“We...uhh... thank you for your generosity,” Rene managed, eyes a little wide and cheeks flushing in spite of his best efforts. Members of the aristocracy virtually never conceived children naturally. THe preference for genetic tailoring meant that men usually underwent a retroviral sterilization when the reached puberty. THe process was theoretically reversible but the normal procedure was to extract genetic material and tailor the embryo in vitro. The practice wasn’t secret exactly, but it wasn’t widely publicised either. The Nobility had a stake in making sure that the common people didn’t view them as too alien and genetic manipulation was always a topic which raised pulses. “So High and Mighty the don’t even fuck,” was a common enough epithet that struck close to the mark without being technically true.
The Syshin made that odd bobbing curtsey they had seen before, the unnatural bend from the extra joint making Rene’s leg throb in misattributed sympathy. The aliens moved around them forming an honor guard of sorts and escorting them through the now familiar corridors to the main hold. Syshin working in the orchards paused in their labor as they passed, bowing heads and speaking a single melodic word in Syshi.
“What are they saying?” Rene whispered as he leaned in close to Solae. SHe frowned as if puzzled and made an equivocating gesture with her right hand.
“It doesn't translate very well,” she told him, “its an honorific, maybe sacrificer or they who have sacrificed.” Syshin culture abhorred violence and death, the taking of life was far more taboo than humans, inculcated with violence in media, entertainment, history and lore could readily appreciate. To Rene it seemed like it was the Syshin were taking a huge risk by letting Krol go free, even as a ruse, if something were to go wrong and the renegade escaped it could mean the destruction of their community.
Enro and Nari stood before the large central building along with a knot of older Syshin in a rough semicircle. The pair seemed to be wrapped in loosely draped ribbon of green and metallic gold. As the approached Rene realised it must have been copper, probably braided wire hammered flat and polished clean of verdigris.
“You are certain it does not mean human sacrifice right?” Rene muttered in High Imperial, syntax slightly stilting the joke but not enough to kill it completely. Solae elbowed him gently in the ribs by way or reply. The Syshin escorting them peeled off to take their places at the end of the extended line. Naril began speaking in Syshi, her voice clear and ringing with the fluidity of an orator even if one could not understand the words.
“We are recognising you as true friends of the community,” Enro said in a quiet but audible tone, presumably for Rene’s benefit.
“And we are asking the Twin’s to watch over you in your coming trials, and grant you safe passage to your homes,” he explained. Rene assumed that the Twin’s were some sort of Syshin spiritual entity. He wasn’t a religious man, few of the aristocracy were, but he was willing to take any help he could get. Besides it was the sentiment of Amber Horizion that really mattered, not how they chose to convey it. Naril’s oration came to its conclusion and she and Enro stepped forward as one, each holding an earthenware bowl filled with the now familiar clean water extended.
“Dip your fingers in the bowl,” Enro instructed and Rene and Solae tentatively complied. The two Syshin lifted the bowls to their lips and drank deeply. Having witnessed how fastidious they were about the purity of their water, Rene couldn’t help but feel he was watching something that would have been deeply transgressive if it weren’t embedded in a ritual. As they drank the other Syshin spoke the word that Solae had translated as sacrificers as one. The Syshin upended the bowls and let the remaining contents trickle to the earth and then stepped back.
“We wish you luck in your quest Solae of the Empire, and know that no matter how many hunt you, there are those who wish for your success.”
Rene and Solae waited nervously amidst the rocks above the exit they had chosen. Both of them were dressed in travelling clothes and carrying all that they possessed. Even with what they had been given by the Syshin it amounted to precious little, far less than Rene would have been expected to take into the field with him as an active duty marine. Rene had recovered the pistol that Solae had dropped the previous evening and returned it to her, while he himself carried the pistol Min Ho had given him, along with the least dilapidated of the several rifles they had recovered from the raiders. The rest of the weapons were stacked in one of the cells in Amber Horizion’s, a last ditch defence if the Syshin should need them.
“Any minute now,” Rene said, checking his chronometer, completely unnecessarily. He was nervous, not for himself, but he was starting to question his earlier certainty that Krol wouldn’t try to harm Lasha as she ‘freed’ him from his cell. Another torturous minute dragged by before the hatch squealed open. Krol, looking sickly, stumbled from the hatch onto his hands and knees. The slaver glanced around trying to get his bearings before standing and staggering off towards the east. Rene waited till he was at the edge of their sight line and then rose with Solae, following Krol from a safe distance. The drugs in the man's system, as well as his very real but suppressed infection had him on the edge of delirium, he probably wouldn’t notice the tail, but it was best not to take chances you could avoid.
The air was hot with the latent heat of noon as Krol lead them down the slope. The jungle was thinner here on the rocky fringe of the hills. Twisted trees, draped with moss like vines scrabbled for light, with only a few of the most optimistic ferns to provide ground cover. Krol staggered and fell repeatedly, his crashing approach starting birds and small forest creatures from their hides before he reached them. Rene was beginning to worry that the man was lost, to sick to find his way back, when the hit another old railway track. It cut through the jungle like a scar, raised slightly on a bed of crushed gravel barely identifiable now. The track was heavily overgrown, branches covering it at a height that would have preculuded any engine from running on it, but the lack of growth covering it suggested that it might still have been used for foot traffic. That or the gravel substrate was so unappealing that even entrepreneurial jungle flora couldn’t make a home of it. Krol paused, looked up and down the track, and then staggered off southward.
They followed the track for well over an hour. Krol was clearly deteriorating as the meds began to where off. His falls became more frequent and at times he crawled on hands and knees. The rails began to rise slightly, the embankment growing higher as they reached lower ground, more susceptible to sudden monsoonal floods. The Jungle to either side was much thicker now, not quite the towering giants of the deep bush, but trees large enough to black the sky almost completely save for the odd dapples of light brought on by the errant winds. Krol rounded a bend and let out a weak but strangled cry. Ahead Rene could see the wild jungle trees give way to regular rubber trees, easily distinguishable by their dark green, almost black leaves. Splotches of paint in various colors marred their smooth trunks, probably something to do with orders of tapping.
“This must be it,” Rene said, uttering his first words since the pursuit had began. He was whispering but after the protracted silence it sounded like a shout. Without a pause he climed to the rails and dashed along them to seize Krol. The man’s flesh was hot to the touch and he was soaked in sweat. The smell indicated he had lost control of his bladder at some point too, which made the task no more pleasant.
“Who… who… are you,” Krol croaked through lips parched till they had split. Rene realised that the slaver was too far gone in his own delirum to recognise him.
“What should we do with the prisoners boss?” Rene asked, doing his best to conceal his upper class Capellan accent. It would never have worked if the man wasn’t half out of his mind with fever, but it was worth a try.
“Prisoners…” Krol moaned as though not quite certain what Rene meant.
“The...chooks, the ones were are going to send off world,” Rene expanded, wincing inwardly to use the borrowed slur, even in a good cause.
“Right… chooks… we need to… south side of the plantation… need to load them before the woman and her…” Krol paused and squinted up at Rene, he licked his cracked lips blinking to clear the fever haze from his eyes.
“I know you…” Krol began. Rene straightened and unclipped the sword he had taken from Lord Armon’s estate. They were too close to other humans to risk a shot and Rene didn’t want to do something as brutish as cut the mans throat, or wring his neck, although he supposed neither would have been too difficult.
“You are that golden haired bitches lap dog!” Krol managed, his voice rising but still weak that it wouldn’t carry very far. Rene thumbed the powered blade to life, it hummed gently as the segments began to oscillate, to finely for the human eye to measure more than a shimmer.
“It is still an hour till sundown,” Rene said quietly, “you have my apologies for that.” Then, without further hesitation, he thrust the blade into Krol’s chest, the tip sinking into his heart like a knife sliding into softened butter. Krol stiffened and coughed once, a trickle of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth. Then he sagged back, the light fading from his eyes in the space of a few heart beats. Rene withdrew the point of the blade a fine mist of blood, scattered by the oscillators spattered the front of the dead man’s shirt, rapidly obscured by the spreading crimson stain. Rene thumbed the blade off and the slight whine died away. The sound of insects and bird calls filled the quiet of the forest. He felt sick, killing a man in a firefight was one thing, but this was something else again. Rene had no doubt that Krol had received justice for crimes he openly admmited to, but slaughtering a sick half delirious man curdled his stomach. Glancing back he saw Solae approaching along the train line. This was no time to be weak. Clipping the sword back to his belt, he seized Krol’s body by both arms and dragged it off the track and into the concealment of a nearby knot of thorny bushes, covering the corpse with a layer of leaf litter hastily scrapped from a nearby bank. In a few days the smell would make they body easy to find, but by that point they would either be dead or off New Concordia.
“He said something about the south side of the plantation,” he told Solae as he returned to the train tracks, trying to ignore the blood staining the gravel. He nodded his head to the long lines of dark rubber trees. They were closely packed, and marched off until the gloom beneath them became impenetrable. No workers were yet in sight, perhaps this section wasn’t due to be harvested any time soon, he didn’t know enough about rubber production to even hazard a guess.