Skies Not Seen
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Zrnyowycz Precinct #00AAFF Station 13, 16 Juli 1976

Heaven's Gutter

It starts the way so many of my misadventures do: with a photo of a police station. The corrugated walls of Zrnyowycz Precinct #0000FF Station 13 crawl into the sky like heaven’s gutter. In between blinks, the world transitions from eerie blue to dull concrete. Each of my arms is ringed by a stormtrooper in navy overalls. In front of me stands Commandant Blue-13 herself, dressed like a cerulean bike mechanic. Her eyes sparkle with undisguised malice.

The Commandant rips the Polaroid from my neck hard enough to bruise and squints at it. Then she informs me that I am the first person to violate Blue Code 7A: unlicensed photography of a military installation, amended this morning to shade all Precinct #0000FF Stations under said umbrella nomenclature. She cites the possibility that I might reach through a photograph of the station and drop a bomb in the foyer.

I like to think she isn’t inaccurate — that my work entails dropping explosive truths on people — but I’d also rather sleep on a mattress than a cell floor tonight. I tell the Commandant that I’m merely a foreign correspondent, allowed entry into the city by agreement of her superiors, and have no interest in trying to bomb the front of the police station. If I really wanted to, then now would be the perfect time to blow the place up.

This is the wrong retort. Just as my brain catches up to my mouth, I become conscious of a clog in my throat that suddenly becomes an embolism. Blue-13 stares at me through deoxygenated bloodshot eyes while her jackboots strip me of my outerwear. I’m too busy aspirating on my breakfast to resist. My head swims and my vision darkens — then her irises deepen into human blue and my lungs finally inflate. The Commandant informs me that I have been arrested on charge of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Minimum sentence: ten years hard labor.

I give up the fight with my gullet and vomit onto her boots.

The Paint

I try to look as non-photogenic as possible for the mugshot and fail. I’ve handled enough cameras to recognize my photographer’s skill by the way he angles the lens. Before nightfall, perfect portraits of my profile will be plastered in fearful blue across the Precinct. This will pose a serious challenge to my SIGINT capabilities. Or maybe it won’t. I’ll have no shortage of networking opportunities in the clink.

But first I have to be processed and stamped. After undressing in front of two masked stormtroopers, I’m pushed into a long communal shower with a dozen other women. At batonpoint, we stumble under the showerheads and let them drench us in freezing water. I try to step away and take a truncheon to the gut, doubling up as the shock of water is replaced by the burn of hot paint splattering my back. Steaming neon dye runs down my body, staining my pores lime green prison couture.

When the showers finally stop, my fellow prisoners and I greedily suck down paintless air before being screamed into the next room: an enormous wind tunnel where huge industrial fans blow so loud it feels like they’re ripping the oxygen from our lungs. The paint on my skin congeals into a neon shell, sealing me in a rubber bag full of yogurt and teeth — and that’s before the fans stop and I hear someone mention asbestos.

As the stormtroopers herd us out of the wind tunnel and into the cellblock proper, I try introducing myself to the other prisoners. There’s Lyudmila (fifteen years for ideological subversion) and Halina (five years for subversive sexuality) in Cell 7B. Maarja (ten years for manslaughter) in 14F claims she’s taking a fall for her boyfriend. Magda and Elzbetia (twenty years for distribution of Red propaganda) are twins sharing Cell 20R. Magda says their supplier stopped sending them skin flicks and Elzbetia says the Commandant didn’t like losing her bribes. My cell is 6F: a small concrete block, three meters to a side, with two stone bunks and a single steel one piece sink/toilet. The woman sitting on it — painted entirely green — is named Katja, and she used to be one of my closest friends.

Katja has been given twenty years for creating propaganda to disrupt public order and attack party rule. Specifically, by drawing political cartoons in Thin Blue Line, a self-published booklet dedicated to cataloging police brutality. The Commandant did not appreciate Katja giving her snakes for hair. These days she draws mostly on the toilet frame and under the bed, and has given the Commandant snakes for hair in even more places. She asks me how I got in here. I tell her honestly: I picked a fight with the wrong person.

We consider the possibility that the Commandant knows of our friendship. I didn’t even know she was in Zrnyowycz until she turned to face me on that bunk. She’s certainly seen my work in the Red samizdats — her zines copied my photographs. She points out that at least Thin Blue Line credited me under the images. The people in my photographs are still unnamed.

We share a guilty laugh.


There is a tremendous amount of porn in prison. Not enough real photos exist in the prison economy, but this is the mother of all necessities and so the prisoners have become accustomed to the false kind. Katja has wasted no time at all making herself comfortable in prison. She wastes no time making me feel comfortable either. At lunch, she works the tables surrounded by a gaggle of fans, keeping lookout for guards. She collects all the stolen markers they can find — no pens in here — and tattoos their visages with titillating images for the personal pleasure of the people.

Katja charges eight dollars for a tattoo. At first I don’t understand. Paint is how Precinct #0000FF enforces control. They paint us for different work duties. They paint us before cleaning bathrooms. At the end of the week, they hose us off with paint stripper and then smother us under a fresh coat of prison green. Some of these tattoos don’t last even an hour. Eight dollars can buy a lot of things: a jar of plum pruno, a whole box of cigarettes, a fashion magazine — in short, things that last a whole lot longer than tattoos. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Neither have the guards. Most of them struggle to keep a straight face as their prisoners march past; they’re all dying to react, to say something about the slogans tattooed across chests and pornography displayed proudly across everyone’s shoulder blades. As long as we don’t touch them — they can’t touch us. No doubt they want to make us feel uncomfortable. Somehow the fact we’re already naked doesn’t seem to occur to them. Not until we remind them. Then they have to be uncomfortable too. Prison is about small victories like that — inflicting small humiliations on the gods of our own personal Tartarus.

For me it also becomes about winning small victories against Katja. A tattoo made from ink brewed in a broken toilet pays for my yard work and Katja avoids kitchen cleanup by drawing a picture of a cross across the supervising guard’s chest. The chess set was the first thing Katja saved up for with her commission money — cost her five extremely detailed drawings whose quality I’ve seen firsthand in the showers — but until I showed up she hadn’t had anyone to play against. She beats me every game.

We can’t buy our way out of chores but we turn them into social groups. I talk shop with her and Magda while smashing rocks in a mine that shouldn’t exist and hold informal book clubs with her and Halina while scrubbing the bathroom floors. Sometimes we tell stories about ourselves in a constant — if friendly — game of one-upmanship. Katja has a way of telling stories that puts me to shame. Her voice echoes into the skies under the caverns at the bottom of the oubliette and around bathrooms that are bigger on the inside. It baffles me that she chose to put this talent to toil away thanklessly in an endless guerilla war, against an unceasingly cold enemy content to do nothing but turn half of Zrnyowycz — repurpose schools, libraries, homes — into concrete trenches over ten stories tall.

The Aeroflot

The newer prisoners — the ones who haven’t been up and down every cell along the demilitarized zone, who haven’t put their lives out on the line nearly as often — have questions only Katja can answer. Why are we being treated so nicely? It’s part of a game, Katja explains, being played between herself and the former Commandant Blue-01. Katja made the first move at the onset of the revolution by wrecking the Commandant’s custom-painted Aeroflot: a beautiful little moped with a ceremonial sapphire sheen and even custom-painted seats. She probably had to save up two years to buy it. Which made it all the sweeter when Katja took a bat to it and threw Molotovs at her precinct.

Since those opening potshots, Katja’s personal war with the Commandant has dragged them south through Zrnyowycz like a rupturing fault line across a dozen different identities. Blue has tried to break Katja down a dozen times before; Katja has broken out of her jails a dozen times since and stolen her rank in the process. Only the strongest police union on this plane has kept the Commandant in the blue. Now, all the way down in Precinct #0000FF, Blue-13 is hellbent on making up for her prior dozen failings.

On Katja’s side of things, she’s developed a reputation as a problem-solver. She’s here to investigate a sudden rash of defections in the area linked to Blue-13. The Commandant has been historically distinguished by her penchant for psychological warfare and creativity for repurposing abandoned stocks of chemical weapons as prison wear. The luxury treatment — for a Blue precinct anyways — is undoubtedly part of her latest scheme to crack Katja’s mind like a geode and extract the gems within.

I quote her almost verbatim because it’s a memorable story with a memorable teller. Makes me feel inadequate and I’ve actually worked for the Red military. Katja swears up and down on her life that every single one of her thousand and one tales is totally true. And for all I know they might be. I can barely remember a time outside the walls of Red SIGINT, let alone before this war. My face burns to think about how far I’ve distanced myself from my original subjects.

Out of the Black

The next time I see Blue-13, her face is so out of place it reminds me of an ink stain on a black and white photograph. At some point in the past I ran afoul of her. I wasn’t smart enough to be scared of her then. I’m not stupid enough to be scared of her now. Not after what must have been a year of Spy vs Spy tales about my best friend and her arch-nemesis, the former Blue-01.

But our run-in was so long ago I’ve forgotten what a camera feels like in my hands. I’m far more acclimated to the white paint that sticks to my skin like paste and stings like bleach as I take pickaxes to chunks of jet black rock on the floor of a sky below the ground. I don’t know how our slave labor is fueling the Blue war effort. I don’t want to think about that. I just focus on the increasing weight of each wooden cart I fill with rocks so that I can get back to the task of surviving this gulag. I focus on the uncertain rattle each cart makes as it gets drawn back up the tracks that spiral up into the false sky and back into the real world above it.

The sky blinks. I blink back and a face comes into focus: that of Commandant Blue-13. Twin holes open in her skull, then seal over, then open. I see the lashes then: those aren’t holes, those are eyes — dyed the same false black as the sky. It makes her head seem hollow. A ripple of sickness radiates out of me and makes the paint shiver on my skin.

Commandant Blue calls for Katja. I see her out of the corner of my eye but don’t look at her. Nobody does. This must be the Commandant’s move. I have to do something.

She calls for Katja again. Nobody responds.

Commandant Blue-13 sighs loudly. Then the hole in her head becomes a pitch black searchlight, waterboarding each of us with her gaze until one of us cracks. I remember Katja said she’d seen it cause a heart attack before. I don’t want to see her demonstrate it.

What do you want with her?

Even I’m surprised that I asked the question. Blue-13 zeroes in on me and I have no choice but to stare back. She cocks her head and tells me that she wants to work out a plea deal with Katja. They have better things to do than hold her indefinitely — assuming she hasn’t escaped already, in which case they have better things to do than chase her. After all, freedom is a basic human instinct by law.

In the meantime, she considers, my arrest report has been processed and I have been identified as a sapphire-level person of interest. Blue-13’s gaze pounces with a kaleidoscope of colors that drains the strength from my eyes. It’s as if I’m falling asleep on my feet. My head swims and my vision darkens —

I awaken in a tiled room illuminated by a single sickly blue bulb. A honeycombed plastic chair with metal restraints sits bolted over a storm drain in the center of the floor. A pair of stormtroopers planted in the corner let me sweat in my second skin for what seems like an hour. Then I’m face-to-face once more with Blue-13. She has some questions for me.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

A traditional courtship is filled with photos and mementos. The Commandant takes no photos and leaves only mementos in my memory. Like her bagel. It smells of chives and never enters her mouth — just shrinks between blinks. The bagel disappears and Commandant asks me if I’ve heard of the prisoner’s dilemma. I ask her if I’ll receive a trial. Her eyes flash jingoistic blue and she proceeds to recite, in a flat, even tone, my full name, date of birth, address where I was born, and the names Agneta e Lizbek and Black Chamber.

Blue-13’s eyes dim to their black star shade and she asks me if I know about the prisoner’s dilemma. It’s a very simple thought experiment: Take two members of the same criminal organization who are both arrested and put in solitary confinement. The prosecutors cannot get either member on the primary charge, but they can get both members on the lesser charges. If only one prisoner betrays the other, the collaborator walks and the silent member gets five years. If neither person talks, they both get two years. If both prisoners betray the other, they each get three years. Here, Blue-13 says, is where Zrnyowycz’s variant on the dilemma differs from the way it was originally formulated by American think tanks.

As easily as she could torture me for days and weeks on end, the Commandant would rather just apologize for the need for this bullshit and offer me the same deal she offers all the inmates of her precinct. If I tell her everything she wants to know about the Black Chamber, I can be transferred to a work-release program in Precinct #00AAFF on nonviolent prisoner parole. I’ll even get to do photograph work for their nationally funded museums and will be free as soon as the war ends. It’s the same deal she offered the prisoner who told on me. A prisoner who knows a lot about my work and likes drawing her with snakes for hair.

I work my jaw once, then twice, then tell the Commandant to go to hell. Her eyes blink slowly and mournfully. She takes my jaw in her hand and tilts my chin up, then proceeds to describe — in her own words — a whiny sniveling shit who photographs people’s suffering like it’s a spectacle and has only made a fool of herself working in a military she’s barely known for a year. I am simply not worth the intelligence effort on their side to interrogate and frankly have come dangerously close to being assassinated by my own side for this exact fear. Protecting me from this war is a kindness that I can never repay.

The commandant releases my hand and rubs my paint-petrified hair. The offer, she says cheerfully, will remain standing for as long as I remain sitting. Blue-13 neatly pivots, walks through the door, and vanishes behind a pitch blue void.

Ultraviolent Blue

For the next 17 18 19 ?? hours, I see only as a disembodied face staring into an ultraviolent blue canvas, counting the minutes. This shade of blue is used in Zrnyowycz fighter jets to keep their pilots awake on intercontinental runs. My paint shell keeps me on sensory lockdown — I can’t feel the water on my back or the metal biting my wrists or even my aching back. All I do is stare at myself in the wall.

The blue blinks back at me. I feel distanced from myself, as though I’m the reflection in the mirror’s Iris. She stares at me like she’s considering the Commandant’s request. The paint is toxic in a way I don’t understand. My metabolism keels over. Less than air slips in and out of me. My throat is dry. My chest won’t expand enough. It feels like being caught between sleep and death. I want to fall over and die. Barring that, rest my eyes but I can’t because of this damn white noise. White noise, white walls, white everything — and then Commandant Blue enters, eyes flaring indigo, and then walls stare back at me in ultraviolet. The bagel in her hand becomes smaller.

We settle into a rhythm: I wake up, strapped down in the neon blue bathroom. White noise fills the air, source unknown, rattling and percussive and just staggered enough to prevent my brain from properly filtering it out. Then the noise stops and I pass out for thirty seconds before Blue-13 wakes me up by slapping my cheeks. Once she’s certain I’m awake, she stares at me intently. In between blinks, her breakfast shrinks in her hands before vanishing. When Commandant asks me to consider her offer, I say nothing until she leaves and the lights pummel me with purple.

On the thirtieth day — I assume a day passes between interrogation sessions — the blue pops. A woman in orange screams back at me, blaring into my eyes and ears and orifices, begging me to flee by calling for Commandant. I’m begging me to flee from Commandant. I yell back at this worse version of me. She screams at me to squeal to Blue-13 and give her everything I know. Give her the name of everyone who can suffer instead of me. I scream at her because she’s a filthy traitor, a coward and Judas that needs to be punished, executed hanged for my betrayal that I need her to commit —

Commandant Blue steps into the room and we both scream at her. Words don’t come out, only a furious, hollow bellow that can’t encapsulate the seizing pulsing burning fury radiating out of our neck and veins and heart

I don’t know how much time passes before I finally run out of air. I’m not sure I remember what it feels like to breathe. The Commandant stares at me while I re-learn to breathe and then asks if I want to know how long I’ve been sitting here. I say nothing.

Half an hour.

The last thirty days — the toxic paint, the constant abrasion by yogurt and teeth and water and my own voice, the burning and rattling and sickness and turbulence and madness — have been stuck between in half the loop of a clock. The Commandant tells me that she will return for me in twenty-four hours, confident that I’ll have the right answer for her by then. She rubs my paint-petrified hair and I start to cry.

Commandant Blue-13 takes my jaw in her hand and tilts my chin up as I tearfully accept her offer. Over the next two hours, we become confidants. I learn about her childhood and penchant for, of all things, strawberry ice cream; she learns the addresses of every safehouse between here and Markettown. She once ate a whole onion raw in 25 minutes on a bet; now she knows where every red Samizdat publication house in the Fifth Quarter is. We even have the same fondness for foreign films. Blue-13 can name every Bollywood musical made since 1953. Now she can name every traitorous dispatch between here and Precinct #00AAFF.

Blue-13 hugs me tight and tells me she’ll be back with the chair keys before I can blink. She neatly pivots and opens the door. A fusillade of bullets rip through her and paint the room with splatters of iron purple. The illusion shatters. The endless blue void becomes a bloody bathroom lit by a dirty blue bulb.

The End is Not The End

I stare dully at Blue-13 as a man and woman in unmistakable red gawk at me from the threshold. They step over her, smash my shackles, and escort me out. The cellblock is now the site of a post-urban operation. Blue bodies are everywhere, watched over by rebels and excited prisoners in all kinds of body colors.

The processing station of Precinct #0000FF is now a hive of red drones handing paper clothes to green queens. I wander to the evidence locker, unmolested by harried rebels, and find a box with a ruined roll of film and the smashed remains of my Polaroid. The paper clothes they gave me have no pockets so I wander outside holding a box of camera bits in both hands.

Katja is already there. She’s sitting almost shell-shocked on the curb, staring at the sunset burning red on the horizon, dressed in cheap cherry paper over white-tarred skin. We don’t look at each other.

I manage to ask the question first. She doesn’t answer — only apologizes. Then she asks me the same question. I stare into her eyes and lie.

Katja thanks me and hugs me. Tears stream down her face as she babbles apology after apology into my ear. I tune her out and watch the sun set. I wish I could photograph it with my best friend.

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