As the squawk of the prison tannoy died away, 73 was up on her feet in an instant. 56 looked up at her in some envy.
"You're in Special Group A, aren't you?" he said, trying to keep his voice nonchalant. She grinned at him wickedly.
"Are you jealous, 56?" she sing-songed. "Don't you worry, I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."
And with that she was gone, bounding away with surprising energy. 56 watched her go with a sigh; new arrivals provided a welcome distraction if you were lucky enough to be in the Group sent to meet them. Special Group A meant the new arrivals were mostly young females; it also meant that 73 would probably be sharing her cell for a while. 56 had shared his cell on and off since he was ten, but everyone had been moved on; new offenders were always being moved around, as though the prison system could not decide where they belonged. They were on firmer ground with people like 56 and 73, who were brought in as newborn babies, grew up and died in the same prison building, block and usually cell.
There weren't many new offenders nowadays, and these were definitely new offenders; reincarnations trickled in by ones and twos, according to who had died recently. They didn't arrive in groups.
The klaxon blared out across the yard, disturbing his thoughts and signalling a return to the cell. 56 struggled up to his feet and shuffled wearily to join his line, the absolute opposite of 73's bounding energy.
The rat was waiting on his bed when he got back. He eyed it with some suspicion in the light of 73's words, but it simply stared at him. Since it didn't seem to be about to jump up and tear off any of his fingers, he sighed and sat down next to it; when eventually his meal arrived, he gave it a good half of the sloppy grey stuff.
After that, it left. The room seemed a little greyer without it, if that was even possible.
The next day was an impatient wait for exercise, and as soon as he got out onto the yard he ran to his usual corner to wait for 73. She was longer in coming than usual, and when she did come she strolled over and sat down next to him, humming gently and examining her dirty hands. He waited impatiently, and eventually said,
"Well what?" she said sweetly, looking at him from under her eyelashes. He sighed exaggeratedly and rolled his eyes.
"What about the new arrivals?"
"Oh, them," said 73, flipping her hand. "They're boring. The girl they put in my cell just cries all the time and says she doesn't know why she's here."
56 scratched his head. "Surely she knows what she did?"
"She says she didn't do anything," said 73 with a shrug. "I asked her what they'd said at her trial, right, and she said she hadn't had one."
56 considered this. He hadn't had that much contact with new arrivals but the ones he had met had all muttered things about their trials. Not to have one seemed odd. It was a little bit of curiousity in a drear boring life and so he grasped it with both hands.
"I wonder why she didn't have a trial?" he mused. "What crime means no trial?"
"A really bad one," 73 said, with rather goulish relish. "And then she...forgot EVERYTHING. Even her name. She never told me her name," she added rather as an afterthought.
"You make up the stupidest stories," said 56 with as much scorn as he dared muster. "People don't forget committing really bad crimes."
"People can forget all sorts of things," said 73 loftily. "I'll prove it!"
She lunged at him suddenly with her hand upraised; he blocked it and they tussled briefly, then split apart and sat back down as though nothing had happened. 73 did that on occasion; 56 had learned to defend himself.
"Who else has got a new person sharing?" he asked. 73 scratched her head.
"71, 67, 43 and 98," she said. "You want them to ask their new arrivals whether they had a trial?"
"Uh-huh. It could be a conspiracy!"
"You say I make up stupid stories," said 73, but without undue rancour. Her imagination had been caught as well. "98's over there, look. I'll go ask her now!"
She sprang to her feet and dashed towards an older woman with dusty black hair; 56 saw her grab 98's arm and talk intently. 98 seemed puzzled, but turned to a woman sitting beside her and spoke; the woman replied briefly. She was almost certainly a new arrival; she actually had some meat on her bones.
73 returned in triumph.
"98's person didn't get a trial either. Maybe it is a conspiracy!"
56 could see a gleam in her blue eyes that meant she was beginning to take it seriously. He himself had only wanted a distraction; he did not really believe it was anything sinister; but on the plus side if 73 got serious about it it was likely to last a lot longer. So he grinned, the first time he had done so in several weeks, and nodded with enthusiam.
"Looks like we're going to have to investigate, 73."