Copyright © 1996-2003 Sarah Henderson.
Along the sides of the narrow corridor lay cold metal dishes.
The off-white walls were broken by towering metal doors. Each door had a small barred window in the centre at eye level. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling flickered uncertainly then blinked out altogether. At the end of the corridor a white door squeaked open. A small plastic robot, about waist height, slid out of its storage closet. It was 6 am. Time for the robot to collect the empty plates and to supply breakfast. The robot quietly hummed its way down the corridor, stopping at each door to collect an empty dish and replace it with a bowl of steaming porridge. The robot systematically worked its way down the corridor.
At the other end, another door opened, and the robot wheeled through the doorway. Its castors made soft thuds as it passed from the cold linoleum onto the thin carpet. The door snapped shut behind it.
"Task completed." whined the robot mechanically.
"Anything to report?" came a mellow human voice echoing off the bare, white walls and ceiling.
"Dismissed," sighed Division Manager Moraine, and the robot quickly slid into another storage closet. The closet door closed, becoming nearly invisible on the pale wall, next to a metal door. The friendly hum faded as the robot shut itself down.
Moraine slowly uncrossed his long legs, one by one removing them from his cold metal desk. He sat up straighter in his plastic chair, pressing the soles of his shoes into the thin grey carpet. He scanned the colourful computer screen in front of him and pressed a green button on the edge of the keyboard.
A sudden clang rang through the corridor, making Moraine jump, although he'd heard it many times. Simultaneously, twenty doors swung open with a shrill screeching.
Twenty men stepped out of their cells and picked up their food tray. They stretched and smiled, greeting each other as if they hadn't met for weeks, instead of just a few hours.
They sat down on their hard bunks, many balancing their trays on their laps, to eat breakfast. A few tried to use the toilet lid as a makeshift table. They gulped down their food with relish. It was rare to have a hot meal in the morning.
When a prisoner finished his meal, he would place his empty bowl outside his door for the food robot to collect later. He would then down the corridor and join the growing queue outside the Manager's office. When all the prisoners were in the queue, the man at the front of the line would press an access button beside the door. A red light blinked on above the Manager's door.
Although it was against regulations, Moraine allowed his prisoners to use his hot shower to clean themselves. Other divisions in the prison had to use the toilet bowls in their cells.
While the prisoners were waiting in line for the shower, he would often chat to them. He knew many of them quite well.
Margate Amytals would ask him about traffic. Although Moraine had rarely left the prison since he had acquired an apartment there, he did hear about the traffic situation through his daily newspapers. Margate was jailed for trying to design a transport system that everyone could use together, similar to the trains he had seen in museums. The government, who had a monopoly on motor-car manufacture, arrested him. It always gave him satisfaction to hear about the trouble that the government had controlling the growing amount of traffic.
Therms Senna always asked him about the sharemarket price of a company called Positechnics. He had been a stockbroker, and still had shares in the company, which the government didn't know about. He was in prison for advocating the return of a free market.
Jusonal Elgin loved to feed the fish. He spoke about how peaceful he felt watching them swim, and often remarked with a grin that if worst came to worst, you could always eat them. Moraine had promised him that when he was released, he could take the fish with him.
Jake Scale often talked about how much he missed his two daughters, and how good it would be when he saw them again.
Moraine knew he wouldn't. Jack Scale was due to be executed in two days time, along with the rest of his division. Moraine had been given a formal execution order that morning. In the prison where Moraine worked, there was no execution squad. When a prisoner was due for execution, the Division Manager was handed a machine gun, and sent into the cell of the prisoner to do the job himself. Moraine had been assigned a 'non-violent crime' division, where the crimes of prisoners in the division were mainly disagreeing with government policy. He didn't think those men were a 'danger to the stability and equality of modern society', as the government claimed, and had assumed that they wouldn't be executed.
He wasn't sure how he would be able to shoot his prisoners. He had spoken to these men every day for the past year. They weren't criminals in his charge, they were his friends. He was their only contact with the human race, and they were the only people he felt comfortable with.
The prison was the only place in the city where people were neither watched nor listened to. He could talk freely and explore his ideas and opinions without fear of the government arresting him if he didn't agree with their policies.
He knew it sounded like a contradiction, but Moraine often remarked that he only felt free inside the prison.
The thought occurred to him that if his prisoners escaped, he wouldn't have to execute them. His penalty for having the prisoners escape was life imprisonment at best, or death at worst. If the prison authorities found him locked in one of the cells, and if they were told that the prisoners overpowered him, they would probably only give him a year or two in prison, and then give him his job back. When he thought about it, he wouldn't really mind being in jail. Prisoners were usually treated quite well, and he had nothing on the outside to miss.
Prison was definitely preferable to having the deaths of twenty men on his conscience. Who was he to take away the lives of men with children, wives, girlfriends, families and friends. All to keep one single man out of prison. A man with no family and no apartment. And, if he executed his prisoners, a man with no friends.
He looked at the blinking red light above his door, scanned his computer screen and sighed. He pressed a button and three metal prongs slid out of the door into the wall with a jolt that shook the room, and made tiny ripples appear on his fish tank.
The door swung open to reveal a line of men along the corridor. Instead of allowing them to come in one by one, as he usually did, he called for them all to stay where they were for a few moments. There was a small ripple of noise as his request was passed up the line, and puzzled men responded to his unfamiliar behavior.
Moraine didn't listen to the individual voices in the corridor. He tapped away on his computer keyboard, sending a report confirming his prisoners' whereabouts to the Prison Manager. When the routine task was completed, Moraine stepped across the room and opened a metal door, next to the cupboard containing the food robot. He stepped into a small, square, white room with doors on three sides. He walked across to the door on his right and tapped a panel beside it.
"Alarm de-activation request," said a computerised female voice.
"Please place your hand in the identification slot."
"Please place your hand in... Thank You for your cooperation."
Moraine winced as a needle punctured his fingertip and blood oozed out into the collector.
"Please wait while your DNA is analysed."
"Alarm de-activated. Have a nice day."
Moraine stuck his head back into the office and motioned for the men to follow him. Hesitatingly at first, they followed him down an unfamiliar narrow corridor. He opened the end door with a swipe card.
"This is it. You're free now."
One by one he shook each man's hand, and watched them walk out into a world that they hadn't known for more than a year. Some men had tears of joy in their eyes, and many hugged Moraine. None of the prisoners asked why they were being released.
Most were still in shock - in the years of hoping for release, none had ever believed that this day would come. Only one man, the last, stopped and spoke to Moraine.
"Why are you releasing us. We're not allowed to go, are we?" Jusonal Elgin asked softly.
"No. You're not. But my choice was to release you or shoot you. It wasn't a hard decision." Moraine was trying hard to conceal the emotion in his voice.
"You're taking a big risk. For us."
"I know. Could you help me with something? If you lock me in one of the cells, it won't look like I helped you escape." Jusonal nodded. Together he and Moraine slowly walked back to the cells, through the silent corridors, where every step they took echoed around them again and again. Moraine and Jusonal stood together outside Cell Six. Solemnly, they shook hands, then emotion overcame them and they hugged fiercely. Moraine sat down on the bunk in Cell Six.
"Take care of the fish." Moraine implored Jusonal.
Jusonal smiled and shut the cell door with a clang.