All my senses are heightened today. Every sensation seems to be multiplied by a factor of ten. The warmth of the sun seeps into every inch of exposed skin. I cradle the puppy in my arms. The smell of its warm, humid breath lingers in my nostrils. I laugh at its seemingly infinite supply of drool. I love this dog; I love this moment.
As I lay on the soft woolen blanket, I feel my eyelids getting heavy. I try to battle against sleep, but the combination of the soothing sunshine and the fatigue inflicted by the previous hours’ constant activity win out. The puppy liberates itself from my dissolving grasp. It scurries off to regions unknown. I want to follow, but I float away, surrendering to, what should be, restful sleep. Instead, I find myself trapped in an, all too common, dream.
I am sitting on the witness stand. My mind is clouded by the foggy residue of hundreds of random thoughts. How did it ever come to this? Why am I being put through this hell? I blink furiously, attempting to keep the tears from breaking free. My lawyer had said it was acceptable to display emotion; it would show the judge my humanity. I still fight against the sentimental display. After all, I am a man and masculine pride is a trait difficult to restrain.
The prosecuting attorney continues his examination. Everything about him exudes confidence: his perfectly chosen words, his impeccably pressed three-piece suit, his composed demeanor. “So, Mr. Holland, you, as the chief operator, have the responsibility of verifying that all systems and all back-up systems are fully operational prior to take off?”
“Yes,” I answer, hoping my voice would avoid cracking, praying that it displayed even a minuscule fraction of the authority that resounded in the lawyer’s question. “I am certain th…..”
The attorney cuts me off. “I didn’t ask for anything else.” He continues, “On the morning of August third, you were supposed to perform each and every one of these checks. Do you maintain that you did so?”
“I checked everything. There was questionable weather coming in from the west. When weather is a possible issue, I am especially cautious. I know I performed every test exactly as prescribed by the launch directives.”
“Are you absolutely certain? Maybe the concern over the weather caused you to abbreviate the pre-flight check. Could you have skipped over some small part of the process?”
“I object,” shouts my lawyer, quickly rising from his chair. “Purely speculative. My client has already answered the question.”
“I withdraw the question.” The prosecutor is clearly nonplussed by the interruption. His gaze, once again, falls on me. I wish I had the resolve to meet his piercing stare, instead, I bow my head. “If you did all the necessary checks, why does the diagnostic computer log indicate that no secondary system analysis was performed?”
My lawyer has prepared me for this line of inquiry. “There are many times that the pre-flight analysis doesn’t appear in the log. The entire pre-launch procedure is extremely involved, if the final completion code isn’t entered or is entered incorrectly, the log won’t show the result even though the diagnostic check was performed and verified. You could find logs from hundreds of flights that do not indicate every check as being completed.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Holland, but those flights didn’t end with the deaths of five-hundred eleven people.”
I sit in the prison conference room. The hard, impassionate steel of the chair and table pushing back at me everywhere my body makes contact. It is impossible to be comfortable in this room. I wonder if this is by design; the solitude and depression of my cell are more desirable than this cold antiseptic chamber.
My lawyer is positioned across from me, his head buried in his notes. I wonder if he is, honestly, searching for something on the elongated yellow pad, or simply avoiding my eyes? Finally, he lifts his head and speaks. “It doesn’t look good. I think the judge will find you guilty of, at the very least, negligence.
“But I didn’t do anything wrong. The machinery failed. I was not negligent.”
“I know, but the absence of confirmation in the log puts you at fault. Understand, this was the first major catastrophe involving out-of-atmosphere transportation. The development has, as you surely know, been very expensive and controversial. The powers behind the program don’t want it tarnished. They are very influential people. Their company and project must survive. They won’t let the public perceive that the equipment was faulty; someone has to take the blame. That someone will be you.”
I am not a man of limited resources. Astro-pilots are rare and, therefore, well compensated. My lawyer is the best that money could buy. I can do nothing but trust his expert opinion.
“So, what does ‘guilty’ mean? What is the punishment?”
“If we continue to fight this, you are likely to get the maximum sentence, twenty years.”
I feel the blood rushing from my face. This can’t be happening. I did nothing wrong. I am innocent.
My lawyer waits for me to regain my composure. He truly is good at his trade. After the short delay, he continues. “There is a second option. There is a deal on the table. If you agree to accept placement in a new rehabilitation program, the judge will only sentence you to seventeen months in that program.”
I nod my head, comprehending the magnitude of the offer. “Why would they be willing to do that? What kind of program are you talking about?”
He digs in his briefcase for a second, extracting a brochure. I take it from his outstretched hand, surprised at how violently my own hand is shaking. I read the pamphlet. I do not like what it describes, but I understand that it is better than the alternative.
“What do you advise?” I ask.
“I think you have to take the deal. You will be a free man in less than a year and a half.”
I nod my head, not entirely sure of what I am getting myself into.
The judge sits before a crowded courtroom. Her silver hair is pulled back in a tight bun. She wears large circular glasses. To me, she bears an uncanny resemblance to a snowy owl. I am certain the look is intentional. This is her domain. Her unblinking eyes focus directly on me as she announces the sentence.
“On August 3, 2034, four hundred sixty-seven passengers on Ultra-flight 0036 and forty-four people in Manhattan Park lost their lives when the shuttle crashed. Eighty-three percent of the occupants of that fated flight were killed. There is nothing that will ever make up for this horrific loss of life. However, we can demand retribution from the sole individual responsible for this devastating catastrophe.”
I shift my weight, ever so slightly. I know what is coming. Part of me wants to smile, thinking that this presentation could easily have been written by the out-of-atmosphere flight developers themselves. I resist the urge. I do stare back, stoically, at the judge. I want her to know that I am aware that I am a scapegoat. I hope she feels a twinge of guilt over my sacrifice. Her voice offers no evidence that my hope is founded in truth.
“Isaac Holland’s carelessness and irresponsibility caused this tragedy. Having plead guilty to charges of homicide by negligence, he is hereby sentenced to five-hundred eleven days of Retrieved Memory Rehabilitation, without parole. Execution of the sentence will begin immediately.
The courtroom explodes with a multitude of different reactions. Some of the victim’s families react in anger, protesting the lack of severity to the sentence. Others, those who understand the actual cruelty of the punishment, cheer loudly. The rest break down in tears of varying degrees; muffled sobs are intertwined with anguished wails.
I feel a compassionless hand on my shoulder. The court officer turns me and directs me toward a side door.
An incredibly loud noise jars me from my slumber. I look up just in time to see a gigantic flaming sphere skipping along the park grass. I feel the heat. Unable to move, I stand motionless. My brand-new white play dress flaps rapidly about my knees. I wonder where my puppy has gone. I need my mother. Then I experience a moment of intense pain, followed by emptiness.
The incessant buzz of the alarm clock finally rouses me from my slumber. I am running late. I will only have a few minutes to grab a bite from the hotel’s continental breakfast before signing in for my flight.
James Rumpel is a recently retired high school math teacher who has greatly enjoyed using his newfound additional free time to rekindle his love for science fiction and the written word. He lives in Wisconsin, with wonderful wife, Mary and follows the exploits of his three grown children: Allie, Ed and John.