THE LONG VIEW
The faces in the room were illuminated by the screen in front of them. It showed a swirling maelstrom battering a small fleet of boats. The wind was driving sheets of rain furiously in several directions, and whipping the waves of the ocean to a white froth. The view shuddered slightly, then a large swell seized one of the boats and actually hurled it briefly into the air. It crashed back into the choppy sea and was obscured by a huge plume of water and spray. The scene cut to a shot of a coastal town, its buildings in ruins, trees uprooted, debris strewn everywhere. A young, pretty feline stood in the foreground and spoke.
“While the storm is not the worst ever recorded on this world, authorities on Crescentis estimate it is the costliest one to occur in the last ten years. As the government considers whether to petition the Alignment for disaster aid, the residents of this small city are cleaning up and trying to put their lives back together. For the Interstellar News Network, I’m Joy Garner.”
The familiar face of Holly Harken filled the screen. “Thank you, Joy. While the weather is making news on Crescentis, there is still -”
The lion sitting closest to the set cut the picture and the lights came up in the room. He turned to one of those behind him. “That was some damn good shooting, Cree.”
Another one of the room’s occupants, a middle-aged cheetah, piped up. “Yeah, Cree. I don’t know how you did it. And with one of the old Mark III camera pods, too. I’d have been down in the water with those boats.” The others in the room mumbled their agreement.
“Thanks, Geoff, thanks guys,” Cree said quietly. The eagle sat slumped in his chair, eyes downcast. Even his feathers seemed to droop. “It was just a storm. Not the first one I’ve covered.”
Everyone in the room exchanged uneasy glances. The lion motioned to the others, who quietly got up and left the room. When the two were alone, Geoff said gently, “Look, Cree. I know you’re going through a tough time right now. We all are. I’ve lost some family myself, you know.” Geoff paused, but Cree said nothing, and was not even looking at him. Geoff found it disconcerting - Cree was usually a good listener - but he went on. “I realize everyone deals with these things in their own way. But I feel like you’re slipping away from us.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Cree said slowly, “Maybe I am. Lately I feel like I’m just going through the motions and I’m not even sure why I bother.” He looked up at his boss. “I know that none of this is your problem, Geoff. You’ve got a crew to run. I realize that I’ve been bad for morale lately, but...” Cree looked away, staring off into space. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”
The lion looked at him for a moment. “Cree, I don’t have to tell you this, but you’re one of the best I’ve got. I don’t want to lose you. Remember that shot you got when the shooting started at Argeia? That Dennieran freighter? There aren’t three camera jocks in known space who could have pulled that one off and lived to tell about it. And while I value your work, I like to think that we’ve got more going on here than just work. So yeah, I’m worried about the effect you’re having on morale, But I’m a lot more worried about the effect you’re having on Cree.”
Cree just shrugged and continued to stare silently at the floor. “Look,” said Geoff finally, “if you need someone to talk to, the company has some very good counselors.” He reached out and put a paw on his shoulder. “Or you could just talk to your friends.”
Cree looked up. “Geoff, I...” He paused. “Thanks. I know you want to help. I just... I just wouldn’t know what to say.” He looked off into the distance again. “I think I need some time off.”
Geoff brightened a bit. “Done. I think that’s a great idea. It’ll do you good to get away for a while and get your head together. Take as much time as you need. You’ve certainly got the vacation saved up, and if that’s not enough, I’ll authorize a paid leave of absence. If you feel you need that, just call me and we’ll discuss the terms.”
Cree looked him straight in the eye. “OK. I’d like to leave right now, if that’s all right.”
“Uh, well... sure, OK.” Geoff was uncertain. Something about Cree’s manner worried him, The bird’s expression was hard enough to read at the best of times, and lately he had been downright inscrutable. “Go ahead. Do you want me to say goodbye to the boys for you?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks, Geoff. I’ll be in touch.” Cree stood and headed straight for the door.
“So long, Cree,” Geoff called after him. “Take care of yourself.” The lion looked out the door after his colleague. “I’m gonna lose him,” he muttered to himself.
Cree walked through the door of the INN building and into the busy plaza out front. The far flung network he worked for had operations centers on most of the PA worlds, but this building in the city of Anyapolis on Kantus was one of the network’s main hubs, and home office of the Special Acquisition Equipment Division. The network routinely used a wide array of hardware when gathering stories, including 2-D and 3-D imaging systems that ranged from the mundane to the one-of-a-kind. Although calling some of these systems “cameras” stretched the definition of the word, they were all operated by technicians known simply and universally as “camera jocks.” INN had local crews to cover most stories, but when the local affiliate was not up to the job because of extreme conditions or the need for some exotic imaging technology, the network dispatched the jocks from one of its SAED offices. The SAED also routinely handled stories that occurred in deep space, as they owned most of the network’s fleet of small, self-contained camera craft.
Cree pulled his personal datapad unit off of his belt. As he walked, he called up a schedule of flights leaving the nearby spaceport. He glanced down the list of departures until he found a ship that was going directly to the Kennia system. He booked a berth on the ship and noted the departure time. He had a little over four hours to check in; he doubted it would take him that long.
Cree walked back to the small apartment he kept near the INN building. His job had him constantly on the move, so there wasn’t really anyplace he considered his home. The apartment was just a shelter for his few things and a place to rest when he was back on Kantus. He let himself in and went straight to his bedroom. He pulled his travel case out of the closet and threw it on the bed. He opened his desk drawer. Inside were two boxes: a long flat, black one with a metallic sheen, and small, dark-red cube. Cree looked at them both for a long time, then he picked them up and put them carefully in the bottom of his case. Then he went to the closet and began packing for his trip. He did this so often that it had become mechanical, and his mind was light years away as he filled the case with clothes. He was thinking about the day he had arrived on this world...
“And coming up on the left, you can make out the towers of the University’s City Of Academics.” The skybus driver was speaking over the PA system. “These buildings are some of the most famous structures on Kantus, and are where most of your classes will be held.” The young people on the bus all looked out the window, some of the ones on the right getting up and crossing the aisle to get a better view. Cree stood behind the crowd, taking in the view of the famous buildings that formed the heart of Kantus’ University for Advanced Studies. They glittered in the sunlight, reaching up from among the buildings of the city like fingers.
Cree went back to his seat. He was so excited he could barely sit still. The bus had been waiting at the spaceport when he got off his flight, and he had been one of the first to arrive. He’d sat in the bus for more than four hours while students came in from other flights. It seemed like every spacecraft that landed brought a new and fascinating species of alien with it. Creatures of every size and hue surrounded him, all of them about to begin their studies at the university. The energy was palpable and intoxicating. He was seated behind two female rabbits, one brown, one white, who were chatting and giggling with one another. Across the aisle, a gray coyote, an orange tiger and a light brown human were talking about the meal plans they had chosen and speculating about the quality of the food. Cree had introduced to himself to anybody who came his way, and he knew the names and planets of origin of half the people on the bus by the time they had lifted off.
He turned to glance at a small female mouse he hadn’t met. She had boarded just before takeoff and had sat in the back of the bus. She seemed to be keeping to herself, but Cree had caught her looking at him on several occasions. She was looking at him now, though she quickly averted her gaze when he looked over. He took the opportunity to move back to where she sat.
“Have you seen the city before?” he asked her.
“Oh, uh... yes, actually. I came here with my parents once when I was younger. But I don’t really remember much of the visit.”
“So you’re from Kantus?”
“Mm-hm. I grew up just outside Favorhill. It’s a small town near New Gate City.”
“You’ve heard of it?” she asked incredulously.
Cree cocked his head. “Not really. I’m not from around here.”
She smiled and looked away. “No, I guess you’re not.” Cree could tell she was very shy.
“You’re missing a great view,” he said. “Why don’t you come over and have a look?”
She put her paw up to her mouth. “Oh, no! I couldn’t - I mean,” she looked down and said quietly “I’m terribly afraid of heights.”
Afraid of heights? Cree thought to himself. He had never heard of such a thing! It was like someone saying they were afraid of air. He suddenly looked around the bus with new eyes. These creatures all came from species that spent their lives creeping along the ground. Most of them probably never got higher up than the top of a tree until... until when? Until they had been able to build machines that could fly? How long would that take? In this gravity? Cree was already beginning to feel weary and sore from the increased weight of his own body.
The mouse startled him out of his reverie. “I wish I weren’t so afraid,” she said. “I really would love to see the city.”
Cree looked at her for a moment. “You know,” he said, “there’s a lot I already don’t understand about this planet. I can admire the view, but I don’t quite know what I’m looking at. Maybe we could help each other. I could describe what I’m seeing, and you could help me make sense out of it. Would you be willing to give it a try?”
She smiled and nodded her head. “Yes, I’d be happy to!”
“OK!” said Cree. looking around, “Why don’t you scoot over here, next to the window...” He motioned with his wing, and she slid over facing into the bus. “And I’ll stand here.” He took a position next to her, standing beside the edge of the bench seat and gazing out the window. “I see a lot of buildings. They’re mostly silvery and beige. The shadows are just starting to lengthen. What’s weird is the way the buildings are all blocked together, with those big stripes everywhere.”
“Stripes?” she asked.
“Yeah, stripes - they criss-cross between all the buildings, and they stretch out as far as I can see. Some of them are wide, some of them are narrow - and there are all these shapes moving along them.”
“Stripes?” she said again, trying to figure out what he meant. “And you say there are shapes on them? What kind of shapes?”
“Ummm, boxes mostly, although some are like beads and some are like drops of water. They’re pretty big - I’d say some of them are the size of this bus, but most of them are smaller.”
“Stripes, with boxes as big as... Oh!” she said, and she put a paw to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
Cree looked over at her. “What? What’s funny?”
“Those are roads!” She said. “Roads and streets. And the moving shapes are the tops of vehicles - ground vehicles.”
“Roads and streets,” Cree said, pronouncing the words carefully. He looked down at the city. “There are so many of them...” He looked over at her. “Do they have some kind of ritualistic purpose, or are they just decorative?”
She smiled and giggled again. He got the sense he was missing the big picture somehow. “No, they’re for travel,” she said. “Don’t you have roads on your planet?”
“No. I mean - there are spaces between the buildings - yards and fields, sometimes a paved plaza, but nothing like this.” He looked down again. “Travel? You mean those vehicles...” He fell silent, taking in the scene for a moment. “Wow. OK, I can see why you’d travel that way at first, but now that you’ve got the technology - why don’t you just fly?”
Another voice came from behind him, a smooth and full-sounding feminine voice. “The city was built long before air travel, so it isn’t really designed for vehicles to take off and land just anywhere.” Cree whirled around. The speaker was a feline, tall and shapely, tan in color with black markings on her ears, face and tail. Her eyes were an amazing shade somewhere between gold and green, and she was wearing a white unitard and short, soft skirt decorated in a random pattern of large, pastel-colored spots. A flat terminal pad was tucked under one arm. She was regarding him with an amused grin. “Besides, air travel is still more costly than ground travel. It requires more energy, and air vehicles cost more to build and buy than ground vehicles.” She shifted her gaze to the mouse. “In addition to that, there are still some people who prefer to stay out of the sky,” she said with a warm smile.
The mouse smiled back. “That’s for sure.”
“I’m Myora Havens,” the feline said, extending her paw first to the mouse and then to Cree. “I’m one of the orientation coordinators for UAS. Welcome to college!”
“Thanks,” said the mouse. “I’m Leslie Gray.” Myora looked at her pad and nodded, tapping the surface with a claw.
“Nice to meet you, Leslie. Your room is in the Northwest Village, near the student center.” The pad ejected a thin wafer of plastic from a slot in its top, and Myora handed it to the mouse. “That’s your ID card. It gets you into your room and it buys you your meals, so make sure you keep it safe. When we land, you’ll be going with Jericho, one of our other coordinators who’s assigned to the Northwest Village. He’ll be a tall human with black hair and a beard. He’s wearing a red shirt.” She turned her attention to Cree. “And you can only be Cree Vorwhill,” she said.
“That is true,” he said, cocking his head, “and fortunately that’s all I want to be.”
Myora smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Welcome to Kantus, Cree. You’ve already caused a bit of a stir among the orientation staff. You’re the first ever from your planet to attend UAS. How was the trip in from Gohl?”
“I’d say this is the best part of it so far,” he said. “The gravity’s taking a little getting used to, though.”
“Not too bad, I hope,” she said, tapping her pad and ejecting his ID card. “Your room is in The Pines... hm, not too far from me. OK, you’ll be in my group after we touch down. Here’s your ID card. Hang on to it for dear life.”
“I’ll hang on to it for life, dear,” Cree replied with a wink. She gave him a quizzical little smile, like she wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, then moved on to the next seat on the bus. Cree watched her go.
“You’ll be seeing her again,” said Leslie with a wry smile.
Cree looked back at her. “Lucky me,” he said.
“Do you have any bags that will be traveling as cargo?” the coyote behind the counter asked,
“No,” said Cree. “Just the two carry-on bags.”
“Very well.” She punched a few keys on her terminal. It spit out a sheaf of paper and a large plastic card. She took a small folder, tucked the papers inside and slid the card into a pocket on the cover. “Here is your boarding pass and flight information. Please familiarize yourself with the customs regulations of the planet you will be visiting, on page four. Ship regulations are pages two and three, please read them before boarding. Also, we recommend you review the emergency procedures instructions on pages five through eleven. Pages twelve through sixteen contain insurance and legal indemnifications, and boarding the flight legally constitutes acceptance of those terms. Thank you and have a good trip!”
Cree stepped away from the counter and tucked the documents into his satchel. He headed off down the concourse, towards the departure gate for his flight. Traffic was heavier than it had been of late. The Siilv war and the Cold Fire virus attacks had put quite a dent in the space travel industry. For a long time the spaceports had been pretty bare, and the commercial carriers were hurting financially as a result. Cree’s job left him no choice but to travel. He took company transportation whenever possible, but a lot of times he wound up hopping a commercial flight. He had been fortunate enough to be aboard an INN equipment transporter when the Cold Fire virus hit. Half the people on board had been computer techs, and the ship was carrying a large amount of computer equipment as cargo. It hadn’t taken long for them to get things back up and running. He later learned that many passengers hadn’t been nearly so lucky.
He moved quickly past the shops and kiosks that lined the concourse, noting how many of them were closed and shuttered, casualties of the hard times that had come in the wake of the war. When he reached the gate, the flight number, departure time of the flight and the time remaining to board were displayed in large red letters over the portal, and two uniformed guards stood on either side. He held up the folder displaying his boarding pass as he approached, and one of the guards pressed a paw to a handplate on the door frame, causing the door to slide aside with a whoosh. “Thank you,” Cree said automatically as he passed, and the guard nodded at him.
The door slid shut behind him, enclosing in him in a small cubicle. A terminal screen in front of him glowed softly, displaying a large arrow that pointed to a slot above the screen. A pleasant mechanical voice said “Please insert your boarding pass.” He slid the card into the slot. Instantly, his face and identification information appeared on the screen. Across the bottom appeared the words “Scanning... please wait.” After a moment, the screen’s background turned from blue to red and his face was replaced with a rotating three-dimensional image of the black box he had taken from his desk drawer. The words “Unidentified article” flashed next to the animation.
He had anticipated this. The box was an alien artifact called a Box of Secrets. It was one of the few really personal items that he owned. He had bought if from a trader on one of his trips, and it had cost him more than two months salary. It had been expensive not just because it was rare, or because it was well-made, but because it was, for all intents and purposes, indestructible. The trader had said it could pass through a star unharmed, and Cree tended to believe the claim. It was also impervious to the spaceport’s scanners.
“We were unable to identify this item or determine its contents,” said the mechanical voice. “Unidentified items may not be brought on board. You may dispose of this item, ask for assistance or exit the boarding area. Which would you like to do?” The screen displayed the three options.
Cree wasn’t about to do any of the above. “Exemption,” he said out loud. “Interstellar News Network, authorization code INN648KT.” The screen flashed to a blue “Please wait” message, then glowed green and displayed the words “Cleared for Boarding. Please stand by.”
“Thank you,” said the computer. “Please wait for the boarding process to finish.” With a rumble, the cubicle began to ascend. Cree’s use of the INN equipment exemption for a personal item was against the rules, of course, but although he had never done it before, he knew others in the SAED unit had. The boarding scanners were database-driven, and although they could identify nearly any item a traveler might have, the SAED often carried equipment that was either too new or too exotic to be in the spaceline’s database. Rather than subject their crews to the sometimes bumbling security apparatus at the spaceports, INN had arranged for a special exemption with all the major carriers. A message would soon show up on Geoff’s terminal (if it hadn’t already) informing him what Cree had done. Geoff would then delete the message, just like he did for all the other guys, and that would be that.
The rumbling of the lift stopped, and the panel containing the screen slid upwards. Cree stepped over the threshold and into the reception area. A raccoon cabin steward stepped forward. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Vorwhill,” he said, “May I take your bag?”
“I’ll carry it, thanks,” said Cree.
“Right this way then,” said the steward, and he headed towards a bank of elevators. Within a few minutes, the man was opening Cree’s cabin door. Cree stepped inside and put down his bags. He tipped the steward, and was left alone in his room. It was a standard cabin, just large enough to prevent intense claustrophobia, but no larger. Not for the last time, Cree wished there were a better way to travel between stars than the standard Light Drive.
He put his case on the bed, opened it, and began unpacking his things quickly and methodically, until all his clothes were away. The Box Of Secrets sat in the middle of his bed. He was looking at it when an announcement came from the terminal.
“This is the captain speaking. I would like to welcome all our guests, and inform the passengers and crew that the ship is about to get under way. For your own safety, please have a seat and remain seated until further notice. I will inform you when we have cleared the atmosphere and you may then move freely. Thank you for your cooperation and enjoy your flight.”
Cree sat in the desk chair. In a few minutes, a heavy vibration could be felt coming through the floor. It continued for some time, growing gradually fainter. Cree sat staring at the Box Of Secrets, which now seemed to be the only thing out of place in the room. After another few minutes, the captain’s voice came again. “Attention passengers and crew, we have now cleared the atmosphere. You may move freely about the ship. Please make sure to read the messages on your terminal at your earliest convenience. Thank you.”
So he was on his way. Until now, it hadn’t quite seemed like it was actually happening. Cree sat on the bed and picked up the black box. He held it in his wings for a long time, just looking, not thinking anything that he was aware of. Finally, he gently pressed on the surface of the box in a spot he knew from memory. There were four spots that had to be activated, and he pressed them one after another in the pre-determined order. The box began to vibrate slightly in response. Cree then whistled five notes, the audio portion of the key. The box stopped vibrating and slid open with a click. Cree looked at the contents.
The box contained photographs, disks, memory chips and several small plastic folders filled with memorabilia: ticket stubs, programs, greeting cards, old letters, and so on. Cree’s Box Of Secrets didn’t really hold any secrets. It held memories.
Cree pulled out the stack of photographs, and began to slowly shuffle through them. He stopped and looked at one. It was a picture of a beautiful young female. She was dressed for the heat, in short cutoffs and short-sleeve work shirt that was knotted under her breasts. She was standing on a balcony that overlooked a small, tree-shaded plaza, sitting on the railing with her arms stretched out and a knowing smile on her face...
“Uhfff... thank goodness this is the last box. I’ve had enough of carrying things up these stairs.”
“Not me, I could do this all day.”
“How can you say that? It’s nothing but hot, dusty, exhausting work.”
‘Yeah, but the view is great.”
Myora turned her head and looked over her shoulder at Cree, who was two steps below and behind her in the narrow stairway. He was looking up at her with the cocked head and open beak she had come to recognize as a Gohlat smile. She turned back up the stairs and resumed her climb, making sure to give him a swift swat across the face with the tip of her tail as she went. She heard him chuckling the rest of the way up to the landing.
They moved down the hall and through the propped-open door of her apartment. Boxes were stacked everywhere, and the furniture sat huddled in one corner of the large space. They put down their loads, and Cree went to the refrigerator to get them some cold water. Myora stood with her hands on her hips and looked around. She was gazing at the balcony with its wide glass doors and view of the palazzo as Cree handed her a bottle.
“Happy?” he said.
She turned to look at him, a big smile lighting up her face. “Yeah! Definitely. I love this place. I can hardly believe it’s really mine.”
“What’s so hard to believe? You’re the only person I know who’d want to live here. No climate control, no elevators, hot water has to come all the way up from the basement - the place is practically ancient.”
“That’s what I love about it,” she said, ignoring his barb. She turned and swept her arm through the air, her gesture taking in everything in the room. “This place has character. More than that - it’s got charm. It’s not just some sterile box with a sofa at one end and an entertainment console at the other.” She took a deep breath. “Smell that? Real wood. Old wood. That’s a smell you can’t buy in a can or a box. It’s the smell of life. You can tell that people have lived here, really lived. This is the kind of place where people cook big dinners and read good books and spend the afternoon making love in old feather beds.”
Cree tilted his head at her. “Uh... I’ll skip the feather bed part, if you don’t mind. I liked what came before that though.”
She glanced over at him and giggled. “Oops, sorry, sweetie. I guess I got carried away. What part did you like, the making love? Typical male.”
Cree walked over to where she stood and puts his wings around her shoulders from behind. “Well, yeah, that’s what piqued my interest the most, but I liked the rest of it too. But mostly I just like seeing you happy, and I can tell you’re going to be very happy here.”
She turned and looked over her shoulder at him. “Do you think so?”
“I’d bet money on it.” He released her from the embrace and walked over to the sofa, threading his way between the piles of boxes on the floor. He plopped down and spread his wings across the back of the couch. “Remember when I said I could carry boxes upstairs all day?”
“That was a big ol’ lie,” Cree said, and he laid his bead back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I suppose you want to start unpacking now,” he said ruefully.
Myora was picking her way through the piles of boxes, looking at them thoughtfully, her tail lashing. As she came near the couch though, she plopped down next to Cree. “Not really,” she said, with a deep sigh. “I think we could both use a rest. We should just relax for the rest of the afternoon.” She scooted over next to him, and leaned her head back on his wing. “Honey, thanks for helping me with this move. I appreciate that you took time off from work to do it.”
“No problem sweetheart. I’m afraid this is about all your going to see of me for the next few weeks though. I’m scheduled to fly to Joplin on Monday to cover the Anti-Piracy Summit and the unveiling of some new pursuit ships.”
“I know,” she said quietly. They sat together in silence for a while, listing to the sound of the birds and the breeze in the trees outside the balcony windows. “Cree... Have you given any more thought to... what we talked about?”
“You mean transferring to the Kantus affiliate?”
Cree sat up. “Uh, yeah, sweetheart, I’ve thought a lot about it. But I just don’t think I can do it right now. I’ve only been in the SAED a year, and I’m right out of school. I need to get a few more years experience if I want to move up.”
“But can’t you get that experience here?”
“Maybe, but I’d have to wait a lot longer to play with all of the new toys,” he said jokingly. He glanced down at her, but he saw that her expression was serious. “It’d take me a lot longer to get the experience at the affiliate, Mya. Maybe twice as long.”
“Well, would that be so bad? I mean, what’s the rush?”
Cree looked at her tenderly. “You know I wish I could spend more time here. I don’t like being away from you, either. But this job is an important step in my career. It’s the future I’m working for - my future and, I hope, our future.”
“I know, Cree. It’s just that in moments like this I’m so happy just to be with you, I hate to think about you going away again. It seems like every time we’re just about to get really comfortable, you’re flying off somewhere.”
“Well, I’m a bird. Flying’s my thing.”
She gave him a playful slap. “You know what I mean. I just wish I could see more of you.”
“You will, sweetie. This gig’s not forever, I promise. And when I’m ready to make my move, it’ll be something that keeps me a lot closer to home.”
Myora cuddled up next to him. “I’m looking forward to that day,” she purred.
Cree put his arms around her and just held her for a while, feeling her purring against his side. Then he said, “Hey, I’m pretty hungry. What d’ya think about some pizza?”
“Sounds great,” she replied, sitting up. “Now that you mention it, I’m starving too.”
“Great, I’ll order the usual.” Cree got up and went into the kitchen. He pulled up the local business directory on the kitchen terminal and clicked through to a nearby pizzeria, then placed an order for delivery. As he closed the connection, he looked up and saw Myora standing on the balcony, leaning on the railing, looking out over the trees and paving tiles of the plaza in front of the building. The early afternoon light had crept onto the balcony, and she was illuminated as if by a golden spotlight. His satchel sat on the counter nearby, and he flipped it open and fished out his still camera. He walked to a spot near the center of the floor where he had a clear view of her framed in the doorway of the balcony, and snapped a picture. “Hey, Mya,” he called. She turned, and when she saw him holding the camera, she sat down on the railing and rolled her eyes. “C’mon,” he called, “Don’t be like that.”
“Cree, I’m filthy dirty and I’m wearing my oldest rags.”
“I know, and you’re still the picture of beauty. Just give me a smile.”
“Cheese,” she said, grimacing at him.
“Not that kind of a smile!”
“Well, what kind then?”
“How about... how about an ‘I just moved into my dream apartment and I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon eating pizza and making love in it’ smile?”
She leveled her gaze at him, managing to look at once mischievous and deadly serious. The smile grew slowly on her face, and it reminded Cree of the way the light gathers on the mountains at sunrise. When it was all the way there, Cree clicked the photo. Myora walked over to him and took the camera from him. Then she gave him a long, lingering kiss.
She walked past him to the kitchen counter and put down the camera. She turned to give him a coy look “I’ll give you two minutes,” she said.
She turned away and began walking down the hallway that led to the bedroom. “To find a tip for the pizza guy...” she said. Cree saw that she was unbuttoning and untying her shirt as she walked. Her arms came out and she shrugged it off, letting it fall to the floor of the hallway. “...and to put it with the note you’re about to write telling him to leave the pizza on the counter.” Cree watched as she strolled languidly into the bedroom clad in nothing but her tight cutoffs, then turned the corner out of sight.
Cree practically tore his notebook in half grabbing it out of his satchel.
Cree had been on Dennier for nearly eleven hours, but he had yet to visit the motel room he had booked for himself. His flight had arrived in the early morning according to local time, which he had adjusted himself to during his flight. His room was not that far from the spaceport, but now that he was on the ground, he began to feel an uncertain sense of urgency. He’d kept to himself on the flight from Kantus, spending his time sunk in memories. With no other structure to guide his thoughts, he had begun to feel that past and future were somehow on a collision course. He couldn’t shake the feeling of destiny approaching, and it gave him a strong sense of momentum.
He had been knocking around the spaceport since his landing, visiting the places that most tourists never saw. Cargo hangars for smaller spacelines, the temporary landing areas assigned to even smaller concerns that flew only one or two ships. He’d spoken to over a dozen ship captains, inquiring about availability and, what was more important in his case, willingness. He’d come up empty at each stop. He was getting ready to call it a day, and was headed slowly back to the nearest monorail stop, passing down a long row of closed hangar doors, his battered case trailing behind him like a faithful pet.
He noticed one of the doors ahead was open and glowing with a yellow light. Twilight was just beginning to fall, and the small hangar looked almost cozy. As he passed the opening, he saw a small spacecraft inside, barely larger than a pair of city buses. A panel on the side of the ship was open and a heavyset, tired-looking human with brown skin and no hair was staring blankly at the tangle of circuitry and optical fibers that jutted out. He glanced over at Cree.
“Hi, there,” Cree said, cocking his head. “Working late, huh?”
The human shook his head and wiped a meaty hand across his face. “No later’n usual,” he said. “And it looks like I’ll be up all night.”
“Are you the captain?”
“First mate. And chief electrician. And a bunch of other things, too. Name’s Harve.”
Cree extended a wing and shook the man’s hand. “Nice to meet ya, Harve. Is the captain around?”
“She went out to get us some dinner. Should be back in a few minutes, if you care to wait. Unless there’s something I can help you with.”
“I’m interested in chartering a flight...”
Harve put up his hand. “That’s her department; I’ll let you wait and talk to the boss. You can hang out in the office, or pull up a bench if you’re so inclined.”
Cree put his satchel down on the nearby bench and had a seat. It felt good to sit after such a long day of walking. “Are you going off planet in the morning?” Cree asked.
“No plans to presently,” Harve said, pulling several pieces of fiber out of their couplings.
“Oh. Then how come you’re working through the night? Is the captain that much of a slave driver?”
Harve laughed. “Oh, she is that, but that’s not why I’m workin’ late. Our short-term lease on this space is up tomorrow. We’ve gotta find another hangar, and that might take a while. So I’ve gotta get this bird as flight-ready as I can make her, since we’ll be movin’ around and livin’ out of her for a bit.”
“Things are pretty bad with the downturn, huh?”
Harve turned and gave him a long look, then turned back to his work. “Most of our business was shuttle hops between Mainor and Dennier. We had two kinds of clients - those who were goin’ to Mainor and those who were comin’ from Mainor. Now there’s nobody goin’ there, and nobody left to come from there. Things don’t get much worse than that. Still, I guess we’re lucky. At least we weren’t there when it happened.”
Cree heard a noise and turned towards the entrance. A young, brown-skinned human female in a mustard yellow jumpsuit had come riding up on a bike, and she coasted into the hangar and dismounted a few feet from the ship. She glanced at Cree then at Harve, then turned to grab a couple of paper sacks out of the basket on the back of the bike. She flipped down the bike’s stand and went over to where Harve was. “Here you go,” she said, handing him one of the sacks. “They were out of barbecue, so I got you honey mustard instead.”
Harve winced. “Ugh. I can’t stand honey mustard.” He turned and gestured towards Cree. “We have a customer,” he said, “Cree, meet Keisha. Keisha, Cree. He’s interested in a charter flight.”
Keisha flashed Cree a big smile. She was strikingly pretty; her small face had high cheekbones, and her almond-shaped eyes were an amazing shade of reddish gold. “Well, that is good news. Would you like to talk in the office, Mr. Cree?”
“Cree’s my first name. Sure, if that’s convenient. I don’t want to keep you from your dinner.”
“No, no business before pleasure as they say. Right this way.” She gestured towards the office while placing her sack down on the bench next to him. He looked over at it.
“Um, I really don’t mind if you eat your dinner while we talk business. Your food will get cold otherwise, and it’d make me more comfortable to know I’m not keeping you from your meal.”
She gave him an odd look. “All right, thank you,” she said. She scooped up the bag and headed towards the office. Cree shouldered his satchel, grabbed his case and followed her.
The office was really just a small, glass-enclosed cubicle in one corner of the hangar with a desk, a terminal and a couple of chairs. Keisha held the door open for Cree then followed him in, moving to sit behind the desk. As he took one of the chairs she began to unpack her food.
“So your first mate was telling me you’re moving out in the morning,” Cree said.
Keisha looked at him with astonishment, then turned a sour look on the man outside. “What else did he say?”
Cree glanced nervously out the window at Harve. He didn’t want to make trouble for the old guy. “Just that your lease was running out and you were on your way to another hangar.”
“I’ll just bet that’s all he said,” she muttered. “That old fool. Sometimes he has no sense.” She turned back to Cree. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters. It’s not too hard to figure out that we’re facing some hard times around here, just like everybody else. But I’ll warn you right now - there’s a limit to how much we’ll cut our rates, even in this economy.”
Cree nodded. “I see. Well, I can certainly understand that, but it’s not really my concern. If we can come to an agreement, I’ll be happy to pay your standard rates, provided they’re reasonable. It’s more important to me that the other details of the charter can be worked out to my satisfaction.”
Keisha looked at him with interest, and perhaps just a hint of suspicion. “Mm-hmm. Perhaps we should discuss exactly what type of charter you have in mind.”
Cree looked her dead in the eye. “Personal round-trip passage for myself and my two bags here, to Mainor.”
Keisha’s eyes widened. “Mainor? Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“No. I’m completely serious. I’m going to Mainor.”
“I can and I will. The only question we have to discuss is whether I’m going there on your ship.”
Keisha looked at him for a long time and didn’t say anything. Then she turned her attention to her dish of take-out food. “You know, of course, that the SPF has declared Mainor off limits. No one can land there without official permission.” She took a bite of her meal.
“Yeah, but for a good captain that shouldn’t be much of an issue. They can’t have the whole planet cordoned off that tightly.”
She looked at him for a moment while she chewed and swallowed. “You’re asking me to break the law,” she said. “I could lose my ship, even end up in jail.”
Cree shrugged. “I doubt it. They’d probably just slap you with a fine. But listen, if you don’t think you can do this without getting caught, or you just don’t want the job, please tell me now. I’ve had a long day and I’ve got a long one again tomorrow if I have to keep looking.”
Keisha looked at him again, then seemed to make up her mind. “I’ll take the job. But it’s going to cost you extra. And if I get hit with any fines, you’ll be paying them.”
Cree nodded. “I figured as much. And while I’m glad you’re willing to take the job, I have a few other requirements I need to make sure you can handle before I give it to you.”
Keisha sat back and folded her arms. “I’m listening,” she said.
“I’m expecting a delivery that should be here within the next four days. Once it arrives, I’ll want to depart immediately, or almost immediately. Can your ship be ready in four days?”
Keisha looked out into the hangar. “I don’t know. That’s a pretty tall order right now.” Cree followed her gaze. Harve was pulling more fibers out of the panel, adding to the heap that was already on the ground by his feet.
“Let me ask you this,” said Cree. “If I paid a portion of your fee right away, would you be able to extend the lease on this hangar long enough to finish your repairs?”
She looked over at him, then back at the ship. “Well, it would certainly save us a lot of time. And it would make it easier to get the equipment we need, since most of our suppliers are near the spaceport. Yes, I think that if we can stay in this hangar, we’ll be spaceworthy in four days time. That shouldn’t be any trouble at all.” She turned back to look at him. “The ship is generally in good shape, there are only a few systems that need some attention.”
“Fine,” said Cree. “My other requirement is that you land in a particular area on the surface. I know that the geography of the planet has changed quite a bit, but the place I want to go is almost a quarter of the planet away from the site of the attack. Do you think you can locate the spot?”
“Yes, that should be no problem either. I can simply calibrate our old charts based on the location of ground zero and fly you right there. As long as there’s something to land on, we should be fine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, a lot of Mainor’s ocean that was vaporized in the attack has come back down, and the damage done by the Kastans seriously changed the planet’s continental profile. Some of the old seabeds are now deserts, but there are a lot of places that are underwater now that weren’t before. A lot of valleys have turned into lakes.”
Cree looked stricken, his beak agape. “Great Wind Watcher... I didn’t realize... I never even thought...” Suddenly he was fumbling in his satchel. “If I show you a map, can you tell me whether the place I’m going is...”
“Cree,” Keisha said softly. He looked up. She was shaking her head. “There are no new maps of Mainor. The only way we’re going to find out is to go there.”
Cree just looked at her for a moment, and she could see the panic in his eyes. But then he shut his beak and nodded his head.
“Any other requirements?” Keisha asked. “You’re not planning on bringing anything back with you, are you?”
Cree shook his head. “No. and no, there’s nothing else.”
“You do know that the planet no longer supports life, right? You’ll need an environment suit to leave the ship.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. I guess all that’s left to do is discuss your rates.”
Cree and Keisha went back and forth for just over an hour on the amounts involved, until they reached an agreement on the price of the trip. Cree used his personal datapad to transfer one-third of the credits directly to the account of Keisha’s business. Another third would be transferred upon departure, and the final third upon return. Keisha printed out some standard papers, with a bogus flight itinerary listing Cree as an amateur asteroid prospector. Cree signed the contract, and the two shook on the deal. Finally, Cree wearily headed out the hangar door and off towards the monorail stop.
Harve and Keisha watched him go. “Looks like we’re going to Mainor again after all, Pops,” Keisha said after he had gone.
Harve nodded. “Didja ask him what he’s goin’ there for?”
Keisha shook her head. “I got the impression that not asking was part of the deal.”
Cree was walking between a long row of hangars. He squinted into the distance, but even with his keen vision, he couldn’t make out the end of the row. He stood there, trying to decide whether to go on or turn back, when suddenly he heard a voice.
It was Myora, calling to him. She was somewhere up ahead, he began to walk towards the sound, then hurried his pace. It had sounded like something was wrong! Where was she? He was running now, looking left and right. All the doors were shut. There was no space between the hangars. He stopped, looking around wildly. How far had her voice come from? He had to find her.
She was behind him now. He turned and headed back the way he had come. Was she behind one of the doors? He was running, looking at doors. They all looked the same. “Where are you?” he called out.
“I’m waiting for your, Cree. I’m waiting for you where I always wait for you.”
Where was she? At her apartment? That was where they usually met. Suddenly, he remembered that her apartment was nearby. He ran another few doors and found an alley between the hangars. He hustled down the narrow passage and came out on the street in front of her place. He looked up to her balcony. She was there, looking down at him.
Cree was flustered, out of breath. He knew she wasn’t going to be happy. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he called up.
“I’m tired of you being late, Cree,” she said, pain and resignation audible in her voice. “I’m tired of you never being here to even be late.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” he called up to her. “My flight got in late, and I had to swing by the office to file a report on some damaged gear. I’ll be right up.”
“No don’t come up, Cree. There’s always some excuse. You’re always sorry. But nothing ever changes. I can’t just wait around anymore while you fly around the galaxy playing with your toys. I hardly see you. You’re never here when I need you. You once told me you cared about me more than anything, but I guess you really don’t. Your job is always first and I’m always last. I’m tired of being last, Cree.” She turned and walked back into the apartment.
He barged into the apartment building and bounded up the steps. He heard the sound of footsteps running - she was running towards the balcony! He leapt the last few stairs and threw open the door of her apartment. She wasn’t there. He ran out onto the balcony and looked down. Not there. She was gone!
GONE! The word echoed in his ears as if someone had shouted it. Cree sat straight up, drawing a deep breath. Had he shouted? The room seemed to echo around him. It was dark. He was in bed. He was... in a hotel room, on Dennier, he finally remembered. He threw aside the covers and got out of bed. He walked to the window and pulled aside the heavy curtains. It was mid morning. He’d slept very late. He wasn’t surprised, given how long it had taken him to fall asleep last night. He turned back into the room and noticed the light glowing on his terminal. He walked over to it an pressed a key. The first message played back.
“Mr. Vorwhill, this is the front desk. A package has arrived for you. Please speak to the concierge to claim it.” The terminal screen showed the details of the delivery - the package he had been waiting for from Gohl. The screen darkened and the second message played back.
“Cree, this is Keisha. I just wanted to let you know we have finished all our repairs and are ready to go when you are. Look forward to hearing from you soon.”
Cree keyed the terminal into silence. Today was the day.
They were about twelve hours out from Dennier on a flight that Keisha had said would take about thirty-six hours.
For the first time, Keisha stepped out into the ship’s small lounge from the cockpit. “I’ve laid in the coordinates for the asteroid belt, as per our flight plan,” she said. “When we’ve gone far enough to be fairly sure no one’s watching, we’ll divert course to Mainor along a semi-circular route that should keep us off of anybody’s scanners.”
Cree looked up at her. “Thank you, captain.” He carefully folded the paper he was reading and stood up. “If you need me for anything, I’ll be in my cabin.” He turned and opened one of the three panels that surrounded the lounge, and stepped into his small stateroom. The door slid shut behind him and Keisha stared at it for a moment.
“Was it something I said?” she wondered out loud.
Cree’s cabin was small, and designed to make the best use of limited space. It had two bunks, but the top one was folded up and out of the way. Cree flipped up a hinged cushion at the foot of the bed, turning it into a seat. He sat, paper in one hand, and stared into space. His mind felt strangely empty. Cree had come to realize that he wasn’t very in touch with his own feelings. He’d always prided himself on his keen intellect and valued his own emotional detachment. He had even told himself it was an asset in his work, where he might be shooting a street festival one day and the aftermath of a massacre the next. But now he realized that it also came with a cost. His calm state of mind felt as thin and fragile as an eggshell. He hesitated to break through the shell, because he sensed that he wouldn’t like what lurked beneath it. Besides it seemed to him that, like an egg, whatever was in there would break through when it was ready.
He put the paper down on the bed, stood up and went over to the corner where his package sat unopened. He knelt down next to it and twisted the shipping seals. They cracked and with a small whiff of air the top of the box opened. Cree thought ruefully that that puff of air was the closest he’d been to anything from his homeworld in a long time. He lifted the lid of the box.
Under a layer of packing foam, the helmet sat on top. He lifted it out and stood up. It was wedge shaped - designed to cover a head with a beak. Only the back part was made of metal, most of the helmet was made out of strong, clear poly-resin, and was lightly silvered. He flipped it over and checked the neck coupling, and saw that it seemed in perfect condition. He placed the helmet carefully on the bed.
He pulled a divider and another layer of foam out of the box, then stood up. He reached in and pulled out the suit, holding it up in front of him. The fabric was a metallic gold, but had a slightly stretchy feel. Its shape matched his own, with wide fin-like sleeves to accommodate his wings and a broad tail section. The sleeves ended in couplings, and he glanced into the box and saw the gauntlets at the bottom, packed in next to the wide, triangular boots. He unsealed the suit from the back and started to put it on.
Within a few minutes, he had donned the suit and attached the gauntlets. He lowered the helmet over his head, hesitating for just a second before clicking the neck coupling into place against the one on the suit. He heard a faint hissing and caught a beakfull of the familiar smell of a new spacesuit. A glance down at his left gauntlet showed a bevy of green lights. He was no longer breathing ship’s air. The suit was functioning perfectly.
He reached over and lifted a small panel on the gauntlet, revealing a button. He pressed it and held it down. Five seconds crept by, then the green lights turned red one by one and he heard a click and a hiss from around his neck as the helmet’s seals disengaged and the suit’s air supply cut off.
In a few more minutes, Cree was out of the suit and had it packed back in his box. He glanced over at the paper on his bed, then down to his case underneath the bunk. The Box of Secrets was there, but there wasn’t anything left in it that Cree hadn’t looked over at least half a dozen times already. He’d done enough remembering, enough thinking, and enough waiting. He just wanted this flight to be over so he could do what he had set out to do. But like it or not, it would take them another full day to reach Mainor. Cree walked to the door and opened it, glancing back at the bed and the box one more time before leaving.
Keisha & Harve both looked up as he stepped into the lounge. Cree hesitated, but then went and sat down in the comfortable seat facing the two humans. He didn’t feel much like talking, but there wasn’t anything else he felt much like doing either. He glanced at Keisha, who seemed to be looking at him with a mixture of wariness and expectation.
“Nice ship you have, Captain,” Cree said. “Very cozy.”
“Thank you,” said Keisha, but her expression did not change. “It’s served us well. We don’t quite provide luxury, but I think we do a pretty good job at comfort.”
“So how many passengers do you usually take?”
“Well, we have bunks for six, although we can handle eight with this couch folded out, provided someone’s willing to share a bathroom. A lot of customers don’t care for that, but some don’t mind - it depends on the nature of the charter.”
“‘Course during the rescue, we had forty-five people on this ship, if you can believe that,” Harve rumbled. “It was close quarters, but we didn’t have one complaint.”
Cree glanced around the lounge with new eyes. “You were involved with the rescue?”
Keisha and Harve exchanged a glance. “Son,” Harve said, “Anything that could get itself above an atmosphere was part of the rescue. Every ship from both systems went. We saw some ships smaller than ours, and some bigger by ten times. Didn’t matter - if it flew, it went. And even with all that, it wasn’t nearly enough. Not even close.” Cree saw a terrible sadness in Harve’s face, mirrored in Keisha’s. He felt a stab of anguish and felt the eggshell veneer in his mind crack just a little. He blinked hard several times, forced himself to be calm.
“I... I saw the news reports. I was kind of surprised, to tell you the truth. The two planets had been enemies for so long.”
“True, sure enough,” Keisha said. “But you wouldn’t have known it during that first week after the attack. I don’t think there was a soul on Dennier that wasn’t moved to try and help in some way. We were on our way to Mainor the moment we got word what had happened. We found out later that even while we were headed there, back on Dennier they were setting up refugee camps and stockpiling supplies for the survivors. Businesses donated equipment, ordinary folks baked cookies and gave blankets. One guy who owns a local courier service sent his whole fleet of ships at his own expense to other PA worlds to collect feline blood and transport it back here for the injured.”
The lounge was quiet for a long while. Cree sat thinking about what the two humans had said. When he looked up, Harve was looking straight at him. “Where were you when you heard?” he asked gravely.
“I... I was on an assignment.” He looked over at Keisha, who was watching him just as keenly. Why did he feel so defensive? He didn’t want to tell them where he had been - he didn’t want them to know anything about him. But they were taking a risk to take him to Mainor. And what was he really afraid of? Cree took a deep breath and said “I was at Argeia. I was part of the news crew that was covering the firefight.” Keisha looked shocked, but Harve just nodded, a look of understanding on his face. Cree hung his head. “By the time I got back, the war had ended. I didn’t even have time to watch the coverage of the rescue until it was all over.”
“And you think you should have been here,” Harve said.
Cree looked up at him, beak agape. “No! I...” Cree felt a wave of panic descending on him, a thousand cracks forming suddenly in his mental shield. “I don’t think I should have been here, but I... I shouldn’t have been there.” After all this time, some part of his brain had still refused to face the reality of what had happened. Somehow, he still wasn’t ready to deal with it. He had avoided facing it for as long as he could – but now time was up. The shell was broken. Distracted, agitated, Cree got up from his seat and turned towards the door to his cabin.
“Where should you have been?” Harve called to him.
He turned. Keisha was glaring at the old man, but Harve sat there with his face impassive and waited for an answer.
“I... I should have been at home,” Cree said. He turned away and went into his cabin. As the door slid shut behind him, a wave of emotion overcame Cree, and though he shut his eyes tightly, tears streamed from his eyes and rolled off the feathers of his face. He dropped to the floor in a crouch, crossed his wings over his knees and buried his head in them, his body racked with sobs that he was now somehow powerless to stifle. The thought ran through his mind, over and over again. “I should have been at home. I should have been at home.”
He stayed that way for a long while, shaking, weeping, wondering if what he felt was his sanity washing away in a flood of tears.
Finally, he regained some control over himself, and stood up slowly. He stepped over to the bunk and sat down, picking up the paper that lay there. He had read it so many times, but he had never really understood it - not in the way that really mattered. He looked at it again, his eyes tracing down the page of Myora’s open, flowing handwriting. He knew every word of it by memory, this last letter she had sent him. The one that told him their relationship was over, and why. The one that explained that she loved him, that she thought she would always love him, but that she could not live her life for the short glimpses of happiness they shared between his assignments. His eyes traced over all of her words, his mind reciting them back without his having to read, until they reached the first line of the last paragraph on the page. He read, the words blurred by the tears that were again falling from his eyes:
I need some time to be by myself, to try and understand what has happened between us and decide what I want to do next. Do not try to call me at my apartment. I am going back home to Mainor to spend a few weeks with my parents.
The words he had read a hundred times now made sense. This whole journey made sense. Where was his home? Where? Not Gohl, he’d left it behind. Not Kantus, he had just been passing through. The only home Cree had known was with the woman he loved. With Myora - that had been his true home, although he had never seen it before. And he had spent all of his time running away from it. He felt like the galaxy’s biggest fool.
The shell in his mind had kept him, at the deepest level, from really knowing what this trip was all about. But the shell was blown away now, gone in a million fragments, and he knew. He knew. It was about death. Death.
He had been lying to himself. Telling himself that he only wanted to say goodbye, that he just wanted to be close to her one more time. He had never thought about what would happen after that. Now he knew. Nothing would happen after that. Nothing would ever happen to him again.
The woman he loved was gone. His home was gone. He wanted to die.
“We’re starting our final approach. Pops, keep an eye on those scanners. I want to know where the security beams are before we hit them.”
“No worries, boss. We’re doin’ fine. Go easy on the stick, though. That soup down there isn’t the air we’re used to flyin’ in. I’m picking up some major inversion layers and a lot of turbulence.”
Cree sat in the lounge, wearing his spacesuit, the helmet resting on his lap. He felt strangely calm. He had fallen asleep after uncounted hours of grieving, and when he awoke, his mind had felt empty, like the sky after a thunderstorm. His old detachment was back, but with an icy undercurrent of resolution. He moved, he breathed, he listened to the voices coming over the ship’s intercom, but inside he felt as if he were already dead.
“Good news, Cree,” came Keisha’s voice. “We have a positive lock on the coordinates you gave us. They’re high and dry. We should have no problem making a landing.”
The minutes ticked by, and soon Cree felt a subtle vibration coming from the hull of the small ship. It gradually increased in intensity, and the ship began to rock slightly, with sudden jolts occasionally jouncing him just out of his seat.
“Watch out for that thermal up ahead on the right,” came Harve’s voice.
“Compensating,” Keisha replied. The ship shuddered perceptibly. “We’re coming up on your coordinates, Cree. ETA five minutes.”
The vibration diminished rapidly, then dropped to nothing. He felt a gentle bump that he guessed was the ship touching the planet. Keisha’s voice came immediately afterwards. “We’re down.”
Cree stood up and walked towards the ship’s small airlock, donning his helmet as he went. He heard the couplings link up and saw the tally lights on his gauntlet come up green. He pressed the panel that opened the inner door of the airlock and stepped inside. He turned to shut the door, just in time to see Keisha emerging from the cockpit with a look of surprise on her face. He touched another panel and the door slid shut. Turning around, he lifted the guard plate covering the switch for the outer door and pressed the button beneath it. The lights over the door changed from red to yellow to green as the air was pumped out of the airlock and replaced with the poisonous atmosphere from outside. He glanced again at his gauntlet. One of the tally lights had gone red, indicating that the outside air was no longer breathable, but other than that there was no change. The door before him slid open.
He stepped down the few steps of the landing ladder and out onto the surface of Mainor. The sky overhead, thoroughly covered by thick, mottled clouds, seemed to press down on him. The landscape before him was grayish brown. There was a lot of dust, baked and cracked in places, slick with unhealthy-looking mud in others. The ruins were everywhere. Houses that had been homes just a short time ago, now abandoned. Many of them had been damaged or partly destroyed by the extreme weather or some other aftereffect of the attack. The hulks of a few ground vehicles sat on the street. Some were damaged and some seemed intact, but all were streaked with the same thick layers of grayish-brown mud. The mud must have fallen from the sky, for Cree now saw that it covered the houses as well and had collected in the gutters along the curbs. A long, ragged piece of chain-link fence lay twisted in the street, where it was collecting a mass of garbage and debris, stuff it had snatched from the wind. The wind was still strong, and lightning flashed overhead, bathing the scene in an eerie purple glow for an instant. Cree started to walk.
This wasteland had been a suburban neighborhood once. He walked down the street, looking at house numbers, moving closer to the address he had discovered and then committed to memory since his return from Argeia. He’d studied the map of this neighborhood so many times he felt he knew it, although he’d never been to this planet before.
The long grasses in the yards of the houses were all dead and brown. The wind had mowed them down in some spots, and dead grass blew in small eddies and dogged his steps as he walked. A few withered leaves still clung to the branches of the trees. He had only gone about half a block when he saw the first body.
At first, he only saw the boot, but as he approached, he caught sight of the leg it was attached to hidden in the dead grass. He squatted to look. It was a young male lion, hardly more than a boy to judge by the size of his mane. His face was drawn, just fur over bone. He was wearing expensive clothes. Cree stood up and looked around. How many others were there, hidden in the houses, slumped in vehicles, lying in the tall grass? He shook his head and kept walking.
He turned the corner and before he knew it he was standing in front of the house. It was a modest home in the style of all the others on the street. Unremarkable by any standard. The front door stood open, beckoning to him. He stepped up to the door. Brass lettering at the top of the door frame spelled out “Havens.” He switched on the suit light and stepped into the darkness of the doorway.
He tried to brace himself for the shock he knew would come when he saw her. Each time he turned a corner, he tried anew to prepare himself for it. As he entered the living room, he imagined her slumped on the sofa. As he entered the kitchen, he pictured what she would look like sprawled in front of the sink. But each room he entered tormented him with a different kind of shock - absolute normalcy. Nothing was out of place. No bodies lay prone in a diorama of agony. It looked like they had all just gone out for a walk.
Cree made his way upstairs. In the bedrooms, he finally found disarray. Clothes strewn on beds, drawers and closets left open. They had packed in a hurry. It seemed they had left. Where had they gone? How far had they gotten? Cree had queried all the refugee centers on Dennier looking for her. In the wake of the attack, the INN had worked with the PA to set up an excellent system for friends and loved ones to contact any survivor who had landed on Dennier. She had not been among them. But she wasn’t here either.
Maybe they had fled to one of the evacuation centers, and not been lucky enough to get transport off world before the air went bad. He had no way of knowing where the nearest evacuation center had been. And if that was what had happened, there would be thousands and thousands of other bodies there too. Harve’s words echoed in his head, “...it wasn’t nearly enough. Not even close.”
Soon Cree found her old bedroom. On the top of her dresser, there was a framed picture of the two of them, him with his beak slightly open, her with her head nestled against his shoulder. Cree picked it up, sat on the bed and stared at it. He remembered the moment it had been taken. He put the picture down on the bed and opened the flap on one of the suit’s pockets. He pulled out the small, dark red cube he’d taken from his desk drawer back on Kantus. Strange how it seemed like the picture of them had been taken yesterday, but it felt like a lifetime ago that he had taken this small box from his desk drawer.
He opened the box. The diamond picked up the light from his suit and scattered rainbows back to him. He placed the box with the ring down gently on her pillow. He’d made a choice. He’d planned to give her the ring when he returned from his Argeia assignment, ask her to marry him, tell her he was giving up his job with the SAED. He had chosen her. But he had waited too long.
Cree looked at the picture. “Goodbye, Myora,” he said, his voice sounding tinny inside the helmet. “I never wanted you to be last. I love you, and I always will.” He reached down and flipped up the small plate on his left gauntlet. He pressed the button underneath and held it. His helmet immediately began squealing in his ear, and the lights on the gauntlet began to flash rapidly, a warning that the outside environment was not safe for unsealing the suit. He released the button, then immediately pressed it again. The squealing resumed. He let go and pressed one more time, keeping the finger of the right gauntlet in place. The helmet fell silent. In a few more seconds, the lights began to turn from red to green.
This was it. He would end his life here, with what was left of her. He had wanted to be with her, but this was as close as he was going to get. The helmet unsealed with a click, and the outside air crept in. It smelled foul, stale, full of chemicals. It made his eyes and throat sting, but his eyes had been watering since before he unsealed the helmet. As he lifted the helmet off, Cree was filled with an infinite sadness. Even in death, he had missed his chance to be with her. And now he would join so many of the others who had lived on this world. Dead. Forgotten.
He was coughing, his lungs were burning and his head began to swim. Forgotten. Forgotten? Why? He didn’t want to forget her. More than anything else in the world, Cree realized he didn’t want to forget her. More than that, he didn’t want her to be forgotten. It would be as if she had never existed! It would be as if he had never loved her. And that would be worse somehow - worse than anything. Worse than losing her. Worse than losing himself. That would be Hell.
He was coughing harder, and his breath was coming in wheezing gasps. He was starting to feel dizzy. But in some part of his brain, an infinitely patient and compassionate voice whispered to him: “Memories belong to the living, Cree.”
Cree’s vision was blurry from tears and from the poisonous air. He took the helmet, still in his hands, and pulled it back over his head. He was coughing so hard he had trouble getting it on, but finally he felt it seal. A loud buzzing rattled in his ears, competing with the echoing sounds of his coughs inside the helmet. It was another alarm warning him that the air in the suit was contaminated. Was the suit able to clean bad air? He couldn’t remember. He had managed to stop coughing, though. He stood up uneasily, his breath rasping. He was all but blind. He stumbled towards the door. His lungs were on fire, he couldn’t catch his breath. Dark spots faded in and out in front of his eyes despite his blurry vision. He staggered to the top of the steps, started down them when another fit of coughing racked his body. He sank down on the stairs, clutching the banister as his legs gave way and he began to slide. He bumped down the stairs painfully, landing stretched out at the bottom. He tried to breathe and couldn’t. His lungs had stopped working. The sounds of buzzing and the coughing had been replaced in his head by a howling. He saw nothing but shapes now. He glanced up and saw the bright rectangle that he knew was the front door. But then it was obscured by dark shapes. Then everything was obscured by darkness.
Cree gradually became aware of pain. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. But slowly he realized that it was really only coming from his head. The wheezing sound that seemed to come from somewhere else he identified as his own breathing. As he listened, it seemed to get louder and closer. He opened his eyes. Two brown human faces, one male and one female, peered down at him.
“Hello, Cree,” Keisha said. “Welcome back.”
Cree sat up gingerly, and held his head in his wingtips. He was still in the spacesuit, though the helmet and gauntlets had been removed. He had been lying on the big table back in the ship’s lounge. “Where are we?”
“Still on Mainor. I didn’t want to lift off because I wasn’t sure if you were able to do everything you wanted to do before your suit malfunctioned.”
Cree looked up at her with one eye. “Malfunctioned?”
Harve snorted and turned away, but Keisha said evenly, “Yes, there must have been a problem with one of the seals. That is what happened isn’t it?”
Cree looked at her for a long time. “Yes,” he said at last. “That must have been what happened.”
“It’s a good thing we came after you.”
Cree stood up. He winced a little as a pain shot through his leg. He’d twisted it, or maybe it was sprained, but nothing worse. “How did you find me?”
“Most spacesuits broadcast a telemetry signal when they’re in use. It’s a safety mechanism. Harve just looked up the frequency used on Gohl and we tuned in. So are you finished here? We can have a look at your suit, maybe even repair it, if you need to go back out.”
“No, no...” Cree said thoughtfully. “There’s nothing else I need to do here. At least not right now. We can take off whenever you’re ready.”
Hours later, they were well on their way back to Dennier. Keisha was in the cockpit while Cree and Harve sat together in the lounge.
“I want to thank you,” Cree said after a long silence.
“For looking up the signal for my spacesuit and coming for me when I had a problem.”
“Aw, don’t mention it, son. Just looking out for our customer, is all. I’ve been at this long enough to know to expect the unexpected.”
Cree nodded. “So what will you do when you get back to Dennier?”
Harve shrugged. “We have some debts to pay off. Then I guess we’ll look for a place to park. We own the ship and what’s in it, but not a place to put it.” The big man heaved a deep sigh. “I’ve worked hard most of my life, Cree. I’m good at what I do, but it never did make me rich. My dear wife, God rest her soul, always told me to go out on my own, instead of working to line some other man’s pockets. We’d finally saved enough to buy this ship when I lost her. She never did get to see it.”
Harve was quiet for a moment. “I made up my mind that things would be different for my little girl. After she got out of college, we came here and started this charter business. Things were going real well, too. It helped being outsiders. Folks from both planets liked dealing with us, and nobody had to feel like they were giving money to an old enemy. We were looking at buying a patch of ground and putting up a hangar in two years, and having our second ship in five. Then I could have retired and she’d have had herself a good business to run. But none of that is gonna happen now. Seems a shame, but still I’ve got no real cause to complain. I’ve got my life and few good years in me yet, and I’ve got my little girl. Lots of folks can’t say as much.”
There was another long silence. When Cree looked up, Harve was looking over at him. “Tell me about her, son,” Harve said.
Cree hung his head as tears filled his eyes. “Her name was Myora,” he said. “And I loved her. That’s really all there is to it.”
Harve was quiet for a minute. “Sounds pretty simple to hear you tell it that way. Hardly like it was something worth dying over.”
Cree looked up at him, pain and anger stabbing through him. He was about to argue, then realized what the man had said and shut his beak. “So you knew?”
“That suit of yours doesn’t just broadcast its location. The transmitter also sends alarm signals and status information, including which buttons are pressed and in what order. But I didn’t need any of that to know, Cree. I could see it in your face.” Harve leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “I know how you feel, son. I know what it’s like to lose someone who means so much to you.”
“You don’t know,” said Cree. “You don’t. You had years with your wife, years.” Cree lowered his voice. “And I’ll bet you didn’t send her to her death.”
“Oh, so you knew before anybody else where and how the Kastans would strike? And then you told your girl to go to Mainor and just hang around until it happened?”
Cree looked at him balefully. “OK, you’ve made your point. But she wouldn’t have come back here if it weren’t for me.”
Harve chuckled deep in his chest. “Now how do you know that? How do you know she might not have been on Mainor that day anyway, even if she had never met you?” He shook his head. “You can’t tell the future, Cree, and you can’t tell what the present would be like if the past were different.”
Cree said nothing and the two were silent for a while. Finally Cree said, “Do you want to know why I changed my mind?”
“Yes. I do.”
“At the last minute, I realized that if I died, she would just be forgotten. And I couldn’t let that happen.”
“That’s true. As long as you’re alive, as long as you remember her, part of her still lives.”
“I know. And not wanting to forget her is what saved me, but I realize now its not enough for me to just remember her. There has to be more.”
Harve was quiet for a moment. “Like what?” he asked.
Cree chose his words carefully. “This - what happened, it’s so much bigger than just me. I realize now that as special as Myora was to me, everyone who died on that planet was special to someone. I don’t want them to be forgotten either.”
The door at the end of the lounge opened and Keisha stepped into the room. The two looked over at her. “You’re just in time,” said Cree.
“For what?” Keisha asked.
“I have a business proposition.”
The camera jocks of the SAED sat huddled around the screen, their faces lit by the incoming newscast. “The Kastans attack on Mainor touched people all across the Planetary Alignment,” Holly Harken was saying. “From natives who were off-world at the time, to those who had friends and loved ones living and working on Mainor, no world in the Alignment was spared the effects of that horrible tragedy. Now, a movement is underway that has dedicated itself to the remembrance of those victims, both on Mainor and in the rest of the Alignment. Here with the story is INN’s Dennier correspondent, Amanda Pleasance.”
The scene cut to a pretty, young wolf in a green blazer. “Thank you, Holly. The Havens Memorial Fund is one of a growing number of organizations focusing on the need to remember the victims of the Kastans attack on Mainor. And it has become one of the largest, with an ambitious plan that spans the Planetary Alignment and beyond. I recently caught up with the chairman of the fund, Cree Vorwhill. Cree is a native of the planet Gohl, and previously worked for the Interstellar News Network. I asked him why he felt the need to start the fund, and what his ultimate goals for the organization are.”
A chuckle of recognition ran around the room as Cree’s visage filled the screen. Even those who worked for the network got a kick out of seeing someone they knew personally on the news. Amanda spoke from off-screen, asking “What was it that prompted you to start the Havens Memorial Fund?”
“Well, like a lot of people, I lost someone that was very dear to me in the attack. I recognized that there was a need, both for myself and for everyone else, to remember those who were lost. So I began to think about ways to do that. I started off with the idea of remembrance visits. Outside of the salvage work that was being done, which was mostly industrial, there was no way for people to connect to what had happened on a personal level, since the planet was closed to space traffic. I started the fund to try and turn that around. At first the government was reluctant, but we found the idea had tremendous popular support. People wrote in, sent donations, and pretty soon the political machinery took notice. We were instrumental in helping to set up the new guidelines for planetary visitation to make sure that individuals and families were not excluded. Now there is a special provision for chartered flights to the planet for the purpose of remembrance, provided the governmental guidelines are met.”
“So the fund charters flights to Mainor?”
“Not directly. We work with several private charter companies on different worlds, all of which were facing hard times after the attack, but are now flourishing. The fund subsidizes some of the operating costs and some of the ticket costs, so we’re basically helping make it happen on both ends. We also employ guides who accompany each flight and make sure the rules are met, which pretty much just means making sure that nothing is disturbed or taken away improperly.”
“There’s been a lot of talk about a monument to those who died in the attack. Tell us about your involvement with that.”
“The fund is very involved with the movement to create a monument, and we have what I think is by far the most ambitious proposal. We want to create a visitor’s center on Mainor itself that would serve not only as a monument, but as a museum and educational center, and a base for further activity on the planet. It’s a big goal, since the environment there no longer supports life, but I believe we can make it happen. In addition, we want to set up smaller monuments on each world of the Planetary Alignment, as a way for people who can’t leave their planet for whatever reason to connect with those they may have lost. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of support for this idea among Mainorans who were off-world when the attack occurred. But what surprised me was the outpouring of support from non-Mainorans for the idea.”
“You yourself are a non-Mainoran. In fact, you are from Gohl, which isn’t even in the Planetary Alignment. How did you come to dedicate so much of your time to this project?”
“Well, Amanda, like I said, I suffered a loss in the attack. It was a personal loss, and it affected me very deeply. Since then, I haven’t been able to see something that needs doing and not do it. That’s why I started the Havens Fund, and it’s success has given me a lot of happiness, a lot of satisfaction. Where I’m from doesn’t really matter as much as where I am right now. And I’m very glad to be here. Although I am working with some folks back home on Gohl to set up a small monument there as well.”
“So what are your plans for the future?”
“The Fund will continue to grow, I hope, and eventually we’ll have the monuments and the visitor’s center. We’ll continue subsidizing remembrance trips as long as there’s an interest, and I think that’s going to be for quite a long time yet. We’ve got a legal staff now that’s helping refugees with things like salvage and property rights. And I’ve just started a new fund, the Myora Educational Fund, which will provide technology and materials to teachers across the Alignment to help them incorporate Mainoran history and the story of the Siilv War into their lesson plans.”
“It sounds like you have your work cut out for you. Thank you, Cree, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us.”
“You’re very welcome, Amanda. Thanks for your interest.”
Geoff reached over and switched off the screen, bringing up the room lights. They were all quiet for a moment, then he said, “Well, why don’t we go get some lunch?” The rest of the crew stood up and began chatting as they left the room. Geoff was the last one out. He stopped at the door, turned and cast a thoughtful glance back at the darkened screen.
“I knew I was gonna lose him,” he said to himself with a smile. Then he turned and followed his crew down to the lunchroom.
The Long View © Sam Spaniel
The Planetary Alignment © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.