Science Fiction Short Story "Accountable" Part 2
And He Leaps!
The story picks up with the main character and his wife, partners in the near renegade field of archaeology, leaping toward death and destruction over the abandoned, domed city of Indianapolis. Here let me say I have nothing personally against cities, nor do I think poorly of either of the mentioned Indiana universities or their archaeology programs. But it sure was fun to incorporate them in this tale of the future!
Accountable, Part 2
The adrenaline rush was wonderful. Hurtling toward the long abandoned streets of the empty city, Cenotaph laughed. It reminded him of the best and most satisfying aspects of the Peacekeeper’s life. Deftly, he oriented his body at just the right moment, making sure to keep a tight grip around his screaming wife’s waist—not that it would have mattered much. Phoenix Bridges was wrapped around his body so tightly he could feel her grip through the body armor.
Fifteen stories from the pavement, Cenotaph’s suit began to hum and tremble. Their rate of descent slowed. With their combined weight, they hit hard enough to drive Cenotaph to his knees and raise a black cloud of crumbled asphalt, but considering the height and speed of their descent, it wasn’t bad really.
Shoving away from him hard, Phoenix screamed, and again, and once more with feeling. “You could have killed me,” she hissed when she had recovered a bit. “You … you …you never told me you could do that! What was that? You can fly?” she asked, questions disjointed by fear and rage.
“Not fly, not me, I’m not your Superman. The suit’s designed for controlled descent. Gets you down in a hurry without making you a target.” he responded with an infuriating calm.
“Yeah? Well … well … you get to clean my suit when we get home, mister!” Phoenix responded, surprising herself and breaking up with giddy laughter. “How’d you know it would work with two?” she asked when she’d recovered a bit.
“Well, you don’t weigh much more than the gear I used to carry so I thought I’d risk it.” Cenotaph replied, still calm and happy from the experience.
“So, you guessed!” Phoenix blurted and shoved him again. “Gawd!”
They headed for Crown Hill cemetery, a short trip as the maintenance port had been located almost directly above it. Bats awakened by Phoenix’s screams wheeled about the dome in agitation. As they closed in, first harsh metallic sounds and then lights no digging droids needed confirmed for them that there was trouble at the site.
“Maybe there are defensive systems to deter grave robbers after all.” Cenotaph muttered as they approached. His body armor assumed the coloration of the surrounding graveyard and the big archaeologist faded into the shadows. His voice came floating eerily through the gloom like that of a restless soul, “Stay behind me and keep low. Use the headstones for cover. Move out!”
Phoenix stayed close, her dark colored environmental suit blending in nearly as well as her husband’s. She worried. Whenever stressed, Zeke tended to revert to his Peacekeeper’s ways. While this should, in theory, be no problem for her or others, she was ashamed to say that she feared he would flash back to the Mars ambush. No telling what he would do then, an awful, evil little voice whispered traitorously in her head.
Closing in, the lights brightened, bobbing and weaving wildly ahead, throwing mad shadows around the site that danced whirling dervishes in the gloom. Heavy clangs, grinding gears, and occasional screams or curses reached them clearly now.
Peering carefully around a crypt one row away from the site, which had been on the other side of a rolling knoll and obscured from view until now, Phoenix heard Zeke gasp and, in disbelief swinging quickly to terror, saw his right arm flash backward, reaching for the obsolete but entirely functional hand cannon that rode over his shoulder. Swinging wide of his other arm, the one sweeping back to drive her further behind him, Bridges rounded the crypt and saw what her husband had seen.
Figures suited in black and gold environmental suits were battling with the digging droids. They were using equipment ill suited for the purpose, chunks of headstones, metal pipes, even shovels and trowels, all the while attempting to out flank the droids and enter the cleared site and the cryogenic crypt beneath. It took her a second, a second she could ill afford, to realize what had caused Cenotaph to respond as he did. She wheeled on him.
“No!” she rasped in a whisper. “Those are Purdue University colors, not Clean Line’s. These are archaeologists, not ‘hybrid hunters!’ Put that damned cannon away!”
Looking through his faceplate, Bridges noted the dead calm on her husband’s face, the mask that fell upon his kind when swept with fear or rage. His sweat-slicked brow and trembling limbs contradicted the look of calm, as did the hand cannon firmly gripped in both hands.
“I won’t lose you to terrorists.” Cenotaph whispered, apparently not hearing her.
“Not terrorists, grad students! Not Clean Line, claim jumpers!” she hissed back.
“Look!” she commanded, pointing wildly to the left. When her husband’s head swung that way and the cannon began to rise, she lunged to the right and snatched away his stun gun and tranquilizer. Before Ezekiel Cenotaph knew what had happened, his wife, a weapon in each hand, disappeared around the front of the moldering crypt.
Cenotaph failed in his first tries to shake the illusion that he was back at Sojourner City after the ambush. Part of him was convinced he was still chased by Clean Line goons. When shaking his head and repeatedly closing and opening his eyes brought no relief, in desperation he slammed the side of his helmet into the crypt beside him. When the stars cleared, he had a better idea where he was, but an icy hand still gripped his heart and kept him immobile, certain that Clean Line had finally found him. Then he heard the alternating buzz and pop of stun and tranquilizer guns—his guns he belatedly discovered, followed by shrieks and angry shouts. He wheeled around; his wife was no longer behind him. Then it all came together. She had said something about Purdue, grad students, and claim jumping . . .
“Damn!” he snarled and bolted around the dusty marble structure. He skid to a stop on the far side, shocked into inaction again. There were five hostiles down and a ring of seven, keeping their distance, hiding behind tomb stones, trying to stay clear of the droids and out of the sights of the dark suited figure standing with one foot firmly planted on a sprawled body.
Just then, a single figure charged from the right, wielding a shovel like a club. The body was heavier than the rest but he came on silently and with considerable speed nonetheless. Intent on the others, Phoenix missed the new threat. Ezekiel was too far away to block the charging man. He had no choice.
The crash of thunder rolled through the long dead city, echoing down artificial canyons and raising clouds of bats again. In the accompanying flash like lightning, the combatants were lit and frozen in the strobe-like light. The shovel-wielding figure shrieked and fell. Every eye, organic and cybernetic, swung to the figure standing in front of the tomb, smoking cannon in hand. The Peacekeeper whispered, “Get out!” and the frozen figures leapt into motion, scrambling away toward the dirigible. So galvanizing was this voice that the droids headed that way as well.
Then the real storm hit. Phoenix rounded on Ezekiel, eyes flashing, both guns rising.
“You killed him! You promised you never would again, but you just gunned him down in cold blood.” Phoenix Bridges shrieked in rage. It tore at Cenotaph’s soul to see that conviction in her eyes, to know that deep down she feared he would return to the brief violence of his past, as if that one damning incident was the moment that truly defined him. On one level he did not blame her. All humans feared that was true of those they enslaved. On another it hurt him deeply to know the woman who loved him and knew him best could carry that fear within her. His first love never would have. Then again, his first love had never seen him slip into a living nightmare and draw his only lethal weapon in rage. But that was for later. Now, he had to move!
Sidestepping, Cenotaph leapt away, not relishing the thought of the combined effects of close range stunning and tranq’s coursing through him. Worse was the thought of lying helpless before Phoenix Bridges when she was in a rage. He landed beside the fallen figure, grabbed the suit’s helmet collar, and jerked the body up before him.
“Look at him,” Cenotaph demanded. “No wounds. I fired a round off toward Speedway, hoping to bring everybody to a stop before you ended up with a shovel in your head.” In a low voice, he snarled, “Say something you little shit or I really will kill you!” and shook the dangling figure to drive the point home.
“I’m okay.” The dangling man said shakily. With the sound of his voice and a close look through the suit visor, Cenotaph now recognized his wife’s would-be assailant.
“And very lucky to be so, you claim jumping fraud! Meet Professor Fred Morton, dean of the archaeological studies department at Purdue. This man drives such fear into the hearts of his PhD. candidates that they will abandon their youthful idealism and stoop just as low as he commands. This time, however, you picked the wrong site to steal Morton! This one’s mine.”
When he saw his wife lower her weapons, Cenotaph tossed the startled professor aside. The frightened man scrambled away on all fours, following his students.
“Say anything about this to anyone and I’ll hunt you down, Morton!” Cenotaph added for good measure, sure that eventually the prof would attach the voice to the name. He didn’t want it getting around that I.U.’s Dean of Archaeology owned a Peacekeeper’s battle gear. That would be hard to explain.
“And before you go, Morton, get back here with that dirigible and clean up this mess!” he shouted, pointing to the twitching, unconscious, but otherwise none-the-worse-for-wear students scattered around like so many dried leaves among the head stones.
With that, Cenotaph recalled the droids and handed over the still smoking hand cannon to one of them. “IF that dirigible doesn’t leave when those fallen students are gathered up, fire one shot.”
“But sir, I cannot kill a human being! It was hard enough fighting them. My programming …”
“When did everyone decide I’m a ruthless killer?! No, fire once across their bow. That’ll take the fight right out of them … provided you don’t tell ‘em you can’t shoot ‘em. Got it?”
The droid nodded.
The excavation droids had not been required to actually excavate the tomb. The intervening years between internment and excavation had only left a thin deposit of soil over the site. While the perimeter had been carefully excavated and all details and artifacts duly noted, the real work had awaited them below ground. The center crypt was swung aside on its pivot mount, providing easy access to a tunnel beneath. The droids real work had come when they found a portion of the tunnel wall had collapsed, eaten away by migrating chemical toxins. Two droids had been severely damaged removing the debris, much of their armor plating dissolving as they worked, despite every precaution. The collapsed section was now covered with chem-resistant synthetic wall plating. The path was clear.
Cenotaph and Bridges entered the cryogenic chamber together.
“I see things, beautiful things!” Cenotaph quoted, releasing a hovering camera to record everything in the room just the way it was before they handled anything.
It was his wife’s turn to look puzzled.
“Howard Carter’s response to his sponsor’s question, when he first peeked into King Tut’s burial chamber in the early 1920s.” he replied.
“And, from what I see here, we’ll be rewriting the books on mid-twenty-first century technology. Looks like we got a lot of it wrong.” Cenotaph added.
The room was sparkling clean, despite the passage of time. The walls were smooth and white. Equipment was melded seamlessly into walls, floors, and ceiling as if it had grown in place. The central cryogenic pod was a work of art. The panel before it was filled with green lights, “A sign from the period that all was well.” Phoenix Bridges told her husband when he asked about the color. “Similar to our use of red today.” She was the historian, with a PhD in twenty-first century studies. The orb lights they had deployed went unlit. Shortly after they had entered the chamber, room lights had activated and a recording in fifteen different languages had begun, explaining who the sleeper was, what conditions had laid him low, what had to be done to warm the body, and various bribes and promises of great rewards for anyone who awoke him whole into the far future. It was all truly impressive.
By now, Jeffries projection had stopped speaking and was staring down at them with a benign smile. A green contact point began to flash insistently on the control panel.
“I think that’s our cue Zeke. Push the button.”
With the contact pressed the lights began to dim, the cryogenic chamber began to rumble, various readouts appeared on the glass control panel indicating rising internal temperatures, replacement of fluids, any number of closely monitored functions. By the time the Peacekeeper’s med-kit was armed and ready, the lid of the cryogenic crypt popped open with a whoosh of released gasses. Cold, condensed air boiled out of the open chamber in a thick fog.
Cenotaph was surprised at the roiling emotions within him as he approached the grave. This was the culmination of years of searching. He had so many questions for this man who had created and deceived his race. His hands shook. Peering into the crypt he was relieved to see the body in perfect condition, completely preserved with no evidence of cell damage.
He carefully placed the med-kit on Mark Jeffries inert form. The box spread out over his forehead, hummed purposefully, quickly produced a diagnosis and a prediction. Death and disease could be reversed. Cenotaph told it to proceed when asked.
A moan came from the crypt.
Cenotaph leaned in, “You’re all right. You’re cured.”
“How long?” Jeffries asked, the universal question of everyone waking from any long lapse of consciousness.
“It’s 2347. I have some questions for you.” Cenotaph answered softly, hearing a reverence in his voice that he really didn’t care for. He should hustle this man, this most valuable of all artifacts, back to the lab before asking him anything. Yet, he couldn’t help himself. This was a moment that had been long in coming.
Jeffries hand raised and cut in front of him, sharply dismissing Cenotaph. “Get me out of here. I’ll make good on that reward just as soon as I contact my company. Now, help me up!” Jeffries snapped, accustomed to making demands and being obeyed. He had misinterpreted Cenotaph’s intentions completely. It immediately raised Cenotaph’s and Bridges’ hackles. Their eagerness to meet the man who had set the course of their lives was rapidly crumbling. They were finding their creator to be a flawed god.
Cenotaph’s hand shoved down hard on the man’s chest, slamming him back down into the crypt. Jeffries head hit the padded crypt hard.
“Not yet!” Cenotaph snarled. “You created us and you’re going to give us some answers!”
In a voice tinged with anger and confusion Jeffries asked, “What do you mean, created you?”
“Meet your children Jeffries. I’m a Peacekeeper, she’s a clone. You made us. I want to know why.”
Jeffries laughed in surprise. “Why? Why what?”
“Why we exist, why you created us.”
Startled and annoyed, Jeffries answered honestly. It was his second mistake of the day. “That’s easy. Hybrid humans were made to keep stupid people from killing themselves long enough to buy my other products. For a people pathologically afraid of dying we were doing a really good job picking each other off. And dead people couldn’t buy New Horizon’s products. These cryogen chambers were made to give the terminal cases hope and part them with lots of money. And you,” he added, pointing to Bridges, “if you’re a clone, you were a step beyond the cryo chambers. You’re kind let my kind cheat death forever, if they purchased the necessary mind transference equipment, also provided by my firm.”
Jeffries had enjoyed snapping at them, until he looked into their eyes. Then he tried to back peddle a little.
“Sorry, your creation was scientific advance, nothing metaphysical or uplifting ... Sorry …” he added again, his voice trailing away and eyes beginning to round in fear at the looks on their faces.
“We’d hoped there was a better reason for our suffering than that. We’d hoped you cared for your creations and had wanted the best for them. We wanted to believe your original purpose was corrupted and your revival could bring an end to our suffering. That you’d speak out against our misuse. But no, we were your tools for profit. Did I get it right?” Bridges asked through clenched teeth.
“About right.” Jeffries responded nervously. “But, hey, my business made me rich and I will reward you.”
“As if that could make up for anything. Well, Mark Jeffries, creator of two races of slaves, let me introduce you to the future.” Cenotaph snarled. “You are not repaying us in the way you think. Corporations no longer exist. The power you had is long gone. You are, in fact, nothing more than a valuable artifact I intend to use. Before you protest about your rights, know this, your rights died with you. You are also of no use to the state. The government has a standing order to seek out and destroy all cryogenic chambers. To those in power, alive you are a ward of the state. You have neither the resources nor the understanding of the modern age to survive on your own. The few early revenants all died quickly by misadventure. So, we archaeologists are racing the clean up crews to claim you all as prizes. And, as luck would have it, a wanted man, a slave who slipped his chains, revived you. A wanted man who has found the true source of all his troubles.”
A look of abject horror spread over Mark Jeffries face.
“How does it feel to have your hopes and dreams destroyed Jeffries? Now that we’ve all had that uplifting experience let me tell you how it’s going to be. You’re coming with us back to our lab. There we will examine you but not damage you. I’ve spent too much recovering you to destroy you now. In time, you are going to meet your creations and explain to them why they suffer. You will be held accountable. What happens then, who knows? Maybe you do. After all, you made us. Are we made in your image? Only time will tell. Welcome to the future Jeffries, your future. Do you like what you have made? Is it good?” Ezekiel Cenotaph asked as he jerked the man from the past from his tomb.
Short and Sweet
Another J.S. Brooks Original ...
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