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 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.
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.”
“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?”
“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 —
“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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