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THE FREEDOM TO SEARCH
Some stories begin with a battle. Even more end with one. Still, there are other stories where the battle occurs before the tale begins. We can only imagine the terrible fight in which Ahab lost his leg to the white whale. We know it was a transforming experience--almost a spiritual conversion. What else could cause a man to lose himself to a quest?
The war-weary planet of Sufiro hung, healing, in the black stillness of space--a blue-green marble spotted with brown continents and white clouds. On Sufiro, Clyde McClintlock sat bored in a pristine white room with perfectly smooth walls and rounded corners. The plastic furniture, a bed, chair, table, and toilet, were as white and featureless as the walls themselves. At the front of the room was a transparent force field, which looked out into an equally pristine white hallway. Clyde picked up a new, crisp book. The book was a mystery novel, but every time he tried to read, images of nearly translucent silver spheres reflecting the planet Sufiro's blue-green oceans would enter his thoughts. People called those spheres the Cluster. It was a benign name for a potent force.
He carefully returned the book to the center of the table, adjusting it precisely. Standing slowly, he put his feet against the back wall. Methodically he paced the distance from the wall to the force field. The cell hadn't changed size; it was still exactly ten paces. Again, McClintlock picked up the book, opened it to the first page, but threw it down almost instantly, activating a button on the edge of the table.
A hologram of a professionally dressed woman materialized on one side of the cell. It was a news holo, originatingfrom Earth. The woman's voice was a forced calm, but held a note of hopelessness. "Humans have now lost over 100 star vessels to the mysterious Cluster. All of the races of the Confederation claim losses on the same scale, including the Titans. So far, no Cluster appears to have attacked any planets, though there have been sightings reported over various frontier worlds, including Earth's key mining colony, Sufiro."
Clyde McClintlock slammed the button, shutting off the hologram. "Don't tell me about the Cluster. I already know more than I want to," he grumbled to no one.
At one time, Clyde McClintlock had been a colonel, leading the armies of the continent of Tejo on Sufiro. Tejo had supplied the mineral, Erdonium, to Earth to help combat the Cluster, wherever it appeared. As the Cluster appeared more often, demand for the rare material increased. To supply the ever-rising need, the Tejans resorted to using migrant labor from the other major continent on the planet, New Granada. Money was short and competition for trade, fierce. As such, the migrant laborers were paid only enough food to survive and clothing that was little more than rags. Even to Clyde McClintlock, whose job it had been to keep the migrants from rioting, it seemed little different from slavery.
The demand for Erdonium continued to grow. Clyde had been ordered to send an invasion force to New Granada to get more people to mine the mineral. It was during the invasion that a Confederation Commander, John Mark Ellis, had destroyed his supply train. Shortly after that, the Cluster had appeared in the sky. It was while the Cluster was in the sky that he had the vision.
In one instant, he had seen, and more importantly, understood, all of the pain and suffering his government had caused. More to the point though, he realized how to end it. In one stroke, Clyde McClintlock led a military coup and seized control of his home, Tejo. Peace between the two continents was made and the migrants were sent home. McClintlock had no ambition to run a country. Even more, he did not want to go down in history as another tyrannical militant who ended one type of suffering by imposing another. McClintlock turned control of Tejo's government over to the people. The people promptly arrested him.
Beyond arresting him, though, the people weren't quite sure what to do. Clyde McClintlock had violated the most sacred law of any military officer. He had attacked his Commander-in-Chief and childhood friend, Rocky Hill. On the other hand, no one questioned that it took just that kind of extreme action to save Tejo from the self-destructive path it had been on.
While imprisoned in the capital, Tejo City, McClintlock had heard that Caroline Chung of the mighty Mao Corporation had been elected to lead the people. McClintlock waited impatiently, hoping she would decide on a course of action--any course of action--soon.
Sitting alone in his cell, McClintlock was bothered. He was not bothered by the ultimate outcome of the decision. In a way, he almost didn't care. As far as he was concerned, death would not be too high a price for betraying his closest friend. Instead, he was bothered by the clarity of the vision he had received. It occurred to Clyde that the Cluster might not be the evil that people had claimed it was. Instead, it might be quite different. It might hold answers; answers to many of the deepest mysteries.
Clyde retrieved some paper from the drawer in the table and began to write...