San Diego April 22, 2090
Jesse Long was last in the single-file line of men. Four uniformed guards escorted them. Encumbered with clanking ankle cuffs, he and the other five prisoners hobbled awkwardly across the tarmac toward the waiting helicopter. He shivered, not sure if it was caused by the cold wind blowing off the Pacific or the icy hand of despair that gripped his heart.
He searched for his father in a somber clutch huddled behind a chain link fence. He finally spotted him, clutching the wire with his pale hands. Papa Long was the only Chinese man in the group, gathered for one last, agonizing look at a condemned family member.
The pair locked eyes. Jesse ached at the sight of the old man’s face, twisted with grief. Tears, springing from cataract-dulled eyes, flowed down wrinkled cheeks.
He held his father’s gaze as long as possible. Manacles holding his arms tight to his waist prevented a last farewell wave. All he could was lift his chin in a final gesture. With an ache blooming deep inside his chest, his mind registered the hopelessness and finality of it all.
I’ll never see you again, Pops.
A sharp poke in his back forced him to turn toward the boarding step. He stumbled into the helicopter and sat where a young, pock-marked guard shoved him. Another guard, taller and older, buckled him in place.
The prisoner seated just ahead of Jesse leaned forward in his seat, his body shaking from inaudible sobs. Jesse saw a tiny dot of blood on the back of the man’s orange jump suit. Tracer, Jesse remembered, feeling the sting of the recent injection made between his own shoulder blades.
Anesthetic already wearing off, he thought.
All but one of the guards exited the aircraft. The remaining beefy, redneck-looking man toggled a switch by the egress door. The panel retracted with a whine and thumped into position. He seized the latch lever in his meaty hands and swung it closed – a final seal from the outside world. Taking a seat at the front of the cabin, he stared back at the six prisoners. An unreadable grin spread across his puffy, red-lined face.
A blue and white nametag was pinned to his uniform: TRAVIS. He tapped a taser-baton onto the palm of his hand. “Ready for your all-expense paid trip to paradise, courtesy of the California Republic?” His lips curled while he laughed.
Jesse cringed at the sound of the guard’s voice – high pitched, reedy, irritating.
A vibration rattled across the cabin ceiling and he turned back to the window. The mid-morning sun cast slow-moving rotor blade shadows across the tarmac as the pilot started the engine. He looked to the spot where his father had been standing, but the man and all the other visitors had already been escorted away. The pain inside him intensified and tears stung his eyes.
The engine revved and the faint odor of burning jet fuel drifted through the cabin. Outside, on the tarmac, the blade shadows moved faster and soon blurred into nothingness. Seconds later, the craft lifted off and the Jerry Brown Naval Air Station receded away below.
Jesse glanced at the other prisoners. They all had their heads turned, staring out the windows, clinging to their last views of the California Republic.
The helicopter climbed, turned to the west and leveled off. Jesse’s gaze was pulled back to the window. He caught brief glimpses of a squalid residential neighborhood, then a beach and rolling surf. No people walked the once-white sand, now stained dark by the polluted sea. Then the vision fell behind, replaced with a vast, empty, white-capped ocean.
The trip to Sanclem took forty minutes. Travis’ irritating voice provided a non-stop taunt on how much they would all enjoy their new home. The food, the accommodations, the social set. Jesse tried to ignore the man, but knew the barbs most likely reflected reality.
The prisoner in the seat across from Jesse lost his patience and could endure the guard’s insensitivity no longer. “Shut the hell up, asshole,” he said hoarsely.
Travis stood, walked down the aisle and stopped next to the man. “What did you call me?”
The man remained silent.
Travis fiddled with the setting on his baton, then pushed it into the prisoner’s chest, and pulled the trigger. The man’s body jerked in the restraints and he barked out a ragged cough as his head whipped back, then forward.
“That was only on low,” Travis said, waving the baton. “Got anything else you want to say?”
Eyes wild and glaring, the man shook his head.
“Anyone else have a comment?” Travis said with a sneer, re-taking his seat in front of the cabin. He looked over the other five prisoners. “Any of you ex-cop?””
Jesse’s pulse quickened, but he remained silent, staring at the seat back in front of him.
The guard’s gaze settled for a few seconds on him. “You have that cop look about you. Am I right?”
Jesse gave a little shake of his head.
Travis’ gaze lingered for a few seconds longer, then moved on to study the others. He shrugged. “No matter. If any of you were a cop, your fan club will find you, I’m sure.” He sneered. “There’ll be some special treatment for you on Sanclem. It’ll be like a class reunion.”
Travis switched to another topic. “Any of you like little boys?” He made an obscene gesture with his hips. “The boys on Sanclem aren’t as little as you’d like, but I know when they find out about you they’ll want to party.” He laughed again.
Jesse leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, willing the flight to end. Yet, he knew the end of this trip was only the beginning.
When the aircraft was about five miles out, Jesse caught his first glimpse of the long, narrow island. He knew the penal colony’s statistics. Twenty-five miles long, San Clemente Island sprawled over fifty square miles...sixty, cold, wet miles off the California Republic coast. A naval base abandoned by the Americans after the Water War occupied one end of the island. Otherwise there were no cities, only a few roads, and the bleak terrain was thinly covered with patches of sparse vegetation.
Not much there at all. Unless one counted the thousand untended, desperate criminals who’d been exiled there for life in the year since the colony opened.
The helicopter circled over the landing zone...a flat spot, carved out on a denuded hilltop near the geographical center of the island. As the craft dropped lower, he saw several dozen men waiting at the edge of the brush about fifty yards below the rough helipad.
The pilot settled the craft onto the gray soil, but kept the engine running, ready to abort if any threat developed. Travis opened the egress door, picked up an automatic weapon and stepped outside. The inmates waiting at the edge of the brush must know the drill, Jesse thought. None made a move up the hill.
The co-pilot came out of the cockpit and approached the prisoners, one at a time. He unlocked their restraints and pushed them out the door. Travis waited until they had all exited, then herded them away from the helicopter. They stood in an uncertain group, alternately staring at Travis, the aircraft, and the island welcoming committee waiting below.
After Travis gave a thumbs up to the pilot, a pair of clamshell doors yawned open underneath and a large pallet of supplies descended on cables to the ground. Travis leaned underneath and disconnected the cables. “Coming back on,” he shouted, waving his arm in a circle. He scrambled aboard and the pilot lifted off as the egress door and cargo doors thumped to a close. The chopper had been on the ground for less than a minute.
Jesse watched the aircraft climb and turn away. Down the hill voices rang out and the men who’d been waiting at the brush line started dragging wagons up the hill to collect the rations. And to greet the new prisoners.
He drew a deep breath, staring at the men approaching, some with wicked grins on their bearded faces as they eyed Jesse and the other arrivals. He didn’t know what to expect, but knew this day was about to get much worse.
His descent into this hell had started only two short months ago.