Lay of the Land
I love my people. And there are six adults, two children, and a malamute in my house right now, and I’m losing my mind just a shred or two faster than I would otherwise. Our neck of the woods starts school later than many others, and so Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave won’t be starting their respective classes until next week (and I’ve just realized they almost certainly aren’t ready, or rather, we aren’t ready for them to start) and they’ve got the End Of Summer antsy-ness going on. All of which are decidedly back-burner-ing the ol’ writing.
This is where I give myself the peptalk about everything being related to the writings, and how it can all be tied back, and tied in, and used – consciously and subconsciously – to improve the brain meats doing the word-putting-together thing. And it can. And it often feels as though, unless words are filling up pages at an acceptable pace, the writing isn’t actually happening. As though the only “real” writing is word-mining.
And that’s not true. It feels true, but it’s a damn lie. (Though perhaps, if we took a poll, it would grow to the level of being a statistic…) And curiously, the way we prove it to be a lie is (*takes a deep breath*) writing more. More words; more, and more focused, research; more connections; more cover work; more blurbs; more marketing; and most of all, more discipline. Now, while the origins of the word seem to come out of a more self-flagellistic period of time (plaguey-plagueness), the lesson to garner is to pursue your craft with deliberation, focusing your work in such a way as to shape yourself as a writer.
Very basically, be intentional about your writing. Do it like you mean it. A buddy says “treat it like a job” (well, honestly, lots of my writing cohorts say the same thing), and I’ll add to that. Do what you can to make your writing consistent, in terms of time spent, focus, and persistence. And get good, through the diligent pursuit of your craft. And enjoy some fiction as I pursue mine.
Chapter 5: Lay of the Land
The next three days passed in a fuzz of pharmaceutically induced clouds, shot through with prisms and undergirded with a distinct lack of interest. In everything, really. Distantly, I hoped this wasn’t the way the prison was run. Knowing what I knew about Tartarus, I didn’t think it could be, but I also knew the Centauri Accords were honored as often in the breach as not.
Fortunately, on day four, I woke up clear-headed. Unfortunately, as soon as I opened my eyes, I saw the odious Crind’s face grinning at me from the open doorway. Incongruously graceful fingers toyed idly with his control rod, and a chill swept over my body as I realized somebody’d locked the bed’s restraints around my while I slept off the last of the drugs. Dr. Corama had left them undone while I’d been both drugged to the proverbial gills, and invalid from stasis shock. I didn’t know who’d done them up, or who’d removed the blanket under which I’d slept. Ultimately, that mattered a great deal less than the sadist staring at me from a few feet away.
“Soon, Convict.” Despite a volume which barely carried to the bed in which I lay, Crind spoke in a mellifluous tenor at distinct odds with his brutish appearance. It was so incongruous that it took me a few seconds to catch the promise he’d spoken.
Silence seemed my best option. I lost. He took a quick stride to the bedside and stroked the business end of his control rod up the bottom of my bare foot. Fire licked up my leg from the delicate contact, and my leg started twitching. A shuddering whine escaped from between my clenched teeth as the sensation of heat throbbed in time to my pounding heart.
“Soon, you’ll be wearing a harness, and I won’t even need to touch you with this to make you hurt.” Delicate fingers thrust the lit rod in front of my eyes, and I flinched away from the melodious, malicious voice.
Curiously, Crind smelled faintly of some spicy, resinous plant. An ugly, brutish sadist with a beautiful voice, graceful fingers, and clean habits scared me much more than a stinking thug. I wondered what I’d done to attract the vile man’s attention. Maybe just been different enough.
That same, sick glow lit Crind’s muddy eyes.
“And don’t even think of going to that,” his scarred lips twisted, “that, red-haired bitch for help. I’ll find out, and then it will be ever so much worse for you.” His mouth worked as his eyes glazed over with mingled hate and lust. Nausea churned in my gut. I’d seen plenty of human evil, first working as a free trader, then in the war and after, but this was something new. I wondered what Crind offered whomever owned him.
“What are you doing in my clinic?” Dr. Corama’s voice snapped from the hallway. Crind’s shoulders hunched in response, and his hideous smirk slid into an expression of servile obsequiousness. He turned, gripping his control rod with both hands behind his back.
“I was just making sure the convict was restrained, Ma’am. Warden’s coming down since this filth missed the in-brief on account of him being in a cushy bed what ought only have real people in it. I was just making sure he couldn’t try anything.” He darted a dark, dark look at me as he spoke.
“We’d have known if he was likely to get violent, Crind.” The doctor’s sharp tone made the words a rebuke, and from the way his knuckles whitened on the rod, he knew it and didn’t enjoy it. “Now, get out of my clinic, and stay out of my clinic before I call the Chief to escort you out.
Crind clumped out, his heavy footsteps and stiff gait at odds with his graceful hands. Dr. Corama glared at the open door for several seconds after he’d disappeared, even after the sound of his tread faded. Then she turned to me, the blazing anger pulling the skin over her cheekbones taut and twisting her lips into a grimace. It wasn’t particularly attractive, but it was plenty scary. She took a deep breath and smoothed her features.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Avender. Crind more or less has the run of Tartarus, despite my complaints to Warden Jaems. I can have him thrown out of the clinic, but that’s where my power ends, whatever the prison’s protocols say about my authority.” She scowled, and then heaved a sigh.
“It is what it is, Doc.” We’d had a few exchanges, Dr. Corama and I. She always called me by the name under which I’d been shipped to them, and I always called her Doc. From her, and from Ferrer, I knew the medical staff worked hard to keep the prisoners healthy. The warden and his cronies were more interested in meeting and exceeding their quotas than the well-being of those with whom they’d been entrusted, however, and so the clinic was constantly busy.
“I might have other words for the situation. I think if it wasn’t for the AC personnel, Jaems and Crind would turn this place into a hellhole.”
I schooled my features, wondering how much she actually knew about Tartarus. Arguably, the world was already a hellhole. At least for humans. Hot, dry, and growing nothing we could eat, the planet was famous for one thing: it was the political prison of the Theban Empire. Prisoners were trained to mine the ore which the Empire turned into, among other things, the powered armor worn by the Guard. It was found nowhere else in known space in significant quantities, and so the Empire had to have a supply to maintain their independence.
I still didn’t know why they used convicted prisoners. Maybe it was just about control. Maybe nobody would take a contract for it. Maybe the Crown was just insane. I had some suspicions about that last, but the truth was buried under centuries of tradition and secrecy.
“I’m sorry to leave you like this,” Dr. Corama said, interrupting my reverie, “but Crind was right: the warden is coming in to brief you on your sentence, and what to expect here at Tartarus, and he insisted you be restrained for that.” She held up a forestalling hand. “Before you ask, I don’t know why.”
While she’d been speaking, she’d been using the bed’s dedicated screen to review the feed from the medicuff locked around my arm. Something she saw set her eyes blazing, and she swore under her breath, biting off oaths that would have impressed the drill instructors I’d encountered in the Assault Corps.
She undid the restraints holding my arms to my sides, and removed the cuff, all without ceasing her quiet obscenities. She made a choppy, jerking motion with her arm, and I lifted mine. She redid the restraint over just my chest, leaving my arms free. Then she removed the cuff. While the piece of technology was designed to prevent muscle atrophy, simply holding my wrist in one position for so long left it feeling stiff every time one came off, whatever medical personnel said.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Avender,” the doc finally wound down from her dudgeon. “I have to leave you restrained, but keeping you from being able to move anything apart from your head is just cruel. Besides,” she flashed a sharp, quick smile, “the restraints can’t be removed without my authorization, or the warden’s.”
I nodded, working my wrist.
Her smile softened briefly. Then her face went blank as we both heard the sound of footsteps in the hallway.
“Thank you, Doctor, I’ll take things from here.” The dismissal was clear in the haughty tone of voice of the man who entered the room.
Warden Jaems was somewhat below average height, even shorter than Dr. Corama, though he probably outweighed her by half again as much. His heavy frame was draped in an expensive suit of Traxian shadecloth. Even though maroon suit acted to regulate the temperature of the wearer, Warden Jaems’ shiny face wore a sheen of sweat. He’d have presented a comical figure if his eyes hadn’t been so cold.
“Warden, I found Crind in here, and despite what he said, he was behaving in a threatening manner toward a fully restrained man, and the cuff Mr. Avender was wearing shows a spike in his vitals consistent with the use of a control rod.”
“Well, Doctor, I’m sure the convict did something to convince Crind that he was under immediate threat. Regardless, I’m well within my power as warden of Tartarus to have a guard see to a convicted prisoner before putting myself at risk.” Jaems flashed a brittle smile that was little more than a tightening of the lips. “Now, I’m sure you have something better to do than waste my time complaining about a valued member of my staff.”
Dr. Corama’s face tightened, and frustrated anger filled her green eyes. Jaems lifted one pudgy hand and flipped his fingers toward the door. The doc glared at him for a moment, and then stalked through the portal.
Ignoring me, the warden closed the door and set the lock. He removed a device from an inside pocket of his suit, and pressed it against the wall to the left of the door’s control panel. After staring at it for a moment, Jaems nodded, and turned to stare at me with his cold eyes. A reptilian grin widened his soft features.
“Well, well, well. Hero of Axilon to disgrace of the Empire. Welcome to hell.”