Alice opened the main door on her small apartment complex, and let the small ball of fur some dared to call dog, walk out ahead of her. It was a bright and breezy day, as it usually was due to Alice’s insistence, and the sound of children’s laughter could be heard from a nearby playground. Unlike the favorable forecast, the sounds of children had the opposite of its intended calming effect. The idea of children living and playing near this horrible place made Alice ill, in spite of her knowledge that for many reasons, they could never come to any harm.
All at once, Alice felt the familiar chill run up her spine. When she first reported the sensation to the technicians, they were baffled and tried in vain for months to find an answer. Alice no longer needed one. It became clear to her that it was a deeply psychological response, a leftover gift from her primal ancestors. A warning of approaching danger set off by the quiet sounds of footfalls, a pattern of breathing, or any other signs that were too vague her conscious senses, but sent the animal parts of her brain into overload to prepare for the approach of mortal danger. Though the sensation was unsettling, she grew thankful for the warning that saved her from being startled by his usual morning greeting. “Good morning, Alice. Beautiful day.”
She turned to the voice and instantly put on her most friendly smile. “Good morning, Erik. It certainly is,” she replied, brushing her curly blonde locks behind her years. Standing on the balcony of his second-floor apartment, a mug of steaming coffee cupped between his hands, was her mark; Erik Landers. She did a quick visual evaluation of him, his face chin and neck were covered in stubble as usual, and his long greasy hair was pulled back, which was uncommon but nothing to be alarmed about. He stroked his pointed chin and said, “It always seems to be a beautiful day when I see you.” His expression had turned somber and he stared blankly at the swaying trees. Alice’s stomach dropped and she opened her mouth to speak, but his smile returned before looking down at her. “Must just be your presence.”
Alice felt equally sick at his attempted charm as she was relieved that his observation was not as ominous as it sounded. Already reaching her limit, she decided to dive right into her evaluation questions. “How’s the family?”
“Good. Everyone is happy,” he replied. Unspecific and not overly emotional. Just as the answer is meant to be.
“Watched anything good lately?”
“I’ve been watching a lot of classics lately. My favorite is Dick Van Dyke.” A wholesome family sitcom. Alice would feel tortured with such limited viewing options, but knew it was exactly the kind of content that Erik should be watching. She looked at the waving trees, and then down at the dog who was walking absentmindedly in circles at the edge of the invisible leash barrier. She twisted the dial on her belt, extending the barrier with the hope that the dog would resume normal behavior.
“It’s such a nice day. I hope you plan to go out enjoy it.,” She said without any strong emotion.
As expected, the emotion in his face faded as well, and his eyes seemed to gloss over, the sign of behavior modification kicking in. “No. I think I’ll stay in today.”
Alice smiled. “That’s too bad. Well, have a nice day anyway.” She headed for the door but Erik called out to her.
“Alice! Don’t forget your dog’s mess.” She looked back at her dog and saw that it had squatted and left a pile of brown waste lying accusingly in the center of the complex’s lawn. She rolled her eyes while she was still out of Erik’s view, then pulled the cleaning device from her belt, removing the waste from the ground and turning it back into pure energy. She marched briskly back to the door and didn’t turn when Erik gave his final goodbye. “See you soon, Alice.”
“Too soon,” she muttered. Walking to the end of the hallway, she opened her designated apartment and gave the mutt the courtesy of first entrance, for reasons she couldn’t fathom. When the door was closed the dog recognized that the façade was over and floated to its bed before shutting down. Alice looked around the unused living room for several moments before becoming frustrated. “Corey, anytime would be good.”
“Sorry, Alice,” a disembodied voice with a common British accent replied. “Stepped out for coffee.” Alice sighed and waited for the vision of the living room to fade and be replaced with the augmentation control room. Seconds later she was staring at the back of the shaved head of technician Corey Patel. He looked over his shoulder at her as she removed her leads, and smiled. “I thought you were able to bounce yourself from the simulation on your own.”
“I am, but it’s draining and not to mention dangerous. Couldn’t the coffee have waited,” she snapped back.
“Sorry. You usually take longer with him.” Alice tried to let the sound of Corey’s accent soothe her, rubbing the spots on her head where the leads had been as they always left red glossy patches on her skin. As Corey turned his chair towards her with coffee in hand, she saw that his thumb was stuck in the middle pages of a small paperback titled “Tales from the Temporal Corps.”
“I will never understand your obsession with that science-fiction drivel. The entire genre is ridiculous.”
Corey glanced down at the book and back at her before shaking his head. “And I will never understand how some people can find it ridiculous given the lives we lead. You are on an exo-planet in a prison where the criminally insane have their memories partially erased and then live out their lives in an augmented reality so convincing that they almost never figure it out. And in half an hour I’ll be leaving this plan in a spaceship with faster than light capability to go home for the holiday weekend. We’re living in science-fiction, for crying out loud!”
“But there is almost no modern science fiction, and the old stuff is ridiculous and archaic. Our barely civilized ancestors trying to take a guess at a future they couldn’t understand and got very wrong.”
“These writers influence the development of our culture and technology. It wasn’t for them, the future we now live in would be radically different. So reading and watching their stories is a way of understanding our present, and I’ll have you know, this collection of stories is widely theorized to be true stories written by an actual temporal agent.”
“Or more likely by a madman. It’s literally impossible since the book says that in our time…” She stopped cold when she realized he had an expression of terror and was covering his ears. She felt guilty both for almost spoiling the book, and for taking her bad mood out on him, an innocent bystander. “I’m sorry, Corey. I’m being really unfair.”
Corey relaxed and shrugged. “It’s okay. What has you so on edge anyway?”
Alice looked away. “I’m always on edge after dealing with Landers.”
“Not this on edge,” Corey replied, raising his eyebrows at her.
Alice sighed and leaned forward, letting her jet black hair fall to her knees. Seeing her real hair color brought a slight relief, as the blonde hair on her avatar was specifically to avoid memory association with Landers, whose preferred victims were always dark-haired women. “He was just really… creepy today.”
“How do you think I feel? I’m the one who had to dig through his uncleaned memories to build his augment program. We didn’t just have to erase recent crimes. We had to destroy most of the previous twelve years of his life and rebuild from scratch. That was one sick individual with a career’s worth of violence.”
Alice scoffed. “You keep using the word erased, but you know as well as I do that they’re only disassociated. Still lurking beneath the surface.”
“Fair enough. Do you think he’s breaking out?”
She leaned back and ran her fingers through her hair as she pondered the question. “I’ve been thinking that since I first evaluated him two years ago, but I’ve never been able to prove it.”
“Well, not the end of the worlds. The augmented reality exists so we can put away dangerous psychopaths without punishing them for being ill, and without making them any crazier in solitary confinement.”
“Landers doesn’t even qualify, in my opinion.”
Corey tilted his head. “An expert in trial set as much. Said his mind was too strong for the programming. But again, I say, so what. Even if he breaks out, he can’t bounce, and even if he could, he’s trapped in a bed in a locked pod, in a locked room of a secure facility on a shielded planet,” he replied, nearly running out of breath. “So it’s to his own benefit to continue believing his cozy little apartment is as real as they come.”
“That’s not what I meant. He’s not sick, he’s just evil.”
“Isn’t evil just a form of mental illness?”
“Isn’t most mental illness just arbitrarily defined as behavior that’s socially unacceptable?”
Corey threw his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “It’s no fun debating you. You’re smarter than me. It’s not a fair fight,” he said with an ear to ear grin, turning back to his holographic computer display.
Alice stood from her chair and rested a hand on his shoulder while playfully rubbing his head. “I’m not smarter than you, I just understand people brains, and you understand computer brains. I’m still not ruling out the possibility that you have a computer brain.”
“Ha-ha, thanks for that.”
“I’m just messing with you.”
“I know.” Alice squeezed his shoulder and started away, but Corey turned after. “Alice… You’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t think much of the binary confinement program. So, why did you take a job as an evaluator?”
“You’ve avoided this question for two years, but you keep making it relevant.”
Alice gritted her teeth and took the seat next to him. “You are here for the incident that made my job necessary, right?”
Corey cringed, and for good reason. Before evaluators were put in place, the technicians usually programed the augmented reality for each prisoner, and never dealt with them again. After a decade of the program being in operation, it was discovered during an inspection tour that a serial child rapist named Jeffrey Dugger had discovered the artificial nature of his environment, and figured out how to program a stream of virtual victims. The public outrage nearly destroyed the program, but after new fail-safes, stronger behavior modifications, and evaluators being hired to determine if a prisoner is breaking out, the program continued.
“Yeah. I was here. I had to erase the assaults he committed in the program, and couldn’t sleep for weeks.”
“Well, you had to deal with the virtual victims. My sister was one of his real-world victims.”
Corey’s jaw fell open. “I’m so sorry.”
Alice took a deep breath to gather her composure. “When news about the Dugger scandal broke, we tried to keep it from my sister, but it couldn’t be done. She started spiraling out of control and eventually ended her own life. So that’s why I‘m here. I have no one left, but I can keep monsters like Dugger and Landers from turning this program into their own sick playgrounds.”
Corey struggled to find an appropriate response, but settled on, “that makes sense.”
“I’m glad you understand,” she said with another squeeze of his shoulder. “I think I’ll go work on my last report. By the way, can you please fix the dog program before you leave? It almost blew my cover.”
“Sure thing. Doing anything fun this weekend?”
She turned back to him and tilted her head. “Corey, I’m from Earth, remember?”
“Ah, yes. So Sovereignty Day is less a day of celebration than worldwide embarrassment for you.”
“Couldn’t have put it better myself. The Civil War is not something we Solanites like to think about. Have a good weekend, Corey.” Alice left the room and Corey stared after her for a moment before returning to his work.
Two hours later, Alice was rubbing the fatigue from her eyes as they darted between her report, a freeze-frame from her most recent encounter with Landers, and the program code from the same. All three were screaming at her that something was terribly wrong, but she knew from experience that the administrators wouldn’t see it. She leaned back and glanced around her cluttered office, contemplating what it revealed about herself. The walls were plastered with printouts from old news articles, wanted bulletins, and court transcripts, all related to Landers. Her office looked like a shrine to the man she so despised, and Landers was only one of 20 prisoners she was responsible for. Maybe I’m the crazy one, she thought.
Scrolling to the bottom of the report, she reluctantly deleted the final line, “recommend removal from program,” as the baseless recommendation could damage her own career. She bundled the three documents and transmitted them to the Davinson Corrections Department and the Owen territory Justice Department where Landers was captured, tried and convicted for his crimes.
Alice was preparing to shut down her computer when she noticed a message was waiting for her. She accessed the message and the smiling face of Corey appeared hovering over her desk. “Hey, Alice. Didn’t want to interrupt your paperwork so I left you a message instead. I finished fixing the dog script so it won’t act so oddly when it idles. Didn’t have time to tie it into your evaluator avatar, but I can take care of it before you come in on Tuesday… Or you can do it if you need an excuse to delay going home. See you next week.”
Alice silently celebrated and turned off her computer before sprinting to the augmentation control room. Spinning the chair around, she plopped happily into the seat and prepared the computer to tie the new script into her avatar program. Something stopped her cold. A feeling of dread ran from the base of her skull to her toes like her blood had turned to ice and was leaking down her back from some unfelt hole in her skin. Once again, her animal brain was processing information her conscious mind had ignored.
She slowly scanned the room for the thing. The obscure piece of sensory data that had put her on edge. On the back wall she found it. The wall was merely a backdrop for a large holographic display, which at a glance would appear to be a repeating tile pattern of the same images. Half of the tiles were live video feeds of the hundreds of prisoners in binary confinement, most of them sleeping in their identical bedrooms. Beside each of these video feeds was a stream of code showing the inner workings of the simulations and the actions of the prisoners within.
Two consecutive tiles on the display couldn’t have been more conspicuous. What should have been a video display was a black square with red text that read “Monitor lost.” Next to that tile, the coding spanned halfway down before ending abruptly. When she read the name above the displays, her worst fear was confirmed. The system had lost contact with one Erik Landers.
There was a brief disconnect between her brain and her motor functions as she stumbled out of the room. Reaching the door she broke into a run, her heart beating so fast that she was sure would burst from her chest. She felt like an eternity had passed by the time she crashed through the pod room observation to area door. As a close behind her she was cast into darkness, left only with the blinking lights on the pods visible through the observation window. She fumbled her hands across the wall and found the switch for the pod room lights, revealing a room that looked eerily like it was filled from wall-to-wall with corpses, like an open cemetery with the seemingly lifeless bodies resting in the pods.
A relative sense of relief fell over her as it became clear that none of the prisoners had left their slumber, but the feeling was short-lived as she realized that something still had to be done about Landers, and she didn’t know where to start. She made her way back to the control room and pulled up the last segments of the code and video from Lander’s simulation. Her technical expertise was limited, but even she could tell that it was no glitch that caused the loss of monitoring. Little nuances in the code made it clear that parameters had been intentionally altered, and the system alarms had been turned off.
She pulled up the last minutes of video and furled her brow as she watched what seemed to be a static image of Landers sitting in his living room armchair. Leaning closer she could see the rise and fall of his chest, confirming that the video had not frozen. Her face was inches from the holographic image, watching the emotionless profile of his face when suddenly, he spoke. “Good morning, Alice. Beautiful day,” he said with a smile and turned to look directly into her eyes.
Her heart leapt into her throat, and by the time her shock had subsided, the image had gone blank, reaching the point where the monitoring program had been shut off. Deciding that she had dealt with enough on her own, she pulled up the prison’s communication software to report on the situation. The software came up without issue, but the effort was futile. The tachyon antenna had been disabled, and every attempt to reactivate it was blocked.
Panic began to set in as she realized that Landers had gone well beyond simply breaking the spell of his virtual prison. He had already broken into other systems in the prisons network. Seeing no other option but escape, she jumped from the chair and headed for the door, but had yet to step through it when blaring klaxons stopped her in her tracks.
The darkened hallway was flooded with rotating blue lights. Emergency lockdown, she thought. He’s trapped me here. She tried to control her breathing, but Landers horror show had just begun. One by one every tile on the holographic display began to resemble his own. The video feeds went blank and the live code stopped dead, casting the room into near-total darkness. For a long moment, all she could hear was the sound of her own labored breathing, but it was soon drowned out by a chorus of bloodcurdling screams that came with surprising clarity from the pod room down the hall.
Landers had disconnected every prisoner from the simulation, and they had suddenly found themselves strapped into a pod with wires and tubes running from their bodies, when just moments before they had been comfortable in their own homes. Though they were all guilty of horrible crimes, their screams of terror and anguish cut Alice to her very soul. It was an experience she could scarcely imagine, but knew it was one no human being should ever go through. She collapsed against the doorway, trying to block out the screams with her hands, and choked back her sobs as she tried to will herself awake from the living nightmare she was experiencing.
All at once, she had a moment of clarity. With her limited knowledge of programming she was powerless to stop him from the outside. But inside the program he was vulnerable. Finally able to push her emotions aside, she straightened up and activated her avatar with a delay of 60 seconds. She was relieved to find it was one thing he hadn’t thought to lock her out of. Carefully and calmly she donned the leads and leaned back into the augment chair. She closed her eyes and waited for the screams to be drowned out by the sensory information fed to her by the computer.
The chorus of screaming died out as expected, but Alice was surprised to discover that one scream remained. It was distant first, but gradually came closer through the blinding white light. Something about the voice behind the scream seemed familiar to her. The voice was her own, but she didn’t feel like she was screaming, or understand why. At the moment of this realization, the pain came, and she understood. A searing heat seemed to start from the center of her brain, stretching out to meet the leads attached to her skin. Her scream caught in her throat, a wet sensation in her nose and mouth overwhelmed her with the smell and taste of iron.
When the pain passed, the blinding light was replaced with absolute darkness, but Alice found comfort in the cool surface under. She gathered her strength and pushed herself off the floor as the darkness was split open by a flash of lightning. Unable to glean much from the brief illumination she turned her attention to herself and immediately knew that something was wrong. Every sensation she was feeling was too intense; the cold draft that kissed her neck, the sound of the rain and thunder outside, and the smell of old paint and mildew that assaulted her nostrils. It all lacked the usual numb artificial feeling she was used to when in program. It all felt entirely genuine. But what truly terrified her was the realization that the hair plastered to her sweaty brow was its natural color. Landers had even overridden her own avatar.
Another flash of lightning brought her attention back to her surroundings, and she saw that she was at the end of a long hallway, a bare wall on one side, and barred doors lining the other. With great effort she willed herself forward towards the faint outline of the nearest intersecting halls. “The weather was always so nice during our past encounters, but that was just part of the illusion, wasn’t it,” Landers voice came from behind her. She turned on her heels prepared to defend herself, but another flash of lightning revealed nothing but the empty hall.
She continued forward until reaching the intersection and was relieved to find a hall with a few flickering overhead lights. Aside from the comparatively improved lighting, the hallway was identical to the former; barred cells facing a bare wall with peeling paint. All of these cells were occupied, in the loosest sense of the word. They all looked to be on the verge of starvation, wallowing in their own filth, and some could barely be considered alive at all.
The building itself and the bars on the cells look like relics from the early 20th century, and aged by decades of neglect, but the digital biometric scanners that sealed the cells stood out in sharp contrast. Examining a prisoner as she walked into a darker part of the hall, her foot caught on something soft and heavy, nearly sending her face first to the floor. The lump let out a soft growl that gradually grew in volume and viciousness. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the white four-legged form of her own avatar’s dog. It was at least four times its normal size, and its coat was mangled and dirty, but Alice found it unmistakably familiar.
She slowly stepped backwards, never removing her gaze from his feral eyes reflecting the dim lighting from behind her, except to steal a glance at the razor sharp teeth in its frothing maw. The beast lurched forward, and Alice turned away breaking into a desperate run. She only made it 20 yards before the animal’s unnatural speed closed the gap, painfully digging his teeth into her Achilles tendon.
She fell to the floor with a dull thud and rolled onto her back just in time to block the fatal bite to her neck. Holding back her cries of pain, she sacrificed her hands to the shredding to protect the vital artery. For a moment, she felt a sense of hopelessness wash over her, and considered the possibility that she was only prolonging her suffering and delaying the inevitable, but that moment passed when she made eye contact with the vicious creature. She had a sudden sense of equality with the beast, and her human emotion gave way to animal instinct. Her right hand found purchase on the dog’s throat, and the other managed to wrap around its snout as it clamped down on thin air.
The excruciating pain from her flesh was dulled by adrenaline and in one fluid twisting motion, she snapped the dog’s neck. There was a loud crack, and a sharp whimper as its body turned from intense rigidness to deadweight. Alice’s heavy breathing faded seamlessly into gasping sobs. She propped herself against the wall, rocking back and forth, carefully keeping her torn hands from contact with any surface. Not even the stench of the dog voiding its bladder shook her from her breakdown as she contemplated the little piece of her soul she had lost to the violent act.
It was a sound that finally brought her out of her self-loathing. An outdated and uncommon sound in the human world, but just familiar enough to bring her back into reality. She forced herself up from the floor and followed it to a nearby office, gritting her teeth as she wrapped her hand around the door handle. As she entered, she scanned the quiet room and found that the sound was emanating from antique handheld communication device.
She couldn’t contemplate what it could mean in the context of her situation, but a combination of curiosity and the overwhelming desire to make some sort of progress drove her to remove it from its base. Imitating something she had seen in old movies, she pressed the upper half of the device against her ear. “Hello?”
“Is this Alice? Alice Ridgel?” The voice was strange to her, but gave her an unexplainable sense of comfort.
“Who is this?”
“My name is agent Robert Cisco, and the first thing I need to do, Alice, is calm down.” She reflexively scoffed. “It’s not a suggestion. Your vitals are of the charts. If you don’t calm down, it will kill you.”
Alice’s eyes widened as she processed what he meant. “But that could only happen if-“
“That’s right. Landers set a trap for you, and you’re fully integrated into the system. You’re not an evaluator right now. You’re a prisoner.”
“I had a feeling. Well, I’ve bounced myself out of simulation before.”
“No! If you try to bounce when you’re buried this deep in the system it will cook your brain.”
Alice thought about debating the issue, but immediately knew he was right. “How are you even contacting me? He shut off the tachyon antenna.”
“I’m on a ship, headed your way. We boosted the signal directly into the prison network. The tricky part is finding a script in the program we could use to talk to you.”
“Look, if you’re on a ship headed for me, all I have to do is wait for you to show up, right?”
Robert exhaled slowly, as if bracing himself to deliver bad news. “Alice, we don’t have the luxury of time here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Landers set this trap for you so he would have time to break into the prisons primary systems. He’s trying to bring down the defenses and have a team break him out physically.”
“How is that even possible? He had no way of knowing where he would end up when he was arrested.”
“Alice, I need you to listen to me very carefully. Do not underestimate Landers. He’s extremely intelligent, more so than we can even accurately measure. He hides his intelligence so that people will keep their guard down, but he is dangerously clever. That’s why he was able to break out, program this trap for you, and even fool you into thinking the behavior controls were still in place.”
“How long has he actually been out?”
“At least a week. Meaning he was already out when you evaluated him earlier today.”
Alice felt a pang of guilt, but pushed it aside. “What do I need to do?”
“The bottom line is we need you out of the simulation. Luckily he only had time to make three limited programs for you. To get out of each program and on to the next you should just have to meet the endgame script requirements for each.”
“How do I find that?”
“It would help if I knew where you were. Do you recognize anything about your surroundings?”
Alice looked around the office for more clues. A calendar adorned the wall with the image of a scantily clad model holding a military style rifle over her shoulder. Alice recognized the gun as a style that was especially popular during the third world war. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw the month and year on the lower half of the calendar; April 2039.
“I’m in a prison of some kind, in the mid twenty-first century. But it looks really old.”
“It must be Mansfield.”
“It’s a prison in Ohio, the United States at the time. It was originally shut down in the late 20th century, but just before the decade of hell it was hastily updated and re-opened because of the high demand for prisons.”
“I know all that. I grew up not far from there. What I mean is, why would he send me here?”
“It’s a long story, but suffice to say, Landers has a strong connection with that prison. Now, the code says the exit programs titled ‘one-twenty-one.’ Does that number mean anything to you?”
Alice slammed her elbows on to the top of the desk as she sat down, releasing her breath in a heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I-“ she stopped when something on the computer monitor caught her eye. It appeared to be a display of the cells on that cellblock. Each color coded in green indicating that all cells were locked. Her current location in the office was clearly marked at the midway point of the hall containing cells 100 through 150. “It could be a cell number.”
“You may be right,” he said, an air of dread wafting from every tone.
The unexplainable comfort she found in his voice was battling her fear of what he may be hiding, and for the moment was winning out. “What do I need to do?”
“First thing’s first. Go to the cell and bring the phone with you. I’ll ring you again if anything stirs.”
She heard him disconnect and suddenly felt empty. In the simulation it was difficult to accurately determine the passage of time, but Alice knew it was at least 10 minutes before she gathered the courage to leave her chair. Aside from stepping over the dog’s corpse, which seemed to already be in an advanced state of decay, her trek down the hall was sluggish and non-linear. Every crack of thunder and drip of water through the leaking ceiling turned her on her heels, expecting a new threat at any moment.
She nearly walked past cell 121 before she spotted the fading numbers in cheap paint above the doors. The cell was mostly darkened, but in the dim light from the hall she could make out the form of a petite woman sprawled on the bed. Alice leaned against the bars for a closer look and the clatter shook the woman from her sleep. The surprise on her face turned to mortal terror in an instant. Sobbing, she leapt from the bed and pinned herself into the corner behind the toilet, seemingly bracing herself for an attack by Alice.
She could tell the woman, or rather the girl, had once been very pretty. However long her stay had been, she had not slept soundly since her first night. Her eyes were baggy and bloodshot, darting from side to side as she watched Alice in un-abating fear. The phone handset rang, nearly causing Alice to drop it. She clumsily pressed the answer button and held it to her face.
“Alice. Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here. I’m… I’m at cell one-twenty-one.”
“It looks like the exit program activated as soon as you arrived. Now it just needs input from you. What do you see?”
“A young girl. I guess at the time she would’ve been considered Hispanic. She’s cowering in the back of the cell like she thinks I’m going to hurt her.” Robert’s only response was a defeated side. “Robert, it’s time to come clean. You know more than you’re saying.”
“You’re right, Alice. I had a feeling about this the minute I knew the program was a re-creation of Mansfield.”
“The connection between Landers and Mansfield is a man named Lance Cavin. He was a serial killer active before and during the decade of hell.”
“Never heard of him. Was he a prisoner here?”
“No. The reason you’ve never heard of him is because he was a law enforcement officer during a time when the government was already dealing with widespread mistrust of police officers. By the time his crimes, secret trial and execution came to light, it was too late for a scandal. He started out as a corrections officer, then joined a police department in northern Ohio, and finally became a Fed in the United States when Ohio seceded. By the time he was found out he had taken at least one victim in each of the 31 states. He’s Landers’ inspiration, and the reason he was aiming for one victim in every colony.”
“What does all this have to do with my situation?”
“The girl you’re looking at his 17-year-old Alexandra Gutiérrez.” He seemed to struggle to continue. “She was Cavin’s first victim, and it’s obvious at this point that to exit this part of the program you have to re-create the crime.”
Alice recoiled from the bars and pulled the phone away from her face, covering her mouth to hold in the scream that welled up inside her. She could hear Robert’s muted voice calling her from the handset and reluctantly returned it to her ear. “I can’t do that.”
“That’s what Landers is counting on. He knows this will be too traumatic for you. And even if you pass this hurdle, the rest will be even worse. He’s trying to trap you here so he has time to make his escape. But you can do this! You know that none of this is real. That is not the real Alexandra. It’s a bunch of ones and zeros creating an image in your brain. She’s just a program.”
Alice pressed her face against the bars letting the cool metal soothe her for a while. She considered, for a moment, finding an empty cell and hiding there till the cavalry came. But she opened her eyes and saw something strange in Alexandra’s face. She wasn’t so unlike her sister before she had died, and that strangely, is what brought back her resolve. She had joined as an evaluator to save victims and their families, just like her sister, from seeing the people that tore their lives apart enjoying themselves in their own virtual play land. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she let a serial killer free to do physical damage. “How did she die?”
“No one cared to investigate the method, but she was found strangled to death.”
Alice held back the urge to vomit, and pushed the image of her sister far from her head. “How do I get into the cell?”
“It looks like your avatar was loaded with new biometrics. Just try the lock.”
Alice pressed her thumb onto the biometric scanner and waited for the ping, followed by the display changing from red to green. The name “Cavin, Lance” appeared briefly on the screen. That explains a lot, she thought. She slid the bars open and Alexandra’s terror intensified. She tried to scream, but months of the same falling on deaf ears had left her voice destroyed, and only a raspy croak escaped her lips.
Alice was determined, but still had difficulty seeing through her tear soaked eyelashes. She scanned the room for the weapon that may have been used, and found only the thin, moth-eaten bedsheet. She slowly removed it from the bed, then berated herself for the futile, and potentially dangerous stalling. She twisted the sheet into a makeshift rope and approached Alexandra. “I’m so sorry,” Alice gasped, and wrapped the sheet around Alexandra’s neck, twisting the two ends together to close her victim’s airway.
She had hoped that Landers didn’t have time to program the fine details. That Alexandra would peacefully accept her fate. But it fought back with all the fervor of a real person with a strong will survive. Alice sobbed as she endured kicks and scratches, but somehow managed to keep her airway closed. The look in Alexandra’s eyes reminded Alice of the dog’s. Feral and instinctive. As her motor functions began to fail her, and the life slipped from her body, they return to their human form and Alice could feel Alexandra’s soul begging for an explanation. Alice broke into tears and collapsed onto Alexandra’s lifeless shoulder. A breeze on her neck brought her attention back to her environment. Alexandra was gone, replaced with a silver bark tree. The prison and all other remnants of her previous situation were gone as well.
She appeared to be in a deep wooded area at mid fall. Brilliant shades of orange, red, and gray, littered the floor, but still adorned most of the trees. She could hear the rush of a nearby waterfall and its consequential river. A voice suddenly called to her from the trees. “Alice, can you hear me?” She looked around, but couldn’t see any living thing except a small blue finch. She furled her brow and stared at it, wondering if that was the source. The bird opened its mouth and Robert’s voice escaped again. “Alice, are you there?”
“Yes, Robert. I’m here. Why are you a bird?”
“It was the only audio enabled program I could find. Where are you?”
Alice looked around again. “I’m in the woods somewhere. There’s a waterfall nearby, and it’s autumn here.”
“That doesn’t really tell me much.”
Alice looked all around her for more clues about her location, finding nothing but more trees. Then, she turned her eyes to the sky and found the one discerning feature of this place. It was the first time she had realized that it was night, and the woods were being illuminated by two full moons. “There are two moons here. One red and one blue. Does that ring any bells?”
“Sounds like you’re on Cherokee in the Wyandot system .”
“The Native Americans’ new home world?”
“One of them. But most importantly, it’s where Landers took HIS first victim.”
Alice closed her eyes. “I remember now. He chased her to a river and stabbed her death before letting her float downstream.”
“Then you know what you have to do. Good luck.”
The bird suddenly gave a confused look at its surroundings and flew away. Out of the corner of her eye, Alice caught the glint of moonlight from a nearby tree. As she went towards it, she could make out the bone handle, and the blade that reflected the moon’s beams her way from where it was lodged in the tree. She pulled the knife and gripped it tightly as she gathered resolve for her next task.
She made her way towards the sound of the river, trying to do so quietly, but it was a futile effort as every step seem to scatter one creature or another. When she found the river she was overlooking it from a short stone Cliff. A small dirt trail to the side led to the river bank, and she could see faint footprints in the moist dirt. Following them down, she found that they were lost on a rock slab under the cliff. Fearing that she had no way to track the exit program, she was entirely unprepared when a figure leaped on top of her from the small cave formed by the river in the cliff.
The blade nearly pierced her own gut as she fell to the ground. She heaved the form off of her, and they both jumped to their feet ready to defend themselves. Staring her in the eye was a young Arapaho girl, and Alice guiltily realized that she couldn’t remember her name. She had become so obsessed with Landers himself that she had forgotten the name of every one of his victims.
Having lost the element of surprise, the girl turned to run and with only a moment’s hesitation, Alice followed. They made it 30 yards down the river bank before Alice closed the gap, reaching for the girls back and causing her to trip. The girls had slammed into a rock with a sickening crack, and fell motionless onto the edge of the bank. Alice crouched over her, feeling for a pulse. She was alive, but out cold. Alice heaved a sigh of relief that this killing wouldn’t be as brutal as last. She raised the blade above her head and took a deep breath before driving the blade into the girl’s heart. It hit its mark with a wet thud, and her body lurched briefly before going limp.
Alice let her body roll off the rock and into the river current, watching it float away till the moonlight was too dim to see any further. With one blink, she was transported to another location. She found herself standing in a public space transport. The seats were empty and the craft was landed, the engines off. She looked out the viewports and saw a small town spaceport that appeared as deserted as the ship. Birmingham station, she thought.
A holographic screen near the exit activated, and the face of a light haired man with pointed features appeared. “Robert?”
“Yes, Alice. It’s good to see you. Do you know where you are?”
Alice was transfixed by his face. Something about it, like his voice, was calming and strangely familiar. She shook her head to bring her mind back into focus. “I’m on Owen. Birmingham Spaceport.”
“So, you know what is supposed to happen?” Alice nodded. She had read all the articles and watch all the video footage of this famous event. How Tamsyn Harper had tracked him down to this flight, bought out the seats so it would be empty, and cornered him in the station. Landers’ last stand. “You’re almost out, Alice. Get through this simulation, and we can bounce you out.”
Alice nodded and turned towards the door, feeling none of the apprehension she had in the previous simulations. She opened the hatch and stepped onto the empty platform, un-holstering the energy pistol that appeared on her hip, already set to a lethal power level. Glancing in both directions, she sprinted across platform to a dark alcove. Moments later she heard a vehicle arrive outside the station, followed by boots on the cobblestone walkway. As they approached she could hear an angry female voice, shouting something about being late. Tamsyn Harper was the first to come into view, leading with the aging energy pistol that was synonymous with her persona, aimed at the now empty transport.
She was followed by her posse and one federal marshal, all carrying rifles. The posse fanned out without removing their eyes from the open hatch. One of the men stepped directly in front of Alice’s alcove with his back to her. She recognized his profile from the video footage and jumped to action, wrapping her arm around his neck and placing the muzzle of the pistol against his head. Before he could even react, Tamsyn rounded on them, and the rest of the team, confused, followed her lead
The following moments were an indiscernible chorus of shouting as she backed away with her human shield. She wasn’t surprised when she ran into the locked gate on the far side of platform, having anticipated it from memory. What did shock her was when the same malicious smile that had adorned Landers’ face that day, crept across her lips. Without hesitation she squeezed the trigger, blowing his brains out onto the platform. The second his body dropped, Tamsyn and her posse opened fire simultaneously with low energy blasts, overloading her nervous system and knocking her unconscious.
When she opened her eyes, it was to black oblivion. No sound or light reached her senses, and even gravity seemed unable to reach her there. “Alice?” The disembodied voice seemed to come from nowhere, existing only in her head.
“Robert?” She knew she had said it, but it sounded muted and far away.
“We’re having some trouble bouncing you from the system. Just hold tight for now.”
“How close is Landers to getting free?”
“Very. But there’s nothing we can do about it so you’re out.”
“How close is your ship?”
“Still half an hour away.”
Alice was confused. Even with the loss of time perception in the simulation, she was sure she had been there for at least an hour. More than enough time for someone to reach Altair from anywhere in the territory, and perhaps even the quadrant. She pushed the thought aside as it seemed to haze over in her mind. “Could you send me to where he is?”
There was a long pause. “For what reason?”
“If I can’t get out to stop him, I can try to stop him in here.”
“That’s extremely dangerous. Most of his simulations for you weren’t designed to kill you, but if he gets his hands on you directly, you could die.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Another long pause. “If you’re sure.”
Alice blinked and her senses were overwhelmed with new information. She was standing in a large room, the floor appeared to be made of white panels and the sound when she shifted her weight suggested there was a hollow space below. Rows of black cages lined the room, and inside each was multitude of blinking lights and the sound of spinning fans. It was an old computer server room.
At the other end of the room was a table, covered in various tools used for computer hardware work. Landers was staring at a server stack with pulled wires hanging like straw from a bird’s nest. She approached and a shifting panel drew his attention to her. His mild surprise was quickly overcome by his usual sickening smile.
“I guess my program worked a little too well.”
“What do you mean? I made it through, didn’t I.”
“Not those programs. I meant for you to complete those.” He turned on one of the old-fashioned computer monitors in the face of Robert Cisco appeared. “I meant this one. I figured his voice might be too hard to recognize after all these years, but I assumed you would figure it out when you saw his face.”
“He’s not a program. He’s a federal agent, coming to stop you from breaking out.”
“Now, Alice. I programmed him to say that.” He paused for a moment with an expectant look on his face, but was disappointed when she said nothing. “Come on. I pulled him from your own memories. No one is coming. No one even knows that I broke out or that you’re in danger.”
Alice stared at Robert’s face again, and a memory flashed through her mind. Her sister lying on the couch as Robert Cisco calmly spoke to her, notepad on his lap. “Henry Wolff.”
“That’s right, Alice. Well done. Henry Wolff. Your sister’s shrink. The one who dragged your sister out of her trauma after Dugger was done playing with her. He was supposed to convince you to run my fun little simulations, but obviously he was programed so well that he became convinced of his own existence, and couldn’t deny your request to come here.”
Alice stared coldly into Landers’ eyes for a long moment before speaking. “Where is here?” The question seemed to come from someone else. The cold and uncaring tones that carried the words didn’t seem to match the terror that she should have been feeling.
Landers shrugged and returned to his work. “Nowhere special. This is just how I see the prison’s mainframe.” He stopped and turned to her again. “I thought maybe you would get that now. To control computer from the inside you have to understand visual metaphor. Just like a myth. You see, anyone can tell a story, but a myth is an art form all its own. A myth speaks to us all on a biological level. It allows us to understand the world around us, and how animals like us exist within it. It transcends our egocentric lives.”
“Is that why you put me through all of this?”
“Yes. I knew that if you stepped into my shoes, you would understand. Serial killers are the great underappreciated myths. They become legends in their own time, painting themselves onto the fabric of society. The greatest tragedy was how Lance Cavin, probably the most artistic serial killer in human history, was doomed into obscurity.” He stared off into space for a moment, seemingly in morning for his lost hero. “Oh well. A victim of the politics of his time, I suppose. So many people were dying in his time, even a serial killer wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows. But I’ve been mining your brain since you first came to Altair prison. I knew that you could learn to appreciate the mind of a cold-blooded killer.”
Alice leaned on the table and stared into its cold metal surface, smiled. “You’re right. I do understand how you think now. But you’re not an underappreciated hero. You’re not a master over the human condition. You’re an animal. And now…” She looked into his eyes, not allowing the smile to falter “So am I!”
Without looking, she gripped a screwdriver that Landers had left on the table, and with one swift, unflinching motion, rammed it into the side of his neck. His expression turned to horror and surprise, as his last breath brought a spray of blood. It splashed across her face, but didn’t cause her to flinch, and she even found herself taking pleasure in watching the life slip from his body. When he collapsed, the environment began to disintegrate, glowing at the edges like burning paper blowing in the wind. When it could hold her no longer, she fell through oblivion.
Her eyes had been closed for what felt like an eternity, when she felt an odd sensation; the rush of water over her skin. She opened her eyes and had to shield them from the sun, sitting high in a crystal clear blue sky. She was on her back in a shallow stream, the water so temperate that she could scarcely tell where it ended, and her skin began. She looked to her side of the river bank, and what she saw filled her with a relief she thought she would never feel again. To most, that riverbank will would have been nondescript, but to her it was the most familiar sight in the universe. It was a small stream that diverted from the Mohican River near her childhood home.
There was a figure standing on the bank, and when her eyes came into focus, she shot up to meet the smiling face of Corey Patel. But there was a sadness behind his curled lips, one that she may not have recognized on any other day. Today, saw behind human emotion, to the animal beneath.
“Corey. You came back. What made you come back?”
“Alice, it’s been days.”
Alice furled her brow. “Well then bounce me out. Why am I still linked in?”
His smile faltered and he stared at his feet. “Alice, I’m not sure how to tell you this, but Landers set a trap.”
“You have no idea Corey. But I already beat all of them. Landers is not a threat anymore, to anyone.”
“I don’t mean the simulations. He wanted to make sure that once you got in, you couldn’t get out. The second the program activated, it fried the synapses that connect your nervous system to the sensory parts of your brain, and rewired them to only accept signals from the leads.” He seemed extremely uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this very well. You were always the human brain expert.”
“No, Corey. I think I understand what you mean. I can only sense what’s sent to me from the program. If you unplugged me, I would essentially be brain dead.”
Corey nodded, still unable to look her in the eyes. “You saved a lot of lives by stopping him. So it wasn’t hard to convince the admins to give you what you deserve.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?”
“I can erase the memories of what he made you do, and we can put you in a pod. So you can live out your life here, where you grew up. I can program your mother and sister, alive and well.” He finally forced himself to look into her eyes. “If that’s what you want.”
Alice stared absentmindedly at the rushing water for a moment. She knew that she should be upset. Even wanted to be upset. But, after everything she had been through, she felt disconnected from her own emotions. Landers had successfully turned her into an animal, just like himself. The only salvation from this fate, would be to accept Corey’s proposal. “Under one condition.”
“Of course. Anything.”
“You have to write something else into the program. I know that I can never remember I worked for the prison, or the immersion won’t work. But, you have to write in some reason for you to visit sometimes. Find another reason for us to be friends.”
Corey’s eyes watered, but he managed to crack a smile. “I’d like that.”
“So would I,” Alice said with a half-hearted smile, offering her hand to him.He took it, and pulled her out of the water. She wrapped her arm around his elbow and placed her head on his shoulder, and they walked that way all the way to Alice’s new home.
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