October 2827 CE, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Sulowesi Highlands, MARS
Dawo blinked back tears as he sat and shivered in the kraal, arms wrapped around bony knees. Nearby, the Loose-bellied One watched him and chewed her cud placidly. It was chilly, but the presence of the Loose-bellied One and the other cattle helped a little. Dawo felt tightness in his chest. Grandmother would have made him bring a dustcloak to put over the loose clothes he wore. It didn’t really matter, he told himself.
He’d turned four years old today, almost eight in Earth time. That was old, practically a warrior. But Father wasn’t here to give him his first brand-mark. And Grandfather was dead. His eyes stung at these thoughts.
The kraal was silent except for the occasional grunt or rustle of the cattle. Its thick walls rose up taller than a tall man’s head. Dawo sniffed. A good kraal for the tribe’s cattle was the first thing any true Maasai would build, so Grandfather had always said. Overhead, Dawo could see pale blue sky through the orange haze of dust that clung to the membrane roof despite Uncle Ekata’s best cleaning efforts. I-suut e nanyokye, the Ol-Maasani called it. The red god’s breath.
It was late in the day. Grandmother would come looking for him soon. Dawo pressed his face onto his knees, still feeling cold. He wouldn’t go. He’d live here, with the cattle. Everyone would feel sorry for him, especially Father. Dawo would get sooo thin. Because he would only eat grass like the cattle. He would refuse all other food until Father came back. Father would come back then, when he heard how Dawo was so thin. And they’d be a family again.
Dawo hated Father for leaving. He hated the rebellion for taking Father away. Maybe Dawo would join the Imperial Police. Then Father would be sorry! A sob escaped him like a hiccup, and he had to fight so they wouldn’t become a river. When he felt strong again, he shot a look at the Loose-bellied One, daring her to laugh. But the cow just lay there with her legs folded neatly under her. Her brown eyes held nothing but calm bovine wisdom.
Voices approached, the ki-ki-ki of Grandmother’s laughter, the muted tones of men. He hugged himself harder and shut his eyes. Grandmother wouldn’t move him. He let the hurt in his heart grow until his whole body trembled with it. The kraal door opened, and Dawo braced himself.
"Dawo-child?" Grandmother’s voice warbled with merriment. "Ahai! You watch the cattle! You see, he is especially hard-working, our Dawo. Even on his birthday! How are you, Grandson?"
Dawo refused to answer. He stayed as still as stone.
"Dawo? You don’t want to greet our guests?" Grandmother asked, a little concern flowing into her words.
Dawo stirred not a muscle. He pretended he was a rock, a big red one. Rocks didn’t talk.
"Dawo?" Her voice sharpened, and she spat to show her astonishment. "Don’t be rude!"
There was a dry chuckle from one of the men. "The snapper’s snittin’ you," a stranger rasped. "I oughta go, let you talk in peace." There was a sound like a dull flap. One man clapping the shoulder of another, Dawo realized. Despite himself, he found he was listening intently to the creak and stir of the people standing there. He wondered momentarily if his ears were growing stalks. Then he remembered he was supposed to be completely miserable, an unhappy rock.
Grandmother sighed. "He’s been moody since…well, you know. You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?"
The raspy voice answered after a moment. "Maybe. We’ve gotta meet some folks tomorrow, but…" The words trailed off, and Dawo heard the kraal door cycle, footsteps departing. It was quiet again, except that someone had stayed behind. Dawo could hear him breathing.
His concentration wavered. It was hard to be a rock. Especially when you were cold. Dawo heard the Loose-bellied One get up and clop over to the stranger. She only did that with people she knew well, he realized. An unexpectedly familiar voice greeted the cow softly, and Dawo popped his eyes open in amazement.
"FATHER!" The next instant, Dawo was on his feet, stumbling because he’d been a rock for so long his legs wouldn’t work right, and he made a tottering leap into his father’s arms. There was a long, wordless hug.
From where his face pressed against Father’s stomach, Dawo couldn’t help but notice the pistol that hung on the belt under the dustcloak. It smelled of metal and oil. The sight took some of the happiness right out of him.
"You’re going to stay, aren’t you?" he asked hopefully.
Strong hands moved to his shoulders and pushed him gently away. Dawo looked up. He hadn’t seen Father in over a season, but the man looked as tall and dignified as ever, even in the grimy dustcloak. He still reminded Dawo of the panthers pictured in the tribe’s books of Earth. But leaner, like a panther who hadn’t eaten much fat lately. Father’s eyes were calm and piercing. His voice was deep as mountains.
"No, my son. I won’t lie to you. I will not stay."
"At all?" Dawo nearly squeaked the question.
Father shook his head.
Dawo pulled away, the hurt returning along with the tears. His eyes stung. "Then why did you come?"
"Because it is my beloved son’s birthday, and I wanted to see him again and wish him a happy day."
Dawo swallowed. "Don’t want you to go away again."
Father’s voice was very gentle now, almost a whisper. "I must."
"Why?" A sob shook Dawo. "Why do you have to go?"
Father straightened to his full height. "Let us take a walk, son." He patted the Loose-bellied One. "It is nearing sunset."
Dawo wiped his nose and took Father’s hand. They left the kraal and its musky cattle smell and stepped outside into the thin warmth of a Martian summer evening. Father went over to a Rover filthy with dust and popped the cargo compartment. As Dawo trailed up, Father pulled out a dustcloak and a small spear. Dawo recognized the spear immediately; a Maasai spear, half its length taken up by the narrow, swordlike blade, the other half by the polished hardwood haft. Scarlet feathers sprouted from the joint where the blade fitted into the wood. Father showed it to Dawo reverently.
"This was my first spear, given to me by Grandfather when I was a child, not much older than you are today. It is very old, I think." He paused, mischief in his face. "But not yours just yet. Here, put on this dustcloak. We go up to the ridge."
Dawo hesitated, all his misery still there but pushed back by the excitement of seeing the spear and by curiosity. Why did Father want to walk to the ridge? The view was good, Dawo supposed. You could see a long way. Maybe Father just wanted to walk and talk.
Or maybe he was looking for the Imperials. In case they were hunting him.
A flush of fear passed through Dawo, and he took the dustcloak and struggled into it as quickly as he could. All wishes for the Imperials to come and take Father away vanished, leaving a sick feeling in his belly. The dustcloak was too long. It trailed in the dust around Dawo’s feet. He would have to take little steps.
Father gave him a look that said everything would be all right, and took Dawo’s hand again.
A strange man came out onto the porch of the house, carrying a bottle loosely in one hand. He had pale skin and watery eyes. His miner’s cap was pushed back on his head, revealing stringy hair the color of rust.
"You goin’ on a jander, Hunter?" the man asked. It was the same one who had been in the kraal earlier.
"Yes, Saxon. My son and I are going for a walk."
"Waal, don’t be too long, Boss. Bek wants us in Molesworth tomorrow morning."
"You’re leaving tonight?" Dawo’s voice broke. "But you just got here!"
"I have work to do, son. Besides, my presence here puts you all in danger." Father and the strange man nodded to each other. Then Father led Dawo up the road, carrying the spear in his other hand.
They walked awhile in silence. The road was hard, made of pressed bricks from the crusty red dirt. Dust puffed up with each step, but never rose above their knees. Speargrass waved pale blades as they passed. Dawo held Father’s hand tightly and closed his mouth on all the questions he wanted to ask. Do not speak words like grass, Grandfather’s voice seemed to whisper. He felt ashamed of wishing to be an Imperial, before.
When they reached the ridgeward path, they followed it off the road up through stands of man-tall speargrass, Dawo going first. Every so often, their feet met a packed brick stair or two that made the climb easier. It still took effort, though, and Dawo made himself breathe deeply. Up here in the highlands, air was thin. The sun had reached the horizon and was beginning to drop. The sky there had turned a deep amber that reached up into the fading blue. Dawo was used to the hike, though, and turned to wait when he sensed he was getting ahead.
Father was breathing more deeply than Dawo, and used the spear as a walking stick. "I have spent too much time in the lowlands," he remarked. "Dawo, have you ever wondered why the Maasai came here? To Mars?"
"I wanted to talk to you, sooner now that Grandfather is gone…" He paused, glanced down at Dawo. "You asked me why I cannot stay. It is time to tell you why our people are here. You know that we come from Africa on old Mother Earth?"
"The Maasai were a warrior people. We came into our lands with burning spears and the hearts of lions. We drove all the other tribes away."
Dawo nodded proudly. "I remember the stories."
"Good. And you remember that we have two gods, or perhaps two faces of God. You know these?" Father’s voice was wonderfully calm, as it was whenever he taught his lessons. Dawo knew Father meant to teach him something, and his curiosity doubled.
"Yes, Father. The good black god brings the rain, but the red god is bad and brings drought and death. The black god protects us from the red."
"We have been here on Mars since before the Fire. We have endured Cybrids, bandits, dust, and now the heavy hand of the Emperor. We cannot have many cattle here, and the life of the planet depends on the atmosphere processors. It is not the land of our ancestors. Why do we stay?"
"I don’t know."
"I will tell you. There." Father pointed with the spear to the top of the ridge, not far away now.
They finished the climb in silence. By the time they reached the top, Dawo was sweating underneath his clothes. He’d loosened the dustcloak and pushed it back off his shoulders, cradling the heavy folds in the crook of his arm. Father was breathing deeply. It was chilly, and they’d need the dustcloaks again soon. But the view was spectacular enough to make them forget about the cold for awhile.
The hills sprawled out around them under a violet sky that burned pink and gold and blue over the horizon. The sun had nearly sunk completely out of sight. A few trace clouds glowed dark red in the distance. And above them shone the yellow blob of Phobos.
Father leaned on the spear and took a long look. "I remember visiting here when I was a boy. It is still as beautiful as I remember it."
Dawo couldn’t wait any longer. "Father, why are we here? Why are you fighting the Terrans? Why can’t you come home and-" His voice splintered on the next word. "-stay?" Courage and curiosity fell apart, then, and Father’s arms wrapped around Dawo as if to contain the sobs that shuddered through him.
When he stilled at last, the sun had dropped completely away, and the sky blazed the last fires of sunset, all gold and purple and blood red. Overhead, the stars glittered like eyes in a jungle of night.
He sat on Father’s lap, covered in a flap of the dustcloak. The spear stood guard in the ground next to them.
"Are you feeling better?" Father asked.
Dawo nodded and blew his nose on his sleeve.
"There is a saying I’m sure Grandmother has told you: The zebra cannot change his stripes. Remember?"
"Back in the early days of Mars, they needed volunteers to come to the hard life here. After they dropped the comet on Syrtis, they needed workers. We came, following a chief called Ai-Ganri. He was a man who spoke with the spirits. Do you know what he told our ancestors?"
Dawo shook his head.
"He told our people that since men were going to ol-akira, the stars, it was time to change the ways of the red god. He said that we needed to go to the eye of the red god and plant grass there." Father chuckled softly, evidently amused by the image. "Ye-ess. Right on the very eye of the god en-nanyokye. Then, when the grass was strong and plenty, we would run cattle there. We would make the red god a giver of life."
"Why, Father?" Dawo whispered.
"Because Ai-Ganri told us we would turn the red god’s heart toward us. Ai-Ganri believed that people would need the help of both gods in the future, that he had foreseen that only with both gods working together would humanity survive. Of course, we didn’t know what would happen with the Cybrids back then."
"Did he mean the Cybrids, Father?"
"Perhaps. Or perhaps something else. But our ancestors followed his vision. We came to Mars. We helped with the terraforming. We fought the Cybrids. We raised children on the red god. And we still are warriors. We Maasai have not changed our stripes."
"Oh." Dawo felt very close to Father, but his question hadn’t yet been answered. "So why can’t you stay?"
"Because, my son, the Emperor has turned to tyranny. He takes without giving, and puts chains on Martians in the name of fighting the Cybrids. It is better to die free than to huddle as slaves, waiting for a war that might never come! No, we will fight the black mouths and our spears will burn with their blood."
"But why you could be killed!"
Father held Dawo more tightly. "Yes, that can happen to warriors."
"I don’t want you to die! Isn’t your family-" Dawo had to catch his breath so he wouldn’t cry again. "Isn’t your family more important?"
Father was silent for what seemed a long time to Dawo. When he spoke at last, his own voice sounded strained. "Serving God – doing what is right – is the most important thing there is, my son. Even more important than family, as hard as that is." Father dropped to a whisper. "Even more important than you, my son…if I remain strong enough."
Dawo struggled with tears again, but the deep sadness in Father’s voice caught at him, pulled him back into control. "Is that what it means to be a warrior?" he asked. "To do what is right?"
"Yes. Everything we do has consequences. I could stay and let the Empire take our cattle. I could let others do the fighting. But, my son," Father said, holding his open hand out into the fading sunlight. "It is said: A lie does not fit in the palm. You can only hold to the truth. We are Maasai. When a Maasai warrior goes to battle, do you know what he does?"
"Before a battle, he plants his spear in the earth and says, ‘I am the son of so-and-so, and whether I die or conquer, it will be in this place.’ Do you know why the warrior says this?"
"Because he doesn’t want to run away?"
"Something like that. It is a way of declaring that he is willing to give his life, a way of saying that he has chosen that place to fight the barbarians."
Dawo thought hard about this. While he thought, Father rose and stretched. When Dawo got up at last, the sunset colors were nearly gone, but Phobos cast yellowish light over the ridge. Father stood perched on one leg, leaning on the spear and resting the other foot on his knee, like a crane from the holos Dawo had seen.
Dawo looked into Father’s eyes, trying to read the emotion glittering there. He turned and looked out over the rugged land, painted in the moonlight, took in the last gleam of brilliant red on the horizon. A chill breeze nudged the grass and prickled his skin even through the dustcloak. He thought of Father’s words and how they’d winged like arrows into his heart. Below them, the kraal lay in shadow. He looked again at Father’s face, saw the pride there, the strength, the tribal scars tracking across high cheekbones, the head shaved in mourning for Grandfather. For a moment, Dawo saw Grandfather there, too. And himself. He looked at the spear thrust starkly into the ground before him. It spoke to him. He reached out and took it.
The shaft felt cool and heavy in his hand. Father stepped back quietly as Dawo pulled the spear free of the soil. He straightened and looked up at Father again. Then he stabbed the spear back into the crusty ground.
His voice was faint at first, but gained strength as he recited the words. "I have two skins." He tilted his face skyward and spread his arms into the stars. "One to cover me." He gestured at the shadowy land around them. "The other to lie on." Then he fixed his attention on his father’s panther-like eyes. "I am Dawo Otobe, son of Otobe the Hunter. Whether I die or conquer, it will be in this place." Dawo felt his voice deepen as he finished, as if Grandfather also spoke through him.
Father grinned, a sudden, dazzling thing that changed his face completely. Dawo felt his heart leap in joy and pride so intense he feared it would burst right out of him.
Father curled his long fingers around Dawo’s hand on the spear and held them there a long time before saying quietly, in a voice throbbing with pride, "This is yours now, my son. You are il-murani, a warrior of the Maasai. May your sunsets color the sky with blood."
Dawo realized he had become a panther himself, just like his father. He shook his new spear at the moons and howled a happy battle-cry.
Then the two panthers made their way down the hillside toward the kraal, where supper waited.