sample sunday

In the fine tradition of Sample Sunday, here’s an excerpt from my near-Earth space opera The Roar of the Spheres. By chapter 9, the crew of the Frontier Assessment has gotten themselves into some trouble on Mars. With their brilliant lawyer Shelby framed and jailed, their plan to free the colonists of Titan is about to be knocked off the rails. Here, the future of thousands depends on busting one woman out of jail.

The alarm raged through the Creative Reform Services detention facility before we’d even reached Shelby, an up-and-down cry of panic and fear that sounded exactly like an old air raid siren. Like they were trying to evoke some primal memory of hiding under desks while nuclear fire stripped the world to ashes. Like they meant to scare us.

It was working.

The plan, like all good ones, had been simple: Pete and I would go in as Shelby’s visitors while Baxter, whose artificial body couldn’t pass the security scans no matter how cunningly it resembled the real thing to human eyes and touch, waited outside with a rented electric cart. Fay, tapped into CRS’ security network, would unlock our path to the front doors while sealing off everything else. At most, we’d have a receptionist and a stray guard to karate chop on our way back to the street. Baxter’s idling cart would then whisk us away to the spaceport’s private gate, where a local pilot would rocket us to Fay, who’d be running interference the whole time, keeping CRS locked down and isolated while ensuring nobody tried to do anything insane like seal us in a dome or cut off the spaceport.

None of which sounded all that simple to me. It sounded like an awful lot of running through enemy territory with a limited number of exits, all of which could theoretically be blocked off. Fay assured me if we moved fast enough no one would be able to react in time to pin us down, and if it was wrong and they had their shit together and had a security force waiting for us at the spaceport (“And how would they even know you’d be headed there at all?” Fay asked), it could, as a last resort, respond with violent force. As the alarm keened up, freezing me in place as I shuddered like a dying engine, I was reminded, for the millionth time, how we don’t always get what we want.

“That does not sound like a positive development,” Baxter said through our earbuds, barely audible over the whooping alarm.

I sprinted deeper into the deserted reception room, as if expecting Shelby would materialize like an anti-mirage once I got close enough to see her. “What’s going on?”

“Badness,” Fay said.

“More badness.” Pete pointed to a door sliding open in front of us. He roundhoused the first face that showed itself—a white-uniformed guard, fortunately, who collapsed in the doorway and tripped his partner onto the tile. With his face so close to my foot, I gave it a kick, then knelt down to punch him out. Pete stripped them of their stunners and lobbed one my way.

“To define ‘badness,'” Fay said with a brightness that suggested more curiosity than concern, “if they knew about our plan in advance, they could have moved Shelby. She could be anywhere.”

“They don’t know what you can and can’t know,” I said. “If they moved her, they’d have risked tipping you off.”

“If they thought I was that powerful, why bother resisting at all?”

“Because we can’t all be as smart as you! Now tell me what the hell to do.”

“Well,” Fay said, “abort, return to Baxter, and get up here with me. Or try to get to Shelby’s cell, which may or may not contain a Shelby. They shut me out with a backup network, but I can still help you get there.”

The air raid siren switched off.

“Okay,” I said, awkwardly loud in the fresh silence. “Which way?”

“Straight.” We ran into the off-white hallway the two guards had come through, breaking left at Fay’s direction as we reached a T-intersection. On all sides the doors stayed sealed, though by command of Fay or CRS I couldn’t tell. “Convicts are through the next door to your right,” Fay said. “No, the next door.”

It wouldn’t budge. Pete, who’d also stripped the kicked guards of their ID thumbsticks, inserted one into the maglock. Inside, the cellblock looked more like a shined-up Pueblo cliff town than a prison, with rooms recessed into the six-story walls reachable by a sturdy staircase set into each corner of the open rectangular space. Though the cells had the familiar bar-grille doors, the bed and toilets were concealed behind white walls. This mix of the punitive and the private—one room open to the eyes of all, the other hidden behind a wall; the airy space of the main floor, tiled in a geometric gray array; the narrow windows beaming bands of dusty red sunlight into the blacks and whites of the vast chamber—addled my senses with its schizophrenic contradictions. I didn’t see the second pair of guards until Pete stepped into a side kick that arrested his meaty, goateed assailant mid-charge. The man fell to the gray tiles, wheezing and clutching his ribs.

The other guard, the smart one, drew his stunner and shot me.

My body went fuzzy and warm and swimmy, collapsing like the loose pile of organic material it was. I was peripherally aware of my side banging into the hard floor, then directly aware of nothing as my head followed suit. I came to tingly and numb. Two thoroughly beaten guards sprawled on the tile. Overhead, footsteps clamped on metal steps. Female prisoners filled the air with calls and questions and unintelligible hoots.

Someone moaned. It was me. “What’s going on?” I slurred into my throat mike.

“I’ve got most of the place clamped down,” Fay said, “but there’s a lot of staff I can’t account for, and their communications are regrettably functional. We’re going to have an interesting time getting to the spaceport.”

“‘We’?” I coughed weakly. Tingling pins prickled my skin. “What about Shelby?”

“Inside her cell. Wait, no she isn’t.”

“What? Where is she?”

“Outside her cell, where Pete just let her.”

My head hurt like five bitches in a bitch boat, but my fingers and toes had started to twitch. I tried wiggling them (crashed on my side, I couldn’t see or really feel them yet), forcing my body back into mobility.

“We should let all the others out, too.”

“But they’re criminals!” Fay said.

“This is a cushy pad for embezzlers and petty thugs, not Sing Sing. The only crime they’d commit on the way out is stealing any loose office supplies.”

“They could hurt innocent people. That’s bad. I don’t want to do bad.”

“Fuck bad.” I swung my stupid body to a sitting position. “It’s about survival now.”

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