Bob lands smoothly. “I find that odd.”
“They want to know our purpose here,” El says.
“Tell them R & R. I’ve heard it’s paradise – some of the best bars and prettiest girls in the quadrant.”
“I require neither.” El communicates with the tower as he follows Bob to security, where the captain straps a laser pistol to his leg. “I thought this place was paradise.”
“Yes, but it has a reputation of being like the Wild West.”
“Wild West: a term used to….”
“Stop being a dictionary.”
They walk down the ramp from their ship and Bob inhales deeply. “It’s nice to breathe real air.”
El says, “I wouldn’t know.”
“This is one of a few known earth-like planets.”
“Looks like things have taken a turn for the worse here,” El notes, pointing to battle damaged ships on the tarmac.
“Let’s take the pod into the city,” Bob says. They fly over a wasteland of overgrown farms and scorched forests before reaching a ruined metropolis. El lands the pod in the middle
of the rubble strewn main boulevard.
“250,000 people lived here?” El asks.
“Yes, but it’s a ghost town now.”
They get out and El scans the buildings. “There is a functioning factory up there. I count six A.I. units working inside, but no humans.”
Along the devastated street, their footsteps echo in the canyon of crumbling skyscrapers. El stops and touches his chest. “In this building, one human life form and an A.I. are on the top floor.”
Bob looks up at the building. “Oddly, it seems maintained.” They go inside and the lobby is brightly lit. Bob turns to El. “I want you to investigate that factory. Activate communicator buds.” They each touch small metallic buttons on the edge of their uniform collars.
Bob takes the elevator up to the top floor. As the doors open, he is overwhelmed by Tschaikowsky’s “1812 Overture.” He walks cautiously into a large room where a bald man in a white robe is seated at a long table. “Greetings. Please, come in.”
Bob sees platters of food spread out as if for a feast. He recognizes the man as Commander Tom Grady, his first commanding officer. “Grady!”
The man claps his hands and the music stops. “Hello, Bob. Thanks to tower security, I expected you.”
“What happened to this planet?”
“We had a disturbance 20 years ago.”
Doors open and an A.I. enters the room carrying champagne in a bucket and two flutes. “This is Rolando.”
“Hello,” Rolando says, sounding much more robotic than El.
“I see you’re still a cowboy.”
Bob touches the pistol on his leg. “You taught me to always be prepared.”
“Yes, I did. Please, sit down.” Bob sits and Rolando pours champagne for them. “A toast to the old days.”
“Rolando keeps an extensive garden on the rooftop,” Grady says. “The meat comes from….the planet’s indigenous creatures.”
Bob glances at the steaming platters of food. “I flew over 30 ravaged kilometers to get here. There seems to be nothing living out there.”
Grady sips his champagne and leans forward. “They are hidden, you see. Rolando goes hunting for me. The meat is delicious, but an acquired taste, Bob.”
“What happened to the humans on this planet?”
Grady sits back. “Casualties of war.”
“All of 250,000 of them?”
“I’ve tried to be cordial, old friend, to no avail it seems.”
Rolando moves menacingly toward Bob, who swiftly aims and fires the pistol, splitting Rolando’s head in two. “Okay, old man, now answer my question.”
Grady shakes his head. “More Rolandos will be coming.”
“What have you done here, Grady?” Bob asks as he stands and hits the communicator bud. “El, where are you?”
“I’m being chased in your direction, Bob.”
Grady tries to lift a pistol, but Bob pushes a blue lever on his gun and shoots Grady, inspiring a look of surprise on his face. “You’ll be paralyzed for about an hour, but I should have killed you.”
Bob exits the building and sees El running up the rubble strewn boulevard being chased by three A.I. units that look exactly like Rolando. Bob pushes the red lever on his pistol and destroys each of the units.
El walks up to him with no emotion in his generic features. “We have much to discuss.”
“Let’s get out of here first.” They race to the pod, climb aboard, and rush toward the airfield.
“That factory produces food,” El says. “I hesitate to tell you what the source is.”
“Grady said something about ‘indigenous’ creatures.”
“No, I’m afraid it is human beings.”
Bob feels his hand shaking on the steering rod. “We must go back for them.”
“No, they are all dead – thousands of frozen bodies waiting to be processed as edible meat.”
“I should have killed him,” Bob says, tears welling in his eyes. The transport bay doors open on their ship and he eases the pod into place. They rush to the cockpit and soon 13 is aloft and flying over the battered planet.
“I had a chance to read an A.I.’s mind.”
“Your friend incited a civil war in a failed attempt to gain control of the planet. We’re looking at the aftermath of the conflict.”
“Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven,” Bob says.
“A line from Milton’s epic poem….”
“Are you destroying it?”
“No, I have a better idea.” Bob maneuvers 13 toward the factory and incinerates it. “Now let him eat cake.”
“I am sorry about your dead.”
“May they rest in peace now,” Bob says, steering the ship up through the atmosphere and back into the tranquil and silent darkness of deep space.
Photo credits: 3dart.com, ifood.tv, commons.wikimedia.org
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