Chapter 8

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CRIMSON SUNSHINE

Shahn’dra padded her way quietly to the radio in the corner of the cabin. The thin tendrils normally draped over the top of her head quivered and then floated up over her eyes as she reached out with a leather brown hand to stroke the radio case. He had tried to explain it to her once. It was like the way she could reach out into the world with her antennae and sense things, but it was even more magical because the words were always crisp and exact, even if they were tinny or sometimes obscured by static. There was also one other big difference: it wasn’t forbidden. The instinct to reach out to him mentally was buried somewhere deep inside. She was even tempted to try it sometimes, but her fear of the forbidden always stopped her.

The leathery skin of her face fluttered and she pursed her thin snout into a narrow tube to let out a faint cooing as her hands brushed the dials. She wasn’t supposed to. Her mother had told her to leave it alone until they they needed it. She looked over her shoulder to make sure her mother was still sleeping and then quickly flipped the power switch. She gasped softly and yanked her hand over her mouth as the box hummed to life and dim light emerged behind the window. She twisted one of the knobs just enough for the mysterious crackling hiss to jump out from the box. She always wondered what was inside making the noise and had to remind herself of what he had said: “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that.” Her heart still beat just a little faster when she heard it. Two marks were etched on the window: one red, one white. The red mark was for trouble, for calling the Paladin. The white mark was so she could talk to Captain Brandt, a man she had only met once, but one she longed to talk to almost every day. One night, the box wouldn’t light up and it had taken several days for it to come back to life. When she had screeched out at him after it came back on, he had patiently explained that she couldn’t use it every day because it had to sleep. Since then, she was careful to count the days to make sure it had enough sleep so it would always come back on.

Shahn’dra turned the knob and moved the needle to the white mark. The static was replaced by a shining tone that slowly rose in pitch and then whined back down until she couldn’t hear it anymore. When the box sang like this, she knew she had tuned it correctly. Her mother snorted and shifted position. Her antennae fluttered for just a moment and then her breathing fell back to a deep drone. Shahn’dra closed her eyes and let her antennae sway back and forth as the box started to sing again. When the tone had reached its highest peak, she unhooked the mic and said the strange words he had taught her. She said the words slowly in a voice laden with the thick accent of her people’s guttural language. “Echo Five, Crimson Sunshine, over.” She let go of the button and waited. After a few seconds of listening to the box sing, she pushed the button again and repeated the phrase. “Echo Five, Crimson Sunshine, over.” She let go and waited. He had told her that she should only try twice unless it was an emergency. She scowled as the box sang back to her without his voice. Then she heard the click. The voice floated out to her, tinny and warped with static.

“Crimson Sunshine, Echo Five, authenticate baily.”

Shahn’dra closed her eyes as tight as she could, remembering all the combinations of sounds he had taught her. She couldn’t read the symbols he had tried to show her, so she had made a long song in her mind and sang it to herself quietly every night. She hummed and bobbed her head until she came to the one he had said.

“Echo Five, authentication is wick.”

After that, he would speak in her language, something that few Colonial Marines knew, but something that every Terran Guard learned from childhood. Because of this, he had told her it was important to never say certain things, like where they were or who they were. As far as everyone knew, there were no Shoahn’ left and if they ever found out, it could cause some serious problems – and not just for her and her mother.

“Remember to be careful, Shahn’,” he said. She started cooing again, this time with a faint purring mixed in.

“I know. I’ll be careful.” Something flashed through her mind. It left a wake of darkness that she couldn’t understand and then was gone. She stroked her antennae, forcing them back down to her head. “What happened?” she asked.

The box sang for a long time before the answer came back. “We had a battle today.”

“There is less of you,” she said, feeling the new emptiness in his voice.

“We lost many Marines,” he said in a retreating voice. “Too many.”

Shahn’dra closed her eyes and stroked the radio. “Close your eyes,” she said. Her head swayed back and forth as she listened for the wind and then she started to sing with nothing more than a whisper. Soon, a soft trill crept in at the bottom of her range. Then, she split her voice with a cooing melody that floated over the top of the trill. Remembering the cadence and tone of his own words, the melody echoed his sadness in a somber cycle that drifted higher with each round. She pulled in air through the singing gills etched into the side of her face, never stopping to actually breathe as the song coalesced into a vocal symphony. It was her song. Every Shoahn’ had their own, but she infused it with a timbre that was meant just for him in this one moment. This particular song, like all Shoahn’ songs, was unique and would never be heard again. It never occurred to her that the radio could never do justice to her singing and she sang to him as if he were standing right in front of her. She finished with three long notes stacked on top of each other and then faded them all to a whisper that once again sounded just like the wind. She let go of the button and the radio sang back to her with its droning whine. When she didn’t hear his voice, she keyed it again and asked softly, “Jason?”

The radio crackled and then his voice emerged once again. “I’m here,” he said. She couldn’t hear the faint break in his voice that she had inspired. “Thank you.”

“Some day I will sing to you in front of me,” she said.

“I hope so,” he said.

A sudden flash of darkness swept over her, stronger this time. It was different than before. The flavors of dark were infinite and she knew the few that humans could feel. This wasn’t one of them. The Dark Winds whispered at the edge of her consciousness. Her heart raced and her antennae whipped straight up, waving frantically around her head.

“I have to go,” she said in a choked voice, and shut the radio off before he could answer. She backed away from the radio, but the darkness would not leave. She looked frantically around the room and held both hands out to keep her balance. She kept backing up and then tripped over her mother and tumbled to the floor. Her mother was already sitting up, her antennae flitting back and forth. She reached out and held Shahn’dra against the wall, as if to protect her.

Together, they huddled in the darkness, their antennae dancing together as they pushed back at the forces trying to stampede into their consciousness. “It’s stronger this time,” Shahn’dra said. Her breath came harder as she concentrated to control the forbidden instincts that welled up into her mind. She was afraid of them, not just because they were forbidden, but because they seemed to have a mind of their own. The Dark Winds surged and she let out a gasp. She felt like something was looking at her.

Then they were gone.

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence