Powerful engines vibrated in his chest and gave him something to focus on. The transport travelled the cargo roads of Outpost 40, the vast, often puzzling network of tunnels for transporting goods from the large shipping ports.
The prisoners were seated in two columns, four men to a row. Thirty men all bound for mSTATE Correctional Minimum Security Prison. For the past 20 minutes the man to Maxwell’s left had been rocking back and forth, sobbing sometimes. However, the man to his right was stretched out, arms up with his finger locked behind his head. He was humming to himself, and nodding his head to a beat, presumably that he heard in his head.
‘Hey,’ said the man, noticing Maxwell’s attention. He stabbed an elbow into Maxwell’s side. The orange cabin light made his face look like wax, deeply poured and with stubble. Here it comes; Maxwell had feared this part, a cage for animals, the scum of deep space, and this would be where you get tested. Don’t be too friendly, don’t be too aggressive. All you have to do is fight. You don’t need to win. Just fight. He’d seen this on DV.
‘This your first time?’
‘Look at this guy,’ the man leaned in toward Maxwell, ‘You’d think he was off to face a firing squad.’ The man shot a tattooed hand forward, making Maxwell flinch. The man’s arm was stopped short by the restraints. He was holding out his hand for it to be shaken, so Maxwell shook it.
‘I’m Saio,’ he said.
‘Maxwell, err, Max,’ he said.
‘Smuggling for me; just a nuisance really. You?’
‘I…’ he paused, ‘they said I was a spy.’
‘No kids then?’
‘No … what?’ he said, disarmed.
Saio’s nearly persistent grin had gone, ‘yeah,’ he said quietly, ‘that happens. It’s rough luck.’ Said Saio and leaned back. He made a show of relaxing.
Rough luck? Rough BLOODY luck?!
The steady hum of the engine ebbed with Maxwell's own anger, punctuated by the roar of passing lorries, counter pointed by stifled sobbing.
Human guards’ patrolled the cabin at intervals. They reminded Maxwell of every supervisor he had ever had. Maintain a countenance of servility, show them your belly and, satisfied, they'd move on to assert their dominance elsewhere. Maxwell nudged Saio, ‘What did you mean, “that happens”?’
Saio sucked air through his teeth, ‘It’ll be a little hard for you to accept at first, hard to accept you have been so naïve but, you were a victim of cost cutting.’
‘What does THAT mean?’ spat Maxwell.
‘Umm, inexperienced, wet behind the ears, a newbie…’
‘Oh, well, it’s not really cost cutting. It’s more of a long term employment and turnover policy.’
Maxwell scoffed, ‘talking rubbish, ridiculous!’
‘Right and you’d know. Look around you. If you start asking questions, you’ll find that your story is nearly exactly the same as the rest of these people. Ask how many were born into shit on a piss ant colony gone bust, or how many accepted Scholarships to get their qualifications. Ask them to think what in their entire lives that they have actually owned. Think about it, mate. They seized your assets, took it all, right? None of it was yours. A level six apartment I am guessing, who do you think you got it from? It’s not like there’s much room out here, mate. You got it from someone just like you, who went through this same thing. It’s dead mans space-boots up here, be quick or be dead. This is the bloody Wild West here, mate.’
‘Who owns the prison do you think? Take a wild guess. It’s a private prison, government subsidized by the way, you’ll see it’s just a high tech sweatshop, and you people,’ he indicated the other men, mostly bespectacled men, ‘with your fancy degrees are now the poor bastards sweating. It’s not good business to throw out your assets, and that’s exactly what you are. It’s designer slavery. They train you up, encourage loyalty by offering rewards and security, develop dependency and then the cage comes down in the last lap.’
‘And you? What makes you special?’
‘Nothing, I was just like you, sitting there wondering what the hell just happened. But me and you, we aren’t quite like these people. I can tell. These people are destroyed. They’ll be grateful. You just watch.’
‘Right, so I get worse than the arse end and the new guy gets my apartment. You’re saying they never intended … that no one gets past ten years because it’s not cost effective.’
‘Look, some people, sure… the ones marked out for greater things, the somebody’s, but you are in another league.’ Saio lowered his voice again and leaned in, ‘If you were smart you put a bit away, kept it under the radar. You look like a smart guy to me.’
‘I got… ah, maybe’, He said, guardedly. Maxwell may have been a fool, but he was not an idiot.
‘Good, no worries. Just oil up the right screw and you’re out. They’re all on the take, mate. It’s all business, after all, just…’
‘No talking’ said the guard who had quietly moved in behind the two talkers and caused Maxwell to jump, ‘No more warnings,’ he said, and he patted the palm of his hand with his ugly black Pacifier Baton.
‘I’m Sorry, I…’ said Maxwell. The guard casually tapped the pacifier against Maxwell’s temple, sending 15,000 volts of Pacification through his instantly unconscious body.
Saio had been right; the Prison was much like work had been only now he couldn’t leave. The place was clean and populated by meek men and women, separated mostly. The cleaning worked on a rotor, everything timed, everything scheduled. The food was sufficient, all pre-packaged, frozen dinners, vacuum sealed deserts, a set meal for each day of the week. They had a small amount recreation time to read or chat, entertainment via the DVs that played mostly MetaSoft commercials, but sometimes had a program worth watching, but mostly it was the MetaSoft ads, “Making your life better, in a million different ways.”
His job was testing Viacom computer cards. All the inmates had skills. In fact most of the inmates held masters degrees at the least. There were bio-technicians, programmers, electro-engineers, chemists, even a botanist. The computer cards came to him via conveyer belt; they were slotted automatically to a test port, checked for a return signal, a red or green light confirming the automated test results as positive or negative. The cards kept coming, one after another. Faulty card were discarded, as they were cheaper to make than to repair.
Saio and Maxwell had been separated when the men were divided according to their skill base. The group alighted the transport and gathered in an enclosed courtyard; lit in neon green and red MetaSoft logo. Two more transports were offloading more people, they milled about a little, but like minded people had already begun to seek each other out. Saio was called out buy a guard holding a clipboard and directed to a group of rough looking characters, men and women. The rest, the majority, were divided between two groups, the men and the women. The men were herded through poorly ventilated access corridors, arriving finally before a large pressure sealed hatch marked B BLOCK in neat, luminescent paint. The men entered quietly and were lead along and seated in a sparse waiting room. They were called one after another to be processed.
Contrary to what Maxwell had imagined, it was a relatively painless experience. He undressed as instructed by the guard who then read a loud his particulars to the medical technician. The scruffy medical man scanned his mID and created his record, took a DT Image with a portable imager and gave him a push-infusion of something murky and yellowish. Maxwell would develop a nasty bruise later that night.
He entered a small chamber that locked and pressurized, where jets filled the cramped space with a fine powder, it tasted metallic. He stepped though the second door into a small and blindingly bright room where a dull little man sat behind a long desk, small piles of carefully folded clothing to be issued. The man wore grey trousers and tie and a white shirt. He then handed Maxwell what appeared to be the same outfit. He assigned Maxwell a room number and reminded him to be present in the B Block cafeteria at eleven hundred hours for orientation. ‘Just follow the signs along the yellow line.’
Maxwell had the feeling the psychology behind the architecture was that Hexagonal bee hive structure would promote work productivity and community harmony. The rooms and corridors were eight sided, the backlit panels on the floor were too; the lifts and stairways; anti-chambers; warehousing; mess-halls; bathrooms; tables, 30 floors of humming, brightly lit activity, a human hive, with coloured lines on the floor to follow.
The dorms each had two berths, with compact inbuilt bunks in minimalist fashion, also a small sink and DV screen. Maxwell shared a room with an agitated and often irritating man named Bernard who seemed to think he had taken Maxwell under his wing. Bernard’s enthusiasm for mSTATE made Maxwell uncomfortable. He had lived here in mSTATE twelve years. This terrified Maxwell. This man with the restless leg syndrome, constantly shifting eyes, this could be his future.
Maxwell had enquired after Saio, desperate for more information. Everything Saio had said seemed more and more probable each day. Bernard said this Saio character sounded unsavoury, so he would most likely be down in the docking stations, shipping. The docks it turned out were registered as privately owned and policed by MetaSoft Corporation. This meant that they bypassed a number of government regulations, tax legislation and station Health and Safety Codes. The good’s would be off loaded and shipped via the access tunnels; the same tunnels Maxwell had travelled here in, up to the station above, and distributed to various markets. MetaSoft’s official black-markets. The most common goods were designer drugs which usually incurred large duty and taxes, but sometimes, live specimens that would not normally pass or survive inspection and quarantine procedures.
After a week Maxwell was unnerved by how at home he felt, how comfortable he had become; slipping into blissful unthinking routine. The DV woke him up at 7 AM with sound of streams, birds and images of golden grass swaying in the breeze. Then breakfast after showering in the section cafeteria, sometimes bacon and eggs, but mostly high fibre cereals. Work was broken into manageable intervals and break times and lunch. He worked with a small team in a clean and comfortable environment. mSTATE took good care of its inmates. Each inmate recieved regular health screenings, dental care, tailored holistic programs, fitness and sport; everything taken care of, everything scheduled. All the pressure and stress of making a thousand little decisions a day had been lifted, computerized, and tailored to individual qualifications.
As a new inmate he attended a weekly health program with the block physician, a female inmate, older than Maxwell, and quite attractive. She noted his anxiety readings were exceeding approved levels and ordered him to attend Physical Conditioning Therapy two nights a week. Maxwell chose a manual exercise program, of tread mils and weights, rather than an automated regiment of chemical electro muscle stimulants and hydrotherapy. He had always meant to do this type of thing, get fit, attend the gym, but he always put it off. He would always start next week. By his second month Maxwell felt fitter than he had ever felt before.
But something nagged at him. He noticed his legs jiggling up and down as he worked. It happened around 3 pm and got worse until around five. He suspected some sort of withdrawal from the vitamin supplements. He took one in the morning and one after lunch. Many times he found himself watching the DVs absent mindedly. Or he would hear a MetaSoft commercial and stop what he was doing to watch, even having seen it a hundred times. They made him feel good, optimistic.
While he worked, sometimes his mind would drift, and one little thought always floated to the front of his mind, it said something was not right. I am feeling things I should not be feeling. Or Saios’ words would come back, “They will be grateful, you watch.”
There were no laundry baskets to hide in, or washer women to dress as. There were no sewers to tunnel into. He certainly couldn’t over power a screw and stroll out with the changing of the guard. But Saio had said it, hadn’t he. Before Maxwell had been put out, Saio had said all it took was money, and Maxwell had put money aside, using a little creative accounting, the money was quite well hidden.
So one after noon, during a break, he slunk away from the group milling at the water cooler and moved to were Ronny the guard was leaning in the corridor, examining his fingernails. However, as he approached he lost his nerve, and without meaning to he had walked right by Ronny.
Ronny was one of the more irritable guards, and the look in his eyes as he had met Maxwell’s discreet nod had made Maxwell’s feet continue on their way. He turned the corner and stopped. If only there were shadowy corners, he thought, places to meet in secret. Every hexagonal corridor was lined with bright panels; there were light panels on the low ceilings and even along the skirting boards, the place was like Heaven had the Nazis’ taken over.
After a deep breath he summoned his courage and turned back around the corner.
‘Sorry…’ began Maxwell, ‘You’re Ronny, aren’t you?’
Ronny was chewing something; his eyes slowly focused on Maxwell, ‘Break’s over,’ he said and flicked his head in the direction of the workshop.
‘Yeah…I was just wondering…you can get things for people!?’
Ronny leaned in close to Maxwell, ‘Don’t know what you’re on about. Sounds like you’re accusing me of something.’
‘Oh no, I don’t mean anything like that, only…I have the resources to…you know…for getting people a second chance,’ Maxwell stopped himself from winking. Perhaps he should have, this all felt contrived.
‘What’re you on about?’
This was not going, he thought, but he pressed on, ‘To get out. I want to get out and I can pay,’ Maxwell could not read Ronny’s face.
Ronny said, ‘And you think I can help? Someone was talking about me?’
‘No one, I just thought, you know, you seem like the man to get things done.’
‘I might…how much you got?’
Maxwell had long considered this, it was complicated. If he went to low it might show a lack of respect, or he might look ridicules, and if he went too high, he would betray his ignorance. There was no guide on how to oil up a screw, ‘Eight thousand,’ he had decided was a good starting price.
Oh god, thought Maxwell seeing Ronny expression, I’m way off. It’s likely in the hundreds of thousands. I’ll never get out.
The guard however, had read Maxwell very clearly, ‘Well,’ he said ‘look, we know not everyone’s a millionaire. Just tell me what you got.’
His eyes pleading, ‘The best I can do is twenty two thousand.’
‘Twenty two?’ Ronny put on a bit of show, considering it, mulling it over. He was shaking his head. ‘No, no… you’re holding out on me, can’t do that for twenty two.’
‘Twenty five, please…it’s all I’ve got.’ Maxwell should have started much smaller, 15 should have been his limit. He would have no money to make it, nothing to get him off this station. But again Ronny made a display of consideration and deep thought.
‘Alright, you know, I like you. I’ll do it, for you,’ He suddenly moved in very close to Maxwell, ‘But if you mention this to anyone, you’re a dead man, that straight?’
‘YOU GOT IT?’
Maxwell nodded more.
‘Good, get the money ready to transfer. You make the payment, and then you get to go.’