In The Valley

Dust devils danced across the horizon, clearly visible even from behind the protective walls of the base, too regular and too fast to be natural phenomenon, especially so close to nightfall. Kayli called out for Elina and then triggered the alarm to put the base on alert. The third attack on her watch. She was starting to think she was cursed.The sound of boots on metal stairs echoed up from the base below, almost like the delicate tin soldiers her brother had played with as a child from this high up. The watch tower gave the best view of the valley approach, even hemmed in as it was by mountains on three sides. She didn’t trust the mountains. They were grey and forbidding and too easy to hide in. So far, they’d attacked only from the valley. She cast a look over her shoulder at the mountains and then eased herself prone, drawing her hand across the cloth-wrapped stock of the sniper rifle.
She heard the Elina clambering up the ladder from the tower room and knew that she would move in a crouching run to spot targets with binoculars. Kayli lifted the cap from the sniper’s scope and set her eye to it. It pulled right. Always right. She didn’t have the tools to fix it and had to adjust her shots accordingly. They were all low on things they needed.

Twenty-four months in this valley. Holding and holding, just as they’d been ordered to. Hold the valley. Do not seek out the enemy. Hold the valley. Next to her Elina began calling targets, a rattle of distances, directions and conditions that all melded together in her head without her really thinking. She’d been fifth in her training class. It still niggled at her that she hadn’t come first, but there’d been nights with Elina.
She fired. In her mind’s eye, she saw the bullet pass through the twisting smoke to hit the creature beyond. The dust devil died as soon as it had risen and Kayli could see the rock-coloured form lying prone. One down, five to go.

“I want them dead before the grunts can get a shot off,” she told Elina, “we’re already low enough on rounds.”

Elina’s response was to call another target, nearly five hundred metres away. The scope closed the distance and Kayli emptied her mind, made herself one with the shot and squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out, echoing off the grey stone. Elina was already calling a new target as Kayli watched the dust devil die.

Six shots fired, five of the things dead. The sixth had twisted as she’d fired, but it wasn’t going to last the night. On the gentle breeze she could hear its howling, so faint and faraway that she could’ve been imagining it. The sound chilled her to the marrow and she shivered, even as Elina put an arm around her and pulled her close.

Elina’s lips were soft against her own, her smile wide as she celebrated the kill. They’d held another offensive. Not a war, not an all-out attack. Just some hungry creatures looking for meat. Kayli looked out over the valley and wondered why it was so important.

Night was falling and dust choked the air. Kayli pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth and settled goggles over her eyes. She wanted to be able to keep watch even through the haze. Six dust devils could mean more lying in wait. She pulled the sniper out of the dust and stowed it, wanting it to be clean for the next wave. Elina silenced the alert, sounding the all-clear. Cheers went up from the base below. There weren’t enough of them. Far less than there’d been to start with, when the Captain had led them out of the transport ship and down the valley that had become the killing ground.

Kayli shivered and wished Elina was still holding her, wished they were back in training school in the summertime, air ripe with the smell of peaches and music floated over the lake. They’d bonded over their shared hatred of running around the lake at five in the morning every morning without fail. They’d kissed by the side of that lake. To be back there now, with Elina’s lips on her own. To undress and feel the cool water on her skin. She wondered how much longer they had to hold, how much longer they could.

Night fell and it began to snow. White flakes falling softly to carpet the base and the valley and Kayli. She called to Elina to come take a look but there was no response. She called again, louder this time, her voice just loud enough to echo off the mountains. She looked at that natural wall of grey stone and narrowed her eyes in suspicion. Her heart beat in her chest as she drew the combat knife from her belt, ready and willing, always the good soldier, but she yelled Elina’s name.

“I’m not deaf,” Elina said, as she crawled out of the tower room, and then a snowflake fell on her lips. “It’s beautiful.”

“You’re beautiful.”

Kayli pulled Elina into her arms. The creature’s howling died on the wind and snow settled in their hair in perfect silence.

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