Science Fiction Thriller
Date Published: April 6, 2020
Publisher: World Castle Publishing
By 2047, no crime in the U.S. goes unsolved. No wrongdoing goes unseen. When Dray Quintero learns his 19-year-old daughter Raven committed a heinous act, he covers it up to save her life. This pits him against the police he’s respected since he was a child and places him in the crosshairs of Kieran, a ruthless federal Agent. To survive, Dray must overcome the surveillance system he helped build and the technology implanted in the brains and eyes of the citizens.
Forced to turn to a domestic terrorist group to protect his family, Dray soon realizes the sheer level of control of his adversaries. Hunted and betrayed, with time running out, will Dray choose his family or the near-perfect society he helped create?
Chapter 1 from Michael C. Bland’s “The Price of Safety”
Igniting a miniature sun was the riskiest thing we’d ever attempted, yet we were doing it in front of the entire planet.
While Nikolai bragged about our innovations to the cameras, reporters, and two hundred VIPs assembled, I stood sixty feet away, facing the control panel of our unlit sustained-fusion reactor, searching for any indication our creation would explode. The seven-foot-long, concave control panel displayed the time remaining until ignition. Forty-five seconds.
I didn’t use the control panel to conduct my search. Instead, I projected our schematics and stress tolerance estimates onto the lenses in my eyes, the data hovering before me like a clear computer screen stretched across my vision. Hidden from everyone.
“...each pod contains the highest concentration of dark matter ever collected,” said Nikolai, the CEO of our company, who’d been my friend once. “Eighteen months’ worth of space harvesting efforts.”
We’d designed not only the pods but the entire ten-acre complex: the energy grid, the fifty-yard-wide containment chamber where we’d try to light the “sun” that would power our reactor, the domed observation room with celestial images on the ceiling and a massive window that revealed the chamber, and Nikolai’s temporary stage in front of the window. We’d also devised the safety protocols, power regulators, and energy-capture systems. The biggest risk was the medicine-ball-sized metal core we hoped to ignite. A single flaw could doom everyone here.
If we succeeded, though, our reactor would provide mankind with cheap, reliable energy—and us a spot in the history books. Nikolai would become richer than ever, with countries begging for our reactor. I’d see my creation come to life, which would tangibly better mankind, fulfilling a promise I’d made.
My personal cell phone buzzed in my pocket, a number I didn’t recognize flashing in the corner of my augmented sight. I ignored the call and reluctantly stopped my search as the countdown neared zero. Years of planning, of calculations and simulations and more money than I cared to contemplate, came down to this moment.
Beside me, Amarjit, my bushy-eyebrowed director of robotics, took a deep breath as I activated the reactor. Four titanium-geared positioning robots, each twenty feet tall, stepped forward in unison inside the solar-cell-lined, circular containment chamber, and lifted the dark matter containment pods to precise spots around the core. Reinforced metal rods moved two additional pods into position, one rod descending from the ceiling and the other rising from the floor.
“Dark matter is the key to our efforts,” Nikolai continued, his sharp chin pointing at the crowd. He wore his graying hair short, his thin frame coated in a pale suit. He also wore his datarings, which was odd, as my team and I were handling the sequence. “This unique substance causes regular matter to draw on itself. The resulting compression, which will occur at the molecular level throughout the core, is what we’re confident will create the fusion spark.”
The robots locked their joints into place.
I hadn’t wanted anyone here but was outvoted by our board, my simulations used against me. But the simulations were distorted with assumptions. I wasn’t sure the core had the right mix of elements, wasn’t sure about the pressure needed. Wasn’t sure about a lot of it.
I took a breath myself—aware of the lives at risk, the stakeholders and VIPs and broadcasting cameras—and powered up the dark matter.
The robots’ hands and the two cradles glowed as they released energy into the pods, activating the matter. Combined reverse-gravitational pressure enveloped the core to five hundred million newtons per square meter, squeezing it from all sides.
There was supposed to be light, the purest imaginable, maybe preceded by a flash. But nothing happened.
Our readouts measured the core’s compression, but showed nothing that indicated an ignition: no fusing of molecular fuels, no sign of liquefaction.
As anxiety crawled up my spine, I increased pressure, but nothing changed other than rising stress levels in the robots’ joints. I maxed the energy to the pods, compressing the core to pressure levels found under the Earth’s crust.
Amarjit shot me a look, his caterpillar-sized eyebrows squeezing together.
I knew the danger.
The pods were made of aluminum, the only metal that could contain energized dark matter without interfering with its reverse-gravitational force. But the dark matter became more volatile the more we assaulted it with energy, and the pods had limits to what they could hold.
With the forces we were manipulating, it felt like depending on a balloon to contain a shotgun blast. If one ruptured, our entire complex would be decimated, along with a portion of Los
Angeles. The city south and west of here should be protected from the blast by the mountainside we’d carved into, but maybe not. The amount of destruction would depend on the energy levels when everything went to shit.
The readouts on my lenses flashed red. We’d reached our thresholds, yet the core remained unchanged.
My personal cell phone buzzed again, the same unknown number.
Ignoring the call, I told Amarjit, “We’re aborting.” I touched the control panel to kill the power to the pods, but the system didn’t respond. “What the hell?”
I waved Nikolai over, but he wasn’t looking at me; he faced the chamber instead, his determined expression one I’d seen countless times. His hands hung at his sides, but his fingers were moving, entering commands. His silver datarings flashed as he typed on his legs, the rings registering his fingers’ movements as keystrokes—tracking where each finger moved as if he was typing on a keyboard—and sending his commands to his neural net, which I realized was now the only access point to the fusion reactor.
Behind him, the crowd became restless.
“Boss,” Amarjit said.
I followed his gaze. Inside the chamber, the robots extended their arms, moving the dark matter closer to the core. First two inches. Then four. Then six.
“I’m not doing it,” he said.
“It’s Nikolai.” I slapped at the digitally-projected controls, but they didn’t react. “He fucking cut us off.”
WARNING flashed red in my vision as alarms sounded.
The faceplate of one of the robots buckled from the reverse-gravitational forces emanating from its pod. The knee joint of another started to twist.
“Dray,” Amarjit said.
“I see it.” My hands skittered across the control panel as I tried to reboot the system but failed, my brow damp with sweat.
A strained sound reverberated inside the chamber, followed by a pop, and a crack stretched across the curved window before us. The air surrounding the robots shimmered like asphalt on a summer day.
I brought up the master settings to search for a power override. “Can you take command of the robots remotely?”
“No,” he said as he jabbed at the panel. “They can only be controlled from here.”
Robot Number Two—with the twisted knee—contorted further as the pressure from the dark matter mounted, sparks flying from its wrists. None of our simulations had covered this, but I knew what would happen. A few more degrees and its joint would shatter. It’d be thrown against the wall, the pod ripped open. We’d be obliterated in the explosion.
I needed to cut Nikolai’s signal.
The control panel rested on a bioplastic-enclosed base connected to a hollow metal railing. The dataring receiver had to be in the base. I hadn’t included one in the panel’s design, but it would’ve been easy for him to add. I wondered what else the self-serving bastard had done.
“You bring any tools?” I asked Amarjit, who shook his head. “Get everyone out of here.”
“There’s no time.”
He was right. “Then save yourself. Go.”
As he hurried away, I squatted below the panel, took my metal ID badge from around my neck, jammed it into the cover’s seam, and tore away the bioplastic to expose the motherboards, quantum cubes, and fiberwires that connected to the panel. I spotted the receiver immediately, an inch-long, fan-shaped device, and ripped it out, severing Nikolai’s connection.
I stood and hit the sequence to reestablish a link to the robots.
As systems came online, I wondered why the core hadn’t sparked. The reaction sequence should’ve initiated, especially with so much pressure. That’s when I noticed the liquefaction gauge. A section of tritium had liquified but was stunted, limited to the second quadrant.
Closest to Robot Number Two.
Where the pressure was angled.
I’d approached this wrong. I’d directed pressure uniformly around the core.
Regaining control, I linked with the robots to pull them back, but first shifted Robot Number Three—the least-damaged one—to the right, angling the pressure from its pod—
The core ignited.
Throughout the tritium veins that threaded the core, protons added to atoms in a domino effect, the veins turning into contained plasma, and brilliant light burst forth, painting the chamber. No explosion threatened us, no pressure, unlike the destructive effect of nuclear fission. Instead, warmth from the molten metal reached me through the glass, the chain reaction spreading over the core’s surface to begin consuming the denser, solid metals that would feed it for the next twenty years.
The warnings in my lenses, thrown in stark relief by the star we’d created, turned green as I pulled the robots back to reduce the pressure to acceptable levels, though one regarding the robots’ structural integrity remained red.
The chamber’s window tinted, returning our vision to us.
Nikolai threw up his arms to the crowd. “As promised, nuclear fusion! The first of many Gen Omega plants we’ll build across the country to address America’s energy needs.”
Applause washed over us.
“Bastard,” I murmured, shaking with adrenaline.
I reduced the dark matter’s energy to the minimum amount needed to keep our newborn sun suspended in position, while Amarjit, who’d rushed back to help, ran diagnostics on his robots, two of which no longer stood straight.
A phone number flashed on my lenses, the same one as before. This time it was calling my work cell. Possibly one of my employees. “Dray here.”
“Dad, I need help,” my nineteen-year-old daughter said.
I was caught off-guard, not only because it was Raven’s voice, but because of the fear in it. I’d never heard her so afraid.
Concerned, I moved away from Amarjit. “What happened?”
“You’ve got to come.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not me. It’s....” Someone else. Trever Hoyt, her boyfriend, who Raven had gone out with tonight. He was a decent kid, though opinionated and a little snobbish. I had hoped she wouldn’t get serious with him, but they’d dated for almost a year. “Do you remember the time in
New Trabuco when I hit that rock? It’s worse than that.”
She meant there was a lot of blood. His blood, presumably. “You need to call the po—”
“I would, except it’s me.”
I didn’t understand, then did. She’d caused the bleeding.
I started to ask if they’d been in an accident, but she was being cagey for a reason.
Normally talkative and bright, she was avoiding saying certain words, aware that spiders patrolled the airwaves.
Watching what she said. Trever bleeding. The way she was acting, it could only mean one thing: she’d done something illegal, as hard as it was to believe.
Though I was still sweating, I felt a chill. No one got away with a crime. Not in 2047.
The people around me, the media and VIPs and shining fusion core, Nikolai waving at me to join him on stage as he said my name and proclaimed this was the start of “more wonders to come.” None of it mattered now.
I squeezed my finger-thin phone. “Where are you?”
“His parents’ place. Their work. There’s a spot we made where you can get in. I’m in a small building just past a maintenance road.”
My concern increased. She meant Trever’s parents’ facility. I’d never been there and didn’t know what they did, but I’d heard visitors required a security clearance due to the sensitive nature of government contracts the Hoyts had. It was a place she never should’ve been.
“On my way.”
* * *
I exited the 605 at Beverly and raced through Whittier, passing countless neighborhoods, most of which were dark this time of night. I closed my data streams to reduce my digital trail, and tried to avoid the surveillance that existed even in this sleepy part of Los Angeles, the cameras and traffic scanners and microphones that monitored most of the country. I wanted to take side streets to further reduce my history, but needed to get to Raven. She wasn’t the type to ask for help. Strong and resourceful, she helped others, cared about the neglected and abused—otters, immigrants, the homeless—and debated fiercely, but never with a mean spirit. She would become a force as an adult—though with the way she’d sounded, I worried for her future.
My thoughts flickered to my son Adem, who’d died before he learned to talk. Even with how safe I’d helped make our world, I couldn’t protect him. Couldn’t save him. I feared I wouldn’t be able to save Raven, either.
I passed the guarded entrance to Hoyt Enterprises and followed the fortified, ten-foot-high wall for blocks until I located Trever’s red-and-black McLaren. I tried to tamp down my fear as I parked my Chrysler E-650 sedan beside the metal wall. I had to be level headed and calm, though I didn’t feel either.
Spotting the hole Trever and Raven had created, two of the vertical panels pried apart, I went to it. I’d maintained my weight over the years, but I’d always been thick. As a result, I had to squeeze my way through the gap.
Multi-story buildings occupied most of the compound’s interior—production, office, warehouse—though they stood back from the wall, the structures dark, the only light in the complex coming from the entrance far to my left. Closer to me, one-story storage structures stretched in long rows, the nearest five yards away. Straight ahead was an empty space followed by an asphalt road and a cluster of residence-type buildings barely visible in the darkness. To my right, a flat-topped building sat on top of an unlit hill adjacent to the facility. The property was fenced, and the two parcels shared a wall.
I started toward the residence-type buildings, sticking close to the nearest storage structure, followed the structure to the far end, and found a security camera staring at me. I froze, but my image had already been captured.
My apprehension growing, I continued forward and crossed the road.
The buildings were old, possibly the property’s original development. Three could have been homes, another a garage, a fifth some kind of lab. I hesitated, unsure which one she might be in, heard a sound to my left, and cautiously proceeded toward the residence in that direction.
She appeared in the shadowed doorway, pulled me inside, and hugged me, trembling.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“It was Trever’s idea. Dad, he attacked me. He tried to rape me.”
I stepped back. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the swelling in her face, her bloody lip. Her shirt was torn.
A primal rage began to grow. “Did he...?”
“No.” Her composure, thin as it was, cracked. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
Her words tempered my anger and fear, though not by much. “Whatever you did was
self-defense. You were justified. The police will see the truth.”
She grabbed my arm. “His implant. I ripped it out.”
His neural net, the implanted technology that linked our brains to the web, work, and every other digital source. Federal law required that every citizen have one, and tampering with them was punishable by death, regardless of the circumstances. There had been complaints about the law’s extremity, even demonstrations, but nothing had changed, and most people didn’t care, too enamored with the access their implants granted.
My lips felt numb. “Is he alive?”
“I don’t think so.”
She led me to the next room, where Trever lay in a pool of blood, his body contorted, his implant nearby.
I’d never seen an implant outside of a person’s head. The part that was usually visible, the silver-dollar-sized reflective end, stuck out no more than a quarter-inch from a person’s temple. However, the entire implant was over an inch and a half long, with two curved leads that jutted deeper into the brain: one about two inches long and the other about five inches.
“He grabbed me and tore at my clothes,” she said. “I tried to crawl away, but when he grabbed me, I kicked him as hard as I could, and he rolled off. That’s when I saw the pipe.”
She indicated a rusted drainage pipe, one end curled back where it had broken off.
I squatted beside it, careful not to touch it. “You hit him with this?”
“How many times?”
“Just once. When I swung, the pipe caught the edge of his implant. I didn’t mean to.”
Trever wasn’t the first corpse I’d seen, but he was the first born of violence, which made me unsettled. His right temple was caved in where his implant had been. The metal ring that had secured his implant in place was missing, along with a chunk of his skull. Raven’s years of playing softball had saved her from a heinous act—but at a terrible price.
A fierce protectiveness rose inside me, joining my fear. The police would be methodical. I had to anticipate what they’d find.
The building we were in was being renovated. The floor had been reduced to a concrete slab and the walls gutted, with spools of wire stacked in a corner and construction supplies strewn about. A nearby wall had blood splattered in an arc.
Nothing contradicted her story, though doubt nagged at me. “Ripping out his implant was a fluke,” I told her. “It was self-defense. A jury won’t convict you."
“He didn’t rape me. I stopped him. If people could’ve seen his face, how he lunged at me, what he said, they would understand, but there aren’t cameras in here. No one will believe me.”
A prosecutor could claim her injuries were self-inflicted. Say she’d torn her own clothes. Without hard evidence, she was in danger.
She didn’t have to add that Trever’s parents were politically well-connected. Mina frequently interacted with them as chief of staff for the mayor of Los Angeles. Jesus, Mina. She was going to be horrified.
“What do we do?” Raven asked.
“I don’t know. Who knows how many cameras I passed getting here, not to mention the GPS in my car?”
When I left the reactor, I’d shielded my face from the cameras I knew about, but dozens of others had probably nailed me, including the one inside the facility. Hell, our phone call could be used against us. My work cell had a built-in scrambler, so the cops would only get one side of our conversation, but with the other evidence, it’d be enough.
She didn’t plead, didn’t back away. “I’ll turn myself in.”
I started for her, careful not to step on Trever’s implant, but paused.
If she hadn’t ripped it out, hadn’t killed him, I would’ve wanted her to confess to the police. But if she did, she would pay the ultimate price.
She couldn’t just leave. Not only had she been caught on camera, she was leaving DNA: blood, hair, dead skin. I was, too.
We had to do this a different way and hope it worked, because I couldn’t lose her. She and her sister were my world.
“I have an idea. You’re not going to like it,” I told her. “I’ve heard rumors about people stealing implants. Cops don’t want to admit it happens, because it’s one of the only crimes they struggle to solve.”
“Why would people steal...? Oh. To become someone else.”
I nodded. “Each has a unique code cops can use to identify us if they get a warrant. A criminal who wants to hide from author ities can’t unless they obtain a new code, which means a new implant—one that’s been stolen, wiped, and recoded.”
“You want to blame Trever’s death on implant thieves.”
“To do that, I’ll have to take yours.”
Her eyes grew big. “What?”
“If yours isn’t stolen, the authorities won’t believe you.” I held out my hands. “I’ll take it out straight, minimal damage. You can tell the police you two were here hiding out or whatever when men jumped you. Trever tried to defend you, but they overwhelmed him and ripped out his implant. They were easier on you, as you didn’t fight, using the same pipe—”
“The same pipe? Dad, I don’t want to die.” She looked panicked.
I took her in my arms. “You won’t. I promise. Tell the cops the men were masked and didn’t say anything.”
When I let go, she wiped her cheeks. “How do the police find me?”
“As soon as I take your implant, I’ll call 911.”
She paled further, eyes darting, but nodded.
I had her lay near Trever, yet far enough away that she didn’t touch his blood.
“I’m scared,” she said.
I wasn’t a father. I was a monster for suggesting this. But I had to keep her safe.
I touched her cheek. “I’ll make it as clean as possible. With the right amount of force, it’ll pop out.” I had the strength. I’d manhandled the robots we’d used in the reactor. “This is the only way.”
As she rolled onto her side, I picked up the pipe. I placed my hand on her head, my calloused fingers nearly palming it. “I love you.”
I gently slid the hooked lip of the pipe under the edge of her implant, wincing when the pipe touched her skin. After seeing Trever’s neural net, I knew Raven’s had been implanted straight into her skull. If I pulled up, like removing a nail, it’d minimize the damage. I didn’t want to do this, and would probably never forgive myself, but it needed to look like a criminal stole her neural net.
I had an image of her in prison garb, curled on a metal cot. Another of her strapped to a gurney, getting a lethal injection.
I couldn’t let that happen, whatever the cost.
I held her in place with my free hand and pulled on the pipe, at first gently and then as hard as I could. For the briefest of moments, the ring held—she screamed—then gave way with a wet sound. The implant tumbled to the ground as I fell back, the pipe nearly flying from my hand.
She started to shake and gasp. Sparks flickered in her eyes, and blood welled up in the hole I’d opened in the side of her head.
A panic unlike anything I’d ever felt seized me.
What had I done?
Michael C. Bland is a founding member and the secretary of BookPod: an invitation-only, online group of professional writers. He pens the monthly BookPod newsletter where he celebrates the success of their members, which include award-winning writers, filmmakers, journalists, and bestselling authors. One of Michael’s short stories, “Elizabeth,” won Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 2015 Popular Fiction Awards contest. Three short stories he edited have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Another was adapted into an award-winning film. Michael also had three superhero-themed poems published in The Daily Palette. He currently lives in Denver with his wife Janelle and their dog Nobu. His novel, The Price of Safety, is the first in a planned trilogy, and has been recognized as a finalist in both the National Indie Excellence awards and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. For more information about Michael’s life and work, visit www.mcbland.com.