From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Something Old, Something New by Seraphym (Sunday, May 20, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Home Is Where by John Murdock (Wednesday, June 13, 2007)

(posted Sunday, May 20, 2007)

Interiora vide. "Look within."

General Zach was just as kind, had just as good a sense of humor, and was just as brave and tough as the Zach Marlowe that Astra remembered. And of course, she knew exactly why he was talking to her. He wanted to hear about Bella--but a Bella alive and healthy and--if not happy, at least surrounded by friends, in a world that wasn't actively trying to kill her.

Actually the first thing he wanted to hear about was why their Bella wasn't dead, too. He seemed both sad and relieved to hear about Nova, the gene-splicing nanotech, and how they had used the clone's DNA to stabilize the Commissar's. "We could never manage that," he said, cracking his neck a little, just like their Zach used to. "I'm not sure They can, actually. Genetic repair is not something They care much about."

Astra understood his relief; he wanted to be told that there wasn't any way he could have saved his Bella. But the next thing he wanted to know was about their Zach. Unspoken, but she felt the thought, he wanted to know what kind of a man their Zach was, unconsciously measuring himself against that standard. He laughed at her funny stories, he chuckled at the reaction of Saviour to the "Green Glow" ads--he was just old enough to remember broadcast media that wasn't meant to control and frighten the populace.

And then, he wanted to know how Zach had died.

She tried, very hard, not to intrude on his thoughts, but they were so immediate, and so strong, she couldn't help but know what was going on. She felt his despair, under the smiling features, the jokes, even the whistled tunes. She knew what he was thinking; this was the last redoubt, the final fallback position. They would all die here. He wanted to know he could die bravely.

So she told him. Told him more than he wanted to hear, because--right now, she was a little angry with men. Men seemed to have this idea in their heads about "going out with a bang," heroic last stands, dying "bravely," "a good death." Women, mostly, didn't cherish that particular illusion. She certainly didn't. There was no such thing as a "good death," there was only death, and all the grief that the ones left behind had to bear, for years and years and years. Men didn't seem to think about those things.

Well, she told him. Told him about Bella's terrible grief, about how she had almost mourned herself to death, had become sick, and haggard, sleepless and sunk in depression, until--

"Mom got involved," she said. "I mean, part of it was that Aunt Bella never got to say goodbye, and he never got to either. Mom realized he was hanging around, and she--well, she can do things, and she helped him be solid enough so they could see each other again and say and do all the things they wanted to."

The General was staring at her like she was crazy, and his thoughts were going in that direction too. She shrugged. She was tired of dealing with what was so strong it wasn't just disbelief, it was unbelief. "You don't have to believe me," she pointed out wearily, "But it's true. Why should I lie? Would there be any point in it?"

The General blinked. " mean after..."

"Souls," Astra corrected, a little primly. "And like C.S. Lewis said, 'You don't have a soul, you are a soul and you have a body.' There's a lot of kinds of things that people call ghosts. Some are just memories of terrible events, or even just extremely intense events, emotionally speaking, that happened in a place, kind of a movie burned into time. Some are lost souls who never thought there would be anything afterwards, don't believe there is anything more, and can't find their way to the Heart. Some are bad, they're afraid of what's on the other side, so they refuse to leave. Or they're truly evil and stay because they want to hurt people. That kind is hardly a soul anymore, just a set of--appetites. But some...they stay because of things they left undone. Like Uncle Zach. But you don't have to believe me. I wouldn't care if you did or not, except that you think I'm lying, and that bothers me."

She saw his lips move as if he was mouthing words she couldn't hear. Then he looked up at her, with a very peculiar expression on his face.

But then the scouts had come in, and they all had to get moving again, so she never actually found out what he was going to say to her.

He never came back to talk to her for the rest of the trek, although she caught him looking at her oddly now and again, and at her mother. She wondered what was going through his mind, but was determined not to snoop.

When they all separated to crawl like rabbits into the Watership Downs, her family was with the Vickie of this world, and there was some relief to be with someone who believed in what Seraphic Flame was, And there was relief to be deep inside the caves; it felt safe here. But then, as she was settling her few things and the clothing and sleeping bag they gave her into the little side cave they'd assigned the Murdock family to, she felt someone behind her in the "doorway" and recognized the "signature" as that of the General. She stood up from laying out her bedroll and faced him.

"Astra," he said, very quietly, "Would you ask your mother if she could talk to me right now?"

She grimaced. "I dunno sir, she's talking to Miss Vickie about magic, maybe using it to wake JJ up. It's--complicated."

"Nothing is simple with Vickie," he said, with a wry twist of his lips. "But this is something--something I would rather not wait on. Something I need to know, now if possible."

"It's that important?" she replied doubtfully.

He nodded, and she felt his solemnity--felt longing from him, and some fear, and doubt--and under it all, the faint stirrings of hope. "It's important, not just for me, but for all of us. You could very well say that it's a matter of--life and death."