Four Years Earlier
From an outsider’s perspective, Muna looked like many other planets. It consisted of mostly rocky and forested terrain with several desert-like plateaus sprinkled here and there; there was one saltwater sea, three major mountain ranges, and one deep canyon that cut into the land like a concave scar; the planet was also peppered with many rivers and lakes.
By Union standards, it was a primitive planet in terms of civilization. No major industrialization had taken place among the people of Muna. Primarily, they lived in modified caverns along the rockier parts of the planet. Muna’s capital was referred to as the Castle, which was the largest system of populated caverns. Other settlements had taken root in various other locations, but none of them were as large or prosperous. Smaller, rural villages frequently popped up and then winked out of existence less than a decade later. The Castle had persisted, though for approximately two hundred years.
For a planet with such a small population, such struggles would not be considered unusual to the casual observer. However, the casual observer would be wrong.
Muna was nothing if not utterly and devastatingly unique.
Despite being Muna’s largest city, the Castle experienced very little egregious crimes. Of course, there was petty thievery and domestic disputes, but anything more harmful could be punishable by banishment. The fact that the threat of banishment successfully deterred violent crimes ninety-nine percent of the time would likely surprise someone who didn’t live on Muna. The Castle had a prison, but no one in the history of the city’s entire existence had ever spent more than a month incarcerated in it. So, it was with much seriousness that the Assembly of Elders considered a citizen’s arraignment. The trial of Akira Starrett.
Aviram Slater was the youngest person on the Assembly of Elders on this day. At the age of forty-two, he was normally an observer during these sessions and not a contributor; however, the Castle’s lead physician Estelle had recused herself from the trial, leaving Aviram to take her place. He sat amidst the leaders of their city somewhat shell shocked at his sudden elevation in , he had yet to say much of anything.
The Assembly of Elders convened in the Amphitheater deep inside the system of caverns that made up the Castle. Light bulbs covered by handcrafted shades lined the aisles while the spotlights shined down on the stage illuminating the table set up for the Assembly.
The meat of the trial was already over. The friends and family of the victims had said their piece. The friends and family of Akira had also shared their thoughts. Now the only part of the trial left was the sentencing phase.
Seated between the one-hundred-fifty-year-old erlking named Daphne Vukovic and the eighty-two-year-old human woman named Shahnoza Okeke, Aviram rested his elbows on the table as his eyes followed the discussion that volleyed back and forth.
“Never in the Castle’s two hundred years,” said Orietta Oorschot, “has the Assembly of Elders employed the use of capital punishment, and I find it appalling to consider it now.”
“And what do you believe is the fate of the banished, Orietta?” asked Josif Waldvogel. “All other settlements in the area recognize our mark of banishment. It is highly unlikely that any of our outcasts have been accepted into other villages. Unless they were able to travel past the Green Hills, then they would have perished in the forest.”
Orietta, her hair wispy and white, refused to be flustered by the flyaway strands waving in front of her face. She stared down her neighbor and fellow Assembly member unblinkingly. “It is one thing to allow the banished a chance at survival fully aware that failure is highly probable. It is another thing completely to wield the executioner’s ax ourselves.”
“Extreme actions call for extreme consequences,” Josif countered.
“All the evidence against him was circumstantial. Not one of us truly knows what happened to those children.”
If asked, Aviram was not a fan of Akira after hearing testimony from the victims’ loved ones. But, again if asked, he would have to agree with Orietta. While the eye-witness testimony added to the string of coincidences and Akira’s lack of an alibi were not unquestionably damning, neither did they make the situation look good for him. Akira also declined to refute any of the accusations brought against him. In fact, he hadn’t said much of anything at all, now that Aviram thought about it. However, as Orietta stated, none of them could say definitively what had occurred over those horrible weeks when a constant stream of children from the Castle went missing.
There were no bodies, but most everyone believed the children to be dead. Aviram could see things from Josif’s perspective, although without more solid evidence against Akira, he also could not justify putting him to death.
“Banishment is not an option,” Josif insisted, adamantly striking the table with the palm of his calloused hand. “People are fearful even now when Akira Starrett is in custody. Imagine the paranoia if we set him loose!”
When Daphne, the erlking, moved beside him, it momentarily startled Aviram. Her skin, hair, and eyes were all variations of greens and browns giving her the appearance of a humanoid tree, and frequently causing Aviram to forget that there was a person seated next to him and not a potted plant. Her joints creaked like bark groaning under the pressure of a heavy gale.
“The solution seems evident then.” Daphne’s paperthin voice somehow broke through Orietta and Josif’s argument that had been growing steadily louder. “We bury Akira deep inside the dungeon and hold him under lock and key every hour of every day.”
This was the decision that the Assembly had been circling for the past three hours. It would likely be the compromise that no one was totally happy with but would satisfy the least of people’s bloodlust, fears, and guilt.
“What of you, Aviram?” Josif suddenly turned to Aviram expectantly. “Estelle has given her seat to you for this case, and you have yet to weigh in. What is your opinion?”
All eyes found Aviram sitting silently in his chair. In no time at all, he was the center of the Assembly’s attention. He swallowed and tried to think of what Estelle would want to say if she was present. Estelle, who was level-headed and fair, who never had a bad word to say about anyone even after she had seen them at their very worst. Aviram cleared his throat before speaking.
“I would like to give Akira one more chance to speak, if that pleases the Assembly.”
Shahnoza nodded. “That can be arranged. Guards.” She motioned to the two guards standing sentry at the Amphitheater’s entrance. “Would you be so kind as to fetch Akira from his cell.” Both men briefly bowed their heads and exited the room.
The other members of the Assembly weren’t granted enough time to object if any of them did. Aviram glanced at Shahnoza, and the older woman winked at him. It was nice to know that he wasn’t burning all his bridges when he eventually graduated to being a full-time member of the Assembly.
Stilted silence prevailed while they waited for the guards to return. Orietta and Josif were both quietly fuming, in turn making everyone else more uncomfortable than they already were. The spotlights created beads of sweat on Aviram’s forehead and the nape of his neck. The bright lights cast the rest of the room in total blackness, despite the lit bulbs lining the stairways. Since he had never been seated at the table, he had never realized just how hot it got on the stage. Unfortunately, there was nowhere else for the Assembly to meet. Other rooms were either too small or not private enough to discuss sensitive matters. The sound of shuffling papers and people readjusting in their chairs was shockingly jarring under the hot lights and the thick atmosphere.
Finally, finally, the two guards returned to the Amphitheater along with four more armored guards, all of whom were leading one lone prisoner.
Akira was a young man, Aviram had already known this. He was human, and his age had been stated as twenty-two years during the trial. But Aviram had not truly realized just how young that was until he got a good look at him without all the other distractions the trial brought with it. The guards led him down to the stage and marched him into the light.
A shock of dark red hair was the first thing he noticed. Akira’s head was downturned, staring at his feet as he was led forward. When he raised his head to look at the Assembly, Aviram blinked in surprise. Akira wasn’t just young—he looked like a child. His face was still padded in baby fat, and his brown eyes had that youthful shine to them. This was the person Josif wanted to put on the execution block. A child.
He was eerily calm, as he had been all through his trial. A shiver that began at the base of Aviram’s skull rippled down to his toes. There was no sense of apprehension in Akira’s expression as he regarded the table of elders before him.
“Akira Starrett,” said Orietta, “you are being given one final chance to make a statement to the Assembly of Elders.”
Chainlinks clinked together as Akira shuffled his feet. He was cuffed at both the wrists and ankles, his shackles chained together, and the ends of those chains held firmly by two of the guards. The other two guards who had accompanied him kept touching their batons and electric guns which were holstered to their belts; their fingers twitched at any sudden movements from Akira.
As they waited, Aviram wondered if Akira was attempting to string together the right words. The thing was, though, the boy didn’t look like he was deep in thought. In fact, he looked rather bored. Eventually, the silence was broken.
“Have you nothing to say?” asked Josif in disapproval.
Slowly, one corner of Akira’s mouth ticked up in a smirk. He shrugged his shoulders, causing his chains to rattle again. “I have plenty to say.” His voice was so ordinary, Aviram thought. Perhaps a bit higher than he had expected but otherwise ordinary. Not the voice of a monster. Akira raised his cuffed hands up to his chin, which was as far as the length of his chains would allow. “But you’re not prepared to listen to me. Not yet.”
“Do you have any remorse for your actions?” Daphne’s thin voice became reedy as she tried to project louder. “Any regret?”
The sound of chuckling sent another shiver through Aviram. Akira thought this was funny. Aviram swiped a hand over his mouth in an effort not to cringe. The boy was just making this worse for himself.
“Remorse?” Akira tilted his head down so that he looked at the Assembly with hooded eyes. “I don’t have time for remorse. And neither do you.” He moved his elbows as if he was trying to spread his bound arms. “The clock is running out. That’s when you’ll listen to me.”
Aviram had no idea what he was talking about when he spoke of running out of time. He doubted the Assembly knew what he meant by that either, for it had nothing to do with the matter at hand. It didn’t surprise Aviram when no one bothered to ask Akira to elaborate. These were the words of a man not quite right in the head.
“Very well,” said Shahnoza. “I believe we are decided then.” She looked between Josif and Orietta just for confirmation. Josif nodded, although he didn’t seem content with the verdict. Shahnoza picked up the gavel in one gnarled hand. “Akira Starrett, the Assembly of Elders finds you guilty of thirteen counts of murder. We hereby sentence you to solitary confinement in the dungeon of the Castle. As of this moment, the term of your imprisonment is indefinite.”
She struck the gavel upon the table with a resounding crack. Even now in the face of his guilty verdict, Akira’s expression remained the same: arrogant and secretive. Aviram watched as the guards maneuvered Akira off the stage and back up the aisle. Sitting there, sweating under the spotlights, he had a nagging suspicion that this was not the last they would hear from Akira Starrett.