Thursday, July 23, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part12

by John Shirley



Barba-Doss was a blue world, mostly sea, with five long archipelagoes spreading out like the arms of a starfish from an irregular central landmass, itself only three thousand miles square, all of it the remnants of an explosion from a gigantic primordial volcano. Some of the islands were sun-baked black volcanic rock, fit only for seabirds and crustaceans--some of these sea creatures were native, others were brought from Earth by nostalgic settlers. To a visitor drifting over in a flyer, the island would seem a paradise. He would behold beaches of shining white sands, water of crystal-blue, reefs like roughly carved emerald, the island magnificently verdant with native greenbeard trees, the fields waving their rich bounty of sweetgrains and rumfruit in the mild wind, the turquoise skies flecked with clouds, the weather usually clement...

But paradise was ever a matter of the freedom to enjoy it. The beauty of the planet Barba-Doss seemed removed to another planet entirely, for those men working the surf harvest.


#


Jann, Moss, Derv, Ivan and six others toiled hip deep in the surf, raking up the cultivated crustaceans, dropping them into buckets. Once full, the buckets were carried up to the cart, which had to be pushed back up the beach and up the embankment, then along the rutted path to the waiting automatic trucks. The slaves began at dawn; they quit at sunset. The sun broiled them, reflecting from the water so that their skin went beet-red and peeling, then cracked and oozing, becoming particularly sensitive to the electronlashes of the plantation guards. The rubber boots they were given quickly shredded on the seabed of broken shells and volcanic rock; their prison clothes fell into tatters in the first week, and Gangtofen refused to replace them, as he refused to replace the boots--he called it unnecessary overhead. "Unnecessary" too was medical care and an adequacy of food for slave harvesters. They were always hungry, and could not even secretly eat the oyster-like crustaceans, since they were not oysters at all, but another crustacean that was toxic to human beings, but which could be squeezed to produce a specialized and much sought-after machine lubricant. Gangtofen would not fix the motor on the cart; had it been repaired, it would not be necessary to push it up the beach. It had been broken a year, according to some of the older slaves--emaciated, bearded men with rheumy eyes, who looked twenty and thirty years older than they were.

Over and over they pushed the cart to the road where the robotic trucks idled. The cart itself was heavy; laden, it took all ten of the men in Jann's crew to push it uphill, and even with ten of them it was backbreaking toil. Gangtofen was wealthy, and could afford to import parts for the cart, if he chose. But why bother?

"You'd think that whore's-droppings would get more efficiency using machines for this work," Jann whispered, barely audible over the hiss of the sea, as he labored by Moss's side-- their hands blistered on the rakes, and the salt burned their blisters.

"Oh, yes, harvesting machines are more efficient," Moss murmured, "but we are far out on the edge of the colonized worlds, at the frontier. There are depredations from pirates--and from the Veln." Enemies of the Kastillians, the Veln were a mysterious race said to be crossbred between Earth humans and quasi-reptilian aliens. "Importing harvest robots here is costly," Moss went on. "Slaves are cheap, and relatively plentiful. The Kastillians have hundreds of thousands of slaves, from their 'retaliation raids'. They've begun a breeding program, it's said, so that the children of slaves can be made to work--and any surplus can be sold."

Derv's deep voice rumbled to them. "I've heard that on Indulgence, slaves are put into fields to be hunted down, as sport--and then eaten." Indulgence was the Kastillian's legendary holiday planet--only for the most decadent.

Jann wondered if this tale of murder for sport and cannibalism could be true. The Lady Delphine was a Kastillian. There was an inestimable fineness about her. Could she be of a race capable of such things?

He had glimpsed her only a few times, since he'd been brought here on the transport. She had been riding an actual imported Earth horse, and looked like some mythical goddess astride the legendary beast.

"They really are magnificent creatures," Jann had said, seeing her ride by.

"Yes and the beast she's riding is fine too," Ivan had muttered.

Jann had an impulse to slap Ivan, then, which he'd suppressed--the guards punished fighting, as they punished any digression from the norm. A slave had been beaten half to death for drawing greenbeard trees on strips of bark, with a bit of charcoal. "It's sedition," the guard had said. "I don't know how but it must be. Otherwise why do it?"

Now, Jann paused to watch, through the shifting surface of the sea, as a thin stream of blood spiraled slowly out into the water from a new cut on his right foot. The blood spread out to a fine parachute-shaped membrane in the water and small aquatic creatures darted up to feed from it.

"You!" shouted a guard on the beach. "The Grandee from Paradine! Stop daydreaming! Get back to work!"

For the thousandth time, Jann controlled his temper. He squatted up to his shoulders in the waves to lift a sieve-like bucketful of crustaceans.

Lifting his own bucket, Derv said, "There is another reason, perhaps, that few machines are used here--a reason besides Gangtofen's miserliness. Gangtofen and Drumm enjoy slaves." Drumm was Gangtofen's chief slavewatcher, an enormous man, so pale as to be nearly an albino, and forever reeking of sun-screen oil. "They love the power of it. It's simple sadism."

"Yes," Jann agreed. "Doubtless."

Jann was saving his breath, now, speaking little, as a terrible thirst had hit him and talking made it worse. The sea here was salt, undrinkable, and he was not permitted to drink from the water barrel on the beach until the cart was filled.

There was worse slave-work on Barba-Doss, though, Jann had heard. The sweetgrain fields were on the steep slopes of the dead volcano, and workers there toiled uphill most of the day, carrying even greater weight. There were mines, too, in the undersea colony, and slaves sent there were said to go mad after a few months in the only faintly-relieved darkness. For they were never allowed to come out of the mines and into the illuminated, transparent dome on the sea floor.

Of course all slaves dreamed of escape. But there were four heavily armed human guards watching every crew of ten--some of the guards were Kaswills, assigned by Kastillia to help protect outlying colonies and to supervise slaves. One of the harvesting guards on the beach, Blust, had been their overseer on the ship, was now their chief tormenter at the plantation: the very fellow that the Lady Delphine had stopped when he was about to whip Jann. Blust was always looking for an excuse to lay into the slaves.

The guards were armed with auto-repeater hand cannons, electronlashes, and the heavy Kastillian swords. A rush from the slaves might overwhelm the guards with only some of the slaves dying--but there was an "Id" here too, an older but even more brutal model of penal robot, this one armed with energy beams.

Yet it was a special weapon that Blust carried that provoked the most fear. A small gun the guards called a writher shot a harmless-looking pellet into a man--which was activated by contact with his blood to vigorously burrow, to dig furiously through him with astonishing rapidity like a small living buzz saw, methodically cutting him up from the inside, so that he writhed and screamed as he fell to pieces...The writher was legendary, and the legend was enough to suppress rebellion.

There were women slaves, working the Gangtofen's house and kitchen, but they were kept far separate from the males. Jann had heard the guards gossiping that Gangtofen used the female slaves as he pleased--but tried to hide this vice from his niece.

At last the buckets were full enough. They lugged them up to the cart, dumped them into the hopper. Then Jann hurried over to the water barrel. He bent and drank, drank deeply--and then screamed as the electronlash cut into his back.

He rolled to one side and jumped to his feet, crouched, found himself looking into Blust's narrowed eyes.

"You were not told you could drink yet," Blust said. He held the electronlash in his left hand, its coppery bristles crackled with blue-white sparks; his right hand fingered the small butt of the Writher on his hip.

Jann's back-muscles still quivered, reacting to the shock with a life of their own. He felt fresh blood running down his spine and the blood seemed to trace the course of the cold rage that was running through him.

Jann thought, Why not?

If he rushed the guard he might well get hold of his gun arm, deflect the pellet. With his other hand he might break Blust's neck--and he felt strong enough in his rage, to do just that, yes, one-handed. Perhaps the rest of the slaves would rush the other guards. The Id was on the embankment above them--not in very effective range, though it could move quickly on its treads when it wanted to. What of it? He would improvise.

Jann was poised on the knife edge of action. Blust saw it in his eyes and his own eyes widened. Everything hinged on this second--and less than a second.

Then Derv stepped into view, behind Blust, and caught Jann's eye. Jann knew what was in Derv's mind, then--somehow the Centauran conveyed it with that look.

If you go for him, you commit us too. Don't throw our lives away on rage. Wait!

Jann took a deep breath and slowly let it out. And muttered, "Sorry, sir," to Blust. He trudged past Blust back to the cart. He felt deeply weary now, drained by the sun--and by the burning pain in his back. He hated everyone in that moment--briefly, he hated even Derv.

Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Blust frowning--then glancing over his shoulder at Derv, who towered over him. The guard swallowed, probably guessing that if it had gone any other way, one of the two slaves would have killed him.

Blust tapped his electronlash in his palm--but elected to do nothing more about it now.

Jann knew that the time would come. Blust could wait, too.

So can I, Jann thought. I can wait. But not much longer. It had to be soon, before he was too worn down for escape. Before he died in chains.




Tune in next Monday for SKY PIRATES:Part 13,
by John Shirley





Friday, July 24: a brand-new short story from Keith Graham appears, for the first time anywhere. Keith is a computer programmer, blues harp player, and speculative fiction writer. His story Farewell Tour is a slight departure off the beaten path here. Without giving away too much, let's just say it's a sort of rock'n'roll ghost story. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Farewell Tour, then return Monday for the final week of John Shirley's SKY PIRATES.

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Archive of Stories
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