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A little cheese and a little whine

Brains! (Short Story)

“They were eating my men’s brains.”

David Christos was anxious. It was not an unusual state for him to be in, but reading the accounts of the terrible events on Nebulon 5 was not helping. He closed the file and sat back in his chair, his wiry frame shaking slightly. He took a few deep breaths and pushed aside the mousy brown mop of hair which had fallen over his eye.

He had been working at the Central Prosecution Service for six months now, and had not won a single case. And then this morning, the Chief Prosecutor (the Chief Prosecutor, no less) had come to visit him and assigned him a new case. A very high profile case, and one that was due to go to court the following day. It was the prosecution of Captain Matt Castle, dubbed by the press as “the Zombie Killer”, on multiple counts of murder.

Nebulon 5 was a mining outpost, with a population of 37, most of whom were scientists and engineers. One month ago, a distress call was received at the major colony on Nebulon 6; some sort of disease had broken out on Nebulon 5 and those infected were making violent attacks on others. Communication was quickly lost and Castle and his team were sent to investigate. They found all 37 men and women horribly mutated, turned into creatures almost impossible to kill (only decapitation was effective) who ate human flesh and had a special appetite for brains. Three of Castle’s team died in the first engagement – and then came back to life in mutated form. In the end it was only Castle’s tenacity and skill which had enabled him to kill the zombies and escape with the small handful of his team who escaped infection.

The difficulty was this. All those killed – excluding Castle’s team – were Earth citizens, civilians, and non-combatants. They were unarmed. Despite the fact that they were clearly infected with some disease, there was no attempt to provide medical assistance. As characterised by the friends and families of those killed, Castle had found himself in a plague situation and rather than bring in a science team (as protocol demanded) had simply slaughtered the afflicted.

Popular opinion was that Castle was a hero who had saved Nebulon 6 from a plague of zombies by drawing a line in the sand at Nebulon 5. The Central Prosecution Service was taking a different view, however, and it was up to David to make that view stick.

“Mr Christos?”

His assistant’s voice brought him back from his reverie.

“Yes, Tara?”

“There’s a call from your brother.”

“Oh. Oh, thank you.”

He touched the screen in front of him to accept the call. “Stephen,” he said, pausing to choose his words. “What a… surprise.”

An avatar appeared on screen; Stephen couldn’t afford video calls all the way from Nebulon 6.

“Can you lend me some money?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Just twenty five thousand.”

“I – that could be difficult.”

“It’s just, I need to get back to earth. Now.”

The prospect of Stephen coming back to Earth did not make David enthusiastic. Or any less anxious.

“Please, David. There are some crazy rumours going around here.”

“What like?”

“The disease that hit them on Nebulon 5. They say it reached one of the polar exploration stations. It’s been contained, apparently. But no-one knows where it’s going to strike next.”

David thought. Steven’s grasp of complex legal concepts like loans and promises was very shaky, and any money that went in his direction was unlikely to return. And it wasn’t beneath him to take advantage of the Nebulon 5 incident to try to get some money which would somehow not be spent on transit nor ever be seen again.

Still, it was his brother.

“I’ll have to see what I can do.”

“Thanks. You’re a life saver, bro. Later.”

The line went dead. David looked at the clock. He would be in court in less than 24 hours. Steeling himself, he opened the file again.

*

“They were eating my men’s brains.”

Benton Franks, on the other hand, was not at all anxious. On the contrary, he was extremely relaxed, as was evident from the way his more than ample frame draped itself over the entirely inadequate prison chair. He was about to take on a historic case – the defence of Matt Castle, the Zombie Killer – and his success was assured. Not only was he one of the best lawyers in the country, if not the world, but he knew the judge – and he knew that that judge would do his duty and prevent the frivolous prosecution of a true hero.

The only fly in this jar of self-congratulatory ointment was Castle himself. Like all accomplished military men, he was used to dining out on dramatic accounts of his adventures, and once started, was impossible to stop. Franks was fully conversant with the facts of the case; he had watched the security footage, read the statements, and reviewed the psi-probes. He had absolutely no need to listen to Castle’s somewhat embroidered account, and even less desire.

Still, the man was his client, and it did no harm to keep him happy. He took another draw on his cigar and nodded enthusiastically.

“By the time we got that ship off the ground, only three of us were still alive – myself, Lieutenant Tien and Private Sandman. It was a miracle we got back to Neb 6 in one piece.”

“A miracle indeed, and one for which we must all be grateful,” Franks said in tones more suited to a pulpit than an interview room. “Now, tomorrow we face a battle not nearly so… thrilling, but no less important. We must establish that, in the eyes of the law, you have not slaughtered 37 innocent, unarmed civilians but rather saved a handful of your men and the population of Nebulon 6 from a terrible, terrible fate.”

“Be honest with me, do you think we’ll win?”

“We have both facts and popular opinion on our side. The judge is a patriot and the prosecuting counsel is an idiot. The powers that be are keen for you to win. Given all that,” said Franks, “I believe you can count on it.”

*

“It’s your brother again.”

“Thank you, Tara. Stephen?”

“Any news on this cash, bro?”

“Not yet. Look, I’m sorry, it’s not the sort of amount I keep laying around.”

“I know, it’s just – things are getting serious here. There’s a video going around of another outbreak – it’s on the southern tip of New Europe this time, just a small settlement but – god, you should see it, the poor bastard who filmed it knew he was done for and there’s just this part where his friend is walking towards the camera just saying ‘brains!’, over and over. It was just gruesome, bro. You’ve got to get me out of here.”

“I’ll contact the bank right away. Better still, why don’t I just book your ticket directly?”

“Are you serious? The minute the rumours started the black market bought up every damn transit to earth for the next two weeks. I know some people and I can get the goods, but I need the cash.”

“Okay. I’ll do what I can.”

*

“Your honour, the prosecution maintains that the defendant used lethal and excessive force without due authority. Defence have stipulated that he killed the 37 residents of –“

“Objection! Defence has stipulated no such thing, your honour.”

“Your honour, this document clearly states that Castle and his men decapitated and in some cases dismembered –“

“Exactly, your honour. We stipulate as to the actions taken by my client but not as to who, or what, was killed in the process.”

David shuffled his papers nervously, glancing at Tara, sitting beside him, for support. Franks obviously wasn’t going to go easy. He ran his hand nervously through his hair, hoping inspiration would come. He had been up all night organising his arguments and the required flash did not occur. He momentarily cursed his fatigue and then recalled that for him inspiration never came, even when he was thoroughly rested, fed and watered.

“Defence will no doubt claim that this is a military matter and –“

“Ha!” Franks shouted.

“- and that this court has no jurisdiction, but –“

“If it please the court, we would be delighted to stipulate as to this court’s jurisdiction. Further we will stipulate that had any crime been committed, it would fall under criminal and not military law. And we are willing to stipulate that my client did not have appropriate authority to use lethal force.” He turned to David. “Anything else?”

David swallowed hard. “I have nothing further your honour.”

The judge turned his head slowly to peer at Franks, like some antediluvian sea creature roused from its slumbers. “Very well,” he said carefully. “Does the defence wish to make an opening statement?”

“We do, your honour,” said Franks. “We have already stipulated as to the material facts of this case. However, we maintain that no murder occurred, because by the time my client reached Nebulon 5, the 37 members of the colony were already dead. The disease which infected them meant that, after death, they began to move again; to move, perhaps even to think. But these were not the 37 people who left earth three years ago to explore a new world; they were nothing more than corpses, reanimated by some ghastly biological menace. We contest that my client has done nothing more than contain a frightful and dangerous plague and that all charges against him should be dismissed.”

David swore inwardly. He might just have carried a case based on questions of authority, procedure and due process, but an argument about whether the colonists were really alive was slippery, and Franks had the personality and presence to make it sound convincing. Still, the Chief Prosecutor had placed his faith in him, and he would have to do his best. Thanks to Tara’s obsession with cheap horror films, the idea wasn’t a complete surprise and he had, thankfully, done some preparation.

“Your honour, the contention that the colonists were no longer alive is mere sophistry. They were moving; talking; by the defendant’s admission, eating and drinking –“

“Eating and drinking my men!” said Castle. Franks motioned him into silence. David continued.

“They proved to be a formidable enemy capable of co-operation and strategy. In short, they exhibited many signs of life.”

“If it please the court,” said Franks, ”there is considerable evidence about the course of this disease from the medical records at the Nebulon 5 base. In all cases, victims died and remained inanimate for a period of several hours before their corpses –“

“Objection!”

“Very well, their bodies begin moving again.”

“Your honour, this is immaterial. There are several recorded cases of individuals pronounced dead who subsequently return to life. In Grabbit versus Runne, Runne was found guilty of fraud for claiming on a life insurance policy after having been pronounced dead and recovering a few moments later.”

“In those cases, your honour, only a few moments have passed, a minute at most and medical opinion –“

“Objection! Counsel is not qualified to testify as to medical opinion nor is such testimony best evidence.”

“The fact remains, your honour, that in Grabbit versus Runne, Runne was dead only for few moments.”

“The length of death was not found to be material to the case, your honour. I submit that even had Runne been dead for “a period of several hours”, the court would still have decided against him.”

“Your honour, the evidence of death does not end there. Many of the reanimated colonists were able to continue in combat after losing vital organs such as the heart or liver.”

“Again, your honour, this is not germane. In Kutz versus Burton, Kutz was found guilty of malpractice for endangering the life of Burton during a liver transplant. At the point at which Burton’s life was endangered, his liver had been removed but not replaced; thus, Burton, like the colonists in question, lacked a vital organ but was, for legal purposes, alive nonetheless.”

“In addition to these considerations,” said Franks, his voice betraying a little impatience, “it was established that the reanimated colonists had no blood circulation, a sure sign that they could not have been alive.”

“Your honour,” David began, pleased to see that he was starting, however slightly, to get under the great man’s skin, “In Schokt versus Seeper, Seeper was found guilty of negligence for failing to attempt to restart the heart of Schokt’s father while it was in a state of fibrillation. When the heart is in that state, there is no circulation of blood. However, the court agreed that Schokt senior was still alive at that point.”

“If it please the court, these facts taken individually may be subject to certain dubious counterarguments, but they must be taken together. And even if your honour, well known for his deeply philosophical approach to the law, still deems that the colonists were alive, then we have to remember that the law defines murder as the taking not of a life but of a human life. And these lives, if lives they were, were emphatically not human. The reanimated colonists displayed superhuman strength; extensive physical deformity; and no vestige of their living personalities.”

“Your honour, these arguments are specious. In Waryard versus Cobbs-Werth Security, that company was found guilty of negligence for allowing a guard to use lethal force against Waryard’s son who had taken PCP and was exhibiting, as my learned friend puts it, superhuman strength. In Breezefin Power versus Wickles, Wickles was awarded compensation for the damage done to his quality of life by deformities and mutations caused by radiation leaks from the Breezefin plant, establishing that deformity does not deprive a life of human status. And in Perry versus Puller, Dr Puller was prevented from terminating the life support of Perry, who had been in a coma, showing no signs of his living personality, for several years, on the grounds that it violated Perry’s right to life.”

“Your honour, my learned friend is merely muddying the waters. As I have said, no single one of these factors would be convincing on its own, but taken together, the case is overwhelming. These were not human lives, your honour, and my client, who watched four of his comrades literally eaten alive, should not be prosecuted, indeed, persecuted, for doing what was right and necessary.”

The judge took a deep breath, and stared intently at his gavel.

“Very well, gentlemen,” he said at last. “We will take a short recess, and then I will hear closing arguments.”

A shrill bleating noise filled the chamber. Tara quickly silenced her communicator. The judge glared at them, rose, and walked from the court.

As soon as he left, Tara said, “Your brother again. Sorry.” The shrill bleating repeated itself. Tara looked at him enquiringly. David nodded. She handed him the communicator.

“Stephen.”

“Oh, thank God. Where’s the money, bro? Things are getting really bad here. The disease has hit Neuebonn, there are thousands dead already. If I don’t get the money soon I’m not going to make it. I’m serious, bro.”

“I’m sorry, I’m doing my best. It isn’t easy to move that kind of money around, especially if you need real physical cash. I’ve spoken to the bank and it’s on its way. I’ll call them again as soon as I can, see if we can do anything to get the money there faster, okay?”

“Okay, bro, but you’ve got to know how bad things are. I know we haven’t been close, man, I know it and I know I’m asking a lot right now but… there are people out there just stumbling about, chanting “brains! brains!”… they’re eating other people, man, it’s just…”

“I know, I know. I want to get you out, okay? I’m going to call –“

Suddenly, without warning, the Chief Prosecutor appeared, his face like thunder.

“- Stephen, I’ve got to go.”

“Christos! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Sir?”

“Tara, we won’t be needing you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is something wrong, sir? I thought things went quite well.”

“Oh, yes, Christos. Very well. You’ve made some excellent arguments. You’ve engaged with one of the finest minds in the profession and come out of it smelling of roses. At this rate, you might even bloody well win!”

“Sir, I don’t under –“

“You don’t understand. No, of course you don’t. Do you know why I assigned this case to you, Christos? Your laser-like capacity for critical thought? Hmm? Your encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules of evidence? Your fluency with the intricate world of case law? All the well-known skills which have made you the least successful prosecutor in the history – the three hundred year history – of my department? No, it was not. It was because you’ve never won a bloody case yet. Every case you take on, you lose. And now it turns out you can’t even do that when I need you to.”

“But – “

“But nothing! We need to lose this case, Christos. There’s an outbreak on Nebulon 6 and we need to get Castle and a very big army out there to sort it out. And the last thing we want is for those men to think they’re going to end up facing charges of murder. We brought this case for the sole purpose of having the judge declare that these zombies were not human and not protected by the constitution so we could get out to Nebulon 6 and do what we need to do. We had the judge all set up to give us the right decision and now you’ve – ”

“You’ve put pressure on the judge?”

The Chief Prosecutor gave a smile that would have made liquid nitrogen shiver, and spoke very carefully. “Of course not. Were we to attempt to influence the judge unduly any decision he made would not stand. But rest assured that it has been made clear to his honour that his country, if not his world, expects a wise decision, and that it will be obvious to him what he has to do. Franks is going to speak about the situation on Nebulon 6 in his closing, and his honour is going to realise that Castle has better things to do than sit around in court listening to you citing first-year case law.” His voice became a very low growl. “There are some very, very powerful people who need us to lose this case, Christos. If you win it I will make your life hell for the very short period it takes for them to go to work on us both. Now, get into that courtroom and lose!”

He stormed away. David considered his options. He couldn’t simply drop the case; then no opinion would be entered into law at all and they would be no better off. On the other hand, he’d already made all his arguments and he couldn’t take any of them back. He could, of course, just make a weak closing statement and hope that Franks’ personality carried the day.

Then, for the first time he could remember, inspiration struck David Christos. He would make a closing statement so utterly preposterous that the judge would have no choice but to decide against him.

*

“Your honour – during the recess, the prosecution has made careful consideration of the arguments made by the defence. And we are willing to cede that the lives taken were not human. However, we submit that if they were not human, they were some other sentient species; and that, when the defendant left Nebulon 5, none of that species remained alive. We therefore request that Captain Castle be bound over for trial on charges of genocide.”

David was astonished that a man the size of Franks could get to his feet so quickly. “Your honour! This is preposterous!” He turned to David. “Are you insane?”

“Very possibly. And I’m sure his honour wouldn’t want to rule in favour of someone who might later prove to be mentally unbalanced.”

“Your honour, I submit that defence’s stipulation that these lives were not human is –“

“Very, very troubling,” said the judge.

“But your honour! The prosecution is clearly attempting to escalate the charges against my client because they are well aware that the original charge of murder is simply untenable. This is clearly a frivolous and vexatious prosecution with no real merit in law, and we call for an immediate dismissal of all charges!”

“I agr –“ started David, and then stopped himself.

“What was that, Mr Christos?”

“I – nothing, your honour.”

“Given what you have said, are you dropping the charges of murder?”

“Er – in the interests of clarity, the people would value your honour’s ruling on the validity of those charges.”

“Indeed? Well, this is somewhat irregular. Have you finished your closing statement?”

“Yes your honour.”

“Mr Franks?”

“Your honour, the erratic nature of the prosecution’s case merely underlines the fact that this is a prosecution – or perhaps a pair of prosecutions, who can tell? – utterly without foundation or merit. The prosecution are understandably squeamish about what happened on Nebulon 5, but the truth is not only that my client did what had to be done but also that he did so entirely within the law. He has served his planet courageously and will soon be called upon to do so again on Nebulon 6 where, as I’m sure your honour knows, the same disease has struck. I ask your honour to dismiss these scandalous charges.”

The judge sighed, and collected his thoughts. “Mr Christos’ erratic approach to this case is indeed troubling and I am inclined to agree with you, Mr Franks, that your client should not stand trial.”

David breathed a sigh of relief. The gamble had paid off; the worst that could have happened would be the judge buying the genocide argument, and binding Castle over for trial, but the chances of the charge sticking were nil even if, technically, Castle had destroyed the whole species, because the same species had re-emerged on Nebulon 6. The judge would have to rule against the murder charges to make the genocide charge even possible, and Castle would go free. But now it looked like the judge would simply rule against both.

“However,”

Oh God.

“I have to rule on the law. And it seems to me that we have a dilemma. Either these lives were human, in which case the defendant must face a charge of murder, or they were not, in which case, technically speaking, he has committed genocide. The defence’s stipulation as to the events on Nebulon 5 leave little room for disagreement on these points. I cannot simply dismiss both charges, and the prosecution has not dropped either case. “

“But your honour, this means that the prosecution is pursuing two cases which it knows cannot both be competent for prosecution –“

“Indeed it is, Mr Franks, and that is highly irregular. And most unsatisfactory. But it is not unlawful. I think I see, though, what is required of me here.”

David saw, in a flash, what the judge was thinking. He had been led to expect a clue, in the closing arguments, about which way to decide, and that clue was supposed to be the mission to Nebulon 6. But instead he had taken David’s genocide argument to be the clue. A murder conviction would see Castle dishonourably discharged and locked away for a while, but a genocide charge would at very least taint the whole space force. There was a good chance it would be dismissed quickly, but things could get very bad if it gathered momentum. Senior officers would be implicated; the whole chain of command would be examined. Many important closets would be opened and there was no telling what skeletons would fall out.

And the judge was right – they colonists either were human or they weren’t. So –

He was still lost in thought when the judge made his ruling. He barely heard the words “bound over for trial on 37 counts of murder,” but they did penetrate at last and merely saved to reinforce the general daze he found himself in. He felt himself rise to his feet as the judge left the courtroom and sit down again when he had gone; he barely registered the look of contempt Franks gave him as he strode out.

A shrill bleating brought him back to reality. He turned around to see Tara answering the communicator as she walked back into the courtroom, her Chief-Prosecutor-imposed exile at an end. She held the communicator out to him.

“It’s your brother. I think he’s drunk. Slurring terribly. Something about brains?”

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Filed under: Writing

2 Responses

  1. Philip in London says:

    most entertaining on a wet sunday afternoon…. thanks paul!

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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