The North Wing
The steel mesh sang with the impact of their boots. It was the only sound to be heard in the cellblock, other than the grumbles of disapproval trickling out from behind brick cell walls. Keeler tried not to listen to his fellow inmates. He knew what they thought of anyone volunteering for the North Wing project. In most of their minds, he wasn’t much better than a squealer. Bollocks to ‘em. If it got him a pardon, what did he care? He was buggered if he was going to rot in the Scrubs until he died. Keeler stopped and waited for the first prison screw to descend the encaged spiral staircase before he followed. The second screw followed Keeler.
The screws didn’t say anything to him. Their opinions weren’t much different from those of the inmates. It probably had a lot to do with them knowing as much about the North Wing project as general population. Only a select few knew anything about what went on there. Even as a volunteer, Keeler didn’t have a clue for what he’d signed on for, but in a few minutes, he would find out.
Fear gnawed at Keeler as he followed the Scrubs’ maze of neo-gothic corridors passing cellblock after cellblock. His dread squirmed under his skin. The sensation was so intense he snatched a glance at his arm, expecting to see fear manifesting itself as a parasite writhing under his flesh. One of the screws noticed him flinch.
“What just crawled up your arse, Keeler?” Taylor asked with a smirk. “You getting a little nervous or something?”
Keeler swallowed and shook his head. He was lying, of course, and Taylor knew it. The screw’s little knowing nod and the cruelness in his eyes let Keeler know he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, Keeler. It’s not like you’ll be all alone. You’ll have your playmates with you.”
“Very cozy,” Barker, the other screw, said.
Keeler said nothing. Screws were nothing worth wasting your breath on–just a bunch of wankers who couldn’t make it in the real world. What kind of man volunteered to spend his life in a prison?
“Give Jeter, Lefford and Allard our best,” Taylor said and laughed at his own joke.
Keeler sniffed. He would hardly call Jeter, Lefford and Allard playmates. They were all lifers like him, but that was their only bond. Lefford and Allard he knew by sight. Jeter, he’d never met, but his reputation preceded him. He was a scary fuck, a sociopath that no one wanted to come within pissing distance of. He’d been the project’s first volunteer. Hand picked, according to some. That had been six months ago and no one had heard anything from him since. Lefford and Allard followed a couple of months later. No one had heard from them either. But what made Keeler’s balls wither on the vine were the screams from the North Wing that routinely shattered the night’s quiet. Whatever the hell they were doing in there, he hoped to Christ they’d improved conditions for the volunteers.
They stopped at the modified entrance to the North Wing. Taylor pressed the call button next to a pair of heavy-duty steel doors. The doors had no visible lock or handles. A closed circuit TV camera trained its gaze on Keeler.
“Wait there,” a voice barked from the intercom above the call button.
The wall and steel doors were part of the recent construction that isolated the North Wing from the rest of Wormwood Scrubs. The clash of architecture between old and new wouldn’t have impressed any art critics. Utilitarian dullness and neo-gothic weren’t a match made in architectural heaven. The annexation had increased the prison’s overcrowding problems, which raised tensions between fellow inmates and between inmates and screws. Petty squabbles turned into fights more often than they used to. Overcrowding was an easy label to stick on the problem but it was more than that. It was the North Wing itself. Its secretive status unsettled everyone. It was a part of the prison that inmates had no control over. Whatever the screws liked to think, they didn’t run the show. They had everything above the surface, but the inmates had everything else. A lot of people would have paid good money to know what was taking place on the other side of the doors. Keeler was about to find out and all it had cost him was a signature on a Home Office disclaimer. But waiting for the doors to open, he wished he could take his ink back. An electronic hum preceded the clunk of the locks snapping back into place.
“Not going to wish me luck, then?” Keeler asked.
Taylor sneered. “You don’t deserve a pardon. Not for what you did to that kid.”
“You sound jealous, Taylor.”
“Shut it, Keeler,” Barker said, sounding tired.
The doors slid back. Two riot-clad armed guards filled the doorway of a dimly lit antechamber. Taylor and Barker stiffened. Keeler knew why. These weren’t prison screws under the full-face helmets, that was for sure. They were too lean. Too prepared. These guys were special–and had no place in the Scrubs. It was impossible to tell their affiliation. They reminded Keeler of paramilitaries from some banana republic. What are these fuckers doing here? Keeler thought.
“We’ll take him from here,” a muffled voice ordered from under a helmet.
The riot boys snatched Keeler from the screws and bundled him through the entrance. Taylor and Barker tried to follow, but one of the riot guards snatched up his stubby assault rifle and aimed it at the prison officers. Taylor and Barker froze.
“No unauthorized personnel,” he growled.
No further explanation was necessary. The vicious little gun muzzle spoke volumes. Taylor boiled, bringing a smirk to Keeler’s face. As the doors slid shut, Keeler blew the screw a kiss. His enjoyment of the moment ended there. The guard with the itchy trigger finger turned his aim on Keeler, the other one grabbed a bicep and they shoved him to the center of the antechamber.
The antechamber was a checkpoint. A glass-fronted observation room ran the length of one wall. Another riot clad guard, minus the helmet, entered the observation room and noted Keeler’s arrival in a logbook. The guard spoke into the microphone in front of him and with a sour note in his voice said, “Tag him.”
The trigger-happy guard re-aimed his weapon at Keeler’s face, while the other guard produced a polished steel identity bracelet and slipped it over Keeler’s wrist. He squeezed it together until the bracelet closed tight against Keeler’s skin. Keeler tried to loosen the bracelet, but it would take bolt cutters to remove it. He examined the writing engraved on it. NORTH WING was all it said.
“Just so they know where to bring you if you should get lost,” the guard said.
“Thanks,” Keeler replied without gratitude.
The guard in the bulletproof box buzzed them through. “Welcome to hell,” he remarked without a hint of humor.
Keeler swallowed hard.
“This way,” the guard who’d searched Keeler ordered and shoved him through a second set of doors into the North Wing. It was a hell of a lot different from when he’d last been in here. The cells were gone, as were the upper floors. There was nothing between the ground level and the prison rooftop except gun nests. Teams of three well-armed guards occupied each nest, intent on claiming their prey–whatever that turned out to be. Technology filled the void on the ground. Various consoles, like some tin pot NASA mission control, littered the dimly lit area. The critical ops seemed to be focused on the North Wall itself. The concentration of machinery and manpower made it impossible to distinguish what was so important about a stone wall.
“What in God’s name is going on?” Keeler muttered under his breath.
“Shut it,” the guard growled and shoved Keeler towards the epicenter.
Lab coated technicians noticed Keeler and his chaperones approaching and parted to let them through, but the multitude clustered around what seemed to be a giant chair. It had to be at least ten feet high. The monstrosity was cumbersome in its construction and spewed a trail of cables and tubes connected to various computers and medical devices. It was designed for a single man, but big enough for a god and fitted with steps on either side for mortals to climb. The seat itself, dwarfed against the immensity of the structure, didn’t look comfortable. Padding was scant and ergonomics non-existent. Keeler’s only comfort was that the seat wasn’t for him, as Jeter was strapped into it already.
Keeler didn’t acknowledge his fellow lifer. Shock prevented him. The Jeter he and everyone else in general population feared wasn’t the Jeter before him now. At the time of his arrest, Jeter had been a lean, handsome and debonair sociopath who could charm the birds from the trees and onto spikes. That Jeter bore no relation to the wretch sitting in the chair now. His wasted body barely held the rags hanging from his frame. It took a moment for Keeler to realize the threadbare clothes were Jeter’s prison issue blues. Jeter’s hands had mutated into claws. His overgrown, talon-like fingernails clawed at the ends of the metal armrests. Blood dripped from split quicks. His whole body was one piece of knotted sinew. During his trial, the newspapers had always commented on his piercing stare. Keeler didn’t have to worry about that stare now. Jeter’s eyes had been sewn shut.
Jeter’s body, like the chair, spewed cables and tubes like ectoplasm. Sensors monitoring brain, heart and respiratory functions ran in messy tangles. Catheters trailed from his groin area, discolored from use. His mouth was muzzled and a food tube disappeared into his nose.
Keeler liked to think it was Jeter’s rank stench that was making him gag, but he knew it wasn’t. He feared he was witnessing his future fate.
O’Keefe, the prison governor, stepped down from a console looking pleased with himself. In tow was the deputy governor, Cady, O’Keefe’s second in command and lap dog. Cady looked how Keeler felt. Keeler guessed this was his first visit to the North Wing, too.
“I see you’re admiring the Throne,” O’Keefe said.
“That’s what we call it.”
“Fit for a king?”
“Not at all.” O’Keefe smiled. “Fit for a killer.”
“What happened to his eyes?” Keeler nodded at Jeter.
“He gouged them out,” O’Keefe replied like it was no big thing. “You can see the scars where he clawed at his face. The Throne takes some getting used to. Don’t look so worried, Keeler. The Throne is Jeter’s domain, not yours.”
Keeler tore his gaze away from Jeter’s scarred face to O’Keefe. “What have I volunteered for?”
“You’ll soon see.”
“I think you owe me an explanation.”
“I don’t owe you a damned thing,” O’Keefe snapped. His change from affable to angry startled everyone, attracting stunned glances from the technicians and Cady alike.
“Okay, I take it back. I don’t want to be a volunteer anymore.”
O’Keefe stormed over, putting his face in Keeler’s. “You don’t get to take anything back. You lost your rights the moment you came through those doors. You don’t leave until all simulations are complete and your part is over. Understand me?”
“I think so.”
“Good.” O’Keefe took a step back. “Let’s get things moving.”
Technicians darted back to their consoles, preparing for the simulation. Medics attended to Jeter, clambering all over the Throne to check his vitals and make sure his nose tube was secure. They treated him like a piece of equipment rather than a person. Keeler glanced up at the gun nests. All weapons were trained on him.
“You make a run for it, Keeler,” O’Keefe said conspiratorially, “and they’ll cut you down before you can take the first step.”
“What’s going on here, Governor?”
O’Keefe smiled and glanced down at his feet before turning to Keeler. “Something amazing.”
Keeler’s balls tightened. He wasn’t buying what O’Keefe was selling. It might be amazing for O’Keefe, but he doubted it would be for him.
“Kit this man up,” O’Keefe ordered.
A technician, no more than a kid out of university, gathered up an armful of electronics and darted over to Keeler. O’Keefe supervised Keeler’s instruction.
The technician’s name badge identified him as Peter Lyle. Lyle said, “Right, here’s a mobile phone. It’s got a two-way radio function as well as telephone capabilities. Use the two-way for communication. If it doesn’t work, try the number I’ve written on the back.” He turned the phone over and showed Keeler a label stuck to the phone with a seven-digit number written on it with black marker. “I don’t know if the phone will work while you’re in there, but it’s worth a shot.”
“In where?” Keeler demanded. “Am I being released?”
Lyle glanced anxiously at O’Keefe. The governor frowned and shook his head curtly.
Keeler snorted, took the phone and snapped it onto his belt.
“This is a digital camcorder. Try and document what you see. Again, it may not work, but try your best.” Lyle flashed a feeble smile.
Keeler took the tiny Panasonic and pocketed it. “You make it sound like I’m going on holiday–James Bond style.”
The technician winced.
O’Keefe guffawed. “That’s the attitude, Keeler.”
“If I’m James Bonding it, do I get a gun?” Keeler nodded over at the armed screws who’d taken over from Taylor and Barker at the doors to the North Wing. “It looks like I’m going to need one.”
“Do you honestly think we’re going to give you a gun?”
Keeler shrugged and moved on. “Where are Lefford and Allard?”
“That’s what you’re going to tell us. That’s your assignment.”
“Am I a bounty hunter?”
Keeler had already ostracized himself from his fellow inmates and now he was changing sides. He was so screwed if this news got out. “Great,” he responded.
“I can see that you’re raring to go, so let’s not waste any more time. Prepare Jeter,” O’Keefe ordered and personnel snapped into action. “We have a tradition here now before any volunteer goes into action.” He snatched an unlabeled bottle of spirits off a nearby table and held it up for Keeler to see. It seemed to be filled with a green gin. “Centuries ago, before sailors went into battle they were given a tot of rum. For Dutch courage, as you might say.” He uncapped the bottle and filled a champagne glass three-quarter’s full and topped it off with a shot of soda. “Here at the Scrubs, we do things a little differently. Drink up.”
Keeler took the offered glass and sniffed it like a dog with an unfamiliar treat. It didn’t smell like gin. It smelled medicinal, like…like God only knew. “What is it?”
“Absinthe. Drink up.” O’Keefe raised the bottle in a toast.
Keeler glanced at Cady. He’d been silent all this time, an observer at O’Keefe’s heels. Cady looked nervous. No, not nervous. The deputy governor was bricking it. From the look on his face, he knew the shit was hitting the fan and he didn’t know which direction it was coming from. But Cady needn’t worry. In all likelihood, Keeler was standing directly in its way.
“Cheers,” O’Keefe said.
Keeler knocked the absinthe back in one gulp. It was nasty shit, tasting like a mix of drain cleaner and cough syrup. Although the spirit burned on the way to his gut, its effect went straight to his head. His skull throbbed, feeling creased.
“Jesus,” Keeler croaked and cleared his throat.
“The only way to kill brain cells,” O’Keefe remarked and patted Keeler on the back.
“Feels like it.”
“Are we ready?” O’Keefe demanded.
“Yes,” a nervous voice replied from behind a console.
The technicians pounded keyboards at their consoles, activating monitoring equipment scattered throughout the North Wing. Hydraulic actuators hoisted the Throne into the air. Jeter’s nose tube pulsed as a green fluid sped towards him. The fluid resembled the absinthe Keeler had drunk. Its aftertaste still clung to the back of his throat.
The fluid disappeared into Jeter’s nose, exciting him instantly. He grunted, champing at his muzzle. His hands strangled the Throne’s armrests. His eyelids fought against their stitches and his muscles tightened into knots, bulging from his emaciated body. He released a musk overpowering his previous unsanitary stink and Keeler took an involuntary step backwards.
Electricity charged the air. Keeler’s body throbbed. Although he couldn’t detect a sound, his eardrums vibrated, sensing the off-the-audible-scale activity. His subsided absinthe headache returned with a vengeance, the agony forcing his eyes shut for several moments. Although there were enough electronics to create a magnetic field all of their own, he knew the energy wasn’t coming from any of the machinery. Keeler opened his eyes and stared at Jeter, and his heartbeat quickened.
Green fluid pumped faster and faster into Jeter. He uttered a bestial roar into his muzzle and stiffened against his leather restraints, the material creaking under the strain. Blood leaked from the corners of his eyes. Awestruck, Keeler couldn’t tear his gaze away from the spectacle.
“We have to renew his restraints daily,” O’Keefe said, close to Keeler’s shoulder.
“You’ve turned him into an animal,” Keeler accused.
“Don’t bullshit me, Keeler. He was an animal to begin with.”
“He bit out his own tongue, you know. He’s a very troubled man.”
He isn’t the only one, Keeler thought. He feared what could happen to him. If Jeter was anything to go by, there seemed to be no end to what could be inflicted upon him. He wondered what this technological freak show had to do with finding Lefford and Allard.
“Are you sure that isn’t my destiny up there?” Keeler pointed at the writhing Jeter.
O’Keefe shook his head. “Don’t kid yourself. You may have killed a kid, but you’re nothing special–not like Jeter. There’s only one Jeter.”
As if O’Keefe’s words were a cue, Jeter worked his magic. Splitting and cracking masonry shattered the air. A monitoring panel arced and fused, shorting out in a hail of sparks. A technician jumped back from his console when his computer monitor imploded. The North Wing throbbed.
“Are you telling me Jeter is causing all this?” Keeler demanded, having to shout over the din.
O’Keefe never got to answer. A shockwave knocked everyone off their feet. The wave seemed to have emanated from Jeter, but at the same time, it hadn’t. Whatever the cause, the North Wing was immersed in an energy field that made everything pulsate. Keeler felt as though he was at the bottom of an ocean.
This sensation lasted several seconds before the North Wall ruptured. Keeler whirled as a diagonal rent raced across the stonework. Other tears presented themselves, each one appearing faster than the one before. Shards of masonry tumbled free and dust erupted from the cracks, forming into clouds. Keeler clamped his hands over his ears to shut out the shriek of stone grinding against stone.
Standing only feet from the devastation, Keeler was transfixed by the spectacle, unable to comprehend what he was witnessing. Hands yanked him back. Keeler turned to see and found it was Cady who had a hold of him. His face was a mask of disbelief.
The technicians undoubtedly had witnessed this spectacle many times before, but they still bore looks of frightened primitives observing their first eclipse. Jeter stood out of his chair as far as his leather restraints would allow. Keeler noticed that Jeter had broken his wrist under the load. Only O’Keefe seemed to lap up the event with something that Keeler recognized as pleasure.
“Is this the end of the world?” Keeler asked Cady.
Cady shook his head. “Much worse.”
The spider web of tears became too much for the North Wall to bear and the stone lost integrity. The wall liquefied and the resultant lava vaporized before it struck the ground.
“My God,” was all Keeler could say. The guard at the entrance had been right. This was hell.
An untidy twenty-foot high by thirty-foot wide elliptical rent gaped where the North Wall had stood. Melted stone drizzled at the edges of the opening, but quickly solidified. Beyond the hole, open countryside stretched out, disappearing at the horizon where London streets should have existed. It was after midnight, but through the hole, hazy afternoon sunshine fought to break through a yellow-green smog. The impossible visage shimmered as if viewed through a heat haze.
O’Keefe took Keeler by the arm. “Didn’t I tell you there was only one Jeter?”
Keeler stared dumbly at the governor then turned to Jeter. The sociopath’s body was frozen in a permanent contortion. Blood leaked from every orifice. He looked as if he was coming apart at the seams. Keeler didn’t understand how Jeter could cause all this.
“What has he done?” Keeler asked.
“He’s created the Rift. That’s the name we’ve given the phenomenon. We wanted to probe his mind, try to understand the beast that lurks within man, and he produced this.” O’Keefe smiled. “Fascinating, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Keeler replied without a hint of sarcasm. For all the fear he felt, he still couldn’t deny the amazing spectacle.
“Instead of telling us what he did to his victims, he created this,” O’Keefe said. “The Rift is the world where his thoughts thrive.”
Keeler glanced back over at Jeter’s Rift.
“You wanted to know what you’d volunteered for, well here it is.” O’Keefe pointed at the Rift and the world beyond it, “Through there are Lefford and Allard. We need you to find them. Bring them back and document whatever you can while you’re there.”
“What’s through there?” Keeler demanded, but his voice lacked authority.
“We don’t know.” O’Keefe forced a smile. “That’s why we’re sending you.” He patted Keeler on the back. “Go now, before Jeter breaks down.”
With all the secrecy, Keeler always thought he might have signed on for some sort of suicide mission. He had no doubts now. O’Keefe had screwed him. Keeler wanted to tell O’Keefe he was a son of a bitch, but it wasn’t worth the trouble. Anyway, Keeler got the feeling O’Keefe probably knew that about himself already. Besides, O’Keefe wasn’t all to blame. Keeler had had a hand in screwing himself. He turned away, crossed over to the Rift, took a breath and stepped inside.