Franklin cinched his callused hands around the chrome bar. Tiny chalk flakes drifted from his powerful palms. Four junior military officers surrounded the bench press with their eager gazes fixed on the massive weights balanced at the ends of the Olympic bar. Franklin drew his lungs full and heaved the weight from the rack. He lowered the bar to his chest and pressed the immense mass upward. His enormous pectorals expanded. Veins in his neck surged with rushing blood. He extended his arms and held the bar steady. "One," the young onlookers counted. Franklin lowered the bar flush to his chest and then pressed the weight to the full extent of his muscled arms. "Two," the chorus chanted. Franklin lowered the bar and heaved the heavy iron toward the ceiling. "Three," the youths exclaimed with amazed tenor. Sweat beaded on Franklinís strained forehead. His face turned dark red. His hands quivered but he didnít rack the bar. He lowered the weight to his chest and heaved with all his power. The bar defied gravity and rose toward the ceiling. "Four," the young men shouted. Franklin held the massive weight steady with his powerful arms. He lowered the bar once more to his chest. He grunted and heaved. The weights rose toward the ceiling as if driven by an unstoppable force. "Five!" the men shouted with exhilaration. Franklin tilted the bar slightly backwards and allowed the heavy weights to slam down on the rack. He released a gasp and sat up on the bench.
"I told you I could do it," he boasted to his amazed onlookers.
"Unreal," Captain Altman exclaimed. "Five hundred and twenty five kilograms is not humanly possible."
"I am not human," Franklin replied. He stood and dusted white chalk from his heavy hands. He grinned at Captain Altman and pointed toward the distant snowcapped mountains on the other side of the windows. "Why donít you let me out of this cage?" Franklin asked. "Iíll hole up in the trees and youíll never hear another word."
Captain Altman laughed and slapped Franklinís muscular shoulder. "If that decision was left to me, Colonel, Iíd drive you to those mountains myself. It is a crime for a warrior like you to be locked in a prison."
Franklin peered into Captain Altmanís sympathetic eyes. "You can say I escaped," he suggested.
The officerís engaging smile faded. "I wish I could let you go," he replied with a sincere voice. "If you bolt the fence, weíll shoot you down like a dog and none of us want that."
"Hey big man," one of the officers shouted at Franklin. "How much can you bench press?"
"I donít know," Franklin answered with a shrug. "I never tried to find out."
The magnetic locks that sealed the front door of the weight room detached. General Elliot Lent and a male civilian marched into the room. Elliot addressed Captain Altman. "You and your men wait outside."
"Yes sir," Captain Altman answered and snapped his boot heels. He and the others marched through the door and mingled in the prison courtyard outside the weight room. The general gazed at Franklinís bare chest and his short black gym pants.
"You look different than you did at Gardelegen," Elliot observed.
Franklin fetched a water bottle from a case stacked against the brick wall. He ripped the plastic top from the bottle and took the measure of Elliot. "I killed a lot of you bastards that day."
Elliot smiled with grudging respect. "I wish my butchered troopers could see the great Colonel Franklin standing half naked in a prison gym putting on a freak show for a bunch of wet nosed kids."
Franklin squeezed a stream of water from the bottle into his mouth. "Do you keep me alive just to taunt me?" Franklin asked. "If we had won, we would have exterminated you bastards."
"That was the point of the war," Elliot said. "We offered the world an alternative to you psychotic freaks."
Franklinís angry jaws clenched. "If I am a freak, it is because of you."
"We are wasting time, gentlemen," the civilian said in a conciliatory tone. "The Hybrid Wars are over."
"The war is never over," Franklin snapped with harsh eyes.
The civilian peered at the brute standing in front of him. "My name is Parker Quint. I represent Global Mining."
"So what?" Franklin shrugged.
"Global Mining has launched a successful Jupiter installation that harvests commercial volumes of metallic hydrogen used in the new fusion reactors," Parker explained. "Global Mining is powering the new world with clean energy."
Franklin sat on the bench press, questioned Elliot with his eyes, and pointed at Parker. "Who is this idiot?"
Parker stiffened his shoulders and glared at Franklin. "This idiot has expended considerable political capital to get you a pardon."
"I should throw your lying ass through the windows," Franklin threatened.
"I am not lying," Parker assured him.
"You are jerking my chain," Franklin scoffed. "The only way out of this zoo is in a coffin."
"Global has agreed to purchase one thousand acres in these mountains," Parker promised him. "You will be allowed to live there, with the companion of your choice, for the rest of your life. Your comrades can visit and there will be no surveillance cameras except at the fenced boundary."
Franklin glanced at Elliot. "Is this another one of your mind games?"
"This is no game," the general replied. "We have a situation and we need your help. If you cooperate, you will get your pardon."
Franklin narrowed his dark brown eyes. "How do I know you are telling the truth?"
"When you surrendered, I promised that your men would receive medical treatment and I kept my word," Elliot reminded him. "That is the difference between a professional solider and a hybrid killer."
Franklin drained the water bottle into his mouth and flung the empty plastic container into a trash bin. He glanced at Parker. "How do I earn this pardon?"
Parker sat on the bench next to Franklin. His normal frame was dwarfed by the huge man. Parker peered into Franklinís brown eyes. "We lost contact with the Saturn station. We need to find out what happened."
"Send your people," Franklin suggested. "They are good."
"Not as good as you," Parker replied. "We have a pressurized cargo tube that will fire from the Kreighton Cannon. Your hybrid physique will survive the acceleration that would crush a normal human."
"How do you know Iíll live?"
"We donít," Parker answered. "But that is a chance we are willing to take."
Franklin fetched another water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and considered Parkerís offer. "What if no one is watching the magnetic net? Iíll zip into space and freeze to death."
"The net is on line," Parker assured him. "The automated retriever will capture the tube and funnel you into the landing zone."
Franklin took a sip. "What is the rush?" he asked. "The station is not going anywhere."
"The Saturn mission has the latest entangled communications equipment," Elliot explained. "They havenít responded to a ping in over sixteen hours."
"Those miners are Russians," Franklin joked. "They are probably drunk."
"Not a chance," Parker responded in a solemn tone. "There is a possibility that the tangle malfunctioned. In that case, we may have a solution by the time you arrive. You can enjoy the view, catch a regular flight back, and your pardon is still valid."
Elliot furrowed his brow and focused his gaze at Franklin. "I know we were enemies, but the war is over," he said. "You donít belong in this cage and this is your ticket out."
"What about my men?"
"Each will receive a private land grant close to you," Parker assured. "They are so badly shot up that they donít present a threat. You are the only hybrid that survived unwounded."
Franklin lowered his gaze to the black floor. "No one comes out of a civil war unwounded," he said with a hushed voice. He raised his gaze to Elliot. "If I die, do my men get pardoned?"
"Yes," the general replied. "If not for your hostile attitude, we would have released them a long time ago. They have enough sense to know the war is over."
Franklin leaned his elbows on the chrome bar and peered down at Parker. "What do you want me to do?"
"Secure Globalís investment," Parker explained.
"What about the station crew?í
"They may have suffered space dementia," Parker replied.
"You are lying," Franklin scoffed. "I see deceit in your eyes."
"Okay," Parker shrugged. "We donít really know what happened to the crew."
Franklin peered into Elliotís eyes. "This civilian is a liar. Will you tell me the truth?"
"I honestly donít know what happened," the general answered. "We received a stream of normal tangles and then all of a sudden the signal dropped. We need quick answers and you are the only living being on this planet who can survive a tube shot."
"You are both scared," Franklin observed. "You want to send a fighter because you suspect something is very wrong."
"You have nuclear training," Parker said. "If you are unable to secure the station, you will detonate the self-destruct warhead."
"With me inside?"
"Set the timer and return in the same cargo tube," Elliot answered.
"Will I be allowed to get out of the tube?"
"Six weeks of quarantine is required," Parker answered. "After that you can drink sweet beer and watch rainbows on your back porch."
Franklin pensively rubbed his chin and peered at Elliot. "Did you say I could select a female companion?"
"You are a living legend in your part of the world," Elliot said with a respectful nod. "I am sure we can find an agreeable woman who enjoys fresh mountain air."
Franklin walked to the windows that faced the prison yard. He considered the rows of bleak white huts that housed his men. He knew they wanted free of their confinement but none would seek release as long as he refused to accept that the war had ended. Franklin turned his attention to Elliot. "If you double cross me, Iíll track you down and rip out your spine and then Iíll gut this lying civilian."
"Of that I have no doubt," Elliot replied. "I give you my word as an officer that every one of your men will be pardoned."
"When does this party get started?" Franklin asked.
"The Kreighton cannon fires in one hour," Elliot answered. "Saturn is a straight shot this time of year."
"There are release papers I need you to sign," Parker said.
Franklinís jaws tightened. "I learned the hard way that your papers are no good."
"Iíve given you my word," Elliot said and offered his right hand. "Is that good enough?"
Franklin accepted the smaller hand into his. He smiled when the general tightened his grip. "I believe you." Franklin released the generalís hand. "You are wrong about one thing."
"I am not psychotic."
"The Hybrid Wars are over, Colonel," Elliot said. "When you return, I hope you live in peace."
Franklin clenched his teeth and glared into Elliotís eyes. "The war will live as long as men like us breathe."
"I am not like you," Elliot replied. "I fight because I have to. You fight because you love it."
"You are more like me than you suspect," Franklin insisted. "Killing is in woven into our souls."
"Can we have this theological debate another time?" Parker asked. Elliot fetched a white remote control from his front pants pocket and pressed the center red button. Franklinís ankle bracelet disengaged and dropped to the floor. Franklin rubbed his chafed skin and kicked the bracelet away. He walked with Elliot and Parker through the weight room door into the gravel prison yard. They walked under the glare of tower-mounted machine gunners and snipers strolling along the catwalks. Security guards at the main gate allowed them to pass through four sets of doors. They boarded a waiting military truck that was parked on the asphalt road. Parker joined the driver in the front seat and told him the destination. Franklin climbed into the rear of the truck and sat next to an open case housing a magnetic pulse rifle. Elliot sat opposite Franklin and shouted to the driver that he was ready. Franklin considered the weapon easily within his reach.
"Are you testing me?" he asked Elliot with a twisted smile.
"That special design gun fires an exploding round that wonít penetrate the habitat hull," the general explained.
Franklin lifted the cold metal weapon into his skilled hands. He jerked back the bolt to slam a live round into the chamber. He raised the gun to his chin and aimed through the open sights at Elliotís face. The stoic general didnít flinch. Franklin flipped off the safety and pointed the weapon out the back of the truck. "If I pull the trigger, will this gun fire?"
"It wouldnít be much good if it didnít work," Elliot replied.
Franklin returned the weapon to the case. He peered at the general with questioning eyes. "Are you sending me up there to execute the crazed crew? Is that why you donít want to use your people?"
"I hope you donít need that gun," Elliot replied. "I hope when you arrive this mystery has already been solved. But if the miners are suffering space dementia, they are likely to be violent and highly aggressive."
"You want me to execute unarmed civilians?"
"Your mission is to secure the station. The details are up to you."
"If I tap a miner, will I face criminal charges?"
"Everyone knows that space mining is a hazardous job," the general said. "No one will ask any questions."
The truck rounded a bend and merged onto the freeway. Franklin watched passenger cars zip past. He pulled back the canvas flap alongside him and gazed at the snowcapped mountains. He drew a breath of pine-scented fresh air. "I didnít think I would ever get out of that prison."
"You are never going back," Elliot assured him. "I have given orders to have it torn down. Those cages are a stain on our memories." The general grabbed a duffle bag from the floor and tossed it to Franklin. "Get out of the gym shorts and put on a flight suit."
Franklin stripped away the shorts. He jammed his beefy legs into the one-piece flight suit and pulled the garment over his torso. He zipped the front and extended his arms sideways. "This fits a little snug," he complained.
"The fabric will stretch the longer you wear it," the general said. He gazed at Franklinís thick muscles bulging under the snug white uniform. "You are one big son of a bitch."
Franklin grinned. "Strong is always good."
Elliot tossed Franklin a meal packet and bottled water. "You better chow down. There is nothing to eat in the capsule." Franklin mixed water with the precooked meal. He shoveled food into his mouth with a plastic spoon while the truck wheeled off the freeway onto a military airstrip. Franklin grabbed his weapon and clip vest. They boarded a helicopter and flew between the mountain peaks into a brown desert. They landed in the sand next to Global Miningís elevator platforms. They exited the helicopter and walked toward one of many metal funnels that aimed toward the blue sky. A loud thud from a nearby funnel signaled the release of an elevator. Franklin watched the glass cylinder hurling upwards into the sundrenched sky. Franklin followed Elliot and Parker up a flight of stone steps onto a platform marked with a giant red 8. They passed a security checkpoint and entered a sliding door attached to a glass-encased cylinder. The sliding door slammed shut. Franklin felt his ears pop while the container pressurized. A pleasant female voice spoke through the intercom.
"This is a southern terminal bound Global shuttle. You will experience weightlessness when the elevator passes through the upper atmosphere. Normal gravity will return when you enter the terminal. We wish you an enjoyable journey and thank you for choosing Global."
The cylinder detached from a base clamp and hovered in a magnetic field. Blue numbers above the sliding door counted down from 5. At 0, an electrical discharge blasted the cylinder upwards. The glass elevator hurled into the cloudless sky on a journey toward the orbiting terminal. Franklin watched the brown sand move further away. He felt unease in his belly when the elevator passed through the atmosphere. The cylinder arched to match the earthís curvature. A mild jolt indicated that the terminal controller was guiding the container. The cylinder dropped into a main terminal elevator shaft. The sliding door opened and Elliot stepped onto the busy concourse, Franklin and Parker following. Franklin gazed at hordes of tourists hurrying to the catch their flights. He peered through the terminal windows at shuttles docked to extended walkways. The earthís hazy atmosphere lay below.
"Our world looks smaller from here," Franklin observed.
"We donít have time for sightseeing," Parker said.
A group of four civilian men wearing army caps stopped to gawk at Franklin. "You hybrid piece of shit," one of the men snarled.
Franklin lowered his chin and balled his fists. "Come over here and say that."
Elliot barked at the angry veterans. "Go about your business." The four spat at Franklin and continued on their way.
"I thought you said the war was over," Franklin said.
"Forget about it." Elliot pulled Franklinís arm. They hurried past bustling ticket counters toward a guarded corridor. Elliot escorted them past armed soldiers into a brightly lit tunnel that ended at the Kreighton cannon control room. Busy technicians sat at two rows of workstations chattering into their headsets. Yellow cargo tubes queued at the rear of each of the four space guns. Red flashing lights at the cannon breach indicated the fusion reactors that powered the electrical blasts were online. A bright light erupted from one of the cannons. Wall-mounted monitors tracked the trajectory of the fired tube. Above the four cannons, a magnetic net hovered like a huge red spider web. The net captured an incoming tube and routed the yellow container to the landing zone where the minerals would be unloaded and shipped to Earth.
Elliot elbowed Franklin and pointed to the furthest of the four cannons. "Your special cargo tube is loaded into that gun."
"How many times have your fired a pressurized tube?"
"This will be the first," Parker admitted. "But the simulations prove the concept."
"No one cares if a hybrid dies," Franklin observed.
"You arenít going to die, Colonel," Elliot assured him with a chuckle. "You are too damn hard to kill."
They walked into a short corridor that connected with an automated shuttle. Elliot slid the shuttle door shut and grabbed the overhead metal handrail. The craft detached from the walkway and glided toward the cannon. Franklin floated and flailed his hands in the air. Elliot laughed at his confusion. "The transport lacks a graviton field. Youíd better grab one of the handrails."
Franklin locked his powerful fist to a metal rail and steadied himself. He felt his stomach rise into his throat. "How long does this last?" he asked with a queasy voice.
"We will be inside the cannon field in a minute," Elliot replied. "Donít puck all over me."
The shuttle docked at the cannon breech. Franklinís stomach returned to normal. He released the handrail and followed Elliot through the transportís sliding door. He stood on a platform and gazed to his left at the long narrow gun barrel than looked like a never ending subway tunnel. A yellow cargo tube with the forward hatch open waited on twin metal rails. They walked toward the tube and stopped at the open hatch. Green compressed gas cylinders secured into steel racks lined the walls. A metal locker was welded to the floor. Parker pointed to a chair bolted to the back wall.
"Strap tight into that chair and put on the oxygen mask," he advised. "When the tube hits the Saturn magnetic net, the automated retrieval will dock you at the station. The cargo tube will lose all power, which means you have to get into the landing zone or you will freeze solid."
"How long is the flight?" Franklin asked.
"Twenty-one hours," Elliot answered. "Once you are free of the cannon, you can unstrap. There is water in the locker. Make sure you are secure in the chair when you hit the net. Remember to keep the oxygen mask on."
"What is in the back of the tube?" Franklin asked.
"Nothing," Elliot answered. A loud siren wailed and red overhead lights flashed. "You better strap in," Elliot warned. "The countdown has started."
Franklin hopped into the cargo tube. He popped open the metal locker and stored his weapon and ammunition clips. He grabbed the oxygen mask from a wall hook and secured it to his face. He strapped into the chair and gave Elliot two thumbs up.
"Good luck, Colonel," Elliot said and snapped a crisp salute. The cargo hatch sealed shut. The ceiling lights inside the tube dimmed. Franklin felt robotic arms shoving the tube forward into the gun barrel like a cartridge fitting into a rifle. A jolt signaled the tube was secured into the breach. Franklin seized the arm rests and clenched his teeth. He pressed his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. A loud crack snapped his ears. Massive pressure leaned into his face and every inch of his torso. The pressure worsened to the point that he couldnít breathe. He felt as if a herd of elephants were standing on him. He felt dizzy and began to lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. The pressure on his chest eased to the point where he could draw a breath. He sucked air into his lungs and opened his eyes. The walls and ceiling seemed curved. He unstrapped from the chair and floated free. He unwound the long plastic tube that connected his mask to the oxygen flow controller.