Eddie utilized a tabletop monitor as he worked, hoping the security cameras wouldn’t be able to record the deceptive manipulation being concocted on the tiny screen. Using a large pair of headphones, he studied every recording produced in the thorn fields with delicate precision. Already, he had seen all of the hours of raw footage from every angle, yet his mind still throbbed as he decided on the best approach.
Guilt began to cloud his concentration as he watched the pair of innocents struggling with the petrifying thorns. ‘I can’t believe these two need to suffer,’ thought Eddie as he watched the kneeling woman console her partner while pulling out a thorn from her friend’s foot. With relentless efficiency, they both began to lock into place, the swift conversion quickly hardening each of their bodies into gleaming white marble. ‘Poor girls,’ thought Eddie woefully as he reached for the erase button. As the machine brutally deleted all documentation of their downfall, Eddie worried about the consequences of his action. ‘If anything happens to these girls, I’m gonna go straight to Hell,’ thought the grieving man as the disc ejected, the conflicting evidence now eliminated.
Popping in a different disc, Eddie turned his attention to the scene featuring Lieutenant Godiva and Niko. Working expeditiously on the revealing audio track, he expertly eliminated any references that would reveal their knowledge of the Nil Corporation’s secret agenda. Then, he focused on the video, cutting the ingestion of the powerful potions as well as Godiva’s subtle relocation of her backpack. With steady nerves, he used every trick he knew to cut together a convincing montage, replacing the deliberate actions of the brave pair with harrowing scenes highlighting the surprise and horror they faced as they petrified. By the time he was through with the footage, he managed to produce a vignette of such raw power, the authenticity of their struggle couldn’t be denied. ‘I hope that’s what you had in mind, Lillian,’ thought Eddie as he erased the master tape containing the incriminating raw footage.
Pressing a button on his communication unit, he summoned Katherine Ross excitedly. “Ms. Ross, I’ve got the perfect scene for the next program. Lieutenant Godiva has finally been captured.” As he anxiously waited for her exuberant reply, he readied his completed edit for delivery to the programming department.
Over the crackling telephone, Eddie could hear his boss breathe a sigh of relief knowing her top ratings would be secure for another day. “How’s the footage look, Eddie?” asked the tenacious woman sternly.
“Words cannot describe its magnitude,” replied Eddie elliptically.
“Then I shall look forward to seeing it. Great work, Eddie!”
Inside, Eddie could feel his stomach churning. As he tossed his
finished disk into the transport bin, he thought to himself somberly, ‘I
only hope some good can come of this deception.’
As he tested the launching pit, he could feel delightful anticipation welling within his dancing stomach. Never once did he feel any guilt or regret regarding his decision to work for the Nil Corporation, although the brutal stares from his colleagues did trouble him, but only slightly. ‘I’m in charge now,’ thought Byron unwaveringly, ‘and they’re going to have to respect my authority.’ Once he’d finished configuring the remote triggers, he heard a loud knock on the door.
“The ocean liner has arrived, sir,” said the middle-aged man stationed outside.
“Good,” said Byron as he rubbed his palms together. “Have your people begin their work on costuming immediately. And make sure they all work quickly, okay? I don’t want an angry mob of contestants clamoring to get in.”
“Understood, sir,” squeaked the slight man as turned to leave. Eddie watched the man discretely through the partially closed door as the older gentleman instructed his staff, making certain they all understood the new procedures. Faint murmurs and groans could be heard as they received their instructions, yet they all seemed to realize the severe consequences awaiting them should they become insubordinate. Quickly, twenty clerks sped into action, each roaming the growing line of women gathered outside. One by one, they each pulled one woman aside, then led her to a private dressing room. Before long, four eager competitors were already gathered behind the ropes outside his door.
As he swung the door open, he bellowed, “I’ll take the first person in line now.” A slim woman dressed in a vibrant purple frock stepped forward, her body swaying seductively as she entered the maestro’s workroom. “We’re going to take some quick exposures at this time, so step up onto the platform and we can get started,” said Byron in a direct tone as he shut the thick office door.
The svelte brunette instantly complied, delicately walking up to the round pedestal in the center of the room. Somewhat surprised by the photographer’s harsh command, she gingerly lifted herself onto the multileveled dais as the gruff young man readied his equipment. “My name is Zoe. How would you like me to pose?” asked the timid girl in a high pitch. She took an awkward stance on the platform as she waited for his instructions.
“Okay, darling,” said Byron warmly. “First of all, you look absolutely gorgeous.” Zoe smiled brightly as she waited for the young man to continue. “Now, let’s have you twist your hips a bit to the right, and bend your left leg forward slightly. Yes, that’s good. Just like that. Now, I want you to hold your left arm out.” As the striking lady moved her arm, Byron quickly said, “No that’s not quite right. Don’t worry, I’ll guide you into position.” Walking up to the anxious woman, he gently moved her arm into the perfect alignment, out to the side and bent out further at the elbow. Delicately, he bent her left hand up at a dramatic angle, adding tense flair to the subtle twist of her hips. Then he placed her other quivering hand behind her slim neck. As she looked into his eyes with wonder, he placed a delicate finger under her chin, lifting her face up and to the left. Stepping back, he said excitedly, “That’s the perfect pose! You look fantastic! Hold it!” She continued to maintain her difficult stance as Byron reached for the remote control.
As he pressed a button on the handheld unit, a blinding flash of white light struck the oblivious contestant from above, effectively halting all movement in an instant. ‘I knew that silver staff would come in handy,’ thought Byron as he walked up to the enraptured maiden, now flawlessly posed in front of him. Stepping up onto the platform, he whispered into the folds of her ear. “Now, I’m going to make you immortal, darling Zoe. Hold still,” he joked as he began to undress her inert body. Being careful not to damage the much-needed costume, he worked as quickly as possible, until her lifeless body stood gloriously naked in front of his admiring eyes. Reaching for his remote control, he said smugly, “Now you’re properly dressed for the part. Or should I say, undressed?”
Earnestly, Byron began to record the motionless girl, swiftly activating a video camera in front of his unmoving victim. “It’s been a pleasure sculpting you, Zoe,” said Byron cryptically, which sent waves of confused panic through the horrified woman. Then he stabbed at the silver button. In an instant, a series of intense beams fired up around her prone figure. Hidden all along the circumference of the lower platform, dozens of miniature devices began to hum as they leapt into action, throwing brilliant light upon the pedestal beneath her feet. Instantly, the thick base began to glow as it transformed into radiant metal. Poor Zoe could feel a cold chill under her bare feet as she stood there, completely unable to flee or defend herself in her paralyzed state.
Methodically, the devices swiveled upwards, eventually hardening the girl’s dainty feet along with the shiny platform she stood upon. The process immediately secured the nude damsel to her new pedestal, instantaneously fusing her tiny toes to the rigid base. Without the support of her high-heels, she seemed to be perilously balanced on tiptoe, although she’d never topple now that she was becoming eternally attached to the round base under her tensely arched toes. The freezing devices wasted no time in transforming the sensitive flesh of her feet and ankles into sparkling platinum. Silver highlights rolled across the soft folds of skin as she quickly began to solidify.
Even though she was unable to see what was happening to her, somehow, Zoe could feel her body becoming more dense and rigid with every passing second. As he flashed several still photographs of her glorious metamorphosis, Byron moved around his captive, studying her stiffening countenance from every conceivable angle. The bright lights now began to harden her knees and thighs, instantly tightening the pliable tissue into permanent metal. The blue beams then began to pulse up her shapely waist, congealing the delicate muscles into solid platinum inside and out. Within moments, her taut stomach and rounded breasts began to follow suit, throwing brilliant reflections around the room. Inside her trapped body, Zoe could feel her organs halting their metabolic functions, as they too became a mass of knotted metal within her reflective chest. Confused and utterly alone, she wept inside as she felt her neck and chin tingle, yet she felt some relief knowing the scoundrel standing before her would never see an outward expression of her grief. In fact, her perfectly posed face never did budge from its final expression as the chilling wave coursed up her body, finally hardening her high cheekbones and slender nose into a luminous mask of lifeless metal. As the transforming lights reached the top of her lovely head, they swiftly dimmed then lowered, ready and prepared for the next unwary contestant.
Allowing himself only a brief moment to admire his handiwork, Byron reached out and caressed the statue’s delicate face. She felt so wonderfully cold and smooth, he wished he could spend more time in appreciation. Yet, he knew there’d be hundreds more like her to transform on this day, so he simply replaced her metal identification necklace and gently kissed her frozen face. With the push of a button, the ground beneath her stationary position opened up, swiftly sending the completed sculpture, metal base and all, through the hydraulic tubing that would deliver her to the elemental generators. As the trap door quickly snapped shut behind her, the loud hissing sounds abruptly ceased, and a new platform snapped over the closed trap, leaving it primed for the next victim. After throwing her abandoned uniform into the clothing chute, he checked his watch methodically. ‘That took nearly six minutes,’ thought the cold and calculated young man as he frowned. ‘I’m going to need to pick up the pace if I’m going to meet my quota.’
After Byron dusted off his hands, he opened the locked door, yelling
nonchalantly to the others waiting outside, “Next contestant, please!”
“Analysis,” bleated a voice over the intercom.
“This is Turner,” barked the steaming man. “I need your results. Now!”
Stammering slightly, the man on the other end replied, “Sorry, sir. We’ve been waiting for test results on the red container. However, the green liquid in the blue canister is most definitely the same petrifying potion we’ve been using for Pure Adrenaline.”
Perplexed, Scientist Turner shouted edgily, “Well, what is your hypothesis on the red bottle? I don’t need a detailed chemical makeup, I simply need your best estimate!”
After a brief pause, the timid voice replied in a whisper, “Based on our preliminary studies, we believe it’s restoring solution.”
“Fine,” growled Turner as he pounded the desk with his fist. “I’ll expect your results on my desk as soon as your report is complete!” Abruptly, the enraged man dialed Emperor Titus. Breathing in a massive gulp of air, he steadied his nerves as the call swiftly connected to the throne room. “This is Turner, my lord. I have news to report.”
“Understood,” echoed the gruff voice of Titus. “Let’s have it, then.”
Swallowing a bitter mouthful of saliva, Scientist Turner said optimistically, “Well, sir, Project Genesis is now at the final stage of development, so we’ll begin to implant the many female specimens with fertilized embryos within thirty or forty hours. Also, we’ve begun to harvest the final group of contestants at Orientation.”
“Ah, that is all good to hear,” bellowed the fat-voiced emperor. “Now, why don’t you tell me what’s really going on, Turner.”
Cursing himself for even attempting to smooth over the horrendous information, Scientist Turner steadied his voice, then said, “You are as observant as always, my lord. Unfortunately, we have discovered a serious breach of security. One contestant was discovered carrying both petrifying and restoring solutions within her possessions.”
“You idiot!” shouted Emperor Titus in a rage. Scientist Turner slumped in his chair as he heard low puffing sounds emanating from his commander. “I assume she’s been delivered to the elemental generators, is that correct?”
“I’m afraid so,” replied Turner meekly. “However, I have obtained complete data about the contestant, sir, and have made certain to separate her from the others until we can study her.”
“Understood,” growled Titus angrily. Already, Scientist Turner regretted the dire situation facing him as he waited for a command from the powerful Valerian king. “I can’t afford to take any more chances, Turner. Not when we’re so close to fulfilling this mission! How many specimens do we have at our disposal at this very moment?”
“639,” replied Turner after checking his fact sheet.
“Do we have enough energy to escape from this planet, yet?” asked the frantic emperor desperately.
Quickly, Scientist Turner punched out the calculations on a keypad. A grim expression began to drift across his face as he said, “I’m afraid not, my lord. According to our estimations, we’ll need the energy of at least one thousand humans to launch.”
‘Damn,’ thought Emperor Titus. Hoping he could blast off with the power currently at his fingertips, he could feel the tension building within his massive body as he searched for a solution. “Well, that leaves us with no choice, I’m afraid. Since we can’t leave this world behind yet, we’ll have to root out the conspirator in our midst. I’m very disappointed with you, Scientist Turner!”
“I know, my lord,” squeaked Scientist Turner somberly. “If you still deem me worthy of serving you, I will neutralize this threatening situation personally.”
Slowly, Emperor Titus considered whether he should continue to trust the skills of his intelligence officer. Waiting through the most uncomfortable deliberation imaginable, Scientist Turner began to quake with fear as the corpulent nobleman slowly began to speak. “On Valeria, you were the only advisor that stood by me when the council of elders ordered me to be exiled. Bravely, you maintained your loyal service to me when all of the others doubted me. Even as we drifted aimlessly throughout the deep recesses of space, you still managed to organize my subjugates, quelling any threat of revolt or mutiny.” Scientist Turner breathed a silent sigh of relief. “However, I feel the importance of this situation requires my personal attention until we are free of danger. Meet me in the control room immediately, and we’ll investigate this matter in full detail together.”
“Yes, sir!” shouted Scientist Turner as the line suddenly fell silent.
As he sprinted down the hall to the transport elevators, he thought wearily,
‘I just hope we didn’t underestimate these humans.’
As she scanned the horizon, Lieutenant Tatiana suddenly exclaimed, “Uh oh! There’s a problem, ladies.” Directly within their line of sight loomed an expansive canyon made of crumbly sandstone.
“Damn!” shouted Commander Kari in disgust. “How the hell are we going to get across that?” Quickly, Lieutenant Tatiana popped open her computer. As she analyzed the map of the island, she groaned loudly. “What options do we have?” asked Kari to her new lieutenant.
“All options are unappealing,” replied Lieutenant Tatiana with a frustrated sigh. “If we veer to the left, we’ll need to travel beyond our initial estimates an additional fifty miles. If we steer around the chasm to the right, we’ll expand our estimates by only thirty miles, but we’ll need to travel through more perilous cliffs once we reach the other side.” As they swiftly began to approach the sprawling obstacle, Tatiana added, “Or, we can take our chances and follow the cliff downward along our current heading. Then we’ll need to find a suitable path back up to the surface and hope this hovercraft has enough power and fuel to lift us over the cliff on the other side.”
Silently, Commander Kari wished she could confer with Sergeant Magnum regarding the difficult decision she needed to make, but he still remained thoroughly unconscious. Slowing the craft as they ran out of ground, Kari leaned out over the bow of the vessel, trying to gauge the pitch of the rocky descent. “How far down?” asked Kari urgently.
“About eighty feet,” replied Tatiana as she focused her vision on the far cliff. Spotting a slanted path on the far embankment, she added, “Can you see that angled corridor on the far wall? I think our craft will be able to handle a slope of that magnitude.”
“Okay,” replied Commander Kari as her face began to light up. “So we should be able to follow that cliff back up if we choose to go down there.” Intensely, she studied the foreign gauges along the steering column. “I just don’t know how much fuel we have left on this craft. With Sergeant Magnum’s damaged leg, I don’t think we’ll be able to cover too much ground on foot, particularly if we get stranded along the way.”
“Sounds like we have a difficult decision to make,” said Meg while rubbing her temples. As she studied her commanding officer’s determined expression, she let out a faint gasp as she realized they’d be making the leap after all.
Without any further hesitation, Commander Kari said boldly, “Alright, ladies! Grab the serge and let’s do this!” Slowly pulling the hovercraft into reverse, she left herself plenty of room for an approach before halting the craft’s backward momentum. “Hang on, everyone! We’re going down!” Slamming the thrusters to maximum power, Commander Kari screamed loudly as they began to lunge forward at immense speeds. They quickly plummeted down the jagged cliff.
With all the rocking motions and loud screams around him, Sergeant Magnum suddenly snapped awake as they became fully airborne. His heart in his throat, he only had a second to register the panicked situation around him. As Meg straddled the burly man, she held the railing tightly, securing him within the falling vessel. “What the hell is happening!” screamed Magnum over the roar of the engines. “I only nodded off for a few minutes!”
Meg smiled at the drowsy man as she squeezed him tighter with her strong thighs. “Stick with me, Magnum! I assure you, there’s never a dull moment when you’re with me!” After nearly twenty seconds of plunging, Commander Kari powered up the lateral thrusters as they neared impact with the valley floor. At last, the hovercraft bounced off of the scorched ground. Instantly, Commander Kari halted the engines as they landed with a thud, yet the vessel still bobbed up and down for several moments until the vertical stabilizers finally kicked in.
“Woo hoo! What a ride!” shouted Commander Kari as she helped her woozy friends to their feet. Spotting an alert Sergeant Magnum between Meg’s clenched legs, she said warmly, “Welcome back, Magnum. We were worried you’d never wake up.”
“That’s one hell of a wake up call, Kari!” shouted Magnum as he smiled at the wicked commander. “Don’t make me revoke your driving privileges!” Turning to face Meg as she loosed her grip, he added seductively, “Well, at least the view was breathtaking.”
Meg blushed as she dusted herself off. Reaching out an assisting hand to the sergeant, she said playfully, “Well, aren’t you a little devil, Magnum! Who would’ve thought a Romeo lurked under that grimy façade?”
Once confirming that everyone was still alive and kicking, the five adventurers departed the craft to inspect the damage. As Lady Hydra examined the small ship from below, she said remorsefully, “Looks like we cracked the fuselage, Commander.” Quickly, Tatiana scanned the hairline crack running along the steel cavity.
“I should be able to solder that without too much difficulty,” said the resourceful Lieutenant Tatiana. Grabbing a phaser from her holster, she steadily aimed the precision instrument like a surgeon, gently sliding the hot laser beam across the tiny crack. Within moments, the glowing suture began to glow, and molten steel quickly began to seal up the potentially treacherous crack along the hull.
While Commander Kari tested the durability of the dented hovercraft, the others passed the time by studying the parched land around them. Overhead, they could see a pair of vultures hungrily circling their position. At last, Kari felt confident about the vessel’s abilities, so they all piled onto the ship, anxious to be leaving the desolate valley.
“Remember, Commander Kari, our best bet is to ride that ledge up to the surface,” said Lieutenant Tatiana as she pointed to the angled ridge in front of them. Kari nodded approvingly to her useful lieutenant as she guided the hovercraft forward. As they reached the anticipated gradient, she delicately twisted the vehicle as they began to ascend, gliding across the jagged outcrop. Watching small stones plummeting down the canyon in their wake, Lady Hydra crossed her fingers intensely as her fear of heights began to whittle away her confidence.
“Just a bit further,” coaxed Commander Kari as she spied the top of
the cliff. Suddenly, they began to slide backwards as the slope became
more perilous near the surface. With sweat dripping off of her brow,
Kari leapt into action, quickly launching the rear thrusters. As
the engines jolted with activity, the hovercraft lunged forward with intensity,
swiftly sending them flying up the steep ramp. Before anyone could
even prepare for it, the entire ship became airborne once more as they
managed to clear the monolithic rock face. As they landed with a
thud on the level ground above the canyon, they all hollered in ecstatic
relief. While her crew collapsed in a heap from the shock of their
near fatal mountaineering excursion, Commander Kari said in a confident
tone, “See, I told you guys that would be a piece of cake.” The entire
team merely groaned wearily in response.
To be continued...
On to Part Eleven