Kadamba realized that he was trembling uncontrollably – like every joint in his body was being rattled against itself. His lungs needed oxygen, but each breath came in a terrible staccato fashion that simply rattled his bones even harder. It was hard to believe that he could have any tears left, but they kept flowing.

The meeting with Ocampo Rasmussen was over. In the space of a few minutes, he had decided his own fate. It was a choice of three different deaths. Nothing felt real. As his sobs subsided, he sat up. He was back in his cell, or box, or whatever it was. The container had returned to the stacks of other cells. It didn’t seem like anyone was watching him. He tried to calm himself and figure out what had just happened.

The perky voice suddenly broke the silence. “Thank you for allowing the Purostinov Justice Processing Center to process you. Please prepare for transport.”

Again, he watched as the box moved backward out of the stacks of cells. The cell began changing and shrinking to become shaped exactly like a coffin, forcing Kadamba into a prone position. The transparent end of the box disappeared, and Kadamba simply lay there, accepting his fate. He began crying again as he felt the box shrinking even more tightly around him. Then a strange scent appeared in the air, and Kadamba drifted into unconsciousness.

He awoke to two male voices. His surroundings were strange, almost feeling like a doctor’s office or operating room. As the fog lifted, he realized that he was tightly strapped down to a narrow table, only slightly wider than his body. His arms were stretched out on extensions that came out from the table. His palms were up, and thin straps tightly held his wrists, elbows, and biceps.

“Good morning,” one of the male voices flatly stated. Both men were dressed in a uniform of some type. Their clothing was black and tight fitting. One of the men looked down on Kadamba, trying to analyze and measure what kind of person was strapped to the table.

“Seriously, Argosia, you’ll owe me even more,” the other man asserted. This man seemed colder. His face was slightly chubby, and his eyes seemed to have a malice about them. He stepped over and looked down on Kadamba, letting out a small chuckle. The long scar that stretched across his forehead seemed to mimic his cruel grin.

“We’ll see about that,” replied the man named Argosia.

Kadamba realized that he was completely naked. The processing center uniform was gone, and he was cold. He let out a shiver.

“You’ll appreciate the cold in a few moments,” the man with the scar noted coldly. “What did Ocampo tell you was going to happen here?”

Kadamba didn’t understand. He looked at the man with apparent confusion on his face.

The man continued, “What did your processing representative tell you would happen when you got here?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Kadamba replied honestly, “I had three choices. This was my choice.”

The man without the scar, Argosia, cut in before Kadamba could say more, asking, “Did Ocampo explain what would happen when you arrived?”

“No, she said nothing,” admitted Kadamba.

Argosia, releasing a long sigh, looked at the man with the scar, who started laughing. When his laughter subsided, he began talking again. “I told you so. That bitch is one cold-hearted monster. I like her a lot. I think she would skewer half of her so-called ‘clients” if they’d let her. Of course, she left out a detail or two about what happens when you arrive here. Full disclosure wouldn’t be her style. Actually, I’m not even sure that the Crime Review Committee requires what is about to happen. Ocampo probably just adds it to be cruel.”

Argosia looked down at Kadamba, who began to tremble. “Hang on, kid.” He reached for something, but the guard with the scar batted his hand away, pointing to the door. Argosia, shaking his head, walked out of the room.

The man with the scar looked down on Kadamba and then suddenly drove his fist into Kadamba’s gut. “Sucks to be you, boy … that hurt, but this is going to hurt like hell. I know you didn’t know what would happen, but welcome to the Morphinia Containment Company, Jeorseral Facility – your prison for the next twenty-five years – although I doubt you’ll make it six months, shitbag.”

The man walked out of the room, leaving Kadamba completely alone. The lights went out, and for a few moments, it was pitch black. He realized that the men had been betting on whether he knew what was going to happen next. Ocampo had only told him twenty-five years in prison. He knew whatever was coming would be terrible.

Then a humming noise began, and Kadamba heard something mechanical moving in the room. He let out a scream as the burning sensation hit the inside of his forearm. Looking over, he could see a laser beam burning his arm. The pain was excruciating. He was being branded by the laser. It moved down his left arm as if it was writing something. The smell of his own burning flesh hit him. He began to heave in between his own screams, but there was nothing left in his stomach.

It went dark again, and Kadamba cried out in agony. He had never felt anything so painful in his life. The smell was terrible. He began sobbing again. Then the room lit up again as the laser burned into his right inside forearm. Kadamba released another wail. He tried to fight the straps that held his body but couldn’t move. He could only screech in pain until he passed out again.

When Kadamba awoke, it was dark. Not pitch black, but still dark. He realized that he wasn’t strapped down. His body was on something soft, or at least, slightly pliable, like a bed. For a split second, he thought that he was waking from a nightmare. Certainly, he must be in his own bed. As he sat up, he realized his arms felt like they were on fire. The memory of the branding came flooding back. He was in prison, obviously somewhere in Jeorseral, located thousands and thousands of miles from his home in Stujorkian City in another country.

He was in a cell. It was much bigger than the one at the Purostinov Justice Processing Center. It must have been ten feet by eight feet, and it was apparent that he could stand up, which he did. One end of the cell appeared to have an open door, so he walked towards it. The force field covering the doorway sizzled when he hit it, sending a mild shock through his body. He sat down on the bed and tried to gingerly touch the burned places on his arms, but they were too tender. Kadamba realized there was a blanket on the bed. He lay down, covered himself with the blanket, and began to softly cry. The only thing he could think was why he didn’t pick the trial and death. Maybe it would have been better.

Ka opened his eyes. He was back at Schmarlo’s Landing, but completely alone. There was no one anywhere that he could see. He looked down. His arms weren’t burnt. He began walking around. This was the first time he had seen the Landing without at least a hundred people here. He walked to the area that was popular with the teenagers. The silence was almost deafening. He could hear each of his own footsteps. The food vendor carts were empty. No food.

Then he thought he heard a cough, or maybe it was a sniffle. He couldn’t place where it came from. Then it happened again, this time, a little louder. Ka began walking, then jogging. Hearing it again, he began running in the direction from which he was sure it was coming.

The buzzing sound awoke Kadamba, and he bolted straight up in his bed. It had been a dream. He wasn’t on Schmarlo’s Landing. He was in prison. The pain in his arms was nearly unbearable. He pushed back the tears, knowing he had to get a grip on what was happening. He looked around. The cell was absolutely barren, except for a single, neatly folded, red garment on the floor.

It was like the prison uniform, except that it was short-legged and short-sleeved. It didn’t matter. Kadamba felt exposed. He figured at least one person had walked by the cell, and he didn’t want to be naked anymore. He stuck his feet through the hole in the back, and similar to the justice center uniform, the opening closed itself, and the uniform shrunk to a snug fit. Reaching around, he felt a little button at the top of the closure. He immediately thought about the pole that attached to the prison uniforms at the Purostinov Justice Processing Center that enabled the guards to move him around like livestock of some kind. He touched the button and was relieved when the back simply opened. He tapped the bottom of the closure, and the opening resealed itself. Maybe, just maybe, he would not be led around on the end of a pole.

Suddenly he felt a surge of current running through his body. He fell to the ground unable to control his muscles. It hurt, but it was over quickly. In the doorway was the guard with the scar on his forehead from the branding room. He looked down at Kadamba with a look of contempt on his face.

“This is going to be hell. Why didn’t you take the trial and death?” the man coldly inquired.

Kadamba just looked at him. He knew it was probably a rhetorical question, so he did not answer. The guard simply shook his head back and forth, and commanded Kadamba to get on his feet. The guard looked around the room and ordered the bed to retract. It dematerialized into the wall. He explained to Kadamba that this was an old prison. It had been upgraded to more modern cells, with a bed, toilet, sink, and shower facilities that were voice-activated, but it wasn’t a truly “modern” facility. This was an actual room, built as part of the building. Newer facilities had mobile cells that were often stacked thirty to forty high. This building reached only three levels.

He ordered Kadamba to follow him. As he stepped out of the cell, Kadamba saw that he was on the second story of a long building. Prison cells lined each row of the building, with a walkway in front of the entrances of the second and third levels. It seemed there were about two hundred and fifty cells. Other prisoners were milling around. Some on the various walkways. Some in the open area below. On the bottom level were some benches, chairs, and tables. As the guard with the scar was showing him the cafeteria, a whistle blew.

“That’s the signal for you prisoners to go to the playpen,” the guard explained, chuckling again.

“What’s that?” asked Kadamba.

“Someone somewhere decided that all prisoners deserve a little time outside. The playpen is where you get it, but this isn’t going to be someplace you enjoy,” disclosed the guard, his scar on his forehead seeming to share the same evil grin as his teeth.

They walked outside into a large open area. Kadamba could see that several similar buildings were set in a pattern around a large, fenced-in, open space. The outdoor grounds contained some sport fields, weights, tables, chairs, and benches. It was all concrete without a single plant in view. It was a dismal place. Everything seemed to be the same color. The men from his building had fanned out. Some of them eagerly joined in games while some walked around, and others were grouped together talking.

The guard walked him to a corner of the yard, where three men were sitting on a couple of benches. “Okay, scumbag,” the guard declared, “this is my one favor for you. These are the scumbags you are going to end up with.” He looked at them and walked away.

Kadamba sat down silently with the men. They all seemed frightened and reserved. All of them were sitting with their arms crossed. Kadamba had noticed that some, but not all the prisoners throughout the facility, had been branded. He wondered if these three were or not.

“Name’s … Name’s … Double-Up,” said one of the men, with an obvious stutter. His hair was red and wildly curly. “That’s … That’s … Greasy and Two-Finger.” Greasy had hair that stuck to his head. It was thin and just looked dirty. Two-Finger was missing two fingers on his left hand. “You … you … might not make … make … it here too … too … long.”

“Don’t be so negative,” piped Greasy, “This place a bitch without being scared shitless by the first people you talk too.”

Two-Fingers sat with his head rocking back and forth. Kadamba looked at him, expecting him to say something.

“He ain’t got no tongue no more,” Greasy explained, “Jackos the Giant ripped it out.” Greasy looked out into the yard, and Kadamba followed his eyes. A huge man in a prisoner’s uniform was walking in their direction. Kadamba knew at once that this was Jackos the Giant. This man was massive. He had a cold, fierce look in his eyes and was staring directly at Kadamba.

“Nah … Nah … You … You … ain’t gonna make … make … it … it … here –” stuttered Double-Up.

“He got a chance man. He just a kid,” Greasy offered.

“Nah … Nah … what … what … you done boy -”

“Seriously. Shut up, Double-Up. What he’s saying is we can’t protect you. We’re the freaks. The scum. That guard throwed you with us, cause we’s the worst. In prison, the ones who hurt kids or done sex crimes, they be the lowest of the low. The only reason we alive cause the prison make money on each of us. As long as we alive, we profit to them, but it don’t matter how we live.”

Kadamba hadn’t even thought about the prison pecking order when he was choosing his fate, with his arms strapped to a table and Ocampo “processing” him through the “justice” system. But the closer that Jackos got to him, the more he realized that he was probably on the bottom, and this beast of a man was probably going to hurt him.

Jackos stopped about five feet from them. Kadamba could hear the air going in and out of the man’s sizable lungs. The man’s hands were gigantic. If he balled them into a fist, they would probably be about as big as Kadamba’s head. He was a terrifying sight, and it was more than apparent that Double-Up, Greasy, and Two-Fingers were frightened.

“I see you little runts got yourself a new freak friend,” Jackos announced, “Stand up! I need a look.”

Kadamba stood up. He realized that he was shaking a little, but he tried to look Jackos in the eyes. If there is such a thing as a man without a soul, Jackos was it. Beyond being huge, the man exuded hate, cruelty, and perhaps pure evil. In those eyes, Kadamba saw a void, and it was genuinely terrifying. A slow, cruel smile began to spread across Jackos’ face. A deep, low rumbling laugh began to emanate from him.

“You’re a cute little flower, and that’s going to work perfect for the business you and I gots to have,” declared Jackos.

“I don’t know you,” Kadamba stated, trying to sound tough, but his voice cracked and was unsteady. “We don’t have any business together. Leave me alone.”

The laugh that burst forth from Jackos’ lungs shook the ground. Everyone in the playpen and probably everybody in the buildings could hear him. It was a cruel laugh, and Kadamba knew that this wasn’t going to end well.

“You new here … and don’t know shit. Don’t know nothing … You and I got business. You owe me lots of money,” Jackos announced.

“How can I owe you money if I don’t even know you?” questioned Kadamba, the fear making his voice sound weak.

“You owe me 2,160 Konnary,” Jackos informed him.

Kadamba just looked at him. The cruel smile on Jackos’ face got wider and wider.

“I don’t understand,” muttered Kadamba, the fear continuing to grow inside of him.

“Hmm … Heard you might be a little businessman,” began Jackos, with a smile. “Maybe you just a flower, but I told you, you owe me 2,160 Konnary. Didn’t you understand? Doc Z always gets his.”

“What are you talking about?” Kadamba felt the panic setting in. He had been taken into custody with the rath. It suddenly dawned on him that the thugs at the table in Warwon’s Deli, in the sub-city, had said the same thing: “Doc Z always gets his.”

“Little Flower, since you seem so young and dumb, I’ll explain,” Jackos continued. “Doctor Z say you owe him 2,160 Konnary. Even though you in here and your supply be gone, you still owe. Since I am here, Doctor Z has me pay the 2,160 you owe. You good with Doctor Z now, but now you owe me.”

“No, no, no this can’t be. I don’t have any money. I can’t possibly pay you,” replied Kadamba, feeling trapped and entirely out of control.

Jackos let out another terribly loud, roaring guffaw and then told Kadamba, “I know you don’t got no money, but we have business … and you owe. We get five for every time you do a service. I keep four as my management and protection fee, and one Konnary goes towards your debt. You cute. You young. You fresh. You gonna get this paid off.”

Jackos turned and walked away, laughing to himself. Kadamba looked back at the three men. They still seemed to be shaking, and none would look at him.

“Lords of the Fourth System! There ain’t no fucking way that I am doing that. Screw this,” declared Kadamba once he understood what Jackos intended to do with him.

Rage boiled up in Kadamba, and he marched toward the other side of the yard, where Jackos had headed. Part way there, another prisoner stepped directly in Kadamba’s path. Kadamba changed course, but the man shadowed his movement, cutting him off. Kadamba stopped. He really didn’t know what to do. The momentary flash of ire had totally evaporated, and now he realized how scared he really was. He turned around, and another man struck him hard in the stomach with his fist. Kadamba doubled over in pain, as a third man kicked him in the side, sending him tumbling to the ground.

Before he could react, all three men were kicking him. He balled up, as the blows landed. He heard the men hurling insults at him, calling him “baby killer,” “child murderer,” and a host of other names. They had only landed a few solid blows when Kadamba felt the surge of current through his uniform. His muscles contracted hard and began to spasm. The pain was intense, but the kicking stopped.

When the current subsided, Kadamba could see that the three men who had attacked him were now on the ground, along with a few other prisoners nearby. All of them had obviously been shocked too. A guard stood nearby, shaking his head. Grabbing Kadamba’s arm, he forced him to walk back to Double-Up, Greasy, and Two-Fingers. The guard pushed him on the bench. For a few moments, Kadamba was able to sit, and then he fell to the ground.

• • •

Chapter 9 Chapter 11