BY MISFIRE ANON
Children are playing in the courtyard. The architecture of the quadrangle lifts their voices to the sixth storey and beyond. Urban birdsong.
It is a beautiful evening, one of the last of the year. The almanac told him so in the morning. A fitting time to hold an assembly. The weather was mild from noon to late afternoon, with an occasional cloud or cool mountain breeze dropping by to make sure that the atmosphere was not too stifling for heavy robes.
The sky seems loftier above his head, like the autumn skies of poem and song.
It is also one of the last evenings when one can hang out some clothes to dry. Up there—the woman living on the south corner of the twelfth floor always liked to do that, with a basket in one arm and clothespins hanging off of her mandibles. But tonight, her line is empty. A flock of small black birds have annexed the space. They are grooming each other in silence.
He readjusts the shoulder strap of his bag as he finally makes it to the top of the staircase. A long climb. Those children below can probably do it without breaking a sweat. He never took the elevators. The passing of the years can only make them more unreliable.
He leans over the balcony and looks down. The game they’re playing is old. A variant of capture-the-flag. Common everywhere. The girl in red is quite proficient, despite being the smallest of the bunch. Nothing remarkable, though. He walks down the hall and counts the doorways to his right. Two. Three. Four. A battered bicycle hanging upside-down from the ceiling just past door five. He ducks. That’s been there since forever.
A look down to the quadrangle again. No one seems to have followed him here. The other team is on the offensive now. The sun can no longer be seen over the tops of distant skyscrapers. Good thing the banners are glowing. The air is quickly growing cold. His tactical overlay tells him it is 24.55 degrees, something he doesn’t need to know. His eye is itching again; he should have taken the lens off hours ago. Damn. He balances its case on the banister, then realises what a stupid idea that is and snatches it before it can fall six floors and hit someone. The evening winds aren’t gentle. The birds are all puffed up, trying to maintain a semblance of warmth. He sits down against the concrete wall, next to his door; his threadbare officer’s uniform feels slightly warmer, and his shins appreciate the break.
He walked halfway across the city to make sure he’s alone. Now that he is, he finds himself wishing for the opposite. It would be a challenge to fight in the narrow corridors—apartments on one side, a long fall on the other. He figured out a few good positions in his youth, but the clutter has increased since then. There can be more tricks. Dozens, easily.
No matter. He carefully puts away the lens in its neutral solution. There, his iris can breathe again. No need to worry. Just go cook—and sleep easy tonight.
Except he can’t sleep easy tonight. He can still hear the dirge.
And footsteps too. Real footsteps. Some one is coming up the stairs. Except they stop one floor short. For a brief moment, a sliver of light appears on the building on the opposite side. A warm yellow bulb, about fifty watts. He catches the silhouette of a child and the faint chatter of women before the light disappears.
The women are discussing dinner. His stomach makes a complaint. It is ignored. Desolas came home late sometimes. There was always some hold-up at the spaceport: a protest, a medical emergency, a diplomatic visit. He never started without Desolas.
Desolas didn’t like getting calls. Be patient, he’d say, setting his armour case by the door; being a soldier makes you appreciate the slow days, that’s for sure. Saren made the calls anyway. Oh, stuck on the skyway again? Accident on the five-by-twenty-three? I copy. (Desolas would chuckle at that.) What’s your ETA? (It was a serious and valid question. But Desolas would chuckle again.) Yes, I made soup. I don’t know, but it smells good. Yes, I am using all my self-restraint to not just drink the whole thing.
And then, Saren would let the soup simmer and wait by the open door, if it was warm enough. Everything can be rushed—everything, except for their time together.
He’d listen to the joyful shrieks from below; maybe even lean on the banister and watch the game of capture-the-flag. There was a tall girl, the best of them all. She painted her cheeks black.
The game would always end before Desolas came home. Saren would drag a chair to the balcony and sit and watch. He’d memorise the pattern of lights as the children, one by one, went home. He knew their room numbers. He knew their voices. He knew the individual harmonics of their mothers and fathers.
Maybe he should call. It’s getting late. All the children are gone. He pulls out his omni-tool. (The light makes him an easy target for sniping.) Almost dials the wrong number. Pauses. Reconsiders. Flicks a mandible and continues dialling.
Are you coming home?
Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, “Nihlus.”
A few minutes later, he kills the connection, closes his eyes, tilts his head up, and lets out a heavy sigh.
The birds are still on the clothesline when he opens his eyes. And then, as if compelled by his gaze, they take off as a flock. Black birds are difficult to follow in the night sky; all that’s visible is the slight trembling of the string they left behind.
It’s fine if he has no company. He once waited for Desolas till morning.