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   Chapter 7 No.7

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 24320

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The news service of Toromon in the city of Toron was a public address system that flooded the downtown area, and a special printed sheet that was circulated among the upper families of the city. On the mainland it was a fairly accurate brigade of men and women who transported news orally from settlement to settlement. All announced simultaneously that morning:

Crown Prince Kidnaped

King Declares War!

In the military ministry, directives were issued in duplicate and redelivered in triplicate. At eight-forty, the 27B Communications Sector became hopelessly snarled. This resulted in the shipment of a boatload of prefabricated barracks foundations to a port on the mainland sixty-two miles from the intended destination.

Let, Jon, and Arkor were just mounting the private yacht of the Duchess of Petra which was waiting for them at the end of the harbor. Later, as the island of Toron slipped across the water, Let mentioned to Jon, leaning against the railing, that there was an awful lot of commotion on the docks.

"It's always like that," Jon told him, remembering the time he'd gone with his father in the morning to the pier. "They're inspecting cargoes. But it does look awfully busy."

Which was a euphemism. One group of military directives which had been quite speedily and accurately delivered were the offers of contracts, primarily for food, and secondarily for equipment. Two of the distributors of imported fish who had absolutely no chance of receiving the contracts sent in a bid accompanied by a letter which explained (with completely fraudulent statistics) how much cheaper it would be to use imported fish rather than those from the aquariums. Then they commandeered a group of ruffians who broke into the house of old Koshar's personal secretary, who was still sleeping after the previous night's party which he had helped out with. (So far he has appeared in this story only as a hand seen around the edge of a storage cabinet door, a broad hand, with wiry black hair, on which there was a cheap, wide, brass ring in which was set an irregular shape of blue glass.)

They tied him to a chair, punched him in the stomach, and in the head, and in the mouth until there was blood running down his trimmed, black beard; and he had given the information they wanted-information that enabled them to sink three of the Koshar cargo fleet that was just coming into dock.

The Duchess' private yacht made contact with a tetron-tramp returning to the mainland and Let, Jon, and Arkor changed ships. Coming from the yacht in bare feet and rags gave them an incongruous appearance. But on the tramp, among those passengers who were returning for their families, they quickly became lost.

On Toron, the pilot of the shuttle boat that took workers from the city to the aquariums found a clumsily put-together, but nevertheless unmistakable, bomb hidden in the lavatory. It was dismantled. There was no accident. But an authority, Vice-Supervisor Nitum of Koshar Synthetic Food Concerns (whose name you do not need to remember, as he was killed three days later in a street brawl) clenched his jaw (unshaven; he had been called to the office a half an hour early over the sunken cargo boats), nodded his head, and issued a few non-official directives himself. Twenty minutes later, Koshar Synthetic Food Concerns was officially given the government contract to supply the armies of Toromon with food. Because the two rival bidders, the import merchants, had ceased to exist about twelve minutes previously, having suddenly been denied warehouse space, and their complete storage dumped into the streets to rot (nearly seven tons of frozen fish) because the refrigeration lockers, and the refrigeration buildings, and the refrigeration trucks had all been rented from Rahsok Refrigeration, and nobody had ever thought of spelling Rahsok backwards.

In the military ministry, Captain Clemen, along with Major Tomar, was called away from his present job of completing the evacuation of the top four floors of an adjacent office building to accommodate the new corps of engineers, mathematicians, and physicists that the army had just enlisted. Apparently riots had started in the streets around the old Rahsok Refrigeration Houses. The warehouses were just a few blocks away from the official boundary of the Devil's Pot.

They got there ten minutes after the report came in. "What the hell is going on?" Clemen demanded, from the head of the City Dispersal Squad. Behind the line of uniformed men, masses of people were pushing and calling out. "And what's that stench?" added Clemen. He was a tiny man, exactly a quarter of an inch over the minimum for military acceptance-4' 10".

"Fish, sir," the Dispersal Chief told him. "There's tons of it all over the street. The people are trying to take it away."

"Well, let them have it," Clemen said. "It'll clear the streets of the mess and maybe do some good."

"You don't understand, sir," the head of Dispersal explained. "It's been poisoned. Just before it was dumped, it was soaked with buckets of barbitide. Half a ton of the stuff's already been carried away."

Clemen turned. "Tomar," he said. "You get back to headquarters and see personally that a city-wide announcement goes out telling about the poisoned fish. Call General Medical, find out the antidote, and get the information all over the city. See to it personally, too."

Tomar got back to headquarters, got General Medical, got the antidote, which was expensive, complicated, and long, and drafted his announcement.

WARNING! Any citizen who has taken fish from the street in the area of Rahsok Refrigeration is in immediate danger of death. The fish has been treated with the fatal poison barbitide. No fish other than that directly traceable to the Synthetic Markets should be eaten. warn your neighbors! If fish has been eaten, go directly to the General Medical building (address followed). Symptoms of barbitide poisoning: intense cramps about two hours after ingestion, followed by nausea, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Death results in twenty minutes after onset of cramps under normal conditions. Foods with high calcium contents prolong spasms to a maximum hour and a half (foods such as milk, ground egg shell). General Medical has been alerted. There you will receive injections of Calcium Silicate and Atropayic Acid which can counteract the effects of the poison up until the last five or ten minutes.

Tomar personally sent the directive through Communications Center 27B, marked urgent and emergency. Ten minutes later he received a visiphone call from the Communications Engineer saying that 27B had been hopelessly snarled all morning. In fact so had 26B, 25B. In further fact, said the engineer, the only available sectors open were 34A and 42A, none of which, incidentally, had access to complete city lines.

Tomar made a triplicate copy of the warning and sent it out, nonetheless, through Sectors 40A, 41A, and 42A. A half an hour later the secretary to the Communications Engineer called and said, "Major Tomar, I'm sorry, I just got back from my break and I didn't see your message until just now. Because of the tie-ups, we've received instructions only to let authorized persons have access to the available sectors."

"Well, who the hell is authorized," Tomar bellowed. "If you don't put that through and quick, half the city may be dead by this evening."

The secretary paused a minute. Then he said, "I'm sorry, sir, but ... well, look. I'll give it directly to the Communications Engineer when he gets back."

"When is he getting back?" Tomar demanded.

"I ... I don't know."

"Who is authorized?"

"Only generals, sir, and only those directly concerned with the war effort."

"I see," Tomar said, and hung up.

He had just dispatched seven copies of the announcement with an explanatory note to seven of the fourteen generals in the ministry when the Communications Engineer called again. "Major, what's all this about a bushel of fish?"

"Look, there are seven tons of the stuff all over the streets."

"And poisoned?"

"Exactly. Will you please see that this message gets out over every available piece of city-wide communication as fast as possible? This is really life and death."

"We're just allowed to work on getting war messages through. But I guess this takes priority. Oh, that explains some of the messages we've been getting. I believe there's even one for you."

"Well?" asked Tomar after a pause.

"I'm not allowed to deliver it, sir."

"Why not?"

"You're not authorized, sir."

"Look, damn it, get it right now and read it to me."

"Well ... er ... it's right here sir. It's from the chief of the City Dispersal Squad."

The message was, in brief, that twenty-three men, among them Captain Clemen, had been trampled to death by an estimated two and a half thousand hungry residents of the Devil's Pot, most of them immigrants from the mainland.

A ton and a half of fish was finally removed from the streets and disposed of. But five and a half tons had made its way through the city. The Communications Engineer also added that while they'd been talking, a memorandum had come through that Sectors 34A to 42A were now out of commission, but that the major should try 27B again, because it might have cleared up.

* * *

The second shift of workers that day was arriving at the aquariums. In the great pontooned building, vast rows of transparent plastic tubes, three feet in diameter, webbed back and forth among the tetron pumps. Vibrator nets cut the tubes into twenty-foot compartments. Catwalks strung the six-story structure, all flooded with deep red light that came from the phosphor-rods that stuck up from the pumps. Light toward the blue end of the spectrum disturbed the fish, who had to be visible at all times, to be moved, or to be checked for any sickness or deformity. In their transparent tubes, the fish floated in a state near suspended animation, vibrated gently, were kept at a constant 82°, were fed, were fattened, were sorted according to age, size, and species; then slaughtered. The second shift of workers moved into the aquarium, relieving the first shift.

They had been on about two hours when a sweating hulk of a man who was an assistant feeder reported to the infirmary, complaining of general grogginess. Heat prostration was an occasional complaint in the aquarium.

The doctor told him to lie down for a little while. Five minutes later he went into violent cramps. Perhaps the proper attention would have been paid to him had not a few minutes later a woman fallen from a catwalk at the top of the aquarium and broken one of the plastic arteries and her skull, six stories below.

In the red light the workers gathered around her broken body that lay at the end of a jagged plastic tube. In the spread water, dozens of fish, fat and ruddy-skinned, flapped their gills weakly.

The woman's co-workers said she had complained of not feeling well, when suddenly she went into convulsions while crossing one of the catwalks. By the time the doctor got back to the infirmary, the assistant feeder had developed a raging fever, and the nurse reported him violently nauseated. Then he died.

In the next two hours, out of the five thousand two hundred and eighty people who worked at the aquariums, three hundred and eighty-seven were taken with cramps and died in the next two hours, the only exception being an oddball physical culture enthusiast who always drank two quarts of milk for lunch; he lasted long enough to be gotten onto the shuttle and back to General Medical on Toron, where he died six minutes after admittance, one hour and seventeen minutes after the onset of the cramps. That was the first case that General Medical actually received. It was not until the sixteenth case that the final diagnosis of barbitide poisoning was arrived at. Then someone remembered the query that had come in by phone from the military ministry that morning about the antidote.

"Somehow," said Chief Toxologist Oona, "the stuff has gotten into some food o

r other. It may be all over the city." Then he sat down at his desk and drafted a warning to the citizens of Toron containing a description of the effects of barbitide poisoning, antidote, and instructions to come to the General Medical building, along with a comment on high calcium foods. "Send this to the Military Ministry and get it out over every available source of public communications, and quick," he told his secretary.

When the Assistant Communications Engineer (the first having gone off duty at three o'clock) received the message, he didn't even bother to see who it was from, but balled it up in disgust and flung it into a wastepaper basket and mumbled something about unauthorized messages. Had the janitor bothered to count that evening, he would have discovered that there were now thirty-six copies of Major Tomar's directive in various wastebaskets around the ministry.

Only a fraction of the barbitide victims made it to General Medical, but the doctors were busy. There was just one extraordinary incident, and among the screams of cramped patients, it was not given much thought. Two men near the beginning of the rush of patients, gained access to the special receiving room. They managed to get a look at all the women who arrived. One of the patients who was wheeled by them was a particularly striking girl of about fifteen with snow white hair and a strong, lithe body, now knotted with cramps. Sweat beaded her forehead, her eyelids, and through her open collar you could see she wore a leather necklace of shells.

"That's her," one of the men said. The other nodded, then went to the doctor who was administering the injections, and whispered to him.

"Of course not," the doctor said indignantly in a clear voice. "Patients need at least forty-eight hours rest and careful observation after injection of the antidotes. Their resistance is extremely low and complications ..."

The man said something else to the doctor and showed him a set of credentials. The doctor stopped, looked scared, then left the patient he was examining and went to the bed of the new girl. Quickly he gave her two injections. Then he said to the men, "I want you to know that I object to this completely and I will-"

"All right, Doctor," the first man said. Then the second hoisted Alter from the cot and they carried her out of the hospital.

* * *

The Queen Mother had her separate throne room. She sat in it now, looking at photographs. In bright colors, two showed the chamber of the Crown Prince. In one picture the Prince was seated on his bed in his pajama pants with his heel against the side board; standing by the window was a white-haired girl with a leather necklace strung with tiny, bright shells. The next showed the Prince still sitting on the bed, this time with his hand on the newel dolphin. The girl was just turning toward the open window.

The third picture, which from the masking, seemed to have been taken through a keyhole, showed what seemed to be an immense enlargement of a human pupil; mistily discernible through the iris were the dottings and tiny pathways of a retina pattern. On the broad arm of the Queen Mother's throne was a folder marked: Alter Ronid.

In the folder were a birth certificate, a clear photograph of the same retina pattern, a contract in which a traveling circus availed itself of the service of a group of child acrobats for the season, a school diploma, copies of receipts covering a three-year period of gymnastic instruction, a copy of a medical bill for the correction of a sprained hip, and two change of address slips. Also there were several cross reference slips to the files of Alia Ronid (mother, deceased) and Rara Ronid (maternal aunt, legal guardian).

The Queen put the photographs on top of the folder and turned to the guards. There were thirty of them lined against the walls of the room. She lifted up the heavy, jeweled scepter and said, "Bring her in." She touched the two buns of white hair on the sides of her head, breathed deeply, and straightened in the chair, as two doors opened at the other end of the room.

Two blocks had been set up in the middle of the room, about four feet high and a foot apart.

Alter stumbled once, but the guard caught her. They walked her between the blocks, which came to just below her shoulders, spread her arms over the surface and strapped them straight across the tops at the biceps and wrist.

The Queen smiled. "That's only a precaution. We want to help you." She came down the steps of the throne, the heavy jeweled rod cradled in her arm. "Only we know something about you. We know that you know something which if you tell me, will make me feel a great deal better. I've been very upset, recently. Did you know that?"

Alter blinked and tried to get her balance. The blocks were just under the proper height by half an inch so that she could neither stand completely nor could she sag.

"We know you're tired, and after your ordeal with the barbitide-you don't feel well, do you?" asked the Queen, coming closer.

Alter shook her head.

"Where did you take my son?" the Queen asked.

Alter closed her eyes, then opened them wide and shook her head.

"Believe me," said the Queen, "we have ample proof. Look." She held up the photographs for Alter to see. "My son took these pictures of the two of you together. They're very clear, don't you think?" She put the pictures back in the quilted pocket of her robe.

"Aren't you going to tell me, now?"

"I don't know anything," Alter said.

"Come now. That room had as many cameras as a sturgeon has eggs. There are dozens of hidden switches. Somehow the alarms connected with them didn't go off, but the cameras still worked."

Alter shook her head again.

"You don't have to be afraid," said the Queen. "We know you're tired and we want to get you back to the hospital as soon as possible. Now. What happened to my son, the Prince?"

Silence.

"You're a very sweet girl. You're an acrobat too?"

Alter swallowed, and then coughed.

The Queen gave a puzzled smile this time. "Really, you don't have to be afraid to answer me. You are an acrobat, isn't that right?"

Alter nodded.

The Queen reached out and slowly lifted the triplet leather necklace with its scattering of shells in her fingers. "This is a beautiful piece of jewelry." She lifted it from Alter's neck. "An acrobat's body must be like a fine jewel, fine and strong. You must be very proud of it." Again she paused and tilted her head. "I'm only trying to put you at ease, dear, make conversation." Smiling, she lifted the necklace completely from around Alter's neck. "Oh, this is exquisite ..."

Suddenly the necklace clattered to the ground, the shells making an almost miniature sound against the tiles.

Alter's eyes followed the necklace to the floor.

"Oh," the Queen said. "I'm terribly sorry. It would be a shame to break something like this." With one hand the Queen drew back her robes until her shoe was revealed. Then she moved her foot forward until her raised toe was over the necklace. "Will you tell me where my son is?"

There was seven, eight, ten seconds of silence. "Very well," the Queen said, and brought her foot down. The sound of crushed shells was covered by Alter's scream. Because the Queen had brought down the scepter, too, the full arc of its swing, onto Alter's strapped forearm. Then she brought it down again. The room was filled with the scream and the crack of the jeweled scepter against the surface of the block. Then the Queen smashed Alter's upturned elbow joint.

When there was something like silence, the Queen said, "Now, where is my son?"

Alter didn't say for a long while; when she did, they were ready to believe anything. So what she told them didn't do much good when they had time to check it. Later, unconscious, she was carried into the General Medical building wrapped in a gray blanket.

"Another fish poison case?" asked the clerk.

The man nodded. The doctor, who had been there when Alter was removed from the hospital, had been working steadily for six hours. When he unwrapped the blanket, he recognized the girl. When he unwrapped it further, the breath hissed between his lips, and then hissed out again, slowly. "Get this girl to emergency surgery," he said to the nurse. "Quickly!"

* * *

In the Devil's Pot, Tel had just gotten over a case of the runs which had kept him away from food all day. Feeling hungry, now, he was foraging in the cold storage cabinet of the inn's kitchen. In the freezing chest he found the remains of a baked fish, so he got a sharp knife from over the sink, and cut a piece. Then the door opened and the barmaid came in. She was nearly seventy years old and wore a red scarf around her stringy neck. Tel had cut a slice of onion and was putting it on top of the fish when the barmaid ran forward and knocked the dish from his hand.

"Ouch," Tel said, and jumped, though nothing had hurt him.

"Are you completely crazy?" the woman asked. "You want to be carried out of here like the rest of them?"

Tel looked puzzled as Rara entered the kitchen. "Good grief," she declared. "Where is everybody? I'm starved. I started selling that homebrew tonic of mine that I made up yesterday, and around noon, suddenly everybody was buying the stuff. They wanted something for cramps, and I guess my Super Aqueous Tonic is as good as anything else. I couldn't even get back to eat. Is there some sort of epidemic? Say, that looks good," and she went for the fish.

The old barmaid snatched up the dish and carried it to the disposal can. "It's poisoned, don't you understand?" She dumped it into the chute. "It's got to be the fish that's causing it. Everybody who ate it has been carried off to General Medical with cramps. Lots of them died, too. The woman who lives across the street and me, we figured it out. We both bought it from the same woman this morning, and that's all it could be.

"Well, I'm still hungry," Tel said.

"Can we have some cheese and fruit?" asked Rara.

"I guess that's safe," the woman said.

"Who was carried out?" Tel wanted to know, looking back in the cabinet.

"Oh, that's right," the barmaid said, "you've been upstairs sick all day." And then she told him.

* * *

At about the same time, an observer in a scouting plane noticed a boat bearing prefabricated barracks foundations some sixty miles away from any spot that could possibly be receiving such a shipment. In fact, he had sent a corrective order on a typographical error concerning ... yes, it must be, that same boat. He'd sent it that morning through Communication Sector 27B. They were near the shore, one of the few spots away from the fishing villages and the farm communes where the great forest had crept down to the edge of the water itself. A tiny port, occasionally used as an embarkation for the families of emigrants going to join people in the city, was the only point of civilization between the rippling smoke-green sea on one side and the crinkling deep green of the forest tree tops on the other. The observer also noted that a small tetron tramp was about to dock also. But that transport ship ... He called the pilot and requested contact be made.

The pilot was shaking his head, groggily.

The co-pilot was leaning back in his seat, his mouth opened, his eyes closed. "I don't feel too ..." The pilot started, and then reached forward absently to crumple a sheet of tin foil he had left on the instrument panel, in which, a few hours ago, had been a filet sandwich that he and the co-pilot had shared between them.

Suddenly the pilot fell forward out of his chair, knocking the control stick way to the left. He clutched his stomach as the plane banked suddenly to the right. In the observation blister, the observer was thrown from his chair and the microphone fell from his hand.

The co-pilot woke up, belched, grabbed for the stick, which was not in its usual place, and so missed. Forty-one seconds later, the plane had crashed into a dock some thirty feet from the mooring tetron tramp.

* * *

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