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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 2


  “Let the fucking white-eyes piss himself,” said one of the two young men facing him to the other, who smiled tightly.

  Esdan considered possible replies, good-humored, joking, not offensive, not provocative, and kept his mouth shut. They only wanted an excuse, those two. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, to be aware of the pain in his shoulder, the pain in his bladder, merely aware.

  The man to his left, whom he could not see clearly, spoke: “Driver. Pull off up there.” He used a speakerphone. The driver nodded. The car slowed, pulled off the road, jolting horribly. They all got out of the car. Esdan saw that the man to his left was also a veot, of the second rank, a zadyo. One of the young men grabbed Esdan’s arm as he got out, another shoved a gun against his liver. The others all stood on the dusty roadside and pissed variously on the dust, the gravel, the roots of a row of scruffy trees. Esdan managed to get his fly open but his legs were so cramped and shaky he could barely stand, and the young man with the gun had come around and now stood directly in front of him with the gun aimed at his penis. There was a knot of pain somewhere between his bladder and his cock. “Back up a little,” he said with plaintive irritability. “I don’t want to wet your shoes.” The young man stepped forward instead, bringing his gun right against Esdan’s groin.

  The zadyo made a slight gesture. The young man backed off a step. Esdan shuddered and suddenly pissed out a fountain. He was pleased, even in the agony of relief, to see he’d driven the young man back two more steps.

  “Looks almost human,” the young man said.

  Esdan tucked his brown alien cock away with discreet promptness and slapped his trousers shut. He was still wearing lenses that hid the whites of his eyes, and was dressed as a rentsman in loose, coarse clothes of dull yellow, the only dye color that had been permitted to urban slaves. The banner of the Liberation was that same dull yellow. The wrong color, here. The body inside the clothes was the wrong color, too.

  Having lived on Werel for thirty-three years, Esdan was used to being feared and hated, but he had never before been entirely at the mercy of those who feared and hated him. The aegis of the Ekumen had sheltered him. What a fool, to leave the Embassy, where at least he’d been harmless, and let himself be got hold of by these desperate defenders of a lost cause, who might do a good deal of harm not only to but with him. How much resistance, how much endurance, was he capable of? Fortunately they couldn’t torture any information about Liberation plans from him, since he didn’t know a damned thing about what his friends were doing. But still, what a fool.

  Back in the car, sandwiched in the seat with nothing to see but the young men’s scowls and the oga’s watchful nonexpression, he shut his eyes again. The highway was smooth here. Rocked in speed and silence, he slipped into a postadrenaline doze.

  When he came fully awake the sky was gold, two of the little moons glittering above a cloudless sunset. They were jolting along on a side road, a driveway that wound past fields, orchards, plantations of trees and building-cane, a huge field-worker compound, more fields, another compound. They stopped at a checkpoint guarded by a single armed man, were checked briefly and waved through. The road went through an immense, open, rolling park. Its familiarity troubled him. Lacework of trees against the sky, the swing of the road among groves and glades. He knew the river was over that long hill.

  “This is Yaramera,” he said aloud.

  None of the men spoke.

  Years ago, decades ago, when he’d been on Werel only a year or so, they’d invited a party from the Embassy down to Yaramera, the greatest estate in Voe Deo. The Jewel of the East. The model of efficient slavery. Thousands of assets working the fields, mills, factories of the estate, living in enormous compounds, walled towns. Everything clean, orderly, industrious, peaceful. And the house on the hill above the river, a palace, three hundred rooms, priceless furnishings, paintings, sculptures, musical instruments—he remembered a private concert hall with walls of gold-backed glass mosaic, a Tualite shrine-room that was one huge flower carved of scented wood.

  They were driving up to that house now. The car turned. He caught only a glimpse, jagged black spars against the sky.

  The two young men were allowed to handle him again, haul him out of the car, twist his arm, push and shove him up the steps. Trying not to resist, not to feel what they were doing to him, he kept looking about him. The center and the south wing of the immense house were roofless, ruinous. Through the black outline of a window shone the blank clear yellow of the sky. Even here in the heartland of the Law, the slaves had risen. Three years ago, now, in that first terrible summer when thousands of houses had burned, compounds, towns, cities. Four million dead. He had not known the Uprising had reached even to Yaramera. No news came up the river. What toll among the Jewel’s slaves for that night of burning? Had the owners been slaughtered, or had they survived to deal out punishment? No news came up the river.

  All this went through his mind with unnatural rapidity and clarity as they crowded him up the shallow steps towards the north wing of the house, guarding him with drawn guns as if they thought a man of sixty-two with severe leg cramps from sitting motionless for hours was going to break and run for it, here, three hundred kilos inside their own territory. He thought fast and noticed everything.

  This part of the house, joined to the central house by a long arcade, had not burned down. The walls still bore up the roof, but he saw as they came into the front hall that they were bare stone, their carved paneling burnt away. Dirty sheetflooring replaced parquet or covered painted tile. There was no furniture at all. In its ruin and dirt the high hall was beautiful, bare, full of clear evening light. Both veots had left his group and were reporting to some men in the doorway of what had been a reception room. He felt the veots as safeguard and hoped they would come back, but they did not. One of the young men kept his arm twisted up his back. A heavyset man came towards him, staring at him.

  “You’re the alien called Old Music?”

  “I am Hainish, and use that name here.”

  “Mr. Old Music, you’re to understand that by leaving your embassy in violation of the protection agreement between your ambassador and the Government of Voe Deo, you’ve forfeited diplomatic immunity. You may be held in custody, interrogated, and duly punished for any infractions of civil law or crimes of collusion with insurgents and enemies of the State you’re found to have committed.”

  “I understood that this is your statement of my position,” Esdan said. “But you should know, sir, that the Ambassador and the Stabiles of the Ekumen of the Worlds consider me protected both by diplomatic immunity and the laws of the Ekumen.”

  No harm trying, but his wordy lies weren’t listened to. Having recited his litany, the man turned away, and the young men grabbed Esdan again. He was hustled through doorways and corridors that he was now in too much pain to see, down stone stairs, across a wide, cobbled courtyard, and into a room where, with a final agonising jerk on his arm and his feet knocked from under him so that he fell sprawling, they slammed the door and left him belly-down on stone in darkness.

  He dropped his forehead onto his arm and lay shivering, hearing his breath catch in a whimper again and again.

  Later on he remembered that night, and other things from the next days and nights. He did not know, then or later, if he was tortured in order to break him down or was merely the handy object of aimless brutality and spite, a sort of plaything for the boys. There were kicks, beatings, a great deal of pain, but none of it was clear in his memory later except the crouchcage.

  He had heard of such things, read about them. He had never seen one. He had never been inside a compound. Foreigners, visitors, were not taken into slave quarters on the estates of Voe Deo. They were served by house-slaves in the houses of the owners.

  This was a small compound, not more than twenty huts on the women’s side, three longhouses on the gate side. It had housed the staff of a couple of hundred slaves who looked after the house and the immen
se gardens of Yaramera. They would have been a privileged set compared to the field hands. But not exempt from punishment. The whipping post still stood near the high gate that sagged open in the high walls.

  “There?” said Nemeo, the one who always twisted his arm, but the other one, Alatual, said, “No, come on, it’s over here,” and ran ahead, excited, to winch the crouchcage down from where it hung below the main sentry station, high up on the inside of the wall.

  It was a tube of coarse, rusty steel mesh sealed at one end and closable at the other. It hung suspended by a single hook from a chain. Lying on the ground it looked like a trap for an animal, not a very big animal. The two young men stripped off his clothes and goaded him to crawl into it headfirst, using the fieldhandlers, electric prods to stir up lazy slaves, which they had been playing with the last couple of days. They screamed with laughter, pushing him and jabbing the prods in his anus and scrotum. He writhed into the cage until he was crouching in it head down, his arms and legs bent and jammed up into his body. They slammed the trap end shut, catching his naked foot between the wires and causing a pain that blinded him while they hoisted the cage back up. It swung about wildly, and he clung to the wires with his cramped hands. When he opened his eyes he saw the ground swinging about seven or eight meters below him. After a while the lurching and circling stopped. He could not move his head at all. He could see what was below the crouchcage, and by straining his eyes round he could see most of the inside of the compound.

  In the old days there had been people down there to see the moral spectacle, a slave in the crouchcage. There had been children to learn the lesson of what happens to a housemaid who shirked a job, a gardener who spoiled a cutting, a hand who talked back to a boss. Nobody was there now. The dusty ground was bare. The dried-up garden plots, the little graveyard at the far edge of a woman’s side, the ditch between the two sides, the pathways, a vague circle of greener grass right underneath him, all were deserted. His torturers stood around for a while laughing and talking, got bored, went off.

  He tried to ease his position but could move only very slightly. Any motion made the cage rock and swing so that he grew sick and increasingly fearful of falling. He did not know how securely the cage was balanced on that single hook. His foot, caught in the cage closure, hurt so sharply that he longed to faint, but though his head swam he remained conscious. He tried to breathe as he had learned how to breathe a long time ago on another world, quietly, easily. He could not do it here now in this world in this cage. His lungs were squeezed in his rib cage so that each breath was extremely difficult. He tried not to suffocate. He tried not to panic. He tried to be aware, only to be aware, but awareness was unendurable.

  When the sun came round to that side of the compound and shone full on him the dizziness turned to sickness. Sometimes then he fainted for a while.

  There was night and cold and he tried to imagine water, but there was no water.

  He thought later he had been in the crouchcage two days. He could remember the scraping of the wires on his sunburned naked flesh when they pulled him out, the shock of cold water played over him from a hose. He had been fully aware for a moment then, aware of himself, like a doll, lying small, limp, on dirt, while men above him talked and shouted about something. Then he must have been carried back to the cell or stable where he was kept, for there was dark and silence, but also he was still hanging in the crouchcage roasting in the icy fire of the sun, freezing in his burning body, fitted tighter and tighter into the exact mesh of the wires of pain.

  At some point he was taken to a bed in a room with a window, but he was still in the crouchcage, swinging high above the dusty ground, the dusties’ ground, the circle of green grass.

  The zadyo and the heavyset man were there, were not there. A bondswoman, whey-faced, crouching and trembling, hurt him trying to put salve on his burned arm and leg and back. She was there and not there. The sun shone in the window. He felt the wire snap down on his foot again, and again.

  Darkness eased him. He slept most of the time. After a couple of days he could sit up and eat what the scared bondswoman brought him. His sunburn was healing, and most of his aches and pains were milder. His foot was swollen hugely; bones were broken; that didn’t matter till he had to get up. He dozed, drifted. When Rayaye walked into the room, he recognised him at once.

  They had met several times, before the Uprising. Rayaye had been Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Oyo. What position he had now, in the Legitimate Government, Esdan did not know. Rayaye was short for a Werelian but broad and solid, with a blue-black polished-looking face and greying hair, a striking man, a politician.

  “Minister Rayaye,” Esdan said.

  “Mr. Old Music. How kind of you to recall me! I’m sorry you’ve been unwell. I hope the people here are looking after you satisfactorily?”

  “Thank you.”

  “When I heard you were unwell I inquired for a doctor, but there’s no one here but a veterinarian. No staff at all. Not like the old days! What a change! I wish you’d seen Yaramera in its glory.”

  “I did.” His voice was rather weak, but sounded quite natural. “Thirty-two or -three years ago. Lord and Lady Aneo entertained a party from our embassy.”

  “Really? Then you know what it was,” said Rayaye, sitting down in the one chair, a fine old piece missing one arm. “Painful to see it like this, isn’t it! The worst of the destruction was here in the house. The whole women’s wing and the great rooms burned. But the gardens were spared, may the Lady be praised. Laid out by Meneya himself, you know, four hundred years ago. And the fields are still being worked. I’m told there are still nearly three thousand assets attached to the property. When the trouble’s over, it’ll be far easier to restore Yaramera than many of the great estates.” He gazed out the window. “Beautiful, beautiful. And Aneos’ housepeople were famous for their beauty, you know. And training. It’ll take a long time to build up to that kind of standard again.”

  “No doubt.”

  The Werelian looked at him with bland attentiveness. “I expect you’re wondering why you’re here.”

  “Not particularly,” Esdan said pleasantly.

  “Oh?”

  “Since I left the Embassy without permission, I suppose the Government wanted to keep an eye on me.”

  “Some of us were glad to hear you’d left the Embassy. Shut up there—a waste of your talents.”

  “Oh, my talents,” Esdan said with a deprecatory shrug, which hurt his shoulder. He would wince later. Just now he was enjoying himself. He liked fencing.

  “You’re a very talented man, Mr. Old Music. The wisest, canniest alien on Werel, Lord Mehao called you once. You’ve worked with us—and against us, yes—more effectively than any other offworlder. We understand one another. We can talk. It’s my belief that you genuinely wish my people well, and that if I offered you a way of serving them—a hope of bringing this terrible conflict to an end—you’d take it.”

  “I would hope to be able to.”

  “Is it important to you that you be identified as a supporter of one side of the conflict, or would you prefer to remain neutral?”

  “Any action can bring neutrality into question.”

  “To have been kidnapped from the Embassy by the rebels is no evidence of your sympathy for them.”

  “It would seem not.”

  “Rather the opposite.”

  “It would be so perceived.”

  “It can be. If you like.”

  “My preferences are of no weight, Minister.”

  “They’re of very great weight, Mr. Old Music. But here. You’ve been ill, I’m tiring you. We’ll continue our conversation tomorrow, eh? If you like.”

  “Of course, Minister,” Esdan said, with a politeness edging on submissiveness, a tone that he knew suited men like this one, more accustomed to the attention of slaves than the company of equals. Never having equated incivility with pride, Esdan, like most of his people, was disposed to be pol
ite in any circumstance that allowed it, and disliked circumstances that did not. Mere hypocrisy did not trouble him. He was perfectly capable of it himself. If Rayaye’s men had tortured him and Rayaye pretended ignorance of the fact, Esdan had nothing to gain by insisting on it.

  He was glad, indeed, not to be obliged to talk about it, and hoped not to think about it. His body thought about it for him, remembered it precisely, in every joint and muscle, now. The rest of his thinking about it he would do as long as he lived. He had learned things he had not known. He had thought he understood what it was to be helpless. Now he knew he had not understood.

  When the scared woman came in, he asked her to send for the veterinarian. “I need a cast on my foot,” he said.

  “He does mend the hands, the bondsfolk, master,” the woman whispered, shrinking. The assets here spoke an archaic-sounding dialect that was sometimes hard to follow.

  “Can he come into the house?”

  She shook her head.

  “Is there anybody here who can look after it?”

  “I will ask, master,” she whispered.

  An old bondswoman came in that night. She had a wrinkled, seared, stern face, and none of the crouching manner of the other. When she first saw him, she whispered, “Mighty Lord!” But she performed the reverence stiffly, and then examined his swollen foot, impersonal as any doctor. She said, “If you do let me bind that, master, it will heal.”

  “What’s broken?”

  “These toes. There. Maybe a little bone in here, too. Lotsalot bones in feet.”

  “Please bind it for me.”

  She did so, firmly, binding cloths round and round until the wrapping was quite thick and kept his foot immobile at one angle. She said, “You do walk, then you use a stick, sir. You put down only that heel to the ground.”

  He asked her name.

  “Gana,” she said. Saying her name, she shot a sharp glance right at him, full face, a daring thing for a slave to do. She probably wanted to get a good look at his alien eyes, having found the rest of him, though a strange color, pretty commonplace, bones in the feet and all.