The bar was quiet, with no customers besides us. We took over the solitary pool table and I went up to order drinks. There was a big, old brown lab on the floor, too sleepy to lift its head, though it wagged its tail on my approach. The white-haired man behind the bar looked tired and pretty much over this pesky thing called life.
He put his meaty hands on the bar and stared at me with impatience. "Well? What do you want." The accent sounded more southern than Ohio. I later learned he and his wife had bought a camper van, and they and their dog were planning on moving down to Florida to retire in the next year or two... long overdue, by the sound of it.
"I'll have a Long Island Iced Tea, please. Sir." I added the "sir" on the end because I felt compelled to. I was only 21 at the time.
"You'll have a what?" He scowled.
"Ah.. a Long Island Iced Tea," I pronounced a bit more slowly.
He looked annoyed at this. "Son, I don't mix drinks."
"Oh, okay, ah... I'll just have a rum and coke then, please."
The bartender shook his jowls and barked, "Son, what did I say? I said I. Don't. Mix. Drinks."
("Gaines, hurry up... we're about to break," my friend Genji commented from the pool table.)
Shifting uncomfortably, I glanced at the full shelves complete with all manner of liquors and mixers on the wall behind him, and then down the bar at the little glass-doored fridge with soft drinks and water bottles in it. "Okay, um.. then may I please have a glass with ice, with a shot of Captain Morgan rum in it, and also one of those cans of coke from the refrigerator?"
"Well okay then," the old man said, and went to get what I'd ordered.
Later that night he coached me in my pool-playing. I'd complained out loud about missing a shot, and from behind the bar, where he'd been watching us play while reading a newspaper, he hollered, "That's because you Hit. Too. Fucking. Hard."
Over the next several months we learned that he was actually quite a nice guy, beneath his rather mean exterior.
Okay, there. My Long Island Iced Tea story.
Gulls wheel, bigger than dogs
Boofy clouds outlined in peach
A grebe swims, and all the bread hogs
With mallards chasing, just out of reach
The tide is out, green rocks revealed
Salt and vinegar chips on the shore
The church bells sound, spring souls are healed
Distant lovers strolling, searching for more
Tall castle beckons, just out of sight
Ominous waves beneath moss-covered towers
Cobblestone path meanders, a sore foot's plight
The cold breeze tickling through daffodil flowers
Guffaws are muffled, behind windows of a pub
Harbourside painter somehow warm in his vest
Soon a glass of wine, and perhaps some grub
And then a pillow, as sleeping gulls rest
Aurel stood in the middle of the field, the dry grass up to his waist, its sweet aroma pleasant on the breeze. He held his arm up above his face, palm to the stars. Slowly, he shifted his focus from the backs of his fingers to the tiny points of light beyond and between them.
The heavens seemed to take on a three-dimensional quality: Some of the stars now appeared closer than others, and Aurel imagined he could sense the depths between those and the ones farther away. Many had hints of color: Distant reds, cold blues, soft greens, fierce yellows. Even the faintest of these shone more brightly than usual, for it was a very clear night; the moon had yet to rise, and the light from the fire was behind him and mostly blocked by the trees. The galaxy ran smoke-blue from one side of the sky to the other, unmoving, like a swath of mist frozen in place by the breath of some terrible, ancient beast.
The horse nickered faintly. Aurel turned to see her grazing at the edge of the thicket. He watched for a while, occasionally hearing a muffled chomping noise. She was a good horse, he thought. Strong and full of heart. Perhaps he should come up with a name for her. After all, they would share many more nights before he reached his destination. On quiet feet Aurel strode past the animal, stepping out of the silvery meadow and into the fire-lit stand of trees. He gently placed two good sized sticks across the flames of the campfire and sat down on his blanket.
Once again he reached into his vest pocket and took out the message. He unrolled it and stared at it, hoping against hope to gather some new meaning from it. Plain, black ink – ordinary ink, made from pine ash and water – lay scrawled across the paper in lines almost too messy to read. It was from Yori alright; there was no doubt about that. He was the only one Aurel knew who would send such a mundane letter. He had not signed his name at the bottom. Just the three lines,
"The very world," he mouthed. A twig snapped behind him, and Aurel looked up to see the horse standing there, ears perked forward, her big round eyes reflecting firelight. "It's ok," he comforted, "It's just me talking to myself again." The horse lowered her head and sniffed at the ground, as if reassured.
"What's the old man gone and done this time?" He mumbled, shaking his head and staring back up a t stars that were half hidden through the canopy of leaves.
John's jaws and tongue worked sluggishly as he meditated on the repulsiveness of the stuff he'd just squirted into his mouth. His hate for it transcended the mere taste of the substance; this disgust was as palpable as that lidded mug stuck to the desk in front of him -- like an object he could hold out at arm's length and say, This is the cause of my misery; this thing right here. He very nearly acted on the strong urge to hurl the food tube straight into the cycler.
The trouble was, everything they could produce in the ship's food processing factory would inevitably get old and unpalatable, and be imbued with that same partly imagined dullness that, of course, had nothing to do with its actual ingredients. There was no way around it. So John finished his meal in bored silence.
At length he unstrapped himself from his chair, placed the tube in the secure container designed to hold such things, and kicked off in the direction of the loo. Lunch break almost over; time to get back to work. It was a mind-numbing job that basically involved staring at a screen for hours and occasionally pushing a button or two. Not the most social of positions, but he was decent at it and didn't mind quiet. For the most part, anyway.
Lately he had found himself friend-building again. The infrequent conversations with his colleagues had yet again, given their typical insincerity, been causing John to build a wall around his mind that seemed to him was made of something like plastic, not unlike the flotsam that used to accumulate against the sewage ditch drains back home. Disgusting stuff, the kind one had to get rid of, and quick. So off he would go to one of the ship's three watering holes (each of which had its own mixture of charm and tediousness), and drink his way into the eyes of strangers. Conversation they would have, a bit of bullshit or sometimes more. Occasionally he would even feel like he'd made a friend. And then, smirking with mutual sympathy, they would both stare back at the screen on the wall and wait for the next opportunity for words.
The trouble was, he felt, he was always the one waiting, and wanting the conversation to go further. And it was with a different person, every time. He suspected he wasn't the only one in this predicament, as there was nothing lonelier than a deep-space freighter full of transients like him. But still. He sometimes wished he had... well, more. Or, that he was more.
Not that it mattered. In another few months they would be arriving at Galdron Station, and then he'd be off this rig and onto the next one, bound for gods knew where. And then all this fun mush-eating and friend-building would start all over again.
Malek opened his eyes again and stared at the dust motes playing through the warm ray of morning sunlight, swirling like microscopic leaves in a river current. “Why are we here? I mean seriously, how did we get so far away from home? From things familiar? And you know I’m not just talking about what we’ve just eaten for breakfast!”
“I think I want to tell you a story,” Alani said, sipping her tea with a distant look in her eyes as if she hadn’t even heard him.
Malek chuckled. “Yeah okay, sure; as long as it isn’t one I’ve heard a dozen times already!”
“There was a man once,” she continued, nearly interrupting him. “I shouldn’t mention his name, especially not here. Let’s just call him ‘Searcher’ for now. He was everywhere, in mind, and he always was looking for something... though he didn’t quite know what that was. But he ventured to all the faraway places in search of it: Mountains, valleys, cities, fields, islands, rivers....”
Intrigued by this change of mood in his ordinarily blunt and not-so-reflective sister, Malek poured more water into both their cups, kicked his feet up on the wooden table, and sat back to listen.
“As this Searcher traveled, he got better at knowing where to look; he became more and more aware of life. As for why he was searching, all he knew was that the longing came from deep within him. Like a hunger it ate at him, burned him to go on. Any mode of travel would do... and he found that there are lots of them.”
Outside the inn, a horse plodded down the muddy lane, its belled harness jingling in lazy rhythm with the occasional shouts of an old woman hawking her wares in an unintelligible dialect.
“Like traveling whilst smashed in-between a couple of crates and the edge of a cart that’s been tied way too close to the stinky ass of the ox that's drawing it!”
This comment caused a corner of Alani’s mouth to turn slowly upward. “Yes,” she shuddered, “Like that. Anyway, as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted—”
“I was just—”
“Fine,” he smirked, picking a piece of tea leaf from his teeth.
“So this Searcher traveled the world using every means imaginable. He explored for years, decades even, until his whiskers grew grey and his back bent crooked. Still, in the end he found nothing. Nothing at all.”
Malek squinted, waiting for the punch line. His sister lit her pipe and gazed pensively out the window. “And?” he finally asked.
“And what? That's the end of the story.”
“Well that’s stupid.”
“I know you are but what am I.”
Malek let out an exaggerated guffaw. But the story had unnerved him, and unbidden thoughts were flooding his mind. Of screams in the dark, of those words their father had forced them to memorize before he would let them flee that final, fateful night....
He placed his mug down on the table, nearly knocking it over, and strode abruptly toward the door. He paused before walking out. “You’re wrong, you know.”
“Am I?” His sister said.
“This is different. We’ll find her.”
“Am I?” She mocked, a dark look in her eyes belying the sarcasm in her smirk.
“Shut up. And yes, you are. I know we’ll find her.”
“Right. But... am I?”
On his way out of the inn, Malek slammed the door shut a lot harder than he’d meant to.
A muffled series of thumps resounded from the north wall. Heath’s pulse quickened. The ship must be entering the gyre already.
Hastily, he wrapped his sleeves up to the armpits with nylo wire and then tied it off. Removing the helmet, he squirmed into the jumpers, one layer after another. They felt tight around his muscles. He flexed his elbows until the coils loosened a little, then put on the gloves and helmet and picked up his spear. More thumps were coming from the hull, with increasing frequency. It was now or never. Or at least not until next pass around Littlerock.
No one was around to watch the boy in his ridiculous garb as he went up the access ladder to the broken old ceiling lock, climbed inside, and began cycling open the hatch to the sky.
An alarm sounded. Heath did not hesitate. He had been expecting it, and the adults were all too afraid to do anything about it anyway. Pushing up on the hatch, he stuck his head into the wind and peered around him.
The surface of Littlerock lay several kilom’ers below the ship, appearing a hazy purple through the thick atmosphere. All that solid earth, Heath thought. But even more on Bigrock.
The rush of air against the helmet was deafening. The ship was deep in the gyre already, and the sargaca clouds were all around, whipping along the air currents in blurs of dark green. One ripped past his head close enough to make him flinch. He heard the thumps and scrapes against the hull as the ship plowed into cloud after cloud of the moss-like substance. The plant matter slid across the solar panels spanning the craft’s mighty wings, and made a staccato pinging sound where it was getting trapped in the forward food grills.
Gyres were regions of rotating wind currents created by the complex system of coriolises around Littlerock. Most were semi-permanent eddy zones chocked full of snared sargaca, as well as the myriad flora and fauna that used the stuff for food and cover. Long ago, the crew had realized that the only way to sustainably feed themselves was to steer the ship through the gyres and collect what biomass they could scoop up. Once clear, they would retrieve the captured sargaca from the food grills, and then process it in the lab to extract proteins, gases, trace minerals, and so on.
Heath scanned the gyre, on the lookout for sudden movement. Humans were not the only creatures feeding here....
It took the members of the Vairr’on all the next day to decide what to do. Jannina stayed at home with her parents. They asked her endless questions about the saar’bone, and she did her best to answer truthfully. In the end they were even more confused than they had been that morning, when they had climbed out of bed without having had a wink of sleep.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, the fog cleared and the sun broke through the low clouds to shine down on the garden. Jannina's grandfather came walking up to the hut. He looked many years older than he had the night before.
He sat them all down in the family room, and Jannina’s mum served hot chiyet. They listened as he told them what had been decided.
The attack of the Til’chagga had been unnatural, unlike anything that had ever happened throughout the history of Aalmuvai. The consensus was that it had been the forbidden sounds from the saar’bone that had attracted the giant sea creature, and most of the Vairr’on had wanted to condemn Jannina to what they deemed a just punishment: Transport to Chamma’Nyva, along with an apology and a promise that Aalmuvai would be more vigilant in future and thereby prevent anyone from ever making such forbidden sounds again.
Jannina’s grandfather had fought against this, and had even begged the rest of the Vairr’on, he said, for a different outcome. His proposal was that Jannina instead be exiled, in secret. This, he had argued, would remove the threat to the village’s wellbeing without condemning the young woman to slavery or death. He had argued that his nephew’s family would take her in, faraway in the western reaches of the Yon’naal Forest, and that he would make sure that she never returned to the east coast of Krr’chamma again.
They had listened to him, and had agreed that if the matter could be kept secret, then Jannina could perhaps start a new life. After much discussion, it had been decided.
Jannina listened numbly to her grandfather, and to her dad’s outraged protestations, and to her mum’s terrified weeping.
She did not say a word the whole time. The events of the past few days played over and over in her mind. She just sat there in stunned silence.
Exiled. She was going to be exiled.
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