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Sentenced to Live

A short story

Another straight fiction story. I think stories are best presented without as little advance context as possible, so please see below for any notes.

Sentenced to Live

Curt looked up from where he sat on the cot in his cell to see the warden unlocking the door.

"I can see on your face the answer was no."

As a response, Tom simply nodded.

Curt looked down at nothing in particular, and neither of them spoke or moved for a long time. Tom considered saying he was sorry, just as a courtesy, but he didn't feel it enough to even say it for the sake of something to say.

"Christ, just stop treating me..." Curt said, just as an expression of his frustration more than any actual attempt to convey anything to Tom. Tom didn't have a response for that either. Both of them knew that the law forbade it, so it wasn't worth discussing yet again.

"Do you know how many lifetimes it's been?" Curt asked. This time he looked up at Tom for an answer.

"Lifetimes? You mean like 25 year sentences?"

"No, I mean actual lifetimes. Like, the way it used to be. Around eighty years or so."

"Can't offhand say that I do." Tom paused to do some mental arithmetic. "Eight...?"

"Eleven." Curt looked down and shook his head. "Eleven and change," He added, quietly.

Tom looked up to the right as he adjusted the math in his head.

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. I guess you'd know..." Tom said. He didn't mean for his statement to be any kind of comment or joke, but it sounded like it.

Curt stood up and reached his hand out to lean against the wall opposite him. He didn't have much room to move, but he needed to. His head hung low, looking straight at the ground.

"Did they give a reason why?" He asked. "I mean, did they give any kind of new reason?"

Tom shifted uncomfortably.

"You killed some girls, Curt", Tom said with flatness built out of having said it so many times before. It was his way of saying that there were no new reasons given.

"God damn it..." Curt said. "So... is their plan for me to be in here for eternity?"

"No one can say if you'll live that..." Tom said. How many times has this conversation and variants like it come up? And not just with Curt...

"Look at me Tom! Just fucking look at me!" Curt stopped pacing and faced Tom, holding his hands out to the sides to indicate that his own body was his subject. "I'm not only not dying, not ageing, I'm getting younger! I was never even this healthy before prison. Not even at the prime of my life!"

"Huh..." Tom said. The ageing process had ended when the treatments began, but Curt had only been given the legal minimum, none of the additional boosts that made youthfulness a standard for every free citizen. Nonetheless, it seemed that slowly, without having to fight the ravages of ageing, Curt's body was slowly getting healthier on its own. Curt still had some artifacts of having aged before. He had crows feet at the corners of his eyes, but they seemed gentler now. His hair was almost completely brown again, with only a few grey hairs in his goatee. You could see his skin looked a little leathery around his neck and the back of his hands, but those areas seemed to be on the retreat.

"Eleven lifetimes, Tom. Eleven. I killed five girls. If each and every girl had lived to a hundred, I've served time for each and every one..."

"It's not just the murders, Curt." Tom said. He leaned in the door frame to the cell. Curt would need to get this out of his system. Again. "There was the rape, the torture, the way it was done. And if you hadn't been caught when you were..."

"I know... God how I know..." Curt said, and his shoulders dropped. "I've had more time than any human should have to think about it. To change. I've been downloading everything there is to know about the brain. The network of neurons, the plasticity... I've literally, physically changed who I am as a person dozens of times in here. I've become several different men, men who lived and died their whole existence in these walls, to be replaced by me. The man who committed those crimes is gone."

"That's one theory. No one really knows the..."

"You do!" Curt said. "You know me, Tom. Do you really think I'm the same man who did those things so many years ago?"

"Curt, if I tried to think about that kind of thing for every prisoner in here, I'd go some kind of nuts."

Curt opened his mouth to speak, and then changed his mind. He sat down on his cot and put his face in his hands.

"It's not about any of that. The sentence was until death..." Tom said.

"Then take me off the suicide watch."

Tom said nothing in response. He looked up at the security camera in the corner and the little red light indicating it was on. He had to keep up an appearance of saying the right things.

"Curt, you don't want to be talking like that now, y'hear? If you say you want to commit suicide, that conveys guilt, and they'll use that to deny you parole at the next hearing. It doesn't go with what you say about being a changed man."

"So I have to show I have the humanity to understand what I did, but not become an actual human who might be better than the one who did what I should feel guilty about."

"There might be a way out, Curt. They want to eventually close this prison too, like the rest."

"No... what the old me did, was too wrong. There's never a point when it becomes okay. You know, I think about it, how it's actually strangely just. Those little girls, they didn't deserve it. They had no idea. I punished them for something they never did. The horror they went through... Now, here I am, I can't even remember doing any of it, I have to look at records to know what I did. I don't feel the feelings or remember what it's like to be that person. I, the me now, is being punished for someone else's problem, just like those girls didn't deserve to be on the receiving end of the old me's problems. In a weird, ironic way, it's the most appropriate punishment of all."

Tom nodded, but it was a slow, automatic motion, just an acknowledgement, and not clearly an agreement.

"I wished I believed in a god," Curt said. "I'd like to think that there was someone who could really know if my soul has been cured of the darkness that used to be in me. I've tried to show the courts, but they'll never really look. No one will. The first page of my file is the stain left by a man who is unforgivable. No one is even interested in reading the rest of the file."

Curt dropped his hands so that as he sat with his elbows on his thighs, his hands hung freely between his knees. He was completely deflated. He turned to look at Tom. His eyes were level with the holster on Tom's belt. Curt had looked at Tom so many times, he knew every single detail, every seam and stitch. Even still, it took him a moment to notice, and to consider the implications. The clasp that strapped Tom's gun over the handle was undone, which didn't really make the gun any easier to draw, since the clasp was designed for quick release. Tom was sending a message.

Curt glanced up to Tom's eyes. Tom wasn't offering many clues, aware of the camera in the room. Somehow, and maybe Curt was imagining it, Tom's eyes seemed to be offering Curt an opportunity. And it might not come again, so if Curt wanted to take it, he had to act. Curt stood up, his body suddenly full of too much energy to stay seated.

"I can't take it anymore!" Curt yelled, but it came out awkward, with no particular words getting any emphasis. Suddenly Curt turned, and moved surprisingly fast, and if Tom hadn't been mentally prepared for it, Curt might have actually caught him off guard. Tom was much younger these days, the beneficiary of all the treatments could offer, and his reflexes were everything they needed to be to carry this out. With a swift motion, he brought his gun straight out of his holster and aimed upwards from his waist, like a gunslinger from the old west. The electromagnetic pulse that drove the bullet out of the barrel was almost completely silent, but the power of it blasted up through the bottom of Curt's head, right where the chin meets the neck, and exploded out through the back of Curt's skull. Curt died almost instantly, and it was only his momentum that carried him forward to crash into Tom. Tom caught him awkwardly, and then let him slide gently downward to the floor.

Tom wanted to whisper, "you're welcome," to Curt, even though Curt wouldn't hear it. Some part of him wanted to speak out the truth, to affirm to himself this was what everyone wanted. But he glanced up at the red light on the camera in the corner of the room, reminding him not to do anything that might make it look like something other than a moment of self defence. The whole point was to avoid the kind of paperwork that might have come with any deliberate or negligent acts. Otherwise he could have just left a knife or string for Curt to commit suicide on his own.

An alarm sounded, and red lights started to flash in the hallway. Tom calmly put his gun back in the holster, and looked at the slick streak of blood that ran down his uniform from his shoulder to his waist. There was going to be a whole protocol to play out, and he took in a deep breath to ready himself for it. There were going to be a lot of questions, but Tom was sure, like everyone else involved, that in the end the bureaucracy would be satisfied. And then, Operation Cleanup would plan the next one. They couldn't all be acts of self defence. There would have to be variety, like escape attempts or accidents in the work areas and that sort of thing. Each one was going to have to be unique so there'd be no detectable pattern. And they'd have to be spread out very, very far apart. It was going to be tricky, but at least the one thing they had was time.

Thank you for having read my story.

I have to admit, this story ends like a bad improv scene where someone just kills someone else for no better reason than to have an ending. I was really fascinated by this concept of a world where mortality is cured, and you have a guy sentenced to prison for what in practical terms becomes literally forever. Also, since I've been researching about how the brain changes, I've been fascinated about how those changes make us who we are, so the idea that given enough time we are literally different people intersects nicely with the fictional world of this story.

I just couldn't get the story to go beyond the concept phase and into character development and a satisfying narrative arc. Oh well. They can't all be gems.

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