Chapter 2: Born to Run
By: Derek Hobson
AX-1206-2B took out a roll of her nicotine gum* along with her ID card—she’d been waiting for this. She chewed the stick and took in her surroundings. Alarms started sounding, since her trial this day felt like it would never come, and all at once she was experiencing deja vu. Some prisoners managed to shake themselves free of sleep, while others obediently watched their regularly scheduled programming. From the plasma walls of her chamber, a good 300 prisoners were visible across from her, each in a standard 20 X 20 X 10 cell block. None bore the title of AX; none were preparing to escape. She slid her card through the toll and plotted her time to be released now. Only 15 minutes for the show to begin.
*Despite fire hazards, the colonists and prisoners in Theta are allowed to smoke in designated areas. These areas were confined to escape pods where, should anything go awry, they’d be jettisoned from the colony entirely. For AX-1206-2B however, a registered arsonist, she was only provided with nicotine gum.
Once the walls melted, she would make her break for the cafeteria, in the direction of the explosion. She knew the others would make a run to the escape pods—assuming they could make it before the staff—but they were criminals; they were uneducated in escape. The fact is, the explosion will be causing paths across the board, all you had to do was accessorize with the proper gear to survive.
The colonies had developed a much stricter dimension of law in the years post-Earth. You were guilty until proven innocent. Given the amount of guard supervision, the barrage of cameras, and the prison being entirely monitored electronically, it wasn’t hard to maintain the peace. In fact, while there were designated escape pods for smoking, in the two instances of an actual fire, the people were jettisoned and subsequently recovered. This is simply a precaution in case the fire somehow managed to spread. In truth, each cell in the prison is an escape pod, but without the sealed shell, meaning, a mistake results in a deadly expulsion into space. Part of the reason for this design is so the nav-room can continue to rearrange the prisoners. Every two days, the nav-room rotates the inmates—like a giant rubix cube, but with much more variation. This prevents interpersonal conflict as well as any schemers. The blocks are easily movable, so the additional “eject” button—so to speak—wasn’t difficult to construct.
With the inmates arranged regardless of crime, the likelihood of discussion was further limited. However, without the fear of prison violence, the inmates were less motivated to exercise; others were challenged due to poor nutrition; still some blatantly wished to be defiant by not using the gym’s facilities.
While most prisons, pre-Epsilon, had scheduled hours, Theta provided a toll system. In the corner of each cell was something of—as an Earth-goer may say—vending machine (known as tolls). Each convict was allotted four hours of free time, and they could construct their own schedule by choosing where they wanted to go, and at what times. Then they would slide their ID card. Time was currency.
The first time Theta tried this system, it was before the rotated the cells entirely and just rotated the inmates, this meant that their block was not suited for them, the idea being that a new inmate could see if their predecessor made any attempts to escape, and would be rewarded with more hours while the other would be punished. Because they would never know their predecessor however, it would still act as a deterrent to in-house violence. However, this quickly changed when it was discovered that some prisoners started stealing others ID cards—since the cell was not electronically fitted to each individual—and the result was several inhabitants starved to death in their own cell (this was also when they made the cafeteria a negotiable time slot, now meal times are exempt from the time tables for scheduling).
Most criminals wasted their time on the cafeteria (for extra time), and recreational rooms. Because communication was scarce—and strongly advised to be treated as a prohibition—many people confined themselves to the virtual room, where they played simulations of real life and video games. This was done for two reasons: 1. It allowed psychologists to monitor the inmates’ progress, if they could function in a real-world simulation without resorting to old habits and 2. Gave them the impression that they were experiencing real time, when the simulation actually slowed down perceptions; 30 minutes could appear to the user like three days.
This project actually took a great deal of compromising to get passed into the system. Initially, for instance, there were fantasy elements thrown in of chimeras, and other assorted monsters. In Law v. Virtua, the law provided a great deal of evidence that the simulation programs, without video game elements would make the inmates yearn for the real world. By providing beasts and goblins, they’d know that it was not how the real world functioned but still manage to work off their violent tendencies. Virtua however, demonstrated that the violence in games would only increase their level of testosterone whereas by viewing an isolated world, they would be calmed, making it a meditative experience. Oddly enough, the court favored Virtua, and certainly the bright, green environments were a splendid retreat from the cold metallic confinements. Most would spend their time there, in the cafeteria, and sleep for the remainder of the day.
This was all they needed as each cell was 20 X 20 X 10 spacing, each with a toilet and their own television—only accessible with the wireless headphones. So they were kept occupied, and utterly brain dead.
However, if you did not squander your time and one day scheduled yourself for an extra hour, the system would calculate your time expenditure much like a credit score. If approved, then the plasma doors would melt away, and you could be escorted to your desired location—“could be.”
If you slid your card, and a guard was not there as an escort to the respective room, the plasma walls would shut down automatically if you had good credit. Why? It’s the same reason AX-1206-2B had access to all this information; it starts with the library.
The library was open to all cell mates about law and especially their own trials. The law was always looking for bugs and loopholes in the system. A prisoner is self-motivated and unpaid, if they want to escape their judgment, they’ll look it up and find whatever loophole they can to be released. Once they’re released, the law amends the loophole for future convicts.
If a guard did not show up in 15 minutes, they were a bug in the system that needed to be amended. All this was a part of keeping everyone docile, calm, and against discussion of possible rebellion.
Of course, AX-1206-2B wasn’t really up for parole. “Mass genocide” has its own category, of which there’s very little that can be done… unless she found the real perpetrator.
In her time there, the gym was of no use, being limited. There was no pool as it would require too much irrigation, especially when most facilities were dry—toilets simply ejected from the colony. So they had a lower gravity room, but this only diminished muscle mass.
Obviously, life in prison needed to be reasonably challenging or the guards wouldn’t know why they were living on Theta at all. The employees were the true cost. The staffs had real benefits, but were also prohibited from small talk for fear that any sense of community would spark discussion or, at the very least, communal rebellion.
The library had taught AX-1206-2B all this, but most importantly was her information on Arsonists and her precursor. Theta colony would not crumble, though panic—for these zombified drones—would overrule their good reason. Theta was a much more powerful colony than its predecessors, and even in the event of an obliterated disc, the colony could still function as a free-floating space station until repairs could be made.
This AX had a history of public attacks on political figures. He was not discreet, given that fire eliminated all evidence. But it was clear, that while AX-1206-2B was locked up unjustly, she did understand that it was to keep the AX going.
The AX had not been caught, and to keep the public’s attention elsewhere, the law made every arson incident a result of AX-????-1B, but it was clear, from the history books, that the Arsonist had, at the very least, changed tactics.
Initial attacks were done with Napalm A, which burns for a 15-30 seconds at well over 800 degrees. These were clearly done for crowded areas, to clear the area with a minimum of casualties—she wasn’t giving the AX too much credit, but it was clear he meant to harm the fewest persons possible to hit his target. Later however, several cases of wildfires on various colonies were the result of Napalm B, where burns for much longer than its predecessor. So either this Arsonist attained a new skill and was using the flames to herd people (in one direction or the other), or this was a different arsonist? This makes Beta all the more exceptional as it was destroyed from the base of its spine down with Napalm C. Either the targets were increasing, these were different arsonists, or it was one AX who was becoming increasingly better and more cynical about what he does.
This kind of research made AX-1206-2B replay the memory in her head as if on a loop, when she woke up and went to bed. How did the AX speak to her? What was his tone? Did he plan for Theta’s demise? Years in prison had made her a bitter criminal.
It was time to find her true captor.