Oh right, it’s Friday.

Last chap­ter, Barris got very lucky, and took his bunk­mate Allis to share his for­tune. Here we see how he does as an appren­tice to the machine slaves.

Previously we’ve heard oth­ers talk about how bright Barris is. He is intel­li­gent and obser­vant, and while these are desir­able traits in any­one, they may not be so ideal in a slave pop­u­la­tion. Still, here and now, we start see­ing that the kid’s head may not actu­ally be entirely up his ass.

By the way, if you decide to buy the book — thank you — do me a favor and get it new. When you buy used, you see, nei­ther the author nor pub­lisher gets paid. So what, you ask? Well, do you expect to just keep get­ting free shit all your life?

The Beasts of Delphos
© Warren Ockrassa

The First Beast

Machinist’s Apprentice

And if I have this pile and that pile and I put them together, how much does that make?”

Barris stared at the lit­tle clus­ters of peb­bles, his thoughts work­ing for the answer. He was being taught num­bers and some days the effort made it feel like his brains would leak out his ears. That pile had four, and this pile had two. In his mind he imag­ined them form­ing one pile and bright­ened. “Six?”

Are you ask­ing me or telling me?”

Barris thought again. “I’m telling you.”

The pube shook his head sadly, and Barris’s heart sank. Then he smiled and said, “That’s exactly correct.”

Barris felt piqued at the joke, but hid it and smiled back. “You fooled me.”

Thought you were wrong, eh?”

I did.” He stud­ied the face of his men­tor, and then spoke again. “No, I did not.” His teacher, a boy who had been an under­ling him­self not so long ago and who had an apti­tude for instruc­tion, smiled again. His name was Theossa and he didn’t bear mal­ice toward Barris for his sud­den and com­pletely unprece­dented promotion.

Unlike some of the other appren­tices.

Several of them had, as the boss pre­dicted, worked quite hard to make Barris’s life dif­fi­cult, some­times tor­ment­ing him, other times sim­ply glar­ing at him, and occa­sion­ally play­ing jokes on him, some cruel, some merely irri­tat­ing, most of them hav­ing to do with grease, since it was abun­dant, tacky and nearly impos­si­ble to clean.

One evening he’d gone to his two-​​bunk bar­rack with Allis to dis­cover his thin mat­tress had been replaced with pack­ing grease. Another day his appren­tice­ship loin­cloth had been stolen and turned up hours later being used as a grease-​​rag in the machine shop. Yet another day he’d been greased him­self and cov­ered head-​​to-​​toe in metal shav­ings; they stuck to the grease every­where and pricked his skin with their sharp edges when­ever he moved, espe­cially in his most del­i­cate folds.

And it was many cycles before he learned that their show­er­ing facil­ity — entirely new to him but nec­es­sary to get the toxic and skin-​​clogging machine lubri­cants off their bod­ies — had the capac­ity to spray hot water mixed in with the cold, mak­ing the show­ers much more pleas­ant. The oth­ers sim­ply had not told him every­thing about the oper­a­tion of the shower heads and he won­dered at how they could appear to lux­u­ri­ate under what he was sure had to be frigid blasts of icy water. By mis­take he had fid­dled the head in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion one evening and dis­cov­ered the tem­per­a­ture set­tings. After that he joined the cho­rus of ahhhs and ohhs that accom­pa­nied the show­ers, and that seemed to spell the end of his ini­ti­a­tion. Many of the other appren­tices still didn’t treat him well, but they had at least stopped with the jokes and taunts after that.

Well, most of the taunts. He was still called “lit­tle­stones” by some of the pubes, a ref­er­ence to his as-​​yet unde­vel­oped anatomy. He didn’t care; his lit­tle stones meant he was safe from the beast, and he knew they knew it.

He’d learned enough of num­bers to know he had been appren­ticed for twenty cycles now, and was begin­ning to feel a bit more set­tled, but the learn­ing was hard.

Theossa elbowed his ribs and set him to another count­ing task, and his con­cen­tra­tion returned to his lesson.

 

When he got back to the double-​​bunk bar­rack Allis rose to meet him and took his loin­cloth as he peeled it away in the quiet of the empty space. Barris had at first been sur­prised at their semi-​​privacy and had trou­ble get­ting to sleep the first few cycles, miss­ing the sounds of many plea­sur­ing and sleep­ing bod­ies all around him, but had grown used to the rel­a­tive silence.

He stepped over to the basin they shared with the barrack’s other inhab­i­tants, Mellis, a boy about two sea­sons his senior and Jorris, his own bonds­man, and waited as Allis ran water and soap over the cloth, hung it to dry on the footrail of Barris’s bunk, then washed Barris as he stood, doing his duty to his demi-​​master. Showers were bi-​​cyclic and this was not a shower day, so the appren­tices were cleaned by their bonds­men. Allis’s soapy fin­gers lin­gered over his stones and works, the light gen­tle fric­tion fill­ing him and mak­ing him rise.

They were alone at the moment and Barris took the time to share with Allis, first wash­ing his bonds­man as Allis had washed him, bring­ing him also to ful­ness, then lead­ing them both to the plea­sures bunk­mates enjoyed as Allis cooed his delight.

He lay next to him now, doz­ing slightly after their shar­ing, and Jorris came into the room. His demi-​​master was due back from the shop soon and he was to be ready for him when he arrived, to clean his cloth for him, mas­sage his worked shoul­ders — Mellis did a lot of assem­bly work and that meant much heavy lift­ing — and please him as he desired. Barris nod­ded to the boy, who was actu­ally his own age even though in a sub­or­di­nate posi­tion to him, indi­cat­ing with the ges­ture that he was not dis­turb­ing the cou­ple that lay on Allis’s bunk. Jorris nod­ded back with a lit­tle smile, then sat on his own bunk with a sigh and reclined, await­ing Mellis’s advent.

In a while the appren­tice arrived, grimed with sweat and grease, and let Jorris clean him as he stood by the basin, then took him to the bunk and had plea­sure. Barris closed his eyes as the sounds of pas­sion filled the room. Their barrack-​​mate took plea­sure more often than Barris and Allis did, and he had grown a bit self-​​conscious with the act for the first time ever. He wasn’t sure why but it seemed slightly strange when it was just the two cou­ples, as opposed to an entire barracks-​​floor shar­ing with their bunk­mates. He thought of the free­man he’d saved and won­dered if that was how he felt about plea­sure as well.

When he knew Mellis had fin­ished he propped up on an elbow and Allis turned over; he had not been asleep either. He smiled at Barris when his stom­ach rum­bled audi­bly and they silently rose, the appren­tice don­ning his loin­cloth and his bonds­man remain­ing nude, as was proper for both in pub­lic, and went to the food queue, leav­ing the other cou­ple on their bunk, Mellis doz­ing while Jorris reclined near him, qui­etly giv­ing him­self release as he lay beside his demi-​​master, his eyes on the older boy’s bare mus­cu­lar body.

 

Mealtimes were dif­fer­ent for appren­tice machin­ists and those that served them. Rather than hav­ing to line up within a brief set inter­val to get their rations, they were able to sim­ply walk in casu­ally over a fairly lengthy period, par­tic­u­larly in the evening, that Barris still didn’t fully under­stand, time-​​reckoning yet to be taught to him in real depth. Theossa spot­ted them and ges­tured them over to his table. They took their trays and sat.

Theossa’s bonds­man, Adessa, was an under­ling per­haps two sea­sons younger than Barris or Allis — who were of about the same age — and reclined eas­ily against the apprentice’s larger frame, casu­ally and hap­pily feed­ing him lit­tle crusts of bread from the roll that remained on his tray. Odd dark shapes cir­cled on Adessa’s chest, but Barris had not asked about them. Many slaves were branded or tat­tooed. The older boy bit play­fully at his bondsman’s fin­gers as Adessa gig­gled, then with­drew and pulled the crust into his mouth with a quick flick of his tongue, finally kiss­ing the younger boy’s palm as he gazed up, enrap­tured and smil­ing, his eyes half lid­ded. “Mellis back from the shop yet?”

Barris nod­ded. “He got in — um —”

Still work­ing on time-​​reckoning.”

Yes, I am. Pardon. I know the dis­plays show time’s pas­sage but I haven’t the grasp of it just yet.” There were dig­i­tal clocks in the walls, count­ing time in sixteen-​​hour cycles of forty-​​five min­utes each, and Barris was still try­ing to get the sense of it, both in terms of han­dling the num­bers and guess­ing how much time had elapsed from one point to another.

Adessa plucked another bit of crust and put it between his lips, then leaned up so Theossa could catch it from them. Their mouths lin­gered a moment in con­tact before they parted. Barris began to feel they were intrud­ing but Theossa seemed casual still with their pres­ence. He was easy with his bonds­man, clasp­ing and caress­ing him lightly, and that set Barris at ease as well.

Here’s a tip for you,” he offered, swal­low­ing the morsel. “Just look at the clocks from time to time and note the num­bers. Don’t try to think about the reck­on­ing and don’t try to grasp the flow of the time — just look at the mark­ings. You’ll pick it up sooner that way. Thanks, Adessa, I’m full now.”

The bonds­man nod­ded and took the trays away, lin­ger­ing a moment as Theossa drew his cheek to his lips for a fast peck, flush­ing a lit­tle at the ges­ture and smil­ing. Barris watched him as he left, bemused. “Do all appren­tices get bunk­mates for their bondsmen?”

No, you and Allis are unlike most. Generally you don’t choose your bonds­man. I didn’t choose Adessa.”

But he’s clearly — I mean, you and he —”

Oh, yes, he and I are most cer­tainly fond of each other.” Theossa watched as Adessa weaved back among the tables to them, his eyes soft on him. “Sometimes it hap­pens that way. Mellis and Jorris are how it more usu­ally is.”

Barris nod­ded. Mellis took plea­sure from Jorris, but never returned it. As the bondsman’s demi-​​master that was his right, but to Barris it had seemed unfair. Yet Jorris did not com­plain, and Barris sup­posed it was because he felt being bonds­man to an appren­tice was good enough. He looked about them and saw that, at sev­eral tables, appren­tices and their bonds­men had become close and affec­tion­ate as the hour wore on, lin­ger­ing together, laugh­ing, clasp­ing, trad­ing soft touches as Theossa and Adessa had done.

Theossa’s words rang in him and he let his arm slip around Allis’s waist as they began eat­ing, his fin­gers glid­ing eas­ily along his bondsman’s bare hip. Allis sighed hap­pily and leaned into his clasp, some­times lift­ing lit­tle bits of food to Barris’s lips as Adessa had done with Theossa. They were … fond of each other as well.

Are you feel­ing ready enough with num­bers to pro­ceed?” Theossa said after they had fin­ished their sup­per. Adessa glowed in his arms where they crossed over his chest, stroking the thick mus­cles lightly with a gen­tle touch, his eyes dis­tant with hap­pi­ness, occa­sion­ally rock­ing his hips against where he nes­tled between Theossa’s parted thighs. “Not tonight, of course, but tomorrow?”

Barris con­sid­ered, then nod­ded. “I think I can start study­ing other things now besides.”

Then next cycle I’ll begin you on let­ters. Don’t look shocked. Machinists need their appren­tices to be able to read as well as count, you know.”

No, I didn’t know that.”

Well now you do. Letters are much harder than num­bers — they can take on shades of mean­ing that num­bers never hold — but if you’ve a knack for them you’ll find they can be pow­er­ful door­ways to much knowl­edge. That tick­les, Adessa. All you’ve learned until now you’ve had to be shown, either as an info holo or by direct teach­ing. I didn’t say stop it, my light, just that it tick­led. There, bet­ter. Words — ahh — words let you learn silently, from teach­ers not vis­i­ble to you — and some of them in their graves for many hun­dreds or thou­sands of seasons.”

Barris stared at Theossa, look­ing for signs of jest. “How is that possible?”

Theossa smiled and winked. “I did not believe it either at first, but it’s true nonethe­less. Tomorrow you’ll begin to see how.”

Allis looked into Barris’s face, happy for him. “My demi-​​master a man of let­ters,” he smiled, and clasped him.

Theossa nod­ded seri­ously. “Indeed,” he said. “And now with your par­don we’ll take our leave.” He rose and Barris could see by the pitch of both his body through his cloth, and that of his bonds­man, bare of any cov­er­ing, that they were in antic­i­pa­tion of pleasure.

As you say,” he answered, and thought­fully watched the cou­ple as they walked, their arms about each other’s hips, back to their bar­rack, Adessa laugh­ing at some­thing Theossa whis­pered to him, meant only for his ear.

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