Stand Here, Close to the Light

Stand Here, Close to the Light

By Murtaza Mohsin

At the start of our endless night, most of the security squad was a little drunk as it staggered towards the mining outpost. Some of the idiots were actually looking forward to some loot. I tried to warn them that the poor victims were stuck on a desolate moon and working a miserable mining license for Helium-3. What would be left behind but bodies?

Art Feature: Beyond the Veil Reading Stand Here, Close to the Light 12 minutes Next My Other Half

Nasar steadily grew louder the closer. I hated his haggard veteran’s face and languid lips even though he was my best friend in the squad. “So, let me get this straight,” he said, “These miners, these Hazara you said, are killed because they prayed with their hands to the side, not folded across. That’s it?” I didn’t get a chance to shed much clarity on the theological fineries of the debate as we dodged past debris and mining equipment.

For a long time, the squad stood at the open hatch, stunned by the slick feeling of that boundless beast we call death. Most of them were ‘inners’, from temperate planet zones, who had never served in a combat zone. It was left to me to walk through with slow, measured steps. A shepherd for tired lambs. Why are humans like this? Always wanting this, and wanting that, but never willing to bear the consequences.

There were twelve miners in the tiny room. Twelve is a holy number in their faith. Twelve are the saints, mighty in their shining glory. Perhaps the miners found solace in this reflection. Those who killed them were methodical, having felled their small bodies in neat lines along opposite walls. But there were only eleven bodies huddled and soaked in blood, hands tied with their own dirty rags. Their small faces seemed childlike and wain in the harsh light of our thermite light-bars. It was those faces that marked them for death just as they once did on Terra.

We must find the twelfth man! I shouted and shoved till I felt nauseated. It made no sense, I knew the killers well enough, knew how they regarded the race of the fallen. They would never take a Hazara’s corpse, so the man must have escaped. And if he escaped, he could implicate the entire detachment. Our employer was brutal enough, but even they wouldn’t let us get away with being accessories to murder. My mind raced. Who would do the dirty deed of topping off the last one? Nasar or myself?

In the fury of our investigation, we tore through their paltry belongings. We tiptoed around the bodies. It surprised me they had lived here for seventy-two solar cycles. Seventy-two is another holy number. Seventy-two are the martyrs who died with the lord of martyrs on their last day on Earth. No room for cupboards or shelves, the few belongings they owned hung on drooping nails. Plastic satchels were filled with things like combs and soap. There was a little flag drooping in a corner, and upon which was the image of five fingers flared out from a silver hand. Five are the first ones: the prophet, his daughter, her husband, and their two sons. Still, no clues floated up to me in that dim light. All the banter fell aside, and everyone’s faces assumed an air of quiet despair.

Dust caught in my dry throat. We were alone on this one. We couldn’t ask for help from the regional governor or call HQ. All this time, the light beacon jury-rigged by the Hazara to alarm our base glittered silently in a rough niche. It was one of the first things they put up when they came here. That and the big helping of pulao and mantu they brought in a great, heaving platter. That was a long-remembered feast in our barracks.

We heard the whole thing. Our audio feeds blared shrill and brash the whole massacre as we looked on in shock, silent against the screams. At first they whispered, warning us about creeping intruders. Eventually, they realized our treachery and cursed us and our families. It didn’t matter. We had already chosen silence. Nasar smashed the beacon with the butt of his rifle, but the light bulb didn’t break, and its malice slowly spilled out onto the blood-red carpet, with its thorny roses and great pomegranates that once grew in Afghanistan on Terra.

Hazara, the poor wretches. Hunted down by a relentless foe who had found them even here! I knew enough of this ancient vendetta. On old Terra, they first enslaved the Hazara. Imagine that. An entire nation! When they finally let them free, they hunted them through streets and in marketplaces, as if for sport. They threw bombs in their mosques and religious processions. They mortared their schools (These people, they liked to educate themselves). In response, the Hazara would grieve with their massive black flags in great carnival-like funerals, only to be murdered in turn by more remorseless killers.

To kill with such vengeance, across generations! How could such hatred not transcend the stars? How could it not cough up the massive bribe we needed to look the other way while they did their bloody work? But now they had left their work undone.

It was when we finally stepped outside the Hazara’s humble abode that we heard the wind for the first, terrifying time on this wicked moon. There’s no way that was possible, yet here it was sounding alive, rasping in steady ripples which squelched with each other in an eternal cacophony. I stood there paralyzed as it tightened and wound down around me. Then the entire universe filled up with the sound of Nasar’s unearthly shriek.

It was a mutilated moment when we finally locked eyes. My friend greeted me with a strange, bloodless grin. His helmetless head swayed like a strange globe as he began to dance. I felt a great heat emanating from his stumbling form as his feet stamped in the dust. As he tore his lanky hair off in patches, the earth went insane. He laughed now, his mirth promising the end and destruction of all.

I ran then, heeding nothing but to escape a waxy cadaver driven by a thousand blind fingers. My mind was overpowered with lurid, wild images. I understood the wind was our unaccounted body. I remembered tales deep from the old world about a creature of wind, born of vengeance. Was it a gwat these absurd people had set upon us? A gwat is a spirit of wind, a child of nightmare with no body of its own, shedding skins till it finds an innocent and pure heart to take as its own. Had these mad ones summoned one in their last moments of existence? I shivered at the thought, praying for an explanation more congruent to the universe I was supposed to be living in.

Like one possessed, I stumbled past murky shadows and jagged rocks with desperate fury. At last, my legs began to give way. They were plump, white things, and I was always afraid to wear shorts lest the others make fun of me.

Resting against a boulder that settled painfully against my back, I stopped to listen for the wind. It had disappeared, and I had no idea when I stopped hearing it. A deep trauma was now vested in my bones, robbing me of the composure which had always been my foremost weapon. The man who had given me a commission with the security firm, and a ride off my doomed home world, unlike so many faceless thousands, was gone.

In the corner of my vision, like the movement of a pale curtain, I saw something stir. A feeling of revulsion crept into my throat as I caught sight of a disembodied arm. It was frail, the sparse hair slick against smooth, wet skin. Like the arms of the Hazara when they rolled up their sleeves during ablutions before they said their five prayers of the day.

How long did I run and stumble through dark lunar hills that keep no friends? I couldn’t quite believe it when I reached safety. There it was, the smooth curvature of the dome of our base’s entrance. In my madness, I was sure I saw the dome of a mosque, the communication mast its minaret. How could I enter the sacred threshold like this, so unclean? Slowly, the fog cleared till I was thumbing the access port repeatedly. There was no response for a long time.

Eventually, either Relan or Taryn released the prime lock as the access panel flashed a sickly green. The stark white light of the airlock vestibule blinded me. I stood transfixed for a few moments, my arms splayed out. I felt little bursts of sweat, which had collected in little pools all over my body. And then I heard it again. Had I gone mad? I fell to my knees. It felt thin and metallic now. I hunched closer to the door, ripping and flinging off my helmet to be sure. There it was again, right here in the airlock corridor!

What was taking them so long to let me in? I started smashing my gloved fists against the white Plexiglass door. The squad was gone, their scowls and heavy weapons had disappeared. I shouted to the stale air as the wind kept scratching in my ear.

Silence broke as the containment door opened at last. Are the others back? John and Yuwei were perimeter scouts. They must have been ahead of me. I stopped as an invisible wall manifested before me. There was a musty smell in the interior I never imagined I would encounter again. A musk of blood and dust settled down as it had for a child whose father took him upon his narrow shoulders and led him through a crowd of weeping mourners with black, green, and red flags—through a crowd of people that beat their chests red in a terrible tattoo of drums made of human flesh.

It was dim except for a diffused light in the far corner of the mess hall. I walked through a room filled with the trinkets of a thousand systems. And then the wind spoke up, gently this time. “Stand here, close to the light.”

As my vision adjusted, the first thing I noticed was the bright and delicate eyes of the gwat. He had an innocent, unmarred face, and two crimson spots upon the slight cheekbones. No longer troubled by persecution or dread, he kept his slight body in the shadow. I imagined he didn’t need to show me the flechette wounds riven in his slender frame. All I saw was an uncanny reflection of my own youth. His soft arm waved, beckoning me forward, to come closer.

I moved slowly, as if in apology, towards the body that once belonged to the youngest Hazara miner. The nation’s name itself means one thousand. Another heavy number. His name eluded me, but I hadn’t learned any of their names. Yet, I was still surprised by how much I could recall of my former nation. I knew why I was the last one left, a counterpart to the gwat that stared unwaveringly at me.

For I was once one of them, before I turned away from my doomed race and faith. For so long, I had craved to leave it all behind, the centuries of pain and suffering etched into my face. You cannot imagine the hate I felt when these miners first came here. Somehow they knew the truth and treated me as if I were a distant cousin, but I still refused to acknowledge their tongue and prayers. Five times each day. Five again.

It was not so long ago that I had paid dearly to remove my genetic inheritance. It was no simple task, even in this jaded age, to alter the very bones beneath my skin. It should have been permanent, but my heritage couldn’t be papered over, and so it chose to haunt me. My parched lips mumbled prayers unearthed from a buried childhood.

All alone now, I passively waited for the engorging shade to swallow me up. Will my punishment be the heaviest? And so, I became a witness to this heavy scroll,

I knew the truth. The martyrs, those killed were not dead. They were alive. I could see them now, glorious in their glowing raiments and silver rings topped by quartz, the twelve miners.


Copyright © 2023 Murtaza Mohsin

The Author

Murtaza Mohsin

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