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August 8, 2017 / hbrowne4

Zero-Sum by Stephen Brady

I had given a speech on the street, to a small and miserable crowd. We are all created equal, I said. We all must share this tiny and exhausted world. And we all must care for our neighbours.
They came for me that night. Broke down the door, dragged me from bed, and put a bag over my head. I was hustled into a vehicle of some kind. A lot of pulling and shoving, in the dark. When we reached our destination the bag was removed.
I was in an office, under a merciless light. Men in uniforms milled around. I was processed, photographed, shouted at.
They did not believe my name.
They said I was a saboteur.
My mother, they said, had already been liquidated.
They took me to a cell. There I met two large men, who seemed very glad to see me. I was left with them, and they beat me like an animal.
Some time later, an officer entered the room. He was carrying two chairs.
“That’s enough,” he said. “Wait outside.”
The heavies lit cigarettes as they departed.
The officer helped me into one chair, and sat in the other. For a minute he just looked at me. Then he started:
Who wrote the speech I delivered that day?
Was I aware my country was at war?
How did I contact my foreign paymasters?
Did I know the penalty for treason?
“Let me guess,” I mumbled through newly-swollen lips. “Liquidation.”
“No,” the officer replied. “You are now in the hands of the Special National Police. Your punishment is entirely at our discretion.”
“Get on with it then,” I muttered.
“Sentence will be decided in due course. In the meantime, you might want to consider being more co-operative.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’re going to shoot me anyway.”
“Perhaps. But you can still affect your fate. Who knows? If you demonstrate the proper remorse for your treachery, you might even be released.”
I didn’t reply.
The officer left the room. The heavies returned, and I was beaten again. One held me down, while the other dropped the chair repeatedly on my legs. I was verging on the unconscious, when they finally took me out.
I was taken down a long, bare corridor. At the end was a cell with an open door. They dragged me to it, and flung me inside.
Things went dark for a while. I must have passed out. Some time elapsed… a day, a night, who knows?
When I awoke, I was lying on the floor.
My body was a citadel of pain. I wished they had shot me already. Slowly and with great effort, I turned over.
In the corner was an old man with a shaved head.
“You’re up.”
“I don’t like to sleep the day away,” I said. “So much to do.”
“Of course.”
I sat against the wall and tried to appraise him. In the crumpled prison greys, he was little more than a skeleton. But the eyes were shrewd.
“What do they call you around here?” I asked.
“Seventy seven.”
“To hell with that. What’s your real name?”
“That is my real name.”
Despite it all, I almost laughed. “What was your name before you came to this place?”
“Oh, that. I don’t remember.”
“And what did you do to get put in here?”
“I don’t remember that, either.”
I glanced around the cell. Apart from my new friend, there was a mattress and a bucket. That was all.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him.
“I was a young man when they brought me here. Younger than you, I think.”
“Did you never think of trying to escape?”
He pointed at the door of the cell. It was wide open.
I was flabbergasted.
“The door…” I said stupidly.
“Yes.”
“Of the cell.”
“Yes.”
“It’s open.”
“It is.”
“Why… why didn’t they close it?”
“It is never closed.”
“Never closed?
“No.”
“What, never?”
“It has not been closed in all the time I’ve been here.”
With some effort, I craned my neck around the door.
The corridor outside was deserted.
“Why don’t you just walk out?” I asked.
A little twitch in the seamed skin around the mouth. He may have been trying to smile. “You mean, leave the cell?”
“Yes!”
“Why would I do that?”
I gestured violently. “The door is open!”
“We’ve established that.”
“So why don’t you leave?”
“There is a guard outside.”
“There is?”
“Yes. If you leave the cell, he will shoot you.”
“I don’t see a guard.”
“He is stationed in an alcove, out of sight.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“No.”
“Then how do you know he’s there?”
“They told me.”
“They told you?”
“Yes. The day I was brought here.”
I pondered this for a moment.
“So you’ve been sitting in this cell, since you were younger than me, with the door open.”
“Yes.”
“And you just… sit here.”
He raised his voice slightly, as though speaking to a child.
“There is a guard outside. If I try to leave, he will shoot me.”
“But that’s just what they told you. It could be a lie.”
“If I take the risk, I might be shot.”
“If you don’t take the risk, you’ll sit here until you die.”
He shrugged. “I am a traitor to the National People’s Community. I deserve my fate.”
I looked out at the corridor again.
“I can’t believe you never even tried,” I said.
“At least if I remain here, I am alive.”
I looked back at him. “You sleep on the floor. Crap in a bucket. I imagine they feed you once a day. You’d rather that than… take the chance?”
“A man falls off a cliff.”
I blinked. It felt like I’d been slapped again.
“What?”
“A man falls off a cliff,” he repeated. “He is falling, falling. Rocks and ledges fly past him. The wind roars in his ears. And all the time he is falling he says to himself, ‘so far so good. So far so good. So far so good.'”
I stared at him, nonplussed.
“What I am saying is, if you’re so certain, you try it.”
“Yes, I will.”
I crawled to the door, and looked out.
The corridor was empty. At the far end was a door, with a little window near the top. And through that window, I thought I could see daylight.
“No-one gives freedom to you,” I said. “You have to take the risk.”
“Go ahead,” said Seventy Seven. “I will be interested to see what happens.”
I stayed by the door for a while.
Then I withdrew, and returned to my spot.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “In a day or two. When I’m stronger.”
The old man turned away. “My friend,” he said, “I think you are going to be here for a long time.”

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