Issue 124 – January 2017

2860 words, short story

Justice Systems in Quantum Parallel Probabilities


Cole sits on the hard slab of bed that cannot be tamed by the three-inch thick mattress and scratchy blanket. The gray of the diffused light brings no warmth to the cell. There is nothing for Cole to do but wait, which he’s been doing for some time. Eventually someone will come for him, and take him to a larger room, and the fate of what is to be done with him will unfold.

In the meantime he waits. His eyes are drooping, chin falling toward his chest. The guy across the hall, who Cole cannot see because the doors are staggered, is named Marco. He has been talking constantly. Perhaps Marco has a mental health issue. Marco’s current topic is about justice, its structure. The steady patter lulls Cole into a doze, where images begin to arise from the molecular structure of the universe, or from the realm of ideas. They take on form, become worlds unto themselves like the idealized scenes within so many snow globes. He picks one up and peers through the thin veil of snow at what is inside.

There is a justice system with no police. People turn themselves in to prosecutors voluntarily, or are persuaded to do so by others. The prosecutors hear the confessions. One prosecutor is turning someone away, saying, “We cannot help you. While your situation is unfortunate, you have committed no crime.”

The man is unhappy. “But how am I to live like this? How am I to restore the balance of things?”

“That is not my concern,” the prosecutor replies.

Cole watches as the man leaves the courthouse and goes down the street to a small shop providing justice-type services for people the prosecutors turn away. Cole peers over the man’s shoulder and reads the menu of sanctions and punishments. Some of the choices are more severe than those meted out by the real justice system. The man purchases two days in jail. The handcuffs they use to lead him away cost extra.

Cole shakes his head in confusion. Why would someone voluntarily turn themselves in, and pay for their own punishment? As if answering his unspoken question, the scene fast-forwards to when the man is released from jail. Friends and family come to greet him. They hug. There are tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.

No one has ever treated Cole this well upon release from custody. This world mystifies him. He turns to another globe and looks inside.

There is a justice system with no prosecutor. People simply go before the judge for sentencing. There are two judges. One is insane. The other is astute and evenhanded. The people can choose which judge will hear their case. Sometimes they choose the insane one because, hey, at least you have a chance. Maybe the insane judge will dismiss your case no matter how much evidence is brought. Maybe you will receive a small fine to pay for the murder you committed. There is a fascination with the arbitrariness of the insane judge. Many people choose the gamble even though the fair judge is never overly harsh.

Cole is standing before the insane judge, who sits sideways in his chair applying white make-up to his face with his right hand while he holds a mirror in his left. Cole confesses, and apologizes for his actions. The judge continues putting on his clown face. Cole explains himself, how he’d been laid off from his nothing job, how he’d been about to be evicted from his crummy studio apartment. The judge seems oblivious to Cole’s presence. Cole apologizes again, offers to make restitution to his victims.

The judge suddenly swings his chair to face Cole and slams down the mirror. “Are you done?”

Cole is shocked into silence. He can form no words in reply.

“Good.” The judge picks up the mirror and checks his clown eyebrows. “I’ve been thinking about what to do with you. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep . . . ”

The scene dissolves before Cole hears his sentence pronounced.

There is a justice system where all offenders are considered mentally ill. Offenses are a symptom of their diseases. Instead of prisons there are hospitals devoted to therapies for offenders’ various conditions. There is a continuum of care, from outpatient treatment to acute units. This justice system has no death penalty, because it would be inhumane to put someone to death for being ill. However, terminal cases languish in the acute units. Doctors come and go, shaking their heads. Families are called in for counseling, and leave in tears.

Cole watches as an offender in an acute unit bed pleads for release. He is no longer ill. He wants to go home. He is so intent on convincing the staff of his sanity, he gestures wildly. They move in and subdue him. They place him in restraints, for his own good. They give him drugs.

Cole jerks awake to find he is sweating. He runs a hand through his hair. Marco is still raving from across the hall. It would be best if he were in the justice system where his mental illness would be the focus of the treatment.

Cole thinks about what he’d told the insane judge in the other justice system. It is never good to offer justification for one’s crimes. No matter how society stacks the cards against you, you’re not supposed to react by going outside the law. Cole sighs heavily, then turns onto his side and pulls the scratchy blanket up over his exposed ear to muffle the incessant talking, and falls back into dream.

There is a justice system that only focuses on the big crimes, and the small crimes go unpunished. People shrug off the small crimes as human nature, or the accidents of life. There are street brawls, petty thefts, acts of vandalism against enemies. In this society there is very little serious crime because the consequences are large compared to committing small crimes. The society is boisterous, clever, alert, nimble. There is laughter, teasing, pranks, revenge. The large crimes are rarely publicized. Everyone cooperates in catching the criminal, the execution is not made public, and no one ever mentions the names of the criminals nor visits their graves.

Cole finds he is lucid within this dream. He chooses an interesting and lively street, where he witnesses a good-natured brawl and a failed mugging that ends in a group of men laughing as they kick the would-be thief into a fruit stand. Apples spill. Several children dash forward to grab a handful and run.

Would my own crimes slide under the radar in such a world? The prospect gives him hope.

There is a justice system where most people are in jail. They get furloughs to go to work, and this is critical because otherwise the economy would come to a halt. Most jails look like regular apartment buildings, and sit alongside the housing of free people. It is difficult to tell an incarcerated person from a free person, because the rhythm of their lives from home to work to home is similar. People do not look down on the incarcerated, and even accept invitations to dinners in other people’s jails. They marry the sons and daughters of the incarcerated. With so much activity defined as a crime and the punishment always incarceration, there is tolerance and sympathy for the criminal, for they are family, neighbors, bosses, and they are everywhere.

Cole opens his eyes to find he is not in one of the home-like jails. For a moment he longs to return to that justice system. Isn’t his neighborhood full of people who have been where he is now? He closes his eyes, willing himself to return to that justice system, but Marco is talking about another world now, in a soft voice that makes it seem he is in Cole’s cell with him, murmuring in his ear.

There is a justice system with no judge. The victim pronounces judgment. Why shouldn’t the victim get to say what is to happen to their offender? All the justice system needs to do is bring the offender before the victim. This can happen at the victim’s door, or in the hospital where the victim may be recovering, or on the street at the crime scene. If the victim is dead, a group of people close to the victim gather to discuss what the victim would have decided, based on the victim’s personality and outlook on life.

Cole’s three victims stand before him. Two are the couple of the house he burglarized a month ago. The third is his current victim. They start speaking all at once, seemingly oblivious they are talking over each other. Bits and pieces of their monologues rise out of the cacophony. They are each telling him exactly how they were hurt by him, not just because of his actions at the time, but what it has done to them ever since.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

“I wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, thinking there’s someone in the house. Every night.”

“I’m seeing a psychiatrist.”

“I’m on medication for my depression.”

As one of them speaks, tears of anger spring to her eyes. Fists and jaw clench.

As another talks, he seems to soften. There is a slump of defeat, but also a hint of forgiveness, a resignation that people will behave badly, including himself.

As the third victim talks, Cole becomes increasingly disturbed by the person’s flat affect, and shivers. Is he about to be attacked, even tortured? Is that allowed in this system?

“Which victim gets to choose what happens to me?” he asks aloud. No one but the victims are present, and they do not seem to hear him. He sinks to his knees and squeezes his eyes shut, willing to be anywhere but here. There is a stark honesty of a system where the victim decides the offender’s fate. It is frighteningly simple. Yet there is a hint of horror at what might spring from it. Should one person have so much power over another? Even if they were wronged?

The thoughts swirl around and Cole is caught in the whirlpool. Down he goes through vivid worlds that last mere minutes. He feels splinters punching into his neck and arms as he stands locked into a stock. People pass by and spit. A young boy throws a small apple at him, clocking him in the cheek. The sting is nothing compared to the shooting pains in his legs from standing in place.

He is lying down staring up into beams and thatch. Hands force his jaws open. He screams as a man looms over him, holding a steaming bucket. There is an acrid, metallic odor that makes him choke even before the liquid is poured, burning his lips. He gags in his terror.

Now he sits with a forearm strapped onto a thick wooden table. A different man approaches, lifts a very large, curved sword. Cole screams.

A crowd is chasing him, throwing rocks. There is snow on the ground. His back and legs ache as he stumbles forward, toward a wooded area. He falls, staggers up in a panic. He doesn’t want to die like this. Before he reaches the trees, he realizes no one is throwing rocks anymore. Looking back, he sees the crowd has turned their backs on him, are heading back to the town he can see in the middle distance. He feels relief. Limping into the woods, he shivers. He isn’t dressed warmly, and he is alone.

He is sitting alone in a small cell. He owns a few books, a hot plate, and a small television, which is made of clear Lexan. It’s similar to the cell he left, but for the belongings. He understands he has been in this cell a long time. He wonders if it’s visiting day. He wonders if anyone will come to visit. He hopes he hasn’t missed yard time. He wants to be around people.

Time speeds up. Cole watches the walls around him age and then grow brittle and crumble.

He finds himself in another place. It feels like he is seeing the future. Three people are seated at a table, staring at their tablet computers. They are not his victims, he notes with a sigh of deep relief. Instead of the older couple and his current victim, he is looking at a well-groomed man who is dressed in the manner of a lawyer or businessman. On one side of the man is an older woman with stylish gray hair and a beautiful manicure, and on his other side is a large black man whose glasses are pushed up onto his bald head.

The three are talking about someone who is in prison. Cole realizes these people are members of a parole board.

“This is one lifer I could be convinced to let out someday,” the businessman says. “But not today.” He touches the screen, recording his vote.

The woman nods. “Let’s not wait too long, though. We want him to be able to get out and still make something of his life. Before he gets too old.”

The black man looks across at the woman. “What are you thinking? Two more years? Five?”

The woman considers, then nods. “Sounds about right.”

The businessman makes a note. “Then next year we’ll recommend he start a gradual step-down. He’ll need to be introduced to a less secure setting, and then eventually receive some furloughs into the community.”

Cole is moved. Are they speaking about him? He hopes not. Surely his crimes are not so bad that he should be sentenced to life in prison. He doesn’t want to have been incarcerated for so long that people start to think in these terms. Yet that there exist people who do think this way about someone who has obviously spent so long in prison . . .

He weeps for the unknown lifer they are talking about. Here is a justice system that practices mercy.

It is as if Cole’s tears open a new doorway. He sees a justice system practiced as art. People come from far away to watch the most accomplished justice artists decide cases, crafting custom resolutions that the crowds discuss for days in terms akin to the raptures of sommeliers over the finest wines.

“That decision in the Hudson case was entirely satisfying,” a young woman is saying, “even as it held a bit of surprise at the end.”

“Agreed,” her male companion notes, smiling. “That type of sentence is well within the New Classical School, but with nuances that give a nod to Middle Way.”

The young woman nods. “I adore Middle Way decisions. They sit so lightly on the moral palate.”

“I get what you mean. There’s effervescence in its life-affirming qualities.”

And so forth. Cole wishes he could follow the conversation. He wants to experience what these people are talking about. He senses he is in the presence of true justice, or something very close to it. He longs to stand before one of these artist judges and hear his sentenced pronounced. He thinks of the world where people turned themselves in and confessed because they wanted to be whole again. He understands now why they would do that.

This is my punishment, he thinks. To know there is a justice system that exemplifies what true justice is, and not understand it.

Cole becomes aware he is kneeling in the middle of his cell. His knees protest as he rises. The scratchy blanket is around his shoulders. Cole peels it away and drops it on the mattress. Marco has fallen silent. Is he sleeping? Have they taken him away?

He hears his name called, and looks up to see the face of one of the officers. It’s not an unkind face. It’s a professional face, a trained face, wearing a neutral expression that does not judge, that is respectful, that has established appropriate boundaries.

The door opens, and he steps outside his cell. He sees the first officer is accompanied by two other uniformed men. It’s time to go to the larger room, where his case will be disposed and judgment pronounced. They secure handcuffs, leg irons, and a belly chain. He performs the odd, humiliating shuffle step down the hall toward the main door. As he passes what he’d envisioned was Marco’s cell, he glances to the side only to find there is no room there at all, but a window that lets in weak light and a distorted view. He swings his head to the other side, but there is a jailer’s desk there. He stares at the woman behind the desk, who meets his gaze steadily, and without conspiracy.

He pauses. “Which system is this?”

The woman behind the desk squints at him, and then looks at the officers accompanying him. One of them shrugs.

Cole is aware he sounds odd, but he cannot help himself. “What system are we in?”

“The only system there is,” one of the officers says carefully, and guides Cole down the hall.

Author profile

Lettie Prell likes to write about the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging. Her short fiction has appeared in WIRED,, Clarkesworld, Analog, Apex, and Martian Magazine, and reprinted in a number of anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and The New Voices of Science Fiction. Her work has also been translated into several languages. She is a life-long Midwesterner, and currently lives in Des Moines.

Share this page on: