The bar was quiet, with no customers besides us. We took over the solitary pool table and I went up to order drinks. There was a big, old brown lab on the floor, too sleepy to lift its head, though it wagged its tail on my approach. The white-haired man behind the bar looked tired and pretty much over this pesky thing called life.
He put his meaty hands on the bar and stared at me with impatience. "Well? What do you want." The accent sounded more southern than Ohio. I later learned he and his wife had bought a camper van, and they and their dog were planning on moving down to Florida to retire in the next year or two... long overdue, by the sound of it.
"I'll have a Long Island Iced Tea, please. Sir." I added the "sir" on the end because I felt compelled to. I was only 21 at the time.
"You'll have a what?" He scowled.
"Ah.. a Long Island Iced Tea," I pronounced a bit more slowly.
He looked annoyed at this. "Son, I don't mix drinks."
"Oh, okay, ah... I'll just have a rum and coke then, please."
The bartender shook his jowls and barked, "Son, what did I say? I said I. Don't. Mix. Drinks."
("Gaines, hurry up... we're about to break," my friend Genji commented from the pool table.)
Shifting uncomfortably, I glanced at the full shelves complete with all manner of liquors and mixers on the wall behind him, and then down the bar at the little glass-doored fridge with soft drinks and water bottles in it. "Okay, um.. then may I please have a glass with ice, with a shot of Captain Morgan rum in it, and also one of those cans of coke from the refrigerator?"
"Well okay then," the old man said, and went to get what I'd ordered.
Later that night he coached me in my pool-playing. I'd complained out loud about missing a shot, and from behind the bar, where he'd been watching us play while reading a newspaper, he hollered, "That's because you Hit. Too. Fucking. Hard."
Over the next several months we learned that he was actually quite a nice guy, beneath his rather mean exterior.
Okay, there. My Long Island Iced Tea story.
Gulls wheel, bigger than dogs
Boofy clouds outlined in peach
A grebe swims, and all the bread hogs
With mallards chasing, just out of reach
The tide is out, green rocks revealed
Salt and vinegar chips on the shore
The church bells sound, spring souls are healed
Distant lovers strolling, searching for more
Tall castle beckons, just out of sight
Ominous waves beneath moss-covered towers
Cobblestone path meanders, a sore foot's plight
The cold breeze tickling through daffodil flowers
Guffaws are muffled, behind windows of a pub
Harbourside painter somehow warm in his vest
Soon a glass of wine, and perhaps some grub
And then a pillow, as sleeping gulls rest
Aurel stood in the middle of the field, the dry grass up to his waist, its sweet aroma pleasant on the breeze. He held his arm up above his face, palm to the stars. Slowly, he shifted his focus from the backs of his fingers to the tiny points of light beyond and between them.
The heavens seemed to take on a three-dimensional quality: Some of the stars now appeared closer than others, and Aurel imagined he could sense the depths between those and the ones farther away. Many had hints of color: Distant reds, cold blues, soft greens, fierce yellows. Even the faintest of these shone more brightly than usual, for it was a very clear night; the moon had yet to rise, and the light from the fire was behind him and mostly blocked by the trees. The galaxy ran smoke-blue from one side of the sky to the other, unmoving, like a swath of mist frozen in place by the breath of some terrible, ancient beast.
The horse nickered faintly. Aurel turned to see her grazing at the edge of the thicket. He watched for a while, occasionally hearing a muffled chomping noise. She was a good horse, he thought. Strong and full of heart. Perhaps he should come up with a name for her. After all, they would share many more nights before he reached his destination. On quiet feet Aurel strode past the animal, stepping out of the silvery meadow and into the fire-lit stand of trees. He gently placed two good sized sticks across the flames of the campfire and sat down on his blanket.
Once again he reached into his vest pocket and took out the message. He unrolled it and stared at it, hoping against hope to gather some new meaning from it. Plain, black ink – ordinary ink, made from pine ash and water – lay scrawled across the paper in lines almost too messy to read. It was from Yori alright; there was no doubt about that. He was the only one Aurel knew who would send such a mundane letter. He had not signed his name at the bottom. Just the three lines,
"The very world," he mouthed. A twig snapped behind him, and Aurel looked up to see the horse standing there, ears perked forward, her big round eyes reflecting firelight. "It's ok," he comforted, "It's just me talking to myself again." The horse lowered her head and sniffed at the ground, as if reassured.
"What's the old man gone and done this time?" He mumbled, shaking his head and staring back up a t stars that were half hidden through the canopy of leaves.
John's jaws and tongue worked sluggishly as he meditated on the repulsiveness of the stuff he'd just squirted into his mouth. His hate for it transcended the mere taste of the substance; this disgust was as palpable as that lidded mug stuck to the desk in front of him -- like an object he could hold out at arm's length and say, This is the cause of my misery; this thing right here. He very nearly acted on the strong urge to hurl the food tube straight into the cycler.
The trouble was, everything they could produce in the ship's food processing factory would inevitably get old and unpalatable, and be imbued with that same partly imagined dullness that, of course, had nothing to do with its actual ingredients. There was no way around it. So John finished his meal in bored silence.
At length he unstrapped himself from his chair, placed the tube in the secure container designed to hold such things, and kicked off in the direction of the loo. Lunch break almost over; time to get back to work. It was a mind-numbing job that basically involved staring at a screen for hours and occasionally pushing a button or two. Not the most social of positions, but he was decent at it and didn't mind quiet. For the most part, anyway.
Lately he had found himself friend-building again. The infrequent conversations with his colleagues had yet again, given their typical insincerity, been causing John to build a wall around his mind that seemed to him was made of something like plastic, not unlike the flotsam that used to accumulate against the sewage ditch drains back home. Disgusting stuff, the kind one had to get rid of, and quick. So off he would go to one of the ship's three watering holes (each of which had its own mixture of charm and tediousness), and drink his way into the eyes of strangers. Conversation they would have, a bit of bullshit or sometimes more. Occasionally he would even feel like he'd made a friend. And then, smirking with mutual sympathy, they would both stare back at the screen on the wall and wait for the next opportunity for words.
The trouble was, he felt, he was always the one waiting, and wanting the conversation to go further. And it was with a different person, every time. He suspected he wasn't the only one in this predicament, as there was nothing lonelier than a deep-space freighter full of transients like him. But still. He sometimes wished he had... well, more. Or, that he was more.
Not that it mattered. In another few months they would be arriving at Galdron Station, and then he'd be off this rig and onto the next one, bound for gods knew where. And then all this fun mush-eating and friend-building would start all over again.
Malek opened his eyes again and stared at the dust motes playing through the warm ray of morning sunlight, swirling like microscopic leaves in a river current. “Why are we here? I mean seriously, how did we get so far away from home? From things familiar? And you know I’m not just talking about what we’ve just eaten for breakfast!”
“I think I want to tell you a story,” Alani said, sipping her tea with a distant look in her eyes as if she hadn’t even heard him.
Malek chuckled. “Yeah okay, sure; as long as it isn’t one I’ve heard a dozen times already!”
“There was a man once,” she continued, nearly interrupting him. “I shouldn’t mention his name, especially not here. Let’s just call him ‘Searcher’ for now. He was everywhere, in mind, and he always was looking for something... though he didn’t quite know what that was. But he ventured to all the faraway places in search of it: Mountains, valleys, cities, fields, islands, rivers....”
Intrigued by this change of mood in his ordinarily blunt and not-so-reflective sister, Malek poured more water into both their cups, kicked his feet up on the wooden table, and sat back to listen.
“As this Searcher traveled, he got better at knowing where to look; he became more and more aware of life. As for why he was searching, all he knew was that the longing came from deep within him. Like a hunger it ate at him, burned him to go on. Any mode of travel would do... and he found that there are lots of them.”
Outside the inn, a horse plodded down the muddy lane, its belled harness jingling in lazy rhythm with the occasional shouts of an old woman hawking her wares in an unintelligible dialect.
“Like traveling whilst smashed in-between a couple of crates and the edge of a cart that’s been tied way too close to the stinky ass of the ox that's drawing it!”
This comment caused a corner of Alani’s mouth to turn slowly upward. “Yes,” she shuddered, “Like that. Anyway, as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted—”
“I was just—”
“Fine,” he smirked, picking a piece of tea leaf from his teeth.
“So this Searcher traveled the world using every means imaginable. He explored for years, decades even, until his whiskers grew grey and his back bent crooked. Still, in the end he found nothing. Nothing at all.”
Malek squinted, waiting for the punch line. His sister lit her pipe and gazed pensively out the window. “And?” he finally asked.
“And what? That's the end of the story.”
“Well that’s stupid.”
“I know you are but what am I.”
Malek let out an exaggerated guffaw. But the story had unnerved him, and unbidden thoughts were flooding his mind. Of screams in the dark, of those words their father had forced them to memorize before he would let them flee that final, fateful night....
He placed his mug down on the table, nearly knocking it over, and strode abruptly toward the door. He paused before walking out. “You’re wrong, you know.”
“Am I?” His sister said.
“This is different. We’ll find her.”
“Am I?” She mocked, a dark look in her eyes belying the sarcasm in her smirk.
“Shut up. And yes, you are. I know we’ll find her.”
“Right. But... am I?”
On his way out of the inn, Malek slammed the door shut a lot harder than he’d meant to.
A muffled series of thumps resounded from the north wall. Heath’s pulse quickened. The ship must be entering the gyre already.
Hastily, he wrapped his sleeves up to the armpits with nylo wire and then tied it off. Removing the helmet, he squirmed into the jumpers, one layer after another. They felt tight around his muscles. He flexed his elbows until the coils loosened a little, then put on the gloves and helmet and picked up his spear. More thumps were coming from the hull, with increasing frequency. It was now or never. Or at least not until next pass around Littlerock.
No one was around to watch the boy in his ridiculous garb as he went up the access ladder to the broken old ceiling lock, climbed inside, and began cycling open the hatch to the sky.
An alarm sounded. Heath did not hesitate. He had been expecting it, and the adults were all too afraid to do anything about it anyway. Pushing up on the hatch, he stuck his head into the wind and peered around him.
The surface of Littlerock lay several kilom’ers below the ship, appearing a hazy purple through the thick atmosphere. All that solid earth, Heath thought. But even more on Bigrock.
The rush of air against the helmet was deafening. The ship was deep in the gyre already, and the sargaca clouds were all around, whipping along the air currents in blurs of dark green. One ripped past his head close enough to make him flinch. He heard the thumps and scrapes against the hull as the ship plowed into cloud after cloud of the moss-like substance. The plant matter slid across the solar panels spanning the craft’s mighty wings, and made a staccato pinging sound where it was getting trapped in the forward food grills.
Gyres were regions of rotating wind currents created by the complex system of coriolises around Littlerock. Most were semi-permanent eddy zones chocked full of snared sargaca, as well as the myriad flora and fauna that used the stuff for food and cover. Long ago, the crew had realized that the only way to sustainably feed themselves was to steer the ship through the gyres and collect what biomass they could scoop up. Once clear, they would retrieve the captured sargaca from the food grills, and then process it in the lab to extract proteins, gases, trace minerals, and so on.
Heath scanned the gyre, on the lookout for sudden movement. Humans were not the only creatures feeding here....
It took the members of the Vairr’on all the next day to decide what to do. Jannina stayed at home with her parents. They asked her endless questions about the saar’bone, and she did her best to answer truthfully. In the end they were even more confused than they had been that morning, when they had climbed out of bed without having had a wink of sleep.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, the fog cleared and the sun broke through the low clouds to shine down on the garden. Jannina's grandfather came walking up to the hut. He looked many years older than he had the night before.
He sat them all down in the family room, and Jannina’s mum served hot chiyet. They listened as he told them what had been decided.
The attack of the Til’chagga had been unnatural, unlike anything that had ever happened throughout the history of Aalmuvai. The consensus was that it had been the forbidden sounds from the saar’bone that had attracted the giant sea creature, and most of the Vairr’on had wanted to condemn Jannina to what they deemed a just punishment: Transport to Chamma’Nyva, along with an apology and a promise that Aalmuvai would be more vigilant in future and thereby prevent anyone from ever making such forbidden sounds again.
Jannina’s grandfather had fought against this, and had even begged the rest of the Vairr’on, he said, for a different outcome. His proposal was that Jannina instead be exiled, in secret. This, he had argued, would remove the threat to the village’s wellbeing without condemning the young woman to slavery or death. He had argued that his nephew’s family would take her in, faraway in the western reaches of the Yon’naal Forest, and that he would make sure that she never returned to the east coast of Krr’chamma again.
They had listened to him, and had agreed that if the matter could be kept secret, then Jannina could perhaps start a new life. After much discussion, it had been decided.
Jannina listened numbly to her grandfather, and to her dad’s outraged protestations, and to her mum’s terrified weeping.
She did not say a word the whole time. The events of the past few days played over and over in her mind. She just sat there in stunned silence.
Exiled. She was going to be exiled.
They say there are multiple universes, and that only energy and our own perception keep us locked within this one. That if we just learned to truly see, or created a big enough explosion, then we could break out.
Well, I've tried to see, but no matter how far I go or how many modes of travel I experience, I continue to feel just as blind as I did after Zoë died.
Now I'm old, and time is running out. I need to be with her again; it is an absolute imperative. Even if it has to be through the eyes of an alternate me, from another life, in a different time, against a mirror reality.
So, I'll have to settle for option B: A giant explosion. One bigger than anything this universe has known since the Big Bang.
It has taken six years, but the preparations are just about all in place. The hard part has been keeping the nature of the experiment from the many very keen minds that have been involved in the planning.
One small problem has cropped up recently. It turns out that Taarsworth, from the theory team, has a six-degrees connection with Zhang, one of the engineers. The chances that either of them would ever bump into each other and actually talk about this very secret project are slim at best... but still.
I'll have to take one of them out. Tonight, before I change my mind. Too much is at stake not to.
You were there when our father would have done anything to keep from tearing her heart to pieces, had he known what was happening. She, who had been his lover, his wife, his boys' mother; his companion, his best friend. She, who watched his mind wilt and blur until it was less than a shadow of its glorious former self.
You were there when the great storm left the hills stretched smooth beneath a skin of ice, glimmering so brightly in the afternoon sun that we had to squint. How loud the frozen wood cracked and groaned beneath our axes as we laughed and swung, racing to outdo each other's pile.
You were there when I abandoned you, whisked off to the far side of the world by adventure and love and destiny. I still remember what you taught me: Holding my palm up against the night sky, I shift my focus from the silhouetted fingers to the shining stars in-between, and can clearly see that some are nearer than others.
You were there when the Oortbeast threatened to swallow the world. The stories we heard as children all spoke of courage and valor, but none of those so-called heroes could hold a candle to how you stood your ground and struck the enemy down, blow by blow by blow.
You were there when I spoke to you yesterday, just before dawn, in a dream. You are still here. You will always be here. And I will always be there.
August knew what they called him behind his back: “nancy;” “jelly-bones.” The five specialists—Toragger, Baans, Zim, Auldelaire, Morris—had all graduated top of their respective classes, extremely well-tuned elites of deadly military precision, but put them together in a group and their inner grunt came out.
The Relocation Meta might observe that they seemed to share an exclusive camaraderie based on a longing for boot camp or a simplicity of life that had probably never existed. Bring in an outsider from clear across the system to take their dead commander’s place, and voila, recipe for animosity and potential insubordination. But it wasn’t just that. There was an extra edge to their voices when they answered him; a vague limpness in their salutes.
It was because of his father, of course. Everyone knew who Colonel Tansworth had been. Even all the way out here in the dead of space, August still could not escape that fact. One of the specialists, Baans, chuckled something under his breath.
Baans raised his eyes, but otherwise showed no reaction. He kept his elbows on his knees, a pair of meaty tattooed fists propping a square stubbly chin. Everyone stopped talking.
If August chose to ignore the man’s insolence, he would appear weak. He cracked his knuckles. “That’s right; I’m talking to you, numbnuts. On your feet.”
Smirking, Baans shot a glance at Zim next to him, but eventually stretched himself upright to assume a semblance of attention. “Sir,” he drawled, that extra edge even more palpable than before.
“What was the last order Lieutenant Mensus gave before he died?”
Baans shifted uncomfortably. “What?”
“Your former commander. The last thing he said to you lot before he carked it. What was it?” August knew exactly what his predecessor’s last words had been; it was all on record.
Anger rippled across Baans’s brow. He pressed his lips together and bunched his forearm muscles, but slowly blood of another kind rose up the sides of his neck. The foredeck had fallen so quiet they could hear the distant rumble from the matter converters.
“Well? I’m waiting, Midshipman.”
Baans looked down at his feet. “..ny means..ary,” he mumbled.
“Speak up, soldier,” August snapped.
“By any means necessary!”
“That’s right; ‘by any means necessary,’” August repeated. “Well, ladies, I am that means. This crew needed a new runner, so here I am. You know it; I know it. It is what it is. So let’s stop all this bullshit pussyfooting around so we can get to work. That okay with you specialists? Or am I going to have to drop one or two of you planet-side and find replacements at the orbital resup depot? I know a few folks stationed there who’d absolutely jump at the chance, and they’re plenty qualified for the job.”
One by one the others stood, glaring.
“Well? What's it gonna be?”
“No, sir,” Toragger growled.
“No? No what?”
“No need to find replacements, sir!” Zim barked.
August raised an eyebrow at Baans. “And you?”
Baans snapped his boots together and shot his hand up in a full military salute. This time there was nothing limp about it. “Yes, sir. Count me in, sir. By any means necessary. Sir!”
“Well all right then. Take a seat, gentlemen, and let’s talk about the speed of light.”
He remembered rolling down the back lawn, crashing into cradling honeysuckle in a giggling heap, nose full of grass and earth and the sky still spinning.
And there were her smiling eyes.
He remembered singing, Shuffle shuffle shuffle through the crunchy crunchy leaves, as his feet sought golden orange maple and already brown sycamore and a pile so deep he could jump off the roof and land safe like a crouton in soup.
And there were her smiling eyes.
He remembered when he was a beetle. “You can walk between houses, honey,” she had said. But of course, he had insisted on crawling with all six legs. It had to be—and not just look—authentic, after all!
And sighing, perhaps, there still were her smiling eyes.
He remembered last October. The short visit; the half-finished conversations; the goodbye drop-off at the airport, hurried due to the very bulky box he had been determined to check in.
And now, months later, he was sitting on a stone beneath an iron sky on the other side of the planet, trying to remember. Had he embraced her? Had he said all that he had wanted to say to her? During his time there, had he done anything to help at all?
The cat tiptoed around the corner and stretched. A cool gust of wind rocked the branches overhead, sending a pair of high-strung lorikeets screeching off in search of a more stable perch.
He closed his eyes, remembering some more.
The Constable’s tone had been sympathetic, but his warning was unambiguous: if Arturo did not pay up by season's end, he would lose the other eye.
Arturo had simply given the larger (but in his mind, smaller) man an impatient nod and shown him the door. For the Town to have sent someone all the way out here to East End just to tell the winemaker something he already knew was nothing short of patronizing, and as he watched the Constable carefully leading his mare back down the muddy oily slope, Arturo’s wounded pride had left him no choice but to shout after him. “You’ll see! It’s a bumper crop this year. You’ll all have your gold, and I’ll be laughing!”
But that had been over a month ago, and no thanks to the embarrassing incident of the storm, his debt had now doubled. Arturo Morlen, who fancied himself a carefree type of fellow, was beginning to worry.
The aluminum broad-brimmed hat hanging from a nail in the doorframe had belonged to his father, and to his grandfather before that. Arturo placed it evenly on his own head, snatched a pair of stained leather gloves from the bench, and walked outside to face the day.
Only a few stars remained in the sky, directly overhead. Their light gleamed from Arturo’s single golden eye. The steep little valley spread below him, its sides clothed in shadow-blue vineyards that were broken only by the occasional clump of spruces. Farther down he could see that his only neighbors, the Appenbaums, had already lit their breakfast fire; a ghostly white plume rose more or less eastward to merge with the thin orange glow from the sun where it promised to bloom above the gentle hills that marked the confluence of the Five Valleys. It was a beautiful morning.
Arturo smiled. Never mind the Town; he would prove the Old Crone wrong once and for all about the graygrapes, and while he was at it, he just might win Gailen’s heart.
As far as Tarilleon was concerned, birds were worse than fish. Sure, you had more freedom in the air, and thus—potentially, at least—more room for perspective. But with fish, the danger was obvious; from the second you entered, being inside one felt so alien and mind-numbing you couldn't wait to get out. The risks of being bird-brained for too long, on the other hand, were much... more subtle.
It was the addiction, of course. The hook, on which so many had hung their mortal coils and never thought to look back.
To be able to fly had perhaps been a dream in the human subconscious for as long as they’d had two hands and a pair of feet. Actually being able to do it now—soaring high overhead, completely unreachable by earthly concerns, tasting the wild wind—was hard to give up indeed. Tarilleon’s own brother Moz had fallen to the temptation, and he himself had nearly succumbed when he was a younger man. He had survived only by learning discipline, moderation, and control.
And so it was with great reluctance and more than a little trepidation that Tarilleon had agreed to the High Oracle’s proposal. Using cormorants as their hosts, Tarilleon and four other Watchers would penetrate deep into Sha’mani territory, flying all the way south to the palace of Chamma’Nyva. There they would sit atop walls and on windowsills, dodging rocks and gleaning what information they could.
It would be eight days before they returned to their real bodies. Hence the trepidation: the longest anyone had ever been inside a bird, and successfully returned with sanity intact, was six days. They could shorten the journey by traveling into Krr’Chamma first, finding a safe place to harbor their bodies, and employing wild birds locally. But with animals that had not been raised and nurtured since birth, the risk of a premature break was too great. And so they would have to fly all the way from here using the cormorants.
It was imperative that they find out what the Sha’mani were up to, and soon. Something terrible was happening; never mind the High Oracle, even Tarilleon had sensed it. He could feel it in his bones, in the soil and water, in the very air gusting through his feathers....
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