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The Sharp Edge of a Knife: Part 2 of 3
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 7 July 2006, 4:34 am

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       The couch was comfortable enough; the leather was soft and plush and its surface provided ample space. The room, too, was pitch black but for the dancing light of a small candle and was suitably warm despite the cold outside and the absence of electricity. Ahmed Temsik, however, tossed and turned, unable and unwilling to settle. He lay there in silence, staring unblinkingly at the bare white ceiling, afraid to close his eyes. He wondered briefly why dying with his eyes opened seemed so much more palatable.

       Ahmed heard Simon rearrange himself noisily on the pullout on the other side of the room. He felt no compulsion to strike up a conversation with him, even though they faced a sleepless night and he had a million things on his mind. He thought it best to keep all the regret, anger, bitterness, remorse, and love with himself and reconcile them his own way. Besides, he thought, if he said it all out loud in a great torrent, it would be like accepting defeat and the death that would accompany it.

       No, he had accepted that long ago, far before the Covenant ship had come to Ephrath. If he said all that was on his mind, it would be like uttering his last words.

       He had never gotten married. It was not for lack of trying, either, for he had long sought to find love before he died as all others would by the inexorable force of the Covenant. Whenever he began to get close to someone, however, whenever he began to feel safe, something would preclude the relationship from progressing any further. Usually the degeneration would occur as a result of the frequent reassignments he was given by command, though most recently, the woman he loved was killed in action at Sigma Octanus. After that, he resolved to spend the rest of his waning days alone and safe himself the pain of another loss.

       It was not so big a change, really. His parents and sister had all died when he was just a boy, and he had spent most of his early days friendless and introverted. He found he could find no comfort for the horrible loss and loneliness he felt, and eventually stopped looking. It had been a time of excitement, in fact, when news of the Covenant threat reached his ears, for it seemed as if fate had given him a purpose at last. He had enlisted with the Marines long before the draft had become necessary, for he hoped to fill the gnawing void within him with some sense of duty and accomplishment. Instead, he spent the next twenty-two years falling back to the Inner Colonies against the relentless Covenant onslaught and being shuffled uselessly around the navy, never staying in one place long enough to develop any sort of meaningful bond with another person. When he thought of the empty life he had led, and that he would die leaving nothing behind, not even memories, his heart ached terribly.

       Ahmed slowly sat up on the couch and swung his legs forward. For several moments, he held his head in his hands and felt himself shake. He fought the urge to weep. His face felt unusually hot and clammy in spite of the relative cool of the room; his throat, too, was parched. He got to his feet gradually and stretched his stiff shoulders, every movement very deliberate, as if each one could be his last. He left the common room and walked unsteadily towards the kitchen, blinking his eyes against the sudden light of the hallway.

       The kitchen was well appointed for a house of such limited size and luxury. Its style was modest and of the old world, like much of the small brick home. Almost everything was made of the hard, dark wood which grew in abundance on the surface of the colony. It looked almost medieval, with cast iron handles on the cupboards and simple yet striking images of distorted people and animals carved into the face of the many cabinets. Only a handful of the comforts of modernity betrayed its setting. It stirred within Ahmed a vague memory, though he could not place it through the fog that clouded his mind.

       He opened one of the cupboards and took out a large glass mug. He filled it quickly under the tap of the sink and took a long, satisfying gulp. The water was refreshingly cool and fantastically fresh, and he felt his temperature return to normal and his fears subside.

       "That water comes directly from a spring on the edge of town," a voice said from the hallway, causing him to spin abruptly around. "The water of Ephrath is always cool and fresh."

       It was Miriam Cohen, who had stopped now on the threshold of the kitchen wearing a loose-fitting white robe. Ahmed noticed her hair was now free about her shoulders.

       "Indeed, ma'am," he said courteously, and took another sip. "Both Simon and I commented on the number of lakes and rivers as we came in. When the sun caught their surfaces, they gleamed like jewels amidst seas of deep green. I had never seen anything so beautiful." It seemed so very long ago now.

       Miriam retrieved a glass of her own and filled it with the same water. "I can not sleep," she said before drinking. "I wouldn't want to even if I could. I want to know exactly when I am going to die. Nothing terrifies me more than the thought of dying in my sleep." She laughed softly and drank quickly from her glass. "It's perverse, isn't it?"

       "No," he returned. "No, I was just thinking the very same thing. It is like the moment before execution, with a gun to the back of your head. You want to know when it is coming." He looked at her suddenly, and found that their eyes met. "Do you want to die for this planet?" he asked suddenly, without really meaning to.

       "I can think of very few things worth dying for, Lieutenant," she answered immediately, as if she had contemplated the question beforehand. "Ephrath III is my home, and I have proudly represented her for ten years. But no, I have no wish to die for her, when the stakes are so low." She looked back at him. "I'm sorry that you had to come here for me."

       "I did my duty. At least I can die with that," he finished bitterly.

       For a time Ahmed was unable to distinguish, they stood together in the kitchen in silence. There were not even any sounds that drifted from the town square. He finished his drink before she did, but he waited until she was done. At last he bid her a rather uncomfortable goodnight and set his glass down on the counter.

       Miriam leaned across him to place her own glass next to his. Ahmed moved once again to leave, but she, in turn, moved once more in his way. Looking down, he saw that she was looking meaningfully into his eyes, her own eyes deep pools of dark, chestnut brown. He felt her body against his and her arms slowly wrapping around his waist. He could see it, he could feel it, he could even smell it—slowly he moved closer to her and tentatively brushed his lips against hers. She reciprocated passionately, pulling him to her and kissing him deeply. He lifted her up, his body consumed with fire, and moved as best he could out of the kitchen.

       And he carried her, their lips never parting, their bodies pulled unconsciously towards the bedroom that loomed ever closer at the end of the hall.

       Ahmed lay in bed next to Miriam and sighed contentedly. It had not been the act itself which instilled in him this feeling of ecstasy, so counter to the feelings that had gripped him earlier in the night. It had been connecting with another person so intimately and doing something so primal, so fundamentally human, almost in protest to those who had come to kill them. They had made love frantically, desperately; they both sought solace in the idea, in the defiance, rather than in the pleasure itself.

       Miriam stretched luxuriously on the bed and moved closer to him, so that their bodies seemed to meld into one. Her eyes immediately focused on his left side where a long purple scar blemished his dark skin. She traced its length delicately with her forefinger—his skin tingled thrillingly. "A battle wound?" she asked curiously.

       "No," he said with a small, mirthless laugh. "I have never been in combat. In fact, I've never been closer to the Covenant than I am right now."

       Miriam said nothing to this. She saw him take a deep breath and guessed there was something weighing heavily on his mind. Eventually he said, "When I was six years old, I was in a car crash back on Earth. Some drunken bastard was driving a truck on the wrong side of the road, and it was dark…" He shook his head and cleared the anger that consumed him whenever he thought of the incident. "My dad couldn't avoid him, he was coming at us like a damn meteor. My dad, my mom, and my sister were all killed instantly. They said it was a miracle I survived."

       "I'm sorry," she said earnestly.

       "Don't be," he said dismissively. "I barely remember them." He collapsed back on his pillow and felt as if a giant weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "You know, that was the first time I've spoken of that to anyone since I signed up."

       She smiled lightly and kissed him gently on the lips. Then she suddenly rolled out of bed and walked to the other side of the room to stand by a marble dressing table. Ahmed immediately missed her warmth and the fragrance of her hair.

       From the table she picked up a small necklace. As there was only a candle to light the room, he did not recognize it at first, though he eventually saw that she held in her hand a golden Star of David. She pressed it tightly to her chest and then to her lips and whispered words of prayer in Hebrew. This done, she set the talisman back on the table and clambered back into bed next to him.

       Ahmed, who had witnessed this ritual silently, now looked at her. "I did not realize you were religious," he said.

       "I have not prayed since I was a little girl," she answered softly. "Have you not prayed today?"

       "No God can not save us from what is coming," he said.

       "It was not salvation in this world for which I prayed," she returned. A certain drowsiness had crept into her voice, and with it, Ahmed felt his own eyelids grow heavy.

       As he resigned himself to an unwanted sleep, a thought from an earlier conversation entered his mind. "Why do you not stay with your people, Miriam?" he asked.

       "They thought they were actually going to survive this," she responded, her eyes now closed. "I found it terribly depressing."

       He felt a tremendous weight on his chest. His extremities ached terribly. There was a blinding flash of such intensity that it burned his eyes through his closed lids. He screamed but no sound came out; instead, a horrible chill rushed in. With it came an overwhelming sense of torment, pain, and anguish, as if the air itself were laced with human suffering. At last, he forced his eyes open despite the pain; he was surrounded by a pure white light, and hovering in this radiance were thousands, millions of eyes. They were disembodied and unblinking, their ghostly gaze directed solely upon him. They were at once sorrowful, angry, regretful—the sheer weight of their emotions increased the suffocating burden. They continued to watch, all the eyes on him, as he slowly drowned in the pain. He welcomed death, if only the agony would stop, if only the feelings dissipated.

       If only they stopped
looking at him with such hatred.

       Ahmed snapped up in bed, his face deathly pale and covered in a cold sweat. He put a hand to his chest to make sure nothing was there constricting his lungs. He had never experienced anything so real which was not; residual pain was still with him, in fact, as he struggled to regain his breath. Yet nothing stuck with him so readily as the feeling of being watched by the multitude of unforgiving eyes.

       As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of room, he soon became aware that he was being watched. He squinted at the large window at the front of the room and saw, silhouetted vaguely against the dim light outside, a figure looking through the frosted glass. The candle in the room had long since gone out, and he could not see the figure with any clarity, but he could discern the blurred outline being a height of no less than eight feet.

       His hand reached instinctively to his bedside table, though he remembered he had left his gear by his couch in the common room. Instead, he rolled quickly out of the bed to face the figure head on. The dark shape staggered back from the window as if startled by the sudden action. It soon recovered, and ran quickly off down the street.

       Without thinking, without even really wanting to, Ahmed ran to the window and flung himself bodily through it. The shattering glass cut his skin painfully, and as he landed on the pavement outside he felt several shards embed themselves in his feet. With a fleeting thought of Miriam, he set off down the street, the pain only spurring him on. The street ahead was far too dark to see the figure, but he had seen it run this way, and so he followed with as much speed as his body could muster.

       Further down the road, the density of the buildings thinned and the cool glow of the distant alien ship flowed into the streets in intervals. Intermittently, Ahmed saw a glint of red in the distance, and he was sure it was whatever had been watching him. The thing was moving with an inhuman speed, an impossible speed; it only gradually struck him that he was keeping pace with it. As the impact of this incredible feat set in, he began to wonder what he would do if he did in fact catch up with this creature, weaponless and half the size of his would-be adversary. It was not a conscious worry, however. His mind was singularly focused on catching this interloper; like tunnel vision, he could conceive of nothing else but the object of his efforts.

       At last they were reaching the end of the street, and before them lay an imposing chain link fence. Ahmed summoned the last of his strength, his bloody feet pounding the pavement at an unbelievable clip, and prepared to tackle the figure as it slowed to a stop. He decided his only hope would be to bring it down as quickly as possible, before it had time to react.

       It did not stay to wait for him, however. The figure jumped straight up, placed a long-fingers hand on the top of the fence, and vaulted clean over it. Ahmed jumped at the fence as well, his hands just reaching the top. He struggled for a moment or two to lift himself over it, his aching feet scraping desperately against this final barrier, but his flagging strength finally failed him and he fell backwards to land with a heavy thud on the ground below.

       On the far side the alien had turned around and watched him, sprawled on the ground and breathing heavily. Its eyes glinted dangerously under a dark crimson helmet and it opened its maw silently, as if in a smile. Ahmed spat a biting insult at the creature between rasping gulps of air. Suddenly, it took off once more, leaping over a low brick wall and sprinting off into complete darkness. It was gone.

       "What the hell happened to you, Ahmed?" Simon asked persistently as he pulled yet another piece of glass from his friend's dirty, bleeding foot.

       Ahmed had barely said a word since he returned to the house and found all three occupants waiting anxiously at the entrance. Miriam, in particular, looked white with worry. He had not been able to speak at first, and in any case he couldn't yet put into words what had happened. He did not quite understand it himself. His reaction to the sight of the figure at the window had been purely instinctual, borne of a fleeting moment of adrenaline, will, and sheer hatred. Looking back on his recent experience, chasing the alien had been surreal, even ethereal; it had been like someone else was acting through him while he was still asleep and in bed. His conscious mind had not quite caught up with him until he had stumbled back, bleeding and broken, to the house.

       As he had been surrounded by the concerned occupants of the house and bombarded with questions to which he offered no answers, he had mulled over what had happened. The Elite should have killed him. They should all have been killed many hours ago; the Covenant were not known for hesitation when faced with an undefended human planet. It no longer mattered why they waited uselessly above the surface outside of town and refused to attack, to turn Ephrath into a lifeless wasteland as they had to the hundreds of other colonies that lay in the wake of the Covenant's campaign. All that mattered was that they were still alive, and that waiting expectantly to die was foolish. The inhabitants of the planet were doomed by either complacency or action. He had seen the inevitability of this fact in the alien's malicious eyes. Thus, fear of forcing the Covenant's hand became inconsequential. They still had a mission to complete. They had to act.

       He slowly got to his feet, ignoring Simon's protests. "The time has come for action," he said abruptly, pulling out the last piece of glass from his heel with his fingers. "An Elite was here, at the house, just outside the front window. I chased it to the end of the street." This revelation produced startled gasps from all present save Miriam, who continued to stare at him, white faced and speechless. "I don't know what the alien's coming signifies, but it can not mean anything good. Anyway, I refuse to wait here any longer to die or be dragged away. We have to do something."

       "If they're in town now, the forest has got to be crawling with them," Simon intervened. "Exactly what are two soldiers, a senator, and a secretary supposed to do against a Covenant capital ship?"

       "The alien was alone," Ahmed said determinedly. "For some reason, the Covenant have shown reluctance in taking any sort of action here. We must use that to our advantage. We have wasted too much time already. We are getting her," he pointed to Miriam, "off this planet, as ordered."

       "The question still stands," Simon returned.

       "There is a military base just outside of town, off the southern highway to Vezelay," Miriam offered unexpectedly.

       For a moment, all eyes turned to her. Then, Simon said, "With all due respect, ma'am, no amount of firepower is going to help us in a fight against the Covenant. A capital ship can carry thousands of troops, and they can field superior weaponry than whatever we can scrounge."

       "Does Ephrath have a Self-Defense force, Miriam?" Ahmed asked, ignoring Simon.

       "No," she answered with deliberate steadiness. She still seemed quite shaken by the night's turn of events. "The colony was never big enough to warrant its own armed forces. The Marines were responsible for our defense, and they were stationed nearby."

       "Then we may have all we need," he said hopefully. "But for now, we need a car."