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This Charter, Earth:
Book Twelve

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Death's Beauty
DD
Girl Talk
The Chase
Cornered
Sea Change
Business Trip

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A day came when a newly mutated species of humanoid ape faced natural deselection. They should have died out in their first generation. It's doubtful their parents understood their dilemma. This predates speech and even the manual dexterity we take for granted. These fumble-fingered children survived long enough to develop and refine tools: the tools they needed because they were born with inadequate jaw muscles. We therefore owe our intellect to our need for kitchen utensils.

  • — Dr. Charles Morgan Triebel,
    The Human Unknown

Death's Beauty

Death's naked beauty awoke, blind and dying. Cold and getting colder, her body's violent shivering hurt her back. Half conscious, she coughed and moaned. A voiceless gasp bubbled out of her burning throat. The pain woke her.

Eyes opened, seeing nothing. Was it cold and dark because it was night? Beauty listened and heard birds sing day songs. Another voiceless cry escaped, her anguish heedless of the pain.

Her head rocked back and forth, denying this waking nightmare. The movement caused her head to pound like hammer blows. She clamped her mouth shut against a sudden wave of nausea and tried to swallow. Something was wrong with her throat. It was too stiff and dry to work. Trying hurt and made something warm flow in thin cooling streams down her neck and shoulder. She was going to cry again, but remembered pain kept her tears silent.

There was no feeling below her chest. An arm pinned under her back was asleep and unresponsive to her efforts to move. The other ached dully from shoulder to elbow. Its numb fingers stirred the waters splashing over a body dead to her except for its fierce tremors. When her face wasn't contorted by some torment, she felt her cheeks and ears shake from the force of her frenzied shivering.

Where was she? How did she get here? The questions distracted her from the pain, so she pursued them through reluctant memories to their answers. It took a while, but she finally remembered a distant nightmare.

There was a ditch near where they caught her, dislocating her arm. Their fists clubbed her down and stripped her. She squirmed too much as they spread her out, so one of them stabbed her with a long knife: through chest and into spine. Her memory ended there, in dazzling agony.

When they were through with her, they must have cut her throat before tossing her into the flooded ditch. The angle of her head suggested she was lying across the ditch, blocking part of the stream with her passive flesh. Was that why she felt so incredibly cold?

It was difficult to breathe without coughing. Inside her chest, something dragged every breath as if she were slowly drowning. Fighting to breathe, she coughed. Air belched out the side of her throat, shaking young clots loose. Fresh streams flowed from her throat, but they ran slower than before.

The pain of her neck's wounds was minor compared to her back's reaction to the coughs. She held her breath against this torment, but her lungs demanded air. She inhaled air and blood, and coughed. The explosive pain took her to the edge of oblivion. Then it started over, again and again, until she realized it wasn't so bad if she panted. The quick, shallow breaths made her lips tingle but that was nothing compared to the pain of doing otherwise.

Beauty tried to ignore the sound of water pouring over her body. She was thirsty — so thirsty she couldn't taste what coated her stiffened her lips and tongue, except for a tangy, almost-smell taste in her mouth. Drowsing, an involuntarily groan caused more air to wheeze out of her open throat. It didn't hurt so much that time.

She was so tired and cold, and thoughtless of anything but fear and pain and want. All she could really do was want. Beauty wanted to laugh, and sing, and dance, and love her husband. How wonderful it would have been to breathe without pain, to drink, to have another baby. She wanted to kiss and hug her child. Beauty wanted life.

She had heard people talk about women found, as she doubtless would be. "She asked for it," they had said, piously shaking their heads in mock pity. She had seen her tormentors before. She met their empty lust with a fearless, disdainful stare they could never master. Did she ask for it? Did she dare too much to be equal?

Why couldn't they have simply killed her and be done with her before she cooled? It wasn't as if they intended to let her live. She grimaced, remembering what they used on her, how it grated between her ribs. They couldn't have sharpened it and finished her right. No. Rapists and murderers could be so thoughtless. Her bloody lips smirked in an instant of giddy humor.

Beauty tried to imagine herself as she was: naked and bloody in a ditch. What a sight she must be. Did she just hear a dog bark? The sound of running water made it hard to be sure. She hoped they would find her before the scavengers. She smiled at her vanity. Beauty wanted to laugh, but knew better than to try and cough and cry.

Her shivering made her inhale too deeply. A sudden coughing fit made her blindly stare as if stabbed again and again. Beauty's desperately dry mouth gaped in pain while tears ran under her ears and down the back of her neck. She pressed her parched lips together, patiently accepting her misery.

Beauty wanted a real emotion. Something an animal in her condition could never feel. She had pain to fear in the present, but what of the future? As a cripple, she feared life as much as death, numbing her to either. Shame? Of what had she to be ashamed? She tried to hate the men responsible for her condition, but could only pity them. That was it, a real emotion: pity.

What must their fear, their shame, their hate be like to do such a thing to her? Hell didn't wait for these men. They were there already. What lake of fire could hold more justice than the content of their tormented souls? If, after their deaths, they were condemned to hell, she would hold their judge with the same disdain she held for them. There were too many judges and not enough peacemakers. Vengeance, not revenge, was needed.

Her shivering stopped and she felt unaccountably warm. What happened to the pain? Thoughts moved in misty dreams, whispering the fatal truth: Beauty's time had come.

She dangled like a fallen leaf caught in a web of delicate threads. Through one filament she felt a face, like an empty mask, lips fixed in a gentle smile. Sounds echoed distantly from ears through long silken strands stretched to their limit. Lungs struggled in some forgotten place. A franticly fluttering heart skipped a beat, then two, then more... and stopped.

She fell away from all things. No birds sang. Silence and emptiness. No body, no air, no light.

Only Beauty.

Disappointment rapidly became concern. Did her body's nerves still twitch, delaying her entry into the final mystery, or was this the answer? Was this death, or like the blood in her mouth, a stale aftertaste of life? If so, it was the worst part: solitude.

She was utterly alone. The emptiness made an eternity of every instant. Fear grew until it oppressed reason and every emotion but misery. There was nothing to distract her. Thoughts were all she had.

Was she forever doomed to this spiritual grave? Did she have to wait for exhumation by some forgetful god or was life a dream she lived to escape this perfect void? A silent cry echoed mutely in the smothering desolation of this quiet abyss. A torn throat would have been a comfort.

A spot of light blemished the darkness. At first, she thought she saw the sun. As it grew in her sight, a lifetime gave way to the Light that embraced Beauty.

Lips parted with a chorus of blissful sighs. A living china doll smiled down at her beautiful, happy man. Beauty said, "I'm sorry." No longer a dying woman, no longer an angry man, no longer alone; nothing else needed saying. They kissed once more, and went their separate ways. The doll wandered down another deep dark alley while Beauty ran, dancing into the light.

DD

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Girl Talk

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The Chase

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Cornered

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Sea Change

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Business Trip

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© Copyright 1993 - William F. Prine. All rights reserved under United States copyright law and international copyright treaties. Do not reproduce without prior approval.

© Derechos de Autor 1993 - William F. Prine. Todos los derechos reservados conforme a de la ley derechos de autor de Estados Unidos y los tratados internacionales de copyright. No reproducir sin autorización previa.