In a distant galaxy, human exiles colonizing a tiny planet called Dirt lived for more than a dozen generations before they next encountered an interstellar traveler. By this time, much of their ancient knowledge was forgotten. They no longer recognized their ancestry among the stars. They had only a generation previously looked again to the skies, and their initial attempts at leaving their planet had resulted in catastrophic failure.
Of course, the other splinters of humanity did not regress in the same way.
A transmission notification blinked on Lieutenant Angers’ short-range communications channel. “Open communications,” he said.
“Lieutenant,” a voice crackled over the speakers, “why aren't you dropping out of orbit?”
Angers began his seventh orbit of the space station, the docking bay light beneath him receding into the distance as he passed further from it. Well, he couldn't exactly declare that he carried illicit cargo. Granted, he wouldn't have approached the station in the first place had he known he was carrying that cargo fifteen minutes previously.
There was nothing to do about that now. There could be no rationalization of it. The disciplinary methods of the Paraceum, humanity's governing AI, were brutal and horrific. They did not preserve the dignity or individuality of even government agents like Angers. The virus which Angers unwittingly carried aboard his starfighter would be eradicated along with the starfighter and its pilot if it were detected. It was a good thing the station had no reason to scan the Blue Shrike for Angers' vitals, couldn't read the cortisol and adrenaline that described how utterly on the verge of panic Angers was.
Ideologue viruses had the chilling power to infect computers and human brains alike. Expensive surgery could remove it from Angers’ brain if he were already infected, but would be much cheaper to simply erase him and promote another officer into his place.
Angers turned and looked back at the holographic display behind the seats of his cockpit. A three-dimensional shape pulsed there, looking like a mechanical squid covered in eyes. Text had initially scrolled across this model’s surface, laughing at Angers, telling him that he was dead whichever way he turned. It made his blood boil, and he swore at the virus and its creator.
Angers knew who had planted the virus on his ship. Only one person had the subtlety to plant a time-released ideologue virus that was completely invisible to the onboard antivirus routines. Angers happened to have put that pirate into prison more times than any other officer of the Paraceum.
Angers gritted his teeth as the same officer from the space station repeated himself, asking why Angers was not docking. He couldn't simply lie and say he had a hardware or software malfunction that prevented him from beginning the dock procedure. If he did so, diagnostics from the station would immediately begin on his ship, and would quickly realize that the components of the ship were perfectly functioning.
They’d also immediately notice the virus.
There were hundreds of thousands of lieutenants in the system. It was no hard rank to reach. The loss of one would not be great, even one as accomplished for his time in service as Angers.
No, if Angers wanted any chance of getting out of this alive, he had to betray his command structure and give everything up just for a chance at life. The thought made him feel sick, but he couldn't listen to his feelings now.
So with only the briefest moment of hesitation, Angers activated his escape thrusters, bursting out of the space station’s orbit. A few moments later, a tractor beam snapped onto his escape vector, but it came too late. The tractor beam was designed to pull in damaged ships who had already entered the station’s orbit, not to grab ships trying to escape. The situation rarely came that a ship would try to escape a Paraceum space station against that station’s will.
Angers’ ship, the Blue Shrike, burst through local space at a rate that burned an alarming portion of the ship’s localspace fuel. He really needed to refuel soon. But his hyperdrive did not run on local fuel. It ran on nuclear cells, and he still had one of those left.
Paraceum starfighters of a class smaller than Angers’ own, but more maneuverable, zipped onto the Blue Shrike’s trail. There were three of them, each armed with a filament hook as well as ion cannons. They intended to hook Angers and drag him physically back to the station. Angers could not allow this. Nor could he afford to jump onto a hyperspace rail, for the pursuers would simply hop onto the same one.
No, Angers punched in a random set of coordinates, praying that he would not be disintegrated by a heavy planet as he passed onto what were effectively the back roads of hyperspace.
The Blue Shrike evaporated into hyperspace, and the Paraceum interceptors found themselves alone in the void beyond the space station, no doubt cursing Angers for a fool with a death wish.
Hyperspace travel outside of an established rail was a nightmare in an almost literal sense. The four-dimensional aspect of hyperspace was impossible for a human mind to comprehend. Though the Blue Shrike’s viewport was equipped with a projector that did its best to translate four-dimensional shapes into a close equivalent of the three-dimensional shadows encountered by humans in localspace, this was only really possible on the hyperspace rails, which had been thoroughly mapped across the whole system centuries ago, and their three-dimensional representations calculated out by hand.
Ships were not intended to travel off of the rails. Stars and asteroids and celestial clouds passed, and the viewport’s projector attempted to render them, but their shapes were alien and unreal. Planets seemed to have eyes. Stars appeared like bellowing dragons exhaling life-giving radiation in every direction. Clouds of gas appeared as swarms of chittering creatures. Though they passed so ridiculously quickly at this faster-than-light speed, all these strange effects of time in hyperspace allowed Angers to contemplate each as they passed. He couldn't pull his eyes away. It did little for his frantic state of mind.
Angers could do little more than grip his controls with stiff hands, every muscle in his body tense, as he prayed beyond all hope that he would not pass directly into the path of a celestial body of significant enough gravitational mass that his ship would disintegrate as it passed through. The computer did its best to navigate toward smaller bodies, ones which were so out of phase with the ship that he could pass through them without any issue, but every time this occurred, the Blue Shrike's speed dropped slightly. If this continued long enough, the ship would run out of hyperspace fuel and to be incapable of dropping out back into localspace. If this happened, Angers would be frozen forever in hyperspace, incapable of dying, incapable of doing anything except moving within the confines of the ideological constructs that were his ship and his body.
Somehow, Angers escaped this fate. When his fuel ran low, Angers began a scan for nearby, moderately technological planets that were not directly controlled by the Paraceum.
Hundreds of these colony worlds existed in the galaxy, planets once settled by splinter groups of humans who wanted to escape the Paraceum’s grasp and its technological supremacy. These colonies were permitted to take only the bare minimum of technology with them, so that they could not rise as parasites against their technological god. Angers had once been a member of a task force which had investigated several of these colony worlds to ensure that, several generations after their colonization, they had not been hiding any kind of underground technological power. In every case, the people of these colonies have been ordinary, and though they still had people among them from the first generation of colonists who remembered the Paraceum, the children and grandchildren of those colonists had not grown up with first-hand experience of them, and looked to the starfarers with wonder.
These worlds were intensely difficult to locate with the equipment on board the Blue Shrike. Though the terraforming units of each of these colonies transmitted out a regular signal which allowed them to be individually and specifically tracked across the system, the Blue Shrike did not draw from the central database.
Even if it did, Angers knew that relying on the database would be stupid. Agents would search the Paraceum’s central computer already for whatever telemetry the Blue Shrike sent out into the ether. Angers had disabled as many have these telemetric options as possible when he first began the hyperspace voyage, as was ordinarily practice for coming into range of an enemy alien world, but he was certain there were still some signals which he was incapable of turning off, which likely only the Paraceum itself could sense.
There! There was a signal. An ancient exile world's signal, intensely weak, one with strength equivalent to a fourteenth-generation colony. This worried Angers. Would their technology have regressed to where they would be incapable of providing him with the fuel he needed to get his starship up and running in localspace again?
But perhaps that wasn't even worth considering. Where exactly was Angers supposed to go? He had an ideologue virus on his ship. He could only escape the Paraceum completely by leaving behind any trace of his old self. Perhaps this planet was where he would spend the rest of his life.
Angers keyed in the coordinates of that colony planet and materialized back into localspace.
More proper representation of three-dimensional space asserted itself, warping the nightmarish features of the universe into blessed and beautiful spheres and clouds around him. The low fuel indicator immediately flashed to life, and Angers realized with a sinking feeling that he did not even have enough fuel to properly land on the rapidly approaching planet before him.
Angers fell into orbit, gripping the Blue Shrike's controls with white knuckles. He had only enough fuel left for one maneuver. Though his heart pounded, screaming at him to move, to act, he forced his mind into stillness. He would ensure every detail was in place before beginning his descent.
The constable punched Carrick hard in the gut.
Water dripped from moldy pipes at the roof of the small, dim room, forming a puddle at the feet of Carrick and his two constable guards.
One of these constables held Carrick’s shoulders tightly to the back of the chair to which he was tied. This constable rarely spoke, except occasionally to say in a jovial voice things like “Oh, come on, do we really need to be that hard on him? I'm sure he's ready to tell us now. You just give him a chance, I'm sure he'll tell us.”
And then Carrick would continue his silence, refusing to speak, and the first constable, the meatier one, the one with the flat nose and the cauliflower ear and the knobbly knuckles, would begin slugging Carrick again until the one in the back again raised the idea that Carrick might cooperate after all.
“You're not doing yourself any favors,” the cheerful constable said. “They’d turn you in for nothing at all, Carrick, you know that. You're loyal, but your loyalty’s wasted on them. You'd make a fine constable if you gave your loyalty to people who actually deserved it.”
Carrick gritted his teeth. He couldn't stop himself from responding, his voice full of desperation and pain. “Never do that!” he growled. His face and tongue were swollen. The words were barely intelligible. “The Family does what needs doing. What’ve you ever done for anyone who doesn't wear a suit and drive a fancy car?”
The ugly constable punched him hard on the cheekbone. Stars burst in Carrick's vision.
The ugly constable leaned down. He barely ever talked, letting the cheerful constable do most of it, but he spoke now. His voice was eerily calm and articulate. “You're going to be on hard labor for the rest of your short and miserable life if you don't give them up,” he said. “Now don't get the wrong idea, Carrick, I don't hate you. You're a pretty decent young man, all things considered. I know just as well as you the kind of scum who run this town. I'm very well aware that the gang you hang around with are not the worst people alive.
“But I've got a job to do, Carrick. A man has to do his job, no matter how unpleasant. It's how you survive, how you bring home dinner for your family. Cause when you don't, your kids don’t respect authority and become pieces of crap. They don't turn out as nice as you in particular. None of the charm, none of the good-heartedness, but all of the trouble-making. They become pieces of crap only worthy of being scraped off the bottom of a boot and then burned. I’m doing this to you, Carrick, because I'm not going to let my kids become little stains on society like the worst of those rapists and murderers you hang out with.
“We didn't catch them, Carrick. We caught you. Do me a favor and give me the information so I can stop punching someone who doesn't really deserve it and get my hands on the people who do. Just tell me about the worst ones. Leave out whoever you feel like. You don't have to hand over the other decent kids. I know there're others. I know it's not just you. Hand over all the bad eggs and operate with just the decent people. I've got a feeling you could turn things around and do some good in this town if you did that.”
Carrick spat blood onto the ground. He could have spat it into the constable’s face. He chose not to. He forced words through a foggy mind and a swollen mouth. “I don't think you get it,” he said. “They're the Family. They’re… my family. You can't choose… your family. Even if you have kids who did stupid stuff and, and… became no-good criminals like me, you'd still love them, wouldn't you? Might… call them pieces of crap now, but you’d still… love them… cause they were your kids. Well… these are the people who took me in… took me in when I had no one to speak for me. I'm not going to give them up and… and betray everything just because I… don't like… some of their activities.”
The cheerful constable spoke again, but the ugly one gave him a gesture to shut up. “Throwing you in a cell for the night, Carrick. Tomorrow you're gonna have your trial. At that trial, you’re gonna to be found guilty, and you’re gonna be sentenced to hard labor that’ll go on every day until you’re dead. You pissed off the wrong man in a suit, Carrick. I'm sorry we couldn't work anything more out.”
“So am I, I guess,” said Carrick heavily.
They threw him in a cell with bread and water of a better quality than the law required them to give him. Nonetheless, Carrick was in far too much pain, and his face was far too swollen, to eat. He drank all the water, though, and yelled that he wanted some more. None came. He was alone in the cell. There was not even a guard to keep watch on him.
The cell was in a small shack at the back of the police station, separated from the rest of the station and kept well out of the eyes of the public. It was an interrogation room and nothing more. There was no hope of escape, for the cell was locked with a heavy padlock which Carrick couldn't have picked even if his hands weren’t swollen from the beating. Not that he even had tools on him.
Carrick lay on his back in the dirt and filth of the cell, surrounded by the stench of excrement of other prisoners left here before him. He looked up to the darkness of the ceiling, his heart sinking. He knew he couldn't expect to be broken out. If only he had hope for a prison sentence that might run out in a few years, things wouldn't be so bad. It might have been a badge of honor, in fact, once he got out and returned to the Family. They would have given him tremendous respect. He would have proved his loyalty to those who doubted.
Despite all the work he was unwilling to do for the family. Despite his very vocal misgivings about some of the more nefarious activities of the organization.
It didn't matter. He would be loyal. Carrick wasn't silent only because he thought he could get something out of it. He would be an example to all the others that you could be a decent guy and not just be a snitch waiting to happen. That's what everyone had always thought of him, that he wasn't willing to put his skin in the game, that he only stayed out of things so that when he inevitably got caught, as happens from time to time among the Family, that he could claim that he wasn't really part of them, not like those murderers and thieves and kidnappers. People always said that Carrick would turn on them at a moment's notice.
The Boss never listened to them. He always said that if Carrick came up dead, he'd assume it was one of them, and stop at nothing until he figured out which one of the Family had betrayed their own. He said it was in the best interest of the other members to keep Carrick alive. Well, they hadn’t been able to keep him from the hands of the constables when the job went bad. No doubt they'd be trying to convince the Boss to move their base out of town, assuming that Carrick was even now giving them all up for his freedom.
When Carrick went out to the Wasteland and died in just a couple of days, he would show them at last that it was possible to be a decent person and remain loyal to the Family.
There were others among their ranks who hated the lengths and extents of the crimes the Family got themselves into. Others who preferred to go on a thieving mission than something more intrinsically violent, who treated hostages very well, who actively and physically punished junior members of the Family who thought that being a part of such a tremendous criminal organization gave them the freedom to rape or assault any random person they desired.
A couple of these people were higher-ups in the Family, and Carrick knew that there was a shred of truth in what the constables had told him. If he gave up the Boss, it was very possible that others might come into power who would add a shred more of humanity to the Family's activities. The Boss was ruthless. He was fond of Carrick; he encouraged him; he was proud that Carrick kept to his principles.
The Boss had his own principles. They did not exactly align with Carrick’s own.
They were brutal, dangerous principles.
But the Boss had truly taken care of Carrick when no one else had. The Boss had saved Carrick, once upon a time, and so Carrick went to his death rather than betray the man who had saved him.