Expendable Expenditure – a short story illustrated by Simon Cope

Warden Mullryne chewed on the end of a long pencil that looked almost as dated as he did aboard the gleaming orbital prison.

He was short, stocky, and had a face that wouldn’t have looked out of place among the six thousand inmates housed in The Octopus’ tentacles.

The Octopus was actually a misnomer, as it had only five ‘tentacles’ – Wings A-E – and they elongated down from a squashed oval head. Mullryne had often commented that the facility had the appearance of a giant jellyfish swimming away from earth, rather than an octopus. However, ‘The Jellyfish’ didn’t sound like the appropriate name for the home of mankind’s most deadly and evil offspring.

“Well, Mullryne?” asked the man sat in the warden’s own high-backed leather chair. Tall and thin with a smile and demeanor that made him instantly dislikable, the man’s one-piece astro-wear was as close to power-dressing as possible.

Mullryne resumed his pacing backwards and forwards across a small section of the rooms’ perfectly clean and shiny metal floor while the thin man sat in the (wardens’) chair. Above them was a vast metallic-glass window showing them the heavens, for they were in the room at the tip of the Octopus’s ‘head’.

“Governor Traskin,” Mullryne said, and stopped his march to look up at the full moon overhead. “I realize that cuts are needed to run your-“

“This facility is hemorrhaging money!” Traskin snapped. “As a government investment this has been an unmitigated disaster. It is making the president and his party look like money-wasting fools!”

“’And his party.’” stated Mullryne, looking Traskin straight in the eye.

The Governor – visibly uncomfortable at the comment – tried his best to ignore it.

“Cuts must be made.” he said and crossed his long legs in front of himself. “And we are having this meeting to determine how we will achieve these goals.”

“Meeting?” Mullryne asked and held his hands out slightly as he slowly surveyed the empty space around them. “Forgive me, Governor, but maybe political protocol has changed since I left earth all those years ago.”

“Many things changed after you left, Mullryne, and you missed a great many things: The Quake of New York in ’17; the Italia Virus that decimated central Europe; the Occupation of Germany that barely prevented World war Three…”

“Sounds like the safest place is up here surrounded by murderers.” Mullryne smiled.

“This station cost $118billion-“

“I’m well aware of the cost, Governor.” Mullryne interrupted. “This is my home.” he paused, “This is our home.”

“Then you are also well aware that the monthly expenditure of your home is $112million.”

“Monetary matters are beyond my control.”

“But as the warden you are privy to details my superiors require to assess the situation.” said Traskin. “Consider yourself fortunate, Warden. If this facility were on earth we would’ve run rough-shod over you and made any necessary cuts without you being involved at all.”

“Should I count my lucky stars?” Mullryne asked and pointed with his pencil at the window above them.

“I’m glad you can still find some humour in your predicament.” Traskin said, hostility simmering beneath his words. “Maybe your successor will find his position just as amusing.”

“Ah,” Mullryne’s eyes lit up. “So I will be the first cut.”

“If the next warden is paid only half your salary he will still be a wealthy man.”

“Indeed.” the current warden said. “And further cuts?”

“Short of closing the facility-“

“Shut down The Octopus?” Mullryne’s bristled slightly.

“Oh no, Mullryne,” Traskin smiled, obviously pleased with Mullryne’s reaction. “The public were in uproar of the cost when we sanctioned this structure to be built. If we closed it down we would be admitting we were in error… and it would be wrong to show failure to the masses.

“No, what we plan to do is close down a wing or two…”

Mullryne’s brow furrowed. “Where would the inmates go? There’s no room on earth – it’s why prisons in space are being built.”

Governor Traskin sat back in the chair, eyes narrowing.

“Oh, the prisoners won’t be getting rehoused.” he said quietly, and yet the words seemed to fill the room around them.

Mullryne’s pencil found itself being slowly rolled between his fingers.

“The death penalty was abolished planet-wide years ago.” he said, his own voice barely audible.

“I know, warden.”

“Then… what is it you suggest?”

The Governor sat forward like a young child eager to divulge his secrets.

“An air leak caused by a small meteorite or explosion!” he said, his eyes wide.

“You’re talking about mass murder!” Mullryne shouted, all trace of calm vanishing.

“These people would be dead under the old regime!” Traskin yelled back. “Killers! Rapists! Paedophiles! They don’t deserve to live!”

“Who are you to decide if someone lives or dies?”

I AM THE ACCOUNTANT!” Traskin screamed, rising to his feet.

Mullryne fists shook as he clenched them until his knuckles whitened, pencil snapping into pieces under the pressure. Breathing hard he forced himself to take a step back and tear his gaze away from Traskin. After a few seconds thought he raised the comm-unit that enveloped his left forearm and tapped a few commands into it with a splinter of broken pencil.

“Oh, warden,” Traskin all but laughed as he sat back in the chair. “Report me all you like. I turned off the recording equipment before we entered. All it will boil down to is my word against that of a desperate man who will say anything to save his job.”

“I’m not reporting you.” Mullryne said sadly. “I know where I stand.”

Moments later the doors opened and a bare-chested prisoner walked in, wearing nothing but orange trousers, thick boots and a restraint collar.

“Warden, I thought better of you!” Traskin barked. “Are you going to try and win my pity by telling me that this thing is still a man? How he deserves to live? With the restraint collars they are nothing more than automatons! Zombies!”

“This is N’Game Tsotou.”  Mullryne said as the black man-mountain came to a halt next to him. “He was the Warlord of Zaire.”

“Ah yes,” said Traskin. “The killer of tens of thousands. Didn’t he even launch missiles at neighbouring countries? If I recall correctly it took years to capture him… and at a great expense to the tax payer.”

“It’s not always about money, Governor.”

“It’s always about money, Warden.”

“N’Game didn’t kill people for enjoyment,” Mullryne continued. “Although I daresay he enjoyed it to some degree. No, he killed to protect his country… to protect what he believed in…

“To protect his people.”

Traskin’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Good god, Mullryne!” he spat. “You actually like this animal?”

“I respect his ideals,” Mullryne said. “His will to live… to survive.”

“Ha!” Traskin barked again. “Let’s see how strong his will to live is when we blow him and his people out of the fucking airlock!

The Governor laughed and fell back into the seat.

Warden Mullryne stood alongside inmate Tsotou as both watched the man blankly.

Once his mirth had subsided, the Governor composed himself.

“Nothing you can say can change the course that has been decided, Warden.” he said as he straightened his one-piece suit.

“Then there is nothing left for me to say.” Mullryne said as he turned to leave.

“Don’t forget to take your pet ape.” Traskin laughed again.

The prisoner slowly raised up one massive arm to reveal what he held in his hand.

Traskin’s laughter echoed around  the room again.

“Mullryne, look! The animal fetched you another pencil!”

Mullryne paused as the doors opened to allow his exit, leaving Traskin alone with the pencil-clutching prisoner. It was then that the Governor noticed that the restraint collar around the prisoner’s neck was turned off.

“Oh no, Governor.” Warden Mullryne said. “That pencil is for you.”