Shannon paces before the two airlocks at the far end of the capsule, waiting for the little lights above the door frames to shift from flashing red to solid green. Mechanical hissing and grinding escalates from the other side, the same way it has for the last hundred or so rooms, vibrating the metal flooring and tickling Shannon’s toes in her prison-issue boots. She pictures the new pods shuffling about like some sort of macabre shell game.
The lights turn green. Shannon’s brain stutters, her stomach rolls. She can’t make herself choose.
“Refusing to pick a door is not in your best interest,” says the voice of the Jailer, piped into the room through invisible speakers. “It will only add unnecessary time to your sentence. Please pick a door.”
The words come in the polite, almost cheerful default voice of the Aggrecore, the AI mindnet that governs the space station. It almost sounds like it’s grinning at her. Shannon’s irritated, anxious brain latches onto it.
“Change voice settings,” she says.
“Inmates do not have customization privileges,” it says. “Please pick a door.”
Her gut is telling her that something is different this time. Maybe there was an extra second of hydraulic hissing, or a variation in the vibrations. She tries to go back through the sequence in her memory, closing her eyes to focus.
“Please pick a door,” says the Jailer.
“Just—god dammit,” she says, waving her hands wildly. “Give me a minute.”
She scans the doors, trying to find some visible difference. Both are matte gray, peppered with rivets, and reinforced with symmetrical bands of metal. She tries to count the rivets, but she loses track of the numbers over and over again. She peers at the metal plating from various angles, looking for warping, condensation, any hint that either of them is holding back the vacuum of space.
“There is no difference in the doors,” says the Jailer, “Please pick a door.”
“I said give me a minute,” Shannon says, the words hissing through her clenched teeth.
“You must continue passing through doors. Please pick a door.”
“Yeah, but if I pick the wrong one, it will launch me into space,” Shannon says, her voice escalating into a shout. “So give me a fucking minute!”
The words echo briefly in the metal-walled pod before they disappear. In the station apartment she shared with her husband, their yelling had vibrated in the cheap light fixtures and flimsy cabinets. He would occasionally augment this by slamming a fist into the wall, adding a certain punctuation to their frequent fighting. Once, it had been enough to knock the last piece of his great-grandmother’s china, which the woman had smuggled aboard the station in the first wave of residents, off its decorative little shelf in their dinette. Of course, that had somehow only been Shannon’s fault.
“There is a chance that the door you pick will lead to your death,” says the Jailer. “Please pick a door.”
“Fine. Fuck,” she says, her voice hoarse now. “Left.”
Shannon shuts her eyes, holds her breath. Every muscle and tendon that can tense, does.
The door opens.
No rush of air, no forceful ejection, no yawning, star-flecked void. Just another room.
Shannon releases her breath, and then feels something different release from somewhere inside her gut.
She races inside, gagging, frantically scanning the pod. There’s a toilet in the corner, lid open. She rushes over and vomits the remains of her dinner into the open bowl as the door whispers closed behind her.
Shannon catches her breath while the room vibrates and the new capsules are put into place on the other side of the two new doors. She wipes the edges of her mouth with a square of toilet paper.
“Your vitals indicated a high probability of emesis.”
“What?” asks Shannon.
“We have prepared you a snack.”
Shannon takes a second to examine the rest of the pod.
“Ah. Must be bedtime,” she says, realizing at that moment how badly she needs to lie down.
Tucked against the wall, there’s the same bed as always, with the same mattress, the same scratchy blanket and the same change of clothes, but there’s a new addition this time: a small bedside table with a tall cup of water and a sandwich on a plate. The sandwich is cut into triangles, with alternating ribbons of soybutter and imitation fruit jelly glistening between layers of soft white bread.
Shannon briefly pictures a little serving drone rearranging the room, preparing and cutting the sandwich for her. It’s the most thoughtful thing someone has done for her in a very long time.
“Wow,” says Shannon. “Thanks for the sandwich.”
“You need sustenance to continue passing through the doors,” says the Jailer.
“I take it back. Fuck you,” says Shannon, grabbing the sandwich and waving it in the air. “This better not be artificial grape flavored.”
“Your preferences are in our database.”
She relishes in the sandwich, takes a long sip of water, uses the toilet, and then climbs into bed.
“Can you at least tell me,” says Shannon as she burrows under the covers, pulling the blanket as tight around her as possible, “if the other door, that last one, would have led to my death?”
“There’s a chance that the door you pick will lead to your death.”
The lights turn off.
It takes Shannon a long time to fall asleep.
Within four hours of killing her husband, Shannon had been arrested by security drones. The hearing had taken place in a small, faux-wood paneled room.
Shannon sat alone and picked at the brownish flakes of drying blood around her fingernails while several distinct Aggrecore voices updated her on the proceedings. The trial opened with pious oration about mathematical functions of chance and closed with her being sentenced to Justice Probability 3-6422A.
Her Aggrecore-partition lawyer informed her that it had successfully argued for this Justice Probability, even though the Aggrecore-partition prosecutor had initially sought Justice Probability 2-6413C.
“And is that better?” she asked numbly.
“Do you have anything to say on the matter?” asked the Aggrecore-partition Judge.
“It was sort of self defense, if that wasn’t clear.”
“Your Justice Probability reflects this.”
“Okay. Good. Thanks.”
As the strangely cheery drone guided her from the judiciary wing to the penitentiary wing, saying things like “almost there,” and “if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask,” Shannon had plenty of time to speculate about what people were saying about her. What they would say if she never came back.
Most people in the sprawling, city-sized space station thought of the airlocks as something that happened to strangers, or friends of friends. Tales of both survival and ejection were whispered in bars and coffee houses. Shannon’s late husband had survived the ordeal three times before he met a more certain fate involving her kitchen shears. Each time he came back, she had to digest the conflicting swirls of relief and resentment that warred in her stomach. She would wrap her arms around him and whisper, “I knew you’d come home.” And he would smile and say, “Yep, charges were bullshit. As always,” even as the evidence lingered in Shannon’s fading bruises.
Shannon is yanked from sleep by a single, percussive clang, ringing in the wall right next to her head. She grips the blanket like a lifeline.
“What the hell?” she says. Adrenaline wipes aside any grogginess.
Silence, save for the beating of her heart. She briefly pictures a frozen corpse crashing against the metal shell of the station, breaking into a thousand small pieces.
“What was that?” she asks.
“Please disregard.” The Jailer’s voice makes Shannon jump. “That was not a part of your sentence. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Shannon sits up and reaches for the glass of water. Her hand trembles, sloshing a bit over the rim. “You can make it up to me with a Valium.”
The Jailer does not respond.
“Okay then. Lights, please,” she says.
“There may be many doors before the next bed,” says the Jailer.
“Well, check my vitals. No way I’m falling back asleep.”
The lights flick on. The bulbs above the two airlocks are solid green.
“Please pick a door.”
Shannon gets to her feet and rubs her arms in an attempt to calm the trembling. She changes into the fresh set of clothes, then stands in front of the two airlocks.
“Right door, please.”
Shannon closes her eyes, holds her breath, braces for death. The airlock disengages. The door opens.
Shannon exhales and imagines how her late husband must have felt facing each door, picturing him standing at each precipice, tapping his foot, his face smug in the same way it had been when she had first grabbed the kitchen shears.
“Oh, what are you going to do, stab me?” he had asked, laughing.
Her respiration accelerates out of her control. The wiry muscles in her neck yank on the back of her head, constricting her scalp until it feels like her skull will burst. Through the thumping of her heartbeat in her ears, she can hear the Jailer say something about holding her breath and counting to four. Shannon hunches over and tries to catch her breath, throwing a middle finger up for the Jailer.
After a few moments, she manages to lay on the floor and sprawl her limbs out. The cool, metal floor underneath her is comforting.
Mechanical noises come and go, the pod vibrates. The ceiling seems to sway above her as her hyperventilation subsides. She hates the color. It’s the same prefab sheet metal as her apartment ceiling, with the same bleak gray finish.
“I think I need to see a doctor,” said Shannon.
“You do not need a doctor. Please pick a door.”
“You’re not a doctor.”
“Your vitals are acceptable.”
“Why do I feel like I’m dying?”
“You experienced a panic attack.”
Shannon sighs. “Can the next room have a couch, or a shower please?”
“Inmates do not have customization privileges,” says the Jailer, “and you were warned that there may be many doors before the next bed.”
“Please pick a door.”
“I don’t want to die!” Shannon yells, slamming her hands and feet against the floor like a child having a tantrum.
“There is a chance that the door you pick will lead to your death,” says the Jailer.
“I know,” whimpers Shannon.
“Please pick a door.”
Every muscle in Shannon’s body cramps at the thought of having to choose another door. She starts to cry. The tears well in her eyes slowly at first. But they accelerate, and before long, Shannon is weeping, her body spasming with the agony of utter, helpless fear.
She sputters on the floor for some time after the storm passes inside of her. Snot and tears slick her cheeks, but she doesn’t care.
Then she takes a deep breath, and the breath comes easy. She hazards a smile. The muscles of her mouth move effortlessly.
“Okay,” she says, rising to her feet.
“Please pick a door.”
Shannon keeps her eyes open this time. The airlock disengages. The door opens. Shannon does not die.
She strolls into the new pod, her muscles limber and loose, but the smile melts from her face.
The room has only one door, the light above it already green.
Shannon waits for the vibrations, for the mechanical cacophony. But there’s only silence.
“Wait… what is this?”
“Please proceed through the door.”
“But, there’s only one.”
“Yes, this is your final door.”
A shout builds in her stomach, but it loses pressure before it can erupt from her throat.
“Already?” she asks. Her voice sounds so small.
“Your sentence will be complete when you pass through this door.”
“What’s behind it?”
The Jailer does not respond.
Little twitches bubble in Shannon’s muscles, impulses to fight, to flail, to punch the walls, to turn and throw herself against the closed door behind her, but there’s nowhere to run, nobody to fight.
Well, almost nobody.
“You’re a bastard,” she says, looking up into a corner of the ceiling where she imagines the Jailer watches from. She’s surprised to find that the words come out with a chuckle.
“Your feedback has been logged,” says the Jailer.
Shannon sighs and takes a step. Her body refuses to fall into the rhythm of walking. Her subconscious won’t take over. She has to will the muscles to move. Each step is an active decision, every inch is deliberate.
Finally, she slumps her forehead against the door’s cool, uncaring metal.
“Alright,” she says, “I’m ready.”
The door opens.