Corrodel stepped through the telepod, fumbling with his mug and briefcase. He tripped, and hot coffee splashed on his white shirt.
Jobe swiveled in his hover chair and chortled. “Bravo.”
Corrodel sighed and set down his mug and briefcase.
Jobe hovered back around. “Thirty seconds late. Old man Lipston’ll have your head.” He sipped a fizzy drink.
Corrodel wrung out his tie. “Don’t care.”
Jobe shrugged and gnawed at the end of a choco-stick.
Corrodel sighed and tossed his tie aside. “I miss anything?”
“Petunias are in the Garden.” Jobe pointed with his choco-stick. “Your turn to clean out the fertilizer.”
They stared at each other.
Corrodel sighed and pulled on a rubber suit. He went to the cells and the laser bars disappeared.
“Why do we bother with these?” he muttered.
The human-blob inmates were arranged in uniform rows. Wires and cords ensnared their boneless limbs from the ceiling like strands of a spider web. Fluids pumped into their brains and into their gelatinous arms. He changed out their waste collectors, grumbling.
“Wouldn’t it just be cheaper to execute them?”
Jobe cackled. “Think so? What costs more? Fluids and our wages? Or lawyers, courts, appeals, more appeals…”
Corrodel rolled his eyes. He finished cleaning the collectors, walked through the disinfector and plopped down in a chair in the control room.
Jobe passed him a choco-stick. “See what they’re up to.”
Corrodel kicked his feet back and flipped on the vidscreens.
* * *
Wallach stared at the slice of pizza. Melted cheese bubbled around red saucers of pepperoni. He took a bite.
And spit it out. He shoved the plate away.
“What’s the matter?” Earl sucked on a giant rib. “You love pizza.”
“Tastes grey,” he said.
Earl barked, laughing. “How’s that?”
Wallach looked at the other inmates. They sat around in luxury chairs, eating filet mignon and lobster, drinking champagne and fancy booze. A diamond chandelier hung from the ceiling. Bombshell women and men muscled like Greek gods walked around, serving everything.
“You’ve just eaten it too much,” said Earl. A serving girl walked past. He grabbed her by her apron and wiped sauce from his face and spanked her. “Every day you eat the stuff.”
“Pizza used to be my favorite.” He shrugged. “Nothing tastes right to me.”
Earl shrugged. “Get drunk.”
Wallach stood and walked down the hall to Cell 18. He opened the door.
Scott was lying on a white sand beach. Muscled cabana boys served her drinks and fanned her with huge palms. Her heavy breasts bulged against a scandalously small black bikini. Her black hair was a salty tangle. Her head lolled and she looked at him. “You look pissed, Wally.”
“Want to sex?”
She rolled her eyes. “No. For God’s sake, go have Marilyn Monroe or Cleopatra or whoever.”
“It wouldn’t be real.”
She stretched like a cat. “Like I’m real.” She sat up. “I’m a blob on a chair somewhere. So are you.”
“We’re alive,” he murmured.
“No bones. No real brain. No eyes or teeth. We’re a sack of organs.” She stood and snapped her fingers. The cabana boys moved off.
“I’d rather live like that.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” she said, walking to the water’s edge. “You’re just a little stir crazy. Happens to everyone. Want to build a sand castle?”
He shook his head.
She shrugged and walked into the crystal water. “Some people would kill to have this,” she said.
“So you won’t sex.”
She threw her hands up. Hundreds of naked women appeared on the beach and surrounded him. “Knock yourself out,” she said, and dove beneath a wave.
Wallach pushed through the throngs of women and followed her into the water. She surfaced and he floated beside her. “I’m going to try it,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Lee did it.”
“We don’t know that.”
“You don’t know it. The rest of us do.”
“I mean it, Scott.”
She kissed his cheek. “Best of luck.” The water surged all around her. A huge black fin cut through the water. She grabbed it and sped off on the back of a huge whale.
He swam back to shore and climbed back through the orgy of naked women. He went to his room: four grey walls. He snapped his fingers. A leather jacket appeared on his shoulders. A wide-brimmed hat appeared on his head. A pistol appeared in a holster on his belt. He took a deep breath and left his cell.
* * *
Techs filed into the control room, waving money. They interfaced into the prison computers.
“Two hundred says he doesn’t make it past stage one!”
“Double or nothing says he makes it past stage four!”
“Five hundred on stage three!”
Corrodel put fifty creds in the pot that the runner wouldn’t make it past stage one. Any more and his wife would kill him.
“So what happens if they get past stage five?” said Sendak. He was a new tech with squirrelly cheeks and a big forehead.
“They don’t,” said Jobe, collecting the bets.
“But in theory. What if they do?”
Jobe rolled his eyes and belched. “The prison computers are all wired to the government processors. The ones that run everything on Earth and work at below 1% total capacity. It runs traffic, warrants, strategic defense, interplanetary travel, the economy, shopping lists and business accounts, and Christmas lists. It controls the interface chip installed in babies at birth, for God’s sake. Even though it’s literally impossible to get past stage five, if someone did I’m sure the computer has a stage six.” He looked at Corrodel. “Stage two. Loser cleans out collectors for a month.”
* * *
“Don’t do it,” said Earl. He carried a bottle of booze in one hand and his other was draped over an Amazonian woman’s shoulder.
Wallach stood at the brink of the long, black cavern. A sign above read:
POINT OF NO RETURN
He glanced back. Only Earl had come to say goodbye.
He stepped into the cave.
The wall transformed behind him. The entry closed and become a wall. He touched it and muttered. He turned and took a step forward.
The stones collapsed underfoot. He slipped down into the chasm.
His hands caught the edge and he held on by his fingers. A black chasm loomed below like a waiting maw.
He scrambled for a grip. The stones gave way.
Two hands grabbed him by the wrists and helped drag him up.
Scott grabbed him by the belt and pulled him back up.
“You came,” he said, wheezing for breath.
“Jesus, Wally. What are you dressed up to be?”
He smiled up at her. “You came.”
“Yeah. Now let’s go.” She dragged him back to the wall. “How do we get out?”
“What’d you think the sign was for?” he said.
She touched the rocks. “You mean…”
He dusted himself off. “It’s okay. I’ve got it figured out.”
She grabbed him. “You mean we can’t go back?”
He walked over. He tapped a rock with his foot and it gave under his weight. “We’ve got to run across, Scott.”
“No. No. We’ll just stay here and they’ll let us back in.”
“I’m staying here.”
“Then you’ll starve to death.”
He took her hand. “Come on. Run as fast as you can. Don’t stop! Here we go. One. Two. Three!”
He broke into a run and dragged her by the hand. Rocks plummeted down under their feet, falling into the chasm below.
They hurled themselves forward, landing on a solid edge. They lay panting on the ground.
“I’ll kill you,” she said. “Let me go back.”
“How?” He stood and helped her up. The path was gone; now only a gaping pit stood between the cliffs. A long cave stretched before them.
The walls rumbled. Iron spikes emerged and began to close off the tunnel ahead.
“Come on,” said Wallach. They took each other’s hand. “Come on, run!” They bolted down the cave as the walls began to close in. Closer, closer.
Scott broke free. A spike pierced Wallach’s leather jacket and stopped him in his tracks. Scott turned and yanked him out of his jacket and they leapt free. The walls slammed shut. Boom.
* * *
“Damn it.” Corrodel wiped his face. “What am I going to tell Lori?”
Jobe ate a swizzle cake. “You’re only out fifty.”
“She’ll know. She checks.”
Jobe stifled a yawn.
Corrodel looked at the screen. The two runners were spelunking down into the third stage. “What’s the point, anyway? Why even have the stages?”
Jobe swallowed noisily. “Inmates rejected the program without a possibility of escape and woke early from stasis.”
“We should keep them in a hellhole then. Why treat them like royalty?”
“Costs us the same either way. And no activist groups are banging down doors for prisoner treatment this way.”
“What’s this guy in for anyway?” said Sendak.
Jobe pressed a button. “AWOL on Titan. Triple homicide. Stole three police skiffs. Jesus.”
The techs all stared.
“One thousand he makes it!” Sendak shouted.
* * *
Wallach slid down a gravelly slope.
Scott followed, cursing. “If I’d known I was going to die in the temple of doom, I would’ve changed.”
He looked at her bikini and grinned.
She pulled a switchblade from her bikini. “Back off.”
He raised his hands and backed up a step.
“So what now, Flash?”
He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it to her. “We keep going.”
She looked at the sweaty shirt and slid her arms through. “What happens then?”
He pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit it. “I don’t know.” He pushed through some cobwebs.
They stood at the verge of a large, open chamber. Stone tiles lined the floor and torches lined the walls.
He waved Scott back and took a burning torch from the wall. He tossed it forward. It clattered against the floor.
He shrugged and walked forward. Scott followed. “No explosives? No tricks?”
Wallach felt something drip on his hand. He sniffed and looked up. Nozzles carved into the stone ceiling sprayed down fumes. He coughed.
Scott began coughing. “Oh God. I can’t breathe.”
“Cover your mouth!” he said. They ran.
Blades and guillotines rained down from above. They danced through torrents of razor-sharp daggers and swords. They rolled beneath two giant pendulum blades and into a hall just as a giant stone door slammed shut.
Wallach coughed and shook his head. His eyes cleared.
Scott climbed up. “I could be anywhere. Doing anything.” She sobbed.
He offered her his hand. She slapped it away. He shrugged and looked around. Strange hieroglyphics and paintings covered the walls. He ran his fingers over them.
“Where are we, anyway?” said Scott.
“Inside the computer-generated maze.”
“What happens if we get out?”
“These prisons are all built with a five-tier system. They’re connected to the government databases and supercomputers.” He flipped open his lighter and cast light through the tunnel. “See, the human brain rejects the program without possibility of escape. Keeps us in line.”
“How do you know so much?”
He smirked. “I used to work for the government. A long time ago.”
“But you didn’t tell me what happens if we get out.”
He shrugged. “We might not. Stage five is supposed to be impossible. No one’s ever gotten past it.”
Footsteps padded behind. Wallach turned. His hand went to his holster.
Scott snorted a laugh. “I think you can put the gun away, Tex.”
Shapes moved through the darkness. Strange voices.
Wallach cocked the hammer on his pistol.
“Wally. What is it?”
Wild shouts through the cave. A human shape ran at them with a spear. Wallach shot him and he fell dead.
“Go!” he shouted.
Arrows and darts skittered across the floor, nipping their heels.
“Don’t look back!” He shouted. He shot backwards as he ran. Smoke and the smell of cordite filled the tunnel.
Hundreds, a thousand voices screamed for blood behind them. Drums sounded in the deep. A thrown javelin whistled through the air and took off Wallach’s hat and stuck in the ground, quivering.
A grey-skinned creature dropped down from the ceiling and screeched. Spittle sprayed from its fanged mouth. Wallach put a bullet between the creature’s black eyes and they ran.
A lighted chamber waited ahead. Scott began to slow and stumbled as she ran. Wallach shoved her forward. They dove through the portal. A stone door slammed shut behind them.
Wallach laughed and stood. “We made it! Scott, we made it!”
Scott sat on the ground, staring at the wall. A dart protruded from her neck. She ripped it out and threw it. He picked it up and sniffed the end.
“Wally,” she said, falling limp.
He cradled her in his arms. “You’re going to be okay. We’ve only got one more stage. We’ll get out and get you some help.”
“We should’ve stayed.”
“Scott. You’re poisoned. Hang on, okay?”
“Look. It’s Lee.” She said pointing.
He followed her finger. A shriveled corpse lay in the corner. Its face was dry and its limbs were emaciated. “He made it all this way,” said Wallach. “What happened?” He laid Scott carefully down and searched the room. The walls were blank. He walked around. “That can’t be it. There’s something else here.” He paced.
A stone tile sank under his weight. A wall slid open. Pure white light flooded the room from the door.
“Look! There it is!” he said. He ran toward it.
The wall slammed shut and the tile surfaced.
He looked back and forward. “It’s weight-activated? That’s so simple! No wonder no one’s ever made it past this. Someone has to stay behind and hold the door open. . .” He ran over to Lee’s corpse and tried to pick it up, but it crumbled into dust.
Scott dragged herself onto the tile and sat. Blood dribbled from her lips and she moaned.
He went to her. “No. Let me use Lee’s body, and we can both go.”
“Forget it. He weighs nothing now,” Scott said.
“Then I’ll hold it down, Scott. You go. Get help.”
“I never.” She gasped for breath. “Did. Much like you.”
“We’ll stay together. We’ll get a huge pepperoni pie. How about that? You and me. First thing.”
She smiled and went limp.
The wall slid open as the tablet sunk into the floor. Light flooded the room.
Wallach wiped his eyes and stepped into the light.
Weightless. He floated into the white void. Colors wheeled about him. His body dissolved. Yet he remained. Corporeal, formless.
* * *
The vidscreens exploded. The shockwave threw the techs back and they sprawled across the control room. Smoke sizzled from monitors.
The techs all pulled themselves to their feet. Corrodel helped Jobe up. They stared at one another.
“Jesus,” said Corrodel. “What happened?”
Jobe hopped back into his hover chair and leaned over a sizzling monitor. He tapped it a few times. “One of them is dead. The woman.”
“What about the other?” said Sendak. “I had money riding on that bastard!”
“Uh…” Jobe flipped through a few screens. “It’s weird. His vitals are there. But brain activity’s dropped off.”
“So he made it?” said Sendak.
“Shut your hole, man; you know the guy didn’t do it. No one’s ever done it,” said another tech.
Jobe scratched his head. “Well. Something shorted the computers. His vitals are there. But he’s not in prison. So I guess he made it.”
The techs all moaned. Sendak leapt up and down and squealed. Corrodel rubbed his temples. Techs doled out money. Sendak ended up with a few thousand.
“Pizza for everybody!” he shouted.
Jobe tossed away his choco-sticks. “Pizza sounds good.”
“Yeah, it does,” someone said.
“Pepperoni,” another droned.
Corrodel scratched his head. “Pizza.” He looked at the sizzling screens and shrugged. *
About the Author: Kris Knapp is an author living in Jacksonville Florida and has been published by DemonMinds, Allegory ezine, Moon Drenched Fables, Aphelion, and other publications.
Story (c) 2009 Kris Knapp firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Romeo Esparrago creates virtual worlds in his spare time.
Illustration (c) 2009 Romeo Esparrago.