The prisoner was marched across Swan Bridge. It was the pride of space station Methuselah-3, a crystal bridge designed to resemble the curve of a swan’s neck. It was not actually structurally possible and was held in place by a force field. It was a world apart from the military prison camp Prisoner 45X37Z was interned in, Gulag-XXII, which orbited around Methuselah-3. Walking across the bridge that felt suspended in the stars was almost like sensory overload.
At the end of the march, he found himself in a small, windowless room, with blinding white walls, furnished only with a shiny steel table and two steel chairs. The guards seated him in one of the chairs and steel cord tendrils grew out of the arms and legs, pinning him in place. Johan was left alone for a while. Eventually, the door opened and disappeared seamlessly into the wall behind a diminutive figure. He couldn’t help staring at the first woman he had seen since his incarceration, with masses of red hair – a veritable feast of colour.
Sitting opposite him, she placed a recording crystal in the middle of the table:
– Do you mind if I record this interview? It will be the only recording – my uncle is an admiral and he pulled some strings to ensure we could talk freely.
Johan shook his head. The crystal rose and began to spin slowly at her voice commands. It glittered in the harsh synthetic light:
– My name is Dr. Vera Lance. I’m a psychologist and I’m writing a study on the gulags. Thank you for volunteering.
Johan said nothing. It was not as if he’d been given any choice in the matter. She looked down for a moment at her hands then looked him straight in the eyes:
– I’m sorry, Captain Stroemung, about the spider chair. I asked them not to bind you, but they wouldn’t have let me talk to you otherwise.
Johan blinked. She had talked to him not as the number tattooed on the back of his neck, but as a person, even having checked his rank. It was at that moment that he decided he would answer her questions.
For the next three hours, he told her of the sterile, cold world he lived in. The bland and insufficient food. The back-breaking work in the mines on the planet below the station. The transport to and fro, squashed in airless steel cans. The occasional sadism of a prison guard, but the mostly indifferent and indiscriminate violence towards the prisoners – the forgotten losers of a war that would soon be just a footnote in the history records. Cheap labour but, as they were all given life sentences, plentiful enough that there was no real incentive to keep them alive if they were injured or simply too old.
He told her of a discussion they’d been having the day before in the prison barracks:
– We were talking about what would be a good death. A very bad death is being kicked to death by the guards; a bad death is being gassed by a pocket of Oltran in the mine, or being crushed by a rockfall; a mostly good death is getting injured and being shot by the guards. I’ve seen longtimers injure themselves on purpose. You can’t be sure that the guards won’t play a bit with you first though, so you take your chances.
As he fell silent, he realised there were unshed tears in her eyes. She spoke finally:
– Can I do anything for you?
– Music, I haven’t heard music in so long.
– I’ll play you my favourite from the Terran archives. It’s a choral piece called El Cant de la Sibilla. I like the Latin version best.
Vera issued various voice commands and the crystal stopped revolving. It began to pulse instead with a warm glow as the music began. Johan wasn’t sure what Latin was, but he closed his eyes and let the voices fill his soul.
When the two guards returned to take him to the prison transport, Vera insisted on walking with them. As they crossed the bridge, he made a choice, attacking and disarming one of the guards, feeling grim satisfaction as he shot him dead. He was rusty and slow though and the other guard had time to shoot him, point blank in the chest. Johan crumpled to the ground.
He was lying on his side, struggling to breathe, but stars were all around. Vera was kneeling beside him, holding his hand, silent tears coursing down her face, surrounded by that red halo of hair. The music was still echoing in his mind. He smiled as he took his last breath, his eyes fixed open as his spirit departed.
– And we welcome today as our guest the leader of the small but rapidly growing lobby group, Sibilla. Dr. Vera Lance first hit the media by storm with her article, “A Good Death for Captain Stroemung”. So, Dr. Lance, you have been quoted as saying that you will not stop until the living and working conditions have been improved in the gulags and the automatic life sentence has been repealed. In fact, you hope to ultimately achieve an imperial pardon and the unconditional release of all war prisoners. Tell me, Dr. Lance – why should we care about their fate at all?