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Etric looked up as the small craft swept across the dull early-morning sky and dipped toward the private landing port behind the hill. Wes Ias had returned from his tour of the other fields. It wouldn't be long now.
Etric moved slowly away from the huts with the others following in a line down the narrow, well-worn trail. Bane had fixed his sandals last night, and at least he wouldn't cut his feet on the charred, hardened stubs of jungle growth. He'd have to find some way to thank the boy...
Though if what he planned worked, it might be thanks enough.
The foul air tasted of mingled jungle rot and the too-sweet fragrance of the midori field. The bright-green flowers bloomed in profusion above their pale white stems, each blossom worth a thousand credits when picked, processed and sold on the black market. The end-result drug slowed the metabolism and gave humans prolonged dreams so vivid that reality paled. Midori was the strongest hallucinogenic in the Empire, and being caught dealing in it landed the person a mandatory twenty years in prison.
Of course, dealing in slaves was even worse.
Rays of orange sunlight touched the upper edge of the encircling jungle as the slaves reached the fields, ready for the day's labor. Humid, fetid air hung like smoke, so thick that more than a few gasped and coughed, some unable to move on even when the overseer's prodded with stun sticks. They would not live much longer. Wes Ias would be bringing in fresh blood soon.
Etric looked up toward the two-story house on the flat-topped hill, and glared at the sight of prosperity and oppression. Wes Ias stayed inside that compound on hisfrequent visits to Ahira, safe behind the grid work of a fence that killed at a touch. The guards lived there all year round. The white walls of the building gleamed like some temple of hope, though Etric knew the white was only a covering to protect the building from the mold that destroyed the slave huts. The laser cannon, mounted with a clear view of the field, caught the light.
Wes Ias walked over and stood by the weapon and its guard. Tall, massive, well-dressed -- he made Etric angry just to look at him.
Not that he had time to stare for long. The guards signaled the group forward, one person per row of plants, and handed each a basket that they hung from their shoulders. Etric moved to his row and bent to pull one of the errant jungle growths that always encroached on the field. The blue sap stung his fingers and he wiped them on the rags of his shirt before he began to carefully pick the midori flowers and place them gently in the baskets at their sides. Any damaged flower would earn half a dozen blows from a guard.
It didn't take long before the guards retreated back to the edge of the fields, finding places at the shadowed edge of the jungle. They had little fear of the slaves trying to escape. Except for another ten of these small plantations, there was not a single settlement on the world. And no one survived long in the jungles, where seekers waited in the trees, looking like limbs that caught and strangled, or willies crawled over a person as soon as they slept and burrowed into the softest tissue they could find.
The work went on... but when the sun stood directly overhead and even the guards could stand no more, they blew a whistle. Slaves often died if they worked through the hottest, most humid hours of the day, and even Wes Ias couldn't stand to waste so much manpower. For a while they could lie in the shade and rest.
Etric carefully pulled the rope handles of the basket off his shoulder as he sat, trying not to rub them against the whip marks that had only barely begun to heal. The hot day pounded him, and he took short, slow breaths, distancing himself from reality as much as he could. His fingers worked at unsnarling his brown hair as he patiently waited. He had learned patience in the last two years standard he had worked in these fields.
Even so, the lure of running wild in the woods still sometimes lingered at the edge of his sanity. Every day that he looked toward the wall of green, it beckoned him with a stronger call.
But he held back. He had waited, watched... and learned the weaknesses of those who held him here.
Another slave crawled toward him, a mane of golden hair moving through the line of plants. Crystal had been working the fields for at least twice as long as Etric, and he still wondered how the young man had survived this long. Crystal had a look of wildness that had never been quite tamed.
They had become allies in the last few weeks. They worked well together. Crystal smiled when he neared but kept low. The guards didn't like them to visit.
"How did it go last night, Crystal?" Etric asked. "I didn't hear an alarm."
"Of course not!" Crystal said and smiled. He had the look of a child who had succeeded at some little mischief. "The port gate locks weren't a problem. They didn't see me at all. Everyone was far too busy watching you. There has to be a better way of getting their attention, Etric. They could have easily killed you."
"Wes Ias wouldn't want them to waste a slave, not for something as trivial as tripping a guard." Etric shifted, trying to ignore the pain across his shoulders and back. He'd been beaten before, and for less reason. "And it was almost worth it. I couldn't have timed it better if I'd tried. Siper went headfirst into the mud. Best laugh I've had since I got here."
"I wish I had seen it." Crystal's smile finally faltered. His eyes looked toward the jungle for a moment. "I could use a laugh."
Etric hadn't realized Crystal stood so close to the edge. The thought that he could lose this man to madness... that he might not find another with the same abilities again, nearly panicked him. They dared not waste more time finessing this plan.
He took hold of Crystal's arm, surprising him. "We'll have the best laugh. Tonight."
Crystal looked stunned, and Etric wondered if he had stopped believing they would ever really make the escape attempt. Tonight was the best chance they might get. West Ias had arrived on world for the semi-annual harvest; and if they didn't take the ship in the next two days, he would be gone for another half a year. The only other ships that came belonged to smugglers and slavers, and they always had large crews. He, Crystal and their small band of people who knew anything about crewing a ship would never be able to take one of the larger craft, even if they could get up on one with the shuttles. Only the smaller craft landed on planets. Wes Ias's little ship would be their only chance.
Etric wanted off this damn world.
"We better part now." He looked up at the sky. "Eight hours and we'll make our try. Good luck, Crystal. And be careful."
"You, too, Etric. Don't provoke them too badly. I would hate to have to come back and pull you out of trouble."
"You won't." Etric looked into those wild eyes. "You will take the ship and get help."
Crystal blinked. He saw disagreement in those eyes, but it faded away. Crystal nodded and moved away again, a slow crawl back to his own work.
The last time. When the guard blew his whistle -- early, of course -- Etric carefully stood again, shouldered the basket, and went back his work. He wanted to pick a lot of midori today. It would be the final time he walked this field... one way or another.
The day drew on, long and hot as the sun curved across the sky and finally touched the tops of the jungle with blood-red light. The guards called them in; and Etric went slowly, making certain he stood near the end of the line.
Crystal was near the front. He handed over his picks for the day and moved on without any trouble. Although he then moved off toward the huts, he would soon slip away toward the gate to the landing pad. The guards were less likely to see him in the gray shadows of sunset, when they were busy watching the profits placed on the tables before them. By the time the guards prepared to make a count of the slaves tonight-well, they would have other work tonight.
Crystal would have the lock open without a problem -- he knew his work. He'd managed to steal food from the sheds on more than one occasion, along with a few medicines for some of the sicker slaves. The guards had never figured it out, and blamed each other for the losses. The distrust Crystal had sown was worth almost as much as the supplies they had hidden in the floors of their shabby huts. Etric didn't doubt Crystal had been an exceptional thief before someone sold him over to the slavers.
Etric, however, had abilities of his own, and some of them far less common than even those of a good thief. Had this world a moon that showed in this area more than once every few months, he would not have been here this long.
Ah, but it would not be long now. Bane stood in the line before him. Some said the silver-haired young man had been born a slave here on Ahira. The fields might be that old, Etric thought, looking back at them.
The line moved ahead. Only two more. He steeled himself for the next part of his plan. Although he knew the necessity of the actions, he also knew that wouldn't make the wounds any less painful.
Bane moved up, set down his basket and waited with his head bowed and his tanned shoulder muscles knotted. Old scars crossed his back. He wondered when Bane had stopped fighting.
Bane slipped away, and Etric stepped up to the guard's table. One man sat with the computer tally before him while on either side stood others with their stun sticks and whips ready for any trouble.
Etric gave them one mocking bow as he lifted his basket... and threw the flowers at them.
Ninety-three thousand credits worth of midori floated up into the air and fell across the men, the frail green petals tearing, the flowers falling apart, the precious sap flowing in small rivulets across skin, table and ground.
For one long moment everyone stared at him in shocked dismay and disbelief. He'd led them up to this point through the last long days. He'd given them reason enough to question his sanity. And now they never looked anywhere but at him.
A guard finally leapt forward, the prod in hand; but he slipped on the fallen flowers and went down, a moment of slapstick that won nervous laughter from the others still watching -- though none came closer. Etric took two steps back and the other slaves began to scatter. Those few they had learned knew anything about ships would go to Crystal. The others, most of whom knew nothing of what was planned, panicked.
Two more guards came at Etric. He had no intention of dying here. He lifted his hands and whispered, casting a spell for the first time in two years. He hadn't the strength for anything complex. The power released only sent the nearest three tumbling backwards, down and unconscious.
The expenditure of his carefully hoarded magic sent him reeling, and he almost went to his knees; but he fought it and staggered a few steps away from the other angered -- and now frightened -- guards.
Other guards arrived at a run from the edge of the fields and more were coming from the compound. The slaves had gone mad, which he hadn't expected. Before he could recover enough to run, Etric found himself in the midst of a melee of anger and fear. The first flurry of blows and kicks he took could have been from either side. He fell in the midst of hands and feet, and felt the velvet of a midori flower against his cheek. The sickening-sweet smell made him nauseous until a sudden sharp pain in the back of his head sent him into darkness for a while.
Hands had hold of him. Etric tried to pull away, but the pain in his right side brought a gasping cry of pain, and the hands only held him tighter.
"Crystal has the ship, Etric," a voice whispered in his ear. "Come on!"
Friends. He relaxed in their grip, looked back as they carried him away. Some of the slaves had attacked the guards, and others had run out to the field, tearing up the priceless plants. He saw dead lying everywhere. He didn't look too closely at them, knowing there would be familiar faces. It wasn't the first time the slaves had attacked and been killed, but he'd never seen either side react with such ferocity before.
And he had never been the one who brought about this much death, either. The thought sickened him. The night stank of blood. He wouldn't forget it soon.
They could not go directly along the narrow, fenced path to the port that lay beyond the hill. The guards were beginning to gather strength and regroup. Etric didn't want to be carried. He feared he would slow them down, so he used a little of his hoarded magic to give himself strength hen proved he could walk, which relieved the others.
"We haven't much time," he said. "Crystal--"
"Crystal has the ship, Etric," Silis said. She grinned. Only strong women survived on this world, and no one made the mistake of pretending otherwise. They never messed with her, though Etric well knew she had her tender side. "He said that we need you, though. That you know ships."
"So does he!"
"But I have other plans," Crystal said. He suddenly appeared, just a movement in the dark. He'd put a dark cloth over his hair, and he very nearly got a makeshift knife in his side from Silis, and something far more surprising from Etric. "Get to the ship, Etric. Take it out of here and get help."
"I'm going to do my best to make certain that laser cannon of his doesn't shoot you out of the air before you can make orbit."
"We can go low!" Etric grabbed his arm before he got away. "We can avoid it!"
"Maybe. There's no reason to take the chance. And I have other ways I can hurt Wes Ias. We need information, even if he gets away. I can get it, Etric. Just get the hell off-world and bring back help! Go!"
"Crystal... are you that good?" Etric asked, a hand on his arm.
"I was the best thief on Delson, Etric. Yes, I'm that good. Go, before you lose the ship. We grabbed some weapons, but the guards are better trained."
"Thanks," he said, and grinned in a way that made Etric think the man was either very dangerous or very crazy. Or both.
But they parted company. Etric looked back, but Crystal almost immediately disappeared into the dark and the shadows.
They had to get to the ship. If they didn't get it, and get off world, then they were doomed. And they had to get help and come back for Crystal.
"Hell!" Etric began to jog toward the craft. No one argued.
They fought a little battle at the single-pad port. Silis died there, and that very nearly drove Etric to do something stupid. But he didn't. He got his people inside the ship; and when the guards charged, he sent them back with a wave of magic that crackled in the air and probably broke bones. It was magic born of hatred -- the worst kind. It took too much from him, but they were clear.
He stayed conscious, but he knew he had no more magic to spare now. He would need the little whisper of power he had left on the control deck. He shoved the key on the airlock down just as laser fire burnt the side of the ship, but for the moment they would be safe.
Except for that laser cannon. Gods grant that Crystal did do something with it. Even going low out over the horizon might not be enough at this point. They'd taken too long to get here. The cannon would be aiming...
He turned and started up the curve of the ship, one hand to the wall. Ulty, who had stayed by him, took hold of him and helped him along. It wasn't far.
"How did you do that?" Ulty asked, looking at him. "How did you stop them without a weapon?"
"My power," Etric explained as they raced up to the little control deck. Good ship. Good controls, and good code to stop anyone from taking her -- but no one had counted on someone who had the power to pull numbers from the air, if he had to. "Quiet. Just sit still and be quiet for one moment. I'll have this."
"How?" Magam asked, but Ulty quieted him. Etric didn't pay much attention to who was in the ship with him. He didn't care. He had expected Crystal to be here, not him. Hell.
He put his hands over the control board and whispered words -- magic words, words that made no sense in any language, but for him they held certain powers. They were his language of magic, like all mages had, few though they were.
Crystal would have done it the harder way, hacking into the computer. Maybe he wouldn't have had time. He felt an explosion against the airlock door just as he found the code and punched it in.
Boards came to life.
"Damn good," Magam said and slid into one seat. "Can you pilot, I hope?"
"Yes." He sat down at that spot, keying on computers, screens, checking views. Automatic behavior.
"Good. Let's go, Captain."
"Better you in charge than any of the rest of us. I've worked ships -- we all have. But you got it running. Engines at seventy-three percent, sir."
It seemed to help them to have him in charge. Etric nodded, his side aching to distraction. No more magic to help that. He wiped blood from his forehead and out of his eyes. Concentrate. He could do this. It had only been two years since he last sat at the controls of a ship, and one far larger than this.
Don't remember that now. Don't remember all the people he'd lost...
"Settle in. We're going up and out. Let's hope Crystal gets the cannon quickly. Let's hope he survives it."
"Yes, sir. Scanners on." Ulty reported. "Nothing in orbit directly overhead. That's our only hope."
"Yes, I know. Ready?"
"Ready," echoed around the room.
He put his hands to the controls. It had been too damn long, and for a moment he felt a surge of panic. But he pushed that away and gave himself strength and calm through magic. That reserve was nearly gone. But with luck... Gods, with luck he would be gone in a matter of moments. And they would find the nearest Imperial Guard outpost and come back. The IGs didn't like either slavers or people trafficking in midori. He looked forward to bringing them back.
"Engines at ninety-eight percent, sir, and steady. Two percent accounted for by the ship functions," Tarkin said.
"Prepare to launch."
He felt the power building beneath them, felt the ship shake a little, ready to leap. He suspected people outside were surprised. They probably thought they'd be stuck on this world for a while longer.
Copyright © 2003 by Lazette Gifford
Posted August 12, 2010
No text was provided for this review.