A Prisoner of Triskelion
The Doctors’ Plot
“So you have no university degree?” asked Doctor Vetula.
“Ma’am…um, doctor, really, I barely graduated from high school.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“That’s what I’m wondering. Why are any of us here?”
“I refer to this assembly. We are six academics forming an ad hoc fellowship to formulate a feasible plan of escape and then executing it. The problem is a most subtle one.”
“The Cloud isn’t subtle.”
“Who told you of the Cloud?”
“A little rainstorm did.”
“Most amusing. An now I’m sure you’ll want to excuse yourself and go dig a tunnel or something.”
“Doctors all, have you considered a certain reality of this prison?”
“Yes! It’s brutal! And the food – I’m sure some of it’s genetically modified.”
“And tinned. Now just off campus there was a holistic foods store where only fresh, all-natural grains grown by quaint ethnic women in Guatemala…”
“And the collection in this library – so plebeian. Romance novels, for God’s sake.”
“No, no, no – I’m talking about how un-prison-y this place is. Look, I’ve never been in prison; only in jail after the Dragon Boat Festival when…but that’s not important. What’s important is that this is not like a prison at all. We dress how we want, we haven’t been beaten up, the other prisoners don’t look as if they know a shiv from Shiva from Shinola, and we’ve got more freedom to move around than in a high school.”
“I’m sure your concepts of freedom and mine would seldom intersect.”
“Stop intruding personalities. The question is this: why are we here? If we answer that, we might have a clue or a cue about how not to be here.”
“Mr. O’Cannan, I hope you will not take this amiss when I suggest to you that this is not an Agatha Christie novel. If it would amuse you, you might want to go dig a tunnel or search for clues.”
“Most amusing – and I will.”
And he did.
“I trust your interview with the doctors’ escape committee went satisfactorily, sir?”
“Father Travers, I detect a certain sense of humor in you. You knew I was about to entangle with some princesses of both sexes. You’re enjoying this, aren’t you.”
“Immensely, Mr. O’Cannan.”
“Please call me Brendan; Mr. O’Cannan was my father.”
“And you may call me Travers or Father Travers, but I prefer that you address me as Your Worship.”
“Your Worship it is. And now I’m off for a walk outside. I want to smell fresh air and to feel the sun.”
“Fresh air obtains in abundance; the sun, I regret to say, often absents himself from these Viking skies. Perhaps he’s holidaying in Italy.”
“I’m reminded to ask – just where are we, Your Worship?”
“The answer lies not in scripture, my son, nor in your heart nor in the words of the wise among us; it lies outside. Actually it flies outside,” replied Father Travers with a smile.”
O’Cannan, by well-marked passages and doors, old and new, found his way outside. A few feet of grey-green gravel just outside a huge, mediaeval – or at least mediaeval-ish – door yielded to a margin of cold-green grass and then to a glacis – for some of it appeared to have been worked - or scree to the dark blue water.
The very air was Viking, cold and clean and salt-wet, almost soul-healing. Sea-fowl flew and cried, like “The Seafarer’s” icy-feathered terns. Although to the eponymous Anglo-Saxon sailor the cries of the feathered travelers of the ocean’s roof were like harbingers of death, to O’Cannan, on this day, they sang of freedom and life.
Among the larger rocks other prisoners were nurturing plots of garden by hoarding and composting seaweed, dead fish, and whatever other biologicals they could access.
O’Cannan hoped that no part of the accessed biologicals included the body parts of dead humans. He was reminded of an often-repeated wheeze from an old teacher: “I like young people; they go so well with a nice salad, potatoes, and a nice Quidi Vidi ale.”
Other prisoners – or, rather, guests; Triskelion employed many evasive euphemisms – were fishing, reading, smoking, idling, or forlornly scanning the mist-hidden horizon for a now lost world.
In their bright sweaters and coats and knit wool caps and innocent recreations they made the island of Triskelion appear to be a Baltic holiday camp.
The snapping of fabric in a wind gust caused O’Cannan to look up. And in that cold, cloud-blown grey sky he observed the flag of a small nation with a glorious history, a nation now known mostly for the export of Christmas cookies and the domestic consumption of hashish.
So what was the connection among Cuba, Triskelion, and Christmas Cookie Country? Was the Guestmaster truthful in this matter?
But that was all probably irrelevant. Employing Hercule Poirot’s concept of order and method, O’Cannan set out for himself the conditions of his present life, and proposals for amending it:
1. He, Brendan O’Cannan, was in a place where he wished not to be.
2. Thus, he should remove himself to a different place, preferably God’s holy island of Newfoundland.
3. Item #2 is compromised by:
A. A firm promise of death if he were attempt to leave Triskelion.
B. The Cloud of Electronic Unknowing was death to any form of communication, even the footer scores. Of course the good thing about the Cloud’s obdurate behavior was that he was spared the agony of having to listen to the cricket results.
4. At least one of the Dotty Doctors had once built a wireless receiver. If all the scientists were to work together instead of comparing the magnificent magnitudes of their academic dimensions, not unlike naughty adolescents behind the vocational laboratory at school, could construct a powerful wireless transmitter for calling for help.
5. IF The Cloud could be disabled.
6. Thus (a second thus), he must urge the Monstrous Regiment of Perfidious Princess (of both sexes, or two, or three) Professors to assemble, from whatever bits and pieces he and they could find, not one but several transmitters of different types to conceal in different locations.
7. Further, he and they must find the source of The Cloud of Electronic Unknowing and determine a way of unplugging the thing.
8. However, being shot and then ground into fish flakes would be an unfortunate game-ender.
O’Cannan lay on a warm rock, looked out to sea, and thought and thought until a bell rang for lunch.
He found the galley by following other prisoners, with whom he exchanged relaxed greetings. They sat at long tables in a barn-like hall which perhaps really had been a barn at one time in the island’s history. At the end of the hall a large, gilded Triskelion was painted on the wall. Lunch was beef over pasta of some sort, with two very English vegetables and a pudding, served, perhaps to keep portions controlled, by other prisoners taking their monthly turn as would O’Cannan. That he had not yet been assigned to work details was simply an oversight or perhaps a delay in process, but the assigned labors seemed to take only a part of each prisoner’s day and appeared mostly to be of the light housekeeping and maintenance sort. Father Travers, for instance, kept the intake dormitory tidy, and another prisoner was the librarian.
O’Cannan thought he would try to wangle a job in maintenance so that he could score some tools and perhaps enjoy freer access to parts unknown.
After lunch O’Cannan returned to the library to place his proposals before the Insipid Sedentary Soviet of Six. They were in stately conclave met, appearing not to have moved since that morning although he had seen them hull-defilade in a defensive position at an apartheid table at lunch.
O’Cannan was tempted to genuflect or curtsey, but wisely chose to suppress his I’s d’ b’ys pub humor; he really did respect the very real scientific and mathematical knowledge of the Perfectly Pouty Pedants and knew that their effective work was essential to escape. He was worried that their very real abilities would be dissipated in common-room contention.
“Excuse me, everyone.”
Most of the klaven looked at him as if he were wearing bells and crying out “Unclean! Unclean!”
“May we help you?” asked Doctor Vetula in that superior senior clerk’s voice that suggested that the pitiful object of the question really might feel more comfortable somewhere else among his own kind.
“I’ve been thinking…” began O’Cannan.
“Well, goodie for you,” interrupted Doctor Mulier.
“Now, please, hear me out. You all are brilliant, freaking brilliant. You have explored the heights and depths of arcane maths and sciences in ways most people could never begin to understand. I certainly don’t.”
Oh, yeah, the flatteries of the serpent were working their old charms yet again.
“We all want to escape,” O’Cannan continued. “And without your superior intellects that’s impossible. Escape is impossible unless The Cloud can be disabled, and disabling The Cloud is impossible to anyone (brief but suspense-sodden pause) except you.
“Look, I deliver stuff. I possess few higher order thinking skills, and the nuances even of the concept of the Hegelian dialectic elude me. But I can do things, find out things. Triskelion isn’t going to pay much attention to me because I’m a nobody. I can wander around in ways you can’t because Triskelion will want to know what you’re doing, not me.
Self-satisfied nods scudded around the table like a PBS announcer’s yacht in calm seas off Cape Cod.
“So – I ask you please to consider these possibilities: if you can somehow unplug The Cloud, and if you can build not one but several radio transmitters that you can power up and call for help, then you will liberate the people.”
“I think the idea of…harrumph…unplugging The Cloud is somewhat simplistic,” said Doctor Vertex. “Now what you don’t know…”
“He doesn’t need to know,” said Doctor Mulier. “The fewer people who know, the safer we are. Remember that the penalty for attempting to escape is death.”
“I don’t know,” mused Doctor Vercelli, exhibited his bandaged hands. “I constructed a primitive but workable AM receiver from my electric shaver, and if Triskelion noticed they didn’t intervene.”
“They blew the thing up in your hands when you switched it on. They were laughing at you.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Doctor Vercelli. “The Cloud responded to the first interaction of the long waves. Only The Cloud was watching. I don’t say that Triskelion is making a hollow threat, only that they perhaps depend too much on The Cloud.”
“Mr. O’Cannan is quite right,” ruled Doctor Vertex. “While we, indeed, might be more circumspect in our deliberations and demeanor, Triskelion surely considers us academics to be the threat, not a – excuse me if I seem to be somewhat patronizing, Mr. O’Cannan; I’m not; I’ve always felt at one with the working people – not a deliveryman. But please continue.”
“Right, then, eh. But that’s about it. I find you stuff, you build radios, and we somehow find a way to cut off The Cloud at the knees. Not that it has knees. But perhaps it does.”
“I think we can do better than that,” sniffed Doctor Saltator. “Even a gulag personed by kulaks would not allow prisoners to access a power plant or other high-security installation. Triskelion is sure to be watching the source of The Cloud especially carefully.”
“But think of this, Doctor,” replied O’Cannan, “we’re already inside. We are inside a high-security installation now.”
“You are speculating quite above your pay scale,” said Doctor Vertex. Lowering his voice he continued: “And, anyway, we are already working on a jamming device which will employ multiple layers of multiple waves along the communications spectrum.”
“And the radio transmitters?”
“Well, we have one almost finished. Your suggestion that we construct several is excellent. We will provide you with a list of necessities, but perhaps you’d better locate and identify them for now, since we have no place to store anything. We need a secure work space.”
“I assembled a radio in the bathroom,” said Doctor Vercelli.
“I think we can do better than that,” sniffed Doctor Saltator.
“And I think we can adjourn for today to pursue innocent recreations to entertain and deceive Triskelion’s watchers. In the meantime, observe and think. Shall we meet again after breakfast in the morning.
“In thunder, lightning, or in rain,” said O’Cannan.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Doctor Mulier.
“Just something from Macbeth.”
“I think we can do better than that,” sniffed Doctor Saltator. And with that the meeting broke up.
O’Cannan made a quick tour of the library, checked out an Agatha Christie omnibus, and with it under his arm took another walk, a more purposeful one, both inside and out. The island, the castle, and the accumulation of outbuildings were such a miscellaney of structures and ruins of different centuries and different purposes that any mental map was impossible, and a collection of paper maps would be as confusing at one of those multiple-level chessboards, only with many more levels, all oddly shaped and sized, and with chessmen of many styles.
He studiously passed by doors and gates marked NO ADMITTANCE, but began the tedious process of firming their locations in his mind and trying to sort out from context clues what might lie behind each one. He looked at doors and wires and pipes and walkways and where the drainage went. And he thought.
The dark came on and O’Cannan returned to the dormitory for a wash before supper.
“Still sweeping, Father Travers?”
“Oh, yes, Brendan. ‘Tis my limited service, but ‘tis one.’ And I’m quite fond of this broom; it’s the one Doctor Mulier flew in on.”
“I keep wondering what Triskelion is all about, why you’re here and why I’m here.”
“And the mathematicians?”
“Oh, not so much, mathematicians belong in prison.”
“I heard that,” growled a voice from a bunk in the back.
“Ah, well, there’s the bell; let’s all to supper,” said Father Travers.
O’Cannan observed that, like lunch, supper was pleasant enough – salad, soup, rolls – but with minimal portions and no seconds. Either Triskelion was very, very slowly starving its guests by a few calories a day, or perhaps the small portions were a matter of something far less sinister: perhaps Triskelion’s functionaries were as subject to corruption as those in any any other institution. An audit of the accounts of even the Vatican kitchens might reveal a few discrepancies.
After supper O’Cannan sat at a table in the library, reading a little and making notes on Triskelion’s flimsy paper with a Triskelion gel pen. A puddle of comforting light fell upon his books and papers, and the night-sea lulled him.
A chime sang, and a voice from above said: “Attention, everyone. Lights out in thirty minutes. All day stations and day watches close for the night; all night stations and night watches stand to. Again, thirty minutes, everyone.”
“Closing time,” yawned the librarian, taking off his glasses and putting down his own read. “Anything to check out before I secure the area?”
Papers folded and in his pocket; O’Cannan returned to the transient dormitory. The passages were busy with other prisoners quietly, almost submissively, making their ways to their own sleeping spaces.
The transient dorm was thinly populated – the Six Silly Sorcerers occupied a corner they set aside as their Olympus of metal bunks, Father Travers lived beside the door, and two or three patients O’Cannan hadn’t met were occupied, as were they all, with wash-ups and changing into night clothes. Storage was a matter of a few pegs and showing one’s gear underneath the bunks. O’Cannan thanked Father Travers for having made up his rack.
“And now, if anyone wishes to join me for a brief Compline…”
An audible academic snort issued from Olympus.
O’Cannan and a man in dungarees somewhat self-consciously joined Father Travers. O’Cannan wasn’t much of a pew-jumper, but his death sentence seemed to focus him. Father Travers read Compline from a quite worn old Missal, the minuscule congregation crossed themselves, and they found their racks.
“Mass in the morning,” said Father Travers. “Reveille is at 0600, so why don’t we meet at the door when they unlock us for the day, and we’ll find a quiet place for Mass before we’re off to breakfast.”
“I’m up for it,” said O’Cannan, “but someone better wake me up.”
O’Cannan tried to read a little before lights out, but the overheads were glaring and he put the book away. He was glad that the room was well-vented by blowers far away somewhere; he wasn’t sure that mathematicians weren’t somewhat malodorous.
And then he saw Doctor Mulier leaving the head in a gauzy nightie. A mathematician in a nightie is a horror to make even the most devout man despair of salvation. “Dear God,” prayed O’Cannan, “please get me out of this.”
A chime sang, and except for a dim bulb in the head the lights winked out.
O’Cannan lay under some nation’s military surplus blanket – a blanket which perhaps had seen service in the Crimea – and stared wide-eyed into the darkness above him. He was in prison under a temporarily suspended sentence of death, and did not know if tomorrow or perhaps tonight might see his last breath. He was hungry. He was frightened. And worse than all that, he had seen Doctor Mulier in a nightie.