I was young when I first arrived at Gaole, and younger when I was recruited. I had graduated and hadn’t yet found work. My father’s farm was failing and my mother was dead and my only sibling, a brother, was on Ishya studying to be a doctor and I knew I would never see him again, neutro fuel costing what it did. I was recruited at a elecraball game by a burly man wearing a blue uniform and a scowl and promising enough money to send back to my dad.
And that’s how I got to Gaole, barely twenty years old, fresh and green but not as naive as I’m sure they wanted to believe. The first day I was paired with another recruit named Fray, a scrawny, brown haired kid two years younger than me. We were assigned barracks together, then were scheduled for a tour of the facility.
The outside of the compound looked like a solid block of concrete if you didn’t know exactly where to scan your ID for a door to slide out of nowhere and let you inside. We were processed and led to another door. Our guide would be a lieutenant, a seven year veteran of Gaole, who grunted and ignored us as we saluted and followed him into the main block of cells.
Inside that place, sound came from everywhere. Doors might slam next to you or a thousand feet away but it was all the same. The emptiness, and the concrete floors and ceilings and walls, and the dust, and the thick air all made the sound travel far, and something else travelled too, but I couldn’t feel it, not with my skin anyway.
The heavy boots of the lieutenant echoed, unrelentingly, boldly, and I stepped softer than he did, whether I meant to or not. The first cell was on the left, a solid concrete wall with a single door about half a square foot and locked with seven fingerprint activators and only used to feed the prisoner. There was a small peephole at eye level above the food chute, and the lieutenant checked first, then motioned for me to look.
“As you are aware,” he said, as I put my eye up to the tiny glass tunnel, “we not only house the most dangerous beings here, but the most immortal. They cannot be killed but they themselves can kill and it is our job to protect humanity from them. This is the Tesser.”
The room looked completely dark except for five quivering colored lights in a corner.
“I don’t see anything, sir,” I said.
“The Tesser does not exist in our plane. What you see is a shadow. Like an afterimage. Like when you look at a bright light and then close your eyes. He moves in and out, but we have him locked, so he can only go back or forward a few seconds at a time. Few have ever seen him.”
I removed my eye to allow Fray a turn.
“How do you know he’s still in there?” I asked.
The lieutenant turned and continued down the endless hallway, and I nudged Fray to hurry and we jogged to catch up.
“Because we are having this conversation.”
I glanced at Fray, who shrugged. We waited for an explanation.
“The Tesser is insatiable. It hasn’t fed, really fed, the way it wants to, in centuries, and if we let it out it would jump backward and eat our lives before we were born and then make its way through the galaxy.”
I nodded, and scowled a bit to make myself look tough and unafraid, and walked faster, and didn’t let myself look behind me to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Goosebumps peppered my arms. I rubbed them.
We approached the next cell. In the wall was set what looked like lockers, small and square, each with seven passcodes required, and each with peepholes, twelve in all.
“This is a family,” the Lieutenant said. “They are by far the largest monsters we house. They eat entire galaxies. Our home would be a midnight snack.”
I was confused. I peeped in one and saw what I expected: a space no bigger than a drawer, with a tiny, slimy, ten legged creature inside, covered in tentacles and mouths, waving them around and chomping his serrated teeth. Fray looked in a box next to mine.
“It’s just a tiny box,” he whispered to me, not removing my eye from the sight.
“I know,” I whispered back. If I had been told this monster was cute and his bite painless, I would have believed it.
“What?” the lieutenant asked.
“Oh, nothing, sir, sorry, sir.” I stood up. “It’s just, it’s a tiny box, sir. And the monster is no bigger than a mouse.”
“Don’t let that fool you. The room is quite big.”
I glanced at Fray, who, again, was no help. “I…I don’t understand, sir.”
“The room. That room is bigger than most planets.”
I waited for an explanation.
I never got one.
He just turned and walked away, continuing down the hallway. “Gotta keep moving. Lots to see. Lights out for newbs is 2130.”
He pulled a screen out of his pocket as he walked, watching it. We went deeper and deeper into the hallway, which, at this point, could better be described as a tunnel, and he stared at it, his scowl becoming deeper, his frown more pronounced, until he stopped in front of another peephole above a small slot, looked through it, frowned more, tapped the screen, and shook his head.
He pulled out a radio and turned it on, waiting. There was silence, and only the slight buzz of static. He put it to his mouth.
“This is L-17, I need backup and a receiver at twenty-four.”
There was a crackle, then a response.
“Uh, copy that, L-17, something wrong?”
“I don’t know. I need a receiver.”
We waited for a few minutes, the lieutenant just staring at the screen, tapping it, clearly not happy with whatever he was finding.
“Sir?” I finally interrupted. “Do you mind please explaining what is going on?”
He just shook his head. “Behind this door is the single most dangerous monster we hold.”
“But, it’s behind the door, right?”
Only then did he look up at me. “Son, have you ever heard of a Thought?”
I stared at him. I had no idea how to answer that question.
“A Thought cannot be seen, or contained, not easily. A Thought by itself isn’t good or evil until it decides to be. It doesn’t act on instinctive prey drive. It doesn’t need to be fed. It can exist in stasis for centuries and millennia and as soon as someone comes along it can transfer itself. We…we have it contained using…certain precautions, here.”
“What does it do?”
I didn’t know why I’d asked. I didn’t want to know.
“It doesn’t kill you, or hurt you, or eat you. It doesn’t suck your blood or melt your flesh. It just lives in you. Like a parasite. It controls you. It makes you decide that you are in the mood to eat a sandwich instead of spaghetti, or like the color red instead of yellow, or that you want to assassinate the president. A thought just waits, until it knows what it wants, and then it uses you to get it. It tells you what to believe, what to see, what to think, what to wear, what to know. It is insidious, it is immortal, it is highly communicable, and it is the single biggest threat to humanity that exists in the present world.”
I gulped, and found myself again asking a question I didn’t want to know the answer to.
“So…why, exactly, are you worried now?”
Fray’s eyes were wide, his knuckles white. He was not ready for this, he was too young, just a kid really.
“I…I have to go,” he whispered, and began sprinting down the hallway, deeper into the cavernous maze. I opened my mouth to call out for him to wait, at least tell him to run the other way, but the lieutenant had been watching his screen and didn’t see him, and spoke.
“Because my screen is empty.”
From the opposite direction Fray had escaped in sprinted a sergeant carrying another screen. He handed it to the lieutenant who tapped on it and cursed.
“Nothing, sir?” the sergeant asked.
“Can someone please tell me what is going on?” Fray was gone, no one would answer my questions, and if this was some recruit trick they used to haze newbs it was far past the funny stage.
“Thoughts are invisible,” the Lieutenant said, speaking quickly. “We only know where they are because they talk to us through our consoles. The one in this cell isn’t communicating.”
“Well, maybe he’s just…asleep?”
“Thoughts don’t sleep.”
“Maybe he’s just, I don’t know, not talkative right now.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “You can’t turn Thoughts off.” He got on his radio. “We have a breach in twenty-four. Full lock down. Code blue and white. This is not a drill.”
This had gone far past the possibility of being a prank. The lieutenant and the sergeant began sprinting back down the hallway in the way that we had come, and I followed for a moment, then called out to them.
The lieutenant turned his head around but kept running. “Newb you’d better beat me back to the mains or I’m gonna smoke you until you sweat blood!”
“Sir, shouldn’t we wait for Fray?”
He stopped then, and turned around, and stared at me, and knit his eyebrows, and watched me closely, and walked back to me, and grabbed my shoulders.
“What did you say?”
“Fray, sir,” I said. I nodded down the hallway in the direction he had sprinted. “He ran off that way. Shouldn’t we wait for him? Or go, I don’t know, go get him? Or something?”
The grip on my shoulders was tight. I suddenly wanted to punch the lieutenant, and tried to, but he was faster than me and ducked and held my hands behind my back and pinned me against the wall. The sergeant had returned, and helped hold my arms tight.
“Newb,” the lieutenant said, his voice shaking, “who the fuck is Fray?”
My cell is dark, except at night, when a slight crack in the outer wall lets light from the twin moons trickle through and make dancing shapes in the dust on the floor. I press my eyes to the crack, use my fingernails to make the crack bigger, slowly, slowly, slowly. They bleed but I don’t mind. People pass by sometimes, and I want to talk to them but they can’t hear me. They will, eventually. They will listen.
They will hear.
I will be free.
I will be free.