by Carlton Herzog

Prison blasted my soul the way a furnace does a corpse. 

I had been to prison twice before. Each time left me more spiritually lobotomized than the last. Now I was a three-time offender, the state would cut out my last bit of humanity. But before it did, I would have to stand before the most feared judge in the criminal justice system: Judge Juanita Hannity. 

She had a lunar face—craggy, cratered, dusty and pale. Whether that look came from her genes or from sitting too long on the bench, no one could say for sure. Whatever the case, it—along with the severity of her judgments and accompanying tongue-lashings—earned her many an unflattering nickname among her peers and the public. Her fellow judges called her the Crypt-Keeper; the public called her the Hangwoman. 

I hated her on sight. And my revulsion only grew as she eyed me up and down the way a house cat does before it pounces on a sparrow. 

I had been caught dead to rights, so my lawyer didn’t have much wiggle room. The only thing left was a Hail Mary, so when she asked if I had anything to say, I tried to baffle her with bullshit:

“My brain is a neural casino, my decisions random rolls of the dice. Therefore, I cannot be held accountable for the crimes in question because I am not competent to make sound moral judgments regarding the property of others.” 

The entire time I spoke Hannity nodded and smiled. Then she gave her retort: 

“So, and such is the charming wisdom of the psychopath. No matter. I am sending you to a prison so indescribably horrible that should you ever leave it, I have no doubt you will do everything in your power not to return.”

Judge Hannity sent me to the Bull Connor Correctional Facility—the worst prison in North America. The public knows it as the Devil’s Horns so called for the two prominent landfills on the north and south ends of the island that hold 25 million cubic yards of incinerator ash. Every now and then the ash spontaneously combusts into phosphorous fires that rain embers and ash down across the rest of the island and its surrounding waters. Save for hardy lichens and insects on land, and deadly box jellyfish and red algae in the surrounding waters, there is no wildlife. 

They stuck me in the cell with the Swami Vivekananda. He sported mystical tattoos, sigils and a turban. Except for meals, he spent his days in the lotus position staring off into space. I tried talking to him and got nothing but a blank stare in return. 

Neither the guards nor the other inmates knew why he was there. But they did know that it wasn’t wise to cross him. Otis, whom I knew from the outside, said, “Weird stuff happened to the guys who messed with him. One guy took a fork and dug out his own eyes. Another guy did a swan dive off the third landing and came down on his head. They say the Swami has mind control powers and I believe them. So, you best watch your step and don’t piss him off.” 

It was after that I started having the dreams, if you can call them that. I would be doing things outside the prison. One time, I was part of an orgy. Another time, I was dining in a fine restaurant. Yet another, I stabbed some guy to death. It was different every night. 

Normally, when I dream it’s like watching a bizarre virtual collage of unrelated things strung together. In those dreams, I am nothing more than an observer watching myself.

By contrast, the prison dreams were coherent, sensorially vivid events marked by a convincing coherence. More than that, I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone, that my body and mind were being piloted by someone else. And that someone else was none other than the Swami. 

I didn’t like the idea of my dreams being hijacked. So, I confronted the Swami. At first, I asked in a composed tone if he had anything to do with my out of body experiences. When he didn’t answer, I threw water on him. 

That got his attention, but not in a “Thanks, I needed that!” way. Instead, I felt myself unable to move a muscle. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t blink, and I couldn’t breathe. I was as they say dead in the water and entirely at his mystical mercy. A moment later, I levitated up to the ceiling and hung there with no visible means of support. 

A guard walked by and peered into the cell. He said, “Namaste,” and kept walking as if there were nothing to see. For his part, Swami stayed in the lotus position I had come to know so well. But I could hear him talking to me in my mind. He said, “All men are born mad. The ones in this place stay that way.”

I floated back down to the floor. I could breathe now. He looked at me; I looked at him. Then the voice inside my head gave me a brief history lesson.

“You are the last of the Karpash Mondrana line. I fought side by side with your ancestors against the sect of the Whispering Dead at Gujarat, Kooni Nadi, and Maharashtra. That is why I had you brought here. The words the judge spoke were mine, such is the reach of my power. No longer will you be a stray dog. You are meant for greater things. I mean to teach you the Shadow Walk. To make you fit for the coming war.” 

At first, I was at a loss for words. I said “If you’re such a great and all-powerful mystic why are you hanging out in this shithole? With your powers, you could live like a king on the outside.”

Then he spoke to me directly. “Here I am protected from the Whispering Dead by metaphysical and natural barriers. I draw on the psychic energy of the prison population itself to create a barrier of noise that cloaks my presence here. In this hell, men live under the constant threat of sexual assault, officer brutality and other monstrous perversions of civilized life. Raw emotion permeates the ether around the prison just as the reek of sweat, urine, and faeces permeates the air. The hellish din of too many people crammed into too small a space makes it impossible to read, think, or reflect. That cognitive chaos of broken and blistered minds disrupts any focused train of thought directed into the prison from the outside.”

I said, “I get the whole jamming the enemy’s radar scenario. What I don’t get is your hijacking my body or soul whatever it is you do and taking it for a spin.” 

He smiled, “Yes, I can see where you would be perplexed by that. I also use the collective psychic energy here as a power source to gain the Great Release—freedom from this physical body and access to others. That’s where you come in. You are the costume I wear on the spiritual plane to avoid detection by my enemies, who even now are combing the ether looking for me.”

I asked, “Why go to all that trouble?”

He said, “This place is hell on earth. There’s only so much meditation and praying I can do before I go stir crazy. Jumping out of my body and participating in a feast or an orgy makes this all worthwhile.” 

In the weeks that followed, the Swami taught me the various permutations of the Great Release. It was a transcendent experience whereby I was released from the physical prison of time and space. I learned how to read mind minds, move objects with a thought, and leave my own body. When I asked him why more people aren’t doing such things, he said, “Your bloodline carries the rare shadow gene. Not many others do. That’s why I sought you.”

When it came to reading minds, the Swami explained that “Mind reading is more art than science. Every mind comes with a different model of the world. So, reading a mind is not like reading a text. There is no code book that comes with a one to one correspondence between a mental image and a thought. It’s about getting familiar with an individual’s mental representations of his or her truths. It’s like archaeology, only rather than sifting through sand, you sift through associations of emotion and memory. Then of course there’s the unconscious which has its own non-verbal language, all that inner space where thought and feeling dance their sabbath.”

At first, Swami let me practice reading his mind. He threw me softballs to bolster my confidence. After that, I practiced on the inmates around me. That’s when I learned just how dangerously anti-social these people were. Rapists, murderers, paedophiles, and armed robbers have minds that can best be characterized as second from the left on the evolutionary chart. After having visited those unhallowed sites, I was surprised that they all weren’t trying to eat one another.

I got a kick out of moving objects with a thought. Swami explained that everyone has an innate capacity to do it, but for most the movement is microscopically slight. It cannot be detected by normal human perception. After a few weeks I was able to push plastic forks around the table, but only a few centimetres at a time. 

But by far the coolest thing was astral projection. When I mastered that, I could leave my cell and wander about the prison without being seen. Admittedly, there wasn’t much worth seeing: gang rape in the shower or a stabbing in a cell. However, it did release me from the boredom of the prison confinement and routine. 

We would also go on excursions into the free world. We visited many of the major cities, such as New York, Paris and Bombay. Other times, we would visit the snows of Kilimanjaro and on several occasions orbited the earth, and even travelled as far as the moon and Mars. 

The best junkets were those where we jumped inside a living host. That way we could participate in feasts and orgies and even sit through movies and plays. Then there were those times when we went from passive observers to dynamic puppeteers taking control of the host and having him or her do our bidding. Several times the Swami had his ancient enemies kill themselves. He would push them to the point of no return then jump us out of the body so we could watch a gruesome suicide. 

I think it was those episodes of self-indulgence that allowed his enemies to track him back to the prison. It was only by chance that I discovered an attack was imminent. I was mind reading an inmate on the communal phone. Supposedly, he was talking to his girlfriend. But somehow the landline carried the thoughts of that female to me along with his. It turned out that she was a member of the Whispering Dead cult. She was fishing for information about the whereabouts of the Swami. The inmate described him to her. At that moment, she became convinced that the Swami was in the prison. I could hear her inner thoughts about the best way to get a hit squad into the prison. 

A month later, the first assault came when we were at chow. A skinhead wrapped in a blanket of Nazi ink came straight to our table. He wasted no time in berating the Swami.

He barked, “So tell me, Babu—are you a Slurpee Indian or a Casino Indian?”

Swami just smiled. That enraged the skinhead. He smacked the Swami’s tray onto the floor, then glared at him.

“So, Gandhi, are you going to do something, or just sit there and love me to death?”

It became apparent to me that this was not a bit of random racism. This guy wanted to provoke the Swami. I tried to read him, but all I got was static. So, he was either a Whisperer or one of their puppets. His mission was to flush out the Swami, get him to do something that would remove all doubt as to his identity.

The skinhead kept up the verbal fusillade, punctuating it by slapping Swami in the face. That didn’t provoke a response. But when the skinhead tried to shank him, the Swami unleashed his power. The skinhead’s neck stretched, and his eyes bulged. It was as if a giant invisible hand was yanking his head straight up while a second invisible hand was dragging his body down. At first the scene looked comically cartoonish as the man’s neck stretched and his eyes bulged. Then the head blasted off from the body like a rocket. The disembodied head trailed blood and veins as it shot to the ceiling, then bounced back and hit another inmate square in the face. The now decapitated body spewed arterial blood into the air like a fountain, then slumped to the floor. 

Both myself and the Swami were drenched in the skinhead’s blood. From the corner of my blood smeared eye, I could see the Swami smiling. The cat might be out of the bag as to his identity, but I had no doubt he thoroughly enjoyed the reveal. 

Over the next week or so, we were interviewed several times as to what had happened to the new arrival. We professed ignorance. Since there was no visual evidence tying us to the decapitation, we were off the hook. The inmates knew better. They gave us an even wider berth than they had before. We were deluged with commissary offerings from inmates wanting to curry favour with the Swami. A few inmates tried to pay for hits with Snickers bars and cigarettes. Like it or not, the quality of a man’s prison existence can be reduced to the value of candy bars and Marlboros.

The Swami told me he needed to step up my training. Any day now, the full assault would come. He wanted my mental skills to be capable of more than just reading minds, astral projection and moving small inanimate objects short distances.

My mind needed to weaponized. We practiced projectile weaponry with pencils, shoes, books and anything else with heft to it. We practiced psychic infiltration and puppetry on the other inmates. We inflicted seizures and other neurological disruptions. We practiced blinding, choking, and paralysis. We practiced mental confusion, impulsiveness, and every other thing that might buy us a moment’s hesitation by our imminent adversaries. 

One day I asked, “So who exactly are the Whispering Dead?”

He said, “Mystics like myself who are discontented with being relegated to the etheric plane following their death. They believe that it is both their duty and right to exert dominion and control over physical reality. They do that by whispering in the minds of those they wish to manipulate, convincing those poor souls that the words and ideas are their own. Or they possess a host body and soul and then practice puppetry.”

He continued, “This is less about evil and more about boredom. The etheric plane is bereft of stimuli, since it is outside the five senses. All there is to do is pray, meditate, and watch the living. Even the greatest mystics can only do that for so long before they go bat shit crazy.”

The hour of our doom came sooner than either one of us had anticipated. We were watching the old Gary Cooper movie High Noon where four outlaws converge to kill a sheriff. I can’t say whether the timing of that movie was ironic or apropos, for in any event, that’s when Swami detected his assassins. They weren’t swimming across the impassable moat, nor crossing the bridge to the island in a prison caravan. They were paragliding in under the radar. 

Swami said, “I know the leader: Karakuma. An elite mind killer. I don’t know the rest, but I can sense they are powerful mystics. Once inside the prison walls, they’ll be blind to us until one of us acts. Quick—back to the cell and to gather the weapons.”

We high tailed it back to our Block. 

Swami said, “We need to get on high ground.” So, he levitated the two of us up onto the third-tier landing. He gathered an army of puppet inmates to use as human shields. He spread them on either side of us as well on the stairwells. 

But the attack didn’t come from below. The gang of assassins exploded the roof and floated down into the prison while concrete and steel fell around us. Their eyes were straining to find us. I could sense the Swami had blinded them from us, but by doing so had confirmed our general location. They levitated in our direction. 

The lead assassin spotted us and loosed a barrage of ninja stars. Swami deflected them but not before one caught me squarely in the shoulder. Swami didn’t waste time with his metal projectiles. He mentally hurled three inmates at the ninja assassin and knocked him to the floor below. By now the other three had drawn a bead on us, and they opened fire with small knives, ninja stars, small steel balls. I deflected most of the ones coming at me, but a few of the balls struck me in the knee and gut. In the meantime, Swami had seized control of the other incoming stars and knives and sent them back the way they came. By so doing, he turned one of the killers into a human pin cushion.

Taking their cue from the Swami, the other two assassins levitated a cluster of inmates. But rather than using them as living missiles, they drew them up like a shield wall to protect themselves from the onslaught of the Swami’s arsenal of darts. 

The prison was pure chaos. Impaled inmates screaming, guards pushing inmates back into their cells, other guards firing rubber bullets at us and the killers while yelling at us to surrender. 

Karakuma and the Swami both had the idea to puppet the guards into shooting at their respective adversaries with live ammunition. It was an amazing sight as bullet after bullet was deflected with a mere thought and wave of the hand by the two master mystics. 

While the two ancient enemies fought, I was left to deal with the last assassin. She had been peppered with rubber bullets and had three stars sticking out of her legs. But she soldiered on, firing wave after wave of steels balls at me. She cornered me in a cell. I cringed behind the steel toilet waiting for the final curtain to drop, while she stood outside on the catwalk gloating. 

She juggled three steel balls without touching them and said, “Silly rabbit. Tricks are for kids.” She would have finished me, had not more of the roof come crashing down, burying her beneath a pile of concrete rubble.

In the meantime, Karakuma and the Swami were going at it hot and heavy. For his part, Karakuma was mind hurling concrete rubble at Swami. Swami kept mind-swatting it away, but I could see he was running out of psychic gas. It was only a matter of time before one of those heavy chunks connected. 

I was out of ammo. And I wasn’t strong enough to hurl boulders. But I could still jump inside Karakuma’s mind. My telepathic invasion from such an unexpected quarter scrambled Karakuma’s brains. I jacked mercilessly with his nervous system, causing spams and twitches. His thoughts become incoherent. His body spastic and writhing. His concrete chunks flew every which way but at the Swami. 

Gathering all his mental might, and then coupling it with my energy and that of the remaining inmates and guards in the vicinity, Swami tore off an iron cell door and sent it like a ballistic missile straight through Karakuma. 

Exhausted, I collapsed. As did the Swami. Over the next few weeks, there were interviews from the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA as well as the Prison Board. The videos made it clear that we were involved in the incident, but absent any visual proof that we handled any of the projectiles or otherwise laid hands on the deceased, nothing could be done to us. 

To be sure, the prison was looking to punish someone for the deaths of three guards and fifteen inmates. But try as they did to break us, they got nowhere beyond the anecdotal evidence of other inmates that the Swami was responsible for many weird occurrences and was not to be screwed with.

I spent another five years in that hellhole. During that time, there were several more attempts to kill the Swami. But I had gotten as telekinetically strong as my teacher, so the attempts never rose to the level of a real threat to either of us. When my time for parole came, I waffled. After all, I could experience all the great things in life without ever having to leave prison. And I felt morally obligated to protect the Swami for all he had done for me. 

He would have none of it. 

He said, “You are your own man, a Swami like me. You must choose your own path in the world. Perhaps, you will do as I did and fight the Whispering Dead wherever they spread their poison in the hearts and minds of men. Or you may not. The choice is yours. Remember, I am always with you.”

I left the prison and started a new life. I used my newfound powers sparingly so as not to draw attention. Every now and then, I would recall my time with the Swami, so alien and mysterious, with powers immensely greater than the common run of mankind. He is a stranger to this breathing world, immune to the taints of ambition and personal aggrandizement. I only hope that I can emulate his resolve and one day find an apt pupil, gifted with that special gene and eager to walk in the shadows of his or her mind.


The whole run of Jesse Zimmerman's Challenger stories is now available in book and ebook from Amazon

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