The Tiger Who Changed His Stripes
“Prisoner number five-four-four-six-seven-one-eight-two-six, step forward.” The warden’s commanding voice boomed through the intercom even strained through a layer of static.
Thunk thunk. Two chained feet plodded forward, perfectly aligned with the weathered pair of footprints painted on the metal floor, though covering them by a few shoe sizes. Boone stood alone, save for the two guards flanking him, facing the warden. Not really facing him, of course. The warden was a voice in the intercom system, as far as any of the prisoners of the Urvasi Penal Colony knew, to be heard and not seen. The prisoners bandied whispers and rumors about their faceless warden like ghost stories, weaving a tapestry of tales wherein their unseen warden was some sort of nefarious robot or rogue AI experimenting on imprisoned test subjects, or at best, an amalgamation of recordings meant to outsource guard commands to automation.
It was a mystery none had solved, though a modest betting pool of cigarettes and canned fish seemed to favor the likelihood that he was a collection of recordings after an inmate facing a disciplinary hearing swore up and down that he had heard the warden cough. Throughout the years, which slowly stacked on top of one another like so many bricks, Boone managed to keep his senses and not fall prey to flights of fancy like whether or not the warden was some sort of shadowy tin man. Boone knew good and well that he was a man like any other – made in the image of Boone’s forgiving God. A man able to see the goodness that lay in Boone’s soul that perhaps his data file, or some kind of robot, couldn’t. Presently, the intercom housing the warden was above a pair of silvery steel double doors, which Boone craned his neck up to gaze at like a lifeguard or judge. He had never passed the doors that stood guard beneath the warden, and the very idea of being somewhere he had never been was starting to make Boone sweat.
“Prisoner number five-four-four-six-seven-one-eight-two-six, your sentenced imprisonment of fifty years – commutated to twenty-four years and six months in accordance with your continued display of exemplary compliance with Alliance institutional disciplinary rules and regulations – has expired, and you are set to be released today.”
The words rung out in his head like a bell. Sentence. Expired. Released. Feelings of warmth bubbled up from Boone’s gut, through his spine and into his brain. The warden’s speech, and the rest of the world, was sucked into a swirling vacuum, from which the only things to escape were a few scant words: Sentence. Expired. Released. His face was hot with excitement and fear, and a pressure rising in his ears made him so lightheaded that hearing most of the warden’s words became impossible. He flexed his abs as hard as he could – a trick he had learned in sim-flight school to resist passing out from G-forces – and forced blood throughout his body to keep himself upright.
He had known this day was coming for some time, having given away his personal affects and accrued snacks to the old, graying lifers well in advance, though there was little he could have done to prepare for the extremity of his feelings. He felt strangely thankful in that moment that the warden may or may not have been an unfeeling robot, as his sweating palms and weak knees seemed to warn that he might expel his breakfast onto the floor at any second.
“...In accordance with Alliance interstellar law, you are hereby registered as a felon subject to Alliance penal colony commutation protocol level five. You may not own or operate a firearm within Alliance space. You may not enter any area or event subject to Alliance Interstellar Security Level 2 or higher, such as an Allied Planets Diplomatic Embassy. You may not participate in current or future Alliance parliamentary elections. You may not decline any future Alliance communication attempts, be it through sanctioned Alliance officers in-person, audio-visual Wave transmissions through the Cortex, or through ship hailing frequencies. Failure to follow these constraints will constitute a possible breach of your release terms. Due to your previous opt-in for post-release work placement, your data has been submitted in advance to a worker’s contract auction house and is awaiting acquisition. Be advised that your identity card status as a felon subject to Alliance penal colony commutation protocol level five permanently prohibits you from seeking private sector employment by companies registered within the Union of Allied Planets outside of this and other sanctioned work contract purchase arrangements.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Boone lied, snapping back to the waking world of responses and yes-sirs.
“You will collect the belongings you arrived with in the next room. As per Alliance penal colony commutation protocol, as overseeing warden for the expiration of your sentenced imprisonment, I will now discharge you in the form of disengaging your cuffs and addressing you by your full name during a mandatory handshake.”
The doors opened with a hiss. No warning, no fanfare. There he was. Bald, bespectacled, mustached, and several heads shorter than Boone had expected, decked out in a slightly more formal version of the gray uniform he had seen countless guards wear, with dark purple epaulets on the shoulders, a badge on the center of his hat, and a little headset connecting to a microphone. There were two rows of guards flanking him on either side, and behind him, another set of double doors. No wires, no faceless robots, and no AI. Boone stepped into the room slowly, now craning his neck down to get through the doorway. It took a moment, but Boone realized that he had been in this room before. It was, in fact, the first four walls of imprisonment he had known. Which meant, on the other side of the next set of doors…
The warden's thumb met a scanner nestled between Boone’s restraints, which then disengaged with a mechanical hiss and a reverberating clank as they met the floor, with his leg cuffs disengaging in unison. The warden extended one hand, looking Boone straight in the eye.
It felt like a little bird in Boone’s. Fragile and hollow-boned, whisking him off to freedom.
“Congratulations on your rehabilitation, Len Boone. You are hereby discharged.”
“Thank you, Mr. Warden. I’m glad to see your face.”
The warden squinted at Boone for a moment, gesturing with his free hand to the door and ending their handshake, giving Boone a perplexed look that belied an otherwise authoritative presence. A guard stepped towards Boone, handing him a clear plastic parcel containing what he must have been wearing when he was first arrested. He couldn’t remember the last time he wore something that wasn’t his gray prison uniform, let alone the colorful number he saw through the plastic.
He exited through the second set of doors without so much as a “Good Luck”. The air was still thin and cold, the sky still milky white, and everything as far as he could see was still gray. And yet, it had to have been the most beautiful thing Boone had seen in years.
He checked the parcel in his hands. On top of his old clothes, there was a sheet of yellow paper with his personal info, the current date, and the worker’s contract the warden had mentioned. Boone began to give it a read, with little else to do but stand in front of the prison and shiver. Cal Strand, China Doll caught his attention, along with Contract Purchased and Pickup: DOR (Date of Release). Before Boone had a chance to read further ahead, the low roar of what sounded to be a Class 3 Firefly engine caught his attention.