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I’m going to kill someone today.
I don’t know who it is. A bunch of people, really. But the Cryo-Warden decides who and when.
I just program the death scenes. Well, write them really. Someone else created all the software, the Big PEN, Penal Experience Network. And the Big PEN takes my directions and the artistic cues of my scenes and turns them into the virtual experience for the poor bastards below.
I can see them lined up in their blue sarcophagi through the floor-to-ceiling window. The sarcophagi are called “sleep envelopes,” but that’s just a euphemism. They are giant, polysteel lozenges lined up on pedestals, row after row, on the gleaming black floor of Cellblock D. We assume the “D” stands for “Death Row.” I’ve never seen Cellblocks A through C. I don’t know if they even exist. I just work on the death sentences for the really bad guys: murderers and rapists, basically.
To be humane, we don’t kill the really bad guys anymore. Not in real life. Instead, we store them in cryo for the length of their sentence. And feed them unending loops of their own death through the Big PEN.
Is virtual capital punishment more cruel than real capital punishment? Probably. In real life, you only die once. But what do I know? I’m just a writer. A hack in a dead-end job. Ha ha. Pun!
I’m strolling down One Infinite Loop. It’s the main hallway around Cellblock D. (Vastiva and I call it “Hellblock D.”) It’s a wide oval hallway that surrounds Hellblock D below. The interior wall of the loop is just one long, a gleaming sheet of glaze looking down over the cell floor nearly two stories below. Brilliant lights shine down on the cell floor and on One Infinite Loop. The black floors of both levels gleam and shine beneath the bright lights.
Bennie, the custodian, comes within sight around the bend. Bennie seems to do nothing but walk that push broom around One Infinite Loop. No wonder the floors are gleaming.
“Hey, Bennie, whatcha in for?” I ask as he approaches. Bennie wears an orange jumpsuit, so I’ve always assumed he’s a trusty. That’s an inmate considered low risk who gets to do odd jobs with little supervision. I’m a writer, so I know these things.
I always ask him the same question. I never get an answer.
Bennie stops and gets a funny look on his face. Bennie never seemed that bright. He looks like he’s trying hard to remember. I stop for a second as well. I’m in no hurry. It’s a government job and it’s not like they’re paying me a lot. It’s hard making a living as a writer anywhere these days.
Why’d I ever quit my job with Everlasting Glory, anyway? Yeah, I’m talking about Everlasting Glory the gaming company. I used to write death scenes for them, too. You know the crash of Flight 349 in the Japanese Ocean? I wrote that. No, really, I did. Took me a week to write that, and EG paid me one week’s lousy salary. They don’t give their writers residuals or anything. I guess that’s why I quit. It’s hard to remember.
I look up and Bennie is gone.
I shrug and stroll down the Loop to my office. It’s one of the hundreds of unmarked doors ringing the outside of One Infinite Loop. It’s a long way from the bathroom, the breakroom, and the Cryo-Warden’s control room. That’s where Vastiva works as a Cryo-Prison Technician. But I don’t mind. I like taking a stroll and stretching my legs. It relieves the intense boredom of this job.
Writing deaths should not be boring. It really shouldn’t. I loved writing at Everlasting Glory, despite the nonstop pressure and the low pay. Once I sat in front of my monitor and started tapping the keys, the stories used to just come alive.
Here, I get writers block a lot. I blame it mostly on the Three Rules.
RULE ONE: Make it believable.
That sucks most of the fun out of it. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know the audience has to be able to suspend disbelief. Sure. That’s a given.
The problem is these are real people that had real lives here on Earth. And they have to believe any death I write for them is their own death, a real death, a death that could really happen to them now.
So they’re only gonna believe realistic things that might happen to them here on Earth. That eliminates all fantasy, all outer space, and even all history. So I get to write plane crashes, car crashes, falling off buildings and cliffs. Accidents mostly. (Especially because of Rule Two.)
Pretty boring stuff after the first few hundred.
RULE TWO: No death by the hands of a person.
Given the political climate in the country, I don’t think they’re really trying to rehabilitate these guys in Hellblock D. I don’t think you do that by feeding them endless loops of death. No, the law-and-order governments since—well, my whole life I guess—are all about punishing these guys for their crimes. Sanctioned revenge on behalf of the state. I don’t mind. I’m not that political.
I’ve asked the Cryo-Warden like a million times why I can’t write a death by murder for these sons of bitches. Now those could be some juicy scenes. But he just shakes his head and says, “Rule Two.”
Personally, I think it’s because they want the cons to feel fear, feel horror, yeah. But they never want the con to feel like he’s the victim.
It’s senseless, though. Because these guys don’t remember anything before the death scene. Their entire lives are a blur. All they remember is what I write in the scene. Because if they remembered their lives, they’d remember their arrest, their trial, and their sentencing. They’d know they were in prison. And they’d remember they were in cryo.
“They can’t ever remember they’re in cryo,” the Cryo-Warden says. It’s his longest speech. “If they remember, they may wake up. They’re bound and frozen in a polysteel case. That’s no good.” Then he just shakes his head and disappears.
I really mean it. He goes around the corner and just seems to disappear. Whenever I follow him out of my office, by the time I make the corner, he’s just gone. I look right, I look left, and it’s just the wide, empty expanse of One Infinite Loop stretching off in both directions.
I stopped trying to follow the Cryo-Warden long ago. It just gives me a cold, creepy feeling around my neck.
RULE THREE: Keep it short.
I’ve asked the Cryo-Warden what this vague rule means. He shrugs. “Eight hours usually works best. No more than 24. They start getting suspicious.”
I once wrote a great death scene where the con goes on a hike in the woods behind his house. He knows it’s behind his house, but he never sees the house. We just let his brain fill in that bit. The Big PEN deaths are a lot like dreams. They just start midway, and the con never knows how he got there. If you write it well enough, he never stops to wonder why he’s there.
So the con goes on this hike and sees a bear. Once I wrote a bear attack scene for Everlasting Glory. We got real bear-attack footage. I think maybe they tied a raw steak to a camera or something. Anyway, it’s basically a slasher scene with a bear instead of a psycho killer. At the end, there are bear claws just slashing up the entire viewpoint. It’s fantastic stuff, especially after the SFX guys add in the blood and gore. It’s just a small scene in a hunting game when you take the wrong path, but EG got some fan messages for that scene alone.
The Big PEN doesn’t have that kind of specialized footage. And when I ask the Warden, he just sighs. He doesn’t even argue. He just sighs and points at my monitor. What he’s saying is “You’ve got the Big PEN. That’s good enough for these bastards. Get to work.”
Or, maybe, by pointing at my monitor, he’s just saying, “Get to work.”
So for the death scene with the bear, the one for Hellblock D, I just make the con run away and then snap his leg. Vastiva really liked that death. He’s a vicious bastard, real sadistic, but he’s a fan of my work. And writers love fans.
I type a few sentences.
I’m feeling wrung out here. The last thing I want is to write another car crash, another fall under the subway. I’ve written a few dozen subway deaths. Hit by a train. Electrified on the third rail. Stuck in an automatic door and dragged to death. I’ve done them all. I wrote one where the con falls down the entire length of the escalator on the way to the subway. Then another where the con exits the train and gets his leg sucked into the up escalator. I wish my SFX guys at EG could work on that one. The escalator stairs hit the femoral artery.
Today, I got nothin’. I’m on empty. I’m actually trying to write about a tree falling on the con.
Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Golden sunlight shines down on the green grass of the park. Walk a crunching stone path to a bench. Pigeons flutter near the bench.
Notice the beautiful, spreading oak tree that shades the bench and the path. Sit on the bench and look across the green grass.
I’d like to have kids playing on the grass. You know, really tweak up the idyllic scene before ruining the con’s day with a massive headache. But there are several problems.
First, it’s starting off slow. I’m not sure it’ll distract the con dropped into a new scene.
Second, there’s no buildup of fear. I can’t just have the tree crack and drop on the con’s head. There has to be some foreshadowing, some suspense.
Third, the Big PEN doesn’t really do groups of people too well. People are complicated, erratic. The way they move is complicated, going to and fro, changing their minds. It’s a different kind of chaos than trees blowing in the wind or rainfall or even crashing waves. The Big PEN is great at environmental stuff. Sucks with people.
So, we usually write empty spaces. Landscapes, buildings, rooms. All vacant. And if the scene really needs it, we write just one person into the scene.
I shake my head and kick my chair back from the desk. I run my hands through my hair and look around the featureless office. No photos, no posters, no papers even. Just a monitor, a desk and four walls. It’s actually nicer than the cubicle in EG. Bigger, too. But at EG, we used to decorate our walls with garish posters and Mardi Gras beads, and every kind of toy you could think of.
I keep meaning to bring a photo of Wendy, but I keep forgetting.
I’m trying to remember what Wendy said to me this morning. What we talked about. Did we have plans I’m supposed to remember? When I really struggle, trying to remember, I feel cold across the back of my neck.
I’m strolling down One Infinite Loop to get a cup of coffee.
I guess I get lost in my stories. I don’t even remember leaving my office. But I guess that happens to people all the time. You know, when you’re driving and something’s on your mind and you try to remember the last five miles and you can’t? That happens to me all the time.
The Cryo-Warden is actually pretty cool. He knows I get writer’s block.
He lets me stretch my legs, get some coffee, chat up Vastiva. But whenever we start cutting up, he appears and tells me to “Get to work.” Or just gives me the glare.
He’s a little intimidating, with his bushy eyebrows and his big, steel-gray beard. I could never grow a full, bushy beard like that. Not in a million years.
In the break room, I pour two cups of coffee into two identical mugs. Shiny black like the floors.
I continue down One Infinite Loop to the Cryo-Warden’s control room, where the Cryo-Prison Technicians work.
Vastiva spins in his chair.
Vastiva never wears a uniform. He’s just a contractor like me. He’s wearing the same blue shirt and khaki pants he always wears.
“Coffee?” I ask, trying to be chipper.
“Yeah, dude, thanks!”
We raise our mugs in a silent toast and take a sip at the same time.
“Ugh,” I say.
“Bad,” Vastiva splutters. “Not terrible, but pretty bad.”
The coffee here is always bad. Not the worst, but also never good. Vastiva and I both keep promising to bring some premium roast in. But we never do. We always forget.
“Whatcha workin’ on?” Vastiva asks. He knows this place gives me writer’s block and he’s always sympathetic. He’d love some slasher material to mix it up as well. When he has nothing else to do, he watches the “third-person view” of the loop being fed to some con. I don’t know why. He’s seen them all a million times.
“Nothing,” I say. I’m too embarrassed to admit I’m actually working on Death by Oak Tree.
“Come on, you’re a great writer. You’ve got something going on. I just know it.”
“No, Vastiva, I really don’t.”
He shrugs and looks over at his control panel. There’s one small orange light blinking. It must be nothing because he takes a sip of coffee, winces, and looks up at me.
We never talk about much except the death scenes. I ask him about his work, but he says it’s even more boring than everything else on Hellblock D.
One time, I asked him about the view he has over the cellblock. His circular station projects a little out from One Infinite Loop and the round wall is just a sheet of glaze like the hallway. He looked around the single, gleaming, curved wall and said “What view? Four puke-green walls and the control board?”
I figured he was joking. Pulling my leg. But I got a cold feeling on my neck and shoulders when he said that and I never asked him about it again.
We each open our mouths a few times but come up with nothing. Then I hear the Cryo-Warden’s footsteps coming down the hall.
“Well, I guess I better get back to it,” I say.
Vastiva nods. “Thanks for the coffee!”
I stroll down One Infinite Loop. I never did see the Warden.
Vastiva says the Cryo-Warden also gives him the creeps. Appearing from nowhere, usually just when you’re starting to have a bit of fun. Disappearing instantly. We agree on that much. But Vastiva swears the Warden is clean-shaven. Whatever it is, there’s definitely something weird about the Warden. Best to stay on his good side.
No sign of Bennie this time around.
I sit back down at my desk. My coffee is now barely warm. I take a sip and wish I hadn’t. I set the mug on the desk.
I lean back in my seat and try to imagine the bench in the park. It pops instantly to mind. Golden light is shining down. It’s beautiful. Idyllic.
Then I remember. This is where I proposed to Wendy. She sat on that bench. And I got down on one knee. I can still feel the rocks biting into my kneecap.
It all comes flooding back in a wild torrent. I never quit Everlasting Glory. They fired me for embezzlement. Wendy was pregnant, and I barely made enough to cover my share of the bills. And she was so excited, and I guess I was, too. But how could I afford a baby?
And there was Sharon in accounting. She was always sweet on me. And, really, I had to do it. We needed the money. And it all came out at trial. And I begged Wendy not to come. But she sat on the front row, right behind me and my lawyer.
So when Sharon started talking about the affair from the witness stand, Wendy heard everything. She was so pale! She just sat there, until the trial was over, and then she walked out those two doors and I never saw her again.
The judge sentenced me to five years since it was just my first offense. And then they drove me to the prison. And they promised it wouldn’t hurt, but I started kicking anyway. I mean, five years locked in ice?
And my office is gone and it’s just dark. Dark and cold. Impossibly cold!
I try to open my eyes but I can’t. I try to move but my body won’t move. I try to scream, but I can’t open my mouth.
. . . .
I’m strolling down One Infinite Loop. I shiver and almost spill my coffee.
I pause to take a slurp while it’s still hot, looking blankly down over those poor bastards lined up in their blue sarcophagi on the gleaming black floor of Cellblock D. I feel a band of cold across my neck and shoulders, but then my tongue registers the bitterness of the coffee. “Ugh.” It’s hot, but I still shiver.
I walk on.
I decide to scrap Death by Oak Tree. I’m thinking about Death by Freezing. That could be fun! The Warden will probably hate it, but I’m gonna give it a try.
By the time I reach my office, I’ve almost finished my first sentence.