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Old Soldiers

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She was old enough, now, the little girl from Eden Prime, to call out to her mother; she ran barefoot over the wind-blistered grass of the Cornish bluffs, the soles rubbed red and raw from the cold. She couldn’t feel it. The salt spray clung to her hair and her clothes and her toys lay forgotten against the white chalk face of the cliff as she scrabbled back up towards her home.

There had been an explosion in the ocean a few days before. Nobody was sure what it was; even during the Reaper invasion, the quiet Cornish coast had been neglected until the final months of the siege, its residents unused to seeing husks scrambling up the seaside cliffs. It was a fracture in the idyllic seascape, but it was reality, and most of the survivors were merely glad it was over.

The people closest to the shore had been woken in the early hours of the morning by an inconceivably loud boom. It wasn’t long before a crowd amassed by the shoreline, armed with flashlights and lamps, the light of which was swallowed up by the ocean. The crash still echoed, but they could see nothing except the tumultuous disturbance of the water a few miles out to sea. The lighthouse up on the coast’s crest had been shattered by a Reaper’s beam, plunging the town into darkness. They could see nothing aside from the dancing white caps of the waves.

By the time the sun rose the next morning, however, it was easy to piece together what had happened. Dawn presented the silhouette of the Citadel tower stark against the ocean. It stood, blasted and broken, jutting like a crooked tooth out of the sea. By midmorning the coast was crawling with people, the cliffs lined with them, straining to get a look at the tower; mothers held their children and men openly wept, old soldiers truly realising that the war was over.

They had lived. They had won.

“Mama, quickly!

The little girl’s voice drifted along the wind towards her house’s faded green shutters; inside stood her mother, leaning over the sink with a cup of tea in a tin mug, shaking off the last of her morning sleepiness. Upon hearing her child calling above the moaning wind, however, he girl’s mother bristled, pushing past the door to stand on the front porch and looking out over the sea and the great broken tower. Her daughter ran towards her, white dress billowing.

Mama! There’s a person on the beach!”

The young woman blinked. “What?

With an insistent finger, the little girl pointed back from the way she’d come. “A person, mama! They’re on the beach, but I think they are still asleep.”

The waves boomed against the cliffs, and for a moment she thought she’d heard the child wrong.

“Show me. Quickly.”

She followed the little girl back down the bluffs, feet crammed into deck shoes and her sheepskin jacket pulled tightly closed against the harsh Cornish wind that tugged at her hair and flushed their cheeks pink. The girl hopped and skipped over the stones of the shore, little arms flung wide to maintain her balance, and her mother followed a few metres behind, eyes scanning the shoreline.

Here! Mama, look!” the girl cried as she set off at a sprint, hurtling towards a hulking black figure lying face-down amidst the lapping waves.

Oh my God.” The woman’s breath caught in her throat; stones clattered beneath her feet as she closed the distance between herself and her daughter, crouching down beside the beached figure with her heart pounding against her ribs. The more she looked, however, the more she noticed; the figure was dressed in heavy armour streaked with chipped red and white paint, head covered by a fractured helmet, the glass of which was smashed and welled with water. She motioned to her daughter. “Quickly, help me!”

As her daughter closed in beside her, the young woman managed to pull off the helmet and turn the figure onto its back.

She recognised the face immediately.

Suddenly, the soldier’s face cramped, her entire body shuddering and heaving as she rolled over onto her side and vomited up a lungful of seawater. Mother and daughter watched her carefully.

“You…” the young woman started, eyes riveted to the sickly, gaunt face and the glowing fissures in the skin.

The soldier couldn’t speak; her lungs were still waterlogged and it looked like she was in a great amount of pain. With her fists clenched tight she rolled over onto her elbows, coughing violently to loose the water from her throat, gasping for breath.

“Quickly, my love,” the young woman said to her daughter while still struggling to hold the drowned soldier up. The little girl looked frightened, her eyes wide and clear as they looked between her mother – by now sodden and looking positively panicked – and the half-dead soldier. “Go and fetch the sergeant from the post office. Tell him we have found Jane Shepard.”

The little girl nodded and, without a single word of argument, began up the cliff the way she came.