Strapping on formal belts and armor plates that day – too hot outside and too cold in the temperature-controlled courtroom – was the clear evidence of civilization’s insanity. Yet there I was, shivering along with the other miserable scaled folk huddled in the sterile granite halls of justice. What in Kktkrkz’ gargantuan gullet was I doing in this pantomime of her afterlife? I wasn’t the one on trial. I wasn’t the wronged victim. I’m not part of either of their packs. I wasn’t prosecuting or defending or judging or even guarding the sanctity of the court. Why would I subject myself to such easily avoidable misery?
Oh, right: money. I had been promised a job. I was supposed to exonerate the Taratumm slob on the block up there. He had pack… herd… with money, even if he looked like trampled carrion. His bulk was slumped forward, leaning heavily for support on the railing that separated the trial block from the audience pit. His otherwise impressive crest was cracked and half the grey scales on the left side of his face were either chipped or gone entirely. That eye was patched over. Prison wasn’t providing any cosmetic services. It was barely giving this bruiser enough care to avoid infection.
And no wonder, given the charges. Grust of herd Torbur was accused of attempted murder, aggravated assault, destruction of property, public intoxication, and a list of secondary offenses. The state prosecutor, a Hrotata called Lagghitl, had laid out the case in her opening statement. Her professionally groomed red fur fluffed dramatically in mock horror as she recounted the crimes of the accused.
Per the accounts of more than ten witnesses, Grust had exited a drinking establishment, challenged the male of a mating pair to a head-butting challenge, then went ahead with the act without his consent. That the target was a Hrotata was as unfortunate as it was bizarre. The poor sap had gone down like a puddle of limp fur, skull cracked. When his Vislin guards realized what had happened, they stopped laughing and started clawing. Only after getting bloodied did Grust go from piss drunk to pissed off. His frenzy left two Vislin with broken bones, cost a roast tuber vendor his cart, and made four shop owners down the street happy they had paid up their insurance.
It had taken another two Taratumm to slow down the dumb herbivore. They had to do it the old-fashioned way, stomping the sense back into his well-padded brain. Most of the damage on him was their work. It was tough to sympathize. For the sake of my paycheck, I did my best to try.
Besides the pointless violence of the rampage itself, its context was faintly scandalous. The Hrotata had been challenged over its female partner. That was perverse into dimensions that required a social psychologist to seek help from a theoretical mathematician. First, Hrotata are matriarchal. Challenging a Hrotata male for his female is like asking your server to sell you his restaurant. He doesn’t own it. Second, there’s the cross-species thing, especially where Hrotata are concerned. There’s plenty of naughty stories about members of the Great Family fooling around across species lines. It’s dirty stuff because it’s so unlikely. For one thing, the parts just don’t work like that. For another, our libidos don’t run on the same timetables. And for a third, there’s just no point. Sure, times have gotten pretty progressive, particularly after the Terrans were accepted into the Collective. There’s zero doubt in my mind that Hrotata and Humans are all up in one another’s bedrooms. But a Taratumm getting stompy about a Hrotata female? That’s just impractical.
So what frost had shut down old Grust’s fruit pit of a brain? No, no, not just shut it down, twisted it like a Tesetse’s tortured genome. The prosecutor was claiming that the fault was just plain old criminal tendencies topped off with a healthy dose of pickling liquid. Grust was a bad egg, a time bomb that had finally gone off in public. Empty eggs, this furry mother had a vicious mouth!
Grust couldn’t blame any of his acts on frenzy. The ‘I wasn’t in control’ defense hasn’t worked in centuries. That was a good thing for the Vislin victims of Taratumm brutality over the years. You kept yourself under control, either through discipline or by keeping a friend, pack mate, or handler close by, to talk you down or tie you down. That was one of the things pack was for. If you had none of those things, then you stayed away from society, like the dangerous animal you were.
Listen to me sermonize. To these fine family folk, I wasn't much better. Packless. Unpredictable. Liable to frenzy in a packed courtroom. Kkkk, it was just uncomfortable there, not really that infuriating. But I had been in a few bad spots in the past. It was just the luck of circumstances that kept me off that block up there… that, and the witnessed fact that the other guys clawed first.
You know who my helpful buddy is? My heater, Rtrtr. A little package of ceramics, carborundum lenses, titanium silver mirrors, and fancy wiring, wrapped in fancier polymers and a very special leather holster. He sits on my thigh and reminds me that if I frenzy, I’ll forget about him and the wonderful things he can do. He heats things: makes them very hot very fast, at a pretty good distance. Things made of meat explode when you do that. Other things also explode or melt or vaporize in pieces, depending on where Rtrtr points. He does his thing very well. The least I can do is stay lucid enough to let him argue on my behalf.
Rtrtr had to stay home that day. The courts frown on the inclusion of firearms to their proceedings. You’d think that things would stay more civilized with more firepower easily at hand, but the matriarchs disagreed. Apparently, not everyone is as soothed as me by the companionship of potential flaming death.
Okay, Stchvk, I thought to myself, think less about you and more about the client. By that point, the prosecutor was done, having named her slate of witnesses to be summoned later. The defender, a more imposing Vislin female named as Ktlrsh, stood to give her rebuttal. I got a good view of her thick aquamarine tail, which was enhanced as much as it was concealed by her back armor plate. Hey, legal proceedings are boring. You have to keep yourself attentive somehow.
“Mother Judge,” she intoned, bobbing respectfully to the elderly Hrotata female that sat in office over the proceedings. “Grust of herd Torbur first accepts blame for his lack of control. He accepts the charges of destruction of property and simple assault against those who suffered from his frenzy. He should have stopped much sooner. The costs of repair to property and persons will be repaid by him and his herd, who apologize also for not being present to contain his outburst.”
So far, this defender was doing a lousy job.
She continued, “However, as to the charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault, public intoxication, lewdness, and public disturbance, Grust of herd Torbur denies guilt.”
She raised her voice to continue over the chitters and grunts of displeasure voiced in the chamber: “The defense will argue that the defendant had not consumed excessive drink, to his knowledge. Instead, he was unknowingly administered psychoactive medications which impaired his judgment and led to his public actions.”
The mother judge’s frozen stare and rising white-tipped fur finally silenced the noise in her courtroom. No sane Family member would risk the anger of a Hrotata matriarch of such advanced age and rank. It was just as well. While watching the guards subdue and expel protesters was usually the only entertainment value in attending court, this case was finally promising to get interesting.
Drugged? It was a solid defense, provided that there was some sort of proof. Hopefully, herd Torbur and their lawyer had been smart enough to demand blood tests right after Grust was dragged away into custody. The city custodians probably could get a fair amount of the Taratumm’s bodily fluids off of the street… and walls… and the roast tuber cart… but that evidence was only as good as the capability and fairness of the custodians. Given the nasty nature of the accusations against Grust, it was entirely possible that exonerating evidence might get lost or contaminated.
Yeah, contaminated. The law is dirty in Layafflr City. As prosperous a port as my nest town has become, its roots as an illicit settlement run deep. Smugglers, pirates, and slavers still manage to slip their business past dock customs, getting access to and from the whole of the planet. Their money keeps a sizable chunk of local law enforcement comfortably ‘employed’ doing things other than reducing the actual crime rate. The rough frontier past and nasty criminal present of our town mix together to taint the morality of its institutions.
The Collective has been putting pressure on the Great Family to clean up their planet and particularly its largest port. The planet’s official name was translated as meaning ‘spore’ by the bureaucrats. That word was then translated back into the Terran and Zig and Mauraug equivalents, along with versions in other languages. But to the Hrotata it is ‘Rrwm Kshlll’, the ‘furry egg’; to the Taratumm it is Mwasstchef, ‘fern pollen’; and to the Vislin, ChtkKttp, ‘thorned seed’. We had each named it for something round, fertile, covered in protrusions, and perversely beautiful. Our world has mountains big enough to protrude beyond the horizon when viewed from space. It has jungles the size of continents back on Hrotata Prime. It's the home world writ large. Of course we had settled here in droves, generations upon generations ago. Only now, with the need to look good for the Family back home, are we bending to the standards of the Collective.
That pressure translated into these elaborate, televised, increasingly frequent show trials. Grust was being made an example of as a public nuisance, the sort of low-life we were supposedly driving out in order to make Layafflr City a bastion of civilization. Except he probably wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have to be on his herd’s payroll to give him a pass on that. He wasn’t big enough, mean enough, or capable enough to be a criminal enforcer. If he was a real threat, he would have caused more damage and looked more frightening doing it.
He sure as frost wasn’t running any gang. Taratumm are, as a rule, followers. Sure, they have leaders, but they’re more like ‘the biggest’ or ‘the oldest’. Yeah, okay, sometimes that means ‘the wisest’ and ‘the best survivor’, but you know what I mean. They’re not big planners. Big eaters, big… fine. Back to the frosted trial.
The defense wrapped up with a sketch of the scenario, with promises to elaborate as the trial went on. Grust went to the bar to have some fun after work, she said. He had a couple of drinks, sang some songs, then went to go home. Sometime between song K and exit T, some villain slipped him something funny. According to her client, he was extremely ‘aroused’ and thought he was challenging a particularly small and weak Taratumm. He was confused by what he took as a cowardly refusal of his challenge, then further confused and enraged by the honorless victim calling for help from Vislin. And after that, dear mother, he only remembered waking up in medical restraints, still half sedated.
It was a pretty rough skeleton of a defense. It was going to need a lot of meat before it could hope to walk around, let alone dance enough to win a prize. And that, patient listener, was where I came in. Sure, the defender had her own group of witnesses to attest to Grust’s good character and ‘odd’ behavior that night, but she was expecting me to fill in the details. I had to find the joker who supposedly shuffled the deck inside that big, hollow skull.
That’s what I do. Like a lawyer, I make money off of trouble. I’d like to think that unlike a lawyer, I actually care who was responsible. I find lost merchandise, lost reputations, sometimes lost pets. Occasionally, I end up adding extra services like videography, body guarding, and murder in self-defense. Notice that I don’t say involuntary. In a city like Layafflr, there aren’t many jobs with my license. I’ve managed to avoid raising the crests on either the gangs or the custodians. For better or worse, I’ve also avoided much notice by the gentry of my fair nest town.
Still, word of beak keeps me employed. Herd Torbur knew where to find me: just behind the sign that says ‘Stchvk Investigations’. It’s on the opposite side of town from the courthouse and, not coincidentally, close to the street where Grust was out drinking. They needed someone who wouldn’t mind getting their claws bloody in the name of justice… or cash… and would produce results in two days. Oh, right, did I mention that I had two days? It was going to be a fast trial, one way or another. If Grust got convicted, I didn’t get paid. No pressure.
Failure just meant going back to synthetic protein and home fermented beverages for a while. Tsss, that was motivation enough.
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