Bewildering Stories

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Part 1

by Wallace W. Cass Jr.

The grey Government shuttle hovered over the snowy landing pad, shoving back the darkness with its landing lights. Its pilot fought a crosswind that buffeted the small courier for several minutes while its vertical thrusters blew a blanket of snow from the dark asphalt surface. After lining up its nose with the red and green landing markers, the shuttle settled down on its landing skids. As the engines wound down, a door on the side of the spacecraft slid open.

”It’s not the cold, it’s the wind chill,” Parker muttered as he pulled up the fur-lined collar of his grey overcoat. Falling snow swirled around his shiny black boots as he led a shackled red-haired woman dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit from the warmth of the shuttle cabin. His throat hurt as he inhaled the icy air. “It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Jacksonville, Florida was warmer than -15 degrees in July.”

”Only been ten years,” His prisoner looked up at him, her blue eyes twinkling. “Back then, people were more interested in celebrating the start of the 22nd Century than worrying about two asteroids heading their way.” She shivered and squinted as blowing snow pelted her round face. “You could let me go, John. No one would blame you for losing me in these conditions.”

”Not a chance, Dawes.” His brown eyes stabbed at her. “You’re going to answer for what you did on Srista.”

”What you think I did on Srista?” She replied. “You used to call me Madelyne once upon a time.” When he didn’t respond, her tone grew teeth. “Ever the boy scout, huh? Stick to the rulebook, huh? You may think you know the score, but there’s much more going on than you realize.”

He stopped and yanked one of her chains, pulling her close. “When you blew up that silicon processing center, you violated your oath to protect and serve. I was your partner and you betrayed me. I don’t know everything going on in the World today, but I know the difference between right and wrong. Get moving.” His right hand was turning numb, the brown skin taking on a grayish tinge from frostbite. He let go long enough to slip on a pair of fur-lined black leather gloves. “The Office of Planetary Security has enough problems without worrying about its agents going rogue at a moment’s notice. A lot of good people lost their lives because of that stunt you pulled. You’ll get no sympathy from me today.” He checked the handcuffs that connected them and started walking.

”I wouldn’t have called them good, John.” She said, hunching over to push up her black wool scarf. “If you would let me explain...”

”Save it for the Magistrate.” He cut her off. “I saw the security tapes and the genetic scan data.” He gave her a small push. “Now move it. We’ve wasted enough time out in this mess.”

“True blue to the end.” She spat. “Enjoy that gold badge in your pocket, Inspector John Parker, because that and a pension stipend will be all you have once the OPS is done with you.”

They stopped at a set of double-glass doors leading into a one-story grey building with a pointed dome roof. A rusted sign nearby proclaimed the building as the Jacksonville Transit Hub - Main Terminal.

Parker turned to Dawes. “Madelyne,” He said, his voice betraying the sadness he resisted. “If you think I’m enjoying this, you’re sadly mistaken. I’m just doing my job. If there was any other way...”

She touched his right hand. “You’d have done things different. Despite everything, there’s no one else on the planet I trust more in a crisis.”

”Thanks, I appreciate that.” He said. “But it changes nothing. You chose this, not me.”

”What’s done is done.” She pointed to the doors. “Since you aren’t going to let me escape, we may as well get this over with.”

He frowned as he touched the silver door release with a gloved hand. The doors hissed open, allowing them entry. They stamped their way in, shaking the snow from their hair and clothes.

Ten years ago, this terminal made up part of Northern Florida’s air transit system. Emergency construction of underground cities and high speed maglev train systems after the planetary catastrophe put an end to air travel, but opened up a lucrative new market: Space. Much of the building was automated, but a few yellow service counters remained, occupied by faceless men and women dressed in red and brown vested uniforms. On the far right of the marble floor under a large lighted status board lay the entrance to the underground transit network.

Parker inserted a plastic red OPS credit chit card into a ticket machine and booked them a car going to the U.S. Capital in Atlanta, Georgia. He grinned as he remembered an old joke about the South finally winning the Civil War two hundred and forty-five years late. He pulled the chit card and a receipt from the machine. “We’re booked on Car 117. We have an hour to kill before it arrives.” He turned to Dawes. “I’d expect someone in your position to be more anxious about her problems. Dereliction of Duty and Terrorism are serious charges.”

Dawes was inscrutable as she pondered the statement. “Like I said, John, there’s more to the situation than you know. I’ve been on the run for three years and I’m tired. I just want this to be over with.”

Before Parker could respond, two men dressed in identical charcoal grey suits walked up. They pulled identification billfolds from their handkerchief pockets that contained silver-white platinum badges inscribed with the crest of the U.S. Department of Justice that identified them as Special Agents Daniels and Baker. The similarity of appearance between the two agents, close-cropped grey hair and eyes, pale skin, and slender build made Parker wonder if they were clones. The left agent stepped up. “Excellent job, Inspector Parker, for bringing in Dawes. I’m Special Agent Daniels and my partner here is Special Agent Baker. We’re here to take custody of your prisoner.” Daniels smiled.

Parker looked over Daniels and Baker. Beside him, Dawes tensed. “I’ve not received an order amendment to that effect.”

Daniels pulled out a square black data pad. “This is our authorization. Now if you will please uncuff yourself from our prisoner, we’ll be on our way.”

”Not so fast.” Parker took the data pad and scrolled down the bright green screen menu. “Everything seems to be in order, but you’re missing a standard DR-7 Transfer of Custody order. I’m responsible for Dawes getting to the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta.”

Daniels’ smile vanished. “A minor administrative oversight, I’m sure. Those orders are signed by the President of the United States himself. You wouldn’t disobey an order from your supreme boss, would you?”

”Do I need to quote Executive Order 31062?” Parker said. “Short version: No DR-7, no prisoner. Get it?”

Daniels growled and pulled out a small cellular phone. He dialed with a vengeance and spoke into the phone in a low angry voice. He handed the phone to Parker. “It’s your Captain.”

Parker lifted the phone to his ear. “This is Parker.”

”John, it’s Grant. I know they don’t have all the right paperwork, but they’ve been granted a DR-7 waiver from the Circuit Court.” Grant’s rumbling bass voice was scratchy and tired.

”Captain, this is nuts.” Parker said. “DR-7s are mandatory Federal forms. The DOJ were the ones who created the damn things. Something smells rotten here.”

”I know, John, but the waiver came signed from Senator McKeen’s office.”

Parker entertained the thought of shooting the clones. “McKeen heads up the Planetary Affairs Oversight Committee, right?”

”Right, but that’s irrelevant.” Grant said. “I have to make this an order. John. Turn your prisoner over to Daniels and Baker right now. I’ve authorized you to take your R&R Leave as of right now.”

Parker snapped the phone shut and handed it to Daniels. He turned to Dawes and removed the handcuffs that bound them together. “Change of plans, Dawes, these men are in charge of you now.”

Dawes’ expression tensed as she nodded. “I’m a prisoner so what choice do I have? See you around, John.”

Parker entered a code into the data pad and pressed his thumbprint onto the glossy black plastic screen. He stared hard at Daniels. “Some of us still believe in following established procedure.” He tossed the data pad at the agent as he passed by. “Asshole.”

As Parker walked through the transit entrance, he heard the dull clatter of a data pad bouncing off marble. Not looking back, he boarded the first tram car heading south to his home in New Jacksonville. Travelling an underground maglev system in a vehicle shaped like a long blue and white cold capsule took not only patience, but lots of reading material. Unfortunately, Parker had neither in abundance. As the florescent yellow lights of the tunnel markers flashed by, he fidgeted on the brown and red cloth seat. He wasn’t offended that the boys from the DOJ took his prisoner. The OPS investigated and the DOJ prosecuted, that was how it was. What offended was the arrogance of Daniels and his ilk, as if this Government wielded the same power it had before the Gemini Asteroids struck. Now, ten years later, the World was in nuclear winter, a lot lighter in the population department, and large craters replaced the cities of Washington, D.C. and Beijing.

He felt his pocket vibrate and pulled out his personal phone. He flipped it open and raised it to his left ear as the tram car passed a passenger station. “Parker here.”

The voice of his Case Support Tech, Michelle Halloway, echoed over the line. Halloway was tall, thin, blond, attractive, everything that a girl computer geek wasn’t supposed to be. Still, she knew her way around the OPS Network and could make a keyboard dance. “Hey John, I hear that Grant authorized your leave already. You up for doing the case file closeouts? I can download everything and be at your place in an hour.”

New Jacksonville Station in ten minutes. Please prepare to disembark

Parker looked at his wrist watch. “Bring some breakfast and it’s a date.” He stood. “I’m at my stop and about to lose the signal on this thing. Call me at home in about twenty minutes.”

”Will do. Bye.”

The tram car slowed to a stop and the exit doors hissed open. Parker closed his phone and stashed it in a pocket as he stepped out onto the station platform. The crowd of people that surged around him was not a welcome sight after the ordered society he found on Srista. As he stepped into a flat metal elevator to go down to the city level, he paused to watch the throng of travellers shove their way onto the tram cars. No wonder the Sristi think we’re little more than buzzing insects, he thought. We fight for shelter, food, space. It’s a wonder that we’re still here at all. He pushed the City Level button and waited as the doors closed out the crowds and the elevator descended with a light hiss.

He reached up and switched on a video monitor mounted over the elevator controls. New Jacksonville was one of the first underground cities built after the Gemini disaster, but to its credit, the city managers took special care in keeping it clean and well maintained. The checkerboard city stretched out for fifty square miles under the dome of insulated poly-carbon-fiber composite that protected it from the frozen ground above. Holographic projector arrays simulated an early morning sky complete with adequate lighting while the climate control system kept the air at a comfortable 82 degrees according to the old Fahrenheit scale. He panned the video camera to look over the home he’d been away from for three years. The Downtown District was still packed with orderly clusters of gaily painted shops, markets, and entertainment centres, the Residential District had expanded its number of gear-shaped living towers, and just barely in view, the Industrial District was as grey and nondescript as ever with its maze of life support systems and waste recycling plants. The hustle and bustle of multicolored electric automobiles began filling the crisscrossing streets.

”Some things never change.” Parker muttered as he switched off the monitor. He shook off his depression and watched the indicators tick off the levels to his destination. He began to notice the growing warmth in the elevator car and removed his coat. Underneath, he wore the standard issue blue OPS jumpsuit uniform with a gold badge embroidered on the left breast pocket. He carried a metal version on a round holder attached to a black duty belt around his waist.

Five more minutes passed before the elevator stopped and the doors opened onto New Jacksonville’s City Level. From here, the city almost passed for a pre-Gemini Florida settlement. Parker folded his overcoat and draped it over his left arm as he walked down the narrow concrete sidewalk that led to the inner-city transit stop. He looked at his watch. “Damn, still set to Srista Standard Time.” He walked across a small grassy decorative courtyard before reaching the small round white kiosk. When he reached the Hub, he found it locked with a sign saying ‘Closed until 9 a.m.’. “Well, that’s just perfect.”

A small red and blue car pulled up to the kiosk and a small bald man wearing a faded red shirt bearing a company logo over the left pocket leaned over and rolled down the passenger window. “You just getting in? You need a ride somewhere?”

Parker grinned and opened the passenger door of the taxi. “You bet. Just got in from Srista. Can you get me over to Lambda Residence Complex?”

”Hop in. The fee over there is normally twenty credits, but seeing as you’re OPS, I’ll settle for ten. That okay with you?”

Parker stepped into the smoky interior of the taxi and closed the passenger door. He buckled up the safety belt. “Best news I’ve had all morning. By the way, what time is it?” He handed over his chit card.

The cabbie plugged the chit card into a dashboard meter, then handed it back. He looked at a small clock stuck to the top of the dashboard. “8:55 in the blessed a.m. Good thing you got in early on a Friday. The City Council is planning some big event in the Downtown District over the weekend. The rumor is that the Sristi are going to announce that they’ve made some headway in getting rid of that crap from Gemini that’s blocking out the Sun. Pretty wild, huh?”

Parker nodded as the car pulled away from the kiosk curb and headed out onto a main street. “Wild, yes. It sure didn’t feel like an improvement when I got off of the shuttle up there.”

The cabbie picked up a cigar from the ashtray. He grimaced at the stub before lighting it. “I sure miss the days of real tobacco. This hydroponics stuff doesn’t have the personality of the real stuff.”

Parker stifled a cough and turned his face toward his window. “Sure smells real enough.”

The cabbie held the cigar out the driver side window. “Oh, sorry, Chief. I’m in this thing every day and sometimes forget that some of my passengers don’t smoke.”

Parker waved away some blue cigar smoke. “It’s all right. I’ve just been on a planet where they don’t do things like smoke. Just takes some getting used to, again.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2003 by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.

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