Burned-out private investigator Mark O'Brien is coerced into an unwanted vacation on the terraformed Jovian moon, Europa.
This is the first chapter to my very first Sci-Fi novel, written in 1998!
He sat there, slumped over his desk, an empty shot glass clutched in his reddened fingers, the nails dirty from the dust of a day's labor. The drink did little to silence the nagging voices in the back of his head, the persistent calls of his subconscious beckoning him to continue ever harder, onward in the constant struggle of life.
"Why?" was a question he often asked. Why did he have to live like this, constantly in conflict with himself and the world at large? Why was it his destiny, his purpose? Why was he condemned to struggle against the darkness of the world, holding on by the skin of his teeth, just to feel empty inside, drained of his sense of worth.
The calming quiet of his secluded office was suddenly shattered by the noisy entrance of Kate Terrace, his legal colleague and alleged "friend." Funny, how the only woman in his life couldn't be bothered to be anything more than a platonic reminder of his masculine inadequacies.
"Half in the bag yet, Mark?" she asked, clomping up to the old, oaken desk.
"No, Kate, I haven't even gotten a buzz on," Mark replied, leaving his head rested on his left arm.
"Good, then there might be some left for a change," Kate said, leaning over the desk and sliding open one of the drawers. She removed a brandy bottle from the drawer and started to unscrew the cap.
"Why do you do it?" Mark asked her.
"Because I've had a really long day in court, and I could use that buzz you were talking about," she said, lifting the bottle to her lips. A very unladylike swig followed.
"No, I mean why do you put up with the crap you do, working for the DA's office? How can you sit there and watch, day after day, as scumbags get let off because of sleazy defense attorneys, or given slaps on the wrist by worthless Judges?"
"It takes a thick skin, one properly seasoned with a little of this stuff, in moderation," she said, capping the bottle.
"My skin's wearing a bit thin," Mark replied. "I'm so tired of sitting back and seeing the total injustice of our justice system. Every day, I go out and witness firsthand the sleazy things people do, witness their guilt, and then watch them enabled by pieces of filth on the bench, or fellow scumbags in a jury box. I'm sick of it!"
"Mark, when was the last time you had a vacation? A real, vacation, not one of those 'two weeks sitting at home in front of your computer' vacations, but a real trip?" Kate asked, leaning against his desk.
Mark stopped and thought about it, and found himself at a loss for an explanation. He really couldn't remember the last time he'd taken the time to get away from it all. He'd been busting his hump, working the private detective circuit for the better part of a year now, since resigning from the FBI, and he couldn't remember ever taking off for a vacation while at the Bureau. Nearly ten years on the job, without much of a break.
"That's what you really need, Mark; a real getaway. You need to cut loose, forget about your pain in the ass life for a change. Part of growing a thick skin is knowing when to let it sit in the sun for a time."
"Kate, I wouldn't know the first thing about unwinding," Mark said.
"Well, tell you what, I'll join you. I'm due for a few weeks downtime."
"I assume you have someplace in mind for this 'time in the sun' of yours," Mark mentioned, putting his feet up on his desk.
"Actually, my sister's marriage is coming up in the next couple of weeks, and it would just kill her if I couldn't make it, and it would just kill me if I had to go it alone. So, we can kill two birds with one stone. You do me this little favor, and I'll do one for you. Sound fair?"
"Where are we going?" Mark asked with a nondescript smile.
"Jupiter City. It's the capital city on Juptier's fourth moon, Europa," Kate said.
"A bit cold out there," Mark responded. "Isn't Europa a big ball of ice?"
"Ancient History," Kate rebutted. "Europa's been terraformed for over a century. They don't give Statehood to lifeless chunks of ice," Kate replied sardonically. "I've vacationed at Jupiter City half a dozen times, and I can tell you where all the hotspots are, all the good places to just sit back and relax, and where to let it all hang out."
"You sound like a travel brochure," Mark said, losing interest.
"Trust me, it's just what you need to get rid of this stress of yours. Would I lie?"
"If another lawyer ever asked me that, I'd tell them to go to hell," Mark said, smirking, "but not you. Okay, Kate, you've got yourself a date."
"You won't regret it," Kate said, exposing her perfectly straight teeth.
Mark still felt a little awkward about the whole idea of a vacation, and leaving Earth wasn't anything he'd ever considered. He was an old-fashioned ground-man, who felt his feet were supposed to stay on his native soil. Though, he was willing to suspend that philosophy for Kate's sake.
Kate had some last-minute clerical work to complete before flying halfway across the solar system, so she gave Mark a ticket and suggested he fly on ahead. She'd catch a flight later in the afternoon.
The "budget value" of the ticket was quickly apparent as Mark boarded an absolute rustbucket of a shuttle, whose glory days had long since passed. A musty smell of old socks permeated the air, and the ragged carpet was so filthy you couldn’t tell where the dirt stopped and the floor began.
Finding his window seat near the emergency hatch, Mark maneuvered around a peculiar individual in the adjacent aisle seat. The bizarre man carried a half-grown boa constrictor on his lap, and constantly smirked with crooked yellow teeth and puffy, pocked cheeks.
"Hey, bub, how ya doin'?" The man asked when Mark first sat down. His accent sounded like something out of America's Wild West.
Mark reluctantly acknowledged the man's presence, but refrained from sounding out more than a reciprocal grunt.
After Mark's initial brush off, the strange man chuckled lightly under his breath, quite amused with himself. After shaking off his ludicrous smirk, the man advanced a conversation, losing the accent.
"You don't recognize me do you?" he asked, holding back further laughter. "What am I saying? Of course you don't. I'm all made up here."
"Excuse me?" Mark asked.
"I'm Miles Curry. Remember, from Kate's High School Reunion last summer? Taft High, Class of '72."
Mark gave the man before him a scrutinizing stare, trying to find some recognizable features. "What happened to your face?"
"Oh, this?" Miles rubbed his cheek. "It's makeup. Just a little tension-easer on my way to a major performance."
"Performance?" Mark asked.
"Remember, I'm a stage performer. I've gotten standing ovations from London to L.A., without hardly a critic with a complaint, as they say."
"If you're so big and famous, why haven't I heard about you in the papers?" Mark said, feeling a bit ornery. His limited memory of Miles was of the man doing drunken standup comedy, mocking his fellow classmates while Kate fawned over him. That had been the last "favor" he'd done for Kate; attending her high school reunion.
"I'm not really into the mainstream yet," Miles mentioned. "I do entertaining plays for the modern era, some that make you think, and others that can really piss people off; stuff to do with historical politics, racial hatreds; eccentric stuff normal actors would rather not touch these days."
"Not one for Shakespearian acting, eh?" Mark commented.
Miles snorted indignantly. "Hah. Shakespeare's for washed up old has-beens without any gumption. I'm an up-and-comer, with a hell of a lot of talent. I'm not gonna waste it on Hamlet."
Their conversation was abruptly halted by the screech of the overhead speaker. The Captain came on and ran down a list of preliminary takeoff information, letting them know what flight they were on, when they'd be arriving at their destination, and so on. Then, an automated program gave the standard safety messages. By the time the speaker silenced, they were beyond Earth's gravitational pull.
The first hour of the trip was peaceful and uneventful, and Mark made himself comfortable. Closing his eyes, he did his best to make himself oblivious to his surroundings, and let the time fly by. Before long, however, he felt something rubbing at his neck. Reaching up to check on the mysterious sensations, he felt the fat, cylindrical body of the boa constrictor. Mark’s imagination flared and his eyes widened with the creature wrapping itself around his throat.
Staring over at the owner’s seat, there sat an empty chair. The enigmatic Miles Curry had vanished, leaving his sinister snake to slither upon a secondary source of heat.
Mark’s tension eased as the creature left his neck and slithered onto his lap.
A few minutes passed, and the snake's owner returned to his seat. His pocked face and crooked teeth had been removed, revealing the more recognizable features of a red-haired Irishman of fair complexion.
Miles looked over and saw his pet peacefully lounging on Mark's legs. "He likes you," he said, "as he does anything warm."
"I'm more of a cat person," Mark replied, grabbing the snake’s head and handing it to Miles.
"That's understandable," he said as the snake made its way back onto his lap. "Are you afraid of 'em?"
"No, I just don't consider them ideal pets."
Miles noticed the cold tone of Mark's voice, and he silenced to pet his snake while he thought of a way to "curry" Mark's favor.
"Kate didn't mention I'd be flying with you, did she?" Miles asked, most certain of his assertion.
"No," Mark said. "I didn't realize you two were at all close."
"I’m engaged to her sister," Miles replied with a light chuckle.
Hearing such news lightened Mark's mood a little. "Kate never mentioned that."
"Yeah, listen, if I've done anything to offend you, I'm sorry. I guess I was a bit of an ass the last time we met, but that's not who I am, honest," Miles said, scratching a zit on his neck. Let's start fresh. I'll be acting in a play at the Paladinal Stage in Jupiter City. Come see it, on me. 6:00 PM tomorrow night. Mention my name to the ticket master and he'll let you in."
"Thanks," Mark said, finally feeling amiable.
The rest of the trip flew right by. When the ship docked at the Jupiter City Transport Authority, Mark bid farewell to his new friend and retrieved his travel luggage from one of the cargo dispenser units without incident.
Departing the ship, Mark made his way through the milling crowds of the Transport Authority, to a cramped elevator that sent him over a hundred flights down to the moon's surface. The great Transport Authority building had its uppermost level built into the top of the atmospheric dome, so space vessels could dock and unload cargo and travelers en-masse. Most buildings were closer to the surface.
Reaching the ground floor, thousands of travelers fought their way out of the TA and into the sunlight. Mark felt he was in a sardine can, until he burst out through the front doors with the horde of hurried travelers. The crowd then dispersed, and the magnificent scene that greeted him more than made up for the trip.
It really was a thoroughly convincing fabrication of a tropical locale. Date Palms and Australian Pines shaded the sidewalks by the beach, and hundreds of people splashed around in the plankton-rich seawater by the nearby shore. The temperature was a mild 80 Fahrenheit, with nary a cloud in sight, and a slight breeze was blowing in across the sandy beach of Europa's ocean.
The sky was nothing more than a holographic projection, and the wind was generated by the moon's own gravimetric forces, yet one could hardly discern the fabrication.
After marveling in the tropical beauty for a few minutes, Mark began his search for the Larson Hotel, where Kate had reservations for the next few weeks. Most of the hotel rooms on Europa were booked solid for months, but Kate had had this trip planned well ahead of schedule, clearly anticipating Mark's compliance.
A few hundred yards from the shoreline sat the Larson Hotel, a massive, square eyesore, which was representative of the skyscrapers in Jupiter City. Beyond the hotel was block after block of similar-looking metal buildings, extending beyond the horizon. This was the "old-town" district of Jupiter City, where the buildings were airtight, originally built to house workmen and equipment during construction of the pressurized dome a hundred years earlier.
The main doors to the Larson Hotel were bulky steel slabs that remained open as a steady flow of pedestrians, eager to claim their reservations, made their way inside. Mark spent the better part of an hour standing in line, waiting to reach the reception desk.
“Name?” the petite redhead at the desk asked with chipper exuberance as Mark stepped up.
“O’Brien, Mark,” he said with the punctuation of a computer.
The young receptionist rolled her eyes as she clacked the name into her computer console. “I’ve got ya,” she said with a peculiar wink. “Room 3C. Have fun,” she said, slapping an electronic keycard onto the counter.
A short elevator ride brought Mark to the appropriate floor, and he found his room without undue hassle. Unlocking the door with a swipe of his pass card, Mark stepped into the little box that would be his home for the next few weeks. Everything was jammed together into a ten by twelve foot space. There was a bathroom, a bed, a table, a couple of chairs, a computer terminal, a dresser, a tiny ice box, and a small closet. Almost everything you'd ask for, except windows.
Mark closed the door behind him as he began to unpack. He tossed a couple of old novels down on the bed, and grabbed hold of the few articles of clothing stashed in his suitcase. Stuffing them into a cramped dresser drawer, he was settled.
His room sufficiently personalized, he sat down at the computer terminal and punched up a tourist information site for Jupiter City, hoping to find something fun to do while he waited for Kate, who no doubt had a planned itinerary.
Reading through an online brochure, Mark’s interest was quickly piqued by the Museum of Human Colonization, which extolled a collection of historic paraphernalia. The museum was only a couple of miles away, so Mark decided to take a walk. He basked in the beauty of the beachside walkway until he reached the metallic block that housed the museum.
A raucous crowd greeted him on arrival. Protestors blocked the front steps, and he found it difficult to pass through them, as they sought to obstruct his progress. There was no getting around them.
"What's the meaning of this?" Mark asked, stepping back from the crowd.
"Join us, brother," a scruffy-looking teen from the crowd said. "Stop the enslavement of history!"
"We're protesting against the museum's possession of artifacts that belong on their home planets," a young lady said. "This museum only seeks to glorify the imperialism of early America. There are lotsa museums on Mars, Luna, Pluto, and Earth that wanna teach the truth and deserve to display the artifacts held hostage here."
"Held hostage?" Mark asked.
"The exhibits belong on their home planets," someone said from the middle of the crowd.
"This is ridiculous. Name one artifact in this museum that wasn’t legitimately acquired," Mark demanded.
"The Matthew Brewer Diaries," the young lady said. "They're clearly the property of Mars."
"Yeah, I’m sure the Scientific Fundamentalists there would have a field day torching them. Matthew Brewer’s firsthand account of their militant coup discredits their claims of being a pacifist society."
"Scifes only seek the truth,” the lady persisted. “I can’t believe they’d destroy an historical document, if it truly is historical and not an imperialist fabrication."
"I don’t have time for this,” Mark said in frustration. "Why don't you little reprobates go burn the flag while you’re at it?" he scorned with his usual bravado.
Seeing they were not going to persuade him, the crowd parted, allowing Mark to reach the stairs. Before he could climb them, a lone voice decried, "Fascist!"
As Mark proceeded up the stairs, what felt like a stone smacked against the back of his head. He whipped around, and was hit again, but by no visible object. As a third blow hit him in the chest, he spotted a fat man in the crowd with a small force-ball gun. The forcefield bubbles felt as real as any physical object when they hit.
Mark stumbled back and drew his laser pistol. The pistol's presence temporarily halted the barrage of simulated stones.
"The next person who fires on me gets burned!" Mark shouted. "I am hereby placing you all under arrest for assault and rioting."
"Aw, Christ. He's a cop," someone in the crowd said.
"No, I'm a private investigator," Mark corrected calmly. "That doesn't mean I can't arrest you, though."
Another simulated stone was a single protestor's response. Apparently, he wasn't the rational type, seeing as how he intended to take down an armed man with a toy gun.
With a gentle squeeze of the trigger, Mark shot the attacker. The bright red beam from his laser flashed through the air and burned into the protestor's chubby hide in the blink of an eye.
As soon as the armed protestor fell, Mark shouted, "Freeze!" and held them in place with a penetrating glare.
Having their full attention, Mark fiddled with his weapon and shouted, "I'm setting my laser to broad array discharge. This is an old style, late twenty-first century laser, not a modern condensed energy discharger. It isn't equipped with modern safeties, so unless you want to tempt the reaper I suggest you wait for the local authorities to arrive."
None of the protestors moved, but irritable mumbles abounded, as they waited to be arrested.
Using his free hand on his cell phone, Mark dialed emergency and requested the Jupiter City police. He kept his comments brief, asking for immediate assistance and a sizeable vehicle to accommodate multiple suspects.
Ten minutes passed before the police van arrived with a pair of officers. One stayed with the vehicle while the other walked over toward Mark.
"I'm glad to see you finally arrived," Mark said, feeling a bit relieved.
"Yes, well, why don't you hand me the pistol and follow me back to the apprehension car peacefully. No one else has to get hurt today," the officer said.
"What are you talking about? Those are the people you're supposed to arrest," Mark said, pointing at the protestors with his free hand. "The little punks attacked me when I tried to get into the museum. As an organized mob, they’re indictable on various counts of civil misconduct and physical assault.”
“Sir, you should not have taken the law into your own hands,” the officer chided, glaring at the bleeding body of the fat protestor on the ground.
“I know my rights, and as a licensed criminal investigator this is part of my job. I'm Mark Preston O'Brien, officer identification #737-411. You can verify my identity through the New England Law Agency database."
"May I see your license?" the officer asked. Mark complied and the officer checked it over, rubbing his thick, brown mustache with his left hand. "You of course understand there will probably be civil charges filed against you. You may have been justified to defend yourself, but there was no need to hold the others here after the fact."
"I wasn’t about to let these troublemakers escape justice. It’s about time people started standing up for themselves," Mark said firmly.
The officer handed back Mark's license. "I'm just telling you what will probably happen. If you'll excuse me..." The officer turned away to assist his partner in controlling the crowd.
With the police officers in charge, Mark headed into the museum at last.