Trial in Majority

My story “Trial in Majority” was originally podcasted by Simultaneous Times (starting at 12:01) last month. First time anyone has been so kind as to compose music based on my work!

Posting it here for anyone that wants to read it:

“I’ve already been acquitted!” Yusuf shrilled because most people expected a guilty man would.

“As you’ve told this court time and time again, Mr. Kassab.”  The judge loomed on her bench like a carrion bird.  “What is pertinent is not whether you committed the crime out there.”  She waved her hand at no place in particular.  “But what regime of truth this court attends to.  This is not a court in the external world.  There we glimpse majority opinion only statistically.  There truth never completely lifts her veil.  Here in Majority, truth and majority opinion are two sides of an equation.”  She spoke with absolute conviction, as if God Himself could not create a more perfect union.

“But my acquittal was broadcast–”

“Across media channels that almost no one was awake to witness.  We do not dispute the verdict of the other court.  It acquitted you.  It cohered to truth as well as it could.  But here in Majority your guilt is no mere verdict.  It is truth.”

“But I was acquitted.”  As if saying it enough times might unblind justice.  And in Majority it could.  If he said it enough–and the majority believed him–the facts would shift, like tumblers in a lock.  But he had no way to persuade millions, so he said, “Don’t you see?  This is double jeopardy, it’s unconstitutional…”

He trailed off under her implacable gaze.  “I’m sorry this is so difficult for you to understand, Mr. Kassab.  Here in Majority your acquittal never happened because only a minority of people believe that it did.”

“I accepted the implants and went to sleep because Majority was supposed to be better, realer.  Like living a game.  But why should I believe it?”  He spat.  “It’s just a simulation.”

He spread his hands to encompass not only the courtroom, but the sprawling city, and all the buzzing nations.  His rebuke spanned the oceans.  They fostered neither garbage in multitudinous tons nor unfathomed species.  The majority knew only coastline views, cruise ships, and pop culture ecology.  He meant the globe, which was not warming because shrewd environmentalists convinced most people it was not.  He meant the Milky Way.  Supermassive blackhole notwithstanding, Earth was at the center because most believe it must be at the center of something.

Yusuf struck the table with his fist.  But most believe tables are solid.  It was solid.  He yelped frustration.

A crueler woman might have smiled, but she saw only a chance to finally communicate with a condemned man.  “Bailiff, have Mr. Kassab rewound to the time of the crime.”

The bailiff rearranged shining icons in the plane of air before him, controls that communicated directly with Yusuf’s Majority implants.  His implants were wirelessly linked to one of the Majority hubs that generate the virtual world, retaining and updating its past in real-time as dominant opinions shifted.  Without fuss, a void behind Yusuf’s chair sucked him into that calibrated past.

#

The void spit Yusuf out like a child from a waterslide.  He was in his home, blandly suburban on the outside, distinguishable from its neighbors only by shrub, the earth tone of its siding, and address number.  Those of his subdivision believed in only leashed variety.

In Yusuf’s memory, his living room was bright and sparsely decorated.  A good Muslim indulges little in ostentation.  He had only two of God’s names penned in calligraphic whorls and framed: Al-Raheem and Al-Haqq.  The Merciful and The Truth.  Other than that, sunlight filtering through geometrical patterns in his blinds was enough.

But the blinds were opaque.  It was too lived-in.  The air was stale and rife with moldering food.  The alcove where he prayed was askew, nearer to the bathroom than it should be.  It wasn’t even facing Mecca, and sickeningly, an automatic rifle was propped inside.  The only thing unchanged was the calligraphy.

The mass of humanity had reduced his home to this?  Must a convicted terrorist live in a sty, hate light, hate God and every human thing?

So many were paranoid of terrorism.  The media blew even botched attacks or a single death out of proportion, propagated terror, did the terrorists’ work for them.  So Majority proliferated terrorists.

“Mr. Kassab, you may wish to sit down,” the judge said in his mind.  “And if you want to return, say the word.  I’ve sent you here to enlighten you, not to cause undue distress.”  Apparently, the majority still believed in the injustice of cruel and unusual punishment.

He didn’t sit at first.  There is dignity in defiance.  But there is petulance too.  He sat.

He heard the garage door clang and grind.  The NSA said they tracked the perpetrator’s IP address to his home, at least insofar as they could trace it.  The terrorist must have broken in while he was away.

A shadow swept in from the kitchen, almost invisible in the low light.  A body came after it.  Long sinister fingers spidered in the air, shuffling glyphs, semanticizing some terrible vision.  Every motion was bone and sinew and machination.  The man at the center wore a white turban.  He didn’t cackle.  No one believes real people cackle.  But he chuckled in a self-satisfied way every now and then when glyphs merged into a novel form, more intricate than their parts, closer to completion.

Yusuf’s crime, or alleged crime, was a cyber-attack on health care systems.  Hundreds of hospitals’ patient records garbled and the decryption key deleted.  The point wasn’t to extract ransom.  The point was mayhem.  The harder to recover from the better.  And if governments knew how to break the encryption, they were mum for national security reasons.

“I’ve done it!  Allahu akbar!”  That was Yusuf’s voice!

The man whirled in jubilation.  His eyes were too wide, his nose too sharp, his build too lanky, his skin too brown.  He had a beard that had probably never been trimmed.  Yusuf and this other had a certain resemblance.  They could be brothers.  But anyone seeing them side-by-side wouldn’t believe them the same person.

But majority opinion is prone to contradiction.  Majority mimics that too, as well as it can.

Yusuf shivered, disbelieving.  “That’s not me.”  He scrambled backwards, toward the front door.  “I’ll tell enough people.  I’ll make it as it was!”

“We’re done here,” said the judge in his mind.

The dark waterslide slurped him up again.

#

Yusuf spewed out, not in the defendant’s chair but draped in the vestigial witness stand.

“I saw me.  But it couldn’t be.”  He wasn’t that cartoon villain.  “I know what I remember.”

“You remember?  Memories are fickle things, Mr. Kassab.”

As if to make her point, he couldn’t even remember where he’d been that day.  He had an alibi.  His credit card use had even corroborated it.  But what was it?

“But Majority is not fickle.  How could the array upon array of redundant servers that is the memory of Majority betray our trust?”

Yusuf couldn’t tell whether she meant servers in the real world or Majority’s self-representation.

“Are you certain you remember the truth?”

He did, or thought he did, but could Majority rewrite even his memory?  He clawed at the translucent implants stitched into the back of his neck.  They changed dreams into Majority.  He wouldn’t be here without them.

But the inplants didn’t loosen.  Most everyone in Majority believes everyone in Majority has inplants.

He froze, remembering: even if he could wake into reality, removing the inplants was fatal.

“Yusuf Kassab, I want you to listen to me carefully.  I know your arrest has come as a surprise, and now witnessing yourself commit an act of terrorism.  Yours is a difficult case.  If the peak of the migration from the external world was just a few months delayed, millions would know of your acquittal there and not just the media flurry here, and we would not be having this conversation.  You are just one man on the wrong side of history, I’m afraid.”

Her concern stoked a lick of his old fire.  “But isn’t justice supposed to be about rights, even mine, even just mine?”

“The justice due to you is not in question, but justice respects truth.  The truth that acquitted you, even now, is breathing its last.”

Yusuf exhaled, sensing his life was tied to the life of that truth.

The judge waited.  Perhaps silence will clear the ground so that her words might reach him.  “Think on what Majority has done for societies.  In the external world, we abolished authoritarian governments, monarchies, the specters of Communism.  And that was a triumph, but reality itself, that old back-world, remained obtuse.  It didn’t care about democracy.  It didn’t matter how politicians spun, how postmodern scholars relativized knowledge, how much celebrities paid plastic surgeons and lip-sang their own music.  ‘Post-truth’ was not enough.  We had to construct truth, and so we made Majority.”

Yusuf shook his head, amazed.  “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because the majority expects this court to furnish a casualty such as yourself with extraordinary regard.”

He knew now he was reaching the end, that his sentencer would wait only for him to succumb to her parochial view of truth.  In that, he could resist.  “But you’ve already admitted there’s another truth, reality, real truth.  And yet you have this blind devotion to democracy?  To democracy made absolute.”

“I am a woman concerned with results.  Majority ended the embarrassing parade of criminological error.  First, in the twentieth-century, innocent men and women were convicted of capital crimes but posthumously exonerated by DNA evidence.  Then more convicts exonerated–too late–by more discerning polygraphs.  Still more innocents exonerated by technology subtle enough to read beliefs, technology that finally redeemed all by constructing the reality around us.  At last we have no need for lawyers or evidence.  We need only rewind and witness the truth.”

“But you can tell everyone, everyone could believe it wasn’t me.”

“That is not easily done, Mr. Kassab.  Do you realize how many have rewound themselves and witnessed patient deaths.  Doctors did not know which medications they administered to whom, did not know patient allergies or diagnoses.  Some deaths are grisly.  And the inertia of belief is not so easily overcome.”

“You could try.”

“I’m sorry, this court is not in the business of spreading propaganda.”  She no longer had to tell him that all that distinguishes information from propaganda is the percentage of people that believe.

Only one question remained.  “What happens to me now?”

“You’ve committed a capital crime and must be executed now that the process has at last been alleviated of error.”

He didn’t quail.  The bountiful majority obliged him that much dignity.  “In the real world?”

“Don’t be silly.  To speak of the external world is to speak of hypotheticals.  What jurisdiction does this court have over hypotheticals?”

“So I’ll only die here?”

“I needn’t be any clearer, Mr. Kassab.”

Yusuf rallied.  He’d be free.  However much things had fallen apart out there, there would be others, those that refused the implants.

“But speaking hypothetically, I expect you will be unable to sleep.  Sleeping in the external world means waking here, and how could the majority believe that dead men wake?”