Eric Flint: Time spike

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Eric Flint Time spike
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Eric Flint

Time spike

Marilyn Kosmatka

Chapter 1

"Sorry about the rotation list, Andy." Lieutenant Joseph Schuler shrugged and shot the captain a look halfway between pity and resignation. "We're just too short of people to staff any shift the way we should. As for midnights… You know how it is." Captain Andrew Blacklock knew how it was. The same way it had been since the day he started working at the state of Illinois' maximum-security prison just across the road from the Mississippi River. But tonight's numbers were worse than usual. The coverage was nowhere nearly adequate. He looked at the men and women ready to punch out and squelched the thought of asking them to work over. They had worked short. They were beat. He knew over half of them had worked a double shift. Probably the third one this week, the sixth this pay-period.

Andy forced a wry grin. Some things never change. Pay everyone overtime, but keep the other costs low. Don't hire anyone new. The state can't afford the bennies. Health, dental, vision. Nope, overtime's cheaper. "We'll make it, Joe," he said. "We always do."

Andy looked away from the man he was relieving and toward the metal detectors. Three guards were lined up in front of the machines at the prison entrance waiting to process the oncoming shift. Andy wasn't worried. Just irritated. He hated taking shortcuts, and that's exactly what had to be done when working a skeleton crew. One set of rounds for every two that should be done. Everyone locked down come morning.

Day-shift was going to start out behind, and he knew they could no more afford it than he could afford to send the prisoners to the cafeteria for breakfast. Or to the infirmary for their meds. He stifled a curse. The nurses were always ticked when they had to hand-deliver the morning meds to the cellblocks. They were even more short-staffed than he was. There was no department within the prison system with enough people. Not even at the top end, the administrative level. It was lean times for the state and cuts had been made. More cuts than could be safely tolerated. The prisons of today were different from those of the past. Prisoners could not be locked down for months at a time. They had to be given exercise periods. They were allowed to talk. Imprisonment was no longer forced labor coupled with solitude. And more had changed than just the rules. The prisoners of today were as different as the rules that regulated their incarceration. At least at this particular prison. X-house-death row-was filled to capacity. Two thirds of the men awaiting execution were drug addicts who had fried their brains before exiting their teens. Schizophrenia was rampant; delusions of grandeur were almost the norm. And remorse was something few actually felt. Most could find an excuse for what they did. Those who couldn't, didn't seem to care.

The last man to be given a hot shot-the series of three lethal injections deemed acceptable to the state-was one of those men without a conscience. He had raped, mutilated, and killed little girls.

Grade-schoolers, the oldest of whom was nine. Without a struggle, he had walked out of the small room where he had spent his last day on Earth. Meekly, he had lain on the gurney and allowed the guards to strap him down and roll him to the viewing area. He was sad-eyed, gentle talking, sincere. Claiming to be a born-again Christian. Even at the last minute he was working the system, hoping for a stay of execution. It hadn't come. An I.V. had been inserted, and a saline solution began its journey from the dangling plastic bag to his vein.

Then from behind a wall-so none of the witnesses could see who administered the deadly doses-an anesthetic, sodium thiopental, was injected into the tubing by a physician. This was followed by an equally lethal dose of pancuronium bromide, a chemical that paralyzed the diaphragm and lungs. Then came the potassium chloride. It didn't take long for this newest addition to his bloodstream to interrupt the electrical signaling of his heart and cause cardiac arrest. The only tears shed that day had been those of the girls' parents. The monster's mother had been dry-eyed. His father had not come to say good-bye. Andy suppressed a shudder. Lieutenant Schuler frowned. "Next week, and the week after, are going to be rough. The staffing situation is going to get worse before it gets any better. Keith Woeltje is going out on medical. He has to have knee surgery. And Kathleen Hanrahan will be starting her maternity leave." Andy rolled his eyes, since Joe wasn't looking at him. Schuler was a good manager, but he was close to burning out. He needed to take a little time off.

Not that that would happen any time soon, even though the man had the time coming. He hadn't taken a sick day or personal day in years. He hadn't taken a vacation for the last two. They were too short-handed.

Joe was flipping through the stack of papers he carried. He was new to the afternoon shift and was still trying to get a handle on his crew and the new routine. He was also trying to come to grips with a divorce and his children living two hours away. Andy knew all the gossip. Maria Schuler had gotten tired of the long hours her man put in and found herself one who would be home every night by five-thirty.

The fact that the guy made two dollars for every one Joe earned hadn't hurt the situation any. Marriages didn't usually fare well for those who worked the prison. Andy's own marriage had gone by the wayside three years back. For different reasons, but the end result was the same. His wife had been the personnel director of a good-sized manufacturing firm. The company grew. The promotions and raises came.

And she found it harder and harder to introduce her husband to the people she worked with. His job at the prison, fine the day they married, was no longer something she wanted. She reminded him daily of his lack of ambition, of his dead end situation. When the split finally came, he had been relieved. And grateful. Connie hadn't wanted children. Not yet. She felt twenty-eight was too young to be saddled with kids. Deep down, he suspected she would never want any. Kids were too messy, too noisy, and too expensive for her to enjoy. Andy gave the man next to him a long look. Schuler was a big boy, over six-four, and weighing in at a little over two hundred fifty pounds. All bone and muscle. A member of the E-team, he was on the fast track to making captain. "Relax, Joe," he said. "Just go home. There's nothing you can do about it. We'll be okay. We always are." Schuler nodded.

"Sometimes, I think that's the problem. We always manage." He handed Andy the papers he had been going over and took off the radio hanging on his belt. He passed it to his relief with a shrug. "You'll need this before the night's out. There's only about a dozen of them working anywhere close to right. Man, what a mess. Makes me want to play the lottery." Andy laughed. "Sure. And after you won, what would you do with all that time on your hands? You would miss us. Besides, men like you and me, we're not here for the money. Don't you watch the talk shows? It's the uniform. The ego trip. Get home and catch some shut-eye." Joe's forehead lost a few of its creases but not all of them. Always worried. Andy clapped the man on the back. "Joe, don't take this place home with you. If you do, you won't make fifty. Do what you can, then leave it here." He smiled, but this time it didn't touch his eyes. He was thinking of another officer who, the year before, died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight. The man hadn't left anyone behind because he gave everything he had to the job. There was nothing left for him to build a life with outside the walls. "Stop off for a beer on your way home. One won't do you any harm, and it could do a lot of good." Joe shook his head. He didn't drink, except very occasionally. Didn't gamble. Didn't smoke. He ate right. Tried to get at least six hours sleep out of every twenty-four, and when he could he got in eight. He was one of the new breed of guards who took their physical health seriously. It was men like him that changed the title of "Prison Guard" to that of "C.O., Correctional Officer." They took their health seriously, and they took their jobs seriously. Sometimes, too much so. Schuler was checking out the state employees lining up to enter the prison. Andy knew he was counting them. One assistant superintendent, three zone lieutenants, seven zone sergeants, twenty-nine guards and two nurses: that was who he would be running the prison with. A thirty-percent shortage of bodies. They weren't all here yet. Most of them would show up in the last five minutes. Andy watched Joe watching the midnight shift arrive. Good man, but he's going to worry himself into an early grave.

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