On Living in a Shadow
Under a thick, inky black blanket of night speckled with colorful winking stars, a rough, young, and confident cat; and an old, posh, and scholarly dog had just finished eating supper by the warm orange glow of a campfire. The mood of the evening had been amicable enough, jovial even, until one mentioned to the other, "So, tell me about your father."
Alex, the decidedly more feline of the pair set his fork down into his supper tin with a louder clang than necessary, and tossed it down next to the fire, the look on his face an expression of displeasure. The other was rather sharply taken aback, not remotely expecting the reaction at all. There was silence for a moment before Alex remembered his manners and sighed quietly. "Sorry, I guess I just get asked that so much I get tired of hearing it." His companion - or perhaps client were a better description - relaxed slightly, smoothing his mustache. "Pardon, I had no idea--" Alex interrupted. "No, really, it's fine. There's no way you could have known." He leaned back against the bumper of the brush truck behind him, staring up into the cloudless night and treetops above. After a moment, he spoke for a long while, insects of the night providing background and filling in the gaps for him.
"The great Agri Privost. There's not much to tell beyond what you've probably already heard; before the war he was one of the greatest explorers of his time. A celebrated champion of the Adventurers' Guild, an able and precise cartographer, rugged survivalist, and all around great bushman from the humble beginnings of a working-class family from Palm. And that was before the war, even. Don't get me started about that.
"But, I guess that's where I should start, given it's all I know of him firsthand. I was born in a military tent about..." He counted on his hand, his companion already enraptured and making not even the most feeble attempts at hiding it. "...14 years before the Joule Foundation disbanded the Garlyle Military Forces. My father was an expeditionary cartographer with the military at the time, and had married my mother, Massiva, a little less than a year earlier. She was a Ruku native, part of a family that's lived on the Elencian continent as long as they've been writing history down." He noted the dubious look on the other's face and added hesitantly, "It's one of the things they don't mention much about the war, taking natives as wives was pretty common. Doesn't sell storybooks or war bonds." His companion nodded. Alex sighed. "Are you sure you still want to hear this? It's not going to stick to rumor much." His companion stumbled in a hurry to assuage Alex's concern, "No, please, go on. I'm interested in hearing the real story." Somehow, Alex remained doubtful, but continued, bringing his arms up to rest his head upon.
"My mother died in childbirth to me; I was her first and only child. I guess my father took it upon himself to mold me in his image, because as soon as I could walk and talk, I was right there alongside him, learning how to survive in the uncharted wilds as the Garlyle forces..." he paused, searching for a term less harsh than 'invaded,' "...explored and annexed the frontier of the Elencian continent. All for the good of Messina and the upstanding citizens of the Industrialized Union, of course," he added tritely, although gentleman next to him missed the tone entirely, nodding to himself. "We were part of the Third Reconnaissance and Cartography Force, mostly charged with... just picking a direction, walking, and writing it down, I guess. We met with a number of tribal peoples outside of the towns and cities, some hostile, some ambivalent, and some... friendly as we went, and I soon learned the hard way how to fight. Did I mention Agri was an absolute crack shot with a repeater?" The canine aside the fire shook his head slowly, enraptured. "I'm not boring you, am I?" The canine repeated his motion. Alex rolled his eyes, but the other hardly noticed.
"Anyway, this went on for some time until we came to the Edge of th--" The canine interrupted him sharply. "Unbelievable! You've been to the Edge of the World?!" Alex remained silent, gazing down his nose at the other just long enough for him to settle back down on the knurled stump he was sat upon, wringing his hands ashamedly. "Pardon." Alex continued after lowering his eyebrows. "Yes, many times, both with him and without. Out of all the things the storybooks embellish and gild, the Edge of the World is pretty close to legend. It is as they say: an ancient, engraved, bespoke wall that extends far beyond the clouds and from shore to shore of the continent, it spans out into the sea a great distance as well. You'd need something with a bit more longevity than even the latest model steamer ships to get around it, only the military cruisers have been able to get around it by sea. It isn't made out of gold, though." The canine was positively crestfallen. "It'd melt and crush under its own weight if it was. Truth is stranger than fiction in this case, I suppose, it's some sort of lustrous metal or alloy, but even the most senior members of the Geologic Society couldn't so much as get it to scratch to analyze it. It's not unlike the Spirit Stones of legend." The canine was sitting erect again, at rapt attention. "Get this - they loaded a truck just like this one -" he patted the bumper of the camper behind him, "- with explosives, put a brick under the accelerator, and drove it full sail into the wall." The other could hardly contain his excitement. "What happened?!" Alex smirked. "When the smoke cleared and the ringing in our ears stopped, you could scarcely tell looking at the wall that we'd even tried. There wasn't so much as a dent or scorching." He was chuckling now, relishing the memory. "The only thing we managed to do was make a crater deep enough to see it extended into the earth as well." They shared a laugh for several moments before Alex adjusted himself, and the other implored him to continue. Alex burped lazily before continuing.
"Anyway, this went on for yet more time until Operation Yggdrasil began." Again, his companion interrupted him. "Yes, yes, what of that? There are a thousand different accounts for all the friction, what's the truth, lad?" Alex simply shrugged. "I don't know. I'm sorry." He looked upon his companion's disappointed visage and sighed. "Well, what I do know is probably closer to the truth than most rumor, so I suppose I can tell you that much. The unit responsible for... whatever led to the destruction of Jilpadon and several other outlying places was an outfit we'd never had frequent contact with. It was an elite battalion responsible for military research pertaining to some ancient civilization... the Angelou, I think? Anyway, they were trying to decipher and reverse engineer their advanced technology - you've surely heard of the Grandeur, the great skyship, yes?" His companion nodded. "Before it crashed, it was built using technology discovered and researched by their group. All we ever heard about them were rumors, and none of them were ever confirmed. They were far out and beyond the level of us mere bushmen."
Alex stood up and stretched. The chirping of insects and trilling of nightbirds from the shadows of the forest became deafening in the absence of his conversation, and his traveling partner was left with anticipation. Alex hoped his companion would sense that he wished to end the conversation there, but eventually it grew to be too much. "Well?" Alex opened one eye, his right arm over his head, mid-stretch. "Well what?" The boorish canine slapped his knees in frustration. "What became of Agri, lad?" Alex dropped his arms to his sides and looked out into the forest as if looking for something, quiet still longer before speaking, his matter-of-fact tone completely changed to one very somber. "He perished unceremoniously in a native attack one night. Gutted with a spear. They'd heard word of us coming their way, and what became of the villages in our wake, and felt threatened; they were determined to stop us before we reached them." He stopped and resumed stretching, again hoping his pause would give rest to the line of questioning. Alas, "How did it happen?" his companion inquired. Alex stopped again, his expression becoming more annoyed now. "The spear pierced his right lung. He suffocated on h--" The canine sputtered. "No, no, lad, goodness! I mean what was he doing when he perished? Surely he'd laid waste to several of the savages, before dying heroically--" An audible sigh from Alex, along with a weary, stern look caused the canine to stop, suddenly feeling rather ashamed of himself again. He lowered his gaze, removing his cap as Alex spoke, his annoyed tone now cold with bitterness. "My father perished, in his underwear and in confusion, halfway out of his tent, by a native spear driven into his chest. He had gotten up after a night of drinking at the officer's club and was still trying to find his belt when he was killed." The canine was rather taken aback. "But his memorial said--" "Mister Percival." There was no mistaking Alex's look now, frustration and anger playing along his brow and in the curl of a hinted snarl. "I think I know how my father died. I was there. I watched it happen. I killed the native that killed my father with my father's own rifle."
There was a long silence. Neither could meet each other's gaze for quite a while, the symphony of evening flora creating something quite more than an awkward silence. At last, Alex spoke again. "If you value our working relationship, Mr. Percival, I think it's best we leave my father buried where he is; in the past. I have nothing to say to reinforce the heroic war songs and legends surrounding him. He was a conceited, neglectful, lecherous drunk and I was a mere afterthought of his celebrated glory." He turned, and the canine expected annoyance or anger on the cat's face. Instead, he simply looked... tired.
"We have a long road to the Dom Ruins, sir. If we expect to be there before sundown tomorrow, we had best turn in." And without waiting for a response, He collected a waiting bucket of water near the fire, doused it, and after tossing the bucket somewhere nearby, opened the hatch to his camper and climbed inside. The other was left in the dark for several minutes to collect himself.
Inside the camper, in the upper deck bunk where Alex made a cubby for himself, through the dim moonlight filtering through the aged window beside him, Alex looked over a photograph. On the sepia, faded cellulose paper was a very young cat, no more than four years old, grinning mightily through a gap in his front teeth, holding up a large trout on a line and hook. Beside him, with a mighty hand on his shoulder, was a much older feline, gruff and scarred with a thick mustache and a half-buttoned military shirt, his face almost completely concealed by the corona of the sun's glare. He sighed quietly and put the photo away, pulling the sheet over himself and gazing out the window.
Perhaps the most important detail of Alex's relationship with his father had been mercifully left out. In that brief, glimmering moment that he'd seen his own father amidst a sword to his own belly on the battlefield some years after Agri's death, he had expected Agri to say he was proud of him. He had expected some words of approval in what was to be Alex's final moments among the living, some proof that he had lived up to the legend of his father's glory, that he had earned the right to be the son of the Great Agri. Instead, he had heard a whispered apology. His father's own ghost hadn't been able to meet his son's eye.
Alex winced and closed his eyes, squeezing the folded bedroll he used as a pillow. There was thinking to be done and peace to be made, but tonight, he would not. For now, there were other priorities, and he promised himself he would not make the same mistake his father made of being distracted when others depended on him.