Prologue #1

Quick, hollow footsteps echoed along institutional walls, creating a chill in my bones that had nothing to do with the cold metal that surrounded me. I knew those footsteps. They were the footsteps of Death. My death, to be precise.

The words of the cold, soulless Judge still resonated in my ears: "You are sentenced to summary execution by disintegration. May God have mercy on your soul." Funny, for a computer AI to invoke an archaic religious belief. Still, in moments of crisis I'm not beyond finding a little religion of my own. Please, if You're out there. Help me. I swear I'll never smuggle again.

The footsteps thundered closer. According to ancient mythology, God is omniscient. Which meant He knew I was lying. But I was a Galactic Trader, and everyone knows you can't cut it as a Trader without doing at least a little smuggling. At least I never engaged in piracy, like some I could name. Okay, I amended. I'll never smuggle on Federation worlds. That left the Tharl and unaffiliated worlds. It cut down on an awful lot of business, but I figured it was worth the price if I could get out of this alive. I could hear the sands of time ticking away my last moments every time those boots came down on the floor.

I wasn't feeling terribly optimistic. The hard metal frame supporting my body wasn't helping. It was impossible to get comfortable, but I suppose the point of prison isn't to be comfortable. The Federation isn't concerned with the mental or emotional well-being of criminals sentenced to death. Tossing and turning in an uncomfortable bunk gives one a lot of time to reflect on the past, to consider what went wrong and what might have been done to rectify it. I think it's called pondering the error of one's ways.

I swung up to a sitting position, tensing my muscles and relaxing them, a million options swimming through my brain like a meteor storm. I could leap at the guard and overpower him, freeing the other prisoner scum around me to create confusion while I made my escape. No, more likely that I'd leap at the guard and be disintegrated a little earlier than scheduled. I could feign sickness and go to the infirmary, where I could take someone hostage to use as a bargaining piece. Except they were coming to execute me. I found it unlikely that they would take pity on a physical illness when I was due for termination. I could demand to talk to my lawyer. Except he was a spineless Orion with less interest in my legal rights than floating in his native waters. How those sentient jellyfish manage to dominate the Public Defender's office is a mystery to me.

These thoughts and many more flashed through my brain as the shining instep of the guard's boot came into view of my cell. Two pairs of boots turned smartly at my cell to face me, and I looked up into the face of my executioners. Their hard, pitiless expressions made my heart sink.

"Hideo Takenoshita," one of them snapped. "Get to your feet. It's time to go."

"But...but...wait!" I cried, gripping the edges of my bunk, ignoring the sharp edges that dug into my hand. Anything to hold onto a few more precious moments of life. "Don't I get a last request? A last meal? Absolution from a priest?"

The identical expressions of steel determination on the guards' faces were replaced with identical expressions of amusement. "Absolution? You've got to be kidding."

Here I was forced concede as I shuffled to my feet. They had a point. Of all the crimes I was guilty of, I was condemned to die for the one I hadn't committed. I only wished I could appreciate the irony.