detail of illustration above by Shasta Lawton

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


by John Shirley

An endless rolling of drums…a rushing sound...

"Jann?" A voice in the darkness. The voice spoke again, and this time he recognized it as Moss. "I think he's coming around..."

He opened his swollen eyes and saw the dimly lit confines of what passed for an infirmary on Gangtofen's plantation. A bare room with a few cots in it. Plaster walls. A single barred window--beyond it a driving rain pounded away much of the daylight: the first flush of the monsoon. Moss and Ivan were seated on stools beside him, and Dribney was lying nearby, still asleep. His neck was purple with bruises.

"Is there...water?" Jann asked, his voice raspy.

Moss nodded, and handed him a plastic cup. "Been trying to give it to you all morning. You kept pushing my hand away."

Jann sat up, grimacing at the pain in his head and neck. Nothing seemed broken but he was horribly bruised. He drank deeply.

"They are going to call us to morning-work in a moment," Ivan said. "I myself spoke to the Lady Delphine, and asked if we might come to tend you before going to work." He grinned with blocky yellow teeth. "I thought that Gangtofen would turn purple and explode when I spoke up, but she persuaded Gangtofen it would be a waste of a slave if you were to die. She convinced him to let us see to you for a time." His smile faded and he went on more gravely, softly. "You are perhaps insane, Jann-- but you have now my deep respect. You did what I longed to do--and I did not have the courage."

Moss nodded. "I too..." He looked away. "Anyhow--the slapgrip was finished when it hit the ground. You seem intact but I'll bet you feel like the breathing dead."

"I don't know that expression, but that seems right. You heard anything of Derv?"

Both men shook their heads slowly, as one.

Jann saw then that Dribney had awakened, was lying on his side looking sleepily at him. "You...saved me. It was going to tear off my head--and drink from my neck." His voice was as hoarse as Jann's.

Jann grunted. "Stupid of me, really."

Dribney gave a sickly grin. "Yes. Because now I will follow you forever--I am your friend, your protector. I will be around you so persistently you will be maddened by the sight of me. You will beg me to go away. But I will mercilessly serve you!"

"No, thanks," Jann said.

"Ah but that is how it will be. It is now your inexorable destiny. But I promise this--if you have a honeymoon, sometime, I will not enter the room. I will only sleep on the doormat, outside."

Jann sighed and looked out at the rain.

"We must make our move as soon as you're well, Jann," Moss said.

"I say we break into the main house and kill them all in their sleep," said Ivan, relishing the idea. "Cut off the head and the body will run blindly."

Jann shook his head--and the pain made him regret it. "The woman...Lady Delphine..."

Moss snorted. "Ivan fantasizes that she cares what happens to you--but she is as bad as the others! Worse! She amuses herself tormenting us with her tales of the new slave collars!"

"I think," said Jann thoughtfully, "that she was warning us. It was her way of saying that if we hope to escape we must do it before the collars are attached to us."

Ivan sat back in surprise. "Do you think so?" He rubbed his chin--and winked. "I thought to see her perusing me, after I spoke up...Perhaps she is in love with me!"

"Could be..."

Then the door burst open, and Blust entered, followed by the Id, and the towering, pallid form of Drumm who held a stropp at ready in his hand. "So!" Blust shouted, waving a crackling electronlash. "The Stumper and the Russian lazing like gutworms in here! You dared to speak to the Lady--did you think we wouldn't punish you for that? And now you contrive an excuse to sit about gossiping! Get out to the square and join the lumber troop! We'll conceive your punishment later!"

Moss and Ivan turned to Jann, and waited--Jann realized they were waiting for a cue from him. He nodded, and they got up and hurried out into the downpour.

It occurred to Jann that because of the slapgrip incident the others had decided he was a leader of some sort. The thought saddened him--he doubted he could live up to it.

Then Drumm, pallid and reeking of sunblock, was glaring down at him. "You disobeyed a direct order and damaged Meister Gangtofen's property!"

It took Jann a moment to realize that by property Drumm meant Jann a Grelle himself. "Sorry," Jann rasped, playing for time. "Instinct."

"You will learn to control your instincts! Were it up to me you'd be shot with the Writher! But the Lady Delphine has insisted that your questionable abilities as a laborer not be wasted--therefore we will give you a chance of surviving. You will be hung by your wrists for three days, with no food or water. Then you will be given thirty electronlashes. If you survive that--and a weakling slumnik like yourself will probably die--why, you may return to your work crew in the forest."

"No!" Dribney said, jumping to his feet. Drumm swung a great snowy fist hard, back-hand into the boy's chin, knocking him flat on his back, out cold.

Drumm nodded at Dribney. "As for the imbecile who likes to play with the local fauna, let him remain here one more day, then send him back to work, Blust. Those are Meister Gangtofen's orders."

"Aye, sir."

"Now, Blust--take this highly instinctive individual to the stake..."


The first day, hanging by his wrists in tough plastic restraints, Jann was lucky--the sky was overcast, though the rains had paused for a time, and he kept drifting in and out of consciousness; sometimes, standing tiptoe, he could just manage to put a little of his weight on the stake he was bound to, and he was almost able to rest. But he was dangling so that his toes just barely reached the ground and by midnight the pain in his arms and shoulders was almost beyond endurance. Only the thought that his dignity was all that remained kept him from shrieking. Sometime after two in the morning, another deluge began down, nearly drowning him. He drank sparingly from the rain. The pain in his shoulders seemed to combine with a gnawing hunger in his belly, till it grew to fill all the cosmos, leaving no room for consciousness. He sagged into a dozing delirium.

Just before dawn, as the rain lashed at him, he woke shivering, thinking he heard a woman's voice. His mother's voice? Was it his mother Sena, telling him she thought him brave for what he'd done, wishing she could help him. "I would help--but I'm too closely watched…." said the soft feminine voice. Why would his mother say she was closely watched? Was she shadowed by some malevolent spirit in the land of death? He looked to see her spirit but saw only the endless gray drizzle, the silhouettes of plantation out buildings around the courtyard, the hulking shape of the main house beyond them. Then there was a soft touch on his shoulder--not exactly a caress, more like a tactile expression of compassion.

Compassion. Had the Lady Delphine been there? He turned his head--thought he glimpsed a hooded figure slipping into the shadows. Perhaps not. Perhaps it had been delirium.

He slipped into a state that alternated dozing with spasms of pain. He could no longer feel his wrists--the pain was mostly in his shoulders and chest and in his calves.

He woke more thoroughly about an hour after dawn--to his great regret.

That second day there was another break in the monsoon. The sun shone brightly, evaporation calling up ghostly wraiths of mist from the stones of the courtyard--and with the sun came thirst, and then a return of delirium. The sunlight seemed to sear over him in molten waves and in his mind's eye multicolored hieroglyphics danced in rhythm with solar pulsations. The hieroglyphics became recognizable shapes. He saw Vonn a Vleet dancing a minuet with the A'taranda, his mother dancing with Gangtofen, and he saw Delphine...Delphine dancing alone...

The hours rolled slowly by. Then, of a sudden, he tasted something beautiful, exquisite, velvety soft. He'd never tasted it before.

It was water. Someone had pressed a sponge full of water to his lips--and it was as if he tasted water for the first time.

He opened his eyes to see Dribney beside him. "Drink, Jann!"

"Get...out of moron..."

"What treachery is this!" snarled Drumm, striding up. "A direct contradiction to my orders! Why aren't you in the forest? You shall pay, boy! You will hang beside this oaf, and the two of you will get sixty lashes for..."

Drumm broke off, looking up as a shadow fell over him. Something in the sky blotted out the sun.

Jann raised his eyes--and smiled grimly. There was a warship in the sky--and its sub-cannons were swiveling to target the plantation's main house.

"The Veln!" shouted Drumm, running to the armory. "The Veln attack!" The massive albino turned and darted into the cover of the forest, shouting for Blust. Other guards were running, shouting. No one was paying the least attention to Dribney and Jann.

Dribney saw his chance. He drew a length of roughly sharpened metal from his belt and sawed through the restraints at Jann's wrists.

Jann fell in a heap, with a cry mingling relief and agony. He forced himself, groaning, to rise enough to lean on Dribney...

And he watched in bleary disbelief as the main house exploded, flying apart like a blown dandelion, its foundations erupting in flame, in a double blast from the sub-cannons. The ground shook, the air thundered--as he and Dribney stumbled into the fields, making their way to the cover of the woods.

The Veln warship's shadow rippled over them; there was cannon-fire from the ground. Air-to-ground hoppers descended from the ship to the plantation storehouses, to begin their looting...

Delphine, Jann thought. What of Delphine? Had she been in the house?

If she'd been in the house, then she had died like his mother…blasted from above. Smashed like a rodent under a boot.

You don't know she was there. She could be alive...

"Where now, Jann?" Dribney asked.

Now? He felt woozy, stunned. The Veln ship drifted over, looking for a landing place. A great plume of smoke arose…

Jann forced himself to think. "The armory--we need weapons. If the Veln don't bother to blow it up…that way! We have to get the others and get to the armory!"

Click Here for Part 15 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Thanks for dropping by, Susan. I'm glad you're enjoying it.


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