Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
One day, they had been sitting at the dining table, eating for the fifth meal in a row a thin vegetable soup with some floating cracked bones in it, as the incessant rain pelted against the window.
“Dad?” Kviye asked, and her father seemed startled by the sudden intrusion of sound into their lives.
The question, which she wished had been asked earlier so that the person she most wanted to answer it would have had a chance to do so, hurt her throat with its jagged edges as it came out. “Why did mom love flying?”
Their words lapped at the shores of silence, long pauses between each of them speaking. “It was just her job.”
“I know it wasn’t. Sometimes I could hear her take off in the middle of the night, and then she would come back a couple of hours later. I’d check the log the next morning, and there were no jobs. So what was she doing?”
Her father took a deep breath and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “It’s the one thing I never understood about your mother, and like you, I waited too long to ask. I think I was mostly scared of the answer, that if she told me how she felt I would never shake this feeling that we were not enough for her. There was something about her and the sky and those stars.” He looked at the window, where the hangar with its cold and quiet skiff stood barely visible through the rain. “I’d guess it’s something you know more about than I do.” He smiled then, the first smile that had entered her world in so long she wasn’t sure she remembered how to do it. But she did remember, and she did smile back, and put her hand over her father’s as it rested on top of the table.
She wanted to say “I do” but the words jammed in her throat, and tears formed in her eyes. Her father’s eyes too, glistened in the dim light as he nodded in the direction of the window and asked her if she wanted to go out.
She wiped her eyes and managed to say “yes” before giving him a hug.
Half an hour later, when she brought the skiff above the clouds and into the warmth of the sun, she made herself a promise that she would find a way to climb higher and higher, to bring herself to someone else’s distant sun, where they would know of a cure to the affliction that took her mother.
Not even Valyen knew that this was one of the biggest reasons Kviye had been chasing the little black spheres all these years. With Adri getting sicker, she didn’t want to give her any hope; hope she knew would more likely than not come crashing out of the sky in a manner of minutes.
The altimeter indicated that she was about five hundred feet below the point where her last experiment nearly ended in complete disaster. She leveled her ascent, and took the skiff away from the city, so she could line up a trajectory that should have had her out of the atmosphere within Valyen’s field of view. As she took the ship around, it began to quiver with the realization that the air would soon be too thin for it to continue, but Kviye patted the controls and in a hushed tone told the skiff that everything was going to be okay.
Even if it was going to all go well, and she would descend triumphantly back to Zhakitrinbur after kissing the underbelly of the great black frontier, and give that “told you so” smile to Valyen who would then take it in stride because all she wanted was for Kviye to return safe, this would only be the first baby step. Valyen was right, the ship didn’t have anything resembling a skimmer, and even if she could put something together from spare parts that came through Valyen’s garage it could take years for something workable to be constructed. And that something had as much odds of blowing her out of the sky as her current experiment did. Was there a point at the end of all this, a reason for her trying that was more than the trying itself?
The voice inside her head, which unsurprisingly sounded much like Valyen’s, asked her one last time if she still thought it was a good idea. By way of answer, Kviye swiftly brought the skiff to maximum velocity, tipped the nose upward, and flipped a switch on the dusty control panel.
The panel blared in either alarm or excitement and a new kind of shiver passed through the ship. Somewhere behind her, the lid of the device blew open with a crash. For a moment, it seemed as though nothing would happen, but then Kviye felt the weight of the whole moon press her into her seat and then incrementally release her as if something within the ship itself helped Kviye in her struggle against this new force. The altimeter blazed past her previous record and kept rising. The ship shook and bucked in protest of this new sensation as Kviye made the necessary adjustments to spare herself from being pulverized against her seat. She took a quick glance at the altimeter, and it was either broken, or she was about to leave the only world she knew behind.
She thought she imagined it at first, or that she was losing consciousness and her vision was blackening around the edges, and then she understood what was happening. The sky that had long hung over her like a protective blanket had parted, and she found that all this time it had been a veil that concealed from her the most beautiful sight.
The black expanse towered over her like an endless possibility, and as her eyes adjusted to the light, the stars, without their familiar twinkle, revealed themselves around her. Below her, the greenish pearl of her moon hung like a tear drop off the solemn grey cheek of the gas giant. Kviye reached out and touched the cold glass of the viewscreen. The stars, just beyond her fingertips, appeared close enough to reach, no longer a dream, but a material thing she could touch, as long as she pointed her ship the right direction and kept going.
Kviye briefly popped into the cockpit and came back after discovering radio silence from her father. She wondered if he even noticed that she was gone, or if he was still in town, trying to get word on whether anyone needed anything, as long as it was profitable, even if that profit was hardly worth Kviye’s time to get the ship’s engines running. She returned to Valyen, shaking her head.
“I guess that means I’ve got time to try.”
“You have a better suggestion?” And before Valyen could open her mouth, Kviye added with a laugh, “I mean before ‘never’.”
“I don’t suppose I can find any other way to stop you?”
“Val, I can hardly hear you above my heartbeat. I need to try this.”
“Okay?” Kviye raised her eyebrows.
“Okay. If that’s the look you’re going to give me because you can’t wait another five minutes, I’m not sure I could handle looking at your face much longer anyway.” Kviye cast her glance down to the floor, but when Valyen added, “Now let’s go get this thing fired up,” Kviye quickly looked up at her friend.
“Sure,” Valyen said coolly, though Kviye noticed the perspiration suddenly form under her hairline. “Can’t let you have all the fun.”
“I’m not sure either of us will be having much fun with you hugging your seat with your eyes closed and moaning the whole way through.”
“That was one flight.”
“That was your only flight!” Kviye laughed and put a hand on Valyen’s shoulder. “Besides, I need someone on the ground so they can point to whatever swamp I end up crashing this thing into.” Kviye’s words cast a shadow over Valyen’s smiling face.
“You’ll be fine,” Valyen said as Kviye pulled her in for a hug.
“I’m just going to see the stars and be right back.”
“C’mon,” Valyen’s voice was tense as she wiggled out of Kviye’s embrace. “Before this starts feeling like a goodbye.”
Kviye thought Valyen looked like she had something else to say, but instead she gave Kviye a thin smile, and headed towards the loading ramp.
Kviye sat in the cockpit performing a third check of all her instruments and displays, including a new panel that had been black and dead her entire life and that until today had been used to display her mother’s photo, which now watched Kviye taped to the viewscreen. The panel was dim and emitted an incessant ticking sound and Kviye could only guess at how long it had not been maintained for. She had decided that further rumination and divination would not help her understand it more than she already did, a passing familiarity based on her experience with other instruments that would hopefully mean that at the very least any avoidable disaster could indeed be avoided.
She took her straight black hair, which normally hung just past her shoulders, and pulled it together with a tie before slipping on her flight helmet – a safety precaution she normally dispensed with, but perhaps not when she was so brazenly tempting fate. Taking a long look at her mother smiling back at her from the wide viewscreen, Kviye brought the propulsion engines to life and the skiff lifted off the landing pad. Kviye angled the ship away from the garage and caught a glimpse of Valyen standing in its doors, her hands tucked into her armpits and a look on her face that Kviye didn’t much want to dwell on. She gave her friend a small wave, knowing that Valyen could not see her through the reflective windows, and pulled away into the skies above Zhakitrinbur.
Kviye gained altitude in a wide spiral over land, the edge of which hugged the bay around which the city had nestled itself. Everything was going well, insofar as her fiddling with the device did not interfere with the regular operation of the skiff – all seemed normal but for the novelty of the flashing panel distracting her out of the corner of her eye.
It was beautiful weather for tempting fate, the kind of day her mother had said was perfect for flying, as long as you liked it easy and didn’t fall asleep at the controls. Her mother preferred flying through a bit of chop, the rain lashing sideways across the hull and the ground hardly visible beneath the murk. This caused no small amount of grief for Kviye’s father, especially when Kviye started joining her on her runs, rain or shine.
It had been nearly seven years to the day since she had left them after succumbing to the grey, a wasting disease that seemed to affect more and more people on their moon every year. In the last few months of her life, she had been unable to fly, and Kviye took to making her first solo short-haul runs, always flying with the fear that her mother wouldn’t be there when she returned. During the final week, she grounded herself completely and while her father stayed in the other room unable to face his stricken wife, Kviye stayed by her mother’s bedside as the disease took her sight, her speech, her hearing and eventually the rest of what it had left.
After the funeral, it had rained forever in Vingu and they did not speak for so long that Kviye wasn’t sure if she had a voice anymore. Valyen’s calls were left unanswered and became less frequent, but still every two days, right before sunset, like clockwork. The colour had all been washed away from the world, and out of Kviye’s life.
Kviye scooped up the smaller pebble-sized pieces into one hand and the larger ball into the other and resumed setting them into place.
“How do you even know they’re supposed to go in there?”
“I don’t,” Kviye answered as the first pebble crossed an invisible threshold and jolted slightly before stabilizing in a floating position. “I can hear you rolling your eyes, you know.”
Valyen merely snorted in response.
“Remember a couple of years back?” Kviye continued. “Those half-starved Wentries that spent four months flying barely above light speed before they reached us? Everyone knew their subspace skimmer was busted yet nobody knew how to fix it.”
Valyen straightened up at this suggestion. “There’s no way this hunk of junk is part of a skimmer.”
“Maybe a primitive one. That’s not the point, do you remember who fixed it?”
“Yes,” Valyen answered, her voice dropping, but then she smiled. “Those Wentries were so mad you started rooting about in there. For a moment I thought they might tear you limb from limb, or at the very least toss you right out of the ship.”
Kviye snorted. “They weren’t too happy with me. Until they realized I fixed it. I was just there to help you out, not really looking to go off on my own.” The whole time Kviye spoke, Valyen watched her hands intently at work, fingers moving and manipulating without any discernible pattern. One of the pebbles started to float away from the group, but Kviye’s left pinky shot out and shepherded it back into place. “I was looking over your shoulder as you fiddled with something and it caught me out of the corner of my eyes, the heaviness these things emit that you can’t quite put a finger on. It was also somehow different that time, almost as if it was upset.”
“Oh stop it.”
“I’m serious. I know it makes no sense but that’s what I felt. I can’t tell you what I heard or what I saw because the answer is pretty much ‘nothing’. When it pulled me, and I followed, I forgot all about you and all about the Wentries. The only thing that remained was that black ball and that whine it sent to the back of my head. I could feel that the shroud around it was darker and somehow knew that I could stop it. So I lay my hands on it and adjusted it and I can’t even say if those were my hands, let alone if I was moving them. And through the haze I heard the distant shouting and then a hand roughly tore me away but by that point is was all done. The darkness had thinned and I returned to the ship. Good thing that it started making all the right noises and the Wentries kindly opted not to kill me.”
Valyen, somehow even paler than she normally looked, shuddered. “I never liked these things. Some deep space dark magic bapa zhaga stuff.”
“Maybe so, but face it, from what we’ve seen, you can’t run a subspace skimmer without one. And without a skimmer, how am I supposed to take to the stars?”
“The stars, Kvee, just take a moment to think what you’re talking about here, what kind of precise calculations and what kind of specific knowledge is required here. You can’t fly a skiff across the continent without crashing if you don’t have years of training and what are you going to go on? Feelings?”
Kviye bit her lip as a particularly finicky dark pebble refused to find a place for itself, but after a few moments of concentration, she whispered “yes”.
“You can’t take a ship to the stars with feelings alone.”
“Well, not alone, it’s feelings and these little things.” And as she finished speaking, Kviye felt through her fingers a bit of resistance, a sensation that spread up her arms and through her whole body, as if for a moment she had been locked in placed, and when she pushed herself out of the stupor, she knew she could let go and she removed her fingers to leave the little pebbles orbiting the larger ball, all suspended within the open chamber of the device.
“I’ve certainly never seen them do that before.” Kviye couldn’t remember the last time Valyen looked so perplexed while looking at something ostensibly mechanical. A faint hum emanated from the long-extinguished device and a smudged display came to life.
“Me neither.” The panel displayed a few words she didn’t recognize, written in that intricate script that the ship’s systems used, but as far as she could tell, everything, whatever “everything” was in this situation, was functioning as it should have been. “Looks like it’s working.”
“And how did you make that conclusion, more feelings?”
“I’d call it more of an ‘educated guess’ and it’s gotten me this far, so why stop now?” Kviye got up and rubbed her hands on her pants. “Let me just check if dad’s picked up any commissions for today.”
Kviye sighed and palmed the sphere. “Remember when we were little and would clamber up on the roof and watch the night sky together, and I would always try to guess which star was ours until you threatened to shove me off the roof? That question never left me, Val. I think that’s why father does most of his business out of Vingu now, because it’s cloudy all the time I almost never see the stars. You and my dad should talk sometime. He’d like nothing more than to tie me to a stake hammered into the ground, too.” Valyen tried to interject but Kviye stopped her and put the little black ball up to the ceiling light. “It wouldn’t matter though, I know they’re there, and they keep calling. It’s my sickness to deal with, so let me try this cure.”
Valyen picked up the tool she was fiddling with and walked over to place it on a shelf. She slowly took a deep breath, and looked for something else on her desk that she could rearrange while Kviye remained hypnotized by the ball between her fingers.
“And let’s say this works,” Valyen said, “and somehow you find out that we had come from somewhere else. Then what? I mean think about it. No other humans had ever visited Tanfana. If we did come from somewhere else, where are we now? For all you know, we’re the last ones left, that we’re all we have. What’re you going to do with that knowledge? How is that going to help you find home?”
“This has never been about finding home, Val,” Kviye replied, the hurt seeping into her voice. Valyen had always taken her dreams personally, and each of their arguments felt like an accusation that Kviye did not care enough. “I know where my home is. Just like I’m sure anyone who passes through here has a strong connection to whatever rock they’d grown up on. But they’re out here playing a role in something bigger – a wider home. We know there’s a great big world whose edge we’re floating on and who’s to say there’s not already a place out there for us?”
Valyen let out an exasperated sigh, saying nothing and idly fingering a greasy wrench.
“So, you want to head out there and help me install this thing?”
Valyen’s eyebrows nearly shot off her face. “Now? And, I’m sorry, you think I’m actually going to help you with this foolishness?”
“Look,” Kviye said, slipping the ball into her pocket. “I can either go out there and do this all alone or you can help me and make sure I don’t blow myself up, okay?” And, without waiting for a reply, she went out of the garage.
“You’re not exactly making me feel better about any of this,” Valyen grumbled, but grabbed her work jacket, and followed.
It was late into the afternoon when Kviye truly felt that she was close, that it was this precise configuration of spheres that would accomplish what she intended, and that she just needed to find that imperceptible movement that would lock them into place. Valyen’s help mostly came in the form of moral support through impatient tongue-clicking and sarcastic grunting. On more than one occasion, she expressed her displeasure at the fact that the process seemed to her more art than science, which according to Valyen was entirely misplaced when approaching a poorly-understood part of the skiff that had the capability of blowing the whole ship up on a whim.
“Why are you so sure you know what you’re doing?” Valyen asked, looking over Kviye’s shoulder, who had her tongue sandwiched firmly between her lips as the worked the array into place.
“I’m not, but I think that’s kind of the point.”
“You’re going to have to give me a bit more here.”
“I don’t have any more to give you, and I swear I’d explain it if I could.” Kviye’s fingers slipped and the larger of the spheres dropped to the bottom of the reactor with a louder thud than its diminutive size would have suggested. At least, Kviye had assumed it was some kind of reactor. Had Valyen known the full string of assumptions that led Kviye to that day, Kviye expected she would have clocked her over the head with a wrench and strapped her to a chair in the garage so that she couldn’t escape.
The particular piece of the skiff’s equipment that she was working on continued to puzzle Kviye. She had found it in the engine room by pure chance, trying to trace the source of a leak to an innocuous wall panel that had been sealed off centuries before her and revealed a device far more elaborate than she expected. By its configuration, it appeared to her to be some kind of support system for the engines. There was a whole host of connections that had once been intended for the engines but that at one point had been severed, while other connections led to dead ends near the ship’s hull, and whatever they may or may not have originally connected to had been completely erased from the ship’s memory. There had been no manual for the skiff, and her mother left no instructions, though Kviye suspected that it was more than likely that even her mother hadn’t known about the device. The empty chamber that she was currently working on, however, did bare an uncanny resemblance to parts on alien ships that she occasionally serviced alongside Valyen, and which were used as a type of auxiliary reactor for their faster-than-light engines, each equipped with a sphere similar to the one that she received from Valyen. But even rerouting all available power to this ‘reactor’ had only given them a small burst of energy, a miscalculation that had almost led to the disastrous end to her last attempted spaceflight.
Kviye took the skiff in a wide arc over the city, and landed it on one of the launch pads outside Valyen’s family’s garage. While she cut the engine and confirmed everything was in order, Valyen stepped outside and squinted in the light of the afternoon sun. She did not have the expression Kviye was hoping to see after a six-week separation, and Valyen took what appeared to be an angry bite out of her sandwich before heading around to greet Kviye at the loading ramp.
Once Kviye stepped onto solid ground with her arms open, Valyen relented, grumpily returning the hug, her sandwich still in hand and pressed against Kviye’s back.
“It’s really good to see you, Val,” Kviye said after releasing her friend.
“Is it? Could have fooled me.” Valyen chomped into her sandwich for another sour-looking bite.
“I know, I’m sorry, I should have tried to visit more. We’ve had a very busy season, but we’re doing well enough that we might not have to spend next winter in the marshlands at all, so that has to be worth something right?”
Valyen tried to maintain her dour look, though her voice softened at that. “You better mean it this time. We could use a pair of hands like yours around here.”
“And you won’t have to miss my sunny presence, either.” Kviye smiled and made an open gesture with her hands.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that. Can’t say that I’m that happy to – you just want to see it don’t you?”
A guilty smile spread over Kviye’s face. “I may be dying, yes.”
Valyen rolled her eyes and grunted, “Fine, let me show you.” Kviye followed her friend into the garage, and now that they were side by side she could see the long healing gash running from Valyen’s shoulder to her elbow. Against Valen’s creamy pale skin, common on this side of the continent though differing from the warm slightly brassy tones of Kviye and her family, and generally those who traced their ancestry mainly to Vingu and its environs, the cut looked even worse than she had imagined, the pink still an angry bright shade around the scab. Kviye raised her hand to touch it, but stopped shy of Valyen’s arm.
“I didn’t think it would look this bad.”
Valyen glanced briefly down at her arm and scoffed. “You should have seen it when it happened.”
“I kind of wish I had.”
“I still haven’t gotten all the stains out of my jacket. There was so much blood I thought I was going to pass out. Instead, I just tied this dirty rag around the wound and tried to keep working, pretty sure that was my brain going funny from blood loss. Adri found me and smacked some sense into me, and then patched me up pretty well. Can hardly feel it anymore. Didn’t even have to go to the doctor.”
“Where is Adri anyway, I was hoping to see him.”
“Today isn’t one of his good days.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“He’s doing well enough all things considered. It seems to be progressing slowly in him.” Valyen stopped by her desk in the little recessed office in the back of the garage, and pulled out a heavy case from underneath. ”Anyway. I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, but here it is.” She threw open the case, and revealed the single black sphere sitting inside.
Kviye carefully pulled it out and held it to the light between her thumb and index finger. The solid sphere not only did not allow any light to pass through, but rather seemed to bend it and swallow it, as if the ball, no larger than her pinky nail, was surrounded by a shadowy halo.
“It’s beautiful. Where did you get it from?” Kviye asked without ever turning her eyes away from the orb.
“Picked up from an Iastret research vessel,” Valyen responded, moving around some items on the table purposefully not looking at the increasingly intense look in Kviye’s eyes. “They needed some repairs, and some more grant money, so I guess it worked out quite well for them in the end.”
“Iastret? Are those the bird people?”
“I don’t think they like being called ‘bird people’, but yes, the bird people.”
“Are they still here? I was hoping to talk to them and see how it was used.”
“They were only here a few days, and took off a couple of weeks ago.”
“A couple weeks?” Kviye asked indignantly. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I told you, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to give it to you. I’m not joking when I say I walked it over to the river twice, fully intent on throwing my three thousand in the water.”
“So what finally made you decide to call me?”
“I don’t know, and don’t ask me or I’ll snatch that thing from you and march right down to the river again.”
“Well I’m glad you did.” Kviye took her eyes off the little black drop long enough to give her friend a thankful smile. “The little grains I’ve collected so far haven’t been able to properly power that auxiliary reactor or whatever it is, but this …”
“You think this one might be big enough?”
“Not by itself, no. If it had been, they would’ve asked for way more, even for a spent one. If I could augment it with the others, it should serve the same function as a much bigger piece.”
“I still feel like it’s bolting a rocket engine to a bathtub. Those things were never meant to go to space, Kvee.” Valyen shook her head.
“I know, I know,” annoyance and understanding fought for control of Kviye’s tone. “You know I need to find this out for myself.”
“I know it, but I don’t get it.”
As Kviye made her way up the ladder and into the passage that led towards the cockpit, she was hit with the same familiar smell – of getting tucked in at bedtime, of breakfast around the table in the early blue light of dawn as her mother readied to go on a flight, of evenings spent reading or tinkering with spare parts by lamplight. It was the smell of her mother, and after all these years this space still exuded it. In all likelihood, it was her mother who had actually soaked up the ancient smells of the skiff, but Kviye pushed away this truth in favour of her mother’s presence lingering here after all these years, watching over Kviye, ready to guide her through the flight she was about to undertake.
The skiff’s engine purred to life, only a high-pitched whine and vibrations in her feet indicating it was on. She gently lifted the ship off the ground and out of the hangar, and then having pointed the nose to her destination, initiated the throttle and shot above the landscape.
Lakes and crisscrossing streams zipped by underfoot as she slowly gained altitude to get above the storm whose edges she could already see on the horizon. Within fifteen minutes, all that lay below were cobalt churning clouds pressing down on the marshes where even the soil would ripple in waves from the wind. The cabin of the skiff shuddered and she brought it up even higher.
The previous year, she attempted to prove her theory and tested the limits of the skiff’s ability. She brought it up higher than she ever had, higher than the altitude her mother had warned her never to try rise above, a rather specific number that made Kviye wonder as to the origins of its calculation, and just when she thought everything she heard was simply an old fable designed to keep hearts rooted firmly to the ground, the ship stalled and she made it hallway to the surface before regaining control, telling of her failed experiment to no one but Valyen. Even with that knowledge, Valyen still procured the part for her, and if it worked the way Kviye expected, then the next time she made the attempt, she should be able to take the skiff out of the atmosphere and make it one step closer to proving that it was these ships that were what brought her ancestors here from somewhere out there; the birthplace of humanity.
Once the storm cleared, she was already past the marshes, and entering the drier hilly grasslands on the south side of their small continent. She lowered the ship closer to the ground, observing the small moving dots of the massive four-legged creatures that grazed these parts undisturbed by their human neighbours. There were only two rivers that meandered through these valleys, the occasional white blemishes of human settlements jutting off to the side. Kviye wondered how everyone that below was so content to assume they had always been there, that there was no other home than this small moon circling a grey gas giant. “Where had they come from?” was a question that not only didn’t have an answer, but no askers as well. Valyen’s response had always been “why do you care?” and even her mother couldn’t provide her with anything satisfactory.
Kviye had brought it up about ten years earlier, before her mother had fallen sick with the grey, when her parents decided she was old enough to learn the family business and she started accompanying her mother on her flights as co-pilot.
“Ma, so how old is this skiff anyway?” Kviye had asked, running her hand over the main console, her fingers tracing buttons that had probably long lost their original colour.
“I’m not sure,” her mother answered, not taking her eyes off the view outside. “It must’ve been in our family for, well, at least a hundred generations.”
Kviye sighed. “Yes, but who built it?”
“Someone who knew what they were doing.” Her mother smiled, and then gently tapped one of the displays on the console. “Hey, are you going to watch that gauge?” Kviye had snapped out of her daydream, about the ancestors that must have built the skiffs and taken their secrets with them, and pressed a lever to correct the ship’s vibration before the turbulence had truly kicked in.
It was the same gauge that was bothering her now, and she corrected for the strong winds coming off the sea. The pale walls of Zhakitrinbur glimmered in the distance, nestled against a vast ocean that contained nothing but the opposite side of their continent. Her and Valyen had spent many evenings of their childhood lying on the rooftop of Valyen’s family’s garage staring out over the dark expanse of water, with the perforated black blanket of sky overhead. Valyen had wondered about what lands may lie beyond the horizon, and while she gradually accepted the fact that the only land peaking above the waves on the moon was theirs and had turned her thoughts inward, to the garage downstairs and her growing list of responsibilities, Kviye’s own questions instead grew until their enormity dwarfed her life on Tanfana and threatened to push her from the shrunken rock.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I have something for you here.”
The call had woken Kviye up, and only a hint of blue light was streaming in through the window, but even through the sleepy fog, Kviye realized immediately what Valyen was talking about and sat up in bed.
“Are you serious?” Kviye asked, peeking through the window to see if the skiff was parked outside.
“They said it was completely spent and still charged me three thousand for it.”
“Three?” She had to admit the price made her hesitate, for the briefest moment; with her father not using the skiff, she might actually have it in her hands within hours. “I really owe you one Val.”
“Yeah you do. Three thousand, like I said.” Valyen may have had her reasons to be short, yet Kviye knew if anyone would let her take however long she needed to pay them back without interest, it would be Valyen. “Now get this thing off my hands before I change my mind and toss it in the river.”
Valyen’s voice on the line sounded distant; likely storms brewing over the marsh flats, which would slow her flight, so she wasted no time and was already putting on her clothes as she answered, “I’ll be there in a couple.”
“Right.” There was a pause before Valyen finally dropped the call, during which Kviye could almost feel the pain on the other end of the line, but any sympathy she felt for Valyen was drowned by her own excitement. Valyen made no secret of the fact that she thought Kviye’s plan was stupid, and that it would probably kill her, and frequently voiced her displeasure at Kviye’s unwavering commitment to her idea. And even though Kviye respected the concerns of her oldest and closest friend, by her estimation, this should have been the last piece she needed to answer a question that had preoccupied her ever since she could remember.
Kviye walked along soft damp earth in the direction of the skiff’s hangar. Shreds of mist rolled across the fields outside their house as unseen creatures chattered from dense shrubs and sang their morning song. The whole world was drowned in shades of green and blue, including the exterior of the hangar, which had grown slick with moss, and Kviye promised, probably for the tenth time, that she would clean it when she had a spare minute. The only exception was the skiff itself, which strikingly stood out in its dull silver sheen, a metal bird with a flat bill and wide behind, two narrow wings tucked at its sides. There were only two such skiffs in her town, among no more than a couple of dozen left spread across the whole moon, with this one having been in her family for generations.
Her father was likely in town, starting the morning early in search for new jobs. The day in Zhakitrinbur, on the other hand, was already in full swing. Not that Valyen was ever one to have much consideration for the time difference, but waking Kviye up before dawn meant that she may have been serious about changing her mind any minute and trashing Kviye’s prize before she got a chance to get her hands on it, so she picked up her pace even as her boots sank into the ground.
She could have called up her father and let him know she was taking the skiff out on the off-chance some rush job came in that couldn’t wait for her to bring it back in. Unlike Valyen, though, he hadn’t been aware of her plans beyond the mere suggestion of a hopeless dream, so explaining why she had to jet to Zhakitrinbur on such short notice would have invited too many unwanted questions.
Kviye’s father had always had a persnickety approach to the business, even though it was her mother, who was raised from childhood to be a pilot, who was the one that made the difficult last-minute decisions to make sure cargo and skiff arrived on time and in one piece. Kviye’s father was perfectly content to stay on the ground. What he had trouble with, was dealing with the lack of control, so he threw his energies into meticulous ledgers that grew like voracious fungus in his office and around his desk and led to more than one argument between her parents about flight schedules and route efficiencies. After her mother had died, and Kviye took over as pilot, her father had no longer kept as much of a watchful eye on the details and numbers, and seemed merely content that his daughter returned safely after every flight rather than get into the sporting rivalry he seemed to have carried on with his spouse. Trade between the three major cities on the moon was fairly sparse, especially during the stormy season and passengers infrequently needed a ride to some remote destination that would justify paying for a skiff flight. Any business was good business these days, and she hoped it would be a slow morning, because even she would have a hard time facing her father over a lost fare.
The dew coalesced and dripped off the skiff’s access ramp as it lowered towards the hangar floor. Kviye walked up into the cargo hold that took up most of the area inside the ship. These days, it had been mostly stripped bare, save for a few seats for passengers, while the rest was allotted for cargo. The hold below was also mostly empty, though she observed that its configuration and wall paneling was markedly different from the other storage space, leading her to suspect it was once suited for some other purpose. As she walked towards the cockpit she imagined most of the area taken up by seats, her ancestors huddled together side-by-side as the ship hurtled them across lightyears from their home towards dark unknown reaches of space. At least, unknown then, and now known to her and her people, the only world they knew even though a great busy universe was bustling next door to them.
“So, poet,” the Mraboran said, sliding her tablet across the table towards him. “What do you make of this?”
And speaking of being severed. Had Mikarik been tuned in to the general mood of his species like most other Thorians were, he would have sensed something grand brewing and would have at least tuned into the news out of the sheer overwhelming curiosity. But in his quiet bubble, the headline displayed on the tablet caught him entirely unawares. “Thorian occupation of Krevali enters third week.”
Despite himself, Mikarik was smirking. “Well isn’t that something.”
The Mraboran’s eyes had seemed to darken, she was scrutinizing him carefully. “Isn’t it?” She asked coolly. “Leave it to the Thorians to arrange for the end of an era to come crashing down.”
Mikarik plucked at the tablet and a dozen articles were projected in front of his face. He scrolled quickly through them, catching headlines and bylines from Thorian, Mraboran, Hatvan news sources and beyond. The Thorians haven’t invaded a non-space faring world since the early days of the Empire and he experienced that rare feeling where he itched to tap into the general mood.
“Looks like they’ve already purged the government,” he commented as pages whipped by him. “At least it looks like the Anthar Kai won’t be getting their hands on it.”
“So what do you think?” She finally asked as he pursed his lips staring up at the information in front of him.
“I’m … surprised.” He allowed himself a moment of honesty. “It’s so .. brazen.”
“Yes, you would think –”
“That after the Last Gasp we didn’t have it in us?” He pierced her from behind his sunglasses, then looked up at the articles again. “No, this is clearly a very loud message to not number the last days of the Empire. Unfortunately for the Krevali, they were the ones made into that message.”
“I suppose I should at least be happy that I’m all the way out here and not in the thick of it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Mikarik plucked an article and magnified it before spinning it her way, the headline announced that ORC is amassing its forces in in nearby Iastret space and is considering sending it to patrol Krevali’s neighbouring inhabited worlds. The fur on the Mraboran’s cheeks collapsed a bit. “See, I told you, humans are twitchy.” He clicked off all the articles and slid the tablet back to her. “So my condolences.”
“And this is what I don’t understand. What would the Thorians even expect out of this? You have it right there in front of you, even Anthar Kai and the ORC are thumping on their door,” she said.
“There’s a whole door of difference between thumping on a door and breaking through. This is a pretty obvious invitation for some thumping.”
“But surely there was some far Vaparozh colony that would have been enough. To do this to the Krevali …” She trailed off as if leaving him room to either agree or disagree. He knew what this was, although the feeling was foreign to him, this invitation for empathy for sentient beings who were not Thorian. It seemed to come easily to all the other species, this manufactured idea of a level of equality. It was a weakness that had allowed the Empire to grow and consume more than a third of the Known Reaches.
“Listen,” Mikarik said, “I don’t presume to speak for the infinite wisdom of the handpicked lunatics of the Imperial Senate, and it’s not like I’m exactly on speaking terms with my own people, but my advice would be to never underestimate the danger of a cornered animal.”
The Mraboran let out a short surprised growl.
“What?” Mikarik asked.
“Nothing. I don’t think I’ve met a Thorian who spoke out against anything the Empire did.”
“Maybe you haven’t met enough Thorians.”
“Oh, I think I’ve met enough.”
“Yeah, me too.”
This time it was her turn to avoid his gaze and she stared into what he presumed was an empty mug as he tapped his pen on the table.
“Did you enjoy your tea?” He finally asked.
“Yes, actually,” she rose from the table. “I’d recommend you go find some planet-side.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.” He gave a small nod and watched her head for the door. As she put her hand on it, she turned her head in his direction with a smile that only revealed her canines.
“Maybe I’ll see you around, poet.”
“Maybe.” He wasn’t sure if she’d heard him before the door closed behind her as he was left alone for the last time.
The dining hall was now filled with nothing but the hum of the ship, which left an uncomfortable amount of room for Mikarik’s thoughts. The articles must have beamed out about a week ago, which means it had been at least three weeks since the invasion; three weeks since he should have sensed the first ripple of excitement in the Thorian empathic consciousness, which would have swelled to near euphoria as the news spread around the Empire. Joy at the prospect of the return of the glory days, joy at the expansion of the Empire, which meant more living space, more Thorians, and therefore more voices to raise the mood of the species. Instead the inside of his head felt like the dead of space. Supposedly it was how all other sentients felt like, completely disconnected from other members of their race, trying to yoke their distinct individuality together for common goals. The enemies of the Empire, which, for all practical aspects, was everyone who was not the Empire, used this to stoke fear of the Thorians, arguing that experiencing collective empathy created an arrogance that by extension deemed all others inferior. And though he conceded that there was truth to this suspicion, he felt, in whatever atrophied organ that didn’t allow him to tap into it, that it was the most noble trait possessed by any species yet encountered.
He poked around in the silence, like he always did whenever he faced his deficiency so starkly, but any mood he found was entirely his own, and largely influenced by the Mraboran.
During the whole conversation, her tail stayed perfectly still, which everyone knew was a sign that a Mraboran is lying. That is, everyone, but the other “everyone” who knew that a Mraboran’s tail twitches every time they lie. Same goes for whether their ears are completely flat against their head or poke out ever so slightly, and whether they’re mostly showing their left or right canines. There’s often a lot riding on whether a Mraboran is telling the truth or not, and despite the high stakes, no one has been able to crack it. Mikarik had his own theories, though none particularly sound. What was obvious to him was that she was sent to speak to him by one of his handlers, but which one? It hardly mattered now and would likely be about three months when it wouldn’t matter at all.
In the meantime, he had about a week left to torment his notebook until he arrived on Earth, after which another couple of hops and skips were supposed to lead him to the to the human colony where his trail was going to go cold. He wondered what to do with his completed notebooks. Perhaps, he could drop them off at a courier and ship them to his mother. Should only take about a half year to get there.
If all went according to plan, and by all accounts it should have because he was due, within a month he would boarding the research vessel Forseti in his new role, a Thorian traitor to the Empire.
The Mraboran smiled, revealing the barest hint of two sharp canines. “Long time to be awake.”
“I’ve had longer,” Mikarik lied; now was as good a time as any to practice.
“Really?” That purr again. “I would probably go crazy being up all by myself.”
“So what’s got you up now?”
“Got knocked out. Always do. Any time we get close to a destination I start getting dreams that we’re headed straight for a star. Only way to get rid of them is to get up and make sure the ship’s not melting.”
“I’d prefer sleeping right through that, personally, you know, just in case it was true and I could avoid dying painfully.”
“Being all by yourself for three months sounds a lot like dying painfully to me.”
“Well you know what they say, a Thorian’s got time to spare.” The “they” of course were only Thorians who lorded their longer lifespans over almost every other sentient species. He loathed when other Thorians did it, but accepted that hypocrisy and self-loathing go hand-in-hand.
Those narrow feline eyes flashed at him with a lack of patience and she pulled a personal computer tablet out of a pouch on her belt and turned her attention to that. Mikarik turned back to his notebook, to agonize over synonyms and metaphors and scratch at the three cranial bumps running down his forehead, vestiges of a time when Thorian males slammed their heads together as a means of winning favour of unimpressed females. Every Thorian with the exception of his mother had mentioned to him how small his were, and many suggested how easy it would be to cave his skull in with a single slam, despite the fact that anyone who would be even remotely impressed by this display would be fellow brick-heads. Few had actually tried, and of those that did, none tried more than once. At least for this reason, he was quite pleased by them, even if they did itch something fierce whenever his mind was particularly preoccupied.
Three months he had been at it, and this was his fourth notebook, and every day he thought he was making progress until he read his writing the following day and convinced himself he had the eloquence of a toddler. In that respect, at least, he felt like a true writer. These efforts were difficult enough, but feeling her glance at him every couple of minutes didn’t help.
She let out a sharp huff, exaggerating the scintillating nature of whatever it was she had read, and then leaned forward in her chair. “So you’re an awfully long way from home for a Thorian.”
Mikarik tapped his pen on the page a few times. “Any further and I’d end up in Dead Space.”
“I suppose so,” she laughed. “This is my first time this far out.” She left open a silence that he refused to fill, preoccupied by the pages even though he hadn’t written or read anything in a while. “I guess I’ll need to get used to it though. My new diplomatic post is for five years, and then who knows.”
“Five years among Humans?” He looked at her then, a single canine poking out from a fuzzy lip. “Who did you have to kill to deserve that fate?”
“I don’t think Humans are all that bad, especially once you get to know them.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I find them too … twitchy, unpredictable. They haven’t quite figured themselves out yet, so how am supposed to make anything of them?”
“Harsh words for someone travelling to their homeworld. So what does bring you out to these parts?”
He squinted at her with his green eyes, something she would have seen even through the glasses and said, “You’ll laugh.”
“You don’t know that.”
He told, her. She laughed.
“I’m sorry, I thought Thorians didn’t do poetry.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the common misconception.”
“Something about you not being able to do metaphors?”
“Maybe not in the same way.”
“Oh, I remember now. You can’t combine things with certain adjectives. Like you can’t say uhh,” her hand went behind her head, giving it a satisfying scratch.
“Angry wind.” They said in unison, though Mikarik’s outburst was far less enthused. He wasn’t particularly keen on how many times this has been quoted to him, an inclusion in some two-bit traveller’s guide that got reprinted across every corner of the Known Reaches. Funny how most of them didn’t bother to include the other little tidbit that he was about to spring on the Mraboran.
“It’s true, we don’t personify things.” Technically they didn’t personify anything other than Thorians. Even the Mraboran’s use of “I” was grating to Mikarik’s ears. “But we have plenty of adjectives that serve their unique purposes.”
“Why do I have a sense that you have one up your sleeve already?”
Mikarik permitted himself a smile and leaned back in his chair. “Clearly I’m becoming predictable. But one word I’ve always liked is ‘netkarthai’. Hard to translate, harder still to understand. But it means something along the lines of “invoking a fear that one will never hear their loved ones again”. It also formed the basis of the word ‘netkarthi’, one of the many words of varying levels of derision that were used to describe the “severed” – those who were deaf to the hive empathy of the Thorians. Just speaking the word put a dark shroud around the room that flooded into Mikarik’s mind. This focused darkness is what he used to make the reckless decisions that gave him his medals and battle scars.
“Well that certainly is ominous,” she responded after chewing on the word for a bit. “Sounds like you might be finding a lot of that this far from home.”
“That’s the hope.” He responded and turned back to his notepad, still sensing her eyes refusing to release him.
Hello reader, and welcome to the online sci-fi serial, The Bloodlet Sun. You can start by reading the introduction or browsing the table of contents, or feel free to jump into the first chapter below. Enjoy!
The thrum of the ship as it skidded along the surface of subspace would have chased most into their stasis pods for the duration of the journey. For Mikarik, it was the sound of home, of a reprieve from responsibilities or the unforeseen twists that life had such an unpleasant habit of delivering. It was the pause between the times when choices needed to be made and when decisions mattered.
He never understood those who crawled into their pod the moment they came aboard, and went into an empty sleep that terminated days, weeks and sometimes months later, after the ship had already safely docked at the end of the journey. Granted, they banked some of that time, it being generally believed that one ages at only one-third the regular rate while in stasis, but were a few meager years at the end of one’s life really worth the wasted opportunities?
Mikarik slept only when he was tired, retiring for his usual fourteen-hour sleep cycle, without any regard for how his biological clock would end up needing to be calibrated when he arrived. The destination always had its own rhythms. Its own time and length of day, its own peak of activity whether it was high noon or the dead of night or the temperate spaces of dawn and dusk where it neither threatened to freeze you nor boil you alive.
And in between the inconveniences of having to replenish his energy, he ate, and read and wandered whichever sections of the ship where not closed to the public. Encounters with others were usually scarce, as most preferred the get-it-over-with option of submitting to near-death.
Sometimes he spent days without interacting with a single sentient, but he was rarely alone for long. Though few shared his appetite for an entirely solitary and wakeful journey, others often woke up along the way and depending entirely on their personality and Mikarik’s moods, provided welcome company.
The long-haul passenger cruiser he currently found himself on, and likely the penultimate trip he would ever undertake, had left Vaparozh three months prior, and would be docking in orbit above Earth in less than a week. It was one of the longest voyages Mikarik had undertaken, and even he felt as though he was on the verge of going stir crazy. Like all ships built on Vaparozh, it was structured to accommodate their strictly gender-segregated yet somehow austerely egalitarian culture, with one dining hall for the males, one for the females, and a small and run-down hall, where Mikarik spent most of his days, for those passengers that came from barbaric cultures that allowed their genders to co-mingle during such holy rites as eating and sleeping.
He had been largely alone for over a week, as even restless travelers preferred to catch up on sleep just prior to their destination, which left him plenty of time to aggressively tap his pen against a blank page in his notebook and summon words that refused to do his bidding. He thought he was being amusing when he chose posing as a poet as his cover for the trip. Instead, he unwittingly subjected himself to the a frustration he hadn’t felt since spending weeks pretending to be helpless and adrift in orbits of rocky moons waiting for pirates to strike.
He expected no more company for the remainder of the flight when a very groggy and disheveled Mraboran female entered the hall and appeared either startled or confused to find him there.
“Good morning. Please, don’t mind me,” Mikarik said in Common Pidgin as the Mraboran ran her hand through the tangled fur on her forehead, clearing it out of her golden eyes.
“I didn’t expect anyone else to be up.” She responded in fluent Thorian that betrayed the barest hint of an accent.
“Neither did I, but here we both are.” He switched to his own native tongue and watched her through the bottom of his glass of water. She walked over to the food dispenser, which served slim pickings after a long-haul flight where most passengers were expected to forgo eating in favour of stasis, and poured hot water into a cup of something fragrant. Nothing Mraboran as far as he could tell, a floral scent he couldn’t identify.
She must have caught him sniffing. “Chamomile.” And after this elicited no reaction added, “It’s from Earth.”
“Ah.” He’d encountered humans before and was vaguely familiar with them, but they weren’t so eclectic that he would have any exposure to their cuisine.
Between the fluent Thorian and the human tea, this Mraboran seemed to go out of her way to show him how cosmopolitan she was. He scratched a couple of words in his notebook, as she took a seat across from him and watched him over her mug, inhaling its vapours.
To the untrained eye, there was no discernible difference between Mraboran males and females. Both were covered with the same short sleek fur that ranged from dusty blonde to a shimmering copper, and both had the same sonorant voices with the slightest hint of a hiss. And while females were marginally more partial to using belts to strap their tails to their body, their clothing was generally unisex. But Mikarik had worked and lived among enough Mraborans to know that the key lay in the eyes. Males looked at you with a round dumb expression that was perpetually surprised. The females’ eyes were narrow and calculating and constantly sized you up as potential prey. Even hundreds of light-years from home there was no getting away from evolutionary biology.
“You should try it, helps you get back to sleep when you’re knocked out,” she suggested after taking a long sip from her mug of chamomile tea.
“I don’t get knocked out,” Mikarik responded without lifting his eyes off the page.
“Can’t get knocked out if you never go in.”
She put her mug down then and drew out a long “Really?” Doesn’t matter how fluent they are, they fall back into purring whenever they encounter the throaty “r” of the Thorian language, one of the reasons why it’s dropped in Common Pidgin. “Sounds tedious.”
“Pretty quiet, actually,” he put his pen down and his eyes met hers. He was at an advantage there, with his mostly shaded by his implanted glasses. The Vaparozh sun was a scorching ball of yellow flame even brighter than most of the suns of the habitable worlds, a stark contrast to the dim red glow on the Thorian homeworld of Kai Thori. He spent the first week of the journey trying to find a way to dim the lights and eventually gave up, ending most of his days with a headache.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.