SURVIVORS

How do people cope with having done terrible things? A short story (6927 words).

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1. The Girl

It is the bone-aching cold that wakes her. That and the freezing wind whipping through her clothes. She takes a deep breath and is rewarded with icy fingers of cold fire rushing down her throat, spreading into her lungs, throwing her into a fit of coughing.

The smell of smoke, burnt insulation and rocket fuel invades her senses. Along with something else, something disturbing. She opens her eyes to find a blackened, smoldering corpse staring at her from less than three meters away. Her stomach clenches; she fights down the urge to throw up.

A man’s shout rises above the rushing wind. “Why them, damn you? Why them?”

She tries to sit up and is stopped by a stab of pain in her lower right leg. A nauseous headache rolls over her and she vomits repeatedly until there is nothing left in her stomach. She explores her head with her fingers and finds an walnut-sized lump above her right ear. It hurts when she presses on it.

The man shouts again: “It’s me you want to punish, not them. Why do you punish them? They have done nothing to you.”

She gingerly pulls herself into a sitting position, gritting her teeth against the pain in her leg. The wreckage of the escape pod, some of it still burning, lies scattered around her. Apparently they came down on a narrow shelf of ice hanging off the face of a vertical rock wall. It is not much longer than it is wide, and judging from what she can see on either side it is a long way to the bottom. Ice covered ridges march off into the distance. There are no trees, no vegetation, only ice and rock.

A reddish sun hangs low in an empty orange sky. Hopefully it is rising rather than setting. She pulls her jacket tight around her but it doesn’t help much. She will die if she does not find shelter soon.

The man’s voice again: “It’s always the innocent with you, isn’t it? Always the innocent you hurt.”

It’s the priest. She remembers him from the ship, and later in the escape pod. He is standing at the edge of the ice shelf, staring out over the void, apparently praying to his god.

“Damn you to hell, God. Damn you to hell.”

This doesn’t strike her as an especially helpful prayer.

She counts six bodies on the ground around her. Two of them are charred, still smoldering; the other’s are twisted and scattered like rag dolls tossed carelessly aside. How many were there in the pod? She pictures it in her mind. One, two, three … six… eight. Eight people. Six of them are dead. So it’s just her and the priest. Shit, why couldn’t she have gotten the doctor? He would have been useful. Not to mention better looking. But no, she had to get a god-man. Peachy. The story of her life. Just when things are starting to look up, life slams her back down.

Things had been looking up. Philip was the best thing that ever happened to her. The only good thing really. He is waiting for her on Orman IV; waiting to begin a new life together; waiting for a dream that —

Well God, maybe this is your last chance to screw me over. Maybe when I’m dead you’ll finally leave me alone. And maybe that’s okay with me. Tears pool in her eyes.

“Enough,” she says. “Woman-up and deal with it.”

This is a class L planet; she got that much from Lieutenant Goss before he shoved her into the escape pod, slammed the door shut and slapped the launch button. Did he made it off the ship in another pod? Did any of the others make it off?

A class L planet: Marginally habitable, possible vegetation, little or no animal life. Population two, her and the god-man. She liked Goss. He treated her with respect. Not like those assholes at the academy.

Focus. She needs to focus.

The frigid air burns her throat and lungs when she breaths in but at least it is breathable. Or close enough. She can’t seem to get a full breath so there is probably less oxygen than she is used to. Or maybe it is the altitude; she’s obviously in the mountains. In any case, if they aren’t rescued soon this world will kill them, returning its population to zero which is the way Class L planets like it.

She had basic survival training at the academy, something she never imagined she would ever actually need. There are some things she should do right away: make sure the six dead people really are dead, see if the emergency beacon has activated, find the radio and see if it works, locate food, water and shelter. And heat — they will need some way to generate heat.

She takes as deep a breath as she can and pushes herself to her feet and falls back to the ground with a cry as pain flares up from her leg. A sob bubbles up from her chest and escapes into the cruel mountain air. Followed by another and then another. She wraps her arms across her chest and hugs herself until the sobbing stops.

The priest is still standing there, looking out over the drop-off. Is he going to jump when he’s done cursing his god? He’d damn well better not; she needs him.

“Hey god-man,” she calls out.

At first he doesn’t seem to hear her, but then he turns. Tears run down his cheeks, freezing into tiny icicles before they can drip off his bearded chin. He opens his mouth and laughs. It is a loud, wide-mouthed laugh, a maniacal laugh, the laugh of a man barely holding on to his sanity.

“I am no god-man,” he says. “I am a cursed man.” He drops to his knees, puts his head in his hands and weeps.

Great. Not only is she marooned with a god-man, she is marooned with a crazy god-man.

2. The Priest

Jonah stops sobbing and looks at the woman again. She is one of the crew from the Minerva, a junior officer if her uniform is any indication. So God has not left him entirely alone in this ninth circle of hell; he has given him a demon to torment him. A young one, just a girl really. How funny is that? God knows his dark soul well. A giggle burbles out of his mouth, followed by full-out laughter that goes on and on until he manages to get it stopped.

He gets to his feet and walks over to where the girl is sitting with her back against a twisted section of bulkhead. Her arms are wrapped around herself and she is shivering. He is cold too, but his long wool cassock provides more protection from the wind than the thin material of her uniform.

She looks up at him. “I hurt my leg.” Her teeth are chattering. “I think it’s broken.”

He nods and looks around. Brother Edward’s broken body lies nearby in the shattered remains of the seat he is still buckled into. Jonah checks the boy’s pulse to be sure he is dead, and says a prayer for his soul.

He promised Abram and Miri that he would take care of their son, that he would bring him back safe. He has failed them. He has failed the boy. He has failed everyone. Yet he lives. Why God? Why do I live when so many have died?

Jonah isn’t afraid to die. In some ways death would be a relief, an escape from his own private purgatory. It is living that Jonah is afraid of. He entered the priesthood to serve God. And he did served God. And man. But somewhere along the line, his faith faltered. So much pain, so much suffering, so much senseless killing, so much inhumanity. Total depravity: a fatal fissure running through the whole universe and everything and everyone in it. And God does nothing.

God. Does. Nothing.

A little more searching turns up a medical kit. He returns to the girl. “Let me look at your leg.”

He pulls the leg of her loose-fitting pants up above the knee, and gently probes around it with his fingers. She closes her eyes and tries to suppress a groan.

“It is a clean break,” he tells her. “Tibia. I’ll have to push it back into alignment and splint it.”

“You a doctor?”

“Battlefield training.”

“Really?”

She is surprised. Like so many people when they discover that a priest might have a larger skill set than preaching and praying; that a priest might be a flesh-and-blood human being just like everyone else; that a priest might even be … no, don’t go there.

He gets an inflatable splint out of the medical kit. “This is going to hurt,” he says and pushes the two pieces of bone together.

“Shit!” She bellows and passes out.

“Told you.”

He places the split around her leg and inflates it. He needs to get some more clothing on her.

It is while he is striping clothes off the unburnt bodies that he discovers the other survivor. He recognizes her: Imperial Legate Schaellar Quinn, the implacable iron fist of the Empire on Jonah’s home world, the woman who was supposed to die on the ship.

She wears a Praggon trader’s cloak and the every-present Praggon broad-brimmed hat still hanging around her neck by its chin strap. It was a good enough disguise that he hadn’t recognized her in the escape pod. How could she have survived when so many others had died? Where is the justice in that, God?

She is unconscious but her pulse is strong. Pity, that. There is a lot of blood, mostly congealed by the cold. Ironically, the same cold that saved her will probably kill her soon enough. It will kill them all soon enough.

He returns to the girl with the clothes he has collected.

She is awake. “That hurt like hell.”

“I doubt it,” he says.

She hasn’t lived long enough to know what hell is like. Hell isn’t a place people go after they die, to be punished for their sins. Hell is where people live here and now, suffering under God’s many creative punishments in this life. The girl doesn’t have the slightest idea how much hell can really hurt. He, on the other hand, is well acquainted with hell.

He tries to help her get a set of clothes on over her own and she says, “I can do it myself, god-man. I don’t need a goddamn priest’s help with that.” She pauses. “No offense meant.”

He helps her get a layer of clothes on despite her protestations. Except Brother Edward’s cassock. She refuses to have anything to do with it.

“I am Father Jonah,” he says.

She glowers at him, eyes full of anger. And fear, no doubt. Anger is more often than not a place to which people retreat in order to hide from their fears. He waits.

“Bunny Hopper,” she finally says.

He must look surprised, because she goes on, “And before you start making jokes about my given name, no my parents didn’t hate me and I don’t hate them.” She pauses. “Well, not my mother anyway.”

He sighs. Just what he needs. Another young woman with daddy issues.

“There is another survivor,” he says. “but I don’t think she will be with us for long.”

“Aren’t you going to do anything to help her?”

“Yes. I am going to help you get over to her so you can share some of your body heat with her.”

She snorts. “What body heat?”

“You have more than she does.”

He gets her on her feet and helps her limp over to where Legate Quinn lies. He lets the girl down on the ground beside the unconscious woman. Together they get a layer of clothing under her and over her.

He starts to stand, but the girl puts a hand on his arm. “Is that all you’re going to do for her?”

“Hug her. If she survives the next few hours I’ll see what I can do.”

She grimaces but does as he says.

He moves the bodies one at a time away from the wreckage to a flat area toward one end of the ledge. He doesn’t know any of them except Edward, but he takes the time to pray for each one. They are creatures made in the image of God. Even in death they deserve whatever dignity and respect he can afford them. He has walked among the dead before; it isn’t something he has ever gotten used to. His duty done, he returns to the girl and the legate. He is tired; the cold is sapping his strength.

“Listen, god-man,” Bunny says through chattering teeth. “There’s some stuff we have to do if we want to live more than a few hours.”

He turns tired eyes toward her. This is the problem, isn’t it? She wants to live; he doesn’t. He doesn’t want the Legate to live either. Not that it matters; the sun is lower in the sky now; darkness will soon descend on them and the temperature will plummet and they will die.

There are lots of ways to die; he has witnessed many of them. When all is said and done, death by freezing isn’t such a bad way to go. He shivers and looks out on what he supposes will be his last sunset; an alien sunset, but a sunset nonetheless. A scripture comes to mind: “And it was evening and it was morning, a new day.”

Bunny is still talking, apparently oblivious to his lack of interest. “Just before we jettisoned, Lieutenant Goss told me that this is a Class L planet. That means it’s marginally habitable and might or might not have plants and animals. I figure there has to be plant life because you can’t get a breathable atmosphere without it. Algae at the very least. There might be animal life too. We can survive here if we’re smart about it.”

She starts down a mental checklist that sounds like something out of a survival manual she once read. “First, we need to find the emergency beacon and make sure it’s working. There’ll be a radio somewhere; we need to find that. The pod will have food and water. And an emergency shelter. We need to find it and get it set up. And heat — there should be a battery-powered heater — ”

She stops. “Hey, are you listening to me?”

Reluctantly, he pulls his gaze away from the setting sun and back to the eternal optimism of youth. “Did you and your father not get along?” he asks.

Her mouth drops open and she stares at him for several long seconds. “What the fuck?” Her face twitches. “What is wrong with you? Are you … Oh, never mind. I’ll do it myself.” She gives him a withering glare which she punctuates with, “Shit.”

She drags herself to a pile of smoldering wreckage and pokes around until she finds a metal strut, which she uses as a crutch. She begins searching through the scattered remnants of the escape pod.

Now that he isn’t moving around, Jonah can’t stop shivering. He pulls a pair of trousers off the pile covering the Legate, and wrestles it on over the pair he is already wearing. He looks at the Legate and finds her looking back at him. They stare at each other for several long moments. Then she looks past him to the forbidding landscape.

3. The Legate

Schaellar focuses on the priest again. At least she assumes he is a priest; he wears a priest’s cassock. He returns her stare with an expression she can’t quite identify. His face bears the lines of a man who has lived too many years, seen too much suffering, carried too many burdens; it is the face of a man weary of living. She has seen that look before. Is that what people see when they look into her face?

A bitter wind finds its way through the pile of clothing, pulling a shudder from her body; it was the cold that woke her. She turns her head to take in more of her surroundings and is jolted by the pain in her neck and shoulder. She pushes it aside. She doesn’t have time for pain.

What’s left of the escape pod lies in pieces around them. A variety of smells assault her, including a smell she knows all too well: the smell of death. She shivers, and not only because of the cold. When she tries to sit up, pain blooms from her side and she cannot help crying out.

“You sustained some injuries in the crash.” The priests voice is matter-of-fact, clinical. “You will make them worse if you start moving around.” He has a Dargish accent.

“Where are we?” She demands.

“Unknown.”

“What class?”

“What?” He hugs himself and rocks his body back and forth.

“What. Class. Planet. Is. This.”

“Oh.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s class L. That means — “

“I know what a class L planet is.”

It’s bad news, that’s what it is. If their current location is any indication, it is an ice world.

Things are coming back to her now. There was an explosion — one of her men said it was near her quarters and nearly ripped the ship in half. Luckily she was in the lounge when it happened, or she would be dead. Her bodyguards rushed her to an escape pod, pushed her in, and buckled her up. Then the pod was bucking and pitching. She thought she was going to die. But she didn’t. She has survived yet another attempt on her life.

“Who else survived?”

The priest tilts his head to one side and considers her for a moment, as though she were an unusual specimen of insect he has just noticed.

“Only … they did not make it. You … only …”

His voice fades in and out even though his lips keep moving.

“… doesn’t look …”

She blinks her eyes hard and shakes her head. “Who survived? Besides you and me?”

“One of the crew.”

“That’s it?”

The priest nods. A heaviness washes over her, pulling her toward the waiting darkness. She fights to keep her eyes open. She has to stay in control.

“Emergency beacon?”

He shakes his head.

“Radio?”

Again he shakes his head.

Her eyes close; she cannot keep them open any longer. Does he know who she is? He is from Dargeh, so it might be better to keep her identity to herself. At least until she knows where his loyalties lie.

“See to it that I shur … vive,” she says. Or maybe she doesn’t; she isn’t sure if she said it or just thought it.

The priest’s voice floats at the edge of her consciousness. He might have said, “You should have died on the ship Schaellar Quinn.” But she can’t be sure.

* * *

It is the pain that wakes her. A deep, throbbing pain in her left side. Someone is dragging her across the ground. She tries to open her eyes, but they are stuck shut.

“Don’t!” She tries to reach out to push the hands away, but her arms are being held down. She can’t move her legs either. Anger wells up inside her. They have restrained her. How dare they!

“Shit,” a woman says. “Try not to move, Legate.”

Alarm scratches at the edge of her mind; they know who she is. A howl like a wolf comes from somewhere nearby. It is the wind. The wind is howling at her, calling her to its deadly embrace. There is a flapping sound, too, like flags whipping in the wind. She is cold, so cold. Drifting again.

A savory scent wakes her.

“Drink,” the woman says.

Something touches her lips and she opens her mouth to welcome a hot broth. Warmth flows down her throat and spreads through her chest. How can something so simple feel so good? She sips from the cup until the woman takes it away.

“Enough for now,” the woman says. A young voice, controlled but not unkind.

“How is she?” The priest says. His voice is not kind at all.

“If we don’t kill her getting that pipe out, she’ll probably live long enough to freeze to death with us.”

Schaellar jerks her eyes open, blinking away the crust that held them shut. The woman’s squarish face, framed by short chestnut hair, peers down at her. She looks to be in her twenties. She must be the other survivor. The priest’s face appears over her shoulder.

She cautiously turns her head to look around. They are in a gray, dome-shaped structure that is more than big enough for the three of them; an emergency shelter from the escape pod. Two portable lamps illuminate the space. Wind batters at the sides of the shelter.

“Legate Quinn,” the priest says. “There is a piece of metal pipe embedded in your side. I am going to remove it and then clean and seal the wound.”

He pauses. Maybe to let her absorb what he said. “Also you have a broken collar bone. I am going to set it and immobilize it.”

He pauses and sighs. He looks as weary as she feels. “The broth has something it in to make you drowsy and take some of the edge off the pain, but this is still going to hurt.”

They have salvaged some things from the crash site: a small heater struggling valiantly to fend off the cold, packets of food and bottles of water, a radio. But the priest said the radio doesn’t work. Nor the beacon.

Both of them are wearing several layers of clothing. A pile of clothes covers her as well. They have stripped the dead to save the living. You do what you have to do to survive.

The priest leans over her, his face inches from hers, his breath foul, his black hair wild. “Legate, do you understand what I am telling you?”

He is going to perform a surgery of sorts on her. In a dimly lit tent in the freezing cold. She doubts he has more than rudimentary medical knowledge, and the medical supplies from the escape pod will be minimal. If his sympathies lie with the rebel faction, he has every reason to let her die. Either way — intentionally or not — he is probably going to kill her.

How ironic is that? She is one of the most powerful people in the Empire, second cousin to the Emperor, a legion of imperial marines at her disposal. Yet here she is, on a lifeless world, at the mercy of a frontier priest who might be a terrorist. She tries to laugh at the absurdity of it but only manages a croaking sound.

She swallows. “Do it,” she says.

4. The Girl

Bunny lies on the ground bundled in clothing. Dead peoples’ clothing. She shudders. The priest is right: they need the clothes more than the dead people do. Still, it makes her skin crawl just thinking about it.

The heater they retrieved from the escape pod has brought the temperature inside the tent to a little above freezing and she has managed to stop shivering. It isn’t warm, but it’s not deadly cold either. Deadly cold lives outside the tent, where it is dark and forty below zero. The wind roars and moans and howls and batters the sides of the tent. Is it always like this here?

What the priest did to Legate Quinn was too crude to be called surgery. The pipe was the worst part. Bunny held the Legate’s arms and the priest sat on her legs as he carefully drew the piece of metal out of her side, bringing with it a gush of blood. He pushed a finger deep into the wound and felt around, then sprayed an antibiotic and a coagulant into the gash before using a sealant to close the wound. He placed a thick pad over it and wrapped a bandage around her to hold it in place. Then he set her collar bone. The whole thing was over in fifteen minutes. It had seemed longer.

The Legate had moaned through gritted teeth, beads of sweat rolled off her forehead, but she never cried out. Somewhere along the line she passed out. It was bloody and gory and Bunny had wished she could pass out too. Instead, she wept quietly.

The priest hadn’t said a thing the whole time. No grimaces. No explanations. No swearing. It was like he was on auto-pilot. He said he had learned his medical skills on the battlefield. Bunny has never been on a battlefield, but she imagines it would be truly awful. Maybe it taught him how to turn off his emotions in order to do whatever had be done. Maybe it explains why he is crazy.

When he was done they wrapped the Legate in layers of clothing and put the heater beside her again.

“That’s all I can do for her,” he had said. “It is in God’s hands now.” He wrapped himself in his own dead-people’s clothes and lay with his back to the Legate. His breathing soon became slow and regular, leaving Bunny lying awake listening to the wind.

He is the strangest priest she has ever met. Not that she has met many priests. He has some kind of love-hate relationship with his god. Cursing him one moment, commending the souls of the dead into his hands the next. He doesn’t seem bothered by this contradiction.

She startles when he speaks. “Do you and your father not get along?”

She freezes, then peers over at him. He is on his back with his hands laced behind his head, staring at the ceiling of the tent.

“You already asked me that,” she says. “I’m not looking for psychotherapy, especially not from a friggin’ god-man.” She pauses and adds, “No offense meant.”

Much to her relief he does not pursue it.

To say she and her father did not get along would be a serious understatement. He had been an alcoholic. Not the high-functioning kind. No, her father had been a real, honest-to-god, fall-down-on-your-face drunk.

He was an angry man, too. With a mean streak. An abuser, emotionally and physically. Her mom took the brunt of it, but he saw to it that Bunny and her little brother Jackson got their share as well. When she reached puberty he began abusing her in other ways. She found some escape in her drawings, which she was quite good at, but eventually he ripped them up, threw out her drawing tools, and forbade her ever to draw again.

One night, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, she killed him with a rusted pipe wrench she had found in the cellar. She opened the door to her parents’ bedroom, walked over to his side of the bed, and hit his head with the wrench as hard as she could. Then she hit him again. And again. And again. Until her mom got hold of her arms and stopped her.

She and her mom buried him in the cellar, cleaned up the blood, burned the bedding, and never spoke of him again. Nobody ever asked what happened to him. It was a small town; they probably decided it was a thing best left alone.

“Me and my dad,” Bunny says quietly. “We didn’t get along so good.”

“How so?”

“He was a drunk.”

“Violent?”

“Only when he was awake.”

She meant it to sound clever but it came out full of bitterness instead. This surprises her. She thought she had worked through the anger.

“Abusive?”

She hesitates. “He liked young girls.”

The priest is silent for a long time; so long that she thinks he has fallen asleep. Finally he asks, “Is he still alive?”

She takes a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I killed him.”

He is quiet for a few moments. “Are you sorry you killed him?”

“No!” Then, “Maybe. A little.”

The priest sits up and looks at her. The lamps have been turned off to conserve their batteries and the only light comes from a glow stick, so she cannot read his expression. She wishes she could because for some reason his reaction to her confession matters to her.

He says, “Is there anyone among us so righteous that he is not capable of committing the most vile acts known to humankind?” It sounds like a quote from somewhere. It makes her angry, like he’s minimizing it.

“So … what … that makes it all right?”

“No,” he says. “To take another person’s life … nothing can ever make that all right. But it does make it understandable. It does bring it into the realm of our shared humanity. It means a murderer is not a monster. He cannot be a monster, because he is us and we are him.”

She doesn’t feel guilty about killing her father. She never has. But she is sorry that it happened, sorry that he had to be put down like a rabid dog, sorry that she was the one who had to do it. Does that make her a monster? The priest doesn’t think so.

Was her dad a monster? She wants to say yes, but the priest is probably right. Her father was a bad man who did bad things, but maybe he wasn’t a monster. Maybe he was just a poor, broken drunk who failed at everything he had ever tried to do, who hated himself so much that he was driven to destroy himself and everyone around him. In the end she probably did him a favor by putting him out of his misery. So no monsters; just hurting people hurting other hurting people.

“Have you ever killed someone?” she asks.

Some times passes before he answers. “Sometimes life leaves us with no good choices; only a miserable lot of bad ones. We choose what we hope is the least bad one and we act on it. Then we ask God to forgive us.”

“Is that what you do?”

After another long pause he says, “You wear an engagement ring. What’s he like, this man or woman of yours?”

The abrupt change of direction throws her off guard. “Um … he’s a strong person, responsible, caring … he takes care of me.”

“Not like your father.”

“Hell no. Why would you even think that?”

5. The Priest

Jonah completes his circumnavigation of the ice shelf. It is a precarious perch jutting out from the face of a massive wall of ice and rock. There is no way off.

The sun, a red dwarf, has risen in a cloudless orange sky, a peaceful sky. It provides a deceptive counter-point to the bitter wind roaring unremittingly across the forbidding landscape, sometimes rising to a harrowing howl. It claws at him, tearing at his layers of clothing, threatening to pick him up and throw him into the void below. He has looked into the void. Death lies in the void.

He is grooming her. He knows this.

Sitting cross-legged near the lower edge of the shelf, knees resting against an exposed piece of granite to anchor himself, he gazes across the narrow valley at another equally massive wall of rock, so close it seems like he can reach out and touch it. It calls to him but he cannot answer it. He might be cursed by God but he still belongs to God; his life is not his own.

He finds a certain satisfaction in helping the girl shake off some of the anger and guilt she carries. It is hard to live with murder in your heart. Especially for one so young — what, twenty-two or twenty-three years old? It is a burden she does not deserve and yet has had thrust upon her. Much of his life has revolved around hearing confessions and granting absolution. He is, after all, a priest. He does what his vocation requires of him, what his God requires of him. He is saving her soul for God.

But not her body.

Her body he is saving for himself. He tries to deny it, as he always does, but in his heart he knows he is grooming her, preparing her to give herself to him, to freely offer her young flesh for his dark pleasure.

Confession is an intimate act. By drawing from her the darkest secrets of her soul, by touching her where her greatest pain lives, while at the same time revealing a little of his own pain, he has begun to build a bond, a trust, the beginning of intimacy. It is inevitable that this should happen. It is the nature of his calling. Body and soul — intimacy in one opens the door to intimacy in the other. He has touched her soul and opened the door.

God knew he would build on that beginning, carefully drawing her out, pulling her closer, opening her up like a flower. God knows what evil hides in the dark void of his heart; after all, did not God himself put it there? Even as the end draws near, God has sent this demon to torment him, to rub his face one last time in the sewage of his lost soul.

“I defy you, God! I defy you.”

The wind rips the words from his lips and casts them into the endless expanse of the sky. His knows defiant words will do him no good. He knows his resolve will fail. He knows he cannot resist Lilith’s seductions. He has never been able to resist her. That’s what makes him a monster.

He will have to get rid of the legate, though.

6. The Legate

Schaellar sips the last of the broth. Despite her best effort she makes a slurping sound at the end. This irritates her. It is not only rude; it shows a lack of self control. The girl takes the cup from her and she lies back down. Sitting up and drinking the broth has left her exhausted. That irritates her too. At least she is still alive; the priest did not kill her.

She dozes until the priest returns from his little survey of the ice shelf.

“I don’t see a way way off,” he says.

“Well that’s just friggin’ great,” says the girl. She is good at sarcasm. What is her name? Bunny. Bunny Hopper. Is that funny or tragic?

The priest pours himself some broth and sits cross-legged beside them. “In the good news department, I found a flare gun and some flares.”

The girl snorts. “A lot of good that does us.”

The priest shrugs. “If a rescue craft is looking for us, they will intentionally create sonic booms for us to hear. When that happens, we start firing off flares.”

“It’s a big planet,” says the girl.

“Indeed it is,” says the priest.

“In a big universe.”

“Indeed.”

The girl frowns. “The emergence wouldn’t have been random.”

This catches Schaellar’s attention. The girl is right. The ship must have dropped out of hyperspace. Otherwise they couldn’t have deployed the escape pods. Either the crew had time to execute an emergency drop or the ship’s AI did it automatically. Either way, emergence points aren’t random; they follow the path of least resistance back into normal space, which would have taken them into the nearest gravity well. That’s the only reason they came out in a star system.

The girl continues her line of logic. “If the Minerva had time to send a distress signal, it won’t be difficult for rescuers to determine where we are. Or at least narrow it down to a few systems.”

“Help me sit up,” says Schaellar.

They prop her up against the food crate.

She studies the priest’s face. He stares back with practiced nonchalance. He had seemed familiar to her but she had assumed it was because she had seen him in passing on the Minerva. Now she realizes that she had seen him before that. Long before.

She gives him a thin smile. “We met once before, you and I. Six years ago at the peace talks on Donet-Borne III. You were a member of the Dargeh delegation. You have come a long way since then Jonathan Regius Farood.”

The girl jerks. “You’re Jonathan Farood? The terrorist?”

The priest’s impassive stare remains focused on Schaellar. “I remember,” he says. “But our paths crossed one other time that I’m sure you remember. Grunfeld’s World. I was there when an Imperial cruiser under your command rained down death and destruction on a civilian population, murdering innocent men, women and children indiscriminately, without mercy. Tell me, Legate Quinn, who is the terrorist?”

The girl looks at Schaellar. Her voice is a whisper. “You’re the Butcher of Grunfeld?” Her face has gone pale. Schaellar can see it in her eyes: she has realized she is sitting with two people who have murdered untold numbers of people.

Grunfeld’s World. It’s ghosts haunt Schaellar’s nights. It wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did: one miscommunication after another, an accumulation of seemingly small errors, a young marine commander impatient with the slow-moving talks, then three and a half million civilians were dead and Schaellar Quinn had earned her infamous moniker: the Butcher of Grunfeld. Once her name had elicited respect, now it calls forth fear. If there was one thing in her life she could change, it would be Grunfeld’s World. But history doesn’t give do-overs.

“Tell me, Legate Schaellar Quinn,” the priest says. “What do you plan to do at Dargeh? What is your mission there? Will death and destruction again rain down from the sky on a defenseless population?”

Schaellar sighs. “The Minerva was to debark its passengers at Orman IV and take on Imperial marines. Then proceed — .”

She stops. “But you already knew that, didn’t you. That bomb wasn’t supposed to go off until after Orman IV, killing me and three thousand marines. You would have gotten off at Orman IV.”

The girl’s mouth drops comically open. She snaps it shut and pivots to the priest. “You planted a bomb on the Minerva? You are the reason we are here? What kind of goddamn priest are you? What gives you — ”

A boom interrupts her tirade. Schaellar recognizes the sound immediately.

“You,” she says to the girl. “Go fire off the flares. The priest and I have unfinished business before they get here.”

She looks like she is going to argue, but then goes.

“Listen priest, we don’t have much time.” Schaellar shifts her body to try to ease the throbbing ache in her side. The pain medication is wearing off. “The Emperor will never let Dargeh go. It has too much strategic value. My orders are to resolve the situation once for all. Peacefully if possible, by other means if not.

“So … I offer a compromise. In exchange for peace the Emperor will grant Dargeh protectorate status, which means self-autonomy in local system matters with the Empire maintaining a military presence and exercising authority over interstellar matters, including trade agreements.”

The priest stares at her for a few moments. “Seeking absolution, Legate?”

“There is no absolution for people like you and me.”

The priest nods his head slowly.

A second boom sounds followed by the sound of the flare gun. A tremor runs through the ground under the shelter, followed by another, stronger one. Schaellar closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath. She opens them and meets the priest’s eyes. He knows too. The ground shakes violently and keeps shaking, accompanied by a hideous grinding sound. The floor of the shelter tilts a little. Then a little more.

The girl’s shriek reaches them from outside the shelter. They are sliding toward one side, along with their equipment and supplies. Then they are falling.

7. The Girl

On the small round table in a quiet cafe sits her engagement ring in the pool of beer and broken glass left by Philip when he stormed out. Her face is hot with embarrassment; she is sure everyone is staring at her. She had hoped it wouldn’t be this ugly but isn’t surprised that it was. It is a side of Philip she had always known was there but had carefully hidden from herself. The priest was right; she had gotten engaged to her father. How did he know?

When she had realized that the ice shelf was shifting, she had scrambled up to the rock wall and onto a granite outcropping. The shelf had tilted and slid in slow motion until it fell away and tumbled into the emptiness. Her eyes followed its descent as it hit other outcroppings that broke it into smaller and smaller pieces. By the time it reached the sloping bottom it was just another avalanche. She couldn’t make out the shelter or the remains of the escape pod or the bodies.

She leaves some money on the table and walks out into the warm, sunny morning. There is an art supply shop a few doorways down the street. She walks toward it.

T H E   E N D

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