Authors: Stuart J. Whitmore
When she looked back at the prisoners, she saw that they were all standing motionless by the shield glass, each facing the prisoner directly across the hall. They showed no interest in the food that the autocarts delivered to their cells. Other than knowing she couldn’t expect normal prisoner behavior, she didn’t know what else to expect regarding their mealtime. It was up to them, she reasoned, to eat or not eat; it was not her responsibility to ensure they didn’t starve. On the other hand, she knew it was time for another walk, and she knew this would take her down the middle of their mutual stares. Grimacing, she stepped away from the door.
“I’m hungry,” the prisoner on her right spoke up in a disturbing impression of a whining child. Bunierti walked on, biting back the response that wanted to burst past her lips.
“I’m hungry,” each prisoner announced as she passed, each sounding childlike.
This time Bunierti did not feel amused. It just seemed irritating and clearly intended to be so. There was no mystery or oddity, it was just obnoxious. When she reached the end of the hall, she turned abruptly and stalked back, wondering what asinine thing would come from them next. Silence, however, was the prisoner’s choice this time. She reached the door and turned to face them, and as she did they all sat down in unison, opened their food containers, and began to take synchronized mouthfuls. Once again, their ability to coordinate their actions troubled her, and she realized that it was not just strange, it actually posed a real risk if they could act together toward a goal. Bunierti knew that recognizing the danger was the first step to mitigating it, and she put some thought into how she might avoid letting their coordination give them the upper hand.
“I want to know how it works,” she finally said to herself, as if it was an excuse for what she was about to do. She stepped away from the door, but instead of heading to the other end of the hall she walked directly to the first cell on the left, across the corridor from the prisoner she had looked at directly before. The man in this cell was clearly older, with ample silver hair mixed in with his dark brown. He did not break from his coordinated eating routine, and Bunierti paced back and forth in front of his cell to see if blocking his vision would make a difference. This seemed to have no effect. She was certain there had not been any audio signals given, and she began to wonder if it was a timed and rehearsed routine, using external events such as a guard change or meal arrival as the synchronizing guide. It seemed to be a reasonable explanation, but it did not explain how they could have developed it in the first place.
“My wife and daughter were murdered while I was forced to watch,” the man in front of her said, startling Bunierti out of her thoughts. She glanced around and saw that the other prisoners were sitting still, facing directly out into the hall. She looked back at the man in his cell and noted that he had finished his meal, and the dissolution compounds in the packaging were already breaking down the food remnants and packaging. The meaning of his words finally made it past her surprise at having been lost in thought.
“I’m sorry,” she offered her belated reply, knowing she didn’t sound sincere but also not knowing what to say. She wasn’t even sure it was true, and if it was, she didn’t see how it was relevant. Was he just bored or lonely and wanting to share what was on his mind? Or was there some meaning she was missing?
“She’s sorry,” the prisoner behind Bunierti said.
“She’s sorry,” the prisoner adjacent to the man she faced repeated.
“She’s sorry.” The phrase was repeated all the way down the hall.
Annoyed, Bunierti returned to her position at the door. As silence returned to the prison block, with the prisoners once again sitting motionless on the floor, staring directly across the corridor, Bunierti admitted to herself that the Upholder she relieved was right. She would be thankful when her relief arrived. Since she volunteered for duty, however, she had no idea how long she would be stationed there. The faint urges of her own bodily functions made her wonder, did the prisoners empty their bladders in unison? Did they synchronize the evacuation of their bowels? The thought was both amusing and irritating to her.
When another Upholder finally arrived, several hours and many walks of the corridor later, Bunierti was eager to be gone from Wolf Block. She did not outwardly show it, however, and refrained from repeating the unprofessional behavior of Upholder Garker. Duty was duty; sometimes it was unpleasant, usually it was just boring. There was no need to verbally thank another Upholder for doing their duty. Bunierti made her way back to the Station W84 desk by way of a secured restroom. When she reached the booth, she saw two different Upholders and she felt some slight disappointment at not being able to demonstrate to the two men stationed there earlier that she had successfully served her first duty in Wolf Block with no ill effects. Even so, she would be proving Nongma wrong about being one of those who supposedly never returned at all.
“Go ahead,” Bunierti said to her roommate when she returned to her quarters.
Nongma shrugged. “Yeah,” she acknowledged, “you made it back. My loss.”
“Shouldn’t you be doing something to get some marks, to get your account above zero?” Bunierti prodded as she started stowing her armor. “There are probably some men who would pay for… something.”
“At least I could get paid, if that was something I wanted to do,” Nongma remarked, without insulting Bunierti directly. “But I’ll take extra duty instead of worrying about my marks balance. Won’t be the first time, won’t be the last.”
It was Bunierti’s turn to shrug off her roommate’s comment. Before she entered Upholding she’d had enough men, of all ages, try to bed her that she knew she wasn’t lacking in appeal. “Money mismanagement, the core of poverty,” she remarked.
Nongma gave a short laugh. “If you say so, but we’re not really supposed to speak poorly of our government.”
Bunierti turned to Nongma, glaring. “Don’t you dare blame the government for your station in life, and don’t you dare even hint that I would speak poorly of the government.”
Nongma yawned. “Well, remember that ‘street scum’ like me have pretty simple lives. We don’t get agitated for or against the government, we’re just looking for decent eats, a clean bed, and to stay out of the weather.”
Still glaring, Bunierti turned away from Nongma and held her tongue. Despite the many things that came to mind, she saw no point in saying anything more to the other young woman. She finished putting away her armor and then settled once more onto her bunk to do some studying. Nothing more was said between them for the rest of the day. Bunierti was silently glad when the lights-out warning chime sounded. She was ready for the day to be over. As she settled in to sleep, she thought about the many other Upholders who were just now waking to begin their shifts, and she gave some idle thought to those who would end up pulling Wolf Block as part of their daily duties.
When the lights turned on, marking the new day for the two women, they both arose quickly and prepared for the day. They left together to get breakfast, but said nothing to each other and kept apart once they were away from their room. Bunierti knew that many Upholders tried to build friendships within Upholding, which she acknowledged made sense for those who would be in it for the long term. She had no interest in making attachments with other Upholders, however. Her service would be valuable but short. As she ate her food at a large rectangular table, fragments of the conversations among the Upholders around drifted through her thoughts. For the most part, she was focused on a test scheduled for her later that day. It wasn’t an advancement test, but it could serve as a precursor to one, essentially opening the door to it if she passed this one with a high enough score. Sometimes the tests seemed irrationally difficult and thus intended to keep Upholders in place, but she hoped this was not one of them.
Before she could finish her breakfast, Bunierti was signaled on her wristcom that she was assigned guard duty for which she needed to report in one hour. When she saw the duty station in the alert, her heart sank. W84-88D. It was bad enough that she would be kept from studying, and might even miss the test, but to be assigned to Wolf Block again so soon rankled her. She said nothing, of course, and marshaled her thoughts. Duty is duty, and sometimes it was unpleasant. She gulped down the last of her food and washed it down with the dregs of her coffee before taking her tray to the cleaning station. She then hastened back to her quarters so that she would not be late reporting to Station W84.
When Bunierti reached the station, she saw that one of the two Upholders in the booth was one of the men who checked her in the day before. He made no comment and showed no sign that he recognized her, and she was soon dropping down to level 88. This time she didn’t need any information from her HUD to find the correct door. She let herself in, and was surprised to see an Upholder sitting on the floor by the door. Before she could say anything, the other Upholder jumped up and ran out. Shaking her head, Bunierti closed the door.
“Ridiculous,” she said to herself. She immediately regretted saying it as loud as she did, for the prisoners, standing at the bar-reinforced shield glass walls of their cells, repeated her pronouncement in sequence down to the other end of the hall. Bunierti remembered her thoughts the prior day about the prisoners possibly using external events as synchronization guides, and she wondered if she had just witnessed this in action. She also wondered if there was a way to throw them off, to disrupt their synchronization and weaken their apparent unity. As she began her first walk through the hall, she considered how she might disrupt the meal delivery and possibly disrupt their routine.
“I like you,” the first prisoner on her right stated as she began her walk.
“We like you,” the prisoner on her left then spoke up.
“We all like you,” the next prisoner on her right said.
Bunierti stopped. She realized that she was following a predictable pattern. She immediately did an about-face and returned to her position at the door. Bunierti realized it was going to be a challenge to disrupt their synchrony if they were using the conformity of guard behavior to regulate their own actions. It would be necessary to find a balance between doing her duty and minimizing predictability, all the while not knowing whether it was even relevant and worth the effort.
“We like you,” the prisoners said in unison.
She stopped herself from shaking her head in annoyance. She knew she might not be able to avoid it completely, but she wanted to minimize the reactions they could elicit from her.
“We like you, Upholder Kittran,” the prisoners of Wolf Block announced together.
It was too much for her. “How do you know my name?” Bunierti demanded, instantly regretting it.
“We know many things,” they answered in unison.
She remained silent, trying to process what just happened. It didn’t make sense, they should not have been able to learn her name. And by saying they liked her, were they implying that they were somehow responsible for having her return so soon? She couldn’t make sense of it. Finally, she spoke up again. “How do you know many things?”
“That’s a secret,” they answered, perfectly synchronized.
“Do you always coordinate everything you say and do?” Bunierti asked, giving voice to her annoyance.
“That’s a secret,” the answer came.
“So you can’t talk separate from the others, whether in unison or in a pattern?”
“I told you part of my history,” a solitary voice came from her left.
Bunierti quickly thought through her recent questions and realized that most of them were predictably answerable, but the negative phrasing of her most-recent question may have thrown them off. She wanted to find other ways to do that, but she knew they might just fall silent if they were backed into a corner. “So that wasn’t part of a pattern?” she asked.
“You can believe that if it makes you happy,” the prisoner on her left answered.
She shook her head in frustration, not heeding her own intent to minimize her reactions. It was too late for that. “Why do you say you like me?”
“You said you were sorry about Jirit’s family,” the prisoners answered together.
“How did you know whether I meant it or not?”
“We assume you didn’t.”
“Then why like me for that?”
“That’s a secret.”
Bunierti let out an exasperated sigh. “You’re maddening!” She heard scattered laughter, and the fact that they weren’t laughing together answered her earlier question. “Okay, so you don’t do everything in unison, so that’s no longer a secret,” she said, grinning slightly without realizing it. “Did you have something to do with me being assigned here again today?”
“That’s a secret.”
“Of course,” she acknowledged. “But let’s just say I don’t believe any of it. You heard my name from the Upholder who relieved me yesterday, and you recognized me today. It was just a coincidence and you’re using it to try to confuse me. You don’t actually like me, you’re just trying to keep me off balance.”
There was a slight pause, but not so slight that Bunierti didn’t catch it. “You can believe that if it makes you happy,” the prisoners said in unison.
Her grin, still unnoticed, faded abruptly. She felt a sinking sensation as she realized what that slight pause probably meant. If their response had been based entirely on predictability, they wouldn’t have paused. This implied that they were synchronizing in real time and the pause was for a cue. Bunierti realized this could mean there was a lot more danger than she first perceived, for it would require that they had some mechanism for accomplishing it. If they had that, what else might they have? A mixture of fear and anger took hold in her mind.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she snapped, “but you’re not going to get away with it! Sure, maybe little actions here and there, but whatever your grand scheme is, you will fail. I promise you that!”
The prison block fell silent. In unison, the prisoners turned away from the shield glass and retreated into their cells. Bunierti decided she needed to assert her authority over the situation, so she marched to the far end and back. She saw that the prisoners were now standing at the back of their cells, facing the back wall, as they had been on her first walk along the corridor. Once she returned to the door, she resumed her guard stance, watching and listening. For a long while, there was no sound or motion. Bunierti made another circuit along the corridor, and still the prisoners were facing the rear walls of their cells. She stopped at a couple cells to watch the prisoners within, to see if there was something going on at the far side of the cell that would be a clue to the puzzle, but she saw nothing that implied any communication among the prisoners. The only new thing she noticed was that all of the prisoners had the outline of a wolf’s head in profile as a tattoo near their right temple.