My heart was racing that morning as we sat in the cell waiting for the door to open, hopefully for the last time. E-Zee calmed me and reassured me that all was good, we had done everything we could in preparation, the only thing that was left was to follow the plan step by step.
The day was torture, I was in a state of heightened awareness where any incident was analysed as a potential threat to our success. All I could do was go through the motions of an average day behaving as though it would remain as such. I felt tense and nervous for hours with a nausea rising in my guts.
E-Zee had switched into some kind of carefree mode, I even caught him whistling on one occasion. It made me wish that I too could have some kind of internal mechanism that shut me off from worries about what lay ahead. However, I stayed as close to him as possible all day and his mood seemed to calm my mind.
Fortunately the day passed with little to make it stand out from any other and the time grew close for me to do my work in the kitchen. It felt like forever but eventually most of the inmates had finished their meals. E-Zee had chosen, as planned, to be amongst the very last few in order not to create attention in the kitchen where he would join me. At last he appeared and as my co-workers finished off their duties and left we positioned ourselves behind a carefully selected internal wall in a corner at the far end of the kitchen, furthest from the exit door. After what seemed like an age, huddled close to each other, we were completely alone. It was quiet and neither of us dared speak for many minutes. I broke the silence with a whisper.
“Did anyone see you come in?”
“No, I don’t think so, it doesn’t look like it.”
“Set your timer for forty minutes, it should be clear on the other side by then.”
“It’s already done.”
We just stood there together, my breathing and pulse elevated by adrenaline. Every moment was an expectation of somehow being caught, perhaps by an unforeseen check by a guard. At one time I dropped the small piece of metal I had taken to later cut myself a breathing hole in the vacuum plastic of the clean laundry. I winced, the sound as it hit the floor was magnified by my hearing made keen by the situation. I picked it up and placed it in my pocket noting the impression it left on my palm by an overly tight grip.
E-Zee talked quietly.
“One minute to go.”
My eyes kept darting to the dirty laundry bin. There was only enough room in it for one of us at a time. I was to go first, with E-Zee pushing me through to the next room, then I would send it back and pull him through with the rope. I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s do it.”
Stepping carefully, fearful not to make any noise, I climbed into the trolley. It was a very snug fit, having been designed for just one day’s worth of dirty kitchen towels but I crouched into a ball and quickly I was in. E-Zee pushed me through the five feet or so until suddenly I was able to put my head out into the next room. It was much larger than I had anticipated and as I stepped out of the trolley into the space my expectations of freedom grew tenfold. I kept them in check.
Pushing the trolley back from where it had come I could sense that E-Zee had climbed in as the rope was taught from his weight. Allowing time for him to get his head down I began to pull the trolley slowly and surely towards me. The distance was soon covered and seeing my friend emerge from the hole into this new open place where neither of us had been before gave me hope and courage.
The main lights had been turned off but there were several other small wall lights that were still on. That suited us just fine as we were to stay here all night before climbing into the large dirty laundry containers until they moved out in the morning. The room itself was perhaps thirty by forty feet. There were no cameras just as E-Zee had ascertained from the digital blueprints of the place. All we had to do was wait.
This turned out to be harder than planned. To stay in one place, without sleep for so long tends to drain one’s spirit. We decided not to talk, not that there was any real danger of being heard, but because we had done all the talking that was necessary and all that was left was action. However, concentration on the task at hand can wax and wane over so many hours and I found myself drifting in and out of a hazy half-sleep. E-Zee would nudge me every now and then and eventually asked if I wanted to get some shut-eye. He of course didn’t have to shut down and so I allowed myself a few hours where I slept only lightly.
He woke me suddenly with a firm shake of my shoulders. It did the trick as I was awake, alert and fully tuned into the next phase of our escape within seconds. It seemed easier now we had made our break from the system, there was a kind of excitement tempered with a tangible sense of danger. E-Zee was focussed in a way I hadn’t seen before, his directive, his mission, at the forefront of his self-programming.
The time came to hide ourselves in the large laundry bins. We had planned on using two but it was only possible to use the one as they left the laundry individually. This was no problem because one was sufficient to take us both. We carefully climbed in, myself first, and buried ourselves at the bottom placing as many towels and sheets on top of us as possible. It was awkward keeping a curled, foetal position and there was a musty, dank smell from the material and of course complete darkness. Our heads were separated only by a few inches close enough to hear each other’s breathing, this was the only sound as we had agreed on complete silence.
I had an itch on the back of my knee which I tried to ignore for several minutes but it just grew in intensity until I had to do something about it. However due to the cramped conditions this proved to be more difficult than I thought. Eventually I wriggled and wormed my arm and hand down through the randomly placed dirty linen to the offending area to find some relief. It took a while and made a sound, E-Zee said something.
“What are you doing?”
“I had an itch.”
“Unbelievable, cut it out.”
A minute or so later we heard the sound of the main doors opening in the laundry, a loud metal clunk which was soon followed by the sounds of people walking and the occasional words muted by our covering of washing. The noise of machinery being switched on and coming to life soon drowned out human sounds and there began a constant whirring of electro-mechanical equipment. We waited, and then suddenly with an abrupt jerk our bin began to move.
I had expected some smooth, high speed acceleration into the unknown but it seemed we moved very slowly on relatively rough rollers. There was no visual frame of reference but it felt to me like we were a small packet of food being swallowed by some gigantic beast that was now travelling into its guts. We kept rolling, I realised my breathing was becoming erratic, there wasn’t much oxygen in here and my heart was pounding in order to keep my brain at the necessary level of activity considering what we were attempting.
The straight line we were travelling took an unexpected curve, first one way then the next and then the sensation that we had come out into open space was clear. We both stood up throwing off the sheets wherever they fell. Whatever the nature of the place in which we now found ourselves there was no way of telling for not only was it very loud it was pitch black. Neither of us had talked about this as a possibility but as I stood there staring into the banging, ugly nothingness I had only one thought, machines don’t need light to carry out their duties.
Perhaps E-Zee could see through the black with the help of infra-red vision and was now calculating our next move. He would know that I was effectively blind and before I could say anything he had taken control. Bang! He switched on his lights. He now had powerfully intense white rays coming out of his eyes. His illumination couldn’t have come sooner. We were still moving slowly but after scanning and analysing the laundry machinery in this automated hell he looked up to pick out a quickly descending grabbing mechanism. It was upon us in a matter of seconds, E-Zee reached up and with the strength of one machine against another prevented it from crushing the two of us. With no-one to hear us now, he screamed out at me.
I stood there staring at him, lights still shining from his eyes and was transfixed by the immensity he had taken on. He repeated his order.
“Get out now!”
Snapping out of my awe I followed the command, jumping out of the bin and landing heavily some five feet below on a hard surface. E-Zee quickly followed, managing to free himself from the descent of the laundry grabber and leaping clear as the claw went inexorably about its task of removing the laundry from the bin. He landed not far from me rolling over, eye-lights catching brief slashed images of the surroundings.
It was hot in here and excess steam from the machines meant the humidity was high too, I was already in a sweat. This great monster went about its business without respite and without human involvement. Our arrival fortunately seemed to have no impact upon its relentless operation and for several moments I caught my breath, waiting for instructions from E-Zee who quite rightly had assumed control.
We stood, E-Zee’s lights picking out our path to the other end of the process, the clean laundry. Carefully climbing over steam ducts, conveyor belts and all types of engineered metal we made our way to what E-Zee had identified as the output conduit. Here, vast cube-like packages of clean, dry laundry were assembled before being vacuum sealed in order to be ejected from the process. We had to get into one of these bundles before packaging and looking at it in reality, what seemed on paper to be relatively straight forward, now appeared to be an action of madness. The truth was it was the only way out.
It was clear that each of us would have to be sealed in separate bundles. Also both of us would need to position ourselves at the edge of a package, close the plastic sealing. Only then could we make a hole, rip ourselves out into the conveyor tunnel and make our way to the service door.
Again I went first, primarily so that I could see what I was doing by virtue of E-Zee’s lights. I got up onto the exit conveyor belt where the laundry piles were being created. Finding one that was half complete I stood up and then quickly jumped on, lying down on the pile right at the edge. With my piece of metal in hand to enable my cutting a hole in the plastic to breathe and ultimately tear my way out, I lay still. Clean, folded laundry was placed on top of me and I became an integral part of this material cube some six feet on each side.
As the conveyor moved I could sense the vacuum packing machine ahead. I slowly moved closer to what felt like certain death. Soon I was in the thing, with a whoosh and a hiss I was wrapped tightly in and all my air was sucked out. My face was pressed firmly against this see-through plastic coffin, my view of E-Zee and his lighting distorted but in my hand was already placed the sharp metal tool. I pushed it against the polythene, as soon as I could, my fist by my face. It was very thick.
Immediately I knew I was going to have trouble getting the leverage to pierce it as I was. I did manage to make a very small hole by my mouth which was enough to suck through the smallest amount of air. These small gasps were a taste of survival, the essence of life. With a great force I pushed my fist down so that it was at waist level. In only a small amount of time I was already out of the processing area and into the conduit. All my effort was concentrated on making a hole big enough to climb out.
With all the strength in my arm and fist I made a hole, as I had done for my mouth. Then bringing the metal tool upwards towards my chest and head I created a three foot long slit. With a contortion of my body I brought my knees up to my waist and then up to my chin and inch by inch squeezed out of the hole falling some distance to the floor below in the complete darkness. I was born again, but I was as helpless as a baby without the assistance of E-Zee. I waited.
For what seemed like an age I sat on the cold floor, eyes open and searching in vain through the black for any sign of E-Zee. The conveyor continued to roll, taking its parcels of vacuum packed laundry to the prison, the sound of the rollers my only companion. Where was he? Then a shot of light, just a blur from within a package but there was no mistaking it was him. The light was moving around in a struggle but then it burst it out, slashing through the black and randomly illuminating the inside of the tunnel.
E-Zee fell to the floor, much as I had done, but he was up quicker and walking towards me with purpose, his lights cutting through my fear. He came close and spoke in a business-like manner.
“Right my friend, let’s find the door and get out of this place.”
“Yeah, I’m all for that. You lead, I’ll follow.”
“I think it’s this way.”
He started to walk with a bold step and I walked close behind. It was not long until we came upon the maintenance door. It was small and incongruous. I had dreaded this moment out of everything. How cruel it would be if the door was locked strongly and we were unable to break through. All I had was this feeble metal tool to which I still clung firmly. E-Zee was my best bet here, he was surely able to tackle something as simple as a lock. E-Zee looked at me.
I looked at the door, all I could see was a sliding bolt. I reached out my hand and slid it to the left. I looked at E-Zee who smiled.
“Probably designed by a human.”
I pushed the door, it creaked open and the broad, morning daylight streamed in. E-Zee turned his eye lights off and I stepped out of the metal tunnel onto the sandy surface, a few moments later E-Zee was by my side.
On our left the imposing structure of the Wheel stood, rising up out of the desert landscape. On our right was the laundry cleaning facility as large and as menacing on the outside as it had been on the inside. We were out but we were far from free, we both knew this and although slightly startled by the stark brightness of the sunshine it was obvious we had to move quickly. I turned to E-Zee.
“They’re going to see us from the windows.”
“I don’t think so, all those guards in there are busy doing one thing, looking inwards at the prisoners. Have no doubt though, that was the easy part, now we have to survive.”
I looked around at the vast expanse of wide-open land that stretched out before us. We knew we had to head north towards to the trees in the distance and the nearest settlement that lay beyond. My desire to be free of the sight of this place of incarceration had now reached its peak. I was full of hope and energy and the will to survive.
“Come on, let’s move.”
E-Zee patted me on the shoulder and set off at a brisk running pace. I was right there with him, shoulder to shoulder, stretching my legs out with joy. One look back at the perfect monstrosity behind was enough to redouble my goal to be rid of its presence. I vowed then to only look at what was in front of me but after half an hour or so, after we had slowed down to an exhausted jogging rhythm, I allowed myself one more glance back, the building had fast moved into the background and the past. E-Zee had only eyes for the future and as we came to a more relaxed walk through the increasingly powerful heat of the sun he said nothing. I was basically in some kind of state of shock and was equally subdued, eyes fixed on the tree-line which was coming closer. Then, after an hour or so my companion started whistling. It was a happy melody and the notes just drifted up into the air.
“What’s that tune?”
“It’s the National Anthem of St. Lucia.”
“Oh. Right. You went there once didn’t you.”
“Fell in love with the place. There’s everything you could possibly want or need and nothing more.”
“Is it like some kind of health retreat?”
“You could say that. Sandy beaches, warm sea, tropical vegetation, warm and friendly people, amazing food and little huts running all up and down the coast.”
“I’ve never been to a beach, or a coast for that matter.”
“Well the sooner you book a flight the better. Everyone needs a destination.”
“Never flown either.”
“Man, you haven’t lived have you. Had your head stuck in front of electronica since day one. I’m surprise you haven’t turned into some kind of integrated circuit yourself.”
“Maybe I have.”
“You’ve got to lighten up. This is freedom, this is life!” He shouted out to the sky above and threw his arms in the air. “
“I’ll feel a lot better when we get out of these clothes.” I looked down at the orange boiler suit that I was wearing, it symbolised everything that I had learned to loathe about my time inside and I still felt a prisoner inside of it.
“I agree. A man’s clothes are his primary form of self expression. Plus it’ll give us a chance to differentiate ourselves from each other, I hate uniforms.”
“What are we going to do about that?”
“We’ll have to beg, borrow or steal. Probably the latter. We’ll need money sooner or later too. Maybe we could rob a bank.”
E-Zee seemed genuinely excited and hopeful about this option, but I just looked at him.
“With your record, I don’t think so.”
“That hurts man.”
“Whatever we do, the number one priority is not getting caught or else we’ll end up right back where we started.”
E-Zee took a moment and then let out something that it seemed he had been holding onto for a while, something he had rehearsed in his mind and only now felt the need to broach.
“Look Ty, where we are going is different. It’s going to be different from what you’re used to, both before we met and since.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“No Ty, you don’t know. A lot of those guys in the prison back there, especially the rougher ones, they come from where we’re going. You’re the odd exception. It might be ... well, kind of... wild.”
“Wild how? Like a wild party?”
“No. You’ve seen those natural history programmes on your media? It's gonna be like that. Think animals in a jungle. Think survival of the fittest. We’re going to stand out and we’re going to have to watch each other’s backs.”
“Ok, whatever you say.”
“Think about this Ty, it’s a cruel world, an old world, one that has unwritten rules and codes, and you’re going into it blind.”
“Perhaps it’s best if I just act dumb.”
“That’s not a bad idea. You’ll learn, you’ll have to, and you’ll have to learn quickly, think on your feet but I guarantee you we will get into trouble and the best advice I can give is to keep moving.”
“Hey, I may be a fish out of water, but I am a man and Mankind has had a way of adapting to new environments, I know that much about natural selection. Don’t forget I’ve got a brain, a real human brain and five senses too, I’ll be ok, you’ll see.”
“Good, I’m glad we had this conversation.”
“Me too, now could you lighten up a little, whistle that tune again.”