The impact of the plasma round against the retaining wall sent shrapnel through Cool Monkey Dataskunk’s cloak. His stunt flip off the wall had been effective as a dodge, but at the cost of his high dollar accessory. Upon landing, he dropped the canvas bag he was carrying to the ground and angrily ripped the cloak from his shoulders.
“I paid thirty ambasolls for this!” Cool Monkey Dataskunk screamed to the enforcer squad still firing rounds at him. Spotlights converged on his location, throwing shadows across the broken retaining wall that elongated his already gangling silhouette. As the next salvo of plasma rounds screamed through the night, CMD smirked and sidestepped out of their trajectory.
Casually, the master thief snatched up the canvas bag and sprinted away, a series of small explosions following him. The retaining wall curved for about two hundred yards around the reservoir’s northern edge. Even as he continued along the path, he could see enforcer drones kicking up spray as they skimmed over the water’s surface.
“I count five, Lippy,” CMD panted into his headset. He anticipated the strafing that should have sliced him in half, and, throwing himself into a slide, he cleanly avoided the crackling plasma rounds as they passed harmlessly over him. Kicking his heel into the path as he continued to slide, he propelled himself back into his sprint and continued on. Enforcer drones had big guns, but they reacted slowly. Taking a wide strafing arc like that one had would cost it a few seconds in getting back on target, and CMD used that to his advantage.
“More like twenty,” came the response in his ear. “There’s a squad trying to cut you off at the spillway. I’m headed down.”
Angling toward the retaining wall, CMD leaped and scaled it in two upward strides. The dirt slope that the wall was holding was packed tight and only minimally eroded under his heavy footfall. The sharp slope leveled out to a more gradual incline of dirt with sparse grass and shrubbery and formed a fairly large hill that he decided to ascend.
Below him, the spotlights continued on down the path of his anticipated trajectory, and so wavered momentarily before finding his new path.
CMD took an erratic path up the slope to avoid the shots aimed at his back, and soon it was raining dirt all around him. He couldn’t see the summit of his climb, only black sky devoid of stars or moon.
The Eurobeat intensified in his ear as it responded to the increase in pulse and breathing. He cursed the enforcers for ruining his cloak–it would have given a nice theatrical touch to his ascent, billowing out behind him as he scrambled towards escape. The sawing synth assaulted his senses, and he grated his teeth as another wave of adrenaline coursed through his body.
Another sound, overwhelming even the eardrum-shattering Eurobeat rattling his bones, shook the entire slope as he angled sharply, avoiding another strafe of plasma. Above him, a shockwave rippled the air as Lippy’s mech jumped in.
The mech, one hundred feet tall from foot to helmet, was shaped vaguely like a reptilian humanoid. It’s hands and feet sported titanium claws that served no real purpose other than to look imposing. The mech’s real weapons were the dozen or so plasma cannons arrayed around it’s torso, reaching over its shoulders, under its arms. It hovered briefly in mid-air before Lippy shut off the rockets and dropped to the summit directly above CMD.
“Oh shit,” CMD exclaimed.
The summit above him collapsed under the weight of the massive mech and a wave of dirt and rock cascaded down the slope toward his position.
There was nowhere for him to run, up or down, left or right. The slide was going to hit him full force.
“God dammit, Lippy!” he screamed into his headset. “I had this one!”
Lippy did not respond. His cannons were already firing, tearing the enforcer drones to shreds across the reservoir.
As CMD hesitated, the spotlights found him. The plasma rounds ripped through his body and impacted on the slope in front of him. The canvas bag slipped from his fingers and rolled down the slope even as the landslide rolled over him. Its contents, dozens of small blue crystals, poured out of holes the shrapnel had cut.
For Cool Monkey Dataskunk, everything faded to white …
… which didn’t exactly make sense. Normally, things faded to black. Gerald Hanes, career criminal and murderer of three, reached for the release switch that would disconnect him from his VR suite, only this time, there was no switch. There was no reality to greet him. It had been a few weeks since he had exited the suite, and disorientation was common, but this was different.
His vision was filled with nothing but white, and he couldn’t blink or shut his eyes to make it go away. It was as if he didn’t have eyes at all.
He couldn’t see his hands, his body. He couldn’t feel himself breathing. He had no sensation of touch, smell, taste. No spatial awareness, just white.
And it stayed white for a very long time before Gerald Hanes, the convict who existed as Cool Monkey Dataskunk in his virtual reality prison, began to panic.
When the disorientation did come, it was instantaneous. One second there was nothing but white, and in the next he was sitting in one of the therapy rooms. It had been a while since he had been in one, but he recognized the two-way mirror, the yellow tinted flourescents overhead, the camera in the corner. You could tell it had been an interrogation room in some other life and they hadn’t changed the decor.
Gerald was handcuffed, wrists and ankles, to a metal chair, and across the metal table from him was the warden of his prison.
Gerald probably would have said hello to the man if his brain had not kept screaming at him that the white nothing had lasted for centuries. He couldn’t get the thought out of his mind that, though he was obviously alive and well now, he had existed in that white hell of nothing for eternity.
“Mr. Hanes,” the Warden began. “I have some bad news for you.”
“What happened to me?” Gerald asked. He half expected it to be difficult to talk, as if his extended time outside of reality would have atrophied his vocal cords or facial muscles, but everything felt normal.
“There will be time for questions in a moment,” the Warden assured him. “First I have some formalities to get out of the way.”
There was a piece of paper on the table that the Warden then picked up and turned over.
“As a certified and elected Warden of the Criminal Justice Sector of the Global Federation, North American Division C,” the Warden began to read from the piece of paper, “I must inform you that the Criminal Rehabilitation and Alternative Social Contribution Act that has given you the opportunity to serve your sentence with access to the virtual and therapeutic reality known as the Yard has been repealed.”
The Warden looked up briefly at Gerald who made no indication that he intended to react to anything said so far.
“Effectively immediately, your sentence will be served in an alternate virtual imprisonment without the possibility of parole or termination, until such time as the energy benefit of your human body is no longer viable. Due to the violent nature of the crime you have committed and have been sentenced for, no appeals will be allowed, and you will end your existence within the virtual reality in which your sentence will be served.”
Gerald had listened, but the revelation was still forthcoming.
“Do you have any questions, Mr. Hanes?” the Warden asked politely. He was very business-like, but Gerald could detect something different in him. It was pity, of a sort, perhaps even guilt. He had done this before. He was going to have to do this again.
“So, I have to keep playing my game, basically,” Gerald replied. “And I can’t come out of it anymore?”
“For the most part, the routine stays the same, at least on this side of things,” the Warden explained. “You will be plugged in. Your body will generate energy that will be stored for future use by society. Your body will have its organ systems commandeered as needed to produce enzymes, proteins, antibodies, etc. to be used by medical science to perpetuate the lives of the populace. Your organs will be cloned as needed for transplants. A portion of your brain’s computational and storage capacity will be used to supplement the larger Global Federation Corebase.”
“But I can’t come back?” Gerald surmised. “I’ll be in this other place, forever, until I die.”
“You’ll likely live on past what your lifespan would have been on the outside world, but yes. Your life functions will eventually terminate and you will die in the suite, and you won’t even realize that you’ve died. Things will simply go–“
“White?” Gerald asked. “I felt like I was already dead. What was that?”
The Warden nodded knowingly. “We had to take you offline for a time while the system was switched over. I hope it wasn’t too unsettling.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” Gerald said, taking a deep breath. “Just … just nothing. How long was I like that?”
The Warden, not answering the question, folded up the paper and slipped it into an inside suit jacket pocket. “It won’t be long now. The system is booting up and you’ll be ready to begin the rest of your sentence.” Without further explanation, the Warden stood and pushed his chair back from him.
“Wait!” Gerald demanded. “I have more questions! You said I could ask questions. I should be able to ask questions if I’m going to die in there. I want to know.” He struggled briefly in his seat, but the handcuffs were tight against the chair’s arms and legs.
The Warden looked impatient and sighed before taking a seat again. “It’s your right, yes. But, I should warn you that you’d be better off just beginning your sentence now.”
“How long was I in the white?” Gerald asked immediately.
“Twenty-eight days,” the Warden responded flatly.
Gerald thought that it had been longer. He had spent well more than twenty-eight days in the suite without exiting before. “That’s all?”
“You were placed in a coma for a time,” the Warden explained. “We implanted new therapeutic systems in your body and integrated them with your nervous system. As a result, you’re going to notice the simulation is going feel quite realistic. In fact, you’ll be slightly hyper-sensitive. Consider it an upgrade.”
“Can I communicate with my family while I’m in there?” Gerald asked after a moment.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Hanes,” the Warden explained. “You’ll never directly communicate with another human being again.”
In truth, that was alright with Gerald. He hated his family and society even more. Gerald began to think this wasn’t so bad.
“I won’t feel anything when I die? I’ll just … go?”
“You will simply cease to live.”
Gerald nodded slowly. “That’s not so bad.” The big questions were out of the way, and Gerald started thinking about the little things.
“Do I get to keep Cool Monkey Dataskunk?” he asked, grinning with slight embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” the Warden said, his face crumpling with confusion. “Cool monkey what?”
“My character in the suite,” Gerald explained. “I had chosen an action/adventure simulation. It’s all I ever really did in there. I could never get used to the straight social lobbies, or the sex stuff, you know. I just wanted the thrill. I didn’t mind the therapy sessions though. I had chosen a very foxy therapist, made some good progress with myself, I’d say. I get to keep all that, right?”
The Warden didn’t answer right away. His lips pressed tight slightly, and he looked away before reluctantly answering the question.
“That particular genre of simulation has been eliminated from the system,” the Warden stated flatly. “The mandatory therapy sessions are also no longer a part of your sentencing, so I’m afraid you won’t be returning to anything familiar. Any stored states of the simulation that you may have generated have already been deleted. All future therapy will be directly applied via the implants that have just been installed in you.”
“So…what kind of simulations do I have to choose from?” Gerald asked.
Again, the Warden appeared uncomfortable, guilty, ashamed.
“Mr. Hanes,” he answered with a pained look on his face. “I’ll have to give you a bit of a history lesson, since you’ve not elected to be kept up to date with what has occurred outside your simulations. Here on the outside, the world has changed. Certain sentiments have come back into play that once were almost eradicated centuries ago.”
Gerald’s heart began to beat a little faster.
The Warden continued. “In the last twenty years or so, the catastrophic environmental changes occurring on the planet have turned a large section of the populace back to religion. When science has been unable to undo what greed has wrought, the people looked away from science for answers, and those answers came from the old texts: the Bible, the Quran.”
The Warden paused.
“It’s a different world, Mr. Hanes. A better world for those in it, but it’s a stricter world. Crime must be deterred for order to reign, and the best deterrence, in the opinion of the newly elected leaders of our now increasingly religious society, is the promise of punishment.”
“What’s in there?” Gerald Hanes asked, his knuckles white as his hands uncontrollably clamped down on the arms of his chair.
“They call it Gehenna. I understand it has some connection to the Bible, or some other text, but it’s really just a name,” the Warden explained. Again, the Warden stood and pushed his chair back.
“What is it?” Gerald asked desperately.
“Whatever real Hell there might be out there in the afterlife, Mr. Hanes,” the Warden explained, “the people can’t be sure of what they can’t see. They’ve created a Hell for criminals that they know is worthy punishment, and a powerful deterrent. While our number of intakes has dropped dramatically, the Global Federation, after unanimous consent by the populace, has decreed that all criminal detainees in the system prior to the creation of Gehenna will now serve out their sentences there.”
“Wait! No!” Gerald yelled. He pulled desperately at his binding, jerking with his whole body to try and free himself. “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hanes,” the Warden said. “You’re already here.”
With that, the simulation of the Warden and the interrogation room ended.
Gerald Hanes was no longer seated handcuffed to a chair. He was standing in a wasteland of black rock and lakes of fire. The heat pressed on him from all angles, and as the Warden promised, he was hyper-sensitive to his surroundings.
It felt real as the burning air was pulled into his lungs. He felt the sharp rock knife into his flesh as he collapsed to his knees.
In the distance, a creature standing over three hundred feet tall began to stride over the black hills and lakes of fire toward him.
Gerald Hanes screamed in primal terror and pain as the simulated demon reached down to claim his soul.