A prisoner comes out of stasis expecting to see his family. He's a few years too late ...
|The tearful were gathered in sight, but out of reach. They wept for him as they watched his final breaths in condemned isolation unaware that it was they who were doomed. The final, humane solution to the death penalty held an irony that could never be appreciated by its victims. In a great effort to ensure that the state never killed another in the name of justice, it was everyone else who was condemned to die. From the prisoner’s perspective, at least.
PAUSE was reportedly painless. A total arrest of all molecular interaction for as long any one cared to maintain the field – the duration of a prison sentence in this case. It was as close to time travel as mankind would ever get, but, bound by the laws of physics, it was a one way trip.
He raised his hand to the transparent barrier separating her from him. The surface felt colder than glass and rang hollow against his breathing, possibly a new see-through metal of sorts. She smiled as their eyes locked, but did not reach forward. Instead, she mouthed a promise that their children’s children would be waiting on the other side. He smiled back and nodded, but to no one. The lights were gone, the air was stale, and he was alone.
It was done.
He was still for a moment, unable to process the totality of what had just occurred. Then he lunged at the darkness and clanged against the transparent metal clawing at the image of his wife still fresh in his vision. If he just willed it to be, he’d be back in the light with her for just a few more seconds. But, as the minutes passed, the only answer from the void was a faint, pulsing green light. His children’s children were nowhere to be seen.
A loud clank jolted him from his confused misery. The automatic lock slid back and his tube opened. The cold, sterile air of the facility that he’d felt just minutes - or lifetimes - before was now humid and musty. He had been forgotten.
The flashing green indicator on his PAUSE pod was the sole spark of activity within the expansive room, yet all was not still. His breath came quick and short and his chest felt tight, but whether it was from a lifetime of bad health decisions and sweet nothings or the almost imperceptible sound of what might’ve been mice in the far walls, he couldn’t be sure.
A vague curiosity about how far healthcare technology had advanced drifted across his consciousness, a programmed survival reaction to his own failing health. A lifetime of hypochondria had found him in an endless cycle of ridiculous self-diagnosis and relief at the door step of every snake oil purveyor in creation. Real sickness happened to other people and his own discomforts the cause of nameless impurities or toxins that science didn’t want anyone to know about. He sighed. That line of thinking, a steadfast refusal to accept reality, had been his downfall.
He tried to focus on the room. Silhouettes of other PAUSE chambers lined the walls, flashing into view as the green light pulsed. They were in the same arrangement he remembered from just a few moments before. Perhaps the facility had been abandoned, or automated. Whatever it was, he’d managed to come out of the PAUSE just fine and presumably on schedule. He waved his hand through the damp air hoping to trigger motion-activated illumination. Nothing.
His muscles ached with a stiffness he’d never quite known as he climbed out of the tube. It was a dull pain that sharpened with movement as though his blood vessels were made of glass. It was a known and harmless side effect of long PAUSEs, but they’d told him the pain would be mild. This wasn’t mild. Once again his hypochondria flared up and he fought the urge to cry out for help.
He touched his bare toes to the floor, which had been a clean-swept, anti-microbial tile to his recent memory and recoiled as it felt as though he’d just stepped on gravel. He recovered and tried again, this time brushing his toes back and forth to clear whatever mess had accumulated. Tile underneath.
Standing took some time as every contracting muscle felt like it was stabbed and ripped apart from within. But the pain passed with use and he was soon surprised to find himself on his feet totally unsupported. He’d suspected that he would have some weird rubber leg effect like those older cryosleep astronauts. When the first long term missions had come back, it had been a viral experience in the entertainment industry to watch them wake up and flop around on the floor for 30 seconds or so. No one had the attention span to watch more than that.
He shuffled his feet forward, wary of whatever was on the floor, and groped his way to the nearest tube. A chill snaked up his spine. The occupant had left at some point, that was a good sign, but no one had bothered to close the tube behind him. He reached inside and found the same gritty debris that covered the floor. He rubbed a sample between his finger tips and nodded as an old memory surfaced. He’d last felt this gritty, lightweight material when his father had decided to insulate their house’s roof. It was a sort of spray that hardened into a super light, brittle form that then needed to be covered with a protective layer of foam board. He’d quickly discovered the reason why it needed a protective cover when he’d accidentally batted his hand into the dried insulation. It had fractured into a million tiny bits and gotten into every nook and cranny in the house. Now it seemed that this place had suffered some damage to the foam barrier and the insulation that haunted his adolescence was back.
He moved down the line of PAUSE tubes. Some were open, as if the occupants left in a hurry, others were closed and offline. One was still functioning. He pressed his face to the metallic glass, but the darkness was near total. He needed light.
He remembered where the doorway had been, to his mind just 15 minutes ago, but he couldn’t be sure he was still in the same facility. Even so, after a hundred years a building underwent at least a few renovations. He wondered what sort of styles were in fashion. Knowing the human race, he’d probably walk into some early 1900s retro styling with real wood that was covered in paints. It was an amusing thought, but plucked at his heart strings. She had always liked the idea of paint.
The door was exactly where he’d remembered it was, but the handle was different. It creaked as he pushed it down, but the door didn’t open. It took him a few seconds of feeling up and down the jamb to find the lock. It was a series of Catclaw Deadbolts - also new. That kind of hardware was usually reserved for real prisons where the walls weren’t paper thin. Thinking about the wall beyond drew his attention back to that almost imperceptible pitter pater of feet, squirming, or other movement that sounded closer now. Mice, he thought. They’d probably abandoned this place long ago and never bothered to check and see if they’d left anyone behind. Or, maybe they just didn’t care.
He unlocked the door and was greeted by more blackness and stale, humid air. He sighed. The PAUSE facility was massive and the correctional component at its heart. He hadn’t exactly been mapping his route in here as they’d brought him down, reminding him the whole way of what an asshole scumbag he was. His breath came in gasps as he realized there was a good chance he would be locked in here forever - buried alive in a final, cruel act of justice.
He slumped to the floor as the panic attack grabbed hold of his chest. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be. After all, who was left who cared about the original mandate? With the rate the government and society was changing when he was put on PAUSE, anything was possible.
A sudden noise jolted him back on his feet. A scurrying of feet and it was in the room with him. Without thinking, he lurched through the open doorway and slammed the heavy door behind him. The hell of waking up in a lonely future with the prospect of dying in some long-forgotten prison was nothing compared to his fear of rats. Rats, mice, spiders, and everything creepy and crawly. Those noises in the walls weren’t helping either. Hell, the crumbled insulation all over the floors was probably their bedding. He shivered.
He took two steps before tripping over a metal chair. He went down hard and suddenly the scurrying noises intensified. Biting his lip, he righted himself and felt his way towards the far wall. He needed light and although he suspected the wall might be covered in a living film of insects or other nasties, he needed to find a switch, a tool, or to get the hell out of this place.
He passed through more doors, several times wishing he’d learned braille as he ran his fingers along various unreadable signs. Finally, he found a sort of supply closet. It had a claustrophobic feel, a utility sink that spit out a foul smelling liquid when he turned it on, and some brooms. A little more groping got his hands to a flashlight. He held his breath, but it clicked on and a weak beam of light shot forward. He was definitely still in the PAUSE facility, and it had most definitely been abandoned for quite some time.
The halls were a mess with debris from the insulation and other signs of a hurried exit. Oddly, there was clothing scattered about. It was as if people had dropped entire outfits that they’d packed as they left. Shoes, pants, lab coats, shits, bras, and even jewelry were in little haphazard piles. He shuddered to think what might’ve caused such a hurried exit.
A war? The thought stopped him cold. Wars happened all the time and over a hundred years the entire earth’s geography could have changed. How many world wars had passed since he’d been out? Maybe, this wasn’t even the United States any more. There were so many possibilities. Terrifying possibilities.
He was moving faster now, his echoing footsteps drowning out the faint scratching noises coming from behind the interior wall shells, which were chewed through in more than a few places. Many doors were locked; several had been unseated from their frames in some apparent horrible act of violence. It could have been the result of compression, he suspected they were underground and a blast from above might’ve found its way down. He shook his head. A lifetime of self-delusion and refusal to accept reality made for some hard to break habits. The damage here wasn’t from some great, impersonal blast. The PAUSE facility had been attacked. The only saving grace seemed to be that it happened a long time ago.
Nothing was powered, but he managed to find a stairwell. The cold, stone synthcrete and steel tower reached up to invisible heights. The scratching noises were gone and he felt almost normal for a minute. It was dark, but it looked like any other industrial stairwell he’d been in. It was a small comfort.
He stopped on the second floor, which was actually labelled as sub-level 3, to catch his breath. He started to entertain the possibility that the air was just thin or the PAUSE had affected his health in some way. But the reality of the situation was that he was a sack of shit with a cardiovascular system akin to a wilted piece of lettuce. After a moment of trying to catch his breath, he realized this was something he’d have to sit down for. He slumped to the cold synthcrete floor and shined the light upwards. The beam was too weak to resolve any sort of ceiling, but then something on the underside of the stairs leading up caught his eye. It was a spot of something shiny, as if the cold gray metal had gotten wet. But he could see texture, too, as it cast a shadow in his dim light. And then it moved.
It was a primitive, thoughtless response that drove a surge of adrenaline through his middle-aged body and commanded his legs to push him through the nearest doorway. The flashlight dropped at some point, but he flew through the darkness in a blind fury crashing through obstacles and debris without regard to his own safety. The image of the creature burned in his mind as he searched for somewhere safe. All the fears of mice and men were nothing compared to the terror he knew not. Whatever that creature was, it did not belong on this earth.
He heaved his shoulder into a blocked door and fell through into what felt like a long hallway. He scrambled to his feet and kept running, relying on the echoes of his footsteps to tell him how far to the end. Then, cold wet teeth and pain. He cried out, not for the pain, but from a lifetime of horror movies and animal bite propaganda videos. What had bit him? Please not whatever was in the stairwell. Was it rabid? Venomous? Was he allergic? He had no recourse but to keep running.
At last, he found a door. The handle turned easily and he flew inside a small confining room. He groped the small perimeter and kicked about in the darkness. Nothing was moving and there were no scratching sounds within the walls. He closed the door and curled up into a small ball. Somehow, his bladder was still full.
The darkness was eternal and there was no telling how long the fitful sleep lasted. The awful dreams of snakes and scorpions eventually stopped clouding his mind and he felt hungry. His bladder, to his mild annoyance, was also no longer full. He touched the scab on his bitten arm. Nothing unusual and he still felt like himself, however drained. His fear kept his muscles tense and leaden, but as the sound of his own breathing wore on, his survival instincts began to reason with the phobias.
He stood, feeling dirty from what must have been hours of cold sweat seeping into the paper-like scrubs he’d been given for the PAUSE. They’d been intended to serve as a disposable privacy barrier rather than actual clothing and in spite of his predicament he longed for a cool, clean button up and silk thread trousers. Nice, cool and clean against his skin.
He checked the wound. It didn’t hurt, but it was swollen and oozing. He wondered what he would do if it got infected.
Thirst was his next worry. He’d always done his due diligence and drank 67.9 ounces of water a day and any deviation was worrisome. When was the last time he’d drank? They’d let him eat and drink whatever leading up to the PAUSE, but he hadn’t felt much of an appetite. So, yeah, it’d been lifetimes since he’d had a drop.
He rummaged through the clutter on the closet floor and got his hands around the cold, comforting cylinder of another flashlight. Pressing the button felt like being back at the craps table with his shirt on the line. It lit.
Leaving the closet, he saw that this section of hallway was a mess, but free of whatever he’d seen in the stairwell. It was actually a good sign, he thought, with so much debris it seemed to indicate that this had been part of the evacuation pathway. He stepped carefully through the many piles of clothing and personal effects littered about so as not to disturb anything. Spiders and other creepy crawly things loved to hide in places like that.
This area was different from the last time he’d had a light. It was more functional with various windowed offices and what might’ve been laboratory spaces. It was hard to know. He’d only seen science labs on In-box Hollowmovies and these looked more like cluttered storage spaces interspersed with high tech gear.
It was a good sign, though. He’d somehow gotten away from the prison area in his desperate flight. He wasn’t doomed to spend his last few hours pounding against the walls of an underground concrete box after all.
He flipped his light upwards and found the most precious prize he could ever want. An exit sign pointing the way to salvation. Building codes likely changed during his PAUSE, but he was certain that the exit signs were designed to stay independently illuminated long after the power had been cut. The darkened letters were a testament to how long this place had been vacant.
He followed the arrows to more signs, which ended at the base of another stairwell. He didn’t want to enter, but the pitter patter noises within the walls had started up again and he wanted to stay in this hellish place even less. He entered as if his flashlight were a machine gun ready to hose down whatever its beam fell upon. Nothing.
He climbed up to the ground level and saw the faint glow of light seeping through the slight imperfections in the steel door’s seal. Daylight! His heart leaped.
The door opened, with some effort, and he basked in the greenish haze of cast by a window far on down the hallway. It must’ve been long since covered by moss or mildew. He crept out into the fancy lobby he’d never seen. He’d been transferred to the PAUSE facility through some loading dock and never saw the softer side of his prison. He imagined that she’d left through the dead elevator doors and skipped on out past the receptionists desk, just like it was any other building. Nowhere would any find a finer tomb.
He walked, in a haze, imagining he was tracing her actual footsteps, wondering what she’d been thinking. Had she been crying? He liked to think so, but he knew better. Her last smile remained burned in his mind. She’d mouthed the words of comfort, but that smile had been haunting. He knew her so well. Anyone else would’ve seen sympathy or compassion on those lips beneath the tears. But, even now he scarcely dared to entertain the idea, he’d seen it for what it was. Satisfaction. He was scum.
She’d walked down this hallway planning out the rest of her day, and her life. A chapter closed. His shoulders slumped. Maybe she’d arranged for him to be left behind when the facility closed? Anything was possible. He felt his heart flutter in his chest. The anxiety was back.
He turned a corner and basked in the green glow of a large, windowed lobby. Many of the windows were broken, yet the greenish glow still poured through. Was this place out in the country? He wondered. He spent most of his life in the city and imagined the country to be no different from an Amazonian rainforest.
He took a step towards his freedom and froze as the lobby floor began to move. The creatures, dozens of them, writhed upon its surface like a living carpet of worms and flesh. They were snake-like - some with legs, some with developed heads. He could feel the pinch in his lower back as his adrenal glands pushed whatever they had into his blood stream. And the animals, if they could be called animals, could clearly smell it.
He turned to run back into the darkness, but stopped himself. Realizing that she’d moved on the instant he’d gone into the PAUSE had broken something inside. The fear and terror had almost taken a backseat, as if he could choose to feel or not feel it. He chose not to and sprinted for the door.
Everything wanted a bite of his skin, but apparently no more than that. He kicked them away, stomped a few into goo with his soft-soled sandals, but every time they managed to get a nip or a scratch in before scampering off. He rushed through the heavy door, slammed it behind him and collapsed onto the concrete sidewalk. The monsters stayed inside. He was safe.
He rolled onto his back after a few moments and looked up at the sky.
It was green.