General Godfrey felt the air heave out of her lungs as if somebody had just punched her in the gut. The world shimmered and seemed to stretch away from her. A haze fell over the world and then it snapped back into place. She squinted as the brightness of it burned into her eyes, as if she were waking from a dream. She shook her head, clearing the debris of a forgotten trance from her mind and sucked in a deep breath.
Realizing she was lying on her back, she panted a few more breaths and then sat up, straining against the stiffness that told her to wait a little longer. It seemed like she had been waiting for something for a long time and she was tired of it. She shook her head again, flinging away the last tendrils of something that infested her mind and was now dead. She felt like she had been covered with something and brushed at the sleeves of her uniform, but nothing was there. Whatever had been there, in her mind, around her, part of her – it was fading fast now like a lost memory. She took a deep breath, thinking it was just the effects of coming back to awareness after being knocked out.
She gulped and a shiver ran through her when she saw the smoking body of Shoahn’Fal lying next to the entryway to the Pyramid just a few feet away. Her mind reeled as something unraveled inside. It had been more than just the effects of coming to. She realized she was waking up from a sleep that had lasted far longer than that. Her mind raced until she remembered the meeting with Shoahn’Fal at the bunker. She had fallen into something then – something that had wrapped around her and carried her to a place she never wanted to leave. She blinked and looked at the ground, puzzled. That had only lasted for a moment, hadn’t it? But there had been something else hidden behind it, something that seemed to have been watching her.
It was gone and all that seemed to watch her now was the Shoahn’ sun moving against the horizon. She stepped towards Shoahn’Fal. The device he had shown her in the case was inserted in a depression in the wall next to the entryway – a dull blue glow pulsating along its surface. The pad, now warped and melted, was nestled in his charred hand. Thin wires leading from its edge lay broken on the ground next to it.
She stooped down and wrestled the half-melted pad from Shoahn’Fal’s claws. Even in death, he didn’t seem to be willing to let it go. “Well, that’s not gonna’ work,” she said to herself. She dropped it to the stones covering the ground in front of the entryway and looked at the key still glowing in its socket.
Its pulsating blue light seemed to be waiting for something and a shiver ran through her as she wondered whether or not it would work. She stepped towards it slowly, as if approaching a shrine and raised her hand. Her fingers hovered just in front of its surface as she studied the pulsing blue glow. Another memory came back to her and her body froze as shards of fear ran through her. Thinking of the symbols he had shown her while he translated the scrawl next to them, she looked at the Pyramid towering into the Shoahn’ sky, pulsating with the same blue glow. She held her breath and let her fingers touch the key.
Nothing happened. She brushed the surface with her fingers, watching the blue glow wrap around them in a thin haze. She pressed her palm against it. Still, nothing happened. She bowed her head, let out a long sigh and stepped away from the key. Her eyes followed another set of thin wires streaming down from the key and ending before they reached the ground. She nodded and furrowed her brow, stepping back further.
She let her gaze sweep up the glowing slopes of the Pyramid, wondering if what he had shown her was really true. The memories cascaded over her then, drowning her, as she thought of her troops marching on the MEF compound and the scant survivors of the Exodus colony huddled on Dirt Hill. The call from the tower telling her Dekker’s Marines were all gone echoed in her mind. She saw the Cats toppling over as her troops hauled out the pilots and shot them down as if they were nothing more than vermin.
Her eyes returned to Shoahn’Fal and she backed up a few more steps. She closed her eyes and shook her head as she realized they had all become exactly what he had wanted them to become. The dream of the Shoahn’ paradise her grandmother had sworn to defend lay smoking on the ground in front of her, nothing more than an illusion. She understood, in that moment, that what her grandmother had found was something that couldn’t be protected. It could only be chosen.
“You almost made it, old man,” she said, pulling her pistol from its holster. “But I think we’ll try it a different way.” She leveled the pistol at the key, took aim and pulled the trigger. The air snapped and sizzled as sparks erupted from the key and showered onto the stones of the entryway. The key went black, a ragged hole ripped in its surface from the bullet. She holstered her weapon and turned around.
On the far side of the Pyramid, her troops were swarming underneath the remaining Cat that was still moving back away from the valley. She tapped her headset.
“All stations, Guard Six Actual. Stand fast and cease fire. I say again, cease fire.”
After a moment’s pause, her headset crackled with the voice of one of the squad leaders chasing the last Cat. “Say again Guard Six.”
“I said cease fire. Do you want me to come over there and explain it to you in person?”
“Uh, roger. Um, we have some of the Paladin’s pilots here. What do we do with them?”
“Hold them until I sort this out. Don’t hurt them. Six out.”
Godfrey pulled the headset away from her ear and tucked it into a leg cargo pocket. She walked towards the nearest carrier, its occupants kneeling in a neat line in front of it with their rail guns angled out to ward off an enemy that no longer existed. “Who’s the driver here?”
One of the soldiers stood up, shouldered his weapon and trotted over to her. Snapping to attention, he said, “I am, General.”
“Good, I need a ride.”
“Yes ma’am.” The soldier spun around and sprinted to the carrier and swung into the driver’s seat.
“I need a medic, too,” she said.
Without standing up, the squad leader said, “He’s inside, General.”
She stopped, put her fists on her hips and looked at the squad. A line of carriers, each with their squads kneeling in front of them, stretched away from her to the other side of the pyramid.
“Sergeant,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” the squad leader answered.
“Pass it along, stand down.”
The sergeant looked at her and then a smile tugged almost invisibly at the corners of his mouth. “Yes ma’am.”
Godfrey strutted to the other side of the carrier and swung into the passenger seat. “Let’s go.” The driver nodded and eased his foot down on the pedal to spool up the coils in the electric motor and the vehicle surged forward. “The top of the ridge there,” she said, pointing at Jommy as he held his banner in the air.
They crested the ridge a few feet away from Jommy and the driver eased the carrier to a stop and folded his hands in his lap. Godfrey opened the door and stepped onto the ground. Jommy stood as still as a statue, staring out over the valley as he held the bandage fluttering in the wind. She could see his arm starting to tremble from the effort of holding it up as she removed her side arm and placed it on the passenger seat before closing the door.
She surveyed the bodies of Lt. Simmons’s squad, hoping that some might still be alive, but their twisted forms strewn on the ground like broken dolls told her they were long gone. She walked past them, careful to steer clear of the ground where they lay.
She stopped when she saw Dekker’s eyes staring into nothingness. She let her mouth fall open and started to reach out with her hand. Something welled up inside her and she realized she wanted to say ‘thank you.’ But it was too late for that. She stepped a wide arc around him and then stopped in front of Jommy.
She crouched down in front of the boy and looked into his eyes. His chin began to quiver and he sucked in a sharp breath, then pressed his lips together. His eyes looked past her, refusing to acknowledge her.
She reached up and wrapped her hand around his fist holding the bandage. He looked at her for the blink of an eye and his chin started to quiver again.
“It’s alright,” she said, easing his hand down. “My name is Adrienne Godfrey.” She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled, but she tried to show him one now as she cradled his fist in her palm. She could tell he wanted to say something.
His eyes drifted away from the valley and he finally looked at her as tears welled up in his eyes. She raised her brows and tried to ease her expression. “What is it?” she asked.
There was something he was supposed to say. Jommy took a shuddering breath.
“Will you help my friend?” He looked at Shahn’Dra. “She’s hurt.”
Godfrey hadn’t seen the Shoahn’ girl lying behind a swell of defilade next to Jommy. He jerked when she yelled, “I need a medic over here. Now!” The medic, who had been inspecting the bodies of the fallen Marines, trotted over. Godfrey jabbed her finger at Shahn’Dra. The medic bounded over the defilade and knelt down next to Shahn’Dra as he ripped the satchel from his pack and pulled out a stim kit.
Godfrey and Jommy stared at them as the medic placed the kit on Shahn’Dra’s forehead and unstrung the wires to attach them to his monitor. He tapped the keypad as he studied the monitor. Shahn’Dra groaned and her eyes fluttered open. Jommy ran to her and knelt down next to her. Her antennae twitched and he picked one up with his hand, laying it gently on top of her head. Godfrey eased in next to him and knelt down.
As had happened when the strangers had first come, Shahn’Dra revealed the door to the soul of the Shoahn’ world as a stranger looked at her for the first time. No Shoahn’ could sing the same song twice, but Shahn’Dra reached back into the days before, to a time when another called Godfrey had looked at her, the question bubbling along the surface of her mind so brilliantly that Shahn’Dra could almost see it: Who are you? As she had then, she started with a sound that was no different than the wind. It was a way of taking another’s hand and saying, I have something to show you. Her gills quivered and a low whispering shine rose up from her and kissed the air.
Godfrey took Shahn’Dra’s hand and wrapper her arm around Jommy, pulling him close. His body stiffened. She pulled him tighter and looked into his eyes until she felt him surrender to her embrace. She placed her hand on the back of his head and eased it to her shoulder as Shahn’Dra’s song flowed through them.
When she felt Jommy’s hand touch her back, she closed her eyes and let the song sweep away everything she had ever known. The world became a place she had never been before and she thought she felt the same thing her grandmother must have felt when she first set foot on the shores of Shoahn’Tu to find an ocean of tomorrows where they could start again. Time fell away and the moment swelled out away from her, filling the universe with a promise of the simplest thing of all.
In a voice she had never heard before, she said, “We are home.”
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©2016 Michael J Lawrence