I wake up with a shock. Literally. Through the thin walls I hear the muffled cries of other inmates. For the past month, all of my mornings have been like this, but if things go according to plan, this will be the last.
I roll out of my cot, barely softer than the floor, and slip into my shoes. They're patchy and filled with holes. Not fashionable, but not much worse than what I'm used to, and I've worn them long enough for the fake leather to mold onto my feet. In the mirror I straighten out the electric collar clasped to my neck. A zombie girl stares back at me, her eyes and cheeks sunken and hollow.
Time to go.
I join the rest of inmates in a sluggish procession towards the dining area. Everyone else walks like they're dying. None of them know. I tug on my ear, half of which is blown off, and shuffle along. My heart pounds out of sync with my steps.
The Intergalactic Prison for Criminal Masterminds, otherwise known as IPCM, is home to 5 891 inmates. It's a spiraling fortress built inside of a meteor, and every opening is guarded by blades that whirl 24/7—apparently it's not enough to just lock the door. It makes the entire place sound like a blender, and believe me, it's been driving me crazy.
Thump, thump, thump. Will you stop it, heart? The guards get suspicious when your pulse is up. Today is not the day for anyone to get suspicious. We're banking on being as inconspicuous as possible.
IPCM has ten floors, each of which has a court yard and a cafeteria in the center. I can see inside from the hallway if I stand on my tip toes, and just as usual Quan saves me a seat. As if he knows I'm staring at him, he turns his head. I duck down. My curly blond hair sticks up at least half a foot from my head, so I know that I'm visible.
Once inside I trip over my feet, earning a few snickers from my fellow prisoners. Somebody kicks my shins while I'm down and pain shoots up my leg.
"Hey!" I exclaim, whipping around to find who did it. My face is as hot as coals and I can imagine steam coming out of my nose, but all I see are pairs of identical legs, each dressed in the same orange trousers.
An unknown force pulls me up and puts me down on solid ground. I whip around.
It's Quan, grinning at me like an idiot. Okay, maybe not like an idiot. He has an IQ of 139, which he never allows me to forget.
"Smooth move, Vanya," he says. I brush his hand off my shoulder.
He chuckles on his way to our table, and I snort a bit. He can't see my face, so he doesn't know that I hate his guts. Good. He can't know. Not yet.
We sit at our table, which creaks when Quan takes his place across from me. He grins again, chin wrinkling around his mouth (which is missing a few teeth), and I know he's happy because his eyes are closed. He's excited to get out of this place. So am I, but not in the same way. I'm scared, scared that this will go wrong.
"Where's Helen?" I ask. My leg jiggles uncontrollably under the table, probably due to some horrible disease. I tug on my ear.
"Calm down, Van. You know where she is, in the courtyard working her pecs."
This is our code, our code for everything is going according to plan. We can't talk about it aloud, though. Our collars record everything we say. The only time we can speak freely is when we take them off.
"What are you nervous about?" Quan asks, leaning in. His breath smells. I grimace and look away, anywhere but at him. "Oh, lighten up, Van."
"Nothing. I'm not nervous about nothing."
"So you're nervous?"
"You know what I mean."
"I wish you'd loosen up, slug. It's been a month already."
A month and three days. I've been counting. I don't like to be reminded about it, though, because whenever someone reminds me I think back to the time when I began counting, counting the days I'll be allowed to stay here without my family getting worried. How long did it take for them to realize something had gone wrong? A week? Two weeks? I had to get to them.
"When's breakfast coming?" I ask, changing the subject. Quan turns in his seat, making the chair shudder. He's a fat old man, and crazy too.
"Two minutes thirty six seconds. Eat quickly."
Breakfast wasn't half bad—watery broccoli and cheddar soup with stale crackers on the side. Nothing special, but good nonetheless. I ate till my stomach was ready to burst, and even then I wanted more. Call me a stress eater.
Quan has me stationed in the southeast corner of the courtyard. We call it the southeast corner, but in reality there isn't a south or an east or anything here.
I wait, trying to look nonchalant, singing a tune under my breath. It's an old folk song that Dad used to play me. He strummed the guitar while Mom sang, and whenever the chorus would come I'd sing along. I'd forgotten the rest of the words. It was that long ago.
"When will it end, when will it end," I sing. When will it end? How long does it take to seduce a dumb old guard? I mean, come on Helen, hurry up.
My eyes scan the courtyard, watching the inmates jog, lift weights, or stand huddled in close knit groups. There are others like me, newcomers with no family, standing by the edges and trying to be unseen. Sometimes I wonder what things might have been like if Quan hadn't picked me up. Would I still be one of them tomorrow? Or would I still be alive tomorrow?
Stop it. Everything is going to turn out fine. It has to.
My eyes flick back to the spot I've been watching for the past two hours, and I see the signal. Helen "Crazy" Caraciollo walks by in a bath robe. She's a young white woman with dark, frizzy hair, and popping black eyes. You look into those eyes of hers and you can't look away. She's terrifying. I for one know there's reason to be terrified.
I begin walking, heart in my stomach, sloshing around with today's breakfast.
Calm down, Vanya. Calm down.
I've crossed the room in about a minute, taking my time not to look too purposeful. I cross through the doorway leading into the hall and walk to room 798. That's Helen's room. It's pitch black. I hear the door shut.
"Don't scream," Helen says. She sounds delighted.
"O-okay," I say, shifting uneasily in the dark.
She flicks on the lights. My eyes bug out of my sockets. I take a sharp intake of breath and cover my mouth.
Don't scream, don't scream.
Casivian Poller, one of the guards who have been patrolling our floor, is dead. The kill is fresh, his blood still spilling onto Helen's bed sheets from his stump arms. I gulp and tear my eyes away to look at Helen. She grins, her eyes snapping to mine.
"Neat, huh?" she says.
I point to my collar, palms sweaty.
"Right." She takes out the key, originally belonging to Poller, and taps it on the vitals screen of my collar. It beeps, clicks, and pops open, clattering onto the ground.
I gasp and whip towards Helen. "You crazy—crazy—" I can't find the right words to describe her. "Y-you're evil, you know that?"
She giggles. "You're cute, you know that?"
"I'm not cute."
"You are. To think that a young lady your age, who has been murdering since she was five years old, would get squeamish over the sight of a little blood."
My fists ball up. I'm shaking. "Who told y-you—I've never murdered anyone!"
Helen's eyes lighten. She whips her hands out of her pocket, which are bloody, and slaps them on my shoulders, bending down to look at me. "So if you didn't murder anyone, what did you do? Tell me. I'll keep it a secret. I won't tell Quan, I promise."
I step away from her. She kills a man, a man who she's been having an affair with for three years, and she expects me to trust her? I don't trust anyone. I don't know why they want to know what I did so damn bad in the first place.
"Just give me the hand," I say.
"After you tell me."
"We're running out of time."
Helen laughs. "N-no! N-no!" She chortles and points her thumb to the bed.
I look. The hand has been there the whole time, tucked under his shirt. I rush over to Poller, reaching gingerly over his naked chest and grabbing the wrist of one of the hands. I shouldn't have eaten breakfast.
"You will tell me eventually, though, won't you?" Helen asks as I approach the door. I put the hand under my waistband. Helen has already tied off the wrist so it doesn't bleed out and give me away, and the prisoner's uniform is baggy enough not to reveal that it's there. Still, I'm scared.
"Let's not talk about it, Helen."
She blows a raspberry at me and I leave. My heart is thumping, partially at the prospect of getting caught, and partially at the prospect of revealing my secret to Helen. I know that eventually she'll get it out of me, whether I like it or not.
That is, if I don't stop her first.
It's easy to steal a card or a key, but it's harder to steal a finger print. I have to get to the door while the hand is still warm, and it's becoming cooler as I walk along. The fingers have become stiff, curling up so they claw into my flesh. I'm sure you can see it through my shirt, how couldn't you? But then, I'm short enough that people don't notice me that often. I blend in among the hips of my fellow inmates, and during the post-breakfast traffic it is easy to slip into hall G17 unnoticed.
The prison is sectioned off into hallways so that the guards can be given quick directions when fights break out. Like last week, I was trying to go to sleep when G2 started blaring over the intercoms. G2! G2! I bolted out of bed, remembering that was the hall Quan and I slept in, and when I flung open my door Henderson Talty, a well-publicised terrorist from Xeron, was lying on the floor dead as a door nail.
Disgusting, I mean absolutely horrifying. If you're going to kill someone, at least do it where nobody will stumble across the aftermath on their way to breakfast, like Helen for example.
God, look what I've turned into. A month ago I would never have thought about the best way to murder someone.
There's a curve down hall G17, which then turns into G18. I check my watch, the one Helen gave me from Poller's wrist, and it's 9:32 AM in IPCM time. It's a completely fabricated system. They could have made the day 26 hours instead of 24 to for all they cared, but instead they kept it the same. Sure, there are a few inmates who have bio-modifications to allow them to sleep less, but only a small percentage. Quan is one of them, and he told me that the one time they tried to change the time system, work performance declined by 15%.
G18 is a short hall, the walls and floor are cold grey cement, the LED lights on the ceiling flickering so badly it makes my eye twitch. At the end of the short corridor are two double doors. I duck—which isn't necessary seeing as the glass windows are at least a foot higher up than am—and tip toe to the right side of the door, nestling into a corner.
I wait, breathing short and rapid. Only two more minutes to go.
At 9:35 AM, the guard still hasn't arrived. My heart jumps, bouncing around my rib cage like a pin ball. I'm racking up so many points that I could make the highest record. Another minute passes, and I swear the hand smuggled under my waist band is clamping down on me, twitching. Or maybe that's just my pulse.
What if this doesn't work?
I hear footsteps and hold my breath, eyes bugging, sweat trickling down my forehead.
Beep! There's a click and the door swings open, nearly touching the wall. It stops an inch from my nose and stays there for a half second as the guard walks down G18 and turns onto G17. He's going for a coffee break. It will be quick, five minutes at the most. I don't have long.
As soon the guard is onto G16 I bolt around the door, going as softly as possible.
I'm in G19 now, a long corridor with bright blue walls. I stick out like a sore thumb in my orange uniform, but I'm not exposed for long. A little bit down the hall, placed outside one of the many office doors lining the walls, is a waiting area. There are a couple of plush chairs and a small coffee table. It isn't covered, but I'm hoping when the time comes that won't matter.
Sliding with my belly, I wiggle under it. I take deep breaths, because in a few moments I won't be able to. I've gotten this far. If I get caught now... I don't want to think about the consequences.
The wait is agonizing. I think about my entire life. My heart aches for it, all the simple days I let pass by as if they were nothing, every kiss from Mom or boring birthday party I was invited to out of pity. I can't believe any of it ever happened now. It seems like a dream compared to this. Never have I been as close to death as I am now.
If I do make it through this, though, who knows? I might be able to have that back.
A door down the hall slams open and I jump, knocking my head on the top of the coffee table, but the guard doesn't seem to care. He's just found out that his best friend is dead. Little does he know, his right hand man's right hand is closer than he thinks. The door into G18 opens and this time I don't wait for it to close all the way. I crawl out and run into the control room. It has already shut, but that doesn't matter. I take out the hand, gag a bit, and press one sickly finger against key pad. It turns green and clicks. I walk inside.
The farther I get, the worse my punishment becomes if I'm caught. By this time, I'm certain death would be the most pleasant of sentences. Prolonged torture is more likely.
But I have to stop thinking about that. No time.
I don't take even a moment to look around the room, just shoot to the control panel at the opposite end and climb onto a chair by the dashboard. This is where all goings in and out of the building are controlled. In other words, our ticket to freedom.
A phone hangs off the receiver by the keyboard. All the technology in here is so old, from the 21st century at the earliest. It's like being in a museum. I hang it up and roll the chair closer to the dashboard, fingers hovering over the keys. Poller's hand lies curled on the counter top beside me.
Quan's voice rings in my head. "Find the file named G1ACCESS and make it snappy."
I almost take the mouse, but hesitate. The keyboard only responds to Poller's finger prints, along with the guard who just ran out. If any others are registered, an alarm goes off.
I almost blew the whole thing.
Picking up Poller's hand, I place it on the mouse and move it over to the top right corner of the screen. G1ACCESS is a system file with a lock logo. I click it and a program pops up, a simple window with three buttons—open gate for entrance, open gate for exit, and open gate for evacuation. I bite my lip, blinking at the screen. Shaking, I move the mouse towards 'open gate for exit'. Poller never told Helen how to get past the this point. From here on out, I'll have to rely on my own wits.
I'm almost positive that won't be enough.
The next window that appears has a few boxes that need to be filled out. The first is the reason for exit. I take Poller's hand off the mouse and move it to the key board. Letter by letter I write out the response, 'Inmates leaving for parole'.
This is taking too long, far too long.
Next box. Ship that will be leaving.
What is it called, what is it called?
Hyperion 620. Or was it Hyperion 625? 620. It had to be 620. Thank God Quan mentioned it at all.
Next box is an easy one, because Quan planned this part too. It's the times the gates will be open through. I type 10:00 to 10:01. A one minute window, and less than a half hour from now. Quan originally wanted it to be even shorter.
But when my eyes trail down to the next requirement, my heart sinks. Access code.
The door slams open.