by Ché Frances Monro
And on the seventh day, God rested.
Part 1: No Balm in Gilead
It was a bright day. The ground underfoot rose up at the horizon and arched overhead into the hazy blue; lands of green and white and yellow and brown laid out across the sky. The ground was the sky; the sky, the ground. Directly overhead a searing ruler line of sunfire burned.
Clover and Amaranth cropped the grass in the meadow near the endwall, where metal rose up out of the ground to seal off the world. Condensation from the wall dripped down onto the ground, making the grass and herbs lush. They were dik-dik, delicate miniature antelope standing on all fours, with great soft black eyes, mobile ears and long noses. Clover, the female, was slightly larger than Amaranth, the male, but her tufted head bore no horns.
The birds stopped singing. Clover's long ears swivelled towards the sounds emerging from a nearby cave. Moving as one, the two dik-dik turned and bolted for cover. Sheltered by bushes they paused to reconnoitre. Rust coloured creatures had emerged from the cave, and now stalked around the meadow on their two hind legs.
Clover touched Amaranth's ears with her nose. "What are they?" she whispered. She had explored the cave many times. It was just a straight tunnel leading back to a metal wall. How could so many creatures have come from there?
"I don't know," Amaranth whispered back.
One of the creatures spoke. "Perimeter secure, my lord."
Clover and Amaranth froze. They spoke! They were thinking creatures.
Another being emerged from the cave. It was taller and thinner than the others, with long pale-white hair.
The one who had spoken bowed, placing his hands over his eyes. Amaranth gasped. It was the bow to the Goddess.
Clover stared into Amaranth's wide eyes. Was this their Goddess?
"My lord, we have secured the area."
The smaller figure pointed to the sky. "That is our objective. The reactor that powers this place. Spread out. Secure the habitat. Eliminate all threats. Then I will extinguish the sun."
The dik-dik stared at each other. "We've got to get out of here," Amaranth said. "We've got to warn the others. Come on!"
As they bolted from the bushes, there was a shout behind them and fire washed across the ground, smoke filling Clover's nostrils. "Dik! Dik! Dik!" Her alarm call burst out of her. Danger! Danger!
Clover realised she was running alone; she stopped and turned back. Amaranth's blackened body lay smoking on the ground. She ran back to him and nudged him with her snout. He had to get up. He had to run. "Come on!" He wasn't moving. The smell was appalling - burned hair, burned flesh.
She looked up. A creature aimed a rod at her. The fire lashed out but she was already moving. "Dik! Dik!" The fire slashed across her side and she screamed, but she didn't stop running. She reached the trees and plunged through the undergrowth, hurtling across a washed out gully, not stopping until she reached the edge of the swamp.
She was alone.
The burns on her side were agony. She tiptoed into the pool and let her knees fold, lowering herself into the water. She realised her mistake when a mugger rose out of the water, and opened triple-lidded yellow eyes to peer at her.
"Please don't eat me, powerful mugger, lord, um, or lady of the waters. Please spare my life."
The mugger rumbled. "Aristides, Little one. That is my name, I am not going to eat you. You would make a slight mouthful, and in any case I ate a goat last week and I'm still feeling full."
"Oh thank you, thank you, kind and just Aristides."
The mugger rumbled some more, seeming amused. "It seems someone has attacked you already, or did you fall into a fire? There's a singed smell about you, little dik-dik."
"My name is Clover, noble Aristides. The two-legged creatures that emerged from a cave threw fire at us. They burnt Amaranth. I think he's dead."
"Was Amaranth your friend? Hmmm. Fire-throwing two-legs eh? I haven't heard of anything like that for a long while. It takes my mind back. Humans. Perhaps humans have returned to Gilead?"
"Servants of the Goddess?"
"Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Hmmmm. Servants of the Goddess wouldn't burn you, would they? Not likely, unless you did something foolish?"
"No, noble mugger. We hid under bushes until we heard the tall pale creature say they were going to put out the sun. Then we ran and they burnt us."
"Put out the sun?" The mugger rumbled. "That's very bad. The water would freeze. We would all die in darkness."
"Could the pale creature have been the Goddess? Could this be what She wants?"
"Possible. There's no telling the mind of a thrintun. But unlikely. Why would the Goddess want to destroy the world She made?"
"I must go and tell the others." Clover staggered to her feet.
Aristides rumbled, slowly turning it over in his head. "Humans have returned, throwing fire. They say they will put out the sun. That's very bad. Very bad indeed."
Clover was already stumbling from the water and moving up the path towards the Great Mother Tree. Aristides watched her go, closed his inner eyelids, and lowered himself under the surface to think.
The grass was cropped into lawn around the Great Mother tree. The tree stood in the middle of a clearing, a majestic spreading greenwood tree. High above the clouds turned gold as the sunfire faded towards evening. Returning home, Clover was surrounded by a herd of anxious dik-dik.
"Clover is burnt! Clover is hurt!"
"Strange creatures from the caves. Mugger Aristides says humans have returned," Clover gasped. She winced every time someone touched or sniffed or licked her burns.
"Give her room. Give her room," Blackberry said. He was the largest male and others tended to obey him. They moved back a little. "Tell your story, Clover."
"They said they were going to put out the sun," Clover said.
"Put out the sun? Nonsense! How could anyone do that? The sun is the sun."
"Amaranth thought one of them was the Goddess. But not the Goddess... Killed Amaranth. He's dead. They killed him."
"We must go see for ourselves!" someone said.
"Don't go. They throw fire! Hide!"
"This threatens the Mother Tree. We must go. We must see for ourselves. We must fight back!"
"Don't go, please don't go. They'll kill you," she pleaded.
"We'll be careful," Blackberry assured her. The herd moved away, crowding around Blackberry, the males in particular excited about the expedition.
Clover moved back, under the shelter of the tree. She found Gaia asleep on the ground, and lay down beside the old priestess, whimpering. Leaves rustled in the breeze, pods swayed in the shadows above. One low to the ground twitched as its occupant kicked. Soon it would descend to the ground and a baby dik-dik would emerge.
Gaia raised her head and sniffed. "You're burned, child."
Clover started to cry. "H-humans have come," she said. "They threw fire at us and killed Amaranth. The others went to see. I'm frightened."
"Tell the Goddess."
"Oh, Gaia, this is serious. People will die. Amaranth is dead. Prayer isn't going to help."
"No, child, use the sacred stone. Tell the Goddess what is happening." Gaia nuzzled her ear and began whispering secrets to her. Clover listened.
Clover licked the notch in the bark. It tasted sweet, like honey. "Dik! Dik! Dik!" she called. "Dik! Dik!"
The tree groaned in response, and a narrow passage opened in the folds of bark. Clover squeezed within. Darkness filled the chamber inside the tree, except for a faint glow. The sacred stone.
Clover knelt, forelegs flat, head flat on the ground and closed her eyes. The Goddess was too holy to look upon. The bones in her fingers clicked as she unlocked then and extended them from her hooves, stretching them. She touched the stone, which flared in response. Take it, hold it, Gaia had said. Sing to it. Tell the Goddess what's going on.
Clover took the stone and held it in her hoof-hands. Doubt stung her. What should she sing? How to begin? What tune? What was she doing listening to the mad old priestess, telling her to sing to a stone.
Sing, sing, a voice whispered in her head. Sing! Sing! Sing! The whisper changed to a tone, a note. The stone was giving her a note.
"Amaranth is dead!" The song burst from within her. "Amaranth is dead, burned down by invaders. Help us, Goddess. Help us, help your creatures!"
Purple light flared out of the stone in response, filling the chamber, filling Clover, extending out to an unimaginable distance. An aura of purple fire filled her, consuming her, and yet the song went on, and on, and on...
Part 2: When the Morning Stars Sang Together
Amber lights turned green. As usual, Miles's first thought was that it hadn't worked, no time had passed, but the green completion lights shone. The clock showed he'd spent six weeks in stasis. The shuttle was in zero gee. He pulled himself over to the controls, sat down, and strapped himself in.
"Hagar control, this is Exodus. Beth, I'm bringing home a load of ice, open the endwall doors please."
"Miles, awake again at last. It's good to hear your voice. Cleared for docking, Exodus."
Miles touched controls and programmed the approach into the shuttle's computer. Thruster units fixed to the iceberg fired. Slowly the ice mass turned. Slowly, slowly, turning imperceptibly about its axis. It inched towards Hagar. You can't hurry an iceberg, even one wrapped in nanomesh. Move too fast and it becomes a billion ice cubes.
Hagar swelled on the screen, a long grey rock, a lumpy potato. The endwall was open, light spilling out. Only shimmering fields held the air inside. The ice slipped through the door, thrusters firing, slowing, slowing. A million tonnes of ice came to a stop inside Hagar rock.
The ice would melt under the sunfire's heat, becoming clouds, droplets. Artificial gravity would draw it to the walls, where it would fall as rain. Soon Hagar Ark would have its streams, its lakes and rivers. Liquid water, essential to life.
Miles undocked the shuttle and touched the throttle, thrusting off down the chamber, moving across a rough surface of space ice above, now shining in Hagar's sunlight. Reversing the thrusters slowed him as he approached the control centre. "Hagar control, permission to dock."
"Permission granted, Miles. Come aboard."
The computer docked the shuttle to the control room. Green lights above the airlock showed good pressure. He opened the door and floated through. Taking hold of the grab bar above the hatch he swung through into gravity and landed on his feet, neat as a cat.
"Miles!" Beth walked towards him across the room. She was a tall, powerful woman with cropped brown hair and shining brown eyes. She wore a uniform black jumpsuit like his own. Beth moved like music, he loved to watch her. "I missed you."
"It hasn't been that long."
"Not for you, perhaps, asleep in stasis, but for me it's been months. Just me and the Mistress, I longed for your voice. Sometimes I thought I'd go crazy."
He kissed her. She smelled wonderful. "You'd never go crazy," he murmured. "You're too high functioning. You're better than me, your manual says so. Don't you always beat me in practice?"
"Don't put yourself down, lover. You're better than you think. I depend on you. You're my teacher. You're my Supervisor. You raised me since I was decanted. I'm so glad you're back."
"Mmm, me too." He put his arm around her and guided her to their quarters, to the bed. "Computer, lights out. Privacy."
The light faded away to blackness, only a little sunlight glowing past the curtains. They were together again at last.
Miles showered and put on a fresh jumpsuit. When he emerged it was to find Beth sitting at a console, frowning.
"There's a hyperspace transmission coming in in the thrinna bands. It's from Gilead. Mistress left a few hyperspace cores there."
"Let's hear it."
An anguished wail filled the room. Miles couldn't make out the words, but overtones of grief, pain, and anger echoed. Miles shivered. "Mistress's business," he decided.
"Yes. Should I disturb her?"
"No choice. She'll want to know."
"OK." Beth got up, crossed the room. Miles followed. The door was branded with a thrintun symbol. Beth knocked.
Inside, the room was in darkness except for a single down light above their lady. Tall, inhumanly pale, with long white hair.
Miles and Beth covered their eyes and bowed, then waited to be acknowledged.
A glowing blue aura swirled around Nimue. She held a hyperdrive core in her hands, burning like a tiny blue star. Miles caught echoes of fear and anguish, and shivered once more.
Nimue's green eyes regarded them. "I see you."
Miles stepped forward and bowed again. "Mistress, we received a hyperspace transmission from the Gilead Ark. Some kind of song."
"I heard it, Miles. Invaders. Death and destruction. Damage to my property. What do you make of it?"
Miles frowned, and thought before answering. "My function is to defend Mistress and her property. If it pleases Mistress I will go to Gilead and investigate."
"We will all go. Ready Genesis for flight. Beth, get the latest scans from Gilead. I want to know exactly what's going on."
Part 3: Not in Peace but with a Sword
Miles and Beth sat in the pilot's seats and Nimue was enthroned in the command chair behind them. Miles piloted Genesis to Gilead. It was a short trip; Nimue's Arks shared the same orbit only a few hundred miles apart. Genesis covered the distance in minutes.
"The intruder docked seventeen hours ago," Beth reported. "It is still docked at the end wall. Automatic alarms have been disabled. Their transponder reads Oregon Trail. No registration. Their navigation radar is active -- they see us."
Nimue smiled. "So it begins. Power weapons. Paint them with targeting radar and acquire a solution."
Beth's hands flew across a console lit with red lights. Active weapons systems. "Ready to fire, Mistress."
"Denied. Hold your fire. Tell me the instant they power weapons or target us with radar."
Seconds ticked away.
Nimue flushed. Green eyes narrowed. "They provoke me! They provoke me intolerably!"
"Shall I fire, Mistress?" Beth whispered.
"No!" Nimue snarled. "I will not be dishonoured in this game by these interlopers! Power down weapons."
Astonishment was written across Beth's face; she looked to Miles. His frantic nod conveyed the danger. Do it!
Beth touched controls. Red lights turned green. "Weapons powered down, Mistress."
"Good. Miles, take us in. Dock to the end wall."
"At once, Mistress."
Beth's stare was eloquent of her confusion. Mile shook his head almost imperceptibly. She took his cue and schooled her features to calm.
Genesis glided into dock and nosed into the clamps. Nimue threw off her straps and bounced to her feet, face still flushed, green eyes flashing.
"Beth, what is the status of my Gilead?"
"Nine human males remain on board, Mistress. Scans show they are heavily armed."
"How dare they! How dare they invade my world and damage my property! Miles, Beth, draw weapons from the arms locker and clear my ark of this infestation. Use deadly force, I do not want prisoners. Do I make myself clear?"
Miles covered his eyes and bowed. "Yes, Mistress."
"I will visit the Mother Tree and inspect the damage for myself."
Beth gasped. "But Mistress, the danger..."
Nimue silenced her with a look. Beth covered her eyes and dropped to her knees, cowering on the floor. Miles followed suit.
Nimue sighed and took a number of deep breaths. "Rise," she said in milder tones. "And go about your duty, and," she added. "I will carry a weapon."
A lone figure patrolled in darkness between the trees, laser rifle at the ready. He heard a sound in the undergrowth and turned and fired. Flames shot up, casting shadows that streamed out behind him. He didn't see Beth step out of concealment, didn't see the searing ruby thread that burned through his skull. He dropped to the ground and didn't see anything any more.
The guards outside Gilead's control room wore night vision goggles, big, primitive things, but enabling them to see in the dark.
A spread of sunburst flares exploded with light brighter than day, blinding them. Ruby beams cut them down out of the glare.
The men inside the control chamber were forewarned. One bolted for the door and tried to run. They shot him. The others waited.
Assaulting the airlock would have been obvious and risky. Miles would have preferred to capture the control room undamaged, but he wouldn't risk himself or Beth to achieve that. At a pinch most of the Ark's functions could be accessed from their communicators. Equipment was expendable.
Grenades blew in the windows and Miles and Beth followed. They danced the dance of death, and when they were finished the two clones were the only ones left standing. The invaders were dead.
Part 4: Time for Every Purpose
Sunfire flared out from the endwall in a line across the sky, turning the clouds gold and white. Birds sang. A new day dawned. Nimue arrived at the Great Mother Tree.
Smelling her scent the dik-dik recognised their Goddess. They rested their heads on the ground and closed their eyes, small lumps of huddled brown fur, bowing to her.
"Rise," she commanded. "I see you. This is a day for celebration. You have served me well and I have returned to Gilead Ark. Where is the one who sang?"
Clover was pushed forward, shivering.
"Little one, you have done well. You sang strongly, clear and bright. But you are hurt." The Goddess knelt, squeezed salve from a tube and rubbed it over Clover's burns. "Are there others who are hurt?"
A couple of males came forward to have their burns treated, Blackberry among them.
"I am pleased with you," the Goddess announced. "You have done well," she told Clover. She took a needle from her pack. "I will take a sample of your DNA. Do not be afraid."
Clover submitted to having her blood drawn. "What is DNA, Goddess?"
"It is the Tree of Life, little one. The blood that flows from mother tree, through dik-dik, to daughter tree. Its roots lie deep in the past and where its leaves and branches will grow even I do not know." She took samples from the burned males as well, and clipped leaves from the Mother Tree itself. "Where is the one called Amaranth?"
"He is dead, Goddess."
"Take me to his body, if it can be found."
So she walked to the endwall at the head of a procession of scampering dik-dik. They found Amaranth's charred body and she took samples from him, and the others slain nearby. "Amaranth and the others have fallen," Nimue said. "But the Tree of Life goes on."
A thing on her belt chimed, and she touched it. "Nimue."
"Mistress, all of the enemy in Gilead have been accounted for. They're all dead. Your habitat is secure."
"Good work. Casualties?"
"I am pleased. Proceed to the enemy ship and take it. Eliminate all threats, secure any assets or breeding stock."
"I'll be on Genesis."
She walked back to her ship with an escort of excited dik-dik.
Miles and Beth approached the endwall cautiously, though scans showed the area clear of enemy. A massive form crashed out of the undergrowth and lunged at Miles. He jumped to the side, rolled, and came up holding his weapon.
"Halt! In the name of the Lady Nimue!"
For a wonder the creature stopped.
"We are servants of the Goddess," Miles said. "Explain yourself."
"We defend our home," the mugger growled. "We thought you were the enemy. I apologise." The water monster bowed, his snout descending several inches towards the ground. "I am Aristides. This is Solon, Xanthippe, and Melissa."
"I am Miles, this is Beth. We have eliminated all of the enemy within the habitat. We are on our way to take the enemy ship."
"We will accompany you."
All pretence of stealth was lost as they crashed their way to the endwall meadow. The great reptiles waddled across the ground, tails waving from side to side, snouts low to the ground. They reached the cave mouth.
"Beth and I will go within. I don't think you will fit, great muggers."
"We shall await you here and deal with any who try to escape," Aristides announced. "We are ambush hunters in any case."
The tunnel was short, leading to an airlock door. They went through. Miles commanded Gilead to shut the door behind them and open the outer door. The ship's hatch was sealed. They burned through and tossed in a couple of grenades.
There was no real resistance after that. The remaining crew were gathered in the mess room, women and children mostly, breeding stock. One woman raised a weapon. Miles burned her down.
"Throw your weapons on the floor! Now! Do it now!"
Weapons clattered on the deck plates. Miles melted them with his laser.
"Raise a weapon to me and I will kill you. Do I make myself clear?" There was a confused pause. "Do you understand? Do I make myself clear?"
"I am Miles. This is Beth. You will obey us. Is that clear?"
"You are now the property of the Lady Nimue, by right of conquest. Wait here till you receive further instructions. If I find you outside this room I will kill you. Clear?"
They left the room and sealed the door.
"Breeding mothers carrying weapons," Beth whispered. "Don't they know the rules?"
Miles shook his head. "Feral humans. Most likely they don't. Don't take it for granted that they will obey, either. Make sure they understand each and every instruction and can repeat it back to you."
At the end of the main corridor was a door leading to the control room. A thrintun symbol had been painted on it. Miles imaged it with his communicator.
"Mistress, this symbol is painted on the door to the ship's control section."
"Arawn. I might have known!"
Part 5: Tree of Life
"Do not enter the marked area, but secure the rest of the ship. Keep me informed. Nimue out."
"Yes, Mist..." But she had already disconnected. Miles looked at Beth and opened his mouth to speak, when the door slid open. A tall white figure with long pale hair stood against the darkness beyond. He could almost have been their Mistress, but something in his scent and the way he held himself said male.
Miles covered his eyes and bowed, it was an instinctive, programmed reaction.
"You are Nimue's?"
"Take me to your Mistress."
Miles turned and let the thrintun down the corridor, Beth fell in behind. Miles touched his communicator. "Mistress, I am under orders from the thrintun lord. I am escorting him to you."
"Understood." The communicator fell silent.
Outside a ring of muggers waited, catching sight of the thrintun they closed their eyes and bowed, snouts on the ground. Miles ignored them, so did the two who followed him.
A short walk around the base of the endwall brought them to where the Genesis was docked. Inside Miles stopped and stepped aside before the door marked with Nimue's symbol.
The male thrintun stepped forward and knocked.
The door slid open, and closed behind him.
"You!" Nimue glared, green eyes flashing. "Traitor! Outcast! Anathema! How dare you violate my demesnes?"
Arawn made no answer. His hazel eye glared back at her, stare for stare. She flushed.
The male stepped forward and took hold of her shoulders. He lowered his lips to hers. Nimue returned the kiss with passionate intensity.
When they emerged, hours later, it was to find Miles and Beth standing guard at the door. Nimue gave orders: "Miles you will escort the Lord Arawn to Hagar. Detach the main reactor and dock it to his ship. His people will render what assistance they can. The Oregon Trail's reactor has been damaged and cannot power the hyperdrive."
"Yes, Mistress," Miles said.
"But Mistress, without the reactor Hagar Ark will freeze," Beth protested. "It took us years to build!"
Miles winced at her mistake. Never contradict a thrintun. He started to cover his eyes, but Nimue actually smiled.
"Better that Arawn be given the sun from Hagar ark than the one that shines here in Gilead. That would be senseless waste. We build another, my Beth, however long it takes. You will live to see Hagar Ark bloom, and who knows, with stasis, perhaps many others. We have worlds enough, and time."
Clover stood on the bank above the swamp and peered down into the water. "The Goddess has gone, and her servants, and they took the invaders with them. My burns have healed, the Goddess herself treated them. Everything is back to normal."
Aristides opened one yellow eye. "Back to normal, you say, little dik-dik? The sky is not falling? The sun has not gone out? This is news indeed."
Clover flicked her tail and took a hesitant half step forward. "You're teasing me!" she protested.
"Have a care, little one," the mugger purred. "Oh have a care. We are much faster then we look and I haven't eaten in a while. Don't stand so close to the water."
Clover skittered backwards, giggling nervously. "You are teasing me! I knew it."
Aristides lunged up the bank, jaws open, showing his terrible teeth and snapped his jaws. Clover squealed and ran off, her alarm cry hanging in the air. "Dik! Dik!"
The mugger subsided into the water, rumbling with laughter. Melissa surfaced nearby and sighed. "Playing with your food, Aristides? You are a very strange mugger."
Aristides just laughed harder, rumbling deeply. "You didn't seem to mind that last night."
She growled and nipped playfully at his leg.
Clover rested in the cool shade of the Great Mother tree. She watched Gaia stroking the side of a pod. Its cord had lengthened until now it rested on the ground. The pod twitched and rocked in response to movements from within. A split developed near the top and waters gushed forth. A head poked up through the gap.
"Dik! Dik!" the newborn protested. "Dik! Dik! Dik!" Danger! Fear! The pod collapsed, drained. The baby dik-dik tried to stand on shaky legs, but fell over.
Gaia ripped the birth-pod apart with her hooves and gathered the infant in her arms. She bit off the cord. "There, there," she murmured. "Nobody's going to hurt you. What's all the fuss about?" The infant settled into her embrace and butted her with his snout, still crying and protesting. Gaia laughed. "Pick a milk pod and give him a feed, lass." She handed the baby to Clover.
Pod placed against his mouth, the baby sought out the nipple and began to suck strongly. Tree milk flowed into his belly, his first meal. Clover held the pod and baby, and Gaia licked his face gently, tenderly. "There, there," she crooned. "It's not so bad, is it? Hmm? What's the matter with you?"
© 2010 Ché Frances Monro
Bio: Ché Monro is a 40 year old dreamer from Melbourne, Australia. She writes Space Opera and Fantasy. Her stories frequently deal with themes of power, gender, and small furry animals. For two years she has been writing about clones and mental programming. Ché's novella Freedom! appeared in the September / October 2010 edition of Aphelion. For more by and about Ché, visit Ché Monro.
E-mail: Ché Frances Monro
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