“New warden coming in today,” Liz said.
“Mm-hmm,” I said, checking my equipment.
“Never.” It looked like the linkport was a little worn. I’d need to put in surreptitiously with one of the guards for an upgrade. That would mean bribe money…black-market stuff always does.
“Not even if it were, say, Raknesian?”
I chuckled. “He’d never come to a two-bit prison system like this. He’s a big-city guy. New York, Chicago. He’d never come to Missoula.”
I straightened and looked at her. She wasn’t joking.
“Why’s he coming here?”
Her stare bored straight through me. “Oh, I think you know. It’s you, Meenal.”
Not, of course, that Raknesian knew I was the reason he was coming. Otherwise, they’d have put me in solitary long ago. But he had a pretty good idea of why he was here. At least, that’s what it sounded like when he spoke to all of us prisoners at the general assembly on Main Street.
“It’s come to the attention of the governor’s office that the prison system here in Missoula isn’t quite what it used to be. Many of you seem far too…contented.”
Not a smile from the prisoners. Which was good, because what he said was true.
“I’m here, at the personal request of the Governor of Montana, to determine what is causing the general satisfaction with prison life and to put a stop to it. I’ll have the guards comb over the whole city and investigate everything and everyone involved.”
I fought back a sigh of relief. If that’s the way he was going to go about things, we’d be—
“And if they don’t find anything, I’ll search it all again, myself.”
It was all I could do to hold my alliance of guards and prisoners together over the next few days, constantly shifting my equipment around from place to place. Which was probably what Raknesian had in mind, I thought. Divide and conquer.
Still, we lasted against him for quite a few weeks before he figured out what was going on. It was a sheer accident that he ran across the programmer; the guard who was getting me a new linkport just wasn’t careful enough about dropping it off. We knew when it disappeared that our days were numbered.
I knew he’d puzzled things out when he called my office, took me off the work schedule, and asked them to send me over. It wasn’t a surprise. Once he had the what and how, the who was obvious.
“Meenal Kapoor-Thompson,” he read off his file. Then he looked at me. I got the feeling he didn’t see much of a difference. I was just a bunch of organized information to him.
He leaned back in his chair. “I want to know what use you have for a hardchip programmer.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I teach English at the university.” Might as well play the game to the end.
“Yes.” He sifted through a few papers in the file. “The only person in the English Department, and in the Missoula prison system, who has any association with MIT. Don’t insult my intelligence, Miss Kapoor. Your fingerprints are all over the machine.”
And there it was. The smoking gun that would lead to a life of solitary. Well, I’d known the risks.
“You were due for re-establishment in a few months,” he said. “Why take the chance?”
“First, because I don’t mind the real world. And second—” I paused.
He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Second?”
“I’d rather show than tell. Maybe you’ll see why.”
He nodded slowly. “I admit you have me intrigued, Miss Kapoor.”
With Raknesian’s permission, I set up a facilitation. The prisoner almost fainted when she saw the warden there, but once she was assured of an exemption, she regained her composure.
She handed me a faded photograph. It was of a cat with beautiful tortoiseshell fur. “That’s Titus,” she said happily. “That’s who I want.”
I scanned the photograph, and extrapolated a 3-D model of the cat on the screen. There was more than enough memory in the hardchip to take care of the physical model for Titus. I set up the program, asking behavioral questions all the while. Twenty minutes later, the prisoner left, smiling at the invisible sight of a cat frisking about her ankles.
“Do you understand now?” I asked.
“It gives them hope?” Raknesian ventured.
“It gives them a piece of their life back,” I answered. “You want to punish them, so you take away their illusions. But that’s all these people have ever known. Every summer day is gorgeous, every winter snow is magical, everyone they meet is attractive and fascinating. They live in castles, they feast like kings. Then the minute they get in trouble for anything short of murder, you delete their biochips and put them in the real world, which can never hope to meet that perfection.”
“But that’s the point,” Raknesian said. “It’s the most effective prison ever devised. Remove the chips with their fantasies, and force the prisoners to live in inescapable reality.”
“It’s cruel,” I said forcefully. I could feel myself flushing, and I didn’t try to hold back the anger. “Suddenly, everything they’ve known as real since they were children is gone. It warps their minds. And given the suicide rate among prisoners, it’s not as inescapable a prison as you might think.”
“And this…therapy…” He waved vaguely at the hardchip programmer. “This helps?”
“You can’t squeeze nearly as much information onto a hardchip, so I can’t restore a full illusion. But I can give them something to ease the pain. A favorite animal, a fashionable wardrobe, a few furnishings at home. Something.” I looked squarely at him. “A little piece of what you strip away.”
He nodded, and said nothing.
Two days later, my revised sentence was handed down. It wasn’t solitary.
It was an extended sentence, two more years. And a transfer to the New York City Federal Pen, under Raknesian’s watchful eye. They wanted to make sure I didn’t get out of line again.
Raknesian himself traveled with me. As we flew high over the Plains States, he turned to me. “I just have one question. How hard was that machine to operate? You couldn’t have fixed it.”
“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t. But anyone who has some basic familiarity with 3-D programming should be able to operate it. So, anybody with the equivalent of 60 hours at MIT or Cal Tech.”
“So, a task force of several hundred programmers would be able to master the procedure quickly.”
“Very quickly. They’ve probably trained on the stuff.”
“Good. And…” He closed his eyes. “And you would be able to teach those people?”
“The funny thing,” he said softly, “is that I have just such a group of people. Most of them are due for release in a few weeks, and all in the next two months. They’ve all made travel arrangements to cities around America. But I have the strangest feeling that they’re very recalcitrant. They’ll be repeat offenders, I’m sure. Every one of them. Wouldn’t it be amusing if they all ended up running an operation like you had in Missoula?”
I swallowed. “That…must have taken some very careful planning.”
“I would never plan such a thing,” he replied. “But accidents happen. Especially,” and he looked at me, “to those old prison wardens who are predisposed to think the system is a cruel one.”
Let me know what you think of the story. If you like it, please feel free to forward the link to your friends! If it wasn’t to your taste, better luck tomorrow — a new piece of short fiction goes up every day.