This is Episode Six of the Garden of Hell series of science-fiction short stories, following after Tiger Lilies, Two Moons, Crow’s Flight, Impasse, and Winner Takes All.
Copyright J. Dianne Waye January 2015
Contains mature subject matter and violence.
“Perez. Wake up. We’re here.” Crow shook me. I opened my eyes to see his grinning face, his bald head glistening.
I blinked, rubbing my eyes, swallowing in my parched throat. My skin was itchy from the dry cabin air and weeks of short water rations. Most of that time we’d drifted in space, using gravity to tug the ship forward. Every time we used the engines we had to deal with the constant threat of fighter ships finding our contrail signature, blasting us to smithereens. And every time Crow fell asleep, I tried to figure out how to override his destination co-ordinates. All of those useless adrenaline spikes left me tired and wired, out of focus.
“We made it. We’ll both be dead of old age before Mothership tracks us here.”
I wiped the cockpit window, disturbing a patch of hoarfrost obscuring the view. Tiny crystals surrendered to the heat of my touch, drifting into the weightlessness of the cabin. Outside was a beautiful sight, swirling white clouds over blue seas, brown and green swatches of colour making continents, making life.
“I get it,” he said. “You’re still mad at me. But I’m not the one that infected you, and I’m not the one that killed Andy. He was my son. Don’t ever forget that.”
How could I forget? Andrew’s death burned deep inside, a pain that didn’t go away, didn’t lessen with time.
Crow banked the craft. I buckled the seatbelt harness for a rough atmosphere entry that shook the ship. We flew over forest canopies, sweeping planes, deep ravines filled with rushing water. Birds took flight, big ones with white wings and pink underbellies. Animals grazed flatlands, disturbed into stampeding at our approach. Plenty of places to hide on this planet, with no crazy vengeful plants trying to murder us. And from its deserted look, it had been rejected for colonization.
Or had it?
Off in the distance, beyond a crescent ridge, symmetrical shapes emerged, dirt-coloured but distinctly unnatural. We drew closer. Barbed-wire fences surrounded a compound, multi-storied levels with windows lined up in a row—a view to nowhere.
“850 is the code for a colonized planet,” I said, anger making the words snap. “We can’t land here.” And we couldn’t go home. We would infect our world, wipe out millions of lives before they found a cure.
“Ah, she speaks at last.” Crow circled the ship and landed, maintaining radio silence, sending a bustling beehive of heavily-armed men marching onto the flat compound, guns and cannons raised in salute to our arrival.
“What is this place?” I hissed.
“Halcyon Colony. The prison planet. Now you have a reason to be mad.” He popped open the door, raising his arms over his head, clasping them together in the signal for surrender.
“Get out,” he said to me, nodding. “Slowly. Slowly, Perez.”
“Screw you, Crow.” I followed him outside. There was no other choice.
A bullhorn shouted instructions. “Citizen Crow—on the ground. And you, Private 4930, drop.”
“Now is that any way to welcome home the prodigal son?” Crow shouted back. “Commander Edding, I brought you a present. Our secret weapon.” He smiled that jack-o-lantern grin of his, and lay down in the dirt.
I copied him and lay prostrate on the ground, stirring up dust that tasted vile in my dry mouth, as swarms of armed men surrounded us.
In the end Crow did betray me, but not at all how I anticipated. He was really good at keeping secrets, just like his son.
My cage had a hastily-erected transparent overlay to keep my toxic spittle from melting the guards patrolling outside. Crow was in the cell next to mine, lying on the cot, no plastic shield surrounding his cage. Only bars separated our cells, which was good for him because I wanted to kill him for bringing us here.
A sink stood beside the toilet, both naked and exposed, the ledge holding a toothbrush, toothpaste, a jar of cream. The mirror was polished metal glued firmly to the wall, shatter-proof or I would have already broken it to use the shards as weapons. But someone had already thought of that.
The wavering reflection mocked me. My spore scars had healed, sunburned a different shade than the healthy skin. A fading bruise on my jaw outlined where Faust had hammered me senseless.
But the C carved into my cheek marked me as Crow’s. And hidden above the sleeve of my uniform, a vaccination pock-mark matched the one on his bicep.
Damn him. Damn all of this.
I picked up the jar of regeneration cream intended to repair my face, and threw it at the door. It bounced off the plastic shield and shattered, white goo splattering the clear walls.
Two guards stomped into the outer room, their rigid postures different from the slack spines of the men guarding my cell. Their faces were covered with helmets to keep them safe from my toxins, every inch of skin protected. I couldn’t even see their eyes through their mirrored visors, just my own fear glaring back at me.
They unlocked the cage, needing to use their tasers for me to surrender.
“Where are you taking her?” Crow’s hands fisted through the bars separating our cells. “I asked you a question!”
But he never got an answer. He didn’t have any authority here, now that they had me.
The night stick smashed into my face again. My teeth cut my cheek. Blood filled my mouth, enough fluid to spit out at my attacker. Spitting was all I could do to fight back, hands pinned behind my back, feet anchored to the chair. But that’s what they wanted me to do, what the sink and toothbrush and toothpaste was for. So instead I swallowed, because they wanted me to spit.
The interrogator yanked my head back by the hair, roots screaming in pain. If he wanted me dead, he would have killed me by now. The stick smashed into my ribs this time.
“I am Private Perez 4930. I am a hostage. I cannot be broken—”
He jerked my hair, levelling my forehead, exposing my throat. I thought he was going to break my neck, slash my throat. Instead he let me go, my head dropping from exhaustion.
Through unshed tears and blurred vision, I saw the door glide open. The interrogator left me alone in the empty room. No guards, no beatings, nothing but throbbing pain mimicking my heartbeat. There wasn’t even a ticking clock to tell me how much time passed.
Sleep. Precious sleep.
Something smashed my ribs, jolting me back to consciousness. The world narrowed again, so small my wavering universe, what I could witness through swollen eyelids.
Pain. Focus on the pain.
My interrogator wasn’t wearing a bio-hazard suit now, tempting me to attack, no doubt figuring his vaccination would protect him like it had protected Crow. It was a huge gamble; he must want to win really badly. Almost as much as me.
He drew a hand over his chin, stubble grating against his fingertips. I guess he’d been at this a while, for him to need to shave. His once-neat hair was messy, his ironed uniform wrinkled, sweat stains darkening his armpits. The focus in his eyes had been replaced by a crazy sparkle, unhinging in its obscenity.
Three pounds shook the door. It glided open, hinges silent.
Crow entered the interrogation room, handcuffs rattling behind his back. “Commander Edding, nice to see you again. I take it Plan B didn’t work.”
“Which is why you’re here,” Edding said.
“She’s too smart for you. You can’t break her by beating her. You need to hit her weak spot.”
“Oh, you need my help now?”
“You came back for a reason. What’s the price?”
“My wife. My shuttlecraft fuelled and stocked.”
“Do you think I care about Perez? You get what you want, Marcia comes with me. I want your word that you won’t order our deaths, that you’ll tell Mothership we died.”
“Mothership will demand corpses.”
“Tell her you burned us. Decontamination protocol.”
“I would never order that,” Edding said.
“Then tell her it was a mistake made by one of your minions. She’ll believe that. I brought you your prize, now give me mine.”
The commander let loose a great exhale, pondering Crow’s demands. “All right. But you promised me two weapons. I only see one.”
“Yeah, well, sorry my son’s death changed your plan.”
My breath quickened at the mention of Andrew. Crow turned around, watching me watch him.
“Oh, that bothers you when I mention Andy.” He drew closer, riveting me with his gaze. So much like Andrew’s, so different the soul. “Uncuff me, Commander. Turn off the camera on your way out.”
Crow waited to be uncuffed, for the door to seal shut behind Edding, for the camera behind him to click off, before he spoke. “I get what you’re trying to accomplish here—the right thing. What you’re trained to do. What Andy wanted you to do. But it’s not going to work. The rules have changed.”
“I’m not interested in your version of how the world works,” I said, the words croaking.
“You should be, because my version affects your future. The way Edding sees it, you don’t need your knees. He can simply blast them away.” He drove his thumb into my ribs where a fresh bruise bloomed, pain spotting my vision. “You think that hurts? Imagine what losing your knees will feel like. First one, then the other.”
He leaned in, resting his hands on mine, his breath pulsing against my face. “I’ve seen him do that to other prisoners. How will you survive the agony?” he whispered.
The pulsing stopped when he pulled away. “Edding will take what he wants, one way or the other. If he can’t break you, then he’ll dissect you, cut out those precious saliva glands. If that doesn’t give him his answer, he’ll order fresh recruits down to that planet, to wait for the tiger lilies to bloom again. Your defiance will be for nothing, forgotten.”
He walked around my chair. “Misplaced loyalty is clouding your view. Mothership abandoned you to die on that planet. Andy abandoned you when he chose to die to save you. Why die here? Andy’s sacrifice would be in vain. You don’t owe anyone anything. You only have loyalty to yourself now, to your own life.”
My job is to keep you alive, Andrew had said to me. Dying would be like betraying him.
Crow circled the chair, letting his message sink in. “Your own life. That’s all you have. Your struggle will be forgotten, a waste. There won’t be anyone left to remember what you fought for.”
I remembered Crow laughing, back on that planet of hostile plants, saying Miller’s been feeding you that crap. I’ll break you Perez. You’ll see. His words penetrated my resolve, breaking me like nothing else could.
He’d been right all along; I just couldn’t see it.
Gasping and shaking, I lowered my head, the fight draining from my body.
He leaned in close again, his warm breath brushing the scar on my cheek. “Escape,” he whispered, so softly I wasn’t even sure he spoke. “You can’t escape without your knees. You need your knees to run.”
Escape. Damn Crow for tempting me with the only thing I wanted.
He continued speaking in a louder voice as if someone was listening, shoving an empty bowl under my chin. “So spit in the bowl, give Edding what he wants, and live whole and complete for another day.”
Crow was the only one who could help me escape, the only one I could rely on to keep me alive. And he was Andrew’s father. That had to count for something. I’d heard him cry over Andrew’s death, no way he could fake that sound.
I let saliva build up in my mouth, not swallowing while I pictured lemon wedges next to salted tequila shots, puckering at the memory. Andrew had toasted our mission with tequila when we got the news, downing the stunted shots like they would be his last.
Crow held the bowl under my mouth while I spit into it. Over and over, until fluid smeared the sides, thick and slimy and slightly yellow.
“That should be enough.”
Crow pounded on the door. Two bio-hazard-suited men entered, releasing my hands from behind my back, holding me upright under the arms, dragging me from the barren chair. My arms hung limply at my sides, full of impotent rage. My legs weren’t much better, bursting with needles when I tried using them.
The commander entered the room, looking neat and tidy again.
Crow held out the half-filled bowl to Edding. “Here’s what you wanted. Now give me what you promised.”
Edding laughed, a cold hard sound. “I promised you wouldn’t die at my orders. I never said you wouldn’t die. Guards, put them both in general population.”
“You lying bastard,” Crow hissed.
“How does it feel to be betrayed?” the commander said to Crow.
Like hoarfrost around my soul.