Winifred Porter watched as the shuttle docked with the space station hovering just above Earth. The gleaming metal reflected the pale blue atmosphere waiting below.


“Home sweet home,” grumbled Craigen Streep, better known by the Order as Axe.


His hands writhed inside the metal manacles clasping his wrists together in front of him. The movement jingled the chain that was attached to his ankle cuffs.


“You don’t sound very happy to be back,” Winn mused, her blue eyes darting to him. “I’m sure the penal system will take you back with loving arms.”


Axe chuckled. “Keep talking, Journeyman. You won’t be so pleased with yourself when I’m free again.”


Winn looked to the Order guards waiting for the airlock to clear. “That’s the beauty of this transport, Craigen Streep. There is no escape.” She took him by the arm, pushing on his shoulder with her spare hand.


The heavy metal door opened to a long narrow glass hall leading to a floating docked chamber. The room was square, with a wide control panel towards the back. Two guards waited before a circular platform rimmed with a glowing ring.


“Level Seven of Earth’s Delta Penal System houses the most dangerous of criminals. It’s inescapable. There is one way in… and no way out. If you live through the port you will enjoy a life of darkness, pain, and the possibility of a male lover. I’d look behind you to the sun, Mr. Streep. It is the last time you’ll ever see it.” Winifred nodded to the glint of light appearing on the crest of Earth.


Axe’s jaw set tight, the muscles clenching and relaxing in his temples. “This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me.”


Winn passed Craigen off to the guards with a sigh. “It is.”


“When I get out I’ll carve you up like the rest of them,” he sneered.


“Unfortunately for you, I am not like the rest of them. That’s why I caught you. So, this brings me to the formality of your situation…”


The guards hauled Craigen Streep to the center of the circular platform. His manacles locked into brackets that sprung up from the floor, holding him in place.


“Craigen Streep, as Journeyman to the Order, I charge you with one hundred and fifty counts of murder, two hundred and ten counts of rape, and twelve counts of arson. By Order Law, I sentence you to a residency of life in Level Seven of Delta Penal System without the possibility of pardon or parole. You leave for immediate departure.”


Winifred glanced away from Axe’s death-glare to the Order guard running the portation controls. She gave him a swift nod.


“See you when I see you, Winn,” Streep sneered.


A flash of light blinded Winifred, and when she looked back Craigen was gone, and the brackets holding him to the floor receded.


Her tense stance relaxed and she gave a soft sigh. “Well, that was the longest week of my life.”


“Would you like us to port you to OHQ?” the guard asked, twisting nobs and dials on the control panel until the center circle reduced to a gentle pale blue.


Winn scrunched up her nose and shook her head gently. “Sorry boys, I don’t trust that thing just yet. I’ll take the long way down, but thanks anyway.”


The long way was a Carbon z52 Solarider. It was long, sleek, silver, with a glass roof that allowed visitors an ample view of Earth. Winifred took her seat towards the center of the ship and near the window, smoothing her black skirt beneath her.


She propped her arm on the rests, leaning back against the headrest and shutting weary eyes. Without Craigen Streep in her presence, she could momentarily lower her guard, breathe, relax, and not worry whether the infamous escape artist was going to unlock his cuffs and mutilate her in her sleep.


It took a total of ten minutes to get from the station floating at the outskirts of Earth’s gravitational pull, to the Whitman Spaceport in Old York. Winn watched with dull fatigue as the gray world of skyscrapers, metal, and glass, structures that covered every possible known piece of land, came into clear view. She focused on the roof turbines that spun in silence, filtering the pollution in the air into something more sustainable and less dangerous to breathe. It left the world smelling stale and old.


She reached up to the necklace she wore, with the Order symbol of a triangle trapped within a circle, trapped within a square. The metal twirled easily between her fingers, glinting in the morning light filtering through glass. The glint of a familiar building caught her attention as they passed. The Order tower was a gleaming spike of silver and copper pieces.  She peeked at the docking platforms, which were full that morning with Journeymen and Masters heading into work.


When they docked at Whitman Spaceport, it was cluttered with people. They walked in dazes, with heads lowered and minds so focused on tasks streaming across electronic boards hardwired into the skin of their forearm that they didn’t even notice the beauty of the live music played by a loan violinist or the new painting hanging at the main entrance. They were people in gray colored clothes, in a gray colored world, boasting dull, mild-mannered expressions.


Winn waved down a taxi once outside the spaceport. It was gray and very reminiscent of the ancient 1930’s style luxury car… except it hovered with the aid of magnetic rings a few inches above the magnetically charged road. The driver spoke little Basic, so she dangled the symbol of the Order in front of his face and he knew right where she wanted to go.


Section 12 of the Order took up nearly the entire 450th floor of OHQ. It was noisier than when she last visited and she often likened it to walking into a kindergarten room after the teacher had left for several minutes.


“Porter!” Master Burns barked from his corner office. “Well, done Porter. Delta received Streep just fine.”


Winn sighed as she collapsed into her chair behind a clean metal desk. “Pitty,” she sighed. “I’d hoped he’d splinter into a billion pieces.”


“That’s colorful,” Journeyman Reeves said, peeking out from behind a stake of efiles. “He was pleasant, company I take it?”


“Oh, he was delightful.”


The room erupted in a round of applause, and the Journeymen stood from their seats. Winn looked around for the source of their reaction, but oddly they all seemed to be staring at her.


“Congratulations,” Reeves breathed.


“For what?” Winn asked, blinking away her surprise.


“You caught Craigen Streep, the Axe Butcher of District 4. He’s been on the wanted list for a decade now. No man has ever gotten close enough to catch him,” she explained.


“That’s because he is more interested in women,” Winn pointed out.


“Take the rest of the week off, Porter,” Burns told her, clapping his hand across her back. “You look awful.”


Winn smirked. She stood up, smoothing her hands across her clothes. “You’re sure?”


“Of course!”


“You won’t call me in the morning?”


“We’ve got it covered! It’s been very slow lately.”


Winn frowned, because she never got a day off, much less a week. “You’re sure?”


Burns scowled. “Do we always call you?”


“Do I really need to answer that?”


“What can I say, we were shorthanded? You’re close to making Master anyway, so I would enjoy the field work while I had the chance.” Burns commented. “But, go home before I change my mind.”


* * *


In a dreamy state of half-awake alertness Winn woke to the constant blurting sound of a phone call coming across the electronic panel on her arm. She pushed the silk sheets away, sitting up in a thin satin gown that hugged gentle curves comfortably. Her pale slender hand pushed the blond waves from her face, before sliding her finger along the slick flexible screen.


“Journeyman Porter,” she answered, trying to push the grogginess from her voice.


“We’ve got a situation,” Master Burns sighed on the other end. “I need you to come down to The Mallory Institute of Technological Research.”


Winn blinked her eyes open. “You do remember you gave me the week off, right?” She shifted off the bed until her feet brushed across plush carpet.


“I wouldn’t have called you if it wasn’t important, but this is very important,” he muttered. “There was an escape from Delta last night.”


“If you tell me Craigen Streep was one of the escapees…”


“Craigen Streep, Alson Cart, and Pers Foster escaped from Delta. It seems they had outside help, but we haven’t gotten any clues yet,” Burns explained. “It could be connected to the situation down at MITR.”


Winn pursed her lips together. “He just got there! How the hell do you escape from Level Seven of Delta?”


“That’s not our only problem,” Burns muttered. “One of them broke into MITR and stole something.”


Winn growled, fisting a hand in her hair. “You’re telling me that three of the most intelligent, cut throat, murderous criminals of the past two decades escaped from an impenetrable prison and broke into a military owned research center in one night?”


“Pretty much.”


“What did they take?”


Master Burns grew very quiet.


* * *

The Journeyman
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