Ka’net’s last day in prison began an hour before breakfast.
He woke with the feeling his sentence would never end, at least not for a few more years. As he moved to the single window of his dark shack, the guards’ lander set down near the end of his street. They came for everyone eventually. Those who soiled the Goddess by taking their own lives were hauled away just as those brave enough to get through each day in the underground prison on Cultos Two. Brave enough to live to face their execution.
Punishment for murder confined him to Cultos Two for twelve years before the end. None in his cadre knew the exact method of execution though speculation included the excess or denial of everything from sex and food to torture and fire.
As the guards fanned out to watch their corners, Ka’net waited to see if the man they came for would step out to meet them or run. Their off-white body armour shone with an enviable clean compared to the rags of the prisoners. Their stun rifles would never kill but could disable a hydren with pain for hours should he interfere with their task.
The lead guard turned to the end of the street and settled his gaze on Ka’net’s dwelling. Or perhaps the one above. A knot cramped his stomach as he studied the big man’s bluish lips. A Cultos prison guard wouldn’t be a shade addict so Drek heritage provided the most logical explanation. Men from Drek could be brutish and forceful lovers to other men though the few treasured women in a cadre preferred them.
Ka’net stepped two paces to the side and out of the yellowy streetlight. Ten years? No more than eleven. No way they’d be here for him. Not now, not for a long time, but he couldn’t deny his intuition. The Drek would take him.
After emptying his pockets, Ka’net left his shabby home for the perpetual twilight of the underground hole he shared with several thousand others, mostly men. His few possessions would remain behind though he doubted his fellow cadre members would wait for the lander to disappear before they cleaned him out. It made sense. His few belongings would ease the lives of others.
As the guards closed the distance, other men stepped from their doors content they would survive the day and curious to see who would take their last trip to the surface.
“Tarr?” Ka’net called and a blonde head poked from a door up the street. Ka’net grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled it over his head. Although dirty, his clothes bore less wear than Tarr’s. “Hurry. Change with me.”
He shoved his clothes at Tarr and shivered for an awkward moment as the other man decided whether he’d trade or just take the garments. Tarr decided he had time to strip while the guards were two doors away then bundled up Ka’net’s clothes and ran his bare ass inside. Ka’net finished struggling with the frayed drawstring on Tarr’s patched trousers in time to look up into the Drek’s eyes.
“It’s time, Ka’net,” the guard said. Easily twice as wide as Ka’net or any of the other guards, the Drek only stood a couple of inches taller as a result of growing up on the high-g planet. On either shoulder, gray epaulets hand-embroidered with four thick black lines of rank, denoted the guard’s high status within the prison system.
“Yes,” Ka’net walked into the circle of heavily armed guards and turned his thoughts to the path the lander might take. Twelve years since his eyes last saw daylight. Would it be day when they breached the surface? Even to see it again before whatever end waited would be enough.
Once inside the lander, two guards sat themselves on either side of Ka’net. Each placed the butt of his stun rifle between his feet, stubby barrel toward the ceiling. The Drek left the lander door open before taking the bench seat directly across from Ka’net. He said nothing and didn’t move as the lander took flight. First nose up then it tilted toward the open door side before it eased about and headed back the way it had come.
The Drek smiled, exposing the abnormally long fangs for which the men of his planet were known.
“Do you want to know what happens next?” the Drek asked.
Ka’net shook his head. Hard.
Then he decided after twelve years he wanted to know how much time he had left so he nodded.
“Do you see the carrion birds?” The Drek asked as they broke through to the surface and hot sunlight filled the lander. Ka’net couldn’t be sure what he saw before his eyes snapped shut but they were big.
“They know the lander and gather when it descends,” the Drek shrugged. “When we fly out, they follow close to the surface and wait.”
Painless, Ka’net hoped as the lander continued its slow rise and snorted a rough laugh at the thought of the bones of countless others impaling his body. Nobody in the cadre ever tried to scare him with that particular scenario. The sharp smell of Tarr’s tunic filled his nose. He’d become used to his own stink and dying in the awful smell of another disrespected the Goddess he’d soon see.
The Drek stood and made sure he had Ka’net's attention before slamming the lander door closed.
Ka’net blinked in confusion at the sudden darkness. Seconds later, the lander’s powerful boosters shoved him down. The men to his left and right grunted, sinking into the hard seats but the Drek remained on his feet as if gravity hadn’t just tripled.
“Ka’net, you may yet return to the cadres. A messenger waits for you up on the station. You may still serve your last three years.”
“Uh,” Ka’net grunted as black closed in and the last of his air seeped from his lungs.
Then, as suddenly as their ascent started, the crushing force on Ka’net’s chest disappeared. He choked down bile while grabbing at the guards to keep in his seat. Both kicked off, touched a hand to the roof then floated while he tumbled. He found a couple of hand-holds and clung until he felt his own weight against the floor.
When the lander door opened, Ka’net tightened his grip on the hand-holds since he half expected a void of nothing outside and the desolate surface of Cultos Two to wait expectantly for him below.
Shouts echoed off the bulkheads and collisions of metal ricocheted about, violent impacts very different from stone on stone or flesh collapsing against fist in the cadres. The guards’ heavy steps resonated through the lander as they descended to the deck. Though it sounded like the one from which he departed nine years earlier, Ka’net’s memory still filtered everything through his fear of the future and grief the next word his family would receive about him would be a simple communication stating his execution had been carried out.
The voice outside didn’t belong to the Drek but it could be one of the other guards. The man sounded much older than anyone he’d ever seen in the employ of Cultos Two or wearing the black shoulders of the prison system.
Ka’net found himself on his feet then in the lander doorway, overwhelmed by noise and light. The landing bay stretched further than the low lights of the cadre ever allowed him to see and he swayed as his vestibular system threatened to pitch him to the deck.
“Take your time,” the old voice said and Ka’net choked down a thick swallow. Eyes on the floor, he concentrated on the stairs and the soothing touch of a warm wrinkled hand on his wrist.
“Thank you,” Ka’net said as he flexed his feet. He’d become accustomed to the irregular feel of stone through his thin, prison issued slippers and smiled at the new sensation of uniform metal grooves cross-hatching across the deck. He raised his eyes to the old man and studied his face for only a moment, noting brilliant and alert blue eyes he didn’t expect to see nestled amongst so many wrinkles.
A flash of red caught his eye and with overwhelming embarrassment for failing to notice right away, Ka’net crossed his palms on his chest and bowed to the elderly representative of the Oracle.
“My wise friend,” he stammered, hoping the honorific hadn’t changed then dizziness took him again and dropped him to his knees.
“Gently,” the old man said. He took Ka’net’s hand in his own and smoothed dirt from his skin. “You’ve been summoned before the Oracle, Ka’net. We must hurry. The second cabin aboard my transport is small but we have resupplied with fresh water and it has a private bath. Clean clothes and hot food. Come.”