As the World Spins
Qondol loved it all. The knowledge that the Deucalion V was shrinking away below him, that the cluster of low buildings and fencing that made up the space port was already almost invisible if he could look back. He closed his eyes and felt everything about the ship that you can’t see. The thrum of the ion engines, and the roar of the atmosphere as the ship broke through it to space. The coldness of the metal bulkheads to the touch, knowing they weren’t too far from the void. The slightly stale air that smelled like no natural thing. And, finally, the knowledge of escaping to somewhere else.
When he came to this planet, he hadn’t had a second thought when they offered for him to join the Stellar Outriders. He would not be bound by this complacent planet. His father had been teaching him already how to fly a ship like this on Maqer by the time he was 12 (that felt so long ago), and he had taken the controls of their ship when his father had died fleeing the Tuql Machinae.
That memory was still vivid, and poured back. The old man was bleeding out, and the young children and old men were all so worried. The ship had smelled like blood and sweat, none of the wonderful odor he was smelling now. Qondol did what he had to do, and brought them all here.
But he wiped this all from his mind and smiled, like he always did. He looked out of the porthole window he was seated next to. It was a small ship, with the navigation up front and a few rows of seats behind, full of Outriders specializing in trade, mechanics, and other useful skills they’d brought to Deucalion V. Most, like him, were from other planets, since the native-born were content to stay on the ground for the most part.
He saw Deucalion, which was as beautiful and ominous as always. Deucalion V was there too, about to slip into its shadow. There was something in the shadow he barely discerned closer to the gas giant, some dark shapes moving slowly. He had seen such things before, probably space junk or freight ships orbiting the planet. He looked ahead again, forgetting about it as soon as he had noticed it. His thoughts turned to where they were going, the trading they would have to do, the new species he might encounter, and perhaps most of all the chance to live like his forefathers had done.
Zio had knocked a few times on Qaisa’s door, and no one had come. She was starting to get frustrated, since she was always punctual herself.
“Zom Zio. Oikomentarcha Qaisa is out, no need to knock.”
Zio turned and saw Raiqa. She was a tall, willowy woman with the same light skin and hair and black pupils as Raisi. They had come from the same planet, probably. Zio didn’t much care either way. She glared at her, because she knew what she was like. Raiqa remained expressionless and relaxed.
“She left me in charge of you today. I’m not particularly pleased to have to put up with you, but I expect you to be on good behavior. You know how I feel about all that wishy-washy crap Qaisa feeds you. Do what I say, and no more, or I’ll have to discipline you the proper way. I’ve been called by the nomarch and have to leave as soon as I’ve left you with instructions, so I don’t want your backtalk.”
Zio felt her heart rate going up, so she focused on her breathing and took a couple deep breaths before replying. Being forced to become a soldier had had it’s advantages. You have to be calm on a battlefield, and a lot of other places too it turns out. She put on a mask of respect, and bowed her head a little in the proper posture.
“Yes, Oikomentate Raiqa. As you wish.”
Raiqa smiled ever so slightly.
Just like that bitch who trained me on the Bellarica.
Zio could restrain her anger, or at least keep it in her mind. It hadn’t always been that way, when she had first come to Deucalion V, she had nearly killed another child who had been teasing her. It had taken a long time to learn from Qaisa that not everything that was threatening was mortal, and that it can be better to wear a mask than to destroy the enemy who stands before you. That doesn’t mean I always know how, though.
Raiqa said, “Come to my room. I have a case for you to adjudicate today.”
She turned and walked to the door with her name. Zio followed behind, maintaining her humble posture and starting to lose control of her anxiety, because adjudicating between people was the thing she hated the most. She didn’t much care for the petty disputes that occurred day to day, the thefts or land disputes that went on.
Still, she had no choice.
Have I ever, really?
They entered and sat down at the table across from each other. Like all of the other offices it was mostly plain, with rammed earth walls and ceiling, electric lights, and a floor of Purpurea woven into mats.
Raiqa touched a tablet on the table, and it lit up with the details of the case. She turned it over to Zio.
Zio mumbled her assent and grabbed the tablet. She skimmed through it quickly. There was a theft of property in a Domition Unit, where families and individuals were able to stay in apartments once they’d either grown out of the Altaric Units or their original family units. They were full-fledged workers. A family, the plaintiffs, had their Molecular Assembler stolen, and they were looking for it until a man, the defendant, returned it to them broken without an apology. The defendant hadn’t offered anything to pay the debt, so they applied for adjudication. She could tell that the details seemed plain enough.
“Quick now, summarize the case and what would be an appropriate judgment.”
Zio took a second to consider, then replied, “It’s easy, since I’m sure you’ve already conducted the interviews to verify the details in the file. Restitution by some service to the family until the value of the molecular assembler is paid back. That’s what the code says, I think.”
She set the tablet down. Raiqa hadn’t responded, and when Zio looked at her she was looking back, smirking a bit and otherwise expressionless.
“Actually, I haven’t had the chance to conduct the interviews. It’s going to have to be your job, sad to say, along with the rest of the adjudication.”
Zio narrowed her eyes and tensed up. She knew how to kill a man with a blunt object, but conversation was something that escaped her. She had trouble tracking the participants, playing the referee, and staying above it all to make the right rhetorical move. It was scary.
But she did know what being singled out felt like. She knew Raiqa would never do this to one of her own apprentices.
She couldn’t help but blurt out, “Why? You know I’m no good at this. Qaisa never gives me this work.”
“Obey, child. It will be good for you. I’m not going to shelter you. You don’t deserve any special treatment just because Qaisa likes you. None of your kinds deserve much of anything at all, really, but that’s not something I want to argue about with a young novice like you. The oikomentates are the glue that binds this world. Without our order’s presence in every nomarchy on this planet, the whole place would fall into petty squabbling and anarchy. You must be like an iron rod of justice that will correct the wrongs that are done every day by the petty fools who inhabit this world. There’s no room for you’re wavering or second-guessing.”
“Qaisa has told me that they aren’t fools. We’re here to make their lives better, to bring peace and healing, not to discipline them.”
Raiqa laughed again.
“Well, Qaisa was always a bit naive. You know what people are really like, don’t you? You came off of those Reaver ships, after all, and saw what people become when they have the chance to rule over one another. We keep these fools from lording over each other. There’s no other way the nomarchies of this planet can stay at peace, if we do not mete out our punishments.”
Zio saw in front of her the very image of the arrogant Reaver Matriarchs who had tortured and denied her, and knew that Raiqa would be the most evil master of all, if given the chance. But she knew, as with the women of her youth, that to argue would get her nowhere at this point.
“Maybe,” was all she gave Raiqa.
Raiqa covered her mouth and yawned, then spoke again.
“Well. The two parties should be waiting outside right now, ready for you to conduct their interviews. Review the case files and get out there. I’ll be back soon, I have errands that are far more important.”
She got up and walked to the door, opened it, and left.
Zio was panicking again now that she was alone. She stared in desperation at the table, seeing nothing and lost in her thoughts. There was rage and resentment too, but there wasn’t any time to to focus on that. She snapped out of her panicked reverie and picked up the tablet again, running over all of the information and trying to memorize the people and their names. She was going to make Qaisa proud and create something good out of this awful day.
There was the apparent thief, named Zoq. He was a refugee who had been set up on the planet a few years ago. From Maqer, like Qondol, Zio noted. There had been a large influx of people from that planet a year or two back when it had been destroyed. He worked on ship maintenance for the Outriders, which was prestigious work. The family, led by two women name Qara and Maz, was native born. This wasn’t the first plaint they had brought against some of the more recent arrivals in their Domition Unit. There seemed to be some prejudice involved.
Zio was tempted to side with Zoq at the start just for that reason, but unfortunately it was the case that many of the new arrivals hadn’t absorbed the group-oriented way of life preferred here. She had learned from Qondol’s stories that Maqerites in particular had a cut throat and independent culture when their planet was in one piece, where a theft like this hardly rose to the level of notice amidst the general wheeling and dealing that went on.
Maybe a cultural misunderstanding, but you have to follow the laws of the ship… (why do I still say that, and not planet?). I have to remember what Qaisa always tells me when she adjudicates, to not immediately assume the worst from the case that was filed unless you’ve seen the evidence firsthand and spoken to the parties.
She stood up and breathed deep, several times. She was still tense, but it was the best she could do. She got up and opened the door, and saw the two parties seated at separate tables nearby. She walked to Zoq. He was a short man and barebone skinny. He looked up at her with a flat expression. He really seemed afraid, though in a way that didn’t show on his features. He was tense. He must be thinking we’ll torture a confession like they would on Maqer. Zio was afraid too. She tried to speak but found the sound not coming out. She gripped her robe and clenched, she could feel herself losing it.
Thankfully, he spoke after gazing at her for a moment, “You will take me to the judge then?”
Zio was still clutching a bunch of fabric, “Uh, n-no…I’m the oikomentate.”
She swallowed and breathed. She had to look away when his mouth started to hang open and his eyebrows furrowed in surprise. His demeanor totally relaxed.
“This damn planet…some young girl like you’s going to judge me, huh?”
Zio could tell from the corner of her eye that the plaintiffs were looking over, disbelieving in their own way. Damn you, Raiqa. She made her eyes meet his again.
“I’m, uh, not a judge exactly…come with me.”
He sighed and stood up. He had been compelled here by the plaintiffs, the shame poured on him by other members of the Domition Unit, and threat of denial of his license to work, all of which worked much more consistently than the armed guards Zio had grown up with. They went into the office, and sat across from one another.
What followed was a blur for Zio, since she was panicking almost the whole time. As it moved on she found surer footing, but never completely calmed down. There were scripts to follow for things like this, that Qaisa had made her memorize by repetition. When her questions were done, he went out, and she took a moment to calm down and think back over what he said, and make notes on the tablet.
She had asked him a blow by blow series of questions about the events, and he had more or less confessed to what he was accused of. He also didn’t care very much about what happened and didn’t see what he had did wrong, so Zio realized she had to issue an appropriate judgment. She thought that what she had to suggested to Raiqa earlier seemed appropriate.
At least I won’t have to interview the plaintiffs. But why did I even need to do this damn interview or deal with these people?
She went to the door, opened it, and called out, “Qara, Maz, and Zoq. Come in to hear my decision.”
She went to sit, and the two women plaintiffs came in and sat across the table to her right. Both were brown-skinned with straight black hair. The taller one, Qara, seemed the most upset. She was making a face and tapping at the table with her fingers. Maz was sitting upright with her hands folded and a gentle expression, while Zoq sat to the left and looked bored. He was looking around at the office, though there wasn’t much to look at.
Zio found herself freezing up again. Her mouth just wouldn’t work and move when she wanted it to.
Qara eventually burst out, “Out with it girl!”
Zoq looked at Zio and laughed, “Now, now, let her take her time. Poor little thing’s nervous.”
Zio found the well of anger inside herself that surged when she felt patronized to, that reminded her that she had been powerless and nothing at one time. And here, well, here she had power. It gave her the push she needed, finally. Without much thought, she placed her hands on the table, stood up, and looked into Qara’s eyes.
“Respect my robe of office, or you’ll soon pay restitution yourself.”
She turned to Zoq, and spoke with the loud and crisp articulation she had learned from battalion commanders, and it all came out in a rush, “You’ve admitted your guilt and the theft, so there’s nothing to dispute. Notice will be posted in the Domition Unit of what you’ve done so everyone knows what to expect.
“I’ve noted that you can cook. Good. You can feed Qara and Maz’s family whenever they are busy and hungry out of your own food stores until they feel that you have repaid the cost of what you have broken. The maximum time will be two months, and should not be impossible since you earn so well from your work with the Outriders. You will also have to provide food once a week for any other family in your unit who asks for it, and perform a ritual penance before an oikomentate when you have ended the time of your punishment and the plaintiff’s have asked for it.”
She was feeling a bit dizzy, and the adrenaline feeling was wearing off, but she managed one more, less powerfully articulated statement
“I hope I never see you here for breaking the terms of your restitution, now go.”
Zoq was smirking but his eyes had hardened.
“Very well…oikomentate.” He got up and walked out.
Qara looked please now instead of irritated. She and her partner stood up.
She said, “I was worried a semutate off-worlder would’ve let him off. Thank you for your judgment, it was just.”
The two left, and the door slid shut. Zio sat down. She held up her hand in front of her face, and it was shaking, so she put it back on the table. The panic was subsiding somewhat. She rested her head on her arms on the table and felt some unasked-for tears trickle down her cheeks.
At least I did what was just.
I hope it was…
Against her will, memories ran through her mind of shouted orders, marching drills, nudity among boys as they were sprayed down with disinfectant, and the feeling of drowning. And somewhere she felt, for some reason, in the darkness at the back of her brain, a scaly flat face with two black eyes, watching and unmoving.
Zio spent the rest of the day with the other oikomentate apprentices in the main hall, all in their red robes arranged around their tables. They would gather around at the tables and recite back and forth the law codes they had memorized (they were all written in verse for easy recitation), and quiz each other about famous cases that had been adjudicated before. People involved in cases were always in the background, coming and going, entering offices and leaving. Business went on.
Neither Qaisa nor Raiqa had returned, which bothered her throughout the day. They were the chief oikomentates for this nomarchy, so it had to be something important. She remembered the dream, and the feeling she had before, about the scaly creatures. Admittedly, it wasn’t the first time she’d had premonitions. Every now and then she would dream about something silly or mundane, like the work she would do for the day, or what Qondol would bring her and Raisi from one of his adventures, and it would come true. She didn’t know what she was seeing now, though. Possibly some alien species, but only humans lived on Deucalion V as far as she knew.
Troubled by these thoughts, she went through the motions of recitation with her mind elsewhere. Her lips would move and her hands would make the rhythmic motions that corresponded to the different poetic meters of various codes, and eventually without saying goodbye to any of her fellow apprentices, went to change back into her plain tunic and began the walk back to her home by the sea.
She left out of the great mound at the center of the nomarchy, and through the dense central zones. She walked back on the path from the morning. She dimly noted that the gas giant above was about to pass over the suns and fill the sky, which she usually found beautiful but didn’t notice much today. She found Raisi where they had parted, sitting on the side of the road, having flattened down some purpurea and leaning back on her arms. She smiled, which broke through Zio’s cloudy temperament, the first thing to do so since she had finished the case. She stood up and came to Zio, who had stopped in the middle of the road. Some people were pushing by on their way, trying to get home early before the planet cooled down and got dark.
“Zom Zio. Wilting a little more than usual today. What’s wrong?”
Always thinking of me…
Raisi grabbed Zio’s hand and squeezed it. Zio squeezed back, and looked up at Raisi.
“I can’t talk about it right now. I had to adjudicate for the first time today, and I did fine, but some other stuff came up. Let’s just go home.”
Hand-in-hand, they started to walk. Raisi didn’t start talking and talking as usual though, she was quiet for a moment.
She finally spoke, “You’re not okay Zio. It’s like you were when I first met you, I can feel it.”
Zio didn’t reply or look at Raisi. Raisi was looking over at her now and then, but eventually gave up expecting a reply.
Zio could only say, “Why don’t you tell me about your day, like you always do.”
Raisi started talking, haltingly at first, “Well, today, we were learning about healing wounds and diseases with modified human cells cells, so we started by…”
All the way home, Zio let Raisi talk and grow more and more excited telling her about every detail.
She should have been the oikomentate. She gets my attention, makes me feel with words, can calm me and understand me. She could convince me to do anything…And she’s so much smarter than me.
Zio wasn’t jealous. She was glad to have Raisi in her life, and without her (without Qaisa, and without Qondol too, to a degree) she wouldn’t find life much worth living. They understood her and found in her something that they liked. She didn’t know what that was, no one else found it. But she could live life happily just as well.
Raisi laughed, “Are you even listening Zio? You nearly ran into that man a little ways back.”
Zio felt her cheeks redden and looked over at Raisi quickly, then away, bashfully. She laughed lightly too.
“Do you want to hear a lie…or the truth. No, I wasn’t. Sorry. Could you start again from how you get the cells to work in the body?”
She could tell from her voice that Raisi had a big smile.
“Silly Zio, of course, now…”
So they went on the whole way home as darkness settled over the planet, where they sat down to eat without Qondol, who was away in space for a few days, and where they chatted about nothing in particular until they grew tired and went to sleep.
Starways Encyclopedia: Reference 10229.01/9, Xazma
“…The Xazma, who can tolerate incredible heat and thus prefer to hollow out their planets to create deep and numerous colonies, are notable as one of the few sentient species in the galaxy who enjoy hunting other sentient species for food…“