by Oliviu Crâznic
translation from Romanian by Nigel Waker & Angelica Ţapoca [MTTLC student]
click aici pentru versiunea română
I strode the cold metal corridor while darkness was chasing along the frequent portholes. No matter what people on the ground thought, the space had always been black, even when drowned in starlight. Because an object is not the colour it reflects but the colour within it and ever since I started exploring the space I had never found anything else other than the dark shade of death.
I cannot say I was having a premonition. I don’t believe in such things. But I did not like the mission from its very start even though it was perfectly legal. The terranians had always been reclusive and difficult, barbarians above all; and things had always turned from bad to worse when I had to deal with them. There was a reason why Mars had left The Alliance — there were several reasons actually. But the blood shed for burying Washington’s rebellion hadn’t been sufficient enough for us to end any kind of connection with them and it hadn’t been sufficient for us to turn down The Collaboration Treaty. And I am sure that if the terranians hadn’t had so many internal issues that made them forget the thought of dealing with us, they would have taken us back, so poor in resources as we were, even if that meant killing each and every last one of us.
Ice dynasty wasn’t joking about their assets.
And there was the incident with the mords. Those imbeciles in The Alliance had taken them on their main planet, managed to make them slaves, steal their technology and slaughter them. I know more about mords than Gareth Ice would ever know but the idiot had never bothered to send at least one message to ask us about the new-comers. So they found themselves in the middle of a terrible rebellion — and the mords really know how to be atrocious when they need to. Not to mention that there were also terranians who saw things differently — worse, in my opinion — like Herbert Flood, also known as The Invader. Because Flood had made an agreement with the mords and Geoffrey Ice was beaten in the South zone by their allied troops without leaving any survivors behind. And that’s not all to it. Gareth had been attacked by a flying group of mords in Vaioaga who were determined to put him down once it for all.
But Gareth was not as stupid as I thought — it appears that he had expected it, as some of his scouts managed to get away following the back roads next to the forest. When the mords got there he was expecting them. He was expecting them and the sky burned for many hours while their massive bodies were randomly swirling in the air, orange flames fluttering as in a horror dance. Eastern Lords, on the other hand, had broken the deal and cut the throat of their allies during a night with two moons until the last of the foreigners drowned in blood his last words.
According to the official reports, Herbert Flood and his people had managed to escape and also gathered scores of scattered mords on their way, but that was the end of it. Gareth, helped by the Lords, was to clean up the area from all the dead meat and try to find and kill Flood afterwards, even though that meant leaving the Planet.
The Invader however had no place to hide because his face was known throughout the Alliance and we had The Excommunication Treaty annexed to the Main one. The least he could do was wander about in space for a while until the daemons would find him — which usually didn’t take long.
Eventually, what I had to do seemed quite simple – I only had to transport the passenger through the terranian space until Gareth showed up. According to the latest news, Flood was stuck somewhere close to the Islands together with his remaining supporters and the surviving mords, so the space was relatively safe if we didn’t consider the daemons. While I was passing by the last porthole, I took a look at the inscriptions on the interior – they were more faded than those on the exterior, but the priest had assured me that they were efficient enough to stop a daemon penetrating the walls. But I wasn’t very confident; the priest that had been assigned to restore the letters was young and inexperienced. Even so, I would have felt better had I been allowed to take him on board.
Priests were rare those days and extremely needed on Mars. Losing one of them was unacceptable.
I arrived at the door.
I think I hesitated for a few moments – at least that was what the on-board computer showed later on. I couldn’t tell why I did it. Then I pronounced the vocal password and entered when the heavy grey metal doors opened.
Ermengaarde Eyes was standing beside the cold wall, starry-eyed, waiting for me. She was lost in contemplation and seemed to be looking at the space, but judging by her stare she wasn’t really looking at someting in particular. Her blond curls were covering the white shoulders as water would have done, and her aristocratic appearance was even more obvious as such women never existed on Mars. The truth was like this – George Washington had been followed by brave and firm men, but never noble. We’ve never had a refugee from the House. Therefore the first thing that came into my mind when I laid my eyes on her was an overwhelming feeling of superiority she had and which was hurting me inside.
To those who had never seen a terranian before it must be very difficult to understand. But I will try to explain. The eyes, the eyes were definitely a problem; she turned towards me when I was entering and I felt as if my soul moved inside my body, ready to get out. They were deep and startling, like a pond that shelters the drowned, liquid caramel shaded by black lashes that were fluttering with an intimidating certainty – it was as if they were taking your clothes off all of a sudden, leaving you paralized and vulnerable.
She was, of course, naked, like any other terranian from the Superior Houses. Except her brother and husband, the relatives were forbidden to look above the young girl’s delicate knees, but we had no legal restriction as there was no affiliation between us. We were avoiding doing it however. We were avoiding it as much as we could; we knew how dangerous her body was and what it could make us do if we were stupid enough to look longer.
I tried to look at her face, avoiding the eyes, the full and alluring mouth and her ravishing smile, getting lost in her shiny hair and heavy gold earrings. But of course I could not really ignore her shapely harmonious body, graceful and mysterious with round perfect forms. Because the terranians were perfect, I knew it from the Academy, having ideal proportions, uniform tan and every characteristic covered in a sweet, fatal and exquisite balance.
Maybe it was for this reason that the girls from Terra were called Art.
I need to work fast, I said to myself. And I was able to do it. I’d been trained for it.
‘I am commander William Ellys, Miss, I confidently addressed the young girl. I’m at your service.
‘Master’, she said smiling.
‘Sorry..?’ I asked, confused.
‘Master. This is the proper way for you to call me, commander. ‘
‘Miss, I am not affiliated’, I said, irritated.
Her lashes were again fluttering, shaking my soul and flesh. She insisted:
‘Master’, I said in order to stop her. ‘What did you need me for?’
She looked at me out of the corner of the eye, through the shiny rebel strands of her golden hair.
‘I’m hungry. It will be difficult for me to eat if you keep me with my hands tied-up behind my back.’
She looked down the fine line of her shoulder to the more prominent part of her perfect hip where the soft hand laid, laced with a tight scarf. The scarf seemed to be made of red silk, according to the protocol and rank requirements, and had a big, elegant ribbon; in fact it was made of grief skin which was fusing with the prisoner’s soft skin, making it impossible to remove by someone else other than the person who had raised the grief. It didn’t hurt nor made ugly scars – the blood flow wasn’t affected – but it was undoubtedly uncomfortable. The scarf ends were hanging from her hip to her leg down to her knees and I watched the artistic painting made from the glimmering of light which was in contrast with the prisoner’s golden skin.
‘Commander?’… she asked slightly amused, and then blinked two times.
For sure the training had been useless. I had to leave the room immediately.
‘Master, you don’t need to eat. We’ll get there in less than four hours. ‘
‘Oh. That’s what you do here, on Mars? … keep the girls hungry? No surpise you’re not so many!… I expected a little more politeness and decency towards a young prisoner coming from a good family. ‘
I frowned in discomfort.
‘First of all, you are not my prisoner, but a prisoner of the Terranian Alliance. I only have to get you to the trial, following the clauses of Terra-Mars Treaty. Secondly, you are not of a good family. You are the daughter of Wicked Aaron and the lover of Herbert The Invader.
‘And I also am the wife and sister of your allies, Gareth and Geoffrey Ice,’ she said while her starry eyes were looking at me with an unexpected kindness. ‘There will be no trial. Gareth will make mincemeat out of me, right on the deck, after which he’ll leave me to the crew. You know it very well.’
I leaned involuntarily on the wall.
‘I don’t know your rules, …Master.’ I somehow figured, in awe, that for the first time I had pronounced her title with respect and not just compliantly. ‘I know’, I said, trying to take my eyes off the red, moisturized lips of the gorgeous woman before me, ‘I know you assassinated two of your faithful people by replacing their biavara while they thought it was food. And I also know they died an awful death and you did all this so you could stop your dead brother’s message from getting to your husband in time. So that he dies. Too bad you didn’t succeed – I would have been spared a long journey and a dreadful weariness.
My words sounded rougher than my voice, which was trembling in an embarrassing way. My forehead was covered in sweat when I touched it with my hand. The young girl was looking straight at me – gracious, it was the only thing I could think of.
I wished I could swear, loudly.
‘I killed two people that wanted to rape me.’ Her clear voice sounded like a musical instrument and I remembered all the stories George Washington was telling, about superwomen who lived in an ideal place called Olympus and whom people called goddesses. ‘About my brother – Geoffrey had sold me to Gareth to gain power, which he did. He didn’t even care that I wasn’t the first nor only woman in the life of my husband, and that the most of the other women were hanging in cellars.’
I gasped and took a step back.
‘What do you want from me?… We can’t go against the Treaty. We don’t want to end up like you – a Barbarian Alliance dominating deserted planets!… Moreover, we don’t want to have anything to do with Terra, nothing!’
‘I don’t want anything from you, commander,’ she said with sadness, and her naked, firm body strained for a second, like that of a cat, and relaxed again. ‘Leave, I’m not hungry anymore. Go and don’t come back until you are ready to hand me to Gareth.’
With my eyes stuck on her tight and young flesh and with all the images she had developed in my mind, I went out staggering.
‘What did she really want?…’, Styles asked suspiciously.
We were both inside the ship’s unfriendly cockpit, with the door open. I was absently looking at the dashboard on which it was reflected the interior of the main deck – Sienna was staring at the monitor trying out a projection while MacDonald’s was occupied with the precision.
Jonathan Styles was with me.
I took a close look at the clever officer, at his sharp and ragged profile, his pale blue eyes and swept-back short hair. His uniform was sloppy and a troubled, a deformed smile was misplacing his pale, thin lips. He was beating the devil’s tattoo, showing he was nervous.
‘I don’t like this story, man. She’s only a child. I don’t like where we’re taking her and what they will do to her.’
Jon Styles spat on the floor.
‘Don’t be an idiot, Ellys. She’s no child – she’s twenty one, although she looks only eighteen. She killed trained soldiers and took advantage of her brother’s death so she could kill her husband. And, we don’t even care about how all this is going to end – for God’s sake, she’s a terranian. They can all die, if you ask me.’
Then he added, maliciously:
‘It would have been better if the mords won.’
I nodded. Maybe the Tactics’ training had been better than mine.
‘Those two wanted to rape her. And her husband…’
‘I know, I know’…he interrupted rudely, ‘they wanted, yeah, yeah. Of course they wanted. You also wanted to do it and me too. Mac and Sienna as well probably. Especially Sienna. And probably admiral Banner also wanted to do it, or maybe he even did it.’
He spat again.
‘Read the damn file, Ellys. They maybe wanted to rape her. But, Jesus!… she poisoned them before they even realized their thoughts!…’
I could see black through the porthole’s glass.
‘Don’t let yourself fooled!… She’s a mermaid!… Do you know what a mermaid is, Ellys? I’ve seen one in the mines on Falon. They swim at medium depth through liquid coal and they take the form and habits of the one you love. She killed four of us, Ellys, four, until we managed to cauterize her!…’
I knew what he meant.
‘But we know many crazy things about Gareth, Jon. We know what he does to refugees. Geoffrey was a cheeky bastard. And Herbert Flood – he’s respected. He was always true to his word. Reasonable – that’s how he is called on Terra.’
Styles hit the floor with his boot. His eyes were sparkling but something in my composure calmed him which made him speak gently, as gently as someone from Tactic can speak:
‘Even if it were so, we can’t risk breaking the laws of the Treaty. Terra would tear us to pieces. We couldn’t even ally with the mords any more – they are extinct. And above all we have clear orders from Banner. Make an effort – use your training!…’
‘Commander!’… I heard Sienna cry. The girl was still looking at the monitor but from her tone of voice I realized she had discovered something. ‘Spaceships. Three of them.’
The analyst’s words had been glacial. I froze, and Styles as well.
The girl shook her head violently.
‘I don’t think so. The ships are lighter and they have the symbol of the Terranian Alliance.’
‘Gareth?…’ I asked suspiciously.
‘Like hell he is. It’s Flood.’
The situation was turning out to be as disastrous as I thought it would be when I took over. Game of Poker was not a big ship and it had only four people on board: me, Styles, the analytic officer Sienna Bad Time (who was occasionally called Sienna Bed Time), and the appraising officer Jerry Mac Donald, whom we named Mac Donald’s because one of his terranian ancestors had apparently been a some kind of cook. This was the big crew admiral Banner had assigned to transport Our No. 1 Prisoner – The Subject of Extraditon with File Label 10, the terranian princess Ermengaarde Eyes.
Princess who was expected by her husband Garteh Ice in order to be judged for Treason and Adultery and who was now about to be saved by her lover Herbert Flood The Invader and probably the remaining mords.
In a second Styles and I were on the main deck, almost wishing the daemons had attacked us. We had the inscriptions to protect us.
Anyway I said to myself right there that the spaceships made on Mars should be a lot bigger.
Because, according to Sienna’s estimates, the damn iron immensities that were heading towards us had at least a twelve-people crew. In total, there must have been around thirty- fourty attackers.
And we were four.
‘Wasn’t Flood supposed to be somewhere on the Islands’, Styles hummed.
The officer ground his teeth.
‘According to the latest reports.’
I turned to Mac and Sienna.
The two looked puzzled at each other.
‘Well, we have none,’ the girl uttered calmly after a few moments passing her fingers through her ebony hair. We expected a daemon attack or Gareth – there’s no protocol for this situation.
‘We have to give them the prisoner, boss,’ Mac added quietly. ‘We can’t run and hide – and, most of all, we can’t fight.’
‘It is out of the question!…’ Jon Styles cried. ‘If we do this, Gareth will attack Mars and then your nephews will know what freedom is only by reading about it!…’
‘Until nephews, there’s The Jury Court,’ I said frowning. ‘Jon, go on deck. Mac, you come with me. Bad Time, keep your eyes on them.’
Styles and Sienna approved slightly unsecure. The “cook’s” follower hurried to join me, moistening his burned lips. He had glittering drops of sweat at his temples. And I’m sure that I had as well.
‘Do you have a plan?’… he murmured.
‘Sort of’, I lied. ‘Let’s bring the prisoner here.’
Ermengaarde was waiting for us, showing the same melancholic smile. She didn’t ask anything but our faces were explicit enough. Her face as well. She was looking at me almost in a sympathetic way, but with superiority, and I realised she had known all along that her lover would come after her, before Gareth.
Uttering no word, I showed her the corridor and her body glided between us like a golden panther, leaving a dazzling perfume trail behind while her bare feet touched the corridor’s icy floor. Even then, in that moment, I admired her perfectly straight back, her body’s right proportions, her soft and silky skin, her well-formed and anatomically correct figure, which made me think that the terranians weren’t even genetically modified, that their perfection was coming from a natural life style and a carefully chosen combination of exercises and diet. I thought about Sienna who has been brought up inside a spaceship and not in castles and who had never heard about a diet, other than french fries.
Then I hated Terra even more.
But, strangely enough, I couldn’t hate her. Even if I could feel that she was carrying our destruction in her devastating body.
When we got back on the main deck, Ermengaarde gently walked in, holding her chin up, shoulders drawn back and her eyes shining proudly. Vanity, I though, but I knew it was more than that. On the big screen a very bitter look leaned forward, of a man with beautiful features and noble long hair, whose face became clearer when seeing the hostage. I could see the mumbling figures of the mords behind him, in the dark.
‘Did they treat you well, love?…’Herbert Flood asked caringly, and I felt how I hated the warmth in his voice and the way the young girl’s body reacted to his call. I saw her strain her body and her tied hands startled involuntarily making the shoulders imperceptibly straighten when she answered:
‘As well as they could have, Herbert. They didn’t want to feed or untie me. They are…’ she paused. ‘They are simpletons.’
Styles looked daggers at her. Sienna was gaping at her, fascinated about the terranian’s perfection. From what I could observe, Mac was starting to have a headache.
‘Let’s get through with it, Flood’, I said baldly, determined to end this whole mess. ‘You won’t dare to attack us because we could hurt your girl. And even if you do, Game can crash two of your ships before you even blow us up and I bet that wouldn’t make you too happy as I don’t suppose you have more than three ships. So I suggest you get out of our way and run while you still can – Gareth Ice should arrive any minute now.’
Herbert Flood turned towards me. He had a confident and calm tone of voice:
‘You are totally wrong, commander Ellys. If you don’t release her I prefer to kill her myself and die doing it. Because there’s nothing left for us on Terra – nothing but Gareth’s cellars and hooks, which I am not planning to see, nor let her see them either.’
‘He’s bluffing’, Styles screamed.
‘And even if I gave her to you, it’s absurd’, I continued, scowling. Where would you run to?… Gareth rules all affiliated planets. The allies have betrayed you and the mords have been massacred. You can’t go to Mars, because of the Treaty. What the hell are you hoping for actually?… You want to go into The Free Space and spend your last days being trotted by daemons?…’
‘It’s none of your business what I am hoping for, commander Ellys. You give me the girl.’
‘We’re not giving you anything’, Styles muttered. ‘We’re giving her to Gareth.’
I looked into Flood’s eyes and I saw nothing but calm determination. The man wasn’t bluffing – he could blow us up along with Ermengaarde. I couldn’t help but admire him – he was a strong player.
He then shrugged his shoulders.
‘Too bad, then. This could have ended nicely for everybody. Forgive me, my love’.
He drew back in the darkness. If Ermengaarde had any remorse, she didn’t express not even a bit of it. Actually they seemed to fully understand each other, they communicated without talking.
And now we were supposed to die.
I heard Mac Donald’s gasp somewhere behind. He knew what was going to happen.
We all knew.
‘Wait, Flood’, I said quickly. ‘Maybe we could talk’.
His finger stopped a second before turning this conversation off. He lifted an eyebrow.
‘Come on board’, I said. ‘I guarantee your immunity, well, at least while you’ll be here. Let’s try to talk things through.’
‘You can trust commander Ellys’, Ermengaarde said calmly while coming beside me, which surprised me. She was almost touching my shoulder and then – maybe I didn’t see well, or she smiled, and fluttered her lashes?…
I couldn’t tell.
‘OK’, Flood replied, ‘Open up. I am coming together with only one man.’
I looked at Mac.
The appraiser ran his fingers on the soft keys.
The telescopic terranian tube spread down like a streak of lightning and stuck on our ship, screeching at the contact. The hood slid open making a horrible rattle and Flood and his companion stepped inside, on the deck.
He’d said man – but it wasn’t a man, it was a mord. It was two and a half-meter mord, with an edgy head and massive jaws, fluttering its big wings that were stuck to his strong shoulders. His small, sodden, animal-like eyes were stuck on the princess.
‘God damn it!’, Styles said, and it was when I realized that the training the Tactics got had actually been superior because I was the only one to understand what was going to happen.
Flood’s sword shone like lightning and Jon Styles fell screaming, his body opening up under the sword’s edge. The blood spurted out of the wound and while Mac, Sienna and I were already armed, Herbert Flood took a quick turn and with a precise and determined move he decapitated the mord.
I was looking at him gaping. Flood’s sword fell at once with the creature’s enormous body.
Sienna started crying.
I felt as if I was in a hard to understand, grotesque dream where all the characters had gone crazy. And I was waiting to see what would happen, to get it all sorted out in my head.
Only that nothing else was happening.
Flood was still standing in front of us, unarmed with his hands relaxed and with a calm look on his face, while the last drops of life were leaking from Styles’ body. The mord was also startling heavily, the thick tar it had for blood unpleasantly sputtering around its chopped neck.
Then, I finally talked.
‘What in the world is going on?!…’
‘Nothing else is going on’, Flood answered wearily. ‘It’s all settled.’
‘Settled?!…’, I muttered. ‘What exactly has been settled?!…We’re in the same situation as before, only that now we have one dead each!…’
‘We’re not in the same situation as before’, he said patiently. ‘You killed a mord, so they’ll hunt you all down. Either you like it or not, you have to ally with us.’
I felt my head burst.
‘We killed a mord?!…I killed it?!…Where the hell is this sword from?!…’
‘Oh’, he added calmly, ‘It’s mine, but those in the other ships wouldn’t know that. And you won’t be able to tell them either because you don’t speak their language. We also don’t know it very well – actually, we have big communication issues. And all my allies have seen is that I came here with one of them and none of us came out, or I came out alone. What do you imagine they’ll think?!…’
‘The mords always kill those who have killed one of them’, Mac uttered. ‘They’ll attack Mars’.
‘They’ll attack it and they’ll destroy it,’ Flood confirmed. ‘Your only hope is to get on my side – like I said.’
‘You are crazy’, I yelled. ‘You’re nothing but a bunch of people. Gareth will destroy you and I’ll come and visit while you’re hanging on his hooks.’
‘Gareth is dead’, the terranian interrupted kindly, ‘and no one will hang on any hook. The reports you’ve received were fake. The mords killed every soul on Văioagă, Gareth, his men, women, elders, children. He had gone crazy. So we realized it was the time to end any link with them, as they were starting to acquire the taste for killing. Apparently they are now killing everyone and don’t react to our protests. We are not enough to fight them – and you wouldn’t have helped us because you hate Terra and because you avoid conflicts. But you have no choice now.’
I starred dumbly at her, at Sienna.
‘She’s telling the truth’, the analyst said. Her trembling finger was pointing to the monitor. ‘Terra is full of mords, commander. They outnumber the humans and from the people’s signs it seems it’s tense.’
I shook my head in amazement.
‘But you killed Styles!…’
‘He tried to touch me’, Ermengaarde said gently. ‘Right before getting on board. Herbert has an intercepting mechanism where you can see what he had tried to do.’
A set up. It had all been a set up; the official news on Terra, the so called escape of Ermengaarde from her husband and how she ended up with us, the transportation – all this had been done so we could enter the zone dominated by mords and make us enemies.
I looked at the incredibly beautiful woman and at the man with solemn and noble features who had trapped us, forcing us to join those we had left; they were making us fight side by side with the new Dynasty in order to save the terranians from the race that was ruling their lands. The race brought by Geoffrey and Gareth Ice.
I loudly dropped the arm down. On the screen I could see the three ships full of mords, hovering nearby in a menacing way in the void around us.
‘And now?’… I asked in a sore voice.
Like dancing, with a liquid move the terranian glided towards me and turned her back at me, looking above her shoulder with a compelling smile and magically shaking her blonde curls.
‘To begin with, commander Ellys, you could untie me – please unfasten the scarf, as I believe the grief belongs to you.’
My fingers untied her mechanically. I felt her warm body and her sweet, perfumed breath. Mac and Sienna were watching in horror, incapable of getting themselves together after everything that had happened. I felt as if I was drunk, and the red scarf slipped on the floor.
‘And now?…’ I asked starring into space, while she was moving away, giving me the glad eye.
‘Now’, Flood said while taking his lover by the hand and checking the three ships on the monitor, ‘now we attack’.
originally appeared in Romanian in the 4-th issue of Galileo Science Fiction & Fantasy magazine