Chapter 1: Thrinacia
Come gather ‘round ye poacher lads
Who ramble void of care
The musical words drifted through the mess hall, turning eyes and ears towards the small center stage. Overseer Gron had departed for Helia three hours earlier and Tanis decided to fill the space and time normally allotted for announcements with a celebratory performance. Their voice was sweet but brittle, a haunting alto of superficial cheeriness that belied the coldness of it’s tone. A siren song of bittersweet sentiment, luring its audience into believing for a moment that things would get better while that undertone of dread left them with the awful aftertaste of reality. If it hadn’t been so enchanting, Larith would have been scowling at them. A song about poachers? Tonight? Was Tanis really that stupid?
Who walk alight on moonlit night
With dog and gun and snare
Tanis’ guitar only twanged out the occasional notes at the end of each line, a minimalism that kept the small crowd hanging on every word. People had stopped eating, knives and forks clattering softly onto half-done plates, most taking care to not interrupt the song binding them together in the moment. There was an energy in the room, a silent sadness of remembering a dissociated past.
By the keepers of the land me boys
One night we were trepanned
Caps were coming off, an odd reverence creeping through the listeners. Larith could see tears starting to form in a few eyes. Even the guards were watching Tanis with something approaching respect, although she was sure they’d never admit it.
And for fourteen years transported
Unto Van Diemen’s Land
Larith reached a hand up to scratch under her eye, surprised to find the corners wet. She was crying. Crying like a sappy idiot, all just because Tanis sang a song in a minor key. Anger rose to cover the uncomfortable tenderness; how dare they move her to tears, jeopardize the mission, dredge up memories she’d thrown down into the darkest pit her mind could offer.
Bound for Van Diemen’s Land brave boys
Far, far across the sea
If you don’t stand with cap in hand
Transported you will be
She heard a sob somewhere to her left, a choking sound that hammered away at her own steely resolve. She felt a lump in her throat, memories of a near history with Fara welling up to press against the inside of her eyes and mouth. Damn Tanis and their stupid song, she’d gotten so good at stamping down these feelings. So good at maintaining a little grave in her mind for love and hope, the sort of grave she’d never been allowed for Fara. Was she even dead? Larith was sure she’d never get to find out. She bit into the knuckle of her clenched fist, trying to stop her quickening, pained breaths from turning into an actual sob. Supid fucking Tanis.
I’ll ne’er forget when first we met
The years were long and lean
A war did rage upon the stage
A ship sailed on the scene
It’s true to say life’s just a play
But a play that’s been well planned
We play our roles like poor lost souls
Bound for Van Diemen’s land.
The ghosts of the past were there with them now, floating invisible through the mess hall. Every parent caught pinching a few extra rations for their kids, every child sent somewhere else to break the stubborn families, every friend whisked away in the night for too many words of fiery indignation at their plight. Few fates were ever confirmed, and the unburied dead haunted them all daily. But in this work camp like every other, you had to keep surviving; to ignore the past for the present, to subsist on whatever carried you forward to the next day. And most importantly you had to deny the future, to shove it as far away in your mind as possible; dreaming of better things was a sure-fire way to be denied them.
Bound for Van Diemen’s land brave boys
Far, far across the sea
If you don’t stand with cap in hand
Transported you will be
She had no doubt Fara had taught Tanis the song, the two had always got along as thick as thieves. She walking Tanis verse by verse through the handed down lyrics, they repeating them back to her off and on for days until they were sure the words wouldn’t fade. Larith never had a voice for singing; too much coarseness in the tone, unable to keep the pitch steady. But Fara had never cared about that, she had plenty of other people to sing with, what she needed was someone who would share in her zeal for life, for something better than endless toil in the workshops or farming in the red dirt. She needed Larith. And in the end those dreams Larith helped to stoke got her sent away.
And as we sail blows wild the gail
Dark shadows guard the grille
They try in vain our minds to chain
Our thoughts of freedom kill
And though we sulk in convict hulk
Aye, shackled feet and hand
But men be free who poachers be
Bound for Van Diemen’s Land
Bound for Van Diemen’s Land brave boys
Far, far across the sea
If you don’t stand with cap in hand
Transported you will be
A guard reached for the cuffs at their waist; Overseer Gron would have never let this song start, and certainly wouldn’t allow it to get through this verse. The guard next to them caught their arm, head shaking a soft no. Larith watched through blurry eyes as the second guard approached Tanis, their voice falling away, the mess hall standing still in eerie silence. The guard whispered a few words to Tanis, the other’s head bobbing along in seeming agreement. Tanis gave the beginnings of a bow, a slight nod forward of the head and lean of the body, before leaving the tiny stage to meld back into the silent workforce. The spell broken, people turned back to their meals. A few had lingering tear streaks on their grimy faces, but everyone tried quickly to focus back on simply eeking out another day of existence. Staying alive was what was most important, it’s why their ancestors had come to Mars.
Tanis scooted into the bench across from Larith, dopey smile stapled to their tanned face. Larith glared at them, which only seemed to make their smile grow.
“You’re a fucking idiot. Of the hundred songs you know, you had to sing that one? With the poaching?”
Tanis turned their palms upward in response, a shrug of mock innocence.
“I don’t know what you mean, Larith. I sang a nice song to keep morale up in Gron’s absence, and now I’m going to eat my dinner, go back to my little hovel, and get a good night’s rest so I can crank out nuts and bolts and screws and washers for the rest of my cheery life.”
Larith glowered at them a moment longer, before giving them a brusque nod.
“Alright, alright. You talk with Valli? She ready for tonight?”
“Yeah, all too ready. I think it’s the only pleasure she has in life,” Tanis gave a knowing wink, “Telluria too.”
“Good…” she looked down at the bits of tuber she was prodding with a fork, “You suppose they taste good?”
“It must, right? Why else would Apollinis keep them?” Tanis realized they said a little too much, shooting a glance to either side to check they weren’t heard, “Other than, you know…”
“Forget I asked. Let’s just eat, Tanis. No talking, no songs; just internal, mental preparation.”
They nodded in silent agreement, scooping up a spoonful of nutritional slurry. It tasted awful.
They met again in darkness, Tanis almost blending in with the tree they were leaning against. There were no words exchanged between them, not this close to camp. If anyone found out what they were doing, the best they could expect was a week of reduced rations and increased hours. The worst… well, the worst wasn’t worth thinking about, not when Larith was trying to keep up her nerve.
They walked a mile in Martian darkness, through woods not much older than their grandparents. Even fifty years ago the trek would have been deadly if not impossible; the frigid night air too cold and too thin to leave the shelter of camp. The Luskites had fixed that though, for four hundred years they had worked steadily to make Mars habitable, comfortable, more like Earth before the collapse. They focused on their cities first, making verdant palaces of lush life arise from the barren, red dirt; but eventually they pushed outward to the refugee and labor camps, granting their humble servants an easier yoke to toil under, a lighter burden to bear.
They waited at the crooked tree, as they had the last five outings. And just as before, Valli made them wait just long enough to worry. A warbling “hoo, hoo” sounded from a hundred feet away, Larith rolled her eyes at the pathetic imitation. There were only two types of owls that had been successfully relocated to Mars and neither of them sounded like a scrawny tuber farmer cooing interrogative questions through cupped hands. Tanis returned the countersign, a stuttering whistle almost indistinguishable from a red-bellied clod-hopper. Two figures approached them, rifles slung over their shoulders: Valli and Telluria.
“You ready to hunt some big game?” Valli’s whisper hummed with excitement, “Finally move up from rust stoats?”
“I’m just ready to get out of the camps,” Larith replied coolly, “start something better in Helia. No crazy shit today, alright?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Larith could feel the wink and grin at Tanis even if she couldn’t see it, “You can even be second rifle tonight, Telluria pass it over.”
“Aw come on, I’ve been practicing!” Telluria’s pouty voice almost made Larith reject the offer, but the memory of needing Tanis to lug her back to camp after a misfire injected her with the tranquilizer meant to knock out a stoat made her reconsider. The levels Valli had to have prepared for tonight were too dangerous to take chances with. She held out her hand and took the begrudgingly offered weapon.
“Next time, Tel,” Larith assured her, “You can show us all how much you’ve improved. Tonight you’ve got the most important job, horn removal.”
It wasn’t a difficult job, but she wasn’t lying when she said it was the most important. Apollonian bull horns could be ground down into a drug called white-sand by the Martian workers. Just a pinch induced feelings of incomparable euphoria, an escape from the drudgery of the camps. Most of the supply came from the occasional filched piece from a slaughterhouse the few times a year Apollinis demanded a bull slaughtered for celebration. Those workers were checked thoroughly before leaving, requiring any contraband to be small enough to smuggle out: usually no larger than a tooth or nail. Tanis’ plan though would make them all rich, two full horns straight from the source. As if reading her mind, they spoke:
“Alright, let’s recap the plan before we hike over. The target tonight is one Apollonian bull on Shriv Minster’s farm. Shriv started losing his eyesight last year, relying on his two kids to run the farm on his behalf. Larrus, the older one, is a mean son-of-a-bitch who takes a certain cruel pleasure in stalking the corners of their property and shooting trespassers. Fortunately for us, Larrus’s mean-son-of-a-bitchness landed him a gig in the overseer’s security staff and places him in Helia on this blessed night. That only leaves the younger one, Elena. As far as I’ve heard she has no interest in cattle farming and less interest in fighting, but if she does show up Valli has a tranq dart with her name on it.”
Valli nodded to confirm, a roguish smile seemingly excited about the idea. Tanis continued:
“Once we’re in the field, keep quiet and communicate with hand signals and clicks only. On spotting the bull the two riflewomen will take up position and give me a tongue click to say you’re ready. I’ll click back three times once both are ready, and on the third click you fire. Two full doses of tranquilizer in the quantity Valli prepared should probably kill the bull in about three minutes, at which point Telluria and I will go to work. Tel, you focus on getting the horns removed and stashed in your pack, clean them only if you have time. I’ll take on the more gruesome job of making it look like a wild animal attack of some sort, hopefully forestalling any form of investigation when they find the body tomorrow. Once Telluria is finished we all head back the way we came to debrief in the woods. Any questions?”
They sat in the silent darkness for a moment. Larith had plenty of questions rattling around in her brain, but none she could articulate at the moment. This whole thing was crazy, it was stupid, it was near-suicide. But somehow Tanis had convinced her it would work. And that part of her that wanted to believe things could get better for them, the part of her that still mourned and longed for Fara, it needed this work.
“Alright. Best of luck ladies. Let’s roll out.”
Valli caught Tanis by the arm, spinning them back around: “Just wishing good luck might not be enough tonight Tanis. How about a kiss for good luck instead?”
“Aw Val, if I gave one to you the others might want one too,” they joked, panning their head around comically.
Larith shot them an unseen glare, as Telluria snorted out a “yeah right.”
“Ah, seems like it’s okay then,” they leaned in and gave Valli a quick peck on the lips, retreating just in time for Valli to slam them up against a nearby tree and force a more passionate good luck charm from them.
“Is this how it’s going to be all night?” Larith growled at the two as they groped against the tree, “You two can fuck after we’re all back in our camps, safe and unmissed.”
Valli pulled back, voice taunting, “Well if we have your permission…”
“It’ll be nice to not have to walk two miles afterwards, once we’ve got a place in the city I mean,” Tanis’ voice dreamed aloud.
“I rather enjoy the walk after,” Valli replied, “The tingly aftermath of sex with the --”
“Shut. Up.,” Telluria hissed at Valli, elongating each sound. She turned her exasperated attention towards Lorith, “Let’s get this over with, otherwise they’re just going to keep going.”
Larith stifled a chuckle and began trudging through the woods towards the farm, the others following close behind.
They slid like shades over the soft grass, lost silent souls searching for a sacrifice to return them to a life long forgotten. The stars twinkled mournfully overhead, pure light shifted to red through the enveloping dust; an omen of the grisly deed ahead. The few birds and bugs that roamed free through the scraggly woods and patchy grassland held their voices, an anticipatory calm of reverent silence. The four poachers crested a small rise in the expansive pasture and spotted their quarry, a sleeping behemoth of golden fur and twisting ivory horns: an Apollonian Bull.
It was a marvelous creature, beautiful even; slumbering majestically in the night, certain of its protection against the lesser things of the world. Larith trembled out a breath as she knelt down in the dry grass, thoughts starting to wrack her with guilt. What they were about to do was cold blooded murder, killing a defenseless creature of incomparable beauty while it slept, defenseless. Worse still they were doing it and only taking the horns; if Lusk hadn’t stamped out religion hundreds of years ago, the word sacrilegious would be applicable. And Tanis… what Tanis was about to do after they murdered it to cover their tracks, it almost made her sick. Her eyes flitted to the strange maul slung over their back, spines made to look like animal teeth jutting out at gruesome angles.
She raised the rifle and flicked off the safety, steeling herself against the worry, the shame, the guilt. Lusk, Apollonis, all the other vice presidents and dignitaries of Mars; they’d left them no other choice. There was something awful in the slaughter of such a beautiful creature, but Apollonis had them slaughtered at least twice a year without compunction for his own hedonistic consumption. If it was wrong to destroy a thing of beauty, certainly it was more wrong to horde every thing of beauty to yourself; to deny the wonders of life, the marvels humankind had created included, to those who helped enable the creation. Their execution of this beast would be humane and it would serve to help at least the four of them, if not more, rather than a single man who knew no want, no hunger, no toil.
She heard Valli click her tongue from fifteen feet away, signaling she was in position. Larith sighted down the rifle towards the golden bull, steadying her breathing. She clicked her tongue as well. Somewhere between them Tanis sounded out three slow clicks, a hesitance detectable behind their impeccable rhythm. Larith let the breath flow gently from her lungs, allowing her finger to gently squeeze the trigger. Two thwipping sounds radiated through the silent night, one right after the other. At least, Larith thought, the blame would be shared between her and Valli.
They watched through the stillness, not sure what to expect. Would the bull stir briefly, trying to exact a final moment of revenge on those who would dare to kill beauty itself? They tensely waited, eyes focused on it’s hulking form. A minute passed, then two; time to the poachers stretching to accommodate every worry in their heads. They finally breathed a sigh of relief, seeing the breathing slow, then stop. The relief was short lived, another feeling welling up in all of them to replace it.
Tanis turned their eyes down to the ground, trembling breath holding back a slight sob. Out of the corner of her eye Larith saw Valli bowing her head, faint words of condolences and forbidden scraps of a hunter’s prayer reaching her ears soon after. Telluria, somewhere behind her, let out a series of muffled whimpers.
Larith herself kept her eyes fixed on the creature, dead below the dim starlight; her mind however was thinking of Fara. They had robbed their cruel world of something beautiful tonight, but they had lived their whole lives robbed of beauty, of joy, of opportunity, of freedom. Lusk, Apollonis, they had taken Fara from her, from Tanis as well; whisked her away to some dark fate, torturing the people she left behind with the hope that she may one day return. It had worked for so long to scare them, to keep them in line, to make them beg internally for her physical return while neglecting the spirit that she’d tried to pass on to them.
Fara never would have waited this long if one of them had been taken, and Larith doubted a bull would be the only corpse left waiting at their oppressor’s doorsteps. Her soft, intense voice sounded in Larith’s mind, repeating a sentiment from an old spirit of Earth that she had conjured back to life with her desire for something better, more equal: “When our time comes, we will not make excuses for the terror.” Larith felt the fire in her belly explode from where it had been buried, for the first time since Fara had been carted off to Helia she was truly honoring her spirit. She would destroy every beautiful thing they were hoarding from her, from her people, until finally they were returned to her and Tanis and Valli and Telluria and all the rest of the podunk peasants that farmed their food and cast their steel.
Tanis took a shaky step forward, sucked in a heavy breath, and began striding with more purpose towards their downed quarry. With two fingers above their right shoulder they motioned Telluria to come with them; their grim duty set in motion, it was time for them to follow through. Telluria only responded with another whimper, Tanis stopping in their tracks.
“Telluria, I know it’s horrible what we did,” they whispered, turning to face back over their shoulder, “but we’ve already… Telluria?”
Tanis turned their body back to face her, a puzzled look on their face quickly escalating into fear. Larith and Valli snapped their heads around too, as Tanis half-shouted:
“Oh shit! Run!”
Telluria whimpered into a smooth, metal facemask with eight silver tendrils holding it affixed to her head. Lights pulsed and flashed underneath, just barely visible where the flesh met the corners of the cold metal. Apparently the old rancher had bought pacification drones to protect his herd, and apparently they’d found the poachers.
Tanis ran forward to Telluria’s whimpering and shivering figure, grasping at the metal mask, trying to pry it’s many limbs from around their friend’s head. One tendril loosened and flew backwards at them, the crackling of electricity and smell of ozone emanating from the site as Tanis stumbled backwards. Telluria sank to her knees, another whimper ringing against the inside of the drone before drawing itself out into an undignified moan. Tanis lept at her again, and again they were tossed backwards with a kick of electricity from one of the metallic appendages.
Larith scrambled to her feet and scanned the area, spotting movement rusting through the grass between them and the cover of the forest. Most worryingly she spied a glint of metal scuttling towards Tanis, currently sprawled out on their back.
“Tanis, watch out!” she screamed as the drone crawled over their kicking leg.
A hollow metallic sound rang through the night as the drone went soaring through the field. Valli was standing above Tanis, holding her gun by the barrel, a crack in the wooden stock where it had connected with the metal menace. She offered Tanis a hand and pulled their thankful form to their feet, before turning to appraise Telluria. Larith strode over, switching her grip on the gun to match Valli’s. Telluria groaned softly as dancing lights played at the seams separating captive and captor; eerie shadows cast back over her cheeks and ears.
“Get the gloves in my pack, go!” Valli instructed Tanis. They fumbled through the pack, hyperventilating. A number of items spilled to the ground before Tanis successfully pulled out a pair of thick gloves, proffering them to Valli.
“You use the gloves, Larith and I will club the fucker.” Shakily Tanis slipped them on. They took a moment to catch their breath as Larith readied her makeshift club.
Tanis yanked at the tendrils again, bundling as many as possible into one hand, gripping them near their sparking ends. The first three they got without much trouble, the gloves were enough to stop the brunt of the electric assault. Two more tried to dodge Tanis’ grasp and hit them from two directions at the same time, but surprisingly Tanis managed to grab both and squeeze them tightly into the death grip they had on the other squirming tendrils. Their downfall was expecting the drone to only use its metal appendages to fight back. Tanis grunted in pain as Telluria’s fist swung upward into their stomach, her voice droning out an elongated “aaaaaaa” as the robotic face-covering puppeted her. Tanis fell backwards, the tendrils freeing themselves from their grasp and reestablishing their hold on Telluria.
“Fuck! No!” Larith heard Valli scream, the gun sweeping across Tanis’ downed form again. Another metallic twang pounded against her eardrum, but the drone didn’t budge. Like a mountain climber the thing was anchoring itself to Tanis and moving only one of its legs at a time. Larith swung at it in vain, she and Valli taking turns trying to dislodge the slow-moving creature through excessive force. After the seventh swing it had made it from Tanis’ leg to chest, with no sign of stopping. Tanis shot them both a pained smile.
“It’s no use, get out of here before the rest arrive,” they looked pleadingly at Valli, “Carry me on in your heart Val.”
Valli tossed her gun away and dropped to her knees, kissing Tanis deeply; a tear streaking down her cheek. Larith looked towards the woods, a score of metal arachnids swarming through the grass towards them. If they swung around the machines wide, there was a chance the two of them could make it. She tugged at Valli’s shoulder.
“Come on Valli, we’ve got to go.” She felt Valli’s strong shoulder resist her pull and saw her short ponytail shake from side to side.
“No, I won’t leave them,” she smiled down at Tanis, their lips trying to find words to protest, “Shh, it’s okay. We go together.”
Tanis watched dumbfounded as Valli kissed them one last time and then swept her face down along their torso to meet the drone. Two by two the metal tendrils wrapped themselves around her head, her body relaxing against Tanis as lights began to dance behind the mask. Tanis nodded slowly as their mouth sagged in sadness, a grim understanding coming to them. They gently grabbed Valli’s hand, intertwining their fingers as they waited for their shared fate.
“You could still make it,” Tanis urged Larith, “Live to fight another day.”
“Please Tanis, you could too. We may even be able to save Valli and Telluria and --”
“And Fara?” Tanis shook their head sadly, slowly, “I had always hoped, but now it seems so hopeless. We shot our shot and we failed, I failed. I should have known Shriv would replace that shit-head son of his with something else, but I was so eager to finally get out of the camps, finally build something better with Valli.” They paused and looked at Valli’s gently twitching form, soft grunts tremoring against the mask, “ I’d like to sit with Valli, to share her fate; whatever it may be. She was willing to do the same for me.”
Larith felt anger welling up, she wanted to scream at them. To lie down and just let themselves be captured, was Tanis an idiot? Every time she started forming a thundering diatribe, she had to stop herself. Behind every raging beginning was a litany of loss, a sobbing story of abandonment and dispossession. She’d lost so much already, and now she would lose what little she had left. Tanis could see it in her, the struggle to leave them behind.
“Do what Fara would have wanted. Go.”
Tearfully she backed away, as Tanis cradled Valli’s head against their breast, stroking her hair where the tendrils didn’t constrict it. They sang into the night, something sweet to cover the bitterness; a brittle voice conveying hollow happiness, to enjoy what moments they could.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
Larith turned and ran, pitching her course wide around the oncoming swarm. Feet pounded the dust and grass, breath panting into the night. The woods beckoned her to escape into their bushes and thickets, to escape and go back to a simple life of joyless toil.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands
Halfway to the woods she slowed, looking at the stars above. So long ago she and Fara had looked up at them together, her teaching Larith the old constellations and inventing new ones together. She could hardly remember any of them anymore; symbols in stars she’d buried with her hope, her love. She’d spent so long trying to forget Fara, to just live another day without her, that she’d let her spirit moulder, her teachings vanish, her ideas go unfulfilled.
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
She turned back towards Tanis’ forlorn voice, seeing a drone clatter over their resigned legs. She unslung the rifle from her shoulder, gripping it by the barrel again. Fara wouldn’t have run with her tail between her legs, Fara wouldn’t be afraid to go down swinging. She ran ferociously back towards her downed friends.
The silver apples of the moon
The mask had settled over Tanis now, their voice muffled and distorted. Larith put all her force into a brutal swing, sending a drone soaring off into the distance. She dug her feet into the ground and charged again.
The gold… the golden…
Tanis’ voice sounded tired as they tried to finish the song, their breathing was so slow and heavy. Another drone went whizzing through the night sky, another sprinting charge starting soon after. Larith knew it was pointless, but so was going back to the camp with three more friends gone. A little life fed on dried tubers, Fara had used that description once. Or maybe it was Tanis... who undoubtedly learned it from Fara. Whichever the way, the dissatisfaction had been clear; there was a better life possible, a bigger life.
The golden cattle of the sun.
Tanis’ voice was just a muffled whisper, the words barely reaching Larith’s ears. She kept hammering drones with the butt of the gun, wishing Tanis would sing some more. But the only sounds were her frenzied breathing and the clank of wood on metal, she was alone now. Four more drones arced through the air before the swarm overtook her, a shock jabbing through her left calf from behind dropping her to the ground. She snarled and swatted at them, painfully rapping her fingers against their metal casing. Tendrils constricted and she was left writhing on the ground as one scuttled over to her head, strobing lights clicking on inside it’s hollow underbelly. She squeezed her eyes shut, but tiny jolts of electricity snapped them open again.
She kept struggling as the lights made it hard to think, she fought for herself and for Tanis. She fought for Valli and Telluri. She fought for Fara. Her movements slowed, her anger still present but so hard to connect to as lights strobed in pretty patterns ahead of her. She shook her head weakly, as weariness overcame her. Something else was there too, some sort of happiness. She found herself remembering Fara: the first time they kissed, the gentle caresses in the woods, the fumbling exploration of sexuality in the back storeroom, the little fort they assembled from downed branches and twine. So many good memories, happier times.
Under the mask she smiled, the lights coaxing more happy thoughts from her mind. She was reuniting with Fara, it was okay. The lights could make her real again, summon her back from the unknown. She could just lay down, she was so tired. She should just lay down. Just lay down and Fara will find you. She will find you and kiss your lips and take your hands. Just relax, just sleep, and it’ll all be better. She will walk among long dappled grass, and lay down with you. She’s returning, don’t worry. Just relax.
“Fara,” she mumbled happily into the lights, her mind frozen in weary bliss, “Fara.”
She ceased struggling as the happy memories overwhelmed her.