Here’s the beginning of the story I’ve been working on. I’m getting close to finishing it, and then I’ll go back and do some revising. It’s deliberately more tell than show, though I’ll probably be adding a little more of his thoughts.
I’d like to know whether the objective observer POV works. I know it’s a style that’s old-fashioned and out of date, but I feel it’s appropriate to this story. And any other comments are welcome.
It will be free when it’s finished — on Dark Boundaries and Smashwords. I’ll have to put a price on it for Amazon and wait for them to price-match.
He’d thought the insertion of the implants was the worst pain he’d ever felt, but this . . . the searing heat must be destroying his face. And it was surely going to destroy his mind. He wanted to pass out, sink into unconsciousness, but something prevented it. The agony was infinitely worse than anything he ever could have imagined, sitting in his cell with nothing to do, nothing to keep his imagination from creating horrors based on what he’d seen on news vids. His muscles twitched and spasmed as his body’s automatic struggle to escape was frustrated by the shackles that so thoroughly locked him into position. There was nothing they overlooked, his torturers, not one single thing that could torment him, punish him for something he hadn’t done. There was only one outlet for his pain, and his screams tore his throat. Only one coherent thought came to him before his mind was consumed in the dreadful heat — that Nulls were so hideously burned that even if their sentences were somehow reversed, their faces would always have to be hidden.
Nobody had told him anything, not one word that might have prepared him, might have helped him resign himself to the inevitable. Not since the judge had pronounced his sentence, and a black hood had immediately been pulled down over his head. The eye holes had let him see, had let him catch a glimpse of the judge taking off his own ornate black hood and handing it to a court official. And then it was over, the whole ugly process that had deprived him of the time and privacy to mourn his loss, that had made a mockery of his grief and turned him into a criminal. Heavily shackled, roughly pushed and pulled by the guards, he’d been taken to a police van. All he could think about as he sat chained to the hard bench was the judge’s face, undisturbed, almost cheerful, as it had reappeared from under the official hood. And about his own face. About how the hood he was wearing would be replaced by another, one that would become a part of him, never to be removed.
* * *
The fire was already out as Bran Carstairs turned the corner onto the block where he lived. The smoke he’d seen from so far away at first, then rising over his neighborhood as he came closer, was from his own house. He hit the brake pedal so hard that he would have smashed his forehead against the window if not for his seatbelt. His house! His home — reduced to smoldering roof timbers leaning at strange angles, and partial walls with jagged glass in the dark holes of what had, just a few hours ago, been windows. His mind stopped functioning, simply froze, as he took in the sight. Then it woke fully to the horror of what might have happened inside that smoking ruin. Trish! Oh my God! No! Please let her not have been at home. He took his foot off the brake pedal, let the car coast slowly down the street, almost to the crowd of people gaping past the tape and the police blocking them and pushing them back. His trembling fingers turned the key, but it didn’t occur to him to take it out of the ignition. Fear held him frozen for long seconds before he could force himself to open the door and get out.
* * *
The evidence was purely circumstantial, but it had been enough to convict him. The testimony in his favor, from people who knew him, had known Trish — none of that counted against the absence of reasonable doubt. The fire had been deliberately set. He had recently increased the death benefits on both their insurance policies. The prosecuting attorney convinced the jury that increasing his own as well as Trish’s was merely a ploy to cover his intentions. The recent drastic increase in violent crimes had put everyone on edge. The public wanted an end to the violence and the fear. The justice system was under heavy pressure. The guilty had to be found and punished. It didn’t matter if it was the wrong man.
“Bran Carstairs, you have been found guilty of arson and the murder of your wife in order to gain financially from her death. This court condemns you to the sentence prescribed for such crimes. You will be taken from this place to undergo the process that will remove you from membership in the human race and reveal to anyone unfortunate to see you, the foulness of your soul: you will be transformed into a Null. May God have mercy on you. The rest of the world will have none.” * * *
Sitting in the bare cell, by turns numb, angry, fearful, Bran had lost track of the days. Most of the shackles had been removed, but his hands were left cuffed in front of him, a short chain between them. The leather collar that ran through loops at the bottom of the black hood and locked at the back of his neck ensured that he couldn’t remove the hood. The pressure around his neck and being forced to breathe through the fabric of the hood made him feel as if he was always short of air. His scalp itched with the sweat that dried in his hair, and the stubble of his beard scratched against the coarse cloth. He’d been taken once, heavily shackled again, to a shower room. But even that had been punishment. Still dressed in the black jumpsuit, he was hosed down from head to foot with a hard blast of cold water, and then taken back to his cell, dripping and shivering. That, more than anything, helped him come to the understanding that the life in which he could comb his hair, shave, wash himself or change to clean clothes was truly over. Those were privileges for prisoners who would serve their sentences and go back out into the world, to take up their lives again.
Nothing had been done to him yet, but he understood that, to the men who brought his food and took away the empty dishes, who took him to the shower, who kept watch over him, he was already a Null. They couldn’t see his face, so he was no longer human. If he spoke, which he seldom did any more, his voice didn’t seem to reach their ears. He tried to imagine how he must look to them. Did they watch him through the small window in the cell door while he ate? Did it amuse them to see him trying to eat with his hands cuffed, getting the food into his mouth through the too-small slit in the hood?
He’d thought about not eating, just letting himself starve to death, but after ignoring three meals, hunger defeated him. They probably wouldn’t have let him escape that easily, anyway, even if he had the will power for it. Was it all part of the punishment, letting him sit here day after day? They might keep him here in this windowless cell for months or years, allow him to stew in his ignorance of what was going to happen when they finally took him out for the last time. Maybe they hoped he’d go mad with the boredom and the fear. He avoided thinking about Trish, about the life they’d had together. The fear was easier to handle, somehow. But sometimes he woke up from dreams that slipped from memory before he could grasp them, the hood wet with his tears.
There was nothing to do but remember, despair. For a while, he’d had fantasies of escaping, somehow, and finding the man who’d killed Trish and put him here. But what would he do if he found the monster? Could he turn himself into a killer? Maybe Trish hadn’t been the only one to die at his hands. If he was brought to justice . . . But Bran couldn’t bear to let himself think about that. To hope for a miracle, that the killer would be found, that his sentence would be overturned and he’d be free. But free for what? The person who’d given his life meaning was gone. It was at those moments when the fantasy collapsed that he longed for it to be over. Whatever they were going to do to him, he just wanted them to get it done. Nulls didn’t live long. That might be something to be grateful for. Instead of trying to survive, he could just let himself be found by the hunters. He’d only ever seen one short clip on a news program — the Null falling to the ground in convulsions and then being kicked and stomped until he lay perfectly still. Bran shuddered. It wasn’t the way he would have wanted to die, but living in the shadows, hated and reviled? Death would be better, no matter how it came.
Please, he whispered to himself. Please hurry. There were days when he was sure they were coming for him. He imagined he heard footsteps coming toward his cell, even though he knew that was impossible. He didn’t even hear the guards who brought his foot until the door was being unlocked. Why were they waiting? Maybe there were other prisoners ahead of him, waiting their turn. Could there be so many condemned to be turned into Nulls? It was hard for him to imagine that anyone would deliberately commit a violent crime these days, knowing what the punishment would be. But there had always been extreme punishments—electrocution, hanging, lethal injections, and before his own modern — civilized — era, burning alive, dismemberment, and even more hideous ways to extract payment for crimes. What devious mind had invented the ultimate punishment that now awaited him? To leave the condemned alive and free, but no longer considered human — surely that cruelty could never be surpassed.
Sometimes he told himself that this was just a nightmare. All he had to do was find a way to wake up and he would have his life back. Trish would be alive, and he would tell her about the dream. She would comfort him and assure him that nothing like that could ever happen. Little by little, the lingering horror would fade and he could forget that it had ever happened. Bran shuddered and tried to blank out such thoughts, but without anything to occupy him, with nothing to see but the bare walls, nothing to do but pace the tiny space, exercise, or lie on the bunk and try to trace the patterns of the cracks in the ceiling, his mind returned to them again and again. The waiting and the fear went on and on. They were too real to be a nightmare, and his ability to pretend otherwise finally failed him.