A (long) short story…
Stephen sucked on his finger, the cut was not deep but he enjoyed the taste of fresh blood. This was strange of course for a vegetarian to enjoy the taste of blood, Stephen however thought that since it was his own blood his vegetarian convictions were still in tact. As he sucked the last remnants of blood from his finger Stephen absently gazed out of his cells window at the stars slowly passing by. There was no way for him to determine where he was, one star blurring past is much like another; he had long since given up trying to work out what day it was, time was slowly merging leaving him disorientated.
In the distance Stephen heard a door open and close, then he could make out the sound of footsteps, several people by the sound of it, approaching quite slowly. The footsteps stopped outside his cell, vainly he tried to smooth down his hair by spitting on his hand and running it through his straggly hair. After a short while and the sound of muffled voices he heard the footsteps slowly recede into silence. Anger and frustration started to build inside him, a little human contact, anything to break the nothing of his current existence. Stephen knew however that he could not give in to his emotions and quickly calmed himself to what he imagined to be normal.
When he’d first been locked in his cell his emotions had run wild, soon he discovered what they meant by subduing his negative emotions. Once his emotional state exceeded the systems predetermined safety level the implant in the back of his neck would activate which would not only induce paralysis in nearly all his muscles, but pain at an intensity he’d never imagined possible before throughout his body. The paralysis lasted for seconds, the pain lingered for hours, leaving him lying motionless and devoid of thought for what could have been an eternity.
When Stephen had joined the science and research fleet seven years ago there had been lectures on the strict justice system on board the ships, they’d even given them a tour of the cells. Stephen could not remember much of the tour, he had after all not imagined being thrown into one. Prior to joining the fleet his criminal record had no mark upon it. Now it was stained and tarnished, no one would employ him now, his career was effectively over which meant his research would be at an end. The trouble was no matter how much he tried he could not remember the crime itself, or more precisely, he can remember getting up as normal, chatting with his room mate about trivialities over breakfast, and then going to work as usual.
Despite his lack of memory over the crime itself, Stephen can clearly remember his arrest, it had been such a rapid series of events that it felt dreamlike at the time. He had been aware of the guards circling his workstation for some time, but that was not unusual, the guards often circled a particular area for an hour or so at random before moving on. When they came in to arrest him Stephen thought at first there was something wrong with their flight suits as they fell down toward him so quickly. One guard dropped onto his left shoulder sending him to the ground and before he could move another guard had placed a restraining field upon him. For the guards it had been a text book arrest, for Stephen it had felt like the beginning of the end.
The speaker above Stephen’s heard hummed into life, and a disembodied voice announced that hygiene protocol 3 was about to be initiated, when he’d first entered the cell Stephen had no idea what a hygiene protocol was; now he knew that it meant he had around thirty seconds to remove his one item of clothing , stow it away in the tiny locker, and wait for the showers to start. There was no instruction manual available for those detained in the cells, there was no one to talk to for advice. Stephens only interaction with another person was his all the brief psych sessions, even then he did not actually get to speak to anyone, a small touch screen would light up asking him a series of questions to which he could answer yes or no, by touching the relevant button on screen. Learning what a hygiene protocol was had therefore been something of an induction by water, the protocol had been announced and he’d just stood there wondering what the hell it meant until the water had hit him. Now he quickly stowed his robe and stood ready for the water; it was cold as usual and Stephen gasped as the initial blast hit him. After the water came the driers, vents around the cell opened and warm air blew through them, they were however too weak to dry him properly, and so when they stopped he returned to his bench naked, damp, a little chilled, and resumed his watch over the blurry heavens.
Stephen shook himself awake, he did not know how long he’d been dozing for but he was still naked unless you count the goose bumps covering his arms. He retrieved his robe and pulled it on in the hope that the thin fabric would fend off the chill. It was strange for him to feel the cold, he knew that the environmental systems should maintain a constant 19 degrees throughout the ship and he’d been known to sit naked for hours staring out of his window. Having spent so much time in isolation little inconsequential things such as this played on his mind, whereas before he’d have shrugged it off, now he played through the scenarios in his head; the engines were failing and they could not maintain the environmental levels, they’d struck a small object causing a crack in the ships hull and the repair crews could not fix it, then he started to think the guards may be playing tricks with him. Stephen was lost his thoughts, involving what illness he could have contracted that would leave him susceptible to feeling the cold when he realized the cell door had slid open almost silently behind him.
Standing in the doorway was a middle aged woman with hair greased back from the temples, she wore a internal justice department uniform, and the look on her face showed she was far from happy being there.
“You are prisoner 387, going by the name Stephen Glib?” She read from a small screen on her wrist, before Stephen could respond she continued. “You are charged under section two of the company justice code with nineteen counts of murder on the 26th day of March 2119. What is your plea?”
Inside the cell Stephen stood in a state of confusion, the thought of killing one person was bad enough but nineteen was something he could not get his heard around. He desperately tried to respond, to ask who it was he was supposed to have killed, but the words would not come. Whether it was from the isolation or the confusion he didn’t know but he could not form the words that were in his head.
“Please understand that making no plea will be taken as an acceptance of guilt.” She almost shouted but managed to hold herself in check.
“N… not… g’guilty,” Stephen stammered his voice little more than a whisper.
“Very well,” she replied from her tone she was far from happy with his plea.
“Your trial will be held in the morning I have been assigned to act as your defence.”
With that she turned and walked away, there was a gentle hum and the door closed leaving Stephen bewildered. Now that she had gone so many questions sprang to mind and Stephen was flitting rapidly between them; “who did I kill”, “why did I kill them”, “what was happening to him”, “did he really kill them”. As all these thoughts rushed through is mind Stephen started to lose control of his emotions, anger started to course through him as he continued to run through question after question without answer. He realized he should be trying to calm down or the implant would activate yet that just made him worse, knowing that he could not get angry was making him worse. Without any warning there was a blinding flash of pain throughout his body and he fell to the floor, the pain continued and all thought was driven from him. When he came to his senses again he was curled up on the floor by the bench that served his bed, seat and table. His robe was damp, cold, and sticky with urine thanks to an involuntary loss of muscle control, he removed the robe and dropped it near the door then tried to get the water dispenser to yield a cup of coffee to rinse himself down with. The water dispenser was dry, Stephen calmed himself taking a number of slow breaths, once he felt himself relax he turned and sat down to look out of the window. The deaths of nineteen people kept screaming at him “why?” But he could not answer himself, he could not remember killing anyone, he could hardly remember anything right now.
As he stared into space Stephen tried to recall a trial on the ship, but he was at a loss to remember any, there had been the lower crewman who’d admitted stealing supplies, but there had been no trial – he had pleaded guilty and was removed from the ship. Stephen briefly wondered if he’d be removed if found guilty, but that was something his mind could not accept. A removal was such a simple punishment, as they were on a company ship it was the company who paid for not only your time on board but they paid for the very air that you breathe, and the water you drink. Fall outside of company rules and they no longer feel obligated to pay for your presence on the ship, if the ship happens to be near a space port or habitable planet you will be transferred, otherwise they place you in an emergency transfer pod and eject you into space. Most people they estimate can survive for a week in an ETP after that the air runs thin and the water recycler starts to fail. Death in an ETP was a standard ghost story for trainees, and Stephen had heard them all; the thought of being locked in an ETP sent shivers down his spine and he felt sick to the pit of his stomach.
Curling up on the bench Stephen tried to clear his mind and sleep but he found it impossible to relax, the cell was filled with sounds he’d never noticed before. Air recycling fans clicked and whirred into life at random, two of the wall panels rattled every time the engines powered up, and worst for Stephen was the sound of dripping water just above his head. He realized that all the sounds must have been there before, now however everything was magnified by his mind, in the face of death a last restful sleep seemed important to him. After a while he gave up all attempts at sleep and thought about preparing himself for the trial ahead, soon he realized how futile a task it was – if he could not remember anything and had not seen any evidence against him a defence plan was rather pointless.
Eventually he resumed his solitary vigil of the passing starts, at some point during the night he nodded off to sleep his head resting against the cold cell wall. He managed to sleep through the warning that the showers were about to start and he half jumped half fell off the bench when the water struck his face and ran in rivulets down his chest. Before the water stopped he grabbed his robe and tried in vain to clean it, rubbing the material together under the strongest flow of water then wiping it with the palm of his hand, the water stopped, too soon for him to have made a difference to his stained robe but there was nothing he could do about it now. The driers started and he opened out his robe in front of one, a minute or so later and the driers stopped.
His robe was still dripping wet when the cell door opened, two heavily armed guards stood outside, one of them growled at him to put his robe on; well that’s what Stephen assumed he meant, the guard made a series of low guttural sounds which sounded almost like “get dressed”. Pulling on his dripping robe the guards motioned him to walk in front of them, as he stepped away from the cell he’d lived in for however long he’d been detained; a week, a month, six months… Stephen could not know, he just knew he was unlikely to see inside it again, now that he was leaving it mixed feelings welled up inside him, should he be happy or sad to leave such a solitary existence only to face a solitary death.
The courtroom was stark inside, there were no chairs and all the walls except the far one were a very pale green. On the far wall Stephen could make out a bank of monitors, all dim except for the one in the centre which was displaying the company logo. As he stepped further into the courtroom a hidden door opened on the lefthand wall and three women walked out all dressed in the same internal justice department uniforms. One of the three women he recognized as being the woman who’d came to his cell yesterday, none of them spoke or even acknowledged his existence. When he reached the centre of the room a guard put a restraining hand on his shoulder, the three women stood under the wall of monitors their backs towards him. No one spoke, Stephen stared to look about him, but a glance from one of the guards made him face front again.
No one spoke, time was crawling by, Stephen wondered if he was supposed to say something, but what?
No one spoke, Stephen cleared his throat and coughed gently his defence counsel turned and motioned him to silence.
Stephen could feel the blood pumping around his body, quicker and quicker, he could hear it pounding in his head. Suddenly the silence was broken and the monitors came to life, nearly all of the monitors had a different face looking out of them, under each face was the word ‘juror’ and a number. A disembodied voice filled the courtroom, “Stephen Glib is charged under section two of the company justice code with nineteen counts of murder on the 26th March 2119. Does the jury have a verdict?”
“Hang on!” Stephen stuttered in confusion.
One of the guards stepped up and pressed a small button on his belt, Stephen felt the strength leave his legs and he dropped to the ground.
“This is a civil proceeding and the defendant will not talk” the disembodied voice nearly deafened Stephen.
Stephens defence counsel turned and walked back to him, she knelt next to Stephen and spoke to him quietly, “please let me handle your defence. Causing a scene will not help matters at all.” She cast a disapproving glance over his still damp robe, “could you not at least made an effort to look presentable?” Without waiting for an answer she walked quickly back to the front.
“Does the jury have a verdict?” The voice said again as Stephen rose to his feet.
“Yes,” replied a voice, though with so many faces on the multitude of monitors it took Stephen a moment to realize who was talking. It was an old grey haired man on the left hand side of the screens. “Our verdict on prisoner 387 Stephen Glib is that of guilty on all nineteen counts of murder.”
“No, it’s not true,” Stephen shouted, this time the guard ignored to the button on his belt and instead struck him across the back of his knees with a baton.
“Silence,” the voice said in a roar that almost deafened Stephen. “We have your plea of not guilty on record, there is nothing more for you to say.”
“I don’t remember,” Stephen muttered almost to himself.
“Then we shall show you,” the voice replied almost as quietly.
All the monitors went blank, then a moment later they showed a huge CCTV image of Stephen working away, upon his desk were three sample dishes over which Stephen was holding a hand scanner. There was no sound, but Stephen could tell something was not right, he could see himself tapping the side of the scanner, then he’d shake it up and down, then he could see himself get gradually more and more frustrated as the scanner would not seemingly perform its task. At the top of the screen he could see the guards start to circle his workstation. Then without warning he started to hit the scanner against the desk, two of the sample dishes were smashed on the first strike the other one fell to the floor, moments later the guards were upon him.
“You see now?” The disembodied voice asked.
“It was only a scanner,” Stephen said in confusion. “I killed no one.”
“The evidence is clear,” came the reply. “You were originally restrained by the guards for your own safety and to prevent you from causing further damage to company property, a crime, by the way, which we have not prosecuted you for. It was only when they started to clean up your workstation that the murders were uncovered.”
“But it was only…” Stephen could get out no more before the voice continued.
“One of the samples you were scanning contained, 87 Totipotent stem cells.”
“I’m a geneticist,” Stephen said somewhat bewildered. “I often have to scan cellular materials.”
“Your actions on the 26th March 2119 caused the destruction 19 Totipotent stem cells; wilful destruction of these cells under company law is classified as murder.”
“This is a joke, right?” Stephen could not believe what he was hearing, “we probably experiment and destroy hundreds of these samples a week.”
“Experimentation on cells is carried out under controlled conditions, your actions fell outside the specified conditions. This case is now closed, sentencing will take place shortly.”
Stephen slumped down to his knees, the monitors on the wall slowly dimmed and went blank. He waited the voice to return, to cast judgement upon him, but all was silent. Stephen looked around, the guards were standing behind him one had a restraining field gun ready, the other was swinging a baton back and forth.
“Prisoner 387 Stephen Glib,” the voice returned suddenly without warning. “You have been found guilty of 19 counts of murder and you are hereby released from company service. Our current location is too far from the nearest star base so your removal will be via ETP.”
Stephen sat backwards, behind him one of the guards sniggered quietly.
“Removal will take place in five minutes, the company thanks you for your service.”
One of the guards grabbed him under his arm and dragged him to his feet, Stephen did not know what to do anymore, did he try and fight them, try to appeal, run away. Before he could anything the other guard had put a restraining field on him and they half lifted half dragged Stephen back out of the court. Instead of going back towards the cells they led put him in a service lift and they tapped a quick code into the control pad, the lift was only moving for a couple of seconds when the doors opened and they lifted him out towards a line of ETPs they looked tiny, there was one sitting with it’s instrument panel lit up and a couple of technicians were checking something inside. One of the technicians spotted the guards moving Stephen towards them and he stepped aside, Stephen was still held in the restraining field, he could not move his arms or legs, and the field meant he could not speak. The guards lifted him easily and placed him in the ETP, once inside he started to scream, but the restraining field meant the scream stayed inside his head.
Stephen tried to move, tried to speak, the guards were looking down at him, both had a look of contempt, one said something quietly to the other and they slid the door shut, as the door sealed the restraining field was removed and Stephen jumped forward, the door was locked though and all Stephen managed to do was bang his head. There was hardly room to move in the ETP, there was a tiny slot in front of his eyes and he could see the guards and technicians leave the room, suddenly the lights went out in the room and the ETP started to move. Stephen could see the pod was being moved into an airlock, he could hear the air levels changing outside the pod, then suddenly he was slammed backwards as the pod exploded out and away from the ship. Having a tiny propulsion system the pod could not compete or even attempt to keep up with the ships speeds within seconds the ship had vanished from view and the tiny pod was bouncing around in its wake.
Stephen stared out of his tiny window, he could not tell how long he’d been in the pod now, the stars no longer whizzed past his window, one was slowly growing in front of him; the only trouble was he did not know if there was a planet to welcome him, or how long his air supply would last.