The lighting in the secret passageway took shitty to a new level. There were some low-level lights near the floor, but the illumination they provided was just barely enough to show potential obstacles in front of your feet. I was perfectly fine with the lack of strong lighting, my enhanced optics making it more than bright enough for me to see. Anybody else would likely be at a serious disadvantage, and I wondered if that was intentional. With that in mind, I moved cautiously down the hall, ready for whatever might come at me. Effie followed along behind me, his footsteps nearly silent except for the periodic scratching sound of what I assumed were his nails or claws or whatever on the concrete floor. Hy’prae had excellent low-light vision according to the information I’d processed about them, so I wasn’t worried about him stumbling around as we moved further into the passageway.
The hall turned a ninety degree corner after about twenty feet, and a long flight of stairs descended. I started down the stairs, Effie close behind me, making noises I assumed were ones of disapproval going by the sounds of them. I wasn’t all that thrilled to be going deeper into god only knows what either, but the passage and what it led to needed to be checked out. The guy who’d popped out of the wall wasn’t a prisoner, and to the best of my knowledge, all personnel had been removed from the prison before Tohan and I arrived. There was also the fact that I was currently walking through an area that wasn’t shown on any plans or maps of the facility that I had access to.
That begged the questions of who was the mystery guy, why was he still at the prison, and what was the purpose of the secret passageway that wasn’t on any plans I had access to?
If he hadn’t been killed almost immediately when Tohan and Effie saw him, I could’ve questioned him. Not that I faulted either Tohan or Effie for their actions. We were in a hostile situation, and it was the correct course of action to assume that anyone we encountered would probably try to kill us or, more likely, capture us, torture us for intel, and then kill us. If I’d had a clear shot, I’d have aimed for incapacitating the man so I could have tried to get information from him. But that wasn’t the way the situation had played out, and we’d need to deal with what was and not what could’ve been.
At the bottom of the stairs, the hallway was better lit, but not by a lot. Several doors lined both sides of the hall, each with an electronic lock. Nothing on or near the doors gave any clue as to what was behind said doors. The locks next to the doors could only be opened by the type of bracelet that the prison personnel, including our dead guy, had. A manually entered pass code could open the doors as well, judging by the keypad. What that pass code was... it could be anything and randomly punching in numbers would get us nowhere and waste time.
The hallway was utterly silent. If there was anyone behind the doors, they either weren’t making a single sound or the rooms were soundproofed. I was thinking soundproof simply because I was standing in a secret hallway, and the last thing I’d want was for some random noise to be heard by someone outside of the secret hallway and have them get curious about where that sound was coming from. There was the strong possibility that a prisoner would report hearing strange noises and that eventually someone would be sent to investigate to make sure that prisoners weren’t doing something to attempt to disrupt the running of the facility.
I had gone down three levels via the stairs based on the number of stairs, the rise of each step, the floor to ceiling height of each level, and the supporting structure of each floor involved. There were prisoner rooms on this level of the facility as well as two more levels down. The area I was in was not a hastily cobbled-together afterthought. To have something like this deep in the middle of the complex said advance planning to me. It was entirely possible that the area had been intended for some other use but was abandoned and the entrances sealed off for some reason. However, the way the initial door opened said intentional hiding of the place to me. Which made me wonder why and who had signed off on it.
Effie was now crowding up against the backs of my legs. I didn’t think he was doing that out of fear though. Effie didn’t seem to do fear from what I’d seen of him. Granted, I’d only been around him for less than two days, but there had been several instances where fear would’ve been a perfectly valid response to what was happening and he’d shown none. All the information I had on hy’prae also indicated that, in general, they were fearless apex predators.
He was currently making low growling sounds in his throat, and he had one of his forelegs hooked around my calf, pulling on it in the direction of the stairs we’d just come down. He’d never be able to move me, but it was fairly clear to me that he wanted us to leave the area we’d just entered. Something was making him behave that way, but I had no idea what. It could even be that he didn’t like leaving Tohan all alone since he seemed very protective of Tohan. I wasn’t all that thrilled with leaving Tohan alone either, but I hadn’t seen any other choice in the situation. I did not want Tohan with me if things suddenly went to shit in a completely unknown area. It would be much harder for me to effectively deal with a threat if I needed to worry about Tohan’s safety in the close confines of a secret area with no advance knowledge of the layout.
“We can’t leave yet, Effie. This isn’t enough investigation,” I said in a voice barely above a whisper.
Effie chittered at me, the sound low as if he knew we needed to be quiet. Given how intelligent hy’prae were known to be, he probably did understand that we needed to be as silent as possible and that we were in a dangerous area. I moved forward as quietly as I could, alert for any movement. I kept my weapon holstered as I crept down the hall. I could draw and fire both my weapons with one hundred percent accuracy over a distance of three hundred feet in a fiftieth of a second. Since the hallway was nowhere near that long, I was very confident I could quick draw and make whatever shot I may need to.
The hallway turned again after fifty feet and another set of stairs led down. I frowned and wondered just how far down I was going to end up travelling. I assumed that I was eventually going to be stopped from further progress with a locked door I couldn’t bypass without the proper access code. I doubted the secret area would be a massive place based on where it was located in relationship to the other parts of the facility. It could descend beyond the levels of the prison and spread out to claim a large area, but I was hoping it didn’t. The bigger the area to search, the longer Tohan would be relatively unprotected and the greater the chance that someone would discover me in the area, assuming that I wasn’t already being watched on hidden cameras.
I headed down the stairs. Effie was very, very unhappy with my decision to go down the stairs. He was actually hitting my legs quite hard with his forelegs now, and his chittering had taken on an urgency that was difficult to ignore. Halfway down the flight of stairs Effie stopped bitching at me and settled into sounds I could only call resigned muttering. I was almost willing to swear I heard him say <i>stupid</i> but that was likely just my ears trying to make sense of the rising and falling cadence of sounds he was making. Nothing in any of the documentation I’d processed on hy’prae said they could talk. I was fairly sure Tohan would’ve mentioned something like that as well.
I went down another three levels and entered yet another long hallway. There were many more doors on both sides of the hallway than in the upper hallway I’d left. Each door had a number above it and an electronic lock, and the doors were closer together in spacing. A quick check of the numbers put the doors at fifty. There was a twelve by twelve inch opaque panel set into the middle of each door with a button near the bottom of the panel. The doors in the upper hallway didn’t have the opaque panel. There was another, wider, door at the very end of the hallway without any number above it and no opaque panel. Like the upper hallway, there wasn’t a single sound to be heard.
Effie hopped around to stand in front of me. He went up on the rear-most set of his legs and waved his forelegs in front of my face. With him standing like that, he was easily close to four feet tall and just a little intimidating, which was likely the effect he was going for. He started making the same sort of sounds he had in the hydroponic bay when warning Tohan of the approaching group of prisoners. Tohan had called that posture and the sounds Effie was making his danger warning. I was a little surprised that Effie was warning me of danger, but Tohan had also told him that I needed to come back in one piece if Effie was to get those chin rubs Tohan promised him. I was both amazed and impressed that Effie understood Tohan’s instructions so well.
“You sense danger here. I understand that,” I said softly. “I need to check this place out as best as I can to keep Tohan safe. I know you want Tohan to be safe. We’ll leave as soon as we can and go back to Tohan. Understand?”
Effie stopped waving his forelegs in front of my face and went silent. He tilted his head to one side as if contemplating what I’d said. He chirped softly once and dropped back to all eight legs. He clearly wasn’t happy about being in the hallway, but he was silent and wasn’t trying to get me to leave. He watched me for several long seconds before he pushed against my leg and chirped again as if to tell me to get moving and do what I needed to do so we could leave. Effie was fast becoming a fascinating creature.
As far as the danger itself, whatever that was, it was entirely possible that Effie was hearing or smelling something that I couldn’t. My sensors could detect a wide range of things that were harmful to me or whomever my client was; however, things that weren’t harmful wouldn’t trigger any warnings at all. Like the scent of other people for example. Or sounds of movement that were too low for me to pick up. I wasn’t about to ignore Effie’s warning as that would be foolish. I’d simply be even more cautious as I tried to determine what was the purpose of the area before I left. Without the access codes, I was fairly limited to what I could actually do as far as investigating the area. Some knowledge was better than no knowledge especially where potential threats were concerned.
I approached the first door to my left and pressed my ear to it for several long seconds. I heard absolutely nothing. Deciding the risk was worth it, I pushed the button below the opaque panel. The panel turned clear and showed the inside of what looked like a standard prisoner cell but about half the regular size. The cell was neat and empty. I pressed the button again, and the panel went opaque.
I moved to the next door and pressed the button. The same prisoner cell was revealed. Something that looked a lot like blood was on the walls and floor that were in visual range. That was not encouraging. There wasn’t a body in the cell though, and I couldn’t tell how fresh the blood was without a closer look, which I wouldn’t get without the code to open the door. I turned the viewing panel opaque and moved on.
The next several cells were also completely empty and without any blood I could see. Effie was still making the occasional low sounds of disapproval as he followed me as I walked down the hall checking the viewing windows. After seeing the cell with blood liberally decorating the walls and floor, I could understand why he didn’t want to stay where we were. The only reasons I could come up with for seeing so much blood, if that’s indeed what it was, all over the walls and floor were not good ones. Accidental wounds wouldn’t produce that much blood. While Effie couldn’t have seen the blood in the cell through the panel, it was highly likely that he had been able to smell it given how much there was. The scent of blood likely didn’t bother him. It was probably the relationship of that much blood, knowing that he was in an unsafe area and Tohan being more or less in the area that set him off.
The next cell I peeked into had someone asleep on the bed. His or her back was to me so there was very little useful information I could pick up. Their chest moved, so I felt it was safe to assume they were alive. Beyond that, I couldn’t have said anything more about the person: not what their health condition was, what sex they were, or even what species they were.
I moved on to the next cell hoping I’d get something even mildly useful out of this exploration.
Effie seemed to be getting more agitated the closer we got to the large door at the end of the hall. He was still occasionally trying to urge me to turn back, and while I wasn’t an expert on hy’prae behaviour by any stretch of the imagination, I was willing to lay money on the bet that he was preparing for some sort of confrontation. It was something about the way he was moving that said readiness to fight to me. That was a bit odd as there still wasn’t a single sound to be heard and there was nothing giving any indication to me of us having been discovered.
The next cell had somebody who was awake and sitting on the bed facing the door. The female in the cell was staring directly at the door with a staggering amount of hate and fear in her eyes, but there was no indication that she could see me looking at her. I made the assumption that the panel was a one-way type of thing since she didn’t react at all to seeing me or when I waved my hand in view of the panel. There were bandages wrapped around her forearms, an ugly, livid bruise on her jaw, and a few smaller bruises on her throat. Aside from the injuries, based only on what I could see of her, overall, she appeared fine.
Perhaps this area was some sort of solitary confinement or protective custody area? But why have it as a secret area since the cells appeared to be quite secure?
The next cell was occupied as well, but with a male prisoner that was a different species from the female. He wasn’t doing nearly as well as his neighbour. He lay on the bed on his back, and even from several feet away, it was easy to see that he was gasping for every breath he took. His skin was mottled with what looked like deep bruising, but it didn’t look like the type of bruising one would get from being in a fight. Something about it was... off, but I couldn’t quiet put my finger on what it was that gave it that sense of not being right.
The next several cells were more of the same, with prisoners of both sexes and multiple species in degrading states of health. The more bruising I could see on a prisoner, the more lethargic they seemed to be. Prisoners that appeared to be just one giant bruise seemed to also be bleeding from somewhere given the stains on the sheets covering them, but I couldn’t see any obvious open wounds that would produce the amount of blood I saw.
After seeing the tenth prisoner in very obvious medical distress with the same sort of condition as the others, it finally clicked for me, and I sucked in a sharp breath. I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure, but it seemed like the prisoners were suffering from some sort of disease and had possibly been quarantined here to keep the rest of the population from catching it.
I was now a little bit glad that I didn’t have the codes to open the doors to the cells. I had no idea what sort of disease the prisoners had, if it was a disease, or how it was spread. If it was a contact vector with bodily fluids, that wouldn’t be too bad as I wouldn’t have allowed the sick prisoner to get within touching distance of me or Effie. If it was air-borne, just breathing the same air as the prisoners could infect me or even Effie, and we could’ve possibly brought that back to Tohan, infecting him as well. While I was immune to a very large number of diseases, I wasn’t immune to everything as that would be impossible. Not having the pass codes in this instance was a good thing.
Having some type of contagious disease run rampant through the prison would be very bad and staggeringly easy to have happen. The prison was, for the most part, a closed system because of the nature of the facility. But it wasn’t entirely closed. The personnel switched out for their shifts which had the potential for even further spread of the disease, depending on incubation time, when the personnel finished their rotation and went home. Because the prisoners had fairly free-roaming of the majority of the facility and the air supply was shared with everyone in the facility, an air-borne disease could spread rapidly throughout the entire facility, infecting a large portion of the people on the asteroid before it was discovered.
That the facility wasn’t on quarantine lockdown suggested that either the disease had been caught very early or it wasn’t as easily spread as some diseases. That didn’t make the threat of the disease any less dangerous though. I knew of the protocols involved for such a thing, and extreme caution was always exercised in dealing with something of this nature in a situation like the prison. The prisoners held here were not here awaiting execution, and the governments that sent prisoners here had a reasonable expectation of the inmates continuing to live and serve out their sentence even if that sentence was to never leave the facility.
How a disease could’ve gotten into the prison wasn’t a huge mystery in my mind. Every inmate was screened for health issues before being transferred to the prison; however, it was impossible to screen for every single disease in the universe. There were far too many of them, and some were even species specific—devastating the natural host but doing little to nothing to other species. The opposite was true as well with some things being completely harmless to one species but deadly to others. I’d also read of certain bacteria being vital to one species survival yet crippling for another when introduced into their species.
The question I now had was why were the infected prisoners being kept in this secret area instead of in the perfectly functioning quarantine area of the medical bay? The staff had been removed from the facility, but the medical bay was operated by androids. Medical androids had massive databases to work with and could identify and treat a staggering number of conditions. They also couldn’t catch any diseases unlike a living person. The only viral thing dangerous to an android would be malicious code. I highly doubted the inmates would do something to the androids as medical care was frequently required given the violent and volatile nature of the prisoners.
I finished checking the cells along one side of the hallway, finding more prisoners suffering from varying stages of whatever they were infected with. I wasn’t a medical expert by any means, but even without closer inspection of the prisoners, it appeared to me that there were differences in the disease they were suffering from. That could very likely be because there was a mix of species that were infected. That made perfectly logical sense. But my gut feeling about it said no. It said there was something else going on with the disease progression I’d seen. What that was, I had no idea.
The large door at the end of the hall was locked and there was no viewing panel. Whatever was behind that door was going to remain a mystery until Tohan managed to get the bracelet I’d taken off the dead guy working again, if making the bracelet work was even possible for him to do. I knew he was skilled with electronic devices, but I’d also asked him to make alien-to-him tech work again within a very brief timeframe when said tech was specifically designed to become completely inoperable when abruptly deactivated. Then again, given the health status of the prisoners I’d seen in the cells, opening any doors in this area may not be the best idea either as we didn’t know anything about what the prisoners were infected with including how fast or easily it spread.
I started checking the doors on the other side of the hall. The cells were a little larger and there were two prisoners to each cell. The prisoners were chained at neck, hands, and feet to the beds, which were bolted to the floor. The length of the chains probably gave the prisoners just enough room to use the toilet and food dispenser on their side of the cell but appeared to be short of allowing them to reach each other. The chains seemed an odd thing given that they were also suffering the effects of some sort of disease and worrying about infection from one to the other was a moot point since both prisoners seemed to be infected with the same thing.
I thought it was interesting that the prisoners sharing the cells were always two different species. There were individuals of the same species infected with whatever the disease was, but I didn’t see the same species sharing a cell. Odd.
Whatever the disease was, it was something completely different from the prisoners I’d already seen on the other side of the hallway. Instead of severe bruising and difficulty breathing, the prisoners I was looking at had faintly pulsating blisters that showed signs of leaking a virulent orange liquid. There was also a rather disturbing level of aggression and madness in their eyes.
As I watched one prisoner, a large blister on her face split open, spilling the liquid inside it over her cheek. I couldn’t hear anything, but her mouth opened in what must have been an ear-piercing shriek going by the reaction of her cell mate, another female. The non-screaming female shrank back on her bed for several seconds before she raised her head and seemed to almost be scenting the air. Her lips suddenly pulled back in a snarl as she lunged at the other female without warning. The screamer mirrored the action. Both of them were stopped hard by the chains but they strained against the restraints, trying to get at each other, their mouths opening and closing as if biting and thick, viscous spittle dripped from their mouths.
One of the females jerked viciously on one arm in her attempt to get at the other female, and I saw her shoulder drop suddenly in an unnatural way. I knew a dislocated shoulder when I saw one and winced a little. The female didn’t even seem to notice the injury and renewed her efforts to get at her cellmate. Both females continued to snap their jaws at the other and I was sure that if I could hear what was going on in the cell, it would be nothing but animalistic growls and snarls of pure rage.
Blue light suddenly arced from the floor and danced over the straining females. They dropped like stones, falling into twitching jumbles of limbs before laying still. Both of them had just received what I assumed was a massive electrical shock. They lay on the floor, breathing raggedly, their eyes glazed with pain, all the fight gone from them as if it had never been.
The electrical shock had been too well-timed to be random. The prisoners were obviously being monitored. I didn’t see a camera in the cell, but I also couldn’t see the entire cell either. I thought shocking the patients as had just happened was extreme, but at the same time it was possible that was the only way to stop them from trying to attack each other. The one female hadn’t reacted at all to dislocating her own shoulder, and I knew from personal experience that a dislocated shoulder was quite painful and not something easily ignored. Shocking the prisoners still seemed a rather cruel method to use on people who were obviously very ill. In my mind, it would be far better to have each person in their own cell to remove the possibility of them trying to attack their cellmate. But if all the cells were occupied, it was possible there were too many patients for the number of cells available.
As I continued to check the cells, some of the prisoners appeared further along in the stages of the disease as several of them appeared to be wasting away to nothing but skin and bone. They no longer had the blisters and there was something about the look in their eyes that was unsettling. It wasn’t madness but there was a... hungry look to them. I was fairly sure I was safe from the prisoners both in a sense of contamination and from them breaking free of the cells. I still felt more than a little on edge though, and Effie was not helping matters at all with his renewal of chittering and physically urging me to leave.
After checking the last door and finding what I thought might be prisoners suffering the last stages of the disease given that they resembled skeletons with paper-thin skin stretched over their bones, I needed to leave as there was literally nothing else for me to see. I’d learned very little, which was disappointing. What I had discovered only caused more questions to rise to the surface.
Foremost in my mind was what were the odds of two very different diseases requiring quarantine showing up in the prison at the same time? A quick and dirty probability calculation told me the odds of that happening were huge. Not impossible given the broad range of species in the facility, but very much stacked against it happening. Suspicions were gathering in my mind, but without more information, suspicions were all they were. My gut was telling me that something sinister was going on at the prison.
I headed for the stairs, taking them two at a time. I didn’t want to spend any more time in the secret area than I needed to. The longer I was there, the greater the chance of discovery of our presence or the slightly open secret door. I also didn’t want to leave Tohan alone for longer than I had to. I slowed as I approached the top of the stairs and stilled while several steps from the top to listen, unseen, for any movement in the upper hallway. Hearing nothing and not seeing Effie act more anxious than he already was, I cautiously entered the upper hallway.
The upper hallway looked exactly as it had before I’m made the trip down the second flight of stairs. I hadn’t been down in the lower level for very long—slightly less than twenty minutes by my internal clock. I honestly didn’t expect anything to be different, but exercising caution certainly wouldn’t hurt. It could also mean the difference between literal life and death for Effie and me.
Effie moved quickly ahead of me without a backward glance to see if I was following. The doors I passed all still indicated that they were locked, which was a good thing I supposed. I wanted to know what was behind the doors, but I didn’t want to do it at the expense of possibly exposing myself to whatever the prisoners on the lower level had or maybe getting into a firefight with unknown odds against me. I was very, very capable, but I wasn’t undefeatable, and sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm me. I reached the stairs without incident and took them two at a time as well. The dimly-lit hallway was still empty with the barest sliver of bright light coming from the two inch-wide gap where Tohan had planted his weapon to keep the door from sealing shut.
Effie waited at the door and looked at me expectantly. Since he seemed impatient to leave, I assumed he couldn’t hear or smell anyone on the other side of the door. I still waited and pushed my sensors to the maximum before reaching the same conclusion. I slipped my fingers in the gap and pushed the door open. Effie shot out and headed for the computer room at a fast clip, not waiting for me. I squeezed out of the opening and let the door go. It bumped against Tohan’s weapon as it tried to close, and I frowned.
The small gap had been fine for the short amount of time I’d been down in the secret area. The chance of somebody coming along then had been small. But to leave the gap now for who knew how long was just asking for trouble in my opinion. However, I didn’t want to allow the door to fully close in case Tohan couldn’t get the bracelet working again. I thought about my options and opened a small compartment at my hip, taking out a tiny piece of what looked like clay.
The material was a polymer-bonded explosive. It was completely inert and harmless until detonated with a very specific wave form that only I knew. It was usually used to blow open locks and took very little material to do so. A piece the size of my baby fingernail and as thin as the typical blade of a table knife was more than enough to blow out the entire locking mechanism of a steel door. I pressed the little piece of the explosive at the midpoint of the door jamb, removed Tohan’s weapon and let the door snick closed. If he couldn’t get the bracelet to work, the door would open in a more permanent fashion if we needed it to.
Effie was at the door to the computer room when I walked up. He was standing on his hind-most legs and using his front legs to press the buttons on the keypad. I stopped to watch him, a little smile twitching up the corners of my mouth. He likely saw Tohan pressing the buttons before, making the door open, and was trying to copy what Tohan had done. I wondered how long he was going to press the buttons before he gave up. I decided to watch him for a moment or two out of curiosity before I entered the code to open the door.
On the third try since I’d been watching him, the keypad lit up green and the door opened. My eyes widened, and my mouth opened in shocked disbelief. Effie dropped down to his normal stance, shot me what I swore was a smug look, and sauntered into the computer room. I hurried after him before the door closed on my stunned face.