Issue 8, January 2011
Incarceration: Listen to Robert Eccles read this story
By Kristin Lee Knapp
"Merry Christmas." I sit beside Lauren and she looks at me with her moonbeam eyes, moistened by unshed tears. She passes me the pipe.
"Ah, whatever," I grunt. I wrap my lips around the tube and hold the end over the white hot rocks. I suck in a mouthful of phosphoritic air and my brain dreidels in my skull. "Fucking shitcheah." I exhale blue smoke and the stars maraca in the sky. The white, blue and red face of Mars winks and smirks at me.
My vision's so fucked I can't make out her face, but I hear when she pours on the waterworks. I like Lauren, she's gorgeous, but even if she had all the breasts in the world it wouldn't change that she still thinks she's getting out of here.
Nothing prepares you for prison like the military, so I fit right in. Compared to worming through the claustrophobic passages of a Navy starship, scrubbing shit from suction toilets and taking it in the ass from shitheel officers, this place is paradise. The food's about as good, I can stretch my legs, and if I crack someone in the face here I won't end up in the brig for it.
"It doesn't feel like Christmas," Lauren says. "The weather's too warm. It's wrong."
Lauren's not going to live long. One of the gangs will slave her out. She might last if she joins up with the Amazons, but they don't take just anyone. "Climate control keeps it at seventy-two year round."
"I can't wait to get out of here," she says.
"And go where? Even if you got out, you'd need money, transports, a new face, eyes, fingerprints, bio-sig."
Lauren masks her face with her hands, I squeeze her shoulder. "We'll head back to the station, alright? Being around other people might help." And maybe someone will buy her from me. No room for idealism on Doom-2. I look at her and I can't see a woman that murdered her husband in cold blood; I only see the delusions of a scared child.
We begin our trek back. Pink rocks sprawl to the horizon, like the stuff of a planetoid-sized brain. Nodes of light dot the hills, scattered in nonsensical geometries. I start telling a story — to amuse myself.
"So this one time I was on shore leave on Europa; the Constitution was there on leave too. Everyone decides to see one of those water shows, the kind with the merwomen who swim with the alien fish. Anyway, we get to the show, half of us are shitfaced, the rest of us are on our way. Show hasn't even started yet when a fight breaks out. A Lieutenant named Conner asks this guy, Seaman Marv, to give up his front row seat. Everyone's so gone, nobody knows who swung first. There were plenty of seats, Marv could've moved but he didn't. We all go to a bar after, and before we even get in the door, Marv pulls a gun and blasts him, shoots him dead. He used a military grade lazgun with its own batpack and everything. Any idea how expensive those are? He must have bought it on the street; lazguns on the ship deactivate when they're not cleared. Marv spent two years' wages on that gun. But he must have bought it way earlier in the day, because he was with us the whole time. And he didn't know Conner because they were aboard different ships. So he was planning to kill someone anyway. Maybe himself, but I don't think so. I think he wanted to kill anyone. Just for the fuck of it. He didn't snap, he planned. Sat up at night, stewing over the intricacies." I glance back at her. "Weird, huh?"
"What happened to him?" she asks.
"Dead before he hit the ground, severed cerebral . . ."
"No, I mean Marv."
"Never knew him, really."
The undulating voices of muezzins lilt from squat minarets on the edge of the settlement, their calls raised to the distant blue speck in the sky. Basketball and soccer games progress under omnipresent white spotlights. Catamites and he-shes watch on the sidelines, some dressed in makeshift Santa Claus and elf costumes sewn from ripped bed sheets. 'Tis the season.
A kicked ball rockets through a netless goal and bounces my way. I stop it with my foot, kick it up into my hands as Gent comes jogging towards me. He's a Teutonic-looking white boy with an easy smile and an imperious nose. "Come to join our game, Cula?"
"What's the score?" I ask.
"Eighteen to nothing," he says. He looks at Lauren. "How much for the girl?"
Lauren looks at me, crushes my arm in her hand. "What's he talking about?"
"Nothing. She's not for sale." I look at Gent, tell him later with a twitch of my eyes.
Gent's smile says he understands. "Of course. No sane man would sell such a beauty. See you later." He throws the soccer ball back on the field and jogs off.
"Let's get some food," I say.
Lauren and I approach the station, a decrepit domicile of crumbling concrete. We're immediately enveloped in a miasma of caustic fumes upon entering. Convict-slaves cook and purify rocks in rustic labs; the smell almost knocks me off my feet. "Pretend you're underwater," I tell Lauren, but she doesn't seem to mind. We make our way to the mess hall. The dispenser hacks out two servings of chicken fried steak and vegetable supplements for us and we sit down to eat.
Eddie Muhammad climbs out from under the table and smiles at us, a shisha nozzle drooping from his lips. "Been a while," he says, drooling blue smoke.
"Staying out of prism?" I ask.
Lauren spears her steak with a plastic fork. "Prison, you mean."
It's easy to forget how little she knows when I look at her eyes. They understand, the way a war vet's seem to see through whatever they look at. "No, prism, as in imprisment. Solitary confinement in a self-contained prism in orbit."
"That doesn't make sense; what's the point of that?"
"Research. Mad-scientist stuff. Zero-gravity, effects of prolonged exposure to varying levels of radiation on the body." I shrug. "Never happened to me."
"Yeah, he's a regular brown-noser. What'd you do, Cula, bone your CO? Was it a guy or a guy?"
Lauren looks at me. "Never told anyone, have you?" When I don't answer she turns to Eddie. "How did you end up here?"
He belches, snorts tufts of smoke. "Huh?"
"What'd you do, I mean."
"Nothing. I didn't do nothing. I'm completely innocent."
"Then what were you accused of," she says.
Eddie shrugs. "They said I greased my contractor back when I was terraforming on Titan. Ever been there? It's a desert, like that book Dune, except without the worms. Sand there's sulfuric. The wind turns your lungs to cement if you breathe it, so you gotta wear fifty-pound bio-suits while the environmental control geeks sip margaritas in air-conditioned work stations. And the ragheads, they love it. Boatloads of skinny fuckers from Turkey or Iran or wherever the fuck back on Earth, gibbering and singing all day." Eddie pulls the nozzle from his mouth and spits.
Lauren stares at him like he's week-old roadkill. I don't mention that he's a recent convert to Islam.
"So what's your story?" he asks. "Why're you in here?"
"I killed my husband," Lauren tells him.
Eddie grins. "And why's that?"
I'd heard the story back when we first met. But stories change.
"I was on a deep space run," she says. "I'd been gone for a year to Oort-X67. An electromagnetic storm kept us from making the Venus run, so we made it back to Luna a month early. When I came home, my husband was with another woman. I startled him, he lunged at me. He had some aeronautical design trophy from college on his shelf, a big one. I grabbed it instinctually and swung at him, hit him in the temple and he died. I was caught a week later, and the jury dismissed my self-defense claim. Here I am."
"You were framed, like I was." Eddie's smile is smoke.
Society's made up its mind about us here on the penal colony. Lauren can make up her own mind, her own story, if she likes, even if the holes are big enough to drive a truck through.
After we eat, Lauren and I leave the mess hall and find a mostly empty room. Our sex is more honest than it's ever been: she doesn't hesitate, she tells me how she wants it and I oblige her, and once, at the end, she whispers my name in my ear.
Suddenly, I'm thinking of keeping her.
"Cula. Wake up. Cula. Cula."
My head thrums and I can barely open my eyes. Been a while since I slept in the station. "What?"
"Let's get out of here." She crosses her arms over her chest. I can tell she hasn't slept. "I hate it here. Can we go?"
Does she know I'm planning to sell her? "You want to leave again?"
"Damn it, Cula, this place is horrible. It's like . . . I just want to leave."
I know what she was thinking, maybe better than she does herself. Here you're surrounded by others, most of them sharing your delusions of vindication and freedom and normalcy. The omnipresence gnaws at your certainty until it's a fractured thing, crumbling at the edges, until you're a walking contradiction like Eddie. "Alright, we'll go," I say.
I climb into my dust-blasted jumpsuit. Lauren's is still new; you can still tell what color it is. When we're dressed, we walk outside together. A crowd's gathered around the landing pad; they're all staring into the sky. Eddie's with them, his shisha strapped to his back and the nozzle snakes around his neck into his mouth.
"What's going on?" I ask.
"The prism-bot is bringing someone down from solitary." Smoke sizzles from his nostrils.
I look up just as the prism descends from the sky, a transparent trapezoidal case with diamond-sharp ridges falling eerily slow in the reduced gravity. The prism-bot circles it like a fly around a slab of raw meat.
"Who's in it?"
That's odd; usually someone knows the person who's been in prism. Silence vacuums through us as the prism bot extends its arm and opens the panels. "RELEASING PRISONER 26354-A." The prism-bot levitates back into the grey sky.
Some scream when they see the man crawl out from within. His legs are twisted splinters, his torso bulges with purple-veined tumors. Crustacean-like claws wrestle with the flawless ramp as he drags himself forward by inches. The flesh of his splinter-thin legs fuses together at the knees. A boneless jaw mouths inane words from toothless gums. I don't have the words to describe his eyes.
"Help him," Lauren says. No one budges. "Somebody help him!" she shrieks.
The crowd's stunned reaction is slow, but eventually everyone is reaching down to help haul the man from the prism.
"Jesus Christ, look at him," someone says.
"Who is he?" Eddie puffs smoke from his shisha like a locomotive. "Anyone know?"
"I've never seen anything like that in my life," says Gent, staring with unbridled fascination.
"We can't just leave him in the dirt like this," someone else says.
I don't like looking at him – it. I've seen mutants before, old file footage of the first deep-spacers from the mid twenty-first century. But there's just something wrong about this thing that makes my senses revolt. I take Lauren's arm. "Come on. Let's go."
Lauren looks at me, and for that instant I don't recognize her. "We can't go," she says. "We need to take him inside. Get a chair."
Eddie, Gent and a few others come back with a chair and they haul the man into it as best they can. I follow as they bear him back into the station, the crowd swells as word spreads. Lauren brings a pitcher of water and a serving of mystery meat from the mess hall.
"The hell happened to him?" I ask. It's almost impossible to look at him.
Lauren preens through the sagging folds of his flesh and finds his ID seared on the back of what used to be a neck. "Says … Jonathan Flynn 26354-A. His name's Jonathan." She pours water into his mouth and Jonathan drinks with deafening sucking sounds.
My temples throb against my skull. I press my fingers against the ache and it subsides. The stink of rocks perforates everything, a smell like melted plastic and boiling ammonia.
All day hundreds of convicts pour into the room, staring, pointing, murmuring in little cabals about Jonathan. Lauren never leaves his side. Maybe her father was one of the mutants and she grew up taking care of him; more than a few of my generation grew up like that. Burdened from the beginning. Never before did so many children pray for their parents' deaths.
The fumes are getting to me; I can barely open my eyes any more. "I'm going to lie down," I tell Lauren. She doesn't seem to notice. I leave and walk into the room where Lauren and I'd slept last night. I lie out on a cot and close my eyes.
I am falling. My legs are gone, my hands are smoke. I am sinking, pulled down into oceanic whirlpools of heavy water. A dream.
Something shifts beneath me, a movement with tectonic force that hurls me through the water. It's a voice.
WHAT ARE YOU.
Titanic hands pry at my skull, gnashing at it like teeth at a walnut's shell. I open my mouth to scream and water floods in.
TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE.
Hurricane forces hurl me through the water, drag me down deeper. The pressure is killing me.
I MUST KNOW. I MUST KNOW WHAT YOU ARE.
I wake and scream. Sweat and blood soak my forehead, beneath my nostrils, down my cheeks and neck. I am sitting on the bed, swallowed in absolute darkness. My breath slows and my vision clears but my pulse is jacked and my brain pounds ceaselessly in my skull. What the hell is happening to me?
I stand up and walk from the room. Old fluorescent lights wink down from the ceiling. It's quiet, quieter than it's ever been. Bodies fill the halls, slumped over one another in holocaustic piles. Their bodies heave with ponderous breaths, their eyes follow me in unison as I walk past.
What's that smell? It's worse than the rocks, a sweet smell like burnt chocolate. I can barely keep from retching. "Lauren?" I call into the rotten silence.
I step into the room where they'd brought Jonathan, and I convulse the second I set eyes on him. Eddie and Gent lay on the ground nearby, staring at the ceiling. Dark blood drips from their eyes and noses. Their hands paw at the air and they coo like large infants.
Lauren stands beside Jonathan. Their gazes bore into me, fixating with such intensity that my heart ceases beating and I nearly double over. I climb up to them, take Lauren's hand. "Come on. Let's go."
"What?" she asks. No recognition, no familiarity exists on her expression.
"Lauren. We have to go."
It's no use; I'm a stranger to her. "What are you?" she asks. "Tell me what you are."
My legs turn to noodles and I stumble back. "Lauren," I say, scream. "Lauren!"
"I must know," she says. "I must know what you are. I cannot enter you."
I clamber to my feet and run with demented fervor from the station, into the vast grey desert of the Van Gogh crater.
TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE.
Blood sluices from my nose and eyes, the breath slaps from my chest and I stumble into the dust.
"Happy New Year." A smile filled with baked bean teeth looms above me. "Huhh," the voice says, patting my cheeks with acrid water. "Damned lucky, you know that? You're goddamned lucky."
"Where am I?" I choke out.
"You're out, man. You're sprung, buddy, on the outside. Know how lucky you are? Good thing I found you. Damned lucky." He slaps my shoulder and walks off. I can't move. Leather belts buckle my arms and legs to a bed. An environmental generator's running. I can smell the plasmatic stink of atmosphere all around. Impact tremors rattle the walls and shake fragments of ashen rocks from the decaying walls. Jiggered lights dangle from the ceiling, electric uvulas. Where the hell am I?
"Who are you?" I shout.
"No need to yell, sound carries here." The man walks back into the chamber with a pitcher of water. "Name's Blake. Don't remember much, do you?"
The voice. The eyes. Lauren. More than I wanted to. "Cut me loose," I say.
Blake flips out a balisong and cuts my right hand free before sitting on a metal stool. Something about his manner puts me at ease; it's like we've met before. "I can tell you're a military man. What ship?"
"Kennedy," I say. "From twenty-two to twenty-eight."
"Fuckin A," he barks, laughs, pours two cups and hands me one. "I'm getting ooooooo-o-old. Kennedy was being built back when I was aboard the Idaho back in the nineties. So how'd you end up here?"
"It's a long story." I free the last buckles and swing my legs over bed.
"Well, like I said, you're damn lucky, cause I'm getting out of here. I've hired myself a skiff, a runner named Adrian. Good guy."
Nothing's making sense. I drink, wince at the reclaimed water's salty tang. "You paying him with your good looks?"
He laughs. "Fuck no. I'm paying with those." He points at a pile of multicolored rocks stacked in the corner. "Good harvest this year, eh?"
"Your plan's still fucked," I say. "How's he going to get past the orbital turrets?"
"The turrets only monitor the traffic coming in and out of the stations on the craters. We're not in the stations, man, we're completely off the fuckin grid, in a cave on the outside."
Blake shakes his head. "Naw, man. I got an old environmental generator hooked up, I got normal suits when I need to move around. That's how I found you, you know. You were in the middle of the desert, bleeding out your nose and ears and eyes. You needed a transfusion; I took care of that for you."
Better not to think about that. "Did you see anyone else when you found me?"
Blake sniffs, twiddles his nose and pours rock-powder into a cigarette roll. "He's out. Ain't he? Jonathan. You ain't gotta say it, I knew it when I saw you like that." He lights his cigarette.
Suddenly my lips are cement-dry. "What … What is he?"
He coughs smoke into my face. "I look like I know? Always figured he was some kinda … Government freak, you know? An experiment or something. I still remember when he got dropped off. Not even a day passes before everyone's sick. Bleeding like you were, like they got the stigmata. Then people started dying, they weren't eating or drinking. Turtles, you know? Rolled onto their backs while the sun roasted 'em. Eventually he got put into prism, and that's when I came out here. That was ten years ago."
"It didn't affect you?"
"Couldn't sleep. Bled out my nose and ears. Saw things, felt like I was falling and floating at the same time. But I wasn't no zombie like the others. I think I know why, too." He leans closer, and the smell of him assaults me. "Anyone who'd been in the service doesn't turn out like the others. It's the conditioning, man, the mental hoops they put you through in basic. Years of crawling through the metal rectums of starships changes our brains, man. So that … that thing can't get in our heads. You can't fuck what's already fucked." He rubs the wrinkles that river his forehead. "But none of that matters. We're gone from this rock. I been here a long time, all for something I never did. They say I released an airlock, killed a dozen guys who were suiting up. But I didn't, man, it must've malfunctioned. Those old ships were glitchy, left over from before Mars was independent."
He blubbers for what feels like hours. Most convicts sound like this when they tell their stories, reminiscing about what might've been like weeping whores. Part of why I never tell my own story. Gent asks once in a while. Eddie asks every time he sees me. One night I told him, just for the hell of it, the next morning he goes right back to asking.
I was planning to tell Lauren. Feels like the first time I've thought about her in years. I didn't treat her well. I wanted to tear down her hope because it reminded me of when I hadn't been here so long.
"So tell me," says Blake, finishing his cigarette. "How'd you wind up in here?"
The tunnels quake, interrupting me before I open my mouth. Blake bolts up from his seat and unearths a pair of normal suits from a locker. "Put that on," he shrieks.
I comply, frowning at the oxygen meter on my wrist.
"Just a broken gauge," he says. "Come on, help me grab these rocks!"
We finish dressing and we start dragging armfuls of rocks up through the tunnel.
A one-engine skiff hovers outside the tunnel's entrance, starlight glittering across its chrome finish. A bridge extends from the hull and the door opens. We load the rocks and walk inside. The door closes, the chamber pressurizes, we get a blue ion bath and the valve opens.
A gun barrel greets us on the other side. A man shaped like an oval with his stunted chest and enormous waistline fingers the stock of his rifle like an accordion. "Who the fuck is this?" he shouts, spraying spittle.
"Woah, easy man!" Blake throws up his hands. I do the same. "This is a friend of mine, name's Cula. We're taking him on with us."
Adrian spits through a gap in his teeth. "Get those rocks onboard. Now."
Blake and I haul the load onboard. We finish, and Adrian doesn't lower his rifle. "Know how much this shit is worth, boys? 'Fraid I can't risk taking two runaways off this rock, not when there's so much money to be made." He presses the barrel to my nose. "Back in the airlock, blackie. You too, y'old fart."
Blake yells something unintelligible and rushes. When Adrian swings the gun away from my face I lunge, wrapping my arms around the stock and grabbing his hand.
"Goddamn son-of-a …" Shots drown out his words. Blake hits the ground in a heap.
Adrian and I wrestle on the floor. Fat fists ham all over me, smashing me inside, reaching for my groin, grappling with my arms. I manage to sink my thumbs into his eyes and squeeze. Blood spurts from his face when I rupture something; it drools down the visor of my helmet. It takes more effort to heave his corpse off of me than it did to kill him. I catch my breath, stand and walk over to Blake, but he's already dead.
I unlatch my bloody helmet, toss it aside and sit in the pilot's chair. Mars is rising, a red thumbnail slicing over the grey desolation of Deimos. I told Lauren it was impossible to get out of here, yet here I am. She reached out to me and I gave her nothing. I know her story was a lie, at least in part, but a lie is more than I gave her.
The outside world terrifies me. After this many years, it terrifies me — hardened criminal that I am. It's not fear — it's dread, an unintelligible feeling only understood by people who've experienced it. Turns you into a cripple.
No way I'll make it on my own. If what Blake said was true, I can grab the girl and make a run for it. Trying to get off this rock is a suicide mission. One more suicide mission won't hurt.
I take the controls and turn the skiff around, back toward Doom-2.
I circle the station from above, watching the deserted soccer fields and empty basketball courts. She's down there with Jonathan somewhere, and I'm going to take her back. I set the skiff to hover, grab the rifle from a puddle of Blake's blood and ride the gravity lift down to the surface.
The moment I touch the ground, I feel veins pulsate in my skull. The moon lurches underfoot. Eyes avalanche onto me like a mountain of magma as I walk into the station. Emaciated bodies lay piled through the halls. Skeletal shoulders heave with starved breaths. Convicts stare as I pass, others mouth silent words.
What are you.
I walk past and enter the mess hall. Uneaten food rots below the dispenser. Jonathan's crustacean-like body sits suspended in the air. The sacks of his flesh sag with even breaths. His eyes are twin coronary eruptions as he looks at me.
I reel, trying to keep my feet. Words vault into my skull like boulders catapulted into a castle's stone walls.
TELL ME. TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE.
Hammers wedge into my ears, eyes, mouth, all prying for an entrance. My tongue flips, prods at my uvula and chokes me. White lights reap through my eyes like hot knives. Ten thousand spirit worms glide across the room. They dissolve in my hand like burnt cigarettes.
WHAT ARE YOU.
My jaw clamps against my tongue, blood spurts into my mouth and slavers down my lips. My fingers strain, wrap around Jonathan's disfigured leg. Fragments of gristle swirl through my mouth as my eyes roll into my head.
I am naked, laying flat against a floor of stretched human skin. Pink walls contract, loosen, pulsing with veins that arc like shots of black lightning. Pools of stagnant water simmer in fleshy depressions.
A man stands before me. He is tall and thin and completely naked. His blue eyes are mirrors, his smile's erudite and genuine. "Hello, Cula," he says. "My name is Jonathan."
"Where am I?" I ask, rising.
"What you perceive of reality is my stimulation of your isocortex," he says. "More simply, you are in me."
I am certain I have been driven insane. I look around and see I am surrounded by an infinite number of tunnels.
"The necropolis of your mind — any mind — is infinitely deep," he says. "A true 'last frontier', something human kind will never fully understand. Why, exactly, did you come for her?"
His voice is lilting, analytical as he continues. "Lust? Fear? Was it an impulse? Whatever chemical reaction induced you to come here is the same that tells a loving father to murder his entire family. You know, of course, what I am referring to. The story you told Lauren, about Marv shooting Conner. You are Marv. You killed this Lieutenant Conner, and that's why you're in prison. You lie, just as you know Lauren lies to you."
"She doesn't know," I say. "I told her my story, but she doesn't realize it."
"She doesn't know why she lied to you either," he responds. "She murdered her husband and his pregnant mistress as well. That is why the court dismissed her self-defense claim. Our lives are ruled by the things we have no knowledge of. For instance, I do not know what I am doing to everyone, or why." His gaze turns to one of the tunnels, a militaristic steel shaft of clicking white lights. "The answer is there, I think. But I'm too frightened to go in there. Irrelevance, you know. Needless suffering. I pray I die soon."
The walls contract. Viscous fluids gush from puckered orifices. The walls belch and reach out, shrinking like the inside of a stomach.
"Our time together is over," he says.
They press in, sucking in our arms and legs. I'm aware of the bones breaking in my fingers and wrist and toes, but there is no feeling.
"Wake," he says, as his face is mashed in the press and his body crumples into a gory pulp. "Another world awaits."
I wake. I am clothed, filthy, lying in a pool of another man's blood. Lauren lies on the skiff's deck beside me. I jerk upright, shake her awake.
"Lauren," I say. "Lauren — Lauren."
Her eyes open, she smiles and says my name.
"That story I told you. That was me. There is no Marv. I killed Conner. I shot him and killed him, and that's why I'm here."
"Cula," she says. "I don't care."
I kiss her and I sit in the pilot's seat and take us out. The green sky flames, then blackens. Stars emerge, rolling over the corner of Mars.
Prisms soar past us, dozens of crystalline structures. Humans levitate inside like gestated embryos.
She walks behind me, presses her hands to my shoulders. "We're leaving, Cula. We're really leaving."
I turn and marry my lips to hers.
"Free," she whispers. The skiff's alarms moan as the orbital turrets lock on. Electronic voices warn us in a dozen languages.
UNAUTHORIZED VESSEL … CUT YOUR ENGINES NOW
White lights engulf the cockpit and tear the hull to pieces.
Kristen Lee Knapp is a graduate student attending the University of North Florida. Kris is also an award-winning fiction writer. His work has appeared in various print and electronic publications.