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The old man sat on the rock near the top of the small hill as he had for many years now and watched the first stars begin to peek out of the deepening purple sky. The boy at his side, watched solemnly, as he had for most of his young life. They sit in silence.
The boy speaks at last. “Grandfather. May I ask you a question?” The old man looks down at the solemn faced boy and smiles and tousles his dark hair. “Of course.” “Why do you come up here at night? Mother says you’re looking for ghosts, but I’ve never seen any ghosts up here, and I’ve been looking.” There’s a faintly accusatory tone in the boy's’ voice. The old man’s grin widens. “Your mother is a fiery one. She got that from your Gram. No. I’m not looking for ghosts up here.” He gestures at the gentle, grassy slope around them. “There are no ghosts here. The ghosts I look for are up there.” He gestures towards the stars above.
The boy considers this for a moment and then speaks. “Well, what are you looking for exactly? Maybe I can help. I can see pretty good, you know. “ He is staring into the sky intently. The old man smiles ruefully. “I know you can. But you can’t see what’s not there. That’s why your mom says I’m looking for ghosts.” The boy regards him dubiously for a moment and then goes back to looking at the stars, which are now fully visible.
The old man sighs, and stares into the sky wistfully, then pokes the child in the arm and points at a faintly red star high in the sky. “Hey, did I ever tell you about that one? “ The boy squints at it, and slowly shakes his head. “I don’t think so…”
“Well, there’s quite a story about that one. It’s why we’re here.” The boy looks at him again skeptically. “What? Here on the hill? That doesn’t make any sense, Grampa.”
The old man laughs. “No, goofball. On this planet. This world. “He gestures around them. “We’re not from here you know.” The child is clearly not convinced and regards the old man hesitantly. “What do you mean we’re not from here? I’m from here. That’s my house right there. And mom’s, and dads too. Even yours.” The old man shifts on the rock, feeling the hard stone in his lower back. “Well, that’s all true. You were born here, as were your mother and father. We’ve all been here for many, many years now. But I’m not from here. “He looks back up at the sky.
The boy is silent, thinking about this. Eventually he speaks again. “Well, where are you from? The next valley over? “ The old man smiles. “No. Look up.” He points to another section of the sky. “See that bright white spot there? Now go down. Those three stars in a row? That’s called a star cluster. My home is on the other side of them, very, very far away.” The boy squints at the section of sky for a moment. “Is it further than the river? “ The old man laughs quietly. “Yes, Blake. It’s further than the river. It’s so far away that unless you have a special way to move, you couldn’t get there in a dozen lifetimes of being as old as me.” The child looks at the old man, trying to picture this. After a moment he speaks. “Well, how did you get here then?”
The old man smiles, remembering. “Well. I joined the Navy. The Navy had these starships…Which were able to go from world to world, like taking a canoe across the lake. Much faster than walking around, right?” The boy nods slowly, trying to understand. “Well these ships the Navy had could go from star to star in hours instead of centuries. They held thousands of men and women, and there were as many of them as there are tadpoles in the pond. “ The boys eyes widen. “There’s a lot of tadpoles in the pond!” The old man nods solemnly. “Yes, there are! And each ship had as many people as there are tadpoles. Do you understand? “ The boy is concentrating fiercely and then slowly nods. “Yes…I think. If we had five ponds, with as many tadpoles, each pond would be like a ship. And there were more ponds than your could count….so more people than you could count?” The boy beams at the old man, proud of his logic. The old man smiles. “You got it, Blake. Very good! You’d have made a fine astrogator!” The boy’s brow furrows. “What’s an astrogator?” The old man sighs. “The astrogators were the ones who knew where to tell the ships to go, so they didn’t get lost. It’s what I did. “ The boy considers this. “So, how did you get lost, then?”
The old man is startled. “Who said I was lost?” The boy looks at him seriously. “Well, you said you were not where your home is. If you weren’t lost, why aren’t you there?” The old man smiles. “Oh I wasn’t lost…Well. Not really. Not at first. We knew where we were going, but other people had other plans. “ He stares back up into the sky for a moment. His voice lowers a bit. “There was a great battle, long ago. Up in the sky. “The boy stares into the stars along with him silently. “The people from there.” He points to the faint red star. “Didn’t like the people from over there. “Points at the three stars he’d indicated earlier. “And so they fought. This was their battlefield.” The old man sweeps his hand across the expanse of the sky.
The boy stares into the night sky and whispers. “Who won the fight?” “The old man responds quietly. “No one. We all lost. Us. Them. We all ended up here, on this world together. The war didn’t seem to matter so much down here in the dirt. In the cold, wind and the rain. We tried to fight at first, but ended up just fighting to survive. “ The boy looks at him silently. “There were many tens of thousands that died on the ships, but many thousands made it into the escape pods and got down to the planet.” The boy peers back into the sky as if trying to see the events long past.
“After we landed, we kept running into each other. Small groups, at first. Then bigger groups, and eventually we had a small village sized group. It was very tough for the first few months. “ The boys’ eyes are wide and he is silent. “We lost many people to predators, many more to illness and exposure. We were still waiting for rescue, us and them, but no one ever came. “
The old man's face is lined with grief at the memory. “We stuck together. We had to. At first it was just the planet, but then our own sins came back to punish us. The skies opened and rained poisons, and balls of fire split the sky. The earth trembled and it got very dark and cold for a very long time. “
The old man is staring off into the dark, reliving some terrible memory. The boy whispers “What was it? Was it a monster? “ The old man speaks in a more normal tone, shaking out of his reverie. “No. No monsters but what we made. It was the wreckage of our ships, entering the atmosphere. The coolant from the reactors, and the chemicals from them burning made the air and rain poison, and when they hit the ground there was terrible destruction. We brought our own monsters with us. “
The boy squirms slightly. “Mom tells stories of rain that made her sick when she was a little girl. Was that the same stuff?” “The old man nods. “Yes, but by the time your mom was born, it wasn’t nearly so bad anymore. By the time you were born, they had stopped.”
The boy sits in silence for a moment then speaks again. “Grampa. Why didn’t your friends come for you? The fight couldn’t have gotten everyone, right? “
The old man again looks wistfully into the sky. “I don’t know. None of us knew. No one came for us, or for them, either. Eventually we stopped waiting and started living. I guess some of us never stopped waiting, really. “ The old man pauses and looks down at the solemn faced boy and smiles. “I think the real question is not why didn’t they come? I think the question is were we better off that they didn’t.”
The boy considers this for a moment. “If you left, would you know Gram?” “No. Gram and I would have been enemies. We’d probably have never met.”
The boy falls silent, thinking again. Behind them, they hear footsteps. They turn to see the boy’s mother, a stout woman, with long dark hair and a careworn face. The woman smiles fondly at the sight of her son and father sitting on the rock she and her father sat on when she was a child. Without a word she comes up behind the rock and puts her arms around the old man’s neck and kisses the top of his head. She speaks to the child. “Blake, go wash up. It’s time for supper. “ The boy leaps up and races off down the hill towards the small house in the distance. The old and and the woman watch him go, smiling.
The woman looks up into the sky, her hands resting on her father's shoulders. The old man is also looking into the sky. They look in silence for a few moments, then the woman gently squeezes her father's shoulders. “Don’t stay out too late, old man. You’ll catch cold. “ She kisses him on the top of his head again, as he squeezes her hand in return. She turns and heads off down the hill humming as she walks away.
The old man sits on the rock as he had for many years, and stared at the stars and slowly smiled. He laboriously pulls himself to his feet and dusting himself off, slowly heads off towards the house.