THE MEN WHO DANCED WITH STARS

The planet is mostly blue, clothed in water and grey clouds. It is a lot like Earth, really. The side that faces the star we have come to collect is bathed in golden light. The planet has no moon, so the side spurned by the star is condemned to constant darkness.

I stand by the small window, looking at what I have come to think of as Target Planet 4. In many ways it reminds me of home. I will never see home again.

“How long until initialization?” the old man asks, coming up behind me.

“Ten minutes,” I answer, without turning. I know the figures by heart; I have focused on nothing else for fifteen years. The old man stands beside me. He is not, strictly speaking, an old man, but he is the older of us two, and when you travel for years with only one other person for company, names tend to become irrelevant.

The nature of our mission is so resource-consuming that it would have been impossible to send an entire team of experts and as such, only the two of us came. Two men, with the backing of all the Nations of Earth. Two men, with the fate of the human race in our hands. I look down at my hands, and then look away. I have been biting my nails again.

We have traveled together, the old man and I, thousands of light years through a wormhole, the invention of which was the greatest scientific achievement of the 24th Century. In Z-space, time and space don’t matter.

“Seven minutes,” I say.

“You ready?” the old man asked.

I consider lying. “No.”

“Excellent. Come on, kid.”

We make our way to the control panel and strap ourselves into two nearly identical chairs side by side. My chair is uncomfortable. The fate of the world in the palm of our hands, and not even a cushion to rest our buttocks on.

The translucent surface before us is covered with icons and floating switches. We will not need those today. The multitude of switches was used a few weeks ago, when we were still on the other side of the star. Today we will need just one.

There is another screen beside the surface, transmitting from a holo-cam outside the ship, displaying our target.

“Two minutes,” I say, and am surprised to hear the tension in my voice. I look over at the old man. He is staring straight ahead, through the screen, at the star. He doesn’t look nervous, but I can see him swallow a couple of times. I want to say something else, something other than how much time we have left, but my tongue seems frozen to the roof of my mouth when I try.

And so I say nothing. Perhaps it is the best thing to say.

*

In the past, when most people thought of destruction from space, they thought of asteroids: big, angry rocks that dropped in uninvited like your aunt at Christmas and left destruction in their wake. Like your aunt at Christmas. But asteroids were okay. Asteroids could be destroyed before they got too close. The real danger, when it came, was much, much worse.

It was a black hole.

No ordinary black hole, either, but the result of two stellar black holes crashing into each other, an improbable cosmic bastard weighing more than a hundred red giants.

The black hole was advancing silently, devouring light and life, heading for Earth’s sun. After it ate the sun its gravity would pull Mercury into itself, then Venus, and then Earth. But by that time it wouldn’t matter anyway: with the sun gone Earth would be dead, barren, and cold.

NASA gave an estimate of 400 years. 400 years until the world of men came to an end.

The obvious solution was to escape. Earth had developed wormhole technology and mapped Z-space; we could flee the solar system before Death came knocking. But escape to where? There weren’t many known habitable planets. In fact, there weren’t any that had all the favorable conditions that were needed to sustain human life.

Ten years after the black hole was spotted, an unknown astronomer changed all that.

He discovered a planet similar in size to the Earth in the Andromeda Galaxy, one of a cluster of planets but not part of a solar system, since the cluster had no star to orbit around. The planet  had a theoretical Earth Similarity Index of 0.95 and was only 8 light years away. It was 60% water, frozen in huge seas. Theoretically, it would be able to support plant and human life.

All it needed was a sun.

*

“One minute,” I say. One minute until everything is in place. Hopefully.

What if it doesn’t work, I think. Then I dismiss it. Some things do not bear thinking about.

I count silently in my head.

30.

15.

10.

0:05…0:04…0:03…0:02…0:01

“Now.”

The old man touches an icon on the surface.

Nothing happens.

Neither of us moves.

It takes the signal eight minutes to travel the distance between us and our target. It will take light another eight minutes to travel back. At the initial eight-minute mark, I look at the timer. Somewhere behind the star, the thirty-five devices that we left in place weeks ago—to soak up the heat of the star, storing it to power what come next—have just come to life, opening a gigantic wormhole between them. It is the biggest wormhole man has ever created. It has to be.

It is going to catch a star.

We released the devices at different times at different places, allowing the star’s gravity to pull them into position. This was one of the most dangerous and uncertain parts of our entire mission. Years of planning, all the calculations, it all came down to this. If one device got puled in too quickly or too slowly, the whole thing won’t work.

But it does.

We see it sixteen minutes after initialization: the area of space around the star goes from inky black to blue, then to white. The wormhole opens, like a huge, gaping mouth, a tear in the fabric of space. An abomination wrought by the hands of men.

It is beautiful.

The gravitational field it exerts is massive. It is enough to cancel out the star’s own gravity and draw it into the hole.

“Jesus,” the old man says. His mouth hangs open. I know how he feels. Even in my wildest imaginings—and I have had a lot of those—I never imagined it would look so terrible. And oh, so beautiful.

We watch as the outer reaches of the star touch the wormhole and vanish into Z-space, that place where space and time blur into each other and into nothingness.

Still, neither of us moves. Neither of us says anything further, and when I turn to look, there is a tear shining in the old man’s eye.

*

The whole thing took a little over four Earth months.

During that time the old man and I ate and slept and monitored our displays while we drifted farther and farther away from the wormhole. In our spare time we sat at the window and looked out at the work of our hands.

During that time the star went from full to the shape of a half moon, getting ever smaller, and then it was gone.

Toward the end I worried that the wormhole would not shut down in time, or that it would become self-sufficient, a black hole in its own right. Despite our calculations, the balancing of masses and half-lives, it was possible. No one had created a wormhole this big before. As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried. The wormhole collapsed onto itself exactly as calculated, as though it were a bubble poked with an invisible child’s finger.

In a flash, the wormhole was gone. The star was gone.

*

I stand at the window, looking out into space.

What we have done is only the beginning. All we can do now is hope that the star came out exactly where we meant it to. And then all the planets will have to be set in motion around it, each in perfect orbit. Every planet will have to be exactly the right distance away. Especially New Earth, which will also need time for most of its water to melt before any man can live on it. But I try not to think about that. There are other teams to take care of that. We have done our bit.

The planet I saw earlier—the only inhabited planet in its solar system—can be seen no more. With the star gone, darkness has fallen over everything. But I know it is out there. Dead. Barren. Cold.

I wonder how the people of the planet—sentient beings, who one day might have invented space travel themselves—felt, what they thought when they saw their source of life eaten up and knew that death was upon them. I will never know.

I’m sorry, I think, and turn away.

We will never return to Earth, never know if our mission is a success or a failure. We simply don’t have the resources for a return trip. But then we knew this all along. Sometimes, in life, you don’t get all the answers. You simply do what you can and hope.

The old man sits in his chair. It is all he does these days. I cannot blame him. His life’s mission is over. What is left for him to do?

We haven’t spoken in four months. We will both die here in space. There is nothing to say.

But even as I think this I know it isn’t true. There is still one thing, one thing that needs to be said while there is time. I open my mouth to speak, but only a croak comes out. My voice is rusty from lack of use. I clear my throat and try again.

“I love you, Dad,” I say.

He doesn’t reply. He doesn’t turn around. I do not know if he even heard me. But that’s okay.

I walk through the ship, turning off every light. When I am finished the ship is as dark as space itself. I feel my way back to the front of the ship and take a seat next to my old man.

The seat is uncomfortable. I do not mind.

We drift on through space and time and darkness, and when I turn to look out the window I see that in the total absence of light all the stars have come out to play.

***

Author’s Note

This is an old story. I wrote The Men Who Danced With Stars in February of 2014 for the amazing writer formerly known as The Alchemist and his Corner, where it ran under the name of “Starheist”.

But this has always been one of my very favorite ideas, and it always felt wrong, incomplete somehow, that it wasn’t on my blog as well.

At long last, I feel, its journey is complete.

And as always, I thank you for reading.

Nyameye.

29th September, 2015.

The Traveller

I travelled the world and saw its wonders:

I walked the edge of the earth and looked down the Great Abyss,

Gaping, proud, endless, whispering words of comfort and invite, calling passers-by to stop, to come closer to the edge, to gaze therein.

But I did not stop to look.

I walked among the pillars of the sky, and I saw the giants who carved them, cared for them, kept the heavens from falling.

I felt their loneliness and their sorrow, and how all they wanted was someone to talk to.

But I did not stop to say hello.

I saw sacred inscriptions on the Pillars, Old words of High Magic that held ancient wisdom long lost to man.

But I did not stop to read them.

I journeyed the seas in infinite wonder, among the kraken and the Sea Witch which rode him, among the many souls of the restless dead which are claimed by the sea for all eternity;

And when my ship sank I walked the undersea halls with the Lord of the Sea.

I saw his treasures, more gold and silver than any man could count;

But I passed them by, and did not take any.

I walked the glass beaches and climbed the Black Mountains

And saw the Brothers at the top of the world, the great Worms that see all:

The Fire Dragon, whose breath causes summer, and the Ice Dragon, who slept because his season was not come yet,

And here I did say hello, because I did not want to be rude, not to a dragon;

But I did not stay for long.

I rode upon the backs of the Great Eagles

And did not once look down;

I walked the desert trail,

And saw it vanish behind me;

I faced the Sphinx;

I answered her riddles.

I sailed the wind; I rode the storms

I fought a Cyclops,

And outwitted the Serpent King,

And chased the moon across the sky,

And ran with the Night Hounds

And I traveled the world,

To come home.

To you.

But you were not there.

Not anymore.

All there was

Was a note

That said

You’d grown tired of waiting,

And you’d left.

The Sun, The Garden, The Wind.

The thing you notice first—if you care to notice at all, and not many do anymore—is the sun. You do not notice it because the day is hot, and you do not notice it by the absence of its effect, because the day is not cold either. No, you feel the sun on your brow, but the thing you notice is that although it is there the sun doesn’t seem to be shining with all its might. It is almost like he—if the sun can be called a he—didn’t wake up fully, almost like he spent too long shining somewhere—on a couple who would be parted forever once night fell, perhaps, and wished with all their hearts that the day might tarry a little longer—when he was supposed to be asleep, and showed up for work today only half awake.

The sun is the thing you notice first, if you care to notice anything at all.

There is a garden in front of you. It is wild and overgrown and bare in patches where the cold earth does not suffer life to take root. Perhaps the garden was tended for once; perhaps someone still comes by and waters it from time to time. Then again perhaps it has always been so: wild and resilient, teeming with life in some places and completely barren in others, just like our world itself.

Green leaves are interspersed with wilting brown. Some leaves carry both, hosting both life and death at once. It is a difficult ground, the garden, and it makes you admire the plants that have survived here in spite of everything. Makes you admire them right up to the point when you cut everything down to make way for a nice little rose garden that you’ll have to water every day, home to flowers that will bloom at dawn and perish by sunset.

A wind blows gently against your cheek, soothing and cool. It makes you wonder for a second where the wind comes from and where it is going, but it also makes you stop wondering, content to sit here and enjoy the breeze. If someone asked you, you would say it was quiet out here. But it’s not. To hear, you would have to stop moving, stop fidgeting, stop thinking, only listen.

And the first thing you would hear—if you cared to hear at all, and not many do anymore—is the voice of the wind, whispering secrets carried from far and wide into your ear as it went by, carrying secrets from here, too, to the unnamed corners of the world, carrying them to They That Were And Ever Will Be.

The wind is how the gods keep track of all that happens on Earth.

But you do not know this. All you know is that it feels good to sit here in the sun, beside the garden, here with the wind. All you know is that beyond the sound of the wind in your ears is the sound of a carpenter hammering on a block of wood; the chirp of a bird that is here now and will be gone when you look up; the creaking of the Earth as it spins around you; your own heartbeat.

Grandfather’s Story

“Papa, tell us a story.”

Grandfather looked up from the book he was reading. My sister and I stood in front of him, flashing what we hoped were our most winning smiles. I was eight and Ama was six, and we were bored out of our minds.

Grandfather looked at us for a long time, and then he nodded. “Fine, children. I shall tell you a story.”

“Yaay!” Ama said, sitting down by Grandfather’s feet and looking up into his face. I sat down on the floor too, a little distance away from Ama.

“Will you tell us about Ananse and his family?” I asked.

“No,” said Grandfather.

“What about King Arthur?”

“No. I will tell you a new story, children. I will tell you a story that my grandmother told me, and her grandmother told her, and which one day you will tell your grandchildren in turn. I will tell you the story of the river that fell in love.”

“Don’t be silly, Papa,” Ama said. “Rivers can’t fall in love.”

In any other house she probably would have gotten into a lot of trouble for those first three words, but Grandfather simply smiled and said, “This one did.”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

“You’ll see.”

“Was it a big river?”

“Yes, Ama, it was.”

Ama, who, being only six years old, had a hard time keeping quiet, said “A really really big river? This big?” She spread her arms as wide as they could go.

Grandfather threw his head back and laughed. “Quite a bit bigger than that, my child.

“Now will you let me tell the story?”

We both nodded, and he said:

 

“Once upon a time,” and stopped.

Grandfather cleared his ancient throat. “Once upon a time.”

“Time, time,” said my sister and me together, finally catching on.

Grandfather smiled.

 

“Once upon a time there was a river that ran by a large village.

“It was the first village in this land, for it was the village of our ancestors, the village of the first of our people.

“The people of the village worshipped the Spirit of the river. They prayed and gave offerings to him and in turn the river provided them with fish for food and water to drink, as well as the biggest swimming pool you ever saw.”

 

We giggled.

He continued.

 

“Nobody could remember exactly when the river became their god, nor could they remember a time when it was not so. Years passed, generations passed. Kings came and went in the village, but the river stayed eternal, and all was well with the people.

“And occasionally the Spirit of the river would take the form of a man and walk among the people, unnoticed, and he would listen to their problems and commune with them, though they never knew it. He did not do this often, perhaps only once in a few decades. Gods do not lightly mingle in the affairs of men.

“One day the Spirit of the river took the form of a man and went walking in the forest. And he came upon a young woman bathing naked in a pool, and his heart was stolen away, for she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, and from the moment he laid eyes on her the Spirit of the river was lost.

“She did not see him; he hid himself in the trees and watched until she was done and had gone back into the village. The Spirit made himself invisible – most gods can do that – and followed her. The woman came to the palace and went inside, and the Spirit knew who she was: daughter of the King and Queen of the village, Princess of the land.

“And the Spirit returned to his throne at the bottom of the river, and sorrow seized his heart. Because even though he loved the princess, she was human, and it is not given to the gods to love the daughters of men.”

 

“So what did he do?” I asked.

“What did he do, Papa?” asked Ama.

 

“I’m getting to that, children, I’m getting to that.

“So now the Spirit of the river walked in the village more often, always hoping to catch a glimpse of the princess. The more he saw her the more he loved her, and the more he despaired. Especially since she didn’t know who he was; to her he was just another man from the village. And the Spirit dared not reveal himself to her, or she might be afraid, and then she would truly be lost to him.

“A year passed like this. The princess was nearing the age where she would need to take a husband. The Spirit did not want this to happen.

“And so the Spirit of the river sought advice. He left his watery throne and went out into the world, chasing the wind. He chased for a long time, for the Spirit of the wind is hard to catch.

“When the Spirit of the river finally caught up with the wind, he went on his knees and bowed before it, because the wind god is one of the oldest and most powerful children of, Mother Earth.

“And the river god said: ‘Oh Mighty Wind, I have sought you for many moons with diligence, and now I humbly seek your counsel.’

“The Spirit of the wind, The Four Winds who is One, replied and said unto him: ‘Speak, young one.’

“And the river god spoke, and told his problems to the wind, saying: ‘You have travelled the world many times since the dawn of Time, and you know the ways of men better than I. Tell me how I might win the princess for my own.’

“And so the wind told him.”

 

“What did the wind say to him?”

 

“You’ll see.

“The Spirit of the river returned to the village. He took the form of a man for the last time, and crept up on the princess when she was bathing alone in the forest. And there he struck her down, and stole her life and hid it, and thus the princess died.”

 

What?”

“He killed her?”

“Yes.

“He killed her and left her body for the people of the village to find. And when they did there was great mourning in the village that went on for many days, because the princess was well loved by everyone.

“One day the King and Queen of the village came to the river, just as the Wind had foretold. They brought the body of their only daughter with them. They came alone, in the early hours of dawn.

“They knelt by the banks of the river and offered the Spirit everything they had in exchange for their daughter’s life. The Spirit of the river, ever generous, told them that he would bring their daughter back to life again, but only on one condition:

“That she be dedicated to him for the rest of her life.

“She would stay by the river, and she would serve him all the days of her life, and she would never marry another man.

“And the King and Queen agreed. Anything, they said, as long as their daughter would live again.

“And the Spirit of the river gave the princess her life, and she opened her eyes and drew breath, and became alive once more.

“The village rejoiced. The princess was eternally grateful to the river (for she did not know that he was the one who killed her in the first place). The villagers made a hut by the banks of the river, and there the princess stayed. And in the nights the Spirit would appear to her, though never in the form of a man, and talk to her, and over time the princess became quite fond of him.

“And time passed.

“But the princess was not happy.”

 

“But you just said…”

“I said she grew fond of the Spirit, and she did. She liked him, but she was not happy.”

“Why?” Ama asked.

 

“Well,” said Grandfather, “She missed the company of other people. She missed the chatter of the young women, and she longed for the warmth of a man. She would occasionally visit the village and watch the little children playing. Deep in her heart she wanted children of her own. A family. You cannot start a family with a river, you know.

“One day, when the Spirit of the river arose from the depths, the princess was gone.

“The river was furious, thinking that the villagers had snuck in the night and stolen her away. He overflowed his banks. He destroyed the crops the villagers had planted. He poisoned their wells and drowned their livestock. And the people of the village were afraid that he would kill them all.

“And he would have, too, but in the dead of night the princess came back to him.

“She begged his forgiveness, begged him to spare the village. She told him that she was run away of her own choosing.

“And the river was angry, but he loved her and was glad that she had returned. So glad, in fact, that when the princess knelt down and asked him to grant her a wish, he told her to ask him anything.

“And so the princess asked for permission to leave his side and start a family with another. With a man.

“Now upon hearing this, the Spirit of the river was deeply saddened. It broke his heart to look into her eyes and know that she was unhappy with him. It broke his heart that he couldn’t keep the one he loved happy. It broke his heart that he was not enough for her. It broke his heart that she desired another.

“But he had given her his word, and he could not take it back.”

 

Here Grandfather paused, and said quietly, “And perhaps even an immortal being like a river Spirit could come to learn that sometimes when you love someone the best thing to do is to let them go.”

My sister and I, for once, were quiet.

 

“So the girl went to the village. She met a young man, fell in love with him. They made plans to leave the village and the river and start a life on their own.”

 

“Where did they go?”

 

Grandfather smiled. “Far away. And every day that she was gone the Spirit of the river mourned.

“The princess settled in a faraway land with her husband. There she bore him many children. There they raised a family. There they grew old together. There she finally came to know happiness. But she missed the river, and thought of him often.

“And then one day she fell sick, and she knew she was going to die.”

 

No!”

 

“Death comes to everyone eventually, child. One day it will come for me too. We just have to accept that. Besides, she was very old.

“And when the hour was come and she was ready to go, she asked one final thing of her husband:

“She asked that, when she died, her body be returned to her home village and laid in the waters of the river, that she may know his embrace one final time. Her husband gave his word that he would do so.

“And so, closing her eyes peacefully, the princess died.

“The morning after her death, her husband wrapped her up in her favorite cloth, packed supplies, and set out on his journey.

“The journey took him many days and many nights, and he was no longer a young man. He was exhausted by the time he stumbled to the banks of the river, starved and near death himself. But it did not stop him. He waded in and gently lowered his wife’s body under the surface of the water.

“And the river water took her body from him, and she sank out of sight. Then the Spirit of the river came out of the depths and spoke to him, saying:

“‘In Life she was yours; in Death she belongs to me, and neither of us is any worse off for it.’

“When he heard these words the husband turned and left, and never returned to the village or the river.

“And the next time the villagers visited the river and gazed into its depths, they saw the spirit of the princess and the Spirit of the river dancing joyously within.

“And there they have remained, dancing, ever since.”

 

Here Grandfather stopped, and we knew the story was ended.

“Now off to bed with you, children. It is late.”

 

*

 

There is another version of this story.

That one is told among the gods and the spirits, the children of Father Time and Mother Earth, in the language that existed before the world was made and will exist long after the world has passed away. And in that version of the story perhaps things happened differently.

But then we may never know, for that is a tale of the gods, and it is not told to men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forgotten.

It is the year of our Lord 2135, and the world is breaking.

If you are reading this, I may or may not be dead. That is of no matter. What matters is that this story be told, and not be forgotten.

What matters is that you remember.

The world has changed, and I feel that I am largely to blame. Even as I write this I only have to look out my window to see them walking around, blissfully unaware, with that look in their eyes. That blank, emptily content look that shows that particular person has made a recent trip to The Memory Bank. There are more of them every day; the rich and the poor, the tall and the short, the young and the old.

It is enough to drive a man to despair.

The Memory Bank was first inaugurated in 2100. It was the culmination of my life’s work. Hailed worldwide as the Bank of the future; a life-changing establishment. The media called it “The 22nd Century Bank”.

I suppose they were right in all these things, for my Bank could do something that no other human establishment in history could:

The extraction and storage of human memories.

That was its purpose, the goal I had spent my entire adult life perfecting.

My father immigrated to America from Serbia in 2049. I was born in 2061. My mother died bringing me into this world.

My father was all I had.

Then Alzheimer’s took him from me.

As I watched the man I called Papa unravel before my eyes, to the point where he no longer recognized me as his son, my life’s dream took shape.

I created The Memory Bank for Alzheimer’s patients like my Papa. It was created so that patients of that terrible disease could come and keep their precious memories in a safe place when the vault that was their mind began to fail them. They could then come back and re-live those memories. If they so chose.

And they came.

For the first few years this is all my Bank did. We cheated the disease that sought to take our past away from us.

But then the War began, and everything changed.

In the year 2113 the United States of Africa, led by General Mutombo, rose up in revolt. The Africans proclaimed that they would no longer live in the shadow of the Rest of The World, no longer provide their precious natural resources to other Nations while its children wallowed in poverty. The Africans knew full well that we could not simply nuke them into submission, for by so doing we would destroy the very resources we were trying to recover.

There was only one thing to do. So we sent in soldiers to fight.

But the war dragged on, and the soldiers who did return home were scarred for life. The horrors they had seen were tearing them apart from the inside. For as long as those memories remained, they could not adapt to the routine of normal life.

And so they chose to forget.

The Government funded the establishment of Memory Banks all over the world (except Africa). The broken soldiers came, and left their dark memories behind.

From there, it was a small step to making The Memory Bank open to the general public. From a place of sanctum for victims of Alzheimer’s, the Memory Bank became a place where anybody – anybody! – could come and leave their worries behind.

And in this way, my Bank has harmed the World more than it has helped save it.

For you see, the People choose to forget.

The world is breaking, and the People choose to forget. Overpopulation and global warming are everywhere. Crime is at an all-time high but few cases are ever actually reported, because the People choose to forget. Children are dying in the wastelands of Africa but the War drags on, because the People choose to forget.

We are no longer facing our demons, because the People choose to forget.

Nobody ever comes back for their memories anymore, because they don’t want to remember. My Bank has become a place for people to avoid their problems, problems that are never actually fixed.

The world breaks, and the People choose to forget.

I have created a monster.

I myself have only ever used the Memory Bank once. I was drunk and depressed one day, as I mostly was in those days. I drove too fast. There was an accident…

…a little girl died, I killed her…

I knew her name once, the girl I hit that day. But I could not live with the guilt. So I erased her from my memory, but no matter how hard I try I cannot completely forget her face. At the same time I cannot atone for my sin, for I cannot really remember her either. The 22nd Century Bank saw to that.

Is this what I have done to the world?

I have created a monster; only I can destroy it.

My name is Doctor Randy Djokovic. If you are reading this, I may or may not be dead. It is of no matter.

I have on my desk twenty plasma grenades. I intend to set them off in the main Storage Room of The Memory Bank headquarters. The resulting explosion should sufficiently damage the storage banks, rendering the Headquarters useless. Without it, all the branches in the world will in time fail as well.

The Memory Bank will be no more. Only then can humankind begin to heal. Only then can we face our demons head on and maybe, just maybe, fix the world.

It is the only one we have.

I have asked for nothing but your indulgence, but now I ask one more thing of you. You may hate me, curse me, vilify me, support me, empathize with me, but do not forget me.

Do not forget.

Above all, remember. You must remember…

 

 

 

Randy Djokovic,

1st April, 2135.

The last Watch

They will come.

They have come every night for the past week, and every time we have driven them back. We have lost a lot of men in doing so; my battalion used to be over a hundred strong, but now our numbers have fallen to a mere thirty-seven.

The year is 1914. The night is dark, the cold biting. Even so, sweat makes our army clothes stick to our bodies like a second skin. I am lying on the bare earth, clutching my rifle to my chest. In the all-encompassing gloom it is difficult to see anything beyond a few feet ahead. This makes the wait all the more grueling, for we know the enemy is out there.

In the end, it’s the wait that kills you.

There is a man lying on either side of me. I know neither of their names, but they are as close to my heart in this moment as anyone I have ever known. Any one of them may save my life in battle. We are brothers.

The night drags by; I wish there was a way to pass the time. A good song would lift our spirits greatly but we cannot do that, for then we would give our location away to the enemy.

Besides, what would we sing?

The only songs we know now are the songs of war; the melody of the mortar and the machine gun; the orchestra of explosions and the opera of Death. We have sung these songs every day on the Front. They are all we have; they are all we are.

I am tired.

I think of summertime, of mellow fields and peaceful days in the sun. We knew these things once, but now they are as foreign to us as the language of the enemy who come at night with their rifles and bayonets to kill us.

The soldier lying to my right passes me his water bottle. I take a swig and am surprised to find that it contains whiskey. A part of me wonders how he managed to come by whiskey on the battlefield, but I do not dwell on it. The drink courses through my body and warms my bones. I hand him the bottle back and he smiles at me. My heart is filled with love for this man who will be dead by dawn.

*

We were young men once. We lived and loved and drank and fucked and had not a care in the world. We were dreamers; the future lay in wait for us. In our hearts we were champions.

But the War has taken all that from us.

Now we are old men. We are in our late teens and early twenties but we are old men still. We have seen too much Death, too much suffering.

The propaganda machines back home would have you believe that we fight for a noble cause. They would have you believe that we fight and die with honor, but there is no honor in Death. There is no meaning, no poetry. There is only death in Death.

We have no homes to return to in our hearts. The trenches are our home now; the Earth is our mother. It is into her embrace that we fling ourselves when the roar of the machine guns fills the world and Devil himself walks among us. It is out of her that we are born anew when the fighting stops and the guns fall silent. We cannot remember what our lives were like before 1914.

The War is our world now; the business of Death has become our life.

*

The night drags on; we keep watch still. The enemy is out there. They will come.

*

One day the War will end. The Front and the trenches will pass away and those of us who survive will be thrown back into our old lives, lives in which we will no longer belong. We will always be a lost generation. Some of us, fueled by our memories of war, will try to change the world. One of those men will be Adolf Hitler.

Most of us, though, will be dead. We may walk and talk and breathe and eat and shit, but inside we will be dead men. The War will have taken our humanity from us. We will be no more than empty shells. We are lost, and cannot find our way home.

This is the fate of my generation.

*

I check and recheck my rifle to make sure it is in working order. In the heat of battle it will be all that stands between me and the grave.

I have no idea how much time has passed since we began to keep watch. It may be hours, but who can say for sure? The days and minutes and hours run into each other out here on the Fron –

A slight movement catches my eye.

I am moving even before I know it, lifting my rifle to my eye and clicking the safety off. The enemy soldier who was crawling on his belly towards me is momentarily caught off guard. He scrambles to raise his own weapon. He reacts too late.

He has a kind face, the man I am about to kill. In another life we might have been friends.

In the last moment, he looks directly into my eye. He is scared; I can see it plainly. But then so am I. I squeeze the trigger and the man who was my enemy and in another life might have been my friend is now a corpse.

The night erupts around me. The silence is ripped apart by the staccato sound of machine guns and the answering booms of rifles; from behind me I hear the shout of my comrades as they leap into battle. Out of the darkness before us emerge dark shadows; armed men who have come to kill us. The enemy.

They have come.

Mother.

I walk alone.

The market street on which I walk was once busy, with street sellers flogging their wares loudly to busy passersby. Now it is empty. The stalls are still there, but only ghosts attend to them now. Nobody does trade here anymore. What is there to buy? The market is dead, as are many of my friends.

I just might be joining them soon.

I remember where I was when all this began. I, like so many, was a part of the huge throng that gathered before the old city temple to witness the death of the priests. The recently crowned King had found faith in a strange new god from the West, and had decreed that all servants of the old gods be put to death. One by one the priests were killed, their blood flowing down the steps of the temple. It proved to be a grave mistake.

No rain has fallen since then.

It has been a year since the last crops in the field withered and died. Famine has the city in its merciless grip. The people starve, and the king does nothing but hole himself up in his palace and pray to his cold, unfeeling god.

I keep my head down, and walk on. They are waiting for me.

I pass through the market and immediately turn left, into a narrow street. I know exactly where I’m going. After a couple of minutes I come to an unmarked door.

I take a deep breath and open it.

I emerge into an empty room. It looks like it was once a bar but it has been a long time since any drink was served here, for when famine strikes alcohol is one of the first things to go. Walking across the deserted space, I come to another, smaller door. It’s near impossible to see unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and I open that too. There’s a flight of stairs going down to what was once the cellar of the bar. I go down and emerge into a wide, dimly lit space.

They are here.

They all turn at the sound of my arrival with wide, expectant eyes. I do not bother to count; I know there are exactly nineteen of them. Or are there more? New people are always joining us, each of them driven mercilessly before the whip of the Great Famine. The cruel hand of hunger has drawn lines on each and every one of their faces. Most of them I knew before the famine hit; all of them have changed drastically. We all have a few things in common though: We all are women, we all are mothers. Most of them, like me, are widows. And we all are bound by a secret that would condemn us if it ever got out, even in this broken world of ours.

For we all are here for one reason and one reason only.

It is here that we gather to eat our children.

I do not know exactly how this group began, but I cannot forget how I came to be a part of it. One day I was walking the street, near faint from hunger, when I came upon two women who took pity on me and brought me here. Here I was offered meat. It was not much, but it was more that I had eaten in weeks. I even had some left over to smuggle home to my seven year old son.

It was much later that I learned that I had been eating the baker’s son.

The following week, we ate the daughter of the taxman’s wife.

And on it went. Every week we cast lots to see whose child we would eat next. On weeks where rations from the Palace were enough to see us through we would not meet, but such occasions were few and far between. Deep down I was disgusted at what we were doing, but I dared not complain. After all meat was meat, and we were desperate. So I kept quiet, and went along.

Until last week, when the lot fell on me to bring my son.

My only child.

No.

The baker’s wife – a woman who was once plump and kind-faced, but is now lean and rarely smiles – speaks first. “You’re late. Come, bring the boy. Let’s have it done.”

I say nothing.

One of the other women says, “Wait. She comes alone.”

The baker’s wife turns suddenly. After a minute, she asks quietly, “Where is the boy?”

I do not answer. I do not tell them of what I have done. I do not tell them that rather than offer my son unto the altar of our fellowship, I offered my body to a palace guard for three days on end in order to smuggle my son into the palace as a slave. There he will live a hard life, a cruel life of servitude, but he will live. I do not tell them this.

But my silence is enough. They know what I have done, as only mothers can.

What happens next happens in a blur. I am seized and bound and thrown roughly to the floor. The women gather around and stare down at me. I can feel their hate. I can see the anger in their eyes at my betrayal. But I see something else there too. I see shame.

At length, one of them speaks: “What shall we do with her?”

“There is only one thing to do,” replies the butcher’s wife, drawing a knife out of nowhere.

I do not struggle. More wood is added to the fire, which roars. I can almost feel its eagerness to roast pieces of my flesh. Somebody turns me over as the butcher’s wife puts her blade to my throat…

…and slices it open.

And as the world fades to black, my last thought is: It does not hurt as much as I thought it would.