"Stop this! Please, I beg of you! Let me go!"
A young man's screams echo through the emptiness.
No voice answers him.
Crouching in the darkness, Kaim counts the footsteps. Three men have come in. The disorderly footsteps probably belong to the young man. The other two are perfectly regular.
"Please, I'm begging you. If it's money you want, I'll get you all you could ask for on the outside. I promise. I won't forget to show my thanks to you. Please!"
The only reply of the two men who have brought the young one here is the clunk of an iron lock opening.
"No! No! Please, I'm begging you. I'll do anything you want. Anything!"
A dull thud is the sound of flesh tearing, bone wrenching. Someone collapses on the floor. A strangled scream. The clunk of an iron lock closing.
Kaim knows the young man has been thrown into the shell diagonally opposite his own. When you are locked into one of these windowless shells, your hearing becomes acutely sensitive.
"Don't do this! Let me out of here! Please! Let me out of here!"
From the sound of the voice, Kaim can imagine a young man's face with boyish traces: a small-time hoodlum hardly a step above a teenage gang member. When he was still on the streets, no doubt, he used to swagger down the sidewalk, his cunning but cowardly eyes darting every which way.
The two men who brought him here maintain their silence to the end, their footsteps moving off together. The heavy door opens and closes again.
Left alone in the darkness, the young man howls his entreaties for a time, but when her realizes they will do no good, he shouts himself hoarse, spitting out one curse after another until he begins to sob.
"Quiet down there," an old man calls out from one of the inner shells, "It won't do you any good to make a fuss, Time to give up, sonny."
This is the voice of the oldest man living in the dozen or so shells lined up in the darkness.
He was already here when Kaim was sent to this place. It is always his role to quiet and comfort the obstreperous newcomers.
"If you've got time to bawl like that, keep your eyes closed!"
"Just make sure you keep sucking on your memories of the outside-like a piece of candy!"
Sounds of suppressed laugher come from the surrounding shells.
Kaim joins in with a smile and a sigh
All the shells in the dark are supposedly full, but few of their inhabitants are laughing.
Most of them have lost the strength to laugh.
"Hey, sonny." the old man continues in his role as adviser to the newcomer, "No point making a fuss. Just calm down and accept your fate. Otherwise..." and here a note of intensity enters the old man's voice, "they'll just drag you out of here feet first."
This is exactly what happened yesterday to the former inhabitant of the young man's shell.
He had been screaming on and off for a day. Then came a day of banging his head against the shell wall. Then nothing... until he was dragged out in silence.
"So get a hold of yourself, sonny. Don't let the darkness swallow you up. Close your eyes and imagine nice scenery from the outside, the bigger the better: the ocean, or the sky, or some huge field of grass. Remember! Imagine! that's the only way to survive this place."
This was the advice he always gave to the newcomers.
But the young man screamed tearfully.
"Who the hell do you think you're kidding? Survive this place? And then what? I know what this place is. 'No exit' prison! They throw the lifers in here, give them just enough food to keep them alive, and in the end they kick the bucket anyway—Am I right? There's nothing left to hope for."
His shouts turn to sobs again.
This is the reaction of most of the newcomers.
Nor are they mistaken. This is a prison. Each of the "shells" is a solitary cell with bars, and the sun shines on a prisoner only on the day of his funeral...
"Everybody dies, sonny, that's for sure. You just cant let your mind go before your body does. Hope doesn't have to fade unless you throw it out yourself," the old man goes on softly.
Then he adds with feeling, "This system we live under can't last much longer, either."
The old man is a political prisoner. As leader of the anti-government faction, he long resisted the dictatorship until he finally lost the struggle and was imprisoned.
The young man has no ears for the old man's words, however, he continues thrashing on the floor and crying.
This fellow won't be in his shell much longer than his predecessor. In a few days, or in less than a month at best, he will go to pieces.
The darkness is that powerful. Depriving a prisoner of light is far crueler than taking his life in an instant.
"My my," the old man reflects, "This fellow's not going to do us much good in a prison break."
The old revolutionary laughs, it might be a genuine laugh of a bold front, but in any case almost no one laughs in response.
Tomorrow morning- or rather, since there is no clear-cut "morning" in the darkness- after they go to sleep, wake up and have their next meal, another cold corpse will be dragged out wordlessly from another shell.
"Hey, listen. How many of us are here now?" the old revolutionary asks. "Answer if you can hear me!"
"I can hear you," Kaim says.
His is the only voice.
"Man, this is bad, we were full up a little while ago."
The old man gives a dry chuckle.
Kaim asks, I wonder if something's happened out there."
"Maybe so," answers the old revolutionary.
"If you ask me, this would be about the right time for a coup d'etat or a revolution."
"My 'boys' aren't going to keep quiet much longer..."
"Uh, what was your name again? Kaim? Have you noticed what's happening? How there used to be a lot more guys getting thrown in here until a little while ago, and most of them real nobodies, not worth sentencing to life?"
The young man was one of them- nothing but a small-time crook. It just so happened that the storehouse he broke into belonged to a rich man with ties to a powerful politician. this was the only reason they put him in a shell.
"The shells always used to be full. They would throw a bunch of men in here and they would die, then the new men would come, and they would die..."
The young man was one of those, the terror of being enveloped in darkness was too much for him, and he went to pieces. He was apparently having hallucinations at the end: "I'm coming Mama, I'm coming. Wait for me, please, Mama..." he repeated over and over like a child. "Where are you, Mama? Here? Are you here?" and he gouged his own eyes out with his bare hands.
"I figured things were getting scary out there—the cops losing control—so the government was really starting to crack down- which is why these shells were always full."
This is what brought the young man here. Blood streaming from his eye sockets, he died muttering in snatches, "What did I do? Everybody knows damn well... there are plenty of men way worse than me..."
"But now the place is empty. Do you know what that means, Kaim?"
"Sure. There's so much crime out there now that the government can't suppress it."
"You got it; the whole royal family might be strung up by now for all we know. Its a revolution. It will happen any day now! That means you and I will get out of here. My boys will come and get us. Just hang in there a little while longer."
Kaim nods in silence. The old revolutionary goes on, "Your strong, Kaim. Not many guys could stay as calm as you, thrown into a shell and enveloped in darkness like this."
Not even Kaim can explain it. It is true that he was strangely calm when they put him in the shell. The darkness was something he seemed to recognize as a distant memory. In the distant past, he, too, may have tasted the anguish of the other shell inhabitants so tortured by the fear of being sealed in darkness.
"How are you so tough mentally, Kaim? Does it mean you, too, are a revolutionary?"
"No, not me..."
His crime is hardly worth talking about. He resisted somewhat under questioning when they brought him in as a suspect, and for that he was branded a rebel and thrown into a shell. The old man is probably right, though. The country's dictatorship is almost certainly in its last days.
"It won't be long now. We'll be back in the real world before we know it. I have hope right in here, and it will stay here until I abandon it myself," the old revolutionary mutters as if trying to convince himself.
The prison falls soon afterward. Armed young men come charging into the darkness and open the shells' barred doors.
Embraced by his "boys", the old revolutionary goes out.
"Wait," Kaim cries, trying to hold him back.
But he is too late. Anxious to see the new world following the destruction of the old system, the old revolutionary steps outside and opens his eyes.
It is evening.
Though the sun is nearly down, its light is still strong enough to burn eyes accustomed to total darkness.
The old revolutionary presses his hands to his eyes. And with a groan, crumples to his knees.
Kaim has saved himself by shielding his eyes with his arm.
Not even he knows what caused him to do this. Could distant memories have taught him that the truly frightening thing about punishment by darkness is what happens after the release from prison?
When could I have been imprisoned, and where? More important, how long have I been on this endless journey?
With bleeding eyes, surrounded on the ground by his boys, the old revolutionary searches for Kaim.
"I came all this way, Kaim, only to make one terrible mistake at the bitter end. My eyes are probably useless now."
This is precisely why he asks Kaim for one last favor.
"Tell me Kaim, what is the outside world like? Has the revolution succeeded? Are the people happy? Are they smiling joyfully?"
Kaim opens his eyes slowly, and just barely, beneath the shade of his hand.
As far as he can see, the ground is covered in bodies. The corpses of royal troops and revolutionary troops are heaped on one another, and countless civilians are dead. A mother lies dead with her small child in her arms, the bloody corpse of the child's father next to them, arms outstretched in a vain attempt to shield them.
"Tell me what you see, Kaim."
Kaim fights back a sigh and says, "You must work from now on to build a happy society."
The old revolutionary senses the truth.
"I won't abandon hope, Kaim, no matter what."
As if to say, "I know that," Kaim nods and begins to walk away.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know...someplace."
"Why don't you stay here and build a new world with us? You of all people can do that, I know."
"Thank you, sir, but I'll be moving on just the same."
The old revolutionary does not try anymore to hold Kaim back. Instead, as a parting gift, he repeats for Kaim the words he spoke so often in his shell.
"There will always be hope, wherever you are, until you yourself abandon it. Never forget that!"
Kaim walks on.
His eyes chance to light on the body of a young boy lying at his feet. The boy breathed his last with eyes wide open in fear.
Kaim kneels and gently closes the boy's eyelids.
He knows deep down, in a memory too far away for even him to reach, that while darkness can be a great source of terror, it can also bring deep and lasting peace.