Choices - A Dark Universe Story
Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia. When elephants fight the grass gets hurt.
Clarence Mbeki watched the proceeding on the vid with his family in stunned silence. Sarafina, his wife, sat beside him clinging to his arm. Toby sat beside her, his mouth hanging open as the close-up Khalid Cassad's battered face[A1] filled the holospace. Jamila, the little one, paid no attention. She was fully into her floating blocks, humming a tune as she pushed them to and fro. Clarence glanced at her and smiled. She was the luckiest of them all. She had no inkling of the events taking place. He was determined to keep it that way.
Toby faced him, the fear in his face stabbing Clarence like a knife.
"What are we going to do, baba?" he asked.
Clarence smiled back at his son. "This doesn't concern us, son. We're little fish. I doubt anything will change."
"But you work for the regime!" he countered.
"Like I said, son, we're little fish. Don't worry us."
His head buzzed. He left the room and went to his study.
"Beki, it's Mark. Are you watching this?"
Clarence closed his eyes then took a deep breath.
"Yes Mark, I'm watching it."
"This is crazy, man! What are we going to do?"
"Calm down, Mark. We're not going to do anything. The rebels got what they wanted. I suspect everything will get back to normal soon."
"Not for us," Mark argued. "We worked for them!"
Clarence took a deep breath before answering. "Like I said, Mark, don't worry about it."
There was silence between them for a moment. Mark was a worrier. Clarence could imagine him pacing his condo right now, rolling a stylus between his skinny fingers.
"Look, Mark, I got to ...."
"Have you called Celone?" Mark cut in.
"She's not answering."
"Maybe she's not home."
"Neither is Terry or Pausa."
Clarence throat tightened. "So, what?"
"Don't be naive, Clarence. You better start making plans. They're coming for us. They're coming for us."
"Mark, I got to go. I'll see you in the office Luneday."
"I hope so. I really hope so."
Clarence disconnected as Sarafina entered the room.
"Is everything alright?"
Clarence smiled at his wife. He saw the worry in her eyes.
"Everything's fine, just Mark being paranoid."
Sarafina crossed the room then took his hand.
"I think you're taking this too easy, baby."
Clarence rolled his eyes. "Not you, too?"
"You work for them."
"We all do one way or another." He sat on the bed then pulled her beside him. "What are they going to do, kill all of us?"
Sarafina didn't answer. He wrapped his arm around her waist.
"Look baby. They got what they wanted. Cassad is theirs and all that goes along with it, which is us. After a few weeks of parading around Khalid they'll give their cronies all the good jobs then go home."
His wife snuggled against him. "I feel sorry for Khalid. He's a good man."
"How do you know that? He's the oba's son. All those folks have blood on their hands."
He kissed her on the forehead. "Come on; let's go back to the room. The kids are going to think we're having sex."
Sarafina punched his shoulder.
They did make love that night. There was desperation about it, as if it would be their last time. Clarence lay awake long afterwards, Mark's words spinning in his head. By the time morning came he was still awake staring at the ceiling. He cut off the alarm before it went off then trudged to the bathroom. He was done shaving and showering when Sarafina joined him.
"Round two?" she whispered.
Clarence smacked his hand against her wet bottom. "I wish."
Sarafina had her way, making him late. When he arrived on the 110th floor of the Imperial Archives Teresa, Pausa and Mark waited in the office, relieved looks on their faces.
"Nobody told me we were having a party," he said as he entered.
Teresa pounced on him, hugging his neck tightly.
"We thought they got you!"
He slowly pried her away. They had a thing once before he met Sarafina and she was constantly looking for reasons to rekindle it.
"I'm fine. You need to stop listening to Mark."
Mark stepped forward. "Really?"
He handed Mark a sheet of paper.
"It's a memo. There will be a meeting at 12:00 noon. A New Regime representative will be addressing all the Imperial Archive employees. We're not to engage in any work activity until the representative arrives."
Mark pushed past his cohorts then sat at his desk.
"So, we have a meeting."
"This is how it starts," Mark said.
"So how many revolutions have you experienced, Mark?"
Mark glared at Clarence.
"That's what I thought. Okay, listen up. Go back to your desks and play whatever games you have until noon. And don't worry. Everything will be fine."
The trio sulked out of his office. Clarence shook his head. He switched on his comp hoping to catch up on some personal work when the screen flickered, replaced by a New Regime symbol. Soon afterwards it was replaced by the beautiful but stern woman's face, her cocoa similar to Sarafina's.
"Clarence Mbeki?" she said.
A chill went through him. "That's me."
"I'm Rosalinda Chalms. I'll be your N.R[A2] . liaison. I'm due to your office at noon, but I'd like to speak to you personally before my arrival."
"Where are you?"
"At the Palace. I'm sure you know the way."
Clarence swallowed. "I do."
The woman smiled. "Good. I'll see you at 10:00?"
"No formalities. Just call me Rosalinda."
She smiled again and the screen went blank.
Clarence moved mechanically as he gathered his things then left the office.
Teresa, Pausa and Mark pounced on him.
"Where are you going?" Pausa asked.
"To the Palace."
Mark froze. "I knew it. I knew it!"
"It's just a meeting, Mark. We'll discuss it when I get back."
The three looked at him as if that was a remote possibility. As he entered the elevator, he thought the same.
Clarence stepped on the taxi grid and a vehicle eased from the programmed traffic then stopped before him. He sat then waited as the toll box synched with his credit chip.
"Where to?" it asked.
"The Central Palace."
Instead of taking him immediately the taxi remained still. A hand print grid emerged from the dashboard.
"All personnel visiting the Central Palace must submit to security scan prior to arrival. Please place your hands on the grid and look forward.
This is new, Clarence thought. He placed his palms on the grid then sat still as his eyes and hands were scanned.
The taxi door shut and they sped to the Central Palace. Clarence had little time to contemplate his situation for the Palace was only a few blocks from the Archives. A young woman with mocha skin and pale brown eyes was waiting for him when the taxi door lifted, dressed in a pale blue suit, the color of the revolution.
"Mr. Mbeki, welcome to the palace," she said in a contralto voice. "Miss Chalms is expecting you."
Clarence followed the aide through security and into the palace. He was too nervous to take advantage of his first visit to the magnificent structure. Mark's words kept running through his head as the aide led him down a corridor lined by doors on either side. Clarence suspected these were the former servant quarters but he couldn't be sure. They finally stopped before double doors at the end of the hall.
"Go right in, Mr. Mbeki."
The doors slid open and Clarence entered. The office was sparse. A large desk rested before him, a floor to ceiling window forming the wall behind it. Two chairs sat on either side of the desk at angles.
A hidden door opened in the wall on his right and Rosalinda Chalms entered the room. Her blue suit fitted her curves sensuously, matching the playful smile on her face. But Clarence knew better. This would not be a good meeting.
She shook his hand then gestured to the chairs.
Clarence chose the right-hand seat and Rosalinda smiled.
"I would have chosen the left seat. I'm left-handed."
"Force of habit," Clarence croaked.
The aide entered with a tray of coffee. She made Rosalinda a cup then offered one to Clarence.
"No thank you," he said.
"Coffee is not the preferred stimulant here," Rosalinda commented. "I believe kola nuts are popular."
Clarence nodded. "They are."
Rosalinda pursed her lips then shuddered. "Too bitter for me."
She leaned back in her chair.
"Let's get to it, shall we. There are going to be major changes in your department. I called you here because I'll need you to handle the fallout immediately after my visit."
Clarence relaxed a bit. They weren't going to kill him.
"What kind of changes?"
"We're reassigning all single employees to nonessential positions in the capital. It's our belief that people without obligations are more susceptible to negative persuasion."
Single people. His entire team. Clarence cleared his throat.
"How soon will the replacements arrive?"
Rosalinda smiled. "That easy, huh? No protests? No defense for your team?"
"Would it make a difference, ma'am?"
"No, it wouldn't. Archives contain sensitive information. We can't afford to have people we can't trust with access to it."
"And you can trust me because I'm married." Clarence said.
Rosalinda's eyes narrowed. "We can trust you because you have more to lose."
Rosalinda took a long sip. "This victory was hard won, Clarence. We did this for you, us, the entire Known. But these are delicate days ahead. Everything we fought and died for could be lost by a simple mistake. We won't allow that to happen. You won't allow it to happen."
"I understand," Clarence said.
Rosalinda smiled. "Good. I'll see you in a couple of hours."
Clarence took the cue and left the office. The aide waited for him outside the doors. She escorted him to a waiting taxi that sped him back to the office. Clarence's entire body shook. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to bring the shaking under control. He opened his mouth and a sob escaped.
"Oh my God!" he managed to say. "Oh my God!"
It took Clarence the entire taxi ride back to compose himself. By the time he stepped onto the sidewalk he had some semblance of control. He took a deep breath before entering the building then taking the lift to the Archives floor. The lift door parted, and he strode to his office, his outer countenance hiding the emotional tempest raging inside him.
His team was on his heels as he entered his office.
"So, what happened?" Mark almost shouted.
"We discussed details of the meeting," Clarence answered.
Everyone looked at him expecting more.
"Look guys, I'm not at liberty to share. Rosalinda will explain everything."
"Bullshit!" Teresa spat. Her exclamation rattled Clarence. Out of the three of them Teresa was the most calm and level-headed.
He took a deep breath. "Look, this is what's going to happen. The three of you are going to be assigned..."
"Oh Jesus!" Mark found the nearest chair the plopped down. He jammed his hands between his knees and rocked back and forth.
"I knew it. I knew it! They're going to kill us."
Teresa and Pausa gave him desperate looks.
"Nobody's going to get killed." At least not now, he thought.
"The Coalition has deemed the Archives a highly sensitive area. They want to reassign anyone who they feel will be a security risk."
"You know what that means," Mark said.
"Actually, it puts you out of harm’s way," Clarence said. "Your replacements will be married personnel."
"Oh my god," Teresa said. She reached out and touched his cheek. "I'm so sorry, Clarence."
Mark stopped rocking, "Why are you sorry for him? We're the ones in trouble!"
"Stop worrying about your own ass and think for a minute," Teresa retorted. "They're moving married couples in so they can use their families as a veiled threat."
Mark looked up. “Jeez, Clarence. You got to get out of here, man. You got to take your family and run."
Clarence let out a desperate laugh. "Look. I didn't tell you anything, okay. If anyone else asks you what we talked about, don't say a word. Now go back to your desks."
Teresa gave him a sad look then left. Pausa just stared for a moment and followed. Mark was the last to leave.
"There is a way, you know," he said.
Clarence's eyes narrowed. "A way to what?"
"A way to run." He closed Clarence's door.
"There's a way off the planet. Some of the Empire is still controlled by the Cassads. The Regime is claiming victory but that's not quite true. They could get you and your family out."
"We're not going anywhere," Clarence replied. "Everything is going to be fine."
Mark looked away then back to Clarence. "I'll be gone by the end of the week."
"I've already paid for it. It was damned expensive but it's legitimate. It's too late to get on my shuttle but they have regular runs for now."
"Go back to your office, Mark. I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Mark started to open his mouth but stopped.
"See you at the meeting," he finally said.
Clarence waved him away. He sat at his desk and began to think.
Rosalinda and her team arrived just before noon. Clarence set out a vid cast, and everyone gathered in the large conference room. They crammed toward the rear of the room as if awaiting execution. Clarence stood in the front, occasionally glancing back at his coworkers, his eyes meeting Mark's. He turned away then forced a smile to his face as Rosalinda and the others entered the room.
"Greetings everyone!" she said. Her voice was warm and soothing, her smile bright and generous. She was very good at what she did. Clarence could sense the tension ease in the room as everyone shuffled about, returning her smile.
"I am Rosalinda Chalms, the new head of Archives. I wanted to come personally to introduce myself because I've heard so many good things about this team. Clarence is well known and admired, but we all know who really does the work around here."
The others laughed. Clarence managed a chuckle. Rosalinda gave him an approving smile.
"As in all transitions there are always changes," she continued. "I've studied the Archives department for some time and determined that many of you are working way below your pay scale. You deserve better. So over the next few days we're conducting interviews to find our shining stars and place them in departments where they can prosper. Clarence will be the point man for this process, but all reassignments will be approved by yours truly."
The tension increased. Rosalinda seemed to sense it and countered it with another one of her brilliant smiles.
"This is a new day for us all; a better day. The Coalition is dedicated to destroying the ingrained nepotism that plagued the Empire and replacing it with a democratic process that creates opportunity for anyone with the right skills, no matter what their lineage."
Rosalinda nodded to her assistants. They tilted their heads, a distracted look in their eyes. Moments later the elevator doors opened, and servers rolled in tables of simmering food and drinks.
"So today we celebrate!" Rosalinda said, striking the pose of a game show model.
They were hers now. Everyone swarmed the tables, indulging in the feast. Teresa, Pausa and Mark were the last to join the festivities, each one of them glancing at him before taking part.
"Those three are your friends," Rosalinda said in his ear. He jumped. He didn't notice her approach.
"Yes, they are," he replied.
"You told them."
"Yes, I did."
"I would have done the same."
He turned to face her. If they hadn't had that conversation hours earlier, he would have thought she was attracted to him from how she gazed at him.
"You are a good man, Clarence," she said. "Don't let your goodness bring you to ruin. No more leaks, okay?"
"Good. Now make a plate. This was expensive and I don't want it to go to waste."
He watched Rosalinda saunter away then join everyone as if she'd known them for years. He pulled up a chair then sat. A stabbing pain hit his stomach and he hurried to the men's room. He just reached the stool before he threw up.
"Everything okay in there?" Rosalinda said.
"I'm fine," Clarence called out.
He heard the door open then the clicking of heels.
"I'm going to need you to be stronger than this, Clarence," Rosalinda said. "We have hard choices to make."
'I'll be fine," he said.
"I hope so. Come by my office tomorrow after work. I can help you."
She closed the stall door then left. Clarence made his way to the sink and cleaned himself up. He made up his mind. As soon as he got home, he was going to call Mark.
When Clarence arrived home that evening, he carried on as if nothing was amiss. He played with Jamila while Fine prepared dinner, and then carried on a lively discussion with Tony about the finer points of calculus. The family watched the vid as they always did, then he put Jamila to bed while Sarafina took a shower and Toby lost himself in the Loop. After the children were sleep, he shared a glass of wine with Sarafina then they made love until they were too sleepy to continue.
But Clarence still couldn't sleep. Rosalinda's face appeared in every moment his mind wasn't occupied, telling him those same words over and over. There was a noose around his neck, a noose made of his loved ones that could jerk him off his feet any minute.
"Fine," he whispered. Sarafina squirmed about but didn't answer.
"Fine", he said louder. She didn't move.
Clarence eased out of the bed then picked up his phone from the dresser. Mark's face appeared in the screen.
"Look Mark, about that..."
"Run we talked about tomorrow?" Mark finished. "Good! I'm glad you decided to finally get in shape. We can run after work. Make sure you bring something comfortable."
Mark hung up. Apparently, he thought the phones were tapped. A few days ago, he would have dismissed the thought, but his world was different two days ago.
The next morning in addition to his lunch Clarence packed a pair of running shorts, his old running shoe and a t-shirt. Sarafina looked at him with a smirk.
"You're going running?" she asked.
"Yeah, Mark and I."
Her face became serious.
"Okay, then. Have fun."
Work was normal, with the exception of the Regime observers looking over everyone's shoulders. He kept his conversations with his friends to a minimum and focused on business. At day’s end he went into his private bathroom then changed. Mark met him in the lobby.
"I hope you can keep up," he said.
"I'll do my best," Clarence replied.
They walk across the street to the park then jogged.
"So Mark, tell me..."
Mark shook his head. Clarence remained quiet until they were a good distance from the office building.
"So, are you in?" Mark asked.
"I'd like to ask a few questions first."
"No questions," Mark replied. "Either you're in or you're not."
"So I'm supposed to just jump in without knowing who these folks are? You know I don't work that way."
"You know me, right?"
"Then you know them. Are you in or out?"
Clarence shook his head. Mark frowned.
"Teresa and Pausa are in. The three of us will be gone before the end of the month."
Clarence stopped running, stunned by the news. "You're quitting?"
Mark kept running. "No, we're just not going to show up one day. If we quit, they'll know what's up. Sorry Clarence. I don't want to die."
Clarence began running. "Me, either."
Clarence went back to his office to freshen up and dress. He took a few minutes to close a couple of searches then headed for the door. His phone chirped before he could exit.
"Clarence," he answered.
"You're working late," It was Rosalinda.
"Ah, yeah. Went on a run after work."
"Running. You look in good shape to me."
"Thank you." Clarence felt his hands trembling. It was enough having her hover over his work. Having Rosalinda physically attracted to him was unnerving.
"Are you headed home now?" she asked.
"Stop by my office on the way. We have a couple of things to discuss. I'll send a car."
Clarence hung up the phone then sat hard. He wasn't prepared for any of this. What the hell was he supposed to do? He picked up the phone, put it down, and then picked it up again. He pressed the code.
"Hi baby," his wife said.
"I'm going to be a little late. Rosalinda wants me to stop by her office."
There was silence for a moment.
"Is everything okay?"
Clarence shook his head. "I hope so."
The car was waiting when he exited the office. The ride was over too soon, the walk to her office he didn't remember. He was sitting before her desk when he realized he was the only person in the building other than Rosalinda. She emerged from her private bathroom as perfectly put together as ever.
"Thanks for coming, Clarence. I wanted to share some news with you before tomorrow. I'm trying to keep you in the loop. The first transfers have come in."
She handed him a printout. Clarence scanned the sheet then froze. Three names stood out; Mark, Pausa and Teresa.
"I hope you're not too upset," she said. "Your friends were determined inadequate for the new duties the Archive will take on."
"How would you know that?" he said, his voice tight. "You never worked with them."
Rosalinda sighed. "You know this goes. It's a paperwork decision. The computer can't see personality."
"I can't run the office without them," he said.
"They'll be replaced with more capable people. Better now than later, don't you think?"
Their eyes met. She knew.
Rosalinda smiled then rubbed her stomach.
"I'm hungry. How about joining me for dinner?"
Clarence stood. "Can't. My wife has dinner waiting at home."
Rosalinda pouted. "That's too bad. Another time maybe?"
Clarence forced a smile. "Maybe."
He headed for the door.
"I think we should be friends, Clarence. It would be better for both of us," Rosalinda called out.
"I'm sure it would," Clarence replied. He hurried out of the building and into a taxi. By the time he reached his home he was hysterical.
Clarence ran up the walkway. His hand shook as he placed his palm against the door. To his horror the door opened. He rushed inside, running from room to room calling out his wife and children’s names. No one answered. The energy left his body and he fell to the floor and began sobbing.
A firm hand gripped his shoulder.
"Mr. Mbeki? Please get up. We need you to come with us."
The words meant nothing to Clarence. His family was gone.
"Mr. Mbeki. Get up please. We don't have much time."
"Just kill me here," Clarence answered. "Get it over with."
The hand shook him.
"You have it all wrong, Mr. Mbeki. We're the good guys. We're here to take you to a safe place. But we haven't much time. The authorities are on their way, and they don't work for us."
Clarence sat up, wiping his face. He looked at the person looming over him. It was the taxi driver.
"Please come with me, Mr. Mbeki. We have to get you off Ziara."
Clarence hesitated. "How do I know you're telling me the truth?"
The man smiled. "You don't. I can tell you that your friend Michael contacted us after your run. Apparently, he was being watched, for no sooner had he disconnected with us did Regime agents pick him up. That's when we knew he had to act fast or we would lose you, too."
The man stood. "Please Mr. Mbeki. We have to leave now."
Clarence stood then trudged behind the man.
"Where's my family?" he asked as he climbed into the taxi.
"They're safe," the man replied. "That's all you need to know right now."
"What the hell do you mean safe?"
The man looked into the back seat. "They're off planet, probably on their way to an Imperial planet by now."
Clarence gripped the seat rest. "Which one?"
"I don't know," the man replied. "My job is to get you to a ship. Once you're off planet you'll get more information."
Clarence slumped in his seat. This was a nightmare come true.
"What do they want with me?" he said. "I'm a nobody. This war has nothing to do with people like me."
"It has everything to do with people like you," the man said sharply. "Did you think you would go along as if nothing happened? The Empire is crumbling, Mr. Mbeki. Everything that made sure your life was calm and peaceful is gone."
The man kept driving until they were out of the city. Soon they were bordered on either side by ruined buildings. The road became ragged, so the man switched to hover mode. Huge ships lay in ruins about them, some still burning weeks after being destroyed.
"Where are we? What is this?" Clarence asked.
"This is Accra," the man answered without looking back. "This is the war."
Clarence looked at the devastated city in silence as the driver cruised over the ruins. All this time he thought Cassidy had been spared, that the takeover had been peaceful. The war was 'out there', not in his backyard.
"The rebels didn't overwhelm Cassidy like the other planets," the driver said. "It was too valuable. Still, they had to neutralize certain areas to secure the planet. So they did it from the inside."
Clarence looked at the driver. "How? Who on Cassidy would betray the Cassads?"
The driver laughed. "See, the Empire refused to believe all its regents were in on the rebellion. They would embrace anyone who came to Ziara and professed their loyalty. All they were doing were opening themselves to the coup de grace. Once the rebels discovered how to hack the A.I.'s it was as good as over."
"Hack the A.I.'s?" Clarence shook his head. "No, no. That's impossible. The A.I. are programmed down to the chromosome level. It would take years to hack just one, let alone millions. You would need..."
"A quark key," the driver finished. "And they have them. They got them from right here. From your department."
Clarence shuddered. Who in his department would reveal something as secret as a quark key?"
"Anyone would for the right amount of money." The driver answered him as if reading his thoughts. "That's how it happens, Clarence. A bunch of insignificant decisions finally add up to one deadly blow. And that's how Accra got burned...and Kanem...and Orleans...and Louisiana."
"Stop it," Clarence said. "When do I get to see my family?"
"I don't know," the man said. "A different team was assigned to them. It's best you don't know where they are for now and vice versa. If either of you were caught you might tell where the other might be."
Clarence's fear slowly turned into anger. "You have no reason to keep me away from my family, unless you're using them to manipulate me."
"You know things we need," the driver confessed. "You'll be more cooperative if you have a reason to tell us what we know."
"You're no better than them," he spat.
"Of course, we are," the driver said. He turned and flashed a smile at Clarence. "We're the good guys."
The taxi reached a fairly clear area then landed.
"Get out," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Get out!" the man shouted. "My job is done. Someone else will pick you up here. Tell them what they want to know, and you'll be reunited with your family in a safe area. The Empire still exists."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"You don't. But you don't have a choice."
Clarence stepped out of the taxi. He wrapped his arms around himself as the vehicle lifted then sped away. As it became a dim light in the distance another light appeared overhead, growing with every second. The stench of burned plasteel and flesh made him shiver as they light grew brighter. As the light began to hurt his eyes he realized he never had a choice. One way or another he would work against his will. He once thought the war was at an end. He realized now that it was only just beginning.
For more exciting stories from the Dark Universe, check out Dark Universe and Dark Universe: The Bright Empire.