and sincere hopes to meet again.

That evening the President left the hospital, apparently under his own power. Net rumors claimed that the president relied heavily on prostheses and nano to walk out of that hospital as soon as he did.

The president did not appear in public again until Temo was near complete with his Academy training, he looked stronger, but little could hide the pain in his eyes. His appearance was to order the public execution of those responsible for the attempt on his life. Tigress was among that first wave of executions, he could not bring himself to watch. He was there in the media room at the academy, for the sake of show, but he did not watch them shoot Tigress. Ten died that day. Many believed that was the end, the world soon found out it was only the beginning.

Much to his relief, Temo found himself on a Clinton class deep space transport, headed for Windom 3, a virtual paradise according the deep space survey probe. Seven months after the assassination attempt, he was on a one way trip, away from a world on the verge of lunacy. To this point, the president ordered no less than thirty executions and there was no sign of them letting up.

President Wiseicklson gave a long winded speech at Temo’s and his fellow explorers’ sendoff; the glint of pain in those hollow eyes had faded little since the first executions.

Temo turned his attention to news groups and underground news sites; these were more up to date and gave him a better feel for the current political atmosphere.

Grim was the word that came to mind.

The winds of change blew through the hallowed halls of the federal capital as many felt that the president was abusing his emergency powers. Executions happened to frequently and with less solid evidence to justify each death. Some smaller countries threatened succession from the union. The senate debated a resolution to halt the executions and strip the president of his emergency powers.

Then Temo read something that stunned him so badly he had to read it twice. One of president Wiseicklson most outspoken critics, Senator Variant was arrested last night (two nights ago) by the Elite Federal Guard and is being held on suspicion of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

After that, the same undercurrent dominated the various news sites, civil war-revolution.

“It may be a long time before we see settlers.” Temo felt her presence before she spoke, so Cindii did not get the satisfaction of startling him.

He turned to face her, her long auburn hair was sleep tussled, her penetrating blue eyes alert. Cindii’s robe resembled his, but covered her non-issue pajamas.

In spite of her being the team commander, chief pilot, and his boss, a warm fuzziness had developed between them; warmth he hoped would developed further once they finished their official duties here and became settlers.

“Can’t sleep?” Was his response.

“I was awakened by Admin when you logged into the command net.”

Temo sat back his eyebrows raised in surprised inquiry. “OH?”

“Orders from the highest levels.” She looked from him to the now dark terminal. “The presidents paranoia has reached even this far.” She stepped towards him and focused on his blue gray eyes. “Admin is to alert me anytime someone logs into the command server outside usual business hours.” She added emphasis to usual making a show of checking the room’s chrono.

Temo did not have to lie and knew better than to try. Cindii was an experienced explorer. She was his age but she graduated from the academy before her nineteenth birthday. This was her third mission, and her last because this one took the group way too far to return economically. She graduated the top of her class in command school and could smell a rat a light year away.

He chose his words carefully and without hesitation. “I was having nightmares about Earth…about being arrested by the Federal Guard. I knew the command net would have the best chance at providing any news of the worst case scenario.” He waited, hoping she would not ask if he should fear arrest, hoping the headlines were explanation enough.

Cindii’s posture relaxed and she added a little distance between them. “I have nightmares about war sometimes. Such a thing could leave us stranded for years if not decades without a settlement.” She looked around the room absently before continuing. “If this planet gets settlement approval.”

“Oh come on commander, I know we have only been on this rock for two months Earth time, but we have not encountered anything that would jeopardize an upgrade in our status.”

“Except war.” Cindii added quickly. Again, she looked around and then out the window at the now twin moonlight landscape. “There could be worse places to ride out a war.” She looked at him inquisitively. “Coffee?”

Temo accepted her offer, gradually their conversation moved away from war and to their current home, its possible status as a settlement and any future that prospect could lead to.

In the days and weeks to follow, Temo continued to watch events on Earth unfold. As they did, he became more convinced that the Chalybs did not fail in its mission to kill. It sure put up a valiant effort, even shrugging off two shots from a blaster as it ripped at Wiseicklson’s flesh. As he thought about it, Temo became more convinced that if it had killed the president, his successor would be named and politics as usual would ensue.

Instead, the Chalyb was chosen in hopes it would inflict maximum harm and then technology would keep the president breathing, in pain but breathing.

And the rest, Temo noted, will be history.

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