Chapter 12

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WARNING

The throttle was already jammed against its forward stop and the jump jet’s engines whined with the strain of running at full power. Major Sam Walker pushed the throttle grip in his left hand forward anyway, huffing when it wouldn’t move any further. Captain Holt, his Executive Officer, sat in the right hand seat monitoring the navigational display. Petty Officer Graham, the unit’s chief corpsman, sat in one of the two passenger seats behind them; his eyes were a little too wide as the Paladin flung the craft through the towering spires of cord trees that stood between them and the Pyramid.

Major Walker keyed the intercom. “Try again, Captain.”

Holt checked the frequency readout on the floor console between him and Major Walker and squeezed the microphone key in the chord attached to his headset. “Crimson Sunshine Crimson Sunshine Two Bravo Delta is inbound two minutes, please acknowledge.” He let go of the key and waited. He glanced at Walker and shook his head. “Crimson Sunshine, key your mic twice if you can hear me.”

Major Walker tried again to push the throttle forward as Holt eyed the engine status monitor in the center console. “Inter-turbine’s getting a little warm boss.”

“We’re almost there,” Walker said. The squealing whine from the turbines slowly rose in pitch. “I hear it. We’ll be alright.”

The jumpjet shot out from the cord trees towards a rising slope. As they crested the rise, the Pyramid rose up before them. A blue haze of light permeated its sloping sides from the inside as it stood sentinel over the sun-baked ground, waiting for somebody who had long forgot it was there.

The lone hut sat nestled in its shadow on the edge of another island of cord trees. Walker pitched up the jet’s nose and settled into an approach course. “Flaps 10,” he commanded. Holt reached down to the center console and clicked the flap lever to its first position. The whir of electric motors filled the cockpit as the inboard trailing edge of the jet’s wings slid out. The digital readout of the radar altimeter flickered to life as they descended below 1000 meters. “Gear.” Holt pulled down the gear handle in the main console, rewarded by a low hum and then the sound of metal latches as the landing struts unfolded from the airframe.

“Three green” Holt said, confirming the landing skids were locked in position.

“Ball” Walker said. Holt pushed a button on the strip at the top of the front console deck and twisted a knob until a reticle appeared on the front canopy and settled over a point on the ground just short of the hut.

“Call it,” Holt said.

“Roger Ball.”

Holt pressed the button again to lock the landing marker in place. As two additional markers appeared above and below it, Major Walker worked the control stick to keep the reticle centered between them. As the craft reached just ten feet over the ground, the reticle flashed green. He pressed a button on the throttle and the side turbines swung down to hold the craft off the ground as the rear turbines kicked off. The craft slowed to a near standstill and he eased the throttle back, allowing the craft to float to the ground and ease its weight onto the skids. He pulled the throttles all the way back and flipped off the ignition switches just behind the rear stops.

All three men unbuckled their flight harnesses as the canopy hissed open. Major Walker looked over his shoulder and said to Petty Officer Graham, “Sit tight.” He and Holt hopped out on either side of the craft and crouched down. They each unbuckled a storage box on either side of the craft to remove field glasses and their P-28 short barrel carbines. Holt scanned the hut and the surrounding area with his binoculars while Major Walker picked up a magazine for his weapon.

“Nothing out there,” Holt said.

Walker clicked the magazine into his weapon and smacked the bottom to make sure it was firmly seated. “Alright, cover,” he said. Holt shouldered his weapon while Major Walker trotted towards the hut. When he arrived at the door, he crouched down and waved for Holt to follow. He showed his hand and then curled three fingers down, signaling Graham to move up as well. The corpsman unbuckled his flight harness, jumped to the ground behind Holt, and followed the XO as he ran up to join Major Walker.

The hut was little more than a shack made from twigs cut from a cord tree and welded together with clay. The door hung on hinges made from strands of the tree’s sinewy bark. Walker knocked and called out, “Shahn’.” There was no answer. The only sound from inside was static hissing from the radio he had given her. He pushed the door open and peeked inside. Shahn’dra sat against the far wall staring blankly at the dirt floor while her mother slept on a strip of blanket on the floor. “Shahn’,” he called again, but the girl did not seem to hear him.

Major Walker shouldered his weapon and stood up. As the three men stepped inside, he signaled for Graham to check on Shahn’dra’s mother while he stepped over to the radio and switched it off. Holt crouched down in front of Shahn’dra and unfastened a small flashlight from his belt. He snapped it on and pointed the light into her eyes, but she still did not respond.

“Major,” Petty Officer Graham said, pointing at Shahn’dra’s mother.

Walker knelt down next to her and asked, “What’s the story here, Doc?”

“I’m afraid she might be in a coma, sir. Or close to it.”

“Stim pack,” Walker said. Graham looked at him for a moment, as if he wanted to say something. “What else have we got?” Walker asked.

“Alright, sir,” Graham said, digging through his pack to retrieve a small gray plastic kit. A faint whine filled the air as he placed it on her leathery forehead and tapped it. A web of thin wires extended from its innards and then latched onto her skin. Graham removed a small monitor from his pack and tapped the screen. He sucked his breath in through his teeth as the monitor lit up with readings from the wires now probing everything from her heart rate to her alpha wave brain patterns.

“What you got?” Walker asked.

“Let’s give it a minute to stabilize, sir,” Graham said.

The woman moaned softly as the stim pack hummed and buzzed with the small electric currents it sent through its web of leads.

“Shoahn’Kra,” Walker whispered. He put his hand on her shoulder and glanced at Graham. The corpsman nodded. “Can you hear me?”

Her breathing deepened and her expression turned from a waxy mask of near death to one of growing pain. “Doc,” Walker hissed.

“It’s alright sir. She’s coming out of it.”

“Is she in pain?”

“Yes, sir. That’s a good thing right now. I can give her something once this all evens out.”

“Shoahn’Kra,” Walker repeated.

The woman gulped and then drew in a stiff breath. Her voice was little more than a harsh croak. “Dren’Vil,” she said. She took another breath and repeated the word. The furrows of pain on her face tightened as she repeated the word, over and over. “Dren’Vil.”

“That’s enough,” Walker said.

“Negative, sir,” Graham said. He nodded at Shahn’dra, whose lips quietly repeated the word each time her mother spoke. All they could do was wait as the two women worked their way back from whatever void they had fallen into.

“Here we go, sir,” Graham said. He studied his monitor for a moment more and then said, “I have a shot.” He tapped an entry into the small numeric keypad on the monitor and hit the COMMIT key. Shoahn’Kra gasped and then her eyes flew open, round bulbous orbs staring once again into nothing more than the emptiness of the room.

“Shahn’dra,” she called out.

“Here Mama,” the girl answered.

“Are you safe, child?”

“I’m sorry Mama. I have -” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I know what I have done is forbidden.”

Shoahn’Kra took several deep breaths as the stim pack worked to stabilize her metabolism. She looked in Walker’s eyes and showed him something he had never seen in her before: fear. “It is never forbidden to defend yourself, child,” she said.

Graham tapped the keypad to transfer a new sequence to the stim pack. “Think I’ve got it, sir,” he said. The monitor gave a single low chime and the stim pack shut down. “She’s all yours, sir.”

“The pain?”

Petty Officer Graham pulled a small vial of liquid from his pack and snapped it open. Placing his hand gently behind Shoahn’Kra’s neck, he raised the vial to her lips and said, “This won’t taste very good, but you’ll feel better.” The woman nodded, raising her snout slightly so he could pour the vial’s contents into her mouth, and then gulped down the liquid. Her face screwed up in a grimace of displeasure and Graham smiled. “She’ll be fine now, sir.”

“Thanks Doc. Well done,” Walker said. He looked into the woman’s eyes and asked her, “What the hell happened here?”

“Dren’Vil,” she said.

He smiled. “We heard that part. Can you tell me what that means?”

Shahn’dra spoke up from the other side of the room. “It’s- Dark Winds. They are forbidden.”

“I can see why,” Walker said.

Shahn’dra shook her head and fluttered her snout, then stood up and crossed the room to sit down next to him. “It is a way of thinking, of sharing thoughts,” she said.

“I’ve heard of that,” he said.

“The sharing is forbidden, but so are the thoughts that came. They are the Dark Winds.”

“Why would somebody share their, um – Dark Winds, if they’re forbidden?” he asked.

“Because they cannot be hidden if they are too strong. If you lose control of them.” She swooned and Graham caught her before she fell back.

He pulled a small plastic bottle of water from his pack and broke the seal. “Here,” he said, holding out the bottle. She cradled it with both hands and then uncurled her snout through the opening to drain it dry.

“Thank you,” she said, handing him the empty bottle. Graham quietly tucked it back into his pack. “These came from Shoahn’Fal,” she continued, “a priest who once sat with the Pyramid as my mother and I do now.”

“So you know him.”

“Yes. And he knows us.” She peered into Walker’s eyes and unfurled her antennae. “This, too, is forbidden, but you must understand,” she said.

“It’s fine. I trust you.”

Her antennae fluttered and then swayed gently over her head as she looked into his eyes. A vision flashed through his mind. The world went white and then the air swept over him in a wave of searing heat. The white faded and became a rolling orange ball that boiled into the sky. Everything around him burst into flame and was swept back into a roaring column of smoke and fire that rose into the sky and blacked out the sun. The Paladin’s heart stopped as he realized what he was watching. Just as quickly as it had entered his mind, the vision was gone.

She wrapped her clawed fingers around his arm. Still staring into his eyes, she said, “He must not come here.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence