She attunes to sandstone, the rock her third mother called the “early grave.” Kell-ja’s heart races as she draws breath. Mars is no place for mixing up attunements. Align your vertices the wrong way up and your gravity’s reversed. Or worse, turned inward. Have you ever spoken sandstone’s name and felt your stomach collapse into a micro-black hole? Neither has Kell-ja. She did her training. Six years at the academy and her heels still snap together whenever someone raises their voice.
Uniformed figures are lined next to Kell-ja, cloaked in black by the night. But these soldiers might as well have features of silt. Kell-ja’s peripherals are blinded by the sky, the weight of six thousand star cruisers bearing down onto a planet. Nozzles shooting out of the starships’ bellies like tapeworms onto their next host.
The Enemy would see Mars become a mining operation. Some place they can pull resources out of and flee from. This is how men always treat bodies, whether those bodies are planetary or female. The six pendants on Kell-ja’s neck strain under the pressure of her breathing, just as she feels herself pressed under the weight of what comes next. The Enemy. Men who make dunes out of the crystalline-spired cities dotting this bloated blood-orange of a planet. Man-made lasers vaporizing shops, streets, and all the life cities hold. Kell-ja wants to blame the Men for the destruction but deep down she knows all this is her fault.
She opened Mars’ shields to the rest of the known cosmos and now the flies are buzzing in. And is that any surprise? No. She always knew she was bound to ruin paradise by wanting summer to never end.
You see, the rest of the cosmos just discovered something about Mars, thanks to Kell-ja. And historians will tell you that discovery has rarely been good for the natives.
“Child, if I die, give this to your mothers.” Says a voice.
Someone presses a weight into Kell-ja’s hand. For a moment the stranger’s features are distinct, only to fall back into silt as they fall back into battle formation. Who had they been? Kell-ja’s first mother? Seventh? Dust only knows.
Yes, dust. The clouds of it choking Mars’ atmosphere in the face of jet boosters. The haze of jettisoned earth strangling your thoughts. How could you, Kell-ja’s own aunt, drag her into this? She should be studying the ninth principles, not out here choking on what’s left of her home. Let her enjoy ignorance the way children are supposed to.
But you knew she needed to be here. Here on barren, pumped earth. To fight for what little water you have left. Because while you’re dropping buckets into hollow wells the Enemy is jet streaming vapor trails like a big fuck you written across the sky in neat cursive. What arrogant madness to fly ships using hydrogen. What brilliant excess.
The awe in your mouth tastes like vomit. Women aren’t meant to admire destruction but it’s just so beautiful you can’t help yourself.
But hush, now. Attune and count the lights in the night sky. Picture the captain’s face concealed underneath the headlights’ glare. See him swaddled in phosphorus. Let your energy pierce his crib. Pop his eyes like ripe melons so he falls bloodied over the ship’s control panel. Breathe in, inhaling the ripe scent of sweat as his copilot scrambles to steer the ship away from a collision course.
Can you see it? The first blow in a battle already lost. Take out as many of the bastards before they steal everything. Why? Because the Mothers demand it. And you’re tired of sitting on your hands while they take everything from you. You’ll fight every second of the day if you have to.
The Fifth Principle: when peace is no longer a certainty, kill, and mourn.
I see in blood. My face is warm, shuddering. This feeling must be the epilogue to that part of life I’ve always feared. The part when it all ends.
My eyes, what did those bastards do to my beautiful eyes? Do I die here? On a mission I never signed up for with hands on my shoulders I can’t even see? Am I really going to die in a godamned uniform?
They made me captain because I knew how to point the ship in the right direction and I never hit an asteroid. I always pretended that I was delivering cargo. I never minded the photovoltaic blasters spooled up in the dock bays ready to turn natives into swiss cheese. Or at least I tried not to mind it all. I guess in the end that’s all we can do.
Jesus, I’m turning into a philosopher on my deathbed. And God damn do my eyes hurt. No matter how hard I rub on them my sight won’t come back.
I was just dropping off cargo. Repeat that to myself so I can stay sane for another minute. I don’t have kids or else I’d pray to them. No wife either but I never wanted one even when the guys told me how often women compliment my eyes. I guess I was always good at pretending to be someone I’m not. Much better than being myself.
There’s blood on my elbows now. The feeling’s warm, like his touch. He’d always hold my arms while he sat straddled behind me on his motorcycle. “My very own chauffeur” he’d say in that silly mock posh accent he used when he was pretending to be his father. I used to complain how we spent days together just driving down long stretches of road burning hydrogen fuel like junkies. God, I was an idiot for not enjoying it more. I used to think that the only things that mattered were the ones you worked for. But I realize now I never really had to work for him, and he was the only thing that mattered.
I see his face now. I had to shovel dirt over that face. I can still remember how he bit his lip before he buckled his seat belt for the last time. He said motorcycles were more dangerous than cars, and I said that cars were safer. How right we both were. Accident on Highway 99, three car pileup on a motorcyclist, two fatalities. I sold my car and chose a ship after he died so I’d never have to look at a tire again.
His flattened face. Jesus, the way his eyes just bulged out in the police pictures. Part of me knows these visions about him mean I must be at death’s edge. Doesn’t everyone see their lovers when they’re close to death? God damnit. All this invasion shit for some hydrogen?
Hey, everything went black. Does this mean I’m dead now?
Is there someone there?
No answer, huh. Alright then.
One Year Ago
Kell-ja has her toes in the sand. The beach radiates warmth and laughter the way she always wished it would. Water glistens in the sunlight and flows across the land in serpentine waves. Summer. Here on Mars she only gets summer for a day. Controlled atmospheres can only do so much. She wonders what it would be like to grow up on Earth, among the men. She wonders if they kiss each other in the sun.
She fiddles with her necklace and unlaces the sandstone. Something about it always draws her in, as if its ability to reverse gravity could suck her in just the same. If she could switch her gravity and float to Earth she would. But a cruiser would snatch her out of the sky and then Mothers would scold her. Maybe suspend her from the Academy before she could finish her last year at the Academy. Good riddance. The constant propaganda against Earth makes her want to run fifteen kilometers away from her Sisters. Women aren’t meant to see the worst in people, and her Sisters’ arrogance makes Kell-ja see the worst in them. The irony is almost lost on her but she’s just barely self-aware enough to know.
Stones twinkle in the sky, a sheet of suspended fragments blanketing the atmosphere. Mars has a self-charging barrier that gleams brighter when the sun graces their surface. A symbol of the planet’s separation from the rest of the cosmos. A silly worry propped up by ancestors. Kell-ja always thought that tradition was just peer pressure from dead people. So why should she sit around and have to stay here on a planet where summer is an afterthought?
Kell-ja hurls her sandstone at the atmospheric shield. Throwing from inside the shield, anything can pass through. The Mothers always scolded her when she threw shoes or straws into space but they never said anything against stones.
A boom. The sound roils into a crashing and reverberates like acidic thunder. Her sandstone explodes into a million pieces that explode into a thousand regrets. Gods, she should have known. Take the inverse of any energy force and it can multiply across a charged field. The sudden change in energy could even undo a shield, hitting it at its weak point.
“Child, what have you done?”
She didn’t mean to…
Kell-ja shakes her head. She has no way of knowing what she’s done. But the cosmos do. They have telescopes, and they have seen Mars’ first day of summer.
You press a weight into Kell-ja’s hand. Why? Sentiments are a sin in wartime. You should know better.
But she has to know. Has to understand why men have vaporized her best friends into ash. How something that walks on two legs can bring a planet to its knees.
The battlefield erupts after you kill the pilot. His ship careens into its neighbor and turns the two of them into a fireball. That’s when the warning shots turn into promises. Without shields, Mars’ atmosphere can’t stop the pulse blasts that shatter its surface into craters. What’s left of the core’s water bursts into the air, covering your warriors in a thin layer of cold.
You dodge and weave between projectiles. Bullets, lasers, pulse blasts, are just to name a few. The air reeks of plasma and shattered stone. A man, the first to land on Mars in a hundred years, careens towards you with a sword in hand. His gun must have broken on the way down. You meet him in kind, drawing a dagger of obsidian. The blade gleams with all the names of your ancestors who have wielded it. Whole lot of ceremony just to cut a man’s wrist clean through.
Kill, and mourn.
A scream. Then dozens more. There’s scores of the men on Mars now, hoses trailing behind them up to the ships like umbilical cords. They’re here to steal water from your Mothers’ teat for their own purposes. Searing heat grazes past your shoulders. That one was a sister’s spell.
You aren’t going to win this fight. You’ve been here before – witches fight, outnumbered against some greater force, die, retreat while your dead mold in the earth and the Enemy repopulates their losses in a week. The only place you have reserved for you in the history books is your face trampled under the footnotes. You’re already dead reading this.
Your foot glances on something, nearly toppling you. At first you take it to be one of the bodies arrayed across the earth. You’ve tripped over dozens of those already and pretended not to know their names. But this one reacts. It shudders at your touch but otherwise does not move. Pulse blasts continue to rumble the earth like a planet struck too many times by lightning. This dumb bastard is going to get herself killed sitting still. Then again, you’ve seen plenty of moving sisters getting themselves killed. Maybe this one’s trying a different tactic.
But no. You recognize this face. That permanent frown she’s worn for a year. Her necklace of six amulets with one stone missing. Gods, but how she used to smile. Her personality used to be smiling but now she just frowns at everything with an intensity reeking of self-hatred.
She waves something at you. “Mom, why did you give this to me?”
I’m not your mom you want to say, but don’t. Instead you stare at her, the world blowing into a thousand fleshy shards around your heads. You lock eyes with her and think to yourself in rhythmic chants I’m home godamnit maybe not for much longer but I’m home godamnit… and so on. Maybe you don’t need to fight until your last breath. Maybe you can take a final second and mourn the minutes you have left instead of ending someone else’s existence. To stand here stock-still when a man could drive a knife through your shoulders at any second.
Stare at the picture you gave her. Maybe this is why you decided to read over a story again. Maybe the ending never changes, but the people are always real.
Kell-ja knows it’s not her mother. The features are too squashed, not sharp like her Enclave. But this is the only way she knew how to get the woman’s attention.
“Why did you give this to me?” she repeats. Her voice sounds odd when the world is so loud that she can’t hear herself in her own head. Pain blankets all other sound, now.
She waves the paper at her ‘mother.’ The sheet’s vibrant colors are not so vibrant now with starships partly blocking the sun.
“I gave it to you so you would know.” Says her ‘mother.’
Her ‘mother’ shrugs. “I don’t know myself. Maybe it can tell us why they came. Why men can do all this.”
Her ‘mother’s’ face is cast with shadow as she gestures around. Rings of skirmishes between witches and men break out around them but no one disturbs them. Or, if they do, a stray bullet or spell catches them in the gut and leaves them motionless. Any stragglers Kell-ja’s ‘mother’ picks off with a blade the length of her forearm. There’s a pile of bodies mounded around the women like sacrifices. Men and women stacked nearly to the dozen. What was this all for, wonders Kell-ja. Was it really for the water, or was it for something else?
Kell-ja wants to stand but the shell embedded in her leg screams at her. She’d never been shot before but obviously she should know not to stand on it. Silly of her for taking her eyes of the men’s guns for half a second.
Kell-ja’s ‘mother’ guards over her as she glances at the paper again. It depicts a scene that she used to dream about. Men lounged about a sandy dune ringed about an oasis. Paper contraptions to make shade without assistance from any AI. Drinks in thin glasses the color of dragon fruit. Men touching each other with smiles that said neither of them minded. It was a place where the world was just organic and nothing more.
It’s the card she kept in her dorm room every day for the past six years. The reason she petitioned Mars to create summer. All she ever wanted was a day for excess.
Did they really attack us because they wanted what we had, or because we were finally using the water for ourselves?
A ship explodes several paces away from her. The heat billows her braided hair. But realization has numbed her to reality, made it seem ecosystems away. She’s crawling on the micro organic level while others are scrambling among the stars.
The moment we decided to become something more than survivors, they put their boots on our heads.
This whole time, she’d thought the cosmos had discovered Mars’ water because of her mistake. That her breaking the shield had caused all this. How ridiculous. These men had thermal imaging, cosmos-stretching x-ray, and satellites that could count the number of teeth in a baby’s mouth. One barrier was nothing compared to their technological prowess.
No. It all made sense now. Allow the witches a day of summer and they’ll ask for another. And maybe one day, they’ll decide that surviving isn’t their only goal. They’ll want to live. To drink as much water as they damn well want and even put their feet in it once in a while. Gods, the excess of it all. But Kell-ja has never known enjoyment except for heaps of excess.
Kell-ja’s ‘mother’ yells something at her. Then there’s a crack of something heavy hitting bone. Not the sound a dagger makes. Someone else’s weapon to be sure.
Kell-ja feels his stink before she smells it. She wonders if he practices the Nine Principles on Earth. Will he mourn her passing? She doesn’t look at his face because she only wants to remember men by their faces on the card. Smiling. Touching each other the way new lovers do.
Because while she might hate the men, for a moment she just wants to pretend that deep down in their souls they are good. She knows she’s wrong. But she just wants to rest. That’s it.
It is the first time she can remember not wanting for something more.
Photo Credit: Jack B https://unsplash.com/@nervum