The future of the past The room is everything you expected it to be, all except the long windows.

You didn’t think there’d be windows in a prison. There is an orange glow from the street outside and you can still hear the snap and crack of stone hitting shields. The chants have got louder since you were first hauled in here. Their voices scream and crumble against the prison walls and you see their cheap homemade cardboard signs in your mind. Sergeant Cartwright walks into the room, he’s carrying something big and flat and it’s getting in his way. A woman follows in behind him; she’s carrying a black briefcase, all official. There is a red badge in the shape of a sun dial pinned to her blouse. She’s a regressive judge. You’ve heard about these. Your stomach churns and you feel a cold sweat trickle over your forehead. She stays close to Cartwright, peering around his shoulders to get her first look at you. “Mr Stoakes, this is Melanie Taylor...” Says Cartwright, gesturing to the small woman at his side. She attempts a smile. You notice her thick waxy lipstick and how it runs too wide over her mouth. You say hi. This seems to comfort her, she nods and sits. Cartwright lifts the flat object onto the table and slides it towards you. You look down upon it. It's the painting from your living room, the one you paid five pounds for at that auction, years ago.

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“You recognise this?” asks Cartwright, his voice already confident of your answer. You look over the smooth surface of the water colour. A man sits upon his grey horse high above a soft green pasture. Cigarette smoke twists into the air in front of him or at least that’s what you always thought it was. You were never sure if it was a cigarette or just a piece of wheat he held between his lips. But it was the cigarette and the blue coast and square hat that had always made him look so very French. Behind him a red horse follows on reigns, its glossy coat shimmers despite the cloud cover. It was the reason you bought the painting. The great red horse reminded you so much of Hazel, the pony your mother kept when you were just a child. “Yes.” You shrug, wondering what the painting has anything to do with anything. The woman starts nodding, agreeing with no one in particular. “There is some link, you know. When you bought this painting you probably chose it subconsciously”. She says. You take a deep breath as she leans down and picks up her briefcase. She places it on the table. You can’t stop your hands shaking. Any moment now they will show you what you didn’t want to know. What you fought so hard to escape from while the world pushed against you as you ran against the flow. You catch your breath. “Please…” You beg, “I don’t want to see it. Just sentence me and let me do my time. I don’t need to know.”
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The woman places a red file on the table. You notice your name on it, written below the sun dial emblem. She gives you a half smile, she seems genuinely sorry. You didn’t expect that of a regressive judge. You heard they were trained to be tough, unemotional and unforgiving. “I am sorry but it is the law. According to article 5 of the past crime act, you must be aware of all crimes and the evidence, committed by you in your last three generations”. She says, looking anywhere but at you. Suddenly there is a flash of light and a thud that echoes throughout the stone room. The woman, Melanie, screams and covers her head with her hands. Cartwright doesn’t flinch. He simply scrapes his chair across the floor and walks to the window that's just been hit. “Fire bomb.” He shrugs, looking down into the street. You see a slip, just a small change in his face. What is the expression? He yanks down the blinds and you realise it was fear. As Cartwright sits back down, you hear the voices outside getting louder. There is a loud roar, screaming and then spluttering. They must have brought out the water hose. Melanie is shaking now; you notice the pink hue of her eyelids and the small watery smudge of her mascara. Emotional, scared. Not like a regressive judge at all. “Please go on, Miss Taylor”. Cartwright puts a hand on her shoulder. She struggles with a smile and picks up the paperwork.
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“This is your record, Mr Stoakes…” she says, her breath quick and short, “It is relatively clean, by comparison to the rest of the UK.” She smiles wide now. The good news, she enjoys giving you that. “But in your most recent life, I regret to tell you, there was a crime”. She frowns. Your whole body stiffens, you feel that familiar warm swirling in your stomach and you want to be sick. This is why you didn’t want to know, why you didn’t have yourself tested when the rest of the country exploded into a mania, queuing for weeks, spending every last penny, desperate to know who they were, who they are. “Please…” you beg, “I really don’t want to know”. The woman apologises again, but continues on anyway. “You were a farmer…” she says, “Your name was Mathieu Courcier...” You try not to listen, drift off, and think about how all this started. You think about the very first time you saw it in a newspaper, the front cover just a white background with those eerie diagonal lines and smudges, the headline “Proof of the soul” in hard red letters. You remember reading it, how the scientists at Stockport invented the machines by accident, their research originally intended to find a way to make the HIV virus eat cancer cells, but then they saw the lines and smudges. “It is unequivocal proof that the soul exists! It lies in every codon of our DNA!” Doctor Hamer, head of bioscience at
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Stockport had said on every television network, every newspaper and every social media site on the planet. The world knew and the world wanted more. It took only months for the lines and smudges to be translated, decoded and torn apart. “They’re memories, just like those we develop in our brain cells” said Doctor Hamer, who was now the face of soul cell discovery worldwide. It wasn’t until he developed a way to turn the lines and smudges into images and prints that he received his knighthood. You remember the frenzy. Only the rich afforded the testing at 16,000 pounds per screening and it took three screenings to translate six generations of lifetimes. All of them paid their money and willingly stood within the plastic tunnel as the machine blasted light into their bodies. They watched as the lines and smudges appeared like x-rays on screen, convinced they would reveal something spectacular. They all had allusions of greatness, believing themselves to be Picasso, Einstein or Alexander the great but what they found were murderers, thieves and cowards. Great mysteries were unravelling, evidence that bone fragments and fossils couldn’t compete with. But the big question, the only question that truly mattered couldn’t be answered since the cells of the soul disappeared upon death. This caused mass debate. No one knew weather the soul proved or disproved God. Some religious groups refused to believe the evidence as fact whilst some stated God made the
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soul and so it was solid proof. Wars started over it, people had something else to disagree about a new reason to fight. You cut the power cable on your television and sold your computer. But you came around eventually; the curiosity was too much to bear. You bought the newspapers, you listened to the talk. The price of soul cell screening had dropped by 90%, making it affordable for anyone to be screened. The world was curious and Doctor Hamer watched his bank of information swell into the new bible, the new origin of the species. Then some poor kid in Italy changed everything. He'd only turned 18 and the screening was a birthday gift from his mother. It revealed a soul that had done so much evil, it was decided that the identity would not be publicised for fear of his life. There were rumours, and guesses of course. Some theories pointing to famous murders but most nearer the truth at dictatorship and holocaust. What could the law do? They had an innocent 18 year old boy whose hands were clean but whose soul had committed the worse crimes in human history which were never punished? You remember that's when the protests really started, they wanted that boy to be made accountable. Crime numbers went through the roof. It seemed that knowing you were never going to truly die, but pop up somewhere else in a new life with a fresh record took away most people's conscience. Parents were having their new born babies screened, pre-judged before they could even talk and cast away if what they found was not
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acceptable. You remember your next door neighbour, Nicola and how she sat watching her two year old, George play in the paddling pool. Her lips quivering and skin prickling every time the child splashed the water, knowing somewhere, deep down within him was a soul capable of drowning another person. You knew something needed to be done. You knew it couldn't go on much longer. When you saw the news broadcast about the new laws regarding soul cell screening you were preparing to be relieved. But instead it only got worse. It was law that everyone, upon turning 18 was to be soul screened. Any crimes committed in the last three generations were to be made punishable in this life. It would stop future murders, they said. It would make people less likely to commit a crime, knowing they would pay for it in the next life. You remember thinking about how they would punish you, the death penalty would be a free ride into the next life and detainment would see every prison on the planet full to breaking point. No, they couldn't issue conventional punishment. What they decided was so much worse. They were going to make an example of the 18 year old Italian boy, they figured it would give the people what they wanted whilst showing them what was coming. It would make the punishment acceptable. So the Italian boy was the first to suffer cell separation treatment.

It was when you first saw the images of that boy, what was left of him that is, that you decided to run. You knew your postcode
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was only weeks away from compulsory screening. You packed a rucksack with three changes of clothes, you kept it small because it would draw less attention. You weren't the only one to run, after all. You started at Hammersmith, you knew a guy there rumoured to have the same hot stamp they gave you after you'd been screened. It was their way of separating you from the rest. When you got there it cost you all the money you had. You gave it gladly and bit down hard on the wax of a candle as he scorched the sun dial symbol and unique serial number into your skin. You found a bed for the night out of London while you figured out what to do next. You remember the dank smell of urine on the mattress. Then you made it to Wales, screening hadn't started there so you were safe for a while. You heard about the court procedures on the radio whilst staying in a child's playhouse. The family were enjoying a bbq and they had no idea you were there. You heard about the regressive judges and how they sentenced you without a court trial. With the amount of punishable crime now in existence, it was too costly. So they screened you, assigned you judge who would attempt to find some link between your past life and your current life and then punish you. For the Italian boy it had been his ambition of joining the army. They finally caught you in Scotland. You had been sleeping in a plastics factory warehouse and didn't hear them coming over the drone of the machines. A worker had seen you there and reported you. There were so few whole, kind people left now that most of them had been punished.
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Sergeant Cartwright puts a glass of water in front of you, it sloshes against the glass and splats onto the desk. You look down at your hands, roll them over, searching for the evidence you know won't be there. You look at the painting. The man on the horse looks calm, peaceful. The big red horse that follows behind him snuffles at the air as a brown and cream spaniel leads the way. You had always wondered about the painting, the red horse, the French looking man. Where had he been? What was he looking at in the distance? But now you look down on the water colour knowing that the man, Mathieu Courcier was a murderer and the big red horse that reminded you so much of Hazel once belonged to the man that dared to cross him. You don't want to hear anymore, you feel as empty as anyone who had suffered cell separation treatment. What you had once feared, you now welcome. You want it to be over. You want to forget who you were, who you are. You think about your soul and it feels like hot poison inside you. You agree with Melanie as she hands over your file, wanting you to sign it. You drag the ink across the paper skin gladly. Then another fire bomb hit's the window. The protestors in the street scream for the screening machines to be destroyed. They yell that no one should know their past, that everyone is born innocent. Sergeant Cartwright stands to take a look out of the window when the explosion shatters through the room. Melanie screams and throws herself onto the floor. Cartwright is crawling towards the exit. The thick black smoke billows out of the crater in the wall. The flames trigger the water sprinkler
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system and it suddenly gushes over you like tropical rain. You stare down at the painting and watch as Mathieu Courcier's face melts into the background and into the past, where he belongs.

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