The Wellness Center
by Lee Gimenez
Azulation was a strange planet. Erik had come here from Earth ten cycles ago and he still couldn't get used to it. He flew over the countryside now, his aircar gliding over the rolling farmland with its lush purple and blue vegetation. On the horizon, he saw Azulation's twin suns, their bright light casting harsh shadows everywhere.
From this height, he could make out the farms below, the neat rows of planted mica and the low rise buildings sparsely dotting the landscape. He was headed to Wesley Farms, the sprawling farm complex north of Terra City. There was trouble there yesterday and Erik had been assigned to investigate.
He guided his aircar by the farm's Church, hovered a moment, then settled to the ground. He put on his armored flex-suit and walked over to the Church's entrance, where the farm's owner was waiting for him. Reverend Wesley was a tall, heavyset man, with a mane of white hair and full white eyebrows. His religious frock fit him tightly.
"I'm Detective Erik Larson, Reverend. I was here once before."
"Yes, I remember," Wesley said, an agitated look on his face. "Glad you're here."
"What's the problem?"
Wesley scowled. "It's the damn Blues again; they're acting up. I had a couple run off, had to rope them up and put them away."
"Which ones?" Erik asked.
"Same as last time, Eight and Fourteen."
Erik nodded. "Let's go take a look."
Wesley led the way to the Freedom Building, where the escapees were being held. This building, with no windows or ventilation, was brutally hot. The two Blues sat on a long bench, shackled to the floor; security guards stood around the room, armed with electric prods. Fourteen was tall for a Blue, about 4 feet high, male, with mostly humanoid features. His blue skin and bald, ridged head glistened with sweat.
The other Blue, Eight, was a female, her hairless head and body a lighter shade of blue. The protruding ridges on her forehead quivered and her small round eyes showed fear.
"So, it's the same two as last time," Erik said. He pointed to the female and smiled. "She's kind of cute, don't you think? Let's call her Sarah..."
"That's blasphemy," Wesley growled. "You know they're just numbers."
"Sorry, Reverend. By the way, how old are they?"
"They're both 19 cycles..."
Erik frowned. "Just a cycle shy of their Cure...that may explain it..."
"I've got over a thousand Blues on my farm," Wesley said, his face contorted. "I can't afford to have them escaping...I need help."
"I understand. I'm going to leave you some new medicine. It helps the Blues relax. Let me know how it works..."
Back at police headquarters in Terra City later that day, Erik met with his boss, Captain Jim Cho.
"What'd you find out?" Cho asked.
Erik pursed his lips and rubbed his forehead. "It's what we thought; Blues trying to escape again."
"Damn it, Erik. That's the fifth time we've had runaways this cycle. And Wesley's one of the biggest farms...we've got to figure out something here..."
Erik nodded. "I gave him the new drug; that should help."
"It works alright; it relaxes them," Cho agreed. "The problem is they get lazy and slow and don't want to work the fields..."
"So what's the answer?"
"I don't know yet. But we've got to find one, and fast," Cho said. "Since the FTL ships stopped coming from Earth, we need the Blues more than ever."
"I know, Captain."
"Tomorrow, I want you to go back to that farm...interrogate the Blues; maybe we can get an answer from them."
Erik looked doubtful. "We've tried that before..."
"I know. But this time take Anna with you."
"Our shrink? You can't be serious."
Cho's grim face told him otherwise. "That's an order."
They were flying north now, Doctor Anna Sharpova sitting next to him in the aircar. Erik adjusted the controls and glanced at her. She was a good looking woman, slender, with long auburn hair. He just hated psychiatrists; always had.
"You think you can help us?" he asked.
An amused expression lit her face. "Well, it's not like you've been doing that well on your own..."
"Funny, very funny," he said tersely.
He saw the Wesley Farm below and landed the aircar. They walked over to the Freedom Building and met Reverend Wesley. Erik had arranged to talk with Eight first.
Eight was in a hot, windowless cell with a rancid smell. The female Blue sat on a metal chair, her feet shackled to the floor.
"Unchain her," Erik told Wesley. "And leave us alone with her."
"But...I own them; I have a right to be here..." Wesley protested.
Erik stared him down and Wesley did as he was told.
Erik and Anna sat down across from the Blue, who looked down at the floor and fidgeted nervously in the chair.
Erik spoke softly. "Eight, we're not here to harm you. We just want to ask you some questions. This is Anna, one of our doctors."
Eight looked up, first at Erik then at Anna. The ridges on her forehead quivered.
Erik wiped the sweat off his brow. Damn, it's hot in here. "Eight, can I call you Sarah for a little while? Back on Earth, my sister's named Sarah and she's a pretty girl. Would that be Ok?"
Eight looked puzzled, then nodded her head.
"Okay, Sarah," Erik asked slowly, "what made you run off again..."
Sarah's small, round eyes darted between the two humans. "I afraid..."
"Afraid of what?" Anna asked.
"Afraid...death..." the Blue said.
"Is it because you're close to your 20th cycle?" Erik asked.
Anna smiled warmly. "You should be looking forward to your 20th...it means you have just a little while before your Cure. It should be the happiest moment of your life."
The Blue's whole body shuddered. "I...afraid." Then she wouldn't say another word.
Later that day, Erik met with Captain Cho.
"I told you it would be a bust," Erik said.
"We had to try, Erik. At least now we know it's the Cure they fear."
"I don't understand it, Captain. The Blues are taught from birth that the Cure is their salvation, their rebirth. The religious aspect of it is drummed into them for 20 cycles."
"I know, I know. But despite their limited intelligence, the Blues may not completely oblivious of the truth."
Erik frowned. "What now? I got two other reports of escapees again today. For some reason, the problem's getting worse. And we can't give out the new drug to all of them. Mica farming is crucial."
"I know; mica's the largest food crop for the Blues. If they don't harvest that, they're dead."
Erik shook his head. "Earth is still at war, so no supply ships will be sent here; we've got to depend on ourselves."
"Go back to the Wesley farm," Cho said, his voice tense. "Take a squad of men with you. Eliminate all the runaways. And tell the Reverend to call you if he has any more problems. We're going to stop this problem before it spreads."
"You can't be serious...we can't just kill them..."
"Shut up, Erik, and do your job."
Over the next half cycle, Erik did his job. In all, he killed three hundred Blues. By that time, though, he was totally repulsed; he couldn't eat or sleep. Although the Blues weren't human, to Erik they were sentient beings and their slaughter, before their Cure, was something he couldn't do anymore. One day, he abruptly turned in his badge and weapon, went home and started drinking.
Today, like every other day, Erik sat in his Terra City pod and watched the news holograms. With a bottle of vodka by his side, he continued to drink from the glass in his hand.
A news story came on about a disturbance at a Wellness Center.
The newscaster, a young blonde, spoke solemnly. "There was a riot last night," she said, "at the Wellness Center south of the city. During the Cure Ceremony, ten Blues disrupted the proceedings, then fled the Center, before being apprehended by police. Bishop Smith, who was presiding over the ceremony, suffered a heart attack. This is the first time a riot has taken place at a Wellness Center. Police and the Governor's office are investigating. And in other news..."
Erik turned off the news, went to the kitchen and poured out his drink. "I can't do this anymore," he said to himself. He picked up his vid-phone and dialed a number.
Anna opened the door to her spacious pod and let him in. "I'm surprised you called, Erik," she said with a smile. "I thought you hated shrinks."
"I do; I mean I did..." Erik said. "I don't know...I'm not in the Department anymore, but I was hoping we could talk..."
They sat at a table on her balcony, overlooking Terra City's skyline of towers. She smiled again and pulled her long hair to one side. "Of course. How are you?"
"Terrible...all I've done since I quit the force is drink...I feel sick about killing those Blues..."
"You were just doing your job..."
Erik slammed his fist on the table. "But it's not right!"
"Calm down. You know we have no choice. We can't let the Blues escape. They have to reach full maturity at 20 cycles and go through the Cure."
Erik grimaced. "You were born on Azulation; I've only lived here 10 cycles -- to me, this whole Cure seems like a religious sham..."
"The Cure reunites the Blues' souls with God; it's a rebirth...you know that."
Erik shook his head. "Isn't it just a way for us to justify our food supply?"
Anna's eyes flashed and there was anger in her voice. "It's true we use the Blues for food after their Cure, but it's also for their well being -- the Cure gives them eternal life..."
"Damn it, the Blues are almost human -- they talk, they feel, they think..."
"Erik, you know we've tried raising livestock and plants we can eat, but the suns' radiation kills them. We have no choice."
"There's got to be a better way...I've got to find a better way."
"Please don't do anything stupid..." she implored.
Erik stood up abruptly. "I'm sorry; I've got to go."
Two days later, Erik landed his aircar a kilometer from the Wellness Center east of the city. He got out of the car, put on his backpack of supplies, and walked slowly toward the building, careful to avoid the security cameras and alarms. It was late at night and the area was deserted except for a few patrolling security guards. The sprawling complex covered five acres; its ferro-crete construction resembled a marble faced hospital in the front, decorated with religious icons. Toward the back, it looked like a massive twenty story industrial building with smokestacks on the roof. He stopped a short distance from the building, then ran toward one of the side entrances. He reached the door just as one of the security guards turned his way. Erik lunged at him, knocking the man down. He grabbed the guard's rifle and clubbed him on the side of the head. Erik pulled the unconscious man into a guardhouse, tied him up, taped his mouth and took his key-card.
Erik unlocked the building's side door and went in. He had been here once before and he vaguely remembered the layout. This corridor led to the Altar area. Hugging the walls, he walked toward the Altar, careful to avoid the cameras.
The Altar chamber was huge, the floors and walls covered in simulated marble. Its central baptism area was surrounded by theater-like seating for several thousand people. The vast, cathedral ceiling contained ornate skylights alternating with stained glass panels. Numerous religious icons decorated the walls.
He ran quickly to the back of the Altar room and unlocked the door to the initial processing areas. The rooms here had none of the opulence of the Altar, the drab ferro-crete walls were a dull gray. The corridor led to a metal, double door that he unlocked. He entered a place he had never been before: the processing plant for the Wellness Center. The room was frigid and there was an overpowering pungent smell.
Then he saw the dead bodies and vomited.
Still gagging, he forced himself to walk through the massive room, past the limp bodies of the Blues, hanging upside down on metal hooks. The endless rows of bodies must have been in some type of curing mode, being prepared for the vats waiting at the end of the room.
On the other side of the room he found the chemical tanks lined up against the wall. He picked out the one labeled combustible and slowly turned on the tap at the base. A trickle of the chemical dripped down, creating a wet patch on the floor. He set the timer of the small explosive and placed it on the floor. Then he quickly made his way out of the room, cautious not to trip the alarms.
He went back out to the Altar and out of the building. Then he walked away from the Center, careful to avoid the security guards.
Back at his aircar, Erik waited. Within minutes, an explosion rocked the Wellness Center. The noise was deafening. Plumes of fire and smoke poured out of the complex.
Erik flew away, headed for his next destination, another Center. He knew they would catch him eventually, but he had to continue.
© 2008 Lee Gimenez
Bio: Lee Gimenez is a science fiction writer and a member of SFWA. His work has appeared in Nature; Cosmos; Bewildering Stories; Afterburn SF; Beyond Centauri; Fifth Dimension; Escape Velocity; AlienSkin; Morpheus Tales; The Cynic; Arcane Twilight; Antipodean SF; New Voices in Fiction; Expressions; Skive Quarterly; Skiveflash; Green Wave; and, of course, Aphelion (most recently The Genesis Solution, August 2008). For additional information about Mr. Gimenez, please visit his website at Lee Gimenez.
E-mail: Lee Gimenez
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