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Fiction Page 17



Lawrence R. Dagstine

       "…And The Lord looked into his heart and saw the soul of a hardened man.  The willingness of the sinner to repent his crimes was known to Him…"
       The priest had no difficulty reciting the passage from his electronic hand reader despite the clinking of the shackles, a grim reminder of where he was, and what was about to happen.  This was not his first execution and it probably would not be his last.  He had escorted so many prisoners like this determined young man down "death row" that he was beginning to think he should turn in his electronic Bible for a hooded robe and sickle.
       This was the first time M-Lazarus, prisoner no. 4125378, had seen the roughly cut tunnel between the warden's den and the rest of the maximum security housing center.  He had traversed this area before when he was taken to and from his cell, but each of those times he had other thoughts on his mind.  Now, only minutes before his execution, his mind was totally, utterly empty, thus allowing him to examine the passageway.  He was aware of the rows of dark cells they passed, the flickering of the heliostatic lights hanging from the glass ceiling as far as the eye could see, even of the clacking of heavy boots coming from the armed guards leading himself and the priest.
       But what stood out the most were the shadows.  Even in this deep sub-basement they were still there, either following stealthily, or leading the way subtly.  The crimes that he was accused of and the courtroom where his fate had been decided seemed to be images of some past life.  Almost as fleeting as the shadows around him…
       He had spent the last six years of his life locked up with some of the most hardened criminals in the galaxy.  And now he saw that it was time to pay his dues.  In less than ten minutes his life would be erased forever, almost as if he had never existed, at the Termini Space Penitentiary for men, one of the worst prison facilities in the known universe.
       "I'm surprised you survived till now," chuckled one of the guards, as he led the way.  "Getting raped or stabbed in this floating nightmare is nothing compared to what I've seen."
       "What does that matter now?" said M-Lazarus grimly, casting his eyes at the floor.
       "You know," the priest said, "what you did was forbidden, not only by law, but by God himself.  Cannibalism is more than just a crime.  It's sacrilegious."  
       "I'm sorry to hear that, Father.  It may please you to know that I was once a war hero.  I was a well-trained mercenary.  My job was a lengthy investigation into the world of the Dark Cape Killer, Nelgaroth."
       "Wasn't he a cannibal, too?"
       "Yes, and unfortunately, I learned everything I know from him.  Originally my job was to assassinate him, but I ended up killing the wrong guy.  I became a war hero because the stranger I killed just happened to be some barbarous dictator who owned a few concentration camps on the planet Sklar."
       "And Nelgaroth? What became of him?" asked the priest.  
       "I killed him," replied M-Lazarus simply, "like I was supposed to, but not before adopting a few of his techniques." He put his head down in shame.
       It was then, in the intoxication of these last few moments, that he had remembered the words of the judge.  He knew his verdict, and was shaken by it.  His quickness of mind, which he had frequently retained in situations of great emotional hazard, left him; the familiarity of the old galactic courts, the jury, and their unexpected decision in this place, all conjoined to freeze his nerves…
       "I would like to reiterate the fact that the defendant, Michael Lazarus, of the planet formerly known as Terra, has committed the most heinous and despicable crime.  Cannibalism.  Seven counts to be exact, and in each of the seven star systems.  In plain words, Mr Lazarus, acting under the authority of the Federation, was hired to eliminate the Dark Cape Killer, but instead became an anthropophagic menace himself, thus introducing a new meaning to the saying, eater of one's own kind. Just the emotional impact on the victims' families is immeasurable.  Federation Intelligence projections indicate that their law-abiding, corruption-free system will be unable to produce new jobs in the next 3 to 5 years because of it.  This system is responsible for creating over 200 million jobs throughout the known universe.  Michael Lazarus has shaken the foundation of that very system."
       It was then that M-Lazarus's attorney stepped forward. "Fellow members of the tribunal…Even though my client has not yet produced a formal treaty of remorse, the people do not realize that a crime has been committed against him.  My client had no forewarning of Nelgaroth's poisonous ways.  The Federation sent a young man out on a mission, without telling him of the danger."
       "And what danger is that?" asked the judge.
       "The dangers of how smart Nelgaroth really was, your Honor, and how easy my client's sanity could be influenced.  Before Nelgaroth became the Dark Cape Killer, he was a well-paid psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in mind control.  So I ask you, please, don't convict Michael Lazarus because of these seven tragedies, but give him probation instead, and convict the people who sent him out to do the dirty work."
       The attorney's words didn't mean much in the end.  The prosecutor had made a last-minute comeback, with a closing statement that had been very effective, not only in deciding his fate, but also in making him realize the full impact of what he had actually done.  That was painful enough, but not half as painful as seeing his crimes through the eyes of the victims' families in the back row.  There was no doubt in his mind as to what the verdict would be.  And he knew sentencing would be harsh and swift.
       "Mr Lazarus, will you please stand and face the members of the tribunal," said the judge.  The disappointed look on his fatherly face had told the whole story.
       Judge Harris was a good man, a lenient judge, but this time things were different.  He had no notion as to what had transpired so far behind Federation lines.  That was precisely the reason he was chosen to lead the tribunal.  He had no idea about the intelligence reports, the months of reconnaissance, or the classified orders.  But what really hurt was the fact that not too long ago he had awarded Lazarus with the Galactic Medal of Honor for the assassination of the evil dictator, Shukoth Ali.
        "Michael Lazarus, you have been found guilty by this court for the charges you are accused of.  I sentence you to life imprisonment at Termini Space Penitentiary, without the possibility of parole.  Your incarceration shall be a reminder to others of what happens when criminals like yourself defy the system.  It is not known yet whether or not you will receive the death penalty, but may God find it in his heart to forgive you.  This court is now adjourned."
       The decision was final...How long and loud the gavel sounded on that cold hard day…

       As they stepped from the grimy mesh cage of the elevator onto the firing range, M-Lazarus could tell that the priest was nearing the end of his prayers.  
       The range was a large, deep-toned infrastructure without any observation panels to the outside corridors.  The ceiling was entirely made of glass, and displayed the Milky Way in all its majesty.  It seemed almost unfinished compared to the rest of the prison.  The ground was the same gray tile that stretched on for miles outside the area provided by Termini's life support systems.  With all the pulleys, chains, and winches hanging about, the place looked like a monstrous warehouse in space.
       In the distance he could see the guards waiting for him at the firing ramp.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, like sheep in a shearing, in a show of precision that only military training could produce.  In the center of the range was a giant laser, propped up on wheels.  M-Lazarus was glad to see that each of them weren't armed.  They were all there to help operate the death ray.  The distribution of the charge delivered by this one weapon would be enough.  He would feel nothing.
       The warden's personal guards escorted him to a spot approximately 50 feet in front of the laser.  The warden himself stood on a balcony just overhead.  As they unlocked his shackles the priest quickly finished up his part by making the sign of the cross on him. "That won't be necessary, Father," he said in an almost inaudible whisper. "It's too late for redemption."
       The priest shook his head. "May God have mercy on your soul, my son."
Before M-Lazarus knew it, he was standing alone.
       "No. 4125378, have you any last words before sentence is carried out?" The warden asked.
       M-Lazarus had thought long and hard about this moment.  The silence, which he had maintained throughout his court hearings, was necessary.  Even the slightest comment on his part at that time could have opened up a hornet's nest of questions, but the trial was over now, and he did not wish to die with dishonor.  After all, he was a mercenary, and his kind was not welcome with open arms.
       When he had learned of his appetite for flesh his greatest fear was not of death.  Instead, what he feared then was death without meaning, and the Federation had taken advantage of that.  By the time he had been briefed on the mission profile, they had him convinced he would single-handedly destroy Nelgaroth, and lead the investigation into the Dark Cape killings.  What they had not told him, but he had figured it out himself, was that he was being used to track down a former employee of their science division, who just happened to rebel at the wrong moment and use their new experimental mind control techniques for evil purposes.
       During the court proceedings the prosecutor had painted a vicious picture of him.  M-Lazarus was portrayed as a psychotic mass-murderer with a Jeffrey Dommer complex.  It was said that he had become that way because of what had happened to his family when he was younger.  True, his mother, father, and kid brother had been mutilated right before his eyes--and he was forced to watch--but he did not turn into the deranged lunatic that the prosecutor had described because of it.  Instead, he had blamed the Federation.  He had blamed the host of all space governments.  Not just the Dark Cape Killer, but both sides.
       As far as last words went, yes, he had volumes to say to anybody who would listen, but the futility of the whole matter stifled him.
       "Before me stands a condemned man," said the warden poetically, "and I don't even hear a mutter.  Don't you have any last requests, no. 4125378?"
       M-Lazarus looked down at the floor, silently.
       "My daughter was raped by scum just like you," the warden continued.  "I take pleasure in commanding this execution.  You're probably wondering why you were put on a firing range with a skylight, looking out into space.  It is only fitting that God bare witness to this event."
        God…God should only know what I've been through, thought M-Lazarus.
       "I'll only ask you once more, no. 4125378.  Do you have any last words?"
       "No sir, no last words," he said slowly, shaking his head.
       "I didn't think so." The warden nodded to the guards below him. "Prepare the death ray."
       "Technical squad…. READY," snarled one of the head officers.  The guards each put their left hand on a button between two wires--and each wire was connected to the laser's control box--and slapped each of their right hands onto a lever, causing a thunderous sound which reverberated across the range. "STEADY." Across the line the laser snapped up to the firing position.  M-Lazarus braced himself for the end, and oddly enough he welcomed it. "FIRE!"
       A thunderous roar was heard across the range and he was thrown from his feet.  It sounded like a thousand cannons going off all at once.  He would have been expecting to meet his maker very soon had it not been for the fact that he was not injured in any way.  Also, the roar was getting louder.  It felt like the whole penitentiary was caught in some kind of massive quake.  M-Lazarus tried to steady himself on his hands and knees but the ground would not stop shaking.  There was debris falling everywhere; even the balcony holding the warden had collapsed.  He looked up.  Strange rocks shot past the skylight in frenzy.  Then he heard it.  That awful groan of metal and concrete under stress, just when something is about to give way.  As the firing range started to fall apart around him the realization of what was happening finally hit him.  Since the Kertopian Asteroid Belt was nearby there could only be one answer; there was a heavy rock shower going on outside, and Termini was caught in the middle of it.  
       Meteoroids, perhaps thrown off their original course, bombarded the prison.  It seemed that Termini Space Penitentiary hadn't flown into an asteroid field, but an asteroid field had flown into them.  If the remainder of the storm was going to be this intense, then the rest of the prison was in grave danger.
       The priest grabbed his electronic hand reader and fell to his knees, crying, "The day of judgement is upon us.  It is God's wrath!"
       M-Lazarus smiled and said, "No, more like an angel of mercy."
       Fifty feet in front of him, a massive slab of concrete and twisted metal crushed the prison guards.  The warden was dead too.  The remarkable thing about it was that it did not look real.  It looked like a bunch of toy soldiers being crushed under the foot of a bored child.  The upper tiers were starting to give way.  He knew he had to get out of there or the same fate would befall him.  He was now a defector, and he did what any escapee in his situation would do.
       He grabbed the warden's keys and ran for the exit.
       Now M-Lazarus's objective was to find the warden's escape capsule.  He made his way through the cafeteria, and when he shouldered open the inoperative airlock hatch on the corrections floor, he glanced through the window and spotted another big rock tumbling out of the dark vacuum of space.  It was too late to make a run for it so he hit the ground.  The soundless impact sent uncontrollable shudders through his body, almost as if he were having a seizure.  As soon as it subsided, he grabbed a fire axe from the wall and started a slow trot toward the warden's pod.  He was doing a good job of keeping low and out of sight.  He found a pressure suit, one that was colored different shades of blue in a perfect simulation of prison guard fatigues.  It would keep him well hidden in the ruckus into which he was heading.
       Large parts of Termini were being consumed by fire.  Not fire like you would see on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, but a kind of dull, dancing glow fueled by the gases of space.  The prison itself was in ruins.  There was hardly anything left.
       Out of the six impacts that had shaken the exterior only one was a direct hit.  It was enough.  The large, nickel-granite mass had punctured right through the hull.  The whole area had a caved-in look.  The communication receiver dish had fractured in several places.  The impact had knocked it off its mounting.  It lay on the roof of the prison like the cracked eggshell of some gargantuan bird.
       When he finally reached the warden's capsule he was out of breath.  He used the fire axe to break the seal to the pod's hatch.  Then he opened the interior door with the warden's key.  The hard metal under his feet felt good after running across that entire gray tile.  He closed the door behind him, and strapped himself in at the control panel. "Now how do I operate this thing?" he asked himself.  There wasn't much time.
       A bleeping sound came from a voice box just above his head.  He pressed a flashing button next to it. "Warden Jameson, do you copy?" said a strange voice, probably from a spacecraft within the confines of that sector. "Warden Jameson, I repeat--do you copy?"
       M-Lazarus fumbled at the controls. "What should I do? Better yet, what should I say?"
       "Warden, do you copy? We received transmission of your emergency a little while ago.  Can anyone hear me?"
       "Who is this?" asked M-Lazarus.
       "Oh, thank goodness," said the voice, in what sounded like a sigh of relief. "This is Federation Patrol No. 5367.  We tried to contact you as soon as we received word of the storm.  What is your current condition?"
       "Half my men are dead," said M-Lazarus, posing as the warden.  He hoped he was doing well.
       "What about the entry-level prisoners?"
       "They were all jettisoned to safety, along with my personal escorts.  Termini's a big mess.  What do you guys plan to do about it?"
       "Federation rescue ships are on the way, sir," said the patrolman. "But we don't want you to wait for us.  The capsule you're in will take you wherever you want to go.  Leave right now.  We'll handle the rest."
       M-Lazarus grinned. "Did you say wherever?"
       "Yes, wherever."
       "Will do then, patrol no. 5367." M-Lazarus started hitting brightly-lit switches on his console.
       "Oh, one more thing…"
       "What about your maximum security prisoner, no. 4125378?"
       "I wish to inform the authorities that Michael Lazarus is dead.  He was killed in the bombardment."
        Well, presumed dead.  Just how he or any other intelligent escapee would have wanted it.