Footsteps echoed across the metal grating of the catwalk. The guard, Haytham strode imperiously over the plexiglass-topped cells. His uniform was white, armored and shining, with blue striping. There was a helmet he could choose to carry under his arm or wear. He chose the latter because the helmet's visor obscured his eyes from the prisoners and prevented them from reading his mood. Each morning he spent an hour polishing the uniform and dressing. He took pride in his appearance even though the only people who would see him all day didn't care about such things. He lived his role and refused to be shabby about it. He carried no weapons but the suit itself was powered and it gave him the strength of ten men. No prisoner would dare risk Haytham's gloved fists.
The prison bank was half a kilometer long, and ten meters wide. The cells were three deep on either side of the catwalk, packed together in a honeycomb. Each cell was equipped with water inlet and outlets, electricity, and an information terminal. They slotted together but could be moved apart. When moving only the water supply was disconnected. Each cell could be raised up to the level of the catwalk in order to extract or insert a prisoner. Food was delivered once a day through a hatch in the ceiling by an automated robot. It was capable of dispensing various foods and food substitutes to accomodate dietary or religious differences. The walls were opaque and no prisoner could see another, but they could speak to each other or tap out messages on their walls in the night.
As Haytham walked he clicked his joints, maximizing each movement without exaggerating it. It produced a sense of order and strength. The prisoners lay in their cells below. Some read or typed at their terminals. Others bathed or sat on the toilet. Some prayed on mats. Some clutched their legs and rocked back and forth. He passed a cluster of cells where each prisoner lay in the center of their cell in the fetal position.
Haytham stopped. He turned back and looked at the cells. There were eight cells with prisoners in the fetal position, all facing to the right. No one moved. The eight cells surrounded a ninth, which contained a man who looked up at Haytham and waved. He ordered up one of the eight cells. The cell wheezed up and slid towards his position. Haytham lifted his visor and presented his eye to the retina scanner. The door unlocked and he slid the door open cautiously.
The prisoner on the floor was in the same position, undisturbed. Haytham walked in and kicked the man in the back. There was no movement. He pulled off a glove and checked for a pulse. There was none and the body was at the ambient temperature. There were no signs of trauma, wounding, or struggle. The prisoner was simply dead. Haytham checked the prisoner's background. He had been an accused data smuggler, but was still awaiting trial after eighteen years.
He stepped out of the cell, locked it, and sent it back down to it's slot. He ordered up the other seven in turn, and found that all the deaths were identical, but the prisoners themselves covered a random slice of crime: pedophilia, bank fraud, assault, the writing of anti-government tracts, murder, animal cruelty, and censor hacking--nothing particularly unusual. He reported the deaths and ordered an extraction and cleaning team. Then he focused on the middle ninth cell.
Haytham ordered the cell up. He checked the prisoner's background, but this generated an error. He dialed up the strength in his suit, then unlocked the door. Inside sat a man with his legs folded.
"Hello," said the man.
"Do you know why I'm here?" asked Haytham.
"No," said the prisoner sarcastically. "I have absolutely no idea."
"The prisoners in the adjacent cells are all dead," said Haytham.
"That's unfortunate," said the prisoner. "I bet some of them hadn't reached trial yet."
"This isn't a joke, and I can report you for complaining."
"What do I care? I have a life sentence and everybody is already in solitary confinement."
"Your terminal access will be cut off."
"Have you seen this thing?" asked the prisoner pointing over his shoulder to his terminal. "I think the last prisoner used it as a novelty toilet. Seriously, there's nothing you can take away from me. You're legally obligated to feeding me once a day so there's not even that."
Haytham flexed his fist. The prisoner rolled his eyes.
"What do these deaths have to do with you?" said Haytham.
"Nothing," said the prisoner, "but don't you want to know my name?"
"What role did you have in these deaths?"
"I don't even know if anybody actually died, or if this is some sort of mind game you're trying to play with me. Doesn't it bother you to not know my name? Or what my crimes are? Or why I'm here?"
"How did these prisoners die?"
"I wasn't in their cells with them, how could I be? How could I know how they died?"
Haytham walked into the cell and grabbed the prisoner by the front of his tunic and dragged him out to the catwalk. He pressed his knee into the prisoner's chest and pinned his hands down to the grating with his own. He spoke again, with no trace of malice or discrimination.
"How did you kill them?"
"We went from dying to killing already?" said the prisoner. "Just like this government."
"That's a heresy. I'm going to report you."
"How can you when you don't know my name or my prisoner number? Don't you want to know how I got here?"
"Fine," said Haytham, maintaining his icy composure.
The prisoner laughed.
"I broke in," he said.
Haytham pressed his knee into the prisoner's solar plexus and the prisoner moaned in pain.
"Nothing is," said the prisoner. "All things are possible. Someday, this government will fall, and it will be at the hands of people like me."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Do you know what the ironic thing is?" asked the prisoner. "It's that even though I'm a prisoner here, physically, it's you that's the real prisoner. Your mind is not free, as long as you work here."
Haytham stood up and pulled the prisoner by the shoulders, across the grating of the catwalk until the prisoner screamed.
"Brutality will be met with brutality," whispered the prisoner. "But I'll be nice and give you a choice."
The catwalk vibrated with the footfalls of the approaching cleaning crew and their extraction equipment.
"Tell me, how did you kill the other prisoners?"
"I didn't. I said they were volunteers."
"Unlikely," said Haytham.
"I have no information for you," said the prisoner. "I only have a choice for you. Would you like to hear it? I can see by your expression that you don't care, so I'm going to tell you anyway. Walk away from your job. Right now. Walk away. I'll give you twenty seconds."
"Why did you kill the other prisoners?"
"The other choice is that you will lose your job, involuntarily."
The cleaning crew was almost there, made up of six prison employees.
"What do you choose?" asked the prisoner.
Haytham blinked and examined the prisoner's face. Then he stood, his back stiff. He left the prisoner on the catwalk and passed the cleaning crew. He snapped down the visor of his helmet. Behind him there was an explosion. Haytham was knocked off his feet and fell to the grid of the catwalk and lay there unconscious as the other prisoners cheered.