Justice. Only so often does a single word call for such diverse interpretations as this one. Evoke conflicting ideas. To some, justice is the state’s responsibility, one to be delivered without falling into any bias. To others, it is vengeance. Such various ways to understand it are not surprising, for what is seen as a just cause varies from one system, planet, culture, and individual to another. And of all places, no other highlights it better than the Stanton system.
My next stop brought me in orbit of Hurston, the planet owned by the eponymous company and closest to the star. More precisely, on one of its moons: Aberdeen. Named after the famous family’s scientist that designed the company’s first antimatter warhead, it was devastated during a mysterious incident on which the firm has not yet released any statement, although some of its supporters claim the moon has always been this way and such a theory was only crafted to harm the family’s already controversial public image. A joke often shared amongst the employees that get sent to the moon, I was told, is that it made it just like the person it was named after, supposedly: stoic, dry, unwelcoming, and toxic. It therefore seems quite obvious as to why the company chose such a place to be the home of the most feared complex of the whole system, one of Klescher Rehabilitation Facilities. While some remote corners of Stanton can seem hostile, frightening, even, no other place encapsulates it better than the star system’s only prison.
From the outside, it merely looks like a black wall. A dam. Gigantic metal teeth protrude into the air to its front, standing up to the complex’s reputation: nothing that gets swallowed inside those walls comes out the same way. The top of two wide underground wells shaped-like silos can be seen as approaching the site from the air, a few hundred meters from the gates. Those enormous metal craters are filled with just as big pipelines that transport molten minerals extracted beneath the surface. The only workers Hurston Dynamics dispatches here are cargo haulers, however, and the profitable molten lava that flows inside to be slowly sucked toward processing plants is nearly mined for free.
Caught public enemies and outlaws reside somewhere underneath that yellow and brown layer of thick rock at the surface, in an underground facility that stretches over tens, hundreds even, of kilometers of galleries. This is Stanton’s prison, owned and operated by the company Klescher, which specializes in running privately owned ‘rehabilitation facilities’. A prospect that can surely seem slightly uncomfortable in some systems, but not in Stanton, where merely anything is to be found and traded on markets – even lives.
Like every company, Klescher has to stay afloat, however, and I was quickly informed that the inmates were no strangers to that consideration. While it supposedly depends solely on their choice, the firm lets them operate mining equipment and ‘reexamines’ their sentence should they bring back valuable minerals from deep within the rocky corridors scattered all around their living area.
The extracted material is then sold to the highest bidder and covers the costs of housing and maintaining the convicts, and much, much more than that. I questioned the guards about the company’s policy regarding the megacorporations that own Stanton’s planets, more precisely if the latter had to pay a fee each time one of their inhabitants was jailed inside the facility, but each one I encountered all throughout my stay said – or feigned – not being aware of such a thing.
Claims of Klescher forcing its convicts into labor have periodically resurfaced over the years, but the enterprise has always stood firm while denying them, citing the mandate it was given by the Empire to provide security to the inhabitants under its jurisdiction and that of the various Stanton corporations in strict accordance with UEE laws. As per the company’s words in various public statements, “our facilities intend to rehabilitate their inmates and ensure their best chances when returning to normal life, offering them the possibility to earn their freedom through dedication and hard work, two values that have been shown to reduce the risks of re-offending and will help them greatly later on. While the people we have in our care may not realize it, our methods are designed to benefit them.”
The complex on Aberdeen is advertised as being brand new, and a testimony to the company’s interest in keeping the public safe, but from the inside, it felt a little different. I toured the center and stayed a day underground, interviewing convicts and security forces alike, and the metal catwalks I walked on escorted by guards often felt anything but brand new. Rocks fallen from the ceiling littered them in some sections deep underground, while other metal stairs were simply broken or buried beneath a collapsed tunnel. Lights often flickered, leaving the conduits appear differently every time I blinked. Fortunately for me, the guards knew the place inside-out. Something as simple as moving became difficult down there, as the tunnels are exposed to the moon’s toxic atmosphere and merely walking down them requires wearing a pressurized suit.
The employees’ sections didn’t look much better, except for their rooms at the surface inside the main building. Even though their work is mostly to overlook and manage the inmates, one admitted to me that he felt like going down a miner’s shaft each time he was on duty inside the prison. Oppressed by its rocky walls and cramped orange-brown hallways, a color the company made part of the whole architecture, with only black walls to look at in order to find a different shade.
I briefly stayed in a readiness room where the guards are stationed when they are not moving prisoners around the facility. They write down messages on a whiteboard, in a well-lit corner, to pass pieces of information down from one team, and shift, to the next. A quite explicit note was displayed in plain sight, referring to some of the convicts as ‘garbage’ that needed to go through ‘processing’. I asked a guard about it, and though he laughed at my remark at first, admitted they use such a phrasing to describe the inmates.
“Processing is the procedure when they first arrive. As for the garbage… Well, it’s a little touch of dark humor, I guess. Also makes it feel like a more normal job. Dealing with a thing is easier than dealing with a person, to some.” It appeared quite obvious my questioning made him uncomfortable and I didn’t push it further. I was only allowed inside the complex thanks to Klescher’s willingness, and didn’t intend to overstay their welcome.
As I would have imagined, the inmates’ opinion regarding their jail wasn’t as positive as Klescher’s or that of the guards.
“Oxygen stations scattered ‘round the mining tunnels to refuel your tank are continuously breaking down. Sometimes you crawl down there to work and try to shorten your sentence only to realize they are wrecked, leaving you to choose between returning to your cell empty-handed or hoping the next one will be working. I know some inmates that have nearly suffocated from this,” one told me. I asked him if he was aware of any prisoner that would have died due to this issue, but he refused to answer.
My ship departed later that night from one of the center’s two hangars to return to Hurston, in the middle of a sandstorm. Out of the enormous complex, I could only see the red and white lights that stretched along its menacing metal outline as we hovered above the ground, but by then, I knew there was much more to this place than what simply caught the eye. I knew that even though the atmosphere wasn’t breathable outside those walls, nor was all the excess of dust behind them that the ventilation system couldn’t handle. The exterior was polished and well-maintained, but the underground tunnels felt like they were on the brink of collapse. All those impressions therefore begged one final question to the guards before I left. One to which they all gave the same and simple answer once they were done laughing. I asked them about how they managed possible escape attempts considering the state of some tunnel sections, and their response was unanimous. “Escape to where?”
Zirmarg for Imperial Geographic, Stanton system