Black Petals Issue #98 Winter, 2022

Paul Lee: Prisoners

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Prisoners-Fiction by Paul Lee
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bp_98_prisoners_dblanch.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2022

PRISONERS

by Paul Lee

 

     Gloved hands invaded the cage. Little creatures squeaked, squealed, sprinted. The cacophony coupled with clanking drowned out the humming of machinery. A wail escaped a pink mouth as a gloved hand clenched the tiny body. Fear shined in the eyes of the other furry prisoners. They sensed the impending doom, the coming transformation. The hands lifted the mouse into a canister, then placed it into a box. Pink paws danced frantically on transparent glass. Squeals intensified. The man in the bloodied lab coat and gloves snickered. He peered into the box, its glass wall magnifying his only eyeball. (A black patch covered the hollow where the other one used to be.) From the perspective of the mouse, he resembled a gigantic cyclops. He was, in fact, a monster.

     He grabbed two more mice from the cage. Again, squeaks and squeals loudened. A torrent of hate spilled from his angular face. He told them that they would never whine as much once they became Hybrids.

     The first human-rat Hybrids had appeared six years ago. They grew to be the size of Golden Retrievers but walked upright. Block 9—their prison—sprawled only three yards from the mice cage. The lab stretched 360 feet. Block 9, however, comprised thirty percent of the space. The inside consisted of 4 floors, 55 rooms, an artificial yard, and 5 hallways. Thick walls surrounded the structure. A grilled gate in the Yard—a twenty-foot outside enclosure of rubber plants and artificial grass—provided the view of the outside: a bleak world of machinery, lab coats, and vials.

     In the depths of night, when overhead lights died and nothing remained but the starlike glow of control panels, Conor used to think the seemingly infinite space around Block 9 was the universe itself. But the warmth of his wife Sophia’s skin against his own as well as his deep appreciation of fatherhood reassured him that a larger, freer world existed beyond. He sensed it but could not feel it, could not touch what was both far and near.

     He had lived in this prison for three years, after spending six months in the mice cage. Friends came and went, taken by the gloved hands of death. Nobody stayed long. Remaining a community proved challenging because attachment meant heartache.

     Conor, strolling the Yard, observed the toothless grin directed at Block 9. He went back inside to alert the others. When he found his wife, she was reading a book to their three-month-old son Little Elmore. In purely human years, he was six years old. The Hybrids’ maturity developed at an exponential rate, showing promise in experimental psychiatric medicine. Once a month, a scientist removed a snippet of hybrid brain matter. The same test subject had been used the last several months. William now moved jerkily, most of his cranium empty. Some prisoners envied the fact he no longer knew where he was. Every month, three of them fell to dismemberment.

     The cycloptic man slid a plastic card into a slot under the Yard’s gate, which unlocked the prison. Chaos bounced off walls; squills and squeaks echoed through halls. Hybrids huddled together in circles of five, six, and seven. Conor’s huddle—made of his wife, his son, and himself—was the smallest. Sophia remained strong. Fortitude was a quality she and Conor shared. But Little Elmore shook to his bones. His teeth clattered the same as they had last month.

     Cruel laughter cackled above. One huddle erupted into pandemonium.

     The blood-splattered scientist opened the gate and the front door. Immediately reaching inside, he grabbed William the Hybrid. The rest fancied escaping but knew the scientists would have been alerted. Besides, the madman’s presence was already an ambient deterrent.

     William squirmed. A black stun baton loomed above. The torturer aimed, sending an electric blue volt through his victim. After a shriek, William the Hybrid became rigid and silent. He regained consciousness once the hands threw him into a steel box belted in barbwire. Plexiglass covered the front, giving William a clear view of Block 9. The one-eyed monster leaned forward, waved to the prison, and promised to take the other victims tomorrow.

     For the next few hours, sounds of torture played like music forged in hell.

     Sophia and Conor read Elmore a bedtime story written by the late Hybrid author Nathaniel Kingman, a founder of Xylhum, the official language of Hybrids. They understood human languages but preferred using their own. Little Elmore drifted into dreamland as soon as the final word was read.

     The lovers sat in their bedroom. Sophia stared into her pocket mirror. Disproportionately long arms, a furry beard impossible to shave away, and gray whiskers stared back at her. She touched her face.  

     Then she chewed her lip, contemplated, and lamented about their curse of ugliness. Conor told her that she was beautiful in his eyes. She touched his face. Her finger rubbed his nose, a triangle carpeted in gray and black trapezoids. He caressed her shoulders thinly layered in furry carpet that matched his nose. Her hands drifted to his skinny tall ears. They embraced.

     She mentioned reading a book about termites falling in love. She was puzzled.

     How could creatures as ugly as termites fall in love?

     Because love went deeper than any surface. This was what he knew. This was what he told her.

     Conor went to the Yard and looked out, repulsion flooding him. William’s body had been reduced to chunks of sizzled meat and piles of bones. The air smelled of copper and gasoline. The monster in white grinned at the fresh blood on his lab coat. Conor’s stomach churned as he walked away briskly.

     A thud of footsteps reverberated outside. A timer started counting down. It rattled for a few minutes, before beeping. The prisoners trembled.

     The monstrosity of a man laughed his cruel laugh and swiped the flat square through the slot. Unseen mechanisms came to life. The prison was opening. Human-like limbs shivered harder.

     The terrorizer was seeking occupants on the second floor. Using a remote control, he sent two silver machines into the block. They were roughly the size of adult Hybrids, possessed laser eyes, and used rolling tracks as locomotion. Their claws clanked up to the second floor.

     Conor’s wife and son cowered in a corner of a spacious room where a sign read Lounge. A bronze statue of a rat and a human holding the double helix of DNA rose in the middle. (The spiraling ladders representing the chemical building blocks of Hybrids were made of nucleotides slightly different than those of the human chains.)

     Sophia stood in front of Little Elmore; Conor stood in front of her. The machine buzzed forward. Claws clenched Conor. He wondered if they were simply cold metal or the hands of death. She cried and he hissed. The machine—speechless, heartless—threw him across the room. He hit the floor, breaking his left hand. The second silver orderly snatched a tearfully frightened Little Elmore.

     Conor attacked the robotic invader—all in vain as a claw pinched his broken hand, slicing off the tip of his index finger. The machine’s other arm, making a fist, punched him in the ribs. Conor collapsed. A painful world of changing colors flashed and spun. Everything went blurry, hopelessness taking hold. The cruel laugh outside pounded at his ears. Then Conor fell unconscious.

     He awoke in the lounge. Dried crimson coated his left hand. (Hybrid blood congealed quicker than human blood.) A knot swelled on his head. The broken hand pulsated. But his vision returned to normalcy; his consciousness operated normally…as normally as anything could have operated in a world of bleak experimentation where death awaited. His hybrid neurons swam, remembrance revving. Robots on rolling tracks. Crabby hands. Clicking, clicking, clicking. Tears on a metallic floor. Shaking. Screaming. A machine dragging Sophia and Little Elmore.

     Cracking bones. Blood.

     He wished the memory had never risen. The resurrection of earlier visuals was like a corpse interred only to become the walking dead.

     He clenched his fist, ground his teeth. Although his hand swelled, he tightened both fists, anger permeating in his bloodstream, reddening his face.

     Other emotions arrived. Apprehension nibbled at his legs. Anxiety stiffened his neck. Fear dilated his pupils. His head rumbled. His knees buckled. But love—domineering, controlling the reins—steered him to the Yard to observe the nightmarish situation.

     Conor stood amid the fake grass, unconcerned that the scientists might see him. If he were captured, at least he might be put into the same cage and able to hold his wife’s hand, to kiss her cheery lips, to hug his son, to laugh as a happy trio—all one last time. What was the use in living alone? The prisoners looked out for themselves, wishing for the machines to take anyone else…a secret always wished but never spoken.

     His heart ached, bled, its strings severed. His family was in the cage William had died in. The meaty chunks were gone, but a blood stain remained.

     Intensity of misery and totality of hopelessness hammered at Conor’s sanity. Suicide seemed the easiest solution. Lights out, game over. But his heart was not dead yet, and he listened to its words: Save them. Nothing left to lose. Everything to gain. But how?

     Conor looked at Sophia and Elmore as they looked back, their hands pressed against plexiglass. His fingers strangled the bars. Streams of tears coursed his cheeks. The one-eyed monster dressed in blood-splatter and white stooped in front of Conor, mockingly making a sad face.

     The tall monster-man told Conor that his family, come tomorrow night, would endure a fate worse than that of William the Hybrid. He elaborated on the brutal intricacies of the torturous practices he had planned. Conor’s fur bristled.

     The sadist left for his lunch break. Conor shook as he watched him disappear through metallic double doors that swung wildly before clanging shut.

     Timing was everything, he realized. The routine schedules of the scientists and the torturer—something he had unraveled months earlier—was paramount for an escape. Outside, a rectangular clock protruded from a steel wall. When its enormous red digits read 1:30 PM, all white coats floated out the doors except for the cycloptic man, not to return until 2:10 PM…a narrow window of time for Conor to slip through.

     Sitting in his room, he wrestled a storm of thoughts and images. Sophia and he had been intimate since his first week in Block 9. Over two years later, Little Elmore had been conceived. Sophia and Conor grew closer, the pillars of love prevailing.

     How could creatures as ugly as termites fall in love?

     Because love went deeper than any surface.

     Having a family was the meaning of his life; and saving it and the others was his destiny.

     Iron determination lifted him out of bed.

     After shuffling through sleep fog, he exited the door. The scientists slept for the night, but life stirred in Block 9. Conor visited the square room of injured Hybrids dreaming of better lives. Here lay Isabella, a friend of the family until the white coats had deemed her an “obstructive influence,” amputating her legs and lobotomizing her brain. Here lay Hector, a young adult Hybrid condemned to a tongueless, eyeless existence because he had given the scientists and silver machines the venom of his serpentine tongue and the death-stare of his vengeful eyes. Here lay Marvin, an elderly Hybrid born with extra hands in his back, their claws dug into his nerves. Why did they remain alive? Solely for research purposes.

     The clock in the room struck 10:00 PM, the time when the surveillance computers slept for half an hour. Conor gingerly woke the most familiar Hybrids and promised to avenge their sufferings, before leaving as quickly as he had entered.

     He returned to his room, fetched a knapsack from under his bedding, and then hurried to the Lounge. The voices of his wife and son flowed in his head like untouchable rivers of gold. The loving and the longing, the fear and the fright, the separation and the solitude. His adrenaline-crazed blood rushed.

     Ava, Lucas, and Noah sat playing dominos when Conor entered. He explained his intention to escape and requested their help. When they asked for the plan, he explained as thoroughly as possible: tomorrow, they would stage fits of hysteria, causing silver machines to appear. Finally, they would overwhelm the machines and escape. Whispers of Block 9 had indicated that access codes were printed on the rolling tracks of the silver orderlies. The plan might lead to death—or worse. But when had freedom ever been free?

     The trio was eager to help. Gazing in the mirror framed with engravings of rats and humans, Ava complained about the mandated medium-length hairstyle for females. She wanted longer hair. Noah protested the mandated short hairstyle for males. He, like Ava, wanted longer, feminine hair. Lucas added various complaints about the lives they were forced to live. Conor remained virtually silent, as if not listening.

     The entire world seemed to rest in his hands. Dizziness crept close. He felt heated, hounded, hollowed, almost swooning. But the images of Sophia and Little Elmore rejuvenated him like a splash of cool water to a melting face.

     On an empty stomach but full heart, he navigated Block 9’s interconnecting halls and rooms, at last reaching the Yard. He peered up at the misery beyond the bars. Elmore’s wet sadness, Sophia’s worry-wrinkles—they lay awake but not awake, there but not there. He waited a minute to see if they turned. They did. Their eyes collided, eyes of different hues but of tears falling and shining the same.

     He clenched the bars and shook, feeling the rage.

***

     The following morning, he awoke with a throbbing heart. Every second of the past had led to today. He walked to the Yard to observe the current situation. His family was still awake, their heads drooping. They were losing their will to live, Conor concluded. The cycloptic menace sat at his computer desk, pressing buttons in spasmodic flurries. Pew, pew, pew! Pow, pow, pow!  

     After thirty minutes of shooting bad guys on the screen, he bolted upright and grabbed the baton, sending blue electricity into Elmore, who shook violently. The evil white coat giggled and clapped, then left for breakfast. The rest of the scientists pressed a few keys at their stations and rose for the same occasion.

     Sophia, sniffling, caressed her son.

      A hairy, impish white coat ambled to the Yard and glanced inside. He spotted Conor. They tilted their heads at each other. The man bent lower, lower, lower. A tiny red and white square as flat as a pancake fell out of his shirt pocket and seesawed to the ground. The man, never noticing, stood upright and left.

     Conor edged up to the bars and extended his arms, touching hard plastic. The square was more than a square. It was a key to his destiny: an access card with codes for in and out of Block 9 as well as for exiting the double doors.

     He whizzed to the Lounge. Ava, Lucas, and Noah had resumed their game of dominos.

     Conor informed them of his discovery. They would wait until all scientists except the cyclops left. When the evilest one was alone, Conor would slide the card into the appropriate slot, freeing the others and himself, and finally freeing his family. Intent on preserving culture, he stuffed his knapsack full of books written by Hybrids.

     The hour of reckoning seemed to arrive after an eternity. The interval was a crucible in which Conor’s courage molded as hard as a rock. It was also when the trio whispered the plans to the rest of the community.

     Every scientist except the cyclopic evil left. He sneered and taunted Block 9, yelling obscenities and threats toward prisoners. The last line of the tirade promised death beyond comprehension for Sophia and Little Elmore.

     Conor and the trio stealthily approached the Yard. The madman, busily gaming, had his back turned. Conor, extending his arms painfully far, slid the card through the slot. Mechanisms wiggled, rolled, clanged. The gate and the front entry opened. The cyclops paused, shifted, slowly cocked his head, his singular eye expanding.

     Hybrids poured out into the smells of chemicals, charcoal, and death. Some came with pointed canes; others wielded shanks. They threw the doctor of evil to the floor. Clawing, biting, hitting, stabbing. Conor gouged out the eyeball that had sent fear into his comrades. Limbs tore off. Intestines unraveled. The monster’s screams increased, decreased, increased, evened out, then drowned in blood.

     Conor unlocked the cage next to the desk. Sophia and Little Elmore cried tears of joy. He hugged them both, struggling to let go.

     The Hybrids exited the double doors and climbed a ladder leading to a metal circle. Opening the hatch, they breathed aromas of pine, cinnamon, and lavender. Giants of green leaves and barky bodies greeted them. Through canopies they noticed an azure sea of fluffy pillows. A million petals of multiple colors waved. The forest welcomed them.

    The Hybrids hollowed out turf. And after a week, an underground complex consisting of 7 floors and 100 rooms was livable. Conor stayed busy. When not lecturing on the evil humans had committed against their kind, including mice and rats, he spent the hours with Sophia and Little Elmore.

     Sometimes, when night blanketed the sky, he ventured out to the edges of the wilderness, where he observed city lights not much different than the starlike glows of the control panels. He smiled, waiting…waiting patiently for the time to strike.

 

THE END

 

Paul Lee served as a columnist for a newspaper. His short story "Something's Out There" was published in Goats Milk Magazine. Writing speculative fiction has been his passion for more than a decade. Robert Bloch's Psycho and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are his favorite novels.

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