New colonies. Alternate Earths. Parallel Universes. All is fair game.
Our tribe didn't have a word for the huge, winged race of reptiles who shared the cliff faces with us. They were just "The Clasp." Same as us. One tribe. One name. One shared livelihood as old as the great butte.
When I was a young boy, before I knew better, I asked my grandmother if we were pretending to be like the big, scaly tribesmen or if they were pretending to be like us. After all, we didn't look anything alike. When I finally made her understand my question, I hated the way she looked at me, like she'd tasted something bitter. Tyllaxis pressed a button and fired off the day's rockets. He did it now with a heavy heart. The war had been churning on for centuries. In his early days as a junior he remembered how ardent he had been. The fifth planet had to be punished. Their crimes were unpardonable.
He glanced to his right. Now he was in charge and his junior sat in turn at his side. She had asked him that very morning, with some hesitation, "What exactly did they do?" Paz took the measurements twice. Nicolai stood by the entrance, watching, and if she finished too quickly he would accuse her of carelessness, so she frowned thoughtfully at the handheld's screen and jabbed at buttons to make her analysis look official. Not that she needed the handheld--she knew the hollowheart trees better than anyone.
She knew they were dying. Zen was the head waitress at Gus's Restaurant (Serving You Since 1952!) Other waitresses came and went, sometimes after only a week or two. So far neither low pay, bad tips, nor Gus's grouchiness fazed Zen. Rumor had it she'd run away and was hiding--from a biker boyfriend, an abusive husband. Zen smiled and neither confirmed nor denied the rumors.
"Zenobia," she'd said, the first time she served Mick and he asked about the name, "I like 'Zen' better." I had landed a few weeks ago on Bharini, on a routine scout mission. As a scout cadet I had explored many planets, but none of them came this close to being perfect. Bharini was a find that would earn me my stripes.
The cold rocky landscape was dominated by gigantic trees that had grown sideways, upwards and everywhere. Giant aerial roots supported and enmeshed the whole structure. My eyes failed to separate one tree from the next. They must have been a millennium old at least, to entangle like that. Gnarled old trees that knew nothing of death, nothing of destruction. Living mountains they were. Give us your sky for two hours and we'll fill it with story-telling spectres! That's one of the pitches we use for our traveling troupe, Wide Sky Theater. We ride the skip nodes bringing cultcha to everybody, or so we tell ourselves and each other, and then we sometimes snicker, sometimes bicker, sometimes laugh loud and long, and our new cast members, they really believe it, those wonderful naifs.
Our ship was on the way to a fringe planet called Streak. All seven of the cast and crew had gathered in the central room for a strategy discussion. Her room was on the hospital's fifth floor. He took the stairs. Despite the length of his travel here, he needed just a few final, calming minutes alone.
He did not like the hospital's smell, an uninviting mix of antiseptic and latex. He was sure she didn't like it either. She had always favored perfumes, mostly light floral scents, mixing varieties each day they were together. That was long ago, but he'd found that some predispositions weather the tides of time. The trumpet of the elephant announced the closing of the gates. Zookeeper Hemiz set down his pencil, pushed away the timing equations for the new arctic exhibit, and leaned back in his office chair with his eyes closed. It had been a long month at Krinnia's Earth Animal Clockwork Zoo. Tomorrow was The Winding, a busy event in itself, but tonight's closing, the finale of the month-long program, was his favorite.
The elephant's solo ended. The canaries chirped in response, then the gorillas added the percussion of their chests. The owls joined the melody with soft hoots, syncopating with the bleats of the sheep as the cries of animals across the zoo rose to a cacophonous crescendo, then faded. The parakeets tweeted, setting up the close. When Linda was in kindergarten, telescopes and probes produced the first fuzzy images of distant planets orbiting faraway stars.
She drew pictures of these planets with bold lines and vibrant colors. She drew herself walking under three red suns in a pink spacesuit. She drew domed cities under ringed moons. She drew purple jungles where the leaves were pentagons and the birds had four wings. He left the presidential mansion so gripped with excitement that he had to sit in a lovely park afterward, hands shaking on his knees, while children splashed in a water fountain and he smiled at the limitless possibilities ahead. Back at his hotel, he hunched over the desk while the orange sun burned its arc and dipped behind the government buildings. He scribbled on the pale stationery, on the back of napkins, on pages torn from the expensive hotel binder that listed room service and pool hours. While he slept, his fingers twitched in search of a pencil to draw more.
During the train trip home he sketched in the margins of newspapers and on the back of security announcements. Through dirty plastic windows he watched soldiers on platforms, their green uniforms crisp despite the heat. When a tired businessman sat beside him, the man showed him a very preliminary diagram. The hotel, he said. The fabulous hotel by the sea. The president had agreed. You can see now, Doctor, that I'm not insane. It's all a mistake. Right, I was naked and screaming and it took two cops to wrestle me down but that was a reaction to what happened. Anybody would've acted the same. You can understand that. Right? Once you know the whole story, you'll see.
Look, Saturday I turned thirty. Thirty years and I had nothing much, did nothing much, was nothing much. I'm even an orphan. I'm a cashier at a supermarket. Slide the item over the barcode reader, ding, ring it up, ding, swipe the card (debit or credit?), ding ding ding. Great life, right? I live alone in a one bedroom. No friends, no girl, nothing. I put all my money in a savings account that pays near zero percent interest. "How's your ankle, Luci?" Feon Sen, High Chancellor of Carinae, leaned against the wall, watching intently as she braided her dark hair. Luscinia considered the question carefully, studying his reflection in the mirror. He was a man of many words, but his meaning was clearest in the surgically smoothed lines around his eyes and the rhythm his fingers absent-mindedly tapped out on his arm. He was asking if she was up to the task he had for her tonight.
"Better, thank you." She stood and danced a few quick steps to prove it. She was ready. The prism-glass walls sent the light they had collected from Carina's dim sun scattering around the room in teardrops of scarlet and gold and sapphire. It was hard not to blame the cold and the hard crystal floors for the aches in her joints. Hot sun and soft ground were worlds away, but Feon always had a good reason for her to stay whenever she mentioned returning to her home planet. I'm sorry, Ria. The words are inadequate, but they're all I have. Reading them again, I'm not even sure that they're true. Does saying I'm sorry also require me to say that I would make a different choice, if I had the chance? If so, then I don't even have that inadequate statement to fall back on. Only the tale itself, which I have owed you for a long time. Forgive me for being too much a coward to write you sooner.
I remember how confident I was when I set out, so sure I would find Kere in the first place I looked. Weeks from home I found him, but that was only days before the siege closed in on the city. I sent a letter then, but I don't know if it reached you. In a way, I hope it didn't: it was a different man who sent it than the one who writes you now. The siege lasted months, and those months were hard enough. Then the city fell and the conqueror marched in to claim the ashes, and Kere and I and every other living body were sold to Dogstown. Legend tells that once upon a time our world, populated by our people, and all the motile and sessile organisms of our ecosystem, orbited a huge hot glowing ball of thermonuclear plasma.
Be that as it may, for time beyond memory, we have co-orbited with Partner across the dusty vacuum of starry space. They arrived in a glory of light during a summer month. Glory isn't quite how we perceived it. Their ship destroyed a vast amount of our harvest. But their translator used the word glory, which we were given to mean a very fine thing.
We come in peace. May the light of our wisdom shine on your people. Although I was almost invulnerable to physical attack due to my fighting prowess and the great height and scale of my fortified tower, she somehow slipped through my defenses and made me fall in love with her.
I knew it was a ruse, some devilish trick of hers, but I could not help myself. After all those years spent on one battlefield or another, amassing wealth and power far beyond my wildest dreams, at last I had met my match. Respect and fear I could command like no other--but love, love had always eluded me. In the National Trust play area, in the sight of the immense Neolithic stones that have stood for five thousand years and whose purpose was lost and now is understood, the sisters watched the children playing. November air bit the children, turning ungloved fingers cold and red and numb. The children were indifferent. They hurtled around the play area, engrossed in the convoluted pecking-order games they'd devised. No strangers here. Children find their playmates quickly. They understand the rules.
At unmeasured distance, the triangles converged in apex aligning space. The Neolithic stone gate nearest the playground opened in a hiss of >c-light, splitting and reforming, and delivering the passenger. This godforsaken rock has one thing to recommend it. That one thing is also the most terrible I could imagine. My daughter is here. My daughter is trapped here with me.
Z-1293-QV-A. That's the official name on the chart in the Monsignor's office. He actually calls it that. All of the proper church does, too. But the rest of us disgraced once-upon-a-priests call it Wasteland. It's the first planet in its solar system, the one closest to its sun, but far enough from the fire to be livable. Not that anyone lives here. "Supplicant Anseel deCeer, enter the Chamber."
Anseel cringed as the order boomed through the antechamber. The other petitioners glared at him. He understood their anger. Some of them had been waiting for days; he had just arrived. Sam looked around Dad's cluttered laboratory. Even after becoming a tenured Ivy League physics professor, he still didn't understand Dad's cutting-edge research into quantum physics. Now, with Dad gone after a three-year battle with cancer, the world would probably stay in the dark.
The dusty lab was a paradox, just like Dad. His father had theorized about parallel universes, but had never owned a mobile phone or television. His lab was filled with equipment that was outdated before Sam was born--vacuum tubes and monstrous computers that took up entire walls. The man from NASA arrived the next morning. Walter Igwe met him at the crash site.
"The agency would like to thank you, Mr. Igwe," the NASA man said, "for your quick response." It was plain he wasn't used to the savannah's heat. His temples ran slick with sweat.
New colonies. Alternate Earths. Parallel Universes. All is fair game.
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