“Guilty.” A word heard all too often in courts since the world fell apart. It was my turn to hear that word over five years ago, along with my sentencing. Life in the New East Prison, an abandoned mine in the Appalachian Mountains turned into a prison was unlike any prison on Earth. No guards, no guns, and no big door. Prisoners walk right into the open tunnel and don’t go back out. Thousands of tons of TNT, enough to collapse the mountain, are all that keep us in. Supplies are sent in via mine cart and anything needing taken out is sent back every morning. The prisoners are left to their own devices after that, and we manage, I guess. Until she got here, that is.
In a fascist world cruelty is delved out equally, so people were only remotely surprised to see a pretty twenty-something dark skinned girl walk into the main cavern. She’s not the first woman I’ve seen come in to this hell-hole, but women tend to not last very long alone. I watched her walk in from a ledge high up in the cavern, about level with the huge geo-lamps that provide our light. About thirty other men were in the huge chamber, and only a handful of them paid her any attention. From my vantage point though, I could tell she wouldn’t last long here. She got a few steps into the cave and froze; too timid, and women needed to be tough to survive.
The best example had just climbed up to my ledge. Angela was well built for her size, and she showed it off. Tight dirty clothes clung to her muscly body. She kept her head shaved to hide the fact she was ever a prissy spoiled rich girl. How she got here in the first place, I don’t know and frankly don’t care. How she’s still here is more important. She was raped her first night here, and the next morning she found a sharp rock and stabbed her attacker in the back with it. She carries that rock everywhere she goes; I see the bulge just under her waist band.
Taking a breath, she says, “See the newbie, Keeper? What do you think?”
“Don’t call me that,” I respond blankly. A title like that meant nothing in here and I didn’t want to hear it. The Keepers kept fighting a lost war for the souls of humanity as the protectors of religions and ideas humanity had long abandoned. Crazy terrorists and criminals were common adjectives of this guild I had once been a part of.
“Sorry”, she apologized teasingly. “So what do you think, Sol?”
I shifted on my perch before saying, “I’ll give her a week. Cruel way to kill a girl, for sure.”
Angela climbed back down and I watched her go up to the new girl and talk to her. Angela will protect her as best she can, but even her reputation won’t keep the wolves at bay from fresh meat.
The next morning our food supply for the day comes in in its usual fashion. Inmates come out of the six tunnels off the main room and converged on the mine cart of food. When you treat people like animals they start acting like them. I’m not the biggest guy in this hole, so I wait for the alpha males to get their share and take of the leftovers. The rations are always in these unmarked boxes, and it’s always just a bowl of slop that supposedly has all the protein and nutrients the body needs. Canteens of water are also provided. I grab a box and two canteens and head for my perch. After I settle in, I see Angela and her new friend peep out of their hiding spot and go for some food. Angela heads straight for the cart and the other girl keeps looking over her shoulder at the leering men around the space. The girls grab their rations and return into the tunnel they appeared from.
The cart leaves, signaling it’s about noon. I decide to come down and walk around for a while. I get to about the middle of the big cavern when one of the prisoners calls out, “So the birdie decided to come out of the tree?”
I could’ve cared less and I kept walking toward the tunnel when I heard the same guy walk behind me and put a strong grimy hand on my shoulder. “You ever going to preach at us, Keeper?” he asked.
I spun around to face the man. He was bigger than me, more so in density than height, disgusting, smelly and covered in dirt. I looked him right in the eye and asked, “How long have you been here?”
Confused, he replied, “A year or so.”
I think for a minute. “I guess it’s been a while since I preached anyone.” I lash out with my right arm and smash his nose faster than he could see. He stumbles back and trips over his feet and is on his back. “That good enough or did you need me to clarify something?” I ask.
He gets back on his feet and roars in anger, charging with his arms out. I smile and duck under his arms. He turns as quickly as he can but I roundhouse him in the stomach. He doubles over and I roundhouse him again across the face. His feet leave the ground and he slides away unconscious.
I look around to those who had watched the whole thing. Most looked away when I turned to them, but some seemed stunned at how quickly I put that guy down. “Anyone else need some God right now?!” I call out. “Cause you’re all already in Hell!” Then I notice from one of the tunnels the new girl, and she’s looking at me with something else in her eyes. Anticipation? Excitement? Hope?
I go back to my perch and no one disturbs me for the rest of the day. I set myself to sleep on my ledge that night. The lights never completely go off, but they’re dimmed to signal when it gets dark outside. Telling the passage of time is impossible in here, but some time later in the night I hear someone climbing up to my ledge. It takes them a while to get up to me, since they’re obviously trying to be quiet.
They reach my ledge and crawl their way over to me, thinking I’m still asleep. As soon as they’re in my range, I lock my arms legs around the person’s body and spin over in a matter of seconds.
In the dim light I see the newest inmate. It seems I’ve startled her, if only as much as her presence startled me. “What do you want?” I ask quietly.
“I’m looking for a Keeper,” she replied calmly. Her accent is strange to me, fluid and smoother than anything I’d ever heard.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“My name is Rose,” she answered. “I came from United Europe to find the Keepers of America. I’d heard rumors that one might be here, and you’ve answered my prayers.”
“You got yourself across the ocean and in here just to see me?” I ask rhetorically. “That was a dumb thing to do. If you wanted to get yourself killed, a gun would’ve been much easier.” I got off of her and propped myself against the cave wall. “I can’t help you, not even to get out of this place.”
“Look,” she said as she sat up. “I came to this country to find the Keepers here, and I—”
“And you came in vain!” I interjected. “There aren’t any Keepers anymore.” I settle more into my spot. “I was in Montreal with the Keepers there since I was a boy. One day we were found, rounded up and executed. I managed to escape, and made my way south to Boston, where we knew other Keepers existed. When I got to Boston, though, Keepers were already being rounded up and the survivors scattered. I kept heading south, reaching Mexico, where I knew we had a real stronghold. But when I got there, it was abandoned. I have no idea what happened to them, but the place was destroyed.” I turn to look at Rose. “We lost here, kid. It’s over for us.”
“That’s not true,” Rose said. “We have hundreds of Keeper refugees in Paris, from Montreal to Azteca. They’ve been able to reach their comrades that survived here, and from them we received the rumor that you were here. We need every Keeper we can get, Sol; we need you back.”
“I’m not a Keeper anymore,” I tell her.
“You’re never not a Keeper, Solomon,” she replies. “You never forget what you know.” She shifts closer to me on the edge. “Why do you think they haven’t killed you?”
I shrug. “Probably not worth the bullet it would take to do it.”
“Because they want you to lose hope,” she says. “This new world has been trying for over a century to snuff out the Keepers, but we keep getting stronger. If only you could see the successes we’re having in Europe; why do you think travel has been restricted?”
All of a sudden a shudder went through the entire cave. Dust and small rocks fell from the roof and the lights flickered for a few seconds. “What was that?” I ask as I brace myself against the wall.
Rose seemed more prepared for it. “Reinforcements,” she answered. She notices the confusion on my face and adds, “You thought I’d come here alone?”
“That’s not possible,” I respond. “This prison is impenetrable. Keepers have never successfully broken anyone out of here.”
Rose just shrugged and started climbing back down to the ground. The lights were suddenly thrown on full, and I could see other prisoners venturing from the tunnels to see what’s going on. I can hear what sounds like a group of people coming down the tunnel that leads to the surface, and I climb down to get a better look.
Soon almost forty men and women poured out of the large tunnel into the cavern, wearing dark clothes and carrying an assortment of guns. Rose rushed forward and greeted the front man, an older man whom she vaguely looked like, in a language I vaguely recognize as French.
The others started mingling with the prisoners, explaining who they were and what was going on. A myriad of languages were being spoken; English, Spanish and French, as well as other more guttural languages I didn’t recognize. One word I recognized in most of them kept coming up in all conversations: Keepers.
Rose is suddenly back at my side. “Hope can always be found,” she said. “This break-out was synchronized with three other prisons across America, all imprisoning Keepers like you, and from what I’ve been told all just as successful.” She started heading toward the exit, and right at the entrance to the tunnel, she turned and called back to me. “Keeper Solomon, the world still needs you, if you’ll come back to it.” With that, she turns and walks out of this hole in the ground, with all confidence for the future.