I was in a bad spot.
I was an officer in a prison that had been half-destroyed by pirates, in which most of the prisoners had escaped and now wandered the hallways unfettered. Those few criminals whose lives we’d saved still didn’t trust me. Wes Morgan, the mercenary that we’d rescued from a prison cell, probably thought I was a fool, and Wyrick… well, Cayla Wyrick was my therapist.
“The cargo hold is this way,” I offered when I realized that we were about to miss a turn.
“We’re not going to the cargo hold,” said Morgan without slowing.
I asked him if not there then where, but he ignored me, and I let it drop. No one else seemed to care. The prisoners followed him like young pups following the Alpha Wolf. Wyrick wouldn’t talk to me. She’d disagreed with my decision to turn Martin Browning over to the Nova Dogs, and though I hadn’t actually managed to find out who he was in the server room, the fact that I’d looked at all made me a coward in her eyes.
As we passed deeper into the bowels of the station, we began to hear things through the walls. Quiet coughs coming through the ventilation ducts, but then something else. A low giggling that never seemed to stop, never took a breath. The shifting of papery fabric. The scent of sweat and the unwashed.
Fat Max, the largest man amongst us, if not in muscle than in pure bulk, stopped dead, blocking the corridor. “I ain’t going in there.”
The door ahead of us was riveted steel and painted with a white stripe that bore another, red stripe on its back. I recognized it at once. It was the Forensic Psychiatry wing. A buddy of mine once described it as being like Maximum Security if the prisoners were tweaking all the time. A man in Maximum Security might stab you for a toothpick, but a man in Forensic Psychiatry would stab you if the voices in his head told him you even owned a toothpick. These were men who would not survive on a prison world like Quarterdeck, either because they could not take care of themselves, or because other prisoners would kill them out of fear for their own safety.
Only a few of them had actually gone insane while they were on the station. Most were simply monsters the other systems didn’t know what to do with. Some were sane, but had performed acts so horrendous a jury of twelve reasonable men and women could not comprehend how anyone in their right mind could have committed them.
I could understand why Fat Max wanted to avoid the place. But I also understood that I needed to win points with Morgan and Wyrick. I pushed my way to the front of the group and turned around. These men did not look like the hardened group of prisoners we’d found trying to break into the prison Armoury. They’d seen many of their friends killed in Martin Kilkenny’s ambush, and had themselves been threatened with death by a cannibal. They were scared.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” I asked. “What’s the worst that can happen? Will these guys kill and eat you? Cause that’s what the guys behind us have promised to do, and we know they’re cannibals.”
Fat Max glared back at me with beady eyes that were made small by the vast slabs of coffee-colored flesh that were his cheeks. “Go in yourselves then.”
“Fine. But you know what?” I turned and pointed dramatically at Wyrick. Blonde with diamond ear studs and a pantsuit, she had kicked off her high heels somewhere on the Flight Deck and now wore nothing but her stocking feet. “This woman came here three times a week, every week, as part of her job, and she’s going back in now. Are you going to let her go in alone?”
It turned out that several of them would. But more than half decided to come with us, and I figured it was no great loss to leave those others behind.
“I can’t decide if I should feel flattered or insulted by that little speech,” Wyrick said as we slowly advanced into the ward. It was the first she’d spoken to me since I’d used her codes to look up Browning’s info.
“I’m as scared as Fat Max,” I admitted. “It takes courage to do what you do.”
“Fat Max stayed behind,” she pointed out. “You didn’t.”
I didn’t know how to take the complement. Did this mean that I was earning my way back into her good graces? I was about to continue our conversation but she’d already walked away.
I don’t know what I’d expected Forensic Psychiatry to look like, but what we found looked very much like a hospital. Medical stations that included defibrillators and firefighting equipment were mounted on the walls and beds were lined up on one side the corridor. Each bed had restraints, but they were clean and sterile in nature. We came to a common area with a few scattered tables upon which old fashioned cardboard board games were laid out. A circle of sofas were arranged around a shattered vidscreen and a line of bloody footprints led from there to one of the doors. There was a medical dispensary behind a sheet of Plexiglas on one side of the room, but the door swung on its hinges and I could see several patients slumped over with dried foam and vomit on their mouths and the fronts of their shirts.
“Where’s the staff?” asked Morgan.
No one answered.
We proceeded further into the ward, encountering the occasional patient who was so stoned on prescription medication that they barely acknowledged our presence. Wyrick was no doctor and there wasn’t much she could do for them except try to keep them calm as we passed.
Morgan occasionally checked the map on Wyrick’s notepad. He seemed to know exactly where his friend was being held. We came to a door that required her to enter her codes again, and for the first time since we’d begun our little journey she balked.
“This is the high security ward. If this is where your friend is incarcerated, he’s better off staying here where he can receive treatment.”
“Herby’s got a condition, but I know how to manage it,” said Morgan defensively.
“Herby?” asked Wyrick with one eyebrow raised. “You don’t mean Herschel Konicek?”
“You know him.” It wasn’t a question. More of an admission of defeat.
“As a therapist, I hope he gets treatment. As a woman, I hope he rots in his cell.”
Morgan shook his head. Wyrick hadn’t asked for an explanation, but he gave her one anyways. “Herby was one of the best field mechanics I ever knew. One time, our APC was attacked by Vanduul. They blew the thing to hell. The damage was bad enough, they left us for dead. We found Herby under the wreckage with a three inch piece of steel in his forehead. Crazy thing was, he was still able to walk and talk. Except for this piece of metal in his skull, he looked perfectly normal. So there we were in the middle of hundreds of miles of desert with no vehicle. What were we going to do? Walk to the nearest town? Well, Herby took the APC’s drivetrain, hooked two wheels to it and we drove outta there on the ugliest motorcycle you ever seen.
“When we got back, we took Herby to the hospital and it turns out the metal fragment damaged the part of his brain responsible for impulse control. What happened to those women…he knew what he was doing—he just couldn’t stop himself. Cut him up inside, real bad.
“I wouldn’t wish what he did to his victims on anyone, but he was a victim too. Our unit was all-male, so as long as he stuck with us, didn’t take any shore leave, he could have a life. Course, when the law caught up to me, it caught up to him too, and that’s how he got here.”
Morgan turned to Wyrick. “The fact is, we need him to fix Nylund’s mothballed fighters. I understand that you have more incentive than anyone to keep him in his cell. But I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you stay safe. Herby will know not to cross me.”
Wyrick crossed her arms, hugging herself. She looked up at me, then at the other prisoners. If I was in her position I’d want to stay clear of Konicek, but there was no way we were getting those fighters operational without some high caliber help, and she knew it too. Her choice was simple: agree to free Konicek, or let the rest of us be captured by Kilkenny and his crew. I didn’t envy her the decision. “Okay. We release him, but…if what you say is true, and Konicek’s condition is the result of a brain injury, then he’ll never be cured. After all this is over, I want your word that you’ll bring him back here.”
“Done,” said Morgan so quickly that I could tell that Wyrick was trying to figure out where she screwed up. After a moment, she gave up and punched her code into the console.
The reinforced door began to slide open and then stopped abruptly, the lights on the panel going from green to orange, indicating that an obstruction was present. It took Morgan and two of the prisoners to force it open, and when it finally did, a guard slumped to the ground. His eyes had been pushed into their sockets and two scarlet trails, like scabbed-over tears ran down his cheeks. The rest of the corridor was coated in blood, more than I’d ever seen in one place. We found a few bodies, but also many empty blood pouches, normally used for transfusions. The stench of rot and copper hung heavy in the air.
“Herby!” Morgan called out, but there was no answer. Somewhere far away I thought I heard the beginning of a hysterical laugh that was quickly cut short. We were being sent a message and we all knew it.
to be continued …
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