When Aran saw that there was another one up ahead, he stopped. He was so scared that he couldn't help it. Dad kept on walking. The strap tied to Dad's belt jerked at Aran's neck, and Aran stumbled on for fear that Dad would drag him. With his hands tied behind his back, Aran wouldn't be able to get up if he fell, and Dad didn't know that he was towing his little boy. Like a one-chip robot, he would keep on walking.
The new one shouted "Shtahp!" The man in green echoed him and Dad stopped. Dad didn't flinch when Aran ran into him. Aran leaned against a shagbark tree for a minute.
The strangers' clothes had told Aran that they were from another planet even before he heard them talk. The new one wore tight-fitting silky coveralls just like those worn by the man who had drugged Dad, only the new one wore brown with yellow splotches instead of green on green.
The outlanders exchanged greetings in Interstellar. They didn't pronounce the words the way the schoolmaster did. Maybe it was their native tongue. The schoolmaster said that some version of Interstellar was the native language on most of the human-settled planets.
The man in brown saw Aran hiding behind Dad and jerked him into view. The sudden motion made Aran pull against the cruelly tight strap on his wrists. Brown said something that Aran translated as "Picking them a little green, aren't you? The kid can't be much more'n six."
Green said, "It saw me takin' the big one."
Following the quick, slurred Interstellar was such hard work that Aran forgot how cramped his arms felt from being tied back. He even stopped picking at the impossible knot in the strap around his wrists.
Brown looked at Dad. "Where'd you find it?"
"In an isolated clearing, pushing one of those horse-drawn plows. It never saw me until I had the modera on it. It was a perfect [noun?] until the kid showed up with a jug of water. I popped the big one right quick and sent the modera after the kid. The kid is so little it slipped out of the rings and this one is so big that it took maybe thirty long seconds for the serps to get it under control." From watching gangster shows, Aran knew that "serps" was "serpinol hyposomnate"; the "modera" had to be the pair of control rings Green had tried to use on Aran. Green must have been really scared of Dad. Aran wished he had seen him run.
Brown said, "That was a near [?]. If it'd set these [peasants?] to looking for us they could have given us [trouble?]." He twisted Aran's arms to look at his wrists. "That strap is marking it up. We'll get little enough without trying to pass bruised merchandise."
"The serps cartridges are three times too much for a kid this size. I'd have had to make the big one carry it."
"Might stunt its growth or something, too." Brown let Aran stagger against Dad. "Aren't you going to notice what I caught?"
"Two [?]!" Green sounded surprised and pleased. Aran looked beyond Brown for the first time, and saw Cousin Fletch and Cousin Noble. They stared straight ahead, just like Dad. As Brown and Green talked, Aran gathered that Green hadn't expected Brown to catch two in one day, and that teenagers were just right for whatever it was they wanted them for.
When Brown and Green were through talking, Brown led the way through the forest. Fletch and Noble and Dad walked obediently behind. Aran walked behind Dad and Green walked behind Aran. Sometimes Green grabbed Aran's arms and lifted him over a fallen tree. That hurt.
Aran grew so tired that he walked as mindlessly as the drugged men, thinking only of putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually they stopped moving. Brown said "sit" to Dad and Fletch and Noble. Aran cowered against Dad and wondered what they meant to do with him. They were in a small meadow that would be a pond next spring. Aran hoped that the strangers had some way of knowing that it wouldn't rain.
Brown went to the other side of the clearing and said, "Stand up . . . stand up." Aran's skin crawled. They stood up: Kinsman Val, Kinsman Trace, Uncle Prior, the peddler who had disappeared the day before yesterday, and the boy from Rachell's Valley who was working for Cousin Baird; all were turned into robots like Dad.
Brown gave each of the standing men a little blue egg to swallow. Medic Jevon had given Aran green pills that looked like these blue ones, once. You take a pill of that shape once every twelve hours.
Green hacked at some neatly-sawed logs with a shiny little ax. When he had been struggling with it for a while, Aran realized that he was trying to split some firewood. Little Nelda could have done better. They'd have never got a fire going if they hadn't had a flameshooting gadget. Once they had the fire, they didn't use it. They had a tiny stove that made exactly as much fire as you wanted.
They mixed something out of a paper box with water and cooked it. The strange spicy smell reminded Aran that Mom would have supper on the table. She would be getting angry because they were late, along about now. Or maybe Daisy had come home without them; Green had cut her loose from the plow when he'd cut straps to tie Aran with. Surely Daisy was home and Mom and Nelda were out hunting for Dad and Aran.
Whenever Brown and Green weren't looking at him, Aran chewed on his leash. The wood-wivern hide was so tough he could hardly tell which part he had been working on. He reminded himself that he was still alive and still on Theralithia and tried not to wonder how long either condition would last.
Aran listened closely to every word Brown and Green said while they were eating and tried not to look as though he understood most of it. He suspected that something dreadful would happen if they found out that he had studied Interstellar at school.
They said they were pleased to catch almost as many "thooz" today as they had got in the two previous days. That made it a day sooner that they could get off this [dirty word?] planet. Tomorrow they would take this bunch back to the ship and put them into stasis with the rest. All except the little one. For it they would improvise a cage. Then they could keep it on real time until its marks faded. Aran was tired of being called "it." He resolved to ask the schoolmaster whether that was proper Interstellar grammar in some places, then came near crying when he remembered that he might never go to school again. The strap on his wrists hurt fearfully and he would never chew through that leash.
Brown and Green were moving the ship tomorrow night, because [harvesting?] in one place for too long would make the natives wary. Brown wished that one of them spoke enough "Theralithian" to make the big strong guy tell whether or not the kid they had was its son. Aran wondered how they'd learned as much as they had without learning that the Theralithian settlers still spoke North Lanxstrian Vulgate.
Green put down his plate to stretch lazily, and agreed with Brown. "If we could prove that it had a good sturdy sire, we could get a better price."
"Yeah," Brown said. "Maybe half what we could get for carrying a passenger! I still think we ought to try to sell the ship."
"You'd think you wanted to get shipped back to Manac in a modera. They aren't going to ask any questions about a load of fine thooz, but even on Haveen ... "
Aran didn't hear the rest. He had heard of Haveen. It was a nasty planet that honest traders wouldn't visit because people were bought and sold like animals there. When Aran had asked why people bought other people, the schoolmaster had said that they made them do work that free men wouldn't do. Aran hid his face in Dad's unresponding chest.
It was twilight when the two men from Manac finished their supper. Green tried to feed Aran some scraps. When Aran shook his head and wouldn't eat, Green shrugged and threw the food into the fire.
Brown mixed water with powder from a box labeled "Gavage." In smaller letters it said "A complete diet for tube feeding." One by one, Brown coaxed each prisoner to drink a glassful of the mixture. When Aran's turn came, he drank as best he could with Brown pouring the stuff into him. After tramping through the woods all afternoon, he was thirsty.
Brown and Green washed up, laid out the men who had been standing, and shook out two sleeping bags. Brown made Fletch and Noble and Dad each swallow one of the egg-shaped blue pills before he made them lie down. When Brown shoved one of the nasty things in Aran's face, he clamped his teeth shut.
Brown said, "It looks as though we'll have to risk the adult cartridge after all. I'm not going to sit up all night to watch him!"
Aran pressed a little closer to Dad. If they shot him, there was no telling what the overdose would do to him. Green slapped Aran twice and took the pill from Brown. Aran opened his mouth and let Green put the pill in. Green laughed. "You just have to be firm with these little thooz, is all."
Aran couldn't swallow. Accepting the pill was the same thing as telling Brown and Green it was all right to take him to Haveen. Even if the shot killed him, he couldn't be a willing slave. He spat out the pill and threw himself on Dad's body, crying "No! No! No!"
He lost track of what Brown and Green were saying. Brown grabbed Aran by the neck to show Green where he had been chewing on the leash. Aran kicked Brown and was thrown down and sat on. When Green brought out his folding knife, Aran thought it was all over. They only wanted to cut him loose so they could drag him across the clearing. Brown held him down while Green tied him between two stakes that he had driven into the ground. They might have been tying up a mischievous puppy for all the effect Aran's struggles had. Green patted his head and said, "You're going to have to learn to mind your elders, little rumpus."
Too angry to speak in Interstellar, Aran shouted in Vulgate, "I won't learn to 'mind', never!" He used their word for "mind". They didn't notice.
Green and Brown took off their boots, stuffed everything in their pockets into them, and crawled into cozy warm sleeping bags.
Aran wriggled forward until all the slack he had was in the rope on his hands. He still couldn't touch the stake or get his teeth on the rope. Efforts to slide the rope up on the stake only embedded it more firmly in the splinters.
The ground was lumpy, damp, and cold. Aran watched the stranger's play-fire die into coals and seriously considered waking Green up to say he would take his doggone pill. Only the knowledge that Brown and Green would wake up cross gave him the courage to keep from doing it.
He didn't notice that he was falling asleep until he woke up sore all over and dying to flex his arms and legs. He cried, "Dad, Dad, get me out of here." Brown rolled over, then realized that it was only a wail of despair and sank back, muttering. There was nobody to help Aran. Dad couldn't even help himself. Aran tried not to cry.
He twisted to look up. Judging by the stars, the night was three-fourths gone. Would he live until dawn? Would Brown and Green let him get up when dawn finally came?
Something came crawling out of the night.
Aran lay stiff and tried to look like a rock. Maybe the thing would pass on by without seeing him. It came closer and closer.
It was Dad! Somehow the "serps" must have worn off before Brown and Green expected it to. Dad was coming to get him loose.
"Dad! Over here!" Aran half choked in his effort to speak quietly. Dad turned toward the sound. Would he never get here? Dad touched Aran's arm and stopped moving. His eyes were closed.
"Dad, what's wrong? Open your eyes." Dad opened his eyes. Aran wished he hadn't. There was no mind behind those eyes. Dad had simply come in answer to Aran's call the way he walked when Green said "walk" and sat when Green said "sit".
Aran did cry then.
Dad waited patiently. If Dad did as he was told, maybe he could be told to untie Aran. Aran had to direct every move Dad made and the rope was too thin to see clearly in the starlight. At last Aran was convinced that the knot couldn't be undone, not even if he could use his own hands and had a good light. He would have to find something to cut the rope. Green had thrown away their knives, and any sharp rocks in the meadow would be hidden under silt and sod. Aran could never direct Dad to steal Green's knife without talking loud enough to wake one of the strangers.
Aran couldn't give up now. There had to be a way. He looked at Dad's brawny arms, so close to his face that he could see the hairs standing up in the chilly starlight. There was nobody home in Dad's body now, but it was still a strong body---as strong as it was when Dad picked up and threw sacks of grain that seemed to be part of the barn floor when Aran tried to roll them.
Aran arranged Dad's hands on the rope close to the stake and set his feet just right.
Slowly the rope that Aran couldn't budge slid up the stake . . . one centimeter . . . two . . . two and a . . . the rope caught under a splinter.
Was the stake moving? There were three millimeters of dirt-stained wood showing, four---the stake flew out so suddenly that Dad jerked the rope around Aran's wrists.
Aran helped pull up the second stake.
Directed by anxious whispers, Dad picked Aran up and put him among the boots and the sleeping bags. Aran emptied Green's boot, holding his breath when he dropped something or the trailing rope moved the stake.
The first thing he saw in the jumble he had dumped out of the boot was the pistol-shaped thing Green had used on Dad. He pointed it at Green's neck, as close as he dared. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened except that he seemed to feel a sort of pop. He pulled again and felt the same almost-pop. Maybe it was supposed to work that way. Carefully, afraid of rattling the stake still tied to his hands, he pointed the thing at Brown's neck and pulled the trigger twice. He was rewarded with two more almost-pops. If that meant that it was loaded, Brown and Green wouldn't give any more trouble for quite a while.
Aran bruised his wrists some more, twisting in the rope to open Green's knife. He nicked himself twice while sawing his hands free. He didn't even stop to see whether his cuts were bleeding before he attacked the rope on his feet.
Aran led Dad out of there just as quickly and quietly as he could. They carried both pairs of boots and everything in them for the first two kilometers. Even if Brown and Green woke up, they would be barefoot with no weapons.
Late the next morning, when Aran led the posse to the stranger's camp, Brown and Green were still sleeping like babies. The kidnapped men were beginning to wonder what had happened to them. The schoolmaster, the only one with a good grasp of Interstellar, took charge. The schoolmaster would use the miscreants' own drug to make them lead the posse to the ship, release the men in stasis, and take them home. When they had done all they could to undo the harm they had caused, they would be put in the stasis locker and the ship would be set to return to its rightful owner.
Fletch's father said, "I hope they're more use to him than to us!"
The sheriff picked Aran up and said, "Hey, young man, I'd better get you home before you pass out. Your ma and pa will be fretting over you."
"Dad?" Aran said. He couldn't quite decide what he wanted to say and rested his head against the sheriff so he could think about it.
"Your Dad will be fine. Look at Fletch there; he was drugged the same time, and he isn't as tough as your pa." Fletch looked miserable, and he was stiff and chilled --- but he was Fletch again.
The sheriff mounted his horse, and Aran was handed up as if he were a baby. Halfway home, Aran raised his head from the sheriff's arm. "Sheriff? 'Spose I'd given up. What would have happened if I'd done what they told me?"
"Sweetthorn Township would have lost eight good men and some guy on Haveen would have made you into whatever he pleased."
It was cold for so late in the morning. Aran said, "I don't think what pleased him would have pleased me."
Mom and Dad ran out to meet them when they came into sight of the house. Dad snatched Aran off the sheriff's horse and held him tight. He kept saying , "It's all over, It's all over. You don't have anything to cry about now."
Aran didn't even try to stop.
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