The small cadre of guards fought the crowds to bring their prisoner to the platform. Locked within their tight circle, the figure which was causing such controversy looked too defenseless to be the reason behind the mass hysteria overtaking the hundreds of people in the plaza.
The guards were having a difficult time getting the young woman to the place where her sentence would be carried out. Pelted by debris and fists, they endured the scorn and hatred from the mob that was growing steadily worse. Already their prisoner, clad only in a simple worker's shift, bore bruises and other signs of abuse from both her jailers and the guards.
"May the heavens fry out your eyes!" someone screamed from the masses.
"Put THEM in the pod!"
"Yes! POD THEM!"
Freshly enraged, the crowd pressed closer to the cadre. One man shoved his face directly into one guard's and growled, "How can you do this to one of your own? How can you live with yourself?"
The guard lowered his eyes but maintained his grip on the woman's arm, determined to carry out his orders.
A short distance away, two men looked down at the scene from the safety of their balcony. As the mob jostled and hampered the guards' progress toward the launching ramp, one man turned to his superior. "I still believe this is a mistake. You're making a martyr out of her, and they won't soon forget. The people adore their Gifted."
"I had no choice," the other man replied tersely. "She was becoming too popular. You know as well as I that the other Gifted were listening to her, and were on the verge of rebelling themselves."
"And you thought that by issuing the Condemnation Proclamation on her, that it would dispel the rebellion?"
Angrily, the man turned to face his accuser. "We've gone over this worthless argument before," he hissed. "She's a traitor. With her gone, she won't be able to talk to them. She won't be able to set an example with her refusals and abstinence. The Proclamation has been set, and within the hour she'll be launched into orbit to serve her sentence." He straightened and brushed out the wrinkles in his jacket. In a quieter voice, he continued as he watched the near-riot below them. "Once the sentence has been fulfilled, I'm going to approach the Judiciary and ask for a Cessation of Interment."
The other man sighed heavily. "You heard me the first time. Must I repeat everything?"
"You cannot refuse the people having her body brought back for public display! Roha Non! Listen to yourself! Do you want a major civil war on your hands?"
"I can't afford to bring it back from orbit," Roha Non snapped. "Once her body is put on display, they'll use her as a rallying point. No, it's best she be removed from here as soon as possible and remain out of the public's eye forever."
A massive swelling of noise from below drew the two men's attention back to the crowd. The guards had reached the platform and now held their prisoner ready to ascend to the ship awaiting her.
With the help of a few people, a young man managed to break through and fall at the feet of the prisoner. A guard started to level his hands at the man, prepared to use his Gift to fight back the encroaching figure, but was stayed by a pleading look from the woman. Shaken, the guard allowed her to kneel and help the man back to his feet.
"Go with our hearts," he whispered to the prisoner, clasping her hands in his and pressing a kiss to her thumbs. He stared deeply into her eyes. An unspoken signal passed between them. Then he was gone, swallowed up by the jostling mob.
The woman shivered and pressed her fists to her chest. Glancing back at the guards, she barely nodded she was ready, then lowered her face to hide the tears that began to spill. She didn't want them to see her cry, but she couldn't stop the flow.
Her robes of state had been stripped away, along with her title and any authority she'd been granted. Her once thigh-long hair had been shorn to just above her shoulders, an even greater abasement than losing her uniform. The only thing they couldn't remove from her was the signet of her power, a permanent mark in her flesh that would remain with her for her entire life.
She was a condemned outlaw, a rogue Gifted--a rare but extremely dangerous being. Worse, because she was a Gifted, and one of the most powerful of her kind, the guards and Council kept her under heavy sedation to prevent her from using her abilities to escape her sentence. Listless and semi-conscious from the drugs, the woman stumbled up the platform, unable to present any picture of honor or bravery to the thousands of people who'd come to the Presentation to protest her sentencing.
At the top of the platform, they were met by the head of the Judiciary. Raising his arms for silence, he patiently waited for the masses to quiet down enough so he could pronounce judgment on the prisoner. A stiff wind had sprung up, forcing him to strain to be heard.
"Sah'Reena, do you understand the crimes by which you have been found guilty?" he asked loudly.
Somewhere inside herself, the young woman managed to find the strength to straighten up and present him with a steady gaze. Bloodied, scarred, and almost broken, she was still a picture of beauty and power. The wind whipped her loosened hair about her face and shoulders, but all she could focus on was her sorrow and the pity she had for the insignificant man before her. He was just a pawn for the Judiciary, made to utter their rhetoric because the main governmental body was too frightened of her to do it themselves in person. "I know what I have been accused of. If they are crimes, it is by your belief, and not those of the people."
A roar of approval followed her statement. The Judiciary motioned again for quiet. "Do you understand the sentence that will be carried out because of your crimes?"
"I know the punishment that has been pronounced on me by those who fear me, who fear my power, and who fear the righteousness that I believe and stand by." A sudden surge of anger bubbled up from deep within her soul, and in a surprisingly strong voice, she raised her arm, palm bared to all, and called out, "I WILL NOT BE A WEAPON!"
The crowd screamed and pushed forward. Alarmed, the Judiciary stepped back, nearly falling off the platform as the guards shoved the woman into the ship in their hurry to escape the now out-of-control mob. The door closed with a hiss, and the enraged people beat on the outer hull and door with their fists and pummeled the view ports with debris and rocks.
Caught in the crush, the Judiciary went down, a victim to the anger and hatred of the people he was supposed to serve. From their balcony, the two men watched as the helpless official died and was left in a crumpled pile at the side of the platform.
The Deathship powered up and rose quietly, pausing to hover less than fifty feet above the crowd. A minute later it angled upward and continued to rise into the sky, toward space. When it could no longer be seen by the crowd, the people began to disperse to their homes and businesses. They never looked back at the lifeless body they'd beaten. An undercurrent of hostility rumbled like a soft growl.
The two men watched and waited until the plaza had nearly cleared, then Roha Non sent a message to have the Judiciary's body removed from the platform and taken to an interment chamber.
"You should have sent in more guards," Sor Set told him. He was unable to tear his eyes away from the fallen figure.
"The guards are of the Gifted. There weren't many we could trust to carry out her sentence."
Roha Non turned away from the window and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Sor Set.
"To the communications center. I want to be kept in contact until the moment they launch the pod. I want to be absolutely certain...."
"You're that afraid of her, aren't you?" Sor Set whispered.
Roha Non pivoted to stare at his assistant. Several seconds passed as he glared at the man before answering. "I'm afraid of what she can do," he finally said, squaring his shoulders. "I'm afraid of what our world would become if what she preached and believed in became the rule for our way of life. I'm afraid of her, yes."
"She's only a Gifted," Sor Set began to protest.
"No! Not just a Gifted. Had her powers been allowed to gestate, she would have been capable of destroying everything. Everything. Do you understand?"
"Everything," the man echoed.
Roha Non nodded. He exited out the door followed closely by his assistant and they headed for the building where they could keep in contact with the ship that was heading out into the darkness of the universe, preparing to dump its human cargo like so much unwanted refuse.