Authors: Steve Perry
THE OMEGA CAGE
The fourth book in the Matador series
AND MICHAEL REAVES
Table of Contents
The vilest deeds like poison weeds bloom well in prison air; It is only what is good in man that wastes and withers there; Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate and the Warder is despair.
"The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage…
Lucasta. To Althea: From Prison
The skimmer hit a hard downdraft and fell several hundred meters almost instantly. Dain Maro felt the free-fall flutter in his belly as the little ship dropped. There was no danger; they were still far above the ground, but the suddenness of it nearly lifted him from his form-seat.
The manacles stopped him.
He was chained to the seat, wrists and ankles, and it would have taken a lot more than a little air turbulence to break him free. He looked at the gyves. They could have used ataractic drugs or pressor fields to hold him, but Omega was a frontier world, and the Confed didn't waste its technology on criminals. The manacles were molecular-stacked graphites, twice as hard as polycarb durosteel, and the process for making them was a hundred years old. Ancient, maybe, but certainly effective enough.
Maro looked up at the mirrored window next to his seat. The face that stared back at him certainly didn't look dangerous enough to be sent to Omega. The reflected image had dark hair, not quite black, and sharp features—a thin nose and lips, pale blue eyes, and a strong chin—or so he had been told, mostly by women.
"Whatcha lookin' at, pretty boy?" Pig said.
Maro didn't bother to turn; he could see the guard's image in the mirror behind him. He had mentally dubbed the two guards Snake and Pig, for their most outstanding features. Snake was a whippet-thin man of maybe forty T.S., with some kind of skin disease that made him both shiny and scaly; either that, or maybe he was from one of the worlds where the bandit bioshifters still operated.
Or perhaps the condition was some kind of protective adaptation. Pig's face was dominated by his nostrils, set in a nose that looked as if it had met too many walls at too high a rate of speed.
The two grinned unpleasantly at each other. "Why don't we show him the place?" Snake said.
"Yeah. You want to see your new home, pretty boy?"
Maro continued to stare at his reflection. He said nothing. The two guards were sadists, and he'd found the safest course was to ignore them as much as possible.
Pig touched his throat mike. "Take us down for the tour, Rouge. Pretty boy, he's curious."
The skimmer began a fairly rapid descent. Maro turned away from the window and stared straight ahead. He didn't want to play whatever game these creeps were running. He suspected, however, that he didn't have much of a choice.
To Maro's left, Snake stroked a pressure-sensitive control on the latter's chair.
The window's photo optometrics kicked on and the thincris plate next to Maro washed clear. Maro didn't want to look, but he knew if he were ever going to escape from the Cage, he'd need all the information he could get. He turned toward the viewport.
They were skimming perhaps a hundred meters above a swamp. Thick-boled trees rose from dank, green water; the few patches of solid ground were covered with brush, most of it in shades of mottled green, with occasional bursts of color; flowers, birds, other animals he didn't recognize.
Some sort of animal, like an elephant with a short nose and lots of teeth, roared up soundlessly at them.
All in all, Maro thought, it was not the most hospitable place he had ever seen.
He estimated their speed at around five hundred klicks, based on his own experience flying low-level atmospheric craft. At that rate, the swamp went on for a damned long way before it gave way to dry land. But when the change in terrain finally occurred, Maro's jaw dropped—the land was
, with only a few scrubby bushes dotting wind-patterned sand dunes. What kind of ecology would allow desert next to swamp that way? It didn't make any sense. It shouldn't exist.
Pig laughed, a grunting sound. "You like that? The whole fucking planet is that way, pretty boy. Nobody has ever escaped from the Cage, but if they did, they'd be dead fast. Everything down there would just as soon kill you as look at you.
You got a one-way ticket to hell."
Maro leaned back in his seat, still not speaking. The thincris shimmered and darkened a little, filtering out the hot sunshine but staying clear enough for him to see the surface below.
Snake said, "Pretty boy like you's gonna get eaten up by the scum in the Cage, you copy? But I might put in a good word for you with some of the guards, make it easier on you—if you want to be nice to me."
The last was said in a suggestive tone. Maro turned to stare at Pig. The guard dropped one fat hand to his crotch and massaged himself through the gray thinskin uniform. He leered at Maro, and the effect was so comical that the prisoner almost laughed. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, should just let it pass like all of Pig's other crude attempts—but he couldn't resist.
"I'd rather sleep with a genitonecrotic dog," Maro said.
The leer vanished, and Pig stood, doubling his fists.
Way to go, Dain
, Maro told himself wearily.
Now you get
your ass kicked for
letting your mouth fly. Just like usual
There were six of them, Stark knew. He also knew precisely where they planned to hop the wall, and he was ready for them. It had been a while since he'd tendered an object lesson, and it never hurt to remind the scum what happened to those who got itchy feet. It wasn't any particular joy to him; he had come from the military, and slaughter wasn't his style. But the rules had to be made clear.
He thumbed his throat mike. "You see them, doppler?"
The simadam running the scope replied, "Copy, Warden. Six for six, approaching stanchion four, two hundred and six meters out."
Stark nodded. "Good," he said. "Heat up the lasers."
There was a brief pause, then the simadam said, "Uh, wouldn't the focused sonics work just as well? And they'd be alive—"
"The lasers, I said. Full spec, full rake, full pattern."
"Jesu Cristo." The words came in a hushed murmur.
"What was that?"
"Ah, I said, copy, Warden. Full SRP."
Stark smiled slightly. "I thought that's what you said. Discom."
The warden stood behind his desk and stretched. He could watch the show on the holoproj—they would kick in the photomutable eyes as soon as the first laser opened up—but felt he should see it directly. Never hide from the consequences of your orders. He ambled toward the office exit.
Outside, the heat hit him with its usual humid intensity. He would have to get another follow-cooler as soon as he could siphon enough stads for it. The last one had given up the fight with a bang a couple of days back; the compressor had blown out and sprayed inert gases every which way. The dead cooler lay in a pile of junk in the machine yard now, another victim of the Omegan weather.
The cooler was considered a luxury according to Confed rules, but as far as he was concerned, it was a necessity here. If they wouldn't give him the money for a new one, he would get it another way.
, he thought, glancing at his chronometer.
He took the elevator up to the observatory level. It, like most of the electromechanics, had been human built and installed. The Zonn had built the wall, along with the rest of the small city around which the prison had been constructed. They had been dead or gone half a million years, so the Confed extee experts said—but sometimes it felt as if the mysterious aliens might be peering at you from behind the nearest wall. Half a million years old, and those walls and other structures showed as little signs of wear as a set of new orthoskins. Stark wished he had their engineers instead of the ones the Confed fielded.
He reached the walkway. The distraction should be starting about… now.
As if on cue, a rumble began in the yard. A fight, most likely; he couldn't see it from here, but that's what they usually did. Not very original, but effective.
Stark stroked his com. "Be sure and get good views of the distractors," he said.
That was part of it too. He hadn't asked for this stinking job and he would leave in a nanosecond were it up to him, but it wasn't. And as long as he was trapped here, he would do it by the tape.
"Of course," came the reply. That would be Lepto watching the yard. Scum who had killed half a dozen men with their bare hands would cross the yard to avoid running into Lepto when his black moods were on him. In a combat unit, Stark would have had Lepto bent to a psych hospital stat. But here, the giant Tatsuan had found his niche. He was brutal and dangerous, but Stark needed that kind of man. The prisoners of the Omega Cage were the worst criminals in the galaxy.
The ear implant clicked on with incoming. "It's a go, Warden. They're making the rush."
Stark hurried to get in position. "Nobody does anything until they clear the wall."
There was no answer to that command. Anybody who warned the escapees in any way would suffer as much as they did, and they all knew it. The rules were different here. Loyalty wasn't the key—fear was. Stark didn't much like it, but he hadn't invented the system. He just had to survive it.
The warden reached the observation tower. He keyed the holoproj on and waved it up to eight-X magnification and enhancement. The six escapees darted for what they thought was a hidden booster plate at the base of the wall, five men and one woman piling onto the makeshift lifter.
Probably all praying it will
. Stark thought. They needn't have worried. Late the previous night he had inspected it personally, stuck an inducer on it and made sure the plate would do just what it was supposed to do. Somebody had done a good job; the thing operated at near capacity, the cobbled circuits controlling the repulsion nearly as well as in a commercial model. He hadn't been able to find out who from his informant, but it didn't really matter. If he was one of the escapees, he was fertilizer; if he was somebody else, Stark would get him sooner or later.
As he waited for the capacitor to build up enough charge to allow the six to hop the wall, Stark took a deep breath and felt the sweat roll down the furrow over his spine. The hot breeze wafted the stench of lube and rotting vegetation, and he was certain he would carry the memory of those smells to his cremation. They stank as bad as what he was about to order done.
He could have stopped the escape when the fight broke out; he could have disabled the plate when he had first heard about it; he could have ordered the sonics instead of the lasers. There were a lot of things he could have done, but to do so would have shown weakness, and in his position he could not allow even the faintest crack of compassion to show in his hull. If a man
he was going to die by trying to escape, if he felt it deep in his soul, then maybe he would think twice or ten or a hundred times about trying.
Escape from the Omega Cage was not allowed.
The Confed officials told him that before, when he was ordered to climb into a Bender ship and space here.
Nobody gets out, you copy, Commander? Nobody
ever has, nobody ever will. That is your job. We need a place to dump them, and
the Cage is it. What you do to them there, we don't want to know. But they don't
get out. Ever
The dull drone of the plate interrupted his thoughts. He had the camera locked and tracking, but he could use his own vision to see the six clutching the plastic rails as the plate lifted up its cargo, sliding along within a meter of the Zonn wall. Up quickly, cresting the thirty-meter-high alien construct in less than two seconds. Then they were over, guiding the plate by leaning, free of the Cage.