Artwork for
Vincent Daemon's Vietnam short story
OF CADENCE AND WEATHERED STATUES
by Kara Koma and Shaun Lawton


Friday, July 31, 2009

JULY ISSUE


Proudly Presents


SKY PIRATES
by John Shirley
© by john shirley

click pic to begin reading Part 1



NIGHT FLAMERS
by Johnny Strike
© by johnny strike




A PLANET OF YOUR OWN
by David Agranoff
© by david agranoff



FAREWELL TOUR
by Keith Graham
© by keith graham




THE FREEZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION WILL FEATURE A NEW ISSUE EVERY OTHER MONTH, FOR A TOTAL OF SIX ISSUES A YEAR, GIVE OR TAKE. THE EDITORS ARE STRIVING TO MAINTAIN HIGHER QUALITY AND GIVE READERS TIME TO CATCH UP WITH ARCHIVED STORIES. BETWEEN NOW AND THE END OF AUGUST, JULY'S ISSUE FEATURING THE PREMIERE OF JOHN SHIRLEY'S SKY PIRATES WILL BE SHOWCASED HERE FOR ALL TO DISCOVER AND ENJOY.

STAY TUNED FOR SEPTEMBER WHEN THE FREEZINE UNVEILS SHOCKING NEW MATERIAL FROM SURPRISE GUEST AUTHORS.

WE AT THE FREEZINE ARE DEDICATED TO SHOWCASING THE LATEST IN CUTTING EDGE SPECULATIVE FICTION. IF YOU ARE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR AND WISH TO SHOWCASE YOUR MATERIAL IN A FUTURE EDITION OF THE FREEZINE, PLEASE CONTACT THE EDITORS AT FREEZINEFANTASYSCIENCEFICTION@GMAIL.COM.
DO IT EVEN IF YOU AREN'T A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. TO CATCH UP WITH WHAT THE FREEZINE IS ALL ABOUT, GO HERE.

Thank you to all the FOLLOWERS who dared to join up. Without you this endeavor would be futile. Please remember to spread the word about this free online publication. With your help, the editors and myself will be better armed to multiply the meme of cutting edge speculative fiction into a worn down world that seems to be on the verge of swallowing itself whole.

HELP US ALL OUT and tell all your friends and fellow writers, dreamers, pirates, and poets about this thing. Together we can generate enough windpower to fill the sails of this WebShip, and set it aloft upon the choppy waters of speculative literature.

In addition, heartfelt Thanks go out to John Shirley, Johnny Strike, David Agranoff, and Keith Graham for submitting your prose. Without you we would never have been able to get this ball rolling. The nanofleet is assimilating your material "to stockpile their dreamscape with"--whatever that means...



Click Here For SEP/OCT 2009 ISSUE

Thursday, July 30, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part16

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. "Well...you 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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part15

by John Shirley





Most of the Kastillian overseers were in hiding from the Veln. There was only one guard at the armory: Blust was just inside, when the escaped slaves arrived, their overseer standing with his back to the door, talking into a headset communicator and hefting a hand cannon as he told the other guards: "If you fools don't come out of the forest and meet me at the armory I'll see to it that you're all jailed for treasonous insubordination! I don't care if the Veln are still patrolling the area--what do you think you're going to do in the forest, live on grubs? We need to regroup and for that you'll need ammunition! Now meet me at…"

He broke off as he turned toward the door--and saw Jann standing there, smiling faintly, staring unblinkingly at him. "Careful, Jann!" Ivan said. "He's got a hand cannon!"

"He hasn't put a clip into it," Jann said casually. "It's not loaded."

Blust looked down in horror at the gun--then looked around desperately at the racks of weapons for something ready to use. Jann chose that moment to lunge, slamming his right shoulder into Blust's solar plexus. Blust grunted and staggered backward, falling with Jann atop him. Jann fastened his hands on Blust's throat and squeezed. Blust tried to batter at him with the butt of the weapon but Ivan, chuckling, wrestled it away from him.

"How well I remember the time he 'lashed me until I was out cold!" Ivan said. "Let me at him for awhile, Jann!"

But pent-up rage was taut in Jann's fingers. He couldn't let go until long after Blust ceased to move.

As he stood, he noticed that he didn't feel much better, seeing Blust dead. He could only think, He's just the first one. There's Drumm…there are others…There is a whole planet that must pay...


#


The raid on the armory had yielded more weapons than the escaped slaves needed. Twenty-four hours rest in a secluded spot in the woods had restored most of Jann's strength, and he was sitting cross-legged in late afternoon sun, in a small clearing with Moss, Ivan, and Dribney. Twenty-two others lolled in the shade nearby; a few stood sentry; all of them awaited his orders. Rallying the slaves had come easily now that word of the coming collars had gotten around. But he found himself wondering, again, how he had become their leader.

Could he live up to it? Jann had serious doubts--he'd lost a lot of confidence in himself after what had happened on Paradine. He had let Vonn down--and by extension, his mother. And they'd died because of the decisions he'd made. How could he make decisions for these men?

He had no clear idea what to do next. The Veln were still looting the planet, the Kastillians were still a danger--for their survivors had gone to ground, too, and once the Veln had gone the Kastillians would come looking for the slaves. Perhaps any minute now.

There were navigators and technicians, amongst his men--if they could but steal a starcraft, there might be a way to organize a series of strikes at the Kastillians. If he released slaves--he could also recruit slaves.

But he could do nothing until he found out what had become of Delphine. Foolish or not, it was how he felt. Was she still alive? That explosion…A servant from Gangtofen's estate who'd escaped the Veln had told Moss that Delphine was away, with Gangtofen, at the time of the explosion…But the Veln were raiding across the planet…Anything might've happened to her. Foolish to obsess on a woman he didn't really know. And yet…

"Jann!" hissed one of the sentries. "Someone's coming!"

Jann signaled for silence and the rebels slipped into the forest, hiding to either side of the thin trail. A tall, broad shouldered, bushy haired figure came swaggering up the trail, unarmed. The little green primate Jann had seen in the forest was riding, like a pet, on the Centauran's shoulder. "You fools can come out of hiding!" Derv called. "It's just me!"

Jann stepped out onto the trail, smiling. "Derv--you got away from Oraclis?"

"There's a surprising story in that..."

"How'd you find us?"

"Easy for a Centauran--you clumsy oafs leave a trail a Centauran infant could follow!"

"Ha!" said the little primate. "Fools! And I could smell them much afar! How could we miss them, with such a smell!"

"Not much chance for bathing hereabouts," said Moss. "What became of you, Derv? And who's your, ah, little friend?"

"This fellow? This is Remple…Well, let me sit in the shade, and I'll tell you...after that day they nailed me with the trank gun..."


#


Derv had awakened in a comfortable room, in bed. A small creature was crouched on the end of the bed--Remple. The little green tentacled primate advised Derv to eat the food set out beside him. At first he was afraid to eat, so Remple ate some, showing it wasn't drugged or poisoned.

"Boss will be here, soon," Remple told him, as Derv ate.

"Boss? Who's that?"

"Why, the one who saved you from the plantation! Oraclis! My boss!" The primate thumped his small chest. "He raise me! I am his number one spy!" He had been raised from earliest infancy and trained by Oraclis.

"Are you the result of one of his…his experiments--perhaps a brain transplant?" Derv had asked fearfully, thinking of Oraclis' reputation. Remple was insulted by this.

"There are no experiments," Oraclis had said, coming in. Without his lens-eyes, his ridiculous makeup and supercilious expression, Oraclis looked quite different. And talked differently--because he was not now "in character," as he put it. He explained to Derv that the experiments were a myth he himself had spread to create a fearful image for himself; to discourage snooping. The stories of terrifying scientific experiments kept the Kastillians at bay.

"But--what of me?" Derv had asked.

"We will help you escape…which brings me to my real project. A secret project--of quite another sort."

He told Derv of his true agenda, swearing him to secrecy. Oraclis was in fact a spy for a group of Kastillians opposed to slavery. Like Delphine, he was secretly a Kastillian abolitionist. He maintained a certain effete veneer to deceive the Kastillian high command.


#


...Listening to Derv in the forest, Jann sat up straight and stared at him. "About Delphine--did you say she's against slavery? She works with Oraclis?"

"So Oraclis says," Derv said, nodding. "She always did seem to find a way to help us, you remember, talking rings around that dolt Gangtofen. Then on the sly, she and Oraclis smuggled out half a dozen escaped slaves over the last few years."

The men crowded around Derv gasped and shook their heads in wonder. Dribney said it for them: "Oraclis--that weird old goggle-eye…helping slaves to escape!"

Derv nodded ruefully. "Oraclis took a chance telling me--but it was so that I could work with him. Because of the slave collars he thought there had to be a mass escape, and I might help arrange it--but then came the attack of the Veln, and chaos! He sent me to find you, and he went to find Delphine…I guess he took some kind of transport with her and Gangtofen, to escape the Veln! I went back to the camp to find you--and followed your tracks here. I had to dodge a patrol of Kastillians--I was hiding from them…but they were hiding from the Veln!"

The escaped slaves guffawed at that.

"But there's bleak news, Jann," Derv went on earnestly. "I heard the Kastillians talking as they passed, while I hid in the brush. Gangtofen, Oraclis and Lady Delphine have been taken...by the Veln! Their transport was intercepted, and the Veln have take it over. Delphine and Oraclis are being held hostage in the captured Kastillian ship." He smiled crookedly. "The patrol was concerned about it--because after paying a ransom Gangtofen might not be able to pay their salaries."

"They're in a Kastillian starcraft?" Jann asked, his pulse racing. "Is it in orbit?"

"From what I could make out, it landed about seven miles south of here. The Veln are waiting for a ransom to come through. If they don't get it, and soon--they'll kill Delphine and Oraclis." After a moment he added, "Oh--and Gangtofen."

Jann stood up and looked at the escaped slaves. "A Kastillian ship, boys, is just what we need--to get out of this wretched paradise…"




Click Here for Part 16, the final installment of SKY PIRATES, by John Shirley

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part14

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 here...you 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

Monday, July 27, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part13

by John Shirley






Chapter the Fifth: Some Call It Piracy



Five more days passed--and nights of whispered plans in the locked-down slave quarters. But in Jann's mind the escape must be part of a general revolt and most of the slaves expressed a fear of joining in. Fear of the writher, the electronlash, or one of Gangtofen's rather old-fashioned punishments: hanging by your wrists in the sun for three days without water. So no revolt took place.

Then it was announced that crustacean harvesting season was over--now they would toil in the greenbeard forests, cutting trees. The jade-colored lumber was prized for sculpture and furniture on Kastillia. The work involved big manual saws, hauling on heavy cables, then days cutting up one of the huge trees--it was arduous, and dangerous. A slave whose name Jann had never learned, a convicted criminal from Kastillia, was crushed when a tree fell badly. The man whimpered for a doctor, but Blust said, "Doctors? Doctors are an expense! Let this be a lesson in carelessness to you others!" And he simply cut the man's throat.

But at least here in the forest was shade, and a ground less ruinous on the feet. There were occasional streams, and it was cool; they were not so parched in the forest. The mulch gave off a rich scent of spicy, musky perfume tingling faintly with menthol. The tall red-brown trunks of the trees struck a high, straight grandness against the forest shadows, like the determination of all life to assert verticality against the pull of the horizontal; the trees dangled thick green beardlike fronds like motion-captured waterfalls, contrasting with the red and black soil, the brown fallen leaves. More than once Jann thought he was being forced to commit a crime, in felling the greenbeards.

In the mornings, when sunlight shafted through to glisten the mist that clung to the roots and boles of the great trees, the slave's voices became hushed in an indefinable atmosphere of ancient sacredness, when every sound seemed strangely loud.

When Jann began again to brood blackly about Vonn taking bullets meant for him-- about his mother crushed in her own house, and he not even being there for her funeral-- it helped to think about someone else, and he found that something in Dribney a Gensinger.

Dribney had been a month past his eighteenth birthday when the Kastillians had taken him from Paradine. He had come with his Father and the other free ranchers, all of them following Vonn to avenge Grelle Manor. Dribney had watched as his own father and Vonn were struck down--he'd seen his father cut nearly in half by the force of a sword-stroke--and he had nearly died in the slave harnesses of His Majesty's Fervent Impulse. Slender, lank-haired, sensitive and clumsy, Dribney had cut a poor figure with the cattle-riders of the free ranches. He was intelligent but expressed it mostly in a poetic whimsy and his baroque sense of humor.

Jann had instinctively taken the new slave under his wing, telling himself it was because the boy was from Paradine and had known Vonn a Vleet--but perhaps it was also out of some nostalgia for his own lost innocence. He hadn't been so very different from Dribney.

Dribney routinely talked of escape, and made grandiose plans about what they would do--how they would steal away in a spaceyacht and become fabulously wealthy interworld pirates; how they would buy "the most embarrassingly, shamelessly opulent mansion and just endlessly disport with dancing girls in microscopic outfits of ridiculously bad taste." He made Jann smile--laughter was beyond Jann, or so it seemed--and Jann helped him carry his lumber. Soon, Moss, Derv and even Ivan took to keeping a paternal watch over Dribney. The atmosphere of the forest and their torn and frayed comradeship--only these kept them sane.

Still their backs ached; still their stomachs ceaselessly begged. During a rare break, a great hairy oaf called Sputch caught a small cyclops-eyed squirrel-like creature that hopped from tree to tree like a frog--Sputch tore its head off, drank its blood, and then offered to share the raw meat with Jann "for a favor to be named later". Jann politely declined--both for himself and for Dribney.

That same day Jann met another creature of the forest: for suddenly, as he passed with a long saw in his hands, the seemingly impenetrable foliage of a greenbeard parted and a small face with big round golden eyes looked out at him. It was a sort of primate with furry tentacles instead of arms, about the size of a rhesus monkey, cactuslike spines growing from its scalp. To his astonishment, it spoke-- and in System-Wide. "Brother," it said, in a small piping voice, "I wouldn't trade places with you for the most delicious of Top Sputteries, not me, nor none of my relatives, and I have several thousand kin."

"Anyway," Jann told Dribney later, "that's what it sounded like it said."

After that one remark the creature had vanished back into the thick green fall of foliage--just as if it had drawn a stage curtain closed.


#


Shortly after sunset one evening--it didn't matter what day of the week it was, for they had no weekends, no days off--the slaves were trooping out of the shadows of the greenbeard forest. They marched single file, with the Id behind and the guards to the sides. The air was heavy; there was a rumble from beyond the horizon: monsoon season was closing in on them. Jann looked up at the stars softly shining through the humidity of the storm season, trying to pick out Polaris.

They had just entered a road that passed between rumfruit fields when a buggy came clopping down the dirt road toward them. In the horse-drawn buggy were Gangtofen; his niece Delphine, wearing a clinging, hooded forestry-suit of soft gray, and her tutor, the Savant Oraclis. Every slave watched Delphine furtively as she passed. Jann saw Moss raise his head to sniff the air--he'd caught a whiff of her perfume.

To one side of the buggy came a motorized jitney carrying an escort of two Kaswill guards, and the livid figure of Drumm the chief slavewatcher .

Blust snarled at them to move aside for the Autocrats, and the slaves stepped off the road. "Hold there," said the Savant. "Let us inspect these fellows for a moment..."

Gangtofen scowled but reined in the horse; the jitney trundled to a stop.

The Savant surveyed the haggard slaves. "Yes," said Oraclis, "some of them might be suitable."

"So this was your reason for asking to come along on the inspection of my forest, Oraclis?" Gangtofen grumbled. "So that you could demand some of my slaves?"

"The Silver Palace supports my experimentation," said the Savant, his mechanical-lens eyes whirring and glinting as he surveyed the slaves. "They have suggested that the colony provide full cooperation..."

Derv and Jann exchanged glances. What would happen to them in Oraclis's laboratory? Some cruelly imaginative new form of vivisection? Brain transplant experiments? Genetic regressions? Kastillian scientists were notorious for the perversity of their "investigations".

"I'll take that big one," the Savant said, pointing at Derv.

"What! One of my best workers!" Gangtofen sputtered.

"I could take him alone--or three others instead. I have a requisition document, as you know, but I will remunerate you well."

Derv had begun breathing heavily, his big shaggy head turning this way and that as he looked for escape.

"Oh very well, damn you, Oraclis," Gangtofen said at last.

"No!" Derv shouted, and turned to run in the forest. But there came a hissing sound, and then he fell, clawing at the rumfruit plants, their fruit smashed to boozy puddles around him.

At first Jann thought Derv'd been shot with the Writher--but the giant lay still, breathing gently, and they saw the hypodermic dart in the back of his neck, the projectile tube in the Savant's hands.

Oraclis spoke into a hand-phone. "Murris, Dellaq, you will find a new subject tranquilized at these coordinates. Pick him up for me. He'll be unconscious for two hours. He's quite large, so bring a sizeable cart."

Jann found himself trembling. Derv had become a comrade. To think of him being strapped to a table, tortured by some heartless scientist...

But Moss, who thought of Derv as an older brother, was moved to take a step toward the buggy. Drumm turned to glare at him, putting a hand on his electronlash.

Moss tensed to spring at Oraclis--but Jann put a hand on his arm, and whispered, "Not yet--but tonight we'll break for it. I have heard which way the Savant's labs lie...Then it's into the forest..."

Moss looked at the ground, fists clenched.

"Blust!" Drumm began. "Those two are whispering--"

"Uncle!" Delphine interrupted, suddenly. Her voice was bright, unconcerned. She seemed bent on amusing herself. "What of the new escape-prevention collars?"

Gangtofen shot her a look of reproach. It was evidently something he didn't wish to discuss in front of the slaves.

"I only wondered," she went on, "when you'd have them in use? All these unrestrained brutes--" Her eyes went right to Jann, then. "--make me nervous."

"Soon enough," Gangtofen said. "Let us proceed on our way."

"Is it true," she persisted, turning to her uncle and raising her voice so that everyone could hear, "that the collars will tell you where the slaves are? That they cannot be removed--and they can be ordered by remote control to tighten--to choke the life out of an escaped slave?"

"Most interesting!" said Oraclis. "Is this indeed true, Meister Gangtofen?"

"Yes, yes--they will arrive tomorrow, I hope to have them locked in place in a day or two. Now--let us go!"

But when a shriek tore the air, all faces turned back to the forest. Two of the guards pointed the beams of their electric lanterns at the source of the shrill cry: an outrider tree, this one a leafless greenbeard half-dead from last year's lightning strike, overhung the trail behind the slaves. On the trail under the tree the Id was reeling back, waving its weaponry wildly--at Dribney, who was dangling over the trail, thrashing and shouting, his voice going from a shriek to a gurgle. In the tree, one of its tentacles encircling Dribney's neck, was a native creature that Jann had heard of but never till now seen: a slapgrip.

It seemed related to the primate Jann had met in the forest, something like the way a gorilla is related to a spider monkey. The slapgrip was twice as big as a man, apelike but with four furry tentacles in place of limbs, rows of spines on its cranium and an enormous mouth overstocked with fangs.

The Id fired a bolt at Dribney--automatically assuming he was escaping somehow--and only the boy's desperate thrashing saved him, the bolt searing blisteringly along his ribs. The Id trundled around to get a better firing angle.

One of the guards drew his sword, but he thought better of it, threw it down to fumble with his energy weapon instead.

Gangtofen shouted, "No, don't fire on it, you may anger it! It'll come after us!"

"But what a waste of labor resources," said the Lady Delphine, "if the creature is allowed to filch your slaves for its dinner! I have told you again and again Uncle that you are shamefully wasteful..."

The Id fired again and struck a branch which caught fire and began burning. The guards shouted at the Id to desist--then turned to shout a warning at Jann, who found himself running headlong toward the slapgrip. The creature's furry tentacle was drawing Dribney up toward its drooling maw.

"You will come back here!" Gangtofen shouted at Jann, "Or you will be punished!"

Not breaking stride, Jann scooped up the dropped sword and ran through the low underbrush to the tree--where Dribney was then being enfolded by the slapgrip, his neck bent back for its fangs.

A hand-cannon fired--at Jann, not the beast-- the stropp-shot whining past Jann's head, the sound echoing through the open spaces beside the forest. Then he'd reached the base of the tree, made out the brutish silhouette of the slapgrip against the sky. In an ellipse of electric lantern light shone by the Id, still angling for a shot, he saw Dribney had pressed his feet against the beast's hairy chest, was using all his strength to push away from those snapping jaws.

There was no time for anything else--Jann took the sword by the blade near the hilt and threw it like a spear, as hard as he could, into the center of the dark, snarling mass above him.

The creature yelped--and then Jann felt a powerful constriction at his throat. Suddenly he was jerked from his feet and lifted kicking into the air. He was drawn up close to the reeking body of the slapgrip--looked into its phosphorescent red eyes and saw there its intentions. The tentacle tightened and he felt blood squeezed up into his skull so that in a few moments his brain would surely burst. He saw Dribney's terrified face to one side: red, swollen--the light going out of the boy's eyes.

He saw too the sword, stuck in the slapgrip's groin. It had penetrated only a few inches and was about to fall away. Jann flailed for it, and could not reach it. The living noose at his neck tightened and blackness began to close over his sight. He reached out with a foot, caught the sword's crosspiece with his toes, flipped the sword upward, caught the hilt with his left hand--and drove it deeply into the slapgrip's breast.

The beast screamed and smacked Jann head against a tree-limb...Then it fell, taking him with it. There was a triple thump...

Stunned, Jann lay on his back, the wind knocked out of him. He closed his eyes when the guards ran up to him, and held his breath, hoping they'd leave him for dead.

But Gangtofen shouted orders and he felt himself lifted onto the jitney, tossed in face down. The jitney turned on the trail and rattled back toward the plantation house. Exhaustion rolled over Jann and it promised to ease the pain. He let it drift him to sleep.






Click Here for Part 14 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley

Friday, July 24, 2009

Farewell Tour

By Keith Graham







I like to close my eyes when I play. I can hear Billy Rubio on bass and Franko Epstein on the drums and imagine that it isn't just a bunch of suburban guys with day jobs playing "Head Strings" or "Unibody". I can feel Danny Fly ripping down the frets and it's his fingers not mine making the music.

I opened my eyes at the end of the song and I was back in the Sans Souci Bar in Secaucus, New Jersey again, and there were only three patrons and they were talking in the corner and ignoring us. The owner was looking at his watch wondering where the crowd would come in and I knew that he was going to stiff us.

I play the music because I have to. I want to experience the music of the Bog Rats, but Danny Fly was living on some island in the Caribbean, and he hadn't cut a track in 20 years. Of the members of the original Bog Rats, one was dead, and the other so burned out that the Bog Rat's music would never be heard live again unless I played it.

The trouble is that cover bands, at least late 60s hard rock cover bands, don't get paying gigs, don't have a following and don't get any satisfaction unless they close their eyes and imagine.

Freddy Chizmar, a dentist by day and my drummer by night, counted out the beat with his sticks and Jeremy "Billy" Santiago stepped in with the heart stopping bass line. I let my fingers feel for the D-sharp sixth chord and bent it up slowly to the E. I barely had to touch the strings and my vintage Fender Twin grabbed the sounds out of the air, feeding it back in a throbbing wail. Danny Fly himself could not have done it better.

I ran through the intro to "Bloody Baby" and I felt the goose bumps on my arms. I get the feeling that the song is playing me and there never was a Danny Fly. The song was mine.

I didn't see the suits come through the door until half way through the song. They were drinking club soda with lime, and they wore dark sunglasses that made them look like Blues Brothers impersonators. They stared at me for the rest of the set.

They called me over, I signed the contract and that's how it started.

About a week later I flew to Antigua on a private jet. I kept on thinking that I should not be on a private Jet. Private jets were musician killers, but I had to follow the thread. I didn't think it was real until a suit knocked on the door to a pink house on the ocean. Jane Hearse opened the door and I nearly fell down.

Jane had aged, but had done it beautifully. Her hair was steel gray and had a witchy quality to it, but her face was still smooth and shockingly beautiful. Her body hadn't changed even though she had to be at almost 60.

"Come in," she said. Her velvet voice was lower than it was on the YouTube videos of interviews she had done back in the 70s. She reached out a hand to me. It was an older hand that didn't match her face, and I could see some age spots on it. "I'm Jane," she said as though I wouldn't know, "Danny is on the deck."

That's how I first met Danny Fly. I nearly wet my pants. Nobody had seen the man in 35 years, and here he was standing up to shake my hand.

Danny was old. He looked old and he had trouble standing up. He was too thin and wore a wig. In the videos he is lithe like a snake. He sneers when he sings and moves like a kung fu master as he rips out his riffs. Now, he looked like my Grandfather before the stroke killed him.

"I heard your demo, man," he mumbled. "Good shit. I couldn't have done better."

He shook my hand. His was dry like paper and weak. I was afraid to squeeze too hard and break him.

"I can't tell you what this means to me," I started to say, but he waved his hand.

"You're doing me a favor. I need you more than you need me. I've been sick, but I need to play one more time."

"You're going to record again?"

"Yeah, but I'm going on tour, first. I don't know how much I can take, but I've got to do it. I need you for backup."

"Tour?" I asked, shocked. I had been told that I would be working with Danny on a new CD.

"Yeah, I've got these songs. A couple of months ago they started coming to me. I thought that I was through with all that, but they just came to me. I've got to play them. I have to work them out, and I have to do that on the stage."

I wanted to say something, but my mouth just opened. Nothing would come out.

"Let me play them for you," he said.

He started towards the door and Jane went next to him. She didn't help him, but she supported him somehow just by the way she moved. We moved slowly down the hall with the suits in their silly sunglasses taking up the rear.

In an almost empty room was a beat up old Fender Bassman and Telecaster so used up that there was hardly any of the candy apple red paint left to see. The neck and headstock were covered with cigarette burns. I was looking at Juju, one of the most famous guitars of all time. I had spent thousands on a 1962 Tele, but my axe would never have the soul, the down and dirty mojo, of Danny Fly's Juju.

Danny grabbed the guitar and swung the strap over his head. I almost said "careful", afraid that he would drop and break the precious object. He ran his fingers down the strings and adjusted the B string. He played a few chords and flipped the standby on the '59 Bassman amp. Chords rang through the room. He deftly ran through part of the solo riff form "Unibody" and then played a short run from "Bloody Baby", the same notes that I had been playing when his suits had walked into the bar. I thought that I was good, but Danny's fingers hadn't aged a day and I wanted to sit down before I fell down.

"Here, tell me what you think of this. I haven't worked out the words, yet, but the bass line goes like this…"

Danny started a simple T-Bone shuffle and then started to embellish it until, surprisingly, a second bass line emerged from the shuffle and it took over the beat, weaving in and out. Keeping the beat going with a throbbing alternating bass the strings sang out a wailing counter rhythm that filled the room.

With a sudden move Danny started the melody line: a strong clear rock line without any frills - just a simple strong melody. He played it once and then played it again with a slight variation. He went through it two more times, building it up and then went into a break and played a series of minor triads from high to low that brought the song down through the dominant, the subdominant and back to the tonic chord in quick succession.

I wanted to say that it blew me away, but my brain wasn't working. It was too busy soaking up the first original Danny Fly music that anyone had heard in a generation. My fingers itched to get a guitar and play some of those riffs before I forgot them.

"What do you think?" he asked when it was over. I didn't want to be the guy who says your stuff is great, no matter what it sounds like. I didn't want him to think that I was that guy. It seemed like he was really interested in what I thought.

"It really works," is all I could think to say and I felt stupid because I did not shout out that it was the greatest sound that I had ever heard. "It really comes together - like you never stopped playing."

"Well I did stop for more than 30 years." He looked at me like he knew I was going to ask why. "You can't let something take you over. You can't let something be more important than you are. The music started to take over. I had to stop or I would have been lost. Too many have been lost that way."

"But you are playing again?" I asked the "duh" question. He was playing again, but what I meant was that I wanted to know why.

"I've been fine without the music. It's hard to explain. I just woke up one morning and I thought that I should do a little more. I wasn't finished yet and wouldn't be finished ever unless I got the last little bit out."

For the next three weeks Danny and I squeezed out some of the best riffs that have ever been played. Mostly I played bass and Jane would come in from time to time to sing. There was a drum player from a local Ska band that added a strange spice to the music when he showed up. Danny never wrote anything down, but he could restart a song he hadn't played in days from the note where he had dropped off.

When Danny liked the way a song sounded we switched off and I held the precious Juju in my arms and he played bass. We went though each song until I knew it as well as Danny. He showed me things, secrets, that made the music natural and easy. These were things that he had invented and never shared before. It was like God was giving me lessons.

Sometimes at night he asked me to play the old songs and he made suggestions. Sometimes he would teach me new versions. On warm moonlit nights he pulled out his old Martin and we played acoustic versions of his songs. Jane's warm clear voice, almost an octave deeper than on the old vinyl, sang the words that Danny had written 40 years before.

Our first concert went OK. It was a bar in St. John's. The tourists had no idea who Danny Fly was and probably had never heard of the Bog Rats. They might have heard "Unibody" played behind some car commercial on TV. (Michael Jackson had owned the rights to the song and rented it to anyone.) The tourists quietly ignored us and stayed in the courtyard so they could talk to each other and send text messages. One Japanese man tried to talk to us. He was enthusiastic, but we couldn't understand what he was saying. I think he knew who Danny and Jane were, and he took lots of pictures.

They booked us into the Beacon Theater in New York. It was a smallish house. I guess the promoters were hedging their bets. There was no sense in trying to sell out Madison Square Garden if they couldn't fill the Beacon. The suits wanted to hire an orchestra to back Danny, but the Bog Rats was a three piece band with Jane singing on a couple of songs. I tried to get my old friends from Secaucus, but the suits hired some heavy duty studio guys. I stood on stage and played rhythm for Danny, but I was only there as insurance, in case Danny couldn't finish.

We filled the Beacon and scalpers were getting $5,000 a seat. I had little to do on stage. I watched the audience and asked myself "who are these people?" They were young, most not even 20. In the expensive seats in the front were old men, as old as Danny, who sat politely and smiled when the music moved them. They closed their eyes as though remembering better days, but they did not get up and dance. They left their wives and children at home.

The kids in the balcony screamed and danced and smoked joints. They moved their bodies in some crazy uncoordinated way that missed the beat entirely, but they worked themselves up to a frenzy yelling "Bog Rats Rule" and "Underbelly". When Danny finally played "Underbelly" at the end of the first set, they all sang the chorus.

Jane came out to sing "Midnight Hot" about the middle of the second set and the kids went wild. The look in the old men's faces made me think that there was more than music on their minds. The front ten rows stood up to see her better (the back rows of kids had never sat down). There were chants of "Janey! Janey! Janey!" that drowned her voice out, but soon there were shushes, and the crowd stood silent, swaying to the sultry lyrics. The old men cried.

We did three encores. The last was an acoustic version of "Midnight Hot" with Danny on his Martin, me playing my Gretsch Tennessee Rose, and Jane humming most of the words. The lights went out. The crowd was sated and Danny fell down on the stage in a dead faint. He came right out of it, though, and Jane and I got him back to the hotel.

Danny was sick. He woke up in the morning retching and he was taking some kind of nasty pills ever few hours. His hair down to his eyebrows was totally gone, although his expensive wig had fooled the crowd. At each stop in the tour he would stand for an hour playing amazing licks that never repeated themselves. Then, he would collapse on a backstage couch and struggle to catch his breath at the end of each set. He didn't dance around stage, but he could still move with the music.

On stage, his lizard like quick movements were still there, only slightly subdued. I was ready to jump in and take over if he ever stumbled, but somehow he never did, until we reached Detroit.

Danny and Jane flew back to Antigua over the weekend, and when they came back I met them at the hotel. Danny was gray and could hardly speak.

"He's had another round of chemo," Jane said, "You'll have to go on tonight. You'll have to be him."

"I can't…" I began, but Jane interrupted.

"Why do you think you're here?" she asked.

Danny's clothes fit me perfectly, of course. I had the same build and I always tried to look like my hero. His lizard boots didn't fit, but I had my own. I had light brown hair and Danny's wig was like his surfer blond hair, only turning gray. Jane had some stuff that fixed it for me. The stage hands were told to keep the main spot off me. I had been listening to Danny play for a while and I didn't think that there was any way I would fool anyone with an ounce of sense.

"Just go out there and be Danny," she said, "You sing like him, you play like him and you look like he did 30 years ago. There is no problem."

"But I'm not him," I wanted to say. At the same time I thought that I wanted to be him and this was my chance.

It went OK. The crowd didn't seem to notice a difference. If they didn't cheer me as much as they had cheered Danny it was only because it was raining that night in Detroit. We did just one encore and Jane didn't sing "Midnight Hot". The new songs, however, went over big. The audience in Boston and New York had listened to them politely, waiting for the classics, but the Detroit audience got into them and at the end of one of the new numbers, everyone was clapping in time. I motioned to the drummer and bass to stop while I played some cheap ass power chords in time to the clapping. It was hokey, but it worked. I walked to the end of the stage and clapped along with the audience, letting them listen to how cool they were and then, as though we had practiced it that way, we all came in together and Jane came out to sing scat over the rhythm line. It was one of the coolest moments in my life.

Danny was waiting for me backstage.

"What the hell was that?" he asked. He was too weak to get up, but I was surprised at the venom in his voice. "Who told you to improvise?"

I mumbled, "I went with the flow. It was the moment," or something like that.

"This is my tour. You do my songs my way. I won't have some punk screwing up my life's work on a whim."

I wanted to cry, but the expression changed on his face. I thought for a moment that he was going to apologize, but he didn't.

"Look," Danny said in a softer voice, "You can't risk screwing this up. I can't let it get out that I'm too sick to play my own music. Once a rumor like that starts I might as well be dead."

"Danny," Jane started to say something.

"I'm right about this," he told her, "This is my tour. The kid is backup, but it can't get out that he ever played even one of my notes. I have to keep it pure or it loses all value. The music has to be mine."

Out of 22 dates, I went on as Danny 6 times and filled in for him a dozen more times as he rested while pretending to fix a string. I never played one note off the page. I never added even a single piece of my own soul to Danny's music.

There was talk of a European tour, but Danny wouldn't commit. He said there wasn't enough money in it, but I know they offered him a hundred million - and that was euros, not dollars. There was a YouTube video that had been downloaded 10 million times in some impossibly short period and the bootlegs of Danny's live performances were clogging the torrents. I was told the Detroit performance was a popular one.

We arrived at the Troubadour in LA early. This was a $1,000-a-seat CD release party, although there wouldn't be any seats on the dance floor, and the suits had claimed the booths.

Backstage, in the grubbiest little dressing room that I had yet seen on the tour, Danny turned on the little 50s Fender Deluxe amp that he used for warming up. He plugged Juju into the amp and handed her to me. He plugged my Tele into the other jack and tuned up. I stroked Juju and adjusted a string.

"I've been thinking about the music, a little," he said.

He flipped his thumb back and forth over the E and A strings and cut a counter beat by plucking the high strings. It was a Blues Boogie beat and he lingered on it, savoring the warm flow of it. I joined in with a walking bass line on the low strings, but Danny didn't change the chord and just sat in the Tonic, exploring the flow with splashes of color.

When he finished I said, "That was John Lee's Boogie Chillun'."

"Yeah, I know. I was trying to find something. Something I've been missing this whole trip."

He tinkled the strings, ringing them like bells in the wind and a riff I recognized. "That's Lightning Hopkins!" I said.

"Every guitar player is in love with Lightning," he laughed. He played it out and I heard "Coffee House Blues" ringing in clear notes from the Deluxe.

He sighed when he finished. "It's been a long time."

He set the guitar down and took Juju out of my arms. He took a small glass bottle out of his pocket and put it on the ring finger of his left hand. He started sliding up and down the neck with it, playing some old Son House song. I just listened.

As he played, he said, "This whole Rock and Roll thing is over. The stuff they do now is mush. Everybody knows what they don't like, but nobody can find what they do like. They look in the past and it seems like they find something new, but it's not working."

He started the stuttering beat of Muddy's "Two Trains Running".

"I'm done. Tonight is it. I've cancelled the gig at the Rose Bowl tomorrow. No more Rock and Roll."

I wanted to say something that started with the word "but".

"You've got to get out and get out now. We both peaked long ago. You've got time for a life even if I don't."

He stopped talking and finished up the Muddy song. He turned off the Deluxe with a click.

"Look, get back to your roots. Do a little blues on the side, but get a girl, get a kid, get a life. You've done Rock and Roll. You've done it well. You can't get any further than you'll get tonight. It's time for something else."

I couldn't think of anything to say. I couldn't answer him. He couldn't be right. Jane came in with some pills. Danny looked old, much older than 64. He looked like death.

"I'm going to take a nap," he said, so I went down to the bar and waited.

Jane had Danny's alligator suit ready for me. I put on his wire frame glasses with the purple glass, and she did her thing with my hair. The band knew that Danny was not feeling well and might not make it to the first set, and the lighting guy was told to only use the red spot on me. There was a Byrds cover band that wasn't half bad that played for an hour, and then the owner announced us. We came out on stage and went right into "Foghorn" and followed that with "The Cruel Equation" without a pause. I played them by the book, the way that Danny had wanted me to play. I kept glancing to stage left to see if Jane was there, but I guess she was staying with Danny.

The crowd was polite. The LA rich and powerful were way too cool to be able to appreciate the flayed nerve intensity of a Bog Rats song. They were here because it was the place to be seen. There were a few aging freaks with long hair, balding in the middle to give them a certain Bozo look, but most of the crowd showed signs of having had multiple expensive elective surgeries.

I just closed my eyes and played the music. I could have been in Secaucus for all it mattered. The time with Danny and Jane was just a dream and I was going to wake to find out that it was over soon enough.

After about an hour I asked the drummer and bass player if they needed a break, but they wanted to keep on going. The crowd was starting to get into the music. We were playing loud enough so that conversations and cell phones were useless so they had to actually listen to the music that they had paid $1,000 for.

I played the finish to one of Danny's new songs, "First Contact", a slow blues number about remembering a first love, when I decided it was time to play "Unibody". It was likely that this would be the only song that everyone in the place would recognize.

I closed my eyes and tried to feel the way the song started when I heard Danny Fly's unmistakable fingers on a fret board. It was dim and distant. I thought it might be coming from back in the dressing room, but it sounded more distant and in front of me, like it was coming in from the street. I thought maybe that someone was playing a ringtone, but it was not for any song that Danny had ever recorded.

The throbbing visceral notes of "Boogie Chillun'" started, just the way I had heard Danny playing it a few hours before. Danny's little Deluxe was warmed up and sitting on stage. I plugged into it and motioned to the drummer and bass to lower their volume. I could feel the beat and started playing along with Danny. The bass player started a walking bass line and the drummer switched to brushes.

I told the story. Blues is all about the story. I caressed Juju making her ring with the little grunts and growls that made the music talk.

Out in the crowd there was a smiling face and I almost missed a step. Danny was walking towards me, playing my Tele. He stepped through the crowd with his lizard skin boots and they never saw him. He walked up the steps and stood next to me and winked. He never missed a beat. I played along and he showed me the way. Every lick he made I copied and embellished. I threw out a riff and he played it back in kind.

The song didn't end; it just morphed into another one. I stayed in the key of E for an hour and Danny and I played every blues song we knew and the drummer just closed his eyes and shook his head and the Bass player grinned from ear to ear. The crowd started to dance, but not that stiff self-conscious white people jiggle. They grabbed at each other and swung each other around doing good imitations of the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug. Even the ones who had never had a dance lesson in their lives lost their inhibitions and swung their girls around the floor.

Danny laughed at me with every chord change and snarled at the audience in mock anger at every turnaround. I played like I never played before.

I saw Jane in the wing. She was crying. I motioned for her to come out on stage. She looked old, older than I had ever seen her. She had lost something and it showed in her face and the way she held her shoulders. I looked at Danny and he winked again. I motioned again for her to come out on stage. She hesitated and then straightened up and walked towards me. I started the opening licks to "Midnight Hot". She leaned over to me and whispered, "It's Danny, he's…" but I jumped way from her and knocked out the lead. The bass and the drummer followed with gusto, but the little Deluxe was able to fill the room with creamy tones from Juju.

She sang like Janis at Monterey. She sang like Billie in Harlem. She sang like an Angel in Heaven and all the time the tears came down her face and I knew why.

Danny set down his guitar and walked off stage and I couldn't see where he went. We finished the song and the audience cried along with us. The drummer got up and hugged me, and kissed Jane on the cheek. The bass player turned his back to all of us and just hunched his shoulders. The stage lights went out. Danny was finished forever with Rock and Roll, but he had come back to play just one more set before moving on.

Danny was dead.

Nowadays I ride a fork lift for eight hours a day and come home to a wife and a four year old girl named Jane. I play some blues on Friday night in a bar in Hoboken, and people say I'm pretty good. My contract says that I can never talk about those three months I spent standing next to the greatest Rock and Roll guitarist that ever lived, but Jane made sure that I get a nice check every month from the CD sales. I'm only on a few of the cuts, but those are good cuts and I am proud of them.

They buried Danny on Antigua, but I've never seen the grave. I know that it's not really Danny in that grave anyway. He walked off the stage to a much better one, and sometimes when I close my eyes, I can feel his fingers, not mine, running up the strings and playing those blues, like John Lee, or Muddy, or Lightning, and I can see his face in my mind's eye as he smiles and gives me a sly wink.


~the end~



Click Here for Part 13 of SKY PIRATES, by John Shirley

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part11

by John Shirley




Jann opened his eyes and looked with only a faint spark of interest at the man who had spoken. He was another local land-owner, a Kastillian autocrat in the white robe and leggings of a Scientific Savant--a rail-thin man with a bald pate, his eyes hidden behind nerve-responsive glasses that telescoped an inch to take Jann in more clearly. He had high almost clownish eyebrows that seemed arched in perpetual puzzlement, and rouged lips. There were two other men there, and a lady. One of the men was a well-remembered guard from the space station who'd been reassigned here--the guard with too many teeth, with the bristling brows and weak chin, and most especially with the over-active electronlash.

The other was a sneering, obese autocrat in a gold and silver silk suit; he had sleepy, decadent eyes, a floppy gold-embroidered hat and four long mustachios elaborated into fantastic braids. The fat man had been here before, inspecting the slaves, intending to buy some from the ship, it was said. Jann had heard him called Meister Gangtofen, formerly of Germany, a country on the planet Earth-- he had married a Kastillian Duchess, and become a Kastillian citizen. But then all Kastillians were themselves descendents of a certain pioneering colony of Earthmen: settlers nostalgic for the monarchies of ancient Earth.

It was the lady who captured Jann's attention; who caught his awareness and held it hostage. She was a tall, willowy work of art. Her skin was pale; her hair, cut with bangs, was jet black, falling straight to her shoulders so that she resembled the queen of some ancient Pharaoh of old Earth; she wore a tight fitting burgundy top exposing an ivory shoulder, and loose, practical black pantaloons gathered at the ankles; the pantaloons did not hide the inviting fullness of her hips. In her delicate, long-fingered hand was a crystal wine-glass held with such steadiness the rose-colored wine was motionless. Her face was not conventionally beautiful, with its striking, well pronounced nose, her kohl-edged black eyes, impudent chin, naturally red lips just a shade too small-- but her features came together in an elegant ensemble, illuminated by an intelligence that shone past her air of defensive boredom.

He saw something else, in her face, beyond her detachment, her intelligence, her attraction. He saw...pity? No, it was finer than pity, as she looked at the slaves. It was compassion.

For a moment a kind of recognition glimmered between them as he met her eyes. He saw then that she was trapped, too, in some way he couldn't understand. She had wealth and social status, but her entrapment was nevertheless quite real.

Then the guard snarled and stepped in with the electronlash raised--it was a steel wand with barbed copper wires at one end, to cut into the flesh and shock it at once.

"Stop!" the Lady said.

The guard froze, blinking at her. Genuinely puzzled. "My lady?"

"Why are you going to...to damage state assets?" She asked it with an air of only mild interest, even yawning a little behind her hand.

He lowered his electronlash and licked his lips. "Why--he was looking impudently at you, ma'am, as they have been warned about. I mean, they have been warned about not looking at any of the Autocrats directly should they come in here."

"Yes, truly, Delphine," Gangtofen simpered. "we should let the guards do their job without interference. They've learned how to deal with these scum."

She tossed her hair imperiously. "But if he whips this man, it implies that the creature affected me in some way. And how could that be? I take as an insult any suggestion that I have noticed the slave looking at me."

Gangtofen scratched in his fantastic beard. "Yes I suppose that...sort of...makes sense. Almost."

Jann looked away from the Lady Delphine, then. It was wiser not to tempt fate by staring at her--the guard might well punish him later, out of her sight. Anyway, looking at her was another brand of exquisite torture. He looked at the deck, but watched the Kastillians from the corners of his eyes.

The Savant spoke up then, peering at Jann. "You know, this fellow administered a plantation, of sorts, if I recall his file rightly."

Gangtofen frowned at the Savant. "You have been perusing the ownership files--perhaps with an eye to purchasing slaves?"

"Indeed!" The Savant pointed an interrogatory finger at Jann. On the end of his finger--on the tip of each of his fingers--was a metal sheath, which now extruded a whirling metal sensor. "Ah yes. I see he is still relatively healthy despite his privations here. His pulse is strong, his mind not broken. But not for much longer." He turned to Gangtofen. "You see I need a number of subjects for my experiments. The ship is getting a fresh infusion of slaves, soon--they're willing to sell ten or so."

"But I already have an understanding with the purser! I am to have a round dozen for my plantation! And if this fellow is experienced..."

"Perhaps we can work a deal, Meister Gangtofen, since my estate borders your own--my estate on Barba-Doss, I mean. I do intend to spend some time at that particular retreat..." His eyepieces telescoped whirringly out, making the stout plantation owner take a sudden step back.

"Perhaps something could be worked out," Gangtofen said. "It's true I've had bad luck with slaves--they tend to die on me. If they are close to expiring anyway, I am sure we can come to an agreement. After I've had enough work out of them to justify the purchase, you may buy them at a reduced price--for your experiments."

Listening, Jann shuddered.

"But as for this one," Gangtofen went on, indicting Jann, "this oaf from Paradine, if I remember rightly, why--him I do not want. He was lower class masquerading as Autocrat. Such pretensions are inflammatory. And he was violent, dangerous--killed a number of good Kaswills. There is a rebellious look in his eye. I don't need that type on my lands."

And so, Jann thought, I am destined to die on this ship after all...

But again the Lady Delphine spoke up. "Uncle Gangtofen--I must insist that you take this one. You waste your money getting weak slaves and only get half your crops in. It's quite disgraceful. The others here are too sapped. As your heir, I must protest."

"But Delphine--"

"Please Uncle," she told Gangtofen with calm insistence, "--this one. And his companions--I have seen them talking. They all look quite strong. You asked me to help you with your accounts but you will not take my advice. It saddens me...how it would sadden my mother...Perhaps I should ask her to come to the plantation and help me--"

"No, no! Not your mother! I mean--why subject her to grueling space travel from Kastillia? Very well, I will take this one--but I will see to it the foreman keeps a sharp eye on him."

An enigmatic sort of anger rose up in Jann. He looked at the Lady Delphine, wanting to shout at her. Do you think you are doing me a favor? I am a living energy source on the ship--like an oxen before some primitive's cart-- and I'll be another sort of animal for your plantation...

The guard noticed Jann's glare and tapped his electronlash in his palm. Jann looked back at the deck.

"So he fancied himself an autocrat of sorts, on his homeworld?" mused the Savant, pointing additional sensor fingers at Jann--who felt a tingling at the back of his head as he was probed. "Interesting. His synapse activity is quite high, I see...Of course you know, historically speaking, Gangtofen, we're in a regressive era, in certain respects--depending on your social-engineering point of view. That is, castes and classes were outmoded, discarded as inhumane, centuries ago, especially in the twenty-first century. But of course after the first wave of expansion, the war on Earth left the colonies out of touch with the home planet for almost two centuries--"

"Why, it was for the best!" said Gangtofen. "That was when Kastillia found its true nature, discovered the perfection of its bloodlines, expanded into an empire!"

"Yes, yes no doubt," the Savant replied, nodding indulgently. "But it was also when the trend, if that's the word, for ancient-Earth social forms--colonial imperialism, slavery, castes and classes and nobilities, titles --when all of it became fashionable, and then entrenched as the oligarchies asserted their privileges..."

Gangtofen snorted. "You sound like an anarchist, sir! Why a return to monarchy has given shape to what was in constant flux and chaos! It was not a regression, it was a restoration of lost greatness! Do you mean to imply that our nobles are not noble, our peasants not peasants?"

"No, no, not at all," said the Savant, yawning. "It was merely--an historical overview, nothing more. It is in my scholarly nature. I am cursed with objectivity."

"And don't forget, uncle," Delphine said, "Oraclis is my tutor in history as well as science…"

So that was the Savant's name, Jann thought wearily. Oraclis. A landowner who made an avocation of tutoring the Lady. And this dandified buffoon Gangtofen was the girl's uncle. It was hard to imagine them related.

"So now," Oraclis said, "I believe I shall just go and see the purser about those slaves--"

"Hold on there, Oraclis!" Gangtofen protested.

"I will go with you to the purser!" Gangtofen continued, as the group moved off down the observation walk. "And I will ask you, sir, not to purchase my intended goods before I've had my rightful opportunity!"

"To be sure, my dear fellow..."

The guards came to unhook the slaves from their harnesses then. Now they'd have a period of rest--a momentary relief in a vast plane of despair, like the sun breaking through the clouds for a moment on a polar ice field.

But this time, Jann felt just a flicker of real hope.






Click Here for Part 12 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley

Archive of Stories
and Authors

Edward Morris's
MERCY STREET


Gene Stewart's
CRYPTID'S LAIR


Adam Bolivar's
SERVITORS OF THE
OUTER DARKNESS


Adam Bolivar's
THE DEVIL & SIR
FRANCIS DRAKE



Adam Bolivar's
THE TIME-EATER


Adam Bolivar is an expatriate Bostonian
who has lived in New Orleans and Berkeley,
and currently resides in Portland, Oregon
with his beloved wife and fluffy gray cat
Dahlia. Adam wears round, antique glasses
and has a fondness for hats. His greatest
inspirations include H.P. Lovecraft,
Jack tales and coffee.


John Claude Smith's
BLOOD ECHO SYMPHONIES


John Claude Smith's
NOT BREATHING



John Claude Smith writes weird fiction,
something between Horror and Magic
Realism, most of it psychologically driven.
He's had over 40 tales and over 1100 music
reviews, interviews, and profiles published.
He is currently shopping two novels and
a collection to agents and publishers, all
while starting the third novel. Gotta keep
on keepin' on! Looking forward to Rome
in the not too distant future, but for now,
just looking for the next short story to
be written.


David Agranoff's
A PLANET OF YOUR OWN


David Agranoff's
THE FALLEN GUARDIAN'S MANDATE


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 tireless environmentalist.
His contributions to the punk horror
scene and the planet in general have
already established him as a bright
new writer and activist to watch out
for. The Freezine of Fantasy and
Science Fiction welcomes him and
his defiant vision open-heartedly.

David is a busy man, usually at work
on several different novels or projects
at once. He is sure to leave his mark on
a world teetering over the edge of
ecological imbalance. David's latest
books include the Wuxia -Pan
(martial arts fantasy) horror
novel called Hunting The Moon Tribe,
already out from Afterbirth Books.;
The Vegan Revolution...with Zombies,
[Deadite Press, 2010]; and
[Deadite Press, 2014]

Daniel José Older's
GRAVEYARD WALTZ


Daniel José Older's
THE COLLECTOR


Daniel José Older's spiritually driven,
urban storytelling takes root at the
crossroads of myth and history.
With sardonic, uplifting and often
hilarious prose, Older draws from
his work as an overnight 911 paramedic,
a teaching artist & an antiracist/antisexist
organizer to weave fast-moving, emotionally
engaging plots that speak whispers and
shouts about power and privilege in
modern day New York City. His work
has appeared in the Freezine of Fantasy
and Science Fiction, The ShadowCast
the collection Sunshine/Noir, and is
featured in Sheree Renee Thomas'
Black Pot Mojo Reading Series in Harlem.

When he's not writing, teaching or
riding around in an ambulance,
Daniel can be found performing with
his Brooklyn-based soul quartet
Ghost Star. His blog about the
ridiculous and disturbing world
of EMS can be found HERE.


Johnny Strike's
AS YOU WISH


Johnny Strike's
NIGHT FLAMERS


Johnny Strike's
THE HOMELESS MUTANTS


Johnny Strike will beat you with his guitar
and leave you lying in the gutter wishing you
had never dared enter his under ground world
of fake passports, lucky amulets, rain soaked
hotels, and occult mystique. If you don't leave
nice comments under his story, he's sure to sic
his band CRIME on you. He also wrote the novel
Ports Of Hell (Headpress), recommended by
William S. Burroughs. You don't receive kudos
from William Lee himself unless you are the
epitome of cool. Besides, have you listened to
CRIME's album Exalted Masters? It was
released in 2007 on the Crime Music label,
on vinyl only, featuring a slew of their old
rare hits. Its real punk music from seasoned
veterans. Now go track yourself down a copy
before its out of print. The Freezine of Fantasy
and Science Fiction is proud to host the story
that contains the line which titles his first
From Above (Rudos and Rubes).


Paul Stuart's
SEA?TV!


Paul Stuart is the author of numerous
biographical blurbs written in the third
person. His previously published fiction
appears in The Vault of Punk Horror and
His non-fiction financial pieces can be found
in a shiny, west-coast magazine that features
pictures of expensive homes, as well as images
of women in casual poses and their accessories.
Consider writing him at paul@twilightlane.com,
if you'd like some thing from his garage. In fall
2010, look for Grade 12 Trigonometry and
Pre-Calculus -With Zombies.


Rain Grave's
MAU BAST


Rain Graves is an award winning
author of horror, science fiction and
poetry. She is best known for the 2002
Poetry Collection, The Gossamer Eye
(along with Mark McLaughlin and
David Niall Wilson). Her most
recent book, Barfodder: Poetry
Written in Dark Bars and Questionable
Cafes, has been hailed by Publisher's
Weekly as "Bukowski meets Lovecraft..."
in January of 2009. She lives and
writes in San Francisco, performing
spoken word at events around the
country. 877-DRK-POEM -



Icy Sedgwick's
THE PORCELAIN WOMAN


Icy Sedgwick is part writer and part
trainee supervillain. She lives in the UK
but dreams of the Old West. Her current
works include a ghost story about a Cavalier
and a Western tale of retribution. Find her
ebooks, free weekly fiction and other
shenanigans at Icy’s Cabinet of Curiosities.


Blag Dahlia's
armed to the teeth
with LIPSTICK



BLAG DAHLIA is a Rock Legend.
Singer, Songwriter, producer &
founder of the notorious DWARVES.
He has written two novels, ‘NINA’ and
‘ARMED to the TEETH with LIPSTICK’.


G. Alden Davis's
THE FOLD


G. Alden Davis wrote his first short story
in high school, and received a creative
writing scholarship for the effort. Soon
afterward he discovered that words were
not enough, and left for art school. He was
awarded the Emeritus Fellowship along
with his BFA from Memphis College of Art
in '94, and entered the videogame industry
as a team leader and 3D artist. He has over
25 published games to his credit. Mr. Davis
is a Burningman participant of 14 years,
and he swings a mean sword in the SCA.


Shae Sveniker's
A NEW METAPHYSICAL STUDY
REGARDING THE BEHAVIOR
OF PLANT LIFE


Shae is a poet/artist/student and former
resident of the Salt Pit, UT, currently living
in Simi Valley, CA. His short stories are on
Blogger and his poetry is hosted on Livejournal.



Nigel Strange's
PLASTIC CHILDREN


Nigel Strange lives with his wife and
daughter, cats, and tiny dog-like thing
in their home in California where he
occasionally experiments recreationally
with lucidity. PLASTIC CHILDREN
is his first publication.


J.R. Torina's
THE HOUSE IN THE PORT


J.R. Torina was DJ for Sonic Slaughter-
house ('90-'97), runs Sutekh Productions
(an industrial-ambient music label) and
Slaughterhouse Records (metal record
label), and was proprietor of The Abyss
(a metal-gothic-industrial c.d. shop in
SLC, now closed). He is the dark force
behind Scapegoat (an ambient-tribal-
noise-experimental unit). THE HOUSE
IN THE PORT is his first publication.


K.B. Updike, Jr's
THE GOLDEN THIRD EYE


K.B. Updike, Jr. is a young virgin
Virginia writer. KB's life work,
published 100% for free: