The Stars in the Sky (Short Story Series #2)

Here is another short story for you to enjoy!


The Stars in the Sky

It rained on the day that the girl and the boy got married. It was a good, clean, normal rain, not the acid that so often plagued the planet, and it washed away the scents of dust, smoke, and shattered metal as the girl and the boy smiled at each other, the way only two people with their lives ahead of them do.

The boy looked at the girl’s face, which was brown with a sprinkling of cinnamon freckles, surrounded by a halo of bushy black hair. It reminded him of the first time he had ever bought her a caramel latté and of how he had been so nervous that he had spilt it all over her trousers. The boy had been mortified, but they had both laughed about it later, not knowing that soon, the café would be converted to a makeshift hospital and there wouldn’t be caramel lattés and crisp clean clothes anymore.

The girl looked at the boy’s face, which had once been what people on their planet called white, but was now, despite his attempts to clean it for the occasion, stained with dirt that contrasted with his neatly combed brown hair. It reminded her that the boy’s greatest concern had once been having order in his life, and she smiled at the thought of all the chaos she would bring to it in the future.

He kissed her, or maybe she kissed him, and then they walked back home and bombs didn’t fall from the sky that day.

*

The girl didn’t talk about leaving then, but the boy knew that she was thinking about it, because he was thinking about it, too. Neither mentioned it, for that would have meant acknowledging that they were considering abandoning their home, which was the place where they had both been born and the place where the girl and the boy had met.

It had been an ordinary day, back when things in the world were still considered ordinary. The boy had been so proud of his solution; his calculations were spread across three pages and he had been awarded full points, but then the girl raised her hand and said that the problem was actually very simple and that you didn’t need the properties of Möbius transformations if you considered the previous problem and that the function was a bijection. She took the chalk and wrote her solution on the board; her handwriting was very neat and her answer was barely five lines long.

The boy had been a little annoyed at first, but mostly with himself, and then he had been more than a little smitten, and finally he had decided to ask her out for coffee, which was when he had spilt the caramel latté on her trousers.

*

Eventually, though, the girl and the boy did talk about leaving. Maybe it was because the boy felt how the girl’s ribs were becoming more prominent when he held her at night. Maybe it was because the girl saw the boy working harder and harder every day, but still bringing home less and less money. Maybe it was because one morning, when the girl and the boy woke up, the house where the girl’s parents had lived was no longer there. They dug through the rubble for any survivors and the boy had held the girl tight while she cried and the neighbors carried the bodies away.

*

The girl and the boy made the arrangements, but mostly the girl, because the boy was the shyer of the two and much too polite to say anything if he felt suspicious, and she didn’t trust him not to be taken in by swindlers. The boy thought the girl had been taken in by swindlers when they arrived at the museum, which was where the message had told them to go, but there was no one there.

When someone did show up, they both felt uneasy, because the man looked strange and unfamiliar, not like their people did at all, for his skin was almost translucent from lack of exposure to sunlight. They supposed they would have to get used to things being different from now on.  This journey wasn’t one they were ever likely to return from.

*

Theirs was the final transport rocket, and it shook when it docked on to the Rhadamanthys. The girl had almost thrown up during takeoff, but she had eaten so little that nothing came up. Once, the boy would have teased her about this, but he didn’t now because she was so skinny that he was scared she would break.

Not everybody in their group had made it. The old woman who had shared a piece of bread with the girl had left to go to the bathroom one day and never come back. There was a little boy who had died of pneumonia, just two days before they reached the transport rocket, because no one in the group had had the medicines to treat it. The thought of the Rhadamanthys waiting above was all that had kept the group going, but not everyone was there to see it.

The girl and the boy tried not to think about this. Instead, they stood huddled, surrounded by hundreds of others, most of whom did not yet know, but would get to know over the next six years. The Rhadamanthys would need to be slow enough to align with Europa’s orbit and the people who had been on board longer told the girl and the boy that there would be two flybys, one of Venus and one of Earth, and that the pilot estimated it would take about 2,300 days to reach Jupiter.

The girl and the boy didn’t know what to make of this news, they didn’t know anything much anymore, but the girl told the boy something she did know: that the first ever planetary flyby had also involved Venus and took place in 1962, which was a very long time ago.

*

The girl and the boy were assigned quarters. The quarters had two bunk beds and there were seven people living in them: the girl and the boy, an old man with a turban who wrapped his hands around his ears and rocked back and forth every time the ship shook, a young woman with haunted eyes and a child that cried but was mostly quiet, and two men, one of whom had hair as red as fire and the other whose skin was darker than the girl’s, but whose smile was blinding white when the other man kissed him.

None of the people in the quarters spoke the same language as the girl and the boy, but that didn’t matter because they all spoke some type of English and they knew that the Europans had their own language, one that had once been called English but was now called something else and sounded different.

The people in the quarters understood each other nonetheless, and their eyes all met when the Rhadamanthys set in motion and left behind the planet that they had once considered their home and still did, even if it didn’t feel like home anymore.

The man with the turban remembered the bombs that had destroyed his house when he had gone to buy cardamom from the market.

The young woman with the haunted eyes wrapped her arms around her son. She hoped that he would grow up to look like her husband, because her son was all that she had left of him, although she also feared that she wouldn’t be able to face the pain if he did.

The red-haired man and the dark-skinned man held hands and wondered why a planet would start attacking itself for no apparent reason, other than differences that the people on the planet had created themselves and hunger for things that those in power wanted but didn’t cherish.

The girl and the boy held hands and wished that the quarters had a window, so that they might share one last glance at the planet that had been their home but had driven them away, but the Rhadamanthys didn’t have any windows because that would be a stupid thing for a spacecraft to have.

*

The girl and the boy learned that there were few Europans on board, only their captain, his pilot, their guide, and ten to fifteen others, which they supposed was understandable, since the trip to Earth had taken them four years and not everyone was willing to offer a decade of their lives to people who weren’t their own. The pilot would sometimes go and have lunch with them in the crowded mess hall that smelled of sweat, dirt, sorrow, and hope, but she was the only one the girl and the boy saw much, except for the times when they had lessons, which taught them the right language and culture to live in a place that was not their home. The boy picked the words up quickly, but the girl struggled, for it had always been science and numbers that she loved, not words.

It was the boy who first suggested that they throw away their wedding rings, because it would help them fit in. The Europans believed that tying yourself to one person was oppression, for you were taking away both of your choices by pledging yourself to another for the rest of your life. The girl and the boy’s teachers said that limiting someone like that and shunning them if they ever decided they wanted something more was a barbaric practice, something the Europans had long left behind.

The red-haired man and the dark-skinned man didn’t agree.

The boy wasn’t sure if it was true, but he didn’t want anyone to think they, especially the girl, were barbarians.

The girl asked whether it was his culture or theirs that the boy loved and if their vows meant nothing to him.

It was the first night they had ever slept apart since their marriage, or at least as far apart as they could in a room that was meant for two but housed seven, and they both felt sad about it in the morning. They agreed to throw away the rings, for hadn’t history shown them that this was what would eventually happen anyway, and wasn’t it better if they disposed of the symbols on their own terms, in the hope of preserving what they stood for?

The girl was quiet for a long time afterwards, but the boy told her he would always love her, that no one could take that away from them, whether they had rings or not. The girl wasn’t sure if she believed him, but she kissed him anyway, because she loved him and because she was scared.

*

The Venus flyby had been awaited with much anticipation, but its occurrence turned out to be unspectacular, like things looked forward to often are. Since there were no windows on the Rhadamanthys, the closest the girl and the boy ever got to seeing the planet were the calculations, which they repeated back and forth to remind themselves of what they had once been capable of and of what they were still capable of, even though it mattered to no one but them. They knew everything: the mass of the ship, the perihelion and aphelion distance of Venus, the speed they were currently travelling at, which was faster than they had ever travelled in their lives, but they didn’t know what would become of them, for they didn’t have the qualifications Europans required for working in academia.

The dark-skinned man told the girl that they would probably be assigned to drill maintenance, as the tunnels through the ice that covered Europa’s ocean often froze over and had to be reopened quickly, so that the habitat domes within would not be trapped underneath the icy crust forever.

The girl thought about how this job would have fascinated her as a child, when dark shafts and danger had sounded like a thrilling adventure, but she feared it now, and she knew that the boy shared that fear, for he clasped her hands in one of his and used the other to trace shapeless patterns across the blank metal floor.

*

The second flyby made people wearier, and in contrast to their brief almost-contact with Venus, it was not discussed much. It was strange to be so close again after more than three years, strange that the physics of travel required that they end up almost where they had started. The girl and the boy knew that the approaching planet was all anyone on the Rhadamanthys thought about, but the consensus existed that if the collective effort was hard enough, they might be able to ignore it.  They didn’t need to be reminded of their past.

The ship was less peaceful now than it had been, for most of the people there did not like being cooped up in spaces that were too small for them, with people who didn’t believe in the same things as they did. Sometimes there were skirmishes and sometimes people came back hurt or not at all, and the girl and the boy knew that the Europans blamed them for it, as they were bringing their Terran violence with them.

The pilot had stopped coming to lunch long ago, and sometimes the boy wondered if maybe it would have been better for them to stay on their planet after all, for at least there, they had known that they belonged and there had been people that wanted them.

He placed his hand on the girl’s belly, which was starting to show a slight bulge. Her chest rose and fell as she slept, snoring slightly, and the boy was scared that he wouldn’t be able to protect her; that they wouldn’t be able to protect each other or their unborn child.

*

The girl went into labor the day the Rhadamanthys reached the asteroid belt.

The pilot had done her job, the girl and the boy had confirmed that her calculations were sound, but the passengers shrank back every time a rock hit the hull. It sounded as though the universe wanted to demolish them, to finish what it had started earlier.

There was an announcement, made by the captain, assuring everyone that they were perfectly safe, that the Rhadamanthys’ shields would hold. The passengers were slightly reassured, but not much, for hadn’t their various governments back on Earth said the exact same thing? Their military defense was optimal, they had said, and the situation might be tense, but it would never come to war. Two weeks later, the first bombs had dropped.

In their quarters, the boy held the girl’s hand while she screamed. It was damp with sweat and in that moment, the boy was more scared than any of the other passengers on the Rhadamanthys.

The lady with the haunted eyes’ son sat on the girl’s other side. Like the girl and the boy, he had a gift for numbers, and at some point in their voyage, the girl had realized she had a gift for teaching.

The boy was glad that the son was there, and when the time came for the Rhadamanthys to welcome its newest passenger, it was the son who got to cut the umbilical cord. He looked at the baby and thought that it looked ugly and wrinkled, and he wondered how something as frail as that would be able to survive in a place like the Rhadamanthys.

What the son didn’t know was that the adults were wondering, too.

*

The child was asleep when the Rhadamanthys moved into synchronous orbit. Her parents, girl and boy no longer, sat at the edge of her bed, which was really just the man’s jacket on the floor of the room, the room which had briefly housed eight people and then seven again when the man in the turban had died.

The woman grabbed the man’s hand and they sat in silence for a while, wondering what the future would bring.

The ceiling of the Rhadamanthys was dark and metallic, the way it had been all those years, and the man and the woman knew that the ceilings in the domes would be dark too, despite the artificial lighting, especially in the places where they would live.

“You know,” said the woman in the language that was theirs, “sometimes I really miss home.”

They looked at each other, and at the child that slept peacefully next to them.

“She’ll never see the stars in the sky,” the man said.

“No,” said the woman. “But she’ll see other things.”

“She will,” the man agreed, hoping that what he said was true. He had heard the stories, and he had been on the Rhadamanthys long enough to know that things wouldn’t be easy for a child with non-translucent skin, a child whose parents chose to live together and came from a race of violent people with traditions that were different from what they should be. He hoped that his daughter would be brave enough to face these challenges, and that she would be a stronger person for it. It wouldn’t be easy, but deep down, he felt that they would get through this, together, the way they had always had to. Maybe, hopefully, there was something better waiting for them.

Outside the Rhadamanthys’ hull, stars twinkled in the sky, though none of the passengers could see them. Inside, the man kissed the woman, who no longer wore his wedding ring but whom he loved all the same, and they smiled at each other, the way only two people who have been through life together do.

In his quarters, the captain sent a message to his people down below: The Rhadamanthys had come home.

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