Monday, February 4, 2008

Groupthink: the Lighter Side - Chapter 4

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Year 10, Month 1

So much for the “bitter-sweet years of childhood” he thought sarcastically. Whereas human beings do not have a defining point where they become aware, the being that was made up of about 1,000 inmates in Attica Federal Penitentiary’s moment came and went like a 12 ton boulder hitting the ground. Once he became aware, there was no going back.

It was definitely a he, a male, owing to its being composed of all men. It did the mental equivalent of sitting on a stump and thinking, trying to come up with a name.

“Adam?” too biblical. “We?” too generic. “Coalition?” that would do for the time being. He also liked the ominous, 50s-esque overtones it implied.

If the prison guards had thought the inmates were on drugs before, now they thought they were all on some sort of sedative. There were no fights, no shouting matches. People didn’t even talk much. What’s more some “gnomes” seemed to have moved onto the premises.

There had been some broken tiles in the shower area for the past 5 years, for example. Occasionally, an inmate would cut his foot and complain (or worse) about it. Then one day a guard noticed that the tiles had been repaired.

Everything on the cellblock where Nate lived was spotless. The floors scrubbed, the cells neat and orderly.

One of the strangest things of all was that many of the prisoners were not applying for parole. Sometimes an inmate might do that when they know they'll be turned down anyways, in can shorten the sentence. It can result in being released earlier then if they applied. But these inmates were model reformers, every last one of them. It was like they didn’t want to leave.

As it turned out, they didn’t. One large problem the Coalition faced was that of what to do with people who left the prison. Before it had become conscious, this was not as much of an issue: people didn’t know they were part of it, so they didn't care if they left. But now that it was conscious, individual members did not want to leave.

This came as a surprise to the Coalition, who thought that someone like Nate, for example, would jump at the chance of getting out of his mental grasp. One thing no one had counted on was the intense feeling of…serenity that people had.

There was precious little to worry about. Other inmates simply did not mess with members, at least not anymore, and definitely not twice. The unfortunate who chose to do so would find themselves attacked on a thousand different fronts. Usually it was not physical, but, for that person, everything would go wrong. His cell would be trashed, he kept getting tripped and pushed by other inmates. Anything that could be reported to the guards was reported, his mail was lost, his laundry had holes, etc.

The violent ones were simply killed.

In all situations, the Coalition made it very clear why the retribution was being exacted. People didn’t mess with it.

Another problem was that the Coalition was growing. While he didn’t think about recruiting more people and he certainly didn’t try to induct more it happened anyways. In one month alone, about 100 new members had joined. They’d just notice at some point that they were part of it.

All this added up to one big problem: if things kept on going like this, the Coalition was going to end up in a lab somewhere or it was going to be forced into escaping from Attica. The lab wouldn’t work out. After a few weeks (days at this rate), all the experimenters would end up part of the experiment. Surprisingly, allowing a few people to escape would be child’s play. It was getting everyone out that was the hard part.

What the Coalition needed, he thought ruefully, was to get one of the guards on his side…

Standing on the grounds in front of the courtyard where the prisoners will milling about, Mr. Ed White, a guard with 4 years experience at Attica, had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched.

As it was, Ed was having a nerve rattling day.

He would have liked to have said that the inmates were acting up, but they were behaving ridiculously well: lining up before it was time to do so, no fights, courteous…it was unnatural. While that was “bad enough” today felt especially weird.

Ed would turn around suddenly and notice that people were not staring at him. He would walk up to groups of men that were not talking about him. If it were not for the fact that he got lousy pay and benefits, Ed would have taken a sick day.

Ed glanced at his watch and then back at the inmates. Then he glanced back at his watch again. Late! It was past the time when the inmates were supposed to head out! At least his vigilance was paying off!

Ed blasted a shrill note on his whistle. The inmates looked up.

“Alright convicts! Time to get moving!”

“But we just got here!”

“Don’t give me any of that! It’s 1:15 and time for the next group.”

“We are the next group!”

“Now don’t try any of that crap on me!”

The inmates just stared at something behind him.

Ed glanced over his shoulder and noticed a group of men, neatly lined up, waiting for him to take them back to the cell block. One of them waved uncertainly.

“Right! I knew that! OK funny boys, back to the cell block!”

At least now he had a reason to feel like people were watching him, what with him leading a group of 100 inmates. After delivering his group Ed was waiting at the vestibule between the cellblock and the rest of the complex for the next one. He traded some banter with Joe, the guy who opened and closed the gates.

“This place just keeps getting stranger.”

“You’re telling me! The other day I found out our computer system lost my personal day from last year!”

I am utterly alone Ed thought to himself.

I used to feel that way too.

Ed glanced at Joe sharply, but the man was still blathering on about lost vacation days. He looked around but didn’t see any other suspects.

It’s someone talking to you, exactly.

Ed turned around slowly but still didn’t see anyone.

“And here come our fine fellows now…” Joe observed dryly.

The next group of inmates came up to the vestibule. Joe buzzed them through. The inner door shut and Joe buzzed open the outer door. The group of men started walking towards the courtyard and Ed had to run for a bit to catch up.

Some guard I am.

They understand what’s going on.

The man nearest to Ed turned towards him and gave him the “thumbs up.”

“You, ah, can hear him?”

The man turned back. Ed felt a bead of sweat running down his spine.


Yes, I am still here.

What’s going on?

I don't believe you.

Then things will be harder for you.

It was almost exactly like talking to himself, except that Ed was sure the thoughts were not coming from him.

What do you mean?

You have no choice.

What are you saying?

You are already part of us.

But…but I’m ME!

So are we.

Then…why can’t I read someone’s thoughts?!

Have you tried?

“Yo shithead!”

Ed glanced up angrily. Now this he could deal with! Ed strode over to a group of inmates who were standing in a circle.

“Which one of you maggots said that?!”

“Right here dipshit!”

Ed whirled around to confront Nate.

“Alright convict! You’re about to have yourself a little time out!”

“You read my mind, putz.”

“What? Are you looking to spend the next year in the hole?”

“Even if I were in there, you'd be right there with me.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Have you seen my lips move?”


“When I talk are my lips moving?”

Thank you, Nate.

The inmate gave Ed a huge grin and turned away.


You will be able to tell if someone is a member just by looking at them. You will pick up the knack in a day or two.

How do I leave?

You can’t. None of us can.

This isn’t fair!

No, it isn’t.

Ed glanced around wildly for a few moments, then he realized something.

You chose me!

Not exactly. I was merely studying you.


I…we need to escape from this place. If something isn’t done, some of us will soon be forced out.

Then why have all of you have been passing on the chance for parole?

Now that I'm conscious, none of us want to leave.

But why would anyone want to be part of this…this…thing?!

Yeah, pathetic, isn’t it?

Ed heard a new voice. An image came unbidden to his mind of a prisoner. At first he had trouble recognizing him, but then the man came into focus.

Heh…self-image. Never quite the same as what other people see, is it?

You want to be part of this?

Not when you put it that way but…have you ever doubted yourself? Me, I doubted myself my whole life. I’m a screw-up and I can’t do anything right.

And now?

Well, I still may be a screw-up, but I don’t have to deal with it alone.

Every doubt, every fear, every worry that had ever visited Ed…


Same here!

Me too!

I said that!


Every dirty secret, every crime, every transgression…

Been there, done that.


Me too.

I never thought of using a gerbil like that…


Ed was crouched over and gasping for breath.

I was wrong about you. Unlike most others you do have a choice. Since you can come and go from this place more or less at will, you could probably get far enough away that you will not hear my voice. You will escape. If that’s what you want.

You wanna time me?

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