Gray (short fiction)

We looked to the skies, every day, and waited for the ships to arrive. We prayed to never see them, but they would come. It was inevitable.

The scoutship came to land not far from our village, though to call it a village was generous. It was little more than ramshackle shelters and a few dozen huddled survivors trying not to die on this barely livable world.

I was chosen to greet the pilot. Someone had to, and I was the closest thing we had to a leader. She was a tall woman, wearing light armor. It wasn’t suited for battle, but our old enemies no longer feared us. There was no reason they should. I approached her in the clearing, and she looked me over. Once, I had been a proud soldier. Now, I didn’t know what I was.

“You found us,” I said.

“I found you,” she said.

“Can’t you leave us alone? We’re no harm to you anymore.”

“I have my orders,” she replied.

Her orders were simple. To find us. To lead the exterminators to this hollow world. To chase the remnants of our once great empire across the stars and destroy every last one of us.

History was gray. Usually. But this was our own fault. We’d started the war with her kind for no other reason than we thought we could conquer them. They’d done no wrong to us, but we saw them as beneath us. We underestimated them, and after a long, hard war, we’d fallen before our prey.

It wasn’t enough for them to defeat us. They needed to kill us all. Was it vengeance that drove them? Was it hatred? Was it simply the violence that threatened to devour us all? Or was it necessity? I didn’t know, but they wouldn’t rest until we were gone. Every last one of us.

“You don’t have to tell them we’re here,” I said.

“It’s not up to me. The ship records everything.”

There was something in her voice. Regret perhaps. Indifference. Both in equal measures.

“Do you even care?” I asked.

“It’s not up to me,” she replied again.

“That wasn’t the question. Does your conscience weigh you down, knowing you’ll cause us all to die?”

“Does yours?”

She didn’t quantify my sins. She didn’t know I’d led the slaughter of a dozen colonies. She didn’t know how many of her people I had ordered killed. How many I’d killed myself. Orders. Indifference. Malice? In my youth, I called it necessary. I saw myself as a cog in a machine. No more responsible for all those deaths than a guided missile or a neutron bomb. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

She didn’t know my sins, but she knew they were there.

I said, “Most of us are civilians.”

“They don’t care.”

I didn’t ask who they were. I doubted she even knew.

She boarded her ship and soared away. A moment later, a rocket sailed from a hidden position in the forest and blasted her from the sky. She came crashing down, and I hated myself and us. It had to be done. Or maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it was delaying the inevitable. Her ship might have sent out its signal, and the exterminators were soon to be scrambled. If not, another ship might find us. The next one would be more cautious. Or the next one. Or we’d eventually run out of rockets. We didn’t have many. She didn’t deserve to die, but neither did we. In a just universe, we could’ve coexisted. But the universe wasn’t just.

It was only gray.

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