I watched the pigeons gather on the roof across the way, white, grey, black, brown, a rainbow of foul huddling on corrugated rooftop, flitting here and there. I often imagined them chatting, speaking as they hopped along on legs too thin to convey their bodies. Sometimes they would take flight, circle around the group as if to demonstrate they could, only to land moments later among the flock. Flight was always temporary, everyone had to come back down eventually.
The door to the main corridor opened and I turned from the tiny barred window to watch whatever entertainment was arriving. My cellmate was almost oblivious to the break in our monotony. Cray-zee sat as he always did, facing away from the bars, gazing into the white oblivion that was our perfectly polished walls. He lived in a world that no one else could see, never talked, never joked, but no one was fool enough to mess with him either. Some people claimed it was an act, but I had been shacked up with Zee for six months and I knew it was genuine. I knew because I was the only one in whole damn place who ever heard him talk, but I’ll get to that.
“Attention prison block 453D, prepare for a new arrival. Step back from your cells. Prepare for a new arrival.” The voice that played over the loud speak was computerized, not that you would know it. She had a soft and plain-spoken voice, the kind you would find in the girl next door. The inmates had nicknamed her the RILF. You know, Robot I’d Like to… well you get the idea. Some guys often fantasized about it, computer or no computer, the nights in a cell could get lonely, well figuratively speaking anyway.
All the inmates knew they were never truly alone, and as I stepped up to the bars to watch the show I kept a wary eye on the floating metal ball that hung above my own little piece of the world. A floating eyeball, never blinking, never ceasing. It monitored everything that went on, body temperature, heart rates, the integrity of the cell walls. It was more than just an eye, it was a judge, a jury, and even an executioner. It was God, and like the Almighty it was more than ready to strike down the wicked with an array of tasers, gas, and other nasty surprises.
The entire cage could even be electrocuted. So, I stayed as far away from the bars as I could, even as I tried to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. Zee, of course, never even glanced back.
It was the ominous heavy thuds of the tank-like prison droid that first drew my attention. Like a mix between a linebacker and a refrigerator it moved slowly, walking heavily in the wake of the prisoner it was herding. A thud both, loud and muffled, clanging like a heart beat as it methodically moved down the block. No one was going to mess with it, especially not the kid it was leading in.
I recognized him, of course. He was a repeater, most of them were. In the joint for a year or two, then back out on the street for six months only to be back in their cell before Christmas. Jackson was his name, but that’s not what everyone called him. He was skinny, with shifty eyes, skin as dark as night. He walked with a cocky swagger, like someone who thought they were tougher than they were. I knew he was wrong, and he was going to find out soon enough. The robots were good but the system had blind spots, and every prisoner knew the dark zones. They knew where business could be conducted away from the eyes of our digital overlords.
Some thought that those blind spots were intentional, part of some psychology game that the bots used to keep us inline. I don’t know anything about that kind of botshit, but I do know that if you were a man like Jackson, you made sure to avoid the dark zones at all costs.
“You’re dead, Twig,” said a familiar face from the cell across the way. “I still owe you from the last time.” The bold speaker had a swastika tattooed on his neck, marking his affiliation.
“Unlawful threat detected,” said the RILF. “This is your final warning.”
“He didn’t mean nuthin by it,” said his cellmate, some kid younger than the rest of us, with skin as black as Twig’s. Part of me almost felt sorry. He was new and had no idea what was in store for him, but he would learn quick enough.
“Initiate punishment protocols,” The air hummed, signing with electricity. The plates inside the walls of the prison cell exploded to life and both men screamed as the electricity pulsed through their body.
I had only experienced the shock once, years before. It kept me from being knifed by my cellmate, but it also burnt off most of my arm hairs and left me walking funny for a week. Humane was the word they called it, but really it all just seemed like a cruel joke.
The black kid was the first to rise, mistake number two. “Remain calm,” said the pleasant sounding female computer voice. The small floating eyeball opened up and fired off a dark projectile. It pierced the kid’s skin, and he dropped again, convulsing on the ground.
His roommate started laughing. I knew the man, he was a sick son of a bitch named Freddie. He was the kind of person who enjoyed causing pain in others.
“Alright,” said the black kid, “I’m calm.” He never moved, still it was a mistake.
“Remain calm, please.” More volts of electricity and the kid flopped around like a fish out water. The big white man next to him only laughed that much harder.
I looked down at the swastika tattooed on my own wrist. I didn’t really hate the blacks or Hispanics, hell my own cellmate was a darkie, and Zee seemed like a nice enough guy. I mean at least he never bothered me. I joined the brotherhood for protection. Everyday there seemed like there were more of them than us. The damn prison was so filled with their kind that sometimes it felt like Africa in here.
When I returned my gaze to the scene beyond the bars, I met eyes with Twig. I never had a problem with the man. We even shared a cigarette on an occasion or two. He liked to talk, about his kids, his ex-wife, his mama, his homies, anything. He just liked the sound of his own voice, and I never hated the company. It was all that talking that did him in. He had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and now the Brotherhood had a bullseye on his back.
We shared the briefest of looks, but in that moment I knew what he was planning. All the cocksure attitude was just swagger. We both knew he’d be dead before the end of the week. In his eyes I saw his decision, maybe even before he did.
He ran. The door to the cellblock was still open and he took off. He ran for his life, but not in the way you probably think.
“Prisoner 45-678, halt your forward progress.” That was the only warning Twig would get. He was gone from my sight, the walls of my cell blocking my view. Some people were yelling, egging him on or begging him to stop. Then there was more sounds, the pulse of electricity, burning flesh, and ionized ozone, as men convulsed on the floors, like the kid across the way. The world erupted in yells and screams, but it all stopped with the gunshot.
Even the cries of pain died away as the walls of our small block echoed with the thunder of that shot. Suicide by bot, they called it. I just called it dumb, and for a moment I was in another place and another time.
Hands bound above my head as two robot cops, RoPo, bound them tight. The contents of a cash register were sprawled out in front of me. It was barely a grand, hardly worth anything. It scattered in the rain after I had been dropped by the taser. My partner, Eddy, was just looking at me from where he lay on the ground, blood falling from a gash in his head. The scarlet streaked by rain drops ran down his face like paint on ebony. It was the same look as Twig. The same shared moment. It was his third offense.
I shook my head but he stood and reached inside his pocket. He had no weapon, neither of us did. Two idiot kids from the same block in Queens. We could barely afford beer let alone a gun. Two shots rang out that night. The RoPo were quick and precise. They never missed and their pre-programmed reflexes were faster than any human. I watched my best friend as he crumpled to the pavement, rain washing away the blood and again I met his eyes, this time they were dead and cold. Suicide by bot.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” The voice was raspy and quiet. I didn’t even realize it was Zee till I turned around and found him looking at me. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“What was it supposed to be like, old man?” My eyes felt cloudy and I turned away.
“I designed them. I designed them all.” When I turned back in shock he was still staring at me with a look on his face I could no longer understand. “I designed the system.
“After all the riots, and the shootings, and the killings. We thought that if we took the human element out it would get better. People were racist. It is part of who we are, but not machines, not droids. They are cold and follow the facts, but it didn’t get better, at least not for people who look like me.” He examined his own hand as if seeing it for the time. He was lighter skinned but still darker than me.
“Yeah, so what the hell happened?” I knew he was right, it was hard not to see it. Nothing had changed from the time of flesh and blood prison guards and flesh and blood cops. The bots always seemed to go easier on guys that looked like me, less shocks, more warnings, and swifter punishment for anyone who messed with us. It was a sort of unwritten rule that not many people spoke about.
Zee was ranting, getting louder. “We were wrong. It wasn’t the people that were the problem. It was the system. We forgot. The bots are just machines. We forgot that they were not without prejudice, because we are not. They may be machines, but they are our machines, programmed by flawed creatures created in a system that began before you or I were ever born.”
“Remain calm,” said the RILF, her voice booming in our cell. “This is your final warning.”
Zee just nodded as if he expected it, but he continued anyway. “We thought that if we fixed the man we would fix the system, but you can’t change the man until you change the system. We forgot.”
“Initiate punishment protocols.”