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For the Peace

Uri King-Levy is a nonbinary Jewish author from California. They spend their days writing weird fiction, playing with their pet rats, and rescuing spiders barehanded. You can follow them on Twitter @FarOffTidbits, where they post microfiction, snippets of longer fiction, and guides on alien life.
The enormous feet of a mammoth blocked his path, nearly treading on his toes. Sudhir wanted to swear, but instead politely edged into a space between two shacks, trying to relax. "Om mani padme hum..." he murmured, counting prayer beads in his pocket. Tension eased as he moved down the chain, but didn't leave completely.
"What's this?" a small voice piped up behind him. Sudhir turned to see a child, wide eyes examining his bags. He smiled and crouched in front of her.
"Memories," he said. She fingered the tassels on the edge of one of them, each knotted in the style of the Judeans. "There are mementos from every people who offered them, so we won't forget." Her wide eyes met his, and he fought to keep up the smile.
"You're going out there?" she asked excitedly, pointing to the sky. She grinned and rushed on "Me too! Mama didn't tell me, but I heard her talking to a guard who said we'd be on the second jer-- jorn-- journey!" He nodded and patted her head. His eyes burned, but he blinked away the tears.
"I'll be sure to save you a homestead," he promised instead. The girl jumped once, ecstatic, and pulled a sweetleaf pipe from her pocket. As Sudhir watched in horror, she lifted it to her lips and lit it with the smooth ease of practice. He spotted the garbage bags in the alley behind her, smelled the sour tint to the air. Watched a child no older than six familiar with the pipe.
And he ruffled her hair, allowing in a breath of the smoke that puffed from her tiny lungs. "You should go back to your ma, then," he said. "You wouldn't want the guard to catch you right before you leave, yeah?"
He fought against the urge to take her arm, bring her with him as he walked away. Just as he fought the need to smoke a similar pipe offered by a man whose home was the space underneath a discarded table, or the tightness in his legs that wanted him to run from the fisherman's praises.
"You're the future," the man said. He cupped Sudhir on the back of his neck, pressing their foreheads together in thanks. "My husband left on the last trip. He's setting up a farm for us right now."
Sudhir smiled to all who noticed the tassels on his bag, the Scholar sash across his chest. He laughed at the jokes, touched foreheads with the thankful.
"Om mani padme hum...."
By the time he reached the ship through the steadily tightening throng of people jostling for a view, begging and bribing the guards for a spot aboard, he'd reached the end of his prayer beads and had to begin his count anew.
"Please, I don't have the money," a woman beside him cried, clasping a guard's robe. "But I can work! I'm a teacher, you'll need those up there!" Sudhir saw the indifference in the guard's eyes, but the man smiled anyways and patted the woman's hands.
"There will be a lottery for the next ship," the guard said. "Here, why don't you give me your name? I'll sneak a couple extra entries in for you." He winked and a grateful sob broke from the woman's throat. A few feet away, a man who mumbled at empty air was led off by a guard. A child tried to climb the translucent side of the ship, only to be hauled off to his parents.
A few people cried, but not many. They were getting on the next ship--why should they be upset?
Sudhir chanted under his breath. He calmed. He breathed. He prayed.
But he'd known he couldn't do this.
So he grabbed that man talking to the air, and handed him a feather, explaining the significance of it for the nation who'd gifted the Memory. He put an arm around the ecstatic woman, whispering mystic verses in her ear, letting himself forget them. He scooped up the alley child, still smoking sweetleaf, and handed her a knotted tassel, committing to her memory the meaning of each thread, each knot. To the fisherman, he taught the wedding rites of Sudhir's own people. More people, more Memories.
And lastly, without his bags but still with his sash, he walked up to the door of the ship.
"Scholar?" the woman in front of it asked. She looked around him. "Did you lose your Memories? We can halt departure, give you a few guards to help find them."
"Sorry, miss," he said, bowing his head respectfully. Behind him, a scattered line of random townsfolk had formed. They didn't speak or push, but the guards eyed them warily. "I think there's been a mistake."
"Of what sort?" she asked. She also saw the people, and her lips thinned.
"See, I seem to have straight up forgotten them." She opened her mouth, but he pushed on before she could respond. "Now, these kind people have learned them for me in my brain's lapse, yeah? But they're not greedy, and they've been giving some to their families and friends, too. For safekeeping, I assure you." Her face had hardened.
"Sir, if you--"
"Without them, a whole book of our history will be lost to the asteroid inbound." She slammed a button in front of her, but the crowd had already quieted, listening intently to him. "I'm sure you wouldn't leave all this culture and history to be destroyed like you were about to leave this town, yeah?"
Silence.
Sudhir smiled.
"It's up to you."
Om mani padme hum...
"Get on," she said, tensely, quietly. Sudhir bowed politely.
One town wasn't enough. But it was more than it otherwise would have been.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 10th, 2020
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