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"Get a move on, monster meat ... I haven't got all day." The guard grinned as he shoved Jonathan Renn through the lock and into the shuttle. Two more guards grabbed Renn and threw him down.
He hit the shuttle's durasteel deck with considerable force. It hurt but Renn was used to pain. That's because the guards used pain as a universal language. A language which never required translation and always got results. Plus, in the imperial order of things, their status was only slightly higher than that of the prisoners they guarded. The ability to inflict pain was an important expression of their superiority.
Renn understood all this but it didn't make him feel better. He shook his head to clear his vision. As things came back into focus he found himself looking straight down at a brass plate set into the deck. It read, ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. The guards laughed, and rough hands jerked him to his feet. The whole episode was part of their routine send-off. Well, screw them. He'd given up hope long ago.
At first he'd hoped that someone would discover his innocence, free him, and convey the emperor's heartfelt apologies. "Sorry old boy, horrible mistake, can't imagine how it happened, can I drive you home?"
Then the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and his fantasies of full exoneration gradually gave way to another, more realistic hope. Perhaps the Imperial Court would be lenient. Yes, he was innocent, but a suspended sentence wouldn't be too bad, at least he'd be free to get his hands on Shinto, and choke the truth out of him.
Sure, others could'veframed him but he knew Shinto had. And if they'd turn him loose he'd prove it. And why not? After all, he was a respectable businessman, with a clean record and friends in high places. "The court finds Citizen Jonathan Renn guilty as charged. However in light of his spotless record, obvious penitence, and impressive character witnesses, the court feels a degree of leniency is appropriate. We therefore sentence Citizen Renn to pay a fine of one thousand Imperials, suspended, providing he stays out of trouble for one standard year."
Then his trial came. It lasted fifteen minutes. His friends in high places never appeared, the evidence was overwhelming, and the judicial computer spent 3.5 seconds reaching a verdict. "For crimes against the empire Citizen Jonathan Renn is hereby sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life on an Imperial Prison Planet. The sentence shall commence immediately."
He appealed of course, and his case went before a panel of sentient judges at nine the next morning. After comparing stock portfolios, drinking coffee, and trading gossip for an hour they discussed Renn's case. Five minutes later they decided to support the lower court, and get together for lunch.
A prison robot with an electronic lisp delivered their decision a few minutes after that. "Thitizen Renn, I'm thorry to inform you that your appeal hath been denied and your thententh thtands. Would you like a cold drink?"
A few days later he and sixty-two other prisoners were packed aboard a shuttle and boosted up to a supply and transport ship. Even as they entered their tiny cells the ship was breaking out of earth orbit and preparing to enter hyperspace. A few hours later Renn felt the characteristic nausea which accompanies a shift into hyperspace and knew he was on his way. But to where? He didn't know, because he was a prisoner, and everybody knows you don't tell prisoners a damn thing.
Weeks passed, and the ship left hyperspace three times to orbit around three different worlds. Renn assumed they were prison planets. He hadn't paid much attention to prison planets in the past. After all, why should he care about the fate of the empire's criminals, deviates, and psychopaths? They deserved what they got didn't they? He grinned at the irony of it, and tried to remember what he'd read or heard about prison planets.
The concept had originated with the first emperor. Having won a long civil war, he'd built his empire on the shattered remains of an earlier confederacy, thereby uniting hundreds of human-occupied worlds. Afterwards, he faced the task of restoring civil order to planets which had spent years under military authority. While efficient, martial law is always onerous, and most worlds were eager to get rid of it. So when the war was over, most moved to establish approved forms of planetary government.
As the new governments were phased in, and the military governments were phased out, most planets experienced a sudden upsurge in crime. As a result, newly restructured court systems swung into action, convicted wrong-doers at a record pace, and stuffed them into already crowded prisons.
"Build more prisons," the emperor's advisors told him, but he resisted the idea, knowing prisons were expensive, and easily used to symbolize governmental oppression, fancied or real. What's more, he felt an empire should offer its citizens a certain amount of consistency, and couldn't see how equitable prisons could be constructed on hundreds of different planets. So what was the answer?
The answer came, as many answers did, while the emperor lounging in the comfort of his daily stim bath. Of course! It was so obvious! Why hadn't he thought of it before? For a long time he'd been concerned about the many second and third-rate planets, which though inside the sphere of his control, were unsettled. Such worlds made tempting targets for the neighboring Il Ronnian empire. As human and alien empires grew steadily towards each other, each did its best to establish footholds in the other's territory, and unoccupied worlds were especially tempting. So why not use some of those worlds as prisons? By doing so he could simultaneously get rid of the prisoners and make those particular planets less attractive to the Il Ronn.
The more the emperor thought about it the more he liked it. Although unpleasant, many of the worlds were not only capable of supporting human life, they also contained valuable resources. Suddenly the emperor saw a way to make the prison planets self-supporting as well! Once dirtside, the prisoners would be on their own. There would be no cells, no guards. They could settle for mere survival if they chose, or if they wanted something more, they could work for it. If they wanted off-planet technology, supplies, and products, they'd have to pay for them, and that meant producing something of value. What they produced would vary depending on the resources of their particular planet and the demands of the marketplace. Slouching back in his stim bath, the emperor smiled, and rewarded himself with another five minutes of relaxation.
The emperor wasted no time putting his idea into effect. The requisite planets were soon selected, surveyed, and evaluated. Experts from a variety of disciplines examined each planet's geology, mineral resources, major ecosystems, weather patterns, and more. From this knowledge they designed basic equipment packages, cured potential diseases, and chose which products the prisoners should produce.
Then, to discourage unauthorized arrivals and departures, automatic weapons systems were placed in orbit around each planet. Soon thereafter the first prisoners arrived and went to work. By now the first emperor had died, having passed the throne along to his son, but his prison system lived on, and showed every sign of continuing to do so.
So whenever the ship swung into orbit around a prison planet, Renn listened to the clanging of cell doors, the muffled shuffle of manacled prisoners, and wondered if they'd come for him this time. But they never did. Shuttles would come and go, the noises would gradually die away, and the whole thing would start over. Why certain prisoners were assigned to certain planets, and not others, remained a complete mystery. He'd even asked a guard once, and the guard beat him, not for asking the question, but because he didn't know the answer, either.
More weeks passed, each as featureless and nondescript as the one before, until suddenly and without warning, his cell door clanged open, his name was called, and he was marched down the gleaming corridor towards an unknown future. Now others watched him go, peeking through the ration slots in their cell doors, feeling a mixture of envy and pity.
He was half carried and half dragged through the shuttle's inner lock, down a corridor, and into the main cargo area. As the hatch cycled closed behind him, he looked around, screwing up his eyes against the harsh glare of the loading lights. They threw bright pools of greenish light onto the scarred surface of the deck. For a moment he thought he was alone, but then he heard the scrape of a boot on durasteel, and a guard stepped into a pool of light and dropped a large cylindrical bag near his feet. It hit with an audible thump. He beckoned Renn forward.
The guard's uniform hat threw a heavy black shadow down across his face, making it impossible to see his eyes, adding to his already ominous presence. Renn was still three feet away when a huge hand flashed out, grabbed a fistful of his coverall, and jerked him in close. Two quick blows rocked his head back and forth.
Renn tried to ignore the pain. He knew from experience that resistance brought only more pain. Nonetheless he wanted to hit back, and it took all his self-control not to do so. The guard's eyes were bright sparks in dark sockets. Thin lips were pulled back to reveal rows of yellowing teeth. As he spoke, the guard's fetid breath made Renn gag. "That's just to get your attention monster meat. My name's Murphy. Captain Murphy to you. Accordin' to Section Thirty Six, page forty, of the Imperial Prison Regs concernin' scum bags like you, I've gotta waste my valuable time briefin' you on your new home ... the planet Swamp." Murphy grinned happily. "So pay attention ... cause I'm only gonna say it once."
The guard reached into a shirt pocket and withdrew a hand-held holo projector. As he snapped it on a miniature planet popped into existence between them. It was about two feet in diameter and looked quite real. It had a slight axial tilt, and outside of the heavy cloud layer obscuring much of its surface, seemed otherwise unremarkable. A host of tiny automatic weapons platforms orbited around it along with a small globe. Renn wondered what it was.
Murphy nodded towards the holo. "That's where you're headed monster meat ... and it's a real beaut. I won't bother you with a lot of boring stats on mass, luminosity, orbital eccentricity and stuff like that, cause it ain't gonna make a damn bit of difference to the likes of you. All you need to know is that Swamp has enough gravity to keep your ass there forever, an atmosphere you can breathe, and an ecosystem full of swamp monsters for you to kill. You kill 'em, skin 'em and sell 'em and you stay alive. Fail and you die. Even a scum bag like you oughtta be able to understand that. Questions?"
Experience had taught Renn that questions often led to abuse, even when invited, but he decided to take the chance. "Is that satellite a moon?"
Murphy laughed. "No, scum bag, it ain't no moon. It's a space station, full of eggheads with nothin' better to do than play grab ass, and stare at some stupid pus ball planet all day long. On those rare occasions when you can see the sky ... look up and wave ... maybe they'll take time out to piss on your head." The guard touched a button on the holo projector and the planet suddenly vanished. As he returned the device to his shirt pocket Murphy said, "Now the manual says I've gotta take you on a tour of your gear ... it's amazin' they don't have me wipin' your nose too."
The guard bent over, released the seals on the black bag, and withdrew a neatly folded bundle. Straightening up he threw it at Renn. As Renn caught it he realized it was some sort of a one-piece suit. It was surprisingly heavy. Holding the suit by its shoulders he allowed it to unfold. It had lots of zippers and pockets, some of which had things in them, plus built in holsters for hand weapons. An environmental suit--for a rather unpleasant environment. Suddenly Renn began to have some very bad feelings about Swamp. As if reading his mind, Murphy grinned, and said, "It'll protect you from the elements, plus some of the smaller life forms. It ain't body armor ... but it sure beats bare skin. Put it on."
Renn obeyed. As he put on the suit, and the heavy boots that went with it, Murphy continued to talk. He named each item as he plucked it from the black bag, explained its purpose, and showed how to use it. His voice had taken on the rhythmic singsong quality of someone who's given a lecture so many times he has it memorized. "This here's a Sanders-Hexon model 86 recoilless blast rifle ... minus power pak naturally ... wouldn't want you to shoot yourself in the toe aboard ship ... which'll be your main armament. A bit dated ... but not a bad piece if you take care of it. You also get a hand blaster and a slug gun ... both unloaded of course ... and a force blade for skinnin' all them monsters you're gonna kill. Then there's your collapsible shelter ... same kind the marines use ... first-aid kit ... thirty days of emergency rats ... you can also use 'em to poison swamp monsters ... and a nifty array of solar cells ... though God knows when you'll ever see the sun."
There was much more, but somewhere along the line, Renn stopped listening. He'd accepted his fate, but it had seemed distant somehow, and not entirely real. Now, as Murphy inventoried his supplies, he realized his situation was not only real, but much worse than anything he'd ever imagined. For one thing he was completely out of his element. Sure, he'd handled blasters and slug guns occasionally, but he'd never really mastered them. Like his father before him, Renn was a businessman. His weapons were law suits, option clauses, and delivery dates. Now those things were suddenly meaningless, and he was supposed to kill swamp monsters using a set of skills he didn't have. Maybe things could be worse ... but he couldn't see how.
Marla snarled as the guard opened the door to her cell. The guard, a very unpleasant young man called "Zit," peered in rather cautiously and then entered. He was stupid, but not that stupid. Marla had inflicted a nasty slash on his right thigh only a few days before. It was still healing. So when he saw her muzzle was still strapped in place, a big grin split Zit's pock-marked face, and he granted with satisfaction. "Come on you cyborg bitch ... try it." He tapped the palm of his hand with the nerve lash.
Marla was sorely tempted to accept Zit's invitation. In spite of their earlier run-in, she'd managed to conceal most of her special capabilities, and this seemed a poor time to reveal them. And Marla's capabilities were quite extraordinary. Although she looked like a rather large German Shepherd, Marla was much, much more. She weighed about two hundred pounds, had durasteel teeth and claws, enhanced infrared vision, multi-freq audio intercept, power-assisted musculature, and the full intelligence of a female human with a tested IQ of 125. Had she wished to, Marla could have popped the leather muzzle, and ripped Zit's throat regardless of the nerve lash. While emotionally satisfying, she knew it would also be pointless. The other guards would simply hunt her down and kill her. So Zit would live. Sublimating her anger, Marla forced herself to adopt a submissive posture and whined in the back of her throat. Though she was not really a dog, acting like one often worked to her advantage. Even when people knew Marla was a cyborg, she still looked like a dog, and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't resist the urge to treat her the way she appeared. Zit was no exception.
"That's better bitch," Zit said nodding his satisfaction. "Now get your miserable flea-bitten ass out into the corridor."
Marla circled around Zit, her tail held between her legs, trying to exit the cell without giving him with an opening. It didn't work. As she scurried through the door he delivered a vicious kick to her left rear haunch. Limping, she preceded him down the gleaming corridor, glancing over her shoulder now and then to make sure she stayed well ahead of him. Meanwhile he provided occasional directions, such as "Right, bitch," and "Left, bitch."
Before long they left the ship via a guarded lock, and entered a shuttle. Marla was spared the ritual with the brass plate. Zit and his fellow guards assumed anything that looked like a dog couldn't read.
Marla's heart sank as she scurried down the next corridor. This was it, the final trip down to some godforsaken prison planet to spend the rest of her life--looking like a dog. Double punishment, it seemed to her.
She stopped in front of a closed hatch. In spite of her many special abilities, there were some things Marla just couldn't do. Opening hatches with her paws was one of them. Zit caught up, opened the hatch, and then kicked her into the shuttle's cargo hold. It was his last chance to demonstrate his superiority.
As she spun around, Marla was dimly aware of the two men, but most of her attention was centered on killing Zit. The last kick was one too many. Pain, plus her frustration and fear, combined to override the logical part of her mind. Gone were her good intentions and determination to maintain a low profile. She popped the muzzle and snapped at the closest part of Zit's anatomy. As luck would have it Zit's foot was coming forward in another kick. Marla's power-assisted jaws closed around his ankle and sliced through it like a knife through warm butter.
As his right foot hit the deck with a soft thump, Zit began to scream, spraying hot blood over Marla's face as he toppled over backwards.
Murphy pulled his stunner, flipped the setting to max, and fired. It hit Marla like a blow from an invisible club. She dropped like a rock as all her systems locked into a spasm.
Renn watched in amazement as Murphy calmly holstered his stunner, hit an alarm button on the nearest bulkhead, and proceeded to kick the dog's stunned body. Renn reacted without conscious thought. He jumped on Murphy's back, wrapped one arm around the guard's thick neck, and squeezed with all his strength. It was a waste of time. Reaching over his shoulder, Murphy ripped Renn loose, and proceeded to beat him senseless. Fortunately, the environmental suit absorbed a good deal of the punishment. Murphy was still pounding away when the ship's medics arrived and went to work on Zit.
Marla was conscious. Her nonorganic components had served to protect her brain and spinal cord from the full effects of the beam. It should have knocked her out. Still, she couldn't move. All she could do was watch Murphy beat Renn's unconscious body and curse him from the bottom of her heart.
Having stopped the worst of Zit's bleeding, the medics took a moment to haul Murphy off Renn's motionless body, and tried to calm him down.
Marla looked Renn over. There was blood all over his face, but his chest continued to rise and fall. At least he was alive.
While part of her mind considered the situation at hand, and wondered what kind of punishment Murphy would mete out, another part, a part she hadn't used in a long time, noticed Renn was good-looking. Ignoring the blood, she saw light brown hair and even features. The way Murphy had taken him apart, the idiot obviously knew nothing about hand-to-hand combat. But he had guts, by God, guts enough to fight for what he assumed was an abused dog. Something deep down in a hidden recess of her being softened, and then gave way entirely, causing the other part of her mind to groan in disgust. "You've got to be kidding, you a female cyberdog, falling for some incompetent clown who can't even throw a decent punch! Don't you have enough problems? All he'll do is cause you more pain. How stupid can you get?"
The hidden part of her sighed, and answered, "Very, very stupid I'm afraid."
Suddenly Murphy's voice came from somewhere behind her. She tried to turn, but nothing happened. His voice was tight with rage. "All right, all right, I'll leave him alone. I still say I oughtta kill them both right now ... but you're right ... those clowns in Internal Affairs would go crazy ... so I'll let Swamp do it for me. Strap 'em down ... we're goin' dirtside."
Seconds later two medics picked her up, carried her across the hold, and dumped her into a cargo net. They were none too gentle, but thanks to Murphy's stunner, she couldn't feel a thing. Moments later Renn was dumped in beside her. He bounced a couple of times and then lay still. Although the net was designed for fragile cargo, and was suspended by a network of shock cords, it wasn't intended for living organisms. Apparently the ride down would be part of Murphy's punishment.
A few minutes later repellor beams pushed the shuttle out and away from the larger vessel. Seconds later it blasted down towards the planet below. The shuttle's pilot was a cheerful middle-aged woman nicknamed Aunt Sally. She had the pleasant easygoing manner of a favorite aunt. And her graying hair, lined face, and matronly figure did nothing to ruin the image. Matronly or not, Aunt Sally was one hot shuttle pilot, and everybody knew it. As she slipped the shuttle into a descending orbit, she lit a cigarillo, and watched Murphy out of the corner of her eye. He hated the damned things which was reason enough to smoke them. As she puffed the cigar into life Murphy wrinkled his nose. She knew he wanted to complain but didn't dare. Aunt Sally grinned. Screw him. He might be the captain of the guards, but this was her shuttle.
At first the descent wasn't too bad. But as time went on, and the effects of the stunner began to wear off, things got worse. Now more and more sensory input was making it through to Marla's brain, and she wished it wasn't. She'd always been prone to motion sickness ... and her transformation into a cyborg hadn't lessened the problem. Each time the shuttle hit a new layer of air, it bucked violently, causing the shock-mounted cargo net to move every which way. It made her dizzy. Gritting her teeth, she fought the darkness that threatened to engulf her. Battle-trained Class III cyberdogs don't faint.
Meanwhile Renn groaned and tried to turn over. He was coming to.
"Good," she thought. "Because God knows what's waiting dirtside." Then the shuttle hit an air pocket, and seemed to drop like a rock, and a wave of blackness pulled Marla under.
At first Renn thought he'd passed from one nightmare into another. He could still see Murphy's huge fists coming at him and hear the meaty thump as they hit his face. It had continued long after he'd ceased to feel it, and ceased to care. Then came the welcome darkness of death. But now his peace had been shattered by a confusing mix of sensations. The pain he could understand--it might be part of death--but the motion didn't make sense at all. How could you feel motion if you were dead? Maybe he wasn't dead after all. The thought depressed him.
His eyes popped open. Damn. He was alive all right, if you could call laying next to a dead dog in a gyrating cargo net living. No, the dog was still warm, so maybe it was alive, too. The shuttle shuddered, and the whole cargo net swayed in sympathy. They were making an atmosphere landing. He'd made some tricky atmospheric landings himself, enough to know what they felt like, although he'd never made one in a cargo net before. He tried to sit up, but the combined forces of Swamp's gravity, and the shuttle's erratic motion, made that impossible. Besides it hurt like hell. Renn forced himself to relax and gather his strength. Ten to one he'd need it.
Aunt Sally blew out a thin stream of noxious gray smoke and smiled. The shuttle was screaming over the swampy terrain at about 900 miles an hour just 300 feet off the ground. This was fun. Talk about a rush! They'd have her ass on any other planet. A globe-circling sonic boom doesn't improve your popularity. But if a few prisoners lose a little sleep ... so what?
Below, an endless canopy of green flashed by, obscured now and then by broken clouds, and divided by a thousand channels of sluggish brown water. Just part of the endless equatorial swamps which gave the planet its name. Aunt Sally knew the planet had other, more attractive latitudes both north and south, but those were empty of the swamp monsters which fueled the planet's economy, and therefore empty of prisoners as well. Because even in the more pleasant latitudes you needed weapons, medical supplies, and a hundred other things to survive. And there was only one way to get them--hunt swamp monsters, or support those who did. She shivered. God help the poor bastards.
Aunt Sally scanned her readouts and gently cut power. The LZ was ninety standard miles ahead. As the ship slowed, she stubbed out the cigarillo, and grinned when Murphy heaved a sigh of relief.
Silently cursing the shuttle pilot, Murphy touched a series of keys and activated the shuttle's automatic weapons system. SOP for any prison planet, but especially Swamp. The place was home to some very hostile alien life forms, plus about a hundred thousand prisoners, all of whom wanted to leave. And even though the orbiting weapons platforms would burn any ships lifting without the proper codes, there were still prisoners willing to give it a try as had happened five years before. Two thousand of them had joined forces to ambush a supply shuttle. Murphy smiled at the thought. Home-made rocket launchers against ship's weapons. It was no contest. The shuttle's energy weapons cut them down in bloody swaths, started a forest fire around the LZ, and boiled the surrounding channels temporarily dry. When it was over and the ship lifted, only forty-seven prisoners were still alive, most of them badly wounded. Murphy sighed. He'd been on leave and missed the whole thing.
As the shuttle lost all forward motion, Aunt Sally's blunt fingers danced across the control panel, and they started dropping towards the surface. Outside, the ship's repellors made a loud screaming sound, and deep in the swamp something heard, and raised a massive head to answer in kind. Other things heard too, quickly slithering into turgid brown water, or scurrying deeper into lush vegetation. Thousands of insects took to the humid air. Each was the size of a small bird, and the combined sound of their wings filled the air with an ominous hum. Soon they filled the sky and threw a shadow across the land below.
As that shadow swept over them, a small group of men paused, and looked up with hungry eyes. Then without a word they resumed their march. They were tough, as mean as the swamp itself, and just as heartless. Their leader was a full seven feet tall. His giant strides set a mean pace, and the others hurried to keep up. But they didn't mind, because greenies didn't arrive every day, and when they did, it was easy pickings. To them a sonic boom was a call to action. An omen of good things to come. So they hurried forward while the swampy trail squished and sucked at the soles of their boots.
Moments later the shuttle thumped down onto the glazed surface of the LZ. In its own way the LZ was a high-tech work of art. Initial surveys had shown the spongy land wouldn't support anything heavier than a scout. So the Imperial Engineers had made a few changes. First, they set up a complex network of interlocking portable force-field generators. Each was situated to create an invisible cylinder of energy. One end of the cylinder rested on a small island and the other reached a mile up into the sky. Having done this, they dropped a miniature hell bomb right down the middle of the invisible shaft. When the bomb went off, its energy was channeled straight up and down. The result was an island of fused rock and earth a quarter-mile across and a mile deep. Voila! A crude but serviceable landing zone.
So far, not even the combined effects of time, swamp, and weather had managed to damage the LZ's blackened surface. Wind-blown soil occasionally collected here and there, quickly giving birth to a fantastic variety of plant life. For a while lush foliage would grow, and then, when it became too thick, the next shuttle in would burn it off. Aunt Sally considered doing so on this trip, but decided it wasn't necessary quite yet. There was growth working its way in from the edges of the LZ, but there was still plenty of room in the middle, and that's where she set the shuttle down. Putting all systems on standby, she pulled out her knitting, and started a new row.
Marla regained consciousness as they pulled her from the cargo net. Although she had full sensory input her body was still paralyzed. Renn was nowhere to be seen so perhaps they'd taken him first. One man held her up, grunting at the effort involved, while another slipped a cargo sling under her stomach. Then each grabbed one end of the sling, lifted, and carried her towards the main cargo hatch. The hair on the back of her neck bristled as the sluggish breeze brought her the corrupt smell of the surrounding swamp. A growl formed deep in her throat and she carefully suppressed it. They'd love to stun her again.
When they reached the open hatch, Marla saw it was ten or fifteen feet to the ground, and there was no ladder in sight. The men began to swing her back and forth in concert. They were going to throw her out!