I live in a building with my parents and hundreds of other people. We will live here for the rest of our lives, and our children will do the same. Categorized PL, Permanent Life. Prison-for-life.
The loudspeaker: …subtropical lowlands, clay and limestone, pseudo-desert, mineral steppe…
In one of the common areas, I see a soldier through the bars, smoking outside. At this second, no one else is near us.
I say, “I can see us together at the war crime tribunal in twenty years.”
By his face I see I’ve severely miscalculated. This is an attack on his sexuality. Then he sees how young I am and laughs. He is thicker and taller than me but I don’t hate his face. It has stupid and serious parts, his eyes big in a solid face, eyebrows two flat lines, but the parts add up to coherence.
“Yes”, he says. “I’d be the one testifying against you. They’d send me to prison but I wouldn’t be executed.”
“You think that highly of me?”
He laughs it off again. He knows I’m trying to get something. But he’s still here, which is a fatal admission.
He says, “Why were you executed?”
“What about the war crimes?”
“I did the war crimes. But you helped me.”
“Due to your military ties.”
“I’m just a soldier.”
“You’ll be promoted by then.”
“To the very top.”
“I’d get a good cell. Cigarettes everyday.”
“I saw this.”
He gets me on a day pass, even though it’s night. He drives a gray car issued by the government, a used Ban-Veloz.
We go to his place. The apartment is a single room, long and narrow, with alcoves on the right side. Every surface is cluttered and grimy. Plastic lawn chair and a metal fold-out table. The only color is from an aquarium on the table, surrounded by trash. The fish are that common kind that is pretty but cheap. In mags, aquariums are flush against walls, and everything is clean and black around them. This aquarium is angled carelessly as if never moved from where he put it when he brought it back from the store, like a bag of groceries.
He’s looking for something in a plastic bag. He says, “Feed my fish.”
The fish food is in the form of long strips like crystalline fruit leather. Each strip is 10 units. I grab some and they crumble in my hands. As I feed the fish, I laugh and say, “I had the irrational feeling I could estimate by grabbing. But that isn’t true.”
He grunts but keeps searching. I’m relieved he isn’t angry at me. I take out exactly three strips and feed the fish, but I feel the unknown chaotic portion I began with has fed them at least 0.5 too much. I hope this difference will not be lethal. It’s okay for a fish to get a different amount of food, probably?
I wonder if something will happen here. But there is no bed. A cushioned area, possibly extracted from a car or waiting area, is covered in papers and those thin plastic bags like for bagging fruit that stretch and tear in your fingers.
He says, “I have to drive somewhere.”
He has his gun now, but he probably always had it, if he was standing near the prison.
We drive to a better part of the city, the commercial district. I’ve never been in a building this tall. Is it a skyscraper? The prison has a lot of stories but is wider, and goes underground. This building seems like a hotel inside, or a commercial center with all the suites and numbers. It is clean but we see no one. Every door is the same but they have different placards on them in the same font, with very different businesses and functions. I think this floor is owned by the government.
We go into a room. It has no bed. It has black shiny lockers. There are clean areas recessed into the wall, like for getting your blood pressure checked. One recess is deeper, enclosed, the size of a small bathroom. Exposed metal grooves. Black tile, no lights.
He takes his shoes off, putting them in the locker.
“My captain had to see AMIANTOS.”
“I had to go with him. He went inside. I stayed in the waiting room. I faced away from the doors. He came out and went directly to the hospital. They have a room now where your family waits outside and you can talk to them through the glass. Then they give you something and you. You know.”
He takes his socks off and rubs his feet like he’s crushing them.
“But I’m the guy who drove him to the hospital. Or maybe the guy in the room outside the room. I don’t know.”
I’m quiet for awhile. Then I say, “Why did your captain have to go in?”
“They wanted to know when the next parade would be.”
“Couldn’t he do that over the telephone?”
“Yes.” He puts his wallet in the locker and a coin falls out, ringing on the metal.
I feel nervous being outside the prison, like I could get in trouble, or he might change his mind. I put my hand on his leg.
He pulls his gun out and cradles it in his lap. “Do you really want to suck my dick when I have radiation burns?”
“I don’t know.”
“You might as well suck my gun.”
He pulls the trigger. Click. Click. Click.
“On. Off. On. Off. Heaven-Hell cell.”
“The doctor said something like, each cell rolls the dice.”
“It happens to everyone,” I say.
“Listen. You need to stay far away.”
“If we’re all getting it, I might as well get something for it.”
“Whatever you think life with radiation is like…don’t think of it that way.”
The sound of my breathing cuts out, and I hear the next part deep inside my head.
“Think of it as. You played the game. Now the game is over.”
The glass is so thick that no sound penetrates from the city. The room feels separate from everything else. It makes me calm, even though it’s already morning and the sun is rising, all over this PL-world.
He grips the barrel of his gun. “I heard about a bullet they found. In the old place. This bullet, if it enters your head, will send your soul to a new body in a new time. And if you can find another bullet, you can do it again. And each time your soul becomes more dangerous.”
“What caliber is the bullet?”
“Does it matter?”
“Can it shoot through two skulls?”
That gets a smile, broken in the middle. He says a lot to me without speaking.
He puts the gun in the locker but doesn’t lock it. He goes into the dark room and takes his shirt off, sitting on a tile bench like a bath house. But I don’t think I should follow.
Slowly, I say, “So what do you want from me?”
His voice echoes in the tiled space like he’s far away. “Just sit there while I get my treatment.”
I wait and watch the clock. The door opens and a nurse comes in. She doesn’t look at me. She enters the dark room with him and squirts brown gel onto his back. Something is concentrated there, dark under the gel.
She takes out a large needle and punctures his back, rubbing the skin next to it. I lean against his locker, metal the temperature of our skin.
His voice is strained from being hunched over. “You said twenty years?”
“At the war crime tribunal.”
“Then we’d better get started.”