8FOLD/HCC: Orphans of Mars # 1, "Imperatrix Rex!"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sun Jul 14 20:45:32 PDT 2013

Nerrine lies on one side of Garaka's large empty mattress. She's been here for hours, maybe the better part of a day. Not sleeping, not thinking, not even mourning. Just laying there.
   She should get up. She should eat. Even if it's just her share of what's left of the cold bloodless tasteless tack. The nutrient-rich mud (couldn't really call it food) was meant only to last them while in transit. The preliminary research of the White City had determined that the third planet was rich in fauna. Once they landed, Garaka had assured her, there would be meat for all. No need, then, to take more than they needed, especially with the hunger crisis on the now-red planet.
   She should get up. Her body stiffens. Her legs feel unbearably heavy. The small of her back aches. Garaka had chosen her as her mate for her health and athleticism. Nerrine has always been spry and nimble. She can't just lie here and wither. Of course, who does she have to be spry and nimble for? What's the point? The tack will run out soon, even if only twelve of them remain. The earthlings will finish them off soon. This is no home fit for Daughters of Mars.
   But this gloom of hers is equally unfit. Self-pity and malaise are not their way. If it was, they would still be on Mars. They would still be the slave-children of their mothers. Gladiators, housekeepers, whores and toilers. Their mothers gave them no choices. Their mothers didn't even give them names. So they chose their own.
   Well. Except for Nerrine. Garaka chose her name for her. It means "wife". And now she's not even that.

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                   BY TOM AND MARY RUSSELL

Her door creaks open; a slender hand reaches in; it raps on the wall.
   Nerrine knows that it's Ress before she pokes her head in. Ress has visited her several times since she and Jarissy returned to the ship. It makes her appear friendly and concerned. Nerrine knows it doesn't go any deeper than the appearance; Ress doesn't do anything that isn't calculated for her own advantage.
   "Kellin's called a sort of a little meeting," says Ress. "I figured you'd want to be there."
   Nerrine waves her arm.
   "You should be there," says Ress. "Garaka would want you there."
   Little bitch, trying to guilt her. How would she know what Garaka would want? Garaka would've wanted Nerrine to die with her; failing that, to die after her for her cowardice. But Ress talked her out of that. For some reason...
   Something of her thoughts must be visible in her eyes, because now Ress is moving towards her, kneeling down by the bed. She reaches forth with her soft fingers. Nerrine allows her to brush the yellow hair away from her cheek.
   "I didn't know Garaka. I don't know what she would want. To be true, she scared me a little."
   Nerrine nods. Garaka scared a lot of people, her wife included.
   "A lot of the others scare me." That Nerrine doesn't buy for the second, and yet, Ress is the youngest of them, and neither she nor her sister are warriors. Maybe she is scared, if only a little. "Everything about this place scares me. It's a long way from the White City. But you don't frighten me, Nerrine. There is something about you that I can trust. Whether you trust me or not. It would be a great comfort to me if you were there at the meeting."
   Ress gets up and helps Nerrine from the bed. They make their way to the great table. "Why don't you sit at Garaka's place?" whispers Ress, nodding at the head of the table.
   "It is not my place," says Nerrine. She sits to the right of the head.
   "Can we begin?" says Petara.
   "Hold," says Jarissy. "I count twenty eyes besides my own. We should be twenty-three."
   "Let's not wait for Quasha," says Ress.
   "For once I agree with Ress," say Petara. "We waited quite long enough for Nerrine." She gives a snide little nod. "Beg your pardon."
   "Then I'll begin," says Kellin. Her eyes are weary, the yellow light faint. She's slept less than Nerrine has. "Since Jarissy and Nerrine retrieved the radio, I have been working day and night on repairing it so that we can warn the White City that this world will not support life. I called you all here because I cannot repair it. Nothing's missing. Nothing seems to be damaged. It just doesn't work."
   "Did you remember to turn it on?" says Petara.
   Ress leaps to Kellin's defense. "My sister's pulled these things apart and together again a thousand times before she even took her name. If she says it doesn't work, then it doesn't."
   They squabble back and forth a bit. Nerrine doesn't follow the conversation, rather letting it drift away. She doesn't take part in the discussion, nor in the one that follows: how can they warn the White City before they send other colonists to their doom? How can they survive with the tack about to run out and such hostile fauna all around them?
   Nerrine lets the others talk circles around themselves. There's nothing new there. She was always quiet; whenever she sat at any great table, she let the others nobble on and on until Garaka spoke her mind and settled the issue. It is the great seat alone that decides; now that it is empty, they will talk themselves forever to death.
   But now she glances over and it is not empty.
   "Quasha!" bristles Jarissy. "By what right do you take Garaka's seat?"
   "I take it because I take it," says Quasha. Her remaining eye gleams. "That is my right. As a Daughter of Mars. From the armory, I could hear the lot of you whining about 'what shall we do?' We don't ask 'what shall we do', we do a thing, and because we did it, that is what we should do. That is our blood. We did not ask if it was right and godly to use the iron oxide bomb. We did it. And because we did it, it was right and godly."
   "Our mothers said much the same thing to justify their actions," says Petara.
   "Hold your heresy, apostate. Garaka might have brooked it, but Quasha shall not. I take this chair, unless one seeks to take it from me."
   All eyes move to Jarissy. She waves her hand. "I only wish to drink in the blood of my enemies. Let others tell me who those enemies are."
   "And I shall," says Quasha. "This world is not uninhabitable. We can breathe its air, we can drink its water. And we could eat its flesh."
   "You haven't left the ship yet," says Ress. "These beasts are far worse than you could possibly imagine. Nerrine, tell her."
   Nerrine opens her mouth, but no words spill forth.
   "I broke my lucky cudgel," says Jarissy sullenly.
   "Some of the samples I took," says Kellin. "Some of the plants. They have nutrients. We could eat them. We could grow a garden, build defenses, keep clear of the natives."
   "By the points of my teeth, you are no Daughter of Mars," says Quasha. "The blood is life and for the drinking. Jarissy. Nerrine. You shall come with me."
   Nerrine starts to say something, but Quasha cuts her off.
   "The three of us shall this day peel the meat from their bones and bring it back to this table. So speaks the Imperatrix! The word is the law!"

The three of them head to the armory. Quasha wraps her fist about a black cylinder about an inch in diameter and six inches long. Nerrine's never seen it before. "What is it?"
   "A prototype weapon," says Quasha. "I had it made before we left." She shakes the object and a long tendril of erratic blue light spills out. She flexes it back, and makes it crack in the air like a whip. "It is bonded to my mind. I can make it as thick as my hand or as the air, its kiss like thunder or like rain."
   "I prefer the old ways," says Nerrine. She selects a long balanced pike, a well-made bow, and a handful of arrows.
   "And I, the new." It's Ress. "Hand me a beam pistol?"
   "No, little one," says Quasha. "You're staying here. You're too soft for this work, and only nine years of age."
   "I'm the one who drove off the beast that killed the twins," says Ress. "Jarissy, vouch for me?"
   "Aye," says Jarissy. "She put out one of its eyes and saved my life. Not," she clears her throat, "not that it needed saving. Eventually I would have triumphed, and thus avenged my beloved cudgel."
   "Kellin would never let you go," says Quasha, "or would insist that she comes with you. She'd be a liability."
   "That would be so," says Ress, "if I hadn't given her a sedative ten minutes ago. My sister needs her sleep."
   Quasha tosses Ress the pistol. "You'll keep your distance. Jarissy, here is a cudgel."
   "No; the wound is too fresh. It would not be the same. I will try for a time in its stead this sword."
   "Bad luck to take a sword without naming it," says Quasha.
   "I never had to name my cudgel," says Jarissy. "It was just my cudgel."

Quasha makes it a point to take the lead. "Much warmer here than on Mars. Even before the bomb. Just as green, though."
   "Best to be silent, Imperatrix," advises Nerrine. "The better to close in on our prey."
   "Silence will not mask our scent," says Ress. "Kellin theorized that at least the one that set upon our group had a keen nose."
   Nerrine points with her spear. "There's some mud here. It might help to mask our scent." She licks her finger and raises it slightly. "It would also help if we moved with the wind instead of against it."
   "Bah," says Quasha. "Why hide and sneak? Are you not a woman? Let them smell us full so that they shall know and fear the stink of their own doom."
   "I'm with Quasha," says Jarissy. "Quicker they find us, quicker we kill them."
   "I do not need you to be with me or against me," says Quasha. "There is but one vote, and that is mine alone."
   Jarissy nods her head in submission.
   Nerrine stops walking and bows her head. "I beg forgiveness, Imperatrix. I meant no insolence."
   Quasha grunts, then: "Watch our rear, and the young one."
   Nerrine does as she is told.
   Ress whispers to her, her lips grazing Nerrine's ear. "Why did you beg forgiveness? The Imperatrix must decide, but must also listen. And I thought your advice was worth the listening."
   "An old reflex, learned under the last Imperatrix," says Nerrine. She flinches with memory.
   "I had hoped the day would be near that we would need no Imperatrix to lead us. Or, if one was necessary, that she would be... as gentle, and as kind, as she was wise. Both a leader and a friend. Less like Quasha and more like... Well, never mind. I am young and speak idly."
   "Come on, let's not lag behind."

They find Quasha and Jarissy stopped up ahead. "About time you got here," sneers Quasha.
   "Look," says Jarissy, pointing with her sword. "Amongst the rocks below us."
   There rests a small herd of dinosaurs, known to us as the Chirostenotes.
   "As tall as any Daughter of Mars," says Jarissy. "With slender necks made for wringing."
   "And legs for kicking," offers Nerrine. She nocks an arrow.
   "And feathers for plucking," says Quasha. She touches Nerrine's bow in disgust.  "It takes too much time. It is better to kill a beast and eat it within the same breath. And these, these are your vicious giants?"
   "The ones that set upon Garaka's party were much the same size," says Nerrine. "Still quite deadly."
   "Ours was pretty big," says Ress.
   "That's what we shall hunt," says Quasha. "As big as yours, or bigger. We'll have meat to gorge ourselves for days. These feathered things are not worthy of our blood. Come, we move on."
   Again, Quasha and Jarissy take the point, with Nerrine covering the rear. And again, Ress gets to whispering. "From your experience, let alone my own, I would think prey our own size would be sufficiently dangerous. I would not mind the plucking of feathers, would you?"
   "Plant your whispers in another ear," says Nerrine, pulling away from her. "Her word is law. I will not break it."
   Ress chases after her, flustered. "I'm sorry. I wasn't suggesting, I just..."
   "You are young," says Nerrine, "as you said, and you speak idly." Though Nerrine knows that there's not a syllable that passes from Ress's mouth that is idle or without purpose. To what purpose, though, she cannot divine. It doesn't help matters that every word Ress speaks a deep part of herself recognizes as true. "I once was much the same. Until I learned to do otherwise, Garaka counseled me to keep such thoughts to myself. Let me give you the same counsel."
   "You are wise and a friend," says Ress. "Gentle and kind."

As they stalk about the plains, the quartet spies in the distance about a dozen of the biggest living things they've ever seen. Sixteen meters from the tip of its long, heavy tail to its relatively small head, each stands perhaps six or seven meters tall.  Necks are long but well-muscled; legs, stout but thick. These are the Alamosaurus: not just the largest sauropods to have made their home in North America, but indeed the largest of all known North American dinosaurs.
   "That," says Quasha. "That is our prey."
   "Um." The word escapes Nerrine involuntarily.
   "Your word is the law," says Ress.

"Nerrine," says Quasha, once they're within thirty meters. "Soften them up with some arrows. Jarissy, you..."
   But Jarissy is already running towards one of them, sword drawn and screaming.
   "Hurry with those arrows," says Quasha.
   Nerrine nocks an arrow. She points it at the head of the creature Jarissy is charging. She pulls back the string and lets it fly. Swiftly, it finds the beast's head...
   ... and bounces off.
   "The old ways, indeed," says Quasha. She rushes in after Jarissy.
   Ress puts a hand on Nerrine's shoulder. "I bet it would've killed the feathered ones."
   Nerrine nods. She takes off the quiver and lays it down with the bow, freeing herself of its weight.

Jarissy by now is at the foot of the beast. With a warrior's bloodcurdling scream, she brings her blade against its leg...
   ... and it shatters.
   "Should have named it," says Quasha. She activates her whip, ensnarling the creature's huge leg. "Now to give it the kiss of thunder!"
   But the Alamosaurus chooses this moment to start walking. The whip is yanked from Quasha's hand. Unhinged from her consciousness, the blue light crackles and fades. The black cylinder falls to the ground, and with the same step that rendered it moot, the beast crushes it underfoot.
   Jarissy leaps onto the same foreleg that had shattered her sword. Gripping it with one hand and two legs, she beats against it with her free fist. The Alamosaurus keeps moving.
   "You keep its attention, Jarissy! Quasha will climb up its tail and tear off its face!"
   Quasha makes a mad dash to the other end of the beast, leaping for its tail. It is then, however, that it pivots, its tail swinging. It smacks Quasha to the ground with a thud.

Ress shakes her head and holsters her beam pistol. "Its eyes are smaller and higher than the one I blinded. My aim is not that true, and if arrows will not pierce its hide, neither will my beam."
   "Nor my spear," says Nerrine.
   "Still," says Ress. "The Imperatrix commands."
   Nerrine nods. The two of them make their way to Quasha, who is still prone.
   "See noble Jarissy?" chastises Quasha. "She is a true Daughter of Mars!"
   Nerrine does see her, still attached to the sauropod's leg.
   "Fall, beast, fall! Feel the rage of Jarissy!"
   The Alamosaurus does not appear to do any such thing. Instead, he keeps moving, until he steals behind another of his race. He rears up on his hind legs a moment (Jarissy hangs on for dear life) and then brings his forelegs back down, having now mounted his mate.
   "They, they have two genders," realizes Nerrine in disgust.
   "Kellin will find this interesting," says Ress.
   "No!" cries Jarissy. "I will not permit you to mate in the midst of battle! If you will claim this wench, it shall only be after you bested me!"
   With renewed ferocity, she hammers against the beast with her heavy fist. It must feel it this time, for it takes a moment to give its leg a good shake. Jarissy tumbles to the ground.

The hunters return to the ship at dusk. Each carries the corpse of a strangled and arrow-shot Chirostenotes. Ress locks eyes with Petara. "Get to plucking."
   "I took an oath against the eating of flesh," says Petara. "I don’t see why I should then help you eat it."
   "Everyone, and that includes Petara, get to plucking," says Nerrine. She begins the work herself as she sits at the head of the table.
   Ress smiles. "The word is the law. Imperatrix."
   Then, ten voices, all but Nerrine's and Quasha's: "Imperatrix!"

*** Martian Fact File ***

There are some elements of Martian physiology and society that every Daughter of Mars would know but would never comment on. 

A hybrid race from the red planet, the Daughters of Mars in many ways resemble female homo sapiens, with the same secondary sexual characteristics. Their skin colour varies from a light pink to dark reddish-brown, though they make no societal distinctions based on skin color. 

Black hair predominates, though some, such as Nerrine, have blonde hair. Ress's hair is shock white. These exceedingly rare hair colors are considered more sexually attractive.

All Martian eyes are yellow, and can glow in the dark. Warriors are trained to modulate the glow of their eyes. Eye-glow can be used to add emphasis and tone to what is being communicated verbally. Stress and exhaustion can, as in Kellin's case in this story, make the eyes quite pale and inexpressive. Interesting, as established in JOURNEY INTO # 12, Ress isn't able to modulate her eye-glow with any particularly finesse, and so she finds other ways to get her meaning across.

The Daughters are slightly taller than homo sapiens-- average height is between six and seven feet tall. Though the Daughters are sterile from birth, they have the same reproductive organs as their parent species, which were also single-gendered. These reproductive organs and processes would of course differ from ours but that sort of thing is outside the purview of this series.

As established in the previous Orphans adventure, the Daughters of Mars have two throats-- that is, too narrow esophaguses within a single neck. Both lead to the same stomach, and there are no other duplicate organs, and so even to the Martians the reasons for the dual tubes is a mystery.

A Martian year is approximately twice as long as one on Earth. The Daughters mature and age at much the same rate as homo sapiens. However, because they measure time in Martian years, their "age", as a number, is half of ours. Ress, the youngest, appears and acts as a girl of eighteen, but by Martian numbering is "nine years of age".

The Imperatrix is she who has the power to command, roughly analogous to the Roman concept of having Imperium, which is why a variant was employed here (the Martin tongue is far too alien to have any meaning to us). Like our ancient Romans, Martian society was both highly militarized and highly religious, centered around a single city: in this case, the White City.


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