This week’s story is a response to one of Agent Courtney’s writing prompts: “He opened the last box, and inside he found…” Slipping it in just before the August 26 deadline. Enjoy.
A Handler’s voice, booming and rough. Jovo looked up, shading his eyes from the scouring noonday sun. No – not just one Handler but two, approaching slowly from the landrunner they’d parked some distance away. He gripped the shovel tighter.
One was bad enough. Two meant trouble.
He stepped out of the shallow hole he’d been digging, laid down the shovel, and began the usual gesture: a deep bow, pressing his nose as close to his knees as he could manage, though the effort sent waves of agony down his tired back. But he’d barely begun when he paused, noticing what he had not seen before in the dusty summer haze: only one of these two men wore Handler white. The robes on the other were light blue.
Jovo’s breath caught on the scorching air and he dropped to the ground, prostrating himself. He pressed his cheek silently to the white-baked earth, spread his callused fingers on its surface, praying he had not been too slow. The rock-hard soil burned him, dirtied his ragged beard, but he ignored all that. Life and death in this land came not from the heat, but from the hands of men like these.
A Master. What did it mean?
Jovo could see nothing but the long vertical horizon, yellow ground against yellow sky, but he heard them murmuring to each other in their outlanders’ language: those soft, melodious tones, so alien in this cracked wasteland. Then scuffles and grunts, as of something being moved. What were they moving that was so valuable they couldn’t trust a slave’s hands to the job?
Now the Master’s voice again, louder, and the Handler translating: “Stand up, slave!”
Jovo rose, taking care to keep his eyes down. His friend Marva had forgotten once; he tried not to imagine Marva’s left hand, the pock-scarred stump where the third finger had been.
“You may look up, slave, but take care not to look at the Master.”
Not knowing where the Master stood, Jovo looked up very slowly indeed.
A red blanket, stained white with dust already, lay spread over the bare earth. On the blanket sat three cubes. Beyond, at the edge of his peripheral vision, two men lurked shadowlike. The cubes were an arm’s length on each side, brilliantly gleaming blue-green metal, surfaces worked with ornate curls. Smooth oval gems shone white and gold along all the edges, and one fat jewel sat clear as water in the center of each square face.
The boxes looked identical at first, but a moment’s study revealed that was not quite true. The middle box was just a little bigger than the left one, and the right box just a little bigger than the middle.
Again the master’s voice, like music, and the harsh echo of the Handler.
“The Master is pleased with your work, slave. As a reward for your labor, the Master permits you to open these three boxes and gaze on their contents.”
Rubbish, of course. The only reward for labor was not to be killed. And what nonsense was it, anyway, to open a box and look inside but not get to keep it? What game were they playing?
Only, the men’s shadows retreated now, and he knew. They were afraid. Something dangerous was in these boxes – or at least, the Master suspected there might be.
So have a slave open them. Jovo was old, anyway, close to useless in his late forties. No great loss if something happened. That was how they thought, these men, and he had found it useful to learn exactly how they thought.
Jovo stumbled forward, squatted on the blanket in front of the leftmost, smallest box. He reached forth trembling, sun-dark fingers, but stopped short of the brilliant metal. He did not ask the question; speech was forbidden, mostly. But his wide-eyed questioning look was enough.
“Yes, start with that one,” said the Handler. “Smallest to largest – may as well do it in the order she wanted. Touch the center jewel on top.” Still he heard them backing further away. What were these boxes, to frighten them so?
And who was ‘she’?
But despite his fear, he never even considered disobeying. Nothing atop this blanket could be worse than a Handler’s wrath. Again Marva’s four fingers flashed in his mind, that awful, obscene gap.
His own fingers brushed the top center jewel of the first box, surprisingly cool under the pitiless sun. The top split into four triangular pieces as the four sides fell away. Inside sat a silver dish. A pale blue lasergram flickered to life above it, taking the form of a shimmering woman four meters tall. Jovo dared not raise his eyes too far – the Master still waited some distance away – but he could see the gown of pure light, the bare feet peeking out from the folds.
Belatedly he noticed the Summerstar ring on her big toe – a sign that even slaves recognized. This was an image of the Empress Herself, Monarch of the Hundred Thousand Lands, Keeper of the Light of Centuries. He hurled himself to the blanket once more, burying his cheek in its softness, genuflecting before these hallowed photons. Was this only a recording, or could she see him now? His skin turned cold in the pounding heat.
“Lord Feumis,” said the lasergram, a woman’s voice, not melodious like the Master’s but cool and flat as iron, proper as the sun. Yet he relaxed. Only a recording. “I greet you in the language of your servants to remind you that you are my servant. But I greet you by name. You are a servant, not a slave.
“You know I am not pleased that anyone in my Empire should indulge in slaving, by far the least palatable of your world’s numerous…blotches. Yet a wise ruler respects the customs of her lands. So I present you these gifts, that you may know I am everyone’s Empress, even yours. Take them in peace.”
Gifts from the Empress. So that was what had them so worried. Marva said the Empress was no great friend of this backwater region, and might well try to assassinate one of their leaders if she saw an advantage. But that had sounded like a friendly enough speech. He cradled his fingers and they shook a bit less.
He took no pleasure, though, from her lip service toward the Emancipation Movement. Her Imperial Majesty said a lot of things, but little had changed since she captured these lands eighteen years ago.
“The next one,” called the Handler. Jovo rose and obeyed.
This time the box opened on an oval mirror, its border gilded even more lavishly than the containers themselves. Jovo looked into this gift that was meant for the Master, studying the careworn lines of his own face, the eyes like old granite, the fear he’d hoped would be less obvious. A slave’s face, surrounded by swirls of gold.
A halo, perhaps. Or an omen.
He opened the last box, and inside he found a machine.
It was a fat thing, the size of a dog but utterly alien, a convoluted mess of black tubes and black spines and dull gray metal.
“What is it?” shouted the Handler, and the tremor in that voice was unmistakable now.
Jovo reached forward, setting his fingers on the strange device –
Quick as heat lightning the metal – unfolded, opening klik-klak-krak and shooting up his hand, his arm, his entire body. In less than a second it coated him like a suit of armor. Knobby gray gauntlets snapped cold and tight around his hands, thick robotic sinews clung to his thighs. A green visor slipped over his face. He stumbled back, and the suit moved with him.
A recording of the Empress’s voice crackled in his ear.
“Oh, my,” she said, not sounding the least bit surprised, “DNA sensors indicate you aren’t Lord Feumis at all. He must have had one of his slaves open it. How very unexpected. And now, alas, there will probably be a slave rebellion. If only he had trusted me more, this politically convenient tragedy might have been avoided. As it is, you’ll most likely start all sorts of trouble with your brand-new, fully-automatic Phlogiston missile launcher, which you can fire by curling your right forefinger.”
The voice switched off.
A bolt of piercing orange light rocketed from the Handler’s painstaff into Jovo’s metal-encrusted torso. It bounced away harmlessly.
Jovo looked up and, for the first time in his life, met the Master’s gaze. Through the green visor, those unassailable eyes looked stark and fearful. The Master – the man – turned and scrambled away. Jovo followed, invincible, taking meters at a stride. More orange beams failed to hurt him.
The targeting computer drew a thin blue circle around his retreating form, and the missile launcher on Jovo’s right arm clicked invitingly.
He smiled, and thought of Marva.