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Ash Wednesday

By Firerose
Page 1 of 14

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack,
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

From 'Insensibility' by Wilfred Owen

One

No hope.

Twenty, maybe twenty five of the local inhabitants, their faces failing to register the certainty of their deaths. Or perhaps not yet understanding?

Unable to do anything to avert the unfolding events; unable to put down the viewscope. Brightly coloured robes and black uniforms; free-flowing hair and faceless helmets; quadripedal animals in colours of earth, stone and new wood, and shiny tri-wheeled vehicles. The kaleidoscope segments filling with red.

He watched as the bodies were dumped onto the vehicles. Bows and arrows were little use against Federation handguns and body armour.

No young women. Not this time, anyway. He would have to follow them. Limited by the primitive local transport methods he could not hope to keep up, but the noisy red buggies that chewed up the mud of this forest route should be trivial to track.

***

She had thought that the past few days had made her immune to embarrassment. But the humiliation of being on show in ripped and dirty clothing in front of this throng of men proved her wrong -- men pressing against the stage, men trying to clamber up to finger the merchandise. In the midst of the crowd her eye was caught by a black-cloaked man, hood shadowing his face. He seemed to be staring as intently at their faces as most of the men were at their bodies. She looked down quickly. Nothing mattered now. Nothing but to wait for death.

Eventually, there were only three women left. The Federation guards who had been directing the operation were clearly getting bored. What happened to the ones that no-one wanted, not even at the minimum price? It was unlikely to be pleasant but might at least be quick. Sudden nausea filled her. Believe, nothing matters now. Nothing. But she could not overcome the waves of dizziness by will alone.

The man she had noticed before walked deliberately up to the knot of guards by the side of the stage, and credits changed hands. Then one of the local guards was kneeling down and starting to undo the chains that linked to her ankles. 'It's your lucky day,' he sneered. 'Try to look grateful.'

She followed behind the man, stumbling as the circulation started to return to her legs, silencing her involuntary moan of pain. If will alone could not save her from feeling fear, she could at least maintain the outward dignity of her birth.

Still she had not seen her purchaser's face or heard his voice. As she was bundled into the back of a covered cart, she tripped over a pile of sacking and, unable to catch herself with her cuffed hands, fell heavily onto the floor and lay there winded and dazed.

Only minutes later, the cart stopped and she heard him opening up the back. So it's to be now. She tried to sit up and face him with dignity. 'Get up,' he said, not unkindly, and led her round to the front of the cart, helped her negotiate the steps up and onto the bench seat. Fixed her cuffed hands to the bench.

She took in little of the flat farmland with its occasional settlements on either side of the track, her mind dull with the effort of suppressing the tangle of bitter memories. Nothing matters now. Nothing.

'And what might be the name of my newest possession?' he said eventually, his harsh voice strange, apparently cultivated, yet bearing a hint of menace that went beyond his words. He did not sound much like a farmer, despite the hay cart.

'Tora,' she lied, in a passable imitation of the local peasant drawl. It was her maid's name. What right had this stranger to her true name? 'And yours?' she asked daringly, looking up at him for the first time. His face remained concealed under the hood.

'Call me Malar. How did you come to be taken by the Federation?'

'Why didn't you ask the guards that?'

She thought he was going to strike her, but when she looked up again she realised that he was laughing.

 

At least the girl was beginning to show a little spirit. She had stared blankly at her feet for several hours as they bumped along this poor excuse for a transport route. He had been beginning to think that Orac was in error. Or, more likely he had to admit, the one he sought had already been sold before he arrived. This girl did not much resemble Orac's 'image of Zenia. Tumbling pale hair, ash white rather than blonde, freed of the complex braiding which presumably signalled her high caste status. Lacking cosmetic assistance, skin sun-reddened and lightly freckled, not matt silvered-white. But the Federation rarely treated its prisoners with the greatest gentleness -- as he had cause to remember -- even when, like her, they were little older than a child. And the nose was the same, snub and slightly upturned, and those unnaturally blue eyes. Unfeeling eyes which would have been more at home in -- he searched his mind for the appropriate historical reference -- a china doll. That was the phrase.

Well, he had not purchased the girl for her looks. He could detect the sweaty smell of her fear but this was not the time for over-fastidiousness.

He knew the 'image he had seen had been taken before she had been betrothed to Raznan. And therefore before the invasion of the Federation forces. He estimated that the bruises on her arms owed more to the latter than the former, but you could never tell with these primitive cultures.

They began the long climb out of the river valley as the sun set, the track turning into a series of switchbacks picking a narrow way through the rocky landscape. The sparse wind-stunted vegetation made a pleasant change from the homogeneous cultivated fields that surrounded the town. He glanced across at Zenia again -- if he had been planning an escape, this would have been his choice of exit. The tumbled pillars of black rock -- volcanic? -- and the pockets of deep shade they cast might make adequate cover. Someone used to the terrain would probably be able to cover it very quickly. But her wrist restraints remained secured to the vehicle and her slumped posture suggested both physical and mental exhaustion.

Better she was in ignorance of his real name for now at least. 'Kerr Avon' was still sufficiently high on the Federation's wanted list that even this backward planet might have registered it. If there was anything on the planet worth purchasing with the bounty, which he rather doubted. But if Orac's data were correct there might be little point in trying to conceal his real identity from her.

'Not far now,' he said, in a tone intended to be encouraging. Not far now.

 

Interlude

An over-sized bed dominated the room, the wall behind it upholstered in crimson, a picture suggesting the possibility of activities other than sleep. A darkened vis-screen occupied perhaps a third of the opposing wall. The red-haired woman who'd just entered walked to the window, swept open the heavy velveteen curtains and regarded the scene revealed with a touch of amusement. She dumped her handbag on the table, rifled through it extracting a comb, a pack of cigarettes and finally, with a muted cry of triumph, a plastic card. Replacing the cigarettes, she fiddled with the console built into the bedside, keying in her authorisation code and altering the presets. Abruptly the sunny mountain scene dissolved, replaced by a forlorn orange-grey sky punctuated only by lights emanating from the ranks of tower blocks. Simultaneously, within the room, the air-conditioning coughed into life and a static whoosh suggested that the vis-screen would shortly follow suit. The light cycled in intensity every thirty seconds or so as the rotating sign, twenty storeys high, in front of the hotel cut and re-cut the spotlight beam, painting her shadow against the far wall. Fade in and out. In and out.

'They've fucking gone and given us a room above the flyer park again, just like they did in Galaxy City last year,' she announced, and went to mix a consolatory drink at the room's bar, an over-the-top concoction of silver-flecked black granite and fine-grained orange-yellow wood, both equally artificial. A shield-like motif, embossed with a gothic-style EE, on the neck of the plastic stirrer was repeated on the top-right corner of the vis-screen, where a tall bearded man apparently dressed to match the curtains was weeping in pore-revealing close-up, the sound on mute.

'Christ, I needed that,' she said to her companion, plonking herself with the two-thirds empty glass onto the bed and kicking off her shoes. 'Draw the curtains, would you? That flickering's beginning to get on my nerves. What d'you think the second E stands for, anyway?'

Beyond the curtains, the sign -- a running man in silhouette, chest cut with a cross -- continued to rotate all night.

***


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