Rook woke to sunlight and a cool breeze on his face. He was on the beach with Carlo.
Everything was perfect.
“Wake up, sleepyhead.” There was a smile in Carlo’s voice, “We’re here.”
Here? They were already at the beach; where else would he want to go?
Slowly, Rook opened his eyes. Carlo’s voice and the soft touch of his hands on Rook’s face vanished.
He wasn’t surprised that the light had woken him. They had kept the panels covering the portals closed during the flight. Apparently the sight of all those stars with nothing in between was too much for the human mind to handle, especially the already volatile mind of a prisoner who’d essentially been sentenced to death. Rook had heard they’d been cleaning up bits of the last incident for weeks. For incident, read ‘one of the prisoners went crazy, managed to kill someone, and then hung himself.’
Rook wondered if the family of the convict who’d gone mad during that cautionary tale of a flight—before they had begun closing the viewports to block out the sight of empty space—had been sent a bill for property damage.
What little light the prisoners had been given, a few hours each day, just enough to keep them alive and more or less well without wasting precious power on them, had been glaring, bright, artificial. This light was different. Around him, the other prisoners were stirring as well, brought up from their restless, dark dreams—what they’d left behind, what awaited them—by this soft, almost gentle light.
They weren’t shackled on the voyage. Where could they go? The crew was safe behind steel bulkheads. An automated, time-released flap on one of the otherwise featureless grey walls delivered all of the prisoners’ food and water. In Rook’s opinion, if the prisoners wanted to kill each other, it might just be for the best, given what awaited them at their journey’s end.
They were monitored by a camera, though, and if fighting got too intense, the oxygen level in the prisoners’ hold lowered until they passed out.
Rook blinked. Even though the light meant they had arrived, that his sentence had officially begun—’travel time doesn’t count,’ he had been gleefully informed as they were herded onto the ship for the four-month journey—Rook couldn’t help feeling relieved to see sunlight again, especially after spending the whole trip with artificial light. He smiled ruefully. Did his sentence start now, or did he have to wait until his clunky, uncomfortable uniform boots hit the foreign soil outside? Either way, there was an unimaginable difference between three weeks—his expected survival time—and twenty-three years—his actual sentence. The next shipload of prisoners was probably already on its way.
They staggered them three weeks apart.
It would have been massively unfeasible to run an operation like this, when the time spent transporting fresh bodies was longer than the time they were expected to live, if it weren’t for two things. First, those bodies were prisoners, and therefore didn’t need to be paid.
Second, of course, was betwixium. Named for the planet of its origin—B-226—and its perplexing nature, betwixium made all of those long-distance, interstellar flights possible. The mineral had many properties, but its primary function was as a fuel of remarkable efficiency. Three grams had been enough to hurtle their ship through space for the entire flight.
It was, of course, wonderfully rare, and thus expensive.
Prisoners were needed to obtain the mineral, but the mineral was needed to transport prisoners.
Rook closed his eyes again, trying to recapture the sound and feel of Carlo, but he was gone. Good. He didn’t want even the memory of his husband following him to this awful place where even the sunlight he had been enjoying was subtly wrong.
Still, the breeze on his face felt good. It also made him aware that there were tears on his cheeks. He brushed them away with his sleeve. He couldn’t afford to show weakness here. Not when he was so close to the relative freedom of the planet’s surface.
The flight had essentially been long periods of waiting and near-silence between the sudden ker-chunk of the flap that signaled their next meal was about to arrive—the sound making them salivate like Pavlov’s long-dead dogs.
Rook supposed the flap opened on a regular schedule, but there was no clock in the prisoners’ area, no way of telling time beyond the on-off-on of the overhead lights, telling them when to sleep and when to wake.
There were tablets provided, one for each prisoner, heavy, awkward, damage resistant models that were almost a decade out of date, which could show books or films or games. They didn’t show any pornography, and even the most skilled hackers in the group couldn’t change that fact, but there was nothing else to do. Rook had read for most of the flight, trying to block out his companions.
There had been fights, of course, but after so long trapped with the same group of people, even fighting had eventually become tiresome once they worked out a hierarchy and everyone knew his place.
Rook had fought once, and only once. He had broken his opponent’s wrist and then gone back to reading Victor Hugo in the original French.
Rook was big and intimidating, towering over most of the other prisoners, menacing even when doing nothing. They left him alone after that, and he was grateful.
Let them think that he was playing violent games instead of reading poetry.
Rook had a plan. He was going to live as long as he could, because he knew that Carlo would have wanted him to, and then he was going to die and be reunited with his husband. This planet was kind enough to ensure that ‘as long as he could’ wouldn’t be very long at all.
So he kept to himself, and read, and drooled when he heard the flap opening like the rest of the dogs. He also daydreamed, and touched himself in the night when the lights were out. He thought, always, of Carlo.
It wasn’t the first time that he had woken with tears on his face. He had learned to wipe them beneath his arms, where the moisture could be explained away as sweat.