Strapped in, his arms shackled, his boots locked in, Sid prepared himself.
He wasn’t worried about the headache, the heat, the slam of the g-force — three times that of the colony.
He knew none of that would get to him. He was seasoned, and tough. He had endured Wormslam travel before.
But this cheap excuse for a Retroverve 4000 was different. It had been only used for freight. Not designed for soft human bodies. Sharp corners. Smelly. He couldn’t move his bum knee. Still harboring shrapnel from the XY Revolt, it hurt bad enough in normal circumstances, but here, strapped into this loud bag of bolts, he couldn’t flex it, or stretch it or loosen it up. He should have asked for more morphine.
Not that it would have worked. This Level II Nurse working Control, large and pink from artificial sun, prepped him for launch. She was the worst, going out of her way to administer the first injection into the tender underside of his left bicep, right through the spacesuit. She stood on the highest step of the orange-steel lift platform, far enough away from the small, coffin-sized rocket to avoid the black oil of its outer sheen but close enough to lean within a foot of Sid’s face. He could see the scoping aperture in her artificial left eyeball.
“The medications are prescribed down to the milligram, Mr. Scott,” she said as he winced under the shot. “It’s just enough to keep you from voiding those essential fluids, or as I like to say, pissing your pansy-ass pants like a newling. You should recover enough to be alert upon landing. That is …” She couldn’t hold back a snort “… if you really think there will be a landing.” Another snort and a laugh.
Her cackle bounced around the rocket as she joked about Sid’s chances to survive. Her assistant, a slender male silver cyborg with eyes as big and green as avocados, hung at her soft, fleshy hip. It’s job was to avoid human error, to record everything, to lift and clamp and adjust the ship as needed. The cyborg played the nurse’s little speech back immediately, as per protocol and complete with his best robotic imitation of cackling. He didn’t have the capacity to edit her words.
A freakin’ robot giggling at my possible immolation, Sid thought. He liked that word, immolation. Yes, he would be sacrificed. No, this was not a sentence, or a punishment. It was a sacrifice. He refused to accept their law, their trials, their legal mumbo jumbo. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He called it, if anything, civil disobedience.
Wasn’t it morally sound to break the law to save a life? No, the tribunal had said, predictably. Guilty. Capital punishment warranted.
Immolation. Yes, that’s a good word. The immolation of Sid Scott. Would make a good book.
Sid tried to recall some other long, odd words from his time at the university — pyrotechnautical, carbonzerocomical, hypochondriavatar. Anything to get that nurse’s cackle out of his ears. He played a mental game.
Which was more aggravating? Her voice? Or the smell of rotting sorghum ethanol from the engine block. Couldn’t she just shut up?
But the Control Nurse had a job to do, and she enjoyed it. She puffed out her chest, took a deep breath and read the order from the tribunal, one more time, as per the law. She held the writ in one scrubbed-raw hand and kept the other on the hatch, ready to close it as soon as her declaration ended. She spoke very quickly; the words ran together and Sid had a hard time hearing them.
That’s because his helmet hung in place above his head, designed to lower automatically when the hatch was shut. It partially covered his good ear. He could hear enough, though, to tell himself that this lady wasn’t reading. She knew this by heart; she had done this way too many times before. He memorized her face — just in case he got out of this jam — as the cyborg repeated her words.
“We the women of Galaxy Senecom the powers granted to us by the Intergalatic High Treaty of 3025, do hereby sentence one Sidney Oliver Scott to Experimental Transworld Relocation, as was his choice, in line with Universal Code C, Title 18, Sub-statute (b) 101, under the heading of High Treason.”
Ha, that accent on the first syllable of Galaxy makes a helluva lot of sense, Sid thought. The big Gal in charge certainly had control now. He tried to count in his head all his brothers-in-arms who had been caught and sentenced — wait, immolated — in this latest so-called “XY Re-education Process.”
All guilty. All sentenced. Never heard from again.
Before the roundup, which the men knew was coming, they had made the joint decision to opt for the Transworld travel, but Sid figured some — especially the older ones — just gave up and took the needle. If he were older, he might have to. A little easier than burning to death in rotting ethanol.
Still, he held on to hope. Maybe some of the other launches made it past the tri-uranium rings that circled this godforsaken planet … through the asteroid clouds … past the Oscillating Westerly Wormhole … to the landing. But, where?
The men had no idea. The cyborg defense attorneys had revealed little except the chance at survival. Why not relocate to a habitable place? They asked. Again and again and again. Yes, it supported life. The cyborgs were not programmed to say anything more.
And, of course, the women never reported back on the outcome of launches, how many succeeded, if any.
Of course, Sid told himself, success is in the eye of the beholder, eh? What was a successful launch? Immolation? Why had the women offered this travel plea bargain? It couldn’t be just to kill the XY Movement. It wasn’t just capital punishment. There were cheaper ways to do that.
Maybe they needed data on how well these recycled ships carried a pilot? Maybe the ships’ recorders reported back radiation readings just before these guys turned into bacon? Maybe the Geek Gals needed more brain data on the Wormslam Rebound Effect?
Did they really want these rockets to land?
It was worth the chance, the men had decided. As for Sid, at 33, he was too young to roll over and give up, though his knee felt decades older. The clamps around his upper thigh made the throbbing worse.
Over soon, he thought. Everything, including the pain. He wondered if he’d be alive long enough to see his flesh and bone melt away to expose that shrapnel. He wanted to see it.
At least — he turned his mind from the macabre — the launch would give him one final chance to feel that surge in his spine, to see that moonfire on the horizon, to … the creak of the hatch interrupted his fantasy. It was time.
He began to panic, but he forced himself to think positive. Maybe the other guys made it. Maybe they learned to live wherever the heck this tin can was headed. Maybe, just maybe, they learned to hunt.
He wished the cyborg would talk again. At least it had a male voice. It had been months since he even saw another XY.
Jeez, wouldn’t it be something if Hoghead survived, or Rundown or Caliph … the hatch squeezed closed, loosing a spray of palm oil as rotten as the sorghum.
Sid’s helmet lowered as planned. That’s something at least. Scratches marred its visor. There was a date from 2031 and — huh? — a crude penis cartoon. The largest word scribbled, Resist, made Sid laugh out loud.
He saw the nurse through the porthole. As the heavy fire door to the elevator closed, she smiled and waved. Then she quickly flipped her hand to give Sid the finger.
The cyborg, giant eyes closing in a lazy blink, wasn’t programmed to insult.
As the ship quaked with ignition, Sid saw him wave.