This story is by David A. Chase and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“MOVE!” Crystal screamed as the automated defense turret dropped out of the ceiling.
Johan dodged, taking cover behind an old forklift that had once served the massive complex, bullets throwing sparks as they ricocheted down the hall. Leaning out, he took careful aim as the weapon tracked and blasted it with his assault rifle.
This place was dangerous; but it was their last, best, hope for survival. They only had a month’s worth of food left.
When the Great War broke out 30 years ago between the Colonial Government, declaring its independence, and the Empire, people were so full of hope.
Yes, the Empire ruled hundreds of worlds, with thousands of starships at their command. But the colony of Cornucopia had more natural resources than any five planets combined and was a manufacturing hub, which meant that everything they needed was being made on planet. So even when the Empire destroyed the Planetary Defense Force, it was but a minor inconvenience.
Crystal came out from cover, confirming the turret’s destruction, and signaled to the 28 other survivors, all that remained of Cornucopia’s once-massive population, that it was clear to proceed.
20 long years of battle, with Imperial forces making constant attacks, all to no avail. While the Empire did well at the start of the war, the Scientists of Cornucopia learned and adapted; matching, then exceeding the capabilities of the Imperial Ground Forces. So, while the Cornucopians could not leave the surface, the Empire could not take it.
Ahead of them was the main manufacturing floor, and Howard, their resident computer maestro moved forward to work on the security protocols which kept the massive blast doors closed.
Crystal remembered that day – 10 years ago – the pride she felt when the hero of the Rebellion, Lady Hope, appeared on the planetary comms network and said, “Admit it, General Bootheel, there is no way you can win. Cornucopia belongs to Cornucopians. This planet is ours!” as out in the street, people cheered.
The General, a grizzled old man who looked tired, sighed in disgust. “Yes, Lady Hope, the planet is yours. I cannot take it with the forces I have, and the Emperor no longer desires to waste resources on it. If you want to be independent of the Empire, so be it. As far as the Empire is concerned, there is no Cornucopia.”
And with that, the Imperial forces withdrew to their warships and flew away.
The celebration lasted for over a week.
Howard cried in triumph, and the great doors rolled back to reveal pristine machinery, unaffected by the corruption which was evident across most of the planet and Crystal felt her heart swell. They were going to live!
What the people of Cornucopia had not realized at the time was just how vindictive the Empire could be. The General kept his word, separating the Empire from Cornucopia. But how do you separate the Capital of a 12-world star system, from the other planets so close by?
The Empire deployed massive defense satellites, equal to those that surrounded the Imperial Capital, maintained by a small naval garrison. Anything that approached the planet without the correct codes was immediately destroyed, and anything that tried to leave the planet’s surface never made it out of atmosphere.
Then they deployed Nanite Devastators, which killed all edible plant life, leaving only those plants which were poisonous to humans and animals to continue producing oxygen. Worse, the nanites ate any electronics they encountered, making advanced machinery impossible to maintain.
Crystal led the survivors into the manufacturing center and began checking supply levels and machine statuses. Everything was perfect. The supplies were in deep freeze, as fresh today as they had been when brought into the factory. Power was plentiful and from what she could see, there was enough food here to provide a billion people sustenance for 1000 years. They were saved!
And so, the slow, inexorable march of famine crossed the planet. As the food factories began to fail and the prepared supplies ran out, people began to starve and die.
A decade later, what had been a population of 3 billion had become a population of 30. But they had survived. They had won. And they would come back more powerful than ever.
It was only through the greatest of fortune that they had located this factory, its coordinates written on old fashioned hard-copy, unaffected by the nanites. And, if the Devastators missed this factory, there could be other factories still intact, which would allow them to rebuild.
Crystal walked up to the main control console, and, with the eyes of every survivor on her, pushed the initiation button.
Lights came on, air began to flow, and machines began to move, awakened from their long slumber. A cool feminine voice echoed throughout the chamber. “Boot sequence initiated. 30 minutes till full power restored. The first product will be complete in 2.5 days.”
People cheered, and Crystal began to cry. It did not matter what this factory made, humanity had long ago figured out how to put a balanced diet into any product, be that filet mignon, or a candy bar. The food was the vehicle for the nutrients.
With blinding suddenness, the main screen flickered on overhead, and the feminine voice said, “Pre-recorded message.”
A youthful man dressed in simple black attire appeared on the screen, smiling, and Crystal felt her stomach drop out, as she recognized his visage.
“Greetings, people of Cornucopia! My name is Emperor Justice, the ruler of the Empire. If you are watching this message, it means that you have found this facility following the independence of Cornucopia.” Sorrow crossed his face. “I do apologize for the Nanite Devastators, but I could not allow such a rich planet to stay intact, spreading the evil and disorder caused by independent thought. I am, however, not without compassion.” His smile returned.
“Nanite Diffusers protect this facility, which disable any Devastators they meet, including any that may have hitched a ride on your clothes. This facility is secure and once every hundred years an automated shuttle will resupply it, which will land and never take back off. So, I can assure you, barring a massive population explosion, you will always have nutritionally balanced food for your people, and shelter, even if you have nothing else. For anything you take outside the Diffuser Shield will cease to function.
The Emperor raised his hands grandly over his head and with a huge smile on his face announced, “And so, it is with GREAT pleasure that I am proud to welcome you to The Emperor Justice Cheesecake Factory!” He paused and with immense satisfaction evident on his face, concluded, “Now with 345 flavors.”
As the screen faded to black, Crystal looked at Johan, who looked at Howard, and around the circle it went, horror replacing their jubilation.
Humanity had not only mastered putting nutrients into food. They had mastered adapting humans to certain environments, but those adaptations were not without side effects, however minor.
In the case of the Cornucopians, every one of them was lactose intolerant.
So, while they would live, it would be in absolute agony.
Truly… a fate worse than death.