Jon Messenger: Burden of Sisyphus

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Jon Messenger Burden of Sisyphus
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    Burden of Sisyphus
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Jon Messenger

Burden of Sisyphus


Private Hicks’ heartbeat pounded like a hammer as he glanced around the corner of the crumbled concrete wall. Seeing nothing across the open field of powdered red clay, he felt the first relief flooding through his system in the past twenty minutes.

Allowing himself a moment to unwind taut muscles, Hicks ejected the magazine from his rifle and counted his ammunition. Realizing there were only ten bullets left, he cringed. It wasn’t enough to stop any of the enemies pursuing him. Taking another glance around the broken wall and seeing nothing behind him, he quickly surveyed the rest of the area.

All around stood the bombed-out remains of a once-prosperous town, reduced to the destroyed one-story remnants of their foundations. Flowing like water between the broken walls was the red, clay-like sand that covered the planet’s surface.

He squinted against the bright suns shining down on the dry, desolate planet. He scanned his surroundings until he saw the rising plateau. Buried in its midst was the shimmering silhouette of a tower-the tip of a communications array that marked the Terran outpost. It stood enclosed within a crevice that cut into the side of the plateau, with a defensive wall between the Terran building and the rest of the harsh planet. All that remained between him and the wall was a maze of ruined structures and a hill he must cross yet dreaded reaching.

Around him, sand shifted constantly, covering even the deep tracks he left as he ran for cover. The planet was nothing like the Terran home world of Earth. Meager scrub grasses grew twisted and sickly, leaving little to hinder the gusty wind. Wiping sweat from his eyes, he thought again how he didn’t want to die on such a miserable planet.

Doing the calculations in his mind, he chose one of the closer structures, judging the time and distance it would take to reach its walls. Not wanting to stay exposed for too long, he chose the closest wall.

He pulled his rifle tight to his shoulder and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Exhaling slowly with leg muscles coiled, he sprinted forward. Counting seconds in his head, he covered the last few meters in a dash before dropping to his knees and sliding behind the wall, a cloud of acrid red dust rising in his wake.

Breathing heavily again, he strained to hear a cry of alarm or indication that he’d been spotted. Hearing none, he picked his way through the buildings, always staying low to avoid detection. Red sand pulled at his feet, threatening to drag him down if he stayed in one place too long. His legs already ached from running across the shifting ground, but he drove forward until he finally reached the last foundation. Before him loomed the hillside. Just beyond was the freedom he feared he’d never see.

He rubbed his burning calves, helping his body break down the lactic acid cramping his muscles. Stealing one last backward glance, he broke from cover and charged up the red hill. Sand gave way underfoot, shifting with his body weight. For every two steps forward, he slid one step back.

Struggling, he clawed at the loose ground with his hands, pulling himself closer to the top, while behind, an avalanche of sand poured down the hill. Finally, panting wildly, he reached the top and dropped to his stomach, sliding down the short backside.

His body screamed in protest, as he tried to stand. His muscles ached, and his lungs burned in the planet’s thin, dust-filled air. Under his dark armor, sweat soaked through his uniform. Raising his head, he saw the looming plateau. Nuzzled within the wedge of the plateau’s facade, there was the Terran’s dark, stone, defensive wall. Relief flooded through him. Being able to see the bristling antiaircraft weapon platforms mounted atop the wall meant his destination was finally within reach.

Scrambling to his feet despite resistant muscles, he ran the rest of the way to the wall. He didn’t dare hope to make it that far without being spotted by his enemies, but the reprieve gave him time to close the final twenty meters to the outpost. Legs cramping, he limped the rest of the way to the wall. Ignoring the large, arched vehicle entrance, whose heavy doors led straight to the courtyard between the wall and the building set into the plateau, he staggered to the reinforced personnel entrance to one side. Shuffling past a set of thick windows, he watched Terran soldiers within the wall move toward the door.

Sliding in the red sand, he stopped in front of the door and pounded it with his open hand. “Open the door!” he yelled, his voice raspy and dry.

When nothing happened, he banged again, glancing over his shoulder in fear and frustration.

“Open the damn door!” he screamed, as much as his raw throat allowed, hitting the door repeatedly.

Finally, hesitantly, it opened.

A blast of cool air struck him, as he was pulled into the comforting darkness. The room was cast in deep shadows, and he was momentarily blinded in the dim lighting. He shivered, as someone helped him to the far side of the narrow room, the cool air a stark contrast to the scorching heat outside. Sliding down against the wall, he exhaled a loud, raspy breath.

“Hicks,” the closest soldier said.

His head swam with exhaustion.

“What happened out there?”

He peered through the gloom, barely able to make out the man’s rank and name. “Alliance mercenaries. They hit us while we were on patrol.”

A third soldier pushed past the others and bent over Hicks, who saw the officer epaulettes on his shoulder. “Where’s the rest of your team, Private?”

He shook his head. “They’re all dead, Sir.”

“All of them?” the lieutenant asked in disbelief. “How did one group of Alliance mercenaries take out an entire patrol?”

A soft sound echoed through the room before Hicks could reply. The thumping reverberated softly, as he clambered to his feet. Slowly, the others heard it, and the room fell to hushed silence. It was a series of soft thumps, as if something struck the compound’s outer wall repeatedly.

“What the hell is that noise?” Lieutenant Hill asked, looking toward the thick, outer walls.

The sound continued unabated.

“Sir, I’ve got a visual,” a private said, watching from the window.

The lieutenant rushed to the window, pulling free the binoculars on his hip. In the distance, a single massive form stood at the crest of the hill. Thick, dark fur covered its body, which ended in an elongated snout. Sharp horns jutted from its temples, curving wickedly forward.

Lowering his binoculars, the lieutenant turned toward the rest of the soldiers. “It looks like the Alliance found our outpost! Let’s move, people!” As he walked back to the middle of the room, the soldiers exploded into action.

“On your feet, soldiers!” Lieutenant Hill yelled over the din of muttered conversation. “Grab some ammo and find a wall to stand behind.” Turning back toward the sturdy window, he glared across the red field. “If they want to bring their fight here, they won’t even know what hit them.”

“How true,” Hicks rasped, as a barbed tail erupted from under the back of his shirt. Lashing out, the tail struck the base of Lieutenant Hill’s neck and erupted from his throat, nearly decapitating the officer.

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