The twelve of us who had made it to the loading platform alive had to wait in the dark as the thirteenth choked to death on his own blood. The sound was hideous and wet, and no man spoke until it stopped.
It was a sign of how badly the pirate force led by Martin Kilkenny had damaged the station that the lights wouldn’t come on in the cargo area in which we now hid for several minutes. When they did flicker to life, the light was dim and uncertain.
We felt the platform begin to stir in response to a summons from above, but Morgan bashed the panel to pieces with the butt of his rifle. Nearby, Wyrick, the prison’s therapist and our de facto conscience wept softly over the dead man.
“Okay Nylund,” said Morgan. “We need another way off the station.”
I realized that I’d been staring into space and shook my head. We’d gone to the Flight Deck to steal the station’s two Hornet fighters and then use them to run the blockade set up by the Nova Dogs and their Captain, Martin Kilkenny, a pirate about whom I knew little, save that he was a cannibal and that there was, in the words of Cayla Wyrick, something wrong with his jaw. Now, with the Flight Deck in pirate hands, not only would we have to find another ship, we’d have to fight our way past those very same Hornets.
“I’m thinking,” I said quickly. “There are two mothballed fighters and an old station transport in a hangar on the other side of the station, but it would take a miracle worker to get them battle-ready. Besides, Kilkenny’s men would simply follow us in the Hornets and gun us down. They wouldn’t even need the rest of their ships.”
“Then we need to take out the fighters.” Morgan glanced ruefully at the destroyed control panel. “I guess that was a little hasty. Is there another way to get back up to the Flight Deck?”
“We can’t go back there.” Wyrick rose. She’d dealt with the prisoners at the armory, traveled through the station with ex-convicts, and survived being shot at by the Nova Dogs. Some women would have crumbled under the pressure, but she seemed to have gained something from the experience. She stood straighter, held her chin up. Gone was the therapist’s passivity. She would have a hard time re-entering the practice once this was all over. “We need every man we have left.”
Morgan’s fist clenched. “We have no other choice–,”
“–We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” I said, not realizing that I’d spoken aloud. When I found all eyes upon me, I realized that I’ve have to explain myself. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. If a group of prisoners ever seized the Flight Deck, we were to activate the automated turrets. Blow them to kingdom come.”
Wyrick flushed with anger. “I never knew about that policy. Flushing prisoners into space is inhuman.”
Morgan put his hand out to stop her. “It’s that or die.” He gave her room to object, but she remained sullenly silent. “Okay,” he said, continuing on, “we activate the turrets, blow up Kilkenny and his men, and then escape on the backup fighters.”
“Not so fast,” I interjected. “There are a lot of missing steps there. The turrets were activated on the Command Deck and that’s gone. Then there’s the matter of fixing the fighters…”
“Never mind that. I know a guy. The turrets though…” Morgan looked around and pointed at several circular nodules in the ceiling. “There. Can we hack them from here?”
“No. They’re strictly remote. Can’t have the prisoners disabling the turrets themselves.” I rose, excited despite myself. “But there is the server room. If it hasn’t been destroyed.”
Whatever Morgan was about to say was drowned out by a burst of static from the station-wide comm system. The voice that came up was so deep and sonorous that I had no doubt it belonged to a pirate captain. Of course, it was Kilkenny himself.
My name is Martin Kilkenny, and you can consider me your parole officer. I say parole because you are not free men. A free man is a man who can do any task he chooses, but there is only one task you need to accomplish to earn a place aboard my ship. I am looking for a man named Martin Browning. Prisoner number AX-345987.
There was a pause.
You may have heard that the Nova Dogs are cannibals. You have not heard wrong. We are creatures of the Void, and the Void is a hungry place. Does it not try and claw its way into your station? Does it not suck you into its belly like wet pasta? We follow its example. What we don’t use, we eat. There are twelve spots aboard my ship. One in the crew cabin and eleven in the kitchen. A useful man will earn his place in the crew.
“Charming,” said Wyrick dryly.
“Maybe he’ll find this chap and leave?” said one of the prisoners. Wispy hair, body like a bag of sticks. It was Relic, I think, the prisoner who’d threatened us with a patch gun.
“Maybe,” I said and let the word dangle in the air. If Kilkenny was hunting this Browning character, he’d leave us alone. That was the thought of course, but I knew that we’d killed some of Kilkenny’s men and he’d come after us for that if he could.
We made our way through the utility corridors towards the server room. The former prisoners who trailed behind us whispered about Kilkenny’s offer. No one seemed to know anyone named Browning, but each of them thought they knew someone who did. Despite the recent massacre of their friends, they all dreamed that they would be the one to claim Kilkenny’s unused berth. The thought that the winner of their little contest might have to eat the losers never occurred to them.
I thought I knew a better way to find Martin Browning. Wyrick walked at the front of the group, just behind Morgan. I caught her arm and then with a nod of my head indicated that she should slow her pace. If Morgan noticed he said nothing.
“There’s a direct terminal in the server room. With your access codes, you can find out who this Browning guy is. Which cell he’s in.”
“You want to turn him over to Kilkenny? After everything we’ve seen?”
“Maybe. We need to consider our options here. What if he gets his man and…,” the unlikelihood of my own suggestion made me stumble. “…well, he just leaves. One man’s life in exchange for everyone on the station. Who wouldn’t make that deal?”
“The man in question, I suspect.” Wyrick seemed to think that ended the argument and rejoined Morgan in the front.
The deck which housed the server room was dark, and I worried that it had no power. If that was the case we’d have to draft a new plan, and quickly. Morgan found a few palm lights on a wall, which he distributed. We passed through a door that had once been secure and entered a room that was the kind of hot that soaked through our clothes and dried out our eyes. Banks upon banks of black boxes stared at us with flickering green and red lights.
“It’s hot in here,” said Relic unnecessarily.
Morgan looked around and then moved down one of the rows. “Let’s find an active terminal. Spread out.”
I followed Wyrick. I had worked out something important on the journey here. The server room was truly the heart of the station. From here, all things were possible. Though the records of my arrest and trial would eventually be sent back to the UEE, we were isolated enough that transferring large amounts of data could get expensive. For now, it was all stored on the station’s servers. Given the right access, I could wipe out evidence of my crimes. Everyone who knew that I was even a prisoner was dead, aside from Wyrick herself, and after this was all over I could perhaps find some way to buy her silence.
“All I’m saying is that there is no harm in finding out which cell is his. It’s the only thing that Kilkenny wants. It has value. We could trade that information. But then maybe warn Browning that Kilkenny is coming for him.”
Wyrick stopped cold. I nearly ran into her. She turned and I could see the blue of her eyes in the palm light. “I’m your therapist, Nylund. I know you better than you know yourself. You’re not a coward at heart. You know that caving in to Kilkenny is wrong. This self-serving criminal that you’ve become, it’s just your way of dealing with your guilt. You’re punishing yourself.”
The palm-light dipped and I caught hold of one of the server racks. “My brother has nothing to do with this.” I licked my lips with a dry tongue. “And I may be a self-serving criminal, but I am not punishing myself. I am trying to use every tool at my disposal to get us all out of here alive.”
If therapists can lie, then so too can their patients.
Wyrick caught my gaze for an uncomfortably long time, her blue eyes darting microscopically, as if to keep the line between our pupils unbroken. At last, she seemed to come to some conclusion. “I will give you the access codes. If you want them. Do you really want them, Nylund? Think very carefully.”
Despite myself, I did. I thought of Danny and our days in the Academy. Before his death, I’d been a straight arrow. I never would have considered committing a crime, let alone wiping out the evidence that I’d done it. What had changed since then? I shied away from that thought. Damned headshrinkers were starting to get to me.
“Yes,” I said as innocently as I could.
I was uncertain if she’d follow through on her promise, but she pressed on a sliver of metal and a terminal popped open. She punched in her codes and then walked away. Her radical therapy had failed, I told myself victoriously.
It was only after I’d wiped the evidence of my crimes from the database that I realized that it was not a victory at all. For some reason, it felt more like a loss.
I had pulled up a query window and the cursor flashed at me. I suddenly felt a huge weight on me that had nothing to do with the heat. I was betraying Wyrick’s trust twice in as many minutes. I told myself I’d make it up to her. At first, the thought was flippant, but it felt right, so I told myself again that I’d make it up to her and meant it this time.
My fingers danced across the keyboard as I punched in Martin Browning’s name. To my surprise it came up blank. Out of the 2400 prisoners on OSP-1, not a single one had the misfortune to be named “Martin Browning”, and the ident Kilkenny had given belonged to a dead man named Wilbur Marx.
Morgan had found another terminal in the back of the room and brought up a view of the Flight Deck. A targeting reticle hovered over the two Hornets. “The connections are fried,” he said, wiping sweat off the back of his neck and flicking droplets onto the floor. “It’s this damn heat. Only one of the turrets is responding. We won’t have much time.”
“Target the fighters first,” I said, wiping sweaty palms against my pants. “The freighter’s deadly but we can outrun her.”
“Find what you were looking for?” asked Morgan, glancing over his shoulder.
“Sure. Used one of the terminals to check my messages. Pay some bills. You know.” It was a weak joke, but he grunted a laugh and didn’t follow up. Wyrick, standing beside him, studiously avoided looking at me. I tried to think of something to say to win back her trust, but I couldn’t.
Morgan punched a few keys into the terminal and the targeting reticle turned red. “Consider this a love letter addressed to Captain Kilkenny,” he said, mashing down the keys.
to be continued …
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