JAMES: THE RIOTS WILL START SOON.
I can feel the tension in the air.
Everywhere I go, eyes linger too long, notes are passed, secrets are whispered.
The world is freezing. The ice is coming for us, and we are all trapped here. If we don’t get out, we’ll die here.
That’s what’s brewing: a plan to get out. That’s the good news. The bad news, frankly, is that I’m not part of the plan. No one has told me anything. I doubt they will.
There’s not much I can do about it. So I do my job and keep my head down and watch the news.
A segment from CNN is playing on the beat-up TV. The reporter’s voice is barely audible over the rumble of the machines behind me.
Snow fell in Miami for the third day in a row, breaking records and prompting the Florida government to seek federal aid.
The request sparked protests from citizens and governments across the Northeast, who have ratcheted up pressure on the federal government to increase the pace of evacuations. As the Long Winter drags on…
I don’t know who coined the term Long Winter. Maybe the media. Or government. Either way, it has stuck. People like it better than glaciation (too technical) or Ice Age (too permanent). Long Winter sounds as if the end is just around the corner-that it’s just another season, this one abnormally long. I hope that’s the case. I’m sure NOAA and its sister agencies around the world know the truth by now. If so, they haven’t told us (hence the highest news ratings this century).
An alarm buzzes.
I ignore it.
The next news segment starts. I stop working long enough to take in the setting.
Text below the scene identifies the location as the Port of Rosyth outside Edinburgh, Scotland. A male reporter with short gray hair stands on a dock, in the shadow of an enormous white cruise ship. The gangway is extended, a steady stream of people shuffling toward the ship. The trees in the distance are completely white, as if they’re frozen solid. Snow falls in sheets.
The scene behind me might look like vacationers setting off for a holiday cruise, but nothing could be further from the truth. The cruise ship you’re seeing was known as the Emerald Princess until three weeks ago, when she was purchased by His Majesty’s government and renamed the Summer Sun. It’s one of a fleet of forty such cruise ships that will temporarily evacuate residents of the UK to warmer latitudes.
The Summer Sun is set to sail to Tunisia, where passengers will be transported to a relocation camp outside Kebili. The camp is part of a longterm lease agreement between the UK and Tunisia. The move follows similar actions in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Japan. The program is reminiscent of the mass evacuation in the UK during the Second World War, when Operation Pied Piper evacuated 3.5 million civilians out of the way of the Nazi threat…
Real estate near the equator has become a hot commodity. So have several places deemed “winter havens”-places below sea level with unusually high temperatures: Death Valley in California; Al Aziziyah, Libya; Wadi Halfa, Sudan; Dasht-e Lut, Iran; Kebili, Tunisia. Two years ago, if you visited one of these places and left a barrel of gasoline open when the sun came up, it would be empty by noon. Evaporated. These used to be wastelands. Now they’re beacons of hope, oases in the Long Winter. People are pouring in by the millions, selling whatever they have to in order to buy a berth in the camps. I wonder if they’ll be safe there.
Another buzzer goes off. The same tone, different machine. Still not the alarm I’m waiting for.
When the third buzzer sounds, I collect the sheets from the three dryers and start folding them.
My job is laundry. It has been for the last two years, ever since I arrived at Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution. Like the other two thousand inmates imprisoned here, I claim my innocence. Unlike most of my fellow inmates, I am innocent.
If I’m guilty of any crime, it’s inventing something the world wasn’t ready for. An innovation that terrified them. My mistake-or crime, if you will-was not accounting for human nature. Humans are scared of what they don’t know, and they’re especially scared of new things that might change life as they know it.
The US attorney assigned to my case found an obscure law and made an example out of me. The message to other inventors was clear: we don’t want this.
I was sentenced at age thirty-one. I’ll be seventy when I get out of here. (There is no parole for federal crimes. If I behave, I’ll be released after serving eighty-five percent of my sentence.)
When I arrived at Edgefield, I devised six ways of escape. Further investigation revealed that only three were viable. Two had an extremely high rate of success. The problem became: then what? My assets were seized after the trial. Contacting my friends and family would put them in jeopardy. And the world would hunt me, probably kill me if they caught me.
So I stayed. And did the laundry. And I’ve tried to make a difference here. It’s in my nature, and I’ve learned the hard way: human nature is perhaps the only thing we can’t escape.
EVERY DAY, fewer guards show up for work.
That worries me.
I know why: the staff and guards are moving south, to the habitable zones. I don’t know if the federal government is moving them, or if they’re going on their own initiative.
A war is coming-a war for the last habitable zones on Earth. People with military and police backgrounds will be in high demand. So will correctional officers. The camps will likely resemble prisons. The government will need men and women trained in keeping order in large, confined populations. The population’s survival depends on it.
And therein lies my problem. Edgefield, South Carolina, is about halfway between Atlanta and Charleston. It’s snowing here (in August), but the glaciers haven’t reached us. The ice will be here soon, and they’ll evacuate the area. The evacuations won’t include prisoners. The truth is, the government will be hard pressed to save all the children in this country, much less the adults, and they certainly won’t be dragging prisoners with them (and definitely not across the Atlantic to the habitable zones in northern Africa). Their priority will be making sure prisoners don’t escape to follow them south and make even more trouble for an already strained government. They’ll lock us up tight in here. Or worse.
Accordingly, I’ve revived my escape plans. It seems all of my fellow inmates have too. The feeling here is like sitting down for a July Fourth fireworks show. We’re all waiting for the first explosion to go up. It’ll likely be fast and furious after that, and I doubt any of us will survive.
I need to hurry.
The door to the laundry room swings open, and a correctional officer strides in.
I don’t look up from the sheets. “Morning.”
Pedro Alvarez is one of the best correctional officers in this place, in my opinion. He’s young, honest, and doesn’t play games.
In one sense, prison has been good for me. It has been a uniquely valuable place to study human nature-which, again, was my blind spot, and the real reason I wound up in here.
I have come to believe that most correctional officers go into this line of work for one reason: power. They want to have power over others. I believe the common cause is that someone, at some point, had power over them. Therein lies a seminal truth about human nature: we desire in adulthood what we were deprived in childhood.
Pedro is an anomaly in the pattern. That drew me to him. I pursued a friendship and have extracted data points that revealed a different motivation. I know the following about him. His family-parents, brothers, and sisters-are still in Mexico. He has a wife, also aged approximately twenty-seven, and two children, both sons, five and three. And finally, I know that his wife is the sole reason he’s working here.
Pedro grew up in Michoacán, a mountainous, lawless state in Mexico where the drug cartels are judge and jury and murders are more common than traffic accidents. Pedro moved here when his wife was pregnant, because he didn’t want his children to grow up the way he had.
He began working for a landscaping crew during the day, and at night and on the weekends he studied criminal justice at Spartanburg Community College. On graduation day, he told his wife that he was joining the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Department-because he didn’t want to see this place become what Michoacán had. There is law and order here, and he wanted to keep it that way, for his children’s sake.
Another truth: parents desire for their children the things they never had.
After Pedro’s announcement, his wife got on the internet, looked up the fatality rates for police officers, and issued an ultimatum: find another profession or find another wife.
They compromised. Pedro became a corrections officer, which carried fatality stats and working hours that were acceptable to Maria Alvarez. Plus better benefits, overtime pay, pay plus twenty-five percent on Sunday, and access to the government’s hazardous duty law enforcement provision that would allow him to retire with full benefits after twenty-five years of service-right before his forty-ninth birthday. It was a good choice. At least, before the Long Winter started.
I had expected Pedro to be one of the first officers to leave this place. I figured he would head back to Mexico, where his family is, and where the habitable zones are being set up. That’s where the Canadian and American hordes will be going soon.
But instead, he’s one of the last ones here. The scientist in me wants to know why. The survivor in me needs to know why. “You draw the short straw, Pedro?” He cocks an eyebrow at me.
Pedro is about the closest thing I have to a friend in here, and I can’t help but say these next words.
“You shouldn’t be here. You, and Maria, and the kids should be heading south right now.”
He studies his boots. “I know, Doc.”
“So why are you still here?”
“Not enough seniority. Or maybe not enough friends. Or maybe both.”
He’s right: it is both. And probably because his supervisors know that he will actually fight when the riots start. In the world we live in, the best people carry the weight for others-and they get crushed first.
Pedro shrugs. “It’s above my pay grade.”
An inmate appears in the doorway and scans the room, his eyes wide, unblinking. Drugged. There’s something in his hand. His name is Marcel, and he’s generally bad news.
Marcel leaps for him, wraps a meaty arm around the guard’s midsection, traps his arms, and raises a homemade knife to Pedro’s neck.
Time seems to stand still. I’m vaguely aware of the hum of the washers and dryers, of the news blaring on. A new sensation begins, a rumbling in the distance, like thunder moving closer. Footsteps. A mob flowing through the prison’s corridors. Shouting overpowers the footsteps, but I can’t make out the words.
Pedro is struggling against Marcel’s hold.
Another inmate appears in the doorway. He’s barrel-chested, keyed up. I don’t know his name. He shouts to Marcel. “You got ‘im, Cel?”
“I got him.”
The other inmate darts away, and Marcel looks at me. “They gonna let us freeze to death in here, Doc. You know it.” He waits.
I say nothing.
Pedro grits his teeth as he tries to pull his right hand free.
“You with us, Doc?”
Pedro’s hand breaks from Marcel’s hold and flies to his side, into his pocket. I’ve never seen him use a weapon. I’m not sure he has one.
Marcel doesn’t wait to find out. He moves the knife closer to Pedro’s neck.
And I make my choice.