Norman Grant didn’t believe in predetermined fate or praying to God but he was contemplating both of these ideas as he entered the courtroom at the Justice Tower. He had blood on his hands, literally. He looked down at them, red-stained and shaking, trapped in police handcuffs. They were his reminder that he was there at the crime scene thirty minutes ago on Trident Street, near that little hidden away self-service café and scooter rental rack. He had knelt next to the choking victim, who was now, he understood, dead. No one really saw what happened and for once, there was no recorded evidence, no ‘passer-by’ phone footage or retail store CCTV. There was one witness, an office worker on a five-minute break in the sunshine, but he had not seen the incident unfold, just the aftermath.
Norman’s confusion was real, his amnesia was a condition, it had made life hard since his auto car malfunctioned and crashed two years ago, but somehow he could navigate life, most of the time. It was the short-term memories that never stuck. He had his address on his shirt pocket, with the condition named next to it, but he always knew how to find home anyway. It was the big rock in the sea, the one thing that stood firm in the storm. Everything in the house was voice-controlled and AI-smart, so he never left the cooker on, never left the door open all night and it reminded him to eat and drink regularly. How he arrived at the tower, it was like a sudden, alarming mystery but the fear was real enough, that perhaps he had done something unforgivable. His guide device was not designed to record video, so there were no clues about what had transpired. It was a total blank, a rare void of a situation, an incident lost in time.
The policeman had escorted him to the nearest Justice Tower by foot, as it was so close to the scene of the slaying, reading him his rights on the way, and ushering the single witness to walk along beside them and keep pace.
“I haven’t got much time,” protested the grey-suited gentleman, glancing at his watch desperately, fearing he would be fired for absence at work.
“If you don’t come to the Tower as a witness, you can be tried at the Tower with this mutt,” threatened the cop. He was in no mood for back-chat.
The Tower was black, windowless and foreboding, with an imposing gold statue of an elegant woman holding scales at arm’s length, standing proud before its entrance.
There were too many criminals in the nation for them all to go to jail. Jail and prisoners cost taxpayers cash, it was a waste in a poverty-stricken age. The Tower was effective as a deterrent, efficient and comparatively cheap. Instant justice was better than years of accommodation, feeding, medical bills and rehabilitation counselling, only to see most of the criminals repeat offend anyway.
They entered and a full-body scanner identified all three of them for a register.
“Crime for trial? Please enter,” asked Desk Bot.
The policeman talked to the ceiling, craning his neck in case it misheard him. He wasn’t a fan of AI and often shouted at devices in his home and car when they executed a command incorrectly.
“Murder or manslaughter charge, today on Trident Street, about half an hour ago from now.”
The bot spoke: “The accused is identified as N. Grant of Ealing Estates. He has a medical condition that is relevant to his plea should it be not guilty.”
“…Yeah, yeah,” responded the officer as if angry and dismissive, “It’s on his shirt but I have a witness and blood on the suspect’s hands. He was at the scene at the time of death.”
“How do you plead?” asked Desk Bot as a strong light shone on Norman, blinding him slightly.
“I plead, unsure. I can’t remember what happened at all…”
“My body language reading and voice analysis indicate a high probability that he is telling the truth,” the program confirmed. “Proceed to the judge immediately and reveal the details. I will enter the plea as not guilty by default. Processing time allowed, twenty minutes till verdict.”
The cop pulled Norman roughly into a short corridor where judges resided for the more time-consuming manual processing. Cops hated wasting the time. An auto judgement was so much quicker and no one in their right mind enjoyed lingering around a Tower for more than a minute or two. Norman stared up the central passage to the tall, thick metal elevator doors at the end. It was terrifying. He had only seen it in documentaries and in government warning campaigns, but there it was, a cold reality waiting, an ascension to fates unknown.
He found himself bundled onto an uncomfortable metal stool inside a boxy glass cube. Ahead he faced a balding middle-aged man with wire-framed circular spectacles, clad in long black robes and sitting slumped in a high, well-cushioned chair. The judge had the impression of a bored king trapped on a throne in a ceremony he was obliged to attend. Despite appearances, judges were not the highly educated, honed masterminds of law as they were in the old days. It was just another job, where the applicant needed the basics of procedural understanding to scrape by in the profession. It often appealed to Alphas and psychopaths, who loved the concept and power of condemnation.
The computer laid out Norman’s case as an easy-to-understand infographic for the judge to speed up his assessment of the situation.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” asked the judge nonchalantly.
Norman stared hard at his shoes in shame, and then brought up his hands into view with red-stained fingers.
“I remember… Drinking a coffee. Yes, a coffee. It wasn’t at home… And a man. The man who is a witness here…”
“And that’s it?”
“I also remember hearing something… Laughter, I think…”
“OK. Perhaps the victim had made fun of you because of your condition and you killed him in a moment of rage?”
“I can’t say. But I am not a violent man… I know that much…”
The judge swivelled on his chair, as if it were theatrics, turning to the witness.
“And you, Sir. What did you see?”
“This guy was crouched over the dead guy with blood all over him. Looks guilty to me…”
The cop nodded in approval at the observation. He had seen too many street murders to imagine there was any chance the accused was innocent.
Norman felt more alone than he had ever felt before. He was glad at least; his parents were no longer around, to be contacted after his trial, should it turn ugly.
“As you know, Norman,” began the judge, flicking his eyes up to the ticking timer on the wall that was counting down rapidly to the verdict deadline, “Every Tower has four floors to it, representing the four judgements of common law. Each floor represents one of these judgments, the four Fs as we say: freedom, fine, fire and fatal. We do not disclose each floor’s nature to the accused, we simply assign the floor, the accused enters the elevator, the arresting officer presses the button, departs and the accused alights on the floor of their judgement. To be clear: for freedom, there is a room with a door in it to an exit. For fine, an AI awaits you to scan you for a relative wage penalty. For fire, you enter a gauntlet of flames. If you make it out to the exit you will be injured but there is a chance of freedom – one in three survive. For fatal, beyond the doors is death. I am not at liberty to say how you will be killed, but death will be the judgement. Do you understand the system? Please speak clearly, yes or no?”
“Yes, I understand how the Tower works…”
“Just a Yes.”
The verdict sign flashed up to prompt the judge not to waste any more time and delivery his summary.
“You have a unique case, Norman, because of your affliction, because of your memory loss. If you cannot remember something, are you really guilty of it? I don’t know? I judge that, in the absence of a witness to the killing, without clear guilt or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, your fate will be decided by your own hand. You are to enter the elevator and choose a floor button yourself. Any of the judgements could be on any of the floors. It will be pure gambling. I think it is a fitting judgement for a man without memory or witnesses to the crime, to have a randomly selected fate by his own hand. That is my verdict. Officer, escort him to the elevator now.”
Norman felt his mouth salivate inside his gums, like the moisture doubling up in panic response, the brain having trouble regulating. The officer uncuffed him sharply, grabbed his elbow in a pincer-like grip and marched him up the long tunnel to the elevator door.
It was a looming metal square of an entrance. It was a horror to stand before those tall metal doors, like they were a portal to a dark dimension. When the doors slowly parted open, Norman felt like he was being fed to the room inside by the policeman, like it was the mouth of a beast. The doors gently closed behind him and the blue glow of the boxy space was in bright contrast to the dark walkway outside. Before the pillar of the cop was squeezed out of sight by the closing doors, Norman heard him say dryly, “I hope you get what you deserve.”
When the doors shut, a ping of confirmation alerted Norman that he was inside the heart of the most terrifying place in the city. He had two chances of not being hurt or killed. Two in four choices. He knew that in the next few seconds he could be dead or disfigured, or free. This was the ultimate in chance decisions and pivotal moments.
As he pondered the featureless, smooth walls, he began to forget why he was there. The ramparts of his memory began to crumble into ruins and dust.
“Hello!” he shouted. No reply. He could not see any button to open the door on the little silver panel, just four clearly numbered circles of light to different floors above.
“Guess I better choose one…” he said to himself. That’s when he noticed the red on his fingers. He had a flash of memory. It was from the coffee shop. A man had stumbled outside choking. He had instigated a tense disagreement with a guy in a smart suit who had pushed in front of him at the vending machine. There was taunting, toxic mocking, laughing and pointing. They took their argument outside, and that’s when the man in the suit stabbed the stranger with a fork, right in the throat. Norman had instinctively gone to help but he couldn’t remember anything else – it was a deep, impenetrable fog.
He looked about the elevator and guessed he was at the hospital, visiting the victim, that’s the kind of thing he would do. Hospital floors he remembered, the urgent cases were on the lower floors, like one or two. He pressed for floor one without hesitation. The elevator light changed to a deep red and ascended one floor up. Norman rolled up his sleeves, as he was feeling hot and bothered. He was sure he was forgetting something important. Before the doors opened, he decided that he liked helping people in trouble and maybe, even with his condition, he could do more and be actively kinder to strangers, play a better part in society, working to do good. Perhaps he could help out in a hospital like the one he had found himself in? There was something about only remembering home that was not enough. He smiled. At least he had done a good thing today.
There was a ‘ping’. The elevator doors began to open.