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Stars Beckon Call

By bradonpurpose All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

Blurb

In the dystopian world of the twenty-second century, life on Earth is restricted to a series of dome cities where the length of a citizen’s life is determined by the luck of the lottery. While most teens dread their sixteenth birthday, Jason Joval is impatient to get on with the day and to try his luck at Lottery Central where he’ll either begin his career as a life-chip gambler or be destined to a life of mediocrity. For that is what the vast majority are left within a society under the thumb of the ruling Patriarchy and the subtle manipulation of the Universal Life Church. But Joval discovers something else is going on under the surface and the secret lies deep within the Pipes of the Mid-eastern Dome where Joval lives. And could it have anything to do with the mysterious death of his mother who had the courage to bring him to term within her own body and raise him for the first four years of his life?

Chapter 1: JJ's 16 Birthday

Part One: 2125

Jason Joval’s eyelids flickered open with the realization that May 21, 2125, had finally arrived. He sat up in bed and gazed down the line of identical pallets; all empty except his. He’d been allowed to sleep late as was the custom on one’s sixteenth birthday. It had been a restless night of tossing and turning, and Jason figured he’d probably only slept four or five hours. He considered turning over and catching another hour or so of shut-eye but then thought better of it. He had gone over his plans for this day countless times before, and none of them had involved sleeping the day away.

He slipped his legs over the edge of the pallet, stretched and ran his fingers through the tousle of brown wavy hair. As he walked into the autowash, he glanced at the wall clock. Only seven fifteen, but he knew his roommates were already finishing up breakfast. The younger ones would soon be headed to their classes at the other end of Ward 415 while the older boys would make their way to various jobs, most of them menial tasks trying to maintain the declining infrastructure of the Mid-eastern Dome or MED as it was commonly called.

But none of this was on Jason’s agenda; not on his sixteenth birthday, and if all went according to plan, not at any other time in his life. It all depended on how today’s activities transpired. First stop; Lottery Central where every teenager was required to go at some time on their sixteenth birthday. Most kids put off the visit until late in the evening, but Jason wasn’t like most people. He looked forward to his visit to L. C. and had it as his first stop.

As the autowash cut off, he stepped into the drying unit and let the warm, dry air flow over him, then returned to the trunk at the end of his bed where a fresh set of underwear, khaki pants, and a black, long sleeve shirt awaited. He pulled the shirt over his head, being careful that it didn’t catch on the ID earring that all citizens of the MED were required to wear from the time of their christening shortly after leaving the birthing units.

Jason, on the other hand, hadn’t received his until around four-and-a-half years of age when he’d been turned over to the Ward. He was the only person he’d ever met that had been raised by his birth mother for the first few years of life. Jessica Joval had been an extraordinarily independent woman who’d been one of the few to receive special permission to have a baby naturally, then disappeared off the grid shortly afterward in an attempt to keep him. It had ended tragically with her mutilated body being found on one of the lower levels of the Commons close to where the subterranean Pipes began. It had been a stroke of luck that the authorities had found a hand drawn map that led them to Jessica’s hideaway where they found three other women with children scratching out a life off the grid. The women had been taken into custody and the children, including Jason, turned over to the local Ward.

He left the sleeping quarters and swung by the kitchen to see if he could scrounge up a few leftovers from breakfast. It would take him a good hour to reach the gambling district where Lottery Central sat like a huge monolithic giant in its center. He grabbed a few nutri-soy bars to tide him over, then headed for the pedestrian conveyance. He was pleased to see that it was finally working again after having been on the fritz for the past several days. He pushed and shoved his way to the conveyance’s center that would take him most expediently to his destination. There at the L. C. he would choose from an assortment of different ways to randomly pick a number; the number of years remaining in his life before he, like every other citizen of the MED, would be escorted to a Sleep Station to be put to death.

The Patriarchy that ran Lottery Central (and everything else for that matter) had coined the term, Liberation Day, for its citizens’ sixteenth birthday. For the lucky ones who drew a high number, it felt liberating to know you had decades to live. For others, it was a devastating experience to realize you wouldn’t make it to your twentieth birthday before your ticket would be punched. In the case of the unluckiest, they could be hauled out of the L. C. and straight to the closest Sleep Station for immediate termination.

Jason would not allow himself to think of such an end to his day of liberation. His few friends misidentified his self-assurance as arrogance or cockiness. So be it. They had small minds with no ability to dream about more than merely surviving in boring jobs, or drugged out on mindless vid-views for hours on end. Jason refused to let his life be dictated by the fear-mongering so rampant under the dome, perpetrated by the Patriarchy and supported by the Universal Life Church.

He arrived at Lottery Central with only one fifteen minute delay as the conveyance stalled and had to be restarted. As it carried him and dozens of other boys and girls his own age into the Gambling District, Jason gazed around at the ornate buildings brightly lit in a myriad of colors and shapes. Unlike the drab and dirty blocks of the Commons, the Gambling District remained lit and alive twenty-four seven. To Jason, it felt like he was being carried through a primary artery of a monstrously strong beast that pulsated with life as more or more of the tiny human corpuscles streamed in.

Jason took a deep breath and slowly let it out as he gazed around at his new home, or at least what he hoped the Gambling District would become once he completed his plan. Most of the other teenagers would spend the day and much of the night exploring the sights, sounds, smells, and entertainment of the Gambling District, but not Jason. He headed straight to Lottery Central.

Even though he’d managed to scope out the L. C. a couple of times before, it still took his breath away when he stepped through its massive doors and into a room that took up the entire block and towered up three floors as well. This was the heart of the beast; where countless destinies were determined; where Lady Luck and Father Fate reigned supreme. And where Jason would initiate stage one of his plan by drawing the highest lottery number possible.

The question was which method would he choose? The Patriarchy tried to make the process of picking the amount of time on earth as entertaining as possible. You could wind your way through an intricate maze and obstacle course. At its end, you used a massive sledgehammer to smash one of a dozen or more ornate statues. Attendants would then count the pieces to determine your lifetime number. On previous visits, Jason had studied this method and had determined that the statues were designed to break into a set number of pieces. In other words, the game was rigged to give a low to moderate number.

In another part of the massive room, a replica of an ancient ride called a merry-go-round enticed participants onto the back of an assortment of fantastical animals: horses, lions, tigers, black bears and a couple of elephants. According to the vid, all the animals had once walked upon the earth, but Jason doubted the validity of the claim. How could such massive animals have survived in the toxic environment outside the MED? Still, the idea of riding one of the beasts around until you were ready to pull a brass ring from one of the several receptacles on the fringes of the ride seemed like an interesting selection method. You then found your lottery number engraved on the inside of the ring.

One of the most popular methods involved a gigantic fish bowl located in the center of the L. C. The large plexiglass structure contained hundreds of small fish of various shapes and colors. Strategically stationed around the sphere, forcefield generators controlled the movement of the fish as well as the those of the gamers who stepped inside wearing a special harness around their waist, shoulders, and groin along with a breathing apparatus on their face. Armed with a large net, gamers floated among the fish using their feet and arms to propel themselves around while, at the same time, being pushed by the random action of the forcefield. Sometime in the allotted twenty minutes, each gamer netted a fish; any fish. It didn’t really matter because the number inside was completely random.

Jason was not surprised to see that, despite the early hour, a line had already begun to form at the fish bowl, but that didn’t matter. As far as he was concerned, the fish bowl was too much work, and he had bigger fish to fry. Jason already knew the method he’d use to pick his number. He planned to use the simplest method in the place. The Number Wall took up the entire south-facing wall of the L. C. and was composed of hundreds of blocks; each one with a number, some positive and others negative. Although you could read all the numbers on the board, only the lit ones counted towards your final total. At any moment, a dozen or more numbers might be lit. When the player pushed the dish-size red button in front of him, the flashing stopped. A computer then quickly tabulated the score and flashed it on a giant screen at the top of the Wall for everyone to see; at the same printing out a replica of the board and a summary of the calculations.

The Number Wall was the most public way to pick a number. Everyone in the L. C., as well as millions of viewers at home, would witness your number being picked. Next to the screen displaying the final number was a second video screen with its camera trained on the gamer’s face to capture every detail of the transaction. But it wasn’t the public display that drew Jason to the Number Wall. He considered it a minor distraction, but the second unique feature more than made up for it.

The Number Wall could pay big!

Whereas no one had ever picked more than thirty-five-lifetime credits from any of the other stations, several lucky gamers had won forty-five or more years at the Wall. Of course, a downside existed as well. The Number Wall was the only game that could result in a negative number. Over the years, thousands of teenagers who had played the Wall had lost years they didn’t have and were immediately escorted to the nearby Sleep Station for termination. It was this edge that had Jason choose the Wall; the chance to win big or lose big. Also, there was seldom any waiting at the Number Wall.

Jason turned in the direction of the Wall and gazed at the multi-colored blinking lights that set a festive tone for the area. He strolled to the check-in counter and waited for the attendant to look up from the vid console. The rotund agent seemed surprised to have a customer so early in the morning but quickly perked up. Jason had heard rumors that each agent who manned the games were given incentive points for everyone they enticed to use their particular method of selecting a number. It was supposed to motivate them to process the teenagers faster and helped to cut down on gawkers who would stand around for hours avoiding making a decision.

“Good morning,” Jason said, smiling at the surprised agent who quickly pushed the vid aside. “I’ve come to play the Number Wall.”

“Up bright and early, aren’t we,” the agent replied as he turned in his chair to face both Jason and the Wall’s computer screen. He picked up a reader from its stand and waved it over Jason’s left ear. Within seconds, Jason’s complete history flashed on the screen. The agent quickly scanned the information. “Everything appears to be in order.” He tapped a few seconds on the keypad until a second display appeared on the screen. “Now, before you play the Wall, there is one small matter I’m required by law to convey to you. It is quite unimportant; silly really, but it’s the law. Before I read it, how sure are you that this is the method you want to use to pick your number?”

Jason chuckled at the question. “I’m sure; one hundred percent. I know you must inform me that the Number Wall is the only game that can result in a negative number, and if that were to happen, I’d be immediately taken to a Sleep Station. Don’t worry; I won’t back out, but go ahead and do your duty.”

The agent breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. Jason was pretty sure he’d just made the man’s day. He quickly read the warning to Jason then had him thumbprint the authorization before waving him to the gamer station. As Jason stepped up to the red button, his face flashed onto the giant screen next to where his number would appear. Immediately throughout the massive hall, a hush fell over the crowd.

“Someone is at the wall.”

“Hey, look there.”

“Come on, I want to get closer,” someone else said.

Jason straightened his shoulders before looking up at the broad expanse of flashing numbers that highlighted his face in a strobe-like fashion. For a moment, his gaze fell on the ten-foot tall image of his face. He started to smile but caught himself. Instead, his face took on a flat, panned expression that conveyed only intensity and intention and no readable emotions; nothing that would give anyone a clue what was going on behind that look. He’d practiced the poker face almost every night for the past year since overhearing a couple professional life-chip gamblers comment on how effective one of their colleague’s poker face was. Jason still didn’t know where the expression had come from, but knew instinctively, given his plans, how important having such an expression would be.

As he turned his attention back to the flashing lights of the Number Wall, he took a deep breath and slowly let it out, relaxing his shoulders and neck muscles. As he did so, he rested his left hand lightly on the red button. He squinted his eyes as he cleared his mind. When would be the moment? When would the numbers be the highest? Could he push the button in that instant? What if the negative numbers predominated? He let all the questions go. None of them would matter in a few seconds.

Jason knew from watching dozens of other teenagers standing at the Wall, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to stand there for twenty or thirty minutes waiting for the perfect moment. Many would break out in a cold sweat. A few had decided at the last second they couldn’t go through with it and had tried to step away. Unfortunately, they had failed to read the fine print of the document they’d approved. Backing out was not permitted.

He also knew that one of the traps some Wall gamers fell into was trying to read the numbers to calculate the perfect time to push the button. Of course, it was impossible to do. There were simply too many numbers flashing on and off too quickly for the mind to calculate the end result.

Jason had his own method which he began now. He figured the only way to win at a game of random numbers was to be random as well. He knew the way to win a game of logic was to be logical and to win at an athletic sport it helped to be athletic. So, to have any hope of winning at the Number Wall, his timing would need to be completely random like the numbers themselves. He would need to be unattached to everything, including whether his method would work or not.

Jason closed his eyes. Less than a minute had passed before Jason pushed the button. Instantly, the flashing numbers froze in place. At the same moment, the crowd began to chant, “Go, go, go...”

Jason opened his eyes. It would take between twenty and thirty seconds before the final number would flash upon the screen next to Jason’s face even though he knew the computer had accurately calculated the results milliseconds after he’d pressed the button. The delay was for the viewing audience’s benefit. He took this time to study the display of his face. He would probably never have such an occasion to view his facial expression blown up to such a size. He noticed an ever so slight twitch of his left eyelid. It might be a tell that an observant opponent would interpret as nervousness. He made a mental note to work on it.

The chanting from the crowd continued to swell behind him. Jason knew that hundreds, maybe thousands of people were betting their own life-credits on the outcome of the number. Well, folks, you better be betting on a high number, he thought, or you’re going to be very disappointed that you bet against Jason Joval.

With only a few second left before the number would be displayed, Jason felt a rush of adrenaline course through his body, taking his breath away. What if I’m wrong? What if the number comes up negative? Should I have waited just a little longer? Maybe grabbing a brass ring from the merry-go-round was the way to go.

A roar from the crowd pulled him out of his thoughts and back to the present and the two screens. He didn’t like what he saw. His poker face had slipped away to be replaced with the face of a scared teenager. Then his gaze moved to the other screen.

47

For the first time since walking up to the wall, he allowed himself to smile. The number was good. Very good; excellent, in fact. But somehow he had known it would be, even with those few seconds of doubt, something inside him had been sure the number would be high. He remembered his mother whispering to him as she tucked him in bed at night. “Never forget, Jason my darling, you are a special little boy with a future; a destiny to fulfill. Now, sweet dreams. I’ll be here in the morning when you awake.”

Strange, he thought. Where had that memory come from? It felt so real; so vivid. It must have happened, right? But why would he remember it now after all these years? Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to analyze it further. Everyone in the L. C. rushed to shake his hand and pat him on the back. Suddenly, he was a hero; someone who had a chance to beat the system. Later jealousy would set in, but right now people just wanted to get a good look at the boy with the cold, clear stare. A half dozen attendants quickly surrounded him to keep the crowd at bay. Such big winners were rare in Lottery Central, but the Patriarchy’s security force was well-versed in crowd control although most of the crowds they managed were usually a lot angrier and more hostile. Their job today was to protect the public’s new celebrity and to milk the occasion for all it was worth.

Already, the news of a Number Wall winner flashed across millions of public vid-screens. For the next few days, the Number Wall would be a favorite of teenagers hoping to replicate Jason’s success. Most of them would be disappointed, and more than a few would pull a negative number and be dragged to the nearest Sleep Station by the very same guards who were now protecting Jason. The Patriarchy would be the big winner in the long run. That’s just the way it was. It always worked out that way.

But for the moment, Jason stood in the public spotlight. He’d seen it a few times before and had prepared himself for it. He’d felt confident when it walked up to the Wall he’d eventually be led away by the attendants. He just hadn’t known where they’d be escorting him, but now he knew. Time for the second half of his plan.

He tapped the largest guard on the shoulder and pulled the man close to him so he wouldn’t have to shout his request, wondering as he did so how the man had obtained the nasty scar that ran down the right side of his face from temple to chin.

“I want to go across the street. Would you be so kind to help me through the crowd?”

The uniformed guard frowned and shook his head, then pulled Jason even closer. “Why on earth? Boy, don’t do it. Quit while you’re ahead. Forty-seven years is a long time. Enjoy your good fortune.”

Jason turned to gaze into the man’s eyes and smiled. “I intend to do just that. Thank you for your concern. Now, please escort me to Casey’s Casino. It’s time I got on with my new career.”

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