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"Remain calm and follow the instructions."
Laurel Cole sniffed. Calm? How can anyone about to die remain calm?
The truck's enclosure had a subtle smell ingrained into its polished steel surfaces and expanded metal grilles-a smell no amount of steam and disinfectant could remove. It was the odor of fear, of sweat tinged with a whiff of feces and vomit.
There was a shudder, a hollow thud, and the hiss of hydraulic bolts locking; the rear of the truck had coupled against the building. Overhead, the speaker continued its monotonous mantra. "Remain calm."
Laurel blinked. Although it was outside her field of vision, she knew every step to dock the vehicle against the admissions entrance of the prison complex. Shepherd had explained the procedure more than once and with the matter-of-fact tone of firsthand experience.
Do people scream? In retrospect, it had been a foolish question, but Laurel had asked her trainer-the man she knew only as "Shepherd"-anyway. He didn't know but offered a warning instead: Whoever opens his or her mouth before they're told to, or departs from instructions in any way, risks another year.
Another year? In for a penny No. Laurel checked the thought. Once you're dead, it shouldn't matter for how long: elastic time, darkness, and nothingness. But it did. How long you were dead was important, and the thought of an extra minute would be enough to drive anyone insane.
Will I dream? Another stupid question. She pushed the tips of her fingers through the wire mesh fronting her cage and narrowed her eyes as a panel behind the truck inched upward, blinding light pouring through the widening gap at its base.
"Stand away from the doors."
Laurel disentangled her fingers and pressed her back against the side of the cage. It wasn't a question of stepping back but simply leaning. Her enclosure, two feet wide and eighteen inches deep, didn't have enough space for a step. Twenty-four enclosures to a truck. Twenty-four new inmates on their way to hell.
A blue-white glare lit the truck's interior. Tiny stars shone on the wire grille, perhaps a few specks of dust. The light must be UV heavy. We don't want germs, do we? In the pen across from her own, Laurel peered at a bright orange shape. It was an old man, his shaven head glistening under the glare. Cold sweat. His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish in a bowl. Or, better still, like the face in Munch's The Scream.
A snap, and the door to her enclosure swung open smoothly on its hinges.
"Five-one-five-eight-five-three-one-six, exit your compartment. Remain calm."
How thoughtful. Ladies first. After standing in the same spot for several hours, the metal floor outside her pen felt cold. No shoes? Nerves had probably triggered her questions, since she already understood the horror, but Shepherd had answered anyway: No. No shoes. What for?
"Walk out of the truck and into the adjoining room."
Laurel stepped forward, darting a glance back at the pens, each with an orange outline inside-like gaily wrapped mummies, tucked into as many catacomb niches. "Remain calm. Stand inside the circle at the center of the room."
Behind her, she heard the truck's rear panel slide back down, its bolts ramming home. No witnesses, nothing to give the other twenty-three prisoners a clue.
"Undress and drop your clothes inside the circle."
She pulled a T-shirt over her head, tore at the strip holding the trousers around her waist, and stepped out of the cloth as it pooled around her feet. Cold. She maneuvered both feet over the garments. No underwear. No need. Warmth seeped through her soles. Her warmth, soon to wane. The room, a perfect cube perhaps ten feet by ten feet, was featureless, with white polymer walls, floor, and ceiling. No openings, no anything. It was empty but for a gray circle and a terrified, naked woman standing on orange clothes. She didn't notice when the wall facing her started to rise. The continuous floor and lack of features played tricks with her perception.
"Advance into the next room."
Although it was difficult to estimate time-there was no urgency to the process-the wretches in the truck would get a glimpse of eternity. Laurel was sure that, year or no year, some would scream. Perhaps that was the designer's idea. She stepped forward. The building probably consisted of blocks, every room a carbon copy of the previous one. No, wrong cliche. No carbon here; a snow copy.
"Walk to the center of the room and stand inside the circle."
The wall behind her must have been sliding closed, as Laurel sensed more than felt movement. She glanced at the ceiling and an approaching circular gap. The circle where she stood rose, becoming a platform.
"Remain calm. Don't move."
No. We wouldn't want me to fall, would we? I might hurt myself. When her shoulders cleared the space separating the levels, Laurel blinked. She feasted her gaze on the left-hand wall. In its center, there was a small square niche, large enough to stand a vase with a bunch of wildflowers, though there was nothing there now. On the floor, right under the niche, there was a gray semicircle. Now what? Remain calm. Walk to the semicir-
"Remain calm. Step over to the opening on the left wall and keep inside the gray area." The programmer must have felt verbose.
At the base of the niche were two trays with slimy green things inside. She leaned forward a fraction. Not trays, but slight hollows. Laurel knew what came next, and the thought filled her with dread.
"To your right are earplugs. Hold one by the larger spherical end and insert the pointed end into your left ear."
The plug felt like a blob of jelly, like the candy her mother used to make. Laurel tried to push her auburn mane out of the way and froze when her hand encountered air. There was not a hair left on her body. The blob fell to the floor and jiggled a little before coming to rest. The training had been one thing, but the reality was far more horrifying.
"Remain calm." A click, then a different voice, this time female and with a warm Hispanic lilt. "Pick it up and try again, five-one-five-eight-five-three-one-six. No punishment for the accident. The floor is sterile."
Laurel recovered the plug. The programmer hadn't recorded instructions for this eventuality. It could be her imagination, but the new voice had a whiff of humanity, assuming the fallibility of fumbling fingers. After pushing both plugs into her ears, she waited until the voice sounded inside her head. It had switched to the implant in her neck.
"Continue with the nose plugs. Hold the spherical end and insert the pointed end into your left nostril. Breathe deeply."
She held the nose plug, also green but much softer than the earpieces and long, at least three inches. It looked like a fat worm with a bloated ass. When Laurel pushed the tip into her nose, the slimy object slipped from her fingers and rammed deep into her, almost of its own accord. Then it fizzed and expanded, leaving a ball-shaped blob resting on her upper lip. She jerked her head back, panic gripping her muscles in an age-old terror. I won't be able to breathe!
"Remain calm. Repeat with your right nostril."
Calm. Calm. Calm! Her legs trembled, but she contracted her calves and bunched her toes. Almost over. Almost. With ears and nose plugged, the cold jelly feeling predictably alien, she stood motionless before the empty niche and tried to control her shortening gasps. Her tongue dried to a barky texture, like a piece of beached driftwood.
"Step into the next room."
Laurel did a quick double take. The wall to her right had vanished and now opened into another room, its center occupied by a sinuous form.
"Lie down on the bed."
Bed? Like an abstract white sculpture, the form grew seamlessly from the floor-a shape that reminded her of a sofa dreamed by a stoned avant-garde designer: a formless shiny mass dipping in its center. Laurel sat down and swung her legs over. She adjusted her anatomy to the shape, her shaking legs hampering her movements.
For once, the voice made sense.
Gradually, the bed softened. Like an enormous amoeba, the shape absorbed her body. Laurel felt a powerful suction under her buttocks as the sculpture molded to her back and limbs.
She scrunched her eyes, terrified of what she knew would follow. The bed continued to move, adjusting, rearranging, softening and hardening in places, molding to her anatomy, and robbing it of any capacity to move. Her legs flexed at her knees and rose, her body adjusting to a child-delivery position. Then her head started to sink. She opened her eyes and tried to straighten out, but her head seemed caught in a vise.
Her head continued to fall. Now her toes must be pointing to the ceiling, and her head arched back almost to her spine, her throat stretched.
Laurel rotated her eyes frantically. They were the only things she could move besides her gaping mouth, which drew in short gasps. The tips of her nose plugs tickled the back of her throat. Most would scream at this point, definitely, or at least whimper, or empty their bowels.
She detected movement on the fringe of her vision. A thick phallus-shaped green mass neared her face. She saw its tip approach her eyes and pause before the blobs projecting from her nose. This was it: the real thing, the truth. Somewhere deep in her mind, a voice screamed.
Then the hoselike object rammed past her lips and slithered down her throat, sizzling, expanding, digging deep into her.
Then the lights went out, or she passed out, or died, and Laurel didn't care anymore.