Authors: Stuart J. Whitmore
Nongma was sitting on her bunk when Bunierti entered their room. A mix of reactions washed through her mind, mostly surprise that her roommate was already back and seemed to have been there long enough to relax but also a vague ambivalence about the non-responding Upholder not being Nongma and something else – she dismissed the notion that it was guilt but couldn’t put a word on it – about her almost subconscious wish that it had been Nongma standing out there. Without a word, she moved over to her locker and began removing her armor and storing it properly for its next use. Nongma also said nothing and showed little interest in the post-deployment routine of her roommate.
For a short while, Bunierti returned to her reading, but her growing hunger provided enough distraction that she finally set it aside. She was about to leave to get food when she heard a soft chime from her wrist. Mentally grumbling about the seeming deterioration in battery quality, she quickly swapped the battery in her wristcom and held it next to the comm screen by the door until a short chirp confirmed that it was resynchronized. Without a word to Nongma, she then left their quarters and headed briskly toward the dining facility. Considering that the population of the barracks building was almost that of a small town, and given the varied schedules of the Upholder’s work, the dining function operated at all hours. It was no surprise to Bunierti that there was a line of Upholders in the corridor leading into the dining area. She knew, as they all knew, that the food would be precisely measured for optimum nutrition, and its taste would be good enough to make it edible without being so good as to make it desirable in excess.
When she returned to her room, Bunierti’s stomach was satisfied but her mind was not. After staring at her reading material for awhile without making any progress, she set it aside and suppressed the urge to let out an irritated sigh. She didn’t want to show any hint of weakness in front of Nongma. Irritation was emotional, and emotions were weak. She knew she couldn’t avoid them but letting them be visible was the sort of nonsense that could wait until she was an old woman. That is, if she didn’t follow the norm and opt out of old age. Still, she knew she was restless, and she was annoyed that she could not focus on her studies. Abruptly, she stood up and walked to the comm screen and tapped it to wake it up.
“Upholder Bunierti Kittran requesting extra duties. Preference: Sector W84-88D,” she stated, keeping her voice calm. It was time to visit Wolf Block and resolve her curiosity.
“Granted,” the reply came almost instantly. “Report in twenty-six minutes to Station W84.”
In her peripheral vision Bunierti saw Nongma look up at her, but she did not acknowledge her roommate’s attention. Instead she moved to change into the lighter-weight interior duty armor that would be necessary for her assignment. She did not need to hurry, nor did she have time to dally. The duty station was a significant distance from her quarters, and she was confident that the mix of walking and automated transports would put her there slightly early if she kept a steady pace.
“Don’t talk to them,” Nongma spoke up as Bunierti moved toward the door.
Annoyed at the interruption, Bunierti glanced over at Nongma. “Of course I’m going to talk to them if I need to give them commands,” she replied. “Keep your silly fear-mongering to yourself.”
“Don’t talk with them,” Nongma corrected herself. “Don’t engage in conversation.”
Bunierti sneered openly. “Why would I converse with prisoners? But, thank you for your concern.” She left the room abruptly.
The route to the duty station was not direct, but the automated transports took Bunierti deep underground and minimized the amount of walking that she needed to do. Where there were long straight stretches to walk, optional moving walkways along one side of the corridor helped reduce her travel time. The minimal HUD in the interior duty armor provided the guidance she needed to reach her destination. When she arrived, she found two older-looking male Upholders seated at the desk behind the shield glass. A glance at their rank insignia confirmed that she was junior to them. When she pressed her hand against the palm reader to enable the intercom, she knew that her prints would be cross-checked with her wristcom to confirm her identity, after which she would be checked in at her duty station and the Upholders on the other side of the glass would have her pertinent information.
“Upholder Kittran,” one of the men acknowledged her. “Did you lose a bet?”
“No, sir,” she replied evenly. It was no surprise that volunteering for extra duty, and in Wolf Block specifically, would evoke some non-routine responses.
“This your first time to Wolf Block?” the other man asked.
“Yes, sir,” she confirmed.
The two men exchanged a look that Bunierti did not take as a compliment. One of them reached over to his console and pressed a button. She heard the door unlock, and without waiting for further instruction she proceeded from the outer corridor into the secure area. Even on that side, the booth in which the men sat was walled off with shield glass. Further down the corridor Bunierti could see a set of doors that she assumed were lifts that provided transport down to the prison sectors.
“May I proceed?” she asked. She felt a slight apprehension, which she did not want to label as nervousness, and she hoped her voice held no hint of it.
“Proceed,” one of the men answered. “Lift six. You will be relieving Upholder Garker.”
With a nod, Bunierti walked forward to the lift doors. She waved her wristcom over the control panel for lift six and did not have to wait long before the doors slid open. She stepped in briskly and the doors slid closed behind her. She could feel the quick drop in her stomach and moments later the doors slid open again. She stepped out and checked her HUD for information, then turned to her right and used her wristcom to identify herself to the door leading to corridor D. The door unlocked and she stepped through, almost running into the Upholder who stood facing away from the door looking down the corridor lined with prison cells. He turned abruptly, looking startled, collector in hand. When he saw Bunierti his face relaxed.
“For what?” Bunierti asked.
“You are here to relieve me, right?” the Upholder asked in return.
“Well, yes,” she confirmed.
“I’m happy to get out of here,” the other Upholder said. “You’ll see, when your relief comes you will be thanking them too.”
Bunierti did not know what to say in response, so she changed the topic. “I am assuming their schedule will be delivered via HUD. Is there anything else I should know?”
The Upholder laughed. “This is Wolf Block,” he blurted. “If this is your first time here, there is not much I can tell you. Well, maybe just good luck!”
With no further conversation, the other Upholder waved his wristcom over the reader by the door to let himself out. Bunierti rolled her eyes as he left and then looked back down the corridor and the prison cells that lined it on both sides all the way to the far end that ended with a blank wall. She noticed that it was quieter than any other prison block she had served in. She noted, too, that despite the ample lighting and the ability to see through the shield glass and bars that formed the wall between each cell and the corridor, she could not see any of the prisoners from where she stood. She decided to take a stroll down the center of the corridor to make her presence known and to verify that all prisoners were in place. Considering the behavior of the Upholder she relieved, she could not trust that all was in order.
As she began to move down the hall, the first of the strange rumors from Wolf Block was confirmed. The prisoners were not just being quiet, she found that they were all standing at the back of their cells facing the back wall so she could not see their faces. Strange prisoner behavior was one thing, but Bunierti was not about to believe the rumors about strange disappearances of Upholders, prisoners disappearing and then returning, Upholders being violently murdered in the middle of the corridor with no evidence that prisoners were involved, and similar rumors. When she reached the end of the hall, she turned and began to walk back toward the door. This time as she walked along the hall, she saw that all of the prisoners had turned around and were slowly approaching the wall that separated their cell from the corridor.
“Mind games,” Bunierti said quietly to herself. “I suppose weak minded people could be unnerved by them.”
She turned around when she reached the door and now she could see that all of the prisoners had reached the bars and shield glass. They stood with perfect posture, hands at their sides, and remained silent. Bunierti smirked as she realized that they were making it easy for her to keep an eye on them this way. She settled into a comfortable stance and waited to see if her HUD would announce something for the prisoners schedule such as delivery of a meal. She tried to not watch the clock display in one corner of her HUD, but it was not easy and time began to drag again. When she got restless enough she decided to pace the hallway again.
“Question your assumptions,” the first prisoner on her right whispered to her as she walked by. Despite not wanting to react, Bunierti was surprised enough that she glanced over at the prisoner. He didn’t look much older than her, although the standard prisoner uniform tended to mask age. His expression was flat as she moved on down the hall.
“Question authority,” another prisoner whispered on her left. This time Bunierti resisted the inclination to look at him.
“Some illusions are harmless,” whispered the next prisoner on her right.
“Some illusions are deadly,” whispered the next prisoner on her left.
“The pawn never sees the whole game.”
“Sheep do not comprehend the upcoming slaughter.”
They each had something to whisper as she made her way down the corridor. By the time she reached the far end she was gritting her teeth to avoid responding. She turned abruptly at the end to begin her walk back. She kept her speed as consistent as possible to avoid showing any response to their voices. When she reached the midpoint of the corridor, they fell silent. A few steps later, they burst out laughing in unison, the sudden loud noise after the silence startling Bunierti despite her attempt to steel herself against whatever they might do next. She wanted to scream at them to be silent, but she stopped herself, knowing that she needed to maintain her own discipline. When she reached the door and turned again, they fell silent in unison.
The unpleasant experience of her second walk down the corridor effectively held at bay any sense of being restless. Bunierti stood in an alert rest stance and watched the prisoners, who were now turned so that the nearest ones were looking directly at her. She didn’t understand how they could coordinate their efforts, or how they could develop a way to coordinate their efforts while under the observation of guards, but she admitted to herself that they were effectively making her uncomfortable. Still, there was a wide gulf between mind games and the physical aspects of the other rumors, and she intended to keep that difference firmly in mind. As she stood there, watching them watch her, she wondered how the situation in this prison block could have been allowed to develop as it had. There seemed to be a significant dereliction of duty and Bunierti wondered if it was something she could root out, and whether doing so would advance her in Upholding or at least shorten her service time.
With the block once more silent and motionless, Bunierti had plenty of time to think. She regretfully acknowledged that this also gave her plenty of time to question whether she was taking the right approach by not responding to the prisoners, and to wonder whether this was actually what they wanted. Perhaps they wanted her to retreat into her own thoughts to avoid seeing what they were doing, and maybe they wanted to intimidate her from walking along the corridor to check on them. As she pondered her inability to see the prisoners at the far end, she became increasingly convinced that this was the case, and she prepared herself for another trip to the far end and back.
“Order, order, order,” the prisoner on her right began to chant as she began her walk.
“Chaos, chaos, chaos,” the prisoner on her left chanted.
As Bunierti paced down the hall, the prisoners on the right maintained the “order” chant and the prisoners on the left continued to chant “chaos.” When she turned at the far end and headed back toward the door, the prisoners switched their chants so that, again, there was “order” on the right and “chaos” on the left. This time she smiled, knowing they couldn’t see it behind her face mask. It seemed so nonsensical to her that it struck her as comical. When she reached the door and turned again, the prisoners fell silent and she was left with a sense of relief that it had not been as disturbing as before. She stood by the door awhile, this time not dreading her next walk, and was about to set out again when her HUD alerted her to the arrival of the prisoners’ meals.
“Meal time!” she barked, her first words to the prisoners sounding odd to her own ears after her long silence.
The prisoners didn’t react to her announcement, unlike prisoners in other blocks she had guarded. After her relatively short time in Wolf Block, though, their lack of reaction did not surprise her. She stepped to one side of the corridor and waved her wristcom by the door reader. The door opened and an electric truck robot rolled in, pulling in a train of autocarts. Once it was fully within the block, Bunierti closed the door behind it. The robot rolled forward, and as it made its way down the corridor the rear-most autocarts detached themselves from the train and used basic optic guidance to route themselves to the delivery interface built into each cell. When the truck reached the end, it paused for its programmed delay before rolling back toward Bunierti. As it passed the now-empty autocarts, they attached themselves to the rear of the growing train. When the equipment reached the door, Bunierti opened it again, waited for the last autocart to roll by, and then closed the door.