Caged: Chapter Three

 

Chapter Three: Zayda

For a guy who woke up in prison with no memory, Mack was decidedly smarter than I expected.

He watched the swirl of movement in the mess as we choked down our meal packs, the parade from pack dispenser to table to the racks of trays, absorbing it all.

He didn’t ask a lot of stupid questions while we were eating, which was nice. In the two weeks I’d been here, I hadn’t really felt the need for eloquent table conversation. Plenty to think about to fill the silence.

“No recycler?” He asked as we stood up to join the line towards the racks.

I shook my head. “Takes too much energy. Cheaper to have inmates use the sterilizer system than waste power to break it down and rebuild it as needed.”

He frowned. “That seems inefficient. Don’t tell me your star’s gone dark.”

“Nope, plenty of juice floating around out there. But anything we catch gets used on the farm, or sent down to the station.”

“Farm.” He repeated the word so flatly, I nodded to assure him I wasn’t joking.

We inched our way towards the front of the line. The evening mess was winding down, and people would be heading out for the hour or so of recreation before curfew struck.

I was looking forward to just getting back to my bunk, but apparently that wasn’t on today’s list.

“Unless you’ve got special skills you suddenly remember, the farm is probably where you’ll end up finding a job. They-”

“Hey, sweet cheeks.” The slimy voice told me who’d sauntered up behind me.

I didn’t bother to turn around, and there wasn’t a way to keep him from moving. Larko, dark hair slicked back over his weasel face, leered before me. “Who’s your new friend?” he asked, but his tone was anything but polite.

I didn’t bother answering. There wasn’t an answer that would make him go away. The only thing to do with scum like Larko and his little clique was ignore and avoid.

He took a step towards me and suddenly a solid wall of chest stood between us, Mack’s bulk completely blocking Larko from my line of sight.

“Tell me more about this farm and its power needs. It sounds fascinating.”

I couldn’t help but grin, matching his own. “We’ve got the light of three suns, faint, but strong enough to power a good percentage of the station.”

I tried to keep my voice neutral, even though the sight of Mack shifting to continue blocking Larko had turned into a surreal, amusing dance.

We reached the front of the line, turned in our trays to the inmates who had taken this particular task as their own, and headed out.

Larko and his friends were nowhere to be seen, thankfully.

“Who was that idiot, anyway?”

I gritted my teeth. “Someone I used to know, when I was a kid back on one of the Cilurnum stations. I had a chance to change my life. He didn’t. Not surprised he ended up here.” And I really didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “Come on, I’ll show you where the men’s barracks are.”

“Keeping genders separated seems like a lot of effort for a system that seems to rely on self-policing,” Mack commented.

“Keeps down trouble. And, honestly, a lot of the women like it that way.”

He nodded. “What happens if you aren’t in by curfew?”

“The doors to the dormitories are sealed until the next cycle. If you’re with a large enough gang, it’s not a big deal. On your own, things might be a little dicey.”

He stood at the door, frowning. “If I’m in here, who’s going to see you safely back to the women’s dorm?”

I laid my hand on his shoulder. “That’s very sweet, but I’ll be fine.” He didn’t look convinced. “We’re nowhere near curfew. I’ll be heading right back to the dorm and there’re plenty of people around.”

He still didn’t look happy, but, honestly, I didn’t need him to take care of me. Didn’t want to have to try to figure out how much I could trust him. I showed him how to wave his cuff towards the sensor, then the door slid open and I stepped back.

“Good luck, I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

With obvious reluctance, he stepped through. The door immediately slid closed behind him, resetting for the next inmate.

Odd guy. I headed back to the other side of Minor, nodding to people I knew as I passed.

Most of them seemed to be here on fairly minor infractions. Nice enough folks, I was sure. I figured they’d do their time, get sent back home whenever their term was up, and only remember this place in odd moments, warn their kids to play it straight.

There were some bigger bruisers to be certain, like Jado and Malik, and treacherous thugs like Larko. For the good of the station, I hope the system kept them up here.

Mack, I couldn’t figure out what he could have done. Big enough, certainly strong enough, to have gotten into all sorts of trouble.

But he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. I remembered the wipe marks on the back of his neck and shuddered.

The only time I knew about people being wiped was after interrogation. Which meant my nice guy had to be mixed up in something pretty serious.

I headed back to the women’s side, avoiding the sound of couples taking advantage of the time before curfew.

There might be curfew to ensure a functioning workforce, but some people didn’t care.

I waved my arm at the scanner, looking forward to a quiet evening. Who knew, maybe tomorrow I’d look up Mack from the clinic’s comms, see if I could find a little more information about him.

Inmate files were sealed, but that didn’t mean everything on Minor was. And where there was one authorized way to open a system, there were always others. Just took a little looking.

The door scanner remained blank.

“Not again, this glitchy thing,” I muttered.

I waved my arm, slower this time and then pulled it back to examine the cuff better.

My band had gone black.

I tapped it gently, then with a little more force.

Black. I’d never seen, never even heard of anyone’s cuff going black.

“Door stuck again?” Ardelle’s giggle would’ve gotten on my nerves once upon a time, but she was a genuinely kind woman. I couldn’t imagine what had gotten her sent up here and, in all of our late-night chats, had never asked.

Her blonde hair was more than a little mussed, and the front seal on her jump suit askew.

“How is Jado doing,” I asked, evilly amused to see her blush.

But she surprised me. “I don’t want to talk about Jado, silly. I want all the details on that guy you were with earlier. Come on, get in so I can make you spill.”

“I can’t.” I showed her my cuff and her face fell.

She gnawed her lip. “When did that happen?” she asked worriedly.

“I don’t know. It was green at dinner. Must be some sort of malfunction.” We both stared at the band, willing it to go back to a nice safe green.

She threw her shoulders back. “Come on in with me.”

“You know that won’t work. We’d just both get shocked, and lose points.”

“You don’t know that. If yours is malfunctioning it shouldn’t shock you. Maybe it won’t even realize the two of us are entering at once.”

I shook my head, stepped back from her. “It’s not worth the risk. Besides,” I grinned, fighting for equilibrium, “how would I ever explain to Jado if I got his girlfriend hurt?”

“But what are you going to do?” she whispered.

“It’s all right. I’ve got a plan.”

She put her hands on her hips. “I’ve never even heard of a cuff malfunctioning and you’ve already got a plan for this?”

It was hard to explain that the vast majority of my previous life had required coming up with a plan for everything, no matter how small the chance. You never knew when one of those low probability contingencies could end up saving your hide.

All I said was, “You never know what can happen, right?”

I headed back into the corridor and waved as I turned the corner. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You better,” she called, but I heard the whoosh of the door seal behind her before I took off.

I headed back to a spot two levels down, near the edge of the maintenance zone. I’d noticed it and unconsciously filed it away while stumbling around the satellite my first day here, trying to get my feet under me.

For all my talk of always being prepared, I certainly hadn’t been ready for my cuff to go black.

***

I’d been on my way back from securing a hiding place for the datachip. Maybe I’d been smug, overconfident. I’d spent almost 6 months on this assignment, most of it deep undercover in the warren of neighborhoods of the Orem station. Each strand of data had been carefully pulled, then teased out of a nest of rumor and innuendo.

Rumors had been checked, deleted files recovered. I’d already sent a comm to my handler, Stanton Grene, that I was ready to be brought in.

The stakes were too high to leave the disc on me. Life on a station at the Fringe of the Empire was always dangerous. Even if no one ever knew who I was, it wasn’t impossible to fall off a glide between station levels or get hit too hard in a casual mugging.

I checked my chrono. Before long, I’d be back to the little apartment I’d made my own.

But I never made it.

When I woke up, I was in the clinic on Minor, Denon running a healing wand over the gash on my temple.

 

***

 

Lost in memory, I didn’t hear them until it was too late.

Larko and one of his meat-headed goons blocked the next intersection.

I glanced around. No one was around, either everyone had gone in for curfew early or, more likely, the word had gone out that if people didn’t want trouble they’d stay away.

“Looks like getting out of the lower levels didn’t do you any favors, Zayda” Larko mocked. “We ended up in the same place after all.” His smile spread across his face, but his eyes were flat and cold. “And what a shame. Somebody’s been a bad girl. No points at all?”

His friend laughed and I rolled to the balls of my feet, ready to fight or dodge.

Another of their gang came around the corner behind me, boxing me in. I glanced up, but the ceiling tiles in this part of the satellite were fused. Annoyingly good work.

Larko stepped forwards as I crouched into a fighting position. “Such a shame. No points, no handy friend.” He ran his eyes over me slowly, no doubt undressing me in what passed for his mind.

I might’ve been unsettled by it, but anger was more useful.

“Maybe you need some new friends? You should think about it.”

Another step, then another, intent clear in every motion

There wasn’t any point in wasting time or energy trying to talk my way of out this. No one would listen, they weren’t reasonable sorts of guys. I stretched my shoulders, flexed the muscles in my arms. And looked the group of them over, weighing, appraising.

No way out but through, Stanton often said.

“Bring it,” I muttered, and braced myself for the fight.

***

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