The Punishment

Story A Week (SAW) 7: Feb 12th, 2018

By Adam O’Sullivan

Mary pulled the car over to the side of the road as the engine sputtered and died. It would be good to ditch the car anyway. The authorities would be tracking the license plates by now, and could be close behind. The credit cards had been thrown in the trash after the first stop for supplies. She had stocked up, paid by card and then promptly thrown them away. Better to pay by cash from now on and not leave a digital paper trail of her actions.

In her previous life, Mary was just a bored middle class housewife, but her nightly routine included watching police dramas. She had some idea what she was doing. From the moment she realised what the consequences of her actions would be, preparations had begun for the inevitable time when she would have to run. Money had been hoarded in bits and pieces and collected in a small lock box, finally moved to a secure location in the boot of the car where the spare tire was kept. A go bag filled with necessities had been hidden under the car seat. It looked like a gym bag to anyone who might have found it accidently. She had prepared herself mentally to run without hesitation if and when her actions were discovered.

That was two days ago. Robert was supposed to meet her at their secret location, but almost an hour after the agreed upon time and he still hadn’t shown. Mary knew something was wrong. Robert was always punctual, especially for their meetings. Driving past the street she lived on, the police lights were already visible from a block away. They were obviously outside her house. Turning the car back onto the street as calmly as she could manage, saying a silent prayer that her go bag and cash were already in the car, she drove away from the life she had known so well. She drove through the night, high on adrenaline. In the morning, she allowed herself a brief few minutes to weep over the life that was lost, before exhaustion took over her and she rested.

On the second day of driving, she heard her name all over the radio airwaves as she switched between stations, looking for music to soothe her nerves.

“Mary Wilder, suspected….” The radio garbled as she changed the station, “she is considered dangerous…” A second station change, surely someone was playing music? “If you spot the accused, please contact…” she punched the radio off in frustration. It was the same on every station, every time the news was run. Her face was on every TV station, on the front page of every newspaper. The only solace was that the pictures of Mary that the TV stations were showing were thankfully no longer the same face that she wore now. Her hair was now blonde instead of chestnut brown, cut as short as she could manage in an improvised buzzcut. Her skin was now a deep mahogany thanks to the tanning solution she had applied vigorously. Her nails were no longer well-manicured, they were cut short and without nail polish for the first time in many years. She was wearing the most masculine looking clothes available in her go bag, a change from the pretty summer dresses and business suits that she used to wear in her previous life. They had been purchased especially for this occasion, as were the sneakers on her feet – big, blocky, cheap, ugly things that she hated. All bought months ago. If the police went through her daily routine looking for clues, they would have to go back months to find when she had bought this particular outfit. She missed her previous look. She missed the height that heels had given her when she wore them. She missed catching her image in a mirror and noticing how perfectly she was dressed. In contrast to that woman, Mary had personally pierced her nose in a gas station bathroom. Could anyone back home imagine her with a nose piercing? She hoped not, it was now part of her disguise. The car was her last tie to who she used to be.

Mary got out of the car. The last gas canister in the boot of the car sloshed half full of petrol. She now had to make one of two decisions. Either fill up the car one last time and drive until it was empty, hoping that they didn’t reach her by then, or use the last of the fuel to destroy the evidence, and hopefully buy herself a little more time.  She twisted the cap off and poured the gas all over the car. She gagged at the strong smell but didn’t stop until the canister was finally empty. Lighting a match, she flicked it into the car and ran to a safe distance to make sure the fire caught and consumed the car. This area was a pretty perfect place for a bonfire. The road was clear and long and empty, the path beside the road was paved, and there didn’t seem to be anything nearby that would catch on fire. There hadn’t been crop fields out here for decades.

When the heat from the fire became too much for her to bear, Mary turned and ran. The sneakers may have been ugly, but at least they were easier to run in than heels. She ran as hard as she could and for as long as her energy allowed. She ran until her legs throbbed and she felt she might pass out. When she could run no more, she switched to walking, and kept alternating until her lungs felt like they were going to explode from the effort.

As she ran, Mary wondered – was it worth it, what her and Robert had done? It felt right at the time. It seemed like something that couldn’t be stopped, like it was an inevitable force building within them both. For the longest time, she tried to resist her desires. Her brain screamed no, but her heart screamed louder, though they both secretly tried to deny themselves. One night, a shared moment had become a full formed idea, seemingly springing from both of them at once. From that moment on, there was no pause, no way to stop their actions.

Mary wished she could tell her husband Stan how sorry she was, but of course that was impossible now. She would never be able to speak to Stan ever again. Stan was the reason why she was being hunted. Stan and Flora, Robert’s wife. Both lost to them now. She hoped they were both in a better place. Robert and Mary would deal with the repercussions of their selfishness.

Mary supposed that she and Robert could have divorced their partners. It would have been easier, would have been the only perfectly legal course of action. Should they have taken that path, they wouldn’t have embroiled themselves in illegal and immoral activities. They had considered it, naturally. The chosen path was far too risky, even if it was less public. It was secretive, but one small slip up and all would be revealed. Everything they had worked for would come undone with a single whisper. In the end, they decided that divorce was not the right course of action. The energy and effort of fighting would have collapsed their worlds down around them, carefully crafted worlds that have taken years to put together. On her end, Stan would have taken half of their savings, would have turned their friends against her. This option seemed like the better option, better for all involved. Their partners would be blissfully unaware until it no longer mattered. Once Robert and Mary had convinced themselves that the immoral path was their only real option, it had been surprisingly easy to organise. Looking back in hindsight, Mary reminisced on how simple it had been to convince herself. Robert didn’t need much convincing at all. It seemed right at the time. Since they were children, they had been taught, like everyone around them, that such actions were to be hated, such thoughts despicable. Anyone seen exhibiting inclinations towards such actions was to be reported, to keep the whole community safe. Years before, society had been in upheaval, full of violence and sin. A new moral government had risen out of the ashes, to restore humanity. The current society was much better, more stable.

Mary could have run away with Robert, but doing so would have revealed their deeds. Two married people didn’t run off together unless they had something to hide. The police would have dug deeper, would have made their own conclusions and would have found the evidence they needed.

So Mary and Robert kept to their normal lives, making it seem as if nothing had changed. They thought they were being smart. They convinced themselves that they would get away with their deeds. Perhaps they had become too brazen, and someone had noticed. Maybe that’s why they were now being caught.

In the distance, Mary saw a house. The house appeared to be one of those old country houses, with a barn nearby. As Mary came closer, she could see the house and the barn were in disrepair. She might be lucky. There might not be anyone home. She hoped there was some form of transport available.

At the same time…

Robert could feel the blood in his mouth. They were brutalising him. The police weren’t officially allowed to use torture, however he knew that he wasn’t really considered a human being anymore. He knew as well as the officers knew, that he was a dead man. It wasn’t a matter of if, just a matter of when. They could do whatever they wanted to him. He’d be given enough time to heal for the cameras, and then he would be dragged away for execution.

Robert could feel a glimmer of hope deep inside his mind. If they were asking him about Mary, it meant that they didn’t know where she was. There was even a chance that she might be free.

Robert desperately wished he could be forgiven for what he’d done.

36 hours later…

Detective Stevens sat in the back of the department helicopter. It was a top of the line model, a sleek and black vehicle. The department that Stevens worked for was well funded. They were extended every little gadget that was deemed necessary to get the job done. It was their job to ensure the morality of the populace, and failing even once would result in a loss of faith. No-one wanted to return to the society of before.

A small distance in front of the helicopter, a modern black electric car raced down the long stretch of road. The base of the road was bitumen, but the top was toughened glass. Inside the glass was solar panels, catching the rays of the sun during the day to be used as energy by the populace at night. Detective Stevens knew that the design of the road also made it more difficult to manoeuvre vehicles at high speed. There had been fewer high speed chases since the roads had been installed. She couldn’t run forever, and she couldn’t get away from them now.

The information that the dirtbag of an accomplice had given them was useless. He had taken too long to break, but they had still broken him to show that they could. The known locations that the criminals frequented were searched, but no further clues were found, and the woman was long gone by then. That was fine. His secondary team had already started following their leads before the piece of shit had seen his first tooth flying out of his mouth, covered in blood. Detective Stevens relied on tips, and paid handsomely for them. They had found her the same way they found everyone they hunted. In the new world, the people loved to help out the authorities.

Below them, Stevens saw the car slowing down. He could see the road block set up further down the road, and obviously she had too. Down there, a dozen police vehicles awaited, a strip of tire puncturing spikes set up a safe distance in front of them. She couldn’t get away here. The sides of the road were paved, and lined with knee high brick walls. There hadn’t been a field out here for people to drive through in decades.

“Take us down” Stevens growled into the headset mic. The pilot obliged, landing the helicopter on the road in front of the small car. The detective could only see one person in the driver’s seat. Mary stepped out, and stood beside the car as Stevens walked up to her. She stood as strong and proud as she could manage, but the detective could see in her eyes that she was broken. Two officers raced up and handcuffed her.

“Mary Wilder nee Pearson, you are arrested under suspicion of engaging in unlawful sexual congress with one Robert Smiley, while the two of you were involved in relationships with other people. Under the Infidelity Law of 2049, I am taking you into questioning. The fact that you ran from law enforcement will be noted on your record. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.”

“I want to see my husband. I want to speak to Stan.”

“Ms Pearson,” spat back Detective Stevens, and Mary’s face scrunched up as if he had actually spat at her. She did not fail to notice that he was only referring to her by her maiden name, no longer her married name. “Robert Wilder has put in a request for a DIVoid order and this has been granted by the courts. You are no longer married.”

Mary knew that DIVoid stood for Divorce/Avoid. It was a standard requirement in criminal matters involving infidelity. The victim could, in a single move, ensure that they were divorced from the accused, and also that the accused could not go near them. All of the accused’s belongings passed into the ownership of the victim, and the victim was granted access to all of the accused’s accounts, ranging from banking to social media. Some victims held off in the name of solidarity with their loved ones, but in the end they always capitulated. Especially after the accused had been punished, there was no point holding on to them.

In a state of shock, Mary was led away to her fate.

A month later…

Mary was awoken by the sound of her cell door being kicked in loudly. She pulled the thin blanket against her, trying to hide her modesty. Armed guards marched in and pulled her to her feet. They ripped the blanket away from her and she stood there, naked. She hadn’t been allowed to shower in days, and had been fed on the bare minimum, stale bread, expired ham, cloudy water. The guards pushed her out of the cell and she began to walk.

At the ground floor, Mary was shackled in between two armoured guards, one standing a metre in front of her, the other a metre behind. If she refused to walk, the guard behind her would move in front and the two guards would drag her along. She had seen it happen on TV before. The execution of a cheater was a big prime time event. Children were given the day off school. Offices set up large video screens so that their employees could watch. The Lord High Minister of the Grand Chancellery of Morality would probably be here. Already, Mary could hear the wild noise from outside.

The guards opened the door leading out of the building and the sound of the crowd was deafening. Mary tried to use her arms and hands to cover herself, but when the lead guard started moving forward, there was little she could do whilst still walking forward. She was to be humiliated in front of the entire world before she received her punishment. Her hair had started to grow back, but had then started to fall out in clumps due to malnutrition. She knew people sitting at home would be watching, wondering what sort of a person would destroy their life over this disgusting creature being lead through the crowd. She wished she could reach out and explain. When she looked out into the sea of faces, all she saw was pure disgust and anger.

The crowd was parted by clear, bulletproof glass to create a path through the square. People were yelling on either side, some pressed up against the glass. In the days before the use of the glass partitions, it was not unknown for people to spit on the accused and throw balloons filled with all sorts of disgusting fluids. The bulletproof glass partitions had been added not because the government disapproved of this practice, but mainly so they could ensure that the accused actually made it to the gallows. No point having a heavily advertised event if some activist assassinated the accused on the long walk to their punishment. The modern day angry mob had adapted. Now they threw glass bottles over the barrier, trying to hit her on the head. Even when they missed her, the bottles would shatter on the pavement, and she would be forced to walk through the shards. The guards were heavily armoured to ensure they weren’t hurt in any way. Mary left a trail of bloody footprints as she walked to the head of the crowd.

Before her stood a large metal structure. In days gone by, such a device would have been made from wood. Back then it would have been a temporary structure, to be erected when required. These days, it was a sturdy permanent structure, the pride of the city. There was always a need to hang cheaters. The bottom of the metal structure was lined with wood, well looked after and shiny from a recent coating of varnish. About a metre above the ground stood the platform, made from thin metal slivers. When a small electrical charge was sent through the slivers, they became rigid and formed the floor of the platform. By manipulating different currents through the alloy, different sections of the platform could be made to fall away, starting from the middle of the platform where the nooses hung. A large metal beam loomed over the platform, and three nylon ropes hung from the beam. At the end of each was a loop, a noose to hang someone from. Three nooses meant three cheaters to hang. Mary knew that cheaters were usually hung with their fellow cheater or cheaters. She wondered if Robert had been cheating on her with someone else, or if another cheater’s partner was killed during capture. Perhaps Robert was already dead, and she was the third person to another pair of cheaters. Who knows what they had done to Robert. He may have found a way to get out, even if it wasn’t freedom. Better to take away their pleasure in this barbaric ritual. Mary stared straight ahead and tried to forget the shards of glass cutting her feet. She had considered suicide many times, but had been unable to go through with it.

As they reached the front of the crowd, the two armoured guards grabbed Mary by the arms and forced her up the steps. They held her under the middle noose and stood waiting. She could hear a slight hum from the platform as the electric current kept the floor rigid. You didn’t hear that on the broadcasts. Above, camera drones buzzed around, trying to find the best angle to broadcast to their viewers. Above the gallows structure, a large holographic screen broadcast a view of the Judge. The Judge was just for show. Mary had already been found guilty weeks before. They wouldn’t hold this spectacle if there was any chance she wasn’t going to be executed.

The Judge presiding today was called The Rocker, and she sat at her desk wearing a T-Shirt under her judges robes that advertised a recent popular punk-pop band. Her hair was bright pink and sculpted into a Mohawk. Her finger nails were bright purple and there was a chain connected to her nose that went back to an ear piercing. The arms of her judges robes had been ripped off and you could see multiple tattoos etched onto her arms. The Judges were real lawyers, picked more for their wild eccentricities than their exceptional legal skills. The spectacle itself was more akin to a reality TV show event than an actual trial. Mary zoned her out as the Judge listed her offences.

Within minutes, even before the Judge had finished reading out Mary’s details, there was a wailing that carried on the air. A male voice was screaming “No, please no!”. Mary could see a man, similarly naked, being forcibly dragged up the centre walkway in the crowd. At one time, he would have been handsome, muscular. Now he was a faded portrait of his former self. Like Mary, his hair was clumped and ragged. There were cuts all over his body, probably caused by rats coming into his cell and biting during the nights.

The man was dragged to head of the square, just in front of the gallows. He was now screaming “She seduced me!”

On the holographic screen, The Rocker suddenly came to life and leaned forward. The image seemed to jump out of the screen until it was a mere metre away from the screaming man.

“Your lover was single at the time of the affair. She has been interrogated and it has been determined that she knew you were married. Therefore, as per our laws, she has been branded with the mark of a cheater accomplice on her forehead.”

The man howled before the guard holding him punched him hard in the mouth. The man whimpered to himself as the crowd cheered.

A section of the ground in front of the gallows suddenly opened up. A woman in a bulletproof glass cage was lifted up through the hole. She was crying heavily, though you could still make out that she was incredibly beautiful. Her hands were covering her forehead instead of wiping the tears from her eyes. She was hiding a hideous burn mark, but there was no point. Everyone here had seen the mark that was now burned into her forehead. It appeared in propaganda posters all over the city and on TV. A simple heart shape with a dagger thrust down into it. The symbol of someone who has been complicit in a cheating but is not considered a cheater themselves.

The Rocker turned her attention to the woman in the glass cage.

“As per our laws, should you be found to be a part of a second cheating incident, you will also be executed.”

The woman fell to her knees, as if she was trying to shrink away. At least one drone camera kept its focus on her face, or what it could manage as she tried to cover her face with her arms. Her picture and name had already been published in the newspaper. The gossip was that she had also been fired from her job as a realtor. Technically, businesses couldn’t fire cheater accomplices, but there were ways around it. Suddenly, every incorrect thing you ever did during your employment is dredged up and used to remove you. She would eventually move out to Cheater Town, as it was known, on the border of the habitable land. All cheater accomplices went out there. There really wasn’t much choice. No-one wanted to associate with a cheater accomplice. Especially if you were married or in a relationship. There would be too much suspicion for a married person or someone in a relationship to be associated with a known cheater accomplice.

The man was dragged up to the platform and stood next to Mary. According to The Rocker, his name was Kent.

Mary wondered where Stan was. Was he watching on TV? Had he been forced to put in the DIVoid or had he done so willingly?

As one of the drone cameras came close to her, Mary yelled out “Stan, I’m sorry! I love you!” before a guard clamped a hand over her mouth. She was sure that at least part of the message would be censored before it could get out, but she hoped that Stan had understood her words.

The guard pulled her to him, his hand still clamped to her mouth. In her ear, he whispered “Now’s the time you think of your husband’s feelings? You should have thought about that before you did what you did, you stupid slut.” She could smell his breath. He had been drinking. Probably most of the guards had to drink to get through the ordeal. The second guard grabbed her other arm and they made sure she was back in position.

One more figure was being marched through the throng. He looked terrible since she had seen him last, but Mary would have recognised Robert anywhere. His eyes were cast down, watching the path in front of him. He may have been deep in thought, he looked so calm.

Her heart fluttered at the sight of him, and she felt guilty for her husband, now ex-husband, again. She wasn’t sure how she felt.

Robert’s head lifted up and he locked eyes on Mary for the first time since their last rendezvous. That day was a long summer afternoon. Flora’s mother was visiting, so Robert had a valid excuse to be out of the house. Stan was out of town for work. They met at one of their usual locations, a small cottage in the woods that Robert’s family owned. After they had sex the first time, he made them dinner. Nothing special, but it had felt so good, so naughty, like they were a real couple. Afterwards, they had sex again, before Robert had to be back home. Mary already knew how to lock the cottage when she left. She tidied up a bit before she left and had jumped into her car, still smelling of his sex. She thought she saw a movement out of the corner of her eye, but at the time she had thought it was nothing. Looking back now, she suspected that someone had a camera drone out. Maybe that last time had been their downfall. It felt worth it at the time.

“I won’t die for this bitch!” Robert was yelling in her direction. His face was now twisted into a look of complete and utter rage. Mary could also see flickers of fear in his deep green eyes. “She ruined my life!” He grabbed the chain behind him and pulled. The guard was pulled off his feet. Robert ran towards the guard in front of him, a rabid wild beast reacting in desperation.

It was over before Mary’s brain really understood what was happening. These guards were trained for this sort of thing. Robert’s forehead now had a small round hole and the back of his head exploded as the guard opened fire. His large frame fell to the floor in front of the guard. The crowd started to boo. They had missed out on the chance to see three executions today. The drone cameras tried their best to get coverage, but no doubt the more gory sections would be blurred out.

“Clean up, Aisle one!” boomed the voice of the Rocker over the speakers. “My fans, it looks like we had someone who wanted to buck the system. And you know what that means? When you buck the system, you better get ready to be bucked right back!” The gathering was filled with whooping and cat calls. The Judges were good at their job of whipping the populace into a frenzy.

“Now, I’m so sorry, but it looks like we only need two nooses today.” She pressed a button on her desk and the last noose was drawn back up into the beam, a small hatch closing behind it. “You lovely people have waited long enough, let’s get this show on the road!”

Mary was devastated. In the final moments, Robert had denounced her. She had abandoned Stan for this man, and it turns out he didn’t even really love her. She could feel the guards unlatching their chains from her. Tears ran down her cheeks as the guards lowered the noose around her neck. Through the tears, she could see the guards walking away. She wondered where her family was, what they thought of her. Did they understand, having a cheating daughter and sister? Or did they see her as just another cheater, less than human, to be eradicated for the good of society?

Kent was howling again, and the audience booed at him. Multiple people were trying to yell a variety of obscenities and abuse at them both, and it all absorbed into an awful wave of noise. They laughed as Kent pulled his arms up and held on to the noose around his neck.

Mary’s last thought was of Stan, the caring, sweet wonderful man that had stood by her when she was down, that she had hurt so very much with her actions.

The mass of human voices was counting down in time with The Rocker. It sounded like a New Year’s celebration.

“3, 2, 1…. Cheaters cheated… of life!”

Mary could still hear the cheering of the crowd as her feet fell.

THE END

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