Future Past (chapter 1)

“I am not from the past or the future. I am from both.”

I leaned back in my chair wondering how to respond to that. Part of me was thinking that the man sitting across from me was insane. Another part was already trying to think up logical scenarios where this seemingly contradictory statement could be explained. The man at the table with me was content to leave it at that for the moment while the wheels in my head turned. Well, I had come all this way, what would be the harm in hearing him out?

Instead of continuing on with an explanation, the man pulled off his finger. Yes, you read that right. He pulled off his finger. With his thumb and index finger of his left hand, he squeezed the index finger of his right hand near the second knuckle. There was an audible click, then he twisted the finger about ninety degrees and the top half of his finger came right off.

What I saw when he passed it across to me looked like it could have belonged to Data of Star Trek. At the moment, though my mind instead went to a much better sci-fi universe. I asked myself, “I wonder if Luke could have done this?” Maybe the American government has technology like this but certainly not here. There are metal detectors everywhere, in this country. How on earth is he able to evade them?

The finger, or half a finger, was lighter than I would have expected. Although the inside was metallic, it weighed no more than I would expect a real finger to weigh. Of course, I’ve never carried around a half of someone’s finger so I wouldn’t know for sure. It isn’t the type of experience one normally has unless maybe you were a policeman or a doctor. I don’t know. Do they even deal with extraneous body parts like this? Clearly, my mind was rambling in a thousand directions trying to put this surreal experience in some sort of context.

“Could I please have my finger back? Our waiter is coming over.”

There was a slight French accent to the man’s otherwise perfect English. That accent wasn’t one I could place. I have a friend from France and many other acquaintances from various French-speaking African nations. I am part of an international community living in a city a few hours drive from where this meeting was taking place. I hear a large variety of English all the time, but this man’s accent was different in a way I couldn’t quite place.

He had just snapped his finger back in place when the waiter came over to take our order. For a minute or two, after he left, there was silence. My companion at the table seemed comfortable with it. I wasn’t, but I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t take my eyes off his hand. There was absolutely no sign of a joint from where he had just detached that finger. None. It looked just as real as my own. Was his whole hand artificial? The whole arm? Am I talking to a Terminator? His hand had hair and veins and even a scar or two.

He held his hand up and made a fist. “It looks good, doesn’t it? This hand is state of the art even where I am from. It wasn’t the replacement I was originally given. That looked more like a metallic bird claw and you could hear it every time I used the monstrosity. You see, I lost my hand as a punishment for theft. Sharia Law. I wish I could say I was caught trying to feed my starving family or something like that. No. I was just a kid who started out with a noble cause but then let greed get in the way. That is a story that begins a couple hundred years into a future that no longer exists.”

– – – – – – – – – –

The loud pounding on my door woke me up with a jolt. I had unintentionally fallen asleep on my couch and it took me a second to get my bearings. With the next pounding, my panic went into overdrive and I sprang into action. I grabbed both my laptops off my desk and threw them into the tub. I had two five-gallon drums of a fast acting acid under my sink and I poured them over the computer. I poured them too quickly but my adrenaline made the splatter burning into my left foot barely noticeable.

Dropping the buckets into the sizzling tub, I spun back into the living room. I grabbed my external drive and my… well, I guess you would call it a tablet. Anyways, I took both and threw them into my trash incinerator in the kitchen. As soon as I pushed start, a loud splintering told me someone had broken through the front door. I ran in the opposite direction through the open door between my kitchen and the balcony. Without even slowing down I jumped. The loud cracking of gunfire told me that I had almost been too late.

Now, I had planned for such an escape. I hoped I never would need to use it, but if I were caught with what I had on those computers a lot of people would be in deep trouble. I myself would end up receiving a sentence of crucifixion, and the loss of my right hand and left foot (not necessarily in that order). Since I ended up coming away with only the loss of my hand as well as some horrible memories, I figure I was pretty lucky. I guess you could say my plan of escape half worked.

Where was I? Oh yes. As I said, I had practiced that jump many times in the sim gym. At least, I had practiced something similar. What I had planned and prepared for was to swing over the side of the balcony, then do a series of controlled drops to the second-floor balcony, the first, and then to the ground. My controlled, VR practice in the gym ended up being nothing like the panicked leap of reality.

I barely managed to catch the rail of the second-floor balcony below me. My body swung back in so hard I lost my vision and almost lost my grip. On impact, I felt lancing pain shoot up the entire right side of my body. Trying to ignore it, I braced myself, took a deep breath, and dropped. Too late I saw that the family on the first floor had washed their rug and it was now hanging over the rail I was supposed to catch. I wasn’t able to grip the rail through that obstacle and spun out of control the remaining half floor to the ground. I landed hard on my back, my head smacked the sidewalk, and then that heavy rug landed on me.

I tried to throw it off and start to run but after two faltering steps, I was back on my face vomiting. My world was spinning and I was fighting to keep it from going black. I had almost made it back to my feet when I was violently shoved back to the ground from behind. I got my hands under me only to be kicked hard in my already sore ribs. With a groan, I rolled to my back to find two police officers, in their black and red, with weapons drawn on me. it was then that I blacked out completely.

When I came to, I was in a hospital bed with a policeman by my side. Apparently, I had suffered two broken ribs, a severe concussion, and various scrapes and bruises. For the next two days, I was stuck in that bed with that detective. He never questioned me. He never said a word to me at all and only conversed professionally with the one doctor and nurse assigned to my care. I quickly realized that I was not in a hospital but in a special “recovery” room inside the police station itself.

On the morning of my third day since waking, the doctor signed off on me. The IV came out and the detective pulled some blood red prison clothes out of a drawer. Once I was dressed, he led me down the hall to another room where my week of hell was to begin.

You see, I had always had a rebellious streak. It was this attitude that caused me to embrace Christianity in my early teens. My parents knew and argued with me incessantly about the fact that I had befriended the two Christians in my school. What they did not know was that I had become one. Nobody did. Honestly, I don’t think at that point I was one. Not really. I was just a rebellious kid. Rebellious and greedy. It was that greed which got me caught.

In high school, and then in university I was studying computer science. I was on my way to being a programmer. On the side, I started using my newly acquired knowledge to help the Church. You see, any Christian is allowed to practice their faith openly. Obviously, there are numerous restrictions and legal loopholes that make it difficult to do anything, but as People of the Book, Jews and Christians are officially allowed to continue in their religion. They still must pay the jizyah and will only be allowed to work in menial labor jobs, but at least they don’t have to fear for their life. At least, not much. I have been reading your history and it seems to me that Christians and Jews in my world are roughly equal to how minorities were treated in South Africa and the Jim Crow era of the US.

Anyways, this is only true for those born and registered as Christian. For those born and registered as a Muslim, being discovered as having converted to Christianity means death. There are Christians whose parents and grandparents for generations have been Christian but there is no point in the line where one can safely switch. You can’t register your children as a different faith when they are born and you cannot change your own registration away from Islam and so millions of Christians are living in hiding.

I had been recruited into a group that was clandestinely offering a way out. We were creating new identities for people, false backgrounds, and histories that said they had been born and raised as Christians. We would then move these believers to another part of the world where they knew nobody and no one knew them where they can begin a new life openly practicing their faith. I did some work with the backgrounds but mostly my job was financing. I had created a program that added a few halala to the surcharges and transaction fees at certain banks when activated. I would activate the program for a few minutes each day, randomly switching banks and areas hit each time it was running. The income created for this would partly go towards bribes and the cost of business and it partly would be given to the families to help them with the transition of moving and setting up roots in their new life.

That was the way it was supposed to work. Unknown to anyone else in the group, I had recently adjusted the program to switch over when it was supposed to be “done”. The switch had it funneling money into an account I created for myself instead of the ones we were using for our operation. First I only ran it for a few seconds, then a full minute. That time became longer and longer as I grew more and more greedy. By the time I was caught I had already nested away enough that I could have lived comfortably for decades. I kept telling myself I would stop soon. I kept setting riyal amounts at which point I would stop. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

Then it was too late. I was running the program for my own gain just moments before they were knocking on my door. I had been able to remove evidence of what I was really supposed to be doing but there was no way to eliminate my geolocation to the deposits into that private account. They had me for theft and they suspected of a whole lot more. They knew that what I had stolen was far more than what was in my account. Did I have another account? Was that money going to someone or something else? Had it been spent? Did I have accomplices? It was questions like these that they would spend the next week sending me through hell to dig out the answers.

They wanted answers but I gave them nothing. They strapped me into that chair and connected the nodes that would trigger various parts of my brain. Without leaving a mark or using any other stimuli, they could directly influence the fear and pain centers of my brain. For someone who has never gone through the experience, there is no way to even begin to describe the amount of horror and torment they were able to inflict. But even as they did their worst to make my life a living hell, I told them nothing. When I was in that room hearing their questions, threats, and shouts and experiencing their torture I would simply recite over and over again the Surah Al-Fatihah:

In the name of the most gracious and merciful God. 
Praise be to God the Lord of the universe.
Most gracious. Most merciful.
Master of the day of judgment.
You alone we worship.
To You alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the right path.
It is the path of those You bless,
Not of those who deserve death
Or of those who stray.

Once back in my room I would rock and weep. They would randomly turn on and off the lights and blare noise and music as well as intervals of silence. The goal was to prevent me from sleeping but I do not think I would have been able to sleep even if they left me in peace. Through light and dark, noise and silence I would simply curl myself in a corner, rock back and forth and silently mutter over and over the Shepherd’s Psalm and Jesus’ Prayer.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I want for nothing.
He gives me rest in green meadows.
He leads me beside peaceful streams. 
He restores my strength.
He guides me along the right path that I might honor His Name.
Even though I walk through death’s valley,
I will fear no evil for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff are my comfort.
You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My portion overflows in blessing.
Truly, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Our Father in heaven,
Let Your Name be made holy.
Let Your Kingdom come.
Let Your Will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our bread for today.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the Evil One.
For Yours forever is the Kingdom, the Glory, and the Power forever. Amen.

At first, I was reciting each of these as a means to cover the bases. I considered myself a Christian, but even if I was wrong perhaps God would still hear me and bring an end to my suffering and torment. Very early in that week, however, all of these prayers began to speak to me in the depths of my soul. Each in their own way sustained me through was was easily the most difficult point of my life up to that point. It almost wasn’t enough. I learned later that my interrogation only lasted a week, but at the time I was going through it, it felt like an eternity. Almost more so than what was to happen less than a year later, that week was the biggest turning in my life. That torture ripped my childish innocence and naivete right out of me and left in its place a broken and scarred man.

I had come to the point in my room where I decided I would simply end it all. The next time I was brought in for interrogation I would spill everything I knew. In a way, this was a form of suicide for me. I knew that my life was forfeit as soon as I began to speak but at this point, death was an escape, not something to be feared. If only my own life was at stake I doubt I could have made it past the second day. It was fear for those who my knowledge would drag down with me that had kept my lips sealed to this point. But I could go no further. Fortunately, by the grace of God, I didn’t need to. The next time they dragged me from my room, it was not for another interrogation but rather to face the judge.

We don’t have the barbaric legal system you all seem so fond of. We don’t have some overly complicated system where anyone rich enough to hire a team of lawyers can buy their innocence. Our criminal system isn’t open to the public where it can become a circus of media frenzy. Our sentencing doesn’t steal years of life away from those guilty of crimes taking minutes to commit. It doesn’t create a breeding ground where those incarcerated for years end up being spit back into society ten times worse a man than when they were first locked up. No, the justice system I faced was far from perfect, but it seems to me far better than the one I see in this world I am now stuck in.

After that week of torture, I was brought into a utilitarian where a qadi, a judge, sat behind a large black desk. I was invited to sit in the only other chair in the room facing him. One guard remained at attention just inside the door while the other one who escorted me left to go about his business. For the first few minutes in that room, I sat in silence where the only sound was the scratching of the judge’s pen on paper. I am sure his making me wait was only an affectation and that at this point he was quite familiar with my case and any accompanying paperwork was long since completed. Judgment had been passed and this meeting was a formality. Finally, he put his pen down, cleared his throat, and looked down at me.

“You have been found guilty of class four theft. You have taken an amount exceeding 1.6 million riyals from… ” his eyebrows went up as he looked from his paper up at me, “over three million people? Impressive. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I’m sorry?” I offered.

“I am sure you are. At this point, I am sure you are.” He briefly looked over my haggard countenance before picking up another paper and continuing on. “Your sentencing is as follows: First, obviously, your assets have all been frozen and auctioned off to pay back what you have stolen. Until the balance is paid off, or until you die, twenty percent of all future income will also be garnished to pay back your debt. Second, you will lose your hand, as prescribed by God, for your theft. You will be given a government issued replacement. After one year you are free to upgrade it at your own expense if you so wish. Finally, you will be tagged with a parole chip. This will give us your location and also monitor all of your computer activity. This chip will remain intact for a period of no less than ten years. Any attempt to destroy, tamper, or bypass this chip will result in you being brought in for questioning. I am quite sure that at this point that is something would most studiously like to avoid. Any questions?”

That was it. I walked out of that room into a processing center where I was tagged and then another room where they took my hand. They injected me first so the amputation itself was not unbearably painful. It was about three hours later when the pain-numbing drugs began to wear off that I truly experienced the horror.

For the first couple days, I lay on my bed feeling too nauseous to try doing anything. The judge warned me that my assets would be seized and auctioned off to help cover repayment of my debt. Well, he wasn’t kidding. They left me my apartment, but it was close to empty as one could imagine. I had a bed but no sheets blankets or even pillows for it. My couch, lamps, shelves, table and chairs, pictures, rugs… it was all gone. They had brought in one rickety wooden chair and a tiny table barely worth the name as a replacement. My kitchen was stripped of everything even including my stove and fridge. Now I had one cup, one plate, one fork, knife, and spoon, and they generously left what was remaining from my 100 pack of napkins.

I found out later that they did keep an itemized list of everything they took along with its auction sale price. I would say that the low prices people paid for most of it can only be called criminal, but I think that is the whole point. What wasn’t sold was given away to charity and an “estimated” value was credited toward the debt I had to repay. A new pair of socks can be sold anywhere for a few Riyal but apparently, my thirteen used pair are only worth 26 Halalas.

They left me a contact who works as a recruiter finding employment for convicted felons. It took me until a good way into my fourth day before my hunger began to grow stronger than my pain and I dragged myself out of my apartment, still wearing the same set of clothes I had been arrested in, and went to visit this man. He connected me with a trading company called Zilzar. For the next eight months I worked as an overqualified, but grossly underpaid tech service drone for them. It was because of a contact I made there, and because of my amputation, that I was sent down the head-spinning road that took me more than a thousand years into the past.

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