by Resha Caner
part 2 of 7|
page 1 of 2
The Nurses revealed an obvious reluctance to let a Captain enter the nursery. It was a violation of protocol. Did no one respect the old ways anymore? Sensing the Queen’s mark on the bundle caused only more confusion, and no amount of barking from the Captain could bring them to order. Their dismal mood was reinforced by heavy condensation dripping from the ceiling as hot winds blew. The whole temperament of the tunnels was changing.
“Silence!” he roared, and the nursery dropped into a shocked hush. All that could be heard was the soft buzzing of the sound-cones as they created a noise field to define the extents of the room with their reflections. The Captain was as surprised as anyone that he dared to speak.
He took a step forward, and the Head Nurse gave way, with her attendants falling back in a wave of pattering feet, their hands rustling amongst their skirts. A few seconds passed, and black silence fell again.
The Captain took slow steps deeper into the nursery, his boots echoing against the floor to emphasize his stature. As he penetrated the interior of the room, forgotten memories returned. Beads of sweat formed on his skin, declaring the prized spot the nursery occupied amongst the steam vents so the eggs could be kept warm.
Pabulum had been set in rows on tables, ready for delivery to the eggs. The aroma reminded him of lilting rhymes and comforting lullabies. The memory of a pinkish chiming voice recalled the Nurse who had first lifted him from his cradle and introduced him to the wonder of the tunnels.
He turned back to the Head Nurse, and barked to call her over. Her agitated submission to his command brought a realization that his military ways were not conducive to coaxing a small child. His hand slipped down to the pistol attached to his hip. He pondered it as the Head Nurse waited.
With slow and careful fingers, the Captain undid the buckle and handed her his weapon. Then he forced himself into a softened tone, chirping and clicking in a ridiculous greenish fashion, until he dropped into a shamed silence.
Rather than speaking, he swept his arm across the line of children cowering against the wall, signaling his desire to hear them sing.
After a painful silence, timid warbling drifted from the trembling line. A confusion of colors swirled through the Captain’s mind, and he dropped his head to concentrate, cutting out the sounds one by one as if picking a specific Soldier from the confusion of battle.
“Her.” He jumped forward and pointed to a tiny girl hiding under the arm of an older child. The girl released a terrified squeak.
The Head Nurse clicked her displeasure, but the Captain persisted. His newfound ability to speak proved invaluable, and he repeated his demand. “Her.”
The child came forth, shaking with such violence that she imitated the agitated, clumsy communications of the Diggers.
Her timidity caused him to rethink his choice. She was small, almost threadlike. Her hair was thin and tangled, lying about her shoulders in a snarled mess. The Captain came to the verge of rescinding his request when the girl’s hands went to her face, and she sobbed.
He had never dealt with emotions like this. When the Captain was given his rank, he gave up all thoughts of comfort and friendship. Most in his position did not live one-tenth the life of a normal Red. Yet somewhere within the heart of the Captain a seed was birthed by her cry.
He knelt on one knee, extending a gentle hand toward the little girl. His fingers unrolled until the bundle with the Queen’s mark hung like a wind chime swaying in a soft breeze. In a voice the Captain had not used since he left his Nurse, he called to her.
The little girl shuffled backward, hesitated, and then stepped forward again. The Captain began to hum his favorite lullaby, and the Nurses sighed with amazement. The girl touched his hand, and the warmth of her fingers played across his skin like dew drops.
“You must bind to this,” he commanded, edging the words with as much tenderness as he could muster.
As if in a trance, the girl took the Queen’s mark into herself.
With his task completed, the Captain nodded his satisfaction, and rose with a sharp bark, indicating he would take the girl with him. The girl cowered again, but he seized her arm before she could retreat.
An explosion ripped through the tunnel outside, and the Captain released the girl. Images of duty replaced all thoughts, and he moved to the door. The attack had begun sooner than he expected. He had tarried too long, been too kind in enticing the girl to take the mark. His Soldiers would be lost without him, and he needed to return to his command.
A sad pinkish whimper drizzled through the screams and the chaos of the Nurses rushing the children to safety. Now marked, they left the girl to her fate. So be it, for it was the Queen’s desire. The Captain had work to do.
He stepped into the tunnels, turning his attention toward the sound of battle. The confusion and scatter of people would make a return to his men difficult, but they needed him, and he had to go. Memory of the lay of the tunnels flashed into his mind with the clarity of a map, and he plotted his course back toward the collapsed tunnel where One of Thirteen had died. His men still held the area as a vanguard against the Black army. He decided on his path, and stepped in the necessary direction when another explosion sounded.
The ceiling collapsed before him. The ground shook and dirt rained down upon his head. The girl cried.
“Come!” he ordered. Seizing her hand, he lifted her onto his shoulders, and stalked into a small side tunnel, hunching over so she would not strike her head against the arch. Though the destruction forced him onto a roundabout path, alternatives were still open to him, and he was determined to reach his men.
People scurried every which way, fleeing in one direction only for those in front to be buried by a collapsing tunnel, those behind turning to mill about in a useless attempt to escape the invading Black army. The Captain could smell the Black horde now. The others were hopelessly lost, unable to distinguish the sweaty panic of Red Scouts from Black Soldiers. But the Captain knew the direction of the enemy’s approach.
The old ways demanded he move toward the Black Soldiers and give his life to stem the tide, but the screams of the little girl riding his shoulders confused his objective. Maybe he should take her and descend deep into the forgotten lower tunnels built years ago by the Fifteenth Red Queen. They could hide themselves in musty decay until the Black Soldiers lost the scent. Yet he feared what lay in those deep tunnels, and hesitated.
The Captain turned left and pushed his way through the crowd. Some people pushed back, and he barked at them, his thunderous voice knifing through the din and playing upon their instinct to obey. Some had reached an untouchable mania, and he slashed at them, forcing them to give way. The farther he pushed, the thinner the crowd became, and the quicker his gait.
The tunnel ahead split, with one going up and the other down. The Captain headed downward. A hundred meters ahead lay the blocked entrance to the old tunnels. He would dig if he had to. The sound-cones had been knocked out, leaving him in black silence. He dared a call to echo locate his position, and judged himself halfway. The way was clear enough to run, and the noise of slaughter faded into the background.
A muffled boom sounded to his right, and the Captain skidded to a halt, dropping into silence. The girl cried freely, and the Captain could feel tears dripping into his hair. He reached up to put a hand to her mouth, trying to speak in comforting tones, but she would not be silenced.
The boom sounded again, but this time only a thin layer of rock separated the clamor from where they stood. The Black Army was flanking the colony! They would be trapped! He headed back up the tunnel when the wall exploded, showering his back with rock.
In a single motion he pulled the girl from his shoulders and flung her to the ground, covering her body with his own. He reached to his hip, but the pistol was gone. His mind raced up the tunnel toward the nursery where he had left it, and he cursed his carelessness.
Fear soon replaced anger as something stepped from the opening blown in the wall. The Black one who stepped through the jagged opening was not a Soldier. He was not a Captain. He was the Black General. He could be no other.
Copyright © 2010 by Resha Caner