A quiet, seething unease snaked through and between the seats of the Celestial Court. The creatures in attendance, a few three hundred or so, squirmed in their seats as they waited. Though the court’s tall ceiling and wide glass walls demanded respect, they could not hide their hatred and loathing for the accused. Some sat back in wide chairs and pulled their mouths across their faces into terse, jaded smiles. Others shook and trembled, holding lists of damages and grievances, waiting like hounds on a taut leash.
There was a single rule in the Celestial Court, and it was a simple one. The crowd stifled their breath in an attempt to maintain silence. Guards of all species stood around the jury box, holding tall blunt weapons that loomed overhead. Starlight glittered and bounced off the shining steel of their armor. Each guard stood immobile, stone pillars against the swirling sky outside, ready to break anyone that would besmirch the adages of the architects.
A door opened from below, and a single guard stepped into the court. It carried large chains tied around its arms and legs which were in turn bound to an insect that limped ahead. The guard pushed the bug forward to a simple table where it was forced to stand.
When the Thorn-Bug was seen by the courtroom, tied thrice across his four arms and once around his knees, the noise disappeared. There was silence, save for the soft jostling of chains against the prisoner’s chest. The faces of the jury stretched further and squirmed beneath thick skin. They cursed the thorn that grew from the creature’s thick shoulders and damned its stark red eyes.
“Thorn-Bug.” A single potent voice bellowed with immeasurable patience. From above the center of the Court, fifty feet overhead, a figure strode down a set of marble stairs that spiraled into the room. The Thorn-Bug, bound and tied, looked up at the creature and did its best to smile. For an insect of seven feet, this meant arranging his whiskers slightly, and clouding his bright red eyes to a dull orange.
“Humanoid,” the Thorn-Bug chirped, vibrating its wings and legs to emulate speech.
The figure ignored the bug and faced ahead and above, his gaze passing over the other thousand pews in the Court. “I am Orion, the One of Justice. I will decide your fate today, in a court of my subjects.”
The figure commanded such presence that the jury had to clench their teeth to keep from cheering. When Orion stepped off the stairs and into the Court, he held himself at his full height of fifteen feet and turned his gaze to the jury and the guards. Again, they spluttered under their breaths and gasped with hollow awe. It was not often that a Heightened One showed itself to a lower creature, let alone at such a close distance.
Orion’s face was covered by a plate, plain and marble-white. Only his eyes, starkly blue and swirling with pupils like the stars outside, shone from beneath the mask. The only feature on it was a nose, which daintily pointed out between the creature’s cosmic eyes. His body was extremely humanlike, much more than anything a lesser creature could attempt to replicate. Arms, legs, a chest and spine all tensed, stretched, and vibrated with the flow of blood.
The Thorn-Bug could see that Orion was gloating with each flex of his pale body. The bug had always thought it pathetic how the Heightened tried so desperately to appear human. Rumors had even been spread that Heightened Ones were born with four arms, and that two were amputated after birth. The Thorn-Bug could make out two small lumps beneath Orion’s arms, and smirked. There were so many better things to try to be, the insect thought to itself. Why would anyone want to be like those gray corpses in the catacombs?
“Yes, a trial, just like the humans would do.” The Thorn-Bug’s voice chittered and chirped, the words just audible enough for the Courtroom to hear. “You’ve all come so close to emulating their greed and laziness.” The Thorn-Bug made a soft, pleasant hum that resembled a chuckle.
The jury box was silent, but it screamed with bulging eyes and wringing hands. Even Orion, proud as he was, grit his many teeth beneath his marble mask. He raised his hand above the Thorn-Bug, as if he was about to swat it. “You will only speak when I ask you a question. Any words spoken out of turn will increase the severity of your punishment.”
Thorn-Bug gave him a look that any insect would interpret as pitying, contemptuous and sarcastic. Orion, however, did not understand the movements of whiskers and antennae. The Heightened One strode up to his seat, raised high above the jury box and adjacent to the marble stairs that curved around him. The jury craned their heads up as they looked to the throne. Their lips trembled with silent prayers. Kill the bug, Splay it open, give us our due and more for the trouble.
“Thorn-Bug.” Orion’s voice reverberated inside his hollow humanlike mask. His pupils lingered upon the audience before falling to the prisoner. “Never has a crime been addressed in this place of self-discovery. Never has my mind had to fall upon punishment and misdeeds. Never has a lower creature stained the wisdom of humanity with petty vice. You are the first felonious criminal of our Triumvirate. The three rings have spun and woven many lives, but never has a crass, vain and petty fool been made before you.”
The Thorn-Bug laughed. At least, that is how his boisterous chirps and hums were understood.
“You are pleased?”
A moment passed. The Thorn-Bug raised his head, surveying Orion. “More so. I feel as if I have finally been defined, as if I have been made manifest. Like a ripe peach falling off a tree. I know, now, what I have and what I will achieve.”
“You find purpose and pleasure in theft and sin?” Orion craned his neck down towards the insect. “I can only hope your vanity will speed along these procedures. I suppose for a trite creature as yourself, it would not be difficult to list your crimes?”
“You are correct, doppleganger. I take great pride in them.”
Orion twisted his legs. His mask, carved to resemble the wise ancient ones who walked the Triumvirate Station before, gave no emotion. The audience, however, could feel his ire rise. The Heightened Ones believed that they were gifted their appearance by humans and that they were their destined children.
“When you are ready, insect.”
“On the first day, I killed Kalonsis Ke, gatekeeper of the Third Torus, who had a history of berating his own insect brethren without impunity. He watched his own grandfathers and grandmothers die of starvation and thirst, and he believed an insect life was inconsequential to the Triumvirate. I killed him quite easily. While his hide was thick, his joints were thin, and my claws were sharp. I take no pride in the victory, only in fulfilling a vendetta against him.”
“If you speak of each life you’ve taken with such detail,” Orion asserted, “we will be here for many rotations.”
“Yes, and if the idea of spending that time disgusts you, I do not apologize. A criminal such as Kalonsis still deserves a few words in death. Even I, who hated him with all my hide, can give him a brief moment. You Heightened, I expect, are all too tall to care about the lives of those who crawl or slither.”
“Imp, you will trim your speech!” The crowd all turned to this new voice, harsh and shrill, which warbled with vigor. “At the next ill word I hear I will spill your carcass on the floor, as I should already have done!” This was the Archduke Antilles of the First Torus, a hawklike creature with long, sinuous eyebrows that took days to attend to. They twirled up and above his crown for yards around, bobbing as he spoke.
“Antilles.” Orion’s voice filled the room, and the guards instinctively raised their tall maces higher and eyed the hawk. Antilles, however, met their gaze with such solid resolution that it even rivaled Orion’s. “As you were the one to catch the prisoner, I will ignore that outburst. Speak again and regular punishments will follow.” Orion’s throat trembled just slightly enough that his ire was clear. Luckily for the bird, it was directed towards the Thorn-Bug and not him. Antilles sat down and preened his brow without a word. “Again, Thorn-Bug. Another crime.”
“Sure thing. Uh…” The Thorn Bug raised his claws to his head as if he was deep in thought. The chains that held his arms together creaked as the bug moved. “Theft. I took the Swirling Mace from the Satta-of-the-Engines in the lower hub. Though could anyone truly claim it before me? Even your guards cannot not hold its weight.”
“It was a part of the station, our Triumvirate, under the care of the Satta. To take a part of our gift-”
“Sacrilege. Blasphemy! The Tomb of Humanity bleeds dust from the wound I have dealt them.” The Thorn-Bug chuckled again.
Orion kept his voice emotionless. “Disregard of Hierarchy will be listed in your crimes.”
“Yes, by all means. There are many crimes I’ve committed without realizing them, and I’m sure to miss a few.” The Thorn-Bug shrugged, clattering the chains against the table. “Even now I struggle to list one alone when I have so many to choose from.”
“Speak of the murder of my brother!” Ureb Hahn, Minister of Equal Trade, shouted and rose from his seat. His speech was slow, like any tortoise’s, but his strange bloated head and tenebrous arms gave away his more alien descendants. “My blood has been spilt! I will see to your-” As the shadow of a tall mace passed over him, Hahn broke off into silence.
“Ureb Hahn, I will not appear weak in my own court. Speak again, anyone speak again and the guards will detain you. This is man-made ground that you sit upon, and my mercy will not stretch any thinner.”
“I am honored.” Ureb Hahn trembled into his seat, eying the guard as he sat.
“Well.” Thorn-Bug paused, allowing the silence to hang in the air before speaking again. “I was going to mention how I smuggled myself into the First Torus, but if it pleases the court to speak about Ureb Kahn, then I will tell you all how I fought him. He was a honorable spirit, who challenged me and fought me in a single duel. I don’t regret winning, but I wish he could have joined me.”
Ureb Hahn’s face softened at this. From his seat that looked down upon the Thorn-Bug, he showed some small empathy. The Urebs were generals thousands of years ago, after all, and the elders still passed on stories of their warrior ancestors who had wanted only to die in battle. His brother Ureb Kahn had always showed a longing for those simpler, bloodier times.
Orion noticed the pity on his face. “I won’t let you squirm out of the blame, Thorn-Bug. Murder is murder, and law takes precedence over honor. How many more have you killed?”
“I keep a strict count of the guardsmen I’ve slain. So far, seventy nine creatures have died without purpose. As for the honorable few who would die for you and your kin unconditionally, a dozen and two.”
“I forbid you to speak as if you would continue the slaughter.”
“You ask that I lie? Is there no law about hiding the truth in court?”
“The only truth that concerns you, Thorn-Bug, is-”
The insect cut Orion off. “-that I will be imprisoned? Enslaved? The humans would never sentence death. You cannot kill me and still call this a humane court.”
“There are many places you could be banished. Though blood has never been spilt in my people’s reign, I could exile you off the station itself, leave you stranded on a passing rock.”
“A technicality. The creatures of the station will know that you have put me to death, and that will prove that you are not divine, not something to be worshipped. It will prove that you’re just as imperfect as any living thing, and twice as conniving.”
Orion’s position was swaying. The creatures in the court began to murmur, and even the guards stared at Orion pleadingly. But even now Orion’s voice did not waver. “There are many dark corners of the Station that could hold you.”
“Yes, and in exile I would think only of your demise. I would imagine a life without your kind lording over the station. Where anyone can be proud to have antennae, proud of their scales or wings, proud to be anything other than those naked apes that came before us. I would imagine-”
Orion’s voice wavered. “You will not speak of the ancients in that tone, insect.”
“I would imagine a Triumvirate that worships itself: that gyrates to our own tune, and not to the dead and damned humans who hold no sway over us or the cosmos outside. I would imagine these things, imagine you and your family made to pay for your crimes, and I would bide my time and wait until it is your hide, Orion, that turns thin.”
Orion closed his eyes. Veins, pulsing purple against his milky skin, pounded and throbbed. He was expressionless, but Thorn-Bug knew he was close to breaking. If he could provoke the Heightened, make it strike, then the court would see that these creatures were as desperate as any other.
“You, in the court, tell me: Have you ever been treated fairly by these parasites?” Thorn-Bug spoke deliberately, carefully pronouncing each line with his guttural hums and well-placed chirps. “They do nothing for the Tori, yet they tax and tariff, claiming that to ignore them is a crime. I ask you now: Give me freedom, return the Swirling Mace to me, and I will kill the Heightened. I will kill your merciless gods.” The Thorn-Bug now stared at Orion, whose eyes were still shut. “I have done it once and I will do it again.”
The court was silent, more than ever. Gone were the twitches, the stretches, the clenched teeth. The creatures with mouths let them hang slightly ajar. Breathes in the crowd trembled and shook before they became soft wheezes. Proud Antilles, unable to contain his curiosity, opened his beak.
“Insect.” No guard rose to the voice. They too were taken by the bug’s words. “You don’t mean to say-”
“In the Second Torus, there is a small vineyard, called the Soaken Oak. It is near the entrance to the Third Torus’s western spoke. They are known for a special wine that they press from the thin amun-grapes they grow. The wine was a favorite of the Heightened One known as Jyotisha.”
Antilles cracked the knuckles at the ends of his wings. He had heard of Jyotisha, and had heard of her love for amun-wine. She had been sneaking to the Second Torus at strange hours to drink the wine before it was bottled. The Thorn-Bug spoke true.
“The bright hours were short that day, so I decided to take a rest in the grove. I came across a small patch of loam that lay beneath a canopy of sinuous vines. Ripe grapes hung low from them, heavy with juice and pulp. The wet grass and syrup-leaden fruit made an intoxicating scent that I could not resist. I rested there until nightfall, and then when I awoke and rose, I saw Jyotisha a few yards away, enjoying the view of a passing dust cloud. She had taken off her mask, Orion, and her mouths were covered in purple stains.”
Orion did not respond. His eyes remained closed and his pallid mask was as smooth as it had ever been. Even the purple veins seemed to have calmed. Thorn-Bug knew it had to keep pressing further, knew that Orion was close to breaking.
“She noticed me. She stood, without weapon, and began speaking to me. She began to tell me about the amun-grapes and how their flavor changes with every cycle. She told me this as she strode forward, weaponless, her arms held wide. I knew what she was trying to do, Orion, so I humored her and put down my mace. She watched me raise my claws.”
Antilles had stopped staring at Thorn-Bug. The hawk’s gaze was fixed on Orion now, waiting for the Heightened One to respond. What coward would allow an insect to speak like this? Orion, however, sat still like hewn marble.
“She was strong, even with a barrel of amun-wine in her. But she had no balance or rhythm. It was easy to sneak in close, scratch her knees and elbows, and keep away before she could swing her fist.” Thorn-Bug knew a vivid account of her flesh tearing and bleeding would surely crack the Heightened, but the bug had reverence for the dead. It would not stoop to such depravity.
“I buried her there, in the loam. I had thought it would be fitting for her to rest in the grove that she had loved. But when I put her in the grave, there was no divine event. The grapes did not blossom, the stars did not shine any brighter. The only thing that moved for Jyotisha were the worms in the dirt. They were happy to make a rare acquaintance.”
The court and guards were stunned. Even Antilles, who had always thought that the Heightened were too pompous for their own good, tightened his muscles to pounce. He knew what the Thorn-Bug was planning, and knew that it would be far better for a bird like himself to be labeled a killer instead of Orion.
But when Orion opened his eyes, there was no anger. No wrath or pride. Just an unsettling patient gaze that stared deep into the Thorn-Bug.
“It is clear to me now,” No hesitance. No trembling vibrato. Only words, solid as unspoken law. “That this bug revels in its inhumanity. It holds sanctity for murder and violence in the same way that we cherish humane wisdom. Clearly, it would be fitting to give it an inhumane punishment.” Hundreds of pupils fell upon Thorn-Bug, and the insect could feel its body waning, as if in response to the Heightened One’s will.
“However, it was humanity’s wish that all living things be shown mercy. I have read documents of criminal humans mending their ways, and rejoining their communities. You, Thorn-Bug,” here Orion stopped for a brief half second, “...have great perseverance. A trait that would be recommendable if you weren’t so stubborn and a little more receptive to the world around you.”
For the first time, Thorn-Bug felt the weight of the chains and the sharp edge of the shackles. Doubt hung upon the insect. It had seen the injustices, known these Heightened Ones to be villains. It had met sympathisers, others who knew that these creatures were poor rulers. Yet Orion had no cruel countenance. In fact, the Heightened’s voice seemed sweeter than before.
“You will be exiled to the catacombs below the Triumvirate, where the bodies of humanity lie dormant. There, you will hear their whispers.” Orion’s eyes closed, as if he could hear the corpses speaking even now. “You will learn their knowledge and mercy, and you will be forever changed by it. Perhaps you will even be blessed in those bleak halls… How fitting would it be if you were the first insect Satta? You could be humanized as Thorn-Bug-Of-The-Tomb, Satta-Of-The-Long-Since-Dead.”
All the court shuddered. Ureb Hahn wheezed and spluttered. Even Antilles had to calm himself. A murderer, a Satta? A Holy One? Could the Heightened be so merciful? So foolish?
Thorn-Bug seethed under the leaden chains. They would make me a puppet? They think I can be bribed? All the doubt the bug had felt moments before was gone. Clearly, these Heightened were as deceitful as he had been led to believe. The Thorn-Bug began to vibrate its wings. “There is no way I-”
Before Thorn-Bug could continue, a guard grabbed his shoulders and pulled taut the chains around the bug’s legs. Without room to vibrate his body, the Thorn-Bug had no way to chirp or hum. Orion’s voice boomed, overpowering the insect’s frail attempts at speech. “You will have to atone for the deaths you alone have caused, Thorn-Bug. Ninety-three souls have been committed to the abyss by your hands. Eager as you may be to join our holy ranks, you cannot with such sin burdening you.”
The Thorn-Bug immediately thrashed against his chains and the guard’s grip, desperate to wring the Heightened One’s pale neck. Sharp chirps and whirring hums tore out of the Thorn-Bug’s body, but no words were formed.
“The Heightened are glad to see your repentance,” Orion’s voice curled in the thin air. “As are, undoubtedly, these others in the court.” A thousand pupils all landed upon the guests in the jury box. No one returned the gaze.
Even Antilles looked away, staring instead at the accused. The Thorn-Bug was wriggling and twisting under the guard’s’ grip, trying to shake its wings free. The few chirps that could be heard from the bug were drowned out by Orion’s voice, but Antilles could hear a few: neck, spine, tendons, and cripple.
“This trial is over. Detain the insect, and throw him into the catacombs immediately. The jury may leave.” The guards carried the bug away, and the most cowardly of the jurists ran from the room without looking back. The ones desperate for compensation stayed in the room until they could no longer bare Orion’s stare, azure eyes flowing with bulging pupils.
Antilles was the last to leave, but he never met the Heightened One’s gaze. He had been busy watching the Thorn-Bug be dragged away, and was ruminating to himself.
“Antilles. The jury is to leave.”
“Orion, that bug will be back. And he’ll be no Satta.”
Orion turned his back to the hawk. As the Heightened began the walk up the marble stairs, Antilles could see a turgid mass of skin at the tip of Orion’s spine. The flesh tensed and flexed with Orion’s arms like veins between bone.
“Go to the lowest chambers of the hub where the insects fester. There will be Thorn-Bugs in there somewhere.” Orion twisted his head back to Antilles. “Tear off a single wing of each one you find. Say you are claiming a debt they owe to the Kalonsis family. Do not mention the Heightened.”
“Ah. Understood.” Finally, the humanoid shows some mettle.
Orion paused. The hawk could see the Heightened’s muscles flex, the pupils dilate and focus, and knew that the creature was attempting to scare it into the submission. Antilles did not lower his eyes.
“There are other species in the Triumvirate. Others with thicker bones and sharper claws. Others who are more obedient.”
“Yet none who are more determined to serve you than I.”
It was the answer that Orion sought. He continued up the stairs without a word.
Antilles unfurled his wings and walked out of the court with the crude fingers that jutted out along their tips. His eyebrows swirled along with his bobbing head. The hawk knew that the Heightened were treacherous, but that they kept the peace well. Another generation without war would give Antilles enough time to cultivate an army.
But before then, the bug would be back, and the hawk was keen to have his fill of the corpse.