Every Survivor's Got a Story
Over an hour had gone by since Chris' last meeting with the agent.
The only meal he received was already eaten. He had nothing now, and there was no one to make a request to. No drink despite his thirst, not even something new to occupy his sights—just his own reflection staring back with droopy, bloodshot eyes.
He took a good look into the mirror: his nerves were already shot. His weight pressed against the unforgiving contours of the metal chair, and they pushed back. He felt the urge to stand and stretch, but wasn't sure if that would incite some punitive action against him from whoever occupied the room beyond the mirror. He bent down and loosened the barbed slide-fasteners of his boots a few notches, instantly feeling relief across the tongue of his footware. The blood in his lower extremities began to flow more freely. Of the total time he'd been confined to the interrogation chamber, he caught a vicious chill during the last quarter-hour, which he'd sweated out as quickly as it came. His mind played all the tricks on him it could. All the questions zooming around in his head had settled into indifference. All his worries became negligible by his higher brain functions, for he realized he had zero control over the situation.
He sighed easily and sat in a relative peace, staring into nothing, the walls now part of his thoughts. There was no more fear of the unknown, of death, of others' well being. All that remained was a growing restlessness accompanied by the buzzing of the light's power supply.
The door swinging open didn't startle him this time.
A lone security guard stood beyond the threshold in half-shadow, the door held open. There were no agents to be seen.
Something flew through the air, invisible for the first second of flight. Then, a vacuum-sealed container landed on the table with a smack!
Chris grasped the hardened plastic and twisted the embedded spigot clockwise. The packaging took on outside air through its O-ringed port with a hiss. Once inflated, a thin strip of bright-orange became visible near one edge. Chris instinctively pressed his fingertip along its length and chemical deposits inside the film spread out and broke the covalent bonds holding the casing together. The plastic softened and withered open. He reached inward and pulled out a full-body microfiber lining, blue jeans fitted exactly to his waist and inseam, a hooded sweatshirt and brown-leather boots.
"Have yourself at the briefing room in fifteen minutes, quadrant one. Don't be late, we'll be watching."
The guard paced away, and soon his footsteps faded out of earshot. The door was left propped open.
Chris breathed deep and bowed his head, collecting himself. Though not entirely free, he was allowed to see something new for a change. Of that, he was grateful.
He brought his hands to bear, stretched them and contracted them as if talons, wringing out the tension. He slowly pushed his chair out and stood.
He wasted no time and stripped out of his ragged, frayed clothing. He put on the microfiber lining first. An instant of invigoration spread out over his skin as if diving into a pool of spring water. The flexible, one-piece undersuit contained active nanocytes that wicked away moisture, bacteria and odor, cleansing his body more thoroughly than a hot shower. He changed into the rest of his clothing, running a hand through his messy hair for good measure. He stepped slowly to the threshold and glimpsed both ways down the first ring's curvature, which was more drawn-out than the eight smaller ones below it. He couldn't remember where exactly in the circumference he'd been for this last length of time, just that the walk to his cell was long and hurried. A kiosk embedded into the ring's bulkhead not a few meters across the aisle beckoned to him.
He took a deep breath and gaited across the corridor to the monolithic stand. It was a photonic projection display, capable of detecting physical interaction. It was currently unpopulated and dark. Chris glanced both ways again—no one else out there—only he occupied this stretch of the ring. He placed his attention back to the kiosk, waved a hand over the surface and animated images materialized in front of him: nine rings, one of which was slightly enlarged. A bright-green icon in the shape of a male human pulsated there with a 'You are Here' caption pulsing dim-to-bright and back again. Each of the rings were divided into distinct sections with small, expandable icons hovering nearby, waiting to be explored in further detail upon his input. "Destination, please." a synthesized, female voice prompted.
"Follow the yellow lights and enjoy your walk."
From Chris' position, a trail of LEDs gold as Sol illuminated near the baseboard, bounding alongside the curved hall's inner race and out of sight. Chris started down that direction and began his new journey.
Chris' equilibrium was off as he circumnavigated the first ring. The path bent forever to the right in this clockwise direction, and the ceiling was equally low as the cell he happily left. Such was his entire passage towards the briefing room in quadrant one. After a few moments of forlorn nausea, he reached a more bustling sector of the halo. Other, newer sights and sounds began to occupy his cognizance, the boy no longer relegated to solitude and the singular presence of the ship's own resonant hum as it lazily drifted in a GS-orbit high above the equator of Traxus IX.
This section had no windows, just offices branching off from the main aisle that he traversed. Various passerby regarded him with brief, blank glances before zooming off to their places of business. Kiosks identical to the one he'd accessed earlier were spread over intervals on both sides of the corridor. Steadily onward, the same synthesized voice droned on about something inaudible for the moment. Currently, the kiosks lied dormant and displayed loops of promotional footage: workers in hardhats banding crates together, palletizing them under foremen's watches, wheeling them into airtight containers and watching them ascend space elevators into the sky while holographic A.I.s liaised with plant managers in closed offices. A few more footsteps and Chris wandered into the range of highly directional voice drivers recessed into the deckhead, and the automated words were suddenly clear.
"The Executive Staff of Tterrab Industries would like to welcome you to the Acheron. Hailed as a technological wonder upon its maiden voyage one year ago, you can feel safe and sound wherever your journey takes you aboard our flagship. Convenience and indulgence is our charter. You can effortlessly accomplish any work, stay connected with loved ones far away, or just enjoy the array of homelike amenities. You will certainly feel accommodated during your stay with us. You won't even know you've left home."
Chris glanced around: all of the two-sided kiosks scattered in each direction displayed the same thing, now a hard-hatted technician aboard a space station scanning barcodes with some hand-held device.
"Tterrab Industries has recently patented highly secure, cryptographic archival solutions that enable accurate documentation of local and long-haul cargo manifests with one-hundred percent reliability, security, and non-repudiation that you'd expect from a brand name shipping company. You'll know exactly where your shipment is at any time, and you'll know precisely when it was delivered to the intended recipient. In fact, our service is so dependable that we are now the prime GSA contract holder for the UNSC Department of Commercial Shipping. If it's got their business, you know it's the real thing. Never again will you lend uncertainty to the status of your parcels when you entrust Tterrab with your credit. You'll always have piece of mind. And in a galactic business world, piece of mind can be the one thing that makes or breaks your deal.
"To inquire about careers with Tterrab Industries or any of its subsidiaries, please contact Virgil Alkaios, referenced in our locator terminals. Thank you for your patronage and enjoy your stay with us."
Chris stopped momentarily in the corridor, spinning around and taking in the amalgamation of sights and sounds. It all did a wonderful job of alleviating his vertigo. Before he got much time to sightsee and intercompare what occupied his senses, the yellow light assigned to him started to strobe, directing him onward. He sighed and resumed.
Sergei emerged from a nearby doorway up ahead, striding to the middle of the corridor. They spotted one another. Both paused in mid-stride.
The man was no longer dressed in the rugged, slapdash clothing that had been subjected to Traxus IX's sandblasting treatment. No more denim covering the body and no more thick rubber covering the soles of his feet. No more damaged, disheveled hair. He was at the pinnacle once again.
The man had attained VIP status aboard the Acheron judging by appearance alone, enveloped in a well-hemmed and freshly pressed suit, chocolate-black. Solid ivory buttons cascaded down the placket and the slashcut collar seemed congruous to the sharp lines of his clean-shaven face. The once grey head of hair was now jet-black and untangled, slicked back and glistening. Instead of the cleated boots he traversed the rugged clay with the last decade, chlorophram slip-ons now shone in the light and Chris's face reported back to him in an imprecise fashion amidst their form-fitting contours.
"How you doing, kid? Are your sea legs holding out?"
"Okay." Chris eyed him up and down again, slowly approaching. "How are you?"
"Me? I'm great. Man, you should've seen the look on Salinger's face earlier. Looked like he was about to OD on pills and cry all night after I was done with 'em." Sergei glanced both lengths of the corridor with a content smirk. "Ahh, when are they ever gonna learn? Hey, I'm stoked you're still alive!"
The feeling Chris got as Sergei beamed at him was so hard to process. He wasn't sure what to make of it. A grin coming from Kaiser Sergei was usually accompanied by some sobering truth or an awful event that would, or already had come to pass. This certainly wouldn't have been the first time Chris felt mistaken when tallying up his own views of the man, but Sergei actually looked genuinely happy to see him. It seemed strange, as if the vertigo had come back full force, dizzying his mind.
Sergei leaned into his line of sight, brow raised. "Have you seen the others?"
"Just about to ask you the same."
"I think we'll find out soon enough. I just hope Salinger didn't jump the gun when he started talking about airlock executions."
"Relax, it was probably just empty talk. Most of it is."
"So," Chris pointed at Sergei's clothing, "does all this mean we're free to go?"
"We have one last issue to hammer out."
"And we can leave?"
"I saw them weld up a new hatch on the bird and run pressure tests if that says anything."
Chris nodded. "I don't know how you did it, but you did it."
"Feels good to be clean and wear fresh clothes, doesn't it?"
"You guess. Did they feed you like I asked of them?"
"How was it?"
"I'm not gonna lie. It was the best meal I had in years. They said the steak was called a Del Monico. But I think I might've gotten sick from it."
"That's because it's real food. A fatty cut of meat if I recall correctly. They could've provided better. Oh well. Don't worry, you'll get used to real food again."
"And I see things went very well for you. Still speak the lingo after all this time in the lower reaches?"
Sergei's suit flowed like a second skin covering him as he chuckled. "What the Hell do you mean, kid?"
"Look at you. You got yourself a sweetheart deal. It doesn't take a genius to see that."
"You could say I secured a sweet deal for everyone."
Chris sighed, "What'd you do now?"
"Hey-hey, relax. I just did you and everyone else the best favor you'll ever get in life. You'll see that soon enough." he nodded.
Chris resumed his walk again to Quadrant One. "Uh-huh, just give it to me straight. I'm not up for anymore surprises. I've had about all I can take."
"Hey, I'm always up for straight talk." Sergei followed after Chris, soon spanning the gap. "Straight talk is so hard to come by these days. It's always guessing and feeling your way around. That's why I like it when we talk. You're up front with me. And because of that, I can be up front with you."
"Look, I can't tell you exactly what went down, you wouldn't understand."
"Kaiser, if you've condemned us—"
"—I'd sooner condemn myself than an innocent kid."
"You didn't make a deal you couldn't back out of, did you?"
"What would be the point of a deal otherwise?"
"We're talking about our lives here, Sergei."
"To treat with the Devil, you must first enter Hell."
"Oh, God, more quotes? Give it a rest already."
"Chris," Sergei sighed for effect, "if the Devil told you that you could leave Hell as long as you didn't look back, could you agree to that?" Sergei palmed his sleeve back and checked his watch, a burgundy-tinted masterpiece of craftsmanship. "Look, we're due for a meeting up ahead in five minutes, our last meeting with these people."
"I know, they told me too. You know, the whole time down there when everyone was working together…this is after you had a gun to my head in the factory break room…I watched you every time one of your men fell. I made it a point to do so. From my observation you didn't feel much, nothing much at all. Nothing other than anger, but anyone would feel that because the burden of our mission increased with less people to carry it."
"Listen to yourself, kid. Mission. You sound like Justin."
"What's wrong with sounding like Justin?"
"He may have been a good shot and a cunning leader, but he was a bad man overall. He killed Jaggo in cold blood, remember?"
"I do remember that, but in his mind it was war. He'd been living there for ten years, not me. You two had a past that I was only vaguely aware of the entire time. I had to keep reminding myself that some people were just naturally bad people. Sometimes I couldn't understand why Justin treated certain people differently than others, and sometimes I didn't want to understand, but he had good reasons looking back. And I don't blame him when I take everything into account. But if I was the one in charge, I wouldn't have done it—killed Jaggo. That's the difference between me and Justin."
"Don't think I didn't care for my men, I did. I had to rise to power before I could project it. Whenever someone tries to stand out among clans in an attempt to unite them against a larger threat, there's always going to be friction. They understood the vision and they chose to fight for that cause on their own free will, and they deserve better than petty laments from a single man. They deserve a just conclusion to what they fought for all these years alongside me."
Chris stopped walking. "And what conclusion is that?"
"The overhaul of all governments. No one can ever be free so long as shadow corporations rule by proxy. Now, shall we walk to our destination together?"
"Might as well," Chris shrugged, "we're not going anywhere."
"Indeed we aren't for the time being." Sergei replied, a certain catch in his voice as he appraoched Chris' side.
"Nice Titanium watch. No extra charge?"
"Told 'em the one I had was broken. Always milk the system, kid."
"You'll milk anything."
In lockstep, Sergei and the boy strode in a clockwise direction about the curved path as various business persons berthed around them at brisker speeds.
"You're a very smart boy, Chris. Smarter than me."
Chris warily glanced upward. He briefly made eye contact with Sergei and then immediately broke it off.
"But it's pretty obvious you've still got a lot to learn." he added. "You think you're the center of the universe, but you're not. You think you're gonna join the armed forces, go off and make a difference. We're just insignificant little specs, you and me. We're not gonna change the world. We're not gonna win this War. No one's gonna care when we die...
"Which many signified that you should bite and snarl and play the dog like me."
Sergei smiled. "Very good."
"What are you getting at?"
"You're a ghost, Chris. We're all just ghosts. You, me, and everyone that escaped, we are but gears in the greater machine…except now we've spun right off the shaft. We're off the grid and no longer powerless to decide our own fate anymore. This is your chance to really live your life. Stop playing by their rules because you know it's never fair to yourself when you do. Join me, and together we could be unstoppable."
"You can't be serious. I helped you down there, no, teamed up with you down there to one end and to one end alone: to find escape. That's as far as our partnership went."
"So what will you do now? Will you join the fighting force of a hopelessly corrupt system? Put your life on the line for a series of lost and unjust causes? You'll just immerse yourself in the propaganda they'll so happily force-feed you along with those horrible, aged rations. Is that how you want to live this one life given to you? You've witnessed enough down there to know better."
"The Covenant is the bigger threat. We can all be united against that."
"Can you really serve them after all you have been through? Can you do it knowing the great UNSC turns a blind eye to all the evils you've witnessed just on Traxus Nine? Imagine what you'll find on other worlds now that your eyes are open."
Chris didn't answer.
"C'mon, kid, don't look so down. You've gotta put your game face on now more than ever." Sergei reeled in closer to Chris with a playful glimmer in his eyes. "It's October on Earth. Do you know what that means? New fiscal year. The money will get printed, the contracts will spread like wildfire, people will labor, businesses will produce and the corporate fatcats and their shareholders will soak up the profits…and rats like you and I will still plunder it piece by piece. Don't you see? It's never gonna stop, Chris. It's just gonna go on and on. It's the way it's always worked and it ain't never gonna change. It's time we get smart and exact our piece of the pie. No one's holding their breath for justice anymore."
No answer. Chris glanced around at the grandeur of the ring, at the random faces that whisked by. He felt it again, the same feeling that crept in every time he was alone with Sergei: uncertainty. It tugged at his moral fibers, tested his core integrity, spawned splotches of grey over his black & white lense. He loathed it, and yet he couldn't ignore it. It was like some primordial chemical reaction taking a hold, a deep-seeded survival instinct that needed pondering by higher brain functions.
"I'll tell you a little secret about the universe, Chris. Something that not even Bill could enlighten you on. The universe is not black and white. It isn't right and wrong, or good and evil. The universe is indifferent. It's atoms and galaxies and people, every single thing in existence just out for themselves on random collision courses. You can live your life like the preacher-man and hope you'll never run into anything else, drifting blindly and ignorantly. You can be like Justin, quietly doing what he thinks is right even at the expense of his self. Or, Hell, if you want you can stay behind the scenes like the administrator and let the world do the dirty work for you without lifting a finger. But you know deep down you're not free just because you escaped Traxus Nine. If you won't admit that now, you will later. Take my word or find out the hard way by seeing for yourself."
"I know you're good at this sort of thing. Hey, you wiggled us free from these people and it only took you, what, a couple of hours? Just a walk in the park for you. Salinger scared me shitless and to you he was just a bottom-feeder. I thought I had you pegged pretty well myself. I'm a pretty good judge of character, but you…you're all over the place. The sad thing is I want to trust you but the risk is too great for me. Which brings us right back to me joining the United Earth Space Corps. I'm gonna leave this all behind and fight the good fight, as long as there is one."
"You've been hanging around the preacher too much. I read the Bible once. Felt it didn't apply to a lot of what's going on these days."
"And probably missed out on a pretty important topic when you read that."
"Forgiveness." Sergei scowled. "No such thing in my book. You do a deed and it's finished. Nothing we do is ever forgotten."
"It's not forgetting. It's forgiving. There's a difference."
"Okay, explain the difference."
"Forgiveness redeemed you at Traxus Nine when you saved me. If not for what you did right then and there, Justin would not have let you come with us. In fact, I'm willing to bet he'd have killed you."
"That was not forgiveness."
"Oh, what was it then?"
"It was a calculated decision made by a man drowning in his own guilt. He realized he was wrong about me all these years. He realized, just like me and everyone else in that place, that Gibson and people like Gibson were the ones responsible for creating the world Traxus Nine became. Justin chose the lesser of two evils, Chris. It's that simple."
"But surely you saved me for that reason. You wouldn't have made it out of that bay if you hadn't been the one who saved me, you know that."
"I saved your life because I was right there next to you. I did it because it was the right thing to do, not because your life was my bargaining chip. Do you really think me one-dimensional? Like I'm supposed to remain the bad guy all the time? Last time I checked, I was still human. I'm capable of doing the right thing just as much as anyone else. Besides, my quarrel was never with you."
Chris stared up at the empty pair of Russian eyes that stared ahead. It was easy to hate Sergei.
Chris adamantly trained his gaze there while keeping in step, wondering how much credence could actually be lent to any of his words. When is he ever readable? Chris thought.
The boy continued his laborious attempt at figuring him out at the core, what it was that really made him tick beyond all that talk. Those pitch-black irises sucked in everything and everyone everywhere he went, learning all in milliseconds yet offering nothing in return like twin blackholes.
There were many reasons to hate Sergei, Chris now realized. Was he allowed to be anything other than what he'd been? Was it acceptable that the man still had a shred of decency in him? Should it even be possible?
Were any of his selfless acts just part of a larger design?
Chris' mind raced, his thoughts disdained against the man walking by his side. How could Sergei forgive himself so easily?
Chris' blood temperature began to rise, evident to himself by the prickling all over his skin and the warming of his cheeks. In compensation, the swarm of nanobots assigned to his clothing began to circulate throughout the weaves and layers with self-locomotive flight, removing the bacteria and moisture and replacing it with a cool, dry sensation that wisked over his epidermis. And somewhere in that swarm of his own hatred, the voice of Bill then crept in, the Priest's deep and soothing resonance stilling all of the boy's rage into a pond of serenity. He imagined what Bill would say and do, here and now.
Chris instantly—almost involuntarily—let go of his hate as if it were a bag of lead falling to the floor. It seemed as though his footsteps lightened the longer he willed it away, and his muscles de-tensed. Holding onto the hate any longer would only bog his self down and simply perpetuate more of the same vicious cycle that he'd witnessed over and over in others. And here they were, right on the cusp of another change. It wasn't hard to see it. In fact, Ken's self-deprecating personality had all but vanished, replaced by a calm assertiveness long dormant. The way he stood up to Virgil topside was tantamount to the courage Justin had always displayed when the going got tough. Indeed, Chris couldn't be consumed in the past, not now. Just as everyone's fate was changing, so too were they.
Chris took his eyes off Sergei and began to look forward. "I guess I was wrong about you. Certain things."
Sergei grunted, tugged once at the lapels of his jacket. "Thanks."
"So since you're capable of change like I always knew you were, maybe you can also work on learning to forgive."
"Maybe…" Sergei stared pensively ahead as the two of them had just about arrived at Quadrant One, where the doorway to their fate lied. "…but I've seen how forgiveness works before, and I think that upon entering this room and learning a few more things, you might just change your mind once you see what forgiveness breeds."
Together they stepped up to the portal and Sergei reached out, grabbed hold of a chrome-plated doorknob, twisted, and pushed open.
Kaiser Sergei and Chris emerged into a room—petite, stately, just enough space to accommodate a small gathering of VIPs. Ken, Bill and Hendricksson were seated around the circumference of a round table adjacent to the far bulkhead, Chris understood, but he couldn't stop his eyes from wandering.
Chris hadn't any words to say of the sights around him. He was speechless.
The volcanic glass walls glistened onyx behind a lining of fine, metallic mesh—effectively a Faraday Cage absorbing electromagnetic probing attempts. The designers certainly could've embedded the protective screen inside the walls, but instead chose to expose it and line it with fist-sized diamonds, an avarice beyond measure. The round table and the cold floor were hewn from albino marble, as well as all seating surfaces.
Sergei held the door open, gesturing inside. Chris gaited past him as though dazed in a sleepwalk. He moseyed around the table to a vacant seat, sinking down into a crimson-colored cushion of Alcantara suede.
Most of the survivor collective had grazed over their surroundings with lustful, envious eyes for what seemed like an hour, though no one actually knew how much time had elapsed. Sergei only recently became aware of the many eyes boring into him as if probing for answers.
"Alright, here's the deal." he said, sinking deeper into the chair. "The Earth government and the UNSC are under immense pressure from bureaucrats and their constituents to lower shipping costs. It's a real shit storm out there. Apparently it's been pretty rampant with the way companies like THI have operated on a whole these past few years, and not just at this place. THI has floated way above the profit margins for too long, milking the system on a galactic level. New management is taking over operations here. It's someone else's turn now. Take over the show for awhile and enact some competition in order to lower the price-per-pound a little."
"The UNSC arranged this siege?" Ken asked.
"Hard to say. I know it's easy to insinuate them, but this doesn't have their handwriting on it. More likely, the UNSC just gave them their blessing and looked away as usual. Normally the government would step in themselves when the free market can't pull itself up by the bootstraps, right? Well, they've got their hands tied with the Covenant, so I'm guessing they hired somebody to fix things instead. Contracted out their will to a private firm and they do the deed…however it gets done. But I personally believe that the people doing the actual business here have got their own agendas as well. It's always been a corporate 'tag, you're it' with the Big Three. At times, it becomes a corporate food fight. That's big business for ya. It's cutthroat. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you'll get caught in the undertow. Sound familiar?"
"What about the space stations?" Chris stared intently at Sergei. "Are they still operational?"
"It would be simpler to leave them intact rather than re-invent the wheel, kid. I'm sure these guys won't destroy 'em. They'll surely find a way to cannibalize them instead."
Chris nodded and eased back in his chair.
"Contrary to what you might be thinking right now, this new sheriff in town wants the gears well-greased. They want the people down there to survive and work as usual. The food drops will still go on until THI finds out what happened here and shuts down the patterns for good."
"The freighters that run up and down the shipping lanes to and from Traxus Nine, the A-to-B route. You don't need ship captains for that so they just set 'em on autopilot and it saves costs. Think."
"Well, that's good they're keeping it all running."
"Yeah, well it won't be long until THI discovers the truth. This outfit here will have to stand up a new supply line before THI shuts the existing one down, and they'll have to get the space station under full control along with the space planes inside it because they'll probably lock all that down remotely as well. But it's nothing these guys can't handle. In all likelihood, such contingencies are already at work. You don't just stage an operation like this without thinking it through. And the people won't suffer that long, if at all, Chris."
"What about the NMA? Where have they been?"
"They've sided with the new big fish in the pond. They're now employed by this company, no longer THI."
"The fighters that we saw destroyed in space, that wasn't the NMA?"
"No, that was just another contracted security force that THI must've bought out. Private security is not the NMA's gig."
"Great, one more set of inglorious bastards at large."
"Are you finished?" Sergei sat straighter and rested his forearms on the table, addressing everyone in an almost professional manner. "Back to the real issue, our futures. They've let me in on their business prospectus a little bit. They're putting some smarts into this whole shipping business now, more robots and computers down below. That's right, most of it is going automated like it always should've been. Very little need for human intervention from here on out. They'll incur a heavy cost in the beginning, but they'll make up for it in the long run…so they tell me." Sergei grinned, "Guess that works out well for people down there like us, eh? No need to cloud your conscience anymore."
"Did you manage to weasel yourself in for a cut?" Hendricksson asked coolly.
"Let's just say that I had many connections off-world that retained their worth even ten years later. We'll be getting a visit from the corporate attorney, no less. So sit back and watch the show."
"Why an attorney?" Chris asked.
"If we're to live, we must indemnify both companies, Traxus and this one."
"Swear and oath of silence, Chris. Sell our souls."
"You're certain this is the only way?"
"I've worked it out. I did my best. This is the only way." Sergei nodded solemnly. "Like it or not, the captains of industry lead the human race into its tomorrows. We're going to experience that first hand—"
The door slowly opened. All eyes in the room diverted to it.
A man whom none of them had ever seen stepped inside, paused momentarily at the entrance.
"—and speak of the Devil."
He was slender and dapperly dressed, his grooming well kempt. Curiously, he remained at the threshold so he could get a good look at them, or so they could to get a good look at him—no one was certain which.
The fabric of his well-hemmed, three-piece suit draped silkily and practically flowed like water over his regal, Etruscan posture. Sporting no jewelry, the man might as well have as any visible skin practically glowed with the work of expensive massage treatment and skin conditioners, the fragrance of exotic oils barely masked by equally expensive cologne. Two-toned gator skin shoes glistened as well. The man sported a chrome tie tack and cuff links which contrasted perfectly against his pinstriped, charcoal-grey attire. Head to toe, the man who was presumably 'the attorney' most certainly dressed for success. The sheer cost of his eye-pleasing ensemble was unfathomable, possibly worth more than all the wages each survivor had labored for in any year of their lives—combined. Every visual detail about the man was custom-tailored and oozed class. Stationary at the entrance, his ambisure immediately contracted as if he'd just bit into a fresh lemon. The look on his face spoke volumes; he was certainly not amused by the sight before him.
His right arm was bent forward nearly at a right angle, cradling something. Rather, he carried a few small objects. Nestled in the crook of his elbow were what looked to be a stack of datapads. As Everyone got more comfortable, the businessman stepped forth.
At first, he hovered a couple of paces away from the roundtable, staring at Ken for a moment, surmising he held influence over the group jointly with Miroslav. He then glanced around at each of them individually, assessing their receptivity in perfect silence. Hastily, he lapped around the circumference of the table, breaking stride only briefly behind each of the seated occupants to place a datapad in front of them.
"What's this?" Ken asked, staring down at it.
"Our gesture of comity." he said sharply, placing the last datapad down in front of Sergei. He then hurriedly stepped away from the table, positioning himself firmly in the center of the room. A certain amount of agitation was palpable over him, apparently resultant of some distaste the survivors gave him. "Actually, more like a non-disclosure agreement."
Ken peered down into the screen and saw the company logo of a Tterrab Industries. Near the bottom of the emblem was a single lowercase 'a'.
Utter silence prevailed as everyone listened in.
"I've been authorized to offer every one of you a contract." the attorney said. "It's legal and it's binding, so don't undermine it or you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And don't be whistle-blowers thinking you can go into hiding. You're not safe in police custody. We have field operatives at every colony world. We're even embedded into rebel strongholds. We're at planets you've never even heard of, too. You will be found if you go against the terms. You've been given this get-out-of-jail-free card, so don't screw it up. Read the contract and scroll to the bottom where you will sign and date. You all will be given transport to any colony of your choosing, but only one, so get a consensus going quickly."
"Is this a sick joke?" Ken asked. "What's the catch you're not telling us about?"
"Shut up." Hendricksson glared at Ken. "Don't jinx this for me."
"Perfectly good question." Ken fired back.
Both a plea and a scorn suddenly appeared in Hendricksson's eyes. "I spent the last five hundred years asleep and I already know that this is the only way out of that Hell-hole we worked so hard to escape from. Let's not question this, okay?"
The legal representative of Tterrab Industries powered his voice over both of them and stepped closer. "Mister Sergei brokered this deal for you, and the catch has already been taken care of. You will sign the contract if you value his friendship. Or don't, I don't care."
"So what is the deal?" Ken asked.
"Read the contract, Mister Sopher."
Ken scowled as he grabbed hold of the pad's stylus and tapped the scroll bar along the right side of the screen. He hated it when people used his last name.
Passing the table of contents and the preface, Ken suddenly looked confounded, the subtle wrinkles of his face deepening. After reading the opening sentence of the contract's first paragraph, he knew the rest wasn't worth looking at because it was loaded with legalese the likes of which he'd never seen before. The syntax and jargon was so abstruse that it might as well have been conceived in another language. "Well, it's kind of long. Are you really sure you want me to sit here and read the whole thing?"
"Basically, the deal is you are free to go. Mister Sergei drove a great bargain, I must say. You can trust he's done the right thing for you."
With a flick of his wrist, Ken tossed the datapad onto the table and leaned back. The device clattered a few times as it coasted a short distance across the smooth surface, gently coming to rest in the middle. Ken crossed his arms over his chest. "Just like that, we're off the hook. What do you take me for?"
"Your part of the deal, Mister Sopher, is to keep quiet. Never consider yourself off the hook. Just enjoy what life you have left…unless of course you'd like to stay here and work for us."
Ken shot forward and snatched the datapad back, hastily scrolling to the end of the document.
Chris rested his hands atop the wide slab of cool marble. "What if I refuse?"
"Then I leave your fate to our board of directors, who aren't as forthcoming as I am."
"Chris," Joe coaxed, "don't do it."
The attorney boomed over them again. "If you refuse, my guess is you'd get tossed right back down into that shit hole where you came from. You know perfectly well we don't have to play nice, so take your pick: a new life or the same old Hell. Though, I wouldn't be far from the truth if I said that Traxus Heavy Industries would never have extended you such courtesies. I advise you to consent with the terms of the contract."
"You know," Ken smiled brightly at the attorney, "you're right." He looked over all the faces seated around him and swept away the blonde locks hanging over his face. "They don't have to be this nice. We're finally free after this. Our life down there is over after thi—"
"—if one could call it a life." the man pursed his lips and checked his timepiece.
"Thank you!" Joe shouted.
"Corporate-sponsored asylum." Sergei grinned. "The best kind there is."
Ken glanced at each of his fellow survivors. "This is a good deal, guys. Hell, it's the only deal."
"Very well, then." the suit said. "Get a consensus of your destination quickly. We want you out of sight no later than twelve hours from now."
"Do we get a copy of this?" Ken asked, squinting. The look on the man's face was enough of an answer. "Right, didn't think so."
Tterrab Industries' one-man legal counsel thoughtfully gazed upon the faces seated at the table as they peered into the screens of their individual datapads. After genuine moments of scrutiny, he assumed the best. "Tell me what kind of work you did do down there." He deftly pointed at each survivor, one by one starting with Ken.
"I pretty much just sorted through scrap metal." he shrugged.
"The same," Joe lied, "just a conveyor monkey."
"Priesthood duties." Bill said. "Other than that, I mostly sorted mineral ore."
Sergei smiled. "When not plotting assassinations on administrators, my employees trafficked narcotics among other things."
The attorney shook his head and finally rested his gaze upon Chris. "You there, boy, what did you do for a living down there?"
Chris lifted his stoic gaze. "I learned magnaflux inspections recently."
"The most skilled worker out of any of you is the youngest. How did you come to learn that trade, young man?"
"A great man taught me."
"And how did you consider the treatment down there?"
"Exactly my point, Chris. We see people as our greatest asset, not as tools to be used and discarded. And that is exactly why we are here, to make things right as they should be."
Chris raised his chin at the attorney. "If that is really your intent, then we will definitely obey the contract. We won't make any waves."
"Good. And I assure you, you'll have no problem finding work elsewhere. We'd offer you a high-paying contract, but we strictly adhere to child labor laws."
"A hostile takeover of Traxus Heavy Industries' crown jewel," the Kaiser smirked, "and yet you adhere to child labor laws. Intersting mix of business ethics if you ask me."
"I didn't ask you. Let me tell you something about Tterrab Industries. We have come to clean up this planet's operations. We've been the middle man in this business ever since they stole this planet. We've specialized in intrastellar transit for far too long. We're branching out. At the behest of the UEG, we're expanding our role in this industry because our business model is far more efficient than any other. We offer the best and we take care of our own, and that's because we care. We're faster, cheaper, more reliable, better in every way which equates to lower costs for all clients. Ultimately, it leads to more business and increasing revenue. This, in turn, equates to the infusion of employee benefits. We are going to revamp this entire enterprise, starting with this place. Who really wants to work for substandard compensation and in such a hostile environment? Do you? Production can certainly improve if quality of life improves."
"And by better care," Chris said, "does that include restoring the workers' choice to leave whenever they choose? Do they get their basic freedoms back?"
The legal professional's jaw clenched like a vice grip as his eyes swung towards Chris, both hands now as fists at his sides. He offered no response for a marked amount of time. "I'm afraid that is not possible. Understand that your situation is unique and you should consider yourself extremely lucky to be here. Those workers down there possess knowledge of prior events that would not only jeopardize our prospects here, but gravely impact the commonwealth of the entire industry. All people of this world including you represent significant risk to galactic security, and there are only so many pardons Tterrab Industries is willing to grant as consequence. No, I'm afraid they would not be allowed to leave."
Chris nodded. "I see. And are you going down there with armed force to attain order again? I mean…you'd have to, right?"
"Yes, of course."
"UNSC is stretched terribly thin, so ideally yes."
"Would it perhaps be the New Model Army you're bringing down there?"
"Is your middle name Rhetorical Question? Put yourself in the shoes of a decision maker. What do you think? You already know the NMA has a proven track record for managing this exact scenario. The collateral damage of that same, exact scenario would now be greatly watered down considering these denizens have experienced it before. And for their sake, I hope they've learned something from it. Cooperation among the populace might not be unanimous at first, but it would be relatively easier to attain compared to the event that occurred years ago."
"How did you even know about THI's past here and the outcome of the planet?" Sergei asked with eyes down, skimming his document. "With THI's quality of damage control, I thought they had a pretty good lid on things."
"By high quality damage control, I assume you're referring to their internal policy of holding workers as prisoners and destroying any vessel that tried to leave the planet. In that case, yes, they had a very tight lid on things and now we're the ones forced to maintain such an oppressive security measure. Mister Sergei, we pay top credit for research on our competitors. Several informants on the inside readily came forward. This takeover practically presented itself to us the very moment UNSC fiscal projections confirmed that transport tariffs would grow inequitable throughout the colonies unless somebody did something." The attorney's eyes suddenly slanted and became glazed over with a backlit anger. "We did something, for the good of the galaxy!"
Expressionless, Sergei simply watched the attorney with his untelling, black eyes. Seconds later, he went back to reading his contract.
The attorney pulled down on the tails of his drop-hemmed jacket and smoothed out any wrinkles it might've had. He then straightened his tie and stood even more erect, an air of nobility about him after his passionate discourse.
Satisfied that the others' scrutiny was now devoted solely to their contracts, he glanced at a nearby stretch of plexiplate that ran the gamut of the starboard bulkhead. He slowly and leisurely gaited towards it.
There it was: Traxus IX. The system's star fully illuminated the world and made it appear as a two-dimensional disc. The muted whites of its chemical-clouds roiling and the patches of orange-brown wasteland were poised together in space like a slow-churning ball of muddy water, like a toy he could reach out and hold if he so chose. He remained there waiting on everyone's endorsements, taking in the sight of the voluminous sphere, perhaps musing over the era to come of peace and prosperity in the empire he labored for. The fires of industry would burn anew, brighter than ever before.
One by one, the survivors skimmed over the contract's bottommost block of text, whatever of it was comprehensible. Chris drew out the curve of the last letter in his surname and pressed the 'Submit' button off to the side of the signature block, watching the screen fade to black with finality. There was no going back, now. Each of them had just about signed their life away, except one. Chris glanced to his right where the only motion in the room still occurred. He watched Sergei's eyes drift from left to right, top to bottom over the touchscreen.
"Hey," Chris nodded, "you haven't signed yet. What's up?"
"I'm reading the whole thing."
Sergei gently set his datapad down, then met Chris' eyes. "My contract is a little different than yours."
Chris nodded respectfully. "I won't ask."
Sergei went back to reading. "Much appreciated."
Chris looked away and glanced about the room. He found the attorney's reflection in the window.
Chris would usually avoid being judgmental of people on a whim, giving others the benefit of the doubt despite his keen perception. To no fault of his own, he was endowed with natural ability to quickly figure someone out. Even still, he always figured there was something more in them to bear witness to, some underlying qualities that were only manifested during extraordinary times. Quintessentially, everyone's future was unwritten; anyone could change; and therefore no one deserved judgment until the end.
But somehow, Chris felt deep down in his gut that the attorney was unique.
The boy leaned to his left with a whisper. "How long until we could hit Reach?"
"Depending on the efficiency of the slipspace drive, probably a week." Ken hushed back. "Give or take."
"Good enough." Chris looked around the room one last time. He saw Sergei again, who was already beaming back at him.
"Still believe in forgiveness, Chris?"
The boy didn't answer, but was clearly provoked by the question.
"You can tell a lie and still be a good man." he whispered. "It doesn't matter how big the lie is if it's for the right reasons."
"What are you saying?"
Sergei eyes locked harder with Chris'. "And sometimes, the most immoral deed is actually the most ethical decision available."
Sergei had a strange look about him as if he knew something profoundly important but was unable to express it in words. Chris might've understood what he meant if he was clearer, but only a moment was all that would be required for the meaning to sink in.
The boy looked toward the window again, found the human reflection lingering there. "We're finished, sir."
The attorney's thoughts remained outside the hull, his gaze clouded with thought and fixed on that murky, bleak world below.
"…That's very good, Chris. You've made the right choice."
"We've decided on our destination, too."
"Good," he said, "very good. Now, is there anything I should know about before I take my associates planet-side?"
Chris thought about the question...
Fleeting images of death and chaos spun in his mind, the thousands who had died and the millions to follow. Criminally-insane warlords, fervent parasites, ravenous zombies, and the discombobulating blades in the ground—they all reigned over Traxus IX now.
...He glanced sidelong at Kaiser Sergei, a mere instant of eye contact.
"Nope," Chris said, "it's all yours."