Derek spent another two weeks in the hospital. He spent those two weeks researching the inner workings of The Sphere's political and economic system. He had never really learned much about it in school, but he figured that it would be helpful once he became a First Class Citizen.
The Spherecouncil was the center of The Sphere's political system. They were all First Class Citizens, and they were elected by First Class Citizens. According to the First Book of Spherelaw, they made decisions on policy and had the power to carry them out. According to many other sources, and Dr. Walsh, they rarely did so in practice. They spent most of their time squabbling about politics and trying to make their opponents look bad during elections. This was why The Defender had come to power.
The Defender was the savor of civilization, and the only person that stood between The Sphere and utter destruction. He had come to power sometime in the past, although no source went back that far. The Spherecouncil was letting politics halt a bill. This bill was the full commitment of The Great Foundry to war production, something that was vital as great hoards of savages were about to overrun The Sphere, and take civilization with it. The Defender stood above them all, and forced through the bill, and then got Spherelaw rewritten so that he could overrule the Spherecouncil at times of national emergency. The barbarian hoards were beaten back, but not defeated. And thus The Prolonged Struggle began.
The Prolonged Struggle had been going on for hundreds of years, at the very least. It was the struggle between the civilization of The Sphere and the barbarian tribes outside. Under The Defenders guidance, The Sphere was winning, establishing outposts on barbarian infested islands and wiping them out before civilized colonists moved to inhabit the island. Patrols were sent out every day, making sure isolated outposts hadn't been overrun or scouting out new locations for them. But the barbarians were vast in number, so they were always able to recover, no matter how badly the Sphere's army defeated them.
In recent history, a new threat had emerged; The White Fleet. No one knew exactly where the White Fleet came from, but it was theorized that they were the descendents of The Unyielding Enemy just as the people of The Sphere were descendents of The Free Nations. The war with The White Fleet had been going on for three years. It was hard to find much information on the war itself, but he found plenty of graphic pictures of The White Fleet's atrocities. Ever sense the war began he head heard about how evil the fleet's solders were, but it was the first time he'd seen them in color. Nauseated, he swore that once he was a first class citizen, he would figure out a way to pay The White Fleet back for every drop of blood spilled.
Dr. Walsh didn't support Derek's ambition to become a first class citizen. He kept saying that it was not what it seemed to be, and often told him about all the horrid duties that came with being first class. At one point he described it as “better for your health” to be a third class citizen. But whenever Derek's sisters were around, he would stop.
Stonemen visited as well. He brought reports of new developments regarding Derek's funds, and managed to upgrade his care, among other things. One thing he did constantly was praise the outside world. He continuously told Derek about trees and flowing water and deep earth. Their was nothing in the metallic halls of The Sphere like it, he said.
Derek found the idea a little far fetched. Who would honestly believe that something could grow out of the ground using only water and sunlight? How and why would they produce the lovely smells that Stonemen described? And then there was this nonsense about the sun. What was it supposed to be? A giant light bulb that god replaced every year or two? Although unconvinced, Derek did begin to wonder what it was on the outside that made Stonemen so passionate about it.
But after two weeks of lounging, Dr. Walsh finally declared that Derek could go home. He gave him a jar of pills that he was supposed to take every day for the next three months. He could come back anytime it needed refilling.
It was strange to walk in the tile transit hall after the time in the carpeted hospital room. Derek left during work hours, so the hallway was pretty much abandoned. Propaganda posters lined the walls, along with a few advertisements for bars or the Red Hawk Casino. Derek took an elevator down to the residence level.
The residence level was a massive space, at least a few miles high and a few miles wide. Derek didn't know the exact statistics. Clustered against the walls was row upon row of residence pods. Exactly the same number of residence pods floated thanks to their hover devices in the center of the level. They were pods on sleep cycle. When their work cycle began, they would float to the walls and take the place of the ones already there. It was designed to fit more people into the same space.
Derek knew the way to his residence pod by heart. He walked up and down several different flights of stairs to get to it.
Each pod consisted of a single room with two large beds, along with a kitchen, a small couch with a radio and a small book shelf that was usually empty except for a copy of the Bible and a few coloring books for children. Anyone who worked for The Defender was entitled to one, and they housed the half-million third class citizens of The Sphere.
His sisters were not yet home from school. He had never had the pod to himself. He looked around for a moment, and wondered what to do. He decided that Stonemen would be the best person to talk with, but Derek needed some rest before talking business. He warmed up some lunch in the kitchen, and walked the five feet to the couch, flicked on the radio, and started eating.
“It is now five past one, and we're about to bring outside news,” the radio said after a bit of music. “Yesterday our noble outpost on Adrayan Island suffered an unprovoked attack from the barbarian tribes that infest the island. The 19th heavy assault battalion, armed with recently designed Destroyer Skiffs, have been deployed to the island to defend civilization there in the name of The Defender. The new weapons are capable of outmaneuvering and outgunning anything possessed by the barbarians, and have made their presence known in several major battles in the past weeks. They are just one of the many innovations that the Sphere's armed forces are deploying against savagery and barbarism. We now have one of the veterans of the 4th mobile brigade to tell a story from the battle of Farina Island:”
Heroic sounding background music started, and a sudden switch in mood was obvious. The radio did this often; as a boy Derek had listened to the radio constantly to catch the war stories when the came on.
“We had been deployed to Farina Island because the local colony there had just been attacked by savages,” the veteran's voice was full of tension and drama. “Now it was an unusual thing, because the island had been cleared months ago and was declared safe for colonization by The Defender. Now we were radioing the colony as we approached, but they stopped responding by the time we got to the village. It was a massacre. The barbarians had looted everything in sight, and burned whatever they could not carry. The citizens had clearly fought fiercely, there was loads of dead barbarians on the ground. We knew that we had to be facing a much larger force, but the commander ordered an advance, to find the barbarian encampment and avenge the colonists deaths. We were going to show the barbarians that they couldn't burn a colony and not suffer retribution. So we set out, and kept a sharp lookout for ambushes. Barbarians like to ambush people. Gives them an unfair advantage. Then suddenly they were all around us,” the veteran talked faster now, his voice matching the action of the story. “They charged from the woods, swung down from the trees, and there must have been hundreds upon hundreds of them! But we gave them hell. For each one of us that died three of them were shot down, at least. We used the new particle blasters to tear them apart. But slowly they whittled our numbers down. I doubt any White Fleet battalion would have fought as long or as hard as we did. But slowly they killed us off. Finally the commander called for reinforcements. My vehicle was blown up by a lucky hit from the barba-”
The radio suddenly fizzled out. Derek paused eating for a moment to reach over and flick the power switch a few times. Nothing happened. He got up and opened the radio's electrical box. Nothing appeared to be wrong with it. There was probably some tiny fault buried in the radio's wiring that would cost an obscenely large amount to repair.
Cursing his bad luck, Derek decided it was god's way of showing him he needed to call Stonemen and talk finances. He walked to the phone that was mounted on the wall and slipped Stonemen's card out of his pocket. Stonemen had given it to him a few days ago, telling him to call the number whenever he needed help.
“I wouldn't do that,” someone behind Derek said. He whipped around, but saw no one there. “I'm in the radio,” the voice said. It was the exact same voice that the radio's veteran had. “I borrowed the liar's voice to make communication easier, Derek Wheeler.”
“How do you know my name?” Derek said. He clenched his hands into fists, ready to move if a threat presented itself.
“A little birdie told me. Sit down on the couch. Now.”
Derek knew one thing. He would not do what whoever this voice was wanted. He took a few tentative steps toward the couch, but then made a brake for the door. He ran as fast as he had ever run, expecting at any moment for a hidden assassin to shoot.
Nobody shot him. Nobody made any attempt to stop him. As he opened the pod door Derek was already forming a plan in his mind. He would contact The Sphere Internal Defense Force, and tell them someone had been sending an illegal frequency to his radio. He wasn't sure if that was what was actually happening, but it was the only thing that seemed probable.
The moment he opened the door his plan was abandoned. He had to stop himself. The pod had taken off and flown to the center of the residence level, suspended thousands of feet up in the air. Derek got dizzy looking at such a long drop. He pulled himself back in and shut the door.
“I'm sorry about not telling you, but my birdie also calculated that the shock of seeing how easily I took control the the pod's systems would make you more compliant. Now sit.”
Derek thought for a moment, then sat on the couch, right next to the radio.
“Not so close,” it said.
A little surprised, Derek moved further down the couch.
“That's better. Now Mr. Wheeler, you and I are going to have a little chat. I will give you instructions. You will keep these instructions to yourself. If you do not, those most important to you will suffer. Be assured that I am fully capable of carrying out any threat I make.”
Derek glanced back at the doorway. Whoever this guy was, it would be a good idea to at least pretend to do what he said.
“What you must do is very simple. You must not leave The Sphere. No matter what happens, no matter what people offer, you must never leave. No matter what Stonemen tells you, do not leave. And do not apply for first class citizenship. It is not worth the cost. Do both of these things, and you will get a present. Fail to do these things and your father's greatest achievement will come crashing down.”
Derek was confused. “My father never achieved anything,” he said, with a pessimistic hiss in his voice.
“On the contrary, your father achieved many great things in his life. Did you ever consider why your mother married a man of such low stature? Of course not. Now, follow these instructions if you cared about your father. I will land your pod now.”
The radio fizzled off. A few moments later it came back on, just in time for the end of the veterans war story. Derek switched it off. He had no need to hear the conclusion. It always ended with a glorious victory for The Sphere.
Who had he just spoken too? He had known far more then he should have about Derek's family. Why did he not want him to leave The Sphere?
Derek felt the pod touch down. He was back on the ground. He got up and walked to the phone. He dialed Stonemen's number. It was picked up after one and a half rings.
“Hello?” it was the voice of Stonemen's secretary.
“Could you connect me with Mr. Stonemen please?” Derek asked.
“I'm sorry, but Mr. Stonemen is in a meeting right now and can't take your call.”
“Tell him it's from Derek Wheeler.”
He immediately heard the line switching. “Hello! How's my favorite client?” it was Stonemen's voice.
“I'd like you to visit my residence pod after your meeting. I just got out of the hospital and I'll need your advice to become a first class citizen,” Derek took a big breath before continuing. “And I want you to arrange a short visit outside The Sphere for me.”
Derek wouldn't be intimidated by a talking radio.