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Bounty's Stepchild
by Justin Stanchfield

Category: Science Fiction
Description: There are no clocks in the Well, no day or night. If you wake up, you weren't dead yet. On a far-flung planet, men and women pay the penalty for their Earthside crimes. Petty theft or assault, it's all the same, their bodies and minds are forfeit. Used as hosts in a never-ending war against hostile aliens, they are given a cybernetic Assist--an interface that links them to the dead whose personalities, skills, and knowledge have been eternally preserved. Everything that belongs to the prisoners--their bodies, their wills, their thoughts--is subjugated by these Assists. But without them, the prisoners are helpless, unskilled, uneducated cannon fodder on a deadly battlefield. Brian Laris is one of these prisoners. He craves an end to the fighting, the suffering, the war. He has one chance to escape the hell that is the Well, but it comes from a totally unexpected quarter, the Assist in his head.
eBook Publisher: Scrybe Press/Scrybe Press, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: September 2008


17 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [156 KB]
Words: 12325
Reading time: 35-49 min.

No clocks in the Well, no day or night. Nothing to keep the hours apart. If you woke up, you weren't dead yet. That simple.

Laris was awake when the ship began yawing, ponderous and slow, swinging hard enough to slap any prisoner still asleep into the cold, breath-rusted walls. Mumbled curses sifted up, deck after deck waking like an animal sick beyond caring. Pumps surged. Cold air rushed down the deep cylinder, pushing the stink of unwashed bodies and stale urine in front of it. The smell could choke the strongest. Brian Laris had been down the Well too long to even notice.

"Christ, here they come." That was Salert, petty theft, his voice nasal and whining. Laris clamped his hand around the bars, anchored against the aging vessels slow swing.

Clang, clang, clang ... Heavy boots, steel-soled, stomped across the rigid grate defining the empty spaces. Small pops erupted as feet broke contact with the magnetic walkways. Laris counted steps, counted doors banged open. Closer and closer. Someone in the half-light coughed. A wracking, death is coming cough.

"Echo-3-3-4, open!"

The door on the ceiling swung up, hinges grinding. A face, clean shaven and hating looked inside. Full battle gear, stun-prod ready, the Drill Instructor grinned. "Fall out, ladies. It's show time."

No one moved. Laris nodded across the cell at Salert, then at Johns. He followed them, pulling himself up and out the open hatch, swinging onto the magnetic walkway. The rest of the cell followed him.

"Get in line," the D I barked, nipping the last man out with the stun-prod. Hot blue pain arced into unprotected ribs.

Small lines merged into long lines, men and women shuffling the broken dance, moving upwards, always upwards, towards the staging deck. Laris kept quiet. Fools spoke up. Fools got sent down to the hot zone without Assist.

Fools never came back to the Well.

The lights around the staging deck were bright. Bright enough to blind as you stepped over the edge of the Well into the plane of another world. Clean scrubbed walls, antiseptic, almost surgical. Top deck of the Well, as high as any man-jack-below would ever rise. Not quite heaven, not Officer Country. Purgatory. Last stop between living and dying.

Laris knew the routine. Step in, strip down, cold blast of water and air to scrape off the filth. Suit up, line up for chow, eat the crap standing on your feet while you shuffled nice and slow to the armory. DIs strutted like devils in camouflage battle plate. Trustees moved up and down the lines, handing out gear, helping surgeons prep the poor bastards for the ride downtown. Now and then the lines would stop, waiting for the ship to stabilize orbit, or for one of the bridge gods to blast a general order over the loud speakers.

"Move it along, boys, we ain't got all day!"

Gales. Sargent Major. Loudest and strongest of all Drill Instructors. Hated from both sides and reveled in it. Rock solid, sulphur-breathed Gales. He watched, reptile cold, the advancing que of damned flesh wind into the sterile purity of the Application Center. Laris stepped past him, avoiding the drill's icy gaze. Didn't help. Gales's arm snaked out, pulling him off balance and out of line.

Lucky you." The armor-clad brute smiled. "You get to play general again." He pushed Laris into the waiting grip of two trustees. "Take him upstairs. They'll prep him there."

No point resisting. Laris bit his lip and let the ass-kissers lead him to the far end of the Op Center. No chance of dying today, he decided. No hope of it either.

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