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   Chapter 3 No.3

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 23500

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Devil's Pot overturned its foul jelly at the city's edge. Thirteen alleys lined with old stone houses was its nucleus; many of them were ruined, built over, and ruined again. These were the oldest structures in Toron. Thick with humanity and garbage, it reached from the waterfront to the border of the hive houses in which lived the clerks and professionals of Toron. Clapboard alternated with hastily constructed sheet-metal buildings with no room between. The metal rusted; the clapboard sagged. The waterfront housed the temporary prison, the immigration offices, and the launch service that went out to the aquariums and hydroponics plants that floated on vast pontoons three miles away.

At the dock, a frog-like, sooty hulk had pulled in nearly an hour ago. But the passengers were only being allowed to come ashore now, and that after passing their papers through the inspection of a row of officials who sat behind a wooden table. A flimsy, waist-high structure of boards separated the passengers from the people on the wharf. The passengers milled.

A few had bundles. Many had nothing. They stood quietly, or ambled aimlessly. On the waterfront street, the noise was thunderous. Peddlers hawking, pushcarts trundling, the roar of arguing voices. Some passengers gazed across the fence at the sprawling slum. Most did not.

As they filed past the officers and onto the dock, a woman with a box of trinkets and a brown-red birthmark splashed over the left side of her face pushed among the new arrivals. Near fifty, she wore a dress and head rag, that were a well-washed, featureless gray.

"And would you like to buy a pair of shoelaces, fine strong ones," she accosted a young man who returned a bewildered smile of embarrassment.

"I ... I don't got any money," he stammered, though complimented by the attention.

Rara glanced down at his feet. "Apparently you have no shoes either. Well, good luck here in the New World, the Island of Opportunity." She brushed by him and aimed toward a man and woman who carried a bundle composed of a hoe, a rake, a shovel, and a baby. "A picture," she said, digging into her box, "of our illustrious majesty, King Uske, with a real metal frame, hand-painted in miniature in honor of his birthday. No true cosmopolitan patriot can be without one."

The woman with the baby leaned over to see the palm-sized portrait of a vague young man with blond hair and a crown. "Is that really the king?"

"Of course it is," declared the birthmarked vendress. "He sat for it in person. Look at that noble face. It would be a real inspiration to the little one there, when and if he grows up."

"How much is it?" the woman asked.

Her husband frowned.

"For a hand-painted picture," said Rara, "it's very cheap. Say, half a unit?"

"It's pretty," said the woman, then caught the frown on the man's face. She dropped her eyes and shook her head.

Suddenly the man, from somewhere, thrust a half-unit piece into Rara's hand. "Here." He took the picture and handed it to his wife. As she looked at it, he nodded his head. "It is pretty," he said. "Yes. It is."

"Good luck here in the New World," commented Rara. "Welcome to the Island of Opportunity." Turning, she drew out the next gee-gaw her hand touched, glanced at it long enough to see what it was, and said to the man she now faced. "I see you could certainly use a spool of fine thread to good purpose." She pointed to a hole in his sleeve. "There." A brown shoulder showed through his shirt, further up. "And there."

"I could use a needle too," he answered her. "And I could use a new shirt, and a bucket of gold." Suddenly he spat. "I've as much chance of getting one as the other with what I've got in my pocket."

"Oh, surely a spool of fine, strong thread ..."

Suddenly someone pushed her from behind. "All right. Move on, lady. You can't peddle here."

"I certainly can," exclaimed Rara, whirling. "I've got my license right here. Just let me find it now...."

"Nobody has a license to peddle in front of the immigration building. Now move on."

"Good luck in the New Land," she called over her shoulder as the officer forced her away. "Welcome to the Island of Opportunity!"

Suddenly a commotion started behind the gate. Someone was having trouble with papers. Then a dark-haired, barefoot boy broke from his place in line, ran to the wooden gate, and vaulted over. The wooden structure was flimsy. As the boy landed, feet running, the fence collapsed.

Behind the fence they hesitated like an unbroken wave. Then they came. At the table the officials stood up, waved their hands, shouted, then stood on their benches and shouted some more. The officer who had shoved the vending woman disappeared in the wash of bodies.

Rara clutched her box of trinkets and scurried to the corner, then melded with the herding crowd for two blocks into the slums.

"Rara!"

She stopped and looked around. "Oh, there you are," she said, joining a young girl who stood back from the crowd, holding a box of trinkets like the other woman's.

"Rara, what happened?"

The birthmarked woman laughed. "You are watching the beginning of the transformation. Fear, hunger, a little more fear, no work, more fear, and every last one of these poor souls will be a first class, grade-A citizen of the Devil's Pot. How much did you sell?"

"Just a couple of units worth," the girl answered. She was perhaps sixteen, with a strange combination of white hair, blue eyes, and skin that had tanned richly and quickly, giving her the large-eyed look of an exotic snow-maned animal. "Why are they running?"

"Some boy started a panic. The fence gave way and the rest followed him." A second surge of people rounded the corner. "Welcome to the New Land, the Island of Opportunity," Rara called out. Then she laughed.

"Where are they all going to go?" Alter asked.

"Into the holes in the ground, into the cracks in the street. The lucky men will get into the army. But even that won't absorb them all. The women, the children...?" She shrugged.

Just then a boy's voice came from halfway down the block. "Hey!"

They turned.

"Why that's the boy that broke the fence down," exclaimed Rara.

"What does he want?"

"I don't know. Before this afternoon I'd never seen him in my life."

He was dark, with black hair; but as he approached, they saw that his eyes were water-green. "You're the woman who was selling things, huh?"

Rara nodded. "What do you want to buy?"

"I don't want to buy anything," he said. "I want to sell something to you." He was barefoot; his pants frayed into nothing at mid-calf, and his sleeveless shirt had no fastenings.

"What do you want to sell?" she asked, her voice deepening with skepticism.

He reached into his pocket, and brought out a rag of green flannel, which he unwrapped now in his hand.

They had been polished to a milky hue, some streaked with gold and red, others run through with warm browns and yellows. Two had been rubbed down to pure mother-of-pearl, rubbed until their muted silver surfaces were clouded with pastel lusters. There in the nest of green, they swirled around themselves, shimmering.

"They're nothing but sea shells," Rara said.

Alter reached her forefinger out and touched a white periwinkle. "They're lovely," she told him. "Where did you get them?" They ranged in size from the first joint of her thumb to the width of her pinky nail.

"By your departed mother, my own sister, we can't afford to give him a centiunit, Alter. I hardly sold a thing before that brute officer forced me away."

"I found them on the beach," the boy explained. "I was hiding on the boat and I didn't have nothing to do. So I polished them."

"What were you hiding for?" asked Rara, her voice suddenly sharp. "You don't mean you stowed away?"

"Un-huh," the boy nodded.

"How much do you want for them?" Alter asked.

"How much? How much would it cost to get a meal and a place to stay?"

"Much more than we can afford to pay," interrupted Rara. "Alter, come with me. This boy is going to talk you out of a unit or two yet, if you keep on listening to him."

"See," said the boy, pointing to the shells. "I've put holes in them already. You can string them around your neck."

"If you want to get food and a place to sleep," said Alter, "you don't want money. You want friends. What's your name? And where are you from?"

The boy looked up from the handful of shells, surprised. "My name is Tel," he said after a moment. "I come from the mainland coast. And I'm a fisherman's son. I thought when I came here I could get a job in the aquariums. That's all you hear about on the coast."

Alter smiled. "First of all you're sort of young ..."

"But I'm a good fisherman."

"... and also, it's very different from fishing on a boat. I guess you'd say that there were a lot of jobs in the aquariums and the hydroponics gardens. But with all the immigrants, there are three people for every job."

The boy shrugged. "Well, I can try."

"That's right," said Alter. "Come on. Walk with us."

Rara huffed.

"We'll take him back to Geryn's place and see if we can get him some food. He can probably stay there a little while if Geryn takes a liking to him."

"You can't just take every homeless barnacle you find back to Geryn's. You'll have it crawling with every shrimp in the Pot. And suppose he doesn't take a liking to him. Suppose he decides to kick us out in the street." The birthmark on her left cheek darkened.

"Aunt Rara, please," said Alter. "I'll handle Geryn."

Rara huffed once more. "How come when we're two weeks behind on the rent, you can't find a kind word in your mouth for the old man when he threatens to throw us onto the street? Yet for the sake of a handful of pretty shells ..."

"Please ..."

A breeze seeped through the narrow street, picked a shock of Alter's white hair and flung it back from her shoulder.

"Anyway, Geryn may be able to use him. If Tel stowed away, that means he doesn't have any papers."

Tel frowned with puzzlement.

Rara frowned with chastisement in her eyes. "You are not supposed to refer to that, ever."

"Don't be silly," said Alter. "It's just a fantasy of Geryn's anyway. It'll never happen. And without papers, Tel can't get a job at the aquariums, even if they wanted him. So if Geryn thinks he can fit him into his crazy plan, Tel will come out a lot better than if he had some old ten-unit-a-week factory job. Look, Rara, how can Geryn possibly kidnap ..."

"Be quiet," snapped Rara.

"And even if he did, what good is it going to do? It's not as if it were the king himself."

"I don't understand," said Tel.

"That's good," said Rara. "And if you want to keep going with us, you won't try to find out."

"We can tell you this much," said Alter. "The man who owns the inn where we stay wants to do something. Now, he is a little crazy. He's always talking to himself, for example. But he needs someone who has no identification registered in the City. Now, if he thinks he can use you, you'll get free food and a place to sleep. He used to be the gardener on the island estate of the Duchess of Petra. But he drank a little too much and I guess at last he had to go. He still says she sends him messages though, about his plan. But ..."

"You don't have to go any further," Rara said, curtly.

"You'll hear about it from him," said Alter. "Why did you stow away?"

"I just got fed up with life at home. We'd work all day to catch fish, and then have to leave them rotting on the beach because we could only sell a fifth of them, or sometimes none at all. Some people gave up; some only managed to get it in their heads tha

t they had to work harder. I guess my father was like that. He figured if he worked enough, someone would just have to buy them. Only nobody did. My mother did some hand weaving and we were living mostly on that. Finally, I figured I was eating up more than I was worth. So I left."

"Just like that, and with no money?" asked Rara.

"Just like that," Tel said.

"You poor boy," said Rara, and in a sudden fit of maternal affection, she put her arm around his shoulder.

"Ow!" cried Tel, and winced.

Rara jerked her hand away. "What's the matter?"

"I ... I got hurt there," the boy said, rubbing his shoulders gently.

"Hurt? How?"

"My father-he whipped me there."

"Ah," said Rara. "Now it comes out. Well, whatever the reasons you left, they're your own business. Anyway, I've never known anyone yet to do something for one reason alone. Don't lag behind, now. We'll be back at Geryn's in time for lunch."

"I thought if I could sneak aboard," went on Tel, "that they'd have to let me off in the City, even if I didn't have money. I didn't know about papers. And when I was in line, I figured I'd explain to the men at the desk. Or maybe I'd even give them my shells, and they would get the papers for me. But the guy ahead of me had a mistake in his. Some date was wrong, and they said they were going to send him back to the mainland and that he couldn't leave the ship. He said he'd give them real money, and even got it out of his pocket. But they started to take him away. That's when I ran out of line and jumped the fence. I didn't know everyone else would run too."

"Probably half their papers were out of order, too. Or forged. That's why they ran."

"You're a cynic, Aunt Rara."

"I'm a practical woman."

As they turned another corner, the boy's green eyes jumped at the blue-hazed towers of the palace, distant behind the wealthy roofs of merchants' mansions, themselves behind the hive houses and the spreading ruin of tenements. He tried to memorize the twisting street they followed. He couldn't.

There were two general, contradictory impressions in his mind: first, of being enclosed in these tiny alleys, some so small that two could not pass through them with arms held out; the second, of the spreading, immense endlessness of the city. He tried to tell Alter what he felt, but after a minute of broken sentences, she smiled at him and shook her head. "No, I don't understand. What do you mean?"

And a sudden picture of the seaside leapt into his head. The yellow length of the beach lashed across his mind so that it stung. He could see the salt-and-pepper rocks, shoaling away and knobbed with periwinkle shells. He could see the brown and green fingers of seaweed clutching the sand when the waves went out. He blinked the gray city back into his eyes. Tears washed the broken curb, the cracked walls, washed the rusted metal window jamb sharp and clean again.

"He means he's homesick," Rara interpreted. "No, boy," she said. "It'll never go away. But it'll get less."

The street turned sharply twice, then widened.

"Well," said Alter. "Here we are."

A red, circular plaque hung over the door of the only stone building on the block. It was two stories, twice the height of the other structures. They entered.

Beams of real wood were set into the low ceiling. By one wall was a counter. There was a large table in the middle, and coming down into the room in a large V was a stairway.

Of the men and women sitting around the room, one caught Tel's eye immediately. He was perhaps seven feet and a handful of inches tall, and was sitting, spraddle-legged, at the table. He had a long, flat, equine face, and a triplex of scars started on his cheek, veered down to his neck, and disappeared under his collarless shirt. As Tel watched, he turned to a plate of food he was eating, so that his scars disappeared.

Suddenly, from the stair's top, a harpoon-straight old man appeared. He hurried down, his white hair spiking out in all directions. Reaching the bottom, he whirled around, darting black eyes to every person in the room. "All right," he said. "I've received the message. I've received the message. And it's time."

Alter whispered to Tel, "That's Geryn."

"Are we all here?" the old man demanded. "Are we all here now?"

A woman at the counter snickered. Suddenly Geryn turned toward Tel, Alter, and Rara. "You!" he demanded. His pointing finger wavered so they could not tell which of the three he meant.

"You mean him?" asked Alter, pointing to Tel.

Geryn nodded vigorously. "What are you doing here? Are you a spy?"

"No, sir," said Tel.

Geryn stepped around the table and looked at him closely. The black eyes were two sharp spots of darkness in a face the color of shipboards gone two winters without paint.

"Geryn," Alter said. "Geryn, he isn't a spy. He's from the mainland. And Geryn, he doesn't have any papers, either. He stowed away."

"You're not a spy?" Geryn demanded again.

"No, sir," Tel repeated.

Geryn backed away. "I like you," he said. "I trust you." Slowly he turned away. Then he whirled back. "I have no choice, you see. It's too late. The message has come. So I need you." He laughed. Then the laugh stopped short as if sliced by a razor. He put his hands over his eyes, and then brought his finger down slowly. "I'm tired," he said. "Rara, you owe me rent. Pay up or I'll kick you all out. I'm tired." He walked heavily toward the bar. "Give me something to drink. In my own tavern you can give me something to drink."

Someone laughed again. Tel looked at Alter.

"Well," she said. "He likes you."

"He does?"

"Um-hm," she nodded.

"Oh," said Tel.

At the bar, Geryn drained a large glass of pale green liquid, slammed the empty glass on the board and cried out, "The war. Yes, the war!"

"Oh, here we go," Alter whispered.

Geryn ran his finger slowly along the rim of the glass. "The war," he said again. He turned suddenly. "It's coming!" he declaimed. "And do you know why it's coming? Do you know how it's coming? We can't stop it, not now, not any more. I've received the signal, so there's no hope left. We must just go ahead and try to save something, something to start and build from again." Geryn looked directly at Tel. "Boy, do you know what a war is?"

"No, sir," said Tel, which wasn't exactly true. He'd heard the word.

"Hey," someone cried from the bar. "Are we gonna get stories, great fires and destruction again?"

Geryn ignored the cry. "Do you know what the Great Fire was?"

Tel shook his head.

"The world was once much bigger than it is today," Geryn said. "Once man flew not just between island and mainland, island and island, but skirted the entire globe of the earth. Once man flew to the moon, even to the moving lights in the sky. There were empires, like Toromon, only bigger. And there were many of them. Often they fought with one another, and that was called a war. And the end of the final war was the Great Fire. That was over fifteen hundred years ago. Most of the world, from what little we know of it today, is scarred with strips of impassable land, the sea is run through with deadly currents. Only fragments of the earth, widely separated can hold life. Toromon may be the only one, for all we are sure of. And now we will have another war."

Some one from the bar yelled, "So what if it comes? It might bring some excitement."

Geryn whirled. "You don't understand!" He whipped one hand through his shocked white hair. "What are we fighting? We don't know. It's something mysterious and unnamable on the other side of the radiation barrier. Why are we fighting?"

"Because ..." began a bored voice at the bar.

"Because," interrupted Geryn, suddenly pointing directly at Tel's face, "we have to fight. Toromon has gotten into a situation where its excesses must be channelled toward something external. Our science has outrun our economics. Our laws have become stricter, and we say it is to stop the rising lawlessness. But it is to supply workers for the mines that the laws tighten, workers who will dig more tetron, that more citizens shall be jobless, and must therefore become lawless to survive. Ten years ago, before the aquariums, fish was five times its present price. There was perhaps four per cent unemployment in Toron. Today the prices of fish are a fifth of what they were, yet unemployment has reached twenty-five per cent of the city's populace. A quarter of our people starve. More arrive every day. What will we do with them? We will use them to fight a war. Our university turns out scientists whose science we can not use lest it put more people out of work. What will we do with them? We will use them to fight a war. Eventually the mines will flood us with tetron, too much for even the aquariums and the hydroponic gardens. It will be used for the war."

"Then what?" asked Tel.

"We do not know who or what we are fighting," repeated Geryn. "We will be fighting ourselves, but we will not know it. According to the books, it is customary in a war to keep each side in complete ignorance of the other. Or give them lies like those we use to frighten children instead of truth. But here the truth may be ..." His voice trailed off.

"What's your plan?" Tel asked.

There was another laugh at the bar.

"Somehow," and his voice was lower. "Somehow we must get ready to save something, salvage some fragment from the destruction that will come. There are only a few of us who know all this, who understand it, who know what ... what has to be done."

"What is that?" Tel asked again.

Suddenly Geryn whirled. "Drinks!" he called. "Drinks all around!" The quiet amusement and general lethargy disappeared as the people moved to the bar. "Drink up, friends, my fellows!" cried Geryn.

"Your plan?" Tel asked again, puzzled.

"I'll tell you," answered the old man, almost in a whisper. "I'll tell you. But not just yet. Not just ..." He turned back again. "Drink up!" Three men who already had their glasses gave a cheer.

"Are you with me, friends?" Geryn demanded.

"We're with you," six more cried, laughing, clinking their glasses hard on the table top as Tel looked from Alter to Rara and back.

"My plan ..." began Geryn. "Have you all had a glass? All of you? Another round for everybody. Yes, a second round!"

There was a solid cheer, now. Glass bottoms turned toward the ceiling, then whammed on the counter top again.

"My plan is to-you understand it's not just my plan, but only a small part in a great plan, a plan to save us all-my plan is to kidnap Prince Let from the palace. That's the part that we must do. Are you with me, friends?" A yell rose, and somebody had started a friendly fight at the end of the bar. Then Geryn's voice suddenly broke through the sound, low, in a grating whisper that silenced them for seconds. "Because you must be with me! The time is tonight. I have ... I have it planned." The voices halted, and then heaved to a roar. "Tonight," repeated Geryn, though hardly anyone could hear him. "I have it planned. Only you've got to be ... be with me."

Tel frowned and Alter shook her head. The old man had closed his eyes for a moment. Rara was beside him, her hand on his shoulder. "You're going to get yourself sick with all this yelling. Let me get you up to your room."

As she turned him toward the stairs, the scarred giant who had been given a drink, now rose from the table, looked straight at Geryn, then drained his glass.

Geryn nodded, drew a breath through his teeth, and then allowed Rara to lead him up the stairs as Tel and Alter watched.

The noise among the drinking men and women at the bar increased.

* * *

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