Tuesday, July 21, 2009

SKY PIRATES:Part10

by John Shirley




One day, after seventeen sleeping periods, a voice amplified from the wall.

"Prisoners! The circuit magistrate has arrived on station! You will approach the food slot in a group, elbows touching, side by side. You are being observed. The door will not open until you have done as you are told."

"At last," Ivan muttered. They did as they were ordered.

"Now," said the voice from the wall, "turn your backs to the door, and put your hands together behind you. If you move, after the door opens, before you are told to move, you will be instantly shot dead."

They again did as they were told, and heard a faint hiss as the door irised in the wall; Jann felt a gust of chill on his hands and the back of his neck, where the hair stood up in response. Then he felt something slithering around his wrist--one of the snakelike artificial beings the Kastillians used for handcuffs. His wrists were painfully vised together.

"Now turn slowly around."

They turned to see four scowling, heavily armed uniformed Kaswills in a corridor of blue-gray metal studded with shock-absorption bolts. "You," said the oldest and shortest of the guards, nodding toward Derv. "Lead the way. Step into the hall and proceed to your right. You others follow him. We are right behind and you are also being monitored remotely, so don't try to run--panels will instantly seal you into the corridor, and a robot will be dispatched to take you prisoner. It will then place you in an airlock from which the air will be removed...and it will be removed very, very slowly."

Jann, Moss and Ivan followed Derv down the hallway. Shouted took them left at a cross-corridor, then down a ramp, and along a long passageway with curved walls. They were met by three more guards who directed them into a waiting room adjacent to the Hearing Chamber.

When Jann moved too slowly, a short, surly guard gave him a jolt with an electronlash and Jann fell convulsing to his knees, grinding his teeth with pain. He smelled something burning, and his gut contracted; it was all he could do to keep from vomiting. When Jann could not get to his feet, the guard raised the electronlash for another jolt.

"Up, dimpkin!" growled Derv.

Fury surged through Jann and he jumped up and spun to face Derv--then saw in the rueful smiles of the other prisoners that Derv had provoked him to get him up and spare him a further lashing.

He nodded, and walked hastily into the waiting chamber.


#


Jann regarded the Kastillian magistrate with a sickly fascination. The man who would decide his fate had a skullish, blotchy face: his hair was some cheap, glossy implant; he had sunken eyes and cheeks, a nose that was a snub and two holes, a slash of a mouth. He wore a black robe and an armband emblazoned with the symbol of the Kastillian interstellar military. His long lean frame was twisted in something near to a question mark shape in his chair and his head hung to the side almost touching his rounded shoulder.

The domed ceiling of the room was of textured steel; there were rows of benches, lined up in front of the magistrate's desk, on the dais before which Jann now stood. Small view ports looked into space, but little could be glimpsed through them from here but the feeble gleam of a few distant, comfortless stars.

Jann was the last of his cell to be judged; twenty-five from other cells had been judged that morning and through the afternoon. The Kastillian magistrate seemed weary and bored. "Are you the one known on the planet Paradine as Jann Grelle?" he asked, stifling a yawn.

"I am Jann a Grelle, DemiLord of Paradine. In one year I am to become Lord of Grelle Manor," said Jann firmly.

The guards standing behind Jann laughed. The magistrate scowled. "Silence, you dimwits! You laugh at his impudence?"

"Shall I lash him, your Omniscience?" a guard asked.

"No, no, not this time. He will have suffering enough. So if you are Jann a Grelle, little else need be said, prisoner, for I have before me remote footage of your murder of several Kaswill Fighters."

"Your Omniscience," Jann said carefully, with as much respect in his tone as he could manage, "I was acting in self defense. They had killed my behemoth, stolen my neighbor's property, and landed without permission. In retaliation for my acts of self defense..." He swallowed. He controlled his voice. "They killed my mother."

Throughout this speech, the magistrate stared in some surprise. Then he laughed: a sound like hollow blocks clattering across a floor. "You are attempting to excuse the murder of my compatriots?"

"Self defense is not murder, your Omniscience. But speaking of murders--who is investigating the murder of my mother and her servants? And who investigates the destruction of my home?"

"What? According to the records here before me, that home was destroyed by your planet's so-called 'Free Ranchers'. They attacked men from a Kastillian ship which had made an emergency landing for repairs--in their mad lust to destroy all in their path they also destroyed this Grelle Manor of yours. Your relatives will have to seek reparation from these 'Free Ranchers'--"

"That is a…" He bit his lip to keep from calling the judge a liar. His voice was hoarse with repressed emotion as he went on, "Your Omniscience has been misinformed. A forensic investigation will reveal the house was completely destroyed--the Free Ranchers have no weapons powerful enough. Clearly it was destroyed by the weapons on Kastillian flyers, or weapons on the Kastillian ship itself. I heard some of your guards speak of the reprisal--"

"So these 'Free Ranchers' cannot destroy a Manor?" the judge interrupted, snorting. "They have fire, I assume? Can they not light torches and throw them at the structure? That is what the record says."

"I visited the manor after its destruction--it was not burned down. I demand an investigation--"

"You demand! Of me? Do you, now!" The judge leaned toward him, eyes ablaze.

Jann swallowed. "I would only suggest, your Omniscience, that by rights I should be judged by the authorities of my own world. The alleged crimes took place there. I ask to be extradited to Paradine."

"Paradine will belong to Kastillia soon enough," said the magistrate dryly. There was a flaring in his eyes and his bony hands twitched into view, clutching at one another, his shoulders quivering. "I have seen it! I have seen the stars rushing to align to the magnet of the Supreme Grandee of Kastillia!" Spittle foamed at the corners of his lips. "The sky is glass and through it, the Great Eye stares!"

Then the gaping stares of the guards warned the Magistrate that he was close to raving. He broke off, and reached into a pocket of his robe, fumbled out a pill dispenser, and popped a calming agent.

"The fatigue, the long day," he muttered. "A mild seizure...computer, strike my, ah, irrelevant responses from the records..."

"The records are thus purged," said the computer, booming sepulchrally from the walls.

"But of course," Jann said, chuckling. He knew now it was no use arguing, no use pleading his cause, no use even in maintaining a pretense of respect. He raised his voice, more and more loudly as he spoke, till he ended with a shout. "I have not only a brute Kastillian, with no sense of justice for my judge! No, that was not enough--he is also a madman! And his madness is itself a poetic summary of Kastillian 'justice'!"

White-hot pain seared through Jann's shoulders as a guard struck him with an electronlash, and he fell down, convulsing.

"And now," the magistrate went on, dabbing at his lips with a kerchief. "And now...my judgment..."






Chapter the Fourth: the Abysmal Dilemma of Jann a Grelle




How beautiful, the lights of the engine that drew his life from him. The glow of the tubular lights increased as he diminished: purple and green glowing from the crystalline tubes; the quartz purple shading to ruby, emerald to sapphire; the connections, of black wire and pure filigreed gold--the Grelle colors!-- sparking iridescently with stolen force. The lambence of the starcraft's engines truly moved him.

Jann a Grelle almost laughed at the irony as, driven by the electronlash, he forced himself to stand and placed his palms and bare chest once more against the receiving plates, and willed a little more of his life force into the engine's power tubes, his urge becoming ergs; adding his force to that of the other energy slaves, driving the multipurpose starcraft His Majesty's Fervent Impulse forward through interstellar space.

He shivered, feeling quantum mindstuff--the essence of his spirit-- drawn away into the machine. It was almost enough, for awhile; enough to propel the ship into quantum jump. He looked down the line of slaves, men and women alternating at the absorption panels, all of them quite nude, some newly enslaved and still fully fleshed; others emaciated, enervated with months on the driveline. There, Derv the Alpha Centauran, his bone-colored hair quivering upward and then going limp with the outflux of his force into the ship; there was Moss, shaking as he tried to maintain contact with the panels. It might be that his heart was about to give out. There were six men from Grelle manor's fields here, too, and three Free Ranchers who had fought beside Jann and Vonn--including one of the women. There were many others, from across the colonized arm of the galaxy. Jann had seen two women and a man die, sucked dry by the ship, in this voyage.

Beyond the slaves stood the robotic task master -a squat figure of cobalt metal, with sullen-yellow lights for eyes: the IntraDigital 77. Called "the Id", in the slave quarters. The Id pointed a jointed pseudopod, and a yellow blue snake of electrons emitted to strike the heavy-worlder's back, raising welts, making him scream piteously even as he pressed harder against the panels. Draw back, but for a moment, and the robot punished you. It wasn't enough to strap a slave to the absorption panels, for the energy that translated into quantum-drive must be forced into the machine by an act of will. Thus the slaves were not artificially pressed to the plates that sucked out their life force, but driven to consciously submit to the interface by the alert brutality of the supervisory robot.

The naked stuff of will itself was drawn into the absorption panels, there transformed, and transferred to the storage bulb, as the ship built its quantum-energy storage to near jump capacity. How consciousness itself become the power to lift a ship into the higher planes, beyond space-time, for its short cut to a far destination in standard space, was a mystery to everyone but the starcraft's designers--and perhaps even to them, ultimately.

It seemed to Jann, as he watched, that the process was a dramatization of the tragedy of existence. Man was born to give up his joy and his freedom to some great confining machine he didn't understand.

But he knew what Vonn would say to that--that this defeatist point of view was distorted by the darkness of his dilemma, his slavery. There was more to life than just striving as your youth burned away.

But here it was hard to believe in anything else.

The slaves watched the quantum-energy increasing in the transparent bulb at the narrow end of the arrowhead shaped room; the quantum energy charge looked like a trapped nebula swirling around a seething blacklight core. When the singularity-nebula sucked into the living blackness at its center, there would come a reactive out-pulse, like a widening ripple in an incandescent pool, and when the pulse reached the containment glass of the bulb, the ship would Jump into higher space and its slaves would be able to rest.

The shimmer in the bulb brightened, sucked into itself, then expanded to reach the glass, and--it was done. The Golden Surge passed from the bulb to lift the whole ship out of space-time, sweeping through the superstructure of the spacecraft, through bulkheads and frameworks like a ripple in reality, and then they were in the quantum Between, the ship protected from the interdimensional chaos only by its probability field.

The galley slaves sagged back into their harnesses, panting, and the robot receded.

Jann hung in his harness, resting as completely as he could. He was far beyond fatigued: he ached in the center of himself, sensing a loss of his living essence. That living essence could be restored--but toiling as a quantum energy slave didn't give you that chance.

Soon the slaves would be unlocked, and led to the slave quarters, there to be given nutritious but nearly tasteless paste for their supper; to await the call for another Jump. A man's Higher Self--what in some eras had been called his Soul-- was said to be untouchable. But the psychic energy with which he lived his life could be siphoned away, and after a certain time, no amount of rest or replenishment would restore him; he would begin to slide downhill faster and faster, aging overnight, finally dying in his harness.

Quantum energy slaves rarely lasted six months. Four, five months at most--and they died. And they didn't even know the names of the ship's various destinations. They had no access to windows; they were given no information. They were never allowed out of the engine room or slave quarters.

The ship carried cargo--luxury items, likely. Many of the Kastillians aboard were on holiday. Slaves were dying so that Kastillians could have imported air-sweeteners, and Alpha Centauran blossom robes, and so that bored Kastillian debutantes could go to the ocean planets during spring break from their Deportment Schools.

The death of a few slaves en route mattered little to the Kastillians, for there were millions of others to be "harvested" from the Abandoned Systems, and the politics of the situation--economic interdependence and the military threat of Kastillians--prevented Earth Central from doing anything about it.

Jann realized he'd begun to slip over some inner borderline into surrender--he knew it because the stolen energies, the crystalline contraption of the engine, had seemed beautiful to him. He told himself again that he would escape. It had never been done successfully, to his knowledge, but what of that? Someone had to be the first.

But after giving up one's will to the ship, the feeling of despair, of bone weary hopelessness, made the dream of escape seem childish. Derv the Alpha Centauran had said it with his usual dour pithiness: "It takes will to plan and execute an escape--and that is exactly what they take from us. The very stuff of will. I no longer have any inner strength...and thus I have no outer strength. I am no one, and thus I cannot escape. Only a real person can escape..."

Jann struggled against this corrosive logic. He reasoned that if he tried to remember who he had been, he might remember that he still was someone.

Jann a Grelle closed his eyes and let himself drift back…to the solace, the hope, of remembering…

He had not always been a slave on a Kastillian Galleon. He had been a DemiLord on the pleasant planet Paradine, in the Polaris system...

Jann a Grelle gloried in riding behemoths through the clouds.

It was a spring day on the planet Paradine...


"This is an interesting specimen," said a voice dry and detached as an airless moon.




Click Here for Part 11 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley

1 comment:

  1. Magnificent! An interstellar slave galley that sucks one's very will to resist until they are left a lifeless husk.

    I think my cube at work somehow serves the same purpose.

    ReplyDelete

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