The Soul Cage
Nina Tala was jolted awake by an all-consuming agony unlike anything she’d known in her long years as a murderous criminal. Her muscular limbs shot out with stone-like rigidness. Every nerve ending flamed as if set afire by molten lava. Her black eyes bulged and stared unseeing from her scarred Native American features toward the ceiling of her detention cell. Her contorted mouth of uneven teeth gaped open in a silent scream. She couldn’t breathe. In a convulsive fit, she was thrown off her sleeping slab onto the frigid floor.
Abruptly the agony stopped. Nina’s muscles loosened, still burning with the overdose of lactic acid. She trembled with sweaty exhaustion. Nina was terrified as the memory of her pain jabbed at her confused mind like a shocking prod.
“Inmate 28, move to the teleportation device,” said a sexless voice, menacing in its lack of emotions.
Nina drew in great gasps of life-giving air. As her dark eyes and mind began to clear, she found herself on a polished white floor on her hands and knees. She gazed down through her tangled black hair. She had vomited some unremembered meal between her scarred hands. Wiping her cracked and bleeding lips, she struggled to concentrate her thoughts. She remained confused about her whereabouts. It was as if her brain had just received a massive electrical shock.
“Inmate 28, move to the teleportation device,” repeated the mechanical voice from unseen speakers.
“Where . . . where am I?” Nina whispered, reverting to her native Chippewa tongue. She struggled to stand on her shaking legs and bare feet.
She fought to remember anything since being taken from her death-row cell at Dehoco Prison in New Detroit. She recalled signing something that pardoned her death sentence if she participated in a dangerous scientific experiment. She remembered her terror as the butcher of a prison doctor installed her brain implants to control her murderous personality. Dimly, Nina realized these implants were the cause of her current agony.
Again intense pain shot through Nina’s body, slamming her back to the floor. She began to flop about as her body convulsed uncontrollably. Just as Nina felt she was about to pass into blissful unconsciousness, the pain abruptly stopped. She lay terrified on the cold floor, heaving for breath. Her muscles felt exhausted and as useless as wet noodles.
“To avoid further pain move to the teleportation device,” said the voice from overhead. Nina was surprised that the voice now spoke in her native tongue.
“Anything,” Nina gasped between breaths. She painfully rolled onto her belly. “No more pain.”
Nina struggled to her hands and knees, her arms and legs trembling with effort and fear. She became aware of the foul stench of caged animals mixing with the smell of her sweat and vomit. She heard the muffled sounds of barking dogs and screeching monkeys coming from behind the white cell wall on her left.
“Move out of your cell and to your right,” said the voice.
Nina dared to glance up between the strands of her sweaty hair. She was in a tiny cell that opened into a small, elaborately equipped and brightly lit laboratory. The lab was crammed with bio-testing equipment, two gleaming examination tables complete with dissection bots, and a three-meter-tall computer tower. The immense black computer appeared ominous in its silent dominance.
The lab was meticulously clean, yet terrifyingly devoid of anyone who might be sympathetic to her deadly situation. She realized with breathless terror that the sexless voice was coming from the computer that dominated the center of the lab. It was obvious that the monstrous machine was controlling her implants. She was at the mercy of this unemotional mound of circuits that had the ability to make her suffer a horrible death.
“I’m moving,” Nina whispered, afraid the computer would start her torture again.
Nina painfully groaned and fought to get to her feet. Her legs were shaking so badly she almost collapsed. As she slowly shuffled into the cold, sterile lab, she noticed she was bare-chested with only a synthetic tan cloth wrapped around her angel-wing-tattooed pelvis. She had no recollection of how she had gotten dressed this way or who had dressed her.
“Move into the teleportation device on your right,” directed the computer.
Nina turned slowly to her right, feeling as frail and weak as a terrified old woman. Her never-say-die attitude and vicious tendencies had evaporated in her torture. As she moved forward, she saw the lab open to the large plush office of a top, yet frugal, executive. The office was sparsely furnished. It contained little more than a huge, real-oak desk, a few hover chairs, and some cheap abstract art adorning the light-colored walls. She spied an unguarded door and an elevator across the office, yet she didn’t even contemplate an escape.
An uncaring late afternoon sun peered through a picture window to her left. Nina saw she was high atop a tall building overlooking New Detroit and the deep brown waters of Lake Huron. She gazed longingly but briefly at what she figured was her last glimpse at freedom before moving on.
Nina painfully shuffled onto the synthetic turf of the office, confused as she searched for the teleportation device. She turned to the right. Her already rapidly pounding heart leaped into her constricted throat. A metallic person-shaped device stood waiting in the right corner by another door. It was huge, sinister in appearance. The front was open like the yawning black hole of a toothless mouth waiting to devour its next victim.
Even from this distance, Nina smelled the odor of charred flesh and death-filled decay emanating from the opening. The whole device oozed black evil. Nina could faintly hear the sound of voices coming from the opening. They sounded like the whispers of ghosts inviting her to join them in death.
“No!” Nina yelled. Terror renewed her strength and defiance. “You’ll never get me in that thing!”
Pain briefly electrified Nina’s mind and body like a lightning strike. It mercilessly drove her to her knees before it stopped.
“Enter the teleportation device or die” said the computer. The computer made this threat without malice, but Nina knew its intentions were deadly real.
“If I enter that thing, will I live?” Nina asked timidly, with the hopeful naiveté of a child expecting a reprieve from a spiteful parent.
“I promise,” the computer said
Can a computer lie? Nina wondered. It didn’t matter. She knew she was defeated without the strength or will to fight. Her pardon was a farce. Her long-awaited, often-desired death sentence was about to be carried out. She slowly crawled toward the teleporter, like a whimpering child. Her heart pounded wildly. Her body shook violently with fear at what death would bring.
Nina reached the teleporter and grasped the edge of the cold metal opening with both hands. She weakly hauled herself to her feet and held on to the evil device, not trusting her legs to support her. Without further thought, she stepped into the black interior of the teleporter. She leaned against its charred back, and slowly heaved her trembling limbs into its arm and leg supports. A violent shiver ran through her body at the cold creepiness of its metal against her bare sweaty flesh.
The heavy metallic door slammed closed like a death trap. Nina was pinned immobile in complete darkness. In her blind terror, the ghostly whispers became strikingly clear and real.
She awoke in a total void of mind, mass and space. Her mental energies were electrified with consuming panic. There was no light. She had no concept of who she was or who she had been. She had an instinctive memory of her body, but she couldn’t feel or see it. She had no senses.
“Who am I?” she asked the darkness. She realized she had spoken in her mind. There was no sound, no sensation, in her voice.
“You are a spirit,” said a deep male voice, as if in her thoughts. “You are the mental essence of your former self.”
Abruptly, her mind exploded in a chaos of screaming, raging voices. There were so many, she found them hard to understand. Some voices yelled obscenities and warred with the others. Other voices cried in great sorrow and pleaded for forgiveness.
“Where am I?” she screamed above her mental barrage.
“In Hell!” laughed the male voice insanely.
“Jiro, what’s wrong?” the young and beautiful Penelope Preston asked. She casually strolled across the penthouse suite of the Yamamoto Tech Building on the island of Michigan. “It’s after eight-thirty, and everyone’s downstairs waiting for you to return so they can celebrate with the guest of honor.”
She tossed back her long blond mane and gazed down with expressive blue-gray eyes at the diminutive, gray-haired Dr. Jiro Yamamoto. He continued to stare unseeingly out the dark penthouse window high above the subdued skyline of New Detroit. Outside, beyond the transparent radiation dome, lightning from a passing electrical storm flickered over the gorged post-flood waters of Lake Huron. He didn’t respond or turn around. Penelope thought Jiro appeared pensive and rigid. He was lost in his own mental struggles even though the beat of the bot-band and the ongoing party could clearly be heard from one floor below.
The office was ablaze with light as if to dispel any shadows and reveal any monsters lurking in the corners. Penelope anxiously glanced around to discover the cause of the old man’s apprehension.
The huge office was amazingly sparse, with only a large, real-oak desk against the far light-colored wall. There were a few hover chairs for entertaining guests and some inexpensive abstract art placed on the walls as if as an afterthought. In the far corner was the huge teleportation device itself—the true measure of Jiro’s great success. None of the personal and expensive luxuries of a man of Jiro’s wealth and power were evident.
Penelope smiled as she realized that the office was a mirror of Jiro’s personality. He was a simple man, a scientific genius, but without the vanity or desire for power over others. She saw nothing unusual to justify Jiro’s rigid fears.
“Jiro,” she said tenderly. She gently touched him on the sleeve of the white lab garment that protected his party attire.
“Ah!” Jiro cried out with a high-pitched scream. He leaped back with an expression of open-mouth terror as if he were under attack. For a moment, Jiro’s fearful dark eyes stared at Penelope as though she were some horrible monster. Then they softened in recognition. He glanced away with embarrassment while breathing heavily and clutching at his chest.
“Jiro, what’s wrong?” Penelope asked with frightened concern. “You’ve been jumpy for weeks.” She was afraid to reach out and touch him again.
“Ah, Penelope, my love,” Jiro said breathlessly. He turned to face her with a sad expression in his dark almond-shaped eyes and wrinkled Japanese features. “I fear that this celebration could be the signing of my death warrant. I fear we are making a terrible mistake by creating this organic teleporter.”
“How can you say that?” she asked with surprise. “When it’s announced that your experiments are near completion, you’ll be heralded as the greatest scientist of all time.”
“Will I?” Jiro asked, turning back to the window and the flickering lightning beyond. “I fear that General Stenwood and the military already suspect the real reason for our experiments. What will they do with us when they discover the truth? This invention could mean the death of millions in the hands of the wrong people.”
“No one can predict the future,” Penelope said in a quiet voice. “Think of all the potential of a working teleporter. It can eliminate human disease. Save the time, lives, and materials wasted in intergalactic travel. The world, the galaxy, will be brought together in peace. You’ll be thought of as a savior.”
“Will I?” Jiro asked again. “When Manchu invented the reflected space solar ray a hundred-years ago, everyone called him a savior too. But after terrorists used the ray to burn holes in our ozone layer and started an intense greenhouse effect that killed billions of people, Manchu was remembered as a notorious mass murderer.”
“But look at the good that eventually came from the devastation,” Penelope said optimistically. “The world came together in a combined effort to save the human race. Country boundaries disappeared. Ancient hatreds were forgotten and ten communal states were formed in economic unity. The problems of overpopulation were solved. Food became plentiful again. World peace is a reality for the first time in modern history, and they say the atmosphere is almost back to normal. Surely the military won’t forget these lessons and can be trusted to use the teleporter for peace.”
“What about Stein’s engine that broke through the time-space continuum?” Jiro continued with tension in his voice. “The military used the technology to create a fleet of intergalactic warships to search Alpha Centauri for a new Earth. When they discovered that Yarv-3 was suitable for human occupation, they invaded the planet in a bloody eleven-year war that annihilated the Yarv civilization. The list goes on, Penelope. Men can’t be trusted with a tool as powerful as this teleporter.”