Wednesday, July 22, 2009


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 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 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

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