Shadow, My Shadow
by Donald Scott

Man against man, man against infinitude

     I wore my face like a mask while the stars before me spiraled like a monochrome kaleidoscope.

     Behind me, their battle station offered up its dying breath as a small nova.

     My thoughts brought a terrible calm in the aftermath of its annihilation. My single ship always left me alone with my thoughts. Of what use?  Dread accompanied me. The dreadful victory I had achieved paled before the dread of self-doubt.

     Or was it something else?

     My name is Rumil.

     The enemy are giants and I have been decorated several times for the damage I have inflicted on them. Still, it does not matter. They come in numbers to match the stars that keep me company. If I never slept, struck every day and never failed, the damage I did would still be minor.

     I wear my decorations proudly, for I am the best at what I do. I battle the enemy because my family expects the best from its sons. I do it because it is the noble fight and honor is within me. I do it because of what lies beyond. A military career in my youth founded the path to power later in life. It was the way of my family. It was, I had thought, my way.

     My sensors picked up an image three days out from the annihilation. Tactical identified it as one of theirs. The feeling I had, that feeling of vague dread…I was being shadowed. A colored image against the black and white stars. A middling nebula offered itself. I would lose most of my scanner functions if I took refuge there. I reasoned, so would it. Inside, the shadowy awareness of the other left me for a time. Shadows in space, dark and threatening, were not an item I cared to log. Still, I had the unmistakable sense the shadow was with me, in me. I spent three days there permitting my past free reign through my mind. Black and white images on the colored tapestry of life gave me pause to reflect. What is my meaning? Why battle without when the demon afflicting me comes from within?

     I had taken out seven of their battle stations, a feat no other in my service had ever approached. My father spoke of a  political career culminating in Planetary Governorship. But I fought for another reason. I smiled and counted myself among the glorious.

     I was in the nebula a long time when upon my unfunctioning scanners a ship shimmered before me. It mirrored my vessel. One hundred feet of sleek death, stealthy black and adeptly cunning. I offered a hail, for it was one of ours. It drew near. I traced its lines in my mind’s eye and judged it identical to my own. Yet when it came into visual range, I saw it was a shade finer. The intakes were…larger. The sweep of it, more perfectly made than mine. This vessel, this magnificent vessel, took me in. Not inside itself, but inside myself. It was my vessel in color, shape and “demeanor”, only greater and fiercer…

     The craft took point off my starboard bow, matching my speed “to the nines”. This ship, its very existence, challenged me—why, I do not know. My hand froze over my control stick’s enable toggle. My scanners revealed his canopy. His face appeared on my screens. It was my face, only, as I have said, greater and fiercer. I froze, bewildered out there beyond the stars in the nebula I had thought would cloak me. I admired him from our relative positions. I mingled the conviction he was also evil. That I ought to fight him. I hailed him, demanding he stand aside. “When I will,” came the reply.

     I made to evade. I made to accelerate. I made to target him lest I forever be his slave.

     My arm trembled. My grip failed. I, who had taken out entire battle stations in single combat,  shook like a coward before this Other. Laughter, deep and sonorous, invaded my cabin. The ship turned about and accelerated away.

     “Follow me.”

     I obeyed, abashed and stupefied. How long he led, and how long I followed, I cannot tell. I had never known misery before, but knew it then, lost in the grip of the Other. Lost in the grip of realization that the Other was me. I fantasized that I would broadcast again the challenge to combat. A single withering stare from him would have cowed me. Instead, I followed and was silent.

     We came to a dreary system at the dense, dark center of the nebula. A gas giant attended by twin moons hove into view. The rings of the giant were diffuse, as if recently suffering an incident.

     A crater exploded into being on the larger moon even as I watched. My leader dived toward it and I was helpless to follow. We sneaked in low over the surface through canyon spires. He veered into that titanic crater and pierced its narrow walls, as if with some lethal optical illusion.

     Following him in, I saw the crater was domed. It was a terrible and strange place I had come upon. The canyon crevice he had guided me through sat high on the rim under the ceiling of the dome. It seemed to me the only way in. The walls were formidable and fine and featureless. I saw stones piled up around the base—or bones, I could not tell. They were withered and peeled and half whitened. How could this be when I’d seen the crater form not an hour ago.

     The hollow sound of whispering jets informed me we had landed. “Debark,” he commanded. I, of course, obeyed. In his hand he held a device and waved it at my ship. It rose and wafted away to the crevice.

     “Remain here and keep your companion with you.”

     Startled, I looked along his gaze and saw the Shadow. It flowed from me like some painted, hideous thought along the floor of the dome. I could not tell if it was the color of my tapestry or the black and white of my life among the stars. I looked back again at the Other, but he was not there. Nor his ship, nor his presence, nor what comfort I could take from him.

     I sought again the Shadow with the terrible conviction he and it were as one as it and I were one. My eyes crept along the crevice, which seemed to laugh at me. I sank into a pitiful state, plighted with nothing save my shadow and my thoughts.

     All light came from the crevice. Sometimes the light of the gas giant colored me, though not my Shadow. Sometimes distant starlight cast its spell, white and true. Sometimes the light of the second moon would chance across the crevice and cast upon me the most soothing light of all. By its light I measured time without time.

     I think I must have fallen asleep, but I had as yet no way to measure time. A sudden awareness of the moon’s glow gripped me. Existence came with it. I turned away to watch the light creep down the dome. At last, the light touched my head. Slowly, the walls of the dome melted away like a mist blown off the cold waters. I found myself sitting beneath at a hilltop meadow’s edge. Open country sprawled before me, dappled by the moonlight above. House lights glimmered from below the hillside meadow. Church spires rose up in defiance of the State. My eternity in the dome was merely a dream. Joy was mine again. I rose with relish to see more of my new world. That horrible, narrow waste was gone, replaced by a tree at the edge of the meadow. I think I loved that tree. I could go where I would. I rose and walked, but kept the tree in my sight.

     I turned back my gaze to cherish it anew, only to see a woman sitting under my tree. I loved that tree more for her and spent the night there. I lay with her, contented to wait upon the morning sun and resume my journey. Faint dawn light stole upon me from the eye of the morning. It stole like a fainting nebula through the crevice above my head and the wall of the dome came out of that light. The bliss of the night made way for the agony of the day. So began the dreary passage. I had found time again, only to have it visit misery upon me.

     My Shadow lay black on the floor of the dome and I never felt hunger. When the night came again, the moon shone and I watched her light descend the wall, the aureole of an angel about to touch my crown. I walked free again among the hills of that world. She was there as well.

     Sometimes we would walk together. Often we simply drank the starlight from under the tree I loved so much.

     Night after night this happened. I should have died but for this, the conviction of freedom. Each morning brought a newer, sharper disconsolation.

     After a season or a century of this, the moon’s light proceeded beyond the reach of the crevice and the long night brought its light no more. I turned to my dreams and they consoled me some, but a dream is just a dream…a colorful image and a black and white tapestry. A long time passed until again a pale light’s spear chanced upon my mind.

     Autumn had come to the meadow on the hill. I could gaze upon my family’s estate, now my estate. Joy, that flirtation of hope, had me thinking of a childhood unended. Innocence came to me again along with the fearlessness of youth’s immortality. My desires were met again in the eternal moment of a life without shame. She and the tree saw me through it all.

     I could hear my family from so far away. They spoke of nothing but my absence. My sisters wept. I walked toward home and joyous cries greeted me at the gate. I entered their embrace, the greater warmth of homecoming. A ghostly light shone down to the roof of my castle’s great hall. I saw the moonlight of the dome at dawn.

     I longed again to sleep in the freedom of even that dream. I measured time without time. Moonlight to moonlight. Dusk to dawn. How it went by, those dreams of the night.

     The woman sang. I quivered at the unforeseen grace of her voice. Like light giving her sound her voice came to me as a moon tracks across the water. She walked with me, singing in the dulcet tones of a dove with folded wings. The bird caressed my heart. I pressed my ear to the wall of the dome to catch her words and heard instead the words of the outer world.

     I strode to the crevice. My steps glided, barely brushing the alien earth. The crater rim flowed easily away beneath me. Why I had not done this before I do not know. Dazed, I wandered, wondering what would become of me. I left the dome and its crevice walls behind. My steps dragged with an other-worldly weight. I left my flight suit and its golden fittings behind. Dulled from neglect, it was an easy thing. I honored my brothers of the wing too much to wear that insignia any longer. The suit is behind there still, at the bottom of the rim of the dome.

     I traveled eastward into the woods, my only armor a simple knife. I trekked that world in unending days. No goal filled my mind, no thoughts of glory. Only to wander mattered to me now.

     I made a dwelling there in a peaceful wooded glen, a simple hut I fashioned from an honest tree…a tree I had learned to love. The woman was with me still, deep in my heart.

     I am what I am, nothing more will I pretend. I have failed, for he who would be a hero will barely be a man. I have lost myself. I look around and the Shadow too is gone. It is not myself. I think, but my Shadow I have lost. Though the enemy vanished from the way of man, though the battle is finished and the conflict is gone, still, I have lost the war. Perhaps I am found again after all.

     I greet the dawn like a winged child that finds itself nowhere and everywhere.

CONTENTS