This is a bit of flash fiction from my brief, unsuccessful attempt to get involved with the Orion's Arm community ("irreconcilable creative differences", as the music biz says. Not about this story in particular - my thoughts on critique, canon, and style were not in alignment with the site culture. No ill will, just a poor fit.)
You won't need to know anything about OA to read this. It's not a complete narrative by any stretch of the imagination (originally being intended as the introduction to planet writeups), and the second one is unfinished. Still, I am rather proud of them, and thought them worth porting over to where people can see them.
Let us begin with the ending.
It was the day after the Festival of Banners, deep in the blooming days of spring. I was nineteen, and sleeping off a hangover. Mshtane had stayed the night in my little loft above the pottery shop where I was apprenticed. Apprenticed no longer, after the previous night, when I was elevated to journeyman and the craftsmen of the guild hoisted me up on their shoulders, shouting "A new brother! A new brother!"
Mshtane rose earlier than I, and stirred me awake just long enough so that I caught a glimpse of the mole on her right buttock as she dressed herself. After so long, I still remember that clear as clean water, though I don't know why. She descended from the loft and I fell back asleep, until her voice woke me again perhaps an hour later. She was halfway between joy and panic, hurriedly explaining that a runner had come from Ketchitka with news: visitors had come down from the heavens.
The enormity of the news didn't register with me at the time - apple wine, as I've said - but even in that state I could tell the importance in the matter. Mshtane was not one to knowingly mislead anyone. So I groggily hauled myself out of bed, dressed in the clothes of the night before (as they were lying close at hand on the floor), and went out to the street and the blinding sunlight.
I remember gulls screeching in the distance, everyone milling about in the street or leaning out of their windows, everyone murmuring and muttering, the news twisting along the alleys and gaining flavor and color as it flowed. The runner from Ketchitka had climbed up on top of the fountain in town square and was crying out "Visitors from the heavens! A vessel of steel and glass come down from the stars, to land like a bird in Ozogando! Angels of distant gods, bringing gifts of friendship and peace!"
We were awkwardly pinned at the back of the crowd between a fruit stand and a group of fishermen. Mshtane squeezed my hand as the crier recited. I can't remember what she said, but I remember her face. Hope and fear in equal measure, mixed up so that one could not be extricated from the other.
And then I blink, and decades flow through my hands like water.
It's all gone now. The village that was my home exists only in my memory now, though the Solarians keep offering to pull the thread from my brain and weave a perfect virtual recreation. An arcology of millions was raised over where it lies buried. They get their ceramics, if they have any at all, from a fabricator. Qezitqani is a dead language, pieced together by a computer reconstruction and stored in a rarely-visited library virch. The banners of spring have not snapped in the breeze for many long years. Our house gods belong to the Court of the Sun now, with new names and faces.
Mshtane is long dead. She refused life-extension, uploading, all of it. I was there when she died, feeling myself a traitor for taking the gifts the star-people offered us; a body that looked and acted as if I was not a day over twenty-five, though it had been nearly sixty years since we had listened to the crier atop the fountain.
The Solarians had been housing her in a charity hospice; the compassion of the Lord of Rays, they said, was so great that it extended even to the most stubborn of primitive peoples. Words directly from the banana-yellow vec who showed me to her room.
She had no one else: her husband had died in the chaos of the Eclipse Rebellion. Her children had wandered off to become part of some godling or another. The rest of her family and friends were scattered to the wind.
I rarely left her side for the days I was there. We spoke of life and all its struggles, and of our youth when we were only fools in love, and we remained silent.
She was more frightened of losing her soul than she was of death, and death frightened her greatly.
"Would you sing for me, Esha?" she asked me, with the pet name I'd not heard since we parted ways so long ago. "I always loved your voice."
I sang her the rites of the dying. Hear me, shades below the earth, your sister comes to you. Make a place for her in the land of the dead, o Lord of All that Has Come Before, guide her passage through the Way of Gates, o Maid of the Lamp...
The Solarians do not sit with the dying, for they have no dead. They prune mortality from their bodies and the fear of the dark places from their minds. I have done the former but refused the latter. I cannot - will not - think of her desperate eyes, of my voice breaking into sobs, of her bony hand with its papery skin gripping my own like a vice and think "how quaint".
Damn them all.
Returning here was a mistake.
I gave her ashes back to the earth, and booked a seat on the next shuttle to orbit.
There ended my first life, and there began my wanderings.
"Magmatter dreadnoughts!" Karihan spat the words out like so much phlegm and a rotten tooth. "This time next year they'll be obsolete, mark my words."
I made a noncommittal noise and continued watching the koi fish in the fountain. "What do you suppose will replace them?"
"A sharp rock!" he exclaimed, baring his teeth in that way chimpanzees do when they wish to imitate a human smile in form but not in meaning. "We'll all come full circle: Cain will kill Abel, or maybe Abel will kill Cain, Mashya and Mashyane will shake their heads and say 'he was always such a good boy...'"
I let him continue unopposed and focused instead on the distant, hazy mountains, their slopes lavender with the summer leaves and wearing their starched white caps all ready for the church luncheon. I had finished my breakfast already (Karihan, among other things, is a slow eater), and there were few others on the patio this early in the morning - less so because it was particularly early, and more that the visitors of this particular resort celebrated late into the night and slept in just as late. A pity. To come all the way into the Outer Volumes, only to partake in the same smart drugs and the same orgiastic revels as might easily be done back at home.
We, for our part, were here for hunting. The smart drugs and the orgiastic revels were appreciated diversions, but not the goal: out there on the plains and scrub forests there were phorusrhacidae.
Now when I say we were hunting, I do not mean in the typical sense. We would go out with only our bodies - augmented, admittedly, in ten thousand little ways - and our swords, to fight the murder-birds on equal footing. Phorusrhacidae can easily disembowel the unlucky hunter with a single kick, and thus prime targets for idiots such as ourselves.
[Here, the account trails off]