Thursday, July 30, 2009


by John Shirley

The Veln seemed more human than reptilian, to Jann's eye, as he watched them from the concealment of the brush overlooking the beach. The lowering sun glanced off the hide of the ship, its light going dull in the gathering dusk. Not far beyond it was the seashore.

The ship was like a smaller version of the one that had landed on Paradine, that fateful day. It was a Kastillian ship, controlled by the Veln. Where was the main Veln ship? Jann wondered.

He couldn't worry about that. He had to make his move…

Three Veln guards played at a variant of dice, out front of the sleek Kastillian cruiser landed horizontally on the beach. They wore loose dark green jumpsuits gathered at the wrists and neck and ankles; their skin was pinkish but streaked with green, the streaks running from the center of their faces back like the stripes of a watermelon. Their eyes, though, were soulless-gold, and slitted; their mouths lipless. They spoke a language he could not understand--sounding like elaborate sighs more than words.

Somewhere in that starcraft, Jann thought, Delphine is held hostage...

There were dunes beyond the ship running along the water line, dropping quickly to the surf. They would provide some cover...

Jann sent Moss and ten men undercover of the brush to a bouldery place where they could make their way to the concealment of the dunes. Then he took the remainder of his men to the place where the woods came closest to the beach, a little peninsula jutting over the sand. He waited till Moss had time to lead his party close enough.

Jann glanced at Derv--who nodded. "Time enough." Jann checked his weapons--a sword in one hand, hand cannon in the other--and then rose up howling. Shouting "Paradine!" he led a rush toward the four guards.

They started up and for precious seconds stared in confusion, fumbling at their side arms and then Jann was firing, his men spreading out and firing beside him. The sentries spun and died as more Veln emerged from the ship--but they were caught by surprise as Moss and his men emerged shrieking from the dunes on their right flank, cutting them down.

Jann rushed into the spacecraft and found the interior of the ship but lightly defended. Jann cut down two Veln rushing toward him along the entry corridor, ran to the cross-hall--and stepped back just in time to avoid two pulses of killing light. The bulkhead to his right blackened and bubbled.

Jann flattened on the deck, then lifted up onto an elbow, and leaned out around the corner, showing himself far lower than the enemy expected. A bolt of light sizzled over his head and then he fired, almost point-blank at the hissing, onrushing Veln, burning through the creature's middle. It crumpled, sighing, and Jann was up, shouting for his men to follow…

It was a short fight. Nine startled Veln lay dead; two of Jann's escaped slaves were dead, three slightly wounded. But the escaped slaves held the starcraft.

The slaves gathered in the Bridge. "Find the crew's quarters," Jann said, "And take what you need. Not you, Moss, if you please. If you think you can fly this thing--get us into orbit…"

Moss grinned wolfishly. "Easily done!"

Ivan looked at him narrowly, as Jann went to find the captain's cabin, as if thinking of challenging his authority. But he shrugged and let well enough alone--Jann had proved himself worthy of the job. For now.

A low ceilinged semicircular room, the captain's cabin was not as large and well appointed as Jann expected. But he found a small bathroom and a closet stocked with clothes that could be prompted to adjust their size for the wearer. He cleaned himself up, changed into the Kastillian captain's uniform--only removing the insignia. Then he found Ivan and Dribney and they went in search of Delphine.

In a scallop-shaped aft compartment, locked from without, Jann and Ivan found Gangtofen and Delphine and Oraclis. They were scowling and pallid after being locked up for two days together. But Delphine drew in a sharp breath and a broad smile lit her face as Jann and his men burst in. Only Gangtofen seemed worried by the guns in their hands.

"So they captured Master Gangtofen too," Jann said. " are free now. At least...from the Veln."

"What do you mean?" Gangtofen demanded, scowling, eyes darting. Then he seemed to think better of his indignation, in light of the situation. "That is--you shall be given due consideration for liberating us from these barbarians, of course. Why, some of you may be allowed to go free! In time."

The former slaves laughed. Delphine compressed her lips to hide a smile and looked at the floor. Oraclis looked suitably grave. "I demand protection for the Lady Delphine."

Gangtofen blinked, as if reminded of a part he was expected to play. "Yes--protection for my niece."

Jann bowed to Gangtofen--surprising Ivan. "No one will touch her," Jann said.

"Unless of course," Ivan said, "She wants someone to--"

He broke off, shrugging, at Jann's lethal glare.

"Ivan," Dribney said, "I'd have to call you an oaf if you weren't outclassed in oafishness by Gangtofen here."

Jann turned back to Oraclis. Derv had made it clear that Oraclis was a secret abolitionist--and Jann was prepared to go to any length to keep that secret. "You, Savant, will remain here with the other parasitic invertebrate--" He indicated Gangtofen, who went scarlet; but, aware of the guns held loosely in their hands, Gangtofen kept silent. "But the lady may have the freedom of the ship. I will escort her to see she is protected..."

Delphine arched her eyebrows. "I prefer to stay with my uncle." She didn't say it very convincingly.

"You may wish to go to a cabin of your own, to freshen up," Jann suggested.

Delphine glanced at Oraclis--though it was her uncle who was theoretically her guardian.

Oraclis shrugged. "You have been complaining of feeling cooped up. I believe this ruffian will keep you safe. Go with him to the bridge, if you like…but take your communicator, call me if there is any trouble."

"And what good will it do if she calls you, with us locked in here?" Gangtofen said. "I insist that we all have freedom of the ship…"

"You will remain locked in here for your own safety, Meister Gangtofen" Jann said. "I'd prefer to allow the men to do as they like with you. Which would probably involve a writher. You deserve no better! But… We feel compelled to consider the lady's feelings: Your being kin to her…"

Ivan shook his head in disgusted amazement. "You don't intend to let this bastard live?"

Jann shrugged. "I must. And so must you, therefore--I have been selected leader. I am now captain of this ship. You will not harm Gangtofen unless he attempts escape."

"Oh, but Jann--!"

"Ivan--look at him, making demands on us, then cowering in the corner. He is pitiful, ridiculous. His plantation has been razed by the Veln. He's a figure of fun now--let it go."

Jann gestured toward the door and Delphine went with graceful dignity into the corridor. Ivan hesitated just inside the compartment, hands balled into fists, eyeing Gangtofen. "Jann--at least let me kick him a few times. A few good kicks in that substantial gut of his…"

Gangtofen backed away, sputtering, crossing his hands protectively over his middle.

"Sorry, Ivan. Come along."

Ivan came grumbling into the corridor and Jann locked the door.


The former slaves laughed at Ivan's description of Gangstofen's bluster and fear--laughed at it over and over again, as the story spread through their new ship.

For theirs it was--they'd captured it, and they would make it their own. The engines were equipped for quantum slaves--but they did not require quantum slaves. There was a store of crescentium fuel aboard that could be used instead, just as ancient slave-driven galleys could be propelled by sails as well as oars.

Moss found the Kastillian starcraft's controls intuitive, and he took it into orbit, engaging the artificial gravity.

No one tried to stop them. No Veln ship was at hand because the Kastillian fleet was on the way. The Veln had vacated the planet. The escaped slaves would have to do the same, and soon.


"I was surprised to see you come through that door," Delphine said, as she and Jann stood in the orbiting starcraft's observation bubble, looking at the blue-gray arc of the planet below them. "Last I knew…"

"Last you knew you saw me hanging from handcuffs," Jann said, chuckling. He was doing his best to seem urbane and in control, but he was dazed, himself, by all that'd happened--and by her close proximity. He could smell her perfume, and something she used on her hair. She seemed small beside him, in a way--and yet he could feel her life force, her personality, like a humming dynamo.

"You do well to pretend contempt for Oraclis," she said, "he has been helping slaves escape for some time now. He hopes to continue to help them. And--he funnels money to activists on Kastillian. Not everyone there is…indifferent to suffering. There are a great many who don't like the monarch; who would like a democracy and an end to the barbarism of--" She turned to look at him and as their eyes locked she broke off, and finished, weakly, a few moments later, "…of slavery." She looked quickly away, then, back at the planet turning ponderously below.

Jann ached to take her in his arms. But this was not the time--and when he considered it, he reckoned he'd be a fool to ever hope for a right time. He was an escaped prisoner; in this part of the galaxy he would be viewed as a fugitive from justice. Because he was determined to make the Kastillians pay for what they'd done on Paradine--and for their use of slaves across the galaxy--he would soon be burned with another brand: pirate.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have agreed to leave the compartment," Delphine said, sighing. "It doesn't look quite…right. But I thought I'd go mad in there with my uncle. He's scarcely bearable in the open air. And…I wanted to talk to you alone." She glanced at him--then quickly looked back at the view of Barba-Doss.

"You are opposed to slavery," Jann said. "So am I. Why not fight it head on? You know a good deal of Kastillian ways--their trade routes, perhaps? You are highly placed--you might be able to access passwords to their communiqués. You could help us set slaves free through direct action…"

"Direct action." Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"I intend to use this vessel to strike at their trade. And to free more slaves--some of them will want to join us in making the Kastillians pay a…we might think of it as a substantial back salary for the work we've done for them. And for many other indignities."

"You're talking about piracy! You won't be able to keep control of your followers--people will die in your raids. But there are alterna-
tives! You could go to Earth--demand an investigation, testify--"

He chuckled dryly. "The other Paradinian landowners would have communicated with Earth about my case--did they intervene? My mother was killed in retaliation for my attempts to stay alive. My house razed, my land lost. How much time passed since then? What did they do to help me? I am no one to them--a landless yokel on a far planet. They will not help me. I'll have to help myself, Delphine. I was hoping that you might help me--I mean, help all of us…"

She took a step back from him. "What happened to you was criminal. But I will not add criminality to criminality."

"Isn't it criminal, technically, to help slaves escape? You have been helping Oraclis do just that…"

"Without violence!"

Jann shrugged. "Without today's violence you would still be the prisoner of the Veln. What I intend is the liberation of slaves."

"Your men seem more interested in looting than liberation, judging from what I've overheard on this ship."

"Looting may in this case lead to liberation." But he wondered for a moment--was she right? Was there recourse, elsewhere?

But no. He couldn't bear any course but retaliation--revenge. He was burning with it, and if he didn't release that fire, it would consume him. He shook his head. "I don't feel that I…that I'm qualified to lead these men. But if I don't do it they'll try something of the sort on their own. Maybe I'll crash them into a sun somewhere, with my leadership. But I'm going to try to lead them…"

"You'd better take me to my quarters," she said abruptly. Her voice seemed hoarse. Her eyes moist.

He looked at her closely. Could she really feel something for him? "Delphine could you…give me a means to contact you, at least? I simply wish to know that you're…that you're safe. And perhaps if I release slaves who don't want to join me, you'll know where they can be sent…somewhere safe and, ah…"

It was the only excuse he could think of to stay in touch with her.

She nodded and said stiffly, "Yes. I'll give you an interworld number. Now if you don't mind…"

He bowed. "Of course. You shall have the captain's cabin…"


Despite Jann's protection, the men were all for killing Gangtofen. Preferably, with excruciating slowness. But Jann was painfully aware that the Meister was Delphine's relative. He finally chose to set him down alone, on the beach, a hundred miles from his plantation, with a little food and weaponry.

"And what of me?" Delphine demanded, as if they hadn't privately worked it out already.

"Why--" Jann shrugged. "--you and Oraclis will go with me--as hostages! And in time I will collect a ransom for you."

But after stranding Gangtofen, Jann took the starcraft to the nearest neutral planet, the desert world Deragna, where Oraclis and Delphine were set free at the mining world's only spaceport, at the Earth-operated settlement Dera-Quetorum. There, Oraclis let it be known that he had paid "unnamed brigands" a ransom for himself and the lady Delphine--Jann thought it best that the fictional ransom be announced, so that Gangtofen and the Kastillian government would not suspect that Oraclis and Delphine had any sympathy for runaway slaves…

She has no feelings for this runaway slave, Jann thought, as he watched the desert planet dwindle in the viewport. Other than for compassion--the compassion of her tender heart, her generous nature. How could she? She had to sense his self loathing, his feelings of unworthiness to live as a man, after his failure on Paradine. His bringing death and destruction down on Vonn. He didn't know who he was angrier at--the Kastillians or himself. And surely she sensed that. Surely she sensed that inner gnawing in him. It couldn't make him attractive to her, nor to any perceptive woman.

But against all reason, as the ship Jann had renamed The Lady Delphine plunged through space to the trade routes plied by Kastillian freighters, he found himself hoping… Imagining himself and Delphine on Paradine, riding side by side on a behemoth, through the springtime clouds....

End of the Sky Pirates Novella


  1. Nice work. I think you got the style and feel you were going for pretty well.

    Thanks very much!

  2. I found this story heart-breaking, but I had to finish it.


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