8FOLD/ACRA: Orphans of Mars: To Bell The Cat # 2

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Mon May 5 06:26:35 PDT 2014

Nisja finds herself leaning against a magnolia, knees deep in its
fallen pink-white petals. She came to about an hour ago, and then
climbed out of the wreckage of her ship, but she doesn't really
remember doing it, nor walking, nor the direction that she chose. The
crash took a lot out of her, left her disoriented, her thoughts and
vision fuzzy. Only now do things begin to clear.
   "I hope I said good-bye, Blink," she says. "You were good to me."
   She probably didn't remember to check her vitals. Better take care
of that now. She eases herself down, back against bark, and starts
with her pulse. The left heart's a little faster than the right, but
that's nothing to be worried about. Lungs are doing fine. Internal
temperature is normal.
   External temperature is a little higher than she'd like. She knew
she'd have to deal with that coming to a steaming hell-planet like
this one, but the suit's adapter should be keeping it in the normal
range. She tugs on it to start making adjustments.
   It's broken. Or, rather, almost broken: it's working now, if just
barely, but it can and will stop working at any moment. She had prayed
to the ancestors to lend her enough time to exterminate the Daughters
of Mars, and it looks like they've given her just that, and not a
breath more. Well, best not to dawdle, then.
   She must still be disoriented, because she didn't notice the
massive armored creature approaching her. It regards the Titanian with
cautious curiosity; Nisja's cloaker must be damaged, as well. It will
work well enough in the night, but is useless in the day. "You might
be harmless," whispers Nisja. "But I don't have the time to find out."
   She sets her rifle to its lowest setting, aims, and fires.
   The ankylosaurus becomes vapor, and Nisja continues on her way.

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

At dusk, all eleven Daughters of Earth Colony gather outside their
ship for the first time since the ancient rites. Ostensibly, it is in
keeping with a rite nearly as ancient, but Ress suspects it's mostly
so they can take a nice, long look at her young naked body. Certainly,
Fenn can't disguise her pleasure.
   The only two who avert their gaze are those who have already seen
and tasted her: Nerrine and Kellin. Her sister does it from a deep
guilt that has been carefully nurtured by Ress ever since their
incestuous last night on Mars (itself carefully orchestrated by Ress).
If Nerrine feels any guilt or remorse, the bitch surely doesn't show
   It's strange; Ress has been looking forward to, and planning for,
her teneve for a long while now. She had been anticipating the public
disrobing, intent on brazenly lighting ten little fires that she could
stoke as needed to serve her own ends. A raised eyebrow, a careless
arm, shameless and proud and lovely. But now that the moment comes,
she finds herself drawing inward, hiding her breasts, exposed and
vulnerable. She can't understand it.
   At any rate, she's glad when the last rays of the sun disappear,
and the time comes for her to take her knife and pistol. She passes
through the gate of the tree-trunk perimeter fence and into the night
of the new moon.
   Once she's no longer in sight of the others, Ress immediately
begins her search. She knows, and really has always known, that the
faint yellow light provided by her own eyes would prove inadequate to
the task. Weirdly, Quasha took it upon herself in the last fortnight
to try and teach Ress the arts of eyeglow. Why anyone, and Quasha of
all people, would try to do anything for Ress that Ress hadn't
manipulated her into was a mystery. As was always the case before,
Ress proved a poor student, and only got a migraine for her troubles.
   She grips her beam pistol by the muzzle, waving it before her so
that the red battery-light of the handle spills out. Turning the power
all the way up also gives her more light to work with. That's a little
better. Now if she can just pick up the trail before she gets herself
eaten by raptors.
   There it is: carved in the bark, the mark of the house of Jarissy.
   Ress has been looking forward to, and planning for, her teneve for
a long while now. It hadn't taken much to get Jarissy to decide to
venture out on her own. And Ress playing the vulnerable little girl
who can't control her eyeglow, just a few months away from her big,
scary teneve gave Jarissy something to look for on her adventures.
Just before the poison scare put an end to those excursions, Jarissy
found it.
   A safe place. More than that, a secret. After Jarissy recovered
from the poison, she seemed determined to tell Nerrine and the others
what she had found. Ress plied all of her considerable talents for
persuasion-- flattery, flirtation, logic, threats, promises-- to
prevent this.
   When it became clear that this would only stall Jarissy, and that
she would not succeed in stalling her much longer, Ress turned to the
arts of treachery and murder. The rex's tail may have dealt the fatal
blow, but it was Ress who had seasoned Jarissy's blood bottle with a
few drops of poison stolen from her sister's lab. Not enough to kill
on its own, but enough to weaken the heart, dull the reflexes, and
induce massive hemorrhaging upon injury.
   It was also enough to be detectable, if anyone had been smart
enough to look. Kellin didn't think of it; Ress cranked up the
vulnerability to see to that. Quasha's tantrum distracted the others.
Just to make it certain, Ress went blubbering to Nerrine about how it
was all her fault. (After all, if cold heartless Ress had anything to
do with it, she certainly wouldn't have tried to blame herself.)
   But that was a mistake. What happened that night, Ress would not
forget. Nor would she forgive. Not Nerrine, and not herself.
   How could she have been so stupid? How could she have misread the
Imperatrix, and misjudged her, so completely? She had had no idea that
Nerrine was capable of such cruelty and depravity. That Nerrine was
capable of hurting her like that. Or that she herself was capable of
being hurt.
   A long time ago, Ress had been hurt, and she decided that if she
was to thrive, she didn't have the luxury of pain. She turned everyone
into puppets and play-things. Disposable, malleable objects. Objects
that could amuse her, that could frustrate her, and sometimes, only
sometimes, remain in her way, but nothing that could ever really hurt
   Until now. Worse than the pain she felt that night, the pain and
the anger and the shame and the confusion, is the pain she's felt
every night since. It lingers; it remains; it will not depart. She
tries to banish it, tries to throw herself back into her games, back
into shuffling her objects around and pitting them against each other.
But she's done precious little in the weeks since Nerrine used her.
Used. Her. Her! Like she herself was an object. Malleable and
   Her skin is flush-hot, tears gushing from her eyes. "You stupid
bitch!" she snarls, slapping the tears from her soaking cheeks. "You
don't cry!" You never cry, not for real.
   But she has been crying of late: suddenly and privately, and with
no audience to twist around her finger. She hates herself for it. She
hates Nerrine for it, too, but she hates herself more.
   A twig snaps. Ress whirls around, pistol and knife in hand.
Nothing. Nobody. But it had to be something.
   She realizes that she still holds the beam pistol by its muzzle.
She turns it around in her shaking palm and drops it. The light goes
out. Stop shaking. Stop crying. Control your breathing.
   Ress bends at the knees, slowly lowering her torso, eyes dimly
searching the dark as her fingers feel around for the pistol. Moist
earth finds its way between her fingernails. Leaves crinkle-crumple
against her palm, barely audible over the sound of her nose-sniffling
and mouth-breathing. Stop it. Stop it. Where is the pistol? Where is
   There! Her fingers close around the grip, the battery surging back
to red life. And it is in that light that she sees them. Raptors.
   They waste no time, rushing at the naked girl, leaping gnashing
teeth and talon.
   Ress doesn't waste any time, either. The beams slice through the
first few raptors like knives, splitting each into two or three frayed
and smoking hunks of flesh. One shot goes high, a product of the
quivering of her fingers. It rips through a heavy branch, bringing it
crashing down on the mass of them.
   She pulls the trigger, but it stops. The light is faint, the pistol
needs to recharge. Of course, she had it on full power. Stupid,
stupid. Several raptors are corpses, and several have fled, but for
those that remain, it only takes the space of a breath to determine
that she's helpless, if not for long.
   The time to strike is now. They leap over corpse and branch, mouths
open and raspy. Come on, pistol, come on...!
   Ress keeps her eyes on them as she back-pedals. She keeps pulling
the trigger, keeps cursing the battery. Her naked heels dig into the
dirt, and a gnarled root catches against her ankle. She falls
backwards. They rush in. Almost upon her. Come on, pistol. Now now
   At last, it fires! They're too close for her to worry over-much
about accuracy and finesse. She fires wildly, spraying the air with
streaks of rapid red. Raptors fall and scream. Her pistol screams
louder, unending, high-pitched.
   They're gone. Or at least it looks like they're gone. She stumbles
to her feet, catching her breath. She's not shaking anymore. Not
crying. Good.
   She wipes the mud from her backside and, cautiously, retraces her
steps back to Jarissy's trail. She goes around the long way, giving
the twitching raptors a wide berth; it'd be just like one of the sly
little dying bastards to suddenly jump out and end her.
   So it is surprising when she finds a small pile of dead and dying
raptors where no raptors should be. Some are smoldering from
beam-wounds, while others have been gutted. At first Ress thinks that
maybe Jarissy had been wrong, but that's too ridiculous to give a
second thought. The only other explanation is that she's being
shadowed. Protected.
   Why would Nerrine do that, she wonders as she resumes the trail.
Her handiness with a beam pistol aside, there's no logical reason for
her to keep Ress alive. Certainly not at the risk of what looks to be
at least two other lives. Danalee and Quasha, at that. Why in the name
of the goddess would the Imperatrix send the two best (really, only)
warriors remaining to keep the little viper safe? No, no logical
reason... but perhaps an emotional one? Perhaps Nerrine feels guilt
and remorse. Or perhaps something else, something tender. Something
Ress can use. There are worse ways to thrive on this earth than in the
bed of an Imperatrix.
   No. "No." She whispers it aloud. She will never let Nerrine touch
her again. Nerrine is and always has been one of Ress's objects, to be
used and discarded. Her elevation to Imperatrix was a means to her
end, just an improvisation that is nearing the end of its usefulness.
It is time to discard her. To replace her with someone she can trust
not to bite her back.
   And that process starts now. With the end of the trail. With the
secret Jarissy discovered. The secret that Ress will bring back with
her on her tenday.
   The other ship. Identical, outdated model to the one that stranded
Ress and the rest on this death-trap of a planet. Smashed flat in some
places, like it had been stepped on. Torn open in another, like it had
been bitten. Whenever they landed, whoever was here, they're dinosaur
shit now. But what they left behind...
   The door is gone, its frame squished so that all that remains is a
hole just large enough to crawl through. Ress slithers inside, and
jagged metal scrapes across her thigh. Blood spills out and she curses
quietly: "Bitches of shit."
   She can hear the low hum of the ship's core. Still intact, still
useable. Jarissy had known that much, told her that much. What she
didn't know, what she couldn't know, was what else was left intact. If
she did, Ress couldn't have persuaded Jarissy to keep quiet for as
long as she had.
   Identical ship, identical layout. And in the laboratory, she finds
the hatch. Identical secrets.
   Kellin had shown her the hatch on their own ship before it left
Mars. "Standard feature of this class of ship," she had explained.
"Back when it was designed, there was friction between scientists and
   "Hard to imagine," said Ress.
   Kellin rolled her eyes. "So when they built these ships, the
scientists put this secret hatch in for when things got rough.
Thickest walls in the ship. Safe and hidden. Stocked with food and
beam weapons and med supplies."
   "No weapons in here," said Ress pointedly. "It's empty."
   "Well, that was before the war," said Kellin. "Weapons got scarce
after. But it's still a safe place. I hope Garaka can keep barbarians
like Quasha and Jarissy in line, but in case she can't, you go here
first, immediately."
   Ress nodded. She nods now as she cracks open the hatch. Pre-war
hatch, or at least early war. Med supplies will do nicely for her leg.
Food's rotting, along with the corpses of three scientists who locked
themselves in and never got out. One of them wears an eye-catching
outfit; Ress decides to make it hers.
   She shuts the hatch behind her. By the light of her own beam
pistol, she sees the secret stockpile. Lovely, lovely beam pistols,
beam rifles, and even an old beam cannon. More than enough for the
whole colony. Just as she hoped.
   Ress knows that it's important, symbolically, for the person who
returns on tenday to be different than the girl who left on teneve.
Ress the little viper becomes Ress the bringer of weapons. Ress, who
found the ancient ship, its still-humming core, and its treasures.
   No one's going to say those words, or even think them consciously,
but it will begin to change how they perceive her. Slowly, they'll
trust her, rely on her, credit her. Love her. And, one day, when the
time is right, she'll be in charge. She; no proxies.
   Of course, that's still a long way off, and Ress will not suffer
Nerrine to live that long. The obvious replacement is Kellin. Obvious
because Kellin is completely within Ress's power. That's also part of
the problem, and why Ress needed Nerrine in the first place: the
others won't have it. Even Kellin won't have it. Yet.
   The strings Ress pulls the most often with Kellin are guilt and
family, and the problem with those is that they're best for holding
someone back, not propelling them forward. If her sister is going to
be her next stepping stone on the way to power in her own name, Ress
will have to change her tactics.
Kellin needs something stronger and wilder to make her ambitious.
   There are worse ways to thrive than in a bed...

Elsewhere in the long brightly-starred night, the old rex finds the
wreckage of the Titanian fighter Blink.
   Such a strange and tiny crunchy thing, the old rex would think if
his brain was capable of words. He drops the ship where he found it:
it's not at all delicious. He thought it would be; it smelled faintly
like meat. As if to punish it for its deception, he stomps down with
his huge foot, smashing it flat.
   It reminds him of that other strange crunchy thing that he smashed
flat. Years ago. When he was young. It was a sort of egg, and
uncountable pink squishy things were in it. Delicious pink squishy
   Maybe this is a sort of egg? Yes. He can smell it now. Different
than the squishy pink things. But different than his usual prey. The
egg hatched, and the thing crawled and squirmed and hid and cowered,
stinking like fear. Like desperation.
   Stinking like meat.


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