Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 29


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?”