I was eleven years old when the war came to the Deneb system.
At first, we didn't know that anything was wrong. Mom and Dad were clearing the table after dinner, Avi was building some sort of a castle out of plastic construction blocks, Sarah was asleep in her crib, and Grandpa was reading one of his thick Hebrew books, leaning into the volume and squinting a little by candlelight. I sulked because I was going be the only girl in my class to miss Karen's birthday party tomorrow.
There would be no chatting or video games for me that evening, or until after dinner the following night, because we weren't supposed to use electricity on Shabbos. This weekly routine was difficult to accept while living in a place where few others shared our beliefs. It was far more frustrating this time around, because Dad wouldn't drive on Shabbos, either, and that meant I had no way to get to Karen's party. All the other girls were going to be there. Her parents were bringing in a magician all the way from the city, and it had been the talk of the school for weeks. So I sulked, wondering why God didn't want me to have any fun.
For lack of anything better to do, I was staring out the window when I saw a streak of white light shoot across the night sky. I watched it fall toward the ground in a great wide arc, but before it completed its downward journey there was another, and another.
"Look, Dad, quick! A meteor shower!" I waved him over and pressed my face against the glass. Father set down the salad bowl and came over. He stood behind me and peered out the window. The sky was raining shooting stars.
"Those aren't meteors," said Dad. "They're spaceships. Rivkah, bring me the scroll, please."
I ducked around some of Avi's toys and ran into Dad's study. There was only a little light from the candles in the living room, but I was able to find the scroll right away.
Dad unrolled the flex plastic across the table and swiped it on. Grandpa said nothing, but he watched from across the room and sighed theatrically to express his displeasure. Mom stopped what she was doing, and even Avi looked up from the building blocks, sensing that something unusual was happening.
Dad frowned as he browsed through the news pages on the scroll. "This is bad," he said, without taking his eyes off the screen. "The Oligarchy broke the treaty. They're attacking many of the Union colonies. Not just bombing runs, either. They're landing troops. There are already firefights in the cities."
"It won't be safe here," said Mom, her brow wrinkled with worry lines. "There are too many military families living in our settlement. The Oligos will come."
"You're right." Dad put away the scroll. "We shouldn't be here when they do. Get the kids ready. Pack light, and pack quickly."
"Where are we going to go, David?" asked Grandpa.
"Pearson's cabin," said Dad.
Old man Pearson had built a cabin out in the woods, far away from the settlement. Others liked to tease him about that; about how a man already living on the frontier didn't need another home in the middle of nowhere, but he said that he liked the quiet and the solitude. No one had used the cabin since Pearson died two years back. Few even knew exactly where it was, but Dad had helped him haul supplies there a few times, and he knew the way.
I had a lot of questions, but Mom and Dad had no time for that. They shushed me and went on to collect various things from around the house. Dad flipped the lights on, earning another disapproving look from Grandpa.
"Let's move to a colony world, he said. The family will be safe there, he said," Grandpa muttered, making sure he was loud enough to be heard. Dad clenched his teeth but didn't rise to the bait.
"Stop that, Zvi," Mom called out while folding some of Sarah's onesies. "Who knew the Union would decide to build a military base next door to our new home? At the very least, it took the war a lot longer to catch up with us here than it would have back on Earth."
There had been tension between Dad and Grandpa for as long as I could remember. Back before I was born, when the family still lived on Earth, Dad used to have an older brother named Yakov. Grandpa and Yakov had a huge falling out because Yakov married a Portuguese woman and left the faith. Grandpa disowned him, and when Dad refused to break the ties with Yakov and his family, Grandpa disowned Dad, too.
Yakov and his entire family died in the early days of the war, when the Oligarchy fleet bombed Lisbon. There were no bodies to recover, but a service was held at our synagogue, and Grandpa tried to patch things up with Dad. Dad wouldn't accept the olive branch. He couldn't forgive Grandpa for treating his brother that way.
It was only a month or two later when Grandma died. I was three years old by then, and my parents were planning to leave Earth and find us a safer home. Grandpa asked if he could come along because we were all the family he had left in the world, and Dad relented. Grandpa has lived with us ever since, but the two of them never managed to grow close again.
After an hour of preparations, the adults loaded the bags into the truck.
"I should stay," declared Grandpa. "Keep an eye on the house, in case there's looting."
"Looting?" Mom threw her hands up. "What do we have that anyone should want to loot?"
"He just doesn't want to get into the truck on Shabbos," said Dad. "It's okay to drive when lives may depend on it," he told Grandpa. "The Talmud spells that out for stubborn old men like you."
"I've lived too long when my own son is quoting holy texts to me," declared Grandpa, but he climbed into the truck.
We rode in silence for what felt like a long time. I watched the trees on the side of the dirt road, which looked kind of like badly drawn caricatures of Earth trees. The brown of their bark and the green of their leaves were a shade off from what I remembered. Similar, but different, kind of like our lives on Deneb Seven, or Sev as everyone here called it.
Finally, Dad drove the truck off the road and hid it in the bushes. We walked the rest of the way, dragging heavy bags through the forest. It was a cloudless night, Sev's moons providing enough light to travel by.
The cabin was dusty and small, but it was dry. The wooden walls and roof had withstood the test of time.
After the adults unpacked, we sat on the bench in the front of the cabin and watched dozens more falling stars make landfall. They seemed pretty and non-threatening to me. But then I looked at Mom, stone-faced and holding Sarah in her arms, and Dad, chewing his lip, and I was afraid.
By the time we woke up on Saturday morning, the Oligarchy forces had taken over two of the three cities on Sev and there were skirmishes in many of the settlements. My parents wouldn't let me watch any of the video; they said I was too young to see people die.
In the afternoon, there were reports of heavy fighting at the military base near our settlement. Also, that the Union was launching a counterattack across the entire sector.
By evening, the information feed went dead. We kept checking, but the planet-wide information network was down. We were truly cut off from the world.
I spent the weekend playing with Avi, exploring the woods around the cabin, climbing trees and gathering local fruit that looked like miniature pears and tasted a little like cucumber. Mom worried, but Dad had assured her that there were no dangerous animals or poisonous plants for us to fear. Sev was a tame, gentle world. It was why the family chose to move here in the first place.
Several times I heard faint rumbling sounds. I didn't know if it was gunfire or distant thunder. The war was too far away, too surreal. I kept expecting Dad to declare the whole thing over, and for us to go home and resume our lives, the entire outing nothing more than an extended, strange holiday.
On Monday, the refugees came.
There were a dozen of them, mostly young men and women, their clothing disheveled and dirty. Several of them wore bloody bandages. One man had a splint on his leg, and two others were helping him along. Some of them had guns.
"Who the hell are you?" A man in his thirties stepped forward from the group. There were scratches on the side of his face and neck, as though he'd been attacked by a crazed cat.
My father and he studied each other warily. "We're the Sheynson family. From the settlement," said Dad.
"This is my uncle's cabin," said the man. "You're trespassing."
"Mike Pearson was my friend," said Dad.
"Well, I don't know you, so you better clear out, fast." The man rested his hand on his holstered handgun to underscore the point.
Dad took half a step back and raised his palms. "Let's be reasonable about this," he said. "I have three young children. Are you really willing to kick them out? We can work together. My wife can help properly clean and dress those cuts."
The man thought about it for a few seconds, then his frown deepened. "These aren't reasonable times," he said. "There's hardly enough room here for my own people, and we can't afford to be charitable. You and your family need to go."
The refugees watched, their expressions grim, as my parents scrambled to get our stuff out of the cabin.
While Mom, Grandpa, and I packed, Dad pulled a stool up to the wall, and used it to reach for the hunting rifle Pearson had mounted there.
"What do you think you are doing?" asked Grandpa. "Those men look like they know how to use their guns, while you barely know which end of this thing to shoot from. You'll get yourself killed."
Dad tugged at the weapon. "I don't intend to fight them," he said. "I want the gun for protection. Who knows what we'll have to face on the road."
"And is that how they'll interpret you walking out of this cabin with a weapon?" asked Grandpa. "Besides, there aren't any bullets. We're better off without it."
Dad didn't like it, but he climbed off the stool and helped us pack.
"Leave the food," said Pearson's nephew when we dragged our packs outside. "We ran out hours ago." He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Take only a little bit with you," he added. "For the kids."
"Hold on now," Dad said, stepping forward. "It's one thing to kick us out. I'll be damned if I'm going to let you steal our food."
Three different men cocked their guns. They didn't say a word. Their wild, hungry eyes said it all.
"What's happening out there?" asked Grandpa. I couldn't tell if he was trying to distract the group of men or if he was really just that clueless.
"It's bad," called out one of the women. "You better keep off the main roads. They don't have any qualms about shooting civilians."
"The Unies are on their way," said another woman. "We just have to hold out for a few days."
The rest of the refugees looked at us sympathetically as we marched away, but no one spoke up to suggest we stay.
The truck was where we left it, but its battery was gone. Someone had pried the hood open and stolen it to power their own journey.
Dad punched the side of the truck with his fist. "When it rains…" He paused. "Fine. We'll just have to walk."
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Home," said Dad.
"I thought home wasn't safe?"
Dad sighed. "We don't know of any safer place we can get to, sweetheart. We'll just have to keep our heads down and hope that the fighting has moved on to somewhere else."
I thought about that. "We could make a camp!"
"We have no gear or supplies," Dad said. "And the forest is no place for a baby—or a four-year-old, for that matter."
"The settlement is at least five hours away by foot," said Mom.
"There's nothing to be done about that," said Dad. "We'll take lots of breaks. There's what, six, seven hours of daylight left?"
"Just about," said Grandpa. "And it's not like we're in any special hurry to get there."
We took the water and what little food we had been allowed to keep from the cabin, left everything else in the truck, and walked down the road.
I saw my first dead body three hours later.
We kept to the side of the road. Even with frequent breaks, my feet were aching and Grandpa wheezed with every step he took. Mom carried Sarah in a sling around her chest. Avi rode on Dad's shoulders.
The dirt road twisted around and up a hill, and we saw him just as we turned. It was a Unie soldier, half-sitting up against a tree. He stared past us with glossy, lifeless eyes. Insects swarmed around his exposed head and hands.
Mom gasped and I hugged her, burying my face in her side. Despite walking up an incline, Dad picked up the pace, herding the rest of us along. Avi stared at the soldier in fascination, watching him like he might a dead bird, twisting himself around on Dad's shoulder for a better view.
Grandpa began mumbling something. At first, I thought he was complaining again, but as I strained to hear him, I realized that he was reciting the Kaddish. Grandpa was praying for the poor soldier's soul.
A battle had taken place up the hill. As we pushed onward, we encountered more and more bodies, mostly dressed in Union green. An occasional oligo corpse in gray-white-and-light-green camouflage overalls was proof that our side had exacted at least some price for their lives from the invading force.
Father picked up a rifle that was lying next to one of the fallen soldiers. I tried to follow suit, reaching out for a gun, but Mom smacked me upside the head for my initiative. Grandpa scowled at the weapon in Dad's hands but made no comment.
We reached the top of the hill. The downward slope was littered with more bodies. And standing in their midst like some sort of mechanical scarecrow was an Oligarchy exoskeleton. The eight-foot-tall mechanized armor unit was charred on one side, the body of its driver lying face down a few feet away.
Avi, who had dealt with the carnage around us remarkably well up until that point, took one look at the humanoid shape of the war machine and began to cry.
Dad set him down and let Mom try and comfort him, then he walked down the field toward the exoskeleton. He stopped right in front of it, man and machine staring at each other on the killing field. Then he stepped up to it and began examining some of the electronics inside.
The rest of us approached as well. "What in the world are you doing with that thing, David?" asked Mom. Avi kept whimpering, hiding away from the automaton behind her skirt.
"It looks mostly intact," said Dad without turning around. "They got the driver with a lucky shot, but the damage to the unit is superficial. I worked with the prototypes of suits like this back on Earth, and I bet I can make this one go."
Grandpa crossed his arms on his chest. "Hiking through these parts is dangerous enough. Walking around in this monstrosity would be ten times worse. You're inviting trouble."
Dad let go of the panel he was fiddling with and confronted Grandpa. He stepped forward until they were face to face. "Look around, Zvi. We're in a war zone. All these people are dead. The next group of civilians or even Unie soldiers we meet could be almost as dangerous as an Oligarchy squad. You can pray to God to keep us safe, but I'll feel a lot better about our chances with a walking tank instead of just a gun." Dad took the rifle off his shoulder and thrust it into Grandpa's hands. "Hold this, and let me work."
"I'll have you know that praying to God has protected our people far better than taking up arms, over the centuries," said Grandpa, but he slung the rifle around his left shoulder anyway.
Dad held his ground. "You tell that to the Jews murdered by the Cossacks, and the Nazis, and the Iranians."
"Yes, and the Pharaohs, and the Romans, and everyone else. All those enemies are dust, but we're still here," said Grandpa.
Dad looked him straight in the eye. "Not all of us," he said through his teeth. "Not Yakov."
Grandpa looked like he had been slapped. He turned away and stared down at his feet. Dad glared at him for another moment, then went back to work on the exoskeleton.
It took Dad over an hour, but he made the exoskeleton work. He stepped inside, allowing the armor to close around him. He tried walking in it. The exoskeleton moved with surprising agility for its size. It made almost no sound at all.
When Avi saw the automaton move he began crying again in earnest.
"You shouldn't fear the robot, Avi," said Grandpa. "Your dad is going to make it protect us."
Avi stared at the machine with huge, water-filled eyes.
"Do you know the story of the Golem?" asked Grandpa.
Avi shook his head.
"A long time ago, bad people attacked a settlement such as ours," said Grandpa. "So a very wise rabbi fashioned a machine out of clay. It looked different from this robot, but it was the same in that it was a lifeless thing he made to protect everyone."
Avi stopped crying and listened intently as Grandpa told stories about how the Golem saved everyone and routed the enemies, but he was obviously still scared.
"But Daddy is not a rabbi," Avi said, when Grandpa finished the story.
"That's OK," said Grandpa. "I know the secret of how the rabbi made his Golem work. He wrote Emet, the Hebrew word for Truth on its forehead. We should do that, too, and then you won't need to be afraid of it anymore. Yes?"
Avi nodded and Grandpa looked around until he found a sharp rock. He picked it up and looked expectantly at Dad.
Dad brought the exoskeleton down to its knees and lowered its head, bringing it within Avi's reach. With Grandpa's hand guiding his, Avi scratched the word Emet above the visor. The letters were barely visible as the edge of the rock could penetrate no deeper than the paint, but it was good enough.
"There," said Grandpa. "This is our Golem, now."
Dad spent another few minutes getting used to the suit. He ran around the clearing in huge leaps. He took hold of a tree branch as thick as my arm. The mechanical hand crushed the wood with ease.
Dad smiled from inside the suit. "I'm getting the hang of this. It's really quite intuitive."
"Awesome!" I said. "We should go back to the cabin and kick those mean people out."
"No," Mom said quickly. "They were just scared, like us. They could have done a lot worse."
We resumed our walk, with Dad driving the exoskeleton and Avi grinning as he rode high on its metal shoulder.
We were more than halfway toward home when we heard gunfire.
It was only a short burst, and then it stopped. The adults argued, but decided we should push forward. We climbed another hill. Dad, who was in the front, stopped suddenly, raising a giant metal finger to the exoskeleton's face.
Downhill, four Oligarchy soldiers had their guns trained on a small group of civilians. I recognized Martha, one of the other girls invited to Karen's birthday party that was supposed to take place on the day of the invasion. Her parents were there, too, along with a few others from our settlement.
One of Martha's older cousins lay dead a few steps away, a pool of blood forming under his head.
An oligo soldier was in the face of one of the adults, shouting at him, saying something we couldn't hear from our vantage point. He waved his gun meaningfully toward Martha and the other kids.
Dad pointed back in the direction from where we came. "Let's go," he said. "Quickly."
"We can't just leave them, Dad," I whispered. "They're going to kill them."
I could see Dad's face through the glass plate of the suit. He was pale, his eyes wide, his forehead covered in sweat. I'd never seen him so afraid before.
"You can take them, Dad," said Avi. "Protect everyone, like the Golem."
"No," said Dad, his voice little more than a croak. "No," he repeated more firmly. "I can't risk everyone's safety. Family comes first."
Grandpa laid his hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly. "David is right," he said. "He needs to protect all of you. I'll try to draw them away. Wait here and get the others, if it works."
Before anyone could protest, Grandpa ran to the side, the rifle slapping against his back.
"He's insane," said Dad. "We should go now, while we still can."
Mom fixed him with a withering look, the kind usually reserved for Avi and me when we misbehaved. "We're waiting for Zvi to do whatever it is he's going to do," she said, steel in her voice.
Minutes passed agonizingly slow. We watched the soldiers beat up one of our neighbors, but they hadn't shot anyone else, not yet. They were asking about something, but the prisoners didn't know or wouldn't say.
Suddenly gunfire erupted from the opposite direction. The bullets landed nowhere near the soldiers. As far as I know, Grandpa had never fired a gun before. But it sure got their attention. They ducked behind some bushes, then three of them carefully advanced in the direction from which the shots came. The fourth soldier stayed behind and laid down cover fire.
Grandpa fired off another shot and retreated deeper into the trees, the three soldiers in hot pursuit. In a few minutes, all four of them had disappeared into the forest.
While the remaining invader's attention was focused on the direction his comrades ran in, one of the prisoners crept toward him. The soldier was alert. He spun around before his would-be assailant had the chance to close the distance between them and trained his gun on the settler. He fired, hitting the man in the shoulder. The man screamed. The soldier stepped toward him, aiming his weapon for a killing shot.
"Stay," Dad growled at us. He leaped over the top of the hill, the exoskeleton propelling him forward with superhuman speed.
The soldier turned toward the new threat, his eyes going wide at the war machine bearing down on him. He fired off several shots but his bullets couldn't penetrate the suit's plated chest. Dad ran into him at full speed, tackling the man with all the force of a speeding car. The enemy soldier went down in a bloody mess of broken bones.
The settlers scrambled to their feet. Dad waved them toward us and they ran, helping the wounded man along. He covered the rear.
If any of the remaining Oligarchy soldiers returned, summoned by the sound of their comrade's rifle, they thought better of showing themselves.
The entire group reached the hill's summit, joining the rest of us.
"What about Grandpa?" I cried.
Dad paused and looked back toward the thick forest. "There is no time," he said. "The oligos probably called for reinforcements. We have to get everyone as far from here as possible."
"Come on, we know the way to the Unie camp," said Martha's dad. "That's the information those bastards tried to beat out of us. Their satellites haven't been able to penetrate the anti-surveillance shields our side set up, so they're forced to search the old-fashioned way."
Dad nodded and everyone began to move.
"I'm not leaving without Grandpa." I screamed and pounded on the exoskeleton's metal chest with my fists.
Mom pulled me off him, enveloping me in a hug. "We need to get away, Rivkah," she told me. "Zvi is risking his life to save everyone. We have to make sure his actions aren't in vain."
The settlers guided us much deeper into the forest. I cried the entire way.
We stayed at the Union camp. Soldiers came and went, carrying out a guerilla war against the invading forces. The civilians stayed put and did whatever they could to pitch in.
Major Lau, who lived four houses down from us at the settlement and was in charge of the partisan camp, came to see me after a week. He walked into the tent they assigned to our family and set down on the edge of the bunk.
"Hey kiddo," he spoke gently. "Can we talk for a minute?"
I nodded. Dad was away helping to repair and maintain whatever electronics they had in camp. Mom was with the younger kids.
"I hear you still aren't talking to your old man," said Major Lau.
"He's a coward," I said. "Because of him, Grandpa is missing. He's out in the woods, all by himself, because Dad was too scared to confront the soldiers, even wearing that suit."
Lau sighed. "That's part of what I wanted to talk to you about. One of our search parties found Zvi's body. I figured you would rather hear about it from me."
I clenched my fist and tried very hard not to cry. Tears streamed down my face anyway.
"He was an old man, trying to outrun three trained soldiers," said Lau. "You're a big girl. You knew that he took an enormous risk, doing what he did. If not for him, Martha's entire family would probably be dead, and your family wouldn't have found its way to the camp. Who knows what dangers you would have faced."
"It's not fair. Everyone is praising my father for saving all those people. But it was Grandpa! Dad just stood there until the last second, paralyzed by fear."
Major Lau moved closer to me, his arm resting gently on my shoulder. "That's the other thing I came to talk to you about. Everyone around here has been helping the war effort in whatever way they can. Your dad brought us the exoskeleton and has been helping to maintain it, your mom has been helping to cook meals and to keep the camp organized.…Everyone is sacrificing and everyone is pitching in. Can I count on you to help, too?"
I looked up at Lau, his face a blur through the tears. "What do you need me to do?"
"The Union reinforcements landed on Sev this morning," said Lau. "They're kicking some oligo butt and everyone should be able to go home very soon. I'll make the official announcement later today."
I nodded. I liked the prospect of finally going back home, but this wasn't going to bring Grandpa back.
"Everyone will welcome the chance to go home, but with so many dead, and so much property damage, the morale is low." Lau turned me toward him and raised my chin with his index finger until I was looking straight at his face. "We need heroes, Rivkah. Living, breathing heroes for the Union media to show off to the galaxy. The story of your dad fixing the exoskeleton and rescuing a bunch of prisoners is a much better narrative."
I clenched my teeth. "What about Grandpa? Are you going to say that both of them were heroes?"
"The Union propaganda people don't want to dilute the message," said Lau. "David is going to be the hero of this story. He doesn't want this, either, but he knows his duty. Will you do your part for the war effort? Will you go along with this?"
I sat there and stared into space for a long time. Lau was very patient; he gave me all the time I needed to think things through.
Finally, I nodded.
The few months that followed were a blur. They dragged Dad and the rest of us all over Sev. He was ordered to give speeches and cut red ribbons on reconstruction projects. They said that he had helped keep up the morale of the citizenry.
As I grew older, I learned to forgive his moment of weakness on that hill. But I had a much tougher time letting go of the fact that I was forced to stand next to him and smile when all I wanted to do was to grieve, to sit Shiva for Grandpa, to wrap myself in the comforting blanket of our traditions. I understood them better now; they weren't merely an annoyance that kept me away from Saturday birthday parties.
But I had to be strong, for my family and my adopted home world, whatever day of the week it happened to be.
Forty years later, the exoskeleton with Emet scratched on its forehead is still here. It occupies a place of honor in our town's war memorial and museum. They asked Dad to speak at the opening ceremony, but he declined, which spurred yet another round of media stories about the humble war hero. Dad never set foot in that museum for as long as he lived.
Sarah, Avi, and I never talked about the events of that day. Not with Dad or Mom, and not among ourselves. It is only now that I choose to record a true account of our experiences during the war, after both of our parents have passed on, so that our own children and grandchildren can know the truth.
Dad had nothing to be ashamed of. Who's to say that his doubt and fear ultimately made his actions any less heroic? In either case, Dad never saw himself as a hero. I think part of the reason he accepted the role, accepted being shown off as a model civilian, was some sort of personal penance. He hated the spotlight, but he did his duty.
I just think Grandpa Zvi deserves to have his story told, too, at long last.
Grandpa's body was buried by the search party somewhere in the forest. For years, the truth of his death was denied by politics and circumstances. Even I eventually came to doubt it. I wanted to believe that it was a mistake; that he had somehow outrun the soldiers and was alive, somewhere.
My parents were more pragmatic. They lit a candle and spoke the Kaddish every year on the anniversary of that day.
Eventually, I accepted the Emet, the truth of it, and took over the annual recitation of the Kaddish after my parents passed away.
A yahrzeit memorial candle burns for twenty four hours. On the day of my grandfather's death, I light one and place it at the feet of the exoskeleton. On that day I like to dream of Grandpa's spirit, watching over the generations of our family as the unsung protector of Deneb Seven.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.
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Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 100 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy's Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a two-time finalist for the Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction (2015 and 2017). He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent are currently available. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com.