The fifth release anniver­sary of The Beasts of Delphos is being cel­e­brated locally — by my seri­al­iz­ing the novel online. Don’t worry, it’s all copy­righted to me anyway.

I cranked this text out in a heat of writ­ing that lasted about eight weeks. Curiously enough, that seems to have been a good thing — this is the best reviewed work I’ve ever done. It’s about 60,000 words in toto, or per­haps 200 printed pages. Enjoy.

The Beasts of Delphos
© Warren Ockrassa

The First Beast

Barris

He woke with the rest of the camp in the same way, star­tled by the scream­ing. Somehow scream­ing always car­ried louder than the noises of the machines. As the alarms began their clamor he boosted him­self off the bunk and dashed to the mines, join­ing the rest of the stream of bod­ies to the source of the commotion.

Near the cen­ter of the activ­ity the crowd rip­pled back sud­denly, and the faces he could see were con­torted with a sick horror.

So it was a death, then.

He steeled him­self inter­nally, know­ing the pit boss would need the mess — what­ever it was — cleaned up quickly so the work could resume. Since he was merely an under­ling, not yet skilled or grown large enough to be good for much else, he was on the death-​​cleanup crew.

This one was worse than most. One of the rock-​​chewers had caught an appren­tice machin­ist, appar­ently some­where around his mid­dle, and had sep­a­rated his body into upper and lower pieces. As Barris shoved through the crowd he saw the sep­a­ra­tion had not been total; a rib­bon of innards still con­nected the trun­cated torso to its legs, woven intri­cately among the teeth of the machine, a shock­ing pink cro­chet, unknit and then knit again in unnat­ural ways. The body halves lay about two meters apart, and the boy was still alive.

He looked around in shock, hor­ri­fied com­pre­hen­sion fill­ing his fea­tures, know­ing he had been killed but not dead yet. He stared at his sun­dered body and screamed again as his sep­a­rated legs twitched inde­pen­dently, and Barris knew it was his scream­ing that had roused them all. He shook his head in denial of his own death and his breath began com­ing in gasps. His hands tried to pull his ruined guts back into his torso and he shud­dered. His head fell back and his eyes rolled upward and his chest stilled and he died, in time at last with his body.

Barris didn’t know the boy; his camp had many slaves and he was still an under­ling, high of voice and unhaired, hop­ing one day to be in train­ing to even­tu­ally become an appren­tice machine worker as this boy had been. He only knew the boy was a few sea­sons older than he, and saw in the eyes gath­ered around the sun­dered corpse the knowl­edge and fear they all had that this could well hap­pen to any of them even­tu­ally too.

Pit slaves lived very short, very hard lives, and often died — mess­ily — before they reached full adult stature.

Barris caught the eyes of the rest of the mine’s cleanup crew and they nod­ded to each other, mov­ing quickly to their duties before they had to be told. Slow responses were pun­ish­able. He deployed a fold­ing gur­ney and lifted the upper half of the body onto it as another boy car­ried the legs over to where the gur­ney lay. Between them they col­lected the rest of the remains and placed the quiv­er­ing pile of guts, still warm, onto the ecmite film between the body halves. The torso shiv­ered a moment, its last life fail­ing, then fell still. With a nod to the other boy Barris indi­cated his readi­ness, and they lifted the gur­ney and took the body to the furnace.

After they slid the wet ruin into white maw of the smelter’s waste-​​heat vent the reac­tion set in and Barris heaved mis­er­ably. This trig­gered the other boy and they both lost what remained of their sup­pers to the hard­pan beneath the smelter. Barris wiped his mouth and ges­tured to his assis­tant. “We need to get back there and help fin­ish with the cleanup.”

The other boy — Barris thought his name was Rechis — nod­ded fee­bly and they quickly rinsed the gur­ney, folded it and returned to the pit. The wet red was all over the rock-​​chewer and it needed to be dis­man­tled, cleaned and re-​​lubricated before work could pro­ceed. The pit slaves were able to do the basic clean­ing but it required the mas­ter machin­ist and his appren­tices to actu­ally dis­man­tle and cleanse the tita­nium grind­ing apparatus.

Barris and Rechis kept close by with water dis­pensers and grease guns for the appren­tices, watch­ing dis­tantly as what remained of the dead boy’s life was worked off the cool­ing teeth. Every so often a bit of flesh or bone was found and extracted. Having no pock­ets or pouch — mine slaves were not per­mit­ted cloth­ing until they were appren­tices — Barris held the bits of meat in his hand as they were passed over to him. They were gelid and sticky in his palm, and they were few; the teeth chewed flesh much finer than stone.

He kept the appren­tices in water so they would not be thirsty and so they could clean their hands when they became too sticky. After that came the greas­ing, bear­ings repacked quickly as the mas­ter machin­ist moved among the work­ing pubes, mak­ing sure all was being prop­erly done. Finally the grind­ing machin­ery was reassem­bled and all the boys fell back as the machin­ist sparked the rock-​​chewer back to life. He lis­tened and watched care­fully for signs of mal­func­tion, saw none, and nod­ded approv­ingly at his appren­tices. “Well done,” he said to them. “Nothing like a quick field-​​cleaning to keep the machines work­ing in top condition.”

The cal­lous­ness of the sen­ti­ment hit Barris harder than he expected, per­haps because he still held pieces of the dead boy’s body in his hand. “Pardon, sir,” he said, “but if our work here is finished…”

Yes, boy, go,” the machin­ist waved impa­tiently, ignor­ing Barris’s impertinence.

Barris left, dis­posed of the remains of the remains in the fur­nace vent, and quickly stole a deciliter of water to rinse him­self with. This was not allowed and he moved quickly lest he be caught and strapped to the pain inducer for it. Even though he man­aged to get all the blood off him he still some­how felt unclean as he went back to his bunk.

There was only enough time left to his rest period for him to just begin dream­ing, and Barris woke with the thought still in his head. He had been the boy torn in half and tried to pull his legs back to him by grab­bing the slick string of organs that con­nected them, only to see them tear and spread their con­tents across the soil in stink­ing brown clumps. His chest felt tight and hot as he swung his legs off the bunk and sat up, his thoughts churn­ing with his feel­ings. Opened up to the world. Even death in the mouth of the beast would be bet­ter than that.

He shook it off, then hopped to the floor and rapped his bunkmate’s fore­head lightly. This was their game, their way for one to wake the other at the begin­ning of each cycle. Allis’s eyes opened and he grinned at Barris, then frowned as he recalled the events of the night before. “That was bad,” he said simply.

Barris shrugged it aside. Slaves had to learn the habit quickly. “It is the way of it,” he said.

Did you know him?” Allis sat upright and looked at Barris.

No. Did you?”

A lit­tle.” Allis stood, look­ing dis­tressed. “We had some plea­sure a few times. His name was Bethos.”

Barris clasped his friend for a moment. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said, “and glad you didn’t have to clean it up.”

Allis nod­ded. “Thanks,” he said. He swal­lowed his sad­ness and they went to join the oth­ers in the food queue.

Underlings worked hard; no one could deny that. But since they were all as yet unde­vel­oped they could not lift or carry as much as the mid-​​status labor­ers and were often ridiculed and treated impa­tiently. Barris always felt the unfair­ness of it — a lit­tle body hair and a lit­tle deep­en­ing of the voice and sud­denly any­one was allowed to tor­ment the younger boys — but he had learned at a very early age to keep his thoughts to him­self, speak only when spo­ken to, and never give a direct answer to a ques­tion about how he felt about anything.

Today was dif­fer­ent. The pubes left him alone and it didn’t take him long to real­ize it was because they had a lit­tle sym­pa­thy for him. He’d had to do a ghastly job the night before and had borne it sto­ically and with­out the slight­est hint of hes­i­ta­tion. He smiled bit­terly to him­self at the hor­ri­ble logic of it; to gain respect from the pubes he had to clean up a foully-​​destroyed body, that was all. So sim­ple. Why had he not thought of it before?

Every time he closed his eyes he saw the boy’s — Bethos’s — face in his final moments. So he kept his eyes open as much as he could.

As he car­ried a satchel of min­ing dross to the tail­ing tip — one of count­less he’d lift this day — he caught part of what one of the pubes was say­ing. “…not enough sac­ri­fices to the beast, that’s why.” The boy was shushed by his peers as they caught sight of Barris and he pre­tended not to have heard any­thing, but his senses were sud­denly keen. Sacrifices to the beast?

You peep­ing on us?” The pubes had gath­ered around him, their devel­op­ing mus­cle mass very intim­i­dat­ing. Barris was not weak, of course, and could han­dle him­self in a fight, but there were more of them than of him here, and they were older and larger.

I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “Now let me back to work.”

The first pube grabbed Barris’s arm roughly. His work-​​callused hands gripped like hard springs. “Maybe you need to be fed to the beast,” he menaced.

Another pube pointed to Barris’s smooth groin. “Wouldn’t work. He’s still an underling.”

The first pube grinned nas­tily. “Not for­ever. Next sea­son, I bet. Look at the build of him.”

Spend a lot of time look­ing at under­ling bodies?”

The first pube rounded on his erst­while friend. “You want a face­ful of fist?”

Barris took the oppor­tu­nity to scoot away. “You heard noth­ing!” the first boy called to his back. “Nothing!”

Barris was rat­tled and puz­zled. What had the pube meant by sacrifice?

The thought returned to him from time to time as he worked the day through, his arms, shoul­ders and back sore and rub­bery by the end of the cycle. As the horn blew he fin­ished tip­ping his last satchel for the day, turned in the bag, quickly sponged his body free of sweat, grime and odor with the other under­lings, and trot­ted to the food queue, look­ing for­ward to see­ing Allis. He would be sore as well and they had ways between them to ease their tensions.

Allis looked up at Barris from where he lay in his embrace, their plea­sure spent for the time being, the warmth of their kin­dling together fill­ing their breasts. All about them were sounds of the other under­lings in the bar­racks at love­play with their bunk­mates, wet smacks of lips to lips and other skin, the light hiss of hands over flesh, sighs and groans and gasps hang­ing in the dark, bunks creak­ing with their motions. In the dim the bod­ies joined in bliss were sil­hou­ettes, skin shin­ing with high­lights as the limbs twined in embrace. All the older under­lings, those near to their time of becom­ing pubes, shared reg­u­larly with their bunk­mates; tonight was no excep­tion. In the bar­racks along­side theirs, they knew, the pubes were doing the same with their own part­ners. For those that worked in the pits, even the rough­est day had its softer moments of com­pen­sa­tion. “What’s the trouble?”

Barris stroked his friend’s shoul­ders eas­ily, work­ing the mus­cles he knew so well into deeper relax­ation — he knew by expe­ri­ence such things worked best after plea­sure — and sighed. “I heard a pube talk­ing today about mak­ing sac­ri­fices to the beast.”

Allis made an mm sound as Barris’s fin­gers worked his tired neck and back. “What beast?” he said lazily.

I don’t know. I guess the one that eats men.”

Allis’s fin­gers reached to lov­ingly trace the line of his jaw. “Why would they make a sac­ri­fice to that? And what kind of sacrifice?”

I don’t know that either, but it doesn’t sound very good. One of them said I might make a good sacrifice.”

Why?”

He was angry because I over­heard them.”

Allis set­tled his arms along his sides in a clasp and lay his head on Barris’s chest once more, smooth but broad with the mus­cles even the youngest boys devel­oped quickly in the mines. He closed his eyes and lis­tened to Barris’s heart beat­ing, felt the even rise and fall of his breath. “I was wor­ried you were angry with me because I shared plea­sure with Bethos.”

Barris shrugged. “Pleasure is for the tak­ing when it can be had,” he said philo­soph­i­cally. His breast res­onated a lit­tle with his voice and Allis took com­fort in the inti­macy of the sound.

It was before I knew you,” he went on. “Before I came to this detail’s bar­racks. He was still an under­ling then but was kind to me and looked out for me and I shared with him when he asked it. I was sad when I was moved here. I missed him until I found you. And I was glad he was pren­ticed. I hoped to be his bonds­man, but wasn’t chosen.”

You don’t need to explain,” Barris said. “It had to be more than a sea­son ago, now.” He and Allis had known each other that long at least, though as he knew noth­ing cer­tain of cal­en­dars or count­ing he could not be sure.

I do need to explain. I thought of him all this cycle. I even cried a lit­tle. And — and I feel badly because of it.”

Why?”

Because I’m yours now.” The shoul­ders Barris caressed hunched in a shrug and then let go, Allis’s fin­gers lightly tick­ling his flanks at the motion.

You mourned him, and that’s proper. As you say we’re together — for now,” Barris reminded him. “One or both of us could be moved any time, or —” he bit the thought but it was too late.

Or we could end up like Bethos. I know. But for now, we’re together and while we’re together I want you to be the only one for me. For as long as it can last.”

Barris nod­ded at this; in truth he felt the same way about Allis, didn’t want to see him in the arms of another. He drew his face level with his and kissed him and the kisses became enflamed, open-​​mouthed and full of fla­vor, and Barris felt Allis grow against his body even as he grew as well, their hips rock­ing gen­tly together and bring­ing them both exquis­ite fric­tion. They smiled at each other, know­ing they would share again.

They tasted gen­tly of each other, mouths to nip­ples and stones and works, fin­gers glid­ing over hard mus­cles and harder flesh, delight­ing in the inti­macy and free­dom of the caresses, skin hot and tin­gling wher­ever the strokes slid. Allis moved down fully along Barris and the rhyth­mic motions of his head brought him to the quiv­er­ing point of fin­ish, back­ing off just before he could release and prop­ping his heels on his shoul­ders to kiss him low and deep where he was cleft, his tongue work­ing in smooth even strokes, his fin­gers trail­ing over his works and up and down the length of his body, a light tickle that brought his nip­ples to stiff peaks, react­ing every­where with the feeling.

Barris drew him level with his face for more kisses and traded places with him, mouth mov­ing down his body and pleas­ing him in the same way, lick­ing along the line where his stones grew into his thighs and below that, lower, draw­ing the inti­mate fla­vor of him as his mate lay still, filled with pas­sion, his body aglow with the plea­sure that ran in waves through him as his lover glided the tip of his tongue upward along the cen­ter of his joy, solid as the stone he car­ried from the mine each day yet yield­ing enough to fit the curve of his body. He formed his lips into a soft O and engulfed him. Allis gasped and pulsed with the joy of it.

The heat between them built with each caress and motion of lips to skin as Barris moved up once more and swung his bunkmate’s body around so they could join in the same way, their tongues rich beds of plea­sure for their turgid flesh to lie in, mov­ing with lit­tle darts of heat where they were most sen­si­tive. The smooth, easy actions of their mouths became urgent, lights burst­ing behind their eyes, their brains and their entire beings afire with the thrust­ing motions, and they found explo­sive release together in the finest male way, gasp­ing and mur­mur­ing words of affec­tion as their bod­ies slowly unlocked.

They lay a while like that in the fol­low­ing warmth, inverted and sigh­ing, still tast­ing each other wher­ever their lips could reach, thighs, bel­lies, stones, works, caress­ing and being caressed, whis­pers of love and delight mist­ing the air about them. Finally Allis moved off his spent form and kissed him long. “You should go to your bunk.”

They shared a few more kisses before Barris climbed back up to his bed, above that of his bunk­mate as Allis nes­tled beneath him, and let sleep take him, know­ing his fatigue was jus­ti­fied — for him the day had begun before the day, and he had seen and heard many things to make him think.

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