Thursday, 19 February 2009

Commanding The Kingfisher (Part 6)

18th March

The trial was to be at dawn. Not that there was a dawn out here. Not in the endless chasm between stars, where the Kingfisher currently lay whilst Keigh’s loyalists sorted out the mess Geiss had made of the hull plating.
Technically, then, the trial wouldn’t start at dawn, just at 5 am.
It didn’t make any difference to Jessa. She’d be just as dead either way.
She had spent the night in the brig, pacing up and down in her filthy jumpsuit. Harlan was in here somewhere, but she had denied them any contact. A field of shimmering amber light enveloped her cramped cell, cutting out all light and sound.
There was nothing to do but wait, try to block out the knowledge of what was to follow, and hope that somehow a workable plan of action would stumble into her thoughts. All three had gone pretty badly. Jessa had never felt so scared; the R’Dokken attack a fortnight ago had been nothing compared to waiting for your own execution. She had watched in horror as Jaime had been murdered, the memory of his screams as Flopsy pulled him in two kept bludgeoning its way into her thoughts. As a doctor, she could explain in great detail exactly which of his body parts had stretched and snapped and fallen out, and in what order. There were definite disadvantages to understanding the human body.
At least Harlan wouldn’t die alone, she thought.
It was cold comfort.
Oh God, she suddenly thought. What if they kill him first?
How much longer would she have to suffer this? The guards that had gently, guiltily led her to her cell had taken her watch from her, so she had no way to gauge time. It seemed like she had been waiting forever when the cut-off field dispersed, to revealing two guards standing outside her cell.
Her heart leaped when she recognised Vaber and Kittrich.
“Morning Doctor,” Vaber said flatly, “We are to escort you to the bridge now. The captain,” he almost spat the word, “Would like to begin proceedings.”
“Already?” Jessa said, determined not to show how close she was to collapsing under the pressure, “How time flies in sealed prison cages.” She looked around at the surrounding cells; all were empty. Harlan must already be on his way to the bridge.
Both guards smiled humorlessly.
“Yeah, I can’t imagine it was much of a fucking picnic,” Kittrich said. “Those fields really put out some heat, don’t they?” She wiped her brow with the back of her hand, and unzipped the front of her jumpsuit. “Sometimes when we’re off duty we come down here and use them to toast marshmallows.”
“Anyway, you ready? Or we could weight a few minutes, let you, you know, screw up your courage?”
As Kittrich spoke she stripped off her jumpsuit to the waist. On the grimy white t-shirt beneath she had written the words “Do u want us 2 break u out?” in black marker.
Jessa was amazed.. Kittrich and Vaber were running a huge risk giving her that message, the brig was studded with cameras. And if she was to take them up on their offer, and their plan went wrong, then hers would not be the only body that would lie on the deck of the bridge by the end of the day. She was a little touched by their bravery on her behalf. But there was no way she could justify risking their lives for her. Her role was to save people, not endanger them. And if she was going to find some way, somehow, to get out of this with skin intact, it wouldn’t be by exchanging her imperilment for somebody else’s.
“No, thank you, Ms Kittrich. I think it’s time I faced this thing.”
There was a long pause as the guards considered this. Their faces flashed with disappointment and relief in equal measure.
Eventually, Kittrich shrugged and pulled her jumpsuit back on. Vaber stepped forward, pressed his palm against the lock to Jessa’s cell, and stood back as the door swung open.
“If you’d care to accompany us, Doctor Lambert?”
She did. Forwards through the labyrinth of corridors that made up the Kingfisher’s innards, up in faintly malodorous lifts; all the time screwing down a barrier over her churning thoughts, and trying to her ignore her equally turbulent stomach.
All too soon, the hatch to the bridge arrived to meet her. Taking the deepest breath of her life, and smiling grimly at her two companions, she stepped in to face her fate.
The bridge had been laid out just as it had been for Jaime’s kangaroo court.
A rickety wooden frame stood in the middle of the room, a few metres in front of the currently vacant captain’s chair. The few crew members unlucky enough to be on duty right now were doing their best to ignore it, but on either side stood Flopsy and Mopsy, each facing its only current occupant.
“Harlan!” she called.
“Jessa!” he replied, looking towards her, and flashing her a confident grin. It was obviously fake, but it was still good to see. She fired back a smile of her own; not entirely counterfeit, and hurried over to join him.
“Silence, prisoners,” Flopsy warned. They both ignored it. Upon reaching her husband, Jessa sprang forward, throwing her arms around him and almost bowling him over. Shem tightened her grip around him, and pressed her hair against his temple
“Not so bad,” he said, “Although the way things are going it’s looking like you wasted your time fixing my leg.”
“Silence!” Flopsy repeated. “I am authorised to exercise punishment if you fail to comply.”
By mutual consent they stopped talking, but they continued to hold each other. Jessa felt his breath on her neck, her brown hair swaying slightly each time he exhaled. For her part, she simply held on as tightly as her strength would allow.
Suddenly Mopsy broke the moment.
“All rise for her honour, Judge Cottontail.”
The bedraggled bridge crew stood to a ragged attention. It was only then that Jessa noticed Hennis as he rose from Jaime’s chair. It was brutally unsubtle message. Once you two are dead, I’ll be First Officer. Hennis activated a knowing, rodent-like grin. Jessa turned from him in disgust.
Moments later the door beside the viewscreen opened, and Judge Cottontail rumbled from her chambers. Keigh followed close behind, wearing a pale summer dress, and clumsily plaits that had presumably been ham-fistedly built up by a navbot.
At first glance the child captain seemed in good spirits, she always seemed to enjoy her trials. Beneath the young grin and short, skipping steps, however, Jessa could tell something was wrong. Once again Keigh was terrified, either of what she was about to do, or the consequences of refusing to do it. None of this was the kid’s fault, Jessa reminded herself, she was just a little girl horribly out of her depth.
It bothered her that that argument did not inspire an ounce of sympathy from her.
Keigh clambered up into her father’s chair.
“You can all sit down now,” she told the crew, who did so.
“The court is now in session,” Cottontail announced. “The defendants are charged with mutiny and conspiracy to commit mutiny. The penalty for these charges is death. How do the defendants plead?”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Shouldn’t we have a defence council?” Jessa whispered.
“We did,” Harlan replied, “Hails. I told her not to waste her time.”
Jessa raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Do you think that’s wise?” she hissed.”Silence!” the judge boomed. “Silence or you shall be held in contempt of court, for which the penalty is death.”
Harlan looked coldly at the judge.
“I didn’t want Hails defending us because I wanted to represent myself. That makes me my own council, and my wife’s council. So how can I not be allowed to speak to my client?”
Another pause.
“You have no need for conversation,” Keigh said eventually, her tone betraying the fact that she couldn’t understand what she was saying, “Since it is obvious that you are utterly guilty of the charges brought against you.”
“Objection!” Harlan called out.
“Overruled,” responded Cottontail.
“You can’t just-“
“Overruled!” Cottontail repeated, louder this time. “There will be no more interruptions from the defendants. Any further objections, and you will be held in contempt of court.”
This is going well, Jessa thought.
“Prosecution?” Cottontail asked, swivelling on its tracks to face Flopsy.
Flopsy rolled slightly forward.
“I call my first witness: Lieutenant-Commander Hennis.”
Hennis stood and, smoothing his jumpsuit with his hands, stepped in front of the defendant’s stand.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Flopsy asked.
“I do,” Hennis replied with mock seriousness.
Where was Keigh getting this crap from, Jessa wondered distantly? Was this how she thought trials were supposed to be run, or was she being fed it by her father? It was probably a mixture of both. Part of her just wanted this over and done with, whatever the verdict.
“Please explain to the court what you witnessed yesterday.”
Jessa felt Harlan stiffen with that, but he kept his mouth closed.
Hennis directed his reply to the captain’s chair.
“Whilst on what we believed at the time to be a routine maintenance EVA, I watched Flopsy float right off the hull of the ship. Took us three hours to recover it. I mean her,” he said, smiling at Keigh.
“And what caused this to occur?”
“Her logs showed she received a request for a jump calculation. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter, but with her safety routines shut down, she had no reason not to devote her full processing power to the calculation. She had nothing left to keep herself on the hull.”
“Who ordered the jump calculation?” the prosecution asked.
Hennis turned round to face the accused.”Doctor Lambert.”
“You treacherous shit!” Harlan shouted.
“Shut up!” Keigh screamed, her face contorted by a fury beyond anything a five-year old should be able to express. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, and her breathing came in harsh gasps. Her knuckles shone white as she squeezed at the arms of her chair.
Abruptly she seemed to calm down. A look of exhaustion flashed across her face.
Mood swings on top of everything, Jessa’s instincts flashed up. Keigh’s mind was slipping. Or breaking up. Either way, Gabe was pushing harder and harder against his prison walls inside his daughter’s brain. It was only a matter of time before he took full control, breaking Keigh’s consciousness in two in the process. And given his obvious insanity, that was going to be disastrous for the Kingfisher.
That just might be their way out.
“If you continue to interrupt, Mr Summers,” she said icily, “I will decide it isn’t worth waiting for the end of the trial to have you executed.”
“Prosecutor, please continue.”
There was a faint whine as Flopsy’s mechanical eyes refocused.
“I call my second witness, Lieutenant Gallagher.”
Gallagher shuffled over from comms. His face was crestfallen, and he took great pains to avoid eye contact.
You’d think he was the one about to die, Jessa thought uncharitably.
“Lieutenant Gallagher,” Flopsy said once the unwilling officer reached his destination, “Could you explain why Lieutenant-Commander Summers is also on trial today?”
“Mr Hennis searched Harlan when he got back on board,” Gallagher said. “He said they found a device on him.”
“What kind of device?”
There was a long pause. Gallagher glanced round at Harlan, who stared back without sympathy.
“Mr Gallagher?” Keigh prompted, a hint of a threat in her voice.
“We couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be a transmitter,” Gallagher eventually offered. “I checked recent traffic, and I managed to sniff out a signal, broadcast from the Kingfisher at the exact same time Flopsy lost her grip.”
“Your honour?” said Flopsy, turning to face its fellow, “The prosecution rests.”
“Thank you,” replied Cottontail. “The jury will now pronounce sentence.”
“What?” Harlan murmured, “Don’t I get to ride this kangaroo?”
Justice was rapidly served.
“We find the defendants guilty” Mopsy pronounced.
“You have been found guilty of mutiny and conspiracy to commit mutiny,” Keigh said, rising from her chair. “The sentence is death. Mopsy, Flopsy?”
The two robots started forward.
“Just a second!” Jessa exclaimed.
The navbots ignored her.
“Hey; bitch!” Jessica bellowed, “Listen the fuck up!”
The executioners paused.
“How dare you?” Keigh spat, her small face contorted by rage.
“You can’t kill me,” Jessa said desperately, trying not to look at the deadly robots on either side of her, “I was the one you roped into performing your mind-dump. If you kill me, and then something goes wrong, what are you going to do about it?”
Keigh paused for a second to consider.”Doctor Mtenga can aid me just as well as you.” The captain turned back to her robots.
“Are you sure, Keigh? Really, absolutely sure? If anything happens to you, who’s going to finish off this little jihad of yours?”
The young captain said nothing for a moment, her father’s desire for bloodshed fighting against his fear of death. Or perhaps it was her own instinct for self-preservation. If indeed there was still any point in making a distinction between them.
Finally, the decision was made.
“Very well, Doctor. We will spare you for now. Flopsy, Mopsy; just kill Summers.”
“Shit!” Harlan leaped from the stand, retreating from the advancing killers.
“You kill him, Keigh, and we’re finished. Doctor or not, I won’t help you. I’ll sit back and smile as I watch you rot.”
Keigh ignored her. Harlan backed against the viewscreen. The starfield framed his terrified face as the robots bore down on him.
Desperately, Jessa kept trying.
“You can feel it, can’t you, captain? The pressure building in your skull. The headaches. The mind-dump is disintegrating. And I’m the only one who can glues it back together.” There was a cry from behind her as the robots grabbed their prey. Jessa could not bear to turn round, could not bear to see her husband killed. She closed her eyes and waited for the scream.
It never came.
Opening her eyes again, Jessa turned. The robots held Harlan by the arms, and clearly he was still terrified, but he was still alive; the navbots stood unmoving.
She returned her gaze to Keigh.
“Agreed, Doctor. You and your husband will be spared, in exchange for ensuring my condition does not deteriorate.”
Jessa breathed out. It had all been a bluff, for all she knew the headaches were a perfectly natural side-effect of the procedure, but apparently it had saved them.
With her head swimming, she stood down from her wooden cage.
“However,” Keigh continued, “I would hardly be fit to be called captain if I let mutiny go entirely unpunished.”
“Mopsy? Tear off his arm.”
“What?” Jessa exclaimed in disbelief.
Harlan screamed behind her. She span round. Blood spattered her face, got in her eyes; but she could still see Harlan on the floor, blood pouring from the ruined stump of his left upper arm. Mopsy stood beside him, flecked with red, its massive fists wrapped around her husband’s severed limb. Casually it let the arm drop onto its former owner.
Harlan should have passed out; but something kept him awake. His face was white from shock, but he kept trying to get to his feet, using his remaining arm in an attempt to push himself up.
Jessa ran to her stricken spouse.
“Stay down,” she told him urgently; “I’ll try to stop the bleeding.” She looked over her shoulder. “Gallagher, get Mtenga up here with a trauma team.”
“It’s…OK,” Harlan replied through gritted teeth. “Geiss’ toy worked like…like a charm. I got the message off. Help’s on the way.”
Jessa tore away the sleeve of her jumpsuit, began tying round the stump, hoping to staunch the endless flow of blood. The liquid made her grip sticky, her hands warm.
“Where the hell is my trauma team?” she shouted.
“On its way,” Gallagher assured her.
“Christ, its cold,” Harlan murmured, abandoning his attempts to stand, and relaxing against the floor.
“Just hold on, baby, you’re gonna be fine,” she assured him.
Harlan responded by lapsing into unconsciousness. The pool of blood beneath him continued to grow, more slowly perhaps, but it was still growing.
Jessa wiped blood and saltwater from her face with the back of her fist. The blood already on her hands and the new influx of tears made the motion pointless. Her work on her tourniquet done, she lay beside her husband, holding him. He hadn’t been wrong, he was quite terrifyingly cold.
Help was on the way, but how could it possibly arrive in time?

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