- "Girl, why are you
The boy's voice startled her from her misery. Xhalax Sun looked around
the darkened barracks as she cowered in the corner of her narrow bunk.
His silhouette leaned down to slyly regard her from beyond the edge of
the upper bunk.
"I muh-muh-miss Mother." She sobbed, hugging her knees.
"The officer… he took her necklace from me today."
"What's your name?" He returned, unfazed by her small tale
- She stole quietly forward, eager
for a companion in this frightening place. The other children had been
cruel from the moment they learned she had been conscripted from
Sebacean agricultural colony, not from a breeding program as they
"Don't talk to the agri recruit," called another cadet from
the darkness. "She doesn't belong here."
The boy turned in the direction of the slur. In the semi-darkness
she could not make out his expression, but the disdain he held for the
interloper was obvious in his retort. "Shut up, Corsair! You
spoiled dren head."
Xhalax smiled thinly, uncertain if he were defending her or just being a
bully to the other.
"Talyn," her visitor whispered, returning his attention to
her. "My name's Talyn."
- There was a subtle shift of fabric.
Xhalax sensed his folded hand dangling over the bunk's edge to her.
Cautiously she reached out. There was the smallest glint in the
shadows. Wound between his chubby fingers was her mother's necklace.
- "I think this is yours."
- * * *
Xhalax Sun was a hesitant shadow in the threshold to the maintenance
bay, nervously playing with the tarnished chain at her neck. Her raven
hair was in disarray, hanging loosely around her face. Dried blood,
some her own, some a stranger's, speckled her face and jacket in
patches. Her eyes were huge, glimmering aqua pools in the dim light of
the quiet corridor, darting at each noise and foreign sound.
She regarded the indifferent cold metal of the sealed door before
checking the location code for the third time: Section RCW- 17. The
darkened portal in the door gave no secrets of the other side. All the
glass held was the ghostly image of her own reflection. Her numb
fingers moved to the placard, tracing the pattern of letters,
Anything to stall the moment that lay beyond. To stave off what must
A huddled group of technicians scurried past. One of them had the
nerve to meet her eyes before hurriedly looking away. Xhalax stared him
down, conspicuously shouldering the pulse rifle across her dingy and
rumpled fatigues. Only when they were further down the corridor did
she turn her attention back to the door.
"Why do this, Xhalax?" She started slightly at her own
whisper. What she was contemplating flew in the face of her
But the answer was elusive, nebulous as the mass of emotions that
sought to over-ride her present resolve.
Loss. Complete and unending.
With a thousand things left unsaid and undone. A million regrets
The dirge for something barely glimpsed in tragic possibility.
There was only a quarter arn before she was expected in debriefing.
Time was running short.
Now or never.
She drew in a deep breath and cycled the lock. The doors parted and Xhalax
was embraced by the gloom. A small gust of stale air filtered
past. Carried on it was the smell of charred flesh and burned hair. A
disembodied moan crawled out of the shadows to find her.
Neat rows of the fallen were stretched the length of the bay, divided
Peacekeeper casualties against the Scarrans in the liberation of Hedas
had been far greater than anyone in command had anticipated. Areas
such as this had been converted into makeshift triages throughout the
carrier. Only this one was for the criticals.
"What's your business here?" A harried voice called at her
She turned, heart in her throat, as though caught in some forbidden
act. But she made her face a mask, eyes narrowed in silent rebuke.
"Black Star regiment. Operations squadron. Confirming kills and
It was not a complete lie. To further her bluff, she made a motion to
find phantom orders within the inner pockets of her uniform.
Her challenger, a surgeon of barely twenty cycles, looked upon her in
thinly veiled amazement. He waved her imaginary orders off.
"Of course…. Sir." The young surgeon stammered, gesturing
to the farthest reaches of the chamber. "Operations. Took the
heaviest casualties from that detach-"
"I know. I was there."
Xhalax turned on her heel and moved through the pallets set on the
floor, feeling the young man's awe-filled gaze follow her. The stories
had no doubt spread quickly through the carrier.
Black Star regiment had been the hardest hit, having been stranded
without reinforcements for nearly three weekens on Hedas. When they
were finally extracted, the survivors had been greeted with much of
the same wonderment, as though she and the remainder were immortal,
If only that were true. If only…
I am alive to fight another day.
But he will not.
She paused in her tracks, pulling her chin up, as though to physically
remove herself from the line of regrets and empty wishes.
* * *
"I have to. I have no choice." Her eyes were flat pools
as she restated the barb of truth. She felt numb, cold at her very
core. Xhalax moved closer against him, seeking his warmth in the bed.
Talyn's face was unreadable as he stared at the ceiling, refusing to
look at her. Through a clenched jaw he muttered, "He's an
officer. Better than a tech, I suppose."
"We knew this would happen, eventually. To either one of
He was quiet.
"This means nothing to us." Xhalax tried. His silence was
terrifying to her.
With muted anger, he turned on her. "Nothing? Really? To see you
bred to another
She brought herself up on one elbow to face him. "It doesn't have
to be his child. They won't check the genetics. They hardly ever do
when the birth is for infantry."
* * *
Xhalax wove through the mingle of death rattles and utterances. Some lay
still, eyes open in death to glimpse their ends with incredulity. The
dying stirred as she passed. They muttered their agonies to the
patient cold dark.
In the corner, she found him.
Xhalax took a furtive glance around the room. The surgeon had moved out
of sight with his aids, part of the thicker shadows of the room's
entrance. This folded corner of misery was hers now.
"Talyn" She said, softly, kneeling beside the twisted form.
Gently she reached out, brushing the dirty blonde hair from his face.
At her touch, he stirred. A painful grimace wavered across his
"Xhalax… s-s-shouldn't be here. You know that," he gasped.
But his eyes held a miserable gratitude.
"I know." She looked down at the dirty grating as her vision
blurred. He placed a cold, heavy hand over hers.
"There is so much to say…" But the words died in her
throat. All the practiced speeches had dissolved, abandoning her to a
sickening hollow that consumed her heart. There had always been Talyn.
As long as she could remember: as children, as cadets, later as
This could not be happening. Not like this.
Xhalax whipped her head around sharply, anger consuming her in the face
of her weakness.
"Where's the frelling surgeon? Can't he do something for you?
There's got to be…"
"Xhalax." His rattle stayed her. "Too late."
She found his eyes and the truth written there. It was a surety that
embraced her spine with icy fingers.
Not like this. Please. Not like this.
"There is so much-" Xhalax began again.
"Shh… I know."
Slowly, his unsteady hand rose to cradle her jaw. A small sad smile
found her mouth as she guided his hand to rest over the still flat
muscles of her stomach, over the spark of life nestled there. Silent
understanding eddied over the pain in his face.
Xhalax bent near to his ear, her skin brushing his. "Our child will
know, Talyn. I swear to you. About us. About their father."
His eyes shut and for a moment she feared he had slipped away,
But he spoke once more. "Our promise…'member?" He
muttered, twisting under another wave of pain in his ruined body.
- Her spine stiffened. She remembered
the promise made cycles ago, in the stolen privacy of a crowded
marauder. It was a hushed exchange between two grunts, foolish in
their own protective yokes of false bravado.
"Yes. But I can't do it." Her voice cracked. "This
isn't the way, Talyn."
There was such a want to deny it, to keep him here with her, greedily,
even if it meant to continue his agony.
Talyn's brow furrowed. His voice was only a thin imitation of anger.
"It's our way. You and I, woman. Would have…me die… like
this? Fallen… by a Scarran?"
She placed a calming hand on his arm. Her throat a painful knot.
"No… I promised. I remember."
"Do it… now." With trembling hands she found the kill-shot
in the hidden folds of her jacket. The vial of amber liquid took on a
sinister glow in the dim. Xhalax looked over to the medics, though she
was certain they would not care. Nor would they understand. They had
never seen a battlefield in their lives. They could only see waste of
a kill-shot on a man who was dying anyway.
She met his eyes.
So much left unsaid. So much.
Her motions were the mockery of the lover she once was to him. She
bent over him. Her mouth brushed his brow, placing a kiss. Heart
thudding heavily in her chest, she held the injector against the
bruised flesh of his throat.
He squeezed his eyes shut, his hand wrapping around hers that held the
poison. It was soon done.
* * *
In the semi-darkness she picked out the sleeping forms in their neat
rows of bunks. Xhalax moved quietly to the assigned space. For the past
two solar days, she had visited this cavernous room when it was
deserted, gathering her nerve. She had stood before the featureless
cot. It was identical to its companions. It bore no mark or
personalization to name its owner. It special only to Xhalax.
But now it was occupied.
The sleeping girl stirred, sensing the presence at the foot of her
"Sir?" She said, groggily, discipline won over by sleep.
Xhalax moved closer. "Aeryn Sun. That is your name, correct?"
The girl sat up, ready to spring to attention. Her face was impossibly
serious for one so young. "Sir. Yes, sir."
"No." Xhalax held out a quieting hand. "As you
A quizzical look flitted across the child's face, but she made not
"Aeryn Sun," Xhalax began, "I have a promise to