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The Museum

The tour guide was wrong - the place had been called "The Museum" long before it was open to the public.

I listened to the tour guide, a middle-aged woman in a navy suit, as she told a group of children about the museum's oldest exhibits. Her outfit bore considerable resemblance to the wardens' uniforms of old - a look assisted by the Virginia State Penitentiary name badge she wore on her lapel. No doubt it assisted in her retelling of the museum's history, and clearly the children were enthralled by the whole affair.

I hung back a bit, keeping myself inconspicuous by pretending to study one of the museum's oldest residents - J. A. Jackson, serial killer and arsonist, a lifer. It was not the most cheerful of exhibits, but Virginia State Penitentiary had never really been intended to be pleasant.

It was the first and hence oldest in the new wave of prisons, intended to find a balanced solution to the problem of arresting people. On the one hand, no one was truly happy with the morally ambiguous approach of executing prisoners. On the other hand, everyone agreed that the prison service was expensive and inadequate.

The solution was finally discovered by science, rather than society. It was called 'mental cryonics', which made up for its descriptive inaccuracy with an easy-to-follow concept. The technique was explained as 'disconnecting the mental processes of a person while leaving the body unaffected'. Each person so sentenced was administered a complex combination of drugs, placed on a life support machine, and left in quiet contemplation inside their own head, deprived of all sensory input. Unsurprisingly, It didn't take long for the Virginia State to adopt it.

Instantly costs were reduced. No longer did a prison have to consist of sprawling buildings comprised of many wings; instead warehouses could hold hundreds of people standing side by side, all held bolt upright on metal frames. The life support equipment was minimal. The security required was minimal. There was no risk of a prisoner escaping and no risk of a prisoner being rescued - without the appropriate drugs, all you would get was a few hundred pounds of dead meat. The system was perfect.

Or, perhaps not. You see, while the person was immobile, it left the brain active. Cut-off from the world, true, but still active. The personality was left rattling around inside its skull without being able to see, hear or feel. The idea was that the prisoner would have plenty of time to gain understanding of their wrong-doing and develop the appropriate penitence. In fact, spending that much time trapped with themselves usually caused madness, not understanding. The statistics were not easy to obtain, but it was unofficially well-known that many of the prisoners, when released, were howling, gibbering wrecks; insane shells of former people. The Virginia State Penitentiary conveniently side-stepped the issue by drawing attention to how low the re-offence rate was.

Not everyone went mad though. It was possible to stay sane. The trick was to stay focussed, stay thinking. Planning was a good way to do it. Thinking and planning. It was what I did.

I watched the kids go, herded on by the tour guide. With luck they would be in the canteen when the blast came, or maybe on the bus home. I always thought it was somewhat dubious, letting kids see serial killers and muggers and rapists as a school outing, but it was the obvious next step. The first news reports of the newly-opened Virginia State Penitentiary had shown the wardens moving slowly up and down the rows of glass display cases, pausing to check the life support readout of each prisoner inside as they went, and the place had rapidly obtained the nickname of "The Museum". When they started adding lesser criminals to the building's residents, and the cost started rising again, the Virginia State took the nickname rather more literally.

It opened to the public as The Virginia State Penitentiary Museum, or, as everyone already knew it, The Museum. It was advertised as a fun and educational day out for families and school trips, with the added bonus on the side of functioning as a deterrent from crime. I doubt anyone could describe it as jolly, not when the top exhibit was the Los Angeles Subway Bomber ("See the real LA Subway Bomber! Learn how he planned his heinous crime and how the heroism of the LAPD brought him to justice!") but people flocked to see it all the same, drawn in by an overwhelming sense of the macabre. Even I came to see it, but unlike most, I was disgusted by it.

That wasn't what brought me back though. No, I would have left it alone and got on with my life like the rest of the world were it not for taxes. Who would have thought that late payment of taxes would become punishable by a minimum two-year stay in prison? And where else, but Virginia State? It was not an easy concept to deal with, but besides the trauma it offers a lot of time for planning.

I waved goodbye to J. A. Jackson, feeling sympathetic despite his history. He was probably bouncing off the walls in his head by now, or sinking deep into catatonia, neither of which seemed as humane as the prison was claimed to be. I doubted the untroubled readouts of the life support equipment actually reflected how he felt inside - but then, they were mostly just for show now anyway. The system had long since proved its reliability and no-one paid heed to the life support equipment any more. In any case, I snuck to the quiet end of the hall, away from such prestigious exhibits, and pulled a grey box out from under my coat.

The bomb was a simple design, intended to be uncomplicated and very reliable, with a very large bang. The fuse was only 30 seconds, not really enough time to get to a safe distance in any meaningful sense, but enough time to check it was set up properly without the guards being able to stop it. I laid it down next to another lifer, as far from the doors as I could reasonably get, and armed the system in full view of the security cameras. I could imagine the first of the guards rushing from their control room as the red numbers slowly ticked down: 28, 27, 26... Lacking anything else to do but stand there and wait, I gave a cheery wave to any of the security team who might still be watching the monitors as the numbers counted past 20, 19, 18...

The first of the guards came in as the numbers reached 12, 11, 10, and my own shoulder exploded red as a gun was fired on 8, 7. I fell down to meet the numbers on 6 and 5, and shrugged apologetically to the guards as they arrived on 3. On 2, I thought maybe it wasn't much, but it was the best an ex-convict could do to change the system. Then the numbers ticked down to zero before the guards' horrified faces, and briefly, everything stopped.

Then the tour guide told the people it had only recently been called "The Museum" again, and I gave the kids an extra minute to get away.

There are ways to stay sane, inside. Planning is a good one. Thinking and planning. That's what I do.

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