There was no time inside the cell. The walls and doors were thick enough to muffle any sound, the cell deep enough below the surface to keep out any light, and the only change in ambient heat came from Hafn's own body. When he'd first been thrown in, naked and terrified, he hadn't been able to get a feel for the cell before the door slammed shut behind him, stealing away his only light. He'd crawled on his hands and knees across the hard stone floor, one hand running along the wall to try and gauge the layout. It was around five metres deep, half that wide at most. There was a bucket in the corner near the door and a ragged mat against the far wall that seeped the warmth from him a little less than the rest of the floor. He curled on the old mat and cried, for there was nothing else for him to do.
The only interactions he had were feeding and cleaning. Feeding happened most often. The door would swing open and a blinding light was aimed at him. He was ordered to stand at the back of the cell, bare and shivering until his meal was given to him by a servant. It was always the same meal; a soft bread roll stuffed with paste. It was lukewarm and bland, but it was also easy to eat and the meals were spaced far enough apart that he was always hungry when it came. He was also given water from a soft plastic bottle. He never kept the bottle; everything had to be consumed there and then as nothing would be kept or returned later. Then the light would die and the door slam shut, returning him to darkness.
Cleaning was worse. It happened twice during the first week. Both times he was ordered to stand facing the light with his arms out forwards. His wrists were bound and a thick hood pulled over his head before he was marched at an unfairly swift pace out of the cell to places unknown. He heard voices the first time, low voices far away, angry voices up close. He felt sure someone called out to him. They strung him up by his wrists somewhere, the anchor point too high for him to reach so he was dangling with his legs off the ground. The pain was bad, but worse was the shouting and screaming close by, followed by the harsh, guttural howls of pain and the sound of skulls hitting stone. When they took him down he walked through something warm and sticky, and promptly pissed himself. Thankfully, the second time was near silent, with no hint of being anywhere near another soul, save his captors.
The cleaning routine itself was, like everything, done without any care or compassion. He was pulled onto his toes, the hood removed, and a blast of icy water hit him. He writhed and shrieked as he was thoroughly doused and left to shiver while they found a hot air gun to dry him with. After that he was scrubbed with dry powder that burned his skin, the first time being that much worse because of the extra attention needed to remove whatever foulness he'd been dragged through. Once they were satisfied the hood returned and he made the trek back to his cell. On the first outing they shoved him hard back into the cell as soon as the binds came off, causing him to scrape the skin off his knees and palms on the hard stone. The second time, perhaps because they'd decided he wasn't going to struggle, they let him walk back into captivity of his own accord before slamming the door.
On the last day of his first week in the dungeon, the door was opened for one other, unique encounter. Hafn had been curled on his mat, whimpering to himself to a half remembered tune while chewing on his thumbs when the light returned. This time it was not a blinding beam, but a hand-carried luminary ball that gave the tiny room a warm, amber light. Unfortunately, there was nothing warm about the creature that carried it.
"You will stand," rasped Watch-Captain Haal, his artificial eye glowing in the dim light like a malicious spectre.
Hafn obeyed, though not quickly. Cold, alone and scared to the edge of madness, he wasn't entirely sure if what he saw was real or a hallucination. He'd certainly had those, especially in the early days. He considered screaming, as screaming himself hoarse had scared the ghosts away before, but if it was really a Watchman then screaming was a good way to have his jaw nailed shut. He used the wall to walk himself upright, then took a single step forward only to be met with a barked chastisement.
"Convicts do not approach without instruction!" Haal snapped, and in sheer terror Hafn flung himself back against the cold stone of the wall, where he stayed as if impaled.
The demon's left hand moved the light source closer to Hafn, who winced away from it. The other raised a metal disc into view and let it fall. It jerked to a halt in mid-air, dancing and spinning at the end of a cord. "What is this?" Haal asked in his unsettling cadence.
Hafn fixed his eyes on the disc. Memories came slowly and with great reluctance. They were memories of outside the Pit, and they hurt to recall. "My... pendant. I wore it for Skal. To be brave."
"Is it a religious symbol? A gang affiliation? A symbol of friendship?" Haal pressed, his tone giving nothing away as to his motives.
Remembering why he wore it made Hafn break down in tears. He hugged himself tightly and bent over, whining and gulping out his shame and anger at his own stupidity. Haal watched the display with cold, static indifference. After the boy had cried too long, Haal repeated his question more forcefully, and the malice promised by failing to answer drove a spike of fear through Hafn's grief to snap him back to the moment. "I wore it because I wanted... I thought I could change things. Skal was a hero to me for standing up to... Arbitrators."
"You mean Enforcers," Haal corrected with a sneer to his words. "Skal made demands of a Captain of the Guild, and that Captain stupidly bent the knee. Is that what brought you here, you tried to make demands of us like he did?"
Hafn nodded, fresh tears rolling down his face as he made his wordless confession. The disc vanished into Haal's pocket and the light withdrew. "Convicts are forbidden jewelry. Due to its inflammatory nature, it will be destroyed." With that, Haal turned to leave the cell.
"That's all?" Hafn whimpered in confusion. The Watch-Captain paused and slowly turned back towards the boy, the amber light in his hand making his features appear decidedly skeletal, as though he were the Shepherd come to take Hafn's soul away.
"If I had believed you to have cult or gang affiliations, I would have had you interrogated. Consider yourself fortunate."
"Wait!" Hafn yelped as Haal turned to leave again. As nightmarish as the Watch-Captain was, he was company and the only soul that had interacted with Hafn as though he were a living thing. He needed more. He took two steps forward towards the retreating Enforcer and was rewarded with a sharp backhand blow that caught him completely off-guard. He bounced off the wall and collapsed back onto his mat, curled into a ball and shielding his head against whatever Hell was about to rain down on him.
"Convicts do not approach without instruction!" Haal spat, fury dripping from his voice."Watchman, does the convict have access to the common?"
"No, Watch-Captain. He's on a secure hold by your order, if you recall."
Haal let out a low growl that showed his dislike for his underling's tone. "Then perhaps we can find somewhere else to put him."
With a shrug, Haal turned and left the cell. Once the door was finally closed, and Hafn was left only with his tears and the slow, patient drip of blood from his nose.
The day had been an emotional one for Kadan. The Correctional Unit was officially recognised by the Enforcer Guild with a dozen men and women assigned to serve the new formation and Kadan at the helm. Today marked his last as a Line Captain. With a speech that was heavy with emotion, Kadan summoned the Enforcers to a meeting to thank them for their service, to assure them that he would remain on site, if not on the line, and to officially welcome Captain Bast to his command.
The Correctors had a handful of offices towards the back of the Hall of Corrections, fitted out with new desks, chairs and hardware. The space was a little cramped and Kadan would have liked an open plan space like the Line Office enjoyed, but he would make do for the time being. He settled into his new chair in the largest office, which he shared with two girls from the Guild, both young and still in Prospect fatigues until the new uniform arrived. The two teenagers whispered and chuckled to each other as their Captain entered, practically bouncing with delight upon being raised to a full active role.
"Hey," Kadan nudged Skal, who was ever following behind him. The boy turned and followed his master's pointing finger to see a small leather-backed chair and retractable note desk set beside Kadan's own workspace. "Seems someone thought of you."
"Don't suppose they've given me games?" Skal asked as he examined the black datapad left on the tiny desk. A tap of the screen flashed up the Guild emblem and a prompt to offer a thumb print. To the boy's surprise, the screen unlocked for him to reveal a list of applications with serious titles like 'punishment guidelines' or 'arrest list'. Fearing an inadvertent transgression, Skal turned to Kadan and asked, "Are you sure I'm meant to see these?"
"Yes," Kadan affirmed. "You are here to learn, but in the meantime you can still make yourself useful. A fair few Penitatas are seeing you as a leader, so it's important you lead properly. You can start by giving a glance over the Penitatas records and marking anything that you feel we've missed - Pennys with no checks done, or ones marked high risk yet to be acted on, that sort of thing. Ask Kas if you need any help."
Buoyed by the responsibilities entrusted to him, Skal did his best to learn the inner workings of the Penitatas system. It was soon apparent that little had been done; some of the first wave of Pennys from Rejuve Day had never been followed up, while others had single line entries like 'no concerns' as the entirety of their review. The only reports with any detail seemed to be the ones where things had gone wrong; Penitatas murdered, or vanished, or tortured so severely the Guild felt intervention was required. One such Penitatas was later hanged in Black Pit, another was cryptically marked 'removed from circulation'. The rest of the failed and betrayed were rotting in the cells, awaiting their turn to choose Penitatas or conventional punishment, or having done so waiting for a kinder master to claim them. Inevitably, Skal was drawn to his own file to see what Kadan or others had logged about his treatment. 'Information withheld'.
While Skal turned his attention to other files on the pad, one of the regular Enforcers knocked on the door. "Captain Kadan? There's a pair from the Lifters here to see you. They're asking for Skal as well."
Puzzled, Kadan thanked the messenger before waving Skal to fall in beside him. They found their guests waiting outside the motor pool beside a bright yellow courier craft. One of the Kyyreni was a Penitatas, quite smartly dressed for a delivery boy, whilst the other was a half-breed who looked thoroughly out of place. The mongrel gave Kadan a nervous greeting, waving with a data pad in an attempt to indicate the reason for his visit. As soon as Kadan's attention was caught, the Penitatas moved closer to Skal.
"I was hoping to find you here," Tosjig said with an anxious smile. "You wouldn't believe how many favours I owe for setting this up."
"Why did you want to meet me?" Skal asked while fighting the urge to clutch at the ring around his neck. The boy didn't look threatening, but Skal new how dangerous harmless looking people could be.
"It's about my friend, Hafn. He was sent to Black Pit my a Medi Enforcer!" Tosjig answered, trying to keep his voice low to not draw attention. "He wanted to be like you, to change his sentence, so they made an example of him. If there's anything you can do, please help! Remember: Hafn, rejuved to six!"
That was all the Penitatas had time to say. Kadan, now carrying two large parcels returned from behind the craft and nodded towards the door. Skal mouthed" I'll try" to Tosjig and dutifully followed his master.
"Why'd the Lifters bring this stuff?" Skal asked as Kadan took the boxes not to his office, but the locker room.
Kadan put the boxes down and cut them open with his combat knife. Immediately, the faint smell of polish and finishing agents wafted forth as Kadan lifted out a brand new set of Enforcer armour, identical to his old one save that it was in pristine condition and the upper arm guards had a yellow band across them. After carefully lining up each segment of the armour, the second box was opened to reveal new uniforms, likewise black with yellow arm bands. Kadan wasted no time in changing into his new attire.
"Do you know anything about a Penny sent to Black Pit?" Skal pressed as Kadan settled his armour and belts into place.
"What? No. You mean one of them refused the contract?"
"Not exactly. I think he might have been sent there against his will. His name is Hafn."
Kadan's brow furrowed at Skal's reply. He unhooked his pad from his belt and thumbed through files until he found the documents in question. "Kas handled it. Says here the boy chose conventional sentencing. Why do you think he was forced there?"
"Something that... Penny said," Skal admitted shyly, unsure of how Kadan would feel about some random Penitatas spreading rumours. The Enforcer huffed at his explanation, but the man's eyes were repeatedly drawn back to the file. After clearly mulling his options for a while, he shrugged and pocketed the pad.
"Listen Skal, I have a lot to do today," Kadan announced with a sigh as he bundled his old gear into the boxes and took them towards his office. "I have a punishment day to organise and now that Penitatas affairs are their own office I can't just drag men in as I feel like. Time for you to learn something very important about the Guild; problem solving."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean go deal with this yourself," the captain growled as he tried to wrestle his cargo through the door. "Kas should be next door, go bother him about this. Come back to me when you've got something worth my time."
While a little hurt Kadan wasn't willing to follow up personally, Skal at least had permission to follow up. Kas' office was next door to the main one, though it was only Kas' insofar as that was where he currently worked. The familiar sight of the Medicalos looking sullen with a stylus in hand greeted Skal as he entered, his presence further acknowledged by a teenage Dawnsider called Torn. Skal's blond ears and tail twitched as he approached Kas, revealing the apprehension he felt buried inside. If it came to one boy's word against another, Kadan would surely side with Kas. Skal tried different approaches and phrases in his head, considering the merits of being headstrong versus circumspect, accusing versus querying. Without meaning to he wound up staring at the Medicalos, who before long noticed and shot the boy an irritated scowl. "Do you need something?"
"I... err... I had a question about one a Penitatas named Hafn. I was told he was sent to Black Pit and, well, I don't know if that's right."
Kas glanced down at the desk for a moment, his ears folding slightly before he returned his gaze to Skal and muttered, "he didn't want to be a Penny." Then he turned back to his paperwork and shifted in his seat, turning himself side on to Skal as though to block any further discussion.
Skal stepped forward and leaned on the desk. He wanted to look tough, but being physically five years old it instead made him look pouty. "Captain Kadan told me to look into this, so I'm looking into this," he said as forcefully as he could manage.
Kas glanced his way again, but only briefly. He gave a half-shrug and turned back to his work, staring at the screen in his hands but clearly not engaging with it. With a pause to draw his breath and psyche himself into action, Skal stomped around the desk and snatched the pad from Kas' hands. "Listen to me! If you're not going to take this seriously then I am going straight back to Kadan! He does not want to be bothered by this, so I'm going to make sure he knows whose arse to cane! Yours!"
"Fuck off!" Kas snapped as he took back his pad. "Look, the boy didn't like what we offered. What else was I meant to do? If you bothered to read the rules you'd see I did nothing wrong!"
"I don't believe you," Skal growled back. "Look me in the eyes and tell me that he asked you, actually asked you to send him to Black Pit."
Kas seemed happy to look everywhere but where he was asked to. "Fine, I'll see about getting him back. Now piss off."
For the moment, that was the matter settled. Skal returned to Kadan's side, and while his master busied himself with organising events for the year's end Skal focused on study. At Kadan's urging, Skal focused on the laws and duties of the Guild, listed in exhaustive detail within a seemingly endless series of documents. For sanity's sake, and in part due to personal interests, Skal focused on the areas concerning Penitatas. These were clearly undergoing rapid revision, and where other documents focused on clear punishments to be enacted, Penitatas law was a series of opinions and best-guesses given by various sources. Kadan's name appeared frequently, and it was interesting how the various parties involved seemed to at times be consistent in their views, and other times wildly differing. In particular, someone called 'Watch-Captain Haal' seemed to appear often in the areas concerning existing criminals, repeatedly expressing the opinion that those already sentenced should serve their time as-is. Without meaning to, it seemed Skal had slipped from codified law to minutes of meetings where the core ideas and ideals of the Penitatas system were debated. His stomach knotted in frustration at how much of these debates seemed concerned with alien worlds and cultures. To Skal, whose world did not extend beyond the boundaries of The City, taking such heavy influence from distant planets felt instinctively wrong.
When Kas finally came into the office he did so with an anxious look upon his face. With only a brief, frustrated glance at Skal he offered his pad to Kadan and said, "Captain, I need your help with this. I'm trying to get hold of the Watch-Captain but he won't answer my calls."
Kadan gave an amused grunt at the news, "No, Haal wouldn't. I'm guessing this is about the Penny in Black Pit? Alright, let me see that."
After taking the pad and reading Kas' notes, Kadan tapped a button on his desk, causing a screen to slide up from the surface and a touch-interface to present itself. A few quick strokes later and Haal's disfigured features appeared on the screen. "Watch-Captain, I'd like to request a prisoner transfer-"
"Request denied," Haal snapped back. "I know who you want, but he's my prisoner now and I have no reason to surrender custody."
Kadan let a low growl escape his muzzle, "He was sent to you in error, Haal."
"Then discipline your man, Corrector-Captain. Black Pit out."
Four sets of eyes watched Kadan as the screen went black. The Corrector-Captain stood up carefully from his desk, jaw set into a snarl as he strode to the office door, opened it and bellowed out, "Captain Bast! I need a protocol officer down here right now!"
"Why won't he let Hafn go?" Skal asked as Kadan all but slammed the door closed.
"Because Haal is a bastard," Kadan spat back. "He'll be keeping him because it feels like it gives him power over me."
The captain turned his focus to Kas, then to Skal, and finally to the young women. Everyone of them flinched from the fire in his eyes, "Haal knows the rules inside and out, so we have to as well. We have authority over every single Penitatas in the system and the Watchmen are challenging that authority. I expect all of you to find some way to put Haal back in his place!"
Without explanation as to where he was going or why, Hafn was ordered to step out of his cell, then his hands were bound and he was marched through the Pit. The route was winding, taking him upwards in a convoluted path. It seemed as though he was being marched across each layer of the facility, either by necessity or because the Watchmen wanted to drag the ordeal out. The lowermost level where his cell resided was made of narrow corridors and thick, black doors. It was mostly silent, but from some of the cells came muffled cries of despair or indecipherable mutterings. The next layer up was passed through quickly, giving only a brief glimpse of the holding cells. The smell of them, however, that was inescapable. It stank of blood, filth and fear. He made the mistake of catching the eye of a prisoner as he passed one of the cells. The captive was a Daysider, lean from hunger with fur covered in dried blood. His maw was open wide to reveal a muzzle full of loose, bleeding teeth. The convict's mad eyes fixed on Hafn, his thin arms grasped through the bars at him. An urgent, desperate whine escaped the Daysider's throat. Hafn's escort threatened the convict with raised batons, sending him scrabbling to the back of his tiny cell. In his rush, he sent a gnawed thigh-bone clattering across the cage floor.
The rest of the march became a blur as terror consumed him. The next floor up took him along the side of a massive, multi-storied chamber. Watchmen and their servants walked along a raised gantry that ran the edge of the room, looking down on four large cages placed sufficiently apart that a man could walk between them without being grabbed from either side. While large, the cages were also packed beyond capacity. Each cage had four bunk-beds and a combination sink-latrine in one corner. The least-occupied cage held twelve men. One held twenty, men and women of multiple Kyyreni genus. They were less nightmarish to behold, being healthier in appearance, but most stared at Hafn with predatory intent as he was brought past. The few who didn't were bloodied, beaten wretches, stripped bare while their cell-mates wore sand coloured shorts and thin vests.
Higher still and the cages changed again. These were similar to the cells of the madman, but deeper and better lit. They were dug into the walls and made for two. All had at least that. Here the corridors carried a ripple of sound, a whispering that ceased as they drew close only to begin again behind them. These prisoners watched through the sides of their eyes. One cage bore a Human and a cat-like creature, a Jalaxian if Hafn's memory served. The feline was an orange and white tabby who sprang to the bars wet-eyed as they passed. "This is mistake! I not be here!" he yowled in broken ruljic. He received a snarled warning to be silent and back away, a threat delivered with sufficient force to make him drop onto his mattress and weep.
One last staircase brought them at last to their destination. Winding passed large rooms whose function was hidden behind closed double doors, they came at last to a cell area. The room was of considerable size with a single two-man cage in the centre, built with space enough that the Watchmen could walk the perimeter of the cage. Three Kyyreni occupied the cage: a brown, speckled female in her late teens; a blond Dawnsider in his early thirties; and an old Nightsider who's black fur had fallen out in clumps, leaving him with ugly bald patches all over his body. He looked ancient, close to the end of his life certainly.
"Convicts will stand against the bars!" one of the escorting Watchmen ordered. The two Dawnsiders obeyed, while the Nightsider gave the guard a pleading look. To Hafn's surprise, the man relented, "You can stay sat there, old man. Convict entering the cage."
With his hands freed, Hafn was gently but firmly pushed into the cage and the door slammed close behind him. It was five paces wide and four paces deep. The two beds were thin metal frames with basic mattresses. A third bed had been made on the floor using a pair of blankets. The two Dawnsiders stared at Hafn with a mixture of surprise and confusion while the old man gazed at nothing, yet none of them moved or spoke until the Watchman had departed the chamber. Only then did they act, with the woman approaching Hafn slowly and carefully, not wishing to startle him. "It's okay, little guy," she whispered kindly, offering her hand to the frightened rejuve and coaxing him to her through careful gestures and soft words.
"They put a child in here?" the old man wheezed. "Where'd you come from, boy?"
Clutched to the woman's chest, Hafn peered towards the Nightsider and whimpered a reply, "I was a Penny, but they sent me here."
"A Penny?" the younger man parroted, "Well damn, here I thought Pennys were being kept out of places like this."
"What do they call you?" the old man pressed, his tired eyes locked firmly on the boy.
"No no, we don't use names here," the Nightsider chided. "I'm 'Grandpa' on account of my age. This here is 'Junior', and that lovely woman is 'Lucky'. So.... 'Penny', eh? Is that one of those rejuves I've been told about?"
Hafn nodded in reply. His arms were firmly locked around Lucky, so desperate for Kyyreni contact that he refused to let go. Perhaps realising this, Lucky steered him to her bed and sat down, letting him rest in her lap. While Hafn was rocked gently in Lucky's lap, Junior paced the cell in a slow, practiced gait of someone who had suffered the tiny circuit many times before. "You can't have been here long, we'd have heard about it," Junior said as he paced.
"I think I've been here a week, maybe two," came Hafn's sniffled reply. "They kept me alone in a dark cell, way down below."
"From Iso to Hope," Grandpa muttered with what might been a grin, "Seems they want to keep you safe. Can't say I blame them. I doubt you'd survive a single night in Common."
"Stop scaring him," Lucky growled, pulling Hafn closer as the boy flinched at Grandpa's words.
The scolding brought a silence to the cell, a measured break filled only with the quiet tap of footpads upon the hard, cold floor and the occasional cough and grumble from Grandpa. Despite the bleak surrounds, Hafn found himself becoming more calm as Lucky's paws stroked his shoulders, neck and back. "How come you don't have names?"
"Nobody has a name here," Junior answered. "It's the rules of the Pit: no name, no past. The third rule, which the guards will teach you if you haven't learned it already, is you don't talk when the Watch is around."
Hafn nodded urgently, remembering the hard lesson the Watch-Captain already dealt him. His face throbbed at the memory. "You said 'Iso to Hope'. What did you mean by that?"
"This is Hope," Grandpa explained in a slow, breathless tone. "It's where they put you if you're being considered for release, or if you're at-risk and they're feeling kind. I've been here... nine, ten months. Junior's been here two. We're both 'hoping' for release. Lucky's here for protection, as you are I suspect. She's been here nigh on two years now. It's safe here because you only get one shot at Hope; you piss the guards off here and they send you down, never to return. The only way out is through Hope, so once that happens the Pit is for life. Of course, the Pit's for life anyway as far as I'm concerned."
"It's not as bad as it used to be," Junior countered, "I've been here nine years. One year left and then I'm free."
"I got ten years too," Hafn confessed, clutching Lucky tight as the weight of those words hit home.
"Get comfortable then, and hope this is the last cell you ever see," Grandpa wheezed between hacking coughs. "Me? I got six years for gang membership. That was... nearly thirty years ago."
Hafn's eyes widened in shock at the revelation. "They kept you in that long?"
Grandpa nodded, "I was a Green back in the day. Suppose I still am, although I might be the last. Back then the Pit was a company prison. They didn't believe in letting people out. I spent my welcome week in Iso just like you, then I got taken up to Common. The guard leads me to a cell full of Greys. Those cages were crammed full, the men inside sat shoulder to shoulder. I knew I was dead the moment they put me in, but the guard was a Nightsider like me. He turned me around to unbind my hands and tucked a shiv down my shorts. Not an hour later I was back in Iso. It was a month later, when they moved me into Hell that I found out I was charged and convicted of two counts of murder. I was sixteen."
"Never heard of those gangs," Hafn replied, more for the sake of something to say than any curiosity. The terror was coming back, and the comfort of Lucky's care wasn't enough to keep it at bay.
"Long before you were born I imagine," Grandpa replied. "It was when the Enforcers got new powers. Why they got them in fact. The Watch appeared not long after. I guess Junior's right; the Watch are better than what we had before, for what little that's worth."
The sound of footsteps brought all conversation to an end. Junior stopped pacing and lay on his makeshift bed with his shirt over his head. Lucky pulled Hafn close and curled around him, spooning him and whispering a warning for the six year old Penitatas to keep silent. The boy kept still and listened to the Watchman's footsteps. He hoped the guard would leave soon - he'd had far too much of silence here already.
"It feels like I've not seen you in forever," Sam said from the screen in Skal's paws.
"I know," the Kyyreni boy replied, noting the loneliness in his girlfriend's voice, "There's just a lot of important stuff happening right now. I promise we'll see each other again soon."
"I hope so. Mom has been really unhappy since dad... passed. She hasn't said anything, but I can tell she's hurting. I'm hurting too."
Skal had to fight to keep his composure, wanting to look strong for her, "Don't worry, everything's going to be fine. I'll see you soon, okay?"
"Okay..." Sam flashed a smile, gave a weak wave and was gone, replaced by a dark screen.
Kadan gave the Penny a pat on the shoulder. "We'll stop by after we're done here."
'Here' referred to their destination, the Black Pit. For a full day and night the Correctors had worked to find a way to take back custody of Hafn, but to little avail. Skal had even suggested Kadan reach out to Ylari, hoping their shared Revelry might incline her to help. Kadan had humoured the idea, but nothing had come of it. She had warned such an action threatened the Compact of the Colours - an arrangement that gave the Enforcers the right to act as they wished in pursuit of enforcing the law, including passing sentence on the arrested. The existence of both the Watch and the Penitatas system depended on the Compact. The only option left was a direct confrontation.
A freezing wind threatened to bowl Skal over as he disembarked from the transport, to the amusement of the waiting Watchman. The Penitatas was dressed in Prospect fatigues with a thick street jacket, but it offered scant relief against the fierce cold. Beside him, Kas huffed into his hands and stamped his feet, breath misting from between his fingers.
Beyond the threshold of the bunker, the trio wound downwards into the first sub-level, passing through barrier gates and armed watch posts before being led off down a side passage to an admin area. Every passage was the same dull grey, as though hewn from raw stone. Cages of pipes and cabling ran along every ceiling. The lights were weak and uncomfortably artificial. It seemed Black Pit evoked a sense of misery and despair for all within, jailers and convicts alike.
At the end of a series of snaking turns through passages that all looked identical to each other, Kadan, Skal and Kas were finally presented with the Watch-Captain's office. Beyond the bare metal doors the office did in fact hold some comforts. A well-worn red carpet covered most of the floor; brown faux-wood shelves held framed pictures, commendations and other assorted bric-a-brac that Haal presumably saw value in. Most of the furniture was, however, dedicated to his work, such as cabinets, screens and a small black server unit. His desk was perfectly tidy and laid out for use in a manner that suggested no-one had ever actually used it.
"You've come a long way just to be told to go home, Corrector-Captain," Haal croaked as he emerged from his chambers in the adjacent room. He stood behind his desk without sitting down, hands clasped behind his back and ruined maw split in a cocky smile.
"Watch-Captain Haal, I'm here for the Penitatas Hafn," Kadan replied stiffly.
Through bared teeth Haal replied, "He is no longer a Penitatas. He is a convict under my care and I will not surrender him."
"Why not? What reason could you have to keep him?" Skal asked, his question earning him a look of contempt from the Watch-Captain.
After a brief moment, what remained of Haal's lips pursed together as he considered the men before him. "It seems we are quite alike, Corrector-Captain. Tell me, do you have any adults serving in your department?"
The Watch-Caption stalked around his desk, closing slowly upon his visitors. "I built the Watch from nothing. I gave a lifetime of service to the organisation and the Guild. I will not allow you to undo my work, Kadan."Nobody wants to 'undo' anything!" Kadan snapped back. "Gods, if you actually left this prison once in the past two decades you'd know what was actually happening! The Watch is going nowhere!"
"For now," Haal countered, "but what happens in fifty years when those who oppose rejuvenation are all dead? What happens when your Penitatas system is the only system of punishment we have? Will you send your rejuves to my cells? I think not. This place, all we did here, will be forgotten as a relic of another age, and we who served shall be forgotten with it."
"Haal, you are more confident in the Penitatas system than I am if you think that," Kadan answered, surrendering some of his aggression and speaking in a more amiable tone. "We've already had to start sending new convicts to the Iron Gaol, and we've no hope of coping with the influx of prisoners likely to come from the northern campaign whenever it is those sorry bastards are dragged back here. I don't know about the future Haal, but I know we need you now. Besides, you have bigger problems than me. Arbitrators like Eval have been sniffing for any excuse to undo the Compact. If it weren't for the uprising he might already have made moves against you."
"I will not have you destroy everything I have built," Haal said again, with a loss of energy. It was difficult to read the man's expression through his injuries and cybernetic implants, but his voice was clearly that of an old, hurt man.
"You're an old man, Haal. We both know you only have a few years left. Maybe you be looking to us for help? You could rejuvenate, entrust the Watch to someone else for a few years and then step back into command when you've grown up again. It'll be a few years, yes, but it also means you'll be young and strong when the Arbitrators come for you."
Haal turned away, his eyes scouring the records of his deeds on display across the shelves. He moved slowly toward his trophies, studying each of them in turn, using them as a focus to collect his thoughts. "How many men are you expecting me to take in?" he asked at last, his voice returning to a state of calm authority.
"We'll likely have at least a dozen by the end of the year. I don't know about P.O.W.s, but expect hundreds, maybe thousands."
"Hmm. Thousands we could manage in the short term, providing no-one is concerned about their welfare." He turned back to his guests at last, "I will release your precious Penitatas, but I want something in return. I want the Corrector responsible for this."
Kadan and Skal turned to Kas, who flinched under the attention. He stepped forward for Haal's study, looking everywhere but the Watch-Captain's glowing green eye-lens. "I'm the one who sent Hafn here," he confessed.
"Then you should be disciplined for your failure. Corrector. Two weeks in isolation."
Kas turned to his captain, eyes wide and fearful. Kadan's look in return said everything; a willingness to protect Kas fought with the need to protect the Office. Kas blinked back tears as he looked away, knowing no individual could be placed before the Guild. "I understand, sir."
Haal leaned over his desk and tapped a nondescript portion of the desktop, which flickered green for an instant. Moments later a pair of Watchmen entered his office; an older man who, like Haal was approaching the end of his useful lifespan, the other a young Daysider. Haal pointed to the frightened Kas and stated, "this Enforcer is to be taken to isolation for corrective incarceration. Make sure you remove all evidence of uniform from him first; we don't want the convicts knowing we're holding one of our own."
"Kas," Kadan stepped forward to confront the Medicalos before he was taken. He knelt down and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, "you'll come back from this. Endure and carry on, right?"
"Yessir," Kas whimpered. Then he wiped his face and steeled himself, determined to face his punishment like a man. Whatever else might have happened after, he at least marched out of the room with his head held high, though his ears and tail were flattened in fear.
"I'll make the arrangements to release the convict to your care," Haal said calmly, finally sitting at his desk and summoning a recessed screen with a trio of efficient taps of the worktop. "You know, I honestly didn't expect you to give the boy up like that. I suppose I should be appalled that you would betray your own so readily... but I suspect I would do the same in your place. In the interest of putting aside this budding feud, perhaps you'd like to take a few more burdens from me?"
"What do you want?" Kadan asked, almost snapping at the Watch-Captain.
"If I am to receive a large intake, it might be wise to be rid of the less troublesome convicts. Let me see... I have one I can send back with you today. I will potentially have others later, but we cannot rush these things. We have a procedure to follow and a reputation to consider. The last thing we want is for the convicts to think we're going soft here."
"You want us to make one of your convicts a Penitatas?"
"I don't care what you do. Once he leaves here he's your problem. Giving him up is a break of our protocols, Corrector-Captain. I hope that means something to you."
Kadan nodded, "It does. We'll wait outside until you're ready to transfer the prisoners."
As they left the office, Skal noted there was a lift to Kadan's tail and a perkiness to his step. He was steered to a side room and told to sit and wait while Kadan paced slowly, grinning to himself. "I didn't expect things to go this well. Kas..." his good mood briefly faded, "...well, he's had this coming. I think I can make this a good thing for him as well. Now for you, Skal. No doubt this Penny is going to want to give you all the credit for his rescue, so let's make sure you know what to say..."
The cell had become a pressure cooker. The night had been a rough one for Grandpa, who had spent half of it coughing in bed and the other half squatting over the latrine. Between the sound and the smell nobody had gotten much rest. The morning had brought a meal of gruel, the same meal as the night before. The thin, watery slop was even less appealing than the foot given in isolation, and Junior's grumbling suggested that this had been their only food for quite some time. "It's not my fault my teeth stopped growing back," Grandpa muttered in reply to the whispered curses of the younger man.
With their meals eaten, Junior had taken to pacing more aggressively, cursing his cellmates and the Watch. "Why haven't they let us out?" he asked, "once a week they said! Once a week in the square! It's been a week!"
"Lad, calm down," Grandpa warned, which had the exact opposite effect.
"I am fucking sick of it!" Junior spat, turning on his heel and confronting the elderly prisoner, "I bet it's you! The guards know you can hardly stand up, so you sure as hell can't walk laps in the square!"
Grandpa raised his hands, palms out to try and ward off the young man's anger, "Junior, you need to calm down for your own sake!"
"Why? What are you going to do?" Junior spat back.
"Nothing! It's what the guards will do to you! They'll drag you out of here and throw you back into Common for the rest of your life! Is that how you want to die, boy? Do you want to end up an old man like me, dying of age in a lightless cell because you lost your temper twenty years ago? Please, just go back to your pacing."
Thankfully, he did. He paced for a good ten minutes, muttering with every step, until the sound of footsteps outside the cage brought him to a halt. Junior, Lucky and Hafn were up against the bars before the group of Enforcers came into view. "Remain seated, Convict," the old Watchman told Grandpa as he unlocked the cage door.
"Skal?" Hafn's eyes turned to the blond boy in a blue Enforcer's uniform. He wasn't sure based on his features, but the ring hanging from his neck was a dead giveaway, "Skall! You came for me!"
"Convict will remain silent!" the Watchman barked, and Hafn snapped back against the bars as though struck. Satisfied he would be obeyed, the watchman beckoned him forward. "You, boy, step out of the cage. You as well, old man. You are both hereby given over to the custody of the Office of Corrections."
Hafn would have ran out of the cage if he'd dared. He moved briskly to the gesturing Enforcer with a yellow band around his arm, who took him by the shoulder and made him stand beside Skal while the older prisoner struggled to his feet and made his slow, pained crossing out of the cage. The old Nightsider looked as though he was about to suffer a heart attack.
"My name is Corrector-Captain Kadan. Can you manage stairs, old man?"
"I... no sir," Grandpa replied, already breathing more heavily after so short a walk.
"Get him a chair or something," Kadan told the Watchman as the cell door was locked once more. "I want you both to understand this in no uncertain terms: you are under my authority until I tell you otherwise, and I will hold you to the same expectations as the Watch. If you understand, say 'yes captain'."
"Yes captain," Hafn and Grandpa replied together.
A wheelchair was provided, and the two Penitatas walked close behind Kadan as he pushed the frail convict through the upper levels towards the surface. The man's fear turned to weeping as they reached the storerooms and the meager belongings of the two convicts were handed over. To Hafn's delight, his pendant was among his possessions. Then they went onward, rising up the final ramp to the bunker entrance and out into the blighting light of day. Hafn gasped at its brilliance, shielding his eyes despite the cloud cover. Grandpa sat with his head tilted as far back as he could, weeping silently at the sky.
With a brief moment of struggle all four were mounted in their transport and bound for The City. Neither of the prisoners had been restrained for the journey. "Hafn, when we get back to the Hall I will contact your former owner. I'm confident she'll take you back."
"Thank you," Hafn replied, though he was looking at Skal when he said it. Skal, embarrassed by the attention, studied the floor.
"As for you old man, your time will be considered served once you leave Enforcer property. However, unless you plan on finding somewhere to curl up and die you might want to get rejuvenated. We have facilities on site that can do that for you and the cost of the procedure is payable at any time during your new lifetime. Just keep in mind that if you don't pay us back we are well within or rights to convict and imprison you for coin owed."
"But I would be free?" Grandpa asked, his jaw trembling at the prospect.
"You would be free, yes. I'm led to believe there are organisations dedicated to helping rejuves find some useful purpose after the procedure. Since I doubt you have any home or family to go back to, we can arrange temporary accommodation in our cells. You do have two months left to serve on your time, so I am within my rights to keep you."
Grandpa nodded slowly, "But if I were to somehow find a place to live before then... I could leave?"
"If I suddenly need the cell space I'll be sure to kick you out," Kadan answered, smiling to himself. "But let me make one thing clear to you: if we have you up on gang charges again I will make sure Haal buries you alive."
Grandpa's expression said all that had to be said.
With two new charges in their cells - a six year old Dawnsider and a ten year old Nightsider who wore the 'V' of a Voluntaras over the typical Penitatas mark, Kadan and Skal retired to their office space. They were barely through the door before Kadan turned his attention back to Skal. "You should go and see your little friend. No doubt Sam's desperate for your company. Go on."
"Go on?" Skal parroted, "you... aren't taking me?"
"You know the way by now, and I'm sure there's some young lad skyving in a camera blindspot. Go bully them if you need a lift. I've wasted too much time saving your little friends as it is."
Skal smiled at his master - at his captain. "Thank you, Kadan."
With his ears perked and a grin on his face, Skal sprinted through the Hall towards the motor pool, clutching his ring pendant so it didn't bounce up and smack him in the jaw. A mad giddiness filled him, a joy the likes of which he hadn't felt in forever, certainly not while suffering under a Penitatas sentence. Freedom. He may have still worn a collar, but the uniform was what mattered. He laughed as he darted out of the Hall unchallenged, pushing himself to breaking point to reach the magline where he begged the Enforcers on duty to summon him a car and let him skip the queue. The uniform and a flash of his personal pad won their cooperation, leaving him drunk on joy as he hurtled to the stop closest to Sam's house.
He knew that soon enough Kadan would sent for him, or come in person to collect him. He knew that tomorrow or the day after he'd wake to a paddle or a switch. He also knew, without any real details, that the year's end would bring an especially miserable day for all Penitatas, himself included. But for now at least, Skal could pretend to be free.