The Thirteenth Man - J. L. Doty
Charlie awoke with a start, peered into the utter darkness of the ship’s hold, and realized someone sleeping nearby had inserted the point of an elbow into his ribs. After five years sleeping chained to his comrades he’d gotten used to that.
Five years in a Syndonese prison camp and you got used to a lot of things.
Charlie shivered—feeling hot and cold all at once—and allowed himself a moment of self-pity. He’d managed to survive five years of the most abominable living conditions, only to succumb to a minor scratch. It had started out as nothing, but had refused to heal. Then it began to fester, and each day grew steadily worse. And now, with his fever returning . . .
He shook himself free of that train of thought and prayed that this time he could remain lucid for more than a few hours.
He closed his eyes and listened to the darkness. Someone jerked nearby, grunted, and started scratching furiously; the never-ending battle against fleas and lice. In the distance someone else snored happily, and close at hand someone wheezed in a restless attempt to breathe through lungs racked with tuberculosis. Two thousand men—chained together in the stinking hold of a ship—made a lot of noise in the darkness.
Five years ago there had been almost five thousand of them, most wearing the livery of Cesare, Duke de Maris, many wearing that of old Rierma, Duke de Neptair, with the remainder evenly distributed among the other seven dukes, and even some from among the king’s men—all of them the legacy of a nasty little war that had cost both sides dearly. During those first days in the prison camp they’d lost many to battle injuries, but after that their losses had stabilized at one or two per day, men lost to any of a hundred minor diseases or afflictions which, lacking any medical facilities or supplies, were too often fatal. Before they’d been dumped in the hold of this ship they could remove the dead in some way: bury them, burn them—something. But here, in the dark, the Syndonese didn’t bother themselves with the dead, and Charlie and his comrades now shared the chain with close to a hundred corpses, some of them many days old and quite ripe.
Charlie decided to sit up, though he moved slowly to avoid disturbing his comrades. He got his good leg beneath him and rested his back against a bulkhead, then carefully adjusted his hand and leg manacles so he didn’t accidently jerk someone else’s chain. He fingered the chain for a moment: metal, heavy, rusted, noisy, like the hand and leg irons. The Syndonese could have used plast, which would have been cheaper, stronger, more humane, more efficient, but the Syndonese weren’t interested in efficiency—and certainly not in humanity. Plast didn’t weigh you down, didn’t rattle and chink as you dragged it behind you, didn’t abrade your wrists and ankles until they were raw and bloody, didn’t drag the spirit down with each painful, shuffling step, didn’t . . .
“Commander?” Charlie recognized Roger’s whisper. “Is that you? You awake?”
“Morning, Roger,” Charlie whispered.
“Is it morning, Commander?”
Charlie shrugged, a useless gesture in the dark. “I don’t know. Could be.”
“How many days you make it?”
Charlie paused for a moment and considered the question carefully. The Syndonese had long ago deactivated their implants, so their only sense of time came from the distribution of the daily meal of unflavored protein cake and water. Back in the hellhole they’d lived in for the past year and a half—an iron-ore mine on some barren rock somewhere—at mealtime each day he’d gouged a mark in the rock of the mine tunnel where they’d lived. Before that he’d scored their calendar for two years in the stone wall of their cell in some dungeon on some moon circling some planet orbiting some star. And before that there’d been a year and a half in a prison camp on some planet while the Syndonese decided what to do with them. After five years less than half of them remained alive, after five . . .
“Commander,” Roger whispered. “You still with me?”
Charlie started. “Ya, I’m still here.” In the darkness of the ship’s hold, with nothing but plast and steel around them, Charlie had scratched a notch in a fingernail each day at mealtime. “I make it twenty-seven days.”
“What do you think this bucket’ll do, Commander, two, maybe three light-years a day?”
Charlie’s former gunnery officer wheezed and went into a fit of coughing—deep, hacking spasms