Daniel Lloyd Smith
I was second in line for the court sign-in computer. The somewhat corpulent defendant in front of me was having trouble with the graphic interface.
“I touched the bloody ‘finish’ button, I touched it ten times and nothing is happening,” she bleated, shrill and nasal. “This computer is glitched!”
The line of defendants behind me wheezed a collective sigh at her outburst, some of them rolling their eyes, others slouching and shaking their heads, one standing defiantly, glaring, cheeks flushed, fists on hips.
My head had been aching since I awoke, as usual, that low-grade, dull throbbing that fills your skull from the sinuses to the back of your neck. Stress can bring it on, and today was bounding toward rave anxiety. I was scheduled for a hearing before Judge XX-477. I’d been cited for Morning Unsightliness in the Second Degree. Would’ve been Third Degree, a bit less tragic, but it was my second citation inside two months.
A bailiff, her creased uniform stretched tight across her ample girth, her chest-pinned badge flopping wildly with each step she took, she came slogging up to the sign-in station and pulled out a huge set of jangling keys. Selecting a small one, she used it to open the cabinet upon which the offending monitor was mounted.
“We need new machines,” the bailiff admitted lightly to no one in particular, bending over to inspect the mysterious innards of the appliance.
“What the hell have you bureaucrats been spending our tax dollars on, anyway,” came up an anonymous shout from somewhere down the line, “vacation pay?”
The Bailiff ignored the commentary and continued her hidden fiddling.
“There we go,” she rejoiced to herself, standing and shutting the cabinet door with a solid click. “Should work fine now.” And without turning to the people, she grunted: “Thank you for your patience.” She waddled off and the sour lady in front of me finished her registration and then I stepped up to the screen.
I remember the public debate over the enabling legislation that brought on-line the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) Judiciary. The Progressives called it “our most egalitarian, our most consistent and therefore fair, our most intelligent and therefore superior judicial system.” It was the non-human nature of the system that insured its purity with regard to bias and corruption and inaccuracy and inconsistency.
The Conservatives expounded on our nation’s forefathers, the progenitors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and the amendment process, as having established without doubt the necessity of humanity within jurisprudence.
Our techno society being what it is, humanity lost out to A.I. purity.
I also recall the crux of the debate over legislation regarding individual health standards. It went something like this: Why should those of us who take care of ourselves, we who live healthy lifestyles, why should we pay the exorbitant costs of healthcare for those who choose to ignore their health and abuse themselves until they use up so much of our resources that the price in tax dollars bankrupts the treasury?
The other side said simply that each individual should be free to live as they pleased.
The treasury won out over individual liberty.
Just three years ago, because our society is so forward-looking, the Federal Aesthetic Sustainability Act was made law. Its credo in a nutshell was that the appointed overseers could–and should–assess the health of each citizen by scrutinizing them closely, e.g., fat people were obviously unhealthy and therefore an undue burden on the system, or pallor and bloodshot eyes in the morning were signs of self-abuse leading to undue healthcare costs, etc. That credo manifested in ASC (Aesthetic Sustainability Council) sanctioned mirror-cam data mining. Every household was mandated to have mounted on their bathroom mirrors–every mirror in every bathroom in every domicile–a video camera equipped with millimeter-wave AIT (Advanced Imaging Technology), a camera programmed to send our images, each and every time we stepped in front its cold, unassuming lens, to the ASC to be held in perpetuity as evidence either for or against us should charges be brought for the purpose of correcting our unjustified maladies, such correction to be enforced by all reasonable and necessary means (fines or incarceration).
Unlike the millimeter-wave AIT cameras deployed at airports for use by the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) professionals, ASC cameras were not outfitted with software designed to enhance passenger privacy, healthcare obviously requiring subject-specific physical detail. Every bulge, wrinkle and micro-attribute of every citizen must be the business of the ASC; otherwise, where is the altruistic and noble effectiveness of our cost saving efforts when they lack the efficiency and accuracy of hyper-scrutiny? Auto-detecting a potential terrorist threat and highlighting its location on a generic human outline that is identical for all passengers, that is fine for air travel; but healthcare outweighs terrorism by many billions of dollars annually.
No use wearing your robe in the morning; the camera is going to see your details.
It goes without saying that, in a democratic republic like ours, if the government finds fault, the culprit will be fined or taxed or otherwise made to pay for their failure to comply with the will of the majority; holding with the social compact and all. In my case, a Third Degree Morning Unsightliness infraction costs $1,000, while the Second Degree runs $5,000; so I was most likely screwed, having neglected my duty to the law twice, back-to-back, screwed out of $4,000 by the judgment of some electronic bureaucrat with its programmed protocol.
No use asking who writes the program that evaluates my health by watching me in the bathroom in the morning. I’m quite sure it’s been fully approved and certified by whoever approves and certifies such things. When such officials chose to work for the government, they are obviously righteous in their commitment to serve their country and sacrifice their time and energy for the common good.
Wish I could get one of those positions of sacrifice; I understand that under the current union contract, government employees are exempt from ASC scrutiny. It must be a good union; lucky for the husky bailiff.
I touched the sign-in screen carefully and correctly, answering all the questions regarding my identity and citation information, and the computer dispensed a ticket with the number 2 on it, along with a directive to be seated in a pew in courtroom number three.
Ten minutes later, thirty-seven defendants, including me, we sat waiting for court to convene. At 10:00 am, a bell tolled several times, a calming vibrato in its fading echo. Then a friendly female voice wafted out over the captive audience: “All rise; the honorable Judge XX-477 is now on line.”
We all stood as a massive LED monitor hanging on the polished mahogany wall in front of us flashed and blinked and brought forth the image of a matronly woman’s head and shoulders. She was in her late forties or early fifties, a bit of gray highlighting her short-cut, spiked auburn hair. Her expression was neutral–passive and calm and betraying no emotional predisposition at all.
Her mouth moved, but the words that came over the public address system were entirely out of phase with her lips.
“Be seated,” said the system; and we all sat.
We waited. The nervous silence that stifled the room was broken by the intermittent clinking and tinkling of the bailiff’s keys as she habitually rattled them upon her hip.
The judge’s image moved her lips while the speakers suddenly boomed: “Defendant number one, Case number 36788-D211, The United States of America vs. Dora Sue Krakowski. The defendant is made present to answer for her noncompliance with U.S. Health Code Section 574, Subsection 292, Paragraph 33(b), entitled: ‘Morning Unsightliness;’ this being Miss Krakowski’s third offense, the above statute to be prosecuted in the First Degree. Miss Krakowski, please approach the microphone.”
The woman who had been cranky with the sign-in interface, she popped up and strode to the front of the assembly. A microphone was mounted on a lectern in front of the colossal wall monitor. She took it in her hand, planted her feet wide, stiffened her back and faced the motherly visage on the screen above her.
The disembodied bust, her pixels seemed frozen, delayed somehow; a small malfunction perhaps. The impatient defendant, she spoke out of turn.
“I have been summoned here today when I should be at work. I have to make a living so my children can eat and be clothed and have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in!”
Her pitch was rising as she wound herself up.
“You forced me to loose pay over some nonsense about my weight. How dare you. What business is it of yours? I’ll tell you, none! Mind your own business. You eat what you want to eat and I will do the same. I’ll be damned if . . .”
“Silence,” ordered the voice, as the monitor showed a large cartoonish gavel crashing down on a block of what looked like granite with a resounding crack. Everyone in the courtroom flinched, all except the bailiff.
Defendant number one fell silent for only a brief moment and then started up again.
“I am as healthy as an Olympic marathoner! I am not fat; it’s just that my frame is large, understand?” she cried. “Where has community gone? Is there no tolerance left in this country?”
“Defendant number one, Case number 36788-D211, Dora Sue Krakowski,” sounded the judge. “Because of the findings of ASC Agent GGZ79-11470, such agent having been certified recalibrated within thirty days of today’s date, and because of your disorderly and contemptuous outburst negating your right to oppose prosecutorial findings, you are found in noncompliance of U.S. Health Code Section 574, Subsection 292, Paragraph 33(b), entitled: ‘Morning Unsightliness.’ Your legal financial obligation for your First-Degree infraction is $10,000, plus $5,000 more for contempt of court.”
The big monitor flashed and whirred and the giant gavel crashed down once more with a bang.
We all flinched again and Miss Krakowski shouted, “Bullshit!” She then turned and marched out of the room, a smile (or grimace) of moral victory locked upon her face.
After a brief scuffle and short muffled squeal somewhere out in the hall, the matronly head reappeared before us and its disharmonious lips seemed a tad vexed as the speakers poured out their words.
“Defendant number two, Case number 36788-D212, The United States of America vs. Sammy Jay Bloominthall. The defendant is made present to answer for his noncompliance with U.S. Health Code Section 574, Subsection 292, Paragraph 33(b), entitled: ‘Morning Unsightliness,’ this being Mr. Bloominthall’s second offense within two months, the above statute to be prosecuted in the Second Degree. Mr. Bloominthall, please approach the microphone.”
I may be discontented from time to time, maybe even discretely rebellious on the rare occasion, but I am not a fool enslaved by my emotions. And I am a fairly fast learner. Miss Krakowski’s example had edified me. This situation was not going to be resolved in any sort of positive fashion if I allowed myself a Quixotic venting of my frustrations at the heartless system abusing me.
A patient presentation of the evidence was called for here. I waited for Judge XX-477 to speak.
“Your right to oppose prosecutorial findings is allowed. You may address the court,” said the judge.
“Your honor,” I started, “may it please the court, I should like to offer a bit of exculpatory evidence.”
“Offer your evidence,” said the judge.
I held up a small receipt. “Your honor, I have here a certified weight slip from the Crown Heights Memorial Hospital showing my weight at 162.34 pounds. It is a matter of public record that I am forty-seven years old, and I am five-foot eleven inches tall with a medium frame. These metrics are well within the parameters of the ASC’s guidelines for good health.”
“Searching . . . searching . . .” said the judge, her eyes vacant, perhaps a bit wistful. “Yes. Your assertions are taken under judicial notice. Go on.”
“Thank you, your honor,” I said graciously. “But for the occasional bout with influenza, I have an exemplary work attendance record, no major surgeries or diseases, and no sign of any destructive addictions. Based upon these proofs, I would pray for the court to find that ASC Agent GGZ79-11470 has made a minor error in citing me for noncompliance.”
The judge did not hesitate. “Agent GGZ79-11470 was certified recalibrated within thirty days of the date of this hearing. I will now download its data relevant to this case.”
The motherly face held still as stone, except for the slow and rhythmic blinking of her animated gray eyes, her detached mouth movements subtle as her voice intoned: “Searching . . . searching . . .”
I thought I caught a hint of an imperious smile just before she spoke again.
“Upon review of all the ASC agent’s findings, it is clear that you have been duly cited,” she stated flatly.
Now my hackles began to rise. “May I ask the court to inform me of the decisive facts that cause your honor to rule counter to my assertion of compliance?”
Like tungsten teeth inexorably and perpetually meshing amid the gears at the black hub of our spiral galaxy, she ticked off the damning facts.
“You purchased eight-dozen cookies and four pounds of ice cream in the last two months. You also bought three pounds of bacon and four dozen eggs during that time. Sewage data indicate you personally consumed all of these questionable calorie sources. With your history of slightly elevated blood pressure, these things alone would bring you near the line of noncompliance; but what sends you over the line are the exorbitant quantities of coffee and sugary soda. When five pounds of chocolate are added to the above mentioned dietary atrocities, and you know the chocolate of which I speak, the ruling is automatic.”
“Sammy Jay Bloominthall, you are found in noncompliance of U.S. Health Code Section . . . . Your legal financial obligation for your Second-Degree infraction is $5,000.”
I kept hold of my wits enough to keep my mouth shut as I marched out of the courtroom. Then I boarded the bus to Grundgetown, a crumbling warren down by the old decommissioned navy base, and knocked on the door of a long-ago friend and ancient partner in crime, Barney Jones.
“Sammy!” he cried through a yellow-toothed grin, as always a stubby unlit cigar protruding from the corner of his mouth. In boots, blue jeans, and a western-cut, pearl-button shirt, he threw his ropey arms around me and squeezed so that I could not breathe. “Been way too long. To what do I owe this gracious surprise?”
An ancient cowboy well into his seventies, he squeezed me like an exuberant teenager. I was forced silent until he let go and allowed air back into my lungs.
“Good to see you too, Barney,” I huffed. “Got a big favor to ask, old buddy. Should land squarely in your bailiwick.”
A gleam in his laughing old eyes, he crossed his arms and shifted a half-turn, so that he looked at me askance, striking the skeptical pose of a proficient horse trader, his cigar undulating as he lightly chewed on it.
“A favor, huh?” He tapped his temple with two fingers and sniffed, pursing his lips as if weighing all germane factors. “Let me guess, Sammy; you need something I would have in liberal supply, something that hums and quakes and strikes out at the brave new digital world like Zeus’ lightning bolt, am I right?”
I couldn’t help but give him an appreciative grin. “When I need gasoline, I go to the gas station,” I said. “When I’m after bread, I go to the bakery. Barney, I know I don’t need to tell you, but you are the greatest broadcast tech in town.”
He dropped his pose, clapped his hands, and danced a giggly jig. “At cost, my friend, at cost; no profit in tow. I owe you my life, as well you know.”
We went inside and all the way through his shabby little house, a dwelling he liked to call his “shack.” He grabbed his rumpled old Stetson off the greasy kitchen counter, popped it on the back of his close-cropped gray pate, and out the back we went, to Barney’s shop by the alley. I followed him into his sanctum and crept along toes-first behind him, hiking the narrow trail between piles and stacks and clutter that defied categorization. I ducked under straggly coils hanging from ceiling hooks and rogue electrical wires apparently benign and drooping from ceiling-mounted brackets like sagging vines so that our course resembled a rainbow-tangled jungle trail.
We reached a clearing and there, in the yellow plume of an incandescent light, on a workbench under a boarded-up window, standing clean and shiny atop a fine and hectically disturbed layer of dust, the machine sat ready, a dog-size bumblebee-looking device, the parabolic dish at one end like a giant mouth poised to call out a fearsome warning to any evildoers within range.
“Our thoughts must surely have crossed in the ether,” said Barney. “I had a premonition in a dream last night that my latest weapon was needed post haste.”
“Interesting,” I offered, scrutinizing his work, “retro, almost Art Deco. What do you call it?”
“Clausewitz,” he declared, pride showing in the way he patted its back.
“How does it work?” I asked, knowing how much the man wanted to brag about his handicraft.
“Tesla and Faraday,” he replied, his expression waxing reverent. “I walk in the footsteps of titans. They conjured electromagnetic magic and I am the beneficiary. A moment of silence, please.”
He crossed his vein-laced hands and stood head bowed for a moment. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and beamed.
“In the trailer outside I’ve got a loaded capacitor bank wired in parallel, kicking out 500,000 Farads. When I mate her with this atomic range oscillator, this magnificent quantum pulse virtual magnetron grinding out gamma frequencies, well,” he stroked his bench-top toy like a purring feline, “all of it capped off with a mated parabolic dish for wave focus, uh, sorry for your melted circuits, Governor. ‘Privacy is a selfish notion’ my ass.”
A hacking hysterical laugh burst past his cigar as he snatched the pulse magnetron from the dust and tucked it under his arm, dancing back through the obstacle course toward the door.
“So what are we going to fry, Sammy, a public utility sub-station? How ‘bout a police drone? I’ve got radar in the trailer. We’ll poke a finger in their eye in the sky, ha.”
“I have in mind a political statement, Barney. Kind of a super-antihero sort of thing; we stay incognito and strike at the heart of the tyrannical beast like techno-guerillas, dig?”
“The beast has many hearts, kid. At which one are we aiming?”
We left the shop and I opened the double doors on the back of his contractor’s trailer parked off the alley. It was a command-and-control hub on two axles. The FBI or NSA or ATF or CIA . . . any of them would have felt right at home conducting their surveillance from Barney’s mobile field base.
“The federal courthouse antennae array, for starters,” I informed him; “nothing too revolutionary; just a call from the wilderness for a modicum of civil discretion and respect for the citizenry.”
“Politics; a tangled web,” he said. “The capacitors are stacked below the deck. It can get a little warm inside; ‘course I’ve got fans. I know you’re tough enough to take a little heat, kid. Hell, I remember a few jobs we took in the tropics where we lost weight and sucked down bottled water like we were paying fat-cat prices for the ultimate sauna experience. Remember Honduras? Really pissed off a fearless leader that time; messed up his ammunition factory the old-fashioned way: sonic mega-resonance. We were using acoustic weapons long before LRAD Corporation had dreamed of drawing up its by-laws.”
“Those were great times, Barney. You taught me true respect for the element of surprise.”
He softly placed his baby, his pulse magnetron, on the trailer deck, cradling it in a nook between a footlocker and an ammunition case under a radar console.
“Wait here. Be right back,” he said, walking back to the house, disappearing through the back door.
Out on the street, other side of the house he called his “shack,” the sound of Barney’s old pickup truck trying to start, it reminded me of someone spilling a bucket of nuts and bolts down a tin garbage chute in a high-rise. Then it fired up and rattled off down to the corner and around to the alley and backed up to the trailer, maneuvering in a cloud of blue smoke.
“This old rig’s about run its last race,” he grumbled as he left the cab to hitch up the trailer. I hate auto mechanics; boring, got no time for it.”
The truck pulled the trailer slowly down the alley. As it neared the street, a coherent high-energy beam of sub-atomic particles driven to near light speed by a cyclotron particle accelerator, focused through a series of electrostatic lenses, it streamed down from a low-orbit satellite with nano-accuracy, delivering several gigajoules of kinetic energy, the superheating result of the beam disrupting the molecular cohesion ante of the trailer, along with the rig and its anti-social occupants.
About the author:
In 1966, when I was twelve years old, I listened to the Beatles
song “Paperback Writer” and had an epiphany—destiny was singing to me from
the radio, calling me to write fiction.
Throughout my high school rebellion and my stints as an
irrigation specialist, a landscape maintenance technician, a forklift
operator, a railroad mechanic, a slaughterhouse mechanic (RIP Kurt
Vonnegut) and an aspiring scholar–earning a B.A in Political Science with
a Minor in Economics from Washington State University and a Juris Doctor
degree from Whittier College School of Law (Los Angeles)–I inked my
narratives between cramming sessions and Socratic exchanges.
Procreation dutifully addressed, nurturing and tending a fine
and noble son, I sketched my characters and trotted them forth for the
cathartic and clarifying effect they brought my soul.
Now I caper in the ether at every opportunity, looking for a
laugh and a lesson and maybe a story in the antics of my seven brilliant
grandchildren, the scribbled results a dither of scenes and sensory residue.