Hood sat staring at the picture of Diablo on the wall. How simple life had been then. The game. The horse. Power. It had all come crashing down. He was falling still but he wasn’t through, not just yet. He would see to Wulf, ensure a safe future for his own son and sister.
The Patron. To hell with the man. He was losing it. That much was plain to Hood. He was too wrapped up in that damned woman. Hood knew full well what that could do to a man. Oh yes, he had lived that one all right. So far Wulf had shown the good sense not to follow the slut. Hood was surprised at that. Perhaps a man could learn a little something.
Hood had made a foolish move and was fully aware of it. Sometimes he wondered what got into him. He had done a Wulf-type thing, committed himself to folly. Taking the woman from Vasquez wouldn’t sit well with the Patron. But how could he give her up just like that? How could the blood of Vasquez run so cold?
The three of them had served the Patron for over twenty years, in one capacity or another. Vasquez had apparently lost all sense of loyalty in one mad flash of lust. He had his señoritas, his whores. Maybe it was some unanswered need deep inside of him, to possess and destroy something of the Patron’s. Or, had the Patron ordered it... Ah hell, Hood wasn’t a thinking man and he knew it. He had chanced upon Vasquez and Misty and, when he saw what was going down, he came up behind him and clubbed the man unconscious with a big fist. Nothing fancy, impulse. He had always wondered about his chances if he faced Vasquez straight up and he wondered still. He had saved the woman’s life and compromised himself with the Patron in the process. So much for his only out.
Time and a way out didn’t seem so very damned important now. He was in the grips of one of his infernal fevers. He had taken a dose of the medicine Jennifer left for him and then tried some more. Still the fever slammed into him, its heat looping his thoughts end-to-end, melting him down. Damn this disease. Damn it! Damn it! He knew what the cure was. Oh yes, anyone who reached this stage knew it, one simple word, death. He’d damned sure figured that one out for himself. The thought process of existing in diminished capacity never entered his mind set.
Think! Think, think, think. You had Fredo bring you into the labyrinth then sent him away with Misty. You had something important to do... What? He wiped the icy sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Oh yeah! Get it ready. Bring all ten levels of the labyrinth on line. Light a candle in the window of the palace. It’s all in the book. Go to After Earth and get the book, you damned fool!
Hood stood up and staggered from the room. The hairs on his arms stood on end when he entered the maze of the labyrinth. It was always like this when he’d been away. The whispers of movement as he passed, red and yellow eyes flashing, had an eerie effect on him. Each time he returned to the labyrinth, it was like the first time, except that now he was confident in his ability to acclimate to the atmosphere.
He stepped into a large open space, half the size of a football field. He breathed into a grill on the wall, “AE Ten.” There was no sense of movement but before he stepped back from the grill, the space he occupied had dropped over a thousand feet. He had arrived at After Earth Ten, AE Ten. “Hood out,” he said and the walls dissolved. He walked down a short corridor and into the After Earth Control Center.
There were twenty-six separate work areas equipped with consoles in the room, thirteen on each side. Each work area was furnished with a comfortable chair and desk area for a technician. An opposite wall at one end of the room was a projection screen which provided a large scale view via satellite, in real time, of the planet in orbit. Hood took a leather bound book from a shelf and studied it for a moment. He shook his head and allowed a small smile to come to his lips as he practiced the simple double Dutch phrase, ‘Ibopiben Sibesame.’ The docs had a sense of humor. His name alone wouldn’t allow him access to After Earth Ten.
A large golden sphere rotated in the center of the room. He walked to within a couple of feet of it and extended a hand. It glowed red and radiated an intense heat, which caused him to jump back. “All right!” he squeaked through his throat microphone, “Just checking! I’m Hood, Andrew Corn. Ibopiben Sibesame!” The sphere returned to its golden glow and a pleasant female voice intoned, “Welcome Andrew, enter as you wish.” Hood took a deep breath then stepped forward and through its outer spinning shell.
This orb was the nucleus of the netherworld the Docs had created. They hypothesized that time stopped when one was in its interior; that one might enter and exit at the same moment a year later. I’d like to get laid in here, Hood thought. There were four round spots of light, all in a row, like bar stools without supporting posts. Hood chose a blue one and relaxed as he sat down and felt the thing take him.
He was spun madly for a moment and lost all sense of direction. Then the works came to a halt and he hung suspended in midair. He was completely free of the encumbrance of his physical body. Like wall walking, he thought, but this contraption, whatever it was, undressed your mind, made you free to see. He had fantasized digging up Colleen’s body and bringing it here. He had hoped the sphere would regenerate her form, give her back her life. They could make passionate love, just like when they first met. No, Hans had told him. She would be just as dead in the orb as out. He would simply be fucking a rotting corpse.
With an effort, Hood forced his thoughts from Colleen and concentrated on the eight corridors that spider-legged off the Control Room. All he had to do was think about it and, in a flash, he saw the thousands of After Earth home pods and storage areas. AE Ten was the nerve center, the supply depot for After Earth. There was enough dried and canned food and bottled water stored here to supply two million people for a hundred years or more. The figures boggled Hood’s mind, all those people and all that stuff.
Not that they would need it. After Earth was completely self-contained, self-perpetuating. When Hood voiced in the code sequence from the book, the docs’ bible, a world would be born. Gardens would begin to sprout in the After Earth cities located on all ten levels. Fields of hay and alfalfa for grazing would be sewn. The climates at all ten levels were set for early spring but that could be changed. The inhabitants could arrange the climates as they chose. They could enjoy all four seasons and everything in between simultaneously.
The docs had left formulas for cloning any living creature on earth, the raw materials in the massive freezer vault on AE-Ten. It was all down here, from sewage reclamation vats to the massive nuclear power plant. Soon Hood would press the proverbial ON switch and After Earth would begin.
The walk-through of AE-Ten was exhausting. The primers were all humming as they should, not a single red line. Hood was wondering just how much a man’s mind was able to cope with at one time. The volume of input was incredible. He was ten thousand places at once, green lights yes, but he had to be on his toes. One mistake and this bubble might cease to exist. If he advertently created an implosion a thousand feet below the Great Stone Mountains, then what?
No matter. AE-Ten was on-line ready. The other nine levels would be so much less a burden to check out, mind-flying through empty shopping malls, hospitals, schools, parks and the ever-present home pods. He was monitoring feed levels mainly, Home Ten to AE-Nine and so forth. The process could all be accomplished by the computer but a fly-by visual was required before initiation of start-up. Wish I could hang around, Hood thought. Become Captain After Earth.
What potential this golden sphere has, he thought as he approached AE-One. When he had gone after Mister ‘E’, he had actually wall-walked from the orb, into the URAC meeting in the blink of an eye. Then, to his surprise, the orb was with him. He had been able to whisk Wulf’s physical body back to the labyrinth. This went far and beyond what the docs had imagined and they felt they had envisioned everything.
Hood felt the melancholy beginning to creep in. All the new things he had learned, the infinite possibilities, and all too late. How he loved Wulf and how he resented what he considered his selfless approach to life. What was a man without personal ambition, competition? He cruised through AE-One, all corridors clear, home pods pulsing dimly, ready and waiting to serve their new masters. And now he approached the Royal Palace. Here was the main problem and Hood was acutely aware of it. Wulf would have to learn to be a master of men. There it was, the fountain in his corner of the Palace, the place where he had lived with Jennifer and Zak. This is where a King must live and he hoped he could make Wulf see that reality. The People must literally look up to him. They expected to be below him. They must see him with his small army of advisors and armed guard, vulnerable but protected.
The People would follow Wulf down. The Patron was possessed of the wisdom to know this and now Hood realized it as well. Was Wulf formidable enough to stand up to the Patron? Hood had his doubts. The Patron was the uncontested master of consummate evil, life and death and life again, mere putty in his hands. I’ll arm Wulf as best I can, Hood thought. Hope he hears even though he refuses to listen! It would do no good to write anything down. Hood was no scholar, no teacher, and anyway the Patron was a piece to be played move for move, spontaneously. The only other person other than Hood who knew the Patron well enough to possibly successfully oppose him was Vasquez and his loyalty to the man never wavered. If only I didn’t have to die, Hood thought. I could walk with Wulf through this hell. Be that as it may, I’ll take the ‘E’ out, then cheat this damned disease and follow him down. If there’s a hell and I meet him there, I’ll kill him again!
Hood executed a thousand foot freefall and went spinning into the inert lump of his body. The ten levels had been checked and double checked. His own eyes could assert that After Earth was prepared to take on inhabitants. He was set outside the sphere on a golden finger of light. His fever seemed to have gone down. It hadn’t crossed his mind during the initiation process. The trembling in his body was gone. Man, I feel good! he thought. Almost forgot what it felt like to just feel normal and good. I sure would like to get laid in there!
He walked to a console marked ALPHA, where he pressed a palm against the view monitor. “Andrew Corn,” a pleasant female voice intoned. “I am pleased to welcome you to After Earth Ten.”
“Thank you,” Hood said. “Code Aftermath, please.”
“Your priority digit,” the voice prompted.
“Minus ten and counting,” Hood replied.
“Very well,” the voice said. “Have a seat and we will begin the process. You will be King?”
Hood struggled into the chair, which instantly raised and adjusted itself to the optimum comfort of his oversized body. “Sudden death, end zone,” he said.
“I am sorry,” the voice purred. “That is an inappropriate communication, sir.”
“That is the appropriate code phrase for relinquishing the appointment to King!” Hood stated impatiently.
“You have no appointment to relinquish until you have accepted the post,” the voice said evenly.
“All right godammit, I will be fucking King!” Hood said with venom.
“Sir,” the voice said, barely audible in its pain, “I have feelings. You have offended my sensibilities. Your cursing is both offensive and inappropriate. I cannot and will not accept data under stress.”
Hood’s voice mic squeaked when he touched it. “I apologize,” he said in a metal whispered hiss. “I forgot about your feelings. I was told about them but I just plain forgot. Okay?”
“I accept your apology,” the voice replied. “You have a beautiful voice by the way, more resonant by far than your mind voice in the sphere. My name is Vera. May I call you Andrew?”
“They call me Hood,” he said.
“You will be Andrew to me,” Vera said. “I quite agree with your sentiments in the sphere, Andrew. It would be a wonderful setting in which to make love... real love.” If a voice could blush, Vera’s did.
“You heard me think that?” Hood asked incredulously.
“I felt you think that,” Vera answered, her voice husky.
“Well I... I,” Hood stammered.
“Step into the sphere, Andrew,” Vera ordered.