Escape From Prison Planet! Part 3

Escape From Prison Planet! Part 3

Previously

Publi entered the analysis room of the evidence wing where the Earthman’s belongings were being kept. The Tool sat in a case of sky crystal, suspended and isolated from everything else. Publi inspected it up close. A wondrous invention. To an Earthman’s eyes, the Tool resembled nothing so much as a big metal wrench. Albeit a wrench as dreamed up by a mad Barsumi weaponeer and fabricated by a deranged Mercurial, but a wrench all the same. This Tool, this miracle of Lunar science, was the badge of office of an Instruman and the mark of their authority. There were less than a thousand Instrumen in all the system, but with the power of their Tools they were enough to keep the peace between worlds.

He opened the case and lifted the tool off the suspension field. It was heavy, but not cumbersome. Somehow it seemed to fit just right in his grip. He’d heard many a tale of the Tools’ power. Most of them were flights of fancy to be sure, but some seemed just plausible enough to be true. Was it true, for instance, that Instruman Tools were indestructible? Or that they conveyed upon their wielders powers that defied biological theory? Could a Tool impart expanded mental ability? Cause mutations over time that made sleep, food, even air unnecessary? Could it rend the very fabric of the universe apart? Draw private space lanes between worlds for the wielder to traverse?

Rumors. Whispers of rumors. The things it was said the moth men of Luna could accomplish defied belief and here sat the product of their wondrous science. Waiting. It was an odd thought, but Publi felt like the Tool was calling out to him. Asking, no, begging to be used. But used how? For what? The answer came unbidden. To do the impossible, of course. To work wonders. Perhaps it could even pry the secrets he sought from the Earthman’s mind. He slowed his breathing. Composure.

“What are you doing?” an evidence analyst asked. Publi turned and the analyst straightened when he saw the Investigator’s sash. “Forgive me. I did not see.”

“I have need of this. It will be returned shortly,” Publi said. The analyst eyed the Tool covetously.

“Of course,” he said.

Publi stuffed the Tool in an evidence bag and returned to the room where the Earthman was currently being held. Four guards waited inside along with Gani.

“What news?” Publi asked.

“Still establishing a baseline. I’ve caught glimpses here and there of his true intentions, but he is resisting very fiercely,” she replied. Publi turned his attention to the Earthman who was mumbling something in his half awake state. He leaned in closer to listen.

“In 1835, the men of Earth first saw Moon men frolicking twixt Luna’s verdant falls. They thought it was a hoax, but the men of Luna descended from the heavens and the world was forever changed,” Emilio said, delirious.

“He’s been at it for some time,” Gani said.

“Don’t break him, Gani. He could prove useful after we’re done learning what he knows,” said Publi.

“Eyes ahead as always,” Gani said, grinning. She sat next to Emilio and began the process again.

* * *

The Overhangs were where the dispossessed ended up. When there was nowhere left to go, the unwanted citizens of Ziziva built structures and homes on the side of the cloud continents where no one else dared. Cloudquakes claimed many victims but, again, there was nowhere else. So the Overhangs remained. If the climate shifted, the cloud continents would eventually reconverge and everything in the Overhangs would be crushed between the continental shelves.

Emilio waited across the busy street from the outdoor café. Overhead, the transit link connecting the two halves of Ziziva waved precariously in the wind as dozens of link shuttles and rail buses passed each other within its tubes. Emilio checked his watch. Right on time, the (<>) appeared. He sat at the same table as yesterday, drinking something warm from a porcelain vessel and waited.

“Finally. When was this?” Gani asked.

“This was a week ago. If it hadn’t been for that damn militia I would have had him,” Emilio replied.

“That Earthman there was your terribly mysterious quarry? He looks very ordinary to me,” Gani said.

“That’s the point.”

The (<>) rose when two Oranosians appeared. He shook their hands in turn.

“No more games, Emilio. Who is that man?” Gani asked.

“Just remember I gave you plenty of warning,” Emilio replied.

“Now.”

“This is going to suck,” Emilio sighed.

He rose from his table and walked across the street. His adrenaline surged. This was it. Months of searching and stalking the streets of Ziziva had led to this moment. He passed the merchants heading to market, the sellers looking for buyers, the dregs of the underclass looking for food. He climbed the steps of the café toward the three of them. He unhooked his Tool.

“Ignis Fletcher!” Emilio called.

The two Oranosians looked up in surprise. Gani recognized them. The Warden of Ziziva Prison Two and Breli, the Chief Intelligence agent of Ziziva. The Earthman siting across from them put his drink down and turned in his seat. He was blond, with jade eyes and a week of stubble. He looked very unimpressed. Gani felt a dark pit in her second stomach. This Earthman was not right. He was… more of an impression of an Earthman. A cellophane cover on a big black hole. There was a darkness there, in his eyes. No, not darkness. Hunger.

“Who might you be?” Ignis asked.

“Emilio of the Instrumen. Get on the floor. You’re under arrest for the crime of body snatching.”

* * *

Gani fell out her seat, screaming. Emilio woke a second later.

“What? What is it?” Publi asked.

“A body snatcher! Here on Oranosia!” Gani said, her eyes wide with shock. The phrase spooked the guards. She might as well have invoked the devil himself. Worse.

“What did you say?” Publi asked.

“Body snatcher. Body Snatcher!” Gani screamed.

“Leave us,” Publi said to the guards. They did so, nervously.

“No no, this can’t be happening. It can’t be! We would have known. We would have heard something!” Gani cried.

“Calm yourself! Where did you see this?” Publi asked.

“In Ziziva. The Overhangs. It was an Earthman.”

Publi leaned in close. “Can you be sure of what you saw?” he asked in a whisper.

“I felt it before I knew. I felt him. I am absolutely sure of what I saw,” Gani replied.

“Where is it now?” Publi asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“You need to find out where it is.”

“No, I can’t. I won’t. Don’t make me go back in there,” Gani pleaded.

“Compose yourself! You’re an Interrogator! A mere phantom of a memory will do you no harm. You’re Ganash of Ziziva!” Publi hissed, squeezing his other half’s shoulders. Gani was surprised by the sudden outburst, but she was calmer now. “It is our duty to find this body snatcher before he… it harms anyone else.”

“I… okay.”

Gani returned to her seat and placed her hands on Emilio’s head. Once she had gone under again, Publi locked the door to the room. He retrieved the Tool from the evidence bag and pointed it at Emilio’s head. The veil of the world was so thin, so easy to pull back with this in his grasp. He could see the memories dancing around in there. Publi concentrated. The Tool resisted, then it began to glow, submitting to his will. The body snatcher’s location would be extracted at any cost.

* * *

“Not gonna let me finish my drink?” Ignis asked. “That’s rude.”

“Come quietly or don’t. I don’t care,” Emilio said, holding his Tool at the ready. The body snatcher laughed.

“You Instrumen are all the same,” he said. “Traipsing all over the place like you’re so important. Let me tell you a little secret. Listen closely. You’re not important. Not even remotely. Right now, I’m the most important thing in your life. I decide whether you live or die, whether you go free or not. Because right now, you’re in the heart of New Guard country. And these two very important people aren’t going to let you see another sunrise unless I vouch for you. So, do you want try this again?”

The other patrons of the café turned to face the Instruman. Emilio realized they were all armed and they surrounded him on all sides. His heart was pounding in his chest. Sweat beads ran down his face despite the icy wind. He lowered his Tool.

“Atta boy,” the body snatcher said. Emilio smiled.

“You’re right. I came on a little strong. Let’s try again. Hi. My name is Emilio. I’m an Instruman and I’m here to make sure you never hurt anyone ever again, you goddamn monster.”

The body snatcher only had enough time to look shocked before Emilio brought his Tool down, striking the floor of the café and releasing a wave of force which sent everyone around him flying in all directions. The body snatcher fled and Emilio charged after him.

Down alleys, past busy crossings, over hanging bridges and under waste hatches, the body snatcher ran, but Emilio didn’t let up. On and on the body snatcher led him, up the face of the Overhangs until they almost reached the borderline. The clouds became soft under Emilio’s feet. He was sinking.

“Something’s wrong,” Emilio said.

“You’re losing him,” Gani said.

“I’m losing everything. I can’t remember… I can’t…”

The world fell away and Emilio and Gani fell with it, tumbling through the void of a clear mind.

“I can’t wake up. What have you done, Earthman?” Gani demanded.

“This wasn’t me! I have no control here, you were the one poking around in my head,” Emilio accused.

“Grab my hand! I have an idea,” Gani said. Emilio reached out and…

* * *

The Commander of the Watch stood by the window, shining his titular time piece; a silver pocket watch bequeathed by the Moon-men of old to the first Commander and passed down ever since. He was an older man. He had dark hair peppered with gray and a beard and eyebrows like he signed up for a hair growing competition. The many clocks in the office ticked the seconds away, but each one was synced to the time of a different world in the system. The one for Venus hardly ticked at all while Jupiter’s was a spinning twister. The overall effect of all the ticking made it impossible to focus on anything.

“Where are we? Where did we land?” Gani asked, scrambling to her feet.

“This is my last year at the academy,” Emilio replied.

“Earth,” Gani said.

“Don’t drool on my memories, please.”

“Name the Extra-Terrestrial Human Equivalents,” the Commander said. Emilio thought hard.

“Venusians, Mons and Mare and um…”

“And?”

“And… um… Canali. Mons, Mare and Canali Martians.”

“Go on.”

“Olympians, Titanians, Callistans, Jovians-”

“Wrong!” the Commander shouted, making Emilio flinch in his chair. “Jovians are aboriginal to Jupiter. Continue.”

“Um… the… the,” Emilio stuttered before composing himself. “The Saturnine people, Neptunians, Plu…”

“Yes?” the Commander asked. Emilio was sweating into his seat. He’d never been more nervous in his life.

“Plu… Plutonians and… Spacemen.”

The Commander gave the slightest of nods.

“Now name the Intelligent Aboriginal Sapients. Telemorphs first please.”

“What? All 90 of them?” Emilio asked.

“Now!” the Commander ordered.

“Um… Mercurials, Amtri, Jormun, Red and Green Barsumi, um um,”

“Quickly, cadet. Quickly.”

“Moon men.”

“The scientific name,” the Commander interjected.

“Mothran Lunamentum Sidearis. And… um…”

“You’re not cut out for this, are you?” the Commander asked suddenly.

“What?” Emilio asked.

“You’re a failure. You’ll never be an Instruman because failures can never be Instrumen!” the Commander shouted, sweeping the contents of his desk at Emilio. The boy covered his face as clocks and pencils rained on him. “You’ve been nothing but a failure your entire life! When I found you in the wastes, you were a bag of bones roasting a pigeon on a car antenna spit. I recruited you because I thought I saw something in you. Something of myself. But now I think I was mistaken. You’re nothing. You’ll always be nothing.”

“This is depressing. How long does this go on for?” Gani asked.

“About an hour, Earth time,” Emilio replied, trying not to cry.

“Flet that. Forward a bit.”

The Sun was lower now, the ruins of the old Imperial Center cast long shadows on the Instruman Training Academy. A stark reminder of the high price the Shatter reaped. A reminder of the Instrumen’s failure to protect the Earth. A failure that would never again be repeated. The Commander sank in his chair, exhausted. He took out a glass and bottle of amber liquid from his desk.

“I’m… sorry. Maybe I was too harsh,” he said pouring a drink. Emilio wiped tears and snot on his sleeve but said nothing. “You scored very well on your aptitude tests. Highest in physicality. Hammer Branch would be a good fit for you. Drill branch too. Saw Branch not so much.”

“Tell me about the different branches,” Gani ordered.

“The Instrumen are divided into three branches,” Emilio said, trying not to cry anymore but failing. “Hammers are strong and imposing but are also great leaders. They shape the essence of a team in the fires of adversity. Drills are versatile and cunning and can adapt to many situations but are single minded in their focus and will continue their work no matter the cost. Saws are insightful and brilliant. They measure twice and cut once. They can see into the heart of any situation and so are labeled frank or blunt by their peers but their steady hands can lead a team of Instrumen through the worst of times.”

“I love it. There is much to learn about your kind,” Gani said.

“Do we have to delve into the worst parts of my memory?” Emilio asked.

“Not at all. You brought us here. Your mind fixates on the negative, it seems.”

“Maybe I do need therapy.”

“Which branch did you end up in?” Gani asked.

“None,” Emilio replied.

“I don’t understand. I thought you said you were an Instruman.”

“I am. Just not one that gets their own branch.” Emilio smiled as the memory came to him.

* * *

“Congratulations, Class of 2030!”

The graduates cheered and threw their caps in the air, except for Rivulex. De didn’t understand the concept of celebration. The Commander of the Watch nodded proudly. Another batch of Instrumen, ready to leave Shattered Earth and protect the system. The graduates shook each other’s hands and appendages as the ceremony came to a close.

“Five graduates. The most we’ve had in a while,” Instructor Debrin said, clapping all four of her hands together. “Tomorrow, we make our homeworlds proud. But tonight, we celebrate!”

The graduates cheered again. Rivulex shrugged and left the platform for the space port, where dey would wait for the next 24 hours until mission assignment. Emilio hugged his fellow graduates and cried because the sacrifice of the last ten years of his life had finally paid off.

“Instruman Emilio,” the Commander called. Emilio looked up at the presentation platform where the Commander waited. “Come with me.”

He led Emilio away from the formal function room of the Academy and toward the fast trak where a hovering chariot waited. They boarded and with a wave of the Commander’s hand wordlessly flew away along the trak. The Academy disappeared from view behind them as the chariot raced by the Imperial ruins, jutting from the earth like bony fingers grasping for a long gone dream. Here the previous government of Earth had ruled. Here the fate of every human on every world was once determined. Now it was an empty shell. A dead thing. The chariot skipped a line and Emilio had to hang on for dear life to avoid losing his footing.

“Beautiful. Isn’t it?” the Commander asked.

“What?”

“The palace. The assembly chamber. The floating gardens. The Emperor’s old throne room. The needle. The wound. The remnant of the space elevator. There is a kind of beauty in it. Watching the past slowly turn to dust before you.”

“I guess,” Emilio replied.

“I was young when the Shatter happened. The old order didn’t last a week when the worst of it hit. Somehow, some way, the men and women and other of the Instrumen were able to save what little remained of the Earth. Their numbers were obliterated, their strength sapped, but they endured, as did the planet. That is why I wanted to become an Instruman.”

The chariot flew by a flock of scatterhawks which shrieked at its passing before dispersing into clusters of blades.

“I have a question,” Gani asked.

“What is it?” Emilio replied.

“I have seen pictures of Terrestria but it looks completely whole. Why do you call it shattered?”

“I don’t want to talk about Earth,” said Emilio.

“I’m not giving you a choice,” said Gani. Emilio sighed.

“The Earth is 99% whole, physically speaking. It’s more of a metaphorical shattering. A metaphysical one, even. The government of Earth came apart at the seams. A hundred different nations formed in the aftermath and the Emperor barely held on to the Western Hemisphere. Untold billions died on Earth, Venus and Mars and many asteroid stations were lost. People kind of went insane for a couple decades. Lot of post trauma. Where once was a unified Earth culture, where you could take a skimmer and fly for days without seeing a single cosmetic difference in architecture, fashion or dialect, now there are millions of nuanced sub-sub-sub cultures each vying for resources, land, meaning. San Angeles is a wasteland of industrial spires and neon slums, Nova York a floating shanty town a hundred miles long where the detritus of the East Coast ends up. Australya is a desert where motor bandits kill for what little water is left and Japon is a techno wonderland, but mostly robots instead of people. Weather, the climate, tectonic activity, physics, even time itself came apart because of the Shatter. Earth almost become a second Saturn. But eventually the rubble stopped bouncing. People rebuilt. Life goes on.”

“What a world. It is very different from my own,” said Gani.

“Variety’s not great when it comes to death,” said Emilio.

“Where is this?” Gani asked, gesturing all around her.

“We’re in San Diejuana, the largest urban center in North America. It’s where I grew up, where the Commander found me. The place where all roads led. Now it’s…”

“A ruin?” Gani offered.

“A tomb.”

The chariot entered a long tunnel and after what seemed a long while, came to a stop at an old station. Desiccated advertisements lined the walls, selling carbonated drinks and vacation getaways to far off worlds. The Commander led him through the halls of the station, following a path only he knew. Emilio stayed close by. This place seemed too familiar to him in the worst way.

“Here at the heart of the crossroads, we keep our vault,” the Commander said. Emilio scratched his head, confused. What vault?

They came upon a steel blast door. The Commander inserted a key into a glass pad and the door clicked open, sliding along ancient well worn grooves. The air was cooler inside, crawling along the floor from the vault’s open mouth. Inside, long rows of unbreakable clear containers sat piled one on top of another, vanishing into the distance. This wasn’t just any vault. It was the vault where every Tool in existence was stored. The Tool Vault!

“Incredible,” Gani said in awe.

“You really shouldn’t be seeing this,” said Emilio.

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t,” she replied.

“Back here,” the Commander said. Several rows back and a minute of walking later, they came across a dark alcove where a load of containers were piled. Emilio saw that the Tools here were different than the others. Stranger. “Pick one.”

Emilio turned to the Commander. “Y0u’re giving me my Tool now?” Emilio asked.

“The others are Hammers, Drills and Saws. They will receive their Tools in accordance with the customs of their branch. You are none of these, Emilio. You have a different fate.”

Emilio still didn’t understand, but he did as he was told. He walked into the poorly lit space where dozens of containers were haphazardly strewn about. He looked from container to container, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He walked forward and tripped, falling on his face. The container he tripped on hissed. Emilio got on his feet in a heartbeat and watched as the container opened like a flower, holding the Tool aloft. He reached out and grabbed it. It was a deep red in color, with orange and yellow lines on it that glowed with power. He thought it was a hammer at first until he slowly realized…

“It’s… a wrench? What branch are they?” Emilio asked.

“Wrenches are the troublemakers. Wherever a perfect system exists in the known universe, a Wrench will be there to muck it up. That’s what you will do. You’re chaos. A professional wrecker.”

“But… I wanted to be a Hammer,” Emilio said, unsure of what to think, what to feel.

“Emilio; Hammers, Drills and Saws are why the Shatter happened in the first place. Wrenches are the reason they were able to stop it. Because even something as unthinking as the Shatter had a logic all its own and logic is a weakness the Wrenches exploit. In other words, they saved the day by screwing up harder than the rest of us. So be proud. You’re the wildcard up our sleeve should anything like the Shatter ever rear its ugly head again.”

Emilio wanted to protest. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. This wasn’t why he worked so hard for years. Years! Nearly half his life had been spent here and he was going to be a… a Wrench? Were they even a real thing? Was this all a big joke? He was two seconds away from throwing the Tool in the Commander’s face when a calm came over him. He looked at the Tool. It was a perfect fit. Heavy, but light in his hands. The jaws of it opened and closed at his command, like a mouth trying to speak. There was a personality to it. The scratches and dents on its face told a story. A story, he realized, much like his own. Thrown away. Discarded. Rejected. And yet a survivor. It had been tossed back here with the others, out of sight and out of mind, but now, now it had been found. A Tool. His Tool.

“Yes. Yes, Commander. I will be a Wrench,” said Emilio.

One response to “Escape From Prison Planet! Part 3”

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