Continuing my online seri­al­iza­tion of the com­plete text of The Beasts of Delphos.

In the first chap­ter, we were intro­duced to Barris and Allis, two young slaves who work in a mine on a planet called Delphos. They’re human — all inhab­i­tants of Delphos are — but they’re clearly liv­ing in a time quite a dis­tance from our own into the future.

The Beasts of Delphos
© Warren Ockrassa

The First Beast

The Freeman

The ves­sel shot over­head in a glow­ing streak, its pas­sage tear­ing the air with a tor­tured shriek and a boom. The slaves at the mine ducked reflex­ively and then stood in awe; all had felt the heat of the crash­ing ship’s pas­sage. It scored a deep rut in the soil sev­eral kilo­me­ters dis­tant, shud­der­ing and jounc­ing along the ground, rum­bling con­cus­sively, bury­ing itself even­tu­ally in the dense jun­gle that lay beyond the mine perime­ter. Their ears rang with its noise.

That was a free­man ship,” the pit boss said with cer­tainty. “Better get over there and see to the pas­sen­gers and crew, if they’re still all of one piece.”

Barris was already pre­pared to go, a gur­ney tucked under his arm. Several other under­lings fol­lowed suit, all hair­less like him­self. Once a boy matured to a pube it was no longer safe for him to ven­ture alone into the jun­gle with­out sev­eral under­lings. The older ones needed their smooth-​​bodied guides to pro­tect them against the lures of the beast — that or females, who didn’t feel its influ­ence. But there were no females at the mines, and that meant only the under­lings could foray alone into the wilder­ness and hope to emerge alive.

The boss nod­ded approv­ingly at Barris, rec­og­niz­ing his indus­try for the sec­ond time in only two cycles. The boy had brains and met­tle, of that there was no doubt. “Take the party out,” he said, hand­ing a two-​​way to Barris, who gog­gled at it for the mer­est moment before loop­ing its strap around his neck. By being given the radio he had been appointed leader of the res­cue mission.

He stared up at the boss and nod­ded solemnly. “As you say,” he said, then left, lead­ing the lit­tle group into a wilder­ness dan­ger­ous enough for them, but lethal to any­one older.

The ship was easy to find. It had left a ragged gout in the soil that pointed directly to its final rest­ing place, foliage smol­der­ing where it came into con­tact with the body of the ves­sel. The hull was still very hot to the touch and Barris fash­ioned a makeshift insu­la­tion pad of plant leaves, then used it to tug at the craft’s hatch bar. The fuse­lage had buck­led in many places but largely retained its integrity, and the hatch cracked with an out­rush of chilled air. The naked boys shiv­ered in its sud­den blast. They were used to liv­ing in the heat of the mines, the twin suns burn­ing down on them all through their work cycles, and the air-​​conditioned inte­rior of the crashed flyer seemed unnat­u­rally cold to them. Barris stepped gin­gerly up and inside, his feet star­tled and soothed by the padded car­pet­ing of its deck as mois­ture from the cooler air con­densed, bal­loon­ing from the hatch like breath. “Masters?” he called tentatively.

Silence answered.

He cast about ner­vously a moment, but remem­bered he was the leader and that lead­ers must not appear to dither. Looking more bold than he felt he strode into the rel­a­tive gloom of the ship’s depths and looked down its gang­ways. “Masters?” he called again.

It was silent, utterly silent.

He ges­tured the rest of the boys inside and split them up, send­ing half of them aft to look for pas­sen­gers, he lead­ing the press fore toward the crew compartments.

In a lit­tle while some of the aft search party returned, car­ry­ing man­gled corpses on their gur­neys, lay­ing them gen­tly out­side. Few of them had seen freemen this closely and Barris had to remind them to quell their curios­ity and tend to their duties.

He sparked the radio and gave his report. “Sir. We’ve found the ship and none of the pas­sen­gers are alive, par­don. We’re still work­ing on get­ting into the crew com­part­ments, but, your par­don, sir, I don’t hold much hope.” The fore sec­tion of the ship had taken the brunt of the impact and was con­sid­er­ably more dam­aged than the pas­sen­ger sec­tion had been, and the main access hatch had lodged against its buck­led wall-​​plate. He was hav­ing dif­fi­culty get­ting it to move.

Understood,” the boss’s voice crack­led out at him. “Work with all speed.”

As you say, sir,” Barris replied, and cut the con­nec­tion. He leaned into the job once more, his work-​​hardened mus­cles flex­ing smoothy under his skin, as the rest of the res­cue party tried to help. But the pas­sage was too nar­row; it could only accom­mo­date two of them at any one time and that was not enough strength to get the hatch open.

Barris stopped the work and thought a moment, then looked down at the loop that held the radio over his chest. “Cables,” he said. The other boys stared blankly. “Were there cables any­where in this ship?”

One of the aft party nod­ded. “In a big place full of storage.”

The hold. Of course. “Show me,” Barris said, and the other boy led the way.

There were cables, strong ones of metal that were used to lift cargo into the ship’s hold, spilled among the bro­ken freight con­tain­ers. Barris searched among them for sev­eral moments, look­ing for one that had — aha. He lifted a coil of cable that weighed more than he did, sling­ing it over his shoul­der, then went fore again and parted the sea of bod­ies that stood before the stuck hatch. He dropped the coil, care­ful that it didn’t begin to tan­gle, and raised one end to the hatch bar — the end that had a lifting-​​hook attached. He hooked the bar and ges­tured one of the boys to him.

Hold this hook. Keep it on this bar. Don’t let it come off.”

The boy nod­ded, puz­zled, and Barris lifted the coil and car­ried it back to the ship’s waist-​​hatch, let­ting the line unwrap behind him as he went. The cable was tough to man­age and his wrists flexed strongly, wrestling its unruly loops into a sem­blance of straight­ness. When he was out­side there were still dozens of meters of it left and he nod­ded approvingly.

He went back in and took up all the slack in the line, then sent the last boy out­side after he saw the hook was still secure. He joined the lit­tle throng that stood out­side the hatch and directed them to pick up the cable. When all had done so he took anchor posi­tion at the back and told them to begin pulling.

The boys leaned into it, their hard hands grasp­ing the cable’s slick sur­face firmly, their shoul­ders rolling with the effort, spines stand­ing in knobs between the work­ing mus­cles. As they pulled the ship shifted slightly in the soil, alarm­ing Barris momen­tar­ily. Even though the freemen out­side the ship were all dead he did not need it rolling over atop them. He almost gave the order to stop but the ship set­tled and became immo­bile once more.

The boys began pulling rhyth­mi­cally, Barris call­ing out the tim­ing for them to lean together. Their thighs bunched and rip­pled as the strain of the work ran through their bod­ies, their bare toes dig­ging for pur­chase in the churned loam, and abruptly there was a clang from deep within the ship and they all fell back, the cable sud­denly lax in their hands.

Barris was on his feet in a moment and rushed back into the gang­way. The plan had worked; the hatch stood open. He led the boys into the nose sec­tion of the ship and found things to be as bad as he had feared: Much of the crew was wetly adorn­ing the walls of the wrecked craft. He swal­lowed his bile and directed the oth­ers to begin col­lect­ing the remains, sep­a­rat­ing as best they could the bod­ies from each other. For some of the pieces they had to guess.

As they worked he heard a faint groan from one of the after sec­tions and glared at the boys who had been sent there, and they dis­ap­peared sheep­ishly. They had not searched thor­oughly and this could have won all of them a harsh rep­ri­mand — him par­tic­u­larly, as he was the leader. He might even have faced death for the lax­ity, dropped alive into the furnace.

He fol­lowed the noises back to a locker and worked its panel. The door popped open and a free­man, alive and bat­tered but appar­ently not seri­ously injured, tum­bled out — along with the corpse of a slave-​​girl, by her dress a plea­sure slave. She could not have been much older than Barris. A lit­tle trickle of crim­son ran from her mouth.

He real­ized the free­man had been tak­ing his plea­sure with her inside this locker — why he could not guess — and her body must have cush­ioned his in the impact. All the other freemen in the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment had not been prop­erly restrained when the craft went out of con­trol, and in the chaos they had had no time to har­ness them­selves. But this free­man had been in a con­fined space and that had saved him. Or rather, the girl’s life had been lost in exchange for his, crushed as his body was thrust against hers by the force of the crash.

Barris extended a hand. “Master,” he said, help­ing the free­man to his feet.

The free­man looked about him­self dazedly, utter­ing words Barris did not recognize.

Your par­don, master?”

The man came to him­self and then really saw Barris, and began using dif­fer­ent speech. “A party of boys?” He seemed sur­prised. “This is what they send after us?” His words were col­ored with a thick accent and Barris rec­og­nized he was from offworld.

Master, your par­don,” Barris began, “but it is not safe for pubes or men to walk unat­tended in this wild.”

Why? Why’s it safe for boys and not men?” He glanced at the under­lings gath­ered about him, kept at a respect­ful dis­tance all save Barris, look­ing over their mine-​​hardened bod­ies. “Even if you seem like strong boys…”

Master, it is safe for girls and women also. Underlings may walk safely for we, like the females, do not feel the charms of the beast, but a pube or man can be caught in its thrall.”

The free­man stud­ied Barris’s face, then his bare body. “Underlings? Pubes or … Oh. Sexually mature, you mean?”

Master, I do not know the term you use, for­give my igno­rance. Those who can sire are unsafe. Master, your par­don, but this means you as well. We shall have to escort you to safety and we shall have to do it swiftly, for the time of day is draw­ing to an end and this is when the beast becomes prominent.”

The free­man looked about the wreck of the ship, appear­ing dis­tracted. “Anyone else get hurt in the crash?”

Barris’s need to leave was urgent and he did not under­stand why the free­man didn’t grasp the dan­ger. “Pardon, mas­ter, but you are the only one who sur­vived. We must leave now. I am sorry, mas­ter.” Barris watched the free­man digest this. He was clearly shocked. He lifted his radio and gave another report. “We have found a free­man who sur­vived the crash, sir. He is the only one.”

The boss’s voice came over the line. “Is he injured?”

He seems not to be, sir, though he is confused.”

That’s to be expected. How old is he?”

Too old to be safe,” Barris reported.

Get him back here immediately.”

As you say,” Barris answered and let the radio fall back to his chest. “Master, your par­don, but I am directed to bring you from here imme­di­ately, and I must obey.”

The free­man looked at him dis­tantly. “Hmm? Oh, yes, I sup­pose.” He let him­self be led out of the craft and blinked around him­self at the jun­gle, not look­ing too closely at the ruined bod­ies the res­cue party had lain out on gur­neys for the haul back to the mine. Few freemen saw much of death, Barris knew, and it made them uneasy.

Barris coör­di­nated the lift­ing and, when all were ready to leave, said, “Back to the mine and quickly, for the suns are low.”

As you say,” sev­eral of the boys answered, but Barris was too caught up in his con­cerns for the free­man who walked by his side to notice they had hon­ored him.

The trek out was nec­es­sar­ily slower than had been their entrance, as they were now encum­bered with the dead. Were they slaves rather than freemen the bod­ies would have been left in the jun­gle to be eaten by scav­engers, as had been done with the corpse of the plea­sure girl; but freemen required more respect, even in death. As they plod­ded along, all sweat­ing in the heat and wet of the jun­gle save the cool­ing corpses they car­ried, Barris kept a ner­vous eye cocked on the hori­zon and the suns that were drop­ping to meet it, look­ing from time to time at the free­man, watch­ing him for any of the signs he knew.

As they worked their way along one of the gur­neys slipped and Barris halted the party, reprov­ing the boy who’d dropped his end. “Do not be clumsy with the free­man dead,” he said, and the boy nod­ded, shamed. Barris turned to begin lead­ing them once more and saw the back of the free­man dis­ap­pear­ing into the jun­gle, off their course.

He groaned and felt a sharp blade of ter­ror pierce his chest. He turned to the first boy in the entourage and said, “Take every­one out of here. Bring the bod­ies to the mine and see you do it swiftly. I’m going after the free­man.” The boy gulped and nod­ded, know­ing the risk Barris was tak­ing on. The beast lured men but it didn’t object to boys either. Any liv­ing meat suited it. As Barris dove into the jun­gle after his way­ward charge, dark in the gath­er­ing twi­light, he sparked the radio once more. “Pardon, sir. The free­man has gone into the trees. I fear the beast is call­ing him. I’m going to bring him back.”

There was a silence, then, “Do with all haste.”

As you say.”

And watch your­self as well, boy.”

As — as you say.” Barris felt moved, even in the extrem­ity of his worry, that the boss would care for his wel­fare at all.

He quickly caught up with the free­man, who was wan­der­ing in a semi-​​daze, stum­bling unsee­ing through the pro­fuse growth of the jun­gle floor in the rapidly falling gloom. Barris saw the promi­nence of his erec­tion and knew the beast’s lure was work­ing fully. He caught at the freeman’s arm — in sit­u­a­tions of dire peril a slave, even an under­ling such as he, was per­mit­ted such lib­er­ties — and pulled him to a stop. The free­man looked down at him, smil­ing dis­tantly. “Let me go, boy,” he said eas­ily, rea­son­ably. “I have —” he looked into the dense clus­tered trees — “some­where to go.”

Barris felt a tin­gle at his own groin and knew they were close, dan­ger­ously close. Underlings were immune to the full thrall of the crea­ture that lurked in the woods, but very mildly sus­cep­ti­ble with imme­di­ate prox­im­ity. “Master, your par­don, but I can­not. You are lured by the beast.”

Beast? What beast could give such a good feel­ing as this?” He ges­tured to his throb­bing organ and laughed. “No, it’s no beast — it’s a beauty.”

Barris knew what was hap­pen­ing and knew how to tem­porar­ily break the creature’s spell, so he did it, open­ing the freeman’s cloth­ing and bend­ing his head to him where he rose so sharply. In moments the free­man was gasp­ing, his plea­sure surg­ing out and flood­ing Barris’s mouth with its hot metal­lic salt. Momentarily sated he looked down at the boy who knelt before him. “Master,” Barris said, “your par­don, but we must leave here now. Your life is at ter­ri­ble risk.”

The free­man nod­ded slowly, already clearly get­ting fogged again by the beast’s lure, but he allowed him­self to be led away by the slave who had, by such per­sonal means, just saved his life.

They emerged into the clear not too long after dark had fully descended. They were expected. Barris radioed fre­quently with their progress reports, know­ing that the boss would need this infor­ma­tion, that he too was being watched by bosses of his own and could not be allowed to be igno­rant of what was happening.

The free­man had felt the beast’s lure still and Barris had had to draw him along by plac­ing his hand on the man’s works, cradling his large stones lightly, his gen­tle caresses enough for the free­man to let him­self be led like a small child. The promise of plea­sure was what the beast used to lure men to their deaths; Barris had to oppose it with his own promise of plea­sure, and the direct touch was enough. When a pube or man was caught in the beast’s thrall visions of plea­sure filled his mind and his loins with desire and he no longer thought clearly or prop­erly, and he would walk smil­ing into his death. Only such direct lead­ing could fully work against it.

They were finally free enough of the jun­gle and back within the pit’s perime­ter for the freeman’s mind to clear — his own loins told him so — and Barris with­drew his hand from the man’s slowly-​​relaxing organ. He stared at the boy, his gaze uncom­pre­hend­ing, as they con­tin­ued trudg­ing back to the build­ings at the cen­ter of the mine. “What was that?” he said.

Master, your par­don. It was the beast you felt,” Barris told him solemnly. “It draws you with desire to itself, and you are lost if you aren’t led away.”

You didn’t feel it?”

Master, under­lings and females are immune. Underlings feel it but not as a man does.”

What does it do to the men it catches?”

It con­sumes them, master.”

Consumes? Eats?”

Yes, mas­ter, as you say.”

It lures with sex…” The free­man was star­ing off into the jun­gle thought­fully, and Barris felt a moment of alarm. Was the beast draw­ing near and work­ing on him again? But then the man turned back to him. “Why did you do that, back there?”

Master?”

You — you gave me release.”

To break its thrall, mas­ter. Your par­don for I know it was a great lib­erty but your life was endan­gered and I must always pro­tect my mas­ters the freemen, at any peril to myself.”

The freeman’s expres­sion was clouded and he shook his head. “But it was not right —”

Barris fell cold. He had laid hands on the free­man unasked. He knew this was pun­ish­able, and unbid­den tears welled.

The free­man saw this. “And I see you are trou­bled by it too. I know there is great license taken on this world with plea­sure, and have often felt it to be wrong that boys such as you can be made to bring men to release.” The man reached to him and wiped at his eyes. “Poor lad, to be so ill-​​worked.”

Now Barris felt con­fu­sion “Master?”

The free­man looked sur­prised. “The release you gave. It sor­rows me to think you are made to do such things, for even a slave surely can­not love the act. I hear some of my coll — other freemen speak of the plea­sures they find with boys or girls here, and in truth it makes me ill to con­sider it.” He drew a shaky sigh. “And yet here we are.”

His con­fu­sion had deep­ened. “Master, I was doing duty.”

Duty? That is how you see it?”

Barris nod­ded mutely.

But it did not cause you dis­tress to — to release me as you did?”

Master, I do not under­stand what you are ask­ing. Forgive my igno­rance, but your thoughts are much higher than mine and I can­not grasp your meanings.”

The free­man hun­kered. “Boy, where I live, men do not do such things — take plea­sure — with any so young as you. We think it wrong to do so.”

More tears filled Barris’s eyes. “Then I have offended you, mas­ter, and beg your for­give­ness for my slight. But you were caught and had to be freed.”

It did not trou­ble you?”

Master, plea­sure is always a fine thing to share. To release you caused me no … trou­ble.” How could it have? he won­dered. It was a sim­ple moment of enjoy­ment, even if it had been taken in a time of tremen­dous dan­ger to them both. The release had saved the free­man and Barris had not been unwill­ing, yet the man seemed to believe he should have been. “I am pained that I have angered you with my deeds, master.”

The free­man stood again and stared at him long moments, then sighed deeply and looked about. “Truly I do not under­stand this world. I thought you were weep­ing because you felt ill-​​used, and I dis­cover you weep because you fear you have done me wrong.”

Barris took a deep breath. “Master, what pun­ish­ment do I deserve for the transgression?”

Punishment? Boy — you saved me.” He gath­ered him­self a moment, recall­ing how they had come to be in the jun­gle in the first place. “Twice.”

Forgive me, mas­ter, for the unasked familiarity.”

The free­man saw Barris meant it and cupped his head in his hand a moment. “All is for­given. Don’t worry about it. I feel I should ask you forgiveness.”

Master, never. You are my mas­ter, a free­man, and need ask for­give­ness for nothing.”

Well. Let us then put this behind us. Come.” He resumed his pace from the trees.

Barris’s eyes cleared of tears and he felt some relief. The free­man could have demanded any pun­ish­ment he desired for the unasked touch, even death, though the touch had saved him. He began walk­ing again, keep­ing sev­eral paces behind as was proper. “As you say, master.”

What is your name?”

Master, I am called Barris.”

Well — Barris. You’ve earned a reward. Is there any­thing you may desire?”

Master, your par­don, but I have earned noth­ing; I sim­ply did my duty to you as a free­man and my master.”

Barris, you used courage and intel­li­gence, and you did some­thing that many might have been reluc­tant to do. I’m per­son­ally indebted to you. I’m from off­world and don’t know your cus­toms here, but surely there must be a way for a — a slave to be rewarded for doing well.”

Barris walked silently, his brow fur­rowed. “Master, none has ever asked me this before.”

I’ll talk it over with the man in charge, then,” the free­man said eas­ily. “Speaking of which —”

The pit boss, fol­lowed by sev­eral freemen wear­ing uni­forms, was plod­ding out to meet them. He quickly took stock, find­ing the free­man to be well and unharmed, and then sent Barris off to the food queue with spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion. Though he had arrived too late to be fed nor­mally with the rest of the slaves, he had done excep­tion­ally well — par­tic­u­larly for an under­ling — and was given per­mis­sion to take his meal with the kitchen crew. The boss told him to fin­ish quickly and return, as he’d want a full account of the day’s events, and Barris agreed. He thought of sug­gest­ing he might stay and give his account now, but the slave’s reflex not to ques­tion rose — and his stom­ach was empty and rum­bling. So he went to sat­isfy his first need.

The account was brief; the other boys had reported ear­lier and Barris did lit­tle more than cor­rob­o­rate. Yes, he had got the ship open, using leaves to keep his hands from get­ting burned on its scorch­ing hull. Yes, he had thought of using the cable to open the stuck fore hatch, and had coör­di­nated the effort. Yes, he had kept the search party focused and on track, as he had been com­manded to do. The boss nod­ded at all of this and looked at him with thought­ful approval, seem­ing to con­sider something.

He recounted next his trek through the jun­gle with the way­ward free­man, describ­ing how he’d led him out, using his train­ing. The free­man looked abashed at this and Barris again won­dered why, since it was some­thing all under­lings and females who lived any­where near the jun­gle were taught to do. It was the only way to save a man who’d fallen prey to the beast’s potent charms.

Then he recalled the stor­age locker where he’d found the free­man with his plea­sure girl, and the odd con­ver­sa­tion they had had return­ing to the safety of the mine, and thought he under­stood a lit­tle bet­ter. He had heard that some freemen — off­worlders, as this one — felt dif­fer­ently about plea­sure than his own folk. This must be one of those freemen, then, who enjoyed plea­sure as much as any­one but were embar­rassed by it. Barris won­dered how any­one could feel that way; it was a nat­ural and enjoy­able func­tion of life, like a large meal after a hard day of work or a good bowel movement.

The pit boss was star­ing at him, siz­ing him up, and looked as though he had come to some sort of deci­sion. Barris felt shy under the scrutiny. “I beg par­don,” he said, “for not hav­ing brought my mas­ter the free­man to full safety sooner. What pun­ish­ment should —”

The boss cut him off with a wave. “No pun­ish­ment. Most boys your age are far too addlepated to do what you did today. You were clever and resource­ful, and showed courage and initiative.”

Barris ducked his head, flushed to his roots.

You’re a good strong lad,” the boss went on, ris­ing to a locker behind his desk, “a nat­ural leader and damned bright besides.” He shut the locker’s door with a clunk and offered a hand­ful of cloth to Barris. “You’ve earned this, both yes­ter­day and today, and many times over before this. I have had my eye on you a while, boy.”

Barris stared in shock. It was a loin­cloth of appren­tice­ship, bear­ing the mark of the machin­ists, a styl­ized ham­mer and anvil embroi­dered at the hem.

You’re to be pren­ticed tomor­row to the mas­ter machin­ist. Don’t thank me; the other boys will be jeal­ous of you and make your life much harder than it needs to be, but I believe you’ll hold up well under it for all that.”

Barris nod­ded mutely. The boss was right. Few boys were ever appren­ticed at a young age; he could not recall an under­ling earn­ing the honor before.

Well, go on, lad, put it on.”

Barris drew the cloth over his thighs, and though he did his best not to show it, all could see the pride in his eyes as he looked down at him­self. He was clothed. And marked as a machinist’s appren­tice. His chest swelled even as he tried not to dis­play his joy.

The free­man he’d res­cued drew the pit boss aside, ges­tur­ing in his direc­tion and talk­ing low. The boss stud­ied the free­man for a moment and then nod­ded. “Our mas­ter this free­man has asked that a boon be granted you on his behalf. What do you desire?”

Barris’s mind drew a blank. He’d already been given far more than he had ever imag­ined pos­si­ble. The appren­tice­ship meant he would be under­tak­ing more dan­ger­ous work, but his sta­tus had just gone up tremen­dously, he would no longer be in the pit con­tin­gent, and would no longer have to bar­rack with —

Ah.

Sir, your par­don, but I have a bunk­mate. We — kindle.”

He will be your bonds­man, then.”

Barris hid his delight. Apprentices had a bonds­man to help with menial chores and tasks while the appren­tice him­self went about his learn­ing and skill-​​building. The bonds­men began as under­lings and it was con­sid­ered an honor to be selected for the posi­tion. He felt sur­prised, in fact, that he’d been appren­ticed him­self rather than made a bonds­man today; that would have been more than enough reward.

But to have Allis still by his side — that was rich­ness beyond any dream.

Go now,” the boss directed, “and gather your bonds­man. Barrack with the appren­tices. A senior there will show you where you are to sleep from now on.”

Heart thump­ing with joy, Barris col­lected Allis and together they bade farewell to the pit slave bar­racks forever.

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