The Captain of the Penmonkeys, Chuck Wendig, has set a writing challenge this month and I wanted to have a go. Follow the link for details, but the premise is, roll a die twice to determine your title, then write 1,000 words. I got 10,14: “Chaos Prison” and my mind ejaculated this short short story:
The fluorescent lights are a little too bright, the temperature of the room a little too low, the aluminium chair is a little too uncomfortable and the hum from the console a little too loud. Three weeks it had taken to get to Journey’s End and thus, I am already agitated, everything my senses can detect is irritating me even more. The hospitality here is far from overwhelming, it isn’t like they have many visitors I suppose. I smooth back my hair, knit my hands behind my head and sigh, long and deeply.
“Sentinel,” I say at the screen. Why do we do that? The microphone picking up my voice and the camera picking up every twitch of my facial muscles is hidden somewhere in the utilitarian plastic construction in front of me, and yet I still talk and look into the screen. “How many prisoners on the Penitence Deck?”
“Nine-hundred and ninety-nine,” comes the bland voice of Sentinel. It is designed to be calming, an analogue of a mother calming a baby. I hate it. I hate this whole place. It’s unnatural. The super-structure, built into the side of a massive asteroid, is shaped like a giant praying mantis, sinister and violent. The whole of the interior is burnished aluminium, clinical, cold, wipe-clean.
“And how many prisoners are there supposed to be?” I ask.
“One thousand is my manifest,” it replies.
“So why haven’t you alerted us sooner? You have a prisoner missing,” I am losing my patience.
“There are no prisoners missing,” says Sentinel. “Journey’s End has its full complement of prisoners accounted for.”
“You just said there were only nine-hundred and ninety nine,” I say. “Then you say there are a thousand on the station.”
“Correct,” Sentinel replies.
I slam my hands down on the console, causing a buzzing noise to emanate from underneath briefly, then right itself. The aluminium chair scrapes across the decking as I rise and walk over to the observation port. I have been at this for over an hour. I am no detective, I don’t know how to interrogate, especially a machine that just repeats itself.
The observation port is a diamond-glass window, the entire back wall of the conference room. It looks out on the Penitence Deck and the shoeless and grey-clothed prisoners. They shuffle about the chamber below, carved out of the rock of the asteroid, with a protracted Brownian motion, chaotic, unpredictable. Occasionally, two prisoners will approach each other, then rebound off slowly at tangents.
They have been Quietened, a chemically induced semi-coma; they exist, they function on a biological level, but they do not react to the outside world except for the most basic of stimuli. The chemical is pumped into the atmosphere, keeping them permanently Serene. Escape is impossible.
“Sentinel,” I ask, my breath fogging the glass. “How do prisoners get in and out of the Penitence Deck?”
“The prisoners enter through the airlock in the Injection Chamber,” says Sentinel.
“Can I see it?” I ask.
In the distance I hear a whirring and a click. The door to the conference room slides open to reveal a line of blue LEDs set into the floor. They pulse one-by-one, beckoning me to follow. “Please follow the lights,” is all Sentinel says.
I slink along the corridors of Journey’s End, cold and clinical. This place is not meant for human consciousness; aesthetics and ergonomics are alien concepts here. Electronics hum in the bland metallic panels that make up the walls. This place is always humming, insipid.
The Injection Chamber is yet another identical aluminium box. This place is constant deja-vu. I feel like I’ve been here forever.
“Sentinel,” I ask. “When was the last time this room was used?”
“Today,” comes the reply. “At 0700 hours, Earth Standard.”
“That was right before I arrived,” I say. “Have any transports left the station today?”
“No,” says Sentinel.
“So the escaped prisoner is still aboard somewhere?” I ask.
“No prisoners have escaped Journey’s End,” reiterates Sentinel.
“Sentinel,” I run my hands through my hair again, trying to keep calm. It is, of course, just a machine. “How many humans are aboard Journey’s End?”
A pause for a second. “One thousand.”
“So he’s escaped,” I say
“No prisoners have escaped Journey’s End,” says Sentinel.
“Could you have been tampered with, Sentinel?” I ask. My hands trace the edges of the airlock into the Penitence Deck. A perfect seal.
“No,” says Sentinel.
“You seem very sure of yourself,” I say. “What makes you so certain?”
“My data is checksummed and replicated to three sealed units across the station,” replies Sentinel.
“What about remote hacking,” I ask. The door I came in through is similarly sealed and airtight.
“I am not networked,” says Sentinel. “Communication is done via voice only on FM radio channels from Earth.”
“How convenient,” I say. The room is entirely clean. Nothing.
“OK, Sentinel,” I say. “Let me out.”
“I am afraid I cannot,” says Sentinel.
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Let me out.”
“Protocol dictates the order in which the equipment functions,” says Sentinel. “Ingress, Serenity, egress.”
“What?!” I shout. “You’re going to Quieten me?!”
“All prisoners must be processed according to the terms of their sentencing,” says Sentinel.
“Wait!” I cry. My stomach churns. “I’m not a prisoner, I’m here to investigate an escape! Stop!”
“Davik Torren, you are here to serve your sentence: life in Journey’s End,” Sentinel says, a hissing of gas sounds from the venting in the ceiling.
“What?! What sentence? Why?!” my heart pounds faster and faster. I look down at my feet, no shoes. “What have I done?”
“I do not know your crime Mister Torren, only your sentence.”
I bang on the door in futility, I notice my sleeve, grey. The gas smells like ozone, a blast of fresh air in this sterile box. My anxiety is short lived, the Serenity is fast, they say. The door behind me slides open.
“Welcome to Journey’s End, prisoner number one thousand,” says Sentinel.