Orbit: Prelude
 
Austin Paris sat alone in his office staring at a folder on his desk that contained a report he wasn't mean to read. Someone made a terrible mistake in sending it to him, and he was going to die as a result. He had to assume someone received his report, the right report, and once they realized the mix-up, they'd come looking to get the wrong one back. He wanted to burn the evidence and deny having seen it, but it was too late. He'd signed the receipt of delivery without question and, why shouldn’t he? As the head of animal-husbandry, he continually sent and received reports about the health and longevity of his flocks. Now his wife Joanna and 3-year-old daughter Dakota were in grave danger.

With a secret this big, they'd murder innocent people to keep it safe. Even his wife and child. What he read and now understood about the world might bring about a violent revolt, unlike anything they'd seen since before the walls went up. How long had these reports been going on? He'd learned a terrible truth, but it was clear that there were vast conspiracies in play; things that made him feel minuscule. The contents of the file were the foundation upon which the Misters built their rule. Because of that fact, he would not live long enough to see Dakota grow from a child into a young woman.

The enormity of this fate reduced him to tears. It wasn't fair. They shouldn't have to suffer the humiliation of having a husband and father accused of crimes against his friends and neighbors. It didn't matter that he was innocent. If he'd been a stronger man, a braver man, he'd expose the contents of the folder, but his wife and daughter would be among the first to die. He couldn't summon the courage to do it. He also couldn't have the Misters thinking he'd discussed the folder with anyone else. Austin knew it had to end with him and him alone.

His only choice was to send a message calling for his arrest, which he did before locking himself in his office to wait for the authorities. Joanna would be mad and hurt, but he could deal with that. The alternative was far worse. He couldn't share what he'd learned without condemning others. He couldn't leave a note for Dakota to read when she was old enough to understand. A part of him knew that it was cowardly to put the lives of his wife and child above everyone in the Outer Orbit. For Austin, there was no other way of looking at it. He wasn't a hero. A hero stands up for what is right up no matter what the consequences.

There was a knock at the door.

"Austin Paris? It's Deputy Miner. May I come in?"

Austin walked over and unlocked the lab door. The deputy removed his cap and held it in front of his chest.

"Hello, deputy."

Mister Samuel loomed behind the deputy.

"Deputy, can you give us a moment?" Samuel's voice carried the calm of a man who knew how to put people at ease.

"Yes, Mister Samuel," the deputy stepped aside allowing him to enter the lab. Austin backed up as Samuel crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. The Mister offered a smile that Austin did not return. This man he trusted was now the enemy. A man who once inspired faith and loyalty now filled him with dread. 

"Is that the report?" He asked, motioning to the red folder on Austin's desk. Austin nodded and said nothing. Samuel picked up the folder and leafed through it.

"It may not seem like it now, but you did the right thing," Samuel said as he closed the folder.

"You're sending me to my death."

"This is a horrible and tragic mistake. I wish it didn't have to be this way."

"I did nothing wrong."

"That's what is most painful about this, Austin. You did everything right. We should celebrate you. You have my word you won't be alone. We will find the person who sent this file. He or she is the true culprit, and I promise your sacrifice will not be in vain."

"Sacrifice? Is that how you see it?" He asked. Austin felt the anger rise in him. "I'm going to die over a clerical error!"

"Your wife and child will be safe. That's why you sent word to the Cathedral and reported the folder. Am I right? You're sacrificing yourself for their safety," he said.

"I didn't want them or anyone else implicated. Most people wouldn't understand the contents of that folder," he admitted.

"No, they'd need someone with your ability to explain it to them and even then, I doubt they'd comprehend the full scope of it."

"What are you trying to do?" Austin asked.

"We can't hide behind a wall forever. This is our world, Austin. Not theirs."

Austin's eyes widened.

"They're still out there? I thought..."

"Today you saved the Outer Orbit and exposed a dangerous threat. The tragic irony is that you're a hero. That isn't lost on me."

Austin's blood turned cold.

"You didn't know about this folder, did you?" His stomach rolled, and he felt he might throw up. He needlessly signed his death warrant when he sent the message.

"I am truly sorry, Austin. The long records we keep of our time in the North will reflect the truth. One day our ancestors, your ancestors will learn you were a hero."

"You, deceitful son of a bitch!" Austin shouted grabbing fistfuls of Samuel's robes, "You're not supposed to be playing God!" He shouted. Deputy Miner opened the office door.

"Mister Samuel, are you safe?" Austin noticed the deputy had his palm on the butt of his pistol. Given a chance would he shoot? Samuel raised his hand and flashed a practiced smile.

"We're okay, deputy. Austin, now that you've admitted no one else is involved, and you are the sole perpetrator will you follow me?"

"This is on you, and the others, Samuel. I want you to remember that when your day of judgment comes! It will come!" Austin said as he shoved Samuel away.

"Deputy, can you please take Mr. Paris into custody and escort him to your office?"

"What are the charges, sir?" The deputy asked. Here it was, the big lie, his epitaph.

"Attempted sabotage and terrorism. Mr. Paris' plan, as the head of livestock genetics, was to poison the animals with a disease. With the full consent of the Misters and following the Directive I am sentencing him to the wall."

Deputy Miner pulled the handcuffs from his belt.

"This isn't fair!" Austin shouted.

"Sir, I'm sorry I have to put these on. Please give me your wrists," said deputy Miner as Samuel moved aside.

"No!" He replied.

"Austin, please," said Mister Samuel.

None of this was his fault. He doomed himself by trying to do the noble thing for his family. The deputy held out the cuffs expecting Austin to surrender. That's what cowards do. He did not understand what was happening. Deputy Miner was a pawn like everyone else, blind and obedient to the Misters with no understanding of how they controlled the Outer Orbit. This is why someone sent him the folder. Samuel and Miner exchanged a worried look. They hoped he would expose the truth because he was one of only a handful of people that could.

"No!" Shouted Austin as he threw his weight into the deputy. The man stumbled backward as Austin turned and ripped the folder from Samuel's hands.

"Stop!" Shouted Samuel. Austin ignored him as he raced out the door leaving a bewildered Deputy Miner to pick up his fallen handcuffs. He had no idea where he was going. He only ran.

"What do I do?" The young deputy asked.

"Arrest him! Kill him if you have to! I need that folder!" The order to kill took Miner by surprise. The revolver he carried was mostly ceremonial. He'd never fired it before.

Austin pounded down a flight of metal steps from his office to the body of the farm. The workers turned and looked when they heard him coming. He paid no attention. His focus was on escaping. If he distanced himself from the deputy, he might hide long enough to translate and spread the word about the folder. He'd first have to get word to Joanna, to make sure she went into hiding. Only a few key people had to know, and from there the information could spread freely throughout the Orbit. He could protect Dakota and Joanna if enough of the right people knew the truth.

Turning the corner near the sheep paddock, he could see the front gate to the farm a hundred yards away. If he made it outside, he'd be okay. His lungs burned, and his thighs ached. Most of his time was spent in the office and he was woefully out of shape. Austin ignored the shouts behind until a loud noise rang out and a stabbing pain hit his back. It pushed him forward violently. The shock of it forced him to lose his grip on the folder. Papers flapped in the air like dying birds. His arms pin-wheeled in an urgent and hopeless bid to keep from falling.

Austin heard another loud crack and felt a bullet shove his left leg sideways at an awkward angle. He plunged to the floor. Someone in the facility screamed. His back and leg felt wet as he thrashed about in pain. Dying was messy, and it showed in Deputy Miner's pale and terrified face as the man stood over him. Austin saw the revolver in his hand. He smelled the gunpowder, and as he opened his mouth to speak only blood and saliva came out. Unable to look at what he'd done, deputy Miner carefully collected the fallen papers.

As Samuel appeared over him, Austin's vision wavered. His peripheral sight became cloudy and dark. Looking at Mister Samuel's hands, Austin Dakota realized the man was performing the ritual of last rights. 

Art by Moritat. Not the actual cover.