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<<< Chapter 8

Across Savage Mars

"This is just swell, guys. We're gonna end up with our own exhibit hall in the Museum of All-Time Screw-Ups."

I must admit, when the Vashanka trussed us and started marching us along the river's edge, my mood took me right off even the most generous possible scale of cosmic usefulness. The gnawing emptiness of my stomach and the rasping of alien vines against my wrists were like the lead violins in my personal frustration orchestra.

What a thought. My solipsistic Martian adventure serial, now with a private musical accompaniment. What would be appropriate to my situation? Something from a Looney Tunes short?

"Hardly likely," sighed Avila. "Since a visit to your world is next to impossible for any of us."

"Ain't a real place," I growled. "But if it were, there'd be statues of us. Big ones."

I knew, of course, that even eternal embarrassment would be a luxury compared to what was really looming. The All-Sovereign had broadcast my alleged death across his civilization in three dimensions; as soon as his goons had me back they'd grind me up for plant food, then burn the plants. As for Avila and Gathris...

"The good news is, we all have to die so quickly and quietly they won't have any chance to get creative," I said. I peered at our captors, their lithe shadowy shapes outlined by the luminescent threads of their mantles and the eerie jewel-gleam of jungle plants. I raised my voice. "In fact, since the All-Sovereign won't want to advertise the fact that I survived, you idiots are looking pretty ripe for the bump-off, too. Might be something to consider before you try to convince him I'm worth thirty pieces of silver."

"A provocative and compelling argument," said Azon Arazef. She was at the water's very edge, about ten feet to my right. I could see the telltale sheen of the pistol in her belt. "Your profound wisdom humbles me, blueworlder. I had given no thought to the most glaringly obvious aspect of your presence here. Please do continue lecturing me as though I were unweaned."

"Damn," I said. "You got yourself a sarcasm merit badge, huh?"

"If the All-Sovereign needs you hidden," she said, her voice languidly confident, "he needs you hidden from the mask-wearers. What we know is irrelevant. Keeping ourselves beneath his concern is part of our way of life."

"Seems a hell of a chance to take with the lives of... oh, all of you."

"It's a matter of finesse. We contact the mask-wearers circumspectly. We demand our price in goods easily supplied by one of their swarmships. We make it too attractive not to pay. Just weapons and tools."

"If staying beneath their concern is so important, you can't be serious about asking for weapons!"

"A trifling number. Something they can surrender without a care." She tapped the butt of her desiccator. "Ten of these would set my Moving Village above any in the Valley of the Emerald Night, and still it would be as nothing to the All-Sovereign."

"The servants of the All-Sovereign will cry with laughter," said Gathris, the sneer in his voice so palpable you could have hung a coat on it. " 'Much will you receive,' indeed! You hold the single most valuable thing on the planet and you'd trade it for sidearms and hand lights. Imbecile children begging for festival favors!"

"Let them laugh." Azon Arazef didn't sound rattled. "Our power on the river will be supreme, and still the All-Sovereign will never have to spare another thought for us. All is relative."

"Nothing is relative to the All-Sovereign!" yelled Avila. "He gives nothing! He takes as a matter of principle! You fools don't know what it's like in the City of the Sovereign Eye! The cruelty, the treachery, the sheer stupid--"

"You Thoraveds followed him up the mountain," said Azon Arazef. "You kissed his robes and let him unlock the halls of the Old Makers for you. You're the ones who put his hands on your throats, so don't cry to me if he tightens his grip."

"It's not just us," said Avila. "He won't spare anyone. He'll let you skulk here only while it suits his whim. Some day he'll decide there's something he wants in this valley, and he'll wipe you all out in an hour!"

"When the shadow passes overhead, the prey moves or dies," said Azon Arazef. "A Line Mother must be persuasive and a First Huntress must be sly. If I can't be those things in dealing with mask-wearers, I and my people deserve to fall."

She was a hot-dogger, all right. It oozed out of her voice. Total self-assurance, like some of the fighter pilots I'd known during the war. Boys with little Japanese flags painted under their cockpits. I tried to plow through the haze of annoyance and exhaustion coming down over my brain, picking her words apart, looking for the lever points. She took a hell of a lot of responsibility for her people on herself. I wondered...

"Easy to shoot your mouth off when your audience has their hands tied," I said. "Big tough leader like you. Bet your people think you're pretty slick, honey."

"They deem me sufficient."

"Are you sufficient? Without that gun in your belt, without these vines around my wrist, without a dozen friends carrying spears for you?"

"Would you challenge me, blueworlder?"

"Hell yes! I'll face you any way you people do it." It was a Flash Gordon ploy, imaginary reader, and though I'd learned to my sorrow just how few citizens of other planets actually played by Flash Gordon rules, what choice did I have? I tried not to think of how tired and weak I was, or how it had felt to have that Thoraved guard in my prison cell bounce me off the floor. "Just you and me, First Huntress. Tell me how it's done. You can even have choice of weapons, if you like."

"I choose logic," she said. "On my honor, I can wager your freedom and the freedom of these naked mask-wearers. I can risk my position. Since I consider myself able in that position, I can also risk the safety and future of all my people. What can you wager that I don't already possess?"

"What about skills? I'm an aircraft pilot and mechanic. I could teach you and your people how to build flying machines."

"I assisted in building my first flying machine when I was a child," she said. "We use terrain-hugging flitters to scout the river ahead of our Moving Villages. Counter-rotating blades in a chassis suffused with buoyant gas."

"Damn. Well, I can show you something bigger and better than that. Fixed-wing flight."

"And that would put us in the sky, which the All-Sovereign jealously guards, and directly attract the very attention we're resolved to avoid. I'm amused that you seem to think I must be a simpleton," said Azon Arazef. "Is this a bargaining posture, or are all the blueworlders of your tribe so untrained in the employment of their brains?"

"Uh... it's a bargaining posture?"

"Of course."

Our trudge continued through the humid darkness. Things shuffled and howled and flapped unseen, but the size of our Vashanka escort seemed to cow anything that might have wanted to sample the buffet. Fungal perfumes drifted out of the jungle depths, warm exhalations carrying pale insects and spore-falls gleaming like tiny constellations. The thickly-threaded clouds and fog grew salmon-colored as we walked. Dawn was near.

By the time we reached the Vashanka landing site the sun was nestled in the eastern mists like a red jewel in cotton. The river ran pink, ludicrously warm and inviting pink, beneath the bobbing black hulls of angular boats that looked like the war-canoes of Haida Indians I'd read about at the library. These craft were fifty or sixty feet long, and guarded by another dozen Vashanka who came out to stare at us and gossip.

I had no fight left in me. In fact, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open as our captors pushed me the last few steps. To my surprise it was Avila who found a sudden burst of contrariness. He kicked, spat, shouted and swore-- oh, the blue-assed blasphemy that came out of his mouth! I'd have to explain some unsettling things about Martian reproduction, imaginary reader, to give you the full picture, but in the general sense they're a lot like us. Same song with all the lyrics changed.

Avila made so much noise they kicked him unconscious before throwing him into a boat with me. I maneuvered myself to rest his head on my legs, for what it was worth, as the Vashanka rowers chanted a cadence and pushed us off from shore.

*****

A loud noise startled me awake. Hours had passed; the too-small sun was nestled in bright sky above the translucent wrapping-paper mists. Groggily, I realized that Avila had reversed our positions. My head was pillowed on the lean muscle of his leg, which was barely wider than one of my arms.

"She must have sustenance!" he was shouting. "Blueworlders will starve just as we do!"

"And take weeks, as we do?" Azon Arazef stood over us, casually gnawing on something that looked like waxy meat. "Assuming she has sufficient access to moisture, of course."

"I simply don't know," said Avila. I could see that his face was bruised, and his left eye half-swollen shut. "The All-Sovereign never worried about feeding any of his captives. We need to conduct experiments. Little bites, the tiniest possible quantities, to establish--"

"Out of the question," said Azon Arazef, swallowing the last of her meal. "Those of us who live in the valley know what a death-allergy is. There are a dozen plants and animals that kill by that means, and we're strengthened with the mycomatrix from youth. She's only just received it! One taste of the wrong food might burst her like a ripe seed-pod."

Hunger was in me like a living thing, a gut-chewing goblin, and still that ghastly image conjured fresh beads of sweat on my brow. Swelling up like a Violet-sized blister! Now there was a death that fell too far south of 'heroic' for my taste.

"The Vashanka has a point," said Gathris, speaking from somewhere behind me. "Even if we could conduct experiments with Violet's diet, this is hardly a clean, controlled environment for it. And we've no means of arresting anaphylaxis if it does set in."

"She's already tasted the water and breathed the air of the valley for some time," said Avila. "And she clearly hasn't exploded. I'd call that encouraging."

"Dead, she has some value to the All-Sovereign. Alive, she may possibly have even more. That's the only reason any of you are still breathing, and the reason I take no chances" said Azon Arazef. "I see you're awake, blueworlder. Tell me, does one of your hands serve you more adroitly than the other?"

"Uh... why do you ask?" I sat up as slowly as I could, and still the world wobbled around me in a way that had nothing to do with rowers or river currents.

"This is my weapon hand," she said, waving her right hand at me. "My tool hand. My mark-making hand. All Vashanka and Thoraveds favor one. I simply wish to know if blueworlders are the same."

I sighed and held up my own right hand, with one finger specifically extended in an undiplomatic fashion. "Guilty as charged."

"Excellent." She knelt, took firm hold of my left arm, and ran a scaled finger up and down it from wrist to elbow. "Then you can afford to lose this one. If sustenance becomes an issue, we'll sever it above the middle joint and prepare it for you. Your own flesh is the only substance on this planet guaranteed safe for your consumption."

"The hell you say!" I snatched my arm back, weak as a child and all the more petulant for knowing it. "Bitch!"

"Pragmatist," said Azon Arazef as she stood up. "And I'd guard my tongue, were I you. Once I've concluded my negotiation with the mask-wearers, the prospect of such a meal might be the last thing you'll ever have to look forward to."

*****

TO BE CONTINUED...


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