The courtroom filled with vultures and snakes, and each one wanted me dead. As an outsider to this group — coming from one of the outer belt moons instead of a nice, middle-class planet — I was already not one of them, and the fact that I had made their clique look bad was the clincher. This was through no fault of my own.
“All rise…” intoned a bailiff, hand on his stun weapon, eyes on me.
There was the usual boilerplate, introductions, disclaimers, miscellany, and other formalities before I found myself on the stand. The whole trick in court is that when you are on the stand, you see an entirely different room than you did before. Before, you saw the judge. Now, you see a group of people and know that whatever herd instinct they fall into relying upon will decide your fate.
“Describe for us the events of the date in question,” said my lawyer. As far as I could tell, his job was to make a bargain — a compromise, a pragmatic quid-pro-quo — with the other team, and deliver me into an appropriate sentence. On the other hand, in my view, I had done nothing wrong, which is why I was surprised to be arrested hours after the event, where they found me in an unlicensed church. I have no idea how they found me, but fifteen guys in combat gear came in and bodily removed me, and ever since I have been spending time in a locked cell with only a single window to view the world as the finite hours of my life passed by.
The judge nodded, and so I began. “We were a combat scout team deployed to a new and promising world. It had Earth-like temperatures, slightly on the warm side, and dense vegetation resembling that of the Triassic Era of our planet of origin. As scientific advisor, I was sent along to assess feasibility and to serve as second rifleman, which has always been my technical rank in our unit, since I lack the ambition to be formally recognized by military rank.”
“Objection, irrelevant,” said the prosecution.
“Overruled. Irrelevance itself is not against the rules of this Court; he is simply rambling. Witness, keep your attention on the narrative. Go on,” the judge rustled in a bloom of black silk.
“Where was I? Right, so we landed at about 0400 hours. Myself and my fellows — Dak, Zak, Mak, Vak and Hak — went north to the foothills of a mountain range, covering a half-dozen kilometers of jungle and prairie. I took numerous samples which are listed on the evidence table over there. Most of what we sampled were small invertebrates of two varieties. One had webbed wings like an insect, but soft bodies like butterflies, and the other were blind worms that thrashed along the surface of the dirt, eating vegetable matter like a cross between slugs and roundworms.”
I continued, since no one had objected. “Life was bountiful here. We spotted thousands of these little creatures. I kept sampling the air for microbes but found nothing threatening, similar perhaps to the ‘crobes of our own Jurassic period. My impression was that this world had a lot of potential, but that the hotter a world tends to be, the higher the presence of parasitism is because nutrition is easier for organisms in a hot climate, so there is excess which is exploited.”
Sort of like this courtroom, I thought, but did not add.
“Dak, who was ranking as a corporal, said we should acquire a vantage point to see if we could observe any large animals, as we had not seen any for some time. We climbed a small mountain or large hill, depending on how you look at it, and found ourselves on a jungle plateau. I took additional samples here which were lost somehow after my arrest, although they were in the custody of the military-scientific liaison group. My defense team has petitioned for these but received no answer.”
“Objection, hearsay,” said the prosecution.
I sighed. “These activities took us until mid-day, at which point it was decided to break for rations. Having covered quite a bit of ground, we were famished. We broke out rations, heated them, and started to eat, then Hak found a tea bag — ”
“Objection, witness is trying to deflect,” said the prosecution.
I waved them off and continued. “A teabag was found. It was decided that water was needed. One member of the team was either dispatched or dispatched himself to find water, over my objections, since we had not sample any aquatic life and so had zero verification of its safety. However, it was decided by ranking leadership that water itself, if properly boiled, could not harm us. But through this act, our doom was decided.”
As it turned out, Hak had found quite a beautiful little pool. Surrounded by gentle trees, with a soft breeze rushing over it, it was the loveliest and most inviting pool I had ever seen. These guys would not care about that, so I continued: “We found a small pond. At this point, it was blazingly hot — the notes are in my after-action report, if you can find it — and so Zak asked permission to strip down and go for a swim. Morale was sort of low at this point, since we had quarreled over whether there could be water for tea, and so over my objections, leadership decided that we should have a swim.”
“At that point, the events in question began. The others got into the water, but I refused to go, even when told by a commanding officer to do so. In my view, his order was illegal because we had not yet sampled the water to see what kind of life, if any, was in it. This is detailed in my report, which I do not see on the evidence table, where I felt strong objections to going into the water.”
The prosecution flexed his fingers below his chin. “And so, at this point, you began to resent your colleagues?”
I thought. “No, I would not call it resentment. I was determined not to follow them in their folly, mainly for the risk of bringing an unknown organism with multiple life-stages — think of a liver fluke — back onto our craft. It was bad procedure and there was no way I could ever agree to it. I would do the same today, honestly.”
A murmur went up from the crowd, earning a hawk-eye of disapproval from the judge.
I went on. “At this point, the group was fairly agitated. They were having fun splashing around, and were finally free from the heat. I wished for the same, but not through their methods. They started to call to me where I was seated on the bank of the pond.
‘Don’t be such a fag, get in here!’
‘Always a spoilsport. Quit being such a bitch.’
‘We’re all doing it, why are you such a nerd?’
‘Whatsamatter, what’s good for us isn’t good enough for you? Such a little prince, nose in the air.’
‘He thinks he’s too good for us! What a bigot!’
And so on. I have to say here that I did not particularly take heed of this, as I am told that such ribbing is in the tradition of our unit, so I had mentally filed it under camaraderie instead of antagonism. But after they had been in the pool for just, well, about two or three minutes, something changed.”
The silence in the courtroom made other sounds loud. I could hear the electricity arcing through the lights above, and the fan on the computer the court reporter was using. Even through the thick insulated doors, the mutterings of the crowd outside reached me. My stepfather and surrogate mother were out there somewhere, probably disappointed with me as they had been my whole life, except when I finally got appointed to this team which I had, in their view, screwed up.
All eyes were on me. “I noticed it first with Mak. He had been swimming in little circles, but then he started wriggling.”
“Wriggling — ?” the prosecution asked me.
“Yes, shaking, squirming, moving uncomfortably, like a weird dance or an uncomfortable child. It was an odd motion, now that you mention it, and that must be why it caught my eye. I called out to him and he turned to me. Dak told me to shut up. But as Mak turned, I saw that he was writhing in pain, and that there were… creatures in the water around him. There may or may not have been samples taken, and if they were, they were filed along with my after-action report, alive, but I do not see the chit on the table either. I will describe these creatures.”
The court remained silent. If I were on a power trip, or just an egomaniac like most people, I would have relished this moment. “They were about ten centimeters long, and were segmented worms with an outer carapace, like Earth millipedes or centipedes, but instead they had mouths like a lamprey inside a little armored head, like a tiny placoderm. And in place of legs, they had little flippers that were like the bodies of tiny flat snakes, so not bony like ordinary fish fins or flippers, which are usually a mammalian or bird adaptation. Any samples that I may have taken were extracted very carefully from the surrounding water using medical tweezers and a solid glass, kevlar-topped sample container.”
“But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I took the samples, I was talking to Mak. The others had stopped swimming at that point. Mak was in the deepest water, and he was doing this writhing dance, but was clearly not drowning. Then he turned to us, and opened his mouth, and inside of it I saw all of these creatures thrashing as they dove into his flesh. He looked at me with tense eyes, clearly in pain, and then the creatures thrust upward and all the life went out of those eyes as they ate the brain. He was dead before he sank into the water.”
A ripple of emotion cross the courtroom, bounced off the far wall, and lapsed into the middle in an entropy caused by lack of actual caring.
“At this point, I yelled to Dak to get the others out of the water. Zak started slashing at the water, and said, ‘They’re coming in through my penis!’ at which point the others started heading toward shore. But it was too late. They each started to do the death-dance, the little creatures having drilled into them and then attached their limbs to one another so that they formed a big rope, which then was sucked into the body where they began to feast. Piranhas and candiru have nothing on these little guys.”
The judge waved for me to go on.
“Before they died, Dak and Vak called for me to save them. They wanted me to pull them out of the water, or use my shock rifle to help. The problem is that the shock rifle would have killed them as well, and that going into the water would have put me in danger.”
Aha! The prosecution leaned in and said, “Isn’t it your job to go into danger in service of your comrades?”
The entire audience sat back. This was the moment they were waiting for, when the person who violated the sanctity of the herd would be punished.
I thought, and then said slowly, “There is no part of the rule book that says I am obligated to destroy myself to rescue a doomed comrade. You will see in my defense brief a listing of military cases where soldiers refused to aid those who had made bad decisions and doomed themselves. As it stated in our military book of law, there is no general obligation to render aid to another where rendering such aid would not change the outcome. And in my view, there was no hope in this case.”
“And on what authority did you make that determination?” sneered the prosecution, angry that his guillotine moment was over.
“The timing. Mak died in a matter of minutes, but even before that, he was beyond saving because his internal organs had been consumed. They eat the brain, heart and lungs last, probably to keep the meat as fresh as possible during their feasting. From the fact that these organisms had already entered their bodies, I knew that my comrades were doomed, and by their own choice, against my advice.”
The prosecution swept toward me, his robe forming dark wings behind him with the sudden movement. “But you were not the ranking officer here, so it was not your decision to make,” he said.
“No, I was not. However, I was the only scientific officer, and this was a scientific and not military question. There was no military objective in the pond. Nor was there any part of our mission that covered the pond, or I would have objected until we brought equipment that would allow us to safely sample the creatures within. None of the others had scientific training or background with biology, as I did. And so I had to make the determination on that basis.”
The courtroom fell into a complete lack of energy. The moment was defused. The excitement was gone. I had stood up to the crowd and, whatever they did to me, they would have to lie about it in order to make it seem like my defense had no basis. Then again, with so much of my evidence missing, I had zero expectation of fairness. But I went on.
“Seconds later, all four of the survivors were doing the writhing dance with increasingly frequency, like Mak had done in the moments before his brain was consumed and he lost consciousness, leading to animal death. In sequence, they each turned toward me, opening their mouths so I could see the swarming mass, and then the eyes went out as the creatures dove in and ate the brain. Then they fell back into the water, and the mass of creatures converged upon them, eating everything. They were even able to consume bone, which is why I was careful to use the bite-resistant sample container. They ate everything — eyes, sinews, hair, bone, and teeth — and left only the contents of the intestines. Three minutes, maybe, after the event began, all that remained of my comrades were five heaps of dung on the bottom of the pond, which I could see through the clear water.”
“In my opinion, we encountered a world that stayed in its Triassic-like state but for some reason, kept earlier creatures around from the Devonian era. These evolved, but instead of becoming new creatures, became more effective versions of themselves. The planet may have simply been too rich with life to squeeze creatures into new forms. Needless to say, this explained why we saw few larger creatures. These nasty little attack-worms normally feasted on the blind and idiotic invertebrates who moved randomly and so, inevitably, ended up in the pools where they were eaten. But any larger creature that came to drink water would have been destroyed immediately, so the parasites blocked further evolutionary potential.”
The prosecution fulminated in a corner. Seeing this, the judge asked, “In your mind, did you do anything wrong?”
I pursed my lips. This smelled like a trap. “The question is not in my mind, your honor. Human reasoning comes in three varieties: deference to the individual, or individualism; deference to the group, or collectivism; and deference to principle, logic, knowledge of nature, science and other abstractions that reflect an understanding of how the world works. Ironically, while the first two are purely social determinations, religion and philosophy belong to the latter, because they too are based on principles of how our world is composed and how acts in it tend to resolve, and from that, how to make the most of what we have. I defer only to science, somewhat, but even more, logic.”
“There was no way to save those men once they went into the pond. At that point, they had to be considered infected because of the presence of a parasitic species in the pond which our science does not yet know how to counter. For me to touch them was to risk exposing myself to the parasite, and it was more important for the safety of those to follow that this information be passed along. Their loss was a result of their choices.”
At this point, the courtroom returned to an uproar. Blaming the victim! Desecrating the dead! The energy returned back to the lifeless room. The bailiff hustled me out because he was afraid that the crowd might attack. But I knew this was theater. The real attack would come through the judge who, apologetically shrugging, would explain that from the necessity of keeping the group together, I, too, had to be sacrificed. And that is what happened. As it turned out, the ship taking me to an off-world penal colony suffered a fire, and had to crash-land on a distant moon, putting me right back to where I started. But that is a story for another time.