Matthew S. Rotundo is the author of The Prison World Revolt series—Petra, Petra Released, and Petra Rising. His short fiction has appeared in Alembical 3, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future Volume XXV. He is a 1998 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Petra by Matthew S. Rotundo

Welcome to Petra.

It is the ultimate prison. Inmates from all of Ported Space are dumped there, forgotten, and left to survive however they can. Hope dies. Escape is impossible.

Disillusioned war hero Kane Pythen comes to Petra on a fact-finding mission, but gets caught in an uprising that threatens to expose a shattering secret. And Rolf Ankledge, Petra's ruthless warden, will stop at nothing to keep it from reaching Ported Space. If Kane involves himself, he risks losing everything he has. If he does nothing, he betrays the last shreds of his ideals.

The prison break of the millennium is on. Now Kane must race against time and vicious forces from all over Petra if he ever wants to see his wife and daughter again.

Petra is the first book in The Prison World Revolt series.



  • "Richly imagined and riveting."

    – Free Thinker
  • "A sledgehammer rollercoaster story; gut-punching even."

    – Dave Wallace
  • "Great adventure story with complex characters. Page-turner that is a dark and at times heart-breaking examination of what the cost of prison is— for those on the inside, those on the outside, and those who wittingly or unwittingly enforce the boundary between inside and out."

    – Krista H.



Halleck Ellum waited behind the cover of rocks as the surveillance skimmer headed into the trap.

The bait—an old transport Hal and his people had acquired during a raid last year—waited in a shallow depression dotted with thin Petran grasses. Multimodal, its wings were retractable; its suspension system allowed for limited ground travel when necessary. Thirty meters long, with a twenty-five-meter wingspan when airborne, its white body was covered in a layer of grime. Even so, the rock-and-eagle insignia of Petra, done in black and gold, still showed through in a couple of places.

A transport long thought either lost or destroyed, turning up intact in northern Mainland, where it had originally disappeared. The skimmer would have no choice but to investigate.

It circled, about a hundred meters up, a compact black craft, wingless, repulsor powered. Its engines buzzed and thrummed, a vibration Hal could feel whenever it passed directly overhead. It would be scanning the area for hostiles, he knew. The black outcroppings surrounding the hollow would make that difficult.

The day was sunny, with unseasonably warm winds out of the south, from the direction of the Fracture. As good a day as any for the start of a revolution, he supposed. It had been a long time coming—fifteen years since the bastards had dumped him on Petra. Justice delayed, but not denied.

He glanced toward another outcropping five meters to his left, where Cromberg crouched, concussion gun at the ready. Miga was on the other side of the hollow. The rest of the strike team—twenty-one of them in all—were scattered throughout the rocks.

The skimmer continued circling. The crew—three of them, per Petran SOP—would be radioing back to Control for instructions. It seemed to be taking a long time.

Cromberg called out to him, his gravelly voice unmistakable: "They're not goin' for it."

Hal kept his attention on the circling skimmer, but put up a hand. "Hold."

"What if they fly off? Decide to come back later, with friends?"

Hal focused on Cromberg. The man's dark, craggy features seemed swallowed up by his mane of hair and long, bristly beard. A black-and-white striped heelocat pelt draped his shoulders, covering tattered and stained clothes gone gray with wear. Even at this distance, Hal could see the tension in the set of the man's body, as if he were about to spring.

"I'm gonna draw them down," Cromberg said.


"Damn it, Hal, we—"

"Hold. If you break cover, they'll just gun you down. And then they'll go get backup. Keep your position and keep quiet." Hal turned his attention skyward once more.

Cromberg grumbled something unintelligible in reply. But he held.

The tenor of the skimmer's repulsors dropped. It began descending.

It came down, struts extended, on the north side of the hollow, closest to Miga's position. It settled into the stony soil, the struts automatically compensating for the uneven terrain. The repulsors modulated to a deep rumble, idling, ready to be powered up on a moment's notice, if need be.

Hal signaled a thumbs-up to Cromberg—his authorization to proceed. Cromberg passed it on to Orem, the next member of the strike team. The go-ahead order would complete the circuit in a matter of seconds.

They'd done guerilla raids in the past, God knew. The concussion guns his people carried had come from just such excursions. But this was a different animal altogether—more of a precision operation. Their typical strike fast, strike hard approach, which guys like Cromberg were so skilled at, would avail them little. Any misstep could ruin the entire plan. They would never get an opportunity like this again, and Hal had an old friend to meet.

The skimmer's top hatch hissed open. A Petran guard, dressed in bulky black body armor, head encased in a helmet with dark blastproof shielding the face, emerged and stood atop the craft, holding what looked like a rifle-length pulse emitter. Unlike handheld models, which were built to incapacitate, the weapon this one carried could deliver lethal jolts. He—or she—it was impossible to tell in that armor—swung the emitter in a quick circle, searching the rocks.

Another head appeared in the hatchway—a second guard, similarly armored and armed. The two of them scuttled down a set of rungs on the side of the skimmer and flattened themselves against the ship. The hatchway resealed with a hiss.

They proceeded toward the transport, one taking point and the other hanging back five meters, watching the rocks. Neither of them would be visible from the skimmer's forward viewport.

It had to be now, or never. Hal scooped up a handful of pebbles and flung them into the grass three meters away.

"Wait." A man's voice, muffled by the helmet. He held up one hand.

The point person stopped, turned. "What?" Another male voice, clipped, impatient.

The cover man pointed with his emitter. "Something over there. By the rocks."

"Did you see anything?"

The cover man shook his helmeted head.

"Fuck it." The point man opened fire, sending pulse after pulse into the grass Hal had disturbed. Hal kept low, peeking through a narrow gap in the rocks that formed his cover, steeling himself. As the blasts slammed into the ground, every instinct screamed at him to bolt. He'd been shot at too many times.

The point man stopped firing. Smoke and the smell of burnt grass rose on the wind.

"All right," the point man said. "Let's check it out."

The two of them headed in Hal's direction.

A figure emerged from the rocks aft of the skimmer—Fallon, the youngest of their number, born on Petra, fair-haired and wiry, shirtless and barefoot, carrying a bone knife in one hand. He came up behind the guards, swift and silent. He got to the cover man and reached around to jam the knife into a vulnerable spot in the armor, the join between the helmet and the body, getting the guy in the throat. No chance to cry out. Fallon caught the sagging body before it hit the ground.

The point man kept coming, for the moment unaware that his comrade had fallen. He got close enough. Cromberg had the best angle. Hal signaled at him.

Cromberg took aim and fired. The blast from the concussion gun knocked the emitter from the point man's hands. A moment later, Fallon tackled him from behind.

Hal and Cromberg moved.

The point man had fallen face-first. Fallon was on his back, pinning his arms behind him. The guy flailed in his armor, bucking. Fallon flew off, but by that time, Hal and Cromberg stood over the guard, both with concussion guns pointed at his face. The guard saw the two of them and stilled his flailing, hands raised.

Fallon was back on his feet in a flash, standing next to Cromberg and Hal, breathing hard, eyes wild. Hal could only imagine how they looked from the guard's perspective.

Hal bent closer, tapping the barrel of his weapon on the man's faceplate. The helmet would keep him from getting killed—probably—but a shot at this range would still hurt. A lot.

"Tell your pilot to open the hatch, and we'll let you live."

The guard remained still and silent.

"Or," Cromberg said, "we'll let your pilot watch as we beat you to death with the butt ends of these things." He jabbed at the guard's armored chest.

"Kelso," the guard said. "Open the hatch. Right now. There's…been an accident."

Hal glanced back at the skimmer, straining to hear the hiss of the hatch unsealing. He heard only the breeze. He looked back to the downed guard.

"Kelso, damn it, don't argue with me! Just open the frigging hatch, will you?"

The hiss came.

"Good boy," Hal said. "On your feet now. Nice and easy." As he spoke, he looked again toward the skimmer. Miga Bronn, identifiable at this distance by her thick, matted hair, had emerged from her hiding place. She slung her concussion gun, scaled the rungs, and clambered atop the craft. She dropped out of sight through the top hatch.

Cromberg grabbed for the guard's chinstraps and unbuckled the catches. He ripped the helmet off and cast it away.

The guard was a young man—a kid, really. Couldn't have been much older than Fallon. A clean, pretty face, smooth. Pale blue eyes. His mouth had drawn into a tight moue, cinched like a drawstring bag.

Hal said, "Just take it easy, and you don't get hurt. That's the deal. Got me?"

The guard's eyes lighted on the body of his partner.

Fallon interposed himself in the guard's line of sight, brandishing the knife. "That's right, asshole. And more where that came from. So don't be stupid."

Hal touched Fallon's arm, easing him back. "Let's walk. No sudden moves."

They headed toward the skimmer. Hal had no way of knowing what was going on in there. His heart hammered. So much depended on the next few moments.

A figure emerged from the hatch, hands upraised. No armor for this one, just a black Petran uniform. Miga came next, weapon trained on the skimmer pilot—Kelso, one assumed.

The two of them descended, meeting Hal, Cromberg, Fallon, and the taken guard. Kelso was a middle-aged man, small, with thinning, straw-colored hair and a baby face. Miga stood half a head taller than him. He appeared calm, displaying none of the agitation and chagrin of the guard.

Hal glanced at Miga, who nodded. Her face was bony and weathered. Scars marked her jawline and her left cheek, just below the eye. Up close, the streaks of gray in her matted hair became apparent.

"How did it go?" Hal said. He watched her carefully for any sign of slippage. Her outbursts could be damnably difficult to see coming.

"Easy." Miga's mouth twitched in a thin-lipped smile. "I've searched him already. And I checked the radio logs. He didn't have time to send a distress call. We're clean."

Hal resisted the urge to close his eyes and allow himself a moment's relaxation. Cromberg, however, let out a whoop and a yell at the sky, holding his concussion gun overhead. Fallon joined him.

The rest of the strike team emerged from the hiding places, cheering, laughing, and slapping each other on the back as they gathered near the skimmer. They passed the slain Petran guard without a second glance.

Kelso stared at Hal. "You kill us, and Control will firebomb this entire sector. You know it."

"True enough," Hal said. "Wouldn't be the first time, either."

Cromberg, his grin obvious even through the mass of his beard, stepped up to the young guard. "Hey, you're pretty good with that pulse emitter, kid. Nice weapon. I think I'll take it. And your friend's too. We'll—"

The guard lunged, lowering a shoulder and barreling into Cromberg's chest. Cromberg fell, and the guard was on him. With a faint snick, a dagger, hidden up one armored sleeve, slid into the guard's hand.

Hal was ready for the move. He kicked, sending the knife flying. He kicked again, catching the guard in the face. The kid tumbled off Cromberg before the others even knew what was happening.

The guard lay supine, groaning, blood pouring from a broken nose—not so pretty anymore.

Cromberg scrambled to his feet, snarling. Hal held him back. "No! No! Keep your head. It's over."

Cromberg struggled for a moment longer before backing off. The others had stopped congratulating themselves and were tense once again, some pointing weapons at the guard.

When he was certain Cromberg was back under control, Hal released him, then addressed the rest of them: "Strip the armor off this one. Make sure he's not carrying anything else. And let's be a little more careful from now on. We have a long way to go yet."

Somber, Fallon and some of the others moved to obey. The guard did not resist. The fight had gone out of him.

Hal turned his attention back to Kelso. At the first sign of trouble, Miga had armlocked him. He still appeared serene. He said, "Kill us, then, if that's what you have to do."

"Hey." Miga grabbed a handful of the man's thinning hair and jerked his head back. "You don't give the fucking orders around here. Not anymore."

Hal put up a hand. "All right, relax. We don't want to kill anybody. I'm sorry about your friend back there"—he gestured in the direction of the body—"but that was self-defense." A bald-faced lie, but Kelso wouldn't know any better.

"If you're not going to kill us, then—"

Hal pointed to the transport. "We need you to fly that for us."

Kelso laughed. "That? You can't be serious. I doubt it would even get off the ground."

"It will fly, trust me. It has plenty of fuel and has been unused since we took it."

Kelso shook his head. "If you need to fly, you'll be better off in the skimmer. I wouldn't trust that crate any further than I could throw it. Not after it's been sitting for a year."

Miga tightened her armlock on him, making him wince.

"The skimmer's too small to carry all of us," Hal said. "The transport will fly. And you're going to fly it for us. Or I'll leave the two of you to my friends here. One way's easier for everyone."

Kelso glanced over Hal's shoulder, toward the body. "And, ah…where do you want to go?"

Hal smiled. "Control."

Kelso started to laugh, but stopped when Miga hiked up his arm a little higher.

"You…" He grimaced. "You can't be serious. You wouldn't get within ten kilometers. The security—"

Hal stepped forward, still smiling, bringing his face within inches of Kelso's. "You let me worry about the security. Just get us to Control."