Tuesday Fiction: “Planetfall” by Athena Andreadis
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Athena Andreadis. Athena was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
I. In the Depths of the Sea
Nine generations past planetfall
Through the haze of her dark blue mane, the mershadow gazed sternly at her youngest. She had often warned her not to go near the shore. Afterwards, ever would she long for the hostile land, where her skin would crack and she would wither.
The youngster, eyes as smoky as her mother’s, felt unrepentant. She already knew starfire – they spent many nights on the foam. She knew of the landers, too. They had not been here long, said the Elders. They could not understand the People’s singing—yet they trod as lightly as the whisper of a calm sea. Many came to rest in her people’s domain, bearing the gifts of their kin. She longed to catch more glimpses of them. She wanted to encompass the whole world, sea and land, for her lays.
It eased the elder’s mind that, for a while, her child would have to stay near. Her turn had come to watch the Sea Rose.
The Sea Rose… the great burden and joy of the mershadows. It bloomed unpredictably once every thirteen cycles of the wanderer that cast light on the night. Between dusk and dawn, a single blossom came alive. It granted to its watcher one wish, so the Elders sang. In exchange, for each cycle of the Wanderer, a vigilant mershadow guarded it and nourished it with her salty, greenish blood.
And so, as soon as the Wanderer started waxing, the youngster dutifully nested near the mound where the Sea Rose slumbered. It stood on a leafless stem, bluish-black like its guardian’s hair, at the bottom of a deep crevasse filled with slate-green pebbles.
As the last night of her watch started to lighten into dawn, she sighed with regret and relief. The Sea Rose would not bloom in her turn. She was looking forward to recovering her strength and seeing the dry gardens once again, filled with all those blossoms that had no names in her tongue.
And just then, the water turned transparent, so transparent that she could see the pale sliver of the wanderer. She could distinctly hear the dream birds’ trills, the mist cats’ hunting calls, all the way from the distant hills of the dry lands. On the barren seafloor, the Sea Rose slowly unfurled. Its angular petals glimmered blue-green, like the precious nodules that her people occasionally found on the ocean floor. The water around it broke into jeweled prisms.
The youngster knew what she wanted to ask of the Sea Rose—she would ask for songs that might help the landers understand her people. But just as she prepared to sing her plea, an intricate object slowly twirled from the waters above and came to rest gently upon the blossom.
Hesitantly, she touched it—and a storm of yearning broke in her mind. Endless striving, anxious love, fear, longing… Meanwhile, alerted to the unfolding of the Rose, the mershadows began to congregate around the mound and its guardian.
“My child, what did you ask?” said her mother.
“I did not think to wish,” whispered the youngster. “The landers’ amulet—it spoke to me…”
And at that moment, they realized that the Sea Rose had not folded. For the first time, the only time, the sunrays touched it. It burned in colors of the fires that fuelled the star cores. Then it closed.
She became her people’s greatest bard. And her lineage kept the amulet until they returned it to the landers, on the night that the two Peoples sang together—and understood each other’s words.
II. The Sea of Stars
Four generations past planetfall
Four generations after planetfall, strife arose on Glorious Maiden. The planet, beautiful but stark, almost entirely ocean, sorely tested mettle and resources. Some hearths wanted to start ocean farming, despite the decision made even before planetfall to leave no footprint on the planet. The argument got bitter enough that several tanegíri withdrew from the council and armed their hearths.
So Sefanír, tanegír of the Sóran-Kerís hearth, first among equals, fitted herself into her kite, snapped the struts taut and flew to the storm-guarded southern archipelago, seeking to end the conflict.
“Why should we trust people who would separate us into powerful and powerless? Who no longer enter the Dreaming?” asked dark-voiced Sháita, tanegír Dhaíri. The Dreaming… as dangerous as following the songs of the dwellers of the deep. People were known to never emerge from it. They wandered inside it, eyes half-open, till they died.
“I will Dream,” replied Sefanír, drawing herself up to her considerable height. “But if I emerge from it,” she added, her blue eyes flashing, “will you agree to a truce and return to the council?”
Sháita chuckled, her long silver braids floating like cirrus clouds on her black tunic. “If you emerge,” she said, “you won’t need my agreement. The southern hearths will follow you without question or demur.”
Next dawn, Sháita led her to a tiny room facing the small inner courtyard. It was bare and windowless but for an opening high up that showed a patch of sky. She lowered the marís bowl on the stone floor, then put her hand on Sefanír’s shoulder.
“I would rather that our people were not divided and that we stayed true to our original resolution. But if we’re to unite them, I cannot be seen to let you bypass this test,” she said quietly. “Remember this, if you have forgotten it. If a man enters your vision whose hair is as pale as winter seagrass, come out of the vision in any way you can. Or you won’t come out at all.”
She waited until Sefanír had emptied the bowl, then left. Sefanír hummed a song to keep herself calm. Show no fear, no hesitation… the people’s future depends on it… on me. She felt little effect from the marís beyond its smoky aftertaste. Time went by. Consort in unclouded glory briefly appeared in her skylight, then passed. A bright dot of shimmering light hurried past—the Reckless, still in orbit, though now lost to her people. Finally, when the color leached from the patch of sky, she rose from the floor, determined to ask for another try on the morrow. She had given her word to her hearth that she would not return till she succeeded in healing the rift—or died in the attempt.
As she emerged into the larger outer courtyard, she saw a man seated by the murmuring fountain. He was muffled at dusk against the evening chill in garments the color of the evening sky.
“I am looking for Tanegír Sháita,” she said.
“I will take you to her,” he replied in a voice as soft as a mist cat’s pad. They make beautiful men, the Dhaíri, and they are said to bless their consorts with daughters, as well, thought Sefanír, her gaze sliding over his fluid body lines. If only we could get more living girl children… Madness to split into factions, when our need to keep all the lines is dire.
Through narrow corridors they wended. Strange, mused Sefanír, the dwelling seemed smaller from the outside. He led her to a room lit by a small torch.
“We’ll await my kinswoman here,” he said and gracefully lowered himself on the thick carpet. Sefanír imitated him. After a brief interval, he reached over and idly trailed a fingertip along her collarbone. A feather would have been heavier than his touch. Waves of heat, then cold coursed through Sefanír.
“It may take her a long time to come,” he whispered. “I have pleased many. I could please you, too.”
If he is offering, he is not handfasted, thought Sefanír. And it may help the truce take hold.
As she leaned toward his scented warmth, he pressed her against him. She caught the spicy whiff of newly budded leaves. Sefanír’s hands slid over the wild silk of his clothes. Then, under the thin fabric she felt scars embroidering his back. Disconcerted, she gripped his shoulder; and there she felt the raised edges of a handfasting brand.
Instantly sobered, she pulled at his sleeve and the fabric ripped with a long-drawn sigh. On his shoulder glared the divided circle of the Night. He laughed, and the room filled with the wingbeat of wheeling dream birds. Sefanír’s abrupt movement had dislodged his headscarf. Now he discarded it, revealing hair as pale as the midwinter sun. His eyes became star-filled pools.
“You are strong-willed,” he murmured. “Even my Tanegír gives in when I caress her. Why do you insult me? Shall I tell her you think her judgment in consorts is wanting? She is the only one allowed to criticize me.”
“You tried to trick me,” retorted Sefanír. “If I had given in, it would be an even worse trespass on her prerogatives. And all tales of the Night tell how easily she is aroused to anger.”
“In that they are right,” he conceded. “Those scars you felt are signs of her temper. But I suffer the fire gladly in exchange for the sweet moments. Besides, I lost fairly. Had I prevailed…” and he laughed again, the Morning Star, the First Consort of the Night. “We hunted the Two Sisters, I and all my brothers. The Elder sister had borne a child that one of us had fathered. We wanted it. Long they evaded us, but at last we overtook them, burdened as they were with the child.
“Yet the Younger would not surrender, nor leave her sister. When I saw her falter with fatigue, I grew careless and ventured close. She was prepared: her firewhip wrapped around my throat. So I bargained—in exchange for my life, I and all my brothers became her consorts. To prevent us from taking her sister’s child, she sequestered herself and us in the darkside. Now the Two only touch palms at dusk and dawn. Let me please you, Tanegir. Then I can let you go without losing honor.”
Sháita’s warning rang in Sefanír’s mind. Now she knew why so few survived the Dreaming. He, of course, guessed her thoughts.
“Perhaps my Tanegír will not notice. Perhaps I will not tell her. Who knows?”
“If each choice brings death,” decided Sefanír, “I can at least take bliss as my last memory.” She laughed and opened her arms. “Please me, then, First Consort. Should you not, I myself will complain to your Tanegír when she weaves me as another fireflitter in her dark braids.”
“Bravery like yours deserves a gift,” he said. “You will see something few have seen and none has lived to tell.” Very gently, he eased Sefanír back into the pillows. And when he embraced her, his long hair gleaming in the torchlight, he unfurled over both of them a multihued pair of wings. Joined, they soared, their outlines bathed in his brothers’ dim radiance.
Sefanír returned north with the catamarans of the Southerners behind her like a flock of seabirds. But all across her body she also bore tracks of lightning, and for a long time her dreams were consumed by fire. For the Night valued courage but she was also exacting about her Consorts’ fidelity.
III. The Dagger Sheath
Nine generations past planetfall
My evening star, my sweetest spring,
How has your beauty set!
– From the lay of Rodhánis the Storm
“Impaired, I say!” teased Kíghan. “Admit it, sister, your thinking grows less sharp if he’s involved.”
Rodhánis shook her head, exasperated. “I stand by my decision. He is the best navigator on this planet! Is it his fault that he is also beautiful?”
“Those golden eyes of his, who would not want a mist cat padding in their wake!” replied her brother, chuckling. “And you’re right, he seems to be as good among the stars as he is on the seas. But you cannot give him your brand and name him consort. You are tanegír Yehán – a son from every hearth is vying for…”
“Are you that eager to be pushed out of the hearth?” she interrupted him.
“I will remain as long as you need me but the Yeháni must have an heir, Storm, and I’m only a man.” He took her in his arms. “I know about the two miscarriages you tried to hide from the hearth members, my heart. The desolation on his face was clue enough, he is not schooled in deception. But at least it means you can conceive. They are circling you, if you don’t choose soon there will be slaughter. Seeing a wanderer in your bed is not improving their mood. And no matter how carefully you choose, they will still kill each other below your windows.”
“All these men, left to roam…” mused Rodhánis. “How did it come to this? It was not so when Captain Semira Soranakis and her Keegan arrived on the Reckless.”
“It has been so ever since planetfall,” he said quietly, “ever since Glorious Maiden chose to selectively harvest our women. We can barely keep our numbers steady, and neither the miscarriages nor the duels are helping. Perhaps you will know soon how family matters ran on the Reckless. Are you sure about the risks of this expedition? I should never have agreed…”
“And let Eridhén Kálan or one of his allies be the first to board the arcship?” burst out Rodhánis. “Not while I stand upright.”
“I cannot believe I’m recommending this, but take his eldest as your consort,” he said reluctantly. “Anáris is handsome, more even-tempered than his father—and he wants you. It may stop Eridhén from constantly raising the winds of discord.”
“Eridhén wants power too much to be deflected by kinship, and Anáris will heed him even as Yehán,” answered Rodhánis. “And with his tanegír ailing and no daughters yet, Eridhén will do anything short of declaring himself tanegír Kálan.”
“We would kill him if he did,” growled Kíghan. “At planetfall, the crew of the Reckless agreed that the hearths on Glorious Maiden would be headed by women. Their reasons were sound then, and even more so now. But Eridhén is too canny to make a mistake. He always hugs the shore, never ventures into blue water.”
* * *
The derelict arcship shone with reflected sunlight like Wanderer at his fullest. Images flashed across the console of the Seastorm. Rodhánis stopped the engines and went into freefall, using the thrusters to match the larger ship’s motion.
“The bubble must be the command center… that has to be the engine compartment, there on the tether…” She turned to her companion. “All frequencies open?”
He nodded, his golden eyes reflecting the vessel in the viewport. “Only background hiss. Amazing that the orbit-boosting mechanism still works. After all this time planetbound, to lift free of the atmosphere once again and board the ship that brought us here! Perhaps reclaim it…”
“Yes,” she said yearningly, putting her hand on his shoulder, “finally take to the stars, even find the first home in time…”
He turned, kissed her fingers. “Will I be your astrogator, my soul?”
She let her palm linger on his face. “When I bid for your contract, little did I know what seas we would cross, you and I. But I must choose a consort when we return, I promised my hearth.”
He half-smiled. “You promised Kíghan, who counts more than everyone else combined. Yet it seems to me that if you choose none of the mighty, it will be less likely to cause strife.”
“If I had a sister, I would let her have both the power and the burden. I would go back to exploring the wilds with you.” She exhaled as he left the seat and wrapped around her like a twining vine. “Or we could stay here, bring the Reckless back to life… Keep your mind on your task, cub!” she scolded him fondly as he began to plant kisses under her jawline.
“Just awaiting my tanegír’s orders…” he defended himself, hiding a smile against her neck. He glided back into the navigator’s seat, keeping a hand on her thigh. Deftly, he maneuvered the Seastorm next to the larger ship. Its hull was pitted and blistered, the plates unevenly hued, reflecting several rounds of replacements. “The blaze…” he pointed.
“The Sóran-Kerís starburst,” she marveled.
“Yes,” he whispered, averting his eyes. And suddenly in her mind’s eye she saw a spare woman with hazel eyes holding a boy with tousled auburn hair. A wanderer’s child and a son at that… How can I acknowledge you as Captain Semira’s descendant, call you Sóran-Kerís? It might start another round of vendettas, the men have become so jealous of the lineages…
“There’s a hatch,” he observed, his voice even once again, “let’s try to dock.” As gently as floating a toy catamaran on a glass-calm pond, he turned the Seastorm. He tucked it against the arcship’s hatch, forming a soft seal.
“Negligible radiation, no leakage from the engine,” she noted, looking at the gauges.
“Keep the comm open,” he said, attaching magnets to his boots. She began to object, but he silenced her with a gesture. “You are the foremost explorer of Glorious Maiden, but you are also tanegír Yehán. On this I agree with your brother, you put too much at risk.” He grinned. “If it hurts the vanity of the hearths, the records can show that you were the first to board.”
He pressed her hands against his lips, lingered a moment. Then he turned on the deep-sea breather they had hurriedly adapted. He went through the hatch and Rodhánis sealed it behind him. She leaned against the hull, the cold seeping into her. We’re re-opening the gate to the stars after the long wait… and all I can think of is the danger of losing him. She waited forever, or so it seemed, fingering the corroded pendant of Keegan Jehan, first science officer of the Reckless at planetfall, passed down the line to each tanegír Yehán.
“Can you hear me?” finally came his soft rasp through the comm.
“Yes!” she replied, letting out the breath she wasn’t aware she was holding. She felt the arcship starting to rotate, taking the Seastorm with it.
“The air is breathable, though there is an ozone smell… I managed to activate the gravity generators. I found the heat coils, too, but it will take a while for the temperature to rise.”
Dank chilly darkness awaited her on the other side of the hatch, but at least the gravity was nominal. She made her way carefully to where he was outlined against the blue runner lights that barely lit the corridors. He enfolded her hand in his own warm one, the one solid object in this domain of ghosts.
“Shall I light one of the flares?” he suggested.
“Keep them in reserve,” she decided, “let’s use them only if we must.”
After a few wrong turns they reached the bridge, a cavernous vault with a wraparound viewport, filled with navigation, engineering and communication banks. By trial and error, they found the controls for the starcharts and comms. They agreed not to disturb the other consoles. “This,” he said, touching a seat decorated with the starburst motif, “must be where Captain Semira Soranakis sat…”
“Want to try sending a signal?” she asked.
“We should be in range,” he replied, adjusting dials. She was surprised to find herself shivering, and not just from the chill. Only now did the enormity of it all fully register. Sensing her trembling, he embraced her. She tried to pull away, but he tightened his hold and she relaxed in his arms. “Nothing to be ashamed of, my light,” he murmured into her hair. “Not every day do we enter the starship that brought us here.” Still nestled within his arms, she turned towards the comm bank.
“Oránis, do you read?” she said into the primitive contraption. There was a burst of static, then a young man’s voice sprang from the receiver.
“This is Rodhánis Yehán from…” and she took a deep breath, met his eyes. He gave his lopsided grin and nodded. “… from the Reckless… we boarded it successfully, I am calling from the bridge… Captain Semira’s bridge.”
A long silence followed her words. Then the receiver crackled again. “I will transmit your message to the entire network. This is a moment to remember, Tanegír!”
Then Kíghan’s voice emerged from the comm. “How long is it safe to stay there? Don’t get carried away, Storm!”
“We will be quick,” she replied. She heard him inhale anxiously. “We will return within the safety window!” she reassured him.
Her companion’s long-lashed eyes glinted with amusement. He laughed, filling the age-chilled bridge with the sound of swirling leaves. “I would give much to see the faces of your rivals… Shall we explore a bit? We can start here,” he said at her eager nod, steering them to a door on the side of the bridge.
They pressed a few buttons but the door remained stubbornly shut. Finally, he attached his magnets to it and winched it open. They gained entry into a narrow room containing a cot with a console next to it. The rest of the room was taken up by a large table buried under datapads. The viewport occupied an entire wall, now filled with blue Glorious Maiden and ivory Wanderer in jewel-like splendor, bathed in Consort’s golden-reddish light.
“The Captains’ ready-room,” said Rodhánis. “They dreamed the path from here…” He pressed a button on the console. A set of blue lights came on along the floorboards and next to the ceiling, turning the room into an underwater cavern. He pressed another button—and a husky, clipped voice rose amid crackles and hisses.
“Is étos ek fyghís pénte t’ekatón exínta tríton, égho Semíra, kyvernís astéron plíou…”
“Captain Semira,” breathed Rodhánis. “This must be the last log before the planetfall.”
“She sounds young,” he murmured. “I wonder what the words mean. Was she happy? Eager? Frightened?” Suddenly his eyes emptied out. She grasped his shoulder.
“What do you see?”
“I see… I see fire consuming this room…” He stopped, trembling. “What future did we bring with us through that hatch?”
“Surely you are not afraid, beautiful man?” she asked him softly, cradling him in her turn. “We faced near death in the Southern seas, our catamaran got smashed on the Fangs, we almost suffocated when we first launched the Seastorm…”
“That was different,” he said, sheltering against her. “That was just us. This, this may affect all the people…”
She started kissing him, counting on the distraction to calm him. Rock-steady in danger, but often undone by his visions, my evening star! And then, as he filled her senses, her caresses went from consoling to ravenous.
“Here?” he asked hesitantly, his hands embarking on their own exploration.
“Yes, here!” she replied, parting his clothes. “Where better than the Captain’s eyrie to dispel the ghosts, reclaim the Reckless for the living?”
“When you bestow your brand…” he said, his eyes darkening.
“I bestow to whom I choose!” she declared defiantly.
“Yes, as long as he is not a wanderer,” he corrected her gently. “Or a man who is unable to give you…” and he looked away, biting his lip.
“Look at me!” she said softly. “Here, now, no one can reach us, nothing can touch us.”
He subsided into the cot, taking her with him. Growing rough with the need, he clamped his mouth on her breast, his teeth grazing her nipple.
“Drift, wanderer!” she commanded. “Wander over me…”
“My sandy cove!” he sighed. And as he arched into her, a wisp of flame licked her mind. Give the brand to whom you will—I am yours, yours as long as I draw breath…
* * *
“This is the man who risked his life to board the Reckless!” said Rodhánis, her voice rising.
“I understand that you were the first to board the arcship, Yehán,” replied Eridhén Kálan, smiling lazily. “Even if what you say is true, it matters naught. I am within my rights to issue challenge on behalf of my hearth, my son is among those asking for the privilege of your brand.”
A low murmur of agreement accompanied his words. Rodhánis looked around. His allies were there in force, he knew when to strike. Teráni Sóran-Kerís was absent, the rest were neutral at best. And she was aware that her reluctance to choose a consort had rankled as much as her making history on the Reckless.
“Need we hew so closely to the customs?” she began again in a conciliatory tone. “I promised to decide upon my return. Does the opening of the star gates mean nothing, hearths?”
“Precisely because we can now take to the stars, we must not forget who we are,” said Eridhén.
“I will choose a consort now, if you leave him alone,” she countered.
“No,” answered Eridhén, his teeth glinting. “He has been clouding your mind, impeding your decisions. I stand by my challenge, he is a danger even if you refuse to see it. I am doing you a favor, Tanegír. Continue on your present destructive course, and I will call your brother and all the Yehán men to account.”
“No need to go that far, Kálan,” interposed Fáhri Haissé. She turned to Rodhánis. “Because of your gifts and your contributions, we gave you extraordinary leeway, Yehán, while the rest of us abided by the customs. Withdraw your protection from the wanderer and there will be no vendetta against your hearth. Shield him and we cannot prevent the issuing of challenges. Is one man, and a wanderer at that, worth so much?”
Rodhánis went through the permutations. If she complied, they would all duel him in turn, and her hearth would owe the winner a debt. If she refused their terms, the men of her hearth, Kíghan… no, not Kíghan. She was tanegír Yehán. She stood up.
“I will duel the wanderer, tanegíri.”
“No!” sprang from both Kíghan and Eridhén, but she cut them off with a glance.
“This takes precedence over all other challenges. He was contracted to my hearth.”
“What have you done?” asked Kíghan after the gathering. She rounded on him.
“The only thing I could do to protect the Yeháni.”
“At such reckless risk to yourself? Without you—ashes in the wind, the Yeháni!”
“After all that he did,” she whispered. “The best navigator in…”
“You don’t understand,” interrupted her brother heavily. “The more he accomplishes, the worse for him. The same goes for you, but the hearth name and being a woman stands between you and any harm. He, on the other hand…”
“He can go away until the storm subsides,” she said. “In time, they will forget.” She grasped her brother’s shoulder. “Send him a message. If anyone knows where to hide on this world, it’s him.”
That night, that short night, she paced the courtyard looking up at Wanderer’s pale disc, at the bright fast-moving star that was the Reckless. That they should be reduced to blood pride, when the stars were beckoning!
“My heart,” came a whisper from under the arch.
“Didn’t you get Kíghan’s message?” she hissed.
“Yes, Tanegír,” he replied and she could hear the smile in his voice. “But not to hold you in my arms? No navigator leaves his captain in such straits!” And he pressed her against him.
“Take the Seastorm and go!” she urged him, shaking with anxiety and need.
He did not reply, busy undoing the fastenings on her clothes. She sank into him, nails and teeth, not caring if she drew blood. When the first light pierced the darkness, she saw her marks on him. As she started touching them, aghast, he imprisoned her hand and kissed the knuckles.
“Calmer now, Storm?” he asked. “Ready to face the hearths?”
“Promise me you will be far away when I do!” she implored.
Before he could answer, Kíghan entered the courtyard carrying her weapons. “It’s time,” he said. His eyes burned on the other man. Then he lowered his eyes and bowed.
All the tanegíri of Oránis and their consorts stood watchfully silent around the stone beach by the shore. All but Teráni Sóran-Kerís. And then, Rodhánis’ heart became a stone in her breast. Appearing over the rise, he approached the throng in the meager finery that she had torn in her frenzy, defiantly flashing his lopsided grin. Her face draining of color, she went up to him.
“I told you to go!” she groaned in anguish under her breath.
“You will have multiple vendettas against your hearth,” he replied in a low voice. “They won’t let it rest, now that they have taken notice. And if I go into the wilds, they’ll hunt me down. Better like this.” Strands of his hair floated in front of his face. Reaching over, she tucked them behind his ear.
“You didn’t braid it,” she said. He smiled.
“Only you can do that properly, my life…”
Neither bothered with the preliminary feints. They had practiced together so often in the past that it had become a dance. He knew she was overquick with the dagger, just as she knew that he relied too much on his reflexes. They circled closer and closer. The pounding of her heart was deafening. Because of the wind, the firewhips would occasionally go astray, but rarely missed. Soon the ground was decorated with an intricate design of blood drops that marked their weaving.
The cold and wind started taking their toll. He slowed down; her wrists started aching. Her anger and self-disgust vanished—now she was filled only with the desire to be done, to sit down out of the bite of the wind. On one of the seemingly endless rounds, he passed very close. She stabbed at him, expecting his guard to come up, when she realized that he was no longer holding his dagger. Hers went into his side up to the hilt. He stumbled, then in slow motion went to his knees.
All the observers rushed towards them, but she slashed a circle around the two of them with her whip. “Away!” she snarled. They stopped in their tracks. She cradled him against her but before she could stop him, he extracted the dagger. His eyelids flickered as he tried to focus on her.
“You are so bright, my sun,” he whispered. Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth. She held him tightly.
“Let a healer see to it,” she pleaded, “it does not look mortal!”
“You must end it,” he murmured. “They will never cease tormenting you otherwise.”
“No!” she uttered through gritted teeth, her fingers clenching around the dagger. He buried his face against her breast, gave a small sigh, as he always did before sailing into sleep. Then he wrapped his hand around her wrist and moved her hand, pressing the edge of the dagger against his throat.
“I’ll scout the twilight for you.” He opened his eyes, fastened them on hers. “Look at me…” Without warning his fingers suddenly tightened on her wrist, making her hand jerk. His grip slackened. A gush of blood poured over her hand and he grew inert in her embrace.
Wordlessly, everyone slowly left. For the entire length of the Consort’s crossing Rodhánis huddled, rocking her burden. At dusk, she began to scream. She wailed through the night, the seawaves her echo. Fine cracks started to vein windows in Oránis. The wind took her voice into the Yehán hearth where Kíghan wept, drawing fine lines across his arm with his own dagger. Into the Kálan hearth where Eridhén sat still, his nails digging into his palms. Into the other hearths of Oránis where everyone kept vigil, wondering what price the Storm would exact for her loss.
Wanderer had set and the sky was getting light when Rodhánis finally lost her voice. Kíghan went to the cove sheltering the Yehán fleet and chose a small, finely wrought catamaran, the vessel that the hearth children used to learn their deep sea skills. He sailed it to where Rodhánis was crouching, and beached it soundlessly. He approached her, gingerly enfolded her.
“Let us give him to the sea, sister…” She nodded numbly, her face raw from the rivers of salt water that had scraped and scored it.
It took a while to line the catamaran, there was not much driftwood on the shore. They placed him on top of the dry wood, laid his dagger next to him. Then Rodhánis removed Keegan Jehan’s pendant from her neck and lowered it across the red line on his throat. She pressed her cheek against his, now ice cold.
“From one star traveler to another,” she murmured hoarsely. “You wanderer, you drifted away from me, despite all your avowals. Who will be my astrogator now?”
As the tide turned, the undertow strengthened. The catamaran swayed, slowly started moving away from the shore. Kíghan lit a torch and flung it into the vessel. Eager flames sprang up in the freshening dawn breeze.
“Go,” cried Rodhánis, her voice cracking, “kiss the two tiny shades for me!”
When the vessel had become a dwindling star in the distance, Kíghan lifted her in his arms and started homeward. Three turns later, the Yeháni asked for a gathering. When Rodhánis entered the council room, silence spread like an early snowfall. The men of her hearth followed, armed and braided for battle.
“There is no need for more fighting, Yehán,” said Vónis Táren. “Everyone is satisfied.”
“Everyone?” asked Rodhánis, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I am not satisfied.”
“Even had he borne your brand,” countered Eridhén Kálan, sounding much less assured than his wont, “he would not be recognized by the hearths as your consort. He was a wanderer, he had no standing.” A small sound escaped Teráni Sóran-Kerís, but she said nothing.
“That may be,” replied Rodhánis evenly, “but since I killed him at your behest, I can now make a claim on you, hearth Kálan. A favor as large as the one you received from me.” Eridhén went white.
“You wouldn’t…” he started.
“Am I within my rights?” asked Rodhánis quietly and winds swept the room. Teráni Sóran-Kerís raised her head.
“Yes,” she said clearly and steadily, her hazel eyes boring into Eridhén.
“You were eager to give me one of your sons, Eridhén,” said Rodhánis. “Which one will you give me now?” He started trembling. “You will not choose? Then I will take them both.”
He fell to his knees before her. “Have mercy, Storm!”
“Mercy?” she repeated, smiling bleakly. “Did you have mercy when you issued the challenge? He was worth more than both your sons.”
“Take me,” he pleaded abjectly, “take me, spare them! I beg you, spare my younger at least, this will kill their mother…!”
“I will take them both,” resumed Rodhánis, “into my hearth, into my bed, teach them not to thirst for power. And perhaps one night I will stop calling them by the name of the one whose face constantly rises before me.” Her voice filled the room. “We want to regain the sky, tanegíri. Will we take this senseless killing with us to the stars? These customs that condemn our men to loneliness, because there are not enough women? We cannot leave so many of them without caresses, angry and bereft. Don’t you wish to stop fearing for your brothers? For your sons? Use your power, unite behind me!” She paused, then resumed, her voice wavering. “If our men ask for the brand, let it be only for love.”
She sat still for a very long time. Then she raised her eyes. “The Night took all the Stars as her consorts, so the lays tell. Nothing in the customs forbids it. Aye or nay, hearths?”
Vónis Táren hung her head. “I offer you my Edánir, if you will have him,” she said.
“And I, my Keméni,” added Fáhri Haissé.
Teráni Sóran-Kerís remained silent. But as people were leaving, she came up to Rodhánis.
“I was a coward and a fool,” she said in a low, ragged voice. Her fingers dug into the younger woman’s arm. “I should have acknowledged that brightness. Captain Semira would deem me unworthy, and rightly so. I won’t ask you to forgive me, I only entreat you not to let this sunder our hearths.” She took her hand abruptly away. “I will make no claims. I forfeited that right.”
* * *
Within three generations, duels and vendettas ceased and wanderers became rare jewels, to be prized and cosseted. Eridhén’s tanegír died in her next childbirth, taking the child and the Kálan hearth with her. They found his cold body next to hers, his hair spread across her chest.
Kíghan never left the Yehán hearth, remaining at his sister’s side. Soon after Rodhánis handfasted her four husbands, she had a golden-eyed daughter, Semíra. After taking her daughter to the sea for her naming ceremony, Rodhánis went to the Sóran-Kerís dwelling and put her in Teráni’s arms. They say that Teráni wept when she held the child. Rodhánis did not quicken again, though her husbands did their utmost to make her smile. She organized all subsequent expeditions to the Reckless, but never returned there herself.
Rodhánis sang the story to her daughter even when the child was too young to understand the words. Nor have the people forgotten. They still sing it under Wanderer’s light, on the ships crossing the starry lanes. And the lay names him Consort of Rodhánis, the lost astrogator, her beautiful man.
IV. Falling Star
Traveler from afar who sailed to our shores—ask the Sea Rose for a gift…
In the year five hundred and sixty-three after the Launch, I, Semíra Ouranákis, captain of the starship Reckless, hereby enter the last log before planetfall.
It now fills our viewports, the world that pulled us by a thin thread of dreaming. When the Reckless lifted, all they knew was that the planet was earth-like, had oxygen in its atmosphere and orbited a G-type primary. The world they left had been beautiful once, but was at the brink of destruction—drained resources, genocides driven by hot hatred or cold greed. Had they waited, the window would have closed forever. Flames fanned by ignorance and fear were already consuming starship launch pads and the people who built them. Still, they took a terrible chance, leapt into the dark trusting that a place waited to welcome them at the other end. They loved and raised children in this ship, lived and died without ever sleeping under open skies… though their views of the stars were glorious.
The planet’s system is embedded in a nebula studded with young blue giants that swept away much of the gas and dust when they ignited, but its own yellow sun is stable. In the last four generations, as the Reckless got closer, they launched automated probes, then scoutships with exploration teams. Amazingly, the planet resembles the home we left, which I know only from wavering images: a world of seas and island chains, with a large moon, breathable air and a biochemistry compatible with ours.
The planet is bursting with life. In particular, there is an aquatic species that shows every sign of sentience, including communication through sound tones as well as rudimentary technology. I remember the long, heated discussions they held when I was a child, about what we should do upon arrival. In the end, they decided not to use the frozen stocks of plant and animal embryos in our cryoholds. Some were initially dubious about the wisdom of this, but eventually all agreed that we should not repay the bounty of a new home by destroying it, as we did to our birth planet.
Despite the planet’s beauty, survival on it will be difficult, even with our technology. Its weather is violent and its oxygen content is at the low range for our lung function. But living in enclosed domes would make us prisoners, not explorers. So my parents’ generation made an irreversible commitment. They studied the genetic material of the planet’s sea dwellers, determined what sequences facilitated the processes unique to the planet. Then they spliced these into the chromosomes of children at the beginning of gestation, after testing them first on cells, then on smaller mammals in our laboratories.
As captain before me, my mother set the example. I was the first to receive tiny pieces of the new world. Her command crew followed suit with their children. And I, in my turn, had it done to the little sphere of cells that became my daughter Ethiran, even as my heart pounded fearfully in my chest.
Wonder of wonders, the material took hold, yet did not harm us. On the contrary, it has given rise to abilities that were considered the stuff of fantasy in the world that we left—telepathy, precognition, even glimpses of clairvoyance and psychokinesis. Those who have been altered show increased mental and physical prowess, are unusually lovesome and uncannily beautiful. The next generation is all modified, the boy growing in me among them. I wonder if we will ever be able to thank the native inhabitants for the gift they gave us, that has bound us to them as blood relatives.
I long to see the new home with my own eyes, but the captain should never leave her ship until it reaches harbor. I have steeled myself to wait until we settle the Reckless into circumpolar orbit. I will take the voice-activated command crystal with me when we go downplanet. It is gene-keyed to me and Keegan Jehan, to make sure the starship is never inadvertently activated.
There are moments when I think of all the danger and labor ahead… and my head swims. Then only Keegan’s arms feel safe—Keegan, who laughs at obstacles and burns my fears away with his kisses, Keegan who perfected the chimeric chromosomes and the augmented mitochondria that will allow us to breathe unaided on the planet’s surface.
I did not name the new world, though it was my prerogative as commander of this mission. Because of the breathtaking nebula around the system, my girl began calling it Kore Dhoxas—Glorious Maiden—and the moniker stuck. She also named its sun and moon, Maiden’s Consort and Wanderer. A crack linguist already, she speaks all the mother languages of our crew.
And what of her brother? Will he come intact through the pregnancy? Will he survive on this new world with all its unknowns? Ariven I will name him, from the old scroll. Perhaps he will sing lays as haunting as those of the long-lost sweet-blooded Celt boy, who gave his life for a single night with one of my ancestors.
Ethiran and others in her generation have persistent visions, and I cannot tell if they are dreams or premonitions. They hear songs in a language that whispers and caresses, they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn, and bewitching men with shimmering lights in their streaming hair…
Will they bless or curse us? Will they even remember us, who came as reckless and as jaunty as the hope that launched us? And what will they become, now that we started them on this path? All I can do is take Ethiran and Keegan’s hands, step outside, and make a wish—that this place becomes a haven and a starship for our children… that they root and blossom here.
We will stride in the sky, or die trying. We have no need of small lives.
Nineteen generations past planetfall
The darklit voice of my wanderer falls silent when he finishes translating Captain Semíra’s words, and I lay back into the bower of my consort’s arms. As Adhísa puts down the crystal that holds our past and our future, the scent of juniper from his braids fills the night air. A mershadow’s long moan wafts in, like mist from the bay, letting us know they’re starting their migration south on the morrow. “They wished well, they who sailed on the Reckless across the ocean of stars,” he murmurs.
“They did more than wish. They wrought tirelessly to make it come true,” whispers Arivén and his embrace tightens, “as you did, my soul…”
I pick up the command crystal, feeling the mild sting of its protective field. My two bright stars close their hands over mine, homage and blessing.
“The gift of Semíra, of Rodhánis, of the mershadows that gave us back the Reckless and all its glories,” I say. “The records, the logs, the activation command sequences… Had I wished upon the Sea Rose, I could not have asked for more. ”
And now… what is your wish now… heavenly fire…? My breath catches in my throat as they nestle closer, start to caress me like warm breezes with lips and fingertips.
They flow over me as gently and irresistibly as the rising tide. I float into their minds, into their hearts, the yearning, dazzling men of Captain Semira’s line with their scarred breasts, their roughened hands. Changelings, shapeshifters—falling stars, ships with fragments of sky as their sails, that have come home from long journeys to rest in me at last.
Author’s note: The story of Arwen (Planetfall) and the provenance of the lay of Rodhánis (Dagger Sheath) are told in Dry Rivers. Readers of Dry Rivers and Planetfall will notice how names drift linguistically: Aethra/Ethiran/Yethirán (Clear Sky), Arwen/Ariven/Arivén (Evening Star), Keegan/Kighan (Lion), Rodhanthi/Rodhánis (Seasand Rose), Ouranakis/Soranakis/Sóran-Kerís (Skystrider).
Planetfall first appeared in Crossed Genres, issue 13, December 2009
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