8FOLD: Orphans of Mars # 3, "Puppets and Poison!"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Fri Sep 20 16:05:50 PDT 2013

The shock of Jarissy writhing and sprawled against the great table, her face covered in sweat, her eyes turned from yellow to deep black, causes a commotion. Quasha had found her a mile outside the ship, in much the same state. Lask the empath reports that the fearless warrior is in a deep panic. Petara carelessly recognizes the signs of a poison or venom at work, outing herself as a mistress of that dark and distrusted art. (Ress may have use for the apostate after all.) Kellin recognizes the situation as desperate, and works to stabilize Jarissy.
   It is enough to unsettle Ress for a moment. She hadn't expected this to happen. Ress had helped Jarissy decide to start making solo, unsanctioned excursions into the world beyond the ship, and had covered for her when her absence was questioned. The reasons were manifold. It let her test Jarissy's loyalty to the Imperatrix. By creating a secret to be shared between them, it made Jarissy see Ress as a confidant. And, when Jarissy's defiance was discovered, it would create another minor crisis by which to test Nerrine's fitness as Imperatrix, and another occasion on which Ress and her advice would see Nerrine through.
   Well, this is a crisis, alright. Ress calms herself with a single breath, and starts working on a way to turn this to her advantage.

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Ress watches as her sister and Petara work to stabilize Jarissy's condition, and then, afterwards, run tests on her blood.
   Jarissy is of no use to her dead. Ress may need her brute strength if things ever go wrong. Quasha may be near her equal in that regard, but Quasha is too dark and too volatile to manipulate directly. Jarissy makes a useful lever with which to move Quasha in the direction of her choosing. No, Jarissy must live, at least for now.
   Of course, she can't exactly bat her eyes at a bunch of blood cells. There's not much that Ress can do to ensure Jarissy's survival. It makes her feel helpless, and Ress hasn't felt helpless since she was a child, since she slipped her tiny fingers around her mothers' necks and throttled the life out of them.
   She decides to use the helplessness, turning on the tears, becoming once more the youngest of the twelve, the girl not yet of age. Quasha hides her concern, but Ress can see it flicker in her remaining eye. Tandra predictably comes to comfort her; she would have been an excellent mother if their entire species wasn't barren. Even the Imperatrix gives Ress a sliver of her concern before turning back towards Jarissy and her plight.
   Only Lask is unmoved. She stares at Ress from across the room. She knows that her tears are only water. Damn empath. Without emotions, Lask can't be bent. When Ress nudged Nerrine into selecting Lask to help escort Kellin on her expedition, she had convinced the Imperatrix that her empathic talents might allow her to contribute to her sister's scientific inquiry into the creatures outside the ship. But Ress's real desire was that the empath would not return. Ress might just end up killing the useless bitch herself like she was forced to do with Soola.

Kellin determines the chemical nature of the poison, and, more than that, identifies a compound present in one the samples she has collected that she feels might serve as an antidote.
   "Oh, my brilliant sister!" Ress throws her arms girlishly about Kellin and squeezes her tightly. "I knew you would do it!"
   Before relinquishing the embrace, Ress lets her nails drag carelessly along Kellin's arm. It's her accidental way of making sure that Kellin remembers their last night in the White City. Guilt is a thing that must be nurtured and helped along.
   "There's not enough of the sample to make an effective antidote. We'll have to get more of this plant." She shuffles through her notes to pinpoint the location from which she collected the sample. The pink fades from her cheeks.
   "Kellin?" says Nerrine.
   "We found it in the pit. Where we were ambushed."

Ress speaks with the Imperatrix in the latter's private quarters.
   "You'll be sending out a party?"
   "I'll be leading the party," says Nerrine.
   Ress is glad. This saves her the trouble of nudging Nerrine in that direction. If she is to remain Imperatrix, she must act like one. "You'll need someone to guide you there. Someone who has been there before. Could you please not send Kellin? I, I know this is childish and selfish of me, but she's the only family that I have, and I'm, I'm scared."
   "Don't worry," says Nerrine. "I need Kellin here to watch over Jarissy."
   As well Ress knew.
   "Quasha will accompany me," says Nerrine.
   No, Quasha will not do. "Forgive me, Imperatrix. I know I am yet young, and that my advice does not have the weight of others."
   "But still the Imperatrix must listen, even as she alone decides," says Nerrine. "Go on."
   "Even I can see that Quasha envies your position. And, from what I have heard the others say, that position is still... tentative. You are still unproven. I do not find that to be the case myself, of course, but some of the others..."
   "Which of the others?"
   "Forgive me, Imperatrix, but I am hesitant to say, as it was disclosed in confidence. Just as I'd never tell anyone what you might tell me in confidence."
   Nerrine nods. "To tell it true, Ress, I only care about saving Jarissy. If giving Quasha the chance to show me up gets it done, then I'll gladly give her that chance."
   Small, short-term mind, reactionary. But that's not unusual. No one but Ress knows how to play the long game. If Quasha comes back from this expedition an Imperatrix anew, then all the time Ress spent nudging her puppet into the role will be for naught. She tries a bolder move. "Imperatrix. Nerrine. I'm not worried about Quasha showing you up. I'm worried about Quasha killing you."
   Nerrine doesn't seem to react. The woman's passivity is maddening. But it's also what makes her so malleable. "Have you heard anything...?"
   "No, no," says Ress. "It's just a feeling I have. From the way she looks at you. Of course, I could be misreading her."
   "You're better at reading people than you think," says Nerrine.
   Everyone knows that, even Nerrine. Ress was counting on that.
   "Kellin's out, Quasha, so is Jarissy of course," says Nerrine. "That just leaves Lask."
   Ress nods dimly as if she's just figuring it out now. Maybe this time the empath won't return.

Nerrine summons everyone but Jarissy to the great table.
   "I'm leading a group of three to retrieve the flower," says Nerrine.
   "You have my blade, Imperatrix," says Quasha.
   "That won't be necessary," says Nerrine.
   "You must let me go," says Quasha. Ress was hoping this would cause some friction. The more Nerrine is challenged, the more she'll lean on Ress. "By this sword, I swore an oath! If you do not let me try to keep it..."
   "Come, Quasha," says Nerrine. "Let us speak in private."
   Ress wasn't expecting this, but she isn't surprised. Nerrine hasn't enough of a spine to deal with an open challenge openly.
   A few moments later, Nerrine and Quasha return. It's hard to tell if Quasha is discontented, because Quasha always looks discontented.
   "As I was saying," begins Nerrine, "I will lead the group of three. Lask, you know the way."
   The empath nods.
   "Ress, go get a beam pistol," says Nerrine.
   "What?!" says Ress. "You can't be serious!"
   "I have to agree with my sister," says Kellin. "She's too young and this is too important."
   "I won't go," says Ress.
   Her words hang there for a moment.
   Then, Nerrine speaks. "You forget yourself, Ress. The word is the law."
   Ress keeps her lips closed tight. So does Nerrine. But the nine other voices in the room echo in submission, even Kellin. "The word is the law."
   "Now," says Nerrine. "Let's go."
   By the time she's retrieved the beam pistol from the armory, Ress explains what has happened to herself. Nerrine knew she made a mistake dealing with Quasha secretly. She feels safer humiliating a vulnerable girl than standing up to a battle-hardened warrior. As to why she chose her for this mission, it's because Nerrine is lost without her guidance. Ress doesn't relish being so close to the empath, of course, but this is actually a good sign.

They creep along, slow and safe. More than once Nerrine brings their progress to a sharp but silent halt for a few tense minutes before giving the sign to proceed. She never explains what it was that they were waiting for, but Ress doesn't question her.
   With a gentle sway of her spear, Nerrine brings them to a stop just inside the woods. She points upwards with her prime finger, then uses her first two fingers to "walk" up a sheer vertical plane. Quickly, but deliberately, Nerrine scales one of the trees. With a little effort, Ress and the empath follow suit.
   A few breaths after they've secreted themselves, Ress hears a soft crunch. She looks down. There is a lone feathered dinosaur walking just below her tree, his long toes crunching against leaves. It looks like the creature in one of Kellin's drawings.
   Ress looks over to Nerrine and Lask, who share the same tree. Lask is looking at the creature. Nerrine puts her hand on the empath's wrist, a question in her gaze. Lask lets her eyes drift up from the ground, and answers Nerrine's question with a nod. Yes, that's one of the ambushers. One of the raptors.
   Ress grips the tree tightly with her left arm, pressing her body towards the branches. Keeping her eyes focused on the raptor, she slides her right hand slowly down the side of her lithe body, her fingers reaching for the holster strapped around her thigh. She does not hold her breath; she simply does not breath. With her thumb, she unsnaps the button holding the leather flap over the beam pistol.
   The sound is loud, she thinks perhaps too loud, but the lone raptor does not notice it. At least he does not seem to. She lets the pistol's handle find its place in her palm. It immediately calms her down. She hadn't realized how much her hand was shaking, how much she was sweating. She had no idea until, just like that, it disappeared. Until the pistol felt so right and natural in her hand. Carefully, she aims.
   Something moves in the corner of her eye. It's Lask, waving one hand at her. Ress tilts her head in that direction, and she locks eyes with Nerrine. Nerrine's eyes are wild and intense, her mouth open but fixed. The message is clear. Ress holsters her pistol. When she looks down, the raptor is gone.
   Of course. They were a pack animal. There would be others, somewhere nearby. Best not to alert them. Best to wait them out. This takes the better part of an hour. By the time their feet touch dirt again, all three of them are sore and stiff.
   Nerrine lacks boldness and spine but boldness and spine will get you killed on this planet. Nerrine knows how to keep them alive; that's why Ress chose her for Imperatrix.

They come to a sort of pit in the woods. Lask looks at Nerrine and nods again: this is the place.
   Nerrine kneels at the edge. Lask and Ress again follow her lead.
   Below them, growing in the pit, they see a spattering of the plant. They don't see it anywhere else. Not around them, not up-top, but only in the pit. In the trap.
   Lask turns around so that she can begin the descent. Nerrine touches her wrist, stopping her. So, the Imperatrix is going to do it.
   But she doesn't turn around. Instead, she just pivots her gaze towards Ress. Then, she cocks her head down towards the pit.
   It takes Ress a moment to piece it together. "Me? No, you're crazy."
   Ress's refusal seems to irk Nerrine less than the fact that she gave it voice. In the lowest of whispers, Nerrine answers. "Go. Now."
   Ress doesn't care for this new attitude, and will have to think up some ways to correct the behavior. For now she follows orders, climbing down into the pit.
   Lask tosses down the sample kit that Kellin had given the party. Having watched her sister at work many times in the past, Ress certainly knows how to use it properly. Maybe that's why Nerrine had her get into the pit. There's a reason for it after all. A stupid reason, but still a reason.
   Ress crouches down and gets to work. She notices that to the far right side of the pit, tucked beneath the shadow of a crevice, lies the body of a large animal. Most of the flesh has been stripped from the body, exposing the bones. The most distinctive feature is its horned frill.
   It must be the other animal that Kellin spoke of. The one that Quasha killed. They hadn't mentioned moving it. Someone else must've done it. Something else. But why? To hide it, she supposes. Certainly if she saw a mostly-eaten corpse in the bottom of this pit, she wouldn't exactly want to climb in. When it was still alive, in pain and helpless, it might serve as bait. Now it was a liability.
   It occurs to her that all this is thinking like a Daughter of Mars, and not some simple stupid beast, and it then occurs to her that the ambushers were not simple stupid beasts. They are cunning, and they are many, and here she is picking flowers in one of their traps. It makes her feel more than a little vulnerable. For comfort, she looks up at Nerrine and Lask.
   They're not there. There's no one there.
   She hears something scurry.
   She whirls about. She thinks she sees something out of the corner of her eye, something moving. But she can't seem to catch it again. All is still around her.
   Ress starts to climb out of the pit. Her fingers find no purchase in the dirt. She falls backwards.
   She gets back to her feet. Now she climbs again. This time, she pulls herself up and onto the grass.
   They're gone. Where are they? Did they leave her here to die?
   Damn empath. Damn mind-reader. She knows. Knows what, Ress isn't sure, but in a short time Ress has done enough that Lask probably knows something. Probably told Nerrine.
   There's a screech. It's sudden and it stops her heart. Then another. And another. That must be it. The call of the raptor. They're coming. They're coming for her.
   She can't outrun them. And alone she can't fight them off.
   She looks up. In one tree, she sees Nerrine, and in another, Lask. Of course.
   She was getting paranoid, Ress realizes as she scurries up into her own tree. Of course they didn't leave her. It wouldn't make any sense, coming all this way for the plant that's meant to save Jarissy, and then just leaving Ress to die with it.
   Of course, they could just hide in the trees and wait for the raptors to finish her off. Certainly, that's what Ress would've done if Lask was in the pit. But Nerrine wouldn't have done it.
   Would she? Perhaps Ress doesn't know her puppet as well as she thinks she does, or as well as she should. A more direct approach may be warranted.
   They stay in the trees longer this time, and it gives Ress enough time to work out her stratagem.

Ress pokes through Nerrine's doorway. "I have good news, Imperatrix. Kellin is confident that Jarissy will make a full recovery."
   Nerrine nods, as if the words are only half-heard.
   "Imperatrix?" Ress steps into the chamber and lets the door seal behind her. "Nerrine? Can we speak frankly?"
   Another non-committal nod.
   "Have I done something to anger you?"
   "Have you?"
   "Well, that's what I wanted to find out from you."
   "Why do you think I'm angry?" says Nerrine. "I mean, what makes you think that?"
   "Forgive me, but I think I was an odd choice for this mission. And to go into the pit."
   "Actually, you were the first person I thought of for it," says Nerrine. "It was always going to be you."
   "I am honored, Imperatrix, but I don't see..."
   "It wasn't meant to be an honor," says Nerrine. "She who slaughters the beast must also be prepared to eat it."
   "I thought we were speaking frankly," says Ress. "Not in proverbs."
   "Why was Jarissy going out alone?"
   "I don't know."
   "I'm sure she won’t do it again, after all this."
   "I know Jarissy; like a poem, I have memorized her every verse. I can recognize a new cadence when I hear it."
   Ress decides to call her bluff. "I put her up to it."
   Ress opens her mouth, but she can't think of a lie quickly enough. Nor does the truth rush out; how to explain to Nerrine that it didn't serve a short-term purpose?
   "I like you, Ress," says Nerrine with an air of disappointment. "You're smart. And you're useful." Something about that last bit bothers Ress. 
   Nerrine continues. "But you're not as smart as you think you are. Not that I think I'm necessarily smarter. I'm not really concerned about that. What I'm concerned about is the twelve of us, keeping as many of us alive as possible for as long as possible. I'm concerned about the entire group. We almost lost Jarissy because you were playing one of your little games.
   "You go ahead and play your games, Ress. But don't you dare push someone into that kind of danger again."
   Ress decides to play like the words meant something profound. "Thank you, Nerrine. You've given me a lot to think about. About the way that I treat people."
   Ress turns to exit.
   "Yes, Imperatrix?"
   "If it's between one person and the group, every time I'm going to choose the group."
   "Of course."
   "Next time, I will leave you to die."

Today was productive. Nerrine showed her teeth and, though she doesn't know it yet, she has also exposed her one great weakness. A weakness that will give Ress considerable leverage in the time to come.
   If it's between one person and the group, every time she'll choose the group. So simple, so elegant, and such a relief. Ress won't have to find a way to kill Lask.
   She'll get Nerrine to do it for her.


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