Dallas G. Releford
Randall Payne stood on the grassy knoll with wind whipping tall buffalo grass around him, slapping his bronzed face with untamed fury and tossing his shoulder-length blond hair in his deep blue eyes. Sweat poured from pores in his bare skin. His well-muscled body taut, his breathing labored, he gazed across a treeless prairie where silver moonlight turned glistening bushes and tall grass into ghostly apparitions. They were creeping toward him like banshees in the night. He knew they weren’t real, that they were just tricks of the light, yet he still feared that something was out there, watching him.
Terrified of what was before him, he dared not go back. What was behind him was more terrifying than anything he could imagine.
Kneeling in high buffalo grass so that he was less visible to unwanted eyes, he searched the valley below until he saw what he was looking for. Anchored in a block of steel-reinforced concrete, a cable as large as his torso reached up into the sky until it disappeared from view. Letting his eyes follow the cable until it was lost in fluffy clouds, he knew where it ended. He knew that four of the large cables were anchored to the earth encompassing four square miles. The other ends of the strong cables were attached to a space station 26,000 miles out in space. That had been a feat that exceeded anything humans had ever done, he admitted to the wind as it rushed by him.
Two thousand miles below the space station a city of thirty thousand inhabitants hung like a island suspended from four cables. Each of those cables served as a means for elevators to move back and forth between old earth and the city in space called Celestial City. It was the city above him where he hoped to find refuge from the threat behind him.
Knowing the cables and the elevators were more than five miles away Randall prepared his mind to cope with the last of his journey. Staring up into a dark sky where millions of bright stars were displayed against a blanket of black, he searched for a single star—his star—Celestial City.
Then just when he thought he might not see it at all, it twinkled as if beckoning to him. It was where it was supposed to be, among the stars.
Up there he might find the peace and contentment he was seeking, but for how long? If war erupted between the upper people and the lower people—as he suspected it would—Lower earth government might sever the cables leaving the city dangling on the edge of space, hanging twenty two thousand miles above the earth’s surface. This was a disaster he didn’t even want to contemplate. He was the only one with the knowledge to prevent it.
He had to get to the elevators, catch one going up and warn the government of Celestial City about impending doom, about Marion Reid and his mad plans to kill or enslave them all. Marion Reid, the worst dictator the world had ever seen won the election two years ago for Supreme President of the Republic of Lower Earth. Since then, his relentless crusade of terror against the citizens of Lower Earth still continued and Randall counted himself among the lucky because he had managed to escape Reid’s wrath, a lucky break that he knew he would never have a chance at ever again.
Only one thing was between him and the elevator that would haul his butt twenty-two thousand miles up into space where Celestial City waited for him like a sparkling jewel in the sky. When the government of Celestial City had learned that Marion Reid was demanding more taxes, more raw ore from asteroids and that he wanted them to sign a non-aggression pact with his administration, they rebelled. To demonstrate his authority Reid had a great wall built around the four massive cables and the elevators. Brutal guards with Laser guns patrolled the top of the wide wall and the base all around the complex. Reid controlled access to Celestial City. Cut off from the rest of the world, Celestial City became a small beacon of freedom, for those who could still remember what freedom was all about.
Payne looked down below him at the long, wide valley. Under bright starlight he could see the medieval gray structure glistening in the distance. A single gate—the only entrance—tall and wide stood like a gaping mouth waiting to snap its enormous jaws down on anyone who dared to enter.
Facing the gate, a small town had sprung up. Support personnel for the elevator terminal and the great wall lived in small metal houses. A store, barbershop, bar and various other businesses catered to those people who spent most of their meager earnings as fast as they earned them. Payne had heard a lot about the town and none of what he heard was pleasing to his ears.
The situation seemed hopeless, except he had a contact in the town. Sylvia Bright was her name and she had promised she would get Randall on the elevators, for a small fee.
He was willing to pay, no matter what it was. Desperate men had few options. After all it was pay or hang around on the Plains until Reid’s aggressor found him. That meeting would not be pleasant.
The thought of that beast rammed chills down his spine and almost numbed his mind. Reid reserved the services of the aggressor for special enemies. Randall Payne was now a special person. In a computer chip he had implanted in his hip were Reid’s plans for taking over Earth and capturing Celestial City. Only someone like Payne, Reid’s personal assistant had access to such information. As soon as he had the opportunity he grabbed it and escaped into the dark, cold night on the Plains.
He knew the aggressor wasn’t far behind. He wanted the chip as much as Payne wanted to give it to the people up above. As Payne watched the town below through a powerful viewing scope, taking in every detail and storing it in his perfect computer-enhanced memory, he thought about the aggressor. Two computer chips resided in his brain allowing him more computational power than most other normal humans. Nobody knew what the aggressor looked like, who he was or what he was. When he came, nobody lived to talk much about him. Some people said that he was a genetically engineered monster with long fearsome teeth, great claws that could easily rip flesh from your body and that his eyes glowed like two coals in the dark. Payne doubted most of what he had heard even though he knew the creature was dangerous.
Form-shifter, someone else had told him. That’s what he was. He knew that meant that the creature could change into a wolf, a bear or just about anything else it wanted to. Payne knew scientists had been able to create such creatures, even though he had never personally seen one. The thought nearly paralyzed his mind.
Payne shook his head and put the glasses back up to his eyes supposing that he would know the beast when he saw him. Then, it might be too late.
He worried about Sylvia Bright. What if she didn’t show up in the bar where she was supposed to meet him? What if something happened to change her mind? Why was she willing to take such a terrible chance to help him?
The wind whistled a tune he didn’t like. It groaned as if trying to warn him that someone was coming. He knew the aggressor was around somewhere, he could feel him.
Randall had met Sylvia Bright at a party Reid had given to celebrate his victory over his opponents. He had many of those. Actually, it wasn’t much of a victory. Reid ordered his red shirts—his elite guards—to murder all of the politicians who ran against him. Everyone who opposed him fell under the knife. Their hearts were cut out and eaten before their terrified eyes.
He could still remember her dark brown hair, her sparkling blue eyes and her charming smile. They had become friends. Although sex wasn’t permitted, they did it anyway. Sylvia was one of the lucky few who had not had her sexual organs removed. It was the law, Reid’s Law. Under his administration, babies were creations of the State and therefore, belonged to the State. Test tubes and incubators produced more than enough babies for his armies and to serve as his servants.
During an intimate moment when ecstasy moved his tongue as much as love for the woman moved his heart, he promised her he would take her to Celestial City one day. That brought on a discussion about how it could be done. Nude, they sat on a blanket, on a low hill under a tree watching the stars and the lights of the small town.
“It can be done,” she had said. “It would be easier for me to get us through.”
“How?” Randall had inquired.
“Easy,” she bragged stroking his bare nipples with the tips of her fingers. “I have something the guards want.” He imagined each finger was a tiny vibrator that sent tantalizing waves of pleasure to his body. He was willing to do anything for her, even risk his own life, if she would help him reach his goal.
“What? They face death if they let anyone through those gates that aren’t supposed to go in there.”
“The stakes are high,” she admitted. “However, they figure I am worth the risk.”
“You have given yourself to them before?”
“Not me,” she protested, playfully slapping his shoulder. “I bring them suitable women in return for favors.”
“I sometimes deliver messages from rebels on earth to the government of Celestial City.”
“Don’t you feel uncomfortable telling me that you are a rebel?”
“I know more about you than you think, Randall Payne,” she had said. “I trust you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Her hands caressed his face, wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead and then her lips met his. Her kiss was long, warm and captivating. Pulling away from him, she sat quietly staring at him for a brief time before she spoke. “You have spoken out against Reid. You are lucky he hasn’t heard about it. You’ll run, sooner or later and when you do, you’ll need me to take you up there.” She pointed toward Celestial City and Randall cringed. Was she predicting his future?
I’ll keep that in mind,” he had said.
Forcing himself to stop thinking about her, to put her in the back of his mind, for a moment or two, he knew it was time to go. He couldn’t crouch here in the grass forever. Placing the viewing glasses under a large tree trunk where they would not be found, he walked down a long slope that would take him to the town, and Sylvia.
Glad that he had contacted her the other day and reminded her of her offer to help him, he entered the outskirts of the nameless town. His heart felt heavy, something felt as if it were pressing against his chest and his legs felt weak. Before he could collapse, the computer chip in his brain recognized his anxiety and sent a dose of chemicals flowing through his system. He felt strong again. Wild dogs, pigs and chickens wandered freely. Homeless people, drunks and dangerous characters loitered in the streets and on the sidewalks.
The bar, which did have a name, was worse than he could ever have imagined. The name was burned into a wooden plank above the door. Stardust Bar didn’t seem like an appropriate name to him.
Most of the men were armed with Maximum Laser pistols. Some of the women were armed with lots of bare flesh showing beneath short, thin dresses. Randall stepped up to the bar and bought a drink. Being as inconspicuous as possible, he looked around the filthy, smoke-filled room searching for a familiar face, one that he feared the most, the aggressor. Finally, he relaxed a little when he was sure the creature hadn’t caught up with him, yet. He would wait for Sylvia to show up and then they would leave this place, forever and together.
Satisfied that the aggressor wasn’t the old man sitting next to him or the young engineer—he knew he was an engineer because of the uniform he was wearing—at the end of the bar he felt a little better as he waited for Sylvia.
After a while, she appeared at the door and motioned for him to follow her. Downing the last of his drink, he walked out the door happy that he would soon be in Celestial City. He had beaten the aggressor to the elevators after all. That thought made him want to shout with joy, except he knew doing such a foolish thing would draw too much attention to him.
He followed her down several dark alleys. “Sylvia, where are you going?” he asked almost out of breath already. The trip across the plains had taken its toll on him.
She didn’t answer. He was lost. He could not see her in front of him or anywhere else for that matter. The alley was as dark as a cave on a moonless night. “Sylvia.”
As he walked cautiously forward not knowing where she was or where he was going, he saw two large green eyes looking at him. “Sylvia, is that you?”
Her hand slashed out. Sharp claws slit his throat. “I’m not Sylvia anymore,” an eerie voice shrieked.
As the moon appeared from behind dark, thick clouds, he saw her face as his life drained from his body and he could no longer breathe. Her face was the face of death, the face of the aggressor.