Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Circle of Truth                                   



027-1106, aboard the Silver Dawn, in hyperspace between Karakesh and Kiewa

- from the personal journal of Baronet Atopia Kesslering

So much for my keeping an up-to-date journal – nearly a full cycle has elapsed since my last entry!  Oh well, might as well get current on what’s been going on.  After spending a quiet couple of days docked at Upa, we jumped to Mologa.  It is a very nice world for being low technology.  I picked up a wonderful Mologan tea set while Baron Harper found us some cargo and passengers to haul onward to Karakesh.  Turns out that So-Yan, the wife of planetary leader J’Ahn, makes the plain but perfect white porcelain cups, saucers and teapot by hand.  I’ll have to be careful about my habit of collecting things – there’s only so much room aboard a merchant starship, after all.

We arrived in the Karakesh system on 020-1106 and spent a day at the gas giant skimming fuel.  I don’t like the process very much, even if it does save me money in the long run.  I felt so horribly exposed and vulnerable, dwarfed to near insignificance by the looming curve of the Jovian world as we plunged into the upper layers of its atmosphere.  The Silver Dawn was so desperately hungry for hydrogen that it took Valo three shuddering, screaming passes to top off her fuel tanks.

And during each pass, I white-knuckled the armrests of my acceleration couch as my ship bucked, creaked and moaned in protest.  I was shaking so badly by the time we finished the last pass that I hit up Baron Harper for a mild tranquilizer and went to bed until the shakes went away, then caught up on my sleep while the ship made the normal-space transit to our destination.

We touched down on the barren and wind-swept expanse of granite that passed for the Sirocco City Starport on 022-1106.  A large group of locals came out to off-load the ship using a steam tractor and old-fashioned teamwork to get the cargo containers over to the railhead.  I paid them and logged it as a berthing fee, since it was a Class E port.

Shortly after the loaders were walking away with their pay, the Imperial Liaison dropped by to invite Baron Harper and me to dinner.  Sir Onnab Sarak isn’t the stereotypical rich noble, but he had a reputation for setting an excellent table.  I would find out during dinner that he owned a significant percentage of the planet’s hydroponic farms.  “We can’t feed the hundred-plus million people here by depending on Imperial humanitarian food aid and water import subsidies,” he said.  “But, I can see the day coming when, with proper management of our meager resources, no Karakeshan will hunger or thirst.”

Turns out that Sir Onnab had an ulterior motive for the dinner invite.  “There is an outbreak of Globiovirus Gamma on Kiewa,” he said.

“How bad?” asked Harper.

“Thirty-thousand cases at the time the Imperial relief mission sent me the message eight days ago,” replied the knight.

Harper whistled and shook his head.  “Double-G is so contagious that it’s probably a hundred-thousand cases by now.”

“Exactly,” replied Onnab.  “At my recommendation, the planetary parliament has seen fit to authorize a shipment of forty tons of sulfonamide at no charge.  The local populace took up a collection to reimburse the mining company for the cost of excavation and rail transport to the starport.  I personally am kicking in one-hundred thousand credits to get the shipment to Kiewa.  Can I count on you to get it there as quickly as possible?”

Of course, I said yes.  Onnab added that it would take three days for the shipment to be loaded and ride the rails to the starport.  I agreed to wait for the shipment and excused myself to relay the situation to the crew via my commlink.  I authorized a thirty-six hour liberty for whoever wanted it, effective immediately.  “Don’t party too hardy,” I cautioned, “because we’ll be hell bent for Kiewa once the shipment gets loaded.”

I spent much of the rest of the evening enjoying some of Sir Onnab’s planetary vintage wine while playing a spirited match of Sobari with our host and Harper.  He had an exquisite set of pieces for the game that had been carved from local stone.  He was also an excellent player and a very good loser.  Between the two of us, poor Harper never had a chance.

My smugness lasted until the next morning.  By that time, the buzz from the wine had worn off and I was fairly sure that something in the local food wasn’t agreeing with my anatomy.  To top it all off, Tabitha hadn’t made it back to the ship.  When Sir Onnab showed up at the airlock with a dour expression, I assumed the worst.

Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad.  Tabitha had run afoul of the local law and was cooling her heels in what passed for a jail in Sirocco City.  “A local man, Oran Mirani, is pressing charges,” explained Sir Onnab over cups of coffee in the ship’s galley.  “He has accused her of telling him a falsehood.”

It took a few seconds to process that.  “She… lied to him?” I asked.

Sir Onnab nodded.  “Here on Karakesh, lying is a very serious charge.  If Ms. Nole is found guilty by the Magistrate, the typical sentence is a public flogging, a severe monetary penalty that includes compensation to the victim and the wearing of the Token of Shame for a planetary year.  She would also not be permitted to communicate with anyone for as long as she wears the token.”

It still hadn’t quite hit home.  “For lying to someone,” I said.

The knight showed me a grim smile.  “Unlike other parts of the Imperium,” he said, “truth is held in great esteem on Karakesh.  Complete honesty eliminates many of the problems that lead to violence, allows people who are suffering to be helped and permits a society to act in the best interests of all its citizens.  Karakeshans have embraced this ideal wholly and it has allowed them to thrive on a world that would offer very little in any other case.”

“Planetary philosophy aside,” I said, “what happens to Tabitha next?”

“She is to be arraigned at midday in the court stone,” he replied.  “I offer my services as her advocate, but since both you and Harper outrank me, you may choose to represent her instead.”

“I’m her captain,” I said as I stood up, “so thank you for offering, but she’s a member of my crew.  That makes defending her my job.”

So far as jails go, the one in Sirocco City is fairly nice.  Tabitha’s “cell” more resembled a one bedroom flat with a lack of windows and the lock on the wrong side of the door.  She looked like she hadn’t slept.  The realization of how much trouble she was in had seeped through the mask of irritated frustration she’d been wearing.  As soon as Harper and I were alone with her, what was left of her self-control collapsed.  It took several minutes before she could take a breath, wipe her eyes and tell us what happened.

>> TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO FILE 023-1106.0003 <<
TABITHA: I decided to have some fun last night – you know, hop a few bars, take a stroll in the night air, maybe find a fine young man to spend the night with – things like that.  Turns out I did all of it, including the young man thing.

Oran was funny, witty, pleasant on the eyes, quite… um, talented when things went horizontal.  I mean, I don’t normally tumble for a guy on the first meeting, but everything went so very well, you know?  I rented a room in a hotel with a crescent moon surrounded by hearts and stars, and we got busy – more than once, in fact.

As I was cleaning up and getting ready to go, he asked me to marry him.  I laughed.  I thought he was kidding, you know, making a joke.  It took me a moment to realize that he was serious.  So, I explained to him that I have my own life aboard the Silver Dawn, and intended to remain single for many more years, possibly the rest of my life.

When I was finished, he just looks at me, real quiet.  Then he says, "In regards to your feelings, you are not being honest with me," and walks out of the room I rented.  I shrugged, thinking nothing more of it.  I got dressed and as I was leaving, there was Constable Friendly, baton in hand with Oran next to him pointing at me, calling me a liar.

There were no promises of tomorrow or a life together.  This was for a single night.  I wanted him and he wanted me.  Like I said, I don’t normally do this sort of thing.  But I did it with him.  And now I’m in jail because he says I’m a liar.  When it comes to something like this, especially in this low tech culture, how do you prove you’re not lying about - anything?
>> END OF TRANSCRIPT <<

I saw Harper frowning.  “I should have brought my medical kit,” he said as he looked at me.  “Do what you can with the Magistrate to allow me to do a full physical on Tabitha after the arraignment today.”  He turned back to Tabitha.  “Was this guy, Oran, wearing anything out of place or ornate that most people wouldn’t around here – anything at all?”

Tabitha thought for a moment.  “Yeah,” she said at last, “a scarf – kind of like a bright orange ascot.  It was patterned… strangely.  I can’t really describe it well.  The lighting where we met wasn’t that bright, but that orange scarf certainly stood out.”

Harper nodded and stood.  “Are you going to be able to keep it together until lunch time?” he asked Tabitha.  She nodded.  “Okay.  I’m going to the market to see if I can find a match to Oran’s scarf.  I’m betting I won’t, but it needs to be checked.”

I nodded and stood as well.  “You’re thinking he slipped her a Mickey?” I asked, “From a scarf?”

Harper called for the constable to let them out.  “The galaxy is full of possibilities,” he said to me.  “I’ve learned not to rule anything out at first glance.”

Harper and I parted company outside the jail as I headed for the Imperial Liaison Office.  Fortunately, since Sir Onnab’s duties included acting as advocate for Imperial citizens from off-world, he not only had a comprehensive legal library, it was digitized to allow quick and accurate database searches.

Imagine my lack of surprise when I found out this wasn’t first time that Oran Mirani had accused a woman of lying to him.  His name appeared on thirteen other cases over the past three years, all of whom had named him the victim of a falsehood.  I didn’t have time to go over the cases before the arraignment, but I did get their transcripts downloaded into my pocket computer.

Magistrate Soya Manama was a stately woman wrapped in intricately patterned robes in somber hues.  The lines of her leathery face and the tight, unruly curls of her dark hair framed a pair of eyes in a piercing shade of green.  There was no need to call the court to order – as soon as she could be seen by the audience in the gallery, they ended their conversations and rose in silent reverence.

Tabitha was part of a small group of people led in by a pair of constables and seated on a long bench to one side of the open space of the court.  The center of the space held circle of white marble, about five meters in diameter, pristinely polished and aching with significance that I could immediately grasp – the circle implying equality, the white marble implying truth.

The Magistrate stood within the circle and pointed at one of the men sitting on the bench.  He came forward and stood within the circle.  All those with something to say about his case came forth as they were called.  Nobody left the circle until the Magistrate made her decision.

As the others on the bench were arraigned, Harper stepped up beside me.  I looked at him with the question in my eyes, not daring to speak.  He smiled and shook his head.  I nodded in return.  He hadn’t found a local merchant who sold orange scarves.  He then nudged me and nodded toward two other gentlemen in the room.  My eyes widened when I saw they both were wearing oddly patterned orange scarves.

The Magistrate pointed at Tabitha.  She looked across the room at me and I nodded to her.  She slowly stepped onto the Circle of Truth.  Oran was there – a truly handsome and fit young man wearing the orange ascot and highly respectable clothes.  He named another man as his advocate – Golan, his uncle.  The elder Mirani also wore highly respectable clothes along with his orange ascot.

I joined Tabitha and the others in the circle.  The arraignment was short.  Both Tabitha and Oran told their versions of the same story, which were painfully similar.  Oran was longer on details of the tryst while Tabitha focused more on the conversation they had afterwards.  From somewhere in the crowd, Sir Onnab asked for permission to step into the circle and was permitted.  The people in the gallery bowed to him as he passed, as did the Magistrate when he entered the circle.  “Carries some weight,” I heard Tabitha mutter.

“If this matter goes to trial, I ask that it go to trial quickly,” said the knight.  He explained the emergency shipment to Kiewa and that my ship was going to carry it.

The Magistrate nodded and turned to me.  “Will you be able to deliver the shipment without Ms. Nole being aboard?”  As I opened my mouth to speak, she held up a finger.  “Remember where you are, Your Grace.”

I nodded, resisting the urge to grit my teeth.  “While she would be greatly missed,” I said, “but we could deliver the cargo without her aboard.”

Soya nodded.  Golan Mirani, overflowing with confidence suggested having the trial the next afternoon.  I agreed, as did Tabitha and Oran.  “Tomorrow,” said the Magistrate, “in the hour after midday, I will decide the truth of this matter.”  She turned to me again.  “Your Grace, do I have your most solemn vow that you will not leave port until after this matter is decided?”  I nodded.  “Then I will release Ms. Nole into your custody until the time of trial.”

The Magistrate turned to Tabitha.  “Tabitha Nole: understand that you are bound by the law of this world.  If you are found guilty, you will be subjected to a public flogging, forced to pay a fine and punitive damages.  You will be required to remain on Karakesh for the duration of your sentence of silence.  If you attempt to flee before justice can be served, summary judgement will be rendered against you and an interstellar warrant and bounty will be issued.  Any and all expenses incurred by those who bring you to justice will be your responsibility to reimburse, along with all fines to this court and all punitive damages and expenses levied by the victim of your falsehood.  If you understand the consequences of becoming a fugitive of this court at this time, say loudly and clearly, ‘I understand.’”

“I-I understand,” said Tabitha.  The Magistrate nodded gravely and then stepped backwards, leaving the circle.

And just like that, it was over.  The Magistrate left the chamber.  Nobody spoke or moved until she was gone.  Harper put a hand on mine and Tabitha’s shoulders.  “Let’s get out of here,” he said.  “I have a physical exam to conduct on the accused.  Call me optimistic, but I think the results are going to be interesting.”

As we headed back to the ship, I told the others about the other cases involving Oran.  Tabitha turned her head and spat on the flagstones of the street.  Then she paused, causing Harper and I to pull up short.  “It’s odd,” she said as a confused look filled her features, “While Oran was there in the circle, I wanted to believe that his version of the story was true – that I was the one at fault.  But now, I feel the same way I felt spending the night in jail.  I want to knock his lying teeth right out of his face!”

Harper showed us a feral smile.  “Good,” he said.  “Now I know what to look for.”

Back aboard ship, Harper insisted the welcome home be delayed until he could take sample swabs from all our sinus cavities.  It was unpleasant, but it was brief.  He went ahead and did the physical exam on Tabitha while I retired to my cabin to read the legal cases.

All of them were carbon copies of the story Oran and Tabitha had told.  All of those women had been convicted, flogged, and their families forced to sacrifice possessions and mineral rights to pay the fines and damages.  And worst of all, they were forced to wear a silver torc that was prominently engraved with the local word for “liar” and stripped of their right to speak or communicate in any way with anyone else for entire year.  And after all that, one had to live with the memories of being completely helpless, completely dependent upon the charity of others and know that your family’s fortunes were stolen away because of your inability to prove your own innocence…

I had to punch my rolled up bunk mattress repeatedly for several minutes before I stopped seeing red.  “I will not allow that to happen again,” I growled.  “Not to Tabitha, not to anyone else.  It ends here.”

The knock at my cabin door forced me to get a grip on my anger and impose the discipline I had learned in the Navy.  I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly before I opened the door.

Harper pulled up short when he saw my expression.  I saw his eyes look past me at the rolled up mattress in the corner.  He nodded.  “Yeah,” he said, “it pisses me off, too.  In my case, it’s a different reason.  I’ll grab up the rest of the crew and meet you in the lower commons.  Everyone will need to hear this.”

It turned out Harper did have a reason to be angry.  He’d found traces of the full male spectrum of human pheromones in the sinus samples he’d taken from our nasal cavities.  “That’s simply not possible in a natural setting,” he said, “unless we’d been participating in an orgy with several other people.  Since that didn’t happen, something has to be producing those pheromones in abundance.” 

He had the ship’s computer display some lab results as he continued.  “To date, nobody has been able to produce truly organic human pheromones.  However, the ability to produce synthetic pheromones kicks in around tech level twelve, give or take.  You can ferret out the synthetics because this little structure here in pheromone molecule is missing in the artificial ones.  All of the ones in the samples from our noses today were synthetic.”

“The ascots,” I said suddenly.

Harper nodded.  “At tech level fourteen, nanotech gets good enough to create 'smart pheromone' generators on a microscopic scale.  Factory units convert sweat and a tiny reserve of essential elements into pheromones and get it into the air.  They team with sampler units which detect which pheromones aren’t being absorbed and direct the factory units to make more of the others while shutting down the units that are making the wrong pheromones.  The whole system uses micro thermoelectric generators to run it.”

“He kept saying,” Tabitha said in a voice devoid of emotion, “that we should get away from the crowd.  That’s when I rented a room.  I was cold, so he wrapped the scarf around my neck and head while the heater caught up.”

Harper sighed heavily.  “Synthetic pheromones are highly illegal within the Imperium.  They’ve been linked to so many sexual abuse crimes they’ve been tagged as an enabling mechanism.  Simply possessing the means to produce them gets you on the Golgotha Imperial Prison Express.”

I explained what I had found out.  Even though Oran was twenty-three years of age, he was still a ward of his Uncle Golan.  As a result, Oran didn’t get the punitive damages from the cases that Golan had won for him – the advocate did.  As a result, Golan had gone from being a reasonably successful advocate to a very rich man.  Mineral rights fetch a high price on the open market, especially when a mining megacorp like Sternmetal Horizons is bidding.

“I want to nail these lying sacks of filth to the wall,” I said quietly.  Everyone else in the room nodded.

The trial was as informal as the arraignment.  Harper explained what he’d found, I presented printed copies of the other cases, and the Magistrate had a male constable take possession of the orange ascots, placing them in glass jars with screw-on metal lids.

“In regards to the other cases,” said the Magistrate, “I cannot make a ruling, but I will send notice of these proceedings to the other jurisdictions and to the Imperial authorities as well.  Tabitha Nole, all claims against you and your honor are hereby dropped.  You are free to leave the Circle of Truth.”  Tabitha bowed and stepped backward from the circle, as did I.

I looked up in time to see the Magistrate’s expression of cold rage as she turned toward Golan and Oran Mirani.  I only just managed to get the recorder on my hand computer online as she started to speak.

>>TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO FILE 024-1106.0005<<
MANAMA: It is my decision that you two have collaborated knowingly to impinge the honor of Ms. Nole and perhaps as many as thirteen otherwise upstanding women over the past three years by deceit aided by clandestine technological means.  You have trampled and SHAT upon our most noble traditions, lying by word, deed and omission – not just once, but multiple times.  You are reprehensible FILTH to mine eyes and your presence on this most hallowed ground of our society DEFILES IT.

You both are bound by law until you can be remitted to the custody of Imperial authorities for the possession and use of highly illegal and immoral technology in the commission of crimes on our world against other members of its citizenry and its visitors.

These proceedings are now ended.

AUDIENCE: The truth is now witnessed.  Let the truth be told.  Let the truth be known by all.
>> END OF TRANSCRIPT <<

Oran shook with pent up emotion, his cheeks were tracked with tears – such was the force of the Magistrate’s rebuke.  Golan glanced at me before bowing his head in shame.  They offered no resistance as the constables gently led them away.

Tabitha was sobbing on my shoulder, the anxiety of the past couple of days too much for her to bear any longer.  The rest of the crew was smiling, though there wasn’t a dry eye among them.  My vision swam for a moment as well.  Finally, I wiped my eyes.

“All right,” I said, “show’s over.  Let’s get back to the ship and get it ready for our cargo.  We lift as soon as it’s loaded.  If you need anything, we’ll hit up the market on the way back, but all of you listen, and you listen good.

“If I catch ANY of you even LOOKING at a SCARF, you’ll be on septic duty for the next six cycles.”

After Kiewa, we’ll be heading back to Narmada by way of Barlow.  I have a shopping list as long as my arm for things we need aboard ship, and it’ll be close enough to time for the ship’s annual maintenance by the time we get there to get that done, too.  I also have a small modification in mind for the cargo deck and there are crew members due for some additional training…

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