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The life expectancy on Mars is sixty-six; if the Crown has its way, the defendant’s will be half that.
After checking his watch – still only 4.07 p.m. – the prosecutor takes another huff from his inhaler and admires the Renaissance paintings on the walls. The courtroom has been modelled on the Old Bailey, apparently. Same set-up for the judge and witness stands at the front, and same raised jury box on the left. Except here it’s all made of ‘Martian mahogany’, not wood. And the perfumed air coming through the vents never quite masks the smell of rotten eggs from outside.
As the public gallery cools, the prosecutor returns to his favourite spot in the centre.
‘I know, I know.’ He holds his bear-thick hands out, pushing back the last of the noise. ‘Back home, you don’t find many people brave enough to even stutter that word. To be honest, every time I have to say it, I get shivers up my spine.’ He shakes his whole body for effect, creeping to the jury box as most of them lean away. Then he whispers it again: ‘Entropy.’
The courtroom erupts.
‘I object, Your Honour!’ the defendant’s lawyer cries out. ‘This is irresponsible.’
‘Rotimi, at this point,’ the judge snaps back, ‘I object to you. Now sit down.’ He then turns his scowl to the mass of journalists, navy men and public spectators who’ve gathered to see the man in the dock – the man who killed the Computer – get what he deserves. ‘One more outburst like that, and I’ll have every last one of you tried for contempt. You all knew the sensitive nature of this case coming in. In fact, I imagine that’s why most of you are here. So either shut up or get out.’
Of course, no one leaves.
The prosecutor tries hiding his smile as he returns to his witness. ‘As you can see, we civilians get rather spooked about entropy. But you don’t exactly have that luxury in your job. Is that fair?’
‘Yes, that is correct, sir,’ Witness K replies. Her back is ramrod straight, like some invisible rope is pulling her top knot to the ceiling.
The prosecutor goes on, walking back and forth in front of the jury: ‘I read recently that every entropist is trained to take a trillion-year view of the future.’ He sends his finger across the air, tracking an imaginary shooting star. ‘And I heard that you guys programmed the Computer to run all its simulations starting backwards from the end of time – that terrifying moment when entropy will have devoured the entire universe – knowing that only from there can you calculate the least painful, most pleasurable path for humanity to take.’ He continues his stroll with a shaking head, then trains his eyes on Witness K. ‘How on Mars do you muster up the courage to wake up every day and face all that?’
She’s swift with her reply: ‘They warn us in the academy that being an entropist isn’t a job or a career or even a calling. It’s a sacrifice.’ She can hear her heart pounding as she scowls down at the defendant. ‘A sacrifice you never turn your back on.’
The word ‘never’ triggers the jury into scribbling notes on their tablets.
When the door at the back of the courtroom creaks open, the defendant swivels his chair round, hoping it might be Janine, or his dad, or some almost-forgotten mate from primary school who came here despite what they heard on the news. But in the end it’s just another purple beret, picking his wedgie before joining the others.
The prosecutor undoes his top button. To think that Mars was once colder than Earth: the reason they moved the Computer here in the first place. ‘Witness K, can you explain to the jury, and ideally in the least terrifying terms possible, what entropy is? And also explain it as simply as possible, please. But no simpler.’
‘Entropy is chaos. Randomness. Or the most common definition: disorder. And, according to the laws of physics, entropy is constantly growing and spreading throughout the universe.’
‘But none of those definitions – not even the “disorder” one – really do entropy justice, do they?’ There’s a frustration in the prosecutor’s voice that almost sounds genuine. ‘From the little I understand, entropy falls into the same unique category of things – like fear… or even love — that are invisible, critical and terribly hard to describe.’
‘True’, replies Witness K. ‘But, deep down, I think everyone knows exactly what entropy is.’
‘Tell us more.’ The prosecutor nods towards the jury so she’ll remember to point her words there too.
‘Well, entropy looks innocent enough when it first manifests. It’s the reason your bedroom, on its own, always gets messier but never tidier. It’s why a bull led into a china shop will turn the teapots into rubble without even thinking. But never turn the rubble back into teapots; it’s that great guiding hand towards more and more disorder in life. Naturally, when entropy grows up is when it starts troubling us a bit more, because that’s when disorder turns into decay.’ The anxious scratches spreading within the jury box don’t slow her down. ‘Entropy is why your carrots go brown. It’s what makes your hair thin and that memory from your seventh birthday go fuzzy before disappearing completely.’
‘But at full bloom,’ the prosecutor cuts in, ‘that’s when entropy is most unmistakable, is it not?’
‘Yes. That’s when entropy becomes Death himself.’ Her confirmation is met with perfect silence. ‘And, like death, entropy is certain: casting a shadow that lurks closer every day.’
‘Just ask, Ludwig Boltzmann,’ the prosecutor dares the jury. ‘The chap who discovered the equation for entropy in the 1800s and now has it written on his tombstone.’ He points to the evidence hologram as it lights up. ‘The quote here is from Arthur Eddington, who in 1915, warned all aspiring physicists: “If your theory is found to be against the law of entropy, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”’ The jury remain stiff, waiting on his next sentence. ‘Any final words for the court?’ he asks Witness K.
‘Yes.’ She turns to the defendant. ‘Die.’
The prosecutor strides back to his chair. ‘No further questions.’
It takes a few seconds for Rotimi to realise it’s his turn. He stumbles to his feet, his tartan tie knot covered by his collar. After scanning his notepad, he lays it back on the desk, and addresses Witness K. ‘So, I see you graduated with a double first in P.E.E. from Cambridge. That stands for politics, energy and entropy, innit?’
‘Yes,’ she says, her chin rising an inch or two.
‘Can you explain – for a simple African boy like me – what the hell politics and energy have to do with entropy?’
‘Everything,’ Witness K replies, looking almost offended at Rotimi’s question. ‘Politics is all about agreeing on the laws and types of order a society should implement to destroy the entropy inside and outside its borders.’
‘And so, for today’s politics,’ Rotimi confirms. ‘I’m guessing entropy comprises things like illegal planetary immigration, reproductive extremism, space traffic…’
‘Well, entropy has countless forms – which is why it takes so much energy to identify and eradicate it – but, sure, those are some examples.’
Murmurs run through the crowd when Rotimi sprints back to his desk for his notebook. After finding his page, he adds: ‘And is it true that in this energy-intensive war on entropy, we actually end up creating more entropy than we started with? And this time in the form of waste, poverty, Computer heat and carbon? All forms of entropy that are – quite conveniently – much easier to export and hide?’
Witness K freezes. The defendant wasn’t expecting that question from his lawyer either.
Rotimi presses before she can reply. ‘Where I’m from, we call that kind of enterprise – where you pass on bigger and bigger losses to some future sucker – a Ponzi scheme.’
‘Objection, Your Honour!’ The prosecutor’s voice booms over the laughs in the audience. ‘Lest we forget, the defendant destroyed the Computer: our sole ally in the fight for humanity. That is what’s on trial today!’
Rotimi’s line of questioning feels riskier to the defendant as he reflects on the fact that all of nature is in on the scheme. The human body, for instance, uses DNA-enshrined orders to fight entropy too – entropy in the form of disease, that is. The fight takes three meals a day in energy. And the extra entropy? We flush it down the toilet with the rest of our sins. As if they’re not there, as if we’re not dying.
Rotimi walks over to the judge’s stand. ‘Sir, if what my client is about to tell us about entropy is true, it changes everything about this trial.’ He angles his body to the jury, speaking plenty loud enough for them to overhear. ‘Look, I came in here as angry with the defendant as everyone else. But the more time I’ve spent with him, the more doubts I have about what I once believed. And it’s my duty to convince the jury that at least one of my doubts is reasonable.’ He sighs. ‘And, to do that, I have to put entropy itself on trial.’
The judge chews his pencil. ‘Objection overruled. But tread softly, Rotimi.’
Rotimi pumps his fist on his way back to the open space. ‘Just a couple more questions, Your Honour.’
Witness K blinks for maybe the first time all trial. She even gulps.
Rotimi points to the defendant. ‘You know… since I agreed to gamble my legal career on this guy –’ he earns the usual giggles from his one fan on the jury – ‘I’ve been reading a lot more physics. Apparently, there’s this field called quantum mechanics. And on a side note: its practitioners are called “quantum mechanics” too – ain’t that a great name for a profession?’ When the judge lowers his glasses, Rotimi takes the hint and speeds up. ‘Anyway, these quantum mechanics discovered that, at scales too tiny for us to see, the very particles we’re made of actually travel back in time as often as they go forward. And basically all these quantum mechanics agree that the terrifying and inevitable march towards disorder that Witness K just described isn’t actually that terrifying or inevitable at all. In fact, they’ve proven that, at the root of reality, entropy disappears altogether.’
There’s more chattering around the courtroom as Rotimi squints in his notes.
‘These quantum mechanics also discovered something called the weak force,’ he adds. ‘Which I thought was an ironic name since this turns out to be the same force that ignites the sun and therefore yields the energy for all life on Earth. But, anyway, this weak force apparently has no regard for entropy either.’ He places his hands on his chest as if shocked. ‘Is that all true?’ His stare is directed at the witness now.
‘Well, it’s not as simple as—’
‘It’s a yes or no answer, Witness K. So, please, answer it.’
The pair stare off, the silence making the prosecutor’s jaw even tighter.
‘No further questions, Your Honour.’ Rotimi sits down and pats his client on the back.
If only the defendant had the luxury of relief. He’s up next.
The defendant prays that no one else sees his hand shaking on the Bible as he swears his oaths. He’s committed a dozen crimes before and never been caught, and the one time he does the right thing, he’s off to the guillotine.
After a violent fit of coughs, the judge fixes his wig and summons Rotimi.
‘I know this kind of thing works in the films,’ the judge grumbles at him, ‘but I hope you’ve warned your client that, in real life, it’s always a horrendous idea to give testimony at your own trial.’
‘He has, Your Honour,’ the defendant butts in. Noticing the audience’s reactions, he realises it’s the first time most of them have heard his voice. ‘Rotimi has warned me plenty.’
‘And are you also aware,’ the judge continues, addressing the defendant this time, though his eyes refuse to fully lower to him, ‘that by providing public testimony, you are voiding access to pardon or parole, and that, if found guilty, you will be sentenced to death?’
The defendant scans the rows of scowls ahead until his eyes settle on a girl, no older than fifteen, wedged between two adults with matching ginger hair. He’s never met her. He never will. And yet he knows, as sure as he knows his Earthly name, that she’s the reason he’s here. This trial was never about justice, he decides, and it damn sure ain’t about mercy. It’s about telling her the truth.
‘Yes, Your Honour,’ he says finally.
Rotimi is ambling in front of the jury, hands clasped behind his back. He lifts his eyes from the floor to the defendant, and they share a nod.
‘Do you remember that first night we met in your cell?’ asks Rotimi.
‘I do,’ says the defendant.
‘You told me a story about your trousers – would you mind telling it again?’
The defendant exhales a couple times, rubbing his wet palms along the side of his trousers. When practising this testimony, they’d considered him kicking off by explaining how the Computer itself had shown that there weren’t enough probability resources in the universe to explain the Martian birds that had evolved since humans arrived. They even considered breaking down the timelessness of relativity and explaining the maths too. But explanations and equations don’t change people. Stories do. And so they must be told.
‘I couldn’t have been much older than that girl over there when it happened,’ the defendant begins.
Everyone turns to the back of the room, including the girl herself. When she realises the defendant is pointing at her, she smiles back in the way that people tend to mirror when they’re nervous.
‘They used to recruit us quite young back then. And I’d just been made academy captain and had to be on Mars that same Friday for matriculation. “First African Entropist” was the newsletter headline that year. To be honest, I was more scared than honoured, being my nation’s only rep on the planet and all. But, anyway, one of the seniors – this beachboy called Dean – messaged me saying he had a spare ticket for the fast shuttle, and it was mine as long as I could get to the Wimbledon base before dawn launch. So, my older brother dropped me off at Lewisham train station, and I ran to get the last train to Wimbledon carrying a twenty-kilo rucksack and two suitcases, while holding my captain’s uniform on a hanger in my right hand. I remember tripping halfway up the stairs to the platform and, while getting back to my feet, having this sinking feeling that the hanger felt suspiciously lighter. But the train was already on the platform, so I kept it moving, lodging my foot between the carriage doors just before they shut. By the time I squished myself into the train, my mind was already back on entropy maths.’
‘So, you made it to the Wimbledon launch base?’
‘Yep. Got up extra early the next morning too, showered and was ready to chuck on my uniform when I grabbed the hanger and couldn’t see my trousers under the jacket. At first, I’m trying not to panic – but after searching my luggage like eighty times, I’m sweating bullets. And all I can hear is Dean shouting next door that we’ve got fifteen minutes till launch, while I’m in my Y-fronts, tearing the room apart.’
‘Objection, Your Honour.’ The prosecutor leans his knuckles into the table. ‘Precisely how long are we going to listen to this man talk about his underwear?’
The judge tilts his head a few times before telling Rotimi and the defendant to ‘hurry along to the point’.
The defendant nods. ‘I guess the point is that, deep down, I knew exactly where my trousers were: on the steps at Lewisham station where I’d dropped them. A two-hour round trip away… assuming that no one had stolen or chucked them away.’
‘And so what did you do next?’ Rotimi asked.
‘I locked the door, got on my knees and prayed the only prayer I remembered from Sunday school.’
The defendant glances at the spectators again; he’s about to lose most of them. ‘And then an image popped up in my mind of my trousers, crisply folded over the railings in the underpass at Wimbledon station. Just waiting there for me.’ There’s more muttering in the crowd. ‘I know what everyone’s thinking because back then I thought the same thing. I mean, discontinuous temporal perception, spooky human action at a distance – it’s all blasphemy in the academy. But the vision was just so bloody real.’ He pushes the lump down his throat, seeing the judge’s patience is already shrivelling. ‘It was a ten-minute sprint from the base to Wimbledon station and back, meaning that if I was gonna risk it and make launch, I had to leave pronto.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘I ran across town in my underpants.’
The guy in the jury with the obnoxious laugh lets it fly.
Meanwhile, the defendant’s voice shakes as he recalls what happened next: ‘When I arrived at Wimbledon station, I walked down to the underpass… and my suit trousers were right there, crisply folded over the railings, just like I saw them in my mind. I dropped to my knees and thanked heaven.’
The judge removes his glasses and, for the first time, looks at the defendant.
‘I know,’ the defendant replies. After all, it’s the same half-believing stare that Dean had given him when he’d told him the story on the shuttle to Mars that strange morning. Dean had also warned him not to repeat it to anyone at the academy. Ever.
‘And I’m assuming that getting this glimpse into the future was your first time coming to terms with the fact that time might not be quite as straightforward a thing as you thought,’ Rotimi prompts. ‘That there might be something beyond it. And that the future, instead of just being death and decay, might actually be brighter than the present.’
‘Fascinating stuff. I’m curious, did you ever hear from this Dean guy again?’
‘I did. He called me a year after that incident and told me he had stage four stomach cancer.’
The chatter in the crowd intensifies, and the defendant counts eight out of the twelve jury members with their arms crossed. But he notices something else: the girl is leaning over her pew, living on his every word.
He continues: ‘Well, right after Dean told me, I took a couple of days of annual leave and got the first shuttle back to Earth to see him; even packed my clippers so I could give him a level one like mine. And on the trip down to the Wimbledon base I decided to call the only person I knew who had experience with this particular category of impossible: my Sunday school pastor.’
‘Objection, Your Honour, how have we let trial this descend into—’
‘And what did your pastor say?’ the judge asks.
‘I mean, we hadn’t spoken for nearly a decade, but I got straight to it: can Dean be healed?’
‘And the response?’ Rotimi nudges on.
‘She said, “Yes,” and she said it as calm as a cocoa bean too. But there was one catch: Dean had to believe it himself.’ The defendant takes another deep breath, remembering how he’d felt at that moment. ‘I was nervous telling Dean, cos I knew how he was about that stuff. Plus, he was two years my senior. But I just told him anyway.’ His eyebrows climb. ‘And I was shocked when Dean made me call my pastor right there and then, so we could pray with her. So, there we were, two teenagers, drenched palms clasped together, pretending we knew what we were doing.’
‘Do you recall what you prayed?’ Rotimi asks.
‘I’d be lying if I said I remembered the exact words. But I know what we were asking for in scientific terms.’
‘What was that?’
An easy smile comes to the defendant’s face. ‘We were asking for an exemption to the law of entropy. For the cancerous cells in his stomach to contract back into order. For death to be deferred.’
‘And what happened next?’
‘Well, Dean and I said our sheepish amens, and I got the shuttle back to base the next day. But later that evening, while polishing my boots, I got a call from Dean, who’d just got back from the hospital. “The tumour’s gone,” he said down the line. His voice was literally shaking. Dean quit the academy that same day. And he told me something I’ll never forget.’
Rotimi walks to the witness stand, a wet trail running down his cheek. He shakes the defendant’s hand for what he believes will be the last time. ‘Please tell us what your friend told you, Bion.’
‘Dean said that we entropists are no different from everyone else. Because, quietly, we all live believing there’s nothing but death at the end. And as long as death is the only destination pinned on the hidden map of our hearts, then at death we shall all arrive.’
The girl’s parents are dragging her from the courtroom by hand. The sun sets an hour earlier in Martian winter, after all. Once outside, she looks down at her watch. It’s 4.03 p.m.