I'm standing at the junction of a number of walkways on level 37, wishing I'd never listened to Ravella. She was so insistent that I follow her instructions to the letter, not deviate from them in the least. So here I am, on a walkway junction in the Delta districts, waiting for someone to either mug me, or pick my pocket.
Then I hear Ravella's voice calling me. “Roja.”
“Ah, Ravella,” I say, carefully not saying now what the hell is all of this about? Ravella is shorter than I am (but then, I'm tall for a woman, able to look many men in the eye), a legal aide who works for one of the government agencies. I think we met at an office function – a party for someone's promotion. She struck me as being an interesting person: brave, resourceful, capable – all things I'm not. So I made friends with her, and it had been fine. Then a few days ago, she started acting strangely, and insisted I meet with her today.
She must have caught a glimpse of my annoyance, because she asks me, “Did you have any trouble?”
“No,” I say. That much is true. Nobody bothered me, nobody even noticed me.
“You followed the route I gave you?” Ravella asks, intent.
“Yes,” I tell her. “Can we get on with it, please?” I'm starting to get both impatient and nervous. It must be showing in my voice, because she leads me toward a passageway to one of the sublevels.
“Come on,” she says, gesturing for me to follow her. “And eating and drinking? You've managed to do without?”
“Well, since you were so insistent, I've done without food or drink for thirty-six hours,” I tell her.
“How do you feel?”
“Hungry and thirsty, of course.” Not to mention anxious, annoyed, irritable, and confused.
“Nothing else?” she asks.
I choose not to answer the question, countering with one of my own instead. “Ravella, is this some kind of practical joke?”
“It's no joke,” she tells me. We've entered a dark corridor, and a frisson of fear runs up my back. I concentrate on what Ravella is saying, hoping to be able to ignore what I'm feeling. “All our food and drink is treated with suppressants. Going without for a day and a half, they should be wearing off.”
“Not that again,” I say. This is one of Ravella's regular rants. She has revolutionary sympathies, which, I suppose, is part of the reason I find her fascinating as a friend. She speaks out against the Federation, provided we're in a private enough location – and some of the locations she deems private enough are frighteningly public. I first heard her mention the supposed suppressants in our food and drink in a booth in a drinking house on a Beta level.
Someone comes out of the darkness, and I startle briefly. It seems Ravella was expecting him, because she kisses him on the cheek. She turns to me, and makes the introduction. “Dal Richie, Roja Blake.”
“Been looking forward to meeting you,” Richie tells me as we shake hands. “I hear your family settled on the Outer Planets?”
The mention of my family triggers a surge of anxiety. I don't hear from them often enough, so every time someone mentions them, I'm terrified they're going to tell me something disastrous. “Brother and a sister on Ziegler Five,” I say.
“Do you hear from them much?” he asks.
My worry intensifies. “I get vistapes a couple of times a year,” I say. Nowhere near enough, and generally basic stuff – we're fine, the spouse is fine, the children are fine, hope you're fine. “Look, what is this? I was told you had some news about them.”
Richie shakes his head. “No, not me,” he says. “The man we're going to meet. He especially asked us to contact you so he could tell you in person. He was on Ziegler five a few months ago.”
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“Waiting for us,” Ravella says, “Outside.”
“Outside?” I say. Even the word is frightening. Part of me wants to run and tell the authorities, just to avoid having to face the notion of going Outside. A larger part, though, is worried about my family. If going Outside is the way to get the information this mysterious person has about them, then I suppose I'll have to.
“Don't worry,” Richie says, “it's not all that bad. The air's fresh, though it smells different.”
The air is the least of my worries, I think to myself. “You realise going Outside is a Category Four crime?” I point out.
Richie just looks at me, calmly. “We do know the law,” he says.
“Right,” Ravella chimes in. “So whatever you see tonight you keep silent about.”
I'm still not certain about the whole business. I don't want to get into trouble. Then Richie says, “Well? Are you coming?” in a tone of voice which implies he expects me to say no, and something from inside makes me say, “Let's get on with it.” I turn away for a moment, trying to overcome the sudden shiver that rises from within me, and when I look back, Richie's taken the cover off something, and he's fiddling around with some kind of kit on the floor.
“What are you doing?” I ask him. I've never seen anything like that before.
“Picking the lock,” he says. I turn away again. I don't want to know how it's done – I have a feeling just knowing the locks can be picked is at least a Category Two crime, and knowing how to do it... well, that would be even more severe. Maybe more severe than going Outside. This time, I see Ravella looking down the corridor we traversed earlier, as though she were looking for something.
“What is it?” I ask. She looks back at me, shaking her head.
“Nothing,” she says.
Richie is wittering on behind us about circuit integrators, but I'm trying my hardest not to listen. I'm in enough trouble – why make it more? If I just go Outside and come back inside the dome as fast as I can, maybe I won't be missed. Maybe nobody will notice. Even as I think the thought, part of me is saying how absurd it is to even hope for such a thing.
There's a creaking as the door opens, and Richie looks up at me. “Ready?” he asks.
Just as I'm about to go through the door, Ravella puts her hand on my arm. “Look,” she says to me, “you report anything to the authorities, you'll find yourself implicated more deeply than you imagine.”
I look at her as coolly as I can, trying to ignore that she's articulated one of my greatest fears about this whole situation. I should never have listened to her in the first place.
On the other side of the doorway, there's a maze of ladders and stairs. Richie leads us up them without hesitation, and out onto an area which is covered with a black substance I don't recognise. All the smells are unfamiliar, and there's strange noises which make me nervous. Richie appears to know where he's going, and he gestures for me to follow him. Soon we're off the hard surface, and onto rough, uneven ground. I give thanks I was working in the archives today – had I been dressed normally, I'd probably have twisted one of my ankles within five minutes. But working in the archives requires me to climb up and down ladders, open and close drawers, and to lift large amounts of documentation, so instead of my normal tunic, skirt and boots, I'm wearing trousers and plimsolls with my tunic.
After the first ten minutes of walking, I realise another reason to be thankful. Had I been wearing my boots, I'd have blisters by now – the boots are still new, and aren't suited to extended walking. At least the plimsolls are much more comfortable.
We walk for what seems like forever, although it was probably only a couple of miles – a distance I can easily manage in the domes. But then, in the domes I know my way, I can recognise all the noises, and I don't have strange smells intruding on my experience. In the domes I'm safe. Outside, like this, I'm not safe, and I know it. I don't realise how jumpy I've been until Ravella reaches forward and puts her hand on my arm.
“Don't worry,” she tells me. “There's nothing to hurt us out here.”
I look at her, wondering how she knows. Surely she hasn't been Outside before? The thought keeps me puzzling for a while, until Richie stops up ahead. I can hear a strange sound, one I can't recognise, and it isn't until I reach where Richie is that I can see what's making it. There's water running over the ground – loose, not in pipes. The sight is unexpected. I notice both Richie and Ravella are scooping up mouthfuls in their hands.
Ravella sees me watching her, and says “Try some.” I must be looking at her in surprise, because she explains. “It's natural water. The stuff we get's been recycled a thousand times, and it's dosed with suppressants.”
Uncertain, I stoop down, and dip my hand into the water. It's colder than the supply in the domes, and the current isn't pushing as hard against my hand as even a water bubbler would. I scoop up a mouthful, and taste it, then spit it out. It tastes all wrong – cold enough to hurt my teeth, and there's a subtle sort of something – different – about it. I can't quantify what it is – just that it doesn't taste like water should. It doesn't taste right.
I notice Ravella looking at me. “Improves the flavour, if nothing else,” I say. She looks subtly disappointed.
“Doesn't it bother you that you spend your life in a state of drug-induced tranquillity?” she says, taking off her boots.
I notice Richie is on the other side of the water. “We've got to go across that?” I ask. The very idea is uncomfortable. Particularly the thought of having to put my bare feet into this very cold water.
“Yeah,” Ravella says, removing her other boot.
“Why should the Administration try to drug us?” I ask her, trying to get her to think sensibly about the matter. She's had this bee in her bonnet about suppressants for as long as I've known her, and I'm starting to get fed up with it.
“To keep control,” she says, leading the way into the water. I notice her wince as she takes her first steps in, which doesn't do anything for my confidence. I roll up my trousers, before following her. “They've been stepping up the suppressants because the number of dissidents is growing. They've seen what's happening and they want to stop it.”
“Stop what?” I'm confused. What is she talking about? There's been no mention of dissidents in the newsvids, and surely the Administration would tell us if there was anything to be worried about.
“Don't you know?” she asks. She stops dead, in the middle of the water. I continue on past her. “Don't you remember anything about the treatments they gave you?”
Treatments? “I've had no treatments,” I tell her. The denial is reflexive – any indication of psychological illness is looked on askance. Nobody needs to know about my little... episode.
She sighs. “I thought there'd be something left,” she says, almost to herself, “some trace of memory.”
“What about my memory?” I ask, perplexed. She's made comments about my memory before – comments where she's referred to things I was obviously supposed to remember, but had no earthly recollection of. It's one of my sore spots, to be honest, because it's the reason why I'm working a clerical job, rather than what I used to do. I had a breakdown a few years ago, caused by the stress of my previous occupation, whatever that was. Or at least, that's what they tell me. I can't remember any further back than about three years back – there's this big blank in my history. I know I have a family, and I know their names, but I can't remember any of my old friends, or my former profession. I can barely remember my parents – I send vistapes to my brother and sister, asking them to fill in the blanks for me, but they never do. Maybe the therapists have told them not to.
Ravella looks ahead, and points. “There's the signal,” she says, both changing and closing the subject. “Put your shoes back on.”
The next fifteen minutes are spent pushing through tangles of bushes. Ravella grabs some fruit off one of them, and offers me some, but I refuse. I've no idea what it is, what the effect would be. Better to leave it alone.
Eventually, we come to a set of ruined tunnels. Ravella leads me into them, using a torch to light the way. We come to a large metal door, which Richie opens to admit us. I'm astounded to see people inside the tunnels, and I find myself peering at their clothing, trying to make some sense of their grade or their job. But none of it makes sense at all – there's no structure to their use of colour, of decoration – no structure at all.
“They're Outsiders,” I say, as the meaning of their chaotic clothing sinks in.
“Quite a few of them are working for our cause now,” Richie says, as though it's something quite natural.
“It's illegal to have contact with anyone who lives Outside the city,” I say, trying to get him to understand what's wrong about this. For someone who says he knows the law, he seems quite unconcerned about breaking it. I find my nervousness increasing. I want nothing more than to be back inside the dome, back in my accommodation, and knowing nothing about this at all.
“Right,” Richie says. “But then, this whole meeting is illegal.”
I've had enough. “I'm leaving,” I say, turning toward the door. “I want nothing to do with this. You told me I was going to meet a man who could tell me some news about my family.”
“Hold on, Blake,” Richie says. “You've got to hear Foster.”
By now I'm furious. “I don't want to hear Foster,” I say. “I should report everything I've seen to the Administration.” The thought makes me shake – I don't want to do it. I honestly like Ravella as a friend, but she seems to have entirely the wrong idea about me. I'm not brave like she is.
“You can't do that,” Ravella says.
I look at her, trying to make her understand. “Why not?”
“We've left documents in the city with your signature on them,” Richie says. I gasp. They can't have. They wouldn't have. “Forged, of course,” he continues, “but convincing enough to implicate you in everything we've been doing.”
“Don't have any doubts,” Ravella says. “One word in the wrong place can make you look as guilty as any of us.”
“And looking guilty is all it takes,” Richie finishes.
I'm standing there with my mouth hanging open, completely gobsmacked by what they're saying, and trying to decide whether it's Ravella and Richie who are insane, or whether I've had another breakdown, when a distinguished-looking man with silver hair comes over to the three of us.
“Roja,” he says, smiling enthusiastically and enveloping me in a brief hug, “Good to see you. It's been a long time.”
I look at him blankly. I have no idea who this man is, or where he came from, or where he fits into my life. And yet... there's something familiar about him. I don't know what, but part of me is trying to say that I know this man.
Meanwhile, he's looking at me as though I have gone mad. “Bran Foster,” he says. I must still look blank, because he shakes his head, and says, “Oh, stupid of me. You don't remember. You had the treatment.”
“Look, what's going on?” I demand. “I've had no treatments, my memory is fine.” Or at least, I hope that's the case. It's what my therapist told me to say when I was uncertain. “Now what is going on?”
“I know, I know,” Foster says. I find myself annoyed, because he clearly doesn't know, or he wouldn't be saying he did. “It's difficult for you.”
I bite back a comment about that being a somewhat understated way of describing the situation, as he continues speaking. “It's also difficult for those of us who knew you before. The important thing is, you're here.”
Knew me before what? Before my breakdown? Behind me I can hear someone talking to Ravella and Richie. It appears to be someone this Foster knows, because he looks past me. “Dev Tarrant's here,” he says, then calls the other man over. “Dev! You remember Roja Blake.”
I find myself looking at a rather weaselly little man with lank blond hair and a pronounced limp. He takes my hand in a grip rather reminiscent of the stream outside the tunnels – cold, damp and clammy. “Oh yes,” he says. “We met before.”
We did? I had no idea my taste in acquaintances was so poor. His voice is possibly his most attractive feature, and even then, it isn't something I'd discuss with my sister as a salient feature.
“I'm trying to persuade Roja to rejoin us,” Foster says.
I can feel myself stiffening up. I don't want to get involved with any of this. I'm in enough trouble already.
“Yes,” Tarrant says. He looks me up and down, as though appraising my suitability as a bed partner. If getting involved with... whatever this is... means I'd have to bed someone like him, they've just found a very effective means of keeping me out. Something of what I'm thinking must show in my face, because he moves away, back toward Ravella and Richie, leaving me with Foster.
Foster steers me away from the main bulk of people in the room, something I find I appreciate. “Now,” he says, “I want you to listen to what I have to tell you. After that, you can do whatever you like.”
“All right,” I say. “Now, what do you know about my family?” I may as well get this sorted out as soon as possible. Then I can get away from this place, get away from these people, and get away from this feeling that I should be able to remember whatever it is they want me to know. I can forget this night ever happened.
“There are other things you should know first,” Foster says.
I have no patience left. I'm far too tense, and I need to get out of this stressful situation, or I might have another breakdown. I can hear the advice of my therapist running through my head: if you're in a stressful situation, get out of it as soon as possible, otherwise your anxiety attacks will just get worse. “Forget the other things,” I tell him. “What do you know?”
Foster turns to look at me, and for a moment, I meet his eyes. They're filled with sorrow. “They're dead,” he says. “Your brother and sister are both dead.” The news hits me like a charge from a gun, knocking the breath out of me. “I'm sorry,” Foster says. “I didn't intend you to hear it like that.” Strangely enough, I believe it. He's a compassionate man. (How do I know that?). “They were executed four years ago just after your trial.”
My what? “Executed?” It can't be true. “That's not true,” I say. “I hear from them regularly. I had a vistape a month ago.” I cling to the hope that he's lying, even though a part of me is insisting that Foster never lied to me.
“Those tapes are fakes,” he says. “Part of the treatment to keep your memory suppressed.” I must have gasped, because he nods gently before continuing. “Now, this isn't going to be easy for you, but I'm going to have to tell you things about yourself of which you have no memory. Will you hear me out?”
I look at him. He's waiting for my answer. If I say no, he'll let me go, and I'll walk out of here and back to the dome, and nobody involved with this whole mess will ever bother me again. Somehow I know this is true, and I know it will happen. If it does happen, I'll go back to the dome, and I'll always have the doubt there about what's true. Is it what my therapists have been telling me for the last four years; all those messages about how I've had a nasty shock, and I'm frail and weak, and mustn't strain myself? Is my family alive or dead? If I hear Bran Foster out, if I can make sense of what he's saying, test it against the reality I know, maybe I'll know the truth. I nod, and say, “Go on.”
Foster nods in return. “Four years ago,” he begins, “there was a great deal of discontent with the Administration. There were many activist groups, but the only one that really meant anything was led by Roja Blake.”
The information makes me blink. Me? An activist against the Administration? But I've always been loyal, part of me protests. Oh really? Another part answers. So you didn't agree with Ravella's comments about taxation and rations? You didn't deliberately seek her out for that little frisson of rebelliousness?
“You and I worked together,” Foster continues. “We were outlawed and hunted, but we had supporters and we were making progress.” His face darkens a little – these memories obviously aren't easy for him either. “Then someone betrayed us – I still don't know who. You were captured. So were most of our followers.”
There are little flickers of memory against the edge of my mind – half-formed images of things I didn't know I could remember, things I'm not sure I want to remember. A confined space, dark, heavy with the feeling of people. Fear. Loud noises, bright flashes. I'm running, but I don't know where or why.
“They could have killed you, but that would have given the cause a martyr.”
Bright flashes. Lots of bright flashes. Lots of noise. Voices.
“So instead, they put you into intensive therapy.” Foster's voice blends into the half-remembered sound of the voice of my dreams, the one that keeps telling me I have reason to be afraid. I shudder. The images are picking up pace, and it frightens me – where are they coming from?
I'm being knocked to the ground, curling myself into a ball. A finger on a trigger, a scream. Is it mine? It sounds wrong. Pain, but is it of the body or the mind... or both?
“They erased areas of your mind, they implanted new ideas. They literally pulled your mind to pieces and rebuilt it.”
A machine. Flashing lights, buzzing noises. Noises, strange noises, almost words... if I concentrate they will become words. But the words are wrong, or is it that I am wrong? I cannot recall, and this terrifies me. The words change, and the terror intensifies.
“And when they'd finished, they put you up and you confessed. You said you'd been misguided. You appealed to everyone to support the Administration and hound out the traitors.”
Pain. More pain. Emotional pain this time. I'm truly guilty, truly sorry, and there are words spilling out of my mouth, in time with the tears spilling from my eyes. I'm looking down at my hands, and one of my fingers looks wrong. It should be wrong. I deserve it to be wrong. They should all be wrong.
I can feel the tears starting in my eyes. That one little thing – the finger – explains so much. I've spent most of the last few years wondering why my hands ached so much when I worked in the archives. Why I couldn't go out into the parkspace some days, because the pain in the joints got so bad, and why I had nightmares when my hands hurt. Now I know. All my fingers were broken.
“Oh, they did a good job on you,” Foster says, looking over at me. “You were very convincing. And then they took you back, and erased even that.”
“What happened to the others?” I ask. I'm amazed my voice is so steady.
“In their benevolence, the Federation allowed them to emigrate to the Outer Worlds,” Foster tells me. Yes, he always was good at that sort of quiet sarcasm – quiet enough to pass unnoticed by the imperceptive. “Like your family, they were executed on arrival.”
I nod. “Why are you telling me this now?” I ask. It seems a safer question than “How dare you tell me this?” or “Why couldn't you leave me ignorant?” or even “Do you hate me that much?”.
“Because we're preparing to move again,” Foster says, “and if it were known that you were with us, we'd get more support.” He looks at me, his eyes kind. As though he knows what he's just said, and what I've begun to remember. “How do you feel? Will you help us again?”
“I don't know,” I say. It's the truth – I find I do not know a word to put around what I feel at the moment. This combination of regret, anger, terrible guilt, self-loathing, and hatred of the quiet man standing by me who has just opened up areas inside me I hadn't even known were there. A Pandora's box of memory has been opened, and like that box, each thing escaping is more terrible than the last. I want to hurt him, make him feel the way I do, so my next statement is childish, angry, hurt. “I'm not even sure that I believe you.”
“It's all true,” he says calmly.
I look at him, not sure whether I want to believe him or not. “I have to think,” I say, not even certain what I need to think about, just stalling for time. Foster nods, patting me on the shoulder.
“Of course,” he says. “We'll talk after the meeting.”
Oh. Yes. Their meeting. Their meeting about a dissident movement I'm not even sure I want to know about. I don't want to hear it, I decide. Not now. I walk away, heading into the cool darkness of the tunnels. The voices of the people involved in the meeting echo against the hardness of the walls, and the babble is too loud for me to think. I move on, walking aimlessly until the noise drops to a quiet murmur, and I can hear the thoughts moving in my head again.
The first question, of course, is whether to believe Bran Foster. On the one hand, his story is preposterous, and goes against everything I know about myself. On the other hand, there's that huge gap in my memories – a gap which starts very abruptly four years ago, with me waking up in a convalescent ward, and being told I'd had a bit of a breakdown. I was told the amnesia was traumatic, and that I might get the memories back if I waited long enough, and didn't fuss. The therapists never said how long was “long enough”, and I can remember spending the better part of six months in that convalescent home, until they decided that what was lost was lost, and no use worrying about it.
I can still remember some of the looks people gave me, some of the more inexplicable comments I got from co-workers on the Aquitar project, before they moved me off the team and into the clerical job I'd been working ever since. Having heard Foster's story, the muttered “turncoat” comments in the lunchroom made much more sense. I find my hands are shaking, and I jam them into my pockets.
There's a noise from further up the corridor – further ahead of me. I stop, listening harder. Boots on the floor. Hard boots. Another scrap of memory is jarred loose, and I find a name to go with the sound – patrol. Patrol. The word goes into the muddle in my head, and jolts up against the knowledge that I am Outside the dome (Category Four crime), within hearing range of an illegal political meeting (Category... I don't know), and if Foster is right, I have a prior record of being involved in such things. What Ravella and Richie said earlier about me being in more trouble than I knew, and looking as guilty as the rest of them suddenly makes much more sense than it did before. I have to hide.
I move around a corner, thankful once more for my plimsolls rather than the harder-soled boots I normally wear. At the end of the corridor, I can see another patrol forming up. The tickle of familiarity in the back of my mind that indicates another memory is being teased loose (I'm starting to become afraid of the feeling) makes me even more apprehensive, and the terror makes me timid. I spot an old ventilation shaft, and dive into it as soon as there's nobody watching.
Pressing myself against the wall, I find myself hoping desperately that I won't be found. I don't want to be found. I want to be back home, in my own bed, in my own accommodation, inside the dome, with nothing to bother me, nobody trying to make me remember horrible things, and nobody asking me to be someone special for them. If I'm found, part of me knows I'll never see those things again. I hear footsteps approaching – oh no. One of the patrolmen is bored, and he's looking about. If he gets much closer, he'll be able to see me through the slats of the shaft. Oh please, don't let him see me.
A crackle on the comm unit interrupts the scene, just as he's almost within range, and he heads back to his patrol. They move out, and I can breathe freely again. I slump to the floor, feeling myself shaking and terrified. The thought runs through my head: I don't think I'm cut out for the revolutionary lifestyle.
The noise of the meeting stops. There's a pause of a few seconds. Then the screaming starts.
I'm in a cellar, talking to people about the raid we're going to perform on the detention centre. We've watched the entrances and exits of our meeting place for twenty-four hours, making sure nobody has gone in or out. We're safe enough in here – everyone in this group has been hand-picked, and they're all dedicated. I run the roll call, checking that nobody has gone missing, but it's a formality more than anything – everyone's there. We run through the plan, checking that everyone knows what they have to do, and checking we have all the equipment we need. We're just about to leave when a voice from the far end of the cellar speaks up.
“You're all under arrest,” it says, and a group of Federation troopers step out from the shadows, guns drawn.
I turn to face the owner of the voice, an officer with cold blue eyes, and a strongly-drawn face.
“We surrender” I say, raising my hands. “We surrender and claim our rights as citizens.”
The officer just smirks.
“Kill them,” he says, and the firing starts.
I drop to the floor, rolling into the legs of one of the troopers, tangling his feet and knocking him to the ground. There's screaming around me, more screaming than I've ever heard before. I grab the trooper's gun, and aim at the officer.
“Call your men off,” I yell. “Call them off or I shoot.” I'm bluffing; I know I'm bluffing. I've never shot anyone else in cold blood before, and I don't intend to start now. “What you're doing isn't legal. Call them off!”
He just looks at me, those eyes filled with scorn and contempt, and calls my bluff. So I call his. My finger tightens on the trigger, and I manage to loose two charges straight at him, at point-blank range, before there's a sudden pain and blackness in the back of my head.
I'm back in the here and now, but I can still hear the screaming. But it's different screaming now, the panicked shrieks of people who don't know what's happening, who aren't able to escape. I'm shaking. I'm shaking because I know what's happening, and there's nothing I can do to stop it, and there's no way I can help them. Instead, I huddle down in a corner of the ventilation shaft, in the dust and the muck and the rubbish, and hug my knees to my chest, rocking backward and forward as the tears roll down my face, trying to persuade myself that this isn't my fault.
I don't think I'll ever succeed.
Slowly the screaming dies down, and I hear noises which are probably the patrol moving away. It's hard to hear them, over the last sobs and groans which are all that remains of the people in the meeting (none of them got away – I know this somehow, and I don't want to explore how). So I remain in my hiding place, trembling and weeping, until the silence around me is thick and heavy with my guilt. Then I stumble out, and try to remember the turnings I took in the maze of tunnels.
I get lost about three times before I reach the area where the meeting had been held. I should have stayed lost, I find myself thinking, rather than seeing this. But I force myself to look. Force myself to note the twisted corpses, left lying where they fell. Force myself to see the face of Bran Foster, a friend I can barely remember, and who I'll never get the chance to meet again. Force myself to see Ravella and Richie, together in death, both looking surprised, and so very young. She was two years younger than I, I remember, and the thought surprises me. She looks so much younger – barely more than a child.
I reach out to start closing the eyes of the dead, stop those dead gazes looking at me blankly, but then I stop myself. This is evidence. If I tamper with it, I will be implicated in their deaths.
The thought steadies me, stops a trembling I was hardly aware of. I force myself to count the bodies, to get a number I can give to the Administration to force them to acknowledge the slaughter which has taken place. There's twenty. I don't recognise all of them, only Ravella, Richie, and Foster. I take a deep breath, and make my way to the door. Someone has to speak for them. Someone has to carry the truth of what happened back to the dome, and make people see the injustice which has happened. Looks like I'm that someone.
For the first time in four years, I realise I'm not worried, or afraid. There's too much else going on – I can't afford the time for those emotions. I put one foot before the next, and start walking.
It's harder than I thought to remember which way I followed when we came to the tunnels. In the end, I just orient myself to face toward the bulk of the dome, and start walking in that direction. I cross the stream again, but the place doesn't stand out in my memory, and the crossing is harder this time; the water is deeper, wider. Another memory comes back – tactile this time, water surrounding me, cushioning me, holding me, and I'm moving through it without fear. Swimming – the word comes to me out of nowhere. Another thing which was taken from me. I push on.
When I get to the dome, I realise I'm at the wrong area. I choose a direction to walk in, and thankfully pick the correct one, because I'm soon in an area I recognise – the dark surface (tarmac – another word stolen) I crossed earlier. Wearily, I make my way across it to the hatch where the ladder stands, and make my way into the tunnels beneath the dome. The door is still open, and I struggle through it, almost relieved to be back in somewhere I can understand.
It's a cruel irony, I suppose, that I escaped the attention of the troopers in the tunnels Outside, only to find myself confronted by an entire patrol now.
They put me in a holding cell, and I tell my story to at least three different people. Then they leave me alone, and I try to sleep. Try being the appropriate word – I can't. If I sleep, I have nightmares, where recent and distant memory tangle themselves together, and where the faces of the dead mock me and taunt me, spitting out their hatred. After the third time I wake screaming, the guards call in a doctor.
The doctor, another silver-haired, distinguished type (I try to block the image of Bran Foster out of my mind; weeping will not help him) listens to what I have to say, and offers his diagnosis. “You're obviously suffering from a severe emotional disturbance,” he tells me. I repress the comment which springs to mind. Sarcasm, while it would certainly ease some of the anger I'm feeling, will not help the situation in the least. “We must try to unravel this fantasy.”
Fantasy? “It is not a fantasy,” I tell him, putting every ounce of conviction and outrage I can summon into my voice.
“Of course it isn't,” he says, soothing.
“Do you believe me?” I ask. Nobody else has, after all. If this doctor believes me, then I've a chance of convincing others.
“To you it isn't a fantasy,” he says. Oh, wonderful. So I'm psychotic along with being hysterical and insane, is that correct? Brilliant.
“Get out!” I snap. “Leave me alone!” He isn't on my side, I see that now. I'm better off clinging to what I know.
“Reality is a dangerous concept,” he continues, as though I haven't spoken. “Each one of us interprets it in a slightly different way. Every sense impression is filtered by the brain and altered, sometimes just a little, sometimes completely, to fit our individual model of what the world is about.” Oh, I see. So I've hallucinated all of what happened, just as I'm hallucinating my previous memories. It doesn't match his model, so I must be insane. I start repeating to myself, in my head, that I am not insane. “If that model should be challenged...” the doctor continues.
“I am not insane; I am not insane.” I realise I've spoken aloud. I must be more strung out than I thought.
“No!” the doctor says, forcefully. “You must put that thought completely out of your mind. You've had a shock.”
I find myself nodding. In that much, he is right. “Yes,” I say, thankful that there's at least one thing we can agree on.
“We must work together to uncover what that shock was,” he says. “I'm going to prescribe a mild sedative -”
“No drugs!” I say, without thinking. Just the thought of sedatives, suppressants, being pushed back into – what was Ravella's term? - drug-induced tranquillity, is enough to send me back into the worst of my fears. I need to remember more, I realise. I need to remember who I was.
“ - a mild sedative,” the doctor repeats, “to help you sleep. You must rest.”
Oh good. Another thing we agree on. How nice. I'd like to rest. But I don't want to rest as a drugged zombi. “No. No drugs!” I tell him.
He seems to realise I mean it. “All right,” he says, still in that voice which implies he's soothing a dangerous child, “no drugs. Now, try not to think any more. Don't worry, we'll get it sorted out.”
I hardly hear him leave. I'm too busy trying frantically to rack my memory for more information about the Roja Blake I was five years ago. But nothing comes out. I can't remember. I can't remember.
I suppose I must have slept, eventually, out of sheer exhaustion. They offer me food and drink, but even though I haven't eaten in two days, I find I don't want to touch it. Between the memory of the carnage in the tunnels and an unarticulated determination to make it up to Ravella for not believing her about the suppressants while she was still alive, my appetite has deserted me. I hardly notice the guards when they put the food into my cell, and I don't notice them when they take it away again, untouched.
Trickles of memory come back – not the floods I was faced with last night, but little things. Things like a memory of the selective opacity of the walls of my cell – I can't see out, most of the time, but the guards can always see in. The knowledge comes to me with a feeling of being in a small group, in an office somewhere. I don't know where or when, but I have a sense memory of the smell of coffee. Nothing much happens in my cell for another day or two. I sleep, I doze, I excrete, feeling the shame of knowing the guards are watching me. I sit on the shelf they allow as the only furniture in the cell, my hands on my temples, trying to make myself some small reservoir of privacy in this panopticon (where did the word come from?). Above all, I remember – snatches, phrases, moments, disjointed and out of sequence, muddled and out of place. When the front wall of my cell becomes transparent to me, I hardly notice.
“Tel Varon, Justice Department,” comes the voice. I look up to see who it's attached to. He's young (well, of course he'd be young, says a part of me, you hardly expect them to provide you with someone experienced) and wearing the dark burgundy red tunic of a Justice Department advocate. The colour reminds me of Ravella, and the paler shade of it she wore. “I've been assigned to defend you.”
“I don't need a defence,” I say. I've decided that much. I certainly don't need the defence this young man would provide – he's even younger than I am. If what I was told by Foster was true, the result is a foregone conclusion anyway. “I'm going to plead guilty.”
“Come now,” he says, managing to sound both startled and unsurprised at the same time. “The evidence against you is strong -”
I interrupt. I don't want to hear his platitudes. “I just want to make a statement in open court. I want those responsible for the massacre brought to trial.” Ah, I've shocked him. Good.
“I'm sorry?” he says. He looks honestly bewildered.
“There can be no justification for deliberate murder,” I tell him, seeing the corpses before me as I do so. I'm not even sure which group of corpses I'm seeing – those of Foster's meeting, or the ones that come to me in memory and dreams. I find I don't care which – I just want justice to be done.
Then my advocate checks the charge sheet. “There's nothing in the charges about murder,” he tells me. “There are a number of other counts: assault on a minor; attempting to corrupt minors; moral deviation -”
“Let me see that!” I demand. The thought occurs for a second that something has gone wrong, and they've mixed up my charge list with someone else's. But as I read down the list of charges (they're accusing me of sexually assaulting three young boys) the cynical part of my mind which has been awoken by the events of the past few days adds things together to reach a disturbing conclusion. I'm being put out of the way. “All involving children! None of this is true!” I protest.
“That's why your pleading guilty surprises me,” Varon says.
“Well, yes,” I say, “but not to this. Not to these charges.” I was intending to plead guilty to any charges of being Outside, of being present at a forbidden political meeting, to standing against the Administration. Which is why they haven't brought any, says that cynical part of my mind.
“They are they only ones that have been brought against you,” Varon says. “And I must tell you, frankly the evidence against you is very damaging.”
“Well, if there is any evidence, it's been faked,” I say. I know I haven't been seducing young children. I've been asexual for the past four years – not interested in sex at all. Oh, I've had the occasional lover (all older than I), but any sex happened at their insistence, and all I had to do was be present and make the right noises.
Varon looks at me, and there's a combination of compassion (where did that come from?) and sorrow in his eyes. “I've had the opportunity of talking to the children – that is, the prosecution witnesses – and they do seem very certain of their facts.”
Oh. That sorrow is for the children, not for me. So is the compassion. He's already made up his mind. I'm guilty as charged. I find myself nodding, and the cynical corner of my mind speaks for me. “Oh yes, yes. Their briefing would have been perfect.”
This earns me a look which might be anger. But he continues on, as though I hadn't said anything so crass. “If I may, I'd like to outline how we should conduct your case.”
“They set me up beautifully,” I say, returning the favour.
“There is a possible approach if we can cite your record,” Varon says, ignoring my comment once more. “Your breakdown after your involvement with those illegal political groups; the remorse you felt; the guilt you carried has placed you under an enormous strain. We can submit that these assaults, these aberrations, were carried out whilst you were mentally disturbed.”
I'm not sure whether to cry or to scream with fury. On the one hand, he's just confirmed everything Bran Foster said, which probably wasn't part of his briefing. On the other, I'm faced with a choice between defending myself against accusations of child molestation or mental illness, both of which the Administration has ample evidence for – even if some of it is faked. When did you stop beating your partner? I interrupt him, as I lay back on the shelf in my cell. “I will offer no defence, but I will plead not guilty.”
Varon looks less concerned, but still attempts to do his job. “These are grave charges,” he says. “Without extenuating circumstances, you might face deportation. A mental institution would be better than spending the rest of your life on Cygnus Alpha.”
Actually, I think, no it wouldn't. At least on Cygnus Alpha I'd have a chance to be my own person. I look across at Varon. “I will offer no defence, right?” I tell him.
He slumps a little. “Won't you reconsider?” he asks. This time I can see some compassion in his eyes for me, and it makes me give a longer answer.
“Even if you could prove me innocent,” I say, “the charges have been made.” All of a sudden I feel an absolute fury at the situation I have found myself in. Three days ago, I was just a clerical worker in an archive section for the science bureaus of the Administration. I had nothing more to worry about than whether I was going to get from one end of the day to the other without blisters from my new shoes. Now I'm in a cell, faced with either exile on a prison planet, or becoming another exhibit in a mental hospital. “I've got to hand it to them,” I say, the bitterness and anger in my voice surprising even myself, as I snarl up at the camera which monitors my cell. “You've done a brilliant job!”
Whatever else can be said about the Federation's Justice system (and we all know there's a lot else that can be said) it can never be described as slow. That night, I'm taken from my cell to another cell, this one in the holding area of the Arbiter's court. I'll face the Arbiter and the justice machine the following morning. Just one more night of thinking (and trying not to dream) before then. When Varon shows up to bid me “good morning” before my trial, I've been able to get my thoughts in order.
“I've had a chance to think things through,” I tell him. “It's vital that I have the opportunity to make that statement to the open court.”
“That's up to the Arbiter,” Varon says. “It's not usual.” His tone is dismissive, as though I'm being difficult.
I exert all the force of personality I have at my disposal. “There's no way you can prove my innocence, is there?” I ask him.
“You've given me no chance to try,” he retorts, indignant. I get the feeling he's insulted by my lack of confidence in his skill, which is fair enough, but I have to get him to acknowledge the reality.
“Is there?” I ask him again, looking directly at him. He meets my gaze, and I see his realisation as he slumps slightly, and shakes his head.
“It is doubtful,” he says.
“I am innocent,” I tell him, putting as much conviction as possible into my voice. I have to convince him of the truth.
“I've spoken to the children,” he says. “Their statements were all verified by lie detector, and that puts them beyond dispute.”
No it bloody doesn't, I think. I take him by the elbow, and lead him back into my cell, sitting down on the bench. He takes a seat next to me. I speak fast, and quietly. “The Administration has gone to tremendous trouble. They've even put themselves at risk,” I say, trying to get him to think for himself, to question what he's being told. “There must be a number of people involved who know the truth. Why would they take that chance?”
“There's no possible reason that I can think of,” he says.
Damn, he's still thinking about those bloody stories from the children. “Look, I know you've heard the evidence,” I say, “but, just for the moment, assume that I am innocent.”
Looks as though grudging acceptance is all I'm going to get. But it's better than none at all. I continue on with my argument. “Now, at first I thought they wanted to silence me because I was the witness to the murder of twenty people – the only witness.”
“If they're as ruthless as you suggest, then why didn't they simply eliminate you?” Varon asks.
Good question, I think. Good lad. “Because I was something of a political figure,” I say, “or so you told me.” I concentrate on putting as much disbelief into this last comment as possible. I want him to convince himself while he thinks he's convincing me.
“It's true,” he says. “You had a considerable following, but then you publicly denounced your whole movement and pledged support to the Administration.” Good boy. That's the official history, after all. “It's suggested that there are still people who secretly believe you were coerced into that statement -”
“Exactly!” I stop him from completing his sentence. “And my death would merely reinforce that belief.” I can see the penny starting to drop. I wonder whether he would have proved useful had he known this yesterday – but I've only been able to work it out myself over the past few hours. “It's exactly the same as if I were arraigned for being at a proscribed political meeting.” Which, in point of fact, I was. “So they trump up these charges against me.”
He looks at me, and I wish he'd had longer to prepare my defence. There's a fast mind working behind those eyes. “If it were true, do you realise the implications of what you're saying?” I nod. “It would mean corruption at a high level of the Administration.” I feel like standing up and cheering – by George, he's got it! - but we're interrupted by the canned voice of the public address system calling for us to be silent. Varon looks at me apologetically, and makes his way out of my cell and into the courtroom.
“By the authority of the Terran Federation,” the clerk of the court says, “this tribunal is in session.”
I'm beckoned forward by the guards, and come to stand between them as the Arbiter enters, surrounded by her bodyguard of Federation troops. There are six of them, which I suppose is something of a commentary on the nature of the Federation justice system in itself. As she seats herself, I get a glimpse of the prosecuting counsel – a short, smug woman, with a helmet of greying curls. Experience is on the side of the Federation.
“The arbiter will permit submissions,” the clerk states ceremonially, and retires to his position.
“Let the accused be brought forward,” the Arbiter commands. My guards take an elbow each, and escort me toward the plinth of the justice machine. I stand before it, looking directly at the Arbiter.
“Have you, the accused, been made aware of the charges that are laid against you? And do you fully understand the nature and gravity of those charges?”
Oh, I understand the nature and gravity of them very well. Probably better than you do, I think. However, the ceremony only allows one response: “Yes.”
“Who speaks for the Federation?” the Arbiter asks.
The grey-haired woman steps forward. “I do,” she says. Even her voice sounds smug.
“Who speaks for the accused?”
Varon steps forward. “I do,” he says.
“Are you both satisfied that the evidence was fairly obtained, and that all statements were certified as true and correct by lie detector?” The arbiter's questioning is part of the process, I remember (how?). If there's a problem, and either side can prove it, they have to speak now.
The prosecutor says, “I am”. Well, of course she's satisfied. It's her evidence.
Varon glances across at me. He knows there's a problem, but there's the little issue of proof, and his annoyance shows in his bearing as he repeats, “I am.”
“Is the accused fully satisfied that her defence has been fully and fairly prepared?” the Arbiter asks me.
I decide to inject a little variety into the proceedings. “The charges against me are totally false,” I say. “I am not guilty, therefore I offer no defence.”
“Your guilt or innocence is what we are here to determine,” says the Arbiter, in a voice which could be used to cool one of the tropical domes for a month. “The case will be decided.”
The circuit globes with the evidence are brought in, and placed before each counsel. “Let it be seen that the evidence for the prosecution is sealed, and approved by the defence. Let it be seen that the evidence for the defence is sealed, and approved by the prosecution.” Varon exchanges globes with the prosecutor. “Let the matter be assessed, and may justice prevail.”
The globes are inserted into the justice machine, and it begins to flicker as it assesses the evidence provided by each side. Given I've no chance of being found innocent, I'm not surprised when the machine comes down with a finding that I'm guilty as charged, although I'd give large amounts of credits to be permitted to wipe the smug look from the face of the prosecutor when the finding comes down in her favour. The arbiter is handed the globe with the sentencing instructions by the Clerk of the Court.
“The accused has been found guilty on all charges,” she says, to nobody's real surprise. “Her crimes have been accorded a Category Nine rating, and as such are adjudged most grave. In sentencing you, the judgement machine has taken into account your past record, your service to the state, and your loyalty to the Federation. None of these have mitigated in your favour.”
Well of course they haven't, I think. If they did I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.
“It is the sentence of this tribunal that you be taken from this place to an area of close confinement. From there you will be transported to the penal colony on the planet Cygnus Alpha, where you will remain for the rest of your natural life. This matter is ended.”
I step forward. “I wish to make a statement,” I say. I'd expected the sentence – the Administration wanted me disgraced and sent away; I'm not going to be allowed anything less than exile. But my request erases the smugness from the prosecutor's face. She looks up at someone on the tribunal bench, but I can't see who – I only have eyes for the Arbiter, as I try to will her to allow me to speak.
“There can be no more said regarding this case,” she says, dashing my hopes in the dust. “Assessment and judgement have been made.”
“But the evidence is false,” I say, trying to make her listen to me. “These charges are lies.”
She isn't listening. “If you have any complaint against the conduct of this tribunal, it must be directed through your advocate,” she says, as though I'm just some low level criminal protesting my innocence.
“You've got to listen to me,” I say, moving toward her. The guards grab me, and I hear the hiss of a hypospray, and feel the coldness of the drug running through me. I start to struggle – I can't be drugged, not now – but it just speeds the passage of the drug through my system. As I tumble into unconsciousness, I briefly see a familiar figure emerge from the sidelines, blond and weaselly, limping, but I'm out before I can remember who he is.
I come to on a cot, with a stranger leaning over me. I startle, and he leaps backward with a yell.
“Easy! Take it easy! I hate personal violence, especially when I'm the person.”
“Who are you?” I ask, looking at him. He's not particularly impressive to look at – in fact, he's what I'd think of as nondescript. Not overly tall, not overly short, mousy-blond hair, unremarkable face, hairline receding a bit, nothing too distinctive in his clothing, not too fat, not too thin, not too muscular, and his voice isn't too distinctive either. He seems to calm down a lot at the question, almost as though he were expecting me to be uncivilised.
“I'm Vila Restal,” he says, looking up at me from where he's landed on the floor, and offering a hand. I shake his hand – it's the polite thing to do, after all – which seems to calm him down all the more.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“In a transit cell,” he tells me, as though it should be obvious.
Why am I in a transit cell? I can't remember what happened. I was in the cell in the city detention area, then I was here... what happened in between? “I don't understand,” I say. All at once, I'm anxious and worried. I can feel my heartbeat speed up.
“You're on your way to the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha,” Vila tells me. “Or you will be, when the prison ship's refuelled.”
Then it all comes rushing back to me – the trial, the charges, the sentence... the face I saw as I collapsed. I put my face in my hands. I never got the chance to speak out about the massacre. Oh, Ravella, I'm so sorry. Vila must see my upset, because he continues speaking as all the shocks and horrors of the past five days wash over me.
“Try to look on the bright side. It must have something. None of the guests have ever left early. In fact, none of them have left at all.”
Oh wonderful, I think. A comedian. “Why are you going there?” I ask.
“They didn't give me a choice,” he says. “I steal things. Compulsive, I'm afraid. I've had my head adjusted by some of the best in the business, but it just won't stay adjusted.”
Well, that explains why he's so very inconspicuous. “A professional thief,” I say. I'm reduced to this. I find myself starting to tremble. It seems as though all my old anxieties are back, and they've brought some new friends along.
“More a vocation than a profession,” he protests. “Other people's property comes naturally to me.”
I feel another person sit down on the cot, very close to me. I flinch away. “What's the time?” a female voice asks.
I look down at my wrist, to discover my chrono is missing, then up to see Vila removing it from a pocket in his tunic. He hands the watch back to me, smiling philosophically. I start running a check of any other personal possessions I might have “lost”.
“Just taking care of it while you were unconscious,” Vila says, unrepentant. “The place is full of criminals.”
Ignoring him, I turn to face the person responsible for the return of my watch. She's shorter than I – maybe two or three inches, and has a mass of blonde hair which almost makes up for the hardness of her face and the ice in her hazel eyes. “Thanks,” I say to her.
“Jenna,” Vila interjects. It must be her name.
“Blake,” I say to her.
“What's your story?” Jenna asks, in the tone of one who's putting up with the only viscast channel available, and not expecting to be entertained.
“I'm innocent,” I say, before realising it's not entirely true. “Of what I was charged with, anyway.”
“We have something in common, then,” Vila says. “We're all victims of a miscarriage of justice.”
“It's true,” I say.
“Of course it is,” Jenna says, her tone making it clear she knows I'm lying just like everyone else. Protestations of innocence are obviously part of the routine. I decide to change the subject.
“What about the others?” I ask, looking around at the inhabitants of the cells. There's maybe twenty other people in here, but Jenna and I are the only females. Of the two of us, she's the better-looking one, but she projects an aura of diamond-hard chilliness which keeps the others away. I spot one or two giving me appraising looks, and turn back to Vila, who's started to speak.
“Oh, a very antisocial bunch,” he says. “Murderers, liars, cheats,” he looks over my shoulder at Jenna, “smugglers.”
“Thieves,” she reciprocates.
“And they're the nice people,” Vila concludes with a wry smile. I'm starting to appreciate his sense of humour, or at least where it comes from.
“How long before we take off?” I ask. Best to get all the worst out of the way at once. Then at least I'll know what I'm worrying about.
“About twenty-four hours,” Jenna tells me. I look over toward the entry gate. It's a mistake, one she catches. “If you're expecting a last-minute reprieve,” she tells me, “you'd better forget it.” One of her hands reaches up the back of my neck, and grabs a handful of my hair, turning my head so I'm facing her. “Once they get you this far, there's no going back. You'd better get used to the idea: nobody out there gives a damn about you.” She pushes my head away, and stands, walking away from my cot, Vila following along behind.
I lie back down, and try not to weep.
Nine hours later, I'm treated to a disproof of Jenna's thesis, when my former advocate, Tel Varon, shows up to talk with me. He's brought someone with him, who turns out to be his wife, Maja. He tells me he's found some tenuous evidence the children responsible for the charges against me might have had memories implanted (something I find very easy to believe – if they can wipe out whole chunks of my memory, implanting something is hardly going to be difficult). However, he needs more.
“What do you need?” I ask.
“Proof of the massacre would be best,” he says. “Is there any way you can prove it took place?”
“Would twenty bodies do the trick?” I say, wryness covering guilt. “They're probably still at the meeting place. I came out maybe an hour after the shooting stopped, and there were no signs of a cleanup then.”
“The meeting place – how did you get there?” he asks.
“I don't know,” I tell him. “It was dark.”
“Which exit did you use?”
That I can tell him. “Sub forty-three,” I say. I'd noticed it when Ravella led me into the passageway.
“Forty-three. That would be on the north side. All right, where did you go from there?”
I try to remember as much as I can about the fateful journey. It's not easy – it's not something I tried to remember, more the opposite, and it was dark enough that I couldn't see any landmarks. I give him the details I can. “Well, we walked for about three miles. There was a stream.” I know it's not much. Maybe it will be more to go on in daylight.
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” Varon asks.
I nod. “Yes. There was a man,” I say. “I saw him in court, just before I passed out.”
“What about him?” Maja asks.
“Well, I'd seen him before,” I say. “At the meeting. I thought he was one of them.” Then I realise what I'm saying. “He must have betrayed them. His name was Tarrant.”
Varon startles. “Dev Tarrant?” he asks, as though it's the last name he expected to hear.
“Do you know him?” I counter. Maybe he was a former client.
“He works in the Outer Worlds most of the time,” Varon said. “He's in Security.”
Oh. So that was why the name was such a surprise. I'm glad I didn't trust the little weasel on first sight. “He's a murderer,” I say. Poor Bran Foster, he must have been completely fooled. I'm furious that Tarrant could call Foster a friend, and yet arrange to have him killed.
“Then he'll come to trial like everyone else in this cover-up,” Varon says, trying to soothe me down.
“What about me?” I ask.
“First, I'm going to talk to my superior and get a holding order on you, so that at least you can stay here on Earth while I investigate.”
I look at him sceptically. “You haven't got much time,” I tell him. Maybe sixteen hours, I'd guess, from the figure Jenna mentioned last night.
“With luck, I'll get you taken back to the city detention area within a couple of hours,” Varon says. I grimace slightly, but accept the intention behind the words – he wants to see me free.
“Thanks,” I say, and to my surprise, I mean it.
He turns to go, but stops. “Look, I'm sorry I didn't believe you,” he tells me. “I'll be in touch.”
Maja gives me a reassuring smile as the two of them leave. I step back toward the cot I'd claimed earlier. I've started learning the etiquette of the transit cell: first come, best placed; if you leave it, you lose it. There's three less cots than there are prisoners, and I can't for the life of me tell whether or not it's deliberate, but it keeps us involved in constant territorial battles. As I reach what I'm already thinking of as “my” cot, Vila and Jenna approach me.
“Friends in high places?” Vila says. “Can't you put a word in for me?”
“I'll try and think of one,” I say. It'll probably be 'no'.
“Leaving us?” Jenna says, her tone teasing.
“I hope so,” I say, and realise as Vila breaks into sarcastic chuckles that what I said could be taken as an insult. “Nothing personal.”
I try to change the subject. “Why are you here?” I ask Jenna. “You didn't tell me.”
“I was trading around the Near Worlds,” she says. “I'm a free trader.” Her tone is still cool, but there's some pride in the last sentence, and I can't figure out why.
“A smuggler,” Vila crows, glad to be displaying his talent for gossip. “She's a big name,” he tells me. “It's an honour to be locked up with her.” The tone is definitely a challenge.
One Jenna doesn't respond to. “I'm glad you're pleased,” she says, smiling slightly. Her smile makes her look impish, as though she were planning mischief.
Whatever Vila was going to say next is interrupted by the harsh voice of the PA, telling us launch has been advanced to seventeen hundred hours. I look down at my watch, just as Vila completes the math. “That's about eight hours.”
More prisoners trickle into the cell. Each time I hear the door open at the top of the stairwell into the prisoner section, I startle, and look up, trying to see whether it's the holding order arrived. It never is. After about four hours of this, I wind up standing by the bars, near where I was speaking to Varon.
“You're running out of time,” Jenna says, coming over to where I'm standing. Strange enough, she doesn't sound happy about it. We've talked a bit about what happened to me, last night, after I woke from a nightmare, and I think she believes my story. A tiny victory, but I'll take all I can get.
“They've had long enough to issue a holding order,” I say, sounding grim. I'm trying not to hope, trying not to believe it's possible.
“It's a long process, formalities involved,” Jenna says, surprising me. “Don't worry. They'll get it.” I find myself startled by her sympathy, something I truly hadn't expected. She heaves a sigh. “I wish someone was working for me,” she murmurs, so softly I'm not certain I've even heard her. “Until now, it hasn't seemed real,” she said, looking at me. “Now it's getting close, I'm getting scared.”
Her arms are crossed in front of her, as though she were hugging herself. She doesn't even have the hope of a holding order, I think. I move a bit closer to her. If the holding order comes through, maybe some of the luck will rub off on her. I try not to think of what will happen if it doesn't.
Three hours later, and my holding order still hasn't come through. I'm laying on the cot, trying not to let my worries overtake me, but not having much success. My head is full of scenarios, each worse than the last. Varon was just having a cruel joke at my expense; Varon was a part of the conspiracy himself; Varon got lost Outside, trying to follow my useless directions. I've almost accepted my fate – by now I'm fairly certain if there is going to be a holding order, it's not going to be for me. The Administration has to get me off the planet, and they're not going to let something trivial like the truth stand in their way. But still I have this tiny corner of hope: it will come through. It has to come through.
Then a klaxon starts to sound, and a group of guards enters the cells, shaking people awake and kicking them out of the corners they've been sitting in.
“Right, listen to me, all of you,” one of the guards bellows. “Move out of here in single file into the embarkation channel.”
But we still have an hour before we lift off, I think. Why load us so early?
Then I realise: to help prevent what I'm hoping for. To make sure that last-minute reprieves don't happen. To ensure that if anyone out there does give a damn about me, they won't be able to interfere.
The guards are chivvying people off their cots, telling them to pick up their bags (I don't have a bag, I think. They never let me get back to my quarters. All I have is what I'm wearing.) and move out. I'm still sitting on the cot, stunned, and one of the guards cuffs me around the shoulder.
“I said move!”
I get up, following along in the reluctant straggle through the embarkation channel. Throughout the whole walk, which takes about ten minutes, the guards keep yelling at us to stay in single file, and the head trooper keeps ordering the guards to hurry us along. None of us are moving fast, and mine isn't the only head which turns back to look at the door out of the transit area, hoping for that last-moment order that will pull us out of the line, send us back into the city. Anything but this.
We're herded into the prisoners' flight area on the ship. There's a direct corridor from the hatch to the prisoner areas, with blast doors along each side. No chance of slipping out through there. Like sheep, we follow one another to the flight area, where the guards bully us into our seats, and yell at us to do up our harnesses. I'm seated by the window, with a clear view toward the embarkation area. I watch, hoping to see another trooper heading toward the ship, a trooper holding the holding order which is my last chance of remaining on this planet.
“How long before lift-off?” I ask.
“You in a hurry to get there?” the guard asks.
Jenna, who's sitting two rows away from me down at the front of the group, looks over her shoulder at me. “Don't worry,” she says. “There's still time.” I cling tightly to the hope she's given me.
But the minutes tick by, and nobody comes. Around me, the troopers are telling people to stop talking, stop fidgeting, and do up their harnesses. I haven't touched mine – a way of denying to the last I will be required to make this journey, I suppose. But at launch minus ten minutes, the final preparations are made, and a trooper comes around doing an inspection. He stops by my seat.
“You different to everybody else?” he demands. “Fasten your harness.”
“What?” I say, confused. I'd hardly heard him. I'm still watching the hatchway toward the embarkation area. It hasn't been sealed yet, there's still time.
“Hmm,” the trooper says. “Maybe we can help you hear better. You can start with a couple of hours confinement. You'll be surprised how quickly your hearing improves.” He turns to the guard nearest the seat controls. “Seat eleven, confinement.”
My seat swivels to face in toward the centre of the ship, and the confinement harness comes out, binding me to the seat. I can't move my hands, my arms, my legs or my feet. I'm helpless as the ship starts to shudder with the strain of lift-off. The only part of me I can move is my head, and I strain my neck, trying to see out of the window.
They're sealing the embarkation hatch. To all intents and purposes, I'm on a one-way journey. I'm thumped into the fabric of my seat by the force of lift-off, pressed hard into the floor as the ship argues its way out of the planet's gravitational well. The artificial gravitational units of the ship can provide gravity in the vacuum of space, but they can't cushion anyone against what's happening now. I feel as though I'm being crushed.
The crushing stops, and I know we've reached free-fall. I can move my head again, and look out of the window to see the planet retreating below me. It really happened. I've really left Earth.
The guard notices my position. “Take a long look,” he says. “That's the last you'll ever see of it.”
I want to cry, but I won't give him the satisfaction. I have lost my home, my life, my future, but I will not cry in front of this bully-boy of the Administration. I may have been forced to consort with thieves, smugglers, murderers and cheats, but I will not break down in front of them. I may have lost so much memory I'm hardly sure who I am any more, but I'm going to find out again. So instead I look away, straight in front of me.
“No,” I say, intending it to be defiance, challenge and warning. “I'm coming back.”