Chapter 1: Van

The world grows, yet my prison cell’s still horrid. A space the size of a walk-in closet; twin bed, sink, toilet paper and toilet to match. For the likes of me, an ideal home. A toothbrush delivered and shipped after each meal. Brief individual showers between twenty-four-hour intervals, at conveniently chosen times; steaming two minutes of standing relaxation. One repetitive highlight is in progress; sitting. Snug in a form-fitting, blue jumpsuit. Mocked by the bright shade. Occupied in my brown hair. Twist here, twirl there. Not lengthy like model women in holographic magazines and billboards but keeps my upper back warm. A forced style since chopping it shorter isn’t allowed. The two-year old, broken-in mattress aches my… glutes. Alternatively, circling my cell today killed my legs. These thin blue slip-ons socks do my feet no justice on concrete, either. Lying in bed aches my back. Killing time exercising will ache all the above. Springy mattress is the winning option, beating concrete ground any day of the week.

Nothing else to do, I spend a lot of time thinking outside the box. My prison title is 22641-0B8. A name of zero sense so guards call me “Inmate.” Beyond these walls is yet another. My name is Vanessa Pheros and I am a skilled smuggler. The last isn’t pronounced with an S at the end, keeping as silent as I’ve been since my arrest. I grew up minorly in England. Although my country was destroyed during the last war at age seven, my accent didn’t crumble too hard with it. My mother died the day I was born, giving birth. My father died in a war he wasn’t fighting; brilliant researcher, or so stories told. Didn’t know much about his occupation nor do I care. His legacy carried on with him. He left me on a shuttle with our neighbor to revisit his lab, retrieving some research data meant to aid life after the war settled. I watched from the rising shuttle’s window as the bomb struck. In a flash, he was swallowed whole by a cloud of smoke. The last glimpse caught of my father was a sprint toward an office building. Then the shuttle caught turbulence and departed. Both sides lost the war and so did the planet. A global nuclear fallout. Centering survivors to the safest zone in the United States; Kansas. Not long after, my prior ill neighbor passed. I welcomed an angry life of delinquency. Counting orphanages, foster homes, group homes, mental homes, jail, and prison, I’ve been in captivity longer than alive.

The year is 2086. I believe my birthday was a couple of months ago in November. A healthy twenty-four, although time is frozen without clocks and windows. I stopped accurately tallying days, too many months ago. I’m just assuming my second prison anniversary already past. No cake and candles and singing. No guards swing by with happy birthday reminders; an available perk I swiftly denied. Constant loneliness. Preference dating to childhood. People are annoying, mostly expressing interest in ridiculous fashion trends and gossip. Overall, containing no relation to illegal efforts. Pheros policy: No friends inside or out, and always stick to self. Many women tried to socialize. A couple even sprouted attitudes at the rude rejection. Expected reaction that I purposely goaded. Their attitudes didn’t last long after having sense knocked into them. I’m always stopped before fully warming up. Word spread, and everyone stays away.

Everyday repeats in this sterile prison: three meals, six hours total in the I.Y. per day. An option between group therapy or educational services for two hours, not both. To decline both is open also, opting for two additional hours in a cell. My workout times.

Signifying dinner is ready, the prison bell blares. Couple of loud beeps, followed by cell doors sliding open from left to right on my side; right to left on the other. Without fail, my first thought is freedom; a longing sight too good to be true. However, it’s not so simple. Inmates aren’t hostile enough to riot, discouraging my joyous thought. Without fail. Automated defense turrets are set to attack escapees with nonlethal shock pulses, one minor detail keeping inmates terrified. The turret is a square box about one-and-a-half feet at base and height with a barrel for spewing pulses. Essentially, a glorified taser that can shock someone unconscious for an hour. Generally used for breaking up fights, which I am familiar. Fortunately, what doesn’t kill makes me stronger, knocking me out only half the hour. Always alert, my body built a tolerance against unwanted sleep years ago, pre-prison. I can’t exactly track time, but unconsciousness feels more like a doze than power nap.

My cell door slides open. Two digital lines zip left. Women sneak peeks at me, casually sauntering by in the line’s pursuit. Observing the animal in its natural habitat. I rise from my bed. Step out and merge between the lines as a copycat. Cautious not to cross the outer yellow border. Distance is spaced for one person to walk in front of another, oddly not promoting reform and unison. I did run quite a few times. Once an obvious blue target crosses the border leading to the chow hall or I.Y., a single wail blurts. Offensive operating commences if the target isn’t back in formation fast enough.

The prison’s highest letter block is H. Mine is B. A long hall of extremely thick cell doors. Three floors high with metal staircases reaching each. Steel gates barricade upper level railings to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. No windows, no exterior yards. No outside contact, other than receiving mail.

Across the block, a custodian is wiping a cell’s thick glass door. A lucky someone shipped out between returning from the I.Y. and dinner. Two black-uniformed guards idle near the worker. Button-up shirts tucked; “ORI” stitched on the chests. Untouchable arrogance displayed proudly. Armor or brandished weapons to protect themselves isn’t necessary when there’s faith. Full faith in the turrets’ targeting systems. One shot and guards earned thirty minutes to dump a prisoner wherever. Cell, warden’s office, solitary. If turrets were stationary, situations would stack differently. They slide freely on metal rails along every wall. Every corner. Every floor. Able to surf the entire prison at rapid speeds upon threat detection, vanishing through numerous holes at each end when the last occupant exits. Either housing or accessibility to the remainder of the prison.

The yellow line guides into a single metal door centered on the back wall. Into a bright white hallway. The prison stays illuminated. Eyes already well adjusted to this pale gleam. Lots of white doors facing off, yet no windows to see out or in any rooms. All that’s visible are the doors’ sliding pulls and near-flush seams. No metal rails above for traveling nuisances. Whatever’s behind those doors, turrets may not have rail access to. Something I bear in mind.

Facilities have peaceful names, I’m just too criminally minded to use them. Ori Prison, not standing for anything in particular, at least not to my knowledge. I.Y. for Interior Yard. The chow hall is called Dining Delight. How can I describe it? Warping dimensions to an executive limbo? Still bright. The back wall curves a half-circular design with a dome ceiling. A mellow instrumental plays faintly, meant to bring serenity and works based on many humble expressions. Who doesn’t it work on? Crème-colored tables clutter the center in rows to sit for a meal. Crème-colored benches loop the outer perimeter for comfort during social mingling. Dispensed food cycles on trays via conveyor belt, served before looping into a second gap in the wall. A gap too small to fit the human body. But workers must be reloading the conveyor. The food doesn’t taste bad; honestly, my favorite thing about Ori. An hour in the chow hall, and it’s back home. I start eating. Staring into the light green tray’s swirl design as I chew.

Many Ori inmates were reformed on arrival; short sentences due to menial misbehaviors like skimming to gain greater financial standing. Many didn’t completely adapt to the New World; sentenced for worse crimes like bootlegging, robbery, murder, and smuggling. Where I fit. Few have been waiting to leave since before a New World prison was established; trickled down to the worst crimes. The kind committed when the world was Survival of the Fittest. Their bad behavior here ends in banishment. In a prison where no one can do harm, peace conquers all.

A reason why I hate it here and stay to myself exists, but I can never remember. My gut tells me not to trust anyone. When does it hurt to listen? There isn’t a reason to watch my back. If there was, inmates are probably friendly enough to watch it for me; smiles and chatty behavior. It’s unreal. I pictured prison being different, with angry women fighting throughout the day and the occasional shanking. I’d read about that in the library’s historic archives. If an opportunity arose, they’d revert to savages in a heartbeat.

The bell blares on the hour mark. Dinner is over. On our way back, I glare into a few cells dappled in little decorations. Hung letters, reminders of someone special waiting. Holographic pictures of family and friends. Homey feelings. A holographic picture uses a small projection dot that spouts a still image a couple of inches from itself. My cell can never be mistaken because it’s still image is as plain as moving day. The sliding door seals. I accompany my bed nowhere again. Slink into thoughts like usual.

Most nights, mild exercise comes after dinner. Usually taking two split nights a week to give myself a break. And this is one of those. A way of barely keeping time. Lights go dim, but not out, when all inmates are secure in their cells. Indication that my lights need to be out. I lie on the uncomfortable, springy mattress. My twin lids break from another day.

The next morning, my lids reopen. Blurred pupils focused at the ceiling. Feeling rejuvenated and hungry. Without a clock or window, I can never tell how long I’ve slept. Eight hours, as recommended to children. Ten for hard-working adults. One elongated blink for the insomniac. Routine waking trained my senses. My index finger accuses the ceiling. The breakfast bell blares. Every block gets mandatory time in the I.Y. and, since two meet at once, someone is eating breakfast late. Ready, I stretch to the sliding cell door. Usual dull; no angry faces, no new arrivals, no one stepping outside the line. I linger until most settle and eat. As if selections altered, I select a breakfast tray from the conveyor. Stroll toward a far table where I eat alone. An inmate twists away from a table, bumping my shoulder hard enough to slip the plate from my tray. Frustrated about missing the main course, I drop the entire tray. Crashes echo the domed room. Silencing patrons. A warning alarm wails once as an indicator that the action was noticed and is being monitored.

The woman politely speaks, “I apologize for my clumsiness, please allow me to–”

I spank the unfinished tray into her face. Instantly, a sharp pinch hits my shoulder. Shrouded in darkness. I wake. Chest flat on concrete. Underneath the bed looks just as bland as every other portion of my cell. I roll over and greet the ceiling. Those turrets glide rails entirely too fast for their own good. The hot pinch is charring my shoulder like barbeque. I sit up to the cell across. A woman’s sincerely disappointed expression is aimed, no doubt wondering what my problem is and why. I don’t break eye contact, sterning my expression and waiting for her own business to be minded. The woman wanders away.

Why does missing meals hurt so much? My quick temper is somewhat satisfied, though not worth it. I reel my shoulder forward and drag my jumpsuit down from the neck. The dark reddish burn on my pale skin is easily noticeable. I haven’t seen sunlight in too long; the hallways, chow hall, and I.Y. are all the shine available.

Footsteps sound outside. Quick successions of pats from heavy boots. One pair. That occurs in solo formation when a guard delivers mail. I sit on the bed. Listen to the approach. Shift closer to watch the guard pass. She strolls into sight, wielding a letter-sized envelope. Performs a sharp pivot in front of my cell.

Her lips move, “Mail.”

For me? I’ve never received mail, not ever in my life. And am not interested. It’s probably a bargain arrangement for a magazine subscription anyway… which couldn’t happen in a prison. Involuntary investment rears its head, wondering a bit. A slot of glass retracts outward, about the height of four webbed fingers, flapping down in sections until it hangs stiff. I witness this when my three opposing neighbors receive mail; appreciated weekly highlights. I spectate the envelope’s heroic entrance. Then the guard’s swift departure. Landing paper scrapes the concrete. The mail slot flaps upward in sections and slithers home. “Vanessa Pheros” is written on the envelope in black ink. No return address, nor thickness like holographic pages. It’s a regular old sheet of paper. Curiosity swallows me whole. Although just meeting, I lean forward and squint like we’re significant rivals. Who would write me? And about what? I stretch my bruised shoulder and pick it up. Unwelcome reading material in hand, I tear the envelope’s end carefully and remove the paper. Unfold the top up and bottom down. Small words on a big sheet. An address and message:

“Urgent that we meet at this location. 8 o’clock tomorrow morning. Someone will await your arrival. Do not be late.”

Dates with me are demanded in writing now? I flip the paper. No signature from a sender. Who sent this? Who’d want to meet me? Aware of my incarceration, how? I ball the letter and hoop it in the toilet, refusing to waste another second solving a riddle. Locked in the New World’s prison, where no outside contact is allowed, I’m expected to schedule a meet and greet. Maybe if I ask nicely.

An alarm whines in spurts, sounding messier than typical blares before cells open. I snap at the door. View opposing cells for confirmation of sanity. The women rush to their doors and scan what they can. Is something going on in the hallway? Lights darken, powering down loudly. Palms out, I dash at the door. Both hands mash the pitch-black glass. Not a slit of illumination present, as if my eyes are shut. Emergency lights activate, glowing a sluggish red. Alarm blares discontinue. A more familiar, singular blare initiates, soon repeating too quickly to count. Then cell doors begin opening. Left to right, right to left. Pasting my face to the glass, I watch inmates on my level and one level above vigilantly exit their cells. Drenched in confusion. The toilet letter telepathically directs my eyes, going over the situation and evaluating connections I’d decided didn’t matter moments ago. Is this coincidence? Or a related power outage? Intensity of staggering blares drags answers to the last thing I should care about. A terrible Samaritan could be handing out freedom passes and I’m not losing mine.

A guard sternly demands over intercom, “Return to your cells immediately! I repeat, return to your cells immediately!”

I cling to glass again. What’s happening out there? I can’t see the start of either side. Inmates on my right stare further toward the I.Y., forming a speechless alliance. Finally achieving unison around here and I’m missing it. Guards continue warning that action will be taken if inmates don’t comply. Inmates instigate an offense with the nothing we were given; clashing noises speak of a bare-fisted battle against an approaching force. Since guards always brought and took toothbrushes, we had no means to manufacture weapons. The future is rough for criminals. I am grateful others aren’t obeying. Escaping alone would be next to impossible. With downed power, turrets are inactive, helping substantially. Civilization fell apart as soon as the lights died. What was a peaceful sanctuary is now an open arena for long time criminals who’ve yearned freedom’s air. Shorter-sentenced inmates remain in their cells. But not enough. Without turrets as backup, guards aren’t trained or equipped to handle this problem; New World hires versus old world veterans. And me.

My door begins sliding. Impatient, I squeeze out. Hook a right toward the I.Y. which has more entry points, unlike the dead-end chow hall. Seeking exits there is a better bet. Turmoil is aggressive in both directions. Reinforcements enter the block wielding stun batons; black rods about forearm’s length, juicing fifty thousand volts. The batons don’t have handles. For operation, users must have a specialized glove to avoid cooking their own hand. A good defense if lost. Relieving a conscious guard’s glove is doable but tougher when sauntering in pairs. Oncoming reinforcements clash, shocking resistant inmates unconscious one by one. I race into chaos, dodging every situation. An unavoidable guard challenges my bravery. The horizontal baton swipe instigates my drop and slide; feet crashing into another’s leg, causing a flip and flop. I rise, closer to the cracked double door. Dodging unfriendly and foe until shoulder bashing inside. This hallway isn’t brightly lit like usual because of the power outage. Whipping around to shut the door, I realize I’ve been too closely followed. I slam it anyway. Half his body becomes a doorway obstruction to a cracked position again. Head smashed also, painful groans dribble, as he waves the baton wildly and exhibits tremendous effort. Allowing the door space to swing open, he stumbles in. I thrust a foot at his hip. Surprised and wounded, he stumbles back into the cell block. My hands slam the door shut. Rioting is a faint clamor now. A metal bar used to block doors rests behind. I make sure it doesn’t go to waste, and not a second later, immediate bangs start. Hands pleading entry. You snooze, your sentence increases. I jog along the hallway. Skip unnecessarily tall stairs and burst through the next double door without a second thought.

The interior yard is a massive octagon-shaped room. An indoor replication of an outdoor courtyard. Hundreds of inmates can comfortably admire plant-life within and enjoy another dome scenery. Tactic of the rehabilitation process. The grass and flowers are fake, though appearing exceptionally real. The rectangular structures housing plant-life are high enough to lean and sit. When power is active, the yard is illuminated with the same color white as every other area. Eight double doors connect each block to the yard. A to H. Then diagonally across to my right, a single ninth door. No guard or inmate ever comes in or out. I jog toward the courtyard’s center to cut across. Meters before, an impactive BOOM rains from the ceiling. Hard enough to cause vibrations. The hollow space makes it sound everywhere at once yet holds an obvious origin from a wide radius of sunlight. I freeze and spectate. Shield my face for a clear view of what struck. More than just a huge chunk of debris crashes, throwing me onto the ground; into a hurried crawl behind the closest plant structure. Watching dust settle.

Coated is the back of a white and black Alpha. A killing machine about the size of a quaint two-story house; two legs, four arms, and equipped with the best arsenal of weapons-grade armor that aers can’t buy. Two upper arms are customized weapons that end with a barrel; two lower arms are basically long pincers. “ORI” initials painted on, though not the manufacturer. Proving ownership. Lastly, standing between my possible exit and I. Sunlight would make the Alpha’s night vision a liability. Nowhere near a hefty benefit but better than nothing. The mech turns in my direction. I catch a vivid glimpse of slanted yellow eyes during a shift into cover. Avoiding its cone of sight and staring at where I came from. No way I’m going back.

The mech commences patrolling. Heavy and slow pounds on the ground. Fading away, for what little that’s worth from such a huge machine. If guards commanded an Alpha here, specifically, something worth protecting is behind door nine. I find it strange that no further back-up has shown to assist with troubles in my block; must have full hands on every end, unless ORI’s understaffed. What’s happening in other blocks? If anything at all. Stun rods against unarmed inmates shaves fractions of time off my escape. Stealth is still logical. I rise to a crouched position. Stick to the wall and ease to the rectangular plant enclosure’s end. Hands braced for extra support. I poke an eye out. The Alpha is circling the courtyard center. Moving silently will be easy with these light shoes, as long as it’s a fast act. When its back is turned, I speed at the next enclosure. Then the next, realizing greed set in. Over-throttled momentum causes my accidental smack against the wall. Not painfully hard but prying ears hard. To the mechanically enhanced presence, I just played a concert. It abruptly halts. My eyes close. As if the problem will suddenly go away.

Crap, Van.

Total silence remains. No movement from either predator. Unable to even hear my nostrils exhaling. Am I breathing? Lack of sound makes me nervous. If fully alert, it would’ve been trying to smash my head in already. It will wait me out. Batteries lasting much longer than mine. Once my stomach rumbles another concert, I’ll be caught. No other choice than to run. When control is regained, my cell will eventually be occupied. And not by Vanessa Pheros.

After a brief time, in which I sit forming a plan, power reactivates. Brightening with that popular white gleam. The damaged ceiling area is flickering. Did light affect the mech’s perception? Maybe I could wait it out now. It may assume something mechanical made the sound. Wait…, the power is back on. My wide eyes focus in the corner at the closest turret gap. Hoping none arrive. One spouts out the hole and takes direct notice to me.

I irritably grunt to myself, “Jinx.”

The turret doesn’t hesitate firing shock pulses. I dart toward the rail, which circles the upper perimeter. If its targeting and my momentum are accurate, we’ll intersect. I physically feel the Alpha join in chase, spewing heat pulses from an upper arm. I vault an upcoming rectangular structure and use the walled structure to pounce as high as I can. My empty hands latch the turret’s shell, zipping me away. These turrets cannot look directly below themselves, searching blindly. Unable to detect I’m still present? The Alpha doesn’t let up. But the turret is moving fast enough to evade the barrage of harmful red pulses. Another turret emerges from the opposite side and instantly fires shock pulses. Aid from another angle. My ride is approaching the mystery door fast. Time for departure. The move must be flawless to avoid many trailing pulse rounds. I release the turret. Land just before the door and bash through. In a falling spin, it slams shut behind me. Pulse rounds peck the sturdy wooden door until a sudden stop. Much too close for comfort.

Keep moving for the exit.

A hallway like one linking the chow hall; same bright white and door pulls, absent windows and turret rails. One could feel confused, especially with the ending double door. The chow hall was never closed; no stairs descending to a cell block. I trawl the hall.

Quarter way, a threatening bang startles me stiff. No way an Alpha can fit? My body hesitantly turns to the recently damaged single door. A second and louder bang bulges the door and wall. And my chest. That thing’s crazy. Got to hide. I slide the nearest door open and enter, closing it. A lunchroom with a small table. Former occupants were in the middle of a nice dinner and card game when the riot started. The cards are blue-hued, digitized to the table itself for easier playing and no cheating. A long window to my left gratifies caste suspicion that guards watched through two-way mirrors.

Louder than the last, a bang snaps perspective at a destructive following. The single door meets the ground in a tumble. Chunks of wall ricochet, breaking into smaller pieces. Another bang shakes the hall itself. Is that thing trying to fit in here? Cement dust seeps underneath my door and breezes past the window. I bend under it, sneaking a peek from the tiniest corner. Obviously, the Alpha did this. With advanced hardware, I can’t risk it possibly spotting me through the glass. Also, can’t see doorway damage from this low angle. Don’t hear any more movement on that end of the hall. I scoot to the door. Pull the handle away, staying behind it. Nothing happens. The Alpha could have gone to look elsewhere. I use care stepping out. My eyes heighten at the demolition work.

A giant hole where an innocent door lived. The wall is completely broken at the sides and top, left kindly revealing sunlight from outside. Unintentionally sweet enough to create a shortcut. I tiptoe toward the hole. Press myself against destroyed wall. Venturing closer to the cracked opening. The Alpha appears to be gone from the courtyard. Where could it have gone? Where’d the turrets go? I shimmy between the broken wall. Take in outside prison air.