It’s Sunday, 30 June 2019, and guess what? We’re early! I actually finished translating today’s chapter two days ago and even put some last touches to the cover image yesterday. I’m so excited, I had to hold myself back in order to stick to the designated release date 😀
By the way, if you are new to my story, please consider starting with Chapter 1 🙂
So, what happened last time? Abbida and friends (ha, ha, friends… get it?) were trudging through mud and sludge for hours and hours, fog set in and then–this happened:
Suddenly, a jolt ran through the tether. The ox bleated–a bloodcurdling, piteous cry, half-swallowed by the fog, followed by a mighty splash. Rona screamed! The sludge sloshed up and wide for Tarek and even Abbida to get drenched. Rona’s torch died.
“Rona!” Tarek yelled, his voice sounding muffled, unreal. “Rona!”
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
Chapter 6, Part 2
Tarek surged forward. The rope between them became taut, constricting Abbida’s waist. Planting her heels in the mud and leaning backward, she tried to resist the pull, but she wasn’t heavy enough. “Cole! Help me!”
But Cole stomped right past her, almost knocking her over. The ox let out another haunting bleat, thrashing in the water, the clamor sending icy shivers down Abbida’s spine. She couldn’t see a thing!
“Ugh.” Cole skidded to a halt, causing Abbida to thump into his back. She made to pass him, to try and see what was happening, but Cole grabbed her by the shoulders, so tight, it hurt. “Don’t look.”
She heard Rona yelling orders and Tarek hollering back, then the twang of Tarek’s crossbow, twice, rapidly. There was another mighty splash and the ox’s bleating was suddenly cut off. Wheezing and panting they stood and stared. Abbida looked up into Cole’s disturbed face, “What…?”
“A crocodile,” he said, slightly releasing his grip on her shoulders, but not letting go. “It’s gone.”
Shaken to her bones, she leaned into him.
Rona and Tarek were silhouetted against the dense fog, wraithlike almost, with Rona stooping over, her hands propped on her knees, seeming utterly exhausted. Turning towards her, Tarek shouldered his crossbow, looking as if he wanted to pat her back, but thought better of it. Instead, he fumbled around his pack, and shortly after another hiss wafted over to where Abbida and Cole stood. Tarek had lit another torch.
“You okay?” Abbida heard him say.
“The ox…,” Rona said, croaking.
“What’s with your arm?”
“Nothing, just a scratch.” Pushing his hand away, she rightened herself.
Cursing under his breath, Tarek stooped and started rummaging in the mud. “We need to collect our things and get out of here asap. Before the smell of blood draws more predators.”
The two remaining torches cast bleak cones of light over the area, and while they were gathering as much of their equipment as they could find, Abbida tried not to look at the streaks of blood in the murky water.
Luckily, the tent had been bundled up in one big packet. Half-buried, it lay where the ox had lost it in its death struggle. Abbida swallowed hard, fighting to suppress the growing sense of dread. What a horrible way to die.
She stubbed her almost numb toes on something and involuntarily squealed, but it was just a stack of cut firewood. “Shoot, completely soaked.”
Rona who had snatched the torch away from Tarek shook her head. “There’s no way we can carry that anyway. We’ll split the tent’s flysheet, frame and pegs between us and take a water canister each. If it’s still potable, that is…”
As it turned out, they had lost most of their food supplies. They were either thoroughly soaked or buried in the sludge, but the remaining burdens were still heavy enough to make the journey that much harder. Wondering, how long she would be able to carry this much weight, Abbida resolved to not burden the others any more by making them carry her stuff, as well. Instead, she would carry her share as far as she could–and then a little further.
They left in silence. The dim spot that was the sun somewhat helped keeping directions, and by the time it sagged behind the horizon, they’d been tramping on for what seemed forever. With the fog still dense as this and the moon only in its first quarter, the two torches barely gave off enough light for Abbida to see Tarek’s back. To make matters worse, the torches were burning down.
By now Abbida’s eyelids felt as heavy as the pack on her back. Stumbling along, the only thing keeping her from falling asleep walking were the surrounding sounds and the uncertainty, what kind of critters all this croaking, rustling, grinding and dragging belonged to.
She caught sight of some movement, right next to her foot, the ripple of a gliding body through the black waters–Abbida started and tripped. Giving off a yelp, she barely managed to jerk her hands up in time to brace herself. The rope went taut, Tarek whipped round and Cole called, “Abbida!”
“I’m okay! Only got startled there for a minute.”
At least she was awake now!
Cole patted her shoulder knowingly; Tarek nodded and turned around again. From the head of their little caravan Rona shouted, “Here’s a dry spot!”
Never had her voice sounded sweeter to Abbida’s ears. Shortly after, they reached a small island covered with coarse grass and lichens, but at least it was firm ground. Relieved, Abbida dropped off her bundle and flopped down. The others did the same and for a long while nobody said a word. Hugging her knees, Abbida buried her head in her arms. Her clothes reeked of algae and sludge, her jacket was dank, her pants and boots thoroughly soaked, but she was ready to fall asleep right there and then.
“No use marching on tonight. We’ll set up camp here,” Rona decided and Abbida could have kissed her for it.
Cole and Tarek put up the tent with practiced motions, and Rona distributed food rations. Having lost all the fire wood, they were forced to hunker together in the small tent, munching listlessly on a small helping of dried meat and pickled cabbage. Abbida stuck her hands under her armpits alternately to warm her fingers.
Rona was the first to coil up in her blanket. Abbida dreaded having to sleep in the same space with her, so she was relieved to see Tarek lying down next to Rona. She moved away from him a bit, making him snort audibly. Shortly after, both were breathing evenly.
“Come on buzzhead, this is your chance to sleep off your hangover,” Cole said in a lame attempt to tease her, but he was so tired himself that the words came out slurred. He sprawled out on the floor next to Tarek, laid his head down on his flowery satchel and closed his eyes. Under normal circumstances she’d have been excited to sleep so close to him. But after all they’d been through, she simply felt grateful for the warmth and secureness emanating from him.
Like a baby, Abbida curled her legs up, pulling the blanket up to her nose, shivering herself into a fitful sleep, troubled by dreams of flying spiders and snakes smacking their lips.
A blow to her head woke her, just to find her face pressed flush to the tent’s side. Low snoring filled her ears, Cole’s arm weighing down her head. He’d turned in his sleep, unknowingly dealing her a blow. Carefully, so as not to wake him, she pushed his arm off and rubbed her sleepy eyes. The body heat of four people had turned the tent into a nice little bear’s den. Nestling her back closer to Cole’s chest, she was contemplating slipping under his blanket, when he stirred and murmured, “Five more minutes, Inez…”
Abbida tensed and moved away. Competing with a dead rival wasn’t her idea of a fair fight. Slipping out from under her blanket, she stalked over to her bundle and took it outside. At least Cole had been mindful to pack some spare clothing for her. Warily eyeing the slimy water puddles she sighed. What she wouldn’t give for a bath or at least a quick wash! As it were, drinking water was scarce, and she settled for rubbing off the grime with her old shirt and slipping into a fresh one. Sort of fresh. Like everything else her bag had been smothered in muck and the insides reeked. Oh well.
Last night’s fog had scattered and when the sun rose, it burned away the lingering haze. Back at the village life started much earlier than this, usually, but apparently her fellow travelers had been just as exhausted as she. A sense of satisfaction came over Abbida for getting up first. Checking their remaining water supply, that feeling quickly subsided: there was not much water left. If they didn’t make it out of these swamps posthaste they would have to figure out a way to filter the murky water or boil it. Without any fire wood.
Behind her she heard the tent’s tarp flap, and Rona came crawling out on hands and knees. Yawning, she got up on her feet and stretched, taking a deep breath. Immediately regretting it, she scrunched up her nose. Then she noticed Abbida, “You’re up.”
“How far to the next waterhole?”
Rona shrugged. “Who knows? Nobody has ever made it this far from the village. We have no choice, but to keep walking in the direction where the ship lies. Hopefully, the ground will turn more solid soon, and we come across some fresh water.”
“Well, the swamp has to end somewhere. If Ashok’s contact is trustworthy, they won’t have sent us to certain death.”
“What do you mean, ‘if’ they’re trustworthy? And speaking of Ashok, why isn’t he here with us? You know–instead of me?”
“That you’ll need to ask Cole,” Rona grumbled. Turning away, she began to distribute the morning rations. “I was against it.”
Abbida glared a hole into Rona’s back. This was ridiculous! Not only had she been dragged along against her will, now it turned out, Rona didn’t even want her around! Then again, was she telling the truth? Rona was the leader of this expedition. There had to be something she wanted from Abbida. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have put up with her. Not Rona.
Rona looked up. “What? You don’t believe it?”
When Abbida didn’t reply, for lack of a way to speak her mind and be polite, too, Rona slowly got to her feet.
“Of course, you don’t. It’s me, Rona, so it’s got to be a lie. Do you have any clue how long I’ve been doing this job? Can you imagine how often I get to listen to accusations of sugarcoating circumstances, bending the truth, spreading half-truths–or downright lying? Well, guess what, I’ll give you the whole, unadulterated truth: I never wanted you here, but I was overruled! Satisfied?”
Face flushed, fists clenched so her knuckles turned white, her glare would have put rabid bears to flight.
Despite herself, Abbida was impressed. “Wow. No wonder people keep re-electing you.”
Her perception of Rona had always been that of a domineering, callous woman. Not in her wildest dreams had she imagined, Rona might actually believe she had a mission, and for some reason, that made her more agreeable if not likable. “So, you don’t like me being around. I guess, that makes two of us.”
Rona took a long breath. “There’s no use dwelling on it. While you’re here, might as well make yourself useful and think something up that gets us out of this predicament.”
“Think something up? What am I, a wizard?”
“A gadget, a device, a drought dance… I don’t care as long as it works.”
Abbida stared at her. This was getting better by the minute! First, Rona admitted to not wanting her around, then in the same breath she tasked her with the well-being of the whole group. “Fine! I’ll think of something!”
Behind them somebody stirred in the tent, then Tarek crawled out with Cole right behind, both sporting dark beard stubble. Tarek scratched his chin and made a face. Rona looked at him with a sharp eye. “If you’re going to shave, by all means use the swamp water. We’re almost out of drinking water.”
“I wouldn’t,” Cole said skeptically. But Tarek shook his head.
“No worries, I’m not stupid. That stuff’s gotta be full of germs and parasites.”
In the end they both remained unshaven and that didn’t even look half bad. After a quick, very meager breakfast they broke camp. The tent was still dank when they packed it up, but that couldn’t be helped. Hopefully, they’d find a place to dry it soon or it would start to mold and become useless.
They moved out in the same formation as the previous day, with Rona taking the lead, Tarek following close behind, then Abbida. Cole formed the tail as usual. None of them looked back once.
The geostationary spaceport revolved around the planet at an orbit of about forty thousand klicks–a distance which Li Xiao would finally be able to cross in his own fighter. After two days of confinement doing nothing on board the troop transporter, he couldn’t wait to pilot his own ship again. The airspace was clear, and regulations said nothing about specific flight routes, so he dropped almost vertically and then settled in at three thousand klicks relative altitude. Wanting to savor this rare moment of solitude, he took any detour he’d be able to justify when reporting for duty later.
Just like the first time he’d been stationed planetside, the view of those wide, open landscapes once more took away his breath. Right now there was nothing but sandy desert down there, for many thousand kilometers. No tree or shrub, no beast or housing, nothing. Whatever might have lived there once had been buried under the sands centuries ago, the dunes wandering relentlessly with the winds, covering almost all of the giant continent, only to drop into the sea in the end. Scientists expected to see the boundaries between this continent and the one in the north to be obliterated in mere decades. Almost like it used to be in ancient times.
Li Xiao was on his way to that northern continent now. Crossing the strait, he reached the coastline and was finally greeted by vast grasslands and mountains. In order to not scare away any wildlife with the noise of his turbines, he decelerated, and, switching to auto-pilot, took as many pictures as possible of the plentiful vegetation beneath.
Close to the foothills of a massive mountain range he noticed a herd of grazing wild horses, but when he got too close, they startled and took flight in a breakneck gallop. Hastily, Li Xiao pulled up his fighter. He couldn’t help looking back wistfully. To be this free! All of a sudden, he felt restless, yearning to break away, mindlessly, just once. To run–on and on–knowing there was still so much more! No dome to cut off his path abruptly.
Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to land his fighter and touch the ground with his own feet. Calculating a new, stricter course to the north-west he pulled the machine up, stepped on it and broke the sound barrier. At an altitude of twelve thousand klicks he raced over mountains, jungles, rivers and valleys, and finally reached ground station Tou Hao, sprawled in the middle of a vast and dry grassy plain. Eagerly, Li Xiao touched down.
Thank you for reading!
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