Shentah took a step toward the open door. It seemed strange for a station so large to have such lax security. Maybe the droid wanted him to follow it?
He heard a small crash, then saw the droid pass in front of his door again, rolling quickly and whistling what sounded like a happy tune. It was strange, but then again, much was strange to him on the station.
“Hello?” He asked, opening the door wider and standing in the opening. He touched the frame, but nothing shocked him. No alarm sounded.
He stepped out. He hadn’t paid much attention when he’d passed through the first time. The room was square, about ten meters on a side. There were eight other doors identical to his, three on each of three walls. In the center was a table with seating for eight. On the fourth wall was the door to the rest of the judicial area or whatever they called it. Next to the door a woman in a guard uniform sat at a desk, casually flipping through pages on an inexpensive frame.
“Excuse me,” he said, half expecting her to jump out of her seat and scream. “Should I close this door?”
She lowered her frame for a moment and glanced up at him with a bored smile. “If you like,” she said. The round droid rolled out from under her desk, passed the exit door, stopped, then rolled back again. It beeped at the door, and when it opened, the droid rolled out, whistling what sounded like a cheerful farewell. “I was going to say you might want to close it to keep Wilson out, but he’s probably done here for the day.”
“Wilson?” Shentah asked.
“Commander Dalrymple’s droid,” the guard answered. “The first officer. Wilson’s pretty old, and he’s one taco short of a combo plate, but he’s mostly harmless.”
“And he comes and goes—.”
Shentah was interrupted as the door swished open again and a man in a jumpsuit identical to his own, standard issue for prisoners, came in.
“Forget something?” the guard asked.
“My toolbox,” the man said, going to the door opposite Shentah’s. He disappeared inside for only a few seconds before reemerging with a toolbox in hand. “I’m kinda worthless without it!” the man said, sweeping out the door as if he was a free resident, not a prisoner. The guard didn’t even say goodbye; she just halfheartedly nodded in his direction.
“Is he…” Shentah looked from the door to the guard. She looked like she was making an effort not to look annoyed, but she obviously would rather be reading than talking to him. “Am I free to come and go as well?”
“You can file a request,” she said. “You can do it from your terminal in your room or I can give you a frame to do it out here. If it’s important, or something you need right away, I can show you how to flag it but that doesn’t guarantee the manager will approve it right away.” She picked up a glass that contained a light blue liquid and took a drink. “And if you flag stuff too often, they just ignore you.”
That was a strange thought. Shentah thought that if he pressed his point often and assertively, then people should listen to him. But they had explained that the very reason his and his co-workers’ complaints had gone unanswered was that they were drowned out the general whining and gross exaggeration of the general populace. He’d seen the list of complaints, and it embarrassed him. Most of the important issues he’d noticed were centered on specific things Istanzia’s governors had promised, but not fulfilled. He was still sharing his quarters with two other men, although they were all supposed to have their own. When one of his roommates had asked about it, the answer was that exceptions were written into their contract, and still being under construction was a major exception.
That roommate had disappeared two days later. All his things were cleared out of the apartment while Shentah was at work. No note, no word, and no way of communicating with him.
The difficulty in communication was strange. Although he still had access to the various networks he participated in when he lived on Earth, those connections hadn’t changed much once he moved to Istanzia. There seemed to be no web presence for the colony, outside of the official, proprietary network. And that network wasn’t designed for interaction; it was only there to facilitate the flow of information from the governors to the populace.
Shentah looked around the common area, if that was the right word. Nine cells that weren’t at all cell-like. A table where a small group could sit together. One bored guard. A simple seating area facing a viewscreen that was blank at the moment.
He wondered whether he was really in jail, or if they’d misplaced him somehow. But the commander’s words had hinted at his guilt.
Shentah took one last look around the common area, then returned to his room. It felt wrong to want to be there, but after months of sharing quarters with men he barely knew, the privacy appealed to him.
He slept twice. In between, he walked with two of the other prisoners from their common area to a dining facility where, although there were a couple of things available, the main choice seemed to be “take it or leave it.” Shentah ate a scoop of some kind of cooked grains, a chicken drumstick, and a bowl of steamed vegetables. It was simple. He didn’t have any of the seasonings he liked, but although bland it was appropriately cooked.
Sleep wasn’t restful. He willed himself to wake every time the nightmares started. Usually, he could get back to sleep again, but there was Mackerie’s face, turning purple as his lungs were deprived of air.
The door chime woke him before the nightmare could start again. He sat up, suddenly aware that he was sleeping in the same clothes he’d worn all day…or for a couple of days. He wasn’t sure how long it had been.
“Come in,” he said, figuring his clothing didn’t really matter.
The door opened and the security chief stood in the bright light of the common area, looking in at him. “Oh…were you sleeping?” he asked, in what sounded like a very polite voice. Too polite for who he was and what he did.
“I…yes,” was all Shentah could think to say. He wondered what they would do to him. He shouldn’t have lied. They were going to find out eventually.
“You should set your status to sleep mode. That way you won’t be disturbed unless it’s something important,” the chief said. Nayazov, though Shentah couldn’t remember the rank or honorific that went with the name. “Your lawyer is here. She and I need to talk with you. Why don’t you get dressed and come out here.”
Shentah nodded. He wasn’t sure what to say. Dressed? He looked around the small room, noticing for the first time a set of drawers in the wall next to the door. They were smooth, blending almost perfectly in with the wall. He opened one, and found two more jumpsuits exactly like the one he was wearing, as well as several pairs of clean underwear. He considered showering, but since they were waiting for him he decided to just put on clean clothes.
They were both sitting at the table when he came out. He joined them, sitting down as if they were going to play a game of cards or perhaps share a meal. It was too normal, too everyday. Then again, having a room instead of being behind bars was also strange. He didn’t understand how they did things on the station.
“You remember me, Lydia, don’t you?” the lawyer asked. Shentah was glad she reminded him of her name. It was one of many details his mind hadn’t been able to absorb.
He extended his hand and she shook it. He considered extending his hand to the security chief, but the man was opening a file on the table’s frame.
“We found the black box,” Nayazov said. “I’d like you to listen to it.”
His lawyer smiled encouragingly. He wondered if she was misinterpreting her expression. Was she just trying to soften the blow? Maybe she had no idea what was on the recording.
He knew. His mind went back to the moment when everything changed.
“What do you mean, you have a bomb?” Shentah stared as his friend, not believing what he was hearing. They’d taken the cube, turning off the comm when the comptroller’s shouts and threats had become too annoying. They had a mission. They were going to be heroes.
“Not a big bomb,” Mackerie said. “Just enough to get their attention.”
“To get their…how big a bomb? And where did you get it?” Shentah couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What had begun as a heroic plan to get their message out, to appeal to Tumbleweed’s governors to help right the wrongs that were piling ever higher and deeper, had suddenly turned into something cold and deadly.
Shentah set his helmet against his hip. He was ready to go out the airlock, armed with a pouch of paint blasters that he would use to splatter the word LISTEN all over the Chʼil Awoshí Station. Well, at least a small portion of the station. He planned to maneuver around to the government complex or the command module and splatter the graffiti in as many prominent locations as possible.
“Big enough to get our message through,” Mackerie said. Shentah stumbled. Mackerie was accelerating the cube. That wasn’t part of the plan.
Shentah reached over and tried to slow them down. They were going too fast; they would collide with the station if he didn’t do something.
Mackerie grabbed his arm and shoved him away. “This is how it has to be! They won’t listen—”
“So you’re just going to attack the station? You’re going to kill people?” Shentah yelled, reaching again for the controls, but Mackerie braced himself against the pilot’s saddle and used his leverage to push Shentah off center, making him tumble in the microgravity, hitting his head against a storage locker.
For a moment he was stunned, then just as he started to get his bearing the cube lurched and started to spin.
“They’re firing on us!” Mackerie yelled.
“They’re defending themselves!” Shentah yelled back.
“I need to stabilize before I release the explosives,” Mackerie said, his voice strangely calm, as if he was responding to an emergency and not about to commit a horrible act that could kill hundreds…perhaps thousands of innocent people, if the bomb went off in a vulnerable area.
Shentah launched himself at Mackerie, catching him by the throat just as he turned around. “No!” Shentah yelled, struggling to get Mackerie away from the controls. With neither of them buckled in, they spun and bounced as they grappled. Mackerie wrapped his arm around Shentah’s neck, but a moment later their tumble brought him hard against the control panel and Shentah squirmed out of his grasp.
The cube had righted itself, no longer tumbling and still heading directly for the station. Between them and the Chʼil Awoshí was a patrol ship with a full complement of accompanying drones.
They were going to die. They were going to die and take who knew how many people with them.
Somehow Shentah ended up between the pilot’s saddle and the controls. He braced himself, wrapping his fingers around Mackerie’s throat and squeezing. Mackerie’s legs were free, but Shentah managed to keep him pinned, watching as his friend’s face turned red, and his movements gradually slowed.
Shentah expected to hear a magnificent explosion at any moment. Either Mackerie’s bomb would go off, or they would collide with the station, or the patrol ship would fire on them. Perhaps all three.
He let go of Mackerie’s throat. The patrol ship was still there. Shentah’s helmet floated in front of his face, and he grabbed it, pulling it over his head and scrambling for the airlock. Once there, he didn’t wait. He blew the hatch, and tumbled out into nothingness.