the seventeen "excess" prisoners followed corporal chappie across the wide space and finally came to a door. they entered a big cafeteria. the prisoners who had been assigned to companies were sitting in blocs at long tables with their robot "team leaders" but there was still plenty of space.
corporal chappie led the seventeen over to a corner, sat down and waved to them to be seated at some smaller tables, apparently wherever they pleased.
"mush or gruel, citizen prisoners," he told them. "on this first day, you get to choose."
"how about some ham and eggs?" asked barbarian.
"ha. ha! ham and eggs! i like a prisoner with a sense of humor and a sense of history."
barbarian smiled to show he was just kidding. "i'll go with the mush then. extra large. "
corporal chappie smiled back. "one size fits all. the rest of you?"
"the mush and the gruel must be the same size, right?" mike asked.
"to the milligram."
"i'll have gruel. "
the others gave their orders.
"eight mush, eight gruel, one not hungry." corporal chappie looked at the one not hungry, a skinny ragamuffin with a single long spike of hair on his head.
"are you sure? it might be a while before you are asked again."
the ragamuffin shrugged. "ok , i 'll have - i'll have - i'll have -"
"nine mush, eight gruel." corporal chappie pressed some buttons on the side of the table.
"while we are waiting, does anybody have a question?"
"i have a question," said mike. "about the food."
"ah, you humans. always about the food. yes?"
mike looked a little annoyed. "it's not just the food. my question is, what do we get if we do a good job - break extra rocks or whatever? do we get rewarded? extra food? extra anything?"
"no. no special considerations."
"no. it's a question we get from every new group."
"so, what happens if someone doesn't work at all? suppose you just - throw down your ten-pound hammer and say, hey i'm not in the mood?"
corporal chappie smiled.
"there is one way to find out - do it. but you will find out. there will be no samples, no second chance, no oh wait i didn't mean it."
"that doesn't seem very - oh forget it."
"you learn quickly. were you a lawyer by any chance?" chappie asked mike.
"i was a detective."
"a detective! there are plenty of detectives on jupiter but they have their own sector."
"i was a private detective."
" a private detective! ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"
some of the other prisoners started laughing too. "so how was business, mr private detective, under the new order?"
mike laughed too. "i'll probably eat better here."
the note was still in the mailbox. larry unfolded it and showed it to sally.
"what is there to recognize? it's just four letters, and i don't know what they mean."
"it's something bad."
"you told me that."
"you don't recognize the paper or the handwriting or anything?"
"are you serious? no."
larry looked round the quiet little lobby. "how many people live in this place?"
"four or five, counting me."
"four or five! what is there, a curse on it?"
"maybe, but i like it."
"right. i better take this back to the office. do you want that ride back to the employment agency?"
"you said you'd buy me something to eat."
"now? it's kind of early."
"you said you would." she stared at him.
"i have an idea. how would you like to make yourself useful?"
"everybody likes to make themselves useful. it's what we're here for."
"the elevator keeps getting stuck."
larry held up his hand. "sorry, elevator repair isn't in my skill set."
"i don't want you to fix the elevator . just help me move down to a lower floor - below where the elevator sticks."
"i don't think so.'
"come on, i don't have much. and then you can buy me something to eat."
"you want me to get stuck in an elevator?"
"if it sticks we can crawl out if we have to. i've done it before. "
larry laughed, and thought for a few seconds. "all right. i suppose i should take a look at where you live, anyway."
"what do you think i have up there, the secret weapon?"
sally pushed the button for the elevator and it opened immediately.
"what do you know about secret weapons?" they got in the elevator.
"just what i see on shows." she pressed the button for the 51st floor. "i saw this show, sherlock holmes, cleopatra and the secret weapon. it was pretty good."
"you don't have any spicy drinks or romance novels, anything like that?"
larry watched the indicator. "where does this get stuck?"
they passed the thirty-fourth floor.
sally gave larry a little smile. "we're safe now."
the duc suppressed a smile as charlotte told her tale.
"that must have been embarrassing."
"it was. a little."
"you were taking her to the alpha centauri center?"
"it was shut down a few days ago. you probably missed the memo."
"i read all my memos."
"i'm sure. but even you must forget one or two."
"i was specifically told to release her, not just to turn back."
the duc shrugged. "probably just some robot misunderstanding the original message. how much advance notice did you give?"
"there you go."
charlotte thought about it. "maybe."
the others started coming back into the conference room.
"it's a jungle up here." the duc looked up and saw olivia and jeanne coming back to their seats behind them but didn't lower his voice. "you might have real enemies, charlotte. you shouldn't worry about imaginary ones."
charlotte glanced back at olivia. she was settling into her seat, with a blank expression.
madame defarge and mrs roosevelt reentered. a few stragglers hurried in behind them.
'i have a question," said hongwu.
after some hesitation, he and moctezuma, who had been hanging back, had moved up to a table near chappie.
"i think i know your question, but go ahead."
"you don't seem to have a lot of security here.'
'so what happens if we try to escape?"
"you see that door over there?"
hongwu turned. there was a small door, on the other side of the room from the one they entered. "i see it.'
"it is unlocked. citizen prisoner, be our guest."
"you have animals out there, or something electrical?"
"of course not. there is nothing out there - nothing at all. you can start walking - but in what direction? and even if you chance on the right direction, how far can you go?"
hongwu glanced at moctezuma. "but you don't care if we try?"
"once or twice. a third time - we might feel you were not serious and were trifling with us. and when you find your way back, we will have a bowl of mush waiting for you. a standard portion - no extra."
"i have a couple of questions, " said mac the mailman. "sorry, they're about food."
"it's too late now, but i don't suppose we can ask for the mush to be hot, lukewarm or whatever"
"and it's just mush or gruel? never even a sandwich?
"the department of prisons and education has determined that mush and gruel are more nutritious. but here are your portions now."
a very old robot, of the kind called a jam - just a machine - arrived with a cart and handed out the bowls and spoons, along with cans of orange drink, which were not very cold.