Trial by Ordeal

Trial by Ordeal

by Grey Rollins

Illustration by Vincent Di Fate

I heard his steps long before I saw him coming. I knew from the labored tread and huffing breath who it was—Ronald Hickok, one of the contact team; the group responsible for negotiating with the Onalbi.

Well, I’d given them something to negotiate about.

He scrambled to the top of the rock where I sat and collapsed heavily next to me. After he caught his breath, he finally spoke. “They treating you OK?”

I nodded. “No complaints.”

His arm swept across the periphery of my vision. “No complaints? They give you a rock valley to live in, no shelter, no food—”

“They bring me food,” I corrected.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. “And you built yourself a little mud igloo to live in, too, but it’s—”

“Ron, I don’t need a mansion. All I need is protection from the elements and food.”

He grunted and I could hear him fumbling in his pockets. “I brought that pair of socks you wanted,” he said, placing them next to my hand. “You know, I think they’d let you have more if you’d only ask. A view screen, maybe? How about—”

I waved him to silence. “Nothing.”

“Paul, I don’t get you. Sitting out here all alone, staring at the rocks with no one to talk to and nothing to do. How do you stand it?”

Shrugging, I replied, “You know how people are always saying that they’ll get around to doing something important one of these days when they have time? I’ve always meant to hang my soul out on a line to let it air out, and this seems to be as good a time as any to do it.”

He inhaled slowly, then let it back out just as slowly. “Why do you talk that way? You don’t have to torture yourself. I think we could at least talk them into keeping you someplace more civilized—in a building, for starters, where you’re out of the weather.”

“I’m fine. Just think of it as penance, if that makes it easier for you.”

“Well, it doesn’t. I mean, they haven’t even had the trial yet and you’re already being punished. It just isn’t right.”

“Right by whose standards?” I asked. “Ours? Theirs? Some arbitrary set of rules determined by a third party? Who gets to decide the rules? I have to set an example. Let there be even a hint of anything less than justice and we and the Onalbi will feel the echoes of it until the end of time.”

He pushed to his feet and stared down at me. I turned to look up at him.

“You’re crazy,” he told me. “You wear guilt as though it was some kind of armor. What if they kill you?” His arms scissored in the air in a clumsy imitation of an Onalbi’s pincers. “What good will your armor do you then? Let us at least try to save you.”

I shook my head, looking up at him. “No. We’ll do this my way, which is to say, their way. They are the ones which must be satisfied. That’s the only way we’ll ever have a future together.”

Hickok started to say something more, thought better of it, then clambered back down off the rock as ungracefully as he had climbed it. From there, he walked across the bottom of the depression, climbed the side, and was gone. I’d see him again in a few days, when the delicate balance between his conscience and his dislike for me tipped far enough to make him come to see if he could save me from myself and the Onalbi.

My name is Paul Walker. I’m twenty-eight years old, the son of a philosophy professor and a dance instructor. For as far back as I can remember, I dreamed of space. One way or another, I wanted to go to the stars. I told myself I’d pay any price… and thought I meant it.

It didn’t take long to determine that I wasn’t going to be the captain, or the pilot, or even the navigator. I wasn’t going to be a scientist, either. You want the honest truth? I was just too damned lazy to study hard enough. Now, with hindsight and a little bit more maturity, I look back and yearn for missed opportunities. A bit less beer, a few more nights with my nose to the grindstone, and I might have made it out as something more than a cook.

But make it, I did.

As a cook. Nothing more, nothing less. I made it aboard the Gorbachev as one of the lowliest of grunts. The stars were mine, even if I only saw them occasionally. We made landfall on five lifeless planets. I stood on each one, usually the last person to set foot on the surface.

The sixth planet was the jackpot. Not only flora, but fauna. Ecstasies of discovery. While we were still in orbit, everyone was sleeping three hours in twenty-four, maybe five if they were particularly exhausted. Back to the instruments, hurried discussions, impassioned arguments, new data, new theories, dashed theories… it went on and on. I went about my business patiently. It was obvious that we’d be here a while and all I wanted was a chance to stand on the surface before we left.

Meals I cooked and more meals I cooked. Some things just can’t be automated if you want them done properly. Time passed. The rudiments of understanding were hammered out between the scientists. A basic foundation was laid that all other studies could build upon. Geology, botany, oceanography, you name it, every specialist on the ship got to put in his or her say, and a consensus was reached. We landed. There was work to be done here, much work. I was only a cook, and I had to bide my time.

Finally, I was offered my chance. Would I like to go outside? Of course! Permission granted. The atmosphere was not far from that of Earth. Lower nitrogen, neon making up the difference, oxygen slightly lower. I could go out on the surface without a suit—without even a breathing mask.

My first impression was of desert. I’d seen the images on the screens, of course, but that didn’t convey the dryness of the air or the sheer vastness of the sky. It was, for all intents and purposes, much like the American Southwest. I went for a walk, aimless.

I rounded an eroded sandstone formation, and there before my astounded eyes was a bipedal creature, backed against the unyielding rock, menaced by something like a cross between an ugly lizard and a lobster. It was huge—over three meters long.

The bipedal creature, while by no means human, did have an upright torso, and a recognizable head. Arms… it did not lack for arms. My first impression was that it must have twenty or thirty. One lay at its feet, twitching. Blood flowed. It was clearly losing the battle. As I watched, the monster flashed a claw and another arm was missing, this time carried triumphantly aloft, then delivered to the gaping mouth.

Without thinking, I ran towards them, reaching into the pocket of my apron for the butcher knife I habitually carried. A claw slashed at my shoulder, but the creature was clearly caught by surprise. I rammed my knife into the soft skin between two plates on the back of its neck, withdrew, then struck again.

The bipedal creature didn’t bother to thank me. It ran.

It took days for the enormity of my error to become apparent. The bipedal creature, while vaguely humanoid, was nothing, a mere animal. The fierce-looking predator was actually the sentient one, simply out for a bit of dinner. Now it was dead, the victim of an Earthling who had assumed that anything with two legs was worth saving.

Now, I would stand trial for murder.

The Onalbi have the death penalty, and they use it often.

A geological curiosity was my little valley. Almost perfectly round, with no outlet. If there were any significant amount of precipitation, it would fill over time and become a lake. It was bowl shaped and I toyed with the idea that it was the scar where some long ago meteorite had blasted untold tons of rock into the sky, or perhaps a volcanic caldera.

There was nothing to keep me from climbing to the rim, and I frequently did so, to sit and talk with my guard. I was not as lonely as Ronald assumed. My guard was scrupulously fair with me. Never once had he—I refer to him as he, although I don’t even know whether the Onalbi have genders—done anything even remotely like the cruel and abusive things I would have expected of a human jailer. It was as though he, too, felt the weight of the destiny of our two species, and wanted to make certain that future generations could look back and nod approvingly at his treatment of the murderer from Earth.

The floor of my valley sloped up gradually, becoming steeper the nearer I got to the rim. The first few times I climbed to the rim, I was winded so severely that the most I could do was throw myself on the ground and wheeze, chest heaving. Now, after living outside for the last few months, I had gradually toughened and was able to make it without trouble.

I sat with my back against the guard post and waited for Hresah, my guard, to scuttle around the rim to where I was. He still had a ways to go, so I drew up my legs and rested my chin on my knees, looking out over the empty, sun-bleached land.

Hresah arrived, and switched on the power to the guard post. Actually, it was more like one of the automated information kiosks that you see in large cities. He spoke to it, the computer inside translated, and it spoke to me. Over time, I had learned to filter out his actual voice and hear only the kiosk’s translation. Onalbi voices were dry and whispery, like the desert wind.

“You are well?” he asked.

I nodded. “I’m well.”

“I apologize for being long to get here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. The one thing that I had asked of the ship’s crew was that ...

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