Yellow-orange light from the K1II star intruded into the narrow, grimy hallway of the Svean correctional facility’s primary detention wing. The humidity outside was already approaching unbearable. By midmorning, it would rain as the prison saw daily, torrential downpours during the wet season. The inexorable precipitation soaked the continent’s black soil to create quagmires that prevented all wheeled vehicles from operating in the fields during the month-long deluge. The morning rays straining into the detention wing were mostly unwelcome by its guests, heralding another backbreaking day of labor. A cautionary buzzer sounded tersely before the echoes of outer doors clanking open beckoned three hundred fifty-seven inmates to the front of their plasti-steel cages.
Inside Cell Forty-four, Reece Lochlain stood at the ready near the barred door that would soon open. The only adornments on his orange jumpsuit were his identification number, SPCÄF583324-232, and the mud stains collected over the last months.
In the adjacent cell, Lochlain heard the hoarse, rumbling coughs of a prisoner suffering from upper respiratory cristaphibacillus. Caused by local mold spores infiltrating and multiplying inside the lungs, its symptoms started mildly enough but progressively escalated to a nearly constant hack that culminated in ruptured lungs. When contracted inside the prison, URC was a death sentence.
Click. “Open Forty-four!” The shouted command rang down the filthy hall to Lochlain’s relief. The buzzer sounded a second time and he watched his cell door abruptly retract.
Click. “Two-Three-Two, front and center!”
Lochlain left his cell without a backwards glance. He turned down the hall but failed to keep his distance from the bars. Faster than he could perceive, a meaty hand from the next cell hooked the left sleeve of his jumpsuit. Thick, stubby fingers clenched around the orange fabric and yanked him off balance.
Click. “Code Red!”
Lochlain heard the distant shout and heavy footsteps as his face rebounded cruelly off plasti-steel bars. The brutal impact brought tears to his eyes and stars to his vision.
A scarred, sneering face appeared behind those stars. “You think we’d let you walk away without a present, you snitch?” The man’s breath was rancid.
Lochlain did not fight to break the hulk’s inescapable hold but flung his own body sideways using his full weight. A crude shiv thrust outward from the cell and sliced through the air where his torso had been moments ago. Still bleary-eyed, Lochlain grabbed wildly for the hand clasped around the deadly implement. He caught the man’s sizeable thumb and held on for dear life.
The burly fist began to retract slowly into the cell despite Lochlain’s best efforts to pin the hand against a cell bar. Both men grunted under the strain but the sheer physicality of the behemoth behind the bars allowed the man to reclaim his right hand even as he pulled Lochlain closer with his left. Lochlain felt his grip break and the shiv slipped back into the cell for the next strike.
A jolt of electricity suddenly lanced its way through Lochlain’s body. He felt his muscles spasm and legs stiffen before the hallway turned on its side. He was solely a passenger as his body toppled like a felled tree. Once on the hard floor, he gasped for several seconds before regaining his senses. Twisting his head back to the cell, he witnessed his would-be assassin twitching fitfully under a stun-baton.
Clad in ice-blue armor, a mud-speckled guard relentlessly stabbed the baton into the prisoner’s side. An abrupt click from the guard’s full helmet activated its external speaker. “Front and center, Two-Three-Two. Now.” The armored man continued to pour current into the writhing prisoner on the dirty cell floor.
Lochlain inhaled deeply and pushed himself off the floor. The sleeve of his jumpsuit was torn. A quick brush at the left side of his face informed him that he would be sporting a prominent bruise soon. He began to step away but faltered, the pain in his cheek escalating as his fingers probed for damage. Angrily, he looked back to the cell. “Joe, can you hear me?” The man grunted and Lochlain felt the corners of his mouth pull upward, causing a fresh bloom of pain. “You enjoy your time in the mud, okay? How long is it? Twenty-five years?”
The man was still twitching under the guard’s continuous assault and Lochlain’s taunts grew louder. “I’ll just bet that you’ll love your time mucking about in the filth. After all, you’ve never been anything more than a rutting pig.” His eyes swept toward the guard as he urged, “Keep hitting him with that baton, I want to remember those squeals.”
The guard finally relented his cruel attention on the sprawling prisoner and turned threateningly toward Lochlain. The maneuver caused Lochlain to burst into motion down the hall. “I’m on my way, warder.” He casually waved behind him and bellowed, “Tell the crew thanks for the memories, Joe, and remember that crime doesn’t pay, except for some of us.”
Lochlain stiffened his back and strode confidently down the center of the mud-caked hall, ignoring the catcalls and threats in his wake. When he reached the end, he presented his hands and felt the alloy bite of magnetic restraints around his wrists. Once secured, he walked in silence, flanked by twin escorts who guided him through the maze of interlocking detention areas before arriving outside the facility.
The Svean air was dank and a steady drizzle hit his face to cool his aching cheek. Lochlain took the ten steps necessary to reach and climb aboard the back of a tracked detention transport. The enormous vehicle was coated with black mud. Even the numerical code stenciled atop the transport was unreadable. Settling onto a hard alloy bench, he shook off the rain and peered at his two, sodden guardians. “This weather can’t be too pleasant for you guys either,” Lochlain mused aloud. “The Vosstäder CF must be a real dream location for Svean security-police. I bet only the cream of the crop gets stationed here.”
The transport lurched into motion. Click. “Shut up, Two-Three-Two. Knowing your big mouth, I wouldn’t be surprised to see you right back here after your sentencing.”
“No, thank you,” Lochlain answered with a coy smile while shaking his head. “I’m reformed, see? I know better now than to fight the law. That’s why I worked with CBP and testified for them during the trials—”
A guard cut him off with another click. “You testified against your own captain and crew to save yourself. You rolled your own crew, convict.”
Lochlain’s jaw dropped in open indignation. “You wound me, sir!” His lips pressed together briefly before the smile reappeared. “If my motives were so self-serving, then why did I work with Customs and Border Protection before we were arrested? Before we even knew that CBP was on to us?”
The guard shook his helmeted head. His next words were a garbled mess. Lochlain knew that Svean armored security suits could encrypt their outbound communications and that only another suit would decrypt the words into meaning again.
The second guard replied indecipherably but ended in an obvious laugh.
Unwilling to let the slight to his honor pass, Lochlain brought his manacled hands up and tapped at his chest. “I saw the harm we were doing and while we never smuggled drugs or trafficked people, I realized that even the petty laws set by Appiation Unlimited need to be followed. And so, I’ve turned my back on a life of crime and I’m going legi—”
An ear-piercing squeal sounded from the first guard’s helmet and screamed through the back of the transport. The shrill screech was a favored tactic used by the officers to terminate their infrequent conversations with inmates.
The rest of the long journey passed without words.
* * *
The minister shifted his eyes to the defense table presently occupied by two men. The rest of the courtroom was empty save the bailiff. Even the prosecution’s table was vacant. The minister cleared his throat and asked, “Counsellor, does your client wish to address the court?” After a moment’s consideration, he added, “Hopefully briefly, if at all…”
The defense attorney stood and began to shake his head but Lochlain placed a hand on the man’s shoulder as he rose beside him. “Your Honor, I certainly have no intention of wasting this esteemed court’s valuable time, for I was just a minor cog in the machine of justice that removed eighteen wanted smugglers from among the lawful citizens of Appiation Unlimited.” Lochlain shifted his hand to cover his heart. “I’m just grateful to have played my small part in making our corporation safer for everyone.”
The minister nodded an acknowledgment and prepared to levy his sentence.
“I believe it was an ancient Terran poet,” Lochlain continued, “who once said that ‘crime generally punishes itself.’ Your Honor, those words have rung true to me for many years now. Every misstep I’ve taken I’ve reflected upon and I’ve done so well before the crew of On Margin was incarcerated.” He pursed his lips in thought for a moment before speaking humbly, “Your Honor, I’m not one for elegant speeches so I’ll just say that I’ve been paying the price for my criminal activity for a long, long time. I believe Customs and Border Protection called my willingness to endanger my own life by testifying in the other trials a ‘great sacrifice.’” He looked down to the table and shook his head dolefully. “I guess I just don’t see it that way. I can honestly tell you that it’s not a sacrifice if it’s something you’ve yearned to do, something you’ve craved.” His gaze tracked carefully and overtly to his hands. “These will never be clean… I know that, but at least the small sacrifice I made for the corporation has made me realize that it’s far better to abide by the law and follow the rules of society because, for the first time…” He raised his head to meet the judge’s eyes directly. “I can do this, sir. I can hold my head high.” His voice cracked slightly and his eyes watered. “Even if I’m sent back to prison, where I’d most certainly be killed for being an informant, at least I can finally raise my head again.” Lochlain wiped theatrically at the tears in the corners of his eyes and collapsed into his chair. “That’s all, your Honor,” he mumbled as he squeezed his eyes to stem the flow.
The judge swallowed before ordering quickly, “The defendant will rise.”
Lochlain popped to his feet again, head held high.
“The defendant has pled guilty of gross violations of Articles Thirty-one, Thirty-two, Thirty-three, Forty-seven and Forty-eight plus lesser violations of numerous other corporate articles. The combined weight of his crimes carries sixty-five years of hard labor in a penal facility. However, in light of Mr. Lochlain’s enthusiastic assistance to CBP both before and during several other criminal trials and in full consideration of the remarkable testimony of CBP Agent Brooke, who has stated that without Mr. Lochlain’s aid her identity would have been compromised, I am following recommendation and commuting the sentence to time served. Mr. Lochlain’s criminal record will be sealed during his ten-year probation. After its successful completion, his record will be expunged upon the determination of his parole officer.” The minister rapped his gavel twice and added, “This court is now in recess.”
Lochlain covered his face as his body quivered. The defense counsellor wrapped a consoling arm around his client and whispered, “You deserve this, Reece. Agent Brooke testified that you risked your life to save hers.”
Through his hands, Lochlain muttered, “Brooke… Mercer Brooke, is that her real name?” His body began to still.
“I guess so,” the counsellor answered. “Never mind about her. Seize this opportunity, my friend. You’ve earned a second chance with Appiation and those rarely come to the commoners.” He clutched his arm harder in support. “I know it’s an emotional moment for you. It is for me too. Take time to let this all sink in.”
A short distance away, the bailiff held open the faux-wood door for his minister and followed him from the courtroom. Once the door closed, Lochlain dropped his hands and turned toward his defense attorney. “So, where can I find more appropriate clothes and grab a bite to eat in this hellhole?”