February 28th 2014
Sharp pinpricks attacked her lungs with every breath. It felt like the inside of her throat was peeling.
“Come on, you bastard,” she said through her hacking. “Don’t you smell that?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to get back in bed?”
“It’s on fire!”
“Mr. Sato, sir — ” It was a second, female voice. “Something’s seeping from the bottom of the door.”
Yadav imagined him crouching, sniffing. There were boots shuffling, and shouts, and a keypad beeping. She let a little smile of vindication creep onto her face, and stepped back. The door flew inward. Two medical personnel with extinguishers barreled past her. Behind them, two guards filled the doorway, leaving here with no chance of escape.
Mr. Sato snatched Yadav’s wrist. “Call for an evacuation of the floor,” he told his colleague. To Yadav he said, “This isn’t nice behavior for a house guest.”
“House guest? I thought I was under arrest,” she replied.
He pulled another industrial zip tie from his vest pocket and secured her hands behind her back, then escorted her from the room.
People rushed by, aiming for the emergency exits. But there were still no warning lights, or sirens, or pre-recorded announcements. Just the pushing and yelling of chaotic escape.
A woman slammed heavily into Yadav, then spun away — her doctor. “Hey,” Yadav called after. “What happened to Haddix?” Wrestling with her restraints, she tried to break free of the guard and give chase. But the man had a firm grip.
Together, they moved in the opposite direction of the others, swimming up the stream of people. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to use an elevator during a fire?” Yadav asked as they stopped in front of the stainless-steel doors.
“We’ll risk it,” he said gruffly.
They took the lift several floors down, but not all the way to ground level. When the doors opened, Yadav wondered if she was still in the same building.
No pristine, white walls here. No marble or glass or polished steel. Not even basic drywall or wood.
Nothing was finished. Insulation and iron supports stuck out from the walls. Simple light bulbs with chain switches hung from the ceiling. The doors were composite — cheap composite at that. All of the air ducts were visible in the ceiling, and the floors were covered with antiquated vinyl.
“Remodeling?” she asked.
A man in a thread-bare suit emerged from one room. He seemed surprised to find a guard standing there, prisoner in hand.
“Got an empty room I can stash her in for a while?” asked Sato.
The man pointed down the hall. “Seventy-four B,” he said uncertainly.
Pink insulation puffed out from between the room’s beams. A rickety desk and two chairs were the only furnishings. There wasn’t even a waste bin to start a fire in.
After securing her to a chair, the guard left, grumbling to himself.
Yadav’s first instinct was, once again, to escape. Pushing and tugging against the ties would be useless — she’d seen enough captives with bloody wrists to know. She could try filing the ties off, against one of the support beams.
… Or she could just smash the poorly made chair, and run out the unlocked door. Peering closely, she could tell that the door was kept in place by a simple latch with a knob. There was nothing to stop her from walking out, chair tied to her back or no.
She noted a lack of dust in the air. There were no plaster fumes, or metal filings, or paint. No building supplies lying around. No workmen making a racket.
This wasn’t a floor in transition. No renovations were happening. The floor was what it was: crappy.
She paused. Something was off here. The guard had treated her like an irritation, not a dangerous criminal suspected of piracy.
Sure enough, there were no signs of fire detectors or extinguisher housings in the ceiling. Her room in the med bay hadn’t been malfunctioning, it simply hadn’t been as state-of-the-art as it appeared. Less than that, even. The whole building had to be a damn death trap. Even in the poorest nations, she’d never seen a government facility like this. Shoddily designed, shoddily constructed —
What kind of a hick planet had she landed on?
That’s why her elbow hurt, that was why Haddix was dead. They hadn’t killed him; they’d simply been unable to help him. She didn’t know if that made her feel better or worse, more understanding or more angry.
Mostly she just felt numb.
Green stamps on one wall’s naked bracings caught her eye. A company logo, composed of an oval with an arrow through it. She’d seen that recently — on a manifest. The logo belonged to one of the companies she’d suspected of insurance fraud.
Was it a coincidence, or had some of the pirate’s booty made its way down to the planet?
The governor probably didn’t care where she got her supplies, especially if she’d okayed such slapdash craftsmanship. She wouldn’t be the first politician to turn a blind eye to the origins of cheap goods.
But then again, the government didn’t appear to be on friendly terms with the pirates. Perhaps the bandits dumped whatever items they couldn’t move. A poor, nearly-empty planet might make for a good garbage pit. The inhabitants could have scooped up the leftovers, appropriating all they could salvage.
She wanted a closer look at those shanties.
“Why did you bring her down here?” asked a woman on the other side of the door. It took a moment for Yadav to place her voice. “I was going to have her transported to my office when she awoke.” Ah, the governor.
“I understand,” said the guard, Mr. Sato. “But she started the fire in the med bay. It was an emergency. I needed someplace to stash her temporarily. In light of her destructive nature, I do not advise you to conduct your interrogation in your main suites.”
“We … transport her to a proper cell,” said a new man’s voice. He kept his tone even and quiet, which made it hard for Yadav to pick up, even through the thin walls. She could only catch snippets. “I like keeping … compound. But I don’t think … aware …”
“I can have a vehicle ready in a few minutes, and a set of men to escort her from the vicinity,” said Sato.
“Thank you,” replied the governor. “But I think she’s fine here. Dismissed, Mr. Sato.”
“Any evidence … and sedate her until she can be moved … my advice,” insisted the other man.
“Please, Wei,” the governor said imploringly. “You’re not seeing the opportunity here. Isn’t this what we’ve been waiting for? An out? A way to put an end to the piracy?”
“You’re not listening to me,” he insisted. “News people … own agendas … want is sensationalism. Blood, gore, human filth … aren’t interested in helping anyone, just recording the carnage.”
Yadav couldn’t exactly say he was wrong. When you got right down to it, greed and power ruled the human condition. She’d picked at that scab for decades, exposed all the little oozing bits. It was her job to get down to the nuts and bolts of a situation in order to expose how corroded they’d become.
She wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of newscaster.
Thieves and liars everywhere you go, Yadav thought. Perhaps that was the real reason why she never got close to people, never asked about their personal lives. Inevitably, they’d disappoint her.
“We have to protect ourselves,” the man continued. “Even song birds will peck our eyes out when their nest is threatened,” he recited flatly, as though it were an old proverb.
“Our nest is fine, Wei.”
“All right,” he conceded with a sigh. “But, in my opinion, it’s time to blind the intruder.”