Prologue #3

Silence reigned in the bright, oppressive cavern that comprised the prison wing. Silence filled the void, giving each man, woman and creature time to reflect upon past deeds, betrayals and despair. A single floodlight flickered quietly to itself, casting brief, capricious shadows along the walls.

A small, slightly built man huddled on the bunk of his cell, gazing forlornly at the wall that reflected the wavering light from the hall. He sat with his chin resting on his knees, his fingers moving restlessly, pulling and pushing at each other in an age-old habit born of nervousness, his knuckles occasionally producing a loud snap. He had picked it up in his teenage years and never managed to stop.

Save for the motion of his hands, his body was still and unmoving. Only his hands reflected the turmoil of his mind as his memories flashed back to the events of only a few months ago, the months leading up to his disastrous trial. Months in which he believed his luck had finally changed for the better.

There were times when he had to convince himself that the cosmos was not playing some sort of elaborate practical joke on him. There were times when he actually believed it.

The sound of a hatch breaking its seal reached his ears. His ears perked, and were rewarded with the sound of heavy, ponderous footsteps approaching. Sharp, thunderous footsteps made by large, steel-tipped boots. Footsteps that foretold his imminent death. He closed his eyes and told himself to wake up.

The words of the cold, soulless Judge echoed in his ears. "You are sentenced to summary execution by disintegration. May God have mercy on your soul." At the time, he'd reflected on the irony of a computer AI invoking a deity from an archaic belief system. Now, if God were to offer him a way out, he knew he'd believe anything he had to. Do anything he had to. Anything to stay alive. Where his mind had considered his past, it now shifted to considerations of the future.

He enjoyed a brief fantasy of leaping to his feet suddenly and overpowering the guards before releasing the other prisoners and making his escape in the ensuing confusion. But an attempt to attack one of the guards would only hasten his execution, or worse, inflict maximum pain before he was dragged to the disintegration chamber. He could beg for mercy, but they wouldn't care what he had to say, only that he had been sentenced to die. He could feign an illness and ask to be taken to the infirmary, but they were going to kill him anyway; why worry about a little extra discomfort?

As much as he hated to admit it, he was going to die very soon, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He'd spent most of his adult life surviving by thinking quickly and pulling through by the skin of his teeth. This time, there was no way he could come up with a brilliant plan to save his skin at the last minute.

The footsteps echoed louder and louder until they were right on top of him, and then stopped abruptly. Then the sensor by his cell door beeped, and the bars quietly slipped into the wall. A large, bulky shadow entered the room.

"Hideo Takenoshita," one of the guards said, his rifle an easy, but alert position. "Get to your feet. It's time to go."

The small man looked up and blinked nervously. His throat moved as his mouth searched for moisture, then he opened his mouth to say something. His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before trying again. "But...but...don't I get a last request? A call from my mother? An appeal to the governor? Absolution from a priest?"

The guard looked startled for a moment. He glanced back at his partner, who shrugged broadly. The guard looked back at the condemned man. "Absolution? Get a grip. Now move out."

Hideo reluctantly got to his feet and shuffled toward the door. He supposed that a last request was too much to ask for. No one would grant him absolution, not for what he was accused of. But the irony of it was that of all the crimes he was guilty of, he was going to be executed for the one he hadn't committed.