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Those Pretty Stars

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I remember… you stood on the top of a ridge, looking into the night sky as the stars battled above. I remember you with the rest of us listening to the rumbles of thunder that were not thunder, and cringing at the flashes of lightning that were not lightning. I remember you looking up, entranced, and saying “Are those fireworks? They’re so pretty!” I looked at the streams of gold and flashes of deep silver tinged with deep red and looked at your delighted face, and could not bear to destroy your innocence by saying that those pretty lights in the sky were starships intent on each other’s deaths, and each flash meant boys little older than you were being torn apart and exposed to the cold vacuum of space. I could not bear to say that the ensuing meteor showers that so thrilled you were corpses tumbling and falling, wilting into flames. And there was a celebration afterwards, as people rejoiced that the invaders had been driven off. I watched you revel in the festivities, not knowing the reasons behind them, not knowing that victory had been bought at the cost of thousands of souls. All you knew was that the Empire had preserved yet again.
But the war dragged on, years after years.
I remember the day the recruiters came to the universities. I listened to their speeches that expounded on the importance of striking a blow in the name of the mighty Ascanian Empire, and I shuddered at the familiarity of it all. I tried to tell you that if you must go, then to wait until the second wave. But you, who had never been in the horrendous conflicts of the past and who had not looked into the eyes of someone as old as yourself before pulling the trigger, refused to listen. And when the recruiters came again, this time with transport trucks, you were one of the first to hop on, the first among the three hundred and twenty four students that formed the newly-created 200th Battalion, departing to the well-wishing of the old professors and the farewells of the students that stayed behind. There was one girl, I recall, whose goodbye made you so happy that one would think that the war was over and you were returning as the victors, not departing as fresh-faced recruits to long years of strange, hostile worlds and lonesome bitterness.
We heard of your battalion’s victories and defeats; whether it be retreating from battlefields while sustaining heavy losses or evacuating tens of thousands of civilians from the terrible aftereffects of bioweaponary. And return you did, after six years of constant warfare. I remember that cold night, when the transport trucks opened their doors and you and twenty six others limped out into the frigid air, the shocked silence of the crowds that rang in the ears of all.
You had changed. You were no longer the carefree youth I remembered, the one with an ever-constant flow of joy. And on some nights you would curl up in bed and scream and scream. You would insist that it was just a nightmare of past conflicts, and we would all sympathize cursing at who knows what. What happened? We asked. What did you see? I asked. You did not answer. But I noticed how your eyes darted about nervously on streets, I noticed those familiar shadows that haunted your face, the sadness, and the look that recalled and saw things no one could imagine, nor would have wanted to know. You were fine, you insisted. But something told me that you had indeed looked into the eyes of boys no older than yourself and pulled the trigger.

Twenty six were the remnants of the brave band of students that left so long ago towards adventure and glory. You were one of those remnants, a survivor of battles that forced you to leave the bodies of your classmates behind, leaving them to glow on dark nights over rocky hills and blasted fields. You left behind the infected and dying, the sobbing and screaming of parents separated from their children, of couples torn apart from each other echoing in your ears as you utter “Uninfected only.”
Indeed, you had changed. You were no longer the wide-eyed boy who stood on a ridge one dark night so long ago and exclaimed at the beauty of the fountains of light. A part of you was gone, left behind on the rocky ridges strewn with your friends’ bodies.
The dark is still there, within you. I do not know if it will ever go away.
But I do know I can show you the sunrise.





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