The Athena's Clutch guard lounge is a terribly bland and cold place. The walls have been painted a very pale blue; the carpet was thin and as gray as the prison's exterior. Today, however, there was far more warmth than usual. Unfortunately, it wasn't a good thing. The heat radiated out from an absolutely irate Vashan Trandel, Superintendent of the Clutch. He paced back and forth, stalking as he steamed and spewed profanity. The object of his anger, one of the prison's many guards, was under interrogation.
"Explain it to me one more time, guard," Trandel demanded, stomping by. He stopped short and stared at the man, "No, don't look at your boss, don't look at your partner. Don't look at anyone but me. Now speak!"
Sidney Pook fought against the urge to look to his supervisor for help. He hadn't really noticed the involuntary movement before, but now the pull in his neck was painfully noticeable. He made to look down at his shoes, instead, but thought better of it and stopped. The man was absolutely miserable, but relief was far from coming. Dragging his eyes up to meet the Superintendent's, he began explaining the situation again. Hopefully, this time he'd do it in a way to convince the furious man would stop screaming at him.
"Well, the cell was empty when I made my routine-"
"How exactly is that possible?" Trandel cut him off. Pook's jaw sagged as the yelling started again. "How could he a man actually be missing from this prison? Now, I know you're not a smart man, but I'm pretty sure you can understand the basics of what can kill a man. Outside our walls there's nothing but cold, hard vacuum. Are you trying to tell me that he broke out of here and held his breath all the way back to Earth? Or maybe you expect me to believe that a flesh and blood man just vanished into thin air! Or maybe," Trandel sneered, "someone just accidentally flushed him down the toilet. Is that what you expect me to believe?"
"N-n-n-no sir," Pook managed to sputter out.
"Then where in the hell is this prisoner?"
"It was just a mistake, sir. He can't have left," Pook's partner, Mason Lewis, blurted out, trying to save the slower man.
Guardsman Lewis instantly recognized the mistake, regretting it just as quickly, as the Superintendent whirled on him. Moving slowly, murder flashing in his eyes, the orbital prison's chief executive bore down on the second guard. The ultimate authority aboard, per declaration of the Olympus Union, he could do nearly anything deemed necessary to the pair of terrified guards. Thankfully, the two men's supervisor staged an unexpected rescue.
"We're currently searching every inch of the Clutch, Superintendent," Donald Doud cut in. "We've got no leads just yet, but we've pulled every available man into it. The Captain even put some skeleton crews on a few of the rooms just to get other people searching."
"Oh, you're damn right you'll search. You'll search until someone gives me an answer about how this guy got out of here, or," he spluttered, "or until you find his rotting carcass somewhere behind a heating unit. There will be no free time and no leave time until you find this prisoner. Dead or alive, find him! Doud, you're in charge of the search. I'll send word. Until this is over, you are now my number two man on board. Do whatever you have to. Any means necessary. Find Duncan Lab!"
Five hours later, Superintendent Trandel sat in his office, nervously drumming his fingers on the molded plastic desk. He could easily put on a show, spewing anger to his guards, stomping around with indignation and issuing threats. The person on the other end of his current communication, however, truly scared him. Trandel still didn't know precisely who the voice belonged to, after all this time. Every conversation the two had was passed through some sort of filter. The scrambler altered the other person's voice past humanity, certainly past gender recognition. For all he knew, more than one person had contacted him regarding this particular matter. Either way, he was as complicit as they were now, and it was only getting worse.
"So, you see, the reason that I can't really report on the subject's progress is," he stopped. The Superintendent faltered as badly as Pook had earlier, uncertain how to proceed so that he would not hear threats. These would be worse, and be real, but there was no other way to spin the situation. "Our latest estimates, sir," he started again, "are that he's been missing for at least a day. We've been scouring the station, but the man is still missing. Progress, obviously, has been halted."
The silence on the line was far more ominous than the terrible voice itself. While the filter patched through something that sounded like a demon, its glaring absence was much, much worse. They were considering what he said, how many of them were on the other end of the line. Reviewing his report, and possibly, how to punish him for it.
"Define missing, Superintendent Trandel."
Trandel began telling the story of the two guards who had headed off to get Duncan, and found the man's cell completely empty. He regurgitated Pook's weak explanation, how the guard had originally assumed Lewis already picked the prisoner up earlier, and therefore had thought nothing of it. There seemed little more to do than rehash, although the Superintendent was quick to declare those are the guard's own words, and not his own excuse. Some how, the fact that no one had noticed that their valuable prisoner had been gone until the end of the day, didn't seem to be enough of a wash.
"The Clutch had been locked down during our last water delivery. We had a guard change just afterward, which is fairly standard procedure. Somewhere during that time, Lab must have found a way out of his cell. He obviously has to be somewhere on board, though, because it'd be obvious if one of our prisoners tried to walk out the front door onto a water ship. We just have to figure out where he's hiding. It's only a matter of time, of course, sir."
"You understand who this person is, Superintendent. You must find him quickly," the voice said, anger translating through the filter with no difficulty. "That man is too brilliant to be left to chance. You were asked to soften his mind and his will enough that we could mold him. His abilities for unassisted astrogation and inherent understanding of the interplay of gravity forces within multi-bodied systems are the keys to our plans. With him, we can control Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. Without him... there is no 'without him' that you want to experience. We trusted you. We paid you well. Find him, Superintendent. Find him today."
The connection was cut without Vashan saying another word.
He sat there quietly, just thinking. Mulling. Hoping. The sudden turn of events was really quite startling. When first approached, Trandel hadn't been sure what to make of the unusual offer, or the even more unusual messenger. The man approaching him went by one name, and claimed to be a representative of a faction within the government. This faction was consolidating its political power, and had a direction in mind for the Olympus Union that differed slightly from the publicly accepted path. He had explained, with the utmost calm, that the Superintendent was to listen carefully and accept the offer, or else he would die right on the spot. The strange man, clad mostly in black, assured him that he was quite serious, and quite capable. The gun, quickly produced, hammered the point home.
This clandestine group had been watching the three Clutch Superintendents carefully and had deemed Vashan their best potential ally. If he were willing to do them a simple favor, the warden would be paid handsomely... and left alive. The faction had identified a fairly brilliant young man in the Jovian System. He had a natural affinity for astrogation, and regularly shown a talent for mechanical engineering. The lad would be a perfect tool for establishing control over the outer regions of the solar system, if only they could be assured of controlling him.
Trandel's job was simple, in that effect. He was going to break the man's will, dulling his senses and resolve. The important talents were so deeply embedded that they would be at little risk. Once the youth was more malleable, the propaganda he was shown would be tailored towards their ends. He wouldn't just be a loyal servant of the Olympus Union, but of certain officials in particular. The films would arrive directly from Earth, and be fed straight into the screens, with no eyes but the young engineer's seeing them.
The job was easy to accept, and would be easier to complete. The young man would be arrested shortly on some trumped up charges, and then transported to Athena's Clutch. Soon enough, the deconstruction and reeducation of Duncan Lab would begin. It was too simple to fail. It was too lucrative to turn down. The whole concept was impossible to botch.
And now, Duncan Lab was missing.
Trandel thought back on the ice blue eyes of the messenger. The man had stared clear through him... and would come back to kill him if the situation wasn't resolved. The Superintendent put his head in his hands and squeezed. Someone needed to provide good news, and soon.
An hour later, having finally composed himself, Trandel opened up communication line to Supervisor Doud. The head guardsman responded to the page and made his way to the Superintendent's office as quickly as possible. As the door shut, Doud dropped into a chair, exhaustion overtaking him. Trandel paid the man's discomfort no mind.
"The teams are searching all of the station, bottom to top," he began without preamble. "We've got every last soul aboard involved in the search. The janitorial and kitchen staffs have even been pulled out of their regular duties in the last two hours. The only three people who aren't involved, honestly, are your assistant and the two of us. Actually, I can send her out to join a team, if you want."
"Don't get cute," Trandel warned, slamming a hand on the desk. Doud jumped, pulling himself to a posture of attention, but the Superintendent paid it no mind. "What about the inmates? If you've got everyone out searching, how can we be sure your people won't lose another man?"
"All prisoners are locked down in their cells, sir. I sent out pairs to double check every single cell as a part of the search. We pinned them down, shocked them, knocked them out whenever necessary. Let 'em bitch about it. I don't care, and didn't think you would."
"You're damned right I don't. Did you think someone might be harboring our fugitive?"
"Wasn't sure, to be honest, but why take the chance, right?"
"Good. It's about time that you did something to show a little bit of intelligence. How much longer before your men are done with their search?"
"Hard to tell with the prisoners costing us extra time when we check cells. Ballpark? I'll estimate at least seven more hours, what with the men stopping for meals and sleep."
"Sleep? Sleep? They can sleep when they're done! Every man is on this, now until we find him. Anyone who we catch taking a break can head on down to supply and trade his uniform for prisoner's gear. Anyone who objects can talk a walk around the outside of the Clutch without a pressure suit. Do you understand me?"
"Yes sir," Doud answered, popping back to his feet. "We'll get it done, sir."
The guardsman hurried out without another word. Trandel jumped up from his own chair and began pacing the office. He muttered to himself rather incoherently. It was worse than just disappointing his mysterious partners. Worse than facing the man with the ice blue eyes and staring down the barrel of his gun. If word got out of what he'd done, and there was no doubt the faction would be certain it would if only to deflect from their cause, the Superintendent would be tried and convicted of a treasonous act.
Prime Minister Oden would never accept one of his own officials acting so heinously against a citizen of the Olympus Union. Willingly participating the wrongful incarceration couldn't be more against the peace and trust that the Prime Minister vowed that he stood for. Lip service or not, it would be made too public too quickly. His partners would be sure of that. There would be little Oden could do but to swiftly place Trandel into a Clutch. More than likely, Demeter's Clutch. Then Vashan Trandel would become another threat against the state, his mind being slowly wiped, his existence all but nullified.
"They can't find out what we did. They can't find out what I did. No one can..."
On his desk, his communication unit lit up. Checking the computer screen he went cold. It was a secure communication. From Earth. His partners were checking in. Time was up.