Leviathan on the Loose

by W.L. Hoffman

         Home. Lev wondered what meaning that word would hold after tomorrow, or after ten thousand sunless tomorrows. The Higgs Drive on his starship, the UNS Darwin, was under final prep, and its human cargo would assemble at dawn. The cryogenic storage lockers containing the seed banks had been loaded this afternoon. The team would have an ideal primary launch window at 0800 hours.

Lev ambled across the Base in a daze of unreality, as might a young man carrying the shards of the future on his shoulders. Over the last year, the Mission agenda had swallowed his every waking moment, and then some; he detested the sleep studies. But the bio screening, brain scans, and data downloads were a trifling sacrifice compared to that of his impending journey. The Higgs Drive had accomplished the impossible: it would siphon an energy wave from the ambient matter/anti-matter quantum pairs winking in-and-out of existence through interstellar space, and if the scale simulations held at the macro level, a field of exotic space would surround the Darwin’s hull enabling relativistic faster-than-light travel. He didn’t need to understand the equations. It had taken decades of unrelenting research, while the collaborative torch was passed from dead scientist to dying scientist. As the failures mounted, many had lost hope. And yet, others did not, for true genius is nothing without persistence. Thus, after a nearly forty-year string of dazzling misfires, the Physicist’s Guild, supported by the UN World Government, announced the perfection of the Higgs Drive technology. The Darwin’s engines had a build-up phase. It would take a warming flight to Jupiter’s outer moons before the ship could generate the warp field. Once active, the energy conversion mechanism would sustain exponential acceleration without violating the twin conundrums of theoretical light speed: requiring infinite energy to propel infinite mass.

Lev recalled the training lectures with Professor Grahm: mid-sixties, unnaturally thin, bald with the usual skin lesions oozing under the EpiRepair patches, and yet, the Professor had been spared more than most. He had made it to “old age” by current standards. Professor Grahm was a true believer…driven by the Dream. When Grahm addressed the recruits, he delivered like a Sunday Preacher promising eternal damnation to every sinner; and there were lots of those around…the pleasure sinners far outnumbered the supposed saints. Being a street kid, Lev had exploited both sides of the two religious factions: the Hedonists and the Zealots. His personal code was survival. Looking at his choices, the Hedonists lived to party, but their events usually coincided with someone passing, and the collateral damage was unpredictable. The Zealots had banished the concept of fun, but they had the Dream…a future in the ‘now’ and the ‘after.’ It was the Zealots that had kept him fed, clothed and sheltered after his parents had suicided. Even in the poor districts, and for one detested such as Lev, the Churches retained their haven status. Most of the populace followed this convention as a residual custom from bygone days. For those not fond of custom, compliance was enforced under the Great Truce. The Hedonists and Zealots had negotiated terms, lest their congregations prematurely terminate one another. Violations were swiftly punished. Death was the only penalty, and not a pleasant one at that.

The full wealth and resources of the Zealots’ Archdiocese, which held considerable influence among the UN World Government, had sponsored the Mission…a rebirth for humanity. From the first briefing at the Base, Professor Grahm’s presence cast a spell over the jabbering youths. His voice was feverish; his eyes never seemed to blink. Grahm was a brilliant physicist and a Zealot. When the throes of the Dream had him in their grip, woe be it to any who would defy his measure. From that day until this morning, it had remained so, even as Lev recalled the shock of the Professor’s last guidance …Communication will only be possible from Earth orbit to the edge of the Solar System. Relative time dilation as the Darwin approaches the speed of light across the vast cosmic distance will create a fortress of seclusion. Remember. You have been chosen for your Psych profile as well as the dominant trait. The human mind has its dark corners, far deadlier than the black voids of space. You must guard yourselves. Discipline must be maintained. For this reason, the Mission parameters will be controlled by the ship’s artificial intelligence. The AI-Gen2 will see you safely to HD 85512b in the Constellation of Vela. However, there will be a human contingency…a quaint throwback to Murphy’s Law. We have waited until this day so as not to create any schism among your ranks. Lev’s evaluations have shown him to be most suitable for the burden, and thus, he has been tasked as Captain. Lev’s interface portal will be coded directly to the AI-Gen2 sentience core. As for the rest of you, the AI-Gen2 has been programmed with all human knowledge…everything we can offer to steady your sanity and to increase your survival chances at the LZ. Access to this database will be unlimited. Use it.

Faint music interrupted Lev’s thoughts and he stopped in his tracks. Lying Eyes by the Eagles…classic Rock written for another era. The music is what we have left of better times. Nobody creates now. They consume. He shook his head, swept a hand through his freshly cropped hair and tried to relax. He paused as his fingers brushed the smooth metal jack of the AI portal in the back of his skull. The buzz-cut itched, and did nothing to conceal the keyhole-sized hardware implant. The Neuro Techs had developed the wetware interface solely for the Mission. The Dream had produced many such advances. The AI portal was the most efficient access system that human biology and cognition could tolerate. The limitation was in the information flow rate, both incoming and outgoing. There were variations among individuals, and Lev had the highest threshold of the recruits, but the established range had held firm despite the Techs’ best efforts. Breaching those boundaries meant frying the systems into a vegetative state. Lev had no doubt that certain elites had undergone the installation, but due to the component scarcity and necessary expenditure, their numbers would be few. Had Lev so desired, with a dash of cosmetics and a few token EpiRepair patches for cover, he could now be mistaken for one of the Base Regulars. Camouflage was a well-honed skill from his youth.

“Sir, problem?” The burly MP looming on his right inquired in that clipped fashion common to his breed of the military.

“Just memories,” Lev answered. Well no, it was more than that…after tonight everything here would become the stuff of AI queries. It was, however, also the reason for his special furlough. A leadership role on the street usually ended in an abrupt messy red splotch; none of the parts were wasted with so many starving. So while Lev hoped for self-preservation purposes that his new title would prove more honorary for the Mission, being Captain also had its privileges and traditions, and therein lay opportunity. He had respectfully requested one last adventure on Earth, even if it was just slogging a drink at the Base’s watering hole. For the past year, he had endured the absolute sequester. The recruits had been prisoners in all but name. And so it was he longed to experience that which he had nearly forgotten. Freedom.

Predictably, there had been pushback from the higher-ups. Nobody was comfortable shouldering the risk. But Grahm had insisted and he was not to be refused. This result seemed beyond the Professor’s usual charm, and Lev now reconsidered the rumors linking Grahm to the power brokers of the UN World Government. Thus, while authorization for Lev’s outing had been granted, it was dependent upon certain mandatory precautions…my military police babysitters for the night. Lev hadn’t wanted to peer too closely at the pair of MPs escorting him to the Officer’s Club. A cursory glance was sufficient. He knew their type. Less EpiRepair, yet the mismatched swellings and distorted facial features told the tale. Healthy enough to serve as Base muscle, and irrevocably tainted.

Lev hesitated at the OC door, knowing what was coming, but only for a moment. As a child, he had learned to ignore the stares…and the hatred. He had thought people’s attitude would change when the UN World Government streamed the Mission vids. He was wrong.

There was no way for Lev to quietly slip into the OC. No one else would have a security detail, and military scuttlebutt traveled at a rate only slightly slower than the Darwin. So, contrary to his instincts, he paused in the open entryway while his eyes adjusted to the feeble light. There’s nothing like putting a target on your back. In the outside desert air, the day’s atmospheric poison had just started its transformation into an electric-purple inferno sunset. Inside the OC, a perpetual midnight realm held dominion. It was the same wherever people gathered. The shadows are preferred…and thankfully so.

The scent of whiskey and fresh cigars teased his senses. Some things will be missed more than others. The music shifted. Witchy Woman…they must be on an Eagles’ track. The beat was slow and seductive, and he was reminded that the OC sponsored ‘pros’ on staff. Humanity’s oldest profession was sanctioned by Command. Hell, it was required. The consorts would be sterile and if Command had any pull, the surface wrapper would at least be tolerable. Lev was tempted, but the MedCor Tech back at the hangar had been adamant – no intimate contact. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what entertainment might be sampled in the curtain-shrouded black leather booths; they clung to the walls, sinful delights of the human hive.

A bartender labored behind a somber mahogany countertop polishing the stemware with practiced efficiency. Lev almost laughed. Form over substance. What need is there for clean glasses and fancy woodwork? While the booths had mixed action, there were lots of empty stools. A trio of officers leaned on the bar’s edge skirting a bantam-sized dance floor. Their attention rested on a woman swaying suggestively. The OC’s antique jukebox was nearby, and its tepid light framed her in a ghostly silhouette…a whisper of something dead that hasn’t quite accepted the verdict. The officers turned to give him the ‘look.’ One then snubbed a cigar, rose and headed his way.

The MPs reacted with discretion, taking a tighter flanking position to their precious charge with hands resting on sidearms. The officer stopped before the MPs and glared, weighing the trade. His life to feed the rage or…or…the alternative won. The officer brushed past the MPs and stormed out, nearly tearing the door from its hinges.

“Gentlemen…” said Lev, trying to lighten the mood, “first round’s on me.” He slid onto one of the stools, while the MPs parked at his six.

The bartender let them wait; all in due time for one of Lev’s ilk. After finishing more glasses, he finally flipped the dishrag over his shoulder, and spat, “What’ll it be?”

“Black Label, three glasses, neat.” Lev replied. “Open a tab, please.”

“Yes, sirrrrr,” the bartender mocked as he lined up the shots and poured. Then he reached under the counter and returned with the RadMeter. The law required that it be provided to customers, though many had long ago stopped caring.

Lev waved it off. He had no need for the device. His body had proved again and again that it could handle hot particles. He wasn’t unique, but as only about .000003% from the Peak-Population had his enhanced immunity factor, he may as well have been from their perspective.

“Leave the bottle,” Lev instructed. He then gulped the whiskey. As the warm, smoky-oak wetness caressed his throat, he heard rapid ‘clicking.’

One of the MPs held the objecting RadMeter over the whisky and said, “9,420 microsieverts. Low rads…flyboy’s drinking top shelf.”

The other MP said, “Shame to waste. We’ll take it for off duty.” He unbuckled a belt pouch, removed a metal flask, and transferred each shot carefully.

A couple hours and several glasses later, one of the staffers made her way to Lev’s side. “I’m Marla,” she said with practiced ease.

Even in the dim light, Lev noted that Marla was indeed tolerable. Curly blonde locks with only a few hairless spots; and she had turned those liabilities into assets with tropical flower tats and glittery sequin piercings. Not a single EpiRepair patch could be seen on her flesh, of which the majority was exposed. Nevertheless, while the booze had dulled the force of MedCor’s prohibition, he was in no mood to discover what lay hidden. She wouldn’t be here without having significant contamination. Still, that wasn’t a reason to be rude.

“I’m Lev. Your welcome to share the bottle or I’ll spot your drink of choice, but that’s all I’m offering tonight.”

Marla eyed the expensive Black Label, “Well then love, tip me a dram of your liquid gold.”

Lev obliged, and then watched Marla withdraw a slender compact from a pocket. He expected cigarettes, but said nothing when she removed a bright yellow pill, put it on her tongue, and then washed it down with the whiskey shot. The Haze was part of the standard drug ration to all citizens. Her eyes closed and she inhaled slowly; as the engineered drug hit her bloodstream, her shoulders dropped and her lips parted into a flirty grin. Marla offered the decorative pill case to Lev.

“No thanks, I’ll stick with the booze.” Lev replied a bit sharper than intended. The Haze stimulated endorphin production and activated opioid receptors, inducing a detached ‘high’ to the user. He had dosed it on the streets, and its numbing effect had nearly cost him his life. That was the idea of course. The Haze was addictive, suppressed appetite, and over time, degraded brain chemistry and memory. It was the perfect combination for the masses, and was distributed in volume as the number one government sanctioned choice for those seeking to escape the end stage suffering.

“Suit yourself,” she returned casually. Then, as if remembering her purpose, “Oh, yes, I’m passing a message. Grahm wants to speak with you.”

Lev’s neck jerked forward and he nearly choked, “P…Professor Grahm?”

She nodded and daintily extended her arm to his. “Come with me. He’s in the back at my station.”

Although Lev was reluctant to part with what might be his last taste forever of Black Label, curiosity won the argument. He drained the glass, placed it on the bar and turned to the bartender with his forearm showing, “Process the debits, this might take a while. And watch the bottle, I’ll be back.”

The bartender held an e-pen over the subdermal microchip in Lev’s arm, and waited for the magnetic strip to signal. With a satisfied beep, the bulk of Lev’s e-credits vanished. It’s not like he would need them again.

Marla led him through the bar’s seedy hallway, with the MPs never leaving his elbows. There were private rooms. She halted the procession at a door marked Purgatory # 3.

Lev tilted his head and commented sheepishly, “Interesting nomenclature, and quaint, but definitely interesting.”

Marla’s eyes narrowed and she extracted her arm from his. She knocked once on the wooden portal and then pushed it open. Inside, Professor Grahm sat in a U-shaped, furry booth fronting a cloth covered table. He was delicately slicing what looked like grilled animal meat on a silver platter.

Lev sniffed and then rubbed his chin. Rats could still be found in the bowels of the under-cities, but the rad levels were deadly to most. And this didn’t smell like rat. The meat was accompanied by a dusty bottle of wine, and it was obvious that Marla’s station featured other amenities, but they were divided from view by a paneled screen.

The Professor nodded to Marla. “Thank you, my dear. You won’t be needed for a while.” She curtsied and then departed to find other company. “Don’t stand there gaping, come in my boy. I’d like to take my leave of you before the Mission. Gentlemen, this is a private conversation.”

The MPs nodded and stood guard in the corridor.

“Close the door and sit down,” said the Professor. He raised a fork, “Would you like a bite? Synthetic protein of course, but the Bioculture Techs have it tasting almost like the real thing.”

“I’ll pass. Thank you.”

“Then perhaps you will join me in a glass of Cabernet? It’s a very early vintage. Quite difficult to acquire these days…Flatline Scale on the RadMeter, though that isn’t your concern. That must have been convenient.”

Lev smiled and said, “Not as much as you’d think. You know my background better than anyone. The families in my neighborhood were too desperate to bother checking.”

Grahm mused aloud, “Damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, eh?”

“That was the score.” Lev lowered his eyes to the floor. “Anyway, I appreciate your offer, but I’m pushing my limit. Even with the Alcohol Restorative, the MedCor folks aren’t going to be happy when I return to the hangar. Speaking of which, why aren’t you there?”

Grahm ignored the question and methodically poured the wine into a goblet. There was a slight tremble as the bottle almost slipped from his grip. Recovering, he swirled the contents, and then brought the glass to his nose. Satisfied, he took a shallow draw. “Delightful, but like most things, it needs time to breathe. At my age, you would think I’d be steadier with such treasure. Let me confess, you are not the only one with jitters. We are well beyond the point for any further fine tuning. Your existence and the voyage you undertake tomorrow, represent the culmination of my life’s work.”

Lev replied earnestly, “I didn’t know you were that involved. Humanity must be exceedingly grateful for your contribution. I’ve studied the history books. The widespread atomic and hydrogen bomb tests post-dating the Second World War were curtailed, and ultimately banned, once we understood the damage their radiation inflicted upon organic life. We thought that such a restriction would be enough to safeguard humanity, absent preventing a doomsday scenario among the pre-UN countries.

Grahm interrupted, “Youth will serve you well as you traverse the stars, but you never lived through those days. Before the UN World Government took control, it was touch and go whether nuclear warheads would rain upon our foolish heads. Each country, from dictatorship to purported democracy, struggled to win the hearts and minds of the other, or worse, threatened sheer annihilation for the sake of this idol or that superstition.”

Lev added, “I always thought it was ironic.”

The Professor raised an eyebrow, “How so?”

“Everyone in your generation thought that civilization would be destroyed in a hailstorm of nuclear missiles, when all it took to bring us to our knees was a series of random events…Fukushima and the later nuclear power plant emissions across the globe. The boiling water reactors had so many design defects, and human error did the rest.”

The Professor’s eyes widened and burned into Lev’s. “Random you say. Human error, is it? Answer me. Does one plus one equal two?”

Flustered a bit and realizing that he’d hit a nerve, Lev slowly said, “Yeeeesss.”

“Have you any doubt whatsoever of that fact?”

Lev cursed silently. He had heard this tone from Grahm before, and nothing good had followed. Still, he answered, “No.”

“Precisely,” snapped Grahm. His shaking hand then delivered another draught of the blood-red wine to his withered lips. He continued, “Math does not lie. It holds neither opinion nor ideology. It is unbending to politics and emotion, and it alone stands as absolute truth under the physical laws of this Universe. Humanity was breeding successfully, and for a while, technological innovation kept pace with consumption. Change was impossible under these conditions even as we sped to the cliff. If not eventual resource exhaustion, it might have been a pandemic disease, gamma ray burst, or rogue asteroid impact sufficient to constitute an extinction level event. Math does not lie, nor do the probabilities. Left to our own on Earth, logic dictated that the burgeoning human race would perish. Survival…it’s the most basic mandate of any species, but our success would have been our undoing. Don’t you see? Humans perform at their best only when staring into the abyss. Fight or flight is encoded in our primitive genetics and we needed to harness this attribute, as much so as…as our gamble that a population remnant would retain the dormant DNA with the reactivation sequence to combat radiation. Recall, if you will my boy, life on Earth was spawned from energy. Why should life not remember this kinship?”

Lev’s forehead wrinkled and his jaw tightened. “Maybe it’s the whiskey, but I’m not following… what exactly are you saying?”

The Professor chuckled dryly and then asked, “What is the primary trait for this Mission?”

“Immunity to radiation,” Lev replied. “I’m one of a handful of humans that withstand extreme contamination. Our bodies can identify and purge the hot particles without cellular destruction or mutagenic effects.”

“Correct,” replied the Professor. He then pointed to an EpiRepair patch on his scabby forehead, “You are untouched by our misery. You see, with the proper motivation, we could solve the other problems necessary for humanity to spread its wings from Earth…to hedge the math by colonizing the Universe. The Higgs Drive was developed and there were hundreds of habitable planets found within relatively local sections of the Milky Way Galaxy. Adequate nutritional and water supplies could be produced en route and cultivated upon arrival. Compatible atmosphere was also determined with our research, and MedCor has amply stocked the Darwin with the Antibody-One serum to suppress alien pathogens. Yes, some will perish regardless due to disease, but the human body is a remarkably adaptive organism. Indeed, I imagine that once imbedded on these distant islands in space, our race will splinter into multiple species. The central genome will be consistent, but the forms may well be unrecognizable. For this destiny to unfold, however, we had to contend with radiation. Even with reinforced shielding, a passage of light years would expose any crew to unparalleled levels of cosmic radiation, not to mention the continual background shift that our settlements would receive on other planets…ah, that was a much harder nut to crack.”

Lev squinted and then rubbed his temple. He had a headache. “So, the accidental releases from the nuclear power plants and their spent fuel depots that killed 70% of the Earth’s Peak-Population and doomed the generations to suffer from bioaccumulative radiation… you are saying they were actually humanity’s savior?”

High-pitched laughter, wild and shrill, erupted from Grahm.

Lev stared. For a moment, he wondered if the Professor’s intellect had finally crumbled under the pressure.

After a while, the fit ceased. Grahm took several labored gasps and barked, “This interview is over. God speed Lev, for you are tomorrow’s child. Guards!”

Expecting trouble, the MPs rushed inside.

“Everything’s fine, gentlemen,” Grahm reassured them. “Return our Lev to the Darwin. The Captain has pre-flight in two hours.”

Whether from the Black Label or the discussion, Lev rose dizzily and confused, but managed, “Good…bye Professor.” The MPs each grabbed an arm, ushering Lev to his appointed fate.

As the door closed, Grahm slammed his fists into the table. The plate jumped and his wine goblet toppled. The Professor watched mutely, as Cabernet seeped into the ivory linen and dribbled to a pool forming against the table’s edge. Crimson drop after drop after drop fell to the floor. The stain will never come clean from the cloth…or from your hands. As the horrors of his past sprang to life, Professor Grahm shielded his face and began weeping. The weeping morphed into maniacal laughter and then back again.

Marla saw Lev and his goon squad exit the OC. She released a deep sigh of relief. His kind, the untouched…they were always painful for everyone else. Marla popped another Haze, and immediately felt the tension lift. This was supposed to be a special night for her. She wandered contentedly back to her post. She had been well paid to be at Grahm’s beck and call. She knocked once, but there was no response. She entered anyway. The Professor was sobbing.

She glided to his side and stretched a comforting arm around his heaving body. Grahm coughed and then sputtered, “Accidents…the poor boy thinks the releases were accidents. So many, so many forsaken…”