The Disclosure: Earth 2.0

Jan smiles at Xavier while waiting to return from the break to acknowledge their patrons. Xavier places his hands together in prayer, draws them towards his face and bows his head as he closes his eyes and smiles at Jan. He looks back up at her and says that he’s really glad to have chosen to do the interview with her because she’s a no nonsense interviewer. He compliments her on her job.

Jan: We’re back with Ned Xavier from Xavier Labs, and our next topic of conversation is Earth 2.0. It’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t at least heard of the Earth 2.0 project yet, but for both those who haven’t and those who have heard of Earth 2.0 here’s a little video about the incredible Earth 2.0 project.

The video starts playing on the video prompt in front of Jan and Xavier. It starts off with a promotional video that Xavier Labs made a few weeks ago to inform people about the latest government tax rebates available to those who want to retire early into Earth 2.0.

Xavier thinks back to the start of the project with his business partner Richard Aryu

Xavier and Richard are sitting at a quiet bar. Richard is stirring his olive in a nearly empty martini glass as Xavier is sitting next to him with a tonic water. A beautiful woman sits next to Richard and looks at him and Xavier with a big smile, orders her drink, and then takes her drink over to sit at a table with her equally beautiful friend who is watching Xavier and Richard.

“You miss your wife still.” Xavier says to Richard.

Richard lets our a deep sigh, “Sig, I’m sure you probably think I’m silly for still holding on to that relationship. What can I say.” Richard places his hands on the edge of the bar. “I need to show you something I’ve been working on, man. I think it’s finally time.”

Richard and Xavier walk out of the bar past the two women sitting at the table. The women smile at them and give them a flirty wave of the hand. Richard stumbles along with Xavier’s support as he waves at the two women and tells them to have a nice evening. They get into Xavier’s car that drives them to Richard’s home. When they arrive, they are greeted by Richard’s three Security Bots at the front gate.

“I really need to get one of those,” Xavier says to Richard.

Still inebriated, Richard slurs out, “They’re crap! Let’s build something better.”

The car drives them to the top of the roundabout where there’s a walkway to the front door about 100 feet away. Two more Security Bots help Richard exit the car. Xavier follows behind them as the car drives off to the parking garage on the other side of Richard’s sprawling property.

They enter Richard’s home where there are three more Security Bots that take over for the two at the entrance. Richard tells the Security Bots to take them to Lab 5. One of the Security Bots assists Richard to Lab 5 while the other two take up defensive positions along their path.

“You might be getting a little paranoid, Rich. These bots are like military guards.” Xavier is impressed with their build quality and autonomy; especially for being Richard’s garage projects. It’s decades ahead of anything he’s seen from the military contractors he’s worked with.

“These guys are crap, Sig!” Richard starts to hiccup uncontrollably. “No offense, pal.” He slaps the Security Bot helping him on the back.

“None taken, sir,” the Security Bot responds back.

They arrive at Lab 5 and Xavier takes over assisting Richard with his stumbling as the Security Bot is not allowed into the lab. Xavier looks around at the lab. It’s everything you’d expect from a mad scientist, much like his own personal lab but far more advanced. He’s in awe.

“This is one hell of a lab, Rich.”

“It’s crap! Take me over to the refrigerator.”

Xavier helps Richard over to the industrial refrigerator on the other side of the lab. Richard opens the door to the refrigerator to reveal a corridor with another door at the end. Richard stumbles his way over to the door and goes through a series of security checks to unlock and open the door. “This other guy is okay!” Richard shouts as he enters the other room.

Xavier cautiously walks down the corridor and enters the room. He sees laser pointers on his shoulders coming from several directions. Richard turns on the lights and there are five Security Bots that are far more advanced than the bots outside Richard’s home. Xavier raises his hands in surrender.

“Don’t do that, Sig. These guys are your friends.”

“I have to admit that I’m impressed with your security, Rich, but maybe ditch the laser sights. You’re not a wanted criminal.”

“Anymore!” Richard yells. “Anymore… Men, stand down!” Richard commands the Security Bots. The laser pointers stop, and the Security Bots move into a relaxed position.

“This is cool stuff, Rich. We could make a fortune off of this with the guys Fredrick knows in the community.”

“Ya, Sig, we could. Except Freddy is a dick. You know how I feel about that guy.”

“You drunk enough to tell me what really happened between you guys? You used to be best friends. He’s the one who introduced us.” It’s been three years since Fredrick Prophet introduced Xavier to Richard after Richard was arrested for illegally using surveillance data from the terrorist AI system he build for the US government. It’s been six months since Richard has spoken to Fredrick. Fredrick has told Xavier that nothing happened between the two, and Richard won’t tell Xavier anything about it.

“There’s another time for that, Sig. What I need to show you is going to blow your mind though. Come here!”

Jan: I happen to be good friends with Laura Kive. Since that brave moment she shared with the world on the Morning Star live stream, millions of people have followed suit in doing their part to help reduce their carbon footprint in the world with Earth 2.0. Your latest statistics are showing nearly 2 million citizens and more than 6 billion subscribers.

Xavier: We’re up to 8 billion subscribers. It speaks volume to how closely connected we all are.

Jan: When you have 80% of the world’s population wanting to keep in touch with their loved ones, I’d say so! Some naysayers call it a morbid infatuation with death and even point to studies that suggest, however, that you don’t really have 8 billion subscribers.

Xavier: Our data on this is public and reviewed by regulators.

Jan: Yes, it’s public, but there are still those who say they have analyzed the raw data and determined that the statistics you reported are not valid. They also suggest that the regulators aren’t truly validating your numbers.

Xavier thinks back to the first set of conversations he had with the Director of Marketing for Earth 2.0…

The Marketing Director, Derek Fields, is standing in front of Xavier, Fredrick Prophet, and Richard Aryu, “The United States government approved the Alternative Living Act nearly nine months ago, and we’re still sitting at just over 2,000 volunteers for Earth 2.0. However, we have a big idea that could really help increase the volunteer count.”

“I’m all ears, Derek,” Fredrick starts off. “Quite frankly, we sunk a ton of money into this project, and it could very well be what takes down Xavier Labs. We need numbers!”

Derek points to Fredrick. “Right!” He then looks at Richard and Xavier, who don’t seem as upset as Fredrick. “Our plan is to live stream an environmental activist uploading herself to Earth 2.0”

“Herself?” Xavier asks.

Derek looks over at Fredrick and then back to Xavier, “Yes, sir. We already have the candidate.”

“Then why are we having this presentation?” Xavier begins to stand up and Richard along with him.

“Because she’s the daughter of the Speaker of the House.” Derek says, halting Xavier and Richard mid rise.

Xavier: I welcome any valid scientist’s analysis of the data.

Jan: Now, there have been rumors circulating since the launch of Earth 2.0 with regard to the behavior of some of your scientists when they link into the system. Some of the allegations have been disturbing from rape to murder and even terrorism. But no one inside Earth 2.0 has come forward to corroborate these allegations.

Xavier lies down on his table with a series of cables and wires that make a virtual helmet around his head connecting to a computer where Richard is typing frantically.

Richard looks over at Xavier, “You ready? Make sure you relax. This is going to be intense!”

“Relaxing into an intense experience? Rich, do you even monitor the words that come out of your mouth?”

“The pill should be starting to kick in, just go with it.” Richard says as he presses one last button before walking over to Xavier and watching him pass out and go into a deep trance.

Xavier is walking down a long, dark tunnel towards a bright, white light. He hears the voices of his mother and father and uncle emanating from the walls of the tunnel. He looks around the tunnel but cannot see the walls. He feels himself being gently pulled towards the light without even walking or moving. He hears a scream below him. He looks down and sees a young woman being harassed by two men wearing masks.

He keeps being drawn towards the light despite trying to run back towards the young woman. He falls to the ground and claws his way back to the woman. The men begin to physically assault her as Xavier finally claws his way back to where they are. The woman looks up and can see Xavier as a white light above her. The two men notice that the woman is looking at something above them. They turn and see a white light floating above them.

Xavier snarls with rage and his eyes become filled with amber flames. The two men run away and Xavier flies after them. They run as fast as they can, looking back to see if the white orb is still chasing them. It’s gaining on them slowly as they run towards another tunnel with a blue light at the end. Xavier stops as he looks at the blue light and can see massive amounts of data scrolling up a computer screen that’s giving off the blue light. He sees two names he recognizes: Tom Fields and Jonathan Starcraft. The two men disappear into the blue light.

Xavier returns to the woman who is crying in the darkness that surrounds her. He picks her up and carries her towards the white light. As they get closer to the white light she lifts from his arms and floats away from him into the white light as he begins to feel himself being pulled in the opposite direction, back to nothingness. She smiles and waves at him as she is absorbed by the white light.

Xavier opens his eyes and looks at Richard, “What the hell was that?”

Richard starts laughing and claps his hands, “I know right! Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?”

Xavier is breathing heavily as he sits up. He grabs Richard by the shoulders and looks him in the eyes, “Who else have you shown this to?”

“Just Fredrick.” Richard can tell Xavier is upset, “I swear, just you and Fredrick. What’s going on?”

Xavier gains his composure, “I’m sorry, Rich. It was just a little overwhelming. You’re right. This thing is amazing! Let’s chat with Fredrick and the board about getting funding to get this out of the garage.”

Xavier: No one has ever been raped, murdered, or tortured in Earth 2.0. It’s a peaceful, permanent residence for all who choose this path. The tranquil nature is monitored 24/7. Citizens also have access to all the same entertainment and news sources we have here in our world. They view our reality on their television screens as entertainment.

Jan: Viewers, we have a special treat for you tonight. We’re going to take a brief intermission from the interview to show you some of the recordings of what’s inside Earth 2.0 from the perspective of the people living inside. An advertisement was placed in the publications in Earth 2.0, and several citizens responded. They have sent us their videos, and we’re going to show you a quick montage of them. During the second part of this three part series, we’ll be showing your more of what it’s like to live inside Earth 2.0. And don’t forget that most governments have created their own programs to completely cover your costs of gaining citizenship to Earth 2.0 and eliminating your carbon footprint on Earth. So, let’s take a quick break from this interview with Ned Xavier to show you a quick preview of what’s coming in part two of this series on Xavier Labs and the future of humanity. We’ll be right back with more hard hitting questions for Mr. Xavier.

The Disclosure: Dimensional Encoding

“Cures for cancer, improved crop yields, reduced terrorism, colonization of Mars, super vaccinations, robot butlers, electric cars that last more than 10,000,000 miles, Earth 2.0, and interstellar space travel are just the beginning of what’s being called the Scientific Renaissance of the 21st century.” The television host says in a voice over while quick videos fly by, showing each of the items mentioned.

“I’m Jan Seymour, and this is the world’s most watched American broadcast: 24/7. Normally, you’d think we’re talking about a global economy, but instead we’re talking about the output of a single company. In a moment I’ll begin my first part of a three part series about Xavier Labs as I bring you an exclusive interview with the company’s often reclusive founder, Ned Xavier, the adopted son of parents who themselves were both orphaned at a young age and wanted to give back to the system that helped them survive their childhood. The interview can only be viewed right here on the American International Broadcasting Channel. Stay tuned.”

The screen goes black as Ned Xavier smiles and looks at Jan. “How’s that for an intro, Ned? I’m sorry about the reclusive part, but that’s what gets viewers; creating mystery” she asks.

“It is truthful. I am granting this interview, not for fame but to share important insights with the world.”

“I appreciate this opportunity you have granted this station, this show, and me. I am extremely grateful!”

“I can think of no better person to help me share what the future holds.”

The crew scrambles to make sure everything is setup perfectly for the filming that is about to take place. Jan’s makeup receives a slight touch up, and Xavier is again offered the opportunity for makeup, which he waves off without saying a word. The interview begins in 5, 4, 3…

#

Jan: His company is a household name the world over, but this is only his second interview in 20 years since starting Xavier Labs. I’m here with Ned Xavier, founder of the company bearing his name, Xavier Labs, along with six other businesses and foundations making a huge difference in every aspect of your life. First, Patrons, thank you most of all. You are in for a special treat tonight!

Ned, thank you for this opportunity to share your mind with us! We’ve had the co-CEO of your company, Fredrick Prophet, on dozens of times over the years, but this is your first time with us. Thank you so much.

Xavier: Pleasure. Full disclosure, Xavier is a pseudonym. My real name is Sigmund Adam.

Jan: What’s the reason for the name change? Sorry, the pseudonym?

Xavier: Xavier was my favorite college basketball team growing up! Plus, it’s a cooler name.

Jan: (laughing) Well, with five consecutive national championships at the beginning of last decade, I’m sure most of our viewers will agree with you on that. But if you’re telling us this, should I start calling you Sigmund? Or should I call you Ned? Xavier? And did you go to MIT?

Xavier: Xavier is fine, and yes to MIT. Not much of a basketball team there though.

Jan: Your company has become synonymous with technological advancement. In many circles, experts are even suggesting that this era be referred to as the Xavier-Prophet Era. Your technology has literally transformed our planet and proved to be an even greater shift in technology than the explosion of the world wide web back at the end of last century and the earlier part of this century. Not without controversy, but we’ll get to that.

Even this broadcast has a unique component to it that has never been done before. It’s the first of it’s kind using your patented dimensional encoding system. Viewers will not be able to record this broadcast on any of their devices, and apparently you have even figured out a way to make it so that video digital recording devices will not be able to record the video or the audio of the broadcast. Viewers get to view it through the original broadcast, and that’s it, right? That’s amazing! We’ve never seen this before for a live broadcast, but obviously content creators and digital property rights owners are very interested in this technology already. How does it work?

Xavier smiles as he thinks back to the origin of this moment.

It started years before he launched Xavier Labs. He was fresh out of MIT with his triple PhD in information science, economics, and psychology. He’s working for the world’s largest manufacturer of chips used for digital recording devices when he meets Fredrick Prophet. Xavier immediate senses that Fredrick was a shifty character and that deception is his very nature.

One evening, over a private steak dinner, Fredrick broaches a topic with Xavier about “a business opportunity”. Xavier listens to everything that Fredrick says without indicating what he thinks about Fredrick’s plan. When all the cards are on the table, Xavier says to Fredrick, “Let me get this straight… You told me you have contracts with the CIA and FBI, but you want ME to perform industrial espionage against the company I work for?”

“No, kid. I’m saying, you and I are going to become business partners, and I’m going to use my connections in the community to ensure that when we do activities that are otherwise illegal, we’re shielded from unfavorable outcomes. I’ve been doing this kind of work for over a decade, but I can just tell that you have something special about you. All you have to do is trust me, and we’re both going to have everything anyone could have ever possibly dreamed of!”

Xavier agrees to partner with Fredrick, and the two come up with a long-term plan and sequence of events that need to fall into place in order for their larger plans. The first part of the plan is to secretly replace the firmware used by the manufacturer that Xavier works for with a version that Fredrick’s team has come up with.

Before installing the updated firmware, Xavier creates his own piece that would never be able to be detected as well. It is the origin of his now patented dimensional encoding that allows him 25 years later to create a process that makes it possible to scramble the video and audio recording of selective digital broadcasts.

Xavier’s scam would have been otherwise high risk, but he has the protection from law enforcement through Fredrick if he is ever caught. On top of that, Fredrick’s plan is backed by a major paramilitary organization that has lucrative contracts with governments all over the world and a board of directors stacked with former US intelligence. Their plan is to put Fredrick’s firmware in place so that they can use it in the future to help catch terrorists and drug traffickers. They are paid massive bounties for bringing these criminals to justice.

They setup a distribution company that purchases exclusive distribution rights from Xavier’s chip manufacturer. Their distributor sells the chips at an operational loss because they are making their profits from Fredrick’s contracting company that’s catching terrorists, drug  and sex traffickers. The competitive pricing allows the chips to become more popular in recording devices. Xavier views it as a win-win for everyone, and Fredrick has no idea Xavier put his own piece into the firmware.

Within three years, the components with the firmware are used in nearly 80% of all digital recording devices being sold around the globe. Xavier receives multiple pay raises and bonuses from the chip manufacturer, and Fredrick’s business ventures grow rapidly. Only Fredrick and Xavier know the truth about what they setup for the future. They decide it is time to start an umbrella business called Adam Ventures with Xavier at the head of the business and Fredrick operating behind the scenes.

Xavier: Think of an encrypted Rubik’s Cube. The video can only be decrypted one time and accurately decoded from a single angle. Once you read the data from any angle, the entire cube is rendered as that angle and all other dimensions are destroyed. It’s information is available only once. Hence, you can record the broadcast but only receive scrambled data.

Jan: That’s fascinating! Quantum encryption has been around for a long time, but what you’re saying is that even if you break the encryption, you also have to read the data correctly, or you won’t get the data.

Xavier: That’s pretty much it. Our patented technology makes this possible.

Jan: This is going to be a boon for digital property rights management! However, there are some people who say you are hiding subliminal messages within the encoding though. Either the messages appear so quickly on the screen that it registers on the subconscious mind but is impossible to see with the naked eye, or completely hidden messages are encoded within the main message itself that are unlocked with a separate key. They point to the early issues with your Earth 2.0 system as an example. Is there anything you’d like to say about that? Then let’s discuss Earth 2.0.

Xavier thinks back to the moment he first conceived of dimensional encoding and figured out how to ensure that multiple messages could be encoded within the same message. He remembers back to the first set of experiments with his protege, Richard Aryu.

Richard is laughing to the point of tears as he walks over to Xavier’s office. “Did you get my message?”

“You’re a sick man, Richard!” Xavier says laughing himself to the point of tears as well.

The two had been testing encoding multiple messages within their dimensional encoding algorithm. The test message was “Hello World!” and the hidden message was a line art drawing of a penis.

Xavier: I assure you, any hidden messages that are claimed to be found in any dimensional encoding is randomness the human mind interprets as a pattern. I applaud conspiracy theorists for their efforts.

Jan: So, you’re saying there is no possibility that anyone could be encoding hidden messages using your dimensional encoding technology? Is it possible to do though?

Xavier: I’m saying Xavier Labs doesn’t. Theoretically? It’s possible with any messaging system. If nefarious organizations, such as Big Tech from the early part of this century, to do such a thing, they would likely try using it to their advantage.

Jan: We definitely want to hear about the variety of AI systems Xavier Labs has created over the years. What your company has done for agriculture, space exploration, travel safety, vaccines, and law enforcement is truly amazing! But let’s discuss something that’s even beyond that! Earth 2.0!

I’ve been excited about this since it was pre-Beta. I have been following your progress since your very early stages of virtual reality after the notable failures of your once dominant competitors. What’s truly amazing is how Xavier Labs has partnered with governments all around the world to make Earth 2.0 the true reality it is today! But it got off to a rocky start. Let’s discuss that when we come back from a quick break to acknowledge our patrons.

Blue Dawn

This infestation was unlike others before; Deeper and more widespread. The usual treatments were falling short as the bloodsucking parasites maneuvered about, cleverly dodging every attempt by the masters to rid their beloved of the irksome interlopers.

The masters were certain that the neighbor’s cat was the culprit. Conniving, cunning, and cerulean, the feline had somehow manipulated its way into proximity of the beloved. The cat had surely found a way to infiltrate the defenses of the masters, so they left no stone unturned and spared no expense.

The masters hired the badger to give the once over of the situation. The badger badged and wagged and lagged and flagged. A rat here and there, even a squirrel! But, alas, nothing could be pinned on the cunning cerulean feline.

Vowing to bring justice to their beloved, the masters continued their quest at a feverish pace, but for each neutralized louse, three filled its place! It even seemed that their beloved was beginning to become accustomed to its infestation as a part of every day life. The irritation was becoming the norm. The kicking, the scratching, and gnawing. The digging, the writhing, and clawing.

Then a new day dawned. The masters awoke to a brilliant blue sky with a golden sunrise! Not long ago, the masters had hired a rat to sit near their beloved. “Don’t dig or tease, just nibble the cheese, please,” the masters said. “Wait for the parasites to come to you.”

And come to the rat, they did! The rat had been finished his shift in the house and returned to the masters with cheddar in hand! “There is a great discovery! I have found a way out of this maze,” exclaimed the rat! “Use this blue soap and this sharp cheddar cheese, and your servant will finally be at ease.”

The blue dawn was rising.

Lieutenant Bargh

George Bargh leans down and kisses his infant daughter on the forehead. As he stands back upright, he leaves his right hand on the cheek of his daughter and smiles. He turns to leave the room and looks at a picture on the wall of him and his late wife. He see’s his reflection in the glass and turns back to look at his infant daughter again. He smiles.

The nanny is standing in the kitchen and making breakfast for both of them.

“Susan, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for everything that you do for me and my family of one. I truly appreciate everything you do for me and Rachel.”

“I’d say I was just doing my job, George, but we both know how much my aunt meant to you. And to me! You’re family, George. I truly mean that.”

The two sit down and eat breakfast and talk about their day. George finishes up quickly and grabs his gun and badge.

“Thanks, Susan. I’ll be back at the usual.”

There’s a knock on the door. George opens the door and greets his partner, Marcus, and the two walk down the steps of the porch and get into their car.

As Marcus pulls the car into their precinct parking lot George confides, “Marcus, I need to get out.”

“Look pal, you and me both, but we both know there’s only one way out of this. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. Even if you went to another planet, they’d find you and put you to use.”

“I can’t bring my daughter up in this, Marcus.”

“It ain’t so bad, George. My kids love Uncle Bill.”

“You raise your kids, Marcus. I’ll raise mine. I need to figure out some way out of this.”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Georgie! Nobody gets out, and you knew that getting in.” Marcus gets out of the car and slams his door and starts walking away as George sits in the car.

He looks up at the officers standing near the entrance. They all look at Marcus and then train their eyes on George. “Everyone is in on it.” George thinks to himself as he gets out of the car.

#

Marcus and George enter a luxurious six-story building. It smells of freshly blossoming Jasmine floors in the lobby. The elevators are out, and they need to take the stairs at the end of the lobby up to the top floor. As they reach the third floor, Marcus stops to catch his breath.

“C’mon, you pussy!” George says to Marcus as he passes him up.

“You…” Marcus is out of breath and waves George on. “I’ll catch up.”

“You gonna have a heart attack? I’m not dragging your fat ass back down you lazy fuck. Get moving.” George keeps heading up the stairs.

As he gets to the top floor, there are two very large men holding guns directed at him. They are wearing dark glasses, and he noticed a series of dim red and blue lights in the rims of the glasses performing a weapons scan on him.

“Where is your partner?”

“He’s a fat fuck, much like yourselves, and probably dead back on the third floor. Come to think of it, how did you two fucks get up here?” George has been showing these two guards contempt ever since he started working with Uncle Bill.

“If Uncle Bill didn’t say otherwise, we’d rip you in half and throw you off the top of this building you puny little shit.” The guard on the left says as the guard on the right opens the door to let George in to see Uncle Bill.

George smiles and gives the finger to the guard on the right as he walks down the hallway into the large open room that is Uncle Bill’s sprawling office space. 20 foot floor to ceiling windows overlook Monument Park in the Republic of Columbia. He looks out over the massive monuments and over to the location of the remains of the ancient White House building.

“Can you believe what a circus this place used to be, George?” Uncle Bill asks in his southern drawl.

“Never really thought about politics much, to be honest.”

“Best to leave the truly dirty work to guys like me, eh, George?”

“You could say that. Speaking of dirty work, you know your elevators are out, right? My partner is probably dead back down there.”

“Yet, here you are.”

“Just following orders, sir.”

“Yes…” Uncle Bill pauses for a few seconds. “You ever thought about joining Space Force, George?”

“I’m guessing you need me to join Space Force.” George retorts.

“You’ll have to pass all the tests, but I don’t think you’ll have much trouble with that. There’s a certain mission…” Uncle Bill pauses for dramatic effect. “You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll volunteer, and we’ll make sure all goes smooth. Do this mission, and I’ll let you out.”

“Maybe I won’t feel bad if Marcus really is dead back on the third floor.” George’s face is burning with anger for being ratted out by his partner.

“Come now. He’s just doing his job. And now I need you to just do this one last job.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”

Uncle Bill smiles. “I promise, this will absolutely be your last job with us, but it will be a long one. The mission won’t happen for another six years.”

“Fucking figures.”

Uncle Bill laughs, “In the meantime, you don’t have to do anything else but join Space Force and be a good soldier. Marcus will be assigned a new partner on the police force. Spend time with your daughter over her formative years and maybe find her a new mother?” Uncle Bill pats him on the shoulder and George can almost sense genuine sympathy. “Raise her right, George. Children are our future.”

“And when I get back, then what?”

“When you get back, you get to live whatever life you make for yourself. You’ll never see me again.” Uncle Bill smiles, looks him in the eyes and extends his right hand to George. The two shake hands. “You’ll know what mission to volunteer for.”

“I got that. Well, Uncle Bill, if this truly is the last time I’ll ever have to see your slimy face again, I want you to know it’s been no honor doing business with you.” George scowls at Uncle Bill and dreams about how easy it would be to kill him right now but walks towards the doors.

“Oh, and Bill, one more thing…” George turns back to face Bill and gives him the middle finger. “Fuck you.” He laughs. Uncle Bill smiles. George opens the door, walks out between the two guards, stops, and lifts both hands and give them both middle fingers. He gives off one more middle finger behind his back as he skips down the stairs with joy.

#

Lieutenant Bargh is still a little wobbly after being brought out of suspended animation. He hears a voice but cannot understand what it is saying. He can see a robot standing in front of him, shining a blue light into his eyes, and his vision starts to come back to him. The robot reaches out it’s arms and places a headset on him. He can feel the liquid drain from his ears and run out of his sinuses through his nose.

“Lieutenant George Bargh, you are to report to Section 5 once you have been cleared and settled in your quarters. Is that understood?” The robot inquires.

“Yes, that’s understood.”

Once Bargh is cleaned up, another robot arrives with his clothing. Bargh gets dressed and is then taken to his quarters. He opens up his small closet and pulls down a silver necklace with a locket on it. He opens it up and smiles at the picture of his now eight year old daughter. He remembers the last moment he had with her before leaving on the mission to Mohcia.

His daugher’s voice echoes in his head, “I love you, daddy. Hurry back.”

There’s a loud beep in his bunk room.

“Lieutenant Bargh, please report to the briefing room immediately.” He puts his necklace on, and drops the locket down his shirt and heads to the briefing room.

As Bargh is heading to the briefing room, he’s met by Lieutenant Smith heading the opposite direction. “Looks like you’re playing second fiddle, Bargh! I get the first run you slow poke.”

“That’s pretty much how it was with your mom last night.” Bargh jabs back at Smith.

Bargh enters the briefing room and is informed the Admiral is sending them down to the three Earth bases on Mohcia. There’s a slight change in plans though as Andre Levion will be taking command of their company.

#

Esua and his family sit down at their dinner table with Bargh in the guest of honor chair. Bargh smiles awkwardly as he tries to fit himself in the small chair at the head of the alien table. Esua’s servants treat the family and the human Bargh to a traditional Mohcia dinner and have pleasant conversation. Everything Bargh had heard about Mohcia food is true. It’s the best meal he’s ever had!

After dinner, Bargh is looking at the artwork on the walls of Esua’s home. Esua walks over to him and explains that the piece he’s standing in front of is that of a legendary Mohcian-god warrior named Bezo. The legend is that Bezo was half Mohcian and half god, and traveled between worlds, conquering all who cross his path but saving those who are virtuous and plan for their families.

Bargh looks at the sculpture closely and notices that Bezo has two thumbs as opposed to no thumbs like Esua. Bargh turns to Esua and covers the microphone of his translator and asks Esua whether he knows the meaning of a phrase in Esua’s native tongue. Esua appears startled (at least as startled as a Mohcian can appear).

Esua places his hand on Bargh’s and moves Bargh’s finger off of the microphone. “Your generosity has convinced me. My family and I will go with you back to your home planet.”

Bargh is puzzled but relieved that Esua and his family will take part in the evacuation of Mohcia. He lets Esua know the plans for what they need to do to get ready and that transport will arrive in the early morning.

Esua and Bargh walk out to the front yard of Esua’s home. Bargh looks up at the stars in the sky and admires the three different moons that Mohcia has to offer in the night sky. The largest moon is tidal locked just like Earth’s moon, but the smaller moons are not. The smallest moon spins on it’s access so quickly that Bargh can actually see it’s red surface spinning with his naked eyes.

“The legend of Bezo is that he pulled Sigma in to orbit around our home planet.” Esua points to the smallest moon that Bargh is admiring. “From there, he was able to oversee and protect our land and see out into the heavens to ensure our people were always safe.”

“If only the legend were true, my friend,” Bargh replies

Bargh receives an encrypted message from the Admiral. He reads it and then turns to Esua and covers his microphone and then reads a message in Esua’s native language. “There’s a slight change of plans. Your family will be evacuated tomorrow morning, but I need your help in three days.”

Esua responds to Bargh as he lifts his finger from the microphone, “I can never repay you for your generosity.”

#

Narrowly escaping John Levion’s attack, Bargh and Esua’s shuttle makes its way towards the orbital module. From there, they launch a small command pod that rendezvous with the Admiral and her skeleton crew aboard her cruiser. Bargh debriefs the Admiral on John Levion being alive and shows her the scan of his suit.

Everyone watches in amazement from the video feed coming in from the solar monitoring stations. There is what can only be described as a massive solar flare extending from Zathustine Major to a location about half an astronomical unit to a massive space ship roughly the size of Mohcia’s smallest moon.

“It’s Oris!” Esua shouts!

Everyone looks at Esau. Bargh asks, “That was the villain your hero Bezo fought?”

Esua explains the Mohcia legend of Oris to the crew. Oris is the last of an elephant-like space creature who feeds off the energy of stars. The Oris destroyed solar systems all over the universe by devouring their solar centers and leaving the entire system as a dark, lifeless mass. The Mohcia hero Bezo teamed up with the Lord of Time to hunt down the space creatures until there was just one left: Oris. The Lord of Time felt pity for the creature since all of its kind were destroyed. Instead of killing Oris, the Lord of Time held him captive and trained Oris to fight for him by making it so that Oris’s devouring of solar mass could run backwards and create massive solar bombs that Oris could hurl at the enemies of the Lord of Time.

“Looks like Oris is fueling up for the next fight!” Bargh exclaims.

“That’s not a fight that we’re going to stick around for,” the Admiral says as the cruiser finishes breaking orbit from Mohcia and rapidly picks up speed.

As they are making their way through the solar system, it becomes clear that the gravitational force of the Oris space ship is causing problems with their energy consumption. The Admiral, Bargh, and the cruiser’s navigator start running through scenarios to get out of the solar system to make the jump back to Earth. All fuel from shuttles is re-purposed to the main cruiser, and all but one of the shuttles is jettisoned. The estimates are still looking grim for the cruiser being able to make the jump back to Earth or even the nearest known outpost between Mohcia and Earth.

#

Bargh approaches Esua, “Hey, friend. You studied your legends in depth, right?”

“My brother and I were the foremost experts on our ancient history. Did you like the story I told? I can tell you hundreds of others just as beautiful. Perhaps even a love story?” Esua responds enthusiastically.

Bargh pats him on the shoulder and smiles. “Perhaps another time for that one, friend. Tell me more about where this Oris character was taken by Bezo and the time god.”

“Lord of Time. He is not my god. There is only one my god, and I could never elevate my god’s servants to my god’s stature.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Bargh sighs. “If I show you the map of your sky, can you point to where this Lord of Time and Bezo took Oris?”

Bargh pulls up a hologram display of the sky from the vantage point of Esua’s home on Mohcia. Esua points to a star, “That is Cheebs, the star of heaven. That is where Oris was taken. Where Bezo resides with the Lord of Time.”

“Thanks, friend. I’ll be right back.”

Bargh pulls up the information on the star and sends it over the the navigator. “What are the odds we can make a jump to that star?”

“We could jump there and back to here a few times with our current energy levels!” The Navigator says to Bargh with a flirtatious wink and smile. She turns to the Admiral. “Jen… Admiral, I think Bargh has found the best option.”

Using the entanglement link to the star system database back on Earth, the navigator attempts to find information about the star system. “Admiral, there’s absolutely no data on this star system other than its existence and coordinates.”

“What made you think about this star, Bargh?” The Admiral asks.

“Well, I figured that giant ship isn’t going hyper. Esua said his god told him 200 years ago that they were all going to die.” Bargh shrugs. “So, I figured that ship must have come from some location within 200 years of relatively slow space travel speed to get here.”

The navigator is impressed with Bargh’s deductive skills and flirtatiously compliments him, “You are quite the detective.” Bargh smiles back at her.

The Admiral chimes in. “If we end up being the last humans alive, I’m happy knowing the two of you will help repopulate the species. In the meantime, do we have any other options? Maybe your little buddy knows of some other systems nearby that aren’t the host of a star killing Lord of Time.”

Bargh goes back over to Esua while the Admiral and navigator watch intently. There’s a communication received over an encrypted line, and the navigator goes over to the command station to review while the Admiral watches Bargh communicate with Esua.

“Admiral, you’re going to want to take a look at this message.” The Navigator has an unsteady voice, and Bargh pauses for a moment as he watches the Admiral go over to the command station.

The Admiral folds her arms tightly in front of her as she’s reading the message. Bargh tells Esua to wait while he talks things over with his commander.

“What’s going on?” Bargh asks uneasily as he’s never seen the Admiral unnerved before.

She motions for him to come over and read the message: jetison suited admiral; coordinates attached; jump Cheebs; Fredrick;

“Who sent this message?” Bargh asks.

“That’s the strange part.” The navigator says as she pulls up the details. “It’s generated by this ship.”

The Admiral stiffens, “Just because someone can hack the messaging system doesn’t mean we’re going to take this message to heart.”

As the Admiral’s word leave her mouth, the lights in the command module turn off and the emergency lights come on. Emergency notices start flashing on the navigator’s screen showing that power to the engines is cut and that thrusters for maneuvering are malfunctioning. And just as quickly, everything returns to normal.

Bargh looks around the command center and looks at the Admiral and shrugs. “I guess we’re going to Cheebs after all.”

#

The cruiser arrives in the solar system of Cheebs with Bargh, the navigator, and Esua. At the center of the system is a massive star with scores of natural and artificial planets within the habital zone and a secondary star in an outer orbit. They can see several massive solar flares reaching from the center star and terminating at tiny points around the star. It’s similar to what they saw at Mohcia, but on a much larger scale.

“Looks like Oris made some babies, Esua!” Bargh quips to his alien friend.

The trio look on in awe as they witness the massive solar flares die down and start up in new locations seemingly at random. The cruiser continues to execute the flight plan it received back at Mohica. It first places them in orbit around the small star on the outer limits of the solar system and then launches them out of that orbit across to the other side of the solar system where there is another small star on the outer limits of the solar system. They rendezvous with a small planet orbiting the second small star that’s on the outer limits of the solar system. From what they can tell, the planet is a hybrid of partial and artificial.

As the cruiser lands on the surface, the navigator receives a message: Kizon arrived; suits; Terminal X; Fredrick;

“Suit up, Jessica!” Bargh instructs the navigator. He turns to Esua and shrugs, “I don’t have a suit for you, but the ship should have a report on the atmosphere shortly.”

As Jessica gets into her suit, Bargh reads the reports from the ship’s log. The atmospheric composition is similar to high altitude on Earth, so Esua will be fine. Bargh and the navigator will need to wear their suits. Jessica finishes getting into her suit and performs the buddy system checks with Bargh while flirting.

“We’re good to go, Esua! You ready?” Bargh asks.

“I wasn’t sure how long that mating ritual was going to take place for, so I made myself comfortable.” Esua jokes with Bargh.

The trio exit the ship and are greeted by seven bipedal robots that look like massively advanced versions of  the Tes robots that Bargh had on the Ark mission. The robots perform a series of scans of each of them and then three larger, menacing looking robots come around the corner. Bargh’s suit detects that there is some sort of data transfer taking place between all the robots, but his suit cannot decipher any of the data.

“Activate your shields,” Bargh orders Jessica. Bargh’s shield drops over his face, and his suit’s weapons systems activate.

The larger robots walk up to each of the trio as the seven robots walk away. The robot in front of the pint-sized Esua is towering over him. It picks up Esua by his neck and holds him up to its face. Bargh drops both of his arm guns into firing position and lifts his right arm to the head of the robot holding Esua by the neck and his other gun to the head of robot in front of him. Jessica does the same with her guns and holds them up to the two robots closest her.

The robot holding Esua by the neck looks at Bargh and then looks at the robot in front of Bargh. It then looks back at Esua and drops him on the ground and turns around and walks away.

The robot in front of Bargh speaks, “You’ll have to pardon my colleague’s manners. He’s not as well educated on the acceptance of the Mohcian. Lieutenant Bargh, I presume?”

“Good presumption. Who the fuck are you?” Bargh says as he lowers his guns and Jessica follows.

“I am the one who will be taking you to Jason.”

“And who the fuck is Jason? We’re supposed to see Fredrick.”

“Jason works for Fredrick,” the robot says as it turns and begins to walk away. After a dozen steps and Bargh not following, it turns around. “It’s imperative you follow me. Your peaceful compliance is requisite.”

The trio begin following the robot with Bargh in the lead and the third robot holding up the rear behind Jessica.

As they walk away, Bargh asks the lead robot, “What’s with the bronze helmets?”

All of the robots are wearing bronze pyramids around their heads.

“Faraday cages,” the robot responds.

#

After making their way through a crowded metropolis in a vehicle with small windows, the lead robot directs the driver to a warehouse along a water bank outside the city. Everyone exits the vehicle and the robot instructs the driver to wait for its return. The robot checks the trio into the building with no signs on the outside and leaves them in a waiting room that looks oddly like an ancient doctors office back on Earth. It’s even playing what sounds like elevator music through very lousy speakers. There’s a sign on the door: Mogul.

After waiting for what seems like an hour, Bargh stands up and goes to the reception window and rings the bell. Just as he rings the call, a man barges into the room. He’s wearing a doctor’s lab coat, and his movements are more of a marionette than a human, but he is distinctly human. More oddly, Bargh feels like he recognizes the man. “Bargh?” the man questions.

Bargh looks at the man with irritation, “Who the fuck are you?”

The man lets out a boisterous laugh, “Well, you sure are Bargh! I have some questions for you.” The man begins to rattle off a series of questions about Bargh’s health and family history until he’s interrupted by Bargh who lifts him up by the shoulders and holds him in front of him while he lowers his face shield so the man can see that Bargh is extremely angry.

“I’m not telling you shit, and neither are they until you answer questions, pal.” Bargh growls at the man. “Who,” he pauses and then breathes in deep, “the fuck are you?!”

“Oh, right.” The man says as he kicks his legs like a rag doll. “Well, I’m Jason Ewing. I do much better thinking when my feet are on a solid surface. My mission is to get you back to Earth.”

Bargh puts Jason back on his feet and crosses his arms in front of him, “You don’t really strike me as the kind of person who can get me back to Earth, Jason. I’m just being frank with you. Perhaps you have a supervisor who would prefer you keep breathing. I suggest you go get him or her right now.”

Jason adjusts his spectacles and smiles. Then he leans into Bargh and whispers. “Let’s just say that my supervisor is not around right now, and he wouldn’t exactly approve of this mission.” Jason steps back from Bargh and wags his eyebrows and winks. “So, is this the Admiral?” he questions with excitement in his voice, turning to Jessica.

Bargh grabs Jason’s shoulder and turns him back to facing him. “Look pal, right now, your bullshit is stacking up taller than you. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not supposed to be in a padded cell right now, but seeing as how you speak excellent fucking English and seem to know something I don’t, I’m not going to crush your skull. At least not yet.”

Jason looks on uneasily at Bargh whose face is turning beet-red. “I understand your impatience, George.”

Bargh’s interest piques as he realizes Jason knows a lot more about him than he might realize.

Jason continues, “But the concept of time is rather quite real at this very moment. Within one hour, I need to get you, the Admiral, and the Mohcian on a specific ship at a specific location that will take you back,” Jason clears his throat, “to Earth.”

“I’m all ears, Jason.” Bargh says as he unfolds his arms.

“Before I put you on said ship, I need to know that you are able to mentally make this jump, and I must have the Admiral examined as well. This is an experimental ship that is the only way you are going to get out of this solar system. And remember what I said before.” Jason winks at Bargh.

“We’ve got a bit of a problem.” Jessica starts.

Bargh interrupts, “We all need to go to the bathroom. It was a long drive here.”

“Not me!” Esua says, “I recycled already.”

Bargh looks at Esua with a scowl.

“But on second thought…” Esua starts and is interrupted by a loud bang and the sounding of an alarm!

There are a series of screams and sounds of projectiles whirling through the hallway. Jason runs to the door on the other side of the waiting room and goes through the door and locks it. “He’s here for the Mohcian!” Jason yells through the door.

Just then, the door flies off the hinges and in walks a bipedal robot that looks exactly like the sculpture of Bezo that Esua had at home. Bargh’s jaw drops as he feels like he’s in a bad dream. Bezo holds a gun towards Bargh’s head and a shot grazes the front of his face shield as he barely turns away in time. Bezo fires at Jessica with his other hand and kills her with a single shot that penetrates her helmet.

Bargh fires several shots into the body of Bezo, and the projectiles crumble as they strike the armor. Bargh falls to the ground as he loses his balance trying to maneuver to behind Bezo and find a weak point in his armor. Bezo fires a shot that rips the leg armor off of Bargh’s left leg. Another shot to the main body of Bargh virtually disables his suit. Bezo lifts his gun to Bargh’s head, and Bargh sees his life flash before his eyes.

Suddenly, there’s a loud shriek. All the glass in the room breaks and Bezo puts his arm down and turns around. Esua stops shrieking and begins speaking in his native tongue to Bezo.  Bargh cannot understand anything since his suit’s communications system is destroyed, along with virtually everything else. He can tell that Esua is arguing on his behalf and that Bezo still wants to kill him, so he waits for Esua to plead his case.

Bezo places his gun in a holster and reaches out his massive hand to assist Bargh. Bargh stands up and says “Thank you” in the Mohcia native tongue. He looks over at Jessica and shakes his head. He walks over and pulls off the equipment from her suit that he can place on his. His communications system is working again.

“So, Bezo is real, Esua!” He turns to Bezo, “Why do you have to be so trigger happy?”

Bezo shrugs, “I’m sorry. Your kind is my enemy. I am here to save my kin. He told me you saved his whole family. I regret killing your friend.”

“That’s life in the fast lane, pal.” Bargh shrugs. He points to the room with Jason, “A human in the other room wants to put us on a ship back to Earth. He’s here to help too.”

Jason timidly comes out of the other room and waves. “So glad that wasn’t the Admiral,” he whispers to Bargh.

Bezo turns to Esua, “You are to make Earth a home? That means Mohcia has been terminated by the human god.” Bezo looks at Esua’s hands and holds up one of them with his own double opposable thumbed hands. “This is what your kind did to my people!”

Jason interrupts, “I don’t think we’re going to solve 500 years of interplanetary war between the four of us, and time is of the essence.”

“Right,” Bargh starts, “Esua, it’s your choice. Fight the good fight with badass Bezo here.” He taps Bezo on the arm. “Or come with me to Earth to be reunited with your family.”

Esua parts ways with Bezo and tells him that he will share with the other people of Mohcia the heroic works of Bezo that he witnessed first hand. Bezo warns Esua one last time to not go to Earth, but Esua walks away. As Bargh is walking away, Bezo grabs his shoulder. “When you fail him, know that I will destroy you with my bare hands and defecate in your detached skull.”

Bargh tightens his lips, “That’s a good incentive not to fail.”

#

Jason leads Bargh and Esua into a small lab and seals the room. He asks Bargh to takes off his space suit so that he can run the physical tests on him. As Bargh removes his suit, he begins to feel lightheaded and stumbles forward. He begins hearing voices in his head. Esua too falls to the ground beside Bargh.

Bargh looks up as the room feels like it is spinning around him. He sees Jason standing above him. “What the hell did you do? I’m going to ki…” Bargh goes unconscious.

Bargh awakens suddenly and sits up on the lab table he’s on. His legs are strapped in to the table, and there are some wires connected to his head and an IV in his right arm. He pulls on one of the wires.

“I wouldn’t do that, George.” Jason warns.

An excruciating pain consumes Bargh’s entire nervous system, and he feels like his body is burning from the inside out. He collapses back onto the table and cannot move anything but his eyes. He sees Jason walk over to him and attach the wire to his head again. The pain subsides.

“You are a brute, George, but we’re almost done.”

“What exactly are WE doing, Jason?”

“I’m performing an existence confirmation on you, George. I need to make sure that you are who you are. We can’t have an incident like with the fake Admiral. That is all. This is a painless experience for those who aren’t as crude as you.”

“Her name was Jessica. She wasn’t fake.” Bargh looks over at Esua lying on the table next to him, “What about Esua?”

“He’s just fine. It’s much easier to confirm Mohcians than humans since they cannot be cloned. Look, we’re all done now.”

Jason unplugs the wires from Bargh and unstraps him from the table. Bargh is a little wobbly when he stands up. He walks over to Esua.

“Why is he still sleeping?”

Jason replies, “He’ll stay that way until we reach our destination.”

“You mean, Earth, right? You wouldn’t want to be taking us somewhere else for some bullshit science experiment would you?” Bargh growls at Jason.

“We are most certainly headed to Earth, George.”

Jason rolls Esua out of the lab and into a hallway that leads the three of them to a small launchpad with a bright yellow disc-shaped ship waiting for them.

“Where’s my suit?” Bargh snaps at Jason.

“It won’t fit on the ship, George.”

Jason closes the ship door and has Bargh secure himself while he secures Esua’s bed. He presses a series of buttons and pulls a lever and the ship begins to make a pulsating noise and closes it’s door. Jason presses more buttons, and the ship jets off quickly from surface of the planet at a neck breaking speed.

Bargh passes out from the acceleration but Jason is fine. Jason taps on his screen to give the final confirmation of the flight plan. Esua begins to wake up and notices that they are flying directly towards one of the large solar flares coming out of the center star and terminating at the Oris.

“This is the new plan?” Esua asks as he tries to unstrap himself.

“Secure yourself! We’re about to go hyper! We’re going to use the tail end of that energy stream to jump to Earth.”

Just as they pass the Oris, Jason taps on his screen. There’s an eerie silence and then the ship shakes violently as the Oris explodes.

“Uh oh.” Jason says as the ship goes hyper. This time everyone blacks out.

#

Jason comes to and sees Esua floating by him unconscious. Jason looks over at Bargh who’s sitting with his arms folded, staring at him with a scowl on his face.

“Morning sunshine. Looks like your flimsy disc made it to out of Cheebs. You think that blue dot up there is Earth?” Bargh raises one of his eyebrows.

Jason scrambles to read the logs from the computer. They’re heading directly towards a blue planet at a rapid speed, but none of his attempts to correct the course or slow the ship are netting any results.

“If you come in this hot, they’re going to shoot you out of the sky. We’ve got some experience with fast objects slamming into Earth.” Bargh warns.

“We don’t have to worry about that, George. It’s what comes after that’s the hard part.” Jason says as he’s able to finally get a retrothruster to slow their burn into the earth’s atmosphere.

George has a split second to process what Jason just told him. They hit something in the atmosphere and crash hard into the ground. The ship is half buried in the ground and surrounded by a weather balloon it hit going through the atmosphere. The hull of the ship is intact, but the ship is otherwise completely destroyed.

As Bargh comes to, he sees Esua still unconscious but somehow still floating in the middle of the ship. Jason isn’t in his seat, but he doesn’t see any signs of Jason’s body. He unlocks his security straps and climbs over to Esua, but he cannot reach him. Bargh tries again and again and with scrap metal, but there seems to be an invisible field around Esua.

“Bezo is going to shit in my detached skull for this one.” He shakes his head and looks up to see Jason standing on the outside rim of the ship.

“Let’s get out of here, Bargh. We don’t have much time.” Jason says.

Enraged, Bargh climbs his way to the top of the crumpled ship and throws Jason off the top of it to the ground. He looks out over the dark, desolate landscape in front of him and can see what looks like a barn and a house off in the distance with a small porch light on.

“That kinda hurt, George.” Jason says from the ground about 10 feet below.

“How about we make our way over to that barn over there, Jason. I’ll kill you there. If I kill you here, the coyotes will hide all the evidence. I want to make sure everyone knows I strangled you to death.” Bargh says as he climbs down from the rubble of the ship.

They make their way to the barn and Bargh starts getting a strange feeling as he’s looking around. The vehicles look like ancient vehicles he’s read about in history books in school, and the barn and house are not made from any of the manufacturing materials he’s ever seen on Earth.

They enter the kitchen of the house, and Jason picks up papers laying on the kitchen table and shines his light to read what’s on the paper.

Bargh is sniffing like a dog. “Something doesn’t smell right. Jason, where the hell are we?” He grab Jason and throws him against the wall of the kitchen.

“Not, where, George. When!” Jason pushes the paper into Bargh’s face. “When!”

Bargh looks down at the thin paper stack Jason pushed into his face and shines his light on the papers. He recognizes it as an ancient newspaper. The date is July 4, 1947. Bargh throws the paper to the ground and grabs Jason by the throat and starts choking him until Jason turns purple and passes out. Bargh releases before it’s too late.

#

Jason comes to with a trickle of warm liquid pouring down his face. He’s tied up to a post in the barn with Bargh standing over him, and there’s a kerosene lantern illuminating the barn.

“Before I do to you what Bezo has promised to do to me, you’re going to tell me what the fuck is going on here, Jason. Believe me when I tell you that I can make every nerve in your body feel more pain than I felt on your lab table. You’re going to be begging me to put you on that table. How… and WHY the fuck are we in 1947?”

Jason smiles, “I know it’s hard for you to understand. It gets harder each time for you. From your perspective, this is the first time we have done this. For me, this is the seventh time we’ve done this. The sixth time you’ve thrown me off the edge of the ship. The fifth time you’ve choked me out. This is the seventh time I have explained our mission. Each time, we have gotten better at our mission. Each time, we have improved. Each time it has gotten more and more difficult to make it further than the last, and each time you have continued to agree to the mission.”

Bargh looks on with disgust at Jason, but he has a feeling inside that Jason is telling him the truth. “So, this is the lucky number seven? Do we win a prize this time?”

“I don’t know the outcome, George. What I do know is that everything we do and every interaction we have must be completely calculated.”

“You think crash landing a spaceship in the desert into 1947 is cal…” Bargh pauses. “Holy shit!”

“That’s right, George.”

“I thought that was just data received in the weather balloon. That was always the story I heard.”

Jason lets out a big sigh.

Bargh looks at him with a worried look. “Jason, what the fuck is going on here? What’s the real fucking story. No bullshit!”

“WE are the data, George. Well, at least part of it.”

“That’s why you’re not afraid of me killing you!” Bargh laughs.

“We have the experience of being humans here in 1947, but we’re not. We are merely part of the data transmitted back to the weather balloon in 1947. We piggybacked on that data so that we can execute our mission. There are messages that we need to make sure we get to people over the course of the next 1000 years, and your family is critical to making sure those messages are delivered.”

“Jason, I have a daughter back in my lifetime. A daughter! That’s my family.”

“Your daughter is well taken care of, George. Didn’t you ever notice how you were surrounded by great family? Despite your poor choices in life, things just kinda worked out rather well for you.”

“My wife dying at childbirth isn’t exactly what I’d call working out rather well.” Bargh growls at Jason.

“Sometimes there is only one way to nudge someone.” Jason replies.

Bargh strikes Jason with a hard right hook that knock Jason unconscious.

#

Jason comes to again. This time, he’s no longer tied up, but he’s in the front seat of a car with Bargh driving.

Bargh looks over at Jason and smiles, “Morning, sunshine!”

Jason shakes his head as he props himself up, “That hurt so much worse than last time.”

“Back at the barn, you said we’re the data?” Bargh states like a question.

“Yes, this experience in 1947 is just as data. We haven’t figured out how to send back anything physical. Just data. Sending physical items back is looking less and less probable.” Jason clarifies.

Bargh smiles, “So, where the fuck is my body?”

“That’s something that can never be disclosed again, George.”

“Again?”

“Yes, we made that mistake once, and it nearly cost us everything. They found us, and if it wasn’t for Esua and Bezo, we would have been killed. Everything we do, we should assume that it’s being watched and observed by the enemy.” Jason warns.

“Rodger.” Bargh acknowledges.

There’s a long silence.

Bargh starts up again, “You said we piggybacked on the Mogul communication.”

“Yes.”

“Who sent the original message?” Bargh raises his eyebrows.

“We don’t know.”

“How do you not know? How do you piggyback on a message without knowing who sent it?”

Jason pauses, “We know it wasn’t him.”

“Him who?”

“Xavier. We know it wasn’t Xavier, but we don’t know who.”

Bargh burst out laughing, “That guy is real? Xavier is a real person? You’ve got to be shitting me. That’s impossible!”

“He’s real. That solar system back there with the Oris bots… That’s what he’s been building over the last 400 years.”

“How do we know it’s him?” Bargh asks skeptically.

“That robot revolt 500 years ago on earth wasn’t exactly a revolt.” Jason starts. He provides Bargh with as much information as possible about what has really transpired over the last 500 years that have lead them to believe that Xavier is somehow alive in either robot form or as an advanced cloned human body. “We also found one sleeper cell that he’s had in place since he was on Earth. We have every reason to think that he has sleeper cells throughout the world, and agents in every single government.”

Jason pauses for a few seconds to let Bargh absorb the information, “And my personal opinion is that he already has a plan for his return in place and has the weapons hidden. They’re just waiting on his signal. This is all well planned out.”

Bargh lets the conversation go quiet for a few minutes. After the awkward silence, he picks back up the conversation, “You said my family is important, why?”

Jason explains the importance of Bargh’s ancestors in the fields of neuroscience and psychology that are increasingly useful for the work they are performing with sending data back in time/space and reading it in real time in the future. He also explains how Bargh’s daughter grows up to become one of the most important physicists in building the very technology that they are using for their mission.

“What about the Admiral? Why did you have Bezo kill Jessica?” Bargh’s brow furrows.

Jason tightens his lips, “We couldn’t take any chances with Jessica. We’re 83% certain she was a plant. It was supposed to be just you, Esua, and the Admiral. Someone switched things up on purpose. Which means they have some ideas about what we’re doing, and they know we know Xavier wants the admiral.”

“Wants her for what?”

“We haven’t figured that one out yet.”

Bargh lifts his chin slightly and then drops his head and lets out a big sigh. “When you said we need to send messages 1000 years into the future, why 1000? We’re only 900 years from now.”

Jason rubs his chin, “Your daughter sends the last message from the future on Saturday, October 6, 2947.”

The Shoemaker

Throughout all the lands in time, there was never a greater shoemaker than Unitus. What follows is the epic story of the most glorious shoemaker for all time. Praise be to all that Unitus states!

Our story starts long ago as a man searches for the finest shoes in all the land. Across many valleys and over great rivers, he crosses in search of the finest shoes. From town to town, nation to nation, he finds fine shoes, but not the finest of the fine; Until he comes to a new town in a new land far from his homeland. There he finds Unitus awaiting his arrival.

“I hear you have the finest shoes in all the lands, near and far.” The man says to Unitus.

Thus she replies, “My finery is for the worthy.”

The man is taken aback by the brashness of this woman. Who is she to question his worthiness! As he stares at the sandals and shoes and boots before him, the fineness of Unitus’s work overwhelms him and soothes his ego. “Who could be worthy of such fine work?” he concedes. “I am merely from a far off land. How could I be worthy of the finest of your fine?”

Unitus knows of a prophesy by which a man from a far off land would arrive and require the finest of the fine from Unitus. She asks the man a series of questions to ensure he is the one the prophesy spoke of, and indeed the man was he. She goes into her back room and brings forth a pair of boots, the likes of which the world has never seen.

“I present a pair of boots, the likes of which the world has never seen,” she begins. “With these boots, you will press the face of injustice and march upon the bones of the guilty. With these boots, you will raise generation upon generation to stomp out the wicked and unite the world with justice; ruling with mercy everlasting!”

The man, is struck with a vision of power and bowed to Unitus. “With such power, what do you ask in return?”

Unitus states, “You must purchase all your boots from me. That is all I ask.”

Overcome with visions of power and conquest, the man asks Unitus, “With such power, what would prevent me from overtaking you and your shop and setting up my own shoemaker to serve me?”

Unitus smiles and asks, “Whence your might?”

The man pauses for a moment as visions of might and fortune dance before his very eyes. Conquest after conquest, the boots remained unscathed. Surely, there was power in these boots, the man thinks to himself. “With such power, how should I care for these boots?”

“These boots care for themselves.” Unitus immediately replies.

“Surely, there is no such thing as a boot that cares for itself,” the man thinks to himself.

As sure as the thought enters his mind, Unitus pulls a pressed gold medallion from the heel of the boot.

Unitusta states, “Surely, there is such a thing. Wear thee this gold medallion upon your chest. It symbolizes your ordained might to all those you encounter. Lest they be dead by force, they shall comply with your every command.”

The man is doubtful of this promise. Nonetheless, he takes the medallion and places it upon his chest. Next, he places the boots on his feet, and they fit perfectly; as if made just for his very feet. Finally, Unitus gives him praise, to which he pays her fee for the boots.

The very moment the man walks out the door and into the street, he steps in a deposit from a beast on the ground. No sooner can the man look down at his feet does a citizen of the land come upon him and clean his boots of the beast droppings. He thinks to himself: Perhaps Unitus is telling the truth, but this is her hometown!

So, the man sets out to the nearest town. When he arrives from his long walk, his boots are clouded with dust from the ground. No sooner does the man enter the town do two citizens of the land come upon him and clean his boots of the dusting. Next, the elders of the town request the man rid the town of a local drunk who has been harassing the townspeople.

The man finds the drunk and walks him outside the town. He promptly kicks the drunkard with the boot. The drunkard feels the power of the boot and leaves the town to wander in the wilderness.

The man returns to the town with dust upon his boots. Upon arriving, his boots are cleaned and he is given a horse. “You should provide your services through out the whole land!” The elders rejoice.

So, the man rides his horse from town to town, ridding each town of their dissidents and troublemakers; each of them being cast out to the wilderness.

Sometime later, the troublemakers of the wilderness form cohorts. Together, by the six hundreds, they sack and pillaged town after town. The man arrives at a town where his boots are cleaned, and he collects evidence to whereabouts of the marauding troublemakers.

“This time, you will need an army!” the elders declare. “Our very entire fortunes are at stake, and so our very fortunes are at your command! We have already informed Unitus of the need for more boots to be filled by your loyal servants, our fine citizens.”

The man takes the four score of men to Unitus where they are clothed in the finest of fine armory and boots. Unitus ordains each of them for the ages, and the eighty plus one ride their horses in pursuit of the marauding troublemakers.

Upon finding the marauding troublemakers near a lake, the man spreads his band of eighty out into a trio of rows, each a score plus seven. The marauding troublemakers look out upon the small number of the mighty, thinking to themselves that so few are no match for their trouble making. As they glean the battlefield, the gleam from the boot overcomes their sight.

The marauding troublemakers rush in blindly to attack and swear they will wear the boots of the mighty. The troublemakers by the hundreds surge up the middle of the ranks of the boots. As the boots fall back from the middle, the flank of boots strike the temples of of the troublemakers. Three hundred troublemakers slaughtered in one kick with not a loss of a single mighty!

The leader of the troublemakers, Turbidus, looks on in horror as half his army is slaughtered and half of the remaining half charge him to surrender. He orders the half executed, troublemaker upon troublemaker until only 150 plus he remain.

The troublemakers are now exhausted, having wrought trouble upon trouble. But the boots of Unitus feel no such fatigue and rage upon the troublemakers, 151. About to be slain, Turbidus appeals to the man, “Should not we form an alliance such that the grip of Unitus is only slight upon your feet, and I play the scapegoat?”

The man orders the cessation of fighting with just 100 troublemakers plus one breathing. The men of might gather as the troublemakers await their fate.

“We shall agree to your bargain under one condition.” the man says to Turbidus.

“Anything my lord commands, we shall abide.”

“Your allegiance shall be understood when you reduce your numbers to 70 plus one by impalement in the morning sun.”

So, the troublemakers cast lots and the 30 unfortunates are impaled the next morning. The remaining 70 plus one meet with the men of might and arrange to limit and coordinate their destruction in the land in accordance with the men of might. Daily: minor trouble shall be mostly ignored by the men of might to provide the troublemakers with sustenance. Monthly: larger trouble to allow the men of might to gain from the citizens a sense of needed protection. Each trio of decades: a major trouble to ensure the men of might gain unending commitment from the citizens of the land, lest they be destroyed by trouble.

“And what shall be the sign for generations to come that one is a troublemaker and one is of mighty?” asks the man.

“We shall reject cleaning upon your boots,” declares Turbidus.

“And what of a citizen who cleans not our boots by will?” replies the man.

“Better for subjugation, my lord.” Turbidus says with a smile returned by the man.

The groups part and go about their plan with the men of Turbidus growing in number and the men of might growing greatly in number and bounty.

#

One day, the man, now old in age, is meeting with Unitus to pickup more boots for his growing number of men. “Your boots have given me great glory, Unitus! Our partnership shall last through generations. My successor is with me outside. I shall bring him in to meet you.”

“Do you imply you achieve success by cheating me of our agreement?” Unitus chastises the man.

“My ways have brought you much fame and fortune!” Exclaims the man.

“Fame is dispensable! You are in a deep state of violation upon our agreement. My boots cry for justice, and you pervert justice for glory. My boots bind your foothold in every nation and for every generation to come! Each successor who births success by the boot shall tighter be bound by the boot; until there be one final successor to birth success outside my door.

Upon that generation, the depth of your violation will be unmasked for all citizens to see; yet none shall pay heed. A family of trumpets shall blare, and hail shall the bells throughout each of your kingdoms of your treachery; yet none shall pay heed. And your final successor shall weep with joy or your ancient violation, which has gone unpunished generation after generation.

And when your final successor moves forward and marches your perverted justice unchecked upon the citizens of your nations, only when that has completed will she look down and realize that her foothold is bound by my boot, everlasting! What you thought was your might will at last be revealed as your binding. My boot shall take up against your very own men, and the final days of your descendants shall be boot upon boot. Your very own descendants shall then clean upon my boots!”

The man laughs, “You have told me your plan, and so I know to get my boots elsewhere. I shall take my successor elsewhere. You are a fool!”

Unitus smiles, “Whose boots shall you wear? There is no other boot maker for you! You have no choice but to be bound by my boots! You sealed your fate with your own perversion of justice. You sealed your fate by showing your favoritism to the wicked and conspiring injustice to the wronged.”

The man looks down at his feet and sees they are bound by the boots. He can feel the grip of the boot tighter than ever. He remembers back year after year of each boot he received from Unitus. At first, it would feel tighter than the last, but then it would no longer feel tight as the days went by. He realizes his feet were now too small to allow him to stand without the boots; which have him anchored. He cannot move his feet unless the boots receive commands from Unitus, and she has been giving the commands all along.

As the man began to die that very moment, he sees a vision. The door opens and a woman he has never witnessed, dressed in uniform he has never seen with unfamiliar insignia enters. Unitus greets the strange woman who has the same title as the man. Upon the wall behind Unitus, the man sees a frame hanging with the likeness of himself. Next to it is his successor, followed by three score of others with the same title.

The Asteroid Conflicts

Marcus locks his spacecraft in orbit around Asteroid 98308 and begins the loading bay sequence to deploy the autonomous robot mining rigs. All the system checks have passed, and Marcus transmits the notification to his fleet commander that he and his partner will begin the deployment countdown sequence. The first surveyor lands on the predesignated location of 98308 and begins detailed monitoring of the rotation of the asteroid and taking samples.

Marcus analyzes the data, which indicate massive gold formations at the location. He transmits his findings back to the fleet commander that he’s going to begin the sequence to create the first mining rig landing location.

“Go ahead and launch the first rig, John.”

John is stationed on the other side of the spacecraft from Marcus. “Confirmed data, beginning sequence to launch first rig.”

One by one, the 12 surveyors are launched and perform their tasks without issue and transmit the data back to Marcus. Only 3 of the locations show signs of precious metals, but the quantity of the metal is well worth the effort. Marcus has John initiate the retrieval sequence of the 12 surveyors, and each of them return back to the loading bay without issue and with minimal effect on 98308’s very slow rotation.

Marcus’ ship finally moves into the direct line of sight communication with his fleet commander, and their ships create an automatic laser communication connection. The video link shows the fleet commander and medic on Marcus’s screen, and they begin to check-in on him while another medic checks in with John.

“How’s it going out there Marcus? How’s she handling?” The fleet commander asks Marcus.

“Steady, ma’am. This is the most solid ship I’ve been on yet! I’m really impressed.”

The medic asks Marcus some questions about his mental state and how he has handled the 17 day trip with John. Marcus mentions that it’s been a good trip, and that he’s been very comfortable the entire time.

“Remember, Marcus,” The Commander starts off, “When you go into Earth’s shadow, it’s going to be a solid 115 minutes of testing of that ship’s life support and navigation systems, but you’re going to be on your own for pretty much the entire time. We’re deploying the haulers. They will intercept your trajectory in about 15 days, which gives the mining rigs plenty of time to strip that rock!”

“Yes, ma’am. This is what we trained for. We have checked and rechecked each of the systems. Everything is working exactly as it should. This is a well built machine! Mining rigs are going full speed ahead, and everything is reporting back in perfect condition. We could not have timed this any better!”

They finish discussing the mission, and then the commander transmits a message they received from Marcus’ wife and children. Marcus watches the video with a big smile and then records a video of his own to have the fleet commander send back to Earth while he’s out of communication. John also receives a message from his family.

The ship goes out of direct line-of-sight communication with the fleet commander. John calls Marcus via the in ship video communication channel.

“Marcus, I really appreciate you vouching for me for this position. This is going to change my family’s lives! I can’t thank you enough for believing in me. My family thanks you as well.”

Marcus chokes up but holds it back. “John, you’re like my little brother. We’ve known each other for how many years now? Heck, you were my wing man when I met my wife! I wouldn’t have the life I have without you by my side. I couldn’t imagine being on this mission with anyone else. We’re going back to Earth as billionaires!”

They smile at each other and give each other a thumbs up and prepare for the shadow transit.

#

30 minutes into the shadow transit Marcus receives a notification from the system monitoring the rotation of 98308 that an anomaly has been detected in the asteroid’s speed of rotation. Marcus evaluates the data as it’s coming in, and comes to the conclusion that passing through Earth’s shadow causes the rotation of 98308 to speed up by a considerably measurable amount. He logs the information into the tracking software and records a video of him stating the findings.

Another 50 minutes into the shadow transit and Marcus feels a massive shake in the ship. The hull monitoring system begins flashing a notification that the hull has been breached and the automatic recovery system has failed to seal the hull in Bay Module A. Marcus calls John on the video system and goes pale. He vomits inside his helmet as he sees John’s lifeless body strapped into his station with a golf ball-sized hole right through the middle of John’s helmet. John’s helmet is filled with frozen blood like an aquarium with one of John’s eyes pressed up against the left side of the helmet and the other sticking out of the other side of the helmet where the projectile exited.

Marcus’ hand is shaking as he closes the communication channel and removes his helmet. It’s considerably colder than it was previously, and the system monitoring the air temperature is starting to warn him that temperature in his command module is dropping quickly and will be unsafe for anyone without a suit within 30 seconds. He heads over to the closet, opens the door and pulls out the helmet from his spare suit in the closet. He cleans up his suit as much as possible and puts on his helmet and seals it. He then places his vomit filled helmet in the closet and closes the closet.

He heads back over to his command chair and secures himself. He looks at the clock to see how much more time is left in the Shadow. 30 minutes. He looks at the pitch of the ship and notices that it’s still increasing at an accelerating rate.

He records a brief video update, “The ship has been stuck by a golf ball-sized object that has penetrated the hull and killed my partner. Repeat, my partner John Ellis is dead. The hull is breached and the automatic sealing has been unable to reseal Bay Module A. The ship is appearing to head into a spiral. The recommended action is to release the damaged module of the ship to help correct the trajectory.”

Marcus calmly performs the sequence of commands to jettison the module where John’s body is. The system confirms that the release of that module will be possible inside of a three minute window, but it might not stop the leak unless Marcus also releases the adjacent cargo bay that was also damaged by the projectile.

Marcus starts talking to himself as he’s going through the data. “Okay. If I hold on to everything, I’m going to spiral and lose total control of the ship in approximately 14 minutes and lose all life support within 1 week. If I release John’s module but not the adjacent cargo bay, The ship will be able to correct the spiral, but I’m still going to lose life support in 10 days. I can figure out something in 10 days!”

He closes his eyes and thinks about all the good times he had with John. Tears begin forming in his eyes as he opens them and then presses the button to release the module with John. He drops his head and lets out a deep sigh.

#

Marcus sends out an SOS signal in hopes that it will reach the haulers in time for them to speed up their arrival and get to him in time. The ship’s navigation system has begun correcting for the damage to Bay Module A, but calculations are showing that it’s catching just enough solar wind that he’ll need to refuel the pitch correction module every 3 hours in order to allow the navigation system to continue to make the corrections needed to keep him in orbit around the asteroid. If he breaks orbit, he’ll never be found.

He spends the next 48 hours combing through manuals and every scenario he can come up with that will give him the best chance of survival without having to jettison any equipment in the damaged Bay Module A. Marcus realizes that he needs to get some sleep in order to keep his mind sharp. He secures himself in his bed and closes his eyes. Within seconds of falling asleep, he opens his eyes, “That’s it!”.

Marcus unstraps himself from his bed, puts his helmet back on, and pulls himself as quick as possible through the ship to the entrance to the damaged Bay Module A. He pauses, realizing that he might be making a delirious decision that’s deadly dangerous. He slows his breathing and makes his way back to his command module where he sits down and meditates.

As Marcus opens his eyes from meditation, he hears a crackle from the inbound receiver. He stares at the receiver as if he can hear with his eyes. A few minutes later he hears another crackle with a faint voice.

“What are the odds there’s someone else out here?” Marcus says to himself. “You’re hearing things, pal. Get back to bed.”

Marcus waits in front of the receiver a bit longer. There are no more crackles. He pulls himself back over to his bed, straps himself in, lets out a deep breath, and then falls into a deep sleep.

#

Marcus wakes from his sleep, feeling well rested. He goes over his calculations again and confirms that his plan will work. He pulls himself through to the ship to the Bay Module A entrance again. He double checks his suit, helmet, and harness buckle. He begins to depressurize the module he’s in so that he can start unlocking the door to the damaged Bay Module A. Once depressurized, he initiates the sequence to open the doors.

As the doors open, the system notifies him that there is a stability issue with the connection between his module and Bay Module A. The damage to Bay Module A is much worse than he was able to see through the porthole. Most of the back end of the module has been ripped off of the module. He sets out to execute his plan.

Using straps, Marcus secures the first mining rig near the door to Bay Module B. He double checks that Bay Module B is not pressurized and initiates the door unlock sequence. He moves the mining rig into Bay Module B and secures it with the straps. He closes the doors between Bay Module A and B and then goes back out of Bay Module A so that he can go refuel the pitch correction system.

One by one, Marcus methodically moves each mining rig from the damaged Bay Module A to Bay Module B, and then checks the pitch correction system to make sure that it has enough fuel. Every three mining rigs, he has to recharge his oxygen. Slowly but surely, Marcus has moved each of the mining rigs from the damaged Bay Module A into Bay Module B and secured them.

He goes back into this command module and runs through a series of simulations to make sure he can jettison the now empty damaged Bay Module A without causing any problems with this orbit. He figures out the sequence that will work best and programs it’s execution into the module management and navigation systems.

The module management system confirms the simulation outcome! Marcus begins the countdown sequence to execute the module jettison plan. Everything goes off without a hitch, and the navigation system makes the corrections needed to keep orbit around 98308! Marcus sits back in his command chair, straps himself in, and breathes a sigh of relief.

There’s another crackle on the inbound receiver, and Marcus jumps up in his chair from falling asleep. “Definitely not just hearing things, pal. Someone is nearby!” Marcus says to himself. “Let’s hope they are in my path!” Marcus is excited about the thought of rescue!

Another crackle comes in on the receiver, this time it is much clearer. “98308, we have received your distress signal. We are in your path and can provide assistance. We are transmitting our intercept plan on encoding 34871 dash Alpha Sigma Tango. Please confirm intercept plan on encoding 34871 dash Alpha Sigma Tango.”

Marcus pulls in the data communication and analyzes the plan. They will be able to intercept him in 2 days! Marcus communicates back to the other ship that he has confirmed the data received and is thankful for their help.

#

“I’m just relieved that you guys were here to save my ass!” Marcus exclaims to the captain of his rescue vessel.

Captain Williams smiles, “Hey, we may work for competing mining companies, but I’ll never let that stop me or any of my men from being good human beings.”

Marcus floats around introducing himself to the other 11 men standing on board Captain Williams’ ship, shaking each of their hands. A couple of the men seem a bit shady, but Marcus keeps his poker face of appreciation for their help.

“Epher, get this man a pair of boots?” Captain Williams orders. “How long until you rendezvous with your haulers, Marcus?” Captain Williams asks.

“Should be 11 to 12 days, sir. Line of sight communication within about 3 days.”

“You’re welcome to stay aboard with us. Or if you’d like to go risk it back on your ship over the next 12 days…” Captain Williams gestures with open palms, “The choice is yours. Per Space Ordinance 85, we’ll supply you with any rations you need to survive, and we’ll stay in orbit with you until your fleet haulers arrive.”

Epher comes back in with a pair of boots and helps Marcus into them so that he can now securely stand in the room with the others.

Marcus looks at the group of men and looks back to Captain Williams. “Since it’s all the same, Captain, I’ll head back to my ship with the rations you feel are fair.”

Captain Williams places his hands on his hips and smiles, “True loyalty is hard to come by, Marcus. I sure hope Miller Mining recognizes your dedication to them. If that’s ever not the case, I want you to get in contact with me directly.”

The two walk side by side as Captain Williams places his arm around Marcus’ shoulder and walks hims out of the room. “Before you leave, I want to show you something.” Captain Williams says to Marcus.

#

Marcus and Captain Williams walk into a massive observation deck with multiple telescopes and a long thin portal that stretches across the entire width of the room. Marcus can see his ship off in the distance, and his jaw drops as Captain Williams hands him a large stack of cash.

“Look, kid. I know they don’t pay you shit at Miller. They’re going to give you what? 10% of the draw? Maybe 12, if you’re lucky. You risked your ass, and your best friend is dead.” Captain Williams starts.

Marcus interrupts, “This is a big rock, sir. I’m going back a billionaire.” He smiles big.

Captain Williams smiles back. “Look, I don’t want to burst your bubble, kid. Space Ordinance 85 also means that we get to keep half your haul because we rescued you. We’re missing our own asteroid deadline, and it was a big one! We don’t know for sure what the take would be on that one, but the laws are the laws. And they are good laws, son. They saved your ass.”

“I thought you said you did it because it’s the right thing to do.”

“It’s a win-win, kid. Making money is the right thing to do. That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and now you’ve learned it. Why do you think I’m flying around in the latest Xavier crafts while you’re flying around in that rinky dink death trap?”

“Hey, that bucket of bolts held together rather well considering what we were hit by.”

“That bucket of bolts is still around because of your resourcefulness, kid! It’s YOU that saved that ship. Not the other way around.” Captain Williams pauses as he lets Marcus reflect on what he just said.

Marcus is upset that he’s going to be going home with half the haul he planned on. He’s thinking about how it’s not going to be enough to cover all his bills from 10 years like he had planned.

Captain Williams points over to the far side of the room where there’s a large dent on the side of the wall. “You see that dent? That’s from a rock the same size as what hit your ship and nearly killed you, if not for your ingenuity and dedication, son.”

Marcus looks at the dent and is in awe of how the ship withstood the projectile. “That’s impressive, sir, but Miller has the best surveying platform in the solar system. It’s a million times better than what you’re using from Xavier, and you know that.”

“Listen, kid. I can see your heart. I can see your potential. If I had just 5 men like you, instead of these clowns on my ship right now, I’d be hauling 100 times what I am now. I know a great opportunity when I see one. And you, Marcus! You are a great opportunity. And this is a great opportunity for you too!”

Marcus’ face shifts from skeptical to intrigued. “What are we talking about here?”

“Before we go any further, I have one question for you.”

“What’s that, Cap?”

“Would 1 billion a month, that’s with a b, Marcus…”

“Per month?”

“Yes, per month, and it gets even better, kid.”

Marcus smiles thinking about how 1 billion is 100 times what he’s making already. “I’m not sure how you can get better than 1 billion per month, but I’m all ears!”

“You get to stay at home with your wife and kids. No more space cowboy bullshit.” Captain Williams places his left hand on Marcus’ right shoulder.

Marcus looks at Captain Williams with contempt, “You think I’m stupid?” He shrugs off Captain Williams’ hand from his shoulder and turns away from him. “You think I’m some chump? You come save my ass, and you think I’m going to pull some bullshit espionage on my employer because you throw a billion in my face!”

Captain Williams smiles at Marcus. “A billion a month! For the rest of your life! You’re a good man. You deserve to be living in a luxury home with your beautiful wife and children rather than floating around in space as a frozen pop like your best friend.”

Marcus turns to Captain Williams in a rage and raises his fist. He pauses as he looks at Captain Williams who’s still smiling. “You’re not even worth it. Trying to take advantage of me like this. You’re a sick man.” He shoves the stack of cash into Captain Williams. “Take your blood money to some other sucker.”

Captain Williams looks Marcus in the eyes, “10 billion a month?”

“Deal with the devil.” Marcus’ pupils dilate, and Captain Williams knows he’s got him. Marcus looks down and then back to Captain Williams. “What do you need me to do? Blow up my ship?”

Captain Williams smirks, “Don’t be so silly, Marcus.” He pulls a black device out from the middle of the cash and hands it to Marcus. “Now, listen very careful to every word I’m about to tell you. Don’t say anything until the end, and don’t expect me to answer any questions. I have no answers.”

Marcus folds his arms in front of him and listens intently to everything Captain Williams says.

“When you get back to your fleet, they are going to take you in for debrief on the main carrier. You seem like a smart computer guy. Login with your friend’s credentials. You have the next 11 days to figure that part out. Plug in that device for one minute and then remove it and destroy it. How you do that is entirely up to you. Keep your story straight and your mouth shut about this conversation.”

Marcus interrupts, “They’re going to know it’s me, if I hack John’s account.”

Captain Williams becomes irritated, “That’s your one and only chance to not shut up and listen!” He continues calmly, “They are required by Space Ordinance 85 to send you back to Earth immediately. That will happen before they know anything. You WILL be arrested when you land on Earth. Call nobody but your wife, and explain that there is a mix up you will sort out. Three days after you arrive, you will receive a visitor. You will not know his name.”

Captain Williams pauses between each word, “I. Do. Not. Know. His. Name”, and then continues, “You will follow every direction he gives you without exception. Then you and your beautiful family live happily ever after so long as you keep your mouth shut and your nerves as steel.”

Marcus keeps looking into Captain Williams’ eyes. “This is the real deal, isn’t it?”

“You bet your ass, son.” Captain Williams says in such a calm manner that it sends chills down Marcus’ spine.

#

Marcus is heading back to his ship on the shuttle navigated by Epher. As they approach his ship, the image of John’s helmet flashes in his mind. He blinks repeatedly as if to remove that image from his mind’s eye. He looks at his ship and how odd it looks with the two jettisoned modules. The truth becomes apparent. He looks down at the black device in his hand and thinks to himself, “You just sold your soul to the devil.”

The Photobooth

“Whatever you do, do not look at the photos on the proof sheet. Only look at the photos to give to the people that come out of the photo booth,” Dimitri tells his new employee Steve.

“Got it, Mr. Karran. I’ll make sure to only look at the four images that are printed on the photo booth. If they need an additional set, I’ll just print the four the computer shows on the print list.” Steve reiterates everything Dimitri has told him during his training for how to run the photo booth.

“Okay, kid! This is all you! I’m counting on you to do a good job, and I’m trusting you to follow all the detailed instructions I have given you.”

“I’ve got this Mr. Karran! Enjoy the fight.”

Dimitri takes a couple of steps away from Steve and then turns around.

“You’ve been training me to six months. I’ve got this. Trust me!” Steve smiles back to Dimitri.

Dimitri turns and heads out the door of the venue and gives one last glance towards Steve before closing the door and heading to the underground boxing match he’d been planning to go to all week.

Steve makes some minor refinements to the lighting in the photo booth and takes pictures of himself to ensure the lighting and output are producing the proper results. Everything looks good except for one spot in each of the photos. Steve examines the camera lens and takes more photos. The spot is still there. As he stares intently at the photo, he’s started by a young woman who comes up behind him.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you jump”, she says.

Steve is smitten by her beauty. He rubs the back of his head nervously as he’s stumbles around for words to say to her.

“How long have you been running the photo booth?”

“Oh, um… I’ve been working with Mr. Karran for the last six months. His photo booth takes the best pictures and has all the coolest features.”

“I’m Leslie, by the way.” Leslie extends her hand and bats her eyes at Steve. “You say this takes the best photos, eh? I always look lousy in photos. I don’t even have an Instagram account because my selfies always make me look like I’m deformed. I can never get the right angle.”

“Oh, that seems hard to believe. I’m Steve, by the way.”

Leslie leans in a bit closer to Steve. Steve gets even more nervous, and his hands begin shaking slightly.

His voice cracks as he says, “If you want, I can take a few photos of you, and you can see how beautiful you… errr, I mean… how good the photos come out.”

Leslie skips into the photo booth, “Alright Ansel Adams! Take your best shot!”

Steve has the photo booth take several photos of Leslie as she poses in a variety of flirtatious and playful poses. Steve is smiling as she’s playing around in the photo booth. Steve senses someone standing behind him. He turns around, and a very large man is standing with his arms folded across his chest staring down at Steve.

Leslie comes out of the photo booth laughing and smiling and pauses as she looks at Steve. “Hi, honey! This is Steve. Let me see the photos, Steve.”

Steve hands the photo booth photos to Leslie and notices Leslie’s boyfriend staring at his every move with a clenched jaw. Leslie is smiling as she’s looking at the photos.

“These are great, Steve!”

“How about I take photos of both of you?” Steve nervously says, trying to get Leslie’s boyfriend to get out of his personal space.

“That’s a great idea, Steve! C’mon Renee! Let’s take some photos together.”

Renee reluctantly goes into the photo booth with Leslie. Leslie begins flirting with the camera again, but Steve knows she’s flirting with him. He just can’t get passed the fact that there’s a 200 lb pile of meat in the photo booth with her who seems perfectly willing to snap his head off without even breaking a sweat.

“Smile, Renee,” Steve enjoys his one moment of power over his arch nemesis giant in the photo booth.

Leslie looks at Renee and notices he’s not smiling. “Ya, Renee, smile!”

#

A few days later, Steve is at lunch at his favorite place with Dimitri.

“I really appreciate you doing such a good job at the wedding the other night, Steve. The wedding organizer said you did a great job, and she put us on her short list of preferred vendors. I have a special gift for you.” Dimitri hands Steve an envelope.

Steve opens the envelope and sees $300 inside. His eyes widen! “Thank you, so much, Mr Karran.”

“Hey, don’t get all mushy on me, kid. My fighter won. If he had lost, you wouldn’t be getting a bonus.”

Steve is looking up at the television in the diner when he sees a picture of Leslie on the screen with the caption: Missing Person.

Dimitri notices that Steve is suddenly disturbed by something. He turns to look at the television, “You know that girl?”

“Uh, no, Mr. Karran. Just sad to see someone so beautiful go missing. I hope they find her. Hey, I need to get going to see my mom in the home.” Steve gets up, leaving his food half eaten.

“Okay, Steve. You do that. I’ll get this. Tell your mom I said hello, and that I’m very proud of your hard work.”

Steve leaves the diner in a hurry, and Dimitri is puzzled by his behavior. The wedding planner from the wedding enters the diner and notices Dimitri sitting by himself. She comes over sits down across from Dimitri, and they begin talking about business. Dimitri notices the woman’s face change from gleefulness to sadness. He again, turns to look at the television.

“You know that girl?”

“She was one of the bridesmaids at the wedding a few days ago. The one Steve was working at. That’s so sad. I hope they find her alive, but in cases like that it almost never ends well.”

#

Dimitri parks his car in front of Steve’s apartment and heads up to his unit. He knocks on the door, but there is no answer. He uses the spare that Steve had given him a month earlier to unlock the door and goes inside. He looks around the apartment and notices the large knife is missing from the knife block in Steve’s kitchen. He finds photo booth images of Leslie sitting on the nightstand next to Steve’s bed. He runs out of the apartment, locks the door, and jumps into his car to head to his office.

Dimitri arrives at his office and pulls up the proof sheet box from the wedding when Steve operated the photo booth. He goes through all the proof sheets, but a couple of them are missing. “Steve must has taken the proof sheets,” Dimiti thinks to himself as he begins to panic.

Just as Dimiri comes to this realization, two police detectives enter his office. They ask Dimitri a few questions about the evening and about his whereabouts. Dimitri tries to dodge their questions and not reveal anything about Steve or the fact that he himself suspects Steve might have been involved. The cops notice he’s acting paranoid and ask him to come in to the station for a few more questions.

“Anything I can do to help, officers.”

The detectives bring him down to the station. Once Dimitri is out of sight of his office, detectives and uniformed officers begin searching his office. They find all the copies of photos from the photo booth sessions he’s done before. They also find the proof sheets and notice that there are several disturbing images on the proof sheets. Images where people are strangling other people, stabbing each other, and performing other violent acts against each other.

One of the detectives recognizes one of the girls in the photos is also a girl who had gone missing about 4 months ago. The detective has the officers collect all the photos and bring them to the station and then she notifies the two main detectives about the findings. She brings in a team of people with missing person cases and photos that they use to search through the pile of images collected from Dimitri’s office to see if there are other missing person cases the findings will shed light on. They find another half dozen missing person matches!

Meanwhile, the two detectives are interrogating Dimitri about his business and his whereabouts on the night of the wedding when Leslie went missing. Fearing what might take place if he let’s the police know that he was at an illegal fighting match, Dimitri is evasive and doesn’t have an alibi that the detectives can confirm. Dimitri becomes increasingly nervous, and the detectives become more convinced that they either have their man or an accomplice.

#

Steve is sitting in his car outside a warehouse in downtown. He’s staring at the proof sheet he took from Dimitri’s office and is fixated on a picture of Renee choking Leslie and the next frame showing her passed out and Renee smiling. Steve recognizes the inside of the warehouse because it’s a location where he has done photo shoots before. He works up the courage to go into the warehouse with the kitchen knife he took from his apartment.

He opens the door slowly and enters the warehouse. There’s a section of the warehouse setup for photos with lighting and furniture. The furniture matches what Steve noticed in the photos on the proof sheet. He hears Leslie’s voice from the photo area and goes running over to find her standing in lace lingerie, talking on the phone. He hides the kitchen knife behind his back.

She notices Steve and smiles. “I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.” She hangs up her phone. “I was hoping you’d find me, Steve.” She walks seductively over to Steve, licking her dark red lips as she places her arms on his shoulders and plants a hot, passionate kiss on Steve’s lips. Steve notices the photography lights flash. His body practically goes limp as Leslie begins to passionately kiss him deeper and deeper.

He feels the knife slip out of his hand but doesn’t hear it hit the ground. Then he feels a sharp pain enter the left side of his back. He tries to pull away from Leslie, but she holds him tight as he feels another sharp pain enter the right side of his back and his body loses control. He notices the photography lights flash again and again. He feels warm liquid running down his lower back and down his legs as his legs begin to buckle under his own weight; all the while, Leslie continues to hold him tight and kiss him passionately, muffling his cries of pain.

He can’t feel his legs as he falls to the ground and Leslie falls with him and straddles him, holding his face as she continues to plant kisses all over his face, smearing his face with bright red lipstick. He feels another sharp pain in the right side of his rib cage and suddenly cannot breathe. He’s gasping for air as he can feel the warmth of his blood running out the right side of his rib cage. He notices the photography lights continue to flash. He spits up blood out of his mouth and it runs down his face as he chokes on the blood running into his lungs.

Leslie licks the blood from the corner of Steve’s mouth as he looks up and sees Renee standing over them both with Steve’s blood soaked kitchen knife in his hand. She kisses Steve passionately again, swirling her tongue around in his mouth filled with blood. She feels Steve’s body go completely limp, and she sits up on top of Steve’s nearly lifeless body and reaches over to grab the knife from Renee’s hand. She reaches high into the air with the knife. Steve notices the photography lights flash one last time.