After Estraven’s surprise visit, Ai is shaken. He tries to drive to the residences of Obsle, Yegey, and Slose to ask why Estraven was advising him to do the opposite of their suggestions, but they are not home and the snow is too thick to stay outside for long. At dinner, Shusgis suggests that Estraven is powerless and desperate to remain relevant. Ai accepts this explanation but still feels anxious, skipping supper to go to bed.
Ai suspects something is wrong, and senses that the Commensals are no longer working with or for him, but he doesn’t know what to do. He has navigated Gethen for two years, but is still a foreigner, and the politics of Orgoreyn remain opaque to him.
In the middle of the night Ai is awoken, arrested, and taken to the Kundershaden Prison. Ai notes that unlike so much in Orgoreyn, this is not a facade or euphemism—it is a jail. Ai is put in a small room. When a guard enters, Ai asks if he can send word to the Commensal, but is informed the Commensal is already aware of his arrest, and the guards are following the orders of the Thirty Three.
Ai has trusted the Commensals and they have betrayed his trust. Not only have they allowed him to be arrested, they have helped facilitate his imprisonment, as Ai is no longer useful to them. Ai was only useful in that he could help them politically; the Commensals were uninterested in his greater mission.
Ai is strapped to a table and injected with truth serum. He has lost all memory of his time in prison, but assumes he was interrogated. Ai wakes up four or five days later, naked, in the van of a caravan-truck, traveling west to an unknown location. Although there are twenty-five other people in the van, Ai notes that none of them complain. This is similar to when he was locked in a barn his first night in Orgoreyn. He realizes that the “black cellar” was the true Orgoreyn, and he was foolish to look for substance in the light.
Although when Ai first arrived in Orgoreyn he didn’t understand its customs or people, he does now: all of its citizens easily defer to people in positions of power. Even if their rights are violated or stripped entirely, they generally remain submissive.
During Ai’s first night in the truck, a man dies. The group huddles for warmth, and the corpse is pushed to the outside. The group gets a jug of water once a day, and has no other outside contact. Ai appreciates the kindness in the group. Those most sensitive to cold are allowed to sleep in the middle. He comments on the terribleness of kindness in these moments, as kindness is all these people have left to give. Although the group huddles together at night, they form no connections with each other, and are silent during the day.
Ai is struck by the solidarity within the group of convicted persons. Although they do not know each other, they feel some kind of camaraderie, and do their best to make sure that each member of their cohort is as comfortable as possible. However, there are clear limits to the connection between the prisoners; they do not communicate or commiserate. They only undertake the most basic actions to alleviate their discomfort.
On the third day one of the prisoners begins to talk to Ai, and he realizes he is going through kemmer, and has been drawn to him. Ai is unable to give the Gethenian what he needs.
Because Ai is permanently male, he has drawn a Gethenian, who is briefly becoming sexually active, to him. Although Ai is now more used to Gethenian sexuality, he still finds it strange, and feels no reciprocal sexual desire. Ai is at once close enough to a Gethenian to spur kemmer, but far enough away to be uninterested in engaging.
Although Ai does not eat, he is not hungry, but he is permanently thirsty, as the single jug given to the group a day not enough to satisfy anyone. Still, he appreciates that the group makes an effort to allow everyone a drink. Ai considers that the Orgota people act the way they do because they are trained to be cooperative and submissive their whole lives.
The group is submissive, deferring to the government even if it means letting go of personal freedom. Although he is an alien, here in this prison truck Ai is the same as anyone else. The group looks out for him as it does for every other prisoner.
On the fifth day the truck is finally opened. Twenty-four of the twenty-six men have survived. They’ve arrived at Pulefen Commensality Third Voluntary Farm and Resettlement Agency, a prison and work camp that also functions as a sawmill. It is difficult for Ai to go from the truck to performing physical labor, but the guards allow the prisoners to keep an easy pace. They’re fed lunch and dinner, and then locked in the dorms at night. Every man is given a warm, if dirty, sleeping bag, but Ai is too tall to fit comfortably.
Though Ai is a prisoner working at a prison camp, the Voluntary Farm feels that it is obligated to keep him alive. Even if he must work, and even if he isn’t comfortable, the Farm sees him as its responsibility, and takes better care of him than is strictly necessary — he is fed and clothed, and he is provided with a place to sleep.
Ai finds the work to be “genuine,” and thinks it would even be enjoyable if he were not so hungry and cold. The guards are harsh but not cruel. For the first time Ai feels like “a man among women, or among eunuchs,” as all the prisoners are given drugs that prevent kemmer and depress their emotions. Ai believes long-term prisoners have adapted to their chemical castration, but sees their loss of shame and desire as a loss of their humanity. The involuntary suppression of a sexual drive leads to widespread passivity, and allows for easy control of large groups, which Ai finds ominous.
Ironically, while prison is conventionally an institution that acts as a great leveling agent, Ai is more alone than ever. Whereas previously on Gethen he had been a man among androgynous beings who were both male and female, in prison he is a man among androgynous beings who, because of stress or drugs, are neither male nor female.
As a political prisoner Ai undergoes drug-assisted questioning every fifth day. He doesn’t know what the questions are, and cannot remember the sessions, but he knows the drugs are negatively affecting him. After each session he is sick and slow, and the haze lasts longer and longer.
Although the prison camp keeps him clothed and fed, in the end, the overseers’ own agenda is more important than Ai’s wellbeing.
On the farm people either work or they die, so there is no infirmary. Ai and other prisoners who cannot stand are allowed to remain in the dormitory indefinitely. Ai spends a lot of time talking to a man named Asra who is dying of kidney disease. Although Ai does not understand much of what Asra says, and Asra doesn’t understand Ai, they distract each other. Ai still manages to get the drift of Asra’s recollections, and will sometimes ask to be told myths and folktales.
Ai and Asra were born literal worlds apart, but manage to connect emotionally. Each person recognizes the common humanity in the other, and although they don’t even fully speak the same language, they are kind to each other, each working to distract the other from his pain through stories.
One day Ai shares a story about people living on other worlds. It is hard to describe space travel in Orgota, which doesn’t have a word for “flying.” Ai explains that people on other worlds are permanently in kemmer, that is, they have a distinct, permanent biological sex. Asra jokingly asks “is it a place of reward, then? Or a place of punishment?” Ai wonders what Asra thinks this world is, and Asra explains it’s just the world, the same one everyone is born into. Ai says he chose the world, which Asra doesn’t understand. A few days later, Asra goes into a coma and dies. A day after that, Ai, sicker than ever, is called for examination.
Ai and Asra use stories and myths to connect with each other across the barrier of culture and language. Ai’s story, although a true account of his life, is too strange to be believed, and Asra is unable to comprehend Ai’s confession that he was not born on Gethen. Asra also has difficulty imagining the world Ai was born into, one of men and women, which, to him, seems like a planet of perverts.