(Note: This story was written in two layers. The second layer retells the story with a deeper and more complete viewpoint, and is meant to be read after the first. It will be posted in the future; if you wish to read it sooner, please leave a comment or otherwise contact the author.)


(first layer)

by Fernando Sacchetto – mar. 2007

Oh. My. Fucking. God.”

Zaminsky was seasoned, the most experienced one in the medical field and one of the oldest people around, but that obviously wasn’t enough to prepare him for that sight. He turned away, retching slightly. “How… how come?”

We, uh… still don’t know.” Mihara strived to find the composure to say anything at all, as he pulled the bloodied sheet off the body. She was mostly intact from the neck down, but the head that Zaminsky had uncovered was barely recognizable as a human body part. It would be impossible to identify the mess as Karen Higgsen if the colony wasn’t small enough for everyone to immediately know who was missing. Fragments of bone, tooth and eye could be seen amid the pool of gore and blood that formed in the caved-in head, crowned by blood-drenched blonde hair. “I guess there’s going to be a security inquest, and…”

No, I mean… how could anyone… you know.” Vague gestures made up for the insufficiency of words.

Yes, tell me about it. I still have a hard time believing it myself.”

Zaminsky closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. Old files, medical and security reports, video and audio recordings, rushed into his mind. “I… remember the last time it happened. I mean, not so much personally, I was just a little kid and they kind of sheltered me from the whole business. Most I got to know about it was from the files.”

Mihara looked at the body, uneasily, then back at his colleague, and decided to just stand and listen. Give him his time.

It was a big fucking scandal, of course, I guess you can figure that out. Some guy got fed up with his woman, you know how it goes, except he was a bit psycho. Carved her up with a knife. Of course, it wasn’t gory like this, not by far… but still, Mihara, I hope you understand what I’m getting at here. This stuff had never happened, and once it did, it was just disturbing. I mean, we all know each other here. It’s not like back on the ground where some random criminal you’ve never seen just happened to pick you out for a target. We all see each other day in and day out. That was… someone we knew. Hell, I know I was playing checkers with him the week before. It’s someone… real. That’s why it had never happened before, and not ever since. And that’s why most everyone agreed to change the rules around that guy and settle the matter for good.”

Critical and irrecuperable inadequacy for communal life”, Mihara recited. “Yes, really, I can’t imagine living with a man like that anymore. Sharing lunch with him… damn, wouldn’t even be able to hold it down.”

Both of them leaned closer to the body, slowly adjusting their eyes to it. Zaminsky broke the silence. “Let’s get this over with, okay? So the boys can go and… do their business.”

Alright.” The younger med-tech switched on the recording. “November 16th, 2186, 11:18 AM standard time. Medical technician Yasuo Mihara. Autopsy of young Caucasian female subject, found on the floor of storage room 26B, presumed identity Karen Higgsen.” He explained it with a shrug. “Frontal skull destroyed by severe and repeated impact, causing… multiple fractures to all facial bones and frontal cranium that probably killed the subject through massive damage to both frontal lobes of the cerebrum and massive bleeding. Obstruction of the larynx by blood and flesh apparently happened post-mortem. There are also signs of concussive impact in the back of the cranium, huh, several lacerations and one fracture, as well as minor lacerations on both arms, upper chest and back, and left leg. All signs indicate…” He looked up to his partner. “Causa mortis of murder through impact with a heavy blunt object, consistent with the flame extinguisher found on the site with blood and flesh fragments on it. Subject was presumably involved in a struggle with the aggressor, who struck her in the back of the head with the aforementioned flame extinguisher, knocking the victim unconscious, and…” He had to pause and catch his wind. Zaminsky nodded encouragement. “Struck the victim repeatedly in the face with the presumed murder weapon.” He hesitated a bit before opening the body’s vulva and examining her vagina, fearing what he might find. “Genitals show no sign of stress, indicating there was no sexual violence.” He looked lost as to what to do next, so his colleague drew closer to the handset. “This is medical technician Michael Zaminsky, fully confirming the analysis.”

Mihara stopped recording and slumped down in the corner of the room, sighing. Zaminsky patted a “good job” on his shoulder and went back to the body, covering it.

Well… I guess she’s had plenty enough. Let’s just send her to reprocessing and give her the rest she deserves.”

* * *

Rogers marched down the hallway, carrying the murder weapon in front of him with careful reverence, and with a posse of curious onlookers behind him, giving the scene the look of an old-times religious procession. Zaminsky was waiting on the far end.

Suddenly, Tara burst out of a door, her tortured face and eyes weary with wiped tears enough of an indication that she heard the story already. She posted herself brazenly in Rogers’s way, faced him with an uneasy look, closed her eyes, sighed deeply, and managed to speak after a couple seconds. “I’ll do it.”

Tara, you don’t have to.” Zaminsky’s voice was a soothing tone learned with decades of experience. “I’ve got that covered.”

No, Zaminsky, let me do this.” Her voice was strained.

No, listen. You’ve had enough for today. You need to pick yourself up. Tara, I know how difficult this is for you, so you don’t have to –”

You don’t fucking know anything.” She lashed out at him. “This wasn’t your fucking cousin, Michael. She’s my family, you know nothing about what it’s like, what… you don’t…” She paused to pick up some composure. Zaminsky extended a hand that was rebuffed. “You don’t understand, Michael. I have to do this. For her.” She got up to look at him, tears welling up in desperate eyes. “I owe her this. You wouldn’t understand.”

The older physician nodded his sympathetic, question-less consent. Tara reached uneasily for the filthy canister, shaking visibly as she touched it. She momentarily dropped it, surprised by its weight, or maybe by her own weakness. Then she carried it back to her lab, even more carefully than Rogers – though showing none of his reverence, only repulse – and slammed the door on the inquisitive procession.

* * *

I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing here.” Jin looked defiantly at the security crew assembled around him.

Perelman took the lead. “Look, Jin, we’re not looking for trouble here, so cut that bullshit. We’re just asking around.”

Yeah, and you just happen to ask around me whenever anything goes wrong. Wooo, big coincidence.”

It’s not our fault you actually are behind almost every kind of shit that goes on ’round here,” Jackson piped up, quickly cut out by Perelman, who said: “Shut the hell up. Now, mister Shelnikov.”

Yes, mister Perelman. What have I ever supposedly done this time?”

I don’t know, why don’t you tell us? What were you doing from eight to nine this morning?”

Jin laughed loudly. “Wow, is there even an eight o’clock in the morning? Never got to see that one roll around, officer.”

Rogers stepped into the room and joined in the conversation. “Jin, this is serious business. This isn’t stolen rations, this isn’t a network virus, hell, this isn’t even July’s fire. We’re just trying to get this sorted out.”

Jin’s eyes widened. “Wait, wait, what the hell is this stuff? So this isn’t about –”

C’mon, Jin. Don’t play dumb. This is serious stuff.”

No, really, you gotta let me into the loop, I seriously don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Perelman’s patience strained. “Even my bloody grandmother knows about it. That’s the stupidest excuse for a defense you’ve shown in a while.”

Well yeah, you know what? Fuck you!” Jin snapped at him. “Your cockwhore grandmother gets to know about stuff because she’s not a fucking freeloader!”

Shut up, Jin,” Rogers tried to intervene, “that’s not what it’s about and you know it.”

The fuck it’s not what it’s all about! It’s always me, me, us, the goddamn freeloaders, huh? Come to your fucking station to steal your food and air rather than just suck it up and die out there like we should, huh?”

That’s not fair!” Rogers’s finger was pointed menacingly at the young delinquent. “Have you ever seen us picking on Akira? Huh? What about Johnny?”

Oh, so you admit you’re picking on me!”

You’re a fucking punk, that’s what. You give us reason. What about them, why aren’t they pains in the ass like you, huh?”

Fuck those cocksuckers.” Jin grimaced. “They’re fucking suckups, is what they are. Just ’cause they shut up and just take it all quietly doesn’t make them nice.”

Ah, abuse, the criminal’s classic excuse,” Jackson mocked loudly while Perelman circled the room.

The head of security sat across from him. “So, you’re not going to tell us what you were doing between eight and nine AM, are you?”

Fucking told you, douchebag.”

You didn’t tell us shit –” Perelman intruded, stopped by Rogers’s hand.

Fine, Jin, have it your way then. We asked you nicely and you did not cooperate.” He ignored the suspect’s middle finger as he got up, mirrored instantly by his crew. “We’ll get back to ya. Shortly, I guess.”

As the crew made their way out the door, Jackson turned back to say, “And one more thing – until we’re done with our investigation, don’t leave town.”

Ha fucking ha.” Jin waited them out, trying not to give them the pleasure of his anger.

* * *

I can’t believe those motherfuckers!” Jin stormed into the mess hall. The meal was already underway for most; Tara was a notable exception, quietly playing with her food.

Tsk tsk, what a big ol’ meanie,” Christie shared with her silent aunt. “Can’t even get his lunch without saying a bad word.”

Yeah, and fuck you too, ankle-biter. Don’t need your ‘good kid’ bullshit right now.” He sat beside the pair.

Tara! Look, he’s bad-mouthing me again!”

Tara just ignored the whole discussion, concentrated on splitting her rations into even parts and shoveling them aside in an ascending pattern as if the survival of mankind depended on it. Christie tugged at her sleeve, wailing.

Jin, just cut it out. You know this isn’t the time.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Tara… sucks about your cousin,” Jin mumbled, clumsily. “Just got to know about it. Since nobody tells anything to the goddamn freeloader.”

Can we just leave your ancestors aside for a while, just for lunch?” Tara closed her eyes, not having laid them on Jin ever since his arrival.

Yes mister, just be quiet and show some respect to poor aunt Karen!” Christie crossed her arms in righteous indignation.

The young man went quiet for a few seconds. “Hey kid. D’you know what happened to her?”

I don’t care what you say because I’m not gonna believe it!” Tara was too absorbed to come in Christie’s defense.

They reprocessed her. Know what that mean? They teach you that word at basic tutoring already?” Christie was plugging her ears, uselessly. “It means they chopped her up, cooked her in a big stew, and served her right back as food! That’s probably her butt you’re eating right there!”

Enough!” Tara’s fork bounced off as she threw it on the table, causing the mess hall to grow quiet in response. She still didn’t move her eyes up. “Get the fuck out of here, Jin!”

Yeah, like I’d want to eat around you fuckers anyway.” He got up clutching his tray, and reached for Tara’s uneaten food, pulling back as his hand was nearly stabbed by her knife. “Have a nice fucking meal, wankers.”

The crowd’s eyes followed him out, and settled on Tara after he walked out. She felt them and stood up soon after, leaving a bewildered girl behind as she left to her room.

* * *

A rivulet of whispers wound around Guzman as she made her way toward the Higgsen sector of the dorms. Her machinelike, enigmatic expression cruelly frustrated all attempts to gather any information about what was going on, which was the most sought-after resource at the moment. She stood in front of the late Karen’s room, with a well-studied measure of impatience, and the door opened not long after.

Tara gingerly came out from it and shot a steely stare at her boss. “What?”

I was told you were headed to the Euro side of the dorms, and figured you were here.”

Was going over some personal stuff.” She looked at the printout in her hand, a picture of the two Higgsen cousins. “I’d like to have something to keep memory of her, you know.” Her tone was far less sweet than her words would call for.

You’re gonna have to run that through security, you know.”

Oh, thank you, Mrs. Guzman. I appreciate your kind condolences and understanding.” Tara kept her gaze locked as she closed the door behind her. “It’s good to know some people here have tact around those who just lost a family member.” Her voice trembled.

Guzman was unfazed. “How’s the DNA test coming along?”

I’m working on it. Sheesh, grow some sense, my goddamn cousin just died.”

Which is exactly the problem.” She stood still, following Tara with her eyes as she circled her. “You know, Zaminsky offered to do this, and he can still take over if –”

I can do it just fine.”

I’m not doubting your skills, Tara.” The head of Logistics underscored it with a cruelly sweet smile. “It’s just that your process of mourning might slow it down, and that’s the last thing we need now.”

Tara reeled, as if physically hurt by Guzman’s words. “What’s the problem now? It’s not like she’s going to get any deader, is she?”

Not her, no. But you know how it goes. It’s murder we’re talking about here. That just doesn’t happen. People get scared, they want results, and they want them fast. There’s a murderer here, they figure, and who knows who he or she will kill next.”

I know, Cindy. Of course I know that. And you know these things take time. I’m running the samples we’ve got on the lab, but most haven’t been collected yet, and they take time, even with the whole lab running it. If anyone whines to you about it, you can just tell them that.”

Of course, I’m well aware of that. Just making sure… don’t want anyone to think you’re taking your time. People want this person locked up before anyone else dies, you know.”

Yes, I do.” Tara bowed briefly, her eyes betraying her petulance. “Anything else?”

No. Go earn your food, Higgsen.” She watched on as her subordinate hurried up the hall.

* * *

A large sun loomed over the station, beyond the deeply darkened panes of the skylight, flooding the entire lounge with the dazzling light of a Venusian afternoon, when the doors flew violently open. Jin barely had time to remove the covers from his eyes when the security guards were turning him over on the suntanning recliner to restrain him.

You’re in deep shit now, Shelnikov.” Rogers’ voice was uneven, his outrage barely restrained. “You got busted. You’re going down, man. How could you… you… you filthy scumbag.”

Jin’s frantic and repeated protests were of no avail. The security squad silently dragged him through the hallways; even Jackson was somber the whole way. A crowd assembled around them, their mumbling steady but subdued. When they reached the containment room, the prisoner was unceremoniously tossed in, and the door was hastily slammed.

The crowd parted and silenced for Dwanwu, the colony’s director-general. “Is he safely contained there?”, he asked.

Couldn’t leave in his whole life.” Rogers hurried to the response.

Good. We’ll… start the proceedings as soon as possible. Probably tonight. Valenzi’s ready, the witnesses are getting ready as we speak. Just gotta find a speaker for that… guy.” He glanced around. “We’ll do this quickly. I’m sure the people can’t afford to wait around for it. We all need, we all deserve an answer. We need to know if he really did it – yes, I know the tests point that way, but let’s not forget the regulations – and then find a solution that will let us sleep at night, certain that we’ve got our safety back. A definitive solution.”

There was no applause. However, the crowd’s hushed words of consent spoke volumes. They most definitely wanted that man dead.

* * *

Hey, Tara! I was looking all over for you!” A young man stopped on his tracks and called out to her.

Wen? Wh-what are you doing here?” Her look was one of genuine surprise.

Well, they were looking for you. For the trial and stuff. So I thought, hey, maybe she’s by the Higgsen quarters, and voila, here you are.”

I was asking around, nobody can give me a straight answer, what’s going on, what next… wait, why do they want me for the trial?”

Hey, you know, you did the test. So, between you, Zaminsky and Mihara, that’s pretty much all they have in terms of witnesses.” His uneasy smile faded as he drew closer. “Hey, are you alright?”

Yes, I’m… well, it’s not easy at all. This… disaster, and then all this work on top of it. I thought the work would be good for me, but then it just made me kinda on the edge. Have you seen Sacha?”

Whoa, slow down there. Yeah, edge, indeed.” The comment made her slightly embarrassed. “Take it easy there, just letting you know you’ve gotta get there, but no hurry. Go and get a shower or something.”

Thanks, Wen.” She smiled, looking down. “Yeah, maybe I gotta catch my breath a bit. Find my pace.”

You can say that again.” Wen’s smile was one of satisfaction. “Been waiting a while for you to say that, actually.”

Hey, not that same old talk again.” Her smile waned. “It wasn’t about my job, and you know it.”

Yeah, right… you expect me to believe you weren’t ready to deal with my responsibilities? C’mon, spacewalkers work like what, once a month, tops?”

Oh, and it’s not like there’s only two of you in the whole freaking colony, are there? That’s not a responsibility?”

C’mon, that just means both of us are replaceable. And that’s beside the point. I’m not the one working overtime like a maniac to save the colony from total annihilation.”

Oh, so I’m a maniac, now?” Her tone of voice was rising dangerously.

No… sorry, I didn’t mean that. I know, I know I said that, it was stupid. Tara, listen to me. We can still make this work.”

She leaned against a wall and pinched her eyes. “Wen, this is a really bad time to discuss this.”

Okay, Tara… Sorry, I’ll just…”

Just go. I’ll go have my shower and be there in a minute.”

She didn’t look at him as he slowly walked away, but still listened for the door.

* * *

The desperately curious crowd was exiled to the corridor outside Valenzi’s office, isolated from the proceedings by a closed and sound-proofed door, so it set its eyes on Jackson with understandable eagerness when he appeared, and even more eagerly on the woman following him. Tara Higgsen, who apparently had to be fetched in her quarters for the proceedings to go on, and whose hair was still wet, was led into the door at the center of all attentions.

Inside, the waiting participants all turned to face her, some with less than amiable stares. Jackson handed her to Rogers, who led her to a vacant chair in front of Valenzi. She caught a glimpse of Jin, who looked as if, regardless of whether or not he bashed Karen’s face in, he would love to do the same with Tara right then.

Valenzi spoke, impassibly. “Tara Higgsen, born of Lars Higgsen and Wei Li Shung on July 15th, 2160. Called as witness to the dispute between the security board and Jin Shelnikov, regarding Karen Higgsen’s demise. Do you agree to provide your testimony to this board?”

Yes.” Her tone was calm.

Very well then, let’s get this over quickly.” The serious middle-aged man looked over the paperwork on his desk terminal once more, simply out of habit, while his understudy prepared herself to access anything on the records, and the rest of the commitee looked at the witness with mild disinterest. To them, this was just a boring technicality.

You have performed tests on the human tissue material found on the flame extinguisher that has already been established by this board as the weapon used to end Karen Higgsen’s life. Is this correct?”

Yes. I performed DNA sampling tests as required by security.”

The referee frowned slightly. “It would be sufficient to reply with a simple yes or no for the sake of expediency, if you will.” She didn’t react, and he went on. “And those tests can determine the identity of the person who that tissue came from. Correct?”

She blinked, as if she would argue that, but said only a “Yes”. The young man beside Jin stirred, but didn’t say anything.

And, according to these tests –” he looked at his screen, obviously unnecessarily – “the human tissues found on said extinguisher were found to belong to both Karen Higgsen and Jin Shelnikov.” Jin stood up and screamed: “Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit and you know it!” He was held down by Perelman and the man beside him, who was his own speaker. Judging by the lack of reaction from everyone else but Tara, this had happened a few times already. The referee continued. “Correct?”

Yes, correct.”

And this fact establishes Jin Shelnikov as the person apparently responsible for Karen Higgsen’s demise, correct?”

She glanced at the defendant, who started struggling some more with that question. “Well, my expertise isn’t security or anything of the sort, but…”

According to your best knowledge.” Valenzi frowned again. “Correct or not?”

Correct, I think.”

Jin’s speaker raised his hand, and was stopped by Valenzi’s gesture. “And the technique applied on these tests has been shown to have over 99.8% accuracy, correct?”

Yes, sir, I think it’s even more than that. By now it’s pretty much certain.”

He did not frown. “And is it possible that anything could interfere with this test and lead to a false result?”

It just matches the DNA on two samples, so as long as both of them are real, I don’t see what could go wrong.”

And were the samples utilized on these tests the correct ones?”

She smiled. “Yes. I’ve triple-checked.”

Thank you, that is all for now, but please remain seated.” He turned toward Jin’s speaker. “Akira Hitomi, if you please.”

Yes, thank you.” He turned toward Tara. “Have you checked it with the DNA of everyone in the colony?”

Doctor Higgsen?” Valenzi turned toward her.

She turned to look briefly at Rogers before turning back to Akira. “No, I didn’t have time, they took the canister when –” Valenzi interrupted her with a gesture and waved a hand to Hitomi.

And don’t you think that everyone should be tested before Jin’s convicted?”, he asked.

Well, that’s not up to me, it’s a…” She looked at Valenzi for help.

This is not the time or place for speculation,” the referee said with a frown. “Concrete questions and answers only please.”

The speaker started talking again, but froze before anything came out, gathering his thoughts, and started again after several seconds. “Could you possibly find a match with anyone else, that would incriminate anyone else, if more tests were made?”

Not likely at all,” she said in a slightly apologetic tone, “since a person’s DNA is unique, and as I said, the test is accurate enough to…” She noticed Valenzi’s frown. “Uh, that would be a no.”

Any further questions?” The authority at the table was looking at Akira with conscious civility.

He strained himself for a while before conceding. “No, that’s all, thank you.” Jin grabbed him and whispered nervously, but was held back by the security guard’s hands and his speaker’s nod.

Now, if Tara Higgsen has no further comments…” He waited for her nod. “Then your participation as a witness is over for now.” He gestured her toward a chair on the side. “Any more witnesses?”

Rogers just waved a “no, thanks” while Hitomi held his head between his hands for a while, and then shook it. He was obviously grasping at straws. One of the commitee members was twirling a pen.

Valenzi stood up, stirring the rest of the board. “With all known facts duly noted and recorded, the commitee shall convene and reach a decision.” He stood and waited silently for everyone not sitting at his table to leave.

The wait outside his office was strained. The onlookers nervously stared at the participants, and especially Jin, who was restrained and surrounded by the security crew. The participants themselves avoided each other’s gaze, and, finding too many questions in the crowd’s eyes, avoided them as well. Only Jin burned holes into Tara with his stare.

A torturing seventeen minutes later, the door opened, and Valenzi’s understudy walked out, making way for the commitee, who appeared and positioned themselves in a wall-like formation outside the door, and then Valenzi himself, who stood in front of them.

This commitee has reached a decision.” He paused for a few seconds, basking in the expectation. “After studying the facts of the matter, as presented by all available witnesses, this board has come to the conclusion that Jin Shelnikov is responsible –” the crowd started bustling with commentary, and Jin with protests – “for the demise of Karen Higgsen, as claimed by Station Kepler III’s security crew. Therefore, in accordance to Kepler III’s disciplinary regulations, he shall be subjected to the appropriate punishment, which in this case is a minimum of eight months in disciplinary confinement with aggravated disciplinary regime, followed by a minimum of sixteen months in monitoring and moderate disciplinary regime.” The crowd started to roar, muffling Jin in their own protestations, until the referee silenced them to a hum with his raised hands.

However,” he said, “since Mr. Shelnikov has been found responsible for malignant removal of human life, also according to our regulations, this board has put forth a motion to have his case examined by the plenary board.” The crowd’s mumbling turned to a positive tone. “It shall then determine whether Jin Shelnikov can be considered as critically and irrecuperably inadequate for communal life, and put up for permanent removal.” A “Damn straight!” could be heard.

Dwanwu walked up to Valenzi’s spot and took his place. “And since the director-general is responsible for presiding the plenary board, I, Jim Dwanwu, call every able adult in the colony, and especially all of the witnesses and Mr. Jin Shelnikov, to take part in a plenary board to decide Mr. Shelnikov’s fate tomorrow. It will be held in the main communal room at 9:30 AM, with Jacopo Valenzi serving as my understudy. We will then do our best to decide in the fairest way possible and bring some justice to the Kepler III Space Station.”

A salvo of applause echoed through the station’s hallways, as hadn’t been heard in a long time.

* * *

The mess hall was livelier than it had been since anyone could remember. The kitchen started serving breakfast earlier than usual, and there were more than enough people already waiting there to justify it. Their excitement simply couldn’t be contained by something as trivial as regular meal schedules.

A small node of activity stood out among the general bustle, in a central table occupied by the medical team. Zaminsky and Mihara were obviously at the center of all attentions, though their heroics were being temporarily interrupted by something that brought nostalgic comments and shaking heads.

When Tara entered the room, they quickly dropped their conversation to wave her toward their table, which she finally accepted after a few protests. A middle-aged woman welcomed her to the table with the bad news.

Did you hear it about Radzinsky? Was found dead last night when Sacha went to check on him after the Jin proceedings.” The nonchalant way she said that indicated the name had caught on.

Really? Oh, my god!” The news seemed to affect Tara very strongly. “How… how did that happen?”

Heart failure.” That was Zaminsky. “Seems that bypass didn’t hold up after all. Well, wasn’t unexpected.”

Mihara shook his head. “Like they say, disgrace comes in rolls. And it can’t even be because he heard about Karen, nobody visited him that day.”

And by the way…” Chandra, the other female med-tech, looked up. “There comes your cousin, Tara.”

She looked back, in reflexive horror, and the initial visage of a blonde woman with that familiar gait made her jump. However, she quickly recognized the woman, sooner from her vacant eyes than from her facial features.

Helge…” She sighed deeply. “You startled me there for a while.”

The other Higgsen woman had an orderly by her side, who spoke on her behalf. “She’s been looking for you. Asking about Christie.”

Oh, thanks, Sacha.” Her speech was rushed. “What happened? Did-didn’t she come visit today? I don’t know, is she sick or something, haven’t seen –”

Christie didn’t come.” Helge’s voice was disturbingly high-pitched and throaty. “She always comes. She didn’t come today. They don’t know where she is… do you know where she is?”

Sacha rushed to her aid. “See, we’ve been looking all over for the girl, and nobody’s seen her since yesterday. So, we were wondering.”

I, uh, haven’t… well, since lunch anyway, haven’t seen her.” Tara sat down and closed her eyes.

Karen…” The blonde reached out toward her, and was held back by the orderly. “Please, Karen, you’re my mom, help me… tell me where my baby is…” She started raising her voice, and her aide began pulling her away. “Come on, Karen! Help me! Help your daughter, Karen! You gotta help me find your daughter! Your… sister, my daughter, my granddaughter, Christie! Where is she?!

Nobody spoke a word as Sacha dragged the screaming woman out of the room. Tara sat, numb, with her head down.

* * *

Gossip ran furiously throughout the communal room as the colony prepared for the plenary board. He killed another one. – No, two. – Isn’t it too big a coincidence that the Higgsen girl goes missing right after her aunt dies? – And I hear old Saul died too. – No, that was natural causes. – What was the second then? – See, Christie’s the second. – She’s dead? – I think they found her body.

The man at the eye of the storm, Jin naturally arrived last, escorted by the security team, when the board was already otherwise complete. The noise around him was so intense that Dwanwu’s calls and rapping weren’t enough to contain it, and he had an alarm be sounded over the intercom.

Thank you for your attention.” He stood and spoke with a resounding voice once the room was silent enough. “Ladies and gentlemen of this station… we have not gathered like this, every able citizen together in plenary, for a very long time. And, while on the one hand that is good, since it indicates that our colony has lived in peace and stability for all this time, with no issues grave enough that they require everyone’s attention… on the other hand, I feel that we run the risk of losing our sense of community.” A soft, dissatisfied mumble echoed through the populace. “Our human history teaches us that people grow together in adversity. And, one hundred and twelve years ago, the greatest tragedy that has ever happened, or that could even be imagined, destroyed the only home of not only our own species, but also every other living species we have ever met.” The public’s faces turned generally distraught. “I know, I know this is the most unpleasant of all subjects, and I promise I won’t extend it. But what I mean is that this tragedy brought all the remainder of mankind together in a way that was previously inconceivable. Even…” He eyed his spectators, a bit unsure. “Even when fellow human brothers from a surviving space shuttle approached us, we extended a helping hand, and took them in as part of our colony.” A new wave of grumbling confirmed the reasons for his insecurity. “And such was our sense of brotherhood, that we needed only the lightest of regulation to keep the colony peaceful. Because, unlike the warring states during the ground days, now we all know each other in person. As fellows. And this fellowship is all the incentive we need for peace.”

He paused, took a deep breath, and glanced briefly at Jin before looking ahead once again. “But, sometimes, our relationship will grow cold. There are divisions here – yes, there are, let’s not ignore reality – and we let them get in the way of this sense of community. Sometimes we stop seeing each other as fellows, as friends, and let resentment seep into our hearts. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a disease that spreads silently, and slowly corrupts the body of our colony to the core. And, as with all diseases… sometimes, you go on for years with an illness weakening you, destroying you on the inside, and you do not notice it at all, unless there is some sort of symptom. And, as grievous as the loss of one of the most beloved members of our community may be, it can actually serve a purpose. That of a symptom that warns us of our disease. It has happened before, my fellows – that was fifty-eight years ago, I wasn’t even born. It was a shock, a revealing shock to realize that one of us, one member of our own fellowship, was capable of something like this. And we found a solution. We decided that this person was a taint, and as long as he remained among us, we would remain tainted. That the deep mutual trust that allows our community to function would not exist until we removed the one person who became irrevocably untrustworthy.”

He opened his arms toward the crowd. “This morning, ladies and gentlemen, my friends, we will decide whether one person is a taint or not. We will decide whether or not our tacit pact of trust has been broken. Let us decide with justice in mind, and reach the fairest conclusion. And as such… I, Jim Dwanwu, director-general of Space Station Kepler III, at 9:42 AM on November 17th, 2186, open the plenary disciplinary board to decide, on the case of Jin Shelnikov, whether the clause of critical and irrecuperable inadequacy for communal life applies, and as such, whether or not he is to be subjected to permanent removal.” He had to hold himself from smiling at the public’s approval. “Let the proceedings begin.”

* * *

Once again, Tara was the last witness to testify in what was simply a rushed verson of the previous evening’s ritual. Jin was surprisingly tame, which allowed it to run much more smoothly, and his speaker sounded like he gave up and was just going through the motions.

She was leaving the witness chair toward her place in the audience, to take part in the final sentence, when she noticed Perelman, who had just arrived on the room, holding a whispered conversation with Rogers and then whispering in Dwanwu’s ear. When the director-general looked in her direction, she realized that she had stopped in the middle of the way to look at them, and then looked back at Rogers, the other security guards, the crowd, and Dwanwu again. She uncrossed her arms, realizing she wasn’t actually naked.

Miss Higgsen, could you please return to the witness’s chair?” The head of the board was serious. “A new matter has come up, and you’re a witness.”

She looked once more at the public and at the security crew, and walked hesitatingly back to the chair, sitting silently.

Miss Higgsen.” He looked up, conjuring something from memory. “Is it true that, yesterday, during lunch, Jin Shelnikov verbally harrassed your late niece, Christie Higgsen?”

She blinked and took a while before responding. “Yes. Yes, he did.”

And what was the nature of this harrassment?”

Well, he not only used strong language to… wait, did you say my late niece?”

He paused, hanging his head. “I am afraid that your niece’s body has been found by the security crew.” The audience burst with commentary.

But… how? Where? What happened?” She could barely be heard among the noise.

Dwanwu pounded his table for silence before continuing. “In the reprocessing furnace.” He consulted with Perelman in whispers. “They didn’t actually find her body, of course, but they found a thread of cloth in the tracks that had no reason to be there, and DNA sampling on residue found there confirmed she was there.”

But… but… that doesn’t mean she’s dead! You haven’t found her body, have you?” She was frantic.

Perelman briefly consulted with the present authority, and spoke up. “Lady, we’ve put on a special team of five combing the colony for her while this board was going on. She’s absolutely nowhere. I don’t see any other possibility.”

The director-general stood up, held the surging noise from the crowd with his extended arms, and rose his voice to speak to it. “If there is anyone in this room who is aware of Christie Higgsen’s current whereabouts, please speak up.” The call was met with only an expecting and gruelingly long silence.

He sat back down, despondent. “Well, we have no other choice but to treat this as yet another tragedy to compound on the troubles already assaulting us. Now, Miss Higgsen, back to our proceedings. What was that harrassment about?”

Tara was genuinely confused. “He, uh, swore at her repeatedly, and harrassed her about Karen’s, uh, reprocessing, like he was trying to disturb her…”

And have you noticed any sort of hostility on his part toward her, on any occasion?”

Akira stood up violently. “Hold on right there, Mr. Director!” He briefly turned toward everyone’s surprised stares and then back to the head of the table. “Don’t you think we should have another, independent inquest on Christie, and if – and that’s a big if, I honestly don’t see that happening – Jin is found to be behind it, we hold yet another dis board on that, and if that other board finds he’s responsible, only then we can talk about it in plenary?” The public booed.

Mr. Hitomi, will you please sit down!” Dwanwu’s face was reddening. “This is a very grave situation we’ve got here. If this doesn’t count as a crisis, I don’t know what does. We just can’t afford to sit here and wait for all of that process to roll around while a potentially dangerous person is on the loose!”

Then judge him on Karen and get done with it!” He was on the edge of his seat. “Don’t convict him for something you’re not sure of! Leave that part out of this!”

The president of the board paused for some time, still dissatisfied. Then he turned to the audience and spoke up. “Who is in favor of adding the matter of Christie Higgsen to this proceeding?”

A show of hands was held, and only a handful of people were in favor. Lunch time was getting close.

Okay, very well.” He grudgingly addressed the crowd again. “Having heard all the available facts on the matter of Karen Higgsen’s demise, and considering that the disciplinary board has agreed that Jin Shelnikov is responsible for the fact, and in respect to his acceptability in this colony…” He inhaled deeply. “Those which consider Mr. Jin Shelnikov to be critically and irrecuperably inadequate for communal life, show your hands.”

A surprisingly considerable minority disagreed.

Then,” he continued, “according to the regulations, Jin Shelnikov is eligible for permanent removal. Those who agree to that measure, show your hands.”

Jin’s fate, which had already been decided, was finally sealed.

Very well then. Mr. Shelnikov is entitled to have one session with a spiritual consultant of his choice, if he wishes. Then he will be rendered unconscious, and sent to reprocessing.” He looked down and mumbled under his breath. “Like little Christie.”

This board is over. Lunch will be served at the mess hall.” He simply walked away, with a sense of relief.

* * *

Tara returned to her room from a rushed lunch and shut the door behind her, cupping her face with her hands and then rubbing them off. Over. It’s all finally fucking over. I can’t believe it.

She pulled down and propped up her bunk and threw herself on it. She was tired, much more tired than she’d normally be by about one PM of course, and in fact, much more than she’d be if she had just dismantled and then reassembled the whole station with a rusty screwdriver. This wasn’t exertion, it was tension, the tension of uncertainty, of not knowing her own fate, and most of all, Zhao’s fate.

She turned toward her own womb and caressed it. “How’s it going there, my little noodle? You’ve felt it, haven’t you? Of course you did. People were angry all over. But now they’re not.” She looked up, vacantly. “They got all the blood they wanted. Their goddamn sacrifice. And now you’re safe, Zhao, you’re going to live, not only that but you’re going to be healthy and strong. And happy.” Little tears started streaming down toward her ears. “I know it’s going to be hard, Zhao, but we’re gonna fight. I’ll fight and make you happy. I don’t know if you’ll get to have a real father… oh, he’s gonna be there alright, but you know Wen. He’s there and not there. I both know and don’t know him. Or maybe I don’t know myself. Either way, my girl, we’ve been trying and trying and I don’t see it working.”

She looked at the door. “And all those people out there. We’re all supposed to be one big family, but hell knows that’s not the way it works. What are we supposed to be, Zhao? Higgsen? Oh please. They’re all genial and welcoming on the surface, but don’t think I can’t see the way they look at me. A stranger. The asian one. They look at me and see what they think of as Lars’s mistake. Fuck them, I don’t need those hypocrites. But what, are we Shung then? I don’t know how much better off we’re with them. I’ve tried, Zhao, I swear I’ve done my best to learn their Chinese and their hanzi, but it’s like Mom broke some sort of ancient honor pact when she got with an Euro.” She chuckled. “As if China and Europe even existed right now. Well, maybe they do. Borders changed all the time back on the ground, didn’t they? I guess they just moved to a different place. No, Zhao, we’re on our own here. They won’t understand… they wouldn’t be capable of understanding what we’ve done. What I’ve done. Why it was the only choice. Why I have decided to make this deal… and carry the price with me. Even though…”

A practical, urgent matter was summoned by her stream of thoughts. Wait, did I delete it here? I deleted it at Karen’s, but what about here? She rushed to her terminal and quickly started it, nervously drumming her desk while it went through the motions of waking up. She opened her mail, and there it was. A couple keystrokes later, and it wasn’t there anymore. Whew. That was close. She opened her drawer, and pulled a syringe. She still had to take it to the lab and toss it on the deep sterilization bath, do away with the last DNA traces, and only then she would be done. Only then she would finally be at peace.

Or so she tried to convince herself.