[Disclaimer: the publish date is legitimately when I wrote this. It’s the first piece of writing I ever committed to digital]
In a blackness as intense as the farthest recesses of space, a tiny constellation of lights spilled their brightness into the murk.
Up close, shafts of light illuminated the smooth legs of a vast metallic starfish, clinging alone and radiant in the shadowy landscape. Along one limb, in one of the brightly glowing windows, the silhouette of a man with arm outstretched wavered slowly in the ponderous current.
The man was named Harold. He slid his slim, pale arm through the gun-metal bars and lightly brushed his fingers against the smoothness of the window. Seemingly oblivious to the bitter cold surface, he stared, entranced at the creature outside. Harold had seen a real live fish before, recalled a snapping mouth
gulping and insatiable under the shimmering blue-green of the river in the springtime, his mother’s pretty white dress against the patchwork picnic blanket, tree-filtered sunlight lighting up her tanned, healthy face, mouth a joyous O, See Hal! See the fish! A serpentine body twisting, scaled sides shining, iridescent, hypnotic, much like
this one did now, fins glowing dimly in the inky waters. The creature floated, regarded him glassily through the foot-thick window
as his mother had stared that day, still and staring through that tiny, tiny window
and Harold gazed right back.
Suddenly the fish started, darted away into the endless night and Harold withdrew into a corner with startled guilt, scrabbling, clutching his doll. A small window in the cell door slid open, an oblong of artificial light framing the pallid face peering in.
The warden was named Feist; a gaunt and awkward man in both manner and movement. He was a dedicated cynic, a condition brought on no doubt by his occupation. He was, and had been for some time, the keeper of some of the most dangerous and – some might say – tragic human beings ever to be locked away. Take this creature: Harold Milton, forty-two, matricide. He’d been here some twenty years now with no sign of improvement. Neighbours had found the late Mrs. Milton, mouth and eyes wide open, inside his doll’s house.
Feist no longer felt even contempt for him now. This place did that to you – the sterile, aluminium walls, the stale, disinfected air, the relentless night outside, the claustrophobia – it ground you down, rolled you out into the two-dimensional, emotionless hulks they had all become. As for the prisoners – no, hell, they were all prisoners until the annual staff rotation – as for the criminals he had no idea. Feist quite believed the the prisoners – or at least some of them – existed quite happily, invulnerable in their woolly shells of delusion. So in an ironic way (which was no surprise to Mr Feist) the prisoners were far better off mentally than the warders. He carefully replaced the steel cover and turned to continue his round.
The man who approached Milton’s cell could accurately be described as Feist’s opposite, if such a thing existed. Feist’s sickly colour and cold manner directly contrasted with the tanned, radiant young man whistling softly as he strolled down the corridor. Mr Feist noted his polished nametag: HICKS. He resisted an urge to sneer. How long? thought Feist. How long before he becomes as cold and empty and clammy as the bleached fish outside? Not that we’re that different, he realised as he nodded at Hicks’ greeting. That’s all we are: just a bunch of damned fish in this tank, just swimming round and round, fed twice a day, and all the time those things outside just keep staring in! No – not long, he decided, not long until his skin develops that anaemic pallor and the sterility of this place settles like icewater in his lungs and he becomes like all the rest of us. Mr Feist shook his head morosely and plodded on, occupied with his thoughts.
Hicks shared none of Feist’s cynicism or depression; he was eager to try out his new toy. A radio-controlled miniature submarine, strengthened to withstand the enormous pressure and equipped with powerful spotlights. He almost giggled in childish anticipation. Hicks had been there two weeks.
The mealtime buzzer blared nasally through the complex as Hicks reached the diver’s airlock. I’ll just run it a few minutes, he promised himself and placed the sub carefully inside the booth, closing the inner door. As the chamber filled with icy seawater and the outer door began to open, Hicks eagerly jogged to a nearby window and manoeuvred the submarine out into the blackness.
One by one the cells were opened, occupants rose, stretched legs and headed for the dining hall as they had done countless times before. Only one hesitated: Harold Milton held the window bars tightly, watching the new fish go by. Its eyes shone twin neon-bright cones that faded quickly in the murky water.
The inmates paused as one, looked, confused at each other. They all felt the same vague, inexplicable, instinctual feeling: something was about to happen.
Harold saw it first: the silently gliding fish abruptly lost all signs of life: its nose dipped, eyes dimmed, and finally fell to strike the bottom in a puff of ancient silt.
The pilot of the ‘fish’, Hicks, was more surprised than Milton. With a cry of disappointment – “Aww, no!” – he toyed with the controller, before his gaze fell once more on the scene outside. A great ridge of dust squirted up like ink from an octopus, some four feet above the sea bed, then began to slowly float back down. This was followed seconds later by an impossibly deep, floor-trembling rumble that made him start, dropping the radio unit. He, like everyone else in the complex, froze in the stark overhead light like an animal caught out of darkness by headlamps, eyes wide, staring. It was not until a thin, creaking crack jerked its way across the window that his paralysis broke and he could run in panic.
Inmate number zero-zero-three-six, a baseball-capped rapist from Minnesota, believed in two things: one, the non-existence of God, and two, that he was born unlucky. The fact that he occupied the last cell in his block (and so had yet to be released for dinner before the warder had panicked) would have served only to confirm his second suspicion. However when the spiderweb of cracks in his window gave way with a reverberating snap and freezing water felt its way languidly inside like the dark tentacles of some Lovecraftian horror, he began to gibber prayers to every God that might hear him.
Harold paused halfway to the dinner hall, thick twisted lips quivering and glistening. Something was wrong. Alarms sounded, voices were raised in panic. He swayed silently a few seconds, confused. An ungainly hand flew to his lips in fearful realisation. He turned and loped awkwardly back in the direction of his cell, as the Dining Hall bulkhead closed behind him.
Hicks ran easily, long, booted strides pounding round the gently curving corridor. An ominous, rushing hiss rang in his ears and echoed between the steely walls. A cold sweat on his brow betrayed the fear bounding in pursuit, snapping and foaming at his heels, driving him faster and still faster. Hicks’ mind was a waveless lake of calm, euphoric. A steady voice chanted in his mind, urging him ( faster Jon, pace it, PACE IT goddammit ) Hicks’ brow furrowed, arm curled protectively where a ball should be, limbs pumping faster in purposeful sprint; and twenty strides behind a glistening, amorphous beast flowed hissing, leaping, skipping over pipes and crates, foaming hungrily, relentless, endless. He glanced behind him and for a confused moment saw a huge, armoured opponent, face a shifting mass, reaching for the fatal tackle; his mouth fell open as reality abruptly returned, fluorescent ceiling strips pointing to the safety of the Dining Hall.
Feist fumbled with the perspex cover, the lever within brightly highlighted in yellow. EMERGENCY SEAL, the plaque stated in red stencilled letters. A high whine of frustration escaped his lips before he finally grasped the handle, knuckles white, and jerked it down.
A hand came down over Feist’s, too late. Through the narrowing gap Hicks could be seen, eyes white in panic, a rippling wall of beetle-green water some five feet high thundering and spuming close, closer behind.
Hicks saw the the closing bulkhead with wide eyes, concerned faces peering through the two-feet-and-closing gap, felt a cold wetness on his heels, and knew he was going to die. His lips drew back over his teeth and he threw back his head, emptying his lungs in a feral roar of doomed frustration, knees curling, falling, reaching out…
Harold bent and snatched up the gangling doll, embracing it, relief evident on his face. Murmuring words of reassurance, he wandered aimlessly off through the shining passages, the air still and damp and silent.
Feist gritted his teeth as Hicks’ limp, sobbing body collapsed over the threshold and frantically kicked at the backs of his knees, savagely drawing his boots out of the sliding bulkhead’s path. A deep, muffled CHOOM echoed around the crowded hall; the door visibly shook. “… Jesus,” Feist breathed.
Several men laid Hicks out on a hastily-cleared table. Stepping up onto another table and regaining his composure, Feist regarded the mob of anxious faces turned to him. Twenty-two men in all; ten armed wardens, the rest mentally unstable rapists and murderers, all utterly trapped several kilometres underwater. Wonderful, he thought, and began to speak. Had he the initiative to count the expectant faces, he would have reached a total of eighteen.
Harold squinted at the official-looking sign. “Ay,.. you… thuh…” He shook his head, then tried the next word. “Puh… personnel… only,” Harold intoned. He stared blankly for a moment, then punched the door switch. A torrent of dark seawater burst through the widening gap, drenching the cringing form and doll. After a few seconds the deluge died away and Harold tentatively looked up again. A pale, blue-lipped body lay beached on the floor before him. He calmly stepped over the corpse, soft shoes splashing in the inch-deep flood. Security Control was a large, square room, one wall covered in dripping, glowing monitors, the waterproofed computer banks humming gently. He looked up and regarded the small jet of water that leaked from the great crumpled rent in the ceiling with brief interest. Picking up a sodden swivel chair, he took a place before the screens, images flickering over his spectacles. Only two displayed anything of interest to Harold: [DINING HALL], [ARMORY], in neat titles. Ignoring the crowded hall for the moment, he looked closely at the lone warden trapped in the room with the gleaming cabinets. In the grainy black-and-white field of vision provided by the camera, he watched the guard pace the room below him. One the screen the figure suddenly paused, turned and faced the camera. Harold flinched as the pale, anxious face loomed large on the monitor, the small speaker sounding tinnily.
“Let me OUT!”, the face screamed. Harold stared expressionless, watched the guard grit his teeth and punch the wall in fury.
“Just open the godDAMN DOOR!”
With sudden insight, Harold switched his gaze to the control bank and located a section whose title matched the monitors: [ARMORY]. He ran light fingers round the short row of marked buttons, found a sliding switch and nudged it tentatively. The view on the monitor jerked to the right a few feet; the warden’s head snapped round.
“HERE!” he waved frantically. “Let me out! It’s Burton! Here!”
With wetly grinning enthusiasm, Harold centred the camera view carefully on the warden, then studiously bowed his head to read the button labels. The last was large and red and glowing: O… He clicked it down and watched Burton expectantly. The guard first turned to the door, shoulders sagging with relief; then suddenly, whites in eyes, backed off into a corner off-camera. Black water crashed inside, surfing against the walls, foaming, shaking the weapon cabinets, a high scream cut short, a short gasp, silence, stillness.
The Hall was quiet. Men sat sipping water, stood talking in whispers, lay silent, thinking. Feist had distanced himself and sat on a table nursing a plastic cup of coffee. Hicks stood near the security camera, conversing calmly with two other uniformed men.
“Look, what if’s something’s happened to Harrison?”, one ventured. “I told you,” reassured Hicks, “the control room’s sealed up, tighter than-” he faltered, “well, whatever.” He attempted a grim smile, then turned once more to the camera.
“Harrison! I don’t know what’s going down over there, but you have to contact the surface – and soon, hear? Harrison!”
The creature floated, regarded him glassily through the thick monitor screen, and Harold stared right back. Extending an arm, he lightly brushed his fingers against the smooth, cool screen, tracing the O of the mouth, touching the staring eyes…
A series of sharp clicks broke his trance. The Dining Hall speaker erupted into mad crackling. On the screen, a man stood and mouthed at him. Harold watched for a moment, then addressed his doll, holding it close and pointing to the monitor.
“See, Hal! See the fish! See!”
Harold touched the slide control, offering a more whole view of Hicks.
Hicks stepped back, startled at the camera’s movement. Suddenly the guard beside him began shouting, and before long the prisoners joined in, some confused, some happy.
“HARRISON! IN HERE, HARRISON!”
Hicks – though relieved – spoke angrily to the guard, touching him on the shoulder, “OK man, he can hear you, right? Just-” he broke off, motioning with his hands for calm. Though the guard fell silent, embarrassed, the prisoners stoked up the chant, adding fuel to the sound.
Hicks frowned and guided his colleagues towards the prisoners. “OK – looks like we learn ‘em quiet.” Feist jumped down eagerly and headed for the mob.
The doll’s head lolled, ignoring the screen.
“Bad Harold,” the owner intoned, hurling the doll against a wall to land with a soft splash. The speaker crackled and buzzed rhythmically. (Listen, listen to them, mommy! The poor things) His eyes filled with silent tears, glancing at the discarded doll, finding no comfort. (see, Hal, see!) He looked closer, the crowd of men shouting, struggling with wardens. Harold watched their open-mouthed writhing and sat up abruptly. (Those poor fishes!) he thought distantly, gasping
and thrashing on the grass, hands wet with cool river water, wavering sparkling ripples, mother, hand on mouth, recoiling, Hal! No! Put it – it can’t breathe! Fish mouthing, helpless – it back! In the water! Reaching, reaching
out. “Yes, momma,” he murmured.
Hal sat cross-legged, rocking, splashing gently back and forth in the deepening water, holding the grinning doll close to him as he gazed open-mouthed at the monitors, where all through the house the fishes swam, staring, mouths agape…