Light shimmers from the single candle allowed by the black out. He studies the crumpled piece of paper again, having lost count of the times he has scrunched it up, only to unwrap it and read the words again.
In this crisis, he anticipated this would happen eventually, just not this quickly. These are not words he ever expected when youthful enthusiasm signed up for the Planetary Defence Force.
He noticed her huddled in the corner, hiding in the darkness, knees to her chest. Her face briefly lit in the shadows by the glow of her lho-stick as she inhaled. After a pause she blows the smoke into the room with a sigh.
‘She knows something is wrong. You need to talk to her before you go.’ She said.
‘I know. I… I know.’
He usually knows what to say, what to do, what is going to happen. Now his muscles tense and his clenched jaw aches. His mind races, searching for the answer, pleading for a way to fix it.
‘When do you go?’ She asks, looking towards him. Turning to her, his face tense, lips pursed, mind searching for the right words.
‘Midnight.’ He mumbles, looking to the ground. Closing his eyes, he furrows his brow, lifting his hand slowly to rub his eyes before kneading his forehead with his fingertips. From the next room he hears a whimper. He watches her move quickly from the dark. ‘Wait. I’ll go,’ He insists, standing up. Walking past her, she takes his hand and pulls him towards her. He catches her stare. Lifting a hand to his cheek, he looks into her eyes, but they do not match her smile. The candlelight reflects in her glistening eyes, as a single tear escapes down her cheek. He wipes it away with a thumb and tries to smile back. Letting go of her hand, he turns to head into the child’s room.
The door gives a quiet creak as he slowly pushes it open, the darkness of the room only broken by a slither of light from the candle he carries. In the gloom he can make out the outline of a small bed in the corner, and a child sized stool under the window. A small heap of shadow moves on the bed as he approaches.
‘Dadda?’ a quiet, frightened voice whispers from the bed.
‘Shh my dear,’ he whispers back. ‘It’s dadda.’ The stool scratches across the floorboards as he drags it towards the bed and slowly lowers himself to sit. For a moment, everything is quiet. He fights with his brain, trying to think of the right words to say. His silence is punctuated by the soft whimpering and sniffing of the quiet sobbing child.
‘Dadda, what will happen?’ Asks her shaky voice. He hopes the darkness is hiding the warm trace of tears down his cheek.
‘I have to go away my sweet. But mamma will stay here with you.’ She says nothing, allowing the quiet to reassert itself. She sits up in the bed and pulls her knees to her chest. His chest swims with emotion, watching her perform the same move her mother does when she worries.
‘Will the bad people come?’
‘Dadda is going off to stop them my boo. Don’t worry.’ He replies, fighting against his cracking voice. “Do you remember school? Do you remember what they said about Him? About The Emperor?” He senses her nodding movement in the darkness. “He will protect me and bring me back to you. And then, by His grace, you, me, and mamma, will all be together again” He reaches down and lifts her hand, clasping it in both of his. “But we have to be strong for Him and help Him to defeat the bad people.”
‘But…’ She stutters, unsure of herself. ‘But my teacher said that we were the bad people. And that He was just a myth and we shouldn’t follow Him. I don’t want to be the bad people dadda.’ She pleads.
‘Shhh, it’s ok. We’re not the bad people. Your teacher was wrong. They took him away. The Emperor’s servants, praise be to Him, came and removed him, do you remember? You have nothing to worry about.’ She lies back in the bed, as he pulls the cover back over her. ‘Get some rest now my sweet. Dream of His grace and we will all be happy together soon. I promise.’ Still holding her hand, the light flickers out and dies as he blows out the candle.
He waits in the dark, stroking her hair for eternity, until he is sure she is asleep. Seeing the room now in the dark blues and greys of his night adjusted vision, he watches her sleeping, oblivious to the warm trickle of tears still running down his cheeks. Standing slowly to avoid making a noise, he walks over to the window and pulls back the curtain slightly, to reduce any chance of light escaping into the moonless night. The darkness of the city below is overwhelming, enveloping his senses with deep silence and inactivity. Gone are the twinkling lights of buildings, the flashes and rumble of the snaking transit system, the hum of a sleepless bustling mass of souls. The city he loves. The city that keeps his family safe. In the distance, he can make out the ridge line of the hills that separates the city from its neighbour. Usually barely visible against the city glow, tonight they stand out, silhouetted against an orange glow behind and the blackness below. The glow dances with reds and yellows glimmering against the black night sky, soundless pulses of colour flashing in and out from the invisible ground beyond. He knows what this means. The neighbouring city is burning. Goosebumps run through his body, as the chill of realisation washes over him. Without realising, he reaches up to his chest and grips the Aquila around his neck.
‘Emperor protect us.’
About the Author
Lee is a former archaeologist, who now makes maps on the South Coast of England. A new writer, he is learning the ropes in fan fiction. He dreams of returning to the windswept Derbyshire Peak District, with a cat, Collie, and eating more pies. The truth is out there… Probably.