Ajax paced around the small exercise court of the reception area, 50 feet beneath the cratered surface of the asteroid Pallas. The British had loitered in the capture area long enough to participate in war games, but on the return to Earth had stopped to turn him over to the SolMax guards, who took him into custody.
“Move up, convicts!” A guard got his attention with a shout, rapping his shock-stick on the clear plexi-glass door separating him from the others that have been taken in ahead of him. “You’re next.”
When the door slid open, the guard waved his baton toward the recesses of adjoining chamber and Ajax shuffled forward. As the door closed behind him, he could see three men waiting for him ahead; two were guards, one was dressed in a white lab coat. The biggest, ugliest one had a head that resembled a rotten squash and carried a scanning tool; when he lifted it and stepped forward. The name on his ID tag was Brawny.
“Spread your legs,” Brawny said in a soft voice that seemed out of place coming from such a beast of a man. He swept down each leg when Ajax complied. “Now strip.”
Ajax nodded and began unzipping his dirty, patched flight suit. He got it half way off before Brawny acted, lifting his shock-stick and giving Ajax a wallop; the blow landed just above the kidney on his right side and sent a wave of agony rushing through him. Ajax growled with pain and dropped to his knees.
“You listen to me, convict,” Brawny said quietly, intently, right into his ear. “When myself or any member of the staff gives you an order, you’re to carry it out immediately, not next feking week. When I say strip, you’d better move like you’re catching fire, are we clear?”
“Yes,” Ajax mustered as an assistant pulled him to his feet. “Very clear. Sorry, sir, it won’t happen again.”
“I’d advise against it.”
Once the pain subsided Ajax quickly complied. His clothes were bundled up and pitched into a chute as he stood naked before the three. It was good that the prison was overheated.
“Now put your hands against the wall,” Brawny said, using his shock-stick to point out the barrier in question. “Keep your legs spread wide.” He turned and jerked a thumb at Ajax. “He’s all yours, Doc.”
A man in a white lab coat snapped on latex gloves and stepped forward with an auto-injector, inoculating him with a multi-vaccine in silence. Brawny’s assistant came forward with a stack of clothing; seven bright-red, folded jumpsuits, seven gray t-shirts, seven pairs of half-socks, seven pairs of drawers… the only clothing Ajax would be allowed for the duration of his stay. The last procedure was a sweep with a handheld scanner for objects hidden in body cavities.
“He’s clean.” The doctor said and put the scanning device away. “Take him away.”
Ajax got to keep his boots. One jumpsuit fell out of the stack as the assistant shoved the pile into his arms, there was a bar code emblazoned on the front and back; the code that would take the place of his name.
“Get dressed,” Brawny ordered and Ajax hastened to comply. As he donned the undergarments, Brawny gave him a hard look, inspiring greater speed. “Always remember one thing, convict. I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Kinkaid, Melvin- let’s go.” A SolMax administrator called from where he was waiting, behind a one way revolving door at the far end of the chamber.
“Yeah, sure.” Ajax said as he left Brawny glaring at his back and pushed through the door. The administrator escorted him into the virtual courtroom where the holographic image of a magistrate, uplinked from his comfortable chambers on Earth, presided. Justice was quick, he was found guilty and given the mandatory sentence; eight years, all pending the reception of the condemning evidence that had been collected.
At the rear of a long column of other convicts, Ajax was led into a large room filled with various recording devices, all arranged in a circular pattern along the walls. As he followed the circuit, one machine took his retinal scan, another a sample of his DNA, a third took his picture-front, then profile. One man vigorously resisted the efforts to extract a blood sample.
“He’s going to the DeepCore.” Was circulated among the prisoners assembled for in-processing. After ten minutes of struggling, a medic with a strong sedative was called in and the in-processing continued.
Ajax and the others going to general population were lined up in front of the lifts that would take them to their habitation areas. The prisoners going to heavy security, further under the asteroid’s surface, were already being shuttled below in pairs. Only the lift marked “DeepCore”, the one that fell four kilometers to the maximum-security area, had no one waiting to take the long ride down.
A loud commotion at the rear of the line brought him back from his contemplation of what the bottom was like. Someone had broken free and was being subdued forcefully by the guards. The noise got closer with every heartbeat.
“No! You can’t take me down there! I’m as good as dead down there… do you hear me… dead!”
The wild prisoner who had resisted the earlier attempts at DNA scanning had come out of his drug-induced lethargy and was making life difficult for his guards, who had him hog-tied with a pair of carbon-fiber cuffs. The guards, fully outfitted in rigid Marine body armor and armed with snub-nosed assault rifles, carried the malcontent by both arms into the lift marked “DeepCore."
As the doors of the lift closed, Ajax watched the guards drop the man and jack a live round into the chambers of their weapons. He could hear the screaming protests as the lift began its four-kilometer journey, growing more and more faint as it sank lower toward the hell he imagined the DeepCore to be.
After several minutes, the doors to the DeepCore lift opened and the two guards stepped out, one holding a blood sodden-cloth to his face. The other dragged the lifeless form of the convict they had been charged with escorting behind him.
“What in the hell happened down there!”
The watch supervisor was the first one on the scene and he was angry; a casualty in the lift meant more data-work. The injured guard pointed at the corpse on the floor.
“This waster wouldn’t go.” The guard said.
The gleam of metal inside the lift caught Ajax’s eye while the guard related his story. There were aluminum shell casings scattered across the lift floor.
“What do you mean he wouldn’t go?” The supervisor said and waved over a pair of convicts wearing orange work-suits. They lifted the body at the head and feet and carried it out of sight. At SolMax, dead convicts were charitably incinerated.
“He wouldn’t go. We hit the halfway point and he went nuts, broke he restraints we had on him and attacked me… tried to claw my eyes out. We had to put him down, and by the way, they aren’t paying us enough to do this.” The guard took the cloth away from his face and pondered it with a look of disgust, giving Ajax a look at the deep, bloody furrows that marred the man’s forehead and cheek. Noone had it easy in SolMax.
“The company’s aware of your concerns. They'll be brought up at the next shareholder’s meeting. Now go to the infirmary and have that looked at,” The supervisor said and gave the pools of slowly cooling blood left by the dead convict a last glance before he turned back for his office. “Somebody clean this goddamned mess up.”
"Get moving, convict." A stern voice from behind him said and delivered a hard shove. Ajax stumbled forward in his restraints and tried to keep from dropping his prison issued garments. Once his balance had been restored, he realized that the line had been moving while he cogitated. As the elevator doors closed in front of him, his last view of the surface was of two gray-haired, old men vacuuming up the blood.
His cell was small, four feet wide and just large enough for him to stretch out on the thin mattress of the bunk along the left side. He could stand comfortably upright but the ceiling was only a few inches higher and he instinctively bowed his head when he stepped inside, the solid plexi-glass door slid shut behind him. Several ventilation holes were drilled along the top and bottom, none large enough to put his fist through. A slot in the middle was just wide enough to accommodate a meal tray.
Underneath the bunk was a table made of hard resin and a square block of the same material that served as a spartan chair. The commode rested against the back wall, underneath the foot of the mattress. He dropped the pile he carried and collapsed onto the bunk, feeling cartilage in his spine pop as he stretched out. The screen on the wall across from the bed snapped on.
You are being monitored.
The message on the screen changed every five seconds.
You are being recorded.
From the scuttlebutt that he gathered, if he behaved, they might pipe in a movie or a show from Earth to help alleviate the boredom. Most other means of venting were prohibited and the penalty for doing prohibited things was severe.
Damaging or destroying SolMax property is prohibited, twelve days in the deepcore. Inciting violence is prohibited, thirty days in the core. Assault on Solmax staff or other inmates is prohibited, ninety days in the core. Failure to heed directives of Solmax staff is prohibited, sixty days in solitary confinement.
The schedule for feedings and exercise periods was posted on the wall next to the door. This was his home sweet hell for the next twenty-nine hundred days, each one of them an eternity.
“Two-thousand-eight-hundred-and-ninety-nine days and counting,” He said and laid his head back on the thin pillow as a tear streamed out the corner of one eye. “I’m not gonna make it.”
He was startled by the rap of a guard’s shock baton on the door of his cell. “On your feet convict, your exercise period begins in twelve minutes. Look lively now.”
“The seat of Earth sat on the shore at Geneve-Plage. In a time of manufactured mountains, it was a marvel of the age. The gothic base soared nine hundred feet above the Lac Leman. Its transept spire rose even higher to a point twixt dusk and dawn.” Lilli said to herself, letting the English/French roll over her tongue. She spoke those languages and five others fluently but never used them. ComLan was the interstellar language of business.
"This court will come to order!" A bailiff in red Renaissance garb hollered from the center of the floor and thumped his partisan. His words were instantly translated into a dozen languages and issued from speakers placed around the wide hall. He stood upon the United Nations of Earth seal, a mosaic circle of colored tile forming the flags of every member nation around a four-pointed star, inlaid beneath the witness stand.
Lillith Trevor, Lilli to her few friends and bitch to the rest of the human sphere, turned when she heard the locks turn inside the doors at the back of the courtroom, a sharp, metallic snap of steel-on-steel that echoes through the hall.
"How long do we have?" Lilli said in a whisper. The packet ship waiting at the Procyon jump point would initiate transit on schedule, with or without her summary report of their legal efforts stored onboard in the mainframe memory.
"Twelve minutes. Even with transmission boosting, our signal is still going to take some time to get to the courier," Stephan said evenly. As her executive assistant, he was paid very well to think of the little things she didn’t have time to. "That’s on the safe side.”
"Transmit the briefing I wrote up last night." Lilli said as she watched the judges milling in the anteroom and checked her Krono-Tek.
"But there's been no official announcement." Stephan said. He was efficient and wore his pinstripes smartly, but he took no chances. He always asked before he moved, even when he already knew what her response would be. It had been nice at first, but Lilli was beginning to despise his lack of initiative.
"If we don't send it now, we could miss the courier. Like I said, on my call. Send it."
"You're the boss."
“Yes, I am.” Lilli said. He knew how to follow orders though, she noted with satisfaction. Stephan opened his datapad and contacted their communications subsidiary while the bailiff knocked his partisan again.
"This court will come to order!"
The viewing galleries hanging above the central hall were the main source of the clamor, filled beyond capacity with a standing crowd that moved, people jockeying for a better view of the proceedings.
When Lilli got to her feet, she caught the eye of the big shark on the Transterran team, who gave her a confident smile and a thumbs up. He had assured her that their case was solid-to-the-core. She had planned around that being so. If it was not, the official Transterran line will be "no comment."
The justices filed from their deliberation chambers onto the tile court. By tradition, the senior judge came out first, Justice Salise Monjupu. The others had split rulings and left it up to the senior man. Monjupu took eleven days to review evidence and make up his mind.
Because worlds literally turned on the outcome of the suit, the delay was expected and justified, most likely a respite just to give the EuroCon time to get their things in order.
The conservative business outfit she had chosen for the day provoked a dry comment about a funeral from Stephan. It had been appropriate. The first surprise of the day was that the European Confederation had crumbled.
Monjupu sat and resumed the trial with a rap of his walnut gavel. Robotic hover-cameras tagged with BBC, PGN, and the symbols of other news networks darted about the line of seated justices, angling for the best view.
"Be seated." He said, adjusted his microphone with palsied hands, and cleared his throat. "Before the court delivers its decision, I have a statement. Because this is precedence, I have taken the time allowed to me by section nine, article four of the Terran Charter and reviewed the arguments of both parties."
“The courier'll get to Procyon before this windbag gets to the point.” Lilli whispered as she opened her handbag and withdrew a small box of Zep-Lyks. She shook two out of the dwindling supply and palmed them into her mouth. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner had passed in waiting. When the mint hit her tongue her stomach complained for more.
"What cannot be denied, is that on the eleventh of March, Twenty-one-sixty-three, the European Confederation did approach Transterran Corporation for the purpose of acquiring capital to pay for new arms and munitions. This capital was granted in good faith under the conditions outlined in file one-one-seven, and purchase files three-five-zero-one through five-eight-seven-seven show that this capital was used to good effect."
She checked the Kronos again. The courier was on its way to home office in the Procyon system.
"When repayment of said contract came due, the hard currency reserves of the European Confederation, hereafter known as the “EuroCon” were at a level insufficient to meet contract obligations, in so defaulting on the agreement."
“Now they’re taxing us to death!” An angry voice called from the EuroCon side.
“Order,” Monjupu said and rapped his gavel. The gallery fell quiet. "Despite the recent collapse of the European Confederation, I cannot overlook that prior to this, the Transterran contract had been ratified by all twelve branch officers of the EuroCon and by delegates of all twelve EuroCon extra-solar colonies.
“Precedence for the continued liability of former member states is well defined in the Terran Charter, section twenty-eight, paragraph eighteen. Rulings in States v. Northern Combine and United Kingdom v. Tachyon Industries show that, despite a change in policy or management, a new government or corporate state retains the contractual obligations of the former. No new business is to be conducted until they are settled, such is the extent of the law."
Monjupu took a sip of water and read on.
"We have reviewed Transterran's claim and found it to valid and well-within the boundaries of propriety."
“We did it,” Lilli said under a smug grin. Transterran's claim was valid. “There’s no way they can rule against us.”
"What are we going to do? Give these devils our homes? That's all we've got left!" Someone gave a pensive shout from the EuroCon section. Monjupu thumped his gavel.
"I will have order." He said, sternly looking out over his glasses. He swept his fingers through his sparse hair and cleared his throat.
"We have also reviewed the settlement proposed by the former EuroCon states in file one-two-one-seven-seven and found that lacks the provisions called for in the terms of the original agreement," Monjupu said as he shifted sheets of hard-copy. "Our decision is for Transterran under the settlement terms outlined in file one-two-one-seven-seven. The European Confederation forfeits all goods detailed in purchase files three-five-zero-one through five-eight-seven-seven. Service and other non-material expenditures will be repaid by transfer of exploitation rights to Transterran for the period until the debt is repaid. The matter of Transterran versus Avalon colony will be resolved in arbitration. These proceedings are closed."
Cheers erupted from the Transterran supporters gathered behind them.
“Lilli, you did it!” Stephan cried out happily and lifted his arms to embrace her. He frowned as she lifted a hand to his chest and pushed him away.
“They did it to themselves.”
Jena took an elevator up the hub of Freedom Point station and then a tram down a spoke to the gravity decks spinning at 9.8 meters per second. After six weeks, she still got off on the wrong level and searched for half-an-hour before she realized her error; the orbital base seemed to be made of nothing but gray pipes and infinitely long stretches of corridor rotating around the core.
After finding the appropriate section, she followed the faces she recognized to the right compartment. The rest of Constellation’s command crew was already there; heads turned when she came through the hatch.
"Jena! Over here!" Tali called from beside an empty seat. Jena waved and began working her way down the row of seats toward her. “Christ and Allah… what took you so long? I almost thought you weren’t going to show up.”
“I didn't want to leave anything out of my post-ex report." Jena said and wearily collapsed into the chair.
"Me neither. I rewrote my analysis three times before anything made sense,” Tali said, shrugged, and wrinkled her nose in what might have been irritation. “I wanted to say more, but what do I know, I'm just a navigator."
"I know what you mean," Jena said and looked around for disapproving glances cast her way. "Did anyone ask where I was?”
“The captain’s not here either.”
“Stellar.” Jena said and closed her eyes. “That’s the best news I’ve heard since we got back.”
"Commodore on deck!" A loud bark from the door-guard prompted Jena to her feet as a shrewd looking man with the Union Jack on the sleeve came through the hatch. Between captain and admiral in rank, he radiated command presence with stern brown eyes that had seen much, and forgotten very little. Crites followed behind him, looking out over his subordinates and staring down the few willing to meet his gaze.
Jena kept her face forward and took a calming breath as she heard the captain slow beside her. Natural instinct dragged at her eyes, urging them to the corners of their sockets for a look to see on whom his attention fell.
“Be seated,” The senior officer said once he had climbed the stairs onto the stage and taken the podium. “For those of you who do not know me, I am Commodore Leslie Spencer. I have almost fifty years in allied service and several combat tours; mostly during the Neo-colonial War and while assigned to the blockade of the Procyon system during the uprising there.”