Chances Are . . .
by Peter J Carter
My second cup of coffee was interrupted by banging on the front door.
I opened the door and there was the ever-track-suited Melvin Shiblonski, my landlord.
“It’s the second of the month, Wilson.” He held up his Aequitas.
“Yes, Mr. Shiblonski.” I pulled my own Aequitas from my pocket and linked. After saying a silent prayer, I hit the button. His light turned red and mine turned green.
“Yes!” I said.
“Well, it looks like free rent this month, Wilson,” he said, with his Middle-European toothy grin. “Luckily for me, Brooks in 302 and Hanson in 304 both lost and’ll pay double, so I’m still up this month,”
“Good for you, Mr. Shiblonski. I’m late for court and have to go.”
I closed the door on him as he was saying something about the young Ms. Weemer in 309. Yes, the apartment complex was a shithole, but my luck here had been good, and I didn’t want to take my chances on any of those high-cost glass edifices downtown. Besides, he kept the place pretty clean.
On my way to work, I won at the coffee shop and lost at the newspaper stand before my first meeting of the day with Dan Crouder, the assistant DA.
“How’s the beach today, Wilson?” My first name was Brian. My parents apparently thought it would be a good idea, though it turned out that I didn’t have a musical bone in my body. Well, maybe one, but it was starving and lonely.
“Great Croud, what do you have?”
Crouder flicked a file off his pad to mine.
“Wojtek Novak. Caught by patrol outside Equity House 9 with a box of household goods. Obviously, to sell on the black market.”
“What are you offering?” I asked.
“Guilty plea gets him eighteen months in reeducation.”
“First-time offender? That won’t fly. Three months.”
“Nine. He had another offense.”
“That was when he was 15. Six.”
“Alright, six, but you owe me one,” said Crouder.
“Done. Let me find this guy and see if he’ll go for it or try his chances with the box.”
Being a public defender bought you a run-down apartment, twenty cases a week, and oodles of suspended morals. The good news was the pay sucked. But with Aequitas justice, more will risk the box than listen to their lawyer, so cases cleared quickly. Wojtek Novak was sitting quietly at the desk in the holding pen. It was a chicken wire affair painted in the drab, olive green that the government used on anything other than important people’s offices.
“Mr. Novak, I’m Attorney Brian Wilson from the public defender’s office. I’m here to talk to you about your options.”
Novak was a barrel-chested man, who let out a growl that turned out to be a laugh. Gray covered most of his head except for a scar right at his hairline.
“Options? I have no options.”
“Yes, you do, Mr. Novak, and I’m here to tell what they are. First, you can take trial by Aequitas. The 50/50 chance is quick, but not great odds. Second, you can have a trial by jury, but that’s iffy because you don’t know how many jurors will actually be present and how many will just be using their boxes.”
Novak continued to stare at me with a smile on his face.
“The last thing you can do is to plead guilty. The DA’s office has an offer on the table. It’s six months in the reeducation camp and it’s not a bad deal. I think you should take it.”
“Do you have a box with you?” he asked.
“Do you have an Aequitas box with you?”
I took the box out of my pocket and set it on the table.
“Have you used this today?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And how did you do?”
“I don’t see how this is pertinent.” I was beginning to think medical evaluation was necessary.
“Just go along for a while, please,” he insisted.
“Alright, I used it this morning to win my rent for the month. I also used it at the coffee shop and won but then lost at the paper stand.”
He picked it up with two fingers like a dead rat.
“Pretty good. You know, I used to make these things.”
He dropped it and rubbed his fingers on his shirt.
“I’m an engineer by trade and was working for Regiscorp until they let me go.” He looked around the room. “We got the contract when the new law of equity was enacted and started cranking these out by the millions. They thought it would end advantages for certain people. The poorest person in the world could afford the nicest place in the city and may pay nothing, and the richest might not be able to pay double forever. Just think of it. Becoming a part of history. I was proud of that for a time.”
“They canned you for something, I’m betting.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Heh, heh, heh. You’re a sharp one, but I’m not buying that plea deal you’re pushing.”
“So, what was it?” I asked. “Some sort of scam?”
Novak looked down at the gray, peeling floor. After a time, he spoke.
“We tried to run a small program that would make the boxes give better odds. An underlying program that would give 80% green and 20% red. My associate wrote the program and installed it on a chip, which I would fabricate and place on the circuit board. I made the original design, so it should have been easy.”
“Please,” I scoffed. “You should know these things are unhackable. Others have tried it thousands of times and it just fries. Is that how you got caught?”
Novak looked at me like I was the king of rubes.
“No, we got caught because they were already hacked. Straight out of the box by the very factory that makes them. Someone else already controls these.”
“But these are certified to be 100% impartial . . . Who controls them?”
“How the fuck would I know? The government? The CIA? The ghost of John Paul Getty? I’ll be damned if I know. All I know is since we were let go, I won’t get within fifty feet of those fucking things. I wasn’t prosecuted because they didn’t want the public to lose faith in their little boxes. My associates, however, disappeared one by one over the years. I’m fairly sure I’m the last.”
If what he was saying was true, the very thing that we had integrated into our society to bring equality for all was a system of control. Sure, I’ve had streaks of bad luck occasionally; the mortgage I tried to get for a house in Millis, the car loan that doubled and I couldn’t pay, the student loan I could only bring down after I took the job with the public defender’s office, and a million other things. But the idea that they were controlling me and everyone else was a little much.
“We don’t have much time,” I said. “I have three other clients to meet with.”
“Trial by jury, then. I want my story to be told.”
“You understand there will be boxes in the jury?”
“Hopefully more people than boxes.”
“OK, Let’s work on a defense.”
* * *
When we entered the courtroom, the jurors’ box was set up as usual. Behind the box sat seventeen video-feed people and seven boxes. Those on video would listen to the evidence and vote, or the boxes would: vote guilty (red) or not guilty (green), completely at random.
Seventeen was good. More than I’d hoped for.
Gone were the days when you could challenge jurors and eliminate them. By increasing the number of jurors and weighing that with even odds of the boxes, the government had determined through hundreds of studies that justice and equity would be served.
They determined that the overall outcome would be fairer than the inherent biases that people had and foisted upon a flawed system.
The defense, Dan Crouder, opened with the same old diatribe about law, country, and the people’s responsibility to stop the lawless hoards from taking over the nation. He’d been spouting the same crap since his first time in the box at law school. Some people even looked up from their cell phones. I don’t think he had any idea how ridiculous his haircut looked. It looked like he was mugged by an angry beaver.
Next, he paraded an officer in who had caught Novak.
“Officer Grimes, could you tell us the events of this past April the twentieth ?”
“My partner and I received notification that the alarm was going off at Equity House 9. We responded and saw that man,” he pointed to Novak, “leaving the building with a box. We discovered burglary tools in his possession and the front door jimmied open.”
“Are sure it was him, Officer?”
“Yes, he’s like all the rest,” he said with disdain.
“Objection, your honor.”
“Stick to facts, Officer,” said the judge, who seemed disappointed to be woken from his daydream.
“Yes, your Honor. We’re sure it was him. The light was bright, and we caught him in the act.”
“Thank you, Officer,” said Crouder.
“Do you wish to cross, Councilor?” asked the judge.
“The defense doesn’t have questions for the officer.”
“The state call’s Officer Ted Reilly .”
I stood. “Your Honor, the defense will concede that the next officer will say the same as the last.”
The judge blinked with his long white eyelashes. He looked as though they dusted him once a day and stored him in the closet.
“Are you sure, Councilor?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
He let out an audible, “Hrump.”
“Let the records read that Officer Ted Watts corroborated the first officer’s testimony.”
“The state rests, Your Honor.”
“Is the defense ready, Councilor?”
I stood, “Yes, Your Honor. The defense calls Wojtek Novak.”
Novak walked to the box and nodded to the judge.
“By taking a seat in the box, you understand you’re under oath?”
“I do, Your Honor.”
“Mr. Novak, what was in the box you took from Equity House 9?” I asked.
“My personal effects from my last apartment.”
“Are you saying you owned these items?”
“And what was in this box?” I pointed to the evidence the state had provided.
“Books and photographs of my family.”
I snuck a look at the jurors, and they all seemed intent on the proceedings.
“What books were they?”
“Well, in the box were several engineering books that were written by my father. He was an engineer like me.”
“And why couldn’t you just go on the net and download these?”
“He hand wrote in the columns and made various notations that weren’t available in the printed copies. So the books were very dear to me and my family.”
“Why didn’t you just fill out a form and ask for them back? After all they were in your apartment when you were evicted?”
“I did. Several times. Each time someone would lose the paperwork along the chain.”
He folded his arms across his chest. I told him not to do that because it makes you look standoffish.
I reached out and held up some paperwork. “This paperwork?”
I held it out so he would unfold his arms to take it.
“Yes, I made copies of each one I sent in.”
“Surely, some of this paperwork must have found its way to the proper channels?”
“I don’t know. I received a notice that my things were being destroyed the next day. They took everything from me, my family, my livelihood. It was all I had left.”
“So, you felt as though you had no choice?”
The jury was rapt, listening to every word. I had them.
“Yes, sir. I called everyone and was turned away. I went down there and tried to explain, but they didn’t want to hear any of it.”
He turned to the judge, who seemed startled.
“I’d gladly pay for the lock, sir. They just wouldn’t listen.”
“No further questions,” I said.
“Do you wish to redirect, Councilor Crouder?” said the judge.
“Yes, I do.” Crouder said. “Mr. Novak, was breaking into the Equity House against the law?”
He took a deep breath and answered, “Yes, it was.”
“And is that way you’re here today? For breaking the law?”
“Yes, it is. But I didn’t have a choice.”
“We all have choices every day, Mr. Novak! To follow the law and protect our fellow citizens. To honor the spirit of equity and to make sure all the citizens have equal opportunities. You broke that trust when you entered the Equity House.”
“Mr. Crouder, do you have keys for a car?” said Novak.
“Yes, of course, I do.”
“And if someone took those keys, would it be their car?”
“No, I’d alert the proper authorities and they’d regain them.”
“And if you’d alerted them and told them and showed the proper paperwork, but they refused to help you, would it still be your car? Of course it would. The law is in place to preserve people’s rights and property. It is not an edifice unto itself to be worshipped at the expense of the people it’s supposed to protect. When the law stops doing the very thing it is in place to do, good people have to correct it.”
To his credit, Crouder shot back. Maybe he wasn’t the slouch I thought he was.
“The law is bigger than one box of dusty books. It protects us all in the fairest and most equitable manner possible. When people take the law into their own hands, we welcome anarchy and lawlessness. A worn-out, old book is a small sacrifice to preserve our society. No further questions, Your Honor.”
Dan Crouder stood and buttoned his coat.
“People of the jury, Mr. Novak broke the law. He admitted as such. You have the honor and duty to convict him of this crime. And although there may be extenuating circumstances, it does not change the facts of the case. He broke into a public building and stole. Thank you, Your Honor.”
I stood and could see the jury wavering, unsure.
“Let me read you something.” I reached into the box and withdrew a tattered old engineering book, opened it, and read.
“Any supporting structure must, not only, consider load vectors and weight stresses, but the people factor. People and the machines they use put unusual and unexpected stresses on structures. It is up to engineers to counter those unknown and unaccounted forces to correct for deficiencies.
This was written by Hjeick Novak, Mr. Novak’s father, and I can think of no better parallel. It is up to you, the engineers of society, to correct defects that occur. He only took what was his. This box was all he had left when his apartment was repossessed. The system let him down and you can correct it.”
I looked from face to face, and I had them once again. There was no one here who hadn’t lost something to the system.
“The defense rests.” I sat down. A good defense lawyer knows when to shut up.
The judge cleared his throat.
“Jurors, the case before you must be decided by the evidence given. You must set aside your feelings and trust the evidence. If you feel you cannot make an informed, honest decision, you may opt-out and initiate your equity box at any time,” said the judge.
Here it came.
I saw a few heads nodding in the monitors and a video feed went dead, replaced by the glow of the box. And then another and another. Shit! I still had 14 jurors. No! Ten, just ten.
Might be enough to swing this case with luck. Eight? Five? What the fuck! The last few boxes turned until the entire box was filled with the icy blue glow of boxes. Twenty-four cold, lifeless boxes.
Fuck! How the fuck did I lose them all? It wasn’t possible, I thought.
“The jury has decided. Bailiff, start the vote.”
The boxes started to blink, slowly at first and then building in rapidity.
The first box turned red and five seconds later, the second turned red. I put my hand on Mr. Novak’s shoulder.
The third red, the fourth red, the fifth red.
I realized I was holding my breath. The chances of six red were point five to the power of six. The sixth red light turned on.
That was sixty-three to one.
The seventh turned red, the eighth. There was something wrong here, I had to stop this.
“Your Honor! I call for the Right of Intercession!”
“The Right of Intercession can only be used if the devices cease working,” said the judge.
The ninth red, the tenth . . .
One after another, until all twenty-four glowed red. I looked at Dan Crouder, who was standing with his mouth wide open. He held his hands out to show this was not his doing.
The odds of all twenty-four being red were point five to the power of twenty-four. The number was seventeen million to one. It couldn’t happen. It’s never happened.
“Your Honor, there must be something wrong with these machines! It is against any reasonable probability and must be struck aside.”
I looked over at Dan. “Your Honor, the state recognizes that there is some irregularity here.”
“Be that as it may, the law is sacrosanct here. Mr. Novak, please rise. This court has found you guilty of first-degree burglary with malicious destruction of public property.” The judge pushed the button, and it spat out his sentence. “You have been sentenced to a term of ten years in Attica Reeducation camp. May the people forgive you.”
He banged his gavel and left.
As the bailiffs came for him, Dan Crouder looked at me and shook his head. He loaded his briefcase and quickly left.
“I’m sorry, Novak. I thought we had it.”
“Not your fault, Wilson. Everyone else involved in that scheme has long since disappeared. I was the last, and I only made it this long by never touching those damned boxes.”
“We can appeal!” I said.
“To who? My die’s been cast, appeals will end up lost just like the paperwork I filed. They want me locked in a box somewhere.” He turned his head. “I betrayed the honor of my father and must pay the price.”
I walked over to the evidence box and took out one of his father’s books.
“You can’t do that, Councilor,” said the bailiff.
I stared at him until he averted his gaze while I handed Novak the book. He tucked it under his arm as they handcuffed him. He leaned close to me and whispered, “Be careful.” I knew what he meant as they led him away.
I sat down behind my desk in the empty courtroom and contemplated my future.
I didn’t like my chances.
Peter Carter writes short stories and has published with Ray Gun Revival, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Static Movement, Vagabondage, Mad Scientist’s Journal, Oddville Press, Battered Suitcase, Full of Crow, Theatre of Decay, and Perihelion.
While working on a degree in Biochemistry, he dropped out of school and entered the automotive field, amazed that the two occupations were startlingly similar.
He is currently building a time machine with parts found in the trash and controls only one clock which he hates.