Episode 1: Playing With Fire

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On a clear night in early autumn, a small boy of about nine, sat on a woven straw mat a meter or so in front of a large hut of mud, stone, sticks and thatch. Next to him on a similar mat sat an elderly man, whose stringy white hair and deeply wrinkled face suggested a long life of struggle and privation. Nevertheless, the two of them seemed content enough as they gazed into the small fire they’d built together.

From time to time, the boy gazed up at the starry sky, with one hand shading his eyes.

“Do you think the old legends are true, Grandfather?” he asked.

The elderly man, nearing eighty, chuckled softly.

“There are many old legends, Rolo,” he said. “Do you mean the one about the boy who asked too many questions?”

“Come on, please?” said Rolo. “I promise I’ll never ask another question.”

Peter cast his old brown eyes back toward the fire. It was dying down a bit, so he threw on more kindling.

“You mean the legends about the time before the Kaltreen,” said Peter. “It depends on which one you mean. Some are nonsense, some true.”

“Fine,” said Rolo, “don’t tell me. But I don’t see why. If it’s the truth, it’s OK to tell. That’s what my teacher says. ‘Telling the truth is the only right way’.”

“Your teacher is wise,” said Peter. “But let me tell you a secret about the truth. It’s like this fire here. Keep your distance and you stay warm. You can cook and dry your clothes. But mind you, never stick your fingers in it.”

“Craters,” said Rolo. “Can’t you tell me anything?”

“Fine,” said Peter. “But no more cursing. Here’s what’s true. Once, we humans were a great an powerful people with skyships of our own. We studied all branches of science and art and philosophy and history and made the pursuit of knowledge our sacred quest.”

“And then?” asked Rolo.

“A great sickness weakened us,” said Peter. “We lost precious years to build our culture. Instead of exploring the heavens, we polluted them. Millions starved. We were weak, frightened, and constantly at war.”

“That’s when the Kaltreen came, isn’t it?” asked Rolo.

“Yes,” said Peter. “The Kaltreen put an end to our fighting and restored our health. Then they took away our freedom.”

The last wisps of sunset faded away. A woman’s voice rang out from inside the hut.

“Dad!’ she said. “Stop filling Rolo’s head with nonsense and tell him to come in for bed.

“Am I in trouble?” whispered Rolo.

“No,” whispered Peter, “I am.”

He flashed a bright smile, and nudged his grandson up to his feet.

“It isn’t nonsense,” he said. “But you know that, don’t you?”

“So why does Mom want me to get ‘hanced?” asked Rolo. “I don’t wanna be like the Kaltreen.”

“Your mother wants you to have a chance in the world,” said Peter.

“Dad didn’t get ‘hanced.” said Rolo.

“Your father was brave,” said Peter, “but foolish. I tried to tell him: The old ways are finished. That nonsense about a lost planetů.”

A slight, middle-aged woman rushed out of the hut and took Rolo by the arm.

“Dad, stop it.” she said. “I lost Jett. I’m not losing Rolo, too. “

Though Rolo’s mother, Linda, rushed him into the hut. Peter could still hear the boy’s plaintive voice.

“What planet, Mom?” asked Rolo. “I wanna know about the planet.”

Peter turned back to the fire. Tonight, he’d sleep under the stars. It was the only way to avoid Linda’s rage, which he’d felt too often since Jett was murdered by the Kaltreen. It was a sad testament to their insidiousness. They’d sent a humanoid android into the villages to spread a rumor: The armies of the lost planet were looking to form a regiment of resistance fighters.

The android signed up thousands to this imaginary army, including Jett. It trained them to fight with advanced weaponry. On the night of their supposed “first assault,” the Kaltreen ambushed them, trapped them in a stasis field, and slaughtered them with a deadly tocsin. Half a generation of humans, male and female, were lost that day. That left the rest broken, frightened and easily cowed.

That’s the truth Rolo,” Peter whispered.

In spite of himself, he looked up at the stars, as Rolo had done. There, to the left of the constellation the ancients had called “Cassiopeia,” he saw the one thing in the universe that could still engender a flicker of hope. It was the bright light of a lost human colony planet.

(To be continued)

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