Paige sat the little stone table her first wife had carved as a wedding present for her decades ago. It was funny how quickly time passed. Fifty happy, painful, warm, and exhausting years flew by in a heartbeat, and now that beat might end.
Death would be returning soon. He’d spirited Nevaeh away a few hours ago. Paige doubted her only daughter had felt anything other than relief when she heard him whisper something into her right ear. At dusk he’d come back for Delphine.
Her granddaughter had grudgingly married the man her grandmother chose and learned to like the names Felix, Wilma,and Malachi after Nevaeh picked them out. Paige never would have guessed the timid girl had some fight in her after all. Her final kick cracked his clavicle and for a moment both women thought she would be victorious. If only Delphine had focused on her burning desire to remain with her surviving children as the pale one leaned forward and whispered something in her right ear.
In the end she’d gone with him more or less willingly.
Wilma was breathing more easily now. Her fever raged on, but she hadn’t coughed up fresh blood in hours. The girl slept next to the half-warm embers of the kitchen fire as Death stumbled back into the house. His limp, damp, dusty robes slid past his still-healing clavicle as he bent over to unfasten the chain from his waist.
“Your work here is finished,” Paige said with a tight-lipped smile as she straightened her spine and stood up. She was a smidgen over 5 feet tall and weighed less than 90 pounds, but she expanded her will to fill every inch of it in what could be her final battle.
“I just want to bring you home,” Death sighed. As a small child she’d snapped off the tip of his left index finger when a poisonous snake bit her ankle, and she’d almost severed his skull from his spinal column when she haemorrhaged after the birth of her first child. He had only recently regained feeling in that vertebra. “It isn’t painful, and you’ll be reunited with your wives and children again in the next lifetime.” She crossed her arms and leaned forward as Wilma coughed and scooted closer to the ashes.
“The Mingus need five things for a good death,” she said with a flat tone as she counted them off one finger at a time. “One, to be aware it’s coming. Two, to have one last chance to make amends for past wrongs. Three, to say goodbye to loved ones. Four, to choose the hour in which it happens. Five, to be buried with the acknowledgement of your good deeds so the gods reward you with an auspicious rebirth.”
People who died quickly or who were buried improperly struggled to adjust to the afterlife and could be quite restless in their next incarnation. Paige refused to be one of them. Dusty trails, child-birthing rooms, and cold, hard kitchen benches in the middle of the night were unseemly places to die. Death should know by now that she was a stickler for the rules, and if he ever hoped to take her peacefully it would be when she was surrounded by loved ones and assured of a proper burial.
The standoff began.
The old woman was slumped over the table, her thin face buried in the crook of her arm when Isaac walked in the front door. For a long, terrible moment the room overflowed with silence until he heard her grunt and choke on the slowly thinning secretions in her lungs as she shifted positions. Isaac went to check on the remaining members of her family.
The child was still alive. Nevaeh and Delphine were not. There were no ceremonial skins left to wrap them in and no time to transcribe their deeds on the dirty, wool blankets they would carry to the next world. He worked quickly and quietly, and he was so absorbed in choking back his grief and bringing the bodies out to the front yard that Isaac never noticed the soldier wedged under the bushes tapping furiously away at a small, black, glowing stone.
Melvin Watts looked up when he heard him coming and quickly wiped the front of the stone clean. For a brief moment the faint light from the screen grew brighter before it dulled to what appeared to be a rough, light brown finish. If something happened to him now or if the tablet was lost none of these peasants would look twice at it. They couldn’t even be trusted to dispense the vaccine when they were sent enough doses to immunize twice as many people as were projected to live in this hellhole.
At least he’d finally been upgraded to a proper communication device. Mel had hated writing down every detail of that boring old woman’s life, especially when he knew he’d have to type it all out again as soon as he got back to base camp. He couldn’t understand why anyone would design such fragile handwriting scanners when they knew folks like him would be using them in an extremely dusty climate. Hopefully this tablet lasted longer than the remainder of his deployment. He would definitely not be reenlisting in August.
When Isaac dragged the bodies a safe distance from the house for burial Melvin decided to turn his equipment back on and quickly scan the empty rooms. His superiors had just increased the bonus to 100,000 credits for anyone who discovered information leading to the arrest of the Pucey brothers. Bringing back news of hidden rooms and contraband items earned less of a reward, but even a few hundred credits would make Mel a happy man when they returned to civilization.
As he skittered across the yard Paige moaned and sat up. Her temples throbbed and there was a crick in her neck. As she gingerly stretched her sore muscles she heard something rustle at the front door.