By: Jamie Steidle
“A soul can only be destroyed from within,” Aternus repeated.
The land stretched onwards into the night, pockmarked with sand dunes, crags and the occasional cliff, which fell down and deep. There were mountains in the distance rising high, majestic and solitary. The valleys within were dark and ominous, shadowed by the shade of night.
On a small cliff stood a solitary man, his back to the stars; he stared off at the dark, folded lands with piercing eyes. His name was Aternus. He looked up into the night and watched the stars fall. He made his way down the cliff into the pit. He walked naked through the desert. Through the refuge he climbed. It was a graveyard of twisted iron and steel, of shattered glass and rutted copper. There were bodies interspersed among the broken machinery. The fires created an ominous path, heading like an eternal conduit that lined the horizon and lit Aternus’ path.
His path was long and hard, but he was nearly at the end of it. For years he had waited for success. For years he had walked through the gloom and darkness – the solitary walk of a man who was adored by those he hated. Many adored him and none adored him more than the Sovereign of the Colossal, who made him a position close to his side. Through the Sovereign all was possible and with his trust, Aternus was able to at once snuff out the entire Colossal. That was his revenge. Aternus thought about the darkness and gloom which had engulfed him as a young child. How all at once an innocent boy had lost his brother, his mother and his home planet, Munin.
He watched a lone piece of debris, a spec of golden ember spark across the sky like a fallen star and as he watched he thought about how long ago, before Munin was destroyed, a small boy had watched a similar light fall very much like this. But with it came other sparks and soon the whole planet was engulfed in flames. It was, Aternus believed, the Colossal’s forces. Many died that day. And days later the infrastructure of the planet collapsed. Munin could not afford to survive without its agriculture industry, which had turned to ashes.
The Colossal was the government of the galactic region and respected those planets that were rich and left nothing for those that were poor. Munin was not a rich planet and suffered for it. It suffered the forceful colonization and destruction of its resources and people. Aternus left Munin as a child, parentless and brother-less—he had no family and found his only consul in his own anger. In the desert on the night of the attack on Munin, he had found the remains of a ship with the insignia of the Colossal:
CO Satellite: Year 7AD6
That was exactly where he could direct his anger towards. He could direct it towards the Colossal. That was who he could blame. And for years he constructed a means to destroy.
Now, at last, he had his revenge. He had set an explosive in the massive, planet-like structure of the Colossal Satellite—the headquarters—and escaped on an old teleport to the nearest planet, just as the satellite erupted into flames of death. That planet was Munin, what was left of it. And the debris of the Colossal fell like metros onto the planet floor. Aternus recalled this as he walked naked on the desert terrain and looked up as the fires rained down, like missiles. His mission was completed.
His path now, he knew, was to an old escape unit set in the side of the mountain. He hoped it still worked.
Aternus had been somber in the solitude on the cliff, but now below, in the pit, he was subdued and felt more alone than ever. It felt like hours had passed and still the mountain seemed as far as it had when he began, when he decided to make his way to the escape-pad within. He found a flayed body, clothed in untarnished clothing. Aternus’ took the clothes. He found a gun near the body and took it in his hands. He sat down on a piece of debris and looked at the gun, wondering if it was useful. Though the planet had long since been abandoned he knew that life would continue. He suspected some of the animals must have been left behind and had since populated the cold planet Munin and become vicious and ravenous. He aimed the gun at a small boulder off in the distance and fired. He watched as it quickly became dust. The gun worked. As the dust dissipated there appeared where the rock had stood a figure. Aternus quickly aimed the gun, his arms shaking.
“Wh—who’s ther—there?” he stammered.
The figure did not move, but was frozen in terror.
“Who’s there?” Aternus repeated.
“The name’s—the name’s Abram,” said the figure. The figure was that of a young boy. This was not his name. He took the name of an old hero in a book he had read. A hero who would give him courage in the darkest of nights as he lay under the covers reading with a light and now, on this dark night he borrowed the name to borrow the courage.
“What are you doing here?” Aternus asked.
“I live here.”
“Well, not here, but over there by the mountain,” Abram said.
“This place has long since been abandoned,” Aternus said.
“I know that! I’m not stupid. That’s why I live over there by the mountain.” The figure stepped forward and into the light of the falling debris, his face illuminated, was round and red. His eyes were small, blue and curious. He was an ugly boy, Aternus thought.
“What are you doing out here, kid?” asked Aternus.
“Exploring. What else would I be doing?”
“It’s awfully dangerous.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I’m trying to make my way to the mountain.”
The boy looked up and down at the man. “You a Colossal guy—an official I mean?” he asked.
“Yes,” Aternus lied. “Now, do as I tell you.”
“I’m your superior.”
“Everyone’s my superior round here and I don’t listen to none of them. What makes you any different?”
“I’ve got a badge.”
“I do, too,” said the boy and pulled out of his pocket a Space Cubs Badge.
“As a Space Cub it is your duty to help a fellow person,” Aternus said, recalling his days in the Cubs. It wasn’t a fond recollection. The Cubs was supposed to teach him respect. It didn’t do a very good job of that.
“What do you want?” the boy asked.
“I want you to leave me alone.”
“You don’t want that.”
“Because then you will be all lonely. Never met anyone who likes that.”
“Well, then you’re a lonely man.”
“Not as lonely as I’d like to be.” He paused. “That means you leave.”
“I’ll lead. You could use the help in these parts Co.”
“It’s what we all call you Colossal Officials.”
“Oh, yeah—that’s right.” Aternus had been away for so long he had forgotten. “I almost forgot.”
“You’ve been forgetting a lot, mister. How about you and I give each other a hand—I hate the Space Cubs, but my mom says it builds character, but all it does build is anger and frustration. I’m a few badges off from being the top of the game. So, if I get another badge, maybe that will get my mom to cut me some. So, how about I lead you and your poor-memory-Co-self to that place you want to go and you can help me get another Space Cubs Badge for helping the helpless. What do you say?”
Aternus thought a moment. The kid was a pest, but could be useful. It had been a long time since Aternus had been to Munin and from the looks of things, everything seemed to have become foreign. His memory seemed jumbled and fractured as if the young Aternus from Munin had been someone else.
“Okay, kid,” Aternus said. And they began to walk. In the beginning they walked in silence, but the kid couldn’t be quiet for longer than a few minutes at first and then once he started, he wouldn’t be quiet again for much too long. Aternus held his gun tighter and fought off the urge of silencing the kid.
“What’s the name?” the boy asked.
“Weird name. Does it mean anything?” Abram asked.
“It means eternal in Latin.”
“A dead language.”
“Sound’s depressing,” Abram said.
“What’s your name mean?”
They continued on through the desert, following along the lit path made by the debris; debris still fell from the shattered sky above.
“Why’s this happening?” asked Abram.
“What did we do wrong?” the boy asked.
‘The boy thinks that the Colossal is attacking him—that this is his fault,’ thought Aternus. He saw this ample time to make the boy learn, as all should, how evil the Colossal was. So he lied. “Nothing was done wrong, but that doesn’t mean anything was done right.”
The boy seemed to be unsatisfied with the answer, but still he changed the subject.
“You ever kill anyone. You look like you have. How did it feel? I remember once, I was zooming and accidently hit a rodent. He didn’t die, but got hurt. I felt so bad,” Abram said. “I couldn’t kill anyone, even if you’d pay me. Except that bully. He’s mean. Mean people, maybe those people I can kill. But they’d have to be really mean. I’d probably still feel bad, though.” The boy stopped talking for a few moments. “I wouldn’t kill anyone ever,” the boy said after he thought about it.
They had reached the rocky outcropping that extended upwards towards the mountain. There journey hadn’t ended yet, for the boulders were many and the path was unfriendly. They seemed to have made a steady way and the boy, despite his long monologues, was very helpful.
“People think straight lines will get you to where you want to go,” Abram said. “But that’s not right. The only way to get there is to move.” And he laughed, but the boy was wise in ways that surprised Aternus.
“If we go around the boulder cropping, we can cut our distance in half, even though it is a longer path.”
“Aren’t you mixing up distance with time?” Aternus asked.
“They are the same.”
The sky was slowly fading in light. The satellite was nothing more than a tiny dark speck smoldering in the distance on the desert terrain behind them. A few embers burned as a memory of the destruction.
“You ever really get mad and want to tell someone how mad they made you?” Abram asked.
“Yes,” Aternus said. “You’re making me mad.”
“No. A serious reason. My brother got me real mad the other day. Said that everyone is looking out for themselves. Like, no one is willing to help each other. And I was thinking about it. It isn’t true. I mean, look at me and you. We’re out here, two strangers helping each other. And, I just think my brother is wrong about people. There’s more to them. I want to tell my brother all of this, but I can’t.” Abrams looked up at Aternus. “I wish I could tell him.”
“Why not? If you believe in it.” Aternus said. He figured he might as well converse. It had been awhile since he had had a conversation. The Colossal made an effort to recruit people who had no soul, no personality. Aternus had been frightened that he would lose his… but then, he had lost his soul many years ago.
“Why not, you say… because I’m afraid to act and afraid he’ll beat me something on the head.”
“Inaction is just as bad as action, it will not get you to the place you want to be. Sometimes not acting is the worst act of all,” Aternus said. This he had learned as well and was a phrase he often repeated to himself when he doubted his actions.
The boy grew quiet as if this perplexed him. He didn’t talk for some time, leaving Aternus in his own dark thoughts. The next time he spoke it was of a different matter.
“We are almost there,” Abram said. Aternus did not respond. And the silence grew. They continued on.
Abram’s voice pulled Aternus out of his reverie.
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“Saying what?” Aternus asked.
“That thing you say about souls.”
“Souls can only be destroyed from within?”
“It’s an old saying I heard when I was young.”
“What’s it mean?”
“What it says.”
“It doesn’t say much.”
Aternus fell silent. He didn’t need to explain himself to the boy.
“We are nearly there,” Abram said.
The mountain was just above them, and set into it were houses. The boy froze when he noticed that some of these houses were on fire.
“Home!” He yelled and began to run towards a splintered crater that was fuming with smoke and ash.
Aternus froze and looked at the destruction. It seemed so familiar to him and brought back sad memories of ages past. He clutched his gun tighter. He made his way up the hill towards his companion.
“Boy!” he shouted. He made his way to the crater and froze above it. He leaned in and shouted the kid’s name.
From the crater the boy yelled, “What do I do? Help! My brother is stuck down here. Give me a hand!”
Aternus could make out the figure of the boy trying to pull his brother from the pit. The smoke was thick and Aternus had to rub his eyes to fix his gaze. He looked away from the pit and the boy and saw his escape into the side of the mountain had been opened from a piece of debris. Part of the mountainside had been blasted apart. He could just make out the steel portal of the escape-pad. A sense of relief came over him.
“Help!” he heard the boy shouting.
Aternus looked back down into the fiery pit and he navigated around it.
“Help!” he could hear the boy echoing. “Just a hand!”
Aternus tried to tune the boy out. He had done as he was told, nothing more was needed, the boy’s problems were not his problems.
“Act!” the kid shouted. “Sometimes,” he cried, “in action” he said, “is the worst” he sputtered “action of all!”
Aternus walked through the arch of the mountain and stepped into the pad. The last thing he heard the boy say was: “My brother is dead! My brother is dead. Because of you!” And the portal was shut.
The boy stood for a while in tears, but he had to move on — he had to act. He ran off into the darkness to find his mother. When he reached the ship with the insignia of the Colossal, he knew exactly where he could direct his anger towards:
CO Satellite: Year 7AD6
And into the darkness he ran, punctured here and there were the shattered remains of the ship. He ran into the darkness, which was like an eternity and as he ran he forgot his name. As he ran, all he could hear was the reverberation of one phrase:
“A soul can only be destroyed from within.”