Story Excerpt

The Prisoner's Cinema

by Gregory Norman Bossert
 

The warden only braved the freefall link between the control and studio modules for two reasons: the arrival of a prisoner via orbital shuttle, or the departure of a prisoner via the incinerator, their ashes dumped to fall traceless back to Earth.

The most recent arrival had been fourteen months ago—the former Vice Chairman for Mergers and Acquisitions whose failure to subdue New Zealand on schedule had led to his disgrace—and the most recent departure had been five weeks after that, when that same worthy had choked on a chicken nugget. The commentators who covered the livestream from the studio module 24/7 debated for a week on whether the cause of death had been stupidity or gluttony. The other prisoners knew a suicide when they saw one; the vice chairman had had neither the purpose-of-will nor the perseverance to survive the humiliation of being broadcast round the clock as an example to the entire world of the cost of disappointing the board of directors.

That had left only four residents of the studio module, and as they were all sitting around a table playing California high/low, it was a sure bet that the rumble of the large intermodule lift meant a new arrival was eminent. The commentators on the livestream were probably already gossiping about the incoming prisoner, but Nhe’eng had cut the audio feed again, which meant reduced rations for a week but a few hours of peace from the constant blather.

Max drew three cards, sighed theatrically, and said, “I’ll bet it’s that VRogger with the crazy siski, what’s-her-name, Mouche! She’s been really getting in the board’s face with those songs.”

Nhe’eng said, “Pig. Face it, you just want another Russian to jabber at.” She shoved a microdrone out of the way and took a card.

Max said, “Idiot, she’s French! Though certainly I wouldn’t mind a jab.”

Nhe’eng tilted her head, a gesture that meant both, “All you Europeans are alike to me,” and “Remember those times I stabbed you?”

The Sasquatch held up one finger, took his card, and said nothing.

Madame X waved off the cards, and said, “It’s Bangus Shi.”

“Fignya,” Max said. “Nah, he is laying low in the bush of Tasmania, last I heard.”

“‘Last you heard’ was six years ago,” Nhe’eng said. “And wrong. Bangus Shi is a collective, that was the word on the dark boards. No one person could have pulled off those subversions.”

“Subversions is not a word,” Max said. “Pranks. Stunts.”

Nhe’eng tilted her head again.

The Sasquatch tapped the table, slid in two of the pill packets they were using for both chips and cards. Bets went around.

Madame X laid down her hand, a six flush that scooped the pot, and said, “If you paid attention instead of bickering like children, you would have noticed that mainstream reporting of Bangus Shi’s, hmm, subversive art has been increasing for the last two months. Even our own dear commentators mentioned the hack on the treasurer’s teleprompter three weeks ago. The board would only allow that coverage if they had something with which to answer it.”

Max swept up the cards. “My money’s still on Mouche.”

Nhe’eng said, “Last you had money was also six years a—”

The Sasquatch grasped the two of them by the backs of their necks and lifted them out of their seats. Madame X was already standing, one foot forward, one hand resting on the back of her chair, facing the door. The other three lined up at her side. Microdrones swarmed in front of them, some with cameras turned to catch the door’s elaborate unsealing, some turned to cover their reactions.

First through the door was the guard (Large), anonymous in their matte black armor, haloed by their own cloud of drones, these armed not with cameras but with implements designed to incapacitate a prisoner through a variety of painful and humiliating means. Then the warden stepped in, smoothing her jacket and looking around with feigned indifference at the scene that she, like the population of the planet below, usually saw only through the livestream.

Behind the warden was a woman, well into her forties at the least—shorter even than Nhe’eng though in proportion to that height almost as wide as the Sasquatch—with skin halfway between Max’s pale and Madame X’s deep. Apart from the prisoner-standard jumpsuit and buzzcut, she could have been a schoolteacher, or a supermarket manager. Even with the prisoner-standard jumpsuit and buzzcut, she seemed an unlikely addition to the most exclusive prison on or off the planet.

Max whispered, “Maybe she’s here to clean the—”

Nhe’eng said, “Finish that sentence, pig, and I will stab you in your sleep.”

The Sasquatch clamped a meaty hand onto each of their shoulders in warning.

The warden looked toward the livestream commentators on the silenced monitors and frowned. She muttered something into her wrist. After a few seconds, the audio spluttered back to life.

“—and it looks like we’re ready now for Warden K’s announcement live from orbit. Over to you, Warden!”

The warden turned toward the Studio drones and said, “Thank you, Rolf. Hello, Susan, and of course, all you loyal viewers. It’s always a delight to introduce a new ‘star’ to the show . . .”

Chuckles from the commentators.

“. . . and to the executively mandated punishment that their immoral and irreverent actions have earned them.”

Nods and murmurs of agreement.

“And today it is my very great pleasure to announce that our latest arrival is none other than the infamous vandal and saboteur—”

A screeching klaxon interrupted her. The warden stuck a finger in one ear, wedged her wrist against the other, and nodded twice, eyes gone wide.

“We’ve detected some sort of, uh, orbital debris on a possible collision course. No cause for alarm, I am sure, but as a precaut—”

The door swung open, revealing the guard (Small), who grabbed the warden’s jacket and pulled her into the conveyor. The guard (Large) backed through the door after her, followed by the cloud of drones. The door slammed shut and began its laborious resealing.

“Hola,” said the new woman. “Qué maravilla conocer a ustedes aqui. Soy Leonora.” She smiled and held out her hand.

The others exchanged glances; they were, after all, global household names. Max shrugged and stepped forward to shake the newcomer’s hand.

“Max,” he said, tapping his chest. “Hello! Do you speak English? It’s what you’d call our lingua franca, even though the only one of us who speaks it natively is the Sasquatch.”

“And he doesn’t speak at all,” Nhe’eng said.

The Sasquatch folded one massive arm over the other. Leonora smiled up at him, less than half his height, then looked to Madame X, who met her gaze without moving. The two women’s eyes were equally black. Max, jittering in place as the tension built, finally ventured, “Um, so, parlez-vous français?”

“Un peu,” Leonora said, and broke the stare-down to smile at him. “Max. I loved the work you published as Actaeon in Mochit’sya Daily. So clever the way you mix facts and pure fiction. And Ixé ‘y supé onhe’eng—”

Nhe’eng tilted her head.

“McDonalds, well, that was a big fat target. A personal inspiration. And you came so close to destroying the Trans-Amazonian.” Leonora looked up at the Sasquatch again. “Albert Sanderson, the Scythe of Saskatchewan. Ninety-seven days as a breakaway republic, smack in the heartland of the North American Corporation. Quite a message, even if the phrasing was a bit heavy-handed. And Mariama Fall, better known as—”

Madame X lifted a finger, and the Sasquatch slammed a fist into the side of Leonora’s head. She spun head over heels in the low gravity to land at Max’s feet. He offered her his hand again; after a few groggy seconds she took it and slowly stood.

“You were testing our limits,” Madame X said. “And now you know them.”

Leonora coughed, wiped a dark smudge from her lip, dipped her head graciously.

“And now that we are past that,” Madame X continued, “perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us who you are?”

“What’d they nab you for, see?” Max said in an attempt at a gangster drawl. “You know, Madame X was betting on you being Bangus Shi. I mean, not you, but the new arriv—”

He was cut off by a new set of klaxons. Nhe’eng lifted her chin toward the closest monitor. The livestream had cut to a camera on the outside of the station, a view from the control module along the central tether to their own studio module in the distance, the two modules like tin cans twirling on either end of the tether’s string with the Earth and stars slowly spinning past. The commentators were babbling something about an imminent impact.

“Ah, well, about that,” Leonora said.

Something small and bright flashed into frame on the monitors, belched a cloud of exhaust, slowed to a stop against the side of the studio module. They heard a gentle thud from the hull somewhere off to the Sasquatch’s left, and then a mechanical rattle. On the monitor, the mysterious something unfolded to release a swarm of smaller objects, which spread along the side of the station and popped in clouds of color, a sizzle of sound audible through the hull, hints of pattern in the shifting sun. The camera zoomed in, searched shakily for the object, zoomed back out to reveal a painting that stretched halfway across the station module: A multi-colored cartoon skull with a silver smile, a lit fuse curling from its round head, and bright bold letters underneath that read, “And introducing Bangus Shi!”

They heard a second deep thud, and on the monitor a little cloud of glittering confetti rose and slowly drifted outward into its own orbit.

Leonora turned to them with a wide smile and shrugged. Max gave a low whistle. Nhe’eng tilted her head. Madame X lifted her finger. The Sasquatch cracked his callus-crusted knuckles and stepped forward.

*   *   *

Late that night—a period marked by a slight dimming of the lights and a new shift of commentators on the livestream—Madame X walked to the end of the row of cubicles that provided the prisoners some small measure of privacy from each other, if not from the camera drones.

Leonora had taken the second to last spot, the last being the reserve of the Sasquatch. Madame X found her on her back in the bunk, coughing quietly into her fist. When Leonora noticed Madame X, she slid up against the wall, wincing a bit from her bruises, and gestured at the end of the mattress. Madame X nodded and sat facing sideways, tucking in the ends of the Mylar she wore wrapped around her.

“You make that blanket look like an imperial robe,” Leonora said.

Madame X turned her head slightly, studied the newcomer from the corner of her eye. “Still testing our limits, I see.”

Leonora shook her head. “Only during working hours. I sincerely mean that as a compliment. You’ve been up here, what, eighteen years?”

Madame X ignored the question. She had been a member of the inaugural group of prisoners on the station, the only one still surviving. The date of her arrival was taught in school, the video of it looped every hour on the livestream after the advertisements.

“With all this endless theater.” Leonora waved a hand at the monitors on the far wall, and at the little cloud of camera drones that had gathered around the bed, attracted to their conversation. “But you’ve never once lost your dignity.”

Madame X dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement.

“Me, theater is what I do. Grab those eyeballs and yank as hard as I can. But after just half a day up here I am ready to curl up in a fetal position under the bed.”

“The drones will find you there. In the shower, on the toilet, under your blanket, no matter how tightly you tuck yourself under it.” That with a gesture to her own immaculately arranged wrap. “This is how they deal with those of us too infamous to make disappear. Make us instead so visible, so omnipresent, so mundane, that we are as unseen as air. Dignity means little when it is draped on a passing breeze.”

“I’ll pass some breezes for them, for sure, if they’re going to film me in the toilet. That’s all they’ll get from me.”

“Except, of course, during your ‘working hours,’” Madame X said. “Tell me, what exactly is the work you envision doing in this place beyond the ends of the Earth?”

“Ah, well, I imagine it is difficult to, for example, organize first West Africa and then the bulk of the non-aligned nations into a bloc rivaling the corporate powers when confined on a space station with round-the-clock surveillance livestreamed to the entire globe.”

Madame X said nothing.

“Or to hack every major corporation destroying the Amazon, not to mention the damn space force. Or to, uh, invade Montana.” Leonora’s chuckle turned into another brief coughing fit. “Or even to write satirical essays so sharp and sly that the authorities offer lifetime Executive status to whoever turns in the author. Is it really true that they don’t allow you, I mean us, any sort of writing material?”

Madame X nodded.

“Now me, I make or do things that hopefully cause the public to question their shared assumptions. I admit that I am used to working anonymously and with better resources. But here, now, I have more access to the public than I’ve ever had before. Pues, the work.”

Madame X turned her head to look directly at Leonora. “Just remember that anything you shake loose here lands on all of us equally. Their punishments are constant and capricious, and when provoked, quite cruel indeed. We know their limits and have achieved a balance here.” She waved toward the Sasquatch’s bunk, and then over her shoulder toward the others. “And if we must, we will act first to avoid any needless unpleasantness. I trust I make myself clear.”

Madame X tilted her head a few degrees, dropped her brows by the same amount.

“Speaking of which, did you suffer anything . . . unseemly during your trial or on your voyage up here?”

“Meaning beatings and torture? No more than you’d expect. Not that much more than your man there did to me earlier. Why?”

“Your cough,” Madame X said. “And there’s something on your lip.”

Leonora wiped her mouth with the back of her fist, rubbed at the black smear with her thumb. “Ah, no, this I did to myself. It all seemed a good idea at the time.” She met Madame X’s gaze. “Thanks for asking, though. And for the visit.”

Madame X gave another small nod, and stood.

“Madame X, one question, if you will,” Leonora said. “That low thudding pulse, is that normal? I’d hate to think I damaged something with my little introduction gag.” She waved a hand toward the far wall.

Madame X turned her head and listened for the good part of a minute, eyes closed. “It’s Albert,” she finally said. “Banging his fist bloody on the floor as he sleeps. After a few months, you won’t even hear it.”

*   *   *

From Mochit’sya Daily #753—Actaeon—Washington, D.C, USA

Listen, you debily, I was thirty-four thousand two hundred and ninth in line for the security checkpoint of the Basilica of the National Conformation of Policy to The Righteous Wrath and the line was not moving.

The people in line around me were of good cheer and better faith. “We’ll be in before the judging,” they said, “Lord and board provide,” and there was some friendly banter as to who would be Voted Out this week. Hawkers spontaneously generated from body-heat and soil, pitching cans of Croak™ and sugar-glazed suet.

The line was stopped because the scanners had shown that each and every person through the doors that morning was carrying a can of spray paint. That—as you, my durachki, well know—was Felony Possession of a Class A Medium with Intent to Communicate, and the deacons had dutifully tased and tagged several dozen before the lack of any actual spray cans led to the conclusion that the scanners were at fault. After some careful deliberation with the sanctuary manager—that most Liberated worthy’s red-faced spittle-flecked screech clearly audible thirty-four thousand two hundred and nine spots down the line—the Prelate in charge of security decided to turn off the scanners and rely on body searches. That was a lot of body to search, friends: O, the luscious layers of belly fat, the helium-inflated breasts and prime slabs of steroidal beefcake, the shucked husks of the elderly and the sniveling snarls of offspring.

And that’s when it happened, a goddam miracle, I tell you, my durachki, with no conceivable explanation beyond that of An Invisible Hand. Unless, that is, you can conceive of a portable nanotech factory and a high-wattage projector smuggled in while the entire security team was elbow deep in the congregation, under the twitching bloodshot eye of the manager, by that miraculous enactor of anti-miracles, Bangus Shi. For when the crowd was finally settled and the spotlights turned to the stage, the great statues of the chairman, the secretary, and the treasurer had been joined by a fourth figure, a motherly middle-aged woman in flowing robes. She was sliced open from chin to crotch, the skin peeled back in O’Keeffe-ish folds. The Chairman held her heart in one fist, the blood drops transmogrifying as they fell to drifting petals and the petals to dollar bills that evaporated just out of reach of the audience’s hot grasping hands. The secretary knelt at the chairman’s feet, head half-buried in the opened abdomen, needle-nailed fingers pulling offal and ovaries toward her bloodied mouth. While the treasurer had actually mounted the [continues after advertisement]

*   *   *

Max was the last to wake, as usual, the following morning. He shambled out of his nook—kicking over the wall of empty cans he had originally constructed to warn him if any of his fellow prisoners were sneaking up on him in the middle of the night, but now just maintained as a soothing bedtime ritual—to find Nhe’eng sitting crosslegged on the table, elbows on knees and chin on fists, looking toward the far wall. Madame X had pulled a chair out from the table and sat in it, hands folded in her lap. The Sasquatch slouch a little apart, chewing a gristled knuckle.

Leonora stood facing the wall, a halo of camera drones behind her. Before her were five rectangles, roughly sketched onto the plastic wall panels in something like charcoal, each the length of an outstretched arm and somewhat less tall. They looked like picture frames, or like the monitors overhead that held the Studio livestream, but they were empty.

She turned and smiled. “Good morning, Max. Have you seen this one?” She lifted a hand toward the blank rectangle directly before her. “Look, three old women sit talking to each other over coffee in the shadow of an arcade. Sisters, perhaps, or friends from a long-gone classroom. This one seems quite wealthy, though we can guess from her ring—look at that damn rock!—that the money has come from her husband.”

Leonora pointed a little to the left.

“This one looks like a businesswoman. That’s a nice suit, but look, her stocking has a run. Perfect nails, but the polish is a bit worn. Not an official, or a manager, I think. The owner of a shop or two, perhaps. I’ll bet she rents out rooms to help pay the mortgage of the house she bought to impress the others. And those rings on every finger, she clearly bought for herself, yes.”

Max squinted at the rectangle—it looked like it had been finger-painted by a child with grubby hands—and then at Leonora. “I, uh, sorry. I just woke up. I think.” He stepped up beside the table to look at Nhe’eng, who tilted her head.

Leonora pointed a little to the right.

“And this one, well, also a nice suit. But look, it fits her poorly. A gift from the shop owner, I’ll bet, carefully maintained for these weekly get-togethers. Her hands are twisted like dry shrubs from her daily labor. Her wedding band rattles on that twig of a finger; if she ever owned other rings she must have sold them after her husband died.”

The Sasquatch switched knuckles. He was looking not at Leonora but up at the monitors that carried the livestream. Four of the screens showed different angles on Leonora and the sketched frames. The others showed the commentators, who seemed as baffled as Max, their confused babble intertwined with the lightspeed-delayed echo of Leonora’s description.

Leonora waved her hand at the upper part of the frame.

“The plaza behind them, and the buildings beyond it, reduced to flat planes of color by the noon sun. No one dares that space except a trio of Guardias Corporativos, who stand smoking. One seems to stare at us, though the visor of his hat shades his face; the painter has left that face a flat black oval.”

All four of the original prisoners lifted their heads slightly. A quiet thrumming signaled someone was using the small intermodule conveyor, which meant a guard (Large or Small) was on their way. Madame X let out a tiny sigh.

“But look, Max, step to the right and, through some clever craft, everything we see changes.” Leonora gestured with her fingers without looking back. Max glanced at the others. Nhe’eng had her face in her palms, fingertips massaging her forehead. The Sasquatch stared back at Max for a few seconds, unblinking, then looked back up at the monitors. Madame X watched Leonora. Max shrugged and took a couple of steps to the right.

“Look how the women’s eyes have floated from their sockets,” Leonora said. “Like night-blooming flowers, drawn to some anti-light on vines of nerve. One eye hovering over their heads to watch the Guardias. The other eyes stare toward each other’s chests, trying to look through the windows there. Yes, windows, see, round glass windows set into each woman’s chest, like the door of a laundromat machine. What can we see there? Through the rich woman’s chest, this very same scene, though she is small, a child, and the others tower over her, painted in thick slashes of green laid on with a knife. What childhood jealousy is this, that she still carries?

“And the businesswoman, there within her chest we see her grand house. She stands in the attic, ankle-deep in dust, straining to hold the door shut, the entire house below her filled to bursting with twisted, starving bodies.”

The hum of the conveyor stopped. After a few seconds, the door began its laborious unlocking.

“And the poor woman, what do we see through her window? Nothing. The painter has filled that space with a black so deep that even the Guardia’s face looks grey and harmless in comparison.”

Leonora leaned in until her face almost touched the white plastic-paneled wall inside the rough-drawn frame.

“Look, Max, there’s absolutely nothing.”

Max leaned forward, despite himself, then jerked upright when the module’s door opened. The guard (Small) stepped through with their cloud of drones. The faceplate of their matte black helmet so matched Leonora’s description of the guards in the “painting” that Max inadvertently glanced toward the empty frame. He was convinced that the guard (Small) was a woman, and in his first days on the station had attempted to flirt with them. Repeated answers in the form of taser drones had not entirely dissuaded him from this pursuit; he raised a hand, smiled awkwardly, and took a few steps back from Leonora.

Leonora also smiled at the guard. “In fact, it’s not paint at all there, inside the poor woman’s chest, is it?” she said. “It’s a hole right through the hull into the vacuum of space. What this woman holds is enough to suck the other two right out of their pitiful existence, them and the plaza and the sunlight and the buildings in the distance and most certainly the damn Guardias—

One of the taser drones darted forward and hit Leonora in the sternum, sending her convulsing to the floor. A dozen more spread out to surround the other prisoners.

The guard tossed a bottle of detergent at Madame X. Nhe’eng reached up and effortlessly caught it. Max fielded a bag of brushes.

“Wash it off,” the warden’s voice said from the guard’s chestplate. “Half rations for two weeks.”

The guard (Small) stepped backward through the entry, their drones trailing after them, the last few barely squeezing past the closing door. After a few moments, the thrum of the conveyor started up.

After a beat, in which the warden’s voice and the thud of the door’s closing echoed through the livestream, Max shrugged and opened the bag to take a brush. Nhe’eng unfolded herself from the table and unscrewed the lid of the detergent. Madame X stood, smoothed her jumpsuit straight, and held out her hand for a brush. The Sasquatch stepped forward, lifted Leonora in one hand, and slung her spinning across the open space to land near the opening to her cubicle. Leonora grunted on impact, grunted again as she tried to sit up, stayed down instead, and rubbed her chest. The others started scrubbing away the gallery of empty frames.

*   *   *

The next morning, the hand-drawn frames were back.

Max found the Sasquatch and Madame X seated at the table, the former head-down over a bowl of breakfast, his back to the gallery, and the latter taking tiny sips of coffee, watching Nhe’eng probing the edge of one of the frames with a fingertip.

Max poured his own cup, gulped half of it down, peered blearily around the common area.

“She’s still in bed,” Madame X said.

“How did she . . .” Max waved his cup at the frames.

“That is, I imagine, what the guards are on their way to ask her,” Madame X said. The conveyor was just audible under the babble of the livestream commentators.

Nhe’eng nudged Max aside with her shoulder, drew two short lines on the tabletop with a black-smudged fingertip. “She didn’t. Not last night, not according to the livestream,” Nhe’eng said. She tilted her head, added a longer straight line below the two short ones, and two angled ones above.

“The Jaguar at Peace,” Max said. It was the signature Nhe’eng had used in her early corporate hacks.

“Will still shiv you, pig,” Nhe’eng said.

Max laughed, a loud low bark, a full octave below his usual rapid-fire tenor, took a few steps back just in case, and stumbled over the cleaning supplies from the day before. He picked up a brush and a spray bottle.

“Might as well get started,” he said.

They were only halfway through erasing the new frames when the guards arrived, both of them this time. The rest of the cleaning had to wait an hour as the guard (Small) searched the cubicles, tossing anything not bolted down out into the common area. The prisoners stood against the wall under the eye, and drones, of the guard (Large), Leonora still somewhat wobbly and half-supported by Nhe’eng on one side and Max on the other.

The guard (Small) then herded them into Madame X’s cubicle while the guard (Large) performed an equally thorough search of the common area and toilets. And then both guards watched as the prisoners scoured the wall. Leonora herself attacked one of the middle frames with a brush, while keeping up a cheerful commentary on the bright colors and bold, slowly shifting shapes of the imagined image contained within it. A handful of drones hung over her, their tasers occasionally burping sparks and ozone but never making contact. When she was done, she put her fists on her hips and stretched, craning her head to survey the wall, then turning to squint over the heads of the guards.

“Well, now, where have those lovely shapes escaped to?” she said.

The guard (Large) looked over their shoulder. Max barked another laugh. Madame X allowed herself a small smile. The guard (Small) slapped the other on the arm, and the two retreated to the door.

It took the prisoners another hour to address the chaos left by the searches, after which they shared a meal of their halved rations. Madame X offered Lenora a painkiller—one of the few medicines allowed them. The manufacturer was a sponsor of the livestream, and shipped up cartons of their latest synthetic opioids. The warden in turn delivered them by the box load to the studio end of the station, presumably in the hope that the prisoners would grow addicted, either as a demonstration of their depravity or as a means of their subdual. The prisoners instead used the packets as cards and chips for their poker games, thus, as Max observed, achieving both goals on their own terms.

Leonora sorted through the packets—labeled with brightly colored cartoon characters designed to pop on the video feed—and pulled out one sporting a round yellow cat with brown stripes.

“TranquiTiger,” she read. “Lemon chocolate, now with real flavoring.”

“Those will mess you up,” Max said, approvingly.

Leonora placed the packet back on the pile, tapped Nhe’eng’s drawing on the tabletop. “So will the jaguar, though it seems asleep.”

Nhe’eng stared at Leonora, neither breathing or blinking, for long enough that Max took the precaution of slipping sideways out of stabbing range.

Finally, Nhe’eng looked down at the drawing. “Not asleep, not anymore,” she said. She took a rag from the stack that the Sasquatch had neatly folded, and scrubbed the sketch away. “As far as anyone knows, they’re extinct.”

*   *   *

From Mochit’sya Daily #1102—Actaeon—Manaus, Amazonas, Brasil

Oh, my debily, have I got a scoop for you! That explosion that took out the Trans-Amazonian pipeline and shut down the highway—yes, the one that was visible from orbit and spawned a thousand idiot memes that every single one of you durachki sent me—was not caused by a malfunctioning Petrobras inspection robot. No, it was—just a second while I wipe tears of joy from my eyes—it was a pair of missiles from the NACorp Space Force, hacked right off one of their orbital platforms. Oj! Get some ice—that’s got to sting. Now put that ice in a glass and raise a toast to the genius responsible.

And was it the Organization of Non-incorporated States, still under the watchful eye of Madame X who passes her orders over the livestream via coded messages made by arranging those crazy cartoon drug packets? No—though this is an excellent idea for another column. Was it a sleeper cell from the ruins of the Prairie Republic? Hell, no, those pridúrki couldn’t organize themselves a run for beer. Was it that bogeyman of corporate boards everywhere, New Zealand?

Nyet! It was one sole native Amazonian, an Amazon warrior for real, the hacker who signs her work with the emoji of a sleeping cat and claims to speak for the river, who was responsible for the [continues after advertisement]

*   *   *

Max awoke before the lights brightened, with a sense of anticipation he hadn’t felt in half a decade. And so the others found him perched on the counter next to the coffee machine, well into his fourth cup.

“They were already there when I got here,” he said, gesturing at the wall. “But I did that one.”

At the end of the row of frames, looking as crisp and black as they had the days before, was a barely visible sixth rectangle, its pale brown edges dripping slowly downward.

Madame X took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “It would be a pity,” she said, “if they confiscated the coffee machine.”

Max blew a raspberry. “They’re a sponsor of the livestream. How could they abandon our adoring fans?” He raised his mug toward the closest camera drone. “Speaking of which.”

They all looked up at the monitors. The livestream was playing what seemed to be time-lapse drone footage of the wall. The frames simply faded into view over what was, according to the onscreen clock, a space of several hours. One of the commentators was breathlessly recounting the stories of prisoners who had died on the station, something to do with a theory about poltergeists, apparently, only to be interrupted by another who split the screen into closeups of each of the prisoners in hopes of catching a guilty tell.

“Is this the warden, Max?” Leonora was standing in front of the new frame, even though its edges had largely run down to the floor. “You naughty boy.”

The Sasquatch grunted and took a step toward Lenora, stopped at Madame X’s raised hand.

“Okay, okay,” Nhe’eng said. She had been sitting on the table, tracing the cat emoji she had drawn the day before. Now she hopped down and walked toward Leonora. Max looked nervously between the two women; Nhe’eng actually had stabbed him in his sleep, twice, with improvised weapons that had done no permanent damage, but had certainly underscored her opinion of his more juvenile excesses. Madame X, one hand still raised, watched over the edge of her cup as she sipped her coffee.

Nhe’eng stopped next to Leonora. The two looked at each other for a beat. They were of equal height, though Leonora was half again as wide.

Nhe’eng tapped the center of one of the sketched rectangles. “This one,” she said. “This is the river. Grey. The water is grey, the buildings are grey, the sky is grey, the people there, fishing, washing, digging, dying, all grey. Just this one bird—” She tapped a spot in the frame, then spread her fingers outward as if zooming in. “—here. Maybe this one bird keeps the color in its feathers. But it is far too sly for us to track.” She traced loops with her finger. “And anyway the river is pushing us backward, away from the buildings and the people and the bird, all shrinking down pixels. We can pan left and right, but not all the way around to see where we are going. If we zoom all the way in, we can still see the bird, but at this scale it’s nothing but a block of pixels. Pixels of every color, though. There’s our palette.”

She spread the fingers of both hands on the space inside the frame, then gathered them inward to the center.

“And when we zoom out again the colors stick: blue sky, green trees, black river, birds and beasts of every color. And still the river pushes us back, until the trees close overhead and the river widens below, and all the pixels blend. Just a block of green above and one of black below. Perfect. Pure.” She tapped the center of the frame. “Except this one small, sly dot.”

Max whistled. “Is that a, uh, tale of your people?”

Nhe’eng was looking at Leonora out of the corner of her eye. “No, idiot. Just some hippie bullshit to sell to tourists for their dorm room walls.”

The Sasquatch had been sitting at the table, seemingly focused on the livestream. He looked over at the two women, grunted, and stood up.

Madame X put down her coffee cup. “Albert, no.”

The Sasquatch ignored her, took two long steps forward. Nhe’eng and Max might squabble, and Nhe’eng and Madame X could argue endlessly over the use of violence against oppression, but Nhe’eng and the Sasquatch had outright battled on and off for the first six months after her arrival on the station. They had achieved an uneasy peace in the last four years, more to avoid giving any satisfaction to the warden or the livestream commentators than from any personal reconciliation. But now she was bracing one foot against the wall and weaving side to side as he raised a fist.

Leonora stepped between the two, and the Sasquatch batted her out of the way. Max caught her before she went face first into the coffee machine. She pushed off the counter to land back in front of the Sasquatch; this time he grabbed her with both hands and tossed her over his head.

Leonora landed partly on the table, somersaulted off the far side sending cups and playing cards flying. The Sasquatch looked over one massive shoulder for a moment; when Leonora showed no sign of rising he turned back to Nhe’eng, then stopped again as laughter rang out.

Both the Sasquatch and Nhe’eng turned to stare at Max, though this was more of a tittering than his low-pitched bark. The Russian pointed up at the monitors: on one side of the screen, the livestream commentators shaking and pink with mirth, on the other, a graphic of what seemed to be an office pool, animated dollar signs dancing over the box labeled “Sasquatch vs. Nhe’eng.”

“. . . waiting four years for this payout, Rolf, and you insisted—” one of the commentators was saying over the laughter.

The Sasquatch grunted again, lowered his fists and stomped off toward his cubicle. Nhe’eng watched him until he disappeared around the edge. Then she fetched a cleaning wipe from the cabinet over the coffee machine and brought it to the table, where Max and Madame X had picked Leonora up and sat her into a chair.

“I will take one of those painkillers now,” Leonora said. She wiped the blood from her nose and lip, washed down the pill Madame X handed her with a bit of coffee, and then with Max’s help limped off to her bed.

Afterward, Nhe’eng, Madame X, and Max cleaned the kitchen while waiting for the sound of the conveyor. All they heard was Leonora’s rattling cough and the steady thump of the Sasquatch’s fist. Nhe’eng stood with a sponge and spray bottle in front of her frame, as if debating whether to wash it off. Then she tilted her head, extended one thin finger, and tapped a spot that only she could see.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2021. The Prisoner's Cinema by Gregory Norman Bossert

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