Celestina’s shuttle made good time as it headed towards the Moran-Kathor Portal, through which she would travel to Zoranth. As with all of the portals, a vast metropolis had grown up around the portal. Her captain steered the shuttle to one of the large buildings on the outskirts of the city. It was a large hotel and entertainment complex complete with casinos, gaming centers, and experiential conclaves, which was nothing more than a fancy way of saying a place where you could experience illegal but tolerated things.
The shuttle docked on the shuttle bay situated on the top of the building. Celestina instructed her staff to wait for her, as none of them were invited to this private meeting. As expected, her head of security balked at the idea of her going into the hotel alone, but she commanded him and his staff to remain with the shuttle.
As she entered the large suite for her scheduled meeting, she was struck by the astounding views. Two of the walls were solid glass, with nothing at all covering them. The view of the city and its massive portal facility was incredible. However, the sightlines were partially obstructed by four massive men, dressed in all black, standing across one of the windows. Each armed with some type of weapon. All four remained motionless with stern faces revealing no emotion.
A smaller, leaner man sat on an oversized, stuffed sofa, smiling at her. He was dressed in light-colored, casual slacks, and a silk shirt, sporting a wild tropical design. He almost seemed out of place, with his attire and seemingly relaxed, casual attitude.
As she looked him up and down, he stood up. “Do you like my new look? I’m heading to the tropical region for a little business soon, and I’m trying to find the right look.”
She stared at him and then began walking into the room. She sat down on a chair and motioned him to sit back down too. She wasn’t frightened of him. She wasn’t frightened by anyone, but he was different. He was cunning and smooth, so incredibly smooth. Words slipped out of his mouth with such ease, but also with such thoughtful precision. Because she knew that he was a master manipulator, she remained cautious during the few times that they had met.
“You’ve never even tried it, have you?” the man asked with a charming smile.
She shook her head, ever so slightly back and forth.
“You haven’t even ever seen it, have you?” he asked, with his smile growing, but becoming more intense.
With her eyes locked on his, she reminded him, “We’re here to discuss our arrangement. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
With his smile relaxed, he set a small box with a hinged lid onto the table that sat in-between them. He slowly opened it, revealing several small, flat packages, each with a bump in its middle. She knew that the packages could be peeled open to reveal an adhesive strip.
“You’ve heard about it, my dear Chief Executive Minster, but are you brave enough to try it?” He set his eyes upon her, issuing a challenge to her character with the intensity of his stare.
“Doctor Z, I have no intention of ever trying rath. You can enjoy it yourself,” she responded coldly.
Chuckling, he admitted, “Opening the box is as close as I ever will get to it. It’s not that I’m a prude. I just know better than messing with what I’m distributing, especially one that straight-up kills one out of a hundred that want to enjoy it. We need to add that to our agenda, along with expanding the delivery mechanisms.”
She found no excitement in dealing with a man like this, but it was a necessary evil. The Ministry had its own security force, but it was far smaller than what she wanted. Eliminating two of the Ministers would significantly improve the Ministry’s financial state, but she wanted to build more than just a security force. She needed a military as powerful as any of the Eleven Corporations’ militaries and stronger than any single country’s military. To do this, she required vast sums of capital, and, more importantly, discretion in raising and spending it.
Tomar had given her the perfect way to do this. His Corporate military was experimenting with drugs to make its soldiers more effective. The goals were to find substances that could stimulate soldiers as quickly as possible, making them hyper-alert and giving them extra stamina.
Additionally, something was needed to counter the effects, bringing the soldiers back down from a heightened state as quickly as possible. Rath was a byproduct of that research. However, it turned out to be more of a recreational drug, was mildly addictive, and killed about one percent of those who tried it.
Tomar’s idea was genius. Rath was cheap to produce. Celestina had some black box discretionary funds to use. Nothing had to be declared or traced on the Ministry’s books. Tomar had his military begin producing large quantities of rath and then sold it to the Ministry. While it was black box on the Ministry side, he could show it as revenue, burying it deep in the books under names of other products. The Ministry, in turn, sold it to Doctor Z’s organization. It had turned into a huge cash cow for everyone involved.
“Ms. Minister, please let me put this very bluntly and openly. You came to me wanting a way to distribute a new drug, rath. My network is vast and extensive. You made a good decision. We are now in a position to greatly expand distribution, but I need a few things. We have to reduce or eliminate the deaths. And more importantly, we need to have other delivery mechanisms, like pills, liquids, and powders. Most importantly, we need more – much, much more. You are the only supplier, and, as long as I am your exclusive distribution channel, I can make rath flow like water.”
The meeting was taking an even better turn than she had expected. She was anticipating that Doctor Z would want to renegotiate prices, but he didn’t. He just wanted more. He was savvy, and he was making enormous profits. He knew when not to rock the boat. Doctor Z smiled in wait of her reply.
“My scientists are working on the random death aspect,” she partially lied. Scientists were working on it, just not hers. “It will take a little longer to develop other delivery mechanisms, but I promise that we will have more soon. Tell me, what do you think will sell best? Pills? Liquid? We could even make suppositories if you think people would enjoy shoving it up their asses.”
Doctor Z let out a huge, spontaneous laugh. “I love your style! Most people fear me, with good cause. But you and I, we see eye-to-eye. This partnership is going to be massively profitable for both of us. Ramp that production up. I’ll sell every single bit that you can provide.”
She was almost giddy as she headed back to her shuttle. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but she would soon have a massive military under the Ministry’s command. And if the next Ministry meeting went as planned, she would be in complete control of the Ministry, and, therefore, its military as well.
The Moran-Kathor Portal Complex was a monumentally vast complex of buildings and stations, spread over many square miles. The portal itself, like all portals, was only a four-foot diameter opening into a complex machine. If the portal was turned off, there was nothing but internal mechanisms to see. When it was turned on, the opening became a mesmerizing shade of blue. In many ways, it was as if you were looking into a deep, vast, clear place in the ocean. The surface shimmered, but you could see past the surface, into a depth that was impossible to describe.
As beautiful as a portal was to see, this was big business, and actually glimpsing a portal’s physical opening for more than a moment was a rarity. The massive building enclosing the portal was similar to a huge train station. Instead of trains of large train cars, there were trains of long cylindrical tubes. The tubes would be blasted through the portal, as quickly as possible, one after the other. After a few hundred or few thousand tubes went through one way, the direction reversed, and tubes came flying through from the other end of the portal.
The tubes themselves were set on an intricate series of rail-like guides. Over the centuries, hundreds of different tubes had been designed, each specific for what would be carried inside. The tubes glided in and out of the gigantic building that housed the portal. The enormous portal complex had a massive variety of shipping facilities and warehouses spread over many square miles. Tubes zoomed in and out of the portal building, heading to various other facilities in the complex. There were traditional train and trucking facilities that were continually loading and unloading tubes. Huge shuttle facilities and a large seaport enabled tubes to be moved to and from the facility by air and sea. The logistics were dauntingly phenomenal.
Of course, corporations wanted the portals to be larger than a four-foot diameter opening, but other size portals failed. Over time, corporations had maximized the volume of what moved through each portal. Immense quantities of goods of every type flowed through these portals, packed tightly inside the tubes. On the other end of this portal, in Zoranth, was a similar complex. Trade was good. Thousands upon thousands of companies benefited, and profits were always a good thing.
Like every other product, humans were also carried through the portals in tubes. When a portal is first set up, people can easily step or crawl through, until the infrastructure is in place to move the tubes on both sides.
Celestina departed her shuttle with her staff and security. Only part of them would be traveling through the portal, as she had staff and security on the other side. They headed into one of the tube stations. This particular station targeted those of significant financial means, as using these first-class tubes cost significantly more than using others. Of course, the security checkpoints were just as thorough, but the experience was more pleasant if such a thing can be said for being packed into something that looked like a rounded coffin.
A porter took their bags and escorted them into a large terminal. Row after row of tubes were lined up with walkways in between each. It was more akin to boarding a ride at an amusement park, than boarding a train or shuttle. For these more expensive tube rides, each passenger received a few more inches of tube length than his or her height. The lower portion of the tube was for whatever luggage a passenger had brought while the top section was for the passenger. To access the inside, the top of the tube opened like a hinged, rounded box. The padded, flat bed-like surface could be lifted to reveal the luggage area below.
After packing Celestina’s luggage into the lower part of the tube, the porter closed the padded, flat bed-like surface. He offered her a hand to assist her as she climbed into the rounded container. Like practically everyone who traveled via tube, she hated the experience. However, it was more than worth the expense to pay for this “first-class” treatment.
Other tube stations offered significantly fewer amenities. Passengers’ luggage would be pressure-packed in luggage tubes, often arriving hours or sometimes days after the passenger completed their journey. In those standard-class stations, passengers were sorted by size and packed to maximize the numbers of people into the very tight spaces of the tubes. Of course, each person had his or her own space, but some cylindrical containers were configured to stack three or even four skinny people together.
She sat on the bed surface, watching the activity around her. It was constant activity, but because of the price she paid, it was pampered, continuous activity. An employee with a large pushcart came down the walkway, stopping at each tube. When she stopped in front of where Celestina was sitting, the employee, smiling, greeted her very cheerfully.
“My esteemed Chief Executive Minster, it is an honor to have you traveling with us again,” the employee began.
“Thank you. I wouldn’t travel to Zoranth any other way,” replied Celestina.
“You are very kind. May I offer you a cocktail while you wait?”
“No thank you. It’s nerve-racking enough to be closed into this tube, without adding anything to my bladder.”
The employee, smiling a broad, knowing smile. “I completely understand. Please allow me to review the safety information and your options.”
She reviewed with Celestina how to lie within the tube and close the hatch if she didn’t want to wait for it to automatically close. Then she confirmed that Celestina was correctly positioned in the tube for the actual ride through the portal itself. She pointed out that on the hinged side of the tube there was a handrest with a single button. If at any time, after the tube was closed, Celestina should experience any significant claustrophobia or panic attack, simply pushing the button would release an aerosol sedative near her head. One breath and she would sleep like a baby until the tube was opened in Zoranth. Speaking or yelling the word “help” would also release the sedative.
The temptation was always huge to push that button, but Celestina hated being out of control, and a sedative would do just that. She watched as the hatches on nearby tubes began to close. In the distance, she heard a man yell, “I fucking hate that!” She correctly assumed it was someone arriving into the station from Zoranth.
A voice from a speaker inside her tube told her they would be departing soon. She was instructed to lie down, and the safety procedures were repeated again. The bed was padded enough to be comfortable, but not enough to ease the tension Celestina felt as the door closed. A dim light went on inside her tube, but a terrible sensation of entrapment began seeping into her mind. The voice came on again, asking if she would like to listen to any music. While she could have picked any type of music, musician, or even relaxing sounds, she declined. Closing her eyes, she made a mental note to someday find out why no one had ever thought to put windows in these horrid canisters.
The tube left the station, quickly accelerated on its way to the building that housed the portal itself, and then slowed as it entered the building. While the ride was smooth, she could still feel the tube being transferred between the rail-like guides and being coupled to other tubes.
A few moments later, the voice piped in again, “Please prepare for safety enclosure and portal transport.” Celestina’s body clenched up as the inside of the tube began to shrink. A soft, pliable material swelled out from the walls of the tube, formfitting and pressing against everything but her face. It was like being encased in some type of foam. She could press against the material, and it would give way, but the harder she pushed on it, the less that it gave. It was designed as a shock absorber for the rapid acceleration on this side of the portal and the fast braking on the other side of the portal.
Then it began. A quick tug, as the tube began to move, followed by an explosion of speed. While the ride itself was only a matter of seconds, the experience of traveling through a portal was different than anything else in the universe. The sensation of rapid acceleration is suddenly replaced by an eerie feeling of absolute calm. It is like floating, weightless in a vast ocean of tingling sensations. Time itself feels almost indefinable like you have always existed, yet never been real. A wave of relaxation sweeps across your being, only to be replaced by a nearly indescribable feeling of suction. It is like you are the very last bit of a milkshake at the bottom of a glass that is violently sucked through a straw. Your body feels completely atomized and pulled through a tiny opening. Then, almost as if it had never happened, you feel the tube quickly decelerating.
About eight minutes later, Celestina’s tube door opened, and she quickly climbed out. She managed to refrain from screaming what the man on the Koranth side of the portal had yelled, but she was close. Like most, she hated the experience of portal travel. Employees were moving quickly up and down the walkways, carrying trays of shot glasses, like restaurant servers. As one came close, she grabbed one of the glasses and threw back her head to quickly swallow. The liquid burned slightly as it went down her throat, but within a minute she felt her heart rate slowing and breathing returning to normal.
Within an hour, she had cleared through security, customs, and the standard biological scans. Her shuttle was waiting and departed for the city of Dorando, the home city of Scharbigot Canchorus, one of the two Zoranth-based Ministers. Their relationship had been somewhat adversarial, but that was about to change. While she planned to be on Zoranth for over a month, the meeting with Scharbigot was extremely time-sensitive.
Scharbigot Canchorus’ office was a rather plain affair, situated on the eighteen floor of a reasonably nice, but affordable building in Dorando. This was to be expected. The religion that Scharbigot followed was a conservative one of self-restraint, hard work, and modesty. He had risen to power partially based on his popularity with those of his own faith, and those of similar faiths. He was viewed as a dedicated family man and an advocate for the average citizen. In Celestina’s mind, this would be one delicious meeting.
Scharbigot came across his office to greet her as she walked through the door. He was cordial, but weary, as he thought of her as nothing more than a crafty snake. He gestured to a set of comfortable chairs and moved towards them. Once they were seated, and appropriate beverages served, he began to talk about some of the Ministry’s business, but she interrupted him.
“Minister Canchorus, I have some information of a personal nature that I need to share with you. You will want to turn off any recording or monitoring devices,” she stated bluntly.
He looked perplexed, but tapped a few places on a nearby table, and replied, “Okay, please continue.”
She held her face completely emotionless, making sure she didn’t smile. “I am sorry to bring you this news, but your son is being held at the Purostinov Justice Processing Center. His execution is scheduled for tomorrow.”
For a moment, he hesitated. A look of shock swept across his face but was quickly replaced with a false calm demeanor. “This is impossible. I had breakfast with my son this morning. He is here on Zoranth, not on Koranth. You must be mistaken.”
A sinister smile crept across her face, as she pushed and swiped a device that was strapped to her wrist like a watch. A three-dimensional, holographic image of the head of a young man sprang up above the device. “No, not your legitimate son here on Zoranth, but this one.”
Shock spread across his face again, and for a moment he thought that his heart stopped beating. The image that was displayed was indeed one of his sons. It just happened to be from another family, a secret family. His religion was entirely opposed to more than one wife, as were the laws in practically every country on both planets. He closed his eyes, knowing that he was trapped and realizing that something terrible must have happened to his son.
“Your son attacked another man in a nightclub, and the other man died of his wounds. Your son is scheduled for execution tomorrow,” Celestina explained.
While many would have condemned him for having two wives, he loved them both and loved all of his children. This was devastating news. He was a man of power and influence. Perhaps he could use this to change the situation and save his son. Of course, this would mean that his wives would find out about one another, along with the entire world. The media frenzy would be brutal. He would certainly lose his position as Minister, and his reputation would be destroyed. His mind kicked into overdrive, trying to figure out how to deal with everything that was flooding into it all at once.
Celestina let everything soak in for a few moments and then authoritatively offered, “There is a simple way to save your son, your marriages, your position, and your reputation.”
“I doubt that. He only has one day.” Scharbigot paused for a moment, letting out a deep sigh, “What can be done?”
She explained, “It is very simple. One of the board members of Purostinov owes me a very, very big favor. I can have your son’s execution delayed indefinitely. Perhaps, we could even have him transferred to a decent facility for containment.”
Scharbigot closed his eyes for a moment, realizing there was absolutely nothing he could do, but trust that Celestina could help. “Please, I’ll do anything to save my son. What do you want?”
The sinister smile left Celestina’s face, replaced by one of resolute determination and an absolute coldness that sent a shiver down Scharbigot’s spine. “You’ll receive two proposals that I will present at the next meeting of the Ministry. You will wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support these proposals, along with any other proposals that I present in the future.”
He understood what just happened. She offered him the life of his son, along with the ability to keep his life from exploding all around him. The cost was straightforward – he would have to become her pawn.
“My dear Lady Chief Executive Minister,” he let out in a long sigh, “you appear to have my soul in your hands, and, with it, my vote.”
• • •
|Chapter 8||Chapter 10|