ONE THOUSAND YEARS

CHAPTER ONE

Anton Deckard strained at the cuffs around his wrists. As usual, they refused to budge and with a frustrated exhale, he let his head fall back against the cushions of his seat. Beside him, a husky man turned to regard him and chuckled.

"Forget it, man. If I can't break 'em, there's no way in hell you could."

"Tell me something I don't know." The younger man turned his head, trying to catch a glimpse of his other companions. I don't even remember how we got into this mess! Someone's gonna pay! he thought.

The older man returned his gaze to the aircar window to watch the sandy vista as it slid past. "I wonder if Norris knew something was up and that's why he sent us out here."

Deckard's reply was immediate, "I had already thought about that, Jim. It makes some sense, but something's still missing from the equation."

Jim McKenna kept his attention on the window and replied, "Yeah? Like what?"

Deckard thought for a moment, trying to remember exactly what was said at their mission briefing. A lot of things went wrong! He thought, First of all, I'd never met anyone on the team before I signed on! He scowled, I should never have done that! Suddenly he realized that the larger man had returned his full attention back to the conversation. However, before he could reply, Deckard also became aware of the fact that someone else had been paying attention as well: A small ceiling-mounted camera had panned in their direction and stopped.

McKenna followed his gaze and shrugged, "Man life's a bitch sometimes, ain't it?"

Deckard nodded, "Yeah, it is," and took a moment to look out the small porthole. Scattered patches of rust-colored bedrock were visible through the desert sands. A glance in the other direction left him no clue as to the whereabouts of the rest of his team. "I wonder where they're taking us."

After noting that the security camera had resumed its sweep of the passenger cabin, McKenna replied, "Well, the logo on the hatch said 'Imperial Prision Station 31,' so I'd figure..."

Deckard cut him off, "Yeah, I'm not blind. I saw that, but that doesn't tell me anything."

"I remember hearing it's an old Imperial starship." Deckard turned his head toward the owner of the rasping voice: a man dressed in the fatigue jacket of the Imperial Navy, still sporting the three silver pips of a full Lieutenant, though the tiny sunbursts were quite tarnished. The nametag on the jacket read "T. Windhook." Something about that name made the hair on the back of Deckard's neck stand up, but he couldn't fathom why.

Despite his appearance, the man looked quite young for someone holding a commissioned rank like that. If he were an Ensign, it would have been more believeable. For a moment, Deckard began to suspect that this unkempt and desheveled man could likely have just murdered some Imperial Navy officer... Wait a minute, he thought, Why would they let him keep the jacket then? Something about the man still bothered Deckard, perhaps it was that the restraints he was wearing were far more extensive than those of anyone else on the aircar.

"And I suppose you heard that being in the Navy?"

Deckard's question was actually sarcastic, but the other man ignored the ironic tone and replied, "No, I heard it while I was passing through the system on business."

"Oh?" McKenna raised an eyebrow, "and what sort of business are you in?" He found himself equally suspicious of this new entrant into the conversation.

The heavily-restrained man in the Navy jacket could only move his eyes in McKenna's direction before responding, "What sort of business are you in?"

McKenna and Deckard looked at each other, then toward the camera which was still panning around the cabin. Of course, they both knew that there was more than likely to be another camera or two in other corners of the holding area. The man in the Navy jacket simply smiled and said, "That kind of business, eh? Well, don't feel too bad. I hear there's a lot of us where we're going."

"Us?" Deckard found himself getting agitated with this young Naval officer, "And who might you be."

The man apparantly had no problems with open introductions, "Trace Windhook. Former Naval Aide to Prince Varian... or should I say, 'the late Prince Varian?'"

At that moment, it was as if a switch had been turned on in Deckard's mind. However, this failed to illuminate anything, but rather, to fill the man with an incredible feeling of forboding. At least he finally realized who this unfortunate prisoner was. His eyes boggled, but before he could reply, the door to the holding cabin slid open. There was the clatter of steel boots on the floor grates as two men, wearing heavy leather vests and shoulder pads and brandishing combat rifles, stepped into the room. They marched up the asile and stopped at Windhook. The young lieutenant simply sat there, though there was not much else he could have done. Not only were his wrists cuffed together in front of him, but his upper arms and legs were wrapped in steel manacles. Clearly, the prison staff were taking no chances with this man.

"Hey, Windhook, you got somethin' to say to anyone around here?" The guard's voice was grating and loud. Two things which Deckard found very annoying.

Windhook sighed, The bullies are out tonight, he thought. However, he kept silent.

The guards stood there, watching, until the first one spoke again, "That's what I thought. You keep your mouth shut, you son of a bitch! You got that?" With that the guard gave the young officer a blow in the stomach with the butt of his rifle that sent the wind out of him. Windhook gasped, but still refused to speak.

The guards snickered as they resumed their march up the asile, past Deckard and McKenna, and toward the front door.

Windhook gasped a few more times as McKenna leaned past Deckard and whispered, "You alright, man?"

The battered prisoner made no reply, instead he raised his cuffed hands as far as he could, leaned into the asile, and pointed at the guards. Deckard and McKenna watched, figuring that Windhook was going to point something out to them, maybe even a means of escape. However, what actually happened was something that Norris's young agents simply could not believe.

There was a soft "pop" followed by the sound of something fast whistling through the air. Instinctively, McKenna and Deckard ducked down and Windhook simply grinned, a puff of smoke was now rising from his extended index finger. Deckard simply gaped at it, then turned his attention to the front of the cabin as the door slid shut...

...and was immediately blown out of its frame by a violent explosion. It crashed to the floor, its inner panel on fire. Two figures, horribly burned and carrying combat rilfes staggered through the ruined doorway. One man was missing part of his left arm and leg. The other had blood running freely down his face and was clutching at his eyes. Both were making bloodcurdling screams of pain as they dropped their weapons to the floor and made valiant efforts to walk down the asile to where the first aid kit was bolted to the aft wall. Unfortunately, they never made it that far, partly because they were rapidly losing blood and becoming too weak to move and also because the aircar had begun a shallow dive toward the desert below.

Upon experiencing his own innards begin to shift as a result of the direction change, Deckard turned back toward Windhook, "You son of a bitch!"

"Relax. We'll be on the ground in just a minute."

Deckard found the Naval officer's comment to be extremely innane and pointless. "No shit! And we're moving a little too fast!"

"Well, hang on!"

McKenna kept his eyes on the window and noticed that the ground had, indeed, been getting quite close, or rather that the aircar had been quickly heading for the ground. This is not good, he thought, but decided not to say anything.

At that moment, above the din of four other screaming passengers, when Deckard had braced himself for an impact he was not expecting to survive and McKenna had leaned back in his seat, ready to face his maker, a chime sounded. Immediately following that signal, there was a sudden shift in the cabin. A few passengers could be heard retching as Deckard and McKenna fought their stomachs and inner ears. A moment later, an electronic voice resonated throughout the damaged aircar, "Emergency landing proceedure initiated. Please remain seated until the vehicle has come to a complete stop."

Deckard breathed a sigh of relief as the emergency anti-gravity motors engaged, allowing the aircar to settle slowly to the desert. He turned to look at Windhook, who, despite all his restraints, gave the impression of being on a pleasure cruise to the Rings of Yorkbund or some other interstellar vista. He couldn't help but ask, "Did you know it was going to do that?"

Windhook looked over at the shaken man and shrugged, "Unless I accidentally hit the backup computer. All these ships have a system like this built in. I guess you could say this isn't my first time in a prison shuttle."

Deckard chortled, "Yeah, I guess it wouldn't be, would it, Lieutenant?"

Windhook smiled, "Well, it seems you have me at a disadvantage."

"Lieutenant Commander Anton Deckard." he nodded toward his heavyset companion, "This is Commander James McKenna," suddenly Deckard's eyes narrowed into slits, "and that's all you need to know."

Windhook didn't even blink, "Of course it is."

Deckard replied, "You didn't happen to mention to us what it is you were doing out here."

Windhook smiled again, "You don't need to know."

There was a sudden hiss and a lurch as the aircar settled to the ground on its stubby landing legs. At that moment, McKenna rose from his seat and let his handcuffs clatter to the floor. He smiled as Deckard simply gaped at him, "Well, I would've told you if I didn't think the camera would've picked it up." McKenna pushed past his friend and scrambled forward toward the fallen guards. He took a deep breath and began digging through the remanants of their uniforms.

Seeing as there was nothing he could do, Deckard decided to resume his conversation with the mysterious Lieutanant Windhook, "So, should I ask you if you have any ideas as to how we're getting out of here?"

Windhook blinked a couple of times, "Well, If this emergency system is working right, than the beacon is going off right now. They'll probably send another shuttle to pick up survivors. But, I don't know if they'll take us to the prison or to the starport."

Deckard let out a sigh, "Well, if you're calling that spot of rock with a big 'X' on it a starport, then I guess we're still heading off to prison, right back where we started."

Windhook was quick to reply, "Yeah, but if we managed to slip inside as guards, all we'd have to do is wait things out until the next shuttle was scheduled to leave for the starport. Then we could slip on board the ship that's there and get the hell out of here."

McKenna had finally returned and added, "That's a great idea, but remember what happened when we got here? The transport ship took off before the prison shuttle arrived." He produced a small key which was blackened and covered with dried blood and unlocked Deckard's cuffs. Once free, Deckard sprang from his seat, rubbed circulation back into his hands, and headed aft toward a small bank of lockers as McKenna turned his attention to Windhook's elaborate restraints.

One of the other prisoners noticed this and shouted, "Hey, man! How 'bout helping us out here!"

"Hang on a second, friend! I'll be right there!" McKenna then turned back to the young officer, "Let's see, I can get the cuffs off you, no problem." He unlocked the thick handcuffs. Windhook immediately began pushing upward on the heavy steel band holding his arms to his sides. Unfortunately, it refused to move.

"Maybe there's another set of keys on the other guard. I remember the both of them had to lock me into this thing."

"I'll see." McKenna stood up and returned to the mangled bodies to give another queasy search of their blood-saturated clothes. A moment later he returned with another set of keys, two of which he used to unlock Windhook's upper arm and leg restraints. "Do I really want to know why they had you this tied down?"

"Probably not. Though I think it's more for show."

McKenna blinked, not understanding, then shrugged as Windhook stood up, "Well, thanks... Commander. I appreciate your help."

The large man nodded, "No problem, Lieutenant."

"Hey! How 'bout lettin' us go!?" The remaining prisoners were still locked into their seats. It took McKenna a moment to gather up the rifles from the dead guards and hand them to Windhook. Then, he proceeded to unlock the cuffs and seat restraints on the remaining four prisoners.

"Thanks a lot, pal." Another large man, though not as large as McKenna, smiled and rose from his seat, "We heard talk of a settlement not too far from here. You boys fixin' to head there?"

"Thank you, stranger, but I think we'll be headin' our own way."

"Well, good luck to you, friend! I hope you don't mind, but I need to be gettin' that First Aid Kit and some provisions." The man indicated the storage lockers at the back of the aircar.

"Help yourself," McKenna figured it would be easier to let the man take what he wanted and then leave, rather than have to include him and his compatriots on whatever plans they had.

The big prisoner was at the lockers in four large steps. Within less than a minute, he had taken all the supplies he could carry and was bounding down the exit ramp.

"Well, that was quick," Windhook sighed with relief.

"Yeah, that was easier than I thought it would be," said McKenna. Another thought struck him, "You know, I don't know where the rest of our team members went. I thought they loaded on with us."

"How many of you were there?"

"There were four of us."

"Maybe they held them to wait for the next shuttle. Probably figured having all of you together would be a risk."

"That makes sense."

"Now, some information please?" Deckard spoke from behind the two men. Over his arm was a bundle of dark green and black cloth.

"Yes, sir." Windhook immediately snapped into subordanate mode.

"What mission were you on?"

The younger man blinked a couple of times, trying to recall, "Well, sir, I wasn't on any particular mission...."

"Then what were you doing before you got arrested?"

"Well, sir," he shrugged, "I was returning from an errand I was running for Archduke Norris..."

"Ah. What kind of errand was this, Lieutenant?" Deckard demanded. Behind him, McKenna smiled, realizing that Deckard had decided now was a good time to hone his interrogation skills.

"Well," Windhook stammered, "it was..."

"It was what?" Deckard's tone developed a razor edge that made Windhook feel very uncomfortable.

The young lieutenant was at a loss for words. What the hell is he doing this to me for? he thought. He took a deep breath and replied, "Look, I was just delivering some Regional Stationery to the local Sector Governor on Regina. Is that any reason to crucify me?"

"I need to be sure..." Deckard was ready to begin dressing the younger man down for insubordination when he was interrupted by James McKenna.

"Anton, I'm sure the Lieutenant was on legitimate business for the Domain. As a commissioned officer under the command of the Duke he is bound by his word as per the Imperial Code of Honor."

"Uh, in case you forgot, Jim, the Imperium doesn't exist anymore!" Deckard's anger failed to hide the sarcastic twang in his voice.

McKenna continued quietly, "Not the way it used to, no. You're right. But our Domain has decided to remain loyal to its codes and doctrines." He started to chuckle, then gesture expressively as he said, "You don't need to interrogate this guy!"

"Fine," Deckard set his bundle of cloth down onto a nearby seat, the sadistic expression gone from his face, "However, I do have one more question for you, Lieutenant. Why did they arrest you at all? What was the charge?"

Windhook replied by pointing to the bundle his interrogator had just set down, "Check out the uniforms." On the sleeves of each set of coveralls was an embroidered patch of a golden sunburst: The symbol of the Third Imperium. "The guys who arrested me had this same insignia on their uniform. Maybe Lucan was trying to tie up some loose ends."

"Wait a minute..." said McKenna, now realizing who he was talking to.

Deckard reached into the pile of clothes and pulled out a prison guard suit for himself and replied, "Well, if that's true, then Lucan's made a serious breach into Norris territory."

Windhook nodded, "We need to inform the Duke as soon as possible."

"Well, first we have to get off this rock. I still have no idea exactly what planet we're on, but it took us over a month to get here."

"Two months for me and I have no idea how fast the ship was."

"That figures."

McKenna broke in, "Look, this is pointless! Unless we have a ship of our own and are making escape velocity from here, then we don't even have to worry about how far it is to Norris!" He reached down and rummaged through the bundle of coveralls until he found a set that was more or less his size. He unzipped the jumpsuit and stepped into it. Fortunately, it fit him comfortably.

Deckard breathed with relief, "I was worried they didn't have one in your size."

McKenna narrowed his eyes and gave a sarcastic grin, "C'mon, I'm not that big!"

Neither Deckard nor Windhook replied as their superior officer grabbed one of the former guards' rifles and headed for the exit. As the two remaining soldiers climbed into their coveralls, Windhook couldn't help but ask, "I take it you were back there so long 'cause of him?"

Deckard nodded, "Yup. He's pretty tough to shop for."

CHAPTER TWO

Colonel Todd Williams, formerly of the Imperial Army, sat up at the sound of the wake-up call. He knew there was no escaping it, especially as it could be heard from every wall speaker throughout Imperial Prision Station 31. Time to start another day, he thought as he slowly climbed out of his bunk. He hated days like this. Of course, every day in Imperial Prison Station 31 was the same as every other day. This meant that Williams generally hated every day he spent there. Which, being a political prisoner, he felt was completely normal. I didn't even commit a real crime for God's sake! He usually had this particular thought soon after waking up and lookng around the half-lit room, realizing that neither its condition, nor its occupants, had changed at all.

At least the two others whom he shared his cell with were tolerable folk. One was a newbie, brought in with the last shuttle, named Ted Larson. He was another ex-military, like Williams, though Larson was a rating: E-3, if Williams remembered correctly. It seemed like years ago when the kid, even more frightened and pathetic looking than he was now, was telling anyone who cared to listen all about how he got himself 25 years penal servitude. From what Williams understood, Larson ended up getting framed for some antimatter warheads being stolen out of an Imperial Naval Depot. Now, how someone could get framed for that, Williams had no idea and really didn't care to find out.

Just goes to show the system sucks, kid. We're all caught up in it and nobody gives a rat's ass. Especially now that we've got that spoiled brat Lucan running the show!

His other roommate was Jim Bena, an older man who had already been serving time for six years when Williams was brought in. Bena was sentenced for life and everyone knew he deserved it. He was lucky to escape the vacuum chamber, but someone pulled a few strings for him. Murder of a superior officer, even one that illegedly raped your sister, was a pretty serious crime. He never even hears from that sweet little girl whose honor he felt he needed to defend so violently.

You can't fight fire with fire, kid, was the only thing the ex-Colonel could think of whenever he replayed the guy's story in his mind. These days, though, Bena kept to himself. He didn't talk to anyone and most folks didn't even remember what his voice sounded like. To Williams, that was just fine as far as he was concerned.

He knew that not every single prisoner here in the station was really an innocent man. It was a simple fact of life that true criminals really did exist. Some, even nastier and crueler than Jim Bena were serving life sentences, even multiple ones, for some pretty heinous crimes against society: Multiple murders, rape, child molestation, piracy, and the like. Others, some pretty noticeable among the hardened faces in the crowd, were given lengthy sentences for reasons nobody should ever be arrested for: Speaking your mind when someone asks you your opinion of the Imperial government, holding a demonstration to show a corrupt governor that his hoarding of wealth is actually hurting his citizens, or, worse yet, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time... like Williams was...

He sighed as he opened a locker and pulled out a clean set of gray prisoner coveralls. He stepped into the light garment and zipped it closed. No pockets, no places to hide anything, damn near skin-tight! He thought as he regarded himself in the small mirror inside the locker door. However, one thing his jumpsuit had that nobody else's did was a small silver emblem on the right collar: A stylized unicorn head. He figured if wearing that pin was the only link to the reason he was here, then he would show it off with pride. When I get out of here, you can bet I'm heading straight for the Domain of Deneb! Williams directed this thought to all of the guards and to Commandant Brizbee, the cruel dictator who ran everyone's life on the station.

Even though his sentence was supposed to be five years, Williams was afraid his sanity wouldn't last that long. One day, he could make a mistake and find himself stuck in this hole for another five to ten years. Or, worse yet, thrown onto the solitary confinement level with the real crack-pots. A shiver ran up his spine as he considered this possibility. Take it easy, Todd. You're still here and you're okay. Just keep your head. What are you going to do today to keep yourself sane? This question had begun to pop up in his mind more and more often. After two years on "Lousy 31," he felt like he was running out of things to do to keep his mind occupied. Right now, he answered himself, I'm going to get breakfast.

* * * * *

Deckard and McKenna stood silently and watched as the Imperial Prison Shuttle descended with easy power. A moment later, the aircar's tiny landing legs unfolded and the vehicle set down in the sand beside its fire-scarred twin vessel. The two former prisoners kept their laser rifles in hand, though not pointing at anything in particular. Deckard allowed himself a brief glance at Windhook who crouched beside the damaged shuttle, trying to remain hidden from plain sight.

If Deckard's plan was to work, all three of them were needed. McKenna didn't openly object to the idea, but wondered if it was a prudent move. Windhook also kept his thoughts to himself, knowing that he probably couldn't have come up with a better solution, especially in the twenty-minute interval between their landing and the arrival of the second craft. However, all three of them knew that luck was going to play a very important role in their strategy.

The boarding hatch slid aside and the small entrance ramp extended to the hot sand. Deckard squinted and held up his hand to shade his eyes from the powerful solar glare as a pair of figures, both dressed in the black and olive coveralls of Prison Station 31 Security appeared from within the relative darkness of the functional prison shuttle. Deckard waved to them in a mock salute and smiled as he saw one of the newcomers return the gesture. The two real guards casually strode down the rampway and into the desert, with their rifles slung over their shoulders. It couldn't have been better than if we planned it!

As soon as the two new arrivals had passed the shadow of the damaged aircar, Windhook crawled out from underneath it and, making sure his footfalls remained quiet, hastily made his way toward the rampway. When it looked like Deckard and McKenna were making small talk with the guards, the young lieutenant cautiously padded up the rampway and into the hatch. It would have been perfect, had he not slipped on some sand that had been kicked up onto the ramp and fallen on his face.

The bang and clatter was loud enough to reach the ears of the prison guards and, before Deckard or McKenna could react, their opponents had unslung their laser rifles and were aiming for the sprawling figure who was desperately trying to get some sort of foothold. Deckard didn't even stop to think as he brought his own weapon to bear on the man directly in fron of him and pulled the trigger. The laser beam was invisible, but its effects were quite noticable as a smoldering hole, two centimeters wide, was punched through the guard's upper torso. The man gasped as he clutched at his chest and fell to the sand. McKenna also used his weapon, but instead of firing it, simply swung it like a pugel stick and bashed the other guard's skull with the rifle butt. The effect was almost the same, though the man would live.

By this time, Windhook had found his footing and scrambled up into the aircar. As Deckard and McKenna arrived in the functional vehicle's cockpit, they found the pilot slumped over the steering column, a large hole had been blown into the side of his head and blood was streaming out of it. Windhook blew the smoke from his right index finger and regarded his compatriots.

"You do realize that was my last shot."

McKenna responded, "Well, I know body pistols don't have that much ammo, but I thought you might've had three shots."

"Well, normally yes. But the first shot was a micro-explosive that took up the space of two bullets."

"Damn lucky you had that set to fire first."

"Yes," the lieutenant was whole-hearted in his response. He decided to change the subject, "So, now what do we do?"

"Well, I suppose we should collect the rifles from the guys outside," McKenna mused.

"I'll take care of that," Deckard replied and headed back toward the hatchway.

"So, Windhook, can you fly one of these?"

"Anyone can, I thought. It's just a typical aircar."

McKenna frowned, "Well, son, not all of us grew up on some cushy high-tech planet where the air's constantly recycled and kids go cloud surfing in the family aircar."

Windhook flinched, "Sorry. I didn't realize."

McKenna smiled and patted the younger man's shoulder. "Not a problem, son. But I just won't ask you to do drive a ground car anytime soon."

Windhook cringed again, "Aarrgh! No way! I wouldn't want you to!"

McKenna snickered, "Don't like the idea of being able to go up to avoid a crack-up?"

"Exactly," replied the lieutenant as he keyed into the aircar's flight computer. A glance to his left caused him to remember something he felt was rather important. He turned to the senior officer behind him and casually mentioned, "Uh, we're gonna have to get rid of this body."

"No problem."

With one swift motion, Commander McKenna lifted the inert form of the shuttle pilot from his seat and hefted him over his shoulder. In a moment, he had carried the corpse to the hatchway and, with an impressive display of strength, threw the body out into the desert. At that moment, he heard a sound like a laser rifle being fired. He looked up from the deceased pilot to see Deckard standing over the prone form of the prison guard McKenna had graciously knocked out. The muzzle of Deckard's rifle was giving off a small puff of steam, indicating a recent discharge. The unconscious guard, like the shuttle pilot, was now also sporting a hole in his head, though this one was between his eyes and not bleeding. Laser wounds generally did not tend to bleed as the heat of the beam also cauterized the wound. Deckard looked up at the his comrade, who sighed and returned a disapproving look.

"No witnesses, Jim. We can't let them signal the prison station." Deckard picked up the recently deceased guard's rifle and slung it over his shoulder and started back toward the functional prison shuttle.

"I know that, Anton. I just figured that without any way of signalling them, we could just leave 'em here."

"We don't know that that old shuttle's completely out of action." Deckard stepped up the ramp and joined the senior man in the vestibule. A touch of a button closed the hatch and retracted the rampway.

"True. We don't." McKenna decided it better not to waste time arguing. A whine was making itself audible from astern, indicating the aircar's engine begining to power up.

At that moment, the voice of Trace Windhook could be heard over the din, "We're all set to go here! I've got a course laid in for the starport!"

Deckard and McKenna immediately turned and headed for the cockpit. Upon entering, Deckard sat himself into the empty navigator's seat and examined the map display.

"No, head for the prison station, Lieutenant."

"What!? The prison station?"

"That's what I said."

"Wait a minute, we're trying to stay the hell away from that thing!"

Deckard began to feel his anger boiling up the way it always did when he knew his authority was being questioned. Rather than explode at the younger man, who was, technically, not under his command at all and not bound to obey his orders, he gritted his teeth and said, "And how do you expect us to explain detouring this shuttle full of prisoners for two weeks?"

Windhook thought about that for a moment, but said nothing. Deckard took this as an opportunity to relax his jaw and speak normally and, as far as he was concerned, rather calmly, "They'd send out a search party to look for us and, if they did an ID scan, they'd know we're bullshitting them from the start. They don't know what happened here, so let's just get to the station and just wait there until the next ship arrives."

Windhook looked up at McKenna who simply leaned against the cockpit doorframe. He shifted his gaze to Deckard and realized that he had, indeed, heard a very sensible and rational solution. He nodded and began making the necessary course changes. A few moments later, the computer responded with a singnalling beep and Windhook turned toward the other two men in the control cabin.

"Okay. I've laid in the new course. It'll take us about fifteen minutes to get to the prison."

Deckard leaned back in his seat and shrugged, "Well, let's get going!"

"Here we go," replied Windhook and he pushed forward on the throttle lever.

There was a slight jolt as the aircar lifted itself from the desert and a bump as the landing legs retracted into its belly. A moment later, Windhook had adjusted the gravity engine's thrust vector and brought the powerful motors up to full speed, sending the aircar hurtling forward through the sunlit vista.

* * * * *

Breakfast was about what Williams had expected: Food so bland you almost wanted to take a bite out of the tray to get a taste of something in your mouth. Fortunately, the coffee was pretty decent, though the former Army officer figured that was only because the guards drank it too. Williams took a moment to let his eyes wander around the brightly-lit makeshift cafeteria. Aside from the guards, the faces he saw were becoming more and more familiar, something which made Williams feel even more depressed. Knowing the name of each man in the room was a sign to him that he had already been there too long. There was a time when he thought he'd make a game out of trying to remember all the people he met. After a while, though, it had begun to feel like names were the only distinctions that any of the inmates had. Which is exactly how they want it to be, he mused.

Williams sighed. In all his time of loyal service to the Emperor, he never figured he'd be spending his declining years permanantly confined to quarters in a floating shipwreck on the edge of nowhere. Of course, he quickly reminded himself, if the Emperor was still alive, I wouldn't be spending the rest of my time here! It was unfortunate, he thought, how people couldn't seem to remember what was going on in their lives when some piece of good news occurred, such as when Emperor Stephon announced the birth of his daughter Iphegenia. However, everyone could recall what they were doing on the Day of Rebellion: The day in which the Imperium was shattered by an assassin's visit to the Imperial Palace. Indeed, as Williams could recall, the last five years had seen quite a few very unexpected events!

A voice over the loudspeakers interrupted his thoughts, "Attention, all personnel: Prison Shuttle Number Six now arriving at Boat Dock Level. All cargohandlers and prisoner transfer personnel report to the Boat Dock Level immediately."

Williams checked the clock on the wall. It was half past ten in the morning: A bit late for the shuttle to be arriving. Normally, it was supposed to arrive before breakfast, so the new inmates could settle into their rooms while the rest of the prisoners were in the cafeteria. However, he figured it was really none of his business, so he didn't worry about it. Instead, he got up and headed for the coffee spigot.

* * * * *

"I don't believe it!" Deckard gaped at the monstrosity that now floated beyond the cockpit windshield.

Windhook and McKenna were equally astonished, but said nothing as the aircar slowly coasted toward their destination.

Imperial Prison Station 31, the Imperium's newest high-security detention and rehabilitation center, had always been shrouded in rumors and legends. Never before had so many people taken an interest in learning more about a prison. One of the likely reasons for this was the veil of secrecy in which the whole project was enshrouded.

Nobody knew where it was and nobody knew what it looked like, except the inmates, and they never got to see it from the outside. The likelihood of this project being very believable was doubtful in the first place, but the fact that it was actually floating before them made the three officers increasingly nervous.

They all had heard of the Imperium using old spaceships as space stations. Even the Domain of Deneb had a few Imperial Prison Hulks orbiting some of its less populated planets. However, those ships had had their entire drive sections gutted and were placed in a stable orbit. Not only that, but the ships that were used for such projects were generally old escort ships, not more than a few thousand tons displacement.

They were certainly much smaller than the massive Lightning class frontier cruiser toward which the aircar was being guided.

The old ship hovered motionless, over two kilometers above the desert wasteland.

She was an unbelievable sight, not only because of her size but because it didn't look as though any of her essential components had been stripped off. Much to his own surprise, Deckard was able to pick out the four fuel shuttles, slung underneath the ship's belly. These tiny service craft were designed to dive into gas giants to scoop up raw hydrogen for the behemoth during deep space operations. McKenna noted the presence of a few scattered weapon turrets, but concluded that most of the ship's weaponry actually had been removed.

Regardless of the lack of armament, it was an unimaginable sight: a mighty ship of the line, well over four hundred meters in length and displacing over sixty-four thousand tons, hovering over the desert on an unknown planet and serving as an Imperial penal colony.

"There's your tax credit at work, right there," Windhook commented as he eased the aircar alongside the enormous craft. On the ship's seventeen-meter-high vertical tailfin was written the legend, "One Thousand Years, CF-6383."

"I still don't believe it," was all Deckard could think to say.

Upon reading the ship's former name and registry, McKenna exclaimed, "I remember hearing about this ship. It was launched to commemorate the thousand-year anniversary of the Imperium. From what I remember, she had quite a battle record too!"

Deckard slowly shook his head, "This is no way to treat a ship like this." McKenna and Windhook nodded in a silent agreement.

"We can probably owe this one to Lucan," added Windhook, "That spoiled brat's never served, so it doesn't mean a thing to him."

McKenna gave him a tap on the shoulder and spoke sarcastically, "Hey, that's the Emperor you're talking about."

Windhook chuckled, "Yeah, whatever, sir." His voice also taking on an ironic tone.

The communications system sprang to life and a voice sounded through out the control cabin, "Prison shuttle number six, you are cleared for docking. Stand by for automatic control."

Deckard started to say something, but Windhook hit the send button and responded, "Roger Station, we're standing by for automatic control." Seeing the other man's darkened expression, Windhook commented, "If we don't let them bring us in, they'll probably get suspicious."

"Let's just hope they turn the automatic system off when we're docked... In case we need to get out of here in a hurry."

"They should, but, as we've been pointing out, where would we go?"

Deckard leaned back in his seat and refused to answer. There was a chirp from the control board and Windhook released his grip on the steering column.

"I take it they have us?" asked McKenna, who had remained motionless, standing behind the pilot's seat.

"They have us," replied Windhook as he leaned back and relaxed. Casually, he turned to his companions and asked, "So, we off load our prisoners and then what?"

"Shit!" Deckard jumped to his feet and headed for the cabin doorway. "I can't believe I forgot about that," he said as he squeezed past McKenna and into the passenger cabin. Windhook watched him go, then looked up at McKenna who simply shrugged.

Deckard stalked into the passenger cabin, a very grim expression was on his face as he did a mental count of the prisoners his little band of fugitives were carrying.

Seated in the restraint chairs were three men whom he could not identify and the remaining two members of his team.

A bright-eyed young man in the rear seat brushed his thick brown hair away from his eyes, saw someone who bore a striking resemblance to his former team leader, and did a double-take. He was just about to say something, but Deckard managed to keep him quiet with a glare that could have knifed through a steel wall. He turned and headed back into the cockpit.

McKenna greeted him at the door, "So, who's back there?"

Knowing what McKenna was really asking him, Deckard nodded, "Levar and Al... and a couple of others."

"You know, we gotta get those guys into guard uniforms. We can't let 'em get treated like they're convicts."

"I know Jim, but we can't do that with the other prisoners hanging around now can we?"

McKenna nodded, "True. I guess we'll have to sneak them out of the holding area after we get on board."

The older man's expression became stern, "That won't work and you know it."

At that moment, Windhook chimed in, "You guys better figure it out pretty quick, 'cause we're about to dock."

Deckard permitted himself a glance through the window. The bulky shape of the prison ship had grown much larger and he could see the docking port to which the aircar was being drawn.

At that moment, a thought struck him. A thought that he would have completely dismissed, had he been thinking rationally. However, given the extraordinary situation he seemed to be in, he had an extraordinary response in mind. It's now or never, he thought, and began to give his pitch.

CHAPTER THREE

The aircar settled itself snugly into its docking collar as the transfer crews prepared for the business of cargo off-loading and prisoner escort. Five guards dressed in black and green coveralls stood by the hatch with laser rifles in hand. Four unarmed cargo handlers stood by the loading gantry and waited for the crew to open the hatch. There was a hiss and the sound of machinery being set into motion as the airlock iris hatch opened.

Three men dressed in guard uniforms stepped out, all bearing laser rifles. One of them nodded to the man who seemed to be the leader of the transfer team and said, "They're all yours," and the three newcomers strode across to the other side of the boat deck. The five guards looked back and forth among themselves and finally decided to board the shuttle.

Nobody had figured on the aircar being hijacked while en route to the station, so the guards were totally unprepared for the sight of five armed prisoners pointing laser rifles back at them. It didn't take long for the freed men to coax the guards into lending the prisoners their uniforms. It also didn't take long for the prisoners to suitably restrain the former prison guards and then set the shuttle's autopilot to release from the station and head off in some random direction.

Once that had been done, the five new guards made a quick exit and closed the hatch behind them. Nobody actually spoke to the four cargo handlers. Deckard felt that his rifle would tell them all they needed to know. Once the shuttle had launched itself, Deckard reopened the hatch and the four bodies were quickly disposed of. After the hatch was resealed, a small meeting was held in a dark corner of the boat dock.

"All right," We're here, we've gotten rid of anyone who might be able to identify us on sight. Deckard didn't feel completely sure that was true, but he said it anyway.

"So we think," Windhook apparently shared Deckard's hidden sentiment. Deckard chose to ignore him.

"The question is, what do we do now?"

One of the other prisoners, a burly man named Les Walker, replied, "Well, we could just sit tight 'till the next shuttle gets here. Four of us could act like them cargo folks and the rest of y'all are the guards. Just tell 'em the prisoners've been off-loaded and they're safely in their cells here."

"That wouldn't work. The guards all probably know each other," This came from Giles Levar, the youngest member of Deckard's team. A bright guy, but still a green kid as far as the others were concerned.

"That and I'd bet the new prisoners have to go through some sort of inspection before they get turned loose among the inmates," McKenna voiced his opinion while leaning against a tall power loader.

"Speaking of which, I wonder if someone's missing us right now," added Bob Wallace, another of the real convicts among the group. He was a menacing sight with powerful muscles and a maniacal look in his eye. At the moment, though, he seemed sedate enough to keep people from worrying.

Deckard felt his heart begin to race, the way it always did when he knew he was about to commit himself and others to an irrevocable course of action. He took about five seconds to think the matter through and, in that time, saw no other possible course of action. Finally, he spoke.

"We have to take over the station."

For a moment, the words seemed to hang in the air. Nobody spoke, or even moved, for that matter.

We have to take over the station.

It rang in everyone's ears and still, nobody responded.

For a while, the six fugitives didn't even look at each other for fear of seeing their own doubts and disbelief being reflected back at them.

It seemed ridiculous, Almost as ridiculous as the idea of a complete ship of the line being used as an Imperial prison station.

McKenna finally straightened himself up and moved toward a ladder situated below a metal iris hatch. He keyed in the open sequence and the valve uncurled, retracting into the ceiling. He turned and faced the rest of the group.

"Well, no time like the present to get started."

Deckard was rather surprised to see his teammate ready to commit himself so quickly. He called back, "Do you have any idea where you're going?"

"Yeah, but you'd better come with me. I don't think I could handle this by myself."

Deckard glanced around at his motley crew. Windhook simply shrugged and the others made no movement at all, other than looking expectantly at their seemingly self-appointed leader. Deckard finally shrugged and headed toward the ladder. The rest of the group followed close behind.

Before making his ascent, Deckard commented, "I certainly hope you know what you're doing."

"Hey, trust me," The voice of McKenna called back down from above the hatchway.

I wish he'd tell me what he's up to... Deckard pulled himself up three meters of steel ladder until he found himself in a small maintainence area. The ladder still continued upward, toward another iris hatchway, but McKenna was standing at one corner of the cramped work area. Circutry and readouts glowed everywhere. Anton stepped off the ladder, making sure he didn't brush against any fragile-looking components that lined the walls.

While they waited for the rest of their group to arrive. Deckard took the opportunity to pose a question.

"So, you have this idea of how we're going to take this station. Would you mind sharing some of it?"

"Let's wait for everyone else to get here. We're going to need everyone's help if we're going to pull it off."

"Are you thinking that the Imperium may have come up with a contingency for getting this ship off this planet?"

McKenna sighed and decided this was not the time to withold information, "It crossed my mind. It takes an awful lot of thruster power to keep a ship this big hovering anywhere. Not only that, but these ships weren't meant to sit in a planet's atmosphere. I keep wondering what other secrets this place has to it."

"Well, I don't think we should be trying to ask the guards and I seriously doubt any of the prisoners would know."

The older man nodded, "Right," and continued, "I also wonder how many of them realize they're on a working spaceship."

Deckard's skepticism began to take over his thinking, "Well, we don't actually know that it's a working spaceship."

McKenna turned on him, "We don't? I don't know about you, but when we were docking I saw this thing had smooth lines. Not an single broken surface."

"Well, that could all be on the far side of the ship. Who knows, if you're planning to head up to the bridge, maybe you'll find that it's been gutted."

McKenna's stomach began to tie itself into a knot at this thought. Deckard saw it and suddenly realized the whole plan.

"That was what you wanted to do, wasn't it? You were just hoping to go up to the bridge and see if you could just turn up the maneuvering engines to fly us out of here!"

McKenna gave in and shrugged, "It seemed a sensible idea."

Deckard grinned, "I didn't say it wasn't, Jim. But we need to come up with a contingency in case the bridge doesn't work, or if we can't get control from there."

By this time the rest of the group had arrived, the maintainance area was large enough to accomodate all of them comfortably, however people still began to sweat from the excess of body heat combined with the electrical equipment working around them.

Deckard spoke to the group, "Well, Jim here's got an interesting plan. I'll let him explain it since he knows these ships better than I do."

McKenna took a deep breath and told them all about Lightning class cruisers, about how a ship in its prime was eighty-four decks packed with state-of-the-art weaponry and crewed by over five hundred people. He also mentioned that most of these ships, over the course of the years, were upgraded and modified, allowing crew compliments to be reduced. The former Naval officer also took a moment to talk about his own service aboard the prototype ship, Azhanti High Lightning, during the last Frontier war.

At this point, Deckard asked him to speed up the lecture.

McKenna resumed explaining about how the bridge only required a few people to operate key positions in order to get the ship moving and underway. Though, to keep everyone's mind at ease, he conveniently left out the part about Lightning class ships supposedly not being able to fly in an atmosphere.

Deckard gave him another glare and McKenna finally outlined his plan. To five fugitives from the Imperial justice system, attempting to take over an Imperial prison in order to keep from being locked up themselves, it all seemed very reasonable:

Objective one: get up to the bridge, eliminating opposition as quickly and quietly as possible.

Objective two: Take over control of the bridge. Again, speed and stealth were of the utmost importance here.

Objective three: Attempt to get control of the ship's drives. This would hopefully be accomplished by working the engineering station on the bridge. If not, a trip to the upper engineering deck would be necessary.

Objective four: Liftoff and set a course for the nearest non-Imperial-controlled system, or set course for Norris' domain. This depended on whether or not the navigation computer would be able to tell them where exactly they were.

Objective Five: Eliminate the rest of the prison security force and see who among the prisoners would be able to help crew the ship. McKenna figured they'd cross that bridge when they got to it. In the meantime, steps one through four were enough to tackle.

McKenna had finally finished his speech and the five other members of the group seemed ready to put the plan into action. He was grateful that they understood what he was talking about. Or, perhaps they didn't, but at least this was an idea that involved doing something other than simply hanging around and waiting to be discovered.

Deckard finally spoke up, "Well, if you're ready. I see no time like the present to get started."

McKenna keyed into the hatch above them. It slid aside and the group began making its ascent along the length of the ship.

Picture a skyscraper, about two hundred feet taller than the Sears Tower, floating above a planet's surface. Now, picture that same building floating on its side and you have a very good idea of the setup of Imperial Prision Station 31. Lightning class Frontier Cruisers were built with their decks situated perpendicular to the ship's axis. This had the effect of making it feel like the ship was moving upward when it was thrusting forward. In theory, during spaceflight, this meant that people would still feel the floor when the ship accelerated. It was a very convenient arrangement for a ship designed solely to be in space.

Fortunately, modern starships were usually equipped with gravity plates which kept everyone comfortably affixed to the floor, despite the ship's facing. It was a good thing that these plates were still working on the station, as its orientation would seem sideways to anyone inside. It was understandable, then, that the prison had no windows. The view outside versus the feeling of gravity inside would cause eyes and inner ears to wreak havoc on minds and digestive systems.

McKenna knew these ships well and, as they climbed, he explained that the bridge was located on deck seventeen, situated between four decks worth of sleeping quarters (which Deckard suspected would be quarters for the prison staff). The group had over sixty-five decks worth of climbing to do. Everyone knew to pace themselves.

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