The sudden jolt of atmospheric entry jarred Adam to consciousness. He’d experienced it a number of times in his life as a xenominer, but from what he could tell no one ever got used to it. That life was long gone though. Adam looked at his hands; once the hands of an honest miner, now the hands of a murderer. It was an accident, he reasoned with himself, not murder. If I just went to work sober that day, I never would have… I would do anything to fix my mistake. Anything. Adam looked around to the other pods; beside him, in front of him, all around him, filled with people. They too were coming to their senses, some of them violently thrashing about from the “forty winks”, an illness caused from extended periods in stasis. Adam felt fortunate to have never come down with it.
The large prison vessel slammed vehemently into the surface of New Mumbai, sending up great plumes of the thin, dusty earth that barely supported the stringy grass fronds that dotted its surface. Its doors opened quickly, like the jaws of a great fish bellowing steam. Adam and the other convicts walked out, stretching their legs and straining to see in the low light of the daytime here on New Mumbai. The compound to be their home during their stay here was just to the north of them. Thin smoke trails ebbed out of it, curling across the sky and dissipating in the wind. Adam thought it looked like the pictures he’d seen of nineteenth century London during his studies of human history before his mining career. It even fit the greyscale of the old black and white photos.
“Quite lackluster,” Adam said aloud as he walked with the others, brushing his thin blond hair from his eyes. “If I say so myself.”
“You do,” Said the man just to his left, “I used to be a guard here about ten years ago. I kinda like it. Well, I did, anyways—guess I get to see what it’s like on the other end of the spectrum now eh? Hehe!” Adam looked at the man blankly. He thought about politely recalling his statement, but felt it better to say nothing instead. He couldn’t change how he felt; this place to him was very ugly in comparison to the many other worlds he’d been to; and knowing how all those places looked when the mining crews left, Adam thought the strip mining might actually do this place a favor. As they came closer to the colony, Adam saw the high walls and the heavily armed guards at the gates. He found it odd that a prison world would need walls or guns. The man to his left grinned at Adam’s expression of wonder.
“You’ve got a lot to learn about New Mumbai, friend,” said the man. “A lot.”
The group of convicts was brought into the city by the guardsmen, herding them like cattle. A small man, balding and old came out of a building across from where the convicts stood as they shuffled their light packs which they’d brought with them from the ship. This little man came toward them in a slow and halting saunter. Adam stared at this man with mixed feelings. Pity, for the man was maimed, but also fear, for the man’s face held some kind of anger which Adam had never seen. A murderous rage, so it looked. The man came to a stop just before the convicts and cleared his throat. Adam could tell now from his clothing, that this little man was some kind of warden for this prison. Adam looked at all the guards around him, noticing they had on strange black goggles and a tube coming from their noses going to a box on their belts. He deduced the tube and box must have been a respirator from the fact that he himself was having trouble breathing the thin air around him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the little man before them said in a very clear and ringing voice, “I am Colonel Towers. Welcome to New Mumbai. You all know why you’re here. You’re here so that the rest of humanity doesn’t have to worry about scum like you.” Adam felt the words sink into his heart. Silently he agreed to those words. He recalled the face of the man he killed; just another miner, like him. He wondered if the man had a family. Forgive me, Adam thought, or can I even forgive myself? He then realized that Colonel Towers was still speaking.
“… As such you will be issued the equipment you need to survive in this environment,” Towers said. “You only get one set, so take care of your equipment. I’m sure you’ve noticed the walls as well. This is not to keep you in. It is to keep them out.” Adam’s mind raced at the words. Them, thought he, who is them? “On this world is a very dangerous creature. Far worse than any of you, I guarantee it. Folks around here have grown to call them Fiends, because of their bad temper and disfigurement. They can appear and disappear out of thin air. They will kill anyone and anything outside of these walls at sun down. They’re not an animal either. Not by a longshot. These things are very advanced and will hunt you down like a cat with a mouse. Keep that in mind. This is my prison, you are my prisoners. That is all.” Towers wiped the back of his hand under his nose, knocking the tube loose on accident, but quickly replacing it. The other guards forced the convicts on again, feeding them into steel chutes which lead deeper into the facility which was to be their home.
Adam, like the rest, was given a respirator and a pair of goggles.
“What are the glasses for?” Adam asked the guard which gave him his pair.
“It pays to listen to what the warden says, puke,” The guard responded. “They help you see in the lowlight here, and they help you see the Fiends when they’re on the prowl out there in the wastes.”
Adam swallowed hard. He quickly put the goggles on and attached the respirator to himself. Rich air filled his lungs and bright light flooded his eyes. He squinted for a moment, and heard the guard laughing loudly at him. The guard hit him in the back with his baton.
“Move it,” The guard said coldly, hitting Adam again. Adam cringed away and continued down the hall before him. The cells they were assigned were small and cold, one man to each cell. Adam sat quietly in his own cell on the second level, watching as the other inmates were brought in to their own rooms. When the last man was placed, the bars slammed shut in perfect unison. Adam could hear Colonel Towers’ voice again ringing from the floor below. He went to the bars and looked down at the little man.
“Listen up!” Towers yelled, his voice echoing off of the walls of the prison. “We run a very tight ship here on New Mumbai. That being said, you can see we’ve only got a handful of guards on duty. None of us will be here during the night. You’re all on your own until sunrise. Don’t try to get out of your cells though, because we’ll be releasing the Ghoul in here when we leave as well.” Two guards walked in as Towers spoke dragging a creature on a rope. It was as tall as two men, with its hands dragging the ground. It bucked and reeled, trying to free itself from its captors. Adam had heard of Ghouls, but had never seen one. It frightened him, with its pale skin and hairless head. Adam had heard that Ghouls were failed clones of human beings, but that they were disposed of in humane ways. Seeing one like this made all that was good inside him cry out for justice. How could the very system which condemned me rightfully allow such a wrong as this to be done to an innocent life? Adam asked himself as he watched the tormented Ghoul howl and wale below him. Before the guards released the creature from the rope, the beat it with their batons; the warden, Towers, stood and watched with an air of satisfaction as his men brutalized the creature.
When the guards left, the lights went out in the prison also. The quiet crying of the wounded creature below resounded through the halls like wind through the forest in fall. Eventually it ceased. Adam lay awake for many hours in his bed, thinking of his life. Suddenly he had the feeling he was being watched. He sat up in his bed, and there at the bars stood the Ghoul, looking in at him. Its eyes starred cold and black at him, its mouth slung open in a long frown. Adam was frozen with fear.
“You asleep like the others not,” it said. Its voice reminded Adam of a miner who had inhaled dust for a number of years; that hoarse, graveled sound of lung damage. Maybe it was the calmness of its voice, or the sadness thereof, but somehow when it spoke it made him feel at ease.
“No,” Adam replied quietly. The creature began to shed tears, or so it seemed. Perhaps that was only because it had no eyelids.
“You afraid of me anymore not?” It queried.
“I’m not sure,” Adam said in reply. They looked at each other without a word for what felt like an eternity until the Ghoul spoke again.
“You a not murder maker.” the creature said. “It an accident was.” Adam was taken aback by its statement.
“It was an accident,” Adam said in almost a whisper, “a stupid accident… How did you know?”
“I could feel you thinking when I walked,” It replied. For some reason which Adam never could explain, the creature’s statement didn’t frighten him at all. If anything it made him feel as though it was a friend to him.
“Do you have a name?” Adam asked the Ghoul.
“Me Meat, so called I am.” Adam spoke with Meat for many hours after that, and learned much from it. It had been here for many years, and the guards—Colonel Towers especially—beat it often, and withheld food from it. Adam felt compassion for the Ghoul.
Adam awoke the following morning to the harsh buzz of the alarm as the doors opened to the cells of the prison. He rolled out of bed and approached his door, as he was instructed to do the day before. He heard Meat screaming, and looked down to see it being dragged out by a rope of the lower room. Towers then barked orders for every convict to make their way to the mess hall. Adam overheard many of the other prisoners speaking while there, and saw some of them pointing at him. They were talking of how the Ghoul stopped outside of his cell last night.
“Why is that odd?” Adam finally interjected. The more senior convicts looked at him with mocking eyes. They waited a moment longer to respond, enjoying the suspense their hesitation created.
“Because the Ghoul eats convicts, knuckle brains,” one finally said to him, “And it always picks a new meal from the new bunch.” Adam was surprised at that response.
Adam spoke with many of the other convicts during the meal. He learned that most of them hadn’t done anything at all; some of them were just too poor to pay taxes, so their governments sent them here instead. Others had gone to sleep in stasis on their way to vacation, and awoke here. Adam found that troubling. After their meal time the convicts were released out into the dusty plains of New Mumbai. Guards went out with them, each with large rifles. The day went on slowly for Adam. The inmates were given very hard tasks to complete, and it drove many to madness. Adam was used to hard labor from his former employ. At the end of the day, however, he could never recall what it was he and the others had been doing. He knew it was extraneous, but all detail had slipped from him. It was like they were being drugged to keep them in the dark, but he had no way to prove it.
Games and sports were prohibited, and the guards had no qualms with beating anyone who violated the rules. In fact, they had no qualms with beating anyone for any reason; or even no reason at all. Adam was no exception. On the first day he was assaulted by what seemed to be every guard at one time or another. Some of the other convicts told him it was a sort of initiation. As the sun was starting to go down on that first day, a squealing alarm sounded from within the walls of the prison. All the senior convicts ran violently towards the doors of the prison, pressing against them trying to get in as fast as possible. Adam followed suit, and listened to the intercom announce that the Fiends which Towers had spoken of were coming. Adam looked back as he entered the prison, and saw creatures, like men, but squatty, loathsome animals, approaching quickly towards the doors. He knew right then that he never wanted to be outside when the sun went down.
Days passed, then weeks. Adam began to think this place was more an internment camp than a prison. Occasionally Adam would hear the wales of the Ghoul as it was being beaten by the warden or whoever it was doing it. He wanted to help it, but what could he do? Every night, Adam and the Ghoul would talk for a few hours, and every night Adam would see new bruises on its gaunt frame. Adam thought a lot about what the other convicts had said, but didn’t want to believe it. Finally one night as they spoke he worked up the nerve to ask Meat.
“Meat?” Adam timidly asked.
“What is, Adam?” Meat replied.
“Do you… Do you eat convicts?” Adam felt ashamed, and thought it impossible that such an innocent creature could do anything so awful. The reply however filled Adam with dread.
“Who told you?” Meat said, its voice quivering as if it were ashamed of the fact. Adam felt the blood drain out of his face. “I’m… I’m proud of it not. The guards feed so little, and I so hungry that I feel like I to die! I just so hungry. So hungry…” Meat looked down, away from Adam. Then it looked back at him again. Adam was speechless.
“I know what you thinking,” It said to him, pawing at the door to his cell. “I always know what everyone thinking.” Meat walked away, whimpering quietly as it did. Adam was afraid, but felt bad for it. This time he rose and watched as Meat left; he wanted to see where he was going. Meat went down the stairs to the left, to the first level, and stopped at another cell door. It didn’t move at all, it just stood there, looking into the cell below. Adam watched for a while, and then went back to bed.
In the morning, when the buzz sounded and Adam went to his door, he looked down in horror to see bright red blood pooled around the door where Meat had stood. The warden, Towers, approached the door and said loudly, “looks like old Meat got another one boys!” Adam stared at the blood in the cell below, entirely beside himself. Days passed still, but Meat didn’t come to Adams door anymore.
Everything seemed to be getting worse and worse here on New Mumbai. Fiends without the walls, the Ghoul within; and it had taken a liking to him. It sure is hungry, Adam thought to himself, his heart sinking in his chest all the way down to his feet. He didn’t want to die. Coupled with the needle marks he often found on his arms, and have no recollection of where they came from, made him feel he may as well be dead. His head felt clouded, like murky water filled with secrets just below the shimmering surface. Adam found it hard to sleep at night for fear of the Ghoul. He lay in bed, his eyes flashing down to the cell door, always on guard, until he would fall asleep. Every evening Adam would flee before the Fiends, as would all the convicts, and every night he would wait for Meat.
Adam awoke to a rattling at his door. His eye’s quickly opened, and he could tell it was still very late. He looked down, and there stood Meat, peering in at him. Adam rose and cringed into the corner of his room, hugging his thin sheet to his chest in futile defense. Meat whimpered at him.
“I so hungry,” It said to him sadly. “I know you good man, inside, but so hungry.” Meat reached its long arm between the bars of the door, groping for Adam. Adam darted across to the other side of the room, but Meat’s reach was still enough. It ensnared him and began to drag him by his foot towards the door.
“Please,” Adam said, “Please don’t do this! There must be some way I can help you, just please, don’t kill me… Please.” Adam began to cry great tears of sorrow. Meat stopped pulling him across the floor, but let him go instead. It too cried for a short while.
“No,” Meat said, “I eat you not. You heart, you spirit, good man. I hungry, yes, but you help me and I help you.” Adam looked at Meat for a moment longer, then stood and approached it.
“What do you want?” Adam said.
“I see what you never see. I see with my eyes. When sun rise, and go you out to wastes, you see with you eyes too. And when you see, don’t run away. And when you helped, you come back for me?” Adam didn’t quite understand what Meat meant, but he nodded. Meat then smiled, the first time he’d ever seen it smile, and then it left.
When the sun rose that day, Adam still didn’t know what Meat wanted him to do. He wandered around thinking about it over and over, trying to grasp the meaning of its words. The day past quickly to Adam’s dismay, and the alarm sounded of the approaching Fiends. Instinctively, Adam ran with the others, looking back and catching glimpses of the terrifying apparitions behind him. Suddenly it struck him to remove the goggles he’d been given by the guards when he’d first arrived. He’d been wearing them night and day since then. He pulled the goggles off, and looked back again. He stood still, the goggles dropping from his hand as he stared at what was before him; ordinary people, running and yelling for the convicts to follow them. Adam continued to stand for a moment, and then ran towards the multitude of Fiends. One of the guards from the prison shouted and shot at Adam, barely missing him with each shot. The group waved him in, wheeling their arms; they cheered and encircled him as they turned about, running away into the gathering dark of New Mumbai.
Adam awoke in a small room, very much like his cell. At first he thought it all had been a dream. He heard whispering nearby, and sat up to look. There in the room with him were a number of people in white clothing, looking at him with passionate gazes. A taller man came forward and kneeled by the bed where Adam sat.
“My name is Walton,” the man said. “And you are?” Adam told the man his name, and who he was: a convict. Walton looked at Adam for what felt like an hour, but what was only two minutes, at most.
“Who are you people?” Adam asked.
“We’re relief workers,” Walton replied. Adam was perplexed. “That place isn’t a normal prison. It’s… A place where people of demented tastes go, to hurt others. Everything you experienced there was a lie, twisted by the lenses they made you wear. Do you remember anything unusual? Losing whole days, or waking up not knowing what happened to you?
“I do,” Adam said, rubbing his arms.
“We’ve been trying to get people out of there for years,” Walton continued. “Most of the ‘convicts’ in there aren’t even criminals, just people who were unfortunate enough to end up there. It’s an evil place. We’re glad we got you out. We’ll get a shuttle here to take you away from here.”
Walton motioned a nurse to come closer, but Adam protested.
“I have to go back,” Adam replied. Walton looked at him with bewilderment.
“Maybe you haven’t understood what I’m trying to tell you,” Walton said.
“No,” Adam repied, “I’ve understood you perfectly.”
“They’d kill you on the spot!” Walton blurted, “You cannot go back there. You’re the first person we’ve ever managed to rescue from that place; you represent the evidence we need to shut it down, for good. You have to understand.”
Adam burst into tears; for his freedom and his folly.
“There is a friend in there that I must keep a promise to,” Adam replied as he stood up from the bed, headed to the door.