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The Bricks of Eta Cassiopeiae

Someone has to go and prepare planets for colonist’s arrival. In some cases, this will consist of advance teams of volunteers or government officials, in others, perhaps laborers will be recruited. In the case of our next story, those laborers are prisoners working off their hard time. The service in the brick fields is far better than other options, however. Unless, of course, one of your fellow inmates wants even more . . .



I checked the primitive gauge on the kiln. The gauge’s needle hovered steadily in the red.

“Still too hot,” I said over my shoulder. “Gotta wait another day.”

“That’s nice,” said my fellow inmate, Godfrey. “So what do we do until then?”

“You dig,” came the reply from Ivarsen, our lone guard. Like the rest of us, he wore a broad-brimmed sun hat and wraparound sunglasses to protect against Eta Cassiopeiae’s blinding rays. Unlike the rest of us, his shorts and shirt were khaki—instead of prisoner orange—and he had a holster on his hip holding a high-power pistol.

In the two planetary years since I’d been assigned to Ivarsen’s care, I’d never seen him draw that gun. But with how Godfrey had been acting since his arrival one week ago, I wondered if even Ivarsen’s patience had limits.

Godfrey vented his unhappiness in four-lettered fashion.

“Kid,” I said, “How in the world did you ever make this detail?”

“I’ve got a winning personality,” Godfrey said, grinning.

I shook my head at him, disbelieving.

Lisa Phaan, our only female inmate, gave me a knowing glance. She didn’t think much of the kid, either.

“Prisoner Ladouceur and Prisoner Godfrey on the shovels,” Ivarsen said. “Prisoner Phaan on the dumper. Wait here while I drive it around.”

Our guard turned and walked away into the white glare of mid day, the broken and rocky landscape shimmering behind him.

Godfrey leaned close to me and said, “Why don’t we just snuff him?”

I turned and looked at the huge-bodied youth, my eyebrows raised.

“And do what? It’s two hundred kilometers to anywhere. The sun will kill you before you get thirty. Besides, Ivarsen has a chip in his body that monitors his vitals and stays in constant contact with a Corrections satellite. All the guards at these remote projects have one. If his vitals stop, the satellite gets alerted. Then the cavalry comes.”

“Bull,” Godfrey said.

“You really want to find out?”

The kid kept looking at our guard while Ivarsen receded into the heat.

“Look,” I said, “is it really that bad? Time served here counts triple what it counts on The Island. They feed us and give us shelter. We’re not at the mercy of the elements. Why ruin it?”

Godfrey turned and looked at me, hands balling. “Screw you,” he said, and walked away.

I shook my head, wondering if I’d ever been that incomprehensibly belligerent when I was in my twenties. Then I went over to slap shut the ceramic door that covered the kiln’s thermometer.

As indigenous brick kilns went, ours was pretty standard: a four-meter-cubed box constructed from cut-rock slabs. It sat on the eroded central peak of a shallow crater whose expanse had been populated with automated mirrors. Currently, those mirrors aimed skyward. But when we put a batch of bricks into the kiln, and the computer angled all those mirrors towards the small hill at their center, the kiln lit up like a bug under a magnifying glass.

Depending on the season and the weather, the kiln could take a full day to fire up—and the days on Eta Cassiopeiae’s fifth planet were very long, especially at this latitude.

In the meantime, there was always more clay. And the new settlements along the polar coast always needed more bricks. In a world with no large flora and relatively little accessible iron, what else was there to build with?

The supply niche would have been filled commercially, if the prison system hadn’t gotten there first. The work was arduous and filthy—the kind of soul-mending stuff reformists had been foisting on the incarcerated for many centuries, going all the way back to Earth.

On Eta Cassiopeiae Five, nobody in their right mind wanted to be this close to the equator, so the colonial government farmed the work out to Corrections. Thus everyone was kept happy—even us cons.

It sure beat the crap out of The Island, where there were no rules and it was literally every man for himself. I’d lasted just long enough to decide that The Island was a slow death sentence, then made an appeal to a Corrections Magistrate on one of their random, heavily-armed inspection tours Corrections occasionally made. They’d liked me, so I’d been given the chance to go to work.

And work I’d done. Happily. Eagerly. With a full stomach and boots on my feet, and no fear that the gangs were going to roll me up in the middle of the night and poke holes in me. Or worse.

A mechanized grumble broke me out of my reverie.

I turned to watch as the dumper came rolling down the dusty main lane between the mirrors. The huge truck ran on a hydrogen fuel cell and was our primary means of transport; vital to weekly operations.

Wet clay, extracted from the hills two kilometers to the east, had to be moved via dumper to the forming pit. Once formed and dried, the “green” bricks were put on ceramic pallets which again went into the back of the truck for movement to the kiln. Fired and cooled, those bricks remained on pallets until they were moved to the staging area to await pickup by monthly roadtrains headed north. Empty pallets came back from the settlements on roadtrains headed south, to be filled again. And so forth.

Nobody was allowed to drive the dumper except Ivarsen, who kept the truck’s coded keycard on his person at all times.

When the truck came to a halt, Ivarsen leaned out and yelled, “Everybody in back!”

We trooped to the ladder on the side and climbed up and over, then down into the extra-large bed where two single-person shovels sat. They were called shovels because the hydraulic arm on the front of each unit was attached to a large scoop designed to dig hundred-kilo hunks of clay out of the ground.

There was nothing to say while we rode out of the crater and started on the packed-earth highway to the eastern hills. We just gazed out the back of the bed, the tires kicking up a column of dust, each of us enjoying the movement of air which partially alleviated the ever-present heat.

Once we arrived at the dig, Lisa climbed up on top of the cab while Godfrey and I slid into the bucket seats on our respective shovels. Ivarsen used controls in the cab to lower the aft lip of the dumper’s bed to the dirt, and then Godfrey and I caterpillared out and attacked the scarred hillside.

Clay is not the same thing as mud. I’d learned that my first month on the job. You had to look for the phyllosilicate deposits, then clear off the top layers of worthless dirt and pry out the heavier stuff underneath. It came in various stages of plasticity, depending on how much moisture a given dig retained between thunderstorms, and we could hydrate it using a cistern back at the forming pit.

A familiar, pungent odor filled my nose as my shovel’s scoop bit into the ground. I worked the scoop’s hydraulic controls until a decent hunk had been pulled free, then motored back to the dumper and threw my load in. I did this two more times and stopped to watch Godfrey struggle for his first shovelful.

It was his third time, and the kid still didn’t get it. He was punching his scoop into the hillside like a jackhammer, knocking crumbled clay loose until it threatened to engulf the front of his machine.

I motored up to him and yelled over the whine of the hydraulics, “Finesse, man! Gradual and steady! Push in slow, lift out slow.”

“I’m trying!” He yelled back. “Tractor’s a piece of effin’ crap!”

I wanted to tell him it wasn’t the machine that was a piece of crap, then thought better of it.

“Here,” I said over the noise of both engines, “watch me.”

Godfrey backed off while I drove up and eased my scoop into the beige-gray mass. The load pulled free with relative ease, I spun my shovel on the axis of its treads and moved away to let the kid continue.

His next few attempts were almost competent.

I sighed and kept working, the day wearing imperceptibly on while we filled the dumper with clay. Lisa used controls on the top of the dumper’s cab to operate the dumper’s claw arm, re-arranging our shovelfuls as the need arose, and ultimately picking up and depositing each shovel back into the bed once we had enough clay to take back to the forming pit.

Ivarsen watched us the whole time, standing off from the dig by about ten meters, hands on his hips. His head didn’t move, but I always had the impression his eyes were constantly sweeping from behind his sunglasses, like radar.

Once we’d secured the shovels and the dumper’s claw arm, we climbed back into the bed and Ivarsen went back to the cab. The drive to the forming pit was as silent as the drive from the kiln, and I idly scratched dirt out of my hair, thinking again about my imminent parole. The government of Eta Cassiopeiae Five was finally going to make me a citizen again. It was odd to think I’d spent my entire thirties locked up—the bitter wage of a mistake I’d long since learned to regret.

I wondered what kind of life I could now make for myself, beyond firing brick. With my legal file as checkered as it was, my options were limited. Maybe I could talk to the asteroid miners again? They always needed help. Could I get a felony waiver?

Such thoughts continued to occupy me until we arrived at the forming pit.

Lisa plucked the shovels from the bed before Ivarsen up-ended the entire thing into the slaking ditch. There the clay was allowed to bathe in rainwater from the nearby cistern. Each of us took a turn under the spout before we left; the closest thing we had to a shower.

Again Ivarsen watched us from a distance, never moving except to take a tug off the canteen normally slung across his shoulder.

Afternoon wore on into evening, and EC5’s three small moons—captured asteroids, really—rose into the sky. Looking up at them, I imagined the miners and engineers working all day and all night, all planetary year long, turning those moons into way stations for the big colonial ships that would bring more people from Earth, once EC5’s biosphere had been sufficiently beefed up. Two, maybe three more human generations. Someday EC5 would be a garden.

But not yet.

We drove back to our hooches in silence. Hungry and exhausted.

Dinner was the usual: pre-sealed trays of farm-grown meat and veggies—yielded from genetically tweaked crops and livestock, on account of EC5’s not-quite-Earth-normal soil and mineral content. Eventually there would be genetically-engineered forests in the hills and mountains surrounding the farms, and men would build with wood again.

Until then, the world needed bricks, which meant the world needed us.

With night fully upon us, Ivarsen activated the electric fence cordoning off the prisoner hooches from the guard hooch. Like most nights, I found the familiar hum from the fence’s transformer to be oddly soothing.

I faded into oblivion.


Morning came.

This time the kiln was sufficiently cool. Needle in the green.

Lisa used the dumper’s claw arm to lever the kiln’s huge door out of the way—like the angel rolling aside the stone at the crypt of Jesus—and we all walked in to inspect our work. Even Ivarsen seemed to take genuine pleasure in seeing the finished bricks all lined up neatly on their stacked ceramic pallets, ready to be sent north and laid into homes, shops, offices, apartments, and everything else that needed building.

Lisa and I showed Godfrey how to check for cracks and damaged bricks, which we’d separate from the rest when we used a shovel—now modified with a fork on its arm—to lift each pallet from the kiln and place it carefully near the dumper.

The kid just grunted, saying, “Whatever,” and began examining the kiln’s contents. He did it with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old being made to eat asparagus.

Lisa followed me out of the kiln while I went to get my canteen. Constant hydration was an ever-present necessity this far south.

“Ev,” Lisa said as she leaned close to me, “I’m so sick of getting stuck with these morons.”

“Yeah. Must be slim pickings these days. Pretty soon Corrections might have to start drafting civilians for the brick brigades.”

Ivarsen, who had been getting out of the dumper’s cab, laughed mightily. “That’ll be the day! Imagine how much they’d have to pay union workers to come out here and do what you guys do for free.”

You’re union,” I said, with sarcasm.

“Damn right,” Ivarsen replied, thumping his chest with a fist.

We shared a smile between the three of us. Then came a sudden yelp from the kiln, followed by the sound of a pallet collapsing and bricks tumbling.

“Lord . . .” Lisa said, rolling her eyes.

We hurried back through the kiln entrance to find Godfrey hopping up and down on one leg while he held the other foot. Obscenities peeled from his lips.

Lisa, Ivarsen, and I almost fell over—it was that funny.

“Stop laughing,” Godfrey fumed.

“Kid,” I said, “One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure.”

Godfrey grimaced sourly as he prepared to give me a verbal broadside, but then he stopped.

All the pallets were rattling violently.

“What the—?”

A booming rumble shuddered through the floor of the kiln.

“Quake!” Ivarsen yelled.

Really? I’d not been through one of those since I’d been a boy.

What happened next was a slow blur.

Stacked columns of pallets swayed like hula dancers.

Lisa was screaming and trying to get to the door, only she kept having her feet knocked out from under her.

One of the columns tilted too far, and collapsed against the side of the kiln. Then another.

Godfrey managed to keep his feet, his mouth hanging open and his eyes gone stupidly wide. The column next to him started to give—this time, towards the middle of the kiln.

Ivarsen’s reaction was so fast I didn’t even realize what had happened until both he and Godfrey were on the floor, sliding out of the path of the collapsing bricks.

One of the walls popped thunderously, and a new crack split wide from floor to ceiling, shining a shaft of light crossways to that which already flooded in from the main door.

Two more columns of bricks went down.

And then . . . silence.

Lisa and I were coughing spastically on the dust that had filled the kiln. I discovered I’d been sitting on my butt the entire time. Heaps of whole and broken bricks were everywhere, and I got to my feet to move around to where I thought I’d last seen Ivarsen and the kid.

I got there just in time to see Godfrey crown Ivarsen with a brick the size of my forearm. Our guard crumpled.

“What in the name of—” I said.

But the kid moved quickly, snatching the pistol out of Ivarsen’s holster and pointing it at me while he used his free hand to explore the pockets of Ivarsen’s shorts.

Lisa froze when she came around the corner and saw what was happening.

“You stupid idiot,” I said to Godfrey. “Ivarsen saved your life.”

“Ladouceur, you and Phaan get against the wall.”

Lisa and I didn’t move until Godfrey thumbed the pistol’s safety and pulled the hammer back. Then we raised our hands and backed into the shadows as Godfrey came away with the keycard for the dumper.

“You won’t make it,” Lisa said deadpan. “The chip is already sending its alarm to the satellite.”

Godfrey scoffed. “Pig ‘aint dead. Just knocked out.”

I looked at Ivarsen’s still form, and thought I saw thick, dark fluid running from the back of his head where Godfrey had hit him.

“If he dies,” I said, “then we’re dead too.”

“You, maybe,” Godfrey replied. “I’m out of here.”

“Where are you going to go, kid? There’s no native forage on this land mass. And they can track the movement of the dumper. You’ll be—”

“Shut up, Ladouceur. Maybe you like being a slave. Not me. I’d rather take my chances.”

Finally, the rage that had been rising in me, boiled over.

“Damn you, I was getting paroled!”

Godfrey considered this while sidling towards the doorway. He looked back at Ivarsen, then to Lisa, and then to me.

“Sorry man,” was all he said.

Then he was gone, and Lisa and I were rushing to Ivarsen’s side. The guard’s heart still beat, and his lungs took in air. That was good. But the deep laceration on his head bled profusely, and I dared not explore it for fear of finding pulp where there should be skull.

Lisa ripped open Ivarsen’s shirt, and we tore off pieces to use as a temporary bandage.

Outside, the dumper’s electric engine started up. We heard its large tires crunch on the dirt as Godfrey drove away.

Lisa was cursing and started to rise to her feet, but I stopped her.

“Let him go. We’ve got more immediate concerns.”

She thought for a second.

“We can take him on the shovel. It will be fastest.”

I nodded—there was a first aid locker in Ivarsen’s hooch.

Could we get to it in time?


Godfrey had gone off-road and disappeared over the southern hills by the time we got Ivarsen back to camp. I drove the shovel while Lisa sat on a pallet we’d cleared, which now held Ivarsen’s unmoving body. The pallet was perched on the fork of the shovel’s hydraulic arm, and I did my best to avoid bumps. At ten kilometers per hour, it took precious minutes to motor out of the crater and follow the trail along the rim wall to where the hooches sat.

I set the pallet down and Lisa leapt off, running into Ivarsen’s hooch to get his cot. It wasn’t a perfect stretcher, but we managed to get him onto it, moving him into his hooch so he’d be out of the sun.

Lisa helped me rummage through the first aid locker and apply a more suitable bandage to the head wound.

Next I checked his pupils with a flashlight, alarmed to see that one of them had gone as wide as the iris would allow.

“Lord,” I said.

“Is it that bad?” Lisa asked.

“Bad enough. We need Ivarsen’s satellite phone. If he doesn’t get a medevac soon, he’s as good as dead.”

“I think the phone was in the cab of the dumper,” Lisa said. “He always kept it there when we were working.”

Lisa and I looked at each other. Neither of us needed to say what was on our minds.

When the SWAT guys got here, it wouldn’t matter what story we told them. All they’d find was a dead Corrections officer, and two live prisoners. And that would be that. Meaning me and Lisa. Done. And Godfrey, when they tracked him down, as surely they would. We’d all be lucky if they sent us back to The Island. More probably, we’d be shot.

I stood up from Ivarsen’s side and stomped out into the glaring sunlight, sweat making my shirt damp, and my eyes squinting in spite of my sunglasses. I screamed and kicked the treads on the shovel. Years of patient effort. Down the toilet. Thanks to a dumb kid.

I’d have kept screaming, except that I thought of Ivarsen, and how he’d deserved this even less. Me, I’d lost my life a long time ago. And deservedly so. But Ivarsen had been a decent man. Such a waste!

I went back inside to find Lisa rummaging furiously through Ivarsen’s other things. Our patient’s breaths had become quicker, more shallow, and a sheen of sweat covered the exposed areas of his skin. I unzipped his sleeping bag and threw it over him for a blanket, then went to help Lisa. She was obviously looking for a backup phone. Surely they wouldn’t issue Ivarsen just the single unit?

The only thing we found was the remote for the mirrors in the crater.

Lisa threw the remote to the floor in disgust, but I picked it up and walked outside, staring up into the cerulean sky. Lisa came out and looked up with me.


“How many satellites watch this region?” I asked.

“Heck if I know.”

I kept looking. Then I quickly strode to the crater’s rim wall and scrambled up its side until I was standing on the top and staring down into the circular field of mirrors.

The remote had several preset codes. I chose the toggle for manual movement. The circular thumb pad in the middle illuminated, and I depressed it, pushing first to the north, then to the south. Out in the field, the little servos on the base of each mirror began to whine. The mirrors obediently leaned to the south, then back to the north.

Okay . . .

I programmed in a repeating series of motions, pressed the SEND button, and then dropped the remote into my pocket and watched the mirrors begin their slow dance.

Lisa nodded, catching on. “I hope someone is paying attention, Ev.”


The day wore on, and we stayed in the guard’s tent. Lisa occasionally sponged Ivarsen down with a wet rag, and I ran checks on his vitals every fifteen minutes as well as checking his pupils. The dilated one stayed dilated, and I wondered if the man wasn’t just a vegetable already.

Out in the crater, the mirrors kept spinning and swiveling.

There was no sound, other than the occasional wind across the camp.

Evening came quickly. When I checked the supply bunker I discovered that Godfrey had been there before us and taken most of the cases of meals. He’d at least been that smart. But without water I knew he’d be getting thirsty real soon. And unless he found a natural spring, or we got some rain, he’d be in a bad way before the following day was out.

I allowed myself a small amount of satisfaction at the thought of Godfrey dying for lack of water, then heated two trays for Lisa and I and went back into the tent.

I almost dropped the trays when Ivarsen’s head turned to look at me.

“Ladouceur,” the man said, whisperingly.

My relief could not have been more obvious. “Good Lord, Ivarsen. I thought you’d gone to mush on us.”

“Can’t—” he said, then stopped. “Hard . . . to think.”

“Can you drink water?”

“. . . Try . . .”

Lisa put her canteen to his lips and gave him a sip, which he kept down. Giving him too much would be worse than giving him none at all, so we waited and watched while he blinked randomly.

“Godfrey?” Ivarsen finally asked.

“Gone,” I said. “He took the dumper, your gun, and most of the food. And your satellite phone. I’ve got the mirrors in the crater waving around, hoping to attract some satellite attention. Like it will do us any good after dark.”

“Good . . . idea.”

He went silent again for several minutes.

Then, “Ev . . .”

It was the only time he’d ever used my first name.

I leaned over him. “Yah, boss?”

“Not your fault . . . have to . . . tell them.”

“Just hang in there. You’re not dead yet.”

“Will be . . . soon.”

Lisa held Ivarsen’s hand. Her expression was agonized.

“Lisa,” Ivarsen said. “Find my . . . PDA.”

Lisa and I bugged our eyes out at each other. We never knew he had one!

Reading our surprise, Ivarsen said, “Access panel on the . . . solar power battery.”

Lisa and I both raced out into the gloaming light, finding the big battery for the camp. We pried off the service plate with our fingernails. The little PDA was perched out of sight, just inside and to the left.

Lisa grabbed it and we charged back to the hooch, freezing when we looked at Ivarsen’s face.

His eyes were still open, along with his mouth. But his chest no longer drew air.


We did what we could for Ivarsen’s body, then despondently trudged for our separate hooches, figuring there was nothing to be done but to sleep, and wait.

To my surprise, Lisa stopped me and motioned me towards her door.

Raising an eyebrow, I went with her into the hooch. It was amazingly neat and orderly, right down to the dirt floor having been lined with used meal trays—as makeshift tiles.

She sat down on her cot and I took a seat next to her, the lights from EC5’s three small moons shining through the mesh walls around us.

“Months? That was all?” Lisa said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Three. I was getting real short.”

“I can’t even think about parole yet.”

“Shoplifting?” I said, smiling at my own joke.

“Drugs,” Lisa replied, not smiling. “I used to be a pharmacist, back in the world. Got hooked on my own product, you might say. Started dealing. Stupid. Got caught. Wound up detoxing on The Island. Almost killed me. But at least I got clean.”

“That sucks,” I said, turning serious.

“You ever been addicted to anything, Ev?”

“Not really. I’m a teetotaler.” And that was the truth.

Lisa shuddered. “Don’t. Don’t ever.”

I’d never seen her more stone-cold serious.

“Yes ma’am,” I whispered.

And that was all I could say

Silence filled the dark. This was more personal information than Lisa had ever shared with me before. I felt we were both in particularly uncomfortable territory.

“Do you think we’ll be executed?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Corrections doesn’t play around when it comes to one of their own going down in the line of duty. On my last brick site, I saw a guy actually try to take out the guard with a shiv. Guy was crazy to do it. The guard emptied a whole clip into the perp. Corrections never even did an investigation. The hurt guard left on a medevac, and we three prisoners who remained, all got split up. That was when they sent me here. To work for Ivarsen.”

Lisa’s head hung to her chest for an undetermined period of time, and when she looked back up at me I saw wetness on her cheeks. Which put a lump in my throat, for her sake. I suddenly felt stupid for telling her about the prisoner who got shot—like she really needed to hear that from me at this moment. Idiot.

I sighed and looked at the floor. It wasn’t fair. She was young. And, apparently at last, clean. As a pharmacist, she was educated too. She deserved a fresh start. But wouldn’t get it.

Just like me.

For no particular reason that I can recall, I slowly leaned down and pressed my lips to hers. Just a peck.

She surprised me in that my kiss was returned warmly.

“Thank you,” Lisa said.

“No, thank you,” I said.

We held hands as we sat on her cot. The most intimate contact I’d had with any person in years.

Then, she asked, “What about you, Ev?”


“You now know why I’m in. But what about you?”

My hesitation must have been palpable.

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to pry. I just figured—”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I suppose you oughta know.”

I breathed in and collected my thoughts.

The younger me had had a problem with his temper. I’d kept it under wraps when I was in school, but after I got out, I’d gone through a few different jobs because I couldn’t keep my lip zipped in front of the boss.

Then came the day on the work site when one little jerk of an engineer had decided to get up in my face. He’d been smaller and smarter than me, and he’d let me know exactly what kind of loser he thought I was. Insults turned to screams, and before I knew it I’d knocked the man onto his back and began beating him with my wrench. Hard, vicious strokes. The kind of blows a man doesn’t just get up and walk away from.

They told me later that the other workers had to pry me off the engineer, who was pronounced dead at the scene before the constabulary cuffed me and took me away to Corrections. I can still remember sitting in the back of the wagon, bawling my eyes out. What had I done?

Dad had tried to keep me from doing time. He’d spent what he could for legal help. But it didn’t matter. I’d killed another human being. Eta Cassiopeiae Five might have been frontier territory, but you didn’t just murder a man—in hot blood or cold—and walk away from it unscathed.

Back on Earth they had people to spare. On EC5? No way. Especially not when the victim had been educated.

There weren’t any levels or degrees of punishment with Corrections. Once the government deemed you a threat to society, it was The Island. Goodbye. Civilization officially washed its hands of you.

I still remembered the look on Dad’s face when they loaded me onto the transport. He’d been sure he was never going to see me again.

I’d spent every day since regretting what I’d done. And learning to be a different person as a result.

The whole time I told my story, Lisa listened intently. Then she said softly, “I’m sorry, Ev.”

“I’m sorry too,” I said. “But not for this.”

I bent my head down and kissed her again.


“Wake up, Prisoner Ladouceur.”

I didn’t move. I felt like last night’s cold fish.

“Prisoner Ladouceur, on your feet!”

A gloved fist slugged my shoulder, and suddenly I was tumbling out of my cot, shaking. Morning light streamed into the tent, and I found myself face-to-face with four armed Corrections SWAT officers in mottled fatigues.

Lisa was nowhere in sight. Had they hit her hooch first?

“Chip worked, huh?” I said, realizing the time had finally come.

“Yes,” said the tall, black-skinned SWAT who had sergeant’s stripes on his arm. “But we were already on our way when officer Ivarsen expired. That idea you had, about the mirrors . . . pretty ingenious. Nobody remembers Morse Code anymore. Except for the computers. When the satellites started picking up your S.O.S. flashing over and over again, it was obvious something had gone wrong.”

I looked down at my nude self, and then back at the sergeant.

“Do I need to get dressed, or can we finish it here?”

“Excuse me?”

“Come on. Bullet to the head. It’ll be quick. Justice will be done.”

The sergeant’s white teeth grinned like the Cheshire cat’s.

He held up Ivarsen’s PDA.

“Don’t worry. I think your alibi is good. Officer Ivarsen apparently thought well of you, and Prisoner Phaan too. He had a feeling Godfrey was bad news. Ivarsen’s last few logs pretty much state that Godfrey was going to pull something. Too bad we can’t put Godfrey up against a wall. He definitely deserved it.”

“You found him?”

“Idiot rolled the dumper. Doing ninety kay over broken terrain. No safety harness. Thrown from the cab and crushed. Not much else to do but toe-tag the remains.”

“Huh. Can’t say he didn’t have it coming. So what happens now?”


Ivarsen’s logs made all the difference. It was like having a character witness speaking from the grave. That, combined with circumstantial evidence, put Phaan and I in the clear.

They split us up, of course, and sent us to separate sites to finish our original sentences.

Parole came, and I was released back into civilization.

I stayed at my sister’s house while I looked for work. It was as discouraging as I’d expected. Even the asteroid miners didn’t want me.

But I had to do something—I didn’t like the idea of hanging around sis’s place, endlessly mooching.

Dad finally came to visit one weekend. He hugged me harder and longer than he ever had in my whole life. He listened to the whole story, about my time on The Island, about the brick sites, about Ivarsen’s death. Then he looked me in the eye from across the living room coffee table and suggested I apply to Corrections.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.

“Not at all,” Dad said. “This Ivarsen guy, you said he seemed at ease around your crew? Ran the place like it was just another job? The man was obviously an ex con.”

I hadn’t thought of that before. Ivarsen had seemed too decent to be a criminal.

But then, so were Phaan and I.

The next day, I did what Dad suggested. To my surprise, they picked me up without question. And after twelve weeks at the Corrections Academy they sent me out to run one of the brick sites.

It was interesting being on the flip side of things. I found I actually liked being back in the desert with its blinding sun and fresh air and shimmering desolation. I’d missed it.

Planetary months rolled into a planetary year. Then two. Paycheck after paycheck. With no out-of-pocket cost for room or food, my savings began to pile up. Enough for me to seriously consider my future.

Using my PDA, I got on the Corrections network one night. Within a few minutes, I found Lisa Phaan’s file.

She’d been telling the truth about the drug stuff.

But every record since her incarceration showed her clean and included continued reports of good behavior.

I remembered the pleasant sensation of her lips on mine.

Could we have something? Or was I just fooling myself?

Snapping my PDA off, I determined that I’d find out.

Meanwhile, there was always more clay. And there were always more bricks.

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