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Fire Time

by Poul Anderson

FOREWORD

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a wholly just man.

His image had been chilling enough in court. Now we were summoned to himself. Dusk took us as we stepped from the flyer, blue-gray around, deepening to black where the mountainside toppled into the valley, overhead still a violet touched by the earliest stars. A guardian satellite hastened among them, entered Earth’s shadow, and vanished as if the thin cold wind that whittered about us had blown it out. There streamed a smell of glaciers and distances.

The house was built of native stone, enormous, a part of these heights. Few men on man’s mother planet can afford solitude. The president of the Tribunal commands it. A light in a bronze frame glowed above an ironbound oaken door. Our pilot gestured us that way. His whole body said we had better not keep Daniel Espina waiting.

Though my heart stammered, we all walked steadily. The door opened to show an attendant, live and nonhuman. “Buenos tardes,” the thing said. “Siganme ustedes, por favor.” We followed down a hallway darkly wainscoted, to a room perhaps intended for meetings such as this.

It was broad and tall, full of antiquities and silence.

The carpet muffled footfalls. Chairs and a couch stood rigid-framed, leather-covered, with a teak and ivory table. A grandfather clock from centuries agone ticked opposite an owl carved in marble. Shelves lined the walls, carrying books in the hundreds, more codices than reels. A modem desk and console—communications, data retrieval, computation, recording, projection, printout, disposal—somehow likewise belonged.

The far end of the room was a transparency. Beyond it reached the mountain, forest below and valley nighted below that, remote snowpeaks, more stars every minute. Before it, in his mobile chaise lounge, sat Espina. As always, he was loosely black-clad; nothing showed except the skeletal head and hands. A look from him halted us.

And yet, “Good evening,” he said, tonelessly but quietly, as if we were guests and not criminals whom he would sentence. “Please be seated.”

In our separate ways we bowed and lowered ourselves to the edges of chairs facing him.

“I believe English will be the most convenient language?” he inquired.

The question was rhetorical, I thought. How could he not know the answer? To mask the stillness, I replied, “Yes, your honor—sir—You recall… on Ishtar it’s been the common human language for a long time. Most permanent residents aren’t very good even in Spanish, for lack of practice. It happened the original base personnel was mainly Anglo—pretty isolated since then—”

“Until recently,” he cut off my foolish noise.

Dk, went the big clock. Dk. Dk.

After a minute Espina stirred the least bit and said, “Well. Who prefers coffee and who tea?” We mumbled. He beckoned his servant to him and gave the order. While the being departed, he took a silver case out of his robe, put a cigarette between yellowed fingers and inhaled it into lighting.

“Smoke if you like,” he invited, neither hostile nor cordial, merely informing us that he didn’t care. We made no move. His gaze felt like the alpine wind.

“You are wondering why I called you here,” he said at last. “Isn’t that quite irregular? And if a judge should feel a need to interview prisoners confidentially, why haul their bodies halfway around the globe?”

He drew smoke into lungs and let it out again to veil his Rameses face.

“As for the second point,” he proceeded, “hologramy saves me the traveling I no longer wish to do. But it is not the same as the living flesh”—he glanced at his hand—“which you still have so abundantly. For you to be here, in my place and presence, is not the same as us confronting each other’s colored shadows. I wish more officials understood the difference.”

A cough racked him. I’d seen replays of his historic decisions and speeches. No such attack of mortality marred them. Did he instruct the 3V computers to microdelay and edit their transmissions? That’s standard political practice, of course, along with the other glamorizers. But Tribune Espina had always scorned any softening. Hadn’t he?

He snapped after air, breathed in fresh poison, and continued:

“As for the first point, in my office there are no regular actions. Every case is a freak.

“Think,” he said into our astonishment. “Mine is the final court for matters which fall under no single Jurisdiction. Thus complete precedents never exist. Not only can entire legal systems be at odds; philosophies can.” Contempt spoke forth. ‘Mankind’ is a word about as meaningful as ‘phlogiston.’ Tell me, if you are able—in this allegedly unified World Federation of ours, just how much in common have a prosperous Japanese engineer, a gang lord in the Welfare district of a North American city, a Russian mystic, and a Dry African peasant? Besides, more and more of our business originates off Earth altogether”—his voice dropped—“in a damnably peculiar universe.”

Our looks followed his. He touched a control on the chaise, interior lighting dimmed, the quickly fallen upland night grew clear to see. Stars crowded blackness, nearly space-bright and space-many. The galactic belt glimmered from horizon to horizon; I remembered that in Haelen they call it the Winterway. Low to the south, Sagittarius stood across it. There I sought, and believed I found, the patch of glow that drowns out from sight of Earth the triple sun called Anubelea. Close by, the trail of light was cloven by dark dust. Elsewhere, invisible to us, fared worlds being born, worlds alive with other flesh and spirit than ours, burnt-out neutron clinkers, those pits of alienness men called black holes, galaxy after galaxy around the curve of reality; and the question is unanswerable, unaskable, what this all came from and what it will return to and why.

Espina’s desiccated utterance brought me back. “I’ve studied the files on you at some length, as well as hearing testimony. My learned colleagues deplore the time I’ve spent. They remind me of problems they consider more urgent, especially now during a war. The mutiny was a very small affair, they say, and had no obvious important effects. The defendants have not denied the charges against them. Let us punish and be done—

“Regardless, I’ve persisted.” He nodded at his infotrieve. “No doubt I can conjure up every fact about you which the law could possibly called germane, and a good many additional.”

He paused before finishing, “Yes, quite a few facts. But how much truth?”

I dared take the word: “Sir, if you mean the moral issues, justification, we requested a chance to explain and were denied.”

Exasperation crackled. “Certainly. Did you imagine a court handling Intel-cultural, often interspecies problems, could get anything done if it permitted emotional scenes at preliminary hearings?”

“I understand, sir. But we’ve not been allowed to make public statements either. We’ve been held incommunicado, and those hearings were barred to spectators. I doubt the legality of that.”

“My ruling, under wartime powers. You may come to see that I’ve had my reasons.”

The crippled body leaned forward, too old for repair, too alive for its captivity. The eyes assailed us. “Here you may orate as you please,” Espina said. “I counsel you against it, though. What I hope to get from you is rather more subtle, more difficult than your personal objections to certain Federation policies. I mean to inquire about matters juridically irrelevant, incompetent, and immaterial. I want hearsay and conjecture. You are prepared to sacrifice your futures for those beings yonder. Why?”

His hand chopped air. “Set yourselves aside if you’re able. Tell me about them as you know them or, likelier; imagine them. Oh, yes, I’ve gone over several xenological treatises. I’ve actually returned to childhood and reread that saccharine Tales from Far Ishtar. Words and pictures, nothing else!

“Give me some blood and bone. Make me feel how it feels to know doomsday is coming again in one’s own lifespan.”

The servant entered with a tray. “You may have alcohol, or whatever drug you need to relax, later if you

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