“Welcome to Work Precinct 308,” the robotic voice chimed from the self-driving car’s dashboard.
The car stopped softly, the windows slowly transitioned from opaque to transparent, and Alan saw his new home for the foreseeable future. It was an old apartment complex, mostly concrete with soft edges, with blacked out windows and strong metal doors with bars. The front office was designed like a hotel with an awning resting just over the car Alan was in.
“Please exit the vehicle.”
The door opened without Alan’s effort. Alan grabbed his bag and stepped out into the dry air. The front office of the complex was the only thing not surrounded by a concrete wall. It was the only entrance and exit for the entire campus. The front desk’s windows were tinted, but Alan could make out that someone was coming toward the front door.
The door swung open, and a short, stocky man came out with a clipboard and a wicked mustache. He looked down at his brown clipboard, his facial hair wagging back and forth.
“That’s what they call me,” Alan joked. The man looked up from his clipboard with deathly annoyance. He made a check mark on the paper, and pointed at Alan’s bag.
“Bring your things in here,” the man said gruffly, and then stomped back into the front office lobby.
The room was unadorned, save for a lone plant. The white tiled floor was scuffed and the grout was filled with dirt in aging cracks. A small desk was at the back wall, a stack of papers sloppily hanging off the edge facing Alan. The papers were a mixture of white forms and red slips.
“My name is Randall Finch. People around here just call me Finch. I don’t care what you call me, just follow the rules. Don’t leave the building without telling me, and you’ll be fine. Don’t invite people to the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t tell people on the outside where you live, and you’ll be fine. Don’t bring liquor or drugs into the building, and you’ll be fine. Don’t leave your room after lights out, and you’ll be fine. Give me your red slip, and let’s get this over with.”
Alan held out the paper and Finch tore it out of his hands. Finch looked over the red paper, made some notes then began filling out the paperwork on his clipboard with the red slip guiding him. His pen marks were hard and swift, much like the rest of his actions. He didn’t have time for the new guy’s jokes. Jokes got people in trouble. Then they got shipped out to the processing center and had to deal with the board of directors. Finch, whether he wanted to admit it or not, did care about the people brought into his unit, and he didn’t desire to see them go before the board. He wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy.
Alan noticed beyond the desk was the door that led out into the courtyard of the complex. There were people hanging out in the green patch of land, the only green patch Alan could remember seeing in his journey to his new home. A few palm trees surrounded a circular grass area with an empty swimming pool. But Alan didn’t realize he was staring at a group of guys who were sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the courtyard, but they had noticed. The men looked at each other and got up from there seats, pushing their way into the lobby.
“Hey, baby bird, who’s the new guy?” the apparent leader of the group asked.
“Baby bird?” Alan said, setting a sideways glance at Finch. Finch rolled his eyes.
“Shut up, new guy. I’m talking to baby bird.”
Finch clenched his teeth and pointed at his clipboard, “I don’t have time for this, Castor. I need to input him in the system so I can clock out. Why don’t you take your entourage back to the courtyard.”
Castor didn’t like that. He grabbed Finch by the arm, Castor’s hand turning red hot. Finch winced, his arm heating up and blistering.
“Don’t you ever tell me what to do,” Castor said angrily. Finch struggled, but Castor wrenched Finch’s arm back and tightened his burning grip. “You normies just think you’re better than us. I don’t like the way you look down on me.”
“Castor, let him go.”
Castor looked at the back wall where a tall, muscular man was standing in the courtyard doorway. Alan released his fist, and the desk gently came back down onto the floor without everyone noticing. Everyone, except for Marshall, the man in the doorway. He was subtly looking at the desk, when Castor finally let Finch go. Alan looked at Finch’s arm, red finger marks burned into his flesh. Finch picked up his clipboard off the ground and started making notes.
“That’s another strike for you, Castor. One more, and you’ll have to be processed.”
“Don’t test me, baby bird,” Castor sneered, and he nodded to his guys. “I’ll catch you later, newbie.”
Marshall watched, unmoving, as Castor and his friends went back out into the courtyard. Once they were outside, Marshall relaxed his posture and turned his attention to Alan, who was anxiously standing in the middle of the room.
“You’ll have to forgive Castor, kid. He wasn’t blessed with an abundance of intelligence. You okay, Finch?”
Finch nodded, exhaling a breath of relief. “I’m fine. But Castor? Castor’s on his last warning. And we know what comes after that.”
“Let me worry about Castor,” Marshall said, his eyes staring back at the courtyard. “So who’s the new kid?”
“Alan Mitchell. Just got shipped here from…” Finch looked down at his paperwork.
“The 305 I guess,” Alan replied. Finch looked up from his clipboard.
“Yeah… the 305,” Finch said with a look of displeasure on his face. “Anyway, I’m going to file this paperwork. Alan’s in room 224b. Can you show him around, Marshall?”
Marshall looked at Alan, sizing him up with a discerning eye. “Sure thing, Finch. Come on, kid. Let’s see if we can get you into some trouble.”
“No trouble,” Finch chided as Marshall and Mitchell walked through to the courtyard, where Castor was still sulking. Marshall put a hand on Alan’s shoulder and pointed around the area. It was more a sign to Castor that Marshall was looking out for the kid than a genuine act of friendship, but Alan appreciated it anyway.
“The cafeteria is down at the end of the courtyard here. Mostly just the old high school stuff. Pizza day on Friday, so that doesn’t completely suck. We go grocery shopping in groups on Wednesday, so you’ll want to use your credits to get snacks then. They’ll bring you soap and toothpaste and that kind of stuff, so don’t waste your credits on it in the store. Your room is on the second floor.”
Marshall ushered Alan up a metal staircase blasted with white paint, chips of it flaking in well-trafficked areas. They finally got to his room, and Marshall showed him in. The room was a single bed, wrapped in white sheets with brown carpeting on the floor and a small bathroom. It was about as dingy a hotel room as Alan could remember seeing before. He looked back at the front door.
“No lock?” Alan asked.
“Nope. Nobody has locks. It seems kinda pointless since we’re not allowed to leave and there’s cameras all over the place. If someone steals your stuff just let me know. We tend to take care of matters on our own. Keeps the board out of it.”
“I heard Finch mention them earlier. They don’t sound great.”
Marshall stopped for a moment, looking out the curtain draped window of the room. Castor’s friends had left and they had been replaced with a group talking down at the empty swimming pool, their legs dangling over the edge. Marshall seemed to be thinking about something far off.
“No. They aren’t ‘great.’ If you see the board, then you’re screwed. So don’t get yourself into trouble. Anything else?”
Marshall asked the question more for himself, his eyes pensively looking to the popcorn ceiling trying to muster another thought. He snapped his fingers and pointed at Alan, a big grin on his face.
“Marshall and Mitchell. That’s us, kid. Anyway, that was the whole show. You need anything from me?”
Alan shook his head, so Marshall went for the exit.
“Wait. What do we do here?” Alan asked. No one had ever told him. Since the received his red slip, no one had told him what exactly he was in for. Marshall turned around, his face showing a disappointed frown.
“It’s a work camp, kid. We do what they tell us to do.”
Marshall’s voice was compassionate for Alan, and sad for all the people working in the 308. It was a work camp; there wasn’t more to it than that.
“Dinner’s at 6. Don’t be late. If you can believe it, the food gets worse.”