Horace Peters was having the singular kind of day that made him wish he’d never taken the position for Security Chief on A05675962-56. It was the kind of day wherein he began doubting the path he had taken in life that had led him to this moment.
You’d think that on an advanced space station, Horace thought, the toilet wouldn’t clog.
The maddening aspect of the entire situation was that it hadn’t even been his fault. After finishing his rounds the previous night, and just before going to bed, the water level in the toilet had been fine. Yet in the morning he had woken up to the whole thing overflowing with something that must have been processed waste matter.
Horace shoved the wire pipe-snake down the opening and pressed the trigger to engage the sweeping laser that would hopefully vaporize the clog no matter how far down it was. More and more of these types of issues had been popping up on the space station of late. It all spoke to poor maintenance, of course, but that just wasn’t possible. That was Horace’s job, after all.
And he couldn’t blame the issues on anyone else since he was the only person on the space station.
Well, Horace thought with a grim smile, the only person not imprisoned here, that is.
Horace met the Earth-Mars Alliance Marines at the airlock like he always did whenever they showed up. They came every few months, making the long trip from either Mars or Earth, to offload their cargo. The cargo, as it happened, was prisoners.
Asteroid A05675962-56—or “A-Station” as it was called to avoid a mouthful of numbers—was a prison anchored to an asteroid along the Jupiter-edge of the belt between the Mars and Jupiter. In all their wisdom, Earth’s governing body—with the approval and inclusion of Mars’ own government, naturally—agreed to the make use of the asteroid belt for the Earth-Mars Alliance’s more… undesirable criminals.
The exact location of A-Station was a strictly kept secret. As far as Horace could tell, not only hardened criminals were dumped off at the space prison, but also anyone who went against the respective governments of the EMA. And since the positions of specific floating hunks of debris amidst a field of floating hunks of debris in an asteroid field was rather impossible to track, the only way to access A-Station was to know the exact frequency of a transmitter within the installation anchored to the asteroid. It was the type of secrecy the governments all seemed to go for, since they could literally throw criminals and political prisoners into a cell, then forget about them forever.
The track lighting of the main airlock pulsed yellow to indicate that the pressurization cycle was almost completed. The light switched to green and pulsed twice, then the door slide open. Two EMA Marines walked through, pulse rifles shouldered and in full combat armor. It never failed to give Horace a brief sense of unease whenever they boarded A-Station. Not because they of the deadliness of their training, armor and weapons… no, that was to be expected.
It was that they never spoke a word to Horace. They never made the visors on their helmets translucent so Horace could see their faces.
The lead Marine went straight to the nearest access port and plugged in a datapad. He tapped on it a few times while his companions began escorting in a group of ragged prisoners. A-Station’s airlock wasn’t massive, but it was big enough to fit in a few dozen of the manacled and gagged prisoners. Depending on the size of the group, it might only take the Marines a few trips in and out of their ship.
Once aboard the prison—a habitable loop that circled around the asteroid and penetrated just below the surface of the rock—the prisoners were each put into cells that were then locked. Those locks didn’t open until the people inside were dead, and the internal sterilization system had removed all traces of that prisoner from existence.
In all honesty, Horace couldn’t figure out why the EMA bothered bringing out all these prisoners in the first place. He didn’t care how dangerous or bad they were, the expense of flying out a bunch of criminals to a remote and secret prison was astronomical. Horace had puzzled over that question for the better part of year with no success.
“Section 6 is going to be where you take them this time,” Horace said. Even if they didn’t respond—and they never, ever did—it felt good to talk to people. As part of the three-year contract Horace had signed, interaction with the prisoners was prohibited. He had no family back on Earth, but even if he had, communication with them would have also been prohibited.
“I just finished clearing the cells four weeks ago,” Horace continued. “Everything looks in top shape, as usual. If you head back that way,” Horace pointed to door to his right, “you’ll end up there.”
He was just about to say something else when the Marine at the datapad suddenly straightened. It wasn’t a massive change in posture since his—her?—suit wouldn’t allow that, but he definitely had changed positions. Horace noted a very slight trembling in the Marine’s armored hands. The other Marines began quickly walking the prisoners—almost running them—to the door Horace had indicated earlier. Their gestures were sharper than normal, and Horace had the impression that they would have been freaking out if he could see their faces and hear the conversations they were undoubtedly having on private channels.
“H-hey, what’s the hurry?” Horace asked. “Guys, what’s going on?”
They ignored his growing protests and shoved the prisoners into the individual cells in Section 6. Ten minutes after that was done—the minimum time needed to cycle the airlock for departure—they were in their ship and gone.
Horace tried to connect to the same terminal the Marine had used, but couldn’t find whatever it was that had spooked the EMA’s military goons.
What is going on? he wondered…
[“Plague Ship” by Steven L. Peck is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]