Thursday, July 9, 2009


by John Shirley

They hired two fast enta'tallies from the village near the woods, and rode the tall, galloping two-legged beasts toward the starcraft—tallies, the mounts were called, for short, with a profile like three-yard-tall human beings but with flattish, reptilian heads, triple-jointed arms ending in pincers, and enormous, leathery legs. From a good distance a tallie rider looked like a child riding piggy-backed on a human adult.

They rode the tallies across the fields, toward the windbreak of poplars and brush that here divided the Gollden estate from the Grelle.

Jann didn’t much like riding tallies: the saddles held one almost vertically in line with the animal’s spine, yet you felt you might at any time fall off backwards, and the ride was bone-jarring, rump-rawing.

Vonn a Vleet, however, was a great tallie rider, and much preferred them to the sky-herds—he made himself ride the behemoths, now and then, “because a man should conquer his fears”, and he showed no outward sign of terror when he did it, doubling with Jann. But Jann had seen Vonn’s white knuckles on the behemoth lines, his quiet relief on returning to the yielding soil of Paradine.

Now they leapt over fences and irrigation ditches, zig zagged between hay ricks and herds of stock, startling sheep into bounding away. They came to a dirt road that wended beside Glimcrack Creek, and followed it south till they were within sight of the windbreak.

Vonn signaled with his hand, in the mute gestures the S’Leorna used when hunting.

We will approach under cover. We will observe without being seen.

Why? Jann wondered. There were laws—the Kastillians might be getting away with bending them, but they would submit when confronted. They had to, really. Jann was, after all, a DemiLord, one of the fifteen most powerful men on this planet. They would have been instructed to show at least a modicum of respect to the local hierarchy. And they would not want to pay a fine to the Terran Authority for recklessness.

But again Jann deferred to Vonn and reined his tallie to a trot. They approached the starcraft slowly and indirectly.

Jann felt an almost perverse relief on seeing that the ship was still there. He could make out the mercuric gleam of its triple hemispheres between the tall green poplars; the breeze brought him a few murmurs from the ship’s crew, or perhaps passengers, and the oily smell of landing fuel.

Vonn signaled to dismount and they tied the beasts to a wiry shrub near a patch of green grass.

Vonn a Vleet took the lead, half crouched as he eased up to the windbreak of trees and scrub. In an open field just fifty yards on the other side of the brush-lined fence was a group of Kastillian soldiers, most of them listening to an officer reading from a wordboard, maybe giving out sentry and maintenance assignments; they were all male, in the patriarchal tradition of the Kastillians, most of them in chin-to-toe deep-blue EKCW uniforms— the acronym standing for Enforcement of Kastillian Collective Will. Kaswills, in the vernacular.

LCD letters marched along their epaulets and armbands, indicating their rank and medals. Most of them were armed with stropps; some carried microwave pulsers. Looming over them was the triple-rounded silvery bulk of the spacecraft, big as a Lapis Mall, its windows sealed. It was shaped something like a legless insect landed on its belly, with head, thorax and tail-section connected by complex tubes. Along a ramp up into a circular hatch in the “thorax” a couple of Kaswill Lowers herded three tallies, using electronlashes. The stolen tallies, raising their heads to give out their eerie wails of distress, were probably from the pastures of Gollden Manor.

Crouching beside Vonn and peering through the brush, Jann tensed with outrage. “Do you see? It’s said they like the taste of roast tallie. They’ve stolen at least three for their dining table! First they kill my behemoth and now they steal the Gollden’s stock!”

“Keep your voice down, boy,” Vonn hissed. “Yes they’ve killed your animal, they’ve stolen a few beasts—but ‘do not pursue the Stinger back to its Hive’.”

“Old sayings won't save our stock from these thieves,” Jann grumbled softly. Their conversation continued in whispers. “I don’t understand why we’re hiding. There is a treaty, the law is with us—and I am a DemiLord. I say we identify ourselves, Vonn, immediately. We demand the animals back-- and demand their landing papers. It’s likely they have no permissions whatever. If we emanate Kreitos, as you taught me, they'll respect our authority!”

“They just might be immune to our emanations of Kreitos,” said Vonn ruefully. “And of course they have no landing papers—not when they land in secret. But do you think they’ll let a couple of local bumpkins order them about? That's what they'll think, DemiLord or not. They’ll laugh in our faces—they may do worse. There are rumors of offworlders taking slaves on Paradine...”

“What? The Kastillians use slaves onboard ship, it’s said—but no one from Paradine could have been taken! We're protected by treaty! We have allies!”

Vonn shrugged. “I don’t know that it was the Kastillians. But then--why are they here?”

“Let's demand an explanation. We have the force of the treaty--we have the Terran League...”

“The Kastillians know full well that the Terran League will fight for us reluctantly, if at all. The balance of power between Earth and Kastillia is chancy, Jann.” Vonn turned him a narrow eyed look. “You didn’t read the System Histories I gave you?”

Jann looked at the Kaswills: Lower, Intermediate, Advanced and Higher orders, each order with its various sub-ranks, now spreading out to their various tasks around the starcraft. “I don’t think this is the time for a scholar’s examination.”

“This situation is the examination, boy—” He seemed to be counting the sentries, tracking their movements about the clearing.

“What do you think we should do, then?” Jann asked.

“Nothing. We will report this...”

Jann had a sickly feeling of disappointment in his mentor. Had the legendary warrior surrendered to the cowardice and cynicism of old age? "That will do no good. We need to confront them—find out what they're up to!"

Vonn shrugged, still watching the sentries around the starcraft. “They could claim anything. They could be up to anything. Security is an illusion. There is none.”

“You’re not hearing me, Vonn!”

“I tell you for the last time, keep your voice down, you fool!” Vann hissed. "I have reasons to avoid a confrontation. More than I have time to explain."

Jann suddenly felt like striking the older man—instead, he looked angrily away. The Kastillians were still at their enigmatic tasks, seeming unaware they were being watched.

Vonn glanced back as one of the tallies snorted and pulled free of its stake, shuffling toward forage. “That badly trained beast is going to wander into their line of sight and call attention to us.”

“The Kastillians may do a personnel scan at any moment,” Jann pointed out. “They will pick up our body signatures. We seem like skulkers behaving this way. We should present ourselves to them—once they know I’m a DemiLord...”

“No—I'll tell you what we'll do, boy—” He leaned nearer so that Jann could catch his whisper. “They're doing some repair work on the ship. They'll be here for awhile. I'll ride to the Free Ranchers, see how many armed men I can shame into coming—Probably won't need them but it's good to show strength. You go to the Manor, use the communicator to contact the Peacekeeper Station. Report an illegal landing, stolen livestock, the killing of your behemoth. Request a Peacekeeping Force. By midnight we'll have it resolved, one way or the other. We will demand reparations. Now just go—I'll meet you at the Manor.”

“But—they could commit any number of crimes in that time!"

“They’re putting up perimeter posts like they're planning to stay the night—so they're probably not getting ready for an expedition. Now go! Ride to the Manor, to the communicator! Quick, before they deploy their Personnel Scanners!”

Jann almost defied him. He was on the point of insisting on a meeting with the starcraft’s captain. Vonn would have to yield to insistence, if he was to remain in the service of Grelle Manor.

But a long habit of deferring to Vonn held Jann back. And at last he turned furiously away and stalked back to his tallie.

Moments later the two riders were thumping off in separate directions, Vonn a Vleet to the Free Ranches, Jann toward Grelle Manor...

Vonn had called him a fool. That grated.

And what about Liana—and Gollden manor? Those were the Gollden's tallies the Kastillians had taken. If he confronted these Kastillian raiders over it, demanded reparations, what could they do? He was a Paradine DemiLord—and if he got reparations, immediately, even got the tallies back before they were slaughtered, it might help him get the Baron's permission to marry Liana.

How would Liana a Gollden regard him if he stood by and allowed outworlders to raid her father’s tallie herd? Already she seemed distant from him.

And by the time Vonn got some kind of back-up for a confrontation with the Kastillians, the ship might have departed—Vonn was only guessing about the Kastillian plans to stay overnight. But if they were faced down now, they’d know that they were being watched, that steps were being taken.

Jann reined in his mount and turned to look back at the Kastillian ship. The three silvery arcs seemed once more to embody a great opportunity. Hadn't Vonn taught him to seize opportunities? He would not get too close to the Kastillians—just close enough to shout his demands. Once he had identified himself as a DemiLord they would surely not molest him. If they refused to respect his demands, he could ride away to the Manor—they were on foot except for the starcraft, and they would surely not rouse that great monstrous ship just to pursue him in anger. He could easily get away on the tallie if he needed to.

He found himself riding at first slowly, then more and more rapidly back toward the Kastillian spacecraft. As he approached a gap in a windbreak, he was aware of a certain inner alarum of fear and dismay. But he dismissed the feeling as a childish fear of the unknown, and spoke the command that made the tallie leap the fence, so that he came down squarely in view of the Kastillians.

A Kastillian shout of warning went up immediately, quickly followed by a muted siren that was half buzzer and half warble, and a dozen hostile faces turned to him from various quarters, in the shadow of the spacecraft, which now loomed above him like a great anomalous building.

Jann felt an impulse to turn and ride away but he quelled the panic and trotted his tallie a few steps closer to the nearest Kastillian officer. He reined in and ordered it into “Address Posture”-- a half turn and squat, leaning forward-- so that he could face the officer squarely, and not too far above him. Shouldn't be this close, he thought. But it was too late to back away—he'd look weak.

When the Kastillians saw that he was alone, and unarmed but for a crossbow, some of them laughed and babbled dismissively in their language. His comprehension of Kastillian dialect was weak and he understood only phrases here and there.

“...some farmer’s ridiculous those beasts they ride...”

“...look he rides like a child playing at rumpity-back...”

Inwardly furious at their disrespect, his statement to the Kastillians in “System Wide”, was harsher than he had intended: “I am Jann a Grelle, DemiLord of Grelle Manor and a protector of Gollden Manor! I must first protest that you killed an elder behemoth of my skyherd, with wanton and proscribed weapons-fire in violation of treaty! I demand to see both your landing permissions and ownership papers for the beasts I saw driven into the ship but minutes ago!”

His own voice sounded cracked and reedy in his ears, and he felt his face burn when the Kaswills laughed at his demand.

The officer Jann had confronted was a tall, broad-shouldered, red-faced man with his eyebrows grown together. His wide mouth twisted into an amused sneer as he responded in System Wide. “Back home on Kastillia we have a way of dealing with children who make demands on their elders! We find the electronlash gets an improved response—except when it induces them to wet their diapers!”

Now all the Spacers laughed in one great roar, and Jann was forced to reach deep within for the stoic self-control Vonn had tried to teach him. “I spoke formally, and definitely, but I do not intend disrespect. You men landed here illegally—and you're bound under the Seventeenth Agreement to address my demands.”

As he spoke, three armed sentries hurried up to stand behind the officer; Jann was distantly aware that others were moving behind the tallie. Would they attack a DemiLord of Paradine?

Click Here for Part 5 of SKY PIRATES,
by John Shirley


Be sure to tune in tomorrow morning when the FoFaSF hosts a short piece of post-Interzone flash fiction from Johnny Strike, author of the short story collection A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above and the novel Ports Of Hell, recommended by William S. Burroughs. Johnny Strike also happens to be one of the lead founders (guitar/vocals) of the 70s underground proto-punk band CRIME. NIGHT FLAMERS is sort of like the "title piece" from Johnny's short story collection.

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