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The Soul Snare

by Verna McKinnon

part 1 of 2

“Bring in the Blood Thief,” demanded Judge Verlia, tapping the floor three times with her wooden staff.

Jason Abbey whispered to his native guardian, “That’s a strange term for a murderer, Shayda.”

“It’s the language of archaic law,” she answered softly. “It’s tradition, that’s all. We rarely have any murders, though when we do, it’s nothing like this. Our priests serve as our judges for such terrible crimes.”

“I thought you said your people had no organized religions or gods, so what faith or philosophy do your priests serve?” he asked.

“Our spirituality is one of universal law,” Shayda answered simply.

Confused by her answer, he decided to let the matter drop until later discussion. Too much to learn in the time they had.

The Law Temple felt more like a church than a court. The high domed ceiling of amber glass sheltered an immense, elegant hall lined with pale pillars of polished blue marble, intricate mosaic floor tiles, and tall, narrow windows that allowed beams of sunlight to brighten the room.

Only three Judges stood on the low circular dais, draped in long gray robes. He had met them earlier — Verlia, Benjaim, and Tama, the most revered judge-priests in this part of the world, according to Shayda. He glanced across the hall where the families of the victims awaited justice. Jason and Shayda stood on the opposite side, a diplomatic compensation to unusual and dreadful circumstances.

Seven guards dragged the chained man into the great hall to kneel before the Priests for trial. The aura of purity in the vast chamber was sullied by his presence. There was no repentance or fear on the blood thief’s features as he crouched like a feral beast before the judges. Grime and sweat caked his sun-browned skin.

The prisoner spat, wiped his mouth with iron-cuffed hands and grinned. Jason Abbey fought the urge to back away from the wild man, not only because of his rank odor but his violent demeanor disturbed him.

Jason asked, “Couldn’t you have permitted him a bath or change of clothes?”

“We offered,” a guard replied, “But he ripped the garments we offered and refused to bathe... except in blood.”

“Then let the blood thief remain so,” Tama said, rapping his staff once on the stone floor. “Let it be noted that we offered the hand of decency.”

They did not address him by name, only as blood thief, and Jason wondered if crime wiped out personal identity on this world.

The murderer was Thero Rham, an Earth native who had escaped from a penal world several weeks ago. He was a serial killer that rehabilitation could not heal or change. Rham had killed over two hundred people — mostly women and children — before crashing on this world. Now he had added more deaths to his list of heinous crimes. At only thirty-two, Thero Rham was one of history’s most vicious killers. Earth had banned the death penalty decades ago; all they could do was keep him locked up.

“This is a terrible way to initiate first contact,” Jason said. “An escaped serial killer crashes on an alien world — your world — then murders thirty children before capture.” Jason bowed his head, “My people are full of sorrow and regret for the horrors your people have suffered. I am only here to offer the support and friendship of Earth.”

“We hear and understand, Ambassador Abbey,” Judge Benjaim said sternly.

“I know you mean well,” Shayda whispered. Her dark blue eyes had genuine sympathy. An unusual-looking people, the natives of the world Utropa were humanoid, with minor variations. All appeared to be tall and willowy. Shayda stood shoulder to shoulder with him and he was over six feet tall. Slim-boned as birds, with deep blue eyes (he had yet to see any other color), dark golden skin like honey, and lush, thick black hair. They were an exotic but attractive race. He sorely wished to know more about them, but the stress of the trial kept his inquiries minimal.

Jason Abbey had been fully briefed before they arrived by ship five days ago, as fully as one can expect in a first contact mission with a technologically inferior race. The Earth authorities did not care if the Utropans returned Thero Rham but did expect them to make a token gesture for his extradition to an Earth prison.

They also instructed Jason to limit any offers of technology to the race, which did not seem ready for it. They had no space travel, or even air flight of any kind. Jason’s brief tour of their capital, attended by Shayda, revealed a lovely city full of shops, schools, and businesses but devoid of the nerve-jarring noise of Earth cities, or even that of the colonies.

Jason arrived by shuttle alone, as agreed through negotiations. He wondered how they had mastered the communication system of the ship Rham had stolen and contacted Earth, though Jason realized the Utropans were far from stupid or backward.

At age thirty-five, Jason was one of the youngest diplomats and first-contact experts in the Alliance. His diplomatic training, however, did not prepare him for dealing with the criminally insane or with primitives who still used theology to judge people.

Verlia looked down at Thero Rham and asked, “You have been judged a blood thief for the murders of thirty children and five adults. How do you plead?”

Thero Rham shrugged. “I won’t deny the enjoyment each death brought me, though it was short-lived. I hungered for death’s pleasure. More than that, the methods that brought those deaths. There are many ways to kill. I like to experiment. It had been so long since I tasted the flesh of my victims or heard their screams-”

“Silence, Blood Thief!” Verlia commanded.

Jason glanced across the room at the families of the victims that had been allowed to attend the trial. They were silent, though words could not describe the pain and hatred he witnessed on their faces.

“You freely admit your crimes?” Judge Tama asked.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m an Earth citizen. You’re a pack of backward imbeciles. You can’t execute me, either. I heard you have no death penalty on this world. Earth will take me back. Tell them, Mr. Ambassador.”

Jason shook his head, “If we can arrange for your transport with the Utropans’ permission to a penal world, I have been authorized to do so. But since you committed multiple murders on their world, we are obligated to honor their laws, Rham. You can rot.”

Not very diplomatic, but it made him feel better.

Thero spewed such foul language at his reply that Jason burned with embarrassment.

Judge Tama grimly said, “Your words invoke no mercy, and your stain as a blood thief is great. More than thirty lives were ended by your hands. Defenseless children killed in the most atrocious ways. You scattered their bodies across our land to torment and frighten us. Families wailed with grief. Five of our people died trying to capture you. You are marked not only as a blood thief but as an evil soul. I wish I could say you were soulless, but all things have souls. Even your human species must understand this.”

“Offer me up to the Earth authorities. They can pay you for my return. I have a large price on my head.”

Judge Verlia rapped her staff sharply, “Your head is not for sale, Blood Thief. Earth’s representative has already spoken.” Verlia turned to Jason. “Is that so, Ambassador Abbey?”

“Yes, Your Honor.” Jason cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Earth will indeed honor your punishment of Thero Rham. We will not interfere with your just decision. If your punishment is execution, we will abide by your wisdom,” Jason assured them.

“We do not take life. Though there is something far worse than mortal death,” Verlia said, looking at Rham.

The three judges conferred together and spoke in soft, quick voices. Thero Rham deserved death. When Jason looked at him, feelings of grotesque hatred and revulsion burned within him. He wished he could kill this monster. Jason never realized such primal feelings could be awakened. He had always considered himself a civilized man.

The three judges stepped forward, and each rapped their staves three times. Solemnly, each judge took a stone from their robes, and in turn laid a small, oval polished black stone before Thero Rham.

“What are they doing?” Jason asked Shayda.

“The stones of judgment. Black means soul death.”

“Soul death?” Jason said, confused.

The first priest, Verlia spoke with hard voice, “We have judged you not only a blood thief, but a dark soul. We are in unison in this verdict. You will suffer the most extreme penalty of soul death.

“Death of the body and death of the soul are two different things, Blood Thief. Your crime demands a soul death, which prevents your soul returning to this world or any other.”

The second judge, Benjaim, added, “Tomorrow, at dawn, you will be taken to the old temple. There you shall be chained to the soul snare to await the Old Spirits. If the Spirits wish it, they will destroy your soul in the ancient way. The death of your soul, Blood Thief, will prevent its rebirth. Its existence in the universe stains the fabric of life.”

The third Judge finished the decree, “Should the Ancient Spirits, for whatever reason, spare your soul, Ambassador Abbey has our permission to take you from this planet to suffer the punishment of your own laws. That is our last word on this tragedy.”

The families that listened to the verdict looked satisfied. Jason felt only a prick of relief. That final statement gave him a loophole to get Rham off this world should this strange ritual not kill him. Earth preferred this, of course: life in isolation on a barren planet where Rham could not hurt anyone again. Attempting rehabilitation in penal colonies was no longer an option. However, the concept of soul killing was unclear to him...

Thero laughed, “Superstitions and fairy tales! Looks like I’m going home to Earth after all.”

Jason was confused. “Excuse me, is that a symbolic form of execution? You condemn him to a soul death, so the body also dies, right? I merely ask-”

“That is for the Spirits to determine,” Verlia said. “If they find the blood thief has an evil soul, then they will destroy it. Such are the old ways. They are rarely called upon, but they are our only means of dealing with such darkness, Ambassador.”

“I still don’t understand,” Jason said.

“We know, but this is not the time for an explanation of our ancient ways. You have said you will not interfere.”

“Of course, we will not-”

“Then nothing more need be said.” Verlia finished, with a hard rap of her staff. “You are welcome to witness the soul death, as we have stated.”

Jason bowed his head. “I apologize, Judge Verlia.”

He looked up, and silently watched the judges and the families depart from the vast chamber.

“You can’t take a soul if they don’t exist, can you?” Thero ranted as he struggled against the firm grip of the guards as they dragged him back to his cell.

Jason was disturbed by the ruling, and excused himself from Shayda’s side, “Give me a moment, I just need to contact Captain Darin. He’s been anxious about the outcome of the trial.”

“Of course,” she nodded.

He retrieved his palm-sized communicator from his coat pocket and signaled Captain Darin. After brief formal greetings, Jason leapt into a recap of the trial...

“The judges decreed something called soul death, whatever that means. They did say that if the spirits don’t kill his soul, we can take him back to one of our prisons. Unless soul death means execution, of course. It sounds very symbolic, but I can’t be sure. The ceremony is at dawn at some old temple. I will contact you afterward to make arrangements for Rham’s transport should he still be alive.”

The Captain replied, “This may be a time when a technologically backward culture will make things easier for us. Contact me after the ceremony, and I’ll send troops to take him back. This soul killing must be some primitive ritual. A pity they won’t kill that monster and take him off our hands.”

“I agree, Sir. But let’s allow them their rites. Afterward, they will transfer custody to Earth.”

“Which is more than we hoped for. Have they asked for restitution?”

“No, Sir. I offered, but they politely replied that nothing can replace the loss of their children.”

“I agree with them. Damned tragedy. Still, make arrangements for future talks with them. Remember, they are a simple race.”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll contact you tomorrow.”

The chamber was empty when he finished, except for Shayda who waited patiently for him by the large double doors. He joined her, and they left the great hall. Stepping into the afternoon light, Jason basked in the warm beams, wishing it could take away the stain of contact with Thero Rham. They strolled slowly through the streets.

After a few moments, he asked. “What exactly is soul death, Shayda? What is a soul snare?”

“The death of soul. The soul snare calls the Old Spirits. I will take you there later, if you would like to see it,” she assured him. “I need to stop thinking about all this for a time. I need a drink. Would you like to join me?”

“More than you know.”

* * *

They walked to her home, which only took half an hour. He was glad of the exercise, fresh air, green trees... and of Shayda’s company. Despite the horrors of his reason for being here, he enjoyed her friendship. They reached her house, a simple one level constructed of smooth golden stone, designed with artful simplicity, the low, slanted roof tiled in teal. Green vines decorated the side of the house in abundance.

She opened a wooden door and led him to the central room. “I’ll get some wine. You do drink wine?”

“Wine sounds great, thank you.”

“Make yourself at home. I’ll just pop into the kitchen.”

The living room was wonderfully normal and messy. A strange comfort. Piles of papers, books, and a couple of dirty glasses scattered on a low wooden table. A green sofa was piled with plump cushions, an overstuffed chair was covered with rumpled clothes and shoes. Thick green drapes of a velvet-type fabric were tied back, allowing the sun to shine through the large oval windows, making the small living room bright.

He sat down on the sofa and waited. She returned in a few minutes, carrying a tray with a slim bottle of midnight-blue glass and two matching glasses, a plate of sliced pale bread, and a bowl of brown oval crackers. She poured the wine, which was peach-colored, and handed him a glass.

“I’m sorry about the clutter. I’ve been so busy, and with the recent tragedies I’ve hardly been home for weeks except to shower and change. That’s why you can’t see my kitchen. It’s a wreck of dirty dishes and overflowing trash bins.”

He sipped the wine. It was dry but slightly sweet. It didn’t taste like peaches, more like grapes and currants. “Don’t apologize Shayda, it’s actually welcome after all these formal meetings in plain, austere offices. I spent two weeks traveling here on a large military space vessel. The living compartments are quite cramped and sterile on those ships. The food isn’t so good either.”

She took a long drink and leaned against the pillows, “Then relax. Tell me, how do I understand your language and you understand us so well?”

He shrugged, “It’s a new translator technology. I have a small implant in my head.”

She looked horrified.

“Oh, no, it’s not like it sounds,” he laughed. “It’s just a tiny chip, like a small computer. If you do any space travel, it’s recommended. If you’re in the military or diplomatic services, it’s required. Do you use computers, Shayda?”

“We have computers, of a sort. Though it’s not quite of the same design your people use, I think.” She ate some bread, “We do have flushing toilets. Does that make us civilized?” she teased.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Verna McKinnon

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