Ashes by Dei
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It started with Mukhi coming into the kitchen, still holding the rusk he'd been gnawing on and asking what Operation FireStrike was. Mom dropped the soup she held, splashing hot droplets almost to the ceiling. She dug nails into Mukhi's arm, asking him where he heard it. On the TV he said and started crying, but she was going to see for herself, leaving him for me to comfort. Father got the phone and started calling people, his voice hushed and tight.

They came soon, like they'd been on their way already. We watched the TV while they came; Gata, Karij and Pesca were the only ones I recognized, all wearing the same tight look.

I'm 12 and Srana says I'm the smartest student she's ever taught, but I did not understand much of what the announcer said. I did understand that it would have been a terrible thing but that it never came to pass and that it had been kept secret until now. I was getting bored, when the announcer said words that froze the room: Lord Zoltar is dead. He'd died this afternoon, having fallen asleep in his chair and never woken. Cause of death: unknown but no foul play was suspected. Funeral plans would be announced later.

Mom snapped off the TV. "Mukhi, go to bed." He left, looking back every so often to see if she would relent. I trailed after him, but she called me back. "Qiluha, come back. When I was your age, I was already in training. It is time you knew."

Qiluha. Do you know how much trouble it is to be called 'Hope'? Every time I go into a new class, someone will start sniggering and then the teasing will start. Then you have to ignore some, glare at others and fight the stupid ones. Fighting has been easier since Sara and Bir started helping me, but it still means bruises and torn clothes and it is still a long wait before they all learn to call me 'Luha. And then there is a new class...

I kept asking my mom why she gave me this name. Last year, she answered. She said when your father and I made you, I used to be part of the Galaxy Girls. Commander Mala, she was not a General then, gave me a choice. My sisters never forgave me for choosing to leave, but one full year later, they were all dead.

Should I have been happy that she credited me with having saved her life? I lay awake for several nights after that, listening to my thoughts chase themselves in tangles. So many questions -- she did not say much and I feared, really feared to ask, so I tried to distract my thoughts with the silly ones -- like who were the people so close she called them her sisters? She would not say their names. Did they play together and share secrets like real sisters?

My mind even dragged over the time she mentioned. A full year -- like two Earth years. Full years, short years, halfans, I don't know how anyone could keep a calendar on Spectra. They hammer it into us in school, but here a year is 365.25 days long, no longer, no shorter -- it seems pointless.

By this old reckoning, I've been here for five and a quarter full years, since we were among the first to make the crossing. Mom said I was a good girl throughout the trip. I don't remember and there are no pictures, but we must have been on a livcraft like those that still bring people in, except for those who have declared that they will stay and die with the planet when the Luminous One withdraws its protection in seven-and-a-half full years. They are huge things, 10 kilometers long, by 5 wide and 2 deep and they park out near the planet and families, each with their belongings, make the trip to and from it in much smaller, nimble craft. People say it is very cramped. Sara says I was lucky because my parents have rank and our quarters then must have been comfortable, but she likes to exaggerate.


I slouched down the stairs, into the room and to the corner. "Come sit closer, right up between us", my father urged.

"So, 'Luha, what do you know about Salvation Day?"

Luzan would have been proud of me, I answered so pat. " Briefly, it is the day that Earth ceded victory to Spectra and the resistance leader, Anderson, was finally apprehended and killed. The Beza Peace Agreement was signed three weeks afterwards. Its tenth anniversary falls tomorrow."


Mother was upon him. "What do you mean perhaps? We will celebrate, only with much more solemnity as befitting this tragedy. Is that not right, Gata?"

Gata just sat like an old sack. I noticed his eyes were very red.

Father turned to me. "Good girl. That is indeed part of it." I sighed, for whenever he started like this, he expected to talk on for some time. "You know about the struggle?"

I nodded. "Ha'ashaklathil. The War of A Thousand Paths."

My father looked distant. "A river faced with an obstacle splits in a thousand paths. Only one need reach the sea for the whole to survive. Such a beautiful name. Between those of us in this room, it was Ha'ashaklisut, The War of a Thousand Uglinesses for it made everything ugly. See the mountains?"

I looked out our window, across the pool and the grass at them stretching huge and night-black across the sky. Our back wall ruled a neat white line across the base of them.

"Near where I grew up we had mountains like that. Every year they grew shorter. Ha'ashaklathil wanted the metal in them."

Karij grunted. "And it ate people. I grew up not asking 'How are you' but 'You are still alive?' And we were not joking."

"We fought bitterly, got one foothold, lost another and inched our way forward. When we got to Earth seemed like they had nothing. We thought it was over. But things there got so bad we were planning Operation FireStrike to force the issue. I thank the Luminous One it never came to be, for if we had won we'd have destroyed half the planet in so doing and you see how much reconstruction work we are still doing, even today. And if we had lost, we'd have had nothing but to take whatever we could salvage."

"Was it because of G-Force?"

Pesca spat. "Yes. But we preferred to call them Shadow Demons. Nasty work. You could shoot at them and they'd seem to melt into smoke, then they'd reappear and your men would start dropping, all around you. " He shook his head and sucked the inside of his cheeks tccch, remembering his lost men.

"Is that why there are no pictures of them?"

"No, that is because Zoltar himself said he never wished to see of them again, so no public images of them are to be found."


Mother not-laughed. "We lost. Every time. If They showed up, you knew that of those who had gone, most would not be returning. It got so people started performing hae upon hearing they were going to Earth, but Zoltar put a stop to it. He pledged that he would personally never let them take one more man than they had to."

"He could face them and live. No one else could."

"There were the BlackHawks."

"And how long did they last?"

"We were still a halfans away from starting Operation FireStrike when Earth sued for peace. Zoltar had been negotiating with the many, many leaders on Earth through someone, I still do not know who the proxy was. They all felt they'd had enough. So they could work in peace, he lured G-Force away, to his very palace... "

Karij exploded. "Idiot, now I know you didn't know him. Perhaps if you were not always buried in your little office and actually fought you would know that He never had anything to do with ridiculous trappings of finery. He was never too proud to come suffer with us, to.."

Father silenced him with a look. "When the understanding is small, the mouth is big. He had the summer palace at Novarokaa, but he never lived there. I myself used to go there sometimes. Anyway Luha, he caused them to go there and when they realized that they had been tricked, they came back screaming, but the agreement had already been signed.

It was terrible. Five hundred men died that day in that very room defending it, but they finally got what they thought was the agreement. Their leader burnt it, then they turned on their own leaders and killed them all."

"Yes, they did," he repeated, catching my expression. "I don't know whether it was because they were angry or wanted to make sure they didn't sign another one. Fortunately, we had the paper and it was good. The InterGalactic Federation court ruled that it had been signed by enough leaders to be representative of the will of Earth and that they had no choice but to respect it. The Shadow Demons have not been seen since. Tell the truth, I never want to see them again."

"I do. I want to see their dead bodies strung up where all can see until the flesh rots off their bones."

Father reached across me to place a hand over Mother's. "Lara, they are gone. Stop picking the ashes."

Gata roused himself. "And despite everything, we haven't maltreated the Terrans. Indeed, we've even offered them the chance to assimilate but just look at how many have left."

I thought of how I had no Earth children in my school. Doka said that they refused to have anything to do with us, preferring to keep to themselves in remote enclaves. Well, there was Antoine, but rumor said that he was half-Spectran. None of us have dared to go ask him, lest he take offence. He can throw stones very hard. And he doesn't miss.

"Did they also kill their chief?"

"No, he we took care of ourselves. It was regrettable, but he was just too dangerous."

They started to argue among themselves, sipping little glasses of strong wine. I started falling asleep, leaning against Father's chest, lulled by the distorted rumble of his voice, then started up when he barked, "What are you turning that on for?"

"I wish to know what plans shall be made for Salvation Day," my mother replied.

The power went off. Father said a rude word. "Can they not do anything right on this day of all days?"
"Luha, get the emergency lights, so Father can start the generator."
I thought of saying that it would be back soon, they had become good at keeping the power interruptions short, but that would have been foolish when my mom asked like that. I went to the kitchen, trying to step around where the soup was. I left slick gummy marks all the way to the cupboard.


If only she had known.

Somewhere, on top of the power plant overlooking the uneasy darkness, an old, old whistle started. It rose, keened, then died away.

An insistent beeping broke the silence.


//Do you plan on admiring the scenery all night?//

"Nah. Take it away, Jase." He returned to looking down at the city. Yes, take it all away.




"Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light...."

-- Dylan Thomas.

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