DEVIL'S WEEK

Here we have an extra-special treat, Freezine aficionados. Because just this last Halloween, the Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction proudly presented a brand new, never-before-published short story from veteran author John Shirley. So if you're ready to be taken to an extremely dark place right now, then be sure to read on for our final tale for this autumnal season, THE SOFTEST PILLOW, by John Shirley.


Cemetery Art above by Shaun Lawton


Thursday, July 16, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part 8

by John Shirley




Two Kastillians fell, screaming with crossbow bolts, and then the others opened fire with their hand cannons and pulsers and the green-energy tubes, and half the oncoming Ranchers fell in a wave of death--it seemed to Jann that they were devastated by a bombardment of thunder and lightning. But then the surviving Ranchers were upon the Kaswills with scimitars, stabbing with daggers, and the Kastillians fell back, or fell dead.

Five of the Kastillians backed toward the creeper field, bringing their weapons to bear on the Ranchers--but the Kaswills had stepped back into the reach of the creepers, which whipped their purple tentacles around their legs and dragged them to ripping suckers. The Kastillian soldiers screamed piteously. The creepers showing even more killing zeal than usual, as if sensing on some primitive level that these men were invaders attacking those who had cultivated them.

Other Kastillians jumped into flyers--leaving their companions shouting angrily behind. The abandoned turned to face the Ranchers, and the fighting became close and fierce.

Jann hurried toward the battle, stumbling, falling on his face, getting up and hobbling painfully onward, shouting, "For Grelle Manor! For Sena a Grelle!".

A man shaped of flame ran toward him: a Rancher, his clothes having caught fire from the glance of an energy weapon. The man fell thrashing, dying at Jann's feet, dropping his scimitar. Jann muttered a prayer to the Great Organizer for the twitching, burning man, even as he picked up the sword--not caring the hilt burned his hand. And then he ran into the thick of the fighting.

"Murderers!" Jann shouted, and struck at a bearded Kastillian face; the sword sank in, and stuck edge--on from the man's forehead down: splitting his nose lengthwise, halving his mouth. The man clawed whimpering at the blade as Jann placed a boot on the ruined face and pulled the sword free.

He turned, dodged aside, barely escaping a pulser beam fired by a thick-bodied man shouting in wordless rage. The man then aimed very deliberately at Jann's belly--but the Kastillian went down with a bolt through the side of his neck. A crossbow bolt fired by Vonn a Vleet.

Vonn now stepped protectively in front of Jann--and immediately staggered back as he caught three Stropp rounds, bullets intended for Jann, the wounds stitched across Vonn's chest.

Vonn grunted and sagged onto his knees, then fell onto his back, his knees still tucked awkwardly under him. Jann threw the scimitar at the gunman, and it found its mark--the man stumbled back, stunned. A Free Rancher dispatched him.

Jann knelt beside Vonn, straightening his legs. Vonn gasped and pointed at the sky as Jann wept over him.

"Go there...return...go and return..." Vonn a Vleet rasped through blood welling over his lips. He seemed to stare into some private vision that filled the sky.

The gunfire and energy bursts had stopped--and a shadow fell over the field.

Jann looked up to see three enormous consecutive circles of gray blotting out the sky: the three linked segments of the Kastillian starcraft, which hovered rumbling perhaps three hundred yards overhead...

Green and gold bolts flashed down from muzzles extruding from the starcraft's underside, precision-fired with the help of a computer, and five, six, seven--eight Ranchers fell. The survivors scattered into the strip of woods bordering the grain field.

Jann picked Vonn up in his arms, and took one unsteady step...

He heard the whine of a projectile, and then there was a blinding flash of white--he was struck unconscious before he could hear the sound of the explosion.







Chapter the Third: You Are at the Beginning of the End of Your Life





"Where am I?" Jann asked.

He knew there were people in the room with him, though he seemed to be blindfolded. He was lying on a padded table of some kind.

He felt parched, his head throbbing, his body a feast of aches--in his delirium he imagined little creatures feeding on him, their serrated beaks digging into his wounds.

"Where am I? Where?" Jann repeated, more insistently. "What day is this?"

"You," said a bored male voice, "are at the beginning of the end of your life. You're a prisoner, of course. Now shut up and do us a favor--and die so we don't have to tend to you."

"They insist we save this one," said another voice in the darkness. "They have plans for him."

Jann tried to see who was speaking, but when he turned his head he could feel the bandages effectively blindfolding his eyes.

"Healing them can use up as much value as they might have as slaves," said another voice.

"Oh, it's not just for that. It's political. They need someone to stand trial, so it can all be...explain the reprisals, that kinda…"

Jann didn't hear the rest, it was blotted out by the sound of his own voice, his own uncontrollable bellowing of pain and rage.

He lashed out, and his fist caught someone's face--he felt a satisfying smack of knuckles on cartilage.

"Stinking death! Give him a shot before I put the misbegotten yokel out of his misery for good!"

He felt the needle stab deep into his right thigh--and darkness gushed from the needle, a cold shadow spreading into him and all through him, carrying with it a pitiless cycle of spiteful dreams.


#


"Ho! A dimpkin!" said the big Alpha Centauran with a sad chuckle, as Jann was thrust into the cell through the temporary door. The door sealed, becoming a seamless wall behind him.

The cell was an oblong of about twelve yards in length and eight feet high--or that was its shape at the moment. The walls were of a flexible material, unbreakable but with just a little give; an internal mesh responsive to commands from a central computer changed the shape of the cell as the jailers desired. The cell offered no windows, no visible light-source; the walls gave off bleak luminescence. The floor was uniformly padded for sleeping. The only features Jann saw at present were a small hole in the floor, he supposed for absorbing wastes, and a nozzle in the ceiling over the hole for showering. And where the walls curved together on Jann's left was a node of red glass.

The prisoner who'd called him a dimpkin was big enough to be authentically classed a giant. He was sitting with his knees drawn up, his back against the grimy plasflex wall of the prison cell. Jann had never seen a Centauran in person before, but the man's bushy bone-white hair, his droopy yellowish face, and gangly giant's frame made him a typical denizen of Pren-Thak, the only inhabitable planet around the star Alpha Centauri. Like most Centaurans he was at least two and two-thirds yards tall.

A dimpkin, had he said? A dimpkin was a grazing creature, looking somewhat human but stupid, docile and four-legged, a creature which drunken spacers on the planet Dritch were known to couple with when they lacked a woman. It was also slang for the weakest man in a prison cell. Jann hoped--in a despairing, detached sort of way--that the giant wasn't the sexual predator type. He would struggle helplessly in those big hands.

"I see by your expression you don't like my sense of humor," the giant said. "Few do. It's a sad wit, and simple. So then, if you're not a dimpkin, who or what are you?"

"I am Jann a Grelle, a DemiLord of Paradine," said Jann, as proudly as he could manage.

Jann could manage little pride, however--he felt mostly a kind of infinite dejection. The cosmos now seemed a vast passion play for celebrating tragedy and death--and guilt: his own guilt at the consequences of his impulsiveness, his indifference to counsel. He looked about him and took dull note of whatever he saw, but inwardly he felt like an automaton, going through the motions.

"A DemiLord! Most impressive!" said a deep voice behind him, dripping irony.

Jann turned to see a squat, barrel-chested man with waist-length dreadlocks and a short spiky beard whose legs seemed twice too thick. He was probably from one of the heavy planets in the Sirius system, Jann thought. Maybe the planet Xantipix, double the size of Paradine.

This was confirmed as the froggish face split in a grin and the man went on, "I'm a 'Dirt Lord' from Xantipix," said the Stumper. The residents of heavy planets were called Stumpers in the interstellar vernacular. Like Jann and the Alpha Centauran, the Stumper wore featureless prison coveralls the color of luminous bile; over each prisoner's right pectoral was a scan-code indicating his number and crime.

"A Dirt Lord?" Jann was trying to be polite. "Is that, er, a kind of, ah..."

"He's toying with your head, there, because you said you were a DemiLord, don't you know," said the Centauran.

Jann shrugged. "Do you have names?"

"I'm called...." And the Xantipixian said a name that might be written Msznzossz.

"Uh--Muzoss?" Jann asked.

The Stumper sighed. "Call me Moss. Everyone does."

"I fear that I am Dervnek Zlanda," said the giant, mournfully. "In my planetary language, it means 'an additional burden'--for so my parents thought of me. Just call me Derv."

"How long have you been here?"

"Me? About what you would call two months. A little more. Two months of sameness--except when the artificial gravity failed, for an hour. I became quite nauseated, floating about, but it was a lively contrast."

"Artificial gravity? We're in space?"

"You didn't know? You are on Kastillia IntraColony 87. Once a research colony, now converted to a penal holding station. Here we are adjudged and sent to our deaths--or to become slaves, in their plantations or...or on their ships." The words on their ships were said with a weighty foreboding that sent a chill through Jann. "Moss has been here twice two months--we're waiting for the circuit judge, who is said to be coming soon..."

"It's just we three, then?" Jann asked, with no real interest.

"No," said the wall behind Moss. "I'm in here."

The voice had come from a sort of navel in the wall and air holes that looked like finger-pokes in dough. Through one of the holes Jann could see a human eye, of dark-brown hue, regarding him gravely. "I am Ivan Damuskoff, from Russia."

"What system holds the planet Russia?" Jann asked.

The others guffawed. "Truly he's an innocent!" said Moss.

The man folded into the wall sighed. "It's a country of Old Earth."

"A man from Earth?" Jann tried to seem interested. Before the destruction of his family and the Manor, he would have been. "I've never met an Earthman. Of course my ancestors were from there, but…we don't think of ourselves as Earthers."

"I am a Russian," Ivan insisted, sniffing.

"They've clutched him in there because he pretended to be sick and then jumped a guard," said Derv. "Worth trying but doomed to failure, of course."

"The wall will open soon, and his isolation will be done," said Moss. "He's been in there his seven days."

"To think I yearn to be out into that cell, which is just a slightly larger clutching," Ivan muttered. "I fervently curse all Kastillians. I wish to bed their mothers, one by one! And when I'm done with that, why--"

He went on cursing in a language Jann didn't know, probably an Earth dialect.

"Ah," said Jann, sinking down onto the floor, his back against the wall, "there I agree with you--even with the words I don't understand. The Kastillians. For the first time I could happily see an entire planet wiped out."

But even as he said it, he knew that he did not believe it. Suddenly he remembered Vonn a Vleet standing with him on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the plains. "The ranchers and the plainsmen are there below you. The harvesting classes and the Independents and the elite manor lords. The sea farers, on the coast, yonder. Immigrants from space come from time to time: there is a colony of Centaurans, on the other side of Paradine Prime, and there are Kastillian merchants in Lapis, and there are Greneks, and Fibincians, and Meremecks, and the coldblooded Repsin-simians, and the Xantipixians, and Renapps--all those are in Lapis. And countless more across the known spaceways. I have heard it said that there are yet hidden colonies of the supposedly extinct Paradinian natives deep under the sea, for they were an aquatic race. On Earth humanity is mostly merged into the Blended, but there are still recognizable Asians and Africans and Latins to be found. All these and more, Jann--including alien races we have not yet encountered...And each sentient being, human and inhuman, has an individual experience of life! We may have to come into conflict with them in fulfilling our part of the great drama--so be it. But who are we to hate them, to judge them, no matter their cruelties, their disparities? For all are united in the struggle to live without suffering--and by the suffering they must endure while they struggle. We should not hate them--even when we have to kill them."

"They say hate helps a man kill," Jann had said.

"Why so it does. But it blinds him too. If you need to kill, a truly Soldierly man will do it from an austerity, an objectivity. If you truly must kill them, in self defense, then do it. But all the while--respect them.
"

Now Jann shook his head in sad wonder at how every word came back to him--how deeply Vonn had impressed him. Vonn had been a vital, sharply defined person, a monument to self discipline and learning and the soldierly ideal. His own departed father seemed a genial blur by comparison. His father had been a kindly, abstracted man of all too few words, but Jann had loved him--and had long ago lost him. Now he had lost them both, and his kindly, dreamy mother too.

Vonn was surely dead--Jann had sensed only the faintest, diminishing life in him, as he'd picked his teacher up. He'd felt Vonn dying. Then Jann had been struck down, and Vonn had fallen from his arms.

Yes. Vonn was surely dead, and he, Jann a Grelle, was alone in the universe, torn from his land and torn from his world. He'd never see his skyherd again; he might well never see a sky again at all. He'd never see the green and dun plains, the gardens and fields of the Grelle lands again. Doubtless Grelle would be seized for nonpayment of taxes, in time, and Baron a Gollden would buy the property at a song. For he had tried to buy the land in the past and Sena had refused him.

As for the future--there was only the question of how he was to die, and how long it would take. And the only certainty was the evil blandness of this prison cell.



Click Here for Part 9 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley






Check the Freezine tomorrow,
FRIDAY, JULY 17: When we host David Agranoff's
A Planet Of Your Own

David Agranoff is the author of the short story collection Screams From A Dying World, just published by Afterbirth Books. David is a hardcore vegan and his contributions to the punk horror scene have already established him as a bright young star to watch out for.

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Archive of Stories
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David is a busy man, usually at work
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