A pool of hot blood steamed before him. Robert rubbed his eyes. Half because he could not believe what he saw, and half because there was steam and tears blending in his eyes.
He never thought his son would die like this. He could still remember swaddling him for the first time, tiny arms fighting furiously against the soft blanket. The smell of his son’s first massive shit. Robert had taken time off to be home with his wife during the first few weeks. Despite the anti-Elf insurgency campaign going on, he had taken the time.
Should he have taken more? Was there nothing else he could have done?
Now there was nothing left but steam and a stain on the ground.
Tears poured out of his face like a terrible stream. A constant trickle in the fading moonlight. It was the dark time before early morning now, when the owls returned to their nests and the birds begin to stir. A peaceful time. The wind was chilly as Robert sank to his knees.
What had happened? What terrible magic had created this moment? He had never seen something quite like this. Throughout all the campaigns, all of the guerrilla magics, all the barbarism… Nothing quite like this.
What were Tristan’s last words again? Robert tried to clear the storm of emotions from the ocean of his mind.
“We are still not alone… There was a strange scream just now, not the men here. What wa–”
“…What was that?” Robert whispered to himself. The wind stirred in the trees around him again, but differently than before. It curled around the trees. The air tightened around him. It grew thicker, somehow. Robert felt a great pressure around him as he stood, grasping his sword before him. He could feel eyes on him again.
He took a deep breath, and began to choke. He gasped for air again, taking a deep gulp into his lungs and exhaling forcefully and gulping down more air in a desperate attempt to get a breath. He was filling his lungs with air, but he could not catch his breath.
Something is terribly wrong, I…. I
He tried to speak but no sound came out, and with each gulp the air was thinner and thinner and no matter how he tried to fill his chest his breath was wasted. The air had changed.
Things grew darker, fading around his vision from the outside in. He tried to steady himself with his sword as he stared into the darkening forest around him. His eyes bulged as he stared straight ahead, seeing but not seeing. Hearing but not hearing.
Did he see a smile in the darkness? Did he hear that dry, raspy chuckle? No.
But he did see smiles, he did hear laughter.
More than one… of… whatever it…
“You need to get the fuck up, Lowman!!”
He sat bolt upright, and opened his mouth to react. The klaxon blared over the obscenities he now mouthed at his bunkmate.
Fuck you, Kinsey
No, fuck you
Kinsey mouthed back to him with his nasty smile, revealing his missing and yellowed teeth. He snored with his mouth open, too, filling their small room with the air of a rotten maw.
The captain came over the intercom.
“Attention, crew. We are not safe yet. We have been followed past the jump point by two Marauders. Security staff, report to the cargo bays and assist with evacuation of the civilians. Everyone else, get to your stations.”
There was a pause. The ship was filled with silence save for the constant, distant hum of the engines. The last humans all held their breath.
“I don’t need to remind you what is at stake here. We all need to stick to our posts, and do our jobs. Work together. We will survive. Someone has to.” The sounds of a sniffle could be heard. Someone on the bridge was crying. The captain stiffened his back, unseen. “Get to the surface. Evade. Survive. As long as we survive, we win. There is hope. Don’t give in!” Robert felt like he had heard this somewhere before, but couldn’t place it. It didn’t matter anyway.
“Never surrender” The two bunkmates muttered to each other. Robert and Kinsey exchanged glances, nodded, and finished getting their equipment on.
The klaxon resumed, but it seemed farther away.
Cries could be heard coming from the cargo bays, even before they turned down that corridor. The last children being comforted by the last mothers. It was an odd sound to load a gun to.
“Make sure you keep trigger discipline this time, Kins.” Robert spat to him. “We don’t want that shit to happen again.”
“Fuck off.” Kinsey whispered. “But I understand, I got this.”
Robert felt slightly less better with that assurance. There wasn’t much that we could do anyway if they got hit head on again, Robert thought. He looked out the porthole as they walked to the beat of fearful sounds. He glanced just in time to see the holographic projection pop out and fly next to the ship, it glittered beautifully as it came to life. The stars at first shone through the projected light, but it became crisp and real.
“That shit ain’t gonna help us this time.” Kinsey muttered. The step and squeak of their boots quickened together.
“You’re probably right man. But we gotta try.” Robert said. “You ready?”
The other squad was already there, and they nodded in silence. The sweat from their collective brows could probably fill a decent drinking glass.
“Cut the klaxon,” Robert spoke into his radio. He never understood why they kept it going for so damn long. After about 2 minutes of the noise, one would think that the officers would think everyone had gotten the message. Not to mention the fear it must give to the poor kids.
He suddenly had a moment of nostalgia as the cargo bay doors whooshed open and the electric corral kicked into gear. Crackling light held back the huddled masses of desperation surging forward. One face in the crowd seemed unemotional. A gray, wizened looking old man stared directly at him before disappearing in the amorphous crowd.
Robert couldn’t help but think of cattle.
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