Issue #28, Honorable Mention #3

Jes Rausch lives and writes in Wisconsin, with too many pets and too much beer for company. Nir fiction has appeared at Crossed Genres, Apex, and Bastion Science Fiction, among others. Find nem not updating nir Twitter @jesrausch.

 

[On The Premises editorial note: If you’re unfamiliar with the terms “nem” and “nir,” you can learn more at http://nonbinary.org]

 

The Blood Sowers

by Jes Rausch

 

Inana glanced around the small mess quickly before removing the vial from one of the pockets of her robes and uncapping it. Concealing it in her palm, she tipped it up over her drink and counted out six droplets of blood, six sacred droplets, and gasped as something bumped into her elbow. The vial slipped from her fingers, splashing precious Gnariti blood on the table, and she snatched at it, biting her lip to hold back a curse.

“Inana,” said Sinclaire Pahl, taking a seat next to her and setting a steaming mug down on the table. “Oh, I’m sorry—did I disturb you?”

“Not at all,” said Inana, an obvious lie that they both ignored as she mopped at the spill with a napkin and Sinclaire sipped from her mug. The smell of coffee assailed Inana’s nose and she held back an expression of disgust. She hated the nauseatingly harsh liquid.

“Is that a Bloody Mary?” asked Sinclaire, brown eyes in her terra-cotta face flicking over to Inana’s drink.

“Yes,” she said, knowing what was coming, how anyone with authority who saw her at breakfast seemed to think she needed to proceed to medical for an addiction screening. Sinclaire, however, ignored that as well.

“Glad I caught you out of your room,” she said, setting her coffee aside but keeping hold of the handle with a hand. The ship rocked briefly and Inana clutched at her glass until it leveled out again. “Don’t mind that; the engineers are handling it.”

Inana blinked at her, the lack of explanation making her curious. Normally any captain offered some sort of incomprehensible description of a problem to her, but Sinclaire Pahl was not like any other captain Inana had traveled with. Somehow that did not put her at ease.

“If we’re still arriving at Fortuna’s Child as scheduled today, I will be ready, captain.”

“Of course you will,” said Sinclaire, her eyes strangely focused on observing Inana’s every motion. “You are aware of UPPP? They currently have a starship of considerable size orbiting Fortuna. I inform you only because I have to take precautions; you will be sent down with an armed guard to Fortuna’s Child.”

Inana frowned. The United Peoples for the Protection of Planets was not a fan of her kind, but had never done outright harm to any blood sower. They opposed mainly the four governments of Earth led by various corporations, and tried to halt further progress into the galaxy. They would not harm Inana, and she could not do her job while under guard.

“I must work alone,” she said, knowing Sinclaire would not understand. “Captain, I cannot sow while in the presence of others. The Asoren culture forbids it.”

“The Asorens are not here, and you are being paid by the CWH government to do a job. So you will do it. There are too many contracts to mine Fortuna for this operation to even be delayed; there are people already residing on Fortuna’s Child, and they have waited long enough on a barren moon.”

“There are people on Fortuna’s Child?” asked Inana before she could stop herself. She had given life to dead moons before, under their newly created atmospheres like precious bubbles, but never had there been people already living in such a place. She understood now the buildings already present, her instructions to see to the public gardens and private lawns first.

“Yes, and all are very important. There are relatives of the CWH’s first president taking up residence here. You will be escorted by an armed guard.” Sinclaire paused to finish off her coffee and flash a smile. “I’m so glad we had this talk. Shuttle bay at 13:00.”

Sinclaire stood and exited, leaving Inana feeling cold. She grabbed her drink and gulped it down, feeling the warmth of the love of life beginning to take hold of her. Gnariti blood was for renewal and joy; she drank the six sacred drops each morning, far better for her than any caffeinated drink, more potent when taken with alcohol. When she was finished she returned to her small yet private room to prepare.

Door locked, she spread her vials and jars out on an Asoren cloth on the floor, sinking down to examine them, sort them, connect with them. She had been an ambassador to the Asoren world for eleven years now, one of the trusted few that species would permit. The Asorens had been impressed with her personality, her education, and her asexuality, which set them at ease that she would not eroticize the act of creation. The bloods of the creatures with which they shared their world were potent, holy in ways that no human truly understood, for part of the non-conflict agreement between their species had been to prohibit any testing on the substances. Where the science was lacking, the blood sowers had filled in, links between the Asorens and the Humans, trusted with the ancient alien knowledge of how to take droplets of life to create further life.

Vampire, Inana was often called, although that was not accurate. Not really. She sampled her collection of bloods, yes, but only to ascertain whether they were still fresh enough to be of any use, and always in the most respectful of ways, in accordance with Asoren tradition. The six drops of Gnariti she consumed daily was a spiritual ritual. She did not ingest the blood for any other purpose beyond those, not even for illness, for though she could treat it herself, she preferred to see a doctor.

Her fellow humans were mistrustful of her, never seeing what she did with her blood samples, not knowing what properties they had. But the truth was that Inana knew nearly as little as they; the Asoren knowledge, or that which the Asorens allowed them to learn, was spiritual, a series of actions and prayers they passed to her, and she could unlock how it worked no more than the disgruntled scientists. Her silence as a blood sower, and her aloofness, was partially to hide that fact from others.

It worked, as it worked for all blood sowers. Once robed in Asoren cloth covered in Asoren patterns, wearing spiritual jewelry, nearly everyone gave her berth. She unsettled them, how she went about, how they did not know what it was she was doing with her bloods. And so when she gathered up her supplies, the Asoren bloods, the herbs and incense and candles, the cloths and Gnariti feathers, and strode out into the ship’s passageways, crew members stepped aside and averted their eyes.

Sinclaire Pahl was in the shuttle bay when she arrived, looking formidable and very in charge despite being the shortest person present. Inana entered, not looking at the four armed guards, instead directing her displeasure at Sinclaire. The woman ignored it.

“Supplies and additional weapons are aboard the shuttle,” said the captain, indicating with her head that the guard should climb aboard, and they obeyed. “Is there anything else you need?”

“I need to sow alone,” said Inana again.

“You know I can’t do that. I would join you on Fortuna’s Child, but what with the UPPP about, I’m needed here. I suggest you strap yourself in securely for the flight down—you’ll be a target, too.”

Inana had not considered that. The UPPP did not wish to kill her, but she was the person who would bleed life into the dead moon. She was the person who would make extraction of Fortuna’s vast resources possible. She could become a hostage.

She nodded to Sinclaire and ran her thumb over the back of her Gnariti feather-styled ring, wishing the captain would believe her. She would be safest alone. The blood would infuse the moon better with the rituals unmarred by presence of violence, of those who did not know the ways. But Sinclaire seemed intent on protecting her.

Inana spent the shuttle ride reciting in her mind the various incantations and images associated with the Gnariti, the Bird of Life. According to what she had been told, the Gnariti was the first creature on the Asoren world, its feathers falling out and bringing to the planet all manner of life, spilling like drops of golden-green blood onto the dead ground and giving rise to everything. The Gnariti had shed six different feathers in six days. Inana would honor that by transferring life to Fortuna’s Child in six-increment cycles.

Whether it was her reverence for the Gnariti or something else, the shuttle touched down on the sparsely-inhabited satellite with no issue. She disembarked and was met by a man who was clearly high-ranking, dressed in a moon-white suit, white teeth flashing in a too-tan face that should have been as white as the rest of him. Inana disliked these sorts of people, despite the fact that they paid her for what she did. She extended her hand to him but he failed to take it.

“Inana,” he said, not calling her by any title. “Thank you. I’m sure you’re eager to get started.”

“You are?” asked Inana, not moving.

“Orion,” he said, perfect smile unwavering. A common name, no surname; she was not to know who he was. He motioned slightly with his chin. “Follow me.”

Concealing her irritation, Inana did so, and they moved from the landing area out into the small beginnings of a city. Orion paused for a moment, presumably to allow her the time to view the buildings from their current height, and she took the opportunity to see just what she would have to work around.

Spectacular works of architecture rose up, towers and arches made mainly of moon-rock, inlaid with metal, bits of machinery. It was all very magnificent, and very devoid of life otherwise. She followed Orion as he led her down a series of steps to a cobbled street, swept clean, and along it to an impressive fountain in a square that had to be the city’s center. Inana saw several public buildings, museums and film centers, rising up around the square, and patches of dusty moon-ground left the way it was, free for her to work her bloody miracles.

“First you will see to this place,” said Orion, indicating the entirety of the square with a motion of a hand. He then pulled out a tablet and extended it to her. “Specifications are listed here. There’s a file with images if you have questions, or shoot me a message. My contact’s at the bottom there. Time?”

Inana took the tablet and glanced at a few of the images, frowning.

“This space will take three days,” she said, and a warning flashed in Orion’s eyes.

“Three? Make it one. I’ll have someone up your compensation.”

Inana glanced up at him. They both knew he was lying. She would get no further compensation, but she was expected to speed up a process that could not be sped up. When she opened her mouth to tell him so, he turned and walked off, leaving her in a barren square with only the splashing of the fountain to break the silence. The guards had followed them and remained at the edge of the area, as motionless as statues.

The side of the fountain was smooth and cool, and Inana set her supplies down on it. It was clear from the information provided that Fortuna’s Child was very strongly connected with the most powerful members of the Citizens of the Western Hemisphere—most places simply wanted some grass, stretches of soil made fertile to grow what they wanted. The requests Orion had handed her were for everything from moss to fruit trees to live fish in the fountain. Three days was generous for something like this, and she could only imagine what the residents wanted in their own private gardens.

Still, she had taken the assignment. She set aside the tablet and rolled out her supplies, glancing at the guards and wishing they would leave. They might be far enough away, but she was not certain of that, and even the slightest of disturbances to her rituals could mean failure. Asoren blood sowing was a powerful practice, but a delicate one. When she was prepared, perched kneeling on stitched cloth draped over the edge of the fountain, she kept the guards to her back and bled them out of her mind. She needed to be completely focused on her task, completely in tune with the blood.

Inana began with the Gnariti feather, waving it in the pattern she had years ago learned, reciting Asoren words, thinking Asoren images. She felt the emotions she was supposed to feel, skimmed the top of the water with her feather, pulled it back. To the fountain she added six drops of Gnariti blood, either the base blood that all things needed to produce life, or such an old Asoren ritual that it could not be undone from the ceremony. Inana was not sure what properties of the bloods caused them to work, or if it was a particular combination of the sacred liquids, or the ritual, but she would not skip any steps. When she had finished with the fountain, she moved to each plot of hard-packed moon ground and repeated the procedure, altered slightly for the different base matter.

None of the guards said a word as she worked, but by the time she was finished with the last plot of rocky soil and looked up, Orion had returned, carrying a small bag.

“I brought you a meal,” he said when she approached him. He was careful not to accidentally touch her when he passed the bag to her. His smile did not falter. “Is this all you’ve done?”

“Thanks,” said Inana, setting aside the bag. “It’s a complex process. Do you have the genetic matter for the plants and animals you want?”

Orion reached into a pocket and pulled out a box. Inana took it, opened it, looked through the small vials provided.

“The sooner this is completed, the better,” said Orion, and though his words sounded serious bordering on sinister, when Inana glanced at him he was still smiling that stupid smile. She shut the box.

“Oh?” she said, affecting the mysterious offended manner that she occasionally had to use to get a semblance of respect. People were sometimes more willing to listen to her if she seemed more like a woman guarding ancient knowledge, offended by their lack of understanding.

“A UPPP shuttlecraft has been found a few kilometers from the city. You may be in danger. Fortuna’s Child doesn’t want you to become a casualty. We’re doing what we can to manage the situation, but keep in mind we cannot completely guarantee your safety.”

Inana nodded and watched Orion walk away before opening up the bag and pulling out the food within it—a quesadilla, some dried fruit, purified water. She thought the entire situation ridiculous. Here she was, hired to put plants and animals on a moon, while on the planet below the CWH’s leading businesses would tear apart the native vegetation and life to get at whatever resources they could extract. She preferred sowing her bloods on colonization attempts. That, at least, kept more to the tradition of the Asoren, who used their knowledge of bloods to promote life on their planet. It was smart of them to only allow so much blood from each animal to be given to humans. Inana did not doubt the desire for destruction she saw burning so intensely so often among her own kind.

She returned to beautifying the square with life. She stared again at the fountain, intending to sow some of the fish first to give them time to grow. They required a combination of Asoren bloods in the right quantities, and genetic matter from the kind of fish desired. Inana sorted through her bloods, said her prayers, and paused for a curfew announcement projected to the city’s residents. While they slept, she would work.

Orion did not check up on her again for hours, and she suspected he had gone to bed. She eventually moved from fountain to a patch of dirt, clearing her mind as best she could to prepare for the next ritual. She was beginning to struggle with keeping it all straight; she would have to rest soon.

“Hey,” said one of the guards as she massaged her temple, and she turned. Bursts of gunfire ripped through the air, louder than anything Inana had ever heard, and then she was staring at the guards. Two were on the ground, motionless, bleeding over the pale moon stone paving. Of the other two, one stood at the fountain near Inana’s blood stores, gun pointed at the second, who was nearer to Inana, gun pointed at her.

“Drop it,” said the guard by the fountain, and Inana waited to see whether she would die. She did not know what the situation was; she hoped only that neither of these people cared to kill her. As a blood sower, she had value. She hoped that was enough.

“You first,” said the guard pointing a weapon at her, making a threatening motion with it. “Fine. She dies, then, and you won’t get any greenery on your precious little moon.”

“Right, right.”

Inana watched as the guard by the fountain put down the gun, then, halfway through rising again, lurch and fall backward. The sound of the shot seemed to follow the guard’s death, which was strange, but Inana knew it must be her mind trying to sort out what was happening. The guard fell, bleeding, into the fountain, and her mind snapped to again.

The bloods. The mingling of the bloods. Inana’s were sacred, pure, laid down in proper ways, but now her ceremonies had been interfered with, the bloods tainted. That frightened her more than a hostile weapon. She dashed forward.

“Stop,” said the last remaining person, the voice sounding like a man’s, perhaps, but Inana did not listen. She heard his footsteps and felt a hand on her arm, restraining her. She whirled to glare at him but could only manage whatever expression she already wore. The knowledge the Asorens gave to her flashed before her eyes. She considered stabbing him with her ceremonial blade.

He shook her, waved the gun menacingly but did not point it at her again. His face was grim, his eyes wide.

“I don’t want to have to kill you,” he said as she gasped for breath, throat tight. “We don’t have a problem with the Asorens, or you, if it comes to it, because you give life, but really? To these people? The less they have to keep them here, the better.”

“I need to go,” said Inana, somehow finding her voice. Her mind screamed disaster at her, far more than this man could dream. “I should not have been interrupted. The fountain’s tainted.”

“Let them have tainted water—maybe it will cleanse them, or they can just choke on it. Wealthy bastards. If they want life around them they should settle on that planet down there, not exploit it like they exploit everything. Like they exploit you.”

Inana had no idea what this man was trying to do, perhaps win her over to his side—he had to be with the UPPP—but her mind could barely grasp at what he was saying. She had to act now. There was a dead person draped into the fountain, and she had no way of knowing until she looked where the blood from the other two guards had seeped. She tried to wrench her arm free again but he gripped her all the tighter and pulled her closer to him. Her hand went to the ceremonial knife she wore before the random thoughts that kept popping into her head reminded her that guards wore armor everywhere and her weapon would do nothing. She would need one of their guns. Spilling more blood was the wrong answer. Too much damage had already been done. She stared at him, barely blinking. Beads of sweat covered his face, betraying his nerves, the reality of murder sinking in. He spoke quickly, words growing shakier.

“Y’know their reasoning? No self-aware life. Great justification for busting apart an entire planet and killing everything there. Just great. You can’t possibly agree with it, either. You give life, not take it.”

“Let me go,” said Inana. “Please.”

Whether it was her pleading or something else, she did not know, nor did she care, but he let her go. Inana pulled her arm free, noticed him lower his gun before dashing to the fountain. Small droplets of blood were splattered over her collection of Gnariti feathers and she could not bring herself to touch them. She knelt to the vials, hands shaking as she gathered up those not broken, though many of her bloods were now leaking out of shattered vials over the stones, staining her Asoren cloth. This was all wrong. Her mind tried to blank completely on her and she forced it to work again.

She feared what she would see in the fountain. She had to look.

“Hurry up and gather your things,” said the man. “We have a way off this rock, but we have to get going now. You can’t take your time. Come on. I won’t hurt you.”

She ignored him, swallowed, took a step toward the fountain. The waters, stained red, were churning. Not with the motions of the normal bubbling of the fountain, but with something more determined than that, something more motivated, bitter. Inana thought of what went into the waters, her mind replaying the sacred recitations she had given, the Gnariti blood, the various bloods of Asoren fishes and water life, the genetic matter of koi, the murdered human. Part of a guard force trained in violence for a government content to expand at whatever cost.

“Now,” snapped the man as her hands darted almost against her will toward the body of the guard. She yanked the corpse out, saw the face of a woman about her age, let her fall wetly, stiffly, to the ground. Inana’s entire body shook. She doubted removing the guard would help. The crimson waters churned.

She glanced up at the man. So he and others wished to save Fortuna, decided to make her part of their ongoing mission against exploitation and rampant ravaging. Decided to, and gave her no option, and she wanted no part of this, any of this. She had not become a blood sower to watch blood spilled for any reason other than enhancing life. None of the Asoren animals were ever even killed for their life-giving blood, and yet here she was, bending without realizing what she was doing, picking up the dead guard’s gun. She had seen them used. She pointed it at the man across from her. He swore.

“I don’t care about any of this,” said Inana, hearing her voice shake. “What you want, what they want—I want out of it. Just let me go. I’m only a blood sower.”

“You can’t get out of it,” said the man. He raised his gun again and Inana barely understood what that meant. “If you don’t come with me, you’re dead. We have people everywhere. We set charges everywhere. Our ship is safe, but this city isn’t, and the ship you came in on is due to go off at any moment. Come with me. We would only use your abilities for ethical purposes. We’d respect you. Put the gun down.”

Something inside the fountain splashed. Inana’s mind raced. If she went with this man, with UPPP, she would never be able to return to the Asoren world. It was too guarded by government forces. Her bloods would run out.

“At least put the gun down and let me leave. I won’t shoot you unless you make me.”

Inana bit her lip. In the distance, an explosion went off, followed by another explosion, the wail of some kind of siren. She heard the sound of a gun, saw the man in front of her collapse, and dropped the weapon, staring at it. She would not be allowed to return to the Asoren world now, anyway. Not now that she had killed. She took a step back, bumped into the guard’s body, took in a huge gulp of air.

“Inana.”

Sinclaire Pahl. Somehow Inana identified her voice, looked over to see her approaching, her own gun raised, several armed ship’s crew behind her. They moved through the square as Sinclaire approached Inana, tucking away her weapon.

“Not bad,” said Sinclaire. “Considering all you do is mix your bloody drinks.”

Inana stared. She could not speak. The captain laughed at her expression.

“You didn’t kill him. I did. You distracted him. You think you could have shot anyone holding a gun like that?” As Inana swallowed, she motioned to the others circling the area. “Come on, we have to get moving.”

“The ship,” said Inana, almost surprised she could talk again.

“We disarmed the explosives. Sounds like the team down here missed a few of theirs. I want to avoid a space battle, though, and that UPPP ship is en route. The CWH can send their own forces to fight them. They didn’t pay me for this. Let’s get going.”

The water in the fountain splashed, sloshed again, and Inana turned to look, trying to back away as she did. She heard Sinclaire curse and whip out her gun again as the water rose up and fell back, revealing what had been given life in the fountain.

Several creatures broke the surface of the water, the size of housecats, scaled like fish, spotted orange and black and white like koi. They were nothing like fish, though, beyond that. They had strange, humanoid-shaped heads, scales pulled taut over them, eyes sunken and lidless. They had no noses, and what might have been teeth or fingernails protruded from lipless mouths. Inana stumbled backward, trying not to look at their other strange appendages, their hissing noises mimicking human speech. They roiled, scrambling over each other as they wriggled their way to freedom. Sinclaire shot one once, twice, then grabbed Inana’s arm and pulled her away.

Sinclaire Pahl called a retreat Inana barely registered. Somewhere in the distance another explosion sounded, and the siren still shrilled through the air. They ran past the other dead guards, their blood having given rise to life that was beginning to cover them. Hair like mats of moss grew up over the bodies and through the cracks of the cobblestone near them, accelerated tendrils undulating in a mix of coarse and fine coils, dark and light, straight and curled. They stretched outward, grasping for purchase, advancing at a terrible rate.

Something else plantlike and glistening with a sheen of blood expanded near them, snaking along the ground as its leaves, fleshy like hands, covered in a hodgepodge of skin, slapped against the stone to hurry its travel. The vines were pale green and sickly, ridged as though knobs of bone lurked beneath the thin layer of plant matter. They cringed and snapped like determined spines toward Inana as Sinclaire pulled her along, and she turned her face away, unable to look. She tried to block her mind from what was going on behind them, but occasionally one of Sinclaire’s people would turn and shoot at something, shattering her attempts.

Inana tried to breathe around her tightened throat as they reached a shuttle. Sinclaire barked orders, sent word to Orion or whoever was listening about the situation at the fountain, which she could not properly describe. When she finally returned to sit next to Inana, she brought a cup of water.

“I need to sow alone,” said Inana, setting aside what few bloods and ceremonial items she had been able to salvage in order to take the cup. She was not sure whether she had actually meant to thank Sinclaire for the water. She drank it.

“Well, it’s over now. We’ll give you a free lift until you know where you’re needed next. Last time I get involved with any of you vampires, though. Don’t care what the money is.”

“I need to get to the Asoren world,” said Inana, holding her cup tightly in both hands.

“Not likely. The CWH’s not going to want me or you—especially you—near there. When they know what grew in that fountain…”

Sinclaire Pahl looked away, and Inana realized what had happened had unsettled her, too.

“I didn’t do it,” said Inana, knowing that was not completely true. She had added the Asoren bloods, had performed the powerful rituals. She wanted very much a drink and the sacred Gnariti blood, to make her feel connected to something not so monstrous, to soothe her. To heal her. She had lost all her other healing bloods. She drank the last of her water.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Sinclaire.

A silence fell that lasted nearly back to the ship. Inana’s mind was finally shutting off after everything, nothing more to keep it working. She felt weary. Old. She wanted desperately to return to the Asoren world, stay there as long as she needed, but she knew Sinclaire was right to assume none of the governments would want her near the place now. And her bloods were nearly gone.

“What does it taste like?” asked Sinclaire as her crew went through docking sequence.

Inana looked up, confused, wondering if she had missed something the captain had been saying.

“Blood. Does it taste good?”

Sinclaire stared at her like she had just asked something wonderfully taboo. Inana blinked, still confused. That depended on the blood, on the person, on so many things. She set aside her cup and took up her small bundle of Asoren items.

“You already know the answer,” she said. “Everyone does.”
 

 

Copyright 2016 by Jes Rausch