Her mind simply stopped when she saw the man in the next cell. It was true, then. They did have him. Amanda saw that they’d taken extra security precautions above and beyond what they’d prepared for the rest of the group; his legs were shackled together, his arms bound in a straitjacket, and his entire body strapped down to a stretcher that was locked to the wall. His feet didn’t even touch the ground; he was such a small man, but if even half the rumors about him were true, Amanda wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the Monitors took such precautions. Rumor said he could change his shape, and that he’d changed his entire physical appearance on at least three occasions—height, weight, everything. Amanda couldn’t tell what he looked like now, though. An iron mask that covered his face obscured his features; most likely, to ensure that he couldn’t hypnotize any of the guards and convince them to let him out. Beneath the straitjacket and the mask, he wore the same paper clothing as the rest of them; he’d been stripped of his eccentric costumes that supposedly concealed all manner of technological tricks and sabotage devices. He didn’t even look like he could move, much less perform one of his legendary escapes.
Seeing him like that almost made Amanda want to cry. It just seemed unfair that the man who couldn’t be caught was sitting two cells away from her, trussed up like a very unsuccessful escape artist on Amateur Night. Amanda had been brought up on stories about him, the single person that the entire Tinarian army feared. They claimed he defeated whole armies with nothing but wits, sticky fingers, and a few trusted friends. He supposedly stared down the Empress herself and somehow shamed her into releasing a thousand dissidents. He wasn’t just a person, and it seemed both wrong of the Monitors to treat him like one, and him to let them do it. He was too important for his legend to just end like this, taken to the prison built for him and expected to rot. She still remembered the first time she heard of him; the Gingerbread Man, they sometimes called him, or the One That Got Away or the Oncoming Storm or the Butterfly’s Wing or the Ka Faraq Gatri. Even the ubiquitous name plaque didn’t list his real name; it just said, “John Doe, alias the Doctor.”
Amanda wanted to talk to him. She wanted to ask him how the Monitors had caught him. She wanted to ask him how he could let down five hundred years of notoriety by winding up on a prison ship. But she didn’t know what to say.
* * * * *
Joachim broke the silence first. He seemed like the type who would.
“So how’d they catch you guys?”
The mousy woman responded by spitting on the floor. “Bribed my mechanic, that’s my guess. My hyperdrive shorted out and I dropped into realspace right in front of a whole blockade. That couldn’t be coincidence.”
Corvus snorted. “That could be an Interdictor Fleet, O’Donnell. They do make trawls through hyperspace looking for smugglers like you.” On hearing the name, the identity of the last criminal clicked in Amanda’s head; she must be Eileen O’Donnell, the gunrunner and smuggler. Amanda was surprised at how unassuming O’Donnell looked. They’d made a holo about her involvement in the Seventh War of Acquisition, and the actress certainly didn’t look anything like the real woman. Then again, not many people ever got to see the real woman…and for that matter, the holo was awful. From the way Corvus talked to her, the two probably knew each other.
O’Donnell’s eyes widened in anger, and she suddenly didn’t seem so mousy anymore. “An Interdictor Fleet would never have caught me. I’d have noticed the disruptions in hyperspace and changed course before I hit their disruption field. They didn’t do anything. My drive just shorted out—and it was timed to do so right when I got there. Had to be my mechanic. When I get out, I’ll—“
Corvus didn’t just snort this time; he outright laughed. It was a bitter, scornful laugh, but Amanda didn’t think he could do anything that wasn’t bitter or scornful. “You won’t get out. None of us will. That’s Nirvana they’re sending us to, not some minimum-security penal colony. Nobody has ever escaped from Nirvana, and nobody ever will.”
The Doctor spoke for the first time, surprising Amanda and probably everyone else as well. His tone was light and airy, as though he was just discussing the weather with a group of old friends rather than locked up in a prison cell, and his voice had a rich, archaic accent to it that reminded her of ancient Earth and stories of the Scottish highlands. “Oh,” he said, his voice echoing slightly beneath his iron mask, “I shouldn’t think it to be too difficult. We’re a resourceful lot, between us.” He rolled the R’s in ‘resourceful’ playfully. “We have the finest thief, the finest pilot, the finest slicer…and, of course, my own modest talents.”
Corvus shook his head. “It’s not a question of what you can do. It’s a question of what you want to do. Nirvana was designed to contain you, Doctor. It has a psionic field generator at the heart of the asteroid it’s made from. Anyone within its field of influence becomes apathetic and unwilling to make any effort to escape. Even if they left the doors unlocked and a fully-fueled space-ship sitting right in the docking bay, you’d walk right past it to your cell.” He smiled cruelly. “It’s been four hundred years since the Empire ordered the creation of Nirvana, and in that time nobody’s ever left the prison alive. Delacourt might be able to pick every lock in the building, and O’Donnell might be able to fly every ship they’ve got. But we’ll all spend the rest of our lives on that rock.”
O’Donnell clearly remained unconvinced. “And you won’t? If you’ve got some plan to get off, go ahead and share.”
“Oh, I don’t exclude myself. I’ll be right there along with the rest of you, serving out my excessively dull life sentence with a blank expression on my face and a psionic wave over-writing my brain. I know something those bastards who sold me out don’t know, though. That field doesn’t impede any other desires. I won’t want to leave, but that won’t stop me from making sure a few of my little secrets get out into the open. It won’t even be difficult. They’re all going to pay for this. Oh, yes…”