Recalled to Yujua.
Those three words spread through the camp like wildfire. Pak can see it in the men’s faces. Wonder. Relief. Six years of war in the green fields of Rija cut short.
High Command calls it refit, resupply, restoration of heavy losses. To the guardsmen, its meaning is singular.
Scorching daybreak scatters through the glasscrete window; phantom heat haunts the spartan transport corridor. Across the horizon reaches an endless expanse of orange dust.
‘Never thought I’d see this again.’
A voice stirs Pak from the vista, and he turns to see a young guardsman standing next to him.
‘Did you miss it?’ the trooper asks.
A low metal groan rumbles through the ship as it slows to a crawl, preparing to make its descent into the underground city.
‘Not particularly,’ Pak replies. The soldier laughs, and Pak echoes him. He’s only half-joking.
Outside, empty sky slowly gives way to dust gives way to worn-down metal and rockcrete. Pak watches the sun as it slips away bit by bit, until it’s shut out once and for all by the grinding hangar doors.
There is no sun in Yujua.
Hydraulics hiss and gears whir; the offload ramp thunders to the ground. Beyond the aperture the dark city of Pak’s youth sprawls outward, an endless warren of winding streets and ugly grey habs broken up by the industrial glare of pseudosol lamps.
Memories lost over six years flood back in like revenants.
Uniformed shapes surge out of the transport around him, shouts and grunts muffled by distraction. Pak compulsively checks his chrono, but he knows he has two weeks. Two weeks before returning to base – then Throne only knew how long before the division would be deployed again.
Pak lets himself slip into the tide.
The street ahead coalesces into a titanic centipede of angular habs, each doorway the gate to a miniature city. Not even most Yujuans know how deep each one goes. Pak certainly doesn’t. He only knows where he’s meant to go. His place in the architecture.
His slice of home.
The apartment’s tucked away in a corner of a corner, the simple greyish door faintly lit by the hallway’s overhead lamps. He tries to turn the handle; it doesn’t budge. One fumble later and he realises he’s lost the key, somewhere in a Rijan ditch.
But now his mind has naturally wandered to Rija. The idyllic meadows. The shimmering sea. The sun.
If it weren’t for the war…
The door opens.
She’s standing in the entrance, gaunt-faced and weary-eyed. Her face cycles through fright, shock, then subdued Yujuan joy. Six years in the mines have taken their toll on the smile Pak remembers; her hands are worn, and weary creases seep into the corners of her face. Yet even now, unceremoniously bowed over in subtle relief, she stands with defining grace.
‘Eunhye,’ he manages, ‘it’s been a while.’
‘You look different,’ she answers.
Pak chuckles. ‘In a good way?’
They fall into each other’s arms, laughing, crying softly into a tight embrace, and for a moment, if only a moment, Pak can forget just how hollow each note sounds.
He awakes that night in a cold sweat, meadows at the tip of his tongue. The cavernous dark envelops him, his childhood darkvision betrayed by six years aboveground. Behind him, Eunhye doesn’t move, her breath just as soft, rhythmic, and shallow as it was. Pak stumbles forward as light-footedly as he can. He doesn’t know where he’s going, only up.
He stumbles straight into a photograph. It’s propped on the slab wall, pristine, unfaded. His eyes strain at it; the forms coalesce into two phantoms from a phantom of memory.
He’s looking into his own eyes. There he is, a wraith of a man, dark-eyed and bony-skinned, skeletal and tall. Eunhye stands beside him, face still rounded by youth but already infiltrated by the little shadows of exhaustion trademarking each Yujuan soul. He still remembers that day – cheap plastine garlands ringing the Emperor’s chapel, a spartan affair seen by maybe ten – the only real light that ever touched his world. Yet in the frame, their beaming faces are subdued.
She said he’d changed, but he only now realises just how much. It had been a long time since he last saw that gaunt and pallid stare reflected in a Rijan pool.
Pak crouches slowly to his knees. He tries to pray, but he doesn’t know for what. The night’s cold seeps in through the heavy grey walls. Icy fingers touch at his toes and kneecaps.
It’s always cold in Yujua.
A choir of thundering clanks echoes across the city as thousands of pseudosols flick back to life, and the world moves from night to day in an instant.
Eunhye is already awake when Pak climbs out of bed. It’s just another day, and the mines spare no expense – their rhythm is her rhythm, a lesson that comes harsh to most. They trade more stories over tea, and say their regretful goodbyes. Then she’s gone, and Pak is alone again.
If nothing’s changed, the shifts are ten hours. By the second Pak is already thinking against himself, two weeks. He wanders up and down the empty streets. He loiters around his old haunts, ghostly as ever in the workday. He climbs up a craggy cavern wall to a ledge he used to go. He sits, shields his eyes from the pseudosols, and casts his gaze over the dark city, but six years past and its ugliness is all he can see. Sunset torments his mind. Sunset and hellfire. Blood on lush grass. Craters on fertile land.
Pak tries to pray again, and once again, open-mouthed, his tongue refuses to intone it. This time, though, he knows every word.
Silence exits his lips. Rija enters his soul.
About the Author
Alex Gentem is an aspiring software engineer, borderline cryptid, and full-time human enthusiast from the eastern United States.