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Life Sentence

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Triton's domes were far uglier than those of Earth. They stretched overhead, a muddy curvature of grey holding back the greyer void of the moon's 'atmosphere.' The pinkish smudge of rising Neptune peered over the eastern horizon: soon, when it had filled the sky, the dome would automatically adjust its transparency to filter the light. Considering the dust that already coated the exterior, it would be a nearly-superfluous action.

Also unlike Earth, this transport terminal was sparsely populated, a factor Kerr Avon did not know whether to bless or curse. The teeming crowds of Earth had suffocated him in their midst: Triton's near-empty expanses made him feel conversely exposed and vulnerable. He rode the walkway toward the signs marked 'Sector 8,' carrying nothing but the boarding pass he had purchased two levels below, and worried that the lack of luggage might make him still more conspicuous. There had been no time, with Security nearly at his heels, to do anything more than find the nearest shuttle off planet, to surrender one of the hard-earned exit visas and pray they wouldn't examine the forgery too closely, wouldn't question the pain in his eyes or the stiff carriage of his left shoulder. No time to do anything but run, and look for a safe place to hide, to heal... and to forget. From here, the ships departing for the Eighth Sector were routed to a dozen different worlds: he had chosen Efferil at random, and would choose yet another from there, and another. Until he felt safe, or until the money ran out.

As a last option, he would sell Anna's visa.

The unused document weighed heavily in his breast pocket, as painful as the ill-treated laser wound beneath it. Its rightful owner had died protecting him, yet he could find in himself neither gratitude nor praise for the act.

You should have told them, Anna. Why...  How did you resist? No one in my meager life ever considered me worth dying for. No one...

He nearly missed the glint of black on black in the corridor ahead, the green-rimmed helmet of a trooper watching each passerby with ingrained scrutiny. Trying to act as casual as a man in mere search of a relief station, Avon stepped off the walkway to head in another direction. The few other passengers around him felt suddenly, pressingly close, and there were sounds behind that he dare not look back to confirm. He quickened his pace minutely instead, turned another juncture, and another.

Someone shouted. A single, unintelligible syllable. The sounds behind him grew louder, an immediate bustle of activity. He was running before he realized that his feet had responded to the danger more quickly than his conscious thought -- yet the flight lacked a goal, and as each turn of corridor produced still more figures in stark black uniform, conscious thought at last defeated blind panic. In the hexagon of a weapons detector pad, he stopped, bathed in blue light, and waited while the ring of paraguns bore down on him, and the sparse crowd of travelers muttered to itself on the periphery. Something to tell their children over dinner tonight, no doubt.

We saw a criminal apprehended today. Chased, surrounded and shot to death. Exciting stuff -- even better than a visplay. We never knew his name or what he did, but it must have been terrible indeed. Oh yes, it must have been...

"Stand still," a filtered voice demanded. "Hands above your head, legs apart. Don't move!" The seeming contradictions were barked at him as the circle tightened, closing to within two feet. Lights flashed a silent red warning as the weapons crossed the detector's threshhold: no one paid it any heed.

Avon raised his hands to submit without protest to their search, suppressing a wince at the trooper's rough removal of the exit visa from his pocket. Another of the faceless men snatched the boarding pass from his hand; a third, behind him, yanked down his hands to apply wrist restraints. The injured shoulder responded at once to the forcible stretch of unhealed muscle: Avon clenched teeth over the too-frail barrier of his lower lip in order to stifle a gasp.

Saying nothing more, they marched him past the thin crowd of gaping onlookers, down an unmarked corridor, and into a berth housing military shuttles. They boarded the nearest ship, steam venting from its aft fuselage, and herded him silently down its narrow aisle toward the stern. There, still chained, he was shoved through the door of the tiny cargo compartment and left in the shadows amid towers of bulky, leather-strapped crates. He thought the fall of the door latch sounded very like the slide of a paragun magazine...

The flight back to Earth took nine hours.


*      *      *

Central Security's cells were cramped, dirty and spartan. No more, no less than he'd expected: he had seen them a thousand times in the morbid reverie of his imagination. Brown walls, single inset door, and the lingering odors of sweat and urine and human misery.

Anna had died in such a cell.

Fitting, then, that the man who had caused her death should suffer a similar fate.

You should have told them, Anna. No part of my meager life has ever been worth dying for, either.

Three days, possibly four, had passed since they had brought him here. He could estimate only by instinct, and the growth of beard stubbling his chin. No one had come either to feed or to question him. Perhaps they had no questions. Perhaps... whoever had given him away in the beginning had already told them all they wanted to know, long ago, before he'd fled Earth. Before Anna had died.

He'd never learned who had betrayed him.

The one regret he'd have in dying here would be in never knowing. Should whim determine he survive this, he vowed he would one day learn the answer... and exact in payment the betrayer's life. Too little a price to pay for the loss of his future, and for Anna's life. Too little by far.

When, on what might have been the fifth day, he heard a faint buzz from the door, Avon sat up on the sleep shelf and watched the metal barricade drag itself noisily upward into the ceiling. Four figures stalked into the cell: two mutoids (one of either gender), a tall woman in medical smocks, and a thin, balding man who wore non-uniform black. Too weak to obey their order that he stand, Avon contrived defiance to glare at them from the shelf with all the loathing he could manage.

The balding man was unmoved. At his sharp gesture, the mutoids marched forward in tandem to position themselves on either side of Avon. They waited there, without touching him, for a miniature eternity while the interrogator, if he was the interrogator, simply stared.

"My name is Hoff," he said at last, as though the knowledge of his name should carry dire weight indeed. While he spoke, the woman turned back to the doorway and noisily pulled a small cart into the room. The wheels squeaked, and it stank of alcohol.

"Your associates," Hoff was saying, "have all been picked up. They've told us their part of the scheme. All that remains..." He glanced aside at the medic as bottles rattled against metal on the cart. " for you to tell us yours."

Avon turned his gaze to the wall and willed them all to perdition; out of existence, out of his conscious world. He had no life now, no purpose they had not already taken from him, therefore they constituted mere redundancies. And mere redundancies could safely be ignored.

"Remove the tunic," he heard the interrogator order, and while the mutoids grasped his arms to obey, the green medical smock came to block off his view of the wall. He closed his eyes against the wound's complaint as the tunic was jerked hastily open and pulled over his head. Soft hands immediately touched the exposed shoulder: he tried to draw away and misjudged the distance, striking the cell wall behind him, disconcerted for a moment by the cool, rough surface against the bare skin of his back.

As though she were discussing data files (perhaps she was), the medic's bored voice queried, "Did CS report that this prisoner had been shot?"

Hoff made a sniffing sound, rattled papers. "Nothing on it here."

"Grade two infection." The soft fingers probed again. "May have happened some time ago."

The interrogator's voice, equally bored, dismissed the matter with a curt, "Get on with it, then. I haven't got all day."

More rattling and the squeal of the cart's wheels preceded the sharp sting of a needle to his right forearm. For several very-nearly-pleasant moments, he felt nothing at all, heard nothing but the hiss of stale recycled air through the vents and the medic's shallow breathing just above him.

He sensed her retreat (she doubtless knew the drug's timing with practiced perfection by now) scant moments before fiery shards tore through his every fiber, and sent him reeling in agony to the floor. Someone screamed; not a voice he had ever heard before, surely not his own. Leather gloves clasped his arms, hauled him back onto the shelf and pinioned him there, fighting for breath, against a wall that had suddenly grown searing-hot.

"Now we'll talk." Hoff's ever-calm voice came from above, where the medic had been just seconds ago. "If the embezzlement had succeeded, what would you have done with the five million credits?"

We would have *lived,* Anna. You and I. Far from the Federation, far from anyone who could harm us, ever again.

"Did you have a contact among the outsiders, the underground?  Someone in the so-called 'Freedom Party,' perhaps? Is that what the money was for?"

For us. It was only ever for us. If you'd run the other way that night, if you hadn't tried to come after me... Stupid thing to do... surely you knew better? You had no right to endanger yourself. You had no right to die...

"Who were your contacts on Efferil? Where else in the Eighth Sector are the rebel factions located?"

I may never forgive you for dying, Anna.

"How did you bypass the cartel security codes?"

With almost ridiculous ease. The more complex the system, the more room in its margin for error...

"Answer the question, Avon. How did you bypass the security?  Where did you obtain the entry codes?"

I'll see you there before much longer. I got them in hell...

"Another injection will approximately double the pain level.  Talk to me, and we'll administer the antidote instead. What did you intend to do with the five million credits?"

It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, harder still to hear the man's soft words above the roaring of blood in his ears.

Freedom, and the wealth to buy it... We were close, so very close...

"One response, one answer, and the antidote is yours. You have my word. Surely you can't want this to go on? Did I mention it would kill you, in time?"

Death is the one retreat from which you cannot drag me back...

"The pain will increase, exponentially."

Pain and I are old acquaintances...

"Something's wrong," the medic's voice intruded. "He should have been talking his head off by now."

"Well he isn't, is he?"

"The infection might have affected the absorption rate, I suppose."

"We don't deal in supposition, Doctor. Only in results. Give him another dose, then you and the goon squad get out of here.  I'll get my own answers, my own way."

He did not remember feeling the needle the second time. But the hell that came after, he would never be able to forget.


*      *      *

Though he raged at it from the self-imposed prison of his own silence, even death betrayed him in the end, solemnly refusing him sanctuary. There were times, amid the horror, when Anna herself seemed to taunt him from the immutable safety of death's reaches, while those who had murdered her held him in ceaseless torment, and denied him access to the one thing that had allowed her to escape.

He cursed them for that -- only they would never know it.

He quickly lost all sense of time, and all memory of names or faces among the multitude of torturers brought to his cell. Their promises of death had each proven false in their turn; had each consigned him to the agony of living on through yet another day of beatings, senseless questions, drugs, needles, and still more questions.

He might have told them that their methods lacked any semblance of originality. Except that from the start, he had told them nothing at all.

"No one plays this game forever," they had said on the day the sham of a defense attorney had been paraded in to see him. "Not if they know what's good for them."

"Silence only works against you in the long run."

"Better for you if you give it up now, my friend. An arbiter's court is no place for childish tactics."

"'Uncooperative' prisoners, you see, draw the death penalty more often than any others. Twice as often, in fact..."

He strove, from that day, to be twice as uncooperative.


*      *      *

They had cleaned, shaved and dressed him, disguising the torturers' handiwork by cosmetic means, and transported him under heavy guard to the trial, where more posturing idiots had prated and ranted and railed, entreating him all the while to answer.

He said nothing.

The trial itself was brief. The judgment computer had no defense to weigh.

Below an angular bas-relief of the revered Federation insignia, an array of well-fed faces, his judge-executioners, peered down at him, some angry, some curious, some merely bored.  Their pompous pronouncements were an unending barrage, rhetoric upon rhetoric, words that held no meaning for him.

He awaited only one.

It would come at the end of their rota of charges, at the conclusion of their exceedingly long-winded proclamations of his undisputed guilt. If there was ever to be a conclusion.

He waited.

But he had missed it somehow.

Somewhere in the plethora of unneccessary words, he had failed to hear the pertinent one.

"So be it," the man central to the proceedings announced, and there came an impatient wave of murmuring from the lookers-on.  "Life sentence is to be carried out on the penal world Cygnus Alpha."

Life was not the word. It was the wrong word...

"Immediate passage is assigned the CTS London, departing for Cygnus Alpha two days hence."

Life sentence... sentenced to living...

The arbiter's acrylic gavel struck the bench with a resounding crack.  "The prisoner is hereby remanded to Transport Division. We will proceed to the next case."

But a noise drew the arbiter's attention back, if only for a moment, to the subject of the last one. It was hollow, wracking and less-than-alive. But it was no less disturbing for its intrusion than for the fact that it was the first sound to come from this particular prisoner in many, many weeks.

Kerr Avon laughed.