I woke up on the floor. Can’t say it’s the first time. But this floor was soft, warm, like lying on someone’s belly. Someone enormously fat. My fingers sank in a bit as I pushed myself up. I was alone in a small white room. No doors. No windows. The ceiling glowed, and as I stared up at it, it got a bit brighter. No cracks in the surface. No real corners either, everything coved and smooth.
Dread filled me. I got up and walked around the room, touching the soft squishy walls, then got down on my knees to search for any cracks. There had to be some way for the air to get in, or I’d be dead by now. There had to be some way out of here.
I was down under the city; there was no other explanation. I started to sweat. They said there was something alive down here. Something that kept the cons alive and caged. They called it dragon, wyrm, hellnation’s demon. I remembered the riot when they moved all the prisoners down here. A lot of burning buildings and screaming, but it didn’t change anything when only the poorest people were shouting about it.
I’d worked with a guy that did time underground. They kept putting off his wife and changing the length of his sentence, no matter how many times she went down to the courthouse to argue with the lordsmen. It went on and on, and when he finally came out, he was different. Came down to the bar with me one night but wouldn’t drink. Said it wasn’t so bad but wouldn’t say much else. I could see in his eyes that there was a whole shitload he wasn’t saying. Or couldn’t say, maybe. Maybe he was just scared pissless that he’d slip up and have to come back here.
It cost a lot of credit, they said, to keep the worthless plinkers. This way they could do it almost for free and open more schools. You know they never thought about what it would be like down here because they never for a second thought they’d ever get locked inside. The lordsmen said it was safe, but they sure as hellnation didn’t spend much time dropping off prisoners. I’d watched them at the mouth of the tunnel when I walked to work, and it was in and out, and them with white faces, hot-stepping it out of there double quick.
I shook off the creeping fingerbones and set out to search the place properly. There was nothing. Just this soft white stuff that stretched over the floor and the walls and the ceiling. Nothing but me. My heart started racing. I was stuck in here. I was alone. I crouched down at one end of the room and put my head in my hands. Had they knocked me out? Gassed me? My head didn’t ache. I remembered the courtroom when they sentenced me. They said that credits would go to Gotta and the boys so they wouldn’t starve while I was in the plink, but when I realized I’d be coming down here, to finking hellnation’s cavern? I’d stood up too quick and started pointing and losing my plinky plonk all over the place and none too quiet. A big guy gets attention like that. Tends not to be the nice kind. It took four of ’em to pin me, wrenching my arm something nasty before things went fuzzy on me. I rolled my shoulder, but it didn’t hurt, which was plain finky.
There was a small noise at the other end of the room, and I whipped my head up. The wall on that end was moving, like when you throw a stone into the sea. It dipped in the middle, and circles rippled out. I stood up quick.
“Hello,” said a voice. “I’m glad that you’re awake.” Someone was standing behind the thick white curtain of the wall. I could see the outline of their face pushing into the room like a mask.
“Who are you?” I asked. My face was sweating now too, and I could smell the fear coming off me. Not good.
“I’m Acorn,” it said. “Can I come in?”
“Does it look like I have any bloody choice?” Anger soared in me, and I clutched at it.
It frowned. I can’t say how I could see that, with its face shrouded like that, but I did. “Yes,” it said. “You can send me away, but I will come back in an hour and ask to see you again.” Maybe it was here to feed me. I wasn’t that hungry yet. I could hold out.
“And if I tell you to get out?”
“Then I’ll come back every hour until you agree to speak with me. I need your consent before we can go any further.”
“Consent? Did I give my consent to be stuck in here?” I stepped closer and wondered if I could grab the face and pull this Acorn into the room. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but it looked like a kid’s head. The face was sticking in above the height of my waist, so maybe it was that much shorter than me. Maybe I could rip a hole in the white stuff. Maybe it was a thin layer, like a blanket with a door hidden behind it.
“I know that you are held here against your will, but nothing will be done without your consent.” It didn’t talk like a kid but also didn’t sound very tough. Sure as hellnation wasn’t very big. A lump of hope stuck in my throat. Was it my fault the sick plinkers were using kids to do their dirty work? I wouldn’t hurt this…Acorn, just get past it. Maybe a corridor…
“All right, I give you my consent to let me out of this bloody padded cell.” I walked right up to it and looked along the edges of the face. No cracks. The white stuff was thinner than I’d thought. It was lying over the kid’s skin like a very stretchy sheet.
The face looked sad. “I’m sorry, Ledder. I can’t let you out yet.”
“But you will.” I tried to speak with harsh authority.
“That depends on you.”
“On me what?” The white sheet must have been pressed right over Acorn’s eyeballs, which didn’t make any sense, but I could see the detail of where the white eyes met the white eyelids. It must be able to see through the layer.
“On your choices.”
“Oh, that’s rich. Like I have any bloody choices left.”
“There are always choices. No one can take that away from you.”
I pointed my finger in its face. “Bullshit. I was put in here. I don’t deserve this. I haven’t done anything wrong!” The wall on my left lit up, and I swung toward it. There was a picture of me there, a moving picture clearer than any filum I’d ever seen. I was in a room, my apartment, and I was standing over my wife as she crouched down on the floor. I was hitting her.
The picture stopped moving, and there I was with this terrible animal look on my face, my arm up in the air, getting ready to hit her again. I backed up and walked right into the wall behind me. The picture faded away, and the white wall was back. I slid down and put my head in my hands again.
“I was drunk,” I said. My heart beat faster, and the hairs on my arms stood up. I was stuck in here. Stuck in here with… What was that thing? If it could put pictures like that up on the wall, what else could it do to me?
There was no answer but a small noise like before. I looked up to see its whole head and a shoulder leaning into the room as the kid looked at me. “I’m sorry to show you that on your first day here, but it’s better in the long run to let you know early on. The main thing is, I want to help you. I can help you change that.” Its arm stretched out to point toward the wall the pictures had been on, and I jumped for it. I caught the arm and pulled as hard as I could.
It felt just like the floor and the walls, soft on the outside but harder on the inside. Like a real arm. Except that it came off in my hand. The arm just broke off the wall. I staggered backward and looked from the wall to the arm and back again. The broken end of the arm was ragged, but there was no blood. I could see that it was white inside as well, like a statue’s arm, but light-weight, lighter even than a real arm.
Acorn stood there half inside the wall, with its shoulder all torn-looking, and then it smiled sadly at me. “You can’t hurt me, Ledder.” A new white arm stretched out from the stump, shook itself, and then waved at me.
“What are you?” I whispered.
It shook its head like it was disappointed. “That’s not the right question, but it will do. I’ll tell you as much as I can. I may not always answer, but I won’t lie to you, Ledder.”
Its body stepped forward out of the wall so that I could see its whole shape. I backed up until I was against the wall and held the broken arm out in front of me. Acorn was naked except for something wrapped around its hips. It sat down on the floor, white all over; even the eyes were white. It spooked the hell outta me.
“You know I’m not a human.” It didn’t ask. I could feel sweat trickling down all over my body. There were stories about the cons living down in the tunnels, but some of them said the tunnels themselves were alive—and that’s where I couldn’t think about it anymore. All I could think of was that story about being swallowed by a whale, with its rib bones like jail bars and its stomach acid eating the shoes off your feet.
This wasn’t a servant, then. This was the real thing. I’d known that, hadn’t I?