8FOLD: Orphans of Mars # 5, "Sisters of Battle"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sun Nov 10 08:24:23 PST 2013

They're all of them illiterate. That can be the only explanation. Otherwise, they wouldn't keep barging into Kellin's lab. The one behind the closed door. The door with the sign that says, LEAVE ME ALONE; GO AWAY; NO.
   Petara knocks at the door. Kellin knows it's Petara because the apostate is the only one who knocks before entering (Ress knocks after entering, and the others don't bother with knocking).
   Read the sign, Kellin wants to say. But she doesn't. "Come in."
   Petara closes the door behind her. She gives a cursory glance to the clutch of newborns crawling over each other in the pen. "Nerrine asked me to check on your progress. They don't look well."
   "No," says Kellin. Just like Petara to rub it in. "I think we took the eggs from the mother too soon, and/or the incubator was off a smidge. Frankly, I'd be surprised if even one survives."
   "One's all Tandra needs," says Petara. "But two would be better."
   But even one is impossible. Petara's not listening. None of them are. They all think science is a kind of magic, that Kellin merely needs to wave her instruments at something to make it so. And when it isn't so, it's because Kellin wasn't good enough, or she didn't really try. She needs to lower their expectations. "Tell the Imperatrix I know how important this is."
   "She'll be pleased to hear it." In a way, she already has. Nerrine might serve as the lovely body of the Imperatrix, but it's obvious that Petara is the brain. Maybe someday Nerrine will see how she's being manipulated and think for herself. Certainly Ress has been trying to free the weak-minded Nerrine of the control of others.
   Petara goes on: "If I'm not mistaken, today's the day the capture group is going out. How many will you need alive?"
   "Of the raptors? One is all I need. Two would not be better."

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                             BY TOM RUSSELL

Danalee approaches the armory. Quasha waits outside it.
   "Hold," says Quasha. "Jarissy is within. She seeks anew a weapon worth her skill, and requires solitude and concentration."
   "She won't even know I'm there." And it's true: short, slight, slinky Danalee slides in and back out again in the span of a whisper. She holds a slender sword, terribly short, more a needle with a hilt. "Dart," she names it. In her other hand, she has a beam pistol: "Arrow."
   "Was not Dart the name of your blade on Mars?" says Quasha. "I believe you lost it there in someone's neck. This, like all things in our armory, was new-forged in the White City before our departure. It cannot be the same blade."
   "All swords in my hand are Dart," says Danalee. "They all are one blade when held in this one hand. For it is the skill that I name. The silence, the sneaking, the surprise, the single strike. The mettle of the metal matters naught."
   "Then let me fold for you a sword of paper, and call that Dart," says Quasha.
   Danalee smiles and sheathes the sword. "Another journey, perhaps. She is taking a good long while, isn't she?"
   Quasha nods. "The loss of her cudgel still fills loyal Jarissy with emptiness. She knew her cudgel like one who avails herself of a single harlot."
   "And there we have it again," says Danalee. "For all sluts are one slut in my bed. It remains my skill that matters."
   "I had forgotten why I didn't like you, Danalee."
   "And your prattle has reminded me. Pray make use of the silence and the sneaking when in the field."
   "Oh, there is no doubt of that," says Danalee. "For I shall..."
   "Pray make use of it now."
   "As you wish."
   "You still speak."
   There follows six breaths of absolute stillness. Then, Jarissy emerges. She carries a two-handed hammer, its handle a meter long. She doesn't look entirely happy with her selection.

They let the Imperatrix know that they're leaving.
   "We need only one," says Nerrine. "Alive and unharmed. But the mission is not absolute. Failure is an option. Remember your oath, Quasha."
   "I swore it by the naming of my blade." Then, to Danalee: "The naming is sacred. The blade itself matters."
   Danalee finds it prudent not to respond, at least not in front of Nerrine. Nerrine, it must be said, has grown even lovelier since Mars, solemn and radiant in power. It suits her. Pity she's a puppet.

Soon they leave the ship, and then the tall wooden walls being built about it, the small huts and buildings and meeting places that will one day soon house the rest of Earth Colony.
   "On the bright side," says Danalee, "your oath will be easier to keep once they arrive. Be harder to drop below twelve once we number fifty more."
   "You remind me of the apostate," says Quasha.
   "A compliment?"
   "A warning."
   A toothless one, decides Danalee, since her oath prevents her from carrying it out.
   "You are too harsh, friend Quasha," says Jarissy. "Danalee at least can fight. Godless Petara is useless."
   That's a laugh for sure, though the assassin keeps it for herself. Petara is the deadliest of them all. But Jarissy and Quasha fought in the light of the sun, and of the twin moons. Danalee and Lask fought in the shadows that Petara cast. It was in those shadows that the White City was seized and the conflict won. Until this last generation of Daughters breathes its last, the Battle of the Last Day will be fought again and again in flickering campfires on countless planets. But the war of the shadows shall never have songs.

Now they are in raptor territory. But: there are no raptors.
   Danalee stares at the branches and listens. "Nerrine said they were in the trees last time, but I don't see them."
   "They're not likely to try that trick again," says Quasha with some authority.
   "They know that we know," says Quasha.
   "But do they know that we know that they know, et cetera?" says Danalee. "They might try it simply because we know they won't."
   Jarissy slams her hammer against a tree trunk. It shudders loudly. Nothing falls out.
   Quasha speaks. "There was something that the Imperatrix," the word is heavy and bitter in her mouth, "said the last time. She compared their whole cowardly cunning race to Ress."
   "Ress was with you at the time?" says Jarissy.
   "Yes," smiles Quasha, remembering. "She was most unhappy. But I think there was some truth in it. At least, until we have brought back a captive for study, it might help us to understand them."
   "Then they must be in the trees," says Jarissy. She hammers another one. Nothing. "For Ress only really has one trick, repeated endlessly, and not so subtle as she thinks."
   Quasha nods sourly. "That one trick works well enough to make Nerrine her tool."
   Nerrine is someone's tool for sure, but it is plainly Petara that twists her handle. But Danalee says nothing. Better they think it that incestuous viper and leave Petara to her work.
   "Mayhap," suggests Jarissy, "we should have brought Ress along."
   "No," says Quasha, struggling to suppress a low chuckle. "She might betray us to the others of her kind."
   Jarissy laughs, and there is no laugh like Jarissy's. "Oh, how I have missed you, Quasha."
   "Missed me?" says Quasha. "I have always been here, and visited you often as the poison left your body."
   "I mean the Quasha who laughs. We used to laugh often in another's company. You were not always so dark."
   "No, I ever was and ever shall be," says Quasha. "As for laughter, you bring it out in me, Jarissy, you ever did and ever shall."
   Danalee feels acutely the lack of something, but she has no word for it.

Deep in the woods, at last three of the raptors are sighted. They stand a hundred meters away from the three Daughters. Quasha and her group crouch forward. They move about ten meters toward the beasts. Then the raptors move ten meters away from them. Now they come once more to a stand-still.
   "This is a trap," says Danalee.
   "Of course it is," says Quasha. "Leading us into an ambush."
   "They must know that we know."
   "And," says Jarissy, "they must know that we'll still follow them into it anyway. That's how Ress gets her way. She almost tells you, yes, this is a trap. But if you don't walk into it, you can't get what's on the other end. And you want it, so in you go." She grimaces. "Much to my misfortune."
   "The secret, then, is to want nothing," says Danalee. "It has in truth served me well, and may serve us here. We don't follow, we don't get ambushed, at..."
   Quasha cuts her off. "Then we don't get the prisoner, and the mission a failure."
   "Nerrine did say it was an option."
   "Yes, but she did not mean for lack of trying," says Quasha. "But 'tis no surprise an assassin finds a cowardly way."
   "You hadn't let me finish," says Danalee. "We don't follow, we don't get ambushed, at least not where they want to ambush us." She pulls from her belt some wire and firemud. "Surely you warriors know the value of defensive terrain?"
   Jarissy dimly recalls: "I heard about it once, I think."
   "We wouldn't know," spits Quasha. "We only attacked, never cowered."
   "We'll let them come to us," says Danalee. She strings the wire along the ground between this tree and that one, and that one and this, carefully spacing and arming the firemud. "We will be bait, and lead them to an ambush of their own."
   "See, Jarissy, we didn't need Ress. We have another raptor in Danalee."
   "First the smugness of Petara, then the cunning of Ress," says Danalee. "If you're going to keep comparing me to those that you hate, pray next lend me the body of Nerrine."
   "I have no hate for the Imperatrix," says Quasha. Danalee almost believes it.

Danalee keeps watch out of the corner of one eye. "They're closer now," she whispers. "Fifty meters. And." She closes her eyes and listens. "More of them are coming, unseen."
   Jarissy twists the long handle of her warhammer between her brawny hands. "I hate to say it, but I almost think this will work."
   Something rustles above them. Then, like raindrops fall two dozen raptors.
   "One trick, just like Ress," says Quasha in a single breath. She draws Thirteen.
   "Over the wire," says Danalee. She's already leapt out of their defensive cordon. Quasha and Jarissy follow.
   The raptors land and are starting to scamper after them when the firemud is tripped. Hot molten death ignites raptor and tree trunk alike.
   "This was your great plan?" says Quasha.
   "It worked," says Danalee.
   "Didn't even get to try the hammer," says Jarissy forlornly.
   The firemud burns for twenty seconds and then cools, flame-shaped bubbling mud stretching over the scene. Twitching blackened dinosaurs smoke and expire.
   On the other side of the carnage, the original three raptors still stand, eyes wide and blinking.
   "Remember," says Quasha, stepping through the mud, "we only need one."
   The raptors don't stand still for long. The three Daughters give chase. Danalee can remember running only once in her adult life, and that was only when all her secrets and tricks had abandoned her. She is quick of foot but only silently and in passing; full-blown huffing-and-puffing muscles-aching out-in-the-open running is not her forte. Quickly, Jarissy and Quasha outpace her.
   She stops a moment to catch her breath. The blood pounds in her head. Her legs burn with an unscratchable itch. From her belt she procures a water-skin and gulps it down. Her throat is still parched afterwards. Then she's trying to catch up.
   No, she does not care for running, does not care for blades waving and battle-cries and oaths sworn on a blade. She would admire it, she would suppose, if it wasn't so terribly and unforgivably stupid. The only oath she'll ever swear is to live, as well as she can, as long as she can, any way that she can.
   She finally catches them at the edge of the woods.
   "They're scared," determines Quasha. "They're running out to the plains, where there's nowhere for them to hide."
   "What's that noise?" says Danalee.
   Jarissy looks about, seeing nothing. "Probably one of those big ones somewhere. Harmless creatures. All the more infuriating for it."
   "I think you're right," says Quasha. "The ones who smashed my kiss of thunder." And ended her short reign as Imperatrix. But Danalee, as always, says nothing.
   "Come on," says Quasha. "Let's take our captive."

The raptors must be scared out of their wits, for they move slowly, staying in sight, looking about in a jittery fashion, unsure perhaps of what they're looking for, let alone their next course of action.
   Danalee is delegated to sneak and circle around to where some large rocks lay, while Quasha and Jarissy continue their direct approach. It certainly suits the assassin better than running. The rocks are to the west of the raptors, while the Daughters are at the south.
   As she nears the rocks, she notes that the distant sound of thundering steps grows nearer. She scans the skyline for the Alamosaurus that Jarissy and Quasha had described to her. She sees no sign of their long necks.
   And, now that she listens closely, the sound is wrong. It's not a rhythm of four feet, but of two, faster and louder with each step. Closer with each step.
   And now she sees it, bearing in from the east with incredible speed. Smaller than the creatures described, but certainly big enough, four meters from foot to hip. It runs on only two huge feet, with two impossibly tiny, scrawny forearms. Its massive toothsome head is pitched forward, and though it might be a trick of the light, there looks to be a bloody scab where his right eye should be.
   The raptors now run south towards and past Quasha and Jarissy, so suddenly that the warriors cannot react. The little feathered beasts quickly steal back to their forest.
   So. They lead them to an ambush after all.
   Danalee draws Arrow into her hand, turns its power to full, and unleashes a terrific blast that hits his tough hide. The old rex roars, not in pain, but in defiance.
   If he had any interest in Quasha and Jarissy, he forgets it, running towards Danalee. His speed is uncanny for his size. There is no way any Daughter could outrun this thing, let alone Danalee.
   Danalee knows it. They all do.
   The assassin readies her useless Dart in one hand, and unleashes the worthless fury of Arrow with the other.
   But Quasha does not stand idly by. And as Thirteen hammers at the rex's leg, Danalee is for once thankful for stupid oaths sworn in the naming.
   The rex, his leg bleeding, turns his terrible attention now to Quasha. For all his ferocious power, he lacks the cunning of the raptors. He is less like Ress, and more Quasha, right down to the missing eye.
   This is the beast, realizes Danalee as she puts some distance between herself and the rex. The one who killed the twins. The one that Ress shot in the eye. The soft, squishy eye. It wouldn't be nearly so fearsome if fully blind.
   She circles around now in a full sprint, seeking to get on the east side of the rex. On the left side. The eye side.
   Quasha had fallen back as soon as she drew the rex's attention. She keeps her distance now, careful to display Thirteen like a gleaming horn or tooth. The rex is cautious. He looks for an opening, a moment of weakness. Quasha isn't likely to yield it up. Thank the goddess for stubborn warriors.
   This is the beast. The one who killed the twins. The one that broke the cudgel.
   The thought chills something in Danalee, and now there it is: Jarissy, hammer gripped in both hands and swinging over and behind her head, running full speed. "For Soola! For Chell!"
   She leaps in the air towards his head. "For my cudgel!"
   The hammer comes down between his gigantic flaring nostrils. Jarissy is thrown back by the force of her own blow, sprawling to the ground.
   Danalee lets fly her bolt. It misses his eye but comes near enough to hurt.
   Quasha leaps up with Thirteen. With a clean slice she severs the fingers on his right claw.
   The rex reels back, turns around, his tail swinging. Quasha drops to the earth just in time. Jarissy doesn't, and is thrown several yards.
   It doesn't matter, though; the rex runs off to lick his wounds. He will hunt the soft squishy pink things another day.
   Danalee runs for the third time today. "Quasha," she says, out of breath. "I owe you my life."
   "You owe me nothing," says Quasha. "You were brave. In your way."
   She'll take that as a compliment. "Come on. Let's get Jarissy brushed off and get out of here."
   But there is red mixed with Jarissy's pitch black head of hair.
   "Jarissy!" says Quasha.
   "First it broke my cudgel, then my head," says Jarissy sourly.
   Quasha kneels beside her. Delicately, she picks up Jarissy's head and examines the back of it. Just as delicately, she sets it back down. She withdraws her hand, sticky with blood and tissue. Jarissy had landed on a hard stone. The back of her head had caved in.
   "Kiss me, Quasha. Sister of battle."
   Quasha kisses her.
   "You swore two oaths, my friend. I'll not have you break both of them." Quivering, Jarissy lifts her plate, exposing her left breast.
   "I, I can't," says Quasha. She does not cry. It is not meet to cry.
   "I won't. You might yet recover."
   It's a lie, and she knows it. It doesn't matter. Jarissy has already died.
   Danalee says nothing. She does not even provide words of comfort, for even if she had them, they would only burn.
   Quasha is still crouched; she points Thirteen at her loins.
   "No, Quasha!"
   Quasha is cold and resolute. "I swore an oath in the naming of the sword. The oath is now broken."
   And now Danalee hates the oath all over again. "Wait! Jarissy. There is one more duty to perform. You'll not leave her here, or trust it to a worthless, cowardly assassin. See her safe, see her buried. You can wait that long. You must. For Jarissy."
   "Damn you," whispers Quasha. She sheathes her blade. "Damn you."

They fashion a stretcher, and on it they bear Jarissy home.


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