Glazed eyes, unfocused and void of expression.
Blank faces, pale and tear-streaked and shining with the colorless pallor of death.
The scent of sweat – human and otherwise – like a pungent perfume in an airless room.
Fear of death.
Fear of betrayal.
Fear of broken dreams.
The terror suffocates, cutting off thought and reason.
"All those with names beginning with the letter B, please gather your belongings and wait for processing—"
Fear of destruction.
Fear of enslavement.
Like a stew set to boil, the temperature slowly rises, burning and blistering the timid and truthful—
"—outside the checkpoint where an inspector will check your records—"
But my heart is not soft.
For justice is dead.
Fairness is dead.
The truth is dead.
When your home has been taken from you, you find yourself stepping away from the straight and narrow.
Facts become blurred, and history is restructured. If one life doesn't work, you make up another.
But you're never free. Different, yet still trapped in a cage built by bureaucratic red tape and governmental stupidity.
I used to be an idealist, honestly believing that politicians cared about protecting the people they represented. That my little domestic fantasies would be safe from outside threats.
"—pending your transfer to a designated containment site—"
Apparently, whitewashed fences don't stop foreign invaders.
Half the men in my town died defending the spaceport. My husband was among them.
A group of university students perished trying to escort families to escape vehicles. One of them was my eldest daughter.
My son was caught and killed in a Peace Brigade ambush. My other son was poisoned onboard a refugee ship.
"—where you will await a further assignment."
Goodbye peace and prosperity and stability. A fine performance, but the final act collapsed into chaos.
My family has been reduced from a loving husband and four boisterous children to just Aliya and me.
We have spent the past three years in countless refugee settlements. They've all blurred into one in my memory, crowded and unsanitary and permeated by a fear so intense that it seems a physical force. Full of people who have lost all hope of survival.
I refuse to relinquish that optimism. I want my youngest daughter to live, to retain the innocence I lost when the Vong first arrived insystem. I want her to grow up thinking that her sweet dreams of a quiet home and a peaceful life can become reality. I want her to be as naïve and sheltered and misinformed as I once was.
Not that she would ever be aware of it.
I tighten my grip on her small hand and start moving towards the checkpoint shack. At Aliya's birth, the doctors told me that she wouldn't live to be an adult; while they managed to save her from asphyxiating with the umbilical cord wrapped around her throat, her brain had been without oxygen for much too long. Brain damage would be permanent and severe.
"Retarded mental and physical development, with damaged motor skills," was their ultimate prognosis. "Due to extreme nature of impediments, subject will never be able to function alone in normal society and all bodily functions are expected to shut down by the age of twenty."
Aliya is now ten years old. She appears much younger, with vacant eyes and a childish halo of curls.
And she is the only family I have left. It has been difficult shifting from one refugee camp to another, for Aliya does not deal well with change. She may not be able to understand where she is and what is happening, but she can tell that something has gone horribly wrong.
I try to comfort her, to reassure her with my actions that her mama will never leave her like Daddy, Ikia, and the boys. As long as I am with her, my baby will always be safe.
"Baillot, Bajezuti, Ballen, please approach the inspection facilities."
We have not spent long in any of the camps. Medical exams always uncover Aliya's disabilities, and the officials all utter the same mantra: "We are sorry, but we no longer have room for you at this settlement. Perhaps another world will have openings, but we are currently full."
Polite and vague, but I can see the truth beneath their fake apologies. They do not want "disabled" refugees to clog up their space, squander their food supplies, and upset the other occupants.
As if a little girl whose only crime was a traumatic delivery would ever be a waste of money or space.
So we load a transport and try our luck at another world. Only to be rejected again, and sent on our way.
A long string of dismissals – and Kuat is our last hope. There are no more refugee settlements. The Yuuzhan Vong have captured or frightened far too many planets.
I walk to the inspection cubicle; our belongings all packed in a small side bag and my hand wrapped possessively around Aliya's.
The stench in the air thickens, a potent blend of rotten meat and medicine. I look around and see the same fear present throughout the camp, only amplified – these people know that if they are turned away here, their only option is death.
"Mrs. Ballen? Originally of Garqi?"
A young woman approaches, dark hair cut short in a militaristic bob and chin held up proudly. She must have been wealthy, before war struck, for she wears her authority like a designer gown. I tug Aliya behind me and nod.
"And this is your daughter?" she asks, consulting a datapad. "Aliya Ballen? How old is she, ma'am?"
"Five years old." The lie slips easily from my tongue, burning and soothing my conscience like an after-dinner mint. If they conduct an in-depth examination, the Kuati government will never admit us. But at least it will buy us some time.
The woman purses her lips. "All other family members deceased? No remaining relatives?"
"May I see your daughter for a minute, ma'am? Routine inspection."
I let go of Aliya's hand reluctantly and push her towards the woman. My daughter stands silently through it all, not even protesting when the woman draws a blood sample.
I pat her shoulder. In this quiet, submissive state, Aliya appears almost normal. But no matter how obedient she behaves, her eyes will still retain the empty expression that has always betrayed her disabilities. I nudge her with my knee gently, prompting her to keep her gaze on the floor. If the woman does not see her eyes, perhaps we will pass the test.
"Mrs. Ballen?" The woman looks at me oddly, tapping her datapad. "Has Aliya ever suffered from any serious physical illnesses?"
"No. Only some mild colds."
She shakes her head briskly, then takes Aliya's chin in her hand. She studies her closely – much too closely.
"This child does not appear to be five years old. I think she is older."
I begin to panic. "Well, she takes after her father. When he was eighteen, everyone assumed he was in his twenties—"
Pale green eyes, without any depth of emotions.
A child's eyes. Aliya's eyes.
"Aliya is just a very special girl—"
"Mrs. Ballen, I am a medical physician. This child is at least eight or nine years old, with physical and mental handicaps. Am I correct?"
A fire appears in my gut, raging and scorching and killing with each intense blast. I feel the flames grow, feeding off my terror and anxiety. Then an orange spark swallows my heart, and hope is gone. I nod mutely.
"I see. Mrs. Ballen, I am sorry to say that—"
A bright, breezeless day. The foreign creatures were visible in the distance, monsters whose unsettling appearance the setting sun distorted into nightmarish images from my childhood.
One invader approached, a tall warrior with hideous disfigurements and a twisted grin. He raised a thick, pointed staff, then brought the sharp end down into my husband.
"—we do not have any extra room and so we must kindly request —"
Marcel fell so slowly that for a second I thought I was watching a holo. A circle of blood erupted on his muddy vest – the olive nerfhide one I had given him for his forty-third birthday.
He tumbled down the hill, a lazy motion that seemed incongruously absurd.
"—that you and your daughter please remove—"
The Vong smiled, then plunged his snake-like staff once again into my husband's chest. I screamed and rushed from my hiding place.
But Marcel's murderer was already gone, running after more victims. The other women pulled me back.
"—your persons and all your belongings from this waiting area."
I watched the raindrops splatter on his body, darkening the fabric of his black trousers and glistening on his dark curls like crystal.
I had already lost Marcel and my children. Now I would lose myself.
The woman shoves Aliya towards me, then motions to the exit. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Ballen."
I step out into the harsh light of early afternoon, and walk towards the transports. Rejected again. Only this time, we will be joining Marcel, Ikia, Daerel, and Joen in a happier realm.
If such a place exists.
Aliya tugs on my tunic, and I scoop her up into my arms. Her matted curls grate on my neck, a distracting feeling; but I remain standing, cradling her fragile form with my own. I stroke her hair, rocking to and fro. Other refugees hurry past, but I do not step out of the way. Willpower – to move, to think, to cry – leaves me. My heart, hardened through years of grief and abuse, is numbed to the point that I feel nothing. Cracks form and spread in my emotional core, but no pain follows.
I am already dying inside.
They would not let me go back for Marcel's body. And now no one will care about Aliya's and mine. We're just refugees. No great loss. No family to mourn our passings, no tears shed over our tragedy. We are the true victims of this conflict.
And no one will record our deaths – the Galactic Alliance stopped publishing lists of civilian casualties long before Coruscant fell. There are just too many people that can't be accounted for.
Someone taps my shoulder. I turn, shifting Aliya's weight to one hip, and look into the face of a guard. He is also young, barely out of his teens, and I see pity and compassion in his brown eyes. He smiles kindly and gestures away from the crowd.
"Will you please come with me, ma'am?"
I trail behind him, a pale blue uniform in a sea of dirt and filth. The overbearing sense of fear begins to fade, and the air begins to clear. Less refugees. More space. Two gates come into view: one leading to the spaceport, the other to the city.
The guard holds up a hand, and I halt. Abandoned by everyone, we have finally come to the end. I start to walk towards the ships – and death.
"Wait," he says, grabbing my arm. "There is another way."
I pause. "What other choice do I have?"
"You have a child. If you leave Kuat, you'll either die of starvation or enslavement."
"I know." I brush a lock off Aliya's forehead, and shrug my shoulders. "But that's life."
He reaches into a pocket and retrieves a slip of flimsiplast. "Go through that path to the city, then find this address. The people there will help you find a home."
Then he leaves, marching back to the camp as if nothing ever happened.
I stare at the paper in my hands, directions to a new life and a new beginning. A chance for Aliya to survive, and my memories to endure.
And as I turn my back on the spaceport and enter the other lane, I feel the sun beating down on my back and the frost on my heart melting away.
Perhaps we are not forsaken after all.