8FOLD/REPOST: Orphans of Mars # 4, "The Egg Thieves" [CORRECTED]

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sat Nov 2 17:56:39 PDT 2013

She remembers that her mothers were kind. How were they kind? She can't recall. She has no specifics. No memories. They melted away with the seeping of years, or were lost when the doctors hacked into her brain. She can't even remember their faces alive, only what they looked like dead. She probably felt something when it happened. But she can't remember. She can't be sure.
   She was buried under the rubble for a day. She was hungry and had soiled herself when the rescue workers dug her out. She at least can remember the hunger and the smell.
   They took her to see the High Imperatrix. The old crone looked at the child with disgust. "Why did you bring this waste of seed, this sacrilege, into my presence?"
   "Forgive me," says one, "but I thought, since her mothers were... who they were..."
   "Her mothers were traitors each to her own race! It is because we have suffered these aberrations to live that the goddess has punished us with war. And we will be at war until the last of the Daughters are snuffed out. Kill the child. I've no use for it."
   "High Imperatrix?" For the first time, the child noticed in the chamber another of her own kind. This one was of age. "Forgive me, but you found use for one such aberration. And I think in turn I've a use for this one. She is young enough that she's likely to survive the operation with only minimal neural damage."
   The High Imperatrix grunted, and the guards turned Lask over to Petara.

 _____  ____  ____  _   _    __    _  _  ___ 
(  _  )(  _ \(  _ \( )_( )  /__\  ( \( )/ __)
 )(_)(  )   / )___/ ) _ (  /(__)\  )  ( \__ \
(_____)(_)\_)(__)  (_) (_)(__)(__)(_)\_)(___/
 _____  ____       __  __    __    ____  ___ 
(  _  )( ___)     (  \/  )  /__\  (  _ \/ __)
 )(_)(  )__)       )    (  /(__)\  )   /\__ \
(_____)(__)       (_/\/\_)(__)(__)(_)\_)(___/
                             BY TOM RUSSELL

Nerrine said the names, but Lask can recognize the choices, and the plan itself, as Petara's. Quasha's here for heavy muscle, only because the obvious choice-- Jarissy-- is still recovering from the mysterious venom which nearly ended her. Petara has no affection for Ress-- other than Kellin, no one does-- but since Soola and Chell died, Ress is the best shot with a beam pistol. She provides finesse. Both are second choices, but Petara always worked with what she had.
   Nerrine herself is there to provide balance. She'll prevent Quasha from getting everyone killed and keep Ress from killing anyone.
   And then there's Lask herself. Lask has no idea why Petara chose her, but that has always been the way: Petara always picked Lask, and Lask has never known why. She should be grateful. Petara saved her life as a child. Saved her several times during the war. Saved her after the war: she could have burned in the White City with the other empaths. Instead, she was secured a spot on Garaka's ship.
   She would be grateful, she thinks, if she could be grateful. If the part of her brain that had emotions hadn't been cut out and replaced with a machine.

Lask feels a painful twinge in her joints and recognizes it as a familiar mixture of cunning, cruelty, and anticipation. She scans the woods but sees no sign of the raptors that she knows are closing in. "Imperatrix," she says in her flat, calm voice.
   Nerrine answers in the same tone. "What is it, Lask?"
   "I can feel them nearby. Following us."
   Nerrine gives no sign anything is amiss. "They've been following us for a kilometer now."
   Ress whirls about. "I don't see them. Shouldn’t we do something? Climb to safety?"
   "Be calm," says Nerrine, her lovely voice again hammered flat and unremarkable. "No sudden movements, no hysterics. Quasha, keep Thirteen sheathed. Don't let them know that we know.
   "As for the trees," Nerrine continues, "no, climbing into the trees won't save us as before. They know our trick. In fact, that's how they're following us."
   The other three become aware now of the sounds that have been with them all along: the rustling of leaves, the moaning and creaking of branches. Ress and even Quasha swell up with fear. Lask wonders if she's afraid, too. She can't taste it in herself, she notes no increase in her pulse or body temperature. But she knows that she wants to live, and that she will fight fiercely for it. And isn't that what fear is?
   "But why are they following us?" says Quasha. "Why not attack us now?"
   "They want an ambush," says Nerrine. "They're waiting for the right moment and the right terrain. I suspect a tight spot, where the trees are denser. It will limit the usefulness of our ranged weapons and maximize the crush of their numbers."
   Ress states the obvious as if it is a precious and secret truth. "And that's why you've kept us moving through the open areas."
   "Then why don't we attack now?" bellows Quasha. "Surprise them while the advantage is ours?"
   "There are reasons," says Nerrine.
   "But you're not going to tell us what they are."
   "No," says Nerrine.
   "That's reassuring."
   "It doesn't need to be," says Nerrine. Her voice remains flat and calm, and the implicit reminder that she is Imperatrix is all the sharper for it.
   Quasha rankles at this. There is something deep in her. A restlessness that can never be calmed. A dark thing, a dangerous thing. All can see the signs of it; none but Lask, not even Quasha, can see the thing itself.
   "So," Quasha grumbles on, "we just wait for them to ambush us?"
   "We just never give them an opportunity," says Nerrine. "Keep moving where its open."
   "You think they won't attack?" says Ress.
   "Would you?"
   Ress thinks for a moment. "Not against the tech we have, not unless everything was in my favor. We're a threat; they need to take us out. But it doesn't have to be today, so why force the issue, especially when we 'don't know' that they can climb?"
   "See?" says Nerrine. "Just assume they're all like Ress."
   Quasha erupts into a rare fit of laughter, throaty and boisterous.
   "Beg your pardon," says Ress icily, "but that wasn't amusing."
   This just makes it worse. Quasha has another bout, and Nerrine struggles to suppress a giggle; she fails.
   A branch cracks above their heads; a ball of feathers tumbles down. Branch and raptor both land a few yards from the quartet.
   It tries to scurry away, but something has broken in the fall. It stares at the four of them, terrified, its breath haggard and heavy.
   "They know that we know," says Nerrine. She readies her spear.
   Thirteen scrapes against its scabbard. "Think they'll come now?"
   "Ress?" says Nerrine. "What would you do?"
   "Still not amusing."
   "I might go for it," says Ress. "Something clumsy happens and fouls everything up, might be worth it to gamble." She draws her beam pistol.
   Lask twists a boomerang in each hand. "They're steeling themselves. Preparing to strike."
   The fallen raptor cries out, shrill and hysterical. Suddenly the canopy above them is alive with the cry of the raptors, halfway between a squeal and a squawk.
   "Shut up," says Ress. She fires. The broken raptor becomes a spray of red mist.
   The forest grows quiet for the space of a single breath. Then the chorus begins anew, louder and fiercer and with greater cacophony. And with the song comes the dance: fifteen raptors scampering down the trees. Lask counts them in the space of a second breath.
   Only the beam pistol is fast enough to strike them before they hit the ground. Ress knows it and sets to her work.
   Nerrine surges forward with her long spear in her left hand and a short knife in the other. "Quasha! Cover Ress!"
   "By this blade, I keep my oath!"
   "Lask, cover Quasha!"
   The empath flings one of her boomerangs at a particularly vicious looking raptor; the weapon cracks open its skull.
   "You have my pistol, Imperatrix!"
   Nerrine is flow and grace, her movements delicate but dangerous. She slices them in passing, never stabbing them head-on. It doesn't kill them, but it hurts them, slows them down, pushes them where she wants them. Where she is, they are not; where she is not, is Ress's pistol.
   "Bitches of shit!" curses Ress. The pistol has jammed. The core needs five precious seconds to cool down.
   The raptors might not understand the particulars, but they grasp the concept readily enough. And like Ress, these ancient thieves recognize weakness and pounce.
   Not on Ress, not her two protectors, not the three of them clumped together but the one, the one who dances and depends on the beam to do her killing. They leap at Nerrine from behind.
   She is already whirling to meet them. With her knife she deflects the sharp toe of one. Bringing down her spear, she slams another into the ground.
   She jumps back. The one she slammed is still dazed. The other is up again; she throws her knife into its head.
   Now she grabs her spear with both hands and plunges it directly into her dazed adversary. She hoists the spear straight up, and lets the squealing, kicking beast slide a full yard down its twelve-foot shaft. With it still bleeding and shaking, she again sets to work upon the others.
   And in the space of those five seconds, the beam pistol is cool to the touch and merciless. Lask counts eleven of them dead; the remaining four make a run for it.
   Nerrine retrieves her knife and pockets it. She holds her spear away from her, content to let the pathetic thing slowly kick and wriggle itself to death before she risks removing it.
   Quasha approaches. "I have kept one of my oaths already today," she says. "Pray let me keep the other, and show the poor beast mercy."
   Nerrine nods.
   Quasha grabs the raptor's head and twists it off at the neck.

They catch their breath on the go, pressing on through the woods towards their ultimate destination.
   "We need more beam pistols," whines Ress. "I want at least two, and everyone else should have one."
   Nerrine looks at Quasha; the hero of the Last Day has spent a fair amount of time familiarizing herself with the contents of the armory.
   "There's three. And some of us prefer a noble blade."
   "Bah," says Ress. "There's nothing noble here. We're not on Mars."
   "There wasn't much noble there, either." It's Lask who says it. She surprises herself as well as the others. They stare at her a moment, and she remembers why she seldom speaks.
   "Kellin could make some, I bet," says Ress.
   "It's not the machine that's difficult," says Nerrine. "It's the core. We should get some more when the rest of the colony arrives."
   Lask has difficulty reading the statement. There's a lie in there somewhere. It could just be Nerrine, though. Nerrine's emotions have always been hard to read. Part of that is the sweet melancholy in her, which goes as deep as the dark thing in Quasha. Everything is secret.
   It's different than with Ress: even with her plots and scheming, she seethes with emotion. Her intrigues are transparently that. With Nerrine, it's hard to tell whether or not she is keeping something back. And it's always been that way. Even the first time they met, when Nerrine was the prize whore of the pleasure-moon of Deimos, Lask could not taste her mysteries, much to the spymaster's dismay.

They are here. The raptors, and the round-about path they took to delay their conflict, has slowed them down. If they hurry with their task here, and then hurry back, they will be back to the ship before nightfall. None of them want to spend a night out here, nor risk passing through raptor territory in the darkness.
   "Your sister was right," says Nerrine, handing the field glasses to Ress.
   Ress takes a look. "They lay eggs." She hands the glasses to Quasha, who presses first one lens than the other against her remaining eye. Without offering them to Lask, Quasha then slides them into her tunic.
   Nerrine points at the triceratops. "There's the mother. Not far from the nest."
   "She's protecting it," says Lask. "Guarding it."
   "Queer sort of thing for a mother to do," says Ress. She pulls out her beam pistol.
   "No," says Nerrine. "It's a tough hide. Hasn't worked on others."
   "I haven't tried it on one of these yet," says Ress.
   "If you don't kill it clean, it might damage the eggs," says Nerrine. "Quasha will draw it out."
   Quasha nods. "I will show you, Ress, that there is at least one noble thing on this Earth."
   "Lask, you and I are on snatch duty. Ress, you protect us. Quasha, when you're ready."
   "A warrior is always ready for battle," says Quasha. Once more, she draws Thirteen.
   Lask and the others watch as Quasha starts down the hill towards the 'tops and her nest, holding the flat of the blade flush against her face. So intent were they on their objective that they did not notice the slow dimming of the sky and the gathering of soft gray clouds. It begins to rain.
   It is not only the first rain they have observed on Earth. None of them have seen or felt rain since before the bomb turned Mars into a red and desolate husk. And even then, the rain of Mars was dirty and ruined. This is a different rain. Clean. Fresh. New.
   The rain gets heavy now. Harder to see. Ress wonders aloud what the sense was of Quasha taking the field glasses with her.
   "No matter," says Nerrine. "I can see well enough to see that she has begun. Now we shall do the same."
   The beast is hesitant to leave her nest. She backs up, tensing her thick legs, keeping her head low and horns pointed.
   Quasha screams a warrior's scream and rushes in, sword overhead. She comes close and starts to bring Thirteen down.
   The 'tops lurches forward, testing the Daughter of Mars. Quasha does not falter, instead bringing sword against horn. The beast shakes her head, pushing the blade away.
   Quasha takes a step back. She slaps her sword into the mud. "Come on."
   Another step. Another slap. "Come on."
   Another; another. "Come on!"
   The huge nostrils flare, and suddenly the 'tops is charging. Quasha holds her ground until the last possible moment, and then throws herself to the side.
   But this is not the first time the triceratops has done battle with a predator, and indeed, she has fought small fast things before. She knows this trick, knows it like a muscle memory, and is turning her head towards Quasha's new position even before the warrior has begun to move. Her horn catches Quasha's leg, a glancing blow.
   "First blood," says Quasha. "But not the last!"
   The blade beats down against her large bony frill. It does nothing but unsettle the beast. But that's enough for Quasha to move back a few more paces. And with each step backwards through the sheets of rain, she stabs at the earth and taunts the beast anew.
   "Come, you horror.
   "Come, you thrice-bladed bitch.
   "Come, meet your death or bring me mine!"
   It charges again.
   Quasha holds her blade forward, like a great straight horn twisting out of her belly, pointed straight at the creature's massive face.
   The triceratops keeps on course, never flinching, galloping clumsily through the mud. It closes in.
   Quasha drops on her back, her sword flashing deep into the creature's throat. It rears up wildly, its legs moving furiously. Twelve tons of massive muscle threaten to crush Quasha's frail twig-boned body. Whether by luck or design, Quasha lives.
   The creature lumbers, stumbles, and falls.
   Nerrine and Lask come near. They carry the eggs in a large sling between them.
   "That was cautious?" says Nerrine.
   "You were just to draw it out. Not to kill it. Another two minutes..."
   "And it would've killed me. And it is not yet killed, Imperatrix. It is suffering."
   "Keep your oath."
   Quasha and Thirteen approach the 'tops slowly. When she is near it, Quasha kneels beside it in the rain. She raises her sword.
   There is a clap of thunder, and then it ends.


NOTES: What a difference an 's' makes. I just noticed today that the version I had posted previously did not reflect my final edits, for reasons I'm still not quite sure of.

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