By Karl Holzer
Tony finished up his last rep of squat dives and stood up, his muscles feeling shaky. Maybe next time he would turn the body interface down a bit, but if he was to keep his meat suit back in the tank in shape and ready to walk when he got out on parole, he had to keep his exercise up. He shook his head and with a wry grin thought, besides, in this dump, any sensation was better than no sensation. Well, getting choked out wasn’t too fun, but it wasn’t like he could die in here. COs wouldn’t like that too much. He waved at a CO that was walking by and the CO gave Tony a once over and continued to prowl the place.
What a state of things. Anthony “Hawk” Mantuwano stepped up to the mirror in his cell and looked at the image that was being sent to his brain. No need to shave in here, so set in that regards. Salt and pepper black hair seemed to be set, and of course no need to visit a shower (there wasn’t one) because they weren’t real anyways. A hawk nose that had been broken a few times and not set right was his predominant feature, and it bugged him to no end that in here he couldn’t change that. He controlled the body mod codes in here, and he kept a strict no partaking in the good philosophy. Sure, it was all virtual and didn’t mean much, but he had his code of conduct, not to mention reputation, to live up to.
Tony tapped the mirror and said, “Brave new world we got here.” He had ready Huxley’s works and wondered if the guy could have ever imagined a virtual jail. Maybe, but he seemed to deal with the meat world kind of jails.
He left his cell and went down to where chow was served. Dialing back his feeling threshold, he felt the perceived soreness in his muscles drop to nothing and he took a look into the caf. His usual crew was there, all picking at their virtual meals, wasting their virtual time here. Why these guys couldn’t figure out that they didn’t need to eat was beyond him. He felt good all the time; no hunger, no soreness (unless you wanted some), just the same safe feeling all the time. Guess they couldn’t handle the free time.
Time was all they had in here. You get sentenced in the real world, they put you under, you wake up in this virtual jail, and your meat suit is in a tube somewhere, being fed intravenously and getting electro-stimulation applied to you three times a day. They called it the new way to house criminals. It cost little to nothing, and they sure weren’t going to escape. So do your time, learn something, and maybe build a black market code empire like he did. He had done a little time when he was twenty for B&E, so he wasn’t like some of the newbies that only knew this petting zoo. Real jail was a nightmare.
Deciding to gloat a bit, he walked into the caf and sat down at his usual table. A few of his fellow inmates, all younger by a few decades, picked at their food. “You all know that doesn’t do anything. Plus, this place doesn’t even have the decency to serve up anything good.” Tony reached for a salt shaker and rattled it. The four other men just grunted, but kept at the moving of the food, with an attempt or two at eating. Tony shook his head as Ned spooned some potatoes into his mouth, watch his jaws move, and then the bob of the Adam’s apple. So mechanical, so not necessary.
“So guess who has a parol hearing today?” That got their attention and spoons stopped moving. Four sets of eyes looked at him like he was a steak dinner. Anyone who was up or parole got that longing look. It was this place. It seemed real, but it wasn’t, and the body knew. No amount of code tinkering could make them forget that. He knew he would be back in his meat suit and back on the street sure enough, he just wasn’t sure when he would be summoned.
“That’s great Tony,” was all he got from Teek, before a number appeared on Tony’s right hand.
It was counting down from one hundred, so Tony stood, and said, “Time to fly. When you get out, look me up. If I’m still alive that is, seeing as you lot are in here for a long time still.” He was left with a few nods and ok’s before he waved and set off to his cell.
The shrinks made sure prisoners had warning before they were brought back to their bodies, and they also like it when prisoners tranced out from their rooms. Something to do with points of reference is all he got out of the explanation from the shrink he met with. Whatever, he just wanted back in his body and to feel the sun.
He got to his cell and began pacing, as much as he could. The seconds seemed to take an eternity and he couldn’t help but think of Einstein and relativity. Time certainly was relative, especially in here. As that thought went through Tony’s head, he frowned. How long had he been in here?
He didn’t have time to contemplate that as he was slammed back into his body.
When he took his first real breath in a long time, Tony wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this. His body hurt, hurt in a way he hadn’t thought possible. His muscles didn’t seem to be working like they should. He tried rising his arm, and was able too, but he was looking at a hand and forearm he didn’t recognize. When he had been put in, he had been a fifty year old man in good condition for his age. What he was looking at was the scrawny arm of a geriatric.
Tony kept starring at his hands, and felt like a stranger in his own body. The gravity seemed greater, his back felt a rod was inserted, but it had melted, keeping him listing to one side. His flesh had the pallor of one of those fish that evolved/devolved in a cave and never saw the sun. He managed to get his hand to touch his hair and felt nothing but bare skin. Horror was now bleeding into his thoughts as he realized all his working out was for nothing. He was a physical wreck, wasted away and feeble.
Someone was talking to him now, so he tried to focus on the voice, which turned out to be that of a woman sitting at a table with four other individual. Tony thought individuals because one of these images was a hologram being projected above a chair by a black square on the table. It was a whirling mass of gentle colors, all pinks and blues and green. This woman was beautiful like a glacier is beautiful: cold and angular. One of the others was of indeterminate sex, and the last was an Asian man, but he had brilliant blue eyes. A bit different from his last parole hearing, as all the people had been old white men.
He focused on the woman, and she said, “Mr. Mantuwano, you are here today for your parole hearing. Do you feel you have paid your debt to society?”
He knew this was coming and said, “Yes miss, I believe I have. I took the time to take course while I was under, as I earned a degree in electrical engineering. My cousin has an electrical shop, so I figured I could help out and work there. I still have a few good years in me yet.” Sure, the store was a front, but tony knew sticking close to the truth was the best course of action. Less lies to recall.
The sexless person turned towards him and when he/she/it? spoke, Tony couldn’t understand a word of it. It sounded like two seconds of mechanical clicks and hisses. Tony blinked and the hologram spoke. “Your facial confusion indicates you did not understand 0011011’s remark. He asked if you knew your cousin has died and that business has switched hands. Perhaps you have another probable place of employment. He does not want to see you out of work and unable to be a productive part of society.”
Jerry died? Tony wracked his memory. Did he know that? No, nobody told him, but he swore he had spoken to Jerry just a bit ago. Knowing he had to come up with something, he said, “I still have family I can take up with. My wife, she died a long time ago, but I have my son. He always said as soon as I was out, I could stay with him. Besides, I get to see my grandkid, which will be great.” Which was the absolute truth. Cal had taken up the family business and was the one who had gotten him into using code as currency while he was in prison. Smart boy, and obviously Tony could stay with him. Cal hadn’t ever brought his son to visit, so this will be the first time he would get to see him.
0011011 hissed and clicked for about three seconds and then Tony turned to the hologram. Tony couldn’t help feel captivated by the swirling colors of the hologram. They were soothing, but tony began to wonder if there was a person on the other end of this. He had heard rumors from some of the guys that robots had gained human rights status. What a world.
The hologram flexed and said, “0011011 remarked that because of your son’s dogfighting conviction, he had been sterilized and your grandson was chemically castrated until he shows he is a contributing factor to society. Also, you too will not be able to sire any children once released. Furthermore, your son died three years ago and your grandson lives with his biological mother in California. As you will not be permitted to leave the state, you cannot live with any remaining relatives, as your grandson is the end of your genetic line.”
Tony felt his mouth open and shut, and no words come out. Cal was dead? When? How? He should have known these things, but he didn’t. Time again, it was playing tricks on him. Gravity was playing tricks on him. Everything felt wrong. These people, these things, deciding his fate felt wrong. He then understood. He was a man out of time. Things had moved on as he had been in his virtual jail.
He looked down at his withered hands and then felt his anger starting to expand like a balloon. “What right did you have to sterilize my boy? For dog fighting? What kind of sick word is this now? Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness? Cruel and unusual punishment?” He knew his composure was slipping, but didn’t care.
The four beings before him remained non-plussed but the Asian man raised an elegant eyebrow and said, “People still have life, and liberty. Most people also understand that pursuit of happiness is just that, a pursuit. It does not mean a guaranteed happiness. As to cruel and unusual, your genetic line shows a massive disposition to violent behavior, endangerment of others and a lack of general empathy to other life, making your line a menace to the species and the planet.” A look of disgust crossed his face which he didn’t even bother to hide as he continued, “The dog fighting just proved this. The mandatory sentencing on this is sterilization and chemical castration of all living progeny, male and female.”
The woman raised a hand, twirled at the wrist and said, “Our society has evolved, and individuals like yourself seem to have a hard time changing.” Her sea green eyes bore into him as she finished, “like the dinosaurs.”
“What my colleagues are saying is that do you feel ready to reenter the real word and be a productive part of it?” Tony had beginning to hate that soothing voice coming from the hologram.
“No. Put me back in. I’d rather stay inside away from your freaks anyways. I know that’s my right to go back in. Though I have a question: how long have I been in?”
A frozen smile from the woman. “You have asked to be put back in three times so far, so you are up to forty years now.” Forty years? That would make him ninety. He felt ill and was about to ask another question, but the woman interrupted with a wave of her hand. “All three previous times you have asked the same thing: yes, we can reset your memory. You won’t recall this conversation and can go back in and live with the constructs.”
He just nodded. Ninety. He could leave this virtual jail, but what was the point? The Asian man nodded to something behind Tony and he felt something click into the port underneath his right ear. He felt himself slip back under and couldn’t wait to get back.
Karl’s first memory of writing was in third grade after reading The Hobbit. He continued writing short stories throughout his schooling up until graduating from grad school in 2004. After graduating with a Master of Science for Teachers in English education, he started teaching high school English. His writing pace slowed down, and it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with brain cancer in June of 2015 did his writing pick up again. Karl lives in Satellite Beach, Florida where he writes, runs barefoot, listens to the ocean and continues his recovery from cancer.
Follow Karl on Twitter: @KarlHwrites