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It was the safest Thirty-Nine had felt since he’d been sent down here. Surrounded by fellow members of Gang, the SUIC didn’t seem so threatening.
Still frightening, terrifying, in fact, but marginally less so. This place, the Secure Underground Incarceration Complex, or SUIC (pronounced Soo-Ick by those unfortunate enough to call it home), would never be paradise. It would always be hell, and it would always be an unjust punishment, in Thirty-Nine’s mind, for someone whose crime had been theft and nothing worse.
Condemned to spend the rest of his life down here, with hundreds of men deemed by society above to be subhuman. He understood why the World Alliance was so strict, of course. Since the Cascade Days and the War to End all Wars had wiped out most of the people on the planet, society had been in chaos. One way of keeping people in line was capital punishment, but that hadn’t worked in the long-term. By the year 2115, the murder rate was so high that you had to be brave to step outside your door.
So yeah, dig complexes two miles under the earth. But send rapists and murderers down to suffer the heat and the barbaric conditions, not men like him who’d skimmed a little cash off the top of the World Alliance’s pile.
They’d made sure they were as far back in the crowd of around eighty men as they could get. He couldn’t see those at the front, but he knew the men there would be shaking, both with nerves and anticipation. The branding ceremonies were about the closest thing to entertainment anyone ever got down here, and it didn’t matter how twisted they were, or how many people they’d tortured and/or murdered, every man here was afraid of Leader. In awe of Leader.
Air whooshed from an air hole directly above his head. It came all the way from the other side of the SUIC, from above ground, their only connection to the world they were once part of.
The air blew hot after traveling through two miles of earth to get here. It bothered him, but there was nothing he could do. It was too late to move; the ceremony was about to start. Guards blocked the tunnel that led from the clearing in which they stood, and he knew they must also be blocking the entrance to the Cotton Cave. They always did when Leader came out of his compound, for fear of Regulars trying to assassinate him.
Thirty-Nine didn’t think that would ever happen, they made sure to keep the Regulars as terrified of Gang as was humanly possible, but it was imperative that Leader was kept safe when he came out from behind his white walls to induct new members into Gang.
“Man, this damn air hole is melting my hair,” he said, and the man he’d been partnered with for almost five years, Forty, grinned back at him in the torch-glow of the burning flames set around the perimeter of the clearing. The gap where his two front teeth had been made Thirty-Nine feel nauseous.
“You don’t have nothing much left to melt, asshole.”
Thirty-Nine was about to open his mouth to retort with something equally as condescending, when a hush fell over the gathered men. Two burly guards brought two Regulars from the door that led into Leader’s compound, and Thirty-Nine stood on the very tips of his toes, trying to get a look at them.
He saw one, a burly guy who he thought must be a recent arrival to the SUIC. The only other men as muscular as this guy were the guards, and that was only because they got extra rice rations from Leader. He couldn’t see the other, but he knew they both wore the same look. A look of unbridled terror at what was about to happen. He touched the first two fingers of his left hand to his forehead, and felt reassured by the presence of the scar that told him he belonged. That told him he was safe.
The two men at the front of the clearing were the only two present who didn’t have a scar between their eyes. In ten minutes or so, they’d be like everyone else, adorned with the shape of Leader’s golden cross, and set for a long life down here in the SUIC.
All eyes focused on the door through which the two newest Gang recruits had been led, as a small man exited it to join the gathered masses. As soon as he appeared, their eyes dropped to the ground. To look at Leader without permission was to break one of his rules, and while every man risked a glance, they knew they were also risking their life by breaking any of the nine rules that every new member promised to obey.
“Kneel,” Leader commanded, and all before him dropped to their knees. Thirty-Nine dropped quicker than most, determined not to fall foul of Leader’s command. He’d seen what happened to men who did.
For a minute or so, there was silence, the only sound the air whooshing in through the air hole above. With so many men gathered, the air would quickly go stale. Thirty-Nine took one breath for every two he would normally take, trying to avoid the headache he always got after one of these ceremonies.
“Today is a momentous day,” Leader said. “Today I am going to tell you my tenth rule.”
Murmurs, whispers. As far as most of the men gathered knew, Leader didn’t introduce new rules. The nine rules they knew so well had been in place for twenty years or more.
Thirty-Nine cautiously looked over the heads of those in front of him, his eyes settling on Leader. He wasn’t a tall or well-built man, but his aura spoke for itself. It was an aura of power, of unflinching brutality. He silenced those before him by holding up one of his hands.
“What’s more, I will instruct you on a new plan. A plan that means you have new roles, that will lead to great glory for Gang. But first, we welcome two more to our brotherhood.”
The unmarked men got to their feet, well drilled by the guards on the formalities of the ceremony. Thirty-Nine looked at them, and he saw they were both big, muscular men. Just the kind of men Leader needed to ensure the one hundred or so Regulars in the Cotton Cave didn’t step out of line.
Leader bowed his head and removed a gold chain from around his neck. On it was the cross that formed the most important part of the ceremony. A guard brought a burning torch, and Leader held the chain above it, the cross glimmering among the flames. Thirty-Nine wondered at his seeming indifference to the flames licking at his fingers.
“Now, lie on your backs,” Leader said. The two men did as commanded. “You have chosen to become part of a brotherhood that will protect you as it protects me.” He paused, waiting for the response.
“All power to Leader,” the two said in unison.
Thirty-Nine kept his eyes on the cross.
“Before you can become part of this brotherhood, you must agree to submit to my rules. Are you ready to submit to my rules?”
“We are,” the men parroted, their eyes closed.
“The first rule is this: Every instruction from Leader must be obeyed. Do you agree?”
“You will not look me in the eye unless I tell you to.”
“We will not.”
“You will never raise a hand to Leader.”
“We will not.”
“You will not talk with negativity about Leader.”
“We will not.”
“You will never abandon your partner.”
“We will not.”
“You will not bring violence or death on your Gang brothers, unless instructed to by me.”
“We will not.”
“You will not eat the flesh of humans.”
“We will not.”
“You will not fornicate with another man.”
“We will not.”
“If a time comes when you must fight, you will fight to the death to protect Leader and your brothers.”
Leader pulled the gold cross out of the flame and turned to the gathered men. “From today on, this man will be known as Eighty-Three.”
Leader lowered the cross to the skin between Eighty-Three’s eyes and placed a rock onto it.
Thirty-Nine heard skin sizzle on contact, but Eighty-Three didn’t flinch, didn’t make a sound. Leader pressed on the rock for ten seconds, then removed it, lifted the cross, and performed the same ritual on the second man, now known as Eighty-Four. Like his partner, he did not flinch or make a sound.
Leader stepped back. “You are now men of a powerful brotherhood.”
“All power to Leader,” the whole gathering proclaimed.
“Every man here agreed to obey my rules,” Leader said, his eyes roaming the dirty faces of the men before him. “And now you will obey one more. You will not interfere with Regulars.”
A gasp rippled through Gang. No one questioned Leader, but Thirty-Nine knew they all wondered. The price of initiation into Gang had always been the life of a Regular. It was how Leader ensured control of the SUIC, kept the numbers of Regulars down, dominated them. If no more Regulars were killed, their numbers would grow as new men were condemned to the SUIC. Eventually, Gang would be a minority down here.
“From this day forward, Regulars will receive half the rice rations lowered by the World Alliance, and their blood will not be seen on your hands.”
Thirty-Nine breathed deeply, inhaling the sweat of more than eighty filthy men. Leader would not make such a rule without good reason. To question the new rule was to break the first rule. He would tell them how men would prove worthy of admittance to Gang without killing Regulars; he would prove himself worthy of the name of Leader.
“These two men are the last. I will never allow another into Gang.”
Thirty-Nine looked across at Forty, and saw his own shock reflected on his narrow face.
“Today begins your greatest mission since you were condemned to the SUIC, probably of your lives. Today begins your journey towards escape.”
Forty nudged Thirty-Nine and grinned. Leader pointed a finger at him.
“You, come to the front, with your partner.”
Oh shit, Thirty-Nine thought. Trust Forty, the moment Leader talked about them getting out of this place, to get them both killed.
As they made their way through the crowd, Thirty-Nine stared at the last two men to be initiated into Gang, at how fresh, how pink their scars were. Leader handed the cross to one of his guards, who lowered it into a bottle filled with water before handing it back to him. Leader looped the chain over his head and settled it on his bare, gray-haired chest.
“Look at me,” Leader commanded. “Do not be afraid. I have chosen you to perform a very important role. Before, you were Patrollers, ensuring the Regulars inside the Cotton Cave did not cause trouble. Now, you will be Buriers. You will be the men to ensure the dignity of the fallen is kept.”
Neither of them asked what a Burier was. Instead, they returned the expected mantra. “All power to Leader.”
“You four,” he pointed at the guards nearest him, the ones blocking the entrance to the Cotton Cave. “You will remain as guards. Two on this entrance to my compound, two on the entrance inside the Cotton Cave.”
“All power to Leader,” the four guards replied in unison.
“The rest of you will be Diggers. Above our head is two miles of earth and rock. You will go to all corners of this place, and you will dig up. Many of you will not survive the bombs placed by the World Alliance to prevent our escape.”
Thirty-Nine understood now what a Burier was. It wouldn’t be pretty work, but it was Leader’s command, and they would obey it until he instructed otherwise.
“You are probably wondering why I have decided that now is the time to dig up. There is a sickness inside the SUIC. It is currently confined to Regulars inside the Cotton Cave. At any time, it could spread. The sickness appears to be fatal. Now is the time to figure our way out of this place. Do you agree?”
A chorus of agreement echoed through the clearing. Thirty-Nine thought he saw a nervous glance exchanged between the guards.
“To our new brothers, and to all of you, I say this: If you learn of a member of this brotherhood breaking any of the rules I have set out before you, you will report it to my guards immediately. If you do not, it will be considered that you yourself broke the rule, and you will be dealt with accordingly. Do you understand?”
“We do,” the men before him chorused.
Leader nodded, then turned and walked away from them, into his compound and out of sight.
Conversation began immediately, as the men tried to make sense of the new rule, of the new order, before a booming voice commanded silence. It was the biggest of Leader’s four remaining guards, and all eyes turned to him.
“Leader has mapped the SUIC and divided it into sections. Before you leave here, I will tell you which section you are assigned to, and I will give you water. You will then proceed directly to that section, and you will return to report on your progress whenever you reach a position twenty feet higher than you last reported.”
“What about when we run out of water?” one man asked. The guard ignored him.
“As Leader said, many of you will die. You will not be left where you fall. These men,” the guard indicated Thirty-Nine and Forty, “will take your bodies and give you a proper, decent burial in the SUIC Cemetery.”
Forty looked proud to have such an honour bestowed upon him. Thirty-Nine hated the fact that eighty and more sets of eyes were now staring at them, wondering why they were so special, wondering why they had been spared the inevitability of blowing themselves up.
None of them voiced the question, because to do so would mean they had broken a rule, and men who broke Leader’s rules were flayed and thrown into the deep, dark pool inside the Water Chamber. A fate none of the gathered men wanted.
The guards handed Thirty-Nine and Forty a bottle of water each, then told them to make their way to the farthest reaches of the SUIC, and to patrol it from back to front, ready for the Diggers who made the sacrifice, ready to do their duty.
They left immediately, hearing as they went the guards delivering instructions to the men who would dig and, in many cases, sacrifice their lives, for Leader.