Science Fiction

Fugue in Death Minor

By Al Onia
Nov 30, 2020 · 3,280 words · 12 minutes

From the author: Justice delayed can inspire greater reform but the sentence may never end.

            The temple I chose was the Fifth Ring, sanctuary to the most devout of all Tryon disciples. Tradition held they used more solomon than any.

            The Tryon I stalked had the big oval eyes. Different though, blue instead of black. Crazy eyes? Or could he see further and deeper because of the solomon?  I prayed he wouldn't be stubborn. I needed his solomon. The Tryons offer it to their great spirit as part of their temple ritual. They burn it! Don't ingest it at all, they claim. Another lie for earthmen to swallow? If true, I wasn't going to allow its waste to satisfy any religious rite.

My target neared the temple gate. The Fifth Ring differed from the corner temples where I'd tried to beg from Tryons going into mass. It was grandiose by their standards, laughably primitive by mine. I balanced on the edge of my sanity. This day I couldn't wait until darkness to hide my crime. There was no one else on the street so early in the morning.

I waited until he passed through the gate to confront the adherent. "I know you're carrying, bug-eye. Give it to me. Solomon," I croaked.

He showed no surprise. Their eyes never did. "Calm yourself, earthman. You don't need to do this. Solomon is not for your kind. You desecrate our beliefs in your abuses." He reached an arm out to me.

I licked my lips and glanced around. We were alone. "I don't give a shit about your religion, just give me your damn solomon." I waved my knife.

"There is another way for you. Not this. Give me the weapon." He came closer. His eyes looked through me. He didn't see Alistair D'eeth, immigrant turned exile. He saw a piteous alien lifeform.

Another way. Their way. I tried to join the ceremonies but the required self-discipline evaded me. That's why I haunt their temples. Pacifists are easy marks.

"Give me the solomon and I'll leave you alone. Don't save me." I cut his purse free.

He grabbed the strap. "No," he screamed. "I beg you."

I had to shut him up. I pulled him close with his precious bag and I stabbed him. His dying hand refused to release. I stabbed again and again. At last he lay limp. I grabbed the purse and ran.

            The guard speaks through the bars. "Ninety minutes, D'eeth."

            Ninety minutes alone with my thoughts. Worse, alone with myself. I'm not the only killer in this prison. I am the only human guilty of taking a Tryon life. There are those who maintain the Tryons aren't worthy of being judged mankind's equal. I won't hide behind their prejudice. The Tryons I have met since my incarceration are more human than many of the so-called enlightened apostles of Earth.

            I ended the life of a Tryon. A man. A father, son and husband. He was all those. Until I murdered him.

            The other inmates killed fellow humans. Many deny their guilt. They have lied so long and so often, they have convinced themselves of their innocence. I know what I did. I can't lie to myself. It's easy to lie to the police and the judges. What was the Tryon doing there is he didn't expect me? I'd been robbing them for weeks outside their temples. His fault, not mine. The police allowed me to continue until I killed. Their fault, not mine. Even easier to lie to the lawyers. But not to the man you face in the mirror.

            I've kept this journal for a month, Tryon reckoning. Half a year in solar awaiting my victim's son's birthday of majority.

            My internment has given me sufficient time to cleanse mind and body from the solomon. The craving will always be there but I won't have to put my soul through addiction and withdrawal ever again.

            This journal contains my thoughts and my questions. I don't know if I want my family to read it after I am gone or if I want them to understand I acknowledge my crime, my blasphemy.

            My questions always return to guilt. How do the disavowers of crime carry their guilt? Do they kill some part of themselves? The part deep inside that knows the lie for what it is? Hard enough to do it here but how does one function once back in society? The guilt must overwhelm them. I could never walk free, both knowing and renouncing my crime.

            Some inmates admit the truth and I respect them for it. I hope I will have respect. Maybe my journal will help.

            I lied at my trial; it was part of the dance. Authorities expected it. How could a human, no matter how degraded, be held guilty of killing a Tryon? They're not human. Animals. They allow us to till their land and we agree to honour their law.

            Deny all, my lawyer advised. In public I did.

            "Were you present on the morning in question at the Elaxus Temple of the Fifth Ring?"

            "I was asleep, passed out from a solomon overdose. Just as the police found me. Drugged for many days. I said all this during my arrest. Don't they keep records?"

            "Where did you acquire the solomon you claim?"

            "I have sources. I won't incriminate an employee of the farms. You'll have to accept my word as a D'eeth; a respected family name on earth."

            "You were covered in the victim's blood."

            "I was framed. The farms seeking tangential revenge against my grandparents."

            "The victim's purse was located and stained with your bloody fingerprints."

            "I can't explain it. I didn't do this."

     But I never denied the truth to myself. Relief came when they declared me guilty. I hated the appeals and hated my performance. The misguided earthman, seduced and betrayed by the insidious Tryon drug.

            We first arrived on Tryon an earth century ago. Vast distances couldn't stop mankind's inexorable advance across the interstellar void. Science solved the physical transcendence. The Tryon world was a vacuum waiting to be filled by men. 'We can learn so much from each other' was the lie which drove the uncommon allies together.

            It was their signal which drew the first ship here. The Nautilus. So named after the great fictional exploration submarine and for the self-contained mini-world its inhabitants carried on their backs.

            After the Nautilus, we came in increasing numbers. The curious, the scientists, the zealots; all interested in what they could learn or more to the point, what they could teach. Indoctrinate rather than enlighten became humanity's goal.

            Tryon and its peoples became another footnote in our history. What we could have learned, we spurned. The good we shared came with the bad. The Tryons were more intelligent than we could have guessed. They accepted the good and ignored what they did not want nor need from us. Except in cases such as mine. Too many cases like mine. The race can filter as a whole but the solitary being or small group cannot. Not from men like me.

            We conquered time and space. Did we deserve to?

            I came to Tryon two years ago. A third generation spacer. My grandparents shipped out from Glasgow in their early fifties. They came looking for Eldorado. Greed, not Tryon, called them. When I turned eighteen, they offered me the chance to follow. My legacy. My right. I didn't ship out until two years after the call. The jumpships maintained their own schedules.

            "Welcome to Tryon, Alistair D'eeth. State your purpose."

            The immigration official didn't even make eye contact. I was a commodity, not a guest. "I travelled to meet and assist my grandparents. The D'eeth family exercises the right of settlement."

            "I have no instructions thus. Their names?"

            "Archibald and Gillian D'eeth. They should be outside the holding area waiting for me." I craned to see beyond the frosted glass.

            "Nothing here. Wait, I have such a couple on the outgoing manifests." This time he did look at me. "Left over a year ago. Outbound for the Hebredaiian Cloud. You should have come sooner."

            "I shipped as soon as I could. Did they leave anything for me?"

            "Unknown. If so, you'll find out. Temporary residency granted." He stamped my papers and handed them back. "Find something to do."

            I stayed to experience the discoveries men of the Nautilus made. To claim some right due me. I came to exploit, dragging my preconceptions with me. I didn't come to learn about the peoples of Tryon. What could aliens teach me?

            The Tryons demonstrated deference but no genuine respect. I didn't deserve it. My isolation betrayed me. I came alone and I existed alone. No men supported me, no Tryon befriended me.

            Do you know what's worse than being shunned? Being tolerated.

            "One hour, D'eeth. Make yourself ready."

            I took a life.

            Driven to it by a solomon-fueled hunger. Solomon. Whoever named it had a sense of irony.

            The immigration official was right. My grandparents had left a legacy behind and I made contact. The earthman who visited me was not a exemplary citizen. He offered me solomon. I had heard about it during my brief sojourn here. My interest in this world's more secular aspects missed the greater part of Tryon culture; their theology.

            The connection-man persisted.

            "Try one hit, make you smarter than Solomon. First one's free. Come on kid, everyone tries it, part of the new society we're building on Tryon."

            It didn't make me smarter. It made me invincible. The Tryons use it in their religion. A ritual for the Tryons, disastrous for humans. The weaker the human, the more catastrophic the effect on the soul. Mine, for instance.

            I had been on Tryon for six days when I relented and took my first taste.

            "Last free chance, D'eeth. After solomon, you'll never need or want other stimulants. Ever. A whole new reality. Look around you; see any unhappy Tryons? Because they take the solomon. And it's not addictive, I swear. Study their eyes."

            The Tryon's eyes make you envious. Big oval eyes, almost all pupil. Serene. Confident. I had to be them. I had to try the solomon.

            After the first rush of dopamine carried me away, I was hooked. It was an accelerating orgasm of adrenaline and intellectual breakout, unstoppable until the drug wore off. It left you empty and drained but craving more.

            My pusher refused to give me more. Wouldn't even sell me more. At any price. Couldn't.

            "You're excommunicado, D'eeth. Your loving family left behind a blood-debt on Tryon. Yours now, I can't touch you, there isn't a pusher on the planet can until you've paid off. You get a slave-contract worked out and I can do business but it ain't worth my trade to be seen even talking to you."

            I wrapped a hand around his thin neck and squeezed. "You will give me the solomon."

            "I can't. No more. I did my job; got you hooked. You have to go to them now."

            I relaxed my grip but didn't release him. "Who?"

            He rasped, "The farm overseers. The earthers who financed your grandparents' passage. Your family skipped on their obligation. That elevates the penalty to a blood-debt. You know why they call it a blood-debt? Because the debtor-crews get the solomon. In everything you eat and drink. It invades your blood. I was ordered to give you the first hit. You want more solomon? You'll get it by paying your debt. That's your choice."

            I hit him with my fist. I stood above this excuse for a man. I bent over and hissed to him, "It's not the only way. I will not go to them. This isn't my debt." I walked away.

            Addiction dominated my existence. I denied my tainted inheritance. Why should I be responsible for the obligations of my forebears? The overseers gave them credit and sent them on their way. The clarity I have now suggests the age of my grandparents gave them little value as hard-labour. A healthy grandson would be better. Consumed with desire for solomon and supercharged by its effects, I believed myself immune from the overseers.

            I frequented the local temples, begging from the Tryons going into mass.

            When begging didn't get me enough I began to rob the dutiful. I never hit the same place twice and I always struck at night. I needed more and more. Solomon enhanced my guilt. I craved and feared it at the same time. I could have chosen slave-labour to work off the debt and satisfy my needs. Rumour has it the overseers taint food and water with enough solomon to increase productivity but after three or four months, a human is hooked forever. I picked an easier way. No hard work in the fields for me.

"Thirty minutes, D'eeth. You going to waste it scribbling in that book?"

            I don't know how they caught me. I hid my clothes. I threw away the purse. I took all of the solomon at once and became the strongest man on Tryon.

            Woke up in jail. My lies began then and there.

            "I've been asleep all night. Never been near any bug-eyed church. What the hell would I be doing near a Tryon temple? I'm not a convert."

            I knew the lies. So did his family. His wife, his father, his son. They all looked so sad with those big eyes. Peering right through my invincible soul.

            When the last appeal was lost, I turned to them and told them I was sorry for taking the life of their loved one. The father nodded, the wife lowered her head and the son stared at me. Looking for his own answers, I guess.

            The burden falls to him, by Tryon law.

            I came to Tryon chasing a dream, seeking fortune, I found obligation, blood-debt. I found a pastoral world with no interest in my greed nor sympathy for my financial dishonour.

            My family and my fellow humans betrayed me. They gave me solomon.

Man's greatest weapon is curiosity. It can also be our greatest weakness. The rush brought on through fear of the unknown. The willingness to face danger. I was strong enough to try it and weak enough not to stop.

How can humans achieve transcendence if we cannot overcome our weakest individuals? The ones who can must leave behind those who cannot. The lowest common denominator shall not define the race. Those shall define the inherent danger in trusting the species.

            I took a life. My burden. The son of the man I murdered inherited his own burden.

            The Tryon courts observe strict religious law. The crime victim's eldest child chooses the punishment when he or she reaches the age of majority. There are Tryons in this prison who have been here for twenty Tryon years, a human lifetime, awaiting the offspring of their victim to reach the age of decision. The responsibility is returned to an individual level, not passed on to the state. I think it lowers their tolerance for violence.

            I'm lucky. My victim's eldest and sole child was close to majority at the time of my final appeal. Not long for me to wait. What would he choose? I wondered. A public display? Do it himself? With a knife into my chest a dozen times?

            The Tryons grieve by denying themselves all pleasure. His family appeared so gaunt at my final appeal. They obeyed Tryon purification practice, consuming minimal food, focusing on grief. The son didn't appear to have enough strength to hold a knife, let alone wield it with the force I used to end his father's life. A true ascetic, devoted to his faith.

            The hand holding this pencil had such strength. The solomon gave me strength. No, that's a lie. The strength to murder did not come from the drug, it came from me. I did it. Free will or no, I made the decision to use the solomon and to steal and rob to continue my path. I chose my path and I accept the consequences.

            The Tryons have some nasty forms of execution. I am afraid.

            My kid-brother is following me to Tryon. He is three months away from planetfall. There is no way to stop him or turn him back. He will inherit our grandparents' debt; the obligation I ultimately evade.

            My brother, I would disown you if it would change this fate. Not because I am ashamed of you. Because I am ashamed of me.

            I took a life. Two. Three. More? I killed a man and destroyed the lives of his family and mine.

            I return to my question. How do those murderers who are free bear their burden? Is it so hidden? Those who claim the Tryons aren't human-like should live inside a man with a false soul. I am less than human.

            The guard and the Warden have arrived.

            "Rise, human D'eeth. Bring your book."

            A voice calls, "So long, D'eeth. See you in death. Ha ha."

            The Warden says, "Ignore them."

            We walk away from the terminal facility. I ask, "Jailer, why are we turning this way? Outside? Am I to be hunted like an animal?"

            "Get out." The warden pushed me through the gates to the street. "You're a free man. Your victim's son died this morning."

            "How?" I shiver despite the warm afternoon sun.

            "His dedication to the Tryon grief ritual. He succumbed to the starvation he thought would purify him. Your victim's lone offspring is dead. He cannot complete your sentence. According to Tryon law, you are free."

            Free? I can never be free of the burdens within.

            "Name." An order, not a question. Life will be different here.

            "Alistair D'eeth." I spelled it out so there would be no mistake.

            "'Bout time you showed. Sign." The paper had all the details.

            I read it through to make sure. I used the pen to cross out one of the clauses. I initialed the deletion and passed it back. I said, "You have to initial my change before I'll sign."

            He studied my face. "Think you can last long enough?" He did as I asked.

            "The strength will return." I gripped the pen tight and signed.

            "Good, you understand then." He pointed behind him to a battered Quonset. "Shift's nearly over for today. Get yourself supper and find a cot. Tomorrow starts early, debtor."

            As I step through the door I can taste it. Solomon permeates the dormitory. The stories are true.

            I took many lives. I can give one back. My brother will not suffer slave-penance. I have surrendered to the overseers. The solomon I have been free from while incarcerated has reclaimed its lost son.

            I carry my guilt in a Nautilus shell, visible only to me. I took a life. I destroyed a future. My own. This is the first day of my new freedom. May faith surround me as it did my victims. I am afraid.

The end




This story originally appeared in Perihelion.

Al Onia

Al Onia concentrates on Science Fiction, mostly from the hard to the hard-boiled.