Image by Hal Gatewood

Six Sensory Memories of My Grandfather That Were Harbingers of the Apocalypse

by Paul Michael Anderson

– Sight –

My grandfather, blocking the kaleidoscopic rainbow of fireworks exploding against the tainted night sky.

The family stood in the corner of the launching pad—just me, my grandfather, my father, my mother. Far removed from the troops being loaded into the shuttle, but much closer than the crowds back at base—the closest we could get, my mother told me, without being scorched by the shuttle launch.

I couldn’t see the shuttle, or the other troops, or even the fireworks—all I saw was him. He leaned down to look at me, eyes lost in the shadow of his sockets, mouth barely a line in the chiseled cliff of his jaw and chin. He looked like rock. I was related to a mountain. Even the gray at his temples seemed impossible to break, like bands of metal, making his dark skin darker, his dark hair tougher. His pressed uniform reminded me of armor. I was eight, fifty years his junior, and he seemed impossibly tall, a black silhouette against the fireworks display.

“Look out for your mother and father,” he said, his voice like thunder, like you imagine a god’s must be, filling the entire world.

My grandfather was going off to war—I was too young to know against who or why, but I knew he was going off-planet, that this wasn’t the first time he was going, that he was going to lead Earth’s forces through a Blink at the edge of our system (something else I didn’t understand) in order to get to the frontlines and help turn the war around. Others from the Outpost had gone to war, of course—it was in its fifth year and it was standard duty when you came of age—but my grandfather had retired, had been done. The weeks leading up to his launch had been filled with visits, parades, special ceremonies, blurring into nothing until just these moments.

He put his hand on my shoulder, solid and hard, and you could believe, with a little pressure, he could flatten you like a can in the kitchen compressor. “That’s you’re duty while I’m gone.”

I may have nodded. I don’t remember. I don’t remember him speaking to my mother or my father, whether they hugged. I don’t remember him leaving our little VIP area, or how he got all the way to the little thumbnail that was actually a massive, city-block sized ship.

Just him, outlined in fireworks, looking down at me. I would’ve followed him anywhere.

– Touch –

The feel of the cool air, when my father took me to the highest point in the Verrator Outpost.

            It had been two years since the fireworks, and my father took me to Hickman’s Hill, the only sizeable hill in the entire Outpost, where you could look down and get a god’s eye view, if you wanted it—streets laid out in regimented grids; multi-colored blocks and cylinders for the houses, buildings, and supply plants. Along the western and eastern edges, you could see the decaying old two- and four-lane highways that used to connect Outposts when Outposts were called towns, before modular life and the Interstate Transport Route that brought worldly goods from the hyper-compression of The Corridor along the Eastern Seaboard. Outpost councils, unable to repair the buckling and erosion of centuries-old hot top, had transformed the old routes into pathways for anyone needed a break from liquid-screens, not that many did.

No one went up Hickman’s Hill, of course—too much work just to be able to see your own home reduced, and older kids spread rumors you could see the Blasted Lands, all that remained of the western states and Rocky Mountains after decades of mining and bomb-testing. People got sick with radiation poisoning because the vapors drifted, many a solemn older sibling or relative said. I don’t think anyone believed it, but even bullshit rumors have a way of rattling around your brain, impeding your actions, even when you obviously knew better.

“No, you can’t see the Blasted Lands,” my father said, in that way he sometimes talked to students, after he asked why I was dawdling. We were halfway up a deer path. I had never seen a deer, only the paths. The faint sun was setting behind the constant clouds, and the woods were filled with gloom. “The old testing sights are a thousand miles away, in places we used to call New Mexico and Arizona. Hurry up, kiddo.”

My grandfather was still a mountain at this point, a mountain that had left the planet to fight against someone/something so awful that no one could do anything but call them the Enemy. Kids drew pictures of the Enemy during Patriot’s Week for our Art Vid Calls, and they always drew these black blobs with red eyes, getting trampled by soldiers wearing the blue-and-yellow ribbons of the United Planets Federation. They held these sketch-screens up to the camera to show the teacher and the other kids. I never did. I never drew the Enemy because in black was how I remembered my grandfather.

At the top of the hill, we stopped at a small clearing lined with rocks. I could see the Outpost, LED streetlights pushing back the darkness left behind by the sun, the walking paths so much shadow. True to my father, I couldn’t see the Blasted Lands on the other side. Just more darkness.

“Brought your mother here,” my father said, trying not to pant. “When we first started dating.” He grinned. “She thought the same thing you did, kiddo.” He unrolled a blanket and pulled two tall containers of water from his knapsack. “C’mon, get comfortable.”

He checked the blanket’s position against the view of the night sky. The sky, to me, looked like it always did—a braided mixture of red, grey, black, and purple. My mother called it the Static Sky, as if there were other kinds.

Finally, he sat down on one edge and I came to join him. Now that we’d stopped moving, the air felt cool and not at all radioactive. I held my hand out and felt the tips of the tall grass surrounding the blanket. So different from the metal and plastic that filled our days. There was grass in town, too, but it was in severe minority to everything we’ve built.

“It didn’t always look like this,” my father said. He drew up his legs, hugged them to his chest, as he watched the sky. “When I was a kid, you could see the moon, the sun, stars. Sometimes, anyway. According to your grandfather, it was more common when he was a kid.”

My father glanced at me. “I know you miss him. We all do. So I figured this would make you happy.”

I copied his posture, resting my chin on my knees. The constant, covered sky had no interest to me. “Why?”

“Do you want to see the star where your grandfather is fighting right now?”

My head snapped up.

“Supposedly, interference up there is going to thin tonight and we’ll see the sky. Maybe stars.” He studied the static. “I can’t promise you anything, but we’re pointing in the general direction towards where your grandfather is.” He pointed. “Look, kiddo.”

I followed his finger and the reds, grays, blacks, and purples were unbraiding in places, blending. “It happens once every few years now,” my father said. “When you can see the sky. You can’t see it from down there because of all the lights. Like we’re trying to hide all the things we’ve done. But up here? Maybe.”

He fell silent, and we watched. In the distance to my right, lightning crawled beneath the clouds like skeletal fingers.

“Do you see?” he asked, his voice soft, full of wonder. Up ahead, the braided colors had merged to a murky grayish-black, then pulled apart, and, for the first time in my life, I saw the night sky. It was bluer than I imagined. Navy blue and blended with black. I’d never felt so small as in that moment, so aware of the vastness of space. The term off-planet meant something, of course, but not as a thing that was done, routinely done, no matter how often we heard the term during Calls or on Vidphos. It was just too abstract. Same with Blinks. To Blink, to a little on-planet kid, was like walking from one room to the next. We didn’t understand the size, the length, that to Blink meant to jump across star systems, and that it took enormous energy and time and tech to do it, and it was the only reason we here only knew the war through Cube-Vid news readouts and parades for soldiers going off or coming home from the fronts.

Seeing that hole punched through the toxic static of what we’d done to the skies, the concepts no longer seemed so abstract, and I knew the distance between me and my grandfather.

I saw my first star. Just twinkling there, brighter by far than the specks of what were probably also stars. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what I’d expected—certainly not the yellow five-pointed shape they’d taught us when we were younger—but not this white furriness, existing almost in spite of itself. It didn’t give a shit about me, this place. It just was, whether we saw it or not. It was so far away.

“There he is,” my dad said, his voice, furry with emotion. “There’s my father.”

Later on, I learned that, most likely, what I saw was the planet Venus, and, even if it was a star, by the time the star’s brightness reached our planet, odds were good the star was dead, having imploded into a black hole.

Which, really, is a good metaphor. At the time my father and I watched the stars, my grandfather was already sharing his knowledge with the Enemy. He was already betraying us.

– Hearing –

The hush of airbrakes on the transport-egg when they brought my grandfather, the space traitor, back home; the rumble-whisper of archaic rubber tires over the graveled front path to our house, the squeak-hiss of the transport-egg taking back off.

It’d been seven years since the fireworks, five years since the feel of cool air and damp grass, and we’d heard—I’d heard—the whispers from everyone in town, the gossip from the Vidpho screens and Cube-Vids, the official reports from the Government when forces finally found my grandfather. We’d heard—I’d heard—what he’d done, but I couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t match the mountain with the rubble, the thunderous voice with the traitorous words. They were all rumors, but rumors were fact, like seeing the Blasted Lands from atop Hickman’s Hill.

My grandfather had sold out the human forces, but he did just enough to help after his rescue to ensure the UPF didn’t charge and convict him of treason.

Instead, they brought him home. To us. I was fourteen at that point, three years from conscription.

I sat on the bench on our front porch, studying the space between my feet, listening. I couldn’t lift my head—once I saw the transport-egg come skimming down our street, I looked away. My mother wouldn’t come outside. My father waited at the end of our lot. I studied the thin layer of traction-grit they put on the porch’s steel flooring, how it had rubbed smooth from so many people sitting where I sat right now. I was at the age where I could wonder if anyone else had sat here felt the same confusing mix of emotions, blending together into a surly nothing.

The transport-egg, one of the industrial ones because the few routes that still existed out here weren’t as maintained as those within The Corridor, came to a stop, and I heard the shuck-shoomp of the doors sliding open. A pneumatic whine of metal, the obstructed conversation between my father and the delivery people.

I looked up, just once. My grandfather sat in an old-fashioned wheelchair, the kind I’d seen in books, slumped to the side. His hair had gone furry-star white, like dandelion fluff, and it couldn’t obscure his skull’s odd shape, dented along one side, bulbous on the other, like something had scooped out a bit of his brains from one side of his head and shoved it into the other side. His eyes were lost in hollow sockets. His chin and jaw were still like a cliff face, but one made of shale and crumbling. Like a cruel joke, someone had put his uniform coat over his shoulders, stark against his bland jumpsuit, stripped of all decoration aside from his last name.

I dropped my eyes. I smelled something, faintly, a whiff of ozone and hot metal. I thought it was the egg. I heard my father finish talking with the delivery people, then the rumble-whisper of the wheelchair being rolled up the graveled front path. The wheelchair was so antique, it wouldn’t have the most basic of gyroscopes to keep the user stable, and I could just imagine my grandfather, the rubble, jostling—

—but I wouldn’t look again. Instead, I listened to the squeak-hiss of the transport egg lifting off, ready to shake the dust of this rinky-dink little Outpost for the cosmopolitan comforts the Corridor megalopolis had to offer—the heat of Atlanta, the history of the Boston and Philadelphia arcologies, probably already reducing this to something they would tell in bars. We transported the great space-traitor home. He wasn’t so much, really.

“You coming, kiddo?” my father asked. “I’m going to need your help getting him settled.” Talking like he wasn’t there, talking about him like he was a chore, because he was—this man, who my father had spoken about with tears in his voice while we studied the stars.

– Kinesthesia –

The roiling stew of emotions, the kaleidoscope, that emerged over the months, becoming my new normal until I could forget ever feeling anything different, each turn presenting a fresh feeling—disgust, apathy, despair, rage, confusion—that imprinted on how I looked at things, moved with things, touched things.

A time-lapse after my grandfather returned home, like those old Vids of extinct plants growing, blossoming, and dying. My mother and father traced paths around him with arched backs and averted eyes, interacting when absolutely necessary with hardened expressions. They fought more during those first few weeks, hushed and harsh words in the other room, behind more closed doors than I’d ever remembered before.

My grandfather had two places, the back rooms of our home that became his living quarters, and the backyard, where he sat every afternoon and had the benefits of our tall fence to keep him from the curious eyes of our neighbors. It was a clockwork routine. I know now it was hard enough for them—my dad had to deal with more student transfer out of his Class Calls than ever before; and my mother kept getting slotted for third shift at the regulation station, away from the crews.

I was able to avoid him entirely, go days without seeing him, but that indelible image of my grandfather, like a package someone forgot to carry in, beside the transport egg running hot under the overcast sun was going to be the constant from now on. I had that solitary memory of the silhouette against the fireworks, the voice like thunder giving the order, but it was a single thing, easily overwhelmed.

In my head I ran the extremes of crying to screaming to lethargy, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and I would pass out at night from sheer exhaustion, my twitchy muscles finally relaxing. I could hold certain things down for a time, the surly nothing, the angry shock, but they skimmed out from under my mental fingers before too long. These things made my body stand in place, no longer mine, shivering between would-be movements.

I was the grandchild of the great space-traitor; my father, the son; my mother, the daughter-in-law. Forget that he’d been a hero multiple times over. Forget that he was the only citizen of the Outpost anyone regularly remembered had gone off-planet. Forget that everyone, unless they saw one of us, had actively forgotten about the war and who was in it. He was the space-traitor, the one who’d fed the Enemy vital information and then had the indecency to still be alive when UPF forces found him, and we were, by proximity, traitors, too. We had to carry that knowledge every time we went outside; we interacted with our students and peers and colleagues; we looked at each other. Their watching eyes made our shoulders straighten, aware of the skin along the backs of our necks. Their whispers affected how our legs moved, muscles desperately wanting to run but forbidding them from doing so. The weight of their judgment distracting and depressing our posture when finally out of sight.

He, he, made us carry it. And he never explained why. He never explained why he helped the Enemy, or how he could’ve helped our forces enough when he was rescued to avoid summary execution. He just sat there, a pile of rubble, the mountain no more, the storm and its thunder gone.

I forced myself to see him once, walking the long hall to his bedroom on my awkward, overly-aware legs. I wanted to feel a single solid thing instead of everything all at once. One emotion I didn’t have to pull from the mashed up ball in my head, didn’t have to fight to keep in place.

He sat by the window, the afternoon light shafting through the dimmer blades, and if you weren’t looking hard, you would’ve thought he was a pile of laundry. I stood in the doorway to keep it from shutting and just watched him. He barely breathed.

And it happened, a solid emotion, a red neon poker jabbing me right in the head: absolute hatred. Not out of some misguided jingoistic notion. But for what he’d made us live with. What he’d made us do. For not having the decency to just fucking die trillions of miles away and spared us this existence. It made my jaw lock, my eyes harden, my skin prickle. My body no longer felt like a discordant jangle of loose nerves, barely holding my limbs in place.

I must’ve made some noise because the laundry shifted, and I thought I saw the twinkle of light bouncing off an eye in one cavernous socket. I wanted to flinch, but I didn’t. I wasn’t a child now. I was already in training, prepping for conscription.

The mountain of laundry sighed. “I,” it whispered. Not even distant thunder.

I took a step back on legs fully under my control, and the sensor closed the door.

– Taste –

Blood like wet iron on my bitten tongue, dirt in my mouth, jaw numb from being sucker punched.

“I thought you Byrnes liked ambushes,” Scooter Feigling said above me, and I had time to hear his girlfriend Libby giggle like an idiot before he kicked me in the head. My vision pasteled, and I swore I could hear a gong reverberating throughout my skull. My face hit the ground, and I tasted more dirt.

Did I pass out? I blinked and I was on my back now, Scooter’s squashed face hovering like the ugliest sun above me, his hands on my throat and squeezing. He had the placement right, cutting off my windpipe efficiently. We’d been taught it a week before, in training simulations.

“Libby should be the one beating your ass,” he panted, “but she didn’t lose a cousin because of your fucking grandfather like I did.”

My vision pulsed, bordered and black, about to pass out again, and I scrambled, trying to remember something, anything, from simulations. I rolled my right hand, limp above my head, into a fist, bringing it around and glancing off Scooter’s kidney. There was almost no force behind it, but he hadn’t planned on me fighting back, and it was enough to get him to loosen. I hammered him again, harder, shoving up and off with my left. He tripped over his own feet, falling back onto his ass.

My head throbbed, my throat on fire, but there was this interior voice, deep in the back of my head, whisper-ordering, Move, child. Move. Unacknowledged then, it sounded like my grandfather. Distant thunder.

I got to my knees as Scooter tried straightening up. His front was unguarded, and I rabbit-punched him in the crotch. He made a sound, a wet whistle, and fell to the side, holding himself. I’ve had worse views. He should’ve been smarter.

I stood up, and Libby was a few yards away, still in the tall grass beside the walking path. She was in the ready stance they’d taught us in simulation, but she was giggling like an idiot, with wide eyes and sweat shining on her zitty forehead. No threat.

I looked around the walking path. I didn’t see anyone, not that I thought it’d do much good. Hearing the name Byrne made people change subjects. Seeing one of us made you walk the other way. I’d been banned from the chat windows of Class Calls by that point. For my own mental safety, my guides told me.

“Dirty fighter!” Scooter yelled in a high and cracked voice. He rolled on the ground, face red and eyes filled with tears. “Nothing but a goddamned fucking dirty fighter!”

He had the balls, you should pardon the expression, to say this after sucker-punching me and kicking me in the head.

I glanced at Libby, but she might’ve been a frozen avatar. A spin of the emotional wheel brought exhaustion—maybe from adrenaline aftermath, maybe because every day, with some exceptions like this, was exactly the same. I was always a Byrne. My grandfather was always the space traitor. This had been going on for a year.

Scooter got his knees under him. “I’m gonna kill you and nobody’s gonna care, Byrne. Granddaddy’s a killer and all of you are a bunch of no-good dirty n—”

I drove the tip of my boot into his gut, right between his arms. His last word became a balloon losing air. I stepped forward, already swinging my fist, and decked him in the mouth, aiming and hitting that sweet spot between his jaw and cheekbones, right into the cushion of his cheek with the porcelain of his teeth beneath. He fell back, breathless and spasming.

“I see either of you again,” I said, my throat aching, making my voice harsh, “and I’m not just going to embarrass you.”

I walked away, not spitting out the blood and dirt until the path curved.

I went home. My father was teaching in the basement, my mother sleeping before her shift. My throat pleaded for a stim patch, something to dull the ache, but I wandered through the house, finally stopping to watch my grandfather on the backyard patio, staring at the gray sky.

He paid me no mind when I stepped outside, just a loose lump of flesh, misshapen head tilted back. What had the Enemy done to him? Was this how the UPF found him? Was that why they hadn’t tried and executed him? Because, honestly, what would’ve been the point? The mountain had fallen, somehow, on the far side of a Blink. Another spin of the emotional kaleidoscope brought something like curious pity.

I stopped behind him, then froze. He murmured to himself, a slurry of words like wet rocks rubbing together. It took a bit to figure out he was repeating, “Sorry. Sorry, it’s not over yet. Sorry. Sorry, it’s not over.”

My stomach dropped. Did my father know his father had been speaking, could speak? I came up beside my grandfather, watching his face. I saw his milky eyes, one of them shadowed by the bulge of the skull above, and they tracked left and right across the gray sky.

“Sorry,” he kept mumbling. “Sorry, it’s not over yet.” He winced, as if a pain had struck him, his milky eyes narrowing, burying themselves in a nest of wrinkles.

I swallowed, reigniting my throat, and my emotional spin-wheel went around again. Disgust. My throat hurt, my head ached, and all for this…this evil lump on my back deck.

I wanted to say something, scream something, push over his wheelchair and kick him like I kicked Scooter Feigling, but I didn’t. I left him there.

– Smell –

Pulled away by the wind in the backyard, so faint you could almost believe it wasn’t there, the smell of burning rubber, a hot, oily stench.

My grandfather, huddled in his old wheelchair, staring up at that gray nothing sky that hung eternally low over our heads. I approached slowly, not that he ever reacted whenever I came outside. He hadn’t spoken since Scooter Feigling and I fought, and that had been six months before.

His blind eyes just tracked the sky, back and forth. He winced, and he lowered his head, eyes slitting, shivering. I watched with lidded eyes. My disgust and rage at him had eroded to a surly indifference with an underpinning of real sadness. I remembered that silhouette against the fireworks.

The smell came to me, an oily scent, drifting on the afternoon air. It smelled like a frying circuit board, ozone, like a housebound central computer going over the highside. I hunched, sniffing around—my grandfather, the house, to the neighbor’s fence. It came from nowhere and everywhere, attaching to everything equally, too faint to pinpoint, but too pungent to ignore.

Behind me, my grandfather grunted, sharper than I’d heard him speak since I was a kid. It sounded like thunder at the beginning of the storm.

I turned, and he sat up in his chair, not huddling, blinking with his broken eyes. His brow furrowed. His mouth was closed, his jawline firmer.

“Am,” he started to say in a shaky voice. “Am I really here?”

I straightened, “Where do you think you are, Pappy?”

He blinked. “Pappy,” he repeated. “I—they couldn’t get that part right. They yanked everything else out of my head and made it dance, but they couldn’t get that part right.” Tears tracked down the valleys of his face. “Pappy.” He said it like a prayer.

I started for the house. “Lemme call Dad, lemme tell them—”

His hand—skeletal, spidery—shot out and gripped my wrist, pulling me back and holding tight like a cuff. The strength was final. “No,” he said, and his voice was thunder again. “This won’t be long. I won’t be long. I’d thought I’d been home before, waking up, but couldn’t know. I couldn’t know.” He looked around. “They recreated…all of this.” He turned his white eyes towards me. “All of you. But it doesn’t last. Don’t…don’t leave me. Not until I go again.”

That silhouette against fireworks, that order given by thunder, and I hunkered beside his chair. Those looks of pain I’d seen. Was he coming back those other times, too?

He let go of my wrist, held my hand, kept it on the arm of his chair, running his thumb over my knuckles. “You’ve grown. No longer little.” He frowned. “Did you look out for your mother and father? Like I asked you?”

That emotional wheel, tilting into anger. “I tried, but you betrayed—” I caught the wince, thinking he was going back out again, but he shook his head.

“Why, Pappy?” I asked. I needed to know—why I had to carry this weight, why we all did, why he gave me orders I couldn’t follow. “Why did you do it?” I looked at his head. “What did they do to you?”

He swallowed. “I didn’t. They took my mind.” He reached up with a shaky hand, touched the bulging side of his head, and his face twisted. “They put me in a fake world with my fake family and I couldn’t do anything while they killed our people, over and over again, trying to track us home.” Fresh tears coursed. “And when they were done, they put something in my head. Our people couldn’t figure it out—” His hand rolled into a fist, like he intended to punch the growth. “—how it was a part of me, what it does, but they couldn’t remove it, like it’s grown into me, and…I don’t know.” His fist relaxed, and he let his hand drop. “They didn’t understand it, but they think the pain is because those bastards don’t understand us. Our bodies or our brains. They just jammed it in, and it hurts so much sometimes…” His face twisted again, then looked down at me. His awful eyes were wet, tears unfallen. “Has…is it hard?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, all hard edges and corners like a large lugnut. “Yes.”

He put that shaky hand to the side of my face. “I’m so sorry. When…when I’m gone….I still feel them. In my head. Nobody could stop…” He trailed off and winced again.

“How you’ve grown,” he said again, that smile almost touching his wet eyes. He turned to look at the sky. “When I was a boy. We could still see the sun, sometimes.” He frowned. “I’m glad we can’t now. It’s awful out there.” He winced, his hand tightening on mine. “Awful.” But he said it in a sleepy, drifting way.

I matched his pressure, gripped his hand tight. “Pappy?”

He faced me, but it took effort. “I’m sorry. This never lasts long…” He was fighting to speak now, the consonants softening.

I noticed the smell was back, fresher, frying circuitry, melting plastic. I jostled my grandfather’s hand, shaking it. “Pappy.”

But his face had gone slack, his white eyes tracking something only they could see. He was gone, a blank slate again, where anyone could impose their rumors about what happened to him and, without any additional evidence or investigation, make it a fact. I thought of Hickman’s Hill, all those years ago, and being so afraid of the Blasted Lands because of the rumors of people who’d never gone up.

I sniffed, wiping my own wet eyes with the heel of my hand. “Dammit,” I muttered, and hated how thick my voice was.

I stood and let go of my grandfather’s hand. I thought I should tell my father, but a part of me, the child that had been given the order by their grandfather, didn’t want to. This was my order, my duty, my moment with him.

I wheeled my grandfather back into the house.

– Coming Together –

My grandfather screaming, jolting me awake, and I can hear my parents fumbling around, wondering what’s happening, but I can also hear something else, a faint whistle, growing louder and more piercing by the second, and that smell of frying circuitry floods my nose as the first shockwave hits the house—

The stench of burning rubber, melting plastic, frying circuit boards, clogging my nose, making my aching head feeling dizzy as I stumble through the damaged home, all the pieces of our lives tossed around like a giant had lifted the structure and shaken it briskly.

The wet iron taste of blood as another shockwave hits, sends me crashing into a wall. Stumbling back to my feet, still moving, needing to move.

Finding my way to the kitchen and outside as I hear the hush of airbrakes from transport-eggs, rolling through the Outpost to pick up conscripts and trainees. I should be in the front, heading for a transport, but the cool feel of the night air strikes my bare arms as I head to the back, to him, and it feels wonderful.

He stands there on the patio, over his wheelchair, holding a makeshift crutch. Something explodes down the street, illuminating the horror show of his face, the side that had the bulge on it gone, and through the pinked-stained hair, I can see broken metal and circuits, winking in the firelight. His eye is a gory hole of red tears, and he shouldn’t be standing, shouldn’t be the silhouette against the fire, but he is, and his face is twisted into a rictus of pained fury.

“I could always feel them,” he says to me, limping over, and his voice is thunder for the first time in so long. Someone screams. I hear more transport-eggs, shouted orders, panicked running. “And our people could never stop that. They couldn’t figure out what was in my head, why those bastards left me alone.” He looks up at the sky, giving me a profile of his head, the unruined side, and it was the harsh cliff face only the best climbers could attempt. “Now I know. I was their beacon. I was the porch light they left on, even if they put the wrong light in the fixture and I barely worked, I was enough to lead them. And what do you do when you get home? You turn the porch light off.” He looks at me and snarls, “They followed me home to bring their war here.”

His single eye blazing, his teeth clenched. Blood from the side of his head is staining his coat, covering the BYRNE name-patch. He won’t see morning, but I’ve never seen a more determined, angered person in my life. “We have to make sure your parents are all right, and then you know what we have to do.”

I nod. The air is on fire and he is a silhouette against it, my grandfather, the mountain, and I will follow him anywhere.