The thing is, I was never a hero. The first wave of aliens taught me that. The war with them – my older brothers became heroes there, one died in the stand-off at Ucer-25, and we never did discover what happened to the other. My parents celebrated them both, burned scarlet and gold candles that made the house smell like flaming trees and sulphur, every weekend without fail…
Hands of Heroes
by Cat Rambo
The thing is, I was never a hero. The first wave of aliens taught me that. The war with them – my older brothers became heroes there, one died in the stand-off at Ucer-25, and we never did discover what happened to the other. My parents celebrated them both, burned scarlet and gold candles that made the house smell like flaming trees and sulphur, every weekend without fail
They thought I’d follow my brothers. I’d been an unruly girl up until then, over-proud and fond of testing myself to unreasonable limits in pursuit of boasting rights. I had broken four bones and had my nose smashed for me twice at the age of twelve, right after my brother died.
My mother was patching me up the second time. The other girl had been saying something about my oldest brother, I don’t even remember what now. I do remember the drip of blood down the back of my throat and the way the bones, so freshly healed from the last time, throbbed in my flesh, and the smell of the antiseptic she’d sprayed everywhere before she’d started.
She said, fondly, “Going to be a hero, like your brothers.”
“No,” I said. Her hands stopped but I kept on speaking into the silence. “I’m going to be alive.”
She never really looked me in the face again after that. Looked sideways around me, cold as glass. A year later the war was dying away, with neither side having conquered the other, and when people said “aliens” it didn’t mean the ones that had killed my brothers. Turned out there were other kinds, with different heroes, one who didn’t depend on being willing to wage war.
I was just shy of fourteen when I saw my first actual aliens. The order of the Stellar Flame, the newscasts said, and compared them to ancient paladins. Devoted to justice, but a slow justice. You could tell the newscasters weren’t sure how to say it, because they weren’t soldiers.
They were marching in a parade near my school, on a day when we were supposed to be taking classes together in order to increase our empathy and social awareness. The school let us out for the afternoon on the grounds that it would teach us even more.
Big, most of them. Most of them looked like over-sized human women, or close enough, though gene-tweaked and augmented in a way that you usually only saw in the children of the rich, who seemed obsessed with towering over the rest of the world.
Most of the adults in the crowd were good about letting us stand in front of them. But some were — to my mind, and I think the mind of any ordinary goodhearted being — unreasonable. One old man actually shoved me away when I tried to wriggle in front of him, demanding angrily why my parents hadn’t taught me any better.
I was at that age where you can know an adult is wrong, but not that you can talk back. So I moved along so quickly that I stepped on toes and then someone else pushed me and I went sprawling in the face of the parade.
I fell on the concrete, which chewed on the heels of my hands as I tried to stop myself. Brassy music had surrounded me until that moment. Now it died without a gasp, nothing but the crowd’s murmuring. A hand, warm and three times bigger than mine, helped me to my feet. Two other immense women brushed me off, checked me over.
Once their soft-voiced questions determined that I was well enough, they moved me to the other side of the parade. They set me in front of a kindly man with two small children of his own, who positioned me with one of them on either side and let me watch unhampered for the rest of the parade. He even went so far as to include me when buying his own children leaf-cups of the sticky, sweet red sap that is only sold in the early spring.
The impression of those beings, their aura of power and softness and above all strength, combined in equal measure with a goddess-like grace stayed with me for years. And when I came to the end of my schooling, I sought them out, because by then I’d learned the Stellar Flame took recruits of any kind, from any planet or star system, even a small new one.
As I’d said, they weren’t soldiers. They were the ones that rebuilt things. That remade and reshaped. That fixed what came out of the chaos, and while they could never make it entirely whole, they could come close enough.
Close enough, I thought.
I came home and refused to discuss the decision, simply demanded the traditional meal given to those going off world. Then the next day, still tipsy from the wine that accompanied that feast and dizzy from anxiety, I went down to the spaceport and boarded the ship I had been told to board.
I don’t know if my parents burned any candles after I had left.
I was ready to be a Stellar Flame. I went to the school that they had back then, rather than using recordings and simulations. And the training they put me through was hard as any soldier’s. They made me learn how to go without sleep or food and still do what had to be done. To aim my temper and my tongue as zealously as a weapon. To build things from only sand and sticks and my own sweat.
By the time you came out of the Citadel of Lightning, you had been forged new. Made into something your friends and family could never have dreamed you would become. Something, sometimes, that they’d said you couldn’t be.
That was a theme I’d hear over and over at the Citadel among those that came there from other planets, other races. The complaint that those around someone had ignored their greatness, had focused on some other relative, usually but not always, a child.
And the answer they was given was always, life can be unfair and you cannot let it determine who you are.
We were told to seize our fates. That all our predecessors had done so. We were told stories of them, how sometimes they died in their efforts. And we told each other in turn that to fail at that was to fail at everything and be nothing worth valuing, a pebble in the midst of other pebbles, while if you worked at it, you could be a star in the sky far above.
That first year, I never saw anyone else from my planet. I learned not to tell anyone where I’d come from, either. Terra had a reputation for being backwater even in those early days. More than that, it’d been the place where a mistaken plot hatched for the government coup that wiped out two star systems and the irreplaceable, ancient technology that enabled travel between them.
It wasn’t that I was ashamed of where I came from. But there was a look of mingled pity and suspicion that came with the revelation. I learned to just mutter something about spaceport life. Most people would leave it at that. By then everyone understood about spaceport orphans and how many ended up joining one service or another, sometimes willingly.
That was something about the Flame. No one ever claimed that its order took in children and deceived them, the way some other groups did.
They offered me gene-tweaking that first year. I took the minimum that I could to get along. It never sat right with me. That was one legacy of Terra, that way of thinking. I never was able to totally shake it, even when I knew it was in place and was making me think wrong about it. Once or twice I considered getting a head-meddler to fix it but well, given that I was opposed to just messing with my body, you can imagine how I stalled out on doing anything with my head.
Because of that, I never got that far in the service. Never became a hero, one of those who forged the future out of impossibilities.
I lacked fervor, one commander said. Zeal. I was good at some of it, don’t get me wrong. But I could tell others had more of a thirst for it. And they seemed to end up in places that demanded heroics: last stands and battles against the odds.
The thing that occurred to me, though, was how many people it took to get them there, and how the things they did, making sure people got fed and housed or even just had a place to shit that wouldn’t make them sick, how nothing might have happened without all that patient labor. That’s what I devoted myself to. Making sure people had a place to shit.
My parents would have said I couldn’t get much farther from being a hero.
My last year of the school, they paired me up with a priestess, mostly as humanoid as I was. A skinny thing who’d been bred to oracular faints, so I had to watch over her all the time. Yes, it was psi-based magic, sure enough, but they never tell you how unglamorous magic is. How someone’s eyes roll back in their head and you have to pull their tongue out of their throat to make sure they don’t choke on their own predictions.
From the way she mumbled I thought she might come from circumstances much like my own. Late one night when we were on patrol, she opened up. It turned out I was right: just four systems over and a place known for its penny-pinching ways.
“We do less with more than any other settlement,” she told me indignantly, “but that’s the frame that they put around our picture, misers and scrimpers.”
Anyhow she wasn’t any more gene-tweaked than I was. Though in her case it was because of some condition where the science and the magic didn’t play nice together. She told me she’d assumed I had it too, that same patrol night, but neither of us had any room to be criticizing the other. We got along, and that seemed better than some of the other pairs, even though we never achieved that perfect pairing that lets you work as one together.
For the rest of that year we kept going pretty well, though I don’t know that anyone could have said that we distinguished ourselves. When it came time for picking our assignments, I let them send me wherever they would, figuring that maybe Bonna Fortuna would kiss me, maybe she wouldn’t.
Didn’t seem like she had at first, sending me out to a winter planet like Mask. But I made friends there and if you’re in the main city, which sits over hot springs, you can be warm all the time. I never planned or built monuments or things people would come to see, but I was a good requisitions officer. I kept things flowing the way that they should, and people had enough to eat.
Nobody teased me about being from Terra, either. Out there on the edges, everyone knows that people have to come from somewhere and don’t have any choice in the matter.
I was coming up on the end of my tour there and thinking about whether to re-up or just find myself a place to retire to and spend my days reading and thinking and growing ice-radishes.
That priestess came to see me and now she had two kids in tow. She said they were hers and she was teaching them the ways of the temple. Skinny little things, skinnier and shorter than she’d been. I teased her at first that she was breeding into oblivion and then when a look told me that it pained her, I gave off saying that.
Truth was, I wasn’t that happy to see her for that visit. School had been hard, as you might had realized already, and lately I’d had that feeling that I’d wasted time there, thinking I could become a hero. I dreamed about riding in a cart down roads that never got where they were going. I didn’t need the priestess to read those dreams for me.
She wouldn’t tell me who fathered those children; who knows what sort of circumstances there might have been. They were odd little kids of indeterminate sex, like mushrooms, and their stubbly, close-cut hair was grayish brown.
That last night of her visit we went walking in the park, and those children trailed us. They were both the age I’d been when I saw the parade and the women from the Stellar Flame, what seemed like a million years ago.
I tried to remember what it was that had spoken to me about them, what it was about those sure hands standing me up, that had pulled me into becoming them. I asked the priestess what had brought her to her own revelation, and she said her parents had decided to send her and she’d been one of the ones who hadn’t had a choice in the matter.
“But do any of us, really?” she asked.
She jabbed her thumb at the children. They were examining something by the frozen lake, a red sunset spilling across it towards them. I looked at the lake and the sky and the children and thought about where I’d meant to be, back then. Despite what I’d told my parents, I’d always thought somehow I’d be a hero. I’d leave my impression on the world and inspire others. I’d live.
If I’d been an arrow, shooting myself into the future, I certainly would have thought I’d misjudged my mark. But standing here, smelling the dampness of the hot springs behind us, fighting the chill of the mountain breeze, I didn’t think I had stepped too badly, or that the hands had been wrong at all.
You fall forward into the future, no matter what. Maybe hands pull you one way, maybe they push you another. Maybe you’re a hero. But more probably you’re a sidekick or support staff. Sometimes when you find yourself where you thought you’d always be, it’s not what you expected. Most of the time it happens that way, actually.
Would I be there, walking beside that lake, if that alien hadn’t lifted me up, hadn’t made me feel like she’d selected me and only me? Would I have sensed a gap that was waiting for me to fill it? I don’t know.
But that’s part of it all too. Because that gap was shaped like me, or at least over time that’s what I made it into. I wasn’t a hero, but I was necessary, I was one of the many hands rolli ng history’s wheel along, and there in that moment, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that at all. Because those hands belong to heroes, all of them, even if their names are lost in the dust as the wheel keeps moving down the road, as the universe trundles along, whether candles light its path or not.