The Second Lesson
It had been three days since Heather had put Malcolm in his place and she had just started to get over the guilt when her office data-pad started chiming urgently. She never got calls on that thing. No sooner did she pick it up off of the table then it answered itself. “Janet?” She hadn’t seen the Clinical Director of the Martian Judicial District in years. “How are you? It’s so good to see you.”
The thin woman clenched her jaw, "Hello Heather, I wish this was a social call."
Heather sat down on her bed, Janet had always been a somber woman, but even she seemed a bit shaken. "What's wrong?"
"Are you familiar with the Michael Cordley case?"
Damn…"Yes." She pushed the hair back from her face, "why?"
"His sentence was due and the reckoning was carried out yesterday by a novice named Daniel Brooks. I can only assume he's been trained by Snowgrin."
Heather tucked her hair behind her ears, "What makes you say that?"
"Because," Janet shook her head slowly. "He's got the worst case of Reckoning Psychosis I've ever seen."
Damn it! What did he do…what did she do?
"I called you because you're the best—"
"No," Heather cut her off. "No, this is my fault." How could she have been so arrogant? Snowgrin probably would have done a better job than she's done so far, but it wasn't too late. Janet said it was done yesterday so the damage wasn't beyond repair, not yet anyway.
Janet looked confused, "Your fault. How?"
"It just is, but I'll fix it." She looked at her, willing Janet to see the combination of plea and assurance in her eyes. "Okay?"
Janet sighed slowly. "All right…"
Heather silently thanked her for not pressing further. "Can you have him back in the chamber at noon tomorrow?"
Janet nodded and broke their connection.
Heather immediately contacted Malcolm and apologized for how she handled the situation.
"I get it," Malcolm said. "No one wants to feel like their being put out to pasture. Believe me when I say, that's not what I meant. It's not your time"
"I know," Heather nodded.
"It is time however," Malcolm continued. "For you to start passing on your expertise to the next generation. Do you want all of the Reckoning Writers of the future to have been trained solely by the likes of Snowgrin and Figgs?"
"No," Heather shook her head. She hated admitting that she was wrong. "Now I need to fix my mistake so if you're finished being smug Malcolm I have to go."
Malcolm's face turned stern, no easy feat considering how soft and kind it normally was. "I'm not being smug!"
Heather couldn't help but giggle. "I know, I'm kidding. I'm sorry okay. Now let me fix it."
He nodded, "We'll talk more later."
She next contacted Dan, apologized for being absent and told him to meet her at the jail back in Aldrin City. She tried to pet Brutus before she left, she wanted him to know that she wouldn't be back for a while, but he was still avoiding her. She put some extra food down for him and left.
Dan was already in the Reckoning Chamber when she arrived at the jail. He was hunched over his data-pad shaking his head as his eyes darted back and forth between it and one of the monitors.
"Everything okay?" She asked as she walked in the room.
Dan spun around with surprising quickness. "No." His eyes were strained and bloodshot. "I botched my first reckoning."
She raised on eyebrow, attempting to remain cool. "Explain."
He went on a tirade about aversion theory and the merits of 'eye for an eye' justice. How he'd wanted to employee those techniques in his first reckoning. It all sounded very familiar to her.
"Let me guess, you studied under Figgs at the university?"
Dan nodded, "He was my Academic Advisor."
Heather shook her head. She might have known. “First what sounds good on paper doesn't always translate well in the real world. Figgs is a great teacher, from one point of view, but his ideas are a bit archaic and he's never actually worked as a Reckoning Writer." She sat down next to him and put a hand on his round shoulder. "This is as much my fault as it is yours. I shouldn't have abandoned you to do this on your own. And for that I'm sorry."
"That's great," he said with a halfhearted smile. "But, now I don't know what to do. How do we fix it?"
"We'll do it together," she said reassuringly. "Okay?"
"Now, what you have to learn is there are two schools of thought on what a good reckoning should be. One is embraced by Figgs. It is the idea that if criminals are forced to fully endure the pain that they cause others then they will reap what they sow and never do it again." She shook her head in disgust.
"I learned that way too, and believe me it was difficult to learn another way. But my old mentor Master T’ang taught me that the goal of the criminal justice system should be to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into society, not to punish and ostracize those broken souls already incapable of caring for themselves appropriately.”
She let that soak in as she pulled out and unfolded her office data-pad. She pulled up an old poaching case of Snowgrin’s that she had had to correct. "You like to hunt, right?" she said finally breaking the silence.
"Yes," Dan said, cocking his head. "Why? What does that have to do with anything?"
"When you first got here I showed you what a reckoning should be." She took him by the hand and continued as she led him back to the reckoning chair. "I wanted to spare you what I thought were my old mentor's crazy notions. What I should have done was start you out like he would have, by showing you what a reckoning shouldn't be."
Dan looked at her nervously; sweat already beading on his pudgy forehead. To his credit he sat back and allowed the restraints to lock into place. She moved back into the control room and changed some of the stories details before programming the nanorobot to ensure that it was a one-time episode for Dan to endure.
The sweet sing song of birds greeted Dan as he came out of the darkness. He stood outside surrounded by trees, the air was crisp and cool, his breath billowed out from his wet black nostrils to rise in little steam clouds.
Dan shook his whole body which was covered in a warm coat of brown hair. His head felt strangely heavy, and his arms were replaced with powerful forelimbs. He had pointed and split black hooves where his hands and feet should have been, and a short tail that he now tucked protectively over his posterior.
Dan could somehow smell water nearby, and slowly moved to find its source. He approached a break in the trees around a small clearing where a pool of still water reflected the clouds moving overhead in the sky. Slowly peeking over the edge, he was shocked by his own reflection.
He had large pointed ears set on top of his head just slightly to the side of a beautiful set of antlers. The several curving points all gleamed in the morning sunlight.
Instinctually Dan dipped his long tongue in the cool water, the taste was sweet, and he lowered his muzzle to fully drink in the refreshing liquid.
The forest went silent and Dan’s head jerked up, drips of water cascading down to splash quietly back into the pond. He stood absolutely still, while his heart pumped wildly in his chest, and every fiber in his being told him to not move. His eyes darted around attempting to track what had broken the twig. His ears pointed straight up, the right one twisted to the side slightly, fixed on the direction the sound had come from.
After a short while the birds began to sing again, and Dan lowered his head to the pond to finish his drink. Once done he stood still once more, head raised as he turned his surprisingly opposable ears around to listen for anything out of the ordinary.
Satisfied that he was safe, he took a few tentative steps, before leaning down to nip the tops off of the sweet succulent grass growing next to the pond.
The loud noise was closer this time, and several birds took flight. Feeling the danger in the air, Dan took off bounding as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. His heart raced, and the adrenalin, coursing through his body made him nauseous, but he knew he couldn’t stop.
The loud sound split the air just moments before Dan felt the pain rip into his side. He stumbled, scrapping his knees on the ground the pain infinitesimal to the fire burning in his side.
He managed to get back up and continued to try and escape, but each time he leapt into the air, blood gushed from the wound between his ribs. After a few yards, his head began to swim. The loss of blood was making him dizzy, and he finally collapsed in the pine needles.
Dan was terrified, as his breath became shallower and shallower. He didn’t want to die, but he lacked the strength to continue running. His vision began to cloud as a man dressed in blazing orange approached, a long rifle in his hands. Michael kicked his legs out pawing at the air as if it were the ground, his terror overpowering his sense of reality.
Frantic Dan attempted to plead for his life, but his words only came out as a series of strange garbled grunts, the blood from his lungs now bubbling out his mouth and nose. Let me live, he wanted to say. I’ll do anything he thought, just please don’t kill me.
The man made some soft cooing noises as he pulled out a hand gun.
Help me, Dan thought, please I want to live.
Dan was enveloped in darkness.
Heather was still reviewing Dan's work when he walk-ed into the room. "Feeling okay?" She asked, once she noticed him hovering over her shoulder. She looked up before he could answer, even his freckles looked ashen. She knew how he felt.
"That felt so real…"
"It was a reckoning, it's supposed to."
He slowly shook his head, "But it can't be…"
She smiled, he was going to understand. "Exactly, and if the story had been programmed for permanence then naturally some, not all, but some minds would reject it and a reckoning psychosis would be the end result. Since yours was a one shot deal you'll still remember it, but with time it will seem less real and more like a vivid dream."
"Is that how we fix what I did then?" Dan's eyes were starting to clear. "We turn it into a dream?"Heather smiled, Malcolm was right, the kid was smart.