The shimmering pinpoints of light visible through the window never moved. To those who spent most of their time on a planet where the stars slowly faded in every evening and swarmed around the horizon with the planet’s motion, it was eerie. Too still. Even more permanent landmarks on planets evidenced *some* change; wind blew palm fronds, mountains changed color with the seasons, grass grew, and rain fell. These stars, however, just stared accusingly.
“You lookin’ out that fuckin’ window again?” Prentice asked. “You’re losin’ it. ‘Fore you know it, you’ll be as nutzo as all these criminals,” he waved his hands to encompass the cells behind him.
It was supposed to be a routine inmate transfer from the main Earth hub to the Hull & Bradshaw Maximum Security Orbital station out beyond Neptune. Even at superphotonic speeds it was a long trip. The overtime and hazard pay helped make up for it. There had never been a prisoner escape on one of the transfer shuttles, but it was always a possibility. Because of that, we always travelled far off the standard shipping lanes.
“Prentice, calm down. You have no reason to antagonize a fellow guard,” Supervisor Van de Walle said. She shaped her usually stern tone into hardened steel.
Turns out a prisoner escape wasn’t what we should have been worried about. Flying through a cloud of Mach 8 plus micrometeoroids was. One shot straight through the main engine, another into the communications system where it bounced around like a rubber ball. The pilots tried to coax the main engine to take the shuttle back toward the nearest shipping lane. We were going good until the strain proved too much. The struggling engine exploded. We were stranded; no engine, no radio.
“Think you’re still in charge, Supe? I didn’t see you makin’ any decisions when we was low on food.” Prentice stalked toward Van de Walle, where she leaned against the bulkhead.
The exploding engine triggered the prisoner escape failsafe. The pilot’s cabin and both prisoner bays were isolated from one another. The thick metal doors were strong enough to withstand sustained fire from any of the firearms we carried. They were also soundproof to keep order in the neighboring compartments. Each compartment was wired independently to prevent escaped inmates from tampering with life support and communications. With the radio relay down, we couldn’t communicate with the rest of the shuttle in any way.
“Fuck you, Prentice. Stand down immediately or I’ll have you fired when we get back to Earth.”
Prentice smiled at her and snatched a thin orange object from the ground. “No food, no water. We would’a died in here long ago if I didn’t make that call, Supe.” He shook the orange fabric free to reveal an arm bone, then obscenely ran his tongue down the length. “But Weinberg tasted good, right? His blood quenched your thirst? Well, I’m hungry again, Supes. And your candy ass just stepped onto my menu.”
Prentice lashed out with the bone. Van de Walle was a trained fighter, though. She blocked Prentice’s blows with skill, dancing lightly around him. No one stepped in, though some guards had obviously chosen sides. We were too tired, too hungry. I used to have a gut that hung over my uniform slacks. Now my ribs stuck out.
Emergency supplies were supposed to be divided equally among each compartment, but we had none. At first, we wondered if anyone onboard had supplies or if we were all in a bad place. Then, we were sure the pilot’s cabin had everything. Our rage got the better of us and we found a solution to our problem; we were trapped in a prisoner bay full of edible meat.
Prentice’s anger fueled him, pushing to strike out with vicious power. If he made contact, Van de Walle’s skull would fracture. But she was quicker. She could see where Prentice’s fists would land almost before he swung. She let him tire himself out then, with her guard badge clasped in her palm and the pointed edge jutting out between her knuckles, she made a few quick jabs.
Prentice was blind and screaming. The fight was over. We all moved forward, holding him down to let Van de Walle finish him off.
Then we ate.
As the last of Prentice was pulled from his bones by gnashing, brittle teeth, we heard a scraping sound from the thick compartment door.
It raised slowly, lifted manually by one of the pilots.
“Sorry that took so long! Comms are back online in the cockpit and we’ve got a rig heading out…” she trailed off as the door locked into place and she saw our compartment. “Jesus.”
Through the now open door was the second prisoner bay, both inmates and guards staring slackjawed into ours. They looked well fed and happy. I looked around me, seeing myself crosslegged on the floor in a congealing pool of blood, sucking marrow from a cracked femur. Van de Walle was to my left, enjoying Prentice’s liver. His badge was pinned on her uniform blouse, below her bloodied own.
Through the window the stars stared at us, mortified at what we’d become.