Billions of Suns By John Sheppard

Yermilov lay on his back, staring up into the night sky. It was one of those rare nights in the city when the streetlights weren’t drowning out the stars, where the stars were stronger and more present than anything scrabbling along on or stuck to the earth. He was in the cemetery behind his apartments, a bookbag under his head, beneath the statue of a Union war hero whose name was MONTGOMERY. Montgomery had fixed his bayonet, stood at the at-ready position, the bill of his Civil War hat fixed over his squinted eyeballs. His little statue face said, “I am ready to kill.”

Montgomery was a source of endless fascination for Yermilov. Yermilov was a soldier who’d never seen combat. He’d joined after the Persian Gulf War. He was in Europe during the Yugoslav conflict, stationed in Mannheim, Germany with a demobilizing ordnance battalion. His wife was murdered shortly after 9/11, so the war effort in Afghanistan hadn’t yet begun, and the Iraq War was only a possibility. What kind of soldier would Yermilov had been had he seen combat? He was happy to not have had to find out.

Bam was off leash, wandering around, more than likely engaging in defecation atop some grave or other. While Bam was busy desecrating, or decorating—Yermilov couldn’t decide which word was more appropriate—Yermilov sipped gin out of a plastic sport bottle through a crazy straw. He didn’t know anything about astronomy, couldn’t name a single constellation, but the thought of billions of little suns out there in the universe blazing, lighting a billion little earths, made the center of his chest feel buzzy. He knew enough about astronomy to know that what he was seeing was the past, that what he was looking at when he was looking up was light that had traveled centuries, perhaps eons, to get here. “I don’t know anything about the stars and I’m a science fiction writer,” he said aloud. “I’m the shittiest science fiction writer alive.”

The cemetery closed at dusk, so he really shouldn’t be here anyway. He was usually very aware of rules, but when he could see the stars from his apartment window, he knew he had to get outside. He’d never seen any security patrolling, so he felt that it was okay to be here. Still, that little frisson of excitement over breaking a rule was tingling at the edge of his conscienceness.

Bam leapt atop his chest. “Ah!” he went. “Bam, you’re blocking the stars,” he said. He picked him up and placed him next to himself and absently scratched Bam’s head.

“Grr-puh!” Bam went, appreciatively. “Wuh, wuh.”

It was these perfect little moments that kept him alive, mostly.