Edition 1: The Witness by Laura Haddock
“The Witness” was third place prize winner of the 2011 Story Quest Short Story Contest. Laura Haddock is a newcomer to published fiction and the Story Quest judges noted a high level of maturity and polish in her writing. “The Witness” is, in many ways, a classic sci-fi, but projecting readers into a court-room drama, with a most interesting twist. GH
Of course there are ethical implications.
First, the procedure may never be used on children. The filter of childish perception would only confuse. The intellectually disabled are excused as well. And there is no “off” switch. It is understood that the court will wait respectfully for the duration. I think the record is six minutes.
From the beginning there were promising results with Alzheimer’s and neural trauma patients. The mechanical apparatus buzzed day and night in the research centers, with no shortage of volunteers. Once those crafty engineers discovered that the brain could be manipulated to reverse the erasure process—that memories could be rebuilt—there was no turning back.
I don’t know who first thought to use the machinery on corpses, but he must have been one macabre SOB.
Even now, most REBUILD subjects remain incoherent or don’t even revive. One of my own first cases filled screen after screen with gibberish until he finally powered down. After my “Mr. Harrell, I am prosecuting attorney Jack Sullivan,” I saw the lines scrolling at a frantic pace, saying nothing at all.
The running joke in law school is that 3/4 of a good defense depends on a bad REBUILD.
The REBUILD switch flippers, with their pompous “resurrectician” titles are mostly former morticians who found a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of a body. You see, you can’t just stick the RB helmet on a corpse and have at it. The REBUILD signals only travel through active neurotransmitters, and dead brains are pretty damned inactive.
First, you have to remove the excess. To reanimate a brain for a REBUILD you have to get rid of all the unnecessary bits. In the end, you’ve got a severed head impaled on what looks like a glowing cattle prod. A plastic collar conceals the absence of a neck and the whole shebang is housed in a protective glass box. My secretary, Lucy, says it’s like watching a TV that only picks up the Horror Channel.
If that isn’t enough to put you off your supper, the smell after the reviving jolt should do it.
I’ve worked 11 REBUILDs in my career. That’s close to the record. Many lawyers refuse reanimation cases, but I say what the hell? If I can get a conviction by zapping a dead head so it can be “read”, then I’ll do it. After all, if it were me I’d want to be brought back to finger my killer. Wouldn’t you?
You’ve heard about the Laney Kirk case. It’s been what, three months? I prepped as usual, timing my delivery with a stopwatch–
“Do you remember what happened at Easter?”
“Who had the baseball bat?”
“Mrs. Kirk, please state the name of your attacker.”
35 seconds—a full minute if you factor in sluggish responses. And sometimes you have to ask the same question over and over to keep the witness focused.
But no matter how much I prepare, ultimately everything depends on a successful interface. If the mechanics are wired all wonky, you won’t get shit. For the Kirk case I requested Taylor Bandy—always do. He’s a pasty little creep I wouldn’t spend two minutes with outside work, but he knows how to wire a head. If you pay attention you’ll see that Taylor always makes the sign of the cross just before he flips the switch. Makes you wonder.
The courtroom was full on the day of Laney’s testimony. Former Miss Tennessee Laney Lynn Kirk must have made the front page of the paper for a week solid, and everybody wanted to see this drama played out in person. Beaten to death at 28. Pregnant, but just barely. In the crime scene photos she’s splayed across the bed as if sleeping. Her neck was broken, but the head remained intact so she qualified for a REBUILD. Look—I don’t enjoy working these cases, nobody does, but I needed Laney’s testimony.
All the evidence was circumstantial. Yes, Laney was beaten with the husband’s baseball bat, but any prints were wiped away. No, he couldn’t prove he was out for a walk when it happened—could I prove that he wasn’t? Of course his DNA was all over the room—he lived there. I couldn’t convict Roy Kirk with the evidence. I needed Laney and the wires that would transmit her memories to readable text on a computer screen. I needed her ghost.
Laney Kirk’s reanimation began routinely. Taylor wore a dour expression when he wheeled the cart in, glass box strapped on top and covered with a white sheet with the REBUILD logo. He set the brake and fiddled with the dials, and I stood poised like a runner waiting for the starting gun.
At the Bailiff’s signal Taylor flipped the lever and whipped off the sheet for visual ID.
“Mr Prosecution,” prompted the judge. “Is this your witness?”
The courtroom artist captured the moment. You may have seen it—me with mouth open and eyes bulging. I froze. Laney Kirk was still so lovely despite the bruising and swelling, even despite the box. Her eyelids fluttered wildly, and for a moment I expected her to open her eyes and look at me.
“Time, Mr. Prosecution!”
“Yes, your honor. I can confirm that this is Laney Kirk.” Taylor immediately replaced the sheet and turned on the computer screen.
“Laney Kirk,” I said. “Laney, you are the victim of murder. Who killed you?”
The defense guy pressed closer, practically leaning on me.
“We have only a moment, Ms Kirk.” I was talking to a sheet. “Who killed you? Who did this to you?”
The cursor began to move across the screen leaving spaces, then ? ? ?—the REBUILD was picking up confusion.
Rhythmic clicks and thumps from the contraption were the only sounds in the room. I think everybody held their breath, waiting. The green status lights blinked, and I knew that soon they would all turn red and Laney would be out of time.
Why? read the screen whywhywhy? It was over. I’d seen it before—Laney Kirk was in shock.
I nodded to the judge. “No more questions, your honor.”
“Defense!” the judge bellowed.
The lawyer took a step and wavered. Not much to say now.
“Mrs. Kirk,” he started.
Why? once again. whywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhy for line after line. She was fading, and her last thoughts weren’t pretty. I had the peculiar urge to step up and break the glass and kiss her, to send her out with something sweet.
In the corner of my eye I saw the defense falter. He passed out and fell on the box, toppling the works. Someone gasped, and I heard footsteps as people rushed from the room. Taylor was wrapping the head in the protective sheet. Her eyes were wide open. Laney was staring, terrified.
That night I got drunker than I had in my life. Honestly, I’ve been drinking pretty steadily ever since. My leave of absence is officially over soon, and I haven’t made up my mind if I’m going back. I’ve got a cousin down in the Florida Keys in the real estate business. Maybe I’ll give flip flops and condo rentals a try.
But you’re waiting to hear about me and Roy Kirk, aren’t you? What was it you asked? I went to see Roy after the fiasco in the court room. He got off scot-free, you know. The scumbag even kept the apartment he’d shared with Laney—the murder scene.
I didn’t go looking for a confrontation. I just needed to see the asshole and satisfy myself that he was more at fault than me—to look for a difference between him and the reflection I had come to hate. He certainly obliged.
I waited at the bus stop across the street, smoking a cigarette. Dirty habit, but it gives my hands something to do other than shaking. Roy rode up on his bicycle and spotted me immediately. He stood and glared until I decided to go have it out with him. I wanted him to know that I knew he did it. I knew what he was.
I’ll admit I had been drinking that afternoon—my new hobby, remember? I don’t recall everything that was said, but I threw the first punch. Roy went berserk. He was like a rabid animal, all teeth and claws. We were wrestling around there on the front steps and some lady started screaming. I remember…the ambulance siren. I remember?
Look, what was it you wanted to know? I am just so damn tired. What used to make sense confuses me now. Didn’t Hemmingway live in the Keys? I could just sit and drink and read Hemingway on the beach.
I want to sleep now. I want to forget. Did I tell you that I dream about her? I dream about those eyes looking right at me. I think we could have had something if I’d met her before. Does that sound crazy? So tired. I need a drink.
Just let me go.
A slight shock buzzed through his brain and Jack Sullivan felt as if he were slowly awakening from a dream.
“Mr. Sullivan, I ask again, can you tell us who killed you? Mr. Sullivan?”
Memories of his life, his career, his failures, they flooded his mind—horrible. Why wouldn’t they leave him alone? I told you, Roy Kirk killed me. Roy Kirk! He beat me to death. I remember!
Taylor Bandy shook his head and replaced the protective sheet.
“Nothing, then?” The lawyer stared at the blank screen and waited as all the blinking lights went red.
Laura Haddock spends big chunks of time staring into space because she believes that daydreaming is the first step in writing any story. Luckily, she has an active imagination, an incredibly patient husband, and two wonderful daughters who promise to take care of her in her old age. Laura spends her days disguised as a mild mannered AP administrator, but she writes every chance she gets.