Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 6
uck ’em. They’re foul. Dirty, can’t get clean. They got black jizz through and through ’em. Jit-jizz!” He spat on the terrace and wiped his mouth.
“Did you know anybody at this place before you came here?” a younger man asked sharply.
“No. I’m asking about house people. They were kind to me. Kamsa’s baby is sick, it needs care. I’d like to know they’re being looked after.”
The generals were conferring with each other, paying no attention to this diversion.
“Anybody stayed here, a place like this, after the Uprising, is a collaborator,” said the zadyo, Tema.
“Where were they supposed to go?” Esdan asked, trying to keep his tone easy. “This isn’t liberated country. The bosses still work these fields with slaves. They still use the crouchcage here.” His voice shook a little on the last words, and he cursed himself for it.
Banarkamye and Tueyo were still conferring, ignoring his question. Metoy stood up and said, “Enough for tonight. Come with me.”
Esdan limped after him across the hall, up the stairs. The young zadyo followed, hurrying, evidently sent by Banarkamye. No private conversations allowed. Metoy, however, stopped at the door of Esdan’s room and said, looking down at him, “The house people will be looked after.”
“Thank you,” Esdan said with warmth. He added, “Gana was caring for this injury. I need to see her.” If they wanted him alive and undamaged, no harm using his ailments as leverage. If they didn’t, no use in anything much.
He slept little and badly. He had always thrived on information and action. It was exhausting to be kept both ignorant and helpless, crippled mentally and physically. And he was hungry.
Soon after sunrise he tried his door and found it locked. He knocked and shouted a while before anybody came, a young fellow looking scared, probably a sentry, and then Tema, sleepy and scowling, with the door key.
“I want to see Gana,” Esdan said, fairly peremptory. “She looks after this,” gesturing to his saddled foot. Tema shut the door without saying anything. After an hour or so, the key rattled in the lock again and Gana came in. Metoy followed her. Tema followed him.
Gana stood in the reverence to Esdan. He came forward quickly and put his hands on her arms and laid his cheek against hers. “Lord Kamye be praised I see you well!” he said, words that had often been said to him by people like her. “Kamsa, the baby, how are they?”
She was scared, shaky, her hair unkempt, her eyelids red, but she recovered herself pretty well from his utterly unexpected brotherly greeting. “They are in the kitchen now, sir,” she said. “The army men, they said that foot do pain you.”
“That’s what I said to them. Maybe you’d re-bandage it for me.”
He sat down on the bed and she got to work unwrapping the cloths.
“Are the other people all right? Heo? Choyo?”
She shook her head once.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He could not ask her more.
She did not do as good a job bandaging his foot as before. She had little strength in her hands to pull the wrappings tight, and she hurried her work, unnerved by the strangers watching.
“I hope Choyo’s back in the kitchen,” he said, half to her, half to them. “Somebody’s got to do some cooking here.”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
Not sir, not master! he wanted to warn her, fearing for her. He looked up at Metoy, trying to judge his attitude, and could not.
Gana finished her job. Metoy sent her off with a word, and sent the zadyo after her. Gana went gladly, Tema resisted. “General Banarkamye—” he began. Metoy looked at him. The young man hesitated, scowled, obeyed.
“I will look after these people,” Metoy said. “I always have. I was a compound boss.” He gazed at Esdan with his cold black eyes. “I’m a cutfree. Not many like me left, these days.”
Esdan said after a moment, “Thanks, Metoy. They need help. They don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand either,” Esdan said. “Does the Liberation plan to invade? Or did Rayaye invent that as an excuse for talking about deploying the bibo? Does Oyo believe it? Do you believe it? Is the Liberation Army across the river there? Did you come from it? Who are you? I don’t expect you to answer.”
“I won’t,” the enunch said.
If he was a double agent, Esdan thought after he left, he was working for Liberation Command. Or he hoped so. Metoy was a man he wanted on his side.
But I don’t know what my side is, he thought, as he went back to his chair by the window. The Liberation, of course, yes, but what is the Liberation? Not an ideal, the freedom of the enslaved. Not now. Never again. Since the Uprising, the Liberation is an army, a political body, a great number of people and leaders and would-be leaders, ambitions and greed clogging hopes and strength, a clumsy amateur semi-government lurching from violence to compromise, ever more complicated, never again to know the beautiful simplicity of the ideal, the pure idea of liberty. And that’s what I wanted, what I worked for, all these years. To muddle the nobly simple structure of the hierarchy of caste by infecting it with the idea of justice. And then to confuse the nobly simple structure of the ideal of human equality by trying to make it real. The monolithic lie frays out into a thousand incompatible truths, and that’s what I wanted. But I am caught in the insanity, the stupidity, the meaningless brutality of the event.
They all want to use me, but I’ve outlived my usefulness, he thought; and the thought went through him like a shaft of clear light. He had kept thinking there was something he could do. There wasn’t.
It was a kind of freedom.
No wonder he and Metoy had understood each other wordlessly and at once.
The zadyo Tema came to his door to conduct him downstairs. Back to the packdog room. All the leader-types were drawn to that room, its dour masculinity. Only five men were there this time, Metoy, the two generals, the two who used the rank of rega. Banarkamye dominated them all. He was through asking questions and was in the order-giving vein. “We leave here tomorrow,” he said to Esdan. “You with us. We will have access to the Liberation holonet. You will speak for us. You will tell the Jit government that the Ekumen knows they are planning to deploy banned weapons and warns them that if they do, there will be instant and terrible retaliation.”
Esdan was light-headed with hunger and sleeplessness. He stood still—he had not been invited to sit down—and looked down at the floor, his hand at his sides. He murmured barely audibly, “Yes, master.”
Banarkamye’s head snapped up, his eyes flashed. “What did you say?”
“Who do you think you are?”
“A prisoner of war.”
“You can go.”
Esdan left. Tema followed him but did not stop or direct him. He made his way straight to the kitchen, where he heard the rattle of pans, and said, “Choyo, please, give me something to eat!” The old man, cowed and shaky, mumbled and apologised and fretted, but produced some fruit and stale bread. Esdan sat at the worktable and devoured it. He offered some to Tema, who refused stiffly. Esdan ate it all. When he was done he limped on out through the kitchen exitways to a side door leading to the great terrace. He hoped to see Kamsa there, but none of the house people were out. He sat on a bench in the balustrade that looked down on the long reflecting pool. Tema stood nearby, on duty.
“You said the bondspeople on a place like this, if they didn’t join the Uprising, were collaborators,” Esdan said.
Tema was motionless, but listening.
“You don’t think any of them might just not have understood what was going on? And still don’t understand? This is a benighted place, zadyo. Hard to even imagine freedom, here.”
The young man resisted answering for a while, but Esdan talked on, trying to make some contact with him, get through to him. Suddenly something he said popped the lid.
“Usewomen,” Tema said. “Get fucked by blacks, every night. All they are, fucks. Jits’ whores. Bearing their black brats, yesmaster. You said it, they don’t know what freedom is. Never will. Can’t liberate anybody lets a black f
Esdan sat still, looking down over the still water of the pool to the lower terraces, the big tree, the misty river, the far green shore. May he be well and work well, have patience, compassion, peace. What use was I, ever? All I did. It never was any use. Patience, compassion, peace. They are your own people.…He looked down at the thick blob of spittle on the yellow sandstone of the terrace. Fool, to leave his own people a lifetime behind him and come to meddle with another world. Fool, to think you could give anybody freedom. That was what death was for. To get us out of the crouchcage. He got up and limped towards the house in silence. The young man followed him.
The lights came back on just as it was getting dark. They must have let old Saka go back to his tinkering. Preferring twilight, Esdan turned the room light off. He was lying on his bed when Kamsa knocked and came in, carrying a tray. “Kamsa!” he said, struggling up, and would have hugged her, but the tray prevented him. “Rekam is—?”
“With my mother,” she murmured.
“He’s all right?”
The backward nod. She set the tray down on the bed, as there was no table.
“You’re all right? Be careful, Kamsa. I wish I—They’re leaving tomorrow, they say. Stay out of their way if you can.”
“I do. Do you be safe, sir,” she said in her soft voice. He did not know if it was a question or a wish. He made a little rueful gesture, smiling. She turned to leave.
“Kamsa, is Heo—?”
“She was with that one. In his bed.”
After a pause he said, “Is there anywhere you can hide out?” He was afraid that Banarkamye’s men might execute these people when they left, as “collaborators” or to hide their own tracks.
“We got a hole to go to, like you said,” she said.
“Good. Go there, if you can. Vanish! Stay out of sight.”
She said, “I will hold fast, sir.”
She was closing the door behind her when the sound of a flyer approaching buzzed the windows. They both stood still, she in the doorway, he near the window. Shouts downstairs, outside, men running. There was more than one flyer, approaching from the southeast. “Kill the lights!” somebody shouted. Men were running out to the flyers parked on the lawn and terrace. The window flared up with light, the air with a shattering explosion.
“Come with me,” Kamsa said, and took his hand and pulled him after her, out the door, down the hall and through a service door he had never even seen. He hobbled with her as fast as he could down ladderlike stone stairs, through a back passage, out into the stable warren. They came outdoors just as a series of explosions rocked everything around them. They hurried across the courtyard through overwhelming noise and the leap of fire, Kamsa still pulling him along with complete sureness of where she was going, and ducked into one of the storerooms at the end of the stables. Gana was there and one of the old bondsmen, opening up a trapdoor in the floor. They went down, Kamsa with a leap, the others slow and awkward on the wooden ladder. Esdan most awkward, landing badly on his broken foot. The old man came last and pulled the trap shut over them. Gana had a battery lamp, but kept it on only briefly, showing a big, low, dirt-floored cellar, shelves, an archway to another room, a heap of wooden crates, five faces: the baby awake, gazing silent as ever from its sling on Gana’s shoulder. Then darkness. And for some time silence.
They groped at the crates, set them down for seats at random in the darkness.
A new series of explosions, seeming far away, but the ground and the darkness shivered. They shivered in it. “O Kamye,” one of them whispered.
Esdan sat on the shaky crate and let the jab and stab of pain in his foot sink into a burning throb.
Explosions: three, four.
Darkness was a substance, like thick water.
“Kamsa,” he murmured.
She made some sound that located her near him.
“You said hide, then we did talk of this place,” she whispered.
The old man breathed wheezily and cleared his throat often. The baby’s breathing was also audible, a small uneven sound, almost panting.
“Give me him.” That was Gana. She must have transferred the baby to his mother.
Kamsa whispered, “Not now.”
The old man spoke suddenly and loudly, startling them all: “No water in this!”
Kamsa shushed him and Gana hissed, “Don’t shout, fool man!”
“Deaf,” Kamsa murmured to Esdan, with a hint of laughter.
If they had no water, their hiding time was limited; the night, the next day; even that might be too long for a woman nursing a baby. Kamsa’s mind was running on the same track as Esdan’s. She said, “How do we know, should we come out?”
“Chance it, when we have to.”
There was a long silence. It was hard to accept that one’s eyes did not adjust to the darkness, that however long one waited one would see nothing. It was cave-cool. Esdan wished his shirt were warmer.
“You keep him warm,” Gana said.
“I do,” Kamsa murmured.
“Those men, they were bondsfolk?” That was Kamsa whispering to him. She was quite near him, to his left.
“Yes. Freed bondsfolk. From the north.”
She said, “Lotsalot different men come here, since the old Owner did die. Army soldiers, some. But no bondsfolk before. They shot Heo. They shot Vey and old Seneo. He didn’t die, but he’s shot.”
“Somebody from the field compound must have led them, showed them where the guards were posted. But they couldn’t tell the bondsfolk from the soldiers. Where were you when they came?”
“Sleeping, back of the kitchen. All us housefolk. Six. That man did stand there like a risen dead. He said, ‘Lie down there! Don’t stir a hair!’ So we did that. Heard them shooting and shouting all over the house. Oh, mighty Lord! I did fear! Then no more shooting, and that man did come back to us and hold his gun at us and take us out to the old house-compound. They did get that old gate shut on us. Like old days.”
“For what did they do that if they are bondsfolk?” Gana’s voice said from the darkness.
“Trying to get free,” Esdan said dutifully.
“How free? Shooting and killing? Kill a girl in the bed?”
“They do all fight all the others, mama,” Kamsa said.
“I thought all that was done, back three years,” the old woman said. Her voice sounded strange. She was in tears. “I thought that was freedom then.”
“They did kill the master in his bed!” the old man shouted out at the top of his voice, shrill, piercing. “What can come of that!”
There was a bit of a scuffle in the darkness. Gana was shaking the old fellow, hissing at him to shut up. He cried, “Let me go!” but quieted down, wheezing and muttering.
“Mighty Lord,” Kamsa murmured, with that desperate laughter in her voice.
The crate was increasingly uncomfortable, and Esdan wanted to get his aching foot up or at least level. He lowered himself to the ground. It was cold, gritty, unpleasant to the hands. There was nothing to lean against. “If you make a light for a minute, Gana,” he said, “we might find sacks, something to lie down on.”
The world of the cellar flashed into being around them, amazing in its intricate precision. They found nothing to use but the loose board shelves. They set down several of these, making a kind of platform, and crept onto it as Gana switched them back into formless simple night. They were all cold. They huddled up against one another, side to side, back to back.
After a long time, an hour or more, in which the utter silence of the cellar was unbroken by any noise, Gana said in an impatient whisper, “Everybody up there did die, I think.”
“That would simplify things for us,” Esdan murmured.
“But we are the buried ones,” said Kamsa.
Their voices roused the baby
and he whimpered, the first complaint Esdan had ever heard him make. It was a tiny, weary grizzling or fretting, not a cry. It roughened his breathing and he gasped between his frettings. “Oh, baby, baby, hush now, hush,” the mother murmured, and Esdan felt her rocking her body, cradling the baby close to keep him warm. She sang almost inaudibly, “Suna meya, suna na…Sura rena, sura na…” Monotonous, rhythmic, buzzy, purring, the sound made warmth, made comfort.
He must have dozed. He was lying curled up on the planks. He had no idea how long they had been in the cellar.
I have lived here forty years desiring freedom, his mind said to him. That desire brought me here. It will bring me out of here. I will hold fast.
He asked the others if they had heard anything since the bombing raid. They all whispered no.
He rubbed his head. “What do you think, Gana?” he said.
“I think the cold air does harm that baby,” she said in almost her normal voice, which was always low.
“You do talk? What do you say?” the old man shouted. Kamsa, next to him, patted him and quieted him.
“I’ll go look,” Gana said.
“You got one foot on you,” the old woman said in a disgusted tone. She grunted and leaned hard on Esdan’s shoulder as she stood up. “Now be still.” She did not turn on the light, but felt her way over to the ladder and climbed it, with a little whuff of breath at each step. She pushed, heaved at the trapdoor. An edge of light showed. They could dimly see the cellar and each other and the dark blob of Gana’s head up in the light. She stood there a long time, then let the trap down. “Nobody,” she whispered from the ladder. “No noise. Looks like first morning.”
“Better wait,” Esdan said.
She came back and lowered herself down among them again. After a time she said, “We go out, it’s strangers in the house, some other army soldiers. Then where?”
“Can you get to the field compound?” Esdan suggested.
“It’s a long road.”
After a while he said, “Can’t know what to do till we know who’s up there. All right. But let me go out, Gana.”