The red sky hangs low overhead. It feels heavy, like a blanket of fire and smoke, but without the heat. The air tastes like stale piss.
Shuga knows this isn't the way it's supposed to be. She remembers pure blue and soft white, warmth and a fresh, strong wind. She remembers, but she wishes she didn't.
Something scrambles over the sharp rubble off in the distance. She fingers the zarhin at her side. A skeletal dog totters towards her, wagging it's mangy tail hopefully. She relaxes.
"Sorry, popo. Ain't nuthin' for ye."
The dog cocks it's head, crawling over the broken concrete to lie by her feet. She scratches it behind the ears. It's fur comes off in chucks.
She had a dog once. Rufus, Rex, something like that. Vindictive little thing. It barked at a Zenthar and ended up splattered over the pavement. A mercy, really. It never would have survived.
The dog puts its head on her knee and whimpers. It doesn't know how to live in this broken world. The domestication is too strong. It's trapped by its own faulty genetics. Just like her.
How many hundreds of thousands of years had human beings been the dominant species on the planet? How long had it been since we were prey? We bred ourselves for aggression, and when something more aggressive than us came along, we didn't know how to run and hide.
"Well, dat's the good ting abou' Beans, ain't it, popo? We real fast learners."
The dog looks up at her hopefully. Its ears cock and suddenly it's trying to crawl into her lap, whimpering and yelping with its tail between its legs. A moment later, she hears the dull angry buzz of a Yaxing fighter.
She pulls the dog close, under the cover of her cloak. It claws at her bare skin and draws tiny beads of blood. It wants to run away, but it's safer to go still. Yaxing radar is movement based. If she can keep them still enough, they won't even know they're there.
The ship comes over the mountain of wreckage like a giant wingless bumble bee, heavy with pollen. She knows human science says such a thing shouldn't exist. The Yaxing don't really care. It moves slowly over the plain, blue-black lights blinking over it's smooth hull.
The dog finally gets the hint and stops moving. She can feel it's heart thumping away inside it's bony chest, heaving with every breath. It's like holding Fear. It should make her nervous, but it doesn't. The dog feels all the terror for her.
The fighter comes closer and closer, until the rumble of it's heatless engines penetrates right to her bones. It's just a sound, but it's one of the Yaxing's biggest dangers. It could stop a human's heart from a mile away.
A dog's heart is easy.
She can feel it's heartbeat start to fail, missing beats and picking them up again, getting more and more chaotic by the second. The dog screams. She didn't know dogs could scream. It writhes and convulses, snapping at the fabric of her cloak, her arms, her face.
The ship comes a little closer. The lights stop flashing. She tightens her grip on the struggling animal until it stops moving. One by one, the lights come back on, getting brighter the closer to the bow they get.
She closes her eyes the instant before the flash. The pattern of veins is burned into her retinas, and the next moment the blood red turns to white. Even through her eyelids, it's blinding. The boom hits a second later, knocking the breath out of her and sending her tumbling to the ground. She feels her heart skip a beat, and she knows she's dead.
There is a moment of total stillness, the likes of which people were never meant to experience. No heartbeat. No breath. No wind on her skin.
And then her heart beats again. She takes in a lungful of ashy air. Her eyes slowly heal, and the ringing fades from her ears. The attack is over, and somehow she is still alive.
Four miles away, some poor fool or another is now a smoking crater. One less living thing on the face of her scorched planet.
"You know, popo, dere was a time dey kep dem war to dem selves. Ain't right, killin' us too."
The dog doesn't move. She can no longer feel its heartbeat.
A high-pitched whine slides in under the air currents. There's a Zenthar battleship somewhere close by, probably drawn in by the flash. It won't attack, of course. They never kill one another, only the occasional desperate army of humans tricked into fighting in their stead.
The fighter rises into the tepid air. Even if there isn't any real danger, there's no reason to risk contact. In seconds, it's gone beyond the horizon and she's alone again.
She puts the dog down on the hard ground. There's no point in burying it. Might as well let some other soul come along and get what meat they could off of it. She doesn't have the heart.
She stands up. The scratches on her chest sting. They're bound to get all kinds of infected. It doesn't really matter. She'll probably be dead before she even notices.
Randy. That was his name. Randy. Poor little pooch.
She pulls her cloak tight around herself and starts walking under the heavy sky.