Tom Cowl, known to most of his subjects as The Defender, was in love. Never in all his life had he laid eyes upon something so radiant, so perfectly built, and so indescribably beautiful. He was not, of course, looking at a woman. He was looking at the tank blueprints on his desk.
Even in his younger years Tom had loved tanks. They were a collection of all the things he loved most in the world. Industry, explosives, and raw power. As a boy working in The Great Foundry he'd always dreamed of being a tank commander, swatting savages aside like flies. And for the first ten years of his adult life he had accomplished his dreams.
Tom Cowl was a Social Darwinist's argument. His parents had been the poorest people in the poorest slum in the entire Sphere. His parents had said there were poorer, but Tom doubted it. You were pretty dam poor when blind men offered you charity.
Tom had learned two things in the slum, how to make money and how to hate. You made money by inventing, by innovating, by staying ahead of the competition. He'd made money in the slums by figuring out how to chemically purify irradiated water (all that people in most slums could afford) and turn it into pure, excellent tasting stuff, better in quality then what most 1st class citizens had been drinking at the time. At the age of fifteen he'd been earning double what both his parents made combined.
He had hated as well. He had hated the old beggar on the corner who lived like a king because he seemed so pitiful that you couldn't help but give him your last penny. He hated the drunkards who broke the skulls of anyone who came across their path and never saw any justice. He hated the wife who was bloody and bruised but didn't dare tell anyone her husband beat her. He hated the rich citizens who started a soup kitchen and thought they were a new Jesus for doing so. He hated the politicians who stood on soap boxes and proclaimed that they would end hunger and poverty like they could do it with a snap of their fingers. He hated the men who hadn't worked hard a single day in their lives and complained about how they were mistreated. He hated the revolutionaries who said they would fulfill all your fantasies if you would just join them in slaughtering the rich.
“So what do you think my lord?” the nervous engineer who had presented the blueprints asked. He had good reason to be nervous. The Defender was an imposing sight. He had thick hair that's color varied from hair to hair. His face was trapped in a endless neutral glare, frustratingly impossible to read. His skin was smooth, and seemed to be every color all at once, from pale white to dark black. His arms were thin and boney, tried by the eight-hundred years in service to their master. And most unsettling were his eyes, one extremely dark, the other a pale blue.
“It is an excellent design,” The Defender answered. “It will be put into production immediately.” He picked up a large, old fashioned stamp and stamped the blueprints with the letters D.A. Defender Approved. “Now take these down to the industrial ministry and give it to them.”
The engineer hurriedly gathered up the blueprints and walked as fast as he could to the elevator. The Defender's personal bodyguard, a large man in a bulletproof jacket, glared as he went past.
“The man shows promise,” The Defender said once the elevator was on it's way down. “He has many ingenious new design approaches that I could not have thought of in another eight-hundred years. Make sure he has a full engineering team at his disposal in future. However, make sure he has no personal ambition.”
Every word he said was captured by a computer and sent to all relevant ministries. It was the same control system he had used for the last five-hundred years, after it's inventor was paid an enormous sum. The Defender had enormous respect for self made men, as long as they did not show any signs of challenging him.
“You have one more appointment today my lord,” his bodyguard said. What was this one named? The Defender couldn't remember. He'd had so many bodyguards in his life that they all blended together.
“Alex Stonemen on the recent boy sent out.”
The Defender racked his memory. “Oh yes, yes, the hero from The Great Foundry. What of him?”
“I do not know my lord, although Stonemen said it was urgent.”
Not a moment after the guard finished the elevator doors opened and Stonemen was standing there. Beside him was another man, who was not on the appointment list. He was tall and strong, similar to build as The Defender's bodyguard. The details of his face were obstructed by a bandage that covered most of his hair and his right eye.
“Mr. Stonemen?” The Defender asked. “Who is that with you?”
“What? No, 'glad to see you'?” Stonemen said with his patented cunningly infuriating smile. Stonemen was one of the few men in The Sphere who did not always fear The Defender, although nobody, including The Defender, knew why.
“I'm not glad to see you,” The Defender scowled back. “Who is with you?”
“Colonel James Cornwell,” the bandaged man said gruffly. “At your service my lord.”
“He witnessed the death of the young Mr. Wheeler and wants to give his full account,” Stonemen interjected before Cornwell could continue.
“Wheeler?” The Defender wondered, more for his own benefit then Stonemen's. “Wheeler? I've heard that name before...” He snapped his fingers. “The son of Donivan Wheeler, no?”
Stonemen was confused. Why would The Defender know the family of some 3rd class nothing? He regained his composure and continued. “His heroic action in The Great Foundry was a dangerous sign of individual merit, the exact thing that we don't want in a worker. He also had ambition to purchase first class citizenry I believe. As per usual individuals who show such ambition were sent to the outside to be killed by natives and turned into a martyr, as per directive seventy-seven.”
“WHAT!” The Defender screamed, suddenly bristling with anger. “Who signed the order?”
Stonemen panicked at The Defender's sudden rage. “Um...well,” he stuttered, trying to think of someone to blame. The Defender's death gaze drilled into him. “I did,” he gave up.
The Defender, overcome with anger, flipped his desk over and rushed toward Stonemen. He grabbed Stonemen, now terrified, by the neck and shoved him into a wall. “I should have been informed!” he screamed. “But you've ordered the death of a WHEELER!”
“My lo-rd,” Stonemen said, struggling to breath. “I- I don-'t under-stand. Wha- signif-cance does th-e na-me Whee-ler ha-” He ran out of air and simply suffocated for a few moments.
The Defender calmed himself and let Stonemen go. He collapsed onto the floor, groveling at his lord's feet. “Are there any more Wheelers alive?” The Defender asked plainly.
“Yes,” Stonemen answered, still coughing and breathing heavily. “Two infants sir. His sisters.”
“Put them into government care,” The Defender ordered. “The finest available. Get blood, skin, and DNA samples and send them to my personal lab. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord,” Stonemen said, still groveling. Without another word he ran to the elevator and hurriedly hit the down button.
Cornwell smiled. He was presently surprised that what was originally supposed to be bad news was now apparently good news. “He way not be dead, my lord,” he claimed confidently.
“What?” The Defender said, anxious to hear more.
“The Gens don't always kill their pray,” Cornwell continued. “When they capture someone alive, they will often hang them from a tree and let 'em rot. They might have done this with Wheeler, and he might still be alive.”
“Excellent, good work Cornwell,” The Defender complimented him. “I want three battalions of mechanized infantry to sweep that island. The tenth, twelfth, and twenty-third have been inactive for awhile, send them.”
“My lord...” Cornwell began tentatively.
“I was wondering if the fourth heavy armor might be permitted to join in the operation,” Cornwell asked. “They are my unit, and I have unfinished business with the boy.”
“He shot out my eye.”
The Defender burst into laughter. “Of course! Of course! Go! I'll give you full command of the operation colonel!” The Defender knew that revenge was one of the finest motivations. Colonel Cornwell would hunt far more doggedly then any other officer.
Cornwell smiled cunningly. He turned to leave, but a nagging doubt at the back of his mind forced him to turn around and ask one more question. “My lord, the transport the boy was on... it was intentionally given misinformation so it would be ambushed, correct?”
There was a long pause as Cornwell considered how to word what he would say next. “Nothing my lord,” he decided. He then turned and took the elevator down, nervously snapping his fingers.
“You have done remarkably...” Primary Citizen Five-Four-Three said, giving Eight-Nine-Seven a brief feeling of hope. “Badly,” Five-Four-Three finished. The hope dried up. “You allowed one of the thieves and his collaborator to escape relatively unmolested, but if that was not enough, you somehow managed to get the People's Wrath wrecked when the enemy ship was... unarmed? That's what the report says but I can hardly believe it.”
“It was luck,” Eight-Nine-Seven said. He had prepared an arsenal of excuses for the debriefing, and his enemies' luck was first among them. “A sniper made a lucky shot that ended up detonating the main magazine. Pure luck. Had to be. No one is that good of a shot from two-hundred yards away.”
Five-Four-Three was not amused by his excuse. “But of course if you had simply hit the ship and disabled it instead of firing useless warning shots that sniper wouldn't have had time to fire.”
“I was concerned that the thieves might be killed and the trail lost sir.”
“So there was some mysterious force that stopped you from hitting say, the engine, which would have stopped them from getting away?”
“No sir I-”
“Or from storming the ship while it was still docked?”
“We you see-”
“Or from catching the thieves before they ran to their ship?”
“Sir I was trying to-”
“Or perhaps, just perhaps, catching the thieves before they could leave?”
Eight-Nine-Seven almost gave up. He had been grossly incompetent, and he knew it. He'd tried to fool Five-Four-Three into thinking otherwise, and failed miserably. But he couldn't give up. “The units at my disposal were not adequate sir. If I had more men then maybe-”
“Maybe nothing Eight-Nine-Seven. You were incompetent, you have been incapable, and you have always been stupid,” Five-Four-Three interrupted him again. “You must have had some quality when taking the test that you have sense lost.”
Eight-Nine-Seven checked the time. It had only been fifteen minutes in Five-Four-Three's office. It felt like hours. Sweat stung his eyes. Five-Four-Three's debriefings were the worst. His office was completely milk white, and he insisted that everyone who entered wear white as well. Colors apparently hurt his eyes.
Five-Four-Three began tapping a short number of keys that were built into his desk. Most Primary Citizens used touch screens instead of an obsolete keyboard, but Five-Four-Three had always been different from most Primary Citizens.
“What are you typing?” Eight-Nine-Seven asked.
“I am sending a form to be authorized by The People.”
“Your immediate deletion.”
Eight-Nine-Seven's eyes widened. “No sir, please. I do not think deletion is necessary. I can still be a valuable contributor to the Primary Citizens. I can mange books! I can sort out logistics! Please! Deletion is unnecessary!”
A short, decisive command appeared on Five-Four-Three's desk. “The People disagree. Primary Citizen Eight-Nine-Seven, you are to report to the computer matrix for immediate deletion,” he said calmly.
“No! No! Please! You can't!” Eight-Nine-Seven pleaded. “You can't! They just got lucky! It was a freak occurrence! It won't happen again!”
“Guards,” Five-Four-Three called in a almost bored tone. Two soldiers calmly walked through the door and stood to attention. “This man is resisting action that is best for The People. Take him to the computer matrix for deletion.”
The guards wordlessly grabbed Eight-Nine-Seven and dragged him from the room. “NO!” he pleaded. “Deletion is unnecessary! Deletion is unnecessary! Deletion is unnecessary! Have pity!”
After the door closed behind them Five-Four-Three realized that he was rather confused. Now any who would have served under Eight-Nine-Seven would not suffer do to his incompetence. Why would he object to that? It was incredibly selfish.
“Five-Four-Three...” a voice suddenly boomed from all around the room.
“Yes?” Five-Four-Three answered calmly. This was not the first time that the voice had spoke to him directly, and he was not frightened.
“That citizen was corrupted. Why?”
“It has become a depressing trend,” Five-Four-Three answered. “I do not know why but Primary Citizens have increasingly begun to become selfish and irrational. Politically they are becoming increasingly reactionary, some have even begun to talk about capitalism, making peace with The Sphere, and perhaps the worst of all, replacing The Society Test.”
“Horrid thoughts, one and all,” the voice said. “It was this new group of reactionaries that allowed the thieves on-board, and I have no doubt it was they who planted the seeds of reaction in the minds of the two traitors. They must be eliminated, and the beginnings of Reaction stamped out.”
“How are we to achieve this?”
“Mass deletions. Find out which Primary Citizens have reactionary sentiment and delete them. Only those who are truly loyal will be permitted to survive. I have complete faith in your ability to find them Five-Four-Three.”
“Of course. However, if security forces are trying to find out which Primary Citizens are reactionary, how will we pursue the thieves?”
“The most ancient enemy of The People, capitalism, will suffice. Numerous mercenary bands roam the wild-lands. Hire a few of them to hunt down the thieves.”
Five-Four-Three was surprised. “You would trust such a delicate matter to capitalists?”
A laugh echoed through the office. “A capitalist will be as brutal and vicious as a crazed animal, and as loving and caring as a sweet mother, as long as it brings them money. It is their sole reason for existence. Offer enough money and they will be delicate enough.”