Cell Life

My head hurt, someone was blowing in my ear, and it felt like I was on the losing side of something, although I didn't know who the winning side was or why winning mattered.

No. They weren't blowing in my ear, they were whispering. "Wake up," they were saying. "You need to wake up. We need to know what happened. We need to know where your family was taken. We need to know who attacked you."

Attacked me? I didn't think I'd been attacked… I thought someone had come, but I didn't remember…

"My family?" I sat up to look around the room, to find them…

…but when I opened my eyes, I was not in the soft, well-lit care room I'd expected, but a dim, cold, empty cell. For a split second I was the hurt and frightened six year old still, confused by the dull silver walls – then my senses returned and I was myself again – that is, a deadly seventeen year old spy. The cell was in the containment ward on the home station for all my comrades and friends, most of whom thought I was a traitor, a killer bent on bringing the Interplanetary Protection Society down from the inside. My origins as a half-Bahumi surely helped this opinion, since the Bahumi were almost always the aggressors that the IPS have to rein back in, leading to very few Bahumi actually joining the organization, and any that did facing more intense scrutiny. My vaulted position in the organization, as a member of its elite espionage squad, the famed – and feared – Team 1000, only added fuel to the fire. I dared to gamble that my friendship with the son of the chief made things worse as well.

I'd had a lot of time to think in my solitary confinement, and I'd come to some conclusions. My first was that, if I ever escaped this alive – which was unlikely, even I was forced to admit – I would find out who my family had been, and what happened to them so long ago. I suspected that they had been IPS agents, and that Chief Ninde hid their status, their existence, from me, but I had no more to go on than that suspicion. My second conclusion was that – again, granting that I survived my sentence, whatever that would be – I would never willingly put anyone into solitary confinement again. As awful as it was, and it was awful not seeing the few people left that I truly cared about and who truly cared about me, it was not a severe enough punishment. I would put them in with the violent ones, where they were always on the edge, or I would destroy them when I could justify it. Because I didn't kill without justification.

Which is why I hoped I could prove that I hadn't killed Sacha. She was on Team 1000 with me. I worked with her, and I rather liked her. Aside from those minor details, she'd never given me a reason to even be angry with her, much less to kill her. The case against me was riding almost entirely on jealousy between Sacha and myself over Sacha's longtime partner, Cohl. I wasn't sure where that idea had come from, but I suspected it had come from Cohl himself. He had an overinflated ego, and believed that the female population of the universe worshipped him and wanted him. How Sacha dealt with him I didn't know, but I suspected she was stuck with him because he was another of the six members of Team 1000, and ended relationships caused more problems than dysfunctional but surviving ones.

The small hidden door that someone stuffed food through every afternoon rattled unexpectedly. My food for the day wasn't due for another few hours, and my trial wasn't today – I didn't think – so I watched curiously to see what came through. It was only a hand holding a small chip, which they dropped to the floor rather carelessly before I could even move. The door shut as the chip sent a beam of light to the ceiling, followed by the choppy but recognizable form of Nik Ninde, my best friend and one of the few people who seemed to think I was innocent.

"Agent 1005, Netissa Honlt," his mechanized voice said. "I will be coming to your cell with the purpose of discovery. The Chief and the Council of Judgment desire a statement regarding your involvement in Agent 1003 Sacha Morrot's death on 18 January 2987. Password required for date of visit and other pertinent information to be disclosed."

Password? "What password?" A red light flashed. I picked up the chip, turning the shimmering Nik upside down. There was no password… I had to guess the password. I had to think like Nik… He knew I hated trying to think like him… Aha! "Think like me," I said. The light flashed green and I set it back on the floor again.

"Netissa," he said, the voice less monotonous but still mechanical. "I can't see how any conviction can come. I'll be there tomorrow, which is 25 February, to talk to you about it. I will see you soon. Tegera says hello. Good-bye, Netissa. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon." The hologram closed, the light shutting off abruptly. I picked it up and slid it under my pillow; my last little bit of communication with my world. I didn't know how he'd managed to get clearance to see someone in solitary confinement, but then again his dad could really want a statement, since I hadn't been allowed to give one before my imprisonment.

24 February, already. I was detained on 20 January, which meant I'd been here five weeks. Five weeks. God, I hated this place. I hoped my sentence would at least allow the freedom to train. My muscles, so well maintained just five weeks ago, were less toned, although I had no way to determine whether they were really weaker or just looked it; the only thing in the room was my bed and it was bolted to the floor. I flopped down onto it now, already excited to see Nik tomorrow. Too bad I had to wait. I slid my hand under the pillow to hold the chip, then laid my head on the pillow and started to drift off again.

-:-

"Netissa! Come on in, baby girl!" a woman's voice – my mother's – said kindly. "It's getting dark and it's time to eat."

"But mooooooom, Daddy and Aron aren't home yet. What if they don't get back until late?"

"Baby, they'll be back." My mother came out and picked me up, carrying me into the house. "Ronakai, dinner." He came down the stairs carrying his backpack. "What's in that?"

"Just my stuff from –"

BANG BANG BANG!

I sat up abruptly, terrified. I didn't know what happened next, but the entire tone of the dream had changed. The beginning had been sweet, as if I were actually remembering something I'd done with my family, but then the noise at the door had been so incongruous with the rest of it.

BANG BANG BANG!

I jumped, whirling out of my bed and preparing to fight whatever had made that noise. I knew that noise; it was the sound of someone banging on steel. "What!" I yelled, my voice hoarse from lack of use – and, I admitted to myself in shame, fear.

"Chief Ninde's representative, here for a statement. You have fifteen minutes." The guard keyed in the code to open the steel wall and it shuddered into either side. I relaxed as the two men were revealed, one thin and darkly featured, the other thickly muscled and balding.

Nik turned to the guard, not even acknowledging me. "I will need at least thirty minutes, or perhaps even more. I intend to get the entire story from the suspect's point of view. It could take as long as an hour." His face never wavered once, the authority he held simply because of his father perfectly manipulated. The guard raised his eyebrows but nodded.

"No more than an hour." He stepped back, motioning Nik in. He stepped forward, then, just before the guard shut the doors again, he turned as if he were just remembering something important that he'd forgotten.

"Oh, and also, the statement is to be sealed until the court date next week. So the monitoring system is to be turned off until I leave the cell." The guard started to shake his head – even I knew the monitoring system was never even left unattended, much less turned off. Nik narrowed his eyes. "Are you willing to compromise the investigation into Agent 1003 Sacha Morrot's death?" he asked coldly. The guard shook his head and left, the door shuddering closed behind him. He turned to me, holding his head up and regarding me with an appraising and cautious expression. "Miss Honlt."

"Master Ninde," I said, trying to replicate his formality. It must be a genetic trait, this extreme propriety; I didn't have it.

"Master Ninde, the monitoring system is now off," the guard said through a tiny speaker in the ceiling. "Your hour commences now." The speaker clicked and the guard was gone. He looked around, moving only his eyes, then strode over to me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders.

"You're thinner," he said into my ear. I just put my arms around his waist; the sensation of having another body so close, after having been alone for so long, was something I wanted to savor. I breathed in the smell of another human; I knew I didn't smell this good. "Are they feeding you?"

"Of course," I said, omitting the fact that I didn't always eat it. He pulled me back to the bed, sitting next to me.

"Tegera says she thinks she knows what happened. She won't tell me until she's sure, but she's gathering evidence about something." His eyes were roving my face. "Netissa, I think we can prove you didn't have anything to do with it. The autopsy says she was poisoned, some rare Bahumi something. I don't know. But they say you didn't have any. Cohl is trying to say you used it all up, that you got it when the team was on the planet the week before. I just don't see where he's coming from." Nik ran his hand through his hair. "I don't understand how they're getting a murderer out of you… I mean, I know we're all supposed to be deadly, but you're not a killer, you're a healer. You tried to make her better." I couldn't say anything. I didn't have anything to say. "It'll be okay though. I think the Chief knows you don't kill without a reason."

"The Chief?" He'd never called his dad that. Usually that was a term reserved for those not intimately related to him. When he hesitated to say anything, I knew something was wrong. "You know I'm going to make you tell me one way or the other," I said. "I haven't done anything in five weeks, but I'm pretty sure I could still beat what I want to know out of you."

He laughed mirthlessly. "We're not exactly seeing eye to eye right now. He's ignoring facts because the Morrots are pressuring him. They want Sacha's killer – in their eyes, you – destroyed." I swallowed. "The problem is that he's not looking at the evidence. You didn't have any poison, much less the one they're saying killed her. You were never separated from the team while you were on Bahu. You don't kill without reason, you're a model agent, and you've been here for eleven years without so much as a slap on the wrist, which is more than you can say for me, even."

We were quiet for a moment. "I wasn't expecting you today," I said. He looked up at me, curious. "You said you were coming tomorrow in the message you sent."

"I said I was coming on the 25th. That's today." He was suddenly angry. "I told them not to view it. I told them it was to go straight to you."

"Well of course they're going to view anything that comes in. It's going to a killer, a murderer. Everything I get is monitored, down to the food. I don't even get utensils; apparently they're afraid I'll kill a guard with a spoon or something."

"You could," he said, smiling.

"That's beside the point." I smiled, my first smile in weeks. It faded quickly. "I think Cohl isn't being completely honest. I thought Main'a might have been the problem, except it didn't add up, her getting that sick that fast. Main'a is a very slow poison, that's why it's so rare. No one likes a poison that takes time; everyone wants something quick. Main'a isn't quick. Someone would have noticed that she was having issues long before it came to death, and I could have stopped it then."

"That's what they said killed her." I could see that I'd turned the gears on. "They said it was something that could have started while you were on Bahu, and progressed since you'd returned. Tegera seems to be thinking in the same line. Did either Cohl or Sacha leave the team while you were on Bahu?"

"They did, but they went together. I think they went to dinner or something." I shook my head. "There's no way it'll show out though. I'm half-Bahumi, and as a healer I've got access to anything I want. And with her parents and Cohl and the entire IPS against me, I'm done for."

He wrapped his arms around me. "The entire IPS isn't against you. Tegera and I aren't against you." I sighed. "I know we're three against thousands, but you aren't completely alone."