The Terra Core

A young man is forced from his home to the stars after a terrible crime (inspired by a dream I had!)

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18. Punishment

~~We were lined up, like prisoners, as Miss Wilson marched up and down in front of us, her eyes still blazing with rage. When those angry eyes turned upon me, I wanted to shrivel up and hide.

"Do you know what would have happened if I'd, for some reason, not noticed all of that mud? If I'd inhaled any dust particles from it, or if I'd turned on the shower first and breathed in the fumes? I could, right now, be laying in the medical bay, seriously ill. In the worst case scenario, I'd be dead." Her voice was still very much like ice, as she continued to stroll back and forth. "One of you has, in effect, committed attempted murder. I can certainly make that case if I choose to."

No one dared speak. I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to even breathe.

"I want to know who did this, and I will be taking each and every one of you to one side for private 'chats'. One of you- perhaps more than one- is under the impression this is a game, where actions don't have consequences. You are wrong. This is real life, we have a mission to complete, and acts like this have no place on this ship. Your only chance for redemption is to be honest. Otherwise, the entire team will suffer for your stupidity."

I wanted to look at Sandro. I wanted to somehow, telepathically, or just through sheer force of will, convince him to do the right thing. I didn't know what Miss Wilson had in mind for a punishment, but I knew it would be bad.

"We have a mission to complete. We will shortly head down to the surface and finish our work. We have four more days here at New Porto before we move on. During that time, I will be interviewing you all. If, by that time, no one has stepped forward, either to claim responsibility or to admit they know something, the entire team will lose their privileges- you will clean not only this dorm but the dorm of every Hotel shift team from top to bottom. You will have extra training. You will not be allowed to use any of the ship's entertainment facilities, and you will discover what emergency rations taste like. All of you, dismissed!"

****

The atmosphere down on the planet was a sour one. People were muttering about who might have been so stupid as to try such a trick. Kameyo was whispering in my ear that she thought Carla might have done it- and Francis seemed to think Miguel was responsible. I didn't commit to an answer- 'I have no idea' was all I'd say.

As we went about our daily routine of construction, Sandro kept appearing in my vision. I think, from the look upon his face, he wanted to talk to me. I made sure to be too busy- I didn't think that talking to him would lead anywhere good.

Unfortunately I didn't manage to avoid him forever. As I was sorting out the plumbing for a toilet, he came around the corner- and had me cornered.

"Hey Adrian." He said, quite chipper.

"Err, hi Sandro." I replied neutrally, as I tried to fix a bracket on to a piece of pipe.

"So... about yesterday..." He began, sounding a little uncertain of himself.

"What about it?" I asked, without looking at him. The bracket was giving me grief.

"Well, look bro, you saw what you saw. What are you gonna do when the bitch talks to you?"

I stopped what I was doing and looked up at him. "I don't want to end up on cleaning duties and on rations for God knows how long." I said, just a touch strongly.

Sandro looked hurt. "You'll squeal on me?"

I sighed. "Look, Sandro, this isn't about you. Well okay, it is, but it's about the team as well. You'll screw us all over if you don't talk. Please, think about everyone else."

"She'll leave me here, on this planet, if I come clean!" He looked scared.

"You don't know that man, she said if you're honest she'll take that on board."

Sandro wasn't looking convinced. "She still might dirt-side me, here, on this dirty rock!" His eyes looked so... desperate.

"Look, Sandro, think for a second. If you tell her, yourself, what you did, you might just get out of this in one piece. If you don't tell her, you screw us all over and if she finds out anyway, she'll make sure you're grounded on the next rock. If she finds out I knew what you did and didn't say anything, I'll probably be down there with you!"

His eyes were starting to water slightly. "Please, please don't say anything, eventually she'll forget..."

"No, she won't forget!" I hissed. "Do you think Miss Wilson is gonna forget something like that? She will tear the ship apart to find out who did it! I'm telling you man, tell her... or I will. I'm not gonna risk being dirt-sided."

I went to leave. Sandro moved to bar my path.

"Adrian, listen to me..."

"Get out of my way Sandro." I said, trying to muster up all the ferocity I could muster.

"I can't... please, please!"

I tried to get past him, and again he blocked me. I was starting to get worried. Surely someone else was going to hear us?

"Let me go, now."

"No, not until you listen!" He wailed. I tried to push past him and he pushed back. I locked eyes with him- mine now filled with anger and his wet from tears. I had a horrible feeling this was going to get ugly.

"Sandro, I have work to do. I can't stay stuck here going round in circles."

He was shaking. "You can't say anything to her, you can't..."

"I'm gonna give you a chance to tell her yourself. We've got four days remember? If you haven't said anything to her by the end of the third day, I will. Now let. Me. Go."

He sniffed, and glowered at me, and stood to one side. I left quickly, without looking back. That hadn't been pleasant.

****

Our work continued, and by now, houses were appearing where there had been none before. Roads and power lines (built by other shifts and teams) also slotted into place. We had the makings of a viable little town.

Unfortunately, as we began day three of our countdown, Sandro still hadn't confessed to Miss Wilson.

He kept looking at me, and he looked so rough- pale, tired, gaunt. The toll his secret was taking on him was a heavy one- and it was weighing on me as well.

I didn't want to squeal. I never wanted to be that guy. At the same time, I knew the impending penalty was going to suck. I had the chance to make sure we didn't have to go through that and if I didn't take it, everyone would hate me for it.

The price? Sandro would hate me, and his cousin Miguel, my room mate, would probably hate me too. I'd also be 'the squealer'.

I hated this. Absolutely hated it. My stomach kept churning and I felt sick. If Miss Wilson had taken me to one side there and then I might have puked- then told her everything. As it was, I'd made a promise to Sandro and I was going to keep it.

The rest of the team were pretty glum. They were all too aware of the deadline, and what it would spell for them. Carla was even more erratic than usual, Russell wasn't his usual happy self, Helene was fretting, Fabin looked ready to chew his arm off from the stress, and the mood was generally very poor.

Our time on the surface seemed to pass both slowly and quickly. The actual work felt long, but with the knowledge that I would soon have to do something I really didn't want to do, the hours seemed to fly by, as if fate couldn't wait to put me through the wringer.

When our work was done and we returned to the ship, everyone seemed tense. Sandro was pointedly not looking at me, and I did my best not to look at him.

"I hope whoever did that mud prank admits it." Muttered Fabin as we trooped back into the dorm.

"Yeah, selfish bastard!" Replied Francis. "He's gonna ruin things for everyone else."

"I agree." Said Kameyo. One by one we set ourselves onto couches and into chairs, feeling completely shattered, emotionally and physically. "Whoever did it needs to confess or we're all fucked."

Sandro didn't look at anyone. I spied Miss Wilson enter and I had to decide what sort of a man I wanted to be.

I realised something that day. I thought of the day my father died. What would I have done- how would I have felt, if someone knew something that might have seen his killer caught? Ok, so, the situation is completely different, but still... surely I had a duty, a responsibility, to step forward?

Crunch time was coming- for me and for Sandro.

Miss Wilson walked into her room and the door slid shut. I eyed that door, dreading the conversation I was about to have- and the fallout from it.

I got up from my chair and wished I could be invisible as I walked to that door. Sandro's eyes were immediately upon me, and when I got to her door and knocked on it, the eyes of everyone else were upon me too.

The door slid open. Miss Wilson, still in her uniform and somehow looking immaculate as ever, stared at me, silently and expectantly.

"I err, I need to talk to you Ma'am." I said, as politely as I could.

She gave me a neutral stare, then nodded and gestured for me to enter her room. I went in, wondering what everyone else thought.

****

Miss WIlson's own living space was only slightly bigger than everyone else's. The lack of a second bed gave way to a bookcase with old-fashioned paper books on it but that was about the only concession to personal stuff that I could see, aside from a chair.

"Sit." She ordered. I quickly obeyed.

Once I was seated, she stood there for a second. I felt so... small.

"What do you want to talk to me about?" She asked firmly.

I coughed. "I err, I know who... who put the mud in the shower." I didn't want to make eye contact but I did anyway.

"I see. Who was it?" She spoke in clipped tongue.

"It... It was Sandro." I surprised myself at how easily those words came out. "He did it."

There was no change in her expression. "I can't say I'm surprised. I'm disappointed, but not surprised. What did you see?"

"I saw him... collect the mud, whilst down on the surface. He begged me not to tell you, but... I don't want to be doing hard labour for God knows how long."

Miss Wilson looked impassive, though, for just a moment, her expression seemed to soften.

"Thank you Adrian, for telling me this. I realise this can't have been easy for you- you and Sandro are friends, correct?"

"Uh, yes Ma'am, we are."

"No one likes to speak out against a friend, but what Sandro did was stupid- he attempted to undermine my authority and the way he did it could have been dangerous. There's no place for that sort of behaviour on this ship, where one reckless act can cost a lot of lives. You did the right thing."

I knew in my head that I had. In my heart, I felt like a traitor to the team.

"What'll happen to Sandro?" I asked. I didn't really have a right to ask, but I had to.

"If he shows regret for his actions, then I am prepared to be lenient. However, he will face a severe penalty regardless. If he isn't prepared to be remorseful, then I'll refer it to the Supervisor."

That didn't sound good.

"One thing before you go. The others may or may not appreciate that you've spared them from several weeks of hard labour. Some probably will- others might think of you as a snitch. Forget what they think. Trust your own judgement. You are good guy Adrian. Dismissed."

Going back outside didn't thrill me. However, I took a deep breath and went back into the dorm. Miss Wilson followed me.

"Sandro, I want a word with you." She said. Her voice was like ice.

He gave me the most aggressive look I've ever seen on another person's face as he walked past. I was really glad I wasn't him right now.

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