Release: A Miner’s Sentence Ends
by Gregory Thompson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Miner 1 swung his pick. Under his repeated strikes, the rocks cracked and crumbled away. Red dust floated around him. He wondered again what he was really doing, what these fifty years of swinging had accomplished. He wondered what fifty accelerated years actually accomplished in a world 25 years older than when he left. I gotta have one hell of a resume these days. A regular jack-of-all-trades, no doubt.
He ran through the list he reckoned he did, the purpose behind his constant swings. Rendering graphics in someone’s game. Tearing into a complex math equation. Powering a little girl’s night light. Wonder if I’m doin’ anything at all. Couldn’t be work enough to last for 25 years. Am I working twice as hard, or do they just keep me busy? Maybe this work’s as real as the sweat on my body.
He felt exhaustion setting in from mining the red earth. The Release Protocol had been building up his sense of feeling and sensations again in preparation for him to return to his body. He felt muscles tighten with each swing. A burning enveloped his arms on each impact.
With the protocol activated, he had a date set with his body, and his counter continued regardless of whether he mined or not. Still, he kept up the pace he had grown accustomed to. A strike per second to pass the sentence. The hole in front of him grew deeper.
Might be tired, but not like it’s gonna kill me. Gonna drip every last ounce of sweat they can out of me. The only function they hadn’t turned on was sleep, the easiest way to pass the time. Well, what else am I gonna do?
The counter was down to hours now. The clock had been oppressive, a number fixed in the upper-right of his gaze. 50:00:00:00:00. An automated tutorial had droned on about rules and regulations, but he had barely heard them as he took in that dull yellow number. Unchanging until he swung. He had tried to avoid looking at it. Now, he watched the numbers click away. He thrust his pick into the ground. Only seven hours remained.
Miner 1 watched several other inmates chip away at the earth. All of them had the same grey, faceless bodies. Numbers on their backs reflected the time the viewer had left. The strikes that echoed over the quarry lacked variation. Whatever counted as a swing, whether full power or a half-hearted tap, elicited the same metallic ring that travelled the same distance. His time slipped away with each swing of their pick.
The quarry had been a flat plain when he first arrived. When new arrivals came, they stuck close to others. They made gestures, since talking was prohibited. They invented little games to synchronize their swings. As time went on, though, they became little more than numbers to each other, reminders of how slowly time dwindled away. They broadcast the only relevant information: how much longer each other had left. The camaraderie faded to isolation. They stopped digging canyons together and burrowed their separate tunnels.
When he’d arrived, the only prisoner, Miner 1 dug deep into the red earth to escape the lonely plains. Now, he gazed over the canyons that sprawled in every direction, spotted his cave that threaded through them. His years of work were being erased swing by swing.
A notification window popped into his view: “The warden will meet you in 1 minute.”
Another countdown appeared. He took deep breaths and watched the numbers flip away.
Warden himself gonna send me off? Give me a bit of advice for that new life of mine?
The warden gave daily messages. Grey motivational messages provided a short respite from the same red sky burning over the barren desert. On the rare occasions he included a picture — perhaps a cat with motivational text or an uplifting natural scene — the workers paused their mining for as long as they could. A brief quiet set over the prison.
* * *
The last time he had interacted with people outside the prison was when his wife and child came. They met in a mock visitation room with the same faceless avatars in a light shade of blue. His daughter and wife looked the same despite their age difference. A torrent of sound rushed through their hidden mouths each time they spoke, hinting at the crowded, chaotic space they were sitting in. Those visits had become more infrequent.
Miner 1 had loved to listen to their updates. More quickly than he had expected, though, he found it difficult to relate to them, difficult to recall what they discussed. They had less and less to talk about.
“What have you been up to, Daddy?”
“Well, still been mining, honey. My tunnel’s quite a bit longer now.”
As his sentence went on, even his memories had become pixelated. The images of his family, his home, his cat all lost their definition. The vivid beauty of the real world faded. Those lousy images the warden posted, for him, had become Biblical passages to another world, a higher plane. No wonder they stopped coming. I’m not even a person anymore. No one in their right mind talks to a computer for fifty years. Twenty-five years, whatever.
On the last visit with his family, the familiar visitation room materialized around him. The tiled floor clacked as he walked towards the empty chair. In front of him, the two blue avatars were already seated. They exchanged the usual pleasantries. He usually just listened to their stories, caught up on all the news an elementary schooler could remember for a year.
“Daddy, soon they’ll have better graphics, so we’ll be able to have much better visits.”
“Yes, that’s right, dear.” Despite the still avatar in front of him, he could hear his wife shifting in the chair through the microphone she was talking into. “There are signs all around the visitation center about the work they’re doing on the family visitation system. We even have a private room to talk in now.”
“That’s right!” The microphone sputtered with his daughter’s voice. “We’ll be able to see each other, and they might even have movements!”
“That sounds swell, really swell,” he said.
There was a silence for a moment, some muffled voices coming through. The avatars continued to stare back at him like statues. He tried to recall their faces, chisel into the blue figures before him, but he could not conjure his family’s faces.
“Mommy says I have to go wait outside now because you have some grown-up things to talk about. But I wanted to tell you — Mommy said I’m a big girl now, so I don’t need a nightlight. So when you come back, you won’t have to turn it on anymore!”
“That’s great, sweetie,” he said, unsettled at how fast she was growing up. “I’m so proud of you, Hadley. You run along now, and we’ll talk real soon.”
An explosion went through the mic as his daughter tried to kiss it. Then, he listened to her stomp into the background noise.
“She’s sure got a lot of energy,” he said.
“Yeah, she does.” His wife paused. “Listen, Fadden, I don’t think we can keep coming around anymore.”
“Why not? You’re already only coming once a year.”
“People are talking. You know they’re putting more people in there now, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I’ve got quite a crew here.” He gave a half-hearted chuckle.
“Well, people are talking more now that it’s becoming more common. They’ve been talking since you got put in, but now,” she trailed off and looked away for a moment. “They’re saying that you’re dead, that the process that put you in there really killed you. People just don’t understand how you can take someone out of their body and put them back in. Even the pastor said it’s just not natural.”
“I’m me, Zoe. How can I be dead when I’m talking with you right now?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. But the kids at school are making fun of Hadley, and the other parents don’t want her talking to their kids about you. It’s no way for her to grow up.”
Within moments he was back in his mine, deep within the darkness of his tunnel. She had shut him off. He hadn’t seen them since. He had thought about what she had said for the better part of 45 years. The real world rarely seeped in to the mines, especially not when it had a choice.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Gregory Thompson