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Part Three- Judgment 

      Whether a fraction of a second or a billion years had passed, Jason could not tell.  When he regained consciousness he found himself standing with the others in an extremely large corridor made of polished stone, at least one hundred metres high and stretching out at least a thousand metres in front of him.  It reminded him of an ancient gothic cathedral on Earth, only without stained-glass windows or statues of biblical figures.  However, the walls were elaborately adorned with treasures of all kinds, though Jason had no frame of reference from which to guess at the significance of any of these objects.  Aside from a few statues of Yvenzhel and members of the other three Empires—which must have been sculptures of significant historical figures—Jason was clueless as to what any of it meant.

      Zhyen stepped in front and turned around to face them.  “This is the Central Commerce Building for our entire galaxy.  It is the largest building on the Vyongkir and one of the largest in all of the Zhelva.  Many of our galaxy’s most valuable treasures are kept here, the most valuable of which are displayed here in the main corridor.  At the end of this corridor is the Chamber of the Council, where the trial will be held.  Follow me.”

      Zhyen turned and began walking down the long hallway, as Jason and Jessi marvelled at the incomprehensible wonders around them.  In glass cases all along the walls were pieces of strange equipment, bizarre rock and gem formations, very old statues of creatures unlike any of the four major Empires that Zhyen had described (most likely made by species that were now extinct), and a number of other strange artefacts whose significance Jason would never know.

      As Zhyen walked, he bent one of his eyes backwards and continued speaking to them.  “Before the trial begins I must enter the Chamber and take care of some preliminary business with the Arbiter and the opposing counsel.  Your presence is forbidden during this stage of the proceeding, so you will be kept in a holding room outside of the Chamber entrance for a brief period of time.  The guards will watch you.  Once the trial has ended, I will no longer be allowed to have any contact with you, regardless of the outcome.  So this will be the last time…”

      “Oh my fucking god!” Jason exclaimed.  His shout was so loud that it echoed for a few seconds through the entire corridor.  He had spotted something about a hundred metres ahead on the left side of the hall—something he could barely believe.  Without thinking, he took off running towards it.

      This caused a bit of a stir among the security guards, who ran after him and grabbed him before he got more than ten paces.  “Vrizhkan ka tlevzhank!” Zhyen shouted, and the guards promptly let go of Jason.  Zhyen turned to him and said, “I had forgotten about that display.  We may take a moment to look at it.”

      Zhyen and Jason, followed by Jessi and the guards, walked up to the glass case, and Jason nearly fainted as he confirmed that it was in fact what he had thought.  Enclosed in the glass case, arranged in four rows of six, were the name balls that the Andromeda crew had released into the galaxy during their EVA countless centuries ago.

      Jason stood dumbfounded, the memories flooding back to him as he read the names.  Jessi let out a soft, “Oh my god,” as well, as she also knew what they were.

      “They are all here,” Zhyen said.  “The name balls of each of the original twenty-three, as well as one extra from one of a crewmember whom I understand did not make it to our galaxy.”

      Old memories flashed back into Jason’s mind with each name he read.  David O’Brian, who had nearly brought disaster to the mission by injecting other crewmembers with a disease-inducing poison he had made.  Maria Wendall, who had lost her life to the black hole at the Milky Way’s galactic core along with David when the ship was ripped open by the intense gravitational pull.  Ronald Stark, who had died of the disease inflicted by David O’Brian during the return journey.  Todd Blankens, who had died on the very EVA during which the name balls were released.  Lily Zaw.  Jason breathed a heavy sigh when he thought of the poor young woman who had lost her life during an operation to replace her heart, also thanks to David.  Then there was Jack Peskie, who had been Jason’s only real friend during the mission after the death of Elliot Larken.  Jason’s eyes remained fixed for a moment on Elliot’s name ball.  Elliot had died before his ball was released, having sacrificed himself so that Lily could have the surgery that could have saved his own life.  They were going to give him the healthy heart of Craig Malls, whose name ball was also in the case although he had not been among the crewmembers who had reached the galaxy.  The name ball of Mark Staff, who had killed Craig and took his own life before the ship reached Andromeda, had been shredded and disposed of, which had proved Arnold’s biggest command mistake.  Jason’s eyes finally came to rest on his own name ball, which he had held in his hands billions of years before—only about seven years to Jason—but which now felt like it had been only yesterday.

      Jessi’s eyes shot back and forth between the name balls of her lost family members.  Arnold Juciper.  Lauren Samalc.  And at the bottom of the rack among the name balls of the crew of the Andromeda II, her sister Rachael Juciper.  Jason could only imagine what was going through her mind, having been told about these name balls by her family while she grew up but having never expected to actually see them.  Jason himself had never expected to see them again, having assumed that they would be floating aimlessly through Andromeda for nearly eternity.

      “How did you get all these?” Jason turned to Zhyen.  “Were you there during our EVA when we released them?”

      “Not exactly,” said Zhyen, “although we were watching you through our telescopes.  When members of your crew left your ships to release these objects into our galaxy it was a cause of some concern, as we did not know what they were.  A vessel was sent to retrieve all of these objects.  Based on their trajectories at the time of their release, it calculated the fastest course to intercept them, and all were successfully retrieved.  Once it was determined that these were merely markers to commemorate the accomplishment of your respective crews, we decided not to destroy them but to keep them here, where they have remained ever since.”

      “Unbelievable,” Jason sighed.  He looked at Jessi and saw that she was still staring at her father’s name ball, her eyes wet but her face betraying no emotion. 

      “I am running out of time,” said Zhyen.  “We must continue.”

      Jason tore himself away from the display and continued down the corridor after Zhyen.  “As I was saying,” he continued, bending one eye back to look at them, “this will be the last time I am able to speak with you.  For security reasons I shall not be allowed to contact you once the trial begins.  I have complete confidence that my arguments will sway the Council and you will be granted your freedom.  And so I wish you luck in the future, wherever your journey brings you.  But if for some reason you are found guilty and sentenced to death, I would like to apologize in advance.  Such an outcome would grieve me deeply.”

      Jason still didn’t know how he really felt about Zhyen.  Although he couldn’t bring himself to completely trust him, at that moment he felt a strange fondness for the Ambassador.  Perhaps it was only natural to feel that way about someone who had actually expressed sympathy for him, whether it was real or fake.  Or it might only have been because at that moment, Jason’s life and Jessi’s were entirely in his hands.  In a way they were forced to trust him, and it was easier to trust a person for whom they had a positive opinion.

      But in spite of these strange feelings, Jason could never forget that it was Zhyen who had given the order to destroy the planet.  It was Zhyen who had taken Jessi from him to see how he would react, who kept them isolated in dark empty cells for excruciatingly long periods of time, who had acted against his own feelings time and again for the sake of the government that controlled him.  As much as Jason wanted to trust and even to like Zhyen, he simply could not put these things out of his mind.  He simply accepted that for Zhyen he could only have mixed feelings at best, and he might as well leave it at that.

      When they had reached the end of the corridor, Zhyen turned around completely and looked at Jason and Jessi one last time.  “I must go inside now.  You will be brought in shortly, but until then the guards will escort you to a temporary holding cell.  And now I must bid you farewell.”

      Jason opened his mouth but he found himself too confused by his feelings to actually speak.  Instead he just nodded.  Jessi made no sound, still shaken up by the display they had just seen.

      Two of the guards opened the large doors and Zhyen slipped inside while those guards followed him in.  The four remaining guards, one of them holding the case with Brownie inside, remained in the hallway with Jason and Jessi.  One of these guards then took the lead and began walking down the hallway to the right.  Jason and Jessi followed him while the other three guards remained behind.  It was only about fifty metres until they reached their destination.  A small door, which one of the guards promptly opened, led into a small, bare room with nothing inside but a bench made of stone.

      “Tlozh,” a guard commanded them, and the two of them sat on the bench.  The guard holding Brownie’s cage remained inside the room.  The three others left the room to stand guard on the outside of the door, which they closed and locked behind them. 

* * * * * * * 

      For the next few minutes, Jason and Jessi sat staring silently at the wall.  The guard holding Brownie’s cage stood facing them, but was not staring directly at them.  His eyes were bent in such a way that one was directed just to the right of Jessi, and the other just to the left of Jason.  He stood so still that one might almost be able to believe he was one of the statues from the corridor outside.

      Jason turned to look at Jessi, thinking about what STAR had done to her family because of him.  He’d had it in his mind to tell her about it as soon as he got the chance, because he felt he had no right to keep the truth from her, but now he wasn’t sure he could.  He could clearly see by the look on her face that she was struggling with some very confusing emotions, and to add the circumstances of her mother and sister’s death to the mix was the last thing her beleaguered mind needed at that moment.  Instead, he simply asked, “Are you okay?”

      Jessi didn’t turn to face him but continued staring at the wall in front of her.  “Of course,” she replied in a completely expressionless tone.  “This is probably gonna be the best day of my life.”

      “What do you mean by that?” asked Jason, confused.  “You’re acting strange.  What did they do to you?”

      “Same thing they did to you,” Jessi replied, still not facing him.  “It was terrible until I realised it’s all just a big fucking joke.”

      “A joke?” asked Jason.

      “Yeah, from God or whatever,” she replied.  “Whoever controls the universe wants to see me suffer.”

      “That’s ridiculous,” Jason started, but he stopped short when he realised he’d had the very same thought millions of times.  “Well, maybe it’s not so ridiculous.  If there is some sadistic deity in control of everything this would all make perfect sense.  But I don’t really believe that.  There’s no deeper force in control.  It’s all just random chance and bullshit.  That’s why fate is so cruel.  There’s no justice.  The weak get fucked by the strong.  That’s how it works and how it’s always worked and how it’s always going to work.”

      Jessi said nothing in reply to this.  She just continued to stare straight ahead and force her emotions from rising to the surface.  Jason could tell she was teetering on the verge of breaking into tears, but something inside was holding her back.  Jason had felt this way enough times to know exactly what it was—anger.  She was angry at the world and angry at herself, and she would not allow herself to cry.

      “You can’t blame yourself,” Jason assured her.  “You have every right to be angry at me, at these aliens who’ve taken us, and even the whole fucking scheme of things in the universe, but you’re perfectly innocent.  It’s all just random events.  You were living a perfectly nice, normal life and then I just happened to get these feelings for you, one thing led to another, and here we are.”

      “Like a big fucking joke,” said Jessi.

      “Yeah,” Jason agreed.  “The whole thing is fucking absurd.  If anyone asked us a year ago where we thought we’d be right now, this probably wouldn’t have been very high on our list.”

      Jason could hardly believe his ears as Jessi burst out laughing.  He’d never heard her laugh so hard.  It was as though she had taken all the tears she was holding back and released them in the form of hysterical laughter.

      “Jessi,” Jason sighed.  “Oh Jessi, I’m so fucking sorry.”

      Jessi continued to laugh for several moments until finally her fit died down.  “Nothing…hehe…nothing to be sorry for,” she forced herself to speak.  Now she finally turned to face Jason directly.  “We’ll both be dead soon…hah!”

      “You mean you actually want to die?” Jason was growing more uneasy by the minute.

      “Of course!” Jessi exclaimed.  “If they kill us, it’s all over.  If they let us go, then what?  I get to fly around with you for the next gazillion years.  No offence, but I’d rather just be done with it.”

      “No offence?” Jason repeated.  He shook his head and sighed again.  “Of course not.  You’d rather die than spend another minute with me.  Why should I take offence to that?  I feel the same way.”

      Jessi started laughing again.  Jason at last began to feel the full weight of the absurdity of the situation.  He had fallen in love with this girl who lived a perfectly happy life, someone worlds apart from him whom he could never relate to.  Then he kidnapped her, replaced all her happiness with suffering, and now she was becoming more like him—angry at herself, resentful of the universe, and more than content to die.  The sound of her laughter suddenly seemed infectious, and Jason found himself chuckling along with her.  This made Jessi laugh even harder, which made Jason laugh louder as well.

      When the guards came to escort Jason and Jessi to the Council Chamber for their trial, they were both in hysterics. 

* * * * * * * 

      The Chamber doors were opened and Jason and Jessi were escorted inside to a scene so surreal that Jason almost didn’t believe he was awake.  The room was the size of a sports stadium, but with far more seating than stage.  The seats were arranged in a semi-circle around a bare stone floor of about fifty square-metres.  They stretched back and upwards for about ten rows, divided into four sections with between eight and twelve seats in each row.  Almost completely filling the left side of the stadium were about a hundred and fifty Yvenzhel, all dressed in bare black uniforms with four gold circles arranged in a diamond on each of their chests.  Straight ahead were about a hundred Ngyang, who startled Jason to look at because of their uncanny resemblance to the velociraptor species of dinosaur.  To their right were about sixty of the strange, Rkragrii creatures which looked like giant spiders or furry octopi.  Finally, the rightmost section was encased in a transparent barrier and contained no seats, but about a hundred Heohweh, which looked like balloons with tentacles, floating around in a thick artificial atmosphere.

      Standing to the left was a Yvenzhel whom Jason had never seen before, whose uniform also contained three circles but with a red material lining the neck.  Zhyen was standing on the right, the neck of his uniform lined in blue.  Finally, sitting directly in front of Jason behind a stone podium slightly elevated from the floor was a Yvenzhel with five gold circles on his uniform, the neck lined in gold.  Another Yvenzhel sat on the left side of the podium, while a single Ngyang and Rkagrii sat on the right.  It was the Yvenzhel behind the podium who spoke first, in his incomprehensible native language.

      “Dyam, ka nezhki ve ka Yvenzhelva, zra vrozhtlem vun tlizhnek ka zhanbak ve nyezh tlevzhank, ka Jason Floyd vye ka Jessica Juciper ve ka Yvenkazva.  Dyek zra tlizhvyor ve dyekzhnorak vreknizhovun dyav zhankirik, ka STAR.  Dyolnim zyor vrizhtal ka tlevzhank yaknizhvol.”

      After he spoke, two of the guards who had just escorted them in walked up to the podium and each took a small object from the Yvenzhel sitting there.  One guard then approached Jason and placed the small metallic object in Jason’s left ear, while the other did the same for Jessi.  The Yvenzhel behind the podium spoke again, and this time Jason heard English words through the device in his ear.

      “Jason Floyd and Jessica Juciper,” said a thick Yvenzhel voice, “I am the Yazhkordyarik, the Arbiter of this trial.  What you are now hearing are the words of the translator sitting to my right, who will be providing you with a translation of all that is said so that you may have a chance to defend yourselves against the accusations brought against you.  These proceedings are always conducted in the language of the Yvenzhel.  Those to my left are translating for the Ngyang and the Rkagrii, while the Heohweh translator remains within the atmospheric barrier.  To your left is the Prosecutor, the Vrekzhinvyongkir, who will speak on behalf of the Council of Allies in bringing our case against you, and to your right is the Defence, the Zhyenvyentluk, with whom you are already acquainted and who will be speaking on your behalf.”

      To Jason’s ears it sounded as if the words were spoken directly by the Arbiter.  The translator not only spoke in nearly perfect unison with the Arbiter, but also matched the tone and pace of his words perfectly.

      “Before we begin I shall explain the format and the rules of this trial,” the Arbiter continued.  “Our esteemed Council delegates are all very important figures, and they all live very busy lives.  For this reason it is difficult for us to convene in one location for a very long period of time.  Therefore we keep our proceedings as swift as possible.  A verdict will be reached by the time the sun sets on this world.  Should you be found innocent of the charges against you, you will be released immediately following the conclusion of this trial.  Should you be found guilty, you will be executed after the sun rises tomorrow.

      “The trial is conducted in three parts.  For the first part, the Prosecutor will present the case against you and provide us with evidence and arguments for your guilt.  The Defence will then present a rebuttal, in which he may not present evidence but merely provide counter-arguments to the points that the Prosecutor has made.  The second part of the trial will consist of your questioning by the Prosecutor and then by the Defence.  Should the Prosecutor decide to question you further after the Defence has finished, he may, and you will be questioned by each side until they are satisfied that you have given all relevant information.  Finally, the end of the trial will give the Defence a chance to present evidence and provide arguments for your innocence, and we will close with a rebuttal from the Prosecutor, in which he will only be allowed to respond to those points made by the Defence.  At the conclusion of the trial you will be removed from the Chamber while deliberations are made, and finally brought back inside once a verdict is reached.  At this point you will be given the opportunity to make a statement.

      “The rules of this proceeding are simple.  I, as the Arbiter, am the only member here who is allowed to speak at any time.  The Prosecutor may only speak during his allotted time, as well as the Defence.  The Prosecutor may not interrupt the Defence with an objection, nor may the Defence interrupt the Prosecutor.  Objections may only be offered during a rebuttal.  Once the verdict is delivered, neither the Prosecutor nor the Defence may speak another word.  You, the Defendants, may only speak in response to a question.  Should you break this rule you will be penalized by sacrificing your opportunity to speak at the trial’s conclusion.

      “The Jason Floyd may speak now in response to this question: do you understand the format and the rules of this trial?”

      Jason’s head was spinning.  He looked at Jessi, whose face indicated only confusion.  He looked to Zhyen, but Zhyen was standing like a statue, facing the Arbiter.  He scanned the room, growing ever dizzier as he felt the eyes of every single creature in the room staring directly at him.  Hundreds of the most powerful individuals in the entire Andromeda galaxy, with their attention focussed entirely on his pathetic, miserable self.  He was struggling with the strange and unfamiliar feeling of significance that he possessed at the current moment.  It was as though for this one brief instant in time, the eyes of the entire universe were upon him.  “Yes,” he finally said, turning back to the Arbiter.  “I understand.”

      “The Jessica Juciper may speak now in response to this question,” the Arbiter continued.  “Do you understand the format and the rules of this trial?”

      Jessi merely stood with a blank face, completely overwhelmed by the incredibly bizarre nature of the circumstance she now found herself in.  Jason gave her a slight nudge.  “Uh…yeah,” she said nervously.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

      “Very well,” said the Arbiter.  “Then we may begin with the proceedings.  Will the Prosecutor please come forward and present the charges against the Defendants?”

      The Prosecutor stepped forward to the middle of the floor, and starting with the Yvenzhel seated on the far left, he very slowly turned to scan the room.  It was as though he was trying to make eye contact with every single delegate in the stadium.  When he finished, his eyes turned to the front of the room, directly facing the Arbiter.  Finally, he began his speech:

      “My friends and allies, today you must make an important decision—a decision which will have a profound impact on the fate of the Zhelva.  Standing before you is our sworn enemy, two members of the Human, the brutal and terrible race who occupy the Kazva.  I need not remind you that our two galaxies are on a collision course which can not be stopped, and when this terrible age finally arrives we will be forced into a long and terrible battle for our survival.  Make no mistake about it—the Human will not ally themselves with us—they will destroy us unless they are destroyed by us.

      “The Human now occupy their entire galaxy, and indeed have spread to the two small irregular galaxies in its immediate vicinity.  They are a formidable foe, and although our numbers are greater, the outcome of this future war is still gravely uncertain.  For the present moment, the STAR, the governing force which controls the Human, understands that it is at a disadvantage.  The Zhelva contains far more star systems than the Kazva, and the technology of the Yvenzhelva is more advanced than that of the Yvenkazva.  However, these are only minor advantages.  When the war begins it will not be won or lost based on sheer numbers, nor on technology which will most likely be reproduced as soon as our enemy becomes aware of it.  The war will be won by whomever has the greater tactical advantage.

      “Therefore the STAR currently has two objectives.  The first is to develop a precise simulation of what will occur once our galaxies collide.  At this point, neither we nor the STAR have enough information to predict with complete accuracy what will occur at this time.  Which star systems will come into contact with which, which will remain in a relatively stable position and which will be tossed out into space by the immense gravitational forces—this kind of information will be invaluable in planning the future war.  Their second objective is to attempt to break our alliance from the inside.  If even one of the four Empires turns against the other three, this will give the STAR all the advantage they need to secure their own victory.  Should it prove impossible to sway one of the four major Empires to their side, their objective would then become the creation of a new Empire within our galaxy, an Empire sympathetic to the Human which will serve them when the critical time arrives.

      “The STAR knows that its survival depends on accomplishing at least one of these objectives.  Spies have already been sent and many of them captured, caught trying to gather more accurate and precise data for their simulations.  Information regarding our star systems, their orbital patterns around our galactic core, and which Empire occupies which, are absolutely essential to the STAR if it is to have any hope for victory.  Many of these spies have been caught and put on trial, several of whom have been prosecuted by my esteemed colleague, the Zhyenvyentluk, who speaks today for the Defence.

      “Only a handful of STAR operatives have attempted to form a covert alliance with members of one of our four major Empires.  Every one of them has failed.  The STAR has learned that our alliance is strong, and that it will be impossible for them to break it.  Therefore to accomplish their second objective they have fallen back on a new plan: to bring a new Empire into existence whose loyalty is not to the Council of Allies but to the STAR.  An Empire that will provide the STAR with invaluable information from inside our own galactic borders.  An Empire that will destabilize the Zhelva like a virus devouring an organism from the inside.  Should the STAR succeed with such a plan, we may find ourselves at a fatal disadvantage when the time for war finally arrives.

      “This is why we are here today.  Standing before you is the latest attempt by the STAR to gain the advantage over us.  These spies are unlike any others that have come before them.  They are celebrities.  The Jason Floyd is one of the original twenty-three, and the female is the daughter of the man who commanded the original mission to penetrate our galaxy.  They are here under an elaborate cover story, claiming that the Jason Floyd is not working for the STAR but is actually a fugitive, who has kidnapped the female and has come to the Zhelva to hide.  Because the nature of this mission required them to spend far more time in our galaxy than a normal spy mission—indeed waiting for many galactic rotations for an intelligent species to develop on a newly formed planet in one of our protected areas—the STAR was aware that risk of capture was great.  This cover story was necessary, so that should they be captured we might believe their story and grant these spies their freedom.  Should they be granted their freedom they will no doubt return to the Kazva and speak of all they have experienced, thus preparing the STAR for another mission with the same objective.

      “Yet even with such careful planning, their cover-story is not solid.  The evidence against the Defendants is strong.  Though he claims to be a civilian now, it is undeniable that the Jason Floyd has worked for the STAR in the past.  I will direct your attention to the front of the room.”

      At this point, the Prosecutor turned around and faced the wall at the entrance to the room.  Jason turned around as well and for the first time saw that this wall was dominated by a giant screen, on which there now flashed an image that completely knocked the air out of him.  He was looking directly into the cockpit window of the Andromeda.  Nine crewmembers were in the cockpit, all wearing their STAR uniforms and moving very slowly.  This was a time-lapsed image from one of the Yvenzhel’s telescopes, but even with the increased rate of time the speed of the Andromeda was so fast that to record an image for a few seconds at their exact rate of time would take years.

      Jason was staring directly into the past.  Memories came flooding back to him in greater detail than they had been in years.  This was just before the first EVA at the centre of Andromeda, the mission on which the name balls had been released and Todd Blankens had been lost.  Todd was in the process of putting on his suit when this image was recorded.  Standing beside Lily Zaw and helping her into her suit was Arnold Juciper.  Lauren stood a few paces away from him, staring off into space.  Finally, Jason spotted himself in the corner of the image, looking in Lauren’s direction.

      Jason turned to Jessi, who was also watching the screen, wondering how her tortured mind was reacting to this image.  For the first time since the incident she was seeing her parents again.  But whatever was going on in her mind, her face betrayed nothing.  She was as expressionless as her mother used to be.

       “As you can see,” the Prosecutor continued, “this is the Jason Floyd in this image.  Although he is slightly younger his identity is unmistakably the same.  I must admit that even I was surprised to learn of the identity of this spy, but it is undeniable.  This is the same Jason Floyd who was among the first to penetrate our galaxy.  This point is not in dispute, as the Defendant has already admitted to his identity.  I show this image only to underscore the point that in spite of his claims to be a civilian, he not only worked for STAR but served on their very first mission involving our galaxy.

      “This is no minor point, my friends and allies.  The Jason Floyd gave up his own place in the space-time continuum for the STAR.  When his ship departed en route to our galaxy the date on the Human calendar read only four digits.  This was no ordinary journey. He and the other Human who embarked on these two missions left everything they knew behind, and returned to a galaxy in a far different state than the one they had left.  To say that the Defendant merely worked for the STAR is an understatement.  Such a sacrifice requires extreme loyalty.  The Defence would like you to believe that this loyalty dissolved upon his return, but I find this impossible to believe.  Loyalty, when it is thin, is surely capable of dissolving.  But to embark on the sort of mission that these Human embarked upon requires a form of loyalty that is thicker than life and death.  I do not believe such loyalty is capable of dissolving, nor do I believe that it did.

      “And what of the female?  The Defence will have you believe that she is here against her will, that she was kidnapped and brought here by the fugitive Jason Floyd.  Surely such a young creature would never agree to leave the comforts of her home and embark upon such a long and dangerous mission.  Well, that may be true for the vast majority of Human females, but this is not just any female.  This is the daughter of the Arnold Juciper, the commander of the first mission to our galaxy, and the Lauren Juciper, who served as a pilot on that same mission.  Is it really very difficult to believe that these parents, who must have had the same deep sense of loyalty to the STAR as the Jason Floyd, would instil such feelings in their offspring?  Is it really that difficult to believe that they would agree to send her on such a dangerous mission, knowing that success was of the utmost importance to the future of the Human?  I do not find this difficult to believe at all, friends and allies, and I am sure that you can imagine such arrangements being made.  Your loyalty to the Council is as thick and deep as the loyalty of the twenty-three to the STAR.  If you were asked to sacrifice a child for the future survival of our Great Empire, would you not do so?

      “Now we come to the largest hole in the story offered to us by the Defence.  This ‘civilian ship’ contains the banned technology which allows for travel at any rate of time.  This technology is essential for accomplishing the mission we have accused the Defendants of attempting.  But if this really was the case of a kidnapping done without any knowledge on the part of the STAR, why would this ship possess such precious, highly guarded technology?  The explanation offered by the Defence is laughable—the Jason Floyd claims the technology was given to him by the C.E.O. of the STAR itself—the Rachael Juciper, daughter of the Arnold Juciper and sister of the female here today!  It is a wonder that we are even having a trial!  The Defendant admits that the technology which made his mission possible was given to him by the leader of the STAR!

      “Why would he admit to such a thing, friends and allies?  Luckily, the explanation is not so difficult to discern.  Knowing that we would never believe a civilian ship could come to possess this technology without complicity from the STAR, the Jason Floyd was forced to admit that he did indeed receive the technology with permission from the STAR’s leader.  However, he mitigates this with an unsubstantiated, completely un-provable claim that the Rachael Juciper was not actually the leader of the STAR, but merely a figurehead, a puppet of the previous leader, the Brian Davis, whom records show died years prior to their departure but whom the Jason Floyd claims had merely taken a secret identity as the bodyguard of the Arnold Juciper.

      “This is completely ludicrous.  If the Rachael Juciper was not actually the leader of the STAR, how could she have authorized the Jason Floyd to have his ship equipped with the banned technology?  If the Brian Davis really was still alive, would he not have prevented her from providing a civilian with this technology?  No, the truth is that the Rachael Juciper really was the leader of the STAR.  She obtained that position by proving her loyalty as a member of the original twenty-three.”

      The screen behind them now flashed with an image from the Andromeda II, with Rachael Juciper, still quite young at the time, clearly visible in the front row of the cockpit.

      “The picture is becoming clearer,” the Prosecutor raised his voice.  “Here we have four members of the original twenty-three, now at the highest levels of the STAR.  They return to the Kazva and learn of the existence of the Yvenzhelva and the threat we pose to them.  They come up with the plan of creating a civilisation with loyalty to the STAR within the Zhelva’s borders, and invent an elaborate story of kidnapping and escape to cover their tracks.  They even stage the entire kidnapping episode, and have hundreds of their ships fake an attack on the ship of the Jason Floyd before its departure.  And in a final act of loyalty to the STAR, the Arnold Juciper sacrifices himself at the critical moment to lend one more degree of credibility to this incredibly elaborate lie.”

      While the Prosecutor spoke these last few words, Jason turned to watch the screen display the horrifying image of his ship at the last moment before it departed, with hundreds of security ships surrounding him.  He felt sick to his stomach as he again watched the Commander destroy itself.  Jessi had her eyes closed, but Jason’s eyes were glued to the screen as he watched his ship hit by that initial burst of fire from one of the security ships, then disappear completely as the leap to 10,000 years per second was made.

      “My friends and allies, this is a solid story, one so meticulously planned and staged that you may even find yourselves inclined to believe it.  Even my esteemed colleague, the Zhyenvyentluk, has been taken in by it.  However, there are a number of extremely crucial questions you must ask yourselves.  If the Jason Floyd had really just left the Kazva to escape the STAR, if he was just flying aimlessly through the universe, how is it that he just happened to come to the Zhelva, the portion of the universe most threatening to his own race?  And how is it that he just happened to settle around a planet in one of our nature-preserves, occupied by none of the four Empires?  Why did he spend so much time there if he had no objective at all?  Why set foot on the planet during its primordial phase?  And when the planet was about to be destroyed, why risk his own life by returning to the surface and rescuing one of the creatures?  Finally, of all the creatures he might have rescued, why choose a mammal, a species close in physiology to his own?

      “These are not difficult questions to answer.  He came to the Zhelva because that was his mission all along.  He settled in one of our protected areas because he knew he would be relatively safe from detection there for a long period of time.  He remained around the planet for so long because he was waiting for an intelligent species to evolve.  The banned technology was necessary for this mission so he could wait as long as was necessary for a new intelligence to emerge.  He landed on the planet in its primordial phase to influence the evolution from the very beginning.  And when he saw that the planet was about to be destroyed, he rescued a creature closest in physiology to his own because this was a fall-back plan all along.  In this creature, the little animal you see in this cage before you now, he saw the greatest potential for intelligence to arise and so he rescued it, perhaps hoping that he could bring it to another suitable environment, clone it, and bring about that new civilisation that it was his objective all along to create: a race that would be hostile to the Council and loyal to the STAR.

      “But he has been caught and his mission has failed.  The fatal blow to this web of lies came when the STAR did not even corroborate his story.  We might even have believed this fantastic tale, but the STAR has abandoned him in the end.  They refuse to acknowledge that the Jason Floyd obtained the banned technology legally, nor will they corroborate that the Rachael Juciper was not actually the leader of the STAR at the time of their departure.  We can only guess as to their motives, but it seems they have given up on this mission. Either the STAR is lying, the Defendants are lying, or both are lying.  Based on our history with the Human, I believe it is safe to assume that neither story is completely true.

      “And so now we are faced with the decision of what to do with these spies.  The choice is not a difficult one.  While there is no way to prove the truth or falsehood of the Defendants’ claims, the evidence weighs heavily in one direction.  We have the knowledge that for the STAR, a mission to create a sympathetic civilisation within our galactic borders is necessary for their survival.  We have a man who was in the process of carrying out this very mission when he was caught—a man with deep loyalty to the STAR, a member of the original twenty-three.  We have a cover story involving the kidnapping of a young female—a female with that sense of loyalty passed on to her by her parents.  We have a father who was loyal enough to sacrifice his daughter and his own life to serve the cause of the Human.  And finally we have a ship with banned technology, which was absolutely necessary to complete a mission of this nature and which could have only been obtained with complicity from the STAR.

      “We must protect our Empires now or in the future we will have no Empires to protect.  All spies or possible spies of the STAR must be executed.  The STAR must not be able to infiltrate us and gain any advantages for the future war, or we are doomed.  We must strand strong against all threats and all potential threats.  Standing before you in the guise of a weak man and an innocent young female is the greatest threat the Yvenzhelva have ever faced—a new type of spy with a new type of mission.  The STAR must know that it can not expect to succeed in creating turmoil within our galaxy.  That any attempt to do so will fail, and those who are sent on such missions will be executed.  Friends and allies, for the sake of our descendants and the future of our Great Empire, we must find the Defendants guilty.”

      By the time the Prosecutor was finished with his statement even Jason was beginning to think he might be guilty.  The speech, he knew, had been quite persuasive, and whatever shred of hope he might have had that the Council would find him innocent had completely dissolved.  There was little doubt left in his mind that he and Jessi would indeed be executed the next morning.  What confused Jason was that he still didn’t know how he felt about that.

      “Will the Defence please step forward and present the rebuttal,” the Arbiter spoke, and Zhyenvyentluk promptly broke from his statuesque stillness and walked to the middle of the room.  Just as the Prosecutor did, Zhyen scanned the room from left to right, making eye contact with every delegate before beginning his speech.

      “My friends and allies,” Zhyen began, “most of you know who I am.  I have served the Council of Allies as Ambassador to the Human for many galactic rotations, since before most of you were born.  I have killed one Human spy, and captured and prosecuted two others.  I stand before you now not as a Prosecutor but as counsel for the Defence.  I do this not because I believe the Defendants are not guilty, but because I know they are innocent. I have seldom been more certain of anything.”

      “As to the arguments of the Prosecutor, I find them weak and unconvincing.  My esteemed colleague, the Vrekzhinvyongkir, has asserted that the evidence weighs heavily in one direction, and I agree with that statement. However I do not agree that this direction is towards the Defendants’ guilt.  The nature of most of the ‘evidence’ that the Prosecutor has presented is psychological.  We are all familiar with the law, and we are all aware that psychological evidence is scarcely evidence at all.  It deals with mental abstracts which are subject to countless, in fact infinite interpretations.  A case based on psychology is little more than a story we imagine to explain the facts.  As to the actual facts, the Prosecutor has presented only the most basic and skimmed over the most essential.

      “I will discuss the most relevant facts later when I have an opportunity to present my case.  For now I can only respond to the argument made by the Prosecutor, which as I have said is nothing more than a story invented to explain how in spite of the facts, the Defendants may still be guilty.  He tells us the story of a small faction of Human, four of the original twenty-three, who have devised a plan to infiltrate our galaxy with the objective of raising a civilisation sympathetic to the STAR.  This story rests on one key assumption which if you knew the Defendant as I do you would know beyond any doubt is completely false.  The assumption is that these four individuals, the Jason Floyd, the Arnold Juciper, the Rachael Juciper, and the daughter Jessica Juciper, have a deep sense of loyalty to the STAR, their governing force.

      “This is pure fantasy, my friends and allies.  The story offered by the Prosecutor makes far less sense than the story given to me by the Defendants.  He claims that because these three individuals, the Jason Floyd and the Arnold and Rachael Juciper, agreed in the Human fourth millennium to embark on a journey which would have them return beyond the five thousandth millennium, they must have an extreme sense of duty and loyalty to the STAR, who sent them on their mission.  The Prosecutor does not mention that in the Human fourth millennium, the STAR is not the tyrannical governing force of the Kazva, but a mere space-exploration company with little authority beyond maintaining order in a few scattered colonies.

      “When the three individuals in question returned to the Kazva, the STAR was of a completely different nature than it had been when they departed.  Indeed the entire Human Empire was vastly different, having progressed well into the modern epoch since the time in which the twenty-three departed at what was merely the early dawn of this period.  The Arnold Juciper, having led the historic mission, became a celebrity and married the Lauren Samalc who had served as a pilot on the mission.  The Rachael Juciper returned to her family and the three of them lived a relatively comfortable life and raised another daughter, the Jessica Juciper who stands before you today.

      “But the return was much different for the Jason Floyd.  He did not become a celebrity, but found himself as an outcast among his own people.  He came from a very different time, and found that there was no place for him in the world he had returned to.  The idea to leave his galaxy and explore the universe had been with him for a long time, and this idea is eventually what led him to this point.

      “The Prosecutor will also have you believe that the Arnold Juciper was willing to sacrifice his daughter for the good of the STAR.  But in order for this to be the case the STAR would have had to make the Arnold Juciper aware of the information regarding the existence of the Yvenzhelva—information that we know the STAR keeps very closely guarded.  Can we really believe that the Brian Davis, leader of the STAR during the return of the twenty-three, actually disclosed this information to the Arnold Juciper, a high-profile celebrity?  What had he done to earn such trust?  He was an employee of a company that for all practical purposes no longer existed.  He was not a true operative of the STAR…certainly not someone whom the STAR would trust with top-secret information.

      “This I will admit is only speculation on my part, but if the Prosecutor can build a case based on assumptions I can counter it with assumptions of my own.  I will let you, my friends and allies, be the judge of which assumptions are more reasonable.

      “But now we come to the issue of the banned technology and the installation of this technology on the ship of the Jason Floyd by the Rachael Juciper, who was according to record the leader of the STAR at the time of his departure.  The Prosecutor makes great use of this fact, as it would certainly make it appear that the Jucipers actually were highly involved in the top levels of the government.  The Defendants have explained to me that this arrangement was merely for the sake of appearances.  The Jason Floyd suspects that the Rachael Juciper was only a figurehead, the leader of the STAR to the public only.  Her popularity from being the daughter of the beloved Arnold Juciper made it politically difficult for the STAR to refuse to allow her to obtain this position when she requested it.  The Jessica Juciper suspects this as well, though neither of them claim complete certainty.

      “This is important, friends and allies, because this is the fact that will prove the Defendants’ innocence.  Neither the Jason Floyd nor the Jessica Juciper claim certainty that the Rachael Juciper’s position was merely that of a figurehead, though they could claim to be certain if they wanted to lie for the sake of building a stronger case.  When I am given a chance to present evidence, you will see that the Defendants have spoken the truth and the Rachael Juciper did not have as much power as the Prosecutor would like you to believe.

      “However, she did have enough power to authorize the installation of the banned technology on the ship of the Jason Floyd.  This point is not in dispute, but the reason behind this authorization is.  The Prosecutor claims the ship was equipped with this technology for the purposes of the mission he claims the Defendants were charged with.  There is no such mission—only the desire on the part of the Jason Floyd to leave his galaxy and explore the cosmos without the limitations of a standard time-scale.  The Rachael Juciper was a friend to the Jason Floyd.  She was aware of his desire and she authorized this installation as a friend, without permission from the Brian Davis, who was still the real leader of the STAR at the time.  The engineers who performed the installation were no doubt unaware that the Rachael Juciper was not the actual leader, so they obeyed her orders.

      “Of course, this is just another story, another possible version of events.  I present it not only because this version happens to be true, which as of yet you have no solid reason to believe, but to illustrate that psychology can be used to offer any number of possible explanations for the facts.  Whether the Rachael Juciper authorized the installation of the banned technology out of friendship or out of loyalty to the STAR in a campaign against the Yvenzhelva is a question that can not be answered by psychology alone, but by the facts.  And the most important facts regarding this issue have yet to be presented.

      “I will spend much time later on discussing the issue of the kidnapping, as the Prosecutor did not dwell on this topic, dismissing it merely as a story manufactured by the STAR to provide their operatives with a believable cover.  Why they would go through so much trouble to provide their spies with a mere explanation for their presence in the Zhelva when they knew it was almost certain that capture would lead to execution in any case is a matter you must consider, and which I will return to later.

      “Finally we come to the fact that for several galactic rotations the Defendants remained in orbit of a planet in one of our protected areas, waiting for intelligent life to emerge.  I must concede to the Prosecutor that it is not unlikely that the STAR would attempt to disrupt the stability of the Zhelva by creating a race sympathetic to the Human within our borders.  I simply do not believe that the Jason Floyd had this object in mind during his time studying this planet.  His object in leaving the Kazva and exploring the cosmos is merely to study, to learn about the universe, and his activities around the planet are consistent with this objective.

      “The Prosecutor has asked a series of hypothetical questions designed to lead you into the belief that there could be no other explanation for the Jason Floyd’s presence in our galaxy other than his being charged with the aforementioned mission.  He asks, ‘If the Jason Floyd had really just left his galaxy to escape the STAR, if he was just flying aimlessly through the universe, how is it that he just happened to come to the Zhelva, the portion of the universe most threatening to his own Empire?’  The answer to this question is simply that the Zhelva is where Jason decided to begin his journey.  As a member of the twenty-three, he already felt a sense of attachment to this galaxy and before exploring the rest of the universe he decided to start in the place that would be most comfortable to him—a galaxy he had already visited.

      “The Prosecutor then asks, ‘how is it that he just happened to settle around a planet in one of our nature-preserves, occupied by none of the four Empires?’  This question is extremely easy to answer—he desired to watch the evolutionary cycle of a planet from the very beginning, back to the formation of the star system.  If one’s objective is to study the universe, is this not an appropriate subject for examination?  And if one decides to examine the formation of a planetary system, is it not appropriate to start at the beginning?  The Jason Floyd found a nebula where stars were forming and settled there.  Nebulas where stars are forming also happen to be areas protected under our natural-space preservation treaties.

      “The Prosecutor then asks, ‘why did he spend so much time there if he had no objective at all?’  This is a misleading question—of course he had an objective.  It was to watch the entire evolutionary cycle of a planet from its primordial phase to the emergence of intelligence.  The next question is ‘why set foot on the planet during its primordial phase?’  Why indeed, if his objective was to appeal to an intelligent civilisation and make them sympathetic to the Human?  But this was not his objective—it was only to study.  Gathering data from a planet’s primordial phase is necessary for such a study if one wants to compare it to data from a latter phase.  It is completely unnecessary for a mission to merely influence an already intelligent species.

      “Finally, he asks ‘when the planet was about to be destroyed, why risk his own life by returning to the surface and rescuing one of the creatures?’  Again this falls perfectly in line with the explanation that the Defendant’s motives were scientific.  Upon seeing that the planet was about to be destroyed he knew he had one last chance to collect and compare data.  We have the data he collected from his ship’s computer, along with very scientific logs about which creatures emerged, as well as a section at the end comparing the DNA coding of the organic matter from the primordial phase to that of the species which existed just before the planet’s destruction.  Rescuing the primitive creature was not an objective.  Both the Jason Floyd and the female indicate that this was a spur-of-the-moment decision, made out of sympathy for the creatures that were about to be wiped away.  The Prosecutor’s final question, ‘of all the creatures he might have rescued, why choose a mammal, a species close in physiology to his own?’ the answer is far simpler than this notion of a back-up plan involving cloning—the female simply found this creature to be cute.  The Human fondness for small mammals dates back to the ancient epoch and I do not believe it is in dispute.”

      A few of the delegates seemed to chuckle at this last comment, but that might have only been Jason’s imagination.

      “And the final point made by the Prosecutor is one he brushes over very quickly because he knows that if one examines it closely, it actually harms his case.  He claims that the reason the STAR does not corroborate the story given by the Defendants is because they have abandoned their mission.  But why?  Having gone through all the trouble to invent this elaborate cover story and stage this kidnapping—for the sole purpose of offering an explanation for the Defendants should they be captured—why would the STAR not corroborate the story?  Why would they not say that this man is wanted for kidnapping and demand extradition so that they may bring him to justice, with the actual intention of bringing their spies back for debriefing?

      “The STAR does not corroborate this story because they did not invent the story.  It is a story embarrassing to the STAR—that a man could kidnap the daughter of one of their championed heroes, the sister of their C.E.O.—and get away with it.  Of course they cannot admit that the Rachael Juciper allowed the installation of the banned technology on a civilian ship because it would be admitting to a violation of their treaty with the Yvenzhelva.  So they claim the Defendants obtained the technology illegally.  If all this trouble was taken to create a believable story, why does their story not match those of the Defendants?  Why does the Defendant Jason Floyd admit that it was the Rachael Juciper who had the technology installed when the STAR could never admit to this?  Why does he claim that the Rachael Juciper was only a figurehead when the STAR could never admit that it has been deceitful about who controls it?

      “The only reasonable explanation is that the STAR is lying.  The kidnapping was real, the illegal installation of the banned technology by the Rachael Juciper did happen, and the Rachael Juciper was not actually the leader of the STAR.  Right now the Defendants who stand before you are the only people in this universe with that knowledge.  The STAR does not demand extradition because they do not want these dangerous individuals anywhere near the rest of their population, lest the public learn about this case and stir up a very unwelcome controversy.  They are hoping that we will take care of this problem for them—that their clearly false story will lead us to conclude that they must be spies and therefore executed.

      “My friends and allies, we must not let our suspicions overrule our sense of good judgment.  We must not accept the fantasy offered by the Prosecutor merely because it is what we are initially inclined to believe.  We execute spies because it is in our best interest, but if we execute these innocent Defendants we are only acting in the interests of our enemy.  Right now you have a handful of facts and two conflicting stories with which to explain them.  By the end of this trial I am certain you will all know as surely as I do which story is the truth.”

      When Zhyen was finished, he bent an eye in Jason’s direction for an instant as he stepped back to his place.  Jason was dumbfounded by the force of Zhyen’s arguments, and for the first time he began to believe that his execution might not be so inevitable.  After all, Jason was innocent—at least of being a spy—and if Zhyen could see reason there was at least some chance that the rest of the Council could deduce the obvious truth as well.

      Oddly enough, this feeling did not comfort Jason in the least.  Now that he acknowledged that there might actually be some hope of he and Jessi surviving this ordeal, an overwhelming sense of anxiety began to form in his gut.  To make matters worse, they were approaching the portion of the trial in which he would have to answer the Prosecutor’s questions.  With the eyes of the most powerful individuals in the galaxy on him he could not help but feel a sensation like an intense stage-fright.  But unlike stage-fright, where the actor at least knows what he or she will be performing in front of the audience, he had no idea what to expect.  And it was not mere embarrassment that he risked if he made a mistake, but the death of himself and the person he loved.

      “The Prosecutor may now question either of the Defendants,” the Arbiter proclaimed.

      The Prosecutor stepped forward.  “At this time I will question the Jason Floyd,” he said.

      “Will the Jason Floyd step forward?” the Arbiter spoke.  The security guard standing next to Jason wrapped his left arm in his fingers and brought him a few steps forward.  He was now almost exactly in the centre of the arena, about ten metres from the Arbiter and an equal distance from the back wall.

      “Please turn the female around,” the Arbiter commanded.  Jason turned his head to see the guard next to Jessi turn her around to face the back wall.  Just as he did so the Arbiter snapped, “Do not turn around!  The Defendants may not face each other during this portion of the trial.”  Jason turned with a start back towards the front of the room, his anxiety now growing so thick that he felt he might pass out.

      “I would like to make a brief preliminary statement before I begin my questioning,” the Prosecutor said.

      “Proceed,” said the Arbiter, keeping one eye on the Prosecutor and the other on Jason.

      “Friends and allies,” the Prosecutor began, “my intention is to prove to you that the Defendants are spies.  In order to do this I must show that the cover story manufactured by the Defendants is indeed a false one.  The Jason Floyd has claimed that his presence in the Zhelva is purely due to scientific curiosity about the universe, and that the female is with him not of her own volition, but because he has kidnapped her and can not return to the Kazva because he is a fugitive.  This story, I maintain, is completely false.  This Human is a spy—not a kidnapper.  This I will demonstrate to you by digging into his mind, clearing away the intricate web of lies he has no doubt concocted until at last we come to the truth.”

      “Thank you,” said the Arbiter, who now turned both his eyes directly to Jason.  “You may speak now in response to the Prosecutor’s questions.  You must answer every question truthfully and you may not refuse to answer a question.  Do you understand?”

      “Yes,” said Jason, who was now so nervous it was a struggle to stand up straight.  He turned his head to look at the Prosecutor, who stood only about five metres ahead of him and to the left.

      “Tell me, Jason Floyd,” the Prosecutor began, “when did you decide to kidnap the female Jessica Juciper?”

      Jason wished he could see Jessi now.  For some reason he didn’t quite understand, he felt it would have at least been slightly comforting.  Even being able to see Zhyen would have helped somewhat, but he was behind him and out of his line of sight.  All Jason had in his field of view were the cold expressionless faces of the Arbiter and the Delegates seated behind him.  He thought about the question, and realised quickly enough that there was no answer.  “I never actually decided to kidnap her,” he said.  “It just kind of happened.”

      “What do you mean?” asked the Prosecutor.  “How does a kidnapping spontaneously occur?”

      “I asked her onto my ship to talk to her,” Jason explained, already feeling sick to his stomach at having to live through these memories once again.  “This was on a space station where she was spending the weekend with her family.  Her father was afraid that I was going to hurt her so when he found out she was on my ship we were confronted by STAR Security and I was ordered to let her go.  But I didn’t want to go to prison.  My plan was to leave the galaxy immediately after saying goodbye to her but now I couldn’t just do that.  So I took her as a hostage, thinking I would drop her off somewhere and then leave the galaxy, but I was pursued too closely.  I thought they might back off if I threatened to expose the secret information I had regarding STAR’s extermination of extra-terrestrial species, but my plan back-fired.  I became a security risk and soon enough hundreds of ships had me surrounded.  It was either blast away from the galaxy then with Jessi, or let both of us die.  So I escaped, and kidnapped her.  But it was never something I planned to do.”

      “Why invent such a ridiculous story?” the Prosecutor asked, not so much as a question to Jason but as a point for the Delegates to consider.  “Do you intend to generate sympathy by insisting your crime was a mere accident?  Need I remind you that you are on trial for espionage, not kidnapping?”

      “What do you want from me?” asked Jason, his head spinning.

      “You are to answer the questions, Defendant, not ask them,” the Arbiter spoke harshly.

      “What is the question?  Why did I invent that story?  I didn’t.  That’s what happened. You could see for yourselves if you looked hard enough.”

      “Of course,” said the Prosecutor.  “Let us assume that your story is the truth, and this entire affair is merely the unforeseen result of your need to ‘say goodbye’ to the female.  Tell me when you made the decision to confront her like this?  How did you come to make that decision?”

      “I love her!” Jason shouted, some of his nervousness transforming now to anger.  “I was never going to see her again and I wanted to say goodbye.”

      “But if you love her why did you not attempt to pair with her?” asked the Prosecutor.

      “Because…well…I couldn’t.  I asked her if she was interested.  That’s what I wanted to talk to her about.  But she wasn’t.  So that was that.”

      “Tell me, Jason Floyd, is it normal among the Human for a male of your age to have feelings of such strong affection for a female of such a young age?  She is merely a child, is she not?”

      Jason’s nerves shot up again and a feeling of nausea overwhelmed him.  If only he could see Jessi.  How was she reacting to this?  He opened his mouth but no words came out.  He just stood and stared at the spot where the Arbiter’s podium met the floor.

      “Well, Jason Floyd?  Is it normal?” the Prosecutor pressed.

      “Answer the question,” said the Arbiter.

      “No,” said Jason.  “It’s not normal.  I’m...” his voice trailed.  He forgot what he was saying.

      “Finish,” said the Prosecutor.  “You are what?  Among the Human, how is one such as yourself perceived—an older male infatuated with a child?”

      “I’m a sick fucking pervert!  Is that what you want?” Jason yelled.  “What the fuck is the point of these questions?”

      “Calm yourself, Defendant!” the Arbiter shouted.  “You will not be warned again.”

      Jason just stood there, fuming.  He felt naked and exposed.

      “Very well,” the Prosecutor continued.  “You obviously are uncomfortable with the role your cover story puts you in.  I understand.  It must be difficult for you to claim to be a social deviant in front of this esteemed Council.  But I am sure you are not to blame.  Tell me, did your father mistreat you as a child?”

      Jason bit his bottom lip so hard that it bled.  He stared at the Prosecutor with a look of intense hatred, his anger only rising when he discerned the look of complete indifference in his eyes.  “I never knew my father,” Jason said through his teeth.  “What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”

      “I am merely trying to understand what leads an individual such as your self to commit such a horrible crime as the kidnapping of a child.  Perhaps it was your mother who mistreated you?”

      “Leave my mother out of this, you fucking asshole!” Jason could not control himself.  He knew he was acting pathetic, and he felt the thousand accusing eyes staring at him but he could restrain his anger.  His mother had been killed in a car accident when he was just a child.  The suggestion that she was somehow responsible for his pederasty set something terrible off in him.  “I won’t talk about my mother!”

      “You may not refuse to answer,” the Arbiter reminded him.

      “Fuck that!” Jason shouted.  “I refuse.”

      “You must answer the question,” said the Arbiter.

      “But the question is irrelevant!” Jason protested.

      “It is perfectly relevant,” said the Arbiter.  “You maintain you kidnapped the female.  The prosecutor is attempting to discern whether you are in fact a social deviant as you claim.”

      “I am a deviant, I admitted it,” Jason replied.  “What does my mother have to do with it?”

      “I am being patient with you because you are unfamiliar with our trial procedures,” said the Arbiter.  “But I will explain this to you only once.  If your story is that you are a deviant kidnapper you must have an explanation as to how you came to be this way.  The foundations for social deviance are usually laid during childhood.  So please answer the Prosecutor’s question and tell us if your mother mistreated you.”

      “No,” Jason finally said.  “No, my mother was an angel.  She loved me and took care of me on her own until she died when I was ten years old.”

      “Thank you,” said the Arbiter.  “You may continue,” he said the Prosecutor.

      “And when your mother died, who took care of you?”

      “Her sister, my aunt,” Jason barked.

      “Did she mistreat you?”

      “Yes,” said Jason.  “Yes she did okay.  Are you happy now?”

      “In what ways did she abuse you?” asked the Prosecutor.

      This was too much for Jason.  His mind had been teetering on the brink and now it snapped completely.  “Fuck this!” he shouted.  “Fuck all of this!  I’m not answering any more of these fucking questions!”

      “You have no choice,” the Arbiter spoke very harshly now, clearly losing patience.  Jason forgot that he was actually hearing the voice of the translator and not that of the Arbiter.

      “I don’t have any fucking rights?” yelled Jason in defiance.

      “No, you do not.  Not here,” said the Arbiter.  “Answer the question.”

      “No,” Jason refused.  “No more.  Just fucking execute me already.”

      “You were warned,” said the Arbiter.  “You may proceed,” he called to one of the guards in the back.

      Jason heard the toes of a security guard approaching behind him.  He turned his head and saw that the guard was carrying a long metal stick with three sharp-looking prongs on the end.  Two more guards approached and wrapped their fingers around each of Jason’s arms holding him in place.  “What the…?”

      Immediately Jason felt the metal prongs against his back, and a sensation more painful than anything he had ever felt before shot through his body.  Unprepared for the shock, he bit his tongue and began bleeding even more from the mouth.  His teeth clenched so tightly that he thought they would shatter.  He felt as though his spine was about to split in two.  After only two seconds, which seemed to Jason like two hours, it stopped.

      “You will answer the questions that are asked of you,” said the Arbiter.  “The more you refuse, the worse the pain will get.”

      “You people are fucked up!” Jason shouted without thinking.  “Advanced civilisation…bullshit!  This whole fucking Council is a joke!”

      “Again,” said the Arbiter.

      Jason felt the electricity jolt through him yet again, this time almost twice as painful as the last.  He shouted in agony, unable to think of anything but the pain he was experiencing, having no desire at all but for it to stop.  Finally, after four agonising seconds, it stopped.

      “Answer the question,” the Arbiter said again.

      Jason tried to speak but he had no breath.  The Arbiter let him take a moment to catch it.  “I…” he began, “I forgot what the question was.”

      “In what ways did your aunt abuse you?” asked the Arbiter.

      “I don’t know…” Jason was still breathing heavily.  But the answers were there in his brain, and eventually they came to the surface.  “She told me that Jesus hated me…that I was a worthless bastard, underfed me, kicked me down the stairs…that sort of thing.”

      Now the Prosecutor continued, but in a very different tone than before.  “So your story is that you were abused by your aunt and that is why you are a social deviant?”

      “I don’t know,” Jason’s voice was filled with anguish.  He just wished the ordeal would be over.  He would much rather be executed than subject to this agonizing examination.  “I don’t know why I’m such a sick fucking piece of shit.  I just am.”

      “I am surprised,” said the Prosecutor, still in a more subdued tone.  “I had thought you would have given more thought to your story.  I am done questioning this Defendant.”

      Jason nearly collapsed when the guards let go of him, but somehow he managed to stay on his feet.  His mind was too tormented at that moment to consider whether what had just happened had been good or bad for his case.

      “Does the Defence care to question the witness?” asked the Arbiter.

      “I have only two short questions for the Defendant,” said Zhyenvyentluk, stepping forward.

      “You may ask,” said the Arbiter.

      “Jason,” Zhyen began, “do you regret kidnapping the female, Jessica?”

      Jason looked up at Zhyen, the sympathetic look in his eyes only confusing him more.  He didn’t bother to think about what Zhyen’s object was in asking such a question.  There was only one answer.  “Every second of every day,” he said, “I regret it.”

      “Do you think you deserve to die?” Zhyen asked.

      “Yes,” Jason answered, his voice sounding strong for the first time since the shocks.  “Yes I fucking deserve to die.”

      “Thank you,” said Zhyen.  “That is all I will ask the Defendant.”

      “Very well,” said the Arbiter.  “Would the Prosecutor care to question the Defendant Jessica Juciper?”

      “Yes, I would like to do so briefly,” said the Prosecutor.

      “Please make it brief then,” said the Arbiter.  “I am beginning to doubt whether anything useful can be learned by questioning these Defendants.”

      “I understand completely,” said the Prosecutor.

      “Bring the Defendant Jessica Juciper forward,” the Arbiter commanded.

      The guards took Jason once again and turned him around to take him to the back of the room.  Now he was able to see Jessi again, and their eyes met for a brief moment while their paths crossed. 

      The look on her eyes at that moment would be burned forever upon Jason’s mind.  He had never seen her eyes looking at him like that before.  Her face was tortured by confusion and fear, but her eyes betrayed only compassion—deep, sincere compassion for Jason.  In some ways this look was even more painful than the shocks he had just been subject to.  She felt sorry for him—felt sympathy for him—was upset by what he had just had to go through.  This simply tore Jason up.  She should have enjoyed hearing him tortured like that.  What the Council had just done to him was far less horrible than what he had done to her.

       “You may speak now in response to the Prosecutor’s questions,” Jason heard the Arbiter tell Jessi. “You must answer every question truthfully and you may not refuse to answer a question.  Do you understand?”  Suddenly the giant screen behind him lit up with the image of Jessi standing before the Council.  Again, Jason felt as though he was going to collapse.  They showed the image of the Defendant on the big screen while they were being questioned—no doubt to give the Delegates an opportunity to read the facial expressions of the Defendants and make judgments regarding their psyches.  Jason realised that Jessi had seen the entire ordeal of his being shocked.  Now her tortured face showed only fear and confusion.

      “Do you understand?” the Arbiter asked again with a tone of impatience.

      Jessi continued to stare at the floor, struggling to get a grip on the situation.  Her mind was assaulted with conflicting thoughts about Jason and death and her lost family…she could not have been less prepared to be examined by the Prosecutor.

      “You know what happens when you refuse to answer a question,” said the Arbiter.  “You must respond.  I asked you if you understand this.  Do you?”

      But Jessi still said nothing.  She didn’t even look up.  Please just answer the question, Jason thought to himself.  His anger had once again completely transformed back to anxiety, and with each second that Jessi remained silent it grew stronger and stronger.

      “I believe it is clear that she does not understand,” Zhyen spoke up.

      “Silence!” the Arbiter shouted.  “I am surprised by you, Zhyenvyentluk!  You are well aware that it is against the rules to speak out of turn!”

      “My apologies, Arbiter,” said Zhyen, “but I must point out that the Defendant does not understand the situation and I humbly request that she be excused from the obligation to testify.”

      “That request is not yours to make!” said the Arbiter.  “Now although I am inclined to believe that nothing useful can come from her testimony, I have only asked her whether or not she understands that she has no choice but to answer the questions.  She has not answered, and therefore I am forced to make her understand.”

      Jason’s heart completely stopped beating for a second.  All of the blood drained from his skull, and he found he could not breathe.

      “You may proceed,” the Arbiter called to the guard with the shocker.

      Jason was paralysed and breathless.  He just stared at the screen, watching as the guards took hold of Jessi’s arms, and the shocker was plunged into her back.  Jessi screamed out in pain, her legs giving out beneath her as the guards kept her from falling to the floor.  Her face was squashed together, her body convulsing with the powerful electric current assaulting her from the inside.

      Jason turned around and bolted towards the guard with the shocker, not a single thought in his brain other than the intense desire to rip the device from the creature’s fingers and shove it down his throat.  Of course, before he could get two metres he was subdued by more guards, who proceeded to shock him again.

      “Answer the question!” Jason heard the Arbiter shouting at Jessi.  “Do you understand that you will continue to be subject to these shocks until you answer us?”

      But now Jessi was on the ground whimpering, her mind and body far too overwhelmed to answer the Arbiter.

      “If you do not say ‘yes’ in the next three seconds we will be forced to shock you again.  Do you understand?

      Jason was on the ground now, completely weakened by the shocker but still struggling to free himself from the grip of the guards.  He bent his head backwards and saw Jessi’s face on the big screen.  The agony it showed sparked another explosion of violence in his mind, and he struggled even harder against the guards.

      “Again!” the Arbiter shouted, and Jason’s ears were assaulted once more by the cries of the girl he loved, lifted to her feet and shocked at twice the voltage as the first time.  Jason felt the pain as though he was being shocked himself, and the sudden jolt of this energy actually allowed him to temporarily break free from the guards’ grip and leap towards the guard shocking Jessi.

      “Motherfucker!” he shouted, the guards once gain grabbing him and forcing him to the ground, where he was once again met with shocks of his own.  “Leave her alone you fucking heartless sons of bitches!”

      The Arbiter, of course, ignored him.  “I will ask you one more time!  You must answer the questions put to you.  Do…you…understand?

      Jessi, curled up into a foetal position and whimpering, of course did not express to the Arbiter that she understood.

      “Again!” the Arbiter shouted.

      Jason had his eyes closed now, beaten and helpless to do anything to stop the pain of the girl he loved.  As he heard her ghastly shrieks, the only thought he could think was how he was responsible.  As she cried out in agony he slammed his head repeatedly against the floor, so rapidly and with such force that the guards who held him down could not stop him before blood was forming in a pool below his head.

      “Enough!” it was the Prosecutor who shouted out now.  “This is accomplishing nothing.  I withdraw my request to question the female.”

      “Thank you,” said the Arbiter.  “I have had quite enough of this myself.  This spectacle is over.  We must take a brief recess while the guards escort the Defendants outside to restore their strength for the final portion of the trial.  I’ll leave it to counsel to make sense of this in the closing arguments.”

      Jason was lifted to his feet, but he could not stand on his own.  He saw Jessi being carried out by guards, and soon enough he was lifted off of his feet and carried out behind her.  As he was taken out of the room, he imagined himself beating the Arbiter, the Prosecutor, and every last member of that fucking Council to death. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason and Jessi were taken back to the holding cell and each given two injections.  The first completely wiped out all of the residual pain from the shocks and from Jason’s self-inflicted bruises.  This shot left each of them feeling completely numb yet utterly exhausted.  The second shot somehow fully restored their energy, and within a minute they both felt just as healthy as they had before the ordeal.

      Once they were back on their feet and thinking somewhat clearly, they were escorted back into the Council Chamber, where the delegates had spent the past few moments talking amongst themselves about what they had just witnessed and what it might have meant.  Jason had no idea what they were thinking, but at this point he was in a state of almost total apathy—his only real emotion a dull, residual anger over what they had just put Jessi through.

      Once they were situated and the Arbiter had quieted down the crowd, he invited Zhyenvyentluk to present his case as well as make his closing statement.  Zhyen stepped forward, scanned the crowd as he had done before his first speech, and began speaking.

      “Friends and allies, I am ashamed.”  This comment caused a minor stir among the delegates, but the hall remained mostly silent.  “In all of my time of service as Ambassador to the Human, I have never witnessed such a grotesque spectacle as that which has just now taken place.  Two innocent persons have been abused by our esteemed Council.  When I first encountered the Defendants, I assured them that the Yvenzhel were a peaceful race that did not practice torture.  To them I now appear a liar.  I do not suggest that my esteemed colleague, the Vrekzhinvyongkir ought to be ashamed for his questioning, nor that our honourable Arbiter, the Yazhkordyarik ought to be ashamed for making use of the shock treatment—this method is the standard protocol—I merely wish to convey that I have never felt so personally ashamed as I do now, because these Defendants were my responsibility, and I feel that had I done things differently, perhaps the travesty we have all just witnessed could have been avoided.

      “The Defendant Jason Floyd understands shame all too well.  He is deeply ashamed of himself for kidnapping the female Jessica Juciper, for which he recognizes his responsibility and acknowledges that had he done things differently, the pain she has been forced to endure could have been avoided.  As you heard from his own mouth, the Jason Floyd feels that he deserves to die for this.  But we are not trying him for kidnapping—a crime of which he is most certainly guilty—we are trying him for espionage, for an alleged attempt to raise a hostile civilisation within our galaxy.  Of this crime is he is completely innocent, which I will presently prove to you.

      “The Prosecutor wants you to believe that the Jason Floyd is loyal to the STAR to the point of death, having sacrificed five million Human years to serve on a mission to the Zhelva.  What he fails to mention is the vast difference between the Human of the end of the ancient epoch, and the Human of today.  I have studied Human history and anthropology throughout my entire life, and I can tell you that there are such vast differences between the ancient and modern Human that they can scarcely be considered the same race.

      “The ancient Human, much like the ancient Yvenzhel and our allies, were primarily driven by scientific curiosity as opposed to the will to power.  The two missions that the ancient STAR sent to the Zhelva were not for the purpose of colonisation or conquest but merely reconnaissance, and the desire to reach farther into the universe than any Human at that time would have thought feasible.  These were missions grounded in idealism, driven by the innocent yet noble motive to include more knowledge of the cosmos into the collective Human consciousness.

      “Upon returning to the Kazva, the original twenty-three were naturally praised as heroes, yet their accomplishment no longer meant what it had meant to the Human of the ancient epoch.  The Arnold Juciper, commander of the first mission, was hailed as a great hero, and for a time his status as a celebrity gave him and his family a small amount of power.  The Jason Floyd, merely another name on the list of those who had served on these missions, received nothing more than his due payment, greeted with only indifference by the members of what he had formerly considered his own race.

      “But these Human did not belong to his race.  Although they had deliberately done all they could to preserve the way of life they had known since the end of the ancient epoch—and  by all outward appearances they had—this was not the same civilisation.  The modern Human had expanded throughout their entire galaxy with indiscriminate self-regard, exterminating all other forms life in the Kazva.  Their greatest motivator was self-preservation, with little or no interest in the secrets of the universe.  Scientific and spiritual issues had lost all of their prior significance, and the ancient spirit of romanticism had long since evaporated.

      “It is therefore no wonder that the Jason Floyd found himself as an outcast.  Marginalised by the STAR and treated with cold indifference by the Human around him, he made up his mind to leave his galaxy, where there was no longer a place for him.  He had indeed sacrificed his life to this earlier mission, and for the rest of his time in existence he is aware that he will never find a place where he truly belongs.

      “Yet the idealism of the ancient epoch, with its scientific curiosity and romanticism, were still very much alive in his heart, and he resolved to spend the rest of his life exploring the universe and including in his own individual experience as much as he possibly could, as he had now been cut off from the Human collective.  In order to do this, of course, it was necessary for him to procure the technology that has been banned by treaty. As it happened, he had the good fortune of being acquainted with the Rachael Juciper, who was at this point enjoying the benefits of the small dose of power that her father’s celebrity status had granted her family.  It is important that you are aware that the Rachael Juciper was not actually the leader of the STAR, a point which I will later prove beyond all doubt.  That she was only a figurehead was known only by a select few—only the most powerful individuals in the Kazva.  It was certainly not known to the engineers who installed the banned technology.  They required only the approval of the person they believed was their leader, the Rachael Juciper.  Without authorisation from those above her on the hierarchy, she gave the order for the installation of the technology to those below her.  This scenario is not quite as inconceivable as the Prosecutor would like you to believe.  The Rachael Juciper was far more loyal to her friends and her family—the Human of the ancient epoch—than she ever was to the STAR.

      “So the Jason Floyd was given the capability of embarking on his lifelong journey, but there was one factor remaining which he had not counted on—a romantic obsession with the daughter of the Arnold and the Lauren Juciper, born of parents of the ancient epoch yet raised in the modern period, a Human without a clear identity.  Let us consider the Jessica Juciper for a moment, and decide whether we can really believe that she would agree to participate in an extremely dangerous espionage mission for the STAR.  The Prosecutor wants you to believe that she was raised with a sense of loyalty to the STAR, that she would risk her life and give up everything she knew for its sake.  This is not only untrue, but absurd.

      “No sense of loyalty to the STAR had ever been instilled in the Jessica Juciper by her father, the Arnold Juciper.  The Arnold Juciper was not a true STAR Officer.  He was a relic, an employee from the STAR Corporation of the ancient epoch, a useful propaganda tool for the STAR of the current age but also a potential problem.  The STAR knew that every Human would listen carefully to every word this man, a hero and symbol of the greatness of the STAR, would say.  They had to give him the appearance of freedom and yet keep him under constant surveillance.  The result was a deal whereby the Rachael Juciper would take the place of the Brian Davis as the C.E.O. of the STAR, but the Brian Davis would remain in the presence of the Juciper family at all times in the guise of a high-ranking STAR Security bodyguard.  This is the Bob Drady, the man we see in the images of the explosion just prior to the departure of the Defendant from the Kazva.  It is unlikely that the Arnold Juciper was fond of his presence, and more importantly it is highly unlikely that he would even explain the situation to his young daughter, let alone attempt to instil in her a sense of loyalty to the STAR.  The only representative of the STAR that she knew in the brief period of her childhood was the Bob Drady, a mysterious and imposing presence who would occasionally give orders to her father.  According to her, he was also occasionally violent.  She has recalled being thrown across a room by the Bob Drady as a younger child, the pain of which was not quite as great as that of seeing her father unable to terminate him for his crime.  This is not the kind of experience that fosters a deep sense of loyalty.

      “No, the Jessica Juciper was not a fierce proponent of the modern Human idealism, but merely an innocent young child in a world she struggled every day to find her place in.  Miraculously, she managed to fit in quite well as I understand, and this is one of the reasons why she drew the interest of the outcast Jason Floyd.  What the Jason Floyd saw in this female is not for me to say.  I am sure she is quite beautiful by the Human standard, but she also represented for the Jason Floyd the very thing he wanted most but could not find: the ability to assimilate well with the other Human in spite of his insurmountable differences.  Here was a girl who was hopelessly separated from the rest of Humanity by her parentage, yet who still managed to live the appearance of a normal, happy life.

      “But the reasons behind the Jason Floyd’s attraction to her are mostly irrelevant.  We need only understand that his infatuation with her quickly became his strongest emotional motivator, even stronger than his desire to understand the universe.  And so we come at last to the kidnapping, which has been briefly described to you by the Defendant Jason Floyd during the only relevant portion of testimony we have heard here today.  Before he departed from his galaxy forever, he had to be sure that he was not leaving a possible future behind that included a happy life with the person he loved.  Yet there was another problem—this person he loved was too young for his infatuation to be accepted by the rest of the Human, most importantly the girl’s father.

      “I will now direct your attention to the screen as I take you through the important events of the kidnapping one by one.  The Prosecutor would like you to believe that everything you are about to see was staged for the purpose of an espionage mission, but I trust that your judgment is clear enough to see what an absurd proposition this is.”

      Jason turned around to look at the giant screen, and was once again wrenched with painful emotions as he saw Lauren for the first time since before he left the Milky Way.  She was in the hallway of Space Station Juciper with Arnold.  They were outside the arcade, and saying goodbye to their daughter for what neither of them could have expected would be the last time they ever saw her.  Jason turned to see that Jessi was looking at the screen too, though her blank face betrayed no hint as to whatever emotional turmoil might be going on in her mind.  The resemblance to her mother at that moment was striking.

      “Here you see the parents of the Defendant Jessica Juciper casually saying goodbye to her during their vacation aboard a resort space station in low Earth orbit.  This is the last time either parent would see their daughter, yet as you can see this is hardly a heartfelt farewell.  Now you see the Jason Floyd, emerging from the bathroom and following the girl into the arcade.  Now you see him talking to her, requesting that she join him on his ship.  Notice how he keeps his back turned to the STAR Security guards who enter the room to keep an eye on the girl.  And finally when he leaves you can see how she hesitates before getting up to follow him.”

      Jessi’s emotionless disposition wavered for an instant as she let out a soft yet very deep sigh, re-living what had turned out to be the biggest mistake of her life.

      “The picture will now shift to the docking bay of the Jason Floyd’s ship, where you can see the Jessica Juciper entering without accompaniment to have what the Jason Floyd had intended to be the final conversation between the two of them.  I will now jump to a few minutes later, when we see the STAR Security agents, led by the Bob Drady and accompanied by the Arnold and the Lauren Juciper raiding the docking bay and demanding the release of the female.

      “Because we cannot hear what is said it cannot be proven that the Jason Floyd’s discussion with the female was nothing more than a fond farewell gone wrong, and the transmissions back and forth between the STAR Security and the Jason Floyd a serious confrontation as opposed to a briefing regarding the espionage mission they were being sent on.  You must use your own judgment, but I believe these images speak for themselves, and it is quite clear that this event was not staged by anybody.

      “Finally we see the docking bay opened and the ship departing.  The Prosecutor will suggest that this is evidence of compliance on the part of the STAR to let the Jason Floyd kidnap the female and blast towards our galaxy, but we know that this is merely an agreement between the Jason Floyd and the STAR to allow him to drop the female off on the Earth’s moon and depart before he could be arrested.  He did this to ensure his future freedom, and as you can now see the ship is headed on a course with the Earth’s moon, and not with the Zhelva.  If this was a staged kidnapping with the objective of infiltrating our galaxy, why not head directly in our direction as soon as the ship was free?

      “Now watch as the ship breaks its course from the moon and blasts away at a greater speed, pursued by the ship of the Arnold Juciper and the Bob Drady.  Was this a part of the show, or did it happen because the Jason Floyd discovered that the STAR planned to trap him if he landed on the moon?

      “We will return to this shortly, but first I must show you an image recorded shortly thereafter taken from the Earth’s surface.”

      The screen now flashed an image of Rachael and Lauren being led through the hallways of the STAR Administration building by a couple of STAR Security guards.  A very uneasy feeling began growing in Jason’s stomach, and he looked over at Jessi wondering what she could possibly be thinking or feeling at that moment.

      “The mother and sister of the Jessica Juciper are being led to an underground bunker.  Does this make any sense if these two individuals are complicit in the kidnapping charade?  And more importantly, if the Rachael Juciper is really the leader of the STAR at this point, how can we possibly explain her being led at gun-point?

      “The only explanation is the one given by the Defendant.  He had only one tool to use against the STAR to attempt to accomplish his goal of releasing the female, whom he did not wish to take with him on his journey, without being taken into custody by the STAR.  This is the data-cube of classified information which he obtained from a friend shortly beforehand, containing information regarding the policy of the STAR to exterminate all non-Human species within the Kazva.  Threatening to broadcast this information was a great risk, and it turned out to be a grave error.  What you are now seeing is an image of the Defendant’s ship surrounded by hundreds of STAR Security vessels with orders to destroy it, lest the information be broadcast to other Human who may not have approved of this violent policy of their governing force.

      “I am now presenting the most important evidence of the entire case, so pay close attention.  Once it became clear to the Arnold Juciper that the priority of the STAR was not to retrieve his daughter but to destroy the Jason Floyd’s ship and anyone on it, this ‘extreme sense of loyalty’ if he had any, completely dissolved.”

      The screen now flashed to an image looking directly into the cockpit of Arnold’s ship, the Commander, where Arnold and Bob Drady sat at the controls.

      “Notice how the Bob Drady is sitting at the main controls and shouting orders into the communicator.  Would the mere bodyguard of the Arnold Juciper be giving orders to hundreds of STAR Security ships?  If this man really was just a bodyguard, would he not be subject to the orders of the Arnold Juciper?  The Arnold Juciper would not give any order that would result in his daughter’s death.  This man you see beside him is the one giving orders.  This man is not a bodyguard but none other than the Brian Davis himself, surgically altered in appearance and posing as a bodyguard for the purpose of keeping the Juciper family, with all of their illusory authority, under constant control.

      “And finally we see the reason that the Jason Floyd was able to escape, as we watch the Arnold Juciper initiate his ship’s self-destruct sequence and destroy himself and the Brian Davis just before the order that would have killed his daughter could be given.  If this was all just a charade to lead this very Council at this very time to the conclusion that these Defendants are not spies, they certainly took it to a far greater extreme than was needed.  Neither the Arnold Juciper nor the Bob Drady needed to be sacrificed—the Jason Floyd could have blasted his ship towards the Zhelva the moment he left the space station and his story would have still been quite believable.

      “Yet there is still some room for doubt, which it is now my sad duty to extinguish by showing an image that I know will be deeply disturbing to the Defendants, and for that I wish to apologize to them.  I would never have obtained this image had it not been for a question asked of me by the Defendant Jason Floyd, a point that I had overlooked but which—when I was confronted by it—completely convinced me beyond any doubt that the kidnapping story was the truth.  I direct your attention to the screen, where we once again meet the Lauren Juciper, who had supposedly just sacrificed her husband and daughter for a spy mission, and the Rachael Juciper, who was supposedly the leader of the STAR.”

      It was just as Jason had feared.  When the image on the screen cut to an overhead view of Lauren and Rachael, far below the STAR building, on their knees and with laser pistols held to the backs of their heads, he immediately turned and looked away, feeling that he could not bear to watch.  But when he saw that Jessi was still staring at the screen, still silent and expressionless but her eyes now wider than he had ever seen them, he knew he had to watch.  These were the consequences of his actions, and he had no right to look away from them.

      Rachael was the first to be shot, straight through the back of the head.  She was pulled backwards, and the image of her lying dead on the floor with her hands still tied behind her back completely knocked the air out of Jason.  He struggled to breathe but found he couldn’t, and he was once again overcome with dizziness.  Yet he still kept his eyes on the screen, watching as Lauren burst into tears over the body of her dead step-daughter, knowing her time was next.  She was shot only a second later, and before she could fall on top of Rachael her body was also pulled backwards, her agonised face staring straight at the sky, directly at Jason, silently screaming at him with the most intense anger and hatred she had ever known.  Jason’s legs gave out beneath him and he collapsed to the floor.

      When he fell he found that Jessi was already down there.  She had not screamed or cried but merely collapsed and curled once again into a foetal position, undergoing an emotional torment that could not possibly be imagined.  She had just witnessed the deaths of every member of her family.  Not even in her wildest nightmares could she have imagined such a horror.

      After a lengthy pause, Zhyen continued.  “I will not say much about this image, as it completely speaks for itself.  I will only point out that once the Jason Floyd had escaped with the female, the STAR released a story to the news media claiming that the Jason Floyd and all of the Jucipers had perished in the kidnapping attempt. The STAR had been forced to provide the Jucipers with some power for a time, but once the Arnold Juciper had killed himself, there was no longer any need to keep them alive.  The modern Human had successfully rid themselves of that inconvenient presence of the Human from the ancient epoch.

      “My friends and allies, what we have here is a tragedy which reaches is climax today.  It is a sequence of terribly unfortunate events that leads the Defendants to our esteemed Council today, not a sinister plot to undermine our galactic security.  The original mission from the Kazva to the Zhelva and back resulted in bringing two types of Human into contact that had no business existing in the same time period.  The ancient Human, with its spirit of romanticism and wonder at the cosmos, found no place in the time of the modern human, concerned only with the efficiency of its self-preservation.  This ancient Human, the Defendant Jason Floyd, committed the terrible crime of submitting to his passion for the unattainable—a beautiful female who was somehow able to bridge this divide between the old and the new—but he never intended any harm to come to anyone.  He did not want to rob the Jessica Juciper of her family, nor did he intend to cause the deaths of his former friends the Jucipers.

      “And what he most certainly did not intend was to help the STAR with its future plans to prevail in the coming war with our Great Empire.  When the Jason Floyd departed the Kazva following these tragic events we have just witnessed, he did not even know the Yvenzhel, the Ngyang, the Rkagrii or the Heohweh even existed.  He came to the Zhelva in the spirit of the ancient Human, to explore and learn about his surroundings.  He began by attempting to learn more about this galaxy, which to him represented the divide between his old life among people of his own time, and the new life among cold, indifferent people.  He had reason to hate the STAR and even more reason to hate himself.  He came to us a fugitive from his own people, drowned in shame over the crime he committed.  Now he stands to be executed for allegedly helping the very institution that forced him to commit that crime by giving him only one impossible choice: to kidnap the girl or be killed along with her.

      “When he discovered that this galaxy was very much inhabited, he was surprised and interested to learn about us.  I told him some of our history and he expressed his admiration for our ability to come together as four separate Empires in peace and common goodwill.  He understood our need for caution and why this trial is necessary.  But now he has learned something else—that even Empires as advanced as ours are capable of barbarity.  We have abused him in every way it could have been possible for us to do so.  We pried into his mind and demanded information regarding his childhood, which due to its tragic nature he never wanted to talk or even think about.  When he refused to be psychologically tortured in this way, we tortured him physically.  And then we subjected him to the worst torture of all, by physically harming the innocent girl whom he loves, simply because she was too overwhelmed to speak in front of us.  The Jason Floyd knows he is responsible for everything that happens to her.  We torture her, and thus he is tortured in the worst way possible—by forcing him to endure more guilt and shame, emotions with which he was already heavily overburdened.

      “The Jason Floyd wants to die, but he does not wish to be responsible for the death of the female.  If the decision were mine I would give him this peace he desires and execute only him, merely to put a stop to his suffering.  Yet the female, the completely innocent Jessica Juciper, whom we have also tortured terribly both physically and mentally—before today she had not even known the fate of her mother and sister—could not survive in this universe without him.  She is not welcome in our galaxy and she no longer has a place in her own.  Should either of them return to the Kazva they will not be greeted by the leaders of the STAR for any debriefing or congratulations on a job well done—they will be executed.  They are and forever will be enemies of the Human.

      “And so I ask you—I implore you, my friends and allies, to have mercy on these individuals, whose only crime has been terrible luck.  Together, our four civilisations make up the one Great Empire, the greatest in the known universe, not merely because of our military strength but because of our strength of character.  And that character is defined by our Council every time we meet.  It will be redefined today once you make your decision.  And so it is up to you, friends and allies.  Is our Great Empire one that rushes to judgment, that executes any individual that may possibly, however unlikely, mean us harm?  Or are we better than that?  Are we willing to put extreme caution to the side for the sake of a higher ideal—the ideal of justice?

      “The Defendants are innocent, friends and allies.  Every last one of us here knows that.  The Arbiter knows it, I know it, and even the Prosecutor knows it.  They are harmless, and are not guilty of the crime for which they are accused.  If we are an Empire of justice, we will let them go to continue on their journey, to explore the cosmos and perhaps one day know even more than we know about this great enigma we call existence.  If we execute these persons—rob them of their right to explore the universe they themselves are a part of—then we are no better than the enemies we are trying to fight.  Are we an Empire more like this ancient Human, willing to celebrate justice and scientific curiosity?  Or are we more like the modern Human who pushed him away, concerned only with our own self-preservation?  The choice is yours, friends and allies, and in spite of my shame over our actions today, I am still proud of our Great Empire, and I am confident we will make the right decision in the end.”

      At the conclusion of Zhyen’s speech, the Chamber erupted with noise.  The Yvenzhel were humming in a high pitched tone, the Ngyang were making strange sounds with their throats, the Rkagrii were pounding the floor with their tentacles, and even the Heohweh were emitting some sort of vibration which echoed off the glass that encased them.  Jason had no way of knowing for sure, but it seemed that the speech had reached a kind of pathos, and the four species in the chamber were all performing their respective versions of applause.  The idea that four entirely different intelligent species could all be moved in the same way by the same words would have baffled Jason if he had been thinking clearly.  Now it just seemed as though Zhyen’s words had an impact and he might actually win the case, but after watching Lauren and Rachael die he only wanted to follow them.

      When the noise finally died down, the Arbiter invited the Prosecutor to make his closing rebuttal.  The Vrekzhinvyongkir stepped forward and scanned the room, which seemed to take longer than ever this time.  It was as though he not only had to make eye contact with every single Delegate, but to hold that contact long enough to somehow read what each of them was thinking.  Finally he began, in a tone far more subdued and humble than any that had yet been heard from him.

      “My friends and allies, my talented opponent has presented us with some extremely compelling arguments in the Defendants’ favour.  I will admit that even I now have my doubts as to whether they are really guilty.  I must grant that it may in fact be the case that the situation is exactly as my colleague has described—the Defendants may really be nothing more than victims of unlucky circumstances.

      “However,” now the Prosecutor raised his voice, “I have seen nothing which constitutes proof that this is indeed the case.  Everything we have seen, from the kidnapping to the execution of the Jucipers in the underground bunker, could in fact be a part of the deception—one of the most convincing acts of deception that our enemies have ever displayed.  Unlikely as it may seem, it is not impossible.

      “I will not waste much time going over each event of the kidnapping and explaining it in terms of why the STAR might have chosen to stage it in the particular way they did.  I will deal only with the three largest questions raised by the evidence we have seen.  The first question is also the easiest to answer: upon its release from the space station, why did the Defendant not immediately engage his thrust and escape to the Zhelva?  You can see as clearly as I do that had this been the case, the complicity on the part of the STAR would be all too obvious.  After releasing the ship, they had to chase it for awhile and make it appear that the Jason Floyd made the blast towards our galaxy only when it was absolutely necessary.

      “The second question regards the bodyguard of the Arnold Juciper, whom my opponent claims was actually the Brian Davis in disguise.  In that final image before the Arnold Juciper’s self-destruction, we clearly see the bodyguard in command of the ship, giving the orders.  The explanation for this may be simpler than you think.  The bodyguard, as a trained member of the STAR Security Forces, was better able to co-ordinate the ‘attack’ on the Defendant’s ship than the Arnold Juciper, who had never put such an attack together.  That the Arnold Juciper destroyed his own ship the moment before the Defendant was attacked could easily have been designed to lead us to believe that he was not complicit in the plan to infiltrate our galaxy, and thus that perhaps no such plans existed.

      “Finally, the most incredible piece of evidence we have seen here today is the execution of the remaining Jucipers in the bunker below the STAR headquarters.  If the Rachael Juciper was really the leader of the STAR, why execute her?  Why execute her mother, who also must have been complicit in the plan?  Any number of explanations can be offered for this.  My opponent leads us to believe that the Jucipers never had any real power, and this kidnapping gave the STAR an opportunity to rid themselves of a political nuisance.  It is also possible that this was agreed to beforehand by the individuals in question, also designed to throw off suspicion on our part.  Or it may be that the STAR Security Forces decided that—complicit though they may be—the Jucipers could not be trusted to keep their secret plans secret.  Once the mission was under way, they may have felt it necessary to eliminate all possible threats of exposure, even at the highest levels.

      “I admit that this is all conjecture, but so is the story put forward by my opponent.  Which story is true and which is false can never be determined with complete certainty.  The actual facts of the case will forever remain shrouded in doubt.  And my question to you is whether we can afford to let the Defendants go free in spite of all this doubt that surrounds the circumstances of their arrival.

      “We can not forget that the Defendants did spend a great deal of time orbiting one of our planets with purposes we can never be sure of.  The Defendant Jason Floyd claims his aims were purely scientific, curiosity his only motivation.  And that may very well be.  But can we be certain?  I still have a difficult time understanding why the Defendant would expend so much energy collecting data that had already been gathered by Human scientists many galactic rotations beforehand, to answer questions about biological evolution that had long since been answered.  To me it seems more realistic that his motive was to help the Human in their fight against us by creating a hostile civilisation within the Zhelva.  This, it cannot be denied, is an objective that the STAR has undoubtedly entertained and will most likely attempt in the future—if the perpetrators of their first attempt are not in fact those who stand before us today.

      “This war is inevitable, friends and allies.  Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a struggle for survival with the Human, a race that does not share power.  What we decide here today, as my opponent has correctly asserted, will define our Great Empire for generations to come.  But the decision we have is not as abstract as my opponent has depicted it.  This is not a question of whether we value justice over self-preservation—whether we are morally superior to our enemies—it is a question of whether or not we will do what it takes to protect our alliance and ensure its survival for all those distant generations yet to exist.

      “If we release them, we may feel quite good about ourselves for awhile.  We will believe that we have demonstrated the noble character of our Great Empire, that we will embrace justice and let our enemies go if we do not find them threatening.  Releasing them would also free us from the shame we feel over the torture they endured during their testimony.  They certainly did not seem guilty during that phase of the trial.  I know that my conscience is not quite clear over what happened.  It may be that we harmed innocent persons, and for that it is natural to want to undo the damage and set things right by freeing them.  But as long as there is still doubt, we cannot do this.

      “There are two possible explanations for why the Defendants behaved in the manner they did during their questioning.  The Jason Floyd refused to answer questions regarding his childhood.  This may be due to the fact that he really is psychologically disturbed and really can not bear to speak of it.  Or it may be that he had not quite developed his cover story well enough in regards to what drove him to kidnap the young female in the first place.  So he submitted to the torture as a way of avoiding the risks entailed in inventing a story on the spot.  The female may really have been too confused to answer the Arbiter when he asked her if she understood the process of questioning.  Or, taking her cue from the Jason Floyd, she may have merely resolved not to speak at all, and to endure her torture rather than risk saying anything that might expose their guilt.

      “But if we believe, as I am certain many of us do, that the Defendants are not guilty, and we decide, as many of us are considering, to grant them their freedom, we simply can not afford to dismiss the question, ‘what if we are wrong?’  What if the Defendants are guilty?  What if they return to the Kazva and tell the STAR everything they know about us?  Their ship has already collected more navigational data on the Zhelva than the STAR has ever had before, which will be of great value to their simulators.  They know about the four major Empires and our histories, which could help the STAR plot against us.  Most importantly, they have seen the Council Chamber and they know how we conduct our trials.  Should the STAR make a second attempt at breaching our galactic security, they will be a far more dangerous foe if armed with the information that the Defendants can provide them with.

      “What we decide here today will forever shape the future of our Great Empire.  When our descendants, hundreds of galactic rotations from now, look back on the events of today and study what we have done, what will they say?  Will they be proud of their ancestors for standing firm as champions of justice, proving their moral superiority over their enemies?  Or will they look upon us with shame, because they have been infiltrated and weakened by the STAR thanks to the information provided to them by the individuals we released even when we had our chance to execute them?  Will they look upon this as a shining example of our capacity for mercy, or as the worst mistake ever made in the long and distinguished history of the Council?  We simply can not know.  But with so much at stake, can we really afford to take such a terrible chance—one that may eventually prove fatal—when we have the opportunity to eliminate the threat right here and now, keeping our future secure?

      “My friends and allies, the greatness of our Council goes beyond moral abstracts.  It goes beyond our history and all our possible futures.  Together, our four civilisations make up the greatest Empire in the known universe.  Do not go down in history as the Council that let the enemy go free due to feelings of shame and guilt.  Be strong enough to overcome your personal feelings, to understand that even if we are executing innocent persons, we do so for the greater good, for the eternal perseverance of our proud and glorious Empire.  Neither our lives, nor the lives of the Defendants, nor any individual life in the universe is more important.”

      The reaction to this speech was far more subdued than the previous, although there were a significant number of Delegates applauding in their own cultural way.  At this point Jason was so exhausted that he neither knew nor cared what to think of the reaction to this speech.  He only knew that it was now finally time for the Council to decide his and Jessi’s fate, and the sooner it was over with the better.

      “The main portion of this trial is now over,” the Arbiter declared.  “The Defendants will now be escorted outside while we conduct our deliberations.  Any Delegate who would like to make a point that was not made earlier may speak briefly, and then we will vote.  There will be only one vote per civilisation, and the verdict will be decided by a simple majority.  The Defendants will be brought back while the final tallies are read.”

      Once again, the guards wrapped their fingers around the arms of the Jason and Jessi, and they were brought back to the holding cell outside of the Chamber. 

* * * * * * * 

      They said nothing to each other during the waiting period, which lasted longer than either of them expected.  There must have been a great number of Delegates who felt they had something to say.  Finally, after a period of time that could not have been less than two hours, the guards returned to escort them back to the Council Chamber, where the Arbiter was waiting for them.

      Jason scanned the room but could not tell from the expressions on the faces of the Delegates what the outcome would be.  He looked to Zhyen, but the ambassador was facing the front of the room, standing again like a statue.  Neither of his eyes shot so much as a quick glance behind him to look at the Defendants.  This brief uncomfortable moment came to a close rather quickly though, as the Arbiter began speaking as soon as the Defendants were in place.

      “The Foreman for each of the four Empires will now read us the tally of votes they have taken.  We will begin with the Yvenzhel.  Foreman, how have you voted?”

      The Yvenzhel in the seat closest to the Arbiter stood, and in a loud booming voice declared, “Of the 144 Yvenzhel Delegates, 81 have voted not guilty, and 63 have voted guilty.”

      All of a sudden, Jason’s clouded mind became sharp once again.  The reality of the situation could not be ignored.  His fate was being decided at this very moment, and right now it appeared that he might actually be released.  The Yvenzhel, infamous for their over-cautious nature, had decided by a significant margin that it was worth the risk of letting Jason go in order to serve their abstract notions of justice.  While Jason had known this was a possibility, he had never seriously thought they would have made such a decision.  If STAR held espionage trials such as this, Jason knew, they would never have risked releasing their captives.

      “Next we will hear from the Ngyang,” said the Arbiter.  Foreman, how have you voted?”

      One of the dinosaur-like creatures stood and spoke, the translator using the same loud tone as he had for the Yvenzhel foreman: “Of the 81 Ngyang Delegates, 36 have voted not guilty, and 45 have voted guilty.”

      So the Ngyang have opted for caution, thought Jason, and he quickly did the math in his mind.  There were now 117 votes to release them, and 108 to execute them.  The margin was closing.

      “Next we will hear from the Rkagrii,” the Arbiter continued.  “Foreman, how have you voted?”

      One of the bizarre spider-like creatures rose for a moment, and Jason heard the same translator’s voice say, “Of the 64 Rkagrii Delegates, 34 have voted not guilty, and 30 have voted guilty.”

      This was the closest vote so far, but it had come out in Jason’s favour.  It was almost over.  Now there were 151 votes for release, and 138 votes for execution.  There was only one Empire left, and Jason’s nerves were so bundled that he felt he might vomit at any moment.  Finally, after months of waiting, he would find out whether he would be allowed to leave with Jessi and continue exploring the universe, or whether their time in existence would end tomorrow.

      “Finally we will hear from the Heohweh,” spoke the Arbiter.  “Foreman, how have you voted?”

      This was it, thought Jason.  The moment of truth had arrived at last.  One of the strange balloon-like creatures to the right of him floated up to the glass and proceeded to make vibrating sounds, which were translated into the same words and with the same tone as the other three Foremen.  The final vote was at last declared.

      “Of the 81 Heohweh Delegates,” he said, “32 have voted not guilty, and 49 have voted guilty.”

      For a moment, Jason’s head was blank.  They had voted against him, and by a significant margin.  But he found that he was too nervous to do the math in his head.  But after only a second, the Arbiter did this for him.

      “The final tally,” declared the Arbiter, “is 183 votes in favour of the Defendants, and 187 votes against.  The Council has spoken.  The Defendants are pronounced guilty.”

      The Council Chamber erupted with noise of all sorts.  There were random Delegates applauding, a few shouting in anger, and everywhere heated discussion taking place amongst the Delegates.  Zhyen at last turned to look at Jason, but Jason did not notice.  His head was now racing faster than ever, struggling to get a grip on the reality of the situation, but failing to process exactly what it meant.  They had found him guilty—guilty of espionage.  They were going to execute him.  They were going to execute Jessi.  The two of them now had less than a day to live.  These were the facts, and they were clear to Jason.  But his mind could not seem to properly process their meaning.

      Amidst the commotion, the Arbiter spoke as loudly as possible, though the Delegates did not quiet down.  “At dawn tomorrow, the spies will be executed in the courtyard.  The Defendant Jason Floyd, the Defendant Jessica Juciper, and the primitive creature they have kept in their possession will be publicly vaporized.”

      Jason had forgotten all about Brownie, though he had been held in a cage by one of the guards the entire time.  How bizarre it was that by no fault of its own, the last surviving animal from a dead planet’s ecosystem was going to be killed?  Jason had been indirectly responsible for the planet’s destruction, and now he held an even more indirect responsibility for the death of the planet’s last surviving creature.  An evolutionary process which had taken a billion years to produce that little animal was about to be stunted forever, an infinite chain of causes brought to its final effect.

      “May we have silence, please!” the Arbiter shouted finally.  “This proceeding has not yet adjourned!  I demand silence!”

      At last the chamber once again fell silent as the Delegates ceased their private conversations and directed their attention once more to the floor.  “The Defendants now have an opportunity to make a statement,” the Arbiter said, now turning one eye to Jason and the other to Jessi.  “Would either of you care to address the Council?”

      Jason turned to Jessi, who wore the same blank stare that she had been carrying since the incident with the shocks.  Clearly she would not be making a statement.  Jason, too, had no desire to speak.

      “Would the Jessica Juciper care to say anything?” the Arbiter asked.

      Jessi said nothing, but turned to look at Jason.  Her eyes were like black holes, and their gaze pierced into Jason’s mind with more force than ever before.  A new feeling began to rise inside of him like the uneasy nervousness that immediately precedes an intense rush of adrenaline.

      “I will take her silence to indicate that she chooses not to speak,” said the Arbiter.  “Would the Jason Floyd care to say anything?”

      Jason was still staring at Jessi, the full weight of his crimes reflected in her eyes.  Suddenly every last ounce of guilt and shame he felt over his responsibility for her terrible fate leapt into his mind all at once, and he felt packed with more energy than he’d ever felt in his life.  Without realising what he was doing, he broke eye contact with Jessi and stepped forward, staring at the Arbiter with a look reflecting every tortured thought currently racing around his spinning mind.  His heart was beating so quickly that he felt on the verge of collapse—he had so much adrenaline that he thought he might literally explode at any moment.

      Then, all of a sudden, everything was calm.  His heart slowed to its normal pace and a warm, comfortable feeling slid through his body until his mind was perfectly still.  He scanned the room, meeting the eyes of the Delegates, all on the edge of their seat to hear what he—the Jason Floyd—had to say.

      And then, with the eyes of the entire galaxy on him, he began to laugh.  From a million random thoughts his mind converged on only one word: absurd.  There had never been a situation, Jason thought, in his life or in anyone else’s quite as absurd as this.  He chuckled a few times, and at last began to speak.  “When I was a kid,” he began, “if I had tried to imagine what advanced civilisations occupying another galaxy would be like, I probably would have come up with something a lot more convincing than this!”

      This confusing statement caused a stir among the Delegates, who looked around and made brief comments to one another, but were too enraptured by the drama on the floor to divert themselves for more than a second.

      “Come on, what’s really going on here?” Jason asked.  “This can’t be fucking real.  None of it makes any sense.  Here I am, guilty of the terrible crime of kidnapping a girl, responsible for the death of her entire family, and I’m going to be executed for being a spy?  You don’t believe I’m really guilty of kidnapping?  So what does that make me?  I’m not guilty of being a sick perverted social deviant—I’m only guilty of serving my fellow humans with incredible loyalty!  If I had actually been a sick deviant, I could have gone free.  But just in case I might be a hero to my people, I’ve got to be executed?  Am I the only one who sees just how fucked up that is?

      “Who the fuck are you people anyway?  I can’t seriously believe you’re actually a bunch of alien civilisations from Andromeda.  Are your translators really that good?  Because you all talk and act like humans.  You’re all supposed to represent the central power of this entire galaxy?  You meet for a few hours in the afternoon to conduct this trial, which you call a matter of grave importance.  But it’s not important at all!  How could my miserable self be important at all to you with your billions of years of history?  And if I really was so important, why not really consider the evidence instead of just taking a glimpse at a few images on a screen, asking me a few ridiculous questions about my past, shocking us with cattle-prods, and giving a few short speeches about moral principles and the glory of your Empire?

      “This is all some bizarre mind-game, isn’t it?  I never even left the Milky-Way, did I?  I must have been caught by STAR.  They caught me and instead of just executing me, this is my punishment.  To induce some sort of nightmare—to create this whole ridiculous scenario about what might have happened if I’d gotten away with kidnapping Jessi and provide my guilt-ridden brain with a nice long period of mental anguish before finally executing me.

      “Is that what this is?” Jason shouted, but the faces in the room remained blank and silent, completely riveted by the mental breakdown they were now witnessing.  “No, that can’t be it.  STAR wouldn’t give enough of a shit to do go through all the trouble of creating this elaborate delusion.  This is all the product of another mind—yes, that must be it.  Someone…something…some great cosmic force must have it out for me.  Something really powerful that wants to see me suffer.

      “Well?” Jason stared at the ceiling and shouted.  “Are you laughing yet, you motherfucker?  Whatever you are, I see through your little charade!  How long have you been manipulating me?  Since before I left the Milky Way?  Since the Andromeda mission?  Or maybe for my whole fucking life?  What are you?  Answer me, you fucking asshole!  I want to know!  Why!  God damn it…tell me WHY!!!  What for!?  What for, you fucking asshole!  What the fuck for…?”  Jason collapsed on the ground now, still shouting obscenities into the air.

      “Enough of this,” the Arbiter spoke in a dark and subdued tone of voice.  “Escort the prisoners back to their cell.  Their execution will be held at sunrise.  I declare this trial adjourned.”

      For the last time, the Council Chamber broke into a state of commotion, each Delegate enthralled by what they had witnessed and each with more to say than they could possibly express about the events of the day.

      Jason was dragged by the guards from the floor of the Chamber, never to return to that absurd location.  All the while he continued shouting at the unseen cosmic forces which had created all this, demanding an explanation for all of the agony and torment they had forced him to endure.

      But the cosmic forces, whatever they were, remained silent. 

* * * * * * * 

      The cell in which Jason and Jessi were now left to await their execution was in a different section of the building.  The room was slightly larger than the holding cell they had been kept in, though still smaller than the cells aboard the spaceship.  There were benches lining three of the four walls.  The fourth wall had a window, which was the most noticeable difference between these and the other holding cells, though it was little more than a small rectangular hole in the wall. It was covered in the impermeable glass that was probably the same material used to enclose the Heohweh Delegates in the Council Chamber.  It was night, so nothing could be seen through the window, but Jason and Jessi could be sure that once light began to seep through that hole, they would know their time was almost over.  Until then there would be no way to tell exactly how many hours to live they had left.  Jason did not even know how long a revolution of this planet lasted.

      It was already dark when they were put in the cell, and Jason was still raving about how the entire situation was an illusion manufactured by a sadistic higher power.  A shot in the arm calmed him down, and once it was administered all talk of evil cosmic forces ceased.  Shortly afterwards, two plates of the same flavourless food they had grown accustomed to were placed into the cell.  Until that moment, neither Jason nor Jessi had realized just how hungry they were, but they promptly devoured what they were given.  They both knew that this would be their last meal.

      Jason sat on the bench opposite the window, while Jessi sat against the wall to his right.  They spent the next few hours in total silence, their heads spinning with images, thoughts flashing back and forth through the memories of their past, as though the subconscious was now trying to make sense of what their lives had meant.  As the time passed, and their minds grew more tired, these images took on an even more vivid quality, like flashbacks to the actual moments they were imagining.  These flashbacks were almost indistinguishable from dreams, but they remained awake and lucid throughout.  Once it seemed that every past memory had been re-lived, their focus finally turned on one another in the present moment.

      “I’m sorry about your mother,” Jessi was saying.  They had been looking into each others’ eyes for several moments, communicating subconsciously.  Jason barely noticed whether or not these words were being spoken out loud.  “I never realized you had such a hard time growing up.  Did your aunt really do all those things to you?”

       “Please don’t feel bad for me,” he was telling her.  “I have no right to your sympathy, and besides, that was so long ago it feels like another life-time.  It’s like that wasn’t even me—just some kid whose memories I have.”

      “I think I know what you mean.  I already feel like my life before coming to Andromeda was just a dream.  All those memories feel like they belong to somebody else.”

      “I’m so sorry.”

      “Forget the apologies.”  At that moment Jessi was so full of compassion that Jason found himself wishing the sun would suddenly rise and the guards would enter before she could go on.  “I think that we’re both being fucked by the universe.  You blame yourself too much.”

      “How can you say that?” Jason was terrified at what he believed was happening.  “After what I did to you…”

      “Shut up,” Jessi was calm yet resolved.  “We’ve been through this before.  We both know what happened.  You fucked up and now here we are.  It is your fault. But you’re still too hard on yourself.”

      “Jessi…” Jason did not know what to think or how to feel about this.  He just stared at the dim outline of her figure in the darkness.  There was just enough light for him to clearly make out her eyes, staring at him with a look of such utter forlornness that he nearly broke into tears.  “Fuck, Jessi, how can I not be hard on myself after what I did to you?  You’re so beautiful…you’re so good.  I didn’t even know how much of a good person you were until after I took you away.  You don’t deserve any of this.  You deserve a wonderful, happy life.  You could have had one.  But I ruined all your chances of that.  I’m responsible for the death of your family, for fuck’s sake!  How can you not hate me for all that?”

      “I don’t know.  I did for awhile, but as time went on it got harder and harder to hate you.  I still want to hate you but now I look at you and all I feel is pity.”

      “Jesus Christ…” Jason sighed.

      “Look, Jason.  Whatever happened to bring us to this point doesn’t matter any more.  We’ll both be killed tomorrow and that’s the end of it.  I’m not upset about it.  I’ve got nothing to live for anymore.  So don’t torture yourself over it.”

      Jason was overwhelmed.  He’d thought that the trial was an emotional strain, but nothing could have prepared him for this.  Was she actually going to do this?  And what did it mean that it was happening now, just hours before his death?

      “You shouldn’t have to die,” was all he could think.  “Such an amazing person like you shouldn’t be wiped out of existence after only fourteen or fifteen years.  You should be able to live as long as you possibly can.  You should be able to grow from a wonderful young girl to a brilliant, wise old woman.  But because of me, you’re going to be snuffed out before you can even reach a fraction of your own potential.  Even if I tried I wouldn’t be able to stop that from torturing me.”

      Jessi stood up and sat down on the bench next to him.  She took his right hand with her left and locked their fingers together.  Jason stared at their hands, fighting with every ounce of his soul to keep from bursting into tears.  Just one more kind word from her and he might not be able to contain it…

      “I forgive you,” Jessi whispered.

      The dam burst wide open.  Despite every effort of willpower that Jason could summon, the worst had now happened.  This was a moment far too beautiful—a moment he did not deserve.  After all he had done to this poor, amazing girl, she had forgiven him.  Jason’s resolve to never cry ever again was broken, and he began to sob harder than he ever had in his life.

      “I’m so fucking sorry…I’m so fucking sorry.”

      “I know you are,” Jessi reassured him, laying her head on his shoulder.  “It’s okay.  Everything is going to be okay.”

      As she whispered softly to him, a profound thought began to dawn on Jason.  Jessi had come to understand something that he had not realised until that moment: that just like her, he was nothing but a child. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason opened his eyes to see the first dim hint of sunlight outside the window in the wall, and his mind immediately plunged into a state of confusion to see that Jessi was sleeping on the other side of the room, not with her head on his shoulder at all.  Had that conversation really taken place, or had he only dreamt it?  He did not remember falling asleep, and the memory was so hazy.  His mind had certainly not been behaving as usual, so maybe it had been a hallucination?

      The cell door opened and five Yvenzhel security guards entered.  Jessi woke up and stared at Jason, her expression giving no hint as to whether last night’s conversation had been real or not.  He desperately wanted to ask her, but he had no opportunity.  Before either of them could say anything, they found their arms wrapped in the fingers of the Yvenzhel guards.  Jason instantly let go of the confusion as his mind snapped into a complete awareness of the moment he was living.  There would not be very many moments left.

      They were taken from the cell, with one guard leading the way, another carrying a cage with Brownie, and another behind them armed with some sort of weapon.  For an instant Jason actually found himself amused—there was no need for such precaution.  Neither of them was going to try and run away.  If they had simply been told to report to their execution at a certain time without any escort, they would have gladly marched to the scaffold themselves, probably even arriving early.

      It was a very short march down the corridor and out a door to the right which led to a large, open courtyard which Jason was slightly surprised to find filled with Yvenzhel and a few scattered grouping of Ngyang and Rkagrii.  There was a wide aisle through the crowd, where about a hundred metres ahead Jason could see their final destination—a large, square platform of polished stone raised about two metres into the air.  Another hundred metres beyond that, a large orange sun was rising above the roof of the building which surrounded them.

      As they walked to the platform, a very profound thing began to happen to Jason.  It began with just one thought.  Jason knew he was going to die, but the platform seemed so far ahead that it was as though he had an entire lifetime to live before he arrived there.  It was the strangest feeling Jason had ever known, and it overwhelmed absolutely everything else that had been racing around in his mind.  He seemed to step out of himself, suddenly experiencing a deeper level of awareness and appreciation for everything going on around him.  Each second became infinitely more beautiful than the last, as each instant brought him ever closer to the final moment.  Jason stared at the sky, multicoloured and scattered with clouds, and he felt that he had never seen anything quite so lovely, so miraculous as the infinite heaven above him.  He looked around at his surrounding.  Every image seemed to grow clearer, every sound grew crisper, and every breath seemed twice as refreshing as the last.

      At last, they reached the stone platform where another team of four Yvenzhel security guards were waiting to hoist the prisoners up and position them for the execution.  Jason and Jessi were brought to stand in the exact centre of the square, facing the sun as it continued to rise into the ever more brilliant sky.  The guard with Brownie laid the cage at their feet and stepped off the platform. Another Yvenzhel, wearing a completely black uniform with four gold circles on the chest, stepped between them and placed a translating device in their ears.  This must have been the Executioner.

      The security guards left the platform and positioned themselves surrounding it.  Once they were in place, the Executioner stepped forward and the crowd became silent so quickly that it almost sounded like a recording that had been abruptly paused.  The instant the noise ceased, the incredible sense universal harmony that Jason had been feeling disappeared, and he was suddenly struck with an awareness of just how nervous he was.  It was then that the Executioner spoke, in a voice so loud that Jason could hardly believe it was coming from only one person.

      “Citizens of the Great Empire,” he began.  “Today we witness the execution of two Human found guilty by the Council of espionage on behalf of our most hated enemy, the STAR.  As many of you are aware, the verdict passed by the most narrow margin in the history of the Council, and there is a great deal of doubt as to whether these individuals are actually guilty.

      “The majority consensus of the Council is as follows:  The guilt or innocence of the defendants is irrelevant as long as the danger exists that upon their release they will return to the Kazva to provide our enemies with sensitive information.  Therefore we must execute these individuals, as well as the primitive creature whose fate is bound to theirs.  We do all this for the good of the Empire and with the hope of its eternal preservation in strength and glory.”

      It was a short speech that made no attempt at pathos.  It was merely a formality, and Jason sensed that the Executioner himself did not really believe that any good was actually being done today.  He wondered if this Yvenzhel had been at the trial.  But in spite of its brevity, the speech had reached a few, and Jason heard the sounds of applause coming from a few scattered sections of the crowd which had gathered there.

      The Executioner turned to face them for a moment, and spoke directly to them in English.  “Since you will be executed in any case, would you care to make a confession?”

      The realisation that the moment was finally at hand struck Jason forcefully, and the nervous feeling that had been growing inside of him suddenly exploded into its most intense form.  He could not even open his mouth to answer the Executioner.  He merely shook his head weakly.

      “Very well,” said the Executioner, and he promptly turned back to face the crowd.  “Let the execution commence!”

      Jason saw that on the walls of the building directly ahead of him, a large weapon was being aimed directly at them.  This was it.  The final moment.  Jason tried to calm himself with deep breaths, knowing each time he exhaled that he might never inhale again.  He turned to look at Jessi one last time, and found she was staring at him with nothing but the most intense fear in her eyes.  Suddenly, a thought which he had never expected to have invaded his mind.  Jessi had the exact same unexpected thought, and it was she who spoke it aloud:

      “I don’t want to die.”

      An instant later, Jason heard the sound of the weapon firing, and his entire life flashed before his eyes in an instant as he was struck with a burst of energy, and the world dissolved around him. 

* * * * * * * 

      An instant later, he opened his eyes, and nearly lost consciousness again due to the shock.  He was still with Jessi and Brownie, but they were no longer on the platform, nor even on the planet.  They were back on Jason’s ship, standing towards the back and facing the cockpit, where none other than Zhyen himself was sitting at the controls and flying at an incredible speed towards the edge of the galaxy.

      For a moment they stood dumbfounded in a state of shock while Zhyen brought the ship into a nebula and slowed the time-scale to a normal rate.  Once the ship was in place, he turned around to face them.

      “We are in one of the Zhelva’s protected areas,” he said.  “We should have enough time here to speak before they find us.  I had to use the banned technology to get us here, and now I have already been a fugitive for an eighth of a galactic rotation.”

      “You saved us,” Jason managed to squeeze out.  That was all he could say.  After the ordeal he had just endured, he still felt as though he might collapse at any moment.  He was supposed to be dead.

      Zhyen spoke in a subdued tone, far different than any Jason had previously heard from him.  “Yes, I rescued you with this,” he said, taking a small box from the floor beside his chair and holding it up for them to see.  “This is a mobile transport unit which utilizes the same technology we used to bring you aboard my ship during our first encounter.  As you can see, you are back on your own ship and are now free to leave and explore the rest of the universe as you please.  Of course, you must never return to the Zhelva.”

      As Zhyen spoke, Jason’s heart-beat slowed and he began to think clearly again.  Yet his mind remained focussed on the same question.  “But why did you save us?” he asked.  “I knew you were on our side but I never thought you would go against the Council.  You’re an enemy of your own people now.”

      “The Council made the wrong decision,” said Zhyen.

      “But you’ve disagreed with the Council before. Like when they ordered you to destroy the planet.  Why go against them now?”

      Zhyen was silent for a moment, struggling to decide how to answer Jason’s question.  “Do you remember what I told you about my grandfather, the Tarkzhyenzhel, who had wanted my father, the Vyentarkzhel, to follow in his footsteps as Ambassador to the Human?”

      “Yes,” said Jason.

      “When my father took a female and decided not to accept this position, my grandfather was deeply disappointed.  But when I was born, his hope was rekindled.  The Tarkzhyenzhel died while I was still very young, but it was his final wish that I continue the family legacy of service to the Yvenzhel as Ambassador to the Human.  My father had always lived with the shame of having chosen a family life over the life of public service that his father had wanted for him, and when the Tarkzhyenzhel died he became absolutely determined to see to it that I would accept the duty that he had relinquished.

      “He never knew this, as I have never spoken of this to anybody including all of the colleagues and crewmembers I have known in my career, but I almost relinquished the position myself.  You see, like my father I too fell in love with a female at a young age, and this feeling was far stronger than any desire I had to serve my people as Ambassador.  The Zeyelzhatluk was her name, and to me she is the most beautiful thing that has ever existed in this universe.  For her I would have abandoned my family and betrayed the wishes of my grandfather.

      “But the Zeyelzhatluk did not feel about me the way I felt about her.  With only one female for every six males, most of us never know the joys of family as my father and grandfather had.  I was one of the unlucky majority who never had this opportunity.  But I tried…I nearly sacrificed everything to win the love of the Zeyelzhatluk.  But in the end she chose another.  I was forced to accept that my greatest desire would go forever unfulfilled, and I took the position as Ambassador to the Human.  My father was greatly pleased, but he never knew how close I came to betraying him—how hard I had actually tried to do so.

      “My first mission brought me half-way across the galaxy.  Engaging the time-scale that first time was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, because I knew that the moment I blasted off and reached the speed of light, the female I loved would be dead.  She is dead now, as she has been for many galactic rotations.  I had believed that the pain of losing her would eventually fade away, but it has not.  I have asked myself many times if I had had the chance to take her with me—even against her will—would I have done so?  While I would like to believe that I would not, I can not say for certain.

      “So you see, Jason Floyd, I understand you far better than you thought.  I do not believe you deserve death, but I know the female does not deserve death.  Even so, I would still not have saved you but for one thought I could not ignore: Had it been the Zeyelzhatluk on the scaffold, I would have betrayed my people without hesitation.”

      Jason was completely speechless.  He had no idea what to say in response to this, let alone even what to think of what Zhyen was telling him.  Clearly, he had misjudged the Ambassador in more ways than he could guess.

      “But you are correct in assuming that my loyalty does not run so thin as to oppose my government for a merely personal reason,” Zhyen continued, now in a very different tone.  “But there are things in this universe more important than our Great Empire.”

      “What?” Jason asked.  “Love?  Abstract moral principles?”

      “Perhaps,” said Zhyen, “but these are not the reasons I rescued you.  I am afraid I can not reveal the true reason to you.  You must only understand that it was very important that you live and continue to endure in this universe.”

      Jason was now so perplexed that he no longer knew what to say.  He turned to Jessi, whom he could tell was suffering through even more confusion.  The look on her face was not one of relief but of total disgust.  When she noticed him looking at her, she turned away and collapsed on the bed, trying to figure out how she felt about what had just happened.  It was true that only a moment ago she had declared that she did not want to die, but at that moment she had been facing immanent death.  Now that she was once again in the ship that had been her prison for so long, Jason could tell that she was beginning to wish she had been killed on that platform.  Looking at her, Jason immediately began to feel the same way.

      But right now there were more urgent concerns, and Zhyen was beckoning Jason to take the other seat at the cockpit.  He took a few steps and sat down, staring directly into Zhyen’s eyes, noticing that they too were plagued by emotional confusion.

      “We can not stay here for long,” Zhyen said.  “I will have to transport myself to an occupied planet and let you depart.”

      “But you can’t stay here either,” said Jason.  “You’re a fugitive.”

      “I must return to the Council to explain my actions and accept my fate,” Zhyen spoke solemnly, bending his eyes away from Jason’s.

      “What will happen to you?” asked Jason, a new and terrible feeling beginning to rise inside of him.

      “I will most certainly be executed,” Zhyen admitted.  “Although many of the Yvenzhel will probably sympathise with my actions, treason can not be permitted under any circumstances.”

      Jason could not believe what he was hearing.  “Well, that’s just fucking great.  Now I’ve got one more death on my shoulders.  That’s just what I needed.”

      “I apologize,” said Zhyen.

      Jason shook his head and pounded his fist on the controls.  “Don’t apologize,” he said.  “Of course I’m thinking about this in the most selfish way possible.  That’s just the kind of miserable fuck I am.  But all the more reason for you to have just let me die.  The universe would be a lot better off without me.”

      “Neither of us can be sure of that,” said Zhyen.

      “Why?” Jason repeated his question.  “Why would you give up your own life to save ours?  Tell me the real reason. ”

      “I told you I can not answer that question,” said Zhyen, “but I would appreciate it if we did not dwell on this point.”

      “Why don’t you come with us?” Jason offered.

      “And live in disgrace?” Zhyen looked directly at him once again.  “No, I have made my decision and I will not change my mind.  The Zhelva is my home and I have never had any desire to leave it.  Nor would I wish for my name to be dishonoured for the rest of history.  I will explain myself to the Council, accept my fate, and die with honour.”

      “Abstract principles again…” was all Jason could say.

      “I did not bring us here to have this argument,” Zhyen’s tone of voice changed again.  “You are about to embark on a long journey, through more of the universe than most have ever seen.  I want to prepare you for the journey as best I can in the limited time we have.  The Yvenzhel have much information regarding life elsewhere in the universe.  Feel free to ask me any questions you like, but understand that there is some information I simply can not reveal to you.”

      “All right,” said Jason.  “Arnold died so that his daughter could live.  You’re going to die so that we can live.  I guess it’s up to me to make sure your sacrifices aren’t in vain.  Tell me what you know.  Most importantly, tell me where it isn’t safe to go.  How many galaxies will consider humans their enemy?  I don’t want to have to go through anything like this again.”

      “Every galaxy in this local group will eventually merge into one,” Zhyen explained.  “So I would not remain in this part of the universe for very long.”

      “How far into the universe do the Yvenzhel know of?” asked Jason.

      “Through the capabilities of our telescopes, we have intelligence on nearly every advanced civilisation within this half of the Virgo super-cluster,” Zhyen explained, “though we only keep in frequent contact with those in our own local group.  Most of the empires in our group are quite similar to ours, although the Yvenzhel are more inclined to entertain concepts of morality than most.  Most interstellar civilisations, like the Human, have an essentially nihilistic outlook.  Because the universe appears to be indifferent to life, the empires which endure are usually those which operate according to pragmatism as opposed to principle.  You will want to steer clear of these galaxies.  But as you have seen, even civilisations that do accept moral principles will take the pragmatic course of action if the stakes are high.”

      “I guess that’s really the only way an empire can get to be so powerful,” said Jason.

      “There are other ways,” Zhyen explained.  “We know of a few distant galaxies populated by civilisations that adhere to principles so foreign to us that we can scarcely comprehend them, but for whatever reason they have flourished.  These are the galaxies from which you can learn the most valuable things about life in the universe.

      “And in most galaxies, the dominant empire or empires will allow for certain planetary civilisations to endure and operate independently so long as they agree to remain within their native star system.  There are many such civilisations in the Zhelva, and this is also the kind of arrangement the Human had with the Bahzran and the Altairite in the Kazva before these two civilisations were eliminated after your departure.  You will find much to learn on planets such as these, should you be welcomed there.  However you must be very careful when approaching such civilisations, as many of them will not greet alien visitors warmly.”

      “But interstellar civilisations will greet me with open arms?” asked Jason.

      “Some will and some will not,” Zhyen replied.  “You must choose your destinations wisely.  The size of a galaxy is the first hint as to what you will find there.  Intelligent life is a rare phenomenon, so in small galaxies it is usually the case that only one major empire will dominate.  Your own galaxy is one of the largest galaxies in which only one empire exists.  Because our galaxy is so large, the four major empires were already so powerful when they came into contact with one another that peace was more pragmatic than war.  In general, larger galaxies will be ruled by a Council and more likely to adhere to moral principles than smaller galaxies, which are usually ruled by tyrants with concern only for self-preservation.

      “There is a kind of intergalactic etiquette amongst the advanced civilisations of the known universe that empires should remain within their own galactic borders.  The distances between galaxies are usually too immense to make expansion beyond these borders practical anyway.  Due to the amount of time it takes for an interstellar empire to colonize an entire galaxy, there are very few instances in which one such civilisation finds another galaxy not already occupied by an empire capable of defending itself.  Certain civilisations have been lucky enough to occupy more than one galaxy, but over time these empires split and a common biological heritage becomes their only bond.

      “In very rare instances, multiple empires will converge on a galaxy devoid of intelligence and attempt to colonize it at the same time.  Most of the time, one of these empires comes to dominate, but in extremely rare cases these separate civilisations join together peacefully and the galaxy they occupy becomes a centre of intergalactic commerce.  There is one such cosmopolitan galaxy near the centre of the Virgo super-cluster, which we call the Kirzhva.  Several of our ambassadors have made use of the banned technology to visit the Kirzhva, and have recently returned to speak of the incredible wealth of knowledge that can be found there.  It is believed that at any given time, at least one member of every species in the entire Virgo super-cluster is present in this galaxy.  I have already input the coordinates into your computer, and I recommend that you make this your first stop.”

      “That sounds like the perfect place to start,” said Jason.  “You’re sure I’ll be safe there?”

      “It is the safest place in the known universe,” said Zhyen.  “It is run by a Council with representatives from many different galaxies, and they will tolerate anything except violence.  Even the universe’s worst enemies can be found side by side in the Kirzhva.  And due to your status you will be respected and admired by the local inhabitants.”

      “What do you mean,” asked Jason.  “What status?”

      “Do you remember during our first interview how I mentioned the travellers who brought the banned technology to our local group from another part of the universe?”

      “Of course,” said Jason.  “They gave out the technology in exchange for information.”

      “It was not merely for the augmentation of their own personal knowledge that they intended to spread the technology,” Zhyen explained.  “They wanted to spread information throughout the cosmos, and they did so by providing advanced civilisations with the same capability they had—to explore the universe without limitation, and spread knowledge far and wide.  As to their ultimate purpose, that is a matter of a great deal of speculation, but it is not difficult to understand the profound effect their efforts have had on this universe.”

      “And what do they have to do with me?” asked Jason.

      “You are now one of them,” said Zhyen.  “You have abandoned your time and place in the cosmic tapestry and are setting off on a mission of exploration.  For the rest of your time in existence you will be obtaining and spreading knowledge throughout the universe, just as they have done.  Every time they give the technology to a new civilisation, they allow for new travellers to set out and take part in their great mission.  You are not the only individual to leave your home in the universe—though the circumstances under which you left may be among the most unique.  But regardless of how you came to be a traveller, you are one now.  You will experience the universe from your own unique perspective, and you will represent the Human wherever you go.”

      Jason was silent now, contemplating the incredible magnitude of everything he had just been told.

      “I must depart soon,” said Zhyen.  “Is there anything else you would like to ask me before I bid you farewell?”

      Jason almost said no, but he quickly remembered the question that had been gnawing at him since one of his first interviews with Zhyen.  “Can you tell me how your transport technology works now?  I want to know about ‘the Great Discovery’.”

      “Unfortunately, that is one of the things I still can not reveal to you,” answered Zhyen.  “But I can explain in simple terms what the technology does.  It shrinks you down to a subatomic size, pulls you through the void at the speed of light, and reconstitutes you to your original size.  How it works I can not say, although I am confident this is something you will learn during the course of your travels.”

      Jason nodded, and stared in silence at the creature who had just saved his life.  This was the first member of an extra-terrestrial species Jason had ever met.  And although they had not been introduced under the most ideal circumstances, it was now completely apparent that both had grown to respect each other.  As bizarre as it was, Jason realised, Zhyen was the closest thing he currently had to a friend.

      Zhyen seemed to understand what Jason was thinking, and he merely smiled at his former prisoner before turning back to the controls and flying the ship back out of the nebula.  Within a few moments they were approaching a red giant star towards galactic core, and Zhyen placed the ship in an extremely distant orbit of one of its planets.  This was probably just close enough for the transport technology to work.

      Now Zhyen stood and took the mobile transport unit with him to the centre of the ship.  As he configured the unit, Jason began to feel a profound sense of sadness at the certainty that this would be the last time they would be together.  Whatever his real reasons were, Zhyen had saved his and Jessi’s life, and for the rest of his time in existence he would owe the Ambassador a debt of gratitude.

      “Is there anything I can do for you, Zhyen?” asked Jason.  “I’ll never be able to repay you, but just let me know if there’s anything at all…”

      “It will be enough for me if you speak well of the Yvenzhel to all those you come across.  We may have our faults, but I do love my empire.”

      “I promise you my opinion of your empire is a lot better than it was when we first met,” said Jason.  “After all, when all was said and done the majority of your Delegates did choose justice over pragmatism.”

      “The Yvenzhel have a saying,” said Zhyen.  “Pragmatism makes an empire strong, but justice makes an empire great.”

      There was a tone of finality to this statement that nearly brought a tear to Jason’s eyes.  Zhyen had his finger on the button, and for the last time bent his eyes to look directly into Jason’s.

      “Goodbye, Zhyen,” said Jason.  “I’m sorry about everything I put you through…”

      “Goodbye,” said Zhyen, and with the press of a button he collapsed in on himself and disappeared forever.

      Jason sat in silence for a moment, and noticed that Jessi was now sitting up in the bed, having taken Brownie out of his cage and holding on to him while she watched Zhyen say farewell.  As to how she was feeling, Jason could only guess.  She had avoided death, and been given an indefinite amount of further life to live.  But that life was one she had never asked for and which she had not wanted to live.

      “Jessi,” Jason called to her in his most gentle tone of voice, “you should join me up here.  It’s time for us to go.”

      Jessi nodded, though she was still too unsure of how she felt to say anything.  Silently she rose and carried Brownie to the seat where they had been sitting during their first encounter with the Yvenzhel.  She did not look at Jason but merely stared out into space, wondering what would come next.

      Jason set a course for the coordinates that Zhyen had given him, took a deep breath, and engaged his Infinite Capacity Thrust.  With the press of a button, the ship was racing through the stars at the unfathomable speed of 10,000 years per second once again.  In an instant they were back in the void between galaxies, and Jason felt only a deep sense of sadness as he left Andromeda for what would certainly be the last time. 

*************************************************  

      After the verdict had been delivered and the trial adjourned, Zhyenveyntluk had returned to his vessel with orders to tow Jason’s ship to a planet were it was to be disassembled.  Before beginning the journey, Zhyen decided to take some time to reflect on his failure to convince the Council to free the Defendants and consider what had gone wrong.  When he dismissed his guards and entered his quarters, he never expected to find me waiting there for him.

      “Hello, Zhyen,” I said to him in the language of the Yvenzhel, and startled him so badly that he nearly collapsed.

      “How could it be?” he exclaimed, immediately rushing to the button on the wall that would have alerted security of the presence of an intruder.  “You died ages ago!”

      “Although I was the Vyentarkzhel once, I am something very different now,” I explained to him.  “You do not need to be told that this is a universe of infinite complexity, and although I can not explain to you exactly what I am, I am sure you will understand in time.”

      “Are you a traveller?” Zhyen asked, his fingers still hovering over the button.

      “In a manner of speaking,” I told him.  “I would not alert security if I were you.  I can vanish from this ship just as discreetly as I appeared here.  But I must give you a message while I have this brief opportunity.”

      Zhyen lowered his arm and continued to stare at me in shock and confusion.  He had not seen his father since he had departed on his first mission as Ambassador to the Human nearly a hundred galactic rotations beforehand.  He had never expected to see his father’s face again.

      I let him have all the time he needed to accept that I was a real part of the universe and not merely a dream or hallucination he was having.  Finally, he asked, “What is the message?”

      “The Jason Floyd and his companion must not be executed,” I told him.  “You must rescue them and allow them to escape with their ship.”

      Zhyen’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “You can not expect me to do such a thing!” he exclaimed.  “The Council has made their decision.  It was the wrong decision, but I can not go against it.  I may have more sympathy for the Human than most of my people, but I am no traitor.”

      “In this situation you will be wrong no matter what you do,” I told him.  “You would be wrong to act against the wishes of your Council, but you would be even more wrong to act against my wishes.  I am sorry to put you in this impossible position, but this is a task you were destined to carry out.”

      “Destined?” Zhyen asked.  “Are you some sort of entity from the fourth dimension?”

      “In a manner of speaking,” I responded.  “But I am not here to explain the fundamental nature of the universe to you.  I am here only to deliver this message.  The Jason Floyd is a traveller, and he must be allowed to serve as a traveller without his existence being cut short at this critical juncture in space-time.”

      “I do not understand,” said Zhyen.  “How can I agree to commit treason if I do not even understand why I am doing it?”

      “There are certain things you are not allowed to reveal to your prisoners,” I said to him, “just as there are certain things I cannot reveal to you.  I am only here to tell you that you must do what I ask or the consequences will have universal repercussions.  The nature of these repercussions is something I can not reveal to anyone.  You can understand the importance.  If you require a demonstration of my power, I can provide you with one.  But I trust that you will carry out the task I have given you with the same degree of loyalty you have for the masters of your own race.”

      Zhyen considered this carefully, then spoke again.  “I take it I am dealing with forces more powerful than any I have encountered before.  I do not require a demonstration.  Although I do not understand it, I feel deeply that all you say is true, and that the task you give me is infinitely more important than my loyalty to the Council.”

      “Your ability to recognise this feeling is the reason you were chosen,” I explained to him.  “I knew before I arrived that you would help me in spite of your lack of understanding as to what I am or why this is necessary.  I need only say one name, and you will understand why this task belongs to you.”

      “Zeyelzhatluk,” Zhyen whispered.

      “You understand,” I said.

      “Yes,” said Zhyen, now completely in awe of what was happening.  “I will do what you say.”

      “Good,” I said, thankful for Zhyen’s good nature.  Had anyone else been the Yvenzhel Ambassador to the Human, my task might have proved a great deal more difficult.

      “What do you want me to do exactly?” he asked.

      “Keep your ship here for the time being,” I began.  “Inform the crew that you wish to witness the execution from orbit before departing.  Once the prisoners are escorted from their cell, use a mobile transport unit to board their ship, and use the same unit to transport them aboard before they are vaporized.  Fly them to safety, and let them go on their way.  They should head to Kirzhva.  Answer any questions they might have, but do not reveal anything you know about the deeper nature of the universe.  Above all you must say absolutely nothing about your encounter with me.”

      “They will want to know why I rescued them,” said Zhyen.  “Am I supposed to lie?”

      “You may,” I said, “although I do not believe this is the approach you will take.  They will be grateful.  The Jason Floyd will accept that there are certain things you cannot reveal, just as you have accepted that there are certain things I can not reveal to you.”

      “I understand,” said Zhyen.  “Then this is the end of my career as Ambassador.”

      “And it will be a noble end indeed,” I told him, giving him one last look to convey all of the fondness and respect I felt for him.  For a moment, he might have really believed he was looking at his father.  “Your sacrifice will be remembered forever.”  Zhyen thought he understood the significance of the word ‘forever’ in this context, but even he could not grasp just how profoundly the word was intended.

      I smiled for the last time at my old friend Zhyenvyentluk, and vanished.  It had been a long and strenuous process, but I had finally finished my work in Andromeda.