“They‘re animals in there. It‘s like the gladiators of Rome against the lions ... you‘ll be torn apart.”
“No man, they‘ve got this whole thing going on. It‘s like a society, but without the messed rules of rich, white guys.”
Sitting next to me were Tom, convicted of murdering two police officers in cold blood, and Rich, who bombed a federal building to protest the political situation. And me? What was my crime? What crime could I have committed that would justify tearing me away from my wife and child, just a baby now, still only crawling? I stared past Tom out the barred window of the bus. To disappear, that was our sentence. To never take another drop from society. Banishment. Beyond the walls of New Australia. No one ever came out. No one even knows what goes on in there. Well, we assume the guards have some idea. But maybe not? Who knows.
Tom leaned his large, bald head into my view. “Enjoy that while you can,” he smirks, “you ain‘t gonna see anything so nice on the inside.” And indeed I do cherish this last glimpse of rolling plains and pine trees. Rich seems withdrawn. He‘s a smaller figure... his strength lies in intellect rather than brawn, which means he‘ll probably die almost immediately.
The bus rounds a corner and all conversation falls off. Even the most hardened tough guy like Tom is lost in fear and wondering. The first thing I see is a simple, metal sign.
“Federal Inmate Permanent Containment Facility”
And under it in bright red letting:
“NO TREPASSING - violators may be shot”
Then I see the fence. Solid latticed steel rising twenty feet, topped with bands of razor wire.
The bus stops outside the fence. I hear a noise. Probably a gate opening. My throat constricts, I feel faint. I‘m having trouble breathing. My palms are sweaty, my hands shaking.
The bus moves again. We pass through an open gate into the facility. The facility we will never leave. The facility where life will be ripped from us while those who could save us willfully turn their back.
We drive past various buildings. I‘m focused on the guards. Unlike regular prisons, this one is owned by the federal government, and operated by the military. The guards wear camo and carry automatic rifles.
“My god,” a low voice exclaims from the front of the bus. We all lean and paw at each other to try to see this new monstrousity.
There it is. The stuff of legends. The horror that children fear at night. The Wall.
When the prison was built, the news said the Wall has six feet thick of steel reinforced concrete, rising one hundred feet high. On the top is a walkway from which guards patrol. Twenty feet below the ground here is solid granite bedrock. The wall descends and is anchored into the bedrock. “The only way anyone could ever get through the Wall,” a spokesperson for the builder had said, “is very specialized, loud equipment, or high explosives.”
We pass rows of Jeeps with machine guns mounted on them, and behind them, a landing pad where an assault helicopter stands ready. “Just in case we were confused about who holds the power here,” Rich breaks his silence.
“I hear they sometimes use the prisoners here as live targets in military training runs,” a voice behind us sputters.
The bus pulls into a garage and slows to a stop. Heavy steel doors close the bus in. A sense of entrapment shuffles through the crowd.
The bus door opens and a guard yells for us to file out. We‘re all hand-cuffed together in a line, so the process is slow. Eventually, though, we assemble; a line of about thirty men convicted at the federal level of the worst possible crimes.
“Step forward, place your finger on the scanner,” a guard intones. We are surrounded by men with M-16s. I can see a glint in several eyes in the line. If somehow even one of us could break free, and grab a gun...
But it doesn‘t happen. We are like sheep to the slaughter. I step up to the pad and place my finger on it. The system compares my DNA to the DNA on file to ensure that a switch hasn‘t occured. “Jacob Roberson,” the screen displays, “Sentenced to permanent confinement at the Federal Inmate Permanent Containment Facility.”
I am led forward, into a bright hallway. The floor, left wall and ceiling glow with diffuse white light. The right wall is entirely a mirror. Surely a one-way mirror, with officials watching us from dimly lit rooms on the other side. At the end of the hallway is a metal door.
Once the last man is inside, the door we came through is closed, and we are sealed within the hallway. There are no guards here. Murmers begins, plans are hatched. Then with a hiss a cloud of gas descends from the ceiling.
I vaguely remember a guard removing our handcuffs and taking the chain away. The inner door opened, and we stumbled into a short hallway of concrete. That must have been inside the Wall. Beyond that, a vault-like door swung open and... freedom.
Or so it seemed, until we realized as the vault door swung shut, that we were in fact inside the Wall. The drugs began to wear off. High above us, guards with automatic rifles watched us. Ahead, a grove of trees. And the Wall extending to either side. We saw no one else.
For a man who has been locked into small spaces, taken from place to place in chains, told when to sit, when to stand, when to shit, when to eat, for years and years... Such a man looses the ability to think and act independently. We stood there, like deer in the headlights. What now?
One man stepped forward. Then took another step. Then, as if he were a fugitive escaping justice, darted toward the trees. The crowd began to break up. I saw Tom pick up a rock and hide it in his hands. Rich backed away from us, toward the Wall.
A voice from the top boomed down: “Stay clear of the Wall or we will open fire!”
Rich panicked. He ran back to the vault door. Two shots rang out. He fell, halfway there.
I suppose I expected that someone, a guard, would come and get him. But nothing happened. His body lay there, blood spreading on the dusty ground. It was then that the true terror of containment hit me: Here we would receive no water, no food, no medical care. Nothing. Only what we could find and take for ourselves in this 640 acre parcel of land surrounded by the Wall. And when we could no longer fare for ourselves, our bodies would be left out to die. No one would save us here.
Eventually I followed the others into the shade of the trees. It was there we found ourselves surrounded by the natives -- those prisoners here before us. They wore torn up versions of the jumpsuit, usually smeared with berries to dye them a dark color. They held spears and pointed them at us. One native man stepped forward. “Welcome to the tribe,” he snarled, “Let me say this. The tribe does not tolerate loners. The tribe does not tolerate dissent. If you‘re stuck up, or if you‘re a fuck up, start running now.”
No one moved.
He then introduced himself as Hamir. “The tribe doesn‘t care what you did or why you‘re here. The tribe cares what you can and will do. If you do not support the tribe, you‘re dead. There used to be two tribes, because there were two springs. One of the springs dried up. Now there is one tribe.” The tone of his voice suggests the other tribe wasn‘t peacefully assimilated. “Welcome to hell, girls,” he concludes.
The guards rip off our bright jumpsuits and give us crushed berries. We scrub the dark colors into the suits, then put them back on. The juice drips down my arm.
Several of the strongest have already been killed. The tribe is ruthless. I have survived only because I know engineering -- I have already built several huts with better roofs that no longer leak, and a system to channel water from the spring to various nearby places. Even so, I feel my position is tenuous. The tribe is bizarre... it seems to have no central leader. Anytime someone seems too strong, independent, or begins to act like a leader, they are killed. I am careful not to act unless others suggest it. It is as if this group of strong men have emasculated each other. No one dares to act without the approval of the others; the approval of the Tribe.
Before my time, someone had the bright idea of tunneling out under the Wall. His tunnel is still there, traveling from a grove of trees near the rear of the Wall (opposite the entrance) under the dusty lands where the guards watch up to the wall itself. He tried to chisel into the bedrock, and failed. He chiseled into the Wall, painstakingly, over a number of years, about six inches. It was there he hit the first grid of re-inforcing steel. People have tried since, but no one has been able to get through the steel.
A new group has arrived. We watch them from the trees. They are confused, scared, like tagged animals in their bright orange suits. Several are shot running for the Wall. I carry a spear while we lay down the rules to our new members. The same rules I heard.
I later learn one of our new members, James, was a chemist. A chemist who studied explosives.
“We have to attract the guards,” he says, “Then shoot them down with bows and arrows, so we can get some guns. Once we have the guns, we‘ll set off an explosion by the Wall.”
“Then we‘ll be free,” Tom grunts. The tribe is too entranced with the chemist‘s ideas to think about them too much.
“I doubt we‘ll be able to totally knock the Wall down. But we can crumble part of it. Enough to climb up and over. With the guns, we can hold off the guards.”
“Then we‘re free,” another voice says in awe.
“Not quite,” I pip up. “There is still the twenty foot tall fence. How can we get past that?”
No one seems to know. But no matter. Excitement is in the air. The chemist works steadily, and I help him construct the various distilling tools he needs to refine the glycerin and nitric acid.
Clay jar after clay jar are filled with nitroglycerin.
“How can we get this by the Wall? We‘ll be shot!” one of the newer members proclaims.
A glint lights up in my eye. “Follow me.” I show them the old, sagging, passage leading underground out to the Wall, with its six inches carved in. The chemist loves it.
“This will be perfect. We‘ll pack this with nitroglycerin and blast it.”
D-Day. The latest band of members included a scrawny, whiny political prisoner. We‘ve been keeping him tied up for this very occasion. We‘re ready. Camo, face pant, bows and arrows with poison on the tips. We loose Scrawny (that‘s what we call him) and let him run screaming toward the Wall. Guards rush over. They fire. We shoot.
Did you think we just sat around while the chemist cooked for two years?
No, we practiced. Target practice. We‘re all ace shots now.
Four guards down. Two fall inside the Wall. Scrawny‘s down too. No big loss.
In the interlude before more guards arrive, a few of us rush out and grab the guns. Two guns. M-16 automatic rifles. We‘re hiding in the trees again. Guards come running along the wall. Ten, maybe twenty. We hear the helicopter starting up. “It‘s time,” someone says.
The chemist lights a fuse. We retreat, as guards fire blind shots into the trees.
Tom carries one gun. I have the other.
The guards are gathered along the Wall where their comrades fell. One hundred five feet directly below them, a fuse burns toward a massive collection of clay jars filled with nitroglycerin.
The helicopter flies overhead, looking for targets.
The ground erupts. From our vantage point some distance back, we see dirt fly high into the sky, and we are thrown to the ground by shaking. The Wall seems to lift, rise a little, and massive cracks appear as if in slow motion. Over the noise, screaming. Dust. Chunks of concrete. We see only a cloud. We run for it.
The helicopter‘s machine gun fires. People fall like flies. The chemist, running next to me, is perforated, convulsing and shaking as he falls to the ground. No matter. He is trampled. Every man for himself now. The Wall has crumbled to a vast pile of broken stone. Guards lay dead and dazed. Their guns are snatched up by fleeing tribesmen. The cloud obscures us, but the helicopter keeps firing. More fall.
I top the peak of the rubble, and see it: not far, within running distance... the outer fence. Beyond that, forest. Dense, dark forest.
I run, we all run. Tom is next to me, firing at the helicopter as he goes.
At the fence we are like insects, climbing on top of one another without order or direction. Chaos, I see bodies tumble over the other side, cut and scratched. Someone covers the razor wire with their clothes. Then another. Then another. Naked bodies, running into the woods. Shots. One falls, draining onto the grass.
Now I am over too, as is Tom. How? I don‘t know. Sometimes things just happen. The body does what it needs to do. The mind doesn‘t know.
The ground around me erupts, explodes. I hear a scream. The forest engulfs me. I rush in and collapse. Tom falls next to me. He is red. Red, as in blood. Was he hurt on the razor wire?
He stares at me, breathing heavily. People run by. Shots continue. I hear dogs.
“It was an honor to meet you, Jacob,” the tough man is now the weak man. He knows his own weakness. He does not hide it.
“Give ‘em hell,” I reply.
I run. As the dogs approach the woods, the helicopter stops firing. It can‘t see us anyways. Then Tom fires. Barks are replaced with yelps. People scream. Disorganized. I smile.
The tribe re-assembles after some time. How far? Half a mile? A mile? We must keep moving. Everyone knows it.
“What next?” someone voices. No one expected this to work. Should we stay together or split up?
Our numbers are already weakened to about a dozen. A dozen, from a hundred strong men. Yet our strength is all gone, replaced by that same fear we all had on our first day.
What now? What next?
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