Last Stand

By Jared Vaillancourt
[contributor] 

Smoke rose from the debris, turning the entire west horizon beyond the hill into a cloud of blackened ash. The buildings bleeding the smoke into the sky were all little more than crater marks, with some of the larger ones still defiantly poking support columns and fragments of re-bar out through the quagmire. Colonel Erytz scanned the hot smog with his visor function and grinned; there certainly wasn’t any movement down where the city had been anymore.

“Good news, warriors!” Erytz announced loudly, lifting his visor to let the warm sun fall upon his shivering scales. Cheers rose from the artillery line, ecstatic warbling and clicking as his fellow Aioshiy began to celebrate their victory. Erytz spoke in the language of their enemy, a final insult now that they were no more substantial than the smoke rising from their final city. Forty-three years after the Aioshiy had landed on this world, bombarded it from space, ran counterinsurgency operations against the inhabitants and suffered losses never before known to their bolstering armies, finally the last native city had fallen. Erytz hissed out a smile.

Finally, this world was theirs!

“Pack this gear up!” Erytz ordered sharply, switching back to his native Yk’ik’liy dialect. “Secure the tanks for transport. Someone find a writer – oh, have I got poems plentiful for this day!” That last roused a renewed cheer of excitement from his soldiers. They took to their tasks just as quickly, however, retracting the immense triangular barrels of the dome-like tanks while others folded their sniping blasters neatly in half, securing them for the long flight back to the staging colony at the centre of this world’s largest desert. Erytz recalled the tactical analysis of that day; whatever these creatures they had been fighting were, they had an animosity towards sand that seemed to rival their animosity towards Aioshiy. Few of the deserts were inhabited, and those that were built up tended to be sparse and unkempt. The city Erytz had just blasted into oblivion had been deep within one of the lush forests on the southernmost continent west of the staging colony. The three weeks of firefighting and bombardments before Erytz’s victory had tended to that.

The soldiers were getting sluggish again. “Pack it up!” Erytz yelled, trying not to smile. “Where’s my writer?”

“Here,” a younger Aioshiy rushed up to him, her legs bounding easily over the awkward boulders lodged in the hillside. “Naeskw, at your service.” she announced with a slight bow and finger tracing up along her skull crest to the back of her head. As far as curtseys went, it was the most gracious he’d ever seen. Her femininity also surprised him; clearly Naeskw had been enjoying a few too many hormone ales. Only their enemy’s drink could revert her now.

“I want to say something grandiose,” Erytz began, puffing out his shoulders and clicking a heel against the hard ground. “Something that truly encapsulates this day.” Naeskw nodded – another bad habit, but an understandable one – and began to tap her three eager fingers against the flexi she somehow conjured from her highly concealing civilian armour.

“Erytz’s Victory?” she offered. Erytz dismissed it with a soft click.

“Too plain,” he countered. “Our people need to understand how totally and ruthlessly our enemy was crushed this day. Every Aioshiy from the homeworld to the outer rim must appreciate the effort it took to conquer this world.” He turned and watched Naeskw feverishly record this last. Her amber eyes darted back and forth, guiding her fingers to choose the symbols carefully.

“What else?” she asked. Erytz considered this, tugging on his crimson armour as he strode towards the smouldering ruins. Naeskw followed behind him, matching the slow strut he took over the ruined debris.

“These creatures were unique,” he added. “Ferocious. Even after they knew they had lost, they fought onwards.” He considered a fallen piece of concrete that curved as though chasing a circle. “Be sure to mention the pirate attacks of ten years back. Our preventing them from boarding our ships was surely the turning point in the struggle.”

“Pirates… struggle…” Naeskw muttered as Erytz carried on. Closer towards the centre of the city, the smoke had begun to disperse. Another interesting thing about these creatures was that they always built some sort of park or memorial in the middle of the town, with important structures off to the side. Such a trait had confused the first orbital bombardment crews when the war started. Erytz had done his studying; the statue in this city had been toppled by the blasts rather than obliterated outright. Ash had formed a thick layer over its bulky form, obscuring the craftsmanship he secretly admired. It was at least more realistic that Aioshiy post-modernism.

“Colonel!” Erytz’s helmet radio sparked to life. “One of the privates got into the hormone ale!”

“Excellent!” Erytz said as he turned to see the soldiers in question running towards him, carrying a very angry female protesting on their shoulders. “I have a friend who now owes me credits, then. Tell…” Erytz hesitated. He held a hand up to Naeskw, who stopped recording.

“What is it, Colonel?” Naeskw asked, her flexi vanishing. The soldiers stopped at the edge of town square, dropping the female as they responded to their commander’s stillness. Instead of answering, Erytz lowered his visor.

Through the smoke, a single burnt figure was limping towards them. Erytz slowly lifted his visor as the creature cleared the smoke; its skin was charred beyond recognition, and one eye was a gory mess. What little remained of its armour was smouldering, and in its hand was a sharp fragment of debris. Soldiers took aim.

“Stop!” Erytz ordered, his eyes glued to the creature. It was moving slowly, one leg clearly in no position to be used for walking, but onwards it pressed. Erytz drew his blade as the creature came close.

The creature swung at Erytz, who easily stood aside and jabbed it in the back. It groaned and swung around, nearly loosing balance as Erytz dodged back. Again he quickly poked the creature, this time in the shoulder. The creature’s other hand grabbed his wrist, and before Erytz could react it brought the jagged debris slashing across Erytz’s unprotected left eye. Training prevented the Colonel from showing any pain as he twisted out of the creature’s grip and buried his knife into its side. The creature collapsed.

“Colonel! Are you badly hurt?” one of the soldiers asked. Erytz wanted to tell them no, or say anything to them at all, but the creature had begun to stand up. It dropped the debris and pulled the knife from its torso, holding it waveringly as it beckoned Erytz to attack. Erytz readied his fists, but didn’t move. Somehow, he couldn’t.

“For…” the creature sputtered. The knife fell from its grip.

Before Erytz knew what he was doing, he had caught the creature as it fell, and he found himself on bended knee as the creature’s tenuous grip to life waned in his arms. Strange red blood stained his armour as the stench of burning skin filled all six nostrils. “For what?” he demanded.

“For…”

“For what?” Erytz shouted. None of the soldiers dared move so much as an eyelid.

The creature’s good eye stared right into Erytz’s. “… Earth,” was its last breath. Erytz stared at its body blankly.

If nothing else, he knew he was never going to speak Yk’ik’liy again.

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