The following is an excerpt from A Perilous Tipping of Scales, one of the selections in the Darker Echoes collection by Robert John Burke. It was previously published in Peridot Books, and is copyright 2003 Robert John Burke.
This and fourteen other science fiction and fantasy stories can be found in Darker Echoes, available for just 99 cents on Amazon Kindle and associated apps and soon to be available in print...
There you are, my friend! Welcome to Nyivei. I’d feared you might not make it, but you’ve arrived just in time.
Surely you remember me? We were in the Trade together, all those years ago, on Jackson’s Watershed. Or was it Tyer? I suppose it hardly matters. You’re here now, so am I, and I for one am not likely to be going anywhere.
Simon. Yes, that’s right. You knew me as Simon Christopher Cooke, apprentice surveyor on the Constant Star. You cannot have forgotten!
Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize your people dumped their memories into the group consciousness every four years. Rather an embarrassing mix-up. Well, take my word for it; we were great friends, in our time. I’d show you a picture but, as you can see, my hands are bound.
The restraints, yes, that is a tale. Have you the time?
Ah. Fourteen-day mating cycle. Death if you miss it. My condolences. The short version, perhaps?
Thank you, you’re very kind. Won’t you have a seat? Oh, anywhere. Don’t mind the stone benches; they’re softer than they look. As for the dampness, your skin could use a bit of that.
Now then, I remember how it started. I was on Eja ex Maor... that’s the local name for one of the planets around the star we call Rigel. I’d been freelancing since leaving the Constant Star, you know, studying geographical abnormalities and paying my way with trinkets I’d unearth. People tell me I look like a prospector; certainly I did then. Scarecrow-thin, scraggly beard, black, sunken eyes. I’d been missing meals. There’s barely enough treasure on Eja ex Maor to pay for my books, let alone the non-essentials, but I lacked transport and the funds to lift.
I thought my ship had come in, in the literal sense, when I saw the Nyiveien scout. I’d made my last three interstellar journeys on such ships. Sometimes they’ll hire a useful man for the short term. I suppose I’m as useful as the next.
I suffered two days of disappointment, fearing they’d tease me with a quick fuel-and-lift, before a patrol of Nyiveiens finally disembarked. I thought at first they were militia, for they carried themselves and their weapons with a particular sense of deadly intent.
They strolled through the main square in this fashion, past my little flat, then about-faced. One of them, a female calico, knocked on my door.
Well, you could have destabilized me with a magnetic shunt. I had no enemies I was aware of, no contacts with the militia, really no reason for a trio of well-armed felinoids to seek my counsel. I’d have turned and run, but for my desperate need of transportation.
“Yes?” I said, opening the door a crack.
“I am that. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.”
“You are the brother of Caitlin Cooke-McDowell, birth-citizen of the Terran Coalition?”
“Oh, Lord,” I sighed. “What’s she done now?”
The felinoid smiled at me. They all have that same Chesire grin. “Funny you should ask.”
Well, the next thing you know, they’d manhandled me, wrapped me up, and locked me in their hold. Not a word, not an explanation, not even a check of my passport. Just “Off you go, and good luck to you.”
I spent the next week fuming about the accident of my birth. I’m sure I’ve told you about my sister, but as you wouldn’t remember... she’s the sort of sibling who, when she was growing up, everyone told her to be more like me. Not that I’m such a paragon myself. I’m a drifter and eccentric, but not quite a ne’er-do-well. Caitlin crossed that line. She’d been in trouble with half a dozen System Patrols for several dozen infractions, from stolen vehicles to misappropriated funds. She had a knack for escaping punishment, and a somewhat more annoying knack for dragging her family into it. Most of us had disowned her; the rest were actively trying.
I was the one who didn’t move fast enough. My mistake.
Judging by the series of headache-inducing acid trips I suffered, we made at least three super-light hops during my week of confinement. I hadn’t been prepped, and thus couldn’t keep track, but our destination wasn’t hard to guess. We were returning to Nyivei.
Have you ever been here before? No? It’s a lovely place to visit. White beaches, golden sunsets, lush flora. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Just keep your family away at all costs. Nyivei has its unwholesome quirks.
I learned this when, having bounced my brains out through an unrestrained landing, my hosts marched me off the ship, through the landing pad, and onto a ground transport. We made our merry way through the mountain city, past cave and hearth for perhaps five hundred mated pairs. The largest of these rough-hewn structures were the overdens, headquarters for the mating groups, and of course the Processing Center.
The prime female at the Center sported jet-black fur and a couple of mangled ears from past unpleasantness. She introduced herself as Deputy Sharra Thul, and apologized for the inconvenience.
You know you’re in trouble when they apologize for the inconvenience.
“Look, what’s this all about?” I said. “If you’ll give me the bill for whatever my sister’s stolen, destroyed, or desecrated, I’ll see to it that you’re paid in timely fashion. Reasonably timely...”
Thul licked her fangs. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Simon Cooke. Will you follow me?”
When the lady asking is a two-meters-high saber-toothed tiger with an explosive rifle, it’s not actually a request.
She guided me through a series of polished-rock corridors with inset metal doors. Little lights blinked red and green at intervals; well, you saw the security setup on your way in. I’m almost used to the smell, now.
I was not used to the sound of Thul’s claws clicking against the stone. Nails on a chalkboard, that. But just as I was about to scream over it, she stopped.
“In here,” she said, tapping the lights in a certain pattern. Wish I’d thought to memorize it.
The door slid away, and there was my dear sister, clad in a prison jumpsuit very much like this one. She’s a bit taller than me, her hair strawberry-blonde, and... well, you couldn’t possibly care. I imagine mammals all look alike to you. Picture an imp with a wide-eyed smile, and you’re close.
Our eyes met; I braced myself. We’d done the dance before. I play the long-suffering father figure, pleading for a token display of maturity. She assays the role of penitent, pledging her fealty in return for just another chance. You ought to see the crying scene; it’s a showstopper.
This time was different, though. Caitlin’s eyes got a little too wide. Her mouth dropped open and her breath caught.
“No! No, how could you bring him here? I warned you not to bring him here!”
Thul offered a rippling, catlike shrug. “It’s the law.”
“I don’t care. He won’t do it. Neither will I.”
I entered the cell. “Do what? Caity, what have you done?”
She wouldn’t tell me. She studied the floor. There have been bad things before, but never was she ashamed to tell me. I knew then what had happened, what I’d warned her would happen from the beginning.
“How badly were they hurt?”
“They?” Caitlin said, challenging me at last.
“Yes, m’dear, they. Whoever the hell it is you’ve managed to piss off this time. I don’t want to know the details, I don’t care how it happened, all I want to know is: Who was it, and are they dead?”
Caitlin looked as though she’d been betrayed, and perhaps she had been, though not maliciously. I never quite knew how to talk to her, so I limited myself to requests for information.
“The victim was a Nyiveien landowner named Tovey whom your sister attempted to rob,” said Thul. “He is very dead.”
“Armed robbery. Murder. I wouldn’t have believed it...”
“Don’t!” Caitlin told me, tossing out the word like a lifeline.
“You mean to say you’re innocent?”
“Well...” she sighed. “They’ve got some weird laws here.”
Thul stepped in again. “As best we can tell, Tovey’s death was an accident. He interrupted the robbery, chased Caitlin Cooke-McDowell... and, according to our evidence, stumbled and shot himself with his own weapon.”
“Heroic,” I said.
“Not everyone’s a professional. Under our law, the perpetrator of a crime is responsible for its consequences. Tovey would not be dead if not for your sister’s robbery. Legally, she killed him.”
“Absurd! Even if I conceded the point... a charge of negligent homicide, even manslaughter, but not first-degree murder!”
“’Degree.’ A curious idea. If Tovey had only been ‘manslaughtered,’ would he be less dead?” Thul bared her fangs. “Murder is murder.”
I confronted her, my fear forgotten. “You will not subject my sister to such a farce of a trial.”
“The trial’s concluded. She’s guilty.”
“And the penalty...?”
Thul stared back at me without expression. I felt foolish for asking; such a militant mindset would allow but one penalty.
“You will not kill her.”
“That’s up to you.”
I took a step back. The words held a familiar ring: “Let’s negotiate.” But what could I possibly have? I asked Thul as much, but my sister answered.
“Your life,” Caitlin said. “It’s not me they want to execute, Simon. It’s you.”
Not sure you heard right? Neither was I. I was halfway through my next sentence, something about hiring the best lawyer this side of Alpha Centauri, when it processed.
“I never liked your sense of humor.”
Caitlin winced. “It’s true. Of course, I don’t expect you to do it. You have to believe me, Simon, I didn’t want you here.”
I did believe her. It was my ears I disbelieved. The ever-helpful Deputy Thul then supplied information, which I will summarize.
The Nyiveiens are hunters by birth and breeding. The cool, ruthless warrior is their icon. Their instinct is always to kill. To combat this, they’ve established a system of eye-for-an-eye justice. Broad definitions of crime, strict penalties, and a clause which I believe is unique in all the worlds.
The best way to cure themselves of violence, the Nyiveins supposed, was not to address the killers, but the victims. It’s frightfully simple: Kill a man on Nyivei, and when they catch you, you’ll be turned over to the victim’s hunting group for retribution. Exact retribution.
In this case, Master Tovey was survived by a sister and two brothers. Their prescribed penalty: That Caitlin should suffer as they did, and watch her brother die.
Barbaric, you say? Cruel and unusual? You’ll get no argument from me. In the Nyiveiens’ defense, Thul claims this is an old clause, rarely invoked. Most civilized Nyieviens would not dream of slaughtering an innocent in the name of justice. But there are exceptions, particularly among the most venerable hunting groups, and Tovey was... what’s the expression? ‘Old money?’
The situation thus laid bare, I sat down on a stone bench... the very one you’re sitting on now... and tried to stop my head from swimming.
“It’s your choice,” said Thul. “You’re not a citizen of Nyivei. We won’t compel you to submit.”
I caught the veiled threat. “But if I don’t...”
“Then your sister will suffer the default penalty: Death in the same manner as her victim.”
Caitlin laughed, a nervous little sound. “I hear he died real quick. Shot himself through the heart. That’s not so bad.”
“No, it’s not.” Through force of will, I kept my breathing regular and my hands from shaking as I addressed Thul. “You offer me a unique decision. The lady or the tiger... forgive the expression. What would you do?”
“She’s a killer,” said Thul. “I’d let her die.”
“And were she your sister?”
“My sisters follow the law.”
“Good of them.” I looked at Caitlin again. Her eyes pleaded with me not to do it, to run off and raise all the hell she’d left un-raised. I wanted to, but the very fact she wanted the same made up my mind. I turned to Thul. “Have you one of those eye-catching jumpsuits in my size?”
“Quiet you, girl, it’s just another of your messes to clean up.”
“It’s not!” Caitlin ran to take my hands, startling Thul, who drew on us both but held her place. “Simon, listen to me. You haven’t lived here. You don’t know these people. It sounds like a joke, but they’re very serious. They’ll kill you.”
“I’ve no intention of dying,” I said, as in fact I had none. “Once I accept, you’re free, yes?”
Caitlin nodded. “They’ll make me show for the ritual, but it’s a ‘don’t leave town’ kind of deal.”
“All right. Then here’s what I want you to do: Go to the capital, find the Terran consulate, and return with no less than six lawyers. Can you do that?”
She made a face. “Nyiveien justice is a force of nature. Lawyers won’t stop it.”
“A force of nature? What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?”
“I like a challenge,” she said. The teasing had restored a bit of her smile.
“Good. In that case, make it eight lawyers.”
From what I’d seen of Nyieve, I was going to need every one of them.