Omega 6537 (interlude)
Rand Tyler shivered as he stood by the spacecraft’s hatchway. Frigid air was spilling through the opening as he took in the vista beyond. Golgotha was not a dead world, by far. It had a breathable atmosphere and there was a surprising amount of heavy metals at its molten core, giving it substantially more gravity than the small world should have, and (more importantly) a strong magnetosphere.
But the landscape was forbidding, nonetheless. Tan rocks stained by dark lichens with pale green moss hugging their bases were the dominant feature. Gravel, sand and small clumps of scrub vegetation were the rest. The vista extended as far as he could see, over a series of low, rolling hills stretching away to a horizon that seem too close for comfort. The sky was cloudless and deep blue with a sun that seemed smaller and dimmer than it should be. Even at what passed for midday, it seemed no brighter than a cloudy day anywhere else.
There was a stinging sensation at his neck accompanied with the hiss of an autoinjector. He turned to look at the medic with the question in his eyes. “Subcutaneous marker tag,” said the man with a nod. “It’ll itch for a while, but try not to scratch it. It’s the only proof of identity you’ll have while you’re here, so it’s the only way you’ll get off this rock when your sentence is up.”
“You honestly think I’ll live that long?” Rand asked with a note of sarcasm.
“Not really,” said the medic with a shrug, “but there have been a few who’ve made it twenty years here.”
“What happened to them?” Rand asked.
“They were put aboard a starship making the jump for Limpopo,” replied the medic as he drew a large caliber auto pistol from inside his service jacket and chambered a round, “after that, exile from Imperium space, under pain of death.”
The medic pointed the weapon at Rand and touched a control on the belt he wore. The shackles on his wrists and ankles sprung open. Rand shook them loose and let them fall to the deck. He rubbed his wrists as he looked outside and then back at the medic. “Where’s the prison?”
“Beneath your feet,” the medic replied. “You’ve got three seconds to disembark. After that, I start shooting.”
Rand stepped out and watched the hatch slide shut. The medic kept the weapon trained on him until the hatch sealed. Rand walked away from the ship’s boat as its lifters roared to life and carried it into the dark blue sky until it was a dark cigar shape, receding.
When it was gone, there was nothing but the cold that was making quick work of his orange prison jumpsuit’s thin material and the sound of the wind. Rand shivered and drew his arms about him. “So is this it?” he asked aloud, “freezing to death on a barren planet in the middle of nowhere?”
The answer came from a whirring, ratcheting sound behind him. Rand turned and saw that part of the ground had sunk down, revealing a ramp leading under the surface. Cautiously he approached it and saw a woman at the bottom of the ramp, who was wearing a long coat. “Done sight-seeing now?” she mocked. Rand nodded. “Then get down here already, unless you want to freeze to death.”
He jogged down the ramp to her, grateful to get out of the wind, at least. “I’m Caretaker Alpha Three-Oh-Seven-Four,” she said when he got to the bottom. She pointed to a doorway just past the base of the ramp. “Step in.”
The area beyond the doorway turned out to be a mine elevator. The woman closed a cage gate across the opening and then another in the car before turning to a simple control level and pulling it down. The elevator car descended at a dizzying rate. Rand fought off a wave of nausea as he watched the rock walls of the elevator shaft fly upward by the yellowish light of a single, primitive incandescent bulb suspended above the car in a simple reflecting fixture.
A moment later, the walls fell away and Rand could see a larger cavern, the floor of which was lit with more of the incandescent lights like the one above his head. The woman gestured to the scene as the elevator descended. “This is the living area,” she said, “the rest of the facility is spread out among other caverns and mines.”
“So you’re going to show me to my cell?” asked Rand.
“Cells are reserved for inmates who are dangerous to other inmates,” she replied. “This facility is for people who rebelled against Imperial authority. We are cut off from Imperial society, stripped of our citizenship and left here to fend for ourselves.”
“You’re a guard, though,” Rand said.
“I’m a caretaker,” she said. “Twenty-seven years ago, I was just like you – an Omega, the lowest level of inmate – taking this elevator ride into the facility for the first time.”
“You’re serving a life sentence?” asked Rand.
“I served twenty years,” she said, “that’s the maximum sentence permitted by Imperial law. When my sentence was up, I refused to leave.” She paused as she lifted the elevator’s control lever. The car slowed as it reached the floor of the cavern.
“Why in Nine Hells would anyone want to stay here?” asked Rand as the car came to a stop.
The woman opened the gate for the car, gesturing for him to exit. Rand stepped out and she followed, pausing just long enough to take off her coat and hang it on a wall peg next to the elevator.
Rand gave the woman a glance. She was a hard woman, her body a product of long years of long days of toil. Her dishwater blonde hair was cropped short. Her pale complexion spoke of her time underground, while the crows’ feet around her green eyes spoke of pain she would not voice. She was dressed in a gray jumpsuit with a white stripe down each sleeve. Her boots were the same as his, though slightly more worn.
“You done looking at me, now?” she asked, startling Rand from his musings. “Don’t go having fantasies about me,” she added as she pointed, “I’ve already got a life partner. Come on, we’re going this way.”
‘This way’ led down a pedestrian street of sorts between rows of low concrete buildings. Rand saw other people he assumed were inmates. All of them seemed to be engaged doing something or going from one place to another. They all wore the same basic prison jumpsuit, though there were many different colors and patterns in evidence. Few of them gave him more than a glance, but nobody stared.
They approached a group of buildings that were surrounded by a low fence made of scrap sheet metal. A man dressed the same as Rand’s escort stood next to its gate. The man was as hard and lean as the woman. He opened the gate and nodded to her, but didn’t acknowledge Rand at all as they passed through.
“This area is reserved for Omegas,” she said. “With any luck, you won’t spend much time here. How long that is depends on your skills set and your attitude.” She stopped next to a woman in a yellow jumpsuit with black stripes, saying something to her Rand didn’t quite catch.
The other woman nodded and looked Rand over. Rand noted that she had the same sort of hardness he’d seen in everyone in the facility. Her dark hair was cut as short as his escort’s – with night-pale skin overly emphasizing her dark eyes. She stepped over to him. “I’m Administrator Tau Four-Seven-Two-Six,” she said. “I’ll be responsible for you while you’re in the Omega enclave.”
“What does that mean,” he asked, “being ‘responsible’ for me?”
“It means that I make sure you’re alive, fed, hydrated, reasonably healthy and have a place to sleep,” she said. She grabbed him by the front of his jumpsuit, nearly lifting him off the ground. “It also means that if you piss me off by violating the rules or challenging me in any way, nobody’s going to stop me from doing whatever it takes to get you back in line. Got it?”
Rand favored her with an expression of forced patience and slight annoyance. “Got it,” he said.
Tau cocked her head and smiled as she released him. “That’ll do for now,” she said. “Walk with me, and I’ll get you processed.”
“So say another inmate jumps me around here,” he said as they started walking toward the two-story at the center of the enclave. “Will you come to my rescue? Or am I on my own?”
“Depends on the circumstances,” she replied with a shrug. “If it’s another Omega, I’ll jump in – not so much to rescue you, but to punish him or her for violating the rules. If it’s somebody of a higher position than you but lower than or equal to me, I’ll break it up and find out what started it. If you’re the one at fault, then I’ll finish what they started.”
“And if it’s someone higher than a Tau, I’m on my own?” he asked.
She blew out a breath that showed him what she thought of his chances. “It was nice to meet you,” she said, “because anyone higher than me has allies lower than them who’ll stomp the crap out of you for being an uppity idiotic prat. If you’re entertaining, they might let you live with a few broken bones. If not, they’ll do you and piss on whatever’s left as a warning to everyone else.”
“So I should make friends, then?” he asked.
“In good time,” she said as they reached the steps to the building. “Right now, you’ve got nothing to offer anyone. Nobody here does favors for somebody out of the goodness of their hearts. Favors are our currency here. You’ll find out who’s word is good and who’s isn’t worth spit.”
They’d finished climbing the short flight of stairs and stepped into the building’s lobby – a large room with support columns at intervals, indirectly lit by the electric lamps with incandescent bulbs in metal reflector shades on several desks. Tau led Rand to a metal desk, indicating where he should sit by pointing at a metal straight chair.
She rummaged in the drawers of the desk for a moment before producing a paper form and a stylus with a split nib. Rand noticed the paper has streaks of color in it and had somewhat rough edges. “Can you print legibly with a fountain pen?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve only used a keyboard or voice transcriber,” he said.
She nodded. “No worries,” she said, “but it is something you’ll have to learn. We’re fairly low tech here, though there are some exceptions. For example, the electricity we use comes from geothermal steam turbines the original mining colony installed about two hundred years ago.”
“You reserve all your wood for paper?” he asked, “Or do you trade something for it?”
She smiled and pushed the form toward him. “Touch it,” she said. He did and his brow furrowed. “Rag bond,” she added, “we make it from worn out clothing. Bleach is something we trade for, but sometimes we don’t have enough to remove all the old clothing dyes. If that’s something you’re interested in, I’ll let one of the Omicrons know.” She set the form on the desk in front of her and actuated a small lever on the stylus while she dipped the nib in a bottle of black ink.
“Time to get to business, now,” she said. “Birth name?”
“Rand Tyler,” he replied, watching her write on the form. It only took a few minutes of questions and writing to fill it out. She put the pen down and pulled out a bulging drawstring bag that was hand-sewn from the remnants of an Omega’s jumpsuit. At her urging, he reached into it, pulling out a short triangular rod of metal that was scribed with a four digit number and handed it to her.
“Six-Five-Three-Seven,” she read from its surface, squinting slightly to see the tiny marks. As she wrote down the numbers, she added “Remember that, because along with your job and rank, that’s your name for as long as you’re here.”
“So what’s your birth name?” he asked.
“None of your business,” she said as she filed the form. “That’s one of the rules – you don’t ask anybody for their birth name and you don’t offer yours, ever.” She carefully emptied the remaining ink in the fountain pen back into the bottle on the desk. “If you happen to find out what somebody’s birth name is, keep it to yourself and forget it as fast as you can. If somebody claims to know yours, you’d better kill them as soon as you can.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Names have power,” she said, “and there are nobles out there who are vindictive enough to bribe inmates here to take out their vengeance upon someone whose name is known. Do you know anybody like that?”
Rand tried to hide his expression, but the memory of what Marquis Toyama had done to him in the cell on Narmada was too strong and fresh.
“Yeah,” said Tau, reading him perfectly, “me too.” She stood and gestured for him to do the same. “We’ll get you marked and then a place to sleep.”
“Marked?” he echoed as she headed for the stairs, “where?”
Tau stopped and rolled up her right sleeve. Her number was tattooed on the inside of her forearm in large bold digits. “We use sterilized needles,” she said, “but to answer your question before you ask it – yeah, it hurts and it will bleed a bit, initially.” She pulled her sleeve back down. “So let’s get it over with.”
Rand did as he was told. A male caretaker did the work while wearing protective gloves and face shield. It hurt. It bled. He gritted his teeth and sweated but didn’t complain or whimper. Tau left the room partway through the process, but she was back before it was over. “Had to check on some of the other Omegas and give them their lunches,” she said. She handed him a synthetic ration bar and cup of water. “Bon appetite,” she said.
He made a face as he chewed the first bite. Tau nodded. “Yeah, it’s awful. Try to consider that some incentive to be useful around here so you can shed that Omega rank.”
“The higher ranks eat real food?” he asked around another mouthful.
Tau nodded again. “None of us get very much of the real stuff,” she said, “not even the Alphas. But the synthetic food tastes better. Omegas get the rejects – just as healthy, but bland, if you’re lucky.”
They headed back downstairs. “The prison makes its own synthetic food?” he asked.
“Penal colony, not prison,” corrected Tau, “but yeah, we do. However, the really good stuff is imported from Avoca. We grow a lot of our own food hydroponically, but we don’t have the technology base here to maximize our yields, so it’s been a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, our previous master gardeners have kept very extensive records, so we keep getting better at it.”
They were outside by the time she finished. Tau made an abrupt turn and Rand had to hustle to keep up. “I’m going to show you something before I take you to your new, albeit temporary, home,” she said.
Tau led Rand to what he took for an amphitheater in the round – a cluster of three circular formacrete tiers descending toward a central dais that was perhaps five meters in diameter. Set in the very center of the dais, a circular grill of corroded iron just shy of three meters across. Each of the tiers was only a half-meter below the one outside it – the dais half that height.
Tau made her way toward the center. Rand was hesitant. Something under that grill stank with a diseased septic reek. As Tau reached the edge of the grill, Rand heard something – someone – groan. Tau looked back at him with a hard expression. “Get your ass over here,” she said, “now.”
Rand fought his gag reflex and complied. Below the grill was a featureless circular cell less than two meters high, much like the one he’d occupied on Narmada. He shuddered in revulsion as he saw a humanoid form move below his feet. It had been a man, once, but he could see sores on the wretch’s skin, bones that had been broken and improperly set, and a mass of sweat-matted hair and beard to conceal the prisoner’s face. A single green eye burned through it all, staring back at Rand, sure to fuel nightmares.
“This,” said Tau, “is what happens when someone thinks that they’re big and bad enough to do whatever he or she wants. I don’t know what he did before the Imperium brought him here, but he’d been worked over several times during the transit, probably by several Imperial Marines.”
Rand backed away until he stumbled off the dais and sat down hard on the unyielding stone of the innermost tier. “It took three marines to throw him off the boat that brought him here four years ago,” Tau continued, “and it took two strong people and a stretcher to get him to the medical facility. He was our responsibility, so we did what we could to make him comfortable and mend his hurts.”
The man in the cell roared incoherently at her. “GO AWAY!” he bellowed. “GO!”
Tau looked down at the prisoner. “Shut it, piss-boy,” she said as she pulled a ration bar from her pocket and dangled it where the prisoner could see it, “or you’re going to go without lunch again.”
There was a final growl from the pit, then silence. Tau crouched down and dropped it through a gap in the bars of the grate. She remained crouching, watching the wretch in the pit eat but she continued speaking to Rand.
“It took him six weeks of constant care to recover enough to walk,” she said. “But as soon as he could do that, he beat an aide to death with a food tray, and then attacked a caretaker whom he killed while she was fighting back. It took four people to pull him off of her while he was sodomizing her corpse.”
Tau stood and walked over to Rand. “She was an Alpha,” she said as she sat down beside him, “and a caretaker as well – a formally trained and certified medic. Her kind is very rare here, as you might guess. Her crew did the damage to him for what he’d done. Four years mostly neglected and alone in that hole did the rest.”
Tau looked back toward the grill in the dais. “He’s still got sixteen years to go, you know. He’s going to spend them all right there. If he lives, they’ll escort him out chained to a gurney and let the Imperial Navy deal with him.”
Rand just managed to turn his head away before he threw up his lunch in the gutter between the tier and the dais. Tau laid a hand on his shoulder to steady him. It was several minutes before he felt like sitting up again. He couldn’t meet her gaze. “Can we go now?” he finally said. “Please.”
“Sure,” said Tau. She helped him up the tiers to street level and guided him through the pedestrian streets to a featureless one-story shack constructed from slabs of concrete that were bolted together. He stopped at the doorway of the place, seeing it was a barren room with an exposed toilet and sink in one corner and a pile of bedding in the other corner. It had no lights inside, no windows, but barred openings in the ceiling to allow the cave’s ambient lights to dimly illuminate the interior. He turned to look at the only door to the place, a slab of solid metal on hinges. His eyes widened when he realized it opened outward.
Tau placed the palm of her hand firmly on the base of his spine and shoved him, hard. Rand stumbled over the threshold and went sprawling on unforgiving stone floor. The door slammed shut behind him and he heard someone throw a pair of sliding bolts before he could regain his footing.
He threw himself at the door, hammering it with his fists and shoulder while hurling obscenities and curses for a full minute before the futility of it finally sank in. “Calm down,” came Tau’s voice from above him. He could see her through the barred openings in the ceiling. “This is standard procedure. You’ll spend five days in there so you’ll know what happens when you screw up around here. Every Omega gets it when they first get here, and everybody here was an Omega once.”
Rand sighed. “I did that long waiting for my transport,” he said, “so, piece of cake.”
“Good,” replied Tau. “While you’re in there, you think about what you can offer to the colony. As soon as you’re out, you’ll start meeting with supervisors to find work and a place for you. If you behave, I’ll see about wrangling an extra ration for dinner for you.”
And then she was gone. The live acoustics of the cave brought the indistinct sounds of the community to his ears. He laid down on the bedding and listened to it a while. The wheels in his mind started to turn. He closed his eyes and smiled.
“Patience,” he said to himself, “I learned quite a bit today. I’ll need to know more before I act.”