Prison Ship Solzhenitsyn was one of several small satellites that followed Mayflower II on its orbit around Europa. The prison had been converted from an ore tanker fifty years before – and it showed. It surface was stippled with late additions and modifications – new exercise blocks, new docking collars. There were no observation blisters, no views of the outside world.
Ivan Luis Gregorio’s shuttle nestled comfortably in one of the newer docking collars. The Mithras was a sleek, black day-cruiser, its twin engines capable of pushing it at sensational speeds, but only over short distances. It suited Gregorio well – a man looking for instant results with as little effort as possible.
Inside the prison Gregorio stalked along a clanking steel walkway, trying to touch nothing of his grimy surroundings. Above his left shoulder his drone hovered, attentive and silent. To his right the lumpen gaoler, dressed scruffily in an ill-fitting uniform did his best to appear efficient and professional.
“Is it much further?” Gregorio said. They had already walked several hundred metres from the dock, and passed a dozen or so doors along the walkway. Gregorio had grown used to lifts and travelators. Walking any distance was a vulgar pursuit.
“Not much further, sir. Cell 24. Just up here on the right.”
Cell 24 was in the privileged section. Only high-ranking prisoners, political detainees – or sensitive embarrassments were held there. The rest of the prison was much worse – more crowded, dirtier and noisier. The occasional cry of pain or protest reached them along the reverberating corridors. An underlying smell seemed to be everywhere.
Gregorio held a limp hand under his nose. “Has he given you any trouble?”
“None at all sir. He hardly speaks. He eats his meals. Don’t ask for nothing. Quiet as a mouse, sir. Quiet as a mouse.” The gaoler gathered himself for an impertinent question, but Gregorio spoke first.
“Has he said anything… out of the ordinary?”
“Like what sir? You mean unusual requests? We get a lot of those.”
“Not requests, no. Anything … just anything out of the ordinary.”
“No, sir. As I said, he hardly speaks at all.” The gaoler gathered himself once more. Now was his chance. “What’s he done sir, by the way? It helps us manage ‘em if we know what they done. I know ‘em all in here,” he continued, “and they all know me. A successful prison is built on trust. They know who I am, and I know who they are. So, if you don’t mind me asking sir – it’s just that we don’t know nothing about him.”
Gregorio allowed their hollow footsteps to fill the yawning silence. The gaoler couldn’t stand it. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to speak out of turn. Just would be helpful, I thought, that’s all. Nothing more.”
“You know what you need to know. He’s a man. He’s a prisoner. You feed him. You keep him safe. If he does anything, or says anything unusual you inform me. That is all. Nothing complicated. Nothing requiring thought.”
“Yes sir.” The gaoler scuttled along the next few steps to Cell 24. “Here we are sir. Just as I said.” The gaoler allowed himself to be scanned by the door security, and asked for the door to be opened. He confirmed his request, and the door slid open smoothly.
Gregorio dismissed the gaoler. “You can leave us. You may watch, but not listen. I’ll indicate when I want you to return.”
“Are you sure, sir? It’s not really within the rules…”
“Quite sure, thank you. You can leave now.” The gaoler turned and left. Gregorio walked through the door, and it slid closed behind him.
The cell was simple, but not uncomfortable. Larger and airier than Gregorio had been expecting. A slim man sat on the low bed, eyes closed in contemplation. “Hello Ivan,” he said, and opened his eyes slowly. The eyes shone darkly, like wet pebbles.
“Hello John. How are you?”
“Very well, thank you. I was just finishing off a game of chess.” Gregorio looked around for a board, and the man gave a patronising smile. “In my head, Gregorio. In my head. I don’t have access to such niceties as a board. Though they do allow me the odd book.” He smiled. “Some of them very odd.
“No news though, which is a shame. How did the Jets do in the Pennant?”
Gregorio snorted. “You’re not interested in sport.”
“No, you’re right. I’m not.” There was a silence the man allowed to extend between them. “We seem to have run out of small talk Ivan.”
Gregorio looked flustered, and ran his fingers over his face. “Yes, yes. Well you know why I’m here.”
“I think the question I might ask is: Why am I here?”
“John, you have left me no choice. Your habits have become increasingly erratic; your work is esoteric and haphazard. It’s as if you’re deliberately putting Europa 4 in danger. If only you would cooperate, then I can have you out of here like that.” Gregorio snapped his fingers, and his drone fluttered approvingly. “Europa 4 will change everything. Everything and forever. I can’t allow anything to stand in its way. The Bloc have entrusted me with is success.”
“What has that to do with me any more?”
“John. It’s a project you and your team have made possible. A scientist like you should be part of it. You could wield considerable power within our group – and within the System. But time is running out – you must decide soon.
“Europa 4 is an opportunity for us to end the false history we have been creating, and create a new beginning, with fresh a history yet to be written.” Gregorio spoke with relish, imagining that the unfurling new history would be heavily influenced by himself. “The Bloc is ready to move to full implementation within the next six months; there will be no turning back. Of course there will be a price to pay; some regrettable consequences.” Gregorio showed no signs of regret. “But it is time. There are eight generations of Gregorios who have waited for a day such as this. And I will be the one who can finally witness it. I will be the one who is remembered forever as its chief sponsor and architect. I will be revered in the new world.” Gregorio caught his enthusiasm too late. The man sneered at him:
“You have confirmed all my worst fears. This is nothing to do with science and everything to do with power.”
“You’re a naïve man, John. A great scientist, but naïve. You knew all along that the Bloc would want results – concrete technologies that could be exploited. Not just some interesting cosmological curios. Right now no one has any time for your scientific purity.”
“But time is all I have. Time is my only friend. I could spend all day teasing you. All week.” His eyes narrowed, and his voice took on an edge. “I could spend the next six months stringing you along if I wanted to.”
Gregorio smiled. His face puckered along its fault lines. “I think you might change your mind about that.”
“I don’t see why I should.”
“Because Rafael,” Gregorio said, “Now I have your son.” He relished the silence that followed; the twisted shock on John Rafael’s face, which he tried to hide – but too late, Gregorio had seen it. “Now, John,” he continued, “Shall we talk?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I assure you, it’s true. Artur has him.”
“There is no one better to protect your son.”
“Can I speak to him?”
“No, that would not be a good idea.”
John Rafael read the slight hesitation in Gregorio’s response. “You haven’t got him at all. Don’t try to trick me Gregorio.”
“You’re right, I don’t have him yet. But Artur is en route. We’ll have him very soon.” Gregorio thought for a moment. “If you help me now, I could send him back home. To Moira. You could stop this right here, right now.”
“You know I won’t do it. If you prove you have him, and you prove he’s safe, maybe we can talk.”
Gregorio was frustrated. “I’m afraid that will be impossible. Communication is rather difficult at the moment.”
“Then I’ll have to wait until he gets here, won’t I?”
“Yes. You will,” said Gregorio, defeated.
John Rafael closed his eyes once more, re-starting his game of chess, and Gregorio could do nothing but wave at the hidden camera in the door. He shuffled from foot to foot in the uncomfortable silence, waiting for the door to open.
“We’ll talk again,” Gregorio said, as the door opened. “Very soon.”
After Gregorio left, John Rafael paced his small cell for a while. He found it was the best way for him to think clearly in the confined space. The metronome of his steps gave pace to his hypothesising, analysing, refining. He knew that soon enough he would have a workable solution to the problem at hand, and he would implement it.
Abruptly John Rafael came to a halt, and called for a guard. John Rafael’s bribes usually paid well, and a guard arrived within seconds: helmeted, and dressed in dark armour. Rafael passed on his message, and sat down again to wait for his next visitor. It was a gamble, he realised. He had no idea if his invitation would receive an answer. He had no idea what power he now had outside the confines of his cell.
Two hours later the gaoler walked to Cell 24, this time with more confidence; more sure of his position of authority. He was accompanied by a small, insignificant man of middle height and middle rank. The gaoler walked slowly to allow himself to boast of his years at the jail; his brutal methods; his power over the prisoners and every last detail of their lives. He could tell that his words were having an impact – his nervous guest hopped and skipped along the walkway, never looking up, never speaking – except occasionally to squeak at a particularly gruesome detail.
“Here we are – sir. Cell 24.” The gaoler opened the door, and gestured the man inside. “Would you like me to wait?” The man shook his head. “Very good. Sir. Let me know when you need me.” The door closed.
John Rafael lay on the grey bed. His visitor stood timidly in the centre of the cell, one hand squeezing the other in a constant battle for supremacy.
“You took your time Polyp.”
James Porlip hated the nickname he had been given, but was not in a position to do anything about it. As John Rafael’s senior technician he carried out all duties reasonably expected of him – organised the other staff, collated results, monitored budgets. Rafael, of course, took any credit, shifted any blame.
“It was difficult to get the money for the bribe.”
John Rafael sucked his teeth. “Gregorio has my son. Or will, very soon.”
James Porlip gasped. “This changes everything, sir. You must cooperate now.”
“It changes nothing.” Rafael said, not rising, not lifting his head from the mean pillow. Then he appeared to change tack. “Gregorio came to see me. He says that Europa 4 will be operational within six months. Should I believe him Polyp?”
“Things have changed so quickly in the weeks since your… ah incarceration sir. Gregorio personally controls all the funding now. He’s got rid of anyone who questions him. He’s put us under enormous pressure. We…”
“So you’re collaborating with him.” Rafael interrupted. “Only a few days without me, and you’ve caved in.”
James Porlip swallowed. His hand-wringing grew in intensity. He knew he shouldn’t be here. He knew that his new master, Gregorio could have him placed in a cell of his own for making this visit. A cell much darker than this one. But Porlip still felt a tug of loyalty to his old boss, an underlying sense of duty. “We have no choice, sir. We have families. We need to work – we need to be paid.”
Rafael puffed at the mundanity of everyday life. “You are working on the single most important scientific and technical project of our time – perhaps of all time – and you talk of money, of family? You are more of a worm than I thought you were.”
Porlip decided that silence was the best policy.
“So, to answer my question. Should I believe Gregorio? Will they launch in six months?”
“Unless there are unforeseen delays, then I think six months is a reasonable estimate. But only if they get your cooperation, sir. There are too many intricacies in the science, too many ideas in your head – for them to proceed without your assistance. We can get them so far – beyond that, they need you.”
“I know,” Rafael said. “That is why I need to know the status of my son.” James Porlip thought that a man who could talk easily about his only son’s ‘status’ was cold indeed.
“We will do everything we can, sir, of course. But please – you must understand that Gregorio will stop at nothing. He will use your son against you.”
“That is why we must remove him from the equation, Polyp. We must cancel a variable.”
Rafael had not stirred or opened his eyes during the entire conversation. He looked at Porlip now. “I think you understand what I mean.”
“I… I believe so, sir.”
“Good. See to it immediately. You know the arrangement.” Rafael dismissed Porlip with his eyes. “You may leave now.”