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“Did you hear about Baby Karina?” said Jenny as she put her lunch tray on the table, shoving a Class of 2092 hat out of the way.
The other high schoolers looked up. Dylan asked, “Did she learn a new trick?”
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“No, she’s dead!”
All the teenagers turned to their phones, searching for confirmation. Baby Karina was an experimental human-feline hybrid. They’d watched videos of her learning to walk and talk for the past two years.
Jenny showed her phone to them. The news story was illustrated with a photo of Karina—brown tabby fur, a toddler’s forehead over the cat eyes and whiskered nose, human hands tipped with claws instead of nails, mobile pointed ears, and a biped stance balanced by a long tail. Her smile was charming and human, with teeth like pearls.
The headline over it was ‘Karina Murdered.’
“That’s horrible!” cried Amy. Todd and Dylan muttered shocked agreement.
“Hey, one of the gossip sites has a picture of the body.” Todd tapped on the link to see it. Then he put down his fork and swiped back.
Dylan said, “They caught the guy who did it. Good. I hope he fries.”
“The Supreme Court doesn’t approve many death penalties,” said Amy.
Jenny stabbed her macaroni with her fork. “If that killer’s case comes to the Supreme Court, I’m voting to execute.”
Mr. Trotter waited until the civics class settled down before introducing the guest speaker. “Class, I wanted you to hear about the Supreme Court from someone who is an influential participant in its decisions. Professor George Wrapp of Chattanooga University has written concurring and dissenting opinions for hundreds of Supreme Court decisions. Some of his opinions have received over one point two million co-signers.”
The number brought some impressed whistles from the students.
Wrapp stepped forward. He was twice the age of the students, lean and handsome, with an energy that caught their attention. “Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me. Just to give me an idea of how involved you are, how many of you are Supreme Court justices?”
A third of the students, all seniors, raised their hands.
“And how many of you have voted on a case?”
Only Dylan’s hand stayed up.
“That’s about what I expected. Most people wait a few years before they figure out how to participate in the system. Some never do, they just assign their vote to someone else or drop out completely.”
There were enough puzzled looks to make Wrapp glance at Trotter.
The teacher shrugged. “The court system isn’t covered until next month.”
“Well, okay.” Wrapp explained, “Voting for a Supreme Court case isn’t like a regular election, where there’s a few names on a list and you pick one. When each case comes to the court, people write opinions on what the decision should be. Sometimes it’s a yes or no. Some opinions are as complex as new laws.
“You ‘vote’ by co-signing an opinion. The author of that opinion will probably sign on to another opinion, which makes his opinion a concurring opinion. We wind up with a handful of opinions having strong support, tens of millions of co-signers each. One will become the majority opinion and settle the case.”
“What if no opinion has a majority?” asked Jenny.
“Then it’s as if the Supreme Court never took up the case,” answered Wrapp. “In my opinion, that’s what saves us from falling under a tyranny of the majority. It’s just too hard to form a consensus.”
He pointed at Amy. “You’re a justice. Why haven’t you voted on a case?”
She blushed. “I don’t know enough to have an opinion. It’s all detailed legal arguments. Shouldn’t this be left to professionals?”
“We tried that. Go back sixty or seventy years and there were only nine Supreme Court justices, all experienced lawyers.”
Surprise rippled through the students.
Wrapp smiled. “That’s how it was from the beginning of the USA. But in the era of Fierce Factions, the country was split into two parties, each convinced the other one would herd them into death camps if they gained enough power. The problem with leaving it to the professionals is that it only works if people trust the pros to be fair to both sides. If a professional lawyer Supreme Court justice is seen as an advocate for a faction, the trust collapses. Justices are appointed for life. One faction achieved a solid majority of the nine-member court. When the other won an election, they added five new justices to take the majority. Following elections increased the size of the court to twenty-one, then thirty-five, and, well, here we are. Every month the Senate confirms everyone who turned eighteen in the past month as justices. Then they impeach anyone convicted of a felony. We have hundreds of millions of justices.”
He pointed at Dylan. “You’ve voted in a case. Did you write an opinion?”
“No, sir. My uncle did. I co-signed it.”
“That’s the normal way. Pick someone you trust, co-sign their opinion. If you trust someone enough, you can establish a proxy and automatically co-sign all the opinions they write. Someone with millions of proxies is more powerful than a senator.”
Wrapp checked his phone. “Right now, I have six hundred and thirty-four thousand, two hundred and seventy-nine proxies. A controversial opinion will change that up or down by a fifth. There are other opinion writers who regularly co-sign onto mine, bringing their proxies with them, so once the real dickering starts, I’m bringing over a million votes to the table.”
“Have you ever had the majority opinion?” asked Todd.
“No. But several times paragraphs from my opinion have been incorporated into one to convince me to co-sign. So, I have contributed to majority opinions.”
Another student asked, “Do your co-signers have to support whatever one you join?”
Wrapp laughed. “I’ll lose a few percent of my supporters on the way to a majority. That’s made up by justices who wait to see which opinion has the most support and jump onto the winner.”
“It still seems too complicated to me,” muttered Amy.
He caught the remark. “It is complicated. But it lets everyone put in their opinion. Not like legislation, where you need to win an election—or bribe someone who did.”
The next development in the Baby Karina case came out while the friends were at lunch again.
“Animal cruelty!” snapped Jenny. “That’s all they’re charging that murderer with?”
“That’s just wrong,” said Amy. “I mean, Karina could talk as well as a human her age. She should count as a human.”
Dylan chimed in, “Yeah, her DNA was 98% human.”
“So? Chimps are 99% the same as us,” countered Todd.
“For two percent, you’d let someone get away with murder?” demanded Amy.
“It’s not murder if she’s not human, and the prosecutor decided she was a cat.”
Jenny was still reading the reports. “Ha! Doesn’t matter what he thinks. There’s a lawsuit demanding Karina be treated as a human. The experts think the courts will send it straight to the Supremes.”
“I’ll vote on that,” said Amy.
Jenny nodded agreement.
“Me, too,” said Dylan. “I might even write an opinion.”
Professor Wrapp waited in the foyer of Chattanooga’s priciest restaurant. If a powerful justice wanted to fly out from California to persuade him to co-sign something, he’d accept the free meal. Especially if the meal included meat from a cow instead of a vat. There was just something better about real animal flesh.
He spotted the Californian the instant he came through the door. The man was tall and dark, his hair a black puffball. He advanced on Wrapp with a blinding grin and outstretched hand. “Hello, Professor, I’m Augustus Lee.”
Purely social chatter occupied them through the salad course. Wrap let his curiosity get the best of him. “Which case were you wanting to discuss?”
Wrapp had taken a large bite in anticipation of a lengthy answer. He had to chew and swallow before replying. “I’m surprised. I didn’t think your faction was concerned about that. Or that you’d need to lobby on it. Nobody major has opinions out yet, but the feeling is that there’s going to be overwhelming support for declaring her human.”
“I know. I’m prepared to pledge my proxies to a case of your choosing if you’ll vote against Karina’s humanity.” When Wrapp didn’t respond, Lee continued, “That’s four million votes for any opinion you pick.”
Lee laughed. “Professor, this isn’t a century ago. The Supreme Court isn’t a regular court with judges. It’s another legislature. Trading and deals are how we make things happen.”
“I know. I’m not making a moral stand against vote-trading. I’m letting you know that I’m not capable of delivering on a deal.”
The only response was a dubious raised eyebrow.
“Look, Mr. Lee. Your Advancer faction has a specific goal in mind. Everyone should receive enough food stamps for a nutritious diet, enough doctor stamps to treat everything they’re diagnosed with, housing stamps, and so on, to give everyone a decent life. Right?”
That earned a grin. “Oversimplified, but I’ll stipulate it for this discussion.”
“Your supporters will do whatever it takes to advance toward that. Half a loaf, two steps forward one step back, deals with opponents. True?”
“My supporters are Individualists. They support opinions that espouse that philosophy. If I write an opinion that goes against their beliefs, there’ll be a surge of social media outrage, and ninety percent of my proxies will switch to someone else.”
“I see.” Lee focused on his plate.
“If you want me to vote that way, convince me it’s the Individualist answer to the case.”
“I’ll do my best. But first, will you tell me why you consider Baby Karina to be fully human?”
Wrapp set down his knife and fork, folding his hands on the table. “I can provide multiple reasons. Legally, she was born from a human hostmother and received a birth certificate. Genetically, the human genome was the starting point, with only edits to the appearance. Developmentally, Karina was learning to talk as well as a child of the same age, and in the same way. Not how a parrot imitates us. And most importantly, morally. If we declare Karina non-human, there will be breeders creating cat-human hybrids and selling them as sex slaves. Human minds, sold to be abused. Which of those arguments would you care to refute, Mr. Lee?”
“I can’t refute any of them,” said the Advancer. “But there’s some other arguments I’d like to introduce. I won’t pretend I came up with them on my own. There are scientists in the Advancer faction who shared them with me. Scientists who, for various reasons, can’t make those arguments in public. I’m sharing them on their behalf.”
Wrapp began chewing on a bit of asparagus as he waved ‘go on.’
“I presume you’re familiar with how some geese will imprint on the first being they see. Humans find themselves as the mother of goslings, raising them to adulthood. I’ve heard from scientists who believe Baby Karina had an imprinting mechanism. If it works the way they think, it would leave her permanently loyal and obedient to the person imprinted on.”
Lee waited for that to sink in before continuing. “Karina would be a slave, but with legal citizenship. If the person she was imprinted on ordered her to commit a crime, she would, bearing the full consequences while the master risked conspiracy at worst.”
Wrapp shuddered. “What proof do you have that Karina was engineered to imprint?”
“None.” Lee looked grim. “The specific engineering is being held as a trade secret. Her body’s been cremated, so there’s no chance of analyzing a sample. There’s some legal maneuvering going on, but I suspect we’ll strike out.”
He shifted back to his sales mode. “Even if Baby Karina wasn’t engineered to imprint, if we create a legal precedent that would reward anyone who created babies who were, someone will do it. A slave who can’t be freed because her shackles are in her own cells. Obedient through any abuse. And the creator could make them on an assembly line. Imagine the crimes that could be committed by a hundred of them working together. Imagine how profitable such obedient workers would be to a company.”
Imagining replaced eating for the professor. His hands were still as his mind raced through the scenarios.
“Now the worst possibility,” said Lee. “Raise a thousand of them. It would cost a fortune, even raising them in barracks and feeding them dog kibble. But once it was done there’d be a block of voters obeying one man. They could sign on to any Supreme Court opinion and start it snowballing toward the majority. They could move to a swing district or state to tip an election. If that doesn’t scare you enough, imagine ten thousand of them, or a million. Would that much power repay a fortune invested?”
“It might,” admitted Wrapp. “I’d like to think we could find a way to stop them. Are there some trillionaires you suspect of planning that?”
Lee straightened up, no longer leaning across the table in his passion. “I don’t have any suspects. But consider the incentives. If the Supreme Court makes it possible for them to seize that power, someone with the resources will try. Maybe more than one. We can stop them by passing an opinion that keeps such engineered people from having votes, and makes their masters take responsibility for their actions. Deciding the other way—encouraging the creation of people without free will—that would be injustice.”
“I need to talk to some scientists of my own.”
“Please do. And if you can’t make up your mind on principle, the offer of a trade remains open.”
Amy pouted over her lunch. “I want to cast my vote, but there’s no opinion I want to sign on to.”
“It’s a hard problem,” said Todd. “If you get it wrong one way, you’re condemning people to slavery. If you go the other way, you’re letting mad scientists create programmed slaves with legal citizenship. No wonder the usual opinion guys are sitting this one out.”
Jenny’s knuckles tightened on her spoon. “There’s a time limit, damn it. If there aren’t enough votes to officially take up the case, it’ll go back to the lower court. They’ll let it stand as animal cruelty.”
“And the guy will be out in a year, and collecting his pay,” muttered Dylan.
“Somebody needs to write a good decision,” wailed Amy.
“If you want it done right, do it yourself,” said Todd.
“Maybe I will,” snapped Jenny.
Dylan said, “I’ll help.”
Jenny and Dylan took over her living room for brainstorming. Quotes from various opinions filled the wallscreen. The coffee table held their phones, unfolded to maximum size. Her mother bustled about the kitchen, pretending to not chaperone them.
“We can’t classify her as animal or human,” said Jenny. “Either one has the problems people have been arguing about.”
Dylan cleared those opinions away, leaving those arguing for a new legal category for artificially created persons.
After discarding dozens of them, she said, “This isn’t escaping the problem. If we have some second-class status for them, we risk a human mind being kept in servitude. If we give them rights, a mad scientist can take advantage of them.”
“Yeah,” agreed Dylan, “but how can we know how to treat them when they’re babies?”
“Well . . . we don’t have to decide if they can vote when they’re babies.”
Jenny fell silent.
Dylan saw the intent expression on her face and waited for her to speak again.
She said, “When I had that job at the mall, for the first month I was on probation. Couldn’t have the keys to the shop or the security combo, that kind of thing. Then I qualified as a full employee.”
“Probationary people?” asked Dylan.
“Why not? Treat them as human kids growing up, all the legal protections. When they’re eighteen, we check if they have free will and imagination and everything people have. If they do, they’re humans with the vote and so on.”
“How do you test someone for free will?”
She paused. “I don’t know. But we have eighteen years to figure it out. The whole country has eighteen years to figure it out.”
“Right. That works.” Dylan pulled up an opinion template and started typing.
They sprang it on their friends at their usual lunch together.
Todd complained, “This would take my vote away.”
“What, why?” asked Dylan.
“Right here. ‘An edited human genome.’ My parents had my zygote edited to take out a cystic fibrosis gene.”
“Oh. How about if I change it to ‘A human genome with more than 0.1% of its DNA altered?”
Showing that to a biology teacher earned them a lecture on junk DNA. Dylan revised it to ‘more than 0.01% of active genes edited.’
The English department cleaned up the grammar. Mr. Trotter added some clarifying legal language and references. Other students made suggestions and promised to co-sign.
Jenny and Dylan read through it again without finding anything to change. “I think it’s ready,” she said.
He pressed the upload button. The Supreme Court database informed them their opinion was available to potential co-signers.
A flurry of social media posts brought in a few hundred co-signers by the end of the school day. In the morning there weren’t many more.
“I’ve been reading up on how to promote opinions,” said Dylan. “Advertising costs more than I have, though.”
Jenny replied, “Let’s write Professor Wrapp.”
“I don’t know, it feels rude to bug such an important guy.”
“No, we should tell him. If it wasn’t for his lecture, we wouldn’t have had the nerve to write the opinion.”
Wrapp’s response came three days later.
Thanks for showing me your opinion on Baby Karina. I’ve discussed it with some colleagues, including Augustus Lee.
Your opinion just kicks the can down the road. But that seems to be what we need right now. It lets us all relax and gather data before coming up with a permanent solution.
You’ve done good work. I’m proud to be a co-signer.
Professor George Wrapp
Chattanooga University School of Law
Mr. Trotter said, “Before electoral districts were algorithmically generated, politicians drew the maps by hand. This let them pick which voters were allocated—”
A string of chirps interrupted the teacher. Students looked at each other anxiously. There were teachers who tolerated phones going off in class. Trotter wasn’t one of them.
“That’s my phone,” said the teacher. “I had a news alert set.”
He read off the lede of the article. “‘The Supreme Court has passed an opinion declaring Baby Karina a probationary human being. Her alleged killer will be tried on the charge of premeditated homicide.’ Congratulations to the authors.”
The classroom burst into applause.
“Would you like to say something?” asked Mr. Trotter.
Dylan blushed and waved at his co-author.
Jenny stood. “We disagree on a lot. But I’m glad we can agree that killing babies and kittens is wrong.”
A new free story is published monthly. Subscribe to receive each new one.
If you’re interested in more speculations about alternate political systems, you can find more in my novel Torchship, in between the crew’s adventures trying to deliver cargo despite kidnappers, killer robots, and a government so paranoid it repealed Moore’s Law.