Chapter 20

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SKY RIDER

Emmet held Jommy’s hand as they watched the rest of the farmers tote bundles and crates into the clearing. They were into the deep of the night now and darkness shrouded everything as they worked by the light of electric lanterns. Hasam, the colony foreman, directed the families as they deposited their packages and then backed away, forming a circle around the growing pile of supplies.

They brought vegetables that looked like they were rotting, a bit of grain that was already in short supply and processed food packages from the dwindling stockpile provided by the MEF. Everyone stopped and stared when one man brought a portion of meat. He had found and killed the only animal anyone had seen in years and most wondered if there would ever be another. Hunting was illegal and would have landed Hasam and a few others in the Marine stockade, if there had been any real reason to put them there. The unwritten rule was that the colonists could do whatever it took to survive as long as they were discreet about it.

What happened next, though, the MEF would have taken very seriously. The radio slung over Hasam’s shoulder crackled and hissed. He stepped away so nobody could hear him speak with whoever was on the other end. When they were finished, he pointed to two men standing on a patch of dirt just beyond the pile of goods and yelled, “Light it!”

One of the men poured something from a clear plastic bottle on a pile of cord wood – the one thing that Shoahn’tu had in abundance – while the other ignited a plasma torch and lit the wood on fire. As the blaze came to life, they trotted back to join the rest of the farmers. Nobody talked as they all scanned the night sky.

The first thing they heard was a whining hiss in the distance and then the distant roar of turbines as a boxy hovercraft crested a hill and scooted in over the fire. With the dexterity that came from a lifetime of flying a freight hover that had hauled every manner of supplies and structures used to build, move and rebuild the colony, the pilot slowed the craft to a hover and then eased it onto the ground between the fire and the farmers waiting with their supplies.

Just as it landed, the crowd sprang into action and converged on the pile to haul packs, sacks, crates and bundles to the craft as the pilot stepped down a ladder hanging from the cockpit and hopped to the ground. As the first bundles arrived, he opened the wind-scarred side doors, swung them up on squealing hinges and latched them in place with rusting steel rods.

The farmers lined up and started handing their goods to the pilot. As each bundle was delivered, the donor said the same thing: “For the Paladin.” The pilot nodded and smiled as he hoisted the goods into the freight box.

Emmet handed a bundle to Jommy and told him to get in line. When it came his turn and the boy handed over his bundle, the pilot signaled for him to wait. He climbed the cockpit ladder and fetched something from inside. He climbed back down and slipped it into Jommy’s hand. He leaned forward to whisper something. Jommy quickly pocketed the item and gave a little hand salute.

He ran back to Emmet with a grin sprawled across his face. He stopped next to his father, looked over both shoulders to make sure nobody could see and then pulled the transmitter from his pocket.

“What’s that?” his father asked.

“It’s a radio,” Jommy said. “He told me to use it to call him if I ever get lost.”

Emmet gulped, hoping his son wouldn’t catch it in the darkness. That Jommy was the youngest member of the colony wasn’t something he thought about much. That the pilot knew this and had given him something that would only be useful if he were in danger ignited a stab of loneliness as he thought of how few they had become. He knew what the pilot really meant: it was in case Jommy found himself alone. He smiled and patted the boy on the head. “Keep it close to you son, and don’t tell anybody.”

“I will. And I won’t.” Jommy looked at his father and beamed as he stroked the edges of the treasure in his palm.

After the last bundle was loaded, Emmet joined the other senior farmers next to the freighter as the pilot folded the hatch back down and locked it in place.

“Is the Paladin coming back?” Hasam asked.

“I can’t tell you anything right now, Foreman. Everything’s a mess.”

“Well we can’t afford to just keep feeding the Paladin and his men if they’re not going to protect us.”

The pilot looked at the ground and grunted. “Look, I know y’all are scared right now. Everybody is. But look yonder.” He pointed towards the MEF compound. “Y’all have the MEF guarding you day and night right now. I’m sure they’ll look after you until this all gets sorted out.”

Hasam raised the binoculars hanging around his neck and peered through their scratched lenses. “Yeah, and I see an entire brigade of Terran Guard parked right there on the Highlands.” He lowered the glasses and glared.

The pilot smiled and asked, “How y’all know a battalion from a brigade anyhow?”

Hasam stepped closer to the pilot and said, “You don’t farm Dirt Hill and not learn a thing or two about how things work.” He jabbed his finger in the pilot’s chest. “Now look, we need to know, when is he coming back?”

The pilot’s smile vanished. “I honestly don’t know sir. Like I said, everything’s a mess. All I can tell you is the MEF ain’t givin’ him supplies right now.” He kicked the bolt holding the freighter’s hatch closed. “You’re all he’s got.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence