Straehk reached the end of the path and turned to look back. This season’s crop promised to excel even his expectations, the fields full, the plants weighty with enough seed to keep the colony provided for next year and beyond. He had done his last walk-through just an hour before, trailing fingers though the heavy-headed ears of grain. Dark golden and ripe, they bobbed under his touch. It was only right that he should feel a sense of achievement in his work. Not pride, just satisfaction. A job well done. He would begin harvesting in the morning when the crew arrived, but his work here was completed and he could rest for a while.
The cave to which he was heading was unknown to anyone else, not because he wanted it a secret, but for the simple reason that no-one came here apart from himself and T’Shaan. The mouth of the cave was little more than a low-roofed tunnel opening out into a wide cavern, smooth walled and clean, washed through by flood waters in the wet season and drying out in the hot summer sun; a fault line in the strata, widened over millions of years by the stream trickling through the darkness.
Straehk headed for the waterfall at the far end, a mere trickle in the summer drought, compared to the torrent that gushed forth from the cavern in later months. The gloom inside the cave made him blink, but after three years he knew his way and walked sure-footed towards the far wall, where he tugged his shirt over his head, the soft material sticking to sweat-soaked skin, then removed sandals, trousers and loincloth with a sense of relief. He stepped beneath the small cascade, the sharp sensation of cold water on sun-scorched shoulders and weary muscles enough to make him gasp and flinch away for a moment. He was more patient this time, putting his hands under the downpour and splashing his arms and chest for a few moments, even that brief contact enough to make him shiver.
Holding his breath, he stepped the under the stream allowing the water to cleanse dirt and soil from his legs, letting it pour down his back and over his head, then he lifted his face to its cold kiss and drank it in. His hands reached for his bound hair, fingers untying the strip of leather that held it confined until the whole length was free. The sunshine would dry it later, but for now he relished the caress of the water as it refreshed him.
A long time he stood there until he could feel himself shivering. The cloth once again wrapped around his hips, he ventured into the sunshine for a few moments to dry in the warmth. There was no need to return yet; T’Shaan was still in the town and as he thought her name and pictured her face, he sensed her in his mind, there in the background, part of him, just as he was part of her. She was holding a length of blue material. He could feel her delight, and the touch of silken soft fabric as if he was holding it himself.
Perhaps this evening he would be able to continue his studies. Perhaps, but it was likely that his betrothed would want to discuss the final plans for their wedding. And it was hard to resist her. The sense of quiet amusement filling his mind right then was hers, and he sighed and promised he would spend this evening with her, instead of his books. Again. She was more important than his studies anyway and he felt her laughter this time as he shook his head to let the sunshine dry his hair, bleaching it even lighter. Only ten more days and he would be sitting in their home, T’Shaan’s sisters and nieces and nephews gathered around watching, and the married menfolk of the family behind him. He wondered how it would feel to have short hair, and he heard her giggle.
‘Sh..’ he said aloud, although there was no one to hear his words. ’Leave me in peace now. I will see you this evening.’ Her thoughts retreated, but she was still there, now quiescent in the furthest reaches of his mind. A comforting presence, his future wife, his joy and his laughter. His loved. And, reassured, he went back into the soft darkness to rest after another day working the fields, pulling on his loose trousers then lying on the stone slab that made this cave more than just a place to cleanse himself. The smooth, water-washed shelf of rock was more than long enough to accommodate his height and he closed his eyes and began the mental exercises that preceded his daily meditation.
T’Shaan examined the length of material at the trade stall. A beautiful piece, fine- woven with an intricate pattern of silver threads running through, and an exact match to the blue of Straehk’s eyes. She could feel him in her mind, sharing her enjoyment of the day. The town square was busy with stallholders hoping for a brisk trade on this first day of the harvest festival. She agreed a price and waited as the piece was folded and wrapped. ‘For Straehk?’ Yarvik enquired, holding out the parcel as T’Shaan counted out tokens.
‘For Straehk,’ she confirmed. ‘It will make a fine wedding tunic.’ She turned to call to a group of children playing in the cool shade of the russet-leaved hushnar trees edging the town square. ‘Come now. Or we will be late.’ There were groans of dismay from the youngest, but they gathered around her obediently. She handed each of them a small bag. ‘Share these with your brothers. Promise?’
T’Prala, the open-eyed innocence of an infant still just a toddler, stared into the bag with delight before lisping a promise, even as she helped herself to one of the sticky sweets, cramming it into her mouth and already reaching for another one.
T’Shaan sighed and took the bag away, with a pledge to return it when the others arrived. ‘Don’t you want to see the Heads of House? They arrive soon and we’ll miss them if we don’t hurry. T’Prala, hold my hand please.’ She led the way across the market square, heading for the raised steps at the far side where the children would be able to see the Heads of the Nine, robed in traditional garments, in their procession through the square.
A couple of the farmers moved aside to make a place for her and the children under the shade and she thanked them, offering each one of the biscuits that she had bought to share with Straehk later. There was a shout from one of her nieces and she saw her sisters, husbands and sons in tow, hurrying through the gathering crowd towards the cluster of children. ‘Welcome. And in time,’ she greeted them, stepping aside to let the boys join their siblings, the crowd stirring as the first of the Nine stepped onto the dais.
‘Straehk?’ her elder sister whispered.
‘The fields. He wanted to come but the crop is ready. He sends his greetings.’ T’Shaan repeated her fiancé’s words from the morning. ‘And he asks me to tell you that he looks forward to Betrothal Day.’
‘Not long now. Ten days, and he will be part of our family. A welcome addition. The children are also looking forward to the day.’ The crowd around them stilled then, and there was no more chance to talk. T’Shaan watched the simple ceremony without seeing the elderly Heads of the Nine Houses in their formal robes, nor her siblings or even her much loved nieces and nephews. From the quiet silence in her thoughts, she was aware that Straehk was meditating and she should watch the ceremony to describe it to him later, but she let her mind drift into pleasurable daydreams instead. Ten days. He would no longer be her betrothed, he would be her husband. After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting they would make their vows and be joined as one.
She smiled to herself. As one. There was deep passion within Straehk, unseen by those who only saw the dutiful and sometimes stern farmer at work in the fields. A quiet man, shy and diffident, yet he was devoted to her, so devoted that he had refused a place at the Academy in order to come here to Ochio and share her life. She looked down at the neat parcel she was carrying and pulled it open, lifting out the material to run it through her fingers and imagine him standing before her. She would make loose trousers in a darker shade of blue, or perhaps cream. Cream would be preferable, to match his hair. The stallholder would know where to get some. The voices of the Nine carried across the square, even the children quiet now, listening to the ceremony.
The distant thrumming was enough to make the Nine stop their recitation and look around, perplexed, the onlookers turning to see the cause of the interruption and then screams broke the silence. Terrible screams, not just of fear and pain, but strange high-pitched sounds from the numerous craft spinning from the sky and sending beams of destruction across the square. The Nine tumbling, bloodied and silent from the dais, farmers scrabbling away from the steps only to be caught in more blasts, everyone huddling together an a futile attempt to avoid what was coming as death rained from the sky. The beams came closer and T’Shaan had no time to do anything other than grab the nearest child and run in a vain attempt to protect the toddler, to save at least one member of her family. T’Prala’s face was still sticky from the sweets, and as the blasts rained down on the crowd, as her sisters and brothers-in-law and precious children fell, and as the red-suited strangers walked out, killing without thought, T’Shaan held the child close, kissing her one last time before reaching out to him.....
The stone was cold at first to bare skin and he allowed the sensation to flow through, accepting the chill, and welcoming it with disciplines instilled in him from his childhood on Vulcan. He lay there, stiff and weary muscles relaxing, interlaced fingers resting on soft flesh of his belly, hair loose beneath him, and his mind clearing itself of worries and work as the cascade of water had cleansed his body. No dreams disrupted his thoughts, only the slightest movement of his chest as he breathed, and a gentle pulse in his throat as his heart rate slowed until all that remained was stone beneath him and his empty mind, devoid of cares yet filled with contentment. Time passed, as slow as the sun moved across the sky and as swift as the water flowing from the cave. He lay there, at peace with this word; his world now, and he drifted into warmth.
The faint sounds in the distance and then the horror flooding his mind, were enough to jolt him awake, to tumble from the slab onto hands and knees, scuffing his palms on the ground. He dragged himself upright, half-stunned with dread, gathering his thoughts and awareness and then ran to the brightness outside. Only a few minutes since he had lain down, and yet everything here, outside in the heat and sunshine had changed forever. He could do nothing but watch as strange craft flew overhead, emerald beams of light destroying everything they touched: his crops burning and crumbling to dust, his home ablaze in the distance, trees exploding into flame as sap ignited, and in the distance, so far away, clusters of the same ships hovering over the valley where the colony had set up their first town.
Thick clouds of black smoke boiled into the sky. There was a single shout in his mind. A shout of such anguish and regret and terror that he fell to his knees, clutching his head. One word. He had time for just one word. ‘TShaan.’ and he put everything into that one word: all his love, all his hopes and wishes, his regret and despair and what little comfort he could offer her. A last desperate effort to ease her passing, to know he cherished her. It was too late to do anymore than that. Far too late. And she heard him. As one of the craft neared where he was standing, he felt her reach out with one last message. ‘Peace and long life, beloved.’
Then he flung himself into the cave and out of sight. A tearing sound, then the roof fell, crushing him down into welcome unconsciousness.
He was aware of groans, deep in his throat, and he opened his eyes to darkness and pain. But those were nothing compared to the silence. Not of sounds, but in his mind. There was no-one with him. No-one in the quiet backwaters of his thoughts, smiling as he tended his seedlings, or held a bird in his hands, or picked the first fruits of the season. No-one there comforting him as she had when hungry voles made short work of his tender salads. No-one. She was not there. He searched for her, calling to her with his thoughts, but there was no reply and he knew, though he could not admit it, not yet. He was alone, deafened and blinded, bereft of any sense. Friends and family all gone from him. No-one. He reached out further, pushing his thoughts and striving to feel any contact, with someone, anyone, but there was only empty silence and then his courage broke and he screamed her name over and over, his throat raw, the syllables echoing through the darkness to mock him.
He stopped in the end. No one answered him, but he had a thought, a tiny thought, deep at the back of his mind, that maybe they were unconscious. Maybe. There might be a response, later. But he knew the truth and wept dry tears, choking on the dust and grit that seemed to fill the space. Exhausted at last, he drowsed, a fitful sleep of little rest, but he dreamed of her and was comforted for a while.
He awoke to the reality of thirst, desperate for water, licking his lips to try to ease the need, but that was no help; if anything it made his craving even more urgent as the soil and dust and grit on his lips stuck to his tongue. It hurt to swallow, to move, to blink, his legs numb, his lower back an agony of sharp pressure on his spine. He could move his arms, just, but the rubble pressing down on him made it impossible to escape. Fingers scrabbling on the ground, he levered his shoulders up, crying out before collapsing again onto the rough floor. Grit cut his cheek, there was blood in his mouth and he swilled it around his parched tissues, welcoming even that scant liquid. He could hear water trickling nearby, but he could not reach it. No one would be coming to save him, he knew by now. T’Shaan would have found him, had she still been alive. But she was not.
None of them were. He could not sense anyone in his thoughts, not T’Shaan or her family or his few friends or anyone, and so he closed his eyes and waited, letting himself drift into sleep, forcing himself to lower his breathing and his heart rate far below that of normal meditation. The only way he might survive this was to go into the deepest trance, and even then survival might not be possible. But it would allow him to die in peace, if he could achieve such a profound state.
The grating sound of shifting rocks woke him from the nightmare; rocks trapping him, unable to move. He took a gasp and coughed, spluttering and choking, his chest burning, tongue swollen with thirst. Not even fresh blood in his mouth to give him any relief. It was not a nightmare, it was real.
Listening to his body as it groaned awake, every muscle shrieking with stiffness and disuse, cracked bones a sharp agony, his thirst unbearable, aware that hours had passed. He could hear the earth itself groaning as if it too was in pain and he reached out into the darkness, searching for something, anything to hold, anything to touch as a reminder of his life outside. Then the rubble moved, dirt pouring onto his neck, sharp edges of broken rocks piercing skin until he could hold back the screams no longer. And, as the earth shifted, as his screams were crushed by the weight on his back and shoulders, as rawness silenced his harsh voice so that he could nothing more than whimper in fear, he allowed one last emotion to fill him. Sorrow for a life ending alone and unmourned, and for a world destroyed by invaders. But there was a greater sadness, as, with a desperate breath he whispered her name.
But she did not answer.
The earth shifted beneath him and pain lanced through cramped fingers and numb limbs. A sudden easing of the weight and he could breathe again, could move his legs, force aching, stiff hips up from the ground, scraping his knees to drag himself free of the debris. He lay still for a while, panting with the effort and then hauled himself over to the stream and drank, deep and long, before scooping up handfuls of the precious liquid to splash over his face. It took a while for him to crawl to the entrance, scrabbling over rubble and shards of splintered rock. The stream had saved him. Small though it was, it dislodged smaller stones and these in turn had allowed larger ones to shift. He might be able to force a way through.
By the time he had dragged some of the larger rocks away and inched his way through the narrow gap, he was exhausted. Fingers broken and bloodied, knees scraped raw, his trousers hanging in tattered shreds. But he was outside. The sun was lowering over fields of grey ash, the tall trees of the woodland were nothing more than burned stumps. He did not even look at the distant corner where his home had been. Nothing would remain of it, he knew that and anyway she was not there, so he set off, running barefoot over scorched and ruined earth towards his town.
The devastation of the valley was complete. No farmsteads remained untouched, no fields unburned. He saw no-one else though he did not waste precious time searching the burned shells of barns or farmhouses in the hope of finding survivors, he simply ran, on feet that were soon bloody and raw. He ignored the pain. It was of no importance. His feet would heal, his heart would not.
The market square was quiet when he arrived, the stall holders silent, townspeople watching the skies with sightless eyes. The Houses extinct, all the ancient families dead or taken. An entire town exterminated. All except one. He halted, afraid to go further, to discover for himself what he already knew to be true. But he had to see. Just to be sure. He could be mistaken.
He knew where she had been standing, over there in the corner on the steps by the trees. More blackened stumps. He tried to ignore the bodies as he stepped over them, his footprints creating a bright blood-stained trail across the darker green discolouration on the stones, then a child caught his eye. A boy, blonde-haired and gangly, eyes closed as if in sleep, but the gaping wound from chest to groin was enough to make Straehk bend over the child for a closer look. The flies were already gathering and he brushed them away. The child had been gutted. He vomited, turning away so as not to besmirch the body, and walked with more care now, looking around to see how many others had been desecrated in a similar fashion.
Hundreds of bodies, crumpled and distorted and huddled. Some burned beyond recognition or ripped apart. Others lying as if asleep. Husbands protecting wives, mothers huddled over children, small groups in corners, all dead. All. He found her sisters and husbands and their children clustered together at the base of the steps, but she was not there. He did not look at those bodies; the pain of losing his family-to-be was enough without seeing how they had died, but he said words of loss and love and carried on searching.
And then a flash of blue caught his eye, brightest blue, glinting with silver. He had seen that before, earlier. She had bought it for him and he hurried over to pick up the length of fabric, ignoring the ominous marks tainting the cloth. She would be near at hand. He took his time, brushing away the flies congregating for the feast, his eyes flickering over the corpses and back again, hoping that she was not one of the burned.
And then she was there. Sitting, unseen in one corner, her arms holding a child. Both of them asleep. He called to her, softly, but she did not stir and when he knelt beside her and stroked her face she was cold, as was the child. T’Prala. Only three years old. Her face besmirched with soot and yet somehow peaceful. No gaping wound, no defiling slash on the plump little body. T’Shaan was untouched as well. He had no idea how they had died, but it did not matter anymore. He was here with them and he tucked the blue fabric that would have been his wedding tunic around them and sat there, keeping the flies from disturbing their sleep.
As the sun began to set behind the hills, he tore the remaining shreds of his trousers and wrapped his feet and hands, knowing that otherwise she would fuss over him, then settled back to wait with her until morning. Tomorrow he would find some way to take his family back home, all of them if he could, and bury them in the fields. His fields, where he had grown his crops. He had no idea what he would do after that. But he would willingly give his life to stop this happening again.
Well before dawn the first rescue ships arrived, too late to do anything other than search for survivors and bury the dead. They found him sitting there, one hand resting on hers, half-mad with grief and the unbearable, aching emptiness in his mind.