Dekker opened his eyes to the sound of a purring coo drifting through the air around him. He blinked and saw a wall of gray as the sound became louder. He moved his head to look at Lt. Simmons and blinked again. The world arrived as a blur of light that fell into itself until he could see her face staring up at the sky with vacant eyes. Her uniform shone with the slick red of blood where shrapnel had torn into her and knocked her away from the machine gun.
His voice was barely a croak. “Lieutenant.” Her mouth was agape and her arms were extended over her head, lying on the ground with palms open. He grimaced as his body surged with pain to the tempo of his pulse. He closed his eyes. “Ah, fuck.”
He felt something rough brush against his cheek and he forced his neck to turn to see what it was. Shahn’Dra was huddled next to him with her knees pulled into her chest as she brushed his cheek with the wrinkled leather of her knuckles.
“Your mind breathes a while longer,” she said. Her antennae weaved back and forth over her head and she unfurled her snout. The sound of her song flowed over him again and he realized it was the only thing he could hear. The snap of rifles and the relentless pounding of the machine gun were gone, as if they had been turned off by a switch. He lifted his arm and groaned again. The pain beating his body with the rhythm of his heart subsided into a throbbing ache and he decided not to check his wounds, whatever they might be.
He squeezed his eyes hard and opened them again, his vision clearing but still veiled by a wetness in his eyes brought on by the pain. Major Walker’s body lay silently on the slope. The case was gone. He squinted, working to focus his eyes as he swept his gaze down the slope. General Godfrey and Shoahn’Fal were loping towards the Terran Guard carriers lined up in front of the Pyramid, the Old Scrolls locked in the clutch of the Shoahn’s clawed hand. A thin veil of white smoke rose up from the first carrier while the second lay flopped on its side, now abandoned. The stench of burned out coils drifted up the hill and stung his nostrils.
Further away from the Pyramid, troops were gathered beneath the remaining three Cats, none of which were moving now. He looked away, not wanting to see any more – knowing what they were going to do to the pilots.
“Will you help me now?” Shahn’Dra asked.
He turned to look at her. “What?”
“I will need your help now.” Shahn’Dra stood up and raised her hands in front of her face and moved them around each other, as if she were caressing a ball. “You promised.”
Dekker looked back at the two figures moving away from him, carrying the Old Scrolls to the Pyramid. “Right.” He dug his elbows into the ground and pushed himself up from the ground. He grasped the plasma rifle and leaned on it, gathering his strength to focus on one last mission.
He craned his head around and beckoned for Jommy to join him. The carrier hatch flew open and Jommy ran towards him at a dead run.
As Shahn’Dra filled the air with a deep drone that Dekker could feel through the ground beneath him, he told Jommy, “Check the belt. How many cartridges are left?”
Jommy picked up the belt and pawed at the pouches. He shook his head. “They’re all empty.”
Dekker tugged at the cartridge mounted in his rifle, but wasn’t able to pull it out. “Here, pull this one out so I can see it.”
Jommy knelt down next to him and placed one hand on top of the weapon and grabbed the magazine with his other hand and yanked it out. Dekker pushed down on the canister loaded in the top of the magazine, feeling it firmly set against the rest below it.
“Four rounds,” he said. “OK, put it back in and get behind me.”
Jommy wrestled the magazine back into place and then scooted back to look over Dekker’s shoulder.
Dekker shouldered the weapon, wincing at the pain that came with every movement, laid his cheek against the stock and then wrapped his hand around the grip behind the trigger housing.
Shahn’Dra stopped moving her hands and then opened her arms wide. She took a breath and let out a piercing screech. Through his site, he saw Shoahn’Fal and Godfrey both stop dead in their tracks and look around as if they were caught in a net. Dekker squeezed the trigger.
The first canister landed just behind them. As the blue haze of the plasma faded, he saw they were both still standing just beyond the shimmering heat wave now rippling from its impact.
Dekker twisted the windage knob for the rear site. “They are really far away,” he said.
Shoahn’Fal turned and looked straight at them. Shahn’Dra let out a yelp and then held her hands out in front of her with her claws curling in as if they were squeezing something.
Shoahn’Fal fell to one knee and his antennae unfurled from the top of his head.
In a voice that sounded like it came from a caged animal, Shahn’Dra said, “Hurry.”
Dekker pulled the bolt back and squeezed the trigger again. A blue flash leapt up from the ground to the side of his target. Godfrey tugged at the case, but Shoahn’Fal held it firmly in is claws. Staring at Shahn’Dra, he cocked his head and she let out a yelp. She stumbled back, still holding her hands in front of her face. Shoahn’Fal turned around and both he and Godfrey resumed their run towards the Pyramid.
As they passed the line of troops guarding the carriers, Dekker fired his third round. It took a moment for the round to close the range and then one of the troops erupted in a blue smudge. Dekker pulled the bolt back and exhaled.
They reached the alcove framing the entryway to the Pyramid and Shoahn’Fal set the case on the ground. He opened the lid and removed something – Dekker couldn’t see what exactly because of the distance, but a chill washed over his body as he saw Shoahn’Fal press something into the wall next to the entryway.
Shahn’Dra pushed her hands out, a low drone mixing with a wail of desperation. Shoahn’Fal staggered and then whipped around to look at them one more time. He set down whatever he was holding and raised his own hands in front of his face, then took a step forward.
Shahn’Dra screamed and fell flat on her back.
Dekker let out a screeching howl as the pain – which had merely been a throbbing hammer pummeling his body from the inside – slammed into his body and ripped through him like hot steel.
His hand shaking, he reached up and tugged at the bolt, straining to pull it back as the pain drove him towards another bout of darkness. His breath came in tight stabs as he pressed his cheek against the stock and sited down the barrel. His focus wavered. For a moment, he could see Shoahn’Fal facing the wall next to the entryway; the next moment, all he could see was a blur. The site weaved through the air as he struggled to tell his hand to hold the barrel still. A glimmer of a thought surfaced, telling him he should adjust the windage again, but he didn’t dare move his hand from the trigger grip. He estimated the adjustment he would need to make the canister arc out at its maximum range to find its target.
As his hand shook against the strain of trying to steady the barrel, he thought of a picture he had once seen of a world that was green and blue with clouds in the sky that swirled around it. Or was it a dream? Men like Emmet had said they could make Shoahn’Tu that way some day. Generations from now, if they didn’t have to worry about moving from place to place to escape the ravages of war, they could make a world like that. Others had scoffed, saying it was nothing more than a dream.
The site wavered relentlessly over the head of Shoahn’Fal as he worked on whatever he had latched to the wall. Dekker could just make out the antennae quivering over his head, as if he were nothing more than a child excited at the prospect of his first visit to an amusement park. He could sense, somehow, that the old Shoahn’ was giddy.
Dekker let the image of leaves rustling in the wind settle into his mind. A dream was enough. The site wavered and then paused for just a moment, as if time had finally decided to let him have a sliver of itself – even if it was just to see what he would do with it. The master of all things let one more grain slip through that would determine whether the leaves would one day be more than a dream or if they had come all this way just to become another whisper in the dark, never heard by the universe again. It was enough to take one more breath.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence