Monday, July 27, 2009


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

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