The cobalt drizzle sky of Elysia screamed earblood terror. Teeth chattered, crackled, split. Nerves deteriorated in the noise. Sonic booms convoluted the air-layer upon deafening layer. The rockets were coming. Nobody knew from where. Their eyes could not see. Their radars were useless.
But the rockets were coming.
The hamlet of glass and crude steel below, Demeter, population 1,200, quaked in wait. The horror, the fear, the indisputable knowledge of death suffocated. The radars still told them nothing. The inevitable's scythe still poised at their throat, the constricting pall of regret hovering.
"Where the hell they at?!"
The thirty-three gun anti-aircraft unit fidgeted with hundreds of cannon peering into the rain-filled air. No rockets. Hell, they weren't even sure their antiquated weaponry would even pierce the rockets' armor. The Phantasms, Ravens, Prowlers. Who knew what the U.E.'s crafts were made of now?
Cpt. Caryl Rattan tapped the radar screen furiously with his only hand. The insanity of their situation tore at him. He inhaled deeply, trying to calm himself. He closed his eyes, enveloping himself with the thin veneer of confidence, breathing … breathing … breathing …
"Shit," he murmured, and tried again.
A proud, strong man had once stood in Rattan's golden frame. But the forty-year-old had seen too much war-over twenty-one years of it-as a corporal in United Earth's Freedom Forces. The Marines. His body, mostly scar tissue, was now a living testament to the horrors of battle. With an artificial DuraLung, DuraKidney, and polymer tubing for arteries and veins, only the long raven hair that cascaded down his back remained Rattan's. Bitter air stagnated where his right arm had once been. That limb was rotting somewhere in the Dakotas Province. He scratched his long wispy beard and massaged the stub of his shoulder in an attempt to retrieve his resolve.
He looked up at the skyscrapers and their shadows. Thirty-story dilapidated cages falling in upon themselves. Floors collapsed. Families crammed in, packed together like processed meat. Asbestos lungs. The outer walkways girded with steel fencing. Cages. To stop them from killing each other-or themselves. That was what Wundervolk had told them. To stop them from hoping. To never clearly see the sun, only the steel grates across its inspiring face. Shuffled from their cages to the mines were the Demetrans. Blinded animals. The grey despair of miners.
Rattan found his jaw flexing, trying to shove itself further into his head. The former and current soldier had to find a new channel for his growing rage. He could not allow it to destroy him before the U.E. had its chance. Before he had a chance-no matter how slight-to fight back.
"Where can they be at?!" another voice cried desperately through the captain's deliberate exhalations.
It was too loud. Concentration was refusing him. Who we kidding? Rattan moaned deeply. Scenes of massacre bled before him in a premonition haze. Fused glass, metal, and flesh in the refuse streets. Masks of death frozen in time.
Thank The Be we had evacuated the children.
His own child, in the embryonic wash of his Klarka's belly, was running through the underground labyrinths, hopefully to safety. He only hoped that the tunnels had been built deep enough. For the children's sake.
"Why won't they show theyselves?"
Yet another voice.
The children. In a manic sweep, all doubts washed away from Rattan's mind. He shook the iron bracelet around his wrist and chuckled. Death was almost certain, but he reminded himself that he'd volunteered for the defense of Demeter knowing that he would not survive. There were other places he could have gone to postpone his nonexistence. He could have helped the others evacuate into the mines. He could have moved on to other cities, smaller cities, unlikely to be hit first. Oya. Nekhebt. He could have even gone to Au Set-for Ile Ife's last, continental stand.
But he had wanted to be in Demeter, his home. Almost everybody did. Demeter was a large city in Elysian terms, a crucial city. Spies within The Be had found out that she was to be an example for the Freedom Forces. What they were about to do to Rattan and his sisters and brothers was guaranteed to be horrific. Horrific enough to terrify the rest of the planet into submission.
The thought made him laugh-too loudly.
The sonic booms grew louder. Glass all over the hamlet started shattering against the overhead cages and sprinkling the streets. Suddenly confident, Rattan wiped every distraction from his cluttered mind. He took a deep breath with his DuraLungs and tried to reach out to his unit. "It aiight," he whispered in velvet tones over his comm-unit, but his calming words were drowned in a deluge of booming rockets.
"Fuck knows where they could be at, yo!"
He tried again. "We git 'em," he droned … fruitlessly … heartlessly … a useless self-deception. Things would not be "aiight." They would not "get them." Rattan knew it. Who didn't? Perhaps the whole planet of Elysia knew it. This was just another useless suicide. He had seen it before. In the Dakotas Province. In the Kurdistan Province. And Criollo Colony. Futile gestures of self-determination decimated under the Freedom's might.
I'm sorry, Klarka.
If only he'd had time to grab his lithium-laced Mr. Happy pills … What was death, anyway? Even one dead Freedom Force soldier meant victory.
"Fuck 'em," Rattan finally said into his comm-unit.
A garbled Demeter howl pushed at the rockets' noise.
Resolved, Caryl Rattan stared at the radar, ignoring the invisible rockets' menacing booms. "Remember. We The Be," the captain fumed. Another roar swept the town. Fingers tensed around triggers. Rattan smiled to himself. A feeling of strength, of resolve, overwhelmed the old soldier. The red glow of anger seemed to envelop his unit. Rattan had never felt so much solidarity before in his life. Nothing like this in the Freedom.
His brown-black eyes tensed at the blank screen. He would never be able to see anything that way. Rattan closed his eyes once again. In the darkness behind his lids, the soldier concentrated on the rockets. He ignored the glass splintering his skin. The noise. The rain. Everything melted away. He felt the ground's vibrations. An earthquake was awakening beneath him. Rattan continued to breathe deeply, deeply. Nothing existed but his DuraLungs, the vibrations, and the trigger.
His mind's eye scoured the sky. He consumed the vibrations, making them a part of his being. He danced between the rain pellets and reached out to the sonic booms. Finding one, he leapt upon it and then hopscotched between each successive boom until he was atop their source. A Douglass Phantasm!
Rattan danced upon the ship's radar-impenetrable black surface, being stung giddy by the wind and rain as they shrieked toward Demeter. He could feel the bomb bay vibrate open. The bombs were clicking into place. Ready to fall. The dance was topped by the pungent stench of fear. He had to hurry.
Guided by his ethereal self, the captain blindly swung his anti-aircraft cannon north toward the apparition. Thump!Thump!Thump! Explosive azure streaks ripped into the clouds. Suddenly, a Technicolor-blue explosion fireworked the sky. The Phantasm appeared in the chaos, a blue tongue of flame consuming its damaged husk. The ship screamed in denial, fighting, slashing through the downpour. Rattan's ghost reveled in the flames streaking by/through him.
Hysterically expectant eyes watched the rocket's dive from the ground. Grins widened in anticipation. The ship plummeted, peeling into a nearby hillside.
Another explosion. Another ship downed.
Close yalls fuckin' eyes!!! Rattan mentally screamed.
Other anti-aircraft guns joined the fray. Other specters started hopping the clouds in search of targets. A phantom community. Blue mushrooms littered the sky. Ship after invisible ship fell from the rain-pregnant clouds. The hillsides were raging in flame. Within a fury of heartbeats, the sky became dumb. No more anti-aircraft fire. No more rockets. All of Demeter cheered.
Rattan looked up hesitantly, disbelieving. He listened for any sign of another attack. All he could hear was his own heart. The captain allowed himself a slight grin-a microscopic itch across his bronze face. His soldiers started dancing frantically in the concrete street. "We The Be! We The Be!" they whooped and hollered, jitterbugged. Rattan finally released a wholehearted smile.
He wiped the rainsweat from his scarred forehead. He had to deny himself the elation creeping into his gut. Only a fool would think this was even close to over.
But he couldn't stop the smile. He wasn't fooling himself. Nor were the women and men under his command as they all celebrated. They knew the future only held their corpses. Yet, they allowed themselves this moment. They needed it. All of Elysia needed this small, inconsequential victory.
Every moment that tock-ticked by was another minute they had not planned to live. A congratulatory hand slapped Rattan's water-logged shoulder. The captain turned to see the gap-toothed smile of his lieutenant, Ogadan Morrison. "We done did it, Caryl. We The Be!" she laughed.
Within the woman's euphoria, Rattan espied despair. A lump welled inexplicably in his own throat. Amidst the laughter, his spectral self cringed. Suddenly, he realized it was all over for them. He quickly froze this moment into his spirit, knowing it was to be the last picture he would ever see in this miserable existence.
"Caryl? … What it …?"
A tremendous boom rocked the hamlet. The sky exploded in darkness. The sun was swallowed up by black metal. Panic glued everybody's feet to the ground. Nobody had the strength to return to their guns. Their eyes shot toward the sky. Frozen. Black metal consumed everything. The bomb bay of the monstrous rocketship opened, sucking the air from their lungs. Black glittered against black as the ship released its arsenal, and disappeared. Thousands of ebony feathers floated lackadaisically along the dead air, flip-flopping merrily to the ground.
Ogadan laughed, tentatively, confused, looking at the feathers. Everybody laughed. Rattan muttered, having seen this before, "Shit."
"Caryl, what it-? Caryl?!" Ogadan's face peeled in terror. She stared, clawing at her commander/friend, searching for the answer to these feathers in his frozen face.
It was truly over. Rattan closed his eyes and traveled with his mind where his body would never be allowed to reach. He dove underground and sprinted frantically along the town's underground labyrinth that held Demeter's only hope. He darted through the scurrying refugees, huddled in the dim, fluorescent light. Among the sobs and half-blinded fumblings he finally found her. His Klarka. He reached out with tears in his throat. "Caryl?! Caryl?!" Ogadan continued screeching. If only to touch her one last time. To touch his Klarka-and their baby.
The first feather tickled the Inanna Tower's minaret. The spire opened in a devastating azure explosion that evaporated the top of the building. The blast knocked everybody off their feet. Steel and mortar crashed to the ground. Something screamed toward them. A metal cage landed on the frantic Ogadan, ripping her hand from Rattan's sleeve, crushing her in a blood-splat. Rattan gasped, looking at the bloodorgan ooze through the metal grates.
A mad, fruitless scramble for cover ensued as the feathers continued their carefree descent. People's throats split in panic. They dodged and darted through the streets, but everywhere they went was nowhere safe.
Another feather landed, throwing chunks of steel into the air. Then another feather landed. Another. Another…
"Oh, The Be!!!"
A tentative, concerned hand touched Klarka Panova's freckled shoulder. The pregnant woman collapsed on the tunnel's hard, dirt floor. People rushed to her aid. One woman asked, with a manic, obviously superficial, calm. "Klarka, what it is?"
Klarka flopped her shaking hands on her kicking belly. Tears streaked her grime-painted face. "They dead," she mumbled, hoarsely. "They all dead."
Another large concussion blast rocked the tunnel, blanketing the terrified refugees with dirt.