Mekin Ascora stood on a rise outside of Grendemar, gazing out over the skyline, not there was much skyline left after hours of orbital bombardment. Miraculously, Ascora, Foldren, and Chalix had managed to get themselves and the rest of the civilians out of the city without further incident after the little girl’s mother was killed.
Teas. That was her name. They had reached the outskirts of the city just as the bombing seemed to die down, and for the past half hour, they’d been sitting on this rise, trying to catch their breath and come to terms with the horrors they’d seen. In that half hour, Teas had calmed down enough to tell Ascora her name, but that was all he’d been able to get out of her.
“We need to keep moving, Ascora,” Chalix said, coming up to him and speaking in a low voice in his ear. “Those were our orders.”
“I know, Chalix,” Ascora said, just as quietly. “But these people need a few more moments.”
“Two minutes,” Chalix said firmly. Ascora nodded, and Chalix went off to tell everybody. Ascora just wanted to collapse on the ground and sleep for a week, but Chalix was right. Just because the bombing had stopped for now, didn’t mean that the Midigalans were done. And just because they’d limited themselves to inside Grendemar until now, didn’t mean things were going to stay that way.
Ascora yawned and stretched and turned back toward the rest of the group. There was very little chatter as everyone got ready to keep moving. Everybody was still too traumatized by what they had experienced to have much to say. Ascora couldn’t blame them. Their homes, their possessions, their friends and families, all of it had just been crushed by a fleet of warships orbiting out of sight of the planet’s surface.
Ascora and Foldren started trudging together down the path leading down into a nearby valley, leaving Chalix to herd up the civilians. Despite her hard exterior, or maybe because of it, the civilians seemed to listen to her the most, and Ascora and Foldren were happy to leave her to it. Although she grumbled about having to babysit a “bunch of useless civvies”, and told them repeatedly that she’d leave them behind if they didn’t keep up with the pace she set, she was the one who would lend an arm for a straggler to lean on or give a quiet, encouraging word to someone who seemed about to give into despair. Foldren would have just as soon shot them all in the head so he didn’t have to deal with them anymore. And Ascora? He just wanted to save them cause those were his orders. He didn’t care about them as people. At least, that’s what told himself.
A scream from behind him caused Ascora to look back at the city, and what he saw there almost made him drop his rifle. The sky was glowing red with energy, like the eye of an angry god. He didn’t know exactly what could be causing such a thing, but he knew it couldn’t be good. For a second, he was frozen in place, unable to think or move or react at all. But then his instincts and training took over.
“RUN!” he bellowed as loud as he could, and then followed his own advice. He didn’t look back to see if anyone was following him. If they weren’t, nothing else he could do would save them now. He didn’t know what was going on, but something told him that anyone who wasn’t down in the valley in the next few seconds was dead.
Then he remembered Teas. He stumbled to a halt about halfway down the slope and looked back. He couldn’t see her anywhere. As much as he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care about any of these civilians, he couldn’t fool himself when it came to Teas. Even though it’d only been a few hours since he’d met her, he already cared about her deeply, and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her to die.
Although he knew it was hopeless, he turned and started running back up the hill. Before he’d made it more than a few meters, however, he saw Chalix cresting the ridge with Teas in her arms. He tried to turn again to go back down the hill, now that he knew she was accounted for, but he twisted his ankle and collapsed to the ground. Chalix was just passing him as he fell, and she stopped to try and help him when she saw he was down.
“Go!” he gasped, trying to ignore the pain in his ankle. “Keep moving!” Chalix just shook her head without a word, and in one smooth motion, tucked Teas under one arm and pulled Ascora up with the other. Together, they stumbled as fast as they could down the hill.
They had just reached the bottom of the valley when a blinding flash of red light blotted out the sky. It was followed a split second later by a deafening boom that seemed to go on forever. The combination of light and sound obliterated all other sensations, and for what seemed like an eternity, Ascora lay in the mud, his entire being consumed by whatever was happening on the other side of the ridge.
Finally, the light and the sound died away, leaving an aching emptiness in its wake. Ascora opened his eyes slowly, gradually becoming aware of the pain in his ankle again. He tried to stand up, and then collapsed into the mud again, and just lay there, gasping for breath. He was dimly aware of Foldren and Chalix having an angry conversation, which ended with Foldren storming back up the ridge that the group had just run down. He looked over to see Teas huddled up in a little ball next to him, sobbing quietly. He tried to reach over to pat her head or rub her back comfortingly, but she was too far away for him to reach, and he couldn’t muster up the energy to move closer to her.
After several minutes, he managed to pull himself up to a sitting position just as Foldren ran back down the hill. Foldren went up to Chalix, and she motioned for them both to come over by Ascora.
“It’s all gone,” Foldren said wearily, plopping down onto the ground next to Ascora. “I don’t know what the Midigalans did, but it was thorough. Grendemar… well, it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s nothing left.” With that, he collapsed and lay down on the ground, breathing heavily and staring blankly at the sky. Chalix and Ascora just stared at each other, both of them thinking the same thing: Now what?
To be continued…