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FREEDOM

(Vol. 1)

Legends



By

Stephen Arseneault







Published By:

Stephen Arseneault



Copyright © 2017 Stephen Arseneault



Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Abraham Lincoln



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www.arsenex.com

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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Novels written by Stephen Arseneault



SODIUM Series (six novels)



A six-book series that takes Man from his first encounter with aliens all the way to a fight for our all-out survival. Do we have what it takes to rule the galaxy?



AMP Series (eight novels)



Cast a thousand years into the future beyond SODIUM. This eight-book series chronicles the struggles of Don Grange, a simple package deliveryman, who is thrust into an unimaginable role in the fight against our enemies. Can we win peace and freedom after a thousand years of war?



OMEGA Series (eight novels)



Cast two thousand years into the future beyond AMP. The Alliance is crumbling. When corruption and politics threaten to throw the allied galaxies into chaos, Knog Beutcher gets caught in the middle. Follow along as our hero is thrust into roles that he never expected nor sought. Espionage, intrigue, political assassinations, rebellions and full-on revolutions, they are all coming to Knog Beutcher's world!



HADRON Series (eight novels)



HADRON is a modern day story unrelated to the SODIUM-AMP-OMEGA trilogy series. After scientists using the Large Hadron Collider discover dark matter, the world is plunged into chaos. Massive waves of electromagnetic interference take out all grid power and forms of communication the world over. Cities go dark, food and water supplies are quickly used up, and marauders rule the highways. Months after the mayhem begins, and after mass starvation has taken its toll, a benevolent alien species arrives from the stars. Only, are they really so benevolent? Find out in HADRON as Man faces his first real challenge to his dominance of Earth!



ARMS Series (eight novels)



ARMS is cast in one possible future, where Earth was nearing an apocalyptic event. Two competing colony ships were built, taking five million inhabitants each through a wormhole to a pair of newly discovered planets. The planets were settled and not long after the colonies looked to the surrounding star systems for ownership and expansion, which led to a centuries-long war between them. A truce was declared after the aggressor side began to lose ground.

Tawnish Freely and Harris Gruberg are genetically engineered Biomarines. Their lives have been dedicated to fighting the war. With a truce declared, they find themselves struggling to find work among a population that fears them. Work is found only by delving into the delivery of illegal arms to the outer colonies. Things go awry when they discover their illicit dealings may just be the catalyst that brings back the Great War. They are determined to prevent that from happening.



FREEDOM Series (eight novels)



After a period of domination over the lesser alien species of the galaxy, humanity finds itself enslaved for nearly five hundred generations. A highly addictive drug called Shackle has made Humans little more than worker drones. They are abused, sold, traded, and hunted, valued only in credits. But a mysterious virus is sweeping through the Human population, altering gut bacteria, making them immune to the drug that subjugates them. Humans are becoming aware of their condition. They will fight for their freedom.





Find them all at www.arsenex.com



Chapter 1

_______________________



Planet Caloran A.D. 12,416...

“Never met an alien I liked,” Jamus Turnbull said as he spat on the dry earth. “Fly 'em all straight into a star for all I care.” The hoe he swung tossed off a swirl of dust before cutting deep under another piece of parched sod.

The rumble from a freighter shook the ground as it lifted off in the distance toward the heavens, the roar and vibrations delayed for most of a minute after the ship came into view.

“Master Hallik hasn't been all bad,” Daniel Pike replied. “We've had worse.”

Jamus scoffed. “You back on the Smudge or what?”

The dirt-faced youth scratched the tip of his nose with his sleeve before taking another swing. “No. Been two seasons now. You know I don't need it.”

A dry clod of dirt was pulled up and flipped over. “Why would you like Hallik? He's just another watcher like the rest of 'em. They all think they're superior to us. Well, I've got news for 'em, we ain't half-baked anymore. And mark my words... we're gonna make 'em pay one day. Humans will rise up.” Jamus spat again. The sandy-brown, ultra-dry soil eagerly soaked up the spittle. “One day Humans will be running this cesspool of a galaxy and all the high and mighty will be swinging these tools instead of us.”

Daniel glanced around with concern. “If you gotta be saying that, whisper. Everyone here is still hooked.”

On the midsize agri-planet they worked, their farm was one of thousands just like it. Twelve million Human slaves toiled in the fields under the supervision of Hallik, the overseer of Caloran and parts of two other colonies of Betuaon. The Betuaon State, a collection of fourteen inhabited worlds, boasted more than a half billion Human workers... all addicted to a drug called Shackle.

Known as Smudge to Humans for its obvious side effects, Shackle was a highly addictive substance that had turned all of humanity, both young and old, into little more than drone workers. Aside from a basic education that was given to all, ending at the age of ten empire-standard years, their lives were nothing but work.

For five hundred generations, Humans had been considered the lowest form of sentient life in the Realm of the Markux Empire. That had been the circumstance since the Human fleet had been betrayed and seized at the battle of Galos IV. It was an event that moved Man into abject slavery and eventually Shackle dependence.

Five hundred generations had been born into an existence where their lives were traded for a handful of credits or the odd favor. They were hunted for sport and often worked to death. Shackle was cheap and plentiful, not affecting the other species of the Realm. The cravings that came from being on the “Smudge” had been more than enough to keep the slaves in line and working.

But a mysterious virus was showing up in the Human populations, and though painful, and sometimes deadly, a byproduct of the infection was the alteration of a bacteria in the Human gut. Once the infection had subsided, the altered bacteria served to neutralize the addictive effects of Shackle, leaving the workers aware of their prior condition. With that awareness came intelligent thought, and a yearning to once again be masters of themselves.

A flock of har-crows scattered as the shift-horn blew. Jamus, Daniel, and the others turned for the mud, stick, and thatch shanty village they called home. Jamus wiped his brow and took a swig from his canteen, swishing it in his mouth as they walked.

He spat it on the dusty ground. “Rains are ten days overdue now. If they don't start soon, this planting will fail.”

Daniel glanced around at the horizon. “I overheard it's the same on all eight continents. I still don't get why they don't let us dam up that river and irrigate from it.”

Jamus grabbed his arm and whispered. “First off, we're not supposed to be smart enough to think of that. Second, they fear it will somehow affect fish stocks or something. Hallik was discussing that with one of his toadies last time they were here. Regardless, this season goes bad, they'll move us. Not that this is any paradise, but the farms are a much better option than the mines. They put you in on a new pay-streak and you aren't likely to ever see daylight again.”

“You ever been in a mine?”

“Once.” Jamus scowled. “Was on a crew that came in to finish out a run of coal on Gatumon II. Half the current crew of eight thousand were dead from an explosion and cave-in. Our farm was under-performing, so they took us. We had to dig the dead free and haul out the bodies. A quarter of the new crew perished by the time we finished that vein. Didn't much matter to them though. They were all smudgers. They just did as they were told and moved on.”

“Other than us, how many others have you come across who were immune?”

“Two.” Jamus sighed and looked at the ground as he walked. “I could tell they were aware, but neither one would admit it. Both lived in fear of being noticed by a watcher. I think Martin may be with us. He had that black virus. He's been acting strange lately.”

As the group walked the two kilometers across the fields in a southerly direction, a hover drone circled in from the east. The low-frequency vibration from its gravity-wave generator reverberated through their bodies as it took position just above them. The workers continued to trudge across the dusty soil toward their huts, as if unknowing or uncaring about the alien craft. Several minutes of observance with nothing unusual saw the drone speeding off toward a village to the west.

In the distance, the shift-horn from the next farm could be heard, sounding five minutes behind the horn of their Caloran farm, designated DOA2456.



*****



Jamus stood over a wooden sink as Daniel cranked up and down on a pump handle. The cool water from eighty meters below splashed over his head and rinsed through his hair, the waste water and dirt of the day spiraling down the drain to be captured in a gray-water cistern outside. The water would be used to hydrate the handful of gerrus-pigs Hallik had bestowed on his workers after the prior season's harvest had gone well.

Since conquering the addiction, Jamus had also become aware of how filthy the Humans surrounding him in the fields were. Every surface and crevice of his body was now scrubbed as well as could be done. He donned a set of hut-clothes once the wash was complete. Daniel followed, as Jamus returned the favor of working the pump.

After dressing, they left the wash-hut and returned to their hovel. As Daniel sat on a chair at their meager, two-person table, Jamus turned to see a scowling Martin Gecka standing in the doorway.

Jamus, the more seasoned farmer, moved closer, peering out the door behind the visitor before gesturing with his head for him to come inside. “You don't have the cravings anymore. I can see it in your eyes.”

Martin was a big man, standing a full head above Jamus. The hard muscles on his arms jutted from the tattered shirt he had worn out in the fields. His well-tanned, dust-covered skin looked tougher than leather, giving him both an intimidating and ultra-rugged appearance.

“I've been noticing things lately.”

“Things?” Jamus tilted his head to the side as he asked.

“The two of you talk as you work. The rest are quiet.”

“We can all talk. Our parents talked. Everyone in this village talks.”

Martin slowly shook his head. “Not like the two of you.” The monster of a man glanced over his shoulder toward the dining hut. “The rest of them are lining up for their daily allotment of Smudge. You two don't seem interested. Neither am I. And I suspect you know something as to why.”

Jamus pointed to the empty chair as he took a seat on the end of his single bed. “Have a seat. You're like us now, Martin. We're immune to the effects of that drug. We can see and understand where we are and what we're doing. And you can't reveal this to anyone else. The Betuaons will hurry us off for dissection and study.”

“And how would you know this?”

“Hallik and his staff talk freely when they're around us. How long have you been aware?”

“Most of this past season. It happened after an illness. You?”

“Yes. The gut virus. For me it's been twelve seasons now. Daniel has been aware for two. And as I said, we must keep this secret. Our lives depend on it. Have you noticed the different behavior in anyone else?”

“The Bachran girl, Greta. And her sister. And Dester Marr has gone strangely silent around the dinner fire of late. After his Smudge, he has always been one to run his mouth.”

Jamus nodded. “He was sick a few weeks ago. He may just now be turning. Don't trust him. Old habits die hard, and in his confused state he may be eager to trade knowledge of us for favors. It would of course mean his own death as well, but he wouldn't be of mind to realize that.”

“You seem to know a lot. Maybe too much.”

“Twelve seasons of watching and listening. How long have the Bachran girls displayed these symptoms?”

“All this season, just like me.”

Jamus sighed. “We must be extremely careful, but we need to bring them into this group. We need to bring everyone who is now seeing into this group. We can't risk a single discovery, or nosing around by the Betuaons will follow. Do you feel confident enough to approach them? The girls? They're both of breeding age, and you have yet to take a wife.”

Daniel volunteered. “I could talk to them.”

Jamus smirked. “You're too young. The others might find that request strange. The younger Bachran, Kerena, is three cycles your senior. Martin is of the right age for either.”

The thatch and mud hut shook as gravity waves from a dozen converging drones pushed down on it. The constant hum of the overseer's ship followed as it settled on the ground outside. A swirl of dust came through the hut doorway. Jamus, Daniel, and Martin moved to the opening just in time to see Hallik calmly walking down a ramp with a wry smile on his alien face.



*****



The three Humans stood in the opening with nervous stares. Was this it? Had they been caught? What behavior had given them away? Had the master come to take them for dissection? Morbid thoughts screamed through their heads.

Hallik walked up to Jamus, looking directly at the chest of the much taller Human for several seconds before raising his eyes with a grin. “Hmm. You... Jamus Turnbull... you will come with me, as will your two friends here.”

“What have we done, Master?”

Hallik turned, looking over his shoulder as he walked back to the ramp, two armed guards at his sides. “You may drop the charade, Mr. Turnbull. I know you're immune. I've been watching you for some time. Klatic, bring the Bachran girls and that oaf Dester Marr.”

“Where are you taking us?”

Hallik smiled. “Ah, the magic question. A question only the aware would ask. You will have to practice your... smudginess, Mr. Turnbull. If one knows the signs, you are not difficult to detect. Since you seem compelled to be noticed, perhaps you should all wear red shirts so you will stand out more from the others.”

“I've done well enough concealing it. How long have you known? About me that is?”

Your behavior came to my attention six years ago in the mines of Gatumon. You placed a cloth over your mouth while working. An action that is encouraged in every mine, but rarely seen. Since that time I've noted your obsession with hygiene. The other Humans rarely bathe. You and Mr. Pike bathe on a daily basis.”

“Can't sleep when I'm dirty. And I didn't want that dust from the mines in my lungs. And why is it you waited until now to grab me?”

“That caring about your health and cleanliness, that intelligent thought, it's what first drew my attention. I must commend you, for other than those transgressions I would have been unable to distinguish your work or efforts from the others. You are indeed good at hiding it. As is Mr. Pike here, since you've taken him under your wing. With the others I was able to spot them through their recent behavior. As to the wait... I was in need of time to find a use for each of you. I now have one.”

Hallik opened a door and gestured for the three to enter a room. Padded benches lined three walls.

“Please, have a seat. When the others arrive, we will have much to discuss.”

Hallik and his armed assistants exited the room.

Martin Gecka looked at Jamus. “What have you done to us?”

The veteran farmer scowled. “Me? I haven't done anything. This is all new to me too. I've worked hard at keeping my head down. And all for what, so I could grind out a few more years of hard life as a farmer? I'm thinking now maybe I should have volunteered for the dissection years ago.”

Daniel said, “You don't mean that. If you don't have hope, who of us does? Or should?”

Jamus Turnbull sat his head in his hand, his elbow propped on his leg. The door opened and the other three aware farmers were pushed inside.

“Wait here. The master will be with you in a moment.”

The girls sat as Dester Marr paced. “What is this? What is happening?”

Martin stood directly in his path with a scowl. “Sit and shut your mouth.”

Dester returned a scowl of his own, sitting on a bench by himself. The Bachran girls took a seat next the Daniel, the least intimidating figure in the room.

Daniel nodded and smiled. “Hello.”

The girls remained silent.

Hallik came through the door. “Perfect. My new team of Human conspirators.”

Jamus raised his head. “What?”

“The six of you, you are now my intelligent and cunning Human team. I have big plans for the lot of you. You cooperate and there will be perks. You cause trouble or disobey and there will be death, or torture, or torture and death. Now that you're aware, I'll let you decide.” Hallik's expression turned into a coy smile.

“What exactly are you expecting of us?”

The overseer's smile turned into a wide grin, wider than normal for a Brekan. “You will be my spies. The eyes and ears of Hallik.”

“Spies?”

“Yes. Have any of you ever worked in a factory?”

Dester slowly raised a hand. “Been twenty cycles, but I done it way back. Ran a machine stamping metal plates. Got replaced by a machine and was sold off to you for farming.”

“Perfect. You will be my factory worker. An associate of mine, Pilor, owns a mill that is in competition with one I operate. His product is superior even though it appears we use the same suppliers and contents of the same proportions. You will be rented to Pilor—through a third party of course—for work in his factory. You will be my eyes and ears. The rest of you will be Mr. Marr's planners. You will question the information he returns daily and will determine what exactly Pilor's advantage is.”

“Why so many of us?” Jamus asked.

“If this venture proves successful, I foresee this group taking on more tasks.” Hallik leaned in with a stern expression. “And it will be successful, right, Mr. Turnbull?” The stern expression again turned to a smile.

Hallik slowly paced with his hands clasped behind his back. “Future assignments may require a young girl or boy, or perhaps muscle like our friend Martin here. You see, I have many competitors in a variety of industries and trades. You will be my great equalizers, as I said, my eyes and ears. And the more successful you are, the greater autonomy you will acquire, and the more perks you will receive.”

Dester said, “We don't know the first thing about being spies.”

Hallik nodded. “Not to worry. You will soon be meeting with my newest employee, Bersa. She's an individual who, let's say, is on the outs with the Betuaon government. Intelligence was her tradecraft for many years. An unfortunate incident lost her favor. She will be your teacher and you her willing and eager pupils.”

Jamus said, “I don't get why you're doing this. I thought the Realm was all divided up and you masters had it easy. Don't you personally run several colonies?”

“Parts of, yes, and those colonies compete in trade with other colonies. The same happens between states. Bersa was previously employed by Betuaon State. The Markux Empire is a very competitive place, Mr. Turnbull. It is also very political. Spies are usually limited to managers who are of other alien persuasions, primarily the Girda. They are also very easy to detect and to turn, always giving in to the highest bidder. Humans, however… no one would suspect Humans who are addicted to Shackle to be spies. I'm almost giddy with excitement over the thought.”

Bersa entered the room. A sinister looking alien of the Girda species, she was a thin biped of modest height. The Girda had ultra-white skin, greasy black hair, and dark eyes. She cleared her throat before speaking in a raspy voice. “Good evening.” Her beady eyes surveyed the room. “You look like an average group of Humans. This will do nicely, Master Hallik. Very nicely. When can we begin training?”

Hallik smiled. “Who's the eager one? You will have them soon enough, Bersa. They have yet to even accept my offer.”

Jamus asked, “Do we have a choice?”

Hallik tilted his head to one side in jest. “I said you did. Join and live a much better quality of life than you were… or die. You seem intelligent, Mr. Turnbull. I have confidence you will make the right decision.”

Jamus leaned back on the bench he was sitting on. “I guess I'm in then.”

Daniel Pike nodded. “I follow him.”

“Mr. Gecka? I could use a man of your muscle.”

“In.”

Hallik turned to face the Bachran sisters.

Greta nodded. “We're in.”

“And that leaves Mr. Marr. Are you prepared to become a spy for the House of Hallik?”

“What's really in it for me?”

“Life.”

Dester scowled. “Sure, why not.”

Hallik slowly walked around the room, looking each new member of his team in the face. He stopped in front of Bersa. “I believe you have your students. Training may begin whenever you're ready.”



Chapter 2

_______________________



Hallik left the room with a smile. Bersa walked in front of each volunteer, looking them over from head to toe as she contemplated future missions. The ship briefly rumbled as it lifted from the dirt of the farming compound.

“Where are we being taken?” asked Jamus.

Bersa replied, “To a specially-constructed facility in the mountains. A place far from prying eyes. You will be trained in all areas of espionage. And just so you know, should you fail at any mission, Master Hallik may choose to have you terminated. I personally have been given that decision authority as well. So remember to keep your situation in mind, there are others out there who have become immune; you are easily replaced.”

“Why us? This group?”

“Primarily because of you, Mr. Turnbull. Of Master Hallik's slaves, you have been aware the longest. As for the rest of you, you know all Humans receive a basic education as a youth. The purpose being that you will be able to perform whatever tasks are put before you. But this also means you are interchangeable. Your selection was a matter of convenience. You were all together, nothing more.”

Bersa walked to the bench where Daniel Pike was sitting. “Mr. Pike, I have the perfect mission in mind for you. It will be in a diamond mine, on Gatumon. But don't fret about the peril of the labor. You will be a food courier to the miners. The information you gather will be on methods of production, and on labor turnover. Master Hallik is interested in opening up such a venture here on Caloran. He would like to have an idea of what is required to make the mine productive and profitable. The mine you are to be placed in on Gatumon is the top diamond producer in Betuaon.”

“I don't know anything about mining.”

Bersa nodded. “As would be expected. The six of you will be fully trained before being sent out on your missions. I've been given ninety days to make this happen for the factory job of Mr. Marr. Once that is well underway, we'll be putting effort into the mining operation.”

Forty minutes later, the ship settled on a concrete pad. The door to the room opened, the group was hurried into a hall, out to the ramp, and down onto the tarmac.

A grinning Hallik stood at the top of the ramp. “Welcome to your new home. As we discussed, ninety days, Bersa. I'm expecting good things from my investment in you. See to it our missions are carried out and you will be rolling in credits.”

Hallik turned, clapping his hands twice as he looked toward his aide. “On to our next meeting, Bilg. The governor doesn't like to be kept waiting.”

The ramp rose as the Greft lifted from the tarmac. Residual gravity waves pushed gently down on the group of Humans and their trainer as the master's ship accelerated toward its next destination.

“Come,” Bersa said. “The brown building will be our quarters. Seeing as I don't care for the natural odor of Humans, you will each shower and dress yourselves with the clothing you will find in your quarters. And please, scrub hard and make use of the soaps provided. For the next ninety days at least, you will be glistening and smell of nothing but the provided soap... or you will be replaced by another.”

“What are the other buildings?” asked Jamus.

“The white is for dining, relaxing, entertainment... essentially any time that is not spent in training or asleep, which will initially be very little. The green is our training facility. We will begin in classrooms. However, as training moves forward, there will be a physical aspect to all this. You will be fit, adept at the jobs you will be doing, and trained in self-defense and self-termination.”

“Termination?”

Bersa sighed. “We cannot risk discovery, Mr. Turnbull. Should the need arise, you will be trained in using extreme measures to protect your mission. If your jobs are done well, there will be no need for use of this training.”

Dester scowled. “So our choice is get the info or die. I can't wait to get started.”

“You must understand, Mr. Marr, if suspected, or captured during commission of your efforts, interrogation will follow. You will self-terminate or we will do it for you and for the rest of your team. There can be no notion in anyone's head that Humans are being used as spies. None. It would be disastrous for you, me, and Master Hallik... all of us.”

The group proceeded into the quarters. Eighteen individual rooms equipped with private baths lined a main hallway.

Bersa opened the door to the first room. “As you can see from the nameplate, this particular room belongs to Mr. Marr. You have a bed, desk and chair, and a small table with two additional chairs. Over here is a wardrobe for the jumpsuits you will be wearing during your time here. I slept on one of these beds last night. They are quite comfortable. The private bath has a shower, sink, and commode.”

Jamus asked, “You stay in these quarters as well?”

“I do. Just down the hall.”

Dester nodded as he looked around at his assigned room. “Hmm. A bed with a real mattress. Can't say I've actually ever slept on one. Had cots my whole life.”

Bersa stepped back into the hallway. “The rest of you will find your name on a door. Enter your rooms, bath thoroughly, and dress. I will be back to collect you in one hour. You will find a disposal bag just inside your door. Make use of it for your old clothes, please. They will be collected once we leave for our dinner meal.”

Dester grinned. “Dinner meal. Sounds like we're getting treated like real aliens.”

Bersa stopped. “We are all aliens on this planet, Mr. Marr. And we are all aliens on almost every planet in this galaxy. Now, I suggest you get started on your cleanup. If I come to collect you and you are not ready, you will be dragged out in whatever condition you are in. After today, we will be keeping precise schedules. For those who are unable to follow those schedules, there will be immediate termination. Enjoy your showers. And as I said, please be thorough.”

Jamus followed Daniel to his door. “This one's yours. Go clean yourself up.”

Two doors down, Jamus entered his own room. The disposal bag was pulled open and the hut-clothes he was wearing were dropped inside. Ten paces had him standing in the bathroom, staring at the glass door going into the shower. After several seconds of observation, he opened the door and stepped inside.

Jamus scratched his head as he looked up at the shower head and down at the controls in thought. What am I supposed to do now?

He pushed a handle down, and then side to side. Nothing happened, until he flipped the handle up. Cold water emerged from the shower head in a heavy stream. Feeling the initial chill, he hopped back, and then took a timid step into the cold flow. A button on the wall beside the shower control showed an image of a hand. The button was pressed and a shot of soap squirted out onto the shower floor.

As Jamus looked down at the wad of soap, a voice came from over his head. An image of Bersa showed on a display just above the shower controls. “It's called soap, Mr. Turnbull. Place your open, but cupped hand under the outlet and press the button. Use the soap to lather yourself and thereby remove the dirt.”

“I know what soap is for.”

“The one beside it is shampoo. That is suited for creatures with hair or fur. Human heads are covered with hair. Use the shampoo as you would soap, but for your hair. And I see you are avoiding the water. Is there a reason why?”

“Yeah, it's cold.”

“Twist the handle to your right, but not all the way. The water will warm. Adjust the temperature to your liking. When complete, you will find towels for drying in the small closet there in the bathroom. And please be thorough, Mr. Turnbull. I will come to collect you shortly. As of now, I see that I have five other Humans that require instruction in bathing.”

The display turned off.

Jamus scowled. “I know how to wash myself.”

A hard scrub was in order. The warm water brought a satisfying feel. The soap worked to loosen the dirt the pump water neglected to reach in his earlier attempt at getting himself clean. Drying with a soft towel had the fifty-two-year-old slave in a chipper mood. As he dressed in the provided white jumpsuit, that moment of cheer faded. What was he being set up for? What was really about to happen? Was the spy story a ploy to keep them compliant? Were they cleaning themselves up before dissection?

A knock on the door startled him back to the here and now. “Mr. Turnbull, come. Dinner is waiting.”

Jamus entered the hall with his disposal bag in hand.

Bersa rolled her beady eyes. “Please, Mr. Turnbull, place the bag on the floor. It will be collected while we eat.”

A Human slave entered the hall at the other end, walking into the far room and collecting the disposal bag of Martin Gecka.

Jamus returned a look of concern. “Wait... we have slaves?”

Bersa replied, “Menial tasks will be taken care of by workers. Those tasks are no longer your concern. Your focus will be on learning the skills needed for the mission to be performed and nothing more.”

Dester Marr slowly nodded his head. “Never thought I'd have my own slave boy.”

Martin moved close with an angry look and a clinched fist.

“What? You want to intimidate me? Careful, big man, I'll punch you in the marbles. I've been in a scrap or two during my day.”

Bersa stepped between them. “Do I have to remind you of the termination clauses of both your agreements?”

Dester huffed as he stepped back with a scowl. “Nobody pushes Marr around. You keep your space or you'll pay the price.”

A short walk had the group entering the white building and the dining hall. A half-dozen tables that would seat four persons each were centered in an open space. A Human cook, a smudger, stood behind a counter at a small buffet bar with a slight smile on his face and an empty gaze.

“On your left we have a lounge area. If you achieve goals, as a group, you may be rewarded with lounge time. I don't expect that to happen during the first half of your training. In the back you will notice the pool of water. You will each be learning how to swim. As of yet that skill is not required, but it may come in handy in the future. You will each be spending at least one hour per day in the pool.

“To the right is a study area. Terminals will be used to read up on information. Who here is practiced with the Markux alphabet and reading? Beyond the basic education you were all given?”

Dester Marr raised his hand as the others stared. “What? Had to learn it for the factory work. You were expected to understand both the design and order displays. Not to mention reading manuals for machine maintenance. Those things didn't fix themselves.”

Jamus withheld his hand, wanting to keep the knowledge of his abilities to himself. Had his hut been heavily searched, a small stack of writing would have been found.

Bersa nodded. “Mr. Marr, you will be my assistant for that particular portion of our training.”

Dester grinned. “And what do I get for that?”

“You get to live.”

The grin returned to his normal scowl.

Martin released a single smirk.

“Now, on to the dining. You will be given thirty minutes to consume your food during each dining period. There are four per day. Your weight will be monitored along with the remainder of your health. You will be given fitness goals to achieve and you will be expected to achieve those goals within the timeframes allotted to you.”

Bersa walked closer to the buffet bar. “You will take a plate and utensils. You will select the food items you wish to consume. You will carry your food to a table. And you will move over here for a beverage before returning to eat. When finished with your meal this evening, you are free to roam about the lounge, take a dip in the pool, or peruse the knowledge available on the terminals. You will have two hours of free time before returning to your quarters. Tomorrow, before sun-up, your full training will begin.”

The former Girda spy turned and walked toward a door. As she approached, an automatic lock could be heard as it clicked. The door opened, Bersa walked through, stopping briefly as she looked over her shoulder. “Thirty minutes. I suggest you eat well. The buffet contents will be restricted during future meals.”

Dester was the first to hurry over to grab a plate. “Starved. Ooh. That looks good. What is that?”

The buffet slave, with a blank look in his eyes, replied, “Gallot ribs.”

“And that?”

“Mangolan sausage.”

“And this one?”

Jamus stepped up. “Just fill your plate. We're all on a clock.”

“Fangule brains.”

Dester grabbed a ladle and dished out a healthy portion of fangule. “Brains. Gotta make me smarter, right?”

Martin gave a single smirk. “Do you know what fangule is?”

“It's the stuff that's gonna make me smarter.”

“It's the vermin that feed on our trash piles.”

Dester gave a perturbed look as he reached past Jamus with tongs for a pair of Gallot ribs. “Mind your own business, idiot. The fangule are already smarter than you.”

Plates were filled and beverages selected. Martin took a chair at a table with Greta and Kerena. Dester sat by himself, facing away from the remainder of the group. Jamus sat across from the elder Human, gesturing for Daniel to join the others.

Dester scowled at the intrusion. “What do you want?”

“I want us to all be a team. You're making enemies where enemies aren't allowed, or needed. You keep trying to push Martin's buttons and he's either going to snap you in half or Hallik will have you dissected for causing dissension. I know you don't like the sound of this, but from here on out we have to function as one. If someone has a problem, we all have a problem.”

Dester huffed. “Either move or shut up and eat. You're wasting your breath and wasting my time.”

Jamus sighed and glanced about the room before hurrying through his meal. A second plate was filled and eaten before Bersa returned to the dining hall.

“You have two hours to lounge about or do whatever. Please do not attempt to leave the confines of the building.”

Dester asked, “You aliens all have a single name. Why is that?”

“I've always wondered why Humans have two. We are all individuals. What purpose is had by keeping a last name?”

“Tells us where we came from.”

“And what purpose does that serve? Are you not unique from those who birthed you? Do you not live and breathe on your own? Is your entire life not separate from theirs?”

“We just like knowing where we came from, that's all. And it makes us easier to identify. How many Bersas are there out there? Does nobody get confused when making reference to you if there's another Bersa around?”

“We are each given a numeric sub-name at birth. I am Bersa-45221. It is a system much like the numeric tattoos you each have on your shoulders and forearms. No further identification is needed.”

The group glanced down at their identifiers.

Bersa pointed toward a clock. “A time unit is on each wall of this facility. There is one in each of your quarters. There is also a unit in each room of the training building. If given a time, you are expected to adhere to whatever schedule it relates to. I know you will become tired of hearing this, but if any one of you fails, you all may be held responsible. Master Hallik may decide to end this entire experiment at any time.”

Bersa turned and walked to the exit. Dester immediately moved to the lounge area, taking a seat on a plush leather chair.

He commented as he sunk deep within, “Oh… now this is how we should have been living. Alien seating. I could sleep in this. They want me on their team... living in comfort like this will do it.”

Jamus stood over the back of his chair. “Don't be so eager. We don't yet really know what's actually being asked of us.”

“I know exactly what's being asked. Hallik wants the dirt on his competitors. So long as he wants to keep me in this life, I'll give him what he wants... and more.”

“Sounds like you're easily bought.”

Dester looked over at the others, who were checking the comfort of some of the other chairs. “Listen... you hear that? Sounds like the squeaking one of those little fangule garbage eaters make. Sounds a lot like your voice. Now get away from me. This is my time to lounge, not yours.”

Jamus let out a deep sigh. “We're all in this together, Mr. Marr.”

The old man turned. “You got a problem with understanding? Go away. Mind your own business. You're cutting into my two hours.”

Jamus shook his head as he turned to follow Martin to the edge of the pool.

The big man looked over the bright blue bay as underwater lights gave off a welcoming glow. “What is the purpose of this... pool?”

Jamus chuckled. “You swim in it. You ever been near a river, lake, or pond? You do know you can't breathe underwater, right? Your mother never bathe you in a tub when you were younger?”

“I never knew my mother,” said Martin. “Or father. I was sold just after birth and moved from farm to farm until I was six. I've been working ever since.”

“Working usually doesn't start until ten. What work were you assigned?”

“Field work. Just as we were doing earlier today.”

“They don't put kids out there until they're at least ten. You have water duty?”

“I worked the hoe. I planted. I harvested. All the duties we are required to perform today.”

“That's harsh. You at least have a family that cared for you?”

Martin turned toward Dester with a scowl. “I shared a hut with a man much like him. Rash. Coarse. Unpleasant in his ways. I took many a beating until I was eleven.”

“What happened at eleven?”

Martin turned with a slight grin. “I was as big and as strong as my tormentor. His jaw was broken. He was sent away for not working.”

“Where to?”

The smile on Martin’s face widened. “The mines on Gatumon.”



Chapter 3

_______________________



After a night's sleep in the new quarters, the group was rousted before the sun began to rise. A quick breakfast in the dining hall was followed by an introduction to the training building. Two hours of reeducation on the Markux alphabet was followed by an hour of swim training in the pool.

Dester Marr cackled as Martin sank to the bottom of the deep end after being told to jump in. “Like a rock! Now just let him rot for five minutes and we're done with him.”

Jamus jumped in with a rope as Daniel and the girls held the other end. The much larger Human was pulled to the shallows, where he could stand on his own.

Bersa nodded. “Good. You at least had instinct enough to not panic and to hold your breath. Now the real lessons can begin.”

The first ten days of instruction passed quickly. Bersa was satisfied with the progress of the team and rewarded their efforts with one hour of free time in the white building. Dester Marr walked into the dining hall in search of a snack while Martin jumped in the pool. His head would disappear under the water of the shallow end for two minutes at a time.

Jamus sat on the couches with the Bachran girls, with Bersa taking a seat across from them. “Bersa, our legends speak of a Human alphabet. Is it different from the Markux?”

“I'm certain you have heard stories passed down by your elders. One such story tells of the Human race not being slaves, but instead a powerful species. And maybe tales of it being a most powerful civilization.”

“We've all heard those legends.”

Bersa leaned forward. “Had you ever thought they may actually be true?”

Greta said, “My mother, when her mind was clear, just before taking her Smudge every night, used to talk endlessly about it.”

Kerena added, “We heard hundreds of stories. A great military fleet. An era of prosperity and power. And then of the great betrayal.”

Bersa smiled. “Yes. The event that supposedly ended it all. Did you believe those stories to be true?”

“I wanted them to be true. But look around. We aren't powerful. We have no fleet. We're bought and sold for a handful of credits. This is what we know to be true.”

Jamus leaned back, crossing his arms. “What do you know of these stories? I'm curious as to what the Girda know and talk about.”

“Gather Martin from the pool. I will give you all something to think hard about. You can choose to believe it or not.”

The big Human was helped from the water and given several towels with which to dry. A complaining Dester Marr sat in his claimed lounge chair with a scowl on his face, having been bothered while having a snack. Bersa lifted her chin in the air, her beady eyes scanning the faces of the Humans before her.

“Well?” asked Jamus.

The alien instructor began to pace. “This is the history of Humans as we were taught throughout our educations. When first found, there was a pocket of Humans, an elite group, who had created an alphabet, built machinery, and even had devices that could carry a man through the air. This elite group was greedy, not sharing their information with others because they felt the others lacked the intelligence to understand their knowledge…”

Jamus returned a half scowl. “You have a typical group of Humans here. We're able to learn.”

“Yes. Well, when the Brekan, Master Hallik's people, arrived at your planet, they were said to have studied this pocket of Humans and many of their... creations.”

“That doesn't make sense. So we weren't always slaves? What happened to the elites?”

“Humans were determined to be violent. The elites were taken away for study, and the drug, Shackle, was developed to calm those who remained. Your ancestors, in their primitive and ignorant state, were troublesome. To this day it is understood that occasionally Humans of extraordinary intelligence are born. Shackle has allowed them to become useful to the empire. And it was said to have quelled the violent behavior in the others. Without it, the other Humans would have remained unruly and violent, and assuredly would have been done away with, just like your elites.”

Jamus tilted his head. “Wait... we're off the drug. And we aren't violent. Except for maybe Dester over there.”

Bersa returned a pursed smile. “Yes. An astute observation. An observation each of you is fully capable of. The story I just told you is what every Markux citizen is taught from an early age. Humans are only useful when on Shackle. They otherwise become dangerous and violent. And anyone caught denying them their... smudginess... is subject to immediate termination. The laws are very strict on this.”

“So you and Master Hallik are breaking the laws of the empire by having us here and not having us on the drug. Good to know.”

Bersa cleared her throat. “As I said, that tale is the story every Markux citizen is taught. The real story closely resembles your legends.”

Six confused stares were returned.

Bersa took in a deep breath. “Humans... were the dominant species of the galaxy.” Bersa gestured toward the Humans in front of her. “Your fleet was powerful. You were powerful. And you were highly intelligent. Your creation of the Markux Jump Drive led to interstellar travel and the discovery of the five other species that make up the empire.

“It was our species, non-Humans, who were weak and ignorant. Your ancestors, benevolent as they were, saw to it we were educated and trained. For a thousand years your people ruled over us. They taught us. They cared for and nurtured us. And they were just. And they were powerful.

“The Markux alphabet, and the other indicators of intelligence, didn't come about from the non-Human species. They happened because your people decided our people should be educated.

“For those thousand years, your influence was spread through the five species, building a wealthy, and powerful, and just... empire. But some of our people felt the need to usurp that power. Our numbers were greater than those of the Humans, so the reasoning was that we should be in charge. That reasoning led to the great betrayal.”

Dester shook his head. “Sounds like malarkey. Humans couldn't create any of this.”

Bersa took in a deep breath before letting it out slowly. “Humans created all of this. Your scientists and engineers made starship travel possible. Their accomplishments and deeds made the empire possible. We are all here today, as aliens, because of what they did nearly ten thousand years ago.”

“And then you betrayed us…” said Jamus.

Bersa shook her head. “No. The great betrayal is actually known as the Great Betrayer. One of your Humans, working with Brekan spies, led the Brekan on a raid that captured your fleet, and then used that fleet to subjugate your people.

“Billions of Humans were killed, and those who remained were placed on Shackle. For five hundred generations you have been the slaves to the other five sentient species of the Markux Empire. An empire, by the way, that was named after the creator of the Jump Drive: Nathaniel Markux. A Human scientist.”

Jamus stood with a troubled look. He slowly paced back and forth in front of the couch where he and the Bachran girls had been sitting. “And why would you be telling us this?”

“My job here is to build a team. That team needs to be unified. Giving you history, faith, and belief in yourselves, serves to accomplish that goal. You will not relay anything I just told you to other Humans. And in return I will educate you on what being a Human is... or was in this case.”

“How does telling us any of this help Hallik?”

“I believe it will give you a better understanding of who you are and why you are here. I believe it will also motivate you to do your best for the master, as it was his decision that you be given this information. He's looking for your loyalty, because he believes in turn you will give your best effort to our undertakings. I was troubled by his logic at first, but I have warmed to the idea. Master Hallik wants you to trust him, just as he is now trusting you.”

Dester asked, “So what happens to all this trust once we've completed the missions he wants us to?”

Bersa smiled. “He believes there will be enough missions to keep you very busy for the rest of your natural lives. Master Hallik has eyes on controlling the entire Betuaon State. After that, we have the Talion District, the Agedda Sector, and of course the entire Markux Realm.”

Dester smirked. “Thinking big. I like it already.”

“As each mission is accomplished, you will each be handsomely rewarded. Perhaps with more lounge time, with luxuries or food, or even with personal slaves of your own.”

Martin returned a look of anger.

“I don't see us wanting personal slaves,” said Jamus. “That's what we want to be rid of.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Dester.

“Mr. Turnbull, imagine Master Hallik ruling the Betuaon State. Has he not been a kind, just, and benevolent owner? Would his rule not be a benefit to all slaves? Now imagine that rule at the district or sector level. Would Humans not fair better under his ownership? And if taken all the way to being the emperor himself, imagine if slavery were to be abolished. Would you pledge loyalty to an emperor who brought an end to ownership of your species?”

“I would fight for that, yes.”

“Good. That is precisely the objective of Master Hallik. You exalt him, he frees all Humans.”

Dester crossed his arms. “Look, I'm all for freedom, but that's about the biggest load of bunk I've ever heard. Why would Hallik have any reason to free Humans? We're the ones doing all the work for this empire. Who's gonna grow the food? Who'll wash clothes or work in factories or clean houses? What incentive does he have to free us?”

“I just told you. You make him emperor, he gives all humanity their freedom. Humans were free before. This entire galaxy was free under Human rule. All of the tasks you just mentioned were being done by all her citizens. There were no slaves, and everyone was fed, and clothed, and houses were clean.”

Greta raised a hand. “Where is Master Hallik now? Why isn't he here telling us these things personally?”

“Master Hallik is a busy person. Counting Caloran, he has three colonies to run. There are farms and mines and businesses that require his constant attention. He has promised to be here when he can. You will just have to trust he is doing what he can for us all by keeping tight control of his colonies and their production.”

Bersa glanced up at the clock on the wall. “It seems your hour of lounging is up. Please return to your quarters. I will be around in the morning to collect you. Tomorrow will again be a busy day.”

Martin and Daniel walked with Jamus as they made their way toward their rooms.

“Does any of that sound real?” asked Martin.

Jamus shrugged. “Don't know. I'm at a loss at the moment. If what Bersa just said is true, this might be our first step toward freedom. Maybe Hallik isn't so bad.”

Daniel smiled. “Sounds like someone is warming up to the master.”

Jamus turned. “He has a long way to go before that happens. But this is a good first step, if it proves to be what he's doing. I'm still suspicious. And the rest of you should be too.”

The others turned to go into their rooms. Jamus took his required evening shower before drying off and lying back on his bed. Several hours were spent looking at the green glow from the clock as it reflected off the darkened ceiling, while thinking about the possibilities of a Human-run empire.

Was any of this real? Was he somehow dreaming? He hoped the coming day would bring answers to his multitude of open questions. It seemed like only moments after his eyes had closed that a knock came at the door.

“Rise, Mr. Turnbull. A new day is upon us.”

Jamus rubbed his eyes, showered again, dressed, and met the others in the hall. Breakfast turned into class time. Class time turned into swimming lessons. Swimming lessons turned into more instruction in the class.

Twenty days turned into forty, and then eighty.

The entire group had acquired basic reading and writing skills. Martin Gecka was swimming laps in the pool. Daniel showed a fascination for reading and was spending every minute of his rewarded lounge time at the terminals. The pupils were not only relearning, but were excelling at the basics. When followed up with advanced instruction, the Humans were becoming the first of their kind to receive a full classroom education in the previous ten thousand years.

Bersa stood before the group after a particularly satisfying and filling breakfast. “I hope you all enjoyed the morning meal. You have all shown great progress, achieving every milestone I have set forth. I am enthused with your progress, as is the master.”

Jamus asked, “When will we be seeing him again? It's been eighty days without a visit. Doesn't Marr go out in another ten days?”

“Master Hallik has been busily arranging Mr. Marr’s job placement. There are many deals that had to be made to arrange it. It's not as simple as renting him out. There has to be a need, and Mr. Marr has to be made available to fill the position immediately upon its opening. And all this must be arranged with no connections coming back to Master Hallik.”

“Marr is owned by Hallik. How is that not a connection?”

“Mr. Marr has been sold to an entity owned by my second cousin. My cousin is unaware of his ownership of a slave or of the company he now holds title to. Should an investigation lead anyone down that path, they will reach a dead end, with no one having knowledge of that entity. The filings with the Betuaon State, however, are legitimate. The fees have been paid to make them so.”

Dester said, “So basically I'm not owned by anyone. Maybe I should just skip out of here and go my own way…”

Jamus smirked. “Where you gonna go? Thought you had everything you ever wanted right here?”

“Hmm. Yeah, I guess there's not much out there to skip out for. Looks like I'll be hanging out for the factory job.”

Bersa pointed toward a white wall, where an image of a machine was being projected. “Speaking of your job, the next ten days will be focused on exactly that. You will be running die machine twenty-two. Production invoices and instructions will come by your station every day. You will also have an excellent view of the production floor. Your eyes and ears will help us to unlock the productivity secret of this site.”

“When do we start?”

“This afternoon you'll be learning to make use of the machine. We've acquired a replica and you will soon be operating the device during four-hour shifts. We've obtained projections of the production floor to be broadcast around you. During the first two shifts I will be quizzing you on the happenings within your view. You will become adept at using the machine and observing others.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“As an added incentive to catch all that is going on, you will be wearing a shock collar.”

Martin raised one corner of his mouth in a smug smile.

“A what?” Dester asked.

“A shock collar. When quizzed, if you miss an item that should have been observed, you will receive a shock from the collar. With each miss, the current will be slightly increased.”

“I don't like the sound of that.”

“Then I'm certain you will be paying the utmost attention. During our coursework, I'll be offering tips and guidance on how to be an observant spy. By the end of this ten-day period, you'll be able to catch and recall every event in question. You'll be taught the memorization techniques that will allow you to fully recall an invoice or work instruction. And when specific events happen, you'll have the ability to investigate them further, without drawing attention to yourself.”


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