Aliph held Bett’s hand as they walked down the Golgotha’s main drag. Mud sucked at their feet and the afternoon sun hurt their eyes, but they barely noticed. They were distracted by the overwhelming silence.
Always always, from before their earliest memories, they’d been able to hear the Aydan-machine, its constant, comforting hum in the background. It had hacked the node on the ship they’d taken to Primus Drie, so they hadn’t been separated until approaching the Whimper’s Revenge. But Captain Valshorn’s companion-machine was just another piece of the Aydan-machine, domesticated and shaped to fit Captain Valshorn’s needs, true, but fundamentally the same.
Calvary had no network. Once they left the Whimper’s range, they could hear only each other. They couldn’t integrate with each other properly without an external network, just ship meaningless pings back and forth where their skin made contact. That was enough for now. Half the point of leaving Aydan had been to find out who they were without the network constantly bleeding into their consciousness.
The first person they met was a skinny woman with short, scraggly hair tied back in a scarf. She smiled at them with crooked, rotting teeth as she left the porch of her plastic hut and rushed into the street to meet them. “Hello there my dearies, my little peccadilloes,” she said. She threw an arm over Bett’s shoulders and patted Aliph fondly on his slim shoulder. “What brings you to nasty little Golgotha?”
“We seek to make an independent life for ourselves,” Bett said, though she was startled by the strange woman’s sudden familiarity. Did people normally physically engage strangers like this? Captain Valshorn had never touched them.
“Come to colonize? Come to stay? Woe-ho, you’ll be needing supplies then. Have you supplies?” she asked.
“Not as yet,” Aliph said, squeezing Bett’s hand tighter. The steady stream of shared packets erupted into a flood of thousands.
“No resources for supplies. No money. The little chicks. The little dears. I can get you the money you need. Yes, old Mamby can.”
“We have sufficient resources,” Bett said.
“Yes, yes, yes. Your hair. Your lovely hair. Kept it nice for your supplies. Sell Mamby your hair and you can afford all you need.” She took a fistful of Aliph’s hair and began to run her fingers through it.
“No, you are mistaken,” Aliph said as he pushed the old woman’s arm away from Bett and extracted his sister. “We cannot cut our hair.” Both siblings were near panic. They leaned close to each other, arms and shoulders touching.
“Can’t cut his hair, he says. What silliness is this? Boy needs supplies. Boy and wife must have tools or nasty Golgotha will get them. Sell Mamby your hair and Golgotha can’t have you.”
“We will manage another way,” Aliph said.
“Please, leave us alone,” Bett added.
“Oh, my dearies, Mamby will leave you. You call Mamby when you learn. Mamby will come for you.” She gave them each an affectionate pat, then shuffled away, sliding a bit with each step.
“I do not like it here,” Aliph said, his grip on Bett’s hand barely relaxing.
“We have three days before Captain Valshorn departs. If we have made no progress in adjusting by then, we can leave with her,” Bett said.
Aliph glanced back toward the Whimper’s Revenge. This was the first real challenge of their resolve. What would they do if they gave up – run back to Aydan and hide in the ICA tower forever? “We can endure three days.”
There were few shops to browse through, and the siblings agreed that they did not want to find themselves out with nowhere to sleep after dark. Golgotha had one inn, a ramshackle building made of mud and re-purposed plastic rooms, called the Splintered Rail. The innkeeper was not friendly, but he didn’t try to touch them, or talk about cutting their hair. To Aliph and Bett, that made him much nicer than Mamby.
Soon, Aliph and Bett were eating supper in the kitchen. Each had a tureen of thick stew composed of tuber vegetables halfway to seed and tough animal meat. As they ate, the innkeeper warmed up, and started telling them stories about his days working as a ranch hand, driving herds across the dessert to Golgotha. The siblings listened attentively, determined to find, if not enlightenment, at least some charm, in the stories.
Then, as they finished their meal, the innkeeper grinned and went very quiet. Moments later a group of people wearing black masks and carrying pistols came into the kitchen.
“Mamby warned the dearies. Golgotha takes the rich outsiders, it does,” one of the figures said from behind her mask.
Rita got twitchy as the sun set. She was dressed as a Delhi Xiang matron-trader, and in character she’d never be off her ship after dark. But Mahkrim wasn’t back from tracking down Aliph and Bett yet. Soon she’d either have to sneak back to the Whimper and hope nobody caught her, or spend the night here, under a Kempari roof for the first time in a decade. Rita didn’t relish either possibility.
The whole shop creaked when Mahkrim unlocked the door and came in. “Slavers got them,” he said as closed the door.
“Already?” Rita said. The reports indicated that anybody dumb enough to try emigrating to Calvary was likely to wind up on the auction block. But they also said that anybody with means could vacation there for a few weeks without danger. Rita had never understood the urge to slum it through the back worlds, but apparently Calvary was a favorite spot for hard core voyeurs. As easily as Aliph and Bett had paid for their passage, Rita had expected them to make it long enough to come to their senses and get the hell off to somewhere else.
“There’s an auction in a four days and there’s been a backlash against foreigners the last few weeks. They were marked the minute they hit the main drag.”
Rita sighed. Delhi Xiang never dealt with human merchandise or she’d just go to the auction and buy them back. She’d have to change character, and she didn’t have the materials to play anybody who could buy slaves without looking strange or getting added to the block for trying. “Can you buy them? I’ll fund it, but…” she gestured at her clothes.
Mahkrim shook his head. “Nobody from Golgotha would buy them. It’s too easy for them to sneak onto a sympathetic trading ship and escape.”
Rita ground her teeth. She could still go back to the Whimper and make a run for a hole to hide in until this blew over. It was tempting, except those kids had saved her life and it felt wrong to leave them in trouble. And she wanted her ink gone. “Linda, you know the partition with my training you aren’t allowed to access?” Rita said.
“Want me to read it?” Linda asked.
“Please.” Then she turned to Mahkrim. “Send my companion-machine your inventory. She’ll match what we have with what I can do faster than we will.”
It took Linda ten minutes to suss out their best plan. “If the Kempari indexed their records properly you’d have had it faster,” Linda muttered at Rita.
“Their records are indexed for dumb machines, not AI. They don’t care if it slows you down. What’s the answer?” Rita asked.
“You’ve got the ink for an Atraxan healer. Mahkrim’s got a case of yisil. Calvary is almost friendly with Atraxus.”
“No,” Rita said.
“What’s the answer?” Mahkrim asked.
“Why do you have a case of yisil?” Rita said.
“Atraxans are popular here. You have Atraxan ink?”
“Healer clan,” Rita said.
“Perfect. We’ve never been caught posing with the Atraxans.” Mahkrim said.
“Not perfect,” Rita repeated. The reason they’d never been caught was because they didn’t do it. Atraxans were big believers in full body tattooing and it was almost impossible to deceive a native. Rita had taken the Atraxan ink just to prove she was eager for any assignment. “Linda, I’ll have to drink half the case to activate all of the ink. I’ll be drunk for days.”
“No you won’t. We’ll cook it. The alcohol will denature before the sugars that activate the ink do,” Mahkrim said. “You might want to go for a light buzz, just to dull your senses. It will still taste like yisil.”
Rita felt like she should keep protesting – this was a bad idea – but too much of her was excited by the chance. Only a half dozen Kempari had ever played an Atraxan, each time only because there wasn’t a better choice. Even now, when everybody knew the Kempari could fake native ink, they didn’t expect the fakery to be that detailed. This would be a fascinating challenge, exactly the kind of work she’d done before…and then she noticed the problems. “It still won’t work.”
Mahkrim raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “Yes?”
“Atraxans loathe the civilized worlds, and everybody on them. They’re taboo. It’s why they get along with Calvary.” And why an Atraxan healer would never buy Aliph and Bett. Even if the slavers cut their hair to hide the obvious telltale, they carried themselves like awkward, sheltered kids from a civilized family. There was no way to hide it, and no way to pretend she didn’t notice without blowing her credibility.
“We’ll figure out a way around that. If you’re healer clan, you’d probably offer services for payment, so they might choose your slaves for you.”
“That’s the other problem.” Rita scanned the list of Mahkrim’s store inventory and the Whimper‘s cargo just to be sure. “Atraxans only use virus cultures for their remedies. All we have are nanites.”
“The patient can’t tell the difference.”
“Not until their immune system rejects the nanites and they die of NRS.” Nanite Rejection Syndrome, likely the single most unpleasant way to die anywhere under the reign of the ICA. Places where nanite use was common had the ability to extract them before the NRS began and the patient would be fine. But back in the early days, and on the fringes where bad programming or crappy hardware were common, NRS followed any cure the nanites could bring. You’d live a few weeks, months if you were unlucky, but you’d be miserable, and then you’d be dead.
“Magritte, we need your passengers.”
They were doing it again. This time, Rita knew better than to listen. “No. The masters can rot behind that blockade for eternity. I am not an assassin”
“This is bigger than the masters,” Mahkrim said. “This is my home. These are my people. Any they will survive this. But somebody must take those children to Kempus. You’re here, and you have a ship with a weft-drive.”
Rita could feel her hands trembling. They shouldn’t do that. She was a matron from Delhi Xiang and would never show nervousness, never show fear, not in front of a customer. Still, her hands trembled and suddenly Rita could smell blood. She was twenty-three and staring at the grisly ending of her last assignment all over again.
Mahkrim’s hands were on her shoulders, deep-set brown eyes staring into hers. “No one will die. NRS takes weeks to develop from a normal does of nanites. Call the ICA on your way out of the system. They’ll take care of it.”
It wasn’t just her hands. Her hold body was trembling. She could see the body stretched across the sofa in his apartment. And at the same moment, she could see Aliph and Bett playing twins, just like her and Pavi.
That fast, Rita realized it; Mahkrim had played her. He’d known she was coming, and he knew she had Atraxan ink. That was why he conveniently had a case of yisil on hand. And he’d walked her through figuring it out so she’d be excited before she had to face the hard decision – was she willing to risk the lives of dozens of strangers, slavers, on the hope that the ICA would rescue them? It was a beautiful piece of manipulation. To Rita’s shame, it had worked. “You should burn in hell, Mahkrim Ibn Yula.”
It took two days for Aliph and Bett to reach the slaver’s camp with their captors. The camp was nestled at the base of a rocky hill in the desert outside Golgotha. Gray sand stretched in all directions and when the wind picked up, it pierced their clothing to sting their skin. The slavers wore thick clothes woven from tough, light fibers that repelled the heat during the day, kept them warm at night, and blocked the sand when the wind blew.
The group and its captives reached the camp early in the morning. The siblings watched the sky as the stars were swallowed by daylight, but said nothing even when a gust of wind rubbed their eyes with sand. They held hands, swapped packets, and endured.
“You’re the first back,” the camp leader said when he greeted the group. “The rest should be here by tomorrow night. Auction the day after.”
Then, since the siblings had arrived early, they had the honor of sitting next to the camp tents, tied to the same corral used to tether the camels, drinking from the same water trough. They’d been offered nothing more than a thin, cracker-like round of bread during their hike into the desert. They were offered nothing at all to nourish their wait for the slave auction. Still, they did not speak, not even to ask for food. Sunlight and air were enough to sustain them, but if they spoke, they might provoke something worse.
That night, well after the sun set, Aliph leaned close to his sister. Three days had passed since their arrival on Calvary. “Captain Valshorn will be leaving tonight.”
“We must adjust to the quiet,” Bett replied.
“I think they will keep us together,” Aliph said.
“Of course.” Neither of them believed that, but without a network to let them share thoughts as easily as empty packets, sharing a lie was the best they had.
Later that night another group of slavers arrived, bringing more slaves to trade. The new merchandise were tied to the corral with the camels as well. Aliph and Bett were the only foreigners in the crowd. The rest of the slaves were native to Calvary. Most of them were born as slaves, though a few were debtors or criminals. They were restless and frightened, fearful of being purchased by somebody cruel, more fearful of not being purchased at all, and they chattered through the night to soothe their nerves. True Calvarians, they shunned the foreigners, and nobody spoke to the silent siblings, hungry and huddled together at the end of the post.
The sun rose and more slavers arrived. The small camp swelled. New corrals for the camels and slaves were added, new tents went up. The auction block rose, the rocky hill protecting it from the wind and its doses of abrasive sand. The steady trickle of slavers continued throughout the day, dwindling only when the sun hung low in the sky.
Then, as the sun set, a vehicle appeared on the horizon, coming from the direction of Golgotha. Several of the slave traders noted its approach with curiosity, but they were not particularly concerned. Slavery was legal on Calvary so they had no reason to fear the authorities. One vehicle load of people could not hope to overpower the slavers and steal their merchandise.
It was full night and windy when the vehicle, an off-road truck with a colorful array of lights mounted on its roof, arrived at the edge of the camp. A slim, wiry woman covered in the black tattoos of an Atraxan healer emerged from the truck. The ink work started with swirl on the bridge of her nose that crawled down both sides of her face, merging into a dense maze at her neck and disappearing beneath the blue silk of the loose dress she wore. Her heavy boots had a thick heel on them and she had a lush fur cape thrown over her shoulders to ward off the chill of the desert night.
“Captain Valshorn is here,” Bett said to her brother.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Does anybody here have food and a tent for a healer?” the woman called with rich, deep tones that carried through the night air.
“Aye. Me!” a chorus of voices answered.
She laughed kindly in a cascade of notes that tumbled over each other and infected the crowd. Within half an hour the camp was in a giddy uproar around her, clamoring for her attention, celebrating the morrow’s prosperity and the night’s relief from the ailments of a deprived, desert life. The healer made her rounds, handing out salves for burned and chaffed skin, administering injections to control a variety of diseases.
“These are chemicals you’re giving us?” one of the first slavers to receive her treatment asked.
“Of course, love. Only a dolt deals with nanites. They’ll kill you fast as they cure you,” the woman said with a pretty grin and another infectious laugh.
The music started with a banjo. Before long it was accompanied by a brace of guitars, a concertina, several harmonicas and a pair of castanets. The dancing began shortly thereafter. The healer treated everybody with an ailment and when that was done she joined the dancing, stumbling over the native Calvarian steps at first but picking them up in short order. Along the way she dropped her cape, revealing long arms and a straight back covered in the dense curling lines. Around her spine the black lines were highlighted with a silver ink that sparkled in the firelight. Slavers watched the lines shimmer with amused awe, muttered about queer foreigners, and partied with more zest than they had in years.
Rita didn’t once look toward Aliph and Bett.
Customers began to arrive early the next morning. They found a groggy but cheerful camp reheating mush for breakfast and chuckling quietly over memories from the night before. Most of them knew individual traders well and joined their cook fires to share their meal. Others gathered for treatment from the healer.
Once the sun was high in the sky, the crowd moved to the auction block. The auctioneer, a stooped, grizzled slaver with skin worn thick and leathery by years in the desert, mounted the platform and called for the crowd’s attention. “Welcome all. Welcome. We have a good crop this year, both of merchandise and customers.” The crowd chuckled. “Our first order of business for the day: as most of us know by now, there’s an Atraxan healer in the camp. She has ministered to a great many of us, and has agreed to stay through the auction and continue her work. Does anybody object to paying for her services in merchandise?”
The crowd waited, shifting in the morning breeze, for somebody to speak. When nobody did, the healer, now wearing the long black robes of a desert traveler, inclined her head in a nod of gratitude.
“There you are, my dear. Survey the merchandise if you will and make your selection. Everybody who uses your services will be responsible for reimbursing the owner with whom you deal. In the mean time we’ll begin the auction with basic farm hands.”
A group of slaves chained together stepped onto the auction block while their owner listed their qualities for the crowd. The healer, and the merchants who thought they might have product that would interest her, left for the corral.
Children with baskets of flat bread moved through the corral, distributing a cracker to each slave so they might look fitter for the auction. The healer breezed past Aliph and Bett as she took a tour of the merchandise. “Have you any with nautical skills?” the healer asked the slender woman guiding her through the stable.
“River or ocean?” the slaver asked.
“River. I sometimes find it convenient to travel by river but have no such skills myself,” the healer replied.
“This way,” the slaver said, leading her away to the far side of the camp.
Aliph and Bett tried not to stare after her as she left.
The auction ran straight through the heat of the afternoon. As customers completed their purchases, acquiring all the labor they would need, they gathered their merchandise and tents and left. By the time Aliph and Bett were brought to the block, the camp had diminished greatly from its size that morning. The siblings clung to each other, clasping hands as they were dragged toward the platform.
“Look pretty for them, my dearies,” Mamby said as she led them up the block. “Fetch a good price for Mamby. Else Mamby cuts your hair, poppets. Mamby sells your hair, and your other parts, too.”
“Foreigners! Foreigners from the civilized planets,” the auctioneer announced. “Adequate for field work if you need it, but best for house slave work. Tutoring, homemaking. Keeping your beds lively,” the auctioneer dragged a finger down the side of Aliph’s cheek to make his point. “How much for the foreign dogs come to Calvary?”
Nobody in the crowd made an offer.
“Who will start the bidding at one bushel. Can I hear one bushel?”
“Sing them a song, darlings. Show them your wits,” Mamby said.
Aliph and Bett did not speak.
“Mamby will feed you to Golgotha.”
Under the hot afternoon sun of the Calvary desert, among the gray sands of the badlands outside Golgotha, Mamby lead the siblings down from the slavers’ auction block and chained them once more to the corral.
What remained of the camp that night partied with the Atraxan healer once more. Couseqal, the native whiskey made of distilled cactus, flowed freely, and they danced to the motley band until dawn kissed the horizon. Then slavers and healer alike returned to their camps to pack up and depart.
An hour later everyone gathered around the central fire pit again to witness an argument between the Atraxan healer and the slim slaver who’d paid her fee with three young men versed in the arts of river sailing.
“You assured me you could keep them safely for me to take this morning,” the healer said, her contralto voice carrying over the camp when she raised it with haughty anger.
“The deeds of ownership have already passed to you. They are your responsibility to keep,” the slaver shouted back.
“Yes, and isn’t that a clever scheme. Transfer ownership to me, then send them off during the night so you can sell them again and it’s my loss. I’ve never been treated this way,” the healer said.
The auctioneer ran to the pair, taking a position between them and reaching a hand out to each. “Calm now, darlings. We’ll work this out. We’ll make it okay. Did they escape, do we know?”
“There’s no sign of them. Somebody with the key to their chains released them, and carried the chains away. I don’t have a key to their chains,” the healer said. “Mark my words, the fates will turn against each of you who used me like this.” On Calvary and Atraxus both, failure to pay a healer for services rendered was a metaphysical taboo.
“Some merchandise yet remains. Come, we’ll let you select new payment.”
“I did not steal them back,” the slaver protested.
“We will investigate and determine our own accounting at a later time. We must ensure the healer is paid,” the auctioneer said. “Her cures may curse us if we do not pay her due.”
The auctioneer lead the Atraxan healer to the corral where a mere dozen slaves remained. Aliph and Bett were still chained to the end, the others lined up next to them. The healer surveyed the group with a scowl. “Half-wits, weaklings and foreigners,” she said.
“Foreign slaves suit foreign travelers,” Mamby rasped as she shambled over to the healer and auctioneer. “Look, the boy, he is strong, and the girl too. Well fed, always well fed. See the hair on the poppets. No cancer in them. No tumors. Mamby keeps them healthy.”
“Look at their hands. They’ve never worked. That hair is probably fake,” the healer said. Then she cocked her head at them, the swirling lines tattooed on her face shifting as she crinkled her nose. “They’re ill. There’s a green tint to their complexion.”
The auctioneer studied the pair too. “I see, yes. Perhaps the next ones then.”
They went down the line, but within moments the healer discovered damning flaws in each of the slaves. At the end of the line she was scowling at the auctioneer, her tattoos giving her exotic visage a demonic character. “If I took them all, it wouldn’t pay for what I lost in those I selected yesterday,” she said.
“You may have them all,” the auctioneer said. He, who in three days at the camp hadn’t shown the slightest discomfort in the heat of day or the chill of night, was soaked in sweat that dripped down the sides of his face in fat drops.
“And what will I do with twelve useless slaves save starve when I try to feed them?” She stomped her foot with impatience and she stalked up and down the line, glowering at the slaves.
A small crowd of slavers gathered nearby and they too began to grow nervous at the healer’s displeasure. Finally she stopped at the end of the line in front of Aliph and Bett.
“Where are you from?”
Neither of them spoke.
“Which of the civilized worlds are you from?”
“Aydan,” Bett said.
“Is your family rich?”
“No,” Bett said.
“Liar,” the healer said. Then she turned to the auctioneer. “I’ll take those two. With the money I make off their ransom, I can buy worthwhile slaves from somebody who won’t cross me.”
“Our next auction is in six months. Return then and we will give you first pick,” the auctioneer said.
“As if I’d waste my time with the Calvary slave auction a second time. Give them here. I’m leaving before you find a way to steal these away as well.”
Mamby unlocked the chains from the corral and pressed the lead into the healer’s hands. “You’ll get a fine ransom from the dearies, see if you don’t.” She pressed the keys to the shackles still binding the sibling into the healer’s hands. “When you get the fat payment for them, remember Mamby gave them to you. Remember Mamby, now.”
The healer grunted disdainfully, then marched off to her truck, dragging the chained siblings behind her. She threw them into the back of the truck, then climbed in and drove away.
As the healer’s truck faded into the desert toward Golgotha, the slavers in the camp glanced nervously at each other. “Did she lift her curse?” they muttered to each other, unsure of whether they’d met their obligations to her.
“We’ll know soon enough,” the auctioneer said.