Back on the 87th floor of Company headquarters, Lieutenant Commander Nic Horshmire sat in an airless, claustrophobic grey office and waited for the fat bureaucrat. The office contained nothing but a large mahogany desk, which took up most of the room, and two chairs. Nic stared across the desk, bare but for an empty ashtray in its centre, and clasped his filthy hands together to prevent them from trembling.
Mission accomplished, he reassured himself. Usual procedure. He fidgeted and scratched his head. His soiled Private’s uniform weighed on him, and his eyes felt heavy. He postured himself in preparation and contemplated his story.
Alphanian super-humans? The Grand Visigoth’s betrayal? He shook his head and wondered what the fat bureaucrat would make of it all. He tried to process the events of the last two days, but he found his usual steadfastness had left him. His thoughts were scattered like a freshly tipped puzzle, and the pieces lay strewn across his mind. They embodied everything he’d just seen, and what he thought he’d always known.
How could that energy shield have been operating for nearly a century? He asked himself.
The Company’s education system taught that almost a century ago, after the atom-blasts had all but annihilated life on Earth, General Novak used the limited infrastructure at his disposal to gather the last survivors of the human race. Together, they built the great free city of Hallogen.
The propaganda machine was relentless, and stories of Privates wresting life from the dirt were hardwired into every citizen. Obedience was instilled through the intensity of the conditioning matrix. Rote memorization drilled the Company’s founding ideals of loyalty, deference, and discipline into the heads of the youngest children. The horrors of the truth chamber awaited the most minor infraction, and to question one’s orders was a cardinal sin. The daily video blitz, six hours a day until 13 years old, compounded the fact. The flashing images of poverty, famine, hardship, violence, and war from the world before were interposed with the beaming smiles of pick-swinging Privates serving their General, who inspired them to greatness. As the children matured, their loyalty was unquestionable. They were honoured to join the ranks at the turn of their thirteenth birthday. They scavenged, they mined, and they toiled until humanity could flourish again.
Their whole belief system was based on uniting to face the struggles of a civilization without advanced technology. Nic knew that to suggest the opposite would be as good as signing his own death warrant. It was heresy of the highest order.
The arrival of the Grand Visigoth and his intergalactic search four years ago changed everything. In no time at all, they had integrated significant technological gifts into their daily lives, and they vastly improved food production and healthcare. Company headquarters and the tunnel followed. Since the Grand Visigoth’s arrival, and his majestic display at the podium, the bonds of unity had never felt stronger.
A stream of questions flowed forth. But what of the storms? Was Odessa’s stark warning true? Was the General leading us into oblivion? He rested his elbows on the table and held his head.
A final question nagged him. Why would she let herself be caught? She must know I will tell them... …I have to tell them!
A swarm of Troopers had dropped from their ships like locusts and surrounded them. Immediately, two Troopers hustled past Nic and straightened the unconscious Odessa on the ground. They encircled her with a thin metal strip, and at the flick of a switch, they entombed her in an ovoid case of pure energy. It emanated iridescent blue light as it enshrouded her and hovered in front of them. Before the blessed arrival of the Grand Visigoth, he might have cried witchcraft at such a display. Yet after bearing witness to so many unimaginable feats over the past two days, the appearance of more was almost banal.
‘What’s that?’ Nic asked, exhausted.
‘Stasis chamber.’ The Trooper said without looking.
‘Where are you taking her?’ Nic asked.
‘Mind your place, Private,’ the Trooper replied sternly, ‘the fire-eyed beast is on ice.’ He chuckled and moved away alongside Odessa’s floating tomb.
Presently, another Trooper grabbed Nic’s arm and led him away, muttering orders for debriefing. As they walked towards a rectangular silver transport ship, Nic looked over his shoulder and watched. Odessa was loaded into a similar ship’s backside and blasted off towards Company Headquarters.
Nic bolted up as the door swung open behind him. The fat bureaucrat shuffled through flanked by two Troopers.
‘Greetings Lieutenant,’ he wheezed, as he waddled around the table.
‘Greetings, Sir,’ he croaked.
The fat bureaucrat’s chair creaked as he leant back and wiped the sweat from his brow. Then, very deliberately, he stuffed his brown patterned handkerchief into the right breast pocket of his perfectly starched jet-black shirt.
‘It’s been a rather strange day,’ he said, as he opened a stuffed manila folder onto the desk.
Meanwhile, the two Troopers imposed themselves either side of Nic.
Unusual procedure, he thought, and the room felt even smaller.
Nic spent the next several hours debriefing the fat bureaucrat, who watched him intently, but whose expression never wavered from benign indifference. Nic tried to mirror his disposition, lest he be found uncharacteristically emotional, but it wasn’t easy. His body felt heavy, and his head was thumping.
The fat bureaucrat chain-smoked cigars, so an unfamiliar cloud lingered in the room. The acrid smell made Nic nauseous, and the ashtray overflowed into an untidy mess on the table. The fat bureaucrat nodded and hmm-hmmed while Nic relayed the events in the Section 98392 mess hall and the tunnel with Bagon. The rolls in his neck were almost hypnotic, as they wobbled with each nod of his head.
Nic thought he noticed a furrowing brow when he mentioned some of Odessa’s more extraordinary physical abilities, and perhaps the fat bureaucrat made his notes slightly more furiously during the tales of the flight and his visions, but he couldn’t be sure. Regardless, Nic remained stoic throughout, even as he reached Odessa’s tale of the Grand Visigoth's betrayal and imminent doom.
‘Preposterous!’ The fat bureaucrat bellowed, as he lost his composure and rocked back on his chair. It groaned in despair at the load it was forced to bear. ‘The General would never lead us so astray,’ he hissed, as he stubbed out his cigar with utter disdain.
‘My thoughts exactly, Sir.’ Nic nodded and tried hard to maintain his veneer of indifference.
‘Though, we are aware of Section 98392,’ the fat bureaucrat said solemnly. ‘The whole lot have been fried, unfortunately.’
‘A terrible loss of manpower,’ Nic sympathized. ‘Including the Private who escaped the tunnel? Bagon was his name.’
‘The whole lot,’ he stressed, ‘but we can’t have this kind of strife among the Privates, Lieutenant.’ He shook his head and banged a fist on the table. ‘No, no, no, we really must meet our targets. The search can’t wait forever!’
Nic was taken aback by the turn in conversation. The fat bureaucrat seemed unperturbed by his tale. Moreover, Odessa’s super-human feats had just glided off the surface.
‘Hopefully, we can get back on schedule now that troublemaker has been contained.’ He said.
‘Are you sure she’s contained?’ Nic asked, ‘in that thing?’
The fat bureaucrat stared at him for a few seconds before answering, and his round pink face reddened under the artificial light. For the first time, Nic noticed his bulbous eyes. His irises were consumed with small white tadpoles swimming in a pond the darkest shade of brown, and they were glazed like mirrors. Nic almost glimpsed his own reflection.
He diverted his gaze. Too curious, he thought.
‘That’s not for you to worry about any more.’ The fat bureaucrat said seriously. He shuffled the papers in front of him and asked the question Nic had most feared.
‘Now, Lieutenant,’ the fat bureaucrat cleared his throat. ‘I’m a little unclear about the manner in which you apprehended such an extraordinary villain?’
Nic briefly paused. ‘She allowed herself to be caught,’ he said, maintaining his composure. ‘She took the cattle prod in my hand and shocked herself in the neck.’ He stared at the fat bureaucrat for a moment, but no response came. ‘I can only presume that she wanted to get close to our beloved Gener—‘
‘Ridiculous!’ He cut him off and let out a great belly laugh. He rocked back in his chair. ‘Such folly! The General would crush the very will from her bones!’
He scribbled something in the manila folder and slapped it shut.
‘You’ve done a marvelous job Lieutenant,’ he said proudly, ‘you have been awarded the Company Cross for valour.’ He was grinning ear to ear now. ‘And you have been awarded a personal audience with the General this very evening.’
‘With the General!’ Nic spluttered.
‘And followed by a public medal ceremony,’ the fat bureaucrat chirped, and Nic beamed.
A momentary wave of pride swept over him. It was a rare honour to be granted an audience. And a public medal ceremony! Nic knew of none in his lifetime. As a young Private, he’d watch grainy videos that glorified the achievements of the Company’s original heroes, who were venerated by crowds of millions. Every child dreamed of the same fate. Their love and devotion to the company was etched in folklore.
He felt his mind contract, and talk of revolt and betrayal vanished. He was blinded by the image now rushing through his head. He saw himself standing on the podium, and he could hear the cheers of the crowd, as the General pinned the medal to his chest. Maybe, it would be another promotion, he hoped, and he envisioned an even bigger role for himself in the great galactic search to follow.
The fat bureaucrat got up from his seat and tottered around the table. ‘You’re an exemplary Officer, Lieutenant. It’s the first award in fifty years!’ He patted Nic on the back and handed the file to the Trooper standing just behind him. ‘We’ve never had such a rebellion as this, and you executed our plan perfectly.’
He moved back round the table, burdened his chair once more, and looked up, seriously, at the Troopers.
‘Take him to the Truth Chamber.’ He ordered.
‘What?’ Nic choked, ‘but you said I… I… ‘
‘Yes, yes, you will meet the General, Lieutenant,’ he laughed, ‘but first we need to have a little look in there.’ He nodded towards the top of Nic’s head. ‘A flying woman…’ he snorted, ‘a… what did you call her?’ He asked derisively, ‘…an Alphniom? Harumph! With telepathic powers and a shining exoskeleton. By the General, what a tale! The top brass will be rolling when I tell them,’ he chuckled.
‘It’s true, Sir!’ Nic’s voice was tremulous, and he leant forward and slapped the desk with both hands. ‘She’s an Alphanian, Sir,’ he pleaded, ‘I first heard the word on a dead Trooper’s radio,’ he agitated, ‘I swear it!’
The two Troopers encroached.
‘Yes, yes,’ the fat bureaucrat was incredulous now, ‘and you watched as she cut down 75 of our best men… singlehandedly! …in a cave!’
Nic became irate. He lunged across the desk, but the iron grip of the Trooper’s arm enclosed around his neck. The chair clattered to the ground, as he pulled Nic towards the door.
‘Now, Lieutenant, you’re only making this worse for yourself.’ The fat bureaucrat said sternly.
‘It’s the truth!’ Nic screamed.
The Trooper paused in the doorway.
‘Your truth…,’ the fat bureaucrat pronounced matter-of-factly, as he stood and calmly removed a fresh cigar from his trouser pocket, ‘…is un-acceptable.’ He lit his cigar and drew deeply. He exhaled in Nic’s direction and approached through the cloud. ‘We need to get to the real truth of this matter, Lieutenant, and if you’re unable to tell me,’ he paused and added malevolently, ‘…we have our ways.’
He looked at the Trooper.
‘Tell the Doctor we’d like this one back,’ he cracked a sinister smile, ‘so try not to make a mess in there.’ He shuffled closer until Nic could feel his breath on his face, tapped him gently on the head with his index finger, and with mock seriousness added, ‘we need to get to the bottom of this.’
The last thing Nic did, before the Trooper dragged him kicking and screaming from the room, was finally see his reflection in the fat bureaucrat’s marbled eyes, and never before had he seen himself look so wretched.