The old man and companion in his dream smiled, "Fly high, little David, but don't loose sight of your nest," he said, and acquiesced to the sound of a persistent whir.
Dave Chickbrow, ex-astronaut for the past five years, looked more Sicilian than Sioux. He had a Roman nose and his brows were more like a falcon's than a chick's. His jagged face, sun-blanched and weathered, had the tan color and contours of honed redwood. His eyes were ebony deep pools of coal.
"...be there in forty minutes."
He put the cell-phone down, pulled the covers off and rummaged in the dark for his slippers. The voice on the other end had a tensile timbre to it.
A glimpse at the clock atop the night table showed one-twenty. He switched the light on and a copy of Fiery Particles by C. E. Montague dropped to the floor. He retrieved it, creased the page corner, and laid it back on the table next to the bonsai tree. In his boxer shorts, gangly and lean as a switch, he moseyed to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee brewing, then headed for the shower.
Special Projects tracking sector resembled a hybrid of the Wall Street Exchange at peak hour and the Strategic Air Command at drill-time.
Chickbrow left the vault door behind - an orchestration of whines and clicks commenced when electronic locks and hydraulic tumblers secured it.
NASA was never like this. He felt entombed within Tutankhamen's Pyramid.
Several familiar faces scurried by hardly aware of his presence.
Knitted brows straightened and the frown lines on his forehead smoothed out. His stride quickened. On the way to the complex center he unbuttoned his collar.
The place reeked of sweat and souring coffee.
The double, glass doors whooshed shut when he crossed the threshold and entered the glazed island cutting off the noise asunder.
"Sorry to get you up, Dave," Jeremy said, his back to him, his eyes darting over three monitors. "We got a winner here." He shot a glance at a digital read-out then back to the monitors.
Chickbrow propped himself against one of the modules.
Mike Stromberg's raspy voice gruffed next to him, "Take a look." He handed him a pad and scooted to his console.
Chickbrow pinched his ear. "Give me relative course shift."
"Twenty-eight degrees, eight minutes..."
"Just rough stuff, Mike."
"What's pulling our little mascot?" Chickbrow's black looked into Jeremy's blue eyes.
"Gravity." Jeremy tried to remain calm. He knew better than to antagonize that falcon gaze. Something about that look gave Jeremy the spooky feeling that he was on trial for his life. The feeling may have been incited by his boss's rather gaunt face, his spearing fixed look and withdrawn smile. Still...Jeremy had been with him all through the five years, attending him as if Chickbrow's edict was a mark on Jeremy's performance. Jeremy weighed painstakingly before he spoke again. "Came out of the jump to reconnoiter..." eye pressure, "...as per standard procedure..." an acrid burning scalded his empty stomach, "...and got locked in a gravity well."
"Did you try rocketing loose?"
"We'd waste precious fuel - "
"More precious than risking a twenty-two billion dollar project?" The lean man walked to a stack of print-outs.
Nothing - nothing recorded but interstellar vacuum.
As if reading his thoughts Mike returned, "Vacuum doesn't have an attraction field," for an instant their eyes locked, the voice went flat, "equal to a small sun."
"A dense core meteor - no, no that can't be," Chickbrow murmured.
Mike Stromberg, short and stocky, got up and headed for the door. It was time to make his rounds and initiate the countdown Chickbrow was so set on, pump ship too. The two glass blades hissed open at his approach. In streamed the buzz and din beyond. He paused a slight, "The jump pods are kaput. Lucky we got coms," the door hissed behind him.
That'll rattle him up some, he jostled, and bolted for the head.
The two men inside the transparent shell remained silent. Through the thick glass of the control center Chickbrow saw a hundred hustling figures, all toiling to save SEPTOR.
Three years ago the launched probe hurdled into space to chart a course for the Orion Castellation. The follow-up was to be a manned mission, the first of its kind. If SEPTOR was aborted it would mean a big black 'X' for Special Projects, his group, and Dr. Krell.
"Dave, thrust countdown program instated...scheduled for one minute fifty seconds. Three five-second shots. Anything over - "
"I know," Chickbrow said putting aside his concerns. They had measured the attitude jets' and retro's fuel with an eye dropper.
He turned to Jeremy, "Give me spherical electronic and visual scan - maximum range."
In three strides he was over the other's shoulders scrutinising the computer display.
"One minute thirty-five..." Jeremy began sequence confirmation.
Overhead a square three-by-three meter screen erupted to life. Glittering specks of brisk, brilliant lights swelled upon it. Heads from the outside turned to it.
"Instrument scan still nugatory."
Chickbrow looked up - and gasped. It happened every time the huge, veritable definition projector burst on. A familiar falling sensation emptied his lungs, like dropping in deep space. Into eternity.
He peered into the firmament: countless stars and clusters of stars and a quadrant of the Milky Way - an amethyst of dazzle that wanned all else.
"Sixty seconds..." Jeremy's voice dithered. Harmony and chaos, creation unlimited, gloried before them. He had swivelled around to face the screen too. He upped his head, "What you see is what you get."
"Magnify," Chickbrow was deaf.
"Dave, it's empty out there - nothing but faraway stars and black space."
It must have been Jeremy's tone that made Chickbrow hear the words.
The astral plane rushed away leaving a tangled weave of tracers. The blurred blitz quickly stabilized, bloomed, and began a lethargic rotation.
"What did you say was out there?"
"...stars, space, the Milky Way..."
Jeremy rolled his eyes, "Uhm, 'Nothing but faraway stars and empty space'?"
"No, you said, black space."
The firmament's motion halted.
"Automatic countdown in twenty seconds - mark!" Jeremy wedged-in between ticking seconds.
"See it?" Chickbrow squinted, his eyes tacked on the screen towering above them.
"Yeah, Urania the muse of astronomy," Jeremy vied for humor. " It's the Orion spiral of the Milky Way, Dave. That's all we've been staring at, nothing there we haven't looked at before."
"Looked at, but didn't see - " Chickbrow's face, the next instant, was flush with Jeremy O'Brien's, his mouth practically chewing on the other's headmike. "Autocount! Acknowledge new sequence. Ten minutes...mark!"
Chickbrow got his own head-rig on, "Mike, tell somebody to get Professor Krell on the secure line, and beat feet back here."
Mike Stromberg puffed and grappled with the throng of scuttling bodies that jammed the aisles. He halted, sputtered a few words to one of the crew, then shuffled and shimmied his way through the rest of the beehive.
No good firing those pip-squeak rockets, he disputed silently, the pull on the puny craft is five times their top output.
"No way, Chickbrow!" he declared to the throng, sticky with sweat.
The cold knifed through his furs and cut to the bone. So cold and dry was it that the snow dried and gritted in graupels. The air was tight and thick, and each breath he sucked scoured his throat like razzor shards of ice. His own breathing moisture had crystallized the hairs in his nostrils and encrusted his white bushy beard forming a niveous cornice that jutted from the gnarled, broad face. The beeper, aloof to his efforts, sounded again.
"All right, all right," he gruffed, "hold your horses."
He removed the gloves upon entering the greenhouse and adjusted the thermostat and the humidifier. There was plenty of energy converted by the photoelectric cells to charge a couple dozen wet batteries and keep the vivarium running plus the cabin through the long Yukon nights. He got enough vegetables and fruit growing to provide for and balance an otherwise fish diet.
Alaska claimed to be as isolated as a place can be, not considering the Poles and deserts.
The distracting city throngs, "Bah!" and those academia coops called universities. People pressed together, smelling and breathing each other's closeness - vulgar, intrusive, gagging! He had to suffer through it all so many times, the lectures in stuffy classrooms, the symposiums, deliberations and ceremonies. What an accolade of pomposity and touching.
Besides, his work did not require the amenities of collectivism. On the contrary, noise and confusion only short-circuited his otherwise orderly synopses. It distracted from the job at hand: to colonize planets...and get the hell out! Still, even at this distant and obscure cranny, there were those that passed by, dropped in uninvited and pestered him with every nature of slight sliver and petty anxiety. Maybe Tibet would tender what he looked for. But too high to breath. And then there was the beeper. There's no getting away from that little runt.
He shut the door of his cabin and threw two of the logs he brought with him into the wanning amber and burgundy spews of the fireplace. After shifting the ash he settled next to the radio-phone and injected the thumb-size beeper into the inset.
"Dave Chickbrow please...what?...yes, yes, the Chief." Saddle tramp, he glowered at the machine. Don't give a hoot if he's chief or warrior. Redman, chinaman, blackman, batman - as long as they all keep away.
Professor Aristides Krell, slight and Neanderthal-looking, a man in his early fifties, was the recipient of two Nobel Prizes. One Nobel boasted that the brusque physiognomy had a slight but determining edge over Hawking, Mettropoulos, and Lovesigh involving The Unification Theory.
While they endeavoured at snail-pace, restricted by the implements of customary science, he bounded steps beyond utilizing his own unorthodox theorems and radical observation procedures. His paradigm did not go unrewarded, for he had, intentionaly or not, unensconced a locality in the Cosmos where miracles abide: the place where electrons go to when they disappear; the venue from where virtual particles pop into conventional space-time; that vicinity of Creation which instantaneously informs one of a pair of photons, across the Universe, that its mate has not changed spin. Fun-space he called it, because it produced funny outcomes.
The second Nobel came for implementing his observations. SEPTOR vaunted instant communications. More important, SEPTOR used its unique communication pods (the funny part) to jump through myriads of parsecs of space. Instantaneously. Once a destination point was mapped - Ppfeuoot! - SEPTOR was there by the touch of a sense-plate.
Project SEPTOR (SEarch for Planets of Terrestrial Organic Reliability) was Dr. Krell' brainchild. He fostered and reared it from concept to send-off. He was anxiously bent on exploring for colonizable worlds.
Besides his ochlophobic temperament, Dr. Krell was partial to a rumour that spread around contending that Earth was tapped dry and would soon cease to subsist and harbor first, the human race, then, progressively, all of life.
In three centuries, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the consummation it scourged, the oil wells were running dry, the coal mines scraped clean, and the few remaining rain forests were guarded round the clock to keep axe-toters and poachers out.
If that wasn't presage enough, over the past fifty years the world ocean level had crept up two meters. The Dutch and the Italians were being crowded in, and the first to scream. But it was quickly and balmily hushed by other floods consisting of billions in E.C.U. and dollar relief. For it would have been easier to arrest an avalanche than to curtail the impetus of the snow-balling Titan called 'progress'.
No matter. The sequestered man that was Dr. Krell in one of his more eloquent and remarkable poetic moods was noted for his flippant but colourful flair, "Spin me into a fun-beam and I shall fetch thee today the Earths of tomorrow."
He expelled a blue puff of smoke from his straight-stem pipe, "Yea, I'll hold." Caller verification took a while. Silly rules. Made for mobs.
Chickbrow pointed to the screen, "the source of our problem." He waited a while. The others studied the heavens in front of them.
Mike shrugged, "Can't say I follow."
Jeremy nodded in unanimity.
"Space is colorless, Mike, empty space that is. It's not totally black. There is background always - direct, reflected or refracted light, gamma and cosmic rays, and a variorum of energy fields. The Universe does not stop because it cannot be seen.
"Yet, there," he indicated by enclosing an area in a dotted red window, "the Universe - as we know it - does in fact stop." He pointed to the broad-spectrum meters lining the screen's bottom. All were pegged at zero radiation - and then some.
"That," he pointed to the gossamer of sparkling dust, "is the Orion spiral as SEPTOR sees it. Twenty-eight degrees longitudinally, the highlighted area, is the source to which our craft is being diverted. So strong is the interference that it disrupts our tachyon reception even."
"That spiral arm is thousands of light years from SEPTOR," Mike countered.
"It is, but," Chickbrow shrank two arrow-head cursors on a small segment of the window, "it doesn't quite fit, does it? Black emptiness in the middle of an otherwise densely populated spiral?"
"Debris cloud, dark matter," Mike contended.
"Having such an intense gravetic field?"
Jeremy angled his head to one side. "Too regular shaped for debris. Can't help visualizing something close, something between the Orion spiral and us. A planet maybe." His head now leaned the other way.
"A meteor or a planet reflects. Debris too. Even a neutron star nucleus. That," he pointed, "radiates nothing. Like it's hollow."
"All the fuel in the world wouldn't pry us loose. Wrong I was, Mike."
"Yea, but you got them sharp eyes of a falcon," Mike snorted.
"Never told us how you came by that name," Jeremy briefly took his stare off the monitors.
Chickbrow half-remembered the night's dream, but the sensations were fully present, feelings of protection and security. He was glad his grandfather's spirit decided to make amends for the minor oversights, and looked over him now. He hedged a spell, then, "I was a month-old papoose when my mother left me with gramps at the pueblo so she could go and get some grubs from the Post store. Gramps kept a chicken coop behind the hogan. Supplied him fresh eggs and poultry meat. But it didn't have any door to it, gramps was sachem, tribal chief, and partial to autonomy, so the fowl roamed like steer over an open pampas. Mother returned to find me being pecked by a flock of newly-hatched chicks. Nothing catastrophic, but my eyebrows gone and...the name."
A high-pitched whine from Mike's console intruded.
"Dr. Krell on the line," a nondescript voice called out.
"Put him through." Chickbrow hunched his shoulders and flipped the com switch. Then to Jeremy, "Tell countdown to keep us posted every minute on the minute. The last minute, every ten seconds."
Seven minutes remaining, the speaker echoed.
"That sums it up, Professor."
A long silence followed.
"Dr. Krell," Chickbrow called into the communicator, "are you still there?"
A sigh, "I'm only sorry I'm not at the center."
Four minutes remaining.
"I heard, Dave."
"Shall I stop the countdown?"
Chickbrow glanced at the other two.
"No, not now. Too late for anything, but - "
"We're accelerating. Reception is breaking down," Chickbrow reported. All three stared at the intermittent and erratic rips and wavering stars on the crackling screen above them.
"It's slowing down our tachyons. Unbelievable!" Dr. Krell cried. A few seconds of silence hung like stale air. "No wonder SEPTOR cant jump, tachyons can't function at light-speed, or below it."
Chickbrow rubbed his aching temples.
Two years' work and hope lost to an anomaly, the prima materia, of the Universe. A singularity. A black hole. A rent in the fabric of space-time. Hundreds of millions of man-hours, sweat and diligence all flushed down a fathomless pitch-dark toilet.
He raked through the bristles of his crow hair.
Mike and Jeremy grimaced.
It was hurt.
They were hurting. He cringed with their pain, and his.
It wasn't the space budget, or the big black X, or that an Indian had failed, or the lay-offs. They could all live with those.
It was their faith being betrayed.
Three minutes remaining.
This whole undertaking was an act of faith. Trust in the synergy of man. He wanted to believed that a cooperative humanity of separate agencies could have a far greater total effect than the sum of the effects taken independently.
It was to be a peaceful, long-awaited interface with the Universe; a communion of mankind and the 'great beyond', with the infinite rolling pastures of the Cosmos. The liberation of Earth from humankind's abrasive sway.
"Damn! Professor. So - so sorry."
"We're not gods, Dave." The voice came slow and low now. "Only children playing gods." After the initial exhilaration of actually confronting a black hole wore off, the old sage sounded drawn and spent -
"Patch your terminal output to my line," Dr. Krell's voice sprang through, "and let's take a look at SEPTOR's specifications."
Chickbrow engaged a set of electronic links from the main memory banks. A whirring synchopated with a whizzing somewhere along the metallic frames encompassing them. Patters of buffered snapping and popping overspilled their enclosures to carry over to him.
"What are we looking for?" Chickbrow asked, riddled at the other's impromptu request.
Just then three sets of brows pranced.
"Excuse my Laconic vain," the voice held a vestige of intensity, "but it is sometimes wise to cater to the paradox. I'll shortly explain. Look at sheet EE-40."
Two minutes remaining.
"SPECTOR is slick as a bullet, or a jumbo cannon shell. Its jacket - the outside layer - is glass steel, designed to withstand nominal micrometeor impacts and permit minimum conductance to extraneous fields. Its durable, solid, and, I believe, it will cushion near-relativistic accelleration stresses."
Chickbrow scanned the spec sheet a second time. His eye caught in the text all that the Professor talked about.
Mike and Jeremy nodded.
"I'm with you so far," Chickbrow said.
"Good. Because here's the miracle...."
The tracking sector complex of Special Projects was quiet as a church on Monday. For the past few hours there had been not much more than murmurs and whispers. Technicians with pencils stuck over their ears and scientists with calculators clenched in their fists huddled in pensive, scattered clusters.
Behind the enveloping glass panes of the control center Jeremy, assailed by the mulligrubs, lackadaisically massaged the sides of his head with his thumbs. Mike, himself hounded by blue devils, slumped in his chair chewing on a pencil.
Chickbrow was considering.
Dr. Krell had explained very simply a very complex supposition. The essence was, that SEPTOR use its retro and attitude rockets to accelerate towards the black hole. Then, at a critical point, when its drift equalled that of the surrounding flux heading for the hole, jump into the hole. He explained, of course, that since the direction of the jump was not in opposition to the pull of the singularity the tachyon generator pods would work.
They did. SEPTOR had been saved.
The craft was in orbit around Earth. Its telescopes and biosphere-sensing apparatus were sending in a flood of crisp, intelligible data.
The data was checked and re-checked, but the results did not vary by much: the Poles were missing, the seas too, and the atmosphere, and life.
"All those jumps," Chickbrow could still hear the Professor's matter of fact and lulling articulation, "were so much time stored."
"How much time do we have, Dr. Krell?" the Top Executive had asked on the direct line.
"Oh, the black hole devoured most of it, and, let's see, there's the return trip - we managed to do that in three jumps, so we saved some time there. My calculations say two-hundred-and-fifty years, plus/minus five, Mr. President."
Chickbrow had left the public announcement system on and the commendations followed (probably a third Nobel was in the making somewhere in Sweden for the Professor).
Special Projects was now The Special Projects Group and funds restrictions were immediately lifted. While SEPTOR circled the Earth of a quarter of a century into the future, somehow relaying images of a dreadful prophecy, a new perspective involving the planet seemed to be in the making.
But people, Chickbrow reflected, dodn't really want to migrate to the stars because their home was condemned. They'd want to go there, sure, but they'd want a home to return to. Just then words from an old, twentieth century song came to mind, 'You don't know whatcha got / until you loose it / You gave me all your love / but I misused it'.
In the twenty-third century folk worked together to save SEPTOR, and it proved to them that this oneness had also achieved to warn and prepare humanity; to show the yield that was man's folly.
"Professor," he spoke cheerlessly into the unbroken link, "can't Earth be saved? If there was an all out effort, couldn't we change the future?"
"In a finite universe there are finite possibilities, and our Universe is finite, Dave. Then again, there are finite choices - but by no means are these few."
"Then there is a possibility since choices exist?"
"Existed." There was sternness now in the professor's tone. "There is trend along with choice, and man's overall tendency has been to consistantly make the wrong choices. We, ourselves, have elected to stray to the edge of the cliff. Millions upon millions, a history of choices are now proving themselves fallacious."
Chickbrow frowned. "Then we'll drag it all with us to wherever we go." There were moments in his life, few in all, that measured forever. In these moments it seemed that every spirit of his ancestors, every brave and squaw that has ever been or that would ever be, was bemoaning its inmost misery at him. "We'll land on a new world with great expectations and pent up longing, but carry all the old vices and failings." He glared around him like a snared lynx.
Jeremy and Mike listened, apparently in no mood to contribute.
"Dave," the Professor, sensing the other's distress, inverted to a fatherly tone, "man learns from his mistakes."
"But not quick enough."
"Quick enough to save man with respect and honor," he lashed out. "To survive without decimating and ravaging first. Quick enough to quit being arrogant adolescents, get our act together, and start strutting faith in ourselves and some trace of propriety and pride - dignity too."
"Have we outgrown that word, Dr. Krell?" he dampened a pinch. "Or have we elbowed it aside?"
"I didn't know indian people had so much romance in them, Dave. You so elegantly just pointed out one of my fallacies! Ignorances, really. That's what the world is, ignorant, not arrogant, Dave.
"No, I don't think dignity has been outcasted. It's a brittle word and needs to be protected. So we lodge it somewhere deep inside of us, and forget it, like honor. Ill-used so often."
The communicator went silent for a moment. "You want to hear of another, second miracle? This line is coded, isn't it? Nobody can listen in?"
"This has to be kept privy. Otherwise, it won't work."
Chickbrow looked at Mike and Jeremy.
Chickbrow detected a kind of puckish fun-lovingness there. The Professor's composed bearing and phlegmatic diction hastily turned puerile.
"Our Universe may be finite, Dave, but I've got a hunch its not the only one around. That black 'pit' of a hole slung SEPTOR way out. I think we've manoeuvred SEPTOR in another space-time continuum, altogether. Anchored it to an Earth of another, but analogous, universe."
The two men slowly stood up and walked to the communicator.
Chickbrow quailed, "You mean that's not our Earth?"
"It doesn't have to be. Tachions can't propagate through time alone; that's like someone siting in a chair here on Earth and waiting for the passage of time to transport them to Alpha Centaury. There has to be spacial displacement involved, too!"
"If I copy," Chickbrow broke in, " you're saying those pictures we're getting from SEPTOR are not of our future? But the future of an ersatz - a proxy Earth?"
"May not, Chickbrow, may not be our own future. The Uncertainty Principle says it, not me.
"On the other hand, it might be our Earth at that. Time, you see, stops inside a black hole. There is no present there, only a future. Things outside a singularity, if they could be observed (an impossibility of course), would dash about with ungodly speed, many times that of light. Within a blink of our black-hole-observer billions of years would have elapsed - galaxies born, matured and died - all in this instant. So, in transpiring through the hole, even by a spontaneous jump, who can say that SEPTOR was not delayed an infinitesimal of a blink? But still to emerge in our Universe, with merely a mite detainment of a quarter century."
"But the space/time factor, aren't you ignoring it now?" Chickbrow rebounded.
"I don't know, Dave. That's the funny part. Paradoxes work within their own very esoteric, awfully private laws. So ethereal and touchy are these that if we were to intrude upon them, upon this other, second, miracle by conventional scientific analysis, or simply locution, we'd be ruffling the very time-space fabric or, worse, cause the miracle to fail." There was a pause.
"Just by talking about it!" Chickbrow's voice pitched tenor-high.
"That's why he didn't tell the President," Mike broke in.
"What's that?" Dr. Krell blared over the line.
"Mike and Jeremy are here with me," Chickbrow appended, somewhat disturbed.
"Oh, Chickbrow," the voice groaned, "you had given me your word!"
The three looked bewildered.
"Sir, I didn't realize the gravity - it's only two more people who know - "
"Only two. Here I grappled in dilemma whether to tell you and just you alone. Kept back information from the President. And you say only two!"
"Dr. Krell," Jeremy tried to mollify the afflicted scientist, "I'm not going to talk about it - to anyone, not to my wife even."
Mike, puzzled at the turn of things, snorted. We realy need guys like you, he said under his bulky orange mustache, with all this joy breaking out all over. Then more loudly, "Professor, I'm not going to talk about this thing - even at confession. And I'm Catholic!"
"No, no - it's the knowledge of it," Dr. Krell bellowed, "the knowing itself that effects the outcome. This new modicum of erudition now vacillating in two additional brains - your brains Mike and Jeremy - brings into play a uniquely separate causality. Even mere thinking can warp the quantum mechanisms." Then, as though to himself, "People are timid creatures, they won't want to stick around to find out if Earth will end up like that. They'd want OUT!"
"You want them to believe that that's our Earth?" Chickbrow pointed to the screen unaware that the other could not see it.
"Don't you? If it is our Earth we're getting those signals from, how else will we change its future? Save it? But to get people involved building space arks instead of more Earth-sapping, air-choking industries and people-cluttering institutions and plants. Now's the chance to channel industry not to industries, and to this mad and frenetic proliferation that's suffocating us, but direct it to charting other voyages, for other new Americas - but out there this time. Trundle humanity from its blissful hari-kari. Jiggle people out of their stupor so they neglect to go on killing this planet. "
"It's a decoy, Professor," Chickbrow's tone sombred, "to say the least."
"An honorable decoy, wouldn't you say? Or do you endorse that cinder upon your screen? 99.999 percent of Earth's population, Chickbrow, is ignorant that a Universe exists. Ask'em, 'What's that thing sparkling up in the sky?' They say, 'A Star.' And you ask, 'What is a star?' 'A thing that comes out at night.' And that's where most people's tuition ends concerning the magnitude of what surrounds us."
" 'Man learns' your own words, Professor. And, Professor, don't dignity and honor infer truth? Hoodwinking mankind, is it really the solution? There's a Chinese saying by Lao-tzu, 'A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.' Can't this be that one, first, and significant step/choice that is not fallacious, out of the history of choices? Wouldn't we be only burgeoning the world's ignorance by withholding this knowledge?"
"If you tell the world," the professor parried, "that that may not be Earth, our future, do you think the world would benefit from the doubt? Trend, Chickbrow, has a robustly frightful and protracted impetus in our case - thousands of years of lowly, dishonouring, and contemptful choices.
"Only if the charred site of Earth blares bluntly at them, like a tombstone epitaph, will people get the message. Authority, someone said, rarely survives in face of doupt. We need autority, here and now, not doubt. Man is lazy, Dave. All else he'll humour away - all but raw consternations like fear, alarm, shock. These proved to function in the past. Got the ball rolling..."
Mike had noticed it first.
A slow undulation of colors on the globe depicted overhead. Every time Chickbrow spoke the sphere's surface texture seemed changed by a bit - the hews appeared less parched-reds and desert-ambers, and more fertile-browns; even small specks of greens dabbed the Earth here and there.
He nudged Jeremy and both observed these pigments fade as Dr. Krell finished rebutting.
"Duress, Dr. Krell, works ephemerally, not enduringly. In the long run that which survives is that which humankind has sustained by its freedom to choose, may that even be its very end. It's called responsibility and consequence. If men and women are inept it is not because they are inapt, but because the attitude as such has been fixated into them and misled them..."
Not only were the greens and browns spreading now, but there were smidgens of resonant cyans emanating from vast, deep-seated canyons while pearly, frosty whites glimmered at the Poles.
Mike looked at Jeremy, and Jeremy returned Mike's look and buoyed up.
Mike next put a hand on Chickbrow's shoulder giving a heartening clasp. Jeremy patted him behind the other shoulder, esprit de corps fashion.
Chickbrow, cheered by his aimcriers, drove on, cleaving through Dr. Krell's tenuous grounds and despondent argumentation, motives and goals.
Every once in a while the two would glimpse over their shoulder, and when the professor happened to speak they would cough and belch and Mike would let out air in loud raucous fits.
The introspective faces from those outside turned to the screen one-by-one. As each pair of eyes beheld the metamorphosis, a maelstrom began to brew over the Earth. A pandemonium of blooming wrought forth more pasture-greens, azure-blues, and feathery drifts of whites. The shrill of cheers and applause infiltrated the sound-proofing.
"What's all that noise, Chickbrow?"
When Chickbrow turned, a new Earth confronted him. One he had seen many times and was so familiar with.
"It's only another miracle," he said. Then, the ebony eyes wise and smiling, "Professor, about doubt, Roosevelt, I think, said, 'The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.'"
Mike grunted with pleasure and graciously flipped the com switch off. Uninterupted now, they all watched their bonhomie future-nest forge anew before them, by them.
The Lower Apt had flushed, excited ears - the ears of someone who somehow realises that what he's about to say is something that will have vast consequences, possibly even end up in the perma paths of the future. He knew he would later remember the exact texture of the hum of the engine room at that moment, the way his colleagues looked at him, the smell, everything.
'I think we've spotted life on that planet, K'hur,' he said. Excitement.
The K'Hur looked up from his console, betraying surprise.
'There have never been reports of life in this section,' he replied. Shock.
'I know, K'hur,' the Lower Apt explained, 'we can't explain it either, but there are unmistakable readings. We're not sure whether the life forms are sentient, but they're definitely there.' Hope, despite knowing better.
The K'Hur seemed lost in thought for a while, as if playing with enormous implications in his mind. This was unexpected. His ears twitched, betraying a certain nervousness.
'Details?' he asked. Curiosity, tinged with anxiety. This was unexpected indeed. He wondered if he'd be up to the task. He'd not been selected for this.
'Not many, K'Hur,' the Lower Apt continued, 'but we know that they seem to be quite different from life, um, as we know it.' Unbelieving feeling of luck, like that of a full-time explorer. He took from under an elbow a folder containing glossy pictures, taken only minutes before by a reconnaissance craft. They were quite grainy, but indeed contained visuals of strange creatures. He passed them to the K'Hur.
Again, the K'Hur was lost in thought. The strength of his projected brainwaves made the cabin crew a little fidgety. They caught strands of his thoughts, incoherent, with strange visions indeed. Huge scaly creatures, small hairy creatures, both types quite unknown on their own planes, unheard of in appearance. There were impressions of creatures with elongated scaly extensions on their forearms, caught in flight. Incredible. Above all, however, like a veil woven of some extra sense, slightly out of focus, there seemed a most odd mixture of intelligence and savagery.
'Thank you, G'Hoth,' the K'Hur said, handing back the pictures. Worry. A few necks were craned to try and catch a glimpse of the pictures. As it turned out, the K'Hur's thoughts had been reasonably coherent after all. Savage with a hint of intelligence. Focus formed. Vast creatures dwelling on the planet that rotated slowly in the depths below their very void ship. Flying creatures, even, completely unheard of anywhere. They, too, felt a certain feeling of importance stalking over them now. It gnawed at them. This wasn't meant to be. Routine turned into exception. There was no telling what would happen.
This was without a doubt the most important event in the history of their species since they had invented post-light-speed travel, little over 500 Thuns ago. For many generations they had harboured hopes of extraterrestrial life. They had sent probes into the wide ranges of the universe without any hint of a reply. Supposedly extra-terrestrial objects had been spotted in the vicinity of their own cluster of moons but never had they turned out to be of interplanetary origin. They'd been freak phenomena, inevitably within the realm of conventional if perhaps slightly forgotten laws of physics. When the universe played sleight of hand with the hopes and imaginations of so many generations, it needed preciously little feeding ground.
They realised it. The K'Hur realised it. The G'Hoth realised it more, perhaps, than any of the others. As a child he'd already harboured more of a historical conscience than his peers. He felt it clearly when history was in the making, and it was being shaped right at this instant. The feeling could not be denied, nor his role in the shaping of it.
Life on another planet. He, the G'Hoth, had discovered it, and the interstellar Vessel Grough would go down in the annals of void and time. His parent would be proud of him.
'This discovery,' the K'Hur now said, his voice carrying with it telepathic messages to mind-shut all the cabin crew, 'drastically alters the mission of the Grough, my friends.' A dark feeling of responsibility fringed with guilt.
In the general consternation and excitement of, well, quite literally the most vital discovery in several Thous of Draghean civilisation, they had almost forgotten what they'd been here for in the first place.
The meteorite had been discovered a few Thuns ago. When a civilisation is constantly scanning the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial life like the Dragheans were, they are bound to discover all kinds of anomalies. Their farsight devices had revealed additional black holes and a few new white ones as well. Wormholes and unusual disturbances in the void-time continuum ended up hardly raising any scientific eyebrows, having fallen back to hardly drawing headlines in the news paths. Only the cartographers cared for them, professionally detached, carefully adding them to the catalogue of known celestial bodies.
Meteorites, indeed, had not been rare at all. When the O'Ghilvy had performed routine trajectory calculations, however, he had discovered something that warranted this specific meteorite worthy of some focused attention.
The universe, ever expanding and huge in a fashion that boggled even the most advanced of their minds, still had huge swaths hurtled around them that were virtually uncharted even after Huns of void travel. As it happened, the meteorite was heading into such a largely unknown section of the galaxy, a rather minor spiral-shaped gathering of thousands of suns, of which only a handful in the very centre had yet been catalogued. The O'Ghilvy claimed that the meteorite would hit one of the solar systems on the outer rim. Apart from the fact that he reckoned they had better map that particular section of the galaxy before the meteorite might alter a planetary orbit or two, preliminary shots of the danger zone showed some very interestingly shaped planets. This was, in fact, as good an opportunity as any to fly a few artists over there to make impressions of the meteorite hitting one of those planets. The large lump of rock might pass clean through the spiral arm of planets, but if it hit one it would provide interesting footage in the news paths. The possibility of life on those planets hadn't even been checked. It was a very remote section of the galaxy - after Hun upon Hun of blatant disappointment the O'Ghilvy hadn't even bothered to check. For him it was just a means to give some of the Draghean's artistically inclined a fascinating chance to enrich the often quite clinical reports the news paths offered.
The K'Hur had served his time in the Draghean's void corps for the best half of a Hun, practically all his life. Few people had been as dedicated to his job as he. He had helped chart a fair bit of the galaxy, some might admiringly say more than a fair bit for just one man. Now the dusk of his life approached - though he would have hated other people to describe it like that - the thought of retirement never crossed his mind. He'd been married for several Thuns. “A long time ago,” was how he always described it, usually with eyes going unfocused and a strong sense of sad fondness radiating from him. His Pledgemate had died in a freak wormhole incident, leaving him a changed man. He'd not found a soul mate since, let alone a new One to Pledge with. Instead, he opted to dedicate himself fully to his work, his mission. He became the only ever cartographer that managed to make captain. For the past Ten he had command over his very own vessel, the Grough, named for the inventor of post-speed-of-light travel who'd died before she'd been able to reap the full fruit of her work.
Throughout his career, the K'Hur had plied his cartographer's trade, and plied it well. After he'd made captain, he knew like no one else what cartographers required in the way of flybys and other manoeuvres. He became well loved and highly respected, a living legend to the new generation of men and women that sought to chart the possibly unchartable. He knew what made them tick.
The situation at hand was unlike any he had ever experienced. It worried him. He felt he had to make a decision that he was not sufficiently equipped, perhaps not even willing to make. He tapped on a console and studied the display. Apparently, a probe had been sent out to this exact galaxy about two Tens before Post, twenty Thuns prior to Grough's vital invention that had enabled the Draghean civilisation to move forward with leaps and bounds. It had caused void exploration to suddenly aim much further. He guessed it was this change of goals that had resulted in this section of the void, to all intents and purposes, having been overlooked. For Huns they had honed their farsight devices and void explorations far and beyond, while all that time life turned out to have been sitting practically under their noses. Although these life forms weren't sufficiently developed to undertake void travel and intergalactic communication, there were certain behavioural patterns that betrayed concepts such as offspring nurturing, herd movement, hierarchy and organised group hunting. Left to their own devices, these creatures might in 10 or 20 million Thuns evolve into life forms to be reckoned with.
Only, of course, that would never happen. The huge meteorite that O'Ghilvy had discovered was on an unmistakable collision course with this planet. The creatures would never know what hit them. The meteorite would hit land - or sea, but that would make little difference - and throw up billions upon billions of tonnes of rocks and dust. Floating on the vast weather systems all planets with an atmosphere have, this dust would be distributed across the entire planet within a matter of months. There was no chance that the meteorite would actually cause the entire planet to be blown to smithereens, but it proved a far more ominous threat. All life would slowly die away. First the plants, bereft of sunlight. Then the plant eaters. And before the meat eaters would have wrapped their tiny instinct-driven minds - if ever they would - around the reasons for this sudden abundance of freshly dead meat, they would die off too. All in all, this was a fate doubtlessly worse than a sudden, complete obliteration of the planet such as might have happened if only the giant meteorite were much bigger.
'The irony,' another member of the cabin crew muttered. Regret, a little shame. It was greeted by a general telepathic feeling of agreement. After hopes had all but perished, after their species had more or less been forced to console itself with the fact that they were utterly alone in the vast blackness of the cosmos, they had found a planet with promisingly evolved life forms. And now those life forms would be wiped away before their very eyes. Yes, the Grough name would go down in history, but not quite for the thing they would have wanted it to. They were on a first row seat they cared not to be on. Also, they found themselves hoping that the large creatures on the earth below were incapable of telepathy. Thousands, no, millions of creatures that would eventually know they are going to die, could send out mindpath signals quite capable of driving the receptor to suicide.
'We should try to document them,' the G'Hoth said, his telepathy clothing the words with sadness. Eagerness, trying to hide discomfort. 'For posterity,' he added lamely. A little shame.
'You have a commendable point, G'Hoth,' the K'Hur said. Temporary relief. 'I suggest you set up an exploratory team and go about that task as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence, I probably need not remind you.'
G'Hoth path'd gratitude to the K'Hur, turned on the ball of his foot and left.
Sometimes your mind has to simply forget an important aspect to be able to cope suitably with what's at hand. And that's what the entire cabin crew did. But the K'Hur found it more difficult than usual this time. From around him he received mixed messages, indicating how the crew around him was reacting to the discovery of these strange, doomed creatures on this new, doomed planet. Normally, his species was quite discreet when it came to shielding off private thought. But this was not something ordinary. Something had happened that would quite radically alter their lives, perhaps the history of life as they perceived it. Emotions were powerful, too powerful to be properly contained. There was guilt, fear, eagerness, and curiosity. Above all, many felt and undesired yet inevitable, unstoppable sense of resignation. To most of them, events were simply going to take their course. There was no stopping them. They had discovered a planet with new and exciting life, rekindling the flame of hope for their very species, only to then have it once more extinguished, inexorably, soon.
He path'd a report of their discovery back home - 'Discovered life on doomed planet. Species cataloguing efforts underway. All larger life forms likely to go extinct. Less than one Twentieth until impact. Please advise.' He knew he'd have a reply by late next morning.
The K'Hur did not have a good rest that night.
Even though the sun in this solar system was rarely blotted out from the Grough's perspective, dawn broke. It brought with it a defeated feeling that resonated off the vessel's walls.
Only the G'Hoth had forced himself and the few members of his exploration team to generate feelings of optimism. Simply set aside all bad thoughts, ban the demoralising vibes, and appear cheerful. Before him lay a formidable task, a task that he'd have to complete in less than a Twentieth. Already their sensors noticed the waters of the planet's shores retreating by an average of centimetres per hour on account of the meteorite's gravity that just grew and grew. He had studied the huge rock through a farsight device after having rested. It was huge, harsh, path-less. With all those feelings around you, you'd tend to forget that there are things in the universe that wouldn't even give a damn if they could. The meteorite was a classroom example. You couldn't blame it for being about to eradicate all life on a planet. Harsh. Huge. Deadly to the extreme. It would be less than a Twentieth until it hit. They had no time to waste, they -
'All personnel to the mess hall please,' appeared in his mind - it was K'Hur who path'd the entire crew and their families. He rarely used such a broadpath, so it was probably important, relevant to the situation at hand.
There was a deep feeling of unrest among those present in the central Grough mess hall. All the crew were there, including Pledgemates and a few recently born - some 100 people including the newspath reporters and other media representatives. Anxiety, curiosity, some trepidation.
The K'Hur appeared. He motioned everyone to sit down.
'Like most of you will know,' he started, 'yesterday we discovered that the meteorite we're here to document will collide with a life-supporting planet. I have path'd Draghea and just now received their reply.'
He looked around.
'We are to destroy the meteorite as soon as we possibly can. Its life forms have to be protected from this untimely assault from the void. These are instructions I received directly from the Up.'
Hope, relief, a sense of optimism. People looked around at each other. There were glimmers in eyes, bated breaths were exhaled.
'How are we to destroy the meteorite, though,' one of the Pledgemates asked, 'considering we are a scientific exploration ship? Isn't it true that we have no actual weapons capable of destroying this meteorite?'
'True,' the K'Hur said, 'the Grough is an exploration vessel with no more firepower than a few portable weapons can provide. We are to use the actual ship. The fusion reactor cells aboard the Grough will cause an explosion big enough to obliterate the meteorite.'
Stunned silence. Shock, disbelief. What about the people aboard? Besides, the Grough was one of only a few vessels capable of costly post-lightspeed travel. It had set Draghea back hundreds of gigaCorrs to build.
'I understand your concern,' the K'Hur continued. 'The atmosphere on the planet below contains sufficient amounts of sulphur for us to be able to live. We will leave the Grough and settle on a remote island, where we will wait until one of the other vessels capable of our kind of travel arrives to rescue us. We will bring as much food and other supplies with us as we can. We will set the Grough on a course that will cause impact early this evening. Life on the planet below is justly deemed worth more than the costs of rebuilding a void ship capable of post-lightspeed travel.'
A sense of purpose. Pride, some fear, a slight sensation of panic. Only one Hundredth left to gather their important belongings, supplies, everything. There'd be an uncertain future on the planet below, bereft of the benefits of the Grough's technology. It would not be without danger, but there was a general feeling that they were doing it for a Very Noble Cause. It's not every day that you get to help to save an entire planet with all life on it, end up marooned at an unspeakably huge distance from home. It's the kind of stuff you dreamed of as a young Lower Apt.
Someone spoke up. It was P'Hil. P'Hil was to be one of the people on G'Hoth's team. He'd already studied the images of some of the species living below.
'Does the meteorite comprise an Extinction Level Event? Wouldn't it perhaps just drastically alter the ecosystem, give the smaller furry creatures down there the chance to evolve after a long time of dominance by those ferocious-looking scaly beasts?'
The K'Hur thought for a while.
'Possibly,' he replied, 'but I think it is not for us to make that decision. Our interference will perhaps stunt the evolutionary potential of those smaller creatures, however right now it will at least safeguard all life on that planet. You're right in questioning the ethics of our actions, however The Up has made a decision that we must assume was properly weighted and contemplated.'
P'Hil nodded. 'Granted,' he said, then added, 'And on the bright side, we will now have more than just a Twentieth to catalogue the planet's life.'
A sense of more relief, putting things in perspective. Some were grinning. It was going to be dangerous but also exciting. They were going to make a difference, do well. Perhaps they'd be considered heroes.
The K'Hur sampled the gamut of emotions and thoughts around him, considering them sufficiently positive and hopeful.
'Up speed,' he concluded, 'we have no time to lose. See you all below, tonight. I am told it's going to be quite a sight.'
Started and largely written summer 1999, finished 25 July 2001.
"You do not know how to give," he had said last night. "You try, but do not know how. And you must learn what you want in return."
Defeated, she lifted the sheet off herself and sat up on the edge of the bed. With effort she got up, slipped her jeans on, and went to study.
She didn't wake Dino up, but brought with her a mug of Nescafe' and settled in the chair. The pungency of the black brew briefly dispersed the sleepiness in her head.
She had heard the melody one day in the past. But her fingers today felt thick, clumsy, undisciplined. The tips were blistered on the left hand and her thumb cramped from fatigue.
"How are your exercises proceeding?" Anastasi had asked her at the music conservatory the other day, giving her a pat as she stretched the knotted muscles of her back.
He had looked at her with those knowing eyes, weighing and regarding, as he stood in front of her, twice attempting to say something that he did not. She enjoyed watching his curiously delicate manner. He used his large hazel eyes to tell more than his tongue--but that morning she pretended to busy herself preparing, not looking at him for long, for she knew he was probing her. She had even evaded their usual patter.
"You're not well?" he had finally acquiesced.
"Not very. It'll pass."
He put the stool and foot rest in place, shifted ebulliently with brisk, spirited movement. And he paused a little. He did not sit immediately, but delayed this moment of focus. He relinquished himself to it as thoroughly as to his playing. He was never hurried at this particular stage; he never rushed at this point. It was, she thought, a kind of liturgy in him, just as when he was performing, he was undividedly surrendering.
Yet Anastasi could be as utterly grave or severe. His reproaches were the bleakest she had ever seen. He tought as a evangelist man preached. It was for this thoroughness, she imagined, that she felt esteem for him.
Ilianna now raised the instrument off her lap and laid it upright next to a desk scattered with music sheets, a copy of Chosen Country by J. dos Passos, and Mary Magdalene portrayed weeping. She heard Dino get up and she shut her eyes. The tiny garret closed in on her and a sudden vortex made her slump to one side. She caught herself from falling and sprung her slight, lean torso up straight on the uncomfortable chair. Two years, Anastasi had said. Two hard years for the fingers to break in. "Don't give up," was his favourite infamous statement, "you come to me with a perfect right hand."
She whiffed the heavy blue smoke meandering into her cubby-hole study from the Gauloises Dino was smoking in the kitchen. Her throat tightened and her nostrils pinched. He was making Greek coffee. Its rich fragrance mingled, somewhere along the way, with the silty wafts from his cigarette and made her head whirl. Oblivious to her discomfort she could hear him murmuring/singing, " Take my hand/Take my whole life too..." to himself--the King was The King for him.
She sat there listening and listlessly stared at the only two paintings in the apartment, one was an Andrew Wyeth and the other a Norton Simon. They represented her wealth and were sent by her mother, who had brought them from Astoria, Long Island, six months after Ilianna had departed from her home.
She had been raised in the ancient neighbourhood of Plaka in a house of post-classical architecture that vaunted better days right after the war. Her family was moderately wealthy and an old Athenian family, endorsing the old ways, trying hard not to be assimilated by the onrush of world changes fostered by satellite television and her media-nurtured generation. From childhood she had known that her future was already planned out. She would be sent to college, earn her degree, and marry a man with a solid profession, perhaps even a shipowner. But all that had changed when one morning she left her home with rucksack bearing down on her thin shoulders and trust in a calling.
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry:
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
...came the Burns' hyperbole in the form of a tv commercial for scotch whisky from the kitchen where Dino sat.
They had been together for almost a year, then she was nineteen and he twenty-three. He was like nobody she had ever met before. He didn't worry any more about the years ahead than did cattle in green pastures. There was a primal manner in his air and a puerile spontaneity that uninhibited her. He had a careering way about him, like a twentieth century gladiator, all was intense sport, love-making, drinking, prancing his shiny second-hand Harley as if he were Marlon Brando and she the counter waitress.
His family had been killed in a train disaster when he was four. He had been on his own since he was twelve, when he had done away with the source of his obstacles by hurtling over a glass-strewn wall. The opportunity had come, just before Christmas dawn, another inmate and he had scaled the shard-sowed barrier to freedom, bloodied and frost-bitten. Nightmares of the orphanage persisted to this day. A garage owner had offered him a job and Dino had taken his courage in both hands. Though he was still a boy then, he grew up fast to become a man. Yet the strong arms transformed to comforting wings at night. She could have let her life surrender into his and part with all that tortured her, walk away from her own honeyed trial, into the tangy freedom his world promised....
The guitar stood waiting. Elegant, skilfully crafted, painful, it ignored her musings and the fever in her hands. Two years had passed four months ago, and still the appendages moved slowly, sluggishly, producing a cacophony. There were days when she played adeptly, but few. She could not account for it; if she could only do that.
Dino's deep, black eyes were upon her from where he sat, this minute. She could feel their moot, fixed look. It had been a bad night, last night. A bad night for love. There had been depression in the dark of the room, a tiredness she felt more often than not. He had finally left her and gone to the other end of the bed, and she had lain alone and silent, and sirocco-warm tears ebbed out of her scouring the hours by. The night faded once more whence it came. She massaged the thumb muscle to lessen the stiffness. Veins stood out like winding blue worms on her forearm and the back of her hand. Dipping the fingers into the dish of alcohol temporarily numbed them. The index finger puffed out at the bottom, tapering like an obelisk of flesh to a firm phalanx. A straight dark line of clotted blood scarred the once soft tissue behind the finger nail. Friction from the repeated barre exercises maintained the wound, fresh and visible. All were the credits of the craft. All the visible signs of hard, diligent work were there. Texture was not.
Dino brushed by her on his way out. She smelled the tobacco on his clothes. He stood by the door not speaking, then closed it behind him.
"The classical guitar is like a man," had been Anastasi's first words that decisive March noon. Ilianna's first lesson had begun. "He will want and want some more. You will hate and love him. Give yourself to him and he will give everything to you; as someone once said, 'Love is, above all, the gift of oneself'."
Anastasi had then embraced the guitar and began to play the étude. Ilianna's last minute doubts dissolved with certainty. Each undulating stroke charged a longing that had so long been left yearning for its mate. The cords mingled and blended, entwined and braided, melded and plexed and fused weaving a dulcet onomatopoeia of counterpoint plenishing her every pore, progressing so ever softly turning, spinning sheer summer air into a gossamer completion that longingly never came. The tinkling of the strings echoed, ignoring, conquering time.
"The moan of doves in immemorial elms/And murmuring of innumerable bees - do you hear him, do you hear Maestro Tennyson's sigh in the pluckings? You are in love, no?" Anastasi had remarked, putting the guitar down.
But the instrument before her seemed unconcerned, aloof, like Dino. Both promised ecstasy, both wanted her soul. But she had not the strength to serve two masters.
When she had awoken it was a comfort to know that the entire day would belong to her to be alone. But by the time she got through the Segovia scales, even the light burden of the instrument was too much for her to hold. She had not slept much during the night, she realized, for her eyelids drooped more often than not. She had a drifty feeling that made her dreamlike and lose herself.
"Rest if you must, but don't you quit." came Cushing's words from the poem Anastasi had drilled into her memory two years before.
Finally, she put the guitar down. The noon sun rays dabbed the wall next to her with a craggy segment of column from the Parthenon beyond. She found herself glide into oblivion on the chair. She dozed. She was overwhelmed by her dreaming of her mother and felt happiness.
She was seldom like this, not ever since they had met. But now, like a torrent, the cumulated snags in their relationship suddenly all deluged upon her, and she was surprised that she did nothing to stop the onset. She recollected afresh the quarrel the night before, recalled the options remaining - put to her; about the music, she could not remember what had been said to be wrong with it; possibly it was not the music; she did not know. She retained only the oppressive, mostly mute, suffocation of Dino's demands.
At the recollection she began to tremble for an instant, uncontrollably, and gasp for more air to enter her lungs. It had been a turbulent episode, the worse; like an Aegean August gale, with only a hint of warning, that drowns one unsuspectingly. She was sinking, she told herself. She was feeble against his wants - whatever these were. And perhaps the giving on her part would never quench the needing on his....
The fingers felt better. She dipped them once more and waited for them to dry. The melody came again, this time urging and stronger than before. She picked up the guitar and gave, yielding herself to it. There was a knock on the door that she did not hear.
She was solely aware that the mellifluous pluckings did not come from the instrument but from her. Like heartbeats, they were as much hers as her heart's. A presence was there, completing a metamorphosis. Unlike before, she knew, the threshold now was scaled, the union of her and her dream realized. She played, all of her, and did not stop her care because now she could not. Like the pulsing in her chest, her will no longer participated in its existence. A being had been freed, and free it reigned over a kingdom of two. The knocking stopped, the footsteps died softly away behind the closed door, and the room glowed in the summer afternoon with Ilianna and a sublime étude.
Amelia's gaze fixed firmly upon the mirror. This was the first time that she saw herself as the mother that she had become; light blue calico dress hidden under a white muslin apron with canary yellow cording at the bottom, all of the fabric strewn with different kitchen concoctions, chocolate cake dough smeared by little hands. She had a few minutes, while the kids were outside playing and the cake was quickly rising, to look at her weary appearance. Her henna coloured hair sat atop her head in an array of delicately structured curls. Her face dimly shone with hints of rouge on her cheeks, somberly sinking into the perpetually work-induced collection of wrinkles. Her neck began to sag a little; her hands appeared much older than she last recalled. The crisp outline of her maternal figure was slowly fading, but her motherly bosom was as fresh and ready to be awaken, as always. The years had taken their toll on her. Birth to five children, the death of one, a dislocated relationship with her husband, and a household with never-ceising duties became the objects of her time. So many dreams dispelled by the magic of womanhood.
She first met her husband in a rather common way. Topeka, Kansas, 1938. Lula, her best friend, had somehow managed to work up a double-date with two college boys from a nearby frat house. Names were unimportant; the only thing that mattered was appearance. The two girls, being only sixteen years of age with ripe hormones rustling through their bodies, wanted to adventure into the domain of passionate bliss. Amelia finagled a way out of her house and met up with Lula in an alley, a few blocks down from their neighbourhood. A watchful eye viewed all that occurred, so the girls had to be careful. In their purses, among other things, lie equipped all the essentials of vanity and aphrodisiastic appliances of womanhood. They were truly confused as to what exactly they were doing and what they were going to do, but what they were aware of was what they wanted; to sexually feel like a woman, instead of being the modest, little girls trapped in the cocoons which seemed embedded in the town's morality.
Running all the way, across the railroad tracks and through a park, the girls finally made their destination: the Phi Beta Lambda frat house. After the trivialities of knocking on the door and luring out their prey with the most succulent of bait, Amelia paired up with Lawrence and Lula stayed with James. They parted ways and wandered throughout a nearby forest.
"Are you cold?" said Lawrence.
Amelia quickly replied, "No," after which a long pause of silence ensued. After twenty paces followed their aimless wanderings through the pine trees, she continued; "Do you know why we asked you and James to come with us?" Such a cheeky tone was new to her nature. This possibility of entering the sexual domain pushed her into a threshold of delivering more forward tones.
"Isn't it usually obvious? What, you all think that noone has done this before in the whole history of the world?" He said, following her edge. Comically, but sharply, she replied, "Adam and Eve did."
A slight chuckle from both parties broke the already trampled ice that lay before them. The two pairs of eyes glanced at each other with smiles and wonderment, ending all possibilities of conversation, as other things affixed themselves firmly to their notions of the evening. From that mystical moment, Lawrence then found himself awkwardly positioning as the domineering man, taking Amelia into his arms and following primal instincts. As he gazed into her eyes, they both felt young glands surging with violent passion. Urges came forth, awaken by both of their needs to open the Pandora's box before them. All of this came from small town boredom and religious modesty, the need to be daring, to be crazy, just simply to live...foolishly. His erection pulsed largely in his pants. He quickly tore off his brown slacks, unveiling his lack of underclothes and his overdeveloped penis. In her mortal shock, she just stooped to take a closer look at the magnificent tool, standing at all its splendor. It looked much different than she had pictured. He gazed down at her with his pale, blue eyes to undress and give his overheated skin a release. She untopped, and slowly, unbottomed, nervously unsure of her physique. Her breasts were not large, but seemed to fit in his hands, overflowing at the top, coursing through his fingers. Self-lubricating mechanisms dripped down her leg with a violent rush.
"This might hurt, a little. I mean, I always hear girls screaming and moaning through the walls at the dorm." His conveyance mattered not to Amelia, as she kissed his body up and down, waiting to cross the bridge from follyish childhood playtime to the sensual pleasures of adulthood. Plunging inward she felt the bliss tingling inside of her. The repetitious pain striking inside, pulling out, over and over again. She clutched him. He bit his lips. Both of them moaning and trying to squelch the loud, epiphanous noises that their once hidden subconscious was aching to burst forth and speak of.
He was dressing. A mesh of fluids mixed together with the rich, brown dirt. The mating ritual had come to a close. Without any further details of that one-night-stand, off to the home which shunned this behaviour, Amelia returned. The only prayer in her heathenistic heart was that this renaissance of hers could be simulated again, in more deep proportions, the next time, hoping that there would, indeed, be a next time. The months flashed by, and the seed had been sewn.
The white egg-timer sounded as Amelia awoke from her remembrance. That was how it all started; not just for her, but for many girls in that time. The lust felt at one time had never turned into love, but instead it morphed into burden, hassle, and any other synonym for a fixed life of drudgery. Experimentation always had its down side. As she found, emotional detachment was the only way to sanity. From the age of seventeen onward, she had steadily endured five birthings, interlacing about a three year interval of relief between each. Physical relief, only, as having small children never lifts its heavy head of responsibilities.
She hustled into the kitchen to take out the cake. The celebration was really only sparked by her subconscious interest to make this charade as barable as one human could make such situations. The roundness of the cake seemed to firm up quickly in the warmth of the oven. She thought, as she set the baked beauty on the table, preparing it for decorations, that is was a metaphor for her existence. A dark inside hidden by a sugarcoated front. Icing did seem to cover everything. While icing the cake, she could hear the sounds of the children in the back, running around, playing. Her childhood days were sound times that, ever-thankful to have gotten through, they were nothing of great loss to have forgotten.
Her father was a Baptist minister in the kinds of churches that loved to scream and yell in torment of a wrongdoer, in the hopes of expelling the devil through tears. All the years of chores and feeding chickens, and sobbing in the barn, hiding in the hay, making her rag dolls into voodoo dolls and praying for redemption because she thought herself possessed. Her father was decent. So decent, in fact, that everytime her parents "planted light," she could hear them praying forgiveness for the meshing of their skin. Loud prayers, distorted voices through the warped wood-frame house. All of the "Oh, Fathers" and the "save our holy temples from damnation," crept into her young, formidable ears. Everytime she heard "The Lord's Prayer," she couldn't help the twinge of laughter that the many years of fornicative prayer had bestowed upon her mind. Those formative years were treacherously binding.
"Close that screen door! You weren't raised in a barn." No matter what she said to that boy, Lawrence William II never stopped pushing his mother over the edge. In that way, he was a lot like her. Both were fiery redheads with a love of exploiting human emotions.
"Sorry, mom. I just came in to get something," he offered in explanation.
"Well, tell your sisters that the cake is almost ready and your father will be home soom. And, don't get your new shoes all muddied. I just mopped in here." With one quick dip in the icing bowl, and his other hand occupied, full of marbles, out young Lawrence ran in a flash. She went over to the drawer and took out a box of candles, and, almost mechanically, started inserting them into the cake.
"Seven, Eight, Nine...Oh no, what am I doing?" she thought. Quickly taking them out, she heard her husband's car with its roaring engine, sounding alarm that he was now home. All the candles were discarded abruptly into the trashcan, hidden under a pile of old lettuce and cracked egg-shells. Smearing over the holes, she covered up the wounds of the cake, even though others had not, truly, healed. With her hasty masterpiece in her hands, she set the cake atop a linen doily on the dining room table. All places were set. Lawrence walked in to his castle, kissed his wife on the cheek, and hanged his coat in the closet.
It seemed amazing how a kiss, one small peck on the cheek, could bring forth no feelings. In contrast, the closet, by the door, trapped all of her emotions. During the war, Lawrence did his duty and defended America, just as all of his ancestors had done. Every week, it seemed, he would send her V-mail. Each letter told of grand marches, the blood and anguish, the appearance of the majestic Alps and Seine, how he missed Kansas and her, and how life was only great if it was worth fighting for. Always, as sure as the sun would rise, she would ponder what it was in the world that she would fight for. She thought back, that as a child she would have fought for Sundays that were free to do anything that she pleased, eating ice cream for dinner, dancing, having running water. Now, she wasn't so sure what to believe in enough to fight and die.
She packed up all of her husband's letters in an old shoe-box and put them on top of the shelf of the closet. The box had two words written in big, black letters; HIS LETTERS. They weren't love letters. She'd never had love letters; they were just the letters of her supporter, the man she married at sixteen because they'd gotten "in trouble", the man who she could say she respected, helped out, liked, at one time even lusted after, but never really loved in the purest sense of the word. She went out to the barn. At that time, with Lawrence gone, they had hired a man to help out with the livestock, since her hands were already full with the responsibilities of the children and the house. The help was a tall, black man by the name of Enoch. He had a bronzed face with crow's feet glinting off of his chocolate, brown eyes. His hair looked like little balls of yarn, threaded to his primitive-shaped head. His look was exotic. Muscles rippled all over his body and veins shone their heads all over his labouriously-strong arms.
"I just came to tell you that it's noon-time. I have some chicken and fresh, green beans in the kitchen if you like," She said.
"Thank ya, ma'am. I be in ina min'te. Got little mo sweepin' left," he replied.
She pretended to walk back to the house, but instead, walked around to the other side of the barn. There were several gaps in the wood in which she could see in, almost certain that he couldn't reciprocate the optics. This was something that she had discovered some weeks back, whilst picking flowers in mind to liven up her dreary farm-house. As she bent down, the sight of Enoch's bare chest, glazed with perspiration, stole her glance. She knew it seemed wrong, but a little sight that lead to nowhere was viewed as harmless. There was something attractive about him; a man content to sweat for her, break his back for her, have sore muscles for her, only for the return of a few dollars a month. He was always so polite. She dreamed about him. Though it seemed wrong, especially at the age of twenty-two, when people should know better, she imagined how he would feel on her. These explicit fantasies hummed though her mind as she peered into the barn. With the rake in his hands, his back muscles moved in a rhythmic motion, back and forth, over and over. As all the hay heaped itself into a larger pile, he dropped the broom and proceeded to walk to the other end of the barn. Her sight of him was lost, but her tenuous eyes kept a hopeful watch. Sure of his return to her vision, she peered inward, ever awaiting his return with another tool of labour. Much to her surprise, however, Enoch walked out after having finished all of his morning chores. As he stepped out of the barn and walked closer to the house, he noticed Amelia, peaking inside the barn through knot-holes. Without a clear understanding as to her actions he proceeded to ask, "What is y'doin' thar, missus Townshend?"
"Um, uh, I....," swiftly looking to the ground for a scapegoat, "I'm, uh, trying to find a four-leafed clover. There used to be a whole patch of them right around there," she pointed to the weighted ground of her viewing, continuing, "but I guess they're all gone now. I think the ants ate them all up. Lots of...ants..here. All over, in fact. Ants." The decrescendo of her voice tapered her muddled words down to a whisper.
She looked at him, he returned the stare, with sort of a confused appearance. Hot, sweaty, and not quite willing to bag the lies that she spoke, he gazed with a sense of distrust. Amelia wanted to be direct, to tell him of her desires, but all she knew how to be was a woman. Escaping the tale of ants, Amelia continued her cryptic plea by continuing, "You know, it's so lonely out here. The wind just rushes right through your ears and out past your thoughts. Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy. Everyday, everything is always the same. I just want this all to end." Awkwardly being a captive audience to this, Enoch stood, feeling helpless and somewhat oblivious to her cries. Amelia's last sense of power was through tears. As she wailed her piteous song, he cradled her in his arms, unsure exactly what else to do. She layed her head against his chest, and could hear the steady rhythm of his heart. With the subtleties that only a woman could possess, she kissed his nipple, and in less than two minutes, had betrayed the oath of homestead, hearth, and nuptial trust. Her fantasy, shot to the ground, had died along with the lives of a few ants which were crushed in the process. Two and a half months later, Enoch was dismissed. It became unbearable for her to see his face after that incident. Her stomach was growing fatter and her options seemed limited.
Clueless as to what she was going to do, she covered her stomach with baggy dresses and remained seated as often as she could when in the company of others. This was a rarity, except when going to the market or to church on Sundays. People speculated as to her "condition".
People talked if she missed church. Her entrapped life made for a loss no matter which direction the wind blew. At nights, she would hit her stomach, hoping to undo what she so thoughtlessly had done. The meshing of ebony skin and ivory mind would be something that she could not hide from anyone. As she lay on the bed, in tears from pummeling her stomach with countless lashes, she pondered a plethora of thoughts; she could give the child up for adoption, she could say that she found the child and then go on to "adopt" it, she could lock it in the root cellar, she could kill it after birth, she could kill it before birth. She had heard of women doing this before. It was 11:48 p.m. Down, she tiptoed, to the closet downstairs. Her bedroom closet was fully clothed, but the front closet was barren, empty coat-hangers standing like skeletons. She took one and crept back up to the bathroom. Her whole life seemed to be one unprepared mess. Everything seemed completely random. The coat-hanger bent not nearly as easily as her confused mind and spirit. Prepared to do what had to be done, she sat in the bathtub, legs open, and allowed herself to be prodded and mutilated by this piece of wire. She didn't know what she was doing. All she knew was that she couldn't keep it, she couldn't let him know, she had to take the pain. It was what she had deserved.
The blood oozed down into the drain. Only the pipes would know her story for sure. The pain ached all through her body, but she kept her husband's face in sight the whole time. This was what she was prepared to die for. One tiny hand clutched tightly to the wire, while the other grabbed dearly the side of the bathtub. Fetal chunks, which had torn off, fell into the massive pool of blood. The pain battled her. She couldn't help but moan. If only the children weren't there, she could have screamed with a higher decibelic volume. After what seemed like an eternity of endless pain for redemption, she made it all stop. It was too much to bare any longer. Quickly, the long coat-hanger's bloody end was pulled out, leaving much sanguinary residue. She would discard this later. Faintness was all that was felt now. Alot of blood had gone down the drain, and the rest firmly affixed itself to her naked body and the inside of the tub. Laying down, she looked up at the ceiling, sobbing in sheer torture, wading in her own pool of blood. Her lip was bloody from biting down so hard for all of those minutes. The ordeal was all over; everything was all behind her now. She could go on; she just needed to go to sleep now.
Looking at her husband hanging his coat in this closet of secrets, she couldn't believe what had happened in all of her life. Things she was brought up to disapprove of seemed to fit her like a glove.
"What have you got there, dear?" remarked Lawrence.
"A cake. Chocolate; your favourite. Come on, let's have a piece in remembrance...," her voice trailed off.
"Remembrance of our wedding and the many years of fidelity" he continued with a daunting stare into her eyes. She dished the plates with her cake, and sat with her family around her. As the scarfed down the sugary treat, she wondered, did he know what she was celebrating? When she "came to" ten years ago, after losing all of that blood, did they keep it a secret for her, or did it get back to him? It always gets back to them; in one way or another it always does. Well, it didn't matter now. They were a picture perfect Norman Rockwell family.
"What are these holes in the cake? Did one of you kids put your fingers in the cake dough? What did mommy tell you about that? Explain yourselves." The children sat, confused from their father's allegations, as they had done nothing wrong. His rants went on; "Why can't you just be good little children without screwing up everything?" In a ballistically reflective rage he went upstairs to his room and slammed the door shut. He had seen one of the candle imprints. It wasn't the children he was angry with; it was the whole facade that seemed to come crumbling down.
Trying to clear the emotions from the table, Amelia responded to the children's fear by saying, "Go to your rooms, children. It's alright. Your father has just had a hard day. Mommy isn't mad at you; it would just be a good idea for you all to stay out of your father's way for now. Everything will be fine. Go on, now." The children, fearfully, followed her orders. Another generation with their heads put on awkwardly. Alone, to her own thoughts, she went on in her mind; "I've had a hard day today, too. And you would have been ten. Tiny fingers; such tiny fingers." He knew. She didn't.