Off-World Invasion: The Risky Belle – Webisode 1, by Jonah Bergan

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Off World Webisode 1

This is a tie-in to Off World. Note: this first websiode does not have LGBT characters.

Before the bombardment, the warships of the Sisterhood passed over the town of Bishop, and the townsfolk came out of their homes and shops, gathering in the street to watch them pass. The massive battleships and carriers and troop transports made an awful sound—like thunder that rolled and rolled and didn’t seem inclined to end. Dozens of gunships swarmed like insects between the capital ships—it was a spectacle and it was deafening and the people of Bishop watched it happen.

In a way, it was almost a relief to have all the fear and worry set aside at last. The war had lasted a good thirty years. That’s a long time to worry, and a long time to fear what might come, and long time to hope for what might not. It’s a long time for any kind of suffering, and if one thing was true, wars don’t just happen out there somewhere between the stars—they happen inside each and every heart and mind and soul, and with the worst of what might have happened happening in the sky above them, the people of Bishop watched as the war they had endured for so very long finally ended in defeat.

The town of Bishop wasn’t much, and hadn’t ever been much, and so the ships passed it by. Bishop was too small and too poor and the Sisterhood would get to it soon enough. It squatted on a patch of muddy ground west of the Lazy River—a collection of tired one and two story buildings with a wide muddy rut called Main Street running between them. Jensen Trammel, back when he was a young man, and still thought himself witty, once commented that Main Street might only be considered a street because the buildings to either side faced it. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’d just be a stretch of mud, better avoided than followed.” That got a laugh in the Dusk Tavern, as his wit often did, as long as he had money to spend anyhow. His father paid his bills, so he bought rounds of drinks and preened at the idea of how well-liked he was.

Back then, most of the buildings along Main Street had been taverns—dance halls and saloons catering to one taste or another, and most of the patrons were ranchers—horsemen and cattlemen, shepherds and slavers. There was a general store and a smithy, and supply depot for grains and tools. An older woman named Sheila Tumpt bought up the Barley House in the North end—a fine old lady of a house that had seen better days. She cleaned the place up and made it into a combination Inn and brothel where patrons could rent a room and a slave or two to help make their stay more comfortable. She named it the Risqué Belle, but the sign painter got it wrong, and when they revealed it at a little ceremony during the grand opening, it showed the name of the place as the “Risqey Belle” and before long that’s what everyone in town started calling her. “Hey, Risky,” they’d shout, “How’s busy-ness?” It wasn’t mean-spirited, when they’d tease her like that. They weren’t ever mean-spirited where one of their own was concerned. They laughed because it was funny, and they’d say it in the first place because they never thought it was quite right for a woman to run a business. It just seemed a little strange—a little off for a woman to do a man’s work that way, but they didn’t hold it against her.

Still, as tolerant as they were of one another, there was more than a little speculation about how the sign painter might have gotten it wrong on purpose. Nobody could prove it one way or the other, but there was talk, and the sign-man—Bill Callum, wasn’t about to settle the matter. His wife wasn’t one to put up with such non-sense, and anyhow, he’d come up sour either way he answered for it. If anyone asked, he’d just shrug his shoulders and walk away.

Occasionally, a traveler from Piers Point or Holden might stop in Bishop and stay a night at the Belle, on their way to someplace bigger and better, but it was the coming and going of livestock traders that helped keep the place afloat. Later, when Jensen Trammel got his inheritance and started up Trammel Farms—a school for apprentice slave handlers, that’s when the Belle really started to prosper. A steady stream of parents looking for a place to stay while they negotiated the apprenticeship of their children paid the bills, and later still, thanks to an agreement between Risky and Jensen, they adapted the place into more of dormitory than Inn—a rooming house to house all the youth who’s parents paid to see to it that their offspring avoided the war, or at least delayed their involvement in it. Between the parents coming and going every spring and fall, and the students staying for the seasons in between, Risky did pretty well for herself.

She sold off most of her slaves—with Jensen’s help, but she kept Danny and Theresa, a brother and sister pair, since she was particularly fond of them. They were adorable. She’d bought them young—she raised them up from pups, and she’d never rented them for pleasure, even though she’d occasionally get offers. There was a man—a regular who always signed himself in and out as Felix DeGrille back when the place was a brothel, and he’d made a sizable offer for Theresa, but as substantial as that offer was, Risky declined, telling him: “You just wait ‘til she comes up prime. Then we’ll talk.” He pestered her about it, as if that was going to help, but Risky held the line, and eventually he stopped coming around at all.

By the time the warships broke through the planetary defenses and came down upon the world, Jensen and Risky had married. It may have started as a marriage of convenience, but it worked well enough for them. They stood on the front porch of the Belle, Jensen with his arms around Risky, and they watched the ships passing over. Danny and Theresa, hearing the thunder of the fleet up above, came out and stood with them. Danny had come up prime that year, and Theresa was less than a year out herself. In a lot of ways they were like the couple’s children, maybe because Jensen and Risky hadn’t managed to have any of their own—although, to be fair, that was more Risky’s view of things than Jensen’s. He wanted to sell them off and use the proceeds to buy the old Althorn place to expand the farm, but he hadn’t said so, not in front of Risky anyhow.

Eventually Jensen and Risky walked down the steps and into the street, joining with the rest of the townsfolk in getting a better view. Danny moved to follow, but Theresa snagged his arm and they exchanged a look. Now wasn’t the time to risk trouble, and leaving the property without permission was a little too close to the heart of the matter as far as Theresa was concerned. Danny looked at her through the mop of shaggy hair that hung over his face. He pouted, but he stayed and he leaned out over the porch rail to see what he could of the spectacle. With the sound of the ships offering them cover, Theresa pulled him back and leaned in close to his ear. “Tonight,” she whispered, “We’ll do it tonight.” Danny glanced at Risky and bit his lip, but Theresa glowered at him so he nodded his head.

Once the ships were far away—enough so that she could be heard, Risky turned, still in Jensen’s arms. “What do you think?” she said. She looked up into his eyes.

“I don’t think it’ll matter,” he said. “I had Ben put everything in your name, and back date the lot of it, but if the rumors hold, the witches will throw out all the old property records and divvy everything up according to their own rules.”

“Don’t call them that,” Risky said, “It’ll make trouble for us.”

“They ain’t here yet,” he said.

“It won’t be long,” she said, “and if you get used to talking that way, you’ll slip up.”

He nodded and looked at the two slaves on the porch. “Show’s over,” he said. “You two git back inside and stop slacking, that dinner ain’t gonna fix itself!” Danny and Theresa scrambled, letting the screen door bang behind them.

“Don’t be so hard on them,” Risky said. “You can’t blame them for being curious.”

“You’re too easy on ‘em,” he said. “It makes me look bad, considering the school and all.”

“Well, they’re mine, not yours,” she said, “and I’ve had about enough of what people think.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “But I still say you shoulda sold off the girl. You could’ve passed off that loss to someone else and kept the boy.”

#

The power went out just after the bombardment of the capitol started. That happened during dinner, and Risky had Theresa light the dinner candles. They could hear the explosions far in the distance, and occasionally the windows would flicker with a flash or two like lightning during a storm. With each booming explosion Danny would flinch; he was trembling and flushed and clumsy. “They’re after Principia,” Jensen said as though he were addressing Risky. “We’re safe here in Bishop.”

After dinner they moved to the parlor. They sat up later than usual, Jensen and Risky in their favorite chairs, the slaves on the floor, and lanterns and candles scattered across a few of the tables to light the place. For a while they listened to the news on a wireless that Danny held on his lap. He sat cross-legged across from Jensen, with his back against the wall. He was calmer now, and still in his trim, black and white serving outfit. His shaggy hair hung over his face, masking most of what he was feeling. He turned the crank a few times each time the charge ran low, but he was distracted, and every once in a while Jensen would have to prompt him.

Theresa knelt at Risky’s feet, she’d changed into the white dress with the flowers embroidered on it—the one she knew Risky liked best. She’d changed while Danny cleared the table, and cleaned the dishes, and then she joined them all in the parlor. She knelt, holding Risky’s feet on her lap, while she massaged her legs. Every once in a while she would glance toward Danny, hoping he wouldn’t break down and give the whole plan away. All through dinner his hands had been shaking—so bad he’d nearly dropped the gravy boat, and his face was flushed red, and Theresa was sure he was going to break down at any minute and start crying. She was sure, if that happened, it’d all come spilling out and he’d tell them everything.

They listened to the reports of troop movements and resistance fighters on the wireless until at last the transmission fell to static. It was unclear if the towers had been destroyed, or the reporters got caught in a plasma blast, or if the witches just jammed the transmission so the resistance fighters wouldn’t be able to coordinate their fight. Jensen had Danny try different frequencies, telling him what numbers to punch in, but every channel was static and Danny got the numbers wrong a few times, making Theresa want to scream. She studied Jensen’s face, looking for suspicion or some hint that he knew, but if he did, Theresa couldn’t tell. Maybe he believed it was nothing more than nerves over the invasion?

Sometime shortly after two AM, the bombardment ended. It had gone on for so long that the end of it felt sudden and eerie. The house was silent as a tomb. Jensen had sent the apprentices back to the farm to stay in the bunkhouse. His thinking was that they’d be safer further from the center of things when the witches came to town. Once everything settled down, and everyone understood how things would be, then maybe at least some of them could come back. With everything so quiet inside, they could hear the sound of people outside. It was the urgent sound of people panicking and hurrying—loading their hovers and calling to one another in hoarse whispers. “Where’s this,” and “what about that,” and “where’s Suzie,” and “forget about her, she’s just a cat.”

“You think we should go?” Risky asked.

“Where would we go?” Jensen replied. He stood up. “They’re done with Principia I’d wager, but we don’t know where they’ll strike next. Maybe they’ll hit Bayport next, I don’t know. I figure Bishop’s small enough to avoid the worst of it.” He stood up. “We better get some rest,” he said. “While we can.”

Risky drew her feet off of Theresa’s lap. She stood up, and crossed to the window and pulled aside the curtain to look out. At first she just glanced but then leaned forward to peer. “Look’s like someone’s broken into the Feed and Grain,” she said. “The door’s wide open.”

“Looting probably,” Jensen said. “I had the men post guards at the farm.”

“Don’t we need them here too?” she said.

“No,” he said. “Right now it’s just our neighbors. They’ll know we’re here. They won’t come in with the windows lit up. Next day or two, when the refugees start coming, that’s when it’ll get dangerous.”

Risky nodded and looked at her slaves.

“You two put yourselves to bed tonight,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”

#

Theresa had one arm thrown across her eyes, to block out the light of the lone candle she’d brought downstairs. She lay on her mat, waiting until she was sure they fell asleep up on the first floor. She used the time to think things through again.

The capitol was in the northeast, on a peninsula near the mouth of the river. That’s where the bombardment had been the heaviest, and based on the volume and duration of it, Theresa thought “was” may have been truth of the matter for the place now. She’d never been there of course, she seldom left the house, let alone the town, but a couple of days ago she’d seen a painting on the wall at the one of the stores Risky had taken her to. It was a painting—a chart of some kind.

“It’s a map,” Risky said. “See, this is where we are, in Bishop, and this is the river, and there’s Jenkins Creek and Harper’s Grove—they’re towns too, just like Bishop, but even smaller. Can you imagine?” She moved her finger up to point at a place in the mountains. “Now this is Holden,” she said. “That’s a proper city, not too big and not too small. Still, a person could get lost in a place like that and never once even know their neighbor. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go there, unless of course they’ve got something to hide.”

By then, the shop boy had her packages wrapped, so Risky dropped Theresa’s leash and walked off to settle her business with the store-keep. Theresa studied and memorized the map as well as she was able. Lying on her mat now, she thought they’d have to go south, or maybe east—across the river and into the mountains. They’d have to keep off the roads, at least at first, but once they were far enough away—far enough that nobody knew who or what they were, maybe then they could pose as a free couple, or maybe just a pair of refugees fleeing the disaster in the capitol or one of the other big cities. Maybe Holden would be the best choice?

Danny had stripped down nude. He walked over and squatted down near the foot of Theresa’s mat. He picked up the shackle, and reached for her ankle, but she jerked it away.

“What are you doing?” she snapped.

He looked at her through the mop of hair hanging over his eyes. “She said we should put ourselves to bed,” he said.

“What are you, stupid?” she said. “I told you tonight’s the night!”

“I forgot I guess,” he said.

“Stop lyin’,” she said. “You didn’t forget. You’re just scared.”

“I ain’t,” he said. “But what if we get caught? Remember Timmy?”

“We ain’t gonna get caught,” she said. “Not unless you muck things up. Now get dressed in a clean pair of work clothes—none of that frilly stuff she likes to put you in, and keep quiet so I can figure everything out.”

He got up and walked over toward the clothes that were all carefully folded and stacked on the shelf. A rack stood nearby, hung with colorful silks and wealthy looking garments. Risky liked to dress him up as characters from her favorite holo-novels. Her favorite was Jotto, the jungle boy. That was a leather outfit, composed of a loincloth and necklace of bones and beads. It was entertaining for the guests when they came to sign up their kids. Some of them must have read the stories too. Other times she would just decorate him, as if making up her own characters. That’s what the silks and beads and ornate faux jewelry was for. He didn’t enjoy it, but he didn’t mind it either. It made her happy, and sometimes she’d give him treats—little candies or tiny cookies, and anyhow, it was better than doing chores.

“Danny?” Theresa said.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t put your shackle on,” she said. “Them locks was the only hitch to the plan, but I think we got luck on our side tonight.”

“Oh, okay,” he said.

She closed her eyes and wiped her hands down her face. She would never consider leaving him behind. They belonged to each other, no matter what it said on anybody’s papers, but sometimes he tried her patience something fierce. She watched as he chose an outfit. He looked at her but she shook her head so he chose another. When he lifted it up, and turned to show her, he knocked a pair of boots off the shelf and they hit the floor with a double-thump.

“You want to make a little more noise,” she hissed. “I don’t think you woke both of them up yet. Maybe some of the neighbors are still sleeping too!”

“Sorry,” he said.

She sighed and shook her head.

“What are you puttin’ on your feet?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I figure I’ll keep to the grass.”

“Just bring those boots,” she said. “Don’t wear ‘em, just carry them.”

“If you want,” he said. He shrugged. “What about you?”

“I got a pair of quick-steppers stowed under the porch,” she said. “Don’t worry about me, just hurry up and get dressed. It’ll be light soon.”

#

The house was still and silent, lit only by the sharp white glow of the second moon streaming in the windows. Every sound they made seemed too loud to her. The basement door creaked when she opened it, the floorboards groaned and popped under their feet, and she was sure everyone could hear her breathing, and her heartbeat thundering in her ears. They crept up the hallway, her leading, and him following. She stubbed her toe on an occasional table, and Danny had been following so closely that he bumped into her. A little porcelain vase toppled over in the collision, and she snatched it up before it could roll off the table. She pressed her lips together and squeezed her eyes closed. She held it in and held the vase close to her chest waiting for the pain to pass.

They were only a few feet from the front door now. The back door had a bar and lock, but the front only had a toggle, and she’d figured it was their best bet. She carefully set the vase back down and crept closer to the door. She turned the toggle, grimacing at the sharp sound of it, and pulled open the front door, which made far too much noise for her tastes. They were just feet from freedom now—just inches from it and it felt like any moment they’d be caught.

She carefully pushed open the screen door. The spring that held it closed squealed as she pushed, and a couple of times it made a little “tong” kind of sound. The night air was crisp and fresh, and even the muddy street looked pretty in the grey and silvery moonlight. She’d tucked her quick-steppers in a little gap up under the porch stairs. All she’d have to do is squat down and reach for them once they were down the stairs and then they could be off to whatever freedom they could make for themselves. She turned to make sure Danny didn’t let the screen door bang shut again, and ruin everything.

“Took you long enough,” Jensen said.

They both startled and turned. Danny dropped his boots. Jensen was sitting on one of the porch chairs, sitting in the dark and just looking at them. She felt her stomach sink—all her thinking and planning had been for nothing. Had they been caught inside, she might have made an excuse, but a couple of slaves, outside, and dressed and creeping in the dark? Anyone might guess at what that was.

Jensen stood up and took a step toward them. He held a leather collar, and had a leash coiled in his hand. He didn’t say anything. He just walked up and fastened the collar around Danny’s neck. Danny hung his head and started shaking—the boys always got it worse, and he knew that, but when it comes to beatings there’s not much point in comparing who got what. Suffering was suffering, and that’s that. A dark stain spread across the front of his pants.

Jensen sighed and shook his head. He turned and handed the end of the leash to Theresa. “Anyone asks,” he said, “You own him. He’s your slave. That should keep you both safe enough until you get settled somewhere.” He turned and pulled a pack from between the chairs.

“We put together a kit for you,” he said. He handed the pack to Theresa. “There’s food, enough for a few days and some sundry supplies. It ain’t much, but it’s the best we could do on short notice.” She took the pack numbly, just gaping at him. “There’s a some papers in the front pocket,” he said, “backing up your claim on him. Might be as many as five pars in there too—should be enough to get you set up wherever you land.”

She didn’t know what to say, so she said what she was accustomed to saying. “Thank you, Master.”

He nodded gruffly. “Wasn’t me,” he said. “This’s all her. Now go on, git,” he said. “Head east—over the river toward Holden. We didn’t hear any explosions over that way, so maybe it’s safe. Wait a few days; see if they pass the place by, if so head on in. Watch out for each other and remember, she loves you.”

He stood on the porch and watched them go. Risky was at the front window, crying. She couldn’t bear to be out there—couldn’t bear to say goodbye. She had hoped it would be easier this way, but it wasn’t any better. Her heart ached to see them go and she was certain she’d never see either of them again. She was wrong about that, but that’s a different story.

The End

This is a tie-in to Off World – more on Off World at the link.

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