Author: John McNeil
“Before you plead, remember you lived your whole life under surveillance.”
She’s right. There is no defense. I grew up during the death of privacy, when everything was recorded and stored, never to be forgotten.
“A foothill of trash. A kiloton of carbon. Two hundred billion joules of energy.”
“I installed solar panels in the 2030s,” I say, with little hope.
“Too late by then, wasn’t it?” She waits for an answer, arching her burned eyebrows.
“In some regions, yes. But if you get to my age, it will be because of what we did, eventually.”
“Because of what you did,” she repeats. “You lived like a million people do now. And there aren’t a million people now.” The tribunal chamber has an earthy smell. Morning light comes in through skylights.
The infernos of the late 2020s changed my life. The west coast furnace, we called it. I was traveling. Flying, the worst kind. Melbourne to Los Angeles. You could do that with a sail freighter now, but why would you? One ash heap to another. While my house burned in Oregon, I was drinking from a Styrofoam cup on the plane. Surveillance makes knowing a little thing like that possible.
You never recover from losing your closest people, but I still needed something to do. So I took the insurance money, enrolled in a training program, bought work gloves and wire cutters, and spent the 2030s standing on ladders on hillsides, lifting glass onto a framework and tightening the bolts. We had known all about the danger, in a general way, my wife and sons and I. We even thought we were doing something about it. Recycling, voting the right way, donating the right way. We secured our home against robbers, not fires.
I had a hardhat on when I fell off the ladder. I remember the pain and the pine smell while the paramedics lifted me. And I remember the antiseptic smell in the hospital, where the doctor said I wouldn’t climb any more ladders. Since then, the disability checks, physical therapy, wheelchair marching, testimony to whomever will listen. Fewer people deny it as it happens around us. I come to be known as the oldest man, a survivor of the fires, floods, heat waves, and the geriatricidal pogroms, when youth took revenge on the elders who stole their future.
Again and again, the sound funnel carries the word “guilty” to the crowd outside, as I plead to each charge. The crowd’s noise rumbles back in. This is what they need, the young. They’ve prosecuted their parents and grandparents in dining rooms, living rooms, rocking chairs in senior homes, even on their death beds. Nothing can be denied or defended. The old folks can only look away in shame.
I stand for everyone’s parents in this trial. The prosecutor reads the charges one by one. Energy expended for trifling conveniences, the future burned to bake for the present. After each charge I say guilty, and the crowd roars.
“Your selfishness denied a future to millions, and so you deserve no more future yourself. You will drink poison at midnight.” I am led away.
We drink water at sunset in a quiet park.
“They liked it,” she says.
“Your timing’s getting better. The pause between each charge.”
“And you break down a little more with each ‘guilty.'”
“Three hamlets left this tour.”
“How do you keep going? Taking the hate?”
I shrug. “Better they have me to hate than someone worse. That’s a reason. But really, I do the show because it makes my life seem to matter.”