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Hell's Messenger

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Hell's Messenger #1

The year 400, the third month. (The year 1895 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

The dangerous and desperate criminal is often only the hero
gone wrong.

—Thomas Mott Osborne: Society and Prisons (1916).


Hell's thunder reached up from the horizon to the sky, touched Mercy's clouds, and lit them ablaze with light. The pre-dawn glow, struggling to penetrate the thick mist covering the mountains and foothills, was overwhelmed by the shining splendor of the golden clouds above.

Tyrrell, who had no special fondness these days for the goddess Mercy or any of her earthly representatives, did his best to shrug his uniform so that his collar shielded him from the rain pouring down his back. This exercise wasn't easy, since his hands were cuffed behind his back. He glanced over at Oslo, who was frowning at the narrow, barred gate in front of them.

"Is this a new kind of torture?" Tyrrell asked. "Making me drown in the rain?"

"Shut your mouth, Tyrrell," said Oslo, but in an absentminded manner, as though his thoughts were elsewhere. Perhaps they were on the rain, which had turned his dark blue uniform as black as the thunderclouds. On the other side of Tyrrell, Bailey shook his head to free some of the spray from it. The spray shot onto Tyrrell.

"We should have waited in the wagon," Bailey said to Oslo. "I told you that."

Tyrrell looked longingly at the patrol wagon, whose horses were hitched under an overhang further down the wall. But Oslo shook his head as he reached up with his free hand to wipe his nose. "Bailey, when they open that gate, they'll keep it open for exactly half a minute, and if we're not in by then, we'll have lost our chance till noontime."

"Rather exacting, aren't they?" commented Bailey, then sneezed. More spray landed on Tyrrell, who glared at the young guard. Bailey ignored him.

"No more than we are." Oslo glanced over to the right, where the sun was turning the eastern horizon a pink-orange. "It shouldn't be long now."

Tyrrell gave up the struggle to close the gap between his back and his shirt; his entire body was wet now. "At least if I die of chill-fever, you'll be dead as well," he muttered, and was rewarded with a kick on the shins from Oslo that left him hopping on one leg. Bailey took a stronger grip on Tyrrell's arm, as though he expected him to try to escape.

Just where Bailey expected his prisoner to escape to, Tyrrell didn't know. Tyrrell looked every which way, but all that he could see, besides the glint of a pool of water through trees nearby, were mountains, bare of humans and probably filled with wild animals that would maul him if he ran away. Oslo had cheerfully pointed this out to him when they first arrived.

Now Oslo was far from cheerful. He gazed up at the wall, as though hoping somebody would look out and notice them. Since the wall held no windows, that seemed unlikely. It was made of white concrete, and other than a drainpipe or two, it was as sheer as the cliffs. It rose four storeys high and was capped, incongruously, with an elegant, Vovimian-style glass dome. No light travelled through the dome from inside.

Another lightning bolt jolted up from the ground, so close by that Bailey jumped. Oslo, a more seasoned guard, merely looked annoyed. He took out his annoyance by digging his nails into Tyrrell's arm. Tyrrell, a seasoned prisoner, did not bother to protest this small maliciousness. Instead he looked again at the enormous expanse of wall they were facing, trying to calculate how many cells lay inside. Until the day before, he had lived in Mercy Life Prison, which had six levels. There was room in that life prison for roughly fifty prisoners on each of the five storeys that held cells, not counting the punishment cells in the frigid basement. Close to two hundred and fifty prisoners in total, as Tyrrell had long known from his careful memorization of the names of prisoners and guards.

This white lump of a prison in front of him wasn't as high, but it was so broad that it looked as though it could easily house a thousand prisoners, depending on how much of the prison was taken up with cells. Tyrrell wrinkled his nose, trying to rid himself of a raindrop that was tickling him, and trying to think through the clashes of thunder echoing against the mountainsides. He wondered whether he could endure another assignment in the laundering room, if that turned out to be his work here. There were bound to be more uniforms to wash at this place.

Not that he had any choice in the matter. He sighed and tried to loosen his handcuffs for the hundredth time on the trip, which earned him a hard knock on the head from the hilt of Oslo's dagger. Tyrrell went still immediately, knowing from experience that he was pressing Oslo's temper too far. It wasn't as though he would get more than a few yards if he managed to wriggle away, hands free or not. Oslo was carrying a whip, and Bailey a revolver. Tyrrell feared the whip more than the revolver, having been the recipient of its bite on too many occasions.

Thunder clapped in his ear, followed by bells. At first he thought the ringing came from inside his throbbing head; then he realized that it was emerging from the darkness behind the gate. "Here we go," muttered Oslo. "Get ready to move quickly."

The gate in front of them, narrow though it was, stood a full storey high. Tyrrell watched with fascination as the gate began to slide to the side, seemingly without assistance from human hands. He had heard that this prison had the most sophisticated machinery of any prison in the entire nation of Mip, since it was situated not far from their nation's border with the queendom of Yclau, whose engineers were famed throughout the world. Glancing at Bailey, he saw that the young guard was watching the gate's progress, his mouth open. He came from a provincial village and had probably never seen a piece of large machinery in his life. Tyrrell had grown up on the streets of the Mippite capital . . . but that was twenty years ago, and even the electric trolley bus they had passed on their journey here had given him a thrill of excitement. So much had changed since he entered Mercy Prison.

And now he was leaving the world again, most likely for the last time. He looked around again at the wet, mountainous landscape.

"Now!" said Oslo, and he began pulling Tyrrell forward, heedless as to whether his prisoner could keep up. Bailey was trotting on his other side, trying to reach the gate that had opened barely the width of two men. As they came near, the gate began to close. Cursing, Oslo shoved Tyrrell through the gate. Tyrrell stumbled and fell flat on his face.

Since his hands were cuffed behind him, this hurt as much as though Hell's torturers had decided to smash in his face. He lay on the cold concrete in the darkness, cursing in an indiscriminate manner that embraced every guard he had possessed the misfortune to be serviced by. The chill of the ground, combined with his wetness, had set him shivering, and he could taste blood in his mouth where his teeth had caught his cheek as he fell. In an automatic manner, he checked his teeth. They were all there, except for the four he had lost over the years, courtesy of past guards.

The ringing stopped, except for its echo. He received a boot-thump against his thigh, which told him that Oslo had made it inside and had heard the nature of his cursing. He switched the cursing over to a more specific target and received a harder kick against his ribs. He had enough sense then to bite his lip shut.

"I keep the Boundaries," he whispered to himself, and instantly felt better. He allowed Bailey to pull him onto his feet, and as he did so, he realized that laughter echoed in the dark room. The laughter did not come from either of his guards.

He raised his head. He was in a large, high-ceilinged room. That much he could tell from the echoes and from the fact that he could not see the ceiling. Most of the room was lightless. But in the left-hand corner ahead of him, on a balcony about where he would expect a ceiling to be, sat two men lit by wall-lamps. Both wore dark blue uniforms, and both had their boots resting in a leisurely manner on the low, barred railing of the balcony. Both had rifles in their laps, and both rifles were pointed straight at Tyrrell.

Tyrrell felt his empty stomach lurch. One of the men who had been laughing called across the room, "Mercy's man! What gift do you bring us today?"

"Compassion's man!" Oslo called back in a casual manner that suggested he was acquainted with the other guard. "I have a prisoner transfer for you. Fresh meat for the banquet."

The rifle-bearing guards seemed to appreciate this small witticism more than Tyrrell thought it merited; they hooted with laughter. "Tenderizing the meat, are you?" asked the second guard, who held a cigarette between his lips.

"Oh, believe me," said Oslo, grinning, "I've poked the meat quite thoroughly to make sure it's well done."

Tyrrell rolled his eyes. Even Bailey winced at Oslo's poor wit.

The first guard lifted his rifle and set it aside. "Ah, what a pity we will not be able to feast at length on him at our banquet. But we are somewhat gentler on our prisoners than you are at Mercy Prison. How many fuckings a year do you service each of your prisoners with? One hundred? Two hundred?"

"We're working on raising the number." Oslo's voice held nothing but amusement.

"Whereas we are unlikely to see your prisoner more than once or twice this year . . . if that much." The first guard pulled his boots off the railing and leaned over the railing, remaining in his chair as he scrutinized the scene before him. The wavering light of the gas-lamps on the balcony wall moved shadows across his face, which was thoughtful. "Hard to say from this distance," concluded the guard finally. "Why the transfer?"

"Your Keeper knows. You can probably guess. His name's Tyrrell."

The second guard, who had removed his cigarette from his lips in order to tap it over a spittoon nearby, went suddenly still. The first guard raised an appreciative eyebrow. "Oh-ho!" he said softly. "So that's the way of it. I was wondering how long it would be before Mercy's Keeper lost patience with those riot-rousers he's been housing. What happened to the others?"

Oslo shrugged. "We'll know when we get back. The first decision our Keeper made was to arrange this transfer. Your Keeper seemed willing to take him in."

The first guard shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. "Our Keeper," he said, "has all sorts of grandiose plans for this prison, though whether any of them will come to fruit is another matter. I suppose that servicing riot-rousers is part of his plan. Will you break your fast with us? Starke likes to arrive early for his gunner duty . . ." He gestured toward the second guard. "But I prefer to extend my dawn break as long as possible. You're welcome to join me in the guards' dining hall. The night watch will be coming off-duty soon, and I can introduce you."

"Yes," muttered Bailey through gritted teeth. "Warmth. Yes."

Oslo ignored him. "Good food wouldn't go amiss," he said, smiling. "And I hear that Compassion Life Prison is famed for that."

More hoots of appreciative laughter erupted from the first guard, though the second was busy drawing a long lungful of smoke from his cigarette and scrutinizing Tyrrell with an expression he could not read.

"We promise to feed you only the best," replied the first guard, getting to his feet and reaching toward a hand-sized lever set within a small, red hatch on the wall. "Come to the dining hall when you've delivered your charge. You remember the way, I'm sure."

"I hope I do," said Oslo, beginning to tug Tyrrell forward into the darkness, "but everything may be changed here, from what I hear. Your Keeper seems to want to turn things upside down."

"We'll see," said the second guard as his eyes followed Tyrrell's progress. His voice was barely audible, and his expression was hidden behind a puff of smoke. "We'll see. . . ."

They made their way through the blackness; Oslo was heading toward an invisible goal with unhesitating steps, while Bailey was muttering something about the difficulty of locating targets in the dark. Then the younger guard whispered, "Do you think you should have said what you did about the fuckings, Oslo? If people outside Mercy Prison know . . ."

"Bailey, everyone in the life prisons knows what we do to our prisoners." Oslo, who didn't bother to lower his voice, sounded as though he were about to laugh. "In fact, everyone in the Magisterial Republic of Mip knows. It's been reported in the newspapers for years. Do you think anyone cares? The magistrates showed how little they cared last month. Watch your ears."

Following this mysterious remark, there came behind them the unmistakable sound of a lever clicking upward into place. Then the air screamed.

Tyrrell stopped dead; he would have covered his ears with his hands if he could have figured out how to escape from his handcuffs. The loud bell before had been a soft whisper compared to the grating, high-pitched wail of this siren. Tyrrell had never heard anything like it. He supposed it was what would result if a twenty-foot giant blew a mighty whistle.

Oslo shouted to Bailey over the alarm, "A hard target to miss!"

At first Tyrrell thought he was referring to the noise that was about to deafen him. Then he realized that the wall in front of them was parting.

The wall had doors, but such doors as Tyrrell had never seen. They were fully a foot thick, made of a dark material that Tyrrell could not identify in the dim light of the passage beyond. Some sort of metal, he thought as he saw the light glide across the moving gates. The gates were sliding back into the walls next to them, as though they were flat keys entering slots. They moved smoothly, but with a rumble which suggested that only the machinery which was moving them could have parted them.

The passage beyond was grey with dawn-light. A few dim gas-lamps sparkled against the walls, giving evidence that the prison had not been entirely unlit during the night. The ceiling above glittered grey – metal again, it seemed. At the end of the passage there seemed to be an open space. What lay on either side of the open space, Tyrrell could not see.

Tyrrell caught a flicker of movement and saw that the second guard they had been speaking with – the man named Starke – had just brushed past Oslo, carrying his rifle slung across his back. He said nothing, but passed through the passage between the metal doors, and then turned right and disappeared through a doorway in the passage.

The air stopped screaming, as though it had tired of giving its warning. The heavy metal doors remained open. Oslo said, his voice thick with amusement, "Bailey, you're drooling all over the floor."

Tyrrell turned his head in time to see Bailey snap his mouth shut. The young guard continued to stare with wonder at the mighty entrance. "How could they build anything this big?" he murmured.

"They're riot doors," said Oslo in a matter-of-fact manner. "If the prisoners try to escape, Compassion's Keeper levers the doors shut, using a special riot key. He has the only keys to the inside lever, and once the doors are shut during a riot, they can only be opened from the outside. As the last lot of prisoners learned who tried to escape here," he added lightly, and then he blinked rapidly.

Tyrrell was blinking too. The passage in front of them, as well as the area beyond, had suddenly turned bright, as though a fire had sprung forth. Looking up, Tyrrell saw that the light came from glass globes hanging from the ceiling. Not gas-lamps, he thought in some confusion, trying to focus his eyes on the odd loop of sun-bright wire inside one of the globes.

"Landry!" Oslo called out. "You've been electrified!"

"Only the best in this prison, I told you," called back the first guard. "Do enter, Oslo. These doors aren't supposed to stay open after dawn – Keeper's orders."

"My apologies, Landry," said Oslo, in the polite manner he always used toward his fellow guards – as opposed to subhuman creatures, such as his prisoners. He pulled Tyrrell forward in the direction of the doorway that the second guard had passed through. Bailey was gaping at the electric lights now.

So was Tyrrell. He had heard of such things from recent prisoners at Mercy, but Mercy Prison was very out of date, still lighting itself through fire pits and oil lamps. Despite the tales he'd heard of fantastic machinery at Compassion Prison, Tyrrell had unconsciously assumed, from all that he had heard about conditions at Compassion, that this prison would be similarly backwards, embodying the barbarisms of the past. Mechanical doors and electric lights did not fit his vision of an old-fashioned prison.

Behind them, the doors began to rumble closed, without the siren that had heralded their opening. He and his escorts had followed Starke's path, entering a stairwell; Oslo was leading them at a rapid pace up the solid metalwork steps. They emerged finally onto a balcony that was also made of metal. Tyrrell glimpsed above the area to the left of him the great glass dome he had seen from the outside. The dome was high up, and Tyrrell had a dizzying moment of revelation when he realized that the room in which this balcony was located was four storeys high.

Then Oslo turned him around and shoved him through a doorway, saying to someone beyond him, "A new prisoner for you, Medinger."