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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“Do you recognize me?”
She paused. “May I look at you sir?”
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.”
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