The First Sky

from Li-Young Lee's One Heart

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born
Out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you. Open
at either end of day...

"Come on, Rachel, they're going to get all the good ones!" Julia ran ahead, her bare legs bending the long grass, leaving an easy trail to follow up the steep, untended field.

Pulling her inner tube onto the mossy bank, Rachel felt river water squish out of her beat-up, red canvas shoes. She squinted as she stepped out from under the trees into the bright afternoon sun. The others could be heard laughing and shouting but had gotten far enough ahead she couldn't see them.

With a last look at the quiet shadow of the woods, Rachel dug in and sprinted after them. "Wait for me!" Seeds and bugs scattered or stuck to her damp legs as she tore through the verge, breaking another path through the field as her body took flight. She breathed in deeply, loving the smell of the trampled grass and the feeling of speed, the wind over her body. The grass whipped against her legs, and a slight ache built in the muscles as she pushed harder, striving to catch up, dashing up the hill. "Julia!"

A dark blur knocked her down as she passed a rocky outcropping near the center of the field. "Got you!" Julia landed on her giggling, and she lay beneath her, panting. The corners of Julia's very blue eyes crinkled as she grinned at her captive. "Now … what shall I do with you?" Her long, dark hair hung down around her face, and Rachel could see her heels kicking behind her, the gap in her shirt. Rachel's breathlessness wasn't entirely due to running. Julia's weight was warm on her. She has hyperaware of the softness pressing against her. "What, no words from the poet laureate of Mindoir High? Well, we have ways of making you talk!" Julia grabbed her torso and started tickling her.

"No fair! Stop!" Rachel protested, squirming, rolling back and forth under her tormentor.

"Not until you say it!" Julia insisted, refusing to be bucked off. Her fingers dug into Rachel's sides. Her prisoner would receive no reprieve.

"Say … quit it! … stop it! … what?" Rachel writhed under the onslaught, even attempting to tickle her tormentor in return, though she knew it was futile. Julia usually managed not to be ticklish. However, the fingers in the hollows of her hips stilled as Julia looked at her with a pout, their bare legs tangled together. Rachel's mouth suddenly felt dry.

"You know." Rachel stopped struggling and their eyes met, dark brown and bright blue. For a moment they lay there, their breaths mingling. Then tentatively Julia pressed her lips to Rachel's, and Rachel closed her eyes to stop the spinning of the sky.

When Julia's lips left hers, Rachel, her voice turned soft and throaty, "I … love ….." Butterflies cartwheeled in her as bright blue eyes regarded her intently, "… blueberries?"

Julia's eyes narrowed menacingly. "You are so gonna get it for that…," Her fingers dug into the hollows of Rachel's hips again. "Rachel Sofia Shepard!"

"Oh, no, okay, okay, stop, stop!" Rachel laughed and wriggled until she was out of breath. Finally capturing Julia's very pointy fingers, Rachel, with a twist of her hips flipped them over, pinning Julia beneath her. "Ha! Now it's your turn. You say it." Julia squirmed, bucking her hips, trying to throw her off. Rachel broadened her stance, getting on her knees to straddle Julia and to pull her arms up over her head. "You are my captive now! You say it!"

"You … bully. Kiss me and I will." Rachel bent down slowly, to not mash noses with the still struggling Julia, who whispered, "I love …." and slowly licked her lips before finishing, "…blueberries … too!" Pulling her arms down and twisting her hips, she threw Rachel off, sprung up, and laughing, legs flashing through the long grass, raced out of sight. "Last one there is a rotten egg!"

Rachel rose and looking after her, shook her head. "You'll pay for that, Hastlewaith!" she shouted and gleefully took up the chase.

When she got to the nets covering the blueberry bushes, she could see Julia and her brothers, Isaac and Michael, already underneath, plucking berries from the shoulder high bushes and popping them in their mouths. Syzygy, their varren, bounded between the rows. Michael rolled his eyes when she ducked under the nets. "Jay and Ray up in a tree…" he chanted. She smacked him on the back of the head. He grinned and sang even louder, "K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes tongue, then comes breasts, then comes both of you entirely undressed!" He made a vee with his fingers in front of his face and stuck his tongue out again, waggling it at the base. "Get it? Huh?"

"Real mature, Mikey, real mature." She rolled her eyes at him and snuck a glance at Julia to see if she'd noticed or minded his crudeness. "Grow up."

"He's just jealous." Isaac often acted as an interpreter for his younger brother. He took off his shirt, revealing a scrawny pale chest. Tying the bottom to make a sack, he dropped the berries he picked into it. "Maybe if we take enough home, Dad'll make one of those pies where he bakes the crust and pours the fruit in fresh with a sugar sauce."

She touched his shoulder, then ducked through a gap in the row, the thin branches scratching her arms and legs, intent on reaching Julia's side. "Hey you." She nudged Julia.

"Hey yourself." Julia nudged Rachel back. "Count me in … if I can stay for dinner, and dessert." Popping another berry in her mouth, she grinned and crossed her arms in front of her to reach down and grab the bottom of her shirt.

"No, don't." Rachel touched one of her hands. "Mikey will just stare and make rude comments. Let's use Zach's shirt."

Julia laughed and pulled her shirt off, revealing bikini-clad curves. "Really, Ray, it's not like I haven't gotten used to your brother by now. Don't be such a prude." Knotting the bottom she circled around the nearest bush glancing at her teasingly. Rachel joined her, her hands brushing Julia's bare sides as she claimed the kiss Julia had escaped earlier.

Mike popped his head through a nearby gap in the bushes. "My turn!" He closed his eyes and made a kissy face and slurpy kissy noises. "Mmmmm, mmm, mmmm." Rachel let go of Julia, walked over and pushed him lightly.


"Lezzzzbian." He ducked back behind one of the bushes.

She reached through, trying to poke him. "Monkey face."

"Poopy head." Michael wriggled out of reach. Rachel laughed and threw a blueberry over the top of the bush at him. Their mother had strict rules against using obscenity, but the results often left much to be desired.

"Can you believe the terraforming turned out this well?" Julia asked, marveling at the rows filling a good quarter of the pasture. He father led the botany part of the colonization project.

Syzygy crashed through the row up ahead before Rachel could answer, and she moved to intercept him. They'd get in big trouble if he damaged the bushes. "Hey, don't do that!" Rachel took off after him. "Syz, come here! Come here! What's gotten into you?" He appeared to be chasing some small flying thing. "Julia, help me! There's something in here." With a leap, she tackled the squirming varren and wrestled him to the ground. Julia caught up and wrapped her fingers under his collar, leaning back and restraining him, while Rachel pursued the flying creature with more care and caution than Syz had. Getting closer, she could see it was a bird, an earth bird! They must have started stage four of the terraforming plan-her own dad's part. The bird flew a few feet to the far corner, and Rachel followed, inching up behind it, bringing up her hands slowly. It didn't move. Its tiny claws clutched at a thin filament of the net that kept it trapped, and it stared at her as she took it in her hand, carefully unwrapping its claws before standing back up. It must have been very tired. Poor thing.

"Isaac, can you take Syz?" Julia called, curious about what Rachel had caught. When he'd grabbed the varren and led it away, she went over. "What is it, Rachel?"

Rachel could feel the flutter of its heartbeat as its bright eyes regarded her. She walked toward where she could duck under the net, and Julia joined her.

"What is that?"

"It's one of my dad's sparrows. He must have released them today." Rachel's father was the colony's main vet and the one in charge of the Earth animal cloning experiment. It was going to see if they could bring back creatures overpopulation had made extinct on Earth. Her dad was really excited about it. Rachel would swear his favorite words were, "biodiversity," and, "keystone species." However, he mainly talked about "invasive species," with the others working on the project with him. It was one of his chief concerns in introducing Earth's species on Mindoir. If they didn't recreate ecosystems properly, some species would have no natural predators and could threaten the health of the colony and planet. Plus her dad worried about the effect on native species, and on the newly revived ones.

"It's so cute." Julia leaned over Rachel's shoulder to get a better look. "Are we going to take it back?" She pressed her chin into Rachel's shoulder, and Rachel could feel the brush of Julia's breath on her cheek. "It's a long way."

"It's not supposed to be under the net." Rachel frowned as she paused. "Syz almost ate it."

"Maybe it wanted berries too."

"No, I mean Dad said he couldn't release them yet because they are naïve."

"Naïve? You mean, like you?" Julia chuckled and grabbed Rachel's hips, pulling her back, kissing her ear. Rachel shivered.

"Don't! I could accidentally squish it!" Rachel, bright red, shook her head. "No, I mean he said that when an animal hasn't grown up in a particular environment, it doesn't know the dangers, the predators there, and so is at risk for being wiped out until it can learn. They call that naïve. Could you get the net?"

"So what are you going to do?" Julia held the edge of it high so Rachel could get through. As she slid out, Rachel bent over, protecting the bird with her body. It kept very still except for the wild beating of its heart. She suddenly felt very sure that if she tried to carry it back to the colony, it would die of fright before they got there.

"Give it a chance to learn, I guess." Rachel tossed it up into the air. The tiny bird soared upward in an arc, like a tossed stone, then suddenly unfolded its wings and flew away, its dark silhouette quickly vanishing. "Mom says, love sets you free." Her Mom had said that to her Dad a lot when he'd come home, excited about a colony recruitment offer, and had pressured her to move. Eventually, she had agreed. "Love may not be able to make the world a safer place, but it makes it a bigger one." Rachel fervently wished the bird would survive. The feeling of it, so light, yet so alive, remained with her. It gave her an idea for a poem.

Julia reached for and took her now empty hand. "I love you, Rachel."

Rachel felt her face and body get warm. She looked over and smiled shyly.

"Hey, what's that?" Julia squinted, pointing to where thick, gray columns of smoke rose in the air.

Looking to where Julia pointed, Rachel frowned. "That's home!" Fear edged her voice as she dropped Julia's hand and started to run.

"I don't know what to tell you, Simon," Dr. Shepard slapped the side of the cow as he stood up, and it stepped away from him, waving its tail to flick away imagined flies. "It could be she's allergic to the pollen and will produce milk when she's adjusted to the xenobotany here. These creatures haven't been raised on colonies before. It will take time. We only projected hypothetically that they would adapt to this planet." He walked in his big green rubber boots toward the barn door, past a pen with several more cows.

Simon walked with him, his dark blue jumpsuit contrasting with the vet's white and gray lab suit. "I promised the Doc we'd have some soon to help supplement the kids' intake. There's some concern about the supplies." Simon ran his hand back through his hair, wiping the sweat off his brow as they stood in the doorway.

Dr. Shepard shrugged. "The crops have come in well, and we're getting close to harvest. It's going to be okay. Francine assures me people will pay big credits to get a taste of rare Earth foodstuffs, and we'll be able to trade with the other colonies out here. We'll be in the green soon. The kids will be fine. And in another month, we may even have viable chicken embryos. My test birds have matured nicely." He placed his hand on Simon's shoulder, his kindly eyes meeting the other man's. It had been a long anxious spring and summer setting the colony up. The equivalent of their first winter approached. "How are the girls?"

"Okay I guess, though honestly, sometimes I wish I had boys like you. Girls are hard to figure out. Christine is fighting some bug, and fuck if I know what Naomi wants. She complains no matter what. No one can tell her nothing, or make her happy." His face took on a tired, worried expression. "Your Rachel ever like that?"

"Sure, she can have a temper, and talk back, but she spends enough time in sports and books to keep it mostly in check. It's a little easier when they get older. You'll see. Well, not the smart mouth, which I'm sure she gets from her mother's side of the family," He laughed and winked. "but the mood swings. Plus, she's been spending a lot of time with the Hastlewaith girl, which is good and bad. She doesn't hang out with us much anymore, which means no moping about like she used to, but we have to practically blackmail or bribe her to watch the boys." They stepped out into the colony's central green. Dr. Shepard watched the sun glinting off the stacked metallic prefab units. It felt good. It was a gorgeous day.

"Hastlewaith's? That Julia?" Simon whistled. "She shaping up to be quite the stunner, like her mom. Shame about that." Julia's mother had been one of the colony's first casualties; carmitigan flu had claimed her and three others in the early spring. "Didn't know your one fancied fillies. That'll break some of the boys' hearts around here, if it sticks. With her coloring and looks, she's going to get plenty of attention. There's something about those eyes of hers… They remind me, if you don't mind my saying, of a horse I tended a few years ago. It had big, dark, soulful eyes like that, eyes that draw you in. That horse would nuzzle you one moment then kick you in the stones the next."

Dr. Shepard chuckled. Proud of his only daughter, his eldest, he preferred to hear her praised, but he didn't take offense. He'd seen the kind of look Simon described in many wild animals' eyes, one that combined intelligence and spirit, and his daughter certainly had plenty of both. He loved that about her, but he loved best her natural tenderness. She'd been volunteering in his clinics, tending wounded baby animals every spring over the past five years. Maybe it accounted for her attraction to Julia now, given Julia's mother's recent death. However, the two's friendship definitely seemed closer than any Rachel'd had before, and she was sixteen, when many started finding these things out. "Yeah well, at this age, who knows. She and her brothers are all energy and wild hair, and hard to keep up with. It'll be interesting to see where they go. Hopefully to whatever and whoever makes them happy. Julias or Julios, I don't care." He had one more patient to see, but, after lunch. He was heading home. "I've got to go. See you at the community dinner?"

"That this week? Good!" Simon shook his hand and went back into the barn. His wife loved the bonfires and the dances that followed, and he loved when she was in a good mood.

"Thanks, Ms. Shepard." Her last pupil of the morning waved as he walked away up the path from their stacked prefab units. She waved back and turned inside, weary from the long morning's wrestling with grammar, when what sounded like firecrackers and breaking glass caught her attention. Going to the door, she opened it and stepped out, trying to place what she'd heard.

"Brian?" she called.

He turned. "Yes, Ms. S?"

"Hold on a minute." She walked out to him and looked around. "Did you hear anything?"

With a smile, he pulled a mini music player out of one ear. "Uh, no."

She laughed and ruffled his hair. "Tell me you didn't have that turned on until after your lessons!" Everything seemed quiet as she looked around, but something was off. "Could you do me a favor and help me listen? I thought I heard something." She kept her hand on his shoulder.

"Like what?" He glanced around nervously, straining his ears, her unease contagious. She'd never been like this before. "You're starting to freak me out, Ms. S."

She was about to let him go when she saw it. An alien stepped out from behind a neighbor's prefab unit and moved toward them, four eyes black as night looking right at her, the sun glinting off the long, silver barrel of a gun in its hands. She knew enough to recognize it as a batarian, one of the most feared aliens in Terminus space. And she knew something else about them too—they took children as slaves. Pulling Brian behind her, turning to shield him with her body, she pushed him in front of her toward her home and screamed, "Run! To the woods!" She expected to be shot any second, and when she heard the gun go off, she screamed, loudly, "Help!" But no bullet hit her. Following Brian through her front door, she glanced back. "NO!" Her husband was there, struggling for the gun.

He saw her looking back. "Go!" he yelled.

She and Brian made it to the back door and then she heard the gun fire again. She whirled around and ran to her husband's attached work unit and got down the big tranquillizer gun, knocking over and breaking a few of his cages in the process. Brian cowered by the back door, uncertain of what to do. She ran back into the kitchen and looked out the window to where her husband lay face down. The batarian sauntered up the walk. With shaking hands, she loaded the gun. Brian crouched down behind the counter, and she rested the gun on it, taking cover beside him. When the front door opened, she sited and fired. The batarian screamed and clutched his face, a dart protruding from one of his lower eyes. With hissing speech, he lifted his gun. She fired again. He dropped. Brian yelled and then wiry arms grabbed her roughly from behind.

In the adjacent unit, a sparrow hopped through the debris on the floor, flew to the windowsill then away.

Air burned her lungs and her legs felt like rubber. Syzygy nipped at her heels. She stumbled to a halt and bent over, hands on her knees, head down, gasping to catch her breath. Syzygy flopped down, his tongue rolling out.

Julia caught up with them first. "Stop … please Ray … stop!" She grabbed hold of Rachel's shoulder to keep her from taking off again and leaned down to catch her breath.

Several minutes later Isaac and Michael reached them. Mike flopped to the ground beside the varren and lay on his back, his chest heaving. Isaac dropped to his knees, shirt clutched in his hands, blueberries long since scattered in his effort to catch up. He squinted at her. "Don't … just … run off … like that." Rachel could hear him wheezing. She nodded. He said, "We … should get … to the … comm. tower… sound the alarm." They'd had weekly drills for months when they'd first landed about what to do in case of emergency, especially in case of attack.

"Guns. Let's get guns!" Michael suggested weakly. He'd frequently wished he was old enough to use one in the drills. It'd been restricted to those 16 and older.

"We don't know … what's going on…. It … could be … a fire." Julia straightened. They had reached the outskirts of the colony. A silence palled the fields as smoke occasionally blotted out the sunlight. There was no one to be seen. "If it was an attack... there's no way … no one … would reach the tower."

Rachel straightened too. It had to be an attack, her every instinct screamed it, and she had to figure out how to protect her brothers and Julia. Her father. He'd know what to do. "We'll go find Dad. And we'll assume it's an attack until we learn otherwise. Come on, Mikey." She offered him her hand and helped him up. He hacked and spit up phlegm. "You okay? You're not supposed to lie down after running like that."

"Stop bossing me around." He whipped his hand out of hers. "You do it all the time."

Julia shushed them. "Let's circle around back to get to your place," she whispered. As the eldest, she figured she was in charge. The silence and desertedness disturbed her. Knowing her Dad was unlikely to be at home at this hour, and since their units were at the far end of the colony anyway, near the spaceport, she was ok with heading for Rachel's. Her parents were closer, and if her Dad wasn't home, her Mom would be. Any adult presence would be reassuring right now.

Rachel nodded and looked at the boys. "We could pretend it's a big game of ghost in the graveyard."

Isaac stood. "Ok."

"I guess." Michael rolled his eyes and sighed. He still wanted guns. Maybe he should just go get them. Syzygy could protect him.

Together they passed behind the nearby farm, crouched over, carefully peeking in windows but seeing no one, Syz trotting along. They could now smell the bitterness of the smoke, which seemed heavily chemical. There was one major lane between the farm and the arc of housing units. Isaac stepped out from behind the storage shed to head for it but Rachel pulled him down him. "We can't go out in the open," she whispered, and made them all crawl through the grass to the deep ditch beside the road. Their crawling confused Syz. He would bound up to one of them, stop and run away. Rachel was afraid he would give them away, but she didn't know what to do. Once they got to the ditch, she made them crawl in it to a drainage pipe that ran under it.

"No way. I'm not going in there," Isaac said as he looked in. "We're not even sure it's an attack." A trickle of water and purplish slush lined the bottom. His lip curled in disgust. He was sure it would be slimy. Who knew what alien crap was in it and what it could do to him. They'd had classes on colony safety, respect for indigenous species, etc. He wanted to respect the heck out of that stuff, from a distance.

"I'm hungry," Mikey whined.

"Try this," Isaac said, pointing to the slime.

"Then where is everyone?" Julia was starting to believe it really was an attack.

Rachel glanced into the drain. It was too long to make out much light from the other side, but some shone dimly there. "Fine, I'll go first. Come on." And she crawled into the pipe. The feeling of the stuff under her hands did not bear thinking about. She wished she could stop thinking about it. Just concentrate on getting to the other end.

As Rachel's butt disappeared into the darkness of the pipe, Julia looked at the two boys. They shook their heads. "I thought boys were supposed to be brave." She frowned and followed Rachel.

Isaac and Michael looked at each other. Michael grinned, making squeezing gestures at Julia's receding butt, and followed her into the pipe.

Isaac seriously thought about just standing up and walking home. This wasn't even remotely fun anymore. He looked up at the smoke and considered the eerie quiet they'd encountered so far and made up his mind. "Wait up!" he scrambled into the cool darkness of the pipe. He definitely did not want to be left alone. Syzygy looked after him, then trotted off.

Emerging on the other side, Rachel wiped her hands on the back of her cutoffs, glad that was over.

Julia pulled herself out. "Did I get any of it in my hair? I think I did." Rachel went to help her check.

Michael grabbed the sides and launched himself out, knocking the bent over Julia down and landing on her.

"Get off me!" She pushed him away.

He curled up in a ball as he rolled off her, squinching up his face. "Waaah, waaah, waaah! Look! I was just born." He pointed back at the tunnel and grinned. "Feed me, Jules!" He made clutching, kneading gestures with his hands.

"It's Julia, you little perv!"

"Feed me, JULIA!" he grinned, puckered his lips and raising his eyebrows suggestively.

"Shut up!" Rachel whispered fiercely, standing slightly to survey the area from the cover of the ditch.

"Could you please get out of the way?" Isaac's voice was either a little shaky or still catching some of the reverb quality of talking in the pipe.

Julia stood, went over to Rachel, grabbed her shoulders, spun her around and kissed her. For a long time. With tongue.

Isaac got out of the pipe, swiping at his body to get any goo off him. "Gross, gross, gross, gross, gross…," he muttered. Michael watched the two kissing, then looked away.

"That," Julia said, finally stopping, leaving Rachel with wide eyes and parted lips, "is the only Shepard I want touching me in any way. Are we clear?" She looked at Michael, who shrugged, then back at Rachel. "So, how are we going to do this?"

Oh right. Rachel crawled up the bank and lay down on her stomach. The others joined her. "I think we should crawl to the back of the Richardson's. We'll have a straight shot from there." Julia lying next to her did not help her think.

"The sooner we get home the better." Isaac got up and started a crouch run to the back of the Richardson's. Rachel scanned the area, squeezed Julia's hand, and took off after him.

It seemed to take forever but eventually they made it to the back of their place. As they got closer, they saw broken glass everywhere, and the smoke smell got sweeter, but they saw no one. They didn't speak anymore, or bother to peek in any more of the units after the third they passed was deserted. The answers clearly weren't going to be found there. Rachel really hoped she'd find her Dad at home. This was starting to feel like a really, really bad dream.

"I think I smell cooking." Michael's stomach growled.

"Really, that's what you're thinking about?" Rachel looked at him disbelievingly. Though, it was an improvement over him thinking about sex, or kissing, especially him thinking about kissing Julia, especially him thinking about Julia's breasts! Oh great, now that's all she was thinking about. She groaned. What's wrong with me?! I'm as bad as he is! She wiped her hand up and down her face, as if that would erase the thoughts clouding her mind.

"Well, I'm hungry. It's dinnertime, and it seems like forever since we had berries, so yes, that's what I'm thinking about!" Michael retorted.

Rachel held a finger up to her lips. "You all stay here. I'll go in and see if anyone is home."

"Hey, I want to come too," Isaac said. "It's my home too."

"Yeah, why can't we come, Ms. Bossypants?" Michael asked. "I'm going too."

"I don't know! To keep Julia safe. To make sure no one sneaks up on us. Just … because I say so! You have to listen to me. Mom and Dad put me in charge!" Rachel rolled her eyes at having her authority questioned. She was the eldest.

"I don't need anyone to keep me safe!" Julia whispered fiercely.

"Please, Jules," she shook her head, "I mean, Julia, please? I just, it's just it'd be better if you all wait here. I'll be back with Mom and maybe Dad in a minute. Just wait, please, okay?"

"Well, then hurry."


A nod.

With those assurances, Rachel held her hand up palm toward them as if that would keep them in place as she slunk toward the back door.

They were just about to go looking for her when she emerged about 5 minutes later, alone, her father's tranq. gun in hand. She was very pale.

"Where's Dad?"

"And Mom?…"

Julia raised her eyebrows. "What took you so long?"

Rachel shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. She was trembling uncontrollably.

"Bullshit!" From Mikey, who made as if to go check himself. Rachel grabbed his arm in a painfully tight grip, and pulled him down.

"No!" a forceful whisper.

"Mikey!" a shocked whisper, from Isaac.

"Oh, like you never swear!" Michael rolled his eyes.

"You were … right, Zach." This uncharacteristic admission from their big sister got their attention. They regarded her. Rachel had a hard time keeping her dry heaves at bay. She pressed her free hand against her stomach, willing it to stop. "We should go to the tower." She suddenly bent over and gagged loudly several times onto the grass. The other three grew very silent, and still, watching her. "And you were right, Mikey, we need guns." She felt a cold blankness, a huge stillness open inside her. There was no one to help them. Her expression told them everything they feared.

"Rae Rae?" Michael's voice cracked. Isaac bowed his head.

"I'm here," With a shaky arm, she grabbed and hugged him hard, looking back to the field. She touched Isaac's hand and looked over at Julia. She spoke just one more word, "Batarians."

Julia blanched. "Forget guns. We hide!"

Simon swayed on his knees. His hands were bound behind him and blood trickled down his face. He watched as they dragged and threw the bodies of his friends and neighbors on to the two big fires they had set in the center of town. The smell sickened him, as did the sounds. Not all of those being tossed on were dead.

So many corpses. He numbly counted the ones that lay where they'd been shot or rounded up and executed, remembering people's names, what he knew about them, to mourn, to stay sane. The aliens didn't have many uses for adult humans, apparently, and once they'd exhausted those…. He guessed they were too short-lived a species for it to pay. He heard one of the cows bellow in pain.

Dusk was falling.

The kids, his girls too, had been rounded up and dragged away. To the port probably. Leaving him with this … thing, hissing at him and hitting him with the stock of his weapon when he didn't answer. He didn't speak barbarian.

Suddenly the warning siren screamed to life. He winced at the piercing sound. Someone had managed to get to the alarm at last. If he had had it in him, he would have laughed. The alien beating him spun around and took off toward the tower. All over the square, the batarians that had lingered there rose from whatever they were doing, grabbed their weapons and headed in the direction of the sound. Maybe he would survive after all, he thought with surprise. The Alliance would surely respond to the distress signal.

The desire to rest was strong, but he staggered awkwardly to his feet, went back in the barn and cut his bonds with a mowing blade he'd left for sharpening on his worktable. He rubbed his wrists when his hands were free and considered what he could use as a weapon. Not blades against those guns, not his tools. He stumbled to his housing units and found his shotgun. They hadn't taken it.

Now, to get his girls before those beasts tried to leave. Hobbling a little, he took off at a half-run. The port was close. Darkness provided the best cover as he made his way up the riverbank below the docks. Ships were launching. There had to be some way to disable the ones left. He tried to think of a way but terrible screams suddenly filled the night, from girls or boys, he couldn't tell, and shouting, and the sound of many people running reverberated from the docks across the water. He wanted to plug his ears, the screams were so horrible, he thought he'd go mad if he heard them one more second. The loud report of a gun added to the cacophony and a few minutes later a small object, a body, dropped over the side, hitting the water not far from him with a splash. He heedlessly splashed into hip-high water, searching for it. Don't let it be one of my girls!

Swinging out wildly with his arms, he finally connected with something in the water, and pulled the slender body, definitely a girl, into the starlight where he could see, wiping dark hair off the pale face, to look into the empty, staring eyes of … that Shepard girl. She was still alive, somehow, but he knew that look, he'd seen that one before too—in horses that were … broken. He felt a terrible relief and pity. Blood trailed out of the corner of her mouth and flowed from her body, and she didn't seem to see him. She was likely dying, and he had to get his girls. It would probably be a mercy to hold her under, not let her bleed out or drown slowly on her own, he thought. He couldn't do it though. He just … let her go.

When all the noise had faded away, she saw only the stars quiet in the sky above her. She felt rocks brush beneath her as the river dragged her along and tried to dig her fingers in. The river tugged her. It felt like it washed everything off her and away. So cold. She couldn't hold on. The sky was a river, tugging at the stars, and they wavered, losing their hold as well. Then a shadow blotted them out and someone pulled her up, out of the river, a man in armor with dark skin, kind eyes.