Beneath the Loveliest Tints of Azure
by Jeff Samson
“You sure picked a hell of a day to start.”
The guard stared up at Ted with a look somewhere between aggravation and indifference. He slouched over his desk, his belly spilling over a portion of its tidy surface. His chair creaked in protest as he swiveled lazily.
“I’m sorry?” Ted said, deepening his voice to match the guard’s husky bass.
The guard wiped a hand over his head, polished bald but for a faint horseshoe of salt and pepper hair buzzed to the same length as the patchy stubble on his face. He pushed himself away from his desk, growling as he rose.
“Ken Allen,” he said, enveloping Ted’s comparably slight hand in a powerful grip.
“Ted Kirsch.” Ted stifled an urge to wince.
“I know–Hurrel’s replacement. Been expecting you.” Ken pursed his lips. “Sorry if I seem a bit gruff. It’s just, well, visiting days aren’t exactly best for breaking in fresh meat. Know what I mean?”
Ted nodded that he did. Then quickly realized that he didn’t.
“Visiting days?” he asked. “Here? I didn’t think they let anyone in from the outside.”
Ken rubbed his temples and sighed.
“It’s a strictly inside thing,” he said. “An inter-inmate thing. They each get one visiting day a year on the anniversary of their incarceration. Warden says it reminds our guests why they’re here–keeps guilt high and hope low. Know what I mean?”
Again Ted nodded, but he still didn’t understand. He was about to ask more questions, when Ken’s face hardened.
“What’s that?” Ken barked, pointing to Ted’s chest.
Ted looked down, expecting to find something that shouldn’t be there. But all seemed as it should.
“Good God, man, is that a pen?” Ken shouted.
Ted looked down at the ballpoint pen in his chest pocket.
Ken reached out and withdrew it from Ted’s uniform. He snapped it in half and tossed it in the aluminum garbage can beside his desk where it landed with a clatter.
“Are you nuts, man?” he asked. “Do you have any idea what kind of damage a pen could cause down here–the things the people we guard could conjure up if they got hold of it? Weren’t you briefed about this place?”
Ted felt mildly annoyed that Ken presumed a fellow guard–or anyone, for that matter–would need to be briefed on Hydro Facility 237. The prison was as legendary outside the system as it was within.
And Ted had always had a special fascination with the place. He’d read articles and books about everything from its engineering to its inmates. He’d sought out old screws, who traded second-hand tall tales for pints. He was intrigued that the deeper he dug, the blurrier the lines between fact and fiction became. It seemed the only certainty he found was that no one on the inside ever called Hydro Facility 237 by its official name. To the warders who had paced the damp cavernous hall for more than two centuries, the prison was simply The Grotto.
Ted raised his hands as if to fend off Ken’s invective. Whoa, Ted thought. Does this guy really expect me to know every rule and regulation by heart on the first day? It’s a pen, for Christ’s–
The shock of realization shattered the thought in his head.
Oh Ted. He felt his face slacken. You stupid, stupid man. He lowered his hands, burning with embarrassment, stunned that he could be so careless.
With some difficulty, Ken rounded his desk and lumbered towards the young guard. He brought his nose to within a few inches of Ted’s.
“Now you listen here, rookie,” he snarled. “There’s just two rules you need to remember around here. No writing implements of any kind. And always stay extra alert on visiting days. Don’t take your eyes off either one of them for a second, you hear?”
Ted nodded, genuinely this time.
A buzzer blared and a large red light pulsed above the entrance to the guardroom.
Ken flashed Ted a wry smile.
“Well, how ‘bout that?” he said. “Perfect timing.”
The frail old man entered through the heavy, tarnished brass door, flanked by two hulking guards, each clasping a thin, sinewy arm. His hands and feet were manacled with bulky brass cuffs chained together with links as thick as fingers. A third, even thicker chain joined the two sets of restraints, greatly hindering the prisoner’s movement. As his escorts stepped into the room, he shuffled forward inch by inch. His ancient shoes brushed the polished concrete floor in quick, quiet sighs.
His face was gaunt and deeply lined, its paper-thin skin sagging lifelessly over bare bone. His eyes were the soft, even grey of overcast skies–a mere tinge of pale green rimmed his smoky pupils. The few wisps of ghostly hair sprouting from his liver-spotted head looked petrified in place like tenuous fossils.
The guard at the old man’s left extended a small leather binder to Ken.
“Oh yes,” Ken said. He took the binder and turned to Ted. “Standard sign-off procedure,” he said evenly.
Ken thumbed through a stack of yellowed pages filled with hand-stamped entries. When he came to a page with an empty row, he reached for the stamp on his desk. He rolled the correct rubber numbers into place, and hammered it into the empty box, leaving an indentation of his signature, the date, and the time in their appropriate columns, just beneath the inmate’s identification number.
The guard slipped the binder from Ken’s hands and slammed it shut.
“He’s all yours,” he said.
As Ken and Ted each grasped an arm, the escorting guards backed out of the room. Again the buzzer sounded and the light flared. The heavy door thudded shut.
“All right, Herman,” Ken said to the old man. “Let’s take it slow.”
They walked the old man to the opposite end of the guardroom, stopping before another large, metal door. Ken reached for his side and unclasped the keys from his belt. Ted had never seen this configuration before–four keys threaded side-by-side through a cylinder of brass. It looked like fingers on a hand.
Ted saw Ken insert each key into its corresponding hole and turn, which produced small metallic clicks. As he turned the final key, hidden mechanisms within the door came to life. Gears creaked and moaned. Tumblers ratcheted and thunked into line. Cylinders scraped through shafts and thudded out of their locked position. As Ted watched, wide-eyed, the door eased open with a feeble whine.
Cold, clammy air flooded the room, redolent with salt, mildew and fish.
Ted lowered his head and tried to bury his nose in his shoulder to stifle a gag.
“Ah, yes,” said Ken, “I should have warned you about the smell.”
Ted shook his head, exhaling hard. As he breathed in, he was surprised to find the musty air tinged with the metallic tang of ink and heavy stench of moldy books.
“Yeah…that’s certainly…certainly a hell of a stink.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I doubt that.”
“So do I.” Ken smirked. “OK, let’s give the man his hour’s worth.”
Ken reached for an electrical box alongside the door and raised the lever with a flick of his wrist. A warm, buttery light seeped into the guardroom from the space beyond.
Following Ken’s lead, Ted slowly stepped into the vast room with the old man in tow.
Ted gasped as he entered the chamber. While only fifty feet wide, it was several hundred yards long and at least two hundred feet high. The soaring metal walls were all but entirely marbled with a bronze, blood and soot-black patina. Only a few unmarred stretches of burnished gold caught the chamber’s meager light to reveal the solid brass beneath. Set within those walls, like portals in the hull of some unfathomably large submarine, were hundred-foot-wide panes of glass, rimmed in smooth, bulbous rivets that bled verdigris from their seams.
Every inch of metal was slick with condensation. Rivulets of tarnished water traced ragged paths of corrosion and grime and trickled into the slimy gutters that lined the corridor. Against the ceaseless thrum and groan of machinery unseen, the cavernous space resounded with the patter, gurgle and slurp of water finding its way home.
“My god.” Ted’s jaw hung open.
“Yeah, it’s something,” Ken said, his smile proud.
“I mean…I’d read…I’d heard…but…”
“There’s roughly 20 million cubic feet of seawater in each cell.” Ken’s tone ranged between teacherly and boastful. “And the walls extend another fifty feet above the waves. Oxygen is pumped in from the surface, water is filtered from the surrounding ocean.” Ken paused and gazed down the length of the chamber. “It’s a hell of a facility.”
Ted shook his head, eyes wide.
“Well then,” Ken said, “I think you can manage from here.”
Ted shot a look at Ken in disbelief. “What? What do you mean?”
“Young man, it’s quite a walk to get to where he needs to go. My knees aren’t what they used to be. Besides, you came highly recommended–I’m sure you can handle it.”
Ted felt his mouth go dry.
“Yeah, but…don’t I…I mean…isn’t there a training period or something?”
“Oh, I’m afraid it’s sink or swim around here, kid.” He motioned down the corridor. “There–I had McGowan from the night shift set up a chair.”
Ted looked about two hundred yards down the corridor, barely able to see the small metal chair in the low, wavering light.
“Uh…all…right,” Ted stammered.
Ken slapped him on the shoulder.
“Relax. It’s a cakewalk. Just remember what I said about keeping your eyes peeled.” He gave the old man a head to toe. “Though I don’t think you have much to worry about with this old-timer.”
“What?” Ted blurted. “Keep my eyes peeled? Please tell me I don’t have to stand there with him while he’s–”
“It’s only for an hour. And I’ll be right here. Just holler if you need me.” Ken turned to step back into the guardroom, but stopped himself mid-stride. He turned back to Ted. “Oh, and I’d keep my eyes forward if I were you.” His mouth smiled, but his eyes did not. “Some awful stuff here in our little aquarium.”
Ted watched him walk away. He sighed and turned to the old man in his custody, who was hanging silent and expressionless in his hands.
“Guess it’s just you and me,” Ted said.
The two moved forward at a painfully slow pace, Ted taking small, halting steps, the old man shuffling along.
As they neared the first portal, Ted recalled Ken’s advice. But not even the strongest of wills could have ignored the overwhelming presence looming on the other side of the glass.
Ted craned his head up and to his left. Six massive snake-like heads stared back at him. Each rested at the end of a long, serpentine neck that wound away towards a body rendered a dark and blurry outline by the murky water. Each pair of tortoise-sized eyes seemed to follow him with unflinching bitterness and disdain. Three heads opened their wicked maws, baring three concentric rows of fat, translucent teeth as tall as the men they had long ago ripped from the deck of Ulysses’ home-bound vessel. Their companions flitted forked purple tongues over horned, scaly jaws.
Ted looked at the edge of the portal and was relieved to find that the walls and glass were at least ten feet thick. He followed the arc of rivets down to a grimy plaque bolted in place beneath the rim. It read H-800-B in thick, embossed characters.
He gazed down the hall. But something drew his attention to the portal on his right.
The water in the cell marked HH-1824 was only a few feet deep. A dozen yards from the portal, a large granite rock rose from the placid surface, dominating the interior. Ted’s eyes widened as he followed the rock’s upward slope to the vision perched on its stony summit.
Her skin was alabaster, her flaxen hair flowing around her shoulders and down her back, pooling about her like a blanket of gold. She combed her hair slowly, methodically, drawing a fine-toothed abalone comb down and out, down and out, through the same strands of shining hair. She paused, turned and locked her gaze on his.
Below her sad blue eyes, her mouth was firmly gagged with a balled-up crimson ribbon, silencing the golden voice that had for centuries lured love-struck mariners to dash their ships into kindling upon their rocky pedestals. Frayed strands spilled from between her deeply fissured lips like strips of bloody meat.
Ted turned away quickly and moved on with his charge.
Slowly, all but soundlessly, they made their way past a giant, coral-colored squid resting languidly at the bottom of cell JV-1870, its jet black eyes not registering their presence, its many tentacles slowly rising and falling about the eroded wreck of the Nautilus like loops of strange, underwater foliage. Then past a massive Great White, twenty-five feet from nose to tail–the scourge of Amity Island and one of the prison’s two most recent additions–who paused from chomping on a rusted-out dive tank to swim back and forth along the portal, knocking its scarred snout against the glass of PB-1974.
As Ted turned to the still distant chair, he felt a wave of anger wash over him. It was as if the portals had opened, allowing The Grotto’s fetid waters to rush into the great, yawning chamber, flooding Ted’s thoughts with the oceans of blood these creatures had spilled. His mind coursed with currents reddened by the scores of sailors, soldiers and swimmers they’d drowned, gnashed and swallowed, all at the whim of the men who’d summoned them forth. It sank into the lightless deep to dwell in the necropolis of their making, where fractured hulls slumped like mausoleums and upturned rudders marked unnamed graves. It overflowed with the tears of flesh and blood families and friends left broken and mourning.
His eyes darting between the vile things that flanked his path, wasting away in their putrid cells, he was overcome with a sense of purpose–a righteousness that set his gut aflame and crackled electric over his skin. They deserve this endless incarceration, he thought. And turning to his prisoner, feeling his face flush and draw taut with contempt, he was certain the old man deserved it, too.
At last they came to the portal with the small chair before it. HM-1851, read the plaque beneath the glass–same as the ragged label on the old man’s chest.
“Sit down,” Ted hissed, still in the grip of fury.
The old man said nothing. He merely stared at the cloudy water in what appeared to Ted to be an empty cell.
“I said sit down.”
Again the old man said nothing. And Ted was nearly too slow placing the chair underneath him as he started to sit without warning.
“All right, old man,” Ted said, “your hour starts–”
Something in Ted’s periphery drew his attention. He turned to the tank, and caught sight of a shape beginning to define itself far back in the filthy water–a soft, subtle lightening of space. It brightened as it neared the portal, its fuzzy, slightly oval form sharpening. And after a few short moments, Ted found himself face to face with an unnaturally large, uncannily colored whale.
The creature pressed its snow-white forehead against the glass, its flesh so thoroughly slashed, cleaved and pocked it appeared to be etched with ancient runes. As it swayed slowly from side to side, it revealed a brown and white-flecked body bristling with the splintered shafts of harpoons, and enmeshed in a latticework of nets, ropes and rigging. Lashed tight against the beast’s side was a gnawed, barnacle-encrusted skeleton–its arms splayed wide, its neck bound in a coil of blackened rope. The jagged tip of its right femur stirred within the rotting mouth of a wood and leather harness, sprouting a carved ivory peg.
The old man inhaled deeply, then held his breath. He raised his hands to his face. His body shook as he began to whimper.
“Oh…oh my boy…my boy.”
Ted stared in silence as the old man’s sobbing grew more intense. He watched his tears flow down his pallid cheeks and splash into his hands.
“I’m so sorry, my boy,” he said, wiping spittle from his chin. “I’m so sorry.”
Ted didn’t understand what the old man was apologizing for. But that didn’t matter. It was clear he felt a deep remorse for the murderous creature’s captivity.
“He’s killed hundreds,” Ted said through clenched teeth. “Even thousands by some accounts.” He felt his throat tighten. “He deserved to be hunted down and thrown in–”
The old man withdrew his face from his hands.
“Hunted down? Is that the story they tell?”
The old man shook his head and laughed–the sound brittle, defeated. He turned slowly to meet Ted’s gaze. His pale eyes flared as he spoke.
“I put him in here,” he snarled. “The bastards put a pen in my hand and a gun in my mouth and said give us the whale. And I…I was too craven to defy them…I put my own life before his.”
The old man’s words enveloped Ted in a disquieting chill, turning his skin to goose-flesh. He stood, listening, the hair on the back of his neck rising.
“I may well deserve this,” the prisoner said, just above a whisper. “But he…”
As if responding to the old man’s lament, the whale opened its long, narrow mouth. A stream of thundering, throbbing clicks filled the hall, rattling the portals in their frames.
The old man’s jaw went slack. He leaned forward, pressed his face to the glass, and howled. He brought his hands alongside his sunken, tear-slicked cheeks. His breath plumed from his nose and mouth, forming a fine mist on the cool glass. His long, yellowed nails rapped a quiet rhythm as he gently ran his fingers down the smooth surface, as if stroking the beast’s ruined brow.
As Ted watched the old man, the tide of anger that had coursed hotly through him ebbed, leaving in its wake an icy sadness. The tension in him drained. And all he felt was a profound and utter emptiness.
He thought of the old man being dragged down the corridor and dropped in his throne of penance and pain, every year for the last hundred and twenty. He imagined the stark scene playing out long after he himself had walked his final round. Envisioned the endless succession of warders to come, wheeling out the old man’s slow-withering form, his gnarled legs dangling feebly, his head propped upright, his heavy eyes pried and fixed open by some grotesque contraption. And for the briefest of moments, Ted felt as though he might join the old man in tears.
Ted found his thoughts drifting to Ken’s words. “Don’t take your eyes off either of them,” he had said. “Not for a second.” But seeing the old man’s regret twist his decrepit form into a thing even more piteous and meek, he felt the only human thing to do was look away.
He turned his head and gazed down the corridor, allowing the old man a private moment with his creation.
After a few moments, he turned back and stepped to the old man, who looked like he was about to collapse in his chair.
“Sir, please,” Ted said, placing his hands on his shoulders and easing him back from the glass, “Let me help…”
His words petered out as he caught sight of the glass. Where the old man’s hands and face had been, a frosting of breath was fading fast…but not fast enough.
Before Ted could react, the letters scratched into the waning cloud leaped from their glassy page, and in a process primal, rote, indescribable, burst into his mind, forming words, phrases, sentences…meaning.
Suddenly, the white whale ceased its cries, whirled around and disappeared into the shadowy depths of its tank. There was a breath of silence, a low, rhythmic thrumming that sent a shiver through metal and glass, loosening the cell floor in roiling clouds of mud, sand and silt. Then the distant sound of waves crashing. And the ear-splitting, klaxon wail of an alarm.
“What the hell!” screamed Ken.
Ted turned to see the veteran guard barreling towards him, rolls of fat writhing beneath his uniform, legs looking as though they might snap under his weight at any moment.
He stopped a few feet in front of the two men and sunk forward, wincing as he rested his hands on his knees. He wheezed as he spoke, gasping for air between words.
“What happened? What the hell happened?”
Ted didn’t speak. He looked down at the old man hanging limp in his arms, his body a parched, gossamer husk, its weight almost imperceptible. The barest trace of a smile still lingered on his breathless lips. Then he turned to the patch of rime on the glass.
Ken followed his stare and found the passage, all but lost with the fleeting mist.
“My God,” he said, as he too read.
The white whale threshed its powerful tail, exploded from the shadowy depths of its cell toward the sun-tipped waves, and sailed over the high brass walls into the boundless blue beyond.
About the Author
Jeff Samson makes a living as a copywriter with an ad agency in NYC. He brews Irish stout when he’s not writing science fiction, and often drinks it when he is. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and no cats.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a self-described “former aspiring voice actor” who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the No Sleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.