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