27th day of the 3rd Blood Moon, 3028
The man behind the desk didn't notice the two guards and their prisoner approaching. He was bobbing his head in rhythm to the music coming from his tiny music player while he filled out forms, consulting the computer screen a few times. He sang out a couple of words in a high-pitched voice that cracked. It didn't seem to bother him that he was singing offbeat--and why should it? He was there by himself.
Dara winced listening to him. He was a terrible singer, but at least his voice drowned out the other ones--those in her head.
Can't believe I pulled transport duty...
If we get out of here in time, I can make the flight to Lotus Three...
...cares about one chick, anyway...
...the beaches are snow-white...
Dara squeezed her eyes shut. I'm not hearing you...
...and the best thing--no sharks. Ha! A deep blue ocean, and no sharks!
She massaged her temples, humming a tune in her mind. The one the clerk was listening to. It was all she had to distract herself with.
It wasn't enough. Desperate now for a break from the constant chatter, she went over everything the guards had let slip from their minds. Facts were her saving grace. Facts gave the rest of it meaning, so she didn't have to drown in the flood of random thoughts.
The bigger guard was the one in charge. His rank was higher. His name was Michael J. Jennings; he was thirty-nine years old, married with a kid on the way, and he thought guard duty was a short stick he'd gotten in some sick universal draw. His idea of dealing with criminals was shooting them in the head.
Impatient, Jennings cleared his throat.
The clerk didn't notice.
Fucking lazy-ass bureaucrat!
Facts. The other guard was a newbie and this was his first prisoner run. He annoyed Jennings because he kept jabbering on and on about vacation spots he would go to the next time he had some time off. He was young, fresh out of the academy--or wherever it was that people went to learn how to strike terror into someone with just a look or gesture. Charles Timmons. He still thought the world was his oyster. Still hadn't realized that none of the places he talked about were affordable for a guard of his station, and all the talking about it made Jennings even more miserable.
Jennings cleared his throat again, this time banging his ham-sized fist against the metal net that separated them from the clerk.
The clerk jumped, dropped his pen, and pushed away from the desk so abruptly that the wheeled chair carried him nearly to the end of the room. "Goddamn! Show some respect, man," he complained. The headphones came off his ears.
"Get up off your ass, and do your job," Jennings growled in return. "We have more work to do today." He was cracking his knuckles again. He'd done that the entire way here--that, and pat his gun like some sort of talisman--and Dara gritted her teeth, wishing the clerk would sing again.
...fucking shithead cop, Dara picked up from the clerk. She agreed wholeheartedly. "Awrightawright," he said. "No need to shout at the brotha." He left his chair behind as he stood up and returned to his desk to check the prisoner in. Once the surly Jennings signed the form, both he and his partner made their exit, leaving Dara alone to face the clerk.
The clerk put his headphones back on, but turned the volume down on his music. When he faced her again, he grinned and said in a mocking TV announcer voice, "Welcome to the sunny New Alaska underground prison facility." He was holding an imaginary microphone to his mouth. "As our final contestant, you get a pick out of our five very luxurious blocks." Bobbing his head again, he passed her five brochures in a bunch and Dara was morbidly glad for his sense of humor. She hadn't enjoyed much laughter lately. Not since this had all begun.
The chief of police had stood as witness both for her and against her. Ultimately, it had been his voice that had condemned her. At first, she'd been glad. She'd wanted it all to be over. But then he had stood up again and pleaded with the court to spare her life. Once more, his voice had been heard and, instead of a death sentence, she had received life in a maximum security prison on Alpha Beta Nine, better known as New Alaska.
She really wished they'd just killed her and had done with it.
The planet was ten light years from Earth and no easy journey. The prison itself was underground.
Dara picked technical information out of the clerk's mind without giving it conscious thought. Turning her attention to the pamphlets the clerk had given her, she simply glanced at the covers, not bothering to flip through them. That she was even being given a choice was baffling. But Dara supposed that it didn't really matter in the end. Prisons didn't get more maximum security than this.
Each pamphlet had a name on it and an animal symbol. Each animal meant a different level of security. There was a hamster, a hummingbird, and cat for the lower security blocks, and a human and wolf for maximum security. But if there was any real difference between them, Dara couldn't see it. As she looked at the pictures, the clerk followed her gaze and she could easily read their descriptions from his mind.
Hummin' bird's got all the hot chicks. Hamster's all crooks and accountants. Hate those fucking pricks. Kitty cat ... soap opera twenty-four seven. "Make your choice," he said cheerfully, still in character. Wouldn't wanna be caught in human ... But wolf... "Time's a'tickin'." He was still grinning as he executed a small salsa step and turned full circle on the ball of one foot with a flourish.
But he stopped and his smile faded when he noticed her pointing at one of the pamphlets. "The wolf," he said, eying her doubtfully. "That is maximum maximum security, lady. Ain't no one there but messed-up motherfuckers." Be kidding. Please.
Didn't make a difference. Dara didn't reply, only kept pointing.
"You sure? I was thinking more along the lines of the hummin' bird, or cat. I mean, men and women are kept together, sure, but there's only three in Wolf block. And two hundred men."
Again, she didn't reply. This was where she wanted to go. Didn't know why, only knew that she had to. It was an instinct so strong, she was afraid to go against it. Accountants, hot chicks, soap operas ... he hadn't thought anything about Wolf block.
"Think about this, lady," he tried again, the jovial announcer gone. He really wanted her to change her mind. "The guards only step in when the men fight. They ain't gonna risk their necks for a woman. Shit, for a sweet thing like you, they might even be worse than the inmates."
Now he was making her nervous. She couldn't tell from his mind whether he was just being dramatic, or really concerned for her safety. He wasn't thinking in words at the moment, just silently willing her to point to something else. Dara looked over the choices one more time. None of them drew her as that one did. She met his gaze again, made her own calm and steady, and nodded once.
"You'll be dead or worse within a week," he told her, enunciating each word with cruel precision. "Once you give a thumbprint, that's it. Ain't no such thing as transfers."
It would be a relief, she thought. Nodding to him, she held out her thumb. It would be an end. She would welcome it, even. Maybe she'd finally be able to sleep in the silence.
The clerk--Herbert Jones was his name--frowned at her. "You don't talk much, do you?" He scratched his head when she didn't answer and eyed the pamphlets. He was easy to read. Right now he was considering whether he should just decide for her. For a moment there, he wanted to play the hero.
Then he remembered she was a criminal. Her funeral, she heard him think. If she wants to go... He sighed capitulation, but it still didn't sit well with him. "Awright, Wolf block it is." He looked her over as he gathered the pamphlets back up. "Good luck."
And that was all, apparently. He didn't ask her name, or the time she would have to serve, didn't say anything else, in fact. He opened a small window in the net and took off her handcuffs, then pressed her thumb to a little lighted pad built into the desk and pointed at the cage door opposite the one she'd come through.
"Straight down to the end, turn left, take the items on the shelf on your right and continue on to the next desk." He went back to his work, then added, almost as an afterthought. "Oh, and don't worry about tryin' to escape. There ain't nowhere to go. Trust me."
With a nod, she went where he told her to, turning left at the end of the long corridor. There was only one shelf on her right and it disappeared back into the wall as soon as she took the items.
She came to the second desk where a different clerk was typing on his computer. He said without looking up, "Herb says to put you up in a safe cell." He snorted. "Yeah right. As if there is such a thing in Wolf block." This one all but broadcast his thoughts and Dara winced at his mind-tone. Son of a bitch's got me running errands now. And that guy is supposed to be safe? He snorted again. Hey, not my problem.
The thoughts came accompanied with background noise, like grumbling, that gave Dara a headache. This man had a lot of frustration built up inside his head and he was leaking it all around. Great, she thought. Another person who hates their job as much as me. How refreshing.
"You're holding spare clothing, soap, a comb, and the pills, yes?" When she didn't answer, he looked up to check for himself. "Good. Take the largest pill now. It will take care of every female problem from now until the end of your stay. No mood swings, menstrual cycles, PMS, cramps, no babies or any of that shit. The rest are painkillers, in case you happen to get a headache. There's a cup of water over there." He pointed to where the wall opened onto a compartment no larger than her head. A plastic cup of water stood there.
She hesitated, eyeing the pills doubtfully. She'd never thought about having children, but the idea that the choice might be taken completely out of her hands was not exactly welcome.
As if reading her mind, the clerk spoke again. "Effects are temporary. Will be rendered null and void with another pill if or when you get out of here."
That was something, at least.
"Drink up; I can't let ya in until you do."
She smiled at that. What would they do with her if she refused?
When the clerk shot her a cold glare, she opted for the safer course of complying.
The clerk nodded in satisfaction then pointed farther down the hall. "Straight on till the end, then to your left. Follow the noises. There is a guard at the end that will take you the rest of the way."
Dara followed the corridor, feeling colder with each step. She could hear her heart beating out a frantic staccato against her ribs. The sound drowned out any noise her shoes might have made on a regular floor. This one had been designed to muffle it. Her palms were sweating as she turned left again and continued along the down sloping path.
The noises the clerk had mentioned started off as nothing but a soft hum. It gave Dara pause and her step slowed. For the first time apprehension hit her. Not for her safety, but for her sanity. So many people ... so many voices. She might not be able to block them out. Her arms shook. She wanted to drop everything and cover her ears.
By the time she got to what looked like a solid wall, the hum was a roar of noise she couldn't drown out. The clothing she held nearly tumbled from her grasp and she began to shiver.
She would probably have been more comfortable in the Hamster block--if such a thing as "comfort" was even possible in prison--but her gut told her this was where she was supposed to be. Somehow, this felt safer than all the alternatives.
The solid wall suddenly disappeared, leaving her standing in front of a heavy metal gate. The guard stood on the other side, already grim-faced. He was tall and bulky, with a wide nose that had seen straighter days. His eyes were hard as he stared at her. He might have been handsome if it wasn't for that ugly thin line that his mouth formed. There was no kindness to him; his mind was uninterestedly blank.
When he let her through, he added a pillow and blanket to her load and then led her along a catwalk to the other side. There was no other way to approach the one exit, except by this catwalk. On the other end, however, it connected to a walkway on either side that ran along the perimeter, connecting the cells on different levels. There were nine levels--four below her and four above her--and none of their walkways came close enough to the exit to jump.
There would be no point in attempting an escape. Even if she did somehow manage to get to the exit and out, there were no doubt many more gates and metal nets to keep her underground. And if she reached the surface? What would she do--jump into the air and fly back to Earth?
She chanced a look up at her escort. There was no point in trying to talk to this guard. Though she couldn't see inside the cells to their inhabitants, the noise they were making both inside her mind and outside was deafening and anything she might try to say would be drowned out. That was assuming he might even be interested in what she had to say.
They stopped in front of an open cell. They were all open, but something had to hold the prisoners inside. The guard touched the wall next to the cell with one finger and something sparked in the open doorway like electricity.
A force field, then, Dara thought. Swallowing hard, she resolved to stay far away from it, just to be safe.
At her stalling, the guard nudged her inside and then resealed the cell.
Someone stirred in the shadows on the top bunk. Dara could tell it was a man, but she couldn't make out anything about him. "What the fuck is this?" he demanded in a rough, rumbling voice. Dara got the impression of an angry bear.
Oh, hell, she thought, I'm in a bear's lair. Bear's lair in Wolf block. And Dara, the tiny little mouse. It would be funny if she wasn't about to be dead or worse, as Herbert Jones had put it.
"Your new cellmate," the guard mocked him. "Behave yourself, Hunt."
"You have got to be shittin' me!" Hunt slid off the top bunk and stalked toward the guard, stopping just shy of the force field.
Dara shrank back slightly. He was the largest man she'd ever seen. More than a head taller than she, with unbelievably wide shoulders and arms that bulged with muscle. His hair was brown and fell to his shoulders, but it was pulled back from his face and neatly tied in a ponytail. She would have expected someone like this in ancient Scotland, tending a forge, not here--not now. He had hands that would dwarf a twelve-pound domestic cat. At the moment, they were balled into fists at his sides.
He was not happy with her presence. I'm not happy with it, either, Dara thought sullenly, but bit the inside of her cheek to keep from making any noise. Safer for her not to draw his wrath. She waited in pensive silence to see what would happen. Or rather, how long she could expect to survive here.
"You're saddling me with a female?" Her new roommate said the word as if it was dirty and Dara frowned. She couldn't read him.
The guard shrugged as if it didn't matter to him, but there was a smirk on his face he couldn't get under control and in his mind he was laughing at Hunt. "Hey, I don't make the rules. Herb said to stash her here, that's what I'm doing." Oh, man. This is going to be fun...
There. Proof positive that her telepathy hadn't disappeared. The guard's thoughts: clear as bells.
Nope, nothing. Not a single one. No thought, no emotion--although he made those obvious enough. How could this be? Did she care?
"Do I look like I give a shit about what Herb wants? Get her the hell away from me!"
Okay, so it might be useful to know what this one was thinking. It would make an attack a little more predictable.
The guard grinned maliciously. "The way I see it, Herb did you a favor." He winked with a mischievous eyebrow wag and Hunt tensed.
Dara half thought he would lunge for the guard and she wouldn't have been surprised if he was able to withstand the force field and tear the guard's head off with his bare hands.
Then the tension left his back. "That son of a bitch," he snarled.
With a hearty chuckle, the guard left, shouting back something Dara didn't catch.
As soon as he was gone, she missed the guard.
Hunt turned on her next.
His face was fierce, his nose the slightest bit crooked, as if it had been broken once, and he had intense eyes that flashed green fire, even in the darkened cell. His mouth was compressed into a thin line, his jaw was shadowed and, belatedly, she wondered if she had gotten a death sentence after all. The prospect didn't seem so welcome now.
He stalked up to her, crowding her against the wall. "Not one peep out of you," he warned low and quiet. "Do you understand?"
Cowering, wide eyed, Dara nodded, hugging her things to her chest as if they could shield her from him.
Tristan stared her down for a moment longer, making sure she understood, then hopped back up onto his bunk, determined to ignore her. Fucking hell.
Of all the fucked-up pranks Herb had pulled, this was the worst. Goddamn piece of shit. It wasn't enough that the prick spread rumors to the others for fun, to see them rip into each other; Herb delighted in making all the nut jobs in this place hate each other--and Tristan in particular. Which Tristan wouldn't normally give a shit about, except he couldn't kill any of them. And the paper pusher hated Tristan's guts; he'd been trying to get rid of him one way or another almost since he'd gotten here. Did everything he could to provoke him.
And now, with this little package of delights, Herb had the perfect solution. Because Tristan would sure as shit end up in a brawl over the female at some point, whether he wanted to or not. A body like that did not just go unnoticed in a glorified underground cave that housed a ratio of over two hundred men to three women.
Four now, he amended darkly. Jesus.
The only thing keeping this place from turning into a sick, grown-up version of Lord of the Flies was the illusion that the guards were in charge and the cells kept the men separated. But here, there was no Jack's camp and Ralph's camp, no voice of reason among them. There was only Simon, surrounded by all the others. Only one person who had the sense to realize something the others were in denial about: all of them were monsters. It was why Tristan was still alive. He lived day after day here with the knowledge that all it took was one tiny spark for the whole operation to fall into chaos.
But Simon hadn't fared so well in the book.
And now here was this tasty little thing, so completely out of place, who might just be the spark that would blow this place sky-high. Just what the hell could she have done to get in here? Tristan could read people like open books and nothing about this female said killer.
Don't get involved. Just keep to yourself, like always.
He closed his eyes, blocking her completely out of his mind. He didn't even want to acknowledge her presence. Didn't want to know she was really real.
And he definitely did not want to know her name.
But he still heard her soft sigh--of relief or resignation, probably both--and the light rustle of fabric as she settled her things in a small cabinet under her bed and arranged the pillow and blanket before she sat in the center of her bunk.
Tristan punched the mattress. This was going to be a shit storm waiting to happen.