Serenades, chapter 9

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Literature Text

nine: honor thy superiors

I woke up with a pounding headache, on a cold tiled floor deep in the bowels of some building somewhere. I had no idea where I was, or what happened. Yellow and black motes danced in the spaces between my cornea and the world. Had I been drugged? I struggled to remember what went on before I was taken here. We went back to the waiting room after the trial. Or farce, as Ava put it. Where was she? I longed for her scent, her touch, to hold her tightly, whispering assuring words to each other, but there was only an emptiness left by her absence. Ava assured me that we would grow wings and fly away together to better places, before all hell breaks loose, but that’s only a fading dream now. I broke down emotionally, crushed like an insect.
I analyzed my surroundings once I was completely drained emotionally. The walls were unadorned and unpainted concrete, there was only a thin pallet and rusted grate on the floor, and lit by mercury vapor lamps built into the wall, covered with panes of glass. There was a metal door, a machine with an opening embedded in the wall. How did I get here? I remembered the smell of gas in the waiting room.
I pressed a button next to the machine and a pale cube fell out of the opening and landed in a tin tray filled with water and rust. I picked it up, squishing it slightly, and sniffed at it, and then bit off a piece. It tasted like a mix of boiled cabbage and lard, but edible. I pressed the button again, and nothing came out. Next to the machine was a spigot that delivered lukewarm water when I turned a knob. Occasionally, it stopped working, but for the most part, I could get slightly-metallic tasting water whenever I needed to. Not very tasty water, but water nonetheless.
There was a device on the door, which had six dials with a variety of glyphs in glowing green, and an activation button, a shade of red practically begging for me to press it. Presumably, it was to open the door in case of an emergency. It was too complicated for me to work, and went dark after five wrong combinations. A minute later, it reactivated itself. Even then, would it unlock the door or just alert someone in the building? Or was it just there to taunt me as I go mad trying to figure out the combination? Were they laughing at me from somewhere high above?
Nobody came to tell me how long I would be kept here. I observed that the amount of vapor in the lamps was slaved to a cycle, probably close to a day, but I’ve lost sense of time. Cycles passed in silence, and nobody came to question me.

Ava woke, shielding her eyes from intense brightness, on the floor in a room of whitewashed plaster walls, no doubt over thick concrete and stone, and white tiles. Her room was adorned with only a bed with a thin sheet, a grate on the floor, a speaker inset in the ceiling. An alcove contained a toilet, a crude shower, and a dripping sink. The rules were posted on the door, laminated and framed with cheap wood. The first and largest rule was “Honor Thy Superiors.” Slightly smaller was “You are not to speak unless told to do so by a guard, interrogator, or commandant. Sit still and keep quiet otherwise.” The other ones were much smaller. Answer all questions given to you, do not dodge the question, do not waste time to reflect, do not cry, do not protest, do not sidetrack. Below the rules was a small opening with a slot. The room was cool, but not uncomfortably so. She had all the clothes she wore at the trial except for her shoes and belt; when she stood, she had to hold her pants up with one hand.
“Let me out, you fuckers!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, ignoring the rules. Eventually, she tired herself out and went back to lying down on the lumpy mattress, with nothing to do but contemplate the fingerprints on the wall and the smudges left by something clear, saliva or tears. She used her sweater as a pillow and wrapped herself up in her coat.

Ava awoke with her face down and her sweater wet with tears, got up and looked in the slot, saw nothing, she put her ear to the slot, heard uncomfortably close footsteps, distant conversation, susurrus, the hum of machinery, falling droplets of water, her own breath and heart, dead silence. She looked in the grate, saw darkness, looked for something to drop through the slits. She went into the shower, broke off a tile. She threw it against the wall to break it, marking a notch in the wall with the largest part, and dropping a smaller fragment into the grate to listen for a plunk or clank.
Somebody put a tray of food in the slot. A few stale crackers, a watery sludge that was supposed to be soup, and some processed meat of some kind. She bit into it. It was salty.
“Yeech, tastes like the way I think fetal pigs taste. You know, even the ones who are actually hardcore religious will eat pork if it’s the only thing around,” she said to no one in particular.

I had no idea how long I was here. I woke up on the floor, and tried to recall why I was here. I looked for something to mark the wall, but found nothing. I will not be broken, for she will be there at the end.

On the twentieth day, food stopped arriving.
“Prisoner 215-A82 report for questioning,” from the speaker, icy and mechanical.
A cold draft blew as the door opened. Ava sighed and put on her wool coat. The guard who came in to escort her to the interrogation room hit her in the face with his baton to punish her for her disregard for the rule.
“I’m only human,” she said, sobbing. “Did you expect me to...” She was interrupted by another hit to the face.

“Nice necklaces you got there.” The guard unlatched the chain to Ava’s dragon amulet, pocketing it, and simply ripped off her seashell choker, dropping it on the tiled floor, and smashing it underfoot. He replaced it with a plain iron collar with wires on it, each ending with a clip. He put his hands under her top and pants to attach the clips. She looked uncomfortable, as if she was about to cry out in pain and frustration.
“Get too close to a red light, and this thing will reward your insolence with a painful electric shock to your tits and genitals. Understand? Just nod. You are not to speak. Remember what happened the last time.”
She nodded, fully aware.
“Follow. There is no escape.”

Ava walked out of her cell for the first time. Outside, the walls were plaster, some parts crumbling off to reveal brick, with only a chair and tables covered with metal tongs, pincers, and other implements. The floor was uncomfortably cold. The guard brought her through murky and stifling tunnels of white-painted brick and concrete floors and gunmetal gray pipes. Fluorescent lights flickered and hummed. The corridors beyond a door of metal grating were even more claustrophobic, and back to peeling plaster. She tiptoed under arches, peeking through open doors, catching a glimpse of strange machines, many of them covered in rust.
“Damn things haven’t worked since the days of the Imperators, not that Salomea will let us use them,” the guard muttered, half to himself, half to Ava. Then, saying nothing, he shocked Ava for slowing down, knocked her out with another device.

They dragged her to a large room with whitewashed walls and shiny floor tiles, a board for writing in marker, some locked and reinforced vitrines with equipment, some wood drawers and shelves with other pieces of equipment, and a metal table in the center with screwholes at regular intervals. She simply paced around the room, occasionally stopping to contemplate the door in the corner. The wood drawers were unlocked, but empty and perfectly clean. She checked the door, and did not look surprised when the knob didn’t turn.

At least three hundred pacings around the room later, the interrogator arrived. A balding man with close-cropped facial hair, he wore the same blue uniform as the rest of the officials and guards, but a slightly different insignia pinned to his chest. He went over and unlocked the cabinet, taking out a machine.
“So, you’re a member of the Movement for Justice and Equality, miss Samassaravong. Interesting name. You may speak now, but only when I tell you to.” His voice was melodically cruel and raspy. He put a gray metal circlet over her head, connected by wires to the machine, a box with a digital oscillograph, rheostats, and incandescent bulbs encapsulated in sheaths of colored plastic, and did the same with other thick wires terminating in clips. He turned it on and the room was filled with a hum like the beating wings of insects.
“Yes.” The machine gave a pleasant ding, and the green light blinked.
“Can’t you just use a mage?” Ava asked. “Selinia has mages that can do this. I am all too aware of them. It’s such a primitive test. I’m sure you know that I could be trained to beat the system.”
He said nothing, he simply hit her in the face before turning a dial on the machine. Ava felt a shock across her body.
“You should be used to this.”
“The MJE does not allow torture.” He hit her.
“Hmph. Is that what they tell you?” A crack in his facade of ice appeared briefly.
”Your name is Ava Samassaravong?”
“Yes, even if most of you know me only by a sequence of numbers and letters, ow.”
“Do you have black hair?”
“Um. Yes.”
“Are we on the moon?”
“We might be. I don’t know.”
“Are all cats black?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Calibrating the machine. How many people in your little group?”
“Just three. You have all of them, as far as I know.”
The red light flashed and the machine made a beep. Ava flinched, biting her lip and trying to hold back from making any sounds.
“My, you’re a persistent one. Let us try this again. How many people are in the Liberation Front? The whole group, not your pissant cell. I remind you this will be much easier on you if you answer.”
“I don’t fucking know, OK?” she hissed through clenched teeth. The machine beeped again. The current was stronger this time. “It’s just beeping because I’m about to piss myself.”
“You will learn some humility, you foul-mouthed brat. I would like to ask some questions about your past. I won’t kill you. I need your confession.” He held a scalpel above Ava’s earlobe. She flinched, took sharp breaths.
“Fine, fifty, sixty cells, I don’t know, I’ve never met anyone outside of mine except this one woman who had a thing for me, I hope she’s safe, please let her be safe,” she half-spat, half-sobbed, breathing erratically. “Just get that thing away from me. Please.”
“Answer my questions and I will. What was her name, the woman who had a thing for you?” He kept the knife against her earlobe.
“For all I know, you have her.” He said nothing, but pressed harder with the scalpel. “Fine, she’s Juliana.” Ding.
“I, I can’t remember. I’m sorry, really.” She stared into the distance when she apologized.
“Any others?”
“Yes, but I don’t know her name.” Ding. “I met her on the train.” Ding.
“Describe her for me.”
“She was tall and looked like a nice person, she had short blonde hair and brown eyes, but that’s all I can remember. I’m sorry.”
“Anyone else with rebellious thoughts?”
“She, she, um, she worked at the restaurant. I’m sorry.” Ding. “But I don’t remember the name of the place, so I can’t say anymore,” Ding. “Nobody else that I know about.” He removed the scalpel.
“Why did you join this group?”
“My parents were killed. Acharius Iasinchi and Getulius Steflea instigated the pogrom. I wanted to do something.”
“So, what motivates you is a lust for revenge? I see. Well, you’re just some worthless orphan guttersnipe. Nobody will miss you. How many are there?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand.” Ding.
“They have nothing to offer you.”
“There’s Nica. Where is he?”
“You surely don’t believe he’s still waiting for you? If he got away, he’s probably got a new plaything. I bet he doesn’t even remember you.”

The man harshly pulled off the clips and circlet. Ava waited again, this time, aching too much to stand, let alone walk. She sat down in the officer’s chair and moved it around, looking inside glass cabinets for some evidence of where she was. Her guard came back some time later, checked a hand-held device, and left, shutting the door behind him. He left the device on the table. Ava checked it. A green, staticy male face spoke, interrupted by crackling bursts of sound and a pixillation of the screen, a vowel transformed into ululating repetition by glitches.
“The insurgents... attacking... everyone... get there...” Ava only stared, mournful and demure. “Who... this? How did... get ...held?”
She idly dropped it, shattering the glass display, crushing it with the wheel of the chair to make sure it was completely broken.

“Get back to your cell,” the guard shouted at Ava, deciding it would be better.
When she returned, she turned on the spigot and cupped water in her hands, spitting it immediately
“Somebody, please find me, please. I don’t want to die here.”

“Nothing to dry off with? Oh, well. It will soon be over.” She took off her clothes and went in the shower, turning a valve to make lukewarm water beat against her back. Nothing to adjust the temperature of the water, she noticed, brushing her hand through her hair to remove the tangles. She shivered and her nipples were hard. There was a banging on the door, and Ava ran out of the shower, attempted to shake the water off, and put on her coat to barely conceal her nudity.
“My savior! They’re going to kill me. The water’s salty,” she shouted, and her expression of jubilation turned to one of fear. The man who came into her cell, in a guard’s uniform, dropped his pants.
“Ok, Ava, be calm.” She stood on the bed and waited for him.
She took off her coat and looped the sleeve around the man’s neck, pulling as hard as she could.
Recommended Listening: Lustmord - Zoetrope

Honor Thy Superiors - from In The Penal Colony.
The other rules are those of Khmer Rouge prisons.

The questions the interrogator used to calibrate the machine are standard questions asked by Scientology interrogators.

"They tried to force me to confess that I was a member of the Vietcong. I refused to make such a statement and so they stuck needles under the tips of my ten fingers saying that if I did not write down what they wanted and admit to being a member of the Vietcong, they would continue to torture me. I was determined to say nothing. I was extremely angry at the enemy and I loved my country so much. This was because every day bombs and shells were falling and the blood and the bones of my people appeared before my eyes... I was extremely outraged and would never come out with any information. They tied my nipples to an electric wire and they gave me electric shocks, knocking me to the floor every time that they did so. They said that if they did not get the necessary information they would continue with the torture. Two American advisers were always standing on either side of me."
-testimony of Nguyen Thi Anh
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