1

The Crime
U

“Is this Dream’s End?” Good Night looked about her in awe. Seven dead planets circled a large sun. The debris from ships, buildings, and even space suits floated by us. Automated distress calls, slipping in and out of static, spread out over the stellar landscape. This was now one of the “Ghostly Places”, where even the scavengers feared to tread. A skull drifted eerily along the solar wind, slowly spinning round, as if taking one long, last look at its former home. “No. This is the Neredite Colony Hafshum 12. There are no planets in Dream’s End.” I turned to her. “Is this what you wanted to see?” “No.” She sat down and hid her face in her hands. “I can’t guarantee what tomorrow will bring.” I sat down next to her. “I know. Neither can The People. Nobody can.” “But I promise that we’ll fight tomorrow together.” I stood up and looked down at her. I gently raised her up. “There are things to be done. Let’s go.” I turned off the display and the planetarium went dark. After dropping Good Night off at Jewel City with her people, I went to check on the professor. His small cottage was cluttered with his newfound archeological treasures. Looking round, I was quite surprised to see holograms of a wife and several children. There were also artifacts that I didn’t recognize, which surprised me, since Mistress Janelle and I had seen quite a few places on our travels. The professor himself was busy going over the ancient manuscripts and artifacts of our ancestors. He babbled on to himself excitedly and his spines quivered with glee. I’m not sure if he even knew I was there. He had no time for pleasantries or even hello. I was never one to ruin anyone’s fun, so I quietly put something to eat on a nearby table and then left.

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Crossing the street, I spotted Goargunth and several of his colleagues. They were intimidating their rivals, from another tree, actually from a distant colony. That conflict was quite difficult to set up, but with the right maneuvers, all sorts of wars can be arranged. The political structure had shaped up quite nicely and had not only Uncle’s approval, but mine as well. So, life had become easy – very easy – and today I wouldn’t let that bother me. But when I looked up in the sky, I noticed a large number of battleships overhead. There were also several large fleets passing between Yornulu and Vush. Perhaps life outside of Coal Town was getting a little complicated. My spines quivered as I thought about the alternative. Perhaps life outside my little town was getting frighteningly simple. Was the cluster about to come face to face with the entity that destroyed Hafshum 12 and Dakaros 5? Without any good morning or hello, the professor walked up to me and placed a small rubber patch above my right ear. “Is it on good and firm?” “Yes it is. What is it?” “A communicator. Now go! They’re coming for you. I’ll be in touch – this is the turning point that we’ve all been waiting for. Go, go, go – I’ll be with you the whole time.” The professor pointed to the rubber patch above his right ear. Uncle’s ship descended from the sky and landed just outside of town. He and his entourage walked down the center of the street without challenge. Uncle was not only a fierce fighter, but a master strategist; I’m sure he took care of any potential foes days before setting one foot in Coal Town. (“Zarthithy, your day of justice has come!”) Uncle greeted me with a branch of our tree in his hands. He bowed low and placed it before my feet. I picked up the branch and saluted him. (“I am honored by your visit Uncle. I am grateful for any justice you can bring to me.”) As I boarded Uncle’s ship, I looked over my shoulder. Coal Town seemed small, too safe, and very trivial. The chatter throughout the ship was constant; a campaign was being planned not only on the battlefront, but also in the political and cultural arenas as well. Gone were the petty rivalries and family feuds; everyone was moving in unison – like a frightened school of fish. Every second counted, and that was reflected in the motions and eyes of everyone I came across. Before I could ask what was going on, Uncle led me into the bowels of his battle ship. The lights were dim and all sorts of pulse rifles and battle staffs hung from the pipes overhead. The hum of the fusion engines mingled with the shouts and orders of the captain as they rained down upon the crew. The clanking of metal boots upon metal grates complimented this belligerent opera perfectly. “We searched long and hard for her and she didn’t go without a fight.” Uncle opened a heavy metal door. Inside, chained to the wall, was a beaten, bruised prisoner. Her face was hidden by her black hair. She raised her head and my heart skipped a beat – it was Mistress Janelle.

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“After all these years.” I growled. “Tomorrow she shall answer for her crime. We will send a message throughout the galaxy: kidnapping a Nethasian is an act of war!” “She is still alive?” I walked up to her. “She must live to stand trial. This is going to be broadcast throughout the empire.” “Let me give her a taste of Nethasian justice. Don’t worry Uncle, she’ll live.” “As you wish.” The door slammed behind us. “Sensei! What happened?” “I was ambushed. You Nethasians are a sneaky bunch.” I looked around. “The engine room is not heavily guarded. I can get you as far as deck two-“ The professor suddenly spoke up. “Zarthithy – she must stand trial. This opportunity is too great to pass up!” “Thurkis, getting off this ship is impossible. We’ll have to come up with a plan for tomorrow.” She tried to get up, but winced in pain. “I won’t let them kill you.” I looked into her eyes. “They won’t – you will.”

It was like the whole empire was there for the show. My mistress, barely able to stand, was in the center of the arena. We were in a giant stone sphere, with honeycombed apartments that covered every inch of the walls. The venue had to be at least the size of New Paris. Their shouts were deafening – I thought about the last Star Blade tournament I fought in. The blood was surging through my veins and my tentacles were wriggling. I rose up from below; as the light of the arena grew closer and closer, I gripped my battle staff tight. I could smell the blood from the previous battles, mixed with the tangy, saucy sweat. I looked down through the metal grate at the defeated pile of bones of those lucky enough to perish here. The pile grew smaller and smaller but beckoned me to remember the glory of my ancestors. Today I wanted so desperately to even the score, but I didn’t know how. I let the steel of my battle staff scrape against the stone walls as I ascended. As the platform clanked into place, the lights dimmed. My mistress was holding her star blade pointed at me. I could tell that she was in no condition to fight, or even stand. Her courage and strength were amazing. There were several compatriots surrounding us; were they there in the event

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that I wasn’t strong enough to administer justice? I recognized Moagphanth immediately. Now everything was clear; this was just another part of the war that began the moment I arrived in Coal Town. The announcement was broadcast in several alien languages, including Human: “Today, Janelle Lakeborne will stand trial for kidnapping Zarthithy. How do you plead human?” The shouts and cries shook the stadium. “I am guilty – of saving a life.” She let her blade fall to the sand. “Zarthithy, you have the right of death. If you give up this right, another shall kill her.” The judge’s voice rang through the air. (“Now Zarthithy!) The professor whispered in my ear. I dropped my battle staff. (“30 years ago, I was plucked from my tree by this human you have seen before me. I was cut off from my people. Something inside me died.”) My words were greeted by shouts and cheers. (“She robbed me of my cultural birthright. She killed something inside me!”) I let the crowd roar. (“But I now realize that it doesn’t matter. I was dead long before I was born.”) The crowd quieted. (“We have all been cut off from our cultural birthright! We are all dead! It’s just too painful to remember. Every Nethasian is reminded of this crime as they go through childhood. Why do we lose our forehead spines when we grow up? Because we come from them!”) I tapped my oracle and brought up a hologram of Emperor Vheshris. “Greetings. I am Vheshris, Emperor of the Nethasian Realm. I implore any sentient beings listening to this message to aid us. We are under attack-“ There were some howls of disapproval. Some were in shock. (“Go; go back to your birth trees. Squeeze that Nethasian Heart! Squeeze it harder than you’ve ever dared to!” Then come back and tell me what crime has been committed! Yes, remember the Yellow Ones and all they have to offer! Then we shall meet again and decide what justice really is!”) (“Brave words, Weakling. Are you ready to fight for them?”) Moagphanth stepped forward. (“Yes.”) “Thurkis!” My sensei tried to help, but she was held back. He had beaten me when I was hurting, he had beaten me when I was protecting Good Night, and he had even beaten me when I fully embraced my Nethasian instincts. I knew that I couldn’t beat him as a Star Blade or a Nethasian. I just had to choose how I wanted to die. My star blade slid off my arm and I pointed my sword at him. Maybe I couldn’t even the score, but I could at least honor my adoptive mother.

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I fought well as a star blade, but certainly not well enough. After a few minutes, Moagphanth landed several good strikes. I grew impatient and simply reverted to my primal nature, hoping to buy myself some time. As our tentacles were locked in a deadly grip around each other’s throat, I realized something that I should have known from the beginning. I don’t have to be a Star Blade or a Nethasian, I can be both. I broke free and started switching tactics. At first, it made almost no difference. However, over time, I could tell when I had to be a Star Blade and when I had to be a Nethasian. As the fight wore on, I knew I was on to something. It became easier and easier to avoid a blow and the ones I gave had much more of an impact. After an hour, I was still up and in good shape. My lesson had been learned and would be remembered; it was time to finish the fight and move on. With a few quick moves, I killed my opponent. Moagphanth, the Champion of The Cluster, fell face down in the sand. Their bloodlust satisfied and their curiosity aroused; the crowd gradually dispersed. The trial was over, I didn’t know if I was a hero, heretic, or a lunatic. Here, in the center of The Cluster, I was supposed to be a Nethasian. I certainly didn’t feel like one. I didn’t feel like a Star Blade either. It was exciting – and refreshing. “Now we’re even.” I addressed the darkness, knowing she was there. “Yes we are. I’m glad that you were ‘just being yourself’.” She stepped forward and smiled. “Was that the whole idea? Did you realize, at some point, that I just couldn’t be myself surrounded by humans?” “Yes. When you were being ‘re-educated’ I realized that some part of you belonged here.” “But I want to be somewhere where all of me feels at home.” She kissed me on the forehead. “That’s why God created the Universe.”

Bfk

© 2013 Benjamin F. Kaye

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