The prisoner stood defiantly in the center of a shimmering force field barely larger than his own body. An expression of absolute hatred twisted his face into an ugly red mass. He felt no remorse for his crimes, or any regret.
I would have killed them all twice, he thought. I was a good worker. I deserved better.
The Supreme Member of the court detected the prisoner's thoughts and waved a hand at the bailiff.
The bailiff stepped forward and pointed a black baton at the prisoner. An electrical charge snapped from its end like a bolt of lightning.
A powerful force stabbed a thousand piercing needles into his eyes. John Andrews fell to his knees and screamed in pain. The torment rushed from his head to the balls of his feet. His face touched the force field for a moment, and the sudden jolt snapped his head into the opposite side of the field, where he was shocked a second time. In seconds, he was reduced to a quivering ball of suffering flesh writhing on the floor of the courtroom.
"The prisoner shall empty his mind of such thoughts," said the Supreme Member calmly. "The prisoner shall stand and hear sentence."
Andrews struggled to his feet and made a conscious effort to blank his mind of all but innocuous thoughts. He pretended he was at his job again and it was just another normal day. Yes, he thought. Another good day. Everything is good.
"John Andrews. You have been found guilty of the crimes of murder and attempted murder. It is the sentence of this court that you be banished from humanity for the remainder of your natural life. The usual parameters will apply." The Supreme Member knocked his gavel with a sharp crack. "Next case."
Two officers escorted the prisoner from the courtroom using a portable device that moved the force field in the direction they wanted him to go. He was taken to a place the other prisoners called simply, The Room.
"When you are ready for the transfer," said an officer, "step onto the pedestal. You may stay here for up to one hour. Many use this time to reflect on their crimes or to record a final statement on their own behalf. The room is sound-monitored and automatically records anything you wish to say. If you fail to mount the pedestal after one hour, we will return to assist you."
The door slammed shut with a clang. The force field surrounding Andrews crackled loudly and disappeared.
The room was solid metal and painted bright white. It was bare except for a shiny black pedestal in the center of the floor.
Andrews did not hesitate. "You can all go to hell!" he shouted, stepping onto the pedestal. Any place is better than here. A powerful magnetic force streamed through his body, forcing him to rigid attention. He tried to open his mouth to shout one last curse at his tormentors, but he was already gone.
He awoke to find himself lying on a bed of hot sand and small rocks. He scrambled to his feet and stared at his surroundings in shock.
He was alone in a vast desert. It stretched to the horizon in all directions. He saw no sign of life and heard only the sound of a dry wind wailing across the harsh landscape. Three white suns were suspended in a brilliant sky of the lightest shade of blue he had ever seen. The amount of light reaching the ground was so intense it hurt to look at anything at all. He squinted and put a hand across his eyes.
Something lay at his feet. It was a metal case the size of a loaf of bread. He unscrewed the case and laid it on the ground to check its contents.
He found a single bottle of water and a pair of sunglasses. There was a simple message printed on the bottle: 'Your supply cache is within one kilometer.' He put on the sunglasses. It was relief for his burning eyes and he was able to see much better.
He shouted at the sky and shook his fist. "You have not seen the last of John Andrews, you sons of bitches!" A string of horrible curses poured from his mouth like bitter syrup.
His anger faded. Suddenly, he felt jubilant and considered his present circumstances a reprieve compared with the prison where he had spent the last six months.
He thought back to the morning he had burst into the factory and crashed through the Director's office door. The Director had held up his hands and his mouth had formed an 'o'. Andrews raised his weapon and dissolved the man to atoms.
Some of them had actually begged for their lives, he thought. To see their cowardice emerge at the deciding moment had only driven him to greater fury. He had killed those people without hesitation. The only one he spared was a man who had dropped to his knees for a final prayer and did not even look at Andrews. Andrews had passed him by and dissolved anyone else unlucky enough to be in the building.
After he had killed more than twenty of his co-workers, a stun beam from an Enforcement Officer had finally knocked him unconscious.
I taught them a lesson in humility though, didn't I? Too bad I forgot to bring an extra power cell for the weapon. I could have killed them all.
Just before his sentencing, Andrews' lawyer had told him that there were only two choices. He could be sentenced to rehabilitation, or he could be banished to one of the asteroids in the Haust system. His only hope of returning to Earth was to find the single transfer portal existing somewhere on the surface. If a banished prisoner located the portal, he could return to Earth for a second chance at rehabilitation, perhaps even a pardon.
Andrews made a wry face. That portal could be anywhere within a million square kilometers or more. He had heard rumors from the other prisoners. The consensus said it was wiser to accept your fate and survive as long as possible.
Governments changed. Laws were sometimes overturned. There was always the chance for a pardon from Earth. In that case, someone would come looking for you. Stay near the supply cache, he was told. Survive. When he asked if anyone had actually returned through a portal, none of the other prisoners could give him an answer.
Oh, I'll find that portal if it takes me ten years. I am coming home someday, don't you worry. When I do, I'll take care of you Mr Supreme Member of the Court. Oh, yes I will.
He started toward a low hill to try and locate the supply cache. When he reached the summit, he saw the cache plainly on the other side. At first, he thought he was looking at a white house sitting forlorn on the desert floor. As he approached, he realized it was a mountain of white plastic boxes stacked into a giant rectangle over five meters high. The entire cache was the size of a single-story home.
The boxes were clearly marked with their contents. 'Shelter cabin-container 1 of 6 for assembly,' and 'food,' and 'water distiller.' He paced around the mountain of boxes and marveled at its size. Enough for a lifetime, he thought bitterly. He pulled the water bottle from his pocket and drank from it until it was empty. He tossed the bottle to the ground and walked around the boxes again.
After the first six months, Andrews realized the portal was not in the immediate area. He had grid-searched every rock and crater for ten miles in all directions without result. He sat at a small table in the cabin and studied a map he made from the tops of one of the plastic boxes. He scrawled an 'x' over the last grid square on the map.
Using simple geometry equations, he had estimated the mass of the planet. It was nearly twice the size of Earth's moon. He was determined to find the portal somehow, although he was beginning to realize the difficulty of the task. There was no water in this place, even underground. Life was almot nonexistent. It was a rock in space orbiting three suns. In daylight, the temperature rose to about a hundred and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. At night, it dropped close to the freezing point. The atmosphere was very thin and the winds constant.
When he had taken stock, he realized his jailers had given him only the bare minimum of food and water. The water problem was the biggest obstacle. Instead of transporting thousands of gallons of water to the planetoid, they had included an atmospheric distiller in the supply cache. The distiller only produced one-half gallon of water per day. This made long treks impossible.
He began saving every spare container that could be utilized to hold water. Two weeks previously, he had abandoned searching the area and remained in the insulated protection of the shelter cabin. He conserved every drop he could from his daily half-gallon ration.
Andrews went outside to check on the new handcart. He examined it carefully. He had built it from plastic boxes, using fire to melt small holes in the sides of the boxes and fasten them together with handmade rope. The rope was woven from strips he tore from his clothing supply.
He had mounted the box assembly onto a wall panel cannnibalized from the inside of the cabin, and then made an axle from a short pole. The wheels, however, had been the most difficult thing to build. He could find nothing to make wheels.
He worked on this problem for a week before discovering a solution.
Cutting a circle from one of the plastic boxes, he used it as a template to make a hundred identical circles. He marked out and cut a hole the size of the axle in each piece, then glued them together. At the end, he had two wheels each made from fifty round pieces of plastic. They were hard and strong. He had mounted the wheels to the axle and loaded some rocks into the cart for a test.
He had tried the cart the previous day, pulling it a couple of miles through the desert. The plastic wheels and the handcart assembly had proven their worth.
Now I just need to save up a lot more water.
He collapsed on the floor of the cabin, sun burnt and nearly dead from thirst. Crawling to the corner, he pulled the recovery container from the distiller and drank greedily until the half-gallon of water was gone. He lay on the floor for a few minutes before making his way to the bed and sitting down. He put his head in his hands. That was close. Oh, that was close. I have to plan my next expedition better.
He had barely made it back to the cabin alive. Three full weeks in the desert on a fruitless search had been followed by becoming lost on the way back. The terrain had been monotonous and endless. Rocks, sand, small hills, and craters, were all he found. One place was the same as another.
And no portal, he thought.
Andrews began expanding his searches. He learned to cache water supplies and mark them with piles of rock on high points. He marked his own trails in the same way. Slowly, he explored more of the planetoid, always marking off the areas he had already searched on homemade maps that steadily increased in number.
Twelve years later, he was a much different man. No longer was he driven by bitterness and a desire for revenge. He began to feel remorse for the people he had killed. It came to him slowly at first, but he realized he had been wrong and his banishment was his own doing.
Sometimes he prayed and asked forgiveness from God for his actions. He often passed the time thinking of what he would tell the court, should he ever return to Earth. He would beg their forgiveness. He would ask to make restitution, somehow, to the families of his victims. He would ask to perform some service in society to help others.
He kept searching for the portal.
The years passed.
The old man moved slowly across the dry terrain, pulling a ragged handcart full of food and water. He was deeply tanned and beginning to show the signs of hard work and age. His back was bowed and he moved more slowly than in previous years. He stopped for a rest and knelt to pray.
Lord, thank you for another day. Thank you for keeping me safe. If you can see it in your heart to help me find my way home, I would...
He stopped praying and got to his feet, staring at something off in the distance. An alien object was sitting on the ground about a hundred meters away.
It was a black pedestal.
He walked toward it, never taking his eyes from the object as if it were a mirage he wanted to keep.
It was real.
He fell to his knees again and thanked God.
For the next hour, he sat next to the pedestal sipping water and trying to gather the courage to step onto it. He practiced speaking aloud, something he rarely did, to prepare himself for interaction with another human being. It had been twenty-six years since he had seen another face or any form of life. He wondered if he could return to that other reality. His search was ended, and yet he was afraid. He racked his exhausted mind for a decision.
Finally, he closed his eyes and stepped onto the pedestal.
The magnetic force jarred him much harder than he remembered. It coursed through his body, snatching him to another time and a different place. He was dimly aware of hands pulling him along by his armpits.
He awoke to find himself inside a round glass tube no larger than a small closet. He tried to see beyond the glass, but it was cloudy. He thought he saw other tubes outside his own, but he could not be sure. He ran his hands over the smooth surface, trying to find an exit. There was none.
"Hey! Can anybody hear me?"
"You are John Andrews?" said a voice.
"Yes! Where am I?"
"That is not your concern. You have returned through the portal. Your sentence will now be completed on Earth."
"You were given a life sentence for your crimes. All returning prisoners have their cases reviewed. Yours has been denied."
A powerful force stabbed a thousand piercing needles into his eyes. John Andrews fell to his knees and howled in pain. The torment rushed from his head to the balls of his feet. He became a writhing ball of suffering flesh on the floor of the tube, screaming without end.