Sorn – short story about slavery


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Sorn

A short story about slavery

By Kalin Ringkvist

Many years ago, when the days seemed almost cool, I lived in a small town on the edge of the northern province. People always told me that I loved the heat, that I was a perfect Sorn baby. Truth is I lived out there because of the price. To own a home and drive a car cost money back then, so naturally, a house to the south cost much less. At that time, The End could not be seen so clearly, and many people even denied the fact that it approached. I was one of those people, I have to admit.

My story begins at a corner soup shop, where I met Celesti. I had been scouring the streets looking for some food that I could actually afford, and had wandered in here, very nearly my last hope. When I looked up at the menu I saw that a half-liter of soup would cost me only thirty dollars. Nowadays a person can’t find flavored water for less than six thousand credits per liter. The prices weren’t quite that high back at that time, but still, I could not allow this deal to slip through my fingers.

Sitting on a stool, I slapped my hand on the bar. A moment later a short, greasy haired kid came and stood before me, staring at me with a hostile frown.

“What’s the soup of the day, sir?” I asked.

“We’ve got soup. Thirty credits per half-liter,” he replied.

“Yes, I know that but what’s in it?”

“Do you want some or not?”

“Yeah, give me a half liter.” I was ready to eat about anything.

He walked toward the back, silently. In the few moments of his absence, I noticed a dark haired woman sitting to my left. She hunched closer to her bowl of soup as she noticed my attention, apparently afraid I would try to make a grab at it. I had to laugh at her protectiveness.

The waiter came back carrying my bowl. “You got money?” he said, holding the soup far out of reach. The blinking light on the tracking device around his left wrist caught my attention. The mark of a slave. Strange to see one trusted enough to work with food. I could see his ribs through his shirt.

I nodded and pulled out my bank terminal, placed it into the slot in the counter and transferred the thirty credits. He waited until the transaction had cleared before handing over the bowl.

It didn’t taste bad. Not by a long shot. But it didn’t taste like anything a I had had before. There was an abundance of meat, which was surprising for the price. A strange, chewy, sort of meat without much flavor of its own. After eating for half a minute, I picked up a piece of this meat and examined it for a moment.

“Don’t stare at it too long,” the woman next to me said. “You might figure out what it is.”

I stared for another moment, then put the piece in my mouth. “Some kind of mystery meat, I guess,” I said before swallowing. But before I even completed my sentence, I realized what it was. “Oh, yeah,” I said, and swallowed. I recalled voting on a proposition several months earlier to legalize cannibalism. I had voted no; but mine was not the popular vote. There were people out there who were hungrier than I.

Looking back down at my meal, I felt the reluctance to take the next bite. As I sat, trying to convince myself to continue eating, the woman next to me slapped her hand on the table and said, “Another helping, please.” I glanced at her when the waiter brought it to her. She wrapped her arm around the soup and turned her back to me.

“Do you eat here often,” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You aren’t speaking to me?”

When she still did not reply, I turned back to my meal and began eating again. It didn’t taste any worse than it had before.

“I don’t know you,” said the woman. “I don’t trust you. I shouldn’t be talking to you while I’m eating.”

“Can we talk after you’re finished?” I asked.

“Mmmm,” she mumbled, and fell silent.

At about the same time that I finished my meal, she did something that at the time I found very strange. She stopped eating, about half way through her bowl of soup, and pushed it toward the young waiter. He looked at her, his mouth hanging partly open in a surprised and questioning stare. She nodded and he picked up the bowl and swallowed the contents in two great gulps and proceeded to lick it clean.

I opened my mouth to express my surprise at the fact that she had thrown away a perfectly good meal, but after watching the kid devour it and imagining how hungry he must have been, I began to realize why she had done it.

The woman looked at me for several seconds then said, “I’m finished.”

“Yes,” I said. “I noticed. That was quite a gesture.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Maynin.”

“I take it you’ve never eaten human flesh before, Maynin.”

“I’ve never had the pleasure before today,” I replied.

“What did you think?”

“I wish I would have known before I bought the stuff.”

“Would you still have tried it?”

“No,” I said.

“I think you would have,” she replied definitely. “You would have wandered around a little longer and realized that this is the best price you can possibly find. You would have come back.”

“You think so?” And I pondered the idea for a while. It hadn’t tasted too awful. I expected that I’d be eating it again sometime, whether I liked it or not. Maybe she was right.

“Why did you want to talk to me so badly?” she asked.

“You look like an interesting person to talk to. Now that I have a full stomach, I can think about other things.”

“I see,” she said. “Well then, lets leave this place and talk somewhere that doesn’t have quite such an awful smell.”

She stood up and I followed. I took a deep breath after we had exited the little shop, and realized that there had been quite a strong, burning meat smell to the place.

“Were you appalled that I gave the boy half of my soup?” she asked.

“A little surprised,” I replied. “From the way you protected it from me I thought you were the type who couldn’t afford to give up a meal.”

“Do you think that kid was less in need than me?”

“No.”

“How do you feel about one human owning another?” she asked me.

This was a subject that I had always had mixed feelings about. “Well, a person can argue either way,” I replied. “Many claim that slavery is economically necessary, but I don’t think I agree. I don’t have all the information, but I guess it should be abolished.”

“You guess so,” and she gave me the angry and frustrated look that people give when someone refuses to agree with their cause. Then she smiled.

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said.

“I’m Celesti.” She began walking slowly away from the soup shop and I followed. “What do you do, Maynin?” she asked.

“I’m an administrator at the water recycling plant. And you?”

“I help run an abolitionist group. Our only goal is to ban the slavery of non-criminals.”

“Must mean a lot to you,” I said. Violence against abolitionists was growing and she surprised me by telling me about it up front. I figured she would be more cautious with someone she didn’t know. “Do they pay you for that?” I asked.

“A little. Enough to keep me going,” she replied. “Not that it matters. This world isn’t going to hold together much longer anyway.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well look at the hunger everyone’s facing. Even the fairly rich–like you. People are starving and there is no way to feed them. This planet was not meant for humans.”

“First off,” I said, “I wouldn’t consider myself rich by any means. And second, this hunger wave is simply a temporary crop depreciation. Things will get better.”

She looked at me with a minuscule frown. “Do you truly believe that?”

“Yes,” I said and meant it.

“Then I think I envy you.” And she turned away from me. “It gets hotter every year, Maynin. Less food, too. Many people think the planet is doomed. The terraforming failed.”

“And do you believe that?”

“I do. I wish I didn’t.” She turned a corner and I stopped. She waved. “I will see you later.”

As I turned away, I laughed and thought, It’ll take more than one person’s opinion to convince me the world is coming to an end.

______      ______      ______

Sorn is a desert world, much larger than Earth. The most notable factor is the heat. The planet revolves in a close orbit to our single sun. Ninety-nine percent of the world is unfit for human habitation and always has been. Only two clusters of humans live here: one at the north pole, one at the south. I live in the north.

The first colony set foot two hundred years ago (these are Sorn years, which are shorter than Earth years). Since it was a desert planet they concentrated on building advanced water conservation systems. Today we have more water than we know what to do with on a world without a single river or lake and we have the original colonists to thank. However, they didn’t consider the problem of soil nutrients, and now almost nothing can grow on this world. Despite such careful planning we’ve wasted our resources.

Twenty years ago a Christian destroyed the terraforming tractor that we used to pigment the surface of the planet. As a result, the temperature has been rising, and instead of the population pushing toward the middle of the planet, the heat is pushing us back toward the poles.

Christianity is illegal now. Belief in god is now illegal. That’s just one more example of our screwy society. My parents were god-believers, but denounced their activities as soon as the laws were in place. I’m not a christian myself, so I suppose I don’t really care, but it’s still a nice example of the way our society misdirects blame.

The founders of Sorn instigated slavery as an alternative to prisons and other criminal penalties. They felt Sorn was too small for such wasteful institutions as jailhouses. One problem that the founders did not anticipate was that slaves reproduce like any human and the slave-owners subsequently felt as though they owned the children as well, and legally they did. Today, three quarters of all slaves have never committed a crime. They were simply born into the system.

Some say this is a backwards world, an extreme example of human wastefulness, stupidity, cruelty and greed. We are slave-drivers; we are cannibals; we have destroyed this planet beyond recognition. Some say we deserve to die off. The transport vessels come only every few years, and only remove the people who can pay the most. This world will be void of life in fifteen years.

I tend to view Sorn as a simple mistake, an example of human planning and ingenuity that has just gone bad. The planet was not designed for people–or we were not designed for the planet.

Either way, we are dying. I write this in hopes that there will be a transport vessel willing to log it into their computer files–for computer space is cheap–and send it out to the rest of the human colonies scattered around the galaxy. Perhaps this will give them a sense of what my home world is like.

______      ______      ______

I went back to the soup shop the next day at the same time and saw Celesti sitting at the counter. She wasn’t eating anything which led me to believe she had been waiting for me, though she never admitted it.

We began meeting there regularly. Most of our conversations revolved around politics, her strong drive to abolish the slavery of non-criminals, and her belief that the life of Sorn was nearing its end. Talking to Celesti very often made me forget what the soup was made of, and I ate absently, but I always finished every drop.

Celesti influenced my thinking a great deal those first few days. I acquired the convictions of an abolitionist in less than a week and she convinced me that I had been wrong to vote against the legalization of cannibalism. “Ridiculous waste,” she called it to be burying all that meat in the ground. I had voted against it simply because I felt it would encourage people to murder their family members then sell them to meat distributors. It certainly did increase the murder rate, but I realize now that those people got the easy way out. Celesti, however, did not completely convince me that the world was coming to an end. I didn’t truly believe it for another half-decade. At that time I could have afforded a place on a transport vessel. It would have taken everything I owned and I would not have had enough for Celesti, but I would have been off of Sorn if I had had the insight to know what would happen.

I expressed an interest in Celesti a few weeks after I first met her and we began meeting outside of the corner restaurant. I will skip over the whole courting ritual. It is sufficient to say that I fell very much in love with her and to this day that love has not faded. We were married in less than two years. We moved north, to an apartment building near the center of the northern province. Five blocks away, stood the huge pole marking dead north, surrounded by intricate metal artwork. (On any other planet, they’d probably plant trees.) We both had to commute a little farther every day but we liked the location. The climate felt a little cooler.

It looked to me as though we were ready to spend the rest of our lives in relative comfort and happiness. Celesti herself told me that she could not hope to be happier “on such a wasted world as this.” This was soon after her organization had won a blow against organized slavery. They had managed to pass a law that made it illegal for an overseer to kill his own slaves. They could still starve them, which remained the real problem, but it was something and Celesti felt high for about two weeks.

We lived together, happily married for four years, the only frustration being the constant hunger, though even that was bearable.

______      ______      ______

It all ended on the day of the bombing. I heard about it from a news show on the screen. A violent faction of slave owners had planted destructive devices in the building where Celesti worked. Watching the screen, I realized it had been in another part of the building where she did not work. The casualties were relatively few considering the size of the bomb and I figured Celesti had probably survived, but after waiting an hour or two, she still hadn’t called to tell me she was okay. I tried making calls myself to the police but lines were either busy or operators uninformative. I prayed she had simply been caught up in the logistics of the situation. Police have a way of holding everyone hostage until they’ve worked things out. I don’t mean to blame them. Cops are under funded and they deal with situations as best they can.

Finally, as I prepared myself to drive down to the scene, the phone rang. I flipped the screen to its phone function but I saw no face.

“Are you Maynin Flanglin?” a voice asked.

“Yes. Why are you not showing yourself?”

“My recorder is not functioning at this time. I apologize, Maynin. I can see you, though.”

“Great.”

“I’m officer Gheflin,” he said. “You were married to a Celesti, correct?”

“Still am,” I replied.

“She died today in a bombing.”

I stared into the camera sending my picture to the man on the other end. All I could say was, “You took your time in contacting me.” All I felt was anger and hatred. I walked to the camera and shut it off.

“I’m sorry we took so long. This is a complicated situation.”

“I understand,” I growled.

“Are you quite all right?” he asked, barely hiding his indifference.

“What do you think?”

“Okay then, goodday.” And the transmission cut off.

My anger and hatred grew rapidly at that moment, and I ripped the camera from the wall and kicked it across the floor. Sitting down, I began to remove my shoes. No point in going out now. I sat there for hours, and eventually the anger died, to be replaced with the anguish of loss, and the tears.

______      ______      ______

I certainly held no funeral. We have abolished such wasteful things on Sorn. Instead, we do something called recycling. I never went to the scene, nor did I attempt to see her body–if there was one. I did not try to get involved in any way. I made no contacts with the police. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I would have learned the truth, and maybe I would have been in time to do something.

Life became progressively harder to live in the following years. The price of food increased, the temperature rose not quite as fast but steadily. Surviving on Sorn had been increasing in difficulty all of my life, but now I began to notice it, as my partner was gone.

Around this time, the research done by scientists years earlier was released. The End could now be seen by everyone. Sorn’s orbit, they explained, collapsed steadily. There was no longer land fit for agriculture. These scientists, however, did not show themselves for questions. My guess is that they headed off-planet as soon as they learned the truth, so many years before anyone else.

For four years I lived from day to day. I still had a well paying job with the water conservation department, and I’ve always been thankful for that. However, with the rapid decrease in population, there has been less and less need to recycle water. There is not as much in use as there used to be, causing my income to decrease. But I have survived where so many on this world have not. I think I’m thankful for that.

______      ______      ______

Half a year ago I saw a starship for the first time. I heard that it would be landing and decided to go out and have a look.

They brought food, as most do. It’s gotten down to the point where the starships provide almost all of our sustenance. This planet can no longer provide for itself.

I managed to push my way through the crowd and bought myself a single meal. A large meal of nutrient bars for a relatively small price. I could have bought more to bring home, and was certainly tempted to, but logically I knew I would not be able to transport it all that way without being robbed. I had to resist.

People bought passage off the planet. Before leaving I watched them board the craft. It would take them fourteen years to reach their destination. I considered trying to buy my own ticket, but I watched them turn away people with more money than I. The starship operators need to make their money. They can’t save everyone. I still have enough faith in human nature to believe that if they could they would.

When a person lives his life close to starvation, then suddenly has a huge meal, it leaves him with an intoxicated feeling. So feeling full for the first time in as long as I could remember, I got in my car and headed home.

The car I drive is a fairly new, sleek looking, fully automated thing, with sophisticated navigation, comfortable seats, and a voice that talks to me. I simply tell it where I want to go and it takes me there in luxury. The vehicle is wholly worthless. A car like mine can be found sitting on the side of any road. When it wears out I will simply find another one. People are no longer motivated by material possessions. Survival is the only thing we care about.

______      ______      ______

On the way home I passed by a warehouse. A slave auction, which seemed a little strange to me because I figured that the last of the slaves on Sorn would have died of starvation years ago. No doubt any for sale here were already near death, and would only be used for food anyway.

Some of the speeches Celesti used to give about the horrors that go on in these kind of places came to my mind. I had never seen one and I felt a little curious. I pulled into the parking lot and wandered into the warehouse.

It wasn’t as awful as I had expected. If it had been I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold on to my recent meal. It wasn’t exactly an auction. Different people had come to sell their property. The negotiations were on a more personal level.

The sobering sight of all those walking skeletons made me forget everything but my immediate surroundings. Most of the slaves for sale were naked, which made it harder to look at. I did not witness any beatings like I thought I would, and most of the slaves looked as though they had never been hit too hard, though I did not stop to examine any of them.

Though it did not appear as awful as I expected, I still did not want to stick around and I began to think that it had been a stupid idea to come in in the first place.

But as I headed for the door, someone caught my eye, and I turned.

She sat on the floor, cross-legged. At first glance I thought it was simply a coincidence. She looked exactly like my lost love. I stared at her as if I stared at a dream, and could not find anything to prove that this was not her.

I knelt down. “Celesti?”

She did not look up.

I touched her hand, resting on her knee and the tracking device around her wrist caught my eye. I stared, hypnotized by the red flashing light.

“You interested in the purchase of this girl?” a voice asked me.

I looked up at the man standing above me.

“Tell the man your name,” he told her.

“My name is Leanna, sir.” Celesti’s voice, exactly.

“Stand up,” the man said.

She started to get up, straining hard and giving a small grunt.

“No, no,” I said. “Don’t bother.”

She looked up at him and he gave a fractional nod. She settled back down, hugging her arms around her body.

“Where did you find her?” I asked.

“I bought her about two years ago at a sale much like this one.”

“What is your full name?” I asked her.

“Just Leanna, sir.”

“Do you recognize the name Maynin Flanglin?”

“No sir.”

“Do you recognize me?”

She paused. “May I look at you sir?”

“Of course.”

She raised her head and stared into my eyes for a moment, then let it droop back down again. “I do not recognize you, sir.”

“I know it’s you. It has to be you. How much are you asking?” I said, looking up at the man.

“Three hundred credits.”

I looked back at the item for sale, hiding my shock at his high price. “Where were you born?” I asked her.

“I was born into slavery,” she replied, staring at the ground.

“Where were you born? What section of the province?”

Several seconds pause. “I don’t know, sir.”

“Her memory isn’t so great,” the salesman told me. “She’s smart enough to work, though.”

“I just know it’s you,” I whispered to no one but myself. After a moment’s pause: “I’ll give you one hundred for her.”

“Sorry,” said the man. “I really need three hundred. I have a child to feed.” Obviously lying.

I rose slowly to standing position. “Do you truly believe that someone will come in here today and offer you more than one hundred credits for her? Anyway, all I have is one hundred.” Also a lie.

After a moment of staring down at her, he let out a tortured sigh. “Sold.”

I pulled out my bank terminal and he slowly brought out his. We both acted reluctantly: he, because I didn’t offer as much as he’d hoped, I, because I thought it might just be my imagination, that this might not be Celesti.

We connected terminals and transferred the funds. He looked at his terminal, checking my name. Then he kicked her, saying, “Get up. You’re going with Mr. Flanglin.”

Now that the funds had been transferred, there was no need for me to keep up my appearance of being a common, indifferent investor. Seeing someone hit my wife was a little upsetting, even a kick as light as his. I grabbed his neck, before he’d even finished his sentence and held tight. He coughed, put his hands up and a moment later I released. We stared at each other and I realized there would be no benefit from me saying anything to him. All that came from me was “Don’t,” like I was speaking to a child.

Leanna, as she was now called, stood up. I took her hand and led her out of the warehouse.

______      ______      ______

We stopped and I bought her a small meal, costing me about six times the price of my earlier one at the spaceport. She ate greedily, her arm wrapped around the plate. Never once did she look at me.

Afterward I took her home and gave her some clothes; then to the police station and paid eight credits to have her fingerprints scanned. I had to find out for certain.

We sat down in front of the desk of an officer who brought her files up on his computer. “Celesti is her name,” he said.

I didn’t feel too surprised. “Last name?” I asked.

“Slaves have only one name.”

“Former last name?”

“Flanglin,” he said. “Married to a Maynin… which is you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you consider yourself still to be married?”

“Yes I do,” I replied.

“Strange arrangement.” He began typing on the keyboard. “I’ll just mark that down in the file.”

“The police told me that she died in an explosion four years ago,” I told the officer. “Why does she turn up now, and why do your records tell you something completely different?”

“Well, according to this–” he tapped the screen “–she was involved in causing that explosion four years ago. At an abolitionist meeting place. Apparently she was out for revenge after certain anti-slavery bills were passed.” He leaned across the desk, closer to her. “I guess you can see the issue from another angle now, huh?” and he laughed.

“Your information is incorrect,” I told him. “She was a member of the abolitionist group. She could not have caused the explosion.”

“Well, I can only go by what my records tell me.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter what your records say–at least not anymore,” I said. “I would have appreciated it if someone had told me my wife was still alive.”

The officer shrugged. “We’re not an omniscient organization.” His version of an apology.

“I’d like to have her released,” I said.

“Can’t do that. Blowing up buildings is a crime. She must serve a minimum twenty years before she can be released. She’s served four. You’ll have to wait sixteen years.”

“But legally, I own her.”

“And if you let her go,” he said, “you run the risk of someone else picking her up and claiming he owns her. As long as she wears those cuffs, that’s proof of ownership, but if you let her take them off, she’s fair game for anyone–legally anyway.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.

______      ______      ______

“You don’t talk much anymore do you?” I said to Celesti on our way out.

“No sir,” she replied.

“You honestly don’t remember me?”

“No sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir all the time,” I told her.

“Yes sir. Thank you. I will keep that in mind.”

“Great,” I said and we continued out silently.

Next I took her to a mind specialist to find out exactly how she had lost her memory. I paid another hundred credits, nearly all I had, to have certain tests run. Dr. Marvib, a bald man in a dirty lab coat, stuck electrodes to her head and for several hours I watched as he brought up screen after screen of incomprehensible symbols, representing her brainwaves. Finally he removed the sensing devices from her skull, and said, “There is clearly a gap. Obviously not natural. It looks as though some rather unsophisticated equipment was used to erase at least thirty years of her life.”

“Can you get it back?”

“Not a chance,” Marvib replied. “Whoever did this to her did not make any attempt to save any of it. Usually procedures like this are used to hide information. Rarely is there any reason to erase anything completely, unless she knew something she wasn’t supposed to, in which case my question would be, why did they not just kill her, and get a good meal in the process?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” I sighed. I looked at Celesti and saw that for once she wore a very interested expression. Her mouth hung open in a look of wonder as she stared at the doctor. “Do you have any ideas?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied slowly. The doctor and I watched her for a long moment, and for the first time since I’d seen her at the sale, she said something without being prompted. “Do you mean my entire life is a dream?”

“In a sense,” Marvib said. “Tell me about your life.”

“I was born into slavery.”

“That’s another thing,” he said to me. “That’s the one thing they programmed into her. Apparently they did a fairly sloppy job, since it doesn’t even match up to her history report in the computer. Tell me, Maynin, is her history correct? Did she truly plant a bomb?”

“No, it’s not.” And I gave him the actual story. I saw Celesti listening as well, as I suspected she listened to everything that went on around her. She still seemed reluctant to look directly at my face.

“Well that makes a little more sense,” Marvib commented after I had finished my story. “A simple case of revenge. Somebody didn’t like her abolitionist activities, didn’t get her with the bomb, decided to do something worse. Sometimes people are just out to hurt each other.”

“Why would they do that to her, when they could just kill her?”

“Well,” the doctor replied, “I don’t know if you’ve looked outside lately, but I think you’d be able to see that death would not be such a horrible punishment. This is a case of revenge.”

I said nothing. I sat quietly, the sweat running down my back as it always does, holding my chin in my hands, just trying to take it all in.

“On the plus side,” Marvib said, “they didn’t make any fundamental changes. She’s still the same person she was before. The experiences of her previous life are still with her, in a sense. They still affect her decisions; she just can’t remember them.”

“But she’s so much different now!”

“I’m sure that’s due to the four years you’ve been apart. Being suddenly sold into slavery can change a person.” After a pause he said, “There’s nothing I can do for her.”

“I know,” and I thanked him for the information and he thanked me for my business, which was probably his only interest. I left with Celesti, feeling a little distressed and frustrated.

______      ______      ______

“Tell me how you feel about all of this,” I asked her as I settled into a couch in my comfortable, climate controlled apartment.

“I feel fine… sir.” She stood, several paces away, looking at my feet.

“You don’t need to call me sir. I imagine it’s rather cumbersome to fit that after every sentence.”

She did not reply.

“Or are you more comfortable using it? Are you comfortable right now, Celesti?”

“Yes.”

I said, “Sit down.”

She immediately dropped to the floor and sat cross-legged.

“Perhaps I stated that like a command. I meant to ask you to make yourself more comfortable. Sit in a chair or next to me. Anywhere you like.”

She stood slowly and walked to where I sat and dropped down next to me.

I stared at the ground, silently, hoping that she would say something, and after a length of time, she did.

“You’re not much like any owners I’ve had before.”

I glanced at her, and an instant later her gaze shifted to the floor.

“You always look away,” I commented.

“I’m supposed to,” she replied and after a moment looked at me and smiled.

“You are a very confusing person now,” I told her.

“M-My apologies, sir.” she stuttered, and laughed a moment later.

Silence again.

“I used to be your husband.”

She stared straight into my eyes now, apparently waiting for something more.

“I still am.”

She looked down again and touched the cuff around her wrist. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”

“I didn’t know you were alive for the last four years.”

She did not reply. “I’m quiet,” she said. “I apologize, but I’m quiet.”

After a long moment I said, “I’m feeling a little tired.”

“Shall I sleep with you, sir?”

“You can sleep with me or here–” I patted the couch “–It’s fine with me either way.”

“Which would you prefer?”

“Don’t worry about what I want,” I told her.

She nodded. “I’d like to sleep here.”

“Okay. There’s a climate control on the wall. I’ll be in the next room.” I walked toward the door to the bedroom. “Goodnight, Celesti,” I said, glancing back. I opened my door.

“Leanna.”

I looked back again. “What?”

“I’m Leanna.” She put her face in her hands. “My apologies. Call me whatever you like.”

“No, no. It’s fine… Leanna,” and I turned away and entered the bedroom.

“I don’t know Celesti,” I heard her say.

I didn’t sleep well for about five hours. I tossed around, thinking about the strange woman sleeping in the other room, the woman I legally owned. I could not afford to keep her. That much was pretty simple. If I wanted her, I would need to resort to stealing, or killing for meat.

Maybe not, I thought. I could think of something… maybe.

But what obligation do I have toward her now? We’ll starve if I keep her. People are starving off left and right these days. What would make me think we’d be any different. If I sold her… I could feed myself.

But what kind of a person would buy her?

But what kind of person is willing to starve two people in order to save a marriage only one of them recognizes?

And I went back and forth for hours.

It will take a little time to sell her. If I want to do it, I need to decide tonight.

So I stood, and I fetched a coin. An antique that I’ve possessed for as long as I can remember. I had often used it for helping to make difficult decisions, but never with something as important as this. But I knew that if I did not allow something else to make my decision, I would never be able to flush it from my brain, and forever would question my decision. Keep her or don’t.

Heads, I keep her, and spend the rest of my possibly very short life finding the person that we both lost. Tails, I throw her back, and continue feeding myself.

But before I threw the coin, I decided I needed to commit a crime. My parents had taught me how to ask for God’s help when I was very young, but I did not use it again since our culture denounced the faith. I figured if I only did it once in a lifetime, I wouldn’t become a bomb wielding maniac. At that moment, I needed something. So I prayed.

Dear God, I thought. It’s been a while. I won’t talk for long, ‘cause I’m not supposed to. I just want to ask you now to guide this coin. Heads, I keep her. Tails I throw her back. I just want you to do the right thing. Thank you. I’ll never speak to you again.

I stared at the shiny piece of metal for a moment, and pondered the idea that this insignificant object would decide the fate of a human being.

And I threw the coin. I watched it spin, climbing into the air, peaking, then dropping to the floor and bouncing before coming to rest. I took a step closer.

Tails.

My heart sank. Do I really want to do what the coin tells me?

And I looked closer. There was a head. Some sort of building was pictured behind the person, making it look like the tail side.

I flipped the coin. On the other side: a bird, flying over a lake.

______      ______      ______

I knew of a computer expert–D’amis by name–that lived on the other side of the city that I thought might be able to help, and the next morning I took my wife to see him.

“I need someone to break into the police records and correct a file,” I said, getting straight to the point.

“That’s going to cost you,” D’amis told me. “It’ll probably have to be a good thirty-five credits.”

“Thirty five!” I shouted. “How can it possibly be worth that?”

“Police files are tricky business. It would take a good six hours just to crack the code to get in. Plus the fact that we run the risk of getting caught while we’re changing things. Plus the fact that you’re asking me to go against my morals. Thirty-five is my price.”

“I only have twenty-four to my name.”

He brought out his bank terminal. “Hook up,” he said.

“Is that a yes?” I asked.

“I want to see if you’re telling the truth. Enter your code… Good. Now transfer twenty-five credits to my account, under category, gift.

I entered in the information as he watched closely. The screen flashed Insufficient Funds, like I knew it would, and canceled the transfer.

“Okay. You’re not a liar. I’ll accept your money.”

We transferred funds and D’amis wheeled his chair to a computer terminal, and began rapidly typing.

“Would you like me to write it down, what I want you to change?” I asked.

“No need.” Several moments later he brought up the screen that showed Leanna’s history. The same one we saw in the police station. “Just show me what you want me to change.”

He changed it all. He destroyed her status as a slave, and erased all connection with the bombing. According to the record now, the four year gap in our marriage never existed.

“Anything else?” D’amis asked.

“My name is Leanna, please,” she finally spoke up.

D’amis looked at me for confirmation and I nodded.

“When will you be able to permanently enter this in?” I asked as he exited out of the system.

“It’s already entered,” said D’amis. “That was just a line about it taking six hours. Police don’t care much about their history files. The codes are fairly easy to break. But I appreciate your honesty.” And he grinned.

“Thank you.” I would have hit him with my sudden surge of anger but I knew that he had the power to take back the changes.

Leanna stood and walked quietly toward the door. She looked at me and I followed her out.

______      ______      ______

“People are cruel,” she muttered as we sat in my car letting it take us to our next destination. “But you, Maynin…” she said. “I’m glad you bought me. You’re the only nice…” and she trailed off, apparently losing herself in her usual tortured thought processes.

“I’m not the only one,” I told her.

“You are a nice man.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve never met a person like you before.”

“I’m sure you have. You just can’t remember it,” I said, and paused. “I’ve noticed you have become more comfortable with this situation, Leanna.”

“I like you.” And she stared out the window. “You can’t afford me.”

And we rode a little farther in silence. Why won’t you talk to me? I screamed inside my head. You’re right, I’m spending a ton of money on you, and not only are you not really my wife, but you don’t even seem to be a person. I don’t want a blank slave. I want…And my thought processes faltered. I want you to be…someone… I don’t know.

More silence.

“I’m taking you to a locksmith, right now,” I told her. “To get those trackers off of you.”

“Explosives will explode,” she replied, indifferently.

“I’ll think of something,” I told her.

______      ______      ______

“I need this woman’s trackers changed,” I said to the locksmith. Before he even spoke I did not like the man. Simply his job. He made money by helping to imprison people. By working with the explosive cuffs, he helped to keep the slave trade alive and relatively efficient.

He took her wrist and examined the tracking device she already wore. “Would you like something more advanced and effective than this. Something with perhaps more explosives?”

“Well, look at how loose they are. I’m afraid she’ll be able to slip them off if she gets any skinnier,” I said. I assumed this would be a believable line. People are invariably paranoid about their slaves running away. It’s the only industry left on Sorn. “I’d like something with more advanced locking mechanisms, a little tighter and maybe a little more explosive.”

“Okay,” he said, and as I had hoped, he did not speak of price. He thought that she was my slave, therefore, he wanted to wait until she no longer wore the cuffs before discussing the price. He wanted to be able to threaten to release her. Or so I assumed.

He told her to sit in the large metal chair designed for the purpose. The worst part of it all was watching him strap her down, and lock her arms and legs to the chair. Leanna didn’t seem bothered by it at all, but I had a difficult time watching.

It took nearly an hour to remove all four of the devices from her wrists and ankles. The locksmith hooked up wires connected to complicated machinery to each one, then deactivated the explosives and finally began cutting away at the cuffs. It didn’t seem to be a very precise science. He tore at the devices rather violently at times, and nearly tripped over wires on a couple of occasions, but he apparently knew what he was doing because nothing blew up.

“Okay,” he said as he pulled the last cuff from her wrist and dropped it into a disposal bin. “I charge five credits per unit. To replace all four of them with devices similar to the ones she had before will cost twenty.”

I nodded and said slowly, “What would you do if I told you I don’t want to finish this?”

His mouth dropped open. “You don’t want me to give her new ones?”

“No I don’t.”

“I’ll probably tell you that you’re running a grave risk of her running away.” He gave me a baffled and questioning stare.

“I understand that,” I said.

“That’s what you want though, isn’t it? You’re setting her free?”

I nodded.

“So you fooled me into wasting an hour of my time.” He dropped a small instrument angrily on the table.

I nodded again.

“I should call the police.” He paused. “But the police certainly wouldn’t care.” He smiled and laughed.

I readied myself for a fistfight. I could take him out, then figure out how to release Leanna on my own. I saw no other alternative, and had known that’s what it might come to when we first came in.

He shook his head. “I’ve never known a person like you,” the locksmith said. “You throw away valuable property.” He pointed at Leanna. After a moment he knelt beside the chair and opened a panel that contained a number pad, and typed in a short code. The restraints released and she slid out of the chair. “An hour of my time,” said the locksmith. “No charge.”

“Thank you,” Leanna said and I echoed her.

He waved a hand and shrugged.

______      ______      ______

As I opened the door and stepped outside the wave of heat hit me and I doubled over from the shock. I still felt the excitement of success and hadn’t prepared myself for entering the natural climate. Leanna caught me and helped break my fall. After a moment I stood and we walked to the car and got in.

“It didn’t used to be like that,” I said as the vehicle started to move. “Sure it was hot, but not like that.” I felt the pleasantness of the car’s controlled climate wash over me. “Do you believe the world is coming to an end?” I asked her.

“Yes.” And her expression changed, which was a rare sight. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy in our day to day lives.” Probably the longest un-prompted statement that I had heard from her thus far.

“It is you,” I said.

“I’m Leanna,” she replied, then fell silent for a long moment. “I’m glad… that you… own me now… Maynin.”

Tails: alternate ending

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KalinBooks.com is the ramblings of Kalin Ringkvist, an anarchist, atheist, Web developer, science fiction writer, and former drug dealer who believes in peace, freedom and living life to its fullest.