Darrell Keifer's Bookshelf
Writer and Science Fiction Aficionado
A retired fishery biologist, Darrell Keifer, built a cabin on the Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and spends the summers fishing. He winters in Arizona where he writes, hikes, and plays pickleball. Darrell enjoys writing near-future science fiction grounded in hard science and narrative anthropology.
A Hope in Hell
Hope’s last stand: A hellish apocalypse reduces the human population to numbers so low, future generations will inbreed and degenerate. Survivors turn to Hell’s Gate, an experimental sedation prison, to secure more females for world repopulation. They must depend on a damaged psychologist, Jason Adams, to select which female inmates to revive. While searching the prison, an accident revives a serial killer and inmates take over the asylum. Adams must use his heart and not his head to save the woman he loves and save the world from a madman.
Idea behind the book - Lake Nyos Cameroon, Africa
The idea for this story (the apocalypse part) came from a friend of mine, Conni Bruse, who worked in Alaska for the Fish and Wildlife Service. She participated in my writing group where we often brought ideas in and discussed their potential for a screenplay or novel. She talked of the Lake Nyos disaster and wanted to write a screenplay about it. Unfortunately, she became ill with cancer and after several years of chemotherapy and struggle she passed away. I feel I inherited the idea and I’ve finally put into a story.
The Lake Nyos Disaster
In 1986, Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa, suddenly released volcanic gases that had built up in the lower layer of the lake. The anoxic gases, mostly carbon dioxide, filled a valley, suffocating 1,700 people, 3,500 head of cattle, and most of the wildlife—birds, dogs, and fish.
Tragedy aside, any hard science-fiction aficionado would look at the data and begin hypothesizing: If a small volcanic lake can store and suddenly release such volumes of gas, what could the Pacific Ring of Fire, combined with the oceans’ vast stores of clathrates (methane and carbon dioxide) do on a planet-wide scale? Though estimates of the oceans’ gas volumes vary by orders of magnitude, the volcanic and marine sources together could provide enough mass for a carbon gun, a theoretical worldwide Nyos event.
As indicated above, I like near-future science fiction grounded in hard science and realism. So, I avoid magic or supernatural elements in my stories, unless the supernatural features are metaphorical like the fairies in Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." (Here, Shakespeare uses fairies to represent basic human drives and desires that we are often blind to.)
I consider my novel, “A Hope in Hell” environmental fiction. It wasn’t even a term when I began writing “A Hope in Hell”, but I am delighted the genre has developed. Too often, apocalypse stories are classified as dystopian, or near fantasy, but there are two important elements that set environmental fiction apart—realism and narrative anthropology.
Realism: When we (readers) are invited to a story, we come with a willing suspension-of-disbelief, and I have as strong a suspension-of-disbelief as anyone—what if dinosaurs could be grown from ancient DNA?, or what if an asteroid struck the earth?, but the ground rules of what-ifs should be laid out and not include a sweeping suspension of the laws of physics, nature, and common sense. So, no hundred-and-ten pound woman, with toothpick arms, and dressed in cleavage revealing spandex, beating up twelve burly guys.
Narrative anthropology: Anthropology is the study of humans, human behavior, and societies in the past and present. Revealing those science-based observations, theories, and principles through narrative is fun, moving, and meaningful.
One of the best known anthropological studies used in many modern novels and movies is Joseph Campbell’s "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." It lays out the step by step elements of a hero’s journey common in most myths and stories. George Lucus’s "Star Wars" is a good example because it closely followed Campbell’s work.
There are many anthropologic studies that provide overarching theories of human behavior and culture. One body of work, I like and am familiar with, is Rene Girard’s mimetic theory and his work on scapegoating ("I see Satan Fall like Lightning"). "The Hunger Games" is classic Girardian. (I’ll post more on mimetic theory later)
So, following these precepts I hope to write stories that snatch meaning from the dragon’s jaws, tickle imaginations, quicken hearts, and nourish souls. Good reading!
I will post blogs and announcements here. For now a short story:
Alaska was divvied up like a carcass. Corporate wolf packs marked every square mile, every drop of water, every known and unknown resource. The broken-down institutions of civilization melted like cheap toilet paper in a soaking rain. The courts, the domestic army, and government offices moved out, and the new alpha dogs moved in—corporate warlords whose only raison d’etre was to feed the coffers of Southeast Asia.
Declared an open commerce zone, Alaska became an anarchist’s dream. But, even anarchy needs referees. The Over-Court, the enforcement arm of the Central Church, stepped in. Officers of the court were called Ushers—holy gumshoes, enforcers of the divine plan, knights of degree-and-order.
My Director called me in. Outside the Central Church, I flashed my usher’s ID and bypassed the public security line. I passed through the scanner, exhaled into the redundant DNA reader, and entered through the employee arch. The Church arcology stood a hundred and forty stories high and a football field long. Inside, the curved walls of the teardrop-shaped foyer guided one’s eyes to a colossal illuminated crucifix at the narrow end. To the left and right, six giant flags undulated by fans gave the cross a lighthouse-in-stormy-seas effect. Impressive, even to me. At least fifty people knelt at pews doing dutiful prayers and heart crosses. I skipped it and turned left to the elevators. Perfunctory rituals didn’t score high on my list of priorities. One of the church officers glared. He started toward me but stopped when he saw my level-four designation.
I stepped into a private lift and sat down. Even the normal setting pushed me deep into the cushions. I got out on the 139th floor and took a skater to Director Carlson’s office.
The polished green-marble tile made me look for a doormat to wipe my feet on. A prim secretary looked down her nose at me as if I’d farted in the first pew.
“Edison, for Dr. Carlson,” I said.
She nodded and tilted her head no more than five degrees to indicate a seat in the waiting area. She would have been attractive if her dress didn’t spend so much time trying to hide her figure. I should have just taken a seat, but I’ve always been a sucker for a frosty librarian persona.
“That’s a beautiful cross. Is it silver?” I guessed.
She looked at her bosom where no necklace showed, then glared at me.
“I’m sorry, I assumed you wore one to match those lovely earrings.”
Finally, she gave a reluctant smile. Unbuttoned the top three herringbone fasteners below her neck and pulled out a silver necklace with an engraved crucifix. “It’s an Ansea original.”
I sat on her desk and leaned in. “Beautiful, you shouldn’t hide them.”
“Take a seat, choirboy,” she intoned tersely and put the cross back into the crowded space inside her dress.
As she re-buttoned and I ogled, Carlson came out with one of the cardinals. They stopped and stared as if someone had belched during evening prayers. She fumbled with the buttons and glowered at me, but never blushed -- this was a cool one. The old cardinal turned almost as red as his robes, shot a damning glare at me, then looked at Carlson with a disapproving dismissal, “I’ll leave you to tend your own offices.” He stalked off.
I headed for a waiting room chair, when I heard, “Thomas!” The word hung in the air like a sick-sweet wine promising a bad aftertaste. I turned to see his crocodile smile, his hand showing me the way.
I entered ahead of him.
Bam! The door slammed.
“What the hell was that? Cardinal Richards can veto any funds that come through this department.” He didn’t wait for an answer. “My office is not a Spenard massage parlor, and you are not indispensable. If you think you can disrespect this sacred space because you have a level-four implant... I can cut you off with a stroke of a key.”
He spewed so much anger, me thinks he protests too much. Maybe he was stroking Miss Prim and Proper on the side.
He hesitated, then unlocked a drawer and pushed a button. The space above his desk became a hologram of an arctic work camp.
“The Nippoi mine at Franklin Bluffs. We suspect the Alaska Independence Movement may have sabotaged a digger and wrecked a mine shaft.”
“That’s not their style. AIM goes for—”
“Look!” Carlson cut me off. “The Church pays you to ask the right questions at the right time and this isn’t it.”
The hologram showed the suspect, Juan Vasser. “Sounds routine. Why me?”
“The Church wants this one off the books.”
“So, I confirm he’s guilty and bring him in?”
He shook his head. “Usher him out, on the spot. And keep it quiet.”
I sat back, shocked. The Church’s dirty work usually went to lower level ushers. “I’ll need retinal scans, DNA profiles, and a good satellite jockey.”
“No. No satellite feed. I said, off the books.” Carlson quickly stood up in a gesture of dismissal.
“What! How am I going to tell the good guys from the bad guys? Why would they—”
The Director held up his hand. His voice almost a whisper, “There are places where people with anti-prohibition histories shouldn’t go.”
His threat would have scared most people. Everybody had done something to violate church prohibitions and the Over-Court used this like a universal nightstick.
“Deacon Meyer’s office will handle mission support.”
“Why not Operations?”
“The right questions, at the right time.” He strode to the door and opened it.
The short briefing set my mind racing. As I exited, I heard “Thomas.” It seemed more than a dismissal. This time it hung in the air like the last-rites over a grave.
* * * * *
Without a satellite feed, I’d have to do this the old fashioned way. Why wouldn’t they give me the data? What were they hiding? AIM grew bolder, aligning with local natives, infiltrating corporate ranks, and using increasingly sophisticated equipment. The more corporate thugs and ushers stomped them into the ground, the more they sprang up. Everywhere, order-and-differentiation was breaking down: the corporations butted heads in constant conflict, the church was overreaching, and the public mood was “lynch mob.” A month ago, a Nippoi oil-drilling rig exploded, killing the crew. Accidents happen, but sometimes they’re like weddings and funerals—professionals take care of the arrangements.
Deacon Meyer’s staff gave me the basic data, work clothes, arctic gear, and cover ID complete with implant overlay. My ID: Mark Wells, safety inspector. I’d catch the morning shuttle to Franklin Bluffs.
As I returned to the ground floor, something occurred to me. It was five o’clock, and most staffers were headed home. My new ID overlay would not be entered into the Central Database until tomorrow morning. Even Director Carlson couldn’t trace Mark Wells, because he didn’t exist yet. I got out of the lift and instead of leaving the building, turned right, entered a back pew and knelt before the colossal cross. From the corner of my eye I saw a smile grace the lips of the church officer who glared at me earlier. I closed my eyes to concentrate. Activating my implant, I logged into the system and zipped through six firewalls to access level four. I entered the red room that had direct control of the satellites. Splicing in an old code, I ordered a pinpoint bump of the church.
This will stir up the hornets. Damn, I hope they can’t trace this. I searched Carlson’s office. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am! Two figures sat around his desk, Carlson and Cardinal Richards. The secretary wasn’t in the outer office. She was in the restroom and... and... disappeared. Where? I searched the building. Nothing. Going back, I looked in the restroom again and there was Richards. But he was in Carlson’s office! Two Cardinal Richards? What happened to Miss Prim and Proper?
Oh shit! Someone was accessing the red room using the same backdoor as I did. I pulled out fast, covering my tracks with untraceable random bits. Closing each door, I reset each security code.
I opened my eyes to the church officer staring me in the face.
“I didn’t see a hand prayer. I thought you might have fallen asleep,” he said with a Marquis de Sade smile.
“Maybe you should mind your own damn business.” I stood up and scowled.
His smile disappeared. “Spiritual shirking is my business.”
“Hey, hand prayer this.” Indicating my crotch, I gave a little Spenard hand prayer motion as I left.
* * * * *
Implants were supposed to be tracers only, neither programmed to receive or transmit. But life forms were never good at following orders, and a very few unexpectedly grew connections into the visual cortex. A little high-tech enhancement and they became interactive; ideal field agents for governments—enforcers with real time battlefield displays in their heads.
* * * * *
I blame it all on my roots, Spenard, Alaska—a haven for non-conformists, transients and a resident underclass. Most interactives are screened by the age of ten, but I turned sixteen before the Church took me to the manse for training. I didn’t fit in. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked the underdog, and with Carlson pushing the buttons outside regular channels, I was definitely the underdog. I needed help and knew where to get it. The underground had been defying regulation since it began—I headed for downtown Spenard.
You don’t just enter the Hidden Nugget Casino—you play billiards at Sourdough Sam’s, drop a few key words then tell the barkeep you’re looking for something special. When he offers you kinky hookers, young men, or animals, you drop a name.
“I was hoping Sienna had some time.”
“Are you kidding? Get in line, buddy. I’ll put ‘cha down for next April,” the bartender quipped.
I flashed a credit chip that held more than enough money for Sienna and slipped him another adequate for a serious tip.
He waved the chip over a scanner. “That’ll git cha past the bouncers, but like I say, she’s a busy gal.” He nodded toward the back hall.
I went through the curtain, down a hall and into an elevator that hummed. A camera pivoted to get a good view. The hum came from sensors, bumping me with every part of the electro-magnetic spectrum. The doors opened to the shielded underground, a Faraday-caged warren of disenfranchised misfits. Two armed gorillas greeted me. One wore a stunner, the other a laser. In the background, a couple dozen customers played at a small casino. Mr. Laser stepped in and ran a hand-held degauss over my implant to check for overlays. My Church-provided ID fooled their mediocre sensors.
“You’re in, Mr. Wells. What can we do for you?”
“I’d like to send a message to Sienna.”
“Well, wouldn’t we all. Hey, if you just want a girl, I can you set up with Miss Right.”
“Tell her, Thomas, Dick and Harry is here.”
The Laser guy sneered abrasively, "She’s outta your class, buddy.”
“That hand-held couldn’t tell an orange from an apple, the elevator sensors missed my active armor, and you had a little nip a while ago,” I said in low tones so the johns at the casino couldn’t hear. Louder I said, “We wouldn’t want that to get upstairs, would we? Just send the damn message.” I turned and stalked off to a seat at a blackjack table.
I played for an hour-and-a-half, winning some, losing some, the bouncers giving me furtive looks. Finally, a bald giant came in from the west tunnel. He walked right up to me.
“Mister Ed -- ?”
I held up my hand and interrupted, “Let’s use Mark.”
His Asian face belied his accent, the Queen’s English. “Miss Sienna shall see you now. This way.”
He led me to the tunnel where we stepped on a two-man skater. “You work for Sam?”
He shook his head. “I am in the employ of Miss Sienna.”
“I prefer personal assistant.”
“She must be getting some ornery customers.” He didn’t say anymore but didn’t have to. I had learned the hard way. Sienna could play men like a savant. Desire was her product, a contagion she could incite and inflame, an object so within reach but never quite obtainable.
“She’s upstairs. She’s expecting you.”
I knocked and entered. Her business lounge had changed, now Greco-Roman -- spa, couch, and a sea of pillows.
“Thomas.” It hung in the air like a lullaby. She made her entrance, toga, one ivory shoulder exposed, hair piled high, a Greek Goddess descending.
I smiled. “Beautiful as always.”
“I’m surprised to see you... so soon.”
“Yeah, well, can’t stay out of trouble.” I looked away. “An Aphrodite motif. I like it.”
She shrugged, which let her toga slip further down her left breast. “It’s playful. I like dress-up.” Sienna smiled with the innocent promise of a prom date.
I felt a stir and quickly looked away. Trying to change my physical state, I conjured up first-aid images of frostbite victims.
Too late! I felt my face flush.
She sat on the couch and said knowingly, “So, what brings you here?”
“I need your help.”
She looked at the swell of my pants and smiled. “I see you do.”
“I need to see Prometheus.”
Her smile faded. “You got a lot of nerve. I moved a client to get you in.” She stood up. “He said you left equipment behind on your last job. Put him at risk.”
“It was ugly. Nothing I could do.”
“I don’t believe this.” She put her hands on her hips. “What’s going on with you?”
“New mission, doesn’t make any sense. I can’t go without an ace up my sleeve.”
“You’re a level-four usher. You can get the best equipment in the world.”
“The Church giveth and the Church taketh away. Just hook me up.”
She exhaled, thought a minute then picked up the phone. “Jeremy, I’m sending someone over. He’s—” She looked up.
“Mark Wells.” She hung up. “That’ll get you in. You better have something to trade and not just money.”
“That’s all I got.” I paused. “So, I was hoping. ” I waved a four thousand credit chit, her usual fee. “You could give him a... he would do anything for you.”
“What? You son-of-a-bitch. I’m not some street walker. Screw off. Get out, asshole!”
She threw a ceramic Zeus at me and reached for another.
I side-stepped and headed for the exit. “I suppose one for the road is completely out of the question.”
Another Greek god shattered against the door.
* * * * *
Jeremy let me in. I approached Prometheus’ workshop and announced myself. “Theus. I’ve got something to trade!”
Prometheus growled, “Thomas!” It hung in the air like a hangman’s knot. He came to the door, eyes glinting rage.
“Shit, you left my signature all over that place. They got uber-ushers, level-fives from Boston. They’re not stupid. They’ll trace that stuff. They’ll make me a special project.” He called, “Jeremy!”
“I’m sorry. The whole mission got out of control.” I held my hands out apologetically.
Jeremy came forward, stunner drawn.
“Just hear me out. I wouldn’t have come here empty-handed.” I stood still, offering no resistance.
Shit, think fast! “Sienna asked about you,” I lied. “She wants to see you.” Man, am I going to hell.
Prometheus held up his hand and Jeremy lowered the stunner. “What did she say?”
“Asked how you were doing.”
“You’re lying. She won’t even see me till next month.”
“I think she gets down sometimes. Tired of her... lifestyle. Maybe she wishes there was a way out.” I gave Jeremy a sideways glace and nodded toward the lab. “Can we talk?”
Prometheus waved Jeremy away and marched into his inner-sanctum. “Come.”
I followed. As I passed through the threshold, I could almost feel the scanners as he electronically strip-searched me.
“You’re traveling light,” he said with his back to me. “Active armor , a stunner, and a very nice overlay. I wouldn’t have caught it if I wasn’t looking for it.”
“Too light. I need an ace that can pass through a field camp scanner. And I’ve got no satellite feed.”
“Ahh. Somebody’s keeping secrets, and you don’t like a stacked deck unless you’re dealing.” He leaned against a work bench covered in circuitry. “So we know what you want. What do you have, and what makes you think I want it?”
“There’s a warm body in the church director’s office who pulled a switcheroo on satellite,” I said casually.
“You bumped the church? Now that takes balls. Could it be a degauss shield? Not that unusual.”
“Nope. That would have left a footprint. Nothing. A complete chameleon.” I looked at him closely. “I saw him myself.”
Prometheus blinked and turned away. I’ve played poker and know a “tell” when I see one. I’d go all-in that when I said him, he knew it was a her.
Theus spun around, anger oozing into his voice. “You need to decide, Thomas! Just whose side are you on? Someday, that picket fence you walk is going to get mighty shaky.”
“Theus. I’d never- ”
“How never will you be when they get you in that basement and hook electrodes to your nuts?”
He stared at me as if deciding my fate, then relented. “Don’t leave any of this anywhere.” He pushed a button under the work bench which opened a hidden drawer. He showed several ink pens. “Magnesium easily gets through the scanners.” The red one is a stunner. But what you need is information. He held up one green and one blue pen. Separate, these will pass a scanner. Once inside, swap the bottoms and point it like a flashlight for a limited range bump that won’t show up on the camp sensors. Goes through walls, degauss shields, and hypocrisy.”
He slid the pens over. “Dispose of properly, as if your life depended on it. Because it does.”
“I owe you one.”
“Yeah, put in a good word for me.” Theus turned in dismissal.
“With the devil. I’m sure you’ll see him before I do.”
* * * * *
From afar, Franklin Bluffs appeared as a long dark line against the otherwise undifferentiated expanse of arctic white. As the plane dove through the clear cold air, the mining camp came into view—an unfortunate smudge on an otherwise innocent canvas.
I slid through the security scanners without trouble, checked into my room then reported to the project office. A company safety inspector was the perfect cover, a tolerable irritant, much like a visit from a dentist. The project engineer gave me clearance to inspect any of the work areas.
I surveyed the underground. Carrying the proverbial clip board/tablet, I pretended to check fire extinguishers and SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) stations. The surface features, camp, airstrip, and oil rig were only part of the lesion. Underground lay an ant farm of tunnels, equipment and pipes: pipes that fed bigger pipes. Oil, gas, even heavy ores were fluidized and pumped to tidewater. Seven underground levels branched from a main vertical shaft that held two pedestrian elevators and an equipment-lift large enough to park a dump truck on. Some of the laborers were native locals. They appeared friendly enough, but the roughnecks and operators, from overseas, gave me a wide berth. They didn’t want to be seen talking to a safety inspector. They didn’t want to be suspected of ratting on the brotherhood of mineral extraction.
I quit with the normal work shift then cleaned up, grabbed a tray of food from the chow line, and ate dinner in my room. I rested till three a.m., then began my real job, confronting Juan Vasser.
Even though the place operated twenty-four-seven, the night shift droned along at a slower frequency. My white safety hardhat and clipboard kept me from drawing unwanted attention. I found a laundry cart and pushed it down several sleep-unit corridors until I found Juan’s assigned room. The hall stood empty. I pulled out my blue-green pen and sent a pulse scanning his room. He occupied the room alone.
Ordinary people are as capable of the same shocking acts of violence as professional hit men. However, there is a small but important difference, and that is the initial act, the casting of the first stone. A normal fight starts with verbal expletives, then posturing threats -- a push, maybe a slap -- then the blows and available weapons. But people who do violence for a living have no initial inhibition. They go straight to the incapacitating blow before the normal guy gets started.
I knocked and stepped back.
“Who is it?” he answered from inside. I kicked the flimsy plastic door in and fired. He dropped like a boneless chicken. Stepping back into the hall, I pulled the laundry cart inside and closed the door. I then checked his face against the hologram. Definitely him, whoever “him” was. I had several hours before he would wake with a hell of a stunner-induced headache. If he had an overlay I would know soon. I focused the blue and green scanning pen on his skull, sat quietly, and logged in. His implant had more scar tissue overlays than an aging Hollywood trophy-wife. He’d never gone near the sabotaged digger. Going deeper, I read his movements prior to this job. He had spent a lot of time at the arcology. A spy? He just didn’t seem like the spiritual type, so I checked the coordinates closer, which put him smack dab in Director Carlson’s office. I popped out.
Was Vasser working for the Church? Did Carlson send me here to whack a double agent, a loose end? Again, I needed information. Unfortunately, I had to walk into the lion’s den to see if the big-cats were hungry. I would fake Juan’s death, and catch the morning flight back to Anchorage to confront Carlson.
* * * * *
I stepped out of the terminal waiting area to breath in the crisp arctic air. The early fingers of dawn reflected off the wings of the morning incoming flight.
“Good morning, Thomas.” A soft female voice rang inside my head like a long lost friend. My implant display awoke!
“So, I’m back online. Who’s this? Operations?”
“No.” the disembodied voice said with a snort. “Let’s just say you’ve got a friend in low places. It seems you’ve been a bad boy. Cardinal Richards suspects your association with AIM is more than professional. There are two uber-ushers from Boston on that morning plane, and they are coming for you.”
“Oh, shit!” I looked around for the maintenance equipment barn. Maybe I could abscond with a skitter. “Who are you, and why should I believe you?” I questioned.
“We’ve met before. And you don’t remember me? I’m crushed.”
“Give me a hint,” I asked.
“You liked my Ansea original.”
“Miss Prim and Proper, the chameleon?”
“Spys are us.”
“For AIM?” I asked.
“Call me Pris. Enough chit-chat, camp security just got word that you murdered someone, a Mr. Vasser. A security team is headed your way and those level-fives aren’t there to play patty-cake.”
“I’ll grab a skitter and head to Prudhoe.”
“Idiot, they’ll blast you from the air. Fifty feet from you there’s a manhole to a utility tunnel. And put a skip in it, the security team is at the west end of the terminal.”
I located the manhole cover and kicked at it. “It’s frozen in place, damn it.”
“Kick it,” she yelled.
“I am kicking it!” I looked around -- an ice chipper stood by the door.
The plane landed and taxied toward the terminal.
“Security is going spot you any second now.”
I walked to the door and picked up the chipper at the same time the security folks fixed their eyes on me. I pulled my parka hood up and turned back to the manhole.
“Sir, sir!” The first guard challenged me.
I kept my back to them, pretended not to hear and slammed the ice chipper hard on the cover. The lid popped loose.
Pris yelled, “Thomas!” It rang with the urgency of a nuclear warning siren. “They’re drawing their weapons.”
“Sir. Halt!” More than one of the guards said.
“Two pistols and a stunner.” Miss Prim and Proper’s voice echoed in my head.
I turned and looked. All three stood within two meters, feet spread, weapons pointing.
“Sir, your ID,” the excited young officer’s voice squeaked.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t hear.” I pulled my hood back, fumbled for my ID, and held it out to the man with the stunner. He reached for it as I dropped it in the snow.
He bent down to get it, and I continued prying up the manhole cover. “Damn maintenance, anyway. Gotta keep these clear. It’s a safety issue.”
The cover rolled aside and without looking I stepped into the hole.
The two pistol packers fired point blank!
There’s always a smidge of doubt in the back of one’s mind about high tech equipment. Will it work? What’s the failure rate? Fortunately, my active armor clothing operated according to specifications. Two 0.34 grain bullets struck at 1,000 meters per second activating tiny directional explosives embedded in flexible graphite plate, neutralizing most of each projectile’s momentum.
I didn’t have long to think about the bruises forming on my rib cage. I fell three meters to land on a big pipe that sent a shockwave of pain up my spine.
“Oh, dear. Thomas. Thomas!” she inquired.
All I could do was grunt and try to catch my breath.
One of the coppers leaned over the manhole shouting, “Give me your flashlight.”
Still on my back, I pulled my stunner and fired. The officer half fell into the hole, unconscious. His pistol clattered on the floor. The others must have caught him, but that gave me time to gather my feet. “Which way?”
“Toward the main camp. You’ve got four-hundred meters to the next intersection. Are you all right? Your elevation changed suddenly. Did you fall?”
“Let’s just say I won't be bull riding for a while. What’s the plan?” I limped along a lengthy low ceiling corridor.
“Ahh. Turn left and descend the utilidor to sub-floor seven. You can hide in the generator’s magnetic field.”
“Then what?” I pleaded.
“Then... n... n... we’ll think of something.”
“You’re long on short term plans but mighty short on long.”
“Hey, focus. Cancer treatments are considered successful if the patient survives for five years; success for you is down to five minutes. Those uber-men are on the ground and moving toward the main camp. Can’t you run any faster?”
“Uber-man? Isn’t that the term for Nietzsche’s super-man?”
“I believe so. You got any kryptonite?”
“I’m at the intersection,” I grunted as I half-slid, half-climbed down the pipe supports.
“No, seriously. These guys are supermen only because of their high-tech enhancements. Get them in a magnetic flux field and that evens the score a bit.”
Breathing hard I huffed. “ I... gottcha. I see the main elevator shaft now. If I can climb across I can get next to the generators.”
I made my way to the vertical shaft. Conduits crisscrossed one side and I climbed over to the generator floor. The day crew had already evacuated, but below me robotic diggers continued feeding mechanical ore crushers that fed automated pumps that fed pipelines that fed corporate profits. It warmed my heart to know my tiff with the Central Church wouldn’t slow production.
Three-foot diameter ore-pipes angled upward through the chamber. The ore they carried made a deafening roar. I found a safety station and donned a headset. “Pris, let’s find the extent of the field.”
“You’re still on satellite. Walk toward the generators.”
Two house-size units droned along forty meters away. I moved toward them. “Can you scan me, now?”
“Starting to fade. There... still there... “ Bling.
I stepped back. “Looks like about a thirty meters safe zone around each unit.” I exhaled. “Not much to hide in.”
“Oh, piffle, here they come. Aggressive little bastards. I see two lifts heading down.”
Think. Shit! “I can’t think with the heat and noise from those damn ore-pipes.” If creativity is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration, I had the sweating part down pat.
“Their lift stopped at floor six. The other is coming down to you,” Pris relayed.
The elevator arrival indicator lit up. “That means... oh, shit!” I looked back at the safety station and the SCBA gear stationed thirty feet away. The elevator doors slid open, I ducked and covered.
Bam! Flames roiled through the chamber. They’d sent a greeting card on the first lift—a plasma grenade. I buried my face inside my shirt, afraid to breathe in the acrid air. The force of the blast knocked out the lights. I stumbled toward my last visual of the SCBA gear hanging on the wall. Hands outstretched, I found the wall and clawed along searching for the station. Lungs yearning, I sipped at the air, but it scorched my throat. Consciousness ebbed, I fell.
“Thomas! There’s a SCBA three feet to your right. Thomas,” Pris screamed.
I made one last effort, found the mask... turned the knob... sucked at the precious air inside.
“I’m still here,” I transmitted.
“Well done. I hate to tell you this but the other elevator is arriving and they’re on it.”
As I recovered, the heat and noise from the ore-pipes kept my brain addled... the ore-pipes?
“Pris, what was Maxwell’s third equation?”
“Something about electro-magnetic induction—a magnetic field forms at right angles to a flowing current. Pris, what does the satellite show to be the diameter of the nearest pipeline?”
“I don’t know, about one and a half meters,” she said. “The boogie men are seconds away.”
“I’m guessing that the velocity of the fluidized ore creates a flux field around the pipe!”
I felt along the wall nearing the ascending ore-pipes. The machinery still ran—the plasma grenade had been carefully calculated to kill personnel, but spare equipment. I found the pipe riser and climbed on top.
“They’re here. The doors just opened. One is circling left of the generators, the other... is coming straight toward you. They know your posi—”
“Pris?” No response. I hunkered within the flux field of the pipe as I shimmied up the forty-five degree incline to a support stanchion. I hugged the pipe, keeping my head and my implant within inches of its outside diameter.
They would have night vision goggles, while I couldn’t see ten feet in the stygian darkness. My only hope—he would be watching his blind spot, the area near the generator.
My life hung on timing; I had no idea of his location. I counted twenty seconds, an eternity, then raised my head above the pipe’s flux field to pick up his position on my internal display and bingo—thirty yards away he stalked, circling the generators. He was also instantly alerted through his implant. We both fired.
I’d have guessed his youthful reaction time was around 140 milliseconds, much better than the human average of 180, while my more mature nervous system was less impressive. All that had nothing to do with the results. His deadly needle-thin laser missed. My wide-beamed stunner didn’t.
“Thomas! What’s going on?”
“One down. Where’s the other?” I’m not sure why I asked. He didn’t show on my display. He must have seen the flash from the laser and ducked into the flux field on the other side of the generators.
“Get away from there. Thomas, he knows your position,” Pris advised.
I scrambled down from the pipe and traded my stunner for the uber-usher’s laser. I reached for his night vision goggles, but before I could put them on, a searing light flashed, singeing my optical nerves. The size of my headache couldn’t be measured in spatial terms.
“Pris. Help, he used a flash-bang. I’m blinded.”
“Ahh. He’s still on the other side. He... uh-oh.”
“Uh-ho! What could be uh-oh? I’m blind and a professional killer is about to arc-weld a hole through my head.”
“He’s backing off. But my firewalls are failing. He’s figured out that you have a satellite feed and he’s coming to the red room. I can’t stop him.”
“Put up another firewall,” I mentally shouted.
“He’s going through them like butter.” Urgency crackled in her voice.
“One minute.” She sounded resigned.
This guy was methodical. First, he physically blinds me, and then he attacks Pris to take away my video.
“Don’t look,” I said. An implant should take about two minutes to register morbidity after physical death. Feeling around for the downed usher’s body, I turned him over and stretched him out. I found his head with one hand, aimed the laser with the other, and fired, drawing the 6,000 degree beam across his neck. He wore long hair with which I picked up the head and walked around the generator straight toward Mr. Methodical’s satellite blip.
“He’s here outside the red room.” Pris gasped. “I’m sorry. Got to... good—”
Pris disappeared along with my satellite feed. I pulled out Prometheus’ pen and flashed a pulse toward the super-usher’s last position. The short range hand-scanner picked up the outlines of the equipment allowing me to march down the middle of the aisle. I hoped superman-2 would see his partner’s implant approaching and hesitate.
He didn’t retreat but stayed concealed. Thirty yards... twenty yards... ten yards. Still he waited, only a corner of a metal cabinet between us. I rolled the head down the aisle like a bowling ball, and then fired the laser through the console. It burned through the layers of light-gauge steel and must have sprayed hot metal. Superman-2 screamed. I dove forward, rolled on the floor and fired again. Even my damaged optical nerves registered the white light from his weapon as it arced over my head. I fired again and again, until there was no answer.
Blink. “Thomas, are you all right?” Pris came back online. “He... he stopped just as he entered the red room. Is he?”
“Dead?” I finished her thought. “I suspect so.” The smell of burned flesh gave testimony.
“Pris, where are the weak points in the system?” I searched the schematics on my display.
“Why? What are you thinking? No... no! You trying to start a revolution?”
“I’d like to call it a revitalization movement.” I fired the laser at one of the pump heads. I smelled smoke, then fired at another. And another. The cacophony lowered.
“Settle down, choirboy. Not yet, not now!”
I hit a control cabinet next and heard the ore pipeline grind to a halt. The silence hung in the air like a balm.
“We’re not ready. Prometheus will have your hide,” Pris protested.
“You better tell him.”
“He already knows.”
Next came a long pause and my display went out. Pris was probably conferring with AIM.
I crawled on the floor and found the first usher’s head. Collecting it, I stepped over, removed the head of the second uber-man, and staggered into the elevator with my gruesome tokens.
My display came alive. Pris announced, “You live a charmed life, Thomas. They’re going with it.”
Her words hung in the air like salvation to a troubled soul. “Thanks, to one and all.”
“We still have camp security to deal with.”
“I’ll take care of them. Is that morning cargo flight still around?”
“Yes, it’s an independent contractor. You’ll be safe if you get aboard. Thomas, why are the level-five ushers moving?”
“Thought I would try shock and awe.”
“Say no more. I don’t want to know.”
The lift ascended.
“There’s a big crowd waiting around the elevator foyer—including several dozen camp security types,” Pris prompted.
My eyes recovered a bit; I could make out light and dark shapes but still had to rely on my satellite feed. The doors opened.
“Thomas, they’ve got a small armory pointing at you,” Pris cautioned.
The crowd gasped and retreated a few steps. I had no idea what I looked like—how much blood might now be dripping from the once cauterized veins. I stepped out, heads in one hand and a laser in the other. My internal display showed that the camp security chief stood to one side. I approached him and heard the click of a half dozen projectile weapons preparing to fire. Dropping the laser, I made a pronouncement. “Nippoi Corporation is shutting down its field operations. And the Central Church,” I tossed the heads at his feet, “will be closing their Alaska branch.”
Grace is when you get something that you don’t deserve—love, forgiveness, respect… survival. I heard a scattering of “yeahs”—even a little applause. One of the workers walked over and stood between me and the security crews. More joined him. My display showed a tide of blips forming a screen around me. I walked steadily out the doors and toward the tarmac.
* * *
During the revolution of 2093, the term Usher lost its association with the Central Church. Ushers became defenders, knight-errants, advocates who restore order to the universe.