July 4th 2014
Psychology is war. You walk into a room, sometimes by choice, sometimes because you’ve been busted for diverting medical supplies from Med Bay to the prisoners’ infirmary, and sit across from the enemy while they do everything they can to get inside your head.
“Do I need to remind you,” asked Cayla Wyrick, my psychologist, “that failure to comply with these sessions is a violation of the agreement you made with Captain Fieras to keep you out of a four by four cell?”
She had a long neck and a narrow, but pretty face that made her everyone’s favorite civilian contractor. Her blonde locks were cut short, but stylishly done, and her makeup was immaculate, like she was daring any one of OSP-4’s caged monkeys to try something. She was young for a therapist, especially one stationed way out here in the Banshee system.
“I don’t understand why Fieras insisted on these sessions. I’m a smuggler, not a mental patient.”
She crossed her legs and sat back in her chair. “And if a smuggler was all you were, I’m certain he would have simply fired you. Or thrown you in a cell. But you have a history, don’t you?”
I took a sip of ice water and put the glass on a nearby table. There was a huge vid screen behind her that showed a starscape. In a couple of hours, Lorona, the planet in whose Lagrange point we sat, would heave itself into view on the lower right.
Of course she’d read my file. She’d probably watched the vids of the fiery explosion that had claimed my brother’s life.
I resented Danny for dying so publicly. If we’d been miners in some nameless asteroid belt, no one would have cared about the details. But we’d been pilots, best and second-best at the Academy, and when he’d died I’d had to accept the medal that should have been his, because I’d been right behind him on the scoreboards. That single incident had become a gold mine for the head shrinkers I’d seen in the years since the incident. Any action I took was labelled survivor’s syndrome, or twinless twin syndrome, or any number of other personality disorders. Now that I’d been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, Fieras and Wyrick were falling over themselves in their rush to call it something other than what it was: a crime of greed.
I didn’t want to go through another minute of therapy. I’d rather spend my time in a cell.
“You know that blush you’re wearing is contraband? These guys use the pigment for prison tattoos. Or wear it. You know. It takes all kinds.”
“… and I think we’re done for the day,” she replied, tapping a few keys on the notepad and then letting the screen go dark.
A small flash, like someone lighting a match in a dark room, attracted my attention to the screen behind her. One of the stars began to move. It grew from pinprick to buttonhole, gaining velocity exponentially until it shot off the top right corner of the screen and disappeared. The whole process had taken maybe five seconds, and it took me slightly longer than that to figure out what I was looking at.
I launched myself out of my chair at Wyrick. My weight caught her in the shoulder and overturned her chair. A heartbeat later the station shook violently and the lights flickered before going out. A blast of super-heated air blew off the cover of the air conditioning vent and flames shot out of it, briefly painting the darkened office with shades of orange. Emergency lights in the base of each wall came on and we could see again, albeit dimly.
I rolled away from her and got to my knees. To her credit she didn’t say a word about my knocking her down. “What happened?” she asked instead.
“We got hit by a missile,” I said. “At least one. For some reason, our automatic defenses didn’t come online to prevent the attack.”
The emergency lights changed from red to yellow and flashed a pattern that indicated the door. An inoffensive, computer-generated voice spoke from everywhere at once. “Lieutenant Cayla Wyrick, as the highest ranking officer on board Orbital Supermax Prison 4, you are now in command. Please follow the yellow lights to the Auxiliary Command Deck.”
“Lieutenant Wyrick?” I said sarcastically back to the computer. “That’s her paygrade, not her rank!”
Civilian contractors were paid on the same scale as the military. Wyrick was obviously an OS-9, which meant she got paid the same as a lieutenant. But that wasn’t the same thing as actually being a lieutenant. She couldn’t give orders, or even be saluted. The computer had made a mistake, and it didn’t take me long to realize what else that meant. We’d been attacked with surgical precision. Everyone with any real rank was already dead.
Wyrick threw the notepad onto her desk and tapped on the starscape until it dissolved into a map of the station. Green sections were undamaged, yellow meant that we’d suffered a non-lethal holing on that deck, and red meant that we could safely cut the prison food budget. There was a lot of red.
Wyrick’s fingers danced across the vidscreen. “Command, Engineering, Med Bay … they’re all offline.”
I joined her at the screen. “May I?”
She glared at me, then reluctantly keyed in her override codes. Without wasting any time, I swapped back to the starscape and then zoomed in as far as I could on the source of those missiles. It didn’t take much scrolling to find a small pleasure craft that had been hastily modified to accept huge missile racks. Several more fighters flew nearby in close formation. A larger ship lurked behind them, but the station’s limited magnification gave it a pixelated look and I couldn’t quite make out what it was. Suddenly, the image was obscured by something so large that it too was pixelated. A fighter maybe, passing very close to the station. And not one of the UEE’s either.
I tried the emergency channels but all I heard was the dull hiss of static across all wavelengths. We were being jammed. “Pirates. I don’t know what they’re doing here, but it can’t be good.”
“Is it a prison break?” asked Wyrick.
“Maybe? But you’d think that anyone worth a small flotilla would have been flown immediately to Kellog VI,” I said, meaning the infamous prison planet. Installations like OSP-4 were prisons in their own right, but also feeding stations, temporary lodgings where high-risk prisoners from the outer systems could be held, pending transfer to Kellog VI. “It might just be a raid. Once a pirate pack gets too big they can’t sustain themselves on plunder from the occasional freighter. An installation like this might be a tempting target. The prisoners are just an added bonus. Or they’re expendable, depending on the whims of the pirates.”
“But aren’t there defenses?”
“Sure.” As the prison’s former quartermaster I was in a better position to know than anyone else still alive on the station. I punched up the flight deck. Debris floated in the air. A dark, human-shaped silhouette tumbled lazily through the micro-gravity. A quick scan highlighted a jagged gash in the hull. Decompression had been swift and violent, but the station’s two fighters were still on their pads. “Looks like we didn’t put up much of a fight.”
A dull vibration and then a thump echoed through the deck all around us. I felt my stomach lift as gravity fluctuated. The ominous hiss of air escaping through the vents was a sign that we’d suffered too much damage for the station’s systems to patch, and that meant that breathing was going to get difficult pretty quickly.
“We’ve gotta go,” I said.
Reluctantly, she followed me out the door and down the hall.
The damage was more extensive than I thought. Wires descended from the drop-ceiling like jungle vines, dripping sparks onto the floor. The air smelled of ozone and burnt rubber and was uncomfortably hot, as if a fire raged just out of sight. The hallways we passed through were empty and dim, except for the occasional flash and sizzle from the wiring overhead. The computer was guiding us to Aux Command, but I had a different plan. Instead I turned aside to the prison’s Maximum Security block.
“What are we doing here?” she asked. We stood in front of a red, metal door with a keypad at its center.
“The comm systems are down and that means there’s no way for us to send a distress signal. Unless we get lucky and someone sends us an unscheduled prisoner transfer, the earliest we can expect help is two weeks from now. Waiting here is not an option.” I let my tone convey an additional meaning. “Especially for you.”
Wyrick shifted uncomfortably. “There are 1600 prisoners and two hundred staff members aboard this facility. We can’t leave them behind.”
I stifled my aggravation. “You’re a therapist and I’m a quartermaster. Neither of us is hero material. There are two fighters still on the flight deck. We can use them to get off this station and warn the UEE.”
Unconvinced, she looked up at the door. “Okay, but then what are we doing here?”
“Getting hero material,” I said with a smirk on my face.
I’d done a little digging back when I’d started ‘misplacing supplies for profit’ just in case I ever needed a little inside help to make a quick escape, and every official document I could lay my hands on said that the guy we were about to liberate was the best damned pilot aboard. He was ex-military, so most of the files I’d found were redacted, but I’d found a list of medals he’d received and pretty much the only ones he didn’t have were the ones you got for taking a bullet.
Opening the Maximum Security door was like opening an oven. A blast of superheated air seared my face and I looked away involuntarily. There weren’t any flames visible in the passageway, but some of the plastic fascia on the walls burped and puckered.
“Give me your card,” I said with a wave of my hand.
“Nylund,” said Wyrick, “you can’t …”
I nodded down the passageway. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m not escaping through that.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she replied, but gave me the card anyway.
My instincts were telling me not to go in. The heat was too intense, the air wasn’t breathable, that kind of thing. I ignored them. I might have been able to find another pilot, but this guy was the best and I’d convinced myself that anyone else would get us killed. I stayed as low as I could, on the opposite side of the hallway from the puckering plastic, but it was nearly unbearable. I counted two doors and then swiped Wyrick’s card.
The panel went green and the door slid open. I was about to find out what kind of man we were risking our lives to set free.