This story is by Tim Nicol and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The city had sprawled and then surged upwards. Now it crawled back over itself, inching up towards the light like the forests it had long ago replaced. Deep in its bowels, in a small park below a cavernous shaft between the buildings, Mr Tao began his daily prayer.
“Please come home,” he murmured as he knelt and bowed, creating a space amongst the throng of blue and green clad service workers walking rapidly around him.
He placed a bowl of incense on the grass, and lit it. Then he looked up through the long tunnel to the distant glimmer of sunlight, and willed the fragrant smoke up, visualizing its essence unfolding into the invisible void of stars far beyond its physical presence.
As he looked down again he withdrew a printed photograph from his left side shirt pocket. A crumpled image split in two, on each side the youthful faces of his sons. Not the ones in their navy caps before they left. But before that when they played in this park, their faces full of smiles with no care for the weight of the city above them or the war that raged through the galaxy beyond.
Time passed. The foot traffic around him lessened. The distant light of the sun harshened, and the park revealed itself. He knelt in the middle of a field of grass not much larger than a football pitch. A few small trees were scattered across the space, their leaves already turning brown for the winter. At the park’s edge, automated pathways still carried hundreds of people despite rush hour ending. Behind them was a run of dilapidated shopfronts and cafes with dimly lit signs. Above the park, large flat screens aired news from distant star systems that few living this far down would ever see.
Under one of the screens, a small gathering watched a bearded veteran dance a happy jig around his bare metallic leg. On the screen a square-faced news anchor was reading a list of systems where a new truce was holding. Peace was slowly spreading. A smile began on Mr Tao’s face.
But then the anchor stopped and placed a hand on one ear. When he began to talk again the dancing man stopped and stared, and Mr Tao’s heart sunk. Fleet Admiral Kane had ignored the call for peace and deployed the Navy deep into Federation Space to strike one last fatal blow.
People began to leave. Mr Tao forced himself back to gather his things, ready to retire to his room deep in the underground of the city. But as he was leaving he noticed a young woman struggling with a pram that had lost its wheel as she came off the pedestrian pathway.
He walked the short distance to her. Her back was to him, her thin shoulders hunched over and her hair slowly unravelling from a messy plait.
He walked around her and bent down. The baby was still asleep despite the awkward angle of the pram. The softness and peace on its face brought back happy memories for a moment, but they quickly turned to tear at his heart. She let him take the wheel from her hand and he expertly clicked it back onto its shaft.
“Thank you,” she said. Her face still had the shine of youth but hidden behind sad and dark ringed eyes.
He nodded in reply.
“Why do you pray here each day?” she asked, her head tilted slightly to one side only half listening in the way of parents with the needs of a baby always on their mind.
Mr Tao pulled the photo from his pocket and showed her. She looked into his eyes and a tear formed in the corner of hers. She wiped it away and pulled the pram close.
“Is the baby’s father with Admiral Kane too?” asked Mr Tao.
She nodded, then looked down and walked away. Mr Tao watched her go. Soon she disappeared into the dim light of the maze of shops and apartment lobbies beyond the park.
The next morning the foot traffic was heavy as usual. Blue and green straight cut pants and heavy black work boots pounded around him as he began his prayer. Far above a layer of gray clouds dimmed the glow of the sun between the mighty towers of the city. There was a chance that a few drops of rain might make it past the currents created by the thousands of air conditioning units that drew from the column above the park.
As the crowd dissipated he could see the news again. The truce was spreading. More solar systems were laying down arms. On the screen Federation and Union troopers were shown awkwardly shaking hands, war beasts and robots of destruction lined up neatly behind them. But there was still no word from the Navy, and the grass stayed dry.
Mr Tao was about to pack up for the day when he heard the cry of a baby. He looked up and saw the young woman walking across the park. Their eyes met, but she quickened her pace and was gone.
When dawn returned he prayed again. He stilled his mind despite the boots that stomped around him and sent his presence out into the cosmos, feeling for his children, willing their safe return. But then his mind weakened. He saw a ship rendered in two and spewing atmosphere and bodies into the dark void of space. He began to bargain. He would gladly give his life ten times over that his sons could live to see the peace.
Then he heard the sound of a baby gurgling in happy contentment. He looked up and the woman was standing over him. Her face was contorted and he sensed she wanted to leave again. She didn’t speak but held out a handful of small clear crystals. With her thumb, she pushed one towards him. He stared up at her but didn’t take it.
“A peace offering,” she said, “I’m sorry for avoiding you. Sometimes I just can’t, you know, think about it. But I pray in my own way too. Just now it is all we have. Perhaps you could add one to your prayers, and I will pray for you?”
Mr Tao felt a tear form behind his eyes. He blinked it away and reached out for the crystal. He put it purposefully in his top pocket, with the photograph.
“Thank you,” she said and left.
Dawn came again. The clouds were back, but still no rain reached the ground. And there was still no news from the Navy. After his prayer he saw her walk past. Even at a distance he could see her eyes were redder than usual. He raised one hand in her direction, she did the same and a small smile tickled the side of her mouth.
On the fifth day the sun did not show at dawn. The small window between the buildings was full of boiling black clouds lit from below by the lights of the city, and from within by stabs of bright lightening. As he prayed a drop of rain fell into the cup of his upturned palms. He rubbed the small cool drop onto his face and smiled. He willed that it could be a sign, not just a random consequence of the changing of the season.
As the stomping of boots around him subdued, he could see the news again. On the screen a vast crowd spread across the square of a distant city. Flags and hands waved in celebration. The President of the Union waved back to the crowd. The peace was nearly complete.
Then the news cut back to the anchor, and concern spread across her face. She seemed lost for words for a moment before she spoke. Admiral Kane had once again refused to join the efforts for peace, and his fleet had been ambushed by the full might of the Federation Navy.
Mr Tao’s heart sank. He reached out, trying to feel any sign, any connection with his sons. But nothing came back. He stared a while at one of the trees, all gnarled branches and wilted leaves where not long before a profusion of living green had contrasted against the metal and glass of the deep city.
He bent over in grief, unsure if he could rise again and sustain the ritual that had preserved him. But then he heard a familiar squeak of a dodgy wheel, and a hand touched him lightly on the shoulder. He looked up and it was the woman again, she had a thin standard issue data pad in her hand. She held it out.
“Please, help me,” she said, “I can’t do it.”
He took it. It was a list the Navy had sent out before going to the media; survivors, deceased and missing.
She sat down next to Mr Tao, their shoulders touching, and he began to search for the names.