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The Two Travelers


Prelude

Washington, DC


Beyond the Glass Wall


-------------------------------------------------------


Richard Phillip Hoffman



PUBLISHED

Richard Phillip Hoffman at Smashwords

 

Copyright 2012 / 2018

Richard Phillip Hoffman


PUBLISHERS NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual person, living or dead, business establishments, events or locals is entirely coincidental.


SMASHWORDS EDITION, LICENSE NOTES

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH

Photo by Ryan Waring on Unsplash

Table of Contents


Preface


1


2


3


4


5


6


7


8


9


10


11


A Word from the Author


Episode 1 - Chapter 1: The Sleeping Adonis


Episode 2 - Chapter 1: The Living Art Piece


About the Author


Other Titles by Author


Connect with the Author



Preface


When I first wrote the first three episodes of the Two Travelers I was, what you might call, inexperienced, and that over time, despite a small success with several people who had read the stories and genuinely liked them, I came to understand I had not made the best story available and the errors created by inexperience had become a kind of thing many readers greatly disliked and often misinterpreted.

The following reeditions of this and the following two episodes are a reworking where I, with the added maturity and skills of experience, have improved greatly on story, character, background, and editing, to give the best possible story available without any of the mistakes that had been so detrimental before.

“All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”


-- Abraham Lincoln


1


One thousand years ago two lovers met in a concentration camp-like facility known to the public as Reclamation Facility 59. They had arrived one after the other separated only by moments both landing at the United Countries Law Division Washington DC Airport, which had once been known as the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport before being known as the Jimmy Carter Washington National Airport, both utterly unaware of each other’s existence.

They would both mark the beginning of their adventures after their capture when they found themselves immersed in darkness with nothing but the yellow light of an armor peeler set above them.


2


The dish-shaped device, roughly three feet in diameter and the color of spicy mustard yellow, was designed to block the part of Justin Biryukov’s brain that allowed him to access his bionic augmentation armor that was presently lying dormant in molecular form deep within the cells of his body. The intense headache he was feeling came from that part of his brain being too aggressively blocked for too long, a feeling akin to that of having his head in a slowly tightening vice.

He was seated in a black metal chair with his wrists handcuffed through a single bar built into its back and covered in sweat from the heat that the leather jacket he had been wearing when he was captured was making significantly worse. The dish above him was the only light in the room but despite the intense heat it was giving off, it was still so dull and narrow in focus that it only covered him, the chair and the ground below for about half a foot beyond.

From an inch beyond that everything was pitch black darkness.

How long had he been there? Justin could not quite recall as time was funny in the dark but it was at least six hours. It took at least that long to start feeling the headache effect of the armor peeler but perhaps it was bad enough that even maybe it was as long as ten or even twelve horse. He knew it was more than that because, otherwise, he would have started bleeding from his nostrils and ears. That form of armor peeler was not really designed to be used for more than a few minutes to a half of an hour.

A door in the darkness suddenly opened and Justin winced back from the blinding light that shot across him from the white room beyond. He could not see much of anything beyond the whiteness but he could make out a man in a doctor’s lab coat with red sleeves stepping inside the room carrying a dangling, twitching thing Justin knew was a bio-blocker.

The object was transparent, squishy and shaped very much like a scarab with six long metal legs in place of real legs that all wiggled around as the doctor came in holding it by its larger lower body. It looked almost alive, almost eager, and the doctor was holding it away from his body with only two fingers apparently even a little bit nervous himself.

“Is this going to hurt?” Justin was pretty sure it would but when he was nervous he talked without thinking. He felt the bio-blocker’s legs on the back of his neck begin to tickle and braced for some pain.

“You would rather have your penis yanked off than experience the pain of what is about to happen,” said the doctor almost pleasantly.

Justin groaned as the legs jammed themselves into his skin. “In the future—” Justin felt them jerk in further with barbed-like points added for extra pain “—can you please lie—” His voice suddenly turned into a cry of agony as the pain amplified with the legs extending metal tributaries all throughout the muscle grounding the device into his neck. “Oh fucking hell!” he groaned and then saw that saliva was dripping out of his mouth onto his jeans.

The doctor lifted Justin’s head up and revealed a man’s face colored almost pure mustard yellow from the armor peeler, a man with light hair, light eyes, and a hard angular face filled with hate. “You have violated Law, Berrycove, and you must pay the price,” he said simply. “Law has zero tolerance for treason.”

Justin felt the pain grow even worse with even more tributaries extending and he pulled vainly against his handcuffs as if to reach up and pull the blocker off. The chain between them prevented him from getting his hands out from the holes on either side of the chair’s vertical bar but even if he could the red tinted force fields the cuffs generated around his hands would easily prevent him from grabbing anything.

The bio-blocker then stuck its proboscis into his neck draining some blood which Justin knew from his studies would turn the clear part of its body crimson and power the device and then there was the sudden relief as numbness followed with the armor peeler finally stopping. It was no longer needed for as long as Justin had that monstrous beetle on his neck his bio-armor was staying right where it was but at least the heat was gone and his headache already disappearing.

“Do you like it?” asked a man’s irritated and slightly mechanical voice that sounded as if it went through a machine. It was the tell-tale sign of someone speaking in environmentally sealed bionic augmentation armor who was evidently hiding out there somewhere in the darkness. Justin had not seen him enter so he had either slipped in while he was crying out or had been hiding out there in the dark all along.

Justin looked for him, could not find him, and then watched the doctor step back out into the white room. His vision had adapted enough so that he could see it was some kind of laboratory but the door was closed before he could see any specifics.

He stared into the darkness licking his dry lips and tongue, he had not ever seen water since the day before, and said to the man in the darkness, “Oh I just love it.” The nanoprobes from the bio-blocker, microscopic machines too small for the eye to see, had by then killed the pain so only misery and bitterness remained. “Just love it to death,” he added and then lowered his head.

“A joker too,” said the voice bitterly and suddenly a very dim gray light appeared horizontally across the room on either side of the armor peeler but spread out wide enough to illuminate a man in bionic augmentation armor leaning against the back wall with his arms crossed. Most of the room beyond the gray light was still very dim, a style of aesthetics his captives rather loved.

The bio-armor of the American branch of the Faction, the common name used to refer to the United Countries’ Law Division, was blatantly stolen from the United States Marine Corps and so looked almost identical to Justin’s following the very common style of dual layer armor. The colors were chosen by the military but could be changeable, usually to suit the environment of combat such as green for forest or beige for desert, and for most branches there was a general two-color system.

It began as a silver-gray base suit with a light material and a clear faced helmet for practice. The inner layer was an upgraded version of that base suit with a mesh-like Kevlar merged with skin type material grown under an outer layer of protective plated armor.

The Faction’s inner layer was crimson and its outer layer was a very dark black. Most of what one could see looking at them was the outer layer of black plates that covered most of the inner layer with a few plates located on the arms, legs, sides, front and back aesthetically altered to be crimson and the bottom of the hands which was an upgraded, but less effective, skin-like crimson layer which was required in the place of plates in order to keep the hands fully functional in combat and, in fact, felt almost as real as actual skin did.

The helmets were fully environmental gas masks created to give the appearance of an emotionless insect-like being. The left and right of the front had huge glass-like lenses that gave an appearance very much like that of large elongated bug eyes the same color of the inner layer. They could be made clear along with the rest of the front without decreasing protection, something that would humanize the individual on the other side, but the Faction never did that.

Any accessories a soldier had on their armor were always automatically moved up into the outer layer making whatever they were the same color as the plates.

However, all Justin saw of that soldier’s accessories were the double vibration blades set above each wrist that were standard weapons on all modern soldiers and nothing else which meant he was new. Even in the dim light, Justin could see that there were no other lines in the plates aside from the very subtle red augmentation lines anywhere to indicate any other device. Since so many had turned traitor after the Faction coup their new recruits found themselves with significantly fewer accessories until they somehow earned them. They didn’t even have the domestic accessory that Justin was given when he got that base set of armor that was effectively no better than a scuba suit.

The man approached him and stared down at him with those red bug eyes that Justin wanted to think of like Spider-Man but tended to more think of like Al Hedison in the Fly. “Son,” the man’s slightly mechanical voice said, “Have you any idea how much trouble you’re in?”

Justin leaned back and looked up at him. “I really don’t,” he replied honestly. “What happens now?” He was genuinely surprised he wasn’t dead. He was the second to last of his friends to get caught and he had felt reasonably certain the others, all members of former branches of the United States Military like himself, had by then been executed.

“As you are a bionic engineer yourself you know that there is absolutely no way we could pull out your bionic augmentation armor with that blocker on your neck. You also have no access to your artificially intelligent companion and no access to any involuntary chemical assistance that might have been programmed into your bio-armor.”

“I do.”

The man opened and closed his fists in slow-building anger. He looked like he really wanted to hurt Justin despite the fact that he had so far been a model prisoner. “Did you actually build your AIC from the ground up?” he asked in a quiet voice. AIC, which was spelled out vocally letter by letter, was short for artificial intelligent companion which was a form of bionic android that came from the armor and assisted the wearer in various ways, not the least of which was as a friend, companion and confidant.

“Yes,” Justin replied. He had begun working on his AIC as a young child but it took him years to get him right. He had named him Lincoln after Abraham Lincoln who he had been fascinated with at the time and at present was inside Justin’s body comatose in the form of disconnected molecules. He had always planned for him to be his engineering assistant and Lincoln managed to outscore the premade versions in the AIC engineering tests easily. “I started him when I was eight or so and finished him when I was thirteen.”

“You disgust me!” said the man and his hands opened and closed again making a kind of creaking sound similar to squeezed leather. “We’re bombed daily and you, a young man of your intellect, goes out and steals UCLD property from the wreckage like some goddamn parasite!” His real personality was coming out in an oozing ugly way and Justin felt like he had to be very careful around him or he might just try utilizing the amplified strength of his armor to rip him limb from limb. “How useful a bionic engineer would be to Law! How vital for our struggle!” He was making himself mad, almost taunting himself, and when he took a step closer Justin sensed he was even angrier. “When I think of what Germany and traitor Canada have been doing—” he stopped himself, stepped back and shook his head “—I don’t like selfish people, Bookycove!”

“Is this part of the Faction Interrogation Handbook—” The man suddenly rushed forward up into his face. The face obviously showed no difference in expression but his body language showed that he was on the verge of genuine violence. Justin opened his mouth to say something but the man suddenly made a fist and the two black blades on his right wrists slid out in a flash with a shing sound and vibrated at extremely high velocity.

Justin swallowed and said nothing.

What was his story, Justin wondered? Was he injured over by the Fifty-Fifty Law that forced half the jobs in the country to be worked by minorities created by the so-called liberals or was he haunted by the endless debt that followed grandparent to parent and parent to child that was made possible when the Good Citizen Act was passed by the so-called conservatives? It was impossible to tell if it was those two major reasons or any number of minor ones created by either side that had set him down the road of Faction servitude but it was clear he had become one of their true believers.

Justin found himself starting to smile and said, “You’ll have your accessories soon enough, friend.”

The man seemed amused and retracted his blades. He then stepped back, took a chair out from the corner, and slammed it down in front of Justin with its back toward him. Then he casually sat down on it backward in order to face Justin and leaned forward onto its back. As bionic armor form fit to the body so perfectly that it never encumbered its owner he moved as easily as if he was naked. It was that way even though it could make its owner capable of wondrous things such as outrunning cars, jumping over buses and seeing in a variety of spectrums to name a few.

“I am Collector Harry Berman and you will refrain any personal comments about myself and refer to my organization by its proper name: the United Countries Law Division or the tolerable but borderline inappropriate UCLD for short.” He tapped the back of the chair with one of his red leathered fingers. “You are in some serious shit here, boy,” he told him. “You have to understand that.”

Justin tried to swallow and found his mouth was very dry. “Collector,” he said slowly, “What is going to happen now?” He had mentally prepared himself for execution but that was going to happen. They wouldn’t have bothered with the bio-blocker if that were the case. They probably wouldn’t even have bothered imprisoning him.

“Well,” said Berman, “You have been caught stealing something rather valuable and you have connected it to your bionic matrix and all that despite knowing all ex-United States military bionic inventory rightfully belongs to the United Countries Law Division. Doing this kind of thing hurts my commander’s feelings and there is not very much that I can do for you.”

Even if he could Justin knew he would not and anyway those reasons were just a pretext. None of his friends had stolen anything and they were just as caught. “Did Philip tell you that was the reason he hunted me all across the United States?” he asked.

Officer Berman ignored that. “Your records indicate that you are just seventeen years of age, born and raised in California and educated from the age of ten for the former United States military centered in the Citadel Military Academy of South Carolina, a prestigious youth subdivision of the famous college founded in eighteen forty-two, and there stood out in the records as an engineering prodigy. You were accepted into some rather prestigious classes despite the—” Justin sensed his sneer somehow “—Fifty-Fifty Law. That is an impressive resume.”

“Not really,” Justin replied. “Most of my classmates were douchebags.” Berman laughed at that but it wasn’t a joke, brag or lie. The Fifty-Fifty Law was supposedly a “liberal” president’s idea to ensure minorities were given a chance. In doing so they required any job to hire half their workforce out of minorities but it was noted by many that it excluded executive level jobs and any occupation that stemmed from major politically connected corporations which in such a case went right down to the most basic entry level position. In the end, that the law only affected small businesses and favored corporations’ competitors. Its effect did not reach up to oligarch level private schools either but it did effect various prestigious military academies which was how touched on Justin’s school life.

Minorities were to be accepted in the exact same manner as jobs but due to a lower population there genuinely weren’t always enough candidates who would have earned a place without that law or even desired to join. The minority who deserved his place, as was the case of Justin’s friend Shawn Wallace, could never shake the general opinion that they took a worthier candidate’s position simply because they belonged to a minority group nor could they ever shake the barely concealed contempt most white cadets had for them.

With half the school belonging to minorities who often didn’t score half as high as Shawn and the other half auto entered members from rich military families who all tended to be incredible snobs with grades suspiciously higher than they should have been Justin never took much pride in being the head or close to the head of his class and had started out feeling very alone as one of the only “normal” children in his school.

He recalled Shawn’s father was a well-educated political man, a lawyer by profession, and in the only conversation Justin had with him that touched on the Fifty-Fifty-Law he said that he believed the law was an oligarch tactic to turn the white population away from the oligarchs and against the minorities and it had worked in the short run such as by causing a rise in hate groups such as the once long dead Ku Klux Klan, various Neo-Nazi organizations and the Old True Americans but it had failed very badly in the long run when it became one of the most useful and potent recruitment tools of the Faction who were their most virulent enemy.

Evidently, Collector Harry Berman was part of that late recruitment era.

“You know, I like you, Justin,” said Berman, “But there really is nothing I can do for you.” As a wonder, he actually sounded like he meant it. “I’m sorry but you’re going to a reclamation facility where it is hoped that we will one day redeem you.”

Justin felt a shiver run up his spine. He had seen a reclamation facility in California with his own eyes not too long ago and many more in pictures and videos over the years, of the outside anyway, and he had no desire to go anywhere near one let alone inside. They were always a simple series of white buildings built like square blocks with a tower in the center that had a mysterious red light that flashed on and off above the world.

What happened inside such a series of buildings was a sinister mystery. Justin heard rumors of every sort: experiments, murders, rapes, mutilations and not just of adults but small children as well. They were ludicrously crazy tales and he didn’t believe them entirely but he had never met anyone who had ever left a facility to put those frightening rumors completely to rest. No one he knew had either and he found that was the fact that gave his imagination the most chilling vibe of all.

People who entered those facilities simply never came out again. Oh the news showed videos of happy people leaving the facilities over and over again but everywhere he looked there were empty houses with full mailboxes and unread papers by the garages that all created their own kind of chilling, quiet news.

I’m going to die, he thought. I’m really going to die and it isn’t going to be as quick as a firing squad.

Berman seemed pleased by his expression, stood up, and moved the chair and himself back into the shadows. “Watch this video, Justin, and do try to understand.”

“Video?” The white door opened, blinding him again, and when it closed behind Collector Harry Berman the lights all turned off leaving Justin in complete darkness. “I don’t suppose this will be something Oscar worthy?” he asked but, of course, that didn’t say much because the Oscars no longer existed and most of the iconic films destroyed. The conservative-backed Human Decency Law passed when Justin was very young and it banned any film, video game, music video or comic that had any allusion to sex, violence, bad language, or inappropriate behavior in general, furthering the already incredible censoring system that had already existed. The conservatives cheered in the streets at their great victory but it killed virtually all of America’s entertainment industry in all categories practically overnight as any attempt to follow the law and make products under those restrictions earned an audience of less than one percent of what could have been earned without them.

Afterward, violence actually increased exponentially and everywhere in all ages in all forms but the conservatives simply blamed the next liberal president for being “too soft” on crime and being a secret atheist and their voters bought into it and voted in a conservative president the next term who did nothing to reverse the trend.

A giant holographic video monitor was projected directly ahead filling up the entire wall ahead of him. It looked so perfectly real that its holographic nature was indiscernible to the human eye save for that fact that it was connected to the nothing and floated in the air. It was blank at first, just a very dark gray, before it suddenly hit him with an incredibly bright badge of the Faction: a red circle with a yellow flame in the center set over a black background. It was there for only a moment before it was replaced by a darkness that lasted for a solid minute before words were spoken.

“The Oligarchs are done and now we are in control,” a voice stated.

The blackness faded to reveal a very familiar and handsome man dressed in a black suit with a bright red tie, with his hair combed straight backward, and blue eyes almost on fire with the strange intensity that emanated from them even as he smiled in a way that could completely disarm a viewer.

“My fellow Americans,” said the man pleasantly. “My name is Ian Owen Williamson and I’m here to talk to you about America and how it has been saved by the United Countries’ Law Division, a joint system of governmental control founded by ourselves, France, England, China and Russian from the oligarchs who have been the enemy of all humanity and tool of worship that had been their golden ticket.”

Williamson’s face became sad but that intensity was more powerful than ever.

“The oligarchs dominated the government with money and they dominated us with God. Those believers, those loyal ghost chasers, supported them over their own interests and fellow human beings to the end. They were the enemy’s key supporters in destroying our universal healthcare, our minimum wage, all or restrictions on corporations and child labor laws. One supposes, like a child themselves, they go about imagining some fairy tale of their chosen leaders leading to some kind of Eden.

“Over the history of time we have seen the horrors of unchecked religion in its support of most monstrous of people and regimes and it has occurred yet again during our lifetime. It has been the goal of the UCLD to drop the outdated and unrealistic views of religion, gender, race, wealth and prosperity left behind from cruel religious inaccuracies and pull forth the hooks of the past that have held us down since the age of spears and stone.”

His eyes were almost insane by that point, so intense that it was hard to look away. Such was no surprise from the man who ran the American Branch of the United Countries’ Law Division which had once been the United States branch.

Such was no surprise from the man who had brought down the United States of America.

Ian Owen Williamson was many things but he wasn’t a liar or at least not completely. Justin was no secret Faction supporter but he understood its complaints. Minimum wage was gone, healthcare was gone or astronomically so expensive it might as well be, children as young as eight had to take jobs to support families, the payoff so low that in many families required a half-dozen incomes could barely afford a small apartment in a safe area. Violence was everywhere, fanatics took to the street to destroy the “heretic” just one of many forms of it, debt from generations past was rampant, corruption was astronomical high among the police, politics, and law in general, and unemployment and welfare had been abolished when over thirty percent of the population was out of work.

And many wealthy people had an incredibly insulting attitude to it all. They said “life’s not fair” and “poor, poor baby, get a degree,” and other such things while laughing and one girl born extremely rich actually wore a “stop being poor” at a kind of concert she was at as if it was so easy even a moron as stupid as she could do it if but they only tried. They would look a man who worked a hundred hours a week doing three jobs, look him straight in the eyes, and call him lazy because he was poor. The idea that they “worked harder” was not only laughable but impossible because, obviously, nobody could work a billion times harder than somebody else but there it was. In the end, they had lived with their delusion so long that they actually believed it was true and even acted on it.

And they paid for it, thought Justin.

He found himself thinking of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm, both banned for being too violent along with Catcher in the Rye which was banned for sexuality, and then he thought about Hitler and Stalin’s rise into power and understood they had something in common with modern America.

The conservatives and liberals, or what people called conservatives and liberals but generally resembled neither on close inspection, gave the Faction what they needed to rise: an enemy to act as the hero against and a society that needed to be saved. Even at that later point, Ian Owen Williamson was still acting the hero as all dictators did.

It seemed that since the worldwide coup, which they called the Global Overthrow, did not work out something in the Faction was desperately going to have to change but, since it almost certainly wasn’t going to, something very bad was going to happen in its place and probably sooner rather than later. They may not even have noticed what change was necessary, and might not even at the very end and almost certainly because they probably could never conceive of it. Beyond their tactics of control and hate-manipulation the only truly necessary change at that point onward was a stepping down and a return the old world but such a thing they would never do even if it promised the leaders real pardons.

They were people that, for whatever reason, would rather burn down the world than relinquish their power over it.

“What choice did they really give us?” Ian Owen Williamson asked. “Be in debt forever, work forever, and have nothing ever to show for it? Were they really surprised when we left the hovels they put us in with our guns and rage to put them in their proper place? Law is about putting the bad people in their place. Law is about taking what is rightfully ours and putting back in our possession.

“Law is justice and the very word that screams out to the universe that we will never go back to being their slave again!”


***


Laura Adler never liked that man, not even as a child and she found his eyes disturbing.

She was soaked from sweat and as the bio-blocker’s pain numbed in her neck all she could do was listen to that stupid propaganda piece and wonder the great question of why she even there.

She had been dishonorably discharged with complete legitimacy but after their not quite so perfectly successful coup they suddenly wanted her back. They yanked her from an after racing party in the Colorado Hover Racing Circuit and without a word locked her in that room for half a day or more, inserted the bio-blocker, and then threw on that horrible video.

They had not said a word to her yet but since they bothered to put a bio-blocker on her she knew that at the very least she wasn’t going to be executed.

She sighed, licked her dry lips and continued to watch the video.

“We have been forced to make unpleasant choices in dealing with our slave masters but it is in the good to know that these choices have brought us the return of justice.” The screen suddenly paused with Williamson’s face looking into the camera with a sly look on his face. She could see that handsome smile on the sculpted beautiful face of the charming, charismatic blond man that led the UCLD over the last decade into the coup that killed one sitting president, at least three former presidents, and an unknown amount of men, women and children that were part of the group of wealthy politically connected individuals called “oligarchs” in a rather ugly, public way.

“Why did you turn on us?” asked a woman’s slightly mechanical voice in the darkness.

Laura said nothing. She could see the woman’s shape in the corner, a woman whose bio-armor was being illuminated just slightly by the light of the holographic monitor.

She had just been staring at her quietly without a word until that moment.

The woman walked up to Laura through the holographic screen and grabbed her face with one gauntlet and shoved her own armored face close enough for her silhouette to block out the screen. “Say something, you bitch!” the woman hissed and Laura clenched her handcuffed hands behind the chair. “Say something!”

Laura took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think it matters what I say,” she told her. “If you don’t know the ‘why’ now you never will Collector.” That was the word used to describe the people who collected and interrogated potential traitors. It was a Faction military title just like colonel or major.

“Collector Wilma Kern,” the woman told her, and then she made a cut off motion with her left hand and someone watching in another room turned the screen off and the dull horizontal gray light went back on. “You, Adler, are a traitor.” Kern shook her head but her body motion indicated more confusion than contempt or disgust. “You were one of the new women of our age, a warrior woman with the training skills to be one of our greatest pilots ever.” She leaned over as if to examine Laura’s face. “You disgraced yourself,” she said like it was something incredibly insane. “You disobeyed a direct order.”

“I’m not sure you understand what happened,” Laura replied.

“Yeah, what do I know? You’re seventeen, barely more than a girl. I’m twenty-seven. I remember my father and mother both working eighty hours a week apiece unable to pay off student loan debt from their grandparents with what was left barely covering the shitty little apartment we lived in! It was so bad I had to drop out of school and work just to pay for our utilities and food when I was just ten years old! Christmas wasn’t fun in my house, bitch! That money my great-grandparents died owing just got bigger and bigger and even though they made every payment with enough to cover it three times over by the time they themselves died if it wasn’t for the UCLD I would have owed nearly a million dollars each even if the old government would have reduced the accumulated interest which they never would have! We were corporate money farms to serve capitalist lowlife oligarchs! What the hell do you know about anything, Adler?”

Laura knew her mother had owed over five hundred thousand dollar debt from her own mother and three hundred thousand from her father both quintupled or more in total since the loan was taken originally a generation ago. Both had needed degrees or they would have ended up homeless, working over a hundred hours each and probably never have been able to have a normal family.

One of the major reasons she sent Laura to join the Faction was to rid herself and her daughter of that debt.

The oligarchs who collected that debt paid a very steep bloody price for it which Laura felt very sure could’ve all been avoided if it wasn’t for the last presidential election. Senator Albert Bernstein, the last true people’s candidate to get into office, had gotten a hair’s width of becoming the first true president of the people in ages, the first candidate not connected to the corporations or oligarchs, who had a very real commitment to fixing the income inequality, bringing back the universal healthcare, reinstating the minimum wage and countless other needed things with a full enthusiastic staff he could pull from anywhere because with funds from actual citizens and not billionaires he didn’t owe the oligarchs anything and, in addition to all that, the entire country was behind him.

Bernstein was the most popular candidate in generations and in the world at the time.

But Roger Tosh stole the nomination. He was the oligarchs’ supported party member and they evidently commanded the liberal national committee for his party to give him the nomination regardless of his lack of popular support. The conservative party was out of popularity so he got elected afterward but everyone saw him as just another oligarch lackey under a “liberal” flag that destroyed that bright moment where everything seemed about to change for the better. Laura never forgot that moment and how several hard men and women had openly broken down in tears right in front of her when it was announced who the candidate was.

It was Roger Tosh who created the Fifty-Fifty Law and then unwittingly pushed the United States into the power of UCLD.

And so the oligarch’s arrogance and greed cost them a whole lot more than just money. Tosh too, come to think of it. Laura would have felt pity for them if they weren’t taking everyone else down with them. It got so ugly that in the end she had been genuinely relieved to be discharged, dishonorably or otherwise, having naively believing she would be unburdened of being on one side or the other and able to continue on with her life.

“I do understand,” Laura told her honestly.

“Do you really?”

“Yes. My mother was in debt like you.”

The woman’s helmet’s face was unreadable but something about her body language made Laura think her face would be as equally unreadable if she could see it. “It has been decided that you are going to a Reclamation Facility.” Laura looked into that emotionless armored face with wide worried eyes. “If I had it my way, Adler, I would have you shot but the powers have other plans for their investment in you.”

Laura felt her heart sinking. I am dead, she thought. I am a loose end that they’re going to pluck out but they are not going to make it easy.

“Not so confident now, are we?” Kern asked.

“When the hell was I ever confident,” Laura replied. “I was never confident about any of this.”

“One point in your favor.” The door opened behind Kern and she turned head around to look at the armored soldiers standing like black silhouettes in front of a wall of white and said, “Take this tramp to the plane and get her out of my sight.”


3


The first plane landed at the United Countries Law Division Washington DC Airport one hour later at around twilight just when the sun was nearly gone with the clouds turned various shades of orange above a sky that was still a vibrant blue. Justin had been pleasantly surprised to find himself riding on an American Transglobal Airlines prototype plane known as a Stardust. It had been perfected years before but since less than twenty had ever been made due to its enormous cost he had never actually expected to ride in one.

It was sleek and beautiful in the ATA style with its wings pointed straight backward like an old-fashioned jet with a narrow triangular front. It was not, however, the ATA silver and forest green externally nor did it have the incredibly opulent internal living space that was expected in such an opulent vehicle. It was Faction black with red tinted windows, the Faction flame on both wings and on both sides near the end, and the interior was just two rows of black seats no different than any normal plane except with automatically extending straps that easily tied Justin down.

After a very short and incredibly smooth ride, the ship stopped moving forward, hovered in midair for a moment, then lowered itself straight down to a landing strip. As it neared the bottom eight legs extended out of the sides to balance it perfectly on the ground followed by a ramp that lowered down from the front so smoothly that its tip landed onto the ground with just a barely audible tap or so the video of it would have had Justin believe.

Justin was then taken out with his hands handcuffed in front of him, both still covered in force fields, with fifteen other prisoners behind him in cuffs without the force fields. Nine of them were men, six of them women, with only three soldiers, two male and one female, armed with their bio-armor and heavy black laser rifles.

Three additionally fully armored soldiers awaited them on the runway with an officer clearly center with his armor and plate colors reversed in an indication of some intellectual training such as engineering, medical or something specialized. His black plated normal companions, a man and a woman, stood beside him on either side, all armed with the same big black laser rifles their companions on the Stardust had.

They always have at least one woman among them, Justin thought to himself.

He looked up at the airplane as he walked down the smooth ramp, the one several aviation magazines stated was the single greatest plane ever built for the private market, and felt a pang of sadness at the thought of never flying in one again. He wasn’t a big plane fan but he loved the ATA models and had a dozen toy models of them as a boy.

When Justin stood in line with the others he saw a black and red prison bus he expected and then a prison car that he very much did not. The first looked like just any typical prison bus, it actually was just an old United States prison bus but painted black and red to match the new regime with maybe some security alterations here and there, but the other one looked like a limousine with a sleek, rather expensive looking design and three doors on either side before the driver’s. Both of them were hover vehicles floating above the ground ready to move in any direction smoothly over any surface save water.

“Men over there,” said the red plated soldier as he pointed to their right, his amplified voice echoing all around them. “Women over there,” he said and pointed to their left. Then lowered his arm, looked straight at Justin and added, “Bokov, over here.”

Justin stepped out of the group that was placidly moving to either side making a straight line to face the speaker and immediately the male soldier behind the speaker grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the car. Behind him, he heard another plane land, took a quick look as yet another Stardust lowered itself down with bright red hover jets on the bottom, and felt the guard yank his arm up painfully enough to almost sprain something. “Do not get distracted, Bokov.”

“My name is—”

“Shut up.”

“Okay then.”

From behind, he heard the officer in red say, “Welcome to Washington DC. We hope your stay in Reclamation Fifty-Nine is a brief and productive one.”

The first door behind the driver’s door opened automatically for Justin and he was shoved inside by the guard into a hard groove between two comfortable seats and straps identically to the ones on the plane came out from behind and wrapped over his arms, legs, neck, chest and shoulders. He heard the distinct sound of clicks and clacks as they locked.

The guard sat on his left and Justin thought he knew what it was he was in. A celebrity prison vehicle, he thought. This is the kind of prison bus one takes a CEO or a movie star or even the president himself. President Tosh probably had been in one before they took him to the front of the White House and ceremoniously blew the brains out of the side of his head with an eighteenth-century flintlock pistol.

Justin stared at the black plate in front of him, completely unable to see anything into the next section, and tried to look around but couldn’t see farther than the windows which had turned opaque Faction red.

For some reason, they weren’t moving. “What are we wait—”

“Shut up,” said the soldier again.

“Okay then,” said Justin again. Prick, he added in thought.


***


Laura Adler stepped out of her ship with nineteen prisoners, nine of which men and ten were women, and moved with the females automatically to the lines of men and women that were waiting.

At least I came in a Stardust, she thought and wished she could have flown one at least once in her life.

“Adler,” said the organizer, the title of the officer speaking to the crowd, and who must have irritated a superior really badly to end up with such a worthless job. “Come here.”

As she obeyed the female guard that had been standing beside him immediately took her arm and gently led her not toward the prison bus which she expected but to a ridiculous prison limousine. The third door, the second if not including the driver’s, opened for her and she slipped into the middle where the straps come over there she stared blankly at the opaque plate ahead as the car started to move.

So expensive, Laura thought. Each row of seats had a retracted soundproofed plate between them indicating a genuine prison vehicle which was odd considering it was built like an authentic Lamborghini before Calvin Motors Incorporated turned them into unimpressive, streamlined mediocre vehicles no one wanted. She flew in on a Stardust and was being taken to prison in a sort of equivalent Lamborghini car but she was in the end just another prisoner. God, Laura thought. Add this kind of idiot spending into that military industrial complex shit and it’d be a wonder if any of these assholes have money left for toilet paper.

“Cute outfit,” said the soldier.

Laura squirmed a bit in her sweat covered clothes. She was wearing a light green sleeveless, shoulder-less shirt that reached down just over her short black skirt where her nylon covered legs reached down to tall, high heeled black boots that rose up to knees. She had a yellow armband on her left wrist and a blue on her right, a strange balancing habit that someone claiming some degree of psychological understanding once told her was a sign she was struggling with over perfection.

“Thanks,” Laura told her without believing for a single instant she cared whether Laura’s outfit was “cute” or not.

The soldier looked at her for a long, careful moment, and then removed her helmet. It split apart at a molecular level, slipped quickly and painlessly into her skin leaving no trace whatsoever of existence, and revealed an attractive, dark-eyed girl with her dark hair pulled back and tied behind her head in what they called a soldier’s knot. A quick glance down told Laura that she had most of her accessories which meant she had been given that armor before the coup and may have even been a cadet in her youth just like Laura had been but was a year or two younger. “What did you do?” the girl whispered.

Laura shrugged and said, “I’m certain you will find out soon enough.”

“Tell me the truth,” the girl said. “I need—I need to know! Did you actually do something or did they just—just get mad at you?”

Morale is still soaring, I see, Laura thought sarcastically and then said quietly, “Girl, if it is not my general file you aren’t supposed to know and you will not get any information out of me.” It was easy to get access to someone’s general file as the people who ran that section tended to be young men and they would give a girl anything if she flirted with them just a bit and it was understood that its classification level was nothing more than lip service.

Laura played the defiant prisoner but would have under normal circumstances probably have told her anything. As it was, she was in the system again and was playing her cards close for everyone’s, including the girl’s, safety. She mouthed the word “bugged” to the girl who nodded uncomfortably. Suddenly, the girl tensed as the window on their right cleared and the red light of the reclamation facility light could be seen easily in the dusky sky.

Laura leaned over to the window, blowing her sweaty blond hair out from over her eyes, and looked up at it. “That was quick,” she said. As she was not being airlifted in they went down the roads which meant it was either an extremely short journey or all the roads had no cars the latter of which was her general assumption.

It probably meant the capital of the former United States was under martial law.

They had parked right at the entrance under the red light that got her attention, one of the many red lights that particular facility had, and she watched through the glass a very attractive black-haired young man her age with a dark brown leather jacket and jeans being escorted toward the main door which had a large sign stating it was “Reclamation Facility 59” right above “Washington, DC” in bold black letters.

She and the boy noticed bold red neon letters above the door in its frame that read, “Do Your Share and Be Rewarded.” The boy was looking up at it, his face almost revealed, before the prison car started to move away. It was heading along the side of the building and then inexplicable around the back.

Laura did not know why and apparently either did the girl soldier who both looked surprised and worried.


***


Justin knew what the deserted streets meant without being told.

Washington DC was under martial law.

He resisted the urge to say “arbeit macht frei” as he went under the sign into the facility and was pushed down a series of halls that very much resembled a close quarter’s maze. The place reminded Justin of a white office building with rented out rooms but somehow much colder and unfeeling. He was no architect but he had an unmistakable feeling that all the rooms would be as small, efficient and cheap as the car and planes were not which made absolutely no sense. He was led by the soldier’s memory through a series of labyrinthine turns down those skinny white halls until he reached a room labeled “Workforce Doctor” which was so out of the way he felt certain it was not the kind of place normal prisoners were sent too.

The room was some kind of white colored operation room. The left wall was plain and empty, the wall ahead of him had another door and a row of crimson lockers and the right wall was just glass with endless darkness beyond. The wall with the door behind him was full of shelves containing surgical equipment, some of which looked very old but still useable, and in the center of the room was a metal operation table with various black robotic limbs with scary tool-like appendages that he didn’t understand half-folded up like a dead spider in an eerie been-used-regularly kind of way.

Justin moved up to the table, eyes wide, and stared down at a little table beside it covered in knives, saws and picks. He was no doctor, not even a medic, but he was reasonably sure those tools were not used much in modern medicine. He raised his eyes slowly up toward the doctor in growing horror.

The blond, spiky-haired doctor was wearing a black dress shirt with a dark red tie and a white doctor’s lab coat with its Faction red sleeves and was in the process of walking over to a shelf. He reached into a black box, found a metal bio-blocker cover, and then walked toward him. The bio-blocker cover was a simple form-fitting metal collar that had a glass-steel back that showed the bio-blocker to any who looked.

Its sole purpose was a precaution against the possibility that Justin had what it took to rip his bio-blocker off of which he was rather certain he did not or, the more likely possibility, he would find some kind of tool to cut it out which was also a long shot since he was obviously going to be heavily monitored wherever he ended up.

The doctor snapped the collar around his neck and Justin heard the clack sound at the front just before it squeezed to skin-tight quality with a sense of disturbing finality. “Why the collar?” asked Justin. “It’s not like I can—”

“Shut up,” said the doctor. “I’m not the kind of doctor who helps people.”

“Okay,” Justin replied and as he pondered what kind of doctor of medicine that was he looked into his reflection in the glass-steel wall. He was pale, rather handsome some people told him, with a sculpted face, straight black hair hanging down in straight thick locks just past his ocean blue eyes. There were heavy bags beneath them because he had not slept well for weeks and there were vicious bruises that had not healed on his face and no doubt all over his body as well, from when he had been beaten into submission during his capture.

He saw the reflection of the doctor taking out a hand scanner and moving it over Justin. He could see that he was moving very fast and without much care, the line practically flying over him. “In a hurry, doc—”

“Shut your goddamn mouth!” The doctor placed his scanner on the table, took out the solid part of a holographic clipboard which was a slender remote-lie device shaped like an upside L and pressed the button to make the slightly transparent yet fully solid holograph of a neon red writing pad appear. He started to write away on it quickly with a holograph writable pen with whatever information the Faction thought relevant that was probably simultaneously being loaded into a database.

What is the point of this? Justin wondered as he stared into the darkness. What possible good—

And then something stumbled out from the darkness. It was a man wearing a dark gray jumpsuit with a white tag on his left breast and was almost sprinting as he stumbled forward with his arms outspread wide. Justin saw clearly the man’s face and hands were covered in boils the size of golf balls and he cried out in horror when he saw him trip, fall, and hit the side of the window so hard the balls on his face exploded into a spray of pus and blood across the window. Before Justin could so much as breathe a pair of black plated red bio-armored hands appeared out of the darkness, grabbed the man by his shoulders and yanked him back in.

“What the fuck was that?” cried Justin.

“We’re done here,” said the doctor. “Clean this piece of shit up and throw him in his cell.” He grabbed another bio-blocker collar and his scanner with his free hand and left out of the door Justin had just come in. Justin guessed the other door led into that darkness which he was immeasurably relieved to not be going into.

Justin’s guard took him in a different direction than the doctor.


***


The prison car stopped in a garbage enclosure complete with two large red dumpsters on one side.

The girl soldier with Laura was both confused and worried. When she looked up at Laura she saw her wiggling her head around and the girl understood and reformed her helmet.

When the straps unwrapped themselves and the door opened Laura was shocked to see a female elite soldier standing there. An elite soldier was a member of UCLD Special Forces and could easily be spotted by the inner and outer layers of their armor being both colored black but also with their absurd amount of accessories. Their loyalty was said to be without question and everyone feared them because they had a license to kill and torture with impunity. They were usually sadists too.

Laura stepped out and the soldier was about to follow when she heard the elite say, “Get back in the car and leave.” The soldier obeyed quickly and sheepishly. “Adler, you come with me.”

The car left with more speed than it came down with and was out of sight before Laura had finished stepping through the back door. The elite made a point of directing her from behind which Laura expected and fell into line with instantly.

Ahead of Laura were a series of hallways too small to be public with many branches left and right seemingly the length of a large complex. She found herself suddenly wondering about just what had to be torn down in a nation’s capital to make room for the reclamation facility when a goofy looking spiky haired doctor with a hand scanner suddenly appeared in front of her.


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