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A thaw in hostilities between the United Indian Federation and the Chinese Empire brings a forgotten prisoner of war back to Earth. The world has moved on from the homeland she'd been fighting for, but Lorna can't let the past go.
~East or West, Home is Best~
Many thanks to my long suffering Beta Narq for making me persevere with this :)
Engulfed in the utter silence of space, a swarm of prison hulks hung in geostationary orbits around the earth. Old space stations, conked out super-shuttles, anything would do. Prisoners of war were too numerous for their captors to be picky about their options.
But despite the wars raging on the planet below, peace reigned up here. There had never been any escapes –nor any attempts to escape. The absolute fail-safe record of the prison hulks more than justified the expense of resupplying them. There had been one riot, in October 2027. Ultra long range missiles had snuffed that trouble spot within minutes. Since then, nothing. Just peace, and quiet.
That's not to say there wasn't any tension. Today especially, the non-existent atmosphere was filled with strain.
A small transit shuttle noiselessly crossed a virtual no-mans-land. Above, billions of far distant stars watched. Hundreds of kilometres below, the spine of the world cut the world in half: the Himalaya. In Space as on Earth, it was the division between the United Indian Federation and the Chinese Empire. The dividing line between the two sides of the known world. The most heavily defended border on earth. The shuttle, carrying only a handful of prisoners, was traversing a space that would be unthinkable - impossible even - to cross on Earth. No living thing larger than a sparrow had crossed that barrier in decades. Some said it was more landmine than rock now, though no one had dared try to cross it and find out. So though the number of prisoners being exchanged was a drop in an ocean, the significance of the shuttle's journey was immeasurable.
But for most prisoners, it was just another day.
"678," the guard called, waiting outside a room filled with hovering prisoners. You could fit a lot more people in a cell when you weren't restricted by gravity. The guard rubbed her arms briskly as she waited, impatient to get back to the heated sections of the prison hulk.
Lorna pushed off the wall, gliding through the silence to the doorway. As the ship hummed around them, the guard scanned the microchip in her arm, confirming her ID, then strapped her to a board. No one spoke. There was no nothing to say that would make any difference. Many of the prisoners felt they may as well have died already. Their armies, their countries may as well have forgotten about them. No one knew if the voracious borders of India or China had yet swallowed the existence of their countries, their homes, their families. Hopes of any surviving relatives had long since disintegrated into the boundless silence of space. The cold strangled everything. It was the cold of corpses.
For Lorna though, hope was neither here nor there. Duty never expired, never gave up. Duty kept her mind from the blackholes of despair surrounding her. But she had seen the prisoners returned to the cells after the guards had taken them away. Reprogrammed. Every last thought of resistance overridden. A contented love of the Federation suffusing their every second. Basically, they were zombies. And like zombies, they were multiplying as fast as the reprogrammers could work.
Though every cell in her body shrieked its refusal to accept the same fate, her mind knew it was useless. Her mission, that she had waited so long to complete, would never be concluded. Her pride bristled at the thought. Her heart pounded. But strapped to the board, incapacitated, she could do nothing but watch the ceiling drift past as her gaoler pushed her through to the Rehabilitation bay, to her fate.
"Hi there, Natha," an attendant inside murmured, filling a syringe.
"Hey Swati," Lorna's gaoler replied. She locked the board into place on the wall and floated over to a cabinet.
Swati scanned Lorna's arm then injected a light muscle relaxant into her central line catheter. "Did you look at my message yet?"
"Yeah, ha ha, funny-funny. Palestinian youths throw rocks at Israelis." Natha chuckled. "Some things never change, isn't it?"
"So what number's this one?"
Lorna could feel them fitting the neuronic interface transcriber over her head, though she couldn't keep her eyes open to watch them.
"Pfft, who knows," Natha replied.
The drug sagged Lorna's mouth open. She felt drool beading at the corner of her lip and floating off into the room. No, no, no, her mind said, fighting the drug, fighting the world. I can't go – I have to finish it! Immobile as a cadaver, her body didn't respond.
"Oh gross, get that, would you?" Swati said. Natha caught the hovering saliva globules in a tissue. Her friend smiled her thanks. "You were posted down there last, weren't you?"
"Oh yes." Natha nodded, strapping Lorna's jaw shut. "But let me tell you, it's one hundred percent better that they throw rocks at each other. Try to stop them, and they are combining efforts to throw rocks at you!" She chuckled. "They should send you back to reprogram them lot."
Swati smiled as she typed in the last commands to activate the software-brain interface and begin uploading the behaviour modification program. The circuitry of the human brain was compatible with the newer types of software. Though an innovative project, reprogramming the prisoners had been going swimmingly so far. Images of the vapid, smiling results branded Lorna's thoughts. She waited for her mind to vaporise. Face flaccid and empty under the thrall of the drug, Lorna screamed a silent, motionless scream.
Her thoughts verbalised by a stranger's voice, Lorna strained to open her eyes. It was like pulling on anchors with dreams.
"Unhook her immediately."
A male voice. A male. Lorna wondered fleetingly if he was cute.
"On whose authority?" Natha asked, sounding not nearly as active as Lorna would've liked. Nevertheless Lorna felt the transcriber being lifted from her skull. It seemed like she could feel it hovering just above, a threat just waiting to be executed.
"The Chinks have smelled a rat. They're not accepting reprogrammed prisoners for the prisoner swap."
"They'll never know," Natha said, her voice thick with derision.
"They'll know alright," the stranger replied. "They can scan them now."
"So go get the others on the waiting list," Swati said. "Why do you need this one? I've already entered her parameters."
Lorna held her breath and prayed.
"You don't think we've already done that?" the stranger growled, "You guys have been way too efficient. We need every untouched prisoner we can get, or we won't meet the targets."
"Get them from one of the other shuttles," Natha said, irritation serrating her voice.
"There's no time! The Chinks have already docked. The whole swap will be annulled if we don't-"
"Fine, take her," Swati said, relenting. Lorna felt the board moving, and the voices became more distant. "Plenty more where that came from anyway. Natha, could you-"
"- organise another batch of transfers?" Natha said. "No problem."
Silence as the strange man pushed Lorna's board down the passageway. Where before there had only been duty to drive her heart, now a new light broke through. Hope taunted her. One word gripped her mind.