Prose Header

Mad World Band

by Danielle L. Parker

Table of Contents
Chapter 8 and Chapter 9
appeared in issue 196.
Chapter 10

“Mad World Band” is the name of planet MWB-11 — an alternate Earth. It is wracked by war between two large power blocs that are on the verge of discovering the means of travel to extrasolar planets as well as to other alternate Earths such as Soltri.

Soltri has already experienced the nuclear catastrophe that threatens MWB-11. The Soltrians also know that MWB-11’s space explorations may well provoke fiercely hostile aliens that have already destroyed one alternate Earth.

The Soltrian agent, Dorn, must warn MWB-11 about the aliens while at the same time protecting Soltri from the warring parties of the “Mad World Band.”

Dr. Emory Black was exhausted. The sight of his own haggard face in the reflection of the one-way glass he faced was shocking enough that he would have turned away from it, if he had felt less numb at this moment. But so much had happened to him in these last few days that even that suddenly aged stranger could not disturb him much, although he wondered a little remotely how the white streak showing in his parted hair had managed to broaden so visibly in just forty-eight hours.

One of the medics had given him a cup of coffee, and he took that up in fingers that shook enough to splash the lukewarm liquid over its rim. He did not mistake their action as kindness. The doctors who had seen him in the last few hours wore Union Army uniforms, and these days, no one was foolish enough to think those persons merciful. Dr. Black was at least glad his scientific training made him valuable enough he would not be considered a candidate for the neurological re-programming that was likely the chief duty of those cold-eyed officers.

But they intended him to be in some kind of coherent mental condition for the visitor he expected any minute now, and Emory Black, sipping the bitter and oily brew, was doing his best to strengthen himself for that meeting. He did not deny he was afraid. That emotion lay beneath his shock and exhaustion like the sick smell of rot, and even the coffee was not helping.

He got to his feet as the door opened in front of him. He half-expected the general to enter accompanied by an escort, but General Mark Harnell, stepping quietly inside the room, was alone. The lanky officer was taller than he appeared on the news broadcasts, although the narrow, sharp features and pale, unblinking gaze were familiar.

“Sit down, Dr. Black.” The hand that grasped his was business-like and slightly cold. Dr. Black, realizing his own limper handshake was revealingly clammy, obeyed. “Understand you’ve been through a lot.” The general lowered his body into the room’s other chair, ignoring the rip in the seat cushion. “I’m afraid I have some urgent questions for you that can’t wait.”

Emory Black said hoarsely, “I understand. I’d like to know the status of the base first, sir, if you don’t mind.” He swallowed visibly. “And... and of my fellow scientists.”

“You are the only senior scientist who survived the ambush,” the general replied unemotionally. “Dr. Swenson was evacuated and is suffering from severe radiation poisoning. Two of your graduate students are missing. The base was completely destroyed with the loss of seventy-eight Union lives. There is nothing left of Operation New Frontier at this moment except,” he looked at the scientist opposite him with coldly speculative eyes, “what is in your head and the heads of those missing students.”

The general waited until the man in front of him was more composed, though Dr. Black’s hands shook visibly on the arms of his seat even as his visitor continued. “Dr. Michael Breckinridge and his wife are dead,” the general said. “That is unfortunate, especially since I would have liked to question Dr. Breckinridge personally. Are you aware of anything that might have caused Michael Breckinridge to deliberately delay completion of his portion of the project, Dr. Black?”

Emory Black was dimly surprised he could still register shock. He said in open bewilderment, “I... I can’t believe that, General Harnell. Michael Breckinridge was as dedicated and hard-working a scientist as I have ever worked with.” He studied the deliberately unrevealing face opposite him with a harder gaze. “What exactly are you implying, sir?”

“I don’t know yet. I understand you authorized a recent exit request Mrs. Breckinridge submitted with regard to their daughter. The child did not, however, reach her grandmother. She disappeared en route. There may be a connection with Dr. Breckinridge’s behavior.” The general seemed unmoved by his newly hostile scrutiny. “His body was successfully evacuated; Mrs. Breckinridge’s remains could not be saved. The medics are trying to reconstruct his memories, but since his brain had already suffered significant degradation, I doubt their efforts will be successful.”

He paused. “I’d like to ask you about those two graduate students now, Dr. Black. I understand Martin Berger boarded with you.”

“We didn’t see much of each other.” The scientist’s gaze was still affronted. “I understand they were competent. Quiet and polite. Much more than that I can’t really tell you. They worked with the Breckinridges.”

“That is unfortunate, Dr. Black.” The general shook his head. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to spend a little time with the medics. We need to retrieve your own memories as well.”

The scientist’s worn face whitened. He said urgently, “I’ll readily agree to questioning under drugs or hypnosis, sir, but what you propose may leave me with permanently impaired mental functions.”

“By no means, Dr. Black,” the general replied calmly. “At the moment, you are the only person with any hope of successfully restarting Operation New Frontier. The Union government, as you are probably aware, attaches great importance to your research and thus to your abilities. I do not guarantee that the process you undergo will be entirely painless, but I have personally instructed the doctors to take all possible precautions to ensure your brain is not damaged. Our techniques are more sophisticated and less intrusive than you apparently believe them to be.”

He got to his feet suddenly. “I understand that is probably of little comfort to you at the moment. I’m afraid, however, for several reasons I am not at liberty to discuss at this time, it is absolutely critical we have available to us every one of your interactions with Martin Berger and Dorn Predensky.”

The door opened once more. Dr. Emory Black, rising on his own trembling limbs, looked into the shining silver eyes of the uniformed bio-construct who stood outside. There was no hope to be found in that gaze, and as he looked back at the general’s cold, calm face, no hope possible there either.

“Then we’ll let you get some well-deserved rest,” General Harnell added. “I’m sorry this is necessary. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours.” He nodded toward the waiting figure. “I’ll have to ask you to go with this soldier now. Good day, Dr. Black.”

Continuation pending

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

Home Page