We couldn’t wait long – at any moment, Iyr reinforcements could turn up to take poor Pr’atu away. In fact, if their response time was anything like it had been for the screaming Arellian earlier, then we only had a maximum of around three minutes.
‘What are we going to do?’ Te’rnu repeated for what must have been the fifth or sixth time.
‘I’ve got… some idea,’ I replied.
I fumbled at the device on my right sleeve; this was my only real advantage against an armed guardsman – and I intended to use it.
Te’rnu spotted me touching at my sleeve.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘An EMP. Electro-Magnetic Pulse. Disables all electronics in the area. Comes in handy every now and then.’
‘Would carrying a phaser not be easier?’
‘I don’t like phasers,’ I snapped at him, and then, when I realised I had sounded vicious, added, ‘Sorry.’
Te’rnu ignored the nasty tone – or perhaps was simply oblivious to it. ‘How is this EMP going to help us? It will shut down the lights?’
‘Yes. And the phaser too, hopefully.’
‘There’s a chance the phaser is fitted with a backup battery. If that’s the case…’
I trailed off. Judging by the look on his face, Te’rnu seemed to have no trouble filling in the blanks.
‘What are the chances of that?’
‘I don’t know… maybe ten percent?’
‘So one in every ten times that you run into a room like this, you get shot?’
I grimaced in response. ‘It usually works out OK.’
Te’rnu and I looked back at the outpost.
‘Well… no time like the present, I guess,’ I sighed, resigning myself to what I was about to do. I looked over my shoulder at Te’rnu as I began to hurry back to the outpost.
I hoped that the lone guardsman was still otherwise preoccupied with their prisoner. If not, then in all likelihood I was about to get shot at.
I prepared myself to jump out of the way.
Luck seemed to be working in my favour; I reached the outside wall without any trouble. Perhaps the Iyr thought they had sufficiently scared us off, and that we wouldn’t be coming back any time soon. If Te’rnu and I had been entirely sane, then the guardsman would have been completely right.
I placed my hand on my wrist right in readiness to activate the EMP, and stepped through the door.
Inside, Pr’atu was pressed up against the transmat room’s wall, too afraid to make a break for it and risk being killed. We made eye contact. As soon as the Arellian saw me, they relaxed slightly.
The Iyr guardsman was still in the room, tapping at a computer terminal, their phase rifle rested on the top.
I edged forwards, hoping to only use the EMP at the last possible moment, so I could make the most of the confusion that would inevitably follow.
Suddenly the Iyr stopped typing.
They looked up – straight at me.
‘Hi again!’ I greeted them.
Within the next two seconds, three significant things happened.
First, Pr’atu began to make a sprint for the opposite door, which meant that the Iyr’s targets were split – one to their left, one to their right.
Second, the Iyr reached for their rifle, picking it up, and swinging it to point in the direction of Pr’atu. They fired their first beam prematurely, missing the Arellian but instead hitting the controls to the door panel, completely frying them – and making the door itself unusable.
Lastly, I activated the EMP.
With a quiet, deep whoomph, the power of the outpost went offline, leaving the room in almost total darkness.
The Iyr, surprised, made some sort of “acckk!” noise in exasperation, and instead tried to turn to train their rifle on me – but struggled, their mechsuit having jammed up due to the EMP.
Instinctively, I jumped out of the way – but no shot came. All I heard was the familiar clicking sound of an offline phaser failing to discharge.
Now knowing that I was safe, I charged at the Iyr, tacking them to the ground. I flicked my left wrist, releasing the blade, and pressed it on their throat.
‘How long do we have? Until more of you get here?’
The Iyr, seemingly unphased, replied, ‘At most, two minutes.’
I looked up at Pr’atu. The youth’s eyes were wide with terror. ‘We should go.’
I nodded – and the Arellian began to run. I gave Pr’atu a few seconds headstart before I, too, began to sprint away from the outpost, releasing the Iyr in the process.
We exited the outpost, still sprinting, and Te’rnu’s face dropped when he saw the speed we were travelling at. Without stopping to ask questions, he began to sprint too – back in the direction of Te’r’ok.
Soon an alarm began to blare behind us; the mechsuit hadn’t frozen for long, it seemed.
We ran as fast as we could – over the steep dunes, fighting against the loose sand. A few minutes later, I turned back to look at the outpost in the distance.
A ship, only now, was landing. They were late.
I called to Te’rnu, drawing his attention to the landed ship.
‘Here!’ Te’rnu called, pointing at a small outcrop of rock. The three of us jumped in, huddled up tight, and stayed as still as we could, hoping to avoid being spotted.
But more and more minutes passed, and there was no sign that we were being pursued.
Perhaps the Iyr didn’t think it was worth the effort, or perhaps they knew better than to try and find Arellians hiding in their own territory. Whatever the reason, we were safe.
Confident now that we’d got away with it, we continued back to town at a slower pace, allowing our aching muscles some respite. As Te’rok came into view in the distance, the sun was beginning to rise, and the other villagers were up and about.
This meant, of course, that they had noticed our disappearance.
‘Where have you been?’ an angry Arellian called out at Pr’atu. They stormed over to the young one and grabbed them by the arm. ‘You do not disappear like that, you understand me?’
As they dragged Pr’atu back into the village, they turned to look at Te’rnu.
‘And you. You should know better.’
Ra’ntu, too, stared at us with an irritated expression upon their face.
‘We were just trying to see if we could see an Iyr’s face!’ Pr’atu argued with their parent. ‘Te’rnu says we should know these things!’
Elder Ra’ntu began to speak. ‘You drag Pr’atu into this mess? At that age?’
Te’rnu looked down at the floor, ashamed.
‘Where did you go?’ Ra’ntu asked.
‘The Outpost. WS1.’
There was a moment of silence.
Elder Ra’ntu raised her voice when they spoke next – not out of anger, but out of proclamation.
‘Te’rnu has exceeded even his own prior recklessness. Te’rnu has brought shame to our village! Te’rnu must be put to trial!’
Ra’ntu paused, and I couldn’t help but think that this was only for effect.
‘No,’ they continued, staring deep into my eyes, ‘They all must be put to trial.’
I looked to Te’rnu, who stood, despondent, eyes fixed on the ground.
Ra’ntu walked closer to us, and whispered so that nobody else would hear, ‘Let this be a lesson to you. Nobody breaks with the Tradition.’
We were ushered into the same building that I’d first been brought to, while the Elders prepared for the trial. Te’rnu and Pr’atu waited anxiously, while I seriously debated simply standing up and leaving.
I couldn’t justify leaving Te’rnu, though – not after he’d saved my life. So I stayed – and hoped I could save him from whatever hardship Ra’ntu had planned.
Soon, we were moved into the largest of the village’s buildings, which had enough space for about a dozen people.
Three Elders – Ra’ntu, Or’ane, and another that I didn’t recognise – sat at the end of the room, on higher chairs, facing the rest of us. No matter where you go in the galaxy, nobody could resist the idea of nothing being higher than justice. It was the concept of justice, on the other hand, which seemed to change from planet to planet.
Te’rnu, Pr’atu, and I were sat at the front, on a long, uncomfortable, bench. I looked at the others; what a bunch we were. Like some heroes of old: The Three Musketeers, or the Three Amigos, or the Three… I dunno, Tenors?
In the eyes of everyone around us, we weren’t heroes, we were villains. Criminals, even.
Ra’ntu made a noise to draw my attention, and I span back around to face the front.
‘We are gathered here to rule on the punishments for Te’rnu, Pr’atu, and the off-worlder, for breaking with the sacred Traditions, and assaulting an Iyr.’
There was a slightly whispering behind me, from the trial’s onlookers.
‘Wait,’ I asked. ‘So this isn’t even about whether we’re innocent or not? Just what the punishment is going to be?’
Te’rnu glared at me; obviously speaking at this point was a massive faux-pas in the eyes of the Arellians.
Elder Ra’ntu humoured me. ‘The Elders have already convened and determined that the three of you are indeed guilty. I stress, also, that now is not the time for you to speak.’
I pulled a face… but said nothing.
‘We will first hear from Pr’atu. If you will please stand.’
The youth to my left did as was commanded. I could see them shaking, having succumbed to their nerves. On the opposite side of Pr’atu sat Te’rnu, and I could see that he had recognised the young one’s fear too.
‘Would you please describe the events that led to you travelling to outpost WS1?’ Ra’ntu asked.
Pr’atu took a moment before they responded, the nerves meaning that they were struggling to get words out.
‘I, err…,’ Pr’atu started, casting a look at Te’rnu and I. ‘I was still awake, late, last night, listening to the off-worlder’s tales. After a while, they thought-’
‘Who is “they”, Pr’atu, if you wouldn’t mind clarifying?’ asked Or’ane, a kind smile on their face.
‘Te’rnu and the spaceman,’ Pr’atu clarified.
‘Thank you. Go on.’
‘So they – Te’rnu and Syl – thought everyone else had gone to sleep, and they were discussing the skin of the Iyr.’
Pr’atu paused for questions, but none came.
‘And they started talking about how they might see it for themselves. They planned to go to the outpost, and sneak up on the guard.’
‘And how did you become involved in this scheme, Pr’atu?’
‘Oh. I asked if I could come,’ Pr’atu replied.
The Elder gave each other knowing looks – and damning ones, at that.
‘You are saying that you willingly volunteered to help Te’rnu and the off-worlder break with Tradition?’
‘I, err…’ Pr’atu looked over at Te’rnu and I for help. We weren’t able to give any. ‘Yes. I did.’
‘Thank you, Pr’atu, I think we have heard enough,’ Ra’ntu announced. ‘If, Te’rnu, you will please now stand.’
Te’rnu did as he was told, before beginning to talk, unprompted. Even I knew that by now, this wasn’t right and proper decorum.
‘May I speak freely? Before the questions begin,’ Te’rnu said, and then continued without waiting for a response. ‘It is very kind of Pr’atu to cover for me, but I am afraid their story was not reflective of the truth. It was me, in fact, who convinced Pr’atu to join us.’
‘And why would you do that?’
There was a brief pause before Te’rnu replied. Only Pr’atu and I could know that this was because he was inventing a new version of the story.
‘Because we needed a third. We though Pr’atu was young, and impressionable – so we we encouraged them to join us.’
The Elders remained silent for a few moment, and then Ra’ntu turned to focus on me.
‘Is that correct, off-worlder?’
I stood up to address the council. ‘Yep! That’s right! We convinced Pr’atu to join us. They were resistant at first, but we told them that it was important for the village that they come too.’
I hoped my lying was up to snuff; I could feel the words coming out of my mouth become stilted, unnatural. Elder Ra’ntu nodded in response to this testimony.
‘We have one more question for you. Did you hurt the Iyr? Or cause damage to them in any way?’
Te’rnu shook his head.
‘No,’ I lied, remembering the damage that we had caused to the outpost and the computer system. ‘None at all.’
‘Can you confirm this for us, please, Te’rnu.’
He looked at me for a moment, pain in his eyes, and then turned back to the Elders.
‘That’s right. No harm was done.’
‘Thank you,’ Ra’ntu replied. ‘I think you three have answered everything we have. We will return momentarily to rule on your punishments.’
The three Elders left the building, and Te’rnu and I sat back down.
‘What sort of punishments are normally given out in these?’ I asked.
Te’rnu took a moment to respond.
‘These are rare, so my experience with punishments are few. Some are assigned work to do, to benefit the community, and others…’
‘Others… what?’ I prompted, dreading the answer.
‘Oh. That’s not that bad. I was thinking, like, death or something.’
Te’rnu looked outraged. ‘Death? What good would that do anyone? That would be an awful punishment.’
‘Yeah. I guess,’ I replied. ‘I was being paranoid, maybe.’
‘Do not think exile is “not bad”, however, Syl Raynor,’ Te’rnu continued, his voice solemn. ‘Imagine being cast out of the only world you have ever known. Imagine being thrown out there, into the great unknown, and knowing nobody and nothing. You would have to start your whole life again – because your last had ended. In a way, it is not wholly different from death.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘If it comes to that – and I’m sure it won’t – at least you’ll know me.’
Te’rnu smiled at the idea. ‘It is nice to know this.’
We waited in silence – me unphased, Te’rnu worried, and Pr’atu practically soiling himself. I turned to the young one.
‘It’s OK, Pr’atu, they won’t come down hard on you.’
‘How do you know?’ Pr’atu responded.
‘We told them we coerced you into it, didn’t we?’
‘Yes,’ the young Arellian replied, ‘But how do you, as an off-worlder, know whether that will be enough?’
‘It would be a terrible justice system if it didn’t,’ I answered.
The Elders didn’t take long to deliberate, and returned to the room within a couple of minutes. This, I suspected, was not a good sign.
It was Elder Ra’ntu who stood to deliver the verdict – and the smirk on their face made it seem like they took great pleasure in doing so.
‘We have reached a conclusion,’ Ra’ntu announced, and what little murmuring was still taking place in the building came to an immediate halt. All eyes were on Ra’ntu.
Exactly as they liked it – all attention on them. Couldn’t have anyone else upstaging them, could we?
‘The off-worlder brought disquiet to our village. She brought a rage, and an unwillingness to let us live our lives as we wish for them to be lived. She has disrespected the great Tradition, and so a punishment will be assigned to her.’
I laughed. What a ridiculous idea this was. ‘I mean, there’s not a huge amount you can make me do, is there? I could always just… walk away.’
‘Then why haven’t you?’ the third Elder asked.
I shrugged. ‘Guess I was curious.’
‘And it has nothing to do with ensuring that Te’rnu is not punished too severely?’ Ra’ntu asked, knowing eyes staring deep into mine. This wiped the smile from my face.
I couldn’t formulate a smart retort in a reasonable time, and the absence of one was telling.
‘Te’rnu,’ Ra’ntu continued, ‘Has again and again sought to undermine the fragile ecosystem of our village. Te’rnu cares little for the arrangement we have with the Iyr; the very generous deal by which the Iyr relieve us of our pain. If Te’rnu were to have their way, we would all end our lives in agony. It is my personal belief that if Te’rnu’s presence in this village is continued to be tolerated, it would spell an end for Te’r’ok. For Te’rnu’s crimes, a punishment will be given.’
I looked to my friend. His mouth hung agape, his skin pale.
‘And, finally,’ Ra’ntu went on, ‘There is Pr’atu.’
Pr’atu rose from their seat for their verdict.
‘The testimony given by both Te’rnu and the off-worlder seem to clear you of any wrongdoing.’
Pr’atu looked immediately relieved.
‘However!’ Ra’ntu continued. ‘Should the given testimony ever be proven to be false, or otherwise inaccurate, we shall have to re-visit this decision. We will be keeping a close watch on your behaviour, young Arellian. For now, however, with your guilt unproven, you will receive no punishment.’
Pr’atu nodded. ‘Thank you, Elder.’
‘You may leave,’ Elder Or’ane instructed Pr’atu.
This left just Te’rnu and I at the front bench.
‘We have deemed that equal crimes deserve equal punishment,’ Elder Ra’ntu announced. ‘And with that in mind, we rule that you both shall be punished with exile.’
Te’rnu shrank into his seat, his face gone white.
‘How the… fuck… is that an equal punishment?’ I asked, astounded.
I’m getting really good at this swearing thing! Maybe I should try it more often. No, stop- Focus, Syl.
‘This, here, Te’r’ok, that’s Te’rnu’s whole life! I’m just a visitor! Let’s face it, I was going to leave soon anyway, and chances were that I wouldn’t come back.’
‘You wouldn’t?’ Ra’ntu asked.
‘Are you kidding? No! There’s a whole galaxy out there, and you think I’d want to come back to the one village that you live in?’
Woops. Maybe too far. Dial it back.
‘I’ll happily leave and not come back if that’s what you want – but Te’rnu should be able to stay.’
‘Our decision is final,’ Ra’ntu insisted.
Exasperated, I turned to Te’rnu, and began to plead with him. ‘Come on, mate, say something! Make your case! This is ridiculous.’
He only shook his head. ‘There’s no point. As they say: the decision is final. It always is.’
‘You will be gone within the hour,’ Ra’ntu instructed.
And then, the Elders, having apparently decided that the conversation was over, left the building.
Only Elder Or’ane stopped to look back. ‘I am sorry, Te’rnu. If I had had my way…’
They trailed off, went silent for a moment.
‘I’m sorry,’ Or’ane repeated.
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