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[In the year of Elnyin 6080.]
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“I wish I could have a real adventure. My life is so boring,” said Carl to himself as he closed his book: Strikemaster In The House Of Doom. The Strikemaster series captured his attention with its pulse-pounding action and intriguing mysteries.
The sixteen-year-old youth, wearing the blue and white Reman Academy uniform, relaxed in a cushioned chair at a small chrome conference table. His glass of Rago juice had left several rings on the clear glass table top. Taking a sip of his juice, he let his light-brown eyes wander around the room.
The rectangular room had a majestic and important feel like decisions that changed the destiny of planets were made there. The walls were adorned with bright curtains in the royal colours of scarlet, white and purple, interspaced with portraits of the Emperor and important dignitaries. A bar with a selection of non-alcoholic beverages was placed along the left wall, while five plush chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around the conference table in the centre of the room. Each seating place had a computer screen embedded in the table under a glass cover. On the ceiling was a painting of the symbol of the El Empire. No one would guess from its appearance that it was a room on a spaceship.
“Pardon?” came a male voice behind him.
Carl hadn’t heard the door opening. He swivelled his chair to face the tall, skinny man who had just entered. He was wearing the uniform of the Security Elite - a scarlet shirt with a gold stripe on the sleeve and black pants. Carl’s gaze briefly fell on the pistol strapped on his right hip. It was a Piecer V capable of boring a hole in a man 100 yards away, although not many could hit a target at that range, and, being solar-powered, it never ran out of ammunition. The man's name was Scott Anderson, and he was Carl’s pilot and bodyguard on a journey that would forever change Carl’s life.
“Just mumbling to myself.”
Scott smiled, “Adventures sound good when they’re in books. In real life, not so much.”
Carl gave him an unconvinced look as he said, “How long ’til we get to Yekin?”
“That’s what I was coming to tell you. The solar converter went down. We’re dead in space, but a towship is coming from Hesnorter. We’ll be able to get repairs there, but it will likely add another six hours to our trip.”
“How could the solar converter break? The Emperor’s fleet is supposed to be in top working order at all times.”
“The Pure Delight was checked over. I don’t know how they missed this, but when I get back, I will find out.” Scott laughed at Carl’s face. “You look like you’re in a hurry to return to school.”
“It’s my last time. Three more months of boarding school, and I’ll be free.” Carl signed and said, “Well, not really free. I get to go back and help Uncle Nelson in his construction company. Which reminds me, you work closely with Uncle Nelson, don’t you?”
Scott shrugged, “I’ve been assigned as his bodyguard quite often, if that’s what you mean.”
“Have you noticed anything strange about him lately?”
“Strange?” Scott looked surprised.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Carl, groping for words to describe a vague inner feeling. “He just seems more grumpy than he used to be.”
Scott grunted, “I’m sure the Emperor’s top advisor has more than enough problems and worries to make him a little grumpy.”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s just that he seems more touchy - or even distant somehow. It’s probably my imagination.”
“Undoubtedly.” Scott turned to go.
“While you’re getting The Pure Delight repaired, I’ll walk through the spaceport. I want to see if I can pick up another Strikemaster book.”
“Why? Everyone ever written in available at your fingertips.” Scott nodded to the computer screens.
Carl shook his head, “It’s just not the same. You need the feel of a good book in your hands. Besides, I have a hardcover collection, and I’m still missing some harder-to-find ones.”
Scott frowned, “I wish you wouldn’t. After all, I’m responsible for your safety until you return to school.”
“Don’t worry. You won’t fail in your duty. I’m not important enough for anything to happen to me. And even if I were, it certainly wouldn’t happen on a barren piece of rock like Hesnortor.”
Scott tapped a communicator on his belt. “You be sure to stay in contact, and I’ll catch up with you as soon as I know the repairs are underway.”
Carl nodded, blissfully ignorant of the danger that awaited him.
Carl wasn’t wrong when he described the planet Hesnortor as a barren piece of rock. It held one of the few spaceports in the Middle Zone, a vast and sparsely populated region between the Gractor and Neborn systems. As there was no breathable atmosphere, the 4 million residents lived in three domed towns linked to the spaceport's various terminals by enclosed tubes and underground tunnels.
Carl stood in the Reach Out Bookstore, looking around. The bookstore combined digital and RL [Real Life] books. The RL books lined one long wall. On the opposite were computer consoles where customers could scroll through the catalogue of available digital books.
A white-haired man with a wrinkled face approached Carl. The man appeared to be the only employee in the store, perhaps the owner.
“What can I help you with?” he asked. “I have more exclusive book contracts than anyone in this galaxy. I even ship to the Central Planets.”
Carl raised a skeptical eyebrow, “On Hesnortor?”
“Surprising, isn’t it? Hesnorter has some…advantages.”
Carl could well imagine some of the advantages, like pirated books with their download and copyright locks removed. With a shrug, Carl said, “I want the RL edition of Strikemaster And The Palace Murder and Strikemaster Submerged.”
The man gave a low whistle, “I’ve got several RL Strikemaster books, but those are hard to come by.” He paused, then said, “But I’ve got something better.” He punched in a code on one of the consoles, and the entire list of Strikemaster books appeared in the air above the console. He swiped the floating titles several times until he selected Strikemaster And The Palace Murder, as he said, “I have the entire collection in immersive 3D with audio options.”
The book's text began scrolling on an invisible screen before them as if floating in the air. Around them, scenes from the book played in 3D illustrations matching the text.
“Male voice, female voice, various accents and languages.”
“I must admit I don’t have anything as elaborate as this,” said Carl turning in different directions to see the 3D effects, “but I do have the complete series digitally. What I want is original hard copies.”
The man looked disappointed as he closed the program and said, “I have a friend in Terminal 5 who specializes in hard-to-get books. I’ll see if he has them.”
The man went through a curtain into the back room. Carl browsed the RL books while he waited. A few minutes later, the man emerged with a smile.
“Good news. Alfred has the Submerged one.”
Carl’s eyes lit up. “You said he was in Terminal 5?”
The man nodded, “But the Rapid Transport Tube is down. You’ll have to go through the tunnel. It’s about a five-minute walk.”
“Thank you so much,” said Carl as he hurried out of the store. Imagine the Hard Cover of Strikemaster Submerged! It would have the original pen illustrations of Delorous Gilford too.
As Carl exited the store, another man emerged from behind the curtain. His cold, black eyes were set in a face weathered by too many years spent under hot suns and living in the wilderness. Short, gray hair framed the face, and a cruel scar ran across one cheek. A Revolt revolver was slung low on his hip in gunslinger fashion. With its rotating chamber and explosive projectiles, the Revolt was considered obsolete by modern weapon standards but was highly prized by those who prided themselves on deadly marksmanship.
The bookstore owner turned to him with satisfaction, “He’s taking the tunnel to Terminal 5 just like you wanted.”
The man nodded. His eyes followed Carl through the window. He then headed to the backroom with the owner following, waiting for his pay. On his way. he drew his Revolt and spun the chamber. Once behind the curtain, he turned to look at his companion. “This is a top security job. No witnesses.”
The bookstore owner’s face went white as he comprehended the man’s meaning.
The gunman fired once, and the owner dropped dead to the floor.
As Carl headed for the underground tunnel to Terminal 5, he was unaware that a pair of eyes was observing his every movement. Carl descended into the tunnel, noticing he lost his communicator signal. Since it was only a five-minute walk, he wasn’t concerned, but he hurried along because he did not want to get in trouble with Scott for being out of contact.
Suddenly, as he walked around a corner, he took in a scene that stopped him dead in his tracks. He had just entered a straight stretch about midway between the two terminals. Halfway down the corridor, five youths had an older man surrounded.
The leader pushed the man against the cold cement wall and snarled, “You’re using our tunnel. You gotta pay.”
“I…I…haven’t got anything,” stammered the man.
“Actually, you do,” smirked the leader. “You have a way for Brenton here to prove he’s got what it takes to run with us.”
The mocking laughter and faint pleading mingled in Carl’s mind tugging at his compassion even as fear gripped his heart. He knew no one had seen him. He knew he could slip back around the corner and be gone without any risk. Then he could call the police. He also knew the man would be dead before any help could come. There was nothing he could do. He was unarmed…untrained. If he tried to intervene, there would be two dead bodies. But his feet refused to budge as his mind raged with conflicting emotions. Sweat broke out on his forehead as his eyes remained captured by the scene.
If I slip away, I’ll never be able to live with myself…and if I don’t, they’ll kill me too, Carl thought. Sometimes you have to do right no matter what…but is this one of those times? No matter what I do, I won’t be about to help him…
Carl saw the leader reach into his pants pocket and draw out a small cylinder. Carl felt sick as he realized what it was. A small button was pushed, and a six-inch slicer blade glowed at the end of the cylinder. Its powerful, focused laser could cut through flesh, bone and even some metals. With a grin, the leader handed it to the lad he called Brenton, who did not appear to be more than fifteen. Brenton’s face showed no hesitation, only a grim satisfaction that he was about to prove his loyalty to the gang.
Something snapped inside of Carl. Without thinking, he yelled out, “NO!” and charged toward the group, expecting to die a useless but honourable death.
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