Written by Piper Wells
“The Council has made their judgment,” said Shaun Coyle, chairman of the Universal Council. The murmuring of a hundred spectators rose in the tension-filled courtroom. Chairman Coyle, a short, cocky man with a shaved head and thick goatee raised a hand to quiet the crowd before he continued.
“Isabelle Keiralee, in light of the evidence and supportive testimony, we have concluded that you are guilty of first degree murder. The guards will escort you to Zone twenty-three for sentencing.”
Gasps and shouts echoed around the expansive circular room. One woman fainted — Isabelle’s mother. One of the lawyers caught her around the middle before she faceplanted on the black stone floor.
The nine members of the Universal Council quietly rose in unison. The bullet-proof and infrasound-proof glass wall that separated the citizens in the courtroom from the judges of the council faded to solid red.
Ambassador Eldon Keiralee, Isabelle’s father, rushed up to her from behind the team of lawyers who failed to save his daughter. He wrapped his arms around her as if he were trying to keep her from floating away.
Isabelle trembled in his tight embrace. “Papa, no. Help me, please!”
He pulled back and looked down into her emerald-green eyes. The hope had drained from his face. At any moment officers from the Commission of the Void would tear her from his arms, place her in a tomb, and jettison her into open space for stabbing a nine-year-old boy to death — a crime she didn’t commit.
Her older brother, Ziel, who was usually a great source of comfort to her, was absent from the proceedings. His detailed account of how they had gone to see the symphonic group Tragic then to the Stratus Lounge would have cleared her of the charges. Two days after he made his statement, he went missing. His statement had been mysteriously removed from her file in the database. Since there was no paper trail to follow, because paper products had been outlawed seventy years earlier, she had no alibi. Shortly after that, they found Ziel decapitated, posed with his head resting in his lap.
Her father had struggled for years to clean out the corruption that infected almost every seat in the Universal Council and in most world government departments. He lost that battle to the tyranny of the majority.
One of the councilors stepped into the courtroom. Councilor Patrice Baron, an older woman Isabelle had known since she was a little girl. They had assumed they could count on her to advocate for Isabelle. She spoke to a COV administrator near the exit. Isabelle’s father released Isabelle and ran past her team of lawyers to catch up to the one friend he had left on the council. Tears poured down Isabelle’s cheeks as she watched her father beg for mercy on her behalf.
“Patrice, please,” Ambassador Keiralee said. “You know this verdict is unjust. You know Isabelle is innocent! You have known my family for years.” He grabbed the sleeve of her robe. “You could right this. I have already lost my son. My wife, she’s —” He stared hard at her with pleading eyes.
“Eldon, I can’t,” Councilor Baron said. “I am in the minority here. I defended her. I did what I could, I assure you.”
He released her sleeve. “You’ve had a hand in destroying a good family and assisting this system in growing even darker and more nefarious. That was the council’s plan? To ruin me.”
She did not respond.
“I have worked to hold onto my belief in the greatness of mankind and the last of that hope has just twisted from my grip.”
As he turned away from Councilor Baron to rejoin his family, two muscular men from the COV, dressed in dark red uniforms, seized Isabelle. Aracellis Keiralee, Isabelle’s mother, now conscious, snatched a fistful of Isabelle’s shirt and held on tight.
“Don’t take my baby!”
“Mom!” Isabelle fought the guard’s grip on her arms. “Papa!” She pressed her feet into the floor to slow down her progress but her soles slid along the polished tile making their own squeaks of protest.
Another guard stepped up and wrenched Isabelle’s shirt from her grip. Aracellis began pleading with anyone who would listen.
“Please, she’s my baby!” She grabbed the jacket of a young lawyer on their team as he was leaving. “Marcus? Marcus, stop them, please.”
He shrugged her off and shook his head. “It’s too bad it went this way, Mrs. Keiralee. The evidence —”
Ambassador Keiralee ran to his distraught wife and held her up against him as he followed Isabelle to the Zone twenty-three for her sentencing. They would have preferred death for her rather than what was coming. They did not have much time left if they wished to plead their daughter’s case.
The Universal Council had created the Commission of the Void because of those who had committed heinous crimes. The world’s population had grown so massive, the judicial system decided to get creative with those “less worthy of taking up precious space.” So, space it was.
If the UC found you guilty of murder, rape, incest, arson, or even causing someone irreparable mental damage, the COV would seal you in a cylindrical tomb-craft, induce cryosleep, then launch you into outer space.
Since people had acknowledged the connection of the soul to the body, they believed the soul was aware what happened to it. Never allowing the soul to cross over and go home, in their minds, was true punishment. Death would be merciful. Unless an outside force acted upon the capsule, it would remain in flight with the person trapped inside it, alive.
The buzzing of the bright lights in her cell set Isabelle’s nerves on edge more than they already were. The concrete slab jetting out of the wall chilled her backside. She supposed the slab was intended to be used as a bed. As if anyone in these cells could relax due to the intense light, chilled air, and, of course, impending doom. She knew her father would do everything in his power to save her, but no one stayed in a holding cell more than an hour. Justice was swift.
With any luck, the craft might crash into an asteroid or burn up in a white-hot cloud of gas. However, the COV always aimed for empty space.
Isabelle had never ventured out into space which was like saying she’d never driven a car. She studied space travel because it was required at the university, plus she loved science, but something about outer space frightened her. Fragile bodies shouldn’t play in a territory obviously not made for human habitation. The energy fields protecting the space ships were still not strong enough to withstand an onslaught of space debris or asteroid fields.
What really bothered her about it was the thought of not being able to breathe if something went wrong. In space, breathing without assistance from machines was impossible. If the machines malfunctioned, a horrific death followed.
And now Isabelle was going to be “canned,” as the guards called it, and launched into her worst nightmare. Sitting on the cold slab in her uncomfortably tight white cryosuit, Isabelle hoped if there wouldn’t be justice there would be a glitch with her craft. Unfortunately for her, they worked efficiently. Moreover, with the invention of Algidus Vitae, the additive used to prevent cell crystallization in the body during the cryosleep process, people would survive the freezing stage.
Isabelle didn’t fight the two doctors readying her for her flight into the void. She stood quietly in the large assembly chamber filled with more than a hundred other condemned people, as they hooked little blue tubes to her cryosuit and wrapped the silver mesh headgear over her head and neck. They slid tight-fitting silver bands onto her ankles and wrists. She looked around the room for her parents as the staff tugged on her suit, making final adjustments. Would they at least allow her to say goodbye?
Neither of her two college friends showed up to support her during the trial so they would not be here for her at the end. The trial had been scandalous; due to the vicious nature of the crime, no one she knew wanted to be within a fifty-mile radius of Isabelle.
She felt like that was the case in general most of her life, even before the trial. Isabelle had been a chubby geek growing up. She had a pretty face — poreless skin, long thick lashes, a cute nose, and long naturally wavy dark hair. In 2078, the perfection of Aesthetic -Genetics meant no one need be born with physical flaws or a predisposition to disease. It was one of the reasons for the major population increase.
But Isabelle’s parents wanted all-natural children. No tampering. The choice was difficult for them. Their children may not fit in if they had a learning disability or they developed psoriasis, but they weighed the risks against more serious issues. It was proven that one in two-hundred thousand babies who had been engineered was born with strange defects, like not being able to feel any physical sensations. One baby on record was born with no blinking reflex.
Isabelle’s brother had to work harder than other boys his age, but grew into a fine-looking athlete. Unfortunately, Isabelle didn’t hit the DNA jackpot and most people considered her, ironically, to be a “freak of nature.” Teenage boys at school barked at her because she was chubby. On the morning of her 7th grade finals, five of the most popular girls in school, held her down and cut off all of her beautiful hair. Her parents immediately enrolled her in the expensive academy for gifted children, where she met several “freaks” like herself. She kept her mind off her doomed-to-be-lonely life by staying focused on studies and extra curriculars like piano and voice lessons.
But most of her attention was spent on Kyudo, the ancient art of Japanese archery. It took her sensei a year to get her in sync with the Zen discipline. She just wanted to shoot targets. Her sensei often said, sometimes shouting it at her in Japanese: “You cannot master Kyudo without mastering yourself.” Eventually she began to catch on, and when she finally disciplined her mind, she and her longbow were one.
Her brother’s friends liked to hang with her when they came over to visit the Keiralee Estate because she was funny and often indulged their, “I betcha can’t hit that with an arrow” challenges. Though they would whoop and cheer when she practiced, none of them bothered to flirt with her. They generally treated her like one of the guys. By staying focused on her training, she stayed convinced she didn’t have time for young men anyway.
But worst of all for Isabelle, the prosecution planted the idea that since she looked the way she did — “lumpy,” the lawyer had stated — she was probably an angry young woman who resented being so different and was, therefore, capable of lashing out. Capable of murder. It was twisted, but the Universal Council allowed the remark to stand as evidence. Why they bothered with a trial at all baffled Isabelle. It would have been quicker and less painful had the UC just lined the whole family up in front of a firing squad.
A few more diagnostic checks and they would direct her to lie in her tomb-craft. She self-consciously tugged on her cryosuit. It was at least two sizes too small.
She focused on the prep doctor examining her tubing. “I didn’t kill that little boy. The COV is sending an innocent person into space.”
He didn’t stop his examinations. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
She blinked in surprise. “You’re fine with this?”
He looked at her, but didn’t speak.
“Isabelle Keiralee?” A woman shouted across the massive room where over a hundred other men and women endured the tedious process of their judgments. How many of these people were innocent?
One of Isabelle’s prep doctors raised his hand and waved. Isabelle turned to look. Her mother Aracellis, a half-Persian beauty, ran up and embraced her tightly. The doctor sighed loudly.
“Oh, Mom!” she cried. All her words ran together. “I’m so happy to see you! Where’s Papa? Is he coming? Can he help me?”
“Your father is making a deal,” she whispered in Isabelle’s ear. “It was the last option. It’s going to be okay.”
“Oh, thank you.” Tears ran down her cheeks. She hugged her mother even tighter. As corrupt as the system had become, bribing was always an option.
“Yeah-yeah,” the doctor said. “I’m not done with her yet.”
“She is to be released,” Aracellis said.
“Until I hear it from someone in authority, I shall continue my work.” He nudged her out of the way and continued to fiddle with something on Isabelle’s headgear.
Councilor Baron rushed up to Isabelle and her mother, her eyes wide in panic. “It’s Eldon. Chairman Coyle had him arrested for bribing a COV-exec!”
“What?” Isabelle and her mother shouted in unison.
Aracellis squeezed Isabelle’s hands in hers. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix this. Don’t worry, baby!” She ran towards the exit and out of sight.
Councilor Baron grabbed Isabelle and pulled her in for what would be her last hug on Earth. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t strong enough to fight them. Please forgive me.” She turned on her heel and zig-zagged her way through the rows and rows of condemned people, then she, too, disappeared.
Isabelle looked around the room. Everyone was staring at her. Some were sad. Some were nonplussed. Some were amused.
She wiped her tears with the back of her gloved hand. “Did that just happen?” she asked the doctor. He ignored her.
There is no despair like staring into a red coffin with your name on it. Isabelle’s feeling of helplessness overpowered her; the room swayed and her vision blurred and grayed. She leaned against the nearest table, which was covered in test equipment.
“Do you need help getting in?” A pretty young woman in red scrubs gestured to the tomb-craft as if Isabelle were getting on a carousel for a quick spin. When she reached for Isabelle’s arm, Isabelle swatted her hand away.
The elliptical tomb-craft, padded and lined with red velvet, looked comfortable. The lid hovered above the base, awaiting the command to descend and seal her fate.
“Does it hurt? I’ll just go to sleep, right?” Isabelle asked as she stared at the serial number on the side of the tomb-craft. She was convict 5112500. Over five million people were drifting through space like discarded trash.
“Yes. There’s a tiny sting as the needles in the cuffs inject, but the tranquilizer doesn’t hurt. You’ll be out in seconds.”
Isabelle examined the snug cuffs on her wrists. “I’m sorry I hit you.”
“It’s fine. Will you please get in now? The ship must depart on time.”
Isabelle pulled at the taut cryosuit fabric cutting in around her waist. She lowered her bottom into the craft then pulled her legs up and over the side. Her hips were crushed in, thanks to a craft made for perfect people. She scooted her butt down, with some difficulty, to make room for her head. Although accustomed to the humiliation of being overweight in a society that found the condition to be a disgusting deformity, she discovered in that moment that she would rather be a fat outcast than trapped in a tomb.
The young woman placed a cold hand on the back of Isabelle’s neck and used her other hand to guide her into a supine position. A sob burst out of Isabelle’s mouth. She held onto the sides of the craft and tried to sit up.
“No, miss. It’s time to go.”
Isabelle pursed her lips together to contain anymore sounds of grief. Tears streamed down her face as she lay back against the soft velvet.
The woman remained aloof as she typed on a touch screen. The tomb-craft hissed to life with a tiny vibration. She hooked more wires and tubes from the craft to Isabelle’s cryosuit and headgear, then placed a silver oxygen mask over Isabelle’s nose and mouth. Before she lowered the top half of the craft, Isabelle pulled the mask aside and said, “Please. Tell my parents I love them — and I’m okay.”
“I can’t. Sorry.” She pushed the mask back over Isabelle’s mouth then raised her hand to the touch screen. The craft’s lid descended on Isabelle. She lay quiet, focusing on all the good she had experienced in her life. She focused on her brother’s face — her counterpart and protector.
The light around her faded to blackness. The vibration of the tomb-craft and her steady breathing were the only sounds she could hear. She hummed to herself for comfort, but only got a few bars in before her ankles and wrists burned bright.
The wind whistled a tinny, desperate melody as it cut past a fracture in the hull. A beam of sunlight warmed the side of Isabelle’s face. After a few drowsy blinks, her eyes found the source of the light and the warbling. A deep slash extended down the side of her craft lid. Whatever made it had burned through the layers of metal and insulation. Tall, thick blades of dark green grass waved in and out of view.
With her palms pressed against the cushioned velvet only inches from her nose, she slid the lid of her tomb-craft away from the base a few inches. She jerked her head to the side and squeezed her eyes shut. The explosion of light felt like a bolt of lightning shooting from her eye sockets to the back of her skull. What appeared to be a large Rorschach test floated behind her lids. She pressed her fingers against her eyelids until the throbbing stopped.
The breeze picked up and the tall grass whipped against the craft like waves against a docked boat. Unless she was having a vivid dream in cryosleep, she and her craft had not made it off of Earth. Someone came through for her after all. Perhaps Councilor Baron recruited an anti-COV group to intercept the craft and redirect it to Canada or the Scandinavian countries. These countries were firmly Anti-COV and harbored what they called Strays for a steep price, which her mother would gladly sell the Keiralee Estate to pay for. Isabelle would be able to see her mother and hopefully her father again. They could reside in Canada, in a little house on a hill. Live happily ever after.
She lowered her hands away from her face and slowly opened her eyes against the fissure of sunlight, allowing herself time to adjust to it. She reached up, grabbed the exposed rim of the lid, and gave it a firm shove to the side. The top half slid off then tipped over on its back into the grass with a soft thud. She grabbed the sides of the tomb-craft and pulled herself to a seated position. She sucked in a deep breath of the late afternoon air through her nose. It was pure and smelled of wildflowers. There were few countries left on Earth that could claim it had clean air. Canada was one of them.
Clouds drifted by overhead. One morphed briefly into the shape of a moose head. She clasped her hands together and stretched her arms above her. Tall grass blocked her view of the horizon. She twisted carefully side to side to work her back muscles. Then she pulled her knees up so she could stand and get her bearings.
Something was off. She grimaced in confusion as she stared at her legs. An alarm went off in her head. Her knees and thighs had always been padded with dimpled fat. But now the fat was gone. Her cryosuit hung on her legs like a pair of clown pants. Panic-stricken about the sudden transformations in her body, she stood up in haste, ignoring the ache in her back. What had they done to her? She had to be dreaming.
She stepped out of the coffin, planted her feet on the ground, and gasped down at her figure. Her once too-tight cryosuit fit poorly. She looked like a four-year-old wearing her mother’s clothing. The legs of the suit hung so loosely, the hems draped over the top of her slippered feet. She gathered the extra cloth around her abdomen. Once she had it pulled taut at her waistline, she saw most of her weight had somehow vanished from her body. She was half her usual size.
When she looked back over her shoulder and saw her bottom, she paused in reverence. Her jaw fell slack. This could not be her butt. It was a ballerina butt. As if she might be staring at a mirage, she reached down and poked one cheek with her index finger. It shimmied briefly.
She felt both like she might throw up and pass out. Her pulse raced and breathing quickened. Her head felt as light as a cloud. She knew there wasn’t a science in the world that lowered the body mass index in a matter of hours. She bent at the waist and put her hands on her knees, taking in slow deep breaths. The tall grass tickled her chin and nose.
She understood it was more pressing at this time she find out how to get home rather than why she was sixty pounds lighter. After a few cleansing breaths, she straightened. She tugged her baggy sleeves up past her elbows and raked her long hair back out of her eyes. Shouldn’t someone be there to greet her upon landing? She placed her hand on her now smaller hips and turned around to find any sign of hope.
“Okay, where the hell am I?” she said to the open field.
The field answered. Four massive furry gray heads and one larger white one, floated into view above the tall grass. Five sets of spherical blue eyes larger than basketballs stared at her.
As if that weren’t staggering enough, behind the creatures hung three full moons just touching the horizon. They were distinct even in the daylight. One glowed the yellow-green like an old-fashioned night-light. The second, the smallest of the three, and hanging slightly above the yellow-green one, shone bright blue. The third moon was imperious with an unfriendly jagged red-and-black face. Deep gouges pulled long shadows across its surface. It seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it and it appeared large enough to hold several Earths within it. Part of the side appeared to have been blown away.
Almost catatonic with disbelief, she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then reopened them. She repeated it. The moons floating before her remained as they were. An imposition to her senses. Her breathing turned to panting and her gut clenched in panic. She was not on Earth.
Isabelle took several hasty steps backward, tripped over the lip of the craft, and fell hard on her back into the grass. Her mind spun in a whirlwind. She covered her heart with one hand over the other. Her heart hurt from both its heavy labor and the fact she would never see her mother again, after her certainty a moment ago that she would. Tears rolled past her temples.
The deep percussive thuds of a large creature stomped her way. The ground vibrated beneath her. A spike of adrenaline stabbed her chest. One of those things was coming to inspect her. Probably to eat her. Its head was triangular like a praying mantis. On Earth, mantises are carnivores. As she rolled over onto her side and made ready to stand and run, she was suddenly cloaked in shadow. She looked up. Way up.
Looming over her was a giant furry almost-glowing-white, praying mantis. She scuttled backward on all fours like a crab, cutting through the grass. She smacked against something and dropped onto her ballerina bottom. Above her was another furry mantis. One of the gray ones. It was a little smaller, but no less frightening. She leaned away and pulled her shoulders up to her ears as it lowered its triangular head, opened its pointed mouth, and let out a soft “Meee.”
She jerked her head back in surprise. Its voice sounded too sweet to belong to it. Lions roar. Wolves growl. But its whine sounded like a bored housecat. It tromped forward closer to her, its four back legs making a low whump-whump as it did. It tilted its massive head from side to side in apparent curiosity. Its giant blue orbs with their little black-dot pupils twitched around as they checked her out. When the eyes blinked, they revealed top and bottom lids that closed at the center. It let out another tiny “meee” at her, then snorted out its V-shaped slit of a nostril. It was the size of an SUV.
“Um…” she squeaked out. She pulled her legs up to her chest, hugged her arms tightly around herself, and tucked her head down. A sob escaped her. Any second, she thought, this thing was gonna wrap its mouth over her face and suck it right off her skull. She sat frozen, white-knuckling her arms to the point of pain.
Nothing seemed to happen for a few long moments. Grass rustled behind her. She chanced a peek under her arm. The gray one was minding its own business, digging in the earth. She cut her eyes to the white one. It had turned its side to her. She slowly unfurled her body.
Looking at it full on, it was built like a praying mantis, though it was obviously mammal. It was muscular and covered in silky-looking white fur. There were no palps around its wide mouth. No antennae or simple eyes on the head. And no wings that she could tell. At the end of its hefty front “praying” legs extended a sharp black claw longer than Isabelle’s arm. She looked back at the other mantis creature behind her. Except for being gray and smaller, it was identical. Using its giant claws, it cut a gash into the earth as easily as slicing butter, then bent down and caught something pink and slimy with its mouth.
They had the option of a juicy human, but chose fresh insects instead. She released a loud sigh and relaxed her arms beside her. Knowing that some animals sense the energy of a person and react accordingly, she remained calm, keeping her breathing steady. She kept her movements slow and deliberate as she pulled her knees up and rocked forward onto her feet. They ignored her, so she stood. A choppy breeze cut past her. The tips of the thick grass and purple flowers tickled her arms.
Was this Planet of the Mantis? Or did humans occupy the land as well? If there were humans, where were they in their development? Her mind raced to the most disturbing possibilities based on Earth’s history: the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Cannibal Confederation of 2207.
Across the sea of dark green grass, she spotted the other three gray mantis creatures grazing together. She wiped her dewy forehead with her sleeve.
“Thank you for not eating me,” she said to the white mantis. It rotated its body away from her, pushing the grass over with its long backside. It dug its heavy claw into the ground, and to Isabelle’s slight bemusement, shoveled fresh dirt up under its body and onto her.
“What the — ?” All the gray mantis creatures’ heads shot up out of the tall grass to look at her, twitching their bulbous eyes. The white one, who was peering over its shoulder at her, dug a claw in once more, then after a couple of demure blinks of its large eyes, threw more dirt on her. She tried to duck out of the way, but wasn’t fast enough. Some hit her in the face.
“Mm, nice.” She spit a small clump of dirt out of her mouth then used the back of her hand to wipe off her tongue. “You did that on purpose. Stop please.” It blinked once more and went back to the chore in front of it. She had made a friendly acquaintance. Somewhat friendly anyway. Sure, it was a giant furry praying mantis, but she’d take it.
A smile stretched across her face. She suddenly felt like she was back on the estate scolding her pet raccoon Jude. Every minute of his day was devoted to mischief, like jumping in her bath with her, stealing her food, or pouncing on the piano keys as she practiced.
As she leaned over and wiped the dirt from her ill-fitting cryosuit, she realized for the first time that there were no tubes snaking through it anymore. Then it occurred to her she didn’t have to unplug herself from the vessel either.
The odds were slim she would land on a planet at all, much less one she could breathe on. In all of Earth’s space exploration, no one had found an inhabitable planet. At least not one where you could drop down and set up shop straight away. Oxygen was always in short supply or nil on planets they had come across. Someone or some people must have placed her here. Which raised yet more questions: How long had she been in cryogenesis? How long had she been out of it? She had no memory of what happened between lying in the tomb-craft at the COV and waking up here.
Pushing through the grass, she reached her vessel and knelt down beside it. She grazed her hand along the deeply scratched and pitted surface. Its red color had faded to a dull gray-pink. The words “Property of the Commission of the Void, United States Division — Convict 5112500” had been scarred and worn almost beyond readability. The words “Void, United States” had a gouge scraped into it. She leaned forward and placed her fist into a large dent made by God knows what. The vessel looked ancient. She peered inside. The tubes, mask, cuffs, and headgear — the things that kept her alive and asleep — were missing. The red velvet cushioning was crushed and matted in the shape of her body. Her chubby body.
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