The Cube - Chapter 10 - The Dirge of Dunder

Skava lacked transit facilities for its prisoners and threw them into a holding pit surrounded by armed guards. Male prisoners with Arland gravity were given shovels and told to widen the eastern wall of the pit, the only place where Arlanders could stand. Motorized edge transports arriving from crossing stations dumped transverse prisoners into potholes on the surface where they were forced to cling for their lives, as if in shallow alcoves on the side of a cliff, pending creation of adequate room in the pit. The shovelers were ordered to dig graves along the wall for expected casualties and told that whoever dug the least would be the first to occupy one. True to their word the soldiers used a boy for target practice when his grave came up half as deep as the men on either side. The commanding officer reprimanded the privates for wasting ammunition before taking aim with his pistol at the eye socket of the corpse, crowing at a direct hit. The boy’s fellow diggers were ordered to dump the body into the shallow grave and cover him up, which they did without protest, not wanting to be next. Ivy was left on a pothole on the lip of the pit with a bright orange band wrapped around her wrist, Hope taken from her hands by a female orderly. She did not understand that her daughter was being permanently removed to a separate facility. She perched more securely than Arlanders in her pothole with her half-slope gravity.

When her line of prisoners was thrown into the pit she had no flat surface to occupy and rolled into a corner. A soldier shouted at her to join the fellow prisoners, too stupid to recognize her orientation, and trained a gun on her preparing to waste ammunition. She held up her orange band not knowing what it meant but hoping it reflected her status as a high value prisoner, a subject for interrogation. She was thrown a shovel and ordered to dig a half-slope ledge for herself in the corner. She lacked her husband’s muscular build, a trained ditch digger he was, but knew from gardening how to throw her weight onto a shovel head and get underneath the blade to pry the earth up. There was no water, no food, the soldiers deliberately depriving their captives’ bodies of nourishment to condition them to bestial treatment. Why waste good water on Arland scum? Why feed human food to rodents? No one in Muglair’s army could think of a good reason, so the prisoners suffered.

There were no children in the pit and Ivy realized Hope had been taken elsewhere. What were they doing to children? Ivy wanted to scream that she was a Hutwoman, her daughter was a Hutgirl, she was one of them, but there was no way to communicate with these monsters. They were conditioned not to listen, to divide humanity into us and them, and she was in the them category having been captured in enemy territory, her every word an immediate cause for suspicion and violence. For several days the prisoners baked in that squalid pit. Ivy’s corner was in direct sunlight with no shadow and she grew dangerously dehydrated, covering herself in mud to retain moisture and avoid exposure. Arland urine and excrement trickled along the wall into the corner. She was forced to dig channels with her hands to guide waste away from her little ledge, the shovel long ago retrieved by soldiers. On the third day it rained. She was ready with hardened potholes dug into her corner to catch rain which mixed with raw waste but she had no choice but to drink copiously, for death from dehydration was a bigger risk than dysentery. The graves were already filled, bodies felled not by bullets but by deprivation. If Ivy had retained the capacity for amazement, she would have been amazed at how quickly the human body succumbs. She watched in muted horror as a woman on the wall struggled vainly to bury her husband, herself too weak to handle a shovel effectively, her fellow Inta conserving their energy. He was a large man whose body fell more quickly to want, and his wife resolved to kill herself if need be with the exertion of the task. Only an animal would not bury her husband, and she was not yet an animal.

Prisoners with orange bands were ordered to assemble on the wall near the surface. Ivy struggled to clamber up the slope but could not reach them, so she lay outstretched in the filth displaying her tag. As other prisoners were hauled off the wall into waiting transports a soldier rifle-butted her shoulder, angry that he would have to carry this dog, before grabbing her by the same shoulder with searing pain and wrenching her to the surface. The transport bed was crowded along the small wall with over a dozen orange-tagged Arland men, Ivy crushed by their bouncing bodies in the corner of her natural gravity. The separation by gender in the first transport, when she was stolen from her husband, was not designed to segregate men from women but to sever families. Any grouping larger than one posed a threat to security and was ruthlessly broken up. She had been thrown back with men and was now the only woman among the high values and the only person with Notches gravity. The truck rattled along rough roads shaking violently for hours headed toward the village of Dunder, a once prosperous farming community on the edge of the hinterland forests whose fields were rendered non-arable by Muglair’s crop rotation policies. The populace subsisted on angoos and apricots until the groves were razed at the directive of the Land Ministry on the theory, unsupported by agricultural science, that orchard duff would optimize hemp and flax production. Even had the theory worked the peasantry would have starved like their neighboring villages for lack of food crops. Unlike their neighbors, Dunder was fortunate that a local son was married to Muglair’s niece, a connection which brought them the siting of a prominent labor camp. Now Dunder had the revenue allocation that came with such a sprawling enterprise as well as unlimited free labor.

Ivy knew none of this back story as her transport rumbled across the furrowed roads toward the camp, a square mile of spiked chicken wire filled with barracks and guard towers surrounded by administrative buildings. A guard tossed a bag of rutabagas at the famished prisoners who stuffed their parched mouths compulsively before their fellows could rip the vegetables from their hands. Ivy had no chance in this melee and her hunger continued unabated. The bed of the transport was covered by canvas wrapped across a curved frame. From her corner she could see the terrain through an unsecured flap. Arid and unusable farmland stretched for miles in the direction of Shamba, and in the far distance she could make out the Flume spewing skywards, already augmented from two-hundred and sixty miles of erosion working its way up the shaft from the bottom of the Silent Sea. Plumes of conventional smoke surrounded the enormous eruption, smoldering remnants from the massive attack of the Arland Armada. The ballast ships dumped enough ordnance to destroy a capital city, all concentrated on the surface controls of the Flume and surrounding plateau with its monumental edifices in various stages of completion, intending to collapse the Flume inward to cap it. But the column of water merely belched from the intrusion of displaced earth then continued its spirited drain of the planet’s life blood. Over twenty percent of the Armada was destroyed by the fierce air defenses constructed around Shamba and along the approach from the Edge but modified destroyer tactics and a circuitous route ultimately neutralized the batteries. The surviving ships of the Armada returned to Arland as Marshall Turlin focused his attention on recapturing the salient and obliterating Skavian edge communities, including Harmour.

Ivy could tell from dust trailing past the vehicle that other transports preceded their own, a convoy of unknown length carrying the human spoils of Muglair’s conquests from the Edge. The transports stopped outside the entrance to the camp which was expanding to accommodate the influx of prisoners. Work details were unwinding huge bails of spiked wire to create a new concentric square around the existing one, with guard towers erected intermittently along the new perimeter. As the truck hit a bump a rutabaga rolled from under the mass of men and Ivy stuffed it greedily into her mouth. The man closest to her impulsively reached for it but, in a moment of shamed humanity, decided he would rather die from hunger than fight a starving woman for a vegetable. The transports rolled slowly through a makeshift breach in the new wire then past the towers of the original perimeter. They were greeted by a bizarre prisoner ensemble of valve bugle, nickelhorn, and tuba playing a mournful dirge. Each truck stopped ceremonially for one segment of the melody before passing on to the receiving yard. The ritual introduction to the camp through funeral music struck Ivy as sadistic, as if they were being forced to witness their own interment.

The camp was originally constructed for common criminals and native enemies of Muglair’s regime. It was not designed to handle prisoners with differing gravities and crews were busily retrofitting barracks with internal planking to accommodate conversions from Arland to Skava. Camp administrators improvised the booking procedure by routing Arland prisoners along a wall in the intake facility to a processing room. The plaster, not built to handle human weight, quickly crumbled under the strain forcing prisoners to step from stud to stud with numerous lacerations and punctures from the inevitable breaches in the wall cavity. Ivy was forced to navigate the corner of the intake corridor, one foot on the disintegrating wall and one on the floor, with no natural surface to stand on. The configuration allowed processing of only one prisoner at a time resulting in a huge backlog culminating in a short interview with an Interior agent recording biographical data. The process was disorganized and served little useful purpose with no independent means of verifying statements. From the perspective of Interior anyone with Arland gravity was grist for the mill even though many were likely Hutmen given the areas where they were captured. Muglair intended to hold citizens of the rival nation hostage for barter regardless of ethnicity.

Ivy could not reveal her Hutwoman birth for fear of persecution as a child of the martyrs. She gave her Morven name which identified her as Inta, as she had to her original captors in the salient to avoid being shot, and displayed the orange band hoping to be labeled a common criminal. There were procedures in place for crime and she did not trust what might happen to the innocent. She had long ago learned that people like Tobor Zranga held a grudging respect for the criminal mind but nothing but contempt for simple folk. Party leaders and common criminals thrived on exploiting others for personal gain, the only difference being the leaders were powerful enough to legalize their predation. Indeed the reason Zranga had not killed her was because her actions in Harmour were so horrific. He saw in her a worthy adversary, a woman capable of thinking like him, and he wanted to preserve the quarry for the hunt. She hated herself for sharing his mindset and her relationship with Mutt had been an attempt to invest her life with human love. But now her best hope for survival in Dunder was as a criminal and if she were executed, at least it would be for crimes she had committed. Those accused of being Inta and nothing more would not fare well in the new order. Muglair’s eliminationist rhetoric had reached a pitch where exterminating the vermin seemed the logical conclusion. If the Inta had throughout history been the bane of the Hutman, if the Skavian Inta had for generations forced the Hutman into squalor and subservience, if the Arland Inta today deprived the Hutman of control of the planet’s resources, if the Inta by nature were a calculating and cruel race that would kill a Hutman for coin, if the Inta could not be trusted to live as equals but would always seek bondage of their fellow man, then would not the Hutman be wise to eliminate this threat from its territory once and for all? Muglair fancied himself a realist and knew he would never subjugate Arland itself. But he could rid the blessed soil of Skava from the Inta curse, and if Arland continued to wage war on the Hutman that was exactly what he would do.

Prisoners were allotted wrist bands and uniforms with serial numbers, forced to change in open view on the receiving wall, then led on transport sleds from the intake facility to rows of barracks, each bearing a number and a name. Ivy clung to a vertical sled oriented for Arlanders that was tugged to Barracks No. 23, across the main door of which were inscribed the words “Your Turn.” The eastern wall of the structure had been planked over to support the weight of Arland prisoners. There was as yet no surface for intermediate gravities and she was again crammed into a corner, slopes rising at forty-five degrees on either side. Barracks were segregated by gender with No. 23 tightly packed with four-tiered bunks in which women doubled and tripled up on each level. The current occupants of No. 23 were on work detail in the nearest remaining fruit groves miles away. In a departure from practice they were permitted to retain half their haul, the rotten half, and ordered to share it with new arrivals upon their return. Camp officials were not informed of military operations in advance and had no plan for the resulting influx. Without clear orders from Leri Deri they were not prepared to take harsh measures and instead improvised to meet the new prisoners’ basic needs. The barracks were primarily self-regulating with one chief, a common criminal, selected as liaison to the camp overseers and granted dictatorial authority under the roof. Barracks No. 23 was assigned a sewing detail, stitching together gunny sacks used in trench construction. Hand sewing was inefficient but one of the few productive activities for inmates confined to barracks walls. The experience could prove useful upon completion of their gravity conversion when they would be transferred for labor detail to a machine shop outfitted for sewing.

Deputies of the barracks chief passed around a mop bucket full of cloudy water redolent of lye along with bushels of rotting apricots gathered off the ground, replenishing the stores as needed. Ivy sated herself on the bounty and felt a stabbing pain in her stomach as powerful as a pregnancy contraction. She prayed that it was a temporary reaction to rancid nourishment, that it would pass and not return. But the pain continued in waves, caused not by the current consumption but by contaminated water days earlier in the holding pit, and she was quickly reduced to a fetal position in the hardened corner with pain rivaling childbirth. A toilet hole had been rigged up the wall for Arland prisoners but she could not reach it. She crawled in excruciating pain to the corner of the corner, where three walls met, and fell into a writhing pain with intense bloody diarrhea that felt like her bowels would turn inside out. Images of Hope passed through her mind as if fear for her daughter’s well-being might distract from a body so viciously turning on her. She lay helpless and untended for hours as the infection festered unchecked in her gut before finally the barracks chief approached and shoved fresh thaban dung into her mouth, forcibly closing her lips until she swallowed. Ivy was beyond gagging but perceived this intrusion as an act of utmost depravity. A fellow prisoner with normal gravity approached with a wet sponge to clean her and offer the first words of comfort during her illness, telling her everyone got it and it would pass, that the dung contained immunities and would help fight the infection. She gave her dried ginger to dispel the taste.

Ivy was removed to an infirmary, fortunate, if such an agonizing condition could be called fortunate, to fall ill shortly after her arrival before medical services were swamped by other prisoners. She was placed in a bed tilted for Notches gravity, properly hydrated, and nursed to health over several days until she could eat solids. Her mind was scoured of emotion and she realized with the partial return of health how little she had thought of her husband and daughter. She was unable to cope with the immediate needs of survival much less the emotional pain of separation. She knew her family had been ripped apart by the same forces that destroyed her own childhood, the plottings of great men for great power, and that perhaps her loved ones were dead, but her mind retreated into a small unreflective box from which she governed her limbs by pull strings for the sole purpose of survival. She could not afford to feel except for a second order awareness that she was not capable of feeling, and she knew her humanity was cracking under the strain. As she recovered, more prisoners arrived with similar illnesses and the staff grew surly with the increasing demands. Her bed was tilted to Arland gravity so that a woman in the grip of intestinal infection could join her, soiling them both. Ivy wanted to comfort the sick woman but was too frail and nauseous to help. She volunteered to return to the barracks before a formal discharge and was sent back with the next sick escort. Her discomfort remained intense but the deputies took no pity, forcing her to meet quota on the sewing detail or risk confinement to an isolation pit. The chief did not care about personal suffering but was not as evil as Ivy thought. Had the deputies not forced her to work through her pain an overseer likely would have sent her to a pit himself. The windows on the Arland wall were boarded over to support prisoner weight but Ivy could see through a window on the adjacent wall into a courtyard where a problem was emerging. Enough bodies had accumulated from illness, malnutrition, shrapnel wounds, and execution that the typical means of disposal, tying to upwater bladders and releasing into space, was no longer sufficient. The administrators were under strict orders not to bury deceased prisoners, both to avoid poisoning the ground with Inta rot and to conceal evidence. Muglair intended to permit neutral inspectors from a bilateral commission into the camps to demonstrate humane conditions and the presence of mass graves might give the wrong impression.

Intelligence gathering at Dunder, both for criminal and national security purposes, had taken a hiatus as the influx of prisoners from Muglair’s triumph at the Edge was sorted out. But one name stood out prominently among the high values on both lists and she was the first summoned to the regional Interior bunker on the camp perimeter. The station director knew she was wanted on suspicion of quadruple murder, two of the victims confidantes of Interior Minister Kadangle himself, potentially carried out on orders of Tobor Zranga, a traitor now in official exile though strangely immunized from arrest. Headquarters in Leri Deri did not yet know of her capture and the director hoped to impress them with a full report and confession. In the rush of distractions from the war he had neglected the subject during which time she nearly perished from disease. Had she died, someone in the bunker would have had to explain the loss of this valuable target to headquarters, no doubt with dire repercussions. Ivy was sleeping on a crumpled haysack in the corner of the Arland wall, fatigued from an eighteen-hour shift stitching gunny sacks and now military knapsacks. She had recovered most of her strength as the illness subsided and food became adequate. The camp was more focused on productivity of the prisoners than punitive maltreatment and Ivy’s health had benefited as a result. She was asked by a deputy to confirm her name, which she did, and was carried physically by armed guard into the main yard and through a special security gate directly into the basement of the bunker. Few prisoners who passed that gate ever returned. In a break room seated on an angle block she was given a civilized meal with cold cuts, tarpin bread, and meringue, which she could not finish. She declined wine but took a few sips of thaban milk which upset her stomach. She asked for and received clean water, not the mop rinse her system had grown accustomed to. She was led into a room bathed in pale electric light with only a viewing window through the door. She sat at a table leaning sideways at a half-slope angle with her Notches gravity. The director decided he would take the lead in the interrogation. He sat down across the table and smiled graciously. An agent paced nervously in the background ready to strike when the dissembling became obvious.

“We seek only the truth.”

“You shall get it.”

“You are hiding things.”

“I will hide nothing.”

“Your cooperation may benefit your child.”

She laughed. “You think I have a child?”

“Were you not captured with family?”

“Who writes your reports? Do I look to you like a woman with attachments?”

“Why then is your flesh indented on your finger?” He pointed to the depression of her wedding band.

Ivy looked at him sternly. “You are not familiar with life in the spas. A ring is protection. A woman without a ring is fair game.” She held up her ringless finger. “Those goatfuckers stole it at intake. I should have hidden it. Where might a woman hide jewelry on her body?”

She looked at him without blinking. He lost his train of thought. She continued staring while he searched for another question.

“If you would like,” she suggested, “I can confess they are my family. I will sign whatever you put before me. You can torture me afterward if that makes it easier.”

He flipped through a notebook filled with questions.

“What brought you to the Notches?”

“It’s in my dossier. You must think me stupid.”

“What did you do there?”

“I took such work as I could find.”

“Elaborate.”

“Must I state the obvious?”

“Did you service men?”

“I would never do that.” She paused. “Only women.”

The director leaned back in his chair and guffawed.

“We’ve got a live one here,” he commented to his colleague.

“I cannot believe there would be a sufficient market for that line of work,” he opined, “even in the Notches.”

“You would be surprised.”

“What else did you do?”

“I worked in the canteen. Mostly mopping.”

“Do you know why you are here?”

“Yes.”
“Then why don’t you tell me.”

“I put a gun to my father’s face and pulled the trigger. I shot my mother in the chest and watched her bleed to death on the floor. I gunned down their minders who were too incompetent to protect them.”

“My, my, my, such admissions are usually long in coming.” The director was perplexed. “How shall we occupy our remaining time?”

“You know as well as I what you want to hear.”

“Pray tell.”

“This is about Tobor Zranga. He ordered me to do it. I will tell you everything. I hope you kill him.”

The agent stepped forward from the shadows and slapped her.

“I will torture you if you continue your impudence.”

It was his job to intimidate with physical violence but the director was as nonplussed as Ivy as to why he chose that moment. Ivy ran her tongue across the wound inside her cheek and returned her gaze to the director.

“Is his timing always so awkward?”

The agent stepped forward again but the director motioned him to stop.

“If I did service men he would be quick.” She snickered.

The director discharged the agent who was seething at the remark. The subject was in a mood to talk and the director was in a mood to listen. He learned long ago to let subjects ramble. Invariably their statements could be checked against the known record and if they were prevaricating stronger measures could be taken.

“Tell me about your parents.”

“He is blackmailing your precious leader, isn’t he.”

“What do you mean?” The director was curious.

“Tobor is blackmailing Muglair. I am certain of it. That is how he operates. But a person at your level would not be told.”

This was dangerous territory. The director had long ago learned to steer clear of intrigue among Party leaders. The more one knew, the more likely one would disappear.

She continued.

“Zranga would be dead by now if he were not blackmailing the Great Man. He knows things Muglair does not want revealed.”

The director switched topics.

“Why did he order you to kill your parents?”

“You are not cleared for information at that level.”

“Who are you to establish these rules?”

“They are not my rules. They are Interior’s. I will be glad to tell you everything. Do you wish to take a chance?”

“Ma’am, I am going to recall my colleague. He is not going to show mercy. He is stewing in the break room over your insult.”

“Let us say hypothetically I killed my parents because they were sabotaging the great door on orders of Muglair. Do you know what the great door is? It was the last safety mechanism for the Flume, at the bottom of the Silent Sea. And let us say hypothetically Muglair sabotaged the great door because he intends to destroy the planet if Arland does not capitulate. Does that sound plausible to you? And let us say hypothetically he does not want the Council to know of his sabotage and will kill anyone who might tell. Is that information you would want to hear? Do you even have clearance for the Flume? Do you think Kadangle and Bogin would welcome you sharing their secrets? Or might your knowledge pose a risk?”

“Lady, you are not the interrogator.” He was again off script. “Why would you speak of such things and forfeit your own life?”

“My life is forfeit already. It is yours that hangs in the balance.”

The director remained silent.

“Your death can be arranged,” he threatened.

“Do what you will.” She leaned forward. “You should call in the higher ups.”

“What will you tell them that you cannot tell me?”

“I will tell them everything. And I will tell them that I told you.”

The director recalled his colleague to the room.

“Wait,” she whispered.

He pushed the door shut and sat back down.

She looked at him intensely.

“What day is today?”

He told her.

“Do you wish to know when Leri Deri will be bombed?”

The director had family in the capital.

“How would you know such things?”

She lunged at him as if to strike and he flinched. She extended her arms like a bird of prey capturing a mouse, her eyes boring into him with a demonic expression unhinged from all reality.

“It is not written in the end times come the seers?”

The director grew angry at her brashness and lunged at her neck to strangle her. She pulled back and knocked his hands aside, falling off her chair then leaping up in wrath.

“In four days,” she hissed, “the Regency will be destroyed.”

He was convinced she was a witch.

“You cannot kill a seer,” she spoke calmly. “Headquarters will figure out my capture eventually. You know as well as I the same dispatch you received from the front was sent to Leri Deri. Your options are to extract my confession and send a report, or to dither and claim you never met me. I can assure you once you send a report Kadangle will take complete interest in my case. He wants to know Zranga’s secrets, and he knows I can tell him. If he learns you interrogated me, a piece of shit such as yourself will not survive.”

The director was furious but unnerved.

“I do not negotiate with traitors.”

“I ask for no concessions. I wish only to assist your investigation. Is that not consistent with procedure?”

“What do you ask?”

“That child in the carriage. She is my daughter. That man with me was her father. They are witnesses. They must be protected.”

The director called his colleague in.

“We must schedule another session. Smack her.”

The agent slapped her again across the cheek, this time harder, and she spat blood in the direction of the director. She leapt up screaming for the protection of God in heaven cursing him for the cruelty inflicted upon her, begging him not to return her to Dunder. The agent was impressed at the effect his colleague had on her spirit even without torture. He looked forward to an opportunity to work her over more thoroughly in the next session. Perhaps he could demonstrate the meaning of quick for her on the break room table. It would not be so funny then. But the director was in no hurry to follow up. He would have to make inquiries and conduct research and locate witnesses to continue the questioning in a productive manner and that could take time. A really long time given his other pressing duties.

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