Just as that thought came to him, the walls changed shape. The floor rollicked, so that Jann instinctively flailed for support and Moss went down on his hands and knees to keep from falling on his face as their confines shifted; the walls rippled and seemed to inhale, to draw back; the oblong room became even more elliptical, stretched out longer.
Some sub-warden had noted the end of an isolation schedule in the cell, had told the computer to adjust the room: the Russian's time in isolation was up, and the section of wall that had enfolded him now drew apart and flattened out, the rest of the room changing shape to allow for another prisoner, so that they would have the regulation square-yardage.
The walls and floor and settled in place, as if they'd always been in this new shape, and Jann, still sitting, turned to see Ivan. He was a stocky muscular man, his arms covered in faded blue tattoos of flaming skulls and exploding starcraft and guns with tongues. He had high cheekbones, dark eyes, brutal dark-red lips; the hair on his big head just a field of gray stubble that matched the growth on his heavy jaw. Ivan stretched and spread his arms out wide, spun around a few times. A smell was liberated, and the giant recoiled.
"Faugh!" Derv growled. "Ivan, soon the showers will come on--and you will go in first!"
"Ha! I smell like a sweet little flower compared to how you would come out of isolation, you great beast! A hole in the wall for waste, in clutching, and nothing more! I could not even stretch out, but only squat to sleep! Now this--this hellhole-- feels like luxury!"
Perhaps because a man had been set free from clutching, the shower came on, then, chemically treated water shushing down from the ceiling over the hole in the floor, and Ivan jumped in without taking off his coveralls, luxuriating.
The others took their showers, one by one, stripping for it, but Jann was not interested.
Ivan threw himself down, wet and fully dressed, on the floor before Jann, and began to do pushups, his head turned to evaluate the newcomer. "So! A DemiLord, you said! Well now you are what the Stumper joked himself to be--a Dirt Lord! Only you have not even dirt!"
He seemed to think this enormously amusing and had to hold off on his push ups till he was done laughing.
"I have no wish to be clutched," Jann said. "Things are bad enough. So I will not knock your teeth down your throat, though it might perhaps make me feel better to do so. I will fight you--any of you--only in self defense."
Ivan chuckled and resumed his push ups. "I am not trying to provoke a fight." Ivan spoke between grunts as he pumped his body up and down on his arms. "You boy...are just....a lot of wind...it's easy to make such...boasts...of what you might do..."
Perhaps trying to avert conflict, the Centauran broke in with, "Well DemiLord, tell us your story, then. We all must share our stories."
Jann shook his head. "I want no conversation. I just want to think about what I did, and come to terms with it. And then prepare for death. They'll execute me for sure. I'd appreciate it if you left me to do that."
"See here, boy, you may as well come clean," Moss said, stepping out of the shower and into a jet of drying air. "You may be here months--I've heard of people being lost in the Kastillian prison system for years. Eventually we'll know everything about you. We'll know what your favorite breakfast food was and what perfume your girl favored and certainly how you feel about onanism."
Jann sighed. "The Kastillians landed on our property without permission and shot one of my behemoths and stole some stock belonging to…a neighbor. I stupidly tried to confront them. One of their officers seemed ready to shoot me. I killed him, and I ran--I had to kill several others, before it was done. They..." He had to get control of his voice again before he could say it. "They burned down my family's manor. They killed my best friend...my mentor, and...they killed my mother. I killed some more of them and was struck down...I woke up here. Now. You have it--I acted against the advice of someone who knew better, and I called death down upon my family and those near to me. That is more than enough."
The giant sighed deeply, the sound resonant with sympathy.
But Ivan snorted derisively. "That is nothing like enough!" He stretched out on the floor, his hands behind his head. "Tell us in detail! Tell us all! How did this great friend of yours die?"
Jann only shook his head. He could not speak of it any more without weeping and he did not wish to weep in front of these men. It was unwise to seem weak in a prison.
Beyond that, he felt that if once he started talking about it, truly re-living it, the reality would eat through him like a corrosion, and he would crumble inside. He would go mad.
"Let the half-lord alone," said Moss, thoughtfully. "The boy must process these things as he can. He has lost his family, Ivan."
Ivan grunted. "And what have I lost? Only my wife and my children! We were on Taurus, in the Mesonos Nebula, Mr. DemiLord--we had come in search of a life away from the crowded welfare domes of St Petersburg. I was to be a Crescentium miner, operating the great mining machines. And then the Kastillians came and said it was their planet, they had claimed it, and we were all interlopers, and their slaves...We resisted and my family was killed and I had the bad luck to survive..."
"I told you, you were a fool to settle on a disputed planet," Moss said.
"Do you think the InterWorld Mining company told us it was disputed you bastard of a Stumper? No! They said they owned the planet! I suppose the reekers hoped to get away with a great load of Crescentium before the Kastillians caught them. InterWorld will feel my vengeance too, I assure you, once I have done with the Kastillians!"
"What is this Crescentium anyway?" asked Jann, leaning back and closing his eyes. He didn't really care--he thought he should make himself say something, from time to time, so the others would not feel they must provoke him into speaking. Conversation could be maddening, in prison, he was to learn, but at times it also kept them sane.
"Why," said Moss, "it's the stuff of interstellar drives--it's how you drive a starcraft without mind quanta. The metal is found in the stone in crescent shape pieces shaped like an early moon."
Jann remembered, then: Subjected to certain frequencies of light, crescentium released quantum-jump energy--the first Crescentium was discovered on one of the moons of Saturn.
"But it's expensive," Moss went on. "Much cheaper to use the quantum mindstuff of slaves..."
Derv waved a dismissive hand. "Earth has pressed for an agreement to use only Crescentium--as the Earthmen use, as we use--but the Kastillians sneer at the expense. 'Criminals must be used for something--why execute them and waste the energy'?"
The prisoners talked on and on. Jann groaned inwardly. Would they never shut up?
He got up, went to the nearest wall--though they were on a space station, the smooth dull-white wall melding cornerlessly with the floor could not be called a bulkhead--and lay down, with his back to the others, and closed his eyes. After a time, he dozed.
He was distantly aware, a little later, that food emerged from a slot in the wall--the door the guards had thrust him through had vanished. He shook his head when the others asked him if he wanted to eat, and they gave his share to Derv. The big Centauran was perpetually hungry.
Hazily, Jann wondered if they gave Derv the extra because they were afraid of his great size. But something about the offhanded ease with which it was done made him feel that it was something else: comradeship. Even a sort of gruff kindness.
After a time the others quieted down, with the only sound coming from Ivan, as he sang softly to himself, some ancient song in Russian.
By and by the light cycled down into near-darkness, signaling time to sleep.
Jann was afraid to sleep. But sleep took him eventually, and subjected him to exactly the dreams he most dreaded.
Jann was wakened when the light cycled up again. He ate a little of the salty mash that constituted breakfast and they each took turns using the hole in the floor, while the others kept their backs turned.
About an hour after breakfast, they had a break in the monotony. There was an instructional hologram, projected from the red crystal node, followed by "refreshment imagery".
The instructional hologram featured supremely depressing material on how to work the absorption panels on a slave-driven starcraft. The ‘refreshment imagery’ was provided once a week to prevent psychosis from a lack of stimulation. The imagery consisted of various planets seen from space, the occasional flower, landscapes and seascapes: postcard material, all quite colorful and unthreatening. Twenty-two slides would project for ten seconds apiece, and then repeat, for half an hour. Jann watched them with a vague interest, for the first twenty slides--but the twenty-first showed the rolling landscape of southern Paradine Prime, and the image went through him like a crossbow bolt. He turned to look at a blank wall instead.
He asked no questions of the others, but couldn't help but listen to them talk. As time passed--Jann spending most of it either exercising, or lying with his face turned toward the wall--he gleaned bits and pieces of their stories till eventually a rough picture of Derv and Moss's "crimes" and captures emerged.
Derv's story was much like Jann's. He had been riding a klemth, an elephantine creature with a cluster of eyes and no visible ears, across the icy steppes of Alpha Centauri's only habitable planet. He'd been on his way to the yearly convocation between alien natives and the human-descended Centaurans like himself. He had come across a Kastillian flyer, the two Kaswills in the process of stripping Puhrum gland from a klemth. The gland is prized by the Kastillians for its supposed enhancements of masculine sexual energy, but the animal is endangered and thus protected by game wardens--and Derv had been a game warden. "You are poachers," Derv told them. "You will come to headquarters and you will pay a fine and your weapons will be confiscated. Then the judge will probably set you free with a warning."
"How can we go there," said one of the Kastillians, "if we cannot find the headquarters?"
"I will take you there!"
"And how can you do that--when you will be either dead or on a slave galley, for your impudence in attacking us?"
"I have not attacked you!"
"You were about to, in the enforcement of your ludicrous poaching law!" Said the Kastillian grinning--and he shot Derv with an energy bolt that would have killed a Terran. Like Jann, Derv had come to himself in the healing chambers aboard the space station. He had left behind no wife or children, but he was fearful for his parents, who relied on him to take care of them in their dotage.
"Should I once more lay my hands on a weapon, never again will I let a Kastillian fire first," said Derv. And he said it more than once in Jann's hearing.
Moss had been the navigator of a freighter that usually plied his home solar system at sub-light speeds. Now and then, when they got an order from someone willing to pay for the Crescentium it took to make the trip, the freighter jumped to the quantum plane and popped back into space in other star-systems. Somehow, despite the usual preliminary check with mass-sensors, they'd come out close to a Kastillian cruiser, the freighter's unexpected gravitational pocket causing the cruiser to spin so that some of its aft mechanisms were torn free in the g-surge. Or so the Kastillians claimed. Certainly some debris floated near their spinning cruiser--which quickly righted and opened a retaliatory fire on the freighter, crippling it--and killing most of the crew. A platoon of Kaswills seemed disappointed when they boarded the freighter and found only Moss left alive.
"Why you fool, it's obvious," said Ivan, "they were aiming to cripple but not kill--for they were after slaves all along. They used your supposed offense as an excuse. What are the odds you'd nearly collide with another ship coming back into space, in all those billions of miles of emptiness in any star system, eh?"
"You needn't tell me that, you Russian pick-swinger! I'm a navigator! The Kaswillss knew that freighters emerged at those coordinates--they watched from till they saw the corona of arrival, and rocketed close so they could play at being damaged! Spinning their ship, jettisoning a lot of junk--all a boldfaced deception! And my Sworn Brethren were on that ship, who were closer to me than family--dead, all of them!"
It occurred to Jann, listening to these melancholy tales, that he too had been set up, in some way. And who knew what other Paradinians had been taken prisoner from Grelle Manor?
Hadn't Vonn hinted that the Kastillians might have been up to something of the sort? And Jann had not listened...
What passed for days in the prison ship slowly rolled by, Jann saying as little as possible. But inwardly he was going over all that had happened, again and again.
It was the Kastillians, he decided. He had been set up. He constructed a reality that he could live with. And the foundation of it was simple and direct:
He was not to blame!
And if they gave him even the slightest, faintest chance...he would take his revenge once, twice, thrice--a thousand times over.