"Parn, where are you?" Vala called.
Vala was blind. The world had grown steadily dimmer until shadows locked her in a prison of black emptiness. She was deaf; the cries of her people and the sounds of battle had faded until there was nothing but silence. She could feel, oh yes, she could feel. She felt the blackened, cracked, and oozing burns where Enemy power beams had seared her. She felt the stinging agony where Enemy power blades had cut her. She felt the warm, sticky wetness as life's blood drained out her like sand from a broken jar. She felt the terrible, numbing cold that had taken root in her extremities and was creeping inexorably toward her heart.
"They came for us just after you left..." Vala's voice broke and she began to cry. "Oh, Parn, did you have to take all the warriors?"
Pain, shock, and fatigue loosened Vala's grip on the present. She drifted, coming to rest in another time and place....
"I know it's dangerous, darling," Parn was saying. "But if I attack the convoy and don't destroy it, all I'm doing is telling the Enemy exactly where we are. That would be... much worse."
"But why attack it at all?" Sick fear was churning in Vala's stomach. She tried to keep it out of her voice; she didn't want Parn to know how frightened she was. What he was about to do would be difficult enough without her adding to his worries.
"We need the food." Parn's hands touch her lightly, stroking in a gently reassuring way. "That convoy is bringing supplies for whole lot of Enemy warriors. More than we could ever hope to fight all at once. If we destroy the convoy and run, of course they'll come after us, but without food they'll have to give up and let us go. If we don't attack..." His voice remained calm, but Vala felt the tremor in his hands. "They'll still come. Only we'll be the ones without food."
"But..." Vala's voice was hardly more than a whisper. She was shivering and knew that Parn could feel it. "What if the Enemy finds us while you're away?"
Parn didn't speak. He didn't have to; both he and Vala already knew the answer. If the women and children were caught alone they'd be slaughtered. Their lives were the ante Parn had to put on the table in his gamble that he could defeat the Enemy, just as the Enemy were gambling that they could move their supplies with inadequate protection. He pulled Vala close, holding her tightly, his hands urgently exploring her private places. "Run," he whispered. "If the Enemy comes while I'm not there, just... do whatever you have to. To get away. I know I should tell you to help the others, protect the children, but I can't." He turned her around, as if he were planning to mate with her right there. "All I think about is you. All I care about is you. And our baby." One of his hands gently stroked her distended belly. "If only you come back the mission will be a success. If only you come back, I'll rejoice...."
"Oh, Parn!" Vala shuddered with ecstasy and shoved herself against him, trying to encourage him to start mating. Never mind that the Tribe was watching, never mind that the Enemy was near. She needed to absorb every possible sensation of him, to keep him by her side for at least a moment longer-
"Darling, I have to go." He was slipping away, fading into insubstantial memory.
"Parn!" Vala screamed, leaping after him. Her hands closed on nothing; her frantic effort tore open wounds that had only just begun to close. Searing pain, as if a thousand broken shards of red hot glass were embedded in her flesh, slammed her back to the present. She staggered onward, making a sound somewhere between a moan and a sob only because she no longer had the strength to scream.
"Parn, find me, please," Vala begged in a ragged whisper. "I need you so much. I don't know how much longer I can hold on...."
"Parn can't help you," Sia declared.
Vala whimpered and edged away. Sia had once been quite pretty but now she was dead: her skin was a dirty, bloodless gray, at least where it hadn't been charred black by power beams or coated with the blood that had spilled from huge, gaping cuts inflicted by power blades. One of her arms was gone, severed cleanly just above the elbow. A pair of cuts across her belly were so deep that her insides were spilling out.
"Sia, I'm so sorry!" Vala blubbered. She was shivering violently but hardly even noticed the pain it was causing. "I should have helped you- I could have-"
"Don't blame yourself, Vala, there's nothing you could have done," Sia assured. "The Enemy probably already knew where our camp was. They sent that convoy in the hopes that we'd do just what we did, so they could attack the camp while it wasn't defended. They knew that without us the warriors wouldn't be a threat. If you'd stayed and fought you'd just have died sooner."
For just an instant Vala was there again. She had just picked up her pack when, suddenly, it seemed that the Enemy was everywhere. Because it was in her hand she threw the pack at the warrior coming at her; the power blade that was meant to slice open her stomach cut the pack instead. The difference it made was only a fraction of an instant but it was enough: Vala dodged the initial rush- and ran. Sia was not so lucky; she'd already put on her pack, and with it's added weight she just couldn't dodge effectively. Not as it really mattered in any case; for every Enemy killed or evaded there were four more, waiting to attack. Sia had died screaming as four Enemy clustered around her, their power blades rising and falling with monomaniacal precision, slinging gobs of blood and tatters of flesh with every stroke. Then Vala discovered that more Enemy had encircled the camp, waiting to trap those who ran. Vala couldn't remember exactly how she got away; her memories of the encounter were nothing but a series of discreet impressions. Being surrounded by Enemy while they blasted her with power beams. Holding an Enemy at arm's length while it slashed at her with its power blade, scoring minor cuts but unable to do serious damage. Blasting an Enemy who was so close that when its head exploded she was spattered with blood, flesh, and bone fragments. Then, as suddenly as it had all begun, it was over. The Enemy was gone and Vala was alone.
"Parn, I did what you said!" Vala screamed. "I ran away but there were too many of them! They came after me and now I'm lost and I need you oh Parn please help me...." Her voice trailed off into racking sobs.
"He can't help you," Sia repeated. "You've treated enough injured warriors to know that even if he found you now he couldn't save your life. The Enemy let you go because they knew you wouldn't live. All you're doing now is prolonging your own suffering." Sia's tone wasn't accusatory; if anything it was gently sympathetic. Which paradoxically made what she was saying more painful, not less.
"But Sia, I can't... just..." Vala trailed off. Why not? In her heart she knew Sia was right; if Parn were here he couldn't save her life or even delay her death. Giving in to the numbness would be so much easier. An end to the pain, an end to the suffering, an end to the Herculean effort of staying alive-
Vala felt something stir inside her belly. Her baby!
"No!" Vala exclaimed, clutching herself tightly. The daggers of pain cutting at her tortured flesh were a welcome reminder that life- and hope- were still with her. "I can't... I won't leave my baby!"
"Then take her with you," Sia replied. "If she has to join the Ancestors, at least let her make the journey to the Core in her mother's arms."
"Sia, how can you say that?" Vala wailed. "She's just a baby! She has to live! You have a baby, why don't you understand?"
"I had a baby," Sia corrected. "Now he's dead and so am I. And I do understand. Don't you think I'd have spared my son the pain of being hacked apart by the Enemy if there was any way I could have prevented it? Of course you want to give your baby the best life you possibly can. But what is the best life you can give her? A short, painful one while she starves to death clutching the corpse of her mother? Death is the only thing you have left to give her, Vala."
"Death isn't a gift!" Vala shrieked.
"Yes it is. Death is an end to the struggle, effort, and pain of staying alive. You know what it's like to die alone and in pain, Vala. Will you condemn your daughter to the same fate, a life without even the hope of joy, pleasure, or love?"
"But... I...." Vala struggled for an answer. Surely life without love wasn't worth living. Only love had kept her alive this long. Love for Parn, love for her baby-
The baby shifted again, and suddenly Vala hand the answer. It was so obvious she would have laughed if she'd had the strength. "As long... as I'm... alive... there's hope...."
"You won't be alive much longer, Vala. What then?"
"As... long... as... she's... alive...." Vala gasped.
Sia didn't reply because she wasn't there anymore. Neither was anything else; the universe had contracted until it was touching Vala's skin. And it was continuing to shrink; Vala sighed with relief as the pain of her tortured flesh dropped away somewhere outside the boundaries of reality. There was nothing now but her and the sound of her own heart....
There was something there. A warm, comforting presence that seemed to reach in and slowly enfold her. Vala remembered being a baby, nestled safely in her mother's arms. What she felt now was something like that: a sense of incredible, undying love, and a promise that everything was all right. Vala felt her spirits lift, and reached for it gladly-
She hesitated at the border between light and shadow. She was being separated from her child.
Don't worry, my child.
"Mother?" Vala called with what remained of her mind. "What about my baby?"
She will live.
"Oh, thank you!" Vala exclaimed, and gratefully stepped into the light.
- Chapter 1 -
Characters & Story ©1999 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats ©1999 Bernard Doove.
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