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Reflection (Science-Fiction Short Story)
Ross' eyes opened. The ceiling glowered in return.
He sighed with disappointment, breathing a curse. The mirror was near. I was so close this time … So close.
The guard's footsteps approached, stopped, the tray sliding through the iron bars. The smell of gruel and bread met Ross' nostrils. “Breakfast of champions” was what Roy had always said. Ross had liked Roy, the only inmate he might have called a friend. Early on, they had discovered a certain characteristic between them, one quite melancholy if not admirable.
The two men had been convicted of homicide, placed on death row to await the end of existence. It seemed a fair exchange; an eye for an eye, even if one's eye was untrained. Roy had revealed his secret first, followed by Ross' empathy. Beaten into signing confessions, their stories matched, within which they had found friendship.
The two were innocent, sheep in the midst of wolves.
Ross rolled from the cot, kneeling to inspect the food. As expected, a bowl of gruel and a loaf of bread lie upon the tray, accompanied by a pitcher of water. He gulped everything and retreated to his bed.
During daily exercise, the duo had once talked of escape. “Nobody ever escapes this place,” Roy had said. “You've gotta be a damn Houdini.”
That had been three months ago; however, even today, Roy's words continued to echo through Ross' ears. Ross believed the constant repetition to be the cause of his dreams, his tantalizing fantasies.
Shortly after that day, the mirror had appeared - radiant, lucid, menacing.
Ross allowed his eyes to close. The dream always began the same. The setting was a perfect representation of his own cell, vivid and lucid, within which Ross was confined. Beyond the bars, in place of the prison's corridor stood a colossal mirror. Though not superstitious, he believed its glass was somehow magical. Ross would attempt to reach through the bars to the mirror, though it always seemed the barest inch from his touch. The words “NOSCE TE IPSUM” appeared within the mirror, deep beneath its surface. Ross would make one final effort to reach its glass, fall short, then witness a gigantic shattering. Upon the mirror's fragmentation, he would awaken on his cot.
Be it illusion or delusion, Ross believed he was becoming closer each night. This recurrence was no mere dream; it seemed as tangible as his breakfast or his cot. Ross knew that if he reached the mirror, something magnificent would ensue.
Something. He thought with earnest. Something has to happen.
(You've gotta be a damn Houdini.) Roy's voice echoed.
Ross missed the fellow. Roy's execution had been an emotional bullet, condemning him to wallow alone within his daytime boredom and nighttime hallucinations. Though the execution had occurred a month afore, he still felt a twinge of grief for his innocent inmate. When the guards had taken him, he had followed without protest.
Ross reckoned his own execution would be different; screaming, fighting, cursing, he would be dragged from his cell. He had a fair vision of how it would commence.
After all, he thought with a sigh. It's only two days away.
The day ticked by with maddening silence till the lights were extinguished for sleep. Ross rolled to his right side, drifting into oblivion's darkness to the sobbing of an adjacent inmate.
The next morning, when his REM sleep was longest, he dreamt of the mirror. Once again did he reach for its surface, reach until his shoulder ached and the bars bruised his cheek. Once again did the three Latin words appear within the mirror's realm, eliciting another failed attempt. Once more did the glass shatter, followed by his awakening.
Despite his approaching execution, Ross did not reminisce. Instead, he wracked his brain for an explanation of the dream. The breakfast of champions was slid through, yet Ross' hunger escaped him this morning. Rather than food, he craved information, answers, solace. The dreams were not for naught; the mirror must have a significance. It seemed a plague to his very spirit.
Ross had translated the three words thousands of times, yet had never achieved an answer. Recalling his high school Latin class, the correct translation of “NOSCE TE IPSUM” was “KNOW THYSELF.” However, this told him nothing. He knew himself quite well.
His mind turned to the dream-cell, mimicking reality with taunting accuracy. Perhaps there was a flaw in the bars, some small inconsistency that could provide an escape. Perhaps the bars needed the influence of brute force; they might break or bend to his will.
However, no amount of thinking saved Ross. The day's hours proved fleeting. With no solace and no small amount of self-pity, he lied down upon his ratty pillow and relished his last night's sleep.
With the passage of hours unknown to his mind or body, Ross once more found himself locked in his dream-cell.
Wasting no time, he scoured the bars for flaws, battered them with his fists and feet, heaved against them with his shoulder. He explored every facet of the cell, though it was an exact replica of reality; there was no imperfection. No matter the effort, the bars persisted and the mirror mocked.
“NOSCE TE IPSUM” appeared.
Ross' first reaction was to sob, yet froze instead and stared.
An idea was sparked. Maybe, Ross pondered. Maybe I really don't know myself.
Then, Ross noticed the mirror and what lie within. Always entranced with the mirror itself, he gazed upon his reflection for the first time and saw the truth.
He was scrawny and scared, a child who had wasted his youth with nothing to boast but a beard. He was Ross Winder, one who signed a confession because of his fear, his naivety. He had relinquished his life for a lie. Yes, his parents had died; depression had become his life – why not sign a murder confession? His life had been over.
However, this was his existence; Ross' life was laid before him, a rich future laden with success – money, marriage, children. He glimpsed smiles, laughter and tears; he gazed upon love, loyalty and contentment. He saw this and more, whilst the mirror's words vanished, replaced with a peaceful park reminiscent of his childhood. The image, seeming to be seen through crystal, was as lucid as his own reflection.
“You've gotta be a damn Houdini,” he said. “You were right, Roy.”
With confidence, he strode through the bars like a spirit.
With breath and belief, Ross plunged into his reflection.
Breath. Sun. Air.
The following morning, two guards came for the inmate named Ross, joking amongst themselves as they sauntered down the corridor. Another execution was another day's work.
Turning to his cell, their smiles fell, hearts freezing in their chests. The bed was ruffled, dinner undisturbed, the bars fastened.
They glanced to each other, then back to the cell.
It was empty.