Chapter 21
Paragon: Ghost Hunters

Taurus X


            Captain Gondwan was content and also grateful. He was well aware it was a fluke that he had avoided detainment on 'Limbo'. They might have found some excuse, so that management would have insisted on searching through the spaceship and talking with passengers. In that case, it would have been clear that he had captured souls as passengers on board.
            This caution was probably a reflection of the space station wanting to be on good terms with all shipping companies in The Universe. In any event, as long as they didn't openly violate the rules, he could do nothing. That must be why he had avoided a more restrictive treatment; but maybe he would not be so lucky next time.
            It was not his responsibility to inform Gondwan (Should this name be "Conan Stratham" here?-it seems to be Gondwan informing Gondwan) about the possibility of his soul transport carrying out illegal actions. He was only the captain of a vessel that had been hired for the specific job of taking the spaceship to its destination and back. He could easily defend himself by saying he didn't know who was behind the transport.
            However, it was a lucrative business. It was not the first time he had brought a cargo of souls to Taurus X, but it was the first time someone had asked uncomfortable questions. Maybe there was still something fishy about this kind of shipping. I would remove this last sentence. That point has been made earlier, and makes no sense here.
            The Kilkabaran had now completed the hyper jumps necessary to reach the long journey's destination. If someone had tried to follow their route, they would have lost track after the first jump in hyperspace. So far so good.
            Something else, of course, was that the chief of The Port Authorities of 'Limbo' evidently somehow had intercepted the information that the ship was headed for Taurus X, and it troubled him that he didn't know how that could have happened. This destination was top secret, with only a few people informed about it. It was a concern that bothered him greatly.
            If he had admitted that Taurus X was the destination, it would have been clear that the voyage's purpose was not a luxury cruise. He was aware that everyone knew that Taurus X was a horrible prison planet, and no wealthy person would go there.
            Of course, these were just wild rumors. Taurus X was the most secured planet known, and it was almost impossible to escape from there. The few times it might have happened, precautions were taken to keep it a secret, with its reputation for safe prisoner custody kept intact. The escapees were always recaptured soon after an escape, on those few occasions.

            The Kilkabaran docked at the port of call quay at Taurus X as with previous transports. There was even more control and waiting here than at 'Limbo'. And there had even been more security checks the first time The Kilkabaran had docked at Taurus X.
            The surroundings here were also different. 'Limbo' was fairly clean and tidy. Both officials and ordinary workers would put forth the best image of the organization, and welcoming relationship with the many different kinds of visitors they got from all parts of the universe. No one should frown and drive potential customers away to use another spaceport next time they'd be in the neighborhood.
            At Taurus X, no one had that kind of ambition. Here you only arrived if allowed, and there were no alternatives. In a way, the unpleasant, ravaged and tough appearance also reflected the image they would like to maintain. Here, there was nothing nice and welcoming that could make visitors feel comfortable. The raw and rough surroundings fit right in with the clientele guarded. If you didn't realize it at first, this alone, would signal the conditions prevailing on the planet.

            On Taurus X management was also wondering what this visit was about. Being asked to provide temporary capacity for the accommodation of a large group of souls wasn't a normal occurrence. Usually criminals got there in small groups, and the storage period was usually indefinitely.
            The cases of prisoners executed were few. That decision was usually made in advance. And, if they were to die, there was no need to transport the condemned creatures far away. Then they could simply take the lives of those convicted near their place of apprehension. That was significantly cheaper, especially because expensive transport was avoided.
            The majority of the inmates were prisoners for life, or placed on indefinite sentences. When one came here under these conditions, he knew that the game was over. No one kept an eye on the situation, respecting only a certain few minimum requirements placed on the living conditions. There was no control, and everyone knew it. Here one only survived if he could stake out a niche he could defend and force the other prisoners to respect.
             Dealing with these souls in transit was quite different. They had to reckon with all the temporary storage procedures. Some authority had paid in advance to rent space there. One might therefore presume that the plan provided that the gathered souls, at one point, would eventually be transported onwards, to a different location. Otherwise, they would have asked and received a much lower monthly price for long-term stays, as it was strictly a commercial matter.
             In such business transactions, there was a modest profit for the Planet's leadership, and agreements followed rules of the Regional Planets' Prison Union, accepted by every planet in that sector of The Universe. (Best if you give a name to that unnamed sector of The Universe, which has already been introduced, earlier in this story.) Actually, such agreements were made for a reasonable amount, with customers, who had gratitude and appreciation for them helping get rid of their rogue elements, and provide long-term storage for them, in a place where no one asked critical questions about living conditions.

            The Kilkabaran docked at a small pier, close to a special closed annex, which had always been separated from the large prison, which surrounded it. The agreement had been finalized only because the annex had suddenly become empty around the time they received the query about storing souls.
            Taurus X had this annex free because they had previously accommodated a large number of non-military conflict prisoners, who, because of their unique status, fell through the cracks of the International Pacification Agreement Rules. Someplace in a galaxy nearby, a government had fought a war and in the battle some fighters were captured. They were neither considered soldiers, nor prisoners of war and it was not acceptable calling them freedom fighters. And they certainly weren't terrorists. They were interested  parties, who had fought voluntarily for ideological reasons. They didn't belong to the groups that had previously ruled in that area. They had traveled there to participate in the resistance, a struggle that failed. The winning power was then forced to deal with them according to the rules and regulations covering combatants. These volunteers didn't fit the descriptions of 'interested combatants' , so, they fit into the category of 'non-military conflict people', and thus, were not covered by the governing rules. Therefore, the victors could treat them as they wished, not risking awkward litigation that would otherwise inevitably cast a negative light on the way they had led the war.
            As criticism of their incarcerating those people on their own planet against their will lasted for a number of years, the country's prestige was so battered that they rented accommodation for them on Taurus X. That shoved them conveniently out of sight, so people would perhaps gradually forget they existed. However, a new  political upheaval and a subsequent change of administration decided it was best to release the prisoners. Therefore, the annex was emptied, and was made available.
            Now the annex would be completely filled up with these transit souls. There were so many that they wouldn't all fit, and so, the overflow would have to housed in the adjacent prison facilities. Management hoped they would soon be transport to a further location, as it would be difficult to find space to store more souls.

            "Sjuba! Sjuba!"

            The souls from The Kilkabaran were herded down to the quay by only a few guards. Many of them could easily have escaped, but they didn't. They wouldn't have known where to hide safely.
            Paragon immediately noticed the bad air. That alone would probably lower the life expectancy of the prisoners, but it was probably a minor issue compared to what else was in store for them in their "new home".
            In all likelihood, Taurus X had belonged to the group of planets containing desirable raw materials, and therefore, were over-exploited as long as mining paid off. This process usually caused very severe pollution, making it impossible to cultivate land and provide adequate nutrition for residents. Therefore, the owners had to leave the planet deserted until someone came up with the idea it could be used as a waste planet. This storage of "human waste" could then provide them with a profit.

            From the dock the souls were taken in the direction of the expansive prison annex. The road was paved, but only sparsely covered with stunted shrubs between the gray concrete buildings. Lampposts were interspersed at regular intervals, so the whole area could be kept fully illuminated, when necessary.
            There were several checkpoints before they finally reached their residence. It was not just to impede attempts to escape, but just as much to ensure the prisoners were forced to stay in very specific locations within each defined sector.
            If it were possible to get from one cellblock to another, or to establish contact, prisoners could quickly change the prison hierarchical structure. Groups of strong prisoners could expand their sphere of influence and create control over adjacent sections. With that power change, a prisoner rebellion could get out of control and cause major administrative problems. Having experienced that before, the prison authorities would not risk any possibility of recurrence.
            Actually, they had had every experience one might expect related to handling prisoners. They had also made inquiries about other major prisons' operating methods and their strategies to cope with conflicts. But, all those other prisons had been significantly smaller units. Experience in handling life on an entire planet used to confine lawbreakers could only be gained on their own. Still they had managed it. Some might even consider them an example for others to follow.
            Prison management delegated certain subordinate controls to privileged prisoners, given special benefits and status as a reward for running management errands and making sure to help maintain order. The system worked satisfactorily and was cheaper to run than had management used more resources to cope with those tasks.

            When the souls came into the sections where they would stay, they were met with curious glances from the souls already there. One of them was more outgoing than most, and Paragon tried to approach him.
            "Hey, I'm Paragon."
            "My name is Christopher, but just call me Chris. I am an Alpha Plus Soul."
            Paragon could feel that Christopher was proud of that status.
            "Aha. So you might come from the faculty experiencing a collective exodus?"
            "What do you mean?"
            "The Soul Center contained a college whose souls disappeared altogether, in an instance, one night. That was not so long ago."
            "No, I was lured away some time ago with a group of other souls led by a supervisor claiming he could offer us some better rebirth conditions. However, he was a fraud. We were caught and pulled away and added to a bigger transport of souls."
            "What did the scammer promise?"
            "He promised that we would get the status of high-ranking executives at the decision-making level. But, of course, we thought it would take place on Earth, so we prepared ourselves for that. We knew the structure there from our past lives."
            "Who says he wasn't telling the truth?"
            "Of course, we still don't know what will happen in the future. But if we're relocated somewhere working at a lower level than we did on Earth, it won't satisfy us. And I'm afraid that's what will happen."
            "You wouldn't go on a covert recruitment campaign in a foreign soul administration, if there weren't any nasty hidden circumstances you don't want revealed. But I was stupid enough to go along with it, as several of my soul companions did."
            Paragon agreed. Chris seemed to be clever. But he was also an alpha plus soul, so he was curious as well.
            "Where do you come from?"
            Anders answered.
            "We come from an intermediate level with vacillating troubled souls staying for a shorter or longer time before going on to the hereafter. The Bastytjaks conducted some raids where they trapped souls that they brought here."
            "I've heard about that middle level. The souls who move there aren't all that bright, are they?"
            Paragon had to protest.
            "I wouldn't say that. If the've had an unfortunate, traumatic situation in life, they're quite innocent. They can be as competent as souls from your level, who have simply been more fortunate."
            "It's the same old story. All losers claim that they've had an unfair lot in life. That it's the fault of others. Circumstances. Existence. Fate. Believe me, when they have troubles in life it's largely because they have a weak character lacking initiative and trying to get through life as easy as possible. That evokes a pay back."
            "Now you are being too superficial and generalizing, Chris. I won't argue that some of them don't fit your description like a glove. On the other hand, other wrecked souls have fought just as hard or more than souls from your level, so beware what you claim."
            "On what background can you claim that?"
            "I'm actually a guardian spirit of the Earth's Soul Administration, and I know the facts."
            "A guardian spirit? But then you don't belong here?"
            "I was sent on a confidential mission to investigate this strange case of missing souls. And I had to hide myself in a soul transport to get here and observe the traffic. Do you know where we go from here?"
            "There are rumors that a large group of souls were imprisoned here before us, but no one of us knows where they were taken,."
            "Are these souls also coming from the Earth's Soul Center?"
            "I don't know that either. I was told that currently there are souls here from planets other than Earth."
            "Where do they come from?"
            "I don't know, but it seems that Taurus X is used as a major collection camp, where giant transports at certain times depart towards a distant place in the universe, and that they ship a large amount of souls simultaneously to make that traffic worthwhile."
            "Do you know how to send messages from here?"
            "It can be done through prison management, if you have permission, but they are obviously censored."
            "What I meant was whether one can send messages out of management control? I would like to contact Earth's Soul Administration and tell them that we are here."
            "I don't know, Paragon, but it would not surprise me if it were possible. In fact, except to obtain freedom, everything is possible here on Taurus X, if you have power and proper contact with the right people. But the gap is wide, so you must have accomplices along the way that will send your messages on to the final recipient."
            Paragon thought about things. Chris was undoubtedly a clever soul with a good overview. No wonder he belonged to the Alpha Plus group. Most of the souls from Limbo only thought about their own personal problems. The attempts he had made along the way to make contact with other souls on the trip had not been successful.
            Every time he mentioned something about his mission and general conditions for the souls, they looked at him not understanding why it was such an important question. Clearly, it was a task he had to take on, himself. Most souls were just as Chris had said, lacking initiative and being self-centered. Thus, they were easy targets for those who would abduct them. This would not be an easy task to handle.