The Severing

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Might of Defiance. The Elise t’Hoot series (including this volume) will come out in the New Year, but you can get a sneak peak now.Enjoy!

As much as Marta wanted to explore Kuiper 3, her sponsor obligated her to supervise each load as robots hoisted and carried them over to the Franklin’s shuttle; both Cartier and Bloom were frightened stiff of the robots mishandling their precious equipment. To her initial dismay, there were no people, only the mechanical-looking robots. She quickly discovered the vital import of tagging each pallet completely and legibly, learning that the extra lines on the tags designated what storeroom or cabin it went to and details like ‘place on top’ and ‘store at -20 C’. She wanted to ride a load over to scope out Dr. Cartier’s storage area to better understand what kind of directions they needed and how much room she had to work with, but found it forbidden.

She annotated and verified the tags on the remaining equipment and went back to the waiting room where Dr. Cartier glared at her. She shrugged and hop-sailed carefully over in the very light grav, using the handholds as taught and taking care of her ankles and wrists.

Cartier wagged a finger at her, “You have missed both the crew transports! They’ve gone on ahead without looking back.”

“Alain, don’t chide the child, she only did the shepherd bit you assigned her,” Naomi reminded him, neglecting to note her own part in it. “Marta, dear, I do wish you had come back in time; they did send that second transport back but it timed out and scuttled away. This looks ominous.”

Marta looked at the downcast faces; even Thao looked more glum than usual. “I’ll go with you guys, there has to be enough room, right?”

They all turned at a noise on the left and boarded a tram that took them to a small auditorium or theatre with just enough stools arrayed in a semicircle around the screen. Each victim took a seat with care in the scant gravity, lifting his or her magnetic shoes gently with every step. “Hon, that’s not the point,” she replied, sniffling. “This dog and pony show is for us outcasts.”

Cartier gruffly told her, “Don’t get snot in the air!” He sniffled, red-eyed, chose a stool and slumped back slack into his depressed reverie.

Barto slumped onto a stool, lost in another mental place and didn’t seem to notice her presence, his hair uncharacteristically ruffled, mumbling what she thought might be a catechism; his fingers seemed to be counting invisible beads and his head bobbed with the rhythm of it.

Thao motioned her over and quietly murmured something about severance. Then he also drifted into his thoughts. She sat carefully on the stool between him and Barto and pulled the strap across her lap to hold herself down as the others had. At the click of the last strap buckle, all of the stools shot up a couple meters or more, getting everyone’s attention, ratcheting up the anxiety.

The door she’d entered through closed and the lights went out, leaving no reference point except the cold, high, hard stool she clutched. Marta’s heart thumped hard and unevenly; picking up the mood. Blinking to accustom her eyes to the darkness, she yearned to keen like an unanchored soul, a wretch cast aground on a treacherous reef, shivering; she missed the ministering touch of the absent Cedric. She uttered no sound, no moan nor whimper nor shriek. The word ‘severance’ richocheted around her skull.

Abruptly, the giant screen on the wall across from the stools lit up with a bald man magnified a hundred times. He scowled, pale as a ghost with inky black eyes and a grim red scar-like mouth, a Patriot Official according to the seal on the podium. He stared malevolently into each person’s eyes for a total of several minutes, wresting each of the exile’s awareness, and Marta’s.

He suddenly thundered, “Attention!” Before the reverberations subsided, he blared, “Two doors will appear and open before you.”

The voice suffused the room, inundating the matte black space, the bright light from the screen failing to illuminate the coal sack blackness around them. They had no visual clues to hang onto, no visual at all except the executioner himself.

“If you choose this door (the one on the left glowed for a second), your case will be reviewed.”

All eyes riveted to that door as the only alternative to the screen.

He went on relentlessly, “Choose this door only if there is a creditable reason for your plea. The penalty for error is death by expulsion.”

He let the thought of a body cast into space sink in.

“If you accept your lawful and just exile from Earth and the Solar System that contains it, choose this door (the right door glowed).

You have one minute to decide and act if you choose the review.”

One minute ticked away and Marta, dazed, tried to understand what he said and what it meant; at enough volume, words are difficult to distinguish. The left door opened to an inviting pale light.

“I’m not convicted of anything!” She quickly decided to use that left door and let them know she was in the wrong place. She released the restraining strap and leaned forward, forgetting her height. She drifted quickly toward the terrible screen. Barto grabbed her ankle. He arrested her momentum and held her there like a balloon until the door on the left closed.

He pulled her leg gently to get her moving toward the stool and held her down as the lights came up with a dull red glow and the stools dropped precipitously back to the floor. He stood holding her hand on his right and Naomi’s on his left. Naomi’s far hand grasped Alain’s. They all stood in grim anticipation and she had fallen in with them. So be it. Marta reached around and took Thao’s hand; he gripped it hard.

The guillotine-like, unforgiving voice resumed. “You have pleaded guilty to your crimes and acknowledged just punishment. Once through this door (it opened to blackness, a wan yellow frame defining it) you will have no further contact with any person on the face of the Earth, no breath of Earth’s breezes, no taste of her waters and shall not partake of her beauty or bounty except at the mercy of the countrymen you have despised.

“You shall not communicate in any way to the birthplace of mankind, nor will any bit of data reach you forever more except by mercy. You are cast away from the cradle of humanity and land of your forbearers. You shall never return.” He hit his podium with a gavel that banged like a steel drum dropped ten meters to a concrete floor, striking it three times, echoes overlapping. He continued to flare at them until the aural effects dissipated, then said in deep bone-chilling chords, “You shall never go home.”

A great sob broke out when the screen blipped out, from the way he jerked, Marta knew it was Barto. A ruddy near-darkness replaced the utter blackness, punctuated by a sallow glow of the right-hand doorframe.

Naomi yelled, “What a steamin’ pile of horseshit! This melodrama has not changed ONE SINGLE THING!” She made a mucous-sucking snort that started deep in her throat and fought its way up noisily. She spat the accumulated gobbet toward the screen and the gushy splat of it shook the mood, pulling them back from the ugly echoes. No one complained about contaminating the atmosphere.

Thao led the way to the horrid door. Angrily, Naomi pulled the listless and pushed Barto. Marta fell into step. Soon they all filed through the dark doorway. When Alain cleared the door, it clanged shut making everyone duck and cringe. Then pale yellow lights along the floor showed the passageway that led to the Franklin. They shuffled apart in silence.

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