Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 20
Sympathy of a Gun
by Gary Kloster
The Vicksburg Dead
by Jens Rushing
The American
by Bruce Worden
Bonus Christmas Stories
Wise Men
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon
    by Erin Cashier

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

"You need to bring her body back," my aunt said as I ate at her table. "They're lighting the Dragon soon. Go and get her."

I frowned, but only my soup could see. "There'll be other lightings --"

"How often do officers die? You get her. Leave tomorrow. You'll have a week to bring her body back."

I sighed and watched the contents of my dinner ripple beneath the weight of my chore. "I don't want to."

My aunt leaned back, and crossed her arms across her wide bosom. "Bring her back, or don't come back at all," she said sternly. I looked up and saw the memory of my mother cross her face. "But wait until tomorrow."

I started off in the morning, my aunt setting me on my way. I complained that I couldn't remember where I'd buried her, but my aunt knows that's a lie. I protested and she ignored me and we danced until I was out the door and it was locked behind me.

The Dragon's metallic carcass casts my aunt's home in shadow. She lives in the wake of its botched landing, in a place where five generations of weather have worn jagged rubble into grassy foothills. Massive fragments of the Dragon litter its self-made valley floor. Far below, on the other side of the ridge, engines as wide as four arms apart are dreaming giant rusting dreams, waiting to be woken.

We light the Dragon when an officer has died. There's a ceremony, a long procession, and everyone deposits the remains of their loved ones in the blast path. Then the engines turn over, and -- chuggity-chuggity-chuggity-woooosh! -- we've cremated them to ash, so they can lift up into the clouds.

So now I've got a bag on my back meant for my mother, and a three day walk out to get her.

Of course I learned about death before my mother died. I know it isn't just people who die. It's technology, too. Dust gets into things it oughtn't and then they break down. The genoark was the first to crap out, leaving us with just chickens for our meals. I've seen pictures of other creatures: cats, dogs, and read stories with horses; but the only thing I've ever really seen enough of to believe in has been a pullet.

After that went the nan controls. I don't get what nans were, precisely -- my mother told me that they were very, very, small, and that they helped a lot, once upon a time. But they're just stories as far as I'm concerned -- I can't imagine grains of sand working miracles on other grains of sand.

I make it to the edge of the impact crater the first day. Where the grass begins to thin, I see Watchers, hazy and indistinct, watching me.

No one knew about the Watchers before we landed -- and maybe that's because they weren't there until we arrived. The current theory, and the one I most espouse, is that it was our wants and needs that brought them up -- little clouds of wishes and hopes and fears. It's why they follow you most closely when someone you know has died. And why when you walk alone at night, they follow you tight behind, slipping from shadow to shadow.

I've got three of them on my trail. They follow behind me like lazy but excitable children, drifting away for a time before veering back, as if to make sure I haven't accidentally gone away. I control my thoughts so that they can't show me things I don't want to see.

The people who started this -- my mother's mother's mother, with maybe another two or three thrown in -- what would they have said after wobbling out from the Dragon's wreckage like newborn chicks:

"Nightmares of the crash replayed out around us!"

"Many tongued demons visiting us from hell --"

"Don't come, don't follow!"

I imagine most of the original fuel was spent on keeping their camp as bright as possible, to light the nascent trees and scare the Watchers away.

The Watchers hover around me and my strong emotions, reds and blacks flickering on their emerging faces. I inhale, exhale, and calm myself deep down inside. Nothing doing here, slight creatures. And I make myself so still that one of them dissipates entirely, lost to the growing wind.

On the second day grass gives way entirely, leaving only rock behind. Two Watchers dance and I ignore them, until one of them shows me her face.

I knew when I started this trip that this would happen.

I inhaled deeply, to try to swallow down the emotions that just a glimpse of her raises up in me. But for a moment the air between the Watcher and me is charged. I remember her mostly from my youth, when her skin was firm and her eyes were bright, and it is this face that looks back at me, mouth closed, eyes wide.

"Please stop," I tell the Watcher. It's being cruel, although I know it means no harm. I catch my thoughts before they race, bringing them back into myself, hiding them before the thing can taunt me anymore. The more distant of the two remaining Watchers perhaps gets disgusted by this turn of events -- I've been told I can hold my emotions back more than most, especially by men who this fact has left disappointed -- and it seems to descend and disappear into the earth itself, leaving only the one with Mother's face. I ignore it as best I can until I sleep. If the Watcher chose to show me my thoughts and dreams, I had no light to see them.

In the morning she was still there beside me. My actual mother was a bit further out, underneath a particular stone. There was no use in pleading with the Watcher now, it showed me her face all the time.

"I don't understand you," I told it. "What did your kind do before my kind came here?"

As we walk, the image of my mother trails along beside me, the picture firming in my mind. Her hair streams behind her even though there is no wind, and she is covered in the orange plastisilk pajamas I remember her wearing in my youth.

"How can you eat? How can you change? How can you evolve?"

But I knew the answers to all of these things -- they didn't. They existed to haplessly torment us, seeming to feed upon our sorrow.

The Watcher paused beside me and I noticed this, looking back. Despite the fact that the thing was pisspoor company, I suddenly felt alone. "Well, come on," I told it, and it caught up to me quickly, like a hungry hen.

The home we had lived in was gnawed away by the dust the wind held, walls scoured thin by time. I knew her small tombstone was behind it.

"We have to come out here," she had said, when she'd taken us away from my aunt's home. My cousins had been horrifed by the thought, as had I. They'd told me the story each time we'd visited them, or they'd visited us, my whole life.

"We need to come out and live on the edge. Everyone is so inward looking, and each year we lose the fields that the nans began. If no one fights for the edges, the center will fall.

"Life's easier in the center," she'd told me as we'd carved out the edges of our garden. "But if we work hard enough, we can make it easy out here, too."

And sure enough, at the time, she'd been right. Oh, it'd taken a year or two, or five -- but somehow she'd brought the center with her. Things took root there, seeds sprouted, trees grew.

But all that was gone now. After her death, I'd been alone. And the world around me had seemed to wither like my heart -- the work that I put in in frustration bore no fruit. Rocks that I took out of a field one day seemed to reappear the next. Slender stalks of corn grew only knee high, when under my mother's ministrations, they'd once risen up to the sun. Not even grass withstood the onslaught of my ineptitude -- I felt like the world itself had receded around me, first in my grief, and second, in my garden. I stood, viewing the desolate plain that had once contained my childhood, with the image of my mother hovering beside me, and I knelt down and cried.

The Watcher waited. Of course it waited. What else did it have to do? I wanted to be angry at it, I wanted to shoo it away -- but it held her face, peaceful, determined. I knew meditation techniques I could use, to tamp down the emotions inside myself until it disappeared entirely, but --

It began drifting away on its own.

"Stop! Wait!" The thought of losing her again, even a simulacrum of her, here of all places -- I chased after it, jumping over a fence post that it merely pushed itself through, until I found myself on the far side of my childhood home.

There, at the foot of her tombstone's lonely rock, a portion of our old garden still remained. A small square patch of green.

I drew myself up from a run to a stop, and stared at the space of grass. Slowly, I sat myself down on its edge, touching it, to make sure it was real.

If I were to cremate her properly, according to the tenets of my people, I'd have to dig her up -- bring her up again through this, the thing she loved most of all, most likely ruining it in the process. Even while I sat there, I imagined the grass getting a little grayer. The Watcher mimicking my mother sat beside me.

"It's not fair," I told it. "I can't destroy this. This is more her than anything I'll find underneath the soil." I patted the thick green blades with the palm of my hand, felt them give under the pressure, watched them spring back up when it passed.

Come back with her, or don't come back, my aunt had said. But what did I really have to return to? I could try, here, again. I looked at the Watcher's mute face. "What would you do?"

But the Watcher wearing my mother's face was silent.

"I know. You can't tell me the answers. I'm always having to find them myself." I stretched out atop the fresh grass, and watched the clouds chase one another overhead. I imagined her reaching up through the soil and hugging me. There for a moment, with the smiling image of the face of my mother looking down at me, breathing the clean scent of grass, I felt it.

"You'd hope. That's what you'd do."

The Watcher's face broke into a smile.

"You're only reflecting her back at me, you know. The version of her I want to see."

I propped myself up on one elbow. Desolation was visible all around me. And, in that moment, it came overwhelming. So much desolation. How was I supposed to --

A blade of grass on the plot's edge dipped low and disintegrated, right before my eyes.

"No. No!" I moved to a crouching position, staring at what I'd just seen. "Please no."

Another blade trembled. The Watcher's hand reached for it, plucked it before it could wither too, and tried to hand it to me. It fell through the Watcher's grasp, and I caught it before it landed, hiding it from myself inside my palm.

It could be one of two things there. Bright, green, living -- a piece of thread from the tapestry that this world was missing -- or a fresh small pile of ashen grey. I looked at the Watcher who viewed me with my mother's face, and I knew what I wanted it to be.

Our colony was like the petals of a dying flower, and had been since we'd landed. All the promise that this world had once held for us had been defeated by our overarching fears, our inability to be inspired. We suffered from a lack of hope that was, perhaps, contagious. And if so, I should consider myself one of its most afflicted peers.

"I want -- I'm tired of expecting the worst!" I stared at my closed hand, still not knowing what waited for me inside. "Please -- be alive. Please be green. Grow."

I opened my hand wide. And the blade of grass waiting there was still fresh and intact. The Watcher that was not my mother, but that now -- thanks to my memory of her, reflected in itself -- took the piece from my hand and set it down, outside the boundary of the burial plot we sat upon. It blew away, but it blew away still green.

"Was it really so easy all this time?" I stood and reached down a hand for the Watcher, out of polite habit. It took mine in its own, and I felt my mother's flesh against mine for a moment, before its hand washed on through. And I remembered the times we'd hid in our cabin against thunderstorms, and how even in the best of times, we'd still had to work -- but it was work with hope that had made change possible, so much more so than work done looking backwards with despair.

There was a future here, if only we would take it.

My mother had been right, after all.

I always knew I could have gone back to live under the shadow of the Dragon if I wanted to. But I didn't. The Watchers visit me now, often, and I like to think I set them onto chores. I think about them crossing our new planet, seeding grass, forming streams. I don't wish for them to show me horrors from my imagination -- I wish for them to show me pictures of my children yet to be.

And slowly, things have changed. My cousins came to visit, and one of them stayed. She brought her family, and then her brother-in-law's niece moved out, too. There's more of us out here, growing every year. I tell them stories, not of a world we left behind, but of a place that's yet to come, a place that we can make ourselves.

And so my mother's tombstone stayed where it was, and she stayed beneath it.

I don't see her face on the Watchers anymore, but sometimes I think I feel her in the wind.

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