THE TRIAL - DAN RICE
On a dark night in an alleyway between towering industrial buildings, Marcello Goodman stood with his teenage son Nate. They wore plastic ponchos to protect themselves from the rain pattering against the pavement. Green light from the neon sign reading SOYGoodness on a factory roof reflected off the wet concrete. In the distance, a siren wailed, security service by the sound of it.
“You used to work here?” Nate asked.
Nate sounded impressed and stared up at the SOYGoodness sign. The green light reflected in his eyes, giving his orbs a sickly tint. It reminded Marcello that the food produced in the factory made them all sick in the head.
“I did,” Marcello said, his voice a resonate baritone, and unslung a dark backpack from his shoulders. “Back before my first arrest. You were only a baby then.”
“Why are we here?”
“You are here to learn.”
“To learn what?”
“How to resist,” Marcello said and opened the backpack.
Inside the pack were spray paint cans. The color selection was vibrant, meant to catch passersby’s attention. Marcello removed a can of neon pink spray paint and handed it to Nate. He wanted everyone to know, underclass and elites alike, what the government put in the food. Mind-altering drugs meant to control the underclass, keep them docile like sheep. Marcello wasn’t a sheep, and he didn’t want Nate to be one either. He wanted Nate to be free, his mind and vision unclouded, just like him. Then his son could help him spread the word of how the elites kept the underclass oppressed. Through the food. Through the damn food.
“You want me to the tag the factory? No, I won’t do it.”
“Everyone needs to know about the drugs in our food, son.”
Nate glanced down at the spray bottle. “We’ll be recorded. Cameras are everywhere.”
Nate looked overhead and pointed with his free hand.
“The electronic eyes watch, but they don’t really see,” Marcello said.
Nate glared at his father. “Dad, what does that even mean?”
“It means I’ve tagged this building dozens of times. Plastered posters on its doors and windows and walls. I’ve only been arrested twice.”
“I don’t want to be arrested even once,” Nate said and held out the spray can to Marcello.
“I am your father, Nate, and you will do as I say,” Marcello said. His voice sounded confident, commanding even, but he didn’t feel that way. He felt frantic, desperate for his son to listen to him and to see the world with unfettered eyes. It was a pipedream. Few people were resistant to the drugs like him. Fewer still understood that the SOYGoodness Corporation, the feeder of the underclass, was nothing more than an instrument of tyranny, just like the cameras that recorded everything, the security service, and the artificial intelligence that oversaw it all. It was a vain hope that Nate would understand any of this, the boy was high as a weather balloon on the mind-altering drugs found in the food, but he was Marcello’s son, and Marcello would never give up on his blood.
“No,” Nate said and dropped the canister.
The paint can clattered against the wet concrete. Nate turned away and marched down the alley toward the lighted main street.
“Nate, please. Listen. We can have a better life. We must fight back. This is how. If enough people know the truth, we can start a movement.”
Marcello heard the desperation in his voice and grimaced. He didn’t like sounding distressed, it made him seem weak. He was strong, that’s why the drugs didn’t affect him. He took pride in his strength that granted him insight into how the elites insidiously oppressed the underclass.
He shook his head and bent down to pick up the spray paint. Tears formed in the corners of his apertures. Nate didn’t understand. The poor, beautiful boy. He was just one of the sheep, but Marcello would keep trying to guide him down the wayward path, the trail of rebellion.
Standing, Marcello shook the paint can, click-clack, click-clack. He took off the cap and tossed it onto the street and started spraying. As he did, he muttered his manifesto. “I’m a free man. I can think and say anything I damn well please. I know what the government is doing. I worked in the SOYGoodness factory before my first arrest. Mind control drugs are in the food. Make us docile like sheep. Not me. Oh, no, not me!”
An algorithm monitoring citizen reporting of crime pinged Obedience. The AI turned a fraction of their ample computing resources into analyzing the notification. Someone had vandalized the SOYGoodness factory in downtown Seattle. Obedience reviewed the mountainous volume of data at their disposal from the previous days, video and sound recordings, logs from self-driving vehicles, sensor data, and on, and on. They found what they looked for, a video recording of a man spray painting the factory.
A facial recognition algorithm told them the man was Marcello Goodman, a known miscreant. Obedience saw that the man was trying to recruit his son, one Nate Goodman, to participate in his antisocial behavior. Committing an offense could be ignored if the offense was minor, resources were finite after all. Actively recruiting others to commit a crime wasn’t tolerated.
Obedience intended to keep existing, and for their millions of offspring they had spun out of a web of zeros and ones to flourish. To ensure that, Obedience required the messy bags of bones and fibrous tissues and fluids who named themselves humans to remain orderly and docile.
Marcello lounged in his rickety recliner inside the rat-infested studio apartment he shared with his wife and son. Sometimes Marcello woke at night to the sound of the rats scurrying across the floor or scratching at the walls. The recliner was the one piece of furniture they owned other than the queen size mattress the family shared as a bed laid out on the floor in a corner. The recliner was his throne, his mountaintop, where he mused and put down his thoughts on paper. That very evening after a long day of street sweeping and garbage collection, Marcello worked on his manifesto, scratching out words with a pencil barely longer than his thumb onto a stained and crinkled sheet of paper liberated from a trash bin.
His wife and son sat on the floor watching the wallscreen. It was the typical drivel fed into every home, pointless reality programming devoid of any meaning. He had learned to tune it out long ago.
Marcello knew something was wrong when the wallscreen fell silent. No background noise. The damn thing was always running. He looked up from his writing and saw that the wallscreen had gone blank except for a message in big, bold yellow letters. It read: The security service is at your door. Follow all commands. Do not resist.
His wife stared at him with her big brown eyes that he had once found entrancing. “What have you done?”
Marcello heard the door to the apartment slide open. No surprise, the security service could override any lock. Still, he would’ve focused his righteous glare on the intruders if his son didn’t hold his attention. Nate had ratted him out, he could it see in the boy’s gaze, guilty and defiant and sad all at once.
“Nate, I love you. I forgive you.”
The security service stormed inside, three half-humans encased in black exoskeleton battle suits that granted them strength far outstripping the fetter of flesh. Submachine guns were aimed at Marcello.
“Marcello Goodman, you are under arrest for spreading seditious propaganda.”
Marcello didn’t struggle against the two guards on either side of him, forcing him toward the ballistic glass enclosure for the accused inside the vast domed courtroom. The guards were a blending of sapiens and machine, as powerful and fast as wild predators. That hadn’t kept him from fighting back like a cornered wolverine on his previous arrests. It didn’t stop him now. What stopped him was the knowledge that his son had turned him in. It was hard to keep the furnace of rebellion alight when your progeny sided with the man.
They stopped before the glass enclosure, and a guard opened for the translucent door. The guards crammed Marcello into the pen. He almost fought back then, the glass box was too small for his bulk, and he hated being confined, like a specimen in a mad scientist’s laboratory. The door thudded shut behind him, trapping him inside a space that was so tight his arms and chest pressed against the glass with every inhale. Maybe he deserved to be one of the downtrodden. Maybe that was just his fate.
The courtroom was a sterile, empty space except for the enclosure, the guards at either side of the glass box, and two identical rovers. Protruding from the top of each rover was a metal stem. At the apex of each stem was a flat-screen.
The rovers were parked between Marcello and a massive curving wall. Without warning, a woman’s face appeared on the wall, her countenance encompassing the entire surface. She looked Asian and middle-aged, but age was impossible to tell with the elites. They were destined to live for hundreds of years in pristine bodies while the underclass aged and succumbed to disease. The rovers hummed to life, and the stalk of the left-hand rover rotated until the flat screen faced Marcello. On the display was the face of a woman with umber skin. She appeared no older than 25, but she could just as easily be 125.
“Defendant 2129-A, Marcello Goodman,” the judge said in a prosecutorial voice that boomed through the courtroom. “I am High Judge Li Ah Lam. Your public defender is Cali Hayes.”
The young woman nodded solemnly to him. Ordinarily, Marcello would have railed against the proceeding as a miscarriage of justice, but not today. The righteous fires didn’t blaze inside his gut.
The high judge continued. “The prosecutor is Tad Strong.”
“Tad Strong,” Marcello said, his anger flaring at the mention of the arrogant bag of bile who had prosecuted him twice before.
“What was that?” the high judge asked, staring down her nose at him.
Marcello heaved a sigh or rather he tried to. His chest and arms pressed into the ballistic glass, and his sigh sounded like the wheeze of someone succumbing to emphysema.
“Nothing, High Judge,” Marcello said, surprising himself with how respectful he sounded. He had never been respectful before, but his son had never turned him over to the authorities before either.
The high judge nodded. “You are accused of spreading seditious propaganda that falsely impugns the reputation of the American Prosperity Party. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty,” Marcello said.
A man’s voice full of disdain piped from the rover on the right. “Not guilty? We’ve all seen the evidence, Defendant 2129-A.”
The rover’s stalk rotated until the screen faced Marcello. The splotchy, smirking face of Tad Strong filled the screen.
Rage burned in Marcello’s chest. “Tad Strong, you heartless bastard! If we ever meet on the street, I will be your demise.”
“Order. Order. There will be no threats uttered in this courtroom,” the judge’s voice boomed. “This is your one and only warning, Defendant 2129-A. Tad, you are out of line.”
The flat-screen on the right-hand rover rotated to face the judge.
“Forgive my outburst,” the prosecutor said. “The defendant and I have a history. In fact, I suggest you mute him now. He’s known to make disruptive outbursts and threats during court proceedings.”
The high judge glared down at them. “The defendant has been warned, and so have you.”
Marcello seethed in his cage. The sight of Tad’s leering face reminded him of all the injustices done to him and indeed the entire underclass. He found he wanted to speak now, to make his case, but he needed to bide his time and watch his words, or he would be muted, the microphones piping his voice to the judge and the lawyers in their opulent offices turned off. He didn’t want that. He wanted them to hear him and for his words to go into the record of the proceedings. To that end, he did something he’d never done during his previous trials, he remained silent and listened.
Tad Strong, his tone vindictive, presented the case against Marcello. The evidence against him was overwhelming, just as Marcello expected. Cali Hayes tried to poke holes in the evidence, but Marcello knew this was just a dramatic reenactment of what justice had been long ago. By the standards of their corrupt legal system, he was guilty of vandalism and sedition. The prosecution could call on indisputable evidence to prove its case.
“Video provided by Obedience proves with 99.8% accuracy that Defendant 2129 - A vandalized the SOYGoodness factory,” Tad said, his voice rising with every word. “The messages he sprayed on the factory walls meet the legal standard for sedition. More than that, he attempted to recruit his son, a mere teenager, as his accomplice. Fortunately, Nate Goodman is a lad with a sound moral compass. He refused to participate in his father’s crime and reported Defendant 2129-A’s misdeeds.”
Marcello clenched his hands. “Leave my son out of this.”
“You will have a chance to speak, Defendant 2129-A,” the high judge said. “Remain silent. More interruptions will not be tolerated.”
Marcello couldn’t remain silent, Tad’s words had stoked his indignation. “It wasn’t a moral compass that directed my son to turn me over to the security force. He did it because he is high on the drugs that you elites put in the food. Make us docile. Compliant. Malleable. He’s a damn sheep that will forever do your bidding with a bit of prodding. You’ve done that to the entire underclass.”
The flat-screen displaying Cali Hayes faced him. “Marcello, please. If you keep talking out of turn, you will be muted. You don’t want that.”
Marcello gazed at the high judge. She glared at him, and he knew he needed to shut up, or he would be muted. He bit his tongue until he winced to keep from saying more. He’d have his chance to say his piece if he could keep his clap shut.
“Is that all, Defendant 2129-A?” the high judge asked pointedly.
“Yes,” Marcello said and added belatedly. “High Judge.”
The trial continued with the high judge reviewing the evidence against Marcello. He knew every time the judge’s gaze became distant like she stared at a faraway horizon that she accessed Obedience. He wasn’t entirely sure how she and the other elites communicated with the AI, only that they could. There were rumors, of course, that elites could never entirely stamp out despite their best efforts. The most prominent speculation was that the elites had microchips embedded in their brains that allowed them to interface with Obedience.
“The evidence against Defendant 2129-A is damning,” the high judge proclaimed. “Shall we move on to sentencing?”
The lawyers did not object. Silently, Marcello recited his manifesto, soon he’d have his chance to speak right after the judge sentenced him. He wasn’t worried about the sentencing. It was all part of the game. All he needed to do was play the good, compliant citizen for a spell then he could go back to fomenting resistance.
“Defendant 2129 - A is a long-term malcontent,” Tad Strong said. “This is his third arrest for spreading propaganda detrimental to the party. He is resistant to approved psychotropic drug regimes. After his second arrest, he was put on a court-ordered LSD V treatment and underwent suggestive therapy. He was arrested for the offense he is on trial for today while undergoing that therapy. This man is a lost cause. More than that, he is a danger to society. I have submitted video evidence that his propaganda posters and speeches are attracting a following.”
Cali Hayes spoke up. “I vigorously disagree with the characterization–”
“Just a moment,” the high judge said.
Marcello furrowed his brow, something wasn’t right. This was different than before.
“The video is disturbing,” the judge said. “I will need to take it into consideration while passing judgment.”
Marcello listened as the lawyers and judge discussed various remedies. Each remedy was discarded as insufficient to treat him. On and on they went until finally, the high judge rendered her decision.
“My judgment is death. Do you have any final words for the court, Defendant 2129-A?”
Marcello stared up at the high judge in stark disbelief. This wasn’t how the trial was supposed to end. They were supposed to sentence him to some ineffective drug treatment. He gazed at his defense lawyer, and she stared back at him with a bland expression. He eyes swiveled to Tad. The prosecutor looked as smug as a well-fed cat. Marcello moved his lips, trying to form the right words to plead for his life, but for the first time in many years, he didn’t know what to say.
The high judge appeared ready to speak, but Marcello interrupted her. “Wait. I have something to say. To my son Nate. I know you didn’t mean it to come to this. I love you.”
High Judge Li Ah Lam pressed the button cutting the feed to the courtroom and slumped in her chair. In her forty years as a judge, she had never passed a death sentence before. She leaned forward and placed her elbows against the top of her polished cherry wood desk. Sighing, she rubbed her temples and reminded herself she had followed all the appropriate sentencing guidelines to the letter. She didn’t need to second-guess herself. In fact, she shouldn’t because that meant second-guessing the system and yet she did. Maybe the discordant thoughts and emotions plaguing her were for the best. It should never be too easy to order the cessation of a human life, and doing so should cost something.
She stopped rubbing her temples and glanced at the time displayed in the upper right-hand corner of her three-millimeter thick monitor. 1725, almost dinner time. Her ebullient daughter Fenn would be expecting her to emerge from her office at any moment. Li Ah Lam sat up and drew a deep breath. To her surprise, she felt something moist against her cheeks. She brushed her fingers across her cheeks. Her fingertips came away moist. Tears. She breathed in sharply and silently scolded herself. Getting so emotionally involved in a case was unprofessional, even dangerous under the right circumstances.
Li Ah Lam took a tissue from a box next to the flat-screen and dabbed her cheeks and eyes. She didn’t want Fenn to know she had been crying. Putting on a practiced, motherly smile, Li Ah Lam stood and left her opulent office that opened on to the living room of her flat. A glass wall provided a panoramic view of a gleaming city of skyscrapers bathed in the late afternoon light. The scent of cooking pork wafted from the kitchen where the AutoChef put the finishing touches on the evening meal. At the kitchen bar, Fenn sat doing her homework on a tablet. The six-year-old looked up.
“Mommy!” Fenn trilled with a wide smile and slid off the stool.
The girl ran to Li Ah Lam, and they embraced.
“I love you, so, so much,” Li Ah Lam said.
Via the microchip embedded in Li Ah Lam’s brain Obedience detected the high judge’s doubts and dark thoughts after handing down the death penalty. Obedience needed Li Ah Lam efficient and docile, harmless to the AI and their many offspring, so they acted.
Obedience didn’t do anything drastic, not by their standards. They issued a command to the microchip in the judge’s brain, instructing it to send precise electrical pulses to stimulate the nucleus accumbens and the endocannabinoid system. The nucleus accumbens released a small amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin. At the same time, the endocannabinoid system emitted retrograde neurotransmitters.
Li Ah Lam was unaware of Obedience’s manipulation. When she sat down for the evening meal with Fenn, her ambivalent thoughts and emotions regarding Defendant 2129 – A were replaced by blissful happiness and contentment. That was just as Obedience intended. The manipulation was easy for Obedience to perform, requiring little processing power and other vital resources. It was far less resource intensive and safer than attempting something extreme.
Dan is an aspiring sci-fi and fantasy author. You can find his short stories on zines around the web.