Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

I see her shoulders tense, then one hand releases as the other arm swings out and round. Ashes form a plume on the wind.
“He’s gone, Darion. Free at last.” Essa blinks back tears as she smiles at me. There’s a release in her eyes, a relief and a parting. The peace she so desperately sought has finally found her.
She watches as I think, my reply lost in the churn of memories. The man she mourns had my back across thirty worlds and ninety campaigns. We held the line at Rokuna and were part of the rearguard at the retreat from Sebastien. I held him up after he lost a leg to Blemenase Marauders off Shiristan, forming a three-legged fire team those brutal, poetic bastards still sing myth-songs about. Barely a year later he carried me from the ruins of Depnu, leaving my arms behind.
Powered prosthetics with shield generators became our trademark. On Talkinur we went from military service to mercenary elite without a blink. That’s where we were when an air conditioning unit plummeted ninety floors and expunged our squad, leaving us standing on the edge of a ten-metre crater, covered in crud, but alive to tell the tale.
Darion Metcha and Larier Dorece, survivors of everything. For twenty years it was good, ten years jaded, and five years later we quit. Bought a bar on a backwater world. Larier met Essa and had children. The aftermath of the last offensive on Karshiur meant I couldn’t. He kept the fact that I was damn happy about it secret; my genetic imprint is better off leaving with me.
She’s slightly concerned. Us career veterans tend to zone out every now and then. Those about us either adjust or leave as their tolerances dictate.
“He refused to share his views on death. Will you tell me?”
I look at her. He never said anything because Essa has faith. Not an in-your-face variety, but a quiet, unshakeable belief in some unseen entity ‘out there’, and a life after our bodies fail.
Larier is gone. The rituals after death are for the living and I have to engage, to admit. He valued my honesty. I suppose, this last time, nothing less will do.
I get up and move to stand by her. I can’t do this while looking at her. Watching the sunset between sea and storm clouds, the words come easier, originally spoken by him over some fresh graves on Carduso. He was replying to a question from some trooper. I don’t recall much about question or trooper because his words eclipsed the details.
“We live, we die. Like all animals from the dawn of time until a race better than us finds out how to ignore it, we are bound to a biological clock that can be slowed but never stopped. We’ve also been unable to shake the compulsion to fight over just about anything. The ironies of being unreasonable in the name of reason and killing to live longer still seem to avoid us.
I’ve seen a host of wonders and atrocities, but I’ve never seen a dead man rise, never seen a ghost come back to comfort loved ones. This life is a single passage from darkness to darkness. We can be a light during our time here or we can play games in the shadows with all the other animals. But, at the end, it’s only an end. After the remains are scattered and the tears have fallen, as we stand in the rain on a world that’s not home, who can tell ashes from dirt?”