Trial by Future

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.”

Jack Magnum

Author: Riley Meachem

“You know, this is the third damn time this week alone that cab’s broke down. I still ain’t seen you do shit about it,” Chalks Mabley leaned against the side of the cruiser, face dour. Then again, his face was almost always dour.

“What do you want me to do? Shoot the bastard for having a bad cruiser?” Jack Magnum had been restless for most of the ride. The warp speed drive broke down when he and the gang had been fleeing from the Jovian Capital. They’d managed to get the cruiser out of Jupiter’s atmosphere, but they’d been stuck in the cruiser for almost a week now, with only a very brief stop on Titan. Now, with the civilization surrogate not an hour away, they were holed up in some customs line meant to way-lay those entering and to help keep track of the population, for the not too distant day when the asteroid was annexed.

Fuck this job, thought Jack. Fuck this job.

It hadn’t been too damn trying, back in the day. He’d been a young man, with nothing to lose, and the glamour of being a corporate mercenary had dazzled him. For 20 years, it’d dazzled him. Or even when it hadn’t, it had entertained him. Then he’d had to go and grow some humanity.

He’d met a girl. Met her a couple of times, enough to ensure that, when he bumped into her on the streets of Jovia minor, she’d have a bright blue pregnancy test to show him. So he’d said he’d clean up his act. Told her he’d move to Beta and start a new life, set up a homestead for her, get married. Just after this one mission.

Of course this one mission just happened to get so royally fucked up.

The killing had been messy: witnesses and collateral by the dozens. He’d never slipped like that before. Never killed anyone who hadn’t been in blatant violation of corporate law. That’d probably been what had him so screwed up.

Corporate had severed all ties with him, and he’d been forced to make a call to his two remaining friends: Chalks, the paternal and anal retentive to a fault ex-partner, and his ex other sort of partner, suicide Sara. She’d get the name because of her proclivity for drinking herself into stupors, one of which she was slowly shaking off in the back seat at present.

They’d both taken his announcement of engagement and fatherhood pretty well. The typical half-hearted congratulations of people who are too polite to note just how out of your fucking depth you are.

“Fuckin’ motherfuckers,” hissed Sara from the back, and proceeded to hold the only pillow over her ears.

“You know, what the hell is a son of a bitch like this even fuckin doing out here? I mean, how the fuck does he think he’s gonna last if he can’t even get a cruiser properly prepared?” Chalks remarked, chewing idly on the lid of a pen he’d lost long ago.

“Probably doesn’t care. Needs the money. People have done dumber things,” noted Jack.

“Hmph” was all he got in response.

Sara was almost conscious now. Though, if Jack remembered her well, she’d attempt to remedy this very quickly. He’d seen her scrounge for bourbon before, and it was a horrifying sight to behold. Thankfully it would be a while until they were anywhere near bourbon, or any innocent civilians that could potentially get caught in the crossfire.

Shit, and now we’re back to that again…

“You ever look out at the stars, when you shoot past em?” Jack asked Chalks, casually hoping to avert another wallow in self pity.

“Yeah. Make me feel real fucking insignificant. That what you want to hear?” replied his companion.

“I missed our little talks, Chalks,” Jack sighed, and gazed forlornly out the window. He had some company scrip, a shit ton of it stashed away. But he wasn’t really sure any of it would be valid. Not in a place like Beta.

Sara seemed almost semi-sentient now. She pulled herself into a sitting position, and mumbled “Where the fuck are we?”

God only knows, thought Jack. God only knows.

The broken cruiser stopped, and turned around abruptly, exiting the queue. It buckled, giving a horrific screech, as it puttered off.

A wave of unease suddenly gripped Jack. He nudged Chalks.

“Hail them on the commlink,” he murmured.

“The fuck? Why?”

“Just do it. I want to make sure they’re ok,” Jack gave Chalks a look. “I’ll take two goddamn seconds.”

“Shit, Jesus,” muttered Chalks, but he did, pressing the hail button.

There was a ringing, then the crackling of static, as a voice came on the line. “Dah?”

“Hey, we were in line behind you. You guys ok?” Jack asked, casually. The pit of his stomach felt like t had been soaked in vinegar and baking soda.

“Cruiser no work. We go back to titan” said the accented voice.

Well, damn. “Alright. Sorry. Look, just, let us know if you need hel–”

Chalks turned to commlink off. “We ain’t helping them, Jack. Not when we’re almost fucking there.”

Jack gave him an evil look, and he just shrugged. “Hey, you want to spend another second in here?”

“I sure fucking don’t,” Sara hissed from the back. She’d reached for a bottle of something that you probably couldn’t drink. And was drinking it.

“No. I guess I don’t either,” said Jack. And he watched the only sane people on the planet float back towards Titan.

In My Defense

Author: John McNeil

Excuse me, I thought it was my turn. You had your hours and hours to say your so-called evidence, and now I’d like to talk about what really happened. Can we have Javert with a clipboard over here stop interrupting?

Thank you. As I was trying to say, the trespassing was a complete misunderstanding, first of all. Maybe I noticed the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign. Do you know how many signs there are on this space station? There are probably about a million signs nobody pays any attention to. Oh like say, the one in this tribunal chamber that says “No Eating.” Half of you are chewing clams right now and I believe Mister Inquisitor had a panini before his enthralling presentation. Look at the crumbs on his lapels.

Yes, it was the power reactor chamber, and yes, if someone messed up the controls we’d all be blown to stardust. That’s why I was being careful, not wasting time reading signs, okay? So this trespassing thing is a complete joke.

Secondly. Let’s be honest. Things fall into people’s pockets by mistake all the time. If a power crystal fell in my pocket what does that prove? I have with me, in fact I’m wearing it now, the same light jacket I was wearing on the night in question. I’m going to give it to the evidence robot and roll it over to you. Now I ask you, members of the tribunal, to inspect the left-hand pocket in question and tell me — remembering your oath to follow the facts wherever they lead — does or does not the left-hand pocket of this light jacket in question have a simple cloth flap that could be tucked inside it, allowing something to fall in? Rather than say a zipper? There’s no zipper.

So it’s undeniable that the power orb could have fallen into a pocket through no cognizance of my own. And then maybe I did notice the signs you keep talking about, “Authorized Personnel Only,” and thought to myself, hey! I’m a law-abiding guy. I don’t eat paninis when I’m not supposed to. I’ll obey a sign even if some people don’t. I’m on my way out.

Sure I noticed the lights going out, the alarms and people running around, and the orders to evacuate. It’s an emergency. Am I asking “what have I got in my pocket?” At a time like this? What am I, Bilbo Baggins? I just got on the first shuttle I saw. Lucky there was one idling right there, but lucky’s not a crime.

I’ll tell you what is a crime though. To wantonly search a man’s bank account for an alleged transfer of funds. Did you give your bank special instructions to refuse all large sums that the Gorgonoids might ever send you? If not, you’re as guilty as I am. And if the Gorgonoids have power crystal technology all the sudden what does that have to do with me? Proves nothing. The real crime here is that I was interrupted in the middle of a well-earned vacation and made to sit and listen to Crumbs the Inquisitor and his wild imagination. I put it to the tribunal that he is the true robber, a robber of my valuable time, and I rest my case.

Queen Arthur And The Edged Weapon, Excalibur

Author: David Barber

The Princess was touring the human quarter. She savoured these adventures, accompanied only by a human guide and her security flock.

Jomo was an amusing companion. As they made their way through the raucous marketplace, he
regaled the Princess with gossip and intriguing fragments of data called stories.

He was telling her the tale of Queen Arthur and Excalibur – the notion of a King being best left to another time.

“This was long ago, when the world was young, and human Queens fought each other endlessly, encased in metal, using edged weapons…”

“Because their bodies were soft and vulnerable, like yours,” interrupted the Princess, pleased with herself.

“Indeed. Even before you arrived from the stars, we saw how superior an exoskeleton was. Now, Excalibur excelled all other edged weapons in sharpness and strength, and Merlin saw that whoever wielded Excalibur would be the one true Queen.”

This was the perennial problem of all those born to power. The Princess and her sisters performed intricate dances of advantage and disadvantage at Court, only restrained from more lethal manoeuvrers by the authority of the Queen.

“Could this Merlin really predict the future?” Her Highness wanted to know. “Because if she could…”

They were getting sidetracked. This often happened.

“Merlin saw many futures, and none were certain, but in all of them, only the true Queen could free Excalibur from a great stone.”

Her Highness often tried to guess how stories ended. Each race had its gift. As her kind were born to rule, perhaps these stories were the human gift. Humans were certainly mediocre in every other way.

“So Queen Arthur smashed the stone?”

“There was no need. Though Arthur came from a nest of little consequence, she knew she was the one true Queen, destined to rule them all, and Excalibur became hers.”

This was most satisfactory. Deep in her ovaries, the Princess also felt she was the one true Queen.

“But wouldn’t another Queen simply take Excalibur away from her? If, as you imply, there were more powerful, bigger nests…”

They had paused in front of a human shop selling curios. Arrayed on a table to catch the multifaceted gaze of the Princess were ancient light bulbs, X-ray plates, radios from the lost days of radio, shiny plastic discs that reflected the spectrum of visible light…

Jomo had an arrangement with the owner of the shop. He was supposed to gasp in surprise at this genuine art from pre-invasion times, much sought after and collectable, and bargains at such prices.

“Ah,” said Jomo absently. His gaze followed the security drones, circling like birds of prey. “But Queen Arthur had a new notion, a fellowship…”

Some things were hard to translate.

“Other nests also survived in obscurity. But what was impossible for each alone, could be achieved by a fellowship of several, led by Queen Arthur.”

The Princess felt a pang of recognition. The Queen already had her favourites and she was not amongst them.

“Arthur’s fellowship defeated powerful Queens one by one, each too proud and too suspicious to ask rivals for help. And this is the important part, since she could not know if she might need the fellowship again, Arthur did not betray them afterwards. She swore on Excalibur that each could trust the others. One for all and all for one.”

Her Highness clicked her mouthparts at this novel idea. She had always bullied sisters of lesser importance. What if…

“And this fellowship was successful?” she ventured.

“Ah, that is another story. For another day.”

New Words

Author: Stephen Murtough

The blank screen became the words: Jasmine loved Jonathan more than he loved her.

Thirty children were seated in individual booths with individual screens, and they each answered by pressing one of two buttons. Twenty-eight were correct. The other two were led out of the examination room.

New words appeared: Jasmine and Jonathan knew each other from long ago, and once, they’d loved each other. Eventually, Jonathan realised he loved Katie instead.

As before, the children answered quickly. Four children, who were all very young and were expected to fail the test, were escorted out of their booths, leaving twenty-four remaining. The examiners stood silently behind the booths.

Without delay, statement three appeared: Jonathan had known from the start that Jasmine wasn’t right. She was too introverted, too quiet, too happy to sit indoors and read a book. Nonetheless, she was there, and Katie never seemed interested until the Xmas party. He didn’t regret that evening one jot.

This time, as the examiners expected, the children took longer to answer. They read and re-read the statement and studied the statement’s structure and intricacies, trying to decipher what could have written the statement. The examiners paced, twiddling thumbs in pockets, and some shared looks and suppressed smiles. Eventually, the answers were submitted, and nine children were removed from the test.

Statement four arrived: Jasmine hadn’t had much luck with relationships. She admitted, when alone, that she wasn’t much of a catch. Boring came to mind. Inconsequential useless human. When she met Jonathan and he agreed to her suggestion to go for a drink, even if it had been a joke, she opened her eyes to the possibility: just maybe I am worthy, just maybe I am a catch. When Jonathan didn’t return home that December night, when he didn’t return her calls the following day, and when he sat her down and told her what had happened without ever taking off his jacket, it broke her. Just what do I owe, she wrote that final evening, the pleasure of being so meaningless.

The fifteen remaining children stared at the screen for over five minutes. Their pupils dashed left to right to left, and their hands hovered over their two choices: ‘Human’ or ‘Machine’. One child answered and their booth blacked out: incorrect. The examiners shifted their feet furtively. Another answered and was instantly led out of the room, and then a third, fourth, fifth, until just two remained studying the statement. They answered ‘Human’.

Instantly, statement five appeared: Just last week, Jonathan, you said you love me. What happened?

The two children paused, hesitated, then answered simultaneously. The examiners stepped forward to remove one of the children from the room, whilst the other remained with their hand pressed on their choice. An examiner looked over the child’s shoulder at the correct answer: ‘Machine’.

Holographic fireworks fizzed and the winning child was escorted to the celebration room. A speech was made about technological and educational advancements. Whilst the child’s supervisor schmoozed with other guests, an examiner asked the child how they’d known the final correct answer. I didn’t, replied the child. Lucky guess, they said.