Authors: Vonda D. McIntyre
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction
“It is taken care of.”
“And I need someone to help with Mist. Someone strong. But it’s more
important that they aren’t afraid.”
The leader nodded. “I would help you,” she said, and smiled again, a little.
“But I am a bit clumsy of late. I will find someone.”
Somber again, the older woman inclined her head and moved slowly toward a
small group of tents. Snake watched her go, admiring her grace. She felt small
and young and grubby in comparison.
His body tensed to hunt, Sand slid in circles from Snake’s wrist. She caught
him before he could drop to the ground. Sand lifted the upper half of his body
from her hands. He flicked out his tongue, peering toward the little animal,
sensing its body heat, tasting its fear. “I know thou art hungry,” Snake said.
“But that creature is not for thee.” She put Sand in the case, took Mist from
her shoulders, and let the cobra coil herself in her dark compartment.
The small animal shrieked and struggled again when Snake’s diffuse shadow
passed over it. She bent and picked the creature up. Its rapid series of
terrified cries slowed and diminished and finally stopped as she stroked it. It
lay still, breathing hard, exhausted, staring up at her with yellow eyes. It had
long hind legs and wide pointed ears, and its nose twitched at the serpent
smell. Its soft black fur was marked off in skewed squares by the cords of the
“I am sorry to take your life,” Snake told it. “But there will be no more
fear, and I will not hurt you.” She closed her hand gently around the animal
and, stroking it, grasped its spine at the base of its skull. She pulled, once,
quickly. It seemed to struggle for an instant, but it was already dead. It
convulsed; its legs drew up against its body and its toes curled and quivered.
It seemed to stare up at her, even now. She freed its body from the net.
Snake chose a small vial from her belt pouch, pried open the animal’s
clenched jaws, and let a single drop of the vial’s cloudy preparation fall into
its mouth.“ Quickly she opened the satchel again and called Mist out. The cobra
came slowly, slipping over the edge, hood closed, sliding in the sharp-grained
sand. Her milky scales caught the thin light. She smelled the animal, flowed to
it, touched it with her tongue. For a moment Snake was afraid she would refuse
dead meat, but the body was still warm, still twitching, and she was very
hungry. ”A tidbit for thee.“ Snake spoke to the cobra: a habit of solitude. ”To
whet thy appetite.“ Mist nosed the beast, reared back, and struck, sinking her
short fixed fangs into the tiny body, biting again, pumping out her store of
poison. She released it, took a better grip, and began to work her jaws around
it. It would hardly distend her throat. When Mist lay quiet, digesting the small
meal, Snake sat beside her and held her, waiting.
She heard footsteps in the sand.
“I’m sent to help you.”
He was a young man, despite a scatter of white in his black hair. He was
taller than Snake, and not unattractive. His eyes were dark, and the sharp
planes of his face were further hardened because his hair was pulled straight
back and tied. His expression was neutral.
“Are you afraid?” Snake asked.
“I will do as you tell me.”
Though his form was obscured by his robe, his long, fine hands showed
“Then hold her body, and don’t let her surprise you.” Mist was beginning to
twitch, the effect of the drugs Snake had put in the small animal. The cobra’s
eyes stared, unseeing.
“If it bites—”
The young man reached, but he had hesitated too long. Mist writhed, lashing
out, striking him in the face with her tail. He staggered back, at least as
surprised as hurt. Snake kept a close grip behind Mist’s jaws, and struggled to
catch the rest of her as well. Mist was no constrictor, but she was smooth and
strong and fast. Thrashing, she forced out her breath in a long hiss. She would
have bitten anything she could reach. As Snake fought with her, she managed to
squeeze the poison glands and force out the last drops of venom. They hung from
Mist’s fangs for a moment, catching light as jewels would; the force of the
serpent’s convulsions flung them away into the darkness. Snake struggled with
the cobra, aided for once by the sand, on which Mist could get little purchase.
Snake felt the young man behind her, grabbing for Mist’s body and tail. The
seizure stopped abruptly, and Mist lay limp in their hands.
“I am sorry—”
“Hold her,” Snake said. “We have the night to go.”
During Mist’s second convulsion, the young man held her firmly and was of
some real help. Afterward, Snake answered his interrupted question. “If she were
making poison and she bit you, you would probably die. Even now her bite would
make you ill. But unless you do something foolish, if she manages to bite,
she’ll bite me.”
“You would benefit my cousin little if you were dead or dying.”
“You misunderstand. Mist can’t kill me.” Snake held out her hand so he could
see the white scars of slashes and punctures. He stared at them, and looked into
her eyes for a long moment, then looked away.
The bright spot in the clouds from which the light radiated moved westward in
the sky; they held the cobra like a child. Snake nearly dozed, but Mist moved
her head, dully attempting to evade restraint, and Snake woke herself abruptly.
“I mustn’t sleep,” she said to the young man. “Talk to me. What are you called?”
As Stavin had, the young man hesitated. He seemed afraid of her, or of
something. “My people,” he said, “think it unwise to speak our names to
“If you consider me a witch you should not have asked my aid. I know no
magic, and I claim none.”
“It’s not a superstition,” he said. “Not as you might think. We’re not afraid
of being bewitched.”
“I can’t learn all the customs of all the people on this earth, so I keep my
own. My custom is to address those I work with by name.” Watching him, Snake
tried to decipher his expression in the dim light.
“Our families know our names, and we exchange names with our partners.”
Snake considered that custom, and thought it would fit badly on her. “No one
a friend might know one’s name.”
“Ah,” Snake said. “I see. I am still a stranger, and perhaps an enemy.”
“A friend would know my name,” the young man said again. “I would not offend
you, but now you misunderstand. An acquaintance is not a friend. We value
“In this land one should be able to tell quickly if a person is worth calling
“We take friends seldom. Friendship is a great commitment.”
“It sounds like something to be feared.”
He considered that possibility. “Perhaps it’s the betrayal of friendship we
fear. That is a very painful thing.”
“Has anyone ever betrayed you?”
He glanced at her sharply, as if she had exceeded the limits of propriety.
“No,” he said, and his voice was as hard as his face. “No friend. I have no one
I call friend.”
His reaction startled Snake. “That’s very sad,” she said, and grew silent,
trying to comprehend the deep stresses that could close people off so far,
comparing her loneliness of necessity and theirs of choice. “Call me Snake,” she
said finally, “if you can bring yourself to pronounce it. Saying my name binds
you to nothing.”
The young man seemed about to speak; perhaps he thought again that he had
offended her, perhaps he felt he should further defend his customs. But Mist
began to twist in their hands, and they had to hold her to keep her from
injuring herself. The cobra was slender for her length, but powerful, and the
convulsions she went through were more severe than any she had ever had before.
She thrashed in Snake’s grasp, and almost pulled away. She tried to spread her
hood, but Snake held her too tightly. She opened her mouth and hissed, but no
poison dripped from her fangs.
She wrapped her tail around the young man’s waist. He began to pull her and
turn, to extricate himself from her coils.
“She’s not a constrictor,” Snake said. “She won’t hurt you. Leave her—”
But it was too late; Mist relaxed suddenly and the young man lost his
balance. Mist whipped herself away and lashed figures in the sand. Snake
wrestled with her alone while the young man tried to hold her, but she curled
herself around Snake and used the grip for leverage. She started to pull herself
from Snake’s hands. Snake threw herself and the serpent backward into the sand;
Mist rose above her, open-mouthed, furious, hissing. The young man lunged and
grabbed her just beneath her hood. Mist struck at him, but Snake, somehow, held
her back. Together they deprived Mist of her hold and regained control of her.
Snake struggled up, but Mist suddenly went quite still and lay almost rigid
between them. They were both sweating; the young man was pale under his tan, and
even Snake was trembling.
“We have a little while to rest,” Snake said. She glanced at him and noticed
the dark line on his cheek where, earlier, Mist’s tail had slashed him. She
reached up and touched it. “You’ll have a bruise,” she said. “But it will not
“If it were true, that serpents sting with their tails, you would be
restraining both the fangs and the stinger, and I’d be of little use.”
“Tonight I’d need someone to keep me awake, whether or not they helped me
with Mist. But just now, I would have had trouble holding her alone.” Fighting
the cobra produced adrenalin, but now it ebbed, and her exhaustion and hunger
were returning, stronger.
He smiled, quickly, embarrassed. “I was trying the pronunciation.”
“How long did it take you to cross the desert?”
“Not very long. Too long. Six days. I don’t think I went the best way.”
“How did you live?”
“There’s water. We traveled at night and rested during the day, wherever we
could find shade.”
“You carried all your food?”
She shrugged. “A little.” And wished he would not speak of food.
“What’s on the other side?”
“Mountains. Streams. Other people. The station I grew up and took my training
in. Then another desert, and a mountain with a city inside.”
“I’d like to see a city. Someday.”
“I’m told the city doesn’t let in people from outside, people like you and
me. But there are many towns in the mountains, and the desert can be crossed.”
He said nothing, but Snake’s memories of leaving home were recent enough that
she could imagine his thoughts.
The next set of convulsions came, much sooner than Snake had expected. By
their severity she gauged something of the stage of Stavin’s illness, and wished
it were morning. If she was going to lose the child, she would have it done, and
grieve, and try to forget. The cobra would have battered herself to death
against the sand if Snake and the young man had not been holding her. She
suddenly went completely rigid, with her mouth clamped shut and her forked
She stopped breathing.
“Hold her,” Snake said. “Hold her head. Quickly, take her, and if she gets
away, run. Take her! She won’t strike at you now, she could only slash you by
He hesitated only a moment, then grasped Mist behind the head. Snake ran,
slipping in the deep sand, from the edge of the circle of tents to a place where
bushes still grew. She broke off dry thorny branches that tore her scarred
hands. Peripherally she noticed a mass of horned vipers, so ugly they seemed
deformed, nesting beneath the clump of dessicated vegetation. They hissed at
her; she ignored them. She found a thin hollow stem and carried it back. Her
hands bled from deep scratches.
Kneeling by Mist’s head, she forced open the cobra’s mouth and pushed the
tube deep into her throat, through the air passage at the base of the tongue.
She bent close, took the tube in her mouth, and breathed gently into Mist’s
She noticed: the young man’s hands, holding the cobra as she had asked; his
breathing, first a sharp gasp of surprise, then ragged; the sand scraping her
elbows where she leaned; the cloying smell of the fluid seeping from Mist’s
fangs; her own dizziness, she thought from exhaustion, which she forced away by
necessity and will.
Snake breathed, and breathed again, paused, and repeated, until Mist caught
the rhythm and continued it unaided.
Snake sat back on her heels. “I think she’ll be all right,” she said. “I hope
she will.” She brushed the back of her hand across her forehead. The touch
sparked pain: she jerked her hand down and agony slid along her bones, up her
arm, across her shoulder, through her chest, enveloping her heart. Her balance
turned on its edge. She fell, tried to catch herself but moved too slowly,
fought nausea and vertigo and almost succeeded, until the pull of the earth
seemed to slip away and she was lost in darkness with nothing to take a bearing
She felt sand where it had scraped her cheek and her palms, but it was soft.
“Snake, can I let go?” She thought the question must be for someone else, while
at the same time she knew there was no one else to answer it, no one else to
reply to her name. She felt hands on her, and they were gentle; she wanted to
respond to them, but she was too tired. She needed sleep more, so she pushed
them away. But they held her head and put dry leather to her lips and poured
water into her throat. She coughed and choked and spat it out.
She pushed herself up on one elbow. As her sight cleared, she realized she
was shaking. She felt the way she had the first time she was snake-bit, before
her immunities had completely developed. The young man knelt over her, his water
flask in his hand. Mist, beyond him, crawled toward the darkness. Snake forgot
the throbbing pain. “Mist!” She slapped the ground.