Jenna Stannis marched out of the courtroom with her head held high. Experience had taught her the value of `face' and bravado among the company in which she found herself, and on no account must she falter now. Down the stairs to the holding pens, half a pace in front of her escort, heels clicking briskly on the hard surface, she met the boy Nova on his way up. He looked scared.
Vila: She's a big name. It's an honour to be locked up with her.
[The Way Back]
"To the right." The warder took her arm from behind and swung her into a passageway. Not the one she had come from, this must be where the transportees were collected. She wrinkled her nose as the smell of unwashed humanity penetrated her nostrils again after the fresher air above stairs.
There was a stir among the all-male inhabitants as she was pushed into one of the half empty cages. The gate clanged hollowly behind her. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Holding firmly to her composure, she went over to the wall font and filled a beaker with the dank-tasting water. They didn't put suppressants into the remand prisoners' supply, partly because it amused them to watch them suffer and bicker among themselves as they contemplated their plight, and partly because many trials were networked and the sight of obviously doped defendants would give ammunition to the Justice Department's many critics.
A chunky little man sidled over to her, manner hovering between ingratiation and spite. "I see you drew the big one," he said with a sidelong leer.
"Had a bet on it, did you?" Jenna enquired maliciously.
"Nah, nah." He backed off a pace before her mockery. "But Vila was positive they'd let you off with a lighter sentence. You know, some kind of plea-bargain. What happened, didn't you co-operate?"
Jenna snorted contemptuously. "You would have, wouldn't you? You'd turn in your family and friends if you could, huh?" She pushed past him roughly. "Go away Arco, you disgust me."
Intimidated, he made no attempt to detain her. He'd seen yesterday what she could do to a man who wouldn't take no for an answer and he was in no hurry to sample the treatment for himself. From the other side of the bars, the guards had laughed uproariously at the sight of that other man rolling on the floor, wheezing. A big, overconfident fellow, Jenna recalled, but quite unprepared for the ferocity of her retaliation. You didn't need to be big to handle his sort, just fierce and knowledgeable. Twelve years of free-trading had taught her how to look after herself, and she was going to need all that knowledge in future. She had already instilled a certain respect into her fellow-prisoners. Last night, Vila Restal, snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, had helped himself to her gold necklace, but a vigorously applied straight-armed twist had induced him to give it up again. Oddly enough he showed no resentment, even to his cell-mates' roars of laughter, merely protesting that it was important to him to keep in practice. Such exploits had earned her the nickname of "Amazon Queen". Don't mess with the Amazon Queen, they warned newcomers, she'll have your guts for garters; then they would tell horrendous fictions about her smuggling days.
There was humanity among these dregs as well. In the remand section where Jenna had spent some weeks before trial, the women were outnumbered fifty to one by men and little effort was made to give them any decent facilities. Their cage was across the passage, in full view of the men opposite and the ablutions in the corner were not screened, so the women would hang blankets on the bars when they needed privacy. One day the heavily pregnant wife of a political prisoner was thrown in, battered and distraught after a vicious and humiliating interrogation. That night she had gone into labour and Jenna had assisted two prostitutes in delivering an underweight baby. The men had been unusually quiet during that sleepless night, apart from occasionally calling words of encouragement. Some had wept when Jenna carried the infant to the front of the cage to show them, others reached out through their bars as if to touch it reverently, or blew it a kiss. A few hours later mother and child were taken away. Nobody knew their fate.
There was an empty cot by the wall. She took her drink across to it and sat down crosslegged. From her pocket she fished out a couple of the biscuits she had saved from breakfast, and leant back against the wall to eat and drink in a leisurely fashion, meeting the watching eyes with cold indifference.
Life imprisonment in the notorious penal colony on Cygnus Alpha. Better than a death sentence. Or was it? In her sentencing preamble, the Arbiter General had included a prissy little remark about how unusual it was to be obliged to send a woman to such a place. Only a hardened miscreant could deserve such a fate. The rest of the court had nodded sagely, she had brought it upon herself. And in all honesty, Jenna reflected ruefully, one had to agree with them.
I thought I was so smart, they'd never get me. Tracking their patrols, bribing traffic controllers and scanning every cargo for hidden drugs -- especially Shadow. It would have been the death sentence all right if we'd had that shipment of Largo's on board when they arrested us. Damn the man. I wonder how many poor dupes he's been instrumental in sending to the gas chambers. If ever I get the chance... But I won't, will I?
Another clatter in the corridor, more prisoners being brought down. Four courts were in session today and business was brisk as they worked through the smaller fry. Among the batch she was not surprised to see Vila Restal. Evidently the court had come to the conclusion that no amount of conditioning would ever deter that compulsive thief from practising his arts. By all accounts he'd been to penal colonies before, it was only surprising that he'd been permitted to return to Earth. Now he too had drawn the big one. Still, he was looking fairly jaunty, in contrast to Nova, just behind him, who was white-faced and visibly shaking. That was a pity. What had a fresh-faced youngster like him done to deserve it? Or was he being used as a lever on somebody else?
You'll have to toughen up, lad. Where we're going, they'll be almost as happy to see you as they will be to see me. Sexual predation is the name of the game, and we'll have to form some sort of alliance if we're going to even stay alive on Cygnus Alpha. Either that, or shack up with the most dominant male we can find. I'll do that if I have to.
She signalled to him to join her. Vila, of course, tagged along.
"Sit down and get your breath back," she said, patting the mattress beside her. He dropped onto it as if his legs had given way under him. Vila, not included in this invitation, hunkered down on the floor with the ease of long practice, all ears.
After a few moments' silence, Vila began, as she had known he would. "Anyway, Nova, how did you get into this mess? You don't seem to fit the usual pattern. Young delinquents like you usually get sent to reformatories."
Nova heaved a shaky sigh. "I didn't get myself into it. My elder brothers got mixed up with some revolutionary named Bran Foster. I was picked up as a hostage for their surrender, but it didn't work, so here I am."
"What have they just tried you for?" Vila persisted. "It can't be for being a rebel's brother."
"Conspiracy to defraud. You know, lots of forged papers. I couldn't get the hang of what I was supposed to have done at all." Nova dropped his head down on his knees, bewildered despair evident in every line of his crumpled body.
Jenna knew better than to attempt to mother him. In any case, she wasn't the maternal kind. However, she'd better find a way to put some steel into him.
"Well, you should get Vila to take you under his wing," she said. "He knows all about survival in captivity. From now on, you have to learn a new way of life."
Pleased, Vila returned an innocent smile. "Glad to help." Their eyes met, and she knew he was hoping for some favours from her if he co-operated with the boy's education (or should it be initiation?)
Nova sat up and took a deep breath. "Thank you. It sounds silly, but I've been scared stiff at the thought of being thrown in with a bunch of murderers and gangsters."
"Oh, we're the cream of society in these parts," said Vila airily. "We even have a famous smuggler among us." He bowed with mock-admiration towards Jenna.
Nova's smile was wan but interested. "What did they catch you for?"
Jenna grimaced. "Illicit diamond buying on Mars."
"Diamonds!" Vila's eyes lit up with a keen professional interest. "Where do they come from?"
She had to smile at his enthusiam. "There's been a big new find in the Olympus region. Really good stones, everybody's after them. I'm surprised you haven't heard about them."
"So why didn't they try you on Mars?" Vila wanted to know. "I mean, you'd only draw a few years in the local jail for that, surely? Maybe even get off with a hefty fine."
"My freetrading reputation, I'm afraid. The others were tried locally, but they passed me on to Earth and collected the reward."
"The perils of being famous," Vila commented cheerfully.
"Well, being obscure hasn't exactly helped you," she answered tartly.
Nova had brightened up somewhat during this exchange. "How did you become a smuggler?" he asked.
Jenna shrugged, unwilling to go into details of her past life. "You could say it was a family tradition."