Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chapter 7


It turned out that women were in short supply on the prison moon of Loki, and the Warden never intended to have Jane or her Corporate partner killed. She was not sure whether to feel lucky or not. By the time she returned to the central chamber, their pilot had disappeared, and Iridene Bhutto stood at a corner against a wall. The Corporate-worlder had been stripped of her vac-suit, left with only her underclothing. Her brown bare arms wrapped around her chest, and she held the thin steaming tube she liked to puff on between her fingers. She wore a look of intense irritation.

“I see they didn’t take everything from you,” Jane said.

“They took Yeager,” Bhutto said, ignoring her. She pulled the device to her lips even while speaking, letting it bob between her teeth. “Off to work in the mines, or the fields. Or maybe back out the airlock, considering his leg. I suppose we should be thankful we aren’t dead.”

Jane did not feel such thanks. She glanced over at the prominent chair where the Warden, the head of the prison gang, sat. A thick-necked, balding man, a layer of fat partially obscured his muscled frame. Several jeweled necklaces hung off the wide neck, twinkling amidst gray-black curls of chest hair that sprung out from under the low collar of his violet silk robe. He sat atop a large cushioned chair that stood a head above the rest. He now had a small boy on his lap, who was taking in the scene around him. She supposed it should not have surprised her that they were breeding, but it did. This was no place for children.

Better-equipped men stood guard, several with Odinian Crater War era powered armor. The men and women inside wore no armor or vac-suits, but cloth like those of the farmers in the fields. This cloth was better made, mostly from off-world, unlike the rough woven material the serfs wore.

The women here were the first that she had recognized on the prison colony, although most in the outer sections wore vac-suits, making it difficult to tell. They were all on the arm of one of the men, if not two. They wore elaborate makeup and tattoos--and very little else, she noticed. Most hung onto their companions as if they would fall without him, although none of them seemed particularly distressed. Not one grimace, not one scowl. All good pets.

The disparity in wealth was clear for all to see. While the architecture and construction were crude, the sheer variety of material goods is what set this sector apart. The residents wore strange collections of mismatched finery and gadgets. They held stores of food that she had not seen except in the advertisements on Grid. Pillows and cushions were sewn into furniture, all different colors. Men and women alike wore gaudy jewelry, and many smoked narcotics, and several injected them.

“It’s like a Corporate world, but without any of the aesthetic taste or self-restraint.” Jane commented.

“You’re not kidding.” Bhutto said, not detecting the irony in Jane's words.

Yeager’s absence would complicate things. They needed him to negotiate with the Corporates. Hopefully before she and Bhutto were taken for gangster concubines.

Just as she completed the thought, Dives blundered towards the pair, stopping to remove his helmet and reveal a surprisingly good looking man underneath. Unbundled locks of dark brown hair fell over darker eyes, those black hole eyes that Jane immediately recognized, that she could never forget. His shaven face was unmarred by scar or blemish. The memories of his victims did him more justice.

He flashed a pearly smile at her, and chuckled. “I knew you would come over to our way of thinking.” Her skin crawled, remembering her time on the table. Yet Dives had never touched her.

Almost never, she thought, sliding her still-stinging tongue against the roof of her mouth.

“I have to say, you are prettier than I expected. Maybe I will ask the Warden to make you one of my wives.” He put his hand on her face, and when she turned away, he jerked her back towards him. “You’ll have to attach yourself to somebody, darlin’.” He leaned in close to her, the tight grip on her jaw contrasted by the gentle kiss placed on her mouth. She did not know why she did not bite his face off right then, other than her total surprise. Rage boiled inside her.

“Believe me,” he said, finally loosening his grasp. “You don’t want to be servicing the common folk. Nobody lasts long doing that.” He paused. “Bear me a son, and you might be set for life.”

She silently thanked The Collective for making sure that would never happen. The Corporates were greedy, dehumanizing, and exploitative, but nowhere near as savage as these people. They were products of that world, though. Freyja would never produce such.

Jane struggled impotently as Dives slid a finger under her shoulder strap and slowly began to peel off her sweat-drenched undershirt, but a sudden cheer from one of the tables distracted him. One of the exiles proudly displayed a corked glass cask as if it were some accolade. He slammed it on the nearest table and yanked the cork out in one pull, wafting an odor not unlike medbay antiseptic.

The criminals gathered around the table fighting to steal swigs from the cask, and Dives wanted to be among the first to partake. He finally let Jane go, and she glanced at Bhutto and slipped away to one of the corner tables. She set herself on the soft cushioned couch, and wished she could just sink into it and disappear into dream. Such thoughts were weakness, and she drove them from her mind.

“D’Arcangelo is on our side,” she said to Bhutto. “Or so he says.”

“Is that why you gave them the codes? I was afraid they had done something terrible to you.”

Jane grimaced and shivered. “Yes.” She paused. “Not that I think his word is good for much.”
Bhutto nodded. “We should have a backup plan in case he tries to stab us in the back. But we need him to find the Leviathan regardless. If that is still in the cards.”

“It’s the only reason we are here, Bhutto.”

“Of course,” she said. “But we need to figure out a way to get out of here if we hope to find that ship. We need to find Yeager. Without him, I don’t know if Vegacorp will keep their deal.”

“You mean you don’t know if the officials are corrupt enough to deal with someone other than him?”

“Exactly.”

Jane glanced at the little boy who the Warden had sitting on his lap. He stared at her and Bhutto, just as he had taken everything in around him before. Jane reasoned that the only men allowed to reproduce were part of the inner circle, which led her to believe that all of the workers were later generations of prisoners or had fallen out of favor. That meant D’Arcangelo, as a relative newcomer, must have made a convincing case for himself to become the Warden’s personal torturer.

She caught a hazel-eyed glare from one of the tattooed concubines, just a girl, her chestnut hair pulled up in a ponytail. Two curled locks dangling in front of her ears as she ever-so-slightly shook her head. She then turned to meet Dives and cheerfully put her arms around him, kissing his ear. She flashed a thin smile at Jane. It dawned on her that the woman considered Jane and Bhutto competition.

Competition for a decidedly rotten prize.

The more the men drank from the cask, the more boisterous and uncoordinated they became. They became even more foolish with each swig, and more violent. Laughing led to bad singing, singing led to fighting, and fighting led to laughing again. Before long, the men had drunk themselves into an inexplicable stupor.

Jane made a note on the effects of the drink, now realizing why Bhutto had once offered her the poison: Jane would have lost her wits just like these exiles, and Bhutto would have an advantage. Now it gave Jane the advantage.

She surveyed the room for possible escapes, but they had made sure to keep the lower level soldiers sober. They might be inexperienced, but Jane doubted Bhutto and she could take them by themselves, not before they had alarmed their drunken brethren. She considered trying to draw some of them away, but she was not sure how.

Before she had a chance to put any of her premature plans into action, D’Arcangelo emerged from the torture chamber. His glowing eyes darted only momentarily to the gang of thugs before he strode to her table and took a seat.

He smiled broadly at them. “Good evening, ladies.”

Jane trembled slightly, raging in his presence, but she steadied her hand. She had spent a total of five minutes with him, and it was enough to know that she never wanted to be near him again. But that was not her decision. Sacrifices had to be made. Sometimes that meant associating with the scum of the star system. She wondered idly if she would be able to extract the information they needed from him with his own pet device.

“How can you tell whether it’s evening in this place?” Bhutto asked. “There is no cycle that I can tell.”

“Well, Dives and the rest of the champions don’t start seriously drinking until the end of the afternoon. By the time the first one passes out, I know that it has reached late day.”

“How interesting,” Jane mused.

“Yes,” D’Arcangelo said, “now that the guard dogs are mostly busied, I am wondering what your plan is.”

“First,” Jane said, “I want to know everything there is to know about this place. Security, equipment, the daily routines, everything.”

“And the important players,” Bhutto added. “Besides the obvious ones. It would be nice to know who is behind the scenes.”

“I can’t tell you any of that.”

“You have to know something,” Bhutto said.

“I surely do, but you might very well fail in your caper, and not only that, implicate myself in it. You have shown enough competence that I am interested in your offer, but you can’t expect me to risk everything on the slim chance of success.”

“Our chances of success would improve greatly if we weren't kept in the dark. Its win-win.”

“I beg to differ. I am accepted in the upper echelons of the regime here, with full freedom to conduct my research, even if the facilities are decidedly sub par. The slight chance of getting off this moon is not worth it to me to risk that.”

“So what do we have to do to impress you?” Jane asked. She felt queasy just speaking to him.
If he could tell her discomfort, he did not mention it. He shrugged, “I have no way of knowing. If I had found an acceptable way to escape this island I would have taken it already.”

“So, you won’t help us?” Bhutto asked.

“I did not say that,” he replied. “I will tell you that there are a several vacuum suits in the next chamber over, and your friend has been sent to the mines, not the fields.” He stood up and stepped away from the table before they could respond.

“Smartass,” Bhutto said. “I suppose we should try to get out of here before we turn into one of those strip club rejects.”

“That would be the day,” Jane replied.

Bhutto nodded. “Although you could probably afford a little ink. It would make you seem less uptight.”

Jane made a face before they slipped away to what amounted to a storage closet, filled with plastic boxes and metal crates, as well as some random tools and other pieces of equipment, including a mishmash of different styles of vacuum suits strewn over the top. Counting on the adaptive material, she grabbed the newest-looking ones she could find.

“Can I help you girls?” Jane heard from behind. They both spun around to see the tattooed concubine that had been glaring at her before. Jane grimaced.

“We were just…” Bhutto started.

“You were just lifting some vacuum suits from the store so that you could try to escape,” she said.

“If that were true, wouldn’t we kill you so that there were no witnesses?” Jane asked.

“I’m sorry, we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Clodia. I know that you two are new here, so I’ll set the record straight. I am in charge here.”

“Strange,” Bhutto replied. “The Warden seemed to think that he was the one giving the orders.”
She smiled. “So you are funny, then. See that boy over there? That is the Warden’s son. My son. When the Warden bites it, he’s going to be the one calling the shots.”

Jane glanced at the little boy with crewcut blonde hair sticking straight out, hanging onto the arms of his father. She did not have to feign an unimpressed look.

“Look,” the girl said, “I don’t give a damn if you leave. In fact, I’ll give you some advice: once you do, make sure you never show your face here again.”

“I can promise you,” Jane said, “that, were it up to me, I would never see this rock again.”

“I have to concur with my colleague,” Bhutto said.

Clodia nodded in grudging agreement. “Allow me to help you out. You still have to deal with the greenhorn guard at the door. I’ll distract him so you can slip by unnoticed.”

“You would do that?” Bhutto asked.

Clodia laughed. “It’s not for you, hon. I don’t want outworlder bitches trying to upset the order here. “But if you don’t want my help, I’ll gladly find another way to deal with you.”

“You will regret it if you betray us,” Jane said.

“I have to say, I like your paranoia. You would have fit in well here.” Clodia turned to glance at the door. “Just wait for me to get the kid away, and then you can run off to wherever it is you think you are going to.” She disappeared from the storage closet and out into the wider chamber. Jane and Bhutto slipped on the vac-suits.

“You realize she expects us to fail and get ourselves killed, right?” Bhutto asked.

“That’s just because she doesn’t know us very well,” Jane replied.

Bhutto responded with something equally inaudible and snide, and followed out to find Clodia smiling and chatting up the younger guard. She laughed and traced her finger down the center of his chest. The guard smiled nervously, his eyes darting back to the congregation of drunken hooligans in the center of the room rambling to each other about some nonsense or other that Jane did not care to inquire into further.

Clodia went in closer, her nose nearly touching, forcing the guard’s attention on her. He never saw Dives take notice of her whispers into his ear, or her hand around his waist, and neither did she. Neither of them noticed when Dives stood up from the table, knocking his drink onto the floor. They did not notice as he staggered over to the door and shoved Clodia out of the way, only to slam his fist into the young man’s face.

Clodia screamed, and the guard fell to the floor almost instantly. He tried to push himself up, but the drunken monster kicked him in the ribs. Then in the groin. Then in the head. When he stomped on the young man’s face, Jane cringed. The sickening wet crunch of skull and flesh and blood repeated, like hammering a spike into thick mud, until the flathead sunk into the morass.

When he had sufficiently pounded the man into a pulp, Dives strode back, cursing about his drink, and Clodia huddled into a corner, a look of awe on her face. The poor guard lay motionless on the rocky ground, a messy puddle where his head used to be. Bhutto shoved Jane forward, and she got the idea. They slid past the lifeless carcass into the hallway and through the blast door controls.
Once they left the inner citadel, Jane and Bhutto passed through the connected tunnels with surprising ease. Bhutto said as much as soon as they had slowed their pace.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “There has to be something that we missed. Something D’Arco didn’t tell us.”

Jane nodded. “Security here does seem extremely lax. Either way, it doesn’t change our course of action, does it?”

Bhutto paused to think that over. “That’s not much comfort, Red.” she finally replied.

They reached a T-section in the tunnel, and Jane stopped.

“This way, Red,” Bhutto said casually, as if taking a child to the restroom.

“How do you know?” Jane asked.

She pointed at the rock wall of the tunnel section. “See how the coloring is lighter here? It’s newly dug. Hasn’t had a chance to fully oxidize.” Jane looked closer, and now did recognize a slight difference in the tunnel section. “Next section is probably entirely native atmosphere,” Bhutto said.

Native atmosphere. Jane did not like the sound of that. Unfortunately, native atmosphere was not the only thing waiting for them at the next airlock.

“What are you plebs doing out here?” an armored guard asked, brandishing his assault rifle at them, apparently surprised to see them. They looked at each other, but did not respond. Jane pointed to the airlock. “Get the fuck in there,” he said. “I don’t want to see you outside until that tunnel is done.”

They passed through the airlock into a more hellish landscape than the rest of Loki, which Jane scarcely thought possible. The sound of random grinding and clanking deafened her, making normal conversation impossible. Although there were some advanced machinery and drills, most of the vac-suited miners wielded picks, shovels, and other hand-held tools. Armored thugs encouraged the miners through threats and beatings from what appeared to be electrically charged batons. Muffled screams broke up the constant grind of industrial drills. It dawned on Jane now why they had such an easy time out of the citadel.

“They were never meant to keep us in,” she thought out loud.

“Huh?” Bhutto asked.

“The guards in the citadel, they weren’t trying to keep us from escaping. Did you see those women?
They were well-fed and taken care for. Happy, even. The Warden never expected us to want to escape. Where could we go? The fields? Here?”

Bhutto surveyed the deafening hellscape around them. “Who would have thought we would be so stupid?”

Just a couple of idiots. Jane thought. She took her own look around. What these people were mining for, Jane could not tell. It looked as if this entire settlement had been one huge mine. Perhaps they were merely expanding the operation. She needed to find Yeager, but she could not make him out among all of the other suits in the crowd. It might be futile, but she began calling out for him anywhere she could.

“Yeager? Yeager Soon? Are you there?”

She walked from one group of miners to the next until Bhutto interrupted.

“Red?” She said. Jane was so focused on her task that she ignored her. “Red?” She asked again.

“Yeager Soon?”

“Red!” Bhutto cried. Jane turned to her too late. Scalding-hot pins and needles in her lower back brought her to her knees. She fell hard onto her hands, and turned to see an armored thug swing at her one more time. The blow from the baton sent her flat on her back.

“Get back to work,” the enforcer grumbled. She rolled over and slowly got to her feet. The pain was nowhere near what she had gone through during her session with Dives and D'Arcangelo; she could hardly get worked up over it. She took up a pick, wondering how much force it would take to put it through a piece of powered armor.

Instead, she took out her aggression on the nearest rock. When the enforcer was satisfied, he moved over to beat another slacking miner. Jane moved from tunnel to tunnel, doing her best to look like she was working, and checking with the other miners to find Soon and get them off of the prison. They were surprised to hear a woman in the mines, but none would stray from their task long enough to give Jane a second glance. After she had made the rounds through the entire worksite and then a second time, she checked with Bhutto. The Odinian woman shook her head.

“There’s no sign of him here. He might have been killed.”

“But they would have at least seen or heard of someone new, wouldn’t they?”

“It probably doesn’t happen every day,” she admitted. She paused for a moment. “What if he were never in the mines?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What if they had sent him to the fields, and D’Arco lied to us?”

Jane did not even have to think about it. That was exactly what had happened.

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