8FOLD/ACRA: Orphans of Mars: To Bell The Cat # 3

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Thu Jun 5 17:12:15 PDT 2014

As noon approaches, Nisja finds the crushed remains of the Martian
carrier, and her hearts sink. Her scanner detects no life forms.
"Sleepless sisters," she implores in a whisper. "Will now I die for
nothing? Have the unthinking beasts that stalk this festering world
robbed our race of its vengeance?"
   She examines the entrance. Blood on the jagged metal. Reasonably
fresh. She takes a sample with her siphon and lets it pass through her
shimmering filter to her lips. Nisja thanks the One Star that her
nimble tongue is true, and of Titan born. For it is a Titanian tongue,
a thousand times more sensitive than that of any other in the system,
that identifies the blood as that of a Martian, and of a Daughter.
   They still live. They were here recently, and will no doubt return.
   And inside, Nisja will be waiting.

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(  _  )(  __)     (  \/  )  /__\  (  _ \/ __)
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 /    / _)_ // _// _   / )__/  EPISODE THREE
( () / _)(-((  //)(-  (__(//  BY  TOM RUSSELL

Petara enters Nerrine's chambers. She carries a beam rifle in her hands.
   "How is she?" asks Nerrine.
   "Ress slumbers, in her sister's care," says Petara. "You've sent
out the party?"
   "Yes," says Nerrine. The Twain, for they know the way. Fennisa, to
serve as Kellin's eyes in the field. And Lask, at Petara's insistence.
"Why Lask?"
   "I... have my reasons," says Petara.
   "Yes, I'm sure you do," says Nerrine. Then, a little sharply: "And
your Imperatrix is asking that you name them."
   Petara smiles, and as is ever the case with the apostate and
spymaster, Nerrine cannot tell if the smile is meant to be insolent,
or if that's just the way Petara's face always looks. "Obviously, the
discovery of the ship will elicit some new emotions. So this is a
perfect mission for our empath."
   "A pity none survived," says Nerrine. "The arrival of the rest of
our colony might have strengthened our spirits, as well as our
   "It was not a new ship, Nerrine," says Petara. "But an old one."
   Nerrine knew that. But when your adviser speaks in shades and
riddles, feigning ignorance is the quickest way to truth. "Oh?" she
   "The bodysuit that Ress brought back went out of style when our
great war was yet new," says Petara. "And this rifle she took with
her, such as its like have not been made on Mars in two generations."
She hands the rifle to Nerrine.
   Nerrine examines it absent-mindedly. She knows what this is, and
what it means. But she has to hear it from Petara. "So, there's still
hope, then? The other colonists will yet come."
   "No, Imperatrix," says Petara. "No one is coming. Look again at the
rifle, and at what is carved into the handle."

Soon, the party comes across the bodies of the raptors slain during
the night. "Ress did all this?" says Fenn.
   "Must have," says Danalee.
   The thought of a savage, kill-frenzied Ress sends spasms of
pleasure through Fenn's loins.
   "Even these?" says Lask, coming upon a raptor-pile a few yards
distant. "This looks more like a broadsword than knife and beam."
   Quasha clears her throats.
   "Even those," says Danalee. She touches two fingers to Lask's
shoulder. It strikes Fenn as a curious gesture.
   "Of course," says Lask, leaning down to examine the corpses. "I
recognize it now. This is indeed Ress's work."
   Like a geyser spewing water, several of the bodies suddenly fly
limply into the air. And from the spot leaps forth a raptor, alive and
snarling. Reflexively, Lask's boomerang shoots out from her palm. It
catches the raptor in the neck, and bears it swiftly into the trunk of
the nearest tree. The metal lodges into the tree, pinning the beast
there by the neck, even as it frees him of his head.
   "The others are truly dead," says Lask. "This one, I could taste
its sly anticipation."

"I do not recognize the symbol," lies Nerrine as she hands the rifle back.
   "You'd have no reason to," says Petara. "Your... monarchy on Deimos
put you in more exalted circles."
   Nerrine will let that remark pass. For now.
   "But even if you do not know the mark, you will surely have heard
of the Heretics of Cydonia."
   "The Cult of the Sacred Face?" says Nerrine.
   Petara nods. "A cult that spread quickly, and in direct challenge
to the White City. It seemed like it would come to war, or to
tolerance, and the High Imperatrix did not know which was the worse.
Before our own war, of course. But not long before."
   "They left Mars," says Nerrine.
   "Some of them did," says Petara. "Their leaders, mostly. They
considered all of Mars to be the body of the sacred face, and so it
was a sin for Martians to live on Mars. And yet still it was not the
stupidest of religions on Mars. The High Imperatrix was glad to be rid
of them, and gave them a ship, with coordinates set for a world of
   "But this is surely no paradise," says Nerrine.
   "The White City feared that in ten years, or twenty, the Cydonians
might return, and bring with them war. And so they sent them to where
there could be no return."
   "They, they knew?" says Nerrine. "Our sisters of battle. We took
the White City for them, and... and they sent us here, to die?"
   "The White City never changes, Imperatrix," says Petara. "Mothers
or Daughters, it protects itself, its secrets, and its power."
   "But the White City is gone by now. Mars will no longer support
life. The bomb..."
   "The White City was never a cluster of buildings," says Petara. "It
is power and empire. Garaka threatened that; your wife was our
greatest general. Quasha gave us the Last Day. Warriors popular
enough, and ambitious enough, to seize power. To threaten the new
order. They couldn't just execute the heroes of the war, but they
could send them here, along with other... undesirables. The
spymaster," she gives a slight bow, "and her puppets banished with the
secrets that could destabilize the new regime. Kellin..."
   Nerrine's playacting drops in favor of anger. "Kellin is a
scientist, and a naturalist. She is gentle and loves living things.
How could she possibly be a threat to the White City?"
   "Nerrine... who do you think it is that created the bomb?"

When Ress pretends to wake, Kellin is there to brush the hair from her face.
   "You must be exhausted," says Kellin.
   Ress decides to tell the truth for once. "No. But you are."
   Kellin rubs her eyes. "I was up working."
   "Worrying about me," says Ress.
   "Worrying about you," admits Kellin. "But I was also working.
Because I was worried..." She takes a brisk walk to her desk. When she
returns, it is with a bracelet. She hands it to Ress.
   "Jewelry?" says Ress as she slips it over her slender wrist. "I'll
admit I was expecting a tenday present, but this isn't really my
style. Or yours."
   "It's a tracking device," says Kellin.
   Ress smiles deliciously. "So you can spy on me?"
   "On any of us," says Kellin, returning the smile. "Last night, I
kept thinking about... about what might happen to you out there."
   "I can take care of myself. I'm not a little girl anymore."
   "As of this morning, that's true," says Kellin. "But if one of us
should get lost. Or, worse than lost... well, I'm making one for
everybody. So if something does happen, we can find them."
   "Or their body."
   "Yes," says Kellin soberly. "I'm glad you came through it okay,
Ress. And we're all glad you found the other ship."
   "And its weapons."
   "And its weapons," agrees Kellin.
   "So you made one for everyone?"
   "Well, just for you," says Kellin. "I'll make them for the others,
though, with Fenn's help. From what you described, there should be
sufficient materials in the ship."
   Ress pulls at the bracelet and lets it snap against her wrist. And
in that moment, it occurs to her that here there is a way by which she
can both eliminate Nerrine, and elevate her sister to possible
Imperatrix material. "It's a pity, isn't it, that you couldn't make
one for the rex?"
   "For the rex?" echoes Kellin. "For the rex? For the rex. Of course.
Why not? We'd know when it was coming, where to find it, how to stalk
it, to kill it. For the rex! Yes! Oh, Ress, you clever girl! I could
kiss you!"
   "Then why don't you?" says Ress.
   Kellin hesitates, then leans forward. Her lips lightly and chastely
brush against her sister's. Then she withdraws, looking slightly ill.
Looking guilty. Kellin has always looked guilty, even before that last
night on Mars, and Ress still has never known why.
   "And I'm not a clever girl," says Ress. "I'm a girl no longer,
remember? I am a woman of ten, now. A woman grown."
   "Of, of course," stammers Kellin. "If you'll excuse me, I have to
get to work on this right away."
   "Of course," says Ress. "Sweet sister."

The quartet come across the ship.
   "Hold," says Lask.
   "What is it?"
   "I sense... something," says Lask. "But it is faint and strange."
   Danalee has been through this before. "Our emotions are
overpowering whatever it is that she's picking up on. We need to calm
ourselves, clear ourselves of all emotion. That means Fenn has to stop
thinking about sex."
   "What!" cries Fenn.
   "Oh, come off it, Fenn," says Danalee. "You're always thinking
about sex. Lask?"
   Lask looks at Fenn and gives a curt little nod.
   Fenn rolls her eyes.
   "Better?" says Danalee.
   "It is stronger, now," says Lask. "But I would not call it
'better'. There is someone dangerous inside the ship. Desperate." She
closes her eyes, sniffs the air, smacks her lips. "Vengeful.
Impatient. But waiting."
   "I don't think so," says Danalee. "Look! Near the entrance. A tripwire."
   "A trap," says Quasha. "Could it be that one of our sisters still lives?"
   "No," says Lask. "Its emotions do not tickle like a Martian's. It
is unfamiliar."
   "Faint and strange," says Danalee. "Do you think...?"
   "Venus?" says Quasha. Even she shudders at the thought.
   "You're all scaring me," says Fenn.
   "Good," says Danalee. "I think we might have reason to be scared."
   "It's not from Venus," says Lask. "If it was, I would be dead. Or
worse. They do not tolerate their emotions being read."
   "Not from Venus, nor from Mars, nor from here," says Danalee.
"Well, this is terrific."

"So, no one else is coming," says Nerrine. "We're not the scouting
party for Earth Colony. We're it."
   "I long suspected as much," admits Petara. "Perhaps you did, as
well. But the mark of Cydonia confirms it. I just hope that none of
the others will recognize the mark."
   "What do you mean?" says Nerrine. "We can't keep this from them."
   "We can't?" says Petara incredulously. "Imperatrix, we must. Isn't
that obvious? You want us to live, and to fight, and not to despair.
What do you think will happen to the lot of them when they discover
that we have been abandoned by our race? That we are not the Daughters
of Mars, but her orphans?"
   "But truth is surely better than false hope."
   "Hope is better than none," says Petara. "False or otherwise. And
on Mars, it seemed all we had to keep us going were lies. Believe me,
the others know that no one is coming. But they're willing to pretend
that more colonists are on the way. Don't take that away from them."
   "You've given me a lot to think about," says Nerrine. "Leave me, so
that I may dwell upon it."
   "Don't dwell upon it," says Petara, exasperated. "Please,
Imperatrix, this once, follow my counsel, for it is wise. Besides,
you're going to give me a complex. I said not to meet Quasha in
battle; you did. I said not to send Ress on her teneve; you did."
   "Both worked out rather well," says Nerrine.
   "This won't," says Petara. "Besides, I'm bound to be right, sooner
or later, about something. And I think this is it."

Danalee doesn't like this. Certainly, going through the exhaust system
at the back of the ship, which may or may not be trapped, and may or
may not be watched, should be safer than going through the door, which
she knows is trapped, and is being watched. A chance of success,
however slender, is always preferable to certain failure.
   But Danalee didn't last a week in the ruins beneath the Hourglass
Sea by taking slender chances. She's ever tipped the odds into her
favor and left it to others to stupidly rush in, swords drawn and
   If it was Danalee on the inside, the exhaust would be trapped as
well, perhaps trapped worse than the entrance. But that's only because
Danalee the ambusher would be expecting Danalee the sneak to be
outside. It could be that her foe is nowhere near as clever as
Danalee-- distressingly, so very few sentients are-- but she just
doesn't have enough evidence.
   Danalee runs her fingers nimbly and searchingly along the dormant
blades of the fan. So far, so good. She gives the signal to Fenn, who
gives it to Lask, and Lask to Quasha, who stands ready at the front
entrance. Quasha will trip the wire and draw attention to the front.
   "Stay alive, Quasha, thou wonderful simpleton," whispers Danalee.
She squeezes in between the fan blades, stopping only for a moment
when she hears the explosion at the front. Goddess, bless Quasha with
good sense for once in her life, so that she stood clear of that.
   Danalee passes out of the ducts and into the engine chamber.
Cautiously, she kneels beside the closed door leading into the main
hall. Though the ship's batteries hum pleasant and soft, she doubts
there's enough power routed to the door for it to slide open by the
press of the button. And that'd be far too noisy, besides.
   Speaking of noise, she hears something in the next room that sounds
distressingly like beam fire. Please, Quasha, stay outside like you
were told.
   She takes her dagger, Dart, and carefully works it between door and
jamb. She slithers it slowly up until she finds the catching
mechanism. A simple tilt of the dagger will send the door sliding
open. But if she applies just the right amount of pressure against the
door, the friction will stop the movement. That's what she wants; just
slide it open just a sliver, and silent.
  It's been a good long while since she had occasion to do this; the
raptors, for all their cunning, have yet to master the twin arts of
carpentry and machinery. But it comes as natural to her as slitting a
throat, or bedding a whore, or breathing. The door opens the breadth
of a finger, and no further.
   She peers into the darkness of the main hall. Queer; she doesn't
see anyone, which is always more disconcerting than seeing an enemy.
Has she or they fled?
   Danalee lets the door slide a third of a meter. More than wide
enough for Danalee to slip through.
   Careful to press her back against the wall, shadow-mantled, Danalee
looks across the room. Scattered about are twinkling little balls of
metal, small enough to wrap one's fist around. Not that she'd try
that; Danalee instantly recognizes them as mini-mines. More traps.
Traps and beam fire, but no one in the room to set them or to fire.
Danalee has to assume her enemy is in another room. Not the engine
room, obviously. But perhaps one of the bedrooms?
   Danalee hears a sound she's heard only once before in her life.
Like a wind blowing in reverse. An atomizer!
   It fires, the terrible ray of death-light streaking forward.
Danalee is already moving, throwing herself into a cartwheel so that
she lands on her feet. If she hadn't recognized the sound, she'd be
mist now. Instead, there's a clean hole punched in the side of the
ship. No debris, no smoke, no rubble, no explosion: just nothing where
once something was.
   She still can't see anyone. A cloaker. A cloaker and an atomizer.
Not from Mars, Venus, or Earth. Has mines.
   There's the sound again. Another shot is on its way. Danalee
prepares to throw herself into another cartwheel, leaning to her left.
   The shot comes and she throws herself hard to the right. The shot
wasn't aimed at where Danalee was, but where she was going to be.
Cloaker, atomizer, mines, smart, has had training.
   But Danalee is smart and has had training, too. Her opponent is
going to circle around. She's going to circle right, because that's
going to give her more space to maneuver. So Danalee fires Arrow to
the right of where the last atomizer blast came from.
   There's a delightful hiss as Danalee scores a hit. A hiss. A
pressure suit. Cloaker, atomizer, smart. "Titanian?"
   Her opponent speaks, some goddess-awful indecipherable tongue. So,
yes, a Titanian.
   Something's flying at her now. Three of the little mines. Danalee
will jump out of the way, jump back, reflexively, without thinking,
and the atomizer's beam will be waiting. It's certain death. Certain
failure. But there's a slender chance...
   Danalee drops down onto her back. The mines sail over her, nearly
grazing against her nose and arm. Quickly, she rolls forward. The
mines explode, and she feels the heat and fire licking against her,
but that's better than losing an arm or leg or head. She's rather
partial to her head.
   The atomizer is already charging up, and the Titanian is already
adjusting her aim.
   Danalee rolls and fires, rolls and fires, timing it carefully so
she doesn't blast a hole in her own stomach. At least one of the beams
connect, and the atomizer blast goes high and wide, right through the
ceiling. Sunlight pours in, and for the briefest of moments, Danalee
can see the Titanian.
   But her foe jumps out of the light, and back into the darkness.
Cloaked once more, she runs past Danalee and leaps out the side of the
ship, through one of the holes that could've been Danalee.
   Danalee is in no great hurry to give chase, and so affords herself
the luxury of catching her breath.

The quartet work quickly, Danalee and Quasha concentrating on moving
the weapons while Lask and Fenn gather up medical supplies, batteries,
and other scientific apparatuses that Kellin will put to good use.
Distressingly but unsurprisingly, there are no atomizers to be found.
   "I thought Titan was a dead world," says Fenn.
   "Aye," says Quasha. "A millennium ago, or more, slain by our hands."
   "A bounty hunter, I'd wager," says Danalee. "Adrift in deepest
space, frozen in cyro between adventures."
   "But what is she doing here?" says Fenn.
   Danalee and Quasha stare at her.
   Fenn slaps her forehead. "Dead world. By our hands."
   "Desperate," says Lask. "Vengeful. Impatient."
   "And dangerous," says Danalee. "We can't afford to leave her shelter."

It doesn't take long to rig the squashed and battered remains of the
old ship to explode. They watch it burn for a few minutes, and then
return home.



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