Jer struggled to think clearly with the court official staring at him. The courts were supposed to be free to everyone to prevent justice going to the highest bidder. Tithes to the church were supposed to take care of all government expenses. Ten percent of all transactions public and private. That was all anyone was expected to pay. Was this some kind of test? Pay the ‘tax” and prove just how dishonest he could be? Maybe the system was corrupt now and he would only get justice by playing along?
Whatever it was, this whole situation smelled worse than the compost pile rotting behind the shed.
“I’ll pass.” Jer crossed his arms over his chest.
The court official tapped a few times on his screen. “You sure you want to do that? The judge will not be impressed.”
“It’s not in the budget, friend.”
“Not even a mite?” The official frowned.
“There’s no oxygen in a vacuum.”
He put the ledger away. “Well, I guess if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.”
The hovercar turned onto a wide street. The dinginess of the surrounding area gave way to a level of shine even Ma would approve of. The crowds here thinned so a man could walk easily without brushing anyone’s shoulder. At the end of the street, a low granite building reached four spires toward the gray clouds that hovered above.
Once the hovercar parked in a lot next to the granite building, the doors opened with a hiss of equalizing pressure and hydraulics. Cane firmly in hand, Jer swung his legs out of the car and rocked back before levering himself up. The air had less of a stench this far from the hangar, though it was still nothing like the clean, crisp breezes back home.
Other hover cars in the lot clearly belonged to people with an excess of income. Jer identified several of the cars by year and make, and just the import fees to get one of them here from Earth were more than the ranch earned in one year, before expenses.
The court official secured his vehicle and came around. “Follow me.”
He set a quick pace, and Jer hobbled along as fast as he could. They entered the building through a side door. The air inside had an antiseptic smell to it. Only a few uniformed officials and a handful of others hustled from one place to another. Bright lighting reflected off gilt surfaces, including a collection of brass statutes of men and women in judicial robes and mitres. Each held a gavel and a book, symbols of their office. Personalities shown ranged from stern to somber to jovial.
The court official looked at Jer over one shoulder. “Quickly, now. Shouldn’t keep the judge waiting.” He hurried down the hall.
Jer grimaced. ”I’d go faster if I could.”
The official stopped at a door next to a statue of a short, older woman whose beauty had the artificial look of surgical perfection.
“Right through here.” The official opened the door.
Jer stepped through into a space five meters square. Purple and gold brocade curtains hung from the walls on the left and the right. Directly ahead, a gold-inlaid desk sat in front of a mural of a hand reaching out of a cloud to give a scroll to a judge who resembled the statue outside the door. Halfway across the room, a brass bar split the space.
Kane stood there, looking more smug than he had a night to, considering the reason for the meeting. “Afternoon, Jer,”
“Kane.” Jer walked up the night side of the bar, where the accuser stood to present his case.
“Pity about Dave, but it was an accident.”
Jer’s shoulder and chest muscles tensed. “I think that’s what we’re here to decide, isn’t it?”
The curtain in the far corner of the room fluttered.
The court official who had given Jer a ride came out and stood at rigid attention. “The Honorable Sarah Sterman.”
The subject of the statue and the mural entered and took a seat at the desk.
She tapped the surface. “Jeremiah Baruch, you chose not to pay the tax.”
“I paid my tithe for this quarter before I left home. Now, with final expenses for my brother and this unexpected trip, there’s nothing left for another tax.”
“I see.” Her stern look matched the one on the mural behind her. She pointed at Kane. “What evidence do you have that this unfortunate death was, in fact, an accident?”
Kane produced a data chip. “Statements from my crew. We were mining the same area of Nain as David Baruch. My ship malfunctioned. The repulsor beam I used to move an asteroid jammed. That caused a stampede. Dave was caught up in it.”
The official retrieved the chip for the judge. She slid it into her desk’s data port. A screen tilted upward, and the judge read the information.
She nodded. “Any other evidence?”
“Just those statements.” Kane shook his head. “The malfunction that affected the repulsor wiped out season logs.”
Convenient. Jer clenched his jaw to avoid speaking out of turn.
“Jeremiah Baruch.” The judge turned toward him.” You may offer one piece of evidence to counter what Kane Lindemann provided.”
Only one? What happened to hearing all available evidence before making a decision?
Jer pulled two chips from his pocket. He had statements from the miner who’d told him about the accident and from the sheriff. The miner was a first-hand witness but the evidence was hardly conclusive. The sheriff’s testimony proved hostility between Dave and Kane, but that was before the Nain event.
Which should Jer offer?