Ventus – Day 72 of 135

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Hours later they paused, halfway around the lake under the eaves of an abandoned barn. Axel was unused to this level of activity, and he had begun to stagger badly. Calandria favoured her wounded arm, so she could only carry so much. Marya had managed to keep up amazingly well, considering her feet. Whatever augmentation had been done to support her shortened tendons had toughened the balls of her feet immensely, and she could indeed run if she needed to.

As Axel slumped down wearily, and Calandria moved slowly to gather old planks for a fire, he noticed that Marya was shivering violently–whole body shivers accompanied by wildly chattering teeth.

“Thermal wear,” she muttered. “There must be some thermal wear here.” She knelt down and began rummaging through the bag.

“Ah. Here we are.” She pulled out a pair of silvery overalls and stood up. Axel expected her to walk away or at least turn around to remove her skirt, but she just pulled the overalls on–and the skirt vanished as she did, leaving nothing but a cloudy blackness that disappeared as she zipped up the overalls.

“What was that?” he said.

“What? What’s what?” Marya peevishly squatted down, hugging herself.

“Your dress–it was holographic.” He heard Calandria pause in the midst of prying a board off the old barn’s door.

“Of-f c-course it-it is,” Marya chattered. “It’s a-a holo unitard. W-what do y-you expect me to w-wear? Cloth?

Calandria sent Axel an eloquent look that said, you deal with this. She went back to prying at the door.

Axel wasn’t actually that surprised. Holo unitards were increasingly common in the inner systems. They allowed unrestricted and unlimited costume changes for the wearer–but were only practical in climate-controlled environments.

“Well,” he said, “you’re on Ventus now.”

“I know. Anyway, the holo’s not supposed to be visible to the W-Winds.”

“That’s not the point,” said Axel. “You’ll freeze to death in that thing.”

“Anyway, you’ll have to get rid of it,” said Calandria. “We can’t take the chance that the Winds might see it.”

“The ship had no cloth apparel in it. And I didn’t get a chance to put the thermals on before we landed,” muttered Marya. “Too busy falling out of the sky.” She shuddered violently again.

She had a point there. “We’d better get this fire going,” he said. Calandria dropped another load of scraps at his feet and he bent to whittle some kindling. Marya watched him avidly.

“Pretty ironic,” said Calandria as she came to sit on the other side of Marya. She and Axel framed her; he could feel her shudders as he whittled. “A couple of hours ago we were nearly burned to death. Now we’re freezing. Typical.”

“There.” Axel had his kindling. He built a little pyramid of small scraps over, leaving an opening, and began laying larger blocks above and around that. Satisfied, he brought out the lighter from the survival kit.

“I can earn my keep,” said Marya. “Here, let me prove it.” She reached for the lighter.

“Anybody can use a lighter, Marya.”

“I want to do it the old-fashioned way. Do you have a flint and iron?”

“Yes… Have you spent time on Ventus, then?” asked Axel.

“I’m not ground survey staff.” Marya stood over them both, still shaking but looking strangely determined. “But I am a cultural anthropologist. I’ve studied more societies than you’ve heard about. I know sixteen ways to start a fire. We should save your lighter for a real emergency.”

Calandria exchanged another glance with Axel. Then she said, “Let her try.”

“I don’t want to be useless,” said Marya as she took the flints from Axel. She began frantically whacking the flintstone with her iron. She hit her own fingers and dropped it. “Ow!” Before Axel could move she had snatched it up again and resumed, more carefully and also more accurately. A small spray of sparks flew into the shavings.

She bent forward to blow gently on the embers. To Axel’s surprise, the tinder caught. She nursed it for a few minutes like a doting parent, while Calandria and Axel watched with bated breath.

Finally Marya sat back, triumphant, as the little fire began to burn on its own. “See! I did it!”

Both Axel and Calandria made approving noises. Maybe Marya wouldn’t be as useless as her gaudy exterior threatened.

The anthropologist sat down cross-legged, and beamed at her accomplishment. Axel sighed. “Okay, Cal, let’s look at your arm.”

“Well,” said Calandria as Axel poked and prodded, “What do we do next?”

Marya was beginning to warm up, and seemed to be regaining her poise as well. She said, “Obviously we need to get offworld as soon as possible. Something’s happening–I’ve never seen the swans like this!”

Axel and Calandria exchanged a glance. Armiger. It could only be him.

“Listen,” continued Marya. “I know Ventus like the back of my hand, even if I’ve never been here. We’ve had agents down here on and off for decades–people like Axel who’ve sent back reports, brought back books. I know the history. I know the geography, every city and hamlet on this continent. I speak six local languages, without the need for implant dictionaries. I’ve studied the religions twelve different ways.” She leaned forward to warm her hands on the new fire. “I know I’m not the outdoorsy type, I think I can help you.”

Calandria nodded. “Thank you. We need the help, right about now. One thing, though–you should get rid of that unitard. I know you say it’s supposed to be invisible to the Winds, but do we know that for sure? I don’t think we should take the chance.”

“Yes, I agree,” said Marya. She jerked a thumb at the sky. “Especially after seeing the swans close up–not something I want to do again, let me tell you!” She stood up and unself-consciously unzipped her coveralls.

“Hang on,” said Axel. “I disagree. Marya, I think you should keep your unitard.”

“Why?” asked Calandria.

Axel grinned. “I’ve got an idea.”

25

“Where is she?” Marya strained to see through the darkness. She and Axel were crouching in damp weeds, while Calandria snuck up on some horses in a nearby paddock.

“She’s nearly there,” whispered Axel. “Pipe down, or the dogs will hear you.”

Marya started to sit back, remembered they were on a planet covered with foul dirt, and recovered her crouching position. She shook her head. Calandria May seemed to take it for granted that her ways were the best. She had insisted on being the one to steal these horses.

“As soon as they discover they’re gone, there’ll be a posse out after us,” she said, for what felt like the tenth time.

“We’ll be long gone by the time that happens,” he repeated back. “Trust us.”

“My plan was better.”

“We’ve been over this. Your unitard wouldn’t fit Calandria.”

“So what? I-”

The dogs started barking. Marya Mounce cursed under her breath. Calandria had been approaching downwind and with almost supernatural quiet, but the damn animals had sensed her anyway. She wasn’t even to the paddock gate yet.

Calandria raced up to the paddock gate and began unhooked the loop of rope that kept it shut. Horses nickered nervously in the darkness beyond.

Marya shook her head, scowling. She had come up with a plan that, ethnologically, should guarantee that they were not pursued when they took the horses. Calandria had rejected it. The woman seemed to think only in terms of skulduggery–or maybe she didn’t want to admit that Marya’s plan was better than hers.

Here came the dogs, three of them snarling through the grass straight at Calandria. Marya’s breath caught in her throat as Calandria froze–but then there came a brilliant flash of light that dazzled Marya’s eyes for a moment.

The laser pistol was set on flash mode. Marya heard yelping, and opened her eyes to see the dogs stopped, pawing at their snouts. Poor things. A moment earlier they had been all teeth and claws, but already Marya felt like stroking them.

Calandria threw open the paddock gate. The horses were a bit dazzled too, and skittish.

The cottage door opened, throwing new light across the clearing. Two men stepped out. One shouted at the dogs.

“Trust?” said Marya. “Yeah, I trusted this was going to happen.”

“Calandria will handle it, you’ll see.”

Indeed, May was walking confidently across the paddock towards the men. One pointed at her and swore. Marya did a mental tally of the Ventus oaths she knew, trying to identify the language. Memnonian, of course…

Marya never found out what Calandria was planning to do next, because her own impatience and annoyance got the better of her. Marya stood up, unzipping her thermal overalls. “Hey, what are you-” began Axel, stopping as Marya disappeared from sight. She had tuned her holographic unitard to black, and before he had time to figure out what she was doing, she ran into the clearing.

The men were both burly, but short. They looked rough. Behind them another figure had appeared in the cottage doorway, hands bundled in its skirts.

“What you doin?” the first barked at Calandria. Pure Memnonian, she marveled. A rich strain of it, from the accent. She could almost trace this man’s ancestry by the way he sounded his vowels.

Marya stepped between the men and Calandria, and said “Morph,” in a loud and clear voice. As she did, she tuned her holographic clothing to another suit.

The men’s eyes widened and they fell several steps back. Marya had gone from peasant clothing to a festival costume that was all feathers and rainbows. Marya knew her face glowed out of it like an angel’s. That was the design.

“Uh, hello,” she said carefully. The words sounded clumsy in her own ears. “I mean you harm–no, no harm, I mean you.”

They both stopped short, a couple of meters away, and looked her up and down. Behind her, Marya heard Calandria muttering something. She chose not to listen.

The men were intimidated, but stood their ground. “W-what do you want?” asked the first, who looked older. “We have nothing. We’ve not harmed a single creature in this wood. Look, all we’ve got is horses–”

“Horses,” she said, nodding. “We need three. One for me, and two for my human servants.”

They looked so tragic that Marya wanted to turn and just walk away. The horses were all they had, after all. They were abjectly poor, and she was robbing them. Maybe there was something she could give them… but all the off-world paraphernalia she had would endanger them if they kept it. “I’m sorry,” she said.

They glanced at one another. “Do you need saddles?” said the younger man. The older one shot him a dirty look.

They really did need saddles, but Marya couldn’t bring herself to go that far. “No,” she said.

“Marya,” hissed Calandria.

“No saddles. Just horses. Thank you.”

The dogs were recovering their sight, and whined and snuffled around the feet of the men. Reluctantly, they turned to walk three palfreys over to her. She had no way of judging the quality of the mounts, and would probably have turned down the best if she knew they were offering them to her. Silently, the men bridled the horses and handed her the reins. “Spare us,” was all that the older one said as she led the horses out the paddock gate.

She could smell the animals–a spicy and enticing odor, but somehow… unsanitary. Her nose wrinkled. She made hushing motions as she approached them.

The walk to the woods seemed to take forever, and Marya looked back several times. The woman had joined them, and the three stood there with slumped shoulders watching part of their livelihood go. Marya felt so bad she nearly cried.

“That was a damnfool thing to do,” accused Calandria. “You could have got hurt if they’d attacked us.”

“I told you my plan would work better,” Marya shot back. “And I told you yours wouldn’t work at all, remember?”

For once, Calandria had no answer.

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