Points of IntersectionBy Joanna Thomas
Page 1 of 7
As the door slid open he took an involuntary step backwards, his acutely heightened senses assaulted by the sight of the dormitory stretching away before him, by the raucous shouts and laughter echoing from beyond the serried rows of bunks where a crowd of men were gathered, by the human smell reminiscent of a prison ship from many years ago......The blood pounded in his ears, and he was suddenly aware of the effort the long walk from his cell had cost him.
"Move." The Federation gun jabbed painfully in the small of his back. He was propelled down the central aisle between the bunks, unaware that he was the recipient of curious stares from the few men whom he passed leaning against the bulkheads in idle conversation. It was enough for him to concentrate on the mechanics of walking.
"Stop here." Again the gun in the back. They were in an unoccupied section. One of the guards circled him and went to the lockers between two bunks. He keyed in an identification number on the digipad and opened the locker door; he pulled out a blanket and tossed it onto a bunk.
"Have a good trip." The sneering guard strode past him and marched out with his colleague.
Sinking onto the bunk, overcome by a surging wave of nauseous exhaustion, he closed his eyes.
He fought against the inexorable rise to the surface of consciousness, the shouts and jeers of the interrogation room reverberating in his head, but oddly the anticipated blows did not fall. The noise gradually took on a different aspect, jeering laughter and good-natured insults tossed like a ball from one man to another. He opened his eyes and rose on one elbow, then tentatively swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and pushed himself to his feet. Two men approached, both in prison uniform.
"You the politico? What's yer name?" the taller man demanded, looking him warily up and down.
"My name is Avon." The words were his, but the voice seemed to belong to someone else far away.
"Never 'eard of yer." The man turned to his unshaven companion, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. "But then I never had much time for politics. Too busy trying to make a dishonest buck, eh?" he said, nudging his companion and winking theatrically. Their laughter was interrupted by a loud cheer from the end of the dormitory.
"Game over," said the man nodding towards the crowd. He leaned forward towards Avon. "Well, I don't know what you done, but three extra weeks on this rustbucket spent ferrying you around suits me just fine It's a damn sight better than a lot of places I been. The crew's too stretched on here to give us much hassle. The name's Wilke, by the way."
Of all the questions that inundated Avon's mind he found he could express only the most basic of his needs for information. "Where can I get a drink?"
The man gestured with a thumb towards the throng of men. "Down there. Nothing stronger than H2O, though, more's the pity." The two men turned away, laughing.
The crowd was breaking up as he approached; the prisoners he passed eyed him with suspicion, and several times he heard the word 'politico' in their conversation sotto voce. He reached the end of the rows of bunks and found himself in a mess area; beyond that he could see doors to wash areas. The way between the tables was blocked by the remnants of the crowd, a handful of men with their backs to him.
"Hard luck, Jolan," said one, as a man rose to his feet tossing some silver objects onto a table. Others slapped him on the back, offering condolences."Yeah, better luck next time, Jolan." As the men moved apart Avon looked into the face of the man still seated at the table, a pack of cards in his hands and a smug smile of victory on his lips.
Avon felt his tenuous grip on reality begin to crumble, and turned abruptly away.
Vila glanced down helplessly as the cards skittered across the table and onto the floor. His elation at winning had been suddenly eclipsed by chill incomprehension, by numbing fear. When he looked up again the figure had gone. A figure from a past he did not care to recall, except in his maudlin drunken moments and there had been few of those recently.
Desperately he tried to collect together the cards with trembling hands and his thoughts with a paralysed mind. He gave up on both counts and rose unsteadily from the table, fear clutching at his stomach.
Vila found him sitting on a bunk, his head bowed in close and inwardly desperate study of his hands which he clasped before him.
"It is you. They told me you were dead." The accusatory undertone of Vila's words was scarcely concealed.
Avon looked up at him without expression. "Don't believe everything they tell you," he replied flatly.
They held each other's gaze in silence for a moment and an image from the past, of this same man aboard the 'London' leapt to Vila's consciousness, evoked by Avon's pallid convict complexion and brutal haircut - but, oh God, so much had happened since then......Vila sat down heavily on the next bunk. They were inches apart, yet separated by an invisible wall in which the names of the past were deeply etched - Blake, Gauda Prime, Cally, Malodaar........
"What's going on?" asked Avon in a low voice. The past can come later, he thought grimly.
Vila shrugged in confusion, then his words began to pour out, tripping over each other in his nervousness. "We're heading to one of the Federation penal colonies, Gascar Four - or at least we were until the ship was diverted to pick up a political prisoner. The captain was none too happy about it, according to Wilke - one of the prisoners who's in with some of the guards and picks up the news - but it seems the order came from the top. Even Wilke doesn't know where the politico is to be taken, but he says it's not Gascar Four." He paused, studying Avon with curiosity. "It looks like you're our politico."
"Where did you set off from?"
"Feyron, in the Outer Sector. It was chaos. They've declared independence from the Federation, like so many others out there, and the Federation were forced to pull out - they've got too much on their hands closer to home, so it's said, to put up any sort of a fight. The new independent administration released all the Feyron-born prisoners - political prisoners of the Federation, so they claimed, although most of them were just racketeers and cut-throats - but they told the Federation to take outworlder prisoners with them. So here we are, on board the 'Lodestar'."
"That doesn't sound like the name of a prison ship."
"Oh, it isn't, it's an old mining ship. It used to do the run from Feyron's moon to Earth, transporting miners and ore. We've been to the hold for exercise a few times - it is huge. I suppose this was the best the Federation could find, under the circumstances, with their fleet involved in putting down rebelion across half the galaxy."
"The Federation are in trouble again?" Avon asked. Vila looked at him in surprise.
"You mean you didn't know? Where've you been for the past two years? Didn't news reach Drax?"
Vila's questions hung unanswered in the silence which followed. A look of bewildered panic momentarily crossed Avon's face before he bowed his head to study his hands once again, his mind working furiously. Inexplicable fear began to rise in Vila's throat.
"I was on Drax." The words, when they came, were barely audible and Vila could not tell whether they were intended as a question or as a statement of fact which Avon was trying on for size. He swallowed hard before replying.
"That's right, Drax. That's where we picked you up." Vila paused. "Where did you think you were?"
Slowly Avon lifted his head and met Vila's uncomprehending stare with cold, dark eyes.
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