Long Distance

“Kelly,” pleaded Perrault over the intercom, “I need eight. Eight more today.” Piezoelectric static contaminated his request. I did not respond. Undeterred by silence, he continued, “Sequence of eight, Kelly. I need it. Can't you? Oh Kelly. Just eight. Please... It’s important, Kelly, that I get this. I can’t do it myself.” His voice shook.

My dreams were inflamed with visions of escape, and my vision was clouded by dreams. Not much else to do other than eat, shit, and dream. There was no time on my lonely satellite but the clock read 08:10. A drone had left breakfast in my cell through a slit under the impregnable metal door forty minutes ago. I was in bed, extinguished.

I surrendered. “Enough. Please. Give me a second,” I said, and he did. I began to think of numbers, and reported each one as it came to mind, pausing, allowing him time to write it down. Just eight today. Some days it is half that in digits. It was important to Perrault that these numbers came from me, without forethought. I don’t know what he did with them, and he wouldn’t give me a coherent answer, but only by appeasing him was I rewarded with his absence. His routine became mine. He was hundreds of trillions of miles away, yet we talked as if from neighboring cells, of which I knew I had none.

“Thank you,” said Perrault. Without anxiety his diction hardened into an awkward staccato. “It’s almost done. More tomorrow.” The piezo went silent. I sat over the side of my cot and ate bready slabs.

While cruel, our captors were not inhumane. Solitary confinement was a universal taboo even during wartime, so they permitted us a channel of dialogue via comms-iq audio forum, enabling immediate conversation across a complex parsecs wide. A stipulation of my sentence. A creative punishment. Most inmates were insane and stupid. Perrault was. I was.

Though humankind still struggles with instant travel, we have easily conquered all restrictions to communication. The comms-iq is prepared with a model of the present in that moment, and it continues to reproduce the present as it occurs. Each cell, unfathomably distant to one another, is equipped with one of these machines, running independently, yet in tandem, as they are constrained by the same rules and consequences of nature as we are. By design, they cannot diverge. Perfect synchronicity. So I am able to hear Perrault (and Harris and Kaksiri and Doleček and any other captive who elects for some reason to transmit to me) as he is in the present, and I may respond to him, from any two points in the cosmos.

After my recitation the next morning, Kaksiri rang. I had nearly finished my weekly mug of burned coffee. He would usually call to tell a story or ask for one of mine, though I didn’t have many worth telling, nor did he. It was customary to talk without greeting. None of us had gone anywhere, so nobody needed welcome.

“Kelly, did I ever tell you about my first time offshore? We hadn’t back then any giant cities with giant ports, like yours. We were mostly farmland, and little land. We had one big ship and a small landing, for traders to come and go.” Kaksiri spoke slow and soft. He had done most of his aging in custody. “I wouldn’t know how it’s changed since. I’d been a little one at the time. Just that one big ship we had, but it was our pride. And me and my kin won a raffle. They came and took us up onto the thing. It was us and a hundred dozen other families walking up the gangway, silly as we looked, clad in homespun burlap and wet leather boots, eaten by this huge iron animal. We were just to go to a moon and back, the closest one.

“Well the short of it is that I couldn’t make any sense of what I was looking at through that big window. Back home we had no sky but a great gray soup of hot clouds and ash. We knew about the worlds above it, but I don’t think anyone really guessed they were so far away. And this moon was a big ugly old red thing I didn’t care to look at. My folks marveled—I was bored. Me and a few classmates plus a lass my senior broke off to look around and make trouble, you know, but the crew were these hard looking creatures, stiff in garment and expression, and scary. We snuck down one hallway and came across an open door to a room with a single crewman, his back turned to us. He was talking to one of these ‘phones, you know, to someone real far away. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I did hear what the thing said back to him: one, seven, zero, zero, nine, three, six, three.”

At this my attention was recaptured. “What was that? What did it say?”

“Something like that, anyway. And—”

“It was those digits?”

“Oh, I mean, it was some number, I can’t remember. Two, nine, something or other…”

Despite my pleas, Kaksiri would not revisit the crewman at the comms-iq, and didn’t seem to share my recognition of the sequence of numbers he had just recalled to me. He continued instead with his story, wading through memory, more for his own sake than mine. He shared a kiss with the girl. His friend played a nasty prank on them both. And so on. Kaksiri ran out of story to tell and politely departed, like usual.

I continued my day with a typical simmering boredom and another serving of tasteless food. I made no calls but received one more. It was an unfamiliar voice, speaking a language I didn’t, though she seemed unaware or unphased by my lack of comprehension, chatting as though we were siblings. I did not learn her name nor anything else about her.

A week may have passed anywhere the burning of time could produce smoke, but my conditions never changed. There was no distinction here between one week and fifty. So the days went. Perrault called again one morning, frantic.

“Kelly, I’ve got it—you had it. It’s done. I’d have nothing without you, Kelly. There is an irregularity—I had a hunch—and I have proof now. I haven’t seen anything—no, listen. I’ve sent the code to—to every cell in the complex.” Papers rustled. “It could be any time—”

My cell exhaled, and the door was torn from its frame. Ropes of vapor pulled me, thrashing, to the new opening. I groped at leaky air. A hook of twisted metal caught me right above the thigh as I tumbled blindly into a white cloud of cold thick fog, introducing red. I felt the fluid part as my body careered through it. For minutes the only indication I had been moving at all was a beating of heavy droplets that shredded my jailwear and darkened my pale skin with bruises. As the fog thinned out, I found myself sailing through a tube of smooth metal plates, starlit enough by dorsal windows that I saw my face (as a man, for the first time) grossly stretched across its surface, pulled into an impossible caricature. My ghost wailed back at me. I was eaten by the machine like my old friend.

Then it spat me out. I burst from a plate of wet fog and plunged deep into filthy saltwater. The murk reduced my vision, and as I struggled to ascend, the sunlight only impaired me more. My eyes began to adjust once I surfaced. In the water I saw giant hunks of crumpled shrapnel floating alongside smooth, reflective sheets of metal plating. In the air hung gates of mist. From these gates emerged men and women whose faces I might soon put to their names.