8FOLD/ACRA: Orphans of Mars: To Bell The Cat # 1

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sun Apr 6 18:46:25 PDT 2014

Her ship is on fire.
   Not just the shields, which is to be expected. Nisja of Titan and
her Blink have landed on dozens of worlds; she's grown to anticipate,
even enjoy, the way the air simmers and cooks in the ship when they
enter the atmosphere. That hot flush that turns her blue flesh a deep
purple. It's the way every job starts, and she loves it almost as much
as the money. No one but a fool ever killed, except for money.
   But this time is different; this is wrong. It's not just Blink's
shields, but all of her, whole strips and chunks peeling away like hot
dripping meat. It figures. The only time Nisja took it on herself to
do a thing without getting paid, is the only time she's going to get
herself killed in the landing. "Blink, I am a fool!"
   The ship answers with a groan and a belch of flame and black smoke.
It pitches suddenly to the left, and Nisja pulls back on the stick to
correct it. The stick comes off in her hand; the scope explodes,
sparks crashing against her helmet.
   "Ancestors of Titan!" she cries. "O restless dead! O sleepless
sisters! This is surely the hour in which you would claim me! But I
beg you close your lidless eyes! Lend me time enough to do one
righteous thing in my faithless life! Let me avenge the blood that was
spilt while I slumbered!
   "Let me end the Daughters of Mars!"

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

Quasha and Fenn catch their breath hiding behind a boulder.
   "The beast is frightful quick with its tail."
   "Aye," says Quasha, disdainful of the obvious. Really, it's Fenn
that's catching her breath; Quasha is still and calm.
   "But it's just that the beast is so big and heavy. I wouldn't
expect it to be swift also. I hope Danalee is alright."
   "The beast may be swift, but Danalee is swifter. And Quasha, though
big and heavy, is swifter still." Quasha Oathbreaker leaps over the
rock, the damned blade Thirteen flashing in the hot sun.
   The frightened ankylosaurus roars, swinging her tail club. And, for
the nonce, Quasha does prove swifter. The powerful tail crashes
against the heavy boulder. Though it puts a small crack in the rock,
Fenn decides from the creature's weird screech that it is the tail
that gets the worst of the exchange. Fenn figures that tail club would
have an easy time breaking bones, even the bones of the other
earthlings, but it isn't made for rocks.
   Another swing misses Quasha by a sliver and smashes painfully
against another rock. This might be Quasha's plan, but it's a
dangerous one; the ankylosaurus is getting closer with every swing.
   The distinct sound of a beam pistol rips through the air, the red
hot beam fizzling harmlessly as it crashes against the beast's armor
like sea-foam. Danalee already knows that the beams cannot breach the
thick, knobby osteoderms that cover the ankylosaurus. So why fire in
the first place? And on the pistol's lowest setting, for that matter?
   The ankylosaurus is rushing towards Danalee now, priming her tail
for a swing. Of course; the assassin is drawing the beast's attention
to buy Quasha some time. No need to overheat the beam pistol on a
   Danalee leaps out of harm's way, and Quasha brings Thirteen
slamming down upon the base of the tail. The armor chips but does not
crack. "Break! Break! Damn you and your line, break!"
   The tail swings back, and this time it hits Quasha. A glancing blow
only, but enough to send her sprawling. The creature tries to stomp
her with its heavy foot, and Quasha rolls once; the creature brings
its tail down like a hammer, and Quasha rolls twice, thrice; each blow
narrowly avoided. Danalee tries to draw it again, firing Arrow, but
the beast doesn't fall for it a second time.
   Fenn has to do something. "Danalee! Lend me a grenade! Unarmed, please."
   "The last one did very little," says Danalee, referencing a
blackened but intact patch of armor on the side.
   Fenn snaps her fingers, and Danalee rolls the grenade to her. Fenn
scoops it up and begins her nimble approach. Astride her toes,
Fennisa, the dancer of songs, dances and sings. The ankylosaurus sees
her queer approach and hears her eerie song, and it causes the beast
to interrupt its steady tail-hammered pursuit of Quasha for the space
of a single heavy breath. It's time enough; when the creature brings
her tail down again, Quasha is nowhere near it.
   Now she is focused on Fenn, who gets closer with every graceful
leap and note. Instinct compels the ankylosaurus to warn its predator
before swinging its tail, and so it opens its mouth wide and roars.
   Fenn tosses the armed grenade into her gullet and then swiftly
back-flips away. The beast closes her mouth reflexively, and her head
is blown clean off.
   Quasha immediately sets to work separating the heavy tail from the
rest of the body, methodically sawing at the base. This proves much
easier when the tail isn't thrashing about.
   "You know, friend Quasha," says Danalee, "there exists easier prey
on this world."
   "Aye," says Quasha. "But noble Jarissy once told me of such a
beast, which she found already dead on one of her secret adventures.
The flesh of which is succulent, especially the flesh of the tail."
   With the tail off, the shell is a little easier to crack. It's
bone, mostly, with precious little flesh, which only makes it more of
a delicacy. "To the hunters, the best cut," says Quasha, giving strips
to Fenn and Danalee. "We'll haul off a slab from the body for those
who do not risk."
   "Clever girl, Fenn," says Danalee, admiring the grenade's
handiwork. "Though I shudder to think what would have happened had you
   "So I don't miss," says Fenn.
   "We'll make a warrior of you yet," roars Quasha in approval.
   Fenn smiles inwardly. It became quickly clear that culture, art,
and history doesn't rank highly given their present situation, not
that it ever ranked that high on Mars during the last twenty years of
war. She needs to find something else to do, some other role that
allows her to be useful. She's just not sure if narrowly avoiding
death is how she wants to do that.

Fenn brings back a heavy chunk of the armor to Kellin for study. The
scientist admires it through blurry, sleepless eyes. "Can you describe
the beast?"
   "I... did a sketch of it," says Fenn. She hands it over.
   "Nice," says Kellin. "Fenn, if this drawing is accurate..."
   "It is," says Fenn.
   "Then you've a keen eye for detail, and a keener memory."
   "Not as keen as yours, Kellin." Fenn reaches over and straightens
the collar of Kellin's tunic. "Usually."
   Kellin smiles, and it's hard to tell if she's amused or annoyed.
She rubs her fingers through her greasy, unwashed black scraggles of
hair. "I'm sorry for my appearance. And possibly my stench. I've just
been working. Working, working, working. Taking care of everything,
the ship, the environment, the advanced weaponry, medicine, the
plumbing: it wasn't a job meant for one person."
   Fenn is about to say something when the door opens. It takes Fenn a
breath to recognize Ress. Her white hair is frazzled, her eyes tired,
her skin pale. Normally her grooming is meticulous and quite
attractive. Attractive enough that Fenn has been counting down to the
little viper's tenday.

"Imperatrix? May I speak with you?"
   Nerrine motions for Fenn to enter her chambers. Fenn closes the
door behind her, and stands near the lamp. Nerrine sits on the bed,
one long leg dangling over it. "I am told you proved yourself in the
   "I did my part," says Fenn.
   "Modesty becomes a warrior as badly as it does a dancer of song,"
says Nerrine. "Garaka told me that."
   But Nerrine was no dancer. "Did she, Imperatrix?"
   "Paraphrasing," says Nerrine, smiling.
   "It's about that," says Fenn. "About my being a warrior. We have
Quasha, and Danalee. And yourself. Lask can hold her own, as can Ress.
Once Tandra has trained her pet..."
   "A pet that is slow to mature."
   "With permission, Imperatrix, we will have several warriors."
   "We have need of several."
   "We also have need of scientists, and have but one."
   "Ah," says Nerrine. "You wish to help Kellin?"
   "If it pleases you," says Fenn.
   "It does," says Nerrine. "You have wisdom, young one."
   "I am but two years younger than you, Imperatrix."
   "I am also young," says Nerrine.
   "And I am two years older than Ress," ventures Fenn.
   "She seems withdrawn of late, and melancholy. We all are; it's this
planet. But Ress... that's not like her."
   "I have noticed," says Nerrine. Did she just tense up?
   "She's been like this for weeks. Since Jarissy died, and Quasha
invoked the ancient rites. And some think that is the reason. But we
all know her better than that. All except Kellin, anyway."
   Nerrine stares at her.
   "Forgive me, Imperatrix, I speak too freely."
   Nerrine waves her hand. "This isn't the White City. Go on."
   This only makes her more nervous. "Things that happen to others
don't really effect Ress. Only things that happen to her."
   "You think that something happened to her?"
   "No, Imperatrix," says Fenn. Though now that she thinks of it, Ress
had bruises near as bad as Quasha's the morning of the combat. "I
think she's worried about what will happen to her. On her teneve."
   "It approaches," says Nerrine.
   "With the next moon," says Fenn. "If I might offer counsel, Imperatrix?"
   Nerrine pats her bed. Fenn sits next to her, an equal.
   "Your word is the law," says Fenn, "and life is the word that you
chose. We live and we survive above all else. Quasha is now
Oathbreaker so that she would live. And you were right to make it so.
We all think you were right. This Earth is no place for oaths sworn in
the naming, and invoking the ancient rites. And, perhaps, it is no
place for teneve."
   "You think I should forbid it?"
   "Your word is law," says Fenn. "We will all follow where you lead,
and cast off that which you cast off."

Nerrine calls upon Petara for counsel.
   "Fennisa was an adequate dancer of song," says the apostate. "She's
an adequate warrior, she may yet prove an adequate scientist, and
perhaps a more than adequate pleasure-wench. But she is a terrible
   "Meaning that she misreads the others," says Petara. "Your
authority has solidified since the ancient rites. They used to think
you Ress's puppet."
   "Or yours," says Nerrine pointedly.
   "Those who know me think that," says Petara. "But though all hate
me, few know me."
   "Or me, if they think I am anyone's puppet," says Nerrine.
   "Yes," says Petara slyly. "Those false and malicious whispers have,
for the most part, been silenced. But if you do this, the whispers
will start again. Worse, they'd question the judgment of both puppet
and master. Consider: they accepted the breaking of Quasha's oath only
because her oath was stupid and pointless. And so is teneve. It made
little sense on Mars during the war, and makes no sense here.
   "And yet it still continued during the war," continues Petara.
"Some of the old ways die hard, Nerrine. If all acted according to
logic, to what makes sense, you wouldn't have needed to humble Quasha.
If you protect Ress from teneve..."
   "But it's not Ress specifically," says Nerrine. "It's the whole
concept altogether."
   "We number eleven," says Petara. "Ten have been through teneve.
Whether you act from general principle or not, in the end you only
protect Ress."
   "And the other children, when the rest of the colony arrives," says Nerrine.
   "If they arrive," says Petara. "And all have their doubts on that
matter. Unless they land before the new moon, the others will only see
this specific case. They will only see Ress pulling at your strings.
She must go through teneve, or your hard-fought power will slip away."
   "And if she dies out there?" says Nerrine.
   "No great loss," says Petara. "There are two qualities required for
Imperatrix of Earth Colony. One, she must keep all these idiots from
getting themselves killed. Two, the aforementioned idiots must permit
her to hold power. You're the only one who satisfies both of these
conditions. Certainly, if I try to step in, I'll be the first to taste
steel. You must risk this one life or you will surely lose us all."

Nerrine knows better than to take Petara at her word. Like Ress, and
even Fenn, her counsel serves the colony second and her own interests
first. Petara wouldn't mind the removal of her rival. And lusty Fenn
wouldn't mind the little viper coming of age.
   The only advisor who doesn't further her own agenda is Lask, but
she really only provides data, not advice, and even her data is
suspect. She is, after all, Petara's creature. Nerrine realizes, not
for the first time, that she needs her own creature. Or, failing that,
she needs to lend her ear to someone who belongs only to themselves.
   She finds Quasha and Danalee just outside the ship, watching the
skies and getting slowly, carefully drunk. "Quasha," says Nerrine,
looking at Danalee, "a word?"
   "Of course, Imperatrix." This time when Quasha says the word, she
doesn't gag on it. That's some kind of progress at least.
   Danalee takes the hint and heads inside. Good. Nerrine doesn't know
if Danalee still reports to Petara as she did on Mars. The thought
occurs to her that Petara might be using Danalee to influence Quasha,
but she dismisses it; Petara thinks Quasha is too dumb to be of use to
her, just as Ress thinks Quasha is too wild, dark, and angry. As
neither of her would-be masters want her, Quasha would be the perfect
catspaw for Nerrine, if not for the fact that she hates her with every
ounce of her blood. Though tonight, under these stars, the hero of the
last day is quiet, even thoughtful. Good. Thoughtful's better than
belligerent. Thoughtful might work.
   "Quasha," says Nerrine, "do you remember your teneve?"
   "Aye," says Quasha. "Half a lifetime ago. My legion was in Tharsus
that day, under the shadow of the volcanoes. Both of the mother armies
were there in full force, each trying to turn a flank. It was a hard
day's fighting. The hardest fighting of my life until that point. But
we held the line. Jarissy was there, but I didn't know her yet. I
think, too, that Garaka was there, who I did know, but only by
   "She spoke once of campaigns in Tharsus," says Nerrine. "And of the
bravery of those who held our line."
   "That was the day, and came then the night. Came my teneve. My
cohort saw me to the edge of the neutral zone. And like all that went
before us, I went alone into the night. And I did not know if I would
come back, or what token I would bring back with me. But soon I found
it. Or rather, they found me. Six of the enemy on patrol. And I said
to them, this is my teneve, and I must take back a token; your heads
will do nicely." She takes a sly slip from her blood bottle and
watches the stars.
   "And then?" says Nerrine.
   "And then?" scoffs Quasha. "Come the dawn, I returned with six
heads. And you, Imperatrix?"
   "Me?" says Nerrine. "I was on Deimos. I had just been crowned. I
had worked hard for it. I had spent two years wanting it, tasting it,
dreaming of it. And so I was quite pleased with myself, becoming queen
of whores."
   "Must have been some coronation," says Quasha.
   Nerrine glares at her. Quasha falls silent, perhaps in memory of
Nerrine's lovely fingers digging and clawing at her eye.
   "And came then my teneve," says Nerrine. "I went out walking in the
night, alone and naked. I found a place in the wilderness, far from
the pleasure-domes, and watched Mars and Phobos and the stars. For
   "And what token did you find there?"
   "I found myself," says Nerrine. "I had been lost for a long time.
It is easy to become lost on Deimos. But I brought myself back with me
on my tenday. And I was no longer a whore, nor was I their queen."
Nerrine stares at the tiny red dot in the night.
   Quasha empties her bottle down her throats. "I assume you did not
banish Danalee to speak only of Tharsus and Deimos."
   "Ress," says Nerrine. "She comes of age with the new moon."
   Quasha stretches her finger out into the night. "The path here may
prove harder than in Tharsus."
   "Aye," says Nerrine, in her best Quasha voice.
   "But why come for my counsel, Imperatrix? If Ress does not want it,
surely you will take it away."
   And there it is again, the spectre of Ress pulling her strings. She
hates it when Petara's right. "I can take it away," says Nerrine with
careful emphasis on the second word. "And Ress hasn't said one thing
or the other."
   "Of course," says Quasha.
   "As for counsel, you have already provided it," says Nerrine.
   "Ress shall have her teneve, as we did, perhaps to bring herself
back. She will walk alone, but she will not walk alone."
   "I have imbibed too much for riddles."
   "You and Danalee will follow her in secret," says Nerrine. "Secret
even to Ress. Hold back unless you are needed. Intervene only to even
the odds. To render it only as dangerous as your own night upon the
hell-fields of Tharsus."
   Quasha nods. "I see the wisdom of it, and wisdom there must be, for
me to admit it. Perhaps it will break her of her damned scheming. Or
at least it might free her of the melancholy that has descended upon
her of late. I never thought I would say this, but I much preferred
her damned scheming, for at least then she was alive."
   "Perhaps the first," hopes Nerrine. But she's not so sure about the
second. Ress has been distant from them all, but most of all from
Nerrine. Nerrine knows the signs; she saw them often enough on Deimos.
It's not teneve that weighs on Ress, but what Nerrine did to her. It's
a deep wound that heals only slowly, if at all.

Elsewhere in the long brightly-starred night, the old rex is awakened
by a strange and gnawing hunger. He had eaten just a few hours hence,
and he had eaten well, going to sleep with his belly nearly full.
Nearly, but not completely: for the rex is always hungry, and can
never eat his fill. And so it is perhaps not so strange that whatever
violent dreams danced in his incomprehensible brain are interrupted by
a sudden desire to eat something, anything, and quickly.
   He searches the night with his open eye. Nights have been hard for
the rex these last few months because of his other eye. His bad eye,
his blind eye, his burning eye. The eye that always burns, the eye
that shall always burn. It gnaws at his brain like the hunger gnaws at
his belly.
   He picks up a scent. It smells a fresh kill. The pink squishy thing
might have taken his right eye, and another the talons of its right
claw. But they could not take his glorious nostrils. He follows the
scent. As he closes in on it, and the smell becomes more intense, it
also becomes more familiar.
   It's one of his brothers. A young one, small and weak and stupid.
It has both eyes, and all its talons, and it got itself killed. Good
eyes and good talons, wasted. The body is half-eaten by whatever took
him down. And, thus, half-not-eaten.
   Meat is meat, and the old rex can never eat his fill...


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