Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Flesh, Blood and Hell

by DC Grondo


Slaves? Grumbling under his breath, Unct Breid wriggled his skinny body out of the hammock and went to the door of the hut. Offering the trader outside a glare, he spat, "Nobody buyin' slaves in Raxus or Veldt. I can't sell 'em to nobody. No! I don't even wanna look at 'em."

The stout old marne standing next to the rickety looking cart protested, "T'ese be human peoples -- like you. Make very goot slaves, yes."

Unct grew instantly nervous. Sure, he could sell humans to one of the work farms around Raxus, but trafficking in humans was a hanging offense if you got caught. "No!" he answered gruffly, "I deal in jade and rip weed, not slaves."

"Please suh," The marne wrung his spindly hands and begged, "I haff no way to feed them -- they haff eaten all de grain I carry."

Unct stared at the bird man silently. After a long moment, he barked, "How much?"

"I -- ah, tey are very well, you see..." The marne coughed. "I haff kept tem..."

"How much!"

"When you see tem, you will know tey are wort' goot money, suh. One t'ousand for each, I t'ink."

Unct let out a belly laugh and shouted, "You're crazy! One thousand! For slaves!" He laughed again.

"But tey are human -- Tey can do much goot work."

"Do you know what they'll do to you if the Rangers catch you? With human slaves!"

Two bulbous black eyes blinked. "I haff come from de mountains, not --"

Unct waved a hand out. "They will pull out your pretty blue feathers -one by one -- and spit you! It will take days for you to die. That's what they'll do!"

The marne's feathers ruffled in agitation. "Please! I am simple trader."

Laughing roughly, Unct shook his head. "It's a very painful death." He brushed by the bird man and moved toward the cart. On the other side of the makeshift wagon, he saw the line of five miserable looking slaves roped together. He wrinkled his nose at their stench and said, "They stink like hell! Don't you ever clean them? Prob'ly diseased like hell."

One of them, a woman with long stingy brownish hair, lifted her dirty face and scared green eyes looked at Unct, imploring him to help her. A couple of the men began jabbering in some forest tongue -Fazdz? -- and the whole group became stirred up. Unct stepped away.

"Nine hundred -- silver or gold, for each," the marne announced. "Tey are wort' much more --"

Unct moved around the white cart and studied it briefly. There was no empty grain sack, nor any evidence that there had ever been one. "What have you been feeding them?" he demanded suddenly.

"Oat grain!" The marne answered quickly. "And koola leaves t'at are to be found anywhere."

He was lying. The highland koola wouldn't be edible for weeks yet. "How many were there?" Unct asked pointedly.

"Oh --" The marne let out a faint laugh. "One or two haff tied on t'e way, yes. What would I do?"

Disgusted, Unct strode to the door of his hut. The marne had turned them into cannibals! He didn't want any part of this. "Get out!" he screamed, shaking his fist.

"No, suh-- -- I would not do t'is t'ing." the marne protested.

Unct grabbed his flex gun from its place near the door and turned back. He kept the long gray barrel pointed down, but he ordered gruffly, "You takes those things and get out of here. Now!"

The birdman's eyes popped out in surprise, "No, no --" He began waving his thin arms. "You haff to --"

The end of the gun swung up at the bird's midsection. The marne began chattering fearfully in its native language, "Annom pam! Mo, mom annom or --"

"Go." Unct poked at the trader's faded leather vest.

A clamor started near the cart again and the slaves began hooting and moving about. Ignoring this, the trader took a step away from the rifle prodding at his side and gnashed his small orange beak in silence. His face had paled to a light blue and the black eyes twitched with fright. A squeak of frustration popped out of him as he began to move away.

One of the humans yelled something and all the slaves began wailing plaintively. The woman called to Unct, "Please -- you cannot send us away with it!"

She was right. As the marne reached to his hip and raised a short whip, Unct touched the trigger on his rifle. A yellow splash of raw energy reached across space and the birdman was driven into the cart and his smoking body thudded on the ground. Unct shook his head with regret. He hated killing-- -- even under these circumstances.

After they got over their shock, the slaves uttered cries of thanks and jubilation. Unct studied them for a moment, then he raised his rifle toward them. The woman screamed the loudest as he pulled the trigger again. He had to fire three times before all of them were dead. After that, Unct went in his hut and chewed a half-stalk of rip weed before he could bury the bodies. He went back and cut the oomba beast away from the cart and started in.

It was nearly sunset when he was finished. Unct threw the shovel away and sagged onto the ground, burying his face in his hands. The woman had been the worst. Half her face had been crushed into red pulp. It was an awful sight. One he wouldn't forget soon.

A noise caught his attention and Unct scrambled up quickly. He started for the hut, but a deep voice ordered, "Don't move."

There were three of them coming down the hillside. Elkat hunters, by the look of their homemade leather clothes. The tallest one had a recognizable face, despite the brown beard. Unct said his name, "Pitch MacGregor."

"Eh?" The one with the deep voice moved in front. "You know 'im, Pitch?"

"Naw -- not so's I remember," Macgregor replied easily. "Who are you?"

"Unct Breid. This here's my own homestead."

The third man scowled and said, "Got papers on it, do ya? Not sure how much that matters to us." A dark laugh burst from him. "You men seen any rangers hereabouts?"

The other two laughed along with their companion. Then Macgregor said, "I do know who he is, Raines. I know the name. Friends with that fishing village down river."

"That true?" The man with the deep voice pointed a black handgun at Unct.

Unct nodded. "I go there sometimes. Pap and his sons know me."

"W'al." Raines lowered the gun slightly. "You're in luck, then. Pap an' I go back a ways."

The third man grew angry. "What does that mean! You gonna-!"

Raines growled, "Ah'm the one says what's what, Clairne! You'd do well to remember that."

The third man -Clairne -- wanted to say something back, but he didn't. The look on his face was obvious though. He wanted to kill Raines.

Raines turned back to Unct. "That don't mean we won't appreciate your hospitality."

"All right," Unct said, "I'll fix you carrots an' pork fries fer supper -- it's all I got." He moved to the hearth in front of the hut.

Macgregor was staring at the ground by the cart. "What's all this blood?"

Unct was crouched next to the hearth and he looked up. "Was trouble." A stick prodded into the coals and stirred up a small flame.

"What sort." Raines stuck his gun in his belt and went next to Macgregor. "Somebody's dead, looks like."

Clairne stalked down the hill and studied the ground. He pointed a handgun at Unct. "Who's dead?"

"A marne. And the slaves he brought down the mountain."

Raines demanded, "What happened here?"

"They was cannibals," Unct explained, "Had to do it."

"Goddamn!" Macgregor exclaimed. "How many was there?"

"Humans?" Raines was perplexed. "He had human slaves?"

"Four men and one woman."

Macgregor burst out, "I'll be goddamned!"

"You killed a woman?" Clairne didn't believe it.

"Dig 'em up, if you want. Shovel's over there somewhere."

"Cannibals." Raines let out a deep breath.

"You killed a damned woman!" Clairne was nearly screaming. "You fool!"

Macgregor laughed. "Bet he killed her last."

"I ain't had a woman fer a month." Clairne declared angrily. "You damned fool!"

Raines put in, "Are you listening? She was a cannibal."

"I don't care!" Suddenly Clairne fired his gun and a section of thatched roof flew away from the hut.

Unct had had enough. "Spaceforce would come down here and execute us all if they knew what was buried o'er there. And they wouldn't bother askin' questions about who was responsible!"

"'E's right," Raines growled. "We might get a trial if they thought we was runnin' slaves, but anybody that trucks in cannibals --" He sliced a finger across his neck. "It's the spit!"

"Ranger's 'd do the same," Macgregor added.

Clairne declared, "Don't care! They ain't here!" He leveled his gun toward Unct. "An' I say we put this one in the ground and take whatever he's got."

Raines pulled up his handgun and pointed it at Clairne. "Go ahead." His meaning was unmistakable.

"You takin' his side?" Clairne's weapon began to shift towards Raines.

Raines fired and the slug bit into Clairne's vest with an ugly thwack. Clairne stumbled and fell, gasping. Raines fired again and the man on the ground lay still.

"Wasn't no choice in it," Raines grumbled. He stuffed the gun back under his belt with a frown.

Unct went into the hut and brought out a misshapen iron pot. He splashed water from an urn into it and dumpd in the carrots. Hanging the pot over the fire, he told Raines, "Thanks."

"Wasn't no choice," Raines said again.

Macgregor was down on his knees searching through Clairnes pockets, taking his gold and ammunition. Raines walked over and claimed the discarded handgun. "When you're through," he ordered, "Drag 'im into that gully."

After supper was cooked and they sat around the hearth, picking over the sparse fare, Raines asked Unct, "You seen other marne hereabouts?"

"Not fer awhile."

"Rangers came through Veldt, I heard tell. Claimed the marne was raidin' the hill settlements. They wanted at raise an army at help Spaceforce fight 'em. Can you imagine!"

Macgregor laughed loudly.

Unct thought for a minute, then said, "I don't see why the planetary rangers would be helping' Spaceforce do anything."

"There's that," Raines agreed. "Hell, Spaceforce is why things here on Trevor is bad anyhow. They started it all, with that damned treaty."

"That's right. But --" Unct hesitated. "Them slaves came from somewhere. Maybe..."

Macgregor tossed his empty plate near the fire. "You sayin' you'd help Spaceforce?"

Ucnt snapped, "I'm sayin' I'd protect this planet from the marne. Trevor's my home."

A stick cracked in the darkness of the hill and they all froze. Raines and Macgregor pulled out their guns and Unct called, "Who's there!"

"Name's Steph Pintar," a deep voice boomed back. "A friend."

"Who's friend?" Raines cocked his gun.

A tall man dressed in black leather stepped out of the shadows. One of his gloved hands was holding a huge pistol. "I don't mean you no trouble. But I can give as good as I get."

"What do you want?" Unct asked.

Pintar moved toward the fire, saying, "Been following a marne slaver out of the hills. That's his wagon."

"I killed the bastard."

Pintar paused. Then he lowered his gun. "I guess you done me a favor then."

"'E's a goddamned ranger," Macgregor exploded, aiming his gun at Pintar's midsection.

"I don't want trouble with any o' you!"

"Thet right?" Raines stared at the newcomer. "You a ranger?"

Pintar nodded. "Out of Veldt. The marne have made themselves into an army and they're marching toward the river towns. We mean to stop them."

"The rangers and Spaceforce!?" Macgregor accused.

Pintar gave Macgregor a glare. "Don't care much who does the killin'. That bird army has to be stopped."

Raines said, "Spaceforce ain't allowed on Trevor no more."

"The Council in Prairietown let 'em land a division a week ago."

Unct grew angry. "We don't need them bastards here on Trevor! Planet's been fine fer ten years without Spaceforce stickin' their noses in our business."

"Fact is -- we need 'em. The marne have busted the treaty and they'll wipe us off the planet with that army of theirs. They've smuggled down heavy weapons and there's o'er forty thousand of 'em on the march, comin' this way."

"Forty thousand!" Raines blurted.

Unct was skeptical. "Then what the hell are you doin' trailin' a slaver?"

Pintar glanced at Macgregor, who still had a gun trained on the ranger. Then he eased down next to the fire. "We need information. Figured him or them slaves could provide some."

"Sounds like you know everything you need already," Unct replied tersely.

"Don't know if they're all together or split up. We think the hill towns are gone already, but thinkin' ain't knowin'"

"So what good's a division gonna be against an army that big?" Raines asked.

Pintar chuckled. "Not much, by themselves. We're trying to raise volunteers. Men like you that are willin' to fight."

"The hell!" Macgregor reacted strongly to that. "Ain't none of us want anything to do with Spaceforce!"

Unct added, "They shoulda wiped them damned bird men off this planet ten years ago when we had the chance!"

Pintar stared for a moment. "My own father was killed at the battle for Veldt. You think I was happy when the treaty was made with the marne? Hell no, I wasn't."

Raines said, "Mebbe we ought to think about this." He looked at Unct. "It's a chance to make things right on this planet."

Unct laughed. "I want no part o' this, Raines. The marne come here and I'll kill as many of 'em as I can before they get me." He pointed at Pintar. "But I want nothing' to do with the rangers or Spaceforce."

Macgregor agreed, "I'll fight." His pockmarked face screwed up with distaste. "But not with them!"

"We've got no real weapons on Trevor." Raines spit into the fire. "Guns and bows against artillery. We got no chance alone."

"Listen to him," Pintar urged.

Unct pushed himself up and went into the hut. He came out holding his rifle. "No man lives forever. But I can sure as hell choose who I die with. You get off my land, ranger. Now."

Pintar stood up. He said to Raines, "They're meeting at Raxus in two days." He nodded to all of them. "Good luck." Then he moved out of the camp.

They didn't say much for the rest of the night. Unct went into his hut and Raines and Macgregor slept next to the fire. In the morning when Unct got up, Raines was gone.

Macgregor wanted to go to Lake City and try and get off the planet. "Ain't no use in us getting killed," he said. "We can escape. I have friends at the space port that'll help us."

"This is my home." Unct wasn't going anywhere.

"I ain't no damned farmer. Hell, we's criminals, Unct Breid. What the hell you want at die here for?"

"You can run. And luck to ya. But I ain't goin'"

Macgregor studied Unct's face. "Good luck," was all he said. And then he left.

It was nearly mid morning when Unct saw the dark shadow top the distant hills. It slid down the slopes like oil. Awhile later, he heard the noise of vehicles and saw dust clouds gathered over the slow moving mass. Sitting atop the hearth, he chewed rip weed and pondered how long it would take the bird army to get to the homestead.

By nightfall the marne were close. They camped on the hills south and west of Unct's homestead and he realized that they probably didn't even know he was there. It made him laugh. Here he was getting all excited and they would probably march right by without bothering him at all.

He found a hare in one of his traps that evening. Unwilling to draw attention to himself, Unct decided against a fire and ate a cold supper of raw meat and wild onions. Then he sat in the door of his hut with his rifle on his knees and a handgun hung around his neck by a cord. An hour after sundown, who should show back up but Raines.

"Can I come down?" Raines hesitated to approach and waited on the hill.

Unct smiled. "Glad fer the company. What happened to you?"

"I went to Pap's. Him an' his boys -- they ain't budgin', like you. Traded what little I had fer more bullets. And this." As Raines approached, he pulled a small brown bottle out of his pocket.

"They ain't bothered me none yet," Unct said. "Don't know that they will."

Raines shook his head slowly. "Be something' if we was to see 'em march right by without havin' to fight." He took the cork stopper out of the bottle and took a gulp. "Ah! Here."

Accepting the bottle, Unct took a swig of the homemade liquor. It was strong stuff and he found himself gasping for breath. "Paps can make magic outa wheat."

"Sure enough." Raines sat outside the hut. He looked at Unct's flex rifle. "Where'd you get a thing like that, anyhow?"

Unct grinned. "Had a run in with a spaceman in Veldt a couple of years back. When we was done he didn't have much use fer it."

Raines held up two pistols. "All I got is these. But I got enough bullets to start some trouble. We'll give 'em hell if they come lookin'!"

"Feathers'll fly."

They both laughed. After a minute, Unct remarked, "Didn't think I'd see you again."

"Figured at go to Raxus an' join up," Raines admitted. "But then I got to rememberin' that warrant they got fer me killin' a farmer down that way. Been more'n a year, but they won't forget."

"Prob'ly not."

"You 'et? I got some dried fish."

"Had supper, thanks."

Unct had handed the bottle back. Raines took a drink and offered it again. Unct took a small sip. "Tha's good," he said in a whisper.

Raines took the bottle and stoppered it. "Yep."

"You think they got much chance? That division and them?" Unct reflected.

"Mebbe not. What did that ranger say? Forty thousand marne?"

Unct became thoughtful. "Vedlt, Raxus -- all them people down there."

"What're you saying?"

"Nuthin'."

They remained silent awhile and then Raines said, "We ain't like them, you know."

"I know."

"They'll fight. Hell, a whole Spaceforce division. And rangers! Them people in the river towns will whip the marne easy."

"Y'know Raines, I wish it were true."

"Yeah."

"Fact is, we might be the only ones left on Trevor when this is over."

"What the hell you sayin'?"

Unct looked at the stars overhead. "You believe the stories? That people left Earth centuries ago because plagues were killing the planet?"

"I guess so." Raines opened the bottle again and took a drink. When he offered it Unct shook his head no.

"What they say happened on New Earth, and places like Zeece and Mans Planet..."

"You think it's the marne's fault? They were out here a long time before we was in space."

"But they're killin' us."

"It's Spaceforce. They don't want to stop fightin' the marne, not really."

"I know. But..."

"I thought you... This's your place, Unct. Right here."

Unct locked eyes with Raines. "I don' mind dyin'. But it ain't right, just..."

Raines became angry. "What the hell do you want?"

Unct took a deep breath and exhaled. "I can't just stand by and watch this."

Shaking his head, Raines asked wryly, "You want to go join 'em? Now?"

"No. I hate them Spaceforce bastards. Not that."

"What then?"

Unct rubbed his eyes. He groaned softly and stood. "Mebbe you oughta go back to Pap's."

"You crazy? What are you thinkin'?"

Unct began walking away, toward the darkness and the enemy army hidden inside it.

Raines got up, swearing to himself. "You gonna take on that army all by yourself?"

Unct barked a sharp laugh and said, "Yep."

Raines began following. "Like hell you are!"

Together, they moved into the darkness. Raines shoved one gun into his belt. His voice was a harsh, ugly sound, "Let's show 'em some hell, Unct Breid!"

"Yep."

As they walked, Unct remembered something he'd heard long ago, something his Papa had read to him as a child, 'And lo, though I walk into the valley of the shadow of death...'

THE END


© 2008 DC Grondo

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