Twenty-eight-year-old Lance Cain watched as Tamara’s ashes floated away over the small waterfall and down the frigid stream. As a veteran of the Talsan War and one of the few survivors of the Prog Lozab campaign, he had long since learned how not to cry, regardless of how harshly his emotions were twisting in his chest.
But somewhere inside the hardened fighter pilot, a little six-year-old boy was sobbing. That’s how old he was when his Mom died pulling him out of the fire that took his two brothers and three sisters. That was the day he swore no one else would die because of him.
The day he graduated officer’s training (and at the memory, he had to bite down on the inside of both of his cheeks, since Tamara was standing beside him at the ceremony), he not only took an oath to defend the Republic, but to defeat the alien horde that had sworn to eradicate humanity from existence, including his beloved fiancee Miranda, the girl he left behind on their homeworld of Senegale.
“Hey, Dancer. I don’t mean to interrupt, but we’ve got to get going. The sun’s setting, and in an hour it’ll be ten below.”
The former Commander (had it been only three years ago when he had been a fresh-faced, green-as-grass Lieutenant JG?) blinked and realized he was still staring at the water, listening to it babbling to him, as the last rays of the sun filtered through verdant Jillian trees.
“I’m just coming, Gunney.”
Tamara was the only person in his life who had ever called him “Andy,” his middle name. She said it suited him, even though couldn’t see why. It wasn’t until the day she died, a coolant conduit explosion in the communications bay of their battleship “Dread of Isaac,” that he realized she wasn’t just a sister surrogate.
Lance turned away from the water and looked up the low rise to see the aging black man standing as patiently as any Marine was going to get by their two-person floater. Lucius Jackson had saved his life more than once, and it cost him an eye and the lower half of his left leg (it was amazing what modern bionics could do these days). The gaunt man, hair as white as the snow that was threatening to fall, began to climb.
“Hustle it up, Dancer. I’m about to freeze what’s left of my jewels off out here.”
The Sergeant was more talk than threat these days, and Lance was assured that he knew full well why he had to spread Tamara’s ashes across the water, her favorite fishing hole when she was a little girl, just a half-hour’s trip from the settlement where she grew up.
“Don’t get your boxers in a knot, Gunney. We’ll be back in time for dinner.” Everyone called him Dancer because of his call sign, “DSR-14,” back when he was flying TJK-47 sub-orbital fighters. It didn’t help that Tamara told everyone she thought he looked like be belonged in a ballet instead of a cockpit. She was always teasing him that way.
He got behind the wheel while Gunney rode shotgun. His father-figure chose to wear an eyepatch rather than receive an optic replacement, but with the new leg, he could outrun and out climb men half his age, though he probably could have done the same with his original equipment.
Lance piloted the floater over the rough, dirt road and then turned left at the main highway.
“Looks like another transport of refugees are coming in.” Gunney was looking up though the sunroof of the floater at the contrail lit up by the last rays of daylight. Lance glanced up for a moment, remembering that Miranda had come in on a ship just like it ten days ago.
He turned up the heat a notch to ward off the cold of approaching night, but didn’t bother with the radio, since the only station in reception range played an odd assortment of country-western and polka tunes.
As the headlights illuminated black asphalt and little else ahead of them, he could see himself in the garish floodlights of the spaceport, the last one within a hundred clicks, watching her debark the transport vessel. Miranda looked older, carrying a single, small suitcase, brilliant silver hair (battle shock had turned his brown locks the same color, ironically) wrapped in a scarf, dressed in mismatched skirt and blouse under a ragged jacket too thin for the spring weather here.
They had been cordial, almost cold to each other, though polite, given that he had once given her his ring and promised to marry her when the war was over. When had those feelings died? For him, it was when Tamara breathed her last over her personal comm link to his one-person ship, when she said “I love you.” He heard the death rattle before he could reply, and ever since that day, he prayed that she already knew he loved her as well.
His muscles tightened when he felt Gunney jab him in the shoulder with his finger. “Step on it, will you? I don’t want to be late for the blessing.”
“We’re only ten minutes out. There, you can see the settlement lights in the valley below.”
“I can’t believe it’s been a year. I mean the anniversary and all.”
“Yeah. A year. Funny how war on an interstellar scale didn’t take very long.”
“Long enough for us to lose four of the five Core worlds.”
“Long enough for us to commit genocide.”
“They’d have done the same to us, you know that.” He sounded defensive, but Lance knew Gunney was right. He just hated admitting it.
“Yeah, I know that.”
“Not many of us left, veterans or civvies. That’s why tonight’s so important, why they renamed this whole planet after the celebration.”
“That’s right, Dancer. I’ve seen enough killing, too much even for this old war horse. Time for peace now, for rebuilding. You thinking of getting back together with that little gal of yours, the one from Flatland, I mean Senegale?” He used the old nickname for the farming world where Lance grew up, which had exported food to half the colony planets, now all obliterated.
“I don’t know.” Dancer slowed the floater as he approached the outer boundary to the settlement.
“You should. Aren’t many of us left. My days of raising babies are done, but I wouldn’t mind being a Grandpa to yours.”
The pilot chuckled. “You? Hell, they’ll be marching, cussing, and chomping on cigars before they learn how to say Mama.” He winced at the last memory he had of his own Mom, and then at the thought of the wife and six children Gunney had lost in the war.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Gunney slapped his shoulder and they both laughed.
“I suppose I will.” He made the words sound like a judge handing down a life sentence. “We need to rebuild the human race.”
If Gunney noticed his change of mood, he didn’t react to it. “Damn right. Now let’s check in at the sentry post and head for the Community Hall. I can’t wait to lock my chops on some turkey and gravy, I mean, after the blessing and all.”
“Right, Gunney. After the Thanksgiving blessing.”
That night, two old soldiers (for no one emerges from such horrors as young) joined the other survivors of the war to share a sacred meal together, and on the morrow, they would pick up shovels instead of weapons and become builders.
I wrote this for Thursday photo prompt: Hidden #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to use one of Sue’s original photos as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.
Today is the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and I thought it appropriate to use that theme in my wee tale. The survivors do have a lot to be thankful for, mainly that they’re still alive when trillions are dead, and that they have a chance to rebuild the human race in peace and unity.