The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan - Chapter 1
by Christopher Ruz
They marched Cezar through the airlocks and into a plastic-walled decontamination chamber, where he huddled with near one hundred other prisoners, naked and wet and utterly alone. A speaker in the ceiling screeched, “Close your eyes!” and a fine mist of antibacterials sprayed down, stinging across Cezar's bare skin. Then came a blast of light that left fine red motes dancing across his vision and a stinging in his metal fillings. Finally, the water. It came from all directions, high pressure hoses knocking him on his backside. The prisoners howled and swore and slipped, crushing each other in their desperation to stay on their feet. Cezar pressed into a corner with his hands over his face. He waited for the noise to stop.
The water finally died away. The speaker crackled into life. “Go through the door.”
They obeyed. There was nowhere else to go.
The corridors grew dark. The prisoners shuffled along with their heads down and said nothing. Their path was lit by tiny bulbs in the floor and in that light Cezar looked at his hands, at the deep grooves and patterns of scars left by knife-fights and broken teeth and back-alley surgeons sealing wounds with glue. He made a quick fist. Strength enough for what he had to do.
The corridor widened and opened into a long grey chamber. Guards stood behind walls of nanotube reinforced glass. They carried long black microwave-rifles with dark mouths. They didn't smile.
The prisoners stopped. Some of them covered their nakedness with their hands, as if there were still some measure of modesty to protect. Others watched the guards with teeth bared, daring them to pull the triggers. Nobody moved.
At the far end of the chamber was a small glass booth, and in that booth was a man wearing a light blue suit and a pair of white gloves. Beneath his vest was the unmistakeable bulge of body armour. His eyes were a dark shade of blue, so dark they could have been purple. He coughed, and the cough was amplified by hidden speakers, echoing off the walls.
“I am the warden,” the man said, “and I own this prison. By extension, I own you. During your time here – however brief, or long, or terminal – you will obey all directives given to you by myself, or my guards. The penalty for disobeying a directive once is solitary confinement. The second time, the penalty is vivisection.”
Again, he coughed, and tugged his right glove down snug over his hand. “I don't care why you were sentenced. I don't care whether you blackmailed the mayor or whether you piloted a starship into an orbital orphanage. Your crimes outside this place mean nothing to me. Arundus Seven is a different world. This, here, is my world, and you're under my thumb from now until the day your implants blink off and say you're free to leave. Fuck with me, and you will be fucked back. Understand?”
Cezar wasn't listening. He watched the floor, and the walls, and the gaps where the walls met the ceiling. He looked at the guards, and the straps that bound their armour to their limbs, and wondered exactly how much force it would take to wrest one of those microwave-rifles away. He wondered how many kilograms of pressure it would take to shatter their facemasks and reach in to pluck out their eyes.
“Go,” the warden said. A door slid open in the concrete wall, revealing more black corridor. “Take a uniform and choose a cell. If there's somebody already in your cell, that's your problem. This is not a holiday. This is not a rehabilitative institution.” The warden was smiling now, but only slightly, the smallest curve of the lips. “How you behave with each other is not my concern, so long as you treat my guards with respect. This is your only warning. Welcome to the Pike.”
The prisoners filed past the warden's sealed-off cube one by one, squeezing through the door and into the darkness, and the warden nodded to them one by one, as if sharing some private joke. Cezar stayed at the back, his gaze fixed on the space between his feet. It wasn't until he was right beside the warden's cube that he looked up and met the man's eyes.
The warden jumped back. One hand flew up to his throat. “You-” he said, and then Cezar turned away and pushed into the tide of prisoners, and was swept along into the dark.
They emerged, blinking, into the light of the Pike cellblock.
Cezar had seen the outside of the Pike only twice. The first time was when they landed on Arundus Seven nearly a decade before, descending through acid cloud cover onto an untouched plain. From kilometres above, the Pike had only looked like another mountain. It wasn't until they'd touched down that they'd seen the colossal vertebrae that made up its rocky structure, the skull near five hundred meters across with its tunnel of fossilised teeth and its cavernous empty eyes.
There were no creatures like it still living on Arundus Seven. Whether it was the remains of some beast long extinct, or a rock formation carved by alien hands, they couldn't tell.
The first settlers on Arundus Seven tunnelled inside, blasting through weak ivory walls to discover that the mountain was already hollow, carved out and segmented into chambers like the cells of honeycomb. Some theorised that a second great race had lived on Arundus between the first extinction and the arrival of humans, etching their homes into the carcasses of those creatures who owned the planet before them.
Such things hadn't concerned Cezar. He'd had his own problems, scratching out a living on the far side of the planet, making his bread with knives and pressure-pistols and teeth. But mistakes had been made, some accidental, some deliberate. Men had died, and he'd been hunted down and brought back to roost. He saw the Pike for the second time through the porthole of a prisoner transport truck as it bumped its way over the red-iron dunes, and he'd known that something great and terrible was about to happen, something he'd been waiting for every day since that colony ship first touched soil.
Now he was inside.
Nothing could have prepared him for what it was like to stand inside a hollowed-out mountain. The beehive was too small a metaphor. The walls were hard grey rock stretching up, up, up, to a central peak so far overhead that all was lost in shadow. A scattering of thousands of tiny lights were the prisoner's chambers, thousands and thousands of cells all twisting with the grain of the rock, bored into the skin of the mountain. He was standing on a walkway that ran around the circumference of the Pike like the groove of a colossal screw, spiralling both up and down into what felt like infinity. Cezar risked a glance over the edge. The cells were a helix of tiny lights becoming smaller and smaller as the Pike extended down past ground level, into the bedrock of the planet.
Eight thousand prisoners, he'd heard. Nearly five percent of the total population of the Arundus Seven colony. And here he was, in the centre of it all.
The great doors slid closed behind them with a bang that made Cezar jump. The crowd of prisoners was already moving, and pushed through the rows, not wanting to be left at the back. He made his way up the twisting walkway that lined the inside surface of the Pike, passing the open cells. Men waited inside, watching him with shadowed eyes. They were stained with something like coal, or grease. Blades of wood and bone shimmered in their hands.
He walked for near an hour, up the winding stair, completing more than four revolutions around the corkscrew of the Pike, until he found a cell where the man sitting inside wasn't holding a knife. He was small, broad across the shoulders, and his beard was stained with smoke. There was something tattooed on the back of his hand; two circles, interlinked. When he saw Cezar standing outside he said, “Already got a bunkmate.”
Cezar nodded. “Is he as big as me?”
“You like him?”
“What's it matter? This is his place.”
“Where's he now?”
“Working in the pit. You're fresh, right? They tell you about the pit?”
The cell had no bars, only a single window of reinforced glass and a door that slid open on hidden rollers. Cezar slid through the gap and sat down on the rotten mattress beside the man. He held out his hand. When the man didn't shake, Cezar said, “They didn't tell me anything.”
“They tell you what you're guilty of?”
“Not being on their side, I suppose.”
“Hrm.” The man pulled something from inside the hem of his pants that might have been a cigarette, if cigarettes were rolled in scraps of linen. From inside his other pant-leg he pulled a battered laser valve, and shone its green beam against the end of the roll. It lit. He sucked deep. “You going to stab me in the night?”
“I've got no reason to hurt you.”
The man nodded. “Lauris.”
“Big man who sleeps here, Old Arthur, he's gonna fight you.”
“I can fight okay.”
“You killed a man?”
“What's a few?”
Lauris didn't move. The cigarette trembled between his lips. Then he said. “That what they send you here for?”
“They didn't send me here.” Cezar stretched out on the narrow mattress and folded his hands beneath his head. “I came.”
He slept, and dreamed.
He was not himself. He was a young man, slim, bowed beneath the weight of a satchel bag. His name was a number. He was trembling, despite the downers he'd taken less than an hour before. His palms were sweaty. It was hard to breathe.
He entered LaGuardia airport with his head down, avoiding the gaze of security and passengers alike. His leather shoes squeaked on the carpet. He walked very slowly, not wanting to jostle the contents of his satchel. He had no idea what would happen if the detonator slipped, or the alarm clock was tripped too early. He wasn't the bomb-maker. He only followed instructions.
He'd been given a key to a locker by the luggage carousel, and he placed the bag inside before connecting the wires that ran between the alarm clock and the battery. It was a delicate process. His fingers shook as he wound the clock, glancing over his shoulder at the red-eye crowds. He checked his watch twice, confirming the time when the target would land.
The man with the purple eyes. The man in his dreams.
He zipped the bag shut, closed the locker, dropped the key inside an abandoned paper coffee cup and dropped the cup into a bin. His heart thudded against the walls of his ribcage as he hailed a taxi. Again, he checked his watch.
Twelve hours. The plane would land, and the man with the purple eyes would step out, and collect his luggage, and the bomb would tear him open.
The dreams would stop. He would be free.
Cezar woke, shaking off the dream. Footsteps echoed in the cell. The light was thin and grey. He looked up.
The lights of the Pike had dimmed. It was night, if there was such a thing as night in that place. Lauris was asleep in the corner, chin against his chest. The glass door was closed.
Beyond the glass were three figures. One was a guard, face hidden behind his helmet. The second he recognised. The warden, arms crossed, the gloves on his hands bright even in the darkness. Cezar could see by the curl of his lips that he was smiling.
He touched some hidden panel on the glass and the door slid open.
The second of the three figures stepped through. He was huge, his head almost brushing the rock ceiling, and he held a stone hammer loosely in one hand as if it weighed no more than a woman's purse. The head of the hammer was wide enough to crush a man's skull.
Lauris woke and was on his feet in moments. “Cezar, this is Old Arthur. My bunkmate, back from the pit.” He clasped his hands before him, tracing the lines of the circles tattooed below his knuckles. “I told you he'd be back.”
The door slid closed behind Old Arthur, sealing them in. The sleep-haze was already gone. Cezar crouched low, balling his hands into fists. “Arthur, you can walk away, if you want. You can find another bed, but this one is mine.”
Old Arthur looked back over his shoulder at the warden. The warden nodded, and Arthur hefted the hammer. “I gotta fight you.”
“You don't have to do anything he says. He's just a man.”
“Sorry,” Old Arthur said, and brought the hammer down.
Cezar rolled sideways. The hammer burred through the space where his head had been, hitting the concrete with a boom like cannonfire. Stone chips spat into the air, and Cezar darted forward through the cloud of dust, into the circle of Old Arthur's arms.
He drove his right fist up into Old Arthur's solar plexus. The big man grunted. His eyes bulged. Then he fell back, the hammer still clenched tight. His head cracked against the stone. His left leg kicked spastically, and then he fell still.
Cezar uncurled slowly. He shook out his arms and cracked his fingers one by one.
The warden took a step back from the glass. His mouth was a thin white line. He turned to whisper to the guard, and then turned back.
The warden's words burred through the glass. “Did Milan send you?”
Cezar didn't reply.
“Of course he did,” the warden said. “He always worked sideways, didn't he. Couldn't ever do a job himself. Too scared to come at me like a man. Well, I know why you're here. I know your game!” The warden stabbed at Cezar with one finger. “You think you'll do me like you did Childers? One week, and you're gone. No, one day. You're weak. You're charcoal. They'll never find you, not with a fucking spectrometer, you hear me? You hear me?”
Cezar didn't move. He fixed upon the warden, unblinking.
It was the warden that finally broke, retreating into the shadows of the corridor and hunching his way down the helix of the Pike. Only when he had vanished entirely did Cezar relax. The body of Old Arthur steamed at his feet.
“What now?” he said. “Someone going to clean this up?”
“Nobody but us.” Lauris bent low over the corpse of Old Arthur and whispered something that Cezar didn't catch. “Warden never comes this far up the Pike. You must've really got up his ass.”
“I never said a word to him before today.”
“This isn't right, him setting Old Arthur against you. We keep things in order, not him. This is our place.”
“What if he wants someone removed?”
“Warden can't just have a man killed. There are rules. But if he really wants someone gone, they end up in a room with someone that doesn't like them, like you and Arthur. That, or they get sent to work in the pit. People don't come back from there so much. I figure that's where you'll be, after morning services.” Lauris looked up. There was something like wonder in his eyes. “What'd you do to that man, to make him hate you so much?”
“I told you. I never said a word.”
TO BE CONTINUED - All feedback is much appreciated!