The fire in the Maximum Security block travelled through wiring ducts in the drop-ceiling, burning so hot that it had begun to melt the plastic fascia on the walls. The thick black smoke that poured into the corridor reminded me of ink slowly spreading through water.
Wes Morgan, the man we’d come to spring, pressed his face close to mine. He’d torn a sleeve off his prison uniform, wet it in his small sink, and then tied it over his face. The other sleeve, he passed to me. “Up there,” he pointed at the ceiling, “is superheated steam. Down there is chemical smoke that’ll kill you if you breathe it. So stay low, but not too low.” He turned to step further down the corridor.
“We’ve got to get to the flight deck. It’s the only way off the station,” I said, pointing back up toward where Cayla Wyrick waited for us. The prison was in lockdown and she was the only one with the codes to get us there. We didn’t have time for detours. I was armed with a snub-nosed stun gun I’d taken from a locker outside the block and there was always the option to turn it on him, but we needed his help to get us past the pirate blockade.
“We’re not leaving without Asari,” he said gruffly.
“Who’s Asari?” I asked, but Morgan had already begun moving down the corridor toward the next cell. I was certain I’d heard the name before but couldn’t remember where, so I followed reluctantly, half-hunched over as I’d been instructed. Though I could see no open flame, the air was blistering hot and seared my lungs when I breathed, even through the wet cloth.
“This one,” said Morgan through his sleeve. He stood in front of the only other occupied cell on the block. There was no identifying mark beyond a string of numbers above the door.
Wyrick had given me her ident card and it would open any door in the station. But this was the Maximum Security block. This was where the UEE parked prisoners they didn’t want anyone to find. Men who’d committed atrocious crimes, or who had known pirate affiliations, or …
I remembered who Yusaf Asari was.
“I’m not opening that door.” I said firmly. Asari was up on charges of attempted genocide. A Tevarin terrorist, he’d released a weaponized virus on one of the colonies in the Geddon system. The idea had been to spread the infection through colony transports that were returning to UEE space. The Advocacy had gotten wind of the plan and locked down the colony before the virus could spread, but the casualties on the ground had been horrendous. He was a monster in every sense of the word.
“We can sit here and argue, or I could just take the ident card from you and open the cell myself. Letting you keep the card is just a courtesy.”
Morgan knew I was armed and didn’t seem to care. Maybe he just wanted to keep Asari from dying in the fire, I reasoned. If that was the case, I could bend a little. “I want your personal guarantee that he doesn’t get off the station.”
Morgan considered that. “I won’t help him leave the station. What he does on his own is up to him.” It was the best I was going to get.
Asari did not immediately emerge from his cell. He was big for a Tevarin and that was saying something. He’d also been scarred across his face and upper shoulders, scars that were plainly visible because of the white, sleeveless shirt he wore. “Morgan,” he said with a slurred voice. “You don’t look anything like I imagined.”
“You look just like your newsreels,” said Morgan. “Consider this a rescue.”
Asari’s gaze passed over me as if I wasn’t even there. “I cannot join you,” he said. “My brother Tevarin are being held on a lower deck. I will find them and then join the invaders if they’ll take us. If not, then we will kill them.”
“I understand,” said Morgan. He held out a hand, which Asari shook. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“I’ll see you again, Wes Morgan, if not before death, than after.” With that, the giant Tevarin turned down the corridor and disappeared deeper into the prison.
“We’re still not going to the flight deck yet,” said Morgan when we’d returned to Wyrick. He spoke again before either of us could object. “That toy stun gun you have isn’t going to mean squat if we run into the people responsible for taking out the defenses of an Orbital Supermax, and I’ll be damned if I face them armed with nothing more than my winning personality.”
“No guns,” said Wyrick firmly.
Morgan looked her up and down. “You’re a sweet girl. Good looking too. You don’t want to find out what these guys’ll do to you if they have the chance.” He let that gruesome thought hang in the air for a moment before continuing. “You know who am I?”
She’d gone pale, but she nodded.
“You’ve read my file?”
Another nod. “Kellogg IV wanted a psychological profile before we transferred you. I was going to conduct it sometime next week.”
“Good. Then you know I’m not a psychopath. Guns are a negotiating tool. If I don’t have to fire one, I won’t.”
She studied him a moment longer, then nodded a third time. Funnily enough, I didn’t think it was Morgan’s threat that had made up her mind. She was a shrink, and shrinks were good at reading people. I’m guessing she saw something in him that told her that he was telling the truth.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the first people on the station to think of the armory. We risked the elevator, taking it down two levels, and then passed through a maze of hallways. As we got close, we began to hear noises, metal-on-metal, yells and curses. The source was apparent when we rounded a corner. A prisoner so skinny he looked like he had a concave chest was holding a patch gun against a sealed vault-like door. The gun, usually used to seal holes in the hull made by micro-meteorites, sparked as it contacted the metal. Char marks stained a wide swatch where previous attempts to open it had failed.
A giant prisoner whom I knew as Albus Cronock stood with a cluster of men. His arms were folded over his chest and he oversaw the operation with heavily-lidded eyes. A weapon taken from a dead guard leaned against a wall nearby, within easy reach.
“Last chance to turn around and head for the flight deck,” I offered nervously.
“We’re staying,” said Morgan. He held out his hand. “Give me the gun.”
I hesitated, but surprisingly, Wyrick agreed with him. “Do you think it would make a difference one way or another?”
It might not make a difference, but its weight on my hip was comforting and I was reluctant to give it up. As soon as I’d handed it over, Morgan stepped up to one of the control panels that was mounted on the wall, smashed it with his fist, and then removed a wire from its insides. He popped out the stun gun’s clip and did something to it with the wire that caused it to spark. He gave it a brief inspection and when he’d come to a satisfactory conclusion, he popped the clip back into the gun.
“There. Now it’s lethal.” He lifted the barrel and pointed it right at us.
“Well,” I said, glaring at Wyrick, “that didn’t take long.”
“This is all part of the plan, isn’t it, Morgan?” asked Wyrick optimistically.
“It’s part of a plan, sure,” answered Morgan with a shrug. “You know that advice you get about your first day in prison? Find the biggest meanest sonofabitch and start a fight? That’s what we’re going to do.”
Then he waved us forward with the gun. “Now get moving.”
It took a few seconds for the man with the patch gun to notice that the other prisoners had fallen silent, but when he did he lowered the tool, lifted his safety goggles, and then looked towards Cronock. The bigger prisoner pushed off from the wall, caught the butt of the guard’s rifle with the edge of his toe, and then tossed it into the air where he caught it with his hands. As he advanced towards us, several of the other prisoners followed in his wake. “Well, well. Cayla Wyrick. Nice to see your pretty face. Who are your two friends?”
I should have realized that everyone knew the prison shrink. Morgan caught my eye. His grip tightened on the gun and he nodded deliberately at the skinny guy with the patch gun, as if to suggest that I should charge him if things went south. I shrugged and pretended like I didn’t understand him. I’m as brave as the next guy, but a patch gun fuses metal together. There was no way I was going to throw myself against the sparkly end.
“That’s Dr. Wyrick,” she said. “It was Dr. Wyrick the first time we met and it was Dr. Wyrick last week when you were crying in my office like a baby because your girlfriend got tired of waiting for you and ran off with her boss.”
Cronock blinked like he’d been struck, and then shot looks left and right. “Crying? Me? You got the wrong guy.” He hunched his shoulder and spoke in a softer, pleading tone of voice. “Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of doctor/patient confidentiality or something?”
But Wyrick wasn’t done. She looked at the man holding the patch gun. “Hello, James. I’m surprised to see you here. What do you think your sister will do when you get another twenty years added to your sentence for attempting to escape? Stay with Slade and end up in the hospital? You were going to save her from all that, weren’t you?”
‘James’ reddened and then set the patch gun on the ground. “Sorry, Cronock, I ain’t gonna let that happen.”
“And you! Mick Brown! Weren’t you going to —?”
This time the prisoner in question didn’t even wait for her to finish. “All right, all right. You made your point. I ain’t touching a hair on your head.”
I was stunned. Wyrick had managed to neutralize one of the most violent group of men on the Supermax. Using words.
Morgan’s eyes were wide. “Is there anyone she hasn’t got dirt on?”
I could only shrug.
Wyrick strode right into the middle of the group. Even in heels, her head didn’t even come up to their shoulders, but it was like she owned them, body and soul. “I’ve got news for you. I am this facility’s new Warden. That means that I am free to offer station paroles and sentencing recommendations to anyone who helps us out.” She looked around, waiting for that news to sink in. Then she held up her ident card. “And because I am the acting warden I have access to the armory.”
Morgan blinked, as if he’d only been half-listening up until that point. “Hold on a second …”
I stuttered out something too. We were going to arm them? But a cheer went up from the prisoners that drowned me out. Then Wyrick had the door open and we found ourselves in the center of a bunch of celebrating madmen who were armed to the teeth.
Since the only thing that was keeping them from throwing us out the nearest airlock was Wyrick’s lack of hesitation in divulging confidential information, I made sure to grab a P4SC assault rifle. If they ever came for me, I was going to be armed.