(Page 1 of 9)
Alighieri's Night by Emmitt HughSUMMARY: When a new kind of ship lands on the prison planet Alighieri, Mercer Houke, the longest serving prisoner there has a premonition. When he sees that the last passenger is a priest, he knows that bad news is arriving.
The inmates of Prison Alighieri huddled near the fence as the transport approached the landing field. The lights of the ship flashed and reflected off the icy surface of the moon. Home-made polar glasses kept the sharper glare out of the inmates' eyes; they could still see the lights clearly. The transport was different from the usual craft that landed in the field. It was slightly larger with about twice the usual number of indicator lights. Red flashers meant a ship was delivering prisoners and the field and surrounding areas were to be cleared. Yellow meant rations were coming in and only trustees had clearance to approach and help unload. Green indicated the arrival of a military inspection team and inmates voluntarily kept away.
The lights reflecting off the icy field were blue.
Mercer Houke shrugged off the questions of the other inmates. He watched the loose snow blast aside as the ship entered final approach and fired its reverse thrusters. The men ducked away from the stinging fragments of ice. When it had cleared, the transport creaked as its landing gear accepted the weight. The ship sighed when its artificial environment was released and the interior pressure was equalized. Clouds of warm air steamed briefly in the field lights. Mercer noted that whoever was aboard took their time disembarking, probably steeling their nerves for the freezing surface. He hugged himself while he waited, annoyed that he was probably wasting his time. The other inmates grew silent in anticipation of something new.
Alighieri was a lifer prison with perpetual winter and equally perpetual daylight; there is never anything new, Houke thought.
The team that exited the ship was a mixture: military and administrative. Houke watched for a few moments, a sense of disappointment growing in him that the only thing new was the color of the lights. Until he saw the final passenger. The man looked like a cleric of sorts with black stove-pipe pants that were far too thin for the weather and epaulets adorned with a variety of religious symbols on his jacket. He clutched his jacket close to his throat with one hand and the coat tail of a military officer with the other. The man was unprepared for the blinding sun that constantly bounced off the white landscape. But what caught Houke's eye the most was the chain that hung loose outside the jacket. The symbol on the end of it was ancient, but Houke recognized it. He watched as the group entered the administration compound. The other inmates had noted the odd passenger and asked Houke for his thoughts, but he was troubled by the visitor and turned away without answering. Holy men only showed up for executions.
The prisoner huts dotted the area surrounding the admin compound. They'd begun as flimsy things, but each new piece of metal, supplied or scavenged, gave the huts a greater degree of permanence. To tear one apart would be like peeling an onion. Each time an inmate died, a layer would be peeled away until a new con was processed and moved in.