Chapter 31



Shahn’Dra clutched the Old Scrolls close to her chest as she scurried through the rocks and scrub leading up to the crest. Above her, rounds from Second Squad cracked the sky as they laid down cover fire for her retreat while she bounded up across the land like a gazelle fleeing its hunter. “Cover the girl, cover the girl!” she heard someone yell. As she approached the Marines sprawled along the crest, she felt a stab of awareness, as if something had been ripped from her mind, leaving a void calling for something she no longer had. She stumbled the rest of the way to the crest, where she collapsed behind Sergeant d’Vane.

Panting, she fought back against the emptiness she suddenly felt, until she caught a glimpse of the form lying on the ground next to the carrier she had just fled. The form’s back was to her, blood pooling around it. She couldn’t see his face. She didn’t have to. She knew. She winced as Sergeant d’Vane fired another burst. Lt. Simmons had been right behind Shahn’Dra, but now crawled up the slope as rounds pecked at the ground around her. The Marines of Second Squad picked up their rate of fire as they tried to cover her retreat. Shahn’Dra choked on the smell of gunpowder as smoke from the gun barrels filled the air.

Lt. Simmons dashed the rest of the way up the slope and flung herself behind the crest. As her Marines continued to fire at the ranks of Terran Guards joining the fight, she pulled out her field glasses and surveyed the landscape, quietly counting the dead they had left behind. Simmons put her field glasses away and shook her head. “We have to go,” she said. “Alright, Marines,” she shouted, “back to the tracks. Haul your ass!” All at the same time, the Marines ceased firing, stood up and ran towards their troop carriers.

Sergeant d’Vane grabbed Shahn’Dra’s arm and yanked her to her feet. “Come on, miss.” She hugged the case close, trotting along with the sergeant as he tugged at her arm. Her vision blurred with tears as the ache in her chest throbbed with each beat of her heart. Marines, Terran Guards and scores of Shoahn’ had stopped breathing during her lifetime, but this was different. For the first time, somebody to whom she had sung and for whom she had feared was gone. For the first time, she began to understand what Shoahn’Fal had tried to explain when he spoke of losing his own family. Until now, it had been a tale, a warning, a tiresome rant about the past that was done and buried. She now understood, as well, why so much of what she could do was forbidden. To touch somebody, to feel them, to know their minds and their hearts – it hurt when that touch was gone and all that remained was the emptiness of something that was once real. She craved for it to return, knowing it never would. She began to understand something else, too: the desire to strike back. All of it swirled inside her, dragging her into a vortex where she could only hope to drown. She reached up and smoothed her antennae back, stuffing all that was forbidden back down inside her where it belonged. She swore she would never let it out again. But it didn’t matter. The ache of losing Brandt remained.

When they reached the carriers, Sergeant d’Vane let go of her arm. “Get in front there,” he said, then scampered around to the back of the carrier. Shahn’Dra rippled her snout, blowing out the dust and gun smoke that had gathered inside. She looked at the door, not knowing what to do next. Lt. Simmons flung the driver side door open and clambered inside, then reached across and opened the door for Shahn’Dra from the inside. “Get in, sweetie, we need to go,” she said. Shahn’Dra nodded absently and eased into the seat, still hugging the Old Scrolls to her chest.

Lt. Simmons jammed the control stick and cranked the carrier around to head away from the crest. She quickly glanced at her Marines in the back and said, “Count off.” As they started counting off, she eased the control stick forward and the carrier picked up speed until they were racing across the desert. Shahn’Dra bounced in her seat as Lt. Simmons plunged headlong over gullies and ripples in the landscape, heaving the carrier back and forth on its suspension. When the Marines reached a number for one of their comrades that had fallen in battle, they let silence hang in the air for a moment and then continued on. Shahn’Dra let the case slip from her fingers and slumped forward to bury her head in her arms.

Lt. Simmons put her hand on Shahn’Dra’s back and said, “I’m sorry, sweetie. For what it’s worth, Captain Brandt would be proud.” She patted Shahn’Dra and then moved her hand back to the control stick. Shahn’Dra’s mind swirled, grasping at thin air as she tried to sort out what had just happened and why. All she had were his final words: “Just get that case to the Paladin.”

Simmons flipped a switch on the console to activate the headlights, revealing an endless sea of scrub, rocks and gullies.


©2016 Michael J Lawrence