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Cassandra hears the Defendant crying as she declares him guilty. It seems that the blindfold she wears as Magistrate encourages emotional displays. Defendants had never been so prone to histrionics when she was a Judge. And histrionics they are, for she does not need her eyes to see into their hearts and minds and know that remorse does not fuel the tears. The tears are not for his victims, they are for himself.

She delivers the inevitable verdict with disdain: “The sentence for the combined offences of intent to deceive the Court, perjury, and embezzlement resulting in twelve cases of manslaughter is death.”

The Defendant screams—meant to be one of grief, but she can practically taste the rage--as the two Bailiffs of the Court drag him away from the stand and out through where she knew the double doors to be. The doors close behind them and for a brief moment, with no one else in the courtroom, Magistrate Cassandra Anderson can breathe. Then the doors reopen, and her Bailiffs escort the next Defendant to the stand.

The Bailiffs are an established presence, as they work with her nearly every day, so their constant buzz of bored detachment easily fades into the background. It is not the same for the Defendant, whose terror is so strong that Cassandra has to pinch her thigh to bring herself back to her body.

“Identify yourself.”

“M-my name is K-kim Sook.”

“Defendant Kim Sook,” she repeats, mentally reviewing the files she memorized that morning. “You have been accused of human trafficking—” A thousand images tear through her mind, each more blurred and nonsensical than the last, but leaving a distinct flavor of grief and pain. Cassandra manages to fight through the mental onslaught without pausing. “How do you declare yourself?”

“G-guilty.”

Well. She doesn’t need to be a mind-reader to know that something isn’t right here, but Defendant Sook’s anxiety and fear makes it difficult to sort through the thoughts that might clarify the situation. Behind the blindfold, Cassandra closes her eyes, and breathes. Closing off the rest of the world to the best of her ability, she withdraws, allowing herself to focus completely on how her lungs pull air in and push air out. At the fringes of her mind, she can feel Defendant Sook spiraling as her silence extends. She hasn’t reached the level of calm she was hoping for, but it would have to do.

Using breathing as a focal point, she projects her calm to Defendant Sook, but opening the connection also allows the Defendant’s negative emotions to project freely into Cassandra’s own mind. She grits her teeth and resolutely returns her focus to breathing, waiting patiently, painfully, for the calm to take root in Defendant Sook. The moment she senses a stillness in Sook’s storm, Cassandra seizes it, fixing her attention on it and preparing to ride the Echo.

Once the Echo starts, it will not take long to finish. It never does. The calm emotion travels from the Magistrate to the Defendant, building each time it rebounds from one to the other, until the Echo leaves nothing but calm. Nothing but stillness. Like the Wasteland on a windless day.

“Defendant Sook, why are you pleading guilty?”

What Sook says: “Because I am guilty.”

What Sook thinks: I am guilty I am guilty but not of this not of trafficking but to say I’m not guilty is to condemn the rest so I am guilty I am guilty

“Defendant Sook, who trafficked Yuve Hu, Numion Jun, and Ulele Orako?”

Says: “I did.”

Thinks: Jofia Morikson told us there were better opportunities here better food a better life everything was supposed to be better but it’s worse it’s so much worse I have no friends or family I left them all behind there’s only the others and if they don’t take me Jofia will kill them I wasn’t supposed to get caught why did I get caught

“Is Jofia Morikson the leader of the trafficking ring?”

Says: “Who?”

Thinks: how does she know about Jofia have I already been discovered did they already know that Jofia is the one but I don’t know how high in the chain she is she’s just the one in charge of us I’ve never seen anyone else but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anyone else and how did she know about Jofia oh god what if the others are already dead

Despite Cassandra’s best efforts to reinforce the calm, a spike of terror breaks through her hold, ending the stillness in the Defendant’s mind. It doesn’t matter. She’s learned enough.

“Defendant Kim Sook is not guilty of the pending charges. Bailiff Whitaker, transfer Defendant Sook to witness protection. While you’re out, file an arrest warrant for Jofia Morikson on account of human trafficking.”

“Yes, Magistrate.”

“Bailiff Al-Amir, was she the last?” She knows that Sook was the last file, but sometimes a priority case would get fast-tracked to court.

“Yes, Magistrate.”

“Then this ends today’s session. You are dismissed.” She waits until she hears the heavy click of the doors closing before she tears the blindfold from her eyes.

On cue, the door to her left opens and Chief Judge Ayola strides in. Cassandra automatically rises from her chair. “Chief Judge, good evening.” A flare of irritation flits through Chief Judge’s mind, but Cassandra can sense that it’s not directed at her.

“Is the blindfold still causing a reaction?”

Cassandra looks down at the white cloth and rubs the side of her face subconsciously. “No, ma’am, it’s been fine since we switched fabrics.”

“Good.” A gap follows, and Cassandra looks up in a mix of concern and confusion as she feels hesitation from Chief Judge. Of all the things Chief Judge may be, indecisive is never one of them. “I need to talk to you about a new initiative. An internal initiative. One where we conduct an… audit of the Judges.”

“An internal audit of Judges?”

Chief Judge frowns sharply at her. “Anderson, you know I hate when you listen to my thoughts.”

“Apologies, ma’am, it’s difficult to tell when I’m hearing your thoughts instead of your words.”

“You don’t seem to have a problem with Defendants.”

“Respectfully, ma’am, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with such rigid and clear thought patterns as you.”

“Hm. Back to the matter at hand, yes, an internal investigation into the Judges. Corruption has gotten worse. We need a cleansing.”

“What do you have in mind, ma’am?” The following flashes of thoughts and images are very clear—Chief Judge wants her to read the minds of the entire Hall of Justice and declare them innocent or guilty. “Ma’am, no, absolutely not.”

“Excuse me, Magistrate?”

“That is much too large a population for me to examine, and it violates their rights for me to read their minds when they aren’t charged with a crime.”

This is why I hate when you read my mind—yes, eventually I want to clear the whole Hall, but it would be a staged effort over a long period of time. Not to mention it hasn’t passed the Council, yet. At any rate, you’re the only Magistrate we have, I can’t very well pull you from duty permanently to cut out infections in the Hall of Justice.”

“Of course, ma’am, you’re right.”

“I know I’m right. Once we’ve matriculated more psychics and train them up to be Magistrates, maybe I’ll be able to realize that vision. For now, I want to clear my own District first.”

“And their rights, ma’am?”

“Judges don’t have the same rights as civilians, you know better than that.”

“Absolutely, ma’am, but the current legislation doesn’t allow for blanket investigations like this. It would require an independent warrant for each Judge.”

“We aren’t conducting a criminal investigation. This is no different than a urine analysis. Just as we test units for using unauthorized drugs, we will test units for unauthorized behaviors.”

“I understand, ma’am. However, urinalysis accounts for errors in the system by performing an additional blood test when a sample returns a positive. What would our safety check be before I deliver a verdict?”

“Are you saying your powers are unreliable? Do I need to scrap the Magistrate program entirely?”

“How many times have I misread your mind, ma’am?”

Chief Judge narrows her eyes. “Very well. We’ll adjust your verdict to pass and fail. Failures will be thoroughly investigated and if suspicion is founded, they will be stripped of their duties and processed through the Courts. Do you have any other concerns, Magistrate Anderson?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then that will be all for tonight. I’ve taken the liberty of rescheduling your appointments tomorrow so that you can evaluate the first Division.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

It never seems to matter how she times her commute or which low-traffic road she chooses, driving is always painful. There are too many people and not enough obstructions between her and their thoughts. A baby screeches as it experiences pain for one of the first times in its life, making her teeth ache. A panicking teenager hides his porn mag, his embarrassment setting Cassandra’s cheeks on fire just as his parents’ rage makes her hands shake. An addict shoots up, their disjointed thoughts grating in her mind as she fights the drug-induced haze. Friends huddle around a freshly dead corpse, grief and mourning sending a cascade of tears down her face. Two women in the throes of passion light a fire in her core, distinctly uncomfortable in juxtaposition to all the other emotions.

Of all these feelings, it’s relief that stands most clearly—and, blessedly, it’s her relief—when she drags herself through the entrance of the meditation hall. She can’t even bring herself to find a proper seat, sagging against the wall of the foyer. It’s not long before the shuffle of footsteps interrupts her solitude.

It is good to see you, Cassandra.

She opens her eyes and smiles at Jiwa, one of the senior members of the hall and her personal favorite. Jiwa smiles back.

Don’t let the others hear you think that. It will break their hearts to know you do not favor them.

Cassandra chuckles. Well, be sure to let me know if anyone gains the ability to think-speak overnight.

It is still only us, Jiwa says as she sits beside Cassandra.

The silence of their thoughts is comforting and companionable, and eventually Cassandra gives in to the urge to Echo Jiwa’s internal peace. It balms the irritation of emotions for the few minutes that Jiwa allows it.

A rough day? She asks.

Not more than usual, Cassandra admits, but I think the next few days will be, uh, stressful.

I see. You would do well to learn to cultivate this sense of peace within yourself, rather than relying on me to provide it.

But you’re so good at it! It would take me hours to get to your level every day.

That may be so, but I would prefer not to be your happiness dealer, she teases. You may become addicted.

Cassandra snorts and elbows Jiwa in the side, who raises her brows in response. We’re all addicted to peace, she clarifies.

No. Recognizing the Teacher Voice for what it was, Cassandra sits back to listen. Many of us lust for peace without ever knowing it. One can only become addicted to what they cannot provide themselves. The memory of the addict forces its way to the forefront of Cassandra’s mind, bringing the remembered sensations of sticky haziness with it.

Jiwa nods. Yes. Like that. But also: More images flash through her mind-eye, of people chasing their ideas of happiness and peace. Some tying their joy to people, some to places, or even certain years. The image ends with Cassandra’s own face. The only thing constant in our lives is our own selves. And even then—Mind-Cassandra’s face begins to change. First it’s wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth, then streaks of gray in her hair, then it grows sallow and pale. We are ever-changing. Our identities are as ephemeral as morning dew.

Yes, I understand. Cassandra frowns at the new snapshots, trying to sort out the tangle of aromas and images in Jiwa’s mind. Then a growling breaks each of their concentration.

Jiwa flushes. It, ah, appears that I am hungry. They look at each other and break down in giggles. Cassandra stands and offers Jiwa a hand before they both leave for the kitchens.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

There seems to be no end to the parade of Judges. It’s one thing to know that there are fifty Judges to a Company, four Companies to a Division, and eight Divisions to a District, but it’s another to sift through mind after mind after mind. Even on the busiest court days, Cassandra rarely oversees more than six cases in a session. At four o’clock on this second day of Judge evaluations, she has seen twenty. The strain is starting to show, and not only on her.

“How many more, Bailiff Al-Amir?” She asks, fidgeting with her blindfold to sneak a peak at her team.

Al-Amir rubs his temples distractedly, no doubt trying to assuage the exhaustion that isn’t his. “Only one, Magistrate.”

Cassandra suppresses a groan. “I’m calling a small recess. Bring the Judge in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Magistrate. Would you like for us to wait outside?”

Affection for Al-Amir for being so thoughtful rushes through her, immediately igniting a struggle to tamp the feeling down, well aware of the disastrous effects that Echoing affection can have. “That would be ideal, yes.”

The second she hears the doors click shut, she rips the blindfold off completely and scratches at her scalp. The new fabric might not irritate her skin anymore, but it’s still a relief to have it off. There’s an emergency tin of snacks underneath her chair and she breaks it open now, eager to replenish her system with nutrients. She takes vindictive pleasure in slouching in her throne-like chair, sinking into it as she processes the cases so far.

Most of the Judges she’s seen today were innocent, guilty of only small infractions like having relationships that toed the line of illegal. Many took illegal supplements as well as the approved performance enhancers that all Judges were permitted, but as that is not what the Chief Judge sent her to root out, she ignored those violations. A urinalysis would catch them, anyway. Some were only guilty of not being as harsh as the laws they were bound to enforce. She passed those Judges as well. So far, she hasn’t found any evidence of the corruption that Chief Judge claims to be rotting the Hall of Justice from the inside out. Then again, Cassandra recognizes the Judges to be some of Chief Judge’s favored. She wouldn’t put it past the old woman to verify her trust in her closest agents before targeting known dissidents. Even still, there were a few surprises.

Like Judge Maddigan, a senior on the force with a flawless record. Known for being first on the scene and last to leave. Apparently keen on assassinating the Chief Judge in order to usurp her position. It’s unlikely that anyone would have ever discovered her intentions without being able to literally read her mind. How unlucky for Maddigan that the legislature preventing mutants from serving never passed.

Three knocks at the door. Cassandra closes her eyes once more and ties the blindfold. “Enter,” she calls. She hears the doors whoosh open. Out of habit, she probes each mind as it enters her courtroom—only to frown in confusion when she only feels two presences, those of the Bailiff’s. Wondering what could compel them to break protocol, she almost calls out to them when there is a small blip between them. It’s not a full thought, it’s not even an image. It’s only the flicker of an emotion, some flicker of recognition, before the mind retires into silence again. Meanwhile, Cassandra’s mind had never been noisier.

Who is this? How is their mind so quiet? What is the recognition for? Does this person know her, or do they simply recognize the situation? She can barely restrain her curiosity long enough to wait for the Judge to sit.

“Identify yourself.”

“Judge Joseph Dredd.” That’s… familiar. She’s heard that name before. She knows that name.

“Judge Joseph Dredd,” she pauses, hoping that saying the name will trigger an idea—either in her or in Dredd—but all she can sense is… peaches? “Have you been informed of your rights and the procedures of the court?”

“Yes.” The complete lack of any brain-noise from stray thoughts or mundane ideas is shocking. She knows stillness, of course, from her own studies and the elders at the meditation hall, but this is not stillness. Here, no ounce of intellectual power is wasted, every active neuron is dedicated to fueling the single, unshakeable “yes”. It’s like experiencing true darkness for the first time. And yet… the feeling that this isn’t the first time she’s experiencing it, that it’s not the first time she’s seen such a blankness, is growing stronger.

“Do you choose verbal questioning or mental examination?”

“Mental examination.”

Excitement flutters through her, almost breathless. Very few choose mental examination, and for good reason. All Defendants are briefed in advance of what a mental examination entails and while it’s functionally the same as verbal questioning, most find that it’s too intense, too intimate, too exposed—too easy for personal thoughts to become public ones. Cassandra is dying to step inside this strange mind.

So she does.

His mindscape is… realistic. In a realm where all things are possible, one might be tempted to call it bland, but the details of her recreated courtroom are too painfully accurate for it to be anything short of extraordinary. Most people can remember impressions of a room, but the degree of detail varies wildly between individuals. This might be the most hyper-realistic mindscape she’s ever seen outside of another psychic. She could count the grains in the wood bannisters if she wanted. With a start, she looks around her courtroom. Looks. This is Dredd’s mind, he wouldn’t be able to remove her blindfold unless he’d seen her without it. Her eyes snap to him. He’s sitting in her chair.

“Moving up in the world, ‘Magistrate’ Anderson.” She stares at Dredd, confused. Even with the otherworldly resonance that imbues it, she knows his voice. And she knows she’s heard his mind before. It’s impossible to recognize him when he still wears his helmet. Except, this is still Dredd’s mind. He sees her as he knows her, just as his own self is presented as he sees it. Having a helmet ingrained in your self-image can’t be healthy…

The silence stretches between them. “You don’t look ready,” he says, and it all snaps together. A failed examination. A second chance, an assessment. Peachtree. Dredd.

“…sir?”

He sits back in her Magistrate’s chair, the leather creaking. “Think you outrank me now.”

A million questions surge to the front of her mind, things that had bothered her ever the first and last time she ever worked with Dredd, but what she manages to come out with is: “You’re in my chair.”

He looks down at his seat before looking at her again. “Yeah.”

Then she’s striding to the bar, eyes fixed on his visor. “I lost my Lawgiver and released a felon but when I returned to Control to turn in my gear, they handed me a promotion instead. Why did you pass me?”

Shrug. “You’re the psychic.”

“Humor me,” she grits out.

He remains motionless for a moment, unreadable behind his Judge’s helmet. “I’ve trained a lot of rookies. Maybe I’m getting you confused. When did you lose control of your primary weapon?”

“There was a standoff with some teenagers. An apprehended felon was able to disarm me and take me hostage while other hostiles distracted you.”

“Sounds serious. How did you survive?”

“The felon attempted to use Lawgiver and failed ID check. It blew off his arm and incapacitated him.”

“Hmph.” He folds his hands in his lap, still relaxed. “It’s well known that Lawgivers have explosive defenses. Not a smart felon.”

“I may have invaded his mind and suggested he could use the weapon without issue.”

He grunts and examines a small tear in his gloves. “The mind is the sharpest weapon,” he says disinterestedly.

Cassandra side-eyes him. His thoughts are still focused, not a single deviation anywhere. She finds it difficult to believe that someone so single-minded could do anything carelessly, so the only way to interpret his words is... “You never considered my Lawmaker to be my primary weapon,” she realizes. “It was my mind. My psychic abilities.”

He doesn’t respond. He’d probably consider it to be wasted energy.

“What about the felon?” She demands.

“Which felon?”

“The techie,” she says. “Accessory to the drug lord’s crimes? The one who worked for Ma-Ma under duress.”

“Doesn’t sound like a felon to me.” There’s a flicker. The tiniest twitch in his psyche. An emotion not quite patronizing… amusement. Dredd’s making fun of her. Laughter bubbles up as her understanding of the entire situation tilts from tense to playful—not that she voices the laughter, of course. He most likely wouldn’t appreciate sudden, maniacal cackles.

She does smile, though.

“Something funny?”

“You’re the comedian,” she says. Dredd huffs, and she wonders if he even knows how to laugh. Curiosity sated, Cassandra returns to the matter at hand. The standardized questions go by quickly. As expected, all of his responses are textbook. All Judges aspired to be living embodiments of the Law and Justice, but no one ever went as far as Dredd.

She doesn’t really expect a response to the final question. “Is there anything the Court should know?”

“No.”

Cassandra nods and prepares to close the mental connection, but his voice interrupts her concentration. “But there’s something the you might like to know.”

The moment feels odd, like an unbalanced scale. His tone is at odds with the nearly mocking one from their earlier conversation. “And what’s that?”

“There was no assessment.”

“What?”

“How many street judge rookies have you seen on assessment? Somewhere to the order of zero, right? There was no assessment.”

“But, Chief Judge—”

“Only ordered a ride along and my personal evaluation of your capability to serve the Hall of Justice. I determined the criteria for passing my evaluation. Short of dying, nothing you could have done that day would disqualify you in the eyes of Chief Judge.”

Cassandra stares at him. “What—what am I supposed to do with that?”

“Know it.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The unbalanced feeling doesn’t leave her while she debriefs Chief Judge. Judge Dredd does not waste energy. He does not waste time or thoughts. So why did he tell her that there was no assessment?

“Magistrate Anderson,” Chief Judge says loudly, and this time the irritation is directed at her.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I asked if there were any other incidents like Judge Maddigan. Treasonous ideations. What about Judge Dredd?”

Unable to block emotions after such a long day of intentionally reading them, it isn’t particularly surprising when Cassandra picks up on Chief Judge’s trepidation. Anxiety that her top ranks are already infiltrated, her desperate desire to know that her best enforcer is on her side for the—Cassandra blinks and looks at Chief Judge Ayola. There was no assessment. Never before she met her superior had she ever heard such structured and clear thinking. Just as she had never before experienced the singularity of purpose and focus in Judge Dredd. Short of dying, nothing could disqualify you. A look of distrust is building on Chief Judge’s face, wary of her Magistrate’s untimely silence. Is she aware of the revelation that Cassandra is experiencing? That she’s watching pieces of a puzzle she didn’t know existed falling into place? Cassandra can already hear Chief Judges orderly thoughts coming to the same conclusion. Corruption has gotten worse. We need a cleansing. Structured thinking must be useful for a Chief Judge. To keep track of laws, of legislation, politics, Megacity One, her own District…

Of the details for a plan decades in the making.

A coup against the Council of Judges.

Chief Judge’s eyes widen, and she sucks in a breath as the thought whispers through Cassandra’s mind: She knows.

The tension almost hurts.

What Chief Judge says is: “Did Judge Dredd pass?” But that’s not what she’s asking. That’s not what she wants to know. She’s taking the Hall of Justice by force. She’ll have Dredd. Will she have her Magistrate?

The silence extends.

It stretches.

It breaks.

Cassandra nods.

“He’s a Go.”