The Not-So-Great Escape
by Lonnie McDowell
"You stand charged with illegal entry, misappropriation of private property, criminal trespass, unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle..." The list droned on in no particular order that I could fathom. Ironically, it appeared that while I wasn't old enough to drive, I was old enough to get a series of citations for the car that I couldn't drive. It would have been amusing to watch it happen to someone else. It was not at all funny to have it happen to me. I waited with my hands clutched together and my underarms getting clammy. "How do you plead?" Like it mattered. I knew, and the judge staring out from the screen knew, that I was guilty, or I wouldn't have been wearing stuncuffs on my hands and feet and have my oh-so formal escort standing quite so close. My coveralls didn't lend me much credibility, either; they were obnoxiously prison orange, broadcasting into the UV and IR spectrum for easy identification in a crowd. The fact that I was already wearing them before they'd even attempted to set bail spoke volumes about the caliber of my character (or lack thereof).
"Not guilty." I replied, in a halfhearted effort to prolong the inevitable. "You've spoken with the legal counsel of your choice?" The judge droned on as if he cared. I had, but "counsel" had lost enthusiasm when the security suit/prosecutor gave her the chip that showed me plain as day exiting the stairwell of the private underground carport and then jandering down a series of "restricted access" hallways at the UCAS embassy with no I.D., no escort, and no excuse. Her interest had dropped still more when the same chip revealed me admitting to the head of security that I had intentionally taken two or three items. The chip then showed the embassy security conducting a polite, efficient search of my person that revealed my hard-won booty - three flimsy fastener clips and a palmtop labeled "UCAS Embassy - Do Not Remove" in big letters, still in its shrink-wrap packaging. Government facilities were not very consistent in their methods of internal policing, but I had known well in advance that anything even remotely connected with the embassy staff offices would be thoroughly secured. I hadn't realized they were quite so proprietary about office supplies, though.
"Yes, I spoke with counsel." I had made several helpful suggestions about state of the art digital forgery devices that could have been used to create the chip, complete with ZuricOrbital time/date verification encoding, but she just looked at me. She was either too polite or too apathetic to point out that my age and nationality combined to make me an unlikely candidate for someone to target for a vast cover-up/conspiracy. The arguments that were dusted off and presented every four or five years for the latest "trial of the century" wouldn't be set forth on my behalf. Who's gonna go to the trouble of framing a 15 year-old nanner?
Of course, no one would say that out loud. My father was a teenager when the "Move it or Lose it" order came down in 2027 as the final implementation of the Treaty of Denver. His family had enough Cherokee blood that the NAN left them on their farm, so when I was born 10 years later, I had NAN citizenship. When he died, we moved to Denver to live with his parents, and I was allowed to keep my citizenship "as a privilege," in spite of my mother's european heritage. Not like it was going to help me now. I'd lost most of my privilege when I confessed, but since this was the UCAS judicial system, everyone continued to pretend that I was still a golden child, because to do otherwise would be to risk a job with better benefits than I'd ever see. Besides, I was a very polite criminal, and as long as I knew my place and theirs, my race was only a minor consideration in how I was treated. Now if I'd been a meta-human...
The judge had paused again, and I tried to echo his last words. Something about concluding the arraignment, remanding and setting a date for a preliminary hearing in 2 weeks. I nodded agreeably, as if there was a choice involved (there wasn't) and I was being consulted (I wasn't.) The screen went blue and a blindfolded Lady Justice appeared in the same place the judge had been. As I was led to my cell, I wondered if I was the first to make the connection between the blindfold worn by Justice and the blindfold worn by people facing firing squads. I doubted it.
I waited in the holding cell for 3 hours until the transfer paperwork came through. The guard broke policy and actually talked to me when I asked him where I was going: I was being taken to a juvenile processing center until I could be permanently reassigned to a "rehab" work program of one sort or another. "What center am I going to?" I asked as casually as I could. "Carchar." he replied. I bit my lip and stayed quiet. So far everything was going as planned. Swell.
I had been stripped of the Embassy's stuncuffs and had bid the suit good-bye. He looked relieved to have the cuffs back intact and be done with me. I suppose I could have shorted them out or removed them given enough time and the proper tools, but I hadn't seen a rotary saw or diamond bit drill laying around in my holding cell, so he got them back with nothing but a very small piece of chewing gum wedged into the extremities of the foot cuffs' hinges. It wouldn't short the cuffs out, but once it hardened it would make them difficult to open and close. I'd always been taught to take your victories where you find them.
I had two seat mates who rode with me to the facility, both wearing the vaguely disoriented look of habitual BTL users. That suited me: I didn't feel much like talking, anyway.
The drive was shorter than I expected, which was nice, because the late afternoon sun was shining a little too warmly on my side of the van. I spent a lot of time watching the city go by, because I didn't know how soon I'd be seeing it again. I've never been a particularly cheerful kid, but I was downright depressed when we reached Carchar.
The processing center smelled, and I counted six sequential doors between me and the parking lot outside. My clothes were changed from day-glow orange to thin blue coveralls like everyone else's. Conformity was highly encouraged at Carchar, although they rarely got it. Carchar was a place for transient kids with bigger problems. I was scanned and probed to check for anything illicit, and pronounced clean. I was also promised that their regular psyche-tech was out, but that another psyche-tech would evaluate me for potential instabilities (read: a penchant for activities resulting in maximum security detention) and any other irregularities (read: magic) within the next five days. I was also told that the facility had enough security to keep wannabe samurais out of trouble, and enough dampening in it to discourage magic users from doing anything but bragging. The suit looked particularly hard at me when she said that: I suppose she thought all nanners were descended directly from Daniel Howling Coyote. It was unlikely that one who could read auras would be working as a bureaucratic suit in a juvenile holding facility. I don't know who had told her the facility was "dampened": I wasn't going to disabuse her of the idea at present.
My room had a cot four inches off the floor with very small trid cameras lenses housed out of reach in two opposite corners of the room. No hiding from the eye of the Almighty here. I was happy to have my own cell, even if I could touch three sides at the same time if I stretched. The bolt holes in the wall indicated that two more sleeping slabs could be brought in and fastened above mine if the population of youth criminals swelled suddenly, but the facility had enough room at present to afford me a private cell, if not privacy.
I'd already missed the exercise session, which (I was told) was generally conducted outside in the morning before it got too hot. I sat on my cot and waited. Unlike all the prison trids, nobody came around to offer me educational flimsies to read: Carchar was a place to wait, not a place to "Make A Better Me." (I had no desire to join the ranks of a militant back-to-nature youth rehab program, but the Wilderness Corps slogan might soon be a frightening reality if I was assigned to their work detail camps to serve out my sentence.) If I spent my time here doing nothing but breathing, that was fine with the suits that ran Carchar.
I would be sorry to disappoint them. At least, I hoped I would.
The dinner hour arrived, and I was escorted into a common dining room with nine other kids. A clock on the wall ticked down the minutes we had to eat before we went back to our cells. I looked quickly and carefully at the other Carchar guests and spotted my two van mates from earlier in the afternoon, but not the face I was looking for.
Dinner was various colors and shapes of soy, pressed, spread, or chopped to approximate real food. It badly needed seasoning, but there were no salt shakers on the tables: I don't know if Carchar had evaluated their effectiveness as dangerous and deadly throwing weapons, or if they just didn't want to conduct a search of each cell every time a shaker came up missing. I ate my bland meal in silence.
Eventually, I was taken back to my cell, where I waited some more. Two badges wandered by, making their rounds and tapping on the viewing windows set into the doors. Sometime after that, the lights were turned out. I stayed awake for a while staring at the ceiling and preparing to shift roles from a helpless teen nanner to a powerful shaman-in-training. I stopped keeping track of time, letting my consciousness stretch into the distant past to commune with my ancestors and into the future to speak with those yet to come. Nothing happened, so I tried to sleep instead and succeeded. Another instance of accepting the victories life offered rather than the ones I wanted, I suppose. Perhaps I should have put less emphasis on the "powerful" and more on the "in-training." I still had much to learn from my grandfather and from my totem, Hawk.
In the morning, I went to breakfast, and then we were all allowed to go into the exercise yard. I stubbed my toe in the entryway and hopped on one foot for several steps, muttering under my breath as I left the building and entered the sunlight and the hot summer air. My knowledge of the old tongue was mostly limited to phrases grandma used when she was angry. This seemed like a good time to use them. As I squinted in the sunshine, I began to think I'd made a big time hoop-fragging mistake, but at last I saw him sitting (alone, of course) in a slouched position against the wall surrounding the yard. I found a good sitting spot across the yard, sunk into myself, and watched everything but him.
I watched detainees play various sweaty games in an effort to avoid boredom, and watched the other detainees and the badges play their own mental games for the same reason. Carefully, I forgot them. I watched the sand and the rocks and the small insects that flew and walked and crept. I numbered them and removed them from my consciousness. I watched the stems and the leaves on the plants near the edge of the yard, and the haze in the distance that was Denver's industrial legacy. I embraced them and dismissed them from my mind. I watched the clouds above me as they danced slowly into patterns: clouds that were beyond the reach of the prison, beyond the realm of the parched soil that had been processed and poisoned to the point where it was virtually untouchable by the spirits of the land. Clouds beyond the boundaries of whatever Carchar thought made them impervious to magic. I watched and remembered what I saw.
When I finally lowered my eyes, I saw that the boy I was not watching was also looking at the sky. I knew he had seen the message. We both knew we were getting out, and we both knew it had to be soon. The clouds dispersed.
A shadow fell across my feet. It was attached to a short, fair-haired boy in blue coveralls who was standing too close. "My name's Timothy," he said disarmingly. I pegged him as a mini-suit, an informer ready to take me into his confidence so that I would brag about/confess my crimes to him and the Doppler mike which was doubtless trained on us both. I suppose he could have been cybered to include some sort of direct pickup, but that spoke of long range planning and more funds than a private detention facility like Carchar ordinarily had access to. I wondered if I was worth the trouble of assigning me a mini-suit of my very own, or if this was just a courtesy call on his way to go entrap someone else. I waited with disinterest.
"I saw you when you came into the yard. Were you Dancing? Can you do magic?"
I didn't answer. Not only was he a probable mini-suit, he was impolite. Grandfather had taught me that the spirits were discussed at appropriate times in appropriate places. This was neither.
"I just wondered because if you're going to Ghost Dance out of here, I'd like to come too. I don't have much to offer, but I can maybe find us a place to hide for a few days, and I stashed some high nuyen stuff before I got sent here: I'll split it with you." He seemed nervous. Suits were usually too busy oozing sincerity to be nervous. Maybe he was new at this. Maybe he was scared of me. I didn't particularly care. I got up, moved three feet to my left, and sat down again. I was pleasantly surprised when he went away.
Having given us our maximum dosage of unadulterated UV, the badges ushered us back inside. I counted my steps as I was taken back to my cell, for lack of anything better to do.
Mealtime came after that, and then more quality time in my cell. I waited. Time passed, and my waiting was suspended for dinner, but I was able to pick up where I left off. I might have tried to skip dinner so that I could begin a purifying fast, but that was not the way things were done at Carchar, and would have called attention to me. I had no desire to be fed through a tube or a nutrient slap patch. I lay awake on my cot and hummed tunelessly to myself.
When morning came, I was physically drained, but I had the answers to several questions that I hadn't had the night before. Dampening or no dampening, man's technology was innately resistant to magic because it was empty of the energies of life. Its strength was also its downfall: it was limited in its ability to alter or manipulate those forces because it could only peripherally affect and be affected by those same energies. The "dampening" at Carchar appeared to be based on inert, spell-resistant technology, organic astral-blocking materials and mage wards. Fortunately, mages who were uneducated in the ways of totems sometimes left holes where spirits could walk or power could trickle through. [You'd think the Carchar suits would have known better in Denver. I suppose that's the problem with following UCAS specifications in order to get their business: political requirements (like hiring mages instead of local shamans) often outweighed common sense. Or maybe it was just a result of giving the contract to the lowest bidder.] The wards on the building prohibited active magic, and the organic materials prevented astral travelers from entering or leaving the cells, but I had dreamed during the night, and my dreams contained stories told to me by Hawk about what was and what would be.
Grandfather said that we were all subject to the same overseeing spirits of the universe, who guided our destiny as they saw fit, using us as tools: Grandmother believed that we were participatory parts of the universe, and it was composed mostly of parts of ourselves that we didn't recognize yet. I hadn't the age or wisdom to be invited to contribute to the discussion, but whether I was being visited or doing the visiting didn't matter to me as long as the result was the same. I did what I thought, or what the spirits put into my mind and told me I was thinking. In this case, Hawk told me what to do, but not when. Hawk was not tricky like his cousin Raven, neither was he as fierce and impassioned as his brother Eagle. Hawk saw much, and acted when it was needed, watching and remaining aloof the rest of the time. When Hawk saw that the time was right, I would be told.
When I was led into the yard with my breakfast compatriots (now ten, including Timothy, who was apparently being transferred from another wing into mine) I opened my thoughts to the universe, and the voices I heard on the wind told me to seize the day, but they didn't tell me how. Time to pass the nuyen, as the saying went.
I crossed the compound and lowered my eyes to the dark haired boy slouched in the same spot as yesterday. "It's your turn. The wind says to go now." He didn't respond. I hadn't expected him to.
Exercise time ended, and I went back to my cell to find that a new bed had been bolted above mine, and Timothy was now my roommate. I greeted the discovery with all the enthusiasm it deserved.
"Did you just grunt at me? How come you never talk?" Timothy questioned. I shrugged. The question he was really asking was "how come you won't talk to me," and I wasn't sure I was willing to tell him his cover had been blown from the start.
Timothy's questions were cut off mid-sentence as a loud, high pitched siren began sounding. He looked panicked. "What's happening?" I found it hard to believe he'd never heard a fire alarm before, but I suppose in a prison it could mean any number of things, including a late reveille or an early taps if the suits were in a military mood. The doors opened and the badges poked their heads in, yelling at us to get in line for the exercise yard. We did. The guards were busy trying to watch everyone at once, and I took advantage of the confusion to begin circling the exercise yard with slow, shuffling steps. Four times I stopped and scooped up sand, twice with each hand. I sifted it through my fingers as I walked. When I completed my circle, I tossed the remaining dust into the air and waited. A cloud eclipsed the sun, and a chill swept through the yard. Now came the tricky part...
I felt a sharp sting in my shoulder, and then the cloud grew darker and the ground rushed up at me.
When I woke up it was still dark: I blinked and realized I was wearing a blindfold. My hands were tied, and my mouth was gagged: in fact my whole face was covered. Not a very auspicious escape attempt, if this is where it left me. I sniffed, and recognized the unpleasant odor of the processing center. I didn't recognize the surface beneath me as my cot, so I must be in a new room or in the infirmary. Apparently one of the badges had seen what I was doing and I'd been narcojected. Plan A had failed. Plan B was to try plan A again, and that wasn't feasible at present. Then again, although I hadn't completed the summons and I had a severe headache, I hadn't opened up any doors to flesh-eating spirits or skinwalkers, either: score another point on the victory-is-where-you-find-it chart.
I spent the next 20 minutes doing nothing but breathing. The suits would have been proud: Carchar had accomplished its goal.
In fact, they came in to gloat shortly. They disguised it as a questioning session (my gag was removed, but the blindfold stayed on; I thought again about blind Justice and the firing squad), but they weren't terribly interested in my blanket denials. They let slip that they employed one or more watcher spirits in lieu of a real on-site magician, and I'd been fingered, or eyeballed, or whatever appendage the watcher happened to have. While watcher spirits were not reliable enough to be used for evidentiary purposes in court (something about lacking the capacity to be sworn in) they could and did provide enough probable cause to allow the suits to "take appropriate precautions" until I could be evaluated. They would have my psyche-tech evaluation expedited, now that I had been upgraded to a class II threat, whatever that was. I wondered idly if there was a sign outside my room: "Warning: Class II threat." Maybe it was written on my mage mask in big letters.
They talked some more; I would be evaluated within the next twenty-four hours, if I'd been lying I'd be punished, etc. but the gist of it was "you've been caught and we're shutting you down, so don't even think of letting it happen again."
I had hoped that they would leave my gag off, but the replaced it as they left. I listened for Hawk to tell me what to do now, but I didn't get a response. If there was a victory in this, I wasn't seeing it. Wait: at least I didn't have to share a room with Timothy the mini-suit anymore. My victories were getting smaller and smaller.
After a while, the door opened. I heard a familiar voice exclaim: "Yes, I can see that's the one. It's not like you've got a whole row of magically active delinquents to choose from, after all." I sighed with relief. No one could stop Grandmother on a rampage. "You certainly have trussed him up, haven't you? If I'm going to visit him, I'll need him to talk back, now, won't I? Eh? Well, don't just stand there!" I didn't think she could pull it off, but she did: she and I wound up in a visiting room with no mask and no guard. We both pretended my cuffs were not fastened to the table. Grandmother had no active magic of her own, but she was just plain compelling when she started giving orders. I waited for her to start talking, as was proper. After she scolded me for several minutes, she told me that Grandfather was going to look into the matter and see what could be done.
I started to tell her what had happened, so that she could relay it to Grandfather. At this point, I was willing to face his wrath if I could leave this place. Our conversation was interrupted by the superior of the badge Grandmother had bullied, and the visit was terminated. I was remasked and led back to wherever I was being kept.
Dinner was a private affair: at least I didn't have to see the food I was eating. The top half of the mask was really starting to itch. An hour after dinner, I received another visit. The door opened, and my Grandfather's voice said "Yes, I see. That is sufficient." Then the door closed. I had no idea what to do next, so I did nothing.
The door opened again about 15 minutes later, and someone (presumably a badge) asked me to get up and pulled me to my feet. He led me down a series of hallways, still masked. I was instructed to sit: I did so. I could hear my Grandfather speaking. I tried to astrally project into the room where I heard his voice, but the mask had some sort of organic agent in it. I stayed put.
"I don't see that we have a choice: he's powerful enough that he's a danger to this facility. I'm willing to take him into custody. I'll also need to arrange for the transfer of this young man: I'm told he needs to be placed in institutional custody, rather than into a minimum security work program. I think you'll find everything is in order for his transfer as well. Don't you agree? Yes, as soon as possible: the longer they are in your facility, the more likely they are to cause trouble."
I knew that anytime Grandfather used the phrase "Don't you agree?" in a face to face conversation, the person on the receiving end found themselves nodding vigorously unless they were very adamantly opposed to the idea. I suspected that we were on our way out. I was right.
I was given my clothes back, and my mage mask was removed. I changed and was taken to stand next to Grandfather. A badge brought the other member of our trio to the entryway and signed us out. My grandfather said nothing until the three of us reached the car and got in, and then he turned around and faced us. "William Sky Runner, what do you have to say for yourself?" I tried to look penitent. "Thomas Sky Runner, what do you have to say?" My brother looked pained. "You will apologize to your Grandmother." I suspected that our apologies would involve lots of manual labor and a long switching, for starters. Grandmother appreciated old fashioned discipline.
"Grandfather? How did you get us out?" asked Thomas, once the car was on the road. Grandfather fished out a parcel of flimsies from his inside pocket. "David Running Deer helped. He used to work for the UCAS at the courthouse. He told me where to find the proper forms: your grandmother just made some changes and resubmitted them into the system with your name on them. You've been sentenced, convicted, and served your time." "But," I asked slowly, "didn't David Running Deer die last year?" Grandfather looked impossibly old for a second, and then simply said "Yes."
I realized that I had much more to learn if I was ever going to reach the level of magic that Grandfather practiced. Thomas was good with computers and electronics, but Grandmother was out of his league as well. Still, it was nice to know we each had someone to learn from.
When we got home, Thomas went to his side of the room, and I went to mine. He knew I'd gone in to get him out, and he also knew I hadn't told Grandfather where he was. He didn't say thank you: I didn't expect him to.
We were family.
©1998, Lonnie McDowell - used with permission