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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 21, 2018 19:30 EDT



    From my bunk I’d watched the display over Lal’s shoulder as the Martinique landed at Salaam. We were coming down in a wide bay fringed by what looked during the approach like sandy beaches. A town sprawled away from the water in a relatively narrow band. There was at least one missile installation near the shoreline. It was raised enough for the afternoon sun to cast a long shadow onto the land.

    I didn’t see any sign of harbor improvements.

    We landed in the usual rush of steam with sparkles of unquenched plasma. Tarek got out of his bunk and threw a lever on the other side from the airlock; there was a splash and a loud rattling. Lal got up from the console.

    “What was that?” I asked as I got up also. The Martinique pitched, though at a longer period than I expected; the chop in an ordinary slip was quick though relatively mild.

    “If we didn’t anchor,” Lal said, looking at me in surprise, “we’d drift.”

    “Aren’t there docks to tie up to?” I said, surprised in my turn.

    “Well, not most harbors,” Lal said. “Blanchard City has one, and I’m told Jacquerie Haven on Saguntum does.”

    “Yeah, it does,” I said. I had more to learn about the universe than I’d ever dreamed in Xenos. I thought about Maeve. I had more to learn about life, too.

    “Should we send up a flare?” Tarek said to Lal.

    Lal shrugged. “No need,” he said. “They’ll be waiting for us. Hakim will have beaten us here.”

    “The Martinique doesn’t carry flares,” I said. “There’s a box in the stores locker, but it’s empty.”

    “It’s all right,” said Lal. “There’s a boat on its way already.”

    He touched a console control. At first I thought something had gone wrong — the ship rang with repeated hammerblows. I realized that I’d never before heard the Martinique’s hatch lower.

    Ali and Tarek looked worried also, but Lal merely waved his hand. “No problem,” he said. “The extension gear is missing some teeth. I’ve seen that before. Heard it.”

    A breeze carried hot air and a tang of ozone, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected for the ship to have been opened as soon after landing as this one had been. The fact that the Martinique floated free in a wind-swept bay seemed to have dissipated exhaust residues faster than I was used to.

    There were a fair number of starships in the bay, twenty or thirty of them. Most were either in the shallows or actually drawn up on shore. With only a few exceptions, all were extremely small, five hundred tons or less. I couldn’t tell which was Captain Hakim’s ship, but it had been pretty much the same as the others in harbor.

    Lal and Tarek walked out into the cargo compartment to meet the motor launch which was coming from the shore. I joined them to see something of ben Yusuf, and the other three crew followed.

    We were about two hundred feet off the shore. The current was strong enough to swing the ship clockwise to the end of the play of the anchor line; that was probably why the water was clear also. In many ways this was an idyllic setting, the sort of place I’d daydreamed about when I was growing up.

    I just hadn’t expected to be visiting places like this as a slave. I could die here and nobody would have any idea of what had happened to me.…

    The launch curved up to the end of the ramp. Tarek said, “I’ll go fetch the captain. All right?”

    “Go ahead,” Lal said. He gestured back into the ship with his thumb. “But take the tied one with you. He stinks.”

    “We’ll all go,” said Ali. “No reason to stay aboard now.”

    “Roy and me will wait for Hakim,” Lal said. “But take the prisoner.”

    Tarek and Ali dragged Wellesley instead of carrying him, but the deck and ramp were smooth enough that it wasn’t torture. I hadn’t cleaned him for twelve hours or so, which gave me a twinge of conscience. I’d preferred not to think about the mate. I hadn’t felt any duty toward him except what was owed to another human being…but that should’ve counted for more than it had.

    The launch headed back to the shore with our shipmates. I said to Lal, “What happens now to me?”

    Lal shrugged. “Hakim will sell you with the other prisoners,” he said. “You’re healthy and good-looking — you’ll get a decent spot, servant in one of the merchants’ households, maybe.”

    He looked sidelong at me. “There’s still time to join Hakim’s crew,” he said. “It’s not a bad life.”

    I hadn’t liked the comment about me being “good-looking,” but I said, “No, I don’t think so. I swore I’d stay honest after my father died. Aren’t there any regular spacers on ben Yusuf? Not pirates, I mean?”

    Lal nodded respectfully though he’d probably misunderstood what I was saying about Dad. “There’s no trade here but what they bring in by force,” he said. “I was a crewman on a ship from Pride when Hakim captured us five years ago. I joined him. I don’t like it, but what was a poor man like me to do?”

    Then he said, “The wine is awful, but that’s why the others were in such a hurry to get to Salaam. We’d drunk all we brought and they wanted more.”

    “You’re from Pride?” I said. The boat that had carried the others to shore was coming back to us. There were two passengers besides the boatman.

    “I am from Kashgar,” Lal said with an unexpected dignity. “I am of a very low caste on Kashgar, though.”

    I’d never heard of either Kashgar or Pride. The Martinique had no reference materials aboard, just destinations preloaded into the astrogational computer with minimal data. Looking up the names wouldn’t tell me anything if they were even included.

    The launch bumped at the end of the ramp. Captain Hakim stood amidships with a bulky stranger wearing red pantaloons and a gold-embroidered vest over his loose white tunic. Hakim and the boatman caught rings on the edge of the ramp and tied the boat up. Hakim hopped aboard and offered the stranger his hand to mount.

    The man in red hung back; Hakim instead stepped up to me. He said, “So, Olfetrie. Tarek says you know how to fix a console?”

    “I had a little training on Cinnabar,” I said, wondering what under heaven I’d been volunteered for. “I’m not a technician or any kind of expert, though.”

    Hakim looked over his shoulder at the stranger. That fellow muttered, “I need somebody.” Then to me he said, “You — Olfetrie? You’re from Cinnabar?”

    “Right,” I said. “From Xenos.”

    At least if they were talking about my computer skills, I wasn’t going to be sold as somebody’s bum-boy. I didn’t know for sure what I’d do if that happened, but I didn’t figure it’d be survivable.

    “He’ll do,” the stranger said to Hakim. “He’ll have to, I need somebody now.”

    “All right, Olfetrie,” Hakim said. “You’re a lucky boy. Instead of being auctioned the usual way, you’re been bought by Master Giorgios, the Admiral’s own chamberlain. You’ll be living in the palace.”

    A large boat, a barge or a lighter, had put out from the shore and seemed to be heading toward us. Giorgios turned toward the launch, but Hakim put a hand on his arm and said, “If you’re taking him now, you need to pay now. Otherwise he’ll go to auction.”

    “You’ll get your money!” the chamberlain said.

    “Yes,” said Hakim. “Now.”

    Giorgios untied the mouth of his belt purse and rooted inside. He came out with a gold piece, but he hesitated and said, “It’s too much!”

    Hakim shrugged and said, “You set the price. If you’d rather wait for the auction…?”

    Giorgios swore under his breath and pressed the coin into the captain’s hand. “Get into the boat!” he snarled at me.

    Hakim grinned down at me and he and I cast the boat loose. “Good luck, Olfetrie,” he called. “Let me know how you’re doing if you get a chance.”

    “You’re part of the Admiral’s household now,” Giorgios said to me. “You don’t have any business with lone captains.”

    I laughed as our launch pulled away from the ramp. The barge nosed in behind us. There were no seats on the launch so we had to stand, holding the high railing. I didn’t like that, even as calm as the bay seemed.

    “You’re a member of the Admiral’s household, aren’t you?” I said. “And you’re dealing with Hakim, right?”



    Giorgios spun to face me, clenching his fists. I was afraid that I might have pushed too hard, but when he spoke it was to say, “For god’s sake, do you want to get us both hanged? Keep quiet about this!”

    “I don’t want anybody to be hanged,” I said. “If you’ll tell me what’s going on instead of ordering me around, we’ll do a lot better.”

    Giorgios was on the good side — barely — of fifty, and he was soft to the point of being fat. He sighed and I realized that the main reason for the bluster was that he was so frightened.

    In a low voice — though I doubt the boatman would’ve heard a shout over the keen of his electric motor — Giorgios said, “I order all the goods the Admiral’s household needs and pay the suppliers. The divisions send me their requirements on the household network, and I send the orders to suppliers. The ordering network has stopped working. I need you to fix it.”

    “Don’t you have a technician who can do that?” I said, frowning. If this required any real expertise, Giorgios was going to be disappointed, and heaven knew what would happen to me.

    “It’s never failed!” the chamberlain said. “Guido never had any trouble in the five years I was his assistant, so I told the Admiral I knew how to run the system when he promoted me.”

    “Umm,” I said. “Where’s Guido now?”

    “The Admiral had him hanged last month,” Giorgios said miserably. “He was taking too big a cut from the suppliers. Or anyway, the Admiral thought he was.”

    Very possibly the Admiral thought that because Guido’s assistant had told him so, I thought. And then the assistant turned out not to be able to do the job after all. That would explain why Giorgios had been in such a hurry, and also why he was so frightened.

    “And who’s this Admiral who I work for?” I said.

    “He runs Salaam,” Giorgios said. “And you don’t work for him; he owns you.”

    We grounded on the beach. The closest approach to port facilities was a parking area where three self-propelled lowboys were forming up. One had backed down to a hardstand at the edge of the shore. The barge which had gone out to the Martinique would be able to land here and offload cargo, using the shearlegs in the bow. We were carrying milled cotton from Saguntum.

    I didn’t respond to the chamberlain’s comment. I was thinking about being a slave. It didn’t seem possible — a Cinnabar citizen who a year ago had been a cadet in the RCN Academy. But I was many days’ sail from Cinnabar, and I might never again meet a Cinnabar citizen.

    I felt sick to my stomach. I could vanish as though I’d never existed…and just possibly, I’d already done that.

    Giorgios paid off the boatman. There were dozens of similar craft on the beach. Some were fishermen, judging from nets drying on racks behind lean-tos farther back on the sand, but boats were also the only way to reach the starships moored in the bay.

    The brick fortress nearby on the shore was forty feet high. I knew from seeing it from above as the Martinique landed that it held three antistarship missiles, lowered for the time being. I wondered how serviceable they were.

    Half a dozen vehicles sat at the back of the parking area. Most were motorized platforms with small wheels, though I saw a front-pedaled tricycle with a wicker bench over the back wheels. Drivers squatted in the shade of native trees with foliage that stuck out in all directions like fright wigs.

    Wellesley lay on the ground nearby, bound and motionless.

    “Hey!” I said, walking over to the spacer. He’d probably been in the shade when Tarek and his fellows came ashore, but by now he’d be baking until sunset.

    “What are you doing?” Giorgios said. He’d mounted one of the low platforms. It had a high handrail like the launch and a control column with a T-bar in front. “Come on, we’ve got to get to the palace.”

    “He’ll die if we don’t get him to shelter!” I said, wondering if Wellesley was alive even now. I touched his throat and felt the pulse of his heart, though he didn’t appear to feel the contact.

    “What of it?” Giorgios said. “You don’t have a share in his sale, do you?”

    “Look, we move him or I don’t go with you,” I said. “Can we take him to the palace?”

    A voice at the back of my mind wondered why I cared. Maybe I didn’t, except that Wellesley was a human being. Not one I’d ever warm to, but I wasn’t going to leave him to die in the sun.

    “You’re a bloody fool,” Giorgios muttered, a statement I more or less agreed with. “We’ll drop him off at the slave pen. Bloody fool.”

    I couldn’t put one of Wellesley’s arms over my shoulders because his wrists were taped together, but I gripped him below the rib cage and managed to haul him with only his heels dragging.

    I dropped him on the back of Giorgios’ vehicle. One of his boots had scraped off, but I didn’t care about that. I was breathing hard.

    The chamberlain started up the street running inland from the bay. All buildings were set back within compounds. The greenery I’d seen from the air was foliage hanging over the walls of gardens on both sides of the street. Gates to the interior were closed and two or three guards diced or played cards in each archway.

    Our vehicle moved at a walking pace; the road was paved with irregular blocks which would have jarred our kidneys out if we’d gone any faster. I got a good look at the guards, who didn’t seem any more impressive than their equipment. They’d leaned their weapons against the walls nearby. They were in poor condition; some didn’t even have ammunition tubes attached.

    “Why is Salaam so long and thin?” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the wheels on stone.

    “The water,” said Giorgios. He pointed ahead of us. “There’s a river underground here from the mountains fifty miles south. If you build too far away to sink a well, you depend on cisterns or the kindness of your neighbors.”

    I snorted. I’d learned about the kindness of neighbors when Dad was disgraced. I could have been diagnosed with leprosy and been less of a pariah in the place I’d lived for a decade. From the chamberlain’s tone, things weren’t much different on ben Yusuf.

    The walls bordering the street were eight or ten feet tall. The buildings I could see within the courtyards were two or three stories. The roofs were flat, and frequently foliage stuck over the top of them.

    Giorgios turned left and snaked through an alley which was barely wide enough for the narrow vehicle. Some shops displayed their wares — electronics, garments, pots — on trays sticking out in front. The clatter of our wheels on the pavement was as good a warning as a horn would have been; shop boys snatched the trays inside.

    Pedestrians and customers squeezed in also or found crannies for shelter. Giorgios showed no sign of caring whether he ran into someone or not.

    We drew up at the east edge of town. We were high enough that I could look over the roofs of some of the structures farther down the swale.

    “Here’s the slave pen,” said Giorgios. All I could see was a mud hut and half a dozen sheds of plastic sheeting on brushwood frames. A man lounging there walked over to us, leaving his carbine in the shade with his fellows.

    “I’ve got a slave,” Giorgios said. He turned and raised an eyebrow to me. “He goes on Hakim’s account, I suppose?”

    I said, “Yes, Hakim captured us. But where are the prisoners kept?”

    The guard laughed. “Come and see,” he said. To the men in the sheds he called, “One more for Hakim! Come give me a hand.”

    Two guards took Wellesley by the arms and dragged him toward the yard where several other guards were doing something on the ground; the leader and I followed. Beyond was a pit covered with an iron grating. The guards were lifting a hinged trap at one end.

    I leaned forward to look in, holding my breath. The pit was ten feet deep; the fifty or so men inside didn’t crowd it.

    “Here, some of you take him,” a guard called. Three of them fed Wellesley feet first through the trap, into a clot of men below.



    “Olfetrie!” someone called from the pit. I couldn’t make out individuals in the gloom. Then a different voice, Langland’s, called, “Hey, Olfetrie? Can you get me out of here?”

    “Come along, now,” Giorgios said. “We’ve wasted enough time.”

    I paused. To the chamberlain I said, “How long will they stay in this prison?”

    “A few days,” Giorgios said. “A week at most. They’re just useless mouths until they’re sold.”

    “You’ll be out in a week or less,” I shouted into the pit. Then I turned and walked quickly back to the vehicle. I couldn’t do anything more for Langland, and it wasn’t as though I owed him. He hadn’t been a bad shipmate, but I wouldn’t have been here myself if he hadn’t bought me from kidnappers.

    “Who buys the slaves?” I asked as the chamberlain turned us around.

    “Sometimes there’s foreigners,” he said. “People with a plantation or a factory on another planet they need staff for. And there’s ships from charities in big places that buy back their own spacers even if there isn’t a treaty with Salaam. If there’s a treaty, the ships’re exempt, but citizens who’re crew on other ships can still be captured.”

    “Can’t anybody stop it?” I said. I guess I sounded pretty angry, because Giorgios turned and looked at me with a frown.

    “Why?” he said. “Slavery’s legal many places besides ben Yusuf. And a lot of slaves, they’re bought by locals and work on farms right alongside their owners. It’s not so bad. Look at you, you’re fine. If you play your cards right, you could wind up in charge of one of the Admiral’s own ships.”

    I thought of telling him that I’d refused to join a pirate crew already, and I certainly wasn’t going to be running one. It wouldn’t do any good, though. Nothing would do any good but an RCN squadron…but maybe someday I could help make that happen.

    It struck me that though Cinnabar didn’t have a presence on ben Yusuf, Saguntum might. I said, “Giorgios, if I were a citizen of Saguntum, what would happen to me?”

    The chamberlain shrugged. “You were crew on a ship from Masque, and Masque doesn’t have a treaty with us. Saguntum has a treaty but there’s no consul. Their treaty rights are handled by the Karst consul.”

    I remembered Lady Mundy telling me that Karst controlled Saguntum’s foreign policy. Karst really would be powerful in this region.

    “How would I be able to talk to the Karst consul?” I asked.

    “You wouldn’t!” Giorgios said. He was too forceful for me to believe him. “You’ve got no business with him and he wouldn’t see a slave anyway.”

    He turned and glared. “You’re a member of the Admiral’s household!” he said. “Be thankful for it!”

    I nodded. I wasn’t thankful to be a slave.

    We reached the street that had brought us from the bay and turned up it. Giorgios pointed at the massive building just ahead to the right and said, “There’s the palace.”

    “Giorgios?” I said, because my mind was still back on something else. “Have there been escapes from the slave pen?”

    There were enough prisoners in the pit to form a pyramid from which half a dozen men could work on the grating. That was massive but it hadn’t looked particularly sturdy. I was pretty sure I could crack some of welds myself, given time — and the guards didn’t seem to pay much attention.

    The chamberlain laughed. “If there’s a lot of noise from the pen,” he said, “they toss a grenade at where the noise is loudest. The last time it happened, they used white phosphorus — an incendiary grenade.”

    I didn’t say anything. I was going to get out of this place one way or another.

    The front of the palace was three stories tall, and the arched gateway in front rose two of them. The gate leaves were split in half vertically though, and the guards pushed the right portion open as soon as they saw us approaching.

    We jolted through a tunnel and into a courtyard which was smaller than I’d expected. It was more like a light well; the hollow walls on both sides were twenty feet thick. The upper stories had windows and balconies. Poles protruded with clothes drying and hanging plant baskets. Children were playing noisily and women chatted as they watched.

    Directly in front of us was a blank curtain wall. Spikes glittered on top. It wasn’t an outside wall; there was clearly a higher wing beyond it. What I could see merely divided the courtyard into the larger portion that we’d driven into and a smaller section on the other side.

    Giorgios parked by an interior doorway. Three attendants wearing sandals and pantaloons wheeled the vehicle away, pushing it instead of driving. The chamberlain saw me studying the curtain wall and said, “Better keep away from that, Olfetrie. That’s the wives’ quarter. If you’re caught trying to look in, you’ll be gelded and become an attendant.”

    I turned my head. There were better and worse places to be a slave on Salaam.

    People stood on both sides of the passage we’d entered, talking and dozing as best I could tell. The passage was shaded and there was a slight breeze through it, so it was a reasonable place to be if you had nothing better to do. That seemed to be the case for plenty of people in the Admiral’s palace.

    We went up a set of wooden stairs in a stone well. Instead of curling like the companionways on a ship, these made right angles every six treads or so. The whole rig seemed flimsy, and it’d be a chimney packed with kindling if it ever caught fire.

    A couple people vanished onto upper stories when they saw the chamberlain coming, but there wasn’t a crowd on the stairs like I’d half expected after the entrance passage. Maybe more people than me thought the stairs were an accident waiting to happen.

    When we reached the third floor, Giorgios was puffing. He threw open the door and announced proudly, “The entire top floor of this wing is for me and my household! You’ll have a room in my private suite, where the computer is.”

    “At least the stairs’ll keep me in good condition,” I said. If the palace caught fire, I’d have to learn to fly very fast; but maybe that wouldn’t happen.

    We were in the left wing. A gallery ran the length of it on the outside. Most of the doorways opening off it were long, narrow rooms running toward another gallery at the courtyard end. Faces peered out of curtained alcoves, then ducked away.

    There were electrical lights of various sorts — mostly glowstrips, but fluorescent, incandescent, and diode fixtures as well. I didn’t see any two of the same sort.

    Also I didn’t see any open flames, which was a mercy. At this time of afternoon there was still a lot of daylight coming through the galleries, anyway.

    Giorgios’ suite turned out to be the last quarter of the corridor. He walked me past a pair of attendants — guards, I suppose, though I saw only one carbine — and into the far end where an astrogation console from a starship sat in an alcove.

    Giorgios pulled curtains to shield us and switched it on. “See?” he said when the stand-by display, an opalescent globe, appeared. “It doesn’t work.”

    I used the keyboard to get to the sidebar, where I switched the holographic display from astrogation to what I hoped was the local area. The unit was of Karst manufacture, but the hollow square looked like a good bet for my first try. A list of proper names came up with no other information.

    “How did you do that?” Giorgios shouted. “Is all the information still there?”

    I had no idea what “information” there might have been, so I called up one of the names — Petruschka. It expanded into a list of foodstuffs, as best I could tell. It was so long a list that it spread into a second screen when I expanded the typeface to a readable size.

    “Is this what you’re looking for?” I said.

    “Oh, thank the Great God!” Giorgios said. “I’m saved! No wonder he was complaining that if the deliveries didn’t come in, we’d run out of food!”

    Giorgios disappeared into another alcove for a moment, then returned with a stylus and a notebook. “Here,” he said, thrusting them at me. “Write down all the orders and I’ll send out messengers at once. Oh, the Great God is good to me!”

    I got to work. Among other things, I was feeling hungry. I decided that would be my second item of business.

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