Free Fiction Monday: The Impossibles

To pay off her law school debts, Kerrie works in the public defender’s office at the Interspecies Court. Her workload includes more clients than she can defend, most of them from cultures she does not understand.

The public defender’s office loses almost all of its cases, but sometimes it gets a win. Kerrie thinks she has a winner. But does she? Or will winning the case mean she loses at everything else?

“The Impossibles,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here. To read more books in the Retrieval Artist series, click here.


The Impossibles

A Retrieval Artist Short Story

Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Alarm, six a.m. Earth time—the whole damn starbase ran on Earth time. Barely a moment to rub the sleep from her eyes, roll out of her bed, and bang her knees against the wall, just like she had every morning since she graduated from law school. Not quite the top of her class. Okay, twenty-fifth. Not the middle either, not last. Near the top, close to the top. Not in the top ten or even the top twenty—not in the area where she could’ve gotten recruited by some firm, somewhere.

Didn’t matter that she went to Alliance Law, best school in the Earth Alliance, harder to get into than any school on the Moon or on Earth, harder than Harvard or Oxford or Armstrong Legal Academy. Only two hundred students qualified for Alliance Law every year, and only one hundred graduated three years later.

Those statistics meant nothing. All that mattered, apparently, was the top twenty. And Kerrie had been just five spots away from a guaranteed recruitment.

That was what she thought about every morning when her knees smacked into that wall. Then she would debate with herself: was it the 90 on her second-year contracts exam? Or the essay she had to redo five times for her Earth Alliance Agreements class? Or the party she went to that last week of first year that caused her to get up late for her Torts final, making Old Man Scott dock her two points for tardiness?

Or had she failed some indefinable thing—not volunteering for Fair Housing duty or failing to participate in Moot Court every single semester?

She didn’t know—and she cared. She had had such high expectations for herself, and she hadn’t achieved them.

Her family was happy—she was a lawyer in the prestigious Multicultural Tribunal system. But it wasn’t as glamorous as all that. It wasn’t glamorous at all—not that people outside the base, this single base dedicated almost entirely to InterSpecies Court for the First District, knew about the ugliness of the place. She had been shocked when she arrived nearly two years ago.

All newly minted lawyers arriving here for the first time were shocked. And all of them wondered what exactly led them here. Something they had done? Or something they hadn’t?

It wasn’t just the student loans. It couldn’t just be the loans, with their lovely little check-off option: Loan will be paid in full if student volunteers for public service internship post-graduation.

Everyone checked that box, and the law firms that recruited, they paid off the loan so the student didn’t have to.

Only she didn’t get recruited. No one told her that only twenty students from every class get recruited when she applied to Alliance Law. They implied—as they handed her the damn loan forms—that all students of Alliance Law got recruited.

And she supposed that was probably true if looked at in a purely legalistic sense.

She would most likely be recruited when her stint was up, two months from now. After two years here, she had more experience in InterSpecies Law than half the professors who taught the courses at law schools all over the sector.

Horrible, awful experience, but experience nonetheless.

She rubbed her knee as she grabbed the outfit she chose for today—black skirt, black suit jacket, black blouse. No need to stand out, no need to dress well. She was as interchangeable as the shuttles constantly moving between here and Helena base.

She downloaded the morning’s files through her links as she grabbed coffee from the tiny communal kitchen. The base provided almost everything: food, housing, clothing if necessary. Food and caffeine were the most important because otherwise (the base had learned) too many of the baby lawyers passed out in court. They were so busy they forgot to eat, something else Kerrie didn’t believe until she got here.

Too much work, not enough time to eat let alone think. She thought law school was bad. Law school—the best law school in the Earth Alliance—was a cakewalk compared to Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court for the First District. The Court also known as The Impossibles.

Here everything was impossible from the case load to the odds of winning. No one won, not really. The reality of the system was uglier than anyone ever imagined.

From the counter, she took a banana, which was a little longer and a little more orange than she liked. Fifteen thousand varieties of bananas alone were grown in the base’s hydroponic gardens. The gardens stretched all along one tier of the base, providing fresh fruits and vegetables for the residents and the guests, if they could afford it. Guests who couldn’t afford fresh got the same indefinable food served to the prisoners—all of whom were on their way somewhere else, all of whom were scared, confused and, in their minds, completely innocent.

As she hurried out the door, she nearly rammed into one of the night court lawyers coming in. (What was his name? Sam? She couldn’t remember and she should have, since they shared a lease.) He grunted at her, so exhausted he could hardly move, and she nodded back, a little refreshed after a real night’s sleep.

Refreshed but preoccupied. As she scurried to the elevator, she sorted the twenty-five cases she had to deal with today into four categories—morning, afternoon, evening, and Please-God-Never. The Please-God-Nevers she hoped to pass up the food chain to the lifers who knew how the system worked. The lifers, who had arrived as loan-lawyers like she had, and stayed because they claimed they liked it here. The lifers, who looked five times older than they were, and who—somehow—still had just a whisper of idealism in their voices.

The idealism left her Day Three, when she had to send a toddler to the Wygnin for a crime his father committed six months before the kid was born. She couldn’t stop it. Hell, she didn’t even have time to review the file. She just had to plead and take the best deal—and in Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court there was no best deal, only a less egregious one.

The elevator took her to the main hallway for Courthouse Number One, which housed most of the InterSpecies courtrooms. There was no court “house” of course—that was just a linguistic formality from Earth. There were a lot of linguistic formalities because this place had no buildings, just floors and sections, more floors and sections than she thought possible. Floors and sections and rings—how could she forget rings? Especially when she might have to go to the jail ring later in the day, although she hoped not.

The only thing she’d scored on since she arrived here was the apartment. Hers was close to work. Some of her colleagues rode on the tram from the outer rings of the starbase, losing two hours of sleep per day because they didn’t dare doze for fear of missing their stop.

She didn’t go down the main hallway. Instead, she took a short half-flight of stairs because it was easier than waiting for another elevator. The half-flight took her to the public defenders office, which had been her home away from home since she got out of law school.

After twenty-two months of actual survival—of not saying fuck it and letting Daddy or a rich cousin pay off her loan, of not prostituting herself, or telling the loan agency to stick it and take it out of her pay for the rest of her life—she actually rated a desk in the defenders office. Granted, it was in the back of the bullpen and barely as wide as the chair she got with it, but it was still a desk. Some days she saw it as a medal of honor.

Today she saw it as one stop too many in a day already overcrowded with too many stops.

She tossed the banana peel in the recycler near the door, a bit surprised she’d managed to eat at all. She had no memory of consuming that banana—and she should have. She didn’t like the long orange variety; she thought they were too bitter and citrusy to be a real banana.

Apparently she was so hungry she didn’t even notice, and besides, she was still shuffling case files in her head—trying to find the best order, one that sent her from courtroom to courtroom in a logical fashion and gave her the most possible time with clients.

She’d learned through hard experience that nothing mattered more than the schedule. Not reading the file, not figuring out which judge she faced. Finding time to meet the client, who often had a wish or an idea or a scintilla of information that might get the sentence reduced or lightened or—in a perfect universe—tossed out, although that had never happened to her or one of her clients or even to a client of anyone she had worked with.

She had heard rumors, of course. Gayle Giolotti had saved the lives of three kids on a technicality, and Sheri Hampstead actually got an acquittal by proving that the government bringing the case (Wygnin? Disty? Kerrie couldn’t remember) didn’t have the proper DNA identification of the accused.

She’d always planned to check on those rumors, but of course she didn’t have time, and now her stint was nearly up, and once she left this godforsaken place, she would have no reason to look, no reason to check, no reason to think about it ever again.

A steaming mug of coffee sat on her desk along with a pair of shoes she thought she’d lost. Her boss, Maise Blum, rested one hip on the desk’s corner, as if she planned to be there all day.

Maise was tall and thin. Forty, maybe fifty, maybe sixty, she was one of the lifers, and it showed in the frown lines etched alongside her mouth. Her long black hair, which she wore up, had a sprinkling of silver, but Kerrie couldn’t tell if that was vanity, an attempt at gravitas, or an actual hereditary detail.

“Got a case for you,” Maise said.

“Sorry,” Kerrie said. “I’m here to check in and then I’m off to Judge Weiss’s court to begin today’s sprint.”

“One case in exchange for ten of yours. I don’t even care if it’s ten of the toughies.”

That caught Kerrie’s attention. In her first month, she would have agreed without looking up. In her first year, she would have agreed without questions.

But she’d been here too long to trust a sweet deal.

“What the hell’s wrong with it?” she asked.

“It’s work,” Maise said.

“They’re all work,” Kerrie said, taking the shoes and locking them into the bottom desk drawer. She’d actually written them off more than a year ago. She had forgotten that she had loaned them to Maise for some ritzy Bar Association dinner.

“Work you should do,” Maise said. “This is your acquittal.”

Kerrie froze, mid-lock. She stood up slowly and even—for a half second—stopped multitasking her schedule. She shut down all but her emergency links, leaving only the appointment clock running along the bottom of the vision in her right eye.

“How come you don’t want it?” Kerrie asked. “You’ve never had an acquittal.”

“How do you know?” Maise asked, without a smile. Her dark eyes were so serious that Kerrie tilted her head.

“You have?”

“Not all of us talk about our successes.” Maise’s tone held bitterness, and Kerrie understood. Successes here weren’t always one-hundred-percent positive. Most of them were bittersweet.

“So why not have another one?” Kerrie asked.

“I told you. It’s work. Real work. Research work.”

Kerrie hadn’t done research work since she got here. She hadn’t had time.

“They’re all research work and none of it gets done,” she said, realizing as she spoke she sounded like a lifer. “What makes this one different?”

“The client is pregnant.”

Kerrie closed her eyes. She hated pregnancy cases. She had one a month, maybe more, and they were all heartbreaking and sad and horrible. One client asked if she should abort the fetus rather than lose the court case; another wanted to find out if Kerrie would adopt the baby herself so that the child wouldn’t be considered a firstborn.

“No,” Kerrie said. “No pregnancy cases.”

“And the client says she’s a member of the Black Fleet.”

That sent a wave of interest through Kerrie, so intense it felt like a live thing. She hadn’t had a feeling like that since law school. “She’s willing to admit that she’s part of a criminal organization to get out of an InterSpecies case?”

“Yep,” Maise said. “You want it?”

“I still don’t know why you’re not taking it.”

Maise crossed her arms. “She has her own lawyer. Peyti.”

She spit the word. The Peyti had the best legal minds in the Earth Alliance, but they could be difficult to work with. It wasn’t just their appearance, which was sticklike and gray. Their breathing masks made conversation difficult, and their insistence on following procedure to the letter usually offended the judges in the InterSpecies Courts.

The judges here had to get through as many cases as possible on a single day or backlog would overwhelm everything. And preventing backlog was as important—maybe more important—than delivering justice.

There was only so much room in the starbase’s jails and prisons, and there were only so many courts, and there was only so much time. Everyone in the First District who ran afoul of the laws of another culture brought the cases here to the special courts set up to reconcile one species’ law with another.

Technically, the cases were supposed to go through the offended culture’s courts, but everyone waived that part of the procedure so that the case could be tried in the InterSpecies courts. It wasn’t an appeals court—that was on a different starbase in a different part of the First District—but it might as well have been, given the nature of the arguments here. They were always based on procedure and technicalities, not on the facts of the case or the finer points of the law.

There was no way Kerrie could learn the case law from twenty-five different cultures for her twenty-five different cases that she had today alone. She had to wing it, and the judges knew she was winging it, and the prosecutors knew she was winging it. The formalities helped, and the commonalities helped as well. And she did try to bone up. Most of the cases involved familiar cultures—Disty, Wygnin, Rev—although occasionally she got something weird like the Gyonnese or the Ssachuss.

“Now the truth will out,” Kerrie said. “Your Peyti prejudice could get you in trouble, you know.”

“It’s not a prejudice. I just don’t have the patience to deal with them,” Maise said.

Which was as good an excuse as any, Kerrie thought but did not say. “When’s it on the docket?” Kerrie asked.


“Noon?” Kerrie’s eyebrows went up. “Whose court?”

“Judge Langer.”

Kerrie rolled her eyes. “Not the easiest judge in the universe.”

“But one who will listen.”

Kerrie knew that to be true. “I take this, you take all of my cases for today.”

“No can do,” Maise said. “I have seven I can’t rearrange.”

“All right, twenty cases, my choosing.”

“I said ten.”

“I was going to say no. I still can,” Kerrie said.

“You’re intrigued.”

“Not enough to handle a tough case at noon and keep everything on my docket. Twenty cases, my choosing.”

“Fifteen,” Maise said.

“Done,” Kerrie said, and proceeded to shuffle through files. Four this morning that she hadn’t even looked at, keeping one. Three in the afternoon, and all of her evening docket—which was five. Plus three Please-God-Nevers that no one had been willing to take off her desk in more than two months.

She removed her own name as defense counsel and added Maise’s before she sent the files to Maise, just so that there was no screw-up in the court listings.

Maise sent one file so fat through Kerrie’s links that she actually got an overload warning. She had to switch the file to a different node, something she hadn’t had to do since law school.

“You didn’t tell me she was a convicted felon,” Kerrie said.

“I did too,” Maise said. “Black Fleet, remember? It’ll work out.”

“It better,” Kerrie said, but Maise had already left.

* * *

Kerrie had to mentally shuffle files and rearrange her entire schedule. It now seemed deceptively simple: one case at 9 a.m. in Courtroom 61, and another at noon in Courtroom 495. Never mind that Courtroom 495 was about as far from the public defender’s office as possible. Never mind that Courtroom 61 was close.

Kerrie had to review the new file—she couldn’t scan this one nor could she trust the Peyti lawyer who might have more years of experience, but who had probably never ever appeared in InterSpecies Court.

And that was always a recipe for disaster.

Not to mention the client. A pregnant felon, willing to move to criminal court rather than face whatever the hell she did somewhere inside the Earth Alliance.

But Kerrie was intrigued. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

Intrigued meant she’d pay attention, but intrigued also meant she could get emotionally involved.

And emotionally involved here meant heartbreak of the worst kind.

She set the thick file on AutoLearn, which would send the information directly to her brain. She hated AutoLearn, but she used it almost every day. AutoLearn didn’t give her any real understanding of the file. It didn’t even give her a good grasp of the facts. What it did was give her a sense of the file, a cursory knowledge of all of the details, which she would be able to find if she needed them during court.

The biggest problem with AutoLearn, however, was that the learning was actually time-stamped, and it would expire in two weeks if not reinforced. She usually didn’t reinforce what she AutoLearned with real learning—the cases vanished that fast—but she had a hunch she might have to do so here.

While that program fed information to her brain, she headed to holding for a moment with her other client. She let his file run in front of her left eye: Fabian Fiske, which had to be some kind of made-up name. If she had time, she’d search the file to see if he legally changed his name somewhere along the way. But she didn’t have time.

She barely had time to glance at the facts:

Fabian Fiske worked for Efierno Corporation as a construction day worker. That fact alone made her cringe. Most of the defendants she got here were construction day workers. They signed up because they needed the work and waived the right to company protection should anything go wrong.

Since construction workers usually went into strange areas before the bulk of the business itself, construction workers were more likely to break intercultural laws. And the least likely to have a good lawyer to defend them or have access to the corporation’s Disappearance services.

Here was the problem, the fact of Kerrie’s everyday life since she graduated from law school and ended up in this godforsaken place: Everyone believed that someone accused of breaking the law of another culture ended up in front of one of thirty Multicultural Tribunals—and technically that was true. Technically, Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court was a branch of the Multicultural Tribunal for the First District. In practice, there was nothing multicultural about the courts Kerrie stood before. No panel of judges from different cultures heard these cases. It wasn’t practical.

Instead, a single judge from a rotating group of judges from different Earth Alliance cultures handled cases like Fiske’s, usually with two or three questions and a pound of the gavel. If a judge didn’t act quickly, the court system would get jammed, because contrary to popular belief, people got accused of breaking other culture’s laws all the time.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the cultures weren’t so vastly different. Over its history, the Earth Alliance made treaties with a wide variety of alien cultures. Those treaties facilitated trade within the sector, making the Earth Alliance the most powerful governing body in the known universe.

But the price of those treaties was steep—at least from the human perspective. The treaties all stated that the violator of a law got punished by the culture whose law was broken. It sounded straightforward, but the differences in cultures made for punishments humans—and many aliens—did not like.

The most famous early case, and one every law school student studied, was of a man who accidentally stepped on a flower—a crime in the community where he was temporarily assigned for work—and he was sentenced to death.

That sentence was carried out.

As were thousands—millions—of others. Humans didn’t like that, and refused over time to work for the large corporations. So the corporations developed a way of skirting the law, first by hiring the best lawyers for their people, and when that didn’t work, by setting up Disappearance services, allowing the employees accused of the most egregious crimes to get a new identity, leave their lives, and slip away.

Of course, those employees either paid for the service themselves or they were high up enough in the corporate structure to qualify for a free Disappearance.

Independent Disappearance services also existed, but they were so expensive that someone who worked as a construction day worker couldn’t afford the consultation fee, let alone the price of a full Disappearance.

On her way to the holding section of the courthouse, Kerrie had to go through security—a small machine that scanned her entire body. Then she had to go through another scan as she walked through the double doors.

The scans disrupted her file review, and she had to scan backwards, missing—of course—the most important part: what, exactly, Fiske was accused of.

She didn’t have trouble finding him. He was older than the image in his file by at least two decades, but he looked like a dried out version of the man pictured. His hair was gray, his face lined, and his hands gnarled. The poorest of the poor. He couldn’t even get his hands enhanced so that he could do his job properly.

“Fabian?” she asked.

He stood, politely, and nodded at her. A man who followed rules. He wore a rumpled blue work shirt, and muddy pants that he brushed off as she walked toward him.

A trickle of compassion washed through her and she tamped it down. She couldn’t afford it, any more than he could afford to have a real defense.

“Do you have a suit?” she asked.

“No, miss,” he said, inadvertently accenting their age difference and the fact that he had no idea who she was.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “My name is Kerrie Steinmetz. I’m your lawyer. In court, you have to call me Ms. Steinmetz.”

If she let him speak at all, which she doubted she would.

“All right,” he said softly, bowing his head.

She sent a message across her links to Miguel, one of the paralegals. Need a suit from the closet, size

She glanced at him, unable to measure, visually. She wasn’t used to seeing men with such broad torsos and such slender legs. “What size do you wear?”

“What?” Fiske blinked at her.

“Suit. And shoes. What size do you wear?”

He shrugged. He had never owned a suit.

“Clothes, then,” she said. “Shirt, pants, shoes.”

She repeated the shoes in case he was overwhelmed, and softly, he answered her, color rising in his cheeks. The kind of man who didn’t like revealing personal information. The kind of man who tried hard not to be noticed.

What the hell had he done?

She sent the information to the paralegal, then led Fiske to the chairs.

“I need you to go over this with me,” she said. “Who is accusing you again?”

“The Baharn,” he said.

She actually felt a second of hope, and tamped that down. Unlike many of the cultures she dealt with, the Baharn accepted financial fines in lieu of an actual sentence.

“And you…?” She let her voice trail off.

“Got drunk.” Fiske’s voice wobbled. “I don’t even remember it.”

“But there’s a visual, right?” she asked, not because she knew, but because that was how these things worked.

“I just passed out,” he said. “They said I touched one of their—I don’t know what they’re called. The kid of someone important.”

“Kid?” Kerrie asked before going farther. There were no fines when someone tampered with a Baharn child, no matter what caste the child belonged to.

“Teenager. Adult really, by our standards. Twenty-something. Full grown.”

She nodded, feeling a bit of relief.

“I brushed him when I passed out. What was some religious kid doing in a human bar?” His voice went up. “No one will tell me that.”

The kid had been trolling for trouble. Or a percentage of a fine. But she wasn’t going to tell Fiske that either.

“Did someone ask your companions for money to make it all go away?” she asked.

“They ran,” he said. “They left me.”

Smart people. And he had passed out.

The paralegal came in with a suit on a hanger, shoes dangling off it. “I need you to put this on for court,” Kerrie said to Fiske.

He looked at it.

“You have to dress properly for court or they won’t listen to you.”

He took the clothes. “Where do I—?”

There were no private areas. She nodded toward a back corner. “Over there,” she said. “We won’t look.”

She thanked the paralegal and told him to wait for a second, then turned her back as Fiske changed, using that moment to review the visual. It went down exactly as he said, except that the “kid”—a long-horned tentacled creature so wide that he didn’t fit into a human chair—had hovered near the bar, clearly trolling.

She couldn’t use that as an argument—that was an appeals argument or something that actually would have to go in front of a real Multicultural Tribunal with an expensive defense attorney arguing the case. Fiske didn’t have the money for that and she didn’t have the time.

Then she looked at the fine, and frowned.

Fiske came back, shuffling in the shoes. They didn’t quite fit him. He looked lost. He was lost, although not as lost as he had been before.

“You need to pay the fine,” she said to him.

He shook his head. “I can’t afford it.”

She didn’t insult him by telling him it was a small fine. To her, it was a small fine. To him, it probably was a fortune.

“You can’t afford not to,” she said. “If you go in front of the judge and you don’t pay the fine, he’ll send you to Baharn lock-up. Then someone will brush against you and the fine will go up. By the time you leave that place, you will have accidentally touched half a dozen Baharn, and each time, you’ll receive a brand new fine.”

“They can’t do that,” he said.

“Of course they can. You’re already considered guilty of the crime. You’ve just compounded it. You get five years for every unpaid fine. After two weeks, you’ll probably have forty years to serve. And after a month….” She shook her head, then softened her voice. “It’s a death sentence, Fabian. You have to pay the fine.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have work. I don’t have the money. My family will be destitute.”

“What will happen to them if you are in prison for the rest of your life?” she asked.

He lowered his head.

In a gentler tone, she said, “The court will put you on a payment plan. You can pay as little as you like, and you can stretch the payments out for the rest of your life, but that’ll keep you out of a Baharn prison.”

He raised his head, his eyes wide. “I thought you could get me out of this. I was drunk. Can’t we go to the judge and say it was an accident?”

“We can,” she said. “He won’t listen. And honestly, can you prove it?”

“What?” Fiske asked, clearly shocked.

“Can you prove that you didn’t brush against that Baharn on purpose?”

“I was drunk,” he said. “I passed out.”

“Can you prove that?” she asked. “Were tests conducted at the scene?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But my friends—”

“Ran. And they’re not on this starbase, and you don’t have the money to send for them. It’ll cost more to bring them here than the entire fine with penalties and interest. Pay the fine, Fabian.”

He swallowed.

“Or spend the rest of your life in a Baharn prison. Those are your choices.”

He shook his head.

“Decide now, Fabian,” she said, glad he had an unusual name, because she could remember it. She used to give her clients time to make a decision, but then she realized it wasn’t worth it. That took time away from other clients. “This is your last chance.”

“If you were me,” he started, “what would you—”

“I’d pay the fine,” she said. Then she put a hand on his back and shoved him toward the paralegal. “Miguel will take you to the court. I’m sending the filing ahead. You’ll have to sign and set the payment schedule.”

Then she sent the filing before Fiske had a chance to say anything else.

Her gaze met the paralegal’s. “He’s due in Judge Weiss’s court at 9 a.m. Take him to the clerk, fill out the last few details, and for godsake, make sure he’s off the docket. If you fail to take him off the docket, I’ll fire you myself, is that clear?”

The paralegal nodded, looking scared. She’d made that same threat last week to a different paralegal who was now no longer employed with the Public Defenders office. Unlike some of the other attorneys, she carried out her threats. There was no room for error here—and she had learned that the hard way.

She extended her hand. Fiske took it hesitantly.

“Stay on Earth or the Moon from now on, Fabian,” she said. “Don’t go near unfamiliar cultures, and I promise, things will get better from here.”

Then she let go, gave him a half smile, and left holding, feeling jubilant. She didn’t let Fiske see her face because he wouldn’t understand. The paralegal probably didn’t either, but this was what passed for a win in Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court—and she had learned early to celebrate these wins, because they were all she had.

Of course, if she were the superstitious type, she would have wondered if this win boded ill for the morning’s other big case.

But she wasn’t superstitious. She wasn’t going to let one tiny victory color the rest of her day.

* * *

Since she didn’t have to go to court at 9 a.m., she was free to see her new client. Prisoners didn’t get transferred to the holding area until an hour before trial, so she had to go to the jail. As she left, she sent a message down her links to have her client moved to the interview room.

Two tram rides, jam-packed with lawyers and paralegals and law clerks, all heading to the jail to do something at the last minute before someone’s court appearance. Had she taken two more trams, heading to the prison part of the base, she would have also encountered family, friends and hangers-on, but fortunately she wasn’t going there. She didn’t need to see any of that anyway.

The trams went through tunnels drilled deep in the base, far away from the outer rings. Transportation on the outer rings belonged to the shuttles to Helena Base. From Helena, people could go anywhere in the sector.

But security learned early on that running the shuttles and the trams on similar tracks facilitated jail breaks. So the tram system got moved to the deepest part of the base.

Since there was nothing to look at, Kerrie reviewed the case as best she could. But she had barely looked at any of the files by the time she reached the jail. She used the lawyer’s entrance, pressing her hand against the door all the way in. Her identification opened those doors, but didn’t stop the full-body scans, searching her for a weapon.

She’d learned to ignore that, even when the scans got invasive. Instead, she simply went deep inside her own mind, studying the cases, preparing for the next court session.

She stepped into the interview area, walled off from the rest of the jail by thick walls and soundproof barriers. A guard met her, called her by name, and took her down a corridor she had never seen before.

She expected to be in the large communal interview room, where privacy shields lowered over the table where she would sit with her client. She would have been able to see all the other lawyers talking to their clients, but not hear them.

Instead, the guard led her to a tiny room, made of the same clear material as the privacy shield. But a long table was bolted to the floor here, along with four chairs and a very visible panic button, in case she needed out. The door to the prisoner’s wing was reinforced with shields and warnings, and the door on her side had some kind of prod attached that would zap the prisoner if he even tried to get out.

As she let herself in, she saw that the Peyti lawyer had already arrived, even though she hadn’t asked for him. Her only indication of the Peyti’s gender was his clothing, suit, tie, pants, even though Peyti culture didn’t require those things at all. It showed the Peyti was sensitive to human conventions, and thought it important that humans know that about him.

He was stick-like, so thin that he looked like he was about to break. His breathing mask covered the lower half of his face, and the three long thin fingers on his right hand tapped the tabletop rhythmically.

He had no patience, which was unusual in a Peyti. And he was not as tall as the average Peyti.

She felt her heart sink. He was young—hence the clothing, the worries about what someone else would think, and the impatience.

She opened the door.

“I’m Kerrie Steinmetz,” she said. “I’m the public defender your client requested.”

He stood and extended his right hand.

“Uzvik,” he said, voice so soft she could barely hear him. She understood why Maise hated working with the Peyti. They were hard to hear, for one thing, and for another, their names were confusing. Most Peyti she’d met had “Uz” in their names somewhere. She would have to be careful not to use the wrong suffix when she spoke to him.

She took the fingers gently in her own. They felt like bendable chopsticks. She had learned not to shake them or even grip them too hard. She didn’t want to cause him pain.

She held the fingers for the requisite fifteen seconds, then let go. “I’m a bit confused, Uzvik. Public defenders get assigned for clients who can’t pay. Yet you’re here.”

He tilted his head, a sign of sadness among the Peyti. “I am not being paid. It is a courtesy.”

“For whom?” she asked.

“My client,” he said.

“If you are not being paid, how is she your client?” Kerrie asked.

“Someone must stand by her,” he said softly.

Crap. A loyal companion. She hated those. “Do you belong to the Multicultural Tribunal Bar?”

“No,” he said so softly she could barely hear him.

“What’s your specialty, then?”

“Criminal law,” he said.

“With a specialty in what?” she asked.

“Piracy,” he said, and if he had been human, his tone of voice would have made her think he was embarrassed by that.

“Then you’re completely out of your jurisdiction and your presence here compromises my attorney-client confidentiality. You’re going to have to leave.”

He nodded and stood. “She is not guilty of this.”

Kerrie would be rich if she got paid for every time someone said that to her. “You know as well as I do that it doesn’t matter here.”

He tilted his head, his big eyes sad. “I thought it does matter. There are stories—”

“From the Multicultural Tribunal,” she said. “Not from Earth Alliance InterSpecies Court. Here you’re guilty unless there’s a technicality.”

“She is not a citizen of the Earth Alliance,” he said.

“I know that,” Kerrie said. “I thought that was a point in her favor until I saw her sheet. She’s a convicted criminal.”

“Ah,” he said, his eyes narrowing in a Peyti equivalent of a smile. “But she is not.”

“Not what?”

“Convicted. You have not looked closely at the file, have you?”

“I just got it this morning,” Kerrie said.

His brow wrinkled. “She has been here for two weeks. We put in the request before the prison ship brought her here.”

Kerrie shrugged. She’d heard that complaint before too. “The wheels of justice turn slowly.”

He looked alarmed. He extended those strange fingers just as the announcement came through her links. She had to sit down, hands on the table, because her client was coming into the room.

“I need you out of here,” Kerrie said.

“I can be of assistance. Co-counsel.”

“You’re not certified to practice in this court,” she said. “And because I know you’re not certified, that won’t invalidate her pleadings. So no more tricks. Get the hell out.”

He didn’t wait for her to repeat herself. He scurried past her and pulled open the main door.

“And don’t stand in the corridor where she can see you,” Kerrie said. “I’ll file a complaint with the authorities of the jail and you’ll lose all visiting privileges.”

He bowed his head, then let himself out. She turned slightly so that she could see him disappear down the hall.

Then the warning echoed through her links again. She sat straight, regulation position, as the door opened and her client entered.

She was smaller than Kerrie expected, heartbreakingly thin in the manner of those raised in zero gravity. She moved slowly, clearly unused to and uncomfortable in Earth-normal gravity.

The pregnancy didn’t help. She was in her third trimester, but how far along was hard to determine given her thinness. Her belly would look huge at six months let alone nine.

“Where’s Uzvik?” she asked.

“He can’t be here,” Kerrie said. “He’s not certified for this court.”

The girl sat down heavily, one hand on her belly. She looked disappointed.

“If that was a strategy, it was a stupid one,” Kerrie said. “I could be disbarred for letting him second chair.”

“You could pretend you didn’t know.”

Kerrie wondered how many times this girl had asked someone to “pretend” they didn’t know something for a court case.

“Is that how he’s gotten you acquitted in all those other cases?”

The girl shrugged, unwilling to answer. Smart. Because Kerrie would have to file amended petitions, stating she had knowledge of actions contrary to the legal ethics.

“I don’t know how things work in the Frontier,” Kerrie said, referring to the part of the section where the Black Fleet had almost free range. “But here, following the rules matters.”

It was all they had, really, even though she felt like a hypocrite saying so. The rules didn’t work for almost everyone coming through the system—particularly when cases like Fiske’s had to be considered victories.

“I’m not exactly sure what you thought you’d gain by bringing him along,” Kerrie said in a tone harsher than she would usually use with a client so early in their discussion. “Your problem is with the Ziyit. They punish theft pretty simply. All you’ll lose is a hand, one I’m sure your people in the Black Fleet can afford to replace. Your baby isn’t at threat, and you’re probably not going to go to prison. The Ziyit don’t believe in incarceration.”

“I can’t afford replacement,” she said. “I can’t afford medical treatment at all.”

Kerrie sighed and leaned back. She hated clients who lied to her. “The Black Fleet can afford anything it wants. It also has—from everything I’ve heard—some of the best medical facilities in the known universe. You can get the hand replaced. It’ll be so perfect, your kid won’t know what happened.”

The girl shook her head. “I can’t. Don’t you know how this works? The Ziyit will cut off my hand, and then they won’t tend to me. They won’t even let me bring in a doctor to treat. Then they’ll send me away for treatment. The blood loss alone could kill me. It’ll probably kill my baby.”

“So use an AutoBandage and make sure someone from the Fleet is nearby. One ship won’t matter,” Kerrie said. “The Ziyit don’t care. They want the hand as a trophy. They’ll display it as a deterrent. As interspecies punishments go, it’s a relatively light one. They don’t even care if your ship waits for you. They won’t do anything to stop you from going there to get medical treatment. They’ll just deny you treatment in their facilities which, I have to tell you, is a good thing.”

“You don’t understand,” the girl said, rubbing her belly. “I can’t go to the Fleet. They’ve tossed me out.”

Kerrie stared at her, and resisted the urge to shake her head. That changed everything. It explained why the Peyti lawyer wasn’t getting paid. It explained the strange tactic as well.

Because the girl was in legal limbo. She wasn’t a member of the Earth Alliance, so she had no access to Earth Alliance medical facilities unless she could pay for them. And her presence here meant that she couldn’t pay for them.

She was right; even with AutoBandages, she’d bleed out before she got to a site that would allow someone impoverished access. That might take days, maybe weeks. Shipboard methods might keep her alive, but they wouldn’t keep both her and the baby alive.

“I suppose you’re guilty,” Kerrie said.

The girl shrugged again, and Kerrie mentally cursed Maise. An acquittal. Yeah, that was going to happen. Instead, Maise had used her known prejudice against Peyti to pass off a nightmare case, one that would haunt Kerrie’s dreams for the rest of her life. She’d lose, not just the girl, but the baby too.

“Why did the Fleet abandon you?” Kerrie asked.

The girl looked down. “Because I got caught,” she said.

* * *

The story went like this:

The girl—whose name was Donnatella Waltarie—got a job working as human consultant to a Ziyit family that would be traveling into the Earth Alliance in a diplomatic role. The female head of the household (there were multiple females with multiple roles in Ziyit families) had received an appointment as the Ziyit ambassador to Messner at the far end of the sector.

It was a political appointment, given as patronage, not because the Ziyit female had any particular knowledge of the Earth Alliance or human culture. Donnatella was to tutor the younger females in human customs—and she did, for nearly two months.

Two months gave her time to find the Blueglass Stone, a famous piece of Ziyit jewelry that had an outsized value on the black market because of its rarity. Donnatella didn’t say, but implied, that the Fleet had a buyer for the Stone.

On her last day with the Ziyit family—as they packed for their trip—she slipped the Stone into one of her pockets. She received her pay from the Ziyit family, took a shuttle to an outlying space station, and then rejoined the Fleet. The Stone left with her.

“But you said you got caught,” Kerrie said.

The girl’s lips twisted, as if she didn’t want to discuss that moment. Kerrie would have to push her. Instead, she mentally scanned the file she had absorbed and got her answer.

The theft—caught on surveillance equipment—happened four years before the arrest.

Add to that the abandonment by the Black Fleet, and Kerrie had an inkling as to what was going on behind the scenes.

“Whose baby are you carrying?” Kerrie asked.

“It’s not important,” the girl said.

“I think it is. It’s the reason all of this is happening to you. The Black Fleet abandoned you because its leaders had to choose sides—and you lost.”

The girl shrugged. “That won’t get me out of this mess. Even I know enough about the legal system here to know that.”

“Won’t the baby’s father send a ship to help you with the medical part of your sentence?” Kerrie asked.

The girl’s lips thinned. “No.”

“And your parents—?”

“Dead,” she said.

Kerrie frowned. “The Ziyit have images of you stealing the Stone. Then you got dumped so that you would be arrested here.”

The girl nodded.

“If the punishment is carried out properly, you’ll die or the baby will.”

The girl leaned back, pretending calm, although she wasn’t calm.

“Which will solve someone’s problem with you in the Black Fleet, is that correct?”

The girl nodded once, as if she didn’t want to.

Kerrie didn’t want her to. She didn’t want to know any of this because this girl, Donnatella, was right. It made no difference to Kerrie’s job or the case before her.

The loss of a hand was a light sentence in InterSpecies Court because hands could be replaced. It was more traumatic to humans than it was to Ziyits who had twenty-six different appendages that could be considered hands. But humans—generally—survived the loss.

If Kerrie argued the case properly, she might get some consideration for Donnatella’s condition—extra bandages, the presence of the Peyti when the sentence was carried out.

But that didn’t solve the underlying problem. The girl had no money, and no way to get medical treatment inside the Alliance. She would get none on Ziyita, where the sentence would get carried out. And she couldn’t afford transportation off the planet. The Alliance couldn’t provide the transportation.

Donnatella—and her baby—would die there.

“You don’t deny that you stole the Stone,” Kerrie said.

The girl shrugged. “I am a thief for the Black Fleet. Or I was. I am good at what I do.”

So was the Peyti, because he got her acquitted time and time again.

“You were born on one of the Black Fleet’s ships,” Kerrie said. “Outside of the Earth Alliance.”

“On the ship, yes,” the girl said. “Where I don’t know. The ships never keep track of where the children are born.”

So she truly was not a member of the Earth Alliance, although Kerrie couldn’t prove that. The Black Fleet also didn’t issue birth certificates.

Kerrie leaned back, frowning, wondering if that lack of proof would help her get Donnatella to a medical facility.

Probably not. Because judges in InterSpecies Court always wanted proof, particularly when an attorney tried something original.

Which Kerrie would be doing here.

She had no proof—none—of Donnatella’s citizenship. Or did she? She had files to check.

She stood. “You need to be in court at noon. Clean up. Dress well, and say nothing.”

“You’re going to send me to the Ziyit, aren’t you?” the girl asked.

For the first time, she seemed scared.

Kerrie knew better than to soothe her. Anything could happen in court, no matter how much an attorney planned. And when the deck was stacked against her, the way it was in InterSpecies Court, only a fool made promises.

“I won’t send you to them,” Kerrie said. “The judge will.”

And then she left.

* * *

She had cleared her schedule of court appearances but not of cases. She was still buried, just not as momentarily busy. Still, there was always more to do.

Before she took the tram back, she saw two more of her clients stuck in jail. Normally, she wouldn’t have had a chance to see them before they arrived in holding. This time, however, she was able to take their measure—not just of their appearances, but their willingness to plead. Of course, they both thought she could get them off and when she told them she couldn’t, they asked if she could find a Disappearance service for them.

Technically, she said piously, because she always had to say this piously, Disappearance services for people in your situation break the law. I can’t break the law or I would lose my law license.

As she rode back, she wondered if losing her license would be a bad thing. What was she doing, after all? Just processing people for various governments, sending them away. Getting them through the system so that they could receive punishment for crimes many of them didn’t even understand.

She forced herself to review Donnatella’s files instead of think. She searched and as she searched, she found what she was looking for. Her stomach knotted.

In nearly two years, she had never tried anything like this. But it was, as Maise said, her one chance at an acquittal.

She had to try.

* * *

Courtroom 495 was Kerrie’s least favorite courtroom in the entire InterSpecies Court system. Despite its number, it was one of the older courtrooms, small and cramped, with a low ceiling, dark faux wood walls, and benches that hadn’t been upgraded since the courtroom was built. A small dock separated the prosecution and defense table from the benches and from the jury box.

But there hadn’t been a jury seated in this courtroom in decades. Jury trials were so rare here they had become a spectator sport and as such had moved to the larger courtrooms in the center of the so-called courthouse.

No one sat in those seats, however, making the courtroom oddly packed in all areas except one. The chairs even looked new there, which Kerrie always thought somewhat sad. She found it a commentary on the system eating everyone alive.

She arrived ten minutes early. Ten minutes early and she had even managed lunch. Lunch on the tram—cold sandwiches made of mystery food—but still more than she got on many afternoons.

As the court clerk called her case, Kerrie moved to the defense table. The bailiff went to holding to get Donnatella Waltarie. The Peyti, Uzvik, had a seat in the front row. He must have been there since Kerrie made him leave the jail.

The bailiff brought Donnatella into the courtroom. She looked well-scrubbed, but tired. Her face was pale, with deep shadows under her eyes. Kerrie wondered if she had been crying.

She stopped at the defense table, but didn’t sit down, hands clasped protectively over her belly. She had been to court before. She knew this wouldn’t take long enough to make it worth her time to struggle into a chair, and then struggle out of it again.

Judge Langer glowered from the bench. She was fifty-something, with hopes of moving up to real Multicultural Tribunal cases, not these quick gavel-pounders. Kerrie had stood before her twice before, and learned that Langer tolerated no delays, no nonsense. But she did treat the lawyers equally, which was something most judges didn’t do. Most judges favored the prosecution, because the law did.

The prosecutor, Peir Hroth, had graduated from law school at the same time as Kerrie. He too had loans to pay off. He too was doing his time here. He had opted for prosecution because he hoped to become a judge one day—and defense attorneys rarely (never) made it into important judgeships.

He had lost weight since he got here, and he looked even more tired than he had on the shuttle from Helena Base.

He glanced at Kerrie and nodded, one of the few prosecutors she had known before coming to InterSpecies Court who still remained cordial to her.

The court clerk called out the case number, and read the charges. Then the judge asked Kerrie, “Do you dispute?”

“We do, Your Honor,” Kerrie said, stepping forward. “We ask that the charges get dropped.”

A dispute never caught anyone’s attention. Attorneys disputed the nature of the charges all the time, trying to lower the punishment. But when Kerrie asked that the charges get dropped, the murmur of conversation behind her—something she was so used to that she hadn’t noticed it—ceased.

Everyone was staring at her, from Peir to the bailiff to her client.

And the judge, of course.

“Did I hear you correctly, counselor?” the judge asked.

“Yes, Your Honor.”

The judge leaned forward, her eyes glazed like people’s often were when they reviewed something through their links. Kerrie knew the judge was scanning the file.

“I see nothing to dispute here, counselor. The prosecution has a video of the crime.”

Peir stepped forward, probably to argue that they had overwhelming evidence against Donnatella. But Kerrie didn’t want him to get a word in.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Kerrie said. “We do not dispute that the crime happened.”

She heard a squeak of protest to her left. Donnatella didn’t like that argument. But Kerrie didn’t consult with her. Kerrie didn’t have to, not on this.

“We dispute that the charges apply,” Kerrie said.

“It’s a theft, Your Honor,” Peir said. “Of course they apply.”

The judge waved her hand at him, silencing him. She looked intrigued, which relieved Kerrie—until she heard the judge’s next words. “I hope you have a good reason to use the court’s time on this, counselor.”

“I do, Your Honor,” Kerrie said. “Donnatella Waltarie is not a member of the Earth Alliance. Our treaties with the Ziyit do not apply to her. We cannot send her into their justice system because we have no right to do so.”

“She’s a member of the Black Fleet,” Peir said, giving Kerrie a sideways glance filled with disbelief. “Just because she’s part of the Black Fleet doesn’t mean she’s not a member of the Earth Alliance. She could have joined them at any point in her life. Besides, Your Honor, her undisputed affiliation with the Black Fleet proves that she is a criminal and that she is willing to lie to achieve her own ends. Defense counsel is a nice person; she has probably decided this is the best way to help a pregnant client avoid a criminal prosecution.”

Kerrie’s eyebrows went up. Did he just call her a nice person? In front of the judge? The argument diminished Kerrie’s standing as an attorney by questioning her judgment. Her cheeks flushed. The comment made her angry, as it was probably designed to do.

Instead of lashing back at Peir, she said, “I am honored that the prosecutor believes I am a nice person. I hope the court clerk will keep that in the record—”

Chuckles rose behind her. Others had caught the slight.

“—because it is court records that we are relying upon here,” she said. “My client has been accused of many crimes. She has faced a judge or a jury on twelve separate occasions, and in each case, she has been acquitted.”

“That’s lovely for her, Your Honor,” Peir said, “but those cases have no relevance—”

“If you would let me finish, counselor,” Kerrie said. She paused so the judge could weigh in. Peir’s behavior was unorthodox in open court, but so was hers. The judge had probably forgotten what it was like to have an argument placed before her, with its rules and structures. All of her other cases on this day, in this week—hell, in this year— would be pro forma gavel-down cases: Two speeches, one by each attorney, a ruling, followed by a curt next. Nothing this elaborate had happened in this court in a long time.

The judge did not speak up. She was watching Kerrie closely, clearly waiting.

“In all twelve of those cases, Your Honor,” Kerrie said, “my client stated that she was not a member of the Earth Alliance, that she had been born on a ship of the Black Fleet outside Earth Alliance territory. All twelve cases have been adjudicated in Earth Alliance courts. All twelve have court records, and judgments were made based upon the facts presented in those cases. In short, Your Honor, we have twelve different courts, scattered throughout the sector and the Earth Alliance itself, that have ruled that my client is not a subject of the Earth Alliance.”

The courtroom was quiet now. Everyone stared at Kerrie, including Peir. He had a look of panic in his eyes. He had no idea how to argue this, or what to even say.

“Those twelve cases were human-on-human crime cases, Your Honor, which fall under Earth Alliance jurisdiction no matter whether the accused is part of the Alliance or not,” Kerrie said. “This is the first case in which my client has been accused of theft against a nonhuman member of the Earth Alliance. Different laws apply. These laws are based on treaties between the Earth Alliance and the Ziyit. My client is not subject to those treaties since she belongs to neither culture. I can cite case law, Your Honor, if you would like. Jurisdictional issues were argued in the first years of the Multicultural Tribunals and they found—”

“I’m familiar with the law, counselor.” The judge looked bemused. “I have looked at the court cases, and you are right. Your client is not a member of the Earth Alliance. We have no choice but to drop the charges against Donnatella Waltarie. You are—”

“Your Honor!” Peir took an extra step forward, his voice filled with panic. “We ask that Ms. Waltarie be detained, so that we can ship her to the Ziyit so that they may prosecute her for these crimes.”

“Have the Ziyit made an extradition request?” the judge asked.

“Um, no, Your Honor. But once they hear of this, they will—”

“I cannot rule on what someone will do, Counselor. I can only rule upon the cases in front of me. That’s covered in the first week of law school. Are you in need of a refresher course?”

“No, Your Honor.” Peir stepped back. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. But—”

“If you can figure out a reason to hold her, do so, counselor,” the judge said. “But I won’t rule on it. This case is dismissed.”

She brought her gavel down and the courtroom erupted. People began talking, laughing, shouting. Even the bailiff looked bemused.

Kerrie turned to Donnatella. “We have to get you out of here before they have a chance to contact someone on Ziyita.”

Donnatella blinked at her, looking confused. “I’m free?”

“You are, unless they can get an extradition order. So let’s go.”

“How do I get out off the base?” Donnatella asked. “They brought me by shuttle.”

“The shuttles are free and run every hour.” Kerrie took Donnatella’s arm and shepherded her toward the aisle. People were grabbing at them, asking questions and trying to talk. No one had had an acquittal this year—and technically, this wasn’t one either. It was a dismissal. But the result was the same.

Donnatella wouldn’t be punished for her crime.

“The shuttle will take me where?” Donnatella asked.

“Helena base,” Kerrie said. “It’s the nearest stop and large enough for you to get lost in. Come on.”

She looked for the Peyti, but didn’t see him. He would probably meet them at the shuttle station. She hurried Donnatella out of the courtroom and to the lawyers’ elevator. As she got in, Kerrie ordered the doors closed so no one could follow them.

She didn’t stop at the usual courthouse shuttle station stop. Instead, she went down to the public defender level, crossed the hall, and took another elevator. Donnatella had to struggle to keep up.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Somewhere they won’t look for you.” Kerrie took one flight of stairs down and walked through two doors. The second door opened to a small shuttle station. The red numbers above the door said the next shuttle was due to arrive in five minutes.

Donnatella stopped beside her, red-faced and breathing hard, her hand protectively over that stomach. She didn’t say anything, though, about troubles, so Kerrie didn’t ask.

She needed to get Donnatella on that shuttle.

“You will talk to no one once you board,” Kerrie said. “If someone asks your name, you pretend not to hear the question. Move away. Do not identify yourself. There are no conductors or bots to take tickets. Don’t let anyone trick you. If you don’t identify yourself, they can’t serve you with an extradition order. You don’t need to identify yourself at the other end either. When you get there, just mingle with the crowd. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Donnatella’s expression had lightened. She was almost smiling.

“Do you have money?” Kerrie asked, silently cursing herself for even thinking of the question.

“I can get it,” Donnatella said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” The last thing Kerrie needed was for Donnatella to steal money on Helena base and get caught. Then she’d be served that extradition order. Kerrie needed Donnatella to get as far away from here, as quickly and easily as possible. “Do you have access to your own money?”

Donnatella smiled. “I don’t have any money of my own.”

Kerrie extended a hand. Donnatella looked down.

“Take my hand,” Kerrie said.

Donnatella did. Kerrie pressed the unlinked money chip in her thumb. The unlinked account had no personal information on Kerrie at all. Just funds. It transferred its entire reserve into Donnatella’s account. The entire reserve sounded like a lot, but Kerrie only used that account for incidentals. It had maybe one hundred credits.

“Now you have your own money,” Kerrie said, letting go of Donnatella’s hand.

“That was yours?” Donnatella asked.

“Yes,” Kerrie said. The red numbers on the wall were counting down. The shuttle was only one station away. “Now it’s yours.”

“But you didn’t have to do that.” Donnatella’s smile had faded. She looked shocked.

“Yes, I did,” Kerrie said. The shuttle pulled up, doors slid open. The nearest car only had two passengers, both of whom looked exhausted. Family members of people on trial, probably.


“Stop arguing and board,” Kerrie said. “Remember what I told you.”

“I owe you,” Donnatella said as she climbed through the doors, using one hand to brace herself.

“No, you don’t,” Kerrie said.

“I do,” Donnatella said with great emphasis. “And my people always repay our debts.”

The doors swished closed. Donnatella stood by the window. She waved as the shuttle pulled out.

Kerrie watched it disappear. It had one more stop before it detached from the base and flew the short hop to Helena base. One hundred credits wouldn’t get Donnatella far on Helena. It had two segments—the rich resort side and the cheap side that connected to the InterSpecies Court starbase. Donnatella couldn’t afford an upscale hotel room there, but she could get herself a meal and maybe a low-rent place to stay. There were also good medical facilities on Helena that wouldn’t turn away a woman about to give birth.

Kerrie let out a small sigh, then put a hand to her forehead.

She hadn’t ever sent a client back on a shuttle. Just sobbing family members and disappointed friends.

She staggered back up the stairs, feeling lightheaded. She had won the morning, but she still had the afternoon and the evening to suffer the usual defeats.

As she walked to the public defenders office, she sorted the afternoon and evening cases, surprised at how light her workload was. She had forgotten that she had traded most of it for Donnatella’s case.

Kerrie actually had time to get some real coffee before her next client meeting.

Maise stopped her before she reached her desk. Maise was smiling. “Come with me. You know the rules, right?”

Of course Kerrie knew the rules. Her job was about the rules. But she couldn’t think about what applied at the moment.

Maise led her into the main conference room. It was stacked with empty coffee cups and discarded clothes that needed cleaning. The room smelled faintly of sweat and old food.

Maise closed the door.

“When you win a case,” Maise said, “your debt is forgiven. You’re free to go if you want, Kerrie.”

Kerrie frowned. She had forgotten that rule, or maybe she never really believed it. Or she thought it wouldn’t apply, because no one ever won.

“But I would stay at least another week if I were you,” Maise said. “You’re about to be recruited like no one gets recruited. Not even the number one graduate of Alliance Law gets pursued like you’re about to. Someone is first in their class every year, but almost no one wins on the defense side in InterSpecies Court unless they’re already a lifer. You’ve hit the jackpot, Kerrie.”

Kerrie sat down. She had just sent a pregnant girl with no prospects to a resort she couldn’t pay for, and that was a win? Kerrie made herself breathe.

“I’m going to be the first to recruit you,” Maise said. “We need people like you to stay here, to fight the good fight. Most of the good attorneys go on to private practice, but the people who need us cycle through every day. And if you win a case—”

“You said I would win,” Kerrie said. “That’s why you gave me that case.”

“I hoped,” Maise said. “We get cases like that every now and then. But not everyone pulls out the win. You did.”

Kerrie looked at her. A lifer? Here? Always behind, always scrambling, watching people who really didn’t deserve their punishments shuffle away, never to be seen again.

“Thanks for the offer,” Kerrie said. “I’ll consider it.”

She lied, of course. She couldn’t do it. But she didn’t want to say any more, not when Maise had orchestrated this.

“I can move someone to your afternoon cases,” Maise said. “You can take the rest of the day off.”

Kerrie shook her head. “You said I could leave if I wanted to.”

“You can,” Maise said. “But as I said, if you stay one week—”

“I will,” Kerrie said. “I’ll stay that week.”

Because it was easier to stay and think than it was to flee just like Donnatella did.

Besides, Kerrie hadn’t given life after this job much thought. She hadn’t had time, for one thing, and for another, she had had no idea who would recruit her, and if they didn’t, what she wanted to do. Apparently, she was going to get recruited now. And that alone made her a little shaky.

“I’ll take my cases for the day,” Kerrie said. “But ease me out of the rest of the week.”

“Done,” Maise said.

Kerrie nodded, stood, and stopped. “Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t thank me,” Maise said, and somehow that didn’t sound like a perfunctory statement. Maise really didn’t want credit. Probably because of her bigotry against the Peyti. Or maybe because she hadn’t known exactly how to approach the case herself.

Kerrie let herself out of the room. She’d buy herself a coffee somewhere else. She had time for once.

She murmured thanks to her colleagues as they congratulated her, a number of them touching her arm as if her good luck could rub off on them.

As she stepped outside of the office, a movement beside the door caught her eye.

The Peyti, Uzvik, straightened. He had been sitting there, and apparently he had been waiting for her.

“I already put Donnatella on the shuttle,” Kerrie said. “She’s probably in Helena now. I’m sure you can find her there.”

“I did not come to see her,” he said in his soft voice. It sounded hollow because of the breathing mask. “I came to see you.”

Kerrie frowned. “Me?”

Uzvik nodded. “I have come to offer you work.”

She stopped in the middle of the hallway. “Work?”

“The Black Fleet needs lawyers,” Uzvik said.

“I’m sure they do,” Kerrie said. “But I know nothing of Black Fleet law. I’m not even sure there is any.”

“For their interactions with the Earth Alliance,” Uzvik said.

She tilted her head, uncertain what he was saying. “You’re recruiting me to work for the Black Fleet?”

“We pay our lawyers more than any other group. You cannot even make this much in private practice. You wouldn’t even work that hard.”

“I don’t understand,” Kerrie said. “What do you want with me?”

“You have proven yourself to be creative and flexible, two things the Black Fleet needs in its attorneys. Most lawyers cannot find the loophole that you discovered in this case. You are gifted, counselor.”

Gifted. Most lawyers. It took her a moment to process what he was saying.

“You were never here for Donnatella, were you?” Kerrie asked. “This was some kind of test, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Uzvik said.

“And if I failed, what then?” Kerrie asked. “Would Donnatella have gone to the Ziyit?”

“Yes,” Uzvik said.

“You were willing to sacrifice her for a test?” Kerrie asked, her voice rising. “Did she know that?”

“Her case was legitimate,” Uzvik said.

“So she didn’t know,” Kerrie said. “Would you have told me if I had let you second chair?”

“That would have defeated the test,” Uzvik said.

“She could have died,” Kerrie said.

“But she did not.”

“Did you get her kicked out of the Black Fleet, then?” Kerrie asked. “Did you turn her in to the Earth Alliance?”

“No,” Uzvik said. “The circumstances were of her own making.”

“They were simply there for you to exploit,” Kerrie said.

“Just so.” Uzvik folded his long thin fingers.

“And you think that I would work for you after this?”

“It is easy work,” he said. “You would make money and you would have maybe two cases per year.”

“All I would have to do is sell my soul,” Kerrie said.

“The matter of the human ‘soul’ has never been proven,” Uzvik said.

Kerrie stared at him. He was Peyti, literal, difficult, brilliant.

“The Peyti are known for their ethics,” she said.

“We are known for rigorously defending our clients to the fullest extent of Earth Alliance law,” he said.

He was right; she had simply taken that as ethics.

“Get away from me,” she said.

“I am authorized to make a generous offer—”

“No,” she snapped. “Get the hell away from me.”

“You would be perfect—”

No.” She walked toward the coffee nook, so fast she was nearly running. Just when she thought she had seen everything, every kind of permutation of Earth Alliance law, every type of victim, someone came up with something even more venal.

A test, one that would have sacrificed Donnatella for no reason at all.

“The result would have been the same.” The Peyti had kept up with her. She could hear his labored breathing as he struggled to remain beside her. “She would have gone to Ziyita without my interference.”

“But you could have prevented it.” Kerrie said. Then she stopped again. The Peyti nearly walked into her. “Did Maise know about this?”

“We asked that the best be assigned this case,” Uzvik said.

She did. She knew. And she had manipulated Kerrie into taking the case.

Kerrie’s stomach turned. “I told you to get away from me,” she said. “And I mean it. I’ll call base security if I have to.”

She turned around and headed back to the public defenders office. Uzvik remained where he was, looking small.

She went through the doors. Maise was talking to one of the associates. Kerrie was so angry, she almost couldn’t speak.

She wondered if Maise’s prejudice against Peyti was a ruse, one she used whenever she was working with the Black Fleet.

“Do you get a cut?” Kerrie asked.

Maise looked up.

“A recruitment cut?” Kerrie asked. “From the Black Fleet? Do they pay you to bring them the best and brightest?”

“Let’s go to the conference room,” Maise said.

“Let’s not,” Kerrie said. “Everyone can hear this. I quit. I’m done. And you guys, if Maise offers you a case, watch out. It might be poisoned.”

“You should stay,” Maise said. “The recruiters—”

“I know,” Kerrie said. “I don’t really care. I’m going to find a job. And it won’t be one that requires a high-end recruiter. Because I’m done here. Right now.”

Then she slammed her way out of the office. Messages ran along her links from the various lawyers in the PD’s office. Some messages were automated, telling her how to wrap up her career with the InterSpecies Court. Others were filled with questions, questions she wasn’t going to answer.

She went back to her apartment. Except for the night court lawyer who was asleep, the apartment was empty.

She went to her room and gathered her belongings. She would head to Helena. And there, she would figure out what to do.

At the moment, she saw only two options: she could contact independent Disappearance Services. They needed lawyers too. Of course, she would be crossing all kinds of lines, legal and ethical.

Although she would be doing it for a good cause.

Or she could ally herself with some of the legal groups that took big cases, cases that got appealed to the Multicultural Tribunals, cases that might lead to overturning treaties, and modifying laws.

All she knew was that she couldn’t stay here. And she knew she couldn’t work for an organization like the Black Fleet. An organization willing to sacrifice its own people as a test.

The Earth Alliance sacrificed its people to satisfy treaties, to facilitate trade.

She had been a blind participant to it all.

But she was blind no longer.

And she knew how she felt.

She hated all of it.

And she would never be part of it again.


Copyright © 2018 Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published Analog SF Magazine, December, 2011
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2018 WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Keremgo/Dreamstime, Sscreations/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

8 responses to “Free Fiction Monday: The Impossibles”

  1. Robin Brande says:

    Kris, your lawyer fiction is always so factually spot on (even when they’re not in Earth courtrooms), I am constantly amazed. Another gripping story! Loved it!

  2. Linda Fox says:

    This was amazing. Please tell me that you plan to expand this into a book.

    And, if you do, put me on the mailing list for it.

  3. Ferran says:

    I’ve been wondering how those 2 fared for a while (a bunch of years, actually, already). Mind you, bad as I am with names, I might know and not realize.

    Take care.

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