Living In Hope

© Kathy Dickinson

"SEND IN THE NEXT BATCH! Weed out the weak ones! The Almighty wants to move this lot!" the slave controller, named Slatter, shouted to another. "Bargon! These places stink," he muttered as he eyed up the shabby bunch of slaves, searching for any that looked less than a good buy - he'd space them later. They were herded into an enclosure. "Stand straight, look reasonable! Prove you're worth more than fertilizer!" Slatter looked over to Ham who was hauling a slave out of the crowd; that made five rejects. "How are we expected to make profits when half of them expire! What's wrong with that one?"

"Too small," Ham replied. He was wearing the brown overalls worn by slavers when dealing with stock. It made him feel more protected from the vermin they were supposed to be. Ironically, since the slaves had shaved heads and got hosed down daily, he was actually dirtier than they were.

Five was too much and Slatter decided to take a look for himself. "He might be small but he's strong - throw him back." He scrutinised the others. "Hmm, I suppose so. You can't trust anybody these days, they always try to slip in duff ones."

Slave DB115 was picked up bodily by Ham and thrown into the pen, just to prove his point. Being young and used to this sort of treatment, DB115 rolled well when he landed and came to no harm, pleasing Slatter.

Slave pits were unpleasant places where traders came to strike a good bargain. Hospitality lounges were provided overlooking the scene of dirt and degradation, and bids were made on a console. They felt good to be putting the galaxy's criminals and no-goods to honest work and doing a service to mankind. Those who knew where most of them came from didn't feel at all.

Phildop IV sipped at his drink and surveyed lot four containing DB115. "This bunch seems to be OK," he thought. "I'll take the best and sell the rest on the black market." The fake zublic jewels on his forehead itched annoyingly as he keyed in his bid.

DB115 had been shipped about with this gang for the last two stops which was considered a long time. You rarely saw people for long; they either died for one reason or another or were sold off as single slaves, a fate that could mean relative freedom or utter hell.

Rumour had it that slaves were spaced if they were thought to be of inferior quality. A man told him that he had seen a cluster of slaves floating in space, naked (uniforms were reused) but recognisable by the code tattooed on their arms.

As he looked at the group, DB115 noticed a larger boy weeping. "Don't do that, not here anyway. It doesn't look good to them, they'll space you." DM134 looked up, surprised at another person seeming to care.

"It's my arm, it hurts." The laser-seared flesh was still blistered and there was that faint characteristic smell. It was of course the code that had been marked on this new slave. DB115 squeezed his shoulder in encouragement. DM 134 blurted, "I'm not meant to be here, they took me away. Our homestead on Camp Hooper was attacked by a gang; they sounded like they were from the Empire. My family were taken or killed. They said we were criminals and now I'm here." He looked about him at the metal pens illuminated by the red lights used to make the pallid slaves look more healthy. Most of these people did not look the hardened criminals the worlds were lead to believe they were. The ownership of his home planet had been in dispute between the Empire and Federation after a mineral was found in its barren, uninteresting crust. Petty, unofficial hostilities between the two sides had occurred intermittently ever since.

He could hear the faint music coming from the lounges used to encourage the traders to relax and buy. Displays above each pen flickered as bids were made and bettered. DM134 felt his life had ended, and stared blankly.

DB115 had seen this look of hopelessness before. He had felt the same and still did from time to time. Those who got through it somehow found hope. hope that one day they would be free or, failing that, would find a master with a heart. "My name's Kharon," said DBIl5. "What's yours?"

"Welpin."

They shook hands, feeling the warmth of a bond.

Kharon remembered the day he was taken from his home, under different circumstances to Welpin. Those who presided over his loss of freedom were the Fathers of the Pure Soul, a religious sect that ruled his community. Being only ten then, Kharon had not fully understood what was happening when he and his family were summoned to the high temple. The priest said his father had avoided Observance, so the family must be punished. What followed was an hour of prayers and laments, only a few of which he understood as he had only reached the fifth level of schooling. Soon it would be finished and they could all go home, his thoughts ran. A column of blue-robed holy men emerged from the sacred room and gave an address. They spoke of sin and terrible deeds, using far too many words to say a simple thing, Kharon thought. As he counted the carved heads on the ceiling. the words "only son" and "taken" drifted into his consciousness, so he listened more attentively, only to hear a final eulogy to their God. Two holy men took him by the arms and his mother screamed. He turned his head and could only see his sister Alista's panic stricken face - that was the last he saw any of them.

The gong to declare end of business shook Kharon's memory out of his head; now it was time to meet the new master. They were pointed at gate seven and the group shuffled off through the fumigation tunnel from which they emerged coughing. One bleak corridor after another ended when they came to a ramp up to the cargo hold of a large pirate galleon, where the group was told to assemble in an orderly fashion. Usually a slavemaster would outline the rules, and, of course, the punishments, before the new stock was taken to the hold. The crew stood to attention as a door slid open for a bulky man, walking in obvious discomfort due to some ill-fitting shoes. He was dressed in a metallic blue tunic and trousers that were designed for a diminutive frame. A matching cap sat at an angle on a balding head, no doubt intended to look jaunty but instead looking comical. All the crew members present were able to stifle giggles; those who hadn't in the past had found their careers or lives at an end. Phildop IV swaggered along the line of dishevelled individuals, came to rest at Kharon and bent over so that their noses nearly touched, a cloying scent pervading his nostrils. "Your name?"

"Khar… er… DB115 sir."

"How do I look?" said the pirate leader, his brow furrowed with the frustration that one gets when an itch cannot be scratched in public.

Kharon being totally bemused by the spectacle said the first thing that came into his mind. "Very blue, sir."

The pirate leader's eyebrows moved up an inch, and Kharon could see that the zublic jewel fakes were irritating beyond endurance. Unable to help himself, he instinctively reached out and scratched, and by the time he realised what he was doing it was too late. Trying to redeem the situation Kharon said weakly, "A bit of dust sir… sorry."

The eyebrows seemed to rove around the forehead before coming to rest over bulging eyes, then the face which had filled the entire field of view moved away, and the mouth which was too close to be visible could now be seen, smiling.

"Take this one! And don't use that," he said, motioning at the guard's magnetic slave prod. Again Kharon felt a feeling of loss as he turned and waved to his new friend, Welpin, and was marched away, unable to say goodbye properly.

The tiny room was empty except for a bed and a table - real luxury. Unaccustomed to the cleanliness Kharon touched the walls and floor and inhaled the clean air deeply. A cupboard door provided the only other feature, and inside were two huge. blue body suits. The guard had said that this was the room of the personal slave and that the suit had to be worn after the wash. A loud buzzing was followed by an electronic voice saying, "Standby for hygiene cycle," then suddenly water rained down from above and squirted from the sides. It smelled like rose flowers. Still amazed, he stood in his soaking clothes as the voice advised him to put on his garment. He hurriedly removed them and took one of the suits which was ice cold and put it on with sharp intakes of breath as the chilled material touched his body. No sooner had he done this than the fabric started to shrink as the moisture and body heat activated it. Thankfully it stopped before it became uncomfortable but Kharon's face still looked horrified as the guard stood at the open door laughing.

They walked through a labyrinth of passages, of a hue that was fast becoming familiar, until they arrived at a door heavily decorated with carvings. The mechanism whined painfully, shifting a weight exceeding its specification, as it pulled the door aside to reveal a room quite extraordinary in its range of that colour between green and purple in the spectrum. The smell of roses was almost overpowering. Phildop IV sat in a grotesquely ornate chair and shouted, with a wave of his arms, "Come here! Discretion… discretion, that is your strength. That is why you are to be my personal servant, and I shall call you… umm," his eyes searched the ceiling for inspiration, "…Slave!"

Kharon spent the rest of the day learning about his duties which included tasting food, preparing cocktails, and making decisions such as which shade should be worn on a particular day. He was given a device to be worn at all times with which his master could hail him and trace his whereabouts. To Kharon's surprise he was given the freedom of the entire ship except the control centre, but the first two days were spent constantly with the chief clerk on probation. He was to find his position as personal slave a lonely occupation for he was not accepted by the general servants or the guards, nor did he belong with those he served.

As soon as he was independent, Kharon located the slave quarters with a sense of urgency. Was his friend still there? They could all have been sold by now, although he had noticed that the ship had not stopped anywhere. The slave keeper looked him up and down, and Kharon summoned up his most commanding voice and said. "Stand aside, I must inspect the slaves!" It was not his high pitched-voice that made the guard stand aside, it was rank, but Kharon assumed the former case, feeling the first flood of well-being since he had left home. Relief flooded through him, as they were still there, and he ran with his heart pounding. The slaves looked up in surprise and then recognition and came to the edge of the containment field through which he was able to walk unhurt once he had placed his hand on a panel. Kharon slipped them the sweets he had smuggled in and looked for Welpin. "He's not here lad," whispered a voice belonging to a man he had known for three stops. "He went berserk so they'd kill him, which they did." The group stood silent and unmoving. "He gave me this before he did it, asking that you give it to any of his family if you come across them." It was a jewel-encrusted candack, an ornamental dagger. "Welpin managed to hide it, I don't know how. Good luck, son."

Jewel-encrusted candack

Kharon turned and left, the loneliness a pain that felt like a gaping hole.

Over the months that passed Kharon went about his duties, trying to forget the past as this was his life now. Phildop IV was pleased with his new attendant who had a particular talent for anticipating his moods and needs. The pirate chief was a reasonable, if stupid man, who thought he ought to act like pirate chiefs do. He didn't like what he did and usually told himself that it was his unhappy childhood that made him rob others, and they were just as bad as he was so it didn't matter. As he came to trust Kharon more, Phildop IV confided in him and took him to meetings to take notes by hand - electronic means were far too easily probed. After making a deal on Altair they were walking along a promenade in a tourist complex, Kharon the obligatory four steps behind. Two individuals confronted them, both looked rough but smartly dressed. "Hey, you fat blue blather bug with his toy."

Phildop IV disliked lack of respect of himself intensely and bristled, "Don't you insult -" While engaged in mustering his retaliation they struck, one man grabbing his head in an arm-lock. The other brandished an evil looking blade and aimed it at the blue belly. "Run, slave, while you can! We'll give this slug what's been coming to him!"

Kharon looked around for help but the place was deserted; nobody liked to be involved in the frequent skirmishes that occurred here. Many thoughts shot through his mind. What would he do if his master died? Maybe he liked him after all? He tried to imagine what real freedom would be like. He could hear the pathetic whimpering of Phildop IV. Kharon thought of Welpin and the candack.

"No! Leave him alone!" he shouted, and leapt at the man holding his master who still had his back to him. He plunged the jewelled spike into the back of his neck. The man's eyes widened in surprise then he stiffened and collapsed twitching. The other, suddenly feeling very alone and shocked, ran off, leaving Kharon and Phildop IV to make a hasty departure.

"Well done, slave! You got in there before I did. I was just luring them into a false sense of complacency." Feeling magnanimous he went on trying to converse with a lower class, "What's your real name?"

"Kharon Marlbron, Sir."

"Well… er, Kharon, did you learn that little trick during your life of crime?"

"No, that's how they used to do the sacrifices at home."

"Oh." His imagination conjured up images of horror and depravity. "So, what hideous deed brought you into slavery?"

"My Father stayed away from Observance for one day to sit with my dying brother."

Phildop IV's face fell, then he recovered it as he convinced himself that the criminal was lying.

"How can I reward you? Apart from freedom," he said to change the subject that his instinct told him was probably true.

"Could you find out if my family is still alive and tell them I'm safe?"

This was too much for Phildop IV who did not like his conscience to get too much exercise. "I'll see, now go about your duties!' he said in agitation, all signs of friendship gone.

A week later news came back that the community had been destroyed by an earthquake a year ago with all known occupants presumed dead.

Kharon felt he could bare no more pain and thought that maybe Welpin had had the right idea. Phildop IV had been more distant in his approach since the day he realised that Kharon was an ordinary boy taken from his parents. He frequently scolded and found petty faults but rewarded generously and granted favours such as shore leave. Slave quarters were made more comfortable and the slaves' food was improved, and that seemed to be how Phildop IV, masterful and illustrious pirate leader, coped with his knowledge.

A year passed and Kharon had become one of the highest ranking people onboard the ship, and long gone was the basic room for his quarters. Life was relatively easy now with his own staff to see to menial tasks; however he was not free. He thought that he should be grateful for the outcome and wondered what had become of all the slaves he had ever met. Kharon felt empty and without direction, and disliked working for a potentially honourable but hopelessly weak man, who was obsessed with his own image. How long was it since he had talked to somebody as a friend, an equal? He could not remember. Running away on shore leave was not an option as there was nowhere to go and he would be found easily. Something always stopped Kharon whenever he decided to end it all. He would stand in the air-lock hand on button, but never got as far as pressing it. The guttering fire of hope seemed to find a way to flicker back to life.

Phildop IV eyed his personal slave who was checking the stock market for potential bargains, the glow from the screen making the frowning face seem ghostly. The master, who was now experimenting with red, walked over and said casually. "I got an offer for you today."

Kharon looked up, surprised. "You mean, I've been advertised?"

"No, apart from singing your praises at this meeting or that. I don't suppose you want to go do you? Not that I would allow it." A glazed look came over his face and the corner of his mouth twitched. "They did offer an extraordinarily high price though."

"I might do," said Kharon, bluffing.

"Oh, I see." All of a sudden Phildop IV was faced with a dilemma. Should he be angry that the ungrateful young man would consider leaving him? Could he find another as good? The money, oh the money. "Right! I'll see to the transaction."

Kharon was stunned. A moment ago he was despairing but secure; now he was about to become the property of an unknown and possibly tyrannical pirate. He felt sick.

"Who is it?" he said weakly.

"Oh, umm…" Phildop IV pored over the document, "…Alista Marlbron."

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