The Shepherd crouched down, aged knees protesting against the motion. The ragged shawl she wore draped over her shoulders fell around her legs, covering the scars reaching up from her bare, calloused feet. Her gnarled hand reached out and caressed the dirt beneath her, pushing it into a row of ordered mounds that were quickly swept away by the chaotic swirls in the air. Soft, gray eyes, wreathed by wrinkles, lingered on the shifting tableau before her feet, focused on the swiftly changing patterns, the mutable nature of all things.
Around her, the world burned.
Fires roared in every direction, the city in which the Shepherd now stood in the center of having been put to the flame hours ago. Buildings that once stood as proud beacons of accomplishment in this capital became shells of their former grandeur, blackened windows the condemned eyes of those who had never considered the fall brought low.
As the dirt changed on the ground, so too did the sounds change in the air. The thunder of atmospheric craft echoed between the walls of the crumbling city as they flitted overhead in an intricate dance, spreading the fire in a surgical manner that would ensure no natural firebreaks could stop the blaze. The occasional rumble of a building collapsing under its own weight could be made out at irregular intervals. Radio chatter from the Shepherd’s guards — terse, direct, no inflection — added a clinical, detached sound to the cacophony. And woven throughout it all, the cries of those watching their lives crumble to ruin around them.
A flash of light momentarily washed out the light of the inferno around them, shadows of the trees in the park the Shepherd had occupied desperately trying to flee before being brought back in by the fires that contained them. A craft in orbit had reached down from above to strike another target on the surface. Not its first, nor its last. Many more such strikes would be needed before the work here was finished.
The Shepherd heard them approach from behind. Twisting her neck to the side gave her the sight of five men quickly approaching her. Four wore mismatched clothing, rough and torn as if from overuse on a long journey. Their weapons and armor, however, remained clearly functional. The fifth was dragged between two of the four, and though his clothes were in a similar state, one could tell that the damages to them had been recent. From the quality of cloth that could be discerned through the damage, it was clear this man had importance to him. The Shepherd gently scooped a handful of dirt into her hand, then slowly rose and turned to face the men now standing at a respectful distance.
“This planet’s chancellor, Shepherd,” one of the four said, nodding towards the man of importance being dragged between two of the off-worlders. The Shepherd acknowledged the speaker with a gentle pat on the arm as she walked past him to the chancellor. As she came close, one hand stretched out to stroke the hair of the man on the ground in front of her. She stood there and looked down at him until he managed to turn his face up and bring his bleary eyes to meet hers. A cut across his scalp had bled down the side of his face and along his nose, and a bruise was already forming across one cheek. All at once, his eyes focused and narrowed in rage as he came to his feet. He inhaled deeply and opened his mouth to speak, but the Shepherd spoke first:
The butt of one of the four’s weapons slammed into the chancellor’s stomach, forcing him to exhale the sooty air he had just taken in. As he fell to his knees coughing, a second blow from a gauntleted fist took him across the bruised cheek, driving him to the dirt. After a moment of gasping for breath, the chancellor again tried to rise, only to have a boot driven into his neck, pressing him back down. He lay still after this, eyes tightly shut as he panted.
The Shepherd crouched, and once again reached out her empty hand to stroke the hair of the man before her. This time, the chancellor made no move to speak, but his eyes narrowed all the same when he looked up at her.
“Good,” the Shepherd said, “you have learned the first lesson: anger and humility can coexist when shown their proper place.” She reached out the hand that held the dirt and let it trickle out in a small stream in front of the chancellor’s nose as she rubbed two of her fingers together. “Tell me, what do you smell?”
“I can’t smell anything,” the chancellor snarled.
“Try.” The hum of a lase rifle charging a shot punctuated her request.
The chancellor fumed, but took several quick breaths through his nostrils, dirt shifting as he exhaled each time. “Smoke,” he said, “I can’t smell anything other than smoke and ash.”
“And do you know why that must be so?” the Shepherd asked?
“Because you’re burning my world for your own sick perverted whims!” the chancellor shouted.
“You smell ash, because you must be educated,” the Shepherd said, motioning towards the man who held his foot on the chancellor’s neck. At once, the pressure lifted, but the chancellor remained flat against the ground. The Shepherd tilted her hand and dropped the rest of the dirt in a pile at his face, a small cloud of dust billowing up to coat his already filthy face.
“It is not an easy thing,” the Shepherd said, “to uproot a people. Thoughts of home, of family and kin, these are powerful forces. Much like a drug, they infest your deepest recesses, raise their heads to distract you from the truths in front of you. Like a drug, they make you weak. And like a drug, they must be purged.”
One of the four reached down and grabbed the chancellor by his hair and his shirt, ripping the latter further in the process of hauling him back to his knees. Crouched as she was, the Shepherd was at eye level with the chancellor, and she turned to face the same direction as he did.
“When you think of your home in the future,” she said calmly as the two looked out on the fire consuming the city around them, “you will not be led away by false truths. Instead of the smell of grass and sea, you will remember only smoke and ash. Instead of the sight of your progress through years of peace, you will remember only the destruction that has been visited upon you. Instead of family of blood, you will think only of family of circumstance.” The Shepherd reached out and took the chancellor’s chin in her hand and turned him to face her. “Instead of thinking of what you have gained, you will think only of what you have lost.”
“Why?” the chancellor asked, tears marking clear paths through the grime spread across his face. “Why do this to us?”
The Shepherd let a small, sad smile cross her lips before replying. “Why is the most important question you will ever ask again, yet it is the most meaningless to have an answer to. Why did we come? Perhaps in revenge for the ruination of our worlds generations past. Perhaps because your people did nothing to aid ours in our time of need. Perhaps because your blissful ignorance of us burns more than these fires around us ever could. Or perhaps,” she said, “you were simply in our way.”
She stood, and two of the four brought the chancellor to his feet with her, keeping him steady and upright. “None of these changes the truth of your new reality,” she said. “You need only think of on one question now.”
“What question?” the chancellor asked, his voice hoarse and hollow.
“What you will do now,” the Shepherd replied, motioning the four away. The chancellor swayed slightly as they stepped back, but the Shepherd reached out to steady him. “You could stay here in the ashes of your world, and become ash yourself with it. You know how we must act; we leave nothing behind from which you can recover.” The chancellor nodded mechanically.
“Or you could flee your dying world. Come to the blackness of space and find the cold embrace that only your rage can warm you within. Join us,” the Shepherd said, stepping forward to embrace the chancellor, “join us as a brother, as a Brother in Exile, just as I am a Sister. Join the untold number above that seek to satisfy that burning within.”
The Shepherd leaned forward and gently kissed the chancellor on his brow. As she pulled away, he could see the soot left on her lips. She motioned once more to the men around her, and the radio chatter began to pick up as they called for transportation back to the Exiles’ fleet.
“Your life is over,” the Shepherd said as she began to walk away. “It is time for you to decide whether or not you will fight for a new one.”
The chancellor watched the Exiles step into their transport before it smoothly ascended above the chaos and madness left in the Shepherd’s wake. He sank once more to his knees and stared blankly at the devastation around him. Gradually, he began to make out the shape of figures coming out of the smoke towards him. As people began to recognize him, they began to shout questions and demand answers of him. The noise attracted still more people, and the crowd began to grow. Above all else, they asked the same question:
The chancellor dropped his head and stared at the ground. He closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply.
Smoke and ash.