The floor welcomed Haldron as the effects of the Soka became too much to bear. His body ached from the fall, and the floor was cold and uncomfortable, but he continued to lie there like an old log. The bottle lay nearby but whenever he reached for it his fingertips passed through and met stone instead. On perhaps the fourth or fifth attempt he managed to wrap his fingers around it. He brought the end to his lips and unleashed a warm torrent. The elixir sent a shockwave through Haldron, the flavours of over a dozen spices dancing on his tongue.
He made a half-hearted attempt at standing up, only to end up on the floor again. It took a couple more tries before Haldron managed to stand on both feet though the spinning of the room made staying that way difficult. He meandered to his desk, trying his best to keep from collapsing again before he slumped into the seat. He was still at Installation 14; it was too late to begin their patrol by the time he returned from the Citadel. Nobody was particularly saddened by that. It only meant one more day of rest before they went back to risking their lives. He took another swig. He needed to stop. He’d almost completely finished his monthly allocation, and it was only a matter of time before they caught him. The Chief Officer was likely going to be keeping a closer eye on him after his earlier outburst. Such behaviour would never be tolerated. But it had been a trying day, one he wanted to forget, if only for a little while. How could he speak to Benellen the way he did? He’d never done that, not for a long, long time. Not since his best friend had joined his squad as a fresh-faced recruit all those years ago. They were closer than brothers now but it wasn’t always like that. Haldron didn’t think much of Benellen when he first met him. He found him arrogant, impulsive, and stubborn, constantly challenging orders and running off on his own. It didn’t take long for them to come to blows, and it seemed they couldn’t go two minutes without being at each others throats. That all changed after Haldron narrowly saved his young comrade from the knife of a Trassani raider. The close call proved to be the shock required to get through to Benellen who began taking his role more seriously. He and Haldron were the best of friends after that and the rest, as they say, was history.
The stone cube on the desk called to him, and, like with the artefact, Haldron was powerless to resist. He reached for it though his drunken state made it seem closer than it truly was, forcing him to reach further and nearly end up on the floor again. Once it was in his hand he sat back and held it to his eye. A series of thin black lines stretched around its outer faces, with a small black circle at the centre of its top face. Haldron touched the middle line, then stopped. Fear held him in its grip, the fear of the pain that would surely result when he drew his finger along it. But then he felt something else, something that overrode his fear and filled him with longing. Slowly, he drew his finger along the line, and then his face was bathed with the orange light that radiated from the circle.
An image was projected in the light, and Haldron instantly felt tears welling in his eyes. There they were; Everess stood at his side, Haldrad and Everren in front of them. He recalled the day perfectly. They’d taken one of his leave days and visited the Halls of History. He could picture clearer than any photograph how his son’s and daughter’s eyes lit up as they walked among the exhibits, captivated by the achievements of their ancestors. The tears seeped into the fur of his cheeks as he recalled the feeling of his son’s shoulder when he rested his hand upon it for the picture, and his daughter’s giggle when his wife tickled her neck.
With a twitch of his thumb, the image vanished and another was projected in its place. There sat Everress, as beautiful as the day he first laid eyes on her, the infant Haldrad held in her muscular arms. Only three days old and already so big. He was going to grow into a very strong man. Haldron could almost feel his son’s weight in his arms when he recalled the moment he held him for the first time. He’d always had an excellent memory, like most Ebol, a blessing and a curse. He cycled to the next picture. Everress was sitting in the living room of the home they once shared, Haldrad at her knee, and baby Everren asleep in her arms. Haldron smiled through his tears. How he wished he could reach out and touch them. They were everything, his world. Now they were gone, taken so early and so cruelly. In an instant, drunken grief evolved into blistering rage.
Their last moments were spent in pain and terror, huddled in the same room the picture was taken in, staring into the eyes of a creature unmoved by their cries for mercy. As he joined his comrades in defending his city from the worst Trassani attack it had seen in generations, Haldron had no idea how much he would lose that day. No one was prepared for it. For years, their order had been struggling for numbers. They didn’t have nearly enough to keep an eye on all the tunnels. Hukijib Searyuhb took advantage of their unpreparedness to lead the biggest horde Haldron had ever seen against the Ebol Capital. He and his team were helping defend the western gates. The waves of invading savages were so thick they barely had to aim their weapons to get their kills. They kept coming, screaming like banshees as they threw themselves upon the barricades before being cut down. Even as they crawled over mountains of their fallen comrades, they never seemed to relent in their viciousness. He must have killed more Trassani that day than in all his years of patrolling the tunnels combined. But it wasn’t just the western gates. Searyuhb hit the city from all sides. The Research Sector, the Industrial Sector, the Commerce Sector; they all bore the brunt of his wrath. Not even the residential sectors were safe. The Guardians and Sentinels were already spread too thin protecting the gates and city centre, and the Trassani had never distinguished between soldier and civilian. Haldron didn’t find out until it was all over, when the dust had settled, and the perpetrators (what was left of them) were long gone.
The Trassani; they were savage even before the Chinchi’s invasion drove them underground. Now they weren’t even that. They were human (if you could call them that), the former inhabitants of the frigid continent, Synculus, before the Chinchi turned it into the wasteland it is now. The bombing was so thorough almost two thousand years later the land was barren and devoid of life. The few that survived retreated underground before migrating over to the Ebol continent where they devolved into the beasts they are now. Now all they seemed to do is eke out a hellish existence in the tunnels between the cities of the Ebol, roving around in bands and making a nuisance of themselves for their hosts, raiding outposts and settlements for food, weapons and anything else not nailed down. The Trassani were a thorn well and truly embedded in the side of the Ebol for over a thousand years, one that didn’t look set to be pulled free any time soon.
Haldron chugged the last few drops of Soka. Heartbreak and anger ate away at him, as they had done for two very long years. Since then, he’d spent many nights alone with a bottle; in secret, of course. If the officers found out he’d be straight out the door, not to mention his people’s culture that demanded he be strong, stoic and unyielding, even in the face of such tragedy. That quickly proved too much for Haldron.
He replayed his imagined version of their final moments, a pair of invisible eyes at the centre of the room, helpless. The images wouldn’t go away. Rage burned so hot Haldron had no idea what to do with himself. It came to a head; the only thing to do was hurl the empty bottle that shattered when it met the wall but did nothing to help. He screamed and cried and cursed the universe for what it had done, not only taking them but not allowing him to die with them. That did nothing to help either.
Haldron was distracted from his grief by the fast, high-pitched beeping of his room’s communicator. It was the Chief Officer. No one else would be calling at that hour. He probably wanted to talk about earlier, although it was rather late for that. Haldron considered not answering, but reconsidered. He wouldn’t be calling that late if it wasn’t urgent. And there he was, pissed out of his head.
The room spun like he was on a merry-go-round. Haldron’s legs wobbled as if made from jelly as he stumbled to the yellow wall-panel from which the sound fluttered. He had difficulty finding the correct button. He must have pressed three or four before arriving at the right one.
Silence on the other end, then broken by the voice of the Chief Officer. “Are you alright, Haldron”?
“I’m fine, sir”. Haldron tried his best to conceal his state. “What can I do for you”?
“I need you to get to the mines right away, Haldron. We’ve got a situation”. Haldron detected a tension in the Chief Officer’s voice that could only mean something big was happening.
“What kind of situation”?
“The artefact, Haldron. It’s gone; and about a dozen miners are dead”.
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