Free story: Spacebreaker
I thought it would be fun to dig into the archives for something that would be fun to read. The first original story I wrote after submitting to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I look back on this one and see the glaring things wrong with it, and how much I’ve progressed as a writer in the last 5 years.
I didn’t expect that this one would see the light of day again, after the few markets I sent it too.
Enjoy…be gentle in the comments.
*update, 5/4/11 – I just went through and converted the underscores from manuscript format to italics and read some along the way. Wow…some if it is pretty brutle, but there’s still a lot I like about it. Might just redraft the whole thing and make it available on kindle. lol.
Copyright 2011 by Jack Foehammer
The masons scurried around the outer-hull of the massive spacebreaker transport, Trailblazer, on their tethers.
From his perch on top of an observation platform two hundred meters above the surface of the ship, the foreman for section three-A looked out across the pitted, uneven shell. It extended as far as he could see and was light green in the natural light of Alpha-Centauri.
He watched the masons around him laboring diligently. It reminded him of focused and determined worker bees he had seen on the informational vids about the Terran ecosystem while he was a child in school. At the same time, down ship, where the sunlight faded into the dark side of the vessel that faced away from Alpha-Centauri looking as though it was being swallowed by infinity, the random, twinkling blue-white flashes from the mason’s thruster packs and bonding charges made him wonder if perhaps fireflies fluttering around a large Terran oak tree might have been a better description. He couldn’t really be sure. He was a native of the Beacon ore mining station in the asteroid belt of the Alpha-Centauri colony territory, and he had never actually seen bees before, or fireflies, for that matter.
To his right, something caught his eye. Over in the maze of antennas and sensor arrays in grid three-one-five, something sent up a red flag. His eyes traced a tether line as it weaved in and out of the spiny arrays, until they stopped and fixed on an antenna that was nearly flat, wide at the base, and tapered to a point at the top. The worker attached to end of the line was oblivious to the sharp edges and kept tugging on his wire repeatedly to get more length.
The foreman shook his head, “Damn rookies.”
He spoke into his helmet comm system, “Three-one–five, watch your wire, copy?”
Further aft, in section six-A, Colton Shaw disconnected the coupling that mated the filling port on the dispensing station with the matching probe that was on the right forearm of his suit.
He looked out across his grid area which happened to be in the middle of the boundary where the light ended and the darkness began. He hated that because it wreaked havoc with his night vision filter and that was just one small footnote in the vast volume of things he hated about this work.
On the hull in his area, he estimated there were sixty or so pits to be filled, each varying in widths and depths, unevenly scattered around him. The damage caused by a debris field of asteroid fragments that the ship passed through at full drive velocity during the previous day.
The true hull of the ship was coated with a compound that was designed to absorb the devastating impact of objects, such as asteroids, and dissipate the object’s kinetic energy so that it wouldn’t penetrate down to the hull causing structural damage. The shell would shatter right at the point of impact, allowing the asteroid, or whatever hit the ship, to harmlessly bounce off into space. Divots, pits, and sometimes even craters would be left riddled across the shell. The masons would come along and simply fill them in to maintain the ship’s protective shell which was fifty meters thick. It was this protective coating is what truly made a spacebreaker the marvel that it was. Millions of tons of equipment and vital raw materials were constantly on the move through the most direct routes possible, eliminating the need to navigate around most hazards. This maintenance was a biweekly routine, and necessary to live up the mantra of the spacebreaker fleet, The ship never stops. Such repairs could be handled with the routine preparation of getting a ship back underway while its cargo is off loaded at a colony port, but that would mean a longer stretch of time when the ship was in port and not moving.
Coltontook a deep breath, damn, I hate this crap, and thumbed the thrust switch on the top of the control stick positioned near his left hand. With a flash from the thrust ports on his pack, he was on his way.
He only had to move along the surface eight meters to reach the nearest divot. The artificial gravity from the generator inside the ship drew on the specially designed soles of his boots which helped him to softly settle his feet to a standing position.
The gash had a jagged edge and was about thirty centimeters long and twenty wide at its extreme edges, and it exposed years of layered, repeated repairs to which, Shaw was about to make his own contribution.
He pointed the long, slim nozzle into the center of the gash and squeezed the trigger. The viscous, light green liquid quickly filled it to the top. The repair compound began to stiffen rapidly. In the vacuum of space, the compound which was composed of a polycarbonate, silicone, and about a dozen other mostly synthetic ingredients that he couldn’t even hope to pronounce, was malleable for sixty seconds at the most. In just ten seconds, it had hardened to the consistency of ice cream. This was as close to the luxury of ice cream that Cole ever got to since his assignment to the Trailblazer had been thrust upon him.
He missed niceties like ice cream and other simple pleasures. His lack of access to such things would be a chapter of its own in the great big book of things he hated here.
Cole retrieved the large trowel that was hanging from his tool belt with his left hand and had palmed the rounded top of the spike-shaped bonding charge in his right.
In one, unified, motion he swiped the trowel across the bumpy facade of the repair which had become slightly raised above the surface around it looking like a thirty by twenty centimeter pimple that had yet to come to a head, and leveled it with the surrounding hull. Then he jammed the charge into the repair compound. He tapped the LIVE button on the top and took two bouncy, low grav, steps back. He turned up the top of his left wrist and pressed the red flashing button on the control box affixed to his suit.
There was a brief, but brilliant blue-white blaze. Shaw had only actually seen it a couple of times back when he first started with the mason corps, but the spotted vision and slight headache that accompanied looking at it directly, had quickly taught him to instinctively close his eyes when he set one of those charges off.
Satisfied the filler had been bonded into place, Colton Shaw thrusted off toward the next divot.
Anything has got to be better than this. He was about to repeat the process that he had come to think of as the bane of his existence when the low, barely audible static of the open comm channel was broken wide open by the husky voice of a foreman sounding frenetic.
“Three-one-five, three-one-five, watch your wire! Watch your wire! Watch—Dammit! Control, man loose! Repeat, man loose! Grid three-one-five going aft.”
Shaw’s head snapped around to look behind at the lighted half of the hull toward the grid area in question. It was forward of his and was positioned lower with regard to the horizontal axis of the ship. He saw something–someone–moving
toward him and drifting left to right across his field of view. There! About seventy-five meters above the ships surface, it was a man spinning uncontrollably, limbs flailing in panic.
Cole could see the masons in grids ahead of his thrusting up and away from the relative safety of the artificial grav attempting to grab hold of their comrade, or at the very least, slow his uncontrolled spin or even change his course to bring him in closer to have a better shot at cashing in on a fleeting chance of rescue somewhere down ship.
Shaw saw the man frantically grabbing at his thruster control. The sudden jerking of his arms and torso turned his rolling spin into a nasty head-over-heals tumble.
“Come on, man,” he said to himself.
On comms, Shaw heard countless pleadings from the other masons. “Fire your pack! Fire your pack!” They all yelled on top of one another turning the audio into a garbled mess, and still, he was able to make out the screams of panic from the man flying through space.
Shaw saw the severed ten meter section of the man’s tether line that had been trailing behind him, begin to wrap around and entangle his limbs restricting his movement, making an already bad situation even worse, but his left arm was still relatively free.
The man’s tumble was quick and as he rolled, the ship, and all those trying to help him, zipped past his line of sight over and over. First, vertically a few times. Then horizontal. Then diagonal. Then randomly, and the ship was getting smaller with each pass. The disorientation proved too much for the man and he vomited inside his helmet. Some splattered off of the front faceplate and back into his eyes making them burn. Now, he could see nothing at all.
He screamed again and just started mashing any button he put his hands on. He knew his time was running out.
Another mason, two grids down ship, made one last effort to reach him. Cole tensed up with anticipation. It looked like he had a real shot at catching him. The rescuer out stretched his arm and was about to get a good hold on the man’s boot when there was a bright flash.
“Dammit!!!” Cole shouted. The word was echoed by nearly everyone that could do nothing else but stand there. Helpless.
The man had found the Emergency Fire button for his thruster pack, but his body was facing away from the ship when he punched it. The brief, but intense shot of thrust that was supposed to save his life, instead, shot him out into deep space. It was over.
There was nothing that could or would be done. The ship could not be stopped for one man, and even if it could, it would likely take too long to bring the ship about to catch up to him. If his suit had become torn somewhere, it wouldn’t be able to maintain the life sustaining air pressure. The exposure to the vacuum would cause what little oxygen that was left to bubble out of his blood, and that would be that. With any luck, he’d pass out from hypoxia before the two, or perhaps three minutes of real suffering began. It was a horrible fate. But, still, there were those onboard the Trailblazer that thought he was lucky. After a few years here, most looked for any possibility of getting off of this ship, even if it meant suicide. Hard prison labor will do that to a man. And serving in the mason corps was among the hardest and most dangerous. Casualties were expected from time to time.
All across the hull of the ship, the men of mason corps paused briefly for a few moments and, one by one, began to return to work. There was no time mourn his loss and no one outside this group would likely even care.
Down deep in the bowels of the ship, Cole figured the report on the incident was already being generated by Control, and a Form-110B was probably already en route to whatever institution from which the Shipping Guild picked up his sentence contract.
He looked up one more time. The man from grid three-one-five was no where in sight. The ship had already moved that far. With that, he looked down at the cavity in the hull at his feet, looked up at the empty void that surrounded him, then back down at his own personal purgatory and went back to work.
The lift settled flush into the cold, steel deck of the airlock.
Cole looked up just as the twin sets of interlocking teeth on the leading sides of the large hatch came together, sealing he, and the mason crew from the emptiness of space. He had come to regard the hatch and its jagged teeth as the ferocious jaws of Lucifer clamping down and swallowing him into the very gut of hell.
He had heard the chatter from the other masons in his section about the poor soul they had just lost. Someone said they heard his name was Jodeia. Someone said they had heard from someone else that heard from a foreman that his name was Jeremiah and he had come onboard at the last port seven months ago and the Guild picked up his sentence contract from the Olric mining colony. One guy said the man was doing ten for a contraband violation; another said it was fifteen for the contraband and an assault on a customs agent. No two stories were the same. No one really knew what that guy was all about. For Colton Shaw, that underscored his fear and belief that when someone was sent here, they became faceless and forgotten. Even among those sharing the burden with you.
Whoever you were, man, I’d probably trade places with ya…if you asked, he thought. And Cole meant that.
The bright, flashing, amber colored warning lights that indicated the airlock was depressurized, switched to the steady on mode, illuminating the fifteen masons on the lift in a harsh, artificial glow that was no better to read the status display on the wrist mounted control box on the suit, than it was to even see and make out who the guy next to you was.
The hue of the light was dimmed slightly by the very thin layer of fog that had settled in, courtesy of the cooler temperature in the airlock chamber causing some of the moisture that was mixed with the oxygen to condense.
Shaw saw the large, rectangular indicator light by the main hatch in front of them turn switch from red to green, telling them the conditions in the chamber were safe.
The men began popping the seals on their helmets, removing them, and hanging them on a rack on the wall to the right. Coltonwaited a few seconds before removing his gear. He wanted to get a few extra breaths of the bottled air, as they called it, savoring each breath as long as he could. While the air in the bottle was artificially produced, like the air in the ship, it was fresh and relatively pleasant. Not refiltered and recycled.
He was slow to move, at first. His body had not yet fully re-acclimated to the full artificial gravity that was measured to be point-nine-seven G of the Terran standard, and his limbs felt like there were twenty-kilogram sacks of ferro-iridium ore tied to each.
The heavy bolt on the airlock hatch slid inward and locked with a noticeable deep clang, breaking the seal around the doorframe. Cole heard the quick SSSSHHHHH of rushing air that equalized the pressure with the outside.
The hatch swung outward and in came two other inmates, each pushing large, wheeled carts. They helped the crew out of their gear. The mechanical and electronic gear went into one bin to be taken to maintenance. The soft goods, such as gloves and work suits went into the other to be decontaminated and laundered for the next repair cycle.
This routine was ironclad and had been exactly the same each of the hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of times Shaw had been through it. He was hardly even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have little or no recollection from the time the hull hatch closed to the time he returned to his habitation block, as if he fell into a trance that detached him from the most prosaic parts of his day.
The two guards that had been standing in the airlock hatchway stepped forward and spread out by two or three meters.
The shorter of the two, who wasn’t too shy of two-point-one meters tall, pointed with his stun baton in his right hand at a line marked on the deck in the middle of the hatchway.
“Form up,” he said with a tone that had a ‘just another day at the office’ feel to it.
The mood of the crew of section six was similar as they moved to an orderly, single file line with the lead man taking position on the mark on the deck.
The other guard, who was noticeably larger and probably had the nickname, Tiny, among his peers, took up position at the rear of the formation and made a hand gesture to the lead guard indicating he was ready.
The lead returned a nod and turned to the inmate that was first in line, “Let’s go.”
The precession of despicable destitutes began the five minute trek through the damp corridors of the Trailblazer’s prison labor block to what, for Shaw, had been home for the last seven years, Hab-Block-Ten.
The line stopped in front of a rather small, but menacing looking door. In fact, it was barely wide enough to accommodate a single large man’s broad shoulders. But it certainly had the appearance that it was designed to keep something contained behind it and the flickering small control box on the wall to the right was obviously what one had to go through to gain access.
The guard retrieved a shiny, black, palm sized, key card from a pouch on his belt and inserted it into a slot on the panel. With the same hand, he placed his thumb on the small pad to the left of the slot.
The door’s brain recognized the combination of the key card and thumbprint and indicated the same with an audible triple chirp followed by the power lock mechanism releasing the door. It swung inward, also under its own power, revealing the inhabitants of Hab-block-ten.
The lead waved his baton toward the inside of the room as if to say, “Welcome home, boys.” The men responded by walking through the door, one by one. Once inside, they each dispersed in different directions towards their bunks to, no doubt, grab some shut-eye before chow.
The room itself, was large, probably a good twenty by thirty meters. But you’d never guess that given the ten rows double bunks that went eight deep. And when everyone was present and accounted for, there was little room to move about.
Today the air and odor were especially stagnant, Shaw noted, and if the inmates of Hab-ten didn’t do something about it, the guards would surely be in to review hygiene protocols.
Cole’s bunk was toward the back wall on the left. He started to make his way through the room, but it was hard. His arms and legs were weary and sore after eight and a half hours working outside the ship. He never understood how working in zero-G could kick his ass worse than any gravity work he had done. All he wanted was his bunk and the sleep it would bring.
He flopped down, exhausted. He didn’t even give thought to kicking his boots off. He had just closed his eyes and relaxation was almost setting in when a small group of five or six, gathered around a bunk two units over from his, just would not shut up.
He saw one guy he didn’t really know, sitting on the lower bunk jabbering and waving his arms around in a very animated fashion.
“I seen it! I was right there in the next grid,” Cole heard him say. “Bob, over in Hab-twelve, had a good line on ‘em. When he jetted out to grab ‘em, see, and I tought he’d make it. Like grab a boot or somthin’. Then the guy fired his pack, only he wuz facing away from da ship when he did and whoosh! He was gone.”
Cole rolled his eyes. Go on, milk out your two point two minutes of fame as an eye witness to some one killing themselves, he thought. When I grow up, I wanna be just like you. Moron.
He lay down on his back again, hoping to salvage the twenty seconds he just wasted but he was unable to get comfortable.
“Ah, hell,” he said after figuring out what was wrong. “Who took my mat?” he said loudly. Of course, no one would confess. Instead, he got a slew of murmuring obscenities around him. “You all suck! Did I ever tell you that?”
The power lock clunked again and the door swung open. Another weary section crew came home. The Hab-block was getting really crowded now with the one-hundred-sixty man capacity nearly at its limit.
One of the guards was about to close the door, when he paused, stepped back into the room, and sniffed the air.
He grimaced, “You guys better found out what that smell is, or we’ll be back.” He stepped back out, closing and locking the hatch behind him.
Cole rolled over on his side, facing the nearest wall, and closed his eyes. It took me a damn month to break that mat in.
He felt a thud that started on the bunk above his, and ran down through the metal frame of the bunk assembly, reverberating through his bunk mat, followed by the short screech of the small top bunk drawer being pulled open.
Cole took a breath, but didn’t roll over to look. “Jack, if you had any compassion for your fellow man, you’d slit my throat so I could be done with place.”
Jack, or Wacko Jacko, as he was known by reputation, smiled, “Just another day in paradise, Cole? How many holes today?”
Shaw groaned, “Must’ve been sixty or more.”
“Yeah, but your good at it, and it’ll pay off in the long run,” Jack said, pulling his soiled shirt off over his head.
Cole never got used to the blatant signs of physical abuse on Jack’s torso so he looked away as often as possible. Jack’s chest and back were riddled with gashes and scars, some of which looked to have healed over multiple times. Jack’s pale skin made the damage even more difficult to look at.
He and Jack had talked about it a few times. Jack told horrifying stories of the cruel treatment from the law enforcement personnel on the Centauri solar cell colony, where he was born and lived most of his life.
Besides the beatings with steel framing rods and aluminum batons, the guards on Centauri took particular pleasure in malicious torture. They would remove his shirt, bind his arms and legs to his cell bunk, and then bring in a small containment unit filled with waste fragments from the solar cell foundry. The guards then took turns dropping the small, highly volatile, fragments of raw, compressed, and solidified solar energy on to his bare skin. Upon contact, the solar crumbs would dissipate almost instantly. But in that fraction of a second, Jack’s skin would be assaulted with highly concentrated and focused UV radiation and temperatures in excess of two hundred degrees Celsius for a fraction of a second each time.
Cole didn’t like these stories and he was sure Jack didn’t like telling them. That was why he never complained about Jack’s weird, cheerful, sense of optimism.
Jack sat down on the side of Cole’s bunk, “Pretty easy day for me. Maybe fifty or so and most were small enough to not even need a bonding charge.”
Colton shifted again, uncomfortably. “Somebody stole my mat again and this one’s as hard as the hull of the damn ship.”
“If that’s your biggest problem, today, then I say count your blessings, my friend,” Jacko said with a smile.
Cole wasn’t amused, but he knew Wacko Jacko meant well by it. Jack was in the middle of a twenty year stretch for fraud, theft, contraband distribution, and more than a dozen other non-violent offenses, so Jack knew what he was talking about. Jack had spent time in the old-style prisons, living with the violent offenders. Places where gang rape in the wash room was not an uncommon occurrence. So apart from the hard labor, service in the spacebreaker fleet was almost a vacation to him.
But Shaw had never been there. After the last time he was caught and convicted, he spent a month in lock-up before the Trailblazer arrived.
Jack was one of the first people he met and that’s because Jack had saved his bacon not more than twenty minutes after coming onboard. Cole had misread his bunk assignment and tried to take up residence where a very large, unfriendly occupant already was.
Cole was about to get a welcome aboard pummeling when Jack stepped between them, and whispered something in the large man’s ear. The man’s eyes grew wide for a moment and he let Cole go without incident.
To this day, Cole doesn’t know what Jack said to him. The only thing Jack would ever say about it was, “Reputation is everything around here.”
And Jack was always doing things like that. Things that were crazy. Things that shouldn’t work out, but always did. That’s how he got the name, Wacko Jacko.
“How do you do it, man?” Shaw asked is friend.
“Deal with this place. This life.”
Jack took a breath, “We’ve had this talk before, Cole. It’s two simple things; appreciate of whatever they give you,” by that he meant whatever few creature comforts they were allowed, like the large habitation area rather than a small confined cell, or the occasional diversion of music or vids, “and always remember, when its all done, your going home.” That wasn’t entirely accurate. Upon release, home was going to be wherever the next port would be. An ex-con would have a job, and a three month residential account waiting for them. A fresh start. From then on, it was up to them.
Cole sighed, frustrated, “You’ve been telling me that for years and it may work for you, but it never has done much for me.”
Jack gave a sarcastic look as if he had just remembered some absurd fact. “That’s right. I forgot. You are of the opinion that you don’t belong here,” he said with a chuckle.
Cole scowled. “Society put me here by denying me the life I deserve.” His tone was serious.
Jacko sighed, here we go again. “Yeah, I remember. Nothing you did was your fault or responsibility.”
“No! Hell no. Not really. I was just trying to live a comfortable life.” He sat up, irritated at having to explain himself again. “My parents worked their fingers to the bone and just scraped by. My dad put in double time, more often then not, down on the docks unloading supply ships. My mother did the same. They put everything they had into their work for the good of the colony, as my dad would put it.”
“Sounds like he was good man. A man I wish I could have been.”
Shaw stared straight ahead, not really focusing on anything in the room. “Yeah, he was. A hell of a lot of good all that work did him. When he couldn’t work on the docks anymore, they parked him behind a computer console cataloging shipping containers for the Supply Authority. They cut his pay and cut back his medical therapy. For twenty years, the colony prospered on his back and forgot about him when they had no use for him.”
Jack knew all too well what Shaw was talking about, and pitied him. He saw his friend’s eyes welling up slightly with tears and he put a comforting hand on Cole’s shoulder. “I know, man. I know.”
Cole quickly wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm and said, “I promised myself I wasn’t going to end up like that. I did try the regular job route for a while. Put in long hours. Got nothing in return except a sore back. I wasn’t going to live like that for the next forty years.”
Jack sat patiently as Cole went off on this tangent. Jack had come to expect it every other month or so. He believed Cole was truly sorry for his crimes and the suffering they had caused, but figured these tirades were brought on by his subconscious guilt conflicting with the lingering pride that refused to accept it. That was the best answer he had without having the benefit of years training in psychology to back it up. Whatever it was, Jack decided the best thing to do was to just let it run its course and Cole would be back in the here and now soon enough.
They both, after all, were scheduled to be released in six years, right about the time Jack would turn sixty, and had planned to keep in close contact, helping each other along.
Jack had heard stories about Cole’s prowess in running cons and contraband and he couldn’t help but think that if they had met on the outside, the two probably could have been among the best of the snake oil salesmen. But, thankfully, they would never know.
An hour later, a soft toned klaxon sounded three-times in the hab-block. Chow time.
The inmates would have five minutes to muster and be ready to head down to the mess hall.
Cole’s monotonous daily routine continued. He rolled out of his bunk and grimaced, feeling a quick, sharp pain shoot into his lower back; No doubt, the result of sleeping on a new, stiff bunk mat. Dammit.
One by one, each resident of Hab-Block ten formed a single file line in front of the hatch, getting into an assigned order. In another minute, or so, the guards would arrive to escort them down to the mess.
For Shaw, chow times were among the worst times of the day. He thought if to be degrading the way it was handled. The inmates were required to wear the old style, prison issue, black and white striped jumpsuits. When the guards arrived, they would have a large rope with them. The rope, made from non-narcotic hemp, was otherwise ordinary. One inch in diameter. Medium duty strength. Spaced at every half meter, the rope was secured into loops that were just large enough to fit around an average man’s torso. One loop for each man in the hab-block.
Each inmate slipped a loop around their waste, effectively linking them all together. There was a twenty second time limit imposed by the guards for this. If the hab-block took too long getting ready, it wasn’t uncommon for the guards to take the humiliation to the next level.
The inmates were already tied together like children on a school field trip… so they wouldn’t get lost. And if that wasn’t enough, they would be made to hold hands and recite nursery rhymes while they were marched down to the ship’s mess.
The route to the mess hall was purposely planned to take them through one of the civilian sections of the ship, marching them in the public eye. Making sure everyone saw them. Everyone would be shown the dreck of their society. While being led through the civilian sector, the people would point and whisper. Some would yell at them. Some, with the encouragement of the guards, would go as far as to pelt them with garbage.
The criminal element in the Alpha Centauri colonies was held in a much higher distaste than their Terran counterparts. Out here, pains were taken to be sure nothing was wasted. Any criminal activity usually took vital supplies and materials from where they were needed, impacting hundreds of people, including women and children.
Because of the necessity of everything the colonies had, this very severe combination of imprisonment and hard labor that was tempered with public humiliation had been extremely successful in the fifty three year history of the Alpha Centauri colony territory. The percentage of repeat offenders in the prison population, after serving a year or more in the spacebreaker fleet, could be measured in single digits. An achievement the celled prison system on Terra could never hope to match. Not in the last twenty five hundred years.
At chow, meals were pre-selected, composed mostly of whatever wasn’t picked by the civilian patrons earlier in the day. But this tended not to matter to the masons, however. For them, the labor of the day made even the most picky eater ravenous for whatever was put on their tray. The twenty minute time limit set to eat was rarely a problem for anyone.
This meal was not unlike any of the thousands before it. Cole had worn the gaudy jumpsuit. Linked himself to the childish rope line. Held hands with the others. Spoke the rhymes that delighted the children, but drew taunts and garbage from their parents. He ate the food that was adequate, but gave him no pleasure whatsoever. And now, another day in the life he absolutely dreaded was nearing another unhappy end.
After depositing their dinner trays in a bin waiting at the back of the mess hall,Colton’s whole section lined up next to a column from of men from another hab-block.
Coltonstood with his hands loosely at his sides, looking blankly ahead, waiting for the command to get moving. He cared so little about the activity around him that he almost didn’t notice his left hand had been bumped. He figured it was incidental contact; no harm, no foul.
But then he felt something. Something wedged between his fingers. It was small and expertly deposited into his hand so the guards wouldn’t notice by…whom? Cole didn’t know. The line next to his had already moved off and he couldn’t see the man that had been next to him only a few moments before.
Cole felt a tingling of excitement trickled down his spine.
Is this it? He wondered. It had to be. It had been so long he had even forgotten about it. He had to fight the temptation to look at his hand. The guards would see and weeks of careful planning blow up in his face and the others involved wouldn’t appreciate that.
Jacko moved with the flow of the crowd that had gathered around the dispenser chute on the port-side wall to collect their allotment of clothing for the week. Each inmate would place their right palm on a rectangular scanning panel on the wall to the right of chute. A green scanning beam would illuminate it, reading the ID chip that was implanted in the muscle tissue of each inmate’s right hand. A signal was sent to an automated sorting system elsewhere in the ship where the scanned inmate’s clothing was selected and sent to the appropriate hab-block.
These chips had stored on them the usual pertinent data for that inmate such as, personal history, criminal record, and psych evals. They also acted as passive sensors that could be activated by Control at anytime, if necessary.
Another use for the chips that was discovered in the first few years of using them—-which is not listed by the manufacturer–is to serve as a constant reminder of one’s crimes and the punishment they had suffered for it. Despite the chip’s small size, after it was implanted, it can be felt by the bearer almost every time that hand is used. And every time they know it is there, they are reminded of why it is there.
In the first few months it can agonizing. The itch is almost constant. Most adapt with no further problems. They serve their time, and go on to become productive citizens of the territory. But the chip is always there. It is deactivated upon release of an inmate, but it’s never removed. Because of that, an ex-con from the spacebreaker fleet never forgot where they came from and they know that they never want to go back.
In some instances, usually involving those suffering from an unconscious guilt that they never quite overcome, continually feeling the chip in their hand can become too much for them to endure. The bearer will take to scratching at it constantly, as if it were a thorn that could not be removed. The persistent sensation simply will not stop for them.
In even more rare instances, it drives them to madness. Madness to the point of taking desperate measures to remove it. The result is permanent nerve and muscle damage to the hand rendering it useless. A damaged, useless, hand also can serve as an ominous reminder of a mistake just as well as any electronic chip. But even with the warnings given to each new inmate by the staff and the other cons, a few still try to remove them.
Some years earlier, at chow, a man sitting next to Jacko simply snapped. Without any warning at all, the man suddenly grabbed his fork and held it high over his head. With a savage scream, he jabbed it into his chipped hand with all the intensity he could muster. Blood splattered across Jacko’s face when the man wrenched the fork free and jabbed it again, still screaming. He managed to stab his hand two more times, each strike taking chunks of flesh with it, before the guards could restrain him. He continued to howl as he was dragged off to the psych ward. His wailing echoed through the hall and slowly faded when the hatch to the mess hall was secured behind him.
In all his years on the Trailblazer, there were few things Jacko had seen that truly got to him. Things that left an unmistakable impact. But that memory. The screaming. The spattering blood. The wide-eyed look of madness. Those things he would never forget.
Jacko’s tightly packed bundle of clothing landed at the bottom of the chute with a soft thud that startled Jacko out of his thoughts. Jacko pulled his hand from the scanner, and slowly turned it palm up. His gaze locked on the scar. The scar, and the small ID chip beneath it, seemed to stare right back.
“Come on, Jacko! Get your crap and go!” A rough sounding voice yelled from behind.
Jacko shook his head sharply. “Sorry, guys, I zoned out for a minute.” He took his bundle in his arms and headed for his bunk.
After he had passed, one squirrelly guy said to another, “I’m tellin’ you, one day, that guy’s gonna crack. Somethin’ ain’t right with ‘em.”
As he approached, Jacko could see Cole lying on his back in his bunk. He saw something in his friend’s hand. He couldn’t make out what it was, but Cole was looking at it with starry-eyed wonder. A far cry from the angry man that went off on a guiltless tirade before.
What the hell is that? Just then, it came into view.
Twirling in his fingers, Colton Shaw had a small square of packing board. Something small enough not to be noticed by the guards, and harmless enough to be overlooked if it was found.
Jack knew what it was, and more importantly, what it probably meant. Someone from another hab-block had contacted him. Jacko didn’t know what it was about, but Cole’s expression gave him a clue that made him feel very uneasy.
“What’s up with you?” Jacko said, pretending not to notice Cole’s hand.
“What do you mean?”
“A couple hours ago, you were ticked off and feeling sorry for yourself. Now you look like you just met your biggest childhood hero. What gives?” Jacko said, taking special care to keep things sounding casual.
Cole sat up, slipping the square into his pocket. “Nothing, man. Just doing what you said, focusing on going home.” It wasn’t a lie. Cole hated lying to his friend. Instead, he would neglect to offer the whole truth from time to time. The message he got at chow told him things were finally in motion. Things that he knew Jack wouldn’t want him involved in. He would have to be careful.
“That’s good Cole. Real good,” Jack said, doing his best to sound convinced.
Another tone sounded overhead. Lights out in five minutes.
Most everyone quickly finished stowing away their clothes. A few hurried to complete custodial tasks in the lavatory. Soon, everyone was in their assigned bunks. By the time lights went out, several men were already sawing logs in their own little dream worlds. Shortly, the rest would follow. All, that is, save two.
Colton Shaw laid on his back, hands clasped across his chest, looking straight up at nothing in particular, lost in thought. His mat was still stiff and his back was sure to hurt in the morning, but it didn’t bother him tonight. It’s gonna be over soon.
In the top bunk, Jacko also laid back looking at the ceiling. He knew Cole had gotten himself mixed up in something he shouldn’t have; there was no doubt in his mind. But he was unsure if he’d be able to get Cole to get himself out of it.
A horrible, metallic banging reverberated off the walls of the hab-block, startling everyone back into consciousness. It scared some so badly, mostly the rookies, that they rolled out of their bunks, slamming on to the cold, hard deck.
At the front of the room, stood a dozen guards, each with their batons slung in their belts. In front of them, pacing back and forth while banging the lid of a steel refuse bin with his own baton was a larger man. Older than the rest. He was gruff and obviously did not care if he caused a few heart attacks among the inmates. His uniform bore the four star insignia that indicated he was a staff commander, but was more commonly recognized as the rank of commanding asshole.
“Get up, you apes!” He yelled. “This ain’t no cushy colony apartment. GET UP!”
The entire hab-block complied as quickly as their still half-sleeping bodies would allow. They all took up position at the foot of their bunks, standing at attention.
The Commander looked at each row of convicts with disgust. “You were warned about that smell, yesterday, and it’s still here! The Captain doesn’t like any part of his ship to stink, not even this cesspool of a ship section. So, ladies, we’re gonna have ourselves a lockerbox inspection.”
No one said anything, but the Commander saw moans and groans on the faces of many of the inmates.
He gestured to his men and they fanned out across the room. Beginning at the front of each row of bunks, they pulled the four drawers out of each bunk and dumped the contents on to the deck. They then poked through the piles of clothing with the business end of their batons. When satisfied things were in order, they moved on to the next bunk in line.
Cole watched the Commander, as he walked around the room slowly, eyeing every other inmate from head to toe. He snorted contempt at every one of them.
“I don’t know who you ladies think you are, so let me remind you,” he said, addressing the room. “Right now, you are low life scum!” He paused to let it sink in. “You are here because, in one way or another, you have leeched from the rest of us. “We are pioneers out here. You are parasites that have latched on and tried to suck the rest of dry of things we have worked for and need to survive, because you felt that working to satisfy your needs was beneath you.” He walked slowly, across the back of the room. He looked forcefully, into the eyes of the inmates he passed as if to try to burn through to their very souls.
The inspecting guards were just two bunks away from Cole and Jack now, turning drawers over more violently with frustration at not finding the source of the offending odor.
The Commander stopped in front of Jack, glaring at him with blatant condescension. “We can’t afford waste anything out here. Unfortunately, that includes you monkeys,” he said, addressing everyone, but talking at Jack. “So let me remind you that you are here to pay your debt to us in hard labor, and hopefully, learn the lessons that your mommies obviously failed to drill into those primate craniums of yours!”
It wasn’t uncommon for the staff to single out Jack, or any of the few leaders of the prison population for these reminders of why they were here. It was a power play of sorts. Jack had been there the longest. Most of the other inmates respected him. They looked up to him. Because of that, senior prisoners like Jack, became the staff’s control point for the rest of the population. If everyone else saw that staff had Jack under control with his compliance to whatever they through at him, then the rest of the sheep pretty well stayed in line.
Full fledged riots among the prison population onboard a spacebreaker were unheard of because of this line of thinking, or so the staff thought. The truth was the prisoners simply knew that uprisings for any reason were utterly futile and useless. The prisoner workforce was an insignificant percentage of the ship’s population. They would be overwhelmed be sheer numbers alone, regardless of how well equipped they were. And in the unlikely event that they succeeded in gaining control of their area of the ship, then what? At any given time, the ship was weeks or months away from a port. There would be no way to hold out for so long. There was nowhere to go. Nothing really of any significance to hold out for. So the population or most of them anyway, resolved to just shut up and do their work while doing their time.
That’s not to say there weren’t escape attempts on occasion. These usually amounted to someone slipping away from their workgroup. If they weren’t found right away, they would be allowed to roam the ship for a few days. After the lack of having food or water would catch up with them, they would turn themselves in without incident. Sure, they’d be locked up in solitary confinement for sometime, but regular meals, as bland as they are, made it tolerable. They would eventually return to the workforce and their production would go up by a noticeable margin.
And the even smaller percentage of those that were so determined to keep their new found freedom that they refused to succumb to hunger and thirst, were simply tracked down by the signal from their ID chips.
As for that one or two that would even go so far as to dig their chip out of their hand to avoid being tracked, they would be put off at the next stop, when there were caught, to serve out their sentences, plus extra for the escape attempt, in a standard prison with nothing but a useless, damaged hand and the constant threat violence to look forward to.
The Commander shifted his gaze to Cole. “You are all here to re-learn responsibility for everything you do; up to, and including, your personal hygiene. Do you understand, Mr. Shaw?”
Cole didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. But he restrained himself. He had to keep playing the game for a while, at least.
“Sir. Yes, sir!”
There was a loud clunk on the other side of the room that broke the Commander’s lock on Cole.
One of the guards had thrown the drawer aside to pick up something in the heap of clothing on the deck. The Commander walked over, purposefully.
Cole strained to look without turning his head. He saw a short inmate of Latin desent. Cole thought his name was Miguel Lopez or something like that. Jack would know. Jack knew everybody. The man looked very nervous. Beads of sweat were building on his forehead and despite his olive complexion, he looked almost as pale as Jack did. He had screwed up. And he knew it.
“What do you have, Corporal?” The Commander asked.
The guard reached down into the heap with his gloved hand and produced a gray wad. Cole couldn’t make out what it was. Socks, maybe. When it was fully exposed to the rich oxygen environment, the sweaty stench shot across the room like a shockwave. Most everyone turned away, covering their mouths and noses, except for Jack.
There was a tremendous metal on metal clang that snapped everyone’s attention back. The Commander’s baton rested in the dent it made in the nearest bunk frame from the force of his swing. “Get your hands off of your pie-holes!” He yelled, while looking around the room. “Take it in, ladies. Let it be a lesson to you.” Then he turned his attention the very nervous Lopez. “Mr. Lopez, the Captain was kind enough to allow you to come onboard this ship so you could pay your debt to society. And you have answered his kindness by making his ship stink to high heaven,” the Commander spoke in a low, almost icy tone, as if to be taking the infraction as a personal insult to himself. “This is unacceptable.” He looked away in disgust and pointed to the other guards, gesturing them to take Lopez away.
The Commander looked at the two nearest prisoners. “Clean up the mess,” hen he addressed the whole room, “You all have fifteen minutes to muster for chow. Section six masons will be going out after chow for unscheduled hull repairs, courtesy of the briar patch we went through last night. Move it people!”
The guards filed out through the hatch. Lopez was in the middle of the line with an unmistakable look of worry on his face. In a few moments, the hatch was secured shut behind them.
Everyone hurriedly went to work, helping those that still had bunk drawers turned over on the floor, so they could all get ready for chow.
“Who the hell is he to judge us?” Cole said, angrily. “I’m sure his past isn’t exactly squeaky clean.”
Jack shrugged as he pulled the corner of his blanket taut around and tucked neatly under the corner of his bed mat. “That could be, Cole, but he hasn’t been caught or convicted of anything. We have. There’s no way around that, no matter how he treats us.”
Cole worked on his own blanket. “I can’t wait till I don’t have to deal with him anymore,” he said. His words spoken with a certain finality to them that Jack picked up on immediately.
“What are you talking about? What’s going on?” Jack asked.
Dammit. “Nothing, Jack. Just wishful thinking, I guess.” Cole said. He did his best to sound convincing. If Jack knew what was going on–what Cole hoped was going on–Jack would spend every waking moment trying to talk him out of it. Jack wouldn’t rat him out to the staff, Cole trusted Jack enough to believe that. But Jack would be so single minded in trying to make Cole change his mind, that the two would likely end up fighting over it, bitterly, and they would part on the worst of terms.
Cole didn’t want that. Jack was his best friend. He’d saved Cole’s tail in one way or another more times than he could count. He had hoped to be able to repay Jack for everything he’d done to help him when they got out.
But Cole was getting ahead of himself. He did not yet know any details. He truly didn’t know if anything was going to happen yet, for that matter. He had been contacted once, already. He knew he’d be contacted again. Cole would have to wait and see.
Jack was going to do the same.
After morning chow, three of the masons from section six joined three more from section seven outside the ship for the repair work the Staff Commander spoke of that morning.
Briar patch was the name given to any small, uncharted field of asteroids or other space debris that the ship would pass through. Routinely, damaged caused by a briar patch could be handled during the normal repair cycle. But this time, it could not wait.
Cole stepped off of the lift on to the hull outer hull of the ship with a feeling of cry nausea in his gut. Nausea, not from the transition to the zero-G vacuum which is common for the masons as their internal organs tended to float about freely for a few centimeters in any direction inside their torsos without gravity to hold them in place. For Cole, the sickly feeling came from the realization that he was back out on the job. Doing the same old thing. Nine to five. Just as he had for the last seven years. Just as he had back on Rampart station. Just as his parents had done before him. Except in their case, it was more like nine to nine.
He hated it all over again.
Ahead of him, he saw what could have been the early stages of framework for some kind of mechanical arachnid. A Daddy longlegs, perhaps. Cole had seen them before in cargo containers on the docks back home. At this point, though, it only had one, long, leg.
The direct fill line had been brought out, assembled, and connected to the dispenser unit. The line was in three segments. The first ran from the dispenser, upward, at something close to a forty-five degree angle for about forty meters. It joined with the second that went horizontal for another twenty meters. Finally the third section angled straight down back toward the hull.
Cole’s eyes followed the pipe to its end where he expected to find a few medium-sized craters. His eyes went wide when he, instead, found what looked like a canyon. He tried to fathom how large of an asteroid would have to hit the ship to do this kind of damage. But what was even more difficult to believe was the fact that they didn’t even feel the impact. Not even the slightest shutter in his bunk frame.
That nausea reared up again in a sickening wave as Cole realized this was going to be an all day affair.
The repair work went on for several hours. Slowly. It had to be done slowly. The sheer size of the crater meant that it had to be filled in layers no thicker than one meter. About twenty or so layers that got wider in every direction with each one.
Cole just drudged on. He hadn’t said a single word on comms. Not even to report the fossilized hand ha had found embedded in the deepest part of the pit. He just wanted it to be over.
His only comfort through this was the realization that the ship’s Captain had to be going out of his mind right about now. He would be losing about eight hours time at full drive velocity which shot the precious timetable he lived by straight to hell. That thought made Cole smile for the first time all day.
“Can you give me a hand over here?” Cole heard in his headset. He looked up to see someone from section seven at the perimeter of the crater waving him over.
With a couple of short, controlled bursts from his pack, Cole settled back on hull about twenty meters away. He saw the man laying fresh filler into some cracks with his suits dispenser.
The man looked up at Cole. “I need you to trowel this while I fill. Start over there,” he said, pointing to a mound that was noticeably higher than the rest.
Without a word, Cole bounced over and kneeled down, trowel in hand, and froze. He blinked and looked at the mound again. He then looked back at the man behind him. Cole was surprised to see him pointing at the mound and even more surprised at what the man said.
“It’s ok. That’s taken care of,” he said, still pointing. “You just do this.”
Without further discussion, Cole looked down again to commit what he saw to memory and gave it a quick swipe with his trowel, and smiled again.
The repair work was completed an hour ahead of projection. None too soon, as far as the Captain was concerned. Within a few seconds of the outer hatch locking closed, the ship shuddered under their feet as the reciprocating drive was pushed to full.
The Captain had undoubtedly ordered the power plant to be pushed past regulated limits to get back on schedule. He would be happy again.
But Cole, at that moment, didn’t care what kind of mood the Captain was in or whether they would get back on schedule or not. No. The only thing Colton Shaw was focused on at that moment was what he had seen scribed in the lumpy mound of repair filler, an hour and a half earlier. Three letters and two numbers that changed his outlook for the near future even more than the square piece of packing board had.
It’s gonna happen.
“You think your going somewhere?” Jack asked in a way that was both sarcastic and suspicious.
“What the hell does that mean?” Cole answered in the same fashion. It hadn’t occurred to him that he was still in his work jumpsuit, while everyone else was winding down before lights out. He hadn’t even taken off his boots and Jack noticed.
“Well, your all dressed up and I know your social calendar is clear for the next six years,” Jack said.
Cole huffed. Jack’s constant pestering about what was going on had run its course, as far was Cole was concerned, and it was time for him to lay off. “Nothing for you to worry about Jack.”
“I saw that square of board you got at chow, yesterday. And I know you were working with guys from Hab-twelve today. Since you got back tonight, you’ve been prancing around here with a stupid crap-eatin’ grin on your face. And you haven’t whined about wanting out of here since yesterday.”
Cole rolled over in his bunk, facing away from Jack and paused for a long moment. “Maybe I’m buying into that when it’s over, your going home nonsense you’ve been telling me for years,” he said making an exaggerated quoting gesture with his hands.
The insult didn’t faze Jack, in the least. He was intent on talking some sense into his friend. He leaned in to Cole and spoke quietly. “If you’re dealing with Viggo, like I think you are, he’ll get you into a hole that you won’t be able to sweet talk your way out of. I promise you that.”
Cole was silent and for a moment that gave Jack a faint glimmer of hope that he’d said something that would sway Cole away from choosing the wrong fork in the road ahead of him.
Cole sat up and looked at Jack. Then, his eyes drifted and focused on Lopez, who was asleep in his bunk. He looked completely spent and his sore muscles made him moan in pain every time he shifted in his bunk. Lopez didn’t say anything about what he was made to do as punishment. He couldn’t. He was out cold as soon as he hit his mat.
A couple bunks over from him, Cole saw Old Wiley. Wiley was another old-timer, like Jack. At one time, a true master of the craft. It was said that he could con a dead man into giving up the pennies off of his own eyes. But that was a long time ago. He was in his sixties now. He spent his time sweeping floors and cleaning toilets. The spark in his eyes that gave him life had been doused years ago. All that was left was a shell of a man that rarely spoke. Never laughed. And cried frequently.
Cole’s eyes went around the room. His hab-mates were a mix of all colors and creeds. Some as old as Jack and Wiley, most were not. The faces were different. But the stories were all the same.
I can’t do it. I won’t be like them.
Cole looked at Jack with eyes that were empty and Jack’s shoulders slumped. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. That glimmer hope, he thought was there. That glimpse of reason that he thought Cole was having. Gone.
Don’t do it Cole.
The hatch clunked and swung open allowing a guard to step in.
“Shaw!” He shouted. “Let’s go, they want you in Causeway-B.”
Cole stood up and looked back down at Jack, whose face was completely neutral. “Sorry, Jack. That’s my ride. I’ll catch you later.” With that, he turned and left with the guard without looking back.
Causeway-B was one of the main thoroughfares that connected the detention area with the rest of the ship. Throughout the day, it bustled with activity. Every inmate marched this fifty-meter stretch twice a day, to and from chow. The staff used it to go home after their shift each day. All of that foot traffic in such a confined space left its mark on a daily basis. Under orders from the Captain, Causeway-B was scrubbed clean after lights out on a nightly basis.
“Alright,” the guard said, “you guys know the drill. Clean the ceiling, walls, and deck spotless. You got two hours.”
The large inmate working with Cole on this detail snapped a sarcastic salute. “Whatever you say, boss.” Pushing two sets of mop buckets, mops, brushes, and brooms, he and Cole turned and headed up to the far end of the causeway, while the guard leisurely walked to a waiting seat at the other end.
Impatience clawed at Cole. As he walked, he looked at the other man. I got your message, now what?
The man just looked ahead as they went. He seemed to not pay any mind to Cole.
“Viggo,” Cole whispered.
The man that was first introduced to Cole years earlier as, Viggo, Son of Erik, did not answer. Instead, he straightened his broad shoulders, and raised his head a bit higher.
Viggo was another senior inmate. A leader of sorts, like Jack. He and Jack went way back. They used to be friends, until a falling out that neither really spoke of. Viggo’s philosophy differed from Jack. Rather than trying to nurture the best in the men that looked up to him, as Jack did. Viggo believed his nordic heritage dating back to the days of Erik the Red, made him destined to lead with strength and might. Viggo had never been convicted of any violent crimes, but it was widely believed that one wouldn’t want to test Viggo’s mettle.
Cole and Viggo reached the large hatch that was the boundary separating them from civilization. It would be sealed tight with a computer-controlled time lock. Nevertheless, anyone on this cleaning detail couldn’t help but give the hatch a good push, just in case. He grunted quietly, as he pushed. The door mocked his effort.
The guard looked back over his shoulder in time to catch sight of Cole, and laughed to himself. With only the hatch to the detention area open, and no other access to the rest of the ship without a dozen junctions to get through in any direction, this was one of the few times the guards didn’t have to baby-sit the workers. This assignment was almost considered to be a break period. The biggest challenge tonight would be to find a good way to stay awake.
It did strike him as odd that guys from different hab-blocks drew got this detail tonight, though. But most of the scheduling was handled by the computer automatically. The machine must have run its numbers differently, I suppose.
Cole dipped his wall brush into the soapy solution in the bucket. When he did, its scent permeated the air. He had been told it was meant to smell like a tree native to Terra. Pine, or something. He never cared for it.
“So,” Cole said, finally, “What’s goin on?”
Viggo slapped his own soapy brush against the hatch and drew it up and down in long, overlapping strokes. “Things are well. As they should be,” he said very casually.
Cole scrubbed at his half of the hatch, paying particular attention to the handle and the corresponding edge of the hatch where filth gathered from the hands of those used it. He felt a rise of anticipation, waiting for Viggo to fill him in on what was happening.
But Viggo said nothing. His silence went on for several minutes.
That brought Cole’s frustration up to nearly a fever pitch and his scrubbing of the same two-foot square of the wall for those minutes showed it.
Cole shuddered. The muscles in his back tightened, suddenly, following a quick poke just off center of his spine. What the hell?
Viggo spoke quietly and evenly without breaking his rhythm. “You need to calm down or I won’t tell you anything.”
Cole had to fight the instinct to say something back with almost everything he had, but he managed to keep his composure.
“So how is Jack, these days?” Viggo asked.
Geesh. Chit-chat was the last thing on Cole’s mind, but the ball was in Viggo’s court. “He’s fine,” he said. Then he added, “He says I shouldn’t have anything to do with you.”
Viggo, still facing the opposite wall, raised an eyebrow. “Really? Does he suspect anything?” He asked with noticeable curiosity.
Cole shrugged. “He suspects something is going on. He suspects you’re involved. He doesn’t know what it all means, but I suspect he’ll keep trying to talk me out of it.”
Viggo dunked his brush into his bucket, and said more coldly, “Do you think he’ll try to rat us out to Staff?”
Cole shook his head. “Nah. Not without knowing what to tell them.”
Viggo was silent again for a few moments. The whole causeway was deathly silent except for the gritty noises of brushes against steel.
“He’s too close to the Staff. And they’re too close to him,” Viggo said.
Cole thought back to the inspection, when the Commander singled out Jack for his tirade. Jack’s supposed to be the crazy one.
“I know you and he are friends,” Viggo said. “I’m fairly certain I can trust you. He will do whatever he can to mess things up for me.”
Cole was well aware of the friction that existed between Jack and Viggo. Friction wasn’t the right word. It was more like a barren wasteland of a rift. They never spoke. When they were in close proximity to each other, the tension had almost an electric presence.
He had asked Jack about it a couple of times. When he did, it usually ended with a fight over Cole’s association with Viggo. Jack insisted that Viggo was a dangerous man, who had become disillusioned about a great many important things, and he should stay as far away from him as possible. Being one not to miss an advantage, Cole knew it was good to have friends who had friends on the other side of the fence, as well. As time went on, he posed the question to Viggo about his problems with Jack, Viggo would only say that Jack had grown soft over the years and pandered to the whims of the Staff.
Cole saw it as a win-win arrangement for himself.
He began to feel the pressure of the situation rise. He knew he would have to speak his next words carefully. Sound carried off of the walls almost as if they were designed to. He looked down the causeway. About fifty meters away, the guard sat in a folding chair, facing three-quarters away from him and Viggo.
Cole took a soft breath. “Am I in?”
Viggo paused, as if to be mulling over the question for the first time. “I don’t know.”
Cole stopped scrubbing and whipped his head around. “What!” It was still what could be considered a whisper, but the quick hiss of air out of his throat sent the sound rolling off of the walls and down the causeway like a shockwave. It whipped past the guard’s ear with a metallic whine.
He stood up, turning. “You two,” he said, pointing with his baton, “less yappin’ and more scrubbin’.”
Cole and Viggo picked up the pace with their brushes. After about five minutes, the guard seemed to settle back into complacency, as he had before.
“Are you going to work for me?” Viggo whispered.
Cole thought for a moment. Months before, chance had it that he and Viggo ended up sitting across from each other at chow. Viggo brought up the subject of their former lives on the outside.
Even though nearly everything Cole did to get by was a criminal offense in one way or another, he was extremely proud of that life, and loved to talk about it. The conversation turned to one of his most reliable and successful scams, which immediately caught Viggo’s interest.
Cole would go to the smaller, independent mining and supply contractors. Mom and pop operations, if you will. There were lots in the Centauri territory. Frontier opportunity brought them out from Terra in droves, as if they were being promised forty acres and a mule like the pioneers of the nineteenth century. Many had found themselves nearly bankrupt because they didn’t really know what they were getting into when they left the cushy comfort of Terra with its predictable supply and demand economy for the savage frontier of a newly settled planet where conventional thinking had given way to the unanticipated challenges of creating a civilization from a model that took thousands of years to cultivate. Cole could spot these people in dire straits a kilometer away.
He’d show up on their doorstep like a guardian angel with the answer to their problems. Cole offered to sell them bonds for their inventory of raw supply materials that they could hold in trust. Cole would then take the raw materials and sell them at current market prices. The bonds he sold the contractors would mature weeks or months later, then they could be cashed in for whatever the market price of the materials was at that time, which was expected to have appreciated by a substantial margin. The bonds were phony, of course. When Cole showed up with a chartered transport ship to take the goods off of their hands, that would be the last they’d see of him. And the icing on the cake, Cole would collect a substantial tax credit on the expense of chartering the ship and handling the goods.
It was brilliant.
Viggo saw Cole’s talent. He saw that Cole had the no-how, and that he, himself, had the networked connections to take Cole’s scam to a much larger and much more lucrative level.
“Yes,” Cole said without breaking the rhythm of his brush.
“Alright. You need to be ready when the time comes,”
“Ready? Ready for what?” Cole said.
Viggo spoke low and evenly, but his words were laced with a conceded tone that said he was the mastermind of the plan, and he wanted to be sure Cole knew it. “Two days from now, the gravity core will be shut down for recalibration. That’s when we go.”
Cole’s brush strokes became erratic as he tried to make sense of it all. He’d just started to open his mouth when he felt the end of Viggo’s brush pole jab into his back again. He winced, but kept his composure.
“You will be where you need to be. That’s all you need to know.” Then Viggo stopped talking. In fact, he said nearly nothing at all for the remainder of the work.
Cole, who still really didn’t know much more than he did a couple of hours earlier, had to work to contain the extra spring in his step that he was feeling.
Viggo had been very vague about the plan and even though it bothered him, Cole understood why. One couldn’t give up a secret he didn’t know, and Cole figured it was added insurance to make sure Jack was out of the loop.
But Viggo had given Cole a morsel that would tide him over. A time and place—-more or less. This time, he was sure. Down deep in the pit of his stomach, despite the warnings Jack had given him about Viggo, or all of his speeches about doing the right thing, he knew, this time, he was going home. And he let that thought carry him through the best night’s sleep he’d had in seven years.
Cole rubbed into his hands under the flow of warm water from the faucet in the lavatory. “Jack, I’m telling you, there’s nothing going on,” he snapped as he shook off the excess water.
The hab-ten lavatory was almost as acoustically favorable as Causeway B, and Cole’s voice easily carried outside. A small crowd of the curious started to gather at the doorway. A gathering that did not go unnoticed.
At a monitoring station on the same deck, the routine cycling of the video feeds from hidden cameras in each block had revealed something out of the ordinary in hab-ten.
“Looks like we might have a fight in the hab-ten lavatory,” the duty monitor said.
The shift dispatcher pivoted his seat to look at the viewscreen. The entire hab-ten population was cramming into the doorway now. He threw a couple of switches on his panel. “Response team to Hab-Ten. Response team to Hab-Ten, code echo.”
Jack threw his arms in the air. “What the hell is wrong with you! You’re so close to being a free man, and you want to—-“
“Get it through your head, old man. There’s nothing happening. And even if there was, it’s my life. What are you scared of?” He paused and looked away for a moment, as if to be thinking. “Oh, wait. You’re just scared. Period.”
Jack stood, frozen. His thoughts, racing. He and Cole had fought many times in the past. But not like this.
Cole turned to leave, but as he did, he felt what could have easily been a vise latch on to his left bicep. Intense pressure was being applied to the artery, and Cole felt it throb with every beat of his heart. He tried to pull away, but Jacko’s grip was unrelenting and getting tighter as the seconds past.
Jack pulled Cole in close. His glare was more than just fixed on him. It sliced right through him. Cole felt a shiver of something close to real fear when his eyes met Jack’s. They jittered back and forth rapidly, as they focused on Cole’s eyes individually. Cole glanced down and saw Jack’s right hand. The palm was open, and Jack was almost grinding into the thigh of his pants.
The pain in Cole’s arm felt like it went all the way down to the bone, and he found it increasingly difficult to speak. “J–Jack! Dammit, Jack! You’re gonna break my arm!”
“You listen to me,” Jack said, his voice a low, deadly, rumble. “You think you’re gonna be doing something that ain’t never been tried before? Let me tell you something, son. This old man has seen it all tried before. And Viggo’s gonna screw you over. It ain’t worth it.”
Thumping from a half dozens sets of heavy boots treading purposefully on the deck outside, and the scattering of the other inmates, grabbed Cole’s attention for a moment. He tried to pull away from Jacko’s grip repeatedly. “Jack,” he said, “staff is coming! We have got to go now!”
But Jack remained fixed in place. His knuckles had turned white from the strain of locking on to Cole’s arm like a wild torlac on Centaurus locks its jaws around the neck of a full grown terran bull when it raids the colony livestock in the dead of night.
The guards burst in, going straight for Jack. Four of them lashed out with their stun batons while the other two worked to free Cole’s arm. The largest of men would go down with three good stuns, at the most. It took half a dozen to wrench Cole’s arm free from Jack. Cole was dragged out of the lavatory, but not before he saw the other guards produce heavy shackles from the pouches on their belts. But what lingered in his mind more than anything else was the image of Jack grinding his right palm on his thigh and that look. That Wacko Jacko look.
Cole was first taken to the infirmary where his arm was examined and treated. The doctor told him that the bone had some stress fractures. A few more minutes, or any more pressure, and it might have shattered.
A staff officer interviewed Cole about the incident during the examination. He hammered Cole with the same questions a dozen different ways.
“Look.” Cole said with a huff. “There wasn’t anything we were fighting about. Like I said, I accidentally splashed some water on him, and he went off. I think he was going to lose it soon, anyway. I just happened to be around at the wrong time.”
Satisfied with the explanation, the officer left to type up the report.
Cole was returned to Hab-ten. His arm was wrapped at the bicep and much to his relief; he was still cleared to work. Never thought I’d be happy about that, he thought.
It had been four hours or so, and Jack had not yet returned to the Hab-block.
He must be in solitary. Regret nagged at him for what he’d said to Jack.
Lopez spent several minutes talking to Cole, trying to find out what had happened. He had seen Jack when they carried him out, and it scared him. Everyone was talking about the chip madness, which worried him even more. Lopez didn’t how he would cope through the rest of his sentence—-which was about the same as Cole’s—-if something happened to Jack. Lopez shared every one of his worries with Cole. Regret was promoted to guilt.
But what if Viggo had been right about Jack? Or what if Jack really had gone off the deep end? One way or the other, Cole figured Jack wasn’t going to be around to help anybody for much longer. Which, to Cole, meant he was going to have to look out for himself.
Tomorrow can’t get here soon enough.
The next work day had proven to be especially mundane. Cole was part of workgroup from hab-ten that was on its way back to the block after spending the better part of the day tearing down pallets of crated supplies for the prison section, waxing the floor under the pallets while the supplies were inspected and inventoried, then, restacking the pallets in a new sequential order.
About midway through the job, Cole’s impatience was getting the better of him. Any out of the ordinary sound—-a thud, or clank, or anything—made his heart skip a beat. Is this it? He’d ask himself while looking over his shoulder for any sign at all. He wished Viggo had been able to give him specifics. The waiting was agonizing.
The work weary company of sore muscles and aching backs stopped at a checkpoint where the guard escort had to sign the group back into the Hab-block.
Cole was disappointed and his slumping shoulders showed it. Something must have happened. Dammit.
The guard at the checkpoint, or Gatekeeper, as they jokingly called him, triggered an electronic lock and the hatch swung open. “Home sweet home, boys,” another guard said. The very thought made Cole sick to his stomach.
The group tightened their line and were about to get underway when the Gatekeeper held up his hand, “Hold on, Sergeant,” he said, looking at his console.
The Sergeant walked over to have a look, also.
Cole couldn’t see what the hold up was from his position near the back of the line. He just wanted to hit his bunk and get this day over with.
Then his heart stopped.
“Shaw!” The guard said. “The computer says they want you in shaft three.”
Cole innocently pointed to himself. “Me, sir?”
“Yes, you. Nimrod.” He gestured to another guard with his baton. “Watkins, here, will make sure you don’t get lost.”
Cole’s anticipation rose up again. He stepped out of line, and strode over to Watkins with his back straight, shoulders squared, and chin high. Perhaps a bit too high. Watkins gave him a confused look. Colton Shaw, in his experience, was not one to welcome an extra work detail.
Watkins directed Cole to another hatch in the junction. The Gatekeeper released the lock from his console. Just as they were almost through the hatch, Cole heard the Sergeant call out to Watkins. “I need you back here, ASAP. Fifteen minutes to shift change, and we have to lock the rest of these clowns down.”
“Yes, sir,” Watkins answered dutifully.
It took another three minutes to reach Airshaft-three. There were two dozen of these shafts spaced throughout the ship. They were the primary arteries of the air filtration and circulation system. Every air duct in every corridor and every room, on every deck, from bow to stern, fed into these primary shafts. The odd numbered shafts drew the spent air out while the evens piped the fresh air in.
Cole would be helping to clean the shaft’s inner surfaces of the build up of dust and other contaminants that would build up, despite the smooth, polished, finish.
Watkins turned Cole over to another guard and an engineering chief, that was supervising the to be sure everything was done to spec.
The Chief helped Cole into his safety harness, goggles and respirator unit. It was then Cole noticed the Chief was wearing gravity boots. It struck him as odd, since there was no need for gravity boots for this type of work detail. But since no else seemed to notice, Cole guessed it wasn’t that important.
The Chief pulled the access hatch open. Cole first heard the low roar of the ten-thousand cubic meters of air being moved every minute – then he felt it, as he stepped out on to the maintenance carriage. It took a few seconds to steady his footing in the strong, upward flow, before attaching his safety line to the carriage railing.
Cole looked around the wide shaft. It was brightly lit with white floods that were mounted flush with the sides of the shaft, so that there were as few raised surfaces as possible on which dirt could build up. His eyes followed the lines of lights upward until all four sides of the shaft converged into an infinity that seemed as out of reach as his freedom had been. Looking down into the swirling discharge of dirt, the shaft seemed bottomless.
He recalled the last time he had heard of someone falling down the shaft. A couple of years back, a man on the shaft cleaning detail had some sort of bad wiring in his head, or maybe even a sudden chip psychosis. For some reason, he thought the updraft was an act of God, beckoning him to come to heaven. Before anyone could stop him, the man had unhooked his safety line, called out something to God, and flung himself over the carriage railing. The updraft was sharp, but no where near enough to support a man in its flow. He didn’t even scream on the way down. It took another day to recover what was left of him from the filtration screens.
Cole gave his safety line another good tug, just to be sure.
The carriages to his left and right were on the same deck as his, with two workers in each. He had to strain to see the opposite wall through the fast moving, thin clouds dirt in various shades of tan, brown and black. But he could make out the moving shapes of two men against the gleaming aluminum about two decks up. One shape stood out. It was obviously a large man and Cole was willing to bet even money that he had a think mane of blonde Nordic hair pulled back into a neat ponytail.
As if to sense he was being watched, the man turned and looked down to Cole, giving him a wave that was more of an acknowledgement of his presence than a greeting. Viggo.
The chief checked his chronometer, and gave the guard a thumbs up as he reached for the hatch. The guard helped secure the hatch from his side. The chief then gave Cole a thumbs up that was accompanied by a grin that Cole didn’t quite understand. With a flick of a switch on the carriage control box, the chief had them on their way.
The carriage rode a buffer of magnetic repulsion, upward in a slow crawl, on twin beams that ran vertically through the entire length of the shaft. The other carriages did the same, until all four were on the same deck as Viggo’s. Cole could now see Viggo taking wide sweeps with his electro-static sweeper, revealing a pristine, polished surface beneath the grime. The chief put a sweeper in Cole’s hand. He looked at it, dumbfounded, as if it were the last thing he needed to have at that moment.
The chief slapped his shoulder to get his attention and mouthed the words, “Get to work!”
Cole looked at Viggo again. He was sure this was the place and time for Viggo’s plan. But what about the chief? Cole didn’t know how anything could happen with the chief supervising. Was he just going to let them go on their merry little way? Not likely.
Whenever this work was done, there was always someone from the ship’s engineering crew to supervise. The staff guards didn’t come into the shaft. Instead, they would wait at a particular access hatch, waiting for a signal from the engineer indicating the work was complete. The guard would then open the hatch and collect the prison workers.
Staff didn’t see the need to put a guard in the shaft to supervise directly. There really wasn’t room for another body on the detail. So, the where are they going to go? reasoning was applied. The engineers, having not been trained as guards, were not issued stun batons. They were only given the signal box to contact the guard. As a precautionary measure, the box and an emergency alert, but it was rarely used. There was almost never a need except in the case of a worker making a fatal mistake and it would be all over before the engineer could even hit the button.
Cole didn’t have to wait long to see what the chief would do.
The chief looked at his watch again, then turned to Viggo. To Cole’s surprise, Viggo’s gaze was already locked on the chief. The engineer didn’t try to tell across the chasm. Instead, he pointed to his watch and held up two fingers.
Viggo acknowledged with a wave. He and his partner put down their sweepers and flipped their equipment crate upside down. Cole watched with rising anticipation, as he saw the workers on the other carriages do the same.
He felt a sharp pull on his left arm. It was still sore from his fight with Jack. What the hell? Cole’s excitement turned to complete bewilderment at what he saw. The chief was gesturing to him to help flip their crate over like the others. Cole complied, despite his confusion–which by this point, was getting worse.
The engineer strained to pull one of the metal casters free from the bottom of the crate. On instinct, Cole wrapped his hands around the chief’s and heaved with him. The caster sprang free from its housing, causing both men to fall backward into the railing. Cole slipped through the gap between the top and middle rails. Panic enveloped him, as he felt more and more of his body hanging freely over the edge. It was happening so fast, he became disoriented in the gritty, swirling, breeze. He reached out in every direction, praying to get hold of something. Then, just as suddenly as he had started to go over, he stopped. His safety line went taut and he found himself suspended in the open chasm. He screamed – both in abject panic and relief at the same time.
This had to be a dream. A horrible nightmare, he thought.
Cole looked out. The lenses of his goggles were obscured by his tears, but he could see Viggo and the others, upside down, reaching for him, yet too far away to help. Then he felt himself being pulled by his legs. With each pull, he felt more and more of his body being supported by something solid underneath him. Cole snapped his gaze down toward his feet and he was welcomed back to reality. He saw the chief, one arm wrapped around his leg, the other hand firmly grasping the safety line, drawing him back in from the nightmare.
Cole quickly backed himself away from the edge of the carriage, seating himself against the side of the shaft. His heart was racing, and he was out of breath.
But the chief wasn’t ready to take a break. He took Cole’s hand and shoved the shaft end of the caster into his grip. He leaned in and pulled one of Cole’s hearing protectors off of his ear slightly.
“You’ll need this climb up the shaft!” He had to yell to be heard, even as close as he was. “Don’t let go until you get to your stop!”
Cole sat, dumbfounded. “What?”
The chief checked his watch. Dammit. He grabbed Coles arm by the wrist and moved it toward one of the magnetic rails. It drew on the metal wheel sharply. Cole tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he saw that it rolled freely with his arm motion. Cole’s eyes lit up, and the chief knew he was getting the idea.
Cole yelled into the chief’s ear. “Why are you doing this?”
The chief smiled. “Ten seconds! Get ready!”
Cole’s heart was racing again. He gripped the metal caster tightly, and his hand had started to sweat inside his glove. The boney claws of doubt began to poke their way into the back of his mind. What if I can’t hold on? Will I get sucked into the intakes? It’s not too late, is it? I don’t have to do this. I still have a choice, right?
At that moment, Cole felt a strange, but familiar sensation. His limbs, his organs, even his hair felt as though their mass was slipping away. His boots lost contact with the carriage platform. The gravity was offline, just as Viggo said it would be. There’s no turning back now.
All at once, Viggo and the other five men unhooked their own safety lines, got a secure hold on their casters and pushed off with their legs. Cole watched as they all ascended quickly–-more quickly than he thought he could safely go–-up the shaft, along the rails, just as the chief said.
Cole looked to the chief, who was standing with solid footing–-courtesy of the gravity boots he noticed earlier–-and unhooking Cole’s safety line. He cupped his hands together around bottom of Cole’s right boot, squared his footing on the platform, and heaved Cole upward as if he were in the caber toss in the Highland Games on Terra.
Cole instinctively overlapped his grip on the caster with his free hand. He was no stranger to zero-G. But when he was doing mason work he had the presence of his tether line and thruster pack to give him a sense of control and security. What he was doing now was almost chaos in motion. The anxiety that it induced surged adrenaline through his veins. It was…thrilling.
He wasn’t sure how many decks he had past, but the updraft had him moving at a pretty good clip. Viggo and the others were no where in sight but, up ahead, he did see something. A light on the wall opposite the one he was on, but not like those in the shaft. It was brighter, seeming to shine through from outside the shaft–like from the corridor. The source of the light was coming into view quickly, as Cole zipped up the shaft. It was an open access hatch, with a metal rod laid across the shaft from the hatch to Cole’s magnetic track.
Cole barely noticed the rod in time to shift his head to the right to keep from slamming into it face first. Instead, his left shoulder to the brunt of the impact. The shock caused him to lose his grip on the caster, but the force of the blow had caused his legs to wrap around the rod, he made sure he wrapped his arms around it tightly.
“Cole, let’s go. Let’s go!” A voice said from the hatch. It was Viggo leaning back into the shaft, extending his hand to help Cole close the distance to the hatch more quickly.
The zero-G conditions allowed Cole to pull himself along the rod effortlessly and in a few seconds, he found himself floating down the corridor trailing Viggo. They used any and every bump or outcropping along the wall that they could get their hands on to move themselves along.
Time, Viggo reminded himself, was the only thing he didn’t have any control over. There was none to waste.
Cole recognized where they were–-Deck seven. He had cleaned up here before. But this was an administrative wing for the staff; he’d never actually been in any of the rooms before. What struck him most of all was the lack of anyone to be seen in the corridors, save seven grungy inmates floating along.
“Viggo,” Cole whispered, “where is everybody?”
“They’re in the middle of a shift change,” he said with a smile. “This deck should be clear for a good fifteen minutes.”
Cole remembered the sergeant saying something to Watkins about a shift change and it all started to make sense. During a shift change, nearly all inmates were locked down in their hab-blocks. The staff man power in the prison section would be cut in half for about fifteen minutes. Factor in the gravity generator shutting down at this most convenient time which, by coincidence, should have also sealed all of main hatches as an automatic security measure, and the orderly shift change should be in a sufficient state of chaos.
Cole had a vision of the circus that had to be going on in the staff locker room. Most of the staff had little or no practical experience in zero-G. Their frantic motions in trying to catch their floating gear should have sent most of them careening into the nearest wall, or brought about acute cases of motion sickness.
The scope of Viggo’s plan was beyond Cole’s comprehension. Cole knew the Norseman’s influence to be far reaching, even for a man in prison on a spacebreaker. But what Viggo had done defied logic. He was even able to have the gravity shut off. Jack had said, it’s all been tried before. In Cole’s mind, there was no way-–just no way–-Jack could have seen this.
Cole and Viggo made a not-so-graceful right turn around a corner and ducked into the first open door. Another man behind the door, pushed himself off of the wall, and into the door very gently. The swung slowly and latched itself closed with a soft click. It was then Cole finally got a good look at the rest of Viggo’s caravan for the first time. Two were manning the door. The rest were all huddled around a single console, or huddled at least as well as zero-G would allow. Cole looked at their faces–- he didn’t know any of them. Cole knew he was there because Viggo wanted to utilize his talents. They all must have something to offer Viggo, he supposed.
Cole could hear someone feverishly rattling on computer keys, but couldn’t see past Viggo who had pulled himself into the middle of the group.
“I’m just about ready,” a rather high, mousey, voice said that made Cole chuckle to himself.
“Who did that?” The voice said, sharply.
Cole cleared his throat. “Uh…sorry.”
Viggo shifted to his right so Cole could move in. Cole had to work to contain himself. Seated at the console and secured by a belt across his lap, was small man whose appearance matched the voice almost too well. He was short, under five feet tall, and slightly squattish looking. His head was disproportionately large for the body, framed by large, old style, lens eyeglasses that had slid down to the end of his nose, and had more than his fair share of mail patterned baldness badly concealed by a comb over of his brown hair.
The mousey man at the computer glared at Cole. “You’d do well not to laugh at me if you want my help.”
Viggo held up a hand, “alright, Owen, knock it off.”
“Who is this guy?” Cole asked.
“This is our good friend, Owen. He’s doing twenty-five for various computer crimes, and he doesn’t think he gets enough respect. Ain’t that right, Owen?” Viggo said with a grin.
Owen didn’t turn from his screen.
“Anyway, he’s the best computer critter I’ve ever seen or heard about.”
“How’d he get this kind of access?” Cole asked, even more amazed at what Viggo has put together.
“Well, a few weeks ago the staff’s only computer records guy up and quit, suddenly,” Viggo said.
Suddenly? Cole raised an eyebrow.
Viggo continued. “The work began to pile up, so they gave it to Owen. Someone, higher up, told them it would be good for his rehabilitation.” Viggo laughed. “So he’s been up here for weeks making things happen for me.”
Owen felt a wave of self-importance come over him, and sat up straight in his seat. “This records terminal is networked with the staff mainframe. It took some time, having to work around the guard’s supervision and the workload they gave me, but I was able to crack the network and get near total access. It would have only taken a couple hours if didn’t have to hide what I was doing from the guards. Their security was very rudimentary, actually. You know they still used single loop algorithm encryption for-– “
Viggo cut him off. “The clock’s running, little man.”
Owen’s shoulders slumped again, as he pushed his glasses back up on to the bridge of his nose with his index finger. “You guys don’t take me seriously,” he said quietly, half hoping no one would hear.
Using the edge of the table, Viggo pulled himself almost face to face with the Owen. “Owen, I’m taking you seriously,” he said with a low growl. “Right now, you better take me seriously and get this done. I’ll be first.”
Cole saw beads of sweat forming on Owen’s forehead. His hand began to tremble, as he reached over to unhook a hand held scanner from the console. Viggo put his chipped hand, palm up, flat on the table. Owen illuminated it with the red scanner beam until an audible beep was heard. Cole couldn’t see the monitor, but the reflection on Owen’s glasses showed data scrolling wildly.
“So how does this help us get out?” Cole asked, at last.
“It’s just like good ol’ Jack says, you get out when you’ve done your time. We’re making the computer tell staff our time is up, that’s all,” Viggo said with his biggest smile yet.
Owen didn’t have to turn his head to be aware of Cole’s confused expression. “I’ve written a program that will generate a release form for each of us. All it needs is a scan of our chips for secure authentication. Next.”
Viggo moved aside and another large man with granite-solid features put his hand down.
Must be one of Viggo’s inner circle, Cole thought. He turned back to Owen, “Won’t so many release forms at once look suspicious?”
“You’d be surprised how many come through while we’re in transit, and we’re in transit for months at a time. When the ship stops or slows from full drive, we receive data stream traffic. It’s mostly astronomical updates and news from the wire, but there’s usually at least one release each time we stop,” he paused, “Next.”
The men kept rotating positions. One moved in to be scanned with Viggo standing close by, while two of them always remained by the door watching the corridor.
“What’s our clock?” Viggo said.
Owen looked at his screen. “Six minutes.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Cole saw one of the look outs waving. “Viggo, someones comin’,” he whispered.
They all scattered into the darkened corners of the room. Cole pulled himself behind a waist-high terminal next to Owen’s and listened intently.
There was a rhythmic thumping in the corridor. Distant, at first, but approaching quickly. Footsteps. The room went deathly silent except for Owen’s keyboard, and the constant low hum of the computers. The heavy footfalls grew ever closer. Cole’s heart stopped right about the time the steps stopped right outside the door. Cole had trouble catching his breath, and he wondered if maybe he should have listened to Jack one last time. He had a foreboding realization that if someone came through that door, he’d never get that one last time.
The latch on the door clicked and Viggo, holding himself behind Owen’s terminal across from where Cole was hiding, cursed under his breath. The door swung open and a slim figure stepped inside. Cole carefully peered over the top the computer, but couldn’t see who it was. The bright lighting from the corridor backlit the figure and the face was covered in shadow. The figure took another step forward and the small overhead light caught his visage in an off-white glow. It looked old and worn, with eyes that were wide in their sockets, crazed with rage-–or maybe just crazed.
“Jack?” Cole shouted in a whisper.
Viggo and the others floated out of hiding. “Did you come here to rat us out? How many staff are gonna come take us away?” Viggo said, angrily pointing a finger in Jack’s face.
Jack said nothing, his piercing scowl beamed at Viggo.
“You must have. I know you don’t get those gravity boots for good behavior,” he said, pointing at Jack’s feet.
Cole hadn’t noticed it before but sure enough, Jack was wearing the same bulky gravity boots that The Chief was wearing in the shaft.
“W-What do you want me to do?” Owen said, the squeak in his voice had returned.
“Shut up!” Viggo said, then he turned back to Jack. “You’re not gonna mess this up for me. You’ll pray to be in the psych ward, away from me, if you do.”
Jack held Viggo with a deadly black gaze that almost seemed to reach out and wrap itself around Viggo’s neck in an effort to choke the life out of him. Jack was one of the very few people in the prison population that was not intimidated by Viggo – and Viggo knew it. “Viggo,” he said, “you and your boys can take a dive in that shaft back there. I don’t care what you do or what happens to you. I’m here to talk some sense into my friend.” Then he turned to Cole.
Viggo looked at Jack and thought for a second. Then he pointed to one of the other men that hadn’t been scanned, and gestured him to step up.
Cole just floated in place, completely dumbfounded again. He looked at the gravity boots. A feeling began to surge inside of him. The feeling progressed to a boil as he stared at the boots. He never thought he’d think this about Jack, but it was undeniable. It was betrayal.
“What did Staff offer to get you to turn your back on us-–on me!” Cole said. “That’s a nice way to practice what you preach. You’re a fraud. You’re no better than any of us.” Cole hoped the words cut deep.
Jack was expressionless. “I’m here to stop you.”
Cole threw his arms up in the air. He forgot the gravity was still off. The sudden motion sent him spinning. Jack reached out and held him steady. “Stop me from what?” Cole was getting angrier with each passing second. “Stop me from getting out of here so I don’t wither away into a crusty old fool that cleans toilets for the rest of his life? I’d rather cut my own wire and shoot myself off into space, than live like Old Wiley.”
“Uh…three minutes. Next.” Owen said, nervously.
“You’ve got six years to go, you moron. You’ll be a free man, legally,” Jack said. “Do you really think this will work? It never has. And when you get caught, Viggo will leave you hanging out to dry if it serves his needs, just like he tried to do to me.”
“What?” Cole looked to Viggo, who just shook his head.
Jack grabbed Cole by the front of his shirt so he couldn’t turn away. “Now let’s suppose this does work, and you get out. Then, what? You’ll go back to your old life. Then you’ll spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, wondering if they’ve caught up with you and you’ll end up back here for a lot longer than six years. How does that sound to you?” Jack said, very forcefully.
Owen looked up to Cole. “Okay, your turn.”
Cole looked around the room and an idea came to him. “Wait, Viggo. Jack could come with us. Can you do it, Owen? What do you say, Jack? We can help each other on the outside, just like we always said we would.”
Jack started to get that wacko look, again. “Haven’t you learned anything yet? I’m getting out the right way!”
Owen was getting restless in his seat. He strained against the tension of the seatbelt to look back at the open door. “We’ve got less than two minutes before the gravity comes back on.”
Viggo and his boys made for the door. “Cole, you can play patty-cake with Jack, if you want to. I don’t care. We’re going back. You keep your mouth shut, no matter what happens.”
Cole watched them file out the door, and head back to the shaft. He started after them by pushing off of a nearby cabinet and he shot past Jack.
Jack reeled around and caught Cole by the leg of his work suit. “Wait!”
“Wait for wh–“ Cole’s words were interrupted by an unseen force pulling on his body that slammed him to the deck. An intense pain took over his left leg, as his knee absorbed the impact for the rest of his body.
But before he could say anything, he heard what had to have been the screams of terror from six other people, down the corridor, in the air shaft! Screams that faded rapidly and, in a few seconds, could no longer be heard.
The aching pain in his knee didn’t stop him from realizing what had just happened. Cole pulled himself to his feet, looking at Jack with utter shock and disbelief. “The gravity came back on…early. You-You knew it would. You made them fall down the air shaft!”
Jack was expressionless again. The words he spoke sounded as cold as the vacuum outside the ship. “I did nothing of the kind. Viggo’s luck ran out.”
“Bullshit! You murdered ’em and you know it!”
“Hey!” Owen said. “We can still do this. Get over here and let me scan you. Staff will be here any second!”
Cole looked at little mousey man that now held the key to his freedom, and then looked at Jack who said quietly, “It’s up to you. I won’t stop you. You have to make the choice. But consider this, what would Colton Shaw’s mommy be told about the decision he’s about to make, if she were alive today? On the one hand, would she be more proud than she’d ever been because her little Cole finally got his head screwed on straight?
Cole fought back tears as he remembered his mother and all the sacrifices her and his father had made for him. Damn you, Jack!
“Or,” Jack continued, “would she live out her remaining days wondering what she had done wrong that would make her son stay on a path to personal damnation? All of her love for you, wasted.”
Owen tried to draw Cole over to his terminal with a frantic waving of his hand.
Cole heard more approaching footsteps in the corridor. He looked at Owen, and then back at Jack. His heart raced, as he tried to swallow down a lump in his throat.
“What are you going to do, Cole?” Jack said. “What are you going to do?”
Centauri station was the only man-made object in the entire territory that dwarfed the spacebreaker Trailblazer in size. It measured about five times the size of the ship and utilized every cubic meter of it, in one way or another. It had to. It was the hub of all space travel in the Alpha-Centauri territory. Anything produced at any of the smaller supply stations had to come through here before it went down to the planet below.
The Trailblazer had completed docking procedures three hours before and cargo was already being off loaded at a steady pace. The work would continue for an estimated five standard days.
Hundreds of passengers disembarked from a dozen different points on the ship into a cavernous passenger terminal that most were unaccustomed to.
Toward the rear of the ship, there was another terminal, separated from the first. It, too, handled passengers and cargo, although on a much smaller scale.
A wide passenger hatch slid open, and some dock workers pushed a portable ramp into place. After a minute or so, a pale-skinned man with a green duffle bag slung over his shoulder stepped into the hatchway. He had just celebrated his sixtieth birthday.
He looked out across the expanse of jumbled people, crates, and machinery and the sight took his breath away. The duffle slipped off of his shoulder and fell at his feet. The space dock, alone, was larger than the solar energy station where he was born. And except for the Trailblazer, he had never been anyplace else.
The man sensed someone walk up from behind, but he didn’t take his gaze from the incredible land of opportunity in front of him.
“I’m gonna miss busting your chops. No one took it like you did, Jack,” a gruff voice said.
Jack finally turned and smiled. He pulled a clean hanker chief out of his pocket, folded it into a neat square, and lightly buffed the four stars on the man’s shoulder boards to a shine. “It helped to know that one day, I’d be going home.”
The Commander smiled, which he never did in the presence of inmates. “You’ve helped us like few people have. You helped keep the peace around here.”
“And you helped me when I needed it,” Jack said.
The Commander shrugged. “We trusted your judgment. We knew it would be best to give you what you needed to weed out the bad element.” He held out his hand to Jack. “You’ve earned this, Jack.”
Jack returned the gesture and the two shook hands, warmly.
“Good luck, Jack. I don’t want to ever see you again.”
Jack smiled wide. “You won’t.” He picked up his duffle, and strode down the ramp.
The deck of the passenger platform didn’t feel any different under his feet than the deck of hab-ten, but he kneeled down and kissed it anyway-–not caring about the dirt and grit that got into his mouth.
“Jack!” Another voice yelled from behind. “Jack, wait up!”
Jack turned and waved his friend down the ramp and out to the freedom that lay beyond. “Come on, before they change their minds!”
His friend had his own duffle slung over his shoulders, clumsily. Its weight made it difficult to balance while coming down the ramp. At the bottom, he kissed the platform as well.
Jack helped him up, and the two headed off toward their futures with wide-eyed wonder.
Ahead of them, they saw one last reminder of the life they were leaving behind. A line of a dozen or so men in orange jumpsuits, all connected with a rope looped around them at the waist. They were all holding hands and reciting a less than stellar rendition of Humpty-dumpty.
Jack couldn’t help but to look at them. He had been a free man for only an hour but, in that time, his perception had already changed. Everyone of them had committed a crime and had given no thought to the consequences of their actions. He felt no pity for them.
As they passed, Jack made eye contact with the convict that was last in line. He knew the face. It was older now–old beyond its years. But it was the same face. The man had a sorrowful, pitiful, look about him.
He reached out to Jack with his free hand when they passed each other. “Jack! Jack! It’s me!”
Jack just looked ahead.
The line marched passed. The man struggled to keep looking back, but the trailing guard put an end to that with his baton.
“Jack, wasn’t that-“
Jack interrupted, his eyes still focused directly ahead. “It doesn’t matter, Lopez. Don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.”