Ryan burst into the cell.
“Hey, man! I got that old relic of a computer in the storeroom working at last!”
Nick’s voice came muffled from under the book that covered his face. The battered spine resting on his nose read “How to Stand Tall among Your Peers“.
“You would never guess what its hard disk is crammed full of! Games!”
“Yeah. Real old ones. Like the ones we used to play as kids. It’s even got stuff like Pacman! Man, that must be from before we were even born!”
Nick sat up and flung the book away.
“Well, let’s go see. I swear I’ll go mad if I read any more of Fatso’s books!”
Marauding aliens, racing cars, snakes, hidden mines, cards–the computer had them all. Primitive, but after ten months in the fully-automated detention facility, even a mosquito would have been entertaining, had there been any. Before long, they were hooked.
“I would love to see that fat bugger’s face when he sees what we’ve been up to,” said Ryan.
He mimicked the jail superintendent.
“Be good boys now. Eat your greens. No fighting. Don’t die on me, mind you, you will rot here for months before anyone finds out. Everything in this state-of-the-art facility is on the blink. Everything except the means of putting the shit we give you in at one end and getting it out the other. Truth be told, the only reason you are here is because I’m filling my bloody pockets, pretending to be running a fully-functional facility.”
Nick burst out laughing.
“Good for you the CCTV doesn’t work,” he said.
Ryan grinned, glad that the old camaraderie had been magically resurrected. They immersed themselves in an orgy of games, pausing only for meals. And they stopped noticing that the menu never once changed. At night, they were reacquainted with sleep. For a while, it seemed like their sentence would pass in a breeze.
The computer stared back at them impassively.
“All of them?” said Nick, incredulously.
“‘Fraid so,” muttered Ryan. “They were probably installed together.”
And one more.
The hours seemed pinned to torture racks.
Ryan tried to resurrect some of the computers in the activity room. But they were all beyond repair–destroyed years ago by angry inmates when internet access was removed following some unsavoury incidents involving some of their virtual avatars.
“Now, you’ve got just each other for company, I’m afraid,” the jail superintendent had smirked when he had taken Nick and Ryan into custody. “And that isn’t saying much. But don’t worry. Luckily for you, I am a big believer in uplifting literature. I’ll lend you my own collection.”
By the looks of it, ten generations of his family had spent their lifetimes collecting self-help and spiritual books. The very sight of them now drove Nick into a wild fury. On the tenth day, he pinned Ryan against the wall.
“I can’t take this any more,” he shouted.
“Let go of me!”
They stood glaring at each other, their chests heaving. Ryan was the first to look away.
“Well, there is one thing we can try,” he said. “It just occurred to me. As a kid I could afford only trial versions of software and when something like this happened, I would simply set the system date back a bit and the software would work again. It only worked for some of the really ancient software though. Companies soon wisened up…”
“Well, cut out the CS001 lecture and try it, for heaven’s sake. God knows this stuff is old enough.”
Ryan switched on the computer. Nick paced as the storeroom filled with the increasingly desperate sounds of Ryan pounding on the keyboard.
“Well?” said Nick.
Ryan turned slowly to face him. Behind him, the computer screen was blue and empty. Nick raised his brows menacingly.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing! Nothing at all. I swear! I just changed the date, and the whole system crashed. Look, it’s an old system… Nick! Nick!”
The computer lay mangled on the floor amidst the broken wood of the table by the time Nick gained some semblance of control over his temper.
“Serves the bitch right,” he said in a calm voice. “I’m hungry.”
Ryan followed him out without a word.
The bio-sensor at the entrance of the dining area beeped.
“Prisoner number 1109,” a hidden speaker intoned. “You will complete your sentence in…”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Nick. “You don’t have to tell me every day.”
“…ten years, four months and six days.”
Nick whirled around and stared at the sensor.
“Ten years! I’m outta here in four months, man!”
A look of realization came over Ryan’s face and it was rapidly replaced by fear.
Nick’s eyes narrowed into dangerous slits.
“What is it now?” he demanded, grabbing Ryan by the collar. “Tell me!”
“I… I set the system date of that wretched computer back by ten years. S…somehow, it must have changed the date of the whole damned system…Wait, wait, now, Nick. Don’t get mad. We’ll figure it out.”
“I am not serving ten years in this shit-hole!”
“We have to let them know of the error,” said Ryan, desperately. “We could start a fire! That’s bound to attract attention.”
“Yeah? And how do you do that? It’s bloody impossible to start a fire here.”
Nick kicked a chair in fury, sending it crashing into the wall.
“Calm down!” cried Ryan. “Let’s not panic. Someone out there must know that we are due out in four months! Even if they don’t, Fatso and his chaps are due for a visit in a couple of months. We can tell them then.”
Nick looked at him doubtfully.
“You’re right, man,” he admitted after a while.
Ryan hid his relief. They went up to the food delivery machine. Yet another bio-sensor blinked.
“Request denied,” said the machine, sternly. “Food rations for the afternoon of the eighth of May, 2010 have already been delivered.”
Vrinda Baliga lives in Bangalore, India, with her husband and pre-schooler son. She enjoys writing short fiction. Her work has previously been published in Cezanne’s Carrot.