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Science Fiction Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Mick gripped the console like he was bracing against an earthquake, then stretched in his chair, reaching up and to both sides, and winced as his back cracked. He was tired, physically, but also mentally. He’d been working for the Disciplinary Department for three years and this was his first assignment as project lead. He had celebrated for two days when Candice told him that he was to take the next subject. He was now almost finished session twenty-one of the second set of twenty-five, and he never wanted to see this place again. He had understood that the job existed in an ethical no-man’s land, but that had never bothered him before. Now with each completed cycle, he struggled more and more to believe that what they were doing was right. He knew better than to say anything. The Disciplinary Department did not take kindly to dissent, and he had heard horror stories of what happened to those who dared offer differing points of view. He just had to finish with this subject and then try to get himself transferred back to records, permanently.

He checked his screen. All green. The phone on the desk lit up, it was Candice.

“How is this session going, Mick?”

“Smooth, all normal.”

“Good, good. We’ve got some exciting news to share, so we’re calling a meeting for 4:30. Main boardroom, you can make that?”

Mick looked at the session timer.

“I’ve got about half an hour to go here, and then the clean-up, so maybe an hour total. 4:30 should be great.”

“We won’t start without you.”

Mick looked at the figure on his screen.

“I wonder how you are getting along today?”

---

“It’s 5:10, Chris. Log. Off!”

“I have one more entry, Stew. Then I’ll join you.”

“For real?”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know, because you’re a liar.”

“Liar?”

“The worst. 5:11,” said Stew, spinning Chris’s chair away from the console.

“Jesus, dude, stop it. I’d be done if you didn’t keep bothering me.”

Chris Bryant spun his chair back and kept typing. He was too tall for the desk he had been assigned; the knees of all his pants were torn from catching on a metal spur under his desk.

“5:13,” sang Stew.

“I’m almost done.”

“Tick tock!”

“Stew, seriously, stop it. I need to concentrate.

“Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock.”

“Stew! Shut up!”

Stew Hewson crossed his arms. He was about a foot shorter than Chris, balding and overweight, but he carried himself with the swagger of his former prowess. Time, two divorces, and a fondness for beer and wings had taken their toll, but under the layers of extra weight lurked the echoes of the boxer he once had been. He had never been a great fighter but neither had he been a terrible one and he had kept an aura of physical self-confidence that belied how soft he now seemed.

Stew rolled up his sleeves, revealing the dramatic and colourful tattoos that adorned both his arms. His right arm was an intricate collage of images by William Blake, most prominent of which was the Ancient of Days which covered the best part of the front of his forearm.  Stew wasn’t much for Romantic Poetry, but he had seen Blake’s work in a book and loved the look of them. His left arm was a gorgeous, brightly coloured collection of star fields, super nova’s, swirling star dust, planets, and galaxies. His back was covered with a stunning black and white image of a crow in a tree enclosed by full moon. Though Stew was eager, sometimes too eager, to talk about his sleeves, he would never talk about or explain the tattoo on his back. Chris had his suspicions, but Stew was too good a friend, so Chris never asked. Even someone as gregarious as Stew, should be allowed their secrets.

“We’ll be late,” Stew bristled.

“The game doesn’t start till 7:05.”

“No, but Ryan and Julian have been drinking since 4:00.”

“I’m almost finished.”

“It’s Friday night, Chris. What are you working on?” Stew asked, grabbing the file off the desk.

“You have to be kidding me?”

“The Norton Bureau is an important client.”

“They are also not scheduled to be on the docket until the end of next week. Log off, now!”

Chris entered the final sequences with a flourish.

“There. I’m done.”

Stew reached across the desk and logged Chris out.

“Now you’re done.”

Chris swore under his breath.

“Let’s hit the bar.”

“I want to go home and change.”

“You’re coming with me, now.”

“This stupid desk has ripped a hole in my knee.”

“You’re just trying to bail again.”

“I’m not trying to bail; it looks ridiculous.”

“Walk to the window and back.”

Chris clumped to the window, spun on his right foot, and trudged back.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Can you see the hole?”

“I wasn’t looking. I just wanted to see you do something I asked you to do – for once.

“You are such as asshat.”

“I am, I really am, now let’s go.”

“I really think I should change.”

“No.”  

“I’ll only be an hour behind you.”

“You do this every time.”

“Do what?”

“You bail, you back out.”

“I just want to get changed.”

“Yeah. Right. Then you’ll buzz me to say that something’s come up and you’ll have to take a rain cheque.”

Chris started to respond but he didn’t know what to say, it was as though the words he needed had abandoned him, as though he’d asked them to lie for him too many times. There was no good reason for him not to go, but he’d gotten used to not going out. Staying home was lazy and lonely, but it was all that he wanted.

“I’ll catch up with you guys at the game.”

“You’re coming with me now, or not at all,” Stew said as he headed towards the elevators. “I’ve known you for nearly forty years,” he said without looking back. “You’re my best friend. But you don’t come out tonight, I swear I won’t ask again.”

“Fine, I’ll come,” Chris grumbled.

“That’s the spirit cowboy, pew, pew, pew” Stew laughed, pretending to shoot Chris with his fingers. Chris felt a cold chill and a shiver ran up his spine, his breathing caught and his head spun. He stumbled into the wall.

“Chris?”

“I’m fine. Just felt weird, like motion sickness or something.”

“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant.”

“Funny.”

“When did you eat last?”

“I had some of the pizza at Sal’s birthday thing at lunch,” Chris said, taking deep breaths.

“Better?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“If you think that was dizzy, wait till later. I am going to make sure you drink enough to be hungover for a week. You are going to be so sorry you said yes.” Chris hung his head and followed Stew onto the elevator.

“You want to walk, or catch the streetcar?” Stew asked as they cut through the parking lot behind their building towards King Street.

“Let’s walk, I could use the air, it’s only a couple of blocks and the streetcar will be jammed.”

“Fair enough” Stew agreed. “I was hoping this humidity would have broken by now. This is gross. It rained this morning, no?”

“I think so, yeah,” Chris shrugged.

“I think it just made it worse. How’s your head?”

“Better, thanks.”

“Fair enough” Stew agreed. “I was hoping this humidity would have broken by now. This is gross. It rained this morning, no?”

“I think so, yeah,” Chris shrugged.

“I think it just made it worse. How’s your head?”

“Better, thanks.” Chris said, stopping in his tracks.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“I think I just had déjà vu.”

“Seriously? Cool, I’ve never had that, what was it like?”

“Weird. I think it’s the heat, and I’m tired. Maybe I should just go home.”

“Don’t you even dare start that shit again.”

“What if there is something wrong with me.”

“I don’t care if I have to Weekend at Bernie’s your ass, you are coming out tonight.”

Weekend at Bernie’s? Wow, a deep dive into the vaults for that one.”

“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“There’s probably a reason.”

“I don’t care if I have to Weekend at Bernie’s your ass, you are coming out tonight.”

Weekend at Bernie’s? Wow, a deep dive into the vaults for that one.”

“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“There’s probably a reason.”

Chris staggered and grabbed Stew by the arm.

“Jesus, Chris, I’m the one who got punched in the head for a living. We’re right in the sun here; let’s get you into some shade,” Stew said as he half led half carried Chris into an alley.

“Don’t go in there,” Chris moaned, struggling against Stew.

“It’s in the shade. You can sit.”

“Please, don’t go into the alley, not again, please.”

“Not again?”

Chris pulled away, staggered to his left and crashed into a wall. He fell to the ground and Stew rushed to his side. He tried to help him up but Chris fought free again. Chris was no match for Stew, but confusion and fear for his friend had sapped Stew of his strength. Chris got to his feet, stumbled, and fell, rose, and fell over again. He knelt on the ground holding his head in both hands.

“Chris,” Stew called, trying to keep calm. “I need you to listen to me, Chris, I’m calling for an ambulance, I’m going to get help.”

Chris looked up and saw Stew standing ten feet from him.

“Stew, we gotta go, we gotta run, God no, not again, not again.”

Stew could smell Chris’s fear, rancid and reeking. He took a step toward his friend, as he saw him try to stand again.

“Look at me Chris, focus on my voice. You are going to be okay. Just focus on my voice, can you hear me, Chris?”

“The cat,” Chris gasped.

“What?”

“The cat is next!” Chris screamed. Stew reached for his friend and a small black cat darted out from behind the garbage cans to his right and ran between them.

“How did you know …?”

Chris fell, landing hard on his side. Stew rolled him over.

“You? I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please, I didn’t want to, I am so sorry.”

“It’s okay Chris, it’s okay.”

“No, not Chris, not Chris,” he sobbed.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, so sorry. Please don’t make me got through it again, please, I’m so sorry, so sorry.”

Stew held his friend, horrified.

“The door,” Chris sobbed looking over Stew’s shoulder. Stew turned, puzzled. There was a flat grey metal door in the wall, the kind with a lock but no handle. As he watched, the door cracked open, and a man backed out, slowly, carrying something under his left arm and nudged the door closed gently with his shoulder. Stew was about to ask him for help when he saw that he had a gun. The figure turned, and his eyes locked with Stew’s.

Stew saw the fear in the man’s eyes, saw the shock and the fright at having been seen. As a boxer, Stew had learned how to read people’s eyes. He could tell when the fight was gone out of a fighter, or when he was in over his head just by reading the eyes of his opponent. The eyes of the man pointing a gun at him were easy to read. He was drowning in full-blown panic, desperate and dangerous and not in control. The bullet hit Stew between the eyes. Chris looked at the body of his friend.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please believe me, I’m so sorry.”

Chris looked up into the face of the man with the gun.

“Don’t, don’t do it, please,” Chris begged, backing away, pushing himself along the ground with his feet. Chris felt the first bullet tear into his shoulder, awakening a pain like being scalded with boiling water.

“Shoot straight, for Christ’s sake why can’t you ever shoot straight?” The gun fired again, this time hitting Chris in the side. The gun fired again and again, hitting him in the left leg and missing completely, kicking up a puff of concrete and dust as the bullet ricocheted off the wall to his left. Chris rolled over, crumpled in pain, and winced as the gun, searing hot, pressed against the back of his head.

“Why did you have to be here? Why?” the man with the gun blubbered.

“Why did you have to be here?” Chris wept.

The gun fired.

---

Mick began the waking protocol, bringing the subject out of the session. He had to be careful, the slightest error would result in the subject not remembering what had happened and complete recollection was the prime goal. He checked his screen: green across the board. Mick put on his helmet, bit down on the mouthpiece that prevented him from talking and closed the visor completely covering his face. Then he entered the cell.

“Say something, please. Say something,” the man moaned as Mick moved through the room, shutting down the machines.

“Are you the same one as last time? Why won’t you ever talk?”

Mick began removing the sensors from the man’s head.

“Tell them I want them to kill me. I can’t take this anymore. Tell them to kill me! It was an accident. I panicked. I didn’t mean to kill them.”

The man broke down, sobbing, and begging to die. Mick fought to control his own emotions, forcing himself to ignore the sick feelings of shame and horror that nestled in his gut. He was glad of the visor, it meant that the man couldn’t see him crying. Mick tried to remind himself that this man had murdered two strangers, in cold blood, men guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Making the subject relive their deaths, from each of their perspectives, was justice. This man had been sentenced to twenty-five sessions for each of the men he had killed. He was lucky, in a way, he only had to endure two sessions a day, for twenty-five days, and then he would be free to return to society. Many subjects were moved from session to session with only a brief period of awareness between them. The death penalty had been banned over a century ago, and prisons had become dangerously overcrowded, and the expense of keeping people incarcerated for 25 years or more had been crippling to society. The Déjà vu Initiative had cost millions to develop, but only cost around $35,000 per subject to run. Déjà vu had been a huge leap forward for the correctional system.

Or so Mick had once believed. Nearly every subject who had been through the program had committed suicide within months of being released. Now, having seen firsthand what Déjà vu did to the subjects he suspected that this was by design – execution by proxy – circumventing the law. Mick packed up the last of the gear up and checked the subject’s vital signs and left. He tried to forget the look in the subject’s eyes but knew that their empty anguish would haunt him forever. He could not imagine overseeing another full session. Watching this subject reduced to a quivering shell had done a number on Mick. He wasn’t the same man who had eagerly fired up his console only a few weeks ago. Perhaps he should speak up and tell someone the truth about Déjà vu. He wasn’t sure hat he could live with himself if he didn’t.

The phone on the desk lit up – it was Candice.

“How is this session going, Mick?”

“Smooth, all normal.”

“Good, good. We’ve got some exciting news to share, so we’re calling a meeting for 4:30. Main boardroom, you can make that?”

Mick looked at the session timer.

“I’ve got about half an hour to go here, and then the clean-up, so maybe an hour total, so yeah, 4:30 should be great.”

“All right then, we won’t start without you.”

Mick turned back to the screen.

“I wonder how you are getting along today?”

The phone on the desk lit up – it was Candice.

“How is this session going, Mick?”

“Smooth, all normal.”

“Good, good. We’ve got some exciting news to share, so we’re calling a meeting for 4:30. Main boardroom, you can make that?”

Mick looked at the session timer.

“I’ve got about half an hour to go here, and then the clean-up, so maybe an hour total, so yeah, 4:30 should be great.”

“All right then, we won’t start without you.”

Mick turned back to the screen.

“Oh, my god, oh my god, no, no. nooooo!” Mick gripped the console like he was bracing against an earthquake, then stretched in his chair, reaching up and to both sides, and winced as his back cracked. He was tired, physically, but also mentally. He’d been working for the Disciplinary Department for three years and this was his first assignment as project lead. He had celebrated for two days when Candice told him that he was to take the next subject. He was now almost finished session twenty-one of the second set of twenty-five, and he never wanted to see this place again. He had understood that the job existed in an ethical no-man’s land, but that had never bothered him before. Now with each completed cycle, he struggled more and more to believe that what they were doing was right. He knew better than to say anything. The Disciplinary Department did not take kindly to dissent, and he had heard horror stories of what happened to those who dared offer differing points of view.  

October 13, 2022 02:56

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3 comments

AnneMarie Miles
13:27 Oct 20, 2022

Woah this was an interesting one! Very intriguing, and so is this idea: "– execution by proxy – circumventing the law." I'm sure this idea has been considered by someone somewhere. Making prisoners go mad over their own crimes. Assuming, of course, they had enough empathy. But in this guy's situation, killing strangers because they happened to be there, I could definitely see that driving someone mad. It ends mysteriously! Mick seems to be in a session of his own, but we're left wondering why and what for? Very interesting. Clever writing....

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Francis Dagmar
15:32 Oct 21, 2022

Hey, thank you very much for this! I had a lot of fun playing with the various concepts while writing it, and I am very please that it caught your fancy. Thank you so much for letting me know.

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AnneMarie Miles
15:42 Oct 21, 2022

You're very welcome!

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