Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO
MADDOX

Maddox had been here before, but it was still all new.

He could see Personnel Entry through the glass partition where the new prisoners were being herded. He'd left through that port two months ago. Now he was returning through Prisoner Intake. Definition of irony. Yellow lights flashed above the mechanical doors that began to seal of the shuttle they'd arrived on, and when they shut, it was with a heavy, metallic thud that jarred through everyone in the concrete room.

He and the other prisoners, probably forty, had been marched into the intake area by the guards and assembled into rows of three. He knew there were three automated processors. He'd watched them do their thing before, often with a detached fascination, marveling at the efficiency with which human beings became prisoners, and prisoners, in turn, became numbers.

Glancing at the line next to him, he saw the same man who had been sitting across from him on the shuttle. Thin, with wiry fingers and soft hands, and a presence that had an odd depth to it. His stance lacked the ruggedness of the other prisoners'. Everything that had made him who he was, was internal, Maddox could tell. People like that, the Razor tended to grind up first.

Still, he'd managed to keep it together during Razorfall. He hadn't cried out when the guards struck him. But Maddox had seen this place change its fair share of people. There was no way to know who the man would be after year three or four, if he survived that long, but it was certain he wouldn't resemble the person he was now.

Of course, Maddox could say the same thing about himself, couldn't he? Year three or four...

Jesus.

The line advanced. Person after person. Until Maddox and the other man were next.

A guard waited there, brandishing his club, the processor line beyond him. Like most, he wore the armored helmet, the HUD behind the viewscreen making the "eyes" glow blue. If there was recognition on the guard's part when Maddox reached him, Maddox couldn't detect it.

If not now, he thought, soon.

"Strip," crackled the guard's disturbingly amplified voice.

Maddox unbuttoned the hyperstatic suit everyone had to wear on the shuttle for landing. When he was naked, the guard motioned him forward toward the processor.

The transporter was metallic, shaped like a sled, with sections branching of from the center for the arms and legs. Maddox stepped in and winced at the cold metal on his skin. It wasn't meant to be comfortable, but nothing on the planet was. The guard strapped him to the transporter, then slapped on the head restraint. All he could do was breathe and blink, and even doing that was uncomfortable.

"Enjoy the ride," the guard said through his helmet, then struck him across the face. Maddox tasted blood as the conveyor system locked on and shuttled him forward.

Everything went dark. Strange lights flashed in his peripheral vision. He could hear screams in the distance. Curses. Weeping. The high-pitched rattling of the guards' electrified batons.

Maddox's heart pounded. He knew what was coming.

A computer monitor appeared above him, following along, lowering just inches away, until the only thing he could see was the dim reflection of his face in the dark glass.

The monitor flashed. Words scrolled.

Prisoner Intake Process, v.12.4.5
Identity confirmation scan...

From the dark, a metallic arm descended. Attached to it was a small reticle that drifted down toward his right eye.

Stare into the reticle, do not blink

Red light burned into his eye. On impulse Maddox looked away—and then jolted in pain. The sled was electrified. It stung bad.

COMPLIANCE REQUIRED
Stare into the reticle, do not blink

Maddox swallowed, did as the monitor instructed.

The red light flared again. It lasted a second, then the laser shut off.
...

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