A blur. It was always a blur. It was always familiar though... A feeling of detachment.
Roberts saw the Reticulan out of the corner of his eye and threw himself sideways, attempting to disturb the alien’s lock on him, while bringing his normally-clumsy CAWS to bear. Roberts was well practiced though – indeed, he had lost track of how many times he had boarded alien vessels – and he depressed the trigger, sending a burst of shells through the doorway.
The action suddenly seemed to slow down. The Reticulan fired, sending a white-hot ball of plasma towards the human fighters. The plasma streaked to Roberts’ right as the Reticulan’s energy-weapon shield shimmered. The blue haze sharpened as the shot scored home, obscuring the most vicious of the alien’s wounds. Roberts watched with satisfaction as the Reticulan started to pitch back…
A scream to the right and a hiss… Roberts didn’t even need to turn around to know what had happened, but that damned natural human curiosity, not to mention the innate human drive to somehow bear witness to death, forced him to look before he could stop.
One of the other soldiers, someone from another unit, writhed as he fell to the ground, his torso nearly off his legs. The plasma that had been meant for Roberts had hit the poor man – a boy really – right in the midsection. It looked like it had burned through the boy’s entire stomach almost all the way to his spine before the pressure of the evaporated body mass diverted the plasma. The plasma continued to evaporate through the right side of the soldier’s body, dispersing just as it made its exit…
Gritting his teeth, Roberts turned back to the door… Too late. Another Reticulan was already there, and again Roberts felt his world go into slow motion. He brought his weapon up again, his finger depressing the trigger… The bright green flash of a shield made Roberts blink.
The alien was still there. Imposingly, the Reticulan stepped into the room and raised its weapon. Roberts eyes widened as he recognized the microslug accelerator. In a last attempt, he pushed off from the wall, a clumsy dodge towards the center of the room, but the alien tracked him easily. Roberts didn’t even have time to scream…
The sunlight streamed through the window of the bedroom, a magnificent dawn . James Roberts sat upright, breathing heavily and covered in sweat. The same nightmare had plagued him for the last two decades. It had been a real mission too, and no other mission of his unwilling career had carried the threat of death more highly. It wasn’t that other missions had been easier – some had been harder - but Roberts had felt that perhaps he should have been killed back then…
It had been a massacre. The Council of Earth’s main troops had come to take the downed saucer, but they ran into more trouble than they could handle. Roberts had been travelling back from a small reconnaissance patrol with a small team when they got orders to divert to the saucer. By the time they had got there, half of the squad had been killed. Roberts’ team-mates had been killed as well, and only two CoE soldiers made it out alive.
Roberts knew that mission had almost been a breaking point. He had seen some pretty ugly things. He had survived the Fall with a few others, barricaded and sealed into the laboratory facility he had been working in. At the time, he and his co-workers had thought it would be pretty crummy to live off of potato chips and coke, but when they realized what had happened…
The madness that followed the Fall was beyond words. Sheer luck had gotten them through the first few weeks, where mutated horrors stalked the streets. Humans, non-mutated ones, had also gone insane. Both mad-humans and transgenants had carried weapons; neither were afraid to use them.
He had been picked up during a random excursion of Council of Earth troops. Roberts remembered the relief of rescue… and the anger of the truth. It was unthinkable, and yet it had happened.
And, in retrospect, I probably had the exact same reaction as everyone else… I’ll make them pay for this! Not ‘we’. ‘I’. What a distinction, thought Roberts sombrely as he got out of bed and walked to his washroom. He heard his wife Ophelia stir, but she made no rise.
Roberts splashed some water in his face, then went to the window. The dawn was always magnificent and the scene outside picturesque. Roberts looked out over a valley, with close-set coniferous trees covering the slopes. At the bottom was a lake, and though it was still dark down there now, Roberts knew that the surface of the water would shine a brilliant blue when the suns rays came over the mountains above beyond.
Like every morning for the last two decades, he sighed to himself as he looked out over the image. Like every other morning, he reached out, the sun beckoning him to open the window and feel the splendour of nature’s beauty. Like every other morning, as he touched the window, the scene shimmered and distorted around his fingertips…
Roberts remained silent, but his mind reeled from the news. He was of the same mind as the other soldiers though. Shock and revulsion were the primary emotions, but deep down he could feel fear and a distinct loss of hope. The room was silent for a moment, and the shock was starting to turn to anger.
It wasn’t directed at the speaker though. The anger in the room from the forty-odd men and women in the room paled in comparison to Captain Edward Richmond’s indignation. He looked like he was about to go to the Council of Earth’s headquarters and beat some sense into them, but something held him back. Richmond had been an officer in the British armed forces prior to the Fall, but he had been relatively close-mouthed about the specifics of his history. He had always said that humanity as a whole was what mattered now; the past was no longer applicable. It was the truth too; humans had to band together or die, as cliché as it sounded.
“You heard me. The Council of Earth,” he said, naming the self-appointed government of Earth like it was a poison, “has deigned to surrender on behalf of all of us to the Reticulan… overlords, or whatever.” Even though Richmond was furious, there was something like a look of pain as well.
“We’ve been fighting them back, beating them down… and this is how it turns out?” That was Ophelia Yamidori, found in France just after Roberts had been found.
One of the more older men, Dmitri Voronkova, stood to speak. He was a timid looking man with a big head – he was one of the bioanalysts attached to the Company to study the biomass. His unassuming appearance concealed the foulest mouth in the Company, and a stream of curses, some intelligible and some not, streamed forth. It was almost two minutes before those nearest to him could calm him down enough to express himself ‘properly’. “Why? We have much to lose here, we cannot simply give up!”
Richmond shook his head, looking from Yamidori to Voronkova. “The sad fact is that while we’ve been accomplishing our missions, the rest of the Council’s troops have been getting slaughtered.” He raised his hands to forestall any comments. “They’ve been dealing with the transgenants satisfactorily, but the Reticulans have been pressing them hard too, and the Council sees it as the best possible move…” His voice trailed off, and the doubt in his voice was easily perceived.
As the crowd dispersed later on, there was a mixture of feelings. Some wanted to go it on their own, continue the resistance no matter what. Others wanted to stay with the bulk of humanity in the space station, feeling that fighting was pointless if it was just for themselves. Roberts let himself shuffle out with the crowd, and he listened… but he had no idea what he wanted to do.
Having reminding himself of the illusion that he lived in, Roberts withdrew his hand from the holographic image. Without another glance at the scene, he walked out into the main area of his family’s apartments. There, the family servant accosted him. “Good morning, Mr. Roberts. How are you today? What would you like for breakfast?” it asked as it bowed stiffly.
Roberts regarded the android carefully. “The usual for a Saturday morning. Toast, bacon, eggs… scrambled.” Impeccably dressed (as always), the android went off to do his masters bidding. It was an luxury of sorts, on the surface; on Earth, nobody had servants, except for the rich and famous. Here, everyone had one. Articulate but somewhat dull, the cybernetic butlers fulfilled their tasks admirably, but Roberts harboured suspicions that they were keeping everyone under surveillance as well.
“Hi Daddy!” 12-year-old Anne and 9-year-old Chris Roberts were already up watching the tri-vid, a sort of three-dimensional version of a television. They laughed at something in the field; it was some sort of 3D Mickey Mouse, but Roberts wasn’t very knowledgeable about what sort of programming the Reticulans had worked up for children. Their adult programs, patterned after historical Earth entertainment as well as guided by the Council of Earth, were of a similar quality as he had remembered: pretty bad. Roberts hugged Anne and Chris, giving each a kiss on the cheek, before sitting down at the table.
Life was comfortable, nobody could deny that. The standard of living under the Reticulan’s care was much higher than the average on Earth, and even more importantly, it was equal. Food and leisure time were plentiful. The Reticulans provided every luxury to the displaced humans, allowing humans to pursue everything their hearts desired. The situation was a utopia…
Or was it?
Were the androids spying on him? Were the robotic butlers everything they seemed? Why did the Reticulans have these androids doing so many tasks around the space station? Surely humans could work just as efficiently…
What were the Reticulans teaching in the schools? Certainly, they encouraged learning, but it seemed… insidious. They taught everything that a human teacher might – literature, mathematics, the sciences - but the similarity was disturbing. Everything had a Reticulan slant of course, Reticulan history especially. There must be something suspicious going on there… there had to be.
In a way, the Reticulans had never stopped being the enemy for Roberts, and the enemy always had dark motives. They had to! The Reticulans were not human, they had no human compassion! Monsters, they destroyed the human race!
Yet, that had been challenged by the current situation. The Reticulans were taking responsibility for the last humans, treating them well. Even some of Roberts’ old comrades had fallen in with the Reticulans, their beliefs changing and adapting to these ‘surprising’ circumstances.
Life was good... but at its core, it was oppressive. The freedoms – the brilliant scenery, the fine living, the luxury – were all illusions. Illusions designed, as far as Roberts could tell, to keep humans entertained and distracted. Entertained, distracted… and perhaps loyal to the Reticulans, when the time came?
As he sat there, in the middle of his routine breakfast, a procedure that had repeated itself every week for the last twenty-odd years, he realized that all the benefits of this life under Reticulan rule had come at a cost. They had a pleasant and beautiful utopia, that was true, but humanity had also lost something important when the Council of Earth had surrendered.
Driven by nostalgia and partially from sorrow, Roberts left his breakfast only half-eaten and went back into his bedroom. He stepped into the closet and pulled out a box. As he opened it and saw the uniform representing his service to humanity, memories of the past came rolling back. Hard memories, ones full of trial and sacrifice… but memories that were free.
That was what was missing. Self-determination, infinite possibilities… freedom. This golden cage was only a facsimile of real freedom, and the people who remembered those feelings – the ones who would be best suited to fight against the Reticulan oppressors – had been mentally bludgeoned and dulled by the softness of the surroundings. With the children of the next generation growing up knowing nothing else, would they even understand what their forebears had given up?
The eternity of this legalized bondage brought a cloud of despair into Roberts’ mind, and it was a grief far beyond personal loss. As Roberts ran his fingers over the insignia of the Phoenix Company, he quietly wondered to himself, Will we ever be free?