An Unnecessary Evil
by D.K. Latta
"It's kind of like a sin-eater," said Cardonna as they struggled through the crowd.
"A what?" asked Trudell. There was a musty smell beneath the huge tent, partly from the canvas itself, partly emanating from the carapaces of the creatures that formed the majority of the spectators. He was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually a little cooler here than it was outside in the muggy night, the creatures' lower body temperatures not emitting the same heat a similar crowd of humans packed together would. The clatter of shells brushing against each other and the click-clack of the creatures' chattering voices formed a kind of background wall of sound to their conversation, forcing the two humans to almost shout although they were right next to each other.
"A sin-eater," repeated Cardonna. He pointed with his cane toward a likely spot. "An old earth superstition."
With the shelled creatures reaching no higher than their hips, the two men waded in the direction Cardonna had indicated. Among the local inhabitants -- the zampoori -- there was no preferred seating, no boxed seats. The crab-like creatures simply settled themselves, and then others simply piled on top of the first layer, jostling for a good view. When Trudell had first seen such a spectacle, it had shocked him. But then he came to realize that, with their hard shells, the bottom row would barely be aware of the layers of fellow creatures scrambling on top.
Cardonna, far more accustomed to the habits of this world than was he, simply put a foot on one outstretched, shelled limb, wedged his cane in between two other bodies, and hoisted himself up on top of a pile of them. Hesitating but a moment, Trudell followed suit, till the two men were seated beside each other on a pile of zampoori three or four deep. It was not the most comfortable of perches, the shelled bodies hard and ridged beneath them, and the mass shuddering periodically as one or another of the creatures below shifted.
They were ignored, at least as best as Trudell could tell. Though even after a month on this world, he still found it hard to entirely decipher the expressions of the locals. He and Cardonna were not the only humans here, but that demographic totalled maybe a dozen in a crowd that numbered a few hundred. Trudell found it curious that, though the zampoori seemed not to take offence at having humans scramble over them, he had never seen a zampoori attempt to sit upon a human. Was it some taboo? As aliens, were humans afforded some privileged status? Or were the shelled creatures simply aware that the soft skinned interlopers would make poor bleachers?.
The ceiling of the tent stretched up and vanished into darkness, though he knew from having viewed it outside against the darkening sky that it stood the equivalent of three stories. Lanterns dangled from cross beams, the flickering flames providing uncertain illumination the further from the centre he looked. The burning wicks compounded the tent’s musty smell with a sulphurous scent. The mass of spectators formed a circle about the centre of the tent, leaving a wide space of dry, packed dirt.
"So what, exactly, is supposed to happen?" asked Trudell.
Cardonna's eyes gleamed a little with ironic amusement. "You aren't planning on shutting it down or something tiresome like that, are you, my boy?"
"No," he said, though without much vigour -- a fact they both noticed.
"Because I must say," continued Cardonna, "that one culture imposing its values on another can often end badly for everyone."
Trudell considered disagreeing, pointing out how human governors had put an end to the slave trade on Certax-Gamma IV. But he didn't. "Not my place to impose or not," he reminded the other man. "I'm just curious. The zampoori are fully autonomous."
They both knew that was an over simplification. Earth's relationship with the zampoori was complicated and nuanced. More to the point, treaties and arrangements had been made with the highland zampoori, the industrialized dominant culture of the planet. Here in the lowlands, it was almost a completely different culture -- more primitive. Although the zampoori were technically masters in their own house, the highland zampoori had ceded a great deal of governing authority over to the humans in the lowland areas. A fact that might have been more contentious if the lowland zampoori themselves actually seemed to give a damn...but they didn't. They accepted the human presence with a kind of blithe indifference, benefiting from the trade and local dealings, and seeming not to resent gawking human observers intruding upon their rituals and cultural affairs. The human settlement itself was small and primarily a bureaucratic way station, acting as a central base for dealings with other, far more important, planets. There were a few settlers -- the Cardonnas of this world, who liked to pretend they had "gone native". But Trudell suspected they understood the zampoori only marginally more than did he.
Whether he had the legal or moral right to interfere with zampoori lowland rituals was a grey area. So hopefully, he mused, nothing he saw here tonight would force the issue.
As if to make a mockery of his unuttered wish, he felt something clinch in his bowels as two of the crab-like creatures pushed out from between the spectators on his left. Between them they dragged a third zampoori--apparently quite against his will.
Cardonna leaned toward him and spoke sotto voce, though no zampoori could understand the human tongue, and the trans boxes they wore projected to a very small area. "That one there has been accused of smashing the eggs of his neighbour."
Cardonna shrugged. "Apparently the little bugger just went crazy. Crime is very rare among the lowlanders. They're such a phlegmatic people, crimes -- of passion, or want -- are generally regarded as an act of a deranged mind. They're not like us...or even the highlanders."
Even after a month on this world, Trudell understood what Cardonna meant. As alien as the highlanders were, with their unreadable faces, and the imperfect translations provided by the trans boxes, they were still easier to fathom than their lowland cousins. Little seemed to phase the lowlanders, or to arouse their ire. Which is why they seemed completely disinterested in the fact that their highland cousins had signed treaties with aliens that involved them, but had not consulted them. Which is why he was here, observing what was surely almost a sacred ritual, or at least a sombre trial, as though a spectator at a hockey game, and no one seemed offended.
Trudell frowned as the accused creature was trussed to stakes driven into the dry ground, hissing and clicking vehemently at his captors.
He glanced over as a zampoori scrambled up the shelled bodies next to him, to seat itself at his side. In the dim light he made out the turquoise shimmer to its shell, unlike the dull brown and green of most of the creatures here. The new arrival was a highlander. Trudell thought he recognized him as one of the council of the five hundred -- essentially a member of parliament -- that ostensibly ruled the planet...not that the lowlanders seemed to care overmuch about that, either.
"Trudell, I, greeting yes to you," the trans box clumsily burbled out as the creature uttered a few clicks and clacks at him.
"Minister," Trudell acknowledged. He remembered the creature's name, but he usually didn't try pronouncing local names unless he had a good five minutes ahead of time to practise and get his tongue used to the syllables. He wondered if their meeting was by chance, or deliberate. Was the council curious as to why the earth bureaucrat was attending this ritual? Glancing around, he could make out one or two other vibrant bluish shells in the crowd. He reminded himself that highland zampoori sometimes played tourist in the lowlands, just like humans.
Cardonna's cane tapped him on the shoulder, and he glanced over as his companion gestured toward the centre of the tent. Trudell was suddenly aware of a stillness in the air, almost eerily so given the size of the crowd.
A zampoori had emerged from the wall of spectators.
The zampoori -- even the highlanders -- tended not to wear clothes, or even sport jewellery. So there was nothing overtly to distinguish this creature from his brethren. Yet he seemed different, nonetheless. There was an aura, a presence. If the creature had been a man, Trudell would've called it charisma. It was odd and just a little bit unnerving. But then he realized the creature sported a few tattoo-like markings on its shell. He supposed that's what he had noticed, if only subconsciously, and why the creature seemed to stand out.
"Who's that?" whispered Trudell, surprised at his own cowed tone.
"The witch doctor," Cardonna murmured. "The shaman. Call him what you will."
The so-called witch doctor began to crawl about the staked creature, the latter hissing and clicking at him.
The minister beside Trudell gave what the human recognized as the equivalent of a zampoori chuckle. "Such language," said the trans box.
The witch doctor continued sidling about, looking even more crab like than usual by virtue of moving sideways around the staked creature. Trudell shifted uncomfortably -- not because he was physically uncomfortable, though he was -- but because he wasn't entirely sure what he was going to witness. He had come to investigate the ritual, because he had heard only vague rumours about it. Yet was this just a lot of primitive spell casting? Or was it some sort of barbaric punishment? He saw no sign of weapons.
The witch doctor continued to move about the prisoner, ignoring its clicking which, given the minister's reaction, Trudell could imagine was simply a stream of invectives. Gradually he became conscious of the fact that the witch doctor himself was muttering little clicks and clacks, but not really as though he was addressing them to the prisoner. Trudell supposed it was chanting of a sort, like a priest repeating a prayer.
The witch doctor darted in toward the prisoner so unexpectedly Trudell heard an audible scraping of shells as many in the crowd jumped, jostling each other. Then the witch doctor danced back as the prisoner leapt out to meet him, only to pull up short because of his bonds. But with the prisoner now off balance, the witch doctor darted in again, and his two front limbs shot out, grabbing the equivalent of the prisoner's face. The two creatures struggled together for a moment, their vocal clickings stilled even as the raking of their shells against each other seemed to swell up to fill the silence. The witch doctor bore down upon the prisoner, pinning him to the dirt. Then Trudell gasped as a tube like appendage pushed out from the witch doctor's shell. It quivered unsteadily, as the prisoner squirmed and struggled beneath, then it stabbed into the face of the prisoner. Trudell recognized the appendage as a kind of tongue, which the zampoori used for drinking. But he had never seen one extend so far, nor had he ever seen it used offensively.
Was he witnessing a ritual murder--an execution? Part of him wanted to jump up, to stop the barbaric display. But he resisted. He was here to observe, on a fact finding mission, nothing more. Knuckles white as he clenched his fists together, Trudell kept still upon the mound of shelled bodies. He watched.
The prisoner's struggles seemed to lessen as that tongue pressed into him, as though the very life was draining from him. With a start Trudell realized that the witch doctor actually seemed to expand a bit, as though swelling. Perhaps it was an optical illusion. He had never seen such a thing before, and was not sure it was possible. Suddenly the two creatures broke apart, the tongue slithering back into the witch doctor. The prisoner lay still upon the ground as the witch doctor lurched away, then collapsed, as though exhausted.
The room was quiet, as though everyone had been turned to stone.
The prisoner began to stir. He wasn't dead, Trudell realized with some relief. The guards re-merged from the crowd, and undid his bonds. And then they did something odd -- almost as odd as everything else he had seen this night. Instead of escorting the prisoner back to his cell or from wherever it was he had come, they simply scuttled away, leaving him free.
Trudell glanced at Cardonna.
Seeing the question in his eyes, his companion said: "It's over. He's now cured and free to go. That one there," Cardonna gestured at a creature emerging from the crowd and seeming to embrace the erstwhile prisoner, as though a long lost brother, "is, I believe, the mother of the eggs that were smashed."
"So...that's it? All is forgiven?" demanded Trudell.
"Ill is he was," said the trans box. Trudell glanced at the zampoori minister on his other side. "That is, so they believe. Now better." Clumsy as the boxes were, Trudell could detect the tone of condescension in the minister's words. Clearly the highlander was skeptical of lowland justice...and superstitions.
Still amazed at the ritual, Trudell glanced back at the centre of the room, to where the witch doctor was being helped from the light by two companions. "But how?"
"I told you," said Cardonna. "The witch doctor is a sin-eater -- he literally consumed the evil in the prisoner."
Sitting in his office, Trudell looked through the open circular window upon the jungle that surged against the high fence encircling the earth post compound. An early morning rain had come and gone, leaving the broad green leaves of the trees wet. Now they shimmered like emeralds beneath the glare of the hot sun. The flora looked nothing like the trees of earth, but at least the colour was right. Good old chlorophyll! He had sorely missed it on his last posting. A monkey like creature alighted upon the window-sill -- monkey in the sense of the first impression it gave, rather than out of any true biological kinship. Its lower limbs were actually tentacles, and its upper limbs were bat-like, with membranous wings. It looked at him, as if shocked to find such a creature in the office, then shot across the room and out the other window. Trudell knew some of the staff bitched about the open window design of the building, a traditional zampoori characteristic. But Trudell found the occasional monkey-like visitor barely a distraction. Try spending eight months posted to a swamp world practically living in knee length rubber boots, he'd tell them ruefully.
"..compound security and local zampoori constabulary still report no information on that missing woman," his secretary muttered, reading the day's reports from the view screen on her wrist.
He turned his thoughts back to the reports at hand. The longer it went, he brooded, the less likely the end news would be good. "Make a note to arrange compulsory broadcasts for ship's before they make planet fall. Warning of dangers. Too many new arrivals think that because the zampoori are friendly, that the planet is -- but you can still get lost in the jungle, and there are still predators." This was the second disappearance in almost two months. "Anything else?"
"Just another petition about that cult thing."
Trudell closed his eyes and unconsciously rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Okay, thanks." He didn't look up as he heard her rise and leave the room.
That 'cult' thing. He sighed. It had been two months since he had been witness to the bizarre ritual involving the sin-eater. At first it had just seemed an oddity of lowland culture, that a simple session with a witch doctor could take the place of a jail term. Even the highlanders put little stock in it--like humans, they preferred prisons. But what was odd was that the lowlanders did, indeed, seem to have a remarkably low per capita crime rate. If punishment here was no more than a slap on the wrist, how did that discourage recidivism? For a time his interest in the ritual had remained more a personal curiosity than a professional obligation. It didn't appear to be any gross violation of rights or anything the earth government needed to indemnify itself from, so it wasn't something he needed to officially fret about.
It had only started to become more of an official matter when he began hearing that some humans sought out zampoori sin-eaters on their own, were voluntarily submitting themselves to the ritual. Apparently it was cleansing or something. A nutty fad, nothing more. Still, it now involved humans, which nudged it back toward his jurisdiction.
Then complaints started coming in. Not from those who had undergone the ritual, but from their friends and family. They were acting different, more placid. At first he hadn't paid too much attention, but after enough complaints came in, he couldn't ignore it entirely. Some were likening the ritual to being almost a drug. Others, to a cult.
Just the other day he had received a pointed memo sent all the way from earth by a high ranking official. It seemed a friend of a friend's son had undergone the ritual, and the father wasn't too happy about the results.
Trudell sighed and stared at the window, almost wishing for a monkey to interrupt his thoughts. None did.
Vincenzo Cardonna had been on the planet for years, and was one of the first of the local settlers with whom Trudell had become friendly. The older man, for his part, seemed to enjoy the chance to play guide to the newly arrived bureaucrat. Now Trudell came upon him in front of his little shack situated on the very fringes of the human settlement, beside a slow moving river called the rhiarri by the zampoori. He was seated on a mushroom-like growth carved into the shape of a chair -- a local human affectation, as the zampoori were not big on chairs, and those they had were not suited to human anatomy.
Cardonna tipped back his broad brimmed hat, clearly just waking from a nap. "Have a seat, my boy," he said, gesturing to an old crate that served as the guest chair. "Some juice?"
Trudell accepted the beverage, partly as a matter of good manners. It was a local drink, rather thick and sugary, but refreshing enough once you got used to it. Cardonna had once remarked that most of the rotating bureaucracy that lived in the governing compound tended to stick to freeze dried rations that came in on the supply ships. The fact that Trudell was more experimental, Trudell suspected, had boosted him in the older man's opinion.
"You remember that ritual you took me to a while back? The sin-eater, you called it."
Cardonna nodded, sipping his own drink.
"I've been getting a few odd reports about it--involving people."
"Indeed?" said Cardonna neutrally.
"Apparently the witch doctors don't just eat sin."
Cardonna chuckled. "It depends on your definition of sin, I guess."
Trudell frowned. "You knew about this?"
He shrugged. "I knew a very few humans had sought it out. I didn't know it was becoming wide spread enough to send up
any red flags in your office."
"I'm getting reports of brainwashing. Or likening it to a narcotic."
Cardonna clucked his tongue. "That's a wee bit alarmist. There have been no official studies on the ritual--even the highlanders dismiss it as superstition."
Trudell's glass stopped half way to his lips. "Am I to infer there have been unofficial studies?"
Cardonna scratched at his neck, and he stared at the way the sunlight caused streamers of gold to slither across the river's surface. "Do you know what I used to be? A bio-chemist. I've done a bit of dabbling over the years, looking into the thing. In science, data can be significant or not significant. If it's not significant, that doesn't mean there aren't numbers, just not enough upon which to base a conclusion. You follow? So my numbers were not significant. There have been some hormonal changes, some chemical alterations. Nothing that can be deemed 'significant' or that couldn't be attributed to something other than getting your brain tickled for five minutes by a witch doctor. But people report feeling more at peace afterward."
"That's...troubling," said Trudell. "I wish you had mentioned it earlier."
"Why? So you could get all upset about something that you shouldn't get upset about? So you could say, well, that's not how we do it on earth, so let's shut it down? You think it's unnatural? Maybe the lowlanders are the natural ones. Maybe they've tapped into something the rest of us have forgotten. On earth there were religions that talked about 'original sin', that there was something evil inside us all. Maybe that's what's been at the root of so many of our problems. Maybe the ritual isn't changing people -- maybe it's returning them to the people they were meant to be all along. And the zampoori just figured out a way to remove this sickness -- like inflamed tonsils, or a burst appendix."
"The lowlanders are so apathetic, so phlegmatic, like they don't care about anything."
"And they have next to no crime. And who are you -- are we -- to say they don't care? Maybe they've just learned to care about the important things."
Trudell dragged his fingers through his hair, damp against his skull from the midday heat. He suddenly realized what Cardonna was deliberately not saying. "You underwent the ritual, didn't you?"
The older man shrugged. "When I arrived on this planet, I was a different man. Angry, bitter, driven. I drank too much and had three ex-wives who wouldn't speak to me. Now I sit by my shack, by the river, and want for nothing, because I want very little." His eyes bore into Trudell. "You tell me which is the real me--because I'm not sure."
The missing human's weren't random disappearances. In retrospect, Trudell realized someone should've clued into that fact earlier. The missing were both women of a certain age -- accidents weren't usually restricted to such specific demographics.
A third would be victim had escaped her attacker. Earth post security was alerted and, in a remarkably short time, they had a man in custody. A human, Len Klorese, an astro-physicist by profession, on a temporary work visa to the planet. He was four days from shipping out to another world. Trudell shuddered at the thought of how many worlds, how many victims, he could have amassed moving from system to system, never staying long enough for anyone to realize there even was a killer in their midst.
How many had he already amassed?
Trudell sat across a table from the man, a post security agent standing at his back, arms folded. Trudell tried to act nonchalant but, god only knew, this was not his area of expertise. But the highland zampoori were more than happy to leave it to the humans to deal with, though they had generously provided a forensics team and other investigators to help acquire evidence. Yet post security was little more than a bunch of night watchmen, hardly trained for homicide investigations. Which dropped the whole matter in the lap of the highest ranking earth authority on the planet. Which was himself.
Klorese was youngish -- his late twenties. Lean and fair haired. Good looking. Innocuous save for the sly smile on his lips, the gleam in his eyes that looked almost childish in its smugness. Neighbours had described him as unmemorable. Trudell supposed he hadn't had that betraying gleam in his eyes before he was caught. That was most definitely memorable. It made Trudell feel like bugs were crawling all over his skin.
"We have you for kidnapping, forcible confinement, and attempted assault. All of that we got from your would-be victim. And her statement gave us enough probable cause to search your office, your home, your files. DNA evidence found at your quarters compiled by the local zampoori investigators-" highlanders, of course, Trudell thought, but didn't bother saying, "-links you to two missing women. You will be charged with murder. You will be convicted," he said levelly. "You can do one thing for us, and for the victims' families -- and maybe help yourself, by being co-operative."
The smug eyes blinked. Trudell would have liked to believe it was a sign of faltering, like a poker player realizing he's got a bad hand. But he realized it was probably just dry eyes.
"You can tell us where the bodies are."
There was quiet in the little room. So quiet, Trudell could hear the man's breathing. Then the killer shifted in his chair, which creaked. "I don't know what you're talking about." Slowly, the sly grin broke apart to show teeth. "I only bury my toys."
Trudell's hand shook, just a little, as he poured the last drop of Canadian Whiskey into his glass. He held up the empty bottle for a moment, staring at it as if not quite recognizing it. Then he put it down, picked up the glass and threw back a jolt. He could probably order another bottle, but it would be months before it arrived, and the off-world shipping cost would be ridiculous. So he just let it burn his throat, savouring the sensation one last time, and wishing he had enough left to get drunk on.
He had showered twice after the interrogation and still felt dirty.
He supposed if he was some hardened investigator he could spend a few hours interrogating the man, worming his way past his icy facade. But he wasn't. So Klorese would be shipped out on the next vessel, with all the physical evidence neatly catalogued and identified. And, as Trudell had told him, Klorese would be convicted.
And they would never find the bodies, because Klorese would never tell them, because it was a game to him. He had no conscience, and so no compulsion to make a clean breast of it.
Trudell froze, the glass still in his hand. He looked at the empty bottle, then at the glass. No, it wasn't enough to get drunk on. So why was he thinking what was surely a drunken thought?
The killer had evil inside him -- and as luck would have it, they were on the one planet where evil, according to superstition, could be sucked right out of you.
But that was crazy, he knew. He didn't even believe in it, not really. Yet others swore it was true. And that night in the tent so many weeks ago, hadn't he thought he had witnessed something? The witch doctor swelling up slightly as though something had entered his body? The wild, angry zampoori suddenly growing calm and placid? And Cardonna claimed there were minute changes in body chemistry -- calm, good natured Cardonna who claimed he had once been bitter and angry.
He put the glass down.
No, it was crazy. He'd look like a fool to even suggest it.
Yet what if he did? Did his public foolishness outweigh the possibility -- even a million to one -- that it might work? Should his fear of embarrassment take precedence over the possibility of bringing closure to grieving families in a distant solar system?
Was the wise course of action to leave things as they were, and to not interfere...or was that the cowardly course?
He really wished he had more whiskey.
He looked like an idiot. Trudell knew that. And he knew his career would take a hit -- but hopefully just a temporary hit.
He stood on one side of a glass partition. The post security agents standing with him fidgeted a bit, shooting him glances that clearly indicated they thought he had gone a bit nutty. Rustling about beside him, the highland minister scraped back and forth, having already delivered his government's official protestation. The highlanders were not comfortable with a lowland superstition receiving what could be construed as even tacit, if unofficial, endorsement from an alien government. Trudell understood their position. How would earth authorities feel if an alien ambassador started patronizing an earth cult? But he wasn't endorsing it, he wasn't accepting it. He had explained that, again and again. He just didn't see the harm in trying.
After all, there was no danger to the prisoner. No violence or brutality was involved. If no one accepted there was any legitimacy to the ritual, no one could claim it was a violation of his rights. Trudell had practiced those arguments in his head to the point where even he almost believed them.
Even so, he had sealed any legal loopholes simply by getting the prisoner's own approval. Which was easy enough. He may not have been a trained investigator or a hardened interrogator, but Trudell could read people. And that perpetual arrogant smile told him everything. He had asked Klorese to submit to the ritual. The prisoner had refused. Trudell had shrugged, as if it was no big deal, and said, well, if he was scared of a ritual concocted by a bunch of crab creatures that were regarded as primitive even by other crab creatures, that was fine.
Klorese, the smug gleam turning momentarily to anger, had then agreed.
And so now they waited.
The prisoner sat on the other side of the glass. Trudell took a certain unseemly pleasure from the expression on the man's face. He was certainly trying to look smug and self-satisfied, but it was now more an act than a reality. Clearly Klorese was having second thoughts the longer they had to wait, and the closer to the moment of truth they approached. But his pride wouldn't let him break, not yet. Trudell prayed to whatever gods kept watch over this world that the man’s arrogance would hold out just a few minutes longer.
Trudell instinctively started as the door behind the prisoner dropped into the floor. Klorese's face twitched. Two lowland zampoori entered the room, scuttling across the smooth floor. Then a third entered. Trudell recognized the tattooed markings on its shell from weeks before.
After a moment he realized even the skeptical security agents were frozen almost immobile, focused on the other room.
The witch doctor began to sidle about the seated prisoner, chanting under its breath its click clack sermon. Klorese tried to stare at it coldly, affecting an air of indifference. Trudell realized the prisoner was trying to lock eyes with the witch doctor, to cow him with his force of personality. Good luck with that, Trudell thought wryly. He knew from personal experience how hard it was to read zampoori.
The creature's feet made scratching sounds as it circled the prisoner, again, and again. There was sweat on the man's face now, his confident facade beginning to drip away like wax. If Klorese suddenly refused now, what were the legal obligations? Trudell wondered.
He never had to find out. Whether the prisoner was about to protest or not, it was too late. The witch doctor darted forward, its fore limbs grabbing the seated man. And its tongue shot out. Klorese screamed as much in horror as anything. For the first time Trudell realized just how terrifying the ritual would seem from the point of view of the participant, as the inhuman creature leaped forward, as its prehensile tongue stabbed toward you.
The tongue planted itself in the middle of the prisoner's forehead, then twitched and rippled for a moment, as though firming its grip. Klorese stopped screaming. His eyes rolled up into his head.
Subconsciously, Trudell leaned forward, almost pressing to the glass. It was a repeat of the ritual in the tent, only given a fun house mirror twist by virtue of the human participant. No, he realized suddenly. Not quite a repeat. Whereas in the tent the witch doctor had seemed to swell, almost imperceptibly, here there was no such ambiguity. The creature began to expand, the plates of its shell pushing outward as the skin beneath seemed to expand. Horrified Trudell watched as the flesh bloated so much, it began to squeeze out from beneath the plates, the natural flesh of the zampoori black and oily looking. Trudell suddenly thought of Cardonna's remarks about original sin, about the lowland zampoori being purer than humans. To his knowledge, a zampoori had never tried to absorb evil from a truly twisted human. Was it possible a human killer contained more evil than even a zampoori witch doctor could adequately consume?
Suddenly the connection was broken and the witch doctor reeled away, its body so engorged its belly scraped the ground even as it perched on its limbs. It took a couple of trembling steps, then collapsed. Its aids skittered to its side.
Trudell raced into the room. He glanced at the prone witch doctor, then looked at the prisoner. The man was bent, face in his hands, his expression hidden. Trudell hovered for a moment unsure what to say, what to do next.
Then Klorese raised his head. The smug expression was gone. But a smile remained--a sad, wistful, melancholy smile.
"Oh," he said quietly, "it's awful what I've done..."
Dimly Trudell was aware his trans box was squawking, and he made out the words "dead...dead he is".
Slowly, haltingly, he turned to look down at the corpse of the witch doctor.
Two days later Klorese was put on a space ship for earth. In the cargo hold were the decomposing bodies of two earth women.
Despite the macabre situation--the women were still dead--despite the tragedy of the witch doctor's death, Trudell felt an odd sense a weightlessness. Of satisfaction. He did not look foolish. He had recovered the bodies, brought closure to families, and secured a more than contrite confession from an accused killer. And in so doing, he had broadened the fields of human knowledge, or at least opened up new areas of inquiry.
He was not sure even now if he believed in the zampoori ability to eat sin--perhaps it was purely psychosomatic. Or maybe the touching of the tongue injected a purely rational bio-chemical agent that acted as an anti-psychotic drug.
That wasn't his field. He merely filed his reports. Let others sort out the truth from the fancy.
Whatever the situation, he felt as though he had done good--perhaps more good than he had done in his previous eleven years with the administrative corps.
It didn't last. These things never do.
Cardonna sat by the slow flowing stream that ran by his shack, dabbling his feet, pant legs rolled up to his knees. He was weaving something from the tall, fibrous grass that grew hereabouts. Trudell sat down beside him, but said nothing, watching instead as the older man's fingers deftly wrapped one strand of grass about another. Such weavings were becoming quite fashionable with tourists and with the post bureaucrats -- a reflection of the multiculturalism that sprung up wherever cultures mingled. Because it was not strictly speaking an indigenous art form -- the zampoori did not have the dexterity to weave such things themselves. Yet the grass grew no where else in the galaxy. So the weavings were human in conception, yet exclusively zampoori.
Trudell leaned back on his hands and stared at the river. He felt exhausted. He felt defeated. He wondered if Cardonna was even his friend any more after what had happened recently.
Then the man answered his unspoken question by simply saying, "Bad day?"
He dug the heel of his hand into his eyes. "You know, a few weeks ago...I felt good. Like I had accomplished something. Solved a crime. Bridged cultures. Opened up a whole train of philosophical thought."
"Why didn't someone tell me the witch doctor was...? I mean, I thought there were a bunch of them."
"There are--apprentices. But he was the only master of the craft. Zampoori live a very long time, especially lowlanders -- usually. Normally he would have had many years yet to pass on the secrets. Now, well, it'll be years before one rises to his level of expertise -- assuming they can even do it without his guidance."
"Last night there was a bar fight -- a bar fight for god's sake! -- between a bunch of lowlanders. So the highland constabulary rounded them up and, naturally, trucked them off to jail."
"Naturally," said Cardonna.
He was quiet for a moment. "I received a visit from a system's supervisor -- in person, not by vid. I've never met a system's supervisor before. Seems sending a criminal to earth who's had his ‘evil’ removed is creating a big legal mess back home. Of course, the official stance is it's just a clever angle played by a sociopathic killer. But my reports are making things embarrassing for everyone, because it seems to legitimize his claims. But I never said I believed it -- I just never said I didn't. I mean, I don't believe in evil as a physical thing, an illness. Yet now, without their sin eater, the lowlanders are becoming quarrelsome, and prone to violence and...and..."
"..and becoming very human?"
Trudell frowned. "You're not helping."
"Some of the zampoori are blaming me for the witch doctor's death -- and blaming humans in general. There's even been some vandalism at the earth post. Doesn't matter that I didn't know what would happen. Doesn't matter that he did it voluntarily. And not just lowlanders. Some of the more radical highlanders are using it for an anti-earth agenda -- the hypocrites! They never respected the witch doctor while he was alive." He found that he was annoyed because Cardonna's fingers continued to weave, as though they were merely remarking on the weather. But he knew it wasn't really Cardonna he was angry with. "So earth is furious at me for respecting the culture too much, and the zampoori are furious because I didn't respect it enough. How could trying to do the right thing end up such a mess? The lowland culture may never recover -- and it's my fault." He sighed. "Well, you know...maybe it's better this way." Even he was aware his voice sounded almost petulant. "Maybe it was brainwashing -- no offence."
"None taken -- but, then, I wouldn't take offence, because I've been brainwashed."
Trudell shot him a look, but saw the good natured smirk on his lips.
"No one wants to even ask the questions. I mean, that's all I was doing. Damned if I know right or wrong, I just wanted to ask the question. And I found the bodies -- didn't I? I got a confession -- right? That's the important thing. But earth doesn't want to deal with the can of worms it opens up, nor do the highlanders. It's not our way, is it? We lock up crime, we don't cure it. Yet was it a cure, or just a band aid?" His tongue felt a little thick, and he realized he was rambling a bit.
"Are you tipsy?"
He shrugged. "I found a local brew that's almost as efficacious as whiskey. It helps numb things."
They sat quietly for another few minutes. Cardonna continued quietly weaving.
Then Trudell said, "I'm being re-posted. Sent somewhere far away, with no indigenous culture, where I can punch key boards and file innocuous reports, and not cause anymore trouble." He picked up a stone and tossed it at the water. It sank without skipping, which he felt seemed oddly appropriate. "Do you remember once telling me that one culture trying to impose itself on another leads to trouble?"
"I think so."
"Well I don't think I did that--and it still went to hell." After a moment, he struggled to his feet. He looked at the river, then down at the older man. He turned and started trudging back up the path toward the settlement. In the distance he could here the whistling horn of a zampoori emergency vehicle rushing toward some altercation. He stopped. "Good bye, Cardonna."
"See you," said the other man good naturedly.
He frowned. Was that natural, to sit and weave, and not care when a friend was shipping out, probably never to return? Or was it natural to fight and kill and cause suffering for no reason?
After a moment, he realized that between earth, and the highlanders, the lowlanders, and the Cardonnas of this world...that he was probably the only one who really was interested in the question.
Everyone else had already decided on their answers.