Today the compound was uncharacteristically silent. While Shay walked down the echoing corridor, his friends stood, faces pressed between the bars of their cells, watching him leave. The prison’s physical presence, built from the unnecessary solidity of concrete and peeling iron, had somehow become a home to him over the years.
Shay smiled. He’d entered the glare of the compound’s artificial lighting shaking; now, walking out, he was shaking again. Life ran in dizzying circles. He looked up at the faces lining the sides of the corridor and saw envy, sadness, and pity mixed equally on the faces between the dull white bars. Pity. For a man leaving the only home he knew.
The guard’s gentle pressure on his arm snapped him from his reverie. He started moving again, pacing down the two hundred and fifty five steps to the end of the wide corridor. When he reached the end, a single voice sounded behind him.
The sound slapped back and forth between the cold walls for a second before the whole prison echoed as one.
Shay stopped and turned around slowly, raising his hand in return. A salute. A blessing. A valediction.
He turned around and walked on, not looking back.
The little man sitting behind the table seemed out of place in the stark surroundings of the prison interview rooms. His hand was in his hair, pulling absentmindedly at the thinning strands. Middle aged, dressed in a brown suit that clashed energetically with his bright tie, he looked the part of prison clerk, not handler.
When Shay was led into the room, he got up, smiling brightly, and stuck out his hand.
“Mr Shay Banks? My name is Walter Mendel,” he said
Shay looked at his outstretched hand quizzically before recalling what was expected. He shook Mendel’s hand gingerly. Mendel seemed to take this as encouragement and gestured at the single metal chair opposite him.
“Please, sit, sit. We have some admin to do before you can celebrate you freedom, but that will only take a few minutes, don’t you worry!”
Shay sat down in the cold chair, eyeing Mendel suspiciously. Mendel was beaming as he pushed some documents towards Shay.
“Just have a quick read there. Nothing too complicated. Just basic release rules and formalities,” he fawned, “We all know you’ve done your time.”
Shay rubbed the paper between his thumb and forefinger. It was thick and smooth. He was surprised they still used the stuff, but he didn’t let anything show as he bent over the words. Just a small frown appearing above two tired eyes. He stopped reading and looked up, suddenly anxious.
“How much has changed?” he whispered
Mendel looked confused.
“It’s just a standard document. We give everyone one of these.”
A small smile twitched on Shay’s face before the anxiousness took over again.
“No. Outside. How much has changed outside?”
Mendel’s brow furrowed. He scratched at his balding patch.
“Weeell, it’s summer now, so the weather’s nice and sunny?” he said, seemingly at a loss, “I really don’t know what to tell you.”
Shay’s shoulders sagged.
“Tell me anything. Tell me that there’s still some place for an old man out there. Tell me I’ll still recognise something when I’m outside.”
Mendel seemed to find something amusing. Shay let his eyes drop to the table.
“I should hope so. You’ve only been in prison for about six months,” Mendel chuckled.
Shay looked up, disgusted.
“I’ve been in here for sixty years!”
Mendel looked startled, “Well, of course. That was your sentence. Can’t let you out before the sentence is done. But in the real world, only about six months have passed,” he said as his manic smile reappeared, “So everything will be as if you never left.”
Shay shuddered and shook his head. The world was reeling. He must have misunderstood.
“Wha- How? What do you mean, real world?”
“The real world. Outside the simulation. Don’t worry, It’ll take some getting used to again, but you’ll fit right in in no time.”
“Simulation?” he said, aghast.
“They really didn’t tell you? Hmm,” his pen drew little whorls on a contract as he thought, “Well, it’s quite simple, really. We copied you into this simulation to serve your sentence. Now I’m here to facilitate your return to your body.”
Shay looked at his hands, turning them over, folding the papery skin of an old man between his fingers.
“But, this is my…”
“Nah, that’s just the sim. Your body’s on ice in the real world, just waiting for you to come live in it again,” Mendel grinned.
“How does it work? I don’t remember anything.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t. That’s the beauty of it. They scan your brain and recreate it exactly in virtual space. I’m a sim too.”
Shay chewed on his lip a bit, examining his hands as if to find the flaws in his spotted skin.
“So you’re not real?”
Mendel seemed amused.
“Of course I’m real. I’m a copy of my mind state, just like you. When I’m copied back, I’ll retain all these memories, so it’s as if we’re talking in the flesh.”
“We’re copies?” the words seemed to stick in his throat, but Shay pushed through, “But, I am me. I killed those people. I remember… I’m old now.”
“Yes, you are you. But when you come back, you’ll be you in your young body again,” Mendel tried, soothingly.
“But what about the original?”
“I told you, your body’s on ice-“
“No! Not my body. The real me!” Shay leaned across the table, imploring. Mendel shifted uncomfortably.
“You are the real you. The one in your body will disappear when we copy you in again. You’ll take his place.”
Shay blanched. “You’re gonna kill me!”
“No, listen. You are you. You’re the newest version. And it’s not like he’ll know.”
“But he’s me too.”
“Look at it this way- If we told you that your soul gets magically transferred or whether we do it this way doesn’t make a difference. The end is exactly the same”
Shay’s eyes narrowed in disgust.
“No it isn’t. You’re making new people!” He sat back as something occurred to him, “You haven’t even punished the real me! I’ve rotted in my cell for sixty years while the real me is asleep outside?”
He let his face fall into his hands and drew a sobbing breath, “Sixty years!” he looked up again, unashamed at the tears in his eyes, “What happens to me in here when I’m copied again?”
Mendel drew a breath.
“Well, we’ll turn the sim off. It’ll be like waking up in your young body,”
“But it won’t be this me in the body,” Shay shook his head, “Just another copy. I’ll get a life sentence and an execution. That was never part of my punishment.”
Mendel’s brow furrowed. He started slowly, as if explaining something obvious to a child.
“But it isn’t. As long as the line of memory stays unbroken, you are the same person.”
Shay stood up abruptly. Mendel eyed him nervously.
“No. You make a copy and leave one behind. Just because there’s only one left doesn’t mean that it’s the same person.” He started walking off, but stopped himself. “I won’t go. If I must die, I will die for real.”
He started walking towards the door. Before walking back to the compound, he paused and looked at Mendel, sitting behind the desk, staring at him while absently tearing at his hair. Mendel shook his head.
“So what will you do? You can’t stay here. The sim costs money. Don’t you want to go back home?”
Shay coughed out a laugh, and started walking again.
“I am going home. To the only one I’ve ever had.”