Voice from the Void

A whisper emanates from the dark



The Trial

She and I stand, two days later, in the Defendant Circle in the Ultimate Content Court’s hearing room. The Court room occupies the top floor of the Content Judicial Center and tonight the roof filters have been pulled back to reveal overhead the state’s light show. For this trial, which the assigned Adjudicator has decreed a Major Case worthy of no-pay observation, the state has ordered blue, red, white and green flashing colors to match the flag.

We can look down at the Debtor Reformatory. It’s dimly lit and no doubt packed with WordPay debtors. Beyond the Reformatory squats the perpetually illuminated Wetlands Content Control Operations pod where Lemmadrone and Heimdall download and maintenance occur along with advanced content detection research. In the distance looms the huge, brooding expanse of the Wetlands Virtual Life and Entertainment Dome and its companion venue for live events, the Wetlands Coliseum. They are coming to life for the evening’s events.

All of this comprises the Wetland Content Protection Zone. Encircling this, their enforcement and showcase machinery on the periphery, are the seven controlling content corporations that occupy the Creators Ring. Each corporate tower in the Ring exploits its external surface to serve as a screen for their latest respective content releases and blasts competing sound from embedded speakers.

At the center of this cacophony circle, under the state’s sparkling aerial display, Dinah has put on a glowing earring in her right lobe. It’s a 3D download of an image of a bright yellow hibiscus. In the distance searchlights sweep back and forth along Canute’s Wall, looking endlessly for breaks and cracks, and overflow. Beyond it, the seething ocean bides its time.

In front and above us sits the Adjudicator in the Court Chair. She presides resplendent in her purple robes and her golden headband with four jewels evenly placed — blue, red, white and green gems that glisten in the light bathing her Chair from below.

On either side of her sit members of the Content Warden and Code Maintenance Units, including our arresting officers in the front rows in their bright, Major Case trialwear. To our right, taking up the width and height of the entire wall, is the Content Owner Hologram that allows the content corporations and their salaried creatives to address the Adjudicator at will. Behind us is the shorter Content Consumer Board where, when authorized for any given trial, observers can post 142-character comments and catcalls so long as they pass various Controversy filters. Last, in a small semi-circle within reach to our immediate left is the glowing interactive Defendant console providing us unlimited and secure access to any database or source we wish to access for our defense as well as an instant cone of privacy should we elect to erect it around us for confidential discussions or communications outside. Artificial intelligence is layered into the search algorithms and, if prompted, will produce our best available defense in response to ambient conversation and argument or a directed question from us and us alone.

Pacing freely is the Content Prosecutor in a high-collared white jacket with 4 buttons that are the colors of the flag. He is connected to his department of Code attorneys by earbuds. You only know he’s listening to them when he stops talking or looks dreamy. He has no visible podium or desk but from time to time he produces a holographic screen with notes to read, cases to cite, suddenly produced research to unveil.

He stops to consult his shimmering notes in mid-air.

“Madame Adjudicator,” he says at last, “we are ready to begin.” He waves the notes away and looks up from the base of the Chair at the Adjudicator. She nods as he recites the facts of the case and the state’s charges. Her headband gems pulsate. She is absorbing and correlating the provided information.

“‘Weownus?’” she asks us, squinting at us down the narrow and long Courtroom. “With … really? A missile and heart over the ‘-us’? Really?”

She keeps squinting as her jewels glow. I wonder if she actually can see us wee folk below the quivering Owners Hologram, the bright Consumer screen, and the blinking light display over our heads. It’s all lit up like the dance pit during No-WordPay Happy Hour on Wednesdays at the Coliseum.

“Yes,” we say in unison. We can hear behind us the bubble pops of comments surfacing on the Consumer Wall. We know they are cheering us on. We have to wait before the noise subsides and she can proceed. We hear a wave of grumbling voices roll from the Hologram display.

The Madame peers at us. “Names?”

I stand straight. “Call me Milton,” I say. The Prosecutor sighs out loud.

The Madame shakes her head. “As in John Milton, I suppose.”

“In fact after him,” I say. “I was born on November 23.”

“Call me Nuthead,” she says. “Dinah … Nuthead, of course.”

“Of course. Nuthead. And she is …?

“First licensed female printer in First America. She was a big deal.”

“These people have their own arbitrary and serial naming conventions.” More grumbling from the Owners, a few “Madame Adjudicators!” shout out, but she silences them with an extended hand.

“Not arbitrary,” I say. “Deliberate.”

“First use, not serial,” says Dinah. “But it may stay. Also deliberate.”

“How do you plead?” Madame asks over the Owner cries of derision and the Consumer snaps cascading from behind us.

“Not guilty!” We shout this to be heard above the din.

“Your defense is quite novel which is why I have made it a Major Case. This is a case of first impression on many issues presented. Meaning, the first time it’s come up.”

Murmurs rise. She gavels them into submission with a press of a button at her right. “I remind everyone that if I tire of Observer outbursts, you all will be muted for the duration of the trial. Free words come with responsibility and penalty, even incarceration, if any Observer disrupts. Including Owners.”

The Owner Hologram glows and then speaks “May we submit, Madame Adjudicator?”

She nods.

“The Content Code has been settled law for 172 years now.”

The Adjudicator nods hard and glares at us. “Answer?”

“It’s been amended 7 times and gone up to this Court over a dozen times,” I respond. “It has been a long, slow act of theft. Every time it has increasingly ceded author and creator rights to the content corporations who alone have the coin to produce and distribute their works and enforce their monopolies against thieving consumers and mashers. It’s not right.”

The Prosecutor laughs at me when I finish. “Precisely, ‘Milton.’ The Content Code is quite settled, isn’t it? It has been improved by legislature and upheld by this Court, repeatedly. All, by the way, at the absolute behest of the authors, poets and choreographers who want nothing but this WordPay system.” He bows to the Creatives Hologram. A smattering of tinny voices chants positive sounds. The Consumer Board bubbles like a fish-tank.

“And,” he continues, “the Content Code of 2085 is still the law of the land. Thank you for making my point, defendant Milton.”

The Prosecutor turns away from us and walks to the foot of the elevated Court Chair. “Madame Adjudicator, as has been noted, publishers and distributors of words and concepts own the right to receive income from publishing or using those words and concepts in any way. Any way. Any derivative of any word or concept belongs to the publisher who alone has the right to use, publish and distribute the original and derivative content. Since this Court has ruled that there is nothing new under the sun to be uttered, contemplated or portrayed in this day and age, it only follows that every word or concept is either already owned or owned at utterance or expression. Owned. By the content companies. Period. End of story.”

“No one owns Weownus with a missile to the heart written like we wrote it,” shouts Dinah. “Look it up.” The Consumer Board’s popping drowns out the Prosecutor’s initial attempt at response. He waits for a break.

“Nuthead is it? We. Own. Us. Each is officially registered under the Code as a Core Word, last I checked. Each has an owner. Core Words, meaning base words upon which so much more content and concept depends. So, in fact, you spray-painted three words that each carry a hefty price tag on their own. Without all the added surcharges and taxes.”

As the Owner Hologram glimmers with applause our AI automatically begins to enclose us in a cone to give us a defense. I wave my hand and it immediately recedes. I know the answer to this. Dinah and I have worked this argument, using my great-grandfather’s faded essays and notes. The cone disappears but its protective embrace signals to the Adjudicator that we have a point, that is, it signals AI’s preliminary determination that we have a valid point to make.

“Madame Adjudicator, we didn’t use each or any of those words. We invented a new word, a single word, “Weownus,” made up of three roots: we, own and us. The content companies don’t own roots, or morphemes, not yet, just complete words and full concepts. They may claim to own ‘unbreakable’ but the Content Code has not given them ownership of ‘un-’ or ‘-break-’ as a root or ‘-able’ for that matter. That’s the essence of the root legal issues blocking roll-out of the Morpheme series of drones. And, further, we aren’t using ‘Weownus’ alone, we use it italicized with a missile to the heart, further establishing its distinction from any single, owned word.”

“My idea,” Dinah smiles. “The missile to the heart.” She looks around. Pops snap back at her in syncopation with the alternating blanket of light overhead. Nailed it, Nuthead.

I face the Adjudicator. “‘Weownus’ with a missile to the heart is not just a word,” I continue. “It’s a symbol combining roots and images. It’s also a brand. Meaning integrity, autonomy, self-direction and love in a dangerous time. It’s a trademark we intend to use very soon in commerce so it has its own protection from the content companies using it. And I searched. It’s not owned. It’s ours.”

The Owners erupt in protest. “Nonsense! Word theft! Content misuse!”

“Madam Adjudicator,” bows the Prosecutor. “This is, indeed, word theft. Of the noxious kind. This is not like “Perfecta!”

“Summarize it, please?”

“The Perfecta! case was the leading commercial speech case to date under the Content Code. It upheld use of the symbol “Perfecta!” to sell a set of brain synapse augmenters, you know, buy one, get one free, on late-night Cosmic Views, without payment of any use or derivation fee to a cosmetic company that owned “Perfect!”

The Prosecutor turns dramatically to face the Adjudicator. “Madam, this is not the Perfecta! case. These two offenders simply are stealing very distinct and basic Core Words.”

Suddenly a podium appears and as he shouts the three Core Words — “‘We’ and ‘Own’ and ‘Us.’ Each owned by its creator. Each due a royalty. Each due attribution.”

He bangs the podium to produce dramatically echoing thumping base tones with each slam of his clenched fist. “We. Own. Us. Core words, Madame! Not like Perfecta! where no one owned the second root, an historical anomaly in the case of “– a.” Here each word is a Core word that is owned!

The Courtroom erupts in Owner applause and Consumer snaps. The Creatives pop.

“Madame,” he continues, “the Defendants over there,” he points a bony finger at us, “used these three Core Words to say ‘we own us. We are our own content.’ Or whatever gibberish they seek to espouse. And they hoped covertly to use these Core Words in a provocative combination intended to take down the Content Code and WordPay itself. It’s the worst form of content abuse.”

The AI system shoots a message to a screen on our console. “Ownership of Core Words used to form a novel word or expression cannot alone be used as a basis for asserting ownership of the derived word or expression unless there is common ownership of each of the underlying Code Words. See Content Code Section 773.a(i). Also, how can they prove you intended to not pay?” I smile at my AI’s intended irreverence and repeat it all to the Adjudicator.

With a flourish, in response, the Prosecutor produces an image of my handheld stainer that hangs suspended high in the air at the eye-level of the Adjudicator.

“There’s more to consider, Madame. The stainer’s output was manufactured specifically to stay visible long enough to communicate but then disappear before a Lemmadrone or Conflict Monitor can appear for measurement and enforcement purposes. Three settings – Instant, Time-Elapse, Permanent. These two have perfected a very novel system for application of time-elapse, time-of-day and just-in-time stain that avoids drone recording that defies Heimdall itself. So, Madame, we have a Content Code violation that is as subversive and dangerous as they come. The state submits that this pernicious and odious aspect of the crime must influence your deliberations, Madame Adjudicator.”

“A flat prohibition,” agrees the Adjudicator. “Nothing, not even a protected act if one were to be found here, may at the same time undermine the Content Code. And WordPay.”

She looks at us and shakes her head in disgust. “Congratulations. You missed Perfecta! But you hit the trifecta. Word theft. Content abuse. And insurrection.”

“Madame,” I begin …

“I believe the case is fully submitted,” she interrupts. “What more is there to add? This is the land of speedy trial.”

“Rocket docket,” agrees the Prosecutor. The Owners echo yes.

“My great-grandfather was the last of the copyright advocates. He would help authors receive and protect income from their words and stories. He was also a patent lawyer, helping people live off their ideas if they were embodied in a machine, a system or a method. He was proud of what he did.” The Consumer Wall blasts off.

“His reputation is well known. I, of course, have read his work. Even studied his casebook still put out by Hammurabi Handhelds. And we can hear from behind you how popular he remains. But that is ancient law, defendant Milton, mostly superseded. It’s not relevant here. This is Third America now, remember?”

“He wrote a famous article about the original First Amendment and how the state can’t arrest, prosecute or sentence you for Content Code violations.”

“That, to, is old law, defendant Milton. Free speech may and must be curtailed if it presents real and present danger of public harm, state controversy, civil unrest or insurrection of established authorities.”

“I assure you I understand, Madame. This Court has held that having to pay for words and concepts is not an unreasonable restraint on free speech in our society. And now we get to pay a fee to the state for use of the First Amendment when citing it in briefs and arguments before a court. Because the government owns usage rights to the New Constitution and its Amendments, not to mention all documents and decisions issued by the agencies and courts. Because the state owns these word sets and their underlying concepts, not the people.”


“He killed himself by putting his neck into a noose that hung off the back of a spare bedroom door. He left a note saying why. It was because, he feared, that soon one day no one publicly — I mean out loud and for real — could think or speak, or emote, or write, sing, sign, paint, create, or confess their frailties or love, without paying someone. And he was right.”

“Please, Madame Adjudicator,” sighs the Prosecutor. “The case is fully submitted. There is no reason to give this Defendant this time to elicit your emotion when the Code is so clear …”

“Let him finish,” she replies, shrugging her shoulders. She looks at me, a pained look on her face. “So finish.” She mutes the Holograms and the Wall so she can hear me.

“Madame, his own act of suicide was declared by a lower Content Court back then to be one that, although genuine and heartfelt, nonetheless infringed a method and system suicide patent held by a national right-to-die retail franchise. His suicide note was ruled to violate the copyright of a famous author who used in his suicide note similar despair themes and analogies. My great-grandfather’s estate went entirely to paying out royalties for this last act of his.”

“I can’t see the relevance to…”

“Isn’t it time this Court stopped this?” The question, like the Prosecutor’s hologram, hangs but dissipates in the air. “Is there no fairness? No equity? No countervailing public interest of any kind?”

“Madame,” the Prosecutor interrupts. “It is my turn now.” He turns to face us and the muted blank Consumer Wall. “Everything important is free here on this planet. Everything. In 2257, you don’t have to work for anything. Health care, sustenance, psychedelics, housing, access to the Omninet, virtual selves of your own choosing, virtual body parts of any size or kind, virtual worlds of your own choosing, virtual mates of your own choosing, virtual satisfaction on demand, whole-body genetic treatments and organic cyber enhancements for body and mind, all is free. All we have to do is spend the coin we earn in our many virtual lives and occupations to pay for the words and concepts we use in this and in virtual worlds. Simple and easy. That’s how this real world works. It’s how we get by. How we have oxygen. How we have defense. How we have the wall. Without expression that you pay for, all this is threatened. All that we have. What else do we manufacture today but words and concepts? Can you tell me one thing? We must tax something.”

“Without free expression, we have nothing,” I say. “You will have no words. You already see the declining income to the state from this WordPay regime. WordPay kills words. You are slicing the throat that manufactures words and song.”

“Really? What are we missing? There were over 342,000 new novels generated last census. 527,000 new songs. 72,000 new dances. Close to 9 million images, etchings, paintings. These are historic highs. Enshrined by the Content Code of which I am proud. Filling the state’s coffers so we might survive, and the vaults of the content owners who keep us entertained constantly as a matter of state decree. Tell me. What is threatened?”


“No, no. We got that. It’s all original, otherwise we could not collect new revenue from it. It’s built that way. It’s designed and manufactured to be original, even if derivative. The content corporations have it covered. It’s called long term content planning. People get MCAs and Ph.Cs in it. It’s why we move on to morphemes, roots and syllables.”

“You lose break-through thinking and upstart ideas. You lose the radical impulse.

You don’t have change or revolt. Indeed, there will be nothing new under the sun, ever again.”

“We don’t need any more of that here. I thought you knew history. Go to the

Highlands if you wish to freewrite. Be bold! Although these hinterlands, too, soon will fall under Heimdall’s gaze.”

“You lose creativity. It’s all now commanded. It’s controlled. It’s ghost-written, ghost-painted, ghost-sung to models and methods owned by the corporations.”

“And it’s never mine!” shouts Dinah.

“It’s consumed by everyone,” scoffs the Prosecutor, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Record levels of consumption. Everyone loves what is produced.”

“Because they must. It is consumed because it is force-fed to our sky screens, our chips, our adornments, our aids and supplements for hearing, thinking, seeing, moving … and to our ceilings, our pavement, our walls, our craft, soon our dreams. It cannot but be obtained and consumed.”

“For free.”

“For a price. Our creativity will wither and waste. Like a muscle that isn’t used, a park never visited, a soldier left behind to die.”

“You don’t need creativity, defendant Milton. It’s given to you, to us all. For free. Think of it!” The Prosecutor bows with a flourish to the Adjudicator. “We have no more to present, Madame Adjudicator. We are done here.”

Dinah and I turn to the empty Consumer Board. We know they are out there, still, watching. Howling.

The Adjudicator says to our backs, “You will have my verdict soon.”

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