A Berth on the LondonBy Judith Proctor
Page 1 of 4
"This is the limit of your world from now on,"
Raiker said. "It has mess facilities, sleeping bays, a recreation
area. Sort out amongst yourselves how you use it. There are other
rules, but you'll find out what they are when you break them. That's
all. Clear your harnesses; you're at liberty to
Jenna unfastened herself cautiously and stretched her arms. There seemed little point in hurrying: others were closer to the door than herself. If there were any bunks in good positions, they would be gone by the time she got there. Besides, it would be one thing obtaining a good bunk, quite another holding onto it. The men here were the real dregs of Federation society - thieves, murderers, gun runners, child molesters. She put a brief mental reservation against the last category. Blake had seemed very determined where his innocence was concerned. Perhaps more to the point, his advocate had seemed to believe it. Advocates were a tough nosed group as a rule - hers certainly hadn't been much help.
Jenna put that thought to one side. It was no use thinking of the past. Only the future was relevant now. She walked through the door into the next section. It was about as she had expected it to be, cramped and completely lacking in privacy.
"Hey, Jenna!" It was Vila. "I've saved you a bunk. You can have the one under mine."
It wouldn't have been her own choice, but it would do for the time being. She fingered the thin blanket, and noted with some relief that they had at least been provided with night clothes. The prisoners hadn't been allowed to bring any personal possessions at all, apart from what they were actually wearing. And their clothes had been carefully checked to make sure there were no concealed weapons of any kind.
Vila smoothed out his own blanket and turned round to face her. "Do you think this is a good time for me to tell them I suffer from flight sickness?" he asked with a nervous attempt at humour.
"I don't think they'll be very sympathetic," said Nova beside him.
Jenna didn't feel in the mood for sympathy. She had problems enough of her own. She was aware of Raiker entering the room behind her, and tried to ignore him.
"I expect they'll find a cure for it, though," she said to Vila. "A permanent one probably."
"They amputate your head," Vila replied dryly.
Raiker placed a hand on Jenna's shoulder. "Come with me."
Jenna looked at Vila. He knew what was coming, so did she. "Here goes," she commented.
Gan watched everything from where he was lying down on his bunk. It was important to know what Jenna wanted before he made any suggestions himself. After all, he was only a gamma grade construction worker. Jenna might be on speaking terms with Vila, but then Vila imposed his company on everyone, be they alpha or gamma. Jenna might put up with Vila, but she didn't seem to like him. Raiker was an alpha like herself. He could make life easy for Jenna if that was what she desired.
No - judging from Jenna's confident reaction to the officer's proposition and her willingness to spark his anger, she still had her pride. She would risk Raiker's wrath rather than play the whore. That pleased Gan. Jenna would not lie down and spread her legs merely because a Federation officer wanted her to. Marie had given in, but then Marie had had no choice. If only he'd understood that better at the time.
Jenna was talking to some of the others now. Fragments of conversation drifted over. Blake really ought to be a little more careful of what he was saying. Still, no one in the crew was going to take much notice even if they did plot rebellion. In a few days, Blake would lose all interest. Everyone would lose interest - everyone except himself.
Gan could never quite pin down when he'd first realised that he was different from everyone else. Not when he was a boy. Things hadn't been so bad then. Perhaps after the food riots of '46? He'd been younger then, just married, and deeply in love. Marie had been a bright, independent woman, a perfect balance for his own slower, more reasoned approach to life. Then there was a botanic plague on one of the Inner Worlds. At least, that was what the authorities had claimed. A critical loss of grain production, and reduced rations for everyone. There had been fighting as people tried to get the limited supplies of food concentrate for themselves. Gan had been in the thick of it, using his weight and strength to gain an advantage. One day it had been like that, and then - three days later - everything had gone quiet. The fighting had quelled of its own accord; everyone formed orderly queues with no shoving; everyone was calm and peaceful. Everyone except Gan.
He hadn't known the cause then, but he'd had sense enough to blend in with the crowd. To be different was dangerous. Gan used his size to gain an edge where he could, never being too obvious about it. He had to get food for Marie, that was the only thing that really mattered. Yet Marie herself had changed. She was still beautiful in her own dark-haired way, she still loved him, but something had gone from their life. There was no passion in her any more. When they made love, it was quiet and sedate. Gan was never sure if Marie enjoyed it, even though she always said she did. Marie never argued now, never lost her temper. Gan loved her still, while mourning the woman she had been.
Things improved a little when the food supplies returned to normal, but they were never quite the same as before. Over time, the world around Gan turned into zombies, until he wondered if all that had gone before was simply his imagination.
Jenna had finished talking now. It was time to have a word with her. Gan swung himself down from his bunk and made his way over to where she was sitting.
"Jenna?" he said, to gain her attention.
She tuned around, obviously not recognising him. Well, the transit cell had been pretty crowded.
"Olag Gan," he said by way of introduction. "I saved you a bunk."
Vila interrupted, "She's already got one."
Gan paid him no attention. "I saved you a top bunk - third tier."
Jenna looked at him more closely. "A top bunk," she said thoughtfully.
Gan nodded. "Out of reach."
"Out of reach of anyone except you," Jenna clarified.
Gan didn't allow that to ruffle him. "That's right," he agreed. "But anyone else will have to climb over my bunk to get to yours." He folded his arms across his chest, somehow emphasising his strength without boasting about it.
"Sorry, Vila," Jenna said cheerfully. "I'm just changing bunk."
"Hey," Vila protested. "What did I do wrong? What's he got that I haven't?"
Jenna eyed him thoughtfully. "Shouldn't that question be the other way around?" she asked with the faintest touch of sarcasm.
Vila didn't give up without a last riposte. "And what makes you think King Kong won't be climbing up in the middle of the night to pay you a visit?" he demanded.
Jenna smiled sweetly at him. "Intuition," she replied.
Gan didn't sleep that first night. He rested, perhaps even closed his eyes for a while, but he was instantly alert when he felt his bed move slightly. He sat upright and gave a friendly smile to the man scaling the end of the bunk. "I think you've got the wrong bunk."
They sized each other up in the dim night cycle lighting. Gan could identify the other man now. Pasco, a man deported for poisoning his boss. At least, so he claimed.
"I know where I am," Pasco said belligerently. "She invited me up here."
Gan's smile never wavered. "It's a long way down from up there," he said reflectively. "A man could break his neck falling from that height." He tossed the blanket off his legs, freeing them to launch an effective kick if he chose to do so.
Pasco considered that, then lowered himself to the floor. He stood and looked Gan in the face. "You don't really think she's going to prefer a great oaf like you, do you?"
Pasco was obviously looking for a fight. It was fortunate, Gan reflected, that there was no alcohol on board the prison transport. Even when the dome population was at its most subdued, drunken individuals were still capable of starting a brawl. As it was, Pasco was stone cold sober, and hopefully open to reason.
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