by John R. Plunkett
"Parn, where are you?" Vala called. She couldn't see; clouds of delirium blocked her vision, trapping her in hazy, formless nothing. She couldn't hear; The voices of her companions and the noises of battle were lost somewhere far away. But she felt, oh yes, she felt. Her skin, seared black by power beams, burned with hot agony. Deep cuts inflicted by power blades glowed with sharp, stinging pain. Warm, sticky rivulets marked where life's blood drained out of her like sand from a broken jar. Terrible cold numbed her extremities and crept inexorably toward her heart.
"They came for us just after you left," Vala mumbled. "Oh, Parn, did you have to take all the warriors?" She cried, shivering with fatigue, shock, and sorrow. Her mind drifted away from the present, coming to rest in another time and place.
"I know it's dangerous, darling," Parn said. "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 churned in Vala's stomach. She tried to keep it out of her voice; what Parn was about to do would be difficult enough without her adding to his worries.
"We need the food." Parn's strong, gentle hands caressed Vala reassuringly. "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 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 a 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. Parn had to feel her shivering. "What if the Enemy finds us while you're away?"
Parn said nothing. He didn't need to; Vala already knew the answer. If caught alone the women and children would be slaughtered; their lives were the ante Parn put on the table in his gamble that he could defeat the Enemy, just as the Enemy gambled that they could move their supplies with only a light escort. "Run," Parn whispered, pulling Vala close and holding her tightly, urgently but gently exploring her private places as if he planned to mate with her right there. "Just... do whatever you have to. To get away. I know I should tell you to help the others, to protect the children, but I can't. All I think about is you. All I care about is you. Save yourself. And your baby. Our baby." He caressed Vala's distended belly. "If only you survive I'll rejoice."
"Oh, Parn!" Vala thrust herself against him, stroking him with her body. Never mind that the Tribe was watching, that the Enemy was near. She desperately needed to feel his flesh against hers, to keep him by her side for a moment longer-
"Darling, I have to go." He slipped away.
"Parn!" Vala screamed, leaping after him. Her outstretched hands closed on nothing. Wounds only just closed burst open; pain like a thousand shards of red hot glass embedded in her flesh slammed her back to here and now. She staggered onward, making a sound somewhere between a moan and a sob 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...."
"He can't help you," Sia commented.
Vala whimpered, edging away. Sia was dead; her skin, where not charred by power beams or splashed with blood and flecks of gore, was dirty, bloodless gray. Her intestines oozed out through a pair of deep cuts in her belly. Of one arm there remained only a bloody stump, severed just above the elbow.
"Sia, I'm so sorry!" Vala blubbered, shivering violently, hardly noticing the pain it caused. "I should have helped you- I could have-"
"Don't blame yourself, 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 only have died sooner."
Suddenly, for an instant, Vala was there again. Just as she picked up her pack what seemed like hundreds of Enemy warriors appeared, swarming down while the women and children prepared to move out. Two of them came at Vala; she flung her pack at one, knocking it away. The other she grabbed, squeezing with hysterical strength even as its wickedly sharp power blades reached for her belly, until her claws pierced its carapace and its head came off in her hand. The first shook free of her pack; Vala blasted it with her power beams and it blew apart in a spray of blood, tattered flesh, and shattered chitin. Sia let out a hideous shriek; with her pack on she couldn't fight effectively. A group of Enemy clung to her, power blades striking with monomaniacal precision, chopping at her like butchers sectioning a carcass. All around was more of the same: mothers screaming as they tried to shield their children with their bodies and were hacked apart, children screaming as they were slashed right out of their mothers' arms.
"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 warriors to know. 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 is prolonging your agony." Sia's tone wasn't accusatory; if anything it was gently sympathetic. Which, paradoxically, made what she said more painful.
"But Sia, I can't- I can't-" Vala stuttered. In her heart she knew Sia was right. Giving up would be so much easier. An end to pain, an end to suffering, an end to the Herculean effort of staying alive-
Vala felt something stir in her belly. "No!" she exclaimed, clutching herself tightly. Daggers of pain dug at her; she welcomed the sensation as a reminder that life- and hope- were still with her. "I- I can't die. My- my baby-"
"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. "And I do understand. I'd have given anything- including my own life- to spare Sifer the pain of being hacked to death by the Enemy. Of course you want your daughter to live; that's what every mother wants. But what do you have to give, Vala? I gave my life and it didn't help my son one bit. Would it be better if your baby lived? She'd have a short, painful existence while she starved to death clutching her mother's corpse. Give her a clean, quick death while you still can."
"Death isn't a gift!" Vala shrieked.
"Yes it is. Death is release from suffering, an end to the struggle of living. 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?"
"I- 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 answer was so obvious Vala would have laughed if she'd had the strength. "There is no joy without sorrow. She deserves... the chance to experience life. Whatever it ends up being."
Sia didn't reply because she wasn't there anymore. Neither was anything else; the universe had contracted until it touched Vala's skin. It continued shrinking; Vala sighed with relief as the pain of her tortured flesh dropped away somewhere outside the boundaries of reality. Nothing remained but her and the sound of her own heartbeat. She felt herself enfolded in a warm, comforting presence; suddenly she was a child, nestled safely in her mother's arms, basking in the glow of her mother's love, safe in the promise that everything was all right. Free of earthly woes Vala's spirits soared, reaching for the undying light-
At the border between light and shadow Vala hesitated, looking back.
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, stepping gratefully into the light.