Chapter 19

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Reza snapped to attention in perfect time with the thirty-four other men and women of the platoon at the bellowed command. Davis, who stood at the head of the platoon's formation, now wore the stripes of a staff sergeant, and had been bumped up to the position of platoon sergeant. Walker, now standing like an ebony pillar at the rear of the platoon, was the acting platoon leader. Standing ramrod straight to Reza's right, Eustus now wore the three stripes of a sergeant and bore the responsibility of squad leader. As for Reza himself, he was proud enough of the addition of a single additional stripe to his sleeve, proclaiming his lofty rank of corporal. He bore none of the others any ill will for jumping further ahead than him on the rank ladder; once one had earned the sigil of the Desh-Ka, such trifles were not worthy of thought.
Their platoon was flanked on either side by the two other platoons of the company that had been formed from the remnants of several Red Legion fleet detachments, and which now called the old cruiser Pegasus home. The company was assembled on the ship's hangar deck, the only compartment of the ship large enough for all of them to gather at once, for the reading of the orders of the day, which was more of a tradition than a necessity.
Stalin, the company first sergeant, after a final gaze across the formation with narrowed eyes, pivoted sharply on his heels to face the same direction as the rest of the formation as Ortiz strode from the side to take up a position of attention in front of him. They exchanged salutes.
"Post!" Ortiz ordered. With that, Stalin and the platoon sergeants rotated to the rear of their respective formations, as the platoon leaders came to the front to face Ortiz.
As Davis marched to his position at the rear of the formation, Reza suppressed a smile as he considered the strange man: Davis remained a complete lunatic, but largely an entertaining one. Even now, Reza was not sure if that made him a lesser or better Marine.
Once the others had reached their positions, Ortiz ordered, "At ease." The men and women of the company spread their feet shoulder width apart and put their hands behind their backs, relaxing. Slightly.
As Ortiz began reading the orders of the day, which were invariably a variation of the same list of dirty jobs as the day before, and the day before that, in the monotonous existence that had been their lives aboard the old cruiser Pegasus, Reza's mind drifted. Nearly five months had passed since their narrow escape from being eaten by the horde of tiny amphibians on the planet Carillon. Reza had spent the first month in sick bay, with the ship's surgeon clucking in morbid wonder at Reza's internal injuries. Eustus had dubbed him Dr. How-The-Hell-Did-That-Happen, for that was what the man inevitably said every time he came to examine Reza, which was at least three times a day. While the surgeon was competent enough in patching up the gashes and punctures in Reza's flesh, he could do little for the wounds that lay deeper inside his body. Even Reza's own efforts to heal himself finally reached their limit, and he knew that nothing more could be done without the intervention of a Kreelan healer, which of course would never happen. At last, he convinced the surgeon to release him back to duty. Reza knew that his body was again strong and that he could fight well enough, but he also understood that something within him, besides his heart, remained broken. He could wield his Kreelan or human weapons with his accustomed skill and retained his second sight, but the other powers endowed by the Desh-Ka Crystal of Souls were noticeably weakened. In particular, he could no longer summon lightning as he had in the village on Carillon. Even with focused concentration, he could barely create more than a tingle in his palms.
It was a steep price for the lives of his friends, but he gladly would have paid it again.
Then he thought of Stalin, the enigmatic man, the killer, who had saved his life. Reza had asked him why, but Stalin had only told him, "Because I am not yet done with you." During the weeks, then months, that followed, Reza had expected Stalin to challenge him to a final duel, but no such challenge had come. Reza could not decide if that were good or bad.
"After all of those entertaining tasks are done," Ortiz said in a voice tinged with disbelief, interrupting his reverie, "which should take all of about six hours by my estimation, the captain has authorized two days of shore leave for the entire company, in rotation by platoon."
The landing bay was filled with cheers that echoed off the steel bulkheads. Had anyone turned around to look, they would have been shocked to see that even Stalin's face cracked into a smile. The Pegasus was old and probably should have been sent to the breakers years before, but any functioning warship was kept in service until it literally fell apart or was destroyed in action. She required an outrageous amount of maintenance just to stay space-worthy, and a lot of that, especially the really shitty jobs, fell to the Marines.
"Pipe down!" Ortiz shouted. Reluctantly, the Marines quieted. "Since Second Platoon" — that was Reza's — "had the lovely job of cleaning out the air duct system last week, they get to go dirt-side first, followed by First and Third Platoons. So, the faster you get all this crap done today, the faster you can head down to experience the wonders of Kalimpong."
"Just as long as there aren't any damn frogs with teeth," Eustus muttered.
An involuntary shudder ran through Reza. "I would be perfectly happy with no frogs at all," he whispered back.
As it turned out, Kalimpong, or at least the spot where Reza and the others found themselves, was entirely amphibian-free. The most serious threat posed to the relaxing Marines was from tiny creatures not unlike Terran mosquitoes, but which had no desire to sample human blood.
They were, instead, the main source of food for the fish in the local rivers, which were legendary among anglers throughout the Confederation. The rivers teemed with fish quite akin to Terran salmon, and which were both hugely entertaining to catch and equally good to eat.
"This is amazing. I never, ever thought I'd be able to fish here," Eustus said in wonder as he worked his fly rod, whipping it forward and back before finally sending out the line to a spot where a big fish lurked near the shallow bottom, just behind a rock that jutted from the surface, where the slow-moving water burbled and broke around it.
"Did your family do a lot of fishing?" Calhoun asked from where he stood nearby, his feet in the cool water, a rod in his hand. Young Ben was nearby, working to set up a simple fish trap that Eustus had explained how to make. The survivors from Carillon had been delivered here, and were now the inhabitants of a pre-fab "town" that had been hastily erected. Such towns were all too common throughout the Confederation. While they were not the most glamorous accommodations, they at least provided refugees decent shelter quickly.
"That's where we got a lot of the food we put on the table," Eustus explained. "At least for protein. I come from a long line of farmers, but we lived near a stream, with the river it fed into not too far away. When my brothers and I weren't working the fields, we were out fishing, and Dad would come down when he could." He smiled, but the smile faded. "They're all gone, now. All but my mom and younger brother."
"I'm sorry," Calhoun said.
Eustus shrugged. "It's part of the world we live in, I guess." The tip of his rod suddenly bent down as the line went taught. "Whoop! There we go!"
Reza watched them from his vantage point where he sat, legs crossed, atop a large rock that overlooked the river and his companions. Like the others, the only thing he wore were summer duty shorts. That had earned him some stares because of the scars that criss-crossed his body, but he was used to such curiosity and ignored them. Some of the Marines fished along the shore or out as far as waist-deep water. Others slept amid the calf-length grass that blanketed the shoreline. The rest chose their own pursuits. Ortiz plucked uncertainly at a battered acoustic guitar. Stalin read an ancient copy, actually made of paper, of the Holy Bible in Georgian. Davis played catch with Walker. It was an idyllic scene in many ways, but incongruous with the Universe beyond the atmosphere, where death and chaos reigned.
Talia sat beside Reza, working different colored threads into a piece of fabric with a needle. Cross-stitch, she had called it. He had asked her some time earlier what she was making, but she had told him it was a secret and had kept her back turned so he couldn't see. Hailed like victorious heroes by many of the survivors who had come to welcome them, the Marines all had been offered lodging in the Carillon village. Sparse as the pre-fab rooms might be, they were far better than the Marine barracks. None of the Marines refused the offer. Reza and Eustus were staying with Calhoun and his family. Chunlan was also living with them, as sort of an honorary grandmother. Their reunion meal had been a warm and welcome one. Since then, Talia had been virtually glued to Reza's side.
Leaning toward her, Reza said, "Can I see, now?"
Talia turned to him, a look of consideration on her face. "Do you promise not to laugh?"
"Why would I laugh?" Reza asked, perplexed.
She frowned. "Because it's not very good."
"I promise."
After another moment's indecision, she held forth the fruit of her efforts, which she'd been working on since the previous day when she'd learned that Reza and the others would be coming down.
"Talia..." Reza paused, his heart caught in his throat. The material was black and dark gray, not unlike the look of his armor when caught just so by the light. And in the center, about the size of his palm, was the rune of the Desh-Ka in a cyan thread that shimmered in the sun. It was only about a third complete, but was unmistakable, and perfectly formed. "It is beautiful." He reached out and put a hand to her cheek. "Thank you."
She lowered her eyes, and he took his hand away. "I'm glad you like it. I saw it on your armor and thought...thought that it was pretty. Even if I don't know what it means."
"Think of it as a symbol of honor and duty," he told her.
"Why don't all Kreelans have that?" She asked. "Why just you? No one else in the whole village ever saw even a vid of a warrior with a marking like that. Don't the others where you came from believe in 'honor and duty?'"
"They do." It would have been difficult to explain under the best of circumstances, but there was little he could say to one not of the Way about the nature of a Desh-Ka priest. "Let us just say that this," he nodded at the symbol upon the fabric, "requires much more...focus, shall we say." And sacrifice, he didn't add.
"Focus, huh?" She sighed. "You won't tell me, is what you're saying."
Reza bowed his head. "I cannot. I am sorry."
"But it's really, really hard to get this award, or whatever it is, isn't it?"
"Yes," Reza said quietly. "It is a lifetime of struggle."
"And focus," she said. "Fine, go ahead and keep your secrets." With a sigh, Talia went back to her needlework.
Reza looked out over the river before bowing his head and closing his eyes, seeking to lose himself in meditation, but instead finding himself in the past.
"You must focus, Reza," Esah-Zhurah told him.
Reza bobbed his head slightly in acknowledgement as he screwed his eyes shut, willing his mind to focus. The two of them knelt, facing one another, on the dais of the central arena of the kazha. A month before, Reza had endured his first Challenge, which had left him with new scars and a battered ego. While he was quickly learning the techniques of fighting and swordcraft, there clearly was a mode of thinking, or perhaps not thinking, that his peers were able to call upon, but that he could not. He knew that his skills would improve over time with repetition, as his muscles learned and remembered what they were supposed to do, without conscious thought from his mind. But there was a deeper well of clarity that Esah-Zhurah wanted him to achieve.
"You must empty your mind, your thoughts," she went on.
Reza shook his head, opening his eyes. "How can I focus - and what should I focus on! - if I am at the same time to clear away my thoughts?"
He could see the anger rising in her eyes, anger that would lead to punishment. His keeper was not the most patient of beings.
Before she could inflict her displeasure, verbal or otherwise, upon him, he heard another voice.
"Esah-Zhurah," Tesh-Dar, high priestess of the Desh-Ka, said from beside them, "leave us. I will send him to you later."
"Yes, my priestess!" Esah-Zhurah said, bowing her head and saluting. Without another look at Reza, she rose to her feet and departed.
Reza kept his eyes upon the stone of the dais as Tesh-Dar knelt before him, taking Esah-Zhurah's place. He did not understand how the priestess could simply appear out of thin air as she just had. Of course, there was much he did not understand about her. But he did understand one thing: he hated her. He guessed that two years had passed since he had been snatched from Hallmark, and the memories of the friends he had lost there were still fresh. And he had not forgotten that this warrior, great among her people though she might be, had killed his parents when he was but a child.
"I am sorry, my priestess," he explained quietly, ruthlessly shoving his emotions back into a box in his mind. "I do not mean to disobey Esah-Zhurah, but I do not understand what I am supposed to do." He risked glancing up at her face, seeking out her eyes with his own. "You can show me a sword stroke by demonstrating the movement of your body, sword in hand, and I can emulate it and learn to do it on my own. But how do I focus my mind while emptying it of thought? And would not that make me less attuned to my surroundings in battle, not more? I cannot see it in order to learn it." He lowered his eyes and shook his head. "I would obey, but I do not understand."
"Your words are well-spoken, Little One," Tesh-Dar said. "Her Children, perhaps, understand these things better because of the Bloodsong, because we know from birth with absolute certainty that a greater universe exists than our senses tell us. And so it is with the mind. If you cannot focus your mind in the arena, you will be distracted. Even against an opponent of lesser skill, you will be at a disadvantage if she can focus her mind upon her blade, while your thoughts are divided, your concentration fragmented. We meditate to hone that skill, that ability to focus, that we may call upon it when it is needed in battle. And to help focus our minds on problems of particular complexity outside the arena."
"I understand these things, my priestess, as Esah-Zhurah has explained them to me in much the same way. But I do not know how to do it, no matter how many times Esah-Zhurah has tried to describe it." He sighed. "It is most frustrating."
"Then let us try a different way," Tesh-Dar said. "Look at me."
Swallowing his fear, Reza again lifted his eyes to hers. He was always afraid to look her in the eye, not just because it was disrespectful (and could lead to death, if she decided to take offense), but because he found it incredibly difficult to look away. If the eyes were windows to the soul, as he had once read seemingly so long ago, then Tesh-Dar's soul was equal parts fury, beauty, and wisdom.
"Do not fear, child," she told him as she put a massive hand to either side of his face, her long ebony talons resting upon his hair at the back of his head.
"Yes, my priestess," he whispered, forcing himself to relax as he stared into her eyes.
She brought her face closer, so close that he thought their lips might meet. But instead, she brought her forehead to his. Everywhere her skin touched his, his body felt like it was on fire. Their eyes, so close now that he could no longer focus, remained locked, and he felt the rest of the world around them falling away, until all that remained was her gaze, her silver-flecked feline eyes boring right into his soul.
"Now," Tesh-Dar told him, "close your eyes."
A momentary spike of fear shot through him, for he was afraid that he might swirl away into nothingness. But he obeyed, and his eyes flickered closed.
"The world is no more." He heard her voice as if it were coming from everywhere, yet nowhere. "The universe is no more. All that remains is we two."
And Reza could sense that what she said was indeed true. He existed; so did she. But everything else, everyone else, was gone. Around them was simply nothing, forever and ever. " is this possible?"
"Do not try to understand how, Reza," she told him. "Try to grasp the feeling of it, the sensation of nothingness, of emptiness. This is what you must strive to achieve. But it can only be felt; it cannot be understood."
Doing as she bade him, Reza focused on the sensations of the unreality that surrounded him. While at first he felt only fear, the fear gradually gave way to a sense of peace, and then a kind of tranquility that he had never known. The universe was empty and dark, but filled with warmth, as if it were a great womb. It was not a thing to fear, but to embrace.
"Yes," Tesh-Dar told him. "Yes, Little One. This is the place you must seek. Now, imagine in your mind that your sword is in your hand."
Reza did so. And in the dark arena of his mind, he could feel his sword in his palm, see the blade shimmering as if it were under the sun of the Homeworld, even though this place was bereft of light.
"Now imagine we are back in the arena," she said, her voice drifting through the dark like waves lapping upon some distant and invisible shore. "All of your senses are now focused on the battle at hand. There are no distractions, only the clash of sword upon sword."
And it was so. Even though he knew his eyes were closed, Reza could see himself spinning and whirling, his sword slicing through the air. Then Tesh-Dar was there with him, her own sword sparking when the blades crashed together as they slashed and parried, his sword moving as if it had a mind of its own. He knew that she could have bested him in an instant had she wished, but also understood that was not the point of this imaginary contest. He had no idea how she had made this possible, but he threw all he had into every movement. They battled back and forth across the arena, lowly tresh and high priestess, in a ballet of ringing steel that, at last, Tesh-Dar called to a halt.
"Kazh," she commanded.
Reza instantly lowered his sword and sank to his knees in the imaginary sand, bowing his head in obeisance as he fought to catch his breath.
"Open your eyes, child."
"But..." He had thought he must have reopened his eyes at some point, but he was wrong. He blinked, and found himself in the sand of the arena, kneeling before Tesh-Dar, just like at the end of his imagined battle. Glancing down, he saw that his armor was dented and scored from her blade, blood ran from a wound on his cheek, and his own blade was nicked in a dozen or more places. Tesh-Dar's blade, as well, showed evidence of their combat. And standing at the edge of the arena, among a large group of onlooking tresh, was Esah-Zhurah, eyes wide in disbelief.
"Now you understand the feeling, Little One," Tesh-Dar told him as she sheathed her sword, "the sense of the place in your mind you must seek. How you reach it is a quest that falls solely to you."
"Reza, are you okay?"
Blinking open his eyes, Reza found Talia staring at him, a concerned look on her face.
"Yes," he told her. "I was...snoozing, I think you would call it."
"How can you sleep sitting up like that?"
Reza smiled. "I can sleep while I walk."
"You cannot!"
"I truly can."
She frowned, wondering if he was pulling her leg, but decided that he didn't have that much of a sense of humor. Scooting over, she leaned back against him, looking out over the group of anglers below.
"The fish aren't biting much. Eustus is the only one who's caught anything so far today," she said. "I wish I could catch something."
"Why don't you?"
She shrugged. "I'd rather stay here." Turning around, she put her arms around his waist and hugged him. He felt a tremor run through her body.
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Talia," Reza told her gently as he wrapped an arm around her. "Not here, not now."
Talia shook her head. "Nowhere is safe," she whispered, "except maybe with you. I...I have nightmares every night, about those horrible things coming out of the ground and the warriors, both. Ben does, too, but not as bad, I don't think." She sniffed, and Reza could tell she was fighting to hold back tears. "I don't mean to be a baby, but I don't think a minute goes by that I'm not afraid. I think I'm always going to be afraid."
Reza could think of nothing to reassure her that was not, at least in part, a lie. Their universe was a violent, uncertain place. While he had told her that she had nothing to be afraid of here and now, that was only because he was here and would not have let any harm come to her. But he knew that he would not always be there to protect her, her brother, and her father: his friends. So he just held her until the tears finally came. 
After a time, she let go of him and sat up, wiping her cheeks with the back of her arms.
Gesturing toward the river, Reza asked, "Do you want to catch a fish?"
"Didn't I tell you that they're not biting?"
Reza glanced at her with the hint of a smile. "Kreelan warriors do not wait for fish to bite. Come."
Leading her down the sloping side of the rock, Reza found a stand of saplings. Taking out his Kreelan dagger, he cut down two, with trunks about as big around as his index finger, and trimmed them to about Talia's height. Then, with economical movements, he sliced off all the branches and sharpened the ends into needle sharp points.
"Spears!" Talia exclaimed.
"Exactly," he told her, handing her one. "They take skill to use, but hunting this way gives the hunter the initiative, not the prey. And most fish on my world would not submit to mere hooks and line."
"Why is that?" Talia asked.
"Because they are predators in their own right, fearsome and deadly. What they are doing," he gestured toward some of the Marines standing in the water, fishing, "you would never see in any river or sea of my world. They would be food for the fish."
"Sounds like a great place," she said with sarcasm appropriate for a teenager.
The pair headed back to the river, taking up a spot atop some smaller rocks not far from where Eustus and Calhoun continued to fish.
"It's not just about catching fish," Calhoun called out to Reza with a smile.
"Says the fisherman who hasn't caught one!" Talia quipped, sticking her tongue out.
"It's more about the beer," one of the Marines called out.
Calhoun and Eustus laughed.
"Just don't fall in!" Her father warned.
"Reza will catch me if I do," she said, holding onto Reza's free hand with her own.
After giving her hand a squeeze, he let go and focused his attention on the water. "There," he pointed with his spear, "do you see?"
A silvery shape hung in the water a few feet away. Pointing into the current, the fish undulated slowly, just enough to keep its position.
Talia leaned forward. The fear in her eyes from earlier was now replaced with excitement. "Yes!"
Showing her how to hold the spear, Reza said, "Now, you must..."
"No," she said, "you do it first! Let me see how you do it."
"Very well." Reza looked around to find another fish. "There," he pointed again, this time in the direction of Calhoun and Eustus.
Holding her hand up to block the reflection of the sun from the water, she squinted. "Okay, I think see it. But that's so far away!"
"Come on, Reza," Calhoun said. He and Eustus, along with a number of the others, had reeled in their lines and were watching the demonstration. It seemed that anything that Reza did seemed to attract attention. The fish was the one Calhoun had been trying to coax into biting, and was perhaps four, maybe five meters from where he stood. But it was at least twenty meters to where Reza was. "I don't know how you can even see it, let alone spear it."
Eustus just smiled and shook his head. He set down his rod and started wading into the water toward the fish.
In the blink of an eye, Reza twisted back, spear in hand, and then twisted his torso and flung his arm forward, sending the spear whistling through the air. It entered the water with a muted splash, neatly skewering the fish through the gills.
The others hooted in awe as Eustus grabbed the spear and held up the fish, fully as long as his arm and still wriggling, and began making his way back to shore.
Turning back to Talia, who stood staring at him, open-mouthed, Reza said, "Now, you try."
"I'm just going to miss, even though it's so close."
"Remember what I was saying earlier about focus?" Reza reminded her as he stood behind her. He helped her adjust her stance, spreading her feet farther apart, and guided her arms to where they needed to be for the start of the throw. "Now," he told her softly, touching his head to hers much as Tesh-Dar had all those years ago, "close your eyes. Focus your attention on the fish. Forget about everyone else, about everything else. See in your mind the spear striking the fish. Only that. Do not question or doubt yourself. Do not worry about missing. Let yourself become still."
"Okay," she breathed. "I'll try."
After a few moments, he said, "Now, what do you see in your mind?"
"The spear hitting the fish, right behind his head."
"Open your eyes."
Talia did, and Reza stepped back. "Now."
Stepping forward, Talia whipped her throwing hand toward the fish, sending the spear on its way.
She squealed with surprise and delight as it hit the target, the spear point penetrating about a hand's breadth ahead of the tail.
"Fetch it, quickly!" Reza told her, and Talia leaped into the water, chasing after the spear as the wounded fish, being dragged downstream by the current, fought in vain to get away.
"Dad!" She shouted. "Did you see? Did you see that?"
The shoreline, now crowded with the entire Marine detachment and their civilian hosts, erupted into applause and cheers, Calhoun loudest of all. Ben stood beside his father, mouth agape.
As Talia wrestled her prize from the water and held it up for her father and brother to see, a huge smile on her face, an LTV burst from the tree line along the trail that led to the village.  The vehicle skidded to a stop near Ortiz, and a Marine in full combat bear leaped out of the passenger seat and made his way to their commander, who was now on her feet.
After a terse report, Ortiz, her face grim, nodded, and the Marine hopped back in and the vehicle took off, no doubt to round up the other stragglers.
"Time to go back to work, people," Ortiz shouted. "Kreelans have been spotted in the system."
"No," Talia whispered as she clambered back onto the rock beside Reza, the fish, wounded and dying as it was carried downstream, now forgotten. She took his hand, squeezing it in a white-knuckle grip. "Please, no."
Nowhere was safe.

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