Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Worldbuilding: Cells in the Carceral Place

You entered this carceral place alone, by waking in the cell. The cluttering sound of stone onto stone is what woke you, a wall (or part of one) dissolving, to reveal how you were cloistered away. You rise off your low bench, your eyes adjusting to the dim. There is some low light coming in from somewhere, trickling from an architectural folly nearby.

There is a drip or trickle somewhere of fresh water, and it falls into an urn or bowl or basin (you soon will see this in all of them, all the other cells you find).

There is always growth, a fungus, lichen, or mold. It tastes like sour yeast, or cold boiled bird-meat, or the pungent tang of indigo-veined cheeses. It grows on some conspicuous place, it is deliberate. It is what you will eat in here. (and you'll see there is, thank the gods, frequent exchange between cells).

This place is your place because no one else can enter it. You have tried, everyone has, and the door always closes. You will always be alone inside here. You are safe in here.

There is food, there is water, and time passes. It is cool, not cold. Dry but not dusty.

The cell is square for some, others are arched, some have high ceilings, others are round chambers. Yours is clearly yours, but is still similar to others. Especially those close to it. All of them are like this.

You are not without entertainment, sometimes there is a stub of chalk or charcoal (though all marks that are left vanish when you sleep). Elaborate line-work and patterns are common, despite being so temporary. Some days a lump of clay, a shining ball, a few resonant rods of hollow metal. These stay and go sometimes, or they are traded, or borrowed. Games form in common areas. There is camaraderie, there is enmity, sometimes there is violence. Societies form and crumble around activity in these common areas.

You are free to walk the hallways here, cross the plazas, go between the vast columns. You may go under archways and up the stairs, or down them, and sometimes you find only walls, or places in ruin and about to crumble. Other times though, there are things worth finding.

You have seen whole chambers of moss and great troughs of vegetation tended to by others who live here. There were lightless tunnels, and even (oh wonder of wonders!) a window open to perhaps endless black sky, a hint of distant light (a moon? a fire?) reflecting on still water, a salt and murk in the air? It was too small to fit more than a hand through, but it was a precious place.

Many regions are broken and breaking, while others are stoic and pristine. Tile, stone, cold metal, iron and stone sculpture. Intricate stone carving and brickwork. Raw stone and cold water. Smoke and ashes and old fire. Smoke, mist, echoes. A language formed out of thousands of disparate tongues placed close together, close to what Christians would call the tongue of Babel.

The arches and stairs and flues and chains and walkways and catwalks here go up higher than a cathedral, all walled in with stone and lit with intermittent torches and candles. Great brassy bowls are like pitiful dwarf suns in the better sections, others are cold and dim with only tiny spots of light like cats eyes in certain corners. You've seen lamplighters in long robes, and have never spoken to them (a superstition you don't want to test).

It is said that if you go up you will find the most wondrous of beings in elaborate and inescapable terraria, and that if you go down there are the embarrassments and shames of the gods in black oubliettes. It is idiocy and glory to seek either of both. It is also possible to free them, goes the reasoning, since are clearly locked away.

You've seen forbidden things: parts of the "wardens" and "watchers" and other "guards" among the broken structures (or broken apart by some unknown cause).

You've touched these things, torn between the feeling of safety a weapon gives while being made uneasy knowing you might be seen with them. To hold contraband is a constant battle, you have heard. You've seen others speak of dedicated armies.

You have also seen the evidence and effluvia of the many uglier things that also wander here, the wretched things that keep most inside their cell, yourself included. 

Prisoners on a Projecting Platform, from Carceri d'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, Mogliano Veneto 1720–1778 Rome), Etching, engraving, sulphur tint or open bite, burnishing; first state of four (Robison)

Something once sat at the edge of your own dwelling for what could have been days. It had crawled and crept through the plaza on its limbs to your threshold, a wide mouth hanging open just so, eyes impassive but with a posture indicating menace. Larger than any man it moved like insects do, as you remember "insects" (there are none here). It sat there and was watching you, and you tried to not look at it too often. It never moved, though you knew it could. You awoke one day and it was gone. You were not sure if it had followed you here, or was only wandering through. None knew where it had gone. There are stairways everywhere, archways, tunnels, catwalks.

Some time later you gathered in the plaza again, and then some days after that you wandered the halls again, as almost all eventually do. Many things wander.

You are not certain if you have died here, though you've been told it is the same as sleeping. As with sleeping, when you die you awake inside your cell (no matter how far you have gone). Though unlike with sleeping, it is said that you can only die so many times (some say 12, or 14, or 37) before "you" are really gone, or at least sent somewhere deeper. Some are certain dying changes you also, but there are so many strange kinds here you cannot say who might have changed. Cells sometimes wall over when none are watching.

It is said that if one is daring enough there is the day-long path: a way out. If every correct step is taken one could be out of here, far enough away to sleep without worry, and awake somewhere new. This is why some wander, and learn the secrets of the structure. Perhaps there is a thing that can carry you away: a moth like a ship or a thousand angelic little birds (you still remember birds). Others use reason and mathematics to demonstrate why this is foolish, and will drive you to despair. This place goes on not forever, but far enough. Simply count your steps.

Still, those who are clever and wise and talented can guide you, they find ledges and gaps and loose stones. They find fast passage over vast areas, these architects and climbers. You seek them eagerly, even if some think this place may change when no ones looking.

The Round Tower, from 'Carceri d'invenzione' (Imaginary Prisons), Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, Mogliano Veneto 1720–1778 Rome), Etching, engraving, sulphur tint or open bite, burnishing; first state of four (Robison)

You once saw a broken drawbridge over a vast darkness. You threw stones into and heard no sound. You though of jumping in, eager to know what was there. You stopped when you realized you could not say for certain that you had never died. What if you had been killed when you were sleeping oh so many times, kept in place by being watched? Some things here wait for easy prey. How long has it been?

Time here is loose and memories are uncertain. The dreams you can remember never go past these walls, and some of those visions were the memories of an insomniacs wandering strolls. You've found places from these dreams down ways you've gone on impulse, or guided by various kinds of deja vu. You've found horrors too, halls of punishment that kept you waking for many hours, you've fled things that you can't describe.

It is said there are places here with secrets thought too noxious to even be kept in the world, so they were put into this one. Like you, and all the others here. You offended the sensibilities of power, enough to be thrown so far away you can't even be seen by your own god.

Others say different. This is the only world, and anything else you remember has been a dream. All sun, all rain, all fields and flowers are things that never were.

You were born when you woke here, and this is all there ever was. You have always been inside here. And any crime you recall, any furious king, any conspiracy, any theft? All false things. 

There was no magic, no spell, no imprisoning flowers. No tryst, no transgression, no defeat in the unjust war. There was no banishment to this place, no accident of travel. You never did anything wrong, and so there could be no such thing as a way out.

Others, naturally, disagree.

You are one of them.

You shall leave.
The Gothic Arch, from Carceri d'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, Mogliano Veneto 1720–1778 Rome), Etching, engraving, sulphur tint or open bite, burnishing; first state of six Robison)