Monday, May 01, 2006

Short Story: Ystem Aver Goes Over the Edge

Early afternoon sun beat into the clearing, a man-made hole in the verdant jungle far from any civilized outpost. Humidity pressed in, invisible rays of light boiled the air.

Captain Ystem Aver, a full-blooded Celian, stood opposite his step-father who gazed at him across an early fire. His maroon tinted skin was much lighter than that of men standing nearest him. Too long in space, he thought wondering if the ruling class’s preference for lighter skin was still the measure of beauty. Not that it’ll do ye any good.

Ystem’s eyeliner tattooed lids hardly fluttered while the sea blue orbs they shielded remained firm and calm. He wore a white silk shirt with full sleeves caught tight around his wrists. A silver ring adorned one finger. A black leather belt with a “Celtic” style belt buckle in silver held up wide leg pants stuffed into calf high, black leather boots. His Kaildescope perched on his belt.

Through his Kaildescope he knew everything happening aboard his ship. He knew the state of the engine plants, the health of his gardens and if the assigned men were poised in readiness as he’d commanded, a laser target set on the head of the man now glaring balefully at him.

Walusi, his mother, crouched on the ground near her husband, her eyes fixed on her son.

Konobana folded his arms across his chest, his own teal green silk shirt rustling in the deadly silence. For a long moment, only a bird spoke, the jungle oddly quiet, the insects hardly murmuring, a gentle undertow of concern. At last, Konobana sneered.“What say ye, son? I purchased ye and yer mother, keeping ye both from a fate worse than death. I bought a fine education fer ye in the Federated Planets’ space merchant schools--will ye be honoring yer debt or snub yer loving Father once again.” Simultaneously he signed, “(Look at ye, soaking up the fine ideas they be teachin’ ye? Eh? I kin see their idleness in the set o’ yer jaw. Ye any wiser fer yer stay ‘mongst the soft, city dwelling folk?)”

Ystem considered the distance to his gun. “Aye, ye bought me education and me heart be grateful even into the Great Beyond, but I no be doing any thing ye bid-me knowing yer black heart all too well. There be many fine chores, legal ones ye kin be sending me to bear fer ye, but I will no break a law, be it man-made or divine.” He ignored Knonbana’s signed insults; his hands merely emphasizing his spoken words.

“Aye, so say ye,” Konobana snarled as he grabbed Walusi’s hair, yanking her head back to expose her neck. His knife, glinting in the sun, pressed at her throat. He nodded to the men standing behind Ystem. One moved away noiselessly as all jungle tribes’ people were trained to do.

Ystem strained his ears to discern the man’s direction. His space jet stood about fifteen yards away, two of his crew an honor guard, but hardly equal to the hundred or so men Konobana had brought with him to the meeting.

Konobana said, his voice grating, “What say ye now? Eh?" Simultaneously he signed, the thumb holding the knife, the fingers moving, creating an odd slurring sign language. "(Me thinks fer the life o’ yer beloved Mother, ye do most anything, eh?)” He chanced a quick glance at one of his men as he chortled, turning his face back to Ystem. “Ye do honor yer mother, do ye nay?”

The man, a middle-aged Celian with no tattooed eyeliner gracing his lids, nodded and smiled. He was shirtless, wearing a leather vest, silk leggings and ankle high moccasins. His aqua eyes fixed on Ystem, their cold, reptilian glimmer unmistakable.

Ystem moved his fingers another tiny fraction closer to his gun. Ah, so that be his Most Trusted. With his other hand he signed, “(I say, ye be a fool.) Ye no be telling me the task, I no be making promises.”

Rustling in the brush behind let him know a group of about fifteen approached. He forced himself to choke back the sigh of relief pressing at his lips. Me men’r safe. The group skirted around the fire to stand near his mother, Walusi, whose eyes still stared at her son, her knees in the loose, black dirt, an insect boldly crawling up her leg.

Fourteen of the group were chained together, their clothes torn and dirty, their hair matted, their faces downcast. Ystem waited, his eyes flicking between Konobana and the bedraggled prisoners.

Konobana threw his head in the direction of the bound men and women. “They be needing transporting to a waiting ship presently in orbit just above us.” Simultaneously as he spoke, Konobana signed, “(I be knowing ye kin carry the lot o’ them in yer space jet. Ye kin fulfill your filial duty in this one deed fer me and ye then be shut o’ me for me lifetime.)”

Ystem’s mouth edged to a smirk. “Do they? An’ why they be needing transported? (One foul deed merits another and me beholding to yer knife will see no end until ye or I be gathered to our fathers.)” No expression entered his eyes as he spoke and signed, but he’d already assessed the readiness of the men immediately surrounding Konobana. They were untrained and already restless, their ears only half-listening and their senses fogged as blood-lust rose in their ears. Ystem had seen the look many times around similar council fires.

Konobana’s knife brought a droplet of blood to Walusi’s neck. It dribbled slowly a few inches before stopping, the drop and its trail drying on her deeply tanned, maroon tinted skin. She made no sound though her eyes closed for a moment, the black tattooed eyeliner on her lids pronounced clearly on her blanching skin, her aubergine lips whitening with pressure.

Konobana hissed. “They be me property and I be wanting ‘em transported. Are ye daft? (I promise ye, son, this be the single deed I require.)”

Ystem counted ten slow breaths and straightened his posture, loosening his shoulders and relaxing his muscles. “I no be a slave runner. (An’ ye be a liar.)”

Konobana’s thrust was swift and his rage unmistakable. “(No man calls me a liar and lives to tell.)”

Ystem felt the blade finger his hair and heard its whispers of death as it passed, but he didn’t move, not even his eyelids. The men behind him fell to the ground, their bodies making the characteristic thud of lungs air-filled as they dropped to avoid the weapon. He heard the knife crashing harmlessly into the brush a few yards behind him. A disturbed bird skittered into the sky.

Konobana laughed and yanked Walusi’s hair one final time before tossing her head carelessly toward the fire. “I knew ye no be doin’ this task fer me. Ye be too wedded to the Law o’ your Father," Konobana paused to spit, "An' The Way of The Eternal.” His signing took on a particularly derisive tone. “(Devotion to the Ten Words were always yer failing. Fer Him ye'd kill yer own Mother.) Fetch me a drink, woman, and tend to yer son. His thirst be mighty ‘bout now I expect.”

Walusi smoothed her hair and adjusted the bodice of her dusky purple dress. She got to her feet, walking slowly toward one of the pack animals standing patiently ever since Ystem had been brought to this clearing. The creatures happily chewed feed in sacks tied round their muzzles.

One day I be buying ye safe from ‘im, Ystem promised her, the thought unspoken, but intensely felt. His mother glanced at him and smiled. His head inclined toward her, a tiny movement hardly worth note.

“Ah, yea, ye be a fool to be clinging to that religion,” Konobana said, now crouching near the fire. He picked up a stick and threw it into the flame. “(Take ‘em back to the holding pen,)” he signed to the guard.

Guard nodded and led the bound group away, their weariness heavy in the air.

Mentally, through the Kaildescope, Ystem commanded his men to stand down for the moment. If Konobana had taken his mother’s life, the lives of every person in the immediate vicinity, save his own men, would have been forfeit. His own life most assuredly, but not until he’d invited however many The Eternal gave him into the Great Beyond with either his pistol or the knife secured in his boot. Not a few answering to the laser that would have first removed Konobana from this life placing him into the next to face his Maker.

Ystem ventured a quick glance around the clearing, taking a rapid count of heads. “Now ye satisfied yerself o’ me nerve, what task have ye fer me?”

Konobana laughed. One of his men sprinted to his side and whispered. Konobana’s eyes narrowed to slits. “So, ye had a laser target trained on me head, did ye?” Signing rapidly with his hands, he added, “(Ye plottin’ to kill me an’ everythin’ else within range?)”

Ystem folded his arms across his chest. “Aye, I did. An’ if ye be killin’ me mother, ye woulda felt its burn.” He freed one hand to sign, “(Nay, me men survive.)”

Konobana swung his opened palm signifying the whole camp. “An’ in the split second it take yer men to fry me brains—happen chance I move? Eh? Then ye be killing yer own mother?” He didn’t answer Ystem’s signed remark.

“Did ye no hear me? I be saying, in the case ye kill me mother--then ye and all yers be dead men.” Ystem snarled, finally permitting a show of emotion.

Konobana laughed. “An’ ye yerself too…”

Ystem answered. “Aye, if ye be killing me mother, it’s a given. But nay before I take a few of yers with me into the Great Beyond. (An’ man, I take the lot o’ ye. Afterward we all be standin’ in The Presence and then ye be takin’ note.)”

“Dinna yer fine Ten Words be commanding, “Ye shall no murder?” Konobana asked. “(Yer blood lust be no fittin’ measure o’ a fine religious man.)”

“Aye, it do.” Ystem watched a change suddenly occurring in the camp. Three tents were rapidly going up, their jungle camouflage failing to disguise the expensive fabrics. The men placed luxury camp chairs near charcoal braziers soon burning fragrant incense to ward off night insects. “(Me blood lust, eh? Me be wishin’ ye face to face with yer Maker--in this life preferably.)”

“But if ye be killing me and mine, then ye be committing murder,” Konobana sneered. “(I have no maker, ‘cept the slime o’ this place.)”

“Nay, self-defense be no murder.” Ystem answered, suddenly tired of his step-father’s taunts. “What say ye? Ye be baitin’ me, hopin’ to get a rise or ye be tellin’ me what ye be wantin’? (I no be callin’ ye slime, ye done it yerself.)”

Konobana laughed. “I be showin’ ye I no be vindictive. I kin forgive ye yer slights and to further prove me actual good intentions, I make the slaves a gift to ye. (All life come from the slime, includin’ yer self-righteous self.)”

Ystem’s blood froze. For the first time he was unsure of what to say next. Using his Kaildescope he contacted the ship in the “Morse Code” version of the signed portion of the ancient dual Celian tribal tongue Ystem used. Through the Kaildescope he communicated, “(Are me men by the jet remaining in this world?)”

His First Mate replied, the clicking morse code sounding in his brain. “(Aye, Cap'ain, they be yet alive and yer step-father’s men be bringing ‘em food.)”

Ystem snapped a quick reply. “(Be tellin’ em, no be eatin’ anything my step-father’s men be givin’ em. The food stored in the jet be more fittin’ fare if they wish to continue in this life.)”

First Mate responded. “(Aye, Cap'an.)”

Ystem continued, mentally clicking out the code. “(An’ be tellin’ em, one sleep now and the other keep watch.)”

“(Aye, Cap'an, I be tellin’ ‘em even now.)”

“(Good.)” Ystem’s attention had been divided. He was surprised to see a new man enter the camp. Ah, ye fool. Yer first mistake, he reprimanded himself.

A foppish, lanky limbed fellow wearing fine designer clothes walked to Konobana’s side.

Ystem bowed. “Afore I kin be acceptin’ yer “gift” I must needs pray.”

Konobana’s lips curled in disdain. “Pray?”

“Aye,” Ystem said wearily. “Listen man, I no be quitting me faith fer no amount o’ yer jeering--what your way got you has no appeal fer me.”

Konobana laughed. “Yer legendary calm be shot to hell.”

Ystem’s squinted and he fought down the blush that threatened to swamp his face. Yer second mistake. He be gettin’ a rise out o’ ye an’ ye be a fool. Deliberately he turned his back on his step-father, his skin crawling with unease and walked to his jet.

One of his men had slung a hammock under the jet and was already dozing. The other crouched atop its fuselage, his laser gun charged and his finger ready on the trigger.

Ystem smiled his pleasure. “Aye, ye be fine men, aye and aye agin. Ye be earning extra half-time me thinks.”

A faint smile crept up the lips of the supposedly dozing man. His companion chanced a quick glance at his Captain, a grin in reply.

“As ye were,” Ystem said softly and crouched under the jet. He prayed silently. What say ye now, LORD? Aught I be taking the captives or nay?

Sunlight was quickly fading and Ystem felt pleased to note his men had their night vision goggles clipped to their belts, ready. He glanced around the small clearing his jet had created while landing. The jungle noises, seeming distant only minutes earlier, were closing in, but unlike a Kabelian man raised in the desert or an Ephonian man raised in the tundra, close places did not disturb him, on the contrary, wide open places had that effect. Ystem was jungle born and well acquainted with each bird that spoke, each insect that ranted and each mammal grunting in his immediate vicinity. From their noises he knew none of Konobana’s men had changed their earlier positions and the season had thus far been good for the beasts.

Ystem waited, listening, with both his physical ears and his spiritual ears. Finally, he understood. Take the captives, but know ye this, they be meant to trap ye. He thought in reply, Aye, I be takin’ ‘em since Ye be commandin’ it. A new thought came to him. Konobana be settin’ one more trap fer ye this very evenin’. Well met, ye no take ‘is bait, but be wary o’ flattery, especially from this son o’ his ‘e be askin’ ye to take. Yea, ye take ‘im as yer step-father be askin’ but be wary. He means ‘im fer yer ill, but I be meanin’ it fer yer good. Ystem nodded and thought, a tinge of exhaustion infringing upon his peace. I be in fer another round o’ trainin’. And he knew the answer was “Aye. This life is all trainin'.”

Carefully, Ystem moved from under the jet and looked up at the man perched above. “Listen,” he said, pitching his voice to fall dead outside a ten foot circle. “If’n I no be comin’ back by mornin’ ye and Arcan be leavin’ me carcass here.”

Arcan broke off his careful scanning of his surroundings and peered down at his Captain. “Cap'an?”

Ystem signed, his face earnest. “(I be coming back by morn. Be alert. This be no fine, entertainment.)”

Arcan saluted. “(Aye, Cap'an, I long since be knowin’ this be no fine entertainment. It have no resemblance to any fine entertainment I ever be enjoyin’!)”

Ystem chuckled and crept quietly back to the camp.

Konobana still crouched by the fire and the lanky fop sprawled in one of the fine camp chairs as Ystem entered the grounds. Night was falling quickly in the already twilit jungle. The smell of cooking meat drifted toward him, its delicious odor tempting him.

Konobana got to his feet and gestured toward the lanky youth. “This be me son by me first wife, Donicara. (Ye never hear o’ her, I expect, as she failed me long before I met ye.)”

Ystem froze. His step-father’s tone was far too solicitous. He bowed to the seated man and signed the proper greeting. The young man didn’t rise as politeness required, but languidly returned the greeting.

Frowning, Konobana made the sign “rise up” to his son.

The lanky young man stood, returning Ystem's bow with just enough humility to avoid insult.

“Me step-son, Ystem Aver, be knowing me son, Moon Ealay.” Konobana spoke awkwardly, his eyes averted to the ground as he signed the introductions.

“Moon,” Ystem said, bowing his head a fraction.

“Ystem,” Moon replied, keeping his head upright. His eyes seemed to dance with wicked anticipation.

“Be sitting.” Konobana commanded. “(We shall feast tonight.)” He led the way.

One of his men raised the tent flap and a golden-lit scene was revealed complete with elegantly set table and tall candelabra. He signaled the men to their seats. Konobana’s Most Trusted entered, lifting a corner flap to join the men at the table.

He be wanting me for a task, he no be killin’ me tonight, Ystem thought as he rubbed his hands together. “I smelt the delicious repast as I walked back to yer camp.”

“Aye, me cook be the greatest.” Konobana replied with pleasure. “(Fer the moment, you and I forget our differences and enjoy, eh?)”

Ystem stared at Konobana, then replied. “(Very well, fer the moment.)”

Konobana laughed. Others of his men appeared bearing steaming plates of fresh meat, cold fruits and vegetables and the group set to.

The meal completed and the sherbet before them, Konobana broke the truce. “Ystem I be asking ye to take Moon as yer apprentice.”

Ystem’s spoon stopped an inch above his bowl.

Konobana’s eyes seemed to hold no guile. “Aye, that’s what I be askin’. (And me request no be illegal…ye kinna deny me.)”

“Ye be giftin’ me the slaves and ye be askin’ me to train yer son…” Ystem repeated.

“Aye. Yer understandin’ me correctly.” Konobana smiled broadly.

“I reckon ye be meanin’ me harm by yer machinations, but I be doin’ as ye bid when ye be lettin’ me Mother free.” Ystem spoke then wiped his mouth with his napkin. "(Be letting me Mother free.)"

Konobana’s smile faded. “Ye be a fool if’n yer thinkin’ I give up me hostage and give ye one!” He snorted and turned to the side, pushing his chair away from the table in one motion. "(She be me wife and yer insults tear me heart.)"

Ystem’s eyes narrowed. “I be no makin’ secrets--me Mother free be my goal. (Wife or no, she not be a free woman.)”

“I ken ye be wantin’ yer Mother free, I no be an idiot.” Konobana rested a forearm on the table and the other on the back of his chair. “(An’ this be the way ye treat yer long suffering step-father.)” He shook his head in irritation. “(I ask so little o’ ye.)”

Ystem burst into laughter. “(Aye, ye ask little o’ me, but when ye do ye ask big.) Very well then, leave it lie. I take yer son as apprentice, but under certain conditions.”

Konobana’s head rotated in Ystem’s direction. “And what be they?”

“First,” Ystem began, pointing with his spoon. “He obey me commands to the letter else I ship ‘im back to ye faster’n ‘e kin spit.”

Konobana’s head continued its rotation to stare at Moon. “What say ye? Kin ye keep this condition? (I be agreein’ to it if it were me, it no be unreasonable.)”

Moon’s eyes narrowed. “Aye, I agree.”

“Second,” Ystem continued. “He do the work assigned ‘im with no complaint. (I warn ye, I be a hard master. Me men are the most fit, most able-bodied space men ye’ll find in the Federated Planets an’ I’ll brook nothing less.)”

Konobana adjusted his position to face the table once again and glanced at Moon. “He no be asking unreasonably o’ ye.”

Moon frowned. “Aye, I agree to do the work with no complaint.”

Ystem nodded. “Fer any infraction I kin send ye back to yer father, no explanations offered. In me case I will honor my promise and train ye as me apprentice, I no be askin’ more o’ ye than I ask o’ meself or me men.” He finished the sherbet quickly. “Third, he git no pay until I say ‘e earned it.” Ystem placed one palm on his thigh and turned his eyes to Moon.

Moon’s face was now carefully blank. “Aye, I agree to your terms.”

“Fourth,” Ystem said, “Ye kin take no slave nor servant to wait on ye, ye’ll wait on yerself as I and all me men do.”

Moon’s laugh was cold. “Fine, I’ll take no servants.”

Ystem stared hard. “Finally, I no trust ye. (Be knowin’ up front, ye no be trusted. Ye’ll be watched.)”

Moon folded his arms over his chest. “I’d be ashamed of you if you did trust me. (I expected to be watched.)” The challenge in his eyes was unmistakable.

When Ystem turned his attention to Konobana he didn’t like the wily look that met his gaze.

“So, it be settled then. (An’ ye soon be seein’ the end o’ yer filial duty to me.)” Kononbana laughed and rose to his feet. The three men shook on the bargain with the typical Celian handshake, slapping opened palms and then clasping firmly.

*****

Moon’s servant followed a bell robo bearing his two large trunks to the space jet where Ystem’s men stood, their laser pistols charged and ready. The group of fourteen slaves fidgeted on the sidelines, their chains rattling in the pre-dawn damp. Konobana, Moon and Ystem approached from the camp, their foot-falls hardly audible even to discerning ears.

“Well then, take yer leave o’ me and I wish ye success in yer ventures.” Konobana said expansively, moving his hands in a similarly kind sentiment.

Moon grimaced.

Ystem bowed, but did not reply. To his men he commanded, “Load the slaves first.”

Bloon, gestured to the frightened, shivering group as he lowered the ramp. “Go on and I’ll be meetin’ ye inside.”

The fourteen bedraggled slaves clanged up the ramp with Bloon behind them. Ystem gestured toward the jet, inviting Moon to make his entrance, then followed him with Arcan bringing up the rear, his laser pistol ready. Bloon placed the slaves in a secure cabin, settling outside their door on a jump seat while Moon joined Arcan in the main passenger cabin. Ystem was about to close the ramp when a girl rushed out of the brush past Konobana and his retinue.

“Captain Aver,” the girl called. She bowed and waited at the foot of the ramp.

Ystem paused, then came down to meet her. “What is it?”

“(Your mother sent me with a note.)” The girl glanced nervously at Konobana who folded his arms across his chest, frowning.

Ystem took the note and opened it. “My son, the LORD has commanded me to release you from your vow to obtain my liberty. (Go and be free to choose as He would want without concern for me. He will care for me and one day I shall be free, even if that day is the day when I join my fathers in the Great Beyond.)” The note was signed, “All my love, Mother.” Ystem stared at the girl a moment, then bowed. “Thank ye.” He signed a proper farewell and returned to the top of the ramp. When he looked back, the girl was already gone, disappeared into the surrounding bush.

*****
It was a short jump from the planet surface to the Hardship, a half-size deep space vessel one mile wide and eleven hundred fifty feet tall; a squashed sphere of diamond, gold, titanium and carbon steel. The space jet docking bay’s lens-like egress opened at his approach and the jet landed neatly in the center of the white enameled maw. As soon as the gate closed, men leaped from the protection of air-filled booths to tie down the jet and secure its perimeter.

The slaves were led away to a holding pen where criminals were kept when the Hardship hauled such charges. Though Ystem’s sympathies lay with the slaves they were down trodden, perhaps uncertain of their identities and viability as worthy persons and likely primed to believe him a murderer. Better to be safe, he thought, watching his men lead them away.

“Ho, so this is the famous Hardship,” Moon said happily. “(Oh the things I’ve heard...you haul the most dangerous cargoes they say...the stuff others won’t touch.)”

“Yes, this be she.” Ystem answered cautiously. “(That’s me specialty an’ it’s a specialty requirin’ all a man’s wits, a goodly lot o’ nerve and every scrap of self-discipline a man kin train ‘imself to acquire and then more.)” He studied Moon through his brows while the younger man gazed in wonder at the vast space jet docking bay. Mechanic robos were already climbing over the jet doing routine maintenance before moving the it to its more permanent dock.

Moon’s eyes were unreadable as he spoke. “They say you are the greatest Celian Captain alive, Captain Ystem Aver.”

Ystem’s face showed his skepticism and Moon prepared to add a signed comment, but was interrupted.

“The prisoners are secured,” one of the men spoke as he hurried up to Ystem.

“Good. (I want ye listenin’ to ‘em day an’ night.)” he said. The man nodded and hurried back the way he’d come. “Arcan, show Moon to his quarters.” Ystem ordered. “Moon, when ye’ve looked ‘em over, meet me in the cockpit.”

Moon nodded, looking slightly puzzled.

“Arcan be showin’ ye how.” Ystem said and strode away. He busied himself in the control booth as Arcan and Moon passed through on their way down the corridor to the tube, the hollow energy elevator that ran from top to bottom of every modern deep space vessel using the gravitational drive invented by the great Kabelian scientist, Candan Rubeek.

Bloon stopped next to his Captain, openly watching Arcan lead Moon across the steel floor and down the hall. “What possessed ye to take ‘im on?”

“Konobana, me step-father, promised me I’d be shut o’ ‘im if I trained Moon for apprentice.” Ystem answered. “(An’ we’ll be needing to watch him like the wolf he be.)”

Bloon nodded. “An’ the human cargo we acquired along with ‘im, what ye make o’ that lot? (Ye be tradin’ slaves now, Cap’an?)”

Ystem answered. “What I make o’ ‘em, I kinna tell ye till I speak with ‘em, but first they be needin’ to learn a bit o’ trust and me thinks they lack it. (I no be tradin’ slaves. When I kin, I be takin’ ‘em home.)”

Bloon nodded again, keeping further thoughts to himself.
*****

“Cap’an, they’re Ansi tribesmen--the whole lot o’ ‘em.” Arcan muttered as he sat at the Captain’s table in the dining area in his quarters.

The far wall, opened to the jungle, let a monkeen's scream into the room while birds cawed and dusk fell. The Hardship’s garden level boasted three mini eco-systems ringing the command crew quarters hugging the tube, its brushed steel exterior visible above their rooftops and pressing through the ceiling, an apparent “sky.” A third of the available garden acreage was devoted to jungle with 300-foot trees in the tallest portion nearest the tube. The central third was devoted to semi-arid transition land leading up to the final third, a Lieban styled forest climbing a “mountain” up to the space worthy wall abutting the rear of the jungle. This mountain received snow in the winter and supported a small herd of deer-like creatures. Digital screens lined the ceiling and garden hull walls giving the illusion of sky, distant vistas and the real sensation of sunlight or moonshine.

“Ansi?” Ystem asked, his mouth full. A breeze rustled the sheers at the floor to ceiling opening—its folding windows pushed aside so that the exterior was actually merely an extension of Ystem’s living space.

“Aye. (They’re all blood price sold.)” Arcan’s elbow rested on the solid, polished table.

Ystem threw his napkin. “What? (Blood price sold?!)”

“Aye,” Arcan answered calmly. “(That’s what they be telling H’Seth. ‘E’s the one I sent in there preten’in ‘e be also a slave.)”

Ystem waved his hand. “(I be no confused--I well ken yer plot.) I’m askin ye: be ye certain--blood price sold?”

“Aye, I be certain. (They be adamant sir. Blood price sold and feared o’ going ‘ome. Upon showin’ their faces to their people, they be dead men and women--the lot o’ ‘em.)”

Ystem’s face purpled and he pushed his chair away from the table, his appetite gone. “This be a foul stink. (A fine squirm in the stew, aye and aye again.)”

“Aye, an’ ye be set on sendin’ ‘em ‘ome and it be sendin’ ‘em to their deaths.” Arcan said reaching for a fruit Ystem had left untouched.

The Captain ignored him as he helped himself to the food. “Mayhap the Old Wolf be seein’ this a chance to gift his son a ship, eh?”

“Aye, likely. He bein’ the closest kin and all that.” Arcan mumbled as he peeled.

Ystem dropped his head back and stared at the ceiling where wood beams divided the glittering white stucco into trays. “Or, ‘e laugh as ‘e make me a de facto slave owner.”

“Aye, it look that a’way.” Arcan stuffed another bite into his mouth.

“That be good fruit or no?” Ystem asked suddenly, his attention fixed on Arcan’s juice smeared mouth.

“Well, aye it be! (And so it is!)” Arcan laughed.

Ystem chuckled bitterly. “ ‘E promised me I’d be shut o’ ‘im, but I knew ‘e were laying a trap fer me and ‘e were--aye ‘e were. (Thank you and ye be leaving the rest o’ those victuals for me!)”

Arcan got to his feet, grabbing one more piece of fruit. “(Aye Cap’an, I be seeing ye in the mornin’.)”

Ystem listened to Arcan's boots as he walked across the wood floor to the travertine tiled entry and out into the tube, the door clicking shut behind him.

“So what say Ye now,” Ystem murmured. “(What say Ye now, LORD?)”

The intimate Voice sounded in his head; The Presence filled the room like a cloud. Ye be freein’ ‘em that’s what ye set out to do. I be with ye and ye shall not fail nor shall yer head go down to the grave.

A cold sweat broke out on Ystem’s forehead. “Aye, that’s what I set out to do. (If Ye be with me, then I go.)” He got to his feet and strolled to the opened windows pulling first one side shut then the other as rain began to fall.

*****

After a full night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast of all his favorites, Ystem rode the energy elevator up to the cockpit and fell into his command chair. The familiar morning crew worked at their stations, little to occupy their attention as they’d just unloaded a cargo before meeting Konobana and had no new cargo, save the slaves, to manage or destination set. Ystem spoke. “We’re headin’ back down to the planet to the Ansi tribal grounds. (I be needin’ a solution for me course to the Ansi tribal grounds.)”

“Aye, Captain,” his Lieban Navigator replied and instantly set to at his computer. Scat already circulated through the ship and everyone knew what was afoot. Before Ystem could leave with the disc, the plotted course saved on it, Moon arrived in the cockpit.

“Ah, Moon, I see ye come to begin learnin’ yer trade.” Ystem said casually.

“Nay, I didn’t come to learn anything save your fate.” Moon’s face was hard and smirking.

“Ah, me fate. (What do ye think me fate?)” Ystem asked.

“(You’re a dead man. All for your stupid religion and your faith in the outmoded, stupid Ten Words.)” Moon added particularly sarcastic emphasis to “Ten Words” signifying “useless and daft.”

“I ken the plot ye brewed with yer father and I ken ye have no clue the significance o’ either the Ten Words or their Author. (Ye be a fool if ye think I rest me fate on the Ten Words. Me life be in the Hands of The Eternal and He be able to keep it!)” Ystem spoke and signed with more conviction than he felt.

Moon laughed. “Is that so. Well, then, we shall see, won’t we? (And I am no fool. The Eternal never did anything for me and He won’t be doing anything for you either.)”

Ystem glanced at the stars and the curve of the planet through the domed, diamond window cupped protectively over the cockpit. “We shall see. But I tell ye, whether He save me or slay me, I will worship Him. (Mayhap, ye never asked Him for anything He could give ye and mayhap, if ye did, ye didna ask in faith.)”

Moon barked a sardonic laugh. “Aye, we’ll see and I’ll be laughing as I take charge of this ship--make no mistake, it’s a fine one, just as my father promised! (I don’t want anything He’d be willing to give me since He’s not interested in anything that interests me and the claim of “lack of faith” is the everyman excuse for His failure.)”

Ystem nodded, but didn’t reply, choosing instead to enjoy the view. “It’s a beautiful sight, is it no?”

“Aye, and a fitting one for a man soon to be dead.” Moon replied.

Ystem’s men bristled in their seats, but an imperceptible gesture from their Captain kept them pinned and silent. “The Ansi tribes’ home is but fifty miles from yer father’s camp. And ye ken where we’re headin’, do ye no?”

Moon sneered. “Aye, I know. (You’re going to do exactly what my father predicted you would do--give your life for that trash you took, as he said you would.)”

Ystem’s expression was unreadable. “Ah, ye think yer father a wise man, do ye no?”

Moon didn’t hesitate. “Aye, I do.”

Ystem moved past him to the tube entrance. “Well, then, ye’ll be glad to come along an’ see me fate, will ye no?”

Moon smiled, ignoring Ystem’s men whose teeth were bared, but remained rooted in their seats as their Captain had commanded. “Yea, I’d love to go. (Let’s gather everyone up.)”

*****

Ystem, Moon, Arcan and Bloon landed in a clearing not far from the Ansi Chief’s home with the fourteen slaves, still bound, but now clean and fed, in tow.

The Chief was a middle-aged man with his black, purple-tinted hair knit into multiple braids wound into a cockscomb-like configuration upon the top of his head. He strutted out of his house and paused next to the council fire opposite the place where the men stood.

“What brings you men here with the blood price slaves, eh?” Chief asked, not bothering with pleasantries or preambles.

“I come to redeem these slaves,” Ystem said, his legs planted firmly and his arms folded in resolve over his chest.

“What? Are you mad? You’re an outsider! (You don’t have to do this!)” Chief shouted, flummoxed.

“Aye, I ken I’m an outsider. I’m a God-Fearer and as such I ken the meanin’ o’ blood price--I make me sacrifices as needed as do every other decent God-Fearin’ man. I ken the blood price--yea and yea ag’in.” Ystem’s voice was measured and quiet, though clear to everyone in the vicinity.

The Chief’s wife wandered out of the house bearing a tray of refreshments. “You men please be seated.” She shot her husband a look for his inhospitable attitude.

The slaves sat on the ground while the rest took seats on stumps set in a circle around the council fire pit. When all the guests had been served Chief spoke again. “So, you’re here to redeem these murderers?”

Ystem replied, the rough, hand-made cup empty in his hand. “Aye, ye heard me correct. (It is the command of The Eternal and my fate is in His Hands.)”

“Ma’am it be a fine beverage ye be servin’,” Arcan spoke out in the lull. “(Thank ye.)”

The woman nodded and disappeared into the house. Soon several other Ansi tribe members filtered out of the undergrowth to sit in positions near their Chief.

“These men are the tribal council. We will now decide your case.” Chief began speaking to the group in their native tongue--a language Ystem did not understand. The slaves murmured, shifting uneasily behind the Captain and his men.

At last, one of the slaves leapt to his feet. “Captain Aver, you needn’t redeem me--I’ll accept my fate. (It’s better to be a dead man than a slave.)”

Two others joined him. “We stand with this man--he’s right--Captain Aver shouldn’t redeem us--he’s an outsider and has no knowledge of what we’ve done or what we deserve.”

Chief held up his hands. “He understands the blood price. I know enough of the worship of The Eternal to tell you he may understand it better than you!” He signed, answering the first speaker, “(You could have made that choice when you were condemned, but you didn’t!)”

One of the slave women burst into tears.

An overweight councilman spoke up. “Outsider, what possesses you to intervene on behalf of these murderers?”

Ystem blushed, showing emotion for the first time. “I tell ye men, I tell ye true, I was gifted these slaves by a man...”

Chief interrupted. “Would that be Konobana Ealay?”

Ystem answered. “Aye, that be the man.”

The Chief rested one elbow on his knee, his hand hanging loose, the other hand on his thigh. “We know this man. After these murderers left our camp in the company of the slave trader we heard he’d given them to Konobana to pay off a debt. (How do you know Konobana?)”

Ystem’s eyes dropped a fraction. “(Konobana is my stepfather by stint o’ purchasin’ me mother an’ me from slavers when I were but a teen.)”

Another council member spoke up. “So, you’re saying Konobana Ealay gifted you these slaves...and you’re here to pay the blood price...”

Ystem nodded his head. “Aye, that be what I’m sayin’.”

Murmuring amongst themselves, the council gestured animatedly, often glancing at Ystem and the slaves. At times their voices grew loud, though mostly they were low, almost inaudible. The sun made its course, first climbing the dome of the sky, then languidly sliding down the other side.

At long last Chief made his decision. “You’re not the man to redeem these murderers. You were deceived and trapped into this action. The man who placed you in this trap is the man who should redeem them since that is clearly the action he intended for you to take, him knowing your character and your resolve. (Konobana is the man who rightfully should finish this. You’re free to go. And when we’re through with him, your mother and all the rest he owns will be freed as well. This we will do to honor a man whose honor is greater than even our own and the likes of which we’ve never seen. And not for our kinsmen who dishonored their tribe, but who shall live anyway because of you and your willingness to sacrifice your own head for their sorry ones.)”

The whole council stood to their feet as one person and bowed low in deepest respect.

The overweight councilman spoke up once again. “And Captain Aver, when we’re home once again, you must come and tell us more about this God, The Eternal. (I am curious about a God who could inspire such bravery and honor.)”

Ystem smiled. “Aye, it shall be an honor to share Him with ye!” He also got to his feet and bowed.

1 comment:

Evan said...

Very interesting story!