The Judge presiding over my case sat on his oversized and overstuffed throne. He was one of the three men who decided over life and death in our city. Judge Farris had a reputation for being a hard case. He’d put more people to death during the culling than all of the other judges put together. He would be the one who would decide if I was a useful member of society or not. If he decided I wasn’t, that would be it. I’d lose my head. The thought of the executioners axe coming down on my scrawny little neck made me want to run to the bathroom again. I hadn’t stopped needing to pee since my number had been drawn.
In every town, in every part of the world, identity numbers had been thrown into wooden boxes and one by one our numbers were drawn to decide if we would live or die, depending on how useful we were. Prisoners were executed first, and prisons stood as empty, reminders of the past. Then the over sixty-fives were crossed off the list, their assets seized by the state and their organs recycled. Those with IQ’s under 110 were also immediately crossed off the list and deemed as unfit breeding stock. The culling had begun two years ago, and the executioner was very busy.
I’d been one of the lucky ones who’d had those extra two years of life. It had taken the courts longer than anticipated to get through all the numbers. They’d only managed to execute about two thousand people in our city over the last two years through the court system, not including the prisoners and over sixty-fives. Two years of daily executions can be deadening on the spirit, but I’d had the time to meet my nephew, see a few more sunsets, and enjoy the feel of the sun on my skin, which so many others could no longer do. It’s amazing how the small things that count when your number could be up at any moment.
The world population had reached the nine billion mark. Famine and water shortages raged. Governments all over the world came to the conclusion that there was only one solution. The courts were tasked with deciding on which members of society were the most productive, whose life had the most value. My mother had been one of the first to go. She had been over sixty-five. My sister was a teacher, with an IQ of 130 and therefore useful. My brother, a farmer, was also found useful in a world where there wasn’t enough food and too many lawyers and accountants. The old university degrees, once so sought after, were no longer as important as they once were — now it was genetics and intelligence that mattered. If university graduates didn’t have an added skill, or were not the best at what they did, or were not classified as good breeding stock, they were crossed off the list; even being prematurely bald was a reason for being culled. No ordinary citizen was safe.
My heart felt as though it was trying to escape from my chest. I understood its desire for escape. The thought of running away had crossed my mind more than once, but there was nowhere to run. At this rate, I’d die of a heart attack long before the trial was over, saving the judge the trouble of deciding my fate. My trial wouldn’t take long. I’d have a day at the most to convince them that I was worthy to continue breathing. I was allowed to plead my case because I had good genes and a relatively high IQ, but the question was: was I useful? Was a writer needed in this new society? Was a freethinking author someone they wanted to keep in the new world order? I didn’t hold out much hope. I wasn’t a bestselling author or famous; the rich and famous were pretty much exempt for their ‘social’ contributions.
The courthouse had been built in 1802, two hundred and fifty years ago, and had survived two world wars and an attempted bombing two years ago by terrorists protesting the culling — they’d only succeeded in blowing themselves up, four more people the courts didn’t have to worry about. The wooden panelling on the walls of the courtroom was a dark mahogany and made the room feel solemn and yet strangely warm. It felt right that my fate would be decided in a room as old and as grand as this one.
“Marin Brown,” the Bailiff called. I heard my name through a wall of nervous fuzz in my ears.
I walked down the stairs and stood in the wooden box, where the Bailiff told me to stand, my legs wobbling under me. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to stand throughout the ordeal. Judge Farris sat on my right, looking down his nose at me. His white wig looked like it dated back to when the court had first been built; it probably itched like hell. His eyes were dark and cold. He probably only had another five years to go before he too was culled. The thought gave me some comfort, but not much. My bladder wanted to go, but I would have to hold it till the end, there would be no recess.
The Judge banged his gavel a few times, calling the court to order. The wood hitting wood reverberated through my brain and made the hair on my arms stand up. I spotted my brother and sister sitting in the front row. They would speak on my behalf during the proceedings. It was up to them and the few people who had read my work to convince the judge that my life should be spared. There would be no lawyer to defend me; the few left were too expensive for a poor writer. I would have to argue my own case, fight for my own survival.
The judge looked over the rim of his glasses and stared down at me from his judgemental height. His beaked nose reminded me of a Dickensian character. I couldn’t decide if he looked more like Martin Chuzzlewit or Fagin.
“Stand up properly young lady,” Judge Farris said. His voice was hard. “This court has been called to order, and you will stand to attention throughout the proceedings. If you sit at any time I will make my ruling immediately, and it will not be favourable. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” I choked. My tongue was too thick for my mouth. My brother’s neighbours, who were often spectators at trials and had seen Judge Farris in action, had told me that the Judge felt that standing to attention was a point of respect, and failure to do so was to demonstrate contempt. He’d once made a pregnant woman stand for several hours before declaring that she had to have an abortion. It had been her third child, and unless she was prepared to have one of her other children culled, she would have to get rid of her latest addition. He had also declared that if she didn’t start practising safe sex, she, too, would be culled.
“Would those who are here to speak for this woman stand?” Judge Farris instructed. My sister, brother, a few fellow writers, and a couple people I didn’t know, stood. Together, they didn’t even fill up half of the front row. There had been a public announcement letting people know about my trial, the usual notification that went out for all trials, asking anybody who knew me to show up and speak on my behalf. Notifications, however, were only sent out the day before the trials.
“Your testimony must be completely accurate. If you are found to commit perjury, your status will be called into question and you will find yourself in the dock. Is that clear?” The judge instructed.
The witnesses for my defence nodded in unison. My stomach fell a few notches. Nobody would lie for me or exaggerate my usefulness — I wasn’t worth dying for.
“You,” the judge pointed at my brother, his short, cropped blond hair, calloused hands, and deep tan screamed that he spent many hours working the land, “step forward.” Jason took a few tentative steps closer. “Come closer,” the judge commanded. “Stand where I can see you properly.” Judge Farris leaned forward in his seat. “Who is this woman to you?” The judge asked.
“She’s my sister, Your Honour,” Jason replied.
“Besides being your sister, is there a reason she should be allowed to continue to exist in our midst?”
“Y… Yes your honour,” Jason stammered. “She’s a very talented writer, she helps my wife with our child, and she cooks really well, and she pays us rent when she can.”
“Did you get permission to have this child?” The judge asked with a furrowed brow.
“Y… Yes your honour.” Jason’s face turned white. The implication in the judge’s question was obvious. If he didn’t have permission, his son’s life would be forfeit.
“And your sister stays with you?” Judge Farris raised his eyebrow.
“Yes your honour. She used to stay with our mother and looked after her, but when Mom was culled, my sister moved in with me and my wife. We needed help with our baby because our nanny was culled.”
“Why was your nanny culled?”
“She was classified as being poor breeding stock, but as you can see my sister is from very good breeding stock.”
“Is she?” The judge looked over at me. I felt his eyes roving over every inch of me, judging me, looking for imperfections — they wouldn’t be hard to find. My slightly crooked teeth and pale blue eyes, indicative of eventual bad eyesight, were painfully obvious. Even though I didn’t need glasses, my eyesight was not perfect and the judge would most certainly use it against me. Then there was my broken nose too, which I’d broken when I was six while trying to prove that I could climb a tree just as well as Jason.
“You may be seated.” My brother was dismissed. His testimony hadn’t lasted as long as I thought it would. At this rate, my trial wouldn’t even last an hour. I had a feeling the judge had already made up his mind.
He then called up my sister, Iris, to testify. She looked every bit the teacher, but unlike me, her eyesight was perfect. She and Jason both had brown eyes, the same as our mother. I’d inherited our fathers blue eyes and poor eyesight. Her testimony was even shorter than my brother’s. He asked her only one question. “Does your sister make enough money from her writing to support herself or is she a burden on your brother and you?”
My sister looked like a doe caught in the headlights.
“She’s not a burden, Your Honour,” Iris finally managed to say. “She pays her own way.”
“Does she?” Judge Farris leaned further forward and eyed my sister over his glasses. Iris took a step backwards. Her lower lip shivered, usually a sign that she was about to cry.
“Dismissed,” the Judge said, and sounded bored. He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Next,” he said without looking to see who would be speaking for me. I didn’t recognise the man who stepped forward. He wore an old tweed jacket and looked like a university professor.
“Have you read this woman’s work?” The Judge asked.
“Yes,” the stranger said.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Would you buy anything else she wrote?”
“I think so, yes,” the stranger said looking at me and smiling. I tried to smile in return, but my face didn’t co-operate.
“Dismissed.” The Judge then looked at the handful of people still standing. “Are the rest of you all here to give similar testimony?”
They all nodded in reply.
“So noted. I’ll stipulate for the record that the remaining witnesses all stated the exact same thing as the previous witness.” The Judge banged his gavel when audience members started to chatter amongst themselves at his decision. The stenographer typed out his stipulation. His decision recorded for posterity. “Looks like I’ll make my tee time after all.” The judge sounded pleased with himself.
“May I object to that ruling, Your Honour?” I asked, my voice just above a whisper.
“No you may not.” Judge Farris banged his gavel again. “I’m ready to deliver my verdict.”
“But I haven’t had a chance to defend myself,” I said, my voice rising above the sound of the gavel.
“I have made my decision and there’s nothing you can say that will change your fate. You are a burden on your family. You are not prolific enough or good enough to compete with other high calibre writers. There is not room in our society for yet another mediocre author. I therefore sentence you to death. You will be sent from here to your place of execution. There will be no reprieve.” The Judge banged his gavel.
My sister collapsed in a hysterical heap. My brother stared at me, his mouth open in shock.
“Bailiff, take her away.” I heard the Judge’s words as though from a distance. My skin tingled on my face and I desperately needed to go to the toilet, but I refused to embarrass myself. I promised myself that I would be culled with some dignity.
We’d all heard the stories of how some people carried on when they were led away, the hysteria. I would leave that to my sister. I squared my shoulders and allowed the bailiff to lead me out. There was a part of me that still clung to some small hope that the judge would change his mind, that he’d realised he’d made a mistake, but I knew those hopes were futile. The judge never changed his mind.
I would be dead before sunset.
There was a short queue waiting for the executioner in the holding cell. There were three trials everyday, of which two, at least, ended with a death sentence. It didn’t happen often that one of the judges allowed someone to carry on existing, especially Judge Farris.
Another woman waiting to be culled sat in a corner, sobbing. She had paint splatters on her clothes. From the way she was dressed, she looked to be an artist. I sat down next to a man who stared at a spot on the wall opposite us. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was dressed in a simple, cheap suit. His shoes were cracked and looked more plastic than leather. He rocked himself slowly. The shock of where he was and what was about to happen to him stamped on his face. I probably wore the same shocked look.
Two men in uniform came into the holding cell. They headed straight for the woman in the corner and dragged her out. I heard her scream as they took her down the passage towards the chopping block. Next would be the man sitting next to me. I would be the last of the day. The executioner would take a break between each of us; apparently chopping people’s heads off is hard work. Two hours later, they came for him. He went quietly. He hadn’t said a word while we waited and he was silent when they culled him.
They’ve come for me. I try to stand, but my legs betray me. One of them helps me to stand and I thank him. My mother taught me to be courteous. I thank them again for helping me to walk, with some dignity, to the execution chamber.
The chopping block is a huge piece of black granite with a hollowed out bit where I place my head. They tried to wash away some of the blood from the previous two victims, but they missed a few spots. The site of the blood makes the little bit of food I managed to get into my stomach before my trial travel back up my throat, I swallow it back down. I hate that I will die with the taste of bile on my tongue. It’s rather rude that they didn’t even give us a last meal.
The executioner stands with his axe resting on his shoulder. The blade looks sharp enough. I hope he’ll be able to do it with one blow. He looks strong enough. I kneel and place my head in the hollow. I’m grateful that they didn’t allow any family members to attend. It’s a private matter. It’s just between me, the executioner, and whatever god I believe in. Only problem is I’m not sure any god exists.
Well… I’m about to find out.
This story originally appeared in AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers in 2013.
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