The Amalgamation Survey Ship Interloper moved in a synchronous orbit above the fifth planet of star E27182818. A young woman entered the Captain's office and saluted. "Lieutenant Erig reporting as ordered, Captain."
Captain Goda returned her salute. "At ease, Lieutenant. This ship has been ordered to do a surface search of this planet to look for possible survivors of a star ship explosion. I have summoned you because I need an experienced field surveyor, someone who is used to dealing with a possibly dangerous culture. Strictly speaking this is not a field survey, because it will be generations before this planet is ready for membership in the Amalgamation. However, there are some unusual and so far unexplained features that it would be worthwhile examining for academic reasons, not that we would have a chance to do so if it hadn't been for this search."
"You want me to search the whole planet, Captain? Or do we have a starting point? How do we know that there are any survivors?" Erig hoped she hadn't sounded too sarcastic.
"An escape pod beacon was tracked to this planet. We have located the pod in 30 meters of water about 200 meters from the shore of a large lake, and it seems to be intact. The pod beacon stopped when it went into the water, but a brief signal from a personal communicator was detected later, so we know that someone got out of the pod."
"How many people are we looking for, Captain?"
"We don't know for sure. Eight people and two pods, including this one, are still missing."
"How long has it been since the pod landed, Captain?"
"What do we know about the planet's culture, Captain?"
"All we know is what we've got from images of the surface." Captain Goda manipulated her computer and an image was displayed on the wall screen. "Here is the largest town in the region. As you can see, it is typical of an early bronze age culture. One unusual feature is that most of the buildings appear to be partially dug into the ground." She displayed another image. "This is the main plaza in the town in the middle of the day. Do you see anything unusual?"
"Well, Captain, the crowd seems to be mostly children."
"Yes. And there aren't any adult men. All of the adults are women."
"It's hard to tell for sure, Captain, but all of the smaller figures appear to be about the same height. If they were children there should be more variation. I think those people are pygmies!"
"You may be right. Another interesting feature to examine, if you can. But the primary purpose of this mission is to determine if there are any survivors, and rescue them if they can be found."
Captain Goda warned, "This is a dangerous assignment. As usual, we are short of resources. This ship won't be able to stay here, so you will be on your own. We'll leave a shuttle in orbit, so you and any survivors will have a safe place to live until the ship returns, but that's all we can do. Report to the Xenologist for your costume and equipment and for any more information he might have. And the best of luck. Dismissed."
Erig saluted and left the cabin. She walked to the Xenologist's compartment and knocked on the door. It opened and she was engulfed by a hug and a passionate kiss.
When he could talk the Xenologist said, "Pami! Don't tell me that you're the one they picked for this suicide mission!"
"Yeah, Thar, I'm the one. Thanks for the encouraging words."
"It may not be that bad, but it is much riskier than most surveys. We don't know much about the culture except that it's primitive. There's no language transplant, so it will hard for you to blend in if you get close to the inhabitants. We don't know what they use for money, so you will have to provide for yourself as best you can." He moved his hands over her body. "I'm sure you'll think of something."
She swatted his fingers and continued to discuss the assignment. "Have you seen that image of the market square? It looks to me like the shorter people are pygmies, not children. What do you think?"
"I suppose it's possible, but it would be unusual for two races that are so different to be living in the same towns. If you find out what's happening you can get a technical paper out of it."
Thar picked up an aerosol can. "We have to get you ready. Strip and I'll spray this skin dye on your body so at least you'll be the same color as everyone else. Your hair and the shape of your face will need modification too."
After the cosmetics were applied Thar gave Erig a narrow strip of cloth to wrap around her hips. She asked, "Is this all they wear? What's the climate like?"
"I've seen images that showed women wearing elaborate costumes and images that showed them naked. This is sort of the average. The climate is subtropical, so you don't need clothing to keep warm, and the skin dye has a sun block in it that will keep you from being fried. One other thing." He gave her a container. "Nobody wears shoes, so spray some of this polymer on the bottoms of your feet."
"Where's my communicator?"
Thar gave Erig a necklace made of wooden beads. "That big bead is the communicator. It works the same way they all do. Pull it against the thong to activate it, and it'll stay active as long as you hold it in your hand. Of course, you won't have anybody to talk to except for the AI that controls the shuttle."
"All I will want to say is, Get Me Out Of Here."
"Seriously, this is very dangerous. You will be operating alone on a primitive planet. I know how brave you are, so please don't take unnecessary risks."
Thar took Erig in his arms and gave her a passionate kiss. "We have some time before you can leave. Let's go to my bed and have a good-bye party."
* * *
Erig watched a vision screen as the shuttle dropped towards the planet's surface. It was an hour before dawn, but there was enough starlight to operate the low-light camera. She could clearly see the large town that she had studied earlier, and another town about half its size. The two towns were about 30 km apart, and were connected by a road that skirted a large lake. The escape pod was close to the shore of this lake and about 10 km from the larger town. Erig decided to make this the landing point. On a more advanced planet it would be risky to operate the shuttle that close to a town, but on a primitive planet a shuttle sighting would be attributed to the gods.
Erig noticed something near the road about midway between the two towns. She switched the screen to IR, and saw a line of bright dots. It looked like a caravan, and if it was coming towards her it might be a problem. She didn't see anything except for that, so Erig continued with the landing.
The shuttle landed close to the lake shore and Erig disembarked. It immediately rose back into the sky, and Erig felt a wave of loneliness and anxiety, but that quickly passed as she scanned her surroundings. She was about 25 meters from the road and the same distance from the lake. The vegetation was mostly short yellow grass and small bushes, and the road was the only visible human artifact.
She walked to the road, and the brightening sky now provided enough light to let her examine it. She saw that the road was little more than a track beaten out by the traffic, with no visible improvements. The surface showed the prints of bare human feet, most of them small, and a few tracks left by wheels.
Erig was surprised by what she didn't see; there were no hoof prints of any kind. She thought back to the images she had studied, and she realized that she had never seen an animal in any of them. She said to herself, "If these people don't have any domesticated animals, how could they have developed enough agriculture to support towns? You need draft animals on a farm."
Erig decided to start her search on the lakeshore. She found the prints of bare human feet in several places, but this didn't prove anything. The problem was that she didn't know exactly where the shuttle sank, and even if she did know there was a good chance the possible survivors didn't swim to the closest land. She spent almost an hour searching along the shore and found nothing.
The sun was up now, and Erig stood with it at her back. She saw a reflection from something shiny in a nearby clump of bushes, and when she searched the bushes she found the remains of a smashed personal communicator. So there were survivors on the planet. She thought, 'So much for my hope for a quick trip back to orbit.'
Erig followed some foot prints that went towards the road. She was so engrossed in her tracking that she neglected to observe her surroundings until a sound made her look up. She was about 15 meters from the road, and the caravan she had seen on the way in was passing her. She was shocked when she realized that the caravan consisted of ten naked young women, linked together by rope that connected their necks.
The women were accompanied by four small men. Although they were only a meter tall, they were definitely not children, but instead men in miniature. Each wore a loincloth and a belt pouch and carried a small bow and a quiver of arrows that were only 30 cm long. The sight of these miniature men and their toy-like weapons briefly distracted Erig, and that gave one of the men the time he needed to nock an arrow and shoot it into her thigh.
Erig felt the stab of pain and immediately pulled the arrow out of her leg. She saw that it had a blunt tip, with a thorn that extended from it about a centimeter, and that this was all that had penetrated her skin. She thought, 'That's not a very dangerous weapon.' But then she realized that her muscles were going limp. She sat down hard, and fell onto her back.
Her immediate reaction was disgust at her ineptness. She thought, 'I must be spending too much time on the ship if these midgets can capture me this easily.'
Erig discovered that only her major muscles seemed to be affected by the poison on the arrow. She could blink her eyes and open her mouth, and as far as she could tell her breathing and heartbeat were functioning properly, but when she tried to move her arms or legs all that happened was some uncoordinated twitching.
Two of the little men proceeded to secure her wrists and ankles. The speed and skill of their actions demonstrated that they had a lot of practice, and in a few minutes Erig was bound. She followed this activity with detached amazement. The material the men used looked like rope, but she saw that it was actually some sort of vine. It was stiff, so the knots were loose, and Erig thought that it would be easy for her to untie them. Then one of the men produced a clay jar and poured a yellow liquid over the knots. The outside of the vine seemed to melt, and in a few minutes the knots had fused into a solid mass.
Erig was not tied tightly. Her ankles were hobbled with a separation of about 40 cm. Her hands were tied in front, and there was about 10 cm of vine connecting the single loops of vine that circled each wrist. One of the men removed her bead necklace and tied a loop of vine around her neck. The free end was about 2 meters long and the man tied a small loop in this end. He used the yellow liquid to fuse the knots on these loops.
Erig thought, 'You don't want that necklace. You're going to put it back on my neck, right?'
Wrong. The man put the necklace around his own neck. Erig was worried now. Without the communicator it was going to be very difficult to tell the shuttle to pick her up.
Erig was in no hurry to get up, so she stayed on her back until a man hit her across her breasts with a thin wooden rod. She yelped and tried to curl into a ball. This demonstrated to the men that the poison had worn off, and two of them pulled her to her knees and held her while another man connected her elbows with a leather thong across her back. He pulled it tight, and her hands were now held tightly against her waist.
The little men dragged Erig to her feet and led her onto the road where the coffle of girls was waiting; the residue of the poison caused her to shuffle and stumble. One of the men removed the cloth around her hips.
A man pulled on the vine around the neck of the last girl in the coffle until she bent over. He connected Erig's leash to the loop around the other girl's neck with what seemed to be a primitive combination lock. This lock had three c-shaped rings of bronze that rotated around a c-shaped bronze sleeve. He aligned all of the openings and put the vines in the center, and 'locked' it by twisting the rings until the slots were no longer aligned.
The caravan didn't start moving right away. The four men stood together and had an animated discussion. Erig used the time to study the other girls in the coffle. All of them were young. They had obviously gone through puberty, but she estimated that it was less than a year ago. They all seemed to be detached from the world. None of them talked, or looked around, or performed any of the expected human actions. In spite of their circumstances none of them seemed to be angry or frightened.
Erig thought, 'These girls act like they're brain dead. Were they drugged?' She felt a moment of fear when she realized how easy it would be to treat her the same way.
The men completed their discussion. One man went down the line of girls. As he came to each girl he hit the back of her knees with his wooden rod. The girl dropped to her knees and sat back on her heels. When she was struck Erig did the same.
Two of the men took leather buckets from a pack carried by one of the girls and filled them with lake water. They went to each girl and forced her to drink a measure of water. Again, Erig did the same. When the watering was complete and the buckets put away each girl was brought to her feet by blows on the underside of her breasts. Erig didn't like this at all, but none of the other girls showed any reaction.
More blows on thighs and buttocks got the caravan moving down the road towards the town. Erig thought, 'Thar said it would be hard for me to get close to the inhabitants and provide for myself, but I didn't have any trouble at all. Of course, I can only search as far as this tether will reach.'
The caravan's pace was set by the short legs of the men and it was slow. Even with their hobbles none of the girls had any trouble keeping up. As they got closer to the town other traffic appeared on the road. Most of it consisted of small men and small women walking alone or in groups, but once they passed a coffle of girls that looked the same as the girls with Erig. She thought, 'Why are groups of what look like identical girls being exchanged between the two towns? I wish I knew what was going on.'
A short time later Erig saw a wheeled vehicle. It was a small, four-wheeled farm wagon pulled by a team of four women. The women were paired, and each was connected to the single shaft by traces attached to a belt around her hips. A man walked in front and guided the wagon. He carried a short pole with a bronze hook on the end, and the hook was placed in a large bronze ring that pierced the nipple of one of the women at the front of the team. The women in the team were older than the girls in the coffle, but they all had the same blank expressions. All of the women had the same wrist and ankle ties as Erig and the other girls, except that their wrist ties were fastened to the belt around their hips.
In the town the crowds thickened. Most of the people were small, but Erig confirmed that they were mature adults and were not children. All of the normal-sized people were naked women, and all of them were either pulling vehicles or carrying packs. Most of the women were guided by a man walking in front, but a few were controlled by reins held by a man riding in the cart.
All of the buildings Erig passed were made from mud bricks and were scaled to the size of the small people, so the roofs of the single-story buildings were at her eye level. She could see some larger buildings near the center of the town.
The coffle entered a large, barn-like building. One of the men fastened the leash on the lead girl's neck to a ring set in the back wall of the building. Erig looked around in the dim light. Individual women were tethered to rings set either in the walls or in stone blocks buried in the dirt floor, but there weren't any other coffles. The building had a foul smell, and human waste was scattered on the floor around the location of the tether rings.
At the opposite end of the building was an auction facility, with a podium and a tier of seats around a paddock. About half of the seats were occupied, and more people were entering from outside through a small door next to the seats.
Erig heard crying from the direction of the large door that the coffle had used. She saw a man and a woman enter, each holding a hand of a large blank-faced girl. An official came up to them and talked to the man. Then he beckoned, and two other men joined the group. They detached the girl's hands from the grasp of the couple and tied her wrists and ankles. The woman hugged the girl and started to cry again, and the man also had tears running down his face. He put his arm around the woman's shoulders and gently pulled her away from the girl and out of the building.
As Erig was watching the tragic scene, sharp eyes were watching Erig. They belonged to a middle-aged woman sitting in the top row of seats. This was Madam T'sang, proprietor of the town's largest and most successful racing stable. She nudged her companion and pointed to Erig. "Did you see that, Fou?" she asked.
"See what, Madam T?"
"The giant at the end of that coffle. It seemed to me that she might have been aware of what was happening over by the door. She is also a lot older than the girls with her, who have obviously just changed. Go talk to the auctioneer and find out what he knows about her."
Fou obediently went to the podium and questioned the auctioneer. When she returned she said, "The exchange caravan found her by the lake, Madam T. They think she was abandoned there when her parents finally admitted to themselves that she was stupefied. It happens all the time."
"Yes, but it usually happens when the girl is a lot younger. There is something unusual about that giant. They found here by the lake, you say? Now that is really interesting. I'm going to buy her."
"Do you think she can be a racer, Madam T?
"No, she's too old and too heavy for that, but we need another hack anyway."
Erig was one of the first giants put up for auction. None of the other bidders saw her as anything special, so Madam T'sang was able to buy her cheaply.
After she was sold Erig was led outside and tethered to a ring set in the wall of the building. She was very uncomfortable. Her elbows were still tied, and they hurt. Her hands were numb. She was hungry. And she had to pee.
She was wondering what to do about that when the woman tethered to the next ring urinated. She just released a stream of urine and stood there oblivious to the liquid running down her legs. Erig realized that squatting and wiping would tell everyone in sight what she wasn't, so she did the same. It was not a pleasant sensation.
Erig was still dripping when a chariot driven by Madam T'sang arrived. It was pulled by two women strapped into elaborate harnesses made of red leather, and Madam T'sang controlled the women with reins attached to bronze curb bits. Her chariot was followed by another containing two men. This was also pulled by two women, but the harness was plain brown leather. Madam T'sang indicated Erig and one of the girls that had been in the coffle with her and the men tethered them to the back of their chariot. Madam T'sang snapped her whip against the bare bottoms of the women pulling her chariot and they trotted away. The men followed in their chariot, but at a walking pace.
Madam T'sang's stables were located on the edge of town. When the chariot towing Erig arrived Madam T'sang was there to meet it. She indicated the young woman and said to one of the men, "Take this one to the racing stable and put her in a stall."
She looked closely at Erig, who did her best to imitate an animal. She told the other man, "Take this one to the working stable and feed and water her. I'll be there later, and we can process her then."
The man acknowledged the command and released Erig's tether from the back of the chariot. He gave the tether a jerk and walked away, and Erig obediently followed. She thought, 'I've used a lot of disguises during field surveys, but this is the first time I've pretended to be a draft animal.' She pondered a moment and then thought, 'Am I pretending?'
The working stable was nothing more than a pitched roof over a dirt floor. Three women were attached to separate support posts. The man attached Erig's tether to an empty post. He picked up a wooden rod and hit the back of her knees. Erig knelt and sat back on her heels. The man filled a clay pot with water from a barrel and held it to Erig's lips. When she hesitated he pinched her nose shut and poured the water into her open mouth. She sputtered and coughed and swallowed as much water as she could. Next the man filled a wooden bowl from a grain sack and put it down on the ground in front of her. She couldn't use her hands, so she put her face in the bowl and sucked up the grain. It tasted like roasted sesame seeds, and Erig licked up every kernel.
Madam T'sang, Fou, and two men entered the working stable. Madam T'sang ordered, "Get the new giant and follow me." One of the men picked up the wooden rod and turned to Erig. She knew what was coming, and had to force herself to remain seated until the man hit her breasts with the rod.
The procession made its way to a mud brick building that was Erig's size. There was a solid wooden post in the middle of the building and a charcoal brazier smoldered in one corner. Erig had a really bad feeling about this setup, but she decided there was nothing she could do. She was hobbled, her elbows were still tied, and the men carried bows and arrows. She kept up her animal act and let the men push her back up against the post and fasten straps around her waist and knees. One of the men got a stepladder and fastened another strap around her neck.
A man got a red hot branding iron from the brazier and approached Erig. She pretended to ignore it until it was pressed against her left buttock. She decided that screaming was expected, so she screamed. She screamed again when her right nipple was pierced and a thin bronze ring was inserted and soldered closed.
Madam T'sang said, "Well, Fou, it seems that I was mistaken. She didn't show any sign that she knew she was going to be hurt, so she must be stupefied."
The men were told to take Erig back to the working stable and Madam T'sang and Fou went on to the racing stable. They didn't enter the part of the building that contained the stalls holding the racers, but instead entered a small room on the other side of the building. Madam T'sang signaled to Fou to be quiet and opened a cupboard. When they were inside and the cupboard door was shut she opened a small peephole and indicated that Fou should look through it.
Fou looked into a windowless room that was brightly illuminated by a parchment-covered skylight. Two giants sat against the far wall. Both of them were fastened to a ring in the floor by bronze chains locked to bronze collars, and bronze bracelets connected by a bronze ring held their hands behind their backs. Fou knew that much bronze was very expensive, but she decided it was worth it, because both of the giants had yellow hair and pale skin.
As Fou continued to watch the giants she realized that they were talking! She couldn't understand the language they were speaking, but it was clear that a conversation was going on. One of the giants started to cry and the other tried to comfort her.
Madam T'sang tapped Fou on the shoulder and signaled that they should leave the cupboard. When they were back in the room she asked, "So what do you think of my beauties?"
"They're amazing, Madam T. Where did you get them?"
"Four of my men were on the road near the lake one night not long ago when they heard a tremendous splash. They searched the lake shore found those two lying on the beach. My men tied them and kept them hidden until they got a wagon and brought them here."
"Do you plan to race them?"
"No, they're much too valuable for that, and besides, they're not very fast. I plan to use them as show beasts. People will pay a lot of money to have exotic beasts like those pulling their chariot on ceremonial occasions. The only problem is that the sun might damage their skin. So far I've only had them out around dawn and sunset."
"Madam T, it looked to me like they were talking. They may not be stupefied. It's very rare, but it does happen."
"I know they're not stupefied. They tried to talk to me, and they learn as fast as a normal person. You know how it can take weeks to train a giant so she can be guided by a bit? They learned in a few minutes."
"But it's against the law to use them as beasts if they're not stupefied! Just being a giant is not enough!"
"Who will know? They won't talk in public, because they will always be wearing curb bits. They certainly don't have any relatives who will complain. Will you report me?"
"Of course not. I owe you everything. I'm just concerned about you."
"Don't worry. I've found that they are very sensitive to pain, especially if the pain is applied to the other one. I'm sure we can train them to mimic stupefied behavior on command."
* * *
At first light the next morning Erig and the other three working beasts were fed, watered, and harnessed. Erig's harness was just a wide belt around her hips, held in place by a crotch strap. The belt was fastened over the vine connecting her wrists, so her hands were held next to her belly. She was hitched to a pump and spent the morning hours walking around a 10 meter diameter circle, pulling on the horizontal pole that drove the pump and lifted water from the well. She quickly found out how tiring it was to walk and pull the pump pole; she stared at the ground and tried to think of nothing but the next step. What turned misery into hell was the youth who sat on the pole behind her and continually hit her with a whip. Each blow only stung, but the number of blows was large and by the midday break her back was covered with welts.
During the heat of midday nothing moved around the stables. Erig was tethered to the same post again, and she sat motionless while she tried to ignore all the pain. She had a moment of emotional satisfaction when a man saw the welts on her back and beat up the youth who had whipped her, but her morale was low. She realized that she was not going to be able to search for the survivors if she had to pretend to be an animal at the same time. She decided to escape as soon as it was dark.
Erig had an easier time of it in the afternoon. She and two other giants were formed into a team and harnessed to a wooden sled. They dragged this sled around the race track to smooth and level the surface. The team was guided by a man holding a pole that was hooked into the nipple ring of the right-hand giant of the team. Erig was glad that she was in the middle. Her breast was so sore that she would have killed anybody who touched it.
Dragging the sled was hard work, but there were frequent breaks when they had to clear the track so racing teams could practice on it. Each racing team consisted of two giants pulling a light chariot, guided by reins held by a single driver. Erig was impressed by the speed and endurance of the best teams. She knew that the women pulling the chariots had the mentality of animals, but it bothered her emotionally to see them treated that way. Her recent experience was making her more sympathetic to the idea of animal rights.
The sun was almost down when one more racing team appeared on the track. Erig was close by when the chariot pulled by two blonde women left the stables.
Madam T'sang herself was driving. She had decided to discipline her prize animals by driving them to the limit of their endurance, so she had them strapped into training harnesses that prevented nearly all movement above the waist. She drove them around the track until they were stumbling, and then for one more lap. Instead of the usual light whip she carried a heavy braided whip, and she used it continuously to keep the blondes moving. When the chariot finally stopped in front of the stables both women had swollen red welts all over their bodies.
One of the women dropped to her knees and started to retch. Madam T'sang quickly jumped out of the chariot and removed the woman's bit. She didn't want one of her prize team to choke on her own vomit. The woman recovered enough to say in Galactic, "Please, no more. You'll kill us."
Madam T'sang looked around to see if anybody had heard the giant talk. The sled team was close by, but its driver wasn't in sight. She relaxed, but forced the bit back into the blonde's mouth. Madam T'sang shouted until two men emerged from the stable. She ordered, "Take this team back to their special room. Chain them up and unharness them. Put some salve on the welts. Leave the bits in their mouths."
Erig had been close enough to hear every word. She carefully concealed her feelings, but inside she was smiling. She really hated it when she had to quit a mission before it was completed.
* * *
Erig waited until it was fully dark before she made her move. Her tether was fastened to a ring in the post by one of the bronze locks with the three rings and she quickly opened it. She had noticed that the grounds were patrolled by a guard, and she briefly considered the best way to elude him before she thought of a better plan.
On his next round the guard was annoyed to see that one of the giants had gotten out of the working stable and was standing in the yard. He picked up her dangling tether and turned to lead her back into the stable. He took two steps to oblivion.
Erig rubbed her hands. She had meant to hit the guard's neck, but hit his head instead. She confirmed that the guard was dead and carried his body to the working stables. The guard had been carrying a bow and arrows, and he had a bronze knife in a sheath attached to his belt pouch. Erig used this to cut off the vines tied to her body.
Once she was free Erig collected the equipment she would need. She tied a piece of vine around her waist and used it as belt to carry the knife and the quiver of arrows. She put a clay pot and a wooden bowl into a half-filled grain sack and used more vine to make a sling so she could carry the sack and the bow over her shoulder. It was slow work, because it had to be done by the dim light of a distant torch, but finally she was ready. She took a long drink of water from the barrel and left the stable.
Erig entered the racing stable through the main door. The only light was from an oil lamp near the front door and another near the back of the room. She found a candle stub near the lamp and lit it. This gave her enough light to search the stalls, but the blondes were not there. She looked into two other rooms but found only a grain storeroom and a tack room. She found a ball of twine in the tack room and added it to her supplies.
Erig was back in the stall area and wondering where to look next when she heard someone enter the stable. She blew out the candle and peeked over the top of a stall until she located the new arrival. It was a woman, and she was coming towards her. Erig crouched down, and when the woman passed the stall Erig grabbed her neck. The woman started to struggle but Erig gave her neck a warning squeeze and she stopped. Erig recognized her. It was the woman who had whipped the blondes and branded her.
Erig snarled, "I know you don't know my language, but I hope you can get my meaning. Where are those women?" Erig picked up some straw and held it to her head and raised two fingers. Madam T'sang didn't react until Erig gave her neck a warning squeeze, and then she pointed in the direction she had been walking.
Erig tied a slip knot in the end of the twine, tightened it around Madam T'sang 's neck, and gave her a push. Madam T'sang walked towards the lamp at the end of the room and stopped in front of a tall cupboard. She pressed a hidden latch on the side and the cupboard swung out and revealed a hidden room. Madam T'sang pointed at the lamp and Erig picked it up and followed her into the room.
A blonde looked up when the door opened. She recognized Madam T'sang, and begged, "Please don't hurt us any more."
Erig said, "She won't."
The blonde gasped when she realized it was the giant who had spoken. "Who are you?"
"Lieutenant Pami Erig, Star Fleet Survey Service. Were you two the only passengers on the escape pod that landed here?"
"Yes. I'm Glori Panandumrujin and this is my sister Gladi."
Madam T'sang took advantage of Erig's distraction and tried to pull an arrow from the quiver, but this was a serious error. She was used to dealing with slow-witted giants and didn't plan on Erig's trained reflexes. Erig's fist hit Madam T'sang's head and cracked her skull like an eggshell.
Erig asked herself if she had violated the First Directive. Then she realized she didn't care. She examined the lock that connected Glori's collar to the chain. It looked easy to pick, but first she searched Madam T'sang's body, and used the key she found to open the padlocks.
Glori asked, "Can you free our hands? We've been chained like this for more than a week."
Erig examined the bracelets. "No, they're riveted on. I won't be able to free you until we get to the shuttle." She pushed the sisters towards the door and commanded, "Move out. We've got to get away from here before the bodies are found." Erig closed the door and replaced the lamp.
She hustled the sisters out of the stable and paused for a moment to orient herself. She ordered, "Stay here until I return." She went to the building where she had been branded and checked the brazier. It still contained glowing coals, so she used the knife to put some in the clay pot and then carefully banked them with dirt. She embedded the pot in the grain and hoped it wouldn't spill.
She returned to the sisters and guided them away from the stable. When they were clear of the farm buildings Erig found a track that led away from the city and they followed it until it was crossed by a small stream. They walked upstream in the water until they found some brush and scrub trees that Erig decided would furnish adequate cover for the next day. It had been slow going in the dark, and it was only a few hours before dawn when they stopped.
Glori asked, "When are you going to contact the shuttle? This must be far enough from the city."
"I don't have a communicator. I have to use an emergency procedure, and I can't do it until tomorrow night."
"You mean I'm going to have to spend another day like this?"
"Yes. Now shut up and try to sleep."
* * *
Erig was up at first light and scouted the area around her campsite. She didn't find any sign of human activity and decided that it would be safe to spend the day there. She got the clay pot from where she had put it the night before and was relieved to see that the some of the coals were still glowing. She gathered some tinder and small sticks and carefully coaxed a flame into life.
Erig woke up Gladi and told her, "Make sure this fire doesn't go out. We won't get off this planet if it does. Don't make any smoke, either."
The emergency recall signal required four fires in an exact pattern, and she found a grassy area that was usable. She used the twine as a measuring tool and located the fire positions, and then collected wood and laid the fires.
When she returned to the campsite Glori exclaimed, "Where have you been? I'm hungry."
"You'll be eating back at the stable if you don't keep quiet and stay out of sight. I've been preparing the recall signal. We can't use it until dark, so find some place in the shade and shut up. I'll bring you some food when I can."
"You can't talk to me like that! Don't you know who I am?"
"You're a naked girl stranded on a hostile planet with her hands chained behind her back. If you want to change that, do as I tell you."
Erig inspected the fire that Gladi was tending. It was burning steadily with no smoke. She praised, "Good job. I'll bring you some food."
"Oh, thank you, Ma'am. I did my best to follow your orders."
Erig got some water in the clay pot and took it and a bowl of grain to Gladi and fed her, and then did the same for Glori. She collected some more wood for the fire and made another patrol of the area.
* * *
The day seem to last forever, but finally it was sunset. Erig shared out the last of the grain and soaked the empty sack in the stream. She lit a stick in the fire that Gladi had tended all day and carried it to where she had prepared the signal fires. As soon as the sun went down she lit the fires and watched the place in the sky where the shuttle was in orbit. When she saw a flash of light she used the wet sack to extinguish one particular fire. When she saw two flashes she extinguished another fire. When she saw three flashes she let out a cry of joy. The AI had recognized her signal and would land the shuttle.
Erig put out the other two fires and went back to camp to collect the sisters and bring them to the landing area. The last minutes were very tense, but no little men interrupted them, and soon they were in the shuttle and climbing back to orbit.
As soon as they were in orbit Erig got tools out of the maintenance locker. Glori said, "Can you get these chains off me now?"
Erig replied, "It'll be the second thing I do, right after I do this..." and she cut the bronze ring and removed it from her nipple.
Erig removed the bracelets and collars from Glori and Gladi. Glori gave a sigh of relief and went to the bathroom to wash.
Gladi said, "Excuse me, Ma'am. How long will it be before the ship arrives?"
"At least three weeks, but probably longer."
"Please, Ma'am. Would you put the collar back on me until the ship arrives?"
"Why do you want that?"
"It just feel right, Ma'am. If you do it."
When Erig published her technical paper it was considered an important advance in both xenobiology and xenoanthropology. People who knew her only as a brave and resourceful field surveyor now considered her to be an able scientist as well.
Her concise elucidation of the way that puberty caused some pygmy girls to change into normal-sized but stupefied adults was admired, but she received universal praise for the sensitivity and insight she displayed when she described how these women were used by a society that had no other source of animal power.
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