Aftermath (Part 4)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story
     The prison was a converted orbital station located above Orarra's third planet. It had once been the link between space and some mines on the surface, but they had been abandoned after the conditions on the choking carbon dioxide-wreathed globe below had proved too tough. Whatever amenities it had for miners escaping from the hell beneath it had largely vanished.
     The shuttle carrying Jalsa and Williams approached the prison from straight above the planet. It appeared as random collection of boxes, joined by a maze of twisting tubes. The structure looked tatty, years of hard solar radiation having taken their toll on the surfaces. Contrasting bizzarrely with this mess were the large arrays of solar panels around the periphery, which doubtless had to be replaced on a regular basis. Rolling below this was the cloud-covered inferno of Orarra III. It presented as unwelcoming a view as could be expected for its purpose, and anyone who still had not caught the hint was reminded by the constant patrol of a squadron of dart-shaped Viper Police ships hovering around it.
     The shuttle moved closer. The docking portal was visible now, a circular opening in one of the outer boxes. Lights flickered around it, barely visible in the sunlight. There was a harsh hiss and a crackle of static on the viewscreens as they passed through the protective field. With a gentle bump the ship touched down. Two clangs echoes through it as the docking clamps took hold. The light from above was suddenly cut off as the portal doors closed. A few seconds later there was another slow hiss as the shuttle's air pressure equalised with the base's.
     The landing bay appeared deserted as they left the shuttle, although it would be watched by dozens of cameras and covered by dozens of lasers in the walls. A line of gravplates lined with barriers lead to a doorway in the wall, providing a disconcerting two thirds G in the otherwise near zero G environment.
     Awaiting Williams and Jalsa at the door were numerous security checks, identifying a dozen biological features and analysing every minute detail of their ID cards. There was a further delay as their appointments were confirmed not only against the computer database but with the chief warden. When these were completed the door opened into a small compartment. Here scanners searched for concealed weapons, narcotics, or any one of a hundred miscellaneous items forbidden within the prison.
     When these scans were complete the wall opposite the entrance slid open. On the other side was a reception area, clean and tidy but stark with bare white walls and smooth floor. A screened desk occupied the back of the room, with doors to the left and right. A few chairs stood against the other walls. Heavily armed security guards stood in pairs at each door and at the desk. As the two entered this room they stumbled, caught by the sudden change to one G gravity. The guards motioned them to the desk.
     "State your names, organisations and business here," the man behind the desk told them.
     "Again?" asked Williams.
     Williams shook his head slightly. "Angus Williams, organisation confidential to you but has been cleared, here to speak with Natalia Marchero. And you should have been informed that you are to to cause us no inconvenience whatsoever and to render every aid possible."
     The receptionist's face darkened. "I have been told. I will, once I'm happy with your credentials. Your name, organisation and business, please," he said, turning to Jalsa.
     "Ahcal Jalsa, and the same as my colleague. His point about your manners should not be ignored"
     The receptionist scowled at him, but made no further comment on the matter. "Please take a seat. You'll be called for in a few minutes." He disappeared through a doorway behind the desk.
     Jalsa sat down, but Williams started pacing back and forth across the room. The guards were watching him carefully.
     Eventually Jalsa said to him "Just sit, will you? You'll just get us into trouble, and one bad-mannered receptionist isn't worth that. Report him later."
     Williams stopped pacing and stood still, tense, for a few seconds before ungracefully dropping onto a chair. "Right," he muttered.
     Ten minutes later a woman entered from the door to the left of the desk to inform them that Marchero had been moved to an interview room, and that she was ready to talk to them. They followed the woman back through the door and into a bare corridor beyond. Apart from the door they had entered and a matching one at the far end it was completely featureless, bare white walls and the same smooth floor, the ceiling panels evenly lighting it. Quite claustrophobic, and very impersonal.
     The far end door opened on to a short platform, at which was waiting an internal tram. After they boarded the woman escorting them took out a card and placed it on a panel in the front of the tram. It immediately moved off. Moving into further into the prison it slowly passed through more identical corridors, eventually entering high in an open area. Thee other tram tracks emerged from the walls, crossing the space to disappear through holes on the far side. Steps led down from platforms at each track, and pairs of guards stood on each platform. The tram continued without stopping. Below were rows of tables, sat around them were dozens of men and women wearing identical grey prison overalls, eating.
     Once through the dining area there were more corridors. After passing an open area where several tracks converged, with more of the ever-present guards watching over the platforms there the tram entered a different corridor. Through small windows in its side the planet below could occasionally be glimpsed, and just visible was the wall of another section of the station.
     The tram had not travelled far in this section before coming to rest at a stop almost identical to the one where they had boarded it. "Easy to become lost in here," noted Jalsa.
     The woman nodded. "Helps to keep prisoners where they are supposed to be." She led them off the tram and into yet another corridor. This one contained more doors, was wider and featured a few notice boards on the walls. Still more guards stood outside one of the doors.
     Their escort pressed her card against against the door lock. It slid open. "Here you are." From a pocket she took two small devices bearing only a single white button, and passed one to each of them. "We've had the monitoring turned off as requested, but if you have any trouble pressing the button will turn it back on and call in the guards."
     The interview room was more comfortable than the rest of the prison they had seen, it was carpeted. Two padded chairs sat at one side of a table. On the other, on a bare metal seat, sat Natalia Marchero. She was in her late thirties, dressed in the same prison overalls they had seen in the dining area. Black shoulder-length hair surrounded a harsh face that stared at the wall, paying no attention to the two men who had just entered the room and sat down opposite her.
     "Hello," Jalsa tried.
     No response. No sign that she had heard them.
     Williams ventured "You'll have something to say soon."
     Once again, nothing.
     "Or you'll probably wind up dead," he added.
     This time there was a slight shrug and a twitch of the mouth that might have been a sarcastic smirk.
     "Not from us," Jalsa pointed out.
     "We've an odd situation here, you see," Williams mused. "Normally, cooperation might result in you being given greater privileges, transferal to a lower security facility, that type of thing."
     "In this case failure to help will result in that move," Jalsa told her.
     This seemed to be taken more seriously. Marchero spoke for the first time. "So you say."
     "Believe me, we have the authority to do that," said Jalsa. "Do you think we would be here if we didn't?"
     "You going to talk, then?"
     "About what?"
     "I conspired with pirates to steal from him. You should already know that."
     "Come on, you know we don't care about that. We're more interested in why you are here, watched around the clock."
     "I suppose he holds grudges."
     "To the extent of trying to have you killed twice? It's not as if he even lost much that time."
     "Some people aren't very forgiving."
     "Or don't like people on the loose who know things someone doesn't want known," Williams pointed out. "You were on one of his ships. It sometimes made diversions to somewhere when travelling from Esdi. Where?"
     "Yeah, right," Marchero snorted. "You saying that because it was late? That ship was a badly-maintained flying bucket. The cargo loaders on Esdi are are clumsy and lazy, and often damaged things in the process. The damage claims against them are probably on file somewhere. Damaged ship equals late ship. OK?"
     "Not really. Low security still beckons," Williams said.
     "Oh, fine, I'm a witchhunt victim. Drowned to prove I'm innocent, just because your guesswork falls short of reality. Enough!" She stood up and threw her chair back.
     "Sit down!" Jalsa barked at her.
     "Why? I've lost all incentive to do a thing you say. You're going to get me killed anyway."
     Jalsa held up his hand as if signalling Marchero to wait. "You've only heard one side of our offer so far," he said in a carefully controlled voice, not very successfully concealing impatience and anger. "The other side is out of prison altogether. With a changed identity. In any part of the galaxy you care to name."
     Marchero did not sit back down, but went and stood leaning against the corner of the room. "You're still assuming that I know whatever it is you're after."
     "True. But I think it's quite safe to assume that the ship was late for a better reason than carelessness on behalf of some drunken Groigans or unreliable robots. Unless Jersisallam was the type to become really upset with late ships."
     She stood straight now, and although she didn't say anything her expression was clear.
     "Everyone who had worked on any of these suspiciously late craft is dead. Apart from you. Stretching coincidence just a little, isn't it?" Williams informed here.
     Marchero half staggered back to the table. She pulled the chair back up and sat down, her head bowed and almost resting on her hands. "Not coincidence, no," she almost whispered.
     "So why, then?" asked Jalsa.
     Marchero looked up. "For a reason that I won't tell to you."
     "What? Was our threat lost on you?" Williams exclaimed. "And your only chance to get away? Even if you stay here for now they'll get you as soon as you come out of prison."
     "They might. If I'm stuck in low security they might. But if I were to give you one tiny clue as to who, what or where then might becomes definite. I'm not keen on joining my friends in death."
     "Friends? Who you betrayed to a bunch of pirates for a little money?" Williams said scornfully.
     "Those weren't friends. I only knew the captain of the Anaconda, and he was a thorough bastard. There were enough escape pods for most of them to get away, anyway."
     "I'm sure that must have been a great relief to whatever conscience you have," Williams retorted. "But it's irrelevant now. And we've offered you a chance."
     "Not a good one," Marchero said wearily. "You would have to be pretty impressive to convince me that you could hide me well enough. Besides, and this is almost more than I dare say, it's no good if they come along and blow this place up, and me with it, while I'm waiting to leave with my new ID. And yes, I think they are capable of doing that."
     "Then you'll come with us," said Jalsa.
     Williams stared at him in astonishment. "That's crazy! She's already demonstrated that she's a greedy opportunist with no respect for life. That's why she's here!"
     "Those pirates?" Marchero intervened. "That was personal, not greed. Part of the bargain was that only the captain's pod would be shot down. Nobody else would have been killed. Except from bad luck." Marchero shook her head. "Coming with you would be little better than staying. Police, Navy, whoever you are, I can't trust you."
     "Nor me you," Williams declared. "Seems like the safest thing to do would be to stick you in a shuttle with no drive and announce your location."
     "Then we're stuck, Angus. Have you any better ideas?" Jalsa asked.
     "No," Williams admitted.
     "Then she comes."
     "If she can be persuaded to, and if she's of any use. We're not certain of that yet."
     "Are you?" Jalsa demanded of her.
     "I'm wanted dead for what I know. Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me to help you?"
     Williams leant over to Marchero. "Perhaps you don't trust us. But I think that our success is the only chance you'll have of living. Even if you think it's a slim one, can you afford to miss it?"
     She sat silently for a while. "No, I don't suppose I can. Very well, I'll come with you."

Story index
Part 5