Chapter I: Minarets of Dust

 It was snowing moondust outside.

Luna had not been terraformed the same way Mars had been. Instead of being turned into a lush green and vivid blue world, Luna had simply been covered in a layer of construction, dotted frequently with shipyards, hangars and towers. Some air had made its way outside of the lunar habitats of Selena City and had created something akin to a rudimentary atmosphere. Though it rarely rained (in the classic sense of the word) it frequently ‘snowed’, as primal currents and the passing of ships stirred up dust which ultimately made its way back down.

Thomas didn’t mind. He actually liked watching the grey lunar snowfall. Every so often, he counted himself lucky to witness a dust storm. He remembered the last one he had seen, a few weeks before. He realised that, if he didn’t get the chance to see another one tonight or tomorrow, it would likely be some time until he got to experience another one.

‘Thomas! Your tram is arriving!’ his operator’s voice rang out in his mind.

‘Thank you, Clara,’ he replied.

‘You’re welcome, Thomas.’ Clara was his personal basic operator. Primitive artificial intelligences, though incredibly advanced in their own right, ‘operators’, as they were known, were designed to be emotionally stunted. Their personality was simplistic, their sense of self basic, more akin to that of a primitive mammal, like a cat, than to an actual person. She was a far cry from the fully sentient and conscious artificial intelligences which operated entire starships, stations and systems. Yet, like all personal operators, she was essential to the smooth operation of modern Terran technology. As a result of this duality, most people treated their operators as a cross between an assistant and pet.

Thomas turned away from the window facing the lunar landscape towards the tracks behind him, just as his tram came to a stop. He waited for the doors to open, walked in and took a seat in one of the free cabins.

‘How many stops?’ he asked.

‘Nine. I’ll let you know when you should get ready to disembark. Would you like some music?’

‘No, thank you. There’ll be plenty of that later. Right now I want to spend some time by myself.’

‘I understand, Thomas. I’ll keep quiet. Enjoy the ride!’

Clara was ‘located’ on the watch he wore on his left hand and was connected to an implant coating his wrist bones. From there, she communicated with his brain via the nerves of his hand, giving him the impression that his watch was talking to him. Other, more invasive, forms of artificial intelligence did exist, yet were not available for use by most people, due to their susceptibility to being hacked. It was a very unlikely possibility, yet Terrans didn’t like taking any chances. Having an assistant helping you around and playing your favourite playlist all day was all fair and dandy. Having a potentially hostile entity being able to interact and influence your mind directly… not so fair and dandy, as the orcs had learned less than a decade before.

Having peace of mind was something Thomas could finally grasp now and he planned on enjoying it unperturbed. At least for a brief moment.

He had just finished his mandatory five year service with the Allied Host. It was the culmination of his first twenty-five years of life. Five years in school, followed by five years in the gymnasium, followed by five more years at the Terran Academy, then, finally, his mandatory Allied Host service. All that remained was his Terran military service and that was something that would last for a lifetime.

After those first twenty-five years, each Terran chose which military path they wished to pursue: either continue service in the Allied Host or begin service in the Terran Military. The former was the united armed forces of what was known as the Republican Alliance: a union of several peoples, with a shared history, the same enemies, common interests and similar worldviews. The latter was the military-industrial complex that passed for modern Terran society.

In theory, upon finishing mandatory military service, each Terran had an equal choice between the two. Yet, there was a quota which had to be met. Moreover, the results of careful examination and analysis were what dictated which career path each young Terran citizen could pursue. If you scored high in the areas you were interested in, you were allowed a choice regarding your future.

All in all, the system worked well, with each Terran ultimately ending up with more-or-less the position they desired. Thomas was no different. Starting next week, he would be free to begin his service in the Terran Logistics Corps, the segment of Terran society which dealt with fuelling the Terran war machine. Frontline combat was virtually guaranteed, since the Terran military had a very hands-on approach to warfare.

 This didn’t really bother Thomas at all. He had seen quite a fair amount of combat during his time with the Host and had fought with all the ability expected of him both by his comrades and by his people. War was the way of Terra. Growing up in a world that had survived the Apocalypse, only to find itself in a universe which seemed intent on their extermination, could do that sort of thing to a people.

Life was somewhat grim and mostly a struggle. However, Thomas enjoyed this. Proving himself worthy had long been all he had focused on. Now, he could finally be allowed to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labour.

It was in this state of blissful self-satisfaction that a voice in Thomas’ mind spoke out. It was a voice he had never heard before in his entire life. A voice which did not belong to Clara or any other operator for that matter. Yet, somehow, it was a familiar voice. A voice he somehow knew spoke the truth.

Enjoy this moment. For there will come a day when you will die.

Immediately, Thomas felt himself tense up in primal fear and great panic.

No! No! No! No! Don’t think about that. He tried fighting it, but it was too late.

He knew now. There was no going back.

But he had always known that he would die, hadn’t he? Death was all around him. It had been all around him growing up. At first, it had been the knowledge of death. His parents and friends and family – the very society he had been born into was obsessed with death. How could they not be? Theirs was a society built upon the ashes of an apocalypse. Though he had not seen death in front of him or taken a life until he had grown into a young man, death had always been everywhere around him. He had thought that he understood what it was.

But, he hadn’t. He may have understood his death, but not the end of his existence. That moment in which he would cease to be. When he would not build towards anything. When he would have no hope. When he would not think. When he would not feel. That moment after which he would… end and be no more.

Revelation coursed over him in a flurry of thoughts and in waves of emotion. His body had gone cold as he sat there, clenched in his seat. He had to find a way to calm his mind. He was clearly having some kind of panic attack, which was something he had trained for.

Exactly! Remember the training! You know how to do mental conditioning! Do breathing exercises!

He closed his eyes and focused on his body. His feet first. He felt how tense and clenched they were. Slowly, he focused on relaxing them. He then moved up his body, soothing muscles along the way, all the while focusing on his breathing – it was important to keep breathing! He eventually reached his chest, where he felt his heart race and his lungs struggle to breathe coherently.

If I would stop breathing I would die.

That kind of thinking was all that was needed for him to start feeling a slight choking sensation, as if he was about to suffocate.

Ok. Breathing exercises and mindfulness aren’t really doing the trick. Let’s try a mantra. That should work.

 He recalled the Herbert mantra. It was standard Terran military training and it had worked for him in the past when he had feared for his life.

I will not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

I will face my fear.

I will let it pass through me.

When the fear has gone,

There shall be nothing.

Only I will remain.

He recited the words in his mind in conjunction with a continued focus on his breathing. After about seven or eight internal recitations, he paused.

Did it work? Did it pass?

It would appear that it had. He looked outside. He saw, in the distance, how it had stopped snowing. Moreover, the tram had stopped as well. He checked the station’s name, only to realize that the next stop was his.

The dust on Luna was very light and, with gravity being very weak and the atmosphere being very thin, the dust had a tendency of piling up on top of itself, forming long towers of dust, similar to how stalagmites formed in caves. One such minaret had formed outside his window. A pretty thing it was. Thomas could tell that this was a particularly tall one. He then felt the tram move, ever so slightly, letting loose subtle vibrations as it picked up speed again. Just that, somehow, those little tremors were enough to topple the little tower of dust, despite having not disturbed it when the tram had first arrived in the station.

As he saw the minaret topple into a heap of grey powder, to be picked up and played with by the lunar wind, Thomas couldn’t help to think about his own condition. He felt that he himself was little more than a fragile construct of dust and water, which could at any moment be toppled by forces outside of his control.

Oh no. The mantra didn’t fucking work at all!

‘Clara?!’

‘Yes?’ she responded. ‘I was just about to talk to you myself. Are you alright?’

‘Wha-what do you mean?’ Is something happening? Am I dying now?

‘You appear to be experiencing some type of psychosomatic stress. Elevated heartbeat. Hyperventilation. Stress hormone secretion.’ At least he wasn’t imagining things.

‘Yes. I feel it. Is… is everything alright?’ Normally he would have asked in a much insightful manner, but his only insight was that things weren’t at all normal.

‘None of your vital or auxiliary functions seems to be threatened or malfunctioning. You seem to be alright. You have received no information since when we last spoke. I assume you are just having troubled thoughts?’

Well, there’s an understatement. ‘Yes… Something like that.’

‘I see. Well, you will be arriving in one minute. I recommend you get ready.’ Clara didn’t have time to get her recommendation across, as Thomas had already gotten up from his seat and was waiting by the exit for the doors to open.

I’ll snap out of this. All I have to do is get moving, meet some people, and put a few drinks in me. I’ll snap out of this real quick. It’s just a weird moment in my head.

Thomas was quite sure that he was lying to himself, which added a sense of betrayal to go along with his dread. As the tram stopped at Eileithyia Station, he immediately got off as soon as the door opened, only to stop for a moment to recall where he was going.

You finished the service. The brigade is throwing a party for the officers at the Reacher Pub. You’ve been there before. Exit the tram station, walk down the street, you’ll be there in three minutes.

So that’s what he did. All the while, the feeling of dread walked right behind him, which was probably why he ended up making the three minute walk in less than one minute. He heard the party before he saw it. Normally, this would have triggered excitement and a sense of expectation in him.

The sound of music, conversations and laughter. The clinking of glasses. The sound of furniture being bumped into. It meant fun. It meant he would get to hang out with his friends, talk, drink, laugh and love. But, this was different and, as he neared the entrance to the pub, he didn’t even bother to look around. No one seemed to notice him anyway.

 I just need to find Motley, Liaco or Hampstead – or all three – and I’ll sit with them for a bit, get some drinks from the bar, and then I’ll get better.

Motley was easy to find. The hobgoblin was doing what hobgoblins always did when they got a few drinks and smokes in them: arguing with random people about random shit in a clearly friendly and somewhat charming manner.

It appeared that he was explaining his family tree this time. ‘Kimmie Jimmel is my mother’s sister’s ex-husband, which means I know what I’m talking about when I –’

‘– you mean your uncle?’ Ketamy was, as always, very perspicacious.

Motley was confused for a moment ‘What? Yes! Glad to see you’re following! Which, as I was saying, means I know what I am – no! It actually means he’s my ex-uncle! See, Bethany, this is why you should shut up when the grown-ups are talk…’

‘Ketamy,’ his reluctant conversation partner corrected him once more.

‘Ketamine? I mean... maybe... I dunno... Fuck it! I mean it’s a special occasion…’ the hobgoblin began talking himself into doing hard drugs.

Ket-a-my… it’s my name ya gibby cunt!’ Ketamy emphasized.

Motley raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘Oh… I thought your name was Sebastian.’

‘Then why’d you call me “Bethany”?’

‘It means “distracting bird chirping in the background” in my language! I never told you, but it was always in the back of my head! Thought I’d tell you now that I ain’t gonna see ya for a while!’ As always, Motley’s good-natured insults and banter managed to get him out of trouble.

He was, nevertheless, unable to articulate his initial idea and Thomas was quite sure that this would be the case for some time, having noticed how the initial point always had a tendency to get lost in the banality of such conversations.

If we all died right now, how would it be if their final thoughts had been of such simple things? This is what it means to be sentient. To be consumed with such little thoughts, hiding from the inevitable truth our meaninglessness and mortal –

‘Hi, Motley!’ Thomas decided to cut the thought short. He wasn’t going to have a panic attack here.

‘Oh! Hey, Thomas. Fashionably late, I see! That’s a bit atypical for you, ain’t it? Being a Lieutenant’s suiting you well, I see?’

‘I … I talked to my mum before coming over –’

‘Oh, please don’t drag your mother into your lies!’ He wasn’t  lying. He actually had been talking to his mother. She had seemed so proud. Such a sad thing that she was proud over such a small achievement as this, when it was something so insignificant in the vast expanse of time and…

‘Have you met Ketamy? He was asking if we wanted to do ketamine!’ Motley continued.

As Thomas took note of his dilated pupils, the glass of whiskey in one hand and the peculiar smoke drifting up from the cigarette in the other hand, and concluded that perhaps additional stimulants might not be recommended for either of them.

‘He wasn’t. Hi, Ketamy. Hi, everyone!’ Thomas shook hands with Ketamy and the rest of the little crowd which had assembled around his ever-ranting goblin friend.

The group continued their conversation. Normally, he would have enjoyed taking part in it. He had always thought these conversations were fun. Growing up on Terra, life had always felt so focused on trials, tribulations and tests. It had only been in the Allied Host that he had discovered the simple joys of communication.

It didn’t have to be so utilitarian. Conversations didn’t need to have a direction. They didn’t have to be about learning something or impressing someone or proving something or earning something. No! Conversations could be fun! Not in the way conversations in old Terran films were. They didn’t have to advance some plot or prove some point. They could just be something distracting. A distraction from the inevitable fact that they would all die at one point, whether it by the sword, by accident or when the end of the universe ultimately came –

It's happening again. This isn’t doing it. I need to move. It goes away when I move and when I distract myself.

‘Hey!’ he blurted out awkwardly. ‘I’m gonna go get a drink!’

‘Sure, mate! You’ve got some catching up to do. Don’t miss Liaco and Hampstead on your way in!’ Motley got back to arguing some ‘very relevant’ nonsense with Ketamy as the song switched to a Terran song and Thomas entered the pub.

Ra-ra-rasputin! Lover of the Russian Queen...’

‘Thomas!’ Liaco had a very high-pitched voice for an orc. Yet, it still carried with great difficulty across the Terran disco music. What helped was the fact that her and Hampstead were sitting together at one of the tables closest to the exit. This was likely the influence of his fellow Terran, as orcs and goblins usually gravitated towards the centre of the room.

Thomas faked a smile and waved as he made his way over to their table. ‘Hi, Liaco! Hello, Hampstead!’

‘What up, mister? Talked to the mum, yeah?’ Hampstead quizzed him.

‘Yeah. All good.’ With my mother, at least.

‘Yeah. Me too. I cut it short. Wanted to get here quick and get a buzz going.’ Hampstead emphasized his words with a variety of hand gestures.

‘Is this some weird Terran thing?’ Orcs were curious by nature, even sullen Ersatz orcs like Liaco. It was one of the many things about them that were complementary to Terrans. Orcs loved learning about other people’s cultures and Terrans were obsessed with offloading their identity onto typically oblivious bystanders.

Hampstead answered, ‘What? Having a healthy relationship with your parents?’

‘No! Every Terran I know talks to their parents regularly – if they’re still alive, that is. By “regularly”, I mean at official times, as if it’s some task on a to-do list,’ Liaco explained.

‘Yeah, well,’ Hampstead was smirking now, though not at Liaco or Thomas, but at himself, ‘Terran mothers are… dotty.’

‘What is dotty?’ Liaco inquired. She had an English-Orcish dictionary downloaded into her memory, yet the dictionary couldn’t translate words that didn’t exist in the other language.

‘Dotty? Uhm… they’re like... hmmm... very vigilant birds. Like hawks. They always want to make sure their hatchlings are fine. You know... force of habit… and history.’ Thomas and Hampstead shared several struggling looks, as the latter tried to explain how post-apocalyptic mothers were like.

‘I see. Our mothers love us too. Just that, like hawks, they do let us leave the nest at one point and live our own lives.’

‘Oh, yeah? How often do you talk to your mum?’ Hampstead continued.

‘As often as I can, but that’s the thing! My mother is my friend. I talk to her because I love sharing my life with her. Not because I have to report back to her!’ Liaco seemed befuddled by the idea.

‘Yeah, well, it’s different with us.’

She did seem to understand; just that she thought it was a bit strange. ‘I see...’ she said.

‘No, I mean... Come on, Thomas, back me up!’

Thomas had been following the conversation, yet he had forgotten how he would usually participate in it.

‘Yeah… It’s what they’ve been through. They know that you can die at any moment and want to make sure that you are fine.’ Ah crap… it's spilling out. I should go get a drink. Minimize exposure.

Amen. See, he’s good with the words, Thomas, I’ll give him that!’ Hampstead slapped him on the back, as he struggled to keep it together.

‘Thank you! I’m gonna go over to the bar and get something to drink.’ He made to sit up, yet both Liaco and Hampstead immediately protested.

Hampstead looked confused. ‘We already ordered for you?! We got you a pina colada. There’s shots, wine, whiskey, whatever…’ Thomas had thought all the drinks laden around the table belonged to some of their other friends who might have been away at that moment.

Crap, I can’t go to the bar and be by myself for a second.

‘Oh, well, that’s very nice. How much do I owe you?’

‘Nothing. It’s on the brigade’s tab.’ Ah, good, I can drink myself out of it.

He did shots with the two of them and then began sipping his pina colada, just as Liaco began tapping the table. ‘Well. I see Thomas has some catching up to do. I’ll leave you both to it.’ With that, she got up from her seat. ‘I am off to the bathroom. I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes.’

‘OHHHH!’ Hampstead let out a roar.

While Thomas bumbled in astonishment, ‘What the..?’

‘What?’ Liaco’s eyes opened wide in surprise at their outbursts.

‘Too much information!’ Hampstead was adamant.

‘We didn’t need to know that...’ Thomas was also quite firm, yet mostly weirded out.

Liaco raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘I don’t understand. You’ve even seen me do it a few times. What …’

‘... in the trenches!!!’ Hampstead cut her off.

‘Well, what’s the difference between the trenches and here?’ Liaco was smiling now. Her early look of surprise was gone. Mild amusement and curiosity had replaced it.

‘Here you don’t have to do it next to us. You don’t even have to declare or hint at it! You could’ve just said you’re going to the bathroom!’ Hampstead explained.

‘I don’t understand. What if something happens to me? I was only letting you know where I was supposed to be and for how long. Some things were implied, yes, but I didn’t tell you I am going to take a shit –’

She didn’t pause as the two rolled their eyes, averted their eyes and mentioned the names of various ancient Terran prophets and deities.

She did continue though, ‘You just assumed that and now you’re revolted at me for trusting you to notice if anything was to go wrong and I didn’t come back.’

‘You’re going to the loo, not enemy positions…’

‘I can’t predict what’s in there!’ Well, no one can, that’s how life is really, when continuous trek into the unknown, with the only certain destination being the grave –

– Fucking stop it!

‘Well… there’s a sink, some towels, a mirror, sanitizer, maybe the toilet has one of those built-in bidets –’ his fellow Terran began explaining.

‘– Oh, shut up!’ Liaco was the one rolling her eyes now.

Thomas tried to act normal and chip in. ‘You could’ve just said you were going to the bathroom and just that. It’s all we’re saying!’

‘Yes. But, if the acknowledgement of my bodily functions is inadequate in this context, does mentioning my intent to go to the bathroom alone not imply that I am doing so for only a certain selection of reasons? All of which imply some degree of body waste management?’

 ‘No!’ both Terrans responded.

‘But, why else would I be in the bathroom?’ She had a point.

‘I don’t… please don’t… just go!’ Hampstead was pinching the top of his nose now, eyes closed, while Thomas had actually started giggling to himself. Damn Liaco… You probably have no idea, but I needed this moment…

‘Very well. I will leave the table and return later!’ Liaco smiled, mostly to herself, at this point. ‘Goodbye! Momma’s boys!’

As Liaco left for the bathroom, to return in fifteen minutes, Hampstead stopped massaging away his embarrassment and turned to Thomas, raising his glass. ‘Well, you know what they say: “An orc in a trench is like an Orc on a park bench and an orc on a park bench thinks he’s still in the trench”!’

They both laughed, yet Thomas’ laugh came from his mouth, not his heart. ‘Ersatz orcs. The Vigilant orcs, they’re always… civil, aren’t they?’ He tried to move the conversation in whatever direction was possible. He was afraid of the silence. Thoughts might come in the silence.

‘Yeah, but even them, they’re civil in a fight too. It's still the same as with Liaco’s creepy fucks: they only know one lifestyle. They’re just civil all the time and it makes it look like they know what “off-duty” means.’

‘Well… don’t we also?’ Thomas, only at this moment, realised that, in five years of always being in the same unit as Hampstead and after countless hours of conversation, both profound and banal, he had never spoken with him about anything critical of their own lives as Terrans.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well… “never again”, “ever watchful”, “siege mentality”... Don’t we also know of only one lifestyle?’

Hampstead’s eyes flickered between what Thomas could tell was a perfect understanding of his point and a clear confusion as to why he was only now bringing it up. ‘Yeah... I know what you mean... I mean we have Leisure Time.’

‘With capital letters, mate, and… why do we even have Leisure Time?’ Thomas felt he was being a bit weird at this point. Not necessarily with his choice of topic – though he was going places with it – but with his tone.

He felt himself more… erratic and… almost desperate to talk and get words out. Being coherent was secondary. Somehow, he began to think that he shouldn’t have been so frustrated by Motley’s constant digressions outside. Keeping a point was quite difficult. Particularly when your mind is running around in your head hiding from itself.

Hampstead looked down and smiled. ‘So that we can focus better on what we have to do when it’s not Leisure Time.’ He turned to stare off in space for a second, seemingly looking out the window in Motley’s general direction. ‘Orcs have Leisure Time too.’

‘Yeah, that’s where we got the idea from. But it's not the same. Orcs always do stuff together. Meditate. Cook. Paint. Sculpt. They do all of it together. There’s structure even in that. Our Leisure Time has no structure.’

‘Yeah. I know. I mostly sleep during Leisure Time... and hang out sometimes.’

‘And what do we do when we hang out?’ Thomas himself wasn’t even sure as to what his point was.

‘Well, watch movies. Listen to music. Dance sometimes. Read. We used to go fishing with my mum and dad back in Baikal.’ Hampstead had over twenty brothers and sisters. He was ethnically English, though he had been raised in northern Mongolia.

His parents were part of the Gardener. They raised not just their own children, but also clones, orphans, cyborgs and the salvaged. Hampstead himself was salvaged. His father and mother’s reproductive cells had been recovered from the wreckage of a British egg and sperm bank and been mixed together as part of the Terran High Command’s repopulation drive. The only information to have survived the End Times, and the only information he had, regarding his biological parents was that his mother had been born in a place called Hampstead, hence his first name. His last name was Tsedenbal, after his Mongol parents.

‘Yeah but, we don’t do anything… we don’t create anything during Leisure Time. We’re mostly resting and relaxing before we go back to work, or training, or studying, or war. It's just another form of staying busy. Just that we’re staying busy by taking a break before we get busy again.’

‘Hey! I draw!’ Hampstead protested. Drawing was his ‘art’, as Terrans called it. Every Terran had an ‘art’ and a ‘science’.

‘I know. What do you draw?’

‘Well... you know... comic book superheroes.’

‘From Old Earth. From before the End Times. You draw things because you enjoy it, yes, but you’re just drawing things from before. When was the last time you made or even saw artwork that was Terran, original and new?’

‘I… Phew… If you put it like that, I haven’t really.’

‘My point exactly.’ Thomas was lying. He was ranting his way towards his point, happy that he was caught up in a conversation outside his own head, no matter how incoherent. Surprisingly, he had actually stumbled upon something.

‘It’s all a distraction.’ Here we go again. Turns out he had a point after all. Just that it wasn’t a point he wanted to have.

Hampstead jumped in at this. ‘Yeah… I did think about that!’

Thomas’ eyes opened wide. Had Hampstead been having these same thoughts?

His fellow Terran continued, ‘It’s the oldtimers! Everyone is too busy and tired to make new art. However, the oldtimers miss the shit they had growing up. They’re the ones who perpetuate it. I mean… don’t get me wrong. I grew up with Lion King, Bugs Bunny and Spongebob Squarepants and I love that shit. But, yeah, you’re right. There’s no new things. We’re just recycling things from the past.’

This was a very valid point, yet not really what Thomas felt. He felt that everything, regardless if it was Duty Time or Leisure Time, was just a distraction meant to keep people’s minds away from their inevitable death. He felt that it was because of these distractions that he himself hadn’t had these thoughts before. In this moment, at the age of twenty-five, when he had perhaps had his first moment without these distractions, the terrible truth of his condition had come to him.

He failed to notice Hampstead’s eyes following someone across the room. ‘This was a good chat mate! I wish we would’ve gone into this before. But,’ Hampstead got up from his seat, ‘I need to cut it short and go figure something out.’

‘What?’ Thomas followed his friend's gaze to see Varna Koraline, a high elf lieutenant. ‘Varna?’

‘You know what they say mate: “Make love, not war”! Gonna go talk to her before she goes back to Gondolin.’

‘She’s not staying?’

‘No. All the good people are leaving.’ He turned to wink at Thomas. ‘I always wanted to know if she had the eye for me. Now’s probably the last time and I say it's probably the best time!’ He began fixing the collar of his shirt. ‘Oh, yeah mate! One more thing.’ He looked Thomas in the eye now, a cheeky smile across his face.

‘Did you and Liaco ever… you know... do the thing?’

It appeared that Hampstead really was covering all the loose ends in the eleventh hour. Thomas paused for a second, wondering what Liaco would think of him telling Hampstead about what had happened a few years before. She hadn’t explicitly told Thomas not to tell anyone, yet she hadn’t told anyone herself. That he knew of, at least.

On the other hand, Hampstead could keep a secret. He didn’t want to lie to him and he reckoned Liaco wouldn’t mind anyway. But, then again, he didn’t know what Liaco –

‘Ah, shit! Knew it! When?’ Hampstead’s words made Thomas’ mouth move, yet no words came out at first. He had failed to realise that a long pause was an answer to the question all in itself.

After Musspellheim,’ he conceded, looking down in shame, his secret now revealed.

‘That makes sense. Well…’ Hampstead’s genuine smile was now ear-to ear. He raised his fists in front of his abdomen. ‘You fucked an orc!’ His thumbs shot up from both of his closed hands.

‘Nice!’ he declared, before turning around on his heels and setting out towards his crush.

Thomas stood there, speechless, as he watched Hampstead leave the table and head out to try his luck with Varna.

Yes, he had slept with Liaco after Musspellheim and on a few other occasions. It had been a distraction, like many others in his life. Now, somehow he wondered if Liaco had sensed that. What if she had wanted something more?

But what more could she want? Even if they had spent the rest of their lives together and raised children and lived somewhere on some lush farm on some ambient planet, it would have still been a distraction in its own way. What was the difference between that and any other distraction? The amount of time invested into each type of distraction? In the end, death would have claimed both of them and what would they have achieved in doing? Bring into the world new souls, without their consent, to either spend their limited existence in superficial ignorance of the futility of their condition, or to be struck by the terrible revelation of aforementioned futility, as he had been just now?

Thomas felt the pina colada glass slip from his hand and onto the table. He initially thought that it was because the glass was cold and the cold liquid had condensed on its outside, making it wet and slippery. However, his other hand, which had never held the glass, was also wet with his own chill sweat. He also realised that he was shaking slightly and he suddenly became aware of the fact that he was likely going to have another panic attack. Immediately afterwards, his mind was flooded by a fear that he would somehow lose control and faint.

Not here! I need air. Sitting up and walking would do me good.

He got up in one quick, jerky motion and walked outside.

It was not an ‘outside’ in the classical sense. The actual outside was Luna’s dusty thin atmosphere. The lunar settlements, known under the collective term of ‘Selena City’, were all located in enclosed habitats. The outside, as it were, was simply a large boulevard lying beneath the transparent material which kept out the near-vacuum of Luna’s surface.

Smoke a cigarette! It’s weird to just go outside to sit by yourself not doing anything.

As he pulled out a cigarette, Thomas found a quiet place in front of the pub, keeping a distance from other groups of partygoers. He found an empty table where he placed his glass, as he sat upright, with his back to the crowd. He closed his eyes and started attempting the breathing exercise again.

Nobody wants to be lonely. Nobody wants to cry. My mind is longing to hold you, so bad it hurts inside. Time is precious and it's slipping away…

Another Terran song. This one also had words that bothered Thomas, in an even more strikingly sharp manner than the ones before.

‘Do you have a spare cigarette?’ a thin, waifish voice startled him.

He turned to see Toph Pamento of all people.

The elf had sneaked up to his side. She was quite short, even for a low elf, barely reaching Thomas’ shoulder. He was surprised he had even heard her over the loud music and the sounds of revelry behind him. Thomas hoped she hadn’t seen his hand instantly reach for his pistol, only to drift to the pocket where he kept his cigarette pack.

‘Hi, Toph!’ Thomas didn’t know Toph that well. Terrans, in general, kept their distance from elves, which was something the elves themselves seemed to appreciate. They served together in the Allied Host, sure, but old wounds seemed to hurt the worst when close to their cause. It was why it hadn’t actually surprised him that much that Hampstead had waited five years to make a move on Varna.

Quite frankly, now that he thought about it, bar a few formal discussions concerning work, Thomas was more-or-less certain he had never spoken to Toph before.

‘You smoke?’ Thomas forced himself to not sound aggressive. However, he had kind of overdone it and he ended up asking the question with a tone that sounded shocked.

‘No. I just… I’ve watched you smokers for five years now. You seem really into it. I thought I’d smoke one now. It is an occasion after all. Please?’ She had that monotone, yet sing-song accent typical of low elves from Menegroth. Coupled with her particularly soft voice, she sounded like a small human child trying to sing very softly, so as not to bother any adults.

‘You know it's addictive, right?’

She smiled slightly. ‘I do. I just want to try one. You’re a Terran. Wouldn’t you enjoy getting an elf addicted to something?’ Edgy. Very edgy for an elf.

He faked a smile. ‘By that logic, I’d argue that a Terran wouldn’t enjoy doing anything that would give pleasure to an elf.’ Those weren’t his words, but words he heard overheard long ago and had kept in his mind. In truth, he didn’t really feel them in his heart.

As a feeling of shame overcame him, he took out his pack and his lighter, and passed it to the young elf. Thankfully, Toph seemed to think he was being funny, as opposed to just being rude for no reason. She gingerly took out a single cigarette, closed the pack and passed it back to him.

Thomas saw her wet her lips before putting it in her mouth, driving home the point that she had, clearly, never smoked before. ‘You’ll get dizzy.’

‘I know. Isn’t that the fun of it?’

‘No.’

‘Oh. I’ll get dizzy because it's the first time?’

‘Yes. Breathe it in slowly. Don’t even inhale from the first puff. Let your mouth get used to the smoke before breathing into your lungs or else you might –’

Toph had lit the cigarette and Thomas saw her cheeks pull inwards as she drew in a lungful of nicotine. She immediately started coughing as she choked on the smoke.

He waited for the choking to subside. ‘– choke...’

Toph took a sip of her own drink, made a strange swallowing sound, and then took another puff. Thomas saw her play with the smoke a little, as she felt it move around in her mouth. She then took another puff, this time slowly, and breathed the smoke in.

She didn’t choke and proceeded to sit there next to him, staring forwards towards nowhere in particular. After a few more puffs, she turned to him, eyes on the cigarette in her hand and said, ‘I am getting a little dizzy.’

‘Hmmm...’

‘Not too dizzy though.’

‘Hmmm.’ Thomas saw that she wasn’t going to leave. Likely she didn’t want to smoke in front of the other elves or maybe she thought it was polite to smoke the cigarette with him.

Anxiety washed over him first. The dread followed and then the thoughts. What were any of them doing here? Was it just to distract themselves from the futility of their existence? Was this distraction the very reason why their existence was futile? Was he the only one who knew that? Was he the only one who now suddenly found it unbearable? He felt so alone. He wanted to ask for help. But, asking for help meant explaining the problem and what if explaining the problem would cause someone else to feel as horrifyingly bad as he did?

Thomas didn’t want that. He felt as if he would have to bear this burden whilst forever alone. He couldn’t tell his friends. His parents might not even understand. It might hurt them. Or it would hurt him if they misunderstood the way he felt.

Thomas glanced at the little elf next to him, still puffing on the cigarette as she watched the smoke dance from the tip of the cigarette.

Oh, fuck it.

‘Hey!’ he started.

She turned to meet his eyes, yet his gaze was now fixed somewhere on the ground. ‘Yes?’

‘Do you, ever, like, bump into random people you don’t know at parties and talk to them about things you would never talk about with your friends?’

She giggled. ‘Yes. I do sometimes.’

Thomas smiled a forced smile. ‘Me too. Not often, but I do.’

‘Because, unlike your friends, you don’t care if it will change some stranger’s opinion of you for the worse?’

‘Exactly.’

‘So, do you want to talk about anything in particular?’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty-seven Terran years.’

‘Ah, I’m twenty-five. How old is the oldest elf?’

‘Like… the oldest in the Commonwealth?’

‘No. Anywhere.’

‘Oh... There are elves among the Tribes who are said to have been alive during the Age of Bliss, in the days of the Old Realm.’

‘So, how long? And what do you mean by “said to have been”? They might be lying about it?’ Thomas was puzzled and it showed on his face.

‘Well, no one knows how long ago that was. That is the answer to your first question. Not even them. That is the answer to your second question.’

Toph’s eyes glazed over slightly. ‘You can only store so many memories in a mind. The mind forgets things often, even during a natural human lifespan. Over the aeons, most is forgotten. Even that which is essential.’

‘What about soulkeepers?’ Thomas had heard of the fabled artefacts of the elven races. They were used to store memories and even consciousness when needed

‘Soulkeepers conserve the mind in a single moment either as a copy or as a transfer. They can also conserve memories, if that’s what you were asking.’

‘It is.’ Thomas wanted to ask the next question, yet he already knew the answer. Yet, there was no reason to ask, as Toph explained regardless.

‘Soulkeepers can work very well. Even indefinitely. In theory. In practice, they can get lost or degrade. The mind can also change, over time, into something so different from the mind which lived the memories from before that it would become impossible to understand, or even interface, with its own memories. If a consciousness is transferred to a soulkeeper and mind is allowed to live an existence within the soulkeeper, than that mind would also become radically different to the original consciousness.’

What a terrible thought to consider. Even if your body somehow managed to survive and you could live forever, your mind never could. You would never be able to store all the memories needed to be yourself. Even if you did, could you truly be a person if you could always remember millions, billions or even trillions of years of experience? What about an infinite experience? If a mind wished to live forever and aimed to live forever, then the goal would be to have a mind which could comprehend and recall an eternity of experience. Was that even possible?

How cruel it all was.

Every fibre of his existence wanted to live and – more importantly – didn’t want to die. Yet, even if a vessel for his mind, his soul or just his very essence could be made to exist forever with absolute certainty, his actual self would die. His identity and his ‘self’ would be devoured and recycled in the never-ending process of change that was life.

Eventually, it was inevitable. Anyone would become as those ancient elves Toph spoke of now and of which Thomas had heard of before. The only way they could avoid complete insanity was if they changed to such a degree where they had nothing in common with their minds of millennia before.

He thought about his own life. His dreams, his aspirations, his thoughts, his character. All would be lost. Even if the memories could be stored, if he were to access them, would he still see the memories as being his own past thoughts? Or would it seem he was reading the autobiography of someone else’s life?

‘Why are you asking me these things?’ Toph’s whisper of a voice cut through the whirlwind of thoughts.

Lie to her. She must not know. No one should know. ‘I’ve just been thinking about what comes next after this.’ Thomas caught himself speaking the truth and turned to her, about to spin a tale different to his own experience that evening. Something about his career plans in the Logistics Corps, maybe.

‘After this life?’ As Toph’s lips moved, Thomas’ mouth went dry and numb.

Maybe she knew. Maybe Toph knew. Maybe elves thought about these things more often. After all, wasn’t that the hallmark of their kind? Elves evolved from humans that lived on blissful, perfect worlds in utopian societies which mastered medicine and science. They evolved to be naturally long-lived and healthy. Given the right environment, elves could, in theory, live forever without the need for any artificial augmentation.

Humans were not like that. If left alone, humans would just expire one day, no matter how much they exercised, no matter what they ate or drank, no matter how much they cleaned themselves or stayed out of trouble. Thomas knew how, in the days of Old Earth, the oldest people lived was just over a century old and those were very rare exceptions, not the norm.

Nowadays, technology and knowledge, both gifted and stolen, had allowed Terrans to become functionally immortal. Then again, how old was the oldest Terran? Maybe a hundred years old? The End Times had culled many of the old, with most of the survivors being well under the age of fifty and that had been almost a half century ago. How many other End Times were lying in wait on the path before them? How many other times would they be culled by the carelessness of existence?

A feeling of impending doom within Thomas began to pulse. He had to say something or he might risk losing his mind in silence. ‘Yes. After this life. How did you know?’

‘Humans often think of death. I’ve noticed you don’t often speak about it. However, it is always implied. Your goals in this life always seem to be linked to prolonging it. I have only ever seen you, Terrans, and now the Hyperboreans, the Aesir and the Vanir. You Terrans, in particular, bring death with you wherever you go.’ Toph’s eyes locked onto Thomas’ and he knew why. She was tiptoeing dangerously close to the unspoken connection their two peoples shared.

After meeting his gaze and determining that his eyes spoke of more than threats and rage, she added, ‘It almost looks like death follows you everywhere you go. It weighs on your heart and forces your hands. You run from it with every step you take and, yet, it always lurks in your shadow.’

‘Is that just not what it means to be a person?’

‘Maybe. But it is not the way of other peoples.’

‘Elves do not think of death?’

‘Oh, we do. But not like humans. We know that all of our time we have in this universe will be spent living, not dying. Why make the entirety of that time be about that one moment that is to come at the end?’

Maybe because, if you don’t, it might come faster. That was what he wanted to say. Yet, he felt there was no point in doing so. He had not wished to push these thoughts on Motley, Liaco and Hampstead for fear that he might hurt their spirit. With Toph, he could tell that she simply would not understand. The dread had subsided, somewhat, to be replaced by anguish at finding yet another person with whom he couldn’t speak about what was happening to him.

Toph had finished the cigarette and was putting it out in an ashtray on the table next to her. ‘Before the Revolution, do you know what most elves died of?’

Thomas met her eyes. He did have an answer and she could tell.

She continued, her voice now carrying the melancholy of a sad lullaby. ‘Sadness.’

Her words cut into his very soul.

Yes, of course, it was sadness. He had heard of this before. Though, he had never considered it the way he did now. It was, after all, something of a joke among Terrans: elves had everything they ever wanted and, yet, they committed suicide more often than any other species. Part of the reason was, perhaps, the fact that there was no stigma attached to the act. At least none that he knew of. For Terrans, even the suspicion of suicidal thoughts was sometimes enough to strip a Terran of all their rights and privileges. Such pariahs would be condemned to live the rest of their natural lifespan in exile and poverty. Suffice to say, said natural lifespan was usually cut short by the thoughts themselves. Nevertheless, despite happening, it was incredibly rare and such instances were drops in the ocean compared to what occurred in elven society.

Another reason was, perhaps, the fact that elves just, sometimes, lost their will to live. Such stories were strange to human ears, yet not to the pointy ones of elves.

Thomas had heard stories of elves just sitting down on an armchair in their house and… passing away. Perhaps that was the inevitable end of life extension. After all, humans did not evolve with the goal of living forever and – no matter how much both species may deny – elves still carried the hallmarks of their human ancestry. Humans had evolved to survive just long enough to pass on their genes to their offspring. Their minds had grown, evolved and advanced, as a tool to be used towards that single goal. Contemplation was nothing more than a by-product of the awareness our ancestors cultivated to succeed in not dying of hunger, cold or predation.

Perhaps our minds simply were incompatible with an eternal existence. The end of the self might be more unavoidable than the death of the body. Perhaps not for all living beings but, then again, had there ever lived a creature for long enough to prove otherwise?

‘Goodbye, Thomas. Until we meet again!’ Toph broke the pensive melancholy which seemed to have overtaken both of them. She lingered only ever so slightly, before turning around to rejoin her friends.

‘Do you believe that?’ Thomas had not turned to face her, yet saw her pause in her stride as he spoke.

‘I do not believe that anything is certain in this world.’

She’s right.

Damn her.
Back to blog