I knew the day was going to be different when the guard droids came carrying clothes, rather than my daily meal. I’d been naked in my cell so long, subjected to hour upon hour of “reeducation” drivel over the speakers that I had some difficulty figuring out how to put the trousers on. The shirt bunched around my breasts uncomfortably and I considered skipping it but thought better of it. As I had learned, I bowed to the guard droids when they offered the clothes, and again after they motioned me out.
What I had learned in my time in the solitary cell were three important lessons. First, don’t speak, at all. The droids don’t answer, except in electrical shocks. Second, don’t hesitate to follow orders, and don’t forget to bow, or more shocks. Third, and most important, a person who is tired enough can sleep through anything, including the sharp alarms in the middle of the night and blasting propaganda. The past few nights, it took a shock from the guards to wake me up for my dose of bullshit. Of course, I apologized profusely with a deep bow each time.
Since I had been given clothes, I guessed that I was graduating from solitary. I expected to be led to a cell, but instead found myself in a dining hall. The droid on my right pointed to the line of prisoners along the wall. I bowed to the droid and took my place at the end of the line, my eyes on the guards, ignoring the woman in front of me.
I don’t know how long we stood there in silence. Eventually, we started moving; each picking up a tray and spoon and shuffling past the small window where an automated serving spout extended. As each was served, they bowed to the machine. The lesson was clear: here, we were lower even than an automated gruel dispenser.
It was the same slop they’d fed me in solitary, but it looked like the portions might be larger. When I saw that the woman in front of me got a smaller portion than some of the others, and then I got an even smaller portion, I knew it must be tied to our “status” in the prison.
“Status confers benefits,” the voice said over the speakers, “obedience builds status, right-thinking leads to obedience.”
I found myself with my tray of slop standing in front of a table with five other women and four men. We stood, holding our trays in front of us, silent, until a chirp sounded over the speakers. As one, we set our trays on the table in front of us and sat down. At the next chirp we began eating.
A low murmur rose over the hall. It seemed that talking was allowed here. Not knowing how much time we had, I shoveled the slop in as fast as I could.
“Where did you go wrong, sister?” one of the men asked. It was a way to ask what I was in for, while using the language of reeducation.
“Brother, I…fabricated a story of abuse in the factory,” I said. I almost slipped and said exposed, but that would be a quick trip back to solitary, I was sure. “And I published that story on the public net, where rival corporations could view it.”
One of the guards had moved to a position directly behind me. It could zap me in an instant. The never-ending speeches that had played in solitary ran through my mind.
“And,” I said, “I fear there is no way to atone for my actions which have hurt the corporation, and all our brothers and sisters that make the corporation our family.”
The guard retreated to the wall. The woman next to me spoke. “Four years ago, I stole from my family. I shamed myself and my family, harming the corporation and my brothers and sisters within.” Tears began to stream down her face. “I only hope to one day atone for my greed and selfishness. My survival didn’t depend on taking a muffin from the worker’s kitchen, but I took it anyway. Can you ever forgive me?”
It was brave of her to say exactly what she stole. I was surprised that the guards didn’t zap her right away. Maybe after four years, she was considered to be rehabilitated enough to not have “wrong thoughts” in saying that.
“Sister,” the man across from me said, “we will help each other become the family the corporation needs.”
In unison, the rest of the table said, “One corporation, one family.”
“One corporation, one family,” I said, catching up by the end.
Since I had finished my gruel, eating so quickly, I took the time to look at the others around the table. I wondered how many of them were truly broken, and how many were, like me, faking it to get along.
The thought came then that any one of them could be a spy, here to report back any “wrong thoughts” to their superiors. No doubt they thought the same about me. That distrust permeated the atmosphere now that I was aware of it. I had hoped to find an ally once I was out of solitary, but that idea was now dashed.
The chime chirped again, and we all stood, holding our trays as we’d done before. Several minutes of silence passed while we waited, until it chirped again. The line to the bins by the door formed in the same order as it been coming in, where I was last in line again.
Each person set their tray and spoon in the bin to their right, then stripped naked and put their trousers and shirt in the bin to the left and stood at attention in line in front of the door. This sort of nudity was nothing new for those of us who had worked in the factories. We would leave our clothes outside, pull on coveralls as we entered the factory, and remove them again our way out at the end of the shift. The claimed reason was to maintain a clean environment, but the real reason was to avoid anyone smuggling in recording devices or smuggling out anything at all.
I could see how thin they all were. Visible ribs, collar bones, hips, and scapulas defined them all as starved or on the verge. I wondered if I looked as bad. I pushed that thought from my mind and focused on what was important in the moment: appearing as broken as they wanted me to be. There was no way I would stay in here for years, being whittled away to nothing but a drone.
My mind was made up. I would be the very model of reeducation, and once I was released, the next story I would break would be the story of this prison.
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Interesting story. I was captivated from start to finish. Well done!
Thanks, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Beautifully compelling. You gave just enough detail for me to understand what was going on, but I love that you didn't give everything away with regards to how society got to this state or what the state of the outside world was. I was absolutely riveted. Very well done!
Thank you so much for the kind words. I was worried that I might have trimmed it too far, but I guess not. (Whew!)