Vernal Equinox 2003






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Loren Rhoads

Loren Rhoads is the editor of Morbid Curiosity magazine. Her fiction has appeared in Indigenous Fiction, Not One of Us, Beyond Science Fiction, and won the Death Equinox 2000 story contest. She's been the cemetery columnist on Gothic.Net for almost four years. Her first book of essays, Jet Lag and Other Blessings, will appear from Agua Bonita Press in Summer 2003.


J HERE CAN ANDRADE BE? I run my finger around the rim of my empty glass and stare into the mirror behind the bottles across the bar from me. These Earthers imitate us, their dress as black as our moods. But even though I in my rags and Lens in his leathers look interchangeable with the Earthers here, I had trouble persuading Lens to rest here. He is angry with himself for letting Andrade disappear.

Something tugs at my sleeve. "Gotta cigarette, Babe?"

The Earther sees my fingers twitch. Before he can flee, my fist is twisted in his collar, one knuckle in the dirty hollow of his throat. His flesh is slick as I haul his feet off the floor.

"This is a good time to hassle me," I say, but my heart is not really in the threat. "If we were elsewhere, I'd kill you."

"Sorry, sir," he apologizes, raw-voiced, as if I had torn his throat away. I drop him and watch him scurry off.

"Should've wasted him," Lens growls. He turns another page of the newspaper, scowling at the photographs.

I hang my head. Lens is right as usual. No one will respect me if I don't assert myself.

Abruptly Lens shoves the paper at me. A picture shows a body amidst overturned trashcans. Puddles blacker than his clothing shine on the alley floor. My stomach hurts as if someone punched me.

"Read it, Kemmy," Lens urges in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

The soft, ugly English alphabet mirrors the people. I want off this planet more than I've wanted anything in a long time. I hold the paper toward the light behind the bar.

"Someone killed Andrade for the money he took from the ship," I summarize. This makes me ache to hit something; I liked Andrade best of my crewmates. "The officials caught the man when he tried to spend the money, and he told them what he'd done."

"Where is he now?" Lens demands.

I scan the article. "Being held for trial."

"Earthers don't begin to understand justice." The stool scrapes back from the bar as Lens stands. He stalks out to the street and I follow. People step out of our way, staring at me to decide whether I am male or female. Lens puffs up with pride at the attention I attract. I am glad he is there to protect me from the mob.

I STUMBLE INTO LENS when he halts before a blue-clad man with a handgun at his hip. Sensing confrontation, the other humans move away. Smiling politely, Lens says, "We'd like your help to find where a murderer is being kept."

The man tips his head to look up into Lens's black eyes. "In jail, probably."

Lens snaps, "Where?"

The officer's hand drifts over to rest on his gun. He imagines that he moves slow enough to avoid our notice. "Why do you want to know?"

"We are 'mates of the boy he killed," I say.

"People are murdered every day, kids. If the man is guilty, he'll get what he deserves when he comes to trial." The policeman's gaze traces my cheekbones. He doesn't want us to leave until he's through looking at me. "Out of curiosity," he says, stalling us, "who we talkin' about?"

I close my eyes and remember, "The paper says he's called Joe Blake."

The policeman's eyes focus on Lens. "Blake is the kid that knifed the counterfeiter, isn't he? He's probably on the third floor at the Eighth, under max security. You boys've got nothing to worry about."

"What'd'you mean?" Lens demands. He shakes with anger. Though impressed by his control, I grab his arm.

"Let it go, " I whisper. "We got what we needed."

Lens nods. He knows not to mess with the law on these back-worlds, especially over things we do not understand. The cop watches us speculatively as I follow Lens into an alley. We trans back to the ship. Let the cop wonder why we never come out.

TEO LOOKS UP FROM the com-console where he has been waiting for Andrade to call. Teo and Andrade were as close as two halves of the same being. Teo receives the bad news with tears. I've never seen anyone but Earthers cry before. I dig my nails into my palms to stop my hands from shaking.

Lens punches Teo's arm. "You'll feel better after we get justice."

Teo continues to sob. He is pale, shrunken in his blacks. I wonder whether he has caught an Earth disease. Without Andrade to heal him, we will be in trouble.

Lens turns to the reflective viewport to rebraid his ebony hair. He orders, "Locate the 'Eighth' on the city map, Kem. Vengeance will do us all some good."

I lean past Teo and allow the computer to taste my fingertips. When it acknowledges me, I punch in Lens's request. Graphs flash by the green screen: Eighth Avenue Lounge, Eighth District Court, Eighth Precinct Jail. I request definitions of the last two and fix the correct floor plan in my mind. Then I link our computer to the one at the jail. After it tells me which cell Blake is in, I report.

"Good." Lens twists a black ribbon around the braid, which is as thick as my wrist. He joins hands with me and Teo. Lens takes the destination from my mind and we trans out.

We materialize in a gray concrete corridor. Its walls are interrupted at intervals by steel bars.

"Blake?" Lens asks.

Shockingly pale eyes squint from the cage at us. "What do you want?"

"This." Lens transes in, hauling the human back from the bars with one gloved hand.

"Shit," Blake whispers.

Teo and I follow Lens. Blake's cellmate is breathing shallowly, apparently drugged into unconsciousness. Good. No witnesses.

Lens drops Blake, who stumbles into a fighting crouch. Brown stubble covers his head and surly face. He smells of anger and Andrade's blood. "Who the hell are you?" he demands.

"'Mates of the boy you killed," Lens snarls. "We're here for justice."

Unexpectedly, Blake grins. "The guards let you queers in to rough me up, huh? Well, I got rights."

"Not with us you don't," Lens gloats.

Blake's punch lands in Lens's palm. As Lens's big hand closes, the Earther's fingers crunch. Screaming, Blake crumples to his knees as if worshipping Lens.

Footsteps thud toward us. Teo grabs me and Lens and transes us out.

LENS HUGS ME WHEN we reach the ship. He traces a finger along my jaw, but his gaze is for Teo. "We didn't have time to teach Blake much," he says. "These back-worlders are slow to learn."

"Of course we'll have to go back tomorrow night," Teo says. Rather than excited, he sounds resigned.

Shrugging him off, Lens opens one of the lockers and returns with a syringe, a piece of tubing, the burner. "Another day on-world will give us more time to check the cargo's purity," he says. "Teo, get some dust."

Lens cooks up the cocaine as I tie the tubing around my arm, yanking it tight with my teeth. The Syndicate gladly allows us a fraction of the cargo as our pay, since not many smugglers will bother to run obscure drugs from the back-worlds. The big money is in bringing weapons and starship parts out from the central hub. Lens hopes to captain one of those ships when he grows up.

THE NEXT NIGHT WE trans directly into Blake's cell. My head pounds. The precision required to pinpoint our destination strains the link between our minds. We are weakened without Andrade's calm.

Neither of the sleeping forms in the bunk bed is Blake. Teo whispers hopefully, "Maybe he's dead."

Lens laughs. "We were easy on him yesterday."

"Maybe they took him to a medic for his hand," I suggest.

Leaning over the upper bunk, Lens pops the man with his fist and growls, "Where's the infirmary?"

Curses, mostly unintelligible, answer him. Lens hits the Earther again.

"It's downstairs, damn you. Second floor." The man squints against the light at our backs. "Who are you?"

"Bad dream." Lens thumps him again, and we trans out. Lens likes dramatic exits.

THE MEDICAL WARD SMELLS of ammonia. The long white room has four inmates, all of whom appear sedated. Lens moves among the cots, danger dancing in his muscular body. He snatches a sheet from one bed.

Blake cracks one eye open, then sucks in a breath and crawls back against the wall.

To impress Lens, I haul the Earther forward. "Why're you hiding down here?"

Blake holds up a bandaged hand. "They think I done this to myself. The orderlies been keepin' an eye on me, so don't try anything," he advises.

"Maybe we should take you somewhere else," Teo threatens from over my shoulder. "Leave you in an alley like you left Andrade?"

"Fuck you, faggot. He never shoulda touched me." Even though his unbandaged hand shakes, Blake's voice is steady. I admire that.

Lens pulls Blake out of my grasp. "Why did you kill Andrade?"

"He touched me, offered me money . . ."

"Don't flatter yourself, Earthman." Teo spits on Blake's white gown. "Andrade only wanted pleasure. If you'd said no, he probably would've given you the money anyway. You killed him for nothing."

Pale with anger, Teo transes one of Andrade's laserknives into his hand. "Let's kill him now and be done."

"No," Lens says. "For Andrade. Wait 'til the Earther realizes what he's done."

Each reference to "Earther" has upset Blake more. Now he stares at the laser, certain that it wasn't in Teo's hand a moment before. He is beginning to think that we only look human, and to recall that we walked through his walls last night.

"Guards," Blake sobs, the sound trapped in his throat. "Guards."

A slow smile spreads across Lens's face. "Don't make us give you something to whine about," he advises, lifting Blake out of bed. He drops the Earther to the white floor and gives him a kick so sharp that I hear ribs crack. Lens kneels and yanks the Earther's face to within a hand's breadth of the metal cot frame. "Did you kill Andrade for the money?"

"No. I took that afterwards . . ."

Lens slams Blake's head down against the sharp metal edge. A line of blood appears along the man's forehead. His unbandaged hand twitches, but he does not yell.

"You killed him because he touched you?"

Blake mumbles, "Yes . . ."

His head slams down again.

"Did you ever kill anyone before?" Teo asks.

"No," Blake gasps. "And I didn't mean to kill him . . ."

Lens shoves his head down again. "You're rationalizing."

"No . . . I mean it." Tears glisten at the corners of Blake's swelling eyes. "I just cut him and grabbed the money and ran. I thought someone would find him before he bled to death . . ."

Teo ignites the laserknife. "I've heard enough."

"Keep watch," Lens snarls. "I'm not done."

Furious, Teo stalks off. I look between the two, then follow Teo. "What's the matter with you?" I ask. "Andrade was your pair. You owe him justice."

"What Lens is doing isn't for Andrade any more, if it ever was. Andrade wouldn't want this." Teo's voice is shrill, unfamiliar. "Fuck traditional justice."

The words sound strange coming from him. Teo is the only person I know with a traditional pair-bond. At least, he was. It takes me a moment to recover. "Think of it as soothing Lens's conscience," I say. "He shouldn't have allowed Andrade off the ship without you in the first place."

"Forget it, Kemmy." Teo's gaze is a frozen gray. "You just don't understand."

"So tell me." I pull Teo around to face me. "What don't I understand?"

"You've never been in love. You don't even like us much, but Lens and the things he gets away with fascinate you. You're only a child, Kemmy. And if you're not careful, someone will kill you because of it, like they killed Andrade."

I can only stare at him. Finally Lens calls us back. When he rolls Blake onto the cot, the human's face looks like shredded meat.

"Now that he's dead, can we get off this rock?" I beg. I've had enough of smugglers for a while. I hope I can find another crew when we get home. Explorers, maybe. Something legal.

The harsh light catches in Blake's eyes, which are blue as his sky.

"He's not dead," Teo says flatly.

"No," Lens gloats. "Tomorrow we'll kill him. Let him be afraid first."

"Enough!" Teo leaps forward, the knife ignited.

I know Lens, what he will do. I dodge between them. Lens's gaze drills into my eyes, his fist drawn back to strike. I wonder if he is the one Teo thinks will kill me. I trans the laser from Teo's hand into my own. I will cut Lens if he moves. He knows it. With an infuriating smile on his lips, he drops his arm.

Then he transes us out. When we reach the ship, Lens slaps me into the wall. Before I shake my head clear, Lens is on Teo. Both of them are screaming about killing Blake.

My limbs feel paralyzed, as if nothing I can do will stop this insanity.

Teo gasps for breath. No time to think. I leap onto Lens's back, trying to pull him away. Over his shoulder I see Teo's face turn blue.

Between clenched teeth, Lens snarls, "Get off me, Kemmy, or I swear you're next."

"Let him go!"

"Teo's already dead."

Lens stands up, throwing me easily to the deck. My head hits hard, and lights flash before my eyes. Lens bends to kiss me. "Are you okay?" he asks as he takes the laser from my limp fingers.

I nod. There is blood in my mouth. When I look over, I see Teo's caved-in throat. I stagger to my feet.

"After we take care of Teo's body," Lens says, "we'll go back to the jail and finish off Blake. I think you're right, Kemmy. We gotta get off this rock." He lifts Teo's shoulders and I take his feet. We dump him outside the ship in the warehouse where the ship is hidden. It is likely that no one but rats will ever find the body.

MUCH LATER LENS IS sleeping. I cannot. I think about killing Lens to get revenge for Teo. But I cannot fly the ship alone. There might be other smugglers on this world, but I wouldn't be able to recognize them. They'd look Earther, just like us. My body trembles uncontrollably. I understand, now, what fear is.

Andrade died because he trusted everyone. Teo died protesting tradition. I want to kill my only escape off this planet because of a stupid Earther ideal called friendship. All because they have two sexes on this damn planet, rather than one. Andrade and Blake and Teo had to die because we misunderstood all that meant.

To think I believed in justice when we came here.


Blood Rose Home © 2003 Loren Rhoads, all rights reserved

Vernal Equinox 2003 Issue, Updated April 4, 2003

BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.

"Loren Rhoads"
Copyright © 2003 Loren Rhoads, all rights reserved.