The solitary confinement cell was lit by a single bulb, fifteen feet overhead. He didn't know how much power it actually consumed but if it had been an incandescent bulb it wouldn't have used more than ten watts. The cell was ten feet on a side; it had a yoga mat for a bed, with an integrated "pillow". The toilet was made out of stainless steel and its tank incorporated a small sink that dispensed only cold water. By the door, a small tray held today's ration of bread, which he so far had not touched, but he'd made sure to take the vitamin tablet as soon as the tray was delivered.
He had not seen a human face in...a long time. He wasn't sure how long; at first he'd counted days but had lost track. When he'd been put in solitary, he'd been told that the light would go out at ten PM and turn on at six AM. He supposed that to be the case, still, but he had no sense of time in here and it could easily have been misinformation. He'd been told that he'd get thirty days in solitary for trying to smuggle a crust of bread out of the mess hall.
He wondered if old Hank had pulled through. Maybe it had been the flu, maybe it had been COVID-19, or -20, or -21, or whatever damned number the WHO was up to these days, but whatever it was, Hank had been too sick to go to the mess hall. And if you didn't report to the mess hall, you didn't eat.
George had suffered from it, too, for the first...two weeks?...that he'd been in here. Coughing up gunk, sneezing gunk, his nose running constantly--about as bad as the worst cold he'd ever had, but no worse, and he was completely over it now.
But the noise--he looked up, and then reflexively threw a hand up to ward off the glare. The door had opened.
Two men came in then, arguing.
"His term in solitary isn't up."
"You can have him back when Dr. Hedrick's done with him."
"What? Don't they get released after...that?"
"No one's gonna notice one insurgent, more or less, on the streets. Our job's to get them to sign...and it's this mook's turn. You!" The man barked. "Hold out your hands."
Guards had cattle prods; he'd found out the hard way. He held out his hands. There was a metallic chirp as the cuffs were fastened.
"All right, get up and follow me. Shit, it stinks in here."
It wasn't easy to bathe when one had to wash with a handful of water at a time, but George held his tongue. Again, he'd learned the hard way. But they didn't ration his water, so he'd done the best he could.
He was led outside the cell, and then outside the building that contained it; and he was shocked at how cold it had gotten. When he'd been put in the cell it had been warm. How long had it been?
Outside was strange, very big, and snow was falling...how long since he'd seen snow? THe solitary cell had been his world for too long, and he could scarcely remember that he'd been out in this exercise yard when the faraway trees had had leaves and the air had been warm.
But the thing he remembered with perfect clarity was when he'd been visited by the angel.
He'd been feverish, and at first he'd thought it was a hallucination, but the angel had placed a cool cloth on his forehead and talked to him about things only George knew, and had told him that he faced a great trial, and that he should face it with all his faith; and they'd talked a little while in that dim little cell. When his fever broke he slept; and when he woke, the angel had been gone.
In the bright winter sunlight, George wondered if it had been a hallucination after all.
The man--a short, ugly, pugnacious man--led him across the compound and to the inner security fence, and signed him through the guard post into the "free" side. This was where the infirmary was, but the man did not take him there; he turned towards Building 12, pulling harshly on the manacles.
"C'mon, I ain't got all day," the man said.
Building 12 was unlike the others in the camp. The barracks were cheaply made, uninsulated, drafty and with poor heat. The administration building was a solid edifice, and the guard barracks and the housing for officers looked comfortable. But Building 12 was squat and ugly, just like the guard hauling George toward it. Made of unpainted cinder block, with few windows, George knew only that it contained the morgue, and a crematory. Even so, he'd seen men go into the building, only to emerge hours later with haunted eyes and fresh implant tags on their hands.
He balked momentarily--instict stilling his foot--but before he could force himself to take a step, the man sprang into action, whipping out his cattle prod and jabbing George right in the crotch with it. White-hot fire erupted in his loins and he screamed, collapsing to the cold ground as his legs jerked out from under him. His bladder let go.
"Get up, or you'll get another!"
"I...I'm trying...," George managed.
"Don't give me none of your lip, boy!" The cattle prod hit him again, this time in his lower back, and the guy held it there with the trigger depressed. They weren't supposed to work longer than a second or two, but this one, the current flowed as long as the guard held the trigger.
"Ha," he smirked, finally holstering the weapon. "Now, get up."
George managed to get to his hands and knees, shaking, and after a moment he was standing again.
"Aw, did the widdle baby wet himself?" More sneering. "C'mon, I ain't got all day." A rough jerk of the manacles and they were in motion again.
The man half-dragged George up the steps to the door, and then roughly shoved him through it. He sprawled on the concrete floor on the other side.
"Get up, boy," the man said, brandishing the cattle prod.
George held up his hands, trying to roll into a position that would let him stand up, but the guy hit him with the cattle prod again, this time on his side, and he screamed.
"Quit yelpin'! This ain't nothin' compared to what you're gonna get--"
The agony ceased immediately and the repulsive man came to attention. "Sir. He was gettin' out of hand--"
"You're George Smith, right? I apologize for Corporal Waldo's behavior. Please--Waldo, take those cuffs off him."
"Sir." The cuffs came off and George rubbed his hands.
"Go back to your post."
"Sir, I don't think--"
"Sir." A salute, and the guard left.
George rolled onto his side. "Thank you."
The man smiled. He had a grandfatherly look about him, wire-rimmed glasses and grey hair; he was wearing a lab coat, which bore an ID badge that said "HEDRICK" on it. "I'm Dr. Hedrick. Please, get up, and let's get you into some clean clothes."
A few minutes later, George found himself sitting in the most comfortable chair he'd occupied in two or three years--since his arrest, in other words--in an examination room which was comfortably warm. The doctor looked him over, taking his time, listening to his heart and looking in his ears and so forth. Afterwards, he was led into another room, where a table was set for dinner.
The smell was heavenly. The plate had a steak on it, still sizzling. An actual baked potato, not instant. Carrots. Was that wine or grape juice? He couldn't tell from here, but either way, after having drank only water for however long he'd been in this place--
"Ah," Hedrick beamed. "We can have brunch right away, Mr. Smith, but there's a small matter we need to attend to, first."
Hedrick handed him a clipboard. "I just need you to sign this form; we can have a pleasant brunch...and then you can return to society."
He had the pen in his hand and he'd been about to sign it, but then he stopped at that last phrase. He scrutinized the form now, looking carefully at it...and then he flung it away as if it were radioactive.
Hedrick did not jump at this, as if he'd expected it; but his expression showed only mild reproof. "Now, Mr. Smith--don't be unpleasant. It's a mere formality."
"If you want to give me the vaccine," George said, "go ahead and give me the shot. I don't want the chip. I've said it and said it--I object to it, on religious grounds."
"That really is too bad," Heidrick said, shaking his head; and a sudden sting at his neck prompted him to look and see the nurse who'd come into the room, silently, while his attention had been on the food....
* * *
When he opened his eyes again, he was strapped to a metal chair. His entire body was securely bound, and he could move only his eyes and jaw. Looking around, he saw dozens of electrodes taped to his skin. He struggled against the straps, but he could not move at all.
Hedrick came into the room, his demeanor still pleasant. "Ah, you're awake, Mr. Smith. Good. I was just about to run the calibration sequence. Sylvia?"
Electricty flowed through his fingers, one at a time in rapid succession; and then through his toes. He screamed in pain, muscles knotting involuntarily, arms and then legs trying to recoil from the tearing agony. It went away as quickly as it came, leaving him panting and sweating.
"I think that will do," Hedrick said with a nod. "Sylvia, let's begin with Program C."
Stabbing pain in his abdomen, moving upwards, muscles contracting as the current flowed through them. George screamed again; Hedrick was watching him with one elbow cupped in the opposite hand, fingers tapping his lips meditatively. Then he held up that hand and the current stopped.
"Perhaps reduce the intensity a bit, Sylvia. I think Mr. Smith is a little sensitive."
"Why are you doing this?" George panted.
"No," Hedrick said coldly, and the current came again, all over. George screamed at the pain, his entire body knotting now, and it seemed to go on and on--only it stopped, leaving him panting.
"When I want you to speak," Hedrick said amiably, "I will ask you a question. Do you understand? Say 'yes' or 'no'."
George briefly considered saying "no", and then realized they'd probably shock him if he did. "Yes."
"Excellent. Sylvia, Program A."
Brief, intense shocks hit George, at random, all over his body, none lasting more than a tenth of a second or so. They hurt but he didn't have a chance to scream before the pain went away for a few seconds, only to appear in another place, just as briefly. The duration between shocks was not constant. It was a surprise when one hit.
"All right, I believe this will do for now. Sylvia, let's have dinner."
The door opened and he could see the table, see the two of them sit at it and start eating those steaks. As he watched them, his stomach growling hopelessly, the shocks kept coming at random intervals.
"Hey! Hey!" George shouted. The woman--Sylvia, George guessed--frowned at him, then pulled out a remote control and aimed it at him. The current hit him all over again, and it seemed to last an eternity before going away again...only to be replaced with the random shocks again.
But he'd seen the clock on the opposite wall. That "long time", it was a mere ten seconds, no more. He decided to test that.
"You people are worse than nazis," he shouted; and the nurse pressed a button on the remote. George concentrated on the clock, and watched its second hand count out ten seconds before the pain ceased. "Nurse Ratched, holy shit are you ugly," and again--ten seconds. But it hurt less the second time.
Thereafter, he was careful not to abuse it, but about every two or three minutes he would yell something and she'd use the remote, and he'd scream his lungs out for ten seconds. This went on the entire time that Hedrick and Sylvia were dining.
By the time they were eating dessert, George had to fake most of his screaming. He couldn't believe it, the fact that these people didn't know about endorphins. It was a struggle not to start giggling, but the random shocks helped him, and when Hedrick came back into the room George couldn't help smiling.
"What have you got to smile about? Sylvia, Program G, if you will."
Program G was a series of electric shocks that hit him first in his neck, then his chest muscles, and then jumped randomly from muscle group to muscle group. He couldn't see the clock any longer but he had an idea how long a second was when he was being electrocuted, and they were only a couple of seconds long at most. The endorphins were masking most of the pain, but it still hurt and he still screamed, although by now his voice had mostly failed.
Then the current stopped entirely. George braced himself for another jolt, but none came; and when he opened his eyes he saw Hedrick standing there with the clipboard.
"Come, Mr. Smith. Sign your Form 66B. End this. Save yourself all this suffering. I've read your file; I know that you're a fairly intelligent man. You know as well as I do that you can't win this; I will keep hurting you as long as I need to in order to gain your compliance."
"Why? It's such a small thing. The pain is nothing compared to the suffering you're enduring."
"It's not the pain," George panted. "It's eternity."
Hedrick puffed air. "Oh, that's right; you're one of those. Sylvia, return the intensity to its former level, and give him Program R."
Program R was bad, even through the endorphins.
"Sign the form, Mr. Smith," Hedrick pleaded. "Do you think I enjoy this?"
That got him. The only outward sign was that Hedrick's face turned red; he did not--as George had expected--order another punishment, but simply sighed.
"Then you misunderstand my purpose here, Mr. Smith, and I wonder if that may mean you're less intelligent than I thought." Hedrick gestured around himself. "This camp exists to cage the unsocialized, ascientific minority who refuse to take the vaccine."
"I haven't refused the vaccine. I'm only refusing the chip."
"The chip is the vaccine."
"Sell that to someone who's technologically illiterate."
"I'm serious, Mr. Smith. The chip is embedded in a time-release compound which combines both doses of the COVID vaccine in one injection. And why do you refuse it? Because of one line in an ancient book no one of intellect takes seriously any longer. 'The mark of the beast', you say? Even the Pope has been vaccinated! Why are you so arrogant to think you know more about being a Christian than she does?"
That made George chuckle. "I couldn't even begin to explain what was wrong with what you just said, not quickly." He sobered. "But I'm a Lutheran, not Catholic, anyway."
"Even so, you must realize that I can continue to hurt you, a lot, for as long as it takes to break your will."
"I do realize that."
"Then why put both of us through this?" Hedrick asked. "For me, it's another day in the office, but for you--"
"Please don't pretend to have any concern for me," George snapped disgustedly. "If you gave a wet shit about me, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Hedrick's face didn't change, but his jaw clenched. He made a violent, wordless gesture at the one-way glass, and George yelped involuntarily as the current flowed again. The one problem with those pauses was that the endorphins went away.
When the current stopped, Hedrick said tightly, "Very well, Mr. Smith; we'll play this your way. Now, the pain will not stop until you beg me to let you sign the form. I will not let you sign it with a pen, though; you will have to sign it with one of your fingers. I think...this one," he said, pointing at the index finger of George's right hand. "Yes. You'll beg me to cut that finger off, and let you sign your form with the bloody stump that's left behind--that is when the pain will stop."
George had seen the men who had come out of Building 12. None of them had been missing body parts. He said, "I have my doubts about that."
"Sylvia, Program H. Maximum intensity."
George's throat was already raw, his voice a husky whisper, but the agony was worse than anything he'd ever felt, and he screamed again. It was bad, very bad, and he began to regret his defiance now, his body twisting uselessly against the restraints. Hedrick watched him with emotionless eyes, he saw--a tiny, coldly logical part of him saw this, untouched by the physical pain, and he realized that Hedrick was probably not even human. A psychopath, most likely; a psychopath would be well-suited for this kind of job. But no--Hedrick could be goaded into foolish action. An ordinary man, then, one who had traded his soul for...something, something it wasn't worth trading for. Something petty, something impermanent.
He thought he felt his heart skip a beat. It made sense--so much current was flowing through his body, and disrupting the heart rhythm took only a few milliamps. This had to be mostly voltage he was feeling, but a lot of it, enough to cause this much pain.
"This is! THe day," George gasped between jolts. "This is the day, that! THe Lord has, has made, that the Lord HAS MADE!" He sang the song raggedly, electric shocks giving strange emphasis to the words, but he sang anyway.
Hedrick frowned and said something to Sylvia, and the pattern changed and got worse. It went on and on, but George sang on, just repeating the refrain from that one hymn, the only one he could remember, on and on--
The world had gone silent. The current had stopped.
Hedrick held up the clipboard. "It's now after eight PM, Mr. Smith. Will you sign, or will Sylvia and I leave you to the tender mercies of Program H all night?"
His heart skipped another beat. He looked up through sweat-drenched hair at the clipboard, and inside, something shifted. He saw the dotted line, and wondered if it really was all that big a deal? Seriously, could it be as bad as this was?
"I want some water."
"After you sign."
"Sylvia, resume, please."
The pain was worse, now, somehow. He thought he could hear the crackle of it. He should have been going numb now, the endorphins should have...but it wasn't stopping, and it wasn't getting better! He'd been a fool, that's what he'd been, to think that he could withstand even a tenth of this much. Wouldn't God understand? Didn't God see his suffering? He started to wonder, now, if God even cared.
"...I'll sign," he whispered.
Sudden peace. "What?"
"I'll sign," he said, not looking up.
"Wonderful. Here, take this pen. I need you to look at the form, Mr. Smith. Now, once you've made your mark, we can inject the vaccine and get you a hot shower and a meal, and...."
George stopped listening. He raised his head, oriented on the clipboard, raised the pen that Hedrick had put in his shaking hand--and then he saw the angel again.
His heart skipped again, one, two, three, before catching its normal rhythm.
The angel stood there, plain as day, and he shook his head at George, mouthing the word, "No!"
George looked at the angel, his mouth hanging open, unable to process what he was seeing. He took a deep, shuddering breath, felt his heart skipping beats, and tried to understand, but couldn't.
"Come, Mr. Smith! Make your mark. Don't worry about writing your name, just any mark will do."
The angel stretched out a hand to him, and George understood, his heart now thumping in his chest, now seeming to flutter, now giving a quick, spastic beat, before ceasing entirely.
George smiled at Hedrick. He didn't have to let the pen drop; it was already falling from his dead hand.
He was a martyr, and he was going to heaven.