So this is the second of my new twice-weekly posting schedule. This is the fun WIP part. On Monday I posted a fairly whiny piece on writing novel drafts and why they suck and I hate them a lot–the reason for this being that I’m currently in the sticky, gooey middle of the first draft of a novel, and it’s sucking and I’m hating it a lot. However, I know myself well enough to know that I shouldn’t trust my own take on things at this point in the process, so I’m going to choose to believe that the novel isn’t actually as bad as all that and post a short bit of it here.
The basic premise of the thing was inspired by a friend, who said that she wished that someone would write something about early Mars back when it was losing the remnants of its atmosphere and making the transition to the cold, (apparently) dead thing that it is today. I immediately thought “hey, I could do that,” and stupidly set out to try to do so. The result has–so far–been sort of like The Martian Chronicles by way of The Road, a story of the last survivors of a colonization attempt by an alien species, an attempt that, predictably, went horribly awry. The last generation of survivors–most of them, anyway–carry no clear memory of their homeworld, or of how they lived before their colony disintegrated into infighting and starvation. What they do carry are “ghosts”, the fragmentary memories and personalities of the people they have killed and eaten in a highly complex cannibalistic ritual referred to as “communion”. My idea is that this ritual arose as a way to combat the combined losses of culture, community, resources, and meaningful ties to the past. It does interesting things to the meaning of death on this version of Mars (called “Hadeva” by its inhabitants)–anyone may be killed and eaten at any time, for any reason, and people have very little cause to trust one another, though small isolated settlements still exist. But by the same token, slaughter and consumption are deeply meaningful, even respectful, and communities share their dead together. When someone is attacked and killed, they often take comfort in the fact that their killer will commune them and carry their memory. To die uneaten is the worst possible fate.
But not everyone practices communion. And while most have forgotten the stars from which they came, there are a few who still remember–and mean to return there. When Durja, my protagonist, stumbles upon a communication in the belongings of someone she’s killed and communed, it plants the idea of escape from the dying Hadeva in her mind, and pushes her across Mars’s freezing desert toward more danger than she ever imagined, and a choice more terrible than she ever dared to contemplate.
Anyway. Blurby blurbage. Here’s a bit. Rough, bear in mind.
– – –
She came upon the huddled figure all at once, around a bend in the channel, and she drew back all in a rush and unfolded her knife, raising it high where it couldn’t be mistaken. But the figure did not move, and after a moment or two it emitted a low, whispering moan.
Durja stepped forward, still cautious. “Are you hurt?”
There was no answer. The figure moaned again, and seemed to try to thrash itself against the channel wall, little puffs of dust rising into the air with its feeble movements.
Durja ruminated. Do as you would wish be done to you was the old rule, and though fewer and fewer people appeared to hold to it now, and though holding to it was becoming more and more difficult, Durja still tried. She had no wish to agitate the ghosts further.
“I can help you,” she said, though she wasn’t sure she could. Or that ‘help’ would truly be anything more than a quick death, followed by communion–and in truth, she would welcome that end as much as any other. Jatsam had been the last of her provisions.
This time the moan sounded like words, or the edges of them, word-like shapes, things Durja can almost feel her way around. With the knife still clutched in her hand, she stepped closer, now close enough to touch. She had survived as long as she did because of her own instincts, and she had survived longer because of the experience of the ghosts, their hints and whispers in the core of her brain. Now, at a crucial moment, she didn’t hear any of them.
The figure turned.
It was more than turning; it flipped itself over and leaped into a crouch more quickly than she could have believed, its own knife unfolded. It moved too fast for her to clearly see the blade, but there was no mistaking that gleam. The figure’s hood was still low, hiding its face, but Durja didn’t need to see that to know, as it lunged for her and she threw herself clumsily sideways into the dust, that she was in lethal danger.
That she had met someone like herself.
The lunge had briefly unbalanced the figure, and Durja kicked away from the channel’s wall, her own knife swinging out and toward its head. Like her dodge, it was clumsy, but like her dodge, it was at least partially successful, and the point of her blade slashed through the fabric of the other’s hood. There was a purple spatter, a snarl of pain, blood in the dust. The scent of it was spicy and rich, and Durja felt hunger edging her desperation.
Again the figure lunged for her, but this time it was a more measured movement, and when she stepped aside and knocked the blade of the knife away with her own, the figure pulled back, circling her. At least the channel wall was no longer at her back. But it was a narrow slice through Hadeva’s ground, and there was little room to maneuver anywhere.
Another lunge, and this time she couldn’t move fast enough to side-step or parry. She managed to turn aside the full force of the stab, but the blade slid against her forearm, sending stars of pain up through her shoulder and neck, and now her blood was mingling with the other’s in the dust. The smell of it was every bit as intoxicating. She glanced down at the purple flow matting her fur, back up at the stain spreading across the figure’s hood.
“We’re well-matched,” Durja breathed, one corner of her mouth pulling into a grimacing smile.
The figure said nothing, but from the hood she thought she heard a muffled laugh.
“Come on.” Durja gave her arm a little shake, urging the pain into the background. Her fingers tightened around the handle of her knife. “Let’s finish this.”
As if agreeing, the figure came for her again, but the ground was uneven, and even with a more restrained movement, the other’s footing was less than sure. It stumbled, barely perceptible but enough to give Durja two or three seconds of lead time. She whirled to the side, raised her knife and stabbed it downward and back. The impact shuddered her arm, making her wound sob, and for the briefest of moments the pain fogged her vision. Then she turned, blinking in the mid-day sun.
Her knife was embedded, quivering, in the base of the figure’s skull.
Though later she would chide herself for her utter foolishness, she released the hilt and stumbled back, and the figure turned in halting jerky movements, its hood finally falling away from its face. Durja drew a shocked breath.
She was so young. Younger than Durja, not far removed from puphood, her fur bright and silky where it wasn’t matted with dust and blood, red as Hadeva’s ground. Durja’s knife had left a long, ugly slash down the side of her face, nearly severing the tubes of her breathmask. And as Durja watched, the other lifted a hand and pulled the mask away, her breath rasping and labored.
“Well-matched,” she whispered, and laughed softly, and crumpled.
Durja rushed forward. The injury before had been a trap, and though her knife was stuck in the other’s brain, perhaps she would like to take Durja with her as she died. But there had been no caution when there certainly should have been, and Durja saw no real reason to change course where that was concerned. Durja caught the other halfway to the ground and lowered her gently, careful not to touch the knife.
Blood was trickling from her mouth and nose-slits. Her eyes rolled.
“I’ll commune you,” Durja said softly. She laid a hand against the other’s face, stroked her fur, her fingers smeared with blood. “I’ll carry you with me. I promise.”
The other coughed out a harsh laugh, wheezed in another breath, but there was nothing to be drawn out of the thin air. She was twitching, starting to convulse; that she was even still alive at all was a wonder that Durja would puzzle over later. “Mistake,” she managed, her voice so soft that it was barely audible. “You’ll wish… you hadn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
Another harsh laugh, a final rattle, and blood bubbled up between her lips. Her legs thrashed once more and were still.
After a few moments Durja shook herself and looked up. The sun was slipping past apex in the pinkish sky; there was a great deal of light left. So much the better. There was a lot of work to do.
She rolled the other over, grasped her knife with both hands, braced a foot against the other’s shoulder and yanked. The blade came free with a jerk and a gush of blood into the dust, soaking the cloak and further matting the fur beneath it. No matter, Durja thought. In a perfect world, she would have the tools to clean and dry the fur, to make use of it. This was not a perfect world.
In a perfect world, she amended, there would be no need to do such a thing at all.
Durja cut the cloak away and tossed it aside, along with the remains of the other’s breathmask. Then she crouched, unfolded the other’s limbs, and began to cut in earnest.