David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: The Prisoners

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Chapter 3

At first it was nothing more than an occlusion of the stars, one of the million bits of detritus covering the Earth like an aura. Satellites functioning and not, metal garbage from ancient construction, dead space elevators. But unlike the rest of the rubbish, this occlusion was expanding in that telltale pattern that indicated an approaching vector. A ship. It was an ugly bastard, too, mottled gray and brown, with guns protruding on all sides. Big enough to transport half a dozen hoverbirds, agile enough to conduct military exercises — but not quite fast enough to avoid detection. By the time the ship extended its grappling gear to make the hookup with Orbital Detention and Rehabilitation Facility, Twelfth Meridian, the unconnectibles were ready for it.

Quell had been kneeling behind an unlabeled crate on the dock with dartrifle in hand for over ten minutes. Something must have staggered into that crate and died months ago, by the smell of it. He was just about to make for another spot when a finger tapped him on the shoulder. “What now?” he grunted.

“You’re sure it’s Islanders on this one?” said Plithy, his voice squeaky with nerves. Quell turned to face the boy and noticed that the cartridge of black code darts on his gun was loaded crookedly and primed for a misfire.

Course I’m not sure,” said Quell. “You got the same information I did.”

“A-and what if the information’s wrong? What if they get the jump on us, like last time?” Plithy craned his scrawny neck towards the opposite side of the dock, where the connectibles were hunkered down awaiting the same ship. Every once in a while, Quell caught the glint of an overhead light bouncing off the barrel of one of their dartguns. There were only about twenty meters separating the two teams; it would be difficult to miss at such close range.

Quell shrugged. “Stick to the plan, and you’ll be fine. I’m the one who should be worrying.”

“But — ”

The Islander made a strangled noise of frustration. “Just be quiet and get back in position. And for the last time — ” He grabbed Plithy’s dartgun and snapped the misloaded cartridge into place with a single aggravated motion. The boy shut up and retreated to some crack or crevice outside Quell’s view. Wisest thing he’s done all day.

He could hardly blame Plithy for his jangly nerves. The boy was only sixteen, much too young to be worrying about black code darts. Even for someone of Quell’s age and experience, it wasn’t easy, racing to the dock at a moment’s notice with weapon in hand, never sure who would emerge from the airlock. Sometimes the ships carried connectible prisoners; sometimes they carried unconnectible prisoners. The information was sketchy and of unknown provenance. Your job was twofold: shepherd the unconnectibles to the unconnectible level of the prison before the enemy captured them, and capture as many connectibles as possible before they escaped to the connectible level of the prison. If you had accurate information and brought the right number of troops, the job was pretty straightforward. Otherwise you had a long and messy dartgun battle on your hands.

And if you failed? If the connectibles managed to drag the newcomers away first? The Defense and Wellness Council wouldn’t tolerate out-and-out murder in their prisons. But anything short of that could be winkingly ignored.

Quell glanced over at poor Rick Willets, huddled behind a metal post, trying to cradle a rifle in his mangled hands. The connectibles had caught him two weeks ago nosing around the dock for food. He was found three days later. The microscopic OCHREs in his blood and tissue would eventually return his thumbs to their opposable positions; until then Willets would be down a few chits in the evolutionary game. If he had neural bio/logic machinery, he could heal even faster, but Willets was an Islander, an unconnectible, a technological skeptic. He would just have to wait.

The Islander turned and spat on the floor. The whole business reminded him of the shoot-’em-up holo games he had played as a kid, all monotony and repetition and mindless adrenaline. Except this is only half as exciting, he thought, and twice as pointless.

Still, he didn’t expect any casualties like Rick Willets today. The manifest indicated a batch of Islanders along with a few Pharisees and one prisoner with no stated place of origin, usually shorthand for the diss. Quell had brought fifteen men to the dock. The connectibles only had a token force of twelve, and were not expected to put up much of a fight. Not worth risking too many men unless reinforcements were at stake.

A few meters down, Plithy settled in behind a drum of industrial lubricant and aimed his pistol at the hangar doors. The others were safely out of sight, as the plan dictated. Twenty minutes passed. Uncertainty stretched the nerves, but it was the long waits that snapped them. Quell watched the gun slowly droop out of the boy’s quivering hands until the barrel was lying on top of the drum along with the grip.

“Crazy crazy crazy,” muttered Willets to himself, a mantra to ward off harm. “Crazy crazy crazy.”

Quell nodded. Yes. Crazy way to run a prison indeed.

*

This was decidedly not what Quell had expected from prison.

The Islander had known the Defense and Wellness Council would not treat him lightly. In their eyes, he was a dissident, an agitator, member of the only group to cast off central government rule and form a functioning opposition. Not only that, but Quell had defied the Council’s direct orders during the chaos at Andra Pradesh — and lobbed a pulse grenade at a dozen Council officers — and taken a shock baton to Lieutenant Executive Magan Kai Lee himself. With the help of MultiReal and the crackling energy of the baton, he had given Lee a blow that might have split another man in two. But at the last possible instant, her words had come bubbling to the front of Quell’s mind: All of us are looking for a way to deflect our own suffering. Words she had spoken to him decades ago when he was a stubborn student and she was merely a sheltered rich girl.

He had wondered if killing Magan Kai Lee would be the deliberate act of a rational mind, or a decision made cowering under the aegis of searing pain. Did he really want Magan dead — or was he just deflecting his own suffering?

No. Quell would prove her wrong. He would not deflect; he would absorb.

So Quell had pulled the blow at the last instant, and Magan had lived. He had let the officers of the Defense and Wellness Council take his weapon away and yank the thin copper collar off his neck, severing his Islander lifeline to the multi network. He hadn’t protested the kicks to the stomach and groin that had followed in the elevator, or the blow with the gun butt that had broken his knee in the courtyard. He had known that he could use the quantum prestidigitation of MultiReal to escape the Council’s clutches at any minute. He had known that he could kill every single one of those motherfuckers if he wanted to, dartguns or no dartguns. But he would not. He would not.

The Council officers had shoved the Islander into a waiting hoverbird and lined up for one last beating. It had suddenly occurred to Quell that this might be his last opportunity for escape. Rumor had it that the hulls of these government ’birds could even block subaether transmissions, a feat that seemingly violated the universal law of physics. No subaether meant no access to the Data Sea meant no access to MultiReal — possibly forever.

All of us are looking for a way to deflect our own suffering.

He had let it happen. The door had slammed shut.

There had been a long interregnum of blackness, pain and silence. Three hoverbird transfers with no food or water. More beatings.

So much for a trial by jury, Quell had thought.

When he had come to, Quell was kneeling on the icy floor of an airlock with his wrists shackled, surrounded by dispassionate guards wearing the white robe and the yellow star. Outside the airlock, he had heard the metal din of ships coupling. He had waited for the taunts and excoriations to resume, but instead the guards had simply stood there, for two hours. Quell had been torn. On the one hand, he had wanted to give his OCHREs time to prepare for another battering. On the other, he had just wanted to fucking arrive wherever he was going to arrive already.

And then, in quick succession, as if they’d been rehearsing for days, the door had opened, the guards had lifted Quell by his elbows and knees, they had flung him out onto his face and the door had whooshed shut behind him.

At which point the chaos had begun.

A black code dart had zipped by Quell’s ear, missing by centimeters. Someone had kicked him in the stomach, then someone else had smashed the kicker in the back with a metal pipe. The Islander had soon found himself ducking and bobbing through the middle of an epic melee, goal unknown, strategy uncertain, clutching onto that primal instinct to just stay alive for another few seconds. There had been three dozen people in the corridor hell-bent on pummeling each other to pieces. A man had stepped in front of him swinging some crude variety of welding tool. Quell had formed a cudgel with his cuffed fists and delivered an uppercut to the man’s chin, lifting him a few centimeters off the ground before relieving him of consciousness.

The Islander had been trying to pick up the man’s dropped weapon when a voice had come streaking through the maelstrom: “Remember the Band of Twelve!”

Quell had looked up, startled. The Band of Twelve. The original unconnectible dissidents, the legendary founders of the Islander movement. As a child in Manila, Quell had memorized their names before he had learned long division. Years later, his proctors would peel back the onionskin and reveal a number of unpleasant truths about the Band of Twelve — three were convicted thieves, one was a rapist, and five of them were tax evaders. But none of that had mattered to Quell in the middle of the prison tumult. Remember the Band of Twelve! That familiar morsel of propaganda had been like a taste of home. He had lunged in that direction.

The voice had belonged to a young Islander named Plithy who had been cringing behind a structural support pillar. He had greasy brown hair and the posture you might expect from a zombie. Quell had followed him out of the battle towards the unconnectible level of the prison, head-butting a charging connectible in the process.

The prison itself was your basic nightmare of design by committee: lots of long corridors and useless alcoves. But strangely, there were no doors or locks anywhere to be found, and no sign of the Defense and Wellness Council either. Quell had followed the boy through the labyrinth, weaving around glazed-over and disaffected Islanders by the score. Finally they had arrived at a room with a bunk waiting, newly made, along with a bowl of greasy stew left like a burnt offering. Quell had wanted nothing less than to be in a stranger’s debt, but hunger had trumped any other considerations. He had sat on the bed and tucked into the bowl.

“What’re you in for?” Quell had muttered between spoonfuls of stew to the boy, who, disconcertingly, did not leave. It had seemed like a question prisoners were supposed to ask one another.

Plithy had plunked his hands into his pockets and looked down at the floor. “Throwing stones at Council officers,” he had said.

Quell had nearly dropped his spoon. “They put you in here for that?” Harassing Council officers with stones and bottles was practically a team sport for young men in Manila. Quell had gotten quite proficient at it himself as a boy.

“One of the stones hit a commander,” Plithy had explained.

“But — ”

“In the eye.”

The Islander had begun to get the feeling that Plithy was an albatross in search of a neck to latch onto. Evidently the old proverb about rumor traveling faster than the speed of light was true, because Quell had soon discovered that the boy had already heard about the altercation with Magan Kai Lee. He had apparently then magnified the story to mythical proportions and used it as an excuse to dedicate his life to Quell’s service. Quell had wanted no part of it, but he couldn’t afford to be so selective in his friends right then. He had scraped the bowl clean of gravy, laid back on the bunk, and asked Plithy for the lowdown on the prison. The boy had obliged.

The Orbital Detention and Rehabilitation Facility that hovered over Earth’s Twelfth Meridian was a simple structure: two wheel-shaped platforms connected by a thick axle. The unconnectibles inhabited the “lower” wheel and the connectibles inhabited the “upper,” the terms being more or less arbitrary in space. The axle contained the dock, where Council ships arrived to deliver the prisoners, the food — and the weapons.

The whole setup beggared belief. And in fact, Quell had refused to accept it until he had seen the stockpiles for himself. What kind of prison gave its prisoners weapons? But there they had sat, still crated and fresh from the factory. Dartguns, dartrifles, magazine after magazine of black code darts loaded with nonlethal stun programs. Quell had picked one of the rifles up, polished the barrel on his sleeve, and aimed it at an imaginary Council officer bursting through the airlock. “Aren’t they afraid we’re going to break out of here?” he had asked Plithy.

The boy had chuckled. “How?”

It was a good point. The Defense and Wellness Council controlled everything in their orbital prisons, from the air to the food supply to the gravity itself. The only transmissions allowed in or out were those that pinged Dr. Plugenpatch databases to pull down healing bio/logic software. The officers who did the unloading in the dock were well armed, and inoculated against the black code in the prisoners’ dartguns to boot. Suppose a group of prisoners did manage to overpower those guards and take control of their ship, against all improbability. What then? How could they fly a ship without proper authorization codes? How would they deal with the battery of Council hoverbirds patrolling the area? And where would they escape to anyway?

Quell had soon realized that not only was escape impossible, but for the unconnectible prisoners even planning to escape was fiendishly difficult. They belonged to a society that deactivated neural OCHRE bots at birth. They depended on the accursed connectible collars to sense projections on the multi network, and the Council had taken their connectible collars away. Who could say that the Council didn’t have spies in multi roaming the hallways and listening to their conversations? Who among the unconnectibles was capable of detecting them?

So they played this juvenile game the Council had set up. Studying schematics of the prison, conducting raids on the enemy, shoring up defenses, risking bio/logically enhanced torture to protect a square kilometer of empty metal. Breaking the thumbs of their connectible captives, because that was what the connectibles did to them. It really was quite similar to those shoot-’em-ups from Quell’s childhood. You had two factions, limited resources and violence waiting around every corner, with an unseen CPU mindlessly hurling obstacle after obstacle in your path until you died or time ended.

In one of his more philosophical moments, lying in his bunk and listening to Plithy prattle on about the Islander resistance, Quell had decided that the game they played here was not unique. Wasn’t it, in fact, the same game the centralized government had been running Earthside for generations? Connectibles versus unconnectibles; rebels versus the establishment; the powerful versus the powerless. Artificial distinctions all. He had pictured the man responsible for this state of affairs. Not a mindless CPU, but a perilously old man, bald as stone and despised by about 78 percent of the population, according to the last polls Quell had seen.

How could this grotesque game possibly benefit High Executive Len Borda?

Quell shook his head. He checked the action on his own dartrifle now as he waited for the airlock to open and disgorge the new batch of prisoners. It was pointless to speculate about the mind of Len Borda. Pointless to anthropomorphize human reason and logic when the situation clearly lacked both.

“I think the airlock’s about to open,” said Plithy in stage whisper from his crevice, snapping Quell back to the present.

Quell let out a scowl. “Quiet.

“Crazy crazy crazy,” muttered Rick Willets.

A thought suddenly occurred to the Islander. Why had he never heard about this place before? Borda couldn’t keep the goings-on in these orbital prisons shrouded in mystery forever. In a world where thousands of drudges clambered over each other to report on Jeannie Q. Christina’s hairdo every day, there had to be at least a few people drudging up the truth on the Defense and Wellness Council prison system. Certainly one of them would have thought to interview a paroled prisoner from one of these places by now… unless there were no paroled prisoners.

Quell looked with sadness on the boy Plithy. The commander whose eye he had bloodied must have had a lot of stripes on his uniform. Plithy must have seriously pissed someone off for the Council to relegate him to this state of limbo, without trial, without purpose, without end.

How the fuck was Quell going to get out of here?

He supposed that if he were a brilliant schemer like Natch, he would have already deduced an escape. Or if he were a charismatic statesman like his son Josiah, he would have managed to forge a truce with the connectibles by now. He would have shown them all the futility of playing silly wargames and breaking thumbs to suit the whims of a madman.

But Quell was neither schemer nor statesman. He was a bio/logic engineer and a stubborn old fool, and he could think of nothing to do but lie in the rut the Defense and Wellness Council had thrown him in.

*

The door to the airlock opened and eight prisoners came stumbling out. All Islanders but one, by the rustic look of their wardrobe.

Quell felt the battle frenzy take hold of him. He vaulted over the crate and let out a cry of anger that reverberated throughout the dock. The prisoners froze in place, panicked; one of them collapsed quivering to the ground. And then Quell was pounding across the floor, a bellowing behemoth with rifle held aloft in both hands. Three black code darts went flying past Quell’s right shoulder as three different connectible gunmen underestimated how fast a big man could run. In seven long strides he made it to the row of crates the enemy had staked out. He hoped that Plithy and the others were following the plan, but he was quite past the point of return by now.

The Islander made a flying leap over some big steel drum and began wildly spraying the gathered connectibles with dartfire in midair. There were twelve of them and only one of him, yet clearly Quell had put them on the defensive. Two of his darts even found targets before he felt half a dozen pinpricks line up along his torso. Icy paralysis grabbed hold of him.

Shit, thought Quell as he caught a glimpse of the hard concrete block that he would be crashing against any second now. Why do I always forget to watch out for the landing?

He crashed, hard.

But not before seeing the connectibles all collapse to the ground themselves, victim to the Islanders who had snuck up behind them. Even Plithy had managed to plug one of the bastards.

Quell smiled to himself in spite of the agony. Misdirection: it was the oldest and simplest of combat tactics, one that even a bio/logic engineer with no military training could figure out. Draw the enemy’s attention and their fire with the largest, loudest distraction you could find, then launch the real assault where they least expected. Sometimes the simplest tactics were the most effective.

The Islander clawed his way back to consciousness ten minutes later. He felt as if someone had doused his chest with flaming tar, and he could scarcely move his arms or legs. But he knew from experience that these black code pain routines only lasted so long. Blistering agony for half an hour was better than weeks of grinding pain from broken thumbs.

“Fucking incredible,” said a grinning Plithy as he and Rick Willets draped Quell’s arms over their shoulders and helped him to his feet.

“Crazy,” agreed Willets.

All of the connectibles had been corralled into the center of the dock and roped tightly together. Most of them would be left in the dock for the next connectible patrol that passed through. A few would be singled out for the thumb treatment, or worse.

Meanwhile, most of the new prisoners had already vanished down into the unconnectible level of the prison, where doubtless some young punk like Plithy was giving them an initiation into the ways of Orbital Detention and Rehabilitation Facility, Twelfth Meridian. All except for one, the tall, gangly fellow who had slipped to the floor in shock when Quell had let out his war cry. Seemed like the man had managed to smack his forehead against the floor when he fell. He was sitting up, dazed but being tended to by two of the unconnectible team.

Quell took a closer look and strangled back a gasp. He knew this man. This man had been at the top of the Revelation Spire on that horrible day a few weeks ago, the day that Quell had scuffled with Lieutenant Executive Magan Kai Lee. He was a man of thin limbs and sharp angles, with a bulging Adam’s apple and eyelids so prominent they were practically reptilian. Today he was dressed in the standard streetwear of breeches and a brown shirt, but on that day he had been wearing the white robe and yellow star of the Defense and Wellness Council.

Papizon, that was his name. One of Magan’s flunkies.

Plithy and Willets were dragging Quell away from the dock now and into the long, wide hallway that led to the unconnectible level of the prison. Soon they were back in friendly territory, and Quell was able to muster a half-walk, half-shamble with the support of his two comrades. But his mind remained on the dock and that odd flamingo of a Council officer. Quell had no idea how many of these orbital prisons Len Borda maintained, but Papizon’s arrival at this one was certainly no coincidence.

He tried to sort through all the rumors he had heard about the Defense and Wellness Council from later arrivals at the prison. Magan Kai Lee was in open rebellion against Len Borda, they said; the Council had fragmented between the two groups; Magan’s officers and Borda’s officers were openly skirmishing in the streets. Were the prisons still under Borda’s control? If so, did that mean that Papizon was here on some kind of clandestine mission? And what kind of mission could that be, except to take revenge on Quell?

The three of them arrived at Quell’s cramped prison cell. Four walls, a nonfunctioning viewscreen, a metal chair, a few changes of clothes he had scrounged from the supply depots, a poor excuse for a bunk. Plithy dragged the older man to his bunk and deposited him there as gently as he could. Quell flopped onto his back and groaned.

“Quell,” said Plithy. “Can I ask you something?”

The Islander gave a snort of assent.

“What was… she like?”

“Who?”

A nervous pause. “Margaret Surina.”

“Beautiful,” said Quell, then rolled over to face the wall, signaling that the conversation was over.

*

Excerpted from “Geosynchron” by David Louis Edelman. Copyright © 2010 by David Louis Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Excerpt licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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