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Umbra Ac Cinis (Part Two)
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 29 September 2006, 3:57 am

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       The familiar nightmare crept into his mind at the appointed time. He dreamt of a windswept plain, flat and utterly desolate but for the remnants of a few blackened trees. Their twisted, spindly branches creaked hollowly by the blowing of a hot and airless wind—a heat which he could feel upon his face. The dark gray sky was the same color as the ground, such that the smoothness of the land very nearly obliterated any hint of a horizon. In all directions, the color was that of death, the sort of duskiness one would typically associate with a man whose next breath might well be his last. Above, a few half-hearted drops of rain fell to the earth to be immediately absorbed by the grayness underfoot; the tears of a world weeping for what was lost and would never return.

       He awoke, as he always did, bathed in a cold sweat, his skin dancing and twitching in shivers which racked his whole body. The dream affected him terribly, more perhaps in his subconscious than he truly realized. There was nothing overtly alarming about it, other than the chilling feeling of being surrounded by so much death and unseen suffering. It was but a sight, a vision, nothing more than a picture one might think to be particularly horrendous but would simply discard it when a new distraction arose.

       The reason, of course, why it troubled him so was known to him, even if he did not entirely admit it to himself. For he knew, with crippling conviction, that the world he gazed upon each night was his own.

       Sergeant Travis Haverfield tried to calm his nerves, steadying one hand upon his cool forehead and the other upon the shoulder of his wife who lay next to him on the bed. Her skin was warm and soft and quivered with the gentle rising and falling of her chest. He felt much reassured to touch something living and breathing and quickly settled back into his pillow. The covers suddenly seemed very warm and sleep once again seemed very inviting.

       When Haverfield awoke again his wife Maya had already left, leaving only a vague indentation in the sheets and her comforting scent as evidence of her presence. He rolled out slowly, carefully, as if testing turbulent waters. His feelings towards the coming day were mixed and uncertain, and he was not sure how quickly he wanted to rush into it.

       Much of the reason he had stayed behind when everyone else seemed to disappear around him was his dedication to his job and the enjoyment he got from the work it entailed. Becoming a police officer was all he had ever thought about when he had not been one, and obsessing about a case was all he thought about since he had joined. His work acted as a sort of anchor when his life became complicated or turbulent, and in these recent months he had clung to it as if it were a raft on a freezing sea.

       Yet the image of yesterday's horror had emblazoned itself upon his mind, all the deeper for the night's restless sleep. The satisfaction he had once derived from solving an investigation or lending a helping hand was but a memory now. There was no weeping widow or grieving parent to put at ease with a conviction, no tangible results from the extra hours he now had to put in for lack of fellow officers. There was only death, and ruination.

       His wife, however, remained a source of some comfort to him. She cultivated an unflagging belief that all things would return to the way they were. Firmly she held the belief that normalcy was inevitable and inexorable, and that such seemingly life-altering events as the one that had descended upon them were aberrations, brief departures from the well-practiced routine of life. Her faith sustained him and her warmth motivated him when the world got too cold.

       Treading softly across the kitchen floor, Haverfield stepped behind his wife and ran his hands smoothly down the feathery robe which hung loosely about her slim shoulders. She jumped at his touch and laughed playfully without turning around.

       "That's dangerous, you know," she told him with mock seriousness.

       He could sense her smiling as he kissed her neck. Before her on the counter was the assortment of food and culinary accoutrements which had become a familiar sight ever since Maya's job as a schoolteacher had become obsolete. Half a dozen sausages and a mound of scrambled eggs were being fried in a pan while two thick slices of bread toasted in a cheery glow nearby. "Looks good," he said as he did every morning.

       "Well, I'm sure yours will look fine as well," she said with a small laugh.

       "Oh, very good," he retorted with good-natured sarcasm, giving her waist a light squeeze. He approached the opposite end of the room and tapped the screen of a small console built into the wood-paneled wall of the kitchen. It came to life and brightened at his touch, but offered him only a muted beep and yesterday's news.

       "Has the new issue not come yet?" he asked, tapping the screen again and getting the same response.

       Maya did not turn to face him when she answered. "No, I guess they're not publishing today. I'm sure it will be back up tomorrow."

       She never was very good at concealing her feelings, and the doubt in her voice was painfully evident. The daily news had stubbornly kept going through the abandonment of the city, issuing meager stories on what was left to report and offering encouraging editorials for the prospects of Somnis. Its absence this day gnawed at him more than it should have.

       For it presented another departure from normalcy; another victim of the change which was crushing down on the forgotten colony with an invisible yet palpable weight.

       He tore his gaze reluctantly from the screen, and what he saw then stole the breath from his lungs. Maya, quietly and calmly setting their plates before their two traditional seats, had transformed into something much different, into the vision that had haunted him since the previous night. Her face had become wasted and scarred; sunken eyes, disproportionately large with such frailty, set amidst gray, sickly skin. Her outstretched arms, holding the plates, were so thin and bony that one might enclose her biceps between thumb and index finger with ample room to spare.

       Recoiling in abject terror, he clutched desperately at the wall for support. He squeezed his eyes shut and put a hand to them, as if without their protection the sight would burn through his eyelids. He willed the image out of his mind, willed to see her as she really was.

       Slowly opening his eyes once more, he saw the face of his wife, once again whole and beautiful, studying him anxiously. She had a hand on his shoulder and could feel him shaking. "My God, Travis!" she cried in alarm. "Are you alright? What is the matter?"

       He stood up straight once more, shaking his head and clearing the moisture from his eyes. "Nothing my dear," he answered quickly. "Only that I believe I'm going mad."

       "But other than that, you're fine?" she asked with a light twitter as she often did when she was nervous.

       "It was nothing, Maya, honestly," he said, turning from her to sit down at their small breakfast table. "I think, perhaps, my work is getting to me. That is all."

       She sat down opposite him, still looking thoroughly worried. "I can not imagine there is much left to enforce. Maybe you should take a little time off, even if it was just the one day."

       "I can't do that while so few officers are left," he told her for perhaps the hundredth time. He took a hearty forkful of the bright yellow eggs and stuck them in his waiting mouth, glad for the distraction. No sooner had they entered, though, than they were out again, falling in half-chewed lumps back onto the plate.

       Maya, her worry forgotten, looked on with anger as the fruits of her labor were spat out as if dosed with poison. "What on earth are you doing?" she asked crossly.

       Haverfield looked at the food heaped on his plate with a face wrinkled in disgust. "It tastes like dirt."

       "There isn't much left to buy," she told him indignantly, forcing herself to swallow a mouthful of the eggs. "Not much comes to the market anymore."

       "Well, I can not eat this," he said, making a point of pushing the plate away.

       The expression on Maya's face became blank at this, and her eyes no longer seemed to focus on anything in the room. "What then will you do?" she asked in a monotonous voice that did not seem hers. "Become like them?"

       "What did you say?" he stammered, looking at her with wide eyes.

       "I said 'don't eat it, then,'" she spat, collecting their plates and tossing them with some force into the sink, food and all.

       Paradiso had been aptly named, for it had once been a very beautiful city. Haverfield did not know why he always thought of his home in the past-tense, as if it were dead rather than just sick. It was a beautiful city still, though as it was now mostly abandoned it had more of the cold beauty of a marble statue, frozen in its pose, than the warmth of a textured watercolor that it once had.

       He was patrolling an opulent—or formerly opulent, for can a place devoid of people truly be called so?—avenue where the night before a man had been found dead, heavily overdosed on deadly mix of narcotics and industrial chemicals. He had been camping out in a dark alleyway between two lavish and empty houses, keeping a fire going with the shingles that adorned the exteriors of the neighborhood's buildings.

       "Why don't they just usurp the houses, with the owners far away?" asked Sergeant Gordon Traum.

       "Maybe they no longer recognize the difference," Haverfield suggested.

       He had not patrolled with a partner for some time now, with the shifts for the entire city not numbering more than a handful of officers. These days, though, Paradiso was becoming more dangerous, and with too big an area to cover anyway the safety of the police was being considered more seriously. After the events of last night, Haverfield was grateful for the change in procedure.

       It was late morning, yet the dark overcast sky cast a deep shadow over the surroundings, so that without knowing the time one would guess it to be the onset of evening. The rain had so far held out, though the clouds looked heavy and ominous and portended a downpour somewhat less welcome than the previous night's.

       "Did you ever wonder why the Covenant did not glass us as they did with all the other colonies?" Haverfield asked Traum abruptly.

       He was not entirely certain of what compelled him to ask the question or from what depths of his mind it sprang. He had asked it before, as everyone had, but it had always been in a flippant manner, saying it in celebration rather than in seeking a real answer. Yet now he truly wanted to know why they had been spared when all other worlds in the aliens' path had been reduced to glowing embers.

       "I suppose so," Traum said, taken aback.

       "Of course you had," Haverfield said with a laugh. "So have we all. I simply wonder what it was about this place the Covenant thought to avoid. It was not as if they missed us."

       "I'm not sure what you're getting at," his partner answered warily.

       What was that glimmer in his eye? Yes, he was sure he saw a twitch, and Traum now exhibited all the signs of a man desperate to change the subject. He concentrated with far more focus on the path ahead than was necessary for the streets were empty of both people and vehicles.

       "I wonder if perhaps there was something specific about this planet which persuaded them to leave it alone. Something that scared them off."

       "That's foolishness," Traum said dismissively, refusing to face him. "I wouldn't delve too deeply into the minds of aliens if I were you."

       Furious, Haverfield seized his partner's elbow and twisted him around so that he could look into his eyes. "Are you acting so furtively on any particular notion, Sergeant?"

       Traum twisted from his grip and edged away from him, his face red and his eyes blazing. "Don't question this God-given gift, Travis. No good will come of it."

       "What do you know, you son of a bitch?" Haverfield hissed at him, his hand pressing now against the leather of his holster.

       "You gonna draw on me?" Traum asked slowly, not daring to reach for his own weapon.

       Perhaps he saw it in Haverfield's eyes—perhaps he had seen enough—but he ran.

       Haverfield did not draw his weapon, for he wanted to speak to this man alive. Instead, he gave chase, his feet pounding the damp pavement as he locked singularly on his fleeing partner. Traum was more lithe than he, with longer legs suited for speed, but he was older and weaker too and Haverfield soon found himself upon him. He grabbed the back of his black uniform with both hands and pulled him bodily to the ground.

       "I'm sorry!" she screamed frantically. "Just don't hurt me!"

       "What do you know?" he cried , drowning out her protests. He had his fingers at her throat and pinned her down by the bulk of his body.

       It took Haverfield a moment or two to come to the realization that he was not atop Gordon Traum, nor was he on patrol. He was, in fact, in the modest foyer of his house, the morning sun still shining dimly through the stained glass of their front door, staring into the terrified face of his beloved Maya. Slowly, as if unsure whether or not he should believe his eyes, he lessened the pressure on her neck. She gasped for air upon his release and he rolled off of her to lie, disbelievingly, on their hardwood floor.

       Once he was off, Maya sprang to her feet and staggered away from him, her hands clutching her bruised throat. "Have you gone out of your mind?" she rasped, coughing as the words came with difficulty. "How could you do that to me?" With this she ran down the hall, back through the kitchen, and out of the house.

       Travis Haverfield watched her go, then closed his eyes and let his head fall back heavily to the floor.