The slop door opened in Baldo’s new abode. With the bowl of porridge came a book, the title sloughed off the leather binding long ago. Baldo cracked the spine and a letter dropped to the floor:
I trust you find yourself in a comfortable setting, such as it was for me. The cell you currently occupy was my home for the past two years. Your previous accommodations, the ones I currently reside in, are a wretched place and I see now why you were so indisposed when I first laid eyes upon you. I fear that in a short amount of time, I too will share your grim visage. I can not allow this to happen.
Look for my calling,
- - -
Baldo was woken from sleep three nights after by a voice calling out to him.
“Wake up! Hello there! Wake up!”
Baldo sat bolt upright on the cot. It was too dark to see anything in his cell and, even though he could not remember if he was dreaming or not (he wasn’t) his first instinct was that something had carried over from sleep and startled him into consciousness. There echoed a soft whistle and Baldo looked up.
“Comfortable, hmmm?” The voice was coming from the rafters of Baldo’s cell. “The floor just doesn’t compare to that splendid cot.”
Baldo stood now. “Who’s there?” He croaked. Despite the blissful bed and airy quarters, he was still in bad shape.
The rafters creaked under the weight of someone above.
“I trust you received my letter?” Baldo did not answer. “My name is Alessandro Garanova. What is yours?”
Baldo told the voice from above his name.
“And for what crime are you imprisoned?”
Baldo told him the crime. “But I am an innocent man.”
“Yes, of course you are.”
“You don’t believe me. The voice in the rafters does not believe me.”
“I believe you. Even though you cannot see my face to judge my frankness, I implore you; listen to the cadence in my voice.” He repeated: “I believe you.”
Baldo paused. “And what are you locked away for?”
“Unlawful access to the Archive, they’ll tell you.”
“You lie. Only the Chancellor’s advisors have access to the secret Archive.”
“Ah. And who do you think the advisor’s wives occupy themselves with while their husbands are away? Alessandro Garanova, that’s who.”
If they had been face-to-face, Garanova would have seen Baldo’s raised eyebrow. Instead, his silence was a substitute.
“I am deemed an enemy of the state,” Garanova continued. “I have successfully seduced most all their better halves. Taken them on as lovers, yes. Magnificent, orgiastic encounters you probably would not even be able to imagine. When they are drunk with my virility... I have my way with their husbands’ unlocked offices.” The rafters groaned, satisfied. “So, you see. I’m not only a threat to their sacred nuptuals, but to the very architecture this city is built upon. And let me tell you, my friend. The foundation is weakened. This is why I believe your claims of innocence. With what I know, I would be surprised if any man in captivity here is truly guilty of the crimes he’s been convicted of. I myself can only be considered an adulterer. I did nobody any harm, and stole nothing, besides merely a glance... They are threatened by the information in my head.”
Baldo sat back down on the cot.
“And this information?”
Garanova cleared his throat. “There was one particular circumstance I came across. Perhaps it is much like yours. A man, I forget his name, was a mason for the city, an honest man on paper, at least. He owned property to the north, where they have been expanding the tourist quarters, yes? A swath of canal was to go through the very spot he made his home. Serrenis’ council members had convinced the man’s neighbors to move and he was the last hold-out before they brought in the plasma cutters and all their devilry. He had no family to speak of, no leverage with which to be bribed. He was contented with his artisan profession, and they could not convince him to look for work elsewhere. So the man’s finances were poured over. And even though he had paid his taxes on time and submitted his employment forms well before they were due, this was where he was found to be most vulnerable. Someone, a clerk, an advisor, dare I say a member of the Chancellor’s high court, waltzed down to an informa-port and submitted the man’s name with an addendum of forged financial records and... presto! The man winds up mining the core while his house is bulldozed and progress is paved.”
“I lived in the southern islands. What would they want with my house?”
“I didn’t say this happened to you exactly. Who knows what interests the state has in you or your property?”
“Are you saying they murdered my family to...”
“All I’m saying is that I believe your claims of innocence. I alone do not hold the answers.”
Baldo made fists with his hands, his mind swirling. He could not, for the life of him, wrap his head around what this Garanova was implying. Until now, he had deemed his family’s death a case of malicious, evil intent, the act of a crazed person. The way they were lined up on the bed like that...
“And how do you propose I seek these answers, locked up here, waiting for this storm to pass?”
“You break out of this prison. With my help, of course.”
Baldo sat up on the cot again. “My mind must be playing tricks on me, then. I have imagined a voice in the rafters and this is my final glimpse of sanity before I dive down toward the core of madness.”
Silence from above. Baldo was about to congratulate himself for calling out the specter, sealing up his cracked psyche.
“Is the armoire still against the far wall?”
Baldo’s gaze flitted to the hulking closet through which he had once dreamt of an escape route.
“Go to it,” whispered the voice.
Against his better judgement, Baldo obeyed.
“Can you move it? It is heavy. This is why it remains. Knowing all of the court’s secret motives allows for certain... privileges. Alas, this particular piece will not fit in my new quarters. Well, can you?”
Baldo shoved the thing. It gave the impression of being bolted to the floor. He shoved from the side, but it would not relent. The sounds of his struggles did not go unnoticed.
“Try to shimmy it, from the rear.”
Baldo scooted down, observed the thick legs of the closet. He gripped here and inched the thing away from the back wall. There, carved through the wood beams, was an impression, a breach, a hole. The beginnings of one, anyway. Baldo gasped.
“You see it? Yes. The cell you occupy is the only possible means of escape. There is a passage to the rooftops through the walls. I was making great progress until they decided to transfer me. That wretched Xiomar thought I was living above my means. Well, I made a similar crevice in your old cell, only to find that it buttressed all the others. Either way, the possibility remains. Of escape. You and I.”
Baldo stared at the fissure in the wall for some time. A low wind echoed back at him from the nethers of the prison. After a time, he shoved the armoire back, covering the hole.
He could hear the rafters creak above in anticipation.
“I am sorry. I cannot accept your offer.” Baldo lay back onto the cot. “I have made my peace. Perhaps you should as well.”
Baldo’s night visitor said no more. The rafters were silent.
- - -
Sleep did not come to Arriago Baldasarrio easily that night. Where previously his mind was free from visions, he found himself plagued by a terrible dream--
Baldo stands before the fissure in the wall of his cell, the closet hacked to pieces on the floor by his own doing. After a moment, a hand grasps from the inside of the wall, then another. Both work to pull a figure free from the darkness; Masha, his love.
He cannot understand the state she appears in. Healthy, bright, the most beautiful thing he’s seen in forever; not the gutted skeleton he remembers from before. She stands there, holds her hands to her heart.
“Baldo,” she coos. “How I’ve missed you.”
“What do you want with me?” He can barely breathe.
All she does is smile that bright smile he thought he’d never see again. Masha turns to the hole in the wall, cocks her head. “Have a look for yourself.”
Baldo approaches the breach where a pinhead of light seems to hover before him. As he passes his head, then his shoulders, through the hole, the pinhead blinds him, becomes a spark, then a fire of things to come.
Baldo sees an image of himself, slaving on Jupiter’s core. Worked beyond the threshold of death, toward an empty shell of the person he once was. This mirror image, much like the one he feared gazing upon from the palace chamber, frightened him beyond any capacity for fear he thought possible in the human psyche. If his mind was not broken now, this viable future-self was evidence that it would be soon. Baldo’s vision continued as a dark cloud rose behind his doppelgänger, went unnoticed as he chipped away at worthless rock. The cloud undulated toward him like a great wall. The second-Baldo was evaporated in a pink mist, wiped from the memory of existence by an unstoppable wind--
Baldo woke, drenched in sweat. It was Masha who convinced him. He stood, removed a page from the back of the book Garanova had slipped him, and began to write with lose piece of carbon filing.
- - -
I regret refusing your offer. Please allow me to assist you in any way possible.
- - -
Ho! My savior and good-luck charm! You cannot imagine the jubilation that is coursing through me while writing this. We are but feet from each other, yet we are reduced to writing on paper like our forefathers! How dull-witted is the guard who delivers books between us? He must think you a voracious reader indeed!
Here is my (and your’s, now) plan to escape:
1. In three days time, so as not to arouse suspicion, you will receive a large book from me. Hidden in said book’s spine will be a plasma cutter I had previously smuggled here inside my favorite gilded chair.
2. You will need to tunnel further with the cutter. It carries a weak charge, so this will take you some time. The progress I have made myself took almost a full year.
3. When you are finished (you will know this to be the case because the wood paneling should give way to a metal air duct. Cut through this as well and we will have access to the rooftops where we shall flee) return the plasma cutter to my cell via the same novel. I will then use it to enter your cell at the time of our escape.
4. Regarding said time. I have long thought the first day our grand city is blessed with sunlight would be a proper date. This, in four months time, should give you an ample stretch in which to work. Most of the citizens will have their gazes focused on the sun and we will have a much easier time. It must be this day, when their irises are not yet adjusted to the light, that we make our breakout.
Stay focused and work with gusto. Forget your past life, and the one here in limbo, and your future will await you once you are free.
Mere paces from you,
- - -
Upon receipt of the plasma cutter, Baldo was consumed with a sense of purpose he barely had a memory of. Slowly chipping away at the wood with the knife (a low charge indeed), the feeling reminded him of his endeavors in the piazza. He was making a bargain with the very walls of this prison. Release me and you will never have to see me again, was the wager.
Baldo’s dreams of Masha subsided. She had done her part at convincing him. He was glad his last picture was of her whole and perfect, not torn and broken on their bed, bookended by their children.
He turned his tortured mind to other things in the tedium. Nights were occupied instead by the small flame of the plasma knife and frequent visits by Garanova in the rafters. Baldo could tell from the sound of his guest’s voice that the confines of the cell he’d previously lived in (the mites, the stale air) were taking their toll.
“If you can manage, will you tell me about your wife?” Garanova asked him one night. He seemed to want to occupy himself with far off thoughts.
Baldo stopped cutting. With the low flame extinguished he sat in the darkness of his cell.
“I can remember the first time I laid eyes on her. I had come to Serrenis looking for work and the first landmark I set out for was Zulé bridge.”
“The sun was just... golden over the city. It blinded me for a moment and I had to look away. When my eyes adjusted and I returned my gaze to the same spot, there she was. Blocking out the sun, casting a cool shadow over me. And I just...”
The rafters were silent for a time.
“In all my travels,” Garanova continued, “this is the one thing I was deficient in. I tell you, I’ve been to nearly every planet in the solar system. I spent quite a bit of time on Mars, seducing martian women, as it were. But I never had what you speak of. A woman, to cast her shadow-spell over me. I haven’t a use for it.”
“Perhaps, now you do.”
The room fell silent and, after a time, Baldo returned to the carving out of their passageway.
- - -
By the time Baldo reached the metal duct that would lead them to the roof, the days had already begun to illuminate the sliver of stained-glass in his cell. Not bright enough to see by, mind you, but a reminder of the coming light and their dwindling calendar. Baldo worked with haste to slice through the vent and when he peeled the copper back he felt a rush of fresh air over his cheek. He gulped the stuff greedily down into his lungs for as long as he could stand it, then returned the armoire to cover the hole.
- - -
End Part 3.