WALLS OF DARK AND DUST
Then the enemy vanished, leaving behind a trench of abandoned weapons and a graveyard of dusty helmets. The war is over, but he’s in no mood for a parade.
As a politician and then a soldier, he’s been fighting for change his whole life, but an indecisive victory risks letting everything return to the status quo ante, and already the ruling factions are using the news to consolidate their power. Gareth would rather die.
When he captures the sole remaining enemy soldier, blind and without her spark—the spirit companions people in his world use to communicate—she hints at much greater threats to come and much darker secrets hidden behind the city walls. That information could help Gareth finish the war and tip the political scales in his favor. But there’s more she isn’t telling, so he embarks on a secret mission to penetrate the enemy stronghold and get the answers for himself.
When his enemies find him, they’ll kill him. When his allies find out what he’s planning, they’ll destroy him. He needs to expose the truth before either happens. But the truth is not a solid and unyielding thing. If the answers he finds won’t lead to justice, how far will he go to change them?
A thin line of lights cut across the field of black unmarred by moonlight. Rubies, sapphires, topaz, emerald, amethysts, and quartz, flickering and floating like so many multicolored fireflies. Enemy sparks, dipping in and out of the trenches, their light cresting over the edges and spilling out onto the fortified plains. Couldn’t be more than a thousand. But a thousand Lenieri was a fearsome force. They would never surrender. They would never willingly retreat. It wasn’t their way. Missio had taken heavy losses pushing them back this far. Gareth had lost much more.
His own spark, Nada, hovered low to the ground, keeping its light below the crest of the hill where he was perched. This far into the no man’s land, any hint of his location would bring a hail of cannonfire down on his head.
The spark was both the wonder and the curse of humanity, he’d always thought, simultaneously the one quality which undeniably set men above the beasts of the earth and the one flaw which so often caused men to descend beneath them.
The little crystalline companions could talk to anyone, anywhere, around the world or across the battle lines. Through them, all people were connected, a great web of humanity, an eternal community of souls in constant contact. Not that it made people hate each other any less. Quite the opposite, he’d found. As if to prove his point, a cannon boomed in the distance, a warning shot perhaps—he’d have heard already if an advance was starting—aimed at one of his fellow scouts along the ridge. Gareth sank his chest deeper into the mud. They also made it hard to hide.
“Anything to report?” he whispered to his other self.
“Just the usual back and forth,” Nada said. “I haven’t seen anything that would change tomorrow’s operation. Have you?”
“No.” The Lenieri were dug in, and the dark form of the barricades, pointed and sharp, probably draped in razor wire, stood out against the faint rainbow light of the trench. But they’d pushed against such defenses before. In the mind of the Mission leadership, any problem could be solved if you threw enough bodies at it.
“Then we should go. I’ve already signaled the squad.”
Gareth gave a final look at the enemy below. Their sparks flickered and glowed with activity. What were they saying? Who were they talking to? Formulating battle plans, preparing for an attack, coordinating their defenses? Chatting amongst each other, trying to pass the tense moments where any bullet or bomb might be their last? Talking to loved ones back home, reassuring them of a swift return, dreaming dreams of a family and a home and a life? Gareth had no such trifles to worry about. His father had been dead for years. His mother could not bear the details, wanting only his brief assurances. His friend, the one friend he considered worthy of the name, was rotting in a field on the gods-forsaken plains of Worthington along with so many others he once knew.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow would be the last. The last day those sparks would shine. The last day they would talk to loved ones. The last day they would make a mockery of the Continent. The last day they would take anything else from him. The last day of the war.
Gareth tightened his grip on his rifle as he inched back from the ridge. The string of lights shifted in the valley, folding back on itself. He continued his retreat. The watch was changing, that was all. Or, satisfied no attack was coming this night, they sought some softer bed than the dirt and some greater shelter from the constant dread of cannons than a wooden wall and shallow trench. They were right. Tonight there was nothing to fear.
One more night. For Gareth, too. In those few, fitful hours in his tent, muddied with a year’s worth of filth and sore from a lifetime’s worth of struggle, a thousand sparks of light danced behind his eyes. They flickered and flared, whimpered and whined, and one-by-one went out. One more night.
Tomorrow they would all die. Or he would.