Roberto Dean was lead down a tall, narrow and grimly lit hallway to his seat in the left upper mezzanine. The hastening echoes of his best dress shoes on the white marble floors announced his anxiety of tardiness to the punctual and, he feared, already seated theater-goers. He thought about skipping ahead of the large man leading him, after all he knew the Boncraft Theatre by heart, even though he himself had never been chosen to attend despite his many attempts; however his temporary warden was so wide that he took up most of the hallway by himself, and the radio holstered perfectly square on his even more squared shoulder seemed to Roberto as if the man was not one to suffer impatience. Better not rush, also, lest he miss any detail of the heavily shrouded secretive process. What Roberto had ever gleaned about the show seemed to be exactly what the producers wanted the world to see. No rumors, or at least legitimate rumors, had ever penetrated the iron clad dome of the Boncraft Theatre.
Roberto’s heart pounded as they approached the heavy oak door labeled in script as “Jon Jovi Seats - Left Upper Mezzanine.” This was it! He had finally made it - his years of dedication to his favorite virtual reality show finally paid off despite the nagging complaints of Rebeccah, his wife of twenty-nine years. Eat your heart out, woman! He slicked his dark wavy hair back with a shaky hand.
The giant man opened the door and stepped off to one side, his long arms able to grant Roberto just enough room to sidle by and squint through the dark to find the only empty seat left. That had to be it: first row, middle seat. Excellent angles for the masks to immerse him in its hybrid reality. Wait, my mask! He whirled around and a scrawny man was standing in the door, suit askew and greasy haired as if vomited up by the larger one. He held out a Chimpanzee mask to Roberto and offered, “Mr. Dean, sir, if you need me, I will be right here with you through The Bonnifique Trial - enjoy!”
He slid past a Blue Elk, a Black Raven, a Golden Goat, took his seat, and put his own mask on, anticipating the explosion of graphics he saw from his recliner every Wednesday night. Nothing. Chimp mask off, back on…nothing. He felt a tap on his shoulder and the Golden Goat to his left leaned in to whisper, “Look above the stage, you’ll see a countdown timer.” Roberto nodded in thanks. Sure enough, a big blue bouncing timer hovered high above the stage with twenty seconds remaining. “Now look all the way up to the ceiling. You have to turn backwards and hang over the balcony to see it.”
Roberto complied and his mask revealed a living mural of classical figures of authority in muscular nudity engaged in humble activities - one hammering on an anvil, others cutting wood. It was so lifelike, he reached out, not to touch it, but to compare with his own hand, and discovered there was little to distinguish reality from the mask’s retinal projection.
“How’d you know to do that?”
“Not my first rodeo.” The Goat man grabbed the nape of Robert’s neck in brotherly fellowship. “Been here quite a few times, actually.”
“Oh, wow, really?”
“Yessir, they love havin’ me around. Uff! About to start!”
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
“Welcome, welcome! Laisse moi juger!” the host walked through an invisible portal to materialize on the stage. Franco Kafka! What a stud! At once Roberto felt a cannonball drop in his stomach and the dizzying heights of rocketing from one in half a billion on his recliner, to one in a thousand sans mask, to the only one Franco’s laser focused dark eyes addressed. “Let’s get right to it, shall we?!” The audience cheered, clapped, whistled, and went silent as Franco raised his hands to quiet them.
“Today we have a very special show for you fine gentleman and even finer ladies,” he paused for the women to finish their catcalls, “Yes, yes, today we have the worst type of violent offender! The vilest of vile! The most sinful serpent!” Boos erupted on cue. “Worse than the Silver Tiger!, the Dagger Divorcée!, and the Tyrannical Train Tramp all in one!” Gasps slipped out. “This man is a Scruple-less Sad Sack! A Bonafide Beast! Let us cast judgment on…” The audience was on pins and needles. They were the lucky few to get a special showing!
Franco snapped, evaporated, and in his place appeared a disheveled, tired man in a suit two sizes too big and that looked even worse with his bad posture, fidgeting in a chair. He ran his hands through a full head of dark wavy hair.
The real Roberto, the one in the flesh, the one who had grappled the halls just outside the mezzanine not ten minutes before, the one in his seat precisely where he knew he was supposed to be, and precisely where he had dreamed he would be for as long as he could remember, briefly questioned his own existence. He craned his neck forward to see - yes, that was him! The ill-fitting suit was not his. The chair was not his. But the face, tired as it was, was his. The full head of dark wavy hair, new gray streaks and all, was his. He slung off his mask and gaped at the empty stage, then double-checked. Yep, that was Roberto Dean alright.
The Golden Goat mask chuckled. “Another secret of the show, my man. We see ourselves down there on trial. Supposed to prevent bias based on appearance. Or something.”
“Oh, Jesus! So that’s not me?” Roberto sagged back in his seat. “Wow, you never see this in the show…”
“Nossir, you sure don’t.”
The trial began with the ritual bureaucracy, jazzed up with rotating images of past trials and a booming soundtrack. It would have been almost boring to Roberto, but he found himself staring at this fraud on stage. How could he judge this man?
“…alright, satisfied the suits pretty good this time, didn’t we folks?” Light chuckles emanated. “Now, on to the good stuff!” Roberto and his thousand fellow jurors perked up. The reading of the charges! The more dastardly, the better, Roberto always told his wife. The deserving are the only ones who end up on this show. They were vetted for exactly that; no one had ever come close to being acquitted. The producers and jurors were infallible by design.
A blank checklist appeared above the Not-Roberto’s head. “…Betraying the Public Trust. Oh, you’re a loner now, are you, Roberto? Tsk-tsk.” The gallery mimicked Franco with their own disappointment. “Conspiracy to Commit Identity Fraud. Threats Against the Central Authority. Oh, tough guy! Criminal Action to Commit Mass Terrorism. This is getting good! Just you wait!” The checklist grew a few more empty lines. “And here are the top three! Ready, folks?” The jurors filled in the pause with approval in applause. “Number Three: Conspiracy to Maim, Murder, or Otherwise Harm a Central Authority Figure!” Gasps. “Number Two: Destruction of Public Interconnects!” How horrible! The Interconnects were sacred institutions revered by all classes of people. “And Number One…The Murder of a Central Authority Figure!” Gasps resurfaced like hydra heads.
Roberto was excited - a real life murderer! - but dismayed that he would have to watch himself through the trial. Still, he was determined to enjoy every minute of this opportunity. He sat at attention while the prosecutor-host described the gory minutia of the crimes, while the defendant, his personal impersonator, shuffled around uncomfortable in his chair. The statistic that held true - zero acquittals - hung on Real-Roberto’s mind like a fly shooed away only to return. He wasn’t sure if that was at the root of what was bothering him, or something else, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something seemed odd about this proceeding. The crimes this man was accused of committing, for instance - he had never heard of these during the decades-long run of the show’s history. The show usually focused on the tawdry and obscene, not severe criminal activity. Defendants usually jumped to their feet and assailed the audience with their innocence only to cave to pressure and admit their guilt in a wild soliloquy by the end of the show; this man, this sad sack, he was shrinking into himself at every barb thrown by Franco. The evidence was presented in terms of almost theoretical, if not theatrical, offenses. Where was the body, if there really were a murder? Franco presented none. Where were the co-conspirators, as is usually the case in a plot as complex as Franco had laid out - and surely not something this poor boob dreamed up alone? No mention. The Public Interconnects, now that he thought about it, had never been on the news. Surely such a disruptive terrorist attack would have been noteworthy.
The intermission came with relief to Roberto, who filed out of his mezzanine past the greasy attendant with the other jurors, and to the restroom. He stood at the urinal and he gazed past the white subway tile to seek some respite for his conflicted mind. A flash of gold mask to his left snapped him out of it. “So, what do you think of it so far? Wild, huh? This may be the first time a political dissident was on the show.”
Roberto nodded, “Yeah…crazy that this is my first time…”
“No…well, yeah, but I’m also very gracious to be here. It almost feels like I just barely missed an era, though.” Roberto thought about mentioning his reservations on the evidence, but held back.
“Oh, don’t worry, things will get real good, real soon.” The Goat zipped up and walked out of the restroom. Roberto took his time washing his hands, examining their details.
When he returned to the mezzanine, it was time for the cross-examination. This part was usually riveting and revealing, but Roberto had a sinking feeling this would also be quite unusual. “Mr. Dean, how do you respond to the charges presented to this, the fine establishment of the Boncraft Theatre?” Cheers erupted at the mention of such a hallowed institution, and Franco had to quiet them once again. The fake Roberto pulled at his collar and sat up, repositioned his feet on the floor, then seemed to think better of it and sat back in his chair. A long pause appeared to frustrate Franco, “Well, sir? Do you have no rebuttal?” The true Roberto squirmed in his seat. Don’t they see that this man is traumatized for some reason?
“Sir, we demand a response! This court is voracious for justice!” The contrast between that sound-bite moment and the defendant’s uncomfortable fidgeting wore on Roberto. “Sir! Do you have nothing to say in your defen-”
“Say something! Say you aren’t guilty! Stand up for yourself!” Roberto was out of his seat and almost climbing the balcony before he realized what he was doing. Franco’s laser beam focus strafed the theater methodically until his eyes landed on Roberto. Roberto froze. He couldn’t believe himself. His wife, voice full of piss and vinegar, mocked him as she flashed before his eyes - I knew it, you loser, you always self destruct! He slowly sat down, steadying himself on the balcony wall, retreating into the shadows. The Golden Goat announced himself in a whisper, “Wow, new guy, you did it now. Franco’s never looked so pissed off. No, don’t look at me, and do exactly as I say. Stand back up.” Roberto complied. “Now hold out your hands like Jesus on the cross.” He did. “As loud as you can, repeat after me - "
Roberto mustered his courage and proceeded, “And if you do…I’ll smite you myself!” The audience roared with laughter and a few seconds later Franco’s lasers relaxed to cold beams - unhappy with the outburst, still monitoring Roberto, but satisfied with the drama.
Franco spun around on his heel to address the Not-Roberto once again. “Well, if you aren’t going to respond, we have no choice but to move to the voting phase of the show. No? OK, going once…going twice…” Not-Roberto’s suit swallowed more of him as he tried to disappear into this chair. “Gone! Let’s get on with it!” The audience hooted and a wave of shuffling indicated their anxiety to pass judgment. Real Roberto copied his neighbors and flipped the arm of his seat arm over to reveal the voting pendant. He squinted at the stage, searching for some indication of what he was supposed to do now. This was so much easier at home, on his recliner, spoon-fed the results. The scrawny, greasy attendant - no help at all during Roberto’s previous tribulations - jumped in front of his vision. “Mr. Dean, if you will just push this button here,” he pointed at a large, nondescript gray button, “you can start to take the survey.” Roberto nodded his appreciation, pushed the button, and Franco melted away.
“1. Do you think that meaningful action will be taken as a result of this judgment phase?” The text floated over the stage, and Roberto found the green voting button and pressed it, confident that the producers of the show will certainly follow through with the results.
“2. Did Franco perform his duties, even under duress, to the utmost of his abilities?” Green again - Franco was meticulous.
“3. Do you feel empathy for the defendant?” Roberto paused. He took off his Chimpanzee mask and looked around. The Golden Goat was laughing at something past his vision and was clearly of no help here. In fact, everyone he looked at was very engaged in their own worlds. He replaced his mask and hesitated once more before he pushed red.
“4. Do you agree that the defendant violated the law?” Again, he hesitated. Murder was, of course, a serious offense. But the evidence as presented seemed theoretical, almost fantastical, and then there was the lack of a body…Roberto pushed the red button before he realized what he was doing. Shit!, he thought, and a bead of sweat threatened his forehead.
“5. Would you agree, despite your own reservations, that the audience, in their capacity as jury, is correct in their assessment of the guilt of the defendant?” These questions were far more convoluted than the Guilty/Not Guilty bar charts he as a typical home viewer was expecting. Do they think like me? He took off his mask again and looked around, the lines around his eyes coming to prominence as a wave of weariness washed over him. He saw lithe women and scrappy men, he had never noticed how young and beautiful they looked. They were engrossed in some post-voting indulgence; their attention synchronized to some story line. He wished he could engage with that as well, and be past this turbulence. Yes, they must, they will see through the holes in the evidence. This man is not guilty.
Roberto, the only one left, alive and in the flesh, pushed the green button.
Silence snapped the theater. The heads of every audience member whipped in unison to stare at him; he could even feel the daggers from the unseen. Roberto’s fear crashed back into him. He looked to his left at the Golden Goat mask and locked eyes with an icy, gray hunger he had never seen before. He could feel the Goat man’s pulse emanating - no, the audience’s pulse - and recoiled at the sound of rapid breaths smothering what little remained of his breathable air.
Franco’s voice was unmistakable. Roberto tried to maintain his vision on his surroundings as he rotated his head. He had no mask on, but Franco was right there, surrounded by a solo spotlight on the stage.
Franco continued, “You were always going to lose this case, you were known guilty before it started, thanks to the elegant new HomeWatchTM feature of the show. Improves audience interaction in an interesting way, wouldn’t you say?”
What? What case? I thought it was only a projection… They lied! Those thoughts were just jokes, my wife…“I never murdered anyone!”
“That’s right! Your repugnant thoughts laid bare your intent! Sitting there, stewing in your recliner, envious of the crowd in front of you. All the conviction but none of the courage, isn’t that right, Mr. Dean? Failing to at least make yourself known…despicable…it is of no concern now. The law is clear. You sided with the audience, did you not?”
Roberto did not respond.
“Laisse moi juger! This being the first case with the new HomeWatchTM technology makes this awfully special. For that, we need an awfully special ending. Rebeccah, would you do the honors?” The Black Raven removed her mask, saddled the Golden Goat, reached up on her tip-toes, and unfurled a rope from a hidden compartment above Roberto’s seat.
Roberto bolted up but was tackled by the Goat. He tried to resist but a forearm was firmly planted across his windpipe, bending his whole body. Rebeccah did not have trouble slipping the rope over his head and tucking it under his chin. She slapped the Chimp mask on him, and as he felt the grip on his neck relax, he reached up to strip the rope of its hold on him. For a brief moment, he could feel the air around him freshen and the weight of bodies depart his atmosphere. Then, a strong heel in his back propelled him forward belly first, and another impact slung his balance over the edge of the balcony.
As he swung back and forth over the seats below, after he could no longer lift his arms to grasp at the rope, he noticed in the orchestra pit another living mural - a cross, a bloody arm reaching up for him, and a golden goat braying with laughter.