A cascade of vibrating beats poured from the walls of the dance club, and Mennosha closed his eyes and tilted his chin to the ceiling, enjoying the deep dark rhythms and the scratchy, glitchy layers of sound. Midya was dancing near him—very near, and he could feel her body’s warmth against his and the scent of her hair hit his senses like a sweet melody that matched the music. They were in the heart of Finn City on Zharius, in the Old Kepp Quarter. They had been in and out of several dance clubs that night, a routine that had been theirs every night since their affair had started. Mennosha could not get enough of her, and of the brilliant Finn City with all its glowing doors, the Kepp eateries emitting strange, wonderful smells, the glorious exciting music, the breathless sense of freedom.
Midya touched his hand and he responded, intertwining his fingers with her pale blue ones. “Come on,” she whispered. “It’s nearly dawn.”
He followed her, one hand on her slender hip, and she led him out of the club where they found her friends waiting in a vehicle called a camtan, a sort of hovering passenger ship used in the city. It reminded Mennosha of a Vingosi hoverbus, but much smaller and more maneuverable. Midya and five others, two Kepp women and three men, pulled him into the little vehicle, laughing as he clambered in. Once they were all inside, the camtan sped toward the edge of the city. Mennosha leaned his head back to gaze at the tall buildings, all sparkling with multicolored lights. Midya put her hand on his shoulder and leaned her head on it. He kissed her black hair. They were silent on the ride to the seashore.
The sky was beginning to grow lighter, turning from black to a shade of palest purple near the horizon. The city sprawled all the way down to the sand, and the sand was white and fine on their toes as they jumped from the camtan and kicked their shoes away. The Kepp ran down the long strand toward the crystal water, and Mennosha followed at a slower pace. The air was warm and fresh.
“Do you have your voices?” one of the men shouted.
The others called out in return, yes, yes, as they waded out into the gentle tide. Mennosha stopped just shy of the water and dropped into the sand, leaning back on one elbow. He watched Midya and the other five Kepp stop knee-deep in the water and bend down to take some of the ocean into the small glass orbs they carried. They stood in formation, the orbs of water cupped in their palms, their graceful bodies still and straight. Mennosha breathed in deep and held his breath, waiting.
Out of nothing, the choiring began. This was his favorite part of Kepp society. Their song was perfect harmony. It was more harmonious than music—it was six telepathic minds singing together, using the vibrations of glass and water to communicate their emotions. It rose and fell, a song and a conversation, for a long time. Mennosha’s eyes grew heavy as the sun rose steadily, and a breeze tumbled off the waves. He lay back in the sand. Some time later, he noticed Midya was lying next to him. He rolled over on his side to face her.
“Hello,” he murmured.
“Did you enjoy the choir?”
“It is the last time we will be able to choir so freely. The barrier will be activated in a few days.”
Mennosha’s brow crinkled.
“Did your brother discover anything new?”
“Yes, but no good news. They brought our request to the Zharon government but the Zharons say there’s nothing they can do. Once the sonic barrier is turned on, it will affect us all. Our songs will become dissonant. There is no escape from it.”
Her beautiful eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know how I will bear the silence. . .”
“The Zharon are pigs,” Mennosha said, firing up in response to her sorrow. “They care for nobody but themselves. I thought Keldan and the rest of the crew would understand, and refuse to help build the barrier. But instead, they’re all angry with me for refusing to help them. Well, Keldan’s not angry. But he knows the passengers need work, and we are a labor ship, so what can he do?”
“Shh, it’s alright. Our politics are not your problem.”
“Your pain is my problem.”
Midya smiled sadly and brushed a loose strand of Mennosha’s hair away from his face.
“Why do you tie your hair behind your head?” she asked.
“It’s more practical, I guess. More tidy.”
“Do you need to be practical now? And tidy, here with me?”
“No. That’s why I like it here.”
“I know. You believe in something more than only what is practical. You are like us. The Kepp, we believe in all we can imagine. All possibilities.”
“I see that about you.”
“I think there are some things you do not yet see. But maybe I can help you.”
She reached up and pulled his hair out of its band, and when it fell over his shoulder, she buried her fingers in it, examining its soft, golden strands. He leaned in very slowly, and kissed her. He did not have to be telepathic to know that her feelings were the same as his. After a moment he pulled back just a bit. Their noses were still touching.
“I wish I could choir with you,” he said in a whisper.
“That song would be so lovely.”
Mennosha closed his eyes. Soon the sonic barrier would go up, and the choiring of the Kepp—an ancient practice that had defined their culture for thousands of years—would be snuffed out. And for what? Paranoia. Mistrust. He let a low growl escape from his throat.
“How can they do this to you?”
“They fear us,” she said, tracing patterns on his shoulder with her slender fingers.
“They’re racist. Xenophobic. It’s not right.”
She shrugged. “Some of our people have done terrible things to the Zharon. They don’t know how to distinguish between us, so they punish us all.”
“There has to be a way to put the barrier up and protect themselves without destroying your culture. There has to be. They just aren’t looking hard enough.”
“Things may change. You never know. There are always possibilities.”
Mennosha gazed at her, marveling at her patience and wisdom. “I love you, Midya.”
His breath was suddenly gone. He had not meant to say it out loud.
“I love you too, Mennosha.”
On his walk back to The Fallingstar, Mennosha thought his heart might explode from happiness. He got to the border and showed his identification to the guard, who seemed suspicious that anyone should be so cheery so early in the morning. Mennosha descended the stairs on the other side of the barrier, humming quietly to himself, trying to remember the choir’s song. The Fallingstar was docked on the beach, on the Zharon side of the city, its huge bulk casting a long shadow on the sand. As he paced toward it he could see Keldan standing outside, giving directions to the work crew who were gathered around him. The group dissipated and the whole crowd of them came walking towards him, on their way to work. He passed through them like a fish swimming the wrong way in a stream. Most of them ignored him, though a few gave him dirty looks. Keldan greeted him as he approached.
“Good morning, Mennosha.”
The Captain’s eye glinted, and he smirked in a teasing way.
“Did you have a good time?”
“That same girl, or a different one?”
“There’s just the one.”
“Good. One is trouble enough.”
“She’s no trouble!”
“All women are trouble,” Keldan argued. “It’s a thing that never changes. Like gravity, or the cosmological constant.”
“Gravity changes, from planet to planet. Maybe the women do, too.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-two, Sir.”
Keldan laughed and shook his head. “Let’s talk again in fifteen years or so.”
Just then, Naleth came up to them and addressed the Captain. “Where do you want me today, Captain?”
“Same as yesterday, Naleth. Just patrol the barrier and make sure everyone’s observing safety protocols.”
“Right,” Naleth said. He turned and walked off across the sand at a quick pace. Keldan chuckled.
“I think your brother has found his true calling,” he joked.
Mennosha watched Naleth’s retreating figure, and all his joy evaporated. He suddenly felt very tired. He sensed Keldan’s eyes on him and kicked at the sand with his toe. The Captain seemed to always know what he was feeling.
“Everything alright between you and him?”
“I guess. He hasn’t spoken to me since we got here. That’s what he does when he’s not happy with me.”
“What’s his problem?”
“He’s not happy with my decision to refuse work, or with my open sympathy for the Kepp. I think most of the laborers on the ship agree with him.”
“You have a job, Mennosha. You’re a pilot. Since we’re docked, that means you get a vacation. For you, this assignment was always volunteer work. There’s no reason for you to help build the barrier if you don’t want to. And you can have sympathy for whomever you choose. It’s your business. Not theirs, and not your brother’s, and not even mine. Just yours.”
“Naleth would say I’m a tribe-traitor.”
“He’s entitled to his opinion.”
“Yes, and he’s the elder brother, so he speaks for my whole family, and. . .”
“Hey,” Keldan interrupted, putting his arm around Mennosha’s shoulder. “We’re not on Vingos, are we? Don’t let it spoil your fun. Or your sleep. You look like you need some.”
“Well, go on. Go dream about that pretty girl. And I’ll see you back on the bridge day after tomorrow.”
Mennosha got back to his bunk, stripped off his shirt and crashed onto his bed. He was asleep before his mind had time to trouble him. His sleep was dreamless and deep, which made the rude awakening four hours later all the more shocking. Rough hands were grabbing him, dragging him from his bed, shouting commands at him, wrenching his arms. His hands were soon tied, bound in some kind of chain. The blood was pounding in his ears. Two Zharon police guards were ushering him down the corridor of The Fallingstar. He was half dressed.
“What’s going on? Where are you taking me?”
They didn’t answer him.
“Hey, come on! Wait! What did I do?”
“Shut up! You’ll get answers soon enough.”
The Zharon guards looked basically like the Kepp, except thicker and swarthier of form, with a deeper blue pigment in their skin. Also, they were not telepathic. Their thin fingers were surprisingly strong; their grip hurt Mennosha’s arms, and he squirmed away from their touch. This was a mistake. Their hold on him tightened, and they became threatening.
“Try to escape, off-worlder. Just try it.”
“We’ll be happy to carry you to jail, if you don’t want to walk.”
Preferring to stay conscious, Mennosha complied and let them push and pull him along the corridor, through the link, into the loading bay, and then out into the bright sunlight. The reflection of the sun on the fine white sand hurt his eyes and he squinted. A group of bystanders slowly came into focus as his eyes adjusted. Keldan, San and Fedar, his fellow pilots, were standing near the open bay door, their faces full of concern and confusion.
“Captain!” Mennosha called.
“We’re right behind you,” Keldan called back.
“It’s alright, Mennosha,” Fedar said. “Just go with them and don’t struggle. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
Fedar knew what she was talking about, didn’t she? She was a security officer too. He relaxed a little, trying to obey her words. Then he was shoved headfirst into a police camtan and he lost sight of his crewmates. They crossed the strand and headed into the Zharon side of Finn City. The seat was small and cramped, and with his arms tied behind his back, Mennosha’s shoulders began to ache. Soon he was pulled from the car and up the steps of a large stone building with the word MAKTANA emblazoned over its imposing doors. Minutes later, he was pushed into a dark cell and heard a loud slam and a click as the door was shut and locked behind him. They’d forgotten to untie his hands. The floor was filthy. There was no bed, and a questionable-looking bucket stood overturned in the corner.
Mennosha’s hair was still out of its band, and several strands were caught in the sandpaper stubble on his face, and stuck to the corners of his mouth. At that moment, he would have given anything just for the ability to use his hands to brush his hair from his face. He rubbed his face on his shoulder, trying to dislodge the hair, and just created some annoying static. Trying to ignore the irritating, itching hairs on his face, and the growing ache in his shoulders and wrists, he wandered to the door and peered out. Two Zharon guards who had arrested him were standing nearby conferring with a third Zharon man—an older man with a big belly in a fine suit. The fat, well-dressed Zharon came near to his cell and opened a small hatch in the door so that he could speak through it.
“I am Vikos, Head Prosecutor for the Zharon state. You have been charged as complicit in the murder of Senator Tor and his family. You will wait here until your trial, which will begin tomorrow morning.”
“Murder? No. There’s been some mistake. I wasn’t involved in a murder!”
But the hatch had already been closed. Having delivered his message, Vikos was already walking away. Mennosha pressed his face to the small window in the door and watched the prosecutor and the guards disappear around a corner, leaving him completely alone. The silence that fell after they were gone was soon filled with the voice of fear. At first, he yelled in frustration, and kicked the door to drown it out, but eventually he was forced to stop due to sheer exhaustion. He sank down onto the least disgusting corner of floor, his arms aching so that it brought tears to his eyes.
Nobody came to visit Mennosha that night. Where was the Captain? Where was Naleth? He comforted himself with the idea that they would have been there had they been allowed to come, and with the knowledge that he was innocent. He knew the word on the side of the building. MAKTANA. It was the Zharon word for justice. But still he heard the voice of fear in his mind, for he knew that justice, like gravity and the faithfulness of women, was different from planet to planet.
It was dark. Pitch black, actually. Mennosha opened his eyes wide, searching the void for a glimmer of light. He stretched out his other senses and found a voice. It was a Midya’s voice.
“It’s over,” she said.
“What? No it’s not. What are you saying?”
“It’s over, Mennosha. You have to let go.”
With a coughing gasp, Mennosha woke up on the floor of the dirty jail cell and was jabbed from all sides with pain and confusion. The darkness of the prison was only slightly less black than the nightmare. A gnawing hunger in his belly reminded him he hadn’t eaten since the night before. Worst of all was the maddening thirst; his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, and as he pried it loose he had the sickening thought that all his organs were likewise stuck together. He longed to be submerged in the sea, permeated by it, shaken loose from himself by the waves.
As he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to manage the physical discomfort and crawling disgust, the details of his dream hit him again.
It had been so real—Midya’s voice had emerged from the dark of his mind with perfect clarity. His heart fluttered against his ribs as he thought of parting from her. The thought that she might not want him anymore was unendurable.
He told himself that it was just a dream. She loved him. He loved her. And he was innocent. But of course the Zharon would imprison an innocent man—it was so like them! Xenophobes. But what evidence could they possibly bring when there was none? He had never even met this Senator Tor, much less committed an act of violence against him. No. This would all be cleared up soon. And as for his subconscious doubts about his love, it was just fear. He and Midya had already talked about the future. She said she’d be willing to travel with him on The Fallingstar, but he had refused that idea. He didn’t want to take her away from her home. Now the biggest obstacle facing his happiness was Naleth. Mennosha had no idea how to tell his brother that he wanted to stay behind.
Over the next few hours, Mennosha drifted in and out of sleep. Just after the sun rose and a few small rays found their way into his cell, there was a sound outside the door, and then it was pushed open to admit Prosecutor Vikos. He entered the cell and stood facing Mennosha with his hands clasped behind his back and his belly protruding. When he spoke, his voice was as fat as his body.
“Your trial is about to begin, Mennosha. Are you ready? Do you have someone to defend you? Someone to plead your case?”
“I have no need of any defense, Vikos. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Ah, the guilty man’s protestations of innocence. Is there anything more poignant? He knows his guilt, and yet hides it from himself. Why? It is one of my favorite topics. In fact, I’ve just finished a paper on the subject. Perhaps you might indulge me by reading it someday, Mennosha? You’ll give me your thoughts? You should have plenty of time for reading when this is all over.”
Vikos smiled like a fond grandfather offering a toy to a child. Mennosha scowled and said nothing. Vikos stepped back and gestured to the doorway. Two guards were waiting there to usher Mennosha to the courtroom. They hauled him to his feet and led him down a hallway, walking on either side of him, and Vikos trailed behind, humming softly to himself.
The courtroom was ornate, full of carved benches and chairs and carvings on the walls. There was a round, domed ceiling inlaid with gold and silver, and rows of seats ascending the walls, making the room look like a funnel. Seated in a row of chairs to the right of the judge’s podium, Mennosha saw his fellow pilots—Keldan, Fedar and San—and his brother, Naleth. Mennosha searched the rest of the seats vainly for Midya. He knew she was not allowed on the Zharon side of the sonic barrier, but he had somehow expected to see her. The guards led Mennosha to the center of the room where a small red chair stood facing a similar golden chair. They untied his hands, which hung stiffly, half-numb at his sides. One of the guards directed him to sit in the red chair. To his left sat the Arbiter—a tall Zharon woman with tightly curled black hair. She looked down from a raised podium where she was seated in a blue chair.
“Now begins the case against Mennosha Jacobsen, of the planet Vingos, by the Zharon people,” the Arbiter began. “Mr. Jacobsen, you have been charged with the murder of Senator Tor and his family. You are seated in the red chair, which represents the blood of the innocent. What have you to say?”
“I am not guilty of anyone’s blood,” Mennosha said. His throat was so dry that the words were barely audible.
“The accused has denied his guilt. We will now hear witnesses. Prosecutor Vikos, you may begin when ready.”
“Thank you, Madam Arbiter. Flightmaster San, will you please sit in the golden chair, which represents the purity of true witness?”
San got up and walked slowly to the golden chair facing Mennosha in the center of the room. The Arbiter, on her blue chair, sat between them and she looked from one to another, and then gave her attention to Vikos, who paced around the two chairs like a jungle cat observing its captured prey before a feast.
“San, what is your job aboard The Fallingstar?”
“I’m the Flightmaster.”
“And what are the main duties of a Flightmaster?”
“To make sure that everything runs smoothly, and especially that the passengers have everything they need.”
“You must have a watchful eye, to perform such a job.”
“Kollimarians are generally known to possess keen eyesight.”
“Would it be fair to say that not much escapes your notice aboard The Fallingstar? Could one call you observant?”
“I am observant. As to how much escapes my notice, I have no way of knowing that.”
“Of course. Of course. Thank you, Flightmaster San. Now, how long have you known Mennosha?”
“He came aboard as our fourth pilot only a year ago.”
“What is the role of fourth pilot?”
“The Fallingstar needs four pilots to operate. Each pilot controls a different part of the ship. My role as second pilot is to control communications, life support systems and the artificial gravity systems. Mennosha’s station connects to engineering, primarily, and several secondary systems pertaining to engineering.”
“Would you call Mennosha trustworthy?”
“Would you call his engineering skills average? More than average?”
“Mennosha is an extraordinary engineer.”
San met Mennosha’s eyes and gave him a nod. Vikos continued.
“An extraordinary engineer. Well, that’s something special, isn’t it?” Vikos went to the Arbiter and she handed him a small parcel, which he brought to San. The Kollimarian took the parcel in his long, green fingers and examined it with his large, orange eyes.
“This device is a simple amplifier. It receives a signal and transmits that signal to people close by. Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“Yes. This is the same type of amplifier we use in our com system on The Fallingstar. It’s a spare part. We keep several in the hold.”
“From what you know of Mennosha’s skills, could he alter a device like this to, for example, increase its range or change the type of signal it picked up?”
“Absolutely,” San said, turning the amplifier around in his hands. “There’s nothing complex here. Mennosha would have no trouble altering this device.”
Vikos turned toward the crowd and gestured to the device in San’s hands.
“This device was found in the bedroom of Senator Tor three nights ago, the night he killed his two children, and then killed himself. We have reason to believe that this device was taken from The Fallingstar by Mennosha Jacobsen and altered to transmit a telepathic signal. The autopsy of Senator Tor revealed that his mind was in a telepathic trance when he died. We believe that Mennosha altered this device to transmit the thoughts of Kepp terrorists, and planted it in the home of the Senator. Evidence suggests that Mennosha has formed an allegiance with the Kepp and should no longer be treated by the court as an alien, but as one of them.”
San’s mouth fell open and his eyes stretched even wider than normal, their vertical pupils contracting to two thin lines in shock.
“Flightmaster San, where was Mennosha Jacobsen two nights ago?”
San blinked, glanced at Keldan, and then at Mennosha. Vikos pressed him for an answer.
“San? Where was Mennosha? Did he tell you where he was going?”
“No, he didn’t tell me.”
“But you do know.”
“I was told.”
“Captain Keldan. He told me Mennosha was going to visit a Kepp girl.”
“Ah,” Vikos said, gazing around at the seated crowd. “A Kepp girl. How nice. When did he return to the ship?”
San looked uncomfortable. He glanced at the Arbiter in the blue chair.
“Come now, Mr. San,” Vikos said. “You are the Flightmaster! You know all things pertaining to the passengers, the crew. You know when people are aboard and when they are not. When did Mennosha return to The Fallingstar three nights ago?”
“It was just after dawn. I remember because we spoke about the color of the sky. The pale purple reminds me of a flower that grows on Kollimar, and I told him so.”
“And you said that Mennosha was out that night with a Kepp girl?”
“That is what the Captain told me.”
“And you were outside the ship that morning. Looking at the sky.”
“Tell me. Which direction was Mennosha coming from that morning? Was he coming from the direction of the sonic barrier?”
San hesitated again, and blinked several times.
“San? Which direction was Mennosha Jacobsen coming from?”
“No. . . not from the barrier. He was coming from the city. From the Zharon side. I remember I thought it was strange because he usually comes up the beach, from the Kepp side of Finn City.”
“But on the morning in question, the morning of Senator Tor’s death, he was coming from the Zharon side?”
The crowd gasped and murmured. Mennosha frowned at San. He did not remember walking through the Zharon side of Finn City that night. San was mistaken. It might have been close to dawn, but it was still very dark at that time of morning. Vikos seemed to read Mennosha’s thoughts.
“Kollimarians have night vision, do they not, Mr. San?”
Mennosha’s heart sank.
“Yes. Yes, my people see very well. Even in the dark.”
“That’s all for now. You may leave the witness chair and return to your seat. Arbiter, I would like to ask Captain Keldan to replace Flightmaster San in the witness chair.”
The Arbiter nodded and Captain Keldan stood from his seat and strode to the golden chair. He sat, and glared up at Vikos. His dark brown eyes were flashing and his curved eyebrows were like clenched fists, determined to defy the prosecutor. Vikos stopped and stared down at Keldan, who immediately rose to the challenge.
“Well? Get on with your questions.”
“Ha! What a cast of characters we have today,” Vikos said, scratching his bearded chin and strolling languidly around the two chairs, clearly at ease, taking his time with the kill. “The tragic young pilot, tempted by love and beauty into committing a terrible crime. The loyal and efficient Flightmaster, frightened by the evidence, puzzled by the possibility of guilt in his crewmate. And now the brave leader, ready to defend his friend at all costs.”
“You are trying to plant conclusions in our minds, Prosecutor,” the Arbiter warned. “Stick to the facts.”
“Yes, Madam, I will. Forgive me for getting carried away in the narrative. Captain Keldan, then. What does Mennosha think of the Zharon, Captain?”
“I have no idea what Mennosha thinks. And I’m not your Captain.”
“Fine, fine. Shall I call you Keldan? Yes. So, you’ve never spoken on the subject?”
“Not that I can recall.”
“Mennosha declined to work on the sonic barrier with the rest of your labor passengers. Do you know why?”
“Mennosha is a pilot. He has a job. He doesn’t need the money, and I saw no call to order him to work. He is on vacation, and has been as long as we’ve been on Zharius.”
“So, his refusal to work on the sonic barrier was simply a matter of needing some time off?”
“I assume so. It was his choice. His business.”
“Arbiter, please queue up Exhibit B for the courtroom.”
The Arbiter gestured to a official standing nearby, and the man nodded in return, and pressed a few buttons on a nearby computer screen.
“What you are about to hear was taken from The Fallingstar’s computer. It is a conversation between Captain Keldan and his pilot, Mennosha, about two dayspans ago. I believe they were on the bridge of the ship. Go ahead and play the recording.”
A crackling sound. Then Mennosha heard his own voice piped through the courtroom, and the Captain’s voice, answering it.
…I can’t agree, Keldan. I’m sorry. That sonic barrier they’re building is wrong. The Zharon are only thinking about themselves. They are not considering what it will do to the Kepp.
….Mennosha, I think you’re wrong about the Zharon. They have good reasons for what they’re doing.
….There has been a great deal of telepathic violence on this planet. The Zharon have been continually victimized by it for decades. They’ve tried to stop it by other means but they’ve been unsuccessful. There’s no way for them to tell which Kepp are guilty and which are not, so they have decided to separate entirely from the Kepp, for the sake of protecting themselves. And I don’t blame them.
….So the actions of a few give them an excuse to punish the whole race?
….I don’t think they want to punish them, really… but what choice do they have?
….You’re only hearing the Zharon side. The Zharon are xenophobes. All the Kepp say so. They say there really hasn’t been as much violence as reported, and that most of what has been reported can be explained by something other than telepathic interference! It’s just paranoia, and racism, and false news reports.
….Alright, I hear you. What I don’t understand is why you’re so invested. This isn’t your world.
….And I don’t understand how you can be part of building that barrier. This isn’t your world either, but that barrier is going to harm an entire race, an entire society. Don’t you know what it’s doing to the Kepp? It’s making it impossible for them to choir, to connect with each other on a spiritual level. It’s taking away something they need, and destroying something beautiful and unique about their culture.
….I know, I know. It’s a bad situation. But I don’t see what other solution there is. The Zharon have a right to defend their people from what they consider to be a threat. Anyway, the barrier’s nearly finished. We’ll be leaving soon.
There was a pause, and then Mennosha’s voice came through again.
….Actually, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you, Captain. I love Midya and I’ve decided to stay here with her. And I’ll do everything I can to defend her, and the Kepp, because I’ll be one of them. Because I am one of them.
A ripple of whispered conversation spread through the crowd as the recording ended. Then, from somewhere behind him, Mennosha heard a door slam shut. He turned to look and saw that Naleth’s chair was empty.
Vikos glanced up as Naleth left the courtroom, and his eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Is it time already? Very well then, the court will take a short recess. Guard!”
The guard stepped over toward Vikos and they began to speak in hushed tones. From his seat in the red chair, Mennosha watched them, but all his thoughts were on his brother. He had not meant for Naleth to find out about this way about his plans to stay on Zharius.
A sick, cold feeling in his gut reminded him of the promise he had made to Naleth—and to Equus, their god, and to their whole community back on Vingos—to travel as Naleth’s companion as he did what Equus required of him. He remembered the tears in his sister-in-law’s eyes, and her request that he protect Naleth and bring him home to her. And now he was going to abandon that promise just because he had fallen in love? He knew he should not think of it as only a duty—it was supposed to be a joy to serve and protect one who was carrying the burdens of Equus. But he wanted Midya, and did not know how to refuse that desire.
Vikos was gesturing to him, and giving the guard instructions. Mennosha’s hands were tied again, and he was guided from the courtroom, back into the hallway. They took a few turns and ended up in a sterile examination bay. Two Zharon doctors were present, and Naleth was there too, wearing a lab coat and gloves. He approached Mennosha and stood next to him, speaking in quiet tones.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes. Tired and sore, but nothing worse than that.”
“Everything’s going to be alright.”
Mennosha studied Naleth’s face.
“You aren’t mad?”
Mennosha had expected to meet anger, or petulant scolding… or at the very least, wounded silence. This calm compassion was unsettling. He tested it.
“I thought you left the courtroom because of the recording.”
“We can talk about that later. After you are safely back on board The Fallingstar.”
A protest emerged from Mennosha’s heart, but it got caught in his throat, and he just nodded. One of the Zharon doctors, a stout woman with a long, black braid and dark blue skin, walked over and put a gentle hand on Mennosha’s arm. “Come this way, please.”
The examination turned out to be a sort of brain scan. It turned out Naleth was there to advise the Zharon on Vingosi physiology. He and the two Zharon doctors conferred for several minutes after the scans were taken, and then the female doctor left the medical room with a copy of the scans under her arm. A few minutes later, the guard reappeared to take Mennosha back to the courtroom. Another trip down the long hallway, and soon Mennosha was reseated in the red chair. The Arbiter called for silence and Vikos stood.
“Madam Arbiter, may I resume?”
The Arbiter placed a pair of round, golden spectacles on her nose and peered over them at Vikos. Her half-closed eyes betrayed the ironic attitude an intelligent mind will eventually take towards protocol after years of observation.
“At your leisure, Head Prosecutor.”
Vikos now asked Fedar to sit in the golden chair. She complied and met Mennosha’s eyes with her steady, closed gaze. She was a quiet person, and very reserved. In general, Mennosha found he could easily get along with other people, and gain their trust, but even after a year of working side by side with Fedar he had failed to make any connection with her. Keldan told him not to worry about it, that she was “just like that with everyone”—but it still bothered him.
Vikos positioned his bulk between the two chairs and regarded the witness with a condescending smile. “Fedar Cygnus. Of the cult of Cygnus. Originally from the planet Vingos. You are third pilot on The Fallingstar, and responsible for security, as well as personnel records. Is that correct?”
“Tell me what you think about Mennosha Jacobsen.”
“What specifically would you like to know, sir?”
“Anything. What is your impression of him?”
“He is Vingosi, and he is of the cult of Equus. He is twenty-two years old, and. . .”
“Yes, yes, we know all these things already, Miss Fedar. I want to know your personal opinion of him.”
“How is that relevant to this court, sir?”
“A good question, Prosecutor,” said the Arbiter.
“If you will permit me this indulgence, Madam Arbiter, I will use it to make my point.”
“Your opinion of Mennosha, Fedar.”
“As a security officer, I have often come into contact with violent people. I have become. . . able to recognize the signs of violence in a person. My opinion is that Mennosha could not have committed a murder. He is not the type.”
“That is an interesting observation, my dear, but not really what I wanted. I don’t need your opinion of him as a security officer. I want your opinion of him as a woman. Is he handsome?”
Fedar’s face flushed, but not with embarrassment. Mennosha had noticed this look on her face before, usually right before she shot someone. Having been divested of her gun before entering the court, she simply glared at Vikos and remained silent.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the old man said, with a chuckle. “But looks aren’t everything, are they? A woman has to feel she can trust a man. That’s he’s not going to betray her or treat her badly. There’s a certain appeal to having a man who is say, innocent. Young and inexperienced. Would you say that Mennosha is this sort of man? Or the other sort?”
“Again sir, he is my fellow pilot. I do not know him well enough on that level to give you a good answer.”
“Take a guess. What does your woman’s intuition tell you?”
“I cannot and will not guess at a man’s character. As a colleague, he has never given me cause to distrust him. But I cannot speak to his character beyond what I have seen at the helm of The Fallingstar.”
“You want me to believe you have never spoken to Mennosha at any other time? Never met in the dining hall? Or in some other quiet corner of the ship?”
Fedar stood so quickly that the golden chair fell over backward. Her face had gone totally pale and for a moment, Mennosha thought she might actually strike the old man.
“Enough, Vikos, you are getting nowhere with this,” the Arbiter said, an irritated tone creeping into her stolid voice. Vikos inclined his head toward the Arbiter.
“Miss Fedar, the court excuses you. Please return to your seat.”
With what seemed like a giant effort, Fedar managed to regain her chair next to Keldan without kicking anything over.
“Bring out my final witness,” Vikos said, in a voice that sounded almost bored. From a room somewhere behind the Arbiter’s podium, the guard brought in a beautiful Kepp girl with long, dark hair. He righted the golden chair and pushed her into it. Mennosha’s stomach dropped when he saw Midya’s face, but he tried very hard not to let it show that he recognized her. He did not want to risk implicating Midya in the crime he had allegedly committed.
“Midya, do you know this man?”
“Yes, sir. He is Mennosha, an alien. He has spent time with me and my friends on several occasions since their ship landed here.”
“Mennosha, do you know Midya?”
“I know her.”
“Arbiter, would you please read this woman’s prior charges to the court?”
An icy chill slid down Mennosha’s back as the Arbiter read a list of eight separate instances of telepathic violence in which Midya had been either charged or implicated. Mennosha studied her sweet, gentle face as the charges were read, she stared straight ahead not looking at anyone, and Vikos stared at her. After the Arbiter finished reading, they all sat there in silence, in a grim stalemate. Eventually, Vikos broke the silence.
“What have you to say for yourself?”
“None of those charges mean anything,” Midya said, with a proud tilt of her chin. “I was never convicted of any of them, because there was no evidence. And the same will be true today. As always, you have no proof—just your racist assumption that any unsolved mystery or strange behavior on the part of the Zharon must automatically be due to “telepathic violence” on the part of the Kepp.”
Wasn’t this what she had been telling him for the last six dayspans? This trial was just more proof of the Zharons’ racial hatred! Mennosha tried to catch Midya’s eye, to reassure her in some unspoken way that he trusted and believed her, but she was focused on the Prosecutor.
“Whether or not the Zharon are racist is a matter for much debate,” Vikos said, shaking his head so that his cheeks wobbled. And you are right, all the evidence for my previous accusations was circumstantial. But this time, I have proof. Madam Arbiter, allow me to build my case. This court has established that Senator Tor was killed when a telepathic signal amplified by a device which is Vingosi in origin overwhelmed his mind and led him to kill his own two children and then himself.”
Midya rolled her eyes. “He might have done that anyway,” she said. “People kill without the help of telepathy.”
“Oh yes. Very true. Things like this are known to happen. Tragic things. But not this time. We have testimony from Flightmaster San that the aforementioned device originated on The Fallingstar, the ship where Mennosha Jacobsen lives and works. And, it was modified to transmit a telepathic signal. Furthermore, Mennosha has no alibi for the time of the murder, except that his shipmate witnessed him returning from the Zharon side of Finn City within an hour of Senator Tor’s death.”
Midya gave Mennosha a look of horror and pity. “Mennosha. . . what have you done?”
Vikos widened his eyes at her, and then threw his head back and laughed.
“Ah Midya. You’re very clever, my girl. You might have pulled it off. Mennosha is a good man, according to the testimony of his shipmates. It is true that any number of terrorists could have recruited the good Mr. Jacobsen, and used stories of Zharon xenophobia and cruelty to elicit his pity. But turn him into a murderer? Unlikely. Still, any man’s friends may think him good, and be wrong. May we see Exhibit C, please Madam Arbiter?”
A holographic image was projected into the air above the Arbiter’s podium. It was the scan of Mennosha’s brain. There were two scans, actually, side by side. One was normal and the other showed spidery red lines throughout. Mennosha frowned up at the scans, puzzled by what he was seeing.
“As you may not know, Midya, the Vingosi brain is quite different from the Zharon brain. The Zharon and the Kepp are similar enough that a telepathic signal or manipulation imposed upon the brain of a Zharon by the Kepp is virtually indistinguishable from normal electrochemical activity in the brain of the Zharon in question. However, we learned from the Fallingstar’s medic that most alien telepathic signals can be detected in the Vingosi brain.”
There was an audible gasp from several of the Zharon in the crowd. Vikos nodded and continued.
“Naleth provided us with this brain scan on the left—this is the scan from Mennosha’s latest physical examination, two months ago according to the Vingosi calendar (this would be about three Zharian rotations). On the right, we have a scan taken earlier today. As you see, Mennosha’s mind is almost entirely under the influence of a powerful telepath. Now, we know that this level of control can only be executed by someone close to the victim—a close friend, or family member, or . . . ”
Vikos strode to the court attendant and grabbed the recording device from his hand. He shoved it under Midya’s nose and pressed the button, allowing Mennosha’s voice to once again echo through the courtroom.
….I’ve been meaning to tell you, Captain. I love Midya and I’ve decided to stay here with her. And I’ll do everything I can to defend her, and the Kepp, because I’ll be one of them. Because I am one of them.
“Love,” Vikos purred. “It opens the mind, does it not?”
Midya took a deep breath and narrowed her black eyes at Mennosha.
“This is what I cannot stand about non-telepaths. They don’t know how to keep their minds—or their mouths—shut.”
“According to Zharon law, Madam Arbiter, I now have enough for a conviction,” Vikos said, his voice and face glowing with triumph. “And now, Midya, I will tell you a story, and you will correct me if I am wrong in any of the particulars. When you met Mennosha, you sensed his attraction to you, and knowing he was free to cross the sonic barrier at will, you saw an opportunity. You then found out his skill as an engineer, and formed your plan. Using your love to bait him and gain his trust, you slowly introduced telepathic control over him until you were able to put him into a trance. Under your influence, you led him to The Fallingstar where he stole this device, and used his considerable skill to alter it to pick up the frequency of your thoughts. You led him to the house of Senator Tor, where he hid this device in the trees outside the Senator’s bedroom. You then transmitted your thoughts through the device, and influenced Senator Tor toward his death.”
Midya was silent for a moment and then took a large breath and exhaled slowly. “I do not regret what I have done. I did it for my people. Senator Tor was the man who instigated the plan for the sonic barrier, and an evil Zharon pig. The details of your story are mostly correct, except that I did not use love to bait this alien. Sex was more than enough to gain his allegiance.”
“No,” Mennosha said, shaking his head. “I don’t believe it. This is absurd. You love me. I know you do!”
She narrowed her eyes again. “How typical. You actually think I love you just because I said so? Because I gave you my body, you supposed you had my soul also? What arrogance. How could I ever love such a senseless creature?”
A kind of numbness washed over Mennosha as he looked at her. Her words were not making sense. Or, they were making too much sense. Either way, he was speechless.
The Arbiter stood from her blue chair and removed her spectacles.
“This court is adjourned while I retreat to my room to consider the sentence.”
“Take her away,” Vikos said and the guards led Midya out of the courtroom. She did not glance back at him, but Mennosha watched her until she was out of reach, mesmerized by the sight of her long dark hair cascading down her back, shining like the ocean under a purple dawn.
The sonic barrier looked like any other wall—high and flat, with smooth sides. At its top was a walkway, lined with a double railing at elbow and knee height. Mennosha sat with his legs dangling down the Kepp side of the barrier and his arms resting on the shorter rail. The ceremony to activate the barrier was due to begin in less than one Vingosi hour, and most of the crew of The Fallingstar was milling around in the crowd of Zharon waiting for the proceedings to begin. In the sea of blue faces, Mennosha spotted Captain Keldan leaning on the railing in the near distance, and gesturing buoyantly to San, who stood near him in his usual silent, straight posture.
Far below, Finn City was going through its sleepy daytime routine, waiting for the glittering night. To his left were the white sea strand and the beautiful churning ocean. The wind swept up the wall and toyed with his hair, secure once more in its ponytail. Soon the sonic barrier would be activated, and it would begin vibrating with sound waves undetectable to his ears, but disruptive enough to keep the thoughts of the Kepp from crossing over into Zharon territory. But for now, the rush of the sea was the only thing Mennosha could perceive.
“May I join you?”
He looked up, startled. An old Kepp man was standing there, smiling down at him. The man was very thin, bald, and missing a few teeth, and his blue skin was wrinkled, but his black eyes were kind and gentle. Mennosha looked away. He wanted to accept, to be kind and forgiving, but the sting of betrayal and of his own stupidity were still very fresh.
“I will join you,” the old man confirmed. He sat.
“Why are you here, pekeno?” Mennosha said, using the polite word for an older man, in Kepp culture. Midya had taught him this word, and many others. Memories kept coming back to him; things she said, or did that seemed impossible next to reality. She was a killer. She had killed a man and two children, and she’d used him to do it.
“Your thoughts are terrible, my son,” the old man said.
“Don’t read my mind,” Mennosha snapped, and then: “Forgive me, pekeno. I know it comes naturally.”
“You are not the one who needs to be forgiven. We have wronged you. Please accept my apology for my people. Not all Kepp hate the Zharon. Most of us do not hate anyone. We want only peace.”
“Do you know me?”
“I know Midya. I am her father.”
Mennosha turned, startled, and stared in the old man’s eyes, which were full of grief.
“When I learned of her shameful and violent behavior, I told myself I would not rest until I sought you out, to offer you the profound and humble apology of my heart. She is wild, a stubborn and unhappy girl. Filled with anger. I have failed as her father. I have failed.”
The old man’s head drooped and Mennosha’s tender heart moved him to offer some kind of condolence, but he could find no word or action to fit the situation. Midya’s father smiled, showing the gaps in his teeth.
“Thank you, my son. I hear your sympathy and I am honored.”
“That is what I loved about your daughter, pekeno. What I love about all the Kepp. Their ability to understand so easily what I feel. I have always been. . . uneasy with communicating what I truly think.”
“Many people from non-telepathic races experience what you describe. When you speak to me, half the meaning of what you say depends on your voice, but the other half depends on my ear. And when the voice’s meaning does not line up with the ear’s desire, there is dissonance. Some, like you, try at all costs to avoid that dissonance, but because you cannot control the ears of others, you allow your own voices to be silenced.”
“Yes. That is it exactly.”
“You think of one who is especially dissonant to you. A brother?”
“It is perhaps good he cannot read your mind, and so find that you long to be anywhere but in his presence. Is it not so?”
“I do love him.”
“But he confines you. With expectations.”
Mennosha leaned his chin on the railing and sighed wearily. “He means well. But it’s like you said: his desires make it impossible for him to hear me. I thought I had found a way out. I thought I’d found harmony, here.”
“On this disharmonious world?”
“Maybe it will sound strange after what happened, but I love this world. And if there is disharmony, I believe it is the fault of the Zharon.”
“You harbor anger towards them still? You still care for the Kepp, even after Midya’s lies?”
“Yes. I will never forget the beauty I heard here. I’m angry at the Zharon because they have taken away your singing.”
“You must remember that it was the Kepp, my people, who began the conflict. There is an element in our culture that believes telepath to be superior to non-telepath. That element is bent on the elimination of the Zharon. They do not speak for all of us, but their voices carry. The Zharon are simply doing what they must.”
“The innocent Kepp should not be punished for the crimes of their guilty brothers and sisters.”
“You are correct to say so,” said the old man. “But unfortunately it changes nothing. The Zharon government will not allow for the possibility of more deaths. And I believe they are right in what they do. When set against the blood of their children, our songs mean very little.”
“But even with the sonic barrier up, Midya found a way—through me! And those Kepp who wish to harm the Zharon will continue to be inventive. They will find new ways to do damage. Only the innocent among you will suffer. Only the good respect barriers, pekeno.”
“That is the way it is on every world. So? What do we do? Build barriers inside ourselves as well? No. We must allow goodness and compassion to live unfettered in our hearts.”
He reached over and pressed his blue fingers into Mennosha’s chest.
“Here. Here is where harmony must be. Do you understand?”
Mennosha looked at the old Kepp man and communicated that he did. The old Kepp beamed toothlessly and placed his wizened blue hand on Mennosha’s shoulder. He got to his feet, staggering a little, and Mennosha jumped up to help him. The two walked arm in arm to the end of the barrier, and stopped near the guard house. A Zharon guard met them outside and addressed Midya’s father.
“You should be leaving now. The sonic barrier will be activated soon, and it will be unpleasant for you to be standing near it.”
The old Kepp thanked the Zharon guard and extended his palm to Mennosha, who touched it with his own. As Midya’s father headed down the stairs toward his home, Mennosha turned and headed back to The Fallingstar.
When Captain Keldan returned to the ship, Mennosha was already on the bridge, standing at his station as third pilot. All the systems had been tuned and were ready for takeoff.
“Well,” Keldan said, clapping his hands together. “Where are we going now?”
San and Fedar entered the bridge and took their stations. “Heading, Captain?” San asked.
“I have no idea. Bring up the star chart and let’s pick somewhere interesting.”
San brought a holographic navigation chart up and let it spin in the air amidst the four stations. All four pilots gazed at it. A red dot, flashing, showed them their current location on Zharius.
“How about this sector?” San said, pointing to a cluster of star systems about twenty light years from their present location.
“At least four habitable industrial worlds.”
“Let’s head in that direction,” Keldan said.
“Engines on full,” Mennosha reported, starting the takeoff process. Moments later, they lifted into the air and roared through the atmosphere. In the bridge viewport, the dim purple atmosphere of Zharius slowly faded into the distance and vanished. Mennosha felt a pang of sadness and cleared his throat, focusing again on the star chart, watching the ship’s trajectory. That was when he noticed it—a small flare coming from the extreme outer edge of the chart. The flare grew and grew and soon eclipsed the star chart like a huge white sun.
“Captain!” Mennosha warned.
An image appeared, replacing the bright sun. A wide grin set in a huge head atop brawny shoulders.
“Ha! Ha ha!” the head bellowed.
The four pilots looked at one another, stunned.
“San, shut down the projector!”
“I can’t, Captain, he’s using some kind of interfering signal. It’s taken over our com system.”
The giant laughing head looked around at them and spoke.
“I wish to speak to Captain Keldan!”
“That’s me. Who are you, friend?”
“I am Vantoon, King of the Horgalath. I am in need.”
“What exactly are you building, King Vantoon?”
“We need assistance, Captain! There is a race we call The Locust. They come from beyond this galaxy. We have heard rumors of their approach, and since our noble planet stands at the galaxy’s gate, we will be first to greet them. Our communications and surveillance systems are formidable—we know much about The Locust. But we are peaceful. We do not have weapons advanced enough to protect ourselves against them. You are an advanced race with formidable technology! Will you help us?”
Keldan stalled. “What will you pay? We have several other opportunities at the moment, and I must be sure that it will be worth our while.”
“Ha ha ha!” boomed Vantoon. “You are shrewd, Captain. I like you. Horgus is a wealthy world. I can pay you ten thousand Fal coins. . . each.”
Mennosha’s mouth dropped open involuntarily.
“King Vantoon. . . there are over two hundred workers aboard The Fallingstar. . .”
“It is a trifle, Captain Keldan. We must have a defense, and for that we must have help from outsiders. Will you come?”
“Vantoon, we are honored by your offer. Will you take offense if I confer with my officers for a moment before answering you?”
“No, of course not! Am I an eggling, that I should feel offense at every small matter? The Horgalath are powerful and full of good will. I will wait.”
The huge head turned around and Vantoon actually placed his gigantic hands over his ears. San’s eyes grew wide, and the other three suppressed laughter.
“I like this King Vantoon, Captain,” Mennosha said.
“I’m not sure about his proposal,” San said. “Building weapons? How can we be sure it’s ethical? What if these “Locust” aliens have a legitimate cause to attack? What if the Horgalath are the aggressors?”
“Vantoon didn’t say war was certain,” the Captain mused. “Only that they want to be ready to defend themselves against The Locust, should they be hostile.”
“The name “Locust” certainly doesn’t conjur up happy feelings,” Mennosha said. “I wonder why the Horgalath call them that.”
“Yes, I thought the same. This conflict may be more than we can swallow.”
“But Captain! Ten thousand Fal coins each!” Fedar exclaimed, lowering her voice to a loud whisper.
Keldan nodded and raised his eyebrows. “I could buy new escape pods. Maybe we can tell Vantoon we are willing to help, provided that we can back out of the agreement if we deem necessary. And provided that we are not required to fight in their war, should it come.”
“I would like to do some research on this world before we agree, Captain,” San said.
Keldan nodded and San began to quickly scan the database for information about Horgus and the Horgalath. A few silent moments went by. Finally San reported his findings.
“A summary of a very few minutes research, Captain. . . I wish I had more time. . . but I can tell you this is not a culture we should cross. They are friendly, but they have strict codes of honor. I do not think they would look kindly on a broken contract.”
“Captain Keldan, are you finished?” Vantoon shouted, his hands still over his ears.
The King was still waiting. He had not heard Keldan’s reply.
“Ah! Ha ha!” the King laughed, taking his hands away from his ears and turning to face them again. “Your voice is strong, Captain! We can speak to each other like brothers!”
Keldan smiled up at the Horgalath king, liking him more each minute.
“Captain,” San whispered, coming to Keldan’s side. Keldan leaned in and spoke quietly to San.
“Don’t worry, San. I’m sure it will be alright . . .”
San opened his mouth to speak but Keldan had already made up his mind.
“King Vantoon, we will accept your agreement. Ten thousand Fal coins—each—in return for all the help you need creating a defense against these aliens. We are on route to Horgus now, and will notify you of our expected arrival time when we get closer to your world.”
“Excellent!” Vantoon bellowed. “I am glad, Captain! We will make preparation for your arrival.”
The holographic face disappeared and was replaced by the star chart, which now looked oddly boring and commonplace. San turned to Keldan, and gave him a stern look. “Captain, I need to point out again that a contract with this people is a risk. We will not be able to get out easily. And I thought you were going to mention a few provisions to our agreement?”
“I thought better of it. As you said, this is an honor-based culture. We can hash out details of the contract after we get there. They will be less willing to refuse us if we meet them in person.”
“That’s an assumption.”
“I’m trusting my gut this time, San.”
San’s eyelids lowered to half mast.
“This time, Captain?”
“Ha ha ha!” Captain Keldan laughed, imitating King Vantoon. “Mennosha! Full speed to Planet Horgus. Ha ha!”
Mennosha smiled for the first time in a dayspan. He pushed a series of buttons on his console, and sent The Fallingstar hurtling through space towards the edge of the galaxy.