Blood Perfect: Part Three By Stephen Dee
The cell, like every other, has a single, large portal facing out into the cavern, secured by a transparent field. The interior walls, formed out of the bedrock, have been treated with a led-gel glaze currently set to reflect like mirrors although, weirdly, they are also the light source. In one corner there is a bathroom, its curved wall treated with the same glaze. Tucked in where the bathroom wall meets the back wall a small dining table with two chairs sits inconspicuously. There are two single beds positioned in the central space, equidistant from each other and the surrounding polygonal walls. At one of the corners on each of the beds there is a plinth. At the top of one of the plinths a Davy-bird sits. Edward, in his underwear, offers Flick the bed furthest from the bathroom.
At the heart of the Huguenot Quarter, one of the largest caverns in the mountain, the Gnostic Penitentiary is visible from hundreds of cubits. During the daytime, the ambient light catches it at various angles, depending on the hour, and the shadow it casts stalks the sports arenas scattered around the lower reaches. At night the Tower, as it is known, is lit from the inside, revealing, beneath its colourful, flyagaric dome, layer upon layer of cells: sixteen per level over three hundred levels.
Flick made her entrance in the south-western corner, brought up from the holding pens beneath as soon as a ground floor spot became available. She was ushered onto a silver disc which rose up into a hole in the cell floor. There she found Edward and the Davy-bird. From this point her life became public entertainment.
The redemption narratives aren't just delivered by the birds to the Nest; the most popular are shown on Terrestrial and MBC Satellite and even, on quiet days, on banks of screens in the sports arenas below. The most popular of all, those whose penitents are on the very brink of release, are helped along by live showings, their cells fronted by levitating viewing platforms containing raked seating or, for the very rich, set out cabaret-style with tables, drinks and silver-service.
The governing theme, of course, for each and every one of these rambling narratives is the idea of transcendence through penitence. Self-knowledge means nothing without the means to despise it, or the mechanism to apologise for it. The Gnostics are big on that, it is what they were named for, by the angels, or whoever it was that invented them all those aeons ago.
The Tower is overlooked from the north by countless clumps of portals which writhe out of the basalt on great, long squirming necks of rock, all interconnected like a fungus. Between the stone passages, thousands of lines of washing connect boxy little add-ons; half-pods made from corrugated iron. People live in these, the whole section forming the Chimoxtl shanties.
To the south, the ancient fractal formations have been hacked away. The chiselled face is flecked with old shafts and adits. Disused haul roads zig-zag their way up the cliff, intersected by worked benches and platforms for obsolete mechanicals cleaved from the basalt like great black petals. The Chimoxtl Kimberlite is all worked out now. These days the mine is owned by Temperance: a sprawling conglomeration of interests who, amongst other things, are behind the manufacture and distribution of Boomboom, Murgatroyd's drug of choice. It is said the mine now houses a variety of environments designed to enhance the Boomboom experience for those intrepid souls daring, or desperate enough to take it on.
From the cell Flick can see an abstract of the cliff rising behind the urban clutter some distance to the south, lit up for the evening with neon graffiti; its garish and colourful scrawl another draw for the tourists. Lower down, at eye-level, woven into the fuzziness of the perimeter field fifty cubits out, the ghostly figures of passers-by, loitering among a few hardcore spectators. She wishes she had the Sinstrap on. At least that covered her up. In here you have to earn clothing privileges.
Releases occur from the dome at the top of the Tower, via field-skimmer, with great fanfare and lasers and general hullaballoo. There are two ways to get out: do your time or win a public vote.
“You might as well sit down,” says Edward. “We'll be here a while.”
“Are you sitting?”
“I'll stand for now.” Edward looks at her bra, which is black and lacey.
“How long ‘til we get some clothes?”
“Don't know. Maybe we should make a start?”
“I wouldn't know how.”
Edward looks at her sulkily. “We just - talk.”
“I don't even know where to begin, Edward. You've been here longer than me. What happened before?”
“We're not allowed to talk about other people's narratives,” Edward whispers. “It can lead to jarring juxtapositions.”
Flick perches on the edge of the bed. The Davy-bird waddles along its plinth to get a better view. That's also going to be annoying. She has noticed some slight visual disturbances in the walls which she now realises are outcrops or niches, also treated with led-gel, for the bird to perch on. Instinctively she crosses her legs. The bird watches on.
Edward goes into the bathroom. The bird watches him go but doesn't follow. He is in there for some time. Flick closes her eyes and covers them with her fingers. This makes her feel slightly less fazed, like she has become invisible. She suspects she is experiencing adjustment disorder. She wonders what a nervous breakdown might feel like, actually, and if it might feel any different from the way she feels now: alienated from her body, her city, her family and her species; utterly alone and watched, studied by the whole world as if she's some kind of new animal. Many times in her life she has wished she wasn't born Gnostic. Now is one of those times.
Where is Edward? He was quiet when she first arrived, as nervous as she was. He seemed confused. She tried to speak to him but it took an age to get a response. It was like trying to speak to one of the birds - his answers vague and off the point, as if he was working out whether she was real or not. She hopes he isn't about to lose it. She's been told there are fail-safes in place to prevent violence but she doesn't want to have to be the one who puts it to the test.
“You have a hundred likes,” says the Davy-bird, its voice multi-layered and overly busy, originally designed to make itself heard in the strange acoustic of the mines, “but some viewers are losing patience.”
Flick opens her eyes and looks at the thing with what she hopes her viewers can see is disdain. Edward returns from the bathroom and sits on the bed facing Flick. The Davy flies off its perch and settles in the wall opposite. There is the small whirring sound of a lens zooming. Edward crosses his legs as if to mirror Flick's own posture. On him it looks slightly absurd, as though he should be wearing a suit. He is thin but not well built, with a bit of a pot-belly and man-tits. His biceps are baggy like an old man's. He's probably only around the same age as Flick but where she has kept in shape, he has let himself go. He's balding on top and does look a little like a businessman. He looks at Flick with some sincerity and takes a breath.
“I have a confession to make.” His eyes are flushed.
“Oh yes?” Flick is puzzled, slightly nervous.
Edward puts a hand to his temple, rather dramatically, then makes a peculiar little gesture towards one of the walls. He looks like he's going to burst into song.
The room seems to darken but it is the reflections on the walls blurring. The images are coalescing into a different background. It looks to be an external view but one she has never seen the like of before. It is raining for a start, a rarity in itself, even outside the mountain. The point of view is from beneath some kind of circular, or polygonal structure, protected from the rain. There is ornate, ironwork fencing beneath a wooden roof held up by iron columns. The outlook is of a grassed area with a rake of seating to one side, neatly trimmed hedges to the other. The rain eases off, rather pointlessly.
“How did you do that?”
Edward flashes her a warning look then immediately changes his face to look full of doubt, like he is deciding how to tell her something.
Flick casts a quick glance over to the bathroom. She leans over to Edward, touches his knee. “What is it Ed?”
A slight flicker of a smile within Edward's eyes. She hasn't called him Ed before. He covers his face with his hand.
“You can tell me, Ed. I thought we were friends.”
Edward looks up, resolutely, determined to come out with it.
In the background an audience starts filing into the raked seating. Some of them have rain-shielding devices which they open and close to get the water off. Others dab at the seats with handkerchiefs. The rain appears to have stopped. Flick is quite distracted by this and again wonders what the point of such a detail might be.
“It's Mother, I'm afraid.”
“Pardon? Oh, erm, Mother. But wasn't she, er...”
“Catatonic. Yes.” The raked seating is filling up. “But when she came out of it she didn't... entirely come out of it. Not all of her.”
“Did she ask for me?”
“Of course not. She had no idea you existed.”
“You're just the Interlocuter.”
“Oh. Okay. So I ask questions?”
Some of the audience chuckle. A couple of them clap ironically.
“Watchers? My subconscious?”
“Where are we?”
“I don't know but it feels... familiar. Doesn't it?”
“Not to me. It feels completely fucking alien to me.”
Flick is starting to freak out but she can't understand why. She has a feeling that this is going to get very dark very quickly and she doesn't like it at all. She has no desire to see inside this man's head.
“It made me think of my mother. I wonder why that is?”
Someone from the audience shouts Come on! Get on with it.
“Was she a... domineering person?”
“Aren't they all?”
Edward looks at Flick as though she's stupid. Whirring of the Davy's lens as it pans in.
“She spoke about a place like this,” he wags his fingers, remembering. “This must be how I imagined it...”
There's only one way they can be accessing this. Nanites in the food, relaying memory to... Arbitration. No one else can do it. They run this place now which, from Flick's point of view is a good thing. They're not going to want to let what's inside her head out onto the led-gel.
“She said there was a time when all her life was walks in the park, and when it rained she would take me to the bandstand in my pram and she'd watch the puddles stipple and the leaves on the trees shed their coins.”
“She loved you then?” Not so dark after all. He just misses his mum. “You were born abroad?”
This is unusual for a Gnostic pure-blood, and she can tell from his eyes that Edward is at least that, whatever it is he might have done to get him in here. But there is a diaspora, generally much diluted.
“Oh yes, she loved me.” Edward shudders.
“You said she was catatonic. Did she fall into a coma? Is that when you went off the rails?”
Flick feels as though she's getting the hang of this Interlocuter business.
“The question is, did she fall or was she pushed?”
Boring! One member of the audience shown on the led-gel gets up and walks away.
“What's his problem?”
“He thinks I'm skirting round the issue,” says Edward.
“What issue? You think there was foul play?”
“Oh there was foul play alright.”
Flick is beginning to feel something cold settling in her stomach. “What happened, Ed?”
Edward is getting agitated. “She came at me, the way she always came at me, with her pointy fingernails and her come-to-bed eyes.”
“Ed? What did you do?”
Come on Ed! shouts another member of the audience. Tell the Interlocuter. Take ownership of your sins!
Edward looks almost relieved.
Come into the light!
Take the path to Redemption.
Edward takes a breath.