In The Stars We Learned To Soar
By Leo McBride
Dead trees tumbled through the dark, spilling out of the ruptured dome of the bio-vessel, fractures tearing open the trunks where the water had boiled away. Jozsef Razvan nudged Čapek closer, its camera transmitting the damage back to the screens on his Buckyship.
It was almost beautiful, he thought, the slow, elegant spiral seen on his main screen and the two slave screens from the drones. Then a body span past the lens of the second drone, Karel, and Jozsef frowned. The bio-vessel would have had a crew of 30, maybe 40, all gone now, and its precious cargo of plant life exposed to the vacuum of space.
He remembered Aishe drunkenly telling him about plant biology at the last Abiav, how plants could survive longer in a vacuum, that some could be goaded back to life by the right hands. Looking at the damage, he doubted any of this could be revived. Still, if anyone could make something of it, Aishe could. He thumbed the control to mark the location and made a note to forward the information to her later.
The name of the bio-vessel lit up in the lights of Čapek. Verdoyant, and a tricolor. Part of the fleet of the French arm, thought Jozsef. Or it used to be, back when there was a fleet worth talking about in the Sol system. Moving Čapek further along the flank of the other vessel, finally he found it, the hexagonal shape of the airlock. He looked at the asteroid above, Amphitrite, and the timer counting off the 25 minutes of sunlight left before eclipse. He had to do this quickly. Give me time, sea goddess, Jozsef thought, then activated the recall on the drones and fired up the docking sequence.
The airlock was undamaged, but the interior beyond it was a mess of warped girders. At first, Jozsef thought he might be better going back out and dropping through the hole in the biodome but then he spied a path through and edged past, carefully making sure his suit wasn't snagged.
There were black marks along the wall, too. Signs of fire, he mused. No, sharper, straighter lines than a fire. He wondered again whether it was an asteroid collision or something else. He tapped the remote on his wrist and set his Buckyship to scan mode. He had to move.
There were two elements to the bio-vessel, the dome itself with its rich collection of plant life, and the crew areas of the ship. The dome was ruptured but the walls between it and the crew areas had been broken down by whatever had caused that damage too. The port side of the ship was open to space, Jozsef soon found, and the bridge and computer core were open to void, but crucially on the starboard side, several rooms remained intact, including he was delighted to find, part of the ship's seed bank.
He quickly loaded several containers with the sealed trays and loaded them onto a cart. A priceless cargo to recover, he grinned, thinking how Aishe would react to the find. There were some small stems, little more than twigs, and his eyes sparkled, and he added those to the salvage. Leaving them ready by the door to move, Jozsef continued to explore.
The remaining undamaged rooms were crew quarters, but no one was present. He guessed that they were all working to save the ship as it lost its final battle, be it with nature or something else. He wished he'd been able to access the computer core to find the sensor logs, see what had brought the end of the Verdoyant. Looking through the quarters, he found the remnants of life. Mementos, knick-nacks, photographs, scraps of what once was, reminders of what might never be again.
He lingered over one of the photographs, showing what appeared to be the crew of the ship, gathered smiling in the engine room. He counted them. Thirty-three souls. Some laughing, some making rude gestures at the camera, some raising glasses. He wondered how quickly the end had come for them. He wondered if they had time to say goodbye.
He set the picture frame down. Nothing he could do for the gadze crew now, though what they once had could do good things for others. He opened the door to the last room, his eyes alighting on paper, notched with marks of ink... and gasped.
Back aboard his Buckyship, Jozsef finished stacking and securing the seed trays as the computer handled the negotiation away from Amphitrite and its orbiting minor asteroid, Rhode. He kept an eye on proceedings, ready to take over the chair if there was an alert but it was a simple matter of reacting to sensor readings if any fragments got too close, so the automated pilot could handle it. Still, the same could have been said for the Verdoyant. As the asteroid started to recede into the distance on the viewscreen, Jozsef smiled and tapped the satchel that he had brought back from that last room on the shattered ship.
“Thank you, sea goddess,” he murmured to the vanishing asteroid. “Thank you.”
The Abiav was being held close to Ananke, in the orbit of Jupiter. It was two weeks since his rendezvous with Verdoyant and he was eager to show off his spoils. As the cluster came into view, he smiled. He may have been eager but already so many had already arrived. He guessed 50 Buckyships already attached to the cluster.
They called them Buckyships because of their football-like shape, similar to the Buckminsterfullerene molecule. They were modular by design, with at least four different points which could be used as an anchor to dock to, with airlock attached. The first to arrive had established a central ring, placed under spin, with later arrivals branching off, creating different strands and shapes.
Also docked were two larger vessels, one which Jozsef recognised as Wasili's moonrunner, the Callico,
the other a cargo scow he couldn't name. A newcomer at an Abiav? Jozsef frowned at the thought, then stabbed his communications into life.
“This is the Chok-engro, approaching for rendezvous. Who's minding the gate?”
There was silence for a moment before the reply crackled back.
“Jozsef!” replied a familiar voice, “About time you got here, you've missed two days' drinking already!”
“Tamás,” he laughed back, “Please don't tell me they've left you watching the scan after two days of drinking. How many ships in the cluster? Are you seeing double?”
“Treble with the purity of the booze out of Anis' still,” came the reply. “ I'm lucky I can see at all. Think she's trying to blind us. Lock yourself on and get in here, you'll find out for yourself soon enough.”
“Sure, where do you want me.”
“Hook yourself onto the Ratniken chiricio,” said Tamás, “Aishe's the last arrival and ready for visitors to attach.”
Jozsef nodded, then replied, “Actually that'll be helpful, I've got some scavenge to pass to her. Locking on now. All my remaining ports clear as people need.”
With that, he steered the Buckyship towards Aishe's vessel, a matching ball in the sky to Jozsef's own, except that hers was adorned with the painting of a bird, the nightingale from which it gained its name. Singing a gentle song under his breath, he powered up the docking laser and watched the approach computer count down the distance until the ports kissed, then locked together. He powered off the thrusters, checked his other airlocks were set to receive in his absence, then grabbed the satchel from where he had stashed it, slung it over his shoulder to hang at his back and popped open the lock to Aishe's ship.
She wasn't there, of course, he'd expected that. Wherever the celebration was right now, that's where she would be.
He pondered whether he should lift through the seed trays right now while he was here but he was too eager to see others after two months alone. Most of all, there was the Abiav itself to look forward to, a wedding party for Talaitha and Wasili. Such celebrations among the Roma had always been occasions to look forward to, but now, in the days since the Pamant Trecut, they were moments to be treasured. Life must be embraced all the more when it has come too close to being snuffed out altogether.
He made his way through Aishe's ship, then the next, then the next, moving through areas used by people both as living quarters and ship controls, just as he did in his own. The Buckyships were large enough to manage enough separation distance between flight functions and places to sleep or eat, but still, Jozsef was drifting past personal belongings, rubbing past parts of people's lives.
The first face he saw was Emmanaia's, who looked up from her console as he entered her ship then launched herself into a hug with him while shouting his name, a hug he eagerly returned. From there, it was face after face, a handshake here, an embrace there, and before he knew it he was borne by the arms of friends into the heart of the party.
Wasili was standing on a table making the most of the centrifugal force of the spin section to stage a ludicrous dance while others furiously made music out of whatever they had to hand – spoons, metal boxes, clucking of tongues. At the heart of one eager group of musicians, he saw his old friend Tem, furiously beating on metal strings stretched across a box.
And then there was Aishe, screaming his name and dashing through the crowd to him before wrapping herself around him in a hug so full he felt he could lose himself in it forever. Around him, there was laughter and cries that turned to taunts and suggestions of the two of them going somewhere more private as the hug laster longer than expected. Aishe broke off, making rude faces at those who made the riper suggestions and laughing along with them.
“It's so good to see you,” said Jozsef, “How long have you been here?”
“Two days,” replied Aishe, “I had to be one of the first here – Talaitha needed the help. There's been so much left to prepare. I've just finished getting her hair ready – and mine, look, do you approve?”
She swished her braided locks around for Jozsef to inspect, something he was only too happy to do as she posed for him.
“I do, my little goose! I do!”
She punched his arm playfully at that.
“Tell me,” he said, pointing, “is that a cimbalom that Tem is playing?”
“It is,” she smiled. “Built it himself out of pieces of engine parts and some high tension wires he traded at Luna. He's ever so proud.”
“I don't think I've seen one of those since I was a child, back before the fall,” said Jozsef and waved to catch Tem's attention before signalling his approval to a grin from his old friend.
Aishe laughed again, a deep belly laugh, the type that comes easily to someone who enjoys the marrow of life. “Come,” she said, “you're far too sober, we must attend to that.”
With that, she wrapped his hand in hers and pulled him deeper into the party.
When they came up for air, they found themselves back in her Buckyship, laughing and spinning through the lower gravity. They settled, giggling, against the low-g hammock and talked, and talked. He told her of the bio-vessel and, with a pencil, demonstrated the tree spinning through the vacuum. She mouthed her awe at the sight and insisted he pass along the co-ordinates so she might try and revive some of the plant specimens. She chattered on about things she had heard about certain plant species being able to be cajoled into life with the right treatment. Jozsef couldn't imagine how, but just watching her passion for the subject was enough for him. If she wanted to try, he was going to be the last person in the universe to stop her.
In return, she told him of her own travels, mostly trading around the Five Settlements and garnering news from the Fold Points at Luna and Mars. Earth may be withered and gone but out beyond the solar system, the cultures of humanity continued to reach out their arms, slowly but definitely.
“Will you ever go through the Fold?” she asked. She always did. As ever, he shrugged and said he would be where his people were. Rom with Rom, Gadze with Gadze.
“They say that through the Fold, they need people. We could begin again there. We could start anew.”
“Aishe,” he sighed. “These arms reaching out, when did they ever reach out for us in the past? Why would they reach out to us now? They go through, then hunker down on rocks, grip it like it's the land that matters, the way they did when there was a world, the way we always rejected back then. We always knew there was more to the world than a piece of land under your feet.
“Go through the Fold and you leave everything behind. Are you so sure you're ready to take that step? Family? Our culture, our way of life? You want to be a groundhog once you're on the other side? And what of the things we've left behind, the world that is gone, that they so readily want to leave?”
He interlaced his fingers with hers when he said that, but he could see that look in her eyes again, the one he knew meant she wanted to take the leap. She yearned to see more.
Their reverie was interrupted by Tamas bursting into the Buckyship, his duty shift ended. With much clapping on the back and cries of “come, come”, the two were pulled back into the swirl of the celebrations.
The party finally began to ease as the hour of the Abiav came close. The women and men separated, the women gathering around the bride, and the men seeking out the groom. Each was carried by their respective parties to the cargo bay of the Callico, the largest open space in the connected ships.
There, a silence fell as elder Bartholomeus called the ceremony to order. Wasili beamed with pride, while Talaitha clutched the twigs that Jozsef had retrieved from the Verdoyant.
She presented one of the twigs to Bartholomeus, who took it then snapped it and cast it aside.
“The twig breaks,” he said, “but your pledge must endure.”
Talaitha presented another twig. Bartholomeus snapped that too, saying: “Even the Earth withered and fell, but your pledge must endure.”
The two nodded, then presented one another with gifts, Talaitha providing food, Wasili providing drink, of which each partook, Wasili swigging his cup with a swagger. Then Bartholomeus produced a small knife and each extended their hands. He drew a thin cut along each hand and the two pressed them together.
“The mingling of the blood,” said Bartholomeus. “It was in the water one learned to swim. It was in the stars one learned to soar. It is with one another we learn to be.”
Aishe stepped forward and bound the pair's hands with ribbon, tied three times – signaling fertility, constancy and long life. The two stood close together with their wrists bound as blood stained the white ribbon. Talaitha drew some saucy laughs from the audience with an audacious and obvious wink that broadened Wasili's grin further.
And with that, Bartholomeus leaned close to Wasili and said, “She is sharp, this one, let her be your guide. Let her be your needle, let yourself be her thread. Follow surely wherever she goes.”
He slipped the ribbon open and the two embraced to a raucous roar of approval from the gathered guests, Jozsef shouting loudly among them. The celebrations so far had been as nothing. The feast was only just beginning. Back in the old days, the celebrations were mostly kept until after the event. But gatherings such as this were too few not to make the most of, so the tumult of earlier would carry on for another day at least, louder and more energetic if possible.
Before the parties could swirl away, however, Bartholomeus let out a bellow. “Before we all get too drunk,” he cried. “I need a few moments with members of the Diwano. Let's talk with clearer heads than we'll have tomorrow. The party can go where the drink is. The Diwano shall be here, in five minutes.”
Jozsef nodded. The gathering of elders. It happened every time there was a meeting of the families. He ducked out quickly and returned with his satchel just as the Diwano began. Tem was there, and Tamas, and Emmanaia. Aishe had gone to the party, seeing to her duties in the bridal party. Another dozen remained.
At first, Bartholomeus opened the floor for people to report news, and what each of the Five Settlements were seeking in trade. What one person had heard, another might supply, and deals were swiftly identified. At length, Bartholomeus spoke again.
“There is a matter,” he said, “that has been raised. A number of the families have said they are getting by well enough, but wondering if our journey has a destination. They wonder why we are here. In short, they have asked if it is time for us to go beyond the Fold.”
The words hung in the air. Beyond the Fold, thought Jozsef, Aishe isn't the only one wondering. If Aishe went, would I?
“I'm too old for such a thing myself,” said Bartholomeus. “I'm one of those whose feet tramped too much Earth before we rose to the stars. This feels like my place. These planets, these rocks and asteroids, I know them. I know our lanes, our paths. Beyond the Fold lie new places, but they are not mine. What do you say?”
There was a muttering among members of the Diwano. Emmanaia spoke up first. “My family was one of those to ask Bartholomeus,” she said. “We exist here as scavengers, traders, go-betweens for the Five Settlements. Why not find somewhere we can claim as our own?”
Tem grumbled. “We have a place we claim as our own. We have all the places we claim as our own. Those others hide away in their Five Settlements. Where would they be without us? They have need of us, that gives us more power than hunkered down on some distant rock, grubbing seeds out of strange soil. Here we are free. And here is where we came from. Our home, our culture.”
Tamas chimed in. “Together, we are the sun. I am but a shadow. The shadow moves as the sun commands.”
That brought a few nods, but Emmanaia persisted. “Are we to scrap and scrape for some ice off a rock here? Some remnants of metal from the fleet there? Those are physical things, transient things, things we can find through the Fold.
“I'm tired of working for them, trading for them, being looked down on by them for what we do. I take them six weeks' worth of water and they try to cheat me out of what it is worth and all I end up with is more things to take to trade elsewhere. Where do I end up? Back out in the dark, hunting and scraping and scavenging for more. What's the purpose? Where are we after it all? What reason do we have to stay here when we can find what we need there?”
Tem's voice rose to answer, and then others joined the mix, one on top of another. Jozsef listened, his mind as much a whirl as the voices around him, as he thought about it himself. About what Aishe had said. About Tem and Emmanaia. And about the terrible, sad beauty of that tree he watched spinning slowly in space. His hand found its way to the flap of his satchel.
“I have a reason...” he said, quietly, unheard in the hubbub. He looked up at his arguing friends, torn and divided by uncertainty. They didn't hear him as they raged against one another. Emmanaia toe to toe with Tem, counting out the reasons he was wrong. Tem with his arms open, trying to convince her of his argument. Jozsef stood up. He spoke louder. “I have a reason.”
Again, he went unheard, by all but one. Bartholomeus met his gaze. The old man looked carefully at him, quizzically. Jozsef slowly, almost imperceptibly, nodded.
“Quiet,” bellowed Bartholomeus, and the room fell still. “Jozsef, say what you said again.”
“I...” he began. “I have a reason.”
All eyes turned to him.
“We... we came to the stars at the worst of times for our people. We were unwanted, rejected by this place or that. We were wanderers without a home, or worse, wanderers trapped in a home we did not want. Then came the time of the Withered Earth, and those we left behind, those who would push us and reject us, they sought out the stars too. But we were already here.
“This is our place. These lanes are ours. We were the ones who sought them out. They fought for scraps of rock, we soared above them.
“You've seen them when we trade. They want x amount of water, y amount of iron, this that they can use to build that. But while they put one building block on another and call it living, here we are, dancing in the stars. They cling to their little places, we go where we will. They wish to leave the place we have made our own, I say we let them. We came here before the Wither, carrying with us the best of it, ourselves. I've spoken to people who have gone through the Fold. They say they exchanged one piece of rock for another. And if we go through the Fold, it'll be them dictating again which piece of rock we have, where we go, what we do.
“But there's another thing. Through the Fold, there is nothing of the Earth that was. Of the past that made us who we are. The songs that we sing, the bonds that we make at the Abiav, that which remains long after the Wither.”
He started to lift his satchel over his shoulder.
“Tem, you built a cimbalom because it is part of us... would you have built it through the Fold?”
Tem shook his head.
“Tamas, the things you keep when you salvage, is it the ore and supplies or is your ship adorned with the pictures, the personal things, the remembrances of all that was?”
“Here we are surrounded by the past. Here we can reclaim the Earth that was denied us, and take it for our own.”
“This is our legacy,” he said. “This is what matters. The culture we carry with us. The culture we uncover from years gone by. The thing that binds us together, that always did. None of this is through the Fold.”
Jozsef started to open the satchel. “Emmanaia, beyond the Fold there is nothing. But here,” he said, pulling a sheaf of paper from the satchel, “here we have music.” He lifted up one sheet, the first of the treasures uncovered from the Verdoyant, handed it to Tem.
There were lines drawn across it and here and there, interspersed along the lines, were annotations. Notes. Each note carrying with it hundreds of years of history, linking one person to another, no matter what rock they stood on. No matter where they soared.
“Here we have Beethoven.” Tem's eyes widened, looking at the notes marked on the sheet, as Jozsef handed over another, and another. “Here we have Wagner, and Bittova, and Cziffra, and Deutscher and Lakatos.”
“Here,” he said, as all eyes rested on him, certainty replacing doubt, fellowship replacing division. “Here, we will always have music as we dance in the stars.”
Leo McBride features in the upcoming collection from Inklings Press, Tales From The Universe. You can follow him on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Follow @InklingsPress for more details of the anthology.
UPDATE: Tales From The Universe is now available on Amazon here - http://mybook.to/TalesUniverse