A Song for the Barren

by


“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband”

Isaiah 54:1

The Daughter’s screaming still echoed through their house, even muffled by the outer walls. He could hear it even over the whine of the badly-tuned electric engine. It did not fade until the van from the Ministry of Adoption had disappeared around a corner.

It seems we are too frightening to be parents, even with the orphanages full and so many dead. The thought was bitter.

Wyren-jionhae turned from the door to his Wife. She was staring out the window. Tears streamed from her eyes, silently. For a moment, he forgot himself and reached for her, but the sight of his great, clawed hands; the stiff spikes growing from his wrists, made him pull back. Not comforting hands. Killing hands.

Jionha’s head whipped around like a snake’s at his gesture, and her eyes flashed. “Am I so ugly, you cannot even touch me anymore?” Her lisping voice was marred, mushy and cold.

“I…” but she was gone, long legs carrying her through the kitchen. He heard her run down to the basement, and shame washed over him at his own uselessness. The time for comforting, like the time for having children, was long ago, and could not be brought back. No, no more than could the departing van. Only memories returned, and they hovered like birds: carrion eaters with mocking cries.

It had not been the time, then, to think of her beauty; the way her long, dark-gray limbs melted through the forest; how her hair, pulled back in the style of the DaughterScouts, twined about her sinuous neck, and her mouth, so delicate and small…

“Wake up, SonofDreams!”

Flushing almost blue at the whisper, he looked up to find Jionha perched above him, almost invisible in the giant fern. The muscles along her spidery arms and ribcage stood out as she pulled her great steel bow taut. “Wake, or we’ll start without you!”

“I hear and obey, O DaughteroftheAcidTongue!”

Wyren had the pleasure of seeing her darken to almost black at the vulgar remark before he flung himself silently through the forest surrounding the road.

The convoy would be here any minute. Already he could feel the twinges in his nerves from the grav drives. For a moment, he envied the Terrans their skin and warm blood. His hands seemed locked inside their fine scales; too cold to move. He stopped. Dimly, he saw his fellow Sons and Husbands to his left; silverblue glints in the brush.

The convoy passed, humming like a Great Worm from ancient stories. Huge grav trucks, Ammunition. Food. Fuel. They passed, bigger than anything Wyren had ever seen, carrying life to the Terrans, the Terrans whose Empire held all Mtaein in slavery.

Last of all came a huge grav tank, the Terran on the top scanning the undergrowth, supremely confident on the back of 200 tons of alloy and weaponry. This was Wyren’s target, and he could not move.

Suddenly, whines filled the night, and the Terran jerked backwards, staring in amazement at the broadbladed arrow that sprouted from his chest. His eyes darkened and he slumped.

The world seemed to lurch into a sick slowness; cries and gunfire erupted all along the convoy. With the horrible knowledge that he had waited too long, Wyren threw himself at the side of the tank, his weapon clumsy and too big for his hands. He slipped, pulled himself up just as the Terran’s corpse was pushed from the hatch. A whiteskinned hand reached up to pull the hatch shut, and Wyren found himself facetoface with the ghostlike Terran, whose eyes were wide with terror. Wyren got the barrel of his weapon inside the hatch just as it slammed down. He pulled the trigger.

The shotgun was an ancient weapon by his enemy’s standards. It still decapitated the Terran very efficiently. Then Wyren leaped inside and everything was noise and explosions and red, red blood, so alien.

His next memory had been Jionha, walking out of the woods, her face mirroring his own. Horror and relief at what had – and had not – happened. They had held each other all the way back to the camp, and she had sung a lullaby to him in the stillness.

#

If only the Director of the Orphanage and his Wife had seen Jionha that night… but they had not. They had seen her tonight, as the Wife of a Warrior; seen the lines of grief on her face and they had heard her gluey, warped voice. And they had seen him.

The Daughter they had brought had screamed in terror at the sight of him, and had not stopped even when the Director’s Wife had carried her outside, throwing a look of disgust over her shoulder.

Her Husband had remained to pass sentence. Director Nacay-koree-chagae reminded Wyren of a Terran. Thin for a Mtaeinin, the little Husband reached almost to his chest. His scales were almost entirely silver, but pale and dull, like Terran skin. His dark hair was short and straight, neatly aligned, just over his four ears.

“I’m sorry, but as you can see, it’s just impossible for me to recommend you as adoptive parents. Any Son or Daughter we could give you might be frightened enough to hurt themselves…” Or you might accidentally hurt them. The unspoken thought hung in the room.

“What about a Wife with a Child?” Wyren had asked. The Revolution had left many widows. Jionha had no other Wives; it wasn’t right for her to have to live only with him for company…

“I’ve circulated your file,” Nacay had said. “We haven’t had anyone… suitable, yet. To be the Wife of a Warrior.” Desperate enough, he meant. Wyren raised one huge hand and rested it on the wall as the little Husband flinched away.

“Varq promised,” Wyren growled, and Nacay’s eyes had gone round but remained firm.

“Some things are beyond even his promises,” Nacay had said, looking nervously around the room. At the chairs too small for Wyren’s bulk. At the thin patina of refuse strewn about. “I’m sorry.” He had left his fearful glance hanging like an oppressive smell. And had driven off, leaving Jionha to run from her Husband, crying.

Wyren sat on the floor. He wanted to tear his hair out, but of course, he had no hair. His huge hands gripped his lowset, wicked horns and tightened as if he could crush their roots. He rose, anger getting the better of his sorrow. Betrayed. Betrayed by Varq who had sent a pretty little worm like Nacay to forswear him. How long since Wyren had looked like Nacay? How long since he had had hair? It had been…

#

Boom! Boom!

The silence was unreal. Everything had been unreal that night: the chains around his wrists, the ranks of Varq’s Councilor’s Guard looking on. The drums, the torchlight, the cages of springwood woven around him and his dozen comrades.

Yet he had never felt more alive.

The smells of smoke and the deep forest wove around him. He had never been stronger. Never in better condition. Outside the cages, there was not a Husband or Son who could stand against him, and well they knew it. He bared his teeth at the nearest one and nearly laughed at his involuntary reaction: the way he spread his claws and yearned to cover his face. The way his skin lost any semblance of silver, turning the deep blue of fright.

But this was not a night for laughing.

They had led the Wives out, and things had begun to blur.

The scent alone had told him which was Jionha, even if she had not been the most beautiful of them all, gray and straight in the torchlight, her single braid falling from her smooth head, cheeks slightly swollen and lips puckered in the delicate moue of Wives’ Pregnancy; it made her look as though she always smiled.

Yet she cried. All the Wives were crying, there in the torchlight as the drums beat slowly. And Wyren cried too, though he was in an agony of lust, his underpalate clinging to the roof of his mouth in longing for the Second Kiss: the intercourse that would transfer the embryo to his womb, where his body would nourish it until birth…

A birth that would never be, now.

A bottle was opened. It was passed along the line of women. The first took it; held it to her nose, and inhaled. Immediately, spasms shook her, and the caged male on the far right of Wyren shrieked into a frenzy, leaping at the springwood bars in front of him, tearing himself on the chains.

The bottle was passed. Wyren watched, strengthless, as it came closer and closer to his Wife, his only Wife, the Wife of Youth, to Jionha, who took it. Inhaled.

Somehow, through his own screaming and tearing at his bonds, Wyren saw clearly: Jionha, gagging in the smell of the abortifacient, as she choked, knelt, and retched, her tonguepouch burst, pouring out blood and water and a fingersized Son, who kicked feebly and died in the torchlight.

When he awoke, it was to the stink of his own hormones, to hair stiffening into solid horns, to scales hardening into a carapace, and claws that would be capable of gutting a Terran in one blow. Selfhatred gushed through him, and he drove those claws into his own belly. They bounced off a hide tougher than Terran silksteel. A hide that covered a deep, sickly pleasant burn, as the unused enzymes of pregnancy digested the delicate, nurturing linings of his womb; burning it out, sealing it. Converting it into the energy needed for the Change. Making him into a Warrior.

Jionha visited him the next day. She still couldn’t speak. No Wife could while her tonguepouch held an embryo. She would bear the speech impediment the rest of her life. Mtaeinin were not like Terrans, who with their awesome technology could hold an entire planet under their sway, and shape their bodies as they willed. No Mtaeinin who aborted came away unscarred, any more than Mtaein itself had, under Terran rule.

They had volunteered for this, when Varq and the Revolutionary Council had asked for volunteers. It was a thing that must be. Wyren knew it. Jionha knew it. Sons and Husbands could fight, but Mtaein now needed her Warriors; the changed male that arose from an aborted pregnancy. A Warrior could tear apart any Terran vehicle short of a heavy grav tank. A Warrior could be struck by cannon fire and live. Men with only one Wife, who would give themselves, and their families for liberty. She watched him as the Warrior Change took him; reshaped him into a thing of nightmare – a nightmare in which neither of them could speak.

All that could be discussed had been, long before Jionha had become pregnant.

It didn’t help at all.

#

Wyren stood before Varq and tried to remember why killing him was unthinkable. Perhaps it was the way he looked at you and seemed to stare right into your mind. It was an ability he’d always had, back when they were both Sons together, playing at killing Terrans with gunshaped sticks.

“I know what I promised you, Wyren. But I can’t do this.”

“You can.” The words hung flat in the Presidential office.

“I can’t and you know it. Wyren…”

“Wyren-jionhae! I have one Wife; say her name! And you sit there with how many, Varq-kisanae-halavae-ganhae? I forget the rest. How is your family? In comparison with mine?” Sarcasm dripped off his words.

Varq’s eyes dropped. “Wyren-jionhae. I did what I promised. I got the Ministry to give you a chance. That’s all I could or can do…”

“You lying Son-of-a…”

The doors behind Wyren burst open the moment he raised his voice.

“Stop!” Varq raised his hand. Wyren slowly looked around. Flat-eyed Husbands trained heavy weapons on him. Weapons that could pierce even a Warrior’s plating. He turned to Varq. Their eyes locked.

“I’m sorry. Even if you don’t believe me. Please escort Warrior Wyren-jionhae-nje out.”

Nje. Honored. Wyren gave a sardonic snort and turned away.

“Wyren?” He turned back.

“For what it’s worth, I still owe you a favor.”

Wyren spat and walked out of the palace.

#

Filu-diorae-kalae rolled his eyes as Wyren walked in the door. The small, greasy Husband had a voice almost as raucous as Wyren’s own. “Well, at least you came in too early to scare away most of the customers!” He poured out a quart of yellowish methanol and slid it across the bar to Wyren. “I don’t know why I let you drink here. In the old days, I’d have called the Marines to kick you out!”

“In the old days, I’d have pulled this cesspool down around your ears, anyway,” Wyren said flatly. Their humor was forced. Both knew it was true. Except that Wyren wouldn’t have been “kicked out.” He’d have been executed on the spot.

Filu’s tavern had once been a Terran place. Still was, in spirit. Holes in the walls showed where the imaging and sound equipment had been ripped out. A dead gaming tank rose up through the center of the floor. A few anemic fish swam in it where the electronics had been. And it was what it had always been: a dance hall. On the other side of the thick, plasteel door, the Terran perversion was still going on; Husbands and Wives, Sons and Daughters, moving to offworld music in an obscene parody of mating. Wyren no longer cared; he didn’t have to watch it.

The chairs were too small for Wyren. He crossed the room and perched on one of the tables like a carrionbird. He took a pull at the liquor. It did nothing. His Warrior’s metabolism prevented that. The glass reflected him; its curved sides further distorting his distorted figure: A grotesquely robust sculpture of a Husband, as if he had been baked in an oven and allowed to rise. The horns in place of hair. A hard shell, jointed, covering everything but hands and face.

He and Jionha had not chosen blindly. They had known what they were doing. From the moment of the Change, they had been apart. They had known they would be. They had known it would be painful.

They had not expected it to be long.

They had expected…

#

Battle: He had been only a few hundred yards from this place the day Serata had finally fallen. Five of his fellow Warriors had already died under the microton bomb strikes of Terran dropships. He shifted the onegauge cannon in his hands from target to target like a rapier; a precision weapon. The last of the Imperial Marines leapt from the cover of the halfwrecked rocket base and fired a burst of three maglasers into him from a distance of two meters.

Wyren had stepped forward despite the pain of the deep burns and swung the butt of his cannon viciously. The man’s head had bounced back into the twisted wreckage. Without thinking, Wyren threw his laser into the arms of one of the nonWarrior support troops that scuttled around him like tugs around a battleship.

Then Prale had shouted for help.

Wyren leapt over the smoldering tower that had been the base’s main turret. What would have been horror just months earlier, he took in with grim efficiency.

A Warrior was down, blood pouring from a shattered carapace, and Prale stood locked in battle with a thing from Hell.

The Imperial commando was a nightmare of titanium and composite, its stealthfield blurring as it fought. Its armored gauntlet caught and crushed Prale’s hand and one-gauge; Prale roared pain, grappling its other hand, the hand that held the plasma carbine inching closer… closer.

Wyren saw all this in midair. He landed, bounced once and drove all his power into a kick that knocked the armored shape back; its carbine letting loose a plasma bolt into the air, and it rebounded to its feet, the small face behind the visor contorted in a snarl.

Wyren’s spiked hand ripped through its shattered belly armor and twisted. There was a retching scream, and the thing dropped. Wyren felt his lips pull back.

Then thunder had shaken the capital, and even Wyren had been forced to drop, covering his ears. For a moment he thought that their worst fears had come true; that the Terrans had elected to destroy Serata rather than lose their capital.

But there was no flash of a fusion weapon. Just a steady light. Wyren had looked up.

The noon sky was full of fire. The blue wedges of fusion drives rose from the southern edge of the city. Little flares. Big flares. Dropships and heavy transports. They were no longer attacking. They were leaving. One by one, the pockets of firefighting winked out, to be replaced by rising ships, or final explosions. Continuous thunder poured from the sky, fading. Through the rest of the day, sporadic fighting had continued between the Mtaeinin Liberation Army and the last proTerran holdouts, as they were either defeated or taken off-world with their masters. But it was over. The Revolution was won. And Wyren had not died.

#

He had not died. And Jionha had not died. At first they were happy. Neither of them had wanted to die. But how could they live? One Husband. One Wife. No children, ever. What kind of family was that? What kind of Husband was he?

He became aware of a presence at his elbow and growled at it. It didn’t move. Wyren came out of his reverie to focus on it. It was Filu.

He was blue. Not a trace of silver. Frightened.

Of what? Surely not of Wyren’s growl? He had growled in the little bartender’s face often enough.

“Wyren-nje…” he got out, choking.

Nje? From you, Filu?” Who wept while others had cheered the departure of the conquerors? Wyren had not thought himself still possessed of curiosity. “What is it?”

“In the dance hall. There’s a fight…”

“You have bouncers.”

“They aren’t trained to fight Terrans.”

Wyren gaped. A Terran? Here? Insane. Tourism was only just being permitted under strict control, and any Terran on Mtaein knew that he was unlikely to be forgiven the slightest criminal act.

But this particular Terran had picked the one place on the planet that a Terran could conceivably cause trouble with impunity. A dance hall owner would not call the police.

Not stupid, then.

But nonetheless, a Terran on Mtaein. A fighting Terran. Wyren rose and crossed the room, fangs bared. He threw the door wide and froze.

The Terran was tiny. It stood in the middle of the dancefloor. A few remaining Mtaeinin of both sexes were rapidly edging out the doors. Three big Husbands lay near the edge of the dance floor. One dripped blue blood from his nose. The Terran turned at the sound of the door opening.

Wyren growled, half in amazement. It was dressed all in black, only its face and one hand showing skin. Over that it wore a jacket. A gray jacket, covered with bits of cloth and metal at one breast. A long cloak lay on a chair. It must have been seated there. Then it had taken off the cloak to reveal the jacket and that’s when the trouble had started.

It was the dress jacket of an Imperial Commando. The creature might as well have been wearing an execution order. Wyren smiled.

The officer’s slanted eyes widened at his growl, and it threw its bottle away. It nodded to him, and spoke in High Angelsh. “Commander Phun Huynh, Twelfth Battalion, Imperial Navy Special Forces. Whom have I the pleasure of killing?”

It was female! And unarmored! How did it hope to stand against a Warrior? He checked himself. No one had ever said Terrans were cowards. He replied after her fashion. “Wyren-jionhae. Warrior. Councilors’ Guards.”

“Come, dance with me,” she called, extending her naked hand.

Wyren’s jaw dropped at the insult. The battleblood, the Warrior hormones that lent him speed and strength, surged through him. His body became light and lightning. There was only this place. There was only her. He charged.

If it had not been for the battle glory rushing through him, her absolute motionlessness would have given him pause. His claws reached for her. Then she blurred… and something gripped his arm, hard. Incredible pain shot up below his belly and he was flying, coming down on splintered wood and metal that had been a table.

Her laugh behind him blended with the tinkling of broken glass. “A Warrior should do better than this!”

He rose, and nearly fell. She had hit him as he passed, right where the upper and lower torso plates joined. Something had torn. Not too serious, but… it wasn’t possible. No unarmored Terran could stand against a Warrior. Not even a Commando had ever dared try! He stepped clear of the bar and she whirled to face him.

Now he studied her.

She moved with a sort of airy bounce, almost the opposite of a limp. She was small, even for a Terran. Her skin shone golden in the low lights and her eyes were horizontal slashes below her bare forehead. Her long, black hair streamed out behind her. The medals on her chest caught the light and flashed defiance at him.

They were alone in the room. The stillness was marked by the ragged breathing of one of the bouncers she had hit. Just one still breathed.

“Why?” The word was harsh in the silence.

“That’s funny; no Warrior ever philosophized with me last time I was here. As I recall, the classic answer is ‘Why not?’” She screamed; a high, alien sound, and leapt. A kick whistled past Wyren’s ears and he rolled, blocking the second half of the combination attack. His carapaced arm clacked off her descending foot. He withdrew into a crouch.

That boot was more than it seemed. Harder. And so was its wearer. Wyren felt his mind split into the focused calm of battle awareness, considering his opponent while plotting strike and counterstrike. He moved in, his fingers spread, the spikes of his armor forming a porcupine around them. Was this a Terran madness? She must know she was dead, even if (she kicked one grabbing hand aside and ducked the other) she could somehow kill him (just missed another joint in his armor) she would never leave the planet alive – there were a dozen witnesses. Even common criminals would inform on a Terran! Again, she drove a kick toward the joint and he shifted to take it on his armor. He felt his carapace bend; almost buckle as the strike staggered him to one side. The fighters broke apart.

Wyren was shaken. The Terran was breathing hard. If that kick had hit a joint…

A new sensation thrilled him from chin to groin. Fear. He was amazed that he could still feel it after all this time. She stood before him, untouched. Only the motion of her chest, told him that she had even exerted herself.

Then why had she not killed him at the first blow? Had she pulled the punch? He parried a punch with a wrist spike, not quite fast enough to impale her hand. Why? She would have killed one more Warrior before she died, as so many of her kind had done. He lashed out, fist smashing against her gloved hand, and he felt something snap, even through his thick skin. And he would have died, as he had sworn to. Been meant to. As so many others had, reduced to a family of only Husband and Wife. No other Wives to complete their family; to share him with Jionha. No children, not ever from Jionha. Not ever from his own womb.

The Terran’s hand hung limply, and she looked at him from under halflidded eyes. She shook and sweat streamed from under her hair. He was not fooled. She could still kill him. He hoped. She opened her eyes fully and smiled at him. Terran teeth were a joke. He had never known they could show so much menace. He wondered if she would use them. How they would feel, biting into his flesh.

The side kick came so fast that he blocked it without meaning to, and felt his carapace crack under its force. He drove one punch past her ear only to have it parried by her gloved hand. He would not dodge the next kick. His other fist reached for her face… and she relaxed, feet together, arms spread out, face blank.

He could not stop his fist. He was too committed for that. Desperately, he twisted, and his massive hand thundered into the wall.

The Terran’s eyes were wide and fixed on him. They mirrored his own expression. Just then Wyren noticed that the noise of impact hadn’t stopped with his fist hitting the wall. It was repeating itself in footsteps, dozens of footsteps outside the massive main doors.

The police. Finally, someone had called.

Waves of shame crashed down around Wyren. He had failed. Failed to kill or be killed. Had been a living failure for five years, laughed at for it. Pitied for it. An old Warrior who should have died long ago, and he had failed even to kill himself.

He turned and ran for the side door. It flew open in his face, and he howled in shame and fury. The sergeant leading the fourman platoon turned blue and fainted. The others scattered as a relic of ancestral nightmares bore down on them and ran into the night.

#

Now Wyren sat in another tavern; not a dance hall. He drank, because he would not be permitted to sit there perched on a table like a gargoyle, without drinking. The five tables next to him had quickly become vacant, and Husbands and Wives muttered over their shoulders in his direction. At least, he thought so.

Perhaps he was mad. The stories he had heard as a child said that Warriors did go mad. But the Warriors in the stories had lost their Wives, or worse, killed them. That was why they were Warriors. The Change was a holdover from savage times. No Husband deliberately became a Warrior.

Until the Terrans came, and taught us about nations and empires. That something greater than family could exist. They were strong because they had it. We needed to be strong to fight them. There was a surge of angry muttering from the crowd around him.

Did we need to be this strong?

He raised his eyes to the patrons and found that he was not the one they were muttering about.

Phun walked through them; a ghost of Empire. She must have touched some of them, but she seemed to be as utterly unconscious of them as of dreams. Her skin was paler here, and her eyes burned with… what? Strong emotion that he did not know how to read. Her jacket was reversed, brown on the outside, now. He could see the edges of medals inside it. She walked through the empty space around his table.

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

The tavern’s patronage began to leave. So, she had really wanted to die.

“Walk with me,” Phun said. “Please.”

Wyren looked up at her. At the glares of the bartender and the dwindling crowd. He rose, and walked out. Phun followed. At last, they stood in the sparsely populated street, under the alwaysfull moon.

“Why didn’t you kill me?” she asked again.

“Why wouldn’t you kill me?” He began walking. Most Terrans would have had to run to keep up. That airy, antilimp kept her at a pace with him.

“You also want to die?” No answer was required to that question. He kept walking.
“Wyren-jionhae, I challenge you.”

He barked a short laugh. “If both of us wish to die. it will be either a very short fight or a very long one. Good night.”

She stayed at his side. “We are both soldiers, Wyren-jionhae. It is an axiom that the loser is the one who dies, yes?”

Wyren grunted assent.

“Then I challenge you. If you can prove that you have lost more than I have, I will kill you. If you will do the same for me.”

Wyren stopped. Stared at her.

“You’ll have what you want, Wyren-jionhae. Killed fighting a Terran. Just what you expected.”

“You swear this?”

“Before G… on my honor I swear it.”

“Done.”

They came to a plaza. Wyren recognized it. The Plaza of Heroes. In the center was a statue. A short Husband knelt, planting the banner of the Revolution. His Wife stood supporting it, straight and tall. The Husband’s right hand closed the eyes of a dead Warrior. It was brightly spotlighted. The square was empty. He faced her. “How shall we begin?”

She regarded him for silent moments. “What have you lost?”

The directness of the question floored him. Where to start? He could not speak.

“What have you lost?” she repeated.

“No Terran could understand. No Wife could understand.” Not even Jionha could understand. He said the words in Qhayshp, the language of the Seratan forests, realizing what a useless gesture this duel was. He started to leave.

“You have no idea what I understand. Stand to your oath!” Her voice reached out like a whip. His eyes bulged.

“You speak Qhayshp,” he said, dumbly.

“It was rare for us, wasn’t it?” She sounded almost ashamed. “What have you lost?”

A barrier within him snapped. “Look at me,” he hissed. “Do you know what this face means? This form?” He flexed his spiked fists, beat them against his carapace. “Sons and Daughters have nightmares for a week after I walk by their houses. I am used by their parents to scare them into obedience. Wives look away when they see me, and no Husband would be seen with me. Before you came, Warriors were failures or traitors to their Wives, and that is what they remember. But I became this because of you.”

Phun did not reply. She put one finger in her mouth, and tugged on the glove covering it with her teeth. Slowly, she withdrew her hand from the glove and held it palm toward him.

Synthetic and metal gridwork formed a wire sculpture of five fingers and a palm, half of it dangling limp where Wyren’s blow had connected. She shrugged the jacket off, and it fell with a clatter to the stones of the square. She touched her collar with her bare hand, and the black clothing she wore fell apart. It occurred to Wyren that he had never seen a Terran unclothed before. Probably they feared to doff armor in the presence of Mtaeinin, but now… she stood.

Below her face, her pale, yellowish skin swept downward into two masses of fatty tissue – the breasts, he remembered – supported by ribs visible through her skin. Below the ribs… black plastic and metal formed a carapace even tougher than Wyren’s own. It came to a point between multijointed, wire sculpture legs that mimicked her left hand. He could see the square through her. No wonder she had been so formidable. “Now see what I would not be, except for you. What reactions do you suppose Terran Husbands and Sons and Daughters have when they see me? What else have you lost?”

He snarled. “What would a Wife know about it? Never to give birth. Never to raise the children of your body?”

She just stared at him for a minute. Then she laughed, a laugh that was almost a sob. “You don’t know?”

Wrath bubbled beneath his mind, almost enough to make him kill her. Know what?

“You really don’t; I can see it in your face.” Her face softened. “I just assumed you knew that on Terra, it is the female that bears children.”

He felt as if she’d struck him again with one of her synthetic limbs. Females bearing children? Impossible. Disgusting. Rumors drifted back to him from wartime. He’d always thought that they were just propaganda.

For the second time that night, the uneasy sensation that he was losing to her (or should it be him?) crept over him. Scorn crept into his voice.

“I thought you Terrans were technological gods. I thought you could grow duplicates of yourselves; carve your body as desired.”

She nodded, brokenly. “Some can. If they have the money. Terra doesn’t allow soldiers to clone. We aren’t wanted.”

Unwillingly, Wyren found himself nodding. “Neither are we.”

Phun gestured to the statue. “But you are respected.”

A hollow laugh boomed out of him. “That Warrior is dead. Mtaein wants dead heroes. Not live Warriors.”

Now it was she who nodded. “Terra does not want even that.”

Wyren shook his head. Impossible. “Terra is an Empire…”

“A dying Empire,” she said softly. “Do you really think the Mtaeinin could have kicked us off this world at the height of our power? You saw what we know; what we can do. No one wants a Terran soldier. Terra least of all. That’s why… that’s why I loved this place so much.”

Anger shot through him; his head whipped up. “Loved it so much that you came to help enslave it?”

“Loved it enough that I learned the language; learned the people.” She lowered her voice. “Do you think I learned enough to track a trained Warrior who didn’t want to be seen through the Seratan streets by hating this city? Do you think I survived three years of forest patrol by not knowing everything about it?”

“Using it against us,” he tried to growl. But the earnestness in her words pulled at him.

“Don’t tell me you don’t understand the difference between love and duty. Or do you really love Mtaein more than you love your wife?”

Wyren closed his eyes in acknowledgment, and then met hers. He saw her youth. It was like Jionha’s face, before the Change. And he saw that he had lost this challenge.

She had known his losses better than he had known himself. And he had not known hers at all. He had agreed to kill her. And now he did not want to.

“Fulfill your promise,” she said. She was shaking now, and her eyes grew pools of liquid.

He nodded heavily. “Where would you die?”

She looked puzzled. “Where?”

“A Warrior, when he chooses, dies so that he may take his last view with him into the dark.”

She nodded, face a mask. “I thank you.” She looked upward, considering. “The Narrow Bridge.”

Wyren started to speak, then stopped. He was actually embarrassed. “The Bridge is… there is no more Bridge. Except along the banks. When we… when the Governor’s Palace was destroyed…”

“You destroyed the Bridge?” Her voice showed more emotion for the Bridge than she had for anything that had happened to either of them, but she contained it quickly. “Fitting. Take me to where it was.”

They walked, the ceramium and chitin of their feet clacking against the hard road. The streets were empty. Wyren felt rather than saw her, by his side. She spoke, and her words pulled him out of his reverie. “Tell me of yourself, Wyrennje. Tell me your story.”

He nearly stumbled. “It is you who should tell your story,” he said, “that you may be remembered after your passing.”

“I do not wish to be remembered,” said Phun. “I am the victor, and I would have your story… to take with me into the dark.”

Had her voice broken, there? But she was correct, and he began to speak. Of his childhood outside Serata. Of his friendship with Varq and with Jionha. Of his marriage. Of the Change and what had happened after. “The rest you know.”

She said nothing. They turned the corner, and the smell of the river greeted them, wafting up the Hundred Stairs that led down to the Narrow Bridge. Or what was left of it.

“There’s nothing left,” he heard her say. She was not talking about the Bridge. It looked strange even to his eyes, the flat surface of the Kma River, unbroken by the Governor’s Palace.

“On leave nights,” she said, “I used to stand on the Bridge, in the middle, with the palace behind me.”

Glorying in its power; the power of your hegemony, the Revolutionconditioned segment of Wyren’s brain responded, but he knew now he was wrong.

There was no middle of the Bridge now; when the Imperial Palace had been destroyed, no one had realized what the hydrostatic shock would do to the Narrow Bridge. The Bridge had been there forever, a wonder of the world, a thousand years older than Terran occupation. A mile of carved stone, barely wide enough for two to pass. The Imperial Palace had been built in the middle of the river specifically for the view of the Bridge from it. The broken tongues of stone leading out into the water were now called Terra’s Revenge.

She led him down the stairs and out onto the river. Out to the point where the Bridge ended. She topped, and inclined her head as if in prayer, then turned.

“Fulfill your promise,” she said, her voice unsteady.

He would give her a good death. “Where should I strike to kill a Terran Warrior?”

“Here,” her hand touched the hollow of her throat, where it joined her chest. He drew back a fist, wristspike angled for a single thrust.

He moved.

A grip of metal wrenched him to the side, and the followthrough left him nose to nose with Phun, her eyes round with shock, her left hand entangling his wristspikes. He looked the question at her.

“Conditioning,” she got out. “The way they train us. Again. Please.” She composed herself with an effort. He nodded and steeled himself, drew back.

He moved.

Again he was knocked aside, nearly offbalance. Her breathing rang loud over the lapping of water. He looked into her liquid, Terran eyes.

“Please,” she stammered.

“No.” he said. “I agreed to kill. Not to murder. You do not want to die. You merely have no courage to live. You are no Warrior.” He watched her turn white.

“Neither are you,” she shot back.

“You dare speak for me?” He raised his fist again.

“Does a Warrior run off, leaving his Wife – his only Wife – to face life without him while he cowers in death?”

“Without me, Jionha could remarry, could find another family, with a real Husband…”

“Liar.”

Wyren roared and swung; Phun danced back, nearly on the edge of the Bridge. “Do you really think anyone would take her as she is now? Even I know Mtaenin better than that.”

“Jionha is beautiful, was always beautiful, even…”

“To anyone but you?”

He swung again, but her legs carried her over the blow, up onto the narrow rim of the Bridge. “And she is beautiful to you, isn’t she?”

“Always.” The memory of her still staggers me. As she is, she yet could bear me to the ground with a look.

“But you cannot suppose that you are beautiful to her?”

He lowered the horned, callused fist that was poised to strike her. “No.”

“Then by your own admission, Wyren-jionhae, you are less of a warrior than I am,” Phun said softly, squatting on the handrail of the Bridge. “You are afraid, not to live, but to be loved.”

“I am not worthy…” he choked.

“Dammit, man, none of us are!” she barked. “You think the ones who took no risk, who live soft in this independent Mtaein you and Jionha bled out your futures to create; you think they’re worthy of the love denied you? Of the honor? We’re soldiers, we know the truth; the only worthy are the ones who never came back!” The words rang against the stone like whip-cracks.

“She makes you worthy.” Phun looked deep into his eyes. “I know I’ve never met her but the way you talk about her… I know how she must love you. She makes you worthy of your name, Wyren-jionhae. Don’t throw that away.”
Stepping down from the rail, she walked to the stairs. “Go home, Warrior. Go home to your Wife.”

Wyren’s head spun. She makes you worthy, the Terran had said. And suddenly, everything changed. All Jionha’s anger, her hurt, her distance. Not her choice. It had been his. And Phun had seen it. It was like looking through a lens, he thought. Hold it far enough away and you see things as they really are… upside down from the way you’ve always seen it.

He looked up. “Phun…” But she was gone. He stood. He stretched. He smelled the air. He followed.

#

When he crushed the doorknob in his grip and entered the cheap hotel room he found the lights on and the room empty.

“God, we’ve both gotten old,” her voice came from behind him. “I leave a trail that a Mtaeinin Warrior can follow and you just… walk into the room of an Imperial commando. I almost introduced you to the fourth state of matter.” Behind him, she was holstering her plasma carbine.

“You gave me back my life,” he said.

She staggered, then recovered. “It was always yours. Just like this world was, I suppose. Why are you here?”

“You said the only worthy are the ones who never came back.”

She lowered her eyes. “Yes.”

“What about you?”

“What about me, Wyren?”
“You never came back. And you said you never can. You are worthy. Of love. Of honor.”

She looked up at him. “Thank you, Wyren. That means a lot.”

“I would make you worthy.”

Phun’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“You said Jionha makes me worthy. But you have no Wife – I am sorry – no Husband. I would make you worthy. Here, since you cannot go back home. I want you to meet Jionha, and I want her to meet you. We three… have much to talk about. My friend.” He extended his hand, spikes pulled back, four fingers spread in the greeting of equals. Somehow, the hand seemed less frightening. Smaller.

She looked at him, hand reflexively meeting his fingertips, and her face was unexpectedly young in the light reflected from the river. “Here? With your – family?”

He nodded.

“I will go with you,” she said. Her eyes seemed bigger now. Full of water like ponds.

They walked from the room; Phun seemed in a trance. There was much to say. But not yet, Wyren sensed. Now there was the walk home in the night. Tomorrow would be for Jionha and Phun and himself. And perhaps, if Immigration could be arranged… yes. Varq would give him that. That much could be done.

It would be a strange family, if it happened at all, he knew. But it would be more than they could have dreamed of, before. And perhaps, with love, it would be enough.

G. Scott Huggins
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern”. If you like to laugh, “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” is in Sword and Sorceress 30. Scott's regular non-fiction column for Sci Phi Journal is entitled The Mote in God's "I". In the column Scott explores the nature of SF&F genre writing from the perspective of a committed Christian. When he is not teaching or writing, Scott devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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