Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 30

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.