For over a thousand years, the most high-profile prisoners in the Kingdom of Guardia were kept under lock and key in the Tower of Guardia.
Part of the extended fortified complex of Guardia Castle, the Tower was huge, nearly as tall as the castle keep itself, and extending down several levels underground. The actual number of floors in the Tower was a state secret, as was the exact prisoner capacity. Conspiracy theorists got nearly as much mileage with apocryphal tales of the Tower of Guardia and its mysterious residents as they did with urban legends like Valleyville, the secret reserve of Derik clones kept in cold storage at ZAPS headquarters, or tales of the influence that the Cult of the Writers had within the Alliance Congress during and just before White Cell (and how that may have directly resulted in much of the destruction and death in that conflict).
A more recent story, popular on several omninet sites whose stock in trade veered toward the more ridiculous end of the conspiracy spectrum, was that disgraced former Guardian Chancellor Khalid Morris maintained a characteristically opulent suite near the top floors of the Tower; that his “cell” had a minibar, a karaoke machine and a large heart-shaped waterbed. Despite the fact that he was convicted on crimes of conspiracy and treason to the crown that would have earned him the exceedingly rare honor of a public execution (were it not for the intercession of the King himself), the conspiracy-mills of the omninet were totally convinced that Mr. Morris’ cell had an entire wall devoted to the Web of Worlds’ single-largest flat-screen high-definition television, where he got every channel in the entire Web and had free rein of the wifi to make video calls (on his giant-ass TV!) wherever and whenever he wanted.
There was also, supposedly, a button Khalid Morris had in his cell that, when pressed, would cause a knight of the Honorguard to personally deliver him a rootbeer float. And the ice cream was made on-site by the same gourmet chef Khalid had hired to join his personal staff when he moved the offices of the Chancellory to the Champsbury Hotel.
Khalid Morris might have wished even half of these things they said about him were true… if, that is, he didn’t spend his days wrestling with the demons of his own pathos, and if his jailors ever gave him an opportunity to access the omninet to see some of the things the conspiracy-mongers hypothesized about the conditions of his incarceration.
His once colorful wardrobe was now reduced to a drab, light-gray jumpsuit. Across his back, in all-caps black stencil was simply “TOWER,” and over his left breast in the same stenciling “GT482128B7” – the ex-Chancellor’s prisoner number in the Guardian corrections system.
Khalid’s cell was not anywhere near the top floors of the Tower (the exact floor number was, again, a closely guarded secret), and measured a spacious 14’ x 12’. Sparsely furnished, he had a cot (with thin mattress and no blanket), a second cot (unoccupied; where a cellmate would have slept) and a toilet. He was alone in his cell block (per express royal directive), and only rarely interacted with anyone who wasn’t a prison guard. The conspiracy theorists were onto something, though: Khalid’s imprisonment was directly overseen by the Honorguard, the knights who typically were charged exclusviely with handling the security of the royal family. No one came anywhere near Khalid’s cell without the Honorguard knowing about it. Known to only a handful of people in the whole of Guardia, this arrangement had thwarted two attempts to assassinate Khalid while he served out his sentence. Which was highly likely to be the rest of Khalid’s natural life anyway.
Khalid had been in this cell since his trial ended in the aftermath of the Guardian Civil War. The rebuilding process in Gate, the re-formation of GATO, and the clashes of the White Cell conflict were things he knew of only from the newspapers and magazines he was provided by his jailors. His old life, the opulent life of a Web leader, a Web player, seemed a distant, dream-like memory.
Khalid stirred as he heard the familiar clang of a barred gate sliding open at the far end of the cell block. Many prisons in Gate used forcefields instead of heavy steel bars, but Khalid had come to appreciate the old-fashioned touches of his time living in the Tower of Guardia. Those tell-tale sounds of metal clanging on metal, the sliding of a sturdy roll-gate and the creaking of hinges; these were comforting sounds, advanced alerts that his exile into solitude was about to be interrupted.
Khalid swivelled his body and came into a sitting position on the edge of his cot. His long, lanky fingers gripped the cot’s edges, and he waited patiently as the echoing footfalls came closer and closer to his cell.
Coming round the corner was a familiar face. At once, it made Khalid glad, but also filled with regret.
The years had seen Derik and Khalid’s positions reversed. Once, Derik had been gaunt, wasting and pale, while Khalid had been robust, energetic and healthy. Now, coming face to face again for the first time in a long while, each had taken the other’s former aspects. Though Khalid was not a pyra addict as Derik had been, his face was thinner, his eyes sunken into pits in his skull, his arms withered to mere sticks. Khalid’s signature flat-top hairstyle was gone, his head now shaved close, as Derik’s had been. And a fine layer of stubble clung to the bony edges of his face, appearing to be there not for effort or intent, but perhaps just neglect or lack of concern.
The King, on the other hand, was as hale and healthy as he had ever been; his color returned, his hair grown back out, his arms once again strong. A carefully-trimmed beard and mustache clung to his face, and his steely-blue eyes were sharp and discerning. When they fell upon Khalid, they narrowed. A mix of emotions washed over the King; in total, he did not entirely know how he should feel about Khalid Morris.
“D,” Khalid said, his voice a weakened strain of sound, as he mustered a half smile and stood out of pure Guardian reflex. Spotting the Honorguard knights lurking in the shadows behind Derik, Khalid dared not approach the bars, but simply stood in front of his cot.
“Khalid,” Derik replied, his tone clipped. Then, in a sardonic tone that betrayed a bitter subtext: “New suit?”
Khalid seemed to welcome the attempt at humor, and a grin split his thin face as he spread his arms and turned around. “Everybody up in here wearin’ this shit now,” Khalid said. “Wish I could say I’m the one to set the trend, but ain’t how it worked out this time.”
Derik inclined his head, and one of the Honorguard stepped forward. She turned an old key in the lock, and with an iron shriek of protest the cell door slid open. The Honorguard stood aside, at attention, and Derik stepped through the open door.
“It’s so good to see you, man,” Khalid said. In truth, it was good to see anybody. Despite himself, the desperation crept into Khalid’s voice, into his very countenance. “You good?”
Derik nodded. He avoided looking Khalid straight in the face. The dread mirror of the ex-Chancellor’s hollowed features deeply unsettled him. “I thought you might appreciate some news that wasn’t in print media for a change. I’m ending emergency fiat. With the war done, Parliament will resume session. And we’re set to announce a date for new Chancellory elections.”
Khalid smiled thinly. “I’m glad,” he said. “I was hoping the office would survive me. That not all of it was for nothing.”
Derik pursed his lips. His eyes caught Khalid’s, and narrowed. The ex-Chancellor seemed to wither under Derik’s gaze, and the King’s next words came from a deep and wounded place inside him. “For a time,” he said, “I thought of you as my only real friend. Did you know that?”
Khalid’s smile faded.
“My family, the friends I had left from before… I kept them all at arm’s length and clung to you. Believed in you.”
“I’m sorry.” The words forced themselves out of Khalid’s throat, but the truth was it was slowly killing him to keep them inside. Tears welled up in his eyes and he repeated himself: “I’m sorry.”
“You used me,” Derik said. “Manipulated me. Poisoned me.”
Khalid sat back down on his cot. Tears streamed over his thin face.
“Did you know?” Derik asked. “When they murdered me… were you involved? Was it you?”
Khalid shook his head. “You don’t understand, man,” Khalid ventured. “I was being used just like you.”
“Bullshit,” Derik declared, his voice like a thunderclap.
“Hand to the gods,” Khalid said. “I know I got no right askin you to believe me, but it’s the truth, D. I got nothin left to lose and no reason to lie.” He spread out his hand. “Look at me now, man. Look. This is my universe. I don’t remember last time I spoke out loud… my throat burns as the words come out but I don’t care because it feels so… damn… good to hear another human voice. When I tell you I had no part in what they did to you… that I was bein’ tugged around and forced into shit beyond the pale of basic decency… that’s a promise against the wasted flesh and fragged soul I got left, man.” He looked up at Derik. “That moment, when I heard they’d killed you… that it got done and you were gone… that was the moment I made up my mind to fight back. To be the inside man. To help Madrigal and the others tear it all down.”
“Well aren’t you a fucking hero,” Derik spat.
Khalid closed his eyes and shook his head. “No,” he mouthed.
Derik’s fist was balled. He didn’t realize it, but small arcs of electricity were playing along the lengths of his fingers. Taking a breath, he calmed himself, and the mana he was unconsciously building began to unwind itself and relax.
“Anyway,” Derik said, almost a whisper, trembling with a mix of rage and grief. “I just thought you’d like to know.”
Khalid’s lower lip trembled. He feared Derik was about to leave, and then he’d be alone again. For how long, who could say?
“You should know the whole truth,” Khalid blurted. “They had me, man. They had my father. I couldn’t say no.”
“Your father died in the Cleansing Wars,” Derik said.
“No, D. I did,” Khalid said. He stood again. “I was the one who died in the war. Killed while we were out protecting people from the Defilers. Because I ain’t a fighter, man, and I knew it, but I went anyway to prove somethin to the old man.” Khalid paused, and shut his eyes. “FATE showed up. She took my dad aside, and offered a trade. Him for me, and I’d get a do-over. And when I woke up, she made the terms of the deal very, very plain to me. I do what she says, or my dad suffers for it. So I played along, right up until they sent that juiced-up paladin after you. That’s when I changed the rules.”
Derik sighed. Khalid just looked at him, and lowered his head.
“I know you got no reason to believe me, the shit I did to you. The way I smiled and laughed as I did it. Like it was all some big funny flourish. In the end I dunno what it was all for… but I know what it cost you. Because of what I did.”
Derik turned his back on Khalid. The ex-Chancellor took a step forward; it was now or never. He had to make his case. This might be the last time he ever saw Derik.
“I know you ain’t never gonna forgive me,” Khalid blurted out, “But what choice did I have? What options? What would you do if it was Doan? Put yourself in my shoes, man! I loved my father, and I know you love Doan. You need to know this, man. I never, never wanted to hurt you, D. My crimes are many, but that ain’t one of em.”
Derik stopped in mid-step. A moment’s hesitation, but then he walked out of Khalid’s cell. As the Honorguard slammed the cell door shut, Khalid rushed up to the bars.
“For what it’s worth, I got no regrets about how it worked out,” Khalid said. “You alive and well, me behind bars. No regrets, man. I earned this. And Guardia couldn’t have asked for a better man to lead her.” Khalid rested his head against the bars. “I wish maybe it could’ve been a little different… maybe you and me, friends. For real this time… but I made this bed. No regrets.”
Derik said nothing. Silence passed for what seemed like hours.
“I… wouldn’t mind you comin’ by to visit again sometime,” Khalid said, hopefully.
“Rot in hell,” Derik said, as he suddenly, rapidly began marching away toward the elevator. The Honorguard filed in behind him.
As the doors slid shut, the only sound left behind on that lonely floor of the Tower of Guardia was the faint echo of a broken man’s sobs.