Two Prisoners

Cell Block Azure isn't like the other cell blocks on Ocean Prison Sigma. It's state of the art and virtually escape proof. I know this, because up until this morning, I was a prisoner here on Sigma and a resident of Azure.

You might be wondering what did I do to deserve a non-commutable life sentence on Sigma. I got this stint in Azure by ratting out my co-conspirators in a sweeping white collar crime. After my service in the military, I went to the business sector and I embezzled. I perpetrated fraud. I misrepresented myself and stole secrets. I could have taken my chances and pleaded not guilty along with the rest of my proud, tight-lipped cohorts, but I knew the case was hopeless. I'd hoped my cooperation might keep me isolated when they locked me away. Most prisoners languished in Sigma's general population - a dying, water drenched trough thriving with bacterial infestation. Sigma itself is a kind of a floating island - a half-submerged one, in fact - and absolutely nobody ever gets out.

My counsel told me the new, experimental cells were all part of Emperor Haza's plan to rehabilitate prisoners humanely through visual cortex stimulation. She had doubts about its effectiveness, though, and advised me against it.

"If you make it into Azure," she told me on the last day of the trial. "You may be more comfortable, but I don't know what they'll show you. These are images meant to rehabilitate you. I - I don't know what that means. Most likely you'll be brainwashed. Hypnotic suggestion. Maybe torture. Are you sure you want to be a guinea pig? I can plead for an isolated cell near general pop instead."

Any kind of isolation sounded claustrophobic to me, but Azure's reportedly clean and safe digs was more than I could ever say for the rest of the sorry world. I'd be sent to Sigma no matter what - the question was, would I be neck high in sludge water and fighting for my life, or sitting by myself in a small room? No contest. I'd take the small room.

"No," I'd said, adjusting my tie. "I want to go for Azure. I'm not afraid of a bit of the 'old Ludovico.' I can take whatever they throw at me."

When the judge learned how readily I'd rolled over for the prosecution, and how badly I'd indicted my co-conspirators, he ordered me sent to Azure almost immediately. Little did he or the prosecution know, I'd told them much, but not everything. There was something vital I'd left out, something they'd never discover.

"I have no doubt you think you're in for an easy time." the Judge deadpanned, "But I can assure you that after a few weeks, you'll wish you were swimming in the troughs with the rest of the deadbeats."

I didn't blink as the Judge issued a final warning: "You're never getting out of there. And may Emperor Haza bless your soul, because I sure as hell won't."

I don't remember arriving at Sigma. I woke lying face up on a hard bezel floor. To my right sat a small oblong pedestal - obviously the bed - and an almost inscrutable recess in the wall that passed for a urinal. What did I expect? A dog-eared handbook waiting for me on the pedestal called: "Welcome to Azure?"

Azure's steel grey surface lacked definition or texture. I paced for a time, feeling twitchy and strangely out of breath, then climbed onto the pedestal and tried to sleep. Nothing worked. I couldn't drift off, not even with my fatigue. It seemed impossible, but I felt something inside my cell prevented me from sleeping. Instead, I sat on the pedestal and stared at the wall across from me. I felt like crawling out of my skin.

Everything around me faded to white. I raised my arm to shield my eyes but was too tired to keep my arm up for more than five seconds. I felt woozy and slumped against the pedestal, but the instinct to sleep had been stolen from me.

That's when the image of a giant fly, about 1 meter long, appeared on each of the walls. The detail was nauseating. Its wiry forelegs rubbed together mercilessly and each twitch of its head made my head throb. The giant fly image jumped, then re-appeared in reverse, and the head and foreleg twitching continued. I lolled my head back and saw the fly's image on the ceiling, then gazed below my legs and caught movement under them. The fly crawled on each wall, even the floor, and a heavy buzzing persisted. I began to hyperventilate, but remembered some breathing techniques I'd learned in an ashram. I drew my breath in slowly, letting the regular influx of air sustain me.

The fly kept me company for hours. My twitching subsided and as I began to relax, the insect flicked off the walls as the color of my cell yielded to its former gray and I lost consciousness.

When I woke, I was no longer hungry. I felt the need to pee. I lay on my side, on the floor, with a terrible cramp. I must have rolled off the pedestal in my sleep. I began my breathing techniques again, beckoning the calm to return to me. The walls all over the cell ticked on from grey to white, and I was face to face with a giant disembodied human nose. I struggled to comprehend it; I even got a weird instinct to figure it out in ten seconds or less, like it was a prison administered test.

I sat and looked at it for a while. It scrunched and its wide nostrils flared. The nose occupied the wall opposite my 'bed.' I studied its pores and the way the organ twitched. What's it doing there, I asked myself. So much time passed that I began to see spots. Two days might have passed. I grew immensely hungry. Weren't there rules against starving prisoners? I should have known better than to expect the revised Geneva accord to make a lick of difference in Sigma. I had no rights.

On the third day, I lost consciousness and woke, what felt like hours later, with a full stomach and the need to defecate. It was tough to do, edged up flat against the wall, what-with that nose staring at me. Yes. The nose was still there, still flaring its nostrils at me and twitching. As I emptied my lower intestine I saw the nose turn slightly. Was it looking at me? I didn't care anymore.

I rested my arms over the pedestal and tried to breathe. Was this it? Was this the rest of my life? In the back of my mind, I'd expected more than this. I'd expected excitement, resistance, high drama - instead, I'd missed all that by a nose. Ridiculously, I even missed the fly from my first day of confinement. It was less disgusting.

At some indeterminate point later, much in my bare bezel cell, I named the nostrils. They became my friends. The left nostril was 'Ronny' and the right nostril was 'Edgar.' At first Ronny and Edgar appeared indifferent, but it became evident that they hated the snot out of each other. My beard had grown about a half an inch out and I might have lost consciousness ten times or more in that time. Each time I woke, it was evident I'd been manipulated: the waste sometimes squeezed out of me, my body scrubbed down in some way.

The notion of time ceased. I had a revelation that my beard was growing in reverse, and that it had been very long once, and due to the backward growth of my facial hair, I'd actually been in Azure for years and years. That was probably true. Edgar seemed to think so, but Ronny had his doubts. I let them quarrel about it then waved my hand away and slumped over the pedestal. I played imaginary tic tac toe and imaginary checkers. It was the same move set each time I played, but it was something. I said words aloud and spelled them, like in a spelling bee. Ronny and Edgar stopped playing with me. They only shuddered then stayed quiet. They hated me.

My beard still grew, so there was no doubt I must now be moving backwards in time. Maybe I'd get out of my cell once it grew to the length it was when I entered it. No, wait... was that right? I'd never had a beard before. I began to have doubts. I asked my two friends about it, but got still nothing from them but snooty indifference.

On the day I woke to a gray cell, I cried for hours worrying about Ronny and Edgar. I thought of them lost and alone, and it really ate at me. The cell stayed gray and lifeless for a long time, until twinges of reason spun back into my centrifugal thoughts. My earlier delusions felt embarrassing and foolish. It was just the isolation; the cabin fever; the loneliness. I felt adrift and sliced off from any sense of who I was or where I was. I tried to concentrate on my first name, on anything, but it seemed like none of my thoughts could stay in one place. The grey on the walls looked like fog, and blue down around the floor and the bottom edge of my cell. Colors?

Oh my. The blue rose. A water line. My heart began to race. It lapped at the walls like a real image; like I was a cube suspended in an ocean somewhere. I got dizzy because the water line slanted along the wall like I was spinning.

"Are you figuring it out?" an amused voice said. It could have been a voice in my mind, or something in a hidden speaker. It was a Glasgow accent, like mine.

"Are... you there?" I asked dumbly.

"Are... you... there?" he mocked, laughing. "Is that all you can say after two years of staring at a nose? I wait two bloody years to reach out to my fellow prisoner, present myself to you, like, and you ask me if I'm here. Well, I hope so!" He chortled.

"Two... years?" I responded, again, very dumbly.

"Listen, if all I'm gonna get outta you are haltin' two and three word sentences and dumb questions, I've got other things to do..."

"No! Don't leave! It's been a long time and I don't know what this is all about! Can you tell me? Do you know? Who are you?"

"Name's Godfrey. I'm in Rouge. My cell is tied up with you, like. Joined with you." he said. "Your cell extracts what's in your unconscious mind and places it up there for you to see. It's meant as a kind of feedback loop to drive you crazy with your own thoughts, but sometimes things bleed over, as in, you can see my thoughts and I can see yours."

"Wait... there's a nose living in my subconscious?" I asked, still feeling raw from speaking louder than a whisper.

"What can I say, lad? You're boring. Watch this."

A class M23-X warship came swooping across the walls of my cell, bending around the wall corners like a paper cutout, but unmistakably detailed. It's myriad lights shuddered behind shimmering heat waves rising off the manifolds. I hadn't seen one of those since I left the service. I drew in breath and ducked behind my tiny pedestal.

"How the shite..." I exclaimed. "....Are you doing that?"

The huge warship collapsed on itself, leaving my cell grey and cold again. Godfrey had been laughing. He took a while to calm himself down.

"I'm speaking to you, aren't I? Sending you sounds and images. You get used to it. The first guy they put in Azure, he lasted a year. Poor guy was seeing doorknobs, just suspended in space-like. Doorknobs turning but not connected to anything. I tried sending something nice over to interfere but his mind was fixed and he wouldn't even hear me."

"What happened to him?"

"Yeah, let me get right on that." Godfrey rebuked. "Let me consult with the Emperor's Government about all the shite that goes on outside this cell! They're just dying to tell me!"

"I'm sorry, I..." I waited a while and then just gave up on what I wanted to say. I just had so many questions. The white and blue in my cell had long since faded to a drab gray, and felt more solid than ever. After a few moments, I heard him speak again, this time his voice softer.

"I shouldn't 'uh be too hard on you, lad." he said finally. "Here, let me make it up to you."

The walls behind glass went streaky red in my cell, and a crimson sunset surrounded me. I hadn't seen colors and shapes in so long. Reeds and cat willows bent in an early evening breeze, and fireflies faded in and out of the air. The gentle sound of lapping water lulled me to something that felt like sleep, though I stayed awake until my usual time. When I did lose consciousness, it was with the first feelings of gratitude and hope I'd felt in a long time. I smiled wearily to myself when I noticed the tiny nose swimming through the pond Godfrey had constructed for me. We were intermingled.

My friend in Rouge and I didn't have a constant connection. It was intermittent and determined by... we didn't know for sure. It had something to do with our states of mind, our brainwaves or receptivity or something like that. Now that I knew someone else was around, my mental state firmed up considerably. I must have looked like a crazy person, in my smock and wild beard, but every few days - or weeks? - I'd hear from him, and I'd either talk out loud or think simple words like 'yes' and 'no' and he'd hear me and respond.

I decided that the crawling fly from my first day in Azure could have been a system 'bug' showing itself upon Sigma's 'reboot' of the cell upon my arrival. The fly might also have been a manifestation of my feelings of restlessness. I just didn't know. Neither did Godfrey. As for the nose - and how long it stayed on Azure's walls - it must have been connected with my breathing. For that entire time, I'd meditated on my breathing in such a way so that the concept of air through the nose represented the nexus of my calm. The appearance of a nose, therefore, while undoubtedly bizarre, was not so strange in retrospect. My naming of the nostrils, however, was another story. I'd lost my mind once, and wasn't about to do it again.

My awareness of all these things enabled me to set out on a course to turn myself around. I summoned a broader range of shapes onto the walls of my cell. I bought up imperfect spheres that floated and bounced into corners like some old screen saver program. Some of them were metal, like ball bearings, and others were transparent, some made of cloth, others seemingly made of skin. Over time I shaped the spheres into other things, like clouds, or abstract images, distorted faces.

Each time I woke, I tried to reach Godfrey in Rouge. I only succeeded a small percentage of the time, so when his brogue rang out in the silence of my cell, I reached out to him with stories about my life. He returned the favor, though he was less forthcoming than I. Like me, he'd been a troop in the Orbital Guard, riding around in a M23-X. Like me, he'd done bombing runs on the Myanmar / Indian border that left him disillusioned about the state of things in the Empire. We were the same, in that sense, but I got the impression that after his discharge, he just sort of gave up. I joined the banker's guild and used my skills to dupe priests and Generals. I kept enough to stay hidden, gave a good portion away and hid the rest. Then I got caught, and got scared. And rolled over. And here I was.

And here I am... which leads me to this morning. This morning's when it all changed.

I was doing my best - and failing - to project the image of a landscape on the walls to meditate to, when Godfrey said something that spun the rest of this day off course.

"You've done so much more than me, laddie." Godfrey said to me ruefully. I'd just gotten out of my sleep stasis to that familiar feeling of having been fed. I'd long forgotten what it was like to eat food.

"You seem to believe in something." Godfrey said. "Which is more than I can say for me. You have a family somewhere? Are they okay?"

At his mention of my family I felt suddenly miles above the earth. I gazed up slowly and saw that the distant patchwork and mottled hills of Southeast Asia stretched by below. The horizon drew up in from of me and stretched around the cube, and under my feet lay hundreds of miles of slum, of metro-rail, of excavated ranges and high speech corridors all leading up to Bangladesh. I heard the familiar click of the release lever and the whistling that always accompanied the drop of bombs. A cluster of them tumbled miles beneath me and hit the earth. One after another they hit the earth. I flinched. The landscape went red when they landed.

The images on my wall had grown sharp and defined. They weren't the nebulous shapes I'd only managed to conjure up until then. My emotion had funneled from me and created this awful vision. I avoided gazing at the floor, at the destruction below, and trained my eye on the horizon and the coming morning there. The line separating land from sky turned, and became the edge of a blanket, a red blanket draped over the side of the bed.

In the background, plants instead of planets, a bookshelf, a bare leg, the sound of breathing. It was all around me in my cell. The whistle of the bombs became a kettle whistle, and a woman's voice: "Aren't you going to make my tea?"

"Whoah, whoah there!" Godfrey's voice broke into Azure. "Who is this, now, my friend?" He could see it. I'd projected it onto his room, too. "You're learning!" he said, surprised. "No more flies and noses for you, my friend. Show me something else. Show my all that money you said you took. You've led such an interesting life, my friend. She is beautiful."

Ashamed, I let the emotion go and watched as my cell dimmed into the metal grey.

"I'm sorry, Godfrey." I apologized sheepishly. "That wasn't meant for you."

The scars of my life made me feel weak and monstrous. All I wanted to think about were the things I'd done that I could show pride in. I'd tricked the evil men who'd forced me into service, who'd forced me into destroying the only home I ever had, and the only people I'd ever loved. I'd spent the rest of my life fighting them, and taking from them, and though I'd gone weak at my trial, I'd still bested them. I'd still made sure they'd fall. You see, the money I'd stolen was still being siphoned out, bit by bit. My algorithm had ensured they'd never find it. Soon, their army would be bankrupt.

I shuddered as the hate rushed over me. An A92 tank rumbled from right to left over the screens of my cell, followed by another, and another. The rumbling was so loud I thought the walls might crack. The tanks rolled on but the day expired fast, and soon the sun set and they sank into a marsh as some beautiful clouds drifted overhead. The turrets disappeared in a thick mess of reeds and the sounds of their motors and squeaking treads were overcome by frogs and crickets. It was Godfrey. He'd placed his vision into my room.

"Brother, you need to calm yourself." he advised. "I don't want to you go the way of your predecessor now. Don't shut me out. Tell me what you did. You're carrying a big load on your own. Azure's only gonna get worse with all those thoughts rushing about." He was insistent. "Tell me."

The sun rose up along Azure's wall, near my pedestal, enveloping it in yellow morning light. The reeds blew away and the ground was frozen over. All was flat and dormant and silent. It didn't last long, as one of Godfrey's M23-X ships coasted high above in the sky. Something dropped from it, and I panicked as the 360 degree vision of an ice field melted and rippled with my fear.

"Not a bomb, lad. It's a gift. Calm yourself." he said.

Sure enough, it wasn't a bomb, but a giant slate on a tripod twisting in the wind from a parachute. It circled the field and made a controlled descent until the whole surface of the slate had landed and enveloped an entire wall of my cell.

"You are remarkable." Godfrey said. "You've done nothing wrong, my boy. I just need you to explain something to me, something I'm too dumb to understand."

I was silent and still. I ran my hand down along my beard. My cell had never looked so little like a cell. I could have been outside. I could stay here like this forever. It was better than the war-ridden world, if I could keep it like this. If I could just keep my concentration, I could use Azure's mainline into my brain as a way to cope. This wasn't Sigma any longer. It was a playground, one I'd play for as long as I could.

"Can you give me a moment of your time, my friend?" the man in Rouge asked. "I need you to write it down on the board? None of this bellyaching will do, none at all. You need to get past it all."

I stood and gazed at the grey slate. I imagined a line, and a line appeared. I imagined two lines, one after the other, and they appeared. One number followed another until I'd traced a series of symbols and expressions.

"That is astounding." the man who named himself Godfrey exclaimed excitedly. "Give me the whole algorithm. Is that all of it?"

It was far from the entire formula, but I resisted, and told him, 'yes.' He let out a huge, orgiastic laugh. I felt my legs give out. I crumpled to the base of my pedestal. A small crack appeared in the bottom corner of the slate and began to stretch along the whole wall of the cell. A sick, awful noise at the bottom of me made its way up, and the slate shattered. The ice on the field melted and the ground and sky blew off, leaving the plain walls, and a darkened square. I slumped over my pedestal.

The man's laughing stretched out over my cell. He didn't sound so much like the cohort from Glasgow I'd come to trust.

"It hasn't been easy, you know... watching my fortune crumble away while we established you in here. You're good, but I'm better. I'm an impatient man. I don't like waiting. We knew you wouldn't roll over so quickly unless you had something bigger to hide. We knew it!"

The lines appeared in the wall as if by magic, and the door burst open. Bubble headed hydro-guards with their electric prods rushed me. I went blind at the light from outside. My arms were brought behind me and my wrists bent until one of them broke, and placed in metal cuffs. I was dragged up off the floor and rushed toward the door quickly. My feet gave way and dragged along the corridor, while windows flanked either side of the tunnel. Past them, sky and sea and a partial view of Ocean Prison Sigma's enormous flank nestled in the waters.

I could still hear Emperor Haza's maniacal laugh far behind me in the cell I'd called home for so many years. From his palace, he must have thought this the cleverest of designs to invade my brain and gain my trust. Was there even a cell Rouge? No. Probably not. I wasn't placed there for the benefit of Azure... Azure was placed there for me. Even as they loaded me up into a transport, either headed for the trough or for somewhere far worse, I grinned at the knowledge that they'd never get it. They'd never guess the rest of the formula. They'd never take it from me. And they would fall.


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