Shades of Gray
Prologue: Jasmine

"Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it."

--Steven V. Thulon

        The sun sets slowly beyond the ridge, bathing the dunes and valleys in a harsh, rusty glow as it slips from view. Heat still radiates out from the huge, fire-red orb, borne along on a dry, lifeless wind that does little more than stir up the fine layer of sand and dust that coats everything in sight. This is the best part of the day. That fleeting instance where the scorching heat of day fades into the freezing cold of night. That moment of twilight where the outside temperature is actually pleasant, and the paper-thin atmosphere above an artful arrangement of reds and blues and pale, bright stars. If you shut your eyes, you can almost forget the ruined wasteland stretching out in every direction.

        It wasn't always like this. I can remember a time before the lakes and rivers ran dry and the topsoil shriveled to dust. Before the oceans became so saturated with salt and silt that life beneath their waves ceased to exist. Before moisture harvesters and humidity bubbles and reverse greenhouses were the only way to grow crops. A time when there were green fields and white clouds and so much rain you actually needed sandbags to keep the rivers from flooding into town. And seasons. Real seasons, not just varying lengths of days like we have now. It wasn't all that long ago – ten, twelve years, tops. I was five or six, and the kind of energetic brat that wanted to go everywhere and do everything. And I remember.

        I remember the great, glistening white cities, resplendent in glass and polished metals, stretching mile after neat and orderly mile. Trees lined the streets and walkways, parks and private gardens sprung up wherever a break in buildings occurred, and fountains and viewing pools graced the entrances to important buildings and living complexes. Native birds fluttered about, all but tamed by citizens who either fed them or paid them no heed, and small woodland mammals made themselves at home in the lines of carefully-maintained trees. The country was nice, too. Miles upon miles of meticulously-kept rows of crops, stands of orchards or tree farms, huge stretches of plains for livestock to roam, and a healthy amount of untouched wilderness, just in case, and just for show.

        Don't get me wrong – it was no paradise. I'm no fool. I know there were droughts and floods, poverty and crime, pollution and protests. I may not remember them, but I know they were there. Any number of gray-haired old men have told me so. Any number of textbooks have backed them up. And I can see the remnants of them myself, as well. But even the textbooks and gray-haired old men have to agree with me on this: it was better then.

        Before our sun began to die. Before it went supernova.

        By all accounts, we should have been instantly obliterated. That's what our scientists had been saying for years would happen if such an event occurred. The world should simply have been burned to a crisp, superheated into chunks of molten metal and dust and exploded into space. But it wasn't. Various religious sects swear it was an act of mercy by a benevolent deity, but they're a tad hard-pressed to explain where said deity is now that we're slowly wasting away. Myself, I don't think slowly starving to death while roasting in a desert is a benevolent alternative to a swift, unexpected end. But the priests are only trying to help, in their own way. The scientific community firmly stands by a theory that puts a protective gust of solar wind directing most of the fiery burst around us. This would, I suppose, account for the complete destruction of our moon and the planet immediately behind us – all newly-acquired bits of the asteroid belt, near as I can figure. I've never bothered to ask. I really can't be bothered with where the bits and pieces of our moon are, insomuch as I know where they're not, and where they'll never be again. Personally, I can do without the extra light of the moon. I just miss the tides its gravitational pull provided us with. The tides, and the jet streams – the continuous rivers of wind, stirred by the tides, that provided us with little things like rain and weather fronts.

         While the first dying gasp of our sun didn't kill us, it did set us up for one hell of a fall. It was the middle of the night in my area when it hit, and the first thing my six-year-old brain registered, in the heat and confusion, was that the clocks were all wrong. After all, how could it be the middle of the night when it was as bright – no, brighter – than day outside? Faintly, I remember a growing rumble as the light got brighter, and the thunderous sound of every pane of glass in the city shattering as the shockwave hit. It was suddenly hot, very hot - so hot you knew the room had to be on fire even if you couldn't see any. I know the shockwave caused far more damage than that – buildings leveled with the force of an earthquake, tsunamis so big we could see some of them, though we were hundreds of miles inland, fires that raged for weeks, so huge you couldn't see the end of them even from the air. I've even seen video clips of huge fireballs flashing in and out of existence high in the sky – our atmosphere, igniting as portions of it superheated so far above flash point that it took no more than a stray electron to spark a blaze.

        The devastation was incredible. Millions of lives lost, crops destroyed, power plants and strategic reserves wiped from existence, and the vast majority of the surviving populace homeless. The sheer magnitude of destruction was enough to trigger more of the same, as angry storms sprung into existence across the globe, products of unchecked winds, millions of gallons of evaporated oceans, and a steady buildup of carbon dioxide from all the smoke the mammoth fires were spewing into an atmosphere so damaged you could feel the increased radiation immediately. Early winter was suddenly a record-high summer; summer was suddenly a fiery pit of despair. Communities fled to what had once been cooler areas, or areas near water, only to find the situation rapidly becoming one of too many overcrowded refugee camps.

        The cry for help went out immediately. Anyone that still had a working vehicle of any type went to work with it immediately. Most sea-faring ships had been destroyed by the tsunamis, but a few lucky ocean-goers made it to port, and a handful of deep-diving submarines surfaced along rivers in search of survivors. Droves of inland boating enthusiasts turned out with everything from hand-carved canoes to full-blown yachts and river trawlers. Pilots rallied together around well-protected airfields, patrolling for survivors and reporting on the movement of fires even if they could do nothing to impede them. Ground cars were hastily put to work as rescue vehicles and government / military transports, especially once the food and medicine supply trains started up. Our satellites had, obviously, all perished in the blast, as did all ships in orbit; however, those that had been in dry-dock for repairs and those retired as museum pieces were quickly brought up to code and sent out to get help.

        Word of our plight spread quickly. Starships began trickling in; mostly native cargo haulers bringing supplies, but a few genuine good Samaritans willing to help in any way they could. Many of them wound up helping relocate those who wished to leave, or at least gave refugees a lift to the nearest spaceport. Our allies were the slowest to respond, sending only a small scouting craft to our system to assess the damage. News that they opposed any wide-scale evacuation soon reached us, and as they began putting pressure on the other Allied worlds, our Samaritans' visits became far fewer and farther between.

        It made no sense to me then. It does now. We are a fringe territory, of little use to anyone before the disaster, and of even less use now that our world is dying. There are more pressing matters at hand for the Alliance – wars raging along borders, trade routes in hot dispute, heavily-trafficked worlds and stations of commerce in danger. We must fend for ourselves, as we always have. Only our most sincere friends help us now, but very little and only in secret; our situation will need to much more dire before we are deemed worthy of another look.

        In the meantime, we get by, one day at a time. Our cargo haulers continue shuttling in supplies and out refugees, and our scientists and farmers toil endlessly to breed more heat-resistant, drought-tolerant crops. Myself? I'm a navy pilot. Space is cold and uninviting, but there are chunks of precious ice in the asteroid belt and circling 'round the planets beyond it, and valuable gases and minerals to be mined there as well. There's also the occasional pirate vessel, skirting our system under the mistaken belief there won't be other craft out here. They are rare, but welcome. We hunt them down, relieve them of their ship and cargo, and return home to a hero's welcome. Pirate gold buys months of food and supplies, more fighters and mining vessels, and the occasional freighter to send out colonies in. The pirate ships themselves are drafted into cargo-freighter service – or so our sergeant says, and what business is it of ours as long as our people benefit from it?

        Our lives are rationed – not just food and water, but movements and activities. Children are schooled, then given a list of what needs to be done and told to pick a task for the day. Time spent out-of-doors is kept at a minimum and carefully regulated during daylight hours to avoid wasting water through sweat and dehydration. Most of us are nocturnal now – nights are cold, but working during the day's heat is madness. “Free time” is that six-hour stretch you're supposed to sleep in, and “privacy” is the comfortable two-by-three-by-four cockpit of your fighter. Fear is that daily – sometimes hourly – feeling of dread that overtakes you when the big, bright, pulsating ball of fire that is our sun flickers, or sends off micro-bursts that light up the night in a false dawn.

        But beauty is still the sunset over the ridge, the faint movement of air trying so desperately to be a gentle breeze, and the sight of a lone desert jasmine struggling to survive in the questionable shade of a long-dead brush.

        And hope is that it will bloom.

To Be Continued...

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