Prisoners

Author: David Henson

The prisoner, his shoulder burning with pain, winces the pickaxe overhead then slams it down. The crystalline surface fractures. The shards slice his hands as he loads the jagged pieces into his wheelbarrow. When he hesitates, a disembodied voice tells him to pick up the pace. The prisoner finishes filling the wagon then struggles it to a pile about 200 meters away. He dumps the load then sinks to his knees, gasping.

“You know what to do next,” the voice says, hurriedly. “You think I can spend all my time watching you?”

The prisoner braces himself with the pickaxe, pulls himself to his feet, then slams the tool into the surface, gathers up the broken pieces and wheels them back to his previous location.

“Pick up the pace,” the guard says, watching one of the control panel’s myriad of monitors. Each screen shows a prisoner working loads of shattered crystal back and forth. Suddenly a buzzer. The guard scans the monitors until he sees the culprit, a prisoner leaning on his pickaxe. Before the guard can react, another buzzer, another lollygagging prisoner. Another buzzer. Sweat beads on the guard’s forehead. His hand trembles and he looks over his shoulder at the door to his monitoring station. He needs to get the idle prisoners back to work before —

The guard’s unit manager barges into the station. “What the hell is going on in here?”

“I … I can’t keep up. Too many. I get after one, and three others start goofing off. There’s too many. Too much to do.”

“Find a way,” the unit manager says. “Or you’ll be joining them.” She claps her hands. “Pick. Up. The. Pace.”

“Yes, ma’m,” the guard says, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “Prisoner 182,” he shouts into his microphone. “Pick up the pace.”

“That’s more like it.” The unit manager steps back out into the corridor, one of many that connect the array of monitoring stations. She lowers her head, charges toward the sound of buzzers coming from down the hall … and plows into the associate warden.

“Your sector is out of control,” the associate warden says. “Sounds like a kazoo band in here.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve got a bunch of incompetent guards.” Buzzers sound from the station she just left. Then more alarms from the opposite direction.

“No excuses. Now pick up the” — A badge on the associate warden’s lapel chirps.

“Are you sleeping down there?” a voice blares from the associate warden’s badge.”

“No, warden. I’m on top of it. Sometimes I don’t think my unit managers know what they’re doing. I —”

“I don’t have time for excuses,” the warden says, a tinge of panic in her voice. “Now pick up the pace before —”

#

The former warden dumps the shards then sinks to her knees gasping for air.

“Pick up the pace,” a disembodied voice shouts.

#

The editor closes his laptop, winces back from his desk and groans.

“What’s the matter?” his wife says, massaging his neck.

“So many submissions. I move one, and three more pop into the queue. Can’t keep up. Eyes are burning. Gotta take a break.” The editor starts to stand, but his wife shoves him back down into his seat.

“I think you need to pick up the pace, Sweetie,” she says. Then looks nervously over her shoulder.

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