2951-07-19 – Tales from the Service: The Meraud Enigma 

Miss McGuiness’s account does not include any indication of the cruel and creative torture which many rumors and survivor accounts attribute to Meraud prison facilities. True, she did not report all of what she saw – or even most of it – but her account goes on to indicate that what she observed on day seventeen was far from an anomaly.  

Perhaps, as she would later go on to suggest in her post-script, the guards too are prisoners of a sort; perhaps even the Incarnation has lost the purpose of its efforts on Meraud, and it continues them now only because ceasing them and shifting personnel elsewhere would be an unnecessary logistical burden.  

Hadley McGuiness had been watching the compound in the valley for nearly an hour when the alarms blared, echoing mournfully off the frozen hillsides on all sides. Few of the figures shuffling about within the outer wall even paused what they were doing, but the figures in each of the guard towers jumped to attention, pointing their laser rifles down into the prison.  

This panicked reaction lasted only a moment. As one, the perimeter guards, responding to new directives reaching their mind-chips, turned their attention outside the camp boundaries. Those on the side nearer Hadley’s hiding-place briefly scanned the treeline, then returned their attention warily inwards. Those on the other side of the prison started firing, apparently at random, into the trees. Their lasers were silent, but the cracking sound of frost-shrouded tree-trunks exploding into splinters found its way up to her, after a momentary delay. 

The shooting stopped even before smoke from the small, sullen fires the lasers had set to rise into the powder-blue sky. The guards, as one, turned their attention back to the enclosure and the ragged prisoners shuffling about therein. The alarm tailed off a moment later. 

Hadley tapped the control on her wristband to mark the time-code. She had not seen anything like this yet in her long vigil, and could not help but speculate what the Incarnation intended by this action. Was this a surprise drill to test the readiness of the prison-guards? If so, it seemed a pathetic sort of drill, which would prepare those men for attack only by a hapless mob. Any real force of attackers would stay far back in the trees, targeting the guard towers with indirect-fire weapons, like infantry missiles, and picking off sentries with long-range sharpshooters, assuming that force didn’t have armored vehicles capable of bulling through the cordon and into the camp in defiance of all the guards and their weapons. 

At the sound of a shrill whistle some minutes later, the prisoners dropped their various morning tasks and staggered into a triple-row line-up. That they did this without the direction of a single guard had been strange to Hadley on her first day of watching this prison, but a few days later she’d seen the consequences of the inmates failing to fall into lineup quickly. Four days later, she’d seen the consequences of two prisoners not being in their places when the guard-barracks door banged open. They had been beaten and tied to a post, blindfolded, in the middle of the enclosure, where they were left in even the killing cold of night. 

They hadn’t died, of course; the guards seemed loath to kill their charges. Just before Hadley had given up her vigil and gone back to her camp, the guards had crept up and placed a tiny electric heater at their feet, just enough, probably, to keep the exposure from becoming fatal. The next day, after line-up, the guards had cut them down and set other prisoners to dragging them into one of the huts. 

What made watching this camp so maddening for Hadley was that there were no individuals down there, not even in the eye of her meta-lens magnifier. All the guards wore the same thick, insulated uniforms, the same black gloves, and the same face-obscuring arctic-temperature helmets. The officers were distinguishable by colored shoulder-tabs, but they rarely appeared, except at line-up and other special occasions anyway. 

The prisoners were, despite Hadley’s sympathy, no better. They were all clad in a mixture of dully mismatched rags which, from all appearances, were heaped in a pile within each of the huts at sundown and donned more or less at random by different people the next day. Differences in height, build, and even sex were swallowed up in the lumpen bulk of these head-to-toe coverings, and she never saw the guards peeling back hats, cowls, or scarves to check the identity of particular prisoners. They were, apparently, entirely interchangeable. 

Everything Hadley had been told pointed to this camp as a one-way destination; anyone sent there was, according to prisoners rescued from other facilities on the world, never seen again. Despite this, she had, in her seventeen days of vigil, not seen a single prisoner killed, nor a single body pulled limp from the huts. Furthermore, though tracked crawlers arrived every two days with crated supplies, no new prisoners had arrived to be added to the lineup. In seventeen days, this supposedly hellish prison to which the doomed were sent had neither gained nor lost a single inmate. 

The two wretches tied to the post overnight, however, were far from the only residents of this little satellite facility who had suffered as Hadley watched. Every one of those ragged figures huddling in ranks had to earn his or her meager ration through physical labor of the most menial sort. From the moment line-up was dismissed until the next sounding of the whistle nine hours later, each of them had to devote themselves to whatever task the guards directed for them. Sometimes these tasks had some purpose – cutting timber to repair the perimeter wall or the structures within, for example, but more often, there was no purpose whatsoever.  

Even now, as the big man with the red shoulder-tabs marched up and down the lineup wagging his gloved finger in the faces of a few prisoners at random, a handful of blue-tabbed guards were clustered near their barracks, heads together in a discussion of what tasks they might put the prisoners to for the next nine standard hours. No doubt, a team would be taken out beyond the gatehouse to fill in the trench the prior day’s work team had painstakingly carved out of the half-frozen soil next to the road. Much of the pointless make-work involved digging or moving soil from one place to another, often only for it to be moved back a day or two later. 

That pointlessness was what made Hadley’s vigil all the more frustrating. By her own rough estimation, at the rate of work being performed below, the camp could have rebuilt itself anew once every two or three standard months, excepting the prefabricated staff barracks where the guards lived. The prisoners, forced to work as they were, could have cut a new road to another camp through Meraud’s rugged hills in six months, or cleared a landing field for spacecraft in nine months. She had come to see whether the prisoners were being tormented in ways other than their work, but so far, all there was to see was work – rigorous work that was, wherever possible, without any sort of goal or accomplishment. 

Perhaps the place was the result of some misfiring dictum within the Incarnation’s master plan for Meraud, which no higher authority had noticed. It certainly didn’t bear much resemblance to the fevered stories she’d been briefed on, but it also didn’t bear resemblance to the supposedly hyper-rational, planned cruelty elsewhere on this world of prisons. The facility seemed to be coasting forward in time, its staff and prisoners having long since forgotten why they were there. 

As the guards divided their charges into work teams and marched them to whatever tasks had been agreed on, Hadley wondered what was going on in the chip-corrupted minds of those laser-rifle toting brutes. Did they realize how pointless it all was? Did they have blind faith that someone at a higher level understood? Or did they perhaps see clearly a purpose in all this that she did not?