Brand of Dishonor
BRAND OF DISHONOR
I remember March of 2087 as if it roared in like a lion just yesterday. The Great Artic Circle War was in full swing. Russian battleships equipped with the newest laser batteries and nuclear weapons, blockaded the entrance to the Northwest Passage preventing ships from other countries—specifically America—entering that grand old waterway. Since the Great Warming began over a hundred years ago, Russia had claimed most of the land and waterways now known as the Northwest Passage. In those days, they called it Global Warming. Maybe we should have called it Global Warning because we didn’t pay any attention to it until it was too late. Now, we were squabbling over peanuts and sparse resources. Now, we call it an environmental disaster that we brought on ourselves. The world, led by rich commercial enterprises and Russia, has pulled us right into another Dark Age.
I’m a spy.
I’m not just any old ordinary spy, mind you, but a very special kind of spy. My name—no joke, it’s my real name, the one I was created with—is Darrel McCall. I’m one of many who have special talents, techniques and methods.
Being a spy got me into a lot of trouble. My assignment was to infiltrate the Russian Army stationed along the Great Passage and report my findings to General Wilson, whose official title was Commander of the Great Artic Operations. He resided in Detroit. Operation Artic Circle was the effort put forth by America and the Commercial Enterprise Group. The Commercial Enterprise Group was made up of rich industrialists, bankers, oil companies and other wealthy people from many countries including America.
Nobody can say that I wasn’t qualified for the job. My genes had been altered before birth to give me many endearing qualities. Even I don’t know precisely what I’m capable of.
Many females of the species (including those created by genetic engineering) will testify that I’m probably one of the greatest lovers in the world although I don’t know if they’re just saying that to make me feel good or if it is the truth. How do you gauge something like that?
What I do know is that I can see in almost total darkness, hear a field mouse squeak a mile away and run forty miles an hour. These are a few of my basic skills. Like an electric eel, I can deliver a hundred thousand volts with my little finger, even on a bad day. All that power and expertise could not save me from my fate.
Fate can be a nasty character.
The entire world depended on me. I was the key element that could prevent a Third World War. As the Russians made themselves at home, an American fleet blocked the western end of the Northwest Passage refusing Russia the right of way to the open sea. The world sat on its haunches and watched. I entered the Russian stronghold disguised as a colonel in Russian intelligence. I wasn’t very good at my job. I was captured and sent to Texas, a state of Mexico. Mexico and Central America were now part of Russia. Russian troops were gathering along our southern border (hasn’t everyone gathered there at one time or another?) and the situation was grim.
As I was flown to Texas for interrogation I wasn’t concerned with current events or world history. I was worried about me. Everyone had told me stories about Texas. Texas was a wild place where anything could happen, and did, most of the time. Russians were everywhere.
They would torture me until I squealed and they would brand me and execute me like a dog. Nobody would ever know what happened to me. I would just disappear like so many others had when they were sent to Texas.
After the Mexicans took over Texas in 2040, they created their own state. Washington sat on its fat ass while Texas left the union. A year after that, another monumental event took place, Mexico declared Texas part of the Mexican Empire. Russian troops landed in Guatemala and seized the Panama Canal. Washington still sat on it ass. In months, Russian troops were in Mexico.
I thought about all that wondering how it could ever have happened. It did happen though and my life was on the line because politicians hadn’t done anything to prevent it.
I stepped off the jet that delivered me and twenty other prisoners into a cool breeze and lots of sunshine. The base was outside of Galveston. They called it the Rack.
The Probe was a modern version of the lie detector, except it was much more painful for whoever was strapped in the chair with a magnetic electrode on each side of their head. After four hours in that chair, I told them everything they wanted to know and several things they didn’t care about. The experience left me with blurry eyes, a pounding headache and ringing in my ears.
Still in misery two hours later, I stood before a judge and jury. They all were Spanish. I was the only white person in that room and only one of a few in the entire State of Texas.
The judge was about forty with enormous brown eyes. I knew he had a chip in his brain that told him what to do. Most politicians these days do have chips in their head that are controlled by the Sphere, the super computer in Moscow that controls all Russian politicians. The Americans have a computer in Washington too. It is called AllROne.
The jury was different. They all set staring at me with pleasant little smiles on their faces. They couldn’t wait to make their contribution to my misery. Grimacing, I realized that I was already convicted.
“Darrel McCall, you have been charged with being a spy and various other crimes against the Great Mexican Empire. How do you plead?”
My torturous nightmare over, I now faced a new horror. They hadn’t offered me a lawyer or any other form of defense. I hoped that by pleading guilty I would get off with a lighter sentence. It was worth a try, I thought. “Your Honor, I plead guilty and request mercy from the court.” My revelation and honesty even impressed me.
The judge seemed to expect this. He looked at a few papers and then stared at me. “You can’t,” he said. “Everybody is guilty in this court until proven innocent. You will have a chance to tell the court and the jury about what happened.”
The trial lasted no more than thirty minutes. Before I realized I’d had a trial I stood before the judge waiting my sentence. Justice, in Mexico was apparently swift and unjust.
“Darrel McCall, the jury has heard your case. The State has presented its evidence against you and the jury has found you guilty. Now, it is my job to pronounce your sentence. Are you ready?”
What difference did it make if I were ready or not? The result would be the same. I nodded my head. I remained silent. That seemed to infuriate His Honor and his irritation pleased me.
“In Mexico, there are only four possible sentences, death, imprisonment, freedom and the Branding.”
I shuddered hoping I would be set free. I knew that was unlikely, so I prayed for imprisonment. Maybe some of my many friends would get me out.
Ignoring my silence he looked at me for a moment before speaking. I suppose he was enjoying my discomfort as much as I was enjoying his momentary displeasure. I attempted to keep my fear hidden, except the beads of perspiration on my forehead and face gave me away. “Mr. McCall, I herby sentence you to the Branding. Sentence to be carried out immediately. May whatever deity you believe in show you mercy. You’re going to need it.”
The judge arose, collected a few papers from his desk and walked out of the room leaving me astonished. Turning to the prosecutor, a man who reminded me of my first grade teacher, I asked, “What is the Branding?” It sounded ominous and cruel.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Everything will be explained in due time.” He walked away as two officers shoved me out through the back door into a courtyard. They liked to keep things convenient. Justice moved fast here. They were a little slow on mercy.
A steel post was set in the concrete in the center of the courtyard. The jury, still smiling was standing around the post waiting for something to happen. I couldn’t imagine what that was.
After forcing me to strip naked, they pushed me up against the post facing the jury with my back to the post. All the technology we had and these ancient cavemen resorted to medieval torture. I couldn’t believe it. That fact snuck into my troubled mind as they tied my hands behind me. A metal clamp was put around my head and attached to the pole so I couldn’t move without breaking my neck. I suppose I would have been better off if I had broken it. By then, I was more than terrified.
The judge appeared from nowhere and stood facing a big man with enormous muscles. “Carry out the sentence,” he ordered.
The executioner stepped over to a metal wagon that had a fire in an iron kettle burning lively. Removing a branding iron similar to one I’d read about in old stories about cowboys, he held the red instrument in front of my eyes. It was once used to brand cattle. I wasn’t a cow. At that moment, I knew a little about how those cows must have felt. At least they had tough hide and all I had was paper thin, pale skin.
He stepped closer and applied the torturous device to my forehead. Searing pain jolted me and darkness claimed me with a damned big fist.
When I woke, the judge was standing in front of me and the jurors were applauding. I guess I put on a good show or I passed out sooner than anyone else had. Whatever it was, I figured I did something that pleased them.
“Well, Mr. McCall, you survived that little ordeal. Let me explain how our system works.”
Before I could drive the infuriating pain away and ask a question, he continued.
“Crime is so bad we had to establish brutal and strict rules of conduct. Texas and other parts of Mexico have a murder every hour. Can you believe that? Even with Russian soldiers assisting us, we still can’t maintain law and order. So, we came up with this Branding plan to eliminate crime.”
“I can see how it might deter some criminals,” I said. “Nobody would want to go through that twice.” My voice wavered and I felt dizzy.
“Oh, but Mr. McCall, this is only the beginning. The only reason for branding you is to put the mark of the beast on your forehead. Now you are the target of Hunters. They are the ones who will hunt you down and kill you. If they catch you, that is. You will have twelve hours to get away from them. After that time, they will be hot on your trail.”
I was stunned. I thought the branding was too much punishment as it was. Now I’d just learned that I was to be hunted like an animal. “Who, or what, are the hunters?”
He seemed amused at my anxiety and my terror. I wanted to kill him. I could have fried him with my little finger, except the buzzing in my head must have disabled it.
“They stand before you,” he said. “The hunters are the same jurors that convicted you. They are the jury, the hunters and the executioners, if and when they catch you. Your objective is not to get caught, Mr. McCall.”
“Has anyone gotten away?” They released me and gave me a dark one-piece suit that looked like a diver’s rig. I could have told him that I was capable of running forty miles an hour, except at the moment I was too weak to put one foot in front of the other. That probably wouldn’t have impressed his honor. “Has anyone survived?”
“Not yet,” the judge boasted. “The path of all criminals is death, Mr. McCall.”
I knew all about the suit. I had worn them before. All soldiers wore the environmental suit. It was an extraordinary piece of equipment. It was made of millions of microscopic cameras and video screens that made the suit almost invisible. It was also environmentally friendly, which meant that it kept you warm on cold nights and cool in the desert heat.
After I had donned the suit with only my blue eyes showing, I studied the jurors for the first time. One of the women was young and beautiful. Her name was Teresa according to the nametag on her chest. Her beautiful brown eyes never left me and as I walked up to her, she smiled.
“I’ll claim your body first,” she bragged as others listened. Apparently, they took their business seriously and the competition between them was furious, if not immense.
“You have already claimed me,” I said as our eyes met. “I’m all yours.” Her full, luscious lips were so inviting I would have died for her. (Even then, I thought that might be truer that I could ever imagine.) Her breasts heaved to and fro making my heart pound against my chest.
“Come and I will tell you the rest of the rules.” Taking my arm, she led me away from the others. I wanted to know my enemy, learn what I was up against and this extravagantly beautiful woman would do just fine to provide me with the answers.
“I’m Teresa Sanchez. Used to be an American citizen until the Mexicans came up here and shoved their flag down our throats.”
“You don’t sound thrilled to be part of Mexico,” I said.
“I’m not. But, that kind of talk can get you in a lot of trouble, especially with the Russians.”
“I got all the trouble I can handle, in case you didn’t notice, most of it because of the Russians.”
She seemed alarmed. “Look, Mr. McCall, I’m not even supposed to be talking to you. I can get into trouble for that. You bear the mark. Now, anyone can kill you, legally, after twelve hours. Do you understand that? You have no friends—anywhere.”
“The judge made that clear,” I said not wanting her to misunderstand that I knew the ropes as well as any other criminal.
“I don’t see you as a killer,” she replied never letting her eyes leave mine.
“I’m just a spy,” I pleaded. “So far, I haven’t killed anyone, not directly anyway.”
“Today you’ll have your chance,” she promised. “Your chance to prove you’re innocent. You’ll kill or be killed. Now, you must go. Don’t waste any time. Don’t trust anyone.” Her smile vanished and she disappeared into a nearby building. I felt like the loneliest man in the world because that was exactly what I had become.
I left the base and headed southwest across wooded forest. Abandoned houses and farms dominated the landscape. Most of the people had moved to the city to find work. Some things never change.
Spending the day hidden in the woods, I wondered if they already knew where I was. I waited for darkness. I would travel at night and sleep during the day. My night vision was as crisp as it had ever been. My legs were still weak and I didn’t think I could run forty miles an hour, yet.
The afternoon wore on and I kept moving trying to put as much distance between them and me as I could. When darkness came, I stopped long enough by a small stream to drink and eat two small food pills they had been generous enough to give me. After all, they weren’t going to let hunger kill me. They wanted to do it themselves.
I needed rest. After the water and the meal, I felt drowsy. Then I felt as if a million needles were pricking my skin. I passed out grateful that I was invisible, almost.
When I woke, I could hear the brook trickling over stones. Someone was slapping my face. How had anyone found me so soon? I was invisible, wasn’t I?
“I put sleeping medicine in your food pills.” Teresa’s sweet voice came from the darkness. I sat up staring at her. She wasn’t invisible at all. “You’re cheating a little aren’t you? Has it been twelve hours already?”
“Oh, that. Actually it has only been eight. The others haven’t started out yet. I have been following you for a long time.”
“Why?” I asked. “My head hurts like hell and I don’t want to play games. Explain yourself.”
“I’m with the American CIA. I’m here to rescue you.”
I was astonished, and pissed. “Why didn’t you rescue me before they branded me like a cow?”
“I’m sorry. There wasn’t any way I could help you. We’ll be lucky to get out of here. I’m going to make it up to you.”
She did too. Gosh, did she ever make amends. I watched as he removed her suit right there under those swaying branches with moonlight penetrating through the leaves like beams of gold. Her skin was pale, her breasts full and sumptuous while her hips were perfectly shaped.
Teresa almost jerked me out of my suit. Before I knew she had done it, I was in the shallow stream on my back and she was on top of me.
After an hour of furious lovemaking, we both sat on the bank naked, and exhausted. “They want to see you in Washington,” she murmured teasing my nipples with the tip of her finger. Then she kissed me fully on my mouth. Her lips were soft and warm. I didn’t want to go to Washington. Damned if I didn’t. “Right now.”
“Washington is a long way off,” I complained. “Can’t we play in the stream again?”
“No time. Washington is a long way off, my love. That’s why they are putting a teleport beam down here to transfer us to Washington.”
Transformation beam? Teresa was referring to a process written about in science fiction magazines and books for years. In this instance, a beam would be sent down from a satellite high overhead, or somewhere up there, anyway. What does it matter where the damned thing was? The beam would transform our bodies down into individual atoms using the Linux operating system and special programs to map our bodily structure so once disseminated it could be put back together again at the other end. The beam would convert our bodies to atoms, transfer the individual atoms by uplink to the satellite and then downlink it to Washington where our bodies would be reconstructed or if you will, reassembled
(atom by atom)
and we’d be normal humans again. Once our bodies were reassembled, a complex machine would check our bodies against the original map to make sure it was correct.
“Why didn’t you do that before?” I was still hurt. “What about the brand? Will I always have it?”
“We couldn’t get a fix on you. Now I have my transponder on and they know exactly where we are. Your scar … uh … brand will be removed in the transformation process just like we remove cancer and other diseases from the human body. It is a standard procedure. Don’t worry about it.”
“Marvelous,” I said just a little more than pissed. “When does all this happen?”
“About now.” Teresa warned trying to get into her suit. As I grabbed my suit the ground lit up. I was still naked. Teresa grabbed me and held me tight. Somebody in Washington was going to be embarrassed. Somebody in Washington was going to pay for this. Believe me.
It had been a hell of a day and the Russians were still in Mexico and Texas. Maybe what I had learned about them would help wake up those politicians in Washington. If that didn’t do it then the sight of two naked undercover agents might. Si!