Authors: K.M. Ruiz
The World Court beat obedience into their dogs. The failure of government indoctrination and the escape of formerly subordinate Strykers were the reasons why Ciari was here.
The door to the courtroom finally opened an hour later and a legal clerk stepped into the hallway. “The World Court will hear your case.”
He didn't look at them. Out of fear or disrespect, Ciari didn't know. Probably both. The Peace Palace was owned and operated by humans, by the only government that had survived the Border Wars. Psion power, unless explicitly permitted by the World Court, was illegal here. Bioware nets spanned the brains of all the politicians and registered humans who could afford the technology, constantly monitoring for outside manipulation. Any deviation from the baseline resulted in psion deaths. When it came down to it, though, the World Court didn't need an excuse to kill their dogs.
Ciari and Keiko stood, tugged their uniforms straight, and walked into the public courtroom. The grand, rectangular place had old wood paneling and stained-glass windows that had survived the relentless bombings. Ancient, beautiful crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The rows of seats between the door and the long bench set high on a raised dais beneath the windows were full. So was the balcony that extended halfway into the room.
Ciari thought as she and Keiko walked down the center aisle.
This won't end well.
They came to a stop between the tables of opposing parties at the front of the courtroom; both were empty. Arrayed before them along the judicial bench were fifteen seats filled by the most powerful humans on the planet. The occupant of the center seat was the only one who mattered to Ciari.
Erik Gervais, president and justice of the World Court, stared at her. Ciari met his gaze without blinking. The faint narrowing of his brown eyes showed annoyance, but only to her. Erik had built his life around political aspirations that required him to be unreadable for the sake of legal neutrality. But the government was never truly neutral, especially when it came to their dogs. Years of reading the microexpressions of bureaucrats and politicians had saved Ciari's life many times where psion power would have gotten her killed instantly. She wondered if that skill would be enough this time.
“Sirs,” Ciari said, dipping her head in rote respect to the fifteen judges before her. Keiko did the same.
The crowd around them wasn't completely silent. Registered humans, the elite of society, shifted in their seats. The rustling of personal items and the soft buzz of cameras from reporters sitting in the press box filled the air like static.
“Are you prepared to give your report?” Erik said.
“Then begin your statement. If we like what we hear, we might be persuaded to show leniency.”
Ciari didn't blink at the threat. It meant nothing to her. She lived with a death switch in her brain; words were merely sound.
“A month ago, we lost four Strykers in the Slums of the Angels. They were in pursuit of a rogue psion targeted for retrieval. We believe the target took them. When we carried out your orders to terminate the Strykers, the results from the neurotrackers were inconclusive. The baselines spiked as human on the security grid through bioscanners.” Ciari paused for a moment, letting the information sink in. “We have no witnesses to the events in the Slums. Human bodies were eventually retrieved from Russia with the missing neurotrackers. When that same target from the Slums appeared in Buffalo, I initiated a full-scale field transfer of Stryker teams to deal with the threat.”
“You've had two years to retrieve or terminate this rogue psion,” Anchali said. The vice president of the World Court was its oldest member and one of its shrewdest. “Transferring that many Strykers to Buffalo was a mismanagement of resources and a failure on your part.”
Ciari met her gaze as calmly as she had Erik's. “Other rogue psions were on the ground in Buffalo aside from the target. I felt it prudent to take action against them.”
She was careful to refrain from numbers, from names. The public knew about rogue psions. They didn't know about Warhounds unless one believed in the stories downloaded into pirate streams. Truth could be found in those conspiracy theories, even if most people didn't have all the facts.
“So you initiated a full-scale field transfer, taking Strykers off prior contracts and sending them to Buffalo without authorization?”
“It wouldn't be in anyone's best interest if the target slipped away during such a blatant attack on the government,” Ciari said. “My orders are to protect. We did.”
“And yet, the target still escaped,” Erik said.
There was no way out of the punishment she could hear in Erik's voice. Ciari could never admit that she knew the identity of that seemingly unknown target. All Strykers who held the OIC position and those of the company's highest officer ranks obeyed a hidden law, and it had nothing to do with human legal wrangling. The Silence Law gave and took, but above all, it saved. Some might argue that the cost was too high, but Ciari never had.
Despite everything that was going on, she wouldn't betray her people. Her life wasn't worth theirs. She stayed silent.
Erik leaned forward slightly and rested both hands flat against the old wooden tabletop. “You are not justifying your case, Ciari. Silence is not an acceptable defense.”
She could have spoken for days straight and it wouldn't have mattered. The judgment had been decided prior to her being summoned before the bench. This was merely a formality and a showcase of control.
“We announced the presence of rogue psions in the city as required by law,” Ciari said. “It served to explain the large numbers of Strykers on the ground and resulted in the deactivation of the electrical grid. We thought the reduction in power would help us flush out and corner the target.”
Travis Athe raised a single finger. “It didn't.”
Ciari shook her head. “No, sir.”
“How could you think that frightening human citizens was a good idea?”
“We acted in accordance with the laws in order to save them.”
“That is debatable.”
“Is this a debate, sir?”
“You overstep yourself, Ciari. Much as you overstepped yourself in Buffalo.”
“We did what we thought was correct in the face of rogue psions and an unknown threat. We only ever had the well-being of humans in our thoughts.”
It was a lie, they all knew it, but one every Stryker learned to tell.
“Your actions produced failures that resulted in this mess,” Erik said. “That is unacceptable.”
Ciari couldn't argue that statement. “We did what we could with the information we had. It was my decision.”
“Do you stand behind your decision?”
Ciari looked him straight in the eye. “Yes.”
In a world full of deadzones and toxic gene pools, with a population barely at a million and a quarter strong, Erik created order with the strike of a gavel. The World Court's efforts over the years had resulted in hundreds of secretly built space shuttles waiting to be filled in the Paris Basin, poised to leave the planet for a distant promised land. Earth meant nothing to the elite descendants of those who survived the Border Wars and managed to clean up their DNA by the fifth generation and join the Registry.
Erik embodied that mind-set, as did everyone else seated in judgment before her. This fact hadn't changed in all the decades the World Court had been in power.
“You've been such a model psion to those beneath you in the Strykers Syndicate over the past eleven years, Ciari,” Erik said.
“I train my people as you require me to, sir.”
“And therein lies the issue. They are not yours. They have never belonged to you. We own them, as we own you.”
Ciari expected the pain, the flip of that switch. For one crystalline moment, she thought she could feel the hum of the neurotracker implanted in the back of her head as it processed the order for punishment. Perhaps she did, but it was drowned out by the searing agony that burned through her brain, pressing against the interior of her skull and spiking down her nerves.
She screamed when it became too much, too hot, knowing that to hold it all in would just drag it out longer. The sound of her voice echoed in her ears. It was the only thing she heard, the only thing that made any sense as she writhed on the floor, both hands clutching her head, incapable of making the pain stop. When it became too much, when it seemed as if the agony were too big for her skin to contain, Ciari clung to the self-inflicted pain in her gut to differentiate between the real world and the threat of insanity that began to crawl through her mind.
Ciari thought through the fiery feeling of having her brain torn apart.
I want youâ
She tasted blood on her tongue, smelled metal all along the inside of her nose and mouth. She swallowed air and couldn't breathe, her nerves following the dictates of a machine and not her own body.
It went on and on and on.
“What the hell is
?” Kerr said. He held up a silvery foil packet to the fluorescent lights bolted to the ceiling of the vault, squinting at the faded text printed over the front of the packet.
Jason telekinetically added another box of seed packets and clear glass vials to the top of a pile. The entire stack teetered precariously near the entrance to the storage vault they were ransacking. “Hell if I know.”
“Cinnamon,” Kristen piped up from where she had climbed one of the storage racks and was methodically handing boxes down to a scavenger for loading. When he didn't move fast enough for her tastes, she dropped the boxes on the floor. “Spice out of Sri Lanka.”
“Right,” Quinton said as he hefted a box onto a gravlift. “What's Sri Lanka?”
“It was an island country in the Indian Ocean. Rising sea levels swallowed half of it. The Border Wars destroyed the rest.”
“Huh.” Kerr turned the packet in his hands from side to side, wondering what the seeds would look like. “Guess whoever built this place had the right idea. You know, I never did believe those conspiracy theories on the pirate streams about the government hiding supplies. Wonder if anything else they talk about is true.”
“Most of those people are dissidents repeating false information,” Lucas said. “They don't know any better.”
Quinton eyed him. “You said most. What about the rest?”
Lucas smiled slightly, but his only answer to Quinton's curiosity was “You don't need to worry about the rest.”
“If we can't trust government history, and pirate streams don't have the entire truth, how do you know all this stuff?” Jason said, warily eyeing Kristen where she clung to a metal shelf.
“Government history is fairly accurate,” Lucas said as he entered information into his datapad. “But only if you sit on the World Court or know how to pry it out of the server farm that handles the data traffic for The Hague.”
“Why didn't the governments from before the Border Wars use what was up here to save their people? The terraforming machines alone could have saved billions,” Kerr said.
“Who would have gotten the right to use them first? Third-world countries? First? In the face of declining resources, overpopulation, and environmental change, the ruling classes thought Mars was the better option for them, just not for everyone.”
Kerr shook his head and put the packet back into the box. He resealed it before handing it to the nearest scavenger. He reached for another one, ignoring the twinge of sore muscles all across his back and down his arms. Everyone was past the point of exhaustion, but they kept going. The only person excused from doing heavy lifting was Threnody. She was back in Alpha shuttle, sleeping off the exhaustion of opening the seed bank. Jason checked up on her once every hour or so. She hadn't woken up yet and wasn't getting any better.
The temperature in the three storage vaults was set at -18 degrees Celsius and needed to remain that cold to keep everything viable. They methodically worked their way through each of the vaults, taking half of everything: seeds, cell lines, DNA samples, frozen embryos, and everything else in the inventory. Aside from the boxes of seeds, the frozen zoo would hopefully repopulate empty continents and oceans one day through cloning. None of them expected they would live to see that miracle.
Lucas wanted more than what they were stealing, but two days was all they could risk on Spitsbergen; one day of recovery, one day of work. Then it would take hours to fly to Antarctica. The environmental systems on the shuttles had been prepped at a near-freezing temperature to handle the cargo. Each was equipped with a limited amount of cold-storage units, and they had to factor in space for the disassembled terraforming machines, but not all the stolen goods would fit in cold storage.
Looking up from his datapad, Lucas nodded to Jason. “This stack is ready. Get it out of here.”
“Right,” Jason said. He wrapped his telekinesis around the stack of boxes and teleported out. Appearing outside a shuttle in the marked-off arrival zone, Jason waved tiredly at Everett as the other man came down the ramp.
“How many more?” Everett said as he eyed the pile that Jason had brought out.
“We're barely halfway done,” Jason said. “You can expect two more loaded gravlifts in about fifteen minutes.”
Everett frowned. “We're full up on three of the shuttles already, and one of the shuttles needs to carry the terraforming machines.”
“Lucas needs to check if those are still in working order. It's been a few hundred years since they were taken apart and stored.”
“Tell him to hurry it up then. We need to know in order to calculate volume and weight.”
Jason shrugged and teleported away, carrying Everett's concerns with him. Lucas didn't even look up from the datapad in his hands as Jason finished reporting. “Everything will fit. If we need to make space for the weight, we'll leave people behind.”