Chapters 1-3 of The Encore: A Transformational Thriller
1 THE TRIP
I don’t remember dying thought Connor Kane as he hurtled through an ethereal tunnel. Towards what, he wondered. God? Heaven? The promised light that was to bathe me in feelings of overwhelming peace and love? Unfortunately, I feel only nausea, vertigo, and an overwhelming fear of the unknown. Did these foretell a less desirable destination?
The ragged walls of the tunnel whizzed past him at dizzying speeds. But worse, Connor was ricocheting off the walls upside down, sideways, right side up, then upside down again as if there was no grounding gravity. His aching body felt as if he was being pummeled by a prize fighter.
But wait. He suddenly realized he wasn’t colliding with the walls of the tunnel. Rather he was hitting a spongy clear membrane of some sort surrounding him. I’m inside a transparent bubble he concluded as he bounced off the right wall then face-planted into the opposite wall.
He had read about near-death experiences. NDEs. People who had been pronounced clinically dead but been revived. There were no bubbles in their accounts. What did this mean? Their accounts talked about going to the light. There was no bright light ahead of him. Only darkness. Could he not be going to the light? Why was his experience abnormal?
How’d I get here? He searched his memory as he negotiated the collisions. He was still in his tuxedo. He remembered being at the gala celebrating his decade of accomplishments. Then what? Think. He remembered he and Lenore leaving in the limo. Then blackness.
Lenore. Where is she? Panic gripped his body. Is she alright? If I’m dead, she’ll be devastated. His heart was besieged with pain at the very thought of her pain. They’d not been apart since their childhood years in the orphanage in Denmark. His heart broke in empathy with the anguish she must be feeling. A second later it hit him that he’d no longer be with her. His own anguish echoed hers.
Suddenly, the bubble came to a complete stop. His stomach flip-flopped as it does on the downhill drop of a giant roller coaster. The rushing walls of the tunnel were finally still. Silence. Darkness. What is happening? Again, where was the bright light, the beings of light, the welcome of deceased family and friends? Where was his unconditional love and acceptance?
Suddenly, the blue glow of another tunnel materialized out of the pitch black to his right. His bubble immediately made a right turn and raced through the adjoining tunnel. He was again bouncing off the membrane in every direction. He was dizzy again as he was flung from wall to wall upside down.
How can this be? What’s going on? Still no bright light up ahead as he was thrust around the endless winding curves characteristic of this second tunnel. Great. Something to make his nausea worse.
Epiphany. I might be able to turn myself right-side up as I bounce off the walls. He dove towards his feet with his upper body then thrust his feet down underneath him. It worked. He was upright. Well this is better he thought.
Wait a minute. Another epiphany. If I’m not near the walls, I won’t be battered about like a badminton bird. He softly pushed off the wall with the form of a professional swimmer. He headed for the center of the bubble. Stillness. The cacophony silenced. Phew! The calm in the center of the storm. Well this is better he repeated with self-congratulatory pride.
Now I have a chance to think. What has happened? What is happening? He struggled to remember as he guardedly surveilled the speeding tunnel terrain swishing past his purview. Connor would’ve liked to have had the out-of-body experience so many NDEs experienced. Floating above, he could’ve observed his death and the people around his body discussing what had happened. He might then have more answers as to how and perhaps why his life was cut short.
Suddenly Connor’s life review launched. He was “seeing his life flash before his eyes” just as most NDEs report happens after death. Finally. Something expected. Maybe he would receive knowledge about his true essence and the nature of the universe. Throughout his life he had continuously craved such knowledge.
A moment later, Connor realized that this life review had actually started before he died. At the gala celebrating his achievements hours ago. For the best decade of his life, Connor Kane had the honor of serving as the very first Commander-in-Chief for Global Human Resource Maximization. It was his job to mobilize the world’s human resources into the service of mankind in a time of extreme crisis for humanity.
This position had been created because so many natural and man-made disasters had threatened the survival of the species and the planet. Everyone’s greatest talents had to be conscripted to save both. The problems could not be solved by money or power.
Consequently, the existing power holders were willing to relinquish the stage to those with the talent and creativity to solve those challenges. They were motivated by self-interest. They wanted to survive.
According to the praise and awards he’d received, Connor had apparently excelled at this mission. Unfortunately, all government positions were now limited to 10 years in order to give others an opportunity to contribute their talents and creativity.
A paradox. In producing a talent-celebrating world, Connor had spawned the termination of what he considered his greatest opportunity to use his own talents to the fullest. He would dearly have loved to continue as Commander-in-Chief for the rest of his life. He was too young to retire.
Releasing the world’s human resources to their full potential in the service of mankind was meaningful work, of course. However, more than this, there was no greater thrill for Connor than enabling people to do their most gratifying work, make their most significant and meaningful contributions, and receive their greatest intrinsic and material rewards. This is what filled his heart.
Accordingly, he and Lenore had spent their entire careers developing the best techniques for individuals to operate at their maximum to achieve their greatest legacy and rewards. That maximum included increasing the breakthroughs and creative inspirations that could bypass hundreds of steps to achieve goals faster. And better he thought in remembering so many unexpected solutions. They had figured out how to create world changers. World builders.
The mission for the global maximization of the world’s talents had allowed them to apply those techniques to catalyze transformation on a massive scale. To transform individuals en masse. This was his lifework on the grandest of scales.
Yet, neither he nor Lenore had foreseen the peripheral world benefits that would result when talent and the ability to create the unprecedented became supreme. There was no longer tolerance for the prejudice that interfered with the performance of the world’s talent assets.
Every glass ceiling was smashed for the ordinary to achieve the extraordinary in the service of mankind. Blocking those who had something to contribute because of their sex, race, religion, birth, financial wherewithal, education, language, culture and whatever was now verboten. Sanctions could be severe. This dramatically changed how the world operated. There was a dedication to constructing a climate favorable to creative breakthroughs to solve the plethora of world crises.
The economy and power structure changed as well. As talent was cherished, those with it were paid massive amounts of money. With the money came power – power to change how the world was run. Life-threatening wars over geography disappeared. So many of humanity’s failings were erased. All-in-all, Connor was pleased with his impact and legacy. His life review was good.
Connor was startled out of his reverie by a second abrupt stop of his bubble’s whirlwind rush along the tunnel. A second roller coaster stomach flip-flop from the dramatic deceleration. All was dark and still again. Had he arrived? Was this twilight where he was to spend an eternity?
He recalled the previous stop. This likely means the transfer to another tunnel – one which had not yet appeared just like the last time. No NDEs had reported such occurrences. There was a breach in logic here.
He began to question his assumption that he was dead. If this was not death, what could it be? Before he could delve into that answer, the dull blue glow of another tunnel appeared on his right. Seconds later, Connor’s bubble was again shooting through this adjoining tunnel as if it was a bobsled on a downhill icy track.
He was very much in descent. As he careened with each turn, he could catch a glimpse of a brilliant crystalline circle of light off in the distance below him. Finally, he would be embraced by the love and peace so many NDE’s described. Or would he?
Connor had another eureka moment. As a lover of all things cinematic, his mind was suddenly flooded with visions of wormholes in the Star Trek and Stargate television series and movies like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. In fact, I think a theoretical physicist designed the wormhole scenes in Interstellar he recalled. Kip Thorne? Thorne ensured scientific fidelity. Then it hit him. Could he be travelling through a wormhole rather than crossing over?
What he’d been seeing could just as easily have been a wormhole. Or could it be that death is just a wormhole trip into another dimension or space-time location? He was a man addictively drawn to the exploration of such deep questions. Today he’d no time for such digressions. “Focus” he demanded through the fog of his still-dizzy brain. What did he know about wormholes to help him deal with his current plight?
If he was in a wormhole, he was still alive. He was going to live. This was cause for celebration indeed. This was the first good thought he’d had on this trip. He might still be alive?
What did he know about wormholes? A wormhole is a conduit through 4-dimensional space-time. Wormholes are considered to bend space and time to allow two vastly separated regions of the universe to connect. He remembered some video from his past in which two points were drawn on a piece of paper and then the paper was folded so that the two points touched. The wormhole connected these two points. Space commutes that might take thousands of years could be achieved in minutes or hours.
There must be a network of wormholes. I wonder if some civilization made such a network or was it a natural phenomenon. They would have to be pretty advanced to achieve such a construction he ruminated. That would explain the pauses. A wormhole into a different direction was required to speed my bubble to its destination.
Darn! I might be light years away from Earth. Wormholes allow interstellar, intergalactic, and sometimes even interuniversal travel within human lifetime scales. They have also served as a method for time travel.
Didn’t Stephen Hawking posit that wormholes might theoretically be utilized for travel through time as well as through space? Well, that is disconcerting. I might not only be a great distance from Lenore. I might also be in another time. They would be separated as the lovers on the TV show Outlander. Did he accidentally pass through a special Stonehenge-type rock as Caitriona Balfe did in her role as Claire Randall?
What was that thrilling 90s-something movie with Jody Foster? It was a Carl Sagan novel. Contact. Jody Foster’s Dr. Ellie Arroway travels 26 light years through a series of wormholes to the star Vega. The round trip, which to Ellie lasts 18 hours, passes by in a fraction of a second on Earth, making it appear she went nowhere.
Am I living science fiction or just dreaming it? How long have I been traveling? He had no idea. Gosh, he could be thousands of miles from his home. How was he going to get back? His anxiety was interrupted by suddenly glimpsing the circular brilliant white light again only a few turns away.
To Connor’s surprise there was another bubble in front of his. No. There were two! What did that mean? He was not the only one kidnapped? These were his kidnappers? His fear of being battered about again kept him anchored to the center of his bubble.
However, he stretched cautiously off-center to try to see who else had come from Earth. He could not make out who stepped out of the two bubbles. The de-loading seemed to take place in some kind of station structure. How did the bubbles know to come to this station he wondered?
For the first time, Connor noticed circuitry in the base wall of his bubble. It had been in the dark during his trip. Now there was illumination. How ingeniously compact. Since childhood he had always been delighted by creative breakthroughs of every kind. The thrill of helping people to realize creative potential to make their greatest breakthroughs for humanity had always been what had driven his lifework.
His bubble suddenly decelerated for a third time. His stomach did the usual roller-coaster flip-flop. The rushing walls of the tunnel slowed to a snail’s pace. The light of the station was getting brighter making it difficult to see through his unaccustomed eyes. He could discern beings on the disembarkation platform but could not identify them as human.
Before he had time to contemplate his pending meeting, Connor found himself floating to the bottom of his bubble as it came to a complete stop. He was now standing on very wobbly legs. No more. He reached to grab the side of the bubble to steady himself. Unsuccessful, he crumpled to the floor in a heap. He was surprised to discover he had no muscles.
The deceleration must’ve made his fall to the bottom of the bubble possible. No. It must be that he had arrived at a planet with gravitational pull. He wondered where he could be. He wondered whether he would be greeted by friend or foe. He wondered what form they might take. Would they be human? Connor was once more overcome with fear and trepidation.
2 THE ARRIVAL
Connor was still blinded by the bright lights of the station after spending hours in darkness. He couldn’t make out his surroundings or their inhabitants. He put up his arm to shield his eyes to give them time to become accustomed. The silence was welcome after hours of the rush of air from accelerated travel.
Before he could regain his senses, a narrow slit opened in the wall of the bubble. Someone or something much larger than himself lifted him off the floor and carried him through this opening. He was placed on a gurney like those used in ambulances. A being in a white coat with the air of a doctor began checking his vitals.
As soon as the doctor was done, the bed was raised under his head so that Connor was sitting up. He found himself staring at a dozen faces. The most benevolent and wise of the beings spoke first.
“Welcome to Annutia, Commander-in-Chief Connor Kane, Global Human Resources Maximization. I’m Minister Plenipotentiary Axl Dahl. I have just been retired from my role as Supreme Commander for the same reasons you were retired. Term. It was I who wished for your presence here. You may address me as Minister for the present.”
Minister Plenipotentiary. Strange to have this familiar but remote title. Connor hadn’t heard that title since grade school history. In the 1783 Peace Treaty of Versailles which terminated the American Revolution, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay were named Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to the Netherlands, France and Spain, respectively.
Connor analyzed the Minister as he contemplated a response. He was gracious, friendly, and immediately likeable as befits a diplomatic role. However, Connor was not deceived. The power of the Supreme Commander’s past authority and leadership was bristling just below the surface. This was a strong achievement-driven man of great depth.
He seemed to sincerely value Connor and treated him almost familially. This was interesting because Axl Dahl was so similar in appearance to Connor that he could’ve been a relative. Both men had Nordic features. Blue eyes. Light skin and hair. Angular features. They were both tall with wiry athletic builds. The Minister was perhaps 15 years older.
“May I know the purpose of my abduction, Minister?” Connor came directly to the point.
“We need your assistance, Commander.”
“I’ve retired from my post, Minister. Please call me Connor.” This is a planned familiarity in contrast to Axl’s formality. “How may I help?”
Axl smiled at Connor’s bonding maneuver but did not reciprocate. “You’re tired now, Connor. Sleep. We’ll talk when you awake.”
“Annalise! A lithe black-skinned beauty with arresting azure eyes stepped into the spotlight surrounding Connor’s gurney. “Could you please deliver Commander Kane to his residence and bring him to me when he’s refreshed?”
“Yes, Minister” said Annalise.
With a take-charge manner, she motioned to two guards to push Connor’s bed into the awaiting ambulance. Annalise appeared aristocratic, intelligent, capable, and physically and emotionally powerful beneath a diplomatic demeanor. Her large expressive eyes were electric. Even otherworldly. Yet they revealed a depth that made her worthy of a former Supreme Commander’s trust. Consequently, Connor felt he could trust her as well.
It was unusual to see such a muscular physique on such a lean female frame. She was tall. Perhaps equal to his own 6 feet. Maybe a few inches less. Annalise made efficient use of the time as he was transported to the residence.
“Welcome, Commander Kane. We’re delighted to have you with us. I’m one of many who have admired the unprecedented revolution you inspired and implemented on planet Earth over the last 10 years.
“It will be my job to provide you with all of the resources that you’ll need to accomplish the same goals here in a much shorter timeframe. I’m charged with educating you about our world. I am also responsible for your safety and your interface with the members of the Annutia Planetary Steering Council. I hope I’ll become a trusted advisor and confidant for your mission, Commander.
“My talents, training, education, and passions all favor such a role. I too am committed to each person achieving their greatest lifetime legacy in the service of Annutia’s civilization.” She talked on enthusiastically in this vein for some time about their common interests and goals. Connor recognized that this was an attempt to distract him from his plight. He knew in that moment that Annalise had a good heart.
Within about ten minutes they’d arrived at a luxury apartment on a very high floor. Annalise opened the door. “This will be your residence, Commander. These guards will carry you in as your ability to walk will likely still be compromised. One of them will always remain outside your door to ensure you are safe and in case you need anything. This is Brik. And this is Jon. Gentlemen, if you will.”
She stepped into the lavish suite and held open the door. Brik and Jon carried Connor to the master bedroom and placed him on the king-sized bed. A lush royal blue robe had been laid out for him on the turned-down bed. There were also silk pajamas in the same blue and a high-end black hoodie with matching sweatpants from which to choose.
“If you’ll change, Commander, we’ll see to the cleaning of your tuxedo and other garments and shoes, so they’re ready when you want them. Additional clothes, shoes, and accessories have been placed in the closets and drawers for your use.
“Please let us know whatever else you need, Commander Kane. Just press the intercom button and Service will answer. Press 8 if you need to talk to me directly. If there’s an emergency, key 911. They’ll know who and where you are. We created it just for you based on its familiar usage on Earth.
“Do you know what kind of food you’d like to eat right now, Commander? What kind of food and drink you’d like in your fridge? What you’d want to eat when you wake up? I’ve taken the liberty of keeping warm our version of a hamburger and fries in the oven and a strawberry milkshake in the fridge. Would they do for now?”
“Very much, thank you,” replied Connor. I hadn’t realized how hungry I am.”
“Jon, if you wouldn’t mind.” She motioned him to the kitchen. “I have bacon, eggs, rolls, and fruit in the fridge for breakfast or you may order from room service over the intercom. There are checklists for prepared foods and grocery items on the nightstand, so you can select what will keep you fueled for your mission. There’s also a third checklist for any nonfood items you might need. Just leave the lists on the kitchen counter. Housekeeping will collect them daily.
“We’ve already provided a computer, printer, and other technology you may require. The remote for this television is in your night stand. I’ve stocked the bookshelves with books about Annutia and Annutians, so please feel free to browse to learn more about the people you’re here to help. There is gym equipment in a room off the living room in case you need to work out.
“Press 8 when you’re ready for me to return to escort you to meet with the Minister Plenipotentiary. Is there anything else you require, Commander?”
“When will I be going home, Annalise?” When she did not respond, Connor asked, “Can I contact my wife to let her know that I’m alright? We’ve never been separated. She must be terrified.” Again, Annalise seemed to have difficulty finding the words to respond.
“Do I have any choice in whether I take on this mission?”
“Hm,” responded Annalise with immediate understanding and empathy. “Perhaps these are questions best put to the Minister. Unfortunately, there are matters for which I haven’t been authorized to speak, Commander. I’ll be as open as I can throughout our partnership.
“However, if I can’t provide you with the information you request, I’ll refrain from saying anything rather than lie to you. I want you to feel you can trust what I do say. Good night, sir,” she said as she moved swiftly towards the door of the bedroom. She obviously wanted no part in contributing to his pain.
“Good night, Annalise. Thank you,” he called after her to let her know he understood and did not hold her responsible.
Connor dove into his food wholeheartedly, appreciative of the Annutians’ attempt to provide him with a favorite American meal. I wonder if they have a MacDonald’s here yet? He smiled as he envisaged himself negotiating that lucrative trade deal if they didn’t. And Jeff Bezos would certainly want to launch Amazon here – likely in person given his love of space travel and science fiction. And that is exactly what this was thought Connor. Science fiction.
3 THE MISSION
Connor pressed 8 on his intercom to summon Annalise for his rendezvous with Minister Plenipotentiary Axl Dahl. He was rested, showered, dressed, and nourished. He was ready to negotiate with the Minister for a few things, especially the terms of his return home. Annalise arrived to collect him. She nodded towards the elevator when she caught Brik’s eye as they passed him seated at the guard table outside of Connor’s door. He followed behind.
As the trio descended in the elevator of the residential tower, Annalise explained that six planetary government towers were connected at ground level and one floor below via shopping and restaurant concourses. When they reached the ground level, Connor was impressed with the massiveness of the complex and the elegance of the stores and restaurants.
In places, ceilings were several floors high to create an impressive spaciousness. Several floors of people-filled glassed-in offices overlooked the concourse. The complex was stone, glass, and steel in an uplifting blue and white theme. It looked like a mixture of blue marble, blue granite, white marble and white granite with the granite being used for the floors.
Rather than a cold impersonal isolating structure, this hub was alive with people of purpose from many races. We have no such planetary capital on Earth he thought. But if we did, I imagine it would look like this.
The trio walked over to the elevator for Tower West and sped up to floor 68 at the top of the tower. The elevators had glass walls as well. Even though he didn’t think he had a fear of heights, Connor found it unnerving to be exposed to the view from such a height. He’d had a visceral reaction to the speed of the elevator rise. He suspected that he was still sensitive from the trauma of his recent wormhole voyage.
As he and Annalise entered the Minister’s spacious office foyer, it was obvious that there was some pressing crisis afoot. Axl’s Aides were white with fear as they stood around the Minister’s desk in his inner office. They were intent on expressing their concerns, demanding solutions, and asking questions as he listened paternally. He eventually stopped them by suddenly standing up to begin issuing orders to each. The Aides quickly dispersed, somewhat relieved to have assignments to address their issues.
“Would you like to reschedule your meeting with Commander Kane, Minister?” asked a respectful Annalise.
“No. No. Good morning, Annalise, Commander,” he said with a nod to each. “Commander, please come in,” he welcomed. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said as he waved Connor to a large grouping of rounded deep tufted leather couches and stately wing-back chairs. “Coffee, expresso, latte, macchiato, iced latte, juice,” Axl offered from an elaborate built-in bar laden with refreshments and associated machines and carafes. He opened a full-sized fridge hidden behind the wall of wood paneling to reveal a large assortment of cold beverages and snacks.
“A Latte, please.”
“Allow me, Minister.”
“Thank you, Annalise.”
The Minister took a large chair across from Connor and scrutinized him for a moment. Connor, for his part was engrossed with the massiveness of the office. He’d been in the offices of many national leaders across Earth. Yet he’d never been in one so large or lavish.
One end of the office was completely windows. The view was spectacular from the 68th floor. The windows extended inwards along the ceiling for about five feet making it appear from his seat that the office was suspended in the sky. It functioned much like an upside-down infinity pool with no boundary to the sky. This was architecturally foreign to anything Connor had encountered on Earth.
As Annalise presented the latte to Connor, she went to sit down adjacent to him. “Thank you, Annalise. I need to speak to the Commander alone. Please let Birgitte know where we might contact you when Commander Kane is ready to return to his residence.”
“Of course, Minister,” she said good-naturedly as she glided gracefully across the office towards the door. If she was disappointed at being excluded, her face did not divulge it. He admired Annalise as a natural diplomat. She had such a pleasant uplifting energy. Conner’s mind immediately switched back to business. He took charge of the meeting.
“I’ll need to speak to my wife before we continue. I need to tell her that I’m alright and how long it’ll be before I come home.”
The Minister darted a glance at the departing Annalise.
“Annalise, please arrange a call for Connor so he may calm his wife.”
For a second, a quizzical look passed across her face before she composed herself.
Connor worried what that was about. Given Annalise’s normal state of composure her momentary lapse was even more significant.
“Will two hours from now be enough time, Minister?”
“Very good, Annalise.”
She closed the door.
The Minister adroitly snatched the agenda back from Connor. He was obviously a man accustomed to running things.
“Connor, our circumstances are dire.”
Connor noted that now that they were behind closed doors without an audience, Axl had dropped the decorum and deference of addressing him by his title. The Minister had accepted his previous invitation for a less formal relationship.
“If creative solutions are not found, an alien transmutation of this planet will make it uninhabitable by human beings. We have perhaps only six months to live. What I will tell you now is known only by those who have signed confidentiality agreements. You’ll be addressing twelve of these tomorrow morning at a meeting of the Annutia Planetary Steering Council.
“I will respect your wishes for confidentiality, Axl,” assured Connor. Am I going to like this cultural transformation project for which you’ve volunteered me?” he asked facetiously with a teasing grin.
In reality, Connor was seething inside now that he knew he had not just been kidnapped but was also facing imminent death on a dying planet. With the practiced discipline of decades, there was not a ripple of his anger, fear, or weakness anywhere on his face. Provocation while powerlessly imprisoned on a foreign planet would not be the smartest strategy. His platform for negotiation would dissipate.
“We are requesting an encore, Connor, of your greatest work. If I’ve read you correctly, I’m confident that there’s nothing you’d rather do. Do you understand the term ‘terraforming’?”
“Yes,” grinned Connor. I confess that I enjoy the worldbuilding dilemmas of many science fiction novels. Terraforming or literally, ‘Earth-shaping’, is a process for modifying planets, moons, asteroids and such to make them habitable by Earth-like life, especially humans.
“Good. Our scientists have found evidence that Annutia was originally terraformed – probably by people traveling from Earth through the wormhole long before vehicles for space travel were developed. Now some alien species is trying to change the planet back. Or at least trying to customize it to their needs. We’re not sure yet.”
“We don’t yet have a word for this planetary engineering to a non-Earth-friendly ecology. So, for convenience I borrowed the term ‘xenoforming’ from H.G. Wells in his 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds – the re-engineering of Earth or an Earth-like planet to benefit some alien population. ‘Xeno’ pertains to foreign or foreigner.”
Axl abruptly stood up in the middle of the discussion and walked to the coffee bar. While he presented a calm and in-control exterior, it was obviously a façade constructed with a discipline similar to Connor’s. He asked Connor if he too would like another. Connor asked for sparkling mineral water. Ice. Lemon. The Minister returned and continued with some urgency.
“There are other wormholes near Annutia from which the aliens must have arrived. We have no flying machines. They were banned when the factions kept bombing each other or hijacking planes for ransom or using them for kamikaze missions. Therefore, we’d have noticed any encroachment by air. With the kind of stealth used, there was no way for us to know to protect ourselves. We have weapons against invaders, of course, but this attack was too low key to be detected.
Rather, the aliens, whomever they are, patiently infected the planet with a deadly cocktail of algae which our scientists predict will gradually convert our atmosphere to their preference. Oxygen will be eliminated. An ample supply of ammonia, nitrates, and phosphates were apparently included in the cocktail to ensure that the algae flourished and spread rapidly. Before this, algae were unknown on this planet.”
Axl abruptly stood up again to address a mounted super-sized map of the planet on Connor’s behalf. It covered most of the wall opposite the window. Lighting of various areas or categories was controlled by a board of buttons at the bottom. Axl hit a button and some bodies of water were highlighted in red.
“The fatal effects of the xenoforming cocktail are spreading rapidly. The algae emit gases and neurotoxins that are deadly to human beings and indeed all living things plant and animal. These areas in red here, here, here, here, and here are particularly noxious. The old and sick in these red zones are beginning to register respiratory distress.
“Apparently, algal toxins can be aerosolized by water waves. Airborne algal toxins trigger allergy- and asthma-like symptoms such as airway constriction, shortness of breath, sneezing, and so on. Persons with preexisting airway disease are most affected. The toxins are released as the algae die and begin to decompose.
“The algae grow wherever there is moisture and particularly where they’ve been supplied with significant sources of phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon. Accordingly, the algae gravitate to our lakes and rivers and are contaminating our water with neurotoxins and such,” he said as he returned to his seat with a laser pointer and a remote. “Even water intrusion into buildings that are not immediately addressed tend to support the growth of the poisonous algae making our buildings unsafe or uninhabitable.
“We’re already facing water shortages. Our existing water filtration systems are ill-equipped to handle the current levels of contamination. Our water treatment systems can no longer screen out the concentrations of deadly neurotoxins in the water.
“In addition, the whole food chain has been affected. The neurotoxins have accumulated in the bodies of shellfish, sardines, and anchovies, which, if then eaten by sea lions, otters, cetaceans, birds or people, can cause death. The algae cover the water and prevent the sunlight required by plants living below from reaching them. Animals dependent on those plants are then starved out.
“We assume these algae are food for the aliens. Our think tanks have explored the idea that the invaders will allow our population to suffocate due to respiratory challenges and/or to die from dehydration or starvation. They can then simply assume possession of Annutia when we’re all dead. By then, they’ll have the sustainable food supply and atmosphere that they need.
“Our brainstorming groups have also contemplated the scenario in which Annutians could be enslaved by the aliens based on our need for oxygen, water, and food. Therefore, they might invade when some of us are still living.
“The crisis you observed upon your arrival today, Connor, was the outbreak of a fire. Some of the farmers along our main waterway here” as he pointed the laser light to the largest river, “tried to kill the algae by burning them.
“There were unexpected flammable gases that didn’t burn the algae at all. The fire simply existed above the algae blooms. Much like the effect of fire eaters and fire tracers who protect themselves with 70% isopropyl alcohol, white gas, naphtha fuel, or stunt fire gel on their skin as insulation. The invaders must have planned for our use of fire as a defense as well.
“Our food chains have been affected. Our fish industry is dead. Our meat industry is quickly disappearing as the animal sources are dying from the toxicity from infected water, feed, and the food chain. Our water is gone. The laser light darted back to the map to follow the outline of the same largest and longest river. We also get hydropower from the flow of the Kalix River which has been blocked by the algae.
“The farms that have grown up along our Kalix River because of the need for fresh water, no longer have access to it. Toxic water has killed both cattle and crops. We’re facing a severe food shortage as a result.
“The factions, tribes, and castes with water are demanding payment for what was previously shared. They have been stockpiling resources for the starving, thirsty populations in their own jurisdictions.
“We’re having to increase our use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil for power. There’s a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions which are affecting the ozone layer to make our environmental problems worse.
“Coal-fired power plants spew billions of tons of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere which causes a greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases trap the heat from the sun causing global warming. The most common heat-trapping gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. The resulting global warming causes . . . .”
The intensity of the discussion was suddenly interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. A well-dressed gentleman burst into the office at a speed which prevented Axl from diplomatically rebuffing him. He immediately headed to Connor with an outstretched hand.
“Welcome. I’m Supreme Commander Rikard Riis,” he said bombastically.
With a respondent handshake, Connor replied at normal conversational decibels, “Connor Kane, former Commander-in-Chief, Global Human Resources Maximization, Earth. A pleasure to meet you, Supreme Commander.”
“Please call me Rikard, Connor. You are a most welcome addition to our life-and-death fight. Thank you for agreeing to help us. I look forward to hearing you introduce your process tomorrow at the Council meeting. My wife Ingrid and I would be delighted if you’d join us for dinner in the next few days as your schedule permits.”
“Thank you, Rikard. I’d be delighted,” responded Connor perfunctorily.
“Pardon my intrusion, Axl,” he said finally acknowledging the Minister’s presence with a nod in his direction. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to your important work.” With that, Rikard turned and abruptly exited the office with the same speed at which he had burst into it.
Supreme Commander Riis has the charm, charisma and sociability of successful politicians. However, he has very little of the substance that Axl possesses. It was obvious to Connor that someone had bought this man’s way into his current position. Riis was a front. A puppet. And by the strain he sensed between the two men, Connor suspected that Axl was not the puppet master but the enemy.
Riis also lacked Axl’s benevolence. In fact, there was a foreboding in his manner which made Connor fearful. He realized that he would be even more uneasy if Axl was no longer there to protect him. In an instant, he realized his dependence on the Minister. He accepted that Axl was friend not foe.
Alone again, Connor restarted the discussion, “So have you brought me here to die, Axl? I fear our friendship is going to be short-lived,” he quipped.
Axl laughed. “I must have more faith in you than you do, Connor.”
Connor continued to jest to break Axl’s tension. He motioned to the large picture on the wall of Vaudeville comedy duo and silent film comedians, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Their famous catch phrase was printed boldly on the top, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”
“I relate, Axl. I suspect I’m not the first,” he joked.
Axl laughed again succumbing to the distraction. “Would you believe this is the oldest known relic from Earth? I ‘ve often wondered if it suggests the time when Annutia was terraformed. Laurel and Hardy were famous from the late 1920s to the 1940s. Annutians tend not to concentrate on history as much as they do on Earth because our religion has us focusing on the ‘now.’ We’re taught mindfulness and contemplative techniques and practices in school from the first grade to help us to do that.
“Obviously, we need creative solutions now, Connor. We need you to repeat with acceleration your conversion of humanity to a talent- and creativity-worshipping power structure. We need our world’s talents working at the maximum to save our planet and ourselves. There is no one better than you to do that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Unfortunately, we’re a population devoid of creativity. We have so many rules, and so many castes and so much prejudice and judgement that we’ve all but eliminated the courage to be creative. We’ve become a left-brain society where logic reigns supreme. Our creative right brains have atrophied.
“What makes you think there is enough time, Axl?”
“I’ve studied your career, Connor. You’ve worked on the liberation of individuals to their full creative expression for 30 years. When you assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief for Global Human Resources Maximization, you had your strategic plan completed and being actioned in your first month. You established most of the structures for global conversion in your first two months. What is it you call yourself? Oh yes. An execution creative.
“This is your encore, Connor. Faster. Smarter. With higher stakes. And with more fulfillment than the first time around. There is no project more meaningful for you to undertake.
“If you went back to your retirement on Earth without at least trying, you’d regret it for the rest of your life. Facing death is not the anathema for you, Commander Kane. Facing a life without meaning, purpose, and mission is far worse for someone of your talents and passions.
“You’ll see, Connor. We’ve already started. We’ve released your speeches and writings into our corporations and upper educational streams to get people thinking about the conversion.
“I’m going to have Annalise arrange for you to access to the Planetary Government Library today. You’ll get an idea of how much we know already so you can formulate what you want to say to the Council tomorrow about your plan.”
Connor refrained from comment while he began to formulate possible strategies. He was indeed an execution creative by passion. He believed he could implement anything even if it had never been done before. He found new implementation challenges irresistible.
“I’ve studied your methods for achieving the restructuring to release the greatest creative solutions to global crises. However, what I haven’t been able to figure out yet is what levers you pushed to cause the break in the money-and-political power grid in the first place. A discussion for another day.”
Connor suspected Axl was referencing the forces behind Rikard Riis. The Minister jumped up without warning for a third time and stepped quickly to his desk to flick on the intercom. “Birgitte, has Annalise returned yet for Commander Kane?”
“Yes, sir. She’s been here for some time.”
Axl moved to the door and opened it.
“So sorry to have kept you, Annalise. Please come in for a moment. Commander Kane needs library access to Earth information to find common ground for his speech to the Council tomorrow. He’s also going to need information about the Council Ministers, so he can shape his speech to his audience.
“I think it’s also advisable that you make him aware of the conflicts among them so that he’s not blindsided. In fact, why don’t you bring him at the beginning of the Council meeting so that he can observe the conflicts and players in action.
“Thank you, Annalise. And thank you Commander Kane for undertaking this critical mission for us,” Axl said while shaking Connor’s hand. “I look forward to hearing you speak. Please use Annalise to let me know how I may help.”
And without even a moment to consider or to ask a question, Connor suddenly found himself outside of the Minister’s inner office next to its closed door. Connor was impressed by how smooth Axl was. He felt out-finessed.
“This way, Commander,” directed Annalise. The tall and muscled Brik again trailed them. Obviously, Axl considered him a VIP needing a bodyguard.
“Were you able to arrange the call with my wife?”
“I was indeed. We have thirty minutes to arrive back at the appointed time.”
As they stepped out of the elevator on his floor of the residential tower, Connor could see at the other end of the hall Jon sitting at the table guarding his suite. Perhaps Axl was right. Maybe he’d underestimated his talents somewhat despite the celebratory gala.
As they arrived at the suite, Annalise walked to the office where an external telephone resided. Connor took the covers off his lunch while he pondered how he was going to tell Lenore that there was a good chance that he would be dead within the year.