Homecoming

A Morven Glass story by Emma Geraghty.

 

 

It gets harder around this time of year. I guess it’s tradition. Things have changed over the years, but this time of year never gets easier to deal with. It doesn’t get cold out here. I know they have artificial snow and ice and all that shit on some of the more populous planets, but nobody bothers about it in Blokk. Heating bills are expensive enough without digitally induced weather.

I’d love to say I spend Christmas volunteering, that I give my time to those who actually would benefit. They’re always looking for help around Nep1 and the smaller settlements. I want to be a decent person, I’ve had enough Christmases that I could do it. But I don’t. I donate a large chunk of credit to a few places to assuage the guilt I’m supposed to feel, and then I leave. I’m inactive. And that’s fine.

I spend Christmas day in the space station that orbits Tanaka. My home planet, if I even have one of those. It’s primarily used as a hotel, a stop gap for interplanetary business people, so it’s relatively quiet around Christmas. I rent a room for three nights. I spend Christmas Eve asleep. I wake up early on Christmas day and order room service, I read in bed until mid afternoon, and then go to the restaurant. I sit alone and eat. The bottle of whiskey goes up in price every year, but it’s tradition, it’s all tradition now, just like the armchair nearest the observation window in the station lounge is always my place to sit with my legs tucked under me and my tumbler balanced on my knee. I look at the planet I grew up on. The thick clouds of dust, the cracks in the skin of the world where water runs in fast currents searching for a sea that isn’t there, and ocean that doesn’t exist. And the sky around it. The infinite darkness of space, the void, the emptiness, and I know there are hundreds of planets and hundreds of peoples and but I have lived out here for so long and it doesn’t go away. I let the homesickness overwhelm me. I drink more. Sometimes other people try to talk to me, other lonely souls looking for someone to raise a glass with, but most of the time I turn them away.

I tell Allory a half truth. She knows I don’t have family, but I tell her I spend Christmas on my home planet with some friends I grew up with, the one time we get together in the year. Which would be difficult, given the whole not-aging thing. There were – are, presumably they’re still alive – others like me, other Children of Lazarus, but I don’t know where any of them are. Maybe meeting someone like myself would make me feel better. Maybe they’d be insufferable.

Tanaka is sand and stone, hard living, bad wages, difficult. A lot of people never leave, and even if they do they come straight back again whether they mean to or not. It’s a dustbowl, a sink hole, a non-place. It’s home. Was. My stomach drops and I knock back another gulp of whiskey. I miss it. I miss them and I dampen it down most of the time, but now, looking at my home planet, the longing comes back fierce and fiery, forcing it’s way through my veins. I indulge. I indulge in the emptiness in my chest, in the memories that slip over my eyes like old films.

The last Christmas I spent with them was the best, and maybe that’s just nostalgia, but it was the best. I didn’t know I wouldn’t spend another one with them. I was in my fifth and supposedly final year at the Institute and I was allowed three days off for Christmas, and I was home with my mum and my little sisters. I wasn’t well. They were trialling a new drug on us, I can’t remember what it was supposed to do but the side effect of insomnia was taking it’s toll. I slept for all of Christmas eve and took enough Klaxxon pills the next morning to match the energy of my sisters and help Mum in the kitchen. It was crowded in our tiny house. Hot. We played music from Ea1 that Mum bought on the black market and we opened presents and drank the wine we’d been saving all year and ate until our stomachs hurt and Astrid and Henna complained about there not being enough chocolate as if there could ever be enough chocolate for them, and Mirry got cranky because she’s five and is always cranky past bedtime, and Mum tells me off for spending too much money on a bracelet for her but I see her smile when I fasten the gold clasp around her wrist, and I can already feel the dread of going back to the Institute but I push it back and play games with the girls and watch films on the VirtuVid that Gran gave us last year and Mirry falls asleep on my knee and Henna and Astrid climb into their bed and Mum tells them a story and when they’re all tucked in, we sit together on the sofa. Mum asks me how I am. And I tell her I’m happy. And it’s true.

I should have stayed.

The whiskey burns my throat as I finish the bottle. I should know by now that drinking just makes things seem further away. I am so lonely. I don’t admit it, but it’s this time of the year, the time of the year when everything is about togetherness and family and love and sharing time with one another and it just reminds me that it’s gone, it’s all gone, all of what I used to have is gone and the loneliness seeps into my skin and I drink more, but it doesn’t help. I feel removed. I feel one step away from everyone. Like I’ve lost the sense of touch. The lights in the lounge are ambient, colours melting across the ceiling, and I miss Allory like mad. But not just her. I’m a million miles away from everyone I’ve ever loved, and it’s melodramatic, but it feels so true. If I was someone who cried then the tears would be coming now, but all I want is another drink and to be held. So maybe, when I’m sat at the bar, that’s why I let someone buy me a drink. He sits on a stool next to me and talks, and it’s clear that he doesn’t need any response to have a conversation, and this suits me fine. He puts his hand on my leg and I don’t push him away. We finish our drinks. I let him lead me to the lift and once the doors close he presses his lips to mine. He slides his hand under my shirt. I let him push me onto the bed and in my head I apologise to Allory, knowing that she won’t find out. And when I get out of his bed hours later, dressing silently so I don’t wake him, and walk back to my room, I know I should feel bad. I should regret this. But I don’t. I never do.

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The Not-Quite Silence of Nightfall

By Becky Kinge.

GALACTIC CO-ORDINATES: 96-05-04-01

Reik’lin watched as the rest of the Uuen village worked. He was in a foul mood despite the serenity of the sunset hours. Music, gentle and rhythmic, surrounded his clan; against his will, Reik’lin’s feet started to move in time with it, before he caught himself and stopped.

The quiet thrum of the drums sounded like hail dancing cautiously upon tin. It pirouetted through candle-lined pathways, uniting the villagers as they prepared for nightfall. Beyond the twinkling tap of percussion, only the shuffle of fabric and whispers between neighbours could be heard.

Two of the Uuen girls, with lilac skin fading into apricot hair, tiptoed between their neighbours, relighting any flame that had perished. One, whose eyes were as porcelain white as a new-born’s, smiled sweetly at the drummer. The drummer jerked his chin in warning. The Uuen were a species of professionals and he held the most important role: his tranquil beat maintained a constant hush, a noise-level akin to waves lapping at the coast, and could not be disturbed.

During the evening, noise tempted curious spirits to exit the forest. During nightfall, it angered them.

Reik’lin grumbled to himself as he collected his supplies; no-one ever flirted with the lantern boy.

Stuhn, a soldier in charge of surveying the perimeter, approached the Eye. She sat, eyes closed, in an aged armchair surrounded by piles of textile. Reik’lin paused in his preparations and homed in on the conversation. Stuhn was a stickler for the rules and never interrupted the Eye as she meditated. Something must be wrong.

“There’s a human in the forest,” he said. The village halted.

The Eye nodded. She knew, had seen it – had probably known of its presence near their clan for hours – but had not spoken. She only spoke of danger. They were safe. One-by-one, the villagers returned to their tasks, slower now, glancing intermittently at the forest edge as if expecting it to pounce. The drums grew quieter, and the villagers followed suit.

If the human entered the village and saw mistake in their decoration, they would be shamed. If the human entered the village and spoke loudly, as they tended to do, they would be killed.

Allegedly.

Reik’lin kicked at his lanterns. His mother heard the smack of paper and wood and shot him a warning glance. Lighting the lanterns is an honour, his family had told him, to have individual responsibility is a mark of respect. Reik’lin didn’t care about credit, he didn’t want a solo role, he just wanted to stitch stars into the patchwork gazebos with his friends, if only to have a few more hours of conversation before silence became mandatory.

Besides, illuminating a path straight from the ancient woodlands back to the village seemed incredibly counterproductive. The same, he thought, as painting an arrow straight to their home with the words oh great feared spirits, demons of Vvent’un soil, this way, we’ve got three spare cots and plenty of running water.

He reiterated this, in a sharp whisper, to his mother, who took a break from her weaving to listen to him moan. When he finished with a flap of arms in place of an audible sigh, she clucked her tongue and pushed him towards the perimeter, signalling for Stuhn to follow.

Untath quihip grai,” Stuhn whispered to the Eye, ‘grace protects us,’ and then walked smoothly, almost gliding, to where Reik’lin was collecting his things.

“You heard what I said?” he asked. Reik’lin huffed.

“No,” he said, “try talking a little louder next time.”

“You shame us, Reik’lin. Such ignorance is beyond your status.”

Reik’lin clucked, a jolt of irritation causing him to tear a hole in the lantern he was constructing.

“It was a joke,” he said, “I heard you. But the Eye said there’s nothing to worry about, right?”

“Not in as many words, no,” Stuhn mumbled, and Reik’lin was taken aback by the subtle disdain that lined his words. Stuhn, protector of their clan, was sworn to revere the Eye’s near-omniscience. “It’s true that it may bear no ill will, but that does not mean it won’t disrupt the spirits. It is nearing the perimeter, now. If you see it approach when you are laying the lanterns, be careful, and be sure that it is careful, too.”

“Wha- be careful? It’s not gonna shoot me, is it? Why am I on the front line, here, Stuhn? I’m just the lantern-kid.”

“You are the front line, Reik’lin,” Stuhn said, “your lanterns lead the spirits back to the depths and decorate our land so that no being dare harm it.”

“Yeah,” Reik’lin said, poking the broken lantern, “can you believe I don’t get a uniform?”

Stuhn gave him a confident pat on the shoulder, barely grazing the fabric of his tunic (out of fear, Reik’lin presumed, of the resulting clap alerting enemies of their movement). Reik’lin saluted him, waved to his mother and to his friends, and slumped out of the village.

There, in the arched silhouette of lavender trees, the human looked small.

Reik’lin had only ever seen humans from a distance; they had been taller than even Stuhn and twice as muscular. This human was short, lean, with a protruding chest and long, light hair bunched back in a thick strap. Their hands were on their hips, and they were shouting into the bushes.

Reik’lin climbed the nearest tree, lit a lantern from his basket, and placed it on a branch. He crawled along the treetops, leaving a trail of light, until he was rested between the leaves above the human. It was a girl, glowering.

“Buttons,” she said, “get out of there.”

“I’M STUCK,” something said, “STUCK IN THE MUD, MELISSA!”

The human pinched the bridge of her nose and poked at the bushes with a stick. Reik’lin heard a whir and a rustle, then the incredibly loud and somewhat distorted voice spoke again.

“MELISSA. I AM STILL STUCK.”

“There’s nothing I can do, Buttons,” the human said, “dad said you need terrain training.”

“YOUR FATHER WAS MISTAKEN. I AM FINE ON ALL TERRAIN.”

“Then why are you stuck in a bush, Buttons?” she said, crouching down and spreading the branches of the push to peek inside.

Reik’lin looked towards the sky; it was almost dark and he was yet to start placing the lanterns on the opposite side of the path. Irregardless of how often he dismissed his role and the village’s traditions, the growing shadows of the forest made him uneasy; roots curling like demons’ fingers clawing out of the ground. He had to move

“RESEARCH.”

“Researching what, Buttons?”

“BUSHES.”

There was little to no sound as Reik’lin’s feet hit the ground. The human, now reaching for their friend, hadn’t even noticed him land. In the distance, there was rickety howl. Reik’lin fought every impulse to the human out when she started laughing at whatever was happening within the bushes. It was a piercing sound, impulsive, and the spirits were stirring.

With one struggled heave, the human fell onto her back; a strange, square, metallic being followed. It was a robot – Reik’lin had never seen one, before, but he’d heard stories.

“THERE IS SOMEONE HERE,” the robot, Buttons, said. The human jumped up and twisted, pointing a twig at Reik’lin’s chest.

“Who are you?” They said, and Reik’lin flinched at the volume.

“I am Reik’lin of the nearby Uuen village,” he replied, softly, before aggressively miming zipping his lips shut, “who are you?”

“I am Melissa,” she said, “we’ve travelled from the City, and did you just tell me to shut up?

“Yes,” Reik’lin said, “so would you?

“Why? Because I’m human? What do you plan to do with me, Uuen?”

“Sew your mouth shut if possible,” Reik’lin mumbled.

“HE SAID: SEW YOUR MOUTH SHUT, IF POSSIBE.”

“I heard him,” Melissa said.

“Really? Because you’re speaking so loudly that I assumed you were deaf,” Reik’lin said, “our Protector warned me about you, you know. That you’d break the silence and wake the spirits!”

“The … silence?” Finally, she spoke with caution, glancing at Buttons.

“YES. HE SAID: THE SILENCE.”

“The silence that protects us!” Reik’lin said, “that leads the spirits from our village.”

“Then what’s with the lights leading the way, huh?”

Reik’lin glared. Even the ignorant human thought that the lanterns were a stupid idea, but it was his role – an important one – and seeing someone else insult his people’s stubborn sentimentality flicked a switch; only he was allowed to call his job stupid.

“The lanterns guide the spirits home and highlight the beauty of our land so that no demon dare tarnish it,” he said, “duh.”

“THE UUEN PEOPLE FIND SILENCE SACRED,” Buttons said.

“Oh,” Melissa said, looking sheepish. “Then I should probably tell you –”

“THERE IS A SPIRIT BEHIND US. OH BOY. LOOK, MELISSA. A SHADOW DEMON.”

Reik’lin whipped around. There, seeping out of the trees, was a demon; oil dripping from its slender body, eyes glowing orange and mouth widening to a grotesque size as it moved slowly towards them, leaving shadows in its wake.

“IT’S COMING CLOSER,” Buttons said, and the demon glitched nearer at his words, eyes flaring. “NOISE APPEARS TO AGGRIVATE IT.”

It jumped again.

“Then stop making noise!” Reik’lin said.

“That’s what I was trying to say!” Melissa squealed, “his –”

“MY VOLUME FUNCTION IS BROKEN.”

“THEN STOP TALKING!” Reik’lin shouted – he hadn’t shouted in years, not since his schooling had finished, and the roar summoned a second spirit to spawn. He clamped his hands over his mouth, taken aback by his own power.

“What do we do?” Melissa whispered, backing towards the village, “we should run, right?”

“And lead them to the village?” Reik’lin said, struggling to keep quiet now that he’d rediscovered what noise felt like to release, but every word continued to jolt the demons closer and it was either they die (and endanger his village) or they ssh. Buttons had other ideas.

“MIGHT I SUGGEST YOU LEAD THEM SOMEWHERE ELSE,” Buttons said.

“How?” Melissa said. A cool wind jingled the basket at Reik’lin’s hips, and he gasped.

“The lanterns!” Reik’lin said, “the lanterns guide the spirits home!”

“We don’t have enough time! Every time we speak, they inch closer.”

“We need to distract them,” Reik’lin said. Melissa bit the inside of her cheeks in thought, then grabbed his wrist and pulled him backwards. Reik’lin’s impulse was to complain but, before he could, Melissa stuck her leg out and kicked Buttons back into the bush.

“WHAT WAS THAT FOR?” Buttons said. “HELLO. I’M STUCK, MELISSA, AGAIN, IN THE SAME BUSH. SAME MUD. I THINK.”

The demons paused, flicked in between a state of being and a state of not, and then turned towards the bush instead of Reik’lin and Melissa.

“I UNDERSTAND NOW,” Buttons said, as the spirits approached him. “I AM THE DISTRACTION. I SHALL KEEP MOVING FURTHER INTO THE FOREST, OKAY?”

“Quickly!” Melissa said, “they can’t hurt him, but I still feel bad. You get those lanterns and light the path away from the village, and I’ll extinguish the ones you’ve already put up. Deal?”

“Deal,” Reik’lin said, dashing past the demons and towards the shadows as Melissa leapt into action and climbed the nearest tree, blowing out the candle of its lantern.

“I AM SLIGHTLY FURTHER AWAY,” Buttons said, “BUT I AM STILL QUITE TANGLED AND THEY ARE GETTING CLOSE.”

Reik’lin bit down his reply and prayed Melissa would do the same; she was slowly becoming enveloped in darkness, and the path to the village was disappearing. Reik’lin had never been this far into the forest before, and the more he climbed, the more spirits he could sense. They were slipping from the roots of the trees, gliding towards his home, limbs clicking and dripping.

He kept on working: climbing, lighting, climbing, lighting. The spirits began to take notice, reaching towards the light as if it would heal them. But it wasn’t enough. They needed more. They needed noise.

“HEY!” Reik’lin shouted, “DEMONS. LOOK OVER HERE!”

They did, and began advancing towards the path he’d lit.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY, UUEN?” Buttons called from the opposite end. They turned, again.

“BE SILENT, BUTTONS,” Melissa shouted to him, and the demons turned on her.

“BOTH OF YOU, PLEASE, JUST SHUT UP FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIVES,” Reik’lin screamed, and the demons set their mark. They slid towards the light, away from the village, and Reik’lin used their slow movement as his opportunity to dip behind the branches of the furthest tree and crawl down. Buttons, thank the Gods, remained quiet.

When he reached Melissa, she was grinning.

“We did it,” she whispered.

“Shut up,” Reik’lin said, and they set to work heaving Buttons back out of the bush. Using the faint glow of his torch and the blue hue of Button’s eyes to navigate back to the village, the three teetered on the outskirts and looked nervously to where the clan had gathered. The entire village was staring, aghast, at the pitch-black forest that should have been shining, and the shouting beings that should have been silent.

“What happened?” Stuhn asked from the front-line.

Melissa gulped, slapping a hand over Button’s mechanical mouth.

“The lanterns led the demons home,” Reik’lin said, stepping forward, “the human helped.”

Stuhn looked to the Eye for confirmation; she smiled and nodded once.

“When the sun arises and we can sing again,” Stuhn said, “you will tell your tale.”

 

 

From the Realms of Glory

GALACTIC CO-ORDINATES: 19-25-06-01

 

SUGGESTED SOUNDTRACK: (See Spotify Link at End) A Christmas Cornucopia (Album), Annie Lennox.

 

 

 

I swing through the air and I love it. Here there are clouds and nothing else. Each one is another world for me to explore. I have wanted my full wings for a while and they are nearly there. When it is time to sleep, in the black clouds, I count my feathers. Some time ago there were a couple of sprouts and then a tuft and then two full round feathers. That was a good day. A few weeks after that I didn’t have to ride on my mother’s back any more.

Today is an exciting day. We start the journey to the star. Every year, as is expected, we do a full ring of the cloud rock. A full journey means a year. The last stretch is the route to the top north of the rock and above is the star. Our bright shining lord. I have made this journey as long as I remember but always clinging to my mother’s back. This time I get to do it on my own.

Up ahead is my mother, she is stirring from her sleep. Her face, round and pink, is just moving. She smiles and opens her wide eyes. He wings lull sleepily just keeping afloat. We have walked on the ground before and I have seen my mother do it many times, but we prefer not too, sleeping in the clouds is best. My mother smiles and embraces me, we are high up now and below is a valley with spirals of grey and white towers. She nods forward and flies smoothly. My mother is the best flier I’ve ever seen, she can twirl and backflip, and go lighting fast. I wish I could fly like her.

I’m looking across the cloud waiting for my family to wake up. Suddenly with pops across the white swirls they shoot upwards and shake off the night’s sleep. They are everywhere. One of my brothers swoops past; he is fully grown now and even has a bright white beard. He drops some food into my hand. Him and the others must have gone down to the surface for some supplies. It is fruit today, a round red thing. I know it’ll be good, the food changes across the surface as we travel but here on the star path it is always best. I bite into it and the red juice flows down my cheeks, it is sweet like the moment you break through into the sun.

There is a bellow – the call of the tribe mother. She is my great-grandmother, I learned the other week, but we all call her Tribe Mother. She has a huge set of wings, bigger than I’ve ever seen and can even move clouds with them so I’m told. She is kind but also scary. Everyone follows her path. As we always do we rise up into the sky above the cloud valley. All my brother and sisters are here. My cousins too and their parents. Hundreds of pairs of everything. Smooth legs and chests, feathered wings, soft eyes. The tribe mother is pointing in circles and swining her arms round. I know what this means, I think. We have to fly through the valley separately as not to disturb the formation too much. I don’t know quite what formation means, only that it is hard to say. I was taught this by my father long ago, he has gone down below gathering now forever. I miss him. Last year he was here on the star path.

It is important we make it to the star point to say thank you. It is there under the light that our people were born. They say once we walked on the ground but one day a child was born and on his back were tiny stumps. At first they thought he was strange, the ground dweller had smooth backs. But as he got bigger they saw the stumps grow into beautiful wings. As they saw him take off into the sky they found wings growing on their backs too and joined him in the sky forevermore. I love this story. The thought of walking all my life glued to the surface makes me shudder.

The tribe sings in response to the tribe mother’s bellow. I sing high and clear. At each age we are given a new note, a new voice to show our place and to show how we fit in. The singing fits together perfectly and echoes out across the sky. Suddenly there is movement everyway, water splatters across my face as my cousin swoops up past me, he turns quickly and laughs then shoots off again. I see the gatherers separate from a huddle as they fly through a hole. The tribe are separating into their passages. I know mine. I’m to go on the outside, through the thin wispy white. An easier route for me. I wanted to go through the middle but my mother wouldn’t let me. I see the valley beyond me. On the other side, just colouring the horizon is the deep clear. Out of the clouds we will come into nothing. Just a patch of open sky. Then it will be the new year.

I am feeling sick. I’ve never flown for so long before. I want to be on my mother’s back still, moving through the middle not out here on my own.

I take a deep breath and fly down over the clouds and turn left towards the edges of the valley. Things feel a little darker than before. The white is turning grey. I see my cousins turn right, some of them are young too and are taking the wisps at the other side. My mother is just heading down and looks at me. She nods and smiles and then disappears. I reach the edges of the cloud valley, beyond are clouds too thin to keep us afloat and after that another valley. My wings are already feeling tired, they’re not used to beating for so long. Now there is silence everywhere, I can’t hear the cries and laughter of my family just the wind. I am alone now.

This is why they make us go to the edge. I always wondered as I watched my brothers and sister go the edge of the cloud valley why they couldn’t come with us. But it is to make them fly alone and now it is time for me to fly alone. I set off smoothly through the thin edges. I thrust forwards and twirl. I want to see the sky above but all around is becoming greyer. I turn on to my back and soar. Fear grips me. It shouldn’t be happening not at this time of year but there it is. Crawling like a herd of surface beasts over the top of the valley is a storm. It is black and huge and crackling with lighting. Suddenly it is over me and raining fiercely. The drops are sending the wisps flying to the ground. I fly forward and sing outwards. The rumbles from above are deafening.

I stop and look around. There is no one there. The storm is moving thick and fast to the middle of the valley. The tribe must be right in the middle of it. There is a crack of lighting to my right. I leap away. Everywhere seems to charged with electricity. Another bolt strikes just by me. and then another one up ahead. Its like I’m in a cage I’m trapped. I fly lower and lower there’s nothing I can do. Eventually I dip below and see the brown rockiness of the surface. Up ahead is a battleground. I can’t see any of the tribe. Not one has dipped below.

I can’t go back up. I can’t go to the surface. This must have been me. I must have failed the path because I was scared. Because I doubted the path. Now we will never get to the star. Now a new year will never begin. It is my fault. I hover with my wings outstretched and wait in shame. If the boy with the first wings started our journey in the sky, I am the one who has ended it.

I hover for what feels forever but I eventually I hear the rumbles move off into the distance, the sky is lighter as usual but it is still so quiet. I look around. Far off there is no sign of anyone else. If I am the only one left then. I have to make it to the star no matter what.

The edges of the valley are clearer now but still feel scattered. It’s as if the map has been cut up into pieces. I wonder where the tribe mother is. I long to hear her deep, rumble voice. I fly upwards over the ridges and further into the valley. I don’t care about the rules I just want my family now. But there is no one around. Not a catch of laughter or a moment of song. Here the clouds are thicker in scoops and I flow over them. My wings are not tired any longer, they feel strong. I am becoming old now, much older and stronger than before. The deep blue on the horizon is getting closer. I must prepare for myself alone. If I am there though, if I make it then at least we still give thanks, at least the new year will begin.

I can see it up ahead the last wall of cloud out of the valley and into the clear at the star path’s end. I burst through into the clear blue. My eyes fill with light but my ears with something else. It is singing, singing in beautiful harmony. The low rumbles of the elders, the mellow middle notes of the mothers, the sweet highs of the young. As my eyes adjust there in the clear blue is my tribe, my family their wings outstretched and signing their song of thanks. I fly towards my mother and she embraces me.

‘I got lost,’ I sign. ‘I’m sorry…’

‘I know my child. You have brave the storm my dear not go under it, always brave the storm.’