༺ No Country for Criminal Men ༻
The carriage came to a halt at the end of the road.
A dry wasteland not having a single tree. Without any shade to protect from the scorching sun’s rays, every living thing groaned in response to the heat. In a land where even a mound of dirt heaved wavy breaths, a single sign marked the end of the road.
The two officers spotted the sign, understood that they had arrived at the right place, and realized they would need to begin their next task.
The officers split up. As one approached the sign, the other fiddled with his retractable steel baton while heading towards the back of the carriage.
The officer that approached the back of the carriage nervously gripped his only weapon tightly in his hand.
The sweat from his hands made the baton slippery, but there was no time to worry about that.
Escort vehicles were normally used to transport criminals, and people who were brazen enough to disobey the law were bound to act up at every opportunity. Until now, the officer had given the criminals a taste of his baton and had been satisfied with its effect.
Yet today, for the first time since he had donned the insignia of the law, he worried that the baton might not be sufficient.
They had arrived at Tantalus*, the Abyssal Prison. It housed nefarious criminals that should never be allowed to step foot in society again. The prison was one in which countless entered, but none left.
It was said that the criminals held at Tantalus were more easily found in history books than the newspapers. The only reason they were imprisoned was because they were unkillable. A wretched place where monsters, Beast Kings, and warriors who single-handedly slaughtered entire armies wandered around like any common civilian.
What the officers brought today was a prisoner sentenced to imprisonment in the said prison.
「Damn. What kind of crime do you need to commit for you to get sent to Tantalus on your first offense?」
I agreed completely with his thoughts. Just what did I do to have been sent to Tantalus without a trial? An innocent, honest man like me. There must have been some sort of mistake.
The officer took a deep breath before banging on the back door with his baton.
“Back away from the doors or I’ll beat you to a pulp!”
The manner in which the State treated its prisoners was akin to that of an explosive; wrapped in tight packaging and with the utmost caution.
No matter how light of a crime one committed, handcuffs and shackles with blindfolds were the very basic measures taken when handling criminals. Officers would often use gags and straightjackets in addition.
After hearing that they would be escorting a prisoner destined for Tantalus, these officers restrained me with everything they had. Cuffs, blindfolds, gags—the entire package. It could probably kill normal people from asphyxiation.
And because I’m a normal human, I am about to run out of breath. Help.
The officer didn’t lower his guard, even against the prisoner who lacked the freedom to strain his lungs. He couldn’t ever let his guard down. After all, it was a prisoner that was to be sent to Tantalus, the worst prison in the land.
The prisoner probably wasn’t extremely dangerous, since he had been entrusted to a low-ranking officer like himself. Even then, he couldn’t slack on his job. Not for the sake of duty, but for fear of his life.
Well, he would’ve been fine if he had taken his time.
I couldn’t untie myself from the flimsy rope. Much less these sturdy restraints.
“I’m opening the door!”
The damn officer remained vigilant. He quickly retreated after opening the back door of the vehicle. Tensing up, he gripped his baton and aimed it at the prisoner.
As the door opened, the wretched criminal revealed himself to the world again… Still trapped in his restraints, rolling around on the floor.
Slightly relieved by the sight, the officer began to approach. Then, he suddenly raised the steel rod high above his head. As I read that thought, I let out a cry that would go unheard.
‘Hey, wait. Sto—’
The baton struck deep into my stomach. I let out a painful cry at the piercing blow that reached my bones, but it didn’t make it past the gag. I got decimated by the baton, unable to retaliate.
As if he were confirming his kill, the officer struck several more times, satisfied with my reaction.
「It looks like his restraints are completely intact. I won’t need to worry about being attacked.」
Feeling assured, the officer tugged the belt of the straitjacket. My helpless body, sprawled across the floor, slammed against the wall, and rolled on the floor. The officer raised a question in his mind as he witnessed my meek state.
「Huh? I thought he was supposed to be a criminal headed for Tantalus. He feels no different from any lowlife thug.」
After reading the officer’s thoughts, I twisted my body in sorrow.
‘No shit. I’m not some criminal meant for Tantalus or some crazy terrorist. I’ve done nothing close to being recorded in history. All I am is just some back-alley swindler that can read minds!’
* * * *
I was playing cards with some dolts, getting them to put their houses on the line as usual.
It was a misconception that ‘gambling sucks’. If you had money, power, or something special like me, gambling was like sweeping money off the ground. There were plenty of idiots willing to bet their life savings for a couple minutes of thrill. To them, I was like the priest in the confession chamber, listening to their dirty desires. I just happened to take half the money I got from them instead of a tithe.
It was just like any other day, milking some fools of their homes. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside.
The neighborhood granny, who was always freeloading off my winnings, signaled to us. The idiot that I was handling cleaned up the table, rejoicing at the intervention. Putting aside my dreams of purchasing my own house aside, I hid the evidence and remained stationary as some soldiers I had seen before rushed in.
Soldiers on patrol and gamblers who had just finished cleaning the scene; it was a regular sight. And as usual, I slipped a small complimentary gift into the soldiers’ pockets.
At that moment, a soldier grabbed my wrist.
“In the name of the law, you are all under arrest.”
The guards that barged in arrested everyone there after beating them up.
The ‘State’ was a country way crazier than I had thought. I tried my absolute best to defend myself, but they threw me past the trials without any witnesses or evidence. It took less than a day for me to become a criminal. In a court with no jury, I was sentenced to Tantalus without any chance to defend myself.
My ability to read minds did nothing for me in the court. The soldiers claimed that we were plotting treason while pretending to gamble. The judge pounded his gavel despite being fully aware of the lack of evidence.
– Thud, thud, thud.
Guilty. Not a single voice was raised when the symbol of justice bowed to the floor thrice, apologizing for its injustice.
Logic? Fairness? If something like that existed, the Military State would never have raised a coup.
I was thrown to the cold, damp floor of a holding cell and hoisted to the worst prison in the world—Tantalus.
It depressed me to reminisce about the past while being tied up, but the officer showed no regard for my emotions and continued to drag me along the ground. Thanks to him, I was able to feel the earth with my entire back. Each tug caused the gravel and sand to tear through my back.
‘O Dear Mother Earth, your skin really is quite rough. We must moisturize it right away.’
As I raised a blasphemous prayer, the officer that was waiting at the sign spoke worriedly to the officer who had been dragging me.
“Inspector, is that okay?”
“What’s wrong with it? He’s a damn criminal.”
“No, I mean, he’s someone meant for Tantalus. Will we be okay? What if he escapes and—”
“We’ve blindfolded him since the very start. He doesn’t know my face or name.”
The inspector hoisted me up and dropped me onto the ground again. Slamming against the ground, I grit my teeth at the impact that shook my entire body.
‘I can read minds, you know that? Dear Inspector Evian of Edelphite. I’ll see you when I get out. I’ll take my revenge on you first.’
“And how will he ever escape from Tantalus? Quit worrying and send the telegraph.”
“I’m worried for you, sir. You heard about the rumors of an incident at Tantalus that time. If this guy breaks out…”
“If he could break out of Tantalus, he would’ve escaped from our escort vehicle. Stop wasting time. Let’s hand him over and head back. Even a single trip here is one too many.”
“I’ve sent the telegraph. If we just wait for the reply…”
At that moment, the white arrow painted on the metal sign shook. The two officers and I tensed up. For some reason, the arrow—which should’ve been nothing more than a painting—was rattling like crazy, as if it were affected by an isolated earthquake. We all stared silently at the sign. The arrow continued to tremor, and it began spinning around and around until…
It pointed at the ground.
The sound of something shattering reverberated.
The officers stared at the scene before their eyes and doubted what they saw in their minds.
The place that had been nothing but an ordinary wasteland moments ago now had an endless and bottomless abyss that carved itself into place.
The abyss was incomparable to anything.
An open plain. In the middle of a sandy land without any vegetation, a bottomless hole existed for no apparent reason. It was too large and deep to be an artificial trap, and it was also too unnatural-looking to be called a natural land formation.
The officers and I—after reading their minds—questioned if it was a hallucination, but the darkness that only a true void could produce firmly supported its reality. The officers gazed into the abyss, speechless.
As they pondered whether they were in a dream or not…
A monotonous voice emerged from the sign. As the officers freaked out in response to the voice of unknown origin, the sign carried out its task in a mechanical manner.
「Completion of Mission Monitored. Please complete the task by handing the prisoner over to us.」
The officers saluted the sign. It was almost a humorous sight, but they were petrified; as if they believed that the sign was responsible for creating the abyss in front of their eyes.
“I-I am Inspector Evian of Edelphite. Where shall I lead the prisoner to?”
「Your job is to escort the prisoner to Tantalus.」
The prison of the abyss that gods created to seal the titans.
It had obviously borrowed its name from the myths, but I wouldn’t have doubted that the darkness in front of me was the real deal. The officer gulped as he gazed down into the bottomless pit.
“D-Do we need to go down with him?”
「There is no need for you to accompany him. I shall leave the method of transport to your jurisdiction.」
‘Hey, sign. Hold up.’
The officer grinned. No need to accompany him. He had figured out what that meant.
In fact, he had been filled with the desire to toss me into the hole from the very start. The sign simply justified his plan in a lawful manner.
“Hey, get his legs.”
The other officer realized what he meant and hesitantly grabbed my ankles.
“I-Is this okay? There’s no way he’d survive the fall…”
“Who cares? We’re tossing him into Tantalus because he’s an irredeemable piece of shit. What does it matter if he dies?”
‘Wait, sir. Sir. Please. Calm down. I swear I’ll be good. I’ll read fewer minds and swindle a little less. At least lower me with a rope or…’
“Do you want to carry him down there? Huh?”
The other officer was too frightened to perform such a task. He hoisted me up by my legs. I tried my best to resist, but I couldn’t do anything in the tightly secured binds.
They matched their breaths as they swung me side to side. One, two, one, two. I swung higher as I went from right to left. And on the third swing, I reached the peak. They let go, and a complete sense of overwhelming freedom filled my body.
And so, I plunged into the bottomless abyss.
TLN: The prison is called ‘Tantalus’, an inhabitant of Tartarus, despite it having the same description as ‘Tartarus’ itself. Tantalus attempted to serve his own son at a feast with the gods, which infuriated Zeus and thus he was imprisoned in Tartarus where he was punished. The reason why the author chose Tantalus instead of Tartarus is because just like Tantalus who was caught by Zeus and sent to Tartarus, our protagonist was also captured and sent to an abyssal prison. Now you can say he could have used the names of other convicts of Tartarus, but it seems to have been a personal choice on his part since both Tantalus and Tartarus sound similar.