* * * CHAPTER THREE * * *
In the year 2427, comms specialist Jackson Doon's universe is threatened by an unexplained cosmic event called 'The Light Pass'. The Light Pass, a beautiful but deadly phenomenon, has already destroyed dozens of planets before it reaches Iata, Jackon's home world.
The Exodus Fleet is taking off and Jackson knows how to get aboard. With nothing but a suitcase and a bio-tech dog called Frolic, Jackson sets off with the fleet to Carvern, the closest habitable planet not in the Light Pass's path.
But on reaching Carvern, Jackson finds himself unexpectedly on trial for murder. His only hope is a lawyer named Skana Larken, who's convinced both Jackson's home world and her own were not destroyed by the Light Pass, and is on a mission to prove it.
With Jackson's knowledge of ARPnet, his home world's communications hub, and Skana's unrelenting determination, they set out to follow the Light Pass in search of answers.
I woke before dawn to someone pounding on my door. Frolic gave the door a filthy look and jumped to the floor. I watched his bushy tail disappear as he crawled under the bed. Frolic is not a morning person.
I pulled on some clothes and opened the door.
A breathless man , dressed entirely in red, was standing in the corridor. "Your trial is in one hour," he said, then turned around and jogged away.
I shut the door, perplexed, and checked the card they'd given me on arrival. Sure enough, he was right. Carvern, I decided, sucked. But at least they were organised.
I looked around. Frolic's golden eyes watching me from under the bed. I managed to coax him out for a quick breakfast before we headed down to the House of Law.
The House of Law was conspicuous as the only building on Carvern that had a red door. Or, in fact, had red anywhere. I hovered outside, gathering my thoughts. I wasn't ready for this. Was I? Was I ready to die? I looked down at Frolic who gave him molten eyes in return. I wanted to apologise to him, but it's not like he could understand. At least I knew if they put him down, they'd be humane.
I took a deep breath, wiped my hands down my jeans and opened the door.
Skana was waiting for me indoors on a chair shaped out of pale wood that I was guessing was harvested from trees felled by the elements, since I couldn't see a Carvener wielding a chainsaw.
She stood as I came into the waiting area and her mouth twitched in what I think was supposed to be a smile.
"We're up next," she said. "Here are the notes."
She tapped her portable data device, which was one I didn't recognise and patiently waited for me to absorb the information.
"I ah—I don't have-" I tapped my head. "I'm not wired."
She raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were a technician."
I grimaced, trying to figure out a way to explain. "Ah, I worked for ARP using old AugReal tech. Allergies," I said, unconvincingly.
"Are you an AugRat?" she asked.
"A—a hacker? Nooooo," I said. "No. Ah, just, allergies.” I waved a hand in the air to demonstrate the general area of my skull.
Her gaze said she knew I was full of shit.
"Well. Let's concentrate on the key points. Ah, the—the character of the man you're accused of stealing from-"
"Stealing?" I said, confused.
"Ah," she squinted her eyes, reading information displayed directly onto her retinas. "You're accused of stealing his... life," she finished, with a prim smile.
"Is that different from murder?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"Okay," I sighed. "How should I plead?"
A woman wearing a red suit approached us. "The administrator will see you now," she said.
There was no time to argue. We were ushered through into a small room, where a man with a white beard that wouldn't have looked out of place on an advent calendar considered us from behind a counter made from the same pale wood as the chairs in the waiting room. He was wearing a grey suit, which I guessed was symbolic for fairness. Or something.
Skana went and stood in front of the counter and motioned me to stand beside her. As soon as he realised we weren't going anywhere for a while, Frolic flopped to the ground and stared into space.
"Your dog is depressing," Skana murmured.
The man behind the counter read from a holo screen, placed there for my benefit I was guessing, since I wasn't jacked in.
"Jex four-thirty-four, you stand accused of taking the place of sanctioned government official, Carsel Laront on Exodus Four, leading to his death in the Light Pass event. Under Carvern law, this is considered murder. How do you plead?"
I glanced at Skana. "How do I plead?"
"Your honour, Jex four-thirty-four would like to enter the plea of No Disservice to Humanity."
The bearded man peered at her. "Please provide your evidence."
Skana tapped her wrist and a screen of text appeared on the man's holo. He read through it then glanced at her over the screen.
"You attest that Carsel Laront was not a moral or law-abiding citizen?"
"I think his theft of the equivalent of just under five million in Carvern Credits from the charity he chaired proves it, your honour."
The old man looked at me. "And you, Jex four-thirty-four, do you attest to being a moral and law-abiding citizen?"
I looked at Skana. She nodded. Well, I might not be honest, but I liked to think of myself as moral. Law-abiding... weeeellll...
"I wasn't aware that I was on trial for being a law-abiding man, your honour. After all, I took his place. Against the law and such. But truly, the man was a prick."
The corner of the man's mouth twitched. "I see."
Skana folded her hands in front of her. The man in white swiped the air and his ancient holo folded itself away.
"I find you not-guilty of murder by way of No Disservice to Humanity. However you are still guilty of the crime of Attempting To Deceive."
That didn't sound so bad. I glanced at Skana. She seemed upset.
"Your honour, surely the magnitude of Carsel Laront's crime outweighs any crime committed by my client."
The old man shook his head. "One man's crime cannot outweigh another. Your client admits he's guilty of the crime of deception. On Carvern, we have only one penalty."
"Wait, what? One penalty?” I was only aware of one penalty. That fish thing.
"Jex four-thirty-four, you are hereby sentenced to execution."
"What?” Frolic caught my fear and sat up, looking around for danger.
"Your honour, surely this man deserves a proper trial if he is to lose his life?” Skana tried valiantly to save me from my own gigantic mouth.
The old man shook his head. "I have five more of him from planets as far as Old Earth to see before breakfast. If you don't like the punishment, take it up with the Supreme Law Administrator, however I can assure you that the steady influx of refugees will mean you are unlikely to have your appeal approved. The execution will take place at seventeen unless I receive notice of an appeal. Jex, please report to this office fifteen minutes before your execution. You will be given a preparation pack. You may leave."
Skana deflated. She nodded curtly to the administrator and led me out into the waiting room, where the woman in the red suit touched an old Scansfer to my Deywatch. "Here you are Sir, your preparation pack."
The screen lit up red. "So, you're going to die." scrolled across the screen.
"Thanks," I mumbled, and followed Skana out on to the street.
"What just happened?" I asked as we walked away from the House of Law.
"Carvern law," she said. She let out a noise of frustration. "Perhaps we can appeal."
I shrugged. "How do we do that?"
We turned a corner and she stopped. I followed her gaze.
"Is that the Supreme Law office?" I asked. A line of people holding red cards stretched out down the street. "How long do you think it takes to process an application?" I asked.
She looked down at her feet and shook her head. "There is not time."
I put an arm around her. "Hey, you tried at least. Hey, would you mind looking after Frolic after I'm gone? He doesn't need much—we use meal caps, and I have a good ninety days' supply in my bag. He doesn't cost much to look after. He's really low maintenance? Please?"
She pulled away and scowled at me. "You're not going to die. Stop talking like that. We're going to leave."
She started walking again and Frolic and I fell into step with her.
"Start making sense," I said. "My brain's stellar-lagged and I've got a hell of a headache starting up."
"We need to get off this planet. We need to charter an FTL ship and we need to follow the Light Pass."
I stopped and grabbed her arm. "Whoa, whoa, what? You want to follow the Light Pass?"
Frolic sat and looked at her with an expression that looked a lot to me like grave concern.
"The arc has almost finished. I've been tracking it since I got here. If we want to follow it, we need to leave as soon as possible."
I shook my head. "Why would we follow it? It destroys everything!"
She rolled her eyes and pushed past me. "I told you, nothing's destroyed. We just don't know where it is.” She started walking again.
Frolic glanced at me and gave a small yip. I sighed and followed her, Frolic trotting at my heels.
"Do you have credits?" she asked me as we walked.
"Some.” Actually, come to think of it, I had a lot. Most of it stolen. After all, Iata was being consumed—it made sense to transfer whatever wealth I could to my account.
"We charter a ship. Now."
"Right now? How?"
She rounded on me, her golden eyes flashing with anger.
"Stop being a child. Make an effort to save yourself. You did it once—do it again. We need to get to the port now, so stop talking and start walking!"
I did as she said. Curiosity should be my middle name. I'll do anything to find out what happens next.