© 2017 by Sophia Kell Hagin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
by Sophia Kell Hagin
To be alive is power,
Existence in itself,
Without a further function,
To be alive and Will—
’Tis able as a God!
The Further of ourselves be what—
Such being Finitude?
IX. The Single Hound, Poems of a Lifetime
After the fog
I admit it. I have a thing about counting. Calms me down, counting.
Which is why this has been so fucked up. Because you can’t count without a starting point, right? If you don’t have one, how the hell do you trust two or three, much less something like P=F´d/t?
But fuck me. I lost way more than an equation about power, force, distance, and time.
I really did lose one. I even lost before.
Yeah, well, fuck them. I’m slowly stumbling back again through the leftover fog of their pharma, back to remembering before, back to understanding that I need to count.
Which is a good sign. Maybe if I can keep my head together and count, I can find one. And if I can find one, I can find before, and then I can find my way home.
So okay. I declare this AF1—the starting point, the first day After the Fog, made possible by the woman who once occupied the cell next to mine.
As I listened to her scream and bang out there in the corridor when they dragged her away, a most astonishing thing happened, which I attribute to her, though I don’t actually know if she had anything to do with it. What I do know is that while she was shrieking, an old audiostick came whizzing under the door with such force that it zinged all the way across the outer cell and the inner cell, coming to rest against a tubercle of rust along the back wall next to the toilet.
And neither cameras nor robots noticed.
Maybe they decided it was one of the monster cockroaches always scooting around in here—the audiostick’s black like the cockroaches, almost as large, and it moved just as fast.
Took a while to finagle it off the floor. In here, nothing’s easy. A multi-lens camera dome has replaced the inner cell ceiling light, and to block the cameras’ view, I faked slipping as I got up from the toilet, which turned into a real fall. Couple bruises later, here I am curled on the bunk facing the wall, my hands hidden by the heat-glare of my back so the thermal infrared cam can’t detect what I’m doing. Good thing, cuz my hands won’t stop trembling.
Could be they’re trying to trick me, but why would they? Not like anyone wants anything from me except conspicuous conformity. And sure as hell, there’s nothing subtle about them. They pounce immediately when something’s perceived amiss. So far, though, nobody’s here except me and the cockroaches.
And the audiostick.
The logo on it hints at its corporate party favor origins. Top of the line in its day. Only the very best for MetraGlobal Bank.
So okay. Took a deep breath, pressed on—and it worked!
Even has a tiny speaker. Soon as I found the playback button, I pressed it and shoved the audiostick’s speaker nearly into my ear. At first I thought nothing had been recorded. All I heard was static. Then, spoken in an urgent whisper, this:
“My name is Philippa Flynn. I am—I was—senior assistant vice president of investment risk management at MetraGlobal Bank in New York. I’ve been abducted and I believe I’m going to be killed because I’ve seen a face I recognize. Robert Strauss—I met him recently at a Georgica Corporation audit board meeting. He was with one of the directors, and he’s seen me, too. In this horrible place. But he wasn’t a prisoner like me. Dear god, I understand now. It’s about—”
And there she stops. That’s all she said.
Don’t know if this little black stick, Philippa’s gift to me, will matter. But at least it works. Has loads of storage left. It’ll take a kinetic recharge, too, which means if I’m careful I can keep it functioning in here indefinitely.
So okay. My name is Jamie Gwynmorgan and this is AF1.
Whenever the hell that is. Wherever the hell this is.
Been counting circles—the small hand-and-finger twirls that recharge Audy the audiostick. Also making sure I stay curled toward the wall, back to the cams, so they can’t see what I’m doing. Count just hit a thousand.
Heh. My count. My thousand.
I wish I could tell you I’d been tough enough to count for myself right from the start. Truth is, I don’t dare stop obeying their counts. I’ve been lost in their counts for so long that whole stretches of my life before have faded into their fog, and I’m left with just my blurry, disoriented WHY?
In my defense, counting’s hard and memories ebb when you’re locked down twenty-four seven in a pair of adjoined galvannealed steel boxes, those prefab things loaded six to a truck and sent off unnoticed for quick installation in obscure abandoned warehouses.
The one that’s the inner cell is older, about five feet by ten feet, hot as hell, rusting gray walls perpetually wet with condensing humidity. They run a buzzy hissing sound constantly, too dissonant to harbor figments of voices or melodies. No window in here, either—only a caged air vent above a solid steel door still implacably sturdy despite its rust. An exceedingly slimy shower occupies a back corner.
The attached outer cell—same width, some six feet long—is also windowless. Here resides the elliptical exercise machine on which I’m forced to slog. A small pipe runs from the elliptical’s drive housing to the outer cell’s side wall. Contains a power line, probably, linked to an inverter somewhere nearby, which means they’re forcing me to generate electricity. And, of course, they’re forcing me to wear myself out.
The outer cell has a second door with a peephole, always blocked, and a food port autohatch. The entire world lies on the other side of that door, but all I see, blink-of-an-eye-briefly twice a day, is a sliver of the wide gray corridor where those screams, I believe Philippa Flynn’s screams, reverberated.
An always-on ceiling light circles the outer cell camera dome and an air vent runs high across most of the wall above the door—larger than the vent in the inner cell, with a fan inside it that puffs weakly at my back when I step onto the elliptical. Despite the louder hissing sound, this little bit of extra light and air in the outer cell makes working the elliptical almost appealing.
In here, the suffocating inner cell, the only air and light come through that undersized vent over the door and the inch-high space underneath. Even so, some things are obvious. Such as, I’m not the cell’s first occupant. The scratches on the wall tell me that, though I can’t decipher anything in them but misery. Or maybe madness.
Once or twice, I’ve picked up faint whiffs of something industrial. Diesel maybe. More often I smell salt marsh, which helps accounts for the corrosion. Add in steel that was never properly galvannealed and certainly hasn’t been maintained, sloppy welding practices, poor choice of filler metal, relentless heat—and no wonder the seams of this shithole bubble with pits and rust.
For a few seconds in what I assume is the mornings, I’ve taken to staring at the cankered weld seam next to the toilet, black in the dimness as it turns and snakes upward to fuse the cell’s shower unit to the rear wall, and, in what passes for hope, I succumb to a fantasy about leg-pressing my way out of here.
I imagine my back against the bottom of the steel bunk frame, my legs pushing. I imagine the power I have is power enough and the steel wall bends and I squeeze through into the chase behind the cell—a chase I damn well know is back there; I can tell from how the plumbing’s laid out.
Then reality bites. The steel’s gotta be twelve-gauge, for chrissake, structurally braced every foot or so, and behind it probably an inch of polyiso bonded to corrugated steel facing. And I’m trying to deform this with my body alone?
I’m reasonably robust—got the long, strong muscles that come with height, plus a decade of using them in rabid daily workouts that’ve kept me even-keeled first in school and then doing what’s mostly a desk job. But even if I managed to kick loose four feet of weld seam, how in this lifetime do I produce the roughly twelve tons of force I’d need to put a forty-five-degree displacement across three feet of carbon steel? Answer: I don’t. Not without some sort of additional power which…I…do…not…have.
Anyway, that’s all moot, because somebody or something watches and listens all the time. Every minute. Can’t tell whether it’s bioware or software, but they notice. Which I’ve found out the hard way. As in don’t exhibit curiosity about anything.
Curiosity will get you zapped with an electric shock delivered remotely to a small plate on the choke collar around your neck—just like a dog’s—that’s too snug to pull off. And since once they zap you they have to replace the used-up battery by temporarily removing the collar, they toss in a pummeling for the disruptive behavior of having forced them to interact with you.
And god help you if you then dare to screech what’s really on what’s left of your mind—like WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE AND WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT WITH ME? That’s when they follow up your collar-zap by shocking you with a handheld electrolaser till you’re lost in tonic spasms and soaked in your own piss. Then a custodian robot hauls you off—the custodians do almost all the heavy lifting—and you get a lengthy, uncomfortable lesson about their rules.
Definitely not worth it, especially since after all that you can’t see anything much from under the hood over your head, only a flash or two of custodian appendages. Actual human beings remain hidden in unmarked black uniforms and surgical masks and wraparound eyewear and boonie hats.
Nor will anyone respond to anything you ask them. Regardless of how much you apologize for losing your cool. Regardless of how pathetically you beg. Only the lesson matters:
Do what you are told when you are told
DO NOT SPEAK unless spoken to
And then they shoot you up with some kind of pharma. Maybe just so you lose time, who the hell ever knows how much time. Or maybe, if you’ve really irritated them, they’ll get you addicted to something long enough that when they take it away you’re sick as shit for who the hell ever knows how much time.
Makes the guards pretty much just another species of machine, irretrievably indifferent like the custodians and the square, squat meals-on-wheels contraptions that deliver what passes for food.
Haven’t seen a guard’s face yet. At least not that I can remember.
I want to see people, hear people, talk to people.
And god oh god, I want this awful, ugly noise to stop.
It never fucking stops. Philippa Flynn’s clamorous exit was a rare rupture in the ceaseless buzzy hissing, though occasionally I pick up “natural” sounds—vague rumbles of thunder, rain drumming on a distant metal roof. And a faraway, low thumping—almost an infrasound—that suggests a helicopter. Sometimes I think I hear a guard’s passing footfalls while I’m “working” on their goddamn elliptical, but maybe I’m imagining that.
I crave a real live human voice. I crave real live human laughter.
Though I don’t lack for the spoken word. A computer-generated voice—almost male-sounding—commands me awake every morning. “Detainee, you have ten seconds to stand and state your identification number—nine, eight…”
Since I’ve learned too well that they’re not fucking around, when the cell voice intones “zero,” my feet are standing precisely on the worn red footprints long ago stenciled onto the floor.
A few minutes later, the inner cell door clanks open as the food port autohatch swings down and the meals-on-wheels machine rolls up to the outer cell door with the day’s first meal-ready-to-eat, invariably one of the cold entrées. (And hey, just so you know: If I ever get the fuck out of here, I will never eat alt-tuna again.)
Too soon after that, it’s “Detainee, you have ten seconds to place your meal packaging on the outer cell door food port and assume your work position—nine, eight…”
And onto the elliptical I step. Whenever I’m too slow, I’m threatened. Beeping first—two short, one long, two short. This sequence repeats three times with maybe a five-second delay between each repetition. If I haven’t speeded up by the third round, it’s “Detainee, you have ten seconds to accelerate your pace—nine, eight…”
I have no actual memory of the consequences of failing to move the pedals fast enough, but the few times I’ve heard those words, I react instantly, involuntarily. An electric claw grabs my crotch and I’m impaled, fire tentacling into my gut, down my legs, though my chest, my arms, tightening around my throat.
All in my head, entirely prompted by the cell voice, but I’m sweating, shivering, on the precipice of panic. And I fucking crank those pedals faster, faster, until the fire ebbs and the claw lets me go.
I get a break after, well, I’m guessing more than two hours, less than three. Just enough time to pee, rest briefly on the cell bunk, and refill the water bottle the cell voice commands me to carry to “work” on the elliptical.
Then another shift, another break, another shift, followed by the day’s only other MRE, which precedes another three shifts. I’m shut away in the inner cell after that, ordered to return the water bottle to its slot in the back wall’s dispensing unit, then brush my teeth with toothbrush and paste from another slot, returning the toothbrush in “…nine, eight…” By the time it’s over, all I care about is sleep.
Periodically, the pattern alters with an announcement: “Detainee, you will shower in ten seconds—nine, eight…”
This means tug off the bobos and the yellow spandex top and bottom that are the only clothes I have, scoop up the glop of liquid soap oozing out of yet another slot, and wash and rinse everything, including the spandex, in a few minutes under tepid, sulfurous water gurgling pathetically from a rusting fixture.
Or it’s “Detainee, you will wipe down your cell in ten seconds—nine, eight…” So I scoop up a glop of ineffectual cleanser and a sponge from, yep, another slot, and get it done aysap before returning the sponge.
I have the strange yellow spandex clothes and slip-on shoes. I have the collar around my neck. During my time on the elliptical, I have a plastic water bottle. And that’s all. The rest, such as it is, gets dispensed to me for as little time as possible and all utensils must be returned to whichever hole in the back wall they came from.
The worst part of this remorseless goosestep of demand and threat is that I’m clueless about when—no sense of day or night, nothing about the date or the day of the week or, god help me, even what year I’m in.
I have no doubt that’s on purpose. They want me disoriented. Best way to turn a brain to mush. So they’ve made sure I have precious little to go by.
Although there’s no mirror in here, I can feel how my hair is shorter than before. Yet that knowledge is worthless. For all I know, they slipped me a roofie three days ago, cut my hair then, and I just don’t remember.
Nor can I get hints from my menstrual cycle, since I lost it years ago and its replacement, a Purple Heart, is less than helpful.
Only option I can think of: Count. I’ve tried counting sleep and MREs. Two MREs, each preceding three shifts on the elliptical, equal one day, which is followed by a chance to sleep. After a few rounds of frenetic paranoia too extravagant even for me, I now choose not to ponder the possibility that they’re bothering to dick with the lengths of my shifts.
I’ve lacked an implement to scratch a count of MRE pairs on the wall, so I’ve attempted it with my fingernails along the edge of the bed frame. Trouble is, chunks of time are missing—lost to beatings and pharma. And after their lessons about the rules, I’ve ended up in different cells. I can tell by the disparate rust patterns on the walls.
But this audiostick changes everything. I can keep a reliable count with Audy. Just curl up like always when it’s time to sleep, my back to the cams—only now I whisper, a scant whisper low in my throat, as much vibration as sound and hidden from their microphone by their own damn buzzy hissing noise.
And I say the day, starting with AF1. Plus maybe I can record what I manage to remember of before and listen to it later…
Am I crazy to be thinking so much about my last day of before?
I remember kissing Del like always and leaving the house that November morning. I remember where they grabbed me, about halfway between the house and the train station. Lots of bushes along the street—a good place for whisking someone away unseen.
Remembering, I get fucking angry at myself because I damn well should’ve respected my instincts about that van coming up too slowly behind me. But I’d spent years teaching myself to disregard those old impulses, no longer relevant in the ninety percent safe world where I’d gotten too comfortable.
Even when the van didn’t roll on by like it should have, I told myself, “Relax, they’re just gonna ask for directions,” although I did open the little hatch on my wristcom that protects the panic button from inadvertently transmitting false alarms.
Thank god. Because once they attacked, they moved with stunning speed, and suddenly I was off-balance, barely able to press the damn button before I was shut down by three, maybe four dudes wearing black balaclavas.
Del knew what was happening, more or less, because my panic button raises holy hell all over the place all at once, automatically transmitting and remote-storing everything recorded by every device in my possession. Altogether a paltry trail to follow, but it was the best I could do.
Del’s voice—shouting at me to tell her what’s wrong—was the last thing I heard. At least, I remind myself over and over and over, I had a chance to warn her.
I know that up to my final instant of consciousness anyway, Del was safe.
I have faith—I must keep faith—that when she realized I was in trouble, Del followed the protocol we’d long ago agreed on: Secure the house, call in backup, punch an ammo clip into the pistol I keep in a drawer next to our bed so she can defend herself.
And I know the entire clan went into emergency mode to protect her and themselves and to find me.
No luck, though, on that last score. Oh god, how long have I been in this nightmare that won’t let me wake up? A month? A year?
When I finally fell asleep last night, I dreamed about Del. First time I’ve remembered a dream since—don’t know when. Seemed like a protracted dream, but all I recollect is what Del said right before the cell voice bullied me awake: “Hide it! Hide it well!”
I had tears in my eyes when I opened them because the life that had been real to me for more than ten years is only a dream now.
Then my stomach corkscrewed. Hide it where?
Damn. Finding a secret place for Audy should’ve been my first priority as soon as I got near enough to understand what it was. But I was too busy talking to it. Clutched it in my hand next to my mouth like a kid sucking her thumb and whispered till I faded out. Twice.
Had no chance through this morning’s countdowns to locate a better alternative, so I tucked Audy under the skinny foam mattress I sleep on. Out of camera sight, sure, but right the fuck there for them to find just by flipping over the fucking mattress. Spent my shifts today making sure I pedaled fast enough, studiously servile.
But shit—what if this choke collar has more built into it than a zapper? What if it or maybe this spandex crap they’ve got me wearing does biomonitoring—heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature? How about detecting stress or tension or fear?
I got through today without incident. But what if they’ve spotted something? What if they’re watching more closely now?
So here I am, curled fetal on the bunk facing the wall, whispering to Audy while I scout the weld seam where bunk and wall attach with my right hand. I can feel the grit of rusting steel on my fingers. Think, dammit! Somewhere in here there’s gotta be a space just big enough, just invisible enough, just accessible enough, just camera-foolable enough for Audy.
I guess I must be praying. Don’t know what else to call this unutterable please please please that won’t stop sniveling in my head.
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