The White Ship
It’s never easy killing babies. I slid in behind a trunk as I spotted them between the trees. The hard leather sheath holding my machete pressed into my leg as I leaned into the bark, peeping out at them. Warm rays broke through the yellowing canopy in thick golden beams and an icy breeze mussed my long pale hair. A branch rustled as a lone bird took flight, jerking my gaze skywards. Above me, glittering across the clear blue sky were stray fragments of the broken moon. It was a reminder that we were no longer the Earth’s dominant species, as the explosion on the surface of the lunar body had marked their arrival.
Low lying branches brushed my exposed forearms as I crept forward toward my prey. I pulled an arrow from the quiver on my back and nocked it into place. A flash of brown about thirty yards behind the target signaled that my hunting partner, Dan was in position. Though he would never take the shot. He could never kill the young ones because he hadn’t spent three years struggling to survive.
If it weren’t for the restrictions our leader, Sam had imposed I would kill them both, to save me from coming out again tomorrow. Sam called it precautionary measures, so we wouldn’t hunt the forest dry. I supposed it made sense, but when it had just been my younger brother, Alex and me, before I’d joined this nomad community, I hadn’t the luxury of planning ahead. Especially when we nearly starved to death the winter after Mom died, I’d learned to take what I could get.
I snuck in closer, lining up the innocent animal and silencing my conscience that was barely a whisper. The fawn was too young to survive alone and that had signed its death sentence. The arrow rested on my hand as I took aim. The long bow creaked from the pressure, I was one of the few that could use this antique with accuracy.
The doe’s head snapped up, her ears jerking around. A soft hum trickled through the forest. The sound grew, like a swarm of bees heading this way. I had the baby in my sights, aiming at its fuzzy neck. A higher pitch buzz, like a cloud of mosquitoes joined the droning noise. The deer bolted and the child leaped after her. The whirring got louder. Crap. It meant only one thing—Cardinals. Earth’s new dominant species, flying in their gleaming red prowlers— killing machines, that had ravaged our world.
“Dan,” I hissed into the wilderness. His head popped up. I sprinted for him, “We gotta spilt.”
He didn’t react until I was practically on top of him. The high pitched whizzing made my hair stand on end. I’d never heard anything like it before and the vehicle making the new noise was nearly upon us. I tackled him and we thudded into the ground. A metallic white craft zipped over us, casting a long slim shadow. It was unlike any prowler I’d ever seen, with glowing blue lines decorating its hull and sides.
The whirring hum, grew louder and a moment later two chunky prowlers zoomed overhead, pursuing the white ship. Through the thinning tree line we saw the luminous scarlet stripes on the prowler’s hull grow brighter before it fired an energy bolt. A thunder like clap rocked the forest as a glowing crimson sphere shot out, streaking toward the smaller, streamlined craft. At the very last second White evaded, and the mass of coiling red energy whizzed out of sight.
Dan stared after it. “Shit,” he said, mouth gaping.
White looped around and came straight at the prowlers. They fired more pulsating spheres. The new ship dodged, but stayed its course, zooming toward them. They were nearly on top of one another, when White fired a blinding blue sphere. The sound of lightning cracking on the earth, vibrated through my skull. I cupped my ears, recoiling into a crouch, but forced myself to keep my gaze skywards.
The shot impacted. An explosion rocked the forest, drowning out our gasps. We ducked for cover, throwing ourselves back down to the ground. Hot turbulent air rushed over us. The shockwave rang in my ears and knocked hundreds of leaves from the branches, sending them fluttering down on us.
A shiny blue blur zipped through the smoke and flames, speeding after the surviving prowler. My jaw slackened as I stared up in wonder. Since the invasion the aliens hadn’t lost one vessel. Our inferior technology had never penetrated their shields. What we’d just seen was mind blowing. Where had the white ship come from? And who did it belong to? I jumped up and kicked Dan into action. “Go! Get back to camp and warn them. More will come after that firework show.”
“Where the hell are you going?”
“After the white ship.” My eyes were already moving off him, looking up.
“Sky, it’s too dangerous. Come back with me.” He grabbed my arm, pulling me along. My boots skidded across the soil as I gave into him.
“Dan, this ship could be…” What? I trailed off. What could it be? I wasn’t like those daydreaming resistance soldiers. I knew that fighting back would only get you dead, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t chase after the first tangible chance to materialize in a decade. I’d made a promise to stay alive, no matter the cost and I would bet that white ship could give me the advantage. Dan managed to drag me a few yards because I had been distracted, not because I was a girl or that he was stronger than me. I didn’t even need half my strength to break free.
“That’s an order,” I hollered. He had to listen. I outranked him. “Tell Sam not to wait for me. If I’m not back in time I’ll meet you at the rally point tomorrow. Now go!” I pushed at his chest.
He caught my hand and pulled me in, surprising me with a quick hug.
“Stay safe.” He gave me a troubled expression before he spun and raced through the forest.
I blinked a few times. My pale skin crawled as if a hundred ants had been dropped on every patch of exposed skin that he’d touched. I shuddered, watching his form disappear. Another burst of energy whooshed over head and I recoiled instinctively. I needed to move. Darting in the opposite direction, I dodged low branches and leaped over fallen logs, all the while keeping one eye on the sky.
Maybe I was crazy for following the ships. There was no guarantee that I’d be able to make contact with the white craft. Maybe it would get me killed. But the hopeful child within me rose up, arms swinging and screaming, daring me to believe.
The forest began to thin. I skidded to a halt one step shy of falling into a canyon. A flash of light seized my attention. Below me the two aircrafts sped—at velocities I barely comprehended—through the winding ravine, leaving only blurred lines of blue and red. I sprinted along the edge in the direction they disappeared and clamored up a rise that hindered my path. In my haste I slipped down the rocky surface on the other side, desperately searching above and below for the battling ships. I heard them whizzing and hissing but couldn’t find them.
An eruption of soil and wood sent me diving for cover. My bow snapped on impact with the ground. It slipped from me as I rolled over a few times and huddled behind a tree. A blast of heat and debris rushed past, sweeping the broken weapon away. I curled in tighter. White whooshed overhead, discharging two shots. The prowler fired three. My eardrums reverberated, assaulted by the thunderous blasts. Ruby and sapphire spheres streaked across the sky.
The prowler swooped down, avoiding one. The second shot sunk into its rounded wing. A web of blue energy engulfed it, crackling over the red craft. It spiraled out of control, slamming into the canyon wall. The ground beneath my feet trembled. A black cloud of fire and debris erupted out of the ravine.
I jumped up, frantically searching for the wingless white ship. It sped over the forest, evasively flying up and down. It dodged two crimson spheres. Then it looped over but came up short. The third shot clipped its rear. Flames bursted up. Grey smoke trailed out behind it, like a gigantic serpent.
Dammit! Not the White one.
It had been ten years, since another vessel had flown in the prowler dominated sky. Not since the aliens had descended in their city-sized silver ships, changing life as we knew it. Not since they had defeated our air force and claimed it as the Cardinal’s sky. So I should have expected it. Though, for a spilt second, a pathetic glimmer of hope had sparked to life inside me. My imagination had wildly played through a scenario of our planet being freed from Cardinal Reign, but the reality was no one was coming to save us.
The white craft lost altitude quickly and crashed into the forest. Dirt spewed into the air, and mindlessly I dashed towards it. Wood splinters and sand rained down like sleet as I weaved through the trees. I skidded down a small slope and stopped in the middle of an opening. A long path of destruction had been carved into the earth’s surface. I hurried along the trail, hoping the ship would still be intact but my heart dropped when I saw the end.
The tracks led off the edge into the deep gorge below. I dropped to my knees, peering over, expecting to see a burning mess, but instead saw nothing. The blue river twisted and frothed over boulders, with no sign of wreckage. The water couldn’t have swept it away so quickly, I was sure of it. Then where was it? I looked downstream, and again there were no traces of anything alien.
“Uh. Hi there, a little help please.” A strained voice penetrated my ringing ears.
I jerked in surprise and scrambled back, my head snapping left and right, craning in search of the person who’d spoken. But I was alone on the canyon edge. The voice rose up again.
“Down here. Hello?”
I slithered back to the edge. My gaze froze and widened until my eyeballs hurt, caught on the deep red sleeve attached to a hand clenching a root.
“Cardinal,” I whispered.