Paperback Writer's Fiction Blog
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Back to Back
by S.L. Viehl
I woke up when they threw the body into my crawl.
He was alive, but roughed up – gashed, bleeding green blood, and his right arm was at a wrong angle to his shoulder – and despite that he landed on his knees and was back up in two seconds. He went for the door first and took a heavy jolt that sent him reeling back toward me.
"Don’t do that again," I said, and sat up as he whipped around to face me. "Two stuns will set off an alarm, and then the guards will come in and kick your ass until you’re unconscious."
He stepped out of the shadows, but they stuck to him. No, he was naturally dark – blue-skinned, a really pretty shade of sapphire. His eyes were completely white.
"Locega Jorenhai?" He had a low, deep voice, and used one of his six-fingered hands in a fluid motion. He was looking around, and his white eyeballs moved, implying he wasn’t blind.
"Sorry, no." I plucked a piece of my bedding from the matted hair hanging in my eyes and palmed a chunk of stone in my other hand, just to be safe. Some of the new ones thought nothing of raping a female, and he was a lot bigger than me. "You speak stanTerran?"
His spooky eyes studied me, from my bare soles to the little dip in the middle of my nose. "Te-her-hran?"
"That’s right." I spat on the floor of the crawl in emphasis. "Terran."
He looked up at the crawl roof and muttered something under his breath. Something that sounded mean.
"I’m thrilled to meet you, too." I scooted back down into my mound of dead grass and pointed to the one Gfrra had occupied until yesterday, when he’d taken one blow too many on the sands. I didn’t thinking I’d miss his snoring, but I did. "That pile is yours."
Big Blue started pacing the length of the crawl, studying every crack in the stones. I curled up and tried to ignore him, but after an hour I sighed. He was heavy, and his footsteps pounded the stone. He’d be at it all night if I didn’t do something. I got up and got in his way.
He stopped and looked down at me. "Junia’arral tobereno?"
"Time for bed." I pointed to his mound, then closed my eyes and tilted my head for a second. "Sleep."
He made another quick gesture – sort of like the universal gesture for screw you – and went around me. I turned and smacked the base of his skull with my rock. He hit the dirt in stages – knees, hands, face – and didn’t move again.
I checked for a pulse – if I’d killed him, the guards would be pissed, so I’d have to make it look like he’d done himself – but he was still alive. Steady, heavy pulse, nice face, well-built body.
The guards especially loved breaking slaves like him, poor bastard.
I tucked my rock back in the little niche I’d dug out in the floor, dropped onto my grass bed and slept.
Monday, May 22, 2006
“Rise for the count. Rise!”
I dragged myself up in time to see centuron HekVar kick my new bedmate over onto his back. Big Blue continued the roll, got up on his feet and lunged at the Hsktskt.
I closed my eyes, but the sound of the zap he took still made me wince.
“Fool.” HekVar was not amused by such antics, and glared down at him as he writhed on the floor in agony. The wide scar on his brow wrinkled as he bent down and snapped Big Blue’s arm back into its socket. “Gnat, why have you not instructed this one yet?”
I immediately assumed the position of response, dropping to my knees, bowing my head and holding my hands open and out.
“Forgive me, centuron. I don’t speak his language.” I hoped it wouldn’t get me zapped, not when I had warming to get through before breakfast.
“He likes to fight; he has been doing so since we removed him from the transport last night.” HekVar walked around Big Blue in a circle. “I will allow you translators.”
Great. Now I’d have to talk to him, and he was completely untrained. I changed position, clasping my hands behind my neck, and elevating my head an inch higher. It meant I needed direction.
“What do you not understand, Gnat?”
I’d never gotten a raw captive before. “Centuron, will I be held responsible for his infractions?”
He considered that. “Not for seven days.”
I only had a week to train him? It would be simpler to kill him. Touching my head and palms to the ground in the position of gratitude nearly made me choke, but I was a good slave, so that’s what I did. “My thanks, centuron.”
We were counted and then hustled out of the crawl. My new bedmate didn’t try to escape – the passages beneath the arena were narrow, featureless stone, so there was nowhere for him to go – until we hit the sands. Then he ran at an entry and discovered the inhibitor grids.
He landed at my feet again, totally dazed.
“Those are charged, too.” I held out my hand and helped him to his feet. He was big and heavy. HekVar had better get those translators for us soon, or this one wouldn’t last the day. “Stay with me and do what I do.”
“Nua.” He slapped his chest and glared down at me. “Jalka Adan.”
“Jalka Adan?” I pointed at his chest as I repeated it, and he inclined his head. I nodded and tapped my own sternum. “Gnat.”
His palate was really too fluid for my lingo, but it was close enough. I copied his gesture and inclined my head. “Yes.” Then I saw the warmers coming out of the training hall and grabbed his arm. “This way.”
The warmers never wasted time but went right to work and attacked us with their padded weapons. We were supposed to dodge and evade. The Hsktskt considered it a good way to loosen tight slave muscle.
Jalka Adan didn’t understand, and would have counter attacked the warmer who came at him, had I not rolled in front of him and shoved him back before whirling away from the padded pole end.
The warmer, an old slave named Yerv, snorted in disgust. “Why give you him?”
“Don’t know.” I yelped as large blue hands grabbed me and Jalka tried to shove me behind him. “No, big guy, it’s okay. Yerv, you rec his kind?”
“Jorenian,” Yerv told me as he went after a sluggish Tingalean. “They self term.”
Which meant they committed suicide. A lot of newcomers did, when they got to the crawls – not every species accepts enslavement, and it was better than going crackbrain and killing everyone around them. As a couple of Emsalmalin warmers headed our way, I tugged at the Jorenian’s arm. “Come on, move.”
He glanced at me, then the spiny pair. “Fa klaree n’oal.”
“You can Fah-clare-ree-no-all later. Come on.” I yanked, and he finally followed me.
Warming continued for another ten minutes before a guard sounded the end chime and the warmers retreated back to the training hall. I prevented the Jorenian from getting whacked, but it wasn’t easy – he kept digging his heels in and wanting to counter. By the end of the session, some of the guards had perked up and were watching us – not a good thing.
“Stupid Gnat,” Yerv muttered as he passed by me. “He get you killed.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I hadn’t had this much trouble since they’d stuck me with an Icthorii last cycle. The feeding horn sounded, and I looked up at the stern blue face. “Time to eat.”
I showed him how to fall into line and shepherded him into the feeding hall. Since Gffra was gone, there was a space open at my table, and I pushed Jalka to kneel down beside me.
Distributor drones rolled up and down the aisles delivering food, which was allocated based on species and body weight. I showed the Jorenian how to identify himself by using the DNA scanner, and watched the drone dole out a huge pile of assorted syn veg.
“Not a meat eater, huh?” I scanned and got my own small bowl of mixed protein stew.
Jalka gingerly sampled his fare and grimaced. “Gtak.”
“Yeah, this sucks, but it’s all you’ll get until after the bouts. Force it, you need the calories.” I made faces to go with the words, and he must have understood because he started eating.
We were only allotted ten minutes for feeding before the guards came to hustle us out to walk. We had to trot in pairs around a one kim track for the next hour without stopping, but it was the one place we were allowed to speak to each other. We formed our usual information relay teams and I passed the word on about Gffra.
Kosper, the latest and smartest of the crawl bosses, fell in behind me and Jalka. “I see you scored raw meat,” he called to me. “Need any help?”
“Not yet.” I checked the guards to see if they were watching Jalka. They were. “Kos, you got anybody who speaks this guy’s lingo?”
“He’s Jorenian. I know some.”
“Good.” I let out a pent-up breath. “Tell him we’re getting translators, but until we do he needs to do what I do.” When Kos relayed that, Jalka almost turned around, then eyed me and said something back.
“He wants to know your name.”
I frowned. “Gnat”
Jalka shook his head and said something else to Kos.
The crawl boss frowned. “Something about kin – I think he wants your birth name.”
I didn’t remember the one I’d been given, but I’d heard one I liked once, from an old Terran merchant trader. He’d been beaten to death by the guards for trying to start a riot.
I looked at Jalka. “Mary.”
“Mah-ar-ee.” He made it sound pretty, then he said something else to Kos.
Kos chuckled. “Uh, he doesn’t want you to hit him in the head with the rock anymore.”
Fair enough. “Okay, but tell him that he has to sleep when I do.”
The scrubs horn sounded, and I guided my new bedmate to the cleanser corridor. He watched me pull off my tunic, then reluctantly did the same before following me under the sprayers. I rubbed my hands over my skin, sluicing off the sweat and dirt, then felt something pulpy touch my hip.
“Suck on someone else.” I shoved at the Edpriyin trying to attach itself to me.
“You taste like alloy.” The skinny bloodeater gave me a lascivious grin. “But I like your new friend, Gnat. He looks hydrated.”
Jalka grabbed him by his emaciated throat. “F’tal et samballo neechal Mah-ar-ee.”
The Edpriyin’s four eyes about popped from their sockets before Kos and a couple others were able to pry him away from Jalka. Kos argued with my bedmate for a minute, then snorted and gestured to me. “Gnat, say Ayral tebas tunirecas.”
I repeated the words and watched Jalka’s expression change from enraged to only somewhat pissed off. I looked at the crawl boss. “What did that mean?”
“You shielded the bloodeater. It’s the only way to keep him alive.” As guards entered the tube to see what the hold up was, Kos hustled us out to the dryers. “Gnat, you’d better ask HekVar to pair the Jorenian with me for the bouts today, or he’ll go after anyone who lands a blow on you.”
I was completely confused. “Why the hell would he do that?”
“Don’t know.” Kos waved a few tendrils. “I think he’s decided to adopt you or something.”
We donned fresh tunics before we were marched back to the arena. Heavy betting already filled the board displays, which meant we’d have a capacity crowd. As soon as I saw HekVar, I dropped and requested attention. Since I hardly ever assumed the bitch position, he came over to me.
I thought of how to say it, and touched my forehead to the edge of his footgear. “Centuron, it is possible that the new Jorenian slave may serve longer if paired with Kos.”
“Indeed.” HekVar gestured for me to rise and follow him into an empty crawl. Once we were out of sight of the others, he hunkered down to my eye level. It was kind of a compliment. “Why do you ask this of me?”
I might get Jalka zapped to death for telling the truth, but the centuron was the only one who could switch pairings. “He tried to kill a bloodeater in the cleansers for touching me. He doesn’t seem to understand that I’m sword bait, same as him.”
“Has he attempted to breed you?”
“No.” It was odd that he hadn’t made a demand for sex yet – that was the reason we were bedmates. “He might have some kind of taboo about Terrans.”
“More likely he thinks you a child.”
Why would that make a difference? “As you say, centuron.”
“He can fight alone for now.” HekVar tapped my cheek with one of his talons. “You will do well not to become attached to this one, Gnat.”
I never got attached to any of them. “Yes, centuron.”
Sunday, May 21, 2006
There were three types of arena bouts – singles, in which one slave fought against another; pairs, which were two on two; and meleés, groups of slaves against guards, which were always bloodbaths. Most slaves fought singles in the beginning, for physical evaluation and to weed out the weaklings, and then were put in paired bouts after they proved themselves. Meleés should have been called executions, but the Hsktskt liked the slavers who paid to watch to think we always had a fighting chance.
We didn’t, of course. No slave had ever killed a Hsktskt in the arena.
That afternoon I was paired with Paddala, a bad-tempered Trytinorn who hated bipeds like me. He had lousy peripheral vision, and nearly accidentally stomped on me as we entered the arena. Next to him, I really was gnat-sized.
I picked up the short sword one of the guards tossed down from the stands. Every slave was given the same size blade, as the Hsktskt thought that kept things even. I eyed the other blade thrown in for my partner. Considering his size, it was like throwing him a toothpick. “Are you going to use that?”
“Idiot Terran.” He reached down with his nasal appendage, grabbed me, and hoisted me onto his back. Then he picked up the weapon. “Keep quiet and watch my hindquarters.”
“Easy job, considering the size of your ass.” I watched the other team enter from the opposite side of the crawls. One was a snake-like Tingalean, the other a three-foot tall spider being. “Oh, no. Is that an Aksellan?”
“Yes.” Paddala trumpeted his displeasure. “What did you do, little one, spit on a guard?”
Both of our opponents were relatively new but effective fighters – probably because they each packed enough natural body poisons to wipe out the entire crowd. There was no way to spar with their kind, we had to knock them out or kill them immediately. That meant we had to be very fast and strong. The Trytinorn was strong, I was fast – but that was all we had going for us.
I heard alien laughter. Some slaver must have made a special request, thinking the match would be amusing.
The snake and spider were splitting up, each going to either side of the arena for a flanking attack. No more time to sit and cry over my bad luck. I grabbed Paddala’s shaggy neck fringe and leaned over. “Insult me, and do it loud.”
“What?” He didn’t get it.
“You blockheaded behemoth! Can’t you follow simple instructions?” I shouted, thumping the top of his skull with my fist. “All you’re good for is hauling waste!”
The low, hollow groan he gave wasn’t from pain. “Shut up, pipsqueak, or I will use you to polish my tusks.”
“Did I ask for your opinion, you stupid oversized piece of meat?” I watched our opponents, then added in a low tone, “Throw me so that I land between them, then pretend you’ve gone crazy.”
“This had better work, or I won’t have to pretend.” Paddala’s appendage curled around my waist, and he lifted me high over his skull.
“And don’t try to help me,” I murmured. I made a show of struggling and screamed, “You colossal idiot! Put me down!”
“Gladly, runt.” He tossed me to the enemy.
He didn’t throw me too hard, so I had to make it look like a bad landing. I hit the sand and rolled, dropping my sword as I shrieked and clutched at a non-existent injury to my arm. At the same time, Paddala started snorting and cursing and stomping around, waving his blade wildly.
The ploy diverted the Aksellan and the Tingalean, who turned to converge on me, the easiest kill. I continued the bogus act, howling and crawling across the sands away from Paddala. There were shouts from the stands and the crawls, so I must have looked pretty convincing.
That was the other thing I was good at – faking.
The guards didn’t like us to rush the finale, but both the Tingalean and the Aksellan were naturally quick strikers, and they closed in fast. I measured the evaporating space between me and death, and when I judged the time was right, I curled over and brought my knees up under me in a surrendering pose.
Not yet not yet not yet. I heard the Tingalean hiss, and I tensed. Almost there. Almost.
Any slave who made a kill was given special privileges for three rotations after a bout, so both the snake and the spider jumped at me, eager to be the first to sink their blades and fangs into my hide. My death represented more food, warmth, and possibly an interval with a professional pleasure-giver.
Only I somersaulted out of the way.
The Aksellan tried to rear back, but the Tingalean followed his species’ tendency to bite whatever moved on a killing strike. In self-defense, the spider bit back. They stabbed each other with their swords, then went down as their wounds and poisons went to work on each other.
I didn’t like watching them die, but it had been them or me. I wondered when I would stop caring if it was me.
Paddala stomped over, picked me up and placed me on the curve of his brow. “Very clever, little one. I hope I’m never matched against you.”
I covered my guilt by reaching down to pat his cheek. “If you are, I’ll make it quick.”
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Making two kills entitled me to return to my crawl if I wanted, but I stayed. Jalka Adan would be fighting one-on-one, and I wanted to see what he was made of. I had a feeling HekVar wanted to pair us – some kind of Hsktskt inside joke, putting me with Big Blue, whose species probably hated Terrans.
The lizards had a weird sense of humor.
Jalka had watched enough bouts to enter the arena on guard, which was good – they matched him against a very tough Baduvarti male named Mengud with plated skin and half again Jalka’s muscle mass. They started out circling each other, sizing up the assets and watching movement rhythms. My bedmate was paying close attention, not allowing the shouts from the stands to distract him.
Good, I thought, leaning against the view grid of the observation crawl. Keep those white eyeballs open, don’t look away for a second.
Mengud didn’t have much imagination – he just barreled his way through his bouts – but he was solid and it took a lot to hurt him. He came at Jalka first, head-on, testing the waters with sweeping cross-cut to the midsection. Jalka spun a second too late and caught the tip of the blade, then returned the favor with a lateral thrust. His eyes widened as he felt the jolt of the blade hitting and sliding off the Baduvarti’s thick abdominal plating.
Numbskull. I grabbed the grid slats, wishing I could stab him myself. Can’t you see the thin spots on his chest?
By then they had crossed swords and dug their feet in, wrestling for control. Muscles bulged, sweat ran, and yet neither of them gave in. This bored the spectators, who started jeering, and a guard shouted out a warning that thankfully Mengud understood.
“Break!” he snarled into Jalka’s face before shoving him away. He followed through with a fist to the Jorenian’s jaw, but didn’t land the blow squarely and only made him stagger back. Mengud stooped and took a handful of sand, and flung it in his face before tackling him.
Shit. He wasn’t going to make it.
“Come on,” I said under my breath, digging my fingers into the grid as I watched them roll, blades flashing. “Come on, get up, get up! ”
Mengud made a funny sound and went flying backward, and Jalka rose to his feet in a single fluid motion. Suddenly, he had claws, lots of long, sharp blue ones. Mengud saw them but he couldn’t get up, something was wrong with one of his legs. His sword had been knocked from his hand and was a good twenty yards away. He began crawling toward it, but from the expression on his flat face he knew the game was over.
The Jorenian looked up at the spectators, who were screaming for the kill. He shouted something in his lingo and flung down his blade.
“Jalka!” I tried to remember what he’d said during warm-ups. “Fa klaree n’oal! Now!”
He glanced my way, and for a second looked even more pissed-off. Then he went over to Mengud, and raised his claws. The Baduvarti dropped his head back, to make it easier. Jalka used a single strike to rip out his throat, and he was dead before he slumped over on the blood-soaked sand.
The spectators loved it.
As they cheered, the Jorenian he walked over to the grid and looked down at me. He showed me his hands, and the Baduvarti’s blood dripped from his claws. But it was his expression that made my chest hurt. He wasn’t angry or bitter or disgusted.
He was sad.
Jalka gestured back at Mengud’s body. “Thees sah-hucks, Mah-ar-ree.”
Yes, it did.
As the guards led him away and dragged Mengud off the sands, someone came up behind me. I heard the metallic clink of the uniform, but I didn’t bother to assume the position of response or even turn around. Let them zap me.
“Gnat.” HekVar’s talons tugged my hand away from the grid. I was bleeding, too. “It is time to cleanse.”
I went through the sprayers and the dryers like a drone, then marched back with the other fighters to my crawl. Jalka never showed, so I assumed HekVar had decided to move him to another tier. It was for the best – Kos told me after scrubs that as I suspected, Jorenians weren’t too fond of Terrans. And I had hated seeing that look on his blue face after the kill.
I used to look like, once. A long time ago.
I took the extra rations and rest intervals that were my privileges for winning, but I couldn’t eat and I didn’t want to sleep. When someone opened the door and threw something at me, I barely felt the sting.
I opened my eyes and saw Jalka standing over me. He was wearing a wristcom and holding another one out to me. I took it, put it on my arm and activated it.
“The centuron with the scarred head gave these to me.” He smiled a little. “We can speak and understand each other now.”
“Yeah.” And I had nothing to say. “Terrific.”
“Your pardon, lady. I can see you are not well.” He looked me over. “Were you injured in the arena?”
Only where it didn’t show. “No, I’m fine.” I sat up and curled an arm around my knees. “How about you?”
He touched his hip. “I received only a minor wound.”
Which reminded me. “Do you want sex?”
He looked stunned, and checked his wristcom as if he thought it were malfunctioning. “What say you?”
“You know.” I put my hand on his good hip and rubbed it. “That’s why we’re roomed together. Male to female.”
He didn’t say anything at first. Then he removed my hand. “I cannot share such intimacy with you.”
“No problem.” I wasn’t insulted; plenty of slaves preferred their own kind or gender, and to tell the truth sex had always been kind of a chore. “I bet you have a lot of questions.”
“I do.” He crouched down by my pile of grass. “How long have you been here?”
That he wanted to know about me kind of threw me for a moment. “I don’t know. We’re not permitted to keep records or anything.” I never thought about my first life and the raid that had ended it; surviving in my second life kept me busy. “I was taken when I was little.” I frowned. “I’m not a child, you know. I think I’m almost fifteen.”
“Indeed.” He stared at the sword scars on my legs. There were a lot of them. “Why did they not leave you behind?”
The Hsktskt were pretty famous for leaving the children of the colonies they raided to starve in the ruins.
“One of the raiders kicked me out of the way, and I kicked back. He decided I would be good arena bait.” I let my lip curl on one side. “HekVar kept me off the sand and had me clean out crawls until I was old enough to fight.”
He looked at the ceiling for a moment. “What of your kin?”
“They were all killed when I was taken.” I sighed. “Look, we need to talk about what’s expected of you here. You have to follow the rules, or you won’t live very long.”
“I am not one to . . . follow rules.” He rose and held a six-fingered hand down to me. “We should go.”
I couldn’t stand up, I was laughing too hard. Finally I got myself under control. “Um, no. We can’t.”
“If you haven’t noticed, Jorenian, this place is lousy with Hsktskt, and they don’t like their slaves trying to run away.” His expression didn’t change, and I rolled my eyes. “Okay, so you aren’t afraid of the lizards. Besides them, there are security monitors and alarm sensors all over the place. We stay here or we die.”
He hauled me to my feet. “We will die if we stay here.”
“I’ve done okay so far.” His gentle touch bothered me, and I pulled my hand from his. “You haven’t seen what happens when someone gets caught trying to escape.”
“They are punished?”
“They’re executed. Tied back to back and thrown to the guards in the arena.” I checked the door, but no one was listening in. “We could be punished just for talking about this, so drop it.”
“You’re afraid of death.” He folded his arms. “I am not.”
“Don’t let me keep you.” I gestured to the door. “Life is cheap around here, and there will be someone to replace you tomorrow.” There was always someone.
“You called to me in the arena.”
I shrugged. “I don’t like breaking in a new bedmate.”
“You do not wish to kill any more than I do.” He moved to tower over me, but like in the arena, he wasn’t angry. “I saw it in your eyes.”
“Shut up.” I pushed him away and started pacing. “I have six rotations to train you, Jorenian, then I’ll be punished for your mistakes. And if I have to take a zap or a beating because of you, I’ll strangle you in your sleep.”
“You will not.” He looked out at the darkening sky, then gave me that little smile again. “Very well. Tell me what to do, Mary.”
Friday, May 19, 2006
My bedmate listened to me that night, and in the days that followed did everything like I told him to do. Living as an arena slave wasn’t really all that difficult, but he didn’t like it. No one could tell from his expression or attitude, which he kept under control, and he didn’t talk much. I learned from Kos that when the tips of a Jorenian’s claws extruded, it meant he was upset or angry.
Jalka went around flashing them most of the day.
Our privilege time came to an end, and we were both sent back to the arena. I was paired off as usual while Jalka continued to fight solo, but we both survived each day. Other than acting a little protective of me around other males during scrubs, he didn’t show much emotion. I figured he was disconnecting from it, the way I had.
That came to a screeching halt when a new group of sword bait were brought in and turned out to be Terran-bashers.
There was always someone who had it in for me; after all, my kind had pushed the Allied League of Worlds into war with the Hsktskt. Even before that humans had been unpopular with other species – homeworld Terrans were rabid xenophobes who refused to let aliens breed with them or live on their planet. Although I’d never lived there, and could care less how pure someone’s blood was, I’d still taken a lot of waste over the years on account of them. It was just another part of being an arena slave. Usually I ignored them and they got tired of baiting me.
The bashers were a nasty bunch of T’Nilf bug warriors who had been captured while defending their colony against the Hsktskt. Seeing that many huge red insectile beings come in together made everyone nervous – nobody likes a swarm.
They didn’t cause any trouble, however, except for the fact that they zeroed in on me the first day.
Jalka and I had just gotten our rations when a half dozen of the buzzing T’Nilf came buzzing past, and a multi-jointed limb knocked my bowl of stew out of my hands and into the dirt.
“Cluuumsyyy Teeeraaan,” one of them said.
Jalka tensed, but I shook my head, picked up what was left in the bowl and went back to eating. The bugs moved on.
“That was deliberate,” he said, glaring at the T’Nilf as they took their places at another station. He looked around for guards before dumping a big portion of his syn veg into my bowl. “Take this.” Before I could jump on him for violating feeding rules, he added, “I have enough to share with you.”
“You need more food than me,” I snapped.
He turned the glare on me. “Do not make me feed it to you.”
The bashing continued. The bugs seemed to hover around me wherever I went. Jalka tried to watch out for them, but they were pretty cagey, and I ended up being “accidentally” tripped, shoved, and knocked aside on a daily basis. Once I fell during exercise and two of them stomped me by pretending to be unable to avoid me. When they couldn’t make me drop my rations, they started spitting some kind of vile-smelling green mucous in them as they passed by.
The guards would have zapped them if they’d seen them harassing me, but just my luck, every time it happened the centuron on duty seemed to be looking the other way. And Jalka only got angrier, every time it happened.
“You got problems,” Kosper said to me on the track. I’d been shoved face-first into a warmer’s pole earlier that morning, thanks to the bugs, and blood kept trickling from my swollen nose. Jalka had moved ahead, staying between me and the T’Nilf. “I’ve talked to them, and they pretty much want you dead.”
“Good to know.” I was more worried about Jalka; if he didn’t get his temper under control he would get us both killed. “Any suggestions?”
“You need to take out the female; the others are male and subservient to her.” He pointed to the largest T’Nilf, then hesitated. “I can bribe a slaver to make a request, get you on the sand with her.”
Jalka overheard and dropped back. “It is too dangerous.”
“I can’t go on like this.” I sized up the female. I’d never taken on one of her kind before, but I’d seen her fight. She was over-confident and her blade work was sloppy. But I didn’t have any barter, and the crawl boss didn’t intervene for free. “Can’t afford a bribe, though, Kos.”
My bedmate shook his head. “We will find another way.”
“Paddala’s already paid for the guard,” Kos said, surprising me. “Said to tell you it’s for the last bout.”
“Mary.” Jalka sounded grim. “No.”
I’d have to revise my bad opinion of Trytinorns. “Set it up, Kos.”
“You are not fighting that female,” Jalka insisted.
The crawl boss chuckled. “You got spine, Gnat. You got spine.” He nodded to Jalka and moved on.
“I need to go over some moves with you when we get back,” I said absently, already making plans in my head. “Can you teach me that rolling block you –”
A hand dropped on my shoulder, hard enough to make me jump. “Why do you not listen to me?” Jalka demanded. “You cannot challenge her. She will divert your path.”
He really was upset. I felt a little warm inside, knowing that. “It’s the only way. If I don’t do something, they’ll kill me anyway.”
“I will speak with them.”
“Kos already tried, and he’s the crawl boss. Why would they listen to you?” I saw a guard approaching and lowered my voice. “Centuron. Drop it.”
When the guard pointed at us, we dropped into position. Only then did he approach and say, “HekVar orders you to report to quarters.”
I made the affirmative gesture and got up to leave the track. A hard claw shoved me forward, then something heavy hit my leg. I heard something distant snap. Pain shot up through my whole body. Hard hands grabbed at me, but my tunic ripped and I bounced against the centuron’s chest plate before collapsing at his feet.
The pain was so bad that I barely saw the prod stick coming down to zap me. Then everything melted into a white-hot blur, and I burned away into darkness.
I woke up on the sands, with my right leg in a slate-and rope splint, which was bad – they only did that for broken bones. My arms were bound at the elbow to something behind me, which was worse. Then I felt the coils of rope around my waist, and the heat and muscle pressed against me, and knew it was the end.
Jalka and I were tied together, back to back.
I got my feet under me and tugged on the ropes. “What happened?”
Jalka groaned, but started lifting when I did. “I struck the guard who harmed you.”
My eyes popped open. The stands were filled with Hsktskt, all sitting quiet and watchful. There were no bets on the boards, and no slavers around, which meant this was official. “Did you kill him?”
I closed my eyes briefly. They would take their time with us, then.
HekVar strode out on the sands, and stopped before me. Hsktskt don’t show much emotion, but from the way his tongue flickered and his scar pulsed it was obvious he was outraged. He didn’t hit me, though.
"You should have trained this one better, Gnat.”
“Yes, centuron.” I met his oversized yellow eyes, which were half-closed. I don’t know why I said what I did next. “I’m going to miss you.”
He took hold of my tunic and jerked me close, then pressed something into my hand. “Die quickly.” He left the arena.
The small plas pouch was warm and filled with some kind of liquid, and had a pressure dart on one side, but I already knew what it was. Hsktskt took poison to avoid capture, but I’d never heard of them giving a suicide sac to a slave. Especially one who had gotten one of their own killed.
As compliments went, it was pretty major.
The T’Nilf female and one of her males were thrown out onto the sand, also tied back-to-back at the mid-limb joints. But instead of sending a detachment of guards in to hack us to bits, HekVar threw four short daggers out onto the sand.
Maybe he thought I wouldn’t have the nerve to use the poison.
Jalka folded one of his hands over mine. “Pull up your legs. I will get the weapons.”
I looked at the bugs, who were struggling to find their balance and get to the daggers. They had longer forelimbs, and neither of them had to deal with a broken leg. I tightened my fingers over the pouch. I could inject both of us, and we’d be dead in seconds. It would be painless.
And the hell of my second life would be over.
Over the rushing sound in my ears, I heard Jalka say, “Mary.” His fingers entwined with mine. “Wherever the path takes us, I am with you.”
I’d never had anyone care about me. I was a slave, sword bait, worthless now that I couldn’t fight. I hadn’t done this Jorenian any favors. Yet Jalka had protected me, watched over me. He’d even killed a Hsktskt for me.
No. I wouldn’t. Being with him was worth fighting for a few more minutes of life.
I lifted my legs, groaning as the ends of my broken bone shifted. Jalka pulled me over onto his back and went for the blades, and got two before the T’Nilf reached them. He backed away, still crouched over to keep me off the sand. All I could see were the silent Hsktskt watching us, waiting for blood to spill.
Jalka fighting while balancing me on his back gave the bugs a big advantage, but he didn’t let them take it. Rather than continue to retreat, he attacked, and I felt him slashing at the female with both blades. I tried to keep my weight centered and coiled up my good leg, ready to kick at the bugs if they tried to attack from behind. I couldn’t see exactly what Jalka was doing but I heard alloy clashing and felt his muscles shifting under my back. He should have been coiled like a neurotic Tingalean but his movements were graceful and fluid, almost like he was floating around the arena.
He took a hit, then a deep growl rumbled out of his chest and he lunged, jerking the ropes binding us hard. She must have countered his move because he dropped and rolled, ending up facedown in the sand with me on top, and the T’Nilf only a few feet away.
“Are you hurt?” I asked him.
“No.” He spat out some sand. “Is she?”
I saw dark blood dribbling from the female’s side. “Nice deep gash on the left torso. She’s bleeding a lot.”
He struggled to his feet. “I must do the same to the male.”
The problem with that was, the female guarded the male just as fiercely as Jalka protected me. He went after her three times, but couldn’t get past her guard. I realized he had lied to me when I saw green blood on the sands.
I had to do something, but all I had was the poison. I could do myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill him. Then I clutched the little sac. “When she charges, turn around and let her at me.”
“You wish to embrace the stars?” he sounded breathless.,
“I want to give her a little present.” I pressed my hand against his. “Just trust me.”
The female charged at us, and at the last possible second Jalka jerked around, facing me toward her. I deflected her sword thrust with a kick and pressed the sac against the open wound at her side. She staggered away, then swayed and buzzed.
“Back around them,” I said to Jalka. “Get me to face the male.”
He did as I asked. The male was distracted by the female’s shuddering and was fooled by my feint. I emptied the rest of the sac into the side of his throat, then kicked him away.
They both went down, laboring for breath, then fell over and went into convulsions. It only lasted a minute, then they didn’t move again.
“What did you do?”
“Poison.” I let the empty sac fall from my fingers. The bugs would be the last beings I ever harmed, and I felt relieved, knowing that. I was tired of killing. My eyes started watering, and a strange, hitching sound came up out of my throat. “The guards will come in and do us now. I’m sorry, I know I should have used it on us.”
Jalka said something, but it was lost in the explosion. We both were thrown into a wall, and the Hsktskt in the stands tumbled down around us. Blood streaked down my face, and I was pretty sure my other leg was now broken.
"I am . . . glad . . . you did . . . not.” He inched around to put me between the wall and him. “Don’t cry . . Mary.” He went still.
I tried to keep my eyes open, but they didn’t want to cooperate. The last thing I saw were strange launches, flying over the open roof of the arena.
I was kind of in and out of it for a while after that. I was pretty banged up, and whoever had me let me sleep. I dreamed of the arena, and Jalka, only we prevailed together over every opponent we faced.
They were good dreams.
When I woke up, I still felt like I was asleep. They had put me in the cleanest place I’d ever seen in my life – some kind of medical facility, with tons of shiny equipment and Jorenian slaves dressed in brand new tunics. Not one of them wore yellow, so I wasn’t exactly sure they were slaves.
Someone had taken away my slave tunic, and dressed me in a plain white garment. It was softer than anything I’d ever touched. They’d also put two strange white things over my legs, from the ankles to above the knees. They were hard and smooth, like some kind of body armor, but lightweight and strong – I couldn’t bend my knees at all.
Maybe they were trying to hobble me.
The slaves called the female who took care of me Healer Anea. She looked a little like Jalka, but had darker blue skin, a purple streak in her black hair and was a bit shorter. She had the same white eyes, though, and every time she looked at me, I thought about him.
When Anea discovered I was awake, she brought me food and helped me eat. The food was clean and fresh and tasted wonderful. She made me put on a funny necklace that turned out to be translator, then through it said that I had to remain quiet and rest.
I had no problem doing that.
I waited for her to do something worse, but all she did over the next three days was bring me more food and keep me clean. She didn’t want me to assume any position but to stay flat on my back.
None of her rules made sense, either. She’d say stuff like “Child, you must not sleep on the deck, you will aggravate your injuries” and “Do not hide food in your linens, little one, you may have as much as you like, whenever you like.” She never zapped me or even raised her voice, except once when she helped me out of the thing she made me sleep on so I could take my first scrub. Then she looked at my body and got angry.
“Sorry.” I cringed, covering myself. Maybe they had some kind of taboo against nudity.
She called one of the females she called nurses over to help me and stomped out of the cleansing cubicle.
“Did I offend her?” I asked the nurse, but she insisted I’d done nothing.
Anea and her females kept better watch over me than the Hsktskt centurons, but they wouldn’t tell me anything about what had happened or where Jalka was. Every time I asked, they changed the subject or made an excuse of work and moved away from me.
I got tired of not knowing.
As soon as I felt strong enough, I slipped out of the soft thing they made me sleep on and snuck out of the medical place. It was worth getting zapped, just to see how pretty and clean the place was. I wandered down a long, circular corridor, wondering if there would be another arena waiting around the next corner. I didn’t care if I had to fight again, but I needed to know if Jalka was all right. Surely someone would tell me.
I heard two men speaking just ahead of me, and pressed myself against a wall panel.
“—arena slave,” a deep, stern voice said. “No education, no training whatsoever. Anea says the child has had most of her bones broken, and she is covered in scars.”
“She knew enough to stay alive in that place,” I heard Jalka say. “She earned her scars.”
His voice made me slump against the wall. He had survived, that was all I cared about. They could do whatever they wanted to me now.
A few seconds later Jalka crouched down in front of me. “Mary, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in medical, resting.”
“They won’t let me sleep on the floor.” I tried to smile, but my eyes were watering and I couldn’t see right. “I didn’t know you were alive. I’m glad you made it.”
“Your pardon. I should have come to you sooner.” He put one arm under my shoulders and the other under the strange things on my legs, then lifted me into his arms. To the other male, he said, “Inform my ClanMother that Mary will be in my quarters.”
The older man didn’t like that. “Anea will not be pleased.”
“She may come to examine her there.”
Jalka carried me down the corridor and into a funny kind of box with a sliding door. It moved up, then opened into another corridor.
“Where are we?” I asked as he carried me past some door panels.
“This is the RainWing, HouseClan Adan’s flag ship.” He stopped at one and punched the access panel.
A ship? “How did we get here? Who owns us?”
“My HouseClan came to retrieve me.” He smiled as the door opened and he carried me in. “No one owns you and I any more, Mary. We’re free.”
I didn’t believe him, until I saw the rooms he’d been given. One was big enough to sleep twenty slaves, and there were other rooms attached to that. He set me down on another padded thing, and put a pillow under my head and legs.
I watched him prepare two servers at an odd-looking food station. “Why did you bring me with you?”
“Why did you not choose an easy death in the arena?” he countered as he came over and gave me one of the servers. It was filled with a colored liquid that smelled sweet.
It was hard to tell the truth, but I figured I owed him that much. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
He smiled at me. “Nor I you.”
I recalled what he’d said to me in the arena. Wherever the path takes us, I am with you. He’d really meant that.
A little confused, I sipped the drink. The liquid was warm and so sweet it made my teeth ache – and I wanted to chug it down like water. “I don’t understand all this.”
“In time, you will.” He took my server and put it aside, then folded my hands in his. “Will you share your journey with me and my kin?”
I thought about it. “Can I sleep on the floor?”
“If that is your wish, yes.”
There were things I used to wish for, but I’d forgotten about them. Maybe now it would be all right to remember. “Okay.”For Mary, aka BarGnat, with love –
S.L. Viehl, December 2002