the magistrate
jamie ross

On the Red Planet you bow to necessity, or else...

-- Journey --

                The sun shone down relentlessly on the red rock of Mars as the dust swirled around the lone rider. The cracked surface road was bleak and hard compared to the lush underground paths which ran alongside the canals below ground, but it had the advantage of being more direct.  Undeterred by the heat, the Magistrate had a schedule to keep, and it didn’t allow for detours for the sake of convenience or comfort. 

                He had just settled a dispute over water rights between two t'haal herders in Kasmet canton and now he had to reconcile a dispute between a newcomer community in Gadal and the local farmers over the desecration of sacred springs. Apparently the newcomers had diverted a spring held sacred to the Gods and the locals were holding them responsible for the drought ruining their harvests. He wished that people could resolve these issues among themselves, but again, they were serious enough for the town leaders to contact the Central Court to ask for his services.

                The Gadal canton was about 73 miles northeast of Kasmet in the Central Lowlands northwest of the massive volcano, Mt. Kúinn.  It normally required a week of travel by the canal roads but by taking the faster surface route, the Magistrate had covered about 35 miles by nightfall and would reach the town in another day. Night on the surface hid numerous hazards for an unwary traveller, so he decided to make camp under the protection of a huge kamal tree. The trees dotted the desert landscape and had thin razor sharp leaves which provided protection from from flying predators as well as filtering the ever-present dust, making the ground underneath an ideal camping site.  They also provided a good source of firewood as their oily sap ensured that even new wood burned easily. This provided a good hot campfire essential to keeping the nocturnal wildlife at bay.  

                He pulled out supplies from his worn leather travel bag and made a simple dinner from dried meat and vegetables letting his giant h’gall beast dig under the tree roots for the woody kamal nuts. Although not the prettiest or most graceful animal, the eight-legged breed was tough and could survive the harsh climate making them invaluable for traversing the surface.  

                As he pulled out his bedroll next to the blazing fire, his instincts flared. Like all Magistrates, he had telepathic abilities and his instincts were telling him something unusual was about to occur.  He looked up into the Martian night sky, where he noticed the flare of what looked like a new star in the distance.  As he watched it cross the sky getting slowly brighter, he made a mental note to ask if anyone had else has seen it.  It looked like it was coming down in the vicinity of Gadal so he might find out more as his journey progressed. With that in mind, he curled up next to the fire, pulled up the blankets and fell asleep.

                The next morning he woke to the first rays of the sun coming over the mountain range. The memory of the falling star had stuck in his dreams which was disturbing. He uncovered the embers of the fire and added some fresh wood to have something to cook with. After a quick breakfast of tubers and smoked meat, he packed up his gear and made sure the h’gall had fresh water.  As he saddled up the large beast, he could hear the movements of vicious sandworms foraging nearby and decided it would be a good time to move on.

                Covering the distance to Gadal required traversing the bleak Kellurian desert, an endless flatland of dry dusty rock.  Like most of Mars, the barren surface hid a lush underground cavern system hosting a network of farming communities arranged along the canals that crisscrossed the planet.  The upper layer of caverns had been expanded over the centuries as the surface conditions became harsher and more desolate. It was here that the cantons had formed of farmers who raised the t'haal cattle breeds for food and the  big h'gall beasts for transport and as well as the crops that supported them.  Deeper layers had been excavated to provide a tremendous source of raw materials for the development of a semi-technological society, but without a native source of high energy like oil, the society remained largely agrarian. In compensation, the Martian peoples had developed complex intuitive mental skills like those characteristic of the Order of Magistrates.

                By the time the sun was overhead, the Magistrate had wrapped himself in the loose-fitting clothes of his profession to push back the deadening heat.  He dealt with the endless monotony of the trek by watching the patterns in the sand created as the heavy splayed feet of the h’gall trudged across the landscape. While watching a particularly interesting spiral pattern emerge, he suddenly heard a high keening sound from behind him in the air.  Recognising the immediate danger from the vicious carnivorous thakil birds (similar to the ancient Terran pterodactyls), he reached down and pulled out his long-barrelled pistol. Turning around while holding up his cape to block out the sun, he fired directly at the crest of the bird, putting a bullet into its small brain. Travel on the surface carried its own unique risks and he had lots of experience dealing with them.  The h’gall plodded on, undisturbed by the gunfire and the subsequent crash of the large creature on the ground beside them.

                The Magistrate pulled the h’gall to a stop and dismounted.  He walked over to the dead body of the bird; its large leathery wings were twisted and broken while the large narrow head revealed rows of sharp teeth evolved to rip its prey to shreds.  The thakil were nasty predators but tonight its delicious meat would provide a welcome gift for his hosts in Gadal. He pulled out one of the long sharp blades from his saddlebag and set to work butchering the finest parts to take with him.

                By the time the sun had set, the guide lights in the canyon ahead glowed to reveal the path down below to the Gadal central village. The Magistrate smiled as he guided his beast down into the cool fresh air of the canton.  Tonight he would share his gift of meat and enjoy the hospitality of the town folk and a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.  There were some benefits to his position and he was not averse to taking advantage of them.


-- Holding Court in Gadal --

                The next morning, as the sun crept up over the tall red mountains east of Gadal, the morning light flooded through the huge round crystals embedded in the cavern ceiling and lit up the streets in the town below.  Merchants were busy opening the shutter windows of their shops and the big farm sledges were being hauled out by teams of h'gall bulls to harvest any food available from the drought-stricken farms.  

                As the Magistrate stepped out onto the street, refreshed after a comfortable night’s sleep, he noticed the worried look on the townspeople walking by.  They quietly looked at him in the hope that he could break the drought and restore normalcy to their lives.  He decided that his first stop would be to find these newcomers that were claimed to be the source of the town’s ill-fortune.

                He followed one of the empty sledges and caught up with the driver, who directed him along the canal road where the newcomer camp was located. It wasn’t too far so he fetched his bag from the stable where his h’gall was housed and started walking. The road was wide and paved with the flat red stones common in the area so he was able to make good time.  After about 30 minutes he reached the side road that the driver had described to him.  The road sign was missing from its post and several hand-scrawled wards were marked on the rocks around it. He was guessing they had been drawn there by townsfolk afraid of the newcomers. People were not taking any chances and he could hear the protection incantations in his head. As a Magistrate, these had no power over him though and he passed through the wards and proceeded up the lane to find out more about these newcomers.

                About a mile along the lane, he came to the encampment. A tall man came out to meet him, his wife and children scurrying into the tents at the edge of the field. He was carrying a long smooth-barrelled rifle that he was pointing in the direction of the Magistrate.

                “Hoa, hold there stranger, don’t come any closer or I will shoot. I’m not afraid of you!” The man seemed nervous as he tried to identify the stranger on his land.

                The Magistrate keep walking closer, loosening the long pistol but otherwise not changing his pace.  

                “Put up your weapon, I am the Magistrate and I have been called to resolve whatever dispute you and the townsfolk have.”

                The man’s eyes widened as he realised who it was and quickly dropped to his knees, placing the rifle on the ground in front of him. 

                “I apologise Magistrate, I had no idea that you were coming. I kneel in the shadow of your grace and accept the wisdom of your judgement, may you restore justice and order to the world,” uttering the formal words required, his head bowed and eyes looking downward.

                The Magistrate stopped in front of the man and picked up his rifle.

                “You are accused of diverting the spring sacred to the Goddess, M’lanish, and depriving the farmers of Gadal of much needed water for their crops.  You are said to be new to the area and have not made accords with the town for any allocation of water.  How do you plead your case?”

                The man kept his head lowered as he nervously replied, “Oh Magistrate, my family and I have traveled from the Canton of Hajim in the West where there was no more room for farms.  We found this land outside of the town which was not occupied and merely diverted water for our crops.  We meant no harm.”

                The Magistrate opened his book of judgements and made several notes and then walked over to the field and to the diverted stream and sacred well.  After surveying the scene he returned to the man.

                “It is the judgement of the Court of Magistrates, who I represent, that you have willfully neglected your obligations and responsibilities.  This land was unoccupied as it is the sacred grounds of the Goddess and protects the life she brings forth from the earth. You did not seek permission or approval from the council at Gadal and proceeded to divert the water causing harm to the farmers and the people of the town who depend on them.  Water is the source and the lifeblood of our people.  By ignoring long standing tradition and law, you have endangered the lives of the people here.”

                The man looked up in horror as the Magistrate pulled his pistol and fired a shot between the man’s eyes, killing him instantly.  He then walked back to the tent and put a bullet into each of the family members. Water was life on Mars and flagrant disobedience of the law was punishable by death. 

                He walked back to the main road, holstering his weapon. A crowd of people had gathered there now, as word of his arrival had spread through the town.  They all bowed their head and looked down as he reached the road.  He looked at them, finished writing the notes for the case and the judgement declaration. 

                “I have judged this case and restored order according to the Law of our land as a Magistrate of the Court.  You will clear out this encampment and the remains of the guilty and restore the water of M’lanish.” He stamped the document with the Red Seal of the Court and nailed it to the post as a warning.  

                The crowd knelt down in the dust of the road, “We accept the judgement of the Magistrate and of the Court. We live in the sunlight of the land and the Great Father and the water and deep love and bounty of the Great Mother. We are grateful for all you bring."

                The Magistrate nodded and started to walk back to town.  He thought for a moment, then turned back to the crowd.

                “There was a falling star last night which was coming in this area.  Has anyone seen or heard of any news of it?”

                The people in the crowd looked at each other, then one young girl came forward.

                She bowed, then kept her head lowered as she addressed him, “Magistrate, I was out looking for wood this morning above the north canal when I saw smoke and dust about a mile away.  There was a sound like the big waterfall at Canal Hall, but I couldn’t tell what it was. It smelled bad.”

                The Magistrate looked down at the girl, “Thank you little one, I appreciate the information. May you and your town find peace, water and prosperity again.”


-- Mission to Mars --

                The command capsule was dimly lit by the soft glow of the control displays.  The two pilots sat in their seats going over checklists for orbital entry as Commander Dane Wilson slid through the entrance hatch into the captain’s chair.

                “People, tell me what’s happening. Are we good for Mars final approach?”

                David Marchant, the lead pilot, turned from his screen, “Commander, sorry, I didn’t hear you come in. We are ready for the initial orbital burn to enter a geosynchronous orbit over the northern lowlands around Olympus Mons. We will scan the area for 48 hours, though some of our sensors seem to be acting up at the moment.”

                Dane turned to the other pilot, Linda Beloise.  “Linda, are we still good for de-orbiting after our 48-hour holding orbit is complete?  I see the Doc signed you back to the duty roster. Are you going to be okay for this?”

                With two out of his five crew in the infirmary, Dane was concerned as he wanted two pilots for the descent and the medical/science officer, Greg Winkowski, was the only other crew still fit for duty.  The cosmic radiation had taken its toll on everyone over the long journey from Earth so he didn’t want to lose Linda as well.

                “Commander, I am not feeling great but I should be able to fly this tin can the last few miles. I don’t want to miss this!"

                Dane smiled, “Well then, I guess we will make history after all.  Our generous CEO has been tweeting about the first team on Mars and how we are going to start building colonies so I suppose we shouldn’t disappoint him.”

                Linda looked over her displays again, “Commander, are you confident we can land the command ship on its tail as advertised?  I know JPL has been landing rovers but this design is so new and we haven’t performed a jets down landing from this altitude before.”

                Dane smiled again, “I think we will be fine.  If we waited for the space agency people to do this, it would be another couple of decades. With all the tension with North Korea in the news at the moment, people need something positive to focus on.  

                “David, when you finish up the pre-burn checks, go talk to Christina in the infirmary and see if she has any suggestions about fixing the sensor arrays.  Doc says she is too weak to do any work but may be able to guide you.”

                David frowned at the thought.  It wasn’t clear how they were going to make it down to the planet and then back to Earth without an engineer or communications officer. They were all affected by the radiation sickness and they would be lucky if anyone made it back alive.  Maybe staying on Mars would be a better option than dying alone on space.  He really wished they had paid more attention to the warnings and added more shielding but that would have delayed the mission and it was already behind schedule and over budget.

                Keeping his thoughts to himself, he put on a brave face. “Commander, I’ll see what we can do to make it work.”


-- Descent --

                Two days later the active crew was down to three as Linda’s relapse sent her back to the infirmary. In spite of this, Mars-One mission control was insistent that they make the historic landing. The schedule must be kept.

                A few hours later, David stopped Dane before they entered the command module again. “I am not sure this is a good idea. I would feel a lot better if Linda were coming with us.”

                “David, I understand your concerns, but I can handle the co-pilot duties for the landing and we have come too far to stop now.  Greg has assured me that the medicare AI can handle Linda and  Christina though I don’t think anything can be done to save Andrew at this point.  We will land and explore the area for a couple of days, plant the flag, have a press conference to stake claim to the area, then we climb back aboard, and then head back to Earth. If we are lucky some of us may still be alive to receive our medals.  That’s what we all signed up for and our families will get those big payouts from those generous insurance policies our benevolent CEO took out on our behalf.”

                David just stared at Dane, for a few minutes, then shrugged. “I guess it’s what we signed up for. It’s just a lot lonelier choice away in the dark reaches of space instead of in a gastropub surrounded by cheering colleagues.”

                “I’m glad you understand our situation. So are you ready to land us as the first men on Mars?"  Dane just grinned.

                “Can we at least blast some rock and roll as we land. When they make a movie about us, that will be an epic scene as we descend to the surface!”

                Dane just laughed, “Ok, route it through the external speakers once we get into the atmosphere.”

                The two men settled into their respective chairs and then Greg Winkowski, the science and medical officer slid through the hatch and after securing the command module, took his place in the observer seat.

                David looked up at the control displays.  “Navigation green, Attitude Control green, Environmental green, Fuel, green, Comms green, Propulsion green; we are ready for orbit burn.”

                Dane nodded, “Start the de-orbit sequence, let’s make history!”


-- HIC SVNT LEONES, "Here are Lions" --

                The Magistrate returned to the boarding house where he was a guest and packed up his meagre belongings.  As he led the h’gall out of its stable, townspeople gathered to see him off.  He had filled his saddlebags with fresh provisions and had acquired a new set of boots to replace his old worn ones.  People were grateful and generous to him as the water had returned and life as normal could resume.

                He mounted the large beast and they slowly made their way through the crowds.  People were happy to see him come, but even happier to see him leave. Inviting a Magistrate to resolve your disputes was often a double-edged sword so you were never really safe while one was visiting.

                He guided the h’gall up the ramp out of the town and back into the hard light of the surface.  The site the girl had pointed out was still a half day’s ride so he was hoping to make it before the sun set.  There were far too many dangers in the dark , so confronting something unknown at the same time seemed unwise.  His intuition told him that he faced something new chaotic and strange on this trip. He made sure he had restocked his ammunition just in case.

                By late morning he had reached the foothills and he could see wisps of smoke in the distance.  So something had come out of the sky as he suspected.  What it was remained to be seen.  After several more hours, he was close enough the see the glint of something shiny, like a pointed tower sticking up from behind the next hill.  He stopped before entering the valley where the object was.  It was better he continued on foot so he dismounted and retrieved his carry bag and staff.  He tied the n’gall with to a nearby kamal tree with enough cord so it could graze for nuts and poured out a bowl of water in the shade.

                He slowly walked along the path and as he cleared the rocky hill, he could finally see the object from the sky.  It was tall, cylindrical and shiny with a pointed top and large wings coming out from the sides.  It was also buried partway into the ground, tilting at an angle so it must have crashed into the cavern below when it landed.  The ground around the vehicle was criss-crossed with tracks of some sort but he had no idea what kind of animal could leave continuous tracks like that except for maybe sandworms.  

                He didn’t see any activity so he decided to follow the worm tracks (there were two side by side) to see where they went.  After about a hour walking, he followed the tracks down a ramp into the caverns below. As he left the hot dry sun of the surface for the cool darkness of the canal zone, he immediately noticed a foul stench. Something was wrong.

                He followed the tracks back into the side cavern until he came to the area under the landing site. He approached the site and now he could see the bottom of the space vehicle as it came through the ceiling.  Giant nozzles on the bottom were dented and some foul liquid leaked out from the bottom into streams which entered the canal. The area had been pasture and the explosion caused by the landing had killed several t’hall females and their cubs. 

                He found the source of the worm tracks, a small vehicle with round drums lying on its side.  As the Magistrate examined the strange vehicle, he realised that the drums must be responsible for the continuous tracks. He raised an eyebrow: a very ingenious way to cross the surface.

                He finished examining the site and noticed the more familiar footprints of people’s boots surrounding the vehicle and then moving back towards the main road, dragging several objects. As there were still many unanswered questions in his mind, he followed the footprints along the canal until he saw a small farming village ahead of him.  He had heard of the cantons in this area but it was outside his normal jurisdiction so he hadn’t visited.

                He slowly walking into the town and then headed to the market square where he could hear the rumble of a crowd.  It didn’t sound like a happy sound so he unbuckled the strap on his pistol just to be cautious.

                As he drew close the edge of the crowd, people turned to see who this new stranger was. Then, as they recognised his seal, they drew back bowing their heads.  The packed crowd slowly parted before him as the word of his arrival spread quickly and the angry cries of a mob subsided into a still quiet.

                He reached the centre where he found three strange men wearing some kind of uniform, strapped to poles on the market stage faced by the town council elders.  They had obviously been questioning the strangers with some assistance from the local n’gall warden with his long spiked whip.

                The Magistrate walked up the steps to the stage and faced the councilmen, ignoring the captives for the moment.

                “Honoured Council Members, I am a sealed Magistrate from the Justice Council for the Grand Canal. As part of the North Canal, your canton is outside my normal jurisdiction but I am available to resolve this dispute if you wish. Otherwise I can contact the North Canal Justice Court when I return to request a Magistrate be sent to preside over this dispute.”

                The head of the Council, an elderly man named Fingla, stepped forward and bowed to the Magistrate.

                “We are honoured by your arrival in our town of Dajar.”  He then turned to his fellow councillors who nodded him and then joined him in the ritual greeting, “We ask for the wisdom of the Magistrate and of the Court to settle our dispute. We live in the sunlight of the land and the Great Father and the water and deep love and bounty of the Great Mother. We are grateful for all you bring.” With the ritual greeting complete, they all knelt and bowed their heads.  

                The Magistrate touched the seal on his hat and motioned them up again. He then turned to Fingla, “I saw something descend from the sky several nights ago and it landed outside your village, crashing into the fields below.  I am assuming your people captured these strangers and brought them here. If it pleases your Honour, I wish to question these strangers myself to hear their side of the dispute.”

                Fingla bowed and motioned the Magistrate to take over the interrogation.

                He turned to the strangers and noted the symbols on their sleeves and the small bars on their collars.  He assumed the one with the most bars would probably be the leader as it would be in his order.  He stopped and focused his thoughts so he could hear the thought patterns of the strangers.  After sorting the patterns and comparing them to his own, he was able to understand their language and thoughts. This ability to read underlying thoughts and emotions made lying to a Magistrate impossible which is why people always told the truth to his profession.

                Looking at the three men, he noticed tags on their uniforms written in their strange language, “Wilson”, “Marchand”, and “Winkowski”.  He walked up to the man named “Wilson”, looking directly into his eyes.                 Speaking aloud in English, he said, “You are not from Mars. I can see you come from the third planet from your thoughts.  Why have you come and how will you compensate these people for the damage to their farms and the contamination of their water?”

                Dane Wilson blinked his eyes and stammered, “How can you speak our language?  I’m sorry, there has been a major misunderstanding!  We come in peace and we didn’t even know there was any life here, much less canals and farms.  We thought canals on Mars were the stuff of science fiction stories! Please, I am Commander Dane Wilson of the American Mars-One mission and this is my pilot, David Marchand and our medical officer, Greg Winkowski.  We crashed through the surface into a cavern when we landed and ...”

                “Silence”, the Magistrate’s voice cut off the Earth commanders rambling speech.  He looked at the three men. “I am aware of how you landed and the damage that you inflicted on this people. Now I want to know why you are here and what you intend to do.”

                He reached into Dane's mind and enabled only truthful statements to be spoken.  This was one of the mental gifts of the Magistrates which made them such effective judges.

                Dane looked up, surprised at the words coming out his mouth. Greg and David looked over at him in total astonishment and horror as he told their story.

                “We came here to claim this planet and its resources for my company.  We believe we can make vast profits bringing people here to live.  We believe we are a unique and indispensable nation and we have the right to acquire and control any lands we need.  We have all endured the hazards of space to come here and even though we expect to die from this trip, others will follow us as they hear what we have found.  We have nothing to offer these primitive people for the little damage we have done but the generous offer to serve us.”

                Dane was shocked that he even said all that, but it was what he believed and had discussed in secret meetings with his superiors back home. It was nothing that was to be shared with the public and here he had blurted it out to an alien stranger!

                David looked at Greg and then turned back to Dane, "What the hell Dane! Is that what this is all about?  We thought it was for the good of mankind and now you tell us we are all dying so the corporation can make a fortune and you knew it! You are a bastard.”

                The Magistrate turned to the two other men, “Silence I said, one can only speak the truth before a Magistrate and since he is your leader, you will share his judgement.” He then stood back so he could address the men and Councillors.

                “It is the judgement of the Court of Magistrates, who I represent, that you, Commander Dane Wilson and your crew, have willfully neglected your obligations and responsibilities.  This land is farmed land of Dajar. You landed without seeking permission or approval from the council at Dajar and proceeded to cause harm to the farmers, killing valuable livestock and polluting the water of life they rely on. Water is the source and the lifeblood of our people.  By ignoring long-standing tradition and law, you have endangered the lives of the people here.”

                He pulled out his long-barreled pistol and put a bullet between the eyes of each of the Earthmen.  As they slumped over, blood draining down the poles, he touched his seal and then put away his pistol.

                He pulled out his book of judgements and wrote down the results of the case then turned to the silent crowd.

                “I have judged this case and restored order according to the Law of our land as a Magistrate of the Court.  You will dismantle the vessel of the strangers and make use of it as compensation for the damage they have caused. You will restore the surface so they any others will find no trace of their landing. You will clean up the contamination of the canal and soil and burn it.  The remains of the guilty will be fed to the sandworms to nourish then and complete the cycle of life and death.” He stamped the document with the Red Seal of the Court and nailed it to the post where Dane Wilson ended his history-making journey, as a warning.  


-- Epilogue --

                On the 9th of February 2023, on the day the Mars-One mission was scheduled to land the first humans on Mars, the world changed forever.  In response to a cruise missile attack on their nuclear research facilities, North Korea launched 3 intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles, devastating the cities of San Diego, San Francisco and Guam and triggering the subsequent collapse of the US government.                  

                When the European Space Agency finally reestablished communications with the Mars One mothership, there was no reply. It was the last manned mission to Mars attempted by the United States before it dissolved at the Constitutional Convention later that year. It wasn’t until many years later that the fate of the mission was discovered.