Ben Dulgoon woke slowly- stretching his arms above him and lowering them a few times before opening his eyes. The ceiling panels in his cell and in the hall were slowly flickering to life. Part of the flicker was the lights coming online one at a time, while part was provided by the shimmer of the transparent door. The doors weren’t force fields (too expensive to waste on prisoners), but they did carry a current and a decent punch if you ran into them on accident. He stood up slowly and relieved himself in the toilet by the corner. A few stray flecks hit the sides, and a small, wiry bot hurried out of a narrow panel in the wall and proceeded to sanitize the area vigorously. Ben hated those things.
It had been five years- give or take- since he had been interned at Cordis Detention Center. That was before war had broken out, or at least before the Confederation had recognized it as such. The Confederation had a long history of pretending things were different than they were, as far as Ben was concerned. He thought back to his home, to Gemini II. The moon and its twin had been terraformed centuries past into rich, tropical biomes which were excellently suited for year-round, small-scale farming and harvesting.
The dream behind the Gemini project had been far more optimistic than that of Beatrah Major. Beatrah had undergone minimal modifications due to its habitable atmosphere and ozone and, even more importantly, the ready accessibility of mineral resources. The Confederation had designated it as an industrial moon with a focus on shipbuilding. However, by the time Ben’s grandparents had been born, the Confederation had essentially crumbled due to infighting among the core worlds. A few well-placed fission explosions were all it took to wipe out the Council, Commissioners, and anyone who cared about what happened on the latest, now-forgotten colonization projects. And yet, leaders in Beatrah saw themselves as the Confederation in this system and purported to be the continuation of lawful governance.
What a farce, thought Ben. While Beatrah kept the Confederate dignity, pomp, and circumstance, the moon’s internal politics were far more primitive. Command fell to whoever would take it over the fiscal or literal corpses of their enemies. Governors came and went as the tides inevitably turned. Unfortunately for Gemini, several of the leading conglomerates and warlords had put aside their differences for a calmer playing field by putting together a council of sorts to direct Beatrah with a new presiding Governor each year. While it gave Beatrah some measure of peace, the council sought ways to expand its influence.
First it was taxes. “By rightful legislation and for the general welfare.” Then it was raids, when they decided the taxes were inadequate. “For equality.” …Then it was war. Beatrah was not quite the size of even one of the twins, yet the fight was slow to start and fitful at first. Though Gemini held a larger populace, Beatrah carried all the advantages of having been established as a military station. They had discipline, established ship and weapons manufacturing, and a populace used to organized conflict. Ben had been part of the first skirmishes against the “Collection Agents”- ambushing skeleton crews of ships while the ground team was out taking what they saw fit.
When he was captured, Beatrah had as of yet refused to announce a state of war against the Gemini moons, preferring to treat them as wayward sons. Ben had been prosecuted as an insurrectionist and given three back-to-back life sentences. He might have been executed if the Confederation hadn’t been concerned about making their takeover look as natural as possible. Public incinerations draw too much attention.
Incineration might not have been so bad, thought Ben as Wyatt threw another punch into his gut. Mercifully, some of the spiders came from panels in the wall to clean the blood off of him, the floor, and Wyatt’s knuckles. As much as he hated them, it was always a relief to see the spindly bots show up when he was getting beaten. No one was stupid enough to keep on fighting when they showed up and risk harming one of them. The spiders must have been rather valuable, because the few occasions Ben remembered of someone, usually new or delirious, breaking one of them had been far from pleasant.
The rule of thumb punishment for breaking one of the Cordis Health and Sanitation robots is a demonstration. Specifically, it’s a demonstration hosted by the guards showing off the surgical capacity of these “advancements in humane detention.” The offender is strapped down in the middle of the mess hall and stabbed in the gut with a dirtied knife. A guard then instructs the spider to treat the inmate and sanitize the area. It shoots spindly metallic extensions into the man’s abdomen and stitches as it burns away any potentially infectious material and the tissue around it. The spiders don’t come equipped with anesthetic.
“Don’t think I won’t be back for you, freak!” Wyatt swore and walked off, spider still skimming the blood off his hand. Ben felt a crunch as the spider put his nose back in place and stumbled back to his cell. Being from Gemini was not popular in Cordis these days. Though in the eyes of the Confederation Ben had never actually participated in the war, it was little use telling that to brothers, sons, and fathers who had lost family in some Gemini jungle. To them, he might as well have killed them himself.
It wasn’t all bad, though. There was always a good amount to read, even though the news was mostly Confederate propaganda. The only issue was that the readers were in a common area that was locked down at night and frequented during the day. The primary time he was able to read was during breakfast. He didn’t mind skipping the meal, and it was worth having something to think about in his cell. Sometimes, he would put scratches on the walls of things he had been thinking about, though the spiders never let them stay for more than ten minutes. They kept the facility spotless to the point of discomfort. Nonetheless, he had been able to fall into a rhythm and even befriend some of the more level-headed inmates. His friends included political activists, extortionists, swindlers, and an arson or two. (Terry had never actually been convicted of torching his ex-wife’s apartment, but it wouldn’t have surprised anyone who knew him.)
At the end of the day, though, Geminis were alone. When fights broke out, it was suicide to step in for “the enemy,” and more so for Geminis to stand up for each other. That was viewed as activity hostile to the Confederation itself and could be answered with torture or death. Ben got by for himself pretty well, all things considered. He stayed out of the spotlight and avoided crowds when he could. Meals were always a risk, but he ate quickly and was careful not to offend. Nevertheless, getting beaten was just part of life. The spiders would always come by after to fix whatever got broken. He used to wonder why they took such care to keep prisoners alive until he found out that many of them were part of influential clans, and they were generally more valuable alive. He just happened to be lucky enough to be there.
Of course, you could leave Cordis whenever you wanted. Outside the mess hall was a door leading straight outside. If the smog wasn’t too bad, you could see the world with its earth-tone trees and scrappy wildlife. Beatrah wasn’t much to look at, but it became more enticing every year. Not only was there a door, but it was always left open. The threshold was the deadline, though. One step over, and you were considered fair game for the guard towers. No one had made more than three steps before the first shot hit them. Afterward, the spiders would hurry over and vaporize the corpse. Anyone who’s smelled burning flesh can tell you how it reeks. The spiders try covering it up with a strong, sweet odor, but that is almost worse. Someone just died, and not even their smell was left behind.
Days passed, and the war dragged on. One would think the war wouldn’t have touched Cordis any deeper, but simmering resentment continued toward the few remaining Geminis. Life became ever more torturous for Ben, Grayson, Ezek, and a handful of others. There were moments, and even weeks, of respite, but there were just as many nights of being pulled out of their cells and punished for the crimes of their people. The guards went to ever more creative methods in this pursuit, often enticing with meals after a long period of food-less isolation and interrupting halfway through with further beatings. The goal was to make the unlucky subject regurgitate what he had just consumed. Ben had gotten good at keeping it down. Ezek grew a beard but shaved it whenever it grew long enough to get yanked around. That was part of how Ben kept time. He tracked life by the cycles of Ezek’s beard. Unfortunately, keeping tabs on the walls didn’t work out, so he lost track eventually. But Ben got the impression that they had been there a good while once Ezek’s gray hairs started coming in. They had been in school together. When Terry asked Ben why he kept going, he couldn’t think of anything to say but that he hadn’t gotten around to dying quite yet.
Ben woke up to a sharp rap on the door before it slid open. The light from the panels in the hall was blinding. “Get up, it’s time to go.” He squinted and grunted at the men in the hall. “Come on, man! We can’t drag you out of here. You’re getting free.” Ben gulped. Freedom can be another word for death, and I’m not ready. It wouldn’t be the first time the guards had “liberated” a cell. “Get back!” he shouted. “I’m not ready to die.” “Shut up! We don’t have much time, idiot.” They were dressed like guards, but there was something different about them. It wouldn’t have been the first time new cadets played mind games on inmates for fun. But maybe if there was some chance this wasn’t a hoax, freedom was worth the risk. Ben nodded and got up. “Follow us and keep quiet.”
They stepped into the hall, and Ben saw several more prisoners being pulled out of their cells. His heart leaped, but for joy or terror, he couldn’t tell. They were all Gemini. He was halfway toward the end of the hall when there was a shout, a shot, and it seemed like all Hell’s fury had broken loose. All pretenses of stealth aside, the men accompanying him pulled out firearms and exchanged rounds with the newly alarmed guards. Ben broke into a sprint as droids spilled out of the walls. Some saw to guards along the catwalk with fresh bullet holes to tend to, but others were clearly on a more malicious trajectory. A man behind Ben gurgled miserably as a bot sprung from behind one he had just shot and impaled him. Ben closed his eyes for a moment before remembering that he didn’t want to trip and die. Unfortunately, he had little desire to keep running forward, either. Straight ahead yawned the only exit Ben had ever seen in Cordis Detention- the dead line. He couldn’t say what kept his feet moving, but Ben chose to press forward- close behind those who had just freed him. He didn’t dare look back to see who was or wasn’t keeping up. Ben just ran.
Three more, two more, one more stride, and Ben was sprinting through a light rain into a dark field. He expected several shots directed toward his torso, but he didn’t hear them. Instead, he heard the deafening hum of three atmosphere-capable transports preparing to lift. He stopped for a moment- cognitive dissonance striking him strongly, before being pulled toward the furthest craft and flung inside. He looked back and saw a few of the Gemini getting out. Ezek was there (slight grizzle), as were some of the new inmates who were an overflow from the POW camp. A few more piled into the transport before it sealed the hatches and began a rapid ascent toward the upper atmosphere. Just before cloud level, Ben looked at the viewport and saw an orange ripple below them- north to south- as Cordis Detention exploded into fire, ash, and, Ben hoped, melted silicone.
He heard the roar of thrusters and the commotion of the crew around him, but all Ben could do was sit and breathe and look at the space outside. He was free. The captain came over after they were clear of any possible Confederate traffic and thanked him for the trial he had endured for the people of Gemini. Ben simply nodded at first, but he had the presence of mind to speak up for at least one question. “What year is it?” “751 since the founding of the Confederacy.” 14 years. Ben nodded again and thanked the captain for his aid.
The rest of the voyage was fairly uneventful, though Ben was fascinated to hear what had gone on in the war and the series of events leading to his rescue. Apparently, a series of successively bolder raids on Confederation mines had slowed the creation of new ships enough to create wider and wider chinks in the Confederate blockade. Up til that point, Beatrah had relied on a large fleet of fairly small ships that simply out-numbered any opposition. Years of refinement, recycling, and tinkering left the Gemini fleet in a much more advantageous position, trading numbers for durability and scale. Thus, excursions to free POW’s were recently viable. And here he was.
“Prepare for atmos entry and landing sequence,” the address system repeated for the fourth time. Almost home. The light was blinding when Ben pulled himself out into the open. Part of it was the sun, but part of it was the flash of photos being captured by a dozen or more reporters. He couldn’t tell if it was loud or not- everything felt like a blur until someone was hugging him and crying.
Her shoulders were shaking as she looked him in the eyes.
“I can’t believe you’re home.”
Ben laughed, probably for the first time in a month. “Course I’m home, ma.”
He wrapped her tight before they were both ushered into a transport and driven toward an outpost of the Gemini navy.
Beth sighed, “You got old, son.”
Ben smiled a bit at that. “You’re no spring chicken yourself.”
She swatted him with one hand while wiping under her cheeks with the other.
The debrief went faster than Ben had anticipated, considering the length of his captivity. He didn’t have much useful information, as the only Beatran facility he was familiar with had been razed to the ground. “Good job holding in there, soldier,” said the corpsman at the end of his debrief and examination for tracking equipment. “-Musta been one long hell.” I suppose it was.
Ben closed his eyes and breathed deep when he walked outside again. The drive home was longer than he had anticipated. “Did you and dad move, ma?” “Well, I did… after your father passed on.” I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. It hurt to hear, anyway. “How did it happen?” “Bombings. – Well, bombings of the factories. Your father couldn’t get medication for his heart condition. But he came to peace with it and had time to say his goodbyes.” Ben nodded and sighed. “So where are we at, now?” “Right up here on the left.” She motioned toward one in a long row of city houses squashed together, thin and tall.
Ben’s room was furnished, clean, and fitted with a full closet of his old clothes. “We saved as much as we could,” said Beth. None of them fit anymore, but it was a nice touch. “I’ll put some dinner on at 5.” “Thanks.” Ben opened up the window and took in the draft from the city. He came back to the window after dinner and sat looking out it at all the people below. He didn’t know any of their names, but it was exhilarating to watch them living lives in passing. Some were skulking, others laughing, and a few were kissing, but everything seemed very much alive. He sat up the whole night with the lights on, alternating between looking outside and opening and closing his door. It may not have felt like home, but it felt good.
A few old friends visited over the next few days, but neither they nor Ben really recognized each other. The visits were brief, awkward, and usually terminated with some form of “I gotta go now, but welcome back.” The media came and went- asking for an interview or a picture. Ben turned them all down. In fact, he barely left his room. Beth was able to cajole him downstairs once or twice a day for meals, and he did enjoy being around her. Nonetheless, being around people made him oddly nervous. It was one thing to watch them from his window, but it felt different actually standing near the strangers. He didn’t fit in. These were his countrymen, but he didn’t understand the fashion of the day much less how these people must have changed over the last decade. With his back-pay from the Gemini military starting to come in, there was nowhere Ben needed to be, no work that needed to be done.
“Why don’t you go out, Ben? I’m worried about you,” his mother asked one morning.
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t feel like going anywhere. Nowhere to be, really.”
Beth sighed. “There’s a world of places to be, Ben. Heck, there’s a universe of places to be. What’s holding you back?”
Ben looked down and rubbed his neck. “I don’t know that I’ll ever really be anywhere else. I’m still there, you know. Cordis, I mean. Every night. And you know that feeling when you wake up on a trip, and you’re a little surprised at your surroundings when you open your eyes, because your mind thought you were still home? It’s like that, but instead of home, it’s Hell.”
Beth lifted his chin with both hands. “Son, listen to me. Everyone you see when you look out your window at night, everyone who passes on the street; we have all been through hell. We’ve lost friends, family, property- everything we were fighting to protect. The war may be turning, but it doesn’t bring back what and who we’ve lost. You’ve escaped Cordis. You’re free. Really and truly. You can walk out that door whenever you want. But it grasps at us even when we are outside its reach. Death sends tendrils to pull us back. I will miss your father as long as I live. Life is hard without him, and I feel the weight, the pull, the tug of it all. Some days are easier than others, and some days I can barely move. But I refuse it. Because I still have life, my people still have life, and my son still has life. And I want you to live!” She gave him a hug and walked toward the stairwell. “Don’t keep on going as if you were still in your cell, Ben.”
Ben nodded and went upstairs. He sat in the corner until well past midnight, sipping cheap beer and looking in the mirror. On again, off again, memories flitted past. Sickly sweet smells. Lights-lights out- lights- lights out. Screams. Stupid Wyatt. Stupid, dead Wyatt, now. At least that ***** is never coming back. Ben almost cracked a smile at that, but it was sad, too. And neither is Cordis. Cordis is gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone.
But am I free?
Ben yelled and shattered his bottle against the credenza. Breathing heavy, he grabbed a coat and put a pair of old shoes from a packing box. They still fit. He stormed down the stairs and stopped at the door, swore, and pulled it open. The smell of rain and the scene of the quiet street pummeled his senses. He stepped out into the rain and stood, breathing heavily, until his clothes were soaked through.
Ben walked back through the doorway, hung his coat on the rack, and left a soaked trail up to his room. He collapsed into bed and started drifting off with a hint of a smile on his face.
It’s a start.