Read Warden: A Novel Online

Authors: Gregg Vann

Warden: A Novel (6 page)

But on Torvus, they went wrong from the start.

The loss of the
Olin
—it simply never arrived, and to this day no one knows what happened to it—meant that the hydroponic gardens and fish stock the
Le’sant
carried were the only food the colony had to survive. They’d brought along enough starter rations to eat until the food systems went online and were self-sustaining, but those limited supplies would run out after only a few months.

The colony’s scientists recognized that this was not only an immediate problem, but one that would likely stretch out over the next ten years. So they set out to develop a food blend—to maximize the nutritional capabilities of what few resources they had available to them. And that effort resulted in Nutriall. A simple food substance, derived from fish, vegetables, and water. By expanding the hydroponic systems well beyond their original scale, and carefully tending the fish populations to achieve maximum efficiency, the First Ones were able to keep everyone in the colony alive…if just barely.

With survival more or less assured, construction of the city began in earnest. And although things were much tougher in the colony than anyone had ever bargained for, the guards managed to keep the prisoners in line—and working productively. But the environment on Torvus helped as well.

As everyone knows, the planet is essentially a frozen wasteland, comparable to the northernmost climes of Earth. And some of the First Ones underwent genetic and chemical treatments designed to help them survive in that extreme cold—in case they needed to venture out of the colony during the initial phases of development, or wanted to explore the area surrounding the city.

The same probes that qualified Torvus’ air and soil—finding the planet suitable for colonization—also evaluated the environment extensively. And the guards and colonists were physically prepared for it with carefully crafted medical interventions. But the prisoners didn’t receive those same treatments, and knew that if
they
tried to leave the confines of the city, they would surely die.

This was a deliberate move, and seen as an added precaution to keep the convicts under control. And it worked. The prisoners knew that any escape, no matter how successful, could only result in death. So even though things in Le’sant ended up being far worse than anyone had ever anticipated, a precarious balance was achieved—built on the knowledge that no matter how bad things were, it was only for a limited time.

But ten years later, the other ships didn’t arrive.

Nor did they show up the following year…or the next. Eventually, the prisoners refused to continue working and declared that their sentences were over. But the guards pointed out that the years they would have spent in cryo-sleep on the journey home counted as well, and told them that they still had a long way to go before they were set free.

Then the children began to arrive, and the situation grew even more tenuous.

As the VSCS agreement specified, the prisoners were chemically sterilized on arrival at the planet—to keep them from having children while they served out their sentences. But the treatment was designed to wear off over time, returning their bodies to normal a decade later. Now, with a barely adequate food supply, population control was more important than ever. So the guards announced that they were going to start forcing sterilizations again, and further declared that any child born on Torvus wouldn’t be considered
free
until they returned to Earth for a court determination.

That was when the violence began.

Several guards were killed in the initial skirmishes, but only because they weren’t expecting an attack. Once all-out hostilities erupted, it was a very one-sided affair. At first, Sergeant Barent did as his job demanded, crushing the prisoner uprising with a good amount of zeal. He was an excellent fighter, after all, and probably the most lethal weapon the guards and colonists had. But one day while out on patrol, Barent saw something that began to change his way of thinking.

As his squad was moving down the street, attempting to clear out one of the partially constructed areas of the city, one of the guards noticed a small child watching them from a second floor window. He lifted his rifle and killed her with a single shot to the chest—remarking to his colleagues that there was now one less mouth to feed. Without hesitation, Barent withdrew his blade and slit the man’s throat. Then he warned the other guards against ever doing anything like that—promising the same fate if they did. Sergeant Barent had no love for the prisoners. If anything, he’d always been rather indifferent toward them. But he didn’t condone preying on the weak; to him, it was absolutely unconscionable. This is a recurrent theme in his writings as well.

The captain of the
Le’sant
—the person with ultimate authority over the guards—summoned Barent soon after the incident, and told him that if he continued to threaten his fellow officers, he could sleep outside the Citadel—and see how well the prisoners welcomed his charity. But that warning was the only punishment Barent received.

The main reason he wasn’t disciplined for killing the other guard was because no one liked the man anyway; he had a penchant for raping female prisoners. But also, because the captain realized Barent was still his best soldier, and very popular with the other guards. He knew that if no other ships ever came, Sergeant Barent would be essential in protecting them against the much larger prisoner population. So he let the matter go, and over the next few days it appeared that everything would return to normal. And it might have, too, had the child’s mother not shown up at the gate to the Citadel seeking justice for her daughter.

And ended up dead for her efforts.

Barent began to realize that Le’sant was no longer a colony, but a concentration camp—and the prisoners little more than slaves. He knew that some of them were murderers—or worse—but the
guards
were supposed to be a force for safety and justice. When they started doing the same things they persecuted the prisoners for, how were they any different? Forced sterilizations? And declaring innocent children prisoners just because of their parentage? How was any of that fair…or right?

Sergeant Barent wasn’t soft; he was anything but. You didn’t make it as a guard on an interstellar assignment if you were. The training was far more intense than any military ever demanded. And it had to be. If things went wrong, it could be a full ten years before any reinforcements showed up. As a colonial guard, you were the only order left in the universe.

And if you failed, you died.

But that didn’t mean you turned in your conscience when you picked up your weapon. At least, Sergeant Barent hadn’t. He reached out to the prisoners and tried to start a dialogue, making the same effort with the colonists and other guards. Some on Barent’s side of the conflict felt as he did—that they needed to come up with a long-term solution that was fair to everyone.

Unfortunately, the majority did not.

Undaunted, Barent set up a meeting between representatives chosen by the prisoners and some of the guards and colonists—in hopes of working out a permanent solution to the crisis. The prisoners had grown to trust Sergeant Barent after he killed the murderous guard, so they agreed to the proposal, ready to put the violence behind them. But he discovered that the
Le’sant’s
captain—Jenak—intended to use the opportunity to massacre the convict leaders, believing it would break their resolve and restore order. So Barent led a small group of prisoners into the armory and provided them with weapons, and then ordered them to hide out on the periphery of the meeting place and observe the negotiations. Barent also tasked the few guards he knew he could trust to join them.

When Captain Jenak did as expected, and ordered his troops to kill the prisoners’ representatives, he ended up being the first to fall in the brief but brutal firefight. That was the spark that ignited the Pardon War, and though a nominal victory for the prisoners, the majority of the guards and colonists remained safely secluded inside the Citadel. And after that skirmish, they locked it down tight.

Barent’s small, mixed band of fighters immediately set out to organize and train the other prisoners, and then they began a yearlong battle for freedom. It was during that vicious and bloody struggle that Sergeant Barent became revered—renowned for his bravery and leadership, and for staunchly advocating the equality of
everyone
on the planet…be they prisoner, guard, or colonist.

The guards that sided with Barent during the conflict became known as the Wardens. They were the fiercest of fighters, and led the vanguard during the final assault on the Citadel—present-day Central Le’sant. It was the last great battle and ended the war, but it was also the one that cost Sergeant Barent his life.

One can only imagine what might have come to pass had he lived.

CHAPTER SEVEN
Secrets

“Who are you?” Sergeant Barent demanded. “Where am I?”

He shoved Tana back and she fell to the floor. Then Barent leapt out of the coffin, landing on top of her and pinning Tana to the ground. In one motion, he withdrew two pistols from the cross-holster on his chest, placing their barrels firmly against both sides of Tana’s head. Her eyes shot open wide in shock and surprise.

“Who the hell are you?”
Barent growled. “Where are my troops?”

Tana was so utterly amazed by what she was witnessing that she dismissed the weapons shoved against her temples completely. If anything, they were the
least
shocking thing happening right now. And as her mind took in every shred of information it could—racing to understand it all—Tana noted that her assailant was clad in black, thinly padded combat armor, covered by a long hooded cloak—not at all unlike what modern Wardens wore.

But his skin…

“Sergeant Barent?”
Tana gasped, her voice filled with disbelief. “But that’s… That’s not possible. It can’t be.”

“Answer me,” Barent said menacingly. “Who are you?”

His eyes darted around the room as Barent struggled to recognize his surroundings—glancing in every direction like a frantic animal…like a
dangerous
animal. “Where am I?” he snapped. “Answer me, now!”

And then Sergeant Barent cocked both pistols to signal that his patience was at an end.

“My name is Tana Neng,” she blurted out. “And you are inside your mausoleum.”

“Mausoleum? What the hell are you talking about, prisoner?”

Prisoner?

“Sergeant… You have been dead for centuries.”

Barent stared at Tana’s face with a piercing gaze, and she saw something in his eyes that transformed her curiosity into fear. But then, unexpectedly, Barent laughed.

“You’re funny, convict. Who are you with? Where is Dani Lok?”

“Dani Lo—”

Tana remembered the name from somewhere. Yes, the recorded histories. She was one of the prisoners’ leaders during the Pardon War. “Sergeant, Lok has been dead for hundreds of years.”

“Bah,” Barent exclaimed, and then he hopped up, keeping one of his pistols trained on her. Tana got her first good look at the man as her vision returned to normal, finally recovering from the intense blast of light that had flashed out from the coffin.

Barent’s blonde hair was closely cropped, and like all of the First Ones that had undergone the climate treatment, his skin was the purest white. And he was large, much bigger than people were now…by far. Tana knew that successive generations had suffered from Le’sant’s non-varied diet and lower caloric intake, and that people were appreciably smaller in modern times than they’d been in the past. But she’d never dreamt that their ancestors were so
big
.

But beyond those telltale differences Tana watched how the man moved, sweeping the room with his other pistol, and quickly evaluating the environment for threats. His mannerisms were precise in their military style and efficiency—calculated, and lethal. And they removed any last vestiges of doubt from Tana’s mind.

It really was Sergeant Barent.

He kept the gun pointed at Tana’s head as he finished his survey of the room.

“Why are my things in glass cases?” Barent asked her. “What the—”

He spotted his plasma rifle and strode over to it, using the butt of his pistol to smash through the glass. Then Barent holstered the weapon to free up one of his hands, and reached inside to grab the rifle. He checked it over expertly.

“Strange,” he remarked. “The power unit is dead…but I just charged it.”

Barent shrugged and slung the weapon across his back, and then he walked over to the coffin to look inside it—maintaining a pistol and a wary eye on Tana. When he saw the interior his gun hand slowly fell, and Tana took that as a sign that she could get up. She cautiously walked over to stand next to Sergeant Barent, following his gaze down inside the hollow sarcophagus.

“A cryo-chamber,” Tana said, surprised. And then she bent down to look underneath the sarcophagus. “I can see the power connectors hidden at the base of it now. Someone must have hooked it up to one of the subterranean thermal energy sources.”

“Yes,” Barent acknowledged, his voice almost as empty as the coffin.

He noticed a folded up piece of paper in one corner of the otherwise barren chamber and bent over to pick it up, recognizing the handwriting on it instantly. It was a note from Corporal Ennis.

Barent read it aloud.

 

Sergeant Barent,

The night before we stormed the Citadel, I was approached by a group of prisoners calling themselves the Collective. Because I had criticized some of your actions during the war, they felt I might be supportive of their goals. I was not. They feared you meant to establish a dictatorship when the war was won, and didn’t believe your assurances that everyone would be treated as equals. Many of them still remembered your actions as a guard before the war, Sergeant Barent. And despite all that you’ve done since those dark times, they continued to distrust you.

Please forgive my actions on the final night you saw me. The Collective were planning to send someone to kill you—someone close. But I couldn’t find out who it was, so I promised to do it myself. I convinced them that, as a Warden, I had easier access to you, and that your trust in me would make the treachery possible. But instead of poisoning you as I’d agreed, I slipped a sedative in your drink. And then I faked your death, placing you in cryo-sleep until we, your loyal Wardens, can root out all those involved in this plot against you. I alone know the truth—that you are still alive. Everyone else, other than the traitors that commissioned your assassination, of course, believes you succumbed to injuries received in battle.

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