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Fritz's Tale: Vastilas

This is a story of the most dysfunctional of the Blitz cousins, Fritz (though if your name was Fritz Blitz, it might be enough to make you twitch, and he refuses to go by 'Fred').

The toilet had no moving parts.  It was always icy cold to the touch.  For Fritz, that wouldn’t have been too arduous, but the bowl always had a strong antiseptic smell.  In his tiny cell, his fully extruded cot lay parallel to the toilet and to the small sink and showerhead.  He had a choice of sleeping with his head next to the toilet or next to the door, where the faint sounds of patrolling guards and shouting prisoners reverberated though the solid wall.

He had been in this cell for nine months.  His frame was a half centimeter short of two meters and the cell was exactly two meters long, a meter and a half wide.  With his cot morphed back into the wall, he could stand or sit, or walk on the one meter square patch of exercise pad set in the floor.  Food and supplies came in through an iris in the door.  He never left his cell.  The guards were all robotic, never cruel, always punctual, no good for small talk and gossip.  His sentence was for life, with no parole for a hundred standard years and no access to life extending medicines.  The nanomeds in this blood could keep him going for that century and beyond, but he wasn’t sure that was any relief.  The walls never changed from their ecru hue, and an imbedded text reader was his only entertainment.

For a time he tried to strike up a shouting conversation with his nearest cellmates.  The guards firmly, politely discouraged this.  Their deliberately non-human angular faces never changed expression.  The threat of disabling shock from the electrified floor panels had been enough to silence him after the third attempt, when he awoke stunned after striking his head on the toilet.  The other prisoners had little interesting to say, anyway.  Most criminals were idiots.  He should have known better.  He shouldn’t have let himself get caught.


The trial had been a civilized affair.  The authorities on Mercator – geezers ruling over self-indulgent masses – discouraged media coverage of crime, maintaining the illusion that their society was safe, prosperous and ruled by an enlightened elite.  The holding cell under the courtroom was not much different from his cell at the Vastilas Facility for Incorrigible Criminals here on Garkhas, but on Mercator his guards had been Human – sadistic, unimaginative civil servants.  He probably shouldn’t have broken the fat one’s nose.

But they cleaned him up after the beating.  His bruises healed remarkably quickly in any case, and his own broken nose was just a variance from the mug shots of his arrest.  They put him in a respectable suit of local fashion, though he found the v-neck and the ruffled coattails mildly ridiculous.  His defenders were a team from a respectable legal house, performing their court-appointed duty quite well, he thought, given what they had to work with.

When he entered the court for judgment, the male attorney, Junior Advocate Alfon Suranova, dressed in a similar, though more elaborate, lavender and green local outfit, had greeted him politely and offered him a drink of water.  Senior Advocate Hena Brem, dressed as always in an austere blood-red suit, refused to meet his eyes knowing she had accomplished very little for her client.

“At least there’s no death penalty or mind wipe on Mercator,” Fritz had offered.

Suranova looked appalled, “What sort of primitive savages do you think –” Fritz’s stare cut him off, the junior advocate remembering that his client was charged with multiple murders.

The three judges enter the court with appropriate ceremony.  The senior judge looked the youngest; he was just back from a full regeneration.

Fritz and his advocates rose to accept the judgment.

The youthful senior judge read out the statement:

“Fredrich Garron Blitz, this Court has reached unanimous decision on the matter of these charges.  We have determined that you did cause the deaths of four citizens and the serious injury of twelve in the commission of your crime, the robbery of the Karzilla Antiquities Gallery.

“We accept the defense argument that these deaths were the auxiliary effects of your intended action, but we strongly reject your argument that the deaths are attributable to the failure of the two deceased guards, Ronan Brekma-Vos and Jubal Ismal, to heed your instructions.

“The fact that you voluntarily surrendered when surrounded by Fleman City constables and a full platoon of the Mercator Defense Force does little to mitigate your sentence.  This panel sees no redeeming or noble virtue in any of your actions since your arrival on our world.

“There being no extradition arrangements with your home world of Malth, and such transport being beyond the fiscal resources of this Court, we hereby sentence you to a term of life imprisonment at the Vastilas Facility for Incorrigible Criminals on the planet Garkhas, transport to commence on the next available shuttle.

“This Court is adjourned.”


Garkhas was a barely habitable world orbiting the dimmer second sun of Mercator’s home system.  The transfer flight took nearly a month and the austere interplanetary shuttle had no artificial gravity.  Fritz didn’t mind the freefall, but a number of fellow transportees were more sensitive.  The holding cells reeked of vomit and feces.

Compared to the cell beneath the courthouse and the stinking shuttle, his cell at Vastilas, toilet smell or not, was luxurious.  The guards didn’t bother him; his advocates wrote, occasionally, promising a speedy appeal, but the monotony was maddening.  Three square meters.  Macrojump starship accommodations were bigger than this.  There was no sky, nothing to focus on but a text screen and yellow-white walls. 

He had been in the cell for less than a day before he began to contemplate his escape.  That no one had ever escaped from Vastilas was more encouragement than deterrent.  Days passed.  Soon they blurred one into another in a routine that rarely varied.  The guards delivered food and warnings.  They had no vices and suffered no distractions.  He was sealed in his cell.  The vents were smaller than his fist, the food iris smaller than his head.  The lights and electronics were integral to the walls.  He paced twenty kilometers a day on his floor pad.  He read histories and novels and technical manuals for hours each day.  That he needed only an hour or less of sleep a night did not work in his favor in this place.

His text reader had an annotation function.  In his many “endeavors” since leaving the Merchant Guild with a less than glowing recommendation, he had often used computing devices for unintended purposes.  With no access to external sources or parts, with his cranial guide computer shunted and disabled – removing the intricate circuitry woven through his cortex required brain surgery beyond the skill of Mercatorian medicine – he was left with little but natural intelligence to tackle the problem.  It took him a month to write his own compiler.

The text reader was a wholly separate system.  Fritz requested a title from the menu of approved texts, and then a guard arrived and inserted a chip into the reader’s external port.  He wrote his elaborate annotation script into a text on the founding of the Star Kingdoms Confederation and he told it to infect the text writer and report back with the next book.   A week passed.  Four books came and went with no response from his little worm.  Then he received a voice message from the Warden, the only free Human at Vastilas, who gloatingly told him that all books were wiped before their data chips reentered the writer.

In anger and frustration, he tried to disassemble the reader, but the guards stopped him within minutes.  He regained conscious on the floor.  His nose was broken again.  Damn toilet bowl.  After another week of deadening routine, made worse by revoked reading privileges, he attacked the electronics of his floor exercise pad.  After he regained consciousness, the guards transferred him to another cell while maintenance machines fixed his unit.  His brief trip down a featureless corridor with the same off-white color and no accessible paneling did little to aid his escape plans.  The semi-hopeful letters from his advocates became his best hope of reprieve, and that was a sad thought.

Nine months had passed.  He didn’t know why the smell from the toilet still bothered him.  He should have adapted by now.  He was deep in a handbook of cybernetic repair, hoping to glean something to use against the guards, when the call came in.  It was a voicemail from Alfon Suranova, no image, but the voice was upbeat.

“Fritz, we have secured a hearing with the Second Appellate Court.  They won’t reconsider the question of guilt, but they are willing to review the sentencing based on culpability and judicial bias.  We might be able to reduce the sentence to fifty years, review after thirty-three.  We’re trying to arrange for your transport to the hearing.”

Fritz shrugged.  Thirty-three to fifty was better than one hundred to infinity, but he was ready to beat his head against the toilet for entertainment, and it hadn’t been a year.  Well at least a transport back to Mercator, even if in a stench-filled shuttle, would offer some variety.  Even in smell.  He also realized that transport was the best time to escape, or be rescued, if his cousins or former associates could find some reason to risk it.  Of course the Prison Authority also knew that.  The warnings against escape or hijacking were posted clearly on the transport.  Any loss of vehicle command and control would result in the air venting to space.  The robot crew didn’t care.

Two days later, without forewarning, a guard came to the door, irised it fully open and commanded Fritz to follow.

“Where are we going, Shiny?” Fritz asked.

The robot guard swiveled a silvered head.  “The Warden has asked to see you.” 

“About what?”

“No information,” the bulky guard replied.  The robot fitted Fritz with wrist restraints, thin metal cuffs capable of discharging a debilitating electric pulse, and led the prisoner down the featureless hall.

The elevator was equally featureless.  There was no command panel, no buttons, no indicators.  The robot controlled it electronically.  Acceleration was light.  Fritz had trouble judging the distance traveled, but he estimated that they were no more than a hundred meters higher when the door opened onto another featureless hall.

The hall ended in an iris door.  Beyond there was color.  Fritz smiled at the splash of blue and silver, yellow trimming and a carpet, some sort of geometrical pattern in red and black.  He stopped to examine it and the guard had to push him along.  There were real doors off the corridor, split sliding ones, not sharp edged irises.  This hall ended in a broad door, a stylish set of metal panels that aesthetically disguised their blast door rating.  Stenciled in intricate Mercator script was “Gordan Bashir, Warden”.

A second guard robot joined them, then the door opened.  Beyond was a stream of yellow sunlight.  Fritz just watched the beams of light, reflected off fine dust, swirling in recycled air.  It was long seconds before he noticed the Warden, sitting beyond a large red desk.  Behind him was a transparent wall.

The Vastilas Facility for Incorrigible Criminals was built into the side of a cliff, towering a thousand meters above a narrow fjord cut by the only sea on Garkhas.  The window, so large and flawless, was probably made of transparent metal, a solid shielded panel that gave a panoramic view of cloud-streaked turquoise sky, eroding red-brown cliffs speckled with snowy ledges and thin cascading falls, dropping into emerald waters.

“Mr. Blitz,” the Warden spoke, his reedy voice shattering Fritz’s euphoria.

Fritz’s focus shifted to the room itself, six meters long, four wide, the central desk dominating.  Pictures, still and moving, lined the walls.  Cabinets held objects of art or memorabilia.  The desk was orderly, set with multiple panels and trinkets: a few statues and a small blackened ridged orb set on a pedestal.

The Warden noticed Fritz’s gaze.  “It’s a ‘bazeball’, a token from an ancient Imperial Olympic sport, an inheritance from my grandfather.”

Fritz nodded.  His eyes were beginning a systematic survey of the room now, looking for anything he could use, commandeer or pilfer.

“Please be seated,” the Warden said.  A chair extruded from the floor, and Fritz complied, still silently examining the room.  There were dozens or hundreds of individual items, some out of sight in his periphery.  The sunlight felt warm on his face.  The room smelled fresh.

“You’re wondering why you’re here,” The Warden offered.

“It’s about my appeal, I guess,” Fritz answered.  So far, he didn’t see anything particularly useful.  He was sure the guards would stop him before he moved a few centimeters, in any case.  He decided to relax and enjoy the change of scenery.

“Yes,” the Warden looked sour at the very thought of the appeal.  “While the Court was prohibited from considering off-world charges, previous convictions and outstanding warrants in deciding your case, I’m under no such restriction.  I’ve registered my objection to your transport, considering it to be too great a risk, even if we hibernate you for the passage.”

Fritz grinned.  “Well, my reputation seems to have caught up with me.  But how exactly would I hijack a stinking junk transport from hibernation?”

“My records indicate you once escaped while officially deceased.  Plus, you have a list of several known associates, whereabouts unknown.  They may attempt to spring you, though I can’t imagine why.

“But you’re here, in my office today,” he continued.  “Not for the view, not because I crave the company of a sociopathic killer, but because the law requires a formal in-person hearing and notice of my objections to your transfer.”

“And you could have visited me in my luxurious accommodations,” Fritz countered.

“Even if – as you know – the regulations of this facility didn’t expressly forbid any Human staff from entering the cellblocks, I would have no intention of going down into the catacombs,” the Warden replied.  He had relaxed in his chair and was handling his ancient baseball, gripping it in one hand absently as he spoke.  Fritz judged the distance between them, and decided the stun bands on his writs would disable him before he reached the Warden’s neck.  There was no death penalty in this system.  He already had about the worst sentence the Mercatorans could issue, so killing the Warden would make little difference, except he would never see this office, this view, again.  He relaxed in his chair, thoughts of murder fading from his mind.

“What happens now?” Fritz asked.

The Warden put his ball back on the pedestal.  “I transmit my objections to Mercator.  They have a hearing.”

A flash of infrared crossed Fritz’s genetically enhanced eyes.  It was coming from the far side of the fjord.  It was modulated.

“After the hearing,” the Warden continued, though Fritz was barely listening now, “we either transport you or not, conscious or not.  You’ll get another visit to my office to hear the final ruling.”

Fritz nodded absently.  The modulation followed a pattern of short and long bursts he had learned in childhood.  The message was simple: “Take the leap.”  Then it began a countdown: five short lights, then four, then three.

“Until, of course, your misguided advocates appeal again,” the Warden was continuing.  Fritz closed his eyes and leaned forward.

The blast was deafening.  The wall-length metal window, a full centimeter of transparent amorphous metal, exploded and shattered into ragged shards.  A hole nearly a meter wide, jagged, molten-edged, erupted beside the Warden.  One of the guard robots took the blast of molten metal squarely in its chest.  Fritz felt shards and droplets of metal touch his flesh, burning cheek and forearms.  Prickles of heat singed his chest, melting the thin prison garb.

He opened his eyes and lurched forward.  The Warden had slumped on his desk, still moving, just starting to scream as he felt the pain of shards and metal droplets.  Fritz kicked himself out of his chair, vaulted over the edge of the desk, and dove through the jagged opening.  Fire and pain brushed one knee as he passed, then he was out in thin open air, a thousand meters above the green fjord waters below.

A brief shock tingled in his wrists, then faded; he must have been out of range for the restraints that bound his hands before him.  The cliff side was very steep, and Fritz had little doubt that he would clear the rock face and strike the craggy shore near the fjord’s edge.  He tried to do the math.  Garkhas had a thin atmosphere, deficient in oxygen, but he’d be able to breathe it for hours before passing out.  It limited his terminal velocity to about one hundred meters per second.  Little help.  The gravity was about six meters per second.  He would need sixteen seconds to reach that speed, but by then he would be three quarters of the way to the bottom.  He had eighteen – now twelve seconds – to live.

Now eight seconds.  He had stabilized his fall, though limited by his shacked hands.  The view was nice.  The air felt fresh.  He managed a grin.  Five seconds.  Out of his peripheral vision he caught the approaching flier, diving in parallel.  Two occupants, one white-haired as himself, the other bald, sporting a tidy white goatee, waved at him.  He smiled more broadly.

The air was rushing by.  Three seconds.  The flier swooped below him and he fell, roughly, into the open back compartment and he felt the acceleration pin him as the flier pulled out of its steep dive.  It was then that Fritz first noticed the ringing in his ears and his blown eardrums.  He could barely hear their shouting.  He saw spray from waves above the flier’s edge, smelled briny sea air, then felt the lateral tug as the flier turned, racing down the fjord at wave top altitude.

The two occupants of the front seat turned towards him, shouting still.  He strained to hear them.  “Hi, Fritz.” “Your crappy lawyers tipped us off.”  “Good timing, hey?” they shouted. 

“Cousins,” he grunted, greeting Karl and Kurt Blitz.  “I suppose I should thank you, but –”

“But you’re wondering why,” the bald one, Karl, yelled back.

He nodded.  “You want me to do something.”

They both nodded.  Karl yelled back, “We each have a bit of work where we could use your expertise; where the three of us have the various talents and resources we need.  First, we’ll do one for Kurt, then it’s my turn.”

“And what if I say no?” he yelled back.

“Can you swim with your arms tied?” Kurt asked.

Fritz grinned.  “OK, deal.  Can you get these off?”

Kurt bent forward and cut off the bands.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the small blacked orb Fritz clutched in his joined palms.

“It’s the Warden’s ball.”

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