Part 4 of 4
Love and Other Punishments
I’m lying on a bed, but can’t move. Voices echo around me. My eyes hurt. I can just about make out a couple of figures moving, but they’re out of focus. My head spins. My muscles ache. Everything aches.
‘Just relax,’ a voice says. ‘The disorientation is entirely normal.’
‘I can’t see,’ I mutter. My voice surprises me. It sounds different.
‘Your eyesight will return in a moment,’ a second voice says. ‘It’s just a normal side effect of such a long time in… Well, I’ll explain soon.’
Very slowly my vision returns. I stare down at my body and gasp. I’m in a white hospital gown with various intravenous feeds attached to me. At first, I wonder if I’ve been in a coma, but then I see the wires. Multiple wires attached to my head. Very slowly I raise my hand to my head. Doing so is agony, but I persevere. My fingers touch the wires, which by the feel of them are attached to electrodes and suckers on my head. I feel around the suckers, and almost withdraw my hand in alarm. My head has been shaved. What’s happened to me?
I glance to my right and see a bank of peculiar computer monitors and electronic equipment. This doesn’t look like a hospital. It looks like a laboratory. Did someone experiment on me? What the hell is going on?
The figures in front of my bed come into focus. A man and a woman, both in white medical coats. Both have expressions of fascination, rather than concern.
‘Am I in the hospital?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘You’re in a secret secure experimental facility, beneath Pentonville prison.’
I frown. ‘I’m in prison? Why? Who are you?’
‘I’m Dr. Staple, and this is Dr. Lightly,’ the woman says. ‘We’re here to facilitate your recovery.’
‘But why am I in prison?’
‘What’s the last thing you remember?’ asks Dr. Lightly.
I think for a moment. I remember the beach. Holding Lara’s hand. The pleading expression in her eyes.
‘Lara Taylor,’ I say.
Dr. Staple lets out a little gasp. ‘Did you say Lara Taylor?’
‘Yes. What’s going on?’
Dr. Lightly makes a scribbled note on a clipboard.
‘Where is Lara?’ I continue. ‘Did she bring me here? I must have blacked out, but I don’t know why. How long have I been attached to this machine? What is it?’
‘We’ll answer all your questions soon,’ Dr. Lightly says. ‘But it’s probably best if we give you a chance to let your memories return naturally. In the meantime, it’s important that you get up and about, and try to exercise. Your muscles will feel as though you haven’t used them in some time.’
‘What do you mean? How long have I been here?’
‘Do you really remember nothing at all?’ Dr. Staple asks.
‘After the beach, no.’
‘Forgive me if this question sounds a little strange, but when you were on the beach, with Lara, were you happy?’
I stare between Dr. Staple and Dr. Lightly, utterly baffled. ‘Who are you, people?’
‘Please answer the question. It’s important.’
‘Yes, yes I was happy,’ I say. ‘Probably for the first time in over three years.’
‘Did you say three years?’
‘Yes. Three years. Since the death of my wife and two children.’
Dr. Lightly makes another scribbled note.
‘Thank you. As I said, we need to allow time for your memories to return. Someone will be in to help you get fully detached from…’ He indicates the wires. ‘Then we’ll have you up and about in no time.’
I sit on a bed in a completely white room, with no windows. My door is locked, which is annoying. There is a closed-circuit camera watching me too. My confusion is mingled with outrage. Why am I being treated like a criminal?
After being disconnected from that strange machine, I was escorted here and asked to wait. That was two hours ago. Despite practically begging to know what has happened to me, and what has become of Lara, no-one wants to answer my questions. They insist my memories will return, but so far, I remember nothing after what happened on the beach.
My arms and legs are still very achy, although I have been walking around the room, trying to move them about. Whilst doing this, the door is finally unlocked. Dr Staple and Dr Lightly walk in. They still stare at me as though I were a kind of laboratory rat.
‘How are you feeling?’ asks Dr Staple.
‘A bit better. The arms and legs still really hurt…’
‘How about memories?’ asks Dr Lightly. ‘Anything coming back? Anything at all?’
‘No… There’s just Lara and the beach and then… waking up here.’
‘Very well. We’re going to fill in a few details for you. Might I suggest you sit down?’
I sit on the side of the bed. Dr Lightly and Dr Staple stand next to me, and a hint of compassion flickers on their faces. I sense bad news coming.
‘What’s happened to Lara?’ I ask.
‘Lara’s fine,’ Dr Lightly replies. ‘In fact, I can tell you, quite truthfully, that Lara is alive and well and flourishing.’
‘Great! Can I see her?’
‘In time, yes. But first, we need to tell you the truth. This is going to be very, very hard for you to hear, and I’m sorry.’
‘Perhaps the mirror would be better,’ says Dr Staple.
Dr Lightly sighs. ‘Yes, yes, I think you might be right, unfortunately. The mirror. Very well.’
He removes a small mirror from his pocket. ‘We think there is a chance you might achieve total recall if you look at yourself in this mirror. So far, we’ve avoided this, because quite honestly, we don’t know how you will react. But we think it is worth a shot. If it doesn’t work, we’ll tell you everything ourselves.’
My heart pounds. ‘Dr Lightly, you’re scaring me. Have I been horribly scarred or something?’
‘No, nothing like that,’ he says. ‘But… Well, see for yourself.’
He hands me the mirror. Very slowly I tilt it towards me and stare at my reflection.
Christopher Chapman — the man who killed Katie, Billy, and Tom — stares back at me. He has greatly aged, and his head is bald, but I’d recognise him anywhere. Why is he in the mirror? Why is he me?
The truth hits me like a shockwave of a thousand volts. A flood of memories rushes back. I was an electrician with my own small business, living in north London, having married Lara four years earlier. We’d both been twenty-four at the time we were married. Now we were both twenty-eight. At least we had been.
We were about to try and start a family, but I had been arrested and falsely accused of three horrible murders.
My resemblance to a man picked up on CCTV footage sealed the deal.
I was found guilty.
I was given a life “grief” sentence.
As part of an experimental programme with virtual reality capital punishments, I had been placed in a virtual reality world where I would experience the consequences of the murder, but not from the point of view of the murder victims. Instead, I would experience the consequences of the murder from the point of view of the bereaved, for the rest of my natural life. Poor Shaun Harrison. He’d lost everything. I had been placed in a machine and programmed to believe I was him, sentenced to experience the anguish he would feel on an unending loop.
Truly, a punishment that fits the crime. A cornerstone of Jane Young’s get tough on crime, law and order policy.
But I’d been innocent.
I stare at Dr Lightly and Dr Staple, unable to speak.
‘Do you remember now?’ asks Dr Lightly.
I nod, finally finding my voice.
‘I remember everything…. But I don’t understand… Why did you bring me back?’
‘New evidence has come to light, exonerating you,’ says Dr Staple. ‘The real killer was connected with another similar crime, and new evidence was uncovered, linking him to the murders you were convicted for. He eventually confessed to this, so a court order was issued, releasing you from your punishment. You’re free to go.’
‘How long?’ I ask. ‘How many years have I lost?’
‘It’s been sixteen years since you were placed inside the virtual reality grief punishment. That three years was on a loop in your machine and just kept resetting itself. Or it was supposed to. Apparently, the programme went wrong, if you’re telling me you passed the three-year point,’ Dr Lightly explains.
I gape at Dr Staple and Dr Lightly. ‘I always said I was innocent. No-one believed me. Not even Lara…’
Angry tears fill my eyes. I brush them away.
‘Does Lara know?’ I ask.
‘She’s been informed,’ said Dr Staple. ‘In fact, she’s come to see you. We have her in a room upstairs.’
I stand immediately. ‘Take me to her.’
‘We aren’t sure if that’s a good idea,’ said Dr Lightly. ‘We think it might be better to keep you under observation for a day or two before any other human interaction.’
A tsunami of rage builds within me, and my voice shakes.
‘You tell me I’ve lost sixteen years of my life, serving time in this virtual reality misery world, for three murders I didn’t commit. You don’t even have the decency to apologise. And now you try to tell me I can’t see my wife? Take me to her now, or I swear to God I really will murder someone!’
I’m escorted out of the room, into a stark, white corridor, and up a flight of steps. After winding through several other corridors, I’m shown into a sparsely furnished waiting area with a worn leather sofa and armchairs. Rain pounds on the windows, obscuring the view of the parking area outside.
Then I see her.
She stands up and stares at me. She’s wearing a long dress and thick cardigan, but my eyes are drawn to her weathered and gaunt face. Her eyes contain no trace of the dancing sparkle I beheld when I thought I was Shaun Harrison. My stomach twists. I perceive cruel damage, inflicted by anger and betrayal at the terrible crimes she thought I had committed, grinding away at her throughout the bitter intervening years. Yet I’m still in love with her.
‘Lara…’ I whisper.
I move towards her, hoping to embrace my wife. But she steps away from me. More memories return. Horrible, shrieking scenes in the aftermath of being found guilty. I remember the look on Lara’s face. At first, she stood by me, but in the end, did not believe in my innocence.
‘I don’t know what to say to you Chris,’ she says. ‘For twelve years, I thought you did those terrible things. For years, I believed the case against you, when they said you’d gone in there to steal, and then killed to try and cover up your crimes. It made sense. After all, your business hadn’t been doing so well…’
‘You thought I’d turn to burglary?’
Tears poured down Lara’s cheeks. ‘I didn’t know. I just didn’t know what to think. And I’m so sorry Chris… I wish I could change what I did. I wish I could go back in time, and believe you.’
I move towards her again, and this time Lara embraces me. I hold her as she weeps. I can feel her anguish, but it’s all over now. We can be together. We can rebuild our lives.
‘It’s in the past,’ I say. ‘We can start again.’
Lara pulls away, wiping tears from her blotchy face. ‘Oh, Chris… Chris, I can’t. You see… I divorced and remarried. I’m married to a good man, and I can’t just leave him. And we have children. Three of them. Two girls and a boy. They need their parents. So you see, we can’t be together Chris. Even though this is the most unfair thing in the world for you, I can’t just leave my family and come back to you.’
I stare at Lara, feeling the bottom fall out of my world.
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘Is it really that difficult to believe? I thought you were a killer! I thought you would be inside that justice machine for the rest of your life! There was no hope! How could I possibly have predicted something like this? It isn’t fair.’
I can’t speak. The idea of finding Lara, only to lose her like this… It’s obscene.
‘Lara, that justice machine… It was supposed to make me relive poor Shaun Harrison’s grief over and over again. But something strange happened. It introduced me to you. The computer somehow introduced you, looking like you did when I last saw you, only you had your maiden name. You were the only thing that lifted me out of the hell I was enduring. The daily heartbreak I felt finally dwindled as you swept me away into… I don’t know what.’
‘The computer introduced me?’
‘Exactly. Something obviously went wrong with the programme, because I can’t see how a virtual experience intended as a grief sentence would allow a younger you to be extrapolated, presumably from my memories.’
‘And it really was me? What was I like? What did I do?’
‘You were young and full of life. You were an investigative journalist.’
Lara smiles. ‘I gave that up long ago.’
‘Well, you were in the middle of some important case which… I suppose I was your case, thinking about it. You knew the truth, and I insisted on knowing it. Then I was returned to this life, and…’
I can’t speak. It’s still all so confusing. Memories continue to flood back.
‘Do you still live in that house on the cliff top? Near Durdle Door?’
Lara shakes her head. ‘I moved from there after you were sentenced. Too many memories.’
I close my eyes and recall a picnic on the beach at Durdle Door with Lara. It all makes sense. No wonder I thought I’d been there before.
‘So what happens now?’ I ask. ‘How am I supposed to return to a life that’s left me behind?’
Tears brim in Lara’s eyes. ‘I don’t know Chris. Oh, God! I’m so sorry, so sorry…’
We embrace again. My insides churn, and I feel sick. This has to be a nightmare. It can’t be real.
‘But we’re married!’ I say. ‘We were married for years before any of this happened. Surely we can’t just throw that away?’
‘I can’t throw my husband and children away either. What do you expect me to do? No-one could have predicted this.’
I shake my head. ‘No. I predicted this. We used to debate this, remember? When the government abolished virtual death sentences in favour of virtual grief sentences. We talked about the possible consequences of a false conviction, and even signed petitions calling for the abolition of the grief penalty.’
‘For God’s sake Chris, our political views are hardly important anymore.’
‘I agree. What’s important, is that you expect me to just stand by and watch you disappear with your new husband and family.’
Lara stares at me. She opens her mouth, but words have failed her. They are futile. I ought to sympathise. I ought to feel for her predicament. But I don’t. At this moment, my love has turned to hate. I hate her for not believing me when I told her I was innocent. I hate her for remarrying and having children. I hate her for not dropping them immediately and picking up where we left off. My feelings are irrational, but I hate her all the same.
I open my mouth, but words have also failed me.
After a minute of an uncomfortable silence infused with my palpable anger and Lara’s palpable guilt, she turns away from me and leaves.
I’m escorted back to my room. Once I’m alone, I collapse on my bed and curl up into a fetal position. I burst into tears, sobbing until my throat is hoarse, feeling like my heart will explode. In the end, when I’m too exhausted to cry anymore, I slip into the numbing oblivion of unconsciousness.
‘In conclusion, Your Honour, the case of Christopher Chapman is without precedent, but this court has the opportunity to do the right thing and honour the wishes of this man. He has been on the receiving end of one of the gravest, most singular miscarriages of justices in history, and deserves a ruling in his favour.’
The judge frowns. ‘Mr Bartlett, you have spent weeks of this court’s time arguing the case for Mr Chapman, but there have been petitions from many others — including human rights groups, religious groups, scientists, and goodness knows how many others — giving common sense, logical reasons why his request should be denied.’
I stare around the courtroom. The gallery is packed. Journalists and members of the public hang on every word being exchanged by my lawyer, Frank Bartlett, and the judge. He is due to render his verdict today, following weeks of argument.
I’m sick of having my life plastered across the media, with my innermost desire exposed bare for all to see.
I just want this to be over.
The judge continues. ‘To be clear, Mr Bartlett, your client is asking to be reinserted into the custom-built virtual reality grief sentence, where he will once again believe himself to be Shaun Harrison, for the term of his natural life.’
‘That is correct,’ Bartlett says.
‘You are asking that we make no adjustments to the programme, even though it was designed as a punitive virtual reality world.’
‘Mr Bartlett, I am genuinely torn on this issue. On the one hand, I would be more favourably inclined towards inserting your client into a newly created virtual reality world, where he can be reunited with the younger version of his ex-wife without any punitive measures in place. But to reinsert him into a grief sentence… That seems preposterous.’
‘I understand your misgivings, Your Honour. I have them too. But my client is adamant. He is convinced the woman he met inside the original grief sentence has already removed him from what he was programmed to experience, and that if we simply send him back, he could pick up where he left off.’
‘That’s not what your expert witness had to say, Dr Staple. She claimed that if we reinsert your client without making any adjustments, there is no guarantee at all that he will pick up where he left off. He could restart the entire grief sentence again, at the beginning. Furthermore, he could spend years in there before this alternative Lara appeared again, if she even reappeared at all. He would be trapped in there, with no way to signal to us that he was unable to get back to where he needed to be.’
‘Your Honour, as my client has testified, that is a risk he is willing to take.’
‘It’s a very big risk. I still think he would be better off entering a reprogrammed world that we control, if this is what he really wants. Of course, that’s if we disregard the legal concerns that have been raised, the ethical concerns, the spiritual concerns…’
I find myself on my feet. ‘Your Honour, might I address the court?’
A shocked murmur ripples throughout the courtroom, and I understand why. Throughout this entire case, I have remained silent, sticking to advice given by my legal counsel to let the lawyers make the arguments. But enough is enough. I have to speak.
The judge raises an eyebrow. ‘Very well Mr Chapman. What do you wish to say?’
‘Your Honour, I am sick and tired of hearing the opinions of political groups, religious leaders, or other moral authoritarians who think my desire to be reunited with the woman I love is immoral or unethical. What I do with my life ought to be none of their concern. They claim there are bigger social and religious issues at stake, but for me, this is still simply about my life.
‘They claim the woman I love isn’t real, and that I’m throwing my life away. I disagree. My life has already been destroyed, by the legal system that condemned me for a crime I didn’t commit. I cannot pick up the threads of my old life here, nor can I ever hope to do so. My wife has moved on. She has remarried. She has children. The world has also moved on. I am a man out of time and place.
‘What I am in effect asking, is that you let me end my life on my own terms. I am asking that you reinsert me into the same programme, where I believe I will be reunited with the woman I love, on the beach at Durdle Door.’
The judge’s face is sympathetic. ‘And yet we cannot guarantee this will work, Mr Chapman. Why will you not see reason, and perhaps let us look into creating another world where you can live out the rest of your days, with a programmed version of your wife that we have created?’
‘Precisely for that reason: because you have created her. But Lara can’t come from the minds of your technicians and scientists, no matter how skilled.’
‘From where did she spring from then, Mr Chapman? From your mind? I understood the programme was supposed to safeguard against any escape from the grief sentence.’
‘That’s just it, don’t you see? Because I was innocent, something else intervened. I don’t even believe it was my mind. I believe it may have been something else entirely. Something else manifested within that virtual world which you didn’t introduce. Nor did I introduce it.’
‘What are you implying Mr Chapman? That the Lara you met is a supernatural being? An angel perhaps?’
I know how ridiculous that must sound, so simply shake my head. ‘I just want you to do what I have asked. Please send me back. Please let me go. I’ll sign whatever legal waiver you wish me to sign. I’ll jump through whatever bureaucratic hoops need to be jumped through, only please, I beg you, listen to what I’m saying. I need this. If I can’t go on with her here… I must go on with her there.’
I turn and glimpse Lara in the gallery. Her face is pale, drawn, and sad. Next to her sits a tall bespectacled man, presumably her husband. I don’t see any children. Perhaps they are in school.
Lara nods at me, a tear rolling down her cheek.
I turn back to the judge, and can feel the tears welling up in my own eyes once more. ‘Your Honour, I’m begging you, please… let me go.’
I sit in the machine, watching the wires being plugged into my head, watching the intravenous feeding tubes being attached. After I close my eyes, I will never open them again. The real world will disappear, and I will be oblivious to it. But I don’t care. Every second of the past six months has been agony. All I can think about is getting back to Lara. My Lara. The Lara in the machine. She is more real to me than anything in this reality. I will meet her again on the beach, and this time we’ll stay together.
Dr Staple and Dr Lightly are almost finished making the final adjustments to the equipment. I watch as they scrutinise their various monitors and switches, their expressions focussed and intense. They are as keen as I am for this to work.
‘We’re all set,’ Dr Staple says. ‘This goes against all my better judgement, and I don’t want to do this, but a court order is a court order.’
‘It’s what I want,’ I insist.
‘Are you sure? This is your last chance to change your mind.’
I laugh. The atmosphere in the room was very different the last time I was in this situation. I continually protested my innocence, whilst the prison guards and technicians mercilessly sedated me, plugging me into the machine that would deliver the grief sentence. This time, they are begging me not to go.
Dr Staple and Dr Lightly exchange glances.
‘Very well,’ says Dr Lightly. ‘I’m administering the first serum now.’
He presses a button on the console. An automated syringe injects a needle into my arm, delivering a chemical that will send me to sleep.
‘This will take effect in a couple of minutes,’ Dr Lightly continues.
I smile and close my eyes, imagining the Durdle Door beach. I picture Lara in my mind: My Lara. At this point, a part of me doesn’t care if I wake up at the beginning of the programme, because I believe that Lara will come to rescue me again, whatever happens. Something out there knew I was innocent and sent her to deliver me. That something will make sure I find her again.
Call it a leap of faith.
Dr Staple and Dr Lightly continue to converse around me, but their voices become slurred and indistinct. A second and third serum is applied to my arm, but I don’t feel the fourth. Everything goes black around me, but as the voices of Dr Staple and Dr Lightly disappear, another sound replaces them.
The sound of waves.
Author’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this short story. It was originally conceived as a companion piece to my dystopian romantic satire novel Peaceful Quiet Lives. If you’re interested in my other fictional works (including Peaceful Quiet Lives), please check out my blog here. You can also check out my previous short story published by Illumination here.