This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Michelle Armstrong stood behind the podium before the corporate Council, her brown eyes focused, her full mouth locked in serious expression. Manicured fingers gripped the sides of the platform, her anger visible only in the wrinkles on her prominent forehead. It was an insult that she had to answer to these pompous bastards, that they had the audacity to even imagine they could do what they were considering. Behind the affront was the reality that they could do it and there was no way she could stop them. But she would not go down without a fight. Let the records show that at Earth’s darkest hour an Armstrong fought to keep it free. “The corporate planets were created by Environ,” she stated. “This we all know and accept. But who created Earth? Who filled her barren depressions with water? Who filled those seas with life? Who coaxed life onto the land and filled it with the plants and animals we all know? And who created us? We may differ on the answer to these questions, but there is one thing we can all agree on, it was not Environ.” Michelle paused to give time for her words to penetrate the council’s stubborn minds. “You cannot sell that which was created by God.”
“If that was the case, Ms. Armstrong, the Corporate Network would not exist.” The Environ lawyer spoke from his chair, his hands folded behind his head. He looked young, barely twenty, but looks were no judge of age when confronting corporate types at his level. The company that provided corporations terra-formed planets for sale also held the secret to prolonged life, a secret it kept to itself for incentive. For all Michelle knew this lawyer could be two hundred years old. The lawyer unfolded his hands and stood. “Every planet in existence today was not made by men, yet we buy and sell them at will. I’m sure you didn’t seek the approval of the Almighty before you bought the land you own, Ms. Armstrong.” The room echoed with laughter. “Earth is not just a dead piece of rock. It is our home, our origin,” Michelle retorted. “It is sacred to us all. But you wish to reduce it to just another piece of property.” Michelle noted the nods among the council. “I agree with you,” the lawyer replied with a solemn expression. “No one here doubts the importance of Earth to us all. She is our mother, our alpha. It’s because of this that she deserves the best of care, a duty only Environ is capable of fulfilling.” “Earth City Council does a fine job now without Environ’s help,” Michelle countered. “Does it?” The lawyer approached Michelle. “You say you safeguard the heritage of mankind. What has become of those symbols we hold sacred? Where are the Great Pyramids, the Forbidden City, Angkor Wat, Timbuktu, the Sistine Chapel, Stonehenge,
and Red Square? Where are these monuments of mankind’s accomplishments today, Madame Mayor?” Michelle couldn’t answer. Some of the places he named she never heard of, let alone knew of their present condition. She cursed herself for being caught off guard. She had anticipated a business argument to justify Environ’s bid. She hadn’t imagined they would use her own tactics against her. The lawyer smiled at her then turned away to face the council. “No one here denies the special place Earth holds in our lives. She is the Motherland, the cradle of what we still know as life. Who better to safeguard her that Environ? Our founders saved Her from disaster two thousand years ago, hence the name we proudly carry. We believe it is our duty to preserve the history and legacy of mankind. That is why I stand before you all today to ask you to allow this purchase.” “Your concern is admirable,” Michelle replied. “However, it puzzles me. You say you love Earth, yet you abandoned her fifteen hundred years ago to build your empire among the stars. Five hundred years ago you instigated the war that destroyed the United Nations and crippled every form of government on the planet. You’ve stood by and watched as those too poor to escape to your manufactured worlds have struggled to repair the damage. Now suddenly you return ready to sweep Earth into your benevolent arms and revive her spirit. I know the Corporate Council well; this stinks of profit.” The anger was obvious among the councilmen as they shifted in their seats. Like most powerful people they chose to believe their covert plans were well kept secrets no matter how obvious they were. Michelle was not making any friends, but she knew she had no allies in the boardroom.
The Environ lawyer’s expression cleared; she made a powerful enemy. “Our relationship with Earth has been contentious; no one would deny this. All parents at some point find themselves at odds with their children. It is a normal rite of passage. But children come to appreciate the value of wisdom of their parents later in life. We at Environ have reached this point and we are willing to do whatever it takes to restore Earth to its former place as the mother of us all!” “I believe we have heard enough for one day,” Councilman Schnell concluded. The council chairmen rose from his seat, clutching the sides of his jacket with his wellmanicured hands. “Both arguments were well presented and contain merit. You both have given us much to contemplate. We will adjourn for the day and the Corporate Council will deliver its decision by the end of this week.” It was over. Michelle stepped down from her podium as the councilmen left their seats to mingle with the army of reporters, a flock of hover cams swarming over their heads. Michelle cut through the crowd, ignoring the onslaught of reporters charging in her direction. Nelson, Maria and Toshi rushed through the doors opposite the conference room, circling her before the media reached her and activating their dampers. A collective sigh rose from the reporters as their mikes and cams went dead as they breached the five foot barrier. They resorted to shouting, taking long range shots with the hover cams. “You have to talk to them,” Nelson said. “The battle is not only fought here.” “For what?” Michelle replied. “Be quiet and keep walking, Nelson. They can still hear us.”
The Earth delegation remained silent until they reached their limousine. Michelle leaned back into her seat and let out a long sigh. “All that’s left is the waiting,” Maria said. “We’re not waiting for anything,” Michelle countered. “Limo, Paradise SP.” “We’re leaving?” Nelson asked. Michelle looked at her cohorts, shocked at their naiveté. “Did you actually believe we stood a chance? This tribunal was just a show. Earth belongs to Environ whether we sign it over or not.” Toshi paled. “But why would they do this? Why give us hope?” “Because they’re a bunch of avaricious bastards that deserve to die,” Nelson said. Michelle sat up in her seat, glaring at Nelson. “Don’t start that UN propaganda shit, okay Nelson? This tribunal was staged for the records. One hundred years from now this will be a footnote in the Archives and Environ wanted its stamp on the records. “The perfect corporation,” Nelson said. “Cruel yet compassionate.” “So what do we do?” Maria asked. “We go home and try to stop a war,” Michelle replied.
He crouched in a shroud of darkness, comforted by the ceramic pulse rifle gripped in his hands. The shallow breathing of his platoon vibrated off the metal walls, their closeness girding his confidence. For two weeks they scampered through cracks and crevices of the alien ship, luck and endurance keeping them ahead of their hunters, their numbers dwindling with each attack. But they were finally cornered, enveloped in cold shadows while the clatter of claws against steel echoed through the chamber above them. He looked up and was blinded. His comrades fired in instinct and he shouted for them to stop. Every shot had to count. They were dead men, but at least they would make a decent last stand. He forced his eyes to focus on the creatures swarming overhead. He raised his blaster, tracking an alien as it spun down towards him. It pulled out of its dive as he fired and he missed. It was a dangerous game to draw their fire and it was working. Soon he and his comrades were out of charges. He reached into his backpack and pulled out his lance. The room echoed with the snap of electricity as they activated the spearheads. The alien dove in mass, falling like stones. He thrust at an oncoming alien and his lance was knocked aside. The creature crashed into him, knocking him breathless. They wrestled, a deadly embrace between man and non-man, the alien beating on his shoulders as he clamped his fingers around its feathered neck and squeezed… Christina’s screams woke him. He straddled her, his calloused hands tight around her neck. She flailed at his arms, desperate to break his grip. Terry’s mind knew he was wrong, but his body would not respond. The image of the creature was too strong. Christina’s struggles grew weaker, her eyelids drooping. He was killing her. He pulled his hands away from her neck and tumbled away to his side of the bed. They both lay
there, Terry’s chest heaving, Christina coughing violently as air rushed back into her lungs and the blood flowed back to her brain. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Terry whispered. “You’re crazy!” She rolled out of the bed landing on her hands and knees. She crawled across the floor, picking up her clothes. Terry sat up. “Let me help you.” “Stay the fuck away from me!” she rasped. She dressed on the floor, struggled to her feet and half ran to the door of the condo. The door slipped aside and she disappeared into the darkness of the hallway. Terry sat at the end of the bed until he heard her shuttle depart. He fell back onto the bed and gripped his head with his hands. She was right; he was crazy. For five years the same dream haunted him, appearing unexpectedly and driving him to react like he just had. But this was the first time it had occurred when he was with someone, and that someone almost died. He had to go to the clinic before he killed somebody. There was no more putting it off. First thing in the morning he would catch the Magnet to Central and check himself in. He would probably get demoted, but what the hell. He was getting tired of Paradise. It was two thirty in the morning. Terry lifted himself out of bed and trudged into the bathroom. The water streamed into the sink as he entered and he dipped his hands into the warm liquid and splashed his face. He ran his hands across his smooth cheeks and chin, opening his eyes to the face that Paradisean women loved for its imperfections. Staring into his own deep brown eyes, he tried to find the source of the nightmare, speed reading the episodes of his life to find the one that had mutated into the haunting vision.
A wicked memory of Rio shifted his eyes to the faint scare over his right eye and made him smile. He looked at the hairline scar in the corner of his full lips and remembered Saigon V. So many places, too many memories, and the nightmare that would not go away, he thought. He’d come to Paradise because the job was good and the pay was better. Despite what everyone wanted, Environ’s premier planet and home world was just another stop to him, an easy respite between gritty Frontier assignments. After six years he still rose every morning searching the Environ Security WormNet (ESWN) for a position that would take him away from the artificial perfection and back among the horde of the ordinary. Ephraim’s voice buzzed in his earpiece. “Terry, what’s going on?” Terry gripped the sides of his sink and dropped his head. “What are you talking about?” “I got a honey at the Third Ward trying to file charges against you for assault and attempted murder.” “I had a bad dream.” The moment of silence meant Ephraim was pissed. “I’ll make it go away, but you have to promise me not to do whatever you did again. You understand?” “Yeah, I got you. Thanks, boss.” “Yeah, right. Come to my office first thing in the morning. I got some good new for us all.” Terry looked up into the mirror and saw his curious face. “What’s going on?”
“Come by in the morning.” He shrugged. It was probably another weak assignment on some other perfect world, the kind of assignment Ephraim lived for. He was moving up in the ranks and taking Terry along with him. Terry didn’t understand why. There were a thousand officers just as qualified for his job, and nine hundred and ninety-nine of them probably liked Ephraim more than him. He decided not to think about it. He washed his face and went down into the kitchen. The sandwich on the counter was cold but edible. He plopped down on the sofa before the plasma and stared into the blank screen and nodded off. He awoke still on the couch, the sandwich on the floor, his alarm ringing persistently. He went back to his room and dressed, remembering Ephraim’s summons to his office like some telepathic command. Terry left his cube with the unusual feeling of anticipation. Ephraim’s statement raised his curiosity. He needed something different to do. Paradise was killing him with its perfect predictability, its monotonous beauty. Though no one complained about his job performance, office work was not his calling. He caught the Mole from his condo to the Central. A quick jog to the lift and he was hurtling to the eighty-fifth floor of Environ headquarters, the executive VP level. Terry felt nervous as he exited the lift into the spacious white marble foyer. The room reminded him of the cathedrals of Vatican, those cavernous sanctuaries designed to convey the greatness of God and the insignificance of man. The more he studied the room he realized whoever designed it gathered their inspiration from the Catholic planet. The
room glowed with natural illumination filtered through huge stained glass windows depicting defining moments in Environ history. The hall housed the offices of two hundred vp’s. The spaces were separated by grade V dampers that provided discreet privacy. Ephraim’s space occupied the far left corner of the hall, a prime site and obvious sign of his rank. He sat behind his clearsteel desk, moving images about on his visual as he talked. He glanced at Terry and motioned him to sit. “That’s good news, Ramirez,” he said. “Look, I have to go, Terry’s here.” He winked at Terry and Terry smiled back, uncomfortable with the familiarity Ephraim displayed toward him. There was a reason somewhere in his mind, but it was as vague as his nightmares were clear. “Terry?” Terry pulled his attention back to Ephraim. Ephraim shook his head. “You’re making me nervous,” he said. “Don’t make me regret this decision.” “Just daydreaming, that’s all.” “That’s just it, Terry. You have the perfect career on the perfect planet and you still space out.” Terry didn’t notice another person entering the cube until he was standing beside him. He looked to his right and felt a flash of anger in his cheeks. “Terry, I think you know Kwame?” Terry stood and shook Kwame’s hand instead of punching him in the face. Kwame sat beside him, a smug look on his young face.
“Privacy,” Terry said. An opaque shroud surrounded them. Terry’s head link scrambled, the high pitch whine irritating but tolerable. “I asked you here to tell you of the most exciting project to happen at Environ in one hundred years. You probably heard of our efforts to purchase Earth. It’s been a difficult struggle, but today the deal has been approved. The birthplace of man belongs to us!” “Outstanding!” Kwame exclaimed. Terry sat on the edge of his seat, more curious that excited. “What do we have to do with this?” he asked. Ephraim leaned back in his chair, his enthusiasm dampened by Terry’s directness. “I have been selected to oversee the Earth Rehabilitation Project. You gentlemen are going to help me.” “What’s the assignment?” Terry asked. “Earth is unique,” Ephraim replied. “The organization is special. But our biggest challenge will be security.” “That’s our specialty,” Kwame answered with a smile. “Don’t be too hasty,” Ephraim replied. “Every planet you ever administered was a corporate world. We developed every planet in the system to be interdependent to insure control of the markets. Planets in rebellion would never survive long on their own. We only use force to expedite the inevitable. ‘But Earth is an independent planet. The only other planet like it in the system is Paradise. It could cut itself off from the System and do just fine, so to speak. If the
Terrans revolt it would be a real revolution, costing us a tremendous amount of capital. Thus the purchase. This is our opportunity to bring Earth into the System and under Corporate control.” “What do we have to fear from Earth?” Kwame asked. “The combined corporate security teams could finish it off in no time.” “If it was that easy it would have been done by now,” Terry answered. “We fought a war with Earth before and didn’t win. We didn’t lose, but we didn’t win.” “Exactly, Terry,” Ephraim said. “The United Nations still exists. We have no idea what influence it has on the Earth City Council but they are not to be taken lightly. No one knows what type of arsenal they possess and despite our numbers they are eons ahead of us in weapons technology. You can bet they’ll do everything in their power to make this transition a disaster.” “What about the council?” Terry asked. “Whose side are they on?” “They’re showing a united front before the cameras,” Ephraim replied. “A few council members have contacted us off the record supporting the takeover. Apparently they’ve grown tired of Michelle Armstrong’s anti corporate stance and they’re anxious for a little Alliance prosperity. The majority of the council still supports her. We must convince the Terrans we’re in it for them and the best way to do that is to improve security.” “What’s the current situation?” Kwame asked. “It comes down to what you can afford. Atlanta is our role model for change. The police force is corrupt. The successful live within the Dome under private security protection. Outside the perimeter it’s every man and woman for themselves. We need to
make a difference out there, gentlemen. Earth needs to be so safe that if a woman walks down a dark alley naked all she’ll be is embarrassed.” Terry cut a glance at Kwame. “Why the both of us?” Ephraim stood. “I’m well aware there’s no love lost between you two. I don’t know the details and I don’t want to know. Like it or not, you two make a good team. You’re a perfect combination of fire and ice.” “Terry, you’ll be in charge of City Security. Your job is to consolidate the various city and security forces into one unit. You will act directly with the city council and the other local officials. You have the looks, the smarts and the strength for the position. “Kwame, your job is more covert. You’ll lead the Rangers, the security team in the Wilds. You job is to locate sites considered of historical value. You’ll also be in charge of locating and eliminating any illegal activity occurring outside the city-states.” “You’re going to disrupt the naturals trade,” Terry said. “Not disrupt, just bring it under Environ control,” Ephraim said. “The natural trade is too valuable to Earth’s profit system to eliminate. The Earth Council gains the majority of its revenue from the trade. We want that money going into our pockets.” Terry stood; ready to be out of the room with Kwame. “When do we start?” he asked. “You have a week to assemble your teams,” Ephraim replied. “You’ll need to be ready to relocate by month’s end.” “Relocate?”
“Yes,” Ephraim said. “Like I said, this is an important project, too important for long distance management. You’re going to Earth.”