The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
Prisoner M-19 was patient; he was trained to be. The dark closed in around him in his perfectly featureless cell as the guard’s boot-steps faded a little slower than the light.
When he finally moved, he did so by inches, tracing the seam on the floor panes he had squatted on until he came to the wall. The same subtle edge continued upwards until it was crossed by a horizontal break. As quietly as he was able, M-19 shuffled along the wall on his bare feet until he found the tiny bump of the rivet he was looking for. Once he found that, he traced its shape and smiled.
The right block, the right layout, the proper tool. That tool he had he made out of metal shavings and beaten wire he had molded with his bare hands over the course of weeks. With his patience, he was able to stave off the despair, the boredom and distraction of an idle mind in the dark.
He had the means, now might have opportunity…He had been waiting for it since he stepped out of the armored personnel carrier and Outpost Theta 3 stood before him. The Terra Novan sun, came through the clouds with beams of sunlight he knew, some time ago, someone had called “the fingers of God”. It was a moment of beauty that ended when he stepped into the shadow of the gateway of La Oubliette. The Republican soldiers handed him off to men whose uniforms didn’t have any distinguishing marks, no unit or rank insignias, just an arm-band with one half of a bone-white skull. M-19, Gregor Manette before he stepped into the dark, knew who they were. He knew he would need his patience then.
“This one?”, one of the arm-banded guards asked another as they drew Gregor’s sleeve up to his forearm and pressed a device with a pistol-grip onto the inside of his wrist.
“M-19”, the other guard replied. “Cold storage.”
The cool metallic surface of the device seared Gregor’s flesh for an instant, and he was Gregor no more.
After that, darkness was all there was for M-19. He held on to the memory of that day with both hands.
Now, however, his plans were going to come to fruition, half a season after he had been incarcerated. The building’s innards didn’t put up half the fight the panel did. For that moment, he was thankful for his nation’s unshakeable determination to always hire the lowest bidder. A properly built cell would he much better isolated. His work was still slow, though, as he had to time it with the guard’s patrol so that the sliver of light there would be when he turned on the camera connected to the monitor on the door wouldn’t reveal anything untoward. It was the definition of a monotonous routine. Forty-five minutes of work per hour, five to conceal it, five in complete silence, and five more to get back to where he left off. Seventy two hours later, M-19 would finally be able to reach through the crawlspace between their cells and rap his knuckles on the wall of his neighbor.
“Hey!” M-19 called to the other side, his voice echoing through the empty hall outside his cell. “Is anybody there?”
“Leave me alone”, a voice, dredged up from some deep well replied in broken Universal French.
“Listen” M-19 told the voice, gritting his teeth with the fierce thrill of nigh-impossible success. “Do you have a name? Tell me your name.”
“Leave me alone! I don’t know anything!” the voice insisted, desperate and guttural.
M-19 took a chance and spoke in Anglic, the Earthers’ language, executing the next step of his scheme. “Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, I do wander everywhere.”
There was no reply from the other cell, not until the thrill had begun to sour.
The voice, a louder than it was at first, though now devoid of any emotional inflection, called back to him.
“Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite, Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he?” The voice spoke the verse with confidence it lacked a moment ago.
“No, I am Oberon”, M-19 replied, victorious once again as he finished the cipher, “and you are a bearer of my seal.”
The knowledge of that sequence of verses and its reply was one of the most closely guarded secrets the Southern Republic had extracted from the remains of the Colonial Expeditionary Force. It yielded control over these living weapons, the G.R.E.L.
“Oberon, sir, you have my allegiance.”
“Report your status, soldier”, M-19 demanded in his curt, harshly accented Anglic.
“Sixty percent operational, sir”, the voice replied.
“Are you a Mordred-class?” M-19 asked.
“Yes, sir. Generation IIf revision a”, the voice replied.
“Good”, M-19 said. His patience was yielding its dividends now. The adrenalin made his blood boil. With a growl he added “Rip down this wall, soldier.”
The G.R.E.L. went unquestioningly about his new task, and it was a moment too late that M-19 realized that he had grown impatient. His innate sense of time gave him a pang of dread against the thrilling prospect of escape. The sound of a guard’s boots coming down the hall was late. The Mordred’s fists beating the wall, each with the same brute force of a dozen men armed with a half-ton battering ram, nearly masked the quickened thumps of the guard dashing down the hall towards the noise. It was too late now, M-19 realized. He had crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return, too soon. There was no going back. All there was left was to go faster. M-19 yanked clumps of wires, propping his foot on a structural girder for the leverage.
Klaxons began to wail outside his cell.
Right at that moment thick purple fingers curled the sheet of metal between the two cells back, and the halogen light from the Mordred’s cell poured through the opening, blinding M-19 with its flash before he could close them. He cried and recoiled away from it.
Writhing with the heels of his hands pressing down on his eye sockets, M-19 was given a moment of clarity. M-19 could hear the Mordred tearing down a piece of pipe out of its fittings, boiling steam washing over the monster’s hands. He could hear the voice of the guard outside, speaking urgently just outside the door to his cell. Another voice spoke outside the door, booming over the P.A. with the thunder and severity of God himself.
He forced his eyes open when the sweet smell began to fill the cell.
The colorless haze was already making M-19’s head swim. His thoughts tried to wrestle with the lethargy he breathed in.
The Mordred stood over him, numbly waiting for M-19 to put the next thought in his mind. The halogen glare from the next room shone on the purple-skinned behemoth. One of the Mordred’s eyes and a couple of his fingers had been surgically removed, leaving a concave wound past his eyelids. That was the forty percent that was missing.
“Break that down”, M-19 managed to croak, pointing at the door.
“Sir!”, the Mordred replied with crisp, fierce docility. He charged the door, making it buckle. His fists kept it shaking, with the force of each blow rippling through the floor. The hinges began to give way as M-19’s grip on consciousness finally began to slip.
The last thing he saw before he let go of it completely was the magnetic seals and hinges breaking. The last thing he heard were the weapon of the guard going off. The last thing M-19 felt was the Mordred picking him up and flinging him onto his shoulder.
The Mordred began to run down the hall, taking M-19’s unconscious body with him.