Monday, January 28, 2019

Wreck by Subodhana Wijeyeratne

In this heady sci-fi, something extremely strange has happened to the inhabitants of Hozido, and Subodhana Wijeyeratne's character must visit planet Wreck to find out what.

The settlement of Hozido is six kilometres inside the Wreck. They trade ingots of Wreckmetal and cryptic old tech and sometimes, if they have a good year, the dried meat of their cross-eyed airlock goats. It is a thriving and noisy place and so when all goes silent the scavengers nearby notice. When they break through the airlock and into Hozido, twelve days after they last heard from it, this is what they find.

Empty corridors and clacking air conditioners and vending machines that stutter to neon life when someone approaches. No sign of violence. The scavengers - impoverished drifters all - are armed and tense. They keep going until they've combed every inch of the place and mulled things over and finally concluded, with much head-scratching and whispering of prayers, that everyone in the settlement has just disappeared.

Most of them leave at this point, scampering back through the lattice shadows, flinching at every drone that comes gormlessly out of doorways like a puppy, lights winking and eager to help. But about twenty of them linger, and eventually they get to talking about ransacking the place. In the freezer at the back are great haunches of meat suspended from hooks, rose-fleshed and crimson and perfect for the eating.

They're halfway through lugging the meat onto a trolley when one of them finds the hole in the wall. Later they will say that they heard some sort of humming coming from inside, like a chorus. For a long time they just stand there and listen. Then one volunteers to climb in. The others watch his rear retreating into the dark and for a long time, nothing happens. They tug the rope tied to his waist and he does not tug back. After a few more silent minutes they wonder if perhaps they should send someone in after him. They argue. By the time the man returns, ash-faced and trembling, they are nearly at blows.

'Shit,' he says. 'Shit.'

That is all he will say. Someone fetches him some whiskey and he gulps it down. As he does one of the survivors - that is what they call them, survivors - hauls itself out behind him and flops out of the tunnel. The scavengers take one look and scatter. But when they eventually return - trembling and trigger-happy - the thing is still there, humming happily to itself.

That is how they find the survivors of Hozido. That is how they find my brother.



Ten years before the scavengers break into Hozido-in-Wreck, my brother, my father, and I go on holiday to HP112-3A. It is, as my father says, 'just us lads'.

At the time our father works in a factory and they give him a couple of surplus coats and he brings these back home the day before we leave. They are hideous. Mine is too small and I excuse myself from wearing it, but my brother is keen to please and does not know how ridiculous he looks. So he wears his and it is down to his knees and its arms droop over his hands. He walks around in it all day and every time he catches our father smiling at him he beams. But after he looks away our father looks at me and we chuckle to each other because he looks like a malfunctioning droid that stumbled through a paint factory.

Our father begins breaking promises as soon as we leave home. He tells us we will get food on the way to the port but I know that we will leave too late and he will not be hungry so we won't. But my brother still believes him and so when we board the sandship, stomachs rumbling, he bursts into tears.

'You have to be grateful for what you have,' I say. We are on the observation deck. Dunes for an eternity all around, flecked with pale blue bushes nibbled by the wind. There is dust in my brother's hair and on his face, except where the tears have carved through it. 'You know how hard he works for us.'

Of course he knows. That is all our father will ever talk about. That he works hard for us and no one else. That he could have been a mercenary, or a long-hauler, and spent his life in the spectacular deep, against a backdrop of nebulae and alien dawns.

'I could've gone to Bernard's Star,' he says. 'I could've seen it all.'

We are used to him talking about us like this. As if we were chains. As if we were burdens.



We return on a freighter. My father is carrying four bags and telling us all the way up the ramp that when he was our age he moved five packs daily from his house to the factory and how our grandfather whipped him every time he didn't. My brother is crying because we have loaded him with four packs too and because he is hot underneath his huge jacket and because my father has yet again failed to buy him the cream bun he was promised the day before.

'You're so ungrateful,' says my father. 'I'll take the bag if you're not strong enough.'

'I am!' says my brother.

'I bet I can carry more than you,' I say.

'No! You're just fat. You're not strong. You're just fat.'

I pinch him, viciously.

'Dad!'

We are at the benches lined up against the hull now. Just behind us is a line of little portholes. Beyond it the sand whipping past so furiously that we cannot see anything but a dirty brown blur thickening into oblivion not ten feet away.

'Well,' says our father, 'If you're that strong, why don't you carry five on the way out?'

'Fine! I will!' My brother turns to me. 'Fuck you.'

Our father smacks us both. I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now, but this was his policy. To strike us both if my brother did something wrong, but only to strike me if I was to blame.

By the time we land we have slept and woken and then slept again. My brother grabs one of my packs and I let him. My father gestures to the door like he was inviting a priest into the house and my brother waddles forward, overladen and tottering. We follow, suppressing laughter. Every time he looks back we nod admiringly.

He gets to the ramp, and of course he trips. The packs tumble away from him and him clattering down behind them in a blur of neon and flailing hands. He hits the ground with a thud and then a pack lands on top of him and when he gets up another rolls down and flattens him again. I am laughing so hard I cannot breathe, and so is my father, and so are the family coming out behind us. Across the way two of the men servicing ship are laughing too, pointing.

'Oh god,' says one of the women next to us. 'What a horrible coat!'

'I know!' bellows my father. 'He's been wearing the damn thing for five straight days, will you believe?'

We laugh some more.

Then I catch sight of him. I expect him to be crying, but he's not. He's just standing there, face red, staring at the ground and blinking. Broken, and small, and alone.

I stop laughing. After that, I am not so cruel to him.



Two days later, our mother calls. She is not on Venus, she says. She's actually nearby, here on Hornithia, with her lover. And she's sorry, but she won't coming home.



The Wreck authorities offer to pay for my transport. Of course it's aboard a rattling old C-class that screams like dying cattle every time it spins up to jump. I'm squeezed between a giant Lumberger and a slave girl on her way to Pearl's World. She skinny and smells sour-sweet and will not stop talking.

'It's just twelve years, right?' she says. 'I'm in the garment district and then I'll probably get a promotion because I'm really good at weaving.'

'They have handlooms on Pearl's World?' I ask. This is before I realize that it does not matter to her if I speak or not.

She blinks twice and peers out the window.

'They don't?'

'It didn't occur to you that they don't need your weaving skills? And you signed an indenture?'

The Lumberger laughs, so deep it sets our bench trembling. The slave girl looks at it and then at me.

'Yeah, so, yeah. Maybe I'll be tending the machines?'

'I'd imagine they've got synths for that.'

She thinks about this and then she nods and for a while none of us want to continue the conversation. Then the Lumberger snorts through its backflaps.

'You people,' it says. 'Still selling each other.'

'I sold myself,' says the girl.

'What is your name?'

'Sirath. What's yours?'

'That is not your name,' says the Lumberger. 'You are a slave, off to work in a garment district with no looms. You have no name now. '

It laughs again.

I flee as soon as the ships settles, groaning, and the doors open. Out across the moonlit spaceport and past the freighters and rusty old traders that are the only things that come this way. All these are hunkered blackly in the moonlight and pierced with pipes from the ground like whales harpooned and dead and ready for the carving. It is humid and the air stinks of ozone and a thunderous wall of foliage crowds the edge of the spaceport like a mass of green rioters, leaves gossiping in the wind.

There is an official there to meet us at the terminal - a metallic blonde, bronze-skinned and brown-eyed and as slender as a whip. She is holding a sign saying Relatives of the Survivors. People in the arrivals hall glance at the sign and then at her face and then about them. As if they could tell just by looking who amongst them was thus aggrieved. Or maybe I am just paranoid. Maybe that's not what they're thinking at all. Maybe I'm just afraid that it is easy to see how brittle I am.

I approach and introduce myself.

'Palden Hulir,' she says. She does not offer me her hand, or anything else. 'A pleasure.'

And that is all.

There is another one of us - a woman in combat boots and a vest, hair cropped messily, wielding a book. She approaches and joins Palden and me and does not introduce herself. We head out and towards an old bus, past signs saying Welcome to Wreck. Home of the Wreckers! Next to the words is an image of their mascot. An armored sand-squirrel, puffed with muscle and wielding some sort of staff. All the planets out here have mascots. I have no idea why.

'We're in the middle of planning for our plebiscite,' says Palden. 'Four days from now, our citizens will vote on what name we're to adopt.'

'What's wrong with the one you've got?' asks the woman.

'Well, Miss Gillem, it's not very nice, don't you think, for a beautiful planet like this?'

'Emily.'

'Sorry?'

'My name's Emily. Plus Wreck suits this place just fine.'

Palden cracks a thin smile and says nothing and ushers us across the uneven asphalt over to an old bus. There is no one else onboard. Emily wanders down to the far end and flops onto the back seat, legs splayed, head down, and resumes reading.

'We were expecting more,' says Palden, keying in the destination.

'How many?'

'Well, there were around one hundred and twenty survivors. But...'

Palden doesn't finish. She doesn't need to. We both know that the kind of people who end up on Wreck aren't the kind of people anyone comes looking for.



They put us up in a hotel in the center of the capital and tell us not to wander out after dark, so I do. Down the narrow streets that burrow through a tangled mass of buildings stretching off in low-slung stucco-shedding sprawl. I do not see the sky for some time and then I come to a square fronted with buildings as glum and dilapidated as old labourers. It is raining. Across the way are three figures loitering in front of a brothel and they come towards me. I return to the hotel and lock my door.

The next day Palden takes us to the government center, a sparkling building that looks as if a tremendous ceramic disk had melted over a pile of glass, outlandish and obscenely clean amidst the squalor. Inside it is air conditioned and our feet clack-clack on the shiny white floor and little grey cleaning bots zip after us and wipe up our grimy footsteps as we go. Palden leads us into the basement and into small rooms each outfitted with a table and a chair and nothing else. Ten or fifteen solitary minutes later a large woman brings in two cardboard boxes, drops them on the table, and leaves.

Now I am alone with all that remains of my brother.

I sit for a long time, staring at the boxes, unable to move. Eventually I close my eyes and open the first box. My hands are shaking. There is nothing profound in it. Just the things I would have expected of him. An ancient alarm clock blinking the same time - 13:03 - over and over again. Some books - the sort of things he liked even when he was young. Self-improvement and exercise regimes. One Hundred Tales of Dogs Saving Humans. Animals are people too, says the blurb. And here are one hundred tales that prove it!

The revelations begin in the next box.

There are some of his clothes in it. Then, further down, there are some other clothes. Women's clothes. Perfumed. I pull them out and at the bottom is a small image displayer. It flickers to life and suddenly, there he is. Bigger than I remember him, and darker. His hair is spiked and glossy. But still the grin is his, that grin that splits his face in half, radiant and earnest. Here he is, just outside the government building, eyebrow raised. And then some images of the jungle. Red birds and a giant snake. Then him on the giant snake's back, eyebrow raised.

Pictures of the Wreck follow. Vast dull grey expanses of it peeking through the jungle. Shafts plummeting down into darkness. Towering carvings of animals I have never seen and probably no one alive has seen either. My brother is wearing harnesses now and he looks pleased with what he is doing. Drinking with friends and hauling bags of things. Then there is a long gap in the images - a few months - before the last cluster. Twelve or thirteen of them. I flick through them slowly, agape. I open the door and speak to the guard standing there.

'I'd like to speak to Palden Hulir, please,' I say.

The guard won't make eye contact and I realize I must look redeyed and wretched. She sets off down the corridor and a moment later Palden returns with her and puts her hands to her face and says, 'Oh, I am so sorry, sir. This must be very hard on you. Can I get you anything?'

I hold out the image viewer. 'Who are these people?'

She frowns and takes the viewer and flicks through the last few pictures.

'Why, I'd imagine they were his wife and child.'

'Imagine? You don't know for sure?'

Palden taps her left palm and her epidermal lights up. After a few moments of pressing and sliding she nods.

'Yes. Yes, they registered their marriage two years ago. I'm happy to provide you with any information you need.'

'What was her name?'

'Lhang.' Now both Palden and the guard are looking at me. 'I'm sorry -'

'And the child?'

'The child's name was... Aruna! Just like you!' She smiles again. 'Isn't that lovely?'

I want to run at her screaming. I want to smash their heads together.

'Yes,' I say. 'Yes, it's lovely.'



After he settles things with my mother my father sinks into a vicious and grinding depression that floods our house like tar. My brother and I learn to cook for ourselves and clean the house. We learn to tell each other when we're doing well, and when we're not. We learn each other's schedules and make sure we're there for each other when we need to be. And through it all our father goes to work before dawn and returns after dusk to sit with a bottle of booze in a corner, mute and unresponsive as if lobotomized. At first we hate it, but that is before we learn that the only things he has to say to us have to do with the fact that we are more like our mother than him.

Then, abruptly, he sells everything and moves us to Lushu.

We move into a converted pumphouse on the edge of town. A diminutive thing, blocky and rough to the touch, cowering in an expanse of rocky bluegrass. There are bushes scattered about and they are dark and brittle and when they bloom they offer up timid clumps of little florets which glimmer whitely for a few days every spring. My father takes to the place with energy like I have never seen. He spends hours tilling the tan soil and laying seeds and ordering us to erect fences around the whole thing. He harangues us into hauling sacks of seed and patch up the rusty and rattling machinery the previous owners left behind for us. Our city-dweller's muscles quiver and ache at the end of every day.

'Shut your mouth,' our father says if we complain. 'When I was your age my father made me plough entire fields with nothing but a rotavator. I had to lug rocks twice the size of your fat gut.'

I hate the place and I hate the work but it is a relief to have him sober and cheerful. It doesn't last.

Our first crop is limp and disappointing, and so is our second. Our father's good moods dwindle like our memories of our mother. By the third year the fields lie fallow and he's taken to selling junk he takes off the neighbours for free. They curl their lips when he approaches, unshaven and suit rumbled and smelling sickly sweet, and speak to him from behind their screen doors. Sometimes, if they have nothing, he sobs and begs and we have to go get him and drag him back to the house.

'You fucking shits,' he hisses 'You stink of her. You ruined me. You ruined my life.'

We get him into bed and wipe his face and force some water down him. Then he cups our heads in his hands and smacks stinking kisses on our foreheads and says, 'You're good boys. You're good boys. If you leave me I'll die, you hear? I'll die.'

That is how we live. Yo-yoing to and from his wretchedness. For four years, until I have given up all hope of being anything more than the son of a failure.



We often wander down to the river at the end of our land, a silvery and shallow thing that meanders between banks of rushes in a silver and hurrying flow. My brother lays the nets. He is huge now. Arms like logs and his chin as hard as a battering ram. He can lift entire half-trunks with a shuffle and a grunt and carry them over four miles of undulating land without a fuss. Then he will get to working them, mottled with sawdust, tongue-tip clamped between his lips, clicking his fingers when pleased with something - most of all when he had made something he knew was beautiful. One of his carvings sits on my desk at the university - three hummingbirds, rapier beaks barely touching the flowers they float in front of.

We have not fought for a while, but not because I know he would beat me, but because I know he would not lift a finger to hurt me. I have seen the way he is. The way the first thing he seeks when he meets another living thing is to share something with it - food or water or a moment of companionable silence. I've seen the way animals come to him unbeckoned and people warm to him without a word spoken. And seeing this I feel sick with myself that this creature, who wants only peace, is something I bullied and tortured for so long.

He waves at me from hip-deep in the water, lobster pot in one huge hand. The river is icy and clear and I can see the giant freshwater lobsters crawling about on the golden sand about my feet. Feathery feelers brush my feet.

'What do you want to do?' says my brother.

'Go home. It's fucking freezing.'

'No. I mean when you grow up.'

'I want to get the hell out of here,' I say.

'Yeah.' He turns to me. 'Why did he bring us here?'

'Dunno. Why does he do anything?'

'Don't be like that. We have to make him proud.'

'Proud?'

'He does everything for us.'

'Like what?'

'Everything.' He ripples his jaw muscles and gazes out at the horizon. 'Since mum left.'

'It wasn't her fault. He's a bastard. And a drunk.'

'Don't be like that to your own flesh and blood.' 'Flesh and blood? I'll eat his flesh. I'll drink his blood.'

He is silent for a while after that. Eventually I wander up to him and squeeze one of his giant biceps and says, 'I'm sorry, man. I guess I just don't love him like you do.'

'It's ok.' He hauls the lobster pots onto the shore, one by one, and takes the creatures out. They are each as big as my forearm, red like burned flesh and furious at being manhandle thus. He flings them one by one into a bag and then stops and looks up at the sky.

'Do you think it's all true?' he says. 'All those things Dad says about when he was young?'

'Probably not,' I say.

'It all sounds so cool. I'd like to go. I wanna see all the places he wanted to see. I wanna see Wreck. Did you know it's three thousand kilometers long, and, y'know, nine thousand years old?'

'I didn't.

I did know, but he beams whenever he thinks he's taught me something, and I let him have the moment.

We swing by town to sell the excess lobsters and three Lushan girls follow us around for a while, giggling and slowly peeling off their coats. As if we should be dazzled by their fair skin, as if we should be amazed by their audacity in showing it to us. But they do not know we grew up on Hornithia. They do not know how drab they look compared to what we left behind. In any case, I'm thinking of something else. I'm thinking that there is no way my father will let us both flee the farm. That he'll come after us one way or the other. But if one of us was to remain, to somehow brook the wound it would cause in him, the other one could get away.

I look over at my brother. He is grinning at the girls and one of them is smiling back as if she means it. Then I notice that actually she seems to be smiling at me. But of course I don't smile back, because obviously I am mistaken. Why would a girl possibly want to smile at me, when my brother was right there?



The morning they take us to see the survivors is desultory and dripping. I find Emily smoking a wrinkled cigarette by the entrance, watching water fall in blobs from the lichen-blotched awning overhead. She looks at me and widens her eyes by way of greeting and says nothing. After a while Palden pulls up in a rattling little hovercar and jumps out, impeccable in white, running her hand through her hair as if it needed more grooming.

'Good morning!' she says. 'Are we ready?'

'No,' I say.

'No?' Her smile falters. 'It would be difficult to reschedule -'

'He's joking,' says Emily, crushing the dregs of the cigarette into the damp floor.

Palden looks from her to me as if we are speaking a language she does not understand, and then her smile flickers back to life.

None of us speak on the way there. The world is barely visible through the water-splotched glass. Every now and then I reach up to wipe the condensation away with my hand, and every time I do so I am reminded that it is on the other side of the glass and so I cannot reach it. Emily watches me fret for a while, and then she says, 'It'll be fine.'

'What will?' I say.

'Seeing them. It'll be fine.'

'How can you be so sure?'

'They're happy,' she says, looking away. 'They're less complicated than us and they're happy.'

'How do you know they're happy?'

'They're well looked after,' says Palden, seat turning to face us. She crosses her legs and smiles. 'They're tended to by staff and kept clean and sheltered.'

'They're happy,' says Emily again.

Perhaps that is what she needs to tells herself, I think, and so I say nothing. But still, how can she be so sure. How can we be any more certain of their happiness than we can that of a frog, or a synth? What kind of happiness would it be? Or perhaps I am missing the point. Perhaps it is just that I cannot understand what kind of happiness they could possibly feel, and so it does not look like happiness to me at all.

But still. What if, somewhere deep inside those shapeless masses of flesh, they are screaming?

Thoughts turn sour inside me. By the time we come up to the facility, low-slung and ominous like a monsoon cloud fallen to earth, I am shivering and I cannot stand up. But still I drag myself out of the vehicle, the soil squelching beneath my boots, the jungle wet and slimy about me. Palden and Emily are talking but their voices diminish to static and the dark way through to the back of facility swallows me like a throat.

Out back is an expanse of steel-fenced pens. In each is a clutch of great slug-beasts the size of coffins, skins grey and rough like an elephant's. They stink like vinegar and roll about in the mud and when they move they move with the squirming muscle-pulses of larvae or of worms. I watch them squirm and shudder in the muck and I think these things aren't human, they can never have been human. That surely to be reduced from a creature that can smile and write and see the beauty in a hummingbird's fidgeting flight to this horror is a fate worse than death.

'Sir,' says Palden. 'Sir, are you alright?'

I stagger back, and into her.

'Get me out,' I says. 'I need to leave.'

Then the singing begins.

At first I think it is birds, but there are no birds that sound so human. Then I think it is humans, lurking somewhere in the forest beyond, watching my creeping paralysis, but there are no humans with voices like this either. There are no words, just a slow and rolling humming, each climbing at its own pace and own speed but all hewing to some alien harmony. They ascend up and beyond my hearing. Up until the hairs on my body stand up.

I stand rooted to the ground. Paralyzed by the idea of what those sounds, human and yet not, could possibly mean. Eventually Palden guides me back to the car and straps me in.

'Who was it?' I ask.

'Who was what? Who did I lose?'

'Yes.'

'My son.'

I look over at her. She does not look old enough to have children but I do not ask her about that. In any case now she is staring out the window at nothing, and when she speaks I know for sure that she is not speaking to me.

'But they're happy,' she says. 'They were singing. You heard it, right? It was a happy song.'



It take us eighteen months to lay our plans, but finally we are set.

My brother's last day with me begins with us in the kitchen. The sun is fat and brilliant on the horizon and I am convinced, I remember, that it is one of those hushed and fleeting moments that slip past before the beginning of something momentous. Perhaps that's why I say what I am about say. Or perhaps I am just carried away by a sunset.

Before dinner our father goes into town on his little scooter with a boxful of engine parts for barter, and we bring in the day's catch. My brother will no longer kill the fish so I have to take each one, slippery and squirming, and drive a knife into their heads. Halfway through my second one, I pause.

'Now,' I say. 'You need to go now.'

'What?' He looks around the room as if there were someone else speaking. 'Now?'

I drop the fish.

'Now. Before he gets home.'

'But, won't he come after me right away?'

'I'll make sure we eat first. Like we planned, alright? North and then down along the river. Stay in the undergrowth.'

'Now?'

'Dammit, will you hurry the fuck up?'

He does. Stomping up into our tiny shared space and grabbing the bag which he has packed and repacked a thousand times under my eyes. We both head out across the fields to the river and after a hot and silent hike we are at the spot where we are to part company and never see each other again. I take him in my arms though I cannot get them all the way around him and it is like hugging a granite pillar. I squeeze and try to feel like the bigger brother for once. He hugs back and I can feel his tears on my cheek and the sobs pulsing up his back.

'Take care, man,' I say. 'Take care. Write, OK? Every step of the way. Write.'

He nods.

'Don't be dick, OK? Don't lose your shit.'

'Yeah.'

We hold on in silence for a while longer. By the time we part it is fully dark and the evening chorus has begun and maybe this is why we do not notice our father until he is close enough to shine the searing blue light of his torch right in our faces.

'Run,' I say. But my brother is frozen. I shove him in the chest, but he will not move.

Our father comes to a halt a few feet away and peers at us both.

'What's this, then?' he says. 'You leaving already?'

My brother looks at me , and then back.

'No. I mean - '

'I thought at least you'd say bye.'

'We -' I say.

'I heard you two plotting one night,' says out father. Then his mouth curls and his face crumples and he begins to cry. 'Was I really so bad? Was I really such a fuckup that you have to run away from me like this? Like thieves in the night? I didn't think you'd really do it. I didn't think you could really hate me so much.'

'We don't hate you, dad -'

He glares at me.

'Shut your mouth. That's what your mother said. I don't hate you. I just can't live with you anymore.'

The silences that ensues grinds us like stones under a glacier. Then he and reaches into his pocket and takes out two small envelopes. He tosses one over to my brother. Inside is a fraying brick of cash.

'What's this?'

'Your share.'

'Of what?'

'What, you think all this time I was working for me? That's for you, you idiot. That's your share, minus one third. That goes to the idiot next to you.'

'Me?' I say. 'Why?'

My father looks at me, and the way I remember it, there was something akin to love in his gaze.

'For doing your mother's job, and raising your brother a good man.'

More silence. He turns and walks back to the house. I do not know it at the time, but that is the last time I see him. My brother and I stand there in silence for a while. Then my brother begins to walk after him.

'What're you doing?' I say.

'I'm going home. Bro. Look at him.'

'Hey!' I run up behind him and grab one enormous shoulder and with all my bodyweight I finally manage to swing him around. 'No! No, take the money and go. For fuck's sake.'

'I can't leave him -'

'Yes, you can.'

'Bro -'

'Listen to me! There's nothing for you here. What're you going to do? Become a farmer? Marry some Lushan girl and have dusty Lushan children and grow old under this half-dead Lushan sun? Don't you want to go see the stars? Isn't that what you said?'

He looks back over his shoulder at the darkening figure of our father diminishing to nothing as it retreats. Then he looks at me, eyes moist.

'I can't leave you guys.'

'I don't want you to leave.' I put my arms around him and hold him, so massive and yet so little, so hard and yet so easy to break. 'But you have to, man. If you don't you'll be stuck here forever and...'

'And what?'

'And you're better than that.'

I take him all the way to the spaceport and he presses his face to the window, so big he fills it all, and watches me for as long as he can. I walk home on my own all I am thinking of is how I will cope with my father. But when I get home he is out, probably already drunk and I head straight to bed and lock my door.

When I wake up, he is gone.

There is a small envelope on the kitchen table something scrawled on it - This is for you. Inside is a fat wedge of money, and a coupon for a ticket off-world, so old it is yellowing at the edges. There is enough money in the envelope to get me there. Back to Hornithia. I had no idea that he'd saved this much.

I do not go looking for him. I would like to say it was because I wanted him to be free, or that it is because I knew that without him I would be freer. But I did not go after him because I didn't want to know any more about him. I hadn't expected the money. I didn't want to know if I'd been wrong about anything else.



I was wrong about that Lushan girl. She was smiling at me. I married her in the end and together we made it to Hornithia and it is she who eventually tells me what about what happens after I leave Wreck.

The things - the survivors - keep singing. For months they do nothing but sing and some wonder how it is they are alive when they do not eat, and how they sing when they have no mouths. But this is Wreck and there is no one curious enough and with skill enough to find out. The keepers keep them moist with hoses when the rainy season ends. At night they extend a great awning over them and apparently when the dark comes they stop twitching and squirming and lie still until the sun rises again.

Their singing changes too, as time goes on. It becomes faster and higher pitched and now when they sing they gather together in concentric circles. Then one day they reach some sort of crescendo and their music is so loud and so high that everyone for miles stops and listens and some religious folk living deep in the jungle think that it is the end of the world and have to be stopped from killing their children and themselves.

After that they stop singing, and then they stop moving altogether. The keepers - there are two of them, a father and a son - prod them and poke them and even wander, tentative and soft-footed, into their midst. After a few days they notice that they have all developed hard outer shells, and they call someone in the government. A biologist comes by and tries to dissect one, but by now its shell is harder than rock, harder than diamond, and she says that they'd have to blow it apart to see what's happening inside. So they leave it.

They remain like that for a few months. The keepers stop watering them, but they do not leave. They stay with them. The son speaks to them and in the evenings the father comes out into their midst with a stool and a little balalaika and sits there, strumming and humming and sipping from a bottle of hooch. Later someone asks them why they do these things and the son says because that is what he was paid to do. The father says it is because he has nothing else going on and he hoped that when the cocoons cracked perhaps giant butterflies would come out.

The cocoons do crack eventually, but what wafts out of each is a smoke-thin sheet of cells. One or two of them flop over, lifeless and cold, as soon as they emerge, and these are cut up and studied later. Razor-thin fetuses, the biologists call them. They have never seen anything like it.

The creatures are so light that they get caught in the wind and drift off into the sky, up into the atmosphere and into the jetstream. There they circle Wreck for a year or so. Then they thin and expand again until they are each a hundred kilometers square and practically transparent. Then they drift higher and get caught in the solar wind and finally they fly away, still thinning, hundreds of miles wide now, off into the glittering dark. They all ride the star's warm breath in the same direction until finally they are lost in the dimensionless void, a vast shoal of tissue possessed of some unknown will in search of some unknown place.

No one has seen them since.

I tell myself that my brother is not one of the sheets that was born dead. I tell myself instead that he is finally free to explore the stars as he wishes. That the people he loves are with him, and that he knows it, and that they are happy. I tell myself these things, and that perhaps one day he will meet my father, because I cannot tell myself anything else.

And because just maybe, they are true.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm, the meat of the cross-eyed airlock goat, my favourite. I wonder if they'll ever do it in Quorn. This is a seriously imaginative and entertaining story. Also quite complex and fast-paced. Some nice use of language: I really liked 'lattice shadows'. Btw, I'd like to meet a Lumberger - or at least observe one from a distance.

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