Winifred braced herself as the transport shuttle decelerated, mashing her entire body into her padded seat. “Gods,” she muttered, feeling the straps of the safety harness almost cut through the blue jumpsuit she wore, compressing her front while her backside found the metal underneath the dingy seat. Working for twenty years as a Compliance Inspector for the Confederation of Terran Worlds, she’d made dozens of planetary visits like the one she was on, and every time she got out of the transport ship into a landing shuttle she knew this would happen. It was the worst part of the trip, floating in space for weeks or months at a time until the bliss ended with a screeching return back to an environment with real gravity. Her eyes were rolled to her left by the inertial forces pinning her to her seat, and she could only stare out the porthole made opaque by the flames of the shuttle crashing through the planet’s atmosphere. That sight never looked reassuring.
“What did you say?” screamed Donald, her partner in the Inspectorate. Although she couldn’t look over at him, she caught a glimpse of his normally olive skin turn several shades lighter to almost a clammy gray hue. If she wasn’t having a good time of things, Winifred reasoned Donald was having it worse. His voice was shriller than it normally was, an octave reserved for when he felt threatened. Perpetually suffering from an inferiority complex, it was more often than Winifred wanted to stomach, but it did give her a dark satisfaction he had a good excuse to use it now.
She couldn’t show fear to a person seven years her junior. “Nothing,” she shouted back. The sound of the shuttle’s hull beating against the thickening envelope of air dropped down, and outside the porthole Winifred caught the flames giving way to a clear view of an aquamarine ocean. Gradually the weight pressed against her chest fell off, and she sucked in a couple deep, panicked breaths before composing herself again. Lifting an arm to brush a strand of auburn hair away from her eyes, she inwardly congratulated herself on another successful interstellar journey.
“The fearless Winnie,” said Donald, his tone exaggeratingly mocking. “It’s about time you showed some real emotion—“ He brought both hands up to his mouth, his eyes bulging out like they were going to explode.
Winifred pulled a bag out from under her seat, shook it open, and tossed it towards the man who had his breakfast leaking out from between his fingers. To his credit, he freed one hand to position the bag so he could fill it with some of his dignity remaining. “At least I can hold my food down after re-entry,” she said with a smirk.
Donald wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gave her the stink eye. “It’s not the shuttle ride,” he whined. “I’ve said for years now the chemicals in the grav couches need adjusting. I got lingering side effects from the neurozine and kronozopram. They’ll keep me sick the entire time we’re planet-side.”
The senior Inspector rolled her eyes. “Make sure you take extra bags with you,” she said. Donald never should have been an inspector; travel off Earth always left him sick. If he didn’t have a mother in the Ministry he never would have been hired, let alone given an Inspector’s badge. Blessedly that also meant he could opt out of inspections, but this was the third inspection she had with him. This was three inspections too many for any reasonable person to have to put up with.
Banking to port, the shuttle flew closer to the surface of the planet. By now Winifred noticed the sea give way to rolling green pastures and miles of forest. What really caught her attention was the lack of any artificial marks on the ground. Other than the planted fields there were hardly any roads, and no discernible habitats to speak of. Definitely this was the strangest place she’d visited so far. The sky was bluer than Earth’s, the sun brighter and bigger in the sky, but she expected a sovereign planet of this size and longevity to at least have some indication it was inhabited by sentient beings.
“Inspectors, we are coming up to the destination coordinates. Please remain seated for the landing sequence,” she heard the pilot say over the intercom. Still strapped into her harness, she kept her eyes glued to the porthole to catch a glimpse of where they’d be landing. Slowly the fields and farms gave way to an immense lawn, greener than anything she’d ever seen. The lawn itself eventually ceased abruptly, ending at a massive steelcrete landing pad with a giant sign painted red and in Uniform Terran, “Territory of Ochoia.”
“Not exactly the welcome I expected,” grumbled Donald, unbuckling his safety harness as soon as the shuttle’s engines flared and the inspectors felt the landing legs hit the ground. Stuffing the vomit bags into his satchel, he stood up and had to grab the bulkhead for support. “Whatever happened to throwing out the fanfare for representatives from Earth?”
Winifred pulled herself out of her harness and reached for her small black duffel, throwing it over her shoulder and fitting the bag to the small of her back. She opened the left hip pocket on her jumpsuit and pulled out hand-holo, strapping it to her left wrist and tying it to each finger on her left hand. Behind her she heard the familiar hum of shuttle hydraulics opening the exit door and extending the ramp to the landing pad. Taking out some sunglasses from her right chest pocket, she threw them on in just enough time for the shuttle door to open into the morning Ochoian sun, a massive blue orb three times the size of Earth’s own Sun. It made things look unnaturally bright, as if reality itself didn’t seem real.
“I don’t think they like visitors,” she answered the junior Inspector, thrusting her chin towards the two statuesque guards perched at the base of the shuttle’s exit ramp. They were grotesque specimens, probably artificial life-forms by the looks of them. Each had the look of a human in a pale white body covering, extending over their heads and faces like it was melted plastic. Underneath it were two slits for nostrils, two holes where the ears should be, and a thin, long slit where the mouth should be. And behind the covering were two dark orbs that resembled eyes. Both had one hand at their side and one hand on a sidearm, plasma pistols by the looks of them. Donald must have noticed the weapons first, because he instinctively dropped his bag and reached for a barf sack. Winifred caught the two – soldiers perhaps – share a look and a very slight sadistic smile.
The one on the right said in a wheezing voice, “Inspectors, you are here under the authority of the Hightower Amendment to the Articles of Terran Confederation. The Directive wishes to inform you they will comply with the terms of that agreement. You both are to come with us to meet the Directive’s representative.”
“If you truly wish to comply with the Amendment, then you will stop giving us orders,” replied Winifred. “We will have full access to any facility we wish to inspect.”
“You dare to-“ began the one on the left, his voice shrill and slightly metallic sounding.
“Our orders are clear,” interrupted the first. To Winifred he said, “Please, come with us. The representative is equipped to handle all your inquiries.”
Donald stepped forward and quietly said to Winifred, “I don’t have to come with you. The pilot can take me back to the ship in orbit and I can monitor things from there. It might even make things go faster.”
Winifred snorted and said loud enough for the guards to hear, “We both are coming along.” She marched off the shuttle ramp right between the soldiers, Donald grumbling and slowly shuffling behind. As they marched towards a tall structure a hundred meters from the shuttle, Winifred noticed the guards were almost impossibly tall for humans. Each had to have been at least two and a half meters tall, and they marched in perfect rhythm.
The four of them marched in silence off the landing pad and into the dome-shaped building. There was no visible door, but when Winifred’s eyes grew accustomed to the shade of the entryway she took off her glasses and noted a carbomide steel frame flush with the outer steelcrete façade and the inner smooth-cast synth-fiber hallways. Such materials were uncommon for constructions for dwellings and non-essential civilian structures.
But they were very common for fortifications and other secret facilities.
Winifred coolly noted that if the goal of the Ochoians was to kill them, they should do it at the entryway. Stepping past it down a flight of metal steps into a blindingly lit corridor, she heard Donald breathe an overt sigh of relief. That made her cringe; this had all the makings of a difficult assignment, and now her partner’s ill-concealed cowardice was going to make things worse. Ever since the Confederation was founded just under four millennia ago, no Inspector had ever failed to exact strict compliance with the Articles. Her skin crawled at the thought of having to be the first Inspector to lose a settlement.
Trying to ignore her disgust, Winifred noticed they’d arrived at the end of the hall. Other than the lights and the grating underfoot, there were no noteworthy features. The doors ahead opened to reveal an expansive circular room with a metallic floor polished almost to a mirror finish. A white painted dome shielded the room from the elements, and at the far end the dome consisted of some sort of translucent material, forming a giant window of sorts. It was dimmed, and allowed an awe-inspiring view of the Ochoian sun and the manicured lawn surrounding the structure.
Thirty meters ahead stood a person about Winifred’s height, looking out the window. When the Inspector got to a few meters away, the person turned around and folded her hands behind her back. She was dressed in a long, white tunic, cut to fit comfortably. Her pants were the same hue, and on her feet were unadorned white slippers. She had blue eyes and a smile that reeked of insincerity, and her pale head was shaved clean. Clearly this person never made it out into the Ochoian sun. “Welcome to Ochoia,” she said without losing that awful smile of hers. “My name is C4N-D, and you may call me Candace. I look forward to escorting you around the Directive’s facilities today. At the end of our short tour, you will get to meet one of the Directors and ask him any questions you like.”
Winifred bristled as the woman waved the two guards away, their plastic feet clinking on the floor in unison to mark their retreat. She held up her left hand, her hand-holo projecting a copy of her credentials. “I am Inspector Winifred Montgomery, and this is Inspector Donald Castille, Compliance Division of the Confederation of Terran Worlds. Like I told them,” she pointed at the retreating pair, “we are here to conduct our own investigation. Do I need to remind you what will happen if you do not comply?” She ended the holo-projection and regarded the strange Ochoian.
In all of her previous trips out to other Terran settlements, nothing prepared her for Candace’s reaction. She laughed lightly and said, “I promise you will get the information you have come looking for. Nothing will be hidden from you.”
Donald and Winifred shared a doubtful look. Donald smiled sheepishly and said, “Thank you for your honesty, Candace, but you have to understand that we as Inspectors can’t take you at your word. The rumors of what’s going on here at Ochoia are the source of quite an uproar throughout the Confederation. If they’re true…well, it would be unfortunate for all parties involved.”
Winifred added, “What my partner means to say is that it would be a terrible thing for your planet to be the first to have to get forcibly brought back into compliance with the Articles. If we do not get what we want, we’ll leave, and the next response from Earth will be an invading armada.”
The spoken threat made Donald’s hands quiver, but Candace just kept smiling like it was never spoken. After a brief pause she said, “I can see that you both are fatigued from your journey. How long is the 600 light year trip from Earth these days?”
“Two weeks spent awake, four weeks in the grav-couches and cryo-sleep,” said Winifred. “We are just fine. Now, take us to your nearest settlement.”
Candace gestured to the Inspectors’ right and said, “Of course. That is where we are headed. Please, follow me. I promise, this tour will not take long at all.” Several meters away, a hole opened in the floor to reveal a spiral staircase. Winifred gave Donald a frustrated look, and he returned it with a long face which begged her silently to go no further. She ignored it and marched after the Ochoian.
Taking the steps down, Candace’s voice echoed in the small stairwell. Dimly lit and having almost no handrails, she ignored what her guide was saying until she was sure she wasn’t going to tumble down and break her neck. “We built this facility when we received the transmission from Earth that you were coming. The Directive understands that you will be most interested in what we have to show you. Please refrain from any questions until you have a chance to meet with a Director. He will answer them all for you.”
This was getting repetitive. Winifred felt that this woman might not actually be a person, but instead a very well constructed artificial life form, like the other guards. If that was the case, it would explain the inappropriate reactions and lack of verbal communication skills. It didn’t match up with the skill in Candace’s construction, but it would explain why a person would have an alphanumeric designation instead of a real name.
They were now in a darkened room, the only light coming from the above stairwell and a light blue light coming from a rectangular window opening up at the far end. Winifred and Donald approached it after Candace beckoned them over. “Here you will see the Directive’s latest biological creation. It is designated as a worker unit, and these entities are what built the very room in which we stand.”
Through the window Winifred saw a tall humanoid standing in the center of a small enclosure. He had a collar and chain around his neck, two shackles around his wrists, and had no clothing except for a thin cloth covering his genitals. His skin was a reddish hue, and appeared almost like it had been flayed. Mostly hairless, he did have a thick mane of brown locks covering his scalp and thick, bushy eyebrows drooping over sunken yellow eyes. Two guards that looked almost exactly like the ones that escorted her off the shuttle approached the creature, each carrying a thick, heavy chain. They attached the metal links to the creature’s wrist shackles and pulled them taut with one arm.
With the other arms, they began beating and punching the creature until wounds started opening in the skin. Through the thick glass Winifred could hear the creature howling while it stood, taking blow after blow from its two torturers. Each thud could be heard shaking the window, to the point where Donald winced in anticipation of each battery. “What are you doing?” she hissed, glaring at Candace.
Candace gave Winifred a surprised look. “We are showing you that the unit is capable of withstanding great stresses and shocks to its system.” Another smack, and the creature whimpered. “The unit can work for days at a stretch without sleep or the need of much caloric intake.” Another smack. “It is ideally suited to labor, much more than artificial life-forms and other robotics.” Another smack. “Even other human organisms from which it was derived pale in comparison to what it is capable of.”
“Human what?” Donald breathed, reaching into his satchel for a barf bag. “You mean these things…that is a…” Another smack.
“I do believe the answer is yes, Inspector,” said Candace manner-of-factly. “Genetically it is a human being, but the Directive has made it so much more than that. Its intelligence has been stifled so it only lives to work, and it only wants to please others around it.” Another smack.
Winifred couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She saw the guard raising a hand to strike the poor wretch again, and she tapped on the glass. “That’s enough,” she breathed. “You’ve made your point.” Candace nodded, and the guards stopped hitting their captive. In all her years at seeing some of the worst of human suffering, Winifred couldn’t stop staring at that person with open wounds whimpering in chains. Blood dripped on his bonds, pooling on the ground. The captive stood there, wincing stupidly, unsure of what just happened.
She’d seen starvation, mass graves, and other atrocious crimes, but somehow this one person taking this abuse all in the name of a demonstration struck her to the core of her soul. Here was a human being, a person just like her or anyone else, forcibly denied his own birthright because other human beings deemed it appropriate. Whether it was genetic alterations, tampering in the gestation process, or both, the whole thing sickened Winifred beyond measure. It was like her conscience gripped her mind in fear and rage, wanting to do something, anything, to stop this. With barely concealed hatred and contempt, Winifred said, “I want to see that Director now.”
“Of course,” said Candace. Donald grabbed Winifred’s arm and tried to hold her back, but she tugged and brought him with her instead. A door opened to their right, and they marched through it to a narrow catwalk. Candace pointed through the door and said, “The Director is that way. He is ready to receive you.”
Determined to get answers, Winifred dragged Donald along with her down the walkway to an overhanging platform a hundred meters above what looked to be a factory floor. For kilometers around, large pink containers were being shuffled about along conveyor belts. Machines picked up the containers and moved them elsewhere, until they were finally taken out of sight. She couldn’t see what was inside them, but she could guess as to what was going on.
The platform itself was oval shaped, consisting of a metallic frame and some holo-interfaces to interact with. In the center was an opaque partition, with the sound of wind going through a plastic tube in regular intervals coming from the other side. Occasionally there would be the other electronic sounds of someone manipulating a holo-interface, and there would also be some grumbling. “One moment,” said a deep voice, almost artificial in nature.
Winifred waited standing next to Donald, who by now was kneeling on the floor. The partition began to hum, slowly withdrawing up into the ceiling. What turned around was a monstrous sight that made Winifred cringe and Donald want to retch. It looked like the torso of a morbidly obese human attached to metal hoses, wires, and claws. Its spinal column was a series of steel links stapled to its mottled green-grey skin. The hair on its head was splotchy, uncut and gray, and its right organic eye was cloudy with cataracts. The left one was replaced with an artificial one that had a dull yellow glow coming from its iris. When that artificial eye settled on Winifred, a thick gray tongue licked dry and cracked lips.
Thick fingers clutched two handles at its side, its torso resting in some sort of cradle that let it move around. “I am Director Corpulentis,” it said. “I represent the government of Ochoia, what we call the Directive. I am pleased to meet your acquaintance, Inspectors.”
The Inspector needed all her years of training and composure to speak calmly with the Director. Winifred folded her arms and said evenly, “After the display I just endured, I can’t say I’m pleased to meet you. Your robots essentially provided us with all the information we need to recommend war crimes in our Cassandra Memorandum.”
A hissing sound erupted from the cyborg, like it was a hollow laugh passing through a straw. “Those aren’t robots, Inspector. You’ve met two other creations of the Directive. The soldiers are created to be stronger and more durable than normal free bred humans are capable of producing from that sloppy mess you call procreation. And Candace, as you call her, is part of our social and scientific branch of society, bred and created to have superior intelligence and social skills.
“We here on Ochoia have found a new way of living, free of the constraints of previous so-called morality. On this planet we have formed a perfect society, where each member is bred specifically to benefit the social organism as a whole. No longer do we depend on imperfect social units to raise our young. Instead we breed them and prepare them for glorious service to the entire population.”
Corpulentis waved about him to the activity below. “Here is one of our many breeding facilities where millions of laborers like the one you saw are grown and hatched. We’ve been doing this for years now.” His artificial eye focused back on Winifred.
She lowered her hands and balled them into fists. Wanting to rip the metal parts from his body, the thought of him dying in agony seemed like too good of a thing for what he’d done. All those people, grown like crops instead of humans, all to serve this so-called Director and his co-conspirators. “You do know why I’m here, don’t you? You’ve just admitted to treason. All of humanity, in thousands of planets, will line up just for the chance to kill you personally for what you’ve done here.”
“Of course,” said the Director. “They are welcome to try. But we on this planet are more perfect than the rest of humanity. We have abandoned old ways and embraced a new philosophy, a social perfection. You should be demanding that we share how we’ve created our new perfect social organism, not petulantly whining about meaningless treasons and empty threats. But I did not expect you to understand. How could you? Those unaccustomed to pure reason often find it to be repulsive. Your ignorance blinds you to the truth that I and my people take for granted.
“But of course you bandy about threats to me, my soldiers, and my representatives, as one of your inferior genetic structure and upbringing will do. I know you are here to write a Cassandra Memorandum. I know you think you hold the fate of my planet in your imperfect hands. I know the rest of humanity will be blinded at misplaced rage when you tell them what goes on here.
“I don’t care, though. I expect you to go to Earth and let all those troglodytes know what you witnessed here. You will recommend an armada with an invading force be sent here to murder billions of my people, all in the name of ‘liberating’ them. And, because my cause is righteous and just, fueled by true knowledge instead of that superstition you call ‘science’ and ‘ethics,’ my people will be victorious.”
Several guards approached from the catwalk, standing behind each Inspector.
Corpulentis turned his carriage around to stare back at the millions of new laborers gestating below him. Winifred, frustrated and helpless to stop what was going on, told the Director, “You are the most sadistic, misguided tyrant I’ve ever met.”
Corpulentis laughed. “I expected such a small response from you. All is not lost, though. My soldiers will escort you to your shuttle. It will take you back to your ship unharmed. On the long trip back to Earth, you can deliberate over what you recommend. Telling the Confederate Congress to go to war will get billions of people killed for no reason. If your so-called moral superiority is worth anything, know that you can also allow us to leave the Confederacy in peace. No one has to die for your inferior beliefs. The decision is entirely yours.”
Corpulentis waved the Inspectors away dismissively. The partition came down, and Winifred glared at her dim reflection in the smooth surface. Turning around, she pushed past the guards and marched back from where she came. Donald, sniveling, slunk behind her.
Corpulentis’s words haunted her the entire trip home.
For thousands of years people have fought other people. Even when they left Earth, humanity still found ways to justify killing each other. As much as Corpulentis disgusted and terrified her, Winifred felt like he might be right about not going to war over this. She wasn’t entirely sure if that was what angered her the most, or the memory of that poor laborer getting beaten in front of her.
The entire trip back, Donald kept laboring on and on that they should take the Director’s advice. He would recommend that, of course, but only because he was too timid to stand up for what was right. To Winifred, her decision was a choice between the laborer and the director. It took her an extra week to put her opinion into words.
In the end, she sided with her conscience and her reason.