Authors: J. L. Doty
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The hand and leg manacles hampered eleven-year-old York Ballin, and his attorney had to help him stand. Next to him, Cracky, Ten-Ten, and their attorneys stood as well. It bothered York that the older boys looked frightened.
As the judge entered the courtroom, York tried to look sorrowful and repentant. He was counting on the judge being too soft-hearted to throw the book at a poor little boy raised by foster parents, and he'd practiced looking pitiable.
The judge sat down behind the bench, then shuffled a small sheaf of papers for a second before looking at Cracky, Ten-Ten, and York. When he spoke, his voice sounded hard and unyielding. “Charles Towk, Robert Tennerin, and York Ballin. The three of you made a conscious decision to steal a woman's purse, and when she resisted, you, Charles Towk, struck her over the head with a still unidentified blunt object. She died of that wound, and a jury of your peers has found you guilty of felony murder, a capital offense. Mr. Tennerin and Mr. Ballin, that you did not personally strike the blow does not lessen your culpability in the matter.”
From the moment Cracky whacked that woman over the head, York knew what a mistake it had been to listen to the two older boys. “Easy money,” they'd said. “Nobody gets hurt. You just gotta be lookout.”
“I've considered your sentences carefully. Mr. Ballin, while you have not been before this court as repeatedly as Mr. Towk and Mr. Tennerin, you have appeared here twice for shoplifting and petty theft, so I'm not going to waste time with long explanations. It is my responsibility to ensure that predators like you three are not free to victimize the law-abiding public. Mr. Towk, I sentence you to death in a low-gravity gallows. May whatever god you honor have mercy on your soul.”
Cracky leaned forward on the table in front of him and started cryingâbig gulping sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks, snot flowing freely from his nose.
“Mr. Tennerin, I sentence you to death in a low-gravity gallows. May whatever god you honor have mercy on your soul.”
Ten-Ten shouted, “You can't do that! I didn't hit her!”
“Silence,” the judge snapped. “Be silent or I'll have the bailiffs restrain you.”
He looked at York. “Mr. Ballin, like your two friends I consider you nothing more than a set of genes that need to be removed from our gene pool. Because of your age, the law won't allow me to give you a death sentence, but I can still put you away where you can never harm anyone again.”
York's stomach muscles tightened. This wasn't going to be good.
The judge shuffled the papers again, then carefully read from them. “I sentence you to life without parole at hard labor on a prison mining asteroid, the location of which will be determined by the penal system.”
“But I didn't kill her,” York said. “I just wantedâ”
“Shut up,” the judge barked. “There'll be no more discussion of the matter.”
He stood, turned, and marched out of the courtroom.
Two bailiffs descended on York and almost picked him up by his arms as they hustled him through a side door and out of the room. His feet barely touched the floor as they half-carried him to an elevator, then down to the basement level. At the end of a long corridor, they stopped at a metal door and nodded to another bailiff seated behind a glass partition. He did something, and the metal door slid aside to reveal a hallway with more metal doors on either side, each with a large number stenciled on it. One of the bailiffs holding him said, “He's a minor, so we got to put him alone.”
A metallic-sounding voice came from the speaker above them. “Put him in three.”
As they marched him down the hallway, the second door on the right slid aside with the clatter of steel gears. The cell had two bunks folded up against one wall. One of the bailiffs pulled the lower one down and they sat York on it, then removed the manacles. Then both guards backed out of the cell without saying a word and the door clanked shut.
York had been counting on the fact that the judge couldn't give an eleven-year-old boy the death penalty, but for all intents and purposes he'd done just that. York knew he wouldn't last a year on a mining asteroid.
He lay back on the small bed and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.
York had only been in the cell for a couple of hours when the door clattered open and two bailiffs walked in. Holding manacles, one said, “You got visitors.”
They manacled his hands and feet and marched him out of the cellblock, then down a series of long corridors and into a small room where Maja and Tollem waited, both seated at a plain, rectangular table. York's foster parents weren't much to look at; tired, one might sayâtired eyes, skin, hair, clothing. As the bailiffs hustled him into the room, Maja scowled at him while Toll stood and started to step around the table.
One of the bailiffs stepped between York and Toll, held out an arm, and said to Toll, “No. You stay seated on that side of the table; we sit him down on this side. You talk, but you don't touch, you don't exchange anything. If he wasn't a minor, you'd be talking to him through a blast-proof partition, but we can't let him among the general inmate population.”
Toll sat back down beside Maja, and the bailiffs pushed York down into a chair opposite them. Toll leaned forward and said, “We're trying to get hold of your attorney, see what we can do.”
Maja's scowl deepened. “That lawyer ain't going to give us shit for time. We don't have no money to pay him.”
York knew that story all too well. Maja and Toll had tried to make it as croppers, but even with a government subsidy, they'd barely put food on the table from one day to the next.
“But we gotta do something,” Toll said, his voice rising into that pleading tone York knew so well.
Maja leaned back and looked at York, making no attempt to hide her contempt. “We don't gotta do shit. He fucked up and got himself into this. Maybe if the money hadn't stopped when he was six, we might have some now to help him with.”
That was all York had ever meant to Maja: the money, the mysterious bank transfer that had arrived every month, then stopped, for some reason, shortly before his seventh birthday. She hadn't been mean or abusive, just sour and hateful, with never a kind word for anyone. On the other hand, Toll had always been friendly, but they'd both lived under Maja's thumb.
Maja and Toll argued back and forth for about a half hour, then the bailiffs escorted York back to his cell.
York sat on the bunk in his cell and tried to remember when he'd first come to Maja and Toll. He'd been four at the time, clutching desperately to a man's hand. He recalled that hand now; not a father's hand, not someone he loved or longed for, but a face and a voice that was at least familiar when he'd needed familiarity most.
Somewhere deep in his memories there was someone he'd thought of as
, but he could no longer picture her, couldn't even recall the color of her hair or eyes, nothing. Maja and the man that brought him talked money, though York hadn't understood any of it at the time. They came to some agreement and the fellow left. York never saw him again.
During the two days he spent in the holding cell, he repeatedly tried to contact his attorney, but the man wouldn't take his calls. Then they transferred him to solitary confinement in the maximum-security block of the county magistrate's court. Sitting there with nothing to do, staring at the walls of his small cell, he lost count of the days.
They came for him in the middle of a dark and rainy day: two bailiffs who locked him into manacles again. He assumed they'd drive him out to the spaceport, then put him on a shuttle up to Dumark Prime, the big satellite station that served all the shipping in the Dumark system. There, he'd be transferred to some sort of ship for passage to one of the mining asteroids. He was too numb to pay any attention to his surroundings until they marched him into a room and sat him down in a chair at a table. Seated opposite him was his attorney, who looked quite frightened and ill-at-ease, and an older man with salt-and-pepper gray hair wearing an expensive business suit. Standing to one side were a woman and a man, both dressed in some sort of military uniform.
The woman said, “I don't like this.”
The fellow in the expensive suit looked her way and said, “I'm sorry, Captain, but you have no choice.”
She said, “The Admiralty has noâ”
He raised a hand, silencing her with a gesture. York got the impression that she was not one to take orders easily. His attorney sat silently through the whole exchange, and was careful not to make eye contact with anyone.
The fellow in the suit turned to York's attorney and said, “Please proceed.”
The attorney had a comp terminal in front of him. He spun it around and slid it across the table to York. “Sign that,” he said.
There was some sort of document on the screen of the terminal. York looked at the page count, saw that it was quite long, and in any case, even if he could read, he probably wouldn't understand it. “What is it?” he asked.
“It's the only chance you've got to stay alive, so just sign it, dammit.”
The guy in the expensive suit said, “You're joining the navyâfor the rest of your life. You know full well you won't last a month on a mining asteroid, so we're giving you a second chance. The navy has its own rather harsh code of justice, and you may not survive that, either, but you have a better chance there than on a prison asteroid.”
When York hesitated, the fellow added, “If you don't sign it, we'll just fake your signature, and you'll be in the navy anyway.”
York looked at his attorney, then at the woman and man in uniform, then back at the suit.
The bailiffs had to remove his wrist manacles so he could lift his hand and press his palm against the screen of the terminal. Then they took a DNA sample to file with whatever it was he'd signed. After that, the suit said to the woman, “He's all yours, Captain.”
The woman turned to the man in uniform standing beside her and said, “Master Chief, get him aboard ship.”
“Aye, aye, ma'am,” the fellow said, and practically lifted York out of his chair.
The fellow called
then fulfilled York's earlier expectations. They took him to the spaceport where they boarded a military boat of some sort, but they didn't stop at Dumark Prime. When the boat came to rest and Mr. Chief marched York off it, he had a brief glimpse of an open deck that someone called Hangar Deck, with a lot of navy uniforms bustling about. The captain went her way, and Mr. Chief quickstepped York down through the bowels of the ship. He turned him over to another fellow, also named ChiefâYork assumed they were brothers or something. The second Mr. Chief walked York into another cell, removed his manacles, and locked him in.
A cell was a cell, small and cramped with a sink, a toilet, and some sort of bed flat against the wall, like a big picture hanging there. He could tell it was a bed because it had blankets on it, held in place and prevented from falling to the floor by a shallow gravity field. But since it was flat against the wall, he figured it was folded up, and he had to figure out how to unfold it if he was going to sleep in it.
He examined the periphery of the bed carefully for some sort of latch or release mechanism, spent a good half hour doing so and never did find a way to unfold it so he could lie in it. He did discover some controls that contracted or extended the gravity field that held the blankets in place. He finally pulled the pillow, sheets, and blanket off the bed, laid the pillow on the floor, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and lay down to sleep.
He was a man who had kept himself alive all these years by never being curious, or at least never acting on that curiosity. It was the busiest hour of the day in the bar in the spaceport on Dumark Prime, which he liked. Most of the bar's customers glanced frequently at the wall clock, some planning to board an outbound ship, some to meet inbound acquaintances. It was also a place that didn't have a group of regulars, just nameless, transient people all waiting for something, and he liked that, too. He could wait and remain anonymous.
He took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink and lunch. He was hungry and thirsty, but he would have ordered something either way; all part of fitting into the surrounding terrain and remaining anonymous. He had finished half the food when a younger man in an expensive suit took the seat next to him. “Carson,” the fellow said, “how'd it go?”
Carson wasn't his real name, but it worked for the purposes of this job. He'd change his identity before going through customs and boarding an outbound ship. He said, “Everything went as planned, Mr. Tolliver.” Carson had no doubt that Tolliver was not the young fellow's real name, either. “The identity codes you gave me elicited the â¦ appropriate responses from the authorities and the navy.”
The bartender came over and Tolliver ordered a drink. Had Carson been a curious man, he would guess that the younger man was all navy, probably an attachÃ© of some sort working for someone very high in the Admiralty. Definitely not Admiralty Intelligence; AI tended to have a more thuggish, heavy-handed approach. Had Carson been a curious man, he would wonder why Tolliver would go to the trouble to travel to a backwater agro-planet to oversee a relatively simple clandestine operation, and why they'd pay Carson to travel such distances when they could have easily used local talent. Had Carson been a curious man, he might have wondered about these things, but acting on that curiosity in any way would probably get him killed.
Tolliver asked, “So the boy's on his way?”
“That he is,” Carson said. “Though he has only a slightly better chance of surviving the navy than a prison asteroid.”
Tolliver tossed back his drink and stood. “It wasn't your responsibility to worry about his survival, just see to it he signed those papers and got on that ship alive.”