Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Starlight (A Serialized Novella): Part One - The Lost and Damned

The stars of life shine
As bright as supernovas
As dark as black holes
– Technicolor Dreams 

Chapter 1 – The Lost and Damned

Helicopters fly
In single file across a
Dream’s barren landscapes
– Technicolor Dreams

In the austere, almost sterile main library in the DATUS Space Cadet Academy, Anthony Van Neuzer sat, preparing diligently for his COMPS Exams. A hum of activity buzzed around him, faceless fellow Cadets and support workers on the floating space ship they all called home, flittered back and forth; doing everything and nothing, simultaneously, and at the same time. He had no difficulty ignoring the sound and noise and fury. He’d had a lot of practice. 

DATUS, or the Academy, as everyone called it, was where future “warriors” were trained in the art of robotic drone warfare. COMPS were the compulsory exams they had to write 4 times a year. The penalty for failure was expulsion, the reward for success was, well, he wasn’t he could call being allowed to stay a reward. Not for most of the utterly ill-suited multitudes of the Cadets. The Academy was a topsy-turvy place that defied logic. He was starting to realize that in Earth Prime, that was the rule, not the exception. None of it made any sense to Van Neuzer. Not even the acronyms, which had existed since recorded time. No one was sure what they stood for. No one even questioned it anymore. They all just accepted it. It was the way things were. It was all part of the plan 

And what a beautiful plan, it was; stunning and elegant in its simplicity. All it required from the citizens was acquiescence and they were all too happy to provide it. Van Neuzer had found in researching the digibooks that historically, the bigger the lie, the easier it was to swallow. That hadn’t changed on Earth-Prime. The lies were large, and they went down as easy as a spoonful of the manufactured honey they served on special occasions. The biggest lie of all, the one that made parents give up their children to the care of Central Authority before they’d turned 16 was that the academy was meant to be training them as future warriors. 

Van Neuzer had once accepted that fiction, but it hadn’t taken him long to realize what a house of cards it all was. They weren’t being trained as soldiers; the academy was a breeding ground for members of the new ruling class. It was a strange, open secret that everyone knew, but no one spoke of. They all went along with the fiction, eyes wide shut to the reality that in the future, everyone had their roles to play and everyone’s path was defined from birth. 

The lucky few who would rule Earth-Prime would have to navigate the zigzags of the academy before they could gain the privilege of royalty. Their lives would be a microcosm of what political leadership on Earth-Prime entailed, with its alliances, betrayals, amorality, unprincipled behaviour and poor judgement. Central authority and the mandroids ensured that everything, including the air trains ran on time, so the politicians could be as stupid as they wanted. They could do no harm. They were merely another cog in a well-oiled and hopelessly broken machine, there to appease the poor deluded fools trapped in the tyranny below.  

To learn politics required schooling in the hallowed art of war. Of course, it did. No one questioned that. War and all it entailed was the raison d’être of the Academy. None of it made any sense, but everyone accepted it. It didn’t have to make sense. It just – was. That was the way things were. It was safe, predictable and controllable, like a leashed and domesticated Tiger Monkey.

Van Neuzer had always been puzzled about why they played the confounding “war games.” They weren’t games at all, and they barely resembled the wars he’d read about in the historical records. 

“The best kind of war is the kind you never have to fight,” the headmaster had said. They’d all nodded their heads as if it made sense, and it did in a perverse sort of way. Learning the art of war was critical to ensuring you never had wars. If everyone was skilled in the art of war, no one would think to start one. That had been the rationale for the nuclear proliferation of the past millennium. It hadn’t ended well, and reading the digibooks, Van Neuzer was sure he could see why. The parade of madmen and knaves with hair-trigger tempers and itchy trigger fingers one button push away from Armageddon had been an unwise combination. 

Somehow, more by luck than design, the world had failed in its mad quest to cannibalize itself, but out of the ashes of that political system had arisen the new Central Authority and their utterly senseless, entirely sensible new paradigm of wars without armies and armies without wars.

In the future, everyone was simply issued Warbots and then presumed to have the tools to defend their homeland. All they ever needed was a high speed neural uplink connection and the simple tutorial programmed into the memorimplant core; the drone wars could begin in earnest at any time they so desired. The Central Authority and their soft, pampered citizens never did. Not because they hated war. Far from it. They were too indifferent to war to truly hate it. No. No one wanted a war because war would mean they would have to ‘fight.’ Because everyone was part of the army, there was no war. No one would countenance any Central commander who sent everyone to war. But to ensure there was no war, they all had to be part of the army. It was a wonderful catch-15. It was beautiful in its design; flawless in its execution. Everyone just nodded and played along. Who cared how you got peace? Peace, stability and the ostentatious lives they enjoyed were the only ends the citizens cared about. The means had long since ceased to matter, even as the neural scanners whirred and the drones patrolled the black skies, humming their delightful, deadly tune.

Even when it did happen, war on Earth-Prime was a strange endeavour. The entire earth was under the control of Central Authority, and the only wars that ever happened were the shadow wars between the different regions in their desperate bids to win the favour of the Commanders. The Warbots and the neural scanners ensured that any genuine conflict was quickly nipped in the bud. 

And yet, teaching politics through the forgotten art of war had become tradition. So the Academy remained open and the COMPS which were everyone’s least favourite part of being at the Academy, remained with it.

All the Cadets hated COMPS. Those who failed miserably at it could rest easy, knowing they were the normal ones. Fellow Cadets and even the instructors had a vague distrust of those who excelled at COMPS. Those who excelled at it were thought to be incontrovertibly corrupted. They had nowhere to go but directly to the top. It was the rare person who was guileless enough to succeed without losing their soul in the process. Anthony Van Neuzer was one of the few anomalous cadets who both loved and excelled at the COMPS exams that came every 3rd month, like clockwork. He knew without a doubt he was entirely abnormal.

Anthony Van Neuzer was remarkably plain, but in 2459, being plain was almost subversive. He was medium height; just shy of 6 feet. He had a soft, round, boyish face with almond shaped eyes that gave him a sleepy, disinterested look. He had skin the colour of heavily creamed coffee; light brown, with small hints of darker undertones. He had jet black, slightly curly hair with soft, full lips and a flat, yet pointed nose. He was a collection of contradictory facial features that culminated in a bland, entirely forgettable face. He preferred it that way.

Unlike the rest of his classmates, he scarcely cared about his appearance. He always wore his dark-grey uniform, the tunic with its round collar, buttoned to the very top, the trousers expertly pressed with an old-fashioned hand iron, and the gleaming black boots polished three times a week, without fail. He’d always thought the garish appearances of his fellow Cadets did not befit their roles as future leaders. Of course, all the body modifications would be entirely reversed by the rejuvenation procedures they were all forced to undergo upon graduation. He still found it unbecoming, although he kept his thoughts to himself. He would rather be remembered for his achievements rather than for his persona. He didn’t begrudge his classmates their fun. Once they began public life, they would belong to the state. It was the Faustian bargain they all made in return for a life of relative luxury. 

Anthony Van Neuzer prided himself on being a simple, no-fuss kind of person. He prided himself on being unflappable; he never got too high when things went well and never got too low when they didn’t. But, like all simple people, he only seemed to attract weird, strange, bizarre, and complicated others into his orbit. They were drawn to him, like flies to overripe fruit. 

Suddenly, his carefully constructed, elegantly simple world would be turned upside down. That was the way things were. That was the way things had always been. He had dealt with it before. Unlike Humpty-Dumpty, he would always pick up the pieces and fit them back together again.

This time however, the broken pieces just didn’t seem to add back up. Like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, his simple life had become a chaotic catastrophe.

He had Pauleta Bielsa to thank for that.

Pauleta was short, barely over 5 feet tall. She was soft in all the right – and wrong places, with porcelain skin, jet black hair, bright, scheming dark brown eyes, a pert nose and a small mouth framed by thin, almost invisible lips.

She was always wearing gaudy, thickly applied multi-coloured lipstick. He had never seen her without it. She might have been born that way, except for the fact that her lipstick colour changed almost every day. The facial simulators had blurred the line between real and fantasy, just like the memorimplants had blurred the line between real thoughts and memories and implanted versions. It was a small price to pay.

“Why so much lipstick?” he always asked.

“To accentuate my lips,” she would reply

“What lips?”He would retort. They’d both laugh, and go back to tumbling between the sheets. It was part of their ritual. 

Van Neuzer was currently in Command Centre-Alpha, preparing for the first of his COMPS exams. He was also connected via neural uplink to Fernando Blatchford, his best friend from his previous life on Earth-Prime. The two had been inseparable since the first time they’d met as Engineering Class recruits. 

Van Neuzer had been chosen for DATUS while Blatchford had decided to join Science Division. They still kept in contact and rarely a day went by when they didn’t talk to each other via neural uplink. The neural uplink allowed them to send and receive selected thoughts. Each uplink could be calibrated for different types of communication. The technology was advanced enough that it automatically and continuously filtered messages. Unwanted thoughts were removed. It was not foolproof, of course. It always took a while to adjust during the first few conversations, but Van Neuzer and Blatchford had been friends for so long, that their neural uplink was perfectly synced. 

“She’s cold, selfish, volatile, and has a heart as black as sin. She’s an unrepentant narcissist and lacks all semblance of self-awareness. 

Somehow, she’s wormed her way into my life and now she’s stuck; like gum on a shoe, I don’t know if I can get her off.

The worst part, the part that galls me most is that I’m not sure I really want her off, but she’s impossible to like.” 

“You’ve always had a knack for the impossible, my friend,” Blatchford chortled.

“This isn’t funny. It’s serious. I feel trapped, and you’re not helping.”

“You know, that’s always been the problem with us Engineering Class Recruits. We were taught to be perfect at everything, but we were never taught how to deal with people. That was why we were all so surprised you were chosen for the Academy. You were the first engineering class recruit in years to get that dubious honour.

I know you’re not really asking me for advice. You already know what you’re going to do, and you’re just looking for me to validate your choice. Well, I know what you’re thinking, and I can’t do that.

My advice, and consider the source, since I’m from the sterile halls of science division, is to stay away. Don’t indulge in her. Ignore her until you feel neither love, nor hate, but mere indifference.

If you feel terrible now, you won’t feel better later. In time, you’ll come to hate yourself as much as you hate her.”

Blatchford chuckled. 

“You know, my uncle was in DATUS. It was a long time ago, back when they didn’t care so much for the mental well-being of the recruits. He wasn’t crazy when he entered, but he was crazy when he left. According to him, everything that happens in the Academy is controlled by Central Authority. They mold you into exactly what they want you to be. There’s nothing spontaneous; your friends are not your allies, your enemies may not even be real. It’s a mad world, populated and controlled by rash, selfish, impetuous people. In this mad world, it makes sense for them to take what they desire from the world, and when the world has nothing left to give, or nothing left they care to take, they retreat, securely back to their vast wealth of rash, selfish, impetuousness. Theirs is a well that never runs dry. You can never give enough of yourself. As long as there is more of you left to give, they can do nothing save to continue to take. It’s all they know. Be careful my friend. It’s a dangerous thing indeed to be a giver in a world populated by takers.”

Van Neuzer sighed deeply. He looked and felt older than his twenty years. Everything always seemed so complicated at twenty.   

“Of course, you’re correct, and you’ve known me long enough to know what I’m going to do.”

Blatchford chuckled again. They’d been friends for so long, and had been neutrally connected so many times, that he sometimes felt that he could hear his friend’s thoughts even without the apparatus. One of the things he admired about Van, and one of the things that drove him crazy, was how sure he was in himself. It was his greatest strength and Blatchford’s biggest fear was that it would prove to be his nemesis.

“I know what you’re thinking – nice speech; great soliloquy. But what do you know? You think the Academy is a unique place, unlike any other. You’re wrong, of course. It’s like every other place controlled by Central Authority. What they lack in imagination, they replace with the brazen belief that they can reshape the world to their whim. I know this sounds subversive, but I don’t care anymore. Stay away from everyone. They’re all tainted and corrupted beyond measure. You won’t come away from the path you’re on with your soul intact. I worry for you, my friend. I worry for our future.”

This was the way their conversations always seemed to progress these days. Van Neuzer would talk about the Academy at first, and eventually, Blatchford would rant about Central Authority. It made perfect sense to be paranoid, of course. Science division designed the surveillance and techno-gadgets that kept their watchful eyes on everyone, members of science division included. When you knew just how much they knew, it was inevitable. The paranoia was an occupational hazard that Central Authority tolerated, as long as no overt signs of revolution manifested. Blatchford didn’t know it, but he was following the script that had been designed for him to a tee. 

Van Neuzer was only beginning starting to see the bigger picture, to see how all the pieces fit together, so he knew better than to say or think anything. There wasn’t much in the way of privacy, at the Academy, or anywhere else. 

At the Academy, everyone’s lives were intertwined. Alliances and dalliances were not just tolerated, they were encouraged. It was all part of their training. Everyone took the same classes, had the same schedules and had free access to each other’s living quarters. Everyone had the same set of friends, enemies and friendly enemies.

It was safest to assume that everything you said could and would be used against you at some point. Not even the neural uplinks were safe, but Van Neuzer was sanguine about the entire situation. It was the price they all had to pay. Central Command was bound to collect the pound of flesh owed to them in return for the peace and prosperity they so happily provided. That and the opportunity to one day become the new Central Commander was why all the Cadets tolerated and even came to love their world order. 

Van Neuzer had taken to the academy like a turtle duck to water. He was one of the top academy performers and everyone told him he was destined for bigger things. His performance during the war simulations had been almost flawless and his psychological aptitude tests were off the chart. He wasn’t a born leader, but he led by example and all his instructors loved him Rumors swirled that he was already been groomed to be the next Earth Prime Central Commander. He tried his best to ignore the rumors. Many a ‘Golden Child’ had crashed after flying too close to the sun. The only thing everyone loved more than a hero was to see a hero fall, to fail. The closer that person was to the goal and the more spectacular the fall, all the better. They’d all shake their heads and lament the inevitable downfall. Heavy was the head that wore the crown. 

Van Neuzer found it a simple task to ignore these distractions. Being King of a crumbling empire held no appeal. The academy was merely a stepping stone to his ultimate goal: the one thing he craved more than any other was even more modest than he was. He simply wanted to make his own path. To be whatever he wanted to be. In an era when everyone’s path was set at birth and you could only deviate from that path at the behest of Central Authority, this was a subversive, almost radical notion. Van Neuzer was wise enough to keep this to himself. To the outside world, he seemed to be flowing gracelessly along with the tide, but in truth, he was firmly rooted, anchored by invisible chains to his ideology of fierce independence and the prime importance of free will. 

            He rarely socialized with his fellow cadets. He spent most of his personal time (and there wasn’t much of it) obsessing over Earth’s ancient history. Most of it had been lost after the Winter War, generations ago, and whatever remained, almost no one cared much about. No one, except him. It was what he had always wanted to do. He’d always had the soul of a researcher, had always been at his happiest when he was unearthing long lost nuggets of priceless information. He was driven by a compulsion he scarce knew, to research and catalog the ancient, forgotten history of the earth before Earth-Prime. It had long since ceased to be a mere indulgence. It was fuelled by his belief that by discovering the history of how Earth became Earth Prime, he could find out who he was and where he came from. 

Tracing his genealogy had proven to be most vexatious, so he had moved on to something a little easier: summarizing the research on World War III. It was a little known war, sandwiched between the Forever and Winter Wars. 

He heard the click clack of Pauleta’s shoes. That was another one of her quirks. She favoured high-heels in the style of Old Earth. They were wildly impractical for a floating spaceship which was not immune from the occasional space wobble, but she never seemed to mind. She was heading straight for him. He could see her, reflected in the homemade heads up display he was inordinately proud of. He was both happy and incredibly sad to see her. She inspired strange emotions, confusing emotions in him. He never knew how he felt when he was around her.


She liked to call him that. Of course, he hated it and he wasn’t sure why he allowed her to do that. She hugged him, and then he remembered why.

“No surprise that I’d find you in the Great library. I think you must live here,” she said. She spoke rapidly, in clipped tones with an odd sing-song cadence and a subtle accent. If you listened closely, it was easy to tell that for all her pretensions, she had not been born into any of the ruling classes. She was a commoner who, having finally had the chance to reform herself at the academy as a future member of the high class, was milking the role for all she could.

He smiled benignly at her. 

“I need your help with Undersea Naval Logistics.” 

She stomped her foot prettily and he smiled his guilelessly benign smile. He said nothing. He drummed his fingers together.

“Well?” she looked expectantly at him. 

He took off his neural uplink device but kept the virtual reality display. On the display was a picture of the night sky as seen from Earth. It was a rare image, because the night sky on Earth-Prime no longer revealed any stars. They were hidden behind a veil of gray in almost every section of the globe; an unfortunate side-effect of the Winter War. Only in a select few places was natural light able to bleed through. That made it all the more precious. The night sky had always held a fascination for him. As a child he used to dream he was laying underneath the stars; he would dream that the stars were so large and close that he could reach out and touch them. But, whenever he tried, they would retreat further and further away until he would wake up with a silent scream in his throat and beat his bed in frustration.

He shook the stray cobwebs of thought from his mind and fixed his dusty-yellow, almost cat-like eyes at her. 

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see the stars in the night sky from Earth, as they were meant to be seen?” he asked her.

She looked puzzled. He expected that.

“Have you ever asked yourself how our instructors know anything about undersea warfare, when we haven’t had Navies in centuries and most of the history of naval warfare is lost to the sands of time?”

He could tell by the look on her face, that the thought had never crossed her mind. He wasn’t surprised. He expected that. Everyone always asked the what, but they never thought to ask the why or the how. They were always happy to receive knowledge, but they rarely thought to question its source or whether it was worth knowing.

Once he had realized the truth, once the scales had been removed from his eyes, everything had fallen into place. There were no answers at the academy. There was no right, no wrong; there was only what you could make the instructors believe was correct. Van Neuzer had proven quite adept at this.

 “I’ll tell you a little secret, Pauleta,” he said to her.

So he did, or at least, he tried. He didn’t blame her for not believing him. It went against everything they had been told. The instructors at the academy knew everything. They were fountains of wisdom; they had all the answers; listen to them and you could one day be just like them. To believe the whole system was a con was too much for most people to accept. That kind of cognitive dissonance was a step too far. Much easier just to accept what you saw and believe what felt right rather than what actually was. 

After a while, he gave up trying to convince Pauleta. She just looked at him with a stupid blank stare. When he couldn’t stand to look at her face anymore and it became clear she wouldn’t leave until her gave her what he wanted, he gave in. He gamed out a suitable response to the simulation she was having difficulty with and explained how he would defend his strategic choices. It took a while; he repeated himself a few times, but eventually, she seemed to understand. What he had said was entirely meaningless, but the instructors would lap it up. It wouldn’t do her much good. The commanders who oversaw everything would discount her performance due to his assistance. That was all part of how their lives were controlled and micromanaged. 

Their mundane conservation then meandered to another inevitability. She invited him over to her quarters. There was still a great deal to be done; he still had the world to catalog; he still had himself to find. But, he said yes, another inevitability. He shut down the neural uplink and the virtual reality display, but kept the virtual display over his face. He felt a great sadness come over him as the stars reflected in the display faded from his view. His dreams, distant as they were, loomed large in the dark recesses of his mind. He would never give up his dreams of seeing the wondrous light or the beauty of the distant, dusty stars. Until he could all he had were his digibooks, his research and his imagination. He would take the world as it was and mold it into the world he wanted. 

He looked at Pauleta’s form as she walked ahead of him to her quarters. He looked away from her to the sterile, soulless academy he called home. He looked back at her. She said something and tilted her head back in a guffaw. He smiled half-heartedly and looked around once more. He had seen the academy’s true face, and even reflected in his once star-struck eyes, mirrored by his rose-tinted virtual display, Pauleta and everything around him were worse than incorporeal; they were pale reflections, tainted black by their true, monstrous natures.

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