Alcatraz 2.0 – by Ted Macaluso (short story, fantasy/horror)- parts 1+2, revised
Echoes filled the catacomb. It was impossible to tell where the sounds originated. But the clangs and rings were louder now; the warriors were closing in. There were too many to fight. In the dim light, I looked around the chamber, considering my choices: stay and be caught, go back and be caught, take the tunnel on the right, or the one on the left. I didn’t have a major Talent, couldn’t transform into an Unseen, couldn’t cast Slumber on a dozen soldiers at once. You only get to choose one Talent and only when you are young. I hadn’t chosen one that would help me now. My Talent was to see through the eyes of animals, bond with their senses. But here, in this desiccated space, there was nothing living, not even a spider that I could use to tell me if the corridors ahead were clear or packed with soldiers. I was blind.
I heard shouts and pounding feet and knew there were seconds left to choose my next corridor. I remembered Aunt Orla, in her formal training voice, intoning, “People tend to go right when given a choice.” She had taught me so much; experience taught me to never count on her lessons. There were scattered eddies of dust on the floor. On the edge of one, I carefully made a footprint pointing towards the right corridor. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, I burst down the left one, dodging patches of dust, hoping that Orla was right and that with the false footprint it would be enough misdirection.
I had guessed correctly; the left corridor was empty. It wouldn’t last. Brandolvo would send his troops down several corridors to head me off. He was a shit, but a smart one. I had despised him from day one. A bully in school, now no better than a thug. Nonetheless, he was the King’s security chief. As a small cog in the resistance to that corrupt King, they called me a criminal.
I slowed, spying another chamber ahead. Creeping cautiously, I heard water gurgling, saw the silvery sheen of a pool and reflected light dancing on the walls. That meant living creatures. I reached, extending my mind. There were rats, lizards and a feral cat slinking towards a nest; I could see again. But, looking around with my expanded sight, I gasped. I had chosen the wrong corridor and come to the meditation pool. The passageways off it were dead ends, filled with the crypts of the thirty families who had arrived on the first ships from the place they called Earth.
I staggered against the wall, panting, eyes darting. My shoulders sagged as I realized capture was inevitable. Fighting helplessness, ignoring the discomfort of the cold floor, I sat cross-legged by the edge of the pool assuming the Smiling Daj pose, seeking serenity. I would need a calm mind. Brandolvo had sworn to send me to Nuevo Dos. Soon, I would learn if his boasts about his prison were true. He claimed it was “worse than death itself.” No prisoner had ever escaped to say. Rumors said Brandolvo’s inspiration was the Alcatraz of fabled Earth, a place you could never escape and where you were tormented by the sight of civilization and freedom across the bay, almost within reach. I had not reached serenity when I heard the soldiers enter the chamber. Yet, standing, there was solace knowing my empty hands did not tremble while accepting capture.
Herding me roughly through the maze of corridors, four of the soldiers took me to a courtyard. I saw some of the other rebels kneeling on the ground, hands on heads, but my captors hustled me into a horse-drawn army wagon, its wooden sides scratched and pock-marked. They chained me to a seat and left. Looking out through windows darkened by dust, I saw Brandolvo staring at me from a balcony. As the wagon pulled away, I sat straight, staring back at him, hiding my fear.
There were two other prisoners in the wagon with me. The first was a woman. From the runes tattooed on her neck, she was probably a witch but, of course, could have been any type of mage. She had not invoked a Talent, at least not one I could detect. I would have missed the second person if they hadn’t put bells on him. He was so inconspicuous that I hadn’t noticed him for most of the three-hour trek. I kept hearing bells and wondered why. Eventually, I realized there had to be an Unseen in the wagon. Concentrating, I finally saw him. He was an unkempt man. One of the few Unseen, I guessed, who preferred to stay perpetually hidden. During the few seconds when I could see him, I noticed that, along with the bells, the guards had shackled his feet and chained him to his seat. I didn’t learn much about either of them on the ride. I hadn’t felt like talking and neither had they.
A whip cracked and the horses complained as the wagon abandoned the highway for a bumpy dirt road. We edged along a vast junkyard with broken helicopters; microwave antennas; disassembled, gutted space ships; and other discarded remnants of The First Age. There were Makers in between the detritus, using their Talent to shape scrap metal into wood-burning stoves, pulleys and other useful objects. The horses whinnied and, reaching, I looked through the eyes of the lead mare. The horses were pulling the wagon up a long hill. There was a strange glow at the top of the hill. Unsure the animal’s color vision was accurate, I pulled back into my body.
When we reached the top, peering into the next valley I saw the glow came from the chrome towers of Varesse City, their windows shining with the blaze of artificial light. It was the closest I had ever been to the spaceport, one of the only two places on the planet where technology was tolerated. Like a panther poised to kill, the city held a fearsome beauty in the twilight. I was still watching flyers darting and the lights of its towers when the prison appeared.
Through the smeared windows of the Army wagon, Nuevo Dos looked bizarre: a 50-foot-tall wall of drab adobe, stretching perhaps 500 feet from corner to corner. Behind the barrier, four spires stabbed the sky. The sparkles of a force field encased the walls.
I heard a sharp intake of breath and looked at the woman. Her hands were moving, trying one sign after another. In between each sign she would shake her head or utter a curse. Then she stopped, lips curled in disgust. Her shoulders slumped.
“Technology,” she hissed. “Not Talent, not right.” I half expected her to spit on the floor of the bus. She didn’t. She trembled but stayed silent.
The force field wasn’t constant. It swept over the walls in random waves so that sections of the wall were sometimes uncovered. I saw a few charred carcasses of animals who had foraged near the wall at the wrong time and gotten caught. Whatever the field did, it was unpleasant as well as deadly. A raccoon looked like the most recent victim of the field. It was on its side, smoldering, blood boiling out of its mouth and ears, pooling on the hard ground. I covered my nose. Some of the carcasses were rotting. No one was picking them up. Was it too dangerous to try or were they being left as a warning for new prisoners?
The wagon paused outside the only gate. It led into a dim passage. The force field swept over the gap just like it did over the walls. The gate’s iron bars had been locked open; a challenge: time the force field and live. Then, the drivers stopped the wagon outside the gate; they were watching the sweeps of the force field. I felt my heart pounding as I realized they couldn’t control it. They were waiting, hoping to time the field, hoping they would pick the right moment and survive. When I heard the whip crack, I stopped breathing. The horses galloped, rushing us into the passageway, unharmed. I noted it; I was determined to escape.
The passage through the wall was perhaps 20 cubits long. The horses, in a panic, did not slow until they were all the way through. Once inside, the horses stopped and I looked around. A cathedral like building with five spires dominated the interior of the prison: one on each corner and a massive one, taller than the rest, in the middle. Around the central building there was a miniature town with rows of clapboard houses, probably for guards. Large, boxy structures encircled the town, pushing up against the massive outer walls of the prison. Brutish in their plainness, I realized these structures must contain the cells. Reaching, I found animals.
My lips started to curl up and I had to stifle the urge to smile before guards could notice. There were Rottweilers and German Shepherds out of sight but somewhere within the prison compound, rats and lizards of course, and a falcon. Quickly, I peered through the raptor’s eyes. It was in a grand room, by an open window. From the view out the window, the room was halfway up the central spire. I could see leather couches around a fireplace and, in a corner, five metal caskets. Four were closed; the fifth was open, its silk lining waiting to be filled. Across the room, someone was sitting at a desk, writing on a…. Suddenly, I was yanked back into myself as the wagon jerked to a halt and guards started yelling at us.
I was a prisoner. But with animals near, I could search for an escape.
The guards marched us inside a building, pushing the three of us into a holding cell. I slumped onto a wood bench, dejected, barely noticing as they locked a chain to the wall and left. Twenty minutes, an hour – who knew? – passed. When the guards returned, they took the other man first. I was amazed at the strength of his Talent. If it wasn’t for the jingle of the bells they had put around his neck, I would have missed what was happening. Two burly guards began unlocking the chains attached to the walls. It was strange to see the guards, observe them now holding chains, leading the chains out of the cell, but not noticing—not caring—what the chains were connected to. One of the Unseen who wanted to stay perpetually hidden, he would have fooled me but for the bells. The guards returned twenty minutes later and now anyone could notice the other man. The bells and chains were gone but he had metallic bands around his neck, biceps and ankles. The bands were limiting his Talent: he would flicker Unseen but could no longer sustain the illusion for more than a few seconds. Back in the holding cell, he wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t show his face; he stared at the cell wall, unwilling to acknowledge that we could see him.
They took the woman next. Reaching, I commandeered a series of spiders and lizards, my view jumping from one to the next, to follow her down the stone corridor. They took her into a metal room. I had a second to see the blue reflection of ultraviolet lights on her blouse. I lost my connection to the animals and slammed back into my body. Something in that room blocked Talent.
While waiting my turn, studying the chips and cracks in the holding cell walls, I remembered Aunt Orla. She had loved to cram history into my young brain, most of it now forgotten. But I remembered the stories she told of The First Age, the era of technology brought by the settlers. Orla said that technology had blocked the discovery of Talent. Something about polarity and special segments of the electromagnetic spectrum used for Talent. It was why microwaves, cell phones, TV had been outlawed almost everywhere. Deemed heretical now, technology had been essential to the arrival and survival of the settlers. “There are more wonders in the world,” she mused, “than the Talents we know and use.”
A half hour had passed before they brought the woman back, shorn of jewelry. She had been forced into different clothes, probably to ensure that any charms sewn into her garments were gone. Most cruelly, her index and middle fingers were sewn together. She could use her hands for most normal tasks but never again cast potent spells. They could have cut her fingers off, I thought; they were not as pitiless as they could have been. The witch didn’t turn to the wall like the man; she just sat. Tears trickled down her cheeks. Then I realized the jailors of Nuevo Dos were not being merciful. Quite the opposite: they wanted her to feel what she had lost. The man, I now grasped, was being allowed to flicker Unseen for a second or two as a cruel reminder of what had been taken from him. The torture here was not mere physical confinement; Nuevo Dos inflicted mental torment.
The guards pulled me down the corridor into the metal room with the bluish glow. They didn’t do much, just welded a copper band around my neck. It wasn’t tight; I could breathe and stick my finger between the band and skin. But I could feel the collar tingle, like a storm before the lightening. It was faint, but power was coursing through it. Once outside the metal room, I tried to reach. There was a mouse in the closet we passed. I could feel it, but not see through its eyes or hear through its ears. I reached again, harder. I could feel the falcon, knew it had flown out of the spire window, knew it was circling over the prison. But again, I could not see out of its eyes or use its other senses. My Talent was there, but hobbled. My shoulders slumped and my cheeks flushed. I told myself, “There’s no shame.” It was a lie.
I noticed very little after that. After the holding cell, they separated the three of us. My guard walked me across the yard to a second-floor cell in one of the brutish buildings. It was small, perhaps 5 by 7 cubits. It contained a wire-frame bed with a wool blanket, side table, sink and a toilet. No privacy, the room was all exposed to anyone walking by. There was a small window on the back wall: high, out of reach. Through the cracked glass, I saw one of the outside walls of the prison complex looming over me with perhaps an inch or two of blue sky above it. As I heard the click and ratchet locking me in my cell, I knew exactly how my fellow prisoners had felt.
“Montefiore, get up.” It was the first time someone had used my name in the thirty-six boring, repetitive days of my confinement. The guard unlocked the cell and led me to the end of the hall. We walked down the stairs to the first floor and out onto the grounds of the prison. He led me through the small town that, I guessed, housed the guards. Rottweilers growled at us in warning as we made our way past the houses toward Nuevo Dos’ central spire. I never feared animals, not with my Talent, but now, hobbled, it was all I could do to suppress a shudder.
“What’s going on?” I asked. No answer. Once inside the spire, we climbed two grandiose stairways and walked down a hallway. At the end, two guards must have expected us: they opened the large jianta-wood doors and stepped aside. My school yard enemy, Brandolvo, was sitting in an oversized armchair facing me. Given his position as the King’s security chief, I never thought he would show up in person. I felt my fingers clench.
“Montefiore, I’m glad you could join me.”
“I was fortunate to find a break in my schedule for you.” Two could play.
“You always were the wise ass in school.”
“And you the bully.” I couldn’t stand the sight of him. There was no one else in the room. I stepped forward with my fists balled.
“Ah, violence.” He made a dismissive gesture with his thumb, index and middle fingers. The weight of the collar around my neck increased. It didn’t hurt, but it was warning enough. “Most future residents—isn’t that a wonderful term? —think the punishment at Nuevo Dos is confinement or the work farm. Prisoners learn the truth.” He reached to the side table and took a sip from a glass of amber liquid. “There are so few prisoners bright enough to talk to, however,” Brandolvo continued. “You, Montefiore, are an exception.”
I didn’t trust his flattery. But I knew what he meant concerning prisoners learning about the true punishments inflicted. I remembered how the guards had sewn the witch’s fingers, how they had allowed the Unseen man to flicker for a second, how they had hobbled me. Once you have a Talent, being stripped of it—but left to feel it – was a continuing ache. I would do anything to get mine back.
“You could have helped people, encouraged them” I accused. “Even back then, in class, you had the skill, the power.”
Giving a derisive laugh, he gestured again. The weight of my collar became too much. I was forced to my knees, clutching the band around my neck. Brandolvo leaned forward.
“Do you like it, Monty?” The disdain in his tone brought me back to the school yard, our fights. I often beat him but now struggled to get up. “Do you like my marriage of Talent and technology?” He leaned forward and slowly ran his finger along the band around my neck. I couldn’t feel it but knew he was caressing it sensuously. Despite the weight pressing me down, I shuddered.
Brandolvo leaned back, abruptly adopting a lecturer’s tone. “The band responds to the commands of guards with the Talent, and suppresses your Talent. You’ll never escape. And it will get worse over time. Unlike the first settlers, who didn’t know Talent was there, you – and every prisoner – will know what you lost.”
“At least I have my integrity,” I wheezed, struggling to my feet as he allowed the weight to ease.
“Integrity.” Brandolvo smiled. It was almost a grimace. He stood, pacing, apparently lost in thought. I watched him tap his toes on the floor after every third or fourth step. He did that in school, when agitated. He paused before a painting. With a shock, I recognized Caroline. Why was one of my high school girlfriends on his wall? Abruptly, Brandolvo turned toward me. “Your notion of integrity—or rather, your phantasm of my lack of it—was behind the thousand injuries I bore at school. The insults. You only saw me as a caricature, a foil for your posturing for the girls, the dismal object against which your precious notions could shine.” He looked me in the eyes. “Notions won’t help you here. Nothing can help the prisoners, except—possibly—mastery.” He paused by the side table, picked up his glass and sniffed it. “I worry that the horrors here are not strong enough for those few who have mastered Deep Talent,” he confessed. “The techno-bands stop ordinary Talent but someday, someone may escape.” He replaced his glass on the side table, carefully centering it between the edges. “Perhaps you, Montefiore, are the one. Perhaps your God may help you escape – if you are strong,” he said, “If you could master Deep Talent.” He gave me a knowing look. Was he hinting at something? “But you never were strong, in school, were you?” I didn’t reply.
Brandolvo called in the guards and gestured for them to take me. “You should have joined me back then, Monty.”
[to be continued in part 3]
For your convenience, here is part 3 for Monday’s critique session:
As a child, I had been warned about Deep Talent. Yet, over the next week, Brandolvo’s words were a termite eating through those cautions. Could I use deep Talent? Was I strong enough?
I had to escape. It was no longer just a desire to return to the resistance and fulfill my vow to overthrow a king more corrupt than most. I believed in that, as much as ever. But the drive to break out of Nuevo Dos was personal now. Brandolvo: I wanted to rub his face in the failure of his precious prison, wanted to put his braggadocio about “marrying” technology and Talent to shame.
And I knew Brandolvo had made a mistake by revealing that his technological chains could not contain deep Talent. Escape might be possible if I could master it. There were plenty of animals in Nuevo Dos. If I could use them to search the prison, eventually I might find hidden passageways, chambers, tunnels – anything that offered a way out of the complex. I could use animals to steal keys, distract guards. Brandolvo’s hubris had stumbled, and freedom was mine to take.
It would not be easy. I had no illusions on that. Aunt Orla had cautioned me about animal-based Talents. “Nay go deep, Montefiore,” she warned, “you can lose your mind. If you go deep, you are not borrowing an animal’s senses, you go further. You become the animal. It is only for the strongest of mages, those who can divide their mind into parts, send to an animal only that part of themselves that can fit, those that can pull that part of themselves back, intact, into their body.” She grasped my hand, hard. “Back, Montefiore, back into their body. The Deep Masters must get back to their bodies or they are lost in madness. Promise me you will never try.”
I had promised—but it was a lie. How many eleven-year-olds believe in their own mortality? How many would resist the glory of mastering something that friends could not? I started practicing in my back yard when Orla was not around. I would reach to an animal and feel…pressure, there is no other way to describe it. I tried different techniques: mentally pushing against the pressure, imagining myself wrapping my arms around it, visualizing it as an object to contain in a carry bag. My first victory (for, at the time, that is what I thought it was) came with a squirrel. Looking through its eyes, scampering through the woods, I pushed, felt the pressure, and imagined slicing through. Suddenly, I heard its thoughts. I jerked back in shock. But it had said “seek nuts” to itself. Not in the way you or I would say it, not in human speech, in some weird squirrel sound, Qqrzx. But I had known what it meant.
I became bolder. Tried harder. And then disaster struck. One day, there was a rabbit staring at me. I reached, and saw myself through its eyes. I pushed against the pressure, sliced and heard its thoughts, an inchoate jumble of “hungry” and “find garden.” I pushed again, commanding it to come to me.
I heard it think of me as a Mqxne, its word for human. I went to sit in the Mqxne’s lap, and I stroked the rabbit’s fur. It was strange. Mild at first, like watching yourself in a mirror as you rub your own leg. But suddenly, I knew I had gone too far: the pressure reversed and I was being pulled into the rabbit. I was rubbing the rabbit, feeling myself rubbing, feeling myself being rubbed, seeing myself in the lap of the Mqxne, seeing the Mqxne rub me. The sucking feeling increased and I was pulled into the rabbits’ brain. It was too small for us—for me. We felt something tear as we slowly slid then plunged toward blackness. I was in the Mqxne, it’s brain was so big, I was lost. I was in the rabbit, its brain was too small for both of us; I was the Mqxne, lost, shrinking. I screamed and thrashed as my thoughts were squeezed. The rabbit was twitching, jumping erratically, bursting apart. Everything went black, I was about to die….
Orla was slapping me, yelling curses, tears tracking down her cheeks. I gave a sharp gasp for breath. I saw my mother crying. When they heard my gasp, saw my eyes were open, both my mother and Aunt Orla rushed to me and were now suffocating me with hugs. I was crying in relief. But through the jangle of their arms I saw the rabbit, eyes bulging, red with blood; dead. I felt hollow, like a part of me had died.
I never tried going deep again—but there had been no need. Now there was. And Orla, may the four mages bless her days, was not always right. She made mistakes. And now, my mind, like a cat teasing a ball of twine, could not let go. Orla could be wrong. Brandolvo’s mistake had revealed a weakness. I could sense animals all around me, creeping and prowling. I could sense, but not see. “What if I go deep into their minds,” I asked myself. “I am no longer a weak child.”
I practiced for weeks. In my cell, of course, but also in the quad, when they let us outside. It was a struggle. I couldn’t figure out how to divide my mind into parts that would fit in an animal, even a big one like a German Shepard. Left and right hemispheres? The corpus callosum wouldn’t come along. No good. Frontal lobe, parietal lobe and cerebellum? Worse. You try reasoning when you are tripping over your own damn feet. That was the worst point in my struggle—Brandolvo had seen it. He occasionally went to one of the watchtowers to observe the prisoners. That day, watching me strain and stumble, he smiled, then leant over, saying something to the guard next to him. They had laughed, then laughed harder when they saw my red cheeks. But I knew, inside, that if they could have seen the hate swelling up and renewing my determination to keep trying; if they had been able to feel the fury ripping through my chest and arms they would have stepped back in alarm.
After that, during outside time, I would first run around the quad checking to see if Brandolvo was spying on me, then sit, leaning against a wall to practice. The guards’ dogs would watch me, but after a while lose interest. The other prisoners didn’t care, except for the witch from the wagon. She would come watch at times. We weren’t friends – you couldn’t be, here – but talked occasionally.
She sat down next to me. “What you try?” she asked. She scoffed when I told her.
“I will escape.” I studied her expression. “If I can take you, do you want to come?” I saw a flicker of hope before she suppressed it.
She stood. “Don’t think anatomy—that be science talking, lobes and crazy stuff. You no need. Think voices, think where Talent be.” She spat in the dirt and began to walk off. “You hear voices, eh? Use them.”
Later, in my cell, I sat in a corner, hugging myself, foot tapping nonstop. I was not making progress. It was frustrating. I could feel the animals – the falcon was circling over the prison right now – but all it did was remind me of what I had lost. I thought back to Brandolvo’s threat: “it will get worse.” I couldn’t let the bastard win.
Someone was moaning, two or three cells down the hall. I had to take a break, stop beating my head against a metaphoric wall.
I sat on my bed to meditate. My thoughts were racing in circles. I was mad at Brandolvo, mad at Orla for not teaching me about the Deep Talents. Then I felt guilty: Orla had saved my life. Shame at the rabbit I killed. “You’ll never be strong, Monty,” a voice criticized. I was scared: what if I never escaped? What if I overloaded an animal’s brain, both of us sinking into the blackness that waited, patiently, as it had 15 years ago? I persisted with the meditation as I had been taught, watching the thoughts as they came, noting them, sending them on their way, breathing deeply. Slowly, gradually, I felt myself rise and float. Shame, fear, anger, guilt—all the conflicting parts of my mind orbiting around me like planets.
I was floating above the prison. In my mind, I could see the towers of Varesse City and the expanse of the spaceport scintillating to the east; disgust at its heresies joined my circling thoughts. I saw snow-capped mountains to the north and awe was added to the feelings orbiting in the air. The falcon, at first on the far side of the prison, shrieked angrily at something and flew closer. Pursuing the object of its ire, the bird dived through the orbiting cloud of my anger and something sparked.
I was looking out of the raptor’s eyes, felt the wind riffling through my feathers. I flexed my wings and swooped to attack the mouse crawling through daylight, a brazen challenge to my domain; something to kill, tear, eat. I’m going to kill Brandolvo I swore, stretching my talons.
[to be concluded in part 4]