“Tide of Shadows”
A military science fiction short story by Aidan Moher
My mother’s flat palm slammed into my chest, hard enough to send me tumbling backwards, gasping for breath as I hit hard-packed ground. Pain shot up my arm as I came down on my slender wrist, shattering bone.
“Go,” she yelled. Her back was turned to me now, and her spear stabbed at darkness, keeping at bay the tide of shadows that rolled over our village. The shadow beasts cried out as she struck out at them, with all the force and precision of a master hunter, but there were so many. Too many.
“Go!” Her spear stabbed and stabbed. She screamed something else, but her words were lost before they reached me. I scrambled up from the ground, clutching my broken wrist against my chest. The beat of thumping footfalls, running as fast as any eight-year-old ever had, joined the sound of my racing heart, of my mother’s cries, and the wet stabbing sounds of her spear.
I ran through the nursery, all the way to the back where the small sky pod had sat unused for as long as I’d been alive.
I was the last of the children to scramble into the sky pod. The door shut behind me, airtight in seconds. Engines engaged. All the children were crying, calling for their parents. Tears tickled my dirt-streaked cheeks.
Airborne. Space-bound. Uwe’hhieyth fell away beneath our feet.
15 years later
438 days 00:01:23 until drop
“She’s beautiful,” Rummage said. She held a holophoto of my mother, who was laughing in that full-bellied way that only happens in the company of loved ones. Her brown eyes were a lot like this girl’s, who I’d brought back to my quarters after a date on the solar deck. I hadn’t noticed that until then, but the similarity was startling.
“She was,” I replied. The constant hum of the starship filled the space left by the word. Like a living thing, the ship had a rhythm that filled its every corner, a warmth and security as fleeting and illusory as the lives of the men and women who crewed her — captain, engineers, medical staff, cooks, quality-of-life coordinators, soldiers like me.
“Was…” Rummage bit her lip as the word trailed into regretful nothingness.
“She was taken in the Tide of Shadows,” I said. I thought about her every day, sang to her spirit every night — but the thought of her right then, of describing her to this stranger, put a lump in my throat. The hair on my arm prickled in response to Rummage’s warm hand brushing against my own. She wrapped her fingers in mine, transferring heat and affection.
Human companionship was not difficult to find on a spacecraft. After four and a half years aboard The Spirit of a Sudden Wind, and nearly eleven years before that flitting from station to station as refugees, we were all desperate for whatever social norms we could establish in the rote routine of daily life aboard a military vessel. Wake, mess, training, mess, training, free time, sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat. Free time, at least for me, was often spent seeking comfort with fellow spacefarers. I didn’t date other soldiers — too many shared demons, and there were enough auxiliary staff aboard that we could mix freely. But Rummage, well… I couldn’t ignore the way she looked at me.
I reached over and turned off the holophoto. “I’ll tell you about her someday,” I said.
Rummage crossed her arms in mock offence.
“What?” I said. “I have to make sure you’re the type of girl she’d like.” I smiled, then winked.
Damn it, Sligh. A wink? Who the fuck winks?
Instead of laughing at me or turning heel and leaving me to wallow in embarrassed misery, she winked back at me.
We both laughed. I reached out and gently trailed my fingers along one of her arms, tracing the outline of her lean muscles. With that touch and the devilish twinkle in her eye, I finally allowed the tension to melt away. It felt so good to let it go.
“Should we go get a bite?” she said. “I know just the place…”
397 days 16:42:04 until drop
We fucked. Fucked ‘til the morning lights blushed pink on the luminescent circadian walls.
Rise and shine.
Then the morning alarm blared, crashing through our calm, sated entanglement. No rest for the wicked.
We both dressed and were in the mess in minutes.
220 days 08:57:12 until drop
It was home. You could ask anyone outside of our system, and they’d shake their head, mutter something about how they’d never heard of it.
We were happy once, when no one had heard of us. Uwe’hhieyth gave us a chance to create a world that did not forget itself at every opportunity. On Uwe’hhieyth, we found the spirits who had fled Earth. Did the spirits flee that scorched world alongside us, or did we find new ones waiting on Uwe’hhieyth? We haven’t found that answer. If you ask me, though, they’re one and the same. Ancient as anything in the universe, vaster than the entirety of the blanket of stars, and newborn by the strengths of our beliefs, our need for something good and pure. One and the same.
In the dark days following the Tide of Shadows, many wondered why the Unitarian government, whose very existence is based on the idea of a unified, amalgamated human race, would gift a planet to a group of people who had been so long trivialized. Our culture, history, and origins were, for so long, ground under the heel of bureaucracy and societal values that we didn’t fit into or care for, yet Uwe’hhieyth was given to us. No strings attached. Except that our departure meant that the small corner that still remained of our once-vast homeland, unblemished by the cumulative horror of capitalism’s avalanche of “progress,” could finally be covered in concrete and steel. Our green planet gone grey.
Uwe’hhieyth was a second chance. And, doubly important, we colonized it without displacing another group of people. That was very important to the leaders of my people. Chief Hul’qim’ee demanded it, and, for once, our voice was heard. My ancestors, the last of whom lived until the Tide of Shadows, settled an uninhabited planet. Swampy and rich in precious gasses, Uwe’hhieyth, we were all alone in a solar system with two suns and a near-impenetrable belt of asteroids. Let peace reign. Let us heal.
My family was third-generation colonials and damn proud of it. On Uwe’hhieyth, the culture and practices of my people flourished. This quiet corner of space was filled with our songs, and the asteroid belt that protected us shook thunderously with every step as we danced.
The Unitarian government didn’t exactly have a great track record for peaceful expansion. Most colonials pitched their first tents on blood-soaked soil and built their societies on the broken backs of survivors. Life is good when you’re better armed and (if you swallow the gruel your commanding officer forces down your throat) more intelligent than the prey lined up in your sights.
The Unitarian government loves conquest, loathes the conquered.
We weren’t alone on Uwe’hhieyth. Just blind to our neighbours.
They came from the ground. Not from caves, crevasses or valleys, literally up from the ground, like locusts. We were not armed — civil war did not exist yet on our young planet — and could not defend ourselves. They were darker than a starless night and brought shadows with them; shadows that somehow drowned out the light of Uwe’hhieyth’s twin moons. Imagine fighting shadows whose very touch would chill the blood in your veins and freeze you from the inside. Imagine fighting thousands of them, endless waves, night after night. We did not last long.
Those few of us who survived fled. We were mostly young men and women living away from their families in one of the three airborne academies that all Unitarian citizens were required to attend from ages ten through thirteen. Like cowards, we fled. No more than twenty thousand or so made it to the ship.
Five thousand six hundred and thirteen days later, after a stop of several years on the massive Unitarian refugee station, Cygnus 3118, our ship, The Spirit of a Sudden Wind, was on course back to Uwe’hhieyth with a simple mission: recovery.
78 days 17:03:38 until drop
Her ruby-coloured skin seared my fingertips as my hand trailed from her navel to her breast. Bioluminescent light followed my touch, ecstasy and pleasure on the visible spectrum, like starlight sparkling on midnight waves. She shivered, and I sighed. I lay down beside her, nuzzled into the crook of her arm.
There’s a certain peace that comes with the forgetfulness that envelops you as you lay beside your equally blissful and sated partner. Ear pressed against skin, the beat of her heart is all that exists; our little room shrinks until it is the only thing in the universe, a warm womb that promises to protect you and nourish you. Forget about everything outside the door. Breathe. Sleep.
On a ship fuelled by vengeance and anger, any relief can be lifesaving.
54 days 03:21:22 until drop
She was a hunter, you see. Spear in hand, my mum could best almost anyone else in our settlement at hunting or sport. Unlike some of the largest settlements on Uwe’hhieyth, my settlement, Q’atxin, was small enough that we still relied on our hunters to bring in food from the surrounding land to supplement the rations delivered yearly by Unitarian dropship. Some of these hunters were more foragers — they picked berries, dug through moist earth for the deepest, thickest roots — others were fishermen or farmers, and some, like my mother, were hunters in the purest sense.
Heroes were born that day. Heroes died that day.
Rummage took my hand in hers. “That’s why you fight,” she said. She looked me straight in the eyes; a small quirk of approval touched her lips.
I still remember the first time I tried to pick up her spear. Was I six? Seven? It was…only a year before the Tide of Shadows.
I nodded. “I think it’s what she’d want. She loved Uwe’hhieyth more than anyone else I ever met. She’d do the same if she’d lived and I’d died — she’d be on this ship, full of piss and fucking vinegar.”
“Beautiful and fierce,” Rummage said with a full smile. “She’s a lot to live up to, Sligh.”
“I know,” I said, more forcefully than I’d have liked. I dropped her hand, started dry-washing mine anxiously. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“I meant for me, Sligh. Your mother would be proud of who you are, you know. Not because you’re here, fighting for Uwe’hhieyth, but because you’re sweet and smart, and you work hard.”
She silenced my protests with a finger pressed to my lips.
“And the way you touch me, the way you brush your lips softly against mine before we kiss, shows how much you can love.”
I took her hand again, feeling like an idiot.
“Tell me more about her,” Rummage said.
There was no first contact between us and the shadowborn, at least not in a traditional hey-you-let’s-pretend-to-be-friends-before-I-slip-a-knife-in-your-back political sense. First contact happened on a morning, right in the midst of the rainy season.
One moment, we were alone on our new home planet, top of the food chain and slowly recovering from our arduous trip between stars. It might be suitable to think of it as a calm between storms, but I prefer to think of it as the morning-after period for Uwe’hhieyth — hungover and hunched over a greasy plate of breakfast, trying to keep it together, reliving the highs and lows of the night before. The world was sluggish and slow around us.
The first concentrated strikes of the shadowborn crippled us, cutting off communications with the smaller settlements like my own. The attacks on these communities were smaller, less focused. Shadowborn rolled over settlements, swarming my people in such quantities, and with such mindless ferocity, that we stood no chance.
I was outside with my mother, collecting river water to feed our family garden, when I first heard the screams.
At first, I thought the screaming was laughter coming from my friend next door: a girl who was rambunctious and kept a smile on the lips of almost all of the villagers. Then the scream was joined by a chorus of others, and the child’s call cut short, left a ringing absence in its place. My mother moved with all the speed and instinct of a hunter. She grabbed me around the waist and hoisted me onto her back. She carried me back to our house and stopped only long enough to grab her spear and the bag of medicine and emergency supplies that she kept by the door.
At a run, the nursery was only three or four minutes from our home, but it felt like an eternity. Each strike of my mother’s feet against the hard-packed footpath sent jolts through my whole body. I tried to say something but bit my tongue instead. She held me tighter, her strong arm like steel around my chest. I could feel her heaving breaths, each bellow timed to a footfall.
Outside the nursery, my mother put me down. I tried to fight back the tears that were crawling their way up from my stomach, caught as a lump in my throat. I was so damn scared. She crouched down to my eye level and put her hands on my shoulder. Her fingers were stronger than the fear that coursed through me. She looked me straight in the eyes. “Listen to me,” she said. “Whatever happens, listen to me. Do what I say. No questions.”
I nodded. The first tear escaped and trickled down my cheek.
“I love you,” she said. She kissed me on the lips So much love passed from her. “So much,” she said. She hugged me.
The door of the nursery opened. My aunt stood just inside the threshold, several children of varying age huddled together behind her. They looked as scared as I felt.
“What is happening, Tsetse?” she asked. She didn’t have my mother’s steel.
“I don’t know,” said Mother.
My aunt was silent, at a loss. All their life, my mother had always known what to do, how to make the best decision.
“Take him,” my mother said, nudging me towards my aunt. “Take them all to the sky pod and go. Now.”
“No!” I yelled. I didn’t want to leave my mother; I didn’t want to go into a sky pod.
“What did I say?” she snapped. “Go with your aunt.”
One of the boys behind my aunt screamed. He pointed behind my mother, his scream becoming a high-pitched wail. The other children joined him. My aunt’s eyes widened and she stumbled backwards into the children.
The first of the shadowborn rose from the shadows in the darkest corners of the nursery’s forested grounds. Like living nightmares, they appeared from nothing, a thickening of the shadow until it was almost permeable. They had no eyes, but I could feel their hungry stare. Six of them.
They surged forward. My mother leapt towards them, spear readied. My aunt called my name from the shadows of the nursery. My mother’s spear stabbed out at the shadowborn, its blade sinking into the forward-most demon. It screeched and flailed backwards, just like any beast of flesh and blood.
I ran after her, forgetting my promise.
My mother’s flat palm slammed into my chest, hard enough to send me tumbling backwards, gasping for breath as I hit hard-packed ground.
From the cockpit of the sky pod, we children watched our world become washed over in shadows. My aunt cried out. We all looked, like children in a classroom gathered around for a lesson. At the edge of the forest where our village hid, where the towering sprawl of Hieyth emerged from the natural landscape, there was fire and chaos. In the centre of the settlement was the main communication tower, our lifeline to the other settlements on Uwe’hhieyth. Shadowborn swarmed it from top to bottom, crushing the enormous structure under the weight of their darkness.
It’s difficult to imagine, even for those of who survived the attack and have seen shadowborn with our own eyes, but the shadows swelled, the way light does as it fills an empty space, and enveloped the buildings with their malice and non-light. When they subsumed, nothing was left of the tower but the acid-burned steel husks that had been shipped from Earth alongside my people.
My mother saved my life the day they came. Saved the lives of me and seven other kids. She earned no posthumous honours, no statue was erected to capture the spirit of the bravery she showed that day, the bravery she showed every day. It was impossible to officially honour all of the heroes who died that day, those selfless men and women who showed fire and strength when all sense and goodness was choked under the Tide of Shadows.
She was my hero before the Tide of Shadows; she was a hero afterwards.
12 days 03:17:42 until drop
“Be a man, for fuck’s sake, Sligh.”
Be a man? What does that even mean when the biggest hero in my life — the only person I’ve ever truly admired and respected — was a woman?
I never knew my father. He died young, but my mother always spoke about him with a twinkle in her eye. She liked the way I laughed like him, full from my belly, so I felt like I’d grown up with a part of him anyways. I knew his spirit watched over me and Mother, knew he did everything he could to save her that day, but I couldn’t admire a man who I’d never really met.
A rivulet of water trickled down my back where my hair hung still wet from the shower. I wiped at my eyes, brushing away the water. Then I pressed hard with my fingers, hoping the distraction would make all my troubles go away.
But she was still there when I looked up again, hand on her hip and fury in her eyes. I pulled my hair up off my back, wringing water onto the ground as I twisted it into a low bun.
The ship was thrumming with all the frenetic energy of a struck tuning fork. Combat drills had intensified to the point where those of us soldiers still committed to the mission collapsed into our quarters in the evenings as little more than a quivering mess of gelatinous human being. There were many whose vengeance and hatred for the shadowborn had withered during our drifting existence aboard The Spirit of a Sudden Wind since departing Unitarian space. Maybe they’d found new love aboard the ship, or that deep-seated anger that festered in all of us, drove all of us after the destruction of our people, suddenly manifested itself as fear and unmanageable anxiety? Aboard this ship, there was no rigid hierarchy in the traditional sense of the Unitarian military, and no mandatory term of service or legal obligation to serve. Instead, we were united by a common bond that reached back to the furthest beginnings of our history as a people, when our ancestor spirits first placed us on the lush, vibrant lands of Earth. That bond held almost all of us in its thrall, wrapped in the memory of those who had died so that we could live and return to Uwe’hhieyth to bring rest for their spirits.
I made the mistake of telling Rummage that I was among those whose fear was creating doubts. In my mind, my fears haunted me like malevolent spirits who knew my every secret. Nightly, I woke sweating, screaming. When she happened to be in bed with me, Rummage eased my fears, shouted down those demons with soft whispered nothings and fingers running through my hair.
But she would not be with me on Uwe’hhieyth. We would be alone, fighting against the shadowborn, unable to guard each other from the same death that had taken the loved ones of Uwe’hhieyth.
Rummage stood in front of my bed. She’d been in my cabin when I’d come back after showering, ready to collapse into my thin blankets and give into the exhaustion and anxiety that I’d been trying to drown in physical exertion, mindless combat drills, and the stubborn noise of my brain trying to tell itself that everything is okay, would be okay.
I didn’t know where to go. Rummage made no move to let me move farther into my room. With slumped shoulders, she wrapped herself in a hug that made it look like she was trying to keep warm despite the perfect climate regulated by the ship’s AI. Her eyes were red-rimmed and raw. Tears streaked her cheeks. Rummage bled vulnerability, and, despite my nudity — my own exhaustion and anxieties — I felt like the least naked person in the room. I’d never seen her like that, never seen her as anything but fierce and confident, funny, my rock in a life that needed all the stability I could find.
I hadn’t seen her in the two days since I bared my fears among her pillows.
“In twelve days, Rum,” I said. “Just twelve days to go, then we find all the answers we’ve searched for, cried for.”
“Twelve days,” she agreed.
“We were children then,” I said.
“Adults now,” she said. “And still you’ll let your fears get to you, eat at you. What must she be thinking right now, watching her son hesitate on the eve of her vengeance. We will win this war, Sligh.”
If she’d been anybody else, I’d have knocked her teeth out. Instead, I balled my fists, took a step forward. “What do you want, Rummage?” I stepped back, shocked at myself. I’d never raised my voice at her before. “I’m so fucking scared, Rum. So fucking scared.”
“We’re all scared. That’s why we’re here, Sligh. We’re all scared little kids, with no one to help us with our problems. That’s why we’re on this ship, and why we’re going to run screaming to our deaths in twelve days. We’re scared as fuck.”
She took a step towards me, then another. She shoved me back against the wall, not playfully but with enough force to make me stumble. I tried to tighten my towel around my waist, but it fell to the floor.
“What do you want me to say? I’m scared, the future is here, valour is on my doorstep, and I’m terrified of it.”
“Don’t say anything.”
I had no idea how to respond.
“Just fucking hug me, Sligh.”
01:23:36 until drop
My finger traced the curve of my cheek just below my right eye. The colour of a dying sunset trailed in its wake. I’d made the dye myself from henna I’d purchased from an Indian vendor just days before The Spirit of a Sudden Wind had left the last station on the edge of Unitarian space. It wasn’t perfect, and henna was not a substance that had ever made its way to Uwe’hhieyth, but the effect was suitable.
The face that stared back at me from the mirror was ferocious, fearless, the face of a warrior that would take Uwe’hhieyth by storm.
Somewhere, Rummage was preparing in her own way. I thought of her smile, of the strength in her hands. I hoped I would see her again, feel her hands on my skin.
A feather lay before me, solemn and noble as the bird it had come from. Earthborn eagles were rare, and this feather had cost me dearly. The feathers of an Uwe’hhieyth eagle were impossible to get.
Bedecked this way, shrouded by the spirit of a warrior, I took a long breath and left my cabin. Assembly was twenty-three minutes away.
00:00:15 until drop
Each breath is visible as it fogs up the convex curve of my face shield. I should have cleaned it more thoroughly. Three years in space and at the very end, I’d forgotten even the simplest measures, so simple I’d done it a thousand times on the trip through the sea of stars.
I shrug my shoulders. Left. Right. Left. Right. Adjust myself on the narrow bench and look for a position to calm the anxiety and screaming adrenaline surging through me with every heartbeat.
Thump, thump, thump.
The devastated spirits of my home world, the ghosts of my dead family members, friends, and rivals fill the small combat pod. Seven soldiers sit among them — three to my right, four across from me.
Fidget, fidget. Triple-check your gear. Check it again.
The feather wound through my hair tugs as I lean forward, a sharp reminder of the house spirit watching over my shoulder. If I look at just the right angle, I can see eyes staring back at me in the reflection of my face shield. A stranger’s eyes: milky brown and full of anger, fear, pride. My eyes. I blink.
Red light floods the pod. Landing imminent. Alarms blare.
T minus five seconds.
I glance at the soldier next to me. She doesn’t look back. Small clouds of vapour cloud her face shield, too — the visible litany of her prayers. A brief thought of Rummage flits through the tension — her soft lips and the calluses where her palm meet her fingers.
T minus one second.