Verdict in Dreams
by George Gessert
With a rap of the gavel, the chambered nautilis brought the Biologic Court
to order. An hermaphrodite, the nautilus had a voice that broke at random
intervals, like an adolescent's.
"The Court will conclude the Humanity Case," the nautilus announced,
peering over its spectacles at the crowded room. The plants and animals made
a continuous low rustling. Bracts, quills, paddles, plates, veils, dewlaps,
and inflorescences were never entirely still.
The nautilus read from a prepared statement. "Interactions among our
ancestors brought the human species into existence as an experiment,
possibly to extend life into space. Consistent with 4.3 billion years of
legal precedent, the trust states, quote, uh, humanity must do no irreparable
damage to the biosphere, close quote."
A cricket chirped, but fell silent under an ocelot's glare.
The nautilus continued. "The Court has no jurisdiction over suicide,
which is a right guaranteed to all. However, humanity has invented three
modes of suicide, namely nuclear war, global warming, and destruction of the
ozone layer, that threaten all life. In addition, other forms of
technologically-assisted suicide that may destroy or do irreparably damage
to the biosphere are under development. However, only the Court can legally
terminate the biosphere."
A metallic voice interrupted, "People! They're cancer! Kill them! Kill
them all!" It was a green pebble, accidentally brought in on an elephant's
foot. "They're our running sore!" With a shuffle of pseudopods a swarm of
polyphemus caterpillars carried the mineral out of the courtroom.
As the nautilus resumed speaking a mimosa in the rear of the room slowly
released a cloud of pollen into the air. In the thickening haze, organisms
flattened to silhouettes.
The nautilus looked up from its papers. "The last member of the jury has
reached his decision."
To the left of the bench a tiny door opened in the mahogany panelling
and a cranefly flew in, bumped against the wall, and came to rest in a
ceiling corner. There he delivered his verdict, a shower of delicate
green-gold sparks, visible only to the pineal eye.
Near the mimosa a platypus whispered to an aquatic fern. "Humans are
too loud." The platypus smiled grimly. "They should be exiled from the
temperate zones. They should go back to Africa. Or get the venetian blind
"How about immortality?" said the fern in a tone of such sublime
resignation that the platypus's beady eyes moistened. The fern could shed
worn-out segments and grow forever. Somewhere around nine hundred thousand
it had lost count of the years since it had been a spore.
Dangling by threadlike legs, the cranefly rocked back and forth in a
cloud of sky-blue sparks. Except for the most dutiful court officials, and
one chocolate-colored spider, who watched the cranefly with five of her
eight eyes, no one paid him attention. Everyone knew that humanity was
guilty. The votes had been coming in for more than half a century, and with
millions of jurors, one for every species, individual verdicts had long
since ceased to alter the overall pattern in any significant way. Verdicts
arose in dreams. Some creatures had dreamed theirs even before testimony was
complete, but most had to wait. If a lifetime passed without the necessary
dream, responsibility passed to the next generation. The cranefly was of the
With a rap of the gavel, the nautilus declared the verdict in dreams
Heads turned toward the bench. This was the moment the crowd had been
waiting for, the sentencing. However, instead of delivering a sentence, the
nautilus launched into reminiscences about its ancestors, describing the
beginnings in the Cambrian, and lingering over the halycon days of the
Ordovician, when most of earth was a shallow sea. The atmosphere was thinner
then, and the sky cornflower blue, the color of eternity. Stars shown even
in the day. Nautilids floated on the waves, drifting among reefs, and
forests of kelp. A few, such as Michelinoceras, the largest carnivore of the
age, lived on the ocean floor.
A translucent brine shrimp, in a voice too tiny to disturb the Court,
chanted to itself,
Unlike the rhinoceros,
Crawled on the floor of the sea.
But by the Silurian,
No need to worry, an
Extinct critter was he."
Spectators shifted in irritation. The judge ignored them. "… Their shells
were paper thin. Some evolved irridescence, and occasionally their fossils
still show changing colors, having turned to opal. But their most sublime
achievement was the spiral ..."
"The sentence! Get on with it!" Voices rose here and there, rapidly
growing in volume. A silver maple, its trunk encrusted with lichens,
released a shower of dry leaves that swirled through the courtroom, carried
by breezes from overhead fans. Documents and papers, including a few from
the bench, spun into the air. It took the nautilus a full minute to restore
"Sixty one years may seem like a long time to some of you, but in a case
of this magnitude," the nautilus pointed a stubby tentacle at the crowd,
"Six decades are a bubble on the sea of time. This case has been heard in
a time of crisis, but certainly we can take a moment to remember what is at
stake. And we can afford to thank the jury for their work." He fixed the
courtroom with a sweeping glare. Many of the spectators had been jurors, or
were descendents of jurors. Even the tiny brine shrimp, who was genetically
incapable of seriousness or fear, fell silent.
"To some of you, any consideration of the past is nothing but a hall of
mirrors. I've thought so myself. Yes, and if one looks into the mirrors long
enough," the nautilus's voice grew heavily sarcastic, "They'll talk. They'll
say: 'The fairest one must die.' 'Nothing is fair.' 'Empty streets, empty
hills, empty sky.'"
The nautilus turned to the defense, which consisted of an Arabian horse,
a congregation of fruit flies, and a hybrid tea rose, and abruptly became
businesslike. "The defense has argued that humanity's failings are nothing
more than life's failings magnified. Since life dreamed humanity into
existence, life as a whole has sanctioned whatever humanity produces,
including language, art, high technology, mass extinction, and the end of
The nautilus began searching its desktop, but continued to talk.
"However, the jury has voted to live." Long pause and shuffling. "In voting
to live ..." The nautilus looked beneath a stack of papers. "The jury has
reaffirmed the original promise of life, the promise of the paleozoic." A
smile of relief lit the nautilus's face as it found the paper it sought.
The nautilis penciled a last-minute change on the written statement.
"Let gratitude be action," it announced. Adjusting its spectacles the judge
read, "Humanity is expendable. Any species must die if it, or even a few of
its members, becomes too great a burden to the rest of life. However, to the
extent that the death sentence can be applied selectively, humans innocent
of the crime under consideration, or proven willing to change, should be
spared, to evolve into a species less destructive to life. But among those
spared, any who further extinction on Cretaceous levels but safely short of
the extinction of all life are sentenced to the Metal Carapace Experiment.
All organisms are encouraged to implement the sentence, with unlimited
access to human sympathizers, spies, dreamers, and agents." The judge's eyes
"Nice," smiled the platypus. "A few cyborgs in iron lungs." Clicks,
rattles, and the singing of cicadas rose and fell through the courtroom,
foretelling the dog days of August. A spidery crab sashayed like a high
fashion model, pirhouetting and striking elaborate poses.
"It would be easy to do," said the fern.
"Yes," replied the platypus, "They're going that way anyway." Sparrows
floated out open windows.
"Just industrialize sex," murmured the aquatic fern, as much to itself
as to the platypus. "Complete propagation control. Eliminate males entirely,
or vice versa."
In a slightly shrill voice the nautilus continued. "The verdict is not
complete. Whether humanity has pursued the destruction of all life knowingly
and out of ignorance, actively and passively, in good faith and bad,
whatever the reason or reasons, this crime against life is heinous and
unprecedented. Therefore, if applying the death penalty selectively is
impractical, I sentence the species to extinction. This can be carried out
by any means whatsoever, short of destruction of the biosphere. If any among
humanity still genuinely values life, may the prospect of their species’
end become the guiding light of hopes, prayers and intuitions."
There was an instant's silence, then wild jubilation broke out,
dominated by deep bubbling. The horse raised his head defiantly, but the tea
rose went limp and its petals fell to the floor. A malignant greenish light,
last seen in northern England during the 14th century at a time of plague,
filled the courtroom. The back doors opened, and creatures swarmed out. From
outside swept back a deep roar of joy, softened by the wind. News of the
sentence moved in a circular wave that spread away from the courtroom into
The crab stood on its back legs and clicked its claws like castanets.
From between the plates on the crab's abdomen protruded the packed ovary of
a parasitic barnacle. For an instant the crab froze into an x-ray negative
of itself, rootlike tendrils of the parasite ramified in every organ.
Grinning, the crab scuttled off. A young pig snorted in disgust.
"Consequences for inflicting such pain ..." The judge's voice was fading
into the sounds of waves. "Expendible ... guerrillas and innocent ones our
true ... perhaps other lines ..."
An intricate cloud of mayflies rose into the air. Already the courtroom
walls were paper thin, the ceiling dissolving to clear sky. A black
swallowtail flew through a marble column.
"But mammalian models may no longer apply." Momentarily the nautilus's
voice was clear again. "Tell pancreas. Tell marrow, liver, and mitochondria."
The nautilus was gone.
Where the courtroom had stood was a mountain meadow, surrounded by
forests, and black peaks jaggedly streaked with snow. A few butterflies
drifted in and out of grass, and there was no sound except for low,