As the electronic doors onto one of the walkways inside the ISPS Tartarus slid open, the first thing that Nick noticed was the smell. It was stale, musty, and it lingered in the lungs with every intake of breath. It was recycled air, polluted by the scent of millions of unwashed bodies. The worst kind of hellhole thinkable.
He was prodded forward by the guard behind him. He had no option but to step out of the elevator, with his hands cuffed behind his back and his legs chained together at the ankles. It was only at this point that Nick got the full idea of the scale of the prison ship. He'd seen it on the approach out of one of the portside windows, of course, but it's difficult to judge the size of something so grand from the outside. Especially when you've a small view-hole to look through and the ship you're on is heading for the hangar bay. From where he now stood, he could see below him an endless pit of levels and, looking upwards, he could see exactly the same. This sign on the wall beside him told him more: Tartarus C-Deck, Level 263. There must have been millions of inmates.
The guard jabbed him in the back again. In response, Nick raised his hands up: “Alright, alright,” he said, stumbling forward, but just about keeping his feet. He wasn't sure if the guard had understood him, but the jabbing stopped, at least.
The two security officers behind him were two of the most horrible creatures he'd ever laid eyes on. Genetically created by the InterStellar Prison Service, they were designed to strike fear through the hearts of all species being held on the ship. They were Lernae; seven foot tall men, built with the scaly skin of a serpent, a venomous bite and a sharp, stinging tongue. Throw in the usual guard weaponry – a sharpened pike and a taser – and there were very few disagreements on ISPS ships. They could stop a man in his tracks with just a stare; their yellow, almost soulless and emotionless eyes effectively striking down any act of defiance before there was any need for force.
As they walked – or shuffled, in Nick's case – along the metal walkway, two things occurred to the latest prisoner. The first was how little protection there was between the metal platforms and the drop to certain death in the centre of the deck. The second was the size of the cells: they were tiny. And every single inmate was lying in their bed, at about a forty-five degree angle and complete with breath mask. It was hardly surprising, given the quality of the air.
Up ahead, he saw a cell with an open door. He assumed, quite rightly as it turned out, that it was for him. This was confirmed as he shuffled towards it and one of his guards jabbed him in the direction of the doorway. He stopped in the centre of the room and waited, while the two Lernae creatures uncuffed his limbs. He turned to face them.
“Into the bed,” the one on the left ordered, brutally and emotionally cold. It had always been something of a stereotype from children's stories to Nick, but the lisp was present in the tongues of these serpentine creatures. “Once you're down and in position, we'll plug you in.”
He'd been dreading this moment. This was the very worst part of his induction, he'd assumed. The part of his sentence where he would be conscious of his surroundings and in full knowledge of the world he was about to find himself immersed into. He was reluctant to fall back into the bed, but he knew he couldn't put it off any longer, especially with the two enforcers in front of him.
Slowly, he stepped away and pressed his back to the cold, metal panel. There was very little in the way of comfort. His morale was at an all-time low and, even if he felt he could have overpowered the guards and escaped, he was almost a broken man and wouldn't have had the mental strength to get away. He succumbed to his fate.
He watched as one of the guards handed his weaponry over to the other and stepped forwards. The first part to be restrained were Nick's arms, locked into position by metal bolts by his shoulders and again by his wrists. It was his legs next, in much the same manner, secured by the groin and ankles. He could barely move and, once the strip of metal that formed the secure band was placed around his forehead, he was rendered all but immobile.
Within seconds, the breath mask was fitted and his food pipe and catheter had been connected to the relevant areas of his body. His last few seconds of reality were upon him and he spent it trying to beg the two creatures in front of him to let him go. They'd heard it all before and everything Nick said was old: He was innocent. A wronged man. They were making a mistake.
They didn't believe a word, remaining completely silent as they closed the translucent lid on the bed and allowed the gases being piped into the breath mask to take over. They stood and stared as Nick slowly lost consciousness, doing his best to fight it and keep his eyes open for one second longer. Just one more second to avoid the misery of a life sentence on the ISPS Tartarus.
But he couldn't do it. Against his wishes, he drifted off to sleep, where he'd complete his sentence in a living hell. This was it. This was the point where he would find out just what they had in store for him in his own bespoke prison cell. This would be a place where his life would no longer be worth living.
But it was a place he was forced to go.
‘Dear Mr. Creaymersch,’ the letter began.
Immediately, Nick was annoyed by it. His name was spelt ‘ae’ not ‘ea’. Nobody ever got that right and it was one of those things that really irked him. With trepidation, he looked around the room and saw the worst: Over his bed was written Nick Creaymersch, each page of his notepad was embossed Nick Creaymersch, even the front door to his room read Nick Creaymersch. He sighed with a growing sense of inevitability and returned to the letter.
‘Welcome to the ISPS Tartarus, we hope your stay with us is unpleasant and deeply horrifying to the last,’ it read. ‘We have provided your welcome gift on the table beside where this letter was deposited.’
He looked across at the table; a basket of fruit that ranged from simple apples and bananas to the more exotic mangos, watermelons and figs. Another sigh. He hated fruit with a passion and didn’t think he’d eaten a single piece of it since his mother had last insisted, when he was aged about fourteen.
‘You’ll find everything in this facility to be to your dissatisfaction,’ it continued. ‘Please take a few moments to familiarise yourself with your quarters ahead of your stay. You may come and go from your room as you please and you will be able to interact with other prisoners on your block at any time you feel you’d like to in the recreation rooms.
‘Yours faithfully, (Mr.) Alex Brooke – Acting Head of the ISPS Tartarus.’
So this was it. This was the room he’d be calling home for the best part of four decades. He did just as the letter had told him to and wandered around, investigating. The bed was lumpy and uncomfortable, the television had a choice of three, slightly-out-of-tune channels – all of them interactive shopping services, selling unusable objects and spouting inane drivel – while the kitchen was stocked exclusively with foods he thought were horrid and the bookshelf was stacked with chick lit, a genre he had nothing but deep hatred for. And even if he were to read any of the books, he’d never know how they finished, as each had had the final few pages torn out.
Bizarrely, the DVD rack contained all of his favourite films and television shows. But, on closer inspection, he found that almost every one of them either had a missing or a heavily scratched disc. There were just two that seemed playable, though a quick test of the DVD player found that one of them didn’t work in that brand of machine and the other could only be watched in black and white, complete silence and with German subtitles. Bliss.
The days passed slowly and were completely unbearable. Nick spent his time trying not to be frustrated with his surroundings, as they remained uncomfortable and difficult to live in. The recreation centre left him – and all of the other prisoners who visited – unfulfilled, as the pool tables missed balls and were on a marginal slope, table tennis bats were broken and none of the chess sets had any bishops. It was a thoroughly demoralising place.
As the months had passed by, Nick had considered the option of finishing his sentence early. He’d thought the only way out would be to end his own life, but the ISPS Tartarus system wasn’t one that allowed an inmate to quit before time. To ensure the full punishment was passed on, anybody who was being detained in artificial reality that took their own life was simply returned to their cell. After jumping to what he thought would be his death from one of the highest bridges in his fake world, Nick was distraught to discover that, moments later, he woke up back in his own lumpy, uncomfortable bed, in the room with all the spelling mistakes and the one working DVD.
He tried hunger strike, but all that did was keep his body unfulfilled. The food pipe connected to him in the real world kept him alive, and his brain just reacted to a lack of eating in artificial reality with crippling hunger pains instead.
The years rolled by slowly. Throughout, Nick began to notice certain, unusual things about his artificial world. Aside from the annoyance that the man in the barbers couldn’t get his haircut correct and the canteen staff routinely burnt his toast in the mornings (and he couldn’t abide burnt toast), he found himself realising that there were fewer and fewer inmates. From a ship that had, originally, contained millions of prisoners, his floor of his wing was now barely populated. Since he had been admitted to the artificial world, he had shared his reality with forty or fifty inmates.
Now there were just fifteen or so, as, one by one, the rest had been released and, seemingly, not replaced.
This pattern continued until, almost three years on, Nick was all alone inside the prison world. He couldn’t know about the other wings or floors of the ship because he had no access, but all he could say for sure was that there was nobody else in the same part of the vessel as him. He found this even harder to live through, since there was nobody sharing his hatred and suffering of the prison itself.
He began to lose track of the days, the weeks, the months, the years. Time had lost all meaning and one twenty-four hour period was followed by another, each of them shrouded in annoyance, frustration and unhappiness. And burnt toast.
His hope had all but evaporated and the distant thoughts of his release had gone.
The ISPS Tartarus had beaten him.
Groggy-eyed and still half asleep, Slax rolled down from his bunk with all the urgency and speed of a man dropping from the sofa to grab himself a third can of beer. Nothing like that which would be expected of a man who’d just been ordered to abandon ship by the vessel’s computer, while his living quarters had been illuminated in bright red lights, flashing yellow computer monitors and filled with a siren that could make even the strongest of ears bleed.
“Morning, Ros,” he mumbled, as he shuffled his way across the room and hit the manual override button on the keypad beside his desk. Instantly, the siren and the lights stopped. “Anything new?”
They went through this process every morning. Each day, Slax would be woken from his bed just short of noon by the ship’s computer; she seemed to think it was funny, while he had, originally, been furious at the practical joke, but it had become such a regular occurrence that he had become desensitised to it. God forbid that was ever a need for him to actually abandon ship shortly before noon.
“Well, actually,” the computer replied, “there is.”
Slax turned to face the open room, a look of intrigue dominating his expression. He often spoke to the empty room, despite Ros having no physical presence in their small vessel. The computer was just a voice, but he couldn’t stop from giving her inquisitive looks or glances. “Go on,” he said, cautiously.
“It’s another ship,” the computer replied, bringing up a blueprint on the monitor. “It’s simply drifting across the sector. We picked up the SOS message about an hour ago and there’s a life sign, but we’ve had no response to our attempts to communicate with them. Should I plot a course?”
“You haven’t already?” The only crew-member shot back, with a smirk.
“Would you want me to?” The computer often remained a match when it came to a battle of wits.
“Is that even in question?”
It was a mere thirty minutes later that Slax was ready to board the foreign vessel. In the journey to it, Ros had played back the emergency broadcast – which was wholly dull, but answered several key questions: They were a prison ship and had fallen under attack, during which there had been a breakout. The guards were on the run and the prisoners were free. One by one the staff had been killed, while the inmates had hijacked various transport ships from the hangar bay.
Slax pulled out his handheld computer and locked it on to the single life sign, as he dropped down the boarding ramp. With his handgun drawn and ready to fire, he slowly made his way through the ship. He wasn’t sure what he was going to meet, but he was going to be on his toes just in case. It would turn out to be nothing, and, after an age of searching, he found where the computer had tracked the survivor. It was a prisoner.
As Slax arrived at the cell, he was confused to see that the door was unlocked. A gentle pull allowed him access and he scouted around with caution. Soon enough, he came to the bed, where his confusion was increased by what he saw. After tapping the barrel of his weapon against the mask of the man inside to check his responses, he suddenly realised there was never a danger of the prisoner being hostile.
The man was dead. And he had been for some time.
Staring back at him from the bed was a skull, devoid of flesh, teeth or hair. Inside the prison rags he had been wearing around his body, there was exactly the same thing: The old clothes hung loosely from the bones that remained bolted into position. Yet, when Slax held his miniature computer over the body, this was where the life sign was being broadcast. The man was simultaneously alive and dead.
“Ros, do you copy?” He spoke into the computer for the first time in a while. When the computer replied in the affirmative, he explained what he was looking at, beaming images back to his ship as he did.
Ros quickly formulated and explained a theory: “It’s a prison of the mind,” she said. “Instead of trapping inmates in cages, they’re forced into an artificial reality and released automatically when they have served their sentence.
“I think this man wasn’t,” she finished. “He wasn’t released during the jailbreak by the others. And, while his body has long since died, the computer’s been keeping his mind alive inside the artificial reality. He’s probably served a sentence twenty times that he was supposed to.
“You should probably go in and tell him the bad news.”