Thin Air is a science-fiction short story, as told by me, your indefatigable host, Cheeseburger Brown. (You'll be able to see Thin Air in the company of other fine sci-fi stories in an upcoming issue of Bruce Bethke's Stupefying Stories.)
News: My short story Last Words, originally published in AE, has been named a notable story of 2011 by the storySouth Million Writers Awards.
eBooks: Victoria Day Special! The Amazon Kindle edition of my novella The Automatic Marlboro will be absolutely free Monday May 21st and Tuesday May 22nd, in honour of her royally defunct majesty, Alexandrina Victoria, Empress of India and Queen of the Canadian Dominion and so forth. Download a copy today and be amused!
And now, today's short but spritely tale makes its Internetly début:
The Butcher collapsed in upon himself, they say, and thereby became the first inmate ever escaped via singularity. This is long-standing prison lore.
But it isn't true.
While the Butcher did amass a spectacular portfolio of skills over the course of his storied career he was, like the rest of us, confined to translation along only the usual spatial axes. His journey through time was invariably positive, if not always fun.
He'd been fat at trial. Grotesquely so, in fact -- the model of indulgence. But upon incarceration he took up a new regimen of self-improvement founded on rice with no meat and a dizzying number of daily jumping jacks. His viscous excesses rippled hypnotically, brokering him wide berth in the exercise yard from block gangs leery of mesmerism. "It's part of a purpose," the gang leaders whispered. "Whyever he's thinning, it fulfills some design."
They were certain. He was the Butcher! For decades his successes had defined the state of the art in interstellar crime. It was generally understood that he was among the most clever and least noble people alive. Ruthless, cunning, vain -- a Machiavellian polymath whose greed for infamy was legend.
"I renounce my ways," he swore with tears on his sagging cheeks, bowing in the prison chapel before a shimmering hologram of the Manifold Christ; "for I am reborn remembering that an iteration of the hyper-Lord shall redeem me, while quantities last, and so my soul is preapproved and my prayers trademarked in thy name. Patent pending, amen."
The chapel printed him a voucher for grace and sent him on his way. Every inmate agreed his footfalls seemed lighter as he departed up the aisle, head held high and forehead unfurrowed. Over the next weeks conversions surged.
The Butcher moved with a new deliberate slowness. He spoke softly. He drank only water and never subscribed to entertainment. When shanked in the kidney by an old competitor he merely smiled. "Brother, I forgive this," he said as he slumped.
In the prison hospital he read to the blinded. They loved him, and lamented profanely when he was declared well enough to rejoin the general population, castigating nurse and guard alike in the universal language of flaming gauze.
He took classes. He learned pottery, plumbing, and small robot repair. Thinner he became throughout.
Surveillance was total. The Butcher was watched unmentionably. His every move was scrutinized by wardens, interpreted by criminologists, simulated in a computer model, and finally filed in an underground records vault.
In time the head warden allowed the Butcher to take a job inside the prison. In this way he earned a pittance against his debt, slightly stemming the tide of the ever-rising tally that marked his every meal and flush and breath as a convict.
He took odd shifts mopping floors and injecting or extracting meals from his fellow inmates before settling into a regular position in the maintenance wing tinkering with faulty guards. The prison's robotics strategy was predicated on expensive tamper-proof brains coupled with stripped-down off-the-rack bodies. The hardware was cheap and easy to fix, the software inviolable.
Any given guard was smaller than most men, but stronger. It was lithe and skeletal, its fragility offset by cooperation: each was backed up by a cohort of hundreds.
By conscientious preventative care to stave off failures and industrious improvisation when failures did occur, the Butcher kept his keepers on their feet and snarling mean. He lavished attention on his charges. None left the maintenance wing without a freshly painted carapace and keenly sharpened instruments of discipline. In time he was awarded a certificate of achievement and some extra human rights.
The wardens watched him very, very closely. But every day there was less of him to see.
"I don't like the idea of him having access to those brains," said the most suspicious warden. "Damn the budget, there's got to be another way to keep the guards online."
"The brains are unhackable," said the head warden. "They lock right up if you so much as tickle the prompt. Keeping those hunk of junk bodies up and running -- that's where we need any help we can get. Unless it's you that wants a pay cut. Either that or fix them yourself."
The most suspicious warden glowered, but nobody thought anything of it because he always made that face.
The Butcher continued to lose weight. His head looked too large, and his stooped, bony shoulders made it look too heavy. He could be found asleep at odd hours. When encouraged to eat he merely let a smile stretch his gaunt face.
It was a crisp autumn morning when the Butcher finally disappeared into thin air.
The wardens on the monitors had become so accustomed to seeing the Butcher sleeping at his post they had fallen victim to change blindness, and therefore failed to react for over two minutes while they stared at an empty prison jumpsuit sloughing off the Butcher's chair. The head warden slammed his fist against the general alarm, dispatching guards to cover every entrance and exit. Locks banged shut. Oxygen was evacuated from the service passages. Sirens wailed. Junior wardens donned defensive exosuits and waded in among the population, tasers crackling.
It was only after lock down, during the second prisoner count, that the head warden thought to count the guards. Every brain was accounted for and secure…even the one sitting naked on a workbench in the maintenance wing. The head warden's subsequent utterance was unprintable.
The Butcher walked right out of prison.
He walked in an armour of spare parts, his emaciated limbs narrow enough to fit within the confines of the spindly, inhuman hardware. He had made himself a fainting corpse to do it, but in the end he fit. It turned out the hardest part was suppressing his own snickers as he sallied past the gatehouse.
Living on the outside he gained most of the weight back within a year.