Flesh and Goldby Phyllis Gotlieb
In Starry Nova, Skerow, a telepathic alien judge, lonely and working far from her home planet, sees an amphibious human enslaved and displayed in a tank as an ad for a pleasure house. She resolves to investigate and do something about this illegal enslavement. But not long after her investigation begins, a fellow judge is found murdered. So begins a story of superscience, slavery, murder and justice, in the distant future.
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Flesh and Gold
By Phyllis Gotlieb, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1998 Phyllis Gotlieb
All rights reserved.
Fthel V: Skerow
Starry Nova was a name stuck on the port city of Fthel V by Solthree jokers. The Russian words stary novy, old new, where there were no visible stars and nothing was new, gave a good sense of the grubby middle-aged facility.
Skerow was endlessly fascinated with Starry Nova. The Khagodi are brisk about playing down an exaggerated reputation for morality—along with the well-deserved one for telepathic power—but their presence has always commanded too-extreme respect and unwanted reverence. Skerow liked to visit dark and grimy cities like this one set in the cold dank center of a continent of mines and ore refineries; a city of lowered skies, lodgings rather than homes, few pleasures and fewer legal. The inhabitants paid no attention to Khagodi.
"You are a romantic!" Tony Labonta had cried, dancing in his buckled pointed shoes and balancing a goblet of the local gargle with a star-fed tidbit.
He had said this several years ago during Skerow's last visit on the assizes circuit at a function honoring the appointment of a new commissioner of mines and resources. Skerow, a grave and sober judge, looked down from a height of over two meters on the curly head of Tony, a tiny and pugnacious prosecuting attorney known for his youth and daring. "Romantic! You are meaning to tease me, Tony!"
But he was grinning up at her with no concern about keeping his mind shut, and it was true that he saw something shy and wild in her: farouche, was his word for it. He had other words to describe her: streamlined baby allosaurus, for instance, but she was not sure what they meant, or that she wanted to know.
She put those thoughts away now, while she lingered by the window of chambers late on a slate-colored afternoon, slow about dressing herself in a judge's dignity. The robe, a long surcoat of thin crinkly leather, was an old one she had inherited from a retired associate, a Khagodi from the equatorial regions of her world, when she was not sure how long she would remain a judge. Later, secure, she had not bothered to replace it, though it smelt of salt seas and musty scales. Before she was done Thordh came in; he stood hesitating in his rippled draperies. She waited; she had never made small talk with him. At length he said, "Will you take the bench today? I would like to go back to quarters."
Khagodi judges traveled in pairs and alternated on the long wearisome circuits. Thordh had been the protégé of Skerow's old associate, and came from the same country. She herself lived among the stony hills of the Northern Spine Confederacy, and had first expected him to be a warm and effusive Southerner, but he had little to say to her, and held his esp shield down tight.
"Certainly I'll sit for you. Are you ill?"
"A little." He spoke lingua with a precise and refined diction. "I find the old ague rises in my bones from the chill air of this place. Here,"—offering his case of spools and tablets—"there may be some notes you do not have." With the other hand he picked up a magnificent impervious helmet of silver and bronze, and put it into its traveling case. The helm was too heavy for Skerow; she preferred her silver net, which had its own disadvantage: it rubbed her scales wrong way.
That Thordh of yours is a very sober sides, Tony had said.
He's none of mine, Tony. The image of Tony, hair ruffled, jigging with some private joke or other, folded itself away, and she arranged her face in the sober mien of the Law.
Skerow did not need any kind of seat before the lectern; she rested on the base of her heavy tail. Sometimes she rather enjoyed her power; sometimes she found it wearisome, as today, when the robe seemed shabby and she felt like a bumpkin wearing it, and the court was heavy with the stink of atmospheric tanks for fifteen kinds of humanity; even Thordh's absence, the empty cubicle below and to one side of her, seemed looming and intrusive. Tony Labonta stood waiting, neat and tight like a duelist; she did not think of him, but called the court to order.
Defendant was a Solthree named Henri Boudreau, a smuggler caught in port, a pirate rather, dragging a long record over five worlds.
The sheriff led him into court, a man of fierce brows and mustache; he glanced up at Skerow and his eyes bulged: he snorted into the supplementary oxygen tank. Defense, an old warrior woman, drew her mouth tight. Tony's eyes narrowed. Skerow had tried many cases in this court; now, for a moment, she became disoriented.
The Warrior, a powerful black woman with elaborately coiffed hair, drew close to the railing. "I understood that Justice Thordh was trying this case."
"He is indisposed and has asked me to stand in for him." Because Defense did not seem to be ready to withdraw, she asked, "Do you wish to make some formal objection, Madame?"
"Um, no." Defense stood for one more instant of paralysis, turned to a statue of basalt; Skerow, caught in the moment by her own unease at Thordh's having so casually rid himself of the case, waited with her. Defense shook her head slightly and withdrew beside her client.
Tony brought in twenty-three witnesses, and with the hammer of his argument nailed down the case with them one by one, hardly pausing to sniff oxygen. Skerow, mindful of Tony's brash enthusiasms, allowed half of Defense's objections, but Boudreau's activities had been so blatant that the Warrior's dramatics were mechanical and tired.
When the arguments had wound up Skerow called the lawyers into chambers to discuss sentencing.
"His record stretches across the Fthel system and beyond," Tony said.
"He's never had a major conviction, or served as much as a year, with time off," said Ms. Sama, for the Defense. Again she was looking oddly at Skerow, as if she wished to say something, but not with her mouth. Of course Skerow could not remove the helm to esp: all Galactic Federation judges were obliged to use them, and particularly the powerful Khagodi.
"A question of sentence," said Skerow. "If we send him to mine the iridium and beryllium he smuggles out he will have easy access among the miners to—and probably die of—the drugs he has smuggled in. Does that seem fair?"
Tony lifted his hand to forestall an angry outburst from Sama, and smiled at Skerow, who nodded and said, "Perhaps a few years supervising the robots at an ore-processing plant where there are no drugs available and he has no soul to corrupt but his own. What do you think?"
Out in court Boudreau stood gaping and red-eyed while this sentence was read. "Five years," he whispered. Then said something silently that by lip movements might have been: Where is Thordh? But Skerow was not sure of reading a Solthree's lips correctly.
"Your attorney will appeal," she said. Boudreau knew this well enough—sentences of more than one year were always appealed—and also that appeals made to assize courts took years, and he might well have finished his sentence before even the clerical work was done. He turned to Sama, opened his mouth and shut it again, and returned to staring at Skerow. His face was flaming, nearly purple.
She looked at him for an anxious second before she faced the court and asked the formal question of its observers:
"Is Justice seen to have been done?"
"No! No!" Boudreau leaped from his cubicle and beat his fists against the rail.
"What—?" He flung his tank at the lectern and shoved his foot through the railings to kick at it, screaming, "Thordh, you filthy bastard! Where are you?"
"Be still, man! Bailiff!" The bailiff aimed her lightning-rod at Boudreau. Skerow said sharply, "Don't be violent with him! Just return him to the holding area."
"You sonofabitch, he swore you'd let me off easy!" Boudreau howled. "I'll die before I get out of those hell-pits!
The bailiff summoned two guards to remove him, and the courtroom began to stir like dry leaves before a storm. A burly Tignit with swarming tentacles sniggered through his vocoder, "Give him five more years for bribing the judge!" Attending court was one of the few legal pleasures of Starry Nova.
An elderly Solthree woman in a mineworker's uniform said in a quiet but penetrating voice, "Give him death. His drugs killed my son."
"Quiet!" Skerow's small hoarse voice was passing its limit, and the bailiff tapped the railing with her rod: a spark jumped from it, hissing.
"Get that prisoner some more oxygen before he suffocates." She slammed her heavy tail on the floor. "Court is adjourned! This is the last session of Galactic Federation Assizes in the city of Starry Nova until next quarter." Tony was looking at her slantwise, but said nothing. The audience gathered itself up and away, grumbling; there were plenty of local courtroom scenes to be enjoyed, but no more exciting interworld ones for another quarter-year.
Skerow turned now to Sama, who was lingering to get her files together. Her voice had been reduced to a hiss and a squeak; she went down the ramp to the floor below the cubicle so that her head would be level with Sama's. "You wanted to tell me," she whispered.
Sama pulled her lips tight and shook her head.
"I will not bring down more trouble on your client's brow," Skerow said. "Five years of prison in Starry Nova is a very heavy sentence. Thordh is a different matter."
Sama looked at her and shrugged, then muttered, "Boudreau said Thordh would let him off with a short sentence, that he'd done it before. Twice." After a moment she added, "I knew that would have to come out some time, but I had an obligation to him, and he might have been boasting. Of course I haven't checked on what he said."
"Quite right. But Thordh said this to him directly? Boudreau could not have been allowed to see him in person."
"I think there was an intermediary, someone who actually spoke to Thordh."
"Yes." He said I'd get off ... "Whatever it is, there's nothingto be done about it this moment," except, of course, that I must speak to Thordh, "officially. Good night."
In the empty courtroom she and Tony looked at each other. "I had the impression that you thought I would let that go by. Did you really believe I would be so derelict, Tony?"
"Not at all. It might be easier on you if I spoke to him. That's all I was thinking."
"I must speak to him first. He cannot be let off easier than Boudreau." Tony kept on looking at her. "But I cannot go on sleeping in the same room with the man while this lies so cold between us."
Tony snickered faintly. "I never knew you slept with him, sweetheart."
"Not in the same basin," she hissed.
"Tsk." Tony whisked himself away.
She found herself suddenly very hungry and thirsty. In the lavatory she moistened her gill-stoppers and dropped a pellet of Khagodi sea salt into her water bowl; she was just flicking her tongue at the water when the reaction hit her. Thordh. Fussy, careful Thordh. She felt slightly nauseated but drank anyway.
... Some notes you do not have ...
A very sober sides, that Thordh of yours.
But this was foolish. At the least premature: an enraged felon, an attorney resentful of Khagodi authority ...
Yet ... with the cage off her head, and her mind free-ranging, she recalled the wisps of thought, the suspicions, the remarks aside that she had just barely caught when she and Thordh were preparing this case, the efforts she had made not to know or hear. Half-consciously to hide her dislike of the man she had known and often worked with for twenty-five years.
Khagodi: a name made by the Ancestral Saints from compounding words: Double heart, single mind. Or expanding them from a chance-found name, perhaps: her people carried these words everywhere throughout the Galaxy. She felt her two hearts beating their heavy uncoordinated rhythms.
Why should I feel betrayed? This one was no Saint and I never liked him. I think I am suffering from deflated vanity. Obviously my judgment of others is not as good as I thought it was.
"Oh Judge Skerow!" Before she had shut the door behind her in the corridor there was a journalist, a thin dark Solthree with a microphone, plucking at her robe. "Where is Thordh, Judge? Where?"
Skerow stared down at the insolent face beneath the broad-brimmed rain hat. She could tell that beneath it he was wearing a commercial shield to hide his journalistic secrets. "He is indisposed," she said, and flicked away the restraining hand with one pearled claw.
She called off the limousine and walked the streets in the dirty rain. There was still a smear of dull light toward the west, but the eastern sky roared with takeoffs and landings, and their muffled thunders rolled across the city from beyond its limits. No stars to be seen. Twenty-five years of riding circuit with Thordh and others had brought her here four or five times, and each time renewed her fascination with the thick and lurid sky, the shimmering pavements, the coldlight displays advertising shoddy and expensive gewgaws. In no other city that she knew did hunched figures slink in and out of crumbling archways in such a sinister way, in no other streets could she expect to be confronted out of the darkness with such huge bubble windows that blazed with light to offer satisfaction of the darkest urges in a half-score of species.
Khagodi who live among northern hills and dry plains are usually of a smaller, tighter build than those of the south, and can walk halfway gracefully; the others have a heavy wagging gait that is tiring even to watch. In spite of this advantage in size, the shocking trial had wearied Skerow, enough to make her look for a short cut, though the residence was not far away. She searched for a street where she could go slower and out of the rain, which she liked well enough when it was clean. Now it was coming up over the soles of her sandal-boots, and the chill dampness was getting to her the way it bothered Thordh. She paused in a dimly lit stone passageway leading to an open square. It seemed clear except for the odd drifting flock of bockers and footpads, and the one nuzzer who slithered up to her, whining, "Mama, you want a pogue?"
She spat in his face while she swept her tail to knock down the huggard creeping up on her from behind. Then she moved forward quickly into the light of the stone square. —and I'll kill you for this!
The thoughtvoice came from nowhere, sharp as a steel dart, and she stood still for a moment among the flashing, bloody-colored lights; the passersby stared, and their thoughts eddied around her.
:Who is that? Who!: No answer: the cry had come from emptiness, as if it had been waiting at the gate of her thought for a stimulus. She turned about, still searching, and behind her left shoulder found the kind of display she had been thinking about, the kind that made Starry Nova so interesting. She stood staring.
A huge bubble of light—no, an illuminated water tank formed the advertisement and window of one shop. She was dimly aware that the line of symbols on its base spelled the name of a chain of brothels famous in a hundred cities on three worlds.
There were two creatures in the tank. One lay on a bed of fake jewels: it nearly covered them, so pearly pale, all tentacles and violet-rimmed mouths: Skerow did not want to know if it was sentient.
The other was ... a Solthree woman. No matter that it—that she—was hairless, with dark red skin and a blade-shaped tail that propelled her in angry circles, that her forehead and chin receded steeply from the firm mouth, and her huge eyes had sealed transparent lids. Those eyes were empty of thought only because she was sleeping, and twitched with angry dreams that made her open her mouth and clench her teeth. She was a human Solthree woman, not merely sentient but intelligent—powerfully built, with square hands and spatulate fingers, a navel in her belly, and milk glands. Breasts. The sight of them with their stub nipples, of her, exposed and perhaps used, in this window, gave Skerow a powerful pang of vulnerability. Was she the source of that furious threat?
Excerpted from Flesh and Gold by Phyllis Gotlieb, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1998 Phyllis Gotlieb. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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