Title: Redstone, Chapter Three, Part One.
As prisons went, Redstone was in some ways fairly standard for the Federation. It was a floating prison, not stationed on a single planet. Planetary prisons were for local miscreants, people who had committed crimes that necessitated locking them up but either weren’t bad enough or ambitious enough to be judged by Federation courts. Federation prisons were mobile, either repurposed asteroids or bulked-up generation ships, or some mishmash of the two. Most of them had split staffing, part robot and part human, and they were required to have complete medical, psychiatric and legal facilities available to prisoners.
Redstone’s core was a solid iron meteorite, a two kilometer chunk of rock with a heart of metal that disrupted even the most modern communicators. Redstone had a strange sort of magnetism, the kind that pulled at the iron in a person’s blood, put people off-balance and brain dizzy if they stayed there too long. The meteorite’s manufactured facilities had clean rooms designed to combat the effects of the blood tide, but no guard ever served there for more than a year unless someone really hated them. Serving at Redstone was a rite of passage for Federation penitentiary employees, a necessary evil and nothing that anyone wanted to do more than once.
Out of deference to peoples’ health, the authorities in charge split the staffing seventy-five/twenty-five instead of fifty/fifty like most places, letting the robots do almost all in-population work with the prisoners themselves. It would have been a good system, if not for the high rate of malfunction in the robot guards. They went down sometimes—not easily, but occasionally, and their carcasses were stripped to nothing and disseminated among the prisoners before any human guard could get to them. The black market in scavenged electronics was booming, and prices were sky high.
Redstone wasn’t quite anarchy, but it wasn’t a drugged up and dulled down population of prisoners either. There were two sorts of criminals who ended up in Redstone: psychopaths who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be fixed by Regen, and political prisoners. Shockingly, the brutal murderers, obscene rapists and mad scientists were more often cowed by the imprisoned politicians than the other way around: there was nothing like the flame of righteousness to invigorate someone in their own defense.
You could choose a side in Redstone, if you wanted to. Most people did. It was easier to be part of a pack, to be one of many wolves, staking out your claim and pissing on it, sometimes literally. Deals were made and promises broken every day, and blood flowed smooth and steady in the dark zones, a simmering, seething cauldron of violence just barely stopped from boiling over. When the violence became overly blatant, guards would order a time-out, when sleeping gas poured into the cells and common areas and put everyone under. People reacted differently to time-outs, no telling who’d wake up first, and no one wanted to be the last person back on their feet. The aftermath of a time-out was when most of the revenge happened in Redstone, and there was no way to get around that sort of helplessness. None of the leaders of the packs wanted to be overthrown, so they modulated their violence carefully, found the edge and stuck to it as best they could.
Some people weren’t offered a side, even if they wanted one. They were either too abhorrent for even the locals to stand, or too clearly an invitation to a feud. No one wanted a weakling in their group, and the few lambs that made it to Redstone were too quickly turned into ground meat. And the abhorrent ones, well…you couldn’t trust someone who was completely crazy, right? Couldn’t predict them, couldn’t bend them to your will, so you didn’t let them in to play. Social isolation was the way to go with the sharks, and the sharks seemed to agree.
Then there were the straddlers. They were usually people who’d been refused entrance into a pack, and yet somehow survived despite the lack of protection. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing, people who had a skill that was useful and kept them alive, people who kept their heads down and did the occasional favor, but put themselves first. Lone wolves could be tolerated, as long as they stayed alone. No new packs, that wasn’t how the hierarchy went. You paid in blood to get to the top; you couldn’t just make something out of nothing. If you paid in blood to be left alone, well, maybe you’d last. Isidore Cain had already lasted longer than anyone thought he would.
At first glance he was a perfect little lamb. Slender and soft-spoken, it was hard to believe he’d orchestrated a successful attack in the heart of a Federation outpost on the planet Paradise, connected to the former governor’s mansion nonetheless! He’d run afterward, and had finally been caught a few months ago on Solaydor. His trial had been fast, his sentencing even faster and then he’d come to Redstone. Dusky skinned, with a face that would have been heart-shaped if he were a healthier weight, black hair that brushed his shoulders and dark, fathomless eyes—he was the very definition of a lamb, right down to his gentle voice. And lambs were only good for a little bit of play before you ground them up.
Two people tried to take advantage of Isidore Cain on his first day in Redstone. He’d barely been in gen-pop for more than a minute, looking lost in his dark red uniform as he hovered by the doors he’d been tossed through, when one of Kliassne’s men went after him. The guy had barely had enough time to say, “Know what your mouth’s gonna be doing for the next fucking hour, bi—” before Cain had closed the distance and punched the man so hard in the side of the head that blood was already sloshing out of his ear as he fell to the ground. Which…
Okay, Cain moved fast, but so did a lot of people. Mods were supposed to be completely shut down, but some older versions made it through the scans, devices disguised as necessary for health. Other people were just insanely juiced, especially when they first came in, something that took a while to drain away. Knocking someone out didn’t mean Isidore Cain wasn’t a lamb, it just meant he might be lucky. So later that evening, Rory’s second in command gave assaulting him a try. He didn’t open with conversation, just walked up behind Cain during dinner and grabbed his pretty, ridiculous hair, yanking hard.
A second later he fell back, clutching his bleeding hand to his chest and biting back a scream. He was lacerated from fingertip to palm, a hundred cuts overlaying each other. And that was the sort of mod that shouldn’t have been so easily overlooked, and that meant one of two things: either Isidore Cain had bribed the fuck out of someone to get away with that, or he was a prop. Either way, nobody wanted to deal with him after that. He would have been written off entirely and isolated like the sharks if it weren’t for the fact that he managed to grab some important parts off an “aggressively decommissioned” robot guard the very next day. Important, life-saving, deal-making parts. In less than a standard day, Isidore Cain carved a careful place for himself in the fabric of Redstone. Lone wolf, mechanic, pretty face with dead eyes. He was fucked up, the pack leaders declared. Fucked up but worth working with, as long as he managed to stay alive.
He’d stayed alive for three months now.
Isidore bunked in a room that had been partially-hewn out of the bedrock of Redstone itself, close to the dark, icy heart of the place. It was easy to decamp there because the room made people uncomfortable: only the crazies lived so close to the rock. He could feel the pull of the iron tear at his cells, twist his blood in his veins and make his heart labor harder than it was meant to. Isidore could feel the effect the place had on him, and it wasn’t a good one. But it was safe because of that, and he wouldn’t be here long. And there were plenty of advantages to privacy, after all.
Isidore Cain didn’t speak much, people said. When he did speak, he talked so softly that you had to lean in to hear him, lean close to that razor hair and those blank, abyssal eyes. People would rather strain to hear him than lean too close, because there was no telling what the man might do. He was a political prisoner, after all. Those fuckers were crazy. Isidore Cain was someone you left alone until you needed just the right part, and how had he accumulated all of those, anyway? No one went to check his bunk, in the dark, painful center of the prison. No one followed Isidore Cain, and everyone said that was the best way of dealing with him.
Crazy, they whispered to each other. Fucked in the head. He won’t last long down there, they said. He’ll be spaced soon enough, nobody’s problem then.
It was all perfect. It was all wrong. It was, as Isidore’s handler and backup reminded him time and time again, just what needed to be happening, and only short-term.
The truth was, Isidore Cain wasn’t hard. He wasn’t soft any longer, not the silver-eyed boy who had somehow caught the attention of the most beautiful man in the room, or the hollow-faced wretch who bore the responsibility, merited or not, of his radical cousin’s actions on his soul. Isidore was somewhere in between now, rough and granular in some places, smooth and delicate in others. He hated Redstone, hated his role, hated everything about what he was doing.
Except for how wonderful it felt.