Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
Table of Contents
A NOVEL OF THE SILENT EMPIRE
by Steven Harper
Copyright © 2002 by Steven Harper. All Rights Reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
I would like to acknowledge the ever-helpful members of the Untitled Writers Group (Karen Everson, Anne Harris, Jonathan Jarrard, Lisa Leutheuser, Erica Schippers, Shannon White, and Sarah Zettel) and my editor Laura Anne Gilman for support, snacks, and an endless supply of editorial comments. Thanks also to my agent Lucienne Diver, who does her best to keep me out of trouble.
(They’re always for her, though it doesn’t always say that in print.)
Sometimes bad things happen to good people.
—Yeoman Daniel Vik, First Bellerophon Landing Party
Sister Prinna Meg stretched her Dream body and yawned beneath her rowan tree. It had been a long shift. Time to go. Her drugs were wearing off in any case, and if she didn’t leave the Dream soon, she would be yanked out of it instead, an uncomfortable possibility at best.
Prinna’s Dream landscape was a sun-dappled glen with green grass, yellow flowers, and a pair of rowan trees. The breeze was sweet and light, as in late spring. Prinna inhaled appreciatively of her own creation. Bellerophon was currently undergoing a rainy stretch, and the overhead sun, Dream though it may be, felt wonderful. Perhaps she could eke out her stay for a few more—
A heavy footfall jarred her to the core. Startled, Prinna looked around. Someone was encroaching on her Dream territory without asking permission first. It was an unpleasant presence. When Silent like Prinna wished to confer with another Silent in the Dream, they had to decide between them who would shape the landscape of their meeting place. Treading on someone else’s turf without permission was like someone running an uninvited hand over that person’s face.
More jarring footfalls. The intruder—Prinna sensed it was a man, a human like herself—was stomping toward her without regard to her landscape, forcing bits of his own impressions on this part of the Dream. It was the mental equivalent of a stranger slapping a loaf of new-risen bread dough, leaving it partly collapsed with a handprint in the center. This went beyond rude.
Prinna drew herself up, gathering her brown robes around her beneath the rowan tree. She was a brown-haired, blue-eyed woman in her third decade, not really pretty but not unattractive either. A silver ring with an amber stone graced her right hand, indicating her rank as a Sister among the Children of Irfan. Prinna put her hand on the front of her robe to ensure ring and rank were visible. Overhead, a small flock of birds wheeled and twittered in the blue sky.
"Who is that?" she demanded.
Silence. Then another footfall. Maybe she should just let go of the Dream, go back to her body. Her work was done. What did it matter if a rude lout was stomping around? The glen would disappear when she did. Then the teacher in her, the part of her that had tutored half a dozen Silent students, came to the fore. If no one told him what he was doing was wrong, he would keep on doing it. It was her duty to let him know he was breaking with etiquette.
"Who is that?" Prinna said. "Show yourself! Stop stomping around like a half-grown bull."
A figure emerged from behind the other rowan tree and took several steps toward her. Prinna had been right—a human man. He was quite a lot bigger than she was and she found herself wanting to take a step backward. Then she realized she was being ridiculous. In the Dream, the only that mattered was willpower and mental strength. Physical size meant nothing at all. She held her ground. A small part of her noticed that his feet had left empty earth where they touched down on her grass and flowers.
"You’re pretty," the man said. "Did you like the poems?"
Prinna blinked, confused. What was he talking about? Uncertainty tinged her again. "I don’t read poetry," she said, clutching the front of her robe. "I don’t care for—"
The man raised his head to the sky and howled like a dog. Fear tanged Prinna’s stomach. Her cue to leave, thank you. Someone else would have to teach this weirdo some manners. She closed her eyes to gather her concentration so she could let go of the Dream. But before she could finish, something cold wrapped itself around her waist. Her eyes snapped open, her concentration destroyed. A rowan branch was holding her prisoner, squeezing hard enough to choke the air from her lungs.
"You don’t care for poetry?" The man was right in front of her. She could smell his sour breath. "But I love you."
The glen changed. Grass and flowers withered and died. Night-black clouds blew across the sun. The ground rumbled, and blackened, evil trees without leaf or blossom twisted out of the ground and formed a tormented forest. A chorus of voices wailed on the wind. Terror suffused Prinna Meg. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t... "I love you, you stupid bitch," the man said.
Prinna Meg’s pain began.
You can sell a body without consent, but never the soul.
—Captain Irfan Qasad, First Bellerophon Landing Party
The slave auction took place in a room big as a school gymnasium. Evan Weaver, hands shaking, shuffled forward with the rest of the colonists as the slavers herded them forward. A silvery metal band encircled his left wrist, and a similar one bound his left ankle. The auction room floor was gridded with green squares, each a meter on a side, with yellow pathways painted between them. The air smelled stale, as if poorly recycled.
"Pick a square and sit!" ordered a slaver in blue coveralls. "Move!"
The colonists slowly scattered themselves across the floor. Mystified, Evan picked a square and sat. His mother, father, older brother, and younger sister did the same. The moment Evan sat down on the floor, his square turned red. The plain white tunic he had been given to wear did little to blunt the chill of the hard floor. More and more white-clad people from the colony ship arrived and were told to take up squares. Green squares steadily changed color until nearly all of them were red. Voices rumbled and echoed around the huge room until a computer tone announced the PA system was active. The colonists instantly fell silent, already knowing from experience that talking during the PA announcements resulted in instant pain.
"The auction will be starting soon," announced a harsh voice. "When the buyers come in to look at you, do what they say, but don’t leave your square. Any question the buyers ask, you answer, and you better say ‘master’ when you do. Otherwise keep your mouth shut. It’s a silent auction, so you won’t see who’s bidding."
The PA snapped off. Evan’s heart was pounding again. Martina, his ten-year-old sister, whimpered and reached for their mother. When her hand crossed the boundary of her square, her silver bands snapped blue. Martina screamed and snatched her hand back. Rebecca Weaver started to reach for her daughter but stopped herself barely in time. Rhys Weaver’s jaw worked back and forth, his dark skin mottled with helpless anger. Evan’s brother Keith, who at fifteen was three years older than Evan, stared at the floor. Around them, the other colonists also looked at the floor or whispered to each other in frightened voices. Evan’s mouth was dry.
Then the floor shifted. Evan tensed as all the squares, including his, rose slowly upward until they were about a meter above floor level. They locked into place with a bone jarring
, creating dozens of platforms all around the auction hall. A moment later, a set of doors opened and more people strolled into the room. Evan blinked, then stared. His mother gasped and the buzzing among the slaves rose in volume. Not all the "people" were human. A tall, willowy being with a shock of white hair like a dandelion clock glided across the floor, followed by what looked like a giant caterpillar. Two humanoid lizards came in, tongues flicking in and out, and a short, shaggy thing with three legs skittered by. It carried a smell of wet leaves. Evan almost missed the twenty or so humans who were with them.
"Aliens," Rebecca said in awe. "All life!"
Similar murmurs rose around them. Evan continued to stare. He had overheard the slavers talking about aliens and alien buyers, but it hadn’t actually thought about what they meant. Aliens were the stuff of the entertainment industry, something you only saw on a screen or in a VR game. Now they were here, real and breathing. The caterpillar pittered by, its legs moving in a dazzling pattern.’
Evan swallowed hard. From his perspective, he had boarded the colony ship only four days ago, along with his family, various other members of the Real People Reconstructionists of Aboriginal Australia, and other groups. They were all bound for a planet named Pelagosa. Evan’s last memory was the lid of the cryo-chamber clanging shut above him. There was a slight hiss, a heavy feeling, and blackness.
The next thing Evan knew, he was being yanked shivering out of the chamber and fitted with a silvery wristband and ankleband before his half-frozen mind could comprehend what was going on. His family and the thousand-odd other colonists had been fitted with similar shackles. The slavers had unceremoniously hauled them on board their ship and stuffed them into cell-like rooms. The colony vessel was taken for salvage. Anyone who fought back or even protested received a debilitating shock from the bands. Even saying the word "escape" or "revolt" earned a shock. No amount of banging, picking, or clawing would get the bands off, though Evan’s wrist and ankle became red and raw from the attempt.
During four days of captivity, they had picked up tiny bits of information here and there, mostly from what the slavers told them. The colonists had been sleeping for either nine hundred years (real time) or fifty years (ship time), take your pick. While the colonists lay in cryo-sleep, someone had discovered something called slipspace, which allowed faster-than-light travel between solar systems. Pelagosa and hundreds of other inhabitable planets had quickly been colonized. Slower-than-light ships vanished into history and the vastness of space, their slumbering inhabitants forgotten.
But the slavers remembered.
It didn’t matter to the slavers that the colonists and crew of the ship were not legally slaves. All records of their existence had long ago been lost or purged, and in any case, Earth was under a different government trillions of kilometers away.
"Who are you going to complain to?" laughed a slaver named Feder when Evan’s parents Rhys and Rebecca Weaver had expressed outrage and disbelief. "You’re slaves because we say you are and no one who counts will say different."
Feder. Evan shot Keith a quick look. He still hadn’t taken his eyes off the floor of his platform. Maybe he was trying to hide his startling eyes. Blue was an extremely uncommon eye color among Australian Aborigines, and Keith’s eyes made an arresting contrast with his dark skin and curly black hair. Evan quietly believed that it was Keith’s eyes that had grabbed Feder’s attention in the first place. Although Keith steadfastly refused to talk about any of it, Evan knew that Feder’s attention, given in the privacy of the slaver’s own quarters, had not been kind.
A thin woman with white hair approached Keith’s platform. "Stand up, you," she said. "What’s your name?"
Keith slowly got up. "Utang, Mistress," he said, giving the Real People name he had chosen for himself only a few months before the People decided to board the colony ship. The word meant ‘strength,’ though Evan, playing the part of annoying kid brother, hadn’t been able to find it in any language database for the Aboriginal tribes. Keith had airily claimed the name had come to him in a dream. Evan rarely thought of Keith as Utang, even though Keith—Utang—used it regularly.