8FOLD: Orphans of Mars # 2, "The Savage Song of Thirteen!"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sat Sep 7 06:07:16 PDT 2013

The old rex moves slowly. He pans his massive head from one side to the other, taking in his surroundings with his left eye. It is a slow and awkward process, but a necessary one. His right eye is still, and will ever be, black and only black, consumed by a darkness that burns.
   It burns still, many dawns after the squishy pink thing set it ablaze with the strange red light. He has put his face in the lake to quench it, but it has not been quenched. He has rubbed his face bloody against the stone to stop its itching, but it itches still. The pain is sometimes all that he can think about. The pain, and the squishy pink thing.
   He had seen them before. When he was young. Countless dawns ago. He reaches far back into his wordless memory and remembers their smell. He remembers the crackle of their bones and the sweetness of their flesh. And he remembers the single big flat black egg from which they all hatched. Even when young, he was strong enough to break it beneath his foot.
   Yes. He will find them again. He will smell them. He will find their big flat black egg. And the rex will feed.

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Quasha reaches beneath her patch and rubs hard at the raw ache where her right eye used to be. It stills burns. After all these years, even on this humid mud ball. A beam wound never stops burning and never really heals. She doesn't mind the pain. After all, by rights, it should have sliced through her brain. Miraculously it only took her eye. She doesn't mind the loss, either; that's why the goddess gave her two to start with. The goddess deemed that Quasha should live, but be marked forever by glory, that her face should always sing of her part in the Battle of the Last Day.
   Her life was saved for some higher purpose. When Garaka fell, she thought she understood the reason. It was her destiny to succeed her as Imperatrix of Earth colony. A destiny that has been delayed. By Nerrine.
   Nerrine is lovely. Her beauty is exquisite and compelling. Her face is comely and perfect: there is no glory there. No scars. No songs. A face fit for the bed of the Imperatrix (as Garaka knew), but never for the great seat.
   The sight of Nerrine, once something from which Quasha drew sly pleasure, now fills her with disgust. She has spent precious little time at the great table these last few days, preferring to take her meal in her room or the armory. She's spent more and more time here in the armory, surrounded by exquisite marvels of bloodshed and ingenuity. But none are as exquisite or ingenious as her kiss-of-thunder which the great Alamosaurus crushed under the weight of its massive foot. Not just crushed, but crushed by accident. That, like everything else, rankles.
   The door opens; it is true and noble Jarissy.
   "Speak, Jarissy: what weighs upon you?"
   "Hmm? Oh, nothing weighs upon me, Quasha. I only miss my cudgel."
   "Aye," says Quasha, "and I, my kiss. No weapons shall ever be their equal. How strange it is. When I was still learning the arts of violence, the place that I was happiest was not my own room, nor the pits where I killed my first gladiator, nor even the cool garden where I found solace and repose. It was the armory. Surrounded, even overwhelmed, by so many wonderful possibilities. Now, it is a place that gives me little joy."
   "Nothing strange in it," says Jarissy. "The price of the truest love is that it cannot last, and when it is over, all else shall pale." She sighs, grabs a flanged mace, and studies its weight in her hand.
   "No blade this time?" says Quasha.
   Jarissy shakes her head. "I don't think it suits me. Cutting. Stabbing. No, none of that. I am made for bashing things in."
   "Are you to be bashing some things in?"
   "Hoping so," says Jarissy. "Kellin has secured permission to venture out and gather samples."
   More likely Ress has secured the permission for her.
   "I'm to be her muscle," Jarissy continues.
   "You only?"
   "Friend Quasha, doubt you Jarissy?"
   "Oh, I believe most solemnly in Jarissy."
   "In truth, though, there will be four. Kellin, of course, and Jarissy, but also Lask the empath and, as for the fourth, if she has had enough of sulking in the armory for the day..."
   "You have my sword," says Quasha, taking a blade and hilt without hesitation.
   "Bad luck to take a sword without naming it."
   "As well you learned," says Quasha.

They come to the Great Table. There, Petara is annoying Nerrine. Quasha is not surprised that the Imperatrix is too weak to command the apostate's silence.
   "I mean no offense to Kellin," says Petara, waving at the scientist.
   "Don't worry," says Kellin. "Much offense is taken."
   Petara goes on: "But what use is it to risk sending a third of us out to collect bits of plants and dung?"
   Ress laughs. "You are both heretic and hypocrite, Petara. For you will not eat meat, and you cannot live long on tack alone. So why shouldn't my sister go gather plants for you to eat? And dung."
   Petara answers Ress but ignores her, again speaking to Nerrine. "We can gather plants nearby. The earthlings have not ventured near the ship. But to venture out further is to court another disaster. And with only twelve of us left, we should not risk four of us on something that isn't vital. Collecting samples for her to dinker around with in her lab is not vital. But," and here she makes a big show of withdrawing in mocking deference, "I only advise. It is you, Imperatrix, who decides."
   Nerrine stares at the table as she speaks; she is afraid to look any of them in the eye lest they question her. Some Imperatrix. "Every time we go out there, for whatever reason, it is a risk. But, at the same time, we need to know our enemy and our environment if we are to survive. I think this expedition is vital. I can't say for certain that all twelve of us will survive, or for how long, but anything that gives us an edge is worth a risk."
   Can't say for certain. What inspiring leadership! Quasha unsheathes the blade. "I name this sword, Imperatrix, and I swear an oath in the naming. I shall call her Thirteen. For so long as I have her, we shall never number less: the twelve of us, and Thirteen."
   "Quasha," says Nerrine. "I think you make this oath rashly."
   "I know that I make it rashly," says Quasha. "Still I make it. I've made but one oath before, and I have ever kept it."
   Petara sneers. "You might as well swear to keep the sun from rising."
   "You will not mock!" says Quasha. "Stop up your throats, or I'll..." She closes her mouth.
   "You'll do nothing," says Petara. "Nothing that will reduce our number."
   "The oath is sworn, Nerrine," challenges Quasha.
   "The sword is named," mumbles the Imperatrix, still staring at the table. "The oath is sworn."

It was a stupid oath. One that will break. Maybe not this day, maybe not the next. But one day it shall, and Quasha will pay the price. A stupid oath, and she knows it, but she swore it just the same. 

They move with the wind, slowly and cautiously working their way over familiar ground before venturing further still. Every time they see a new plant or dung-pile, Kellin stops to retrieve some samples. Every time they see a new beast, they give it a wide berth.
   "Quasha," says Lask. "I smell that you are troubled. Frustrated."
   "You need not be an empath to mark that," says Kellin. "Quasha and Jarissy both, they see a beast and think it's made for killing."
   "Isn't it?" says Jarissy. "What's the point of having a mace and nothing to bash?"
   "Or naming a sword, and never drawing it?" says Quasha.
   "It is different," says Lask. "Jarissy is disappointed. With Quasha, it is something deeper and something darker."
   "I'll thank you to keep out of my thoughts," says Quasha. Now she knows why Nerrine chose Lask; empaths always were the best spies.
   "Your thoughts are safe and secret," says Lask. "I read only emotions."
   "In a true-born Daughter, they are both the same," says Quasha. "A thing that is thought is also felt, a thing felt is thought. You who cannot feel cannot understand."
   Kellin finishes collecting her sample and they move on.

They hear a sound like a wailing. Kellin and the empath are soft enough to wonder what it is, but Quasha knows, Jarissy knows: it's something dying. The quartet follows the noise into the woods with a dread urgency.
   Deep in the woods they come to the edge of a cliff which drops eight meters straight down. The area below them is surrounded on three sides by cliffs; at the opposite end from where they stand, perhaps twenty meters across, is a gentle slope bearing back upwards. And there below them, lying on its side, a pool of sticky red slowly emanates from the hind quarters of a young triceratops.
   Kellin observes the creature, the first of its kind that they've seen, through her field glasses. "That's not from the fall. It's been bitten, or scratched."
   "Does it matter?" snaps Quasha. "However it came to be, the beast is bleeding out. It suffers."
   "Of course," says Kellin. "But if some other beast attacked it, why would they then leave it live? Why would they not eat it?"
   "Perhaps it flesh was too tough, or perhaps its blood like poison. But we'll not drink its blood, for we did not spill it."
   "I think we should think about this," says Kellin. "Maybe scout ahead, in case whatever did it is still around."
   "I will not tarry with you any longer. The beast shall have swift mercy." Quasha draws Thirteen and leaps down.
   She holds the sword pointing to the soil as she approaches the triceratops. If the creature is aware of Quasha, it does not show it, instead staring glassy-eyed past her, half-delirious and half-asleep.
   "It will end," whispers Quasha. She tucks the sword beneath the frill, touching the tip at the neck.
   Something digs into her back, sharp and deep. Something had jumped on her. Suddenly a half-dozen small somethings are jumping at her with dagger-like toes. More are coming, no, more are swarming, swarming from behind the trees above her, running down the slope, a countless number of feather-covered and screeching raptors.
   A trap. Of course. Quasha knew it was a trap, just as she knew her oath was a trap, and she walked into it just the same. Trap or not, she could not stand for any beast to be in agony. That was the first oath she swore, and she will keep it still. She will end its suffering, as soon as she has snuffed out every last raptor.
   They are quick. Quicker than Quasha.
   They are clever. Quasha has never been one for cunning.
   They are many. Though Quasha will not fight them alone.
   And they are deadly. But there, Quasha most certainly has them.
   As Thirteen sings its savage ballad, Jarissy leaps down with her mace. "I've your back, friend Quasha."
   Quasha feels the warm trickle where the first raptor had gouged her. "Have it sooner next time. And rest assured, I have yours."
   Heard distinctly is the sound of wood spinning through the air. Three of the empath's boomerangs crack the skulls of three raptors. Lask nimbly drops herself down into the pit, throwing her other three to buy herself time enough to retrieve the first set. "Your oath, Quasha-- all shall keep it!"
   A spattering of beams digs into the earth, clearing a spot for Kellin to descend. Quasha notes with a grimace that Kellin lacks the skill and finesse that Ress is said to possess with the beam pistol. But at close-range, she has skill enough.
   Quasha has spent too much time admiring Kellin's carnage; now a raptor is flinging itself towards her face. Without enough time to bring her sword up in defense, Quasha instead flings herself to one side, to the ground and out of its path. Jarissy brings her mace down, swatting it out of the air.
   Quasha stays on the ground, appearing vulnerable and helpless to the hungry raptors. This draws them inwards, buying some breathing room for the two inexperienced fighters on the periphery. Then, Quasha springs to her feet, kicking and slashing at the raptors. 
   As Quasha and Jarissy bash their way from the center, Kellin and Lask bear in from the perimeter. The screeches of the raptors become louder and stranger, and then as suddenly as it commenced, the skirmish ends. The raptors flee, climbing frantically up the cliffs and disappearing into the woods.
   "Well," says Jarissy, disappointed, "that was hardly a fight!"
   "We scared them off," says Kellin.
   "No," says Lask. "They knew they could not win, and so they ceased to fight."
   "Yeah," says Jarissy. "Because we scared them off."
   "It was not fear," says Lask. "It was something colder."
   "Silence," says Quasha. "The beast deserves it."
   All is still. She places the tip of the blade at its neck, and drives it in hard.
   In the space of three breaths, it suffers no more. Quasha draws the blade back. With a cloth she wipes it clean.
   "Obviously," starts Kellin, drawing pad in hand. "Obviously, we shouldn't stay in this vicinity any longer than we have to. But I'd like to take a few moments to study the animal." She points with the butt end of her chalk to the triceratops.
   "No," says Quasha.
   "We've never seen one before. We don't know where or when we'll see one again..."
   "No. Not this one. Not this way. It has been used once before. It will not happen again."
   Kellin offers no argument; her tongue also lacks the skill of her sister's.
   "None of the meat, either," says Quasha. She glares at Jarissy, who had been gathering raptor corpses. "They don't deserve our bellies."
   Jarissy drops the lot of them.

The mood is somber for the rest of the expedition. After collecting samples from only three more sites, and with many hours of daylight still available, Kellin suggests that they return home. Quasha agrees.

When they return, Jarissy is once more aglow, regaling the great table with her telling of the battle, of her sturdy mace (though it was no cudgel), and of Quasha's steel. Quasha strangely derives little pleasure from hearing of her exploits. She excuses herself from the table, complaining of the injuries she sustained.
   "Shall I dress your wounds?" offers Petara. It is hard to tell if she is smirking or not. Her face always looks the same to Quasha.
   "I have always tended to my own," says Quasha.
   She retires to her bedroom. With burning liquid, she wipes away the blood and cleans the oozing punctures and lacerations across her back and arms. She winds the bandages tightly, double-thick. And, as at the table, she again finds the whole process oddly bereft of the familiar and usual pleasures.
   She lies on her back, her head tilted to one side. With her good eye she stares at Thirteen resting in its hilt against the wall.
   "We kept our promise today," she says to the sword. It doesn't answer. "Don't you make me a liar tomorrow."


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