Thousand Words for January 18, 2018

The huge cylindrical ship spun around its long axis in order to produce gravity for the inmates who occupied the water-filled interior; attached to one end, at a distance calculated to effect a single Earth gravity, the warden station clung as a fly might cling to the end of a can. The station contained housing and workspaces for the 21 human crewmembers consisting of eight maintainers, two engineers, nine guards, one linguist, and the warden, Sterling Richardson. Richardson sat in his office on the station’s third and top story reviewing the tracer reports from the previous night. His office was expansive: a fine mahogany desk dominated one side of the room, and a polished conference table, a coffee bar, and an old-fashioned files library occupied the other. The office had been built with two large picture windows, but Richardson had had them boarded up. Why anyone would want to watch the stars wheel around all day, he couldn’t imagine. There was a knock at his door.

“Come in,” he said without looking up.

The door creaked open and a middle-aged woman, librarian type, stepped into the room and came to a halt precisely before the center of Richardson’s desk. Her hair was bunned up; she wore a dress that buttoned to the neck and descended to below the knee. “We’ve got a problem,” she said.

“Yeah?” He still didn’t look up.

“Yes.” The woman put the folder she had been carrying down in front of him, on top of the report he’d been looking at, and Richardson looked up.

“What is it?”

“Somebody’s been talking to the press, that’s what,” she said. She spat the words out; it was evident that she had serious contempt for not only whoever it was that had committed the offense, but also the press themselves.

Richardson opened the folder. There was a photograph paper-clipped to a printed sheet. He recognized the photo immediately: it was a stock picture of Richardson’s ship, Artois PT Bonneventure, taken after its most recent refitting was completed two years ago. He’d seen this picture many times; it was the one usually used in the contract negotiations. It was the one that made the ship look like some sort of high-tech savior of law-abiding citizens throughout the system instead of what Richardson, the woman standing before his desk, and the other 19 crewmembers of Bonneventure knew it to be: a broken-down pig of a vessel that made mining scows look glamorous by comparison–and one filled with the worst-of-the-worst Enceladans enroute to their water-world prison in the Oort cloud. Richardson flipped up the photo and scanned the article beneath it. “Goddamn it.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” the woman responded.

“Where is he?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Are there any scuba units missing?”

The woman was shaking her head even as he said it. “No, I thought of that. He’s not in the station, so he’s either got to be out on the hull somewhere or he’s in the center.” Technically, the ship’s cylindrical interior wasn’t completely full of water. It was rotating, and so right down the long axis of the cylinder was a space, perhaps ten or twelve feet across, precisely in the center, filled with air and at almost precisely zero-gee. The water, being heavier, responded to the centripetal force created by the rotation and pulled away from the center, creating the space that was referred to by that name. A taut steel cable precisely in the center of this space, ran the entire 880-meter distance from front to back. If one were careful, one could hang from this cable in the micro-gravity and slide along it, but if the hand slipped, then the hapless individual would start to fall, very slowly at first, until he made contact with the water’s surface that surrounded him like the inside surface of a pipe. The further he fell, the stronger the gravity would become and the further he would fall. This cycle would continue until one of two things happened: either the individual would strike and be crushed against the inner surface of the ship’s hull after nearly a half-mile fall, or the safety line, which was required by regulations to be worn whenever maneuvering on the cable, extended to its maximum forty-foot length and then the person could start climbing up again. At that distance, the gravity would still be very low, and it would be possible to climb out of it. Drowning, perhaps surprisingly, was not a concern; the water filling the interior of the ship included agents to make it breathable by mammals–the Enceladans themselves were water-breathing mammals–and although it did produce some distressing effects in the human body after several hours of exposure, inhalation of the fluid by a human would not be harmful for the short period of time it would take to climb up the safety line.

“Go get that son-of-a-bitch and bring him up here,” Richardson said. He flipped the folder closed and thrust it at her. “And I don’t want to see this again.”

The woman took it from him without a word, spun on her heel, and departed, leaving the door open.

Casey Shermko was on the hull; he was on the curved outer surface of the giant cylinder manipulating one of several hatches that permitted entry into the water-filled interior. It was a water version of an airlock; an outer door opened to a small chamber that could be entered, sealed, then flooded. Once filled with water, an inner door could be opened and the water-filled interior–the space in which the inmates were housed–could be accessed. Naturally, there were a variety of mechanisms and failsafes that prevented the opening of the inner door while the outer one was open. Casey had already bypassed the software failsafe, and was busy working with wrenches on the outer hull to defeat the mechanical safeties there. The water lock was already filled; the inner door was open to permit the entry of the inmate that the software believed was departing the ship in an authorized transfer. Casey had faked the permit codes overriding the software block on exits outside the prison system’s transfer stations. It surprised him how easy that part had been; he was equally surprised at how difficult the besting of the mechanical safeties was becoming. “Things are never what you think they’re going to be,” he mumbled to himself as the last of the pins finally gave and he twisted the handle to the ‘activate’ position. He pulled back, his magnetic boots clunking on the exterior of the ship, and as the circular hatch started to open, a fine stream of water shot out of the crescent-shaped void that would soon be an eighteen-inch-diameter hole and sublimated directly to gas in the vacuum of space.


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