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Which Will It Be

Ana lives in New England with her partner and a goofy dog who likes to eat floorboard glue. She does science for her day job, and adds in the fiction part in the evenings. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Colored Lens, Write Ahead: The Future Looms, Corvid Queen, and others.
The verdict surprised no one. It was the sentencing they'd come for; the reason they'd packed themselves into the sweaty old courtroom, wall-to-peeling-oakwood-wall, five hundred bodies gripping iClickers, slurping in eager unison from their NutriShake rations.
The judge banged for silence and the accused stood. Breaths stopped. A thousand eyes fixed the Hi-Fi Sentencing Widescreen, stretched tall and black behind the judge's seat.
"Your sentence," said the judge, "is to find a mussel-shell at the ocean shore."
Gleeful oohs filled the dank room. A good sentence! The shoreline skulked with scavengers and half-lizard mutates, and it'd take a month digging through diesel-sludge to find a shell. The accused would meet a gruesome fate--but of what sort? Bets would be rolling in.
"Choose your path," said the judge, and everyone leaned forward as the widescreen flashed to life.
CHOOSE! YOUR! PATH! The words blinked in Sentencing Cursive 28. Winner of a recent contest for sentencing-font-design.
The accused had turned sallow under his sun-rash.
New text flashed in stark, bold New-Order Serif. OPTION A.
"Option A: walk to the shore," said the judge. "You may take one colapop-ration."
The audience hollered. The shore was three days' walk along scorching ruins of grey-road, filled with wheel-gangs and fume-widows. Colapop came in twenty-oz packs: just enough to jitter-fuzz you into thinking you could stretch it for three days.
The best sentence paths were like that: clear ending, but just enough tricks to keep the public tripping.
"Next," boomed the judge, and the screen flashed OPTION B obligingly. "The nutrient factory."
The red NutriShake bottle danced a jig on the screen. The courtroom blew raspberries. Bo-ring. The certain-death option always came second, but at least it could've been more buzz-buzz, like the toddlers-with-Uzis execution squad. That one had made a killing on the betting line.
"Order," said the judge. Text flashed over the NutriShake bottle. EASY DISSASEMBLY AND REPURPOSING.
"Option C," said the judge. "Barter at Nina's Emporium for supplies to reach the shore."
The courtroom vhoom-ed to life.
People whistled. Feet stamped. Nina's was a local joint, never made the big trials. So lucky the accused had picked their town to intestine-no-no all those ration sellers.
"You may take any four items you barter."
An ad for Nina's filled the widescreen. Ration-packs and magnet-blankets! L-scans! Projectile weapons! Diesel-wheels! The Emporium had everything.
"Audience vote?" the judged asked.
Fingers smashed the iClickers. "Nina's. Nina's." The courtroom chanted and stamped their feet, while the accused sweated through his overalls.
"Choose your path," boomed the judge.
The accused consulted his attornicon-software. Survival chances: nil-nil-nil. ('Nina's! Nina's!') Bets buzzed.
"Option C," said the accused, and everyone roared.
Nina's Emporium sat in a deluxe-extra habitat-container, family size, twenty-by-twelve-by-seven feet. Aluminum shelving covered the corrugated-iron walls, and the Cozy-Ambient add-on provided mild blue lighting, soft on retina-burns. Four hovercams gave the outside audience a three-sixty view.
Nina waited behind a counter at the end. She wore a brown knit cloak, vintage-cosplay edition, and her dark hair in braids.
"Welcome to the Emporium!" She smiled at the hovercams.
"I need a sun-cloak," said the accused, "a jumbo colapop-ration, a sludge-mixer Mega-edition, and a boom-boom-gun."
Clever choices: those items might get him to the shore. The buzz-buzz points would be pouring in.
Nina held up a barter-pad. "Special deal today: all items, in exchange for one neuro-chip-trip. You choose the trip."
The audience outside shrieked. Hovercams closed on the accused's face, sunken eyes darting from Nina to the barter-pad. He nodded.
Nina pulled from under the counter a rusted register-box full of neuro-chips. She picked one, small and translucent, and read its label.
"Ration-seller mugged in the pop district."
The accused shuddered: it was the neuro-chip of his first victim. If he picked that, he'd trip into her lights-out moment. See and feel what she had, when he put the blade into her belly.
He scratched at the neuro-port behind his ear and shook his head.
Nina picked another chip. "Diesel-dripper meets order-force volunteer."
People outside roared. Good trip! Diesel-drippers wandered the steel-yards, licking old exhaust pipes and sucking on carburetors. They were harmless non-aggros, so order-force patrols hunted them for sport.
The accused shook his head, breath quickening.
Another chip. "Woman protests order-discipline-renewal laws."
"District-19 citizen caught raiding District-18 compost."
"Family of four files rations complaint with yum-yum ministry. Oh, this is a good one," Nina hummed. "Shows how the yum-yum minister got the idea for NutriShakes."
"I got credits," choked the accused. "You can take it all--just give me what I need."
"Of course," said Nina. "But the Emporium trades goods for chip-trips. What trip do you choose?"
"I changed my mind!" he shouted. "I'll take Option A!"
"The sentence path is immutable." The judge's voice came through the Cozy-Ambient boombox. Outside, crowds cheered. The betting lines were frying. "Make your trade."
"I have different chips, if these aren't to your liking." Nina pulled another box, with a yellowed-tape label that read, New Order--Executions, First Wave.
She picked a neuro-chip. A hovercam focused on the minuscule label etched on its back. First protester to New Justice Code. The audience whistled.
"Choose," smiled Nina. "Which will it be?"
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 28th, 2020


I was thinking about the trend of sensationalizing everything to make it appeal to an audience, and the way that people engage with sensationalized content even when they know it's ethically problematic. Add that to the slightly-broken justice systems in most of the world, and the idea of a gory, reality-show-like justice system in a dystopian near-future didn't seem too far off.

- ana gardner
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