“Are you sure, warden?”
“He’s all yours.”
The prison warden moved away slowly. The lawyer dragged his lanky body through the narrow opening. In front of him, separated by a low glass partition, a small, wiry creature sat on a metallic chair. Its grotesquely long arms dangled helplessly, as though disconnected from the rest of its body. It was fully draped in pieces of colored fabric, with the exception of the face – which, though half-covered by rough, black bristles, resembled that of a naked mole-rat. Tiny drops of clear liquid accumulated on its forehead, emitting a repugnant smell.
The lawyer sat down and coughed.
“Do you speak English?” he asked, trying not to stare at his client.
“Yes,” the creature replied in a low, raspy voice.
“What’s your name?”
“Qin. Baldur Qin.”
“Mr. Qin, do you understand what you’re accused of?”
“Your Honor, I didn’t –”
“I’m not the judge. You can call me Mr. Haas,” the lawyer said wearily. “Please answer my question. Do you understand the nature of the crime ascribed to you?”
“Yes, Mr. Haas ... Yes, I do. But I assure you –”
“Mr. Qin”. The lawyer put on his reading glasses and pulled a few documents out of his briefcase. “It says here that on February 28, 2277, at around 9:15am, you shot and killed a local resident, Laura Coelho.”
“It’s not true, Your Hon ... Mr. Haas,” the prisoner said hurriedly. “I didn’t –”
“How did you come into possession of firearms, Mr. Qin?” The lawyer leaned forward.
“Are you saying that you did not possess any firearms?”
“So how did you kill her?”
“I didn’t kill her!” The creature waved its misshapen appendages frantically. The stinky fluid now glistened on the exposed portion of its hideous face. Instead of licking away the large drops, it wiped them hurriedly with the fabric enveloping its arms. “I don’t even know who this Laura Coelho is. I ended up here by mistake. Took the wrong exit out of the tunnels. I just wanted to get home, Underground Reservation C17. I’d never even think of –”
“Are you saying that you had no intention of entering the town?” The lawyer winced, trying to control the rapid wiggling motion of his nose.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Please, Mr. Haas ... I swear I’m telling the truth.”
“Hmm.” The lawyer took off his glasses and sighed. “Mr. Qin, I’ll be honest with you. The Hareford community is indignant at the mere thought of a local resident committing this heinous crime. Considering the history of our races, as well as your ... err ... naturally displeasing appearance, I can only say that you make a perfectly convenient scapegoat.”
The creature stood up, balancing on two comically straight, cylindrical legs. It pressed its protruding, bony nose against the glass, breathing through a monstrously gaping mouth. The lawyer moved away instinctively, trying to hide his revulsion.
“I’ll see you in court.” The lawyer stood up and began to stuff the papers back into the briefcase. His tail was itching, and he felt that the tips of his ears needed urgent grooming. He nodded curtly at the prisoner and hopped away.
“People of Hareford versus Baldur Qin, second session. Honorable Francis H. Krolik presiding. Mr. Advaith Khargosh is prosecuting on behalf of the town council. Mr. Saul Haas represents the defendant. The defendant has pleaded not guilty of premeditated killing of Laura Coelho. We have heard the testimony of the prosecution witnesses, which placed Mr. Qin in the vicinity of the crime scene. The defense is now ready to call their only witness. Mr. Haas?”
“Yes, Your Honor.” The lawyer stood up hurriedly. “The defense calls Baldur Qin.”
The bailiff escorted the defendant to the witness stand.
“Mr. Qin,” the lawyer began. “What was your reason for coming to Hareford?”
“I never intended to go to Hareford,” the defendant replied. “I got lost in the tunnels on my way to Underground Reservation C17.”
“Are you aware of the fact that humans are prohibited from entering lagomorph settlements?”
“Yes, sir. Of course. We are to stay underground at all times. This is done for our own safety, since radiation on the surface –”
“Mr. Qin,” the lawyer interrupted. “Have you, or have you not, come to Hareford with the intent of assassinating Laura Coelho or any other resident of our community?”
“I have not. I’m innocent, and I –”
“No further questions, Your Honor.” The lawyer bowed and sat down.
“Thank you, Mr. Haas.” The judge stroked his bushy whiskers. “Mr. Khargosh?”
The stout, elderly prosecutor rose slowly.
“I’d like to cross-examine this witness, Your Honor,” he said quietly.
“Please proceed, Mr. Khargosh.”
“Mr. Qin,” the prosecutor began. “Are you familiar with the general history of Earth?”
“Objection, Your Honor.” The lawyer hopped forward. “The complex and troubled history of our planet has nothing to do with this case.”
“Your Honor, I’m trying to establish a motive here,” the prosecutor responded, waggling his droopy ears. “I shall demonstrate shortly how the historical background of the defendant’s species relates to his thinking.”
“I’ll allow this.” The judge nodded. “Mr. Qin, please answer the question.”
“Yes, Your Honor ... I’ve studied our history extensively,” the defendant replied. “In fact, I’m a professional historian.”
“Then I guess you won’t have trouble confirming certain facts pertaining to our common history.” The prosecutor took a sip of warm carrot tea from a paper cup. “Mr. Qin, do you understand the meaning of the taxonomic terms Homo sapiens and Oryctolagus cuniculus?”
“I do. The first one is us ... the humans. The second one is the name of your species ... before the Event, which made you sapient and ... and ... much bigger.”
“Mr. Qin, how would you describe the relationship between these two species prior to the Event of 2121?”
The defendant fidgeted on his chair.
“I ... I know that you were kept as pets,” he said. “You were taken care of, given food.”
“Is that all, Mr. Qin?” The prosecutor feigned surprise.
“Well ... Yes, sir.”
“Let us concentrate on the pet issue for a moment, Mr. Qin. Is it true that many representatives of our kind, when kept as pets, were mistreated, intentionally or out of neglect – fed harmful products, abandoned without providing any means of survival, and even –” the prosecutor paused for effect “– given a bath?”
Muted gasps flittered across the courtroom.
“Objection!” The lawyer spread his forepaws. “Your Honor, is it really necessary to delve into the gruesome details of the past, which have nothing to do with the moral character of my client?”