There’s nothing like the smell of an ocean on fire. It’s not a scent you’d bottle or make into a novelty candle, but it’s a stench that fills your nose, mouth and eyes. A smell that burns and sears your vision. Waves, endless waves still cresting and crashing down onto the shore, bearing a flame fierce enough to outfight the crushing weight of the water dashing it against the rocks. Caught within the burning waves I could just about make out the flailing aflame forms of dying sea-life, and see their damply crisp corpses flung onto the sand, which immediately caught light, spreading the fire further and further towards us.
We’d hoped to have left death behind us, in the ruins of our homes and cities. Surely there would be peace, safety, some hope of refuge in a flight across the oceans. But no. Not only were the boats and harbour lost, but the very medium by which we’d hoped to travel would now kill us just as surely. Trapped between two grinding walls of death; one mobile and catching up with us quickly, the other lapping fire ahead of us. None of it looked good.
I’m Sinfa, by the way. That’s not going to mean a great deal in a few hours, but while I still am, I may as well try to appreciate it. I don’t do anything very grand or important. I’m not a duke, priest or general, I’m just one of the ordinary people who goes to work, attempts to raise children, and tries their best not to let the daily onslaught of news crush them. There are a lot of people like me. Home – now ground into dust – was a place of comfort, a quiet enclave removed from the world for my family and I. All gone. I swayed on that beach, dust-choked, soot-soaked, with the taste of death on my tongue and in my lungs. The day had begun as usual. I’d hauled myself out of sleep that had taken too long to achieve for it to count for much, roused my partner, jabbed the children into wakefulness, the shower, the kitchen. Glanced at the slate with today’s round-up of current affairs, wished I hadn’t. Hoped the kids hadn’t seen it either. You can’t shelter children from the world, but we always at least tried to. With the looming war on my mind I shuttled them off to school and returned home to pick up my partner and get them off to work too. All that done, thoughts of invasion warring with hope, focus and the knowledge that there is work to be done, I went for a walk instead. These are the advantages of working from home – home can be anywhere, even a park.
The brhul-trees scattered violet light on the ground through their triangular leaves, making the path a mosaiced snake I could follow without any conscious effort. I was just beginning to relax and feel like I could take working half-seriously when everything went wrong at once. Bright lines sparked across the sky, audibly ripping the air to pieces. The detonations came soon after. The city erupted in gouts of flame and clouds of dust. The tree branches were torn to shreds by the concussion and I was flung to the ground amid the blizzard of leaf fragments. They had come at last, the Arcyons. It had been an awkward alliance at the best of times, and in the last years the relationship had deteriorated into jealous sniping and chest-thumping aggression. Hate conquers all… And now Phemrayllia was to be pounded into the dust. I staggered along, the ground heaving as I made for home, for the car, for a chance to reach my family.
The roads were ruined, and the small auto bounced and waved across the cracks, thrown up in the air by further strikes. Everywhere was broken, people strewn on the sidewalks, struggling to help themselves and each other. I pressed ahead, though my heart cried out for them – just not as loudly as it cried out for my children and partner. Their workplace was closest, but as I arrived I saw that it was nothing but a crater and a plume of smoke. I drove on. The school had also been struck, but torn open, its contents scattered across its grounds and the roads around it. I left the auto and stumbled into the ruins, shouting myself hoarse, tearing my skin on the wreckage. I’d known there was nothing here, no survivors, even as I stamped on the brakes. But sometimes you have to see it up close, feel the dirt between your fingers before a thing can be real. The airstrikes kept on coming, and it was an awful miracle that I’d not yet been caught in a blast.
As I walked wearily back and forth in the rubble a small convoy of vehicles appeared, dodging cracks and debris. One of the lead vehicles lurched to a halt and a man leaned out bellowing for my attention, “It’s all gone, we have to leave.”
“But my family…” a pointless gesture – they were already gone – but I couldn’t just leave without some token protest at least.
He plainly knew what used to be where we stood. “I know. But come on.”
I abandoned my auto, climbed into the military-style vehicle he’d paused. Another three or four smoke-stained, broken-looking people already huddled in the back. I slipped into the front seats after making contact with one of them. There’s company in misery, but I didn’t want company. The driver turned the vehicle and raced to catch up with the convoy as it dodged and wove through the shattered city streets.
“Where are we going?” I asked, wiping my filthy hands on my trousers.
“Goethrem Harbour,” he replied, “buckle up.”
I glanced at the seat belt at my shoulder and allowed my arms to complete the automatic motion of drawing it across my chest and clicking it into place. I’d have given anything to be hurled through the windscreen and killed without a further thought.
Another searing blast erased half the convoy and we swerved wildly to avoid their remains. Abruptly the bumpy ride wasn’t just rubble, but people. We passed every part of my life: crushed, eviscerated and pulverised. We sped beyond the city limits, suddenly faster, freer and smoother. The roads weren’t yet the Arcyons’ targets. There was no reason to think they hadn’t already struck the ports, but what else was there to do? On the way, our driver told me our military was gone in the first strike, the second eradicated our infrastructure. The third was just for people.
We saw the smoke long before we reached the harbour. The whole horizon was a rising cloud of thick black smoke. We kept on. Not many vehicles reached the shoreline. Most just stopped, gave up on the road or peeled off to the east or west, hoping to find somewhere that wasn’t only fire and destruction. I hope they were lucky.
We waited on the beach, watching the flaming sea wash away our homeland. We didn’t have to wait for very long.