We slipped out of our houses just after midnight and took various transits through the dark and still hours until we reached the asteroid’s equator. I fell asleep on the transit, and the guys didn’t ditch me. They were nineteen- and twenty-years old and had pressured me into paying their way to the Gaps with my sister’s benefits. It was stupid – something they could get away with and I couldn’t. I’d be in trouble the second I got back.
“Look dude,” Mac had said, “we’ll pay for everything once we get there. We’ll take you to the girly shows. We’ll do the amusement park rides. Spend all afternoon in the stores. Whatever. All we need is transit fare and you can hang with us.”
“Maybe,” Austin said, “we’ll even see a Veteran!”
I jerked a glance at him, trying to detect any sign of mockery. He knew my interest, that I cubed all the net sites about the psychic wars. He had hounded me about it in the past. I kept my face immobile.
Austin tried another tack. Clapping both his hands aside his face, he bent to within centimeters of mine, bugged his eyes out at me, and said, “There’ll be girls! More girls than you have ever seen!”
“C’mon,” Mac said, “none of us has got the money. Your thumb can get everybody there on your sister’s benefits. She’s not expecting you back `till late tonight. By that time we’ll be half way to the equator.”
They were so much older, but they needed me along. It wasn’t a chance I would get often. I was only fourteen.
“Alright!” I said. “Back off a bit.”
They smiled and gave each other high fives, fists closed.
Austin woke me when the transit stopped. No one else was in the station at that hour but a couple of bums with sleeping bags. The doors opened for us and we walked through.
My first sight was the line of shops, curving upward in the distance as the floor sloped around the asteroid, disappearing into the horizon’s rising curve. It’s what made Earth films fail out here. Who could look at all those people standing with their feet toward the center of the planet, always looking at the horizons curving downward? It was too weird. Centrifugal force was the only way to go.
“I’m gonna get my sister something,” I said, “some clothes or something. It’ll cool her down when I get back.”
“They’re still closed,” Mac said. “Look behind ya, dude.”
I turned around. A wide marble-like floor stretched out before the shops, cluttered with enameled white metal tables and chairs. All were empty. In an hour or two, people taking their weekend or vacation would horde into this area, mashing foot-long dogs into their mouths or eating boxes of popcorn anteater style. Beyond the tables was the view.
Level with the marble floor, some fifteen meters of balcony extended out into the vacuum of space. A transparent barrier curved around the balcony, above, below, and in front. We ran onto it.
“Look up!” Austin commanded.
Above us were stories and stories of city, reaching higher and higher until they reached the roof, our asteroid itself. The builders had slapped layers and layers of city onto the asteroid leaving a single gap encircling the rock’s equator. The Gap – the only tourist destination on the asteroid – was an inverted canyon.
Below us, a black sky, studded with stars glimmered beneath a faint layer of crystal ices and planetesimals.
“So cool!” I crooned.
Then I raised my eyes to the level. Before us, a kilometer across the Gap, were the city lights of the Right Sheath, our enemy. We lived in the Left Sheath, once half of a great city, now an independent state.
But as all these sights held the older boys, I gradually felt a draw on my attention to our left.
A dozen meters along the balcony, sat an old man before the great window, unmoving, unspeaking, staring into space. I knew what he was looking at: he was focused on our distant, mortal foe.
He wasn’t actually that old: young enough to look at, but his eyes and skin revealed age. His face was drawn too tight; skin was too thin a membrane; his eyes, eternal.
“Guys,” I whispered. They looked at me and I made short jabbing motions with my index finger. They all looked, not trying to hide their gawking. He must have noticed our attentions, but he sat still, staring out across the Gaps.
“It’s a veteran,” I said. “See that gray uniform? On his lapel there’ll be brass buttons, one for every ten successful attacks against the enemy.”
We stared in awe for a moment.
“Yeah,” Austin said loudly, “too bad it always toasts your brain.”
I looked from the old man to my comrades.
“What would make someone volunteer for that?” I asked. “I mean, knowing what he would turn into?”
“You idiots,” Mac said. “There never was any psychic war. It’s all just propaganda. If anyone really burned up at all, they were probably set on fire by the secret police.”
Austin threw his plastic cup toward the man. The remainder of the drink spilled and the ice clattered under the old man’s chair. He didn’t flinch. The others stepped out, throwing their trash from their lunch at his feet. I held my tongue.
I didn’t care what they said – I believed there had been a psychic war.
Later, in the night, I forgot about him. There was a long evening of carousing, my first beer, and learning to flirt with girls much older than I was. We walked so many kilometers in the Gaps that I was unaware I had returned to the very spot where we had arrived. He still sat there, still staring across a kilometer of vacuum to the Right Sheath. A thought came to my mind: I would approach him. I would walk past him, behind his chair, count how many brass buttons he had and report to my older friends how many psychic attacks he had made.
On his lapel were three gold bars, two thinner silver bars, and six brass buttons. I didn’t have a clue what all that stood for. I was just fourteen. I had forgotten my fear and stood staring at his lapel. He suddenly seemed so harmless. I walked around to his face and examined the front of his uniform. He stared at the enemy. I stared at him.
“She burned up,” he suddenly said without diverting his gaze.
It was an insane thing to say. A person didn’t begin conversations with something like that. Maybe Austin was right. Maybe there had been no war; maybe this was only mental illness.
“What?” I exclaimed.
“You asked earlier why someone would join the Corp,” he continued, “why someone would undergo the training, knowing it would some day leave them here staring. I joined because she caught fire and burned right in front of me.”
I paused, absorbed. “So after they burned her – your loved one – you just went and signed up?”
“No. I had to report her death. In those days, the days of the Psychic War, there was an office for reporting such things. They questioned me for hours.”
“Why? You didn’t do it. What did they want?”
“They wanted to know if during the attack I’d seen any sort of vision, heard any voices. Some of the psychics were bold to arrogance – they left a sort of calling card with their strike. The government kept track of them. I told them there had been nothing; they wrote on her death certificate Fire, Unknown Origin.”
“But you knew,” I said without thinking.
He hmfed: “My training must be slipping. How did you see through to that?”
“You saw a man with a trimmed white beard and hard eyes.”
He turned suddenly and his glare was upon me. I turned my eyes away, downward. Beneath his seat were ashes.
“I burned them for years. I’d be burning them still if parliament hadn’t signed that treaty.”
I turned and fled. I never told my comrades.
I was only fourteen.