August 7th 2014
As ex-quartermaster aboard OSP-4, I have seen my share of dead bodies. Contrary to popular belief, we do not space the bodies of men who die in prison. Instead, each death begins a rigorous investigation, and I was required to provide for all of the medical supplies and any other exotic components the examiners need for their tests. I have seen the bodies of men shanked by other prisoners, beaten to death with lead pipes, and I even saw one man who’d gotten stuck in one of the heating ducts and slowly cooked.
The sight that confronted me and the small group of escaped prisoners in the Forensic Psychiatry Ward was unlike any other I’d seen. Dead bodies. Men and women, some wearing guard uniforms, others the flimsy dressing gowns of the patients. Some of their faces were beaten into a mass of purplish flesh, but others were recognizable. Some lay slumped peacefully against a wall while others wore looks of horror. Someone had broken the overhead lights and shattered glass littered the floor.
I heard a sob from Cayla Wyrick. She knelt next to a young man with angry red welts on his cheek and a frightened stare captured in his cold, dead eyes. She said something to him I couldn’t quite hear. Figuring she needed some privacy I left her and joined Wes Morgan, the mercenary we’d rescued from the Maximum Security wing, who stood further down the corridor.
“Do you feel that?” he asked me.
“Existential terror? Yeah, I’m there.”
“No,” he took a deep breath. “The atmosphere mixture is wrong in this wing. Captain Kilkenny’s attack must have damaged the recyclers. There’s too much nitrogen and too little oxygen.”
“You can smell that?”
“No,” he admitted. “But I feel a little drunk. Don’t you? That’s one of the signs of nitrogen narcosis. We need to find Herby and get the hell out of here as soon as possible.”
I turned and looked at the half-dozen or so men in orange-jumpsuits. They were all armed, many with prison tattoos on their face and hands. One of them, whom I learned was simply called “Shank,” had dyed the white of his eyes so that he stared at us with blacked-out orbs. Not the type of men who needed any more “-osis” anythings.
They were the enemy of our enemy, so to speak, and we’d somehow come to the conclusion that it was best to travel together as long as we were all trying to avoid becoming the Nova Dogs’ next meal. Literally. They were cannibals. Now that decision was starting to look a little dicier. “What do we do about them?”
“Nothing.” Morgan raised an eyebrow and looked over his shoulder. “Look at them. At the armory they were taking turns trying to out alpha-male each other. Now? They’re more afraid of Kilkenny than they are of us. If they weren’t they would have already shot us both in the back …” His eyes roamed over to Wyrick, who knelt next to another of the bodies. “… and done much worse to her.”
He was right, of course. The worst of the bunch had stayed behind with Fat Max. I had no doubt they’d already been captured by Martin Kilkenny. The rest of them … they were like a headless snake. Not as exciting as a live one, but also not as deadly.
Our little group made our way further into Forensic Psychiatry. It was a small ward, but the hallways were all maddeningly similar to each other and there were quite a few double-locked doors that had been smashed open, often at a physical cost to the assailant if the bloody marks on them gave any indication. Always we heard laughter — the disturbed, joyless laughter that was as involuntary as a sneeze.
Eventually, we found one of its sources. A slim man with jaundiced skin, he was covered in medical bandages he’d stolen from an overturned medical cart. He was desperately trying to bind wounds on his hands and wrists.
Wyrick knelt quickly to offer aid, but recoiled when the crazed man offered his wrist and she saw the metal band that dangled on one of them. She stumbled back into my arms and for a moment I smelled sandalwood and roses. I was reminded that she had put on perfume earlier in the day, never suspecting that an attack by pirates would turn everything upside down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“His watch belonged to a friend of mine,” she said quietly. Her hand closed on my arm, painfully, but her eyes were locked on those of her patient.
It was obvious that her friend’s corpse now decorated the corridor behind us. One of the prisoners, name of Relic if I remembered correctly, came to the same conclusion. Only a few hours ago he’d threatened us with a patch gun, but running for your life from a group of cannibals is a heck of a bonding experience. It wasn’t that he cared for Wyrick … it was more like he’d come to view her as part of his pack. Any threat to the pack was a threat to him.
He caught the man by a wad of hospital gown and shoved the barrel of his gun into his cheek. When the man didn’t react beyond a giggle, Relic fired the weapon into a wall and then pressed the now sizzling hot metal into the same spot. “You’re a dead man. He’s a dead man.”
Wyrick began to cry and I clutched her closer to me.
The crazed man began to mutter incoherently, and as Relic spun him around, I could see that several hypodermics were lodged in his back. “North, East, South, West. It’s West, isn’t it? Only not quite. West, west, west. I’m high, Wes, up in the sky, I’m high. You gotta help me, Wes, before I fall down.”
Morgan had raised his gun the moment Relic moved, but now he squinted and lowered it. “Herby?”
The man’s eyes rolled and his head lolled to one side.
Morgan took two steps closer. “Is that you? What the hell happened to you?”
Relic looked between the two of them, eyes so wide I could see the whites all the way around. His gun shifted from the man we now suspected was Konicek to Morgan himself. “You know him? Are you together?” He turned to his fellow prisoners. “We’ve been led into a trap. And he’s at the center of it.”
Morgan’s eyes narrowed and his hand tightened on his weapons, “… just what in the hell?”
I remembered what Morgan had said about the atmosphere. “Relic,” I said, using his name to try and put him at ease. “There’s no trap. This is the man we’ve come to find. He’s the reason we’re here.”
Wyrick pushed away from me and I was suddenly aware of how much I’d enjoyed her attention. “Your friend killed my friend,” she said. Her bearing had changed in an instant from despair to bitter anger. “We’re not taking him with us.”
Morgan’s anger was almost indistinguishable from any of his other emotions, except that it was colder. Harder. I knew that if I didn’t interject he’d shoot Relic down without warning and then we’d have to fight our way through his friends as well as the patients.
“Now, Caylie — Cayla,” I quickly corrected myself. I was not immune to the ward’s altered atmosphere. “There is no evidence that he did the killing. Those needles in his back … obviously he’s been drugged, and not by anyone with medical training.”
“You’ve got about ten seconds to put down that rifle,” said Morgan. The thumb and forefinger of his off-hand circled each other, and the rifle barrel shifted imperceptibly. I had the impression he’d gotten the drop on Relic and not the other way around.
Perhaps Relic knew it too. His tone was almost pleading. “He’s a nutter. It would be a mercy. Be a mercy to all these men —”
As his gun swung out to encompass the entire ward, Morgan shot him cleanly though his shoulder. Relic’s gun clattered to the ground and the prisoner himself was so surprised he followed it down.
I kicked it away before he could regain his senses. Wyrick joined me a moment later, tearing at Relic’s jumpsuit to check the wound. She needn’t have bothered. If Morgan had wanted to kill him, he would have. I was certain the wound would prove non-lethal. A temporary inconvenience at best.
“Let me get those for you, Herby,” said Morgan. One after another, he pulled the hypodermics free. He slapped the former patient lightly on the cheek, as if unwilling to use full force.
“We have to get out of here, Wes,” muttered Konicek. “They’re all around us.”
Morgan nodded, and I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d found the right man and it looked like we were all going to get out of here in one piece. I rose and came face-to-face with five hard men and the barrels of their rifles. Not believing that they could be meant for us, I turned around and spotted a herd of humanity down the corridor. A dozen men or more in blood-stained smocks, many with dried drool on them, stood at the other end.
“You can all put down your weapons now,” said one of the prisoners behind me.
I realized that the guns had, in fact, been meant for us. Wes had spared Relic’s life, but they didn’t see it that way. One of us had shot one of them. Our little alliance was breaking apart.
My gun clattered to the deck. Wyrick looked back towards the prisoners. Her face was too moist for tears, and I realized that we were all soaked with sweat, though it wasn’t much hotter here than anywhere else in the station. Was this another symptom of the poisonous atmosphere?
Morgan did not drop his weapon. “How do you suppose you’re going to get by them?” he asked, nodding over his shoulder.
A lean man with not enough teeth spoke. “They ain’t armed. We’ll go through ’em the same way we go through you.” He smiled, showing off his most obvious feature.
“You can’t get off this station without her,” I said, indicating Wyrick. Without her codes none of us were going anywhere.
“You’re right,” Wyrick said, and Morgan and I both looked over at her. She wasn’t speaking to the prisoners. She was speaking to us. “None of you can.”
She took a shuddering breath and put her arms out, as if she was steadying herself on the armrests of some throne, and then turned to the prisoners. “Like it or not, I’m the only hope you’ve got. Any of you. That means that if we stay together, then we stay together. So I suggest you settle your differences. Stat.”
With that, she turned to lead us down the corridor. Perhaps it was the altered atmosphere, but we followed like she was Moses walking through the Red Sea. And I’ll be damned if those patients didn’t part before us and let us through without so much as a whimper.