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CODED MESSAGES

The year 385, the sixth month (and later). (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 


The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air.

*

For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal.

—Two passages from
Oscar Wilde: The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).


Communications sent through the coding offices of Mercy Life Prison and Compassion Life Prison. Status: Private correspondence between first-ranked guards. Ticker-records sealed; may only be read by Keepers, except upon magisterial order.

o—o—o

Tom:

Thought you might want to know that your pet Merrick, after having driven us all mad for the past decade with his acid tongue and violent fists, has decided to amuse himself by playing the model prisoner. Popular opinion among the guards is that he should be given the cold-water treatment till he strips off his mask of shining Mercy.

Oslo is sulking. He says there aren't any other guards worth dicing with at Mercy, now that you're gone.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I'm glad to hear from you, as I've been missing you since my return to Compassion. Please give my love to the others. Tell Oslo that he must be undergoing some sort of delusional spell, as I distinctly remember him telling me that, if I won one more game with him, he would lock me unarmed in Merrick's cell.

I'm very glad to hear the news about Merrick. There had been hints, before I left, that he would make this change, but I know how hard the process must be for him. Will you keep an eye on him, Sedge, and give him any help he needs?

Matters on this end could be better. I'm sure you've heard the news.

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

"Give him any help he needs"? Have you gone off your head, Tom? You know the history between me and Merrick.

Yes, the news finally leaked here about the riot at Compassion. Sorry to learn of your losses. I trust that the prisoners got what they deserved afterwards.

It's dead quiet here. Merrick's continuing to prance around with his do-goody expression. The guards are starting up a petition to bring back death sentences, just so that they can send him to the hangman.

I've transferred to a new prisoner. On the first night with him, I tried that flick-of-the-wrist movement you taught me. You're right, it does drive the whip deeper. I drew blood within three strokes. Very enjoyable.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

If you're trying to shock or anger me, I'm afraid it's not going to work. I knew what you were capable of when I taught you how to hold your whip. You'll have to be the one to decide when to make use of that skill. I can't make that decision for you.

There were only two dozen prisoners left by the time my father allowed our prison's riot gate to be opened. The rest had died of starvation. I had to fight him for a full day and night before he reversed his order. He'd wanted them all to die.

For reasons I can't go into here, I bear much of the responsibility for the riot, though it occurred while I was at Mercy. I'm sick at heart, thinking of all the guards and prisoners who died because of my actions. Fortunately, nobody in my family was harmed, but my mother is urging my father to resign from his post as Keeper of Compassion. He won't, of course. He's determined to create a better prison than before. I'm not sure yet what sort of prison he has in mind.

Do you know which guard took over my work as Merrick's guard?

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

Darren was given your old job with Merrick. You won't remember him; he was transferred down from the fourth level shortly before you left, as punishment for nearly killing a prisoner. Can't have our life prisoners dying on us; death's too good for them.

So I agree with your views on keeping the Compassion prisoners alive, though for different reasons than your own. Sweet blood, Tom, sometimes I wonder at your innocence. Why do you think that your prisoners were sent to Compassion? It wasn't for lacing daisy chains. With six dozen guards dead at Compassion, I should think you'd have taken the measure of those killers by now.

Merrick has requested that he be allowed to share a cell with his long-time enemy Tyrrell. The guards are now trying to decide whether Merrick should be transferred to an asylum for the insane.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

Thanks for giving me the news about Merrick. I'm glad to hear that he has formed a friendship with Tyrrell, who I'm sure will be a good influence on him. And perhaps the reverse is true as well, if, as you hint, he's still keeping to the straight path. Will his guard allow the transfer? I must confess that I'm concerned by what you say of his new guard. In the early stages of such transformation, it doesn't take much to make a man lose his resolve. I hope you're continuing to help him. He can't do this alone.

My father's been discussing with the magistrates the renovation of Compassion. The prison is long past due for being rebuilt. It's so old that I swear some of the vermin in it evolved after its original erection.

I'm not sure about what my father's plans, though. On the one hand, the new layout he speaks of would give the prisoners more privacy from their guards. On the other hand, it would give the prisoners less privacy from each other. We've had problems at Compassion with prisoner-to-prisoner rapes.

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

Really? You let prisoners have fun that way? Well, I suppose it could be amusing to watch.

As for "I hope you're continuing to help him" . . . In Hell's name, Tom, haven't you been paying attention to what I say?

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I've been paying attention to what you say. I've also been paying attention to what you don't say. How are matters going with your new prisoner?

The prisoners left at Compassion are so few that they're being held at the nearest holding prison, about thirty miles from Compassion. They're likely to stay here until the renovation of the building is complete. My father has me helping at the holding prison while he supervises the renovation.

The magistrates, for reasons I can't understand, are continuing to send us convicted criminals. I've claimed the latest one as my prisoner.

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

You claimed him? Well, well, it seems that Merrick isn't the only one changing his ways. Or did you think I hadn't heard about Compassion's customs?

Knew you'd come round in the end.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I'm afraid you've succeeded in irritating me at last. No, I haven't raped my prisoner. And you should know that wasn't what I meant.

Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

No "with respect" in your last message, I notice. It's just as well. I've got better things to do than to waste time on this correspondence.

Sedgewick Staunton

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I'd like to apologize for that display of bad temper in my previous letter. It was wrong of me to let my anger at myself leak out in a letter to you, when you've been so faithful in your correspondence.

I'm afraid you touched a tender spot for me. I worry sometimes that, the longer I stay in the life prisons, the harder it will be for me to keep to my principles. Every time I do something new, I fear that I'm giving in to temptation. I came back from Mercy rather unsettled from how matters went between Merrick and me. The truth is, I've been missing him a lot, which is why I keep asking after him.

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

Hell's balls, Tom, don't tell me this is one of those tales of a lovelorn guard. I thought better of you than that.

You needn't worry about Merrick. His guard is treating him as daintily as though he were a newborn babe, no doubt because his guard wants to keep on the right side of a certifiable maniac. Merrick and Tyrrell have now declared that they will be at peace with one another forever, and they've invited the other prisoners to join them in their truce. I expect to see sweet-scented flowers strewn on the floor soon.

Congratulations on your elevation. I heard from our Keeper that your "help" at the holding prison consists of being in full charge of Compassion's guards and prisoners.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

Not in full charge, no. I still have to receive approval from my father for any major decisions, which limits my power considerably. But I've been able to put a stop to the prisoner-to-prisoner rapes, at least for now. If a prisoner wishes to be claimed by another prisoner, that's a different matter.

Thank you for your kind words about my elevation. I'm very young for this type of responsibility, I know, and the other guards here are skeptical of my ability to hold this post. One of the reasons I miss Mercy is the number of friendships I was able to make there. Compassion's guards, who have known me since I was a young boy, are less likely to treat me with seriousness.

Your annual leave is arriving soon, isn't it? Is there any chance you would be travelling this way?

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

I've put off my leave. My latest prisoner is turning out to be a handful, and I can't trust him to any of the other guards.

I'm surprised by what you say about Compassion's guards not taking you seriously. Have none of them seen you wield a leaded whip?

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

Yes, I have a good reputation with the whip, but balanced against that is the fact that I don't rape my prisoners. I was pleased that you and a number of other guards at Mercy didn't consider that to be a count against me. Here at Compassion, alas, every guard is expected to claim a prisoner in the full sense of the word, or he's considered to be slacking in his duty.

Word has reached Compassion about the boundaries of behavior that Merrick and Tyrrell have vowed to keep. It's said that the notion of these ethical boundaries is spreading like wildfire among the Mercy prisoners. Is this just exaggerated rumor? I'd be interested in hearing what those boundaries are.

I'm sorry to learn that your prisoner is turning out to be difficult to work with. Can I be of any help?

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

I hardly need bother telling you what Merrick and Tyrrell's boundaries are. As far as I can tell, Merrick cribbed them all from you.

Yes, Merrick is being his usual troublemaking self by persuading other prisoners to follow his rules. Frankly, I'm not concerned about this, since one of Merrick's rules is that prisoners mustn't attack guards, even if attacked themselves. (You see now why everyone's convinced that Merrick has lost his mind.) But you know Mercy's Keeper; he sees sedition through every door-crack. I've told him that, if he wants to turn this into a riot, then he can punish Merrick and Tyrrell and the others involved in this. If he wants to see the new behavior put to a stop, he should just let matters lie. There's no way that any of the prisoners is going to be able to keep this sort of thing going for long, least of all Merrick.

So what the hell are you doing with this claimed prisoner of yours, if you're not raping him? Singing him nursery songs and tucking him into bed?

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

My father examines the ticker-tapes of all outgoing correspondence from Compassion, so I'm sure you'll understand if I don't go into the details of the private arrangement between my prisoner and me. In any case, conditions at Compassion are very different from conditions at Mercy. You wouldn't learn much that would be applicable to your own situation.

The latest rumor is that some of the guards at Mercy have begun to adhere to the Boundaries. I capitalize the word because that's how it was reported to me. Is this true?

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

You might have warned me before that our letters are being read by Compassion's Keeper. You know that Mercy's Keeper has a hard enough time staying awake to do routine paperwork, much less bothering to read private correspondence between guards.

I don't know what you mean by "applicable to your own situation." I was just curious about your activities. One thing I will say for you, Tom: You livened this place up by always doing the unexpected.

Yes, Merrick's insanity has infected guards now. Our Keeper is tearing his hair out. He can't actually order those guards to rape prisoners, and none of the guards has been stupid enough to refrain from beating their prisoners when the prisoners break rules. But this is causing divisiveness in the guard-room. Up until now, except for the occasional eccentric like you, we were all agreed on how the prisoners should be treated. Now that unity is gone, and I'm not the only guard worried that the prisoners will take advantage of this fact to start a riot.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I should clarify what I said in my last letter. My father reads outgoing correspondence from Compassion. He considers it a matter of honor not to read incoming messages. He isn't concerned about the activities of guards in other prisons, but he doesn't entirely trust his own guards, least of all me.

I think that, when you come down to it, trust and lack of trust are what divide the guards at your prison. The guards who keep the Boundaries trust the prisoners to adhere to the rules with minimal need for punishment. The other guards don't.

How are matters with your prisoner? Is he continuing to cause problems for you?

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

Wake up to the real world. What divides the guards here is that some of us like to rape prisoners and some of the guards are too goody-good for that. Bloody blades, Tom, you're never going to be able to keep control of Compassion if you continue talking like a child.

My prisoner is driving me to distraction. I might be able to take leave some time during the next century.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

Maybe you should take leave now. I sense there is more going on than you're saying.

My father unveiled the new plans today for Compassion's renovation. He's right that Compassion will be the most secure of the life prisons after it's rebuilt. It's also likely to be the most vicious hell-hole for prisoners in the world. I'm ashamed to wear this uniform, Sedge.

With respect,
Thomas

o—o—o

Tom:

Your father reads all your correspondence, you say? You're a brave man, Tom.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this uniform either. Things are too much in turmoil here, and it's hard for me to keep matters straight in my mind. It was easier before you came here and screwed up Merrick.

Sedgewick

o—o—o

Dear Sedge,

I wrote to Oslo, under the excuse that he still owes me money from our dicing games. He tells me that you replaced Darren as Merrick's guard, at your own request, not long after I left Mercy.

I understand now.

Like I said before, Sedge, nobody can do this sort of thing alone. Your letters have been of much help to me since my arrival back at Compassion. Tell me how I can be of help to you.

With great respect,
Thomas