Wings of Creation: Chapter One
Joseph: The Ship’s Nursery
Space is full of stark beauty and darkness, and largely empty. But there are still surprises in it. The day our plans were changed started with only the small chaos of children and a dog.
I leaned against the warm wall of the simulated sun in the nursery, hearing Chelo, my beloved sister, my best support in the whole world, laugh as she watched her son. Two modified maintenance bots trailed after one-and-a-half-year-old Jherrel as he toddled from Chelo’s arms toward me. The bots looked like a cross between dogs and spiders, scuttling on four feet and holding two up, ready to save Jherrel from any emergency, including himself. It amazed me that he hadn’t figured out how to wreck the whole ship yet. If he were older, he might have.
Certainly, the nursery floors and walls showed evidence of the reasons we kept the two children mostly contained; the walls were scratched and even, occasionally, slightly dented. The room smelled like bot-grease and the sweet sweat of children. “Un-cle Jo-seph!” Jherrel exclaimed at me, his mouth twisted in a huge grin. He always came to me right away when I entered the room, as if I were his favorite toy or perhaps his pet dog.
Speaking of dogs, Sasha, the black and white stray I’d taken from Fremont, stood by my feet. Her ribs no longer showed and her coat had grown glossy. She bent her forelegs and head down in a play bow and wagged her tail at Jherrel.
Across the long silver floor, Jherrel’s slightly bigger half-sister Caro actually rode one of her keeper bots, while her mother Kayleen held her hands, balancing her. Kayleen’s smile for me was as wide as Jherrel’s, the one blue eye not covered by a stray fall of her dark hair twinkling a welcome even though she’d known I was coming. I’d spoken to her via the data nets as I neared the nursery, a warm sharing of our silent language.
Caro noticed me and squealed, but then Caro squealed a lot. Verbal, like her mom. Kayleen stood up and Caro got a little ahead of her. She lifted a foot up onto the robot’s rounded back, maybe trying to stand. Her foot went out from under her and she fell backwards onto the floor with a screech.
Sasha raced for the robot, snapping at its upended front legs as it tried to turn around and help Caro. Kayleen came between the dog and the robot, holding Sasha off the mechanical minder and letting it help Caro up.
I burst out laughing, and Kayleen and Chelo both glared at me with their most severe mom faces.
I put my hands behind my back and squatted down so I’d be closer to the children’s height, marveling yet again that Chelo and Kayleen and Liam could possibly be parents. Yes, they were older than me by the three years or so of cold sleep I’d spent on this same journey when I went to Silver’s Home, but at the same time they seemed as fresh and innocent as wild field flowers in the spring.
Jherrel waited patiently for Caro to make her way over to us before looking at me expectantly. I pulled my hands in front of me and opened them, palms flat, so the two tiny aircars I’d carved of cured laceleaf wood lay on them. The cars were baby-fist sized, and styled after the cars they’d see when we got to Silver’s Home. The children snatched them up, toddling around and pretending to fly the toys through the nursery. The robots clattered and whirred after the children. Caro came back to me, burbling engine noises while she flew hers beside my knee.
I laughed and caught Caro’s eye. “Really, they’re quieter than that.”
She ignored me, following Jherrel toward the far corner. Kayleen grinned as she watched her daughter go, completely intent on the noise of flying. “Thanks. It always fascinates them to have new toys.”
“I like making them things. It’s not like there’s much to piloting way out here.”
Chelo grimaced. “I know.”
“It felt good to create something with my hands.” And not my mind. It also made me smile to see the children so immediately absorbed. Sasha uncurled and stood, sniffing my hand for a pet. I knelt and gave her one. I’d bathed her yesterday, so she smelled of shampoo more than dog-breath. She was the closest thing I had to a child of my own, and kept me from feeling too hungry for Chelo’s attention. Long ago, my sister had been as inseparable from me as my dog was now.
Chelo gave me a hug, her voice wistful. “If only they could have open space to run in.”
She needed it, too, but there was no point in saying that. A space ship has no fields or plains in it, no High Road, and even though it is surrounded by stars, it has no sky. We made do with the wall I stood against. It gave them a dawn, midday, dusk, and night. Liam had demanded it, saying his kids would never acclimate to real time if all they knew was the no-time of space flight. In reality, I think he needed a clock as much as Caro and Jherrel.
By now, we were all stir-crazy.
The children were too young for cold sleep, so Chelo, Liam, and Kayleen chose to stay awake for the whole trip. They all swore they wouldn’t miss a moment of the kid’s growing up, but I thought they didn’t want to be separated from each other. How different might our lives have been if our parent’s had taken us when they fled Fremont? But Creator was outfitted for a waking crew, and perhaps our parents had not had this choice.
At eleven months out, we were almost halfway home. I was the only pilot, and Marcus had warned me not to trust the small ship’s defenses to autopilot. Alicia refused cold sleep, and I wanted her near me, so I gave in. She’d teased me she was afraid Kayleen and I wouldn’t be able to resist each other, since we had so much in common. Silly girl. I loved Alicia with all my heart, needed her, spent my daydreams on her. Of course there were special ties between Kayleen and I that came of being the only Wind Readers on Fremont; capable of plucking data from the air itself with no tools. But those were bonds of friendship, even if Alicia did not believe it.
Besides, Kayleen and Chelo and Liam loved each other. How could they not have? They were the only ones like themselves on a whole planet. Their bonds were as strong as mine with Alicia, and Kayleen often looked soft and sweet when she gazed at Liam.
Friend or not, it was time for Kayleen’s lesson. There was so much I had learned while I was away from her, and which she needed to know. The other seven people the ship lay inert in cold sleep. When I’d protested to Jenna she had just smiled at me, and very softly said, “You are the pilot, and you are responsible. Consider it an extension of our agreement on Fremont.”
Meaning, I supposed, that I had led the attack on the Star Mercenaries. Meaning that Jenna trusted me, at least on this leg of our flight – the part where we flew through nothing for almost two years.
I did notice Jenna had programmed herself to wake three months before we got to Silver’s Home. Meantime, that left me to deal with lessons for everyone, and most importantly, for Kayleen, the only possible back-up pilot we had. I crooked a finger at her. “Ready?”
You are a mean man, she spoke silently to me across the data streams.
I know, I answered the same way.
She sighed and glanced at Chelo. “Can you handle them both?”
“Sure. Liam will be along any minute.”
Kayleen followed me up to the command room. At any other time in her life, Kayleen chattered. But on the daily trip to lessons, she was almost always silent. I took a seat at the table, letting her choose where to be. There were only four chairs, and she selected the one closest to me, on my right.
“You can do it,” I whispered, and took her hand, letting it lie calmly on mine, a resting of the two together rather than a grip. If she was ever going to fly the ship, she had to learn to track multi-sourced data.
She dropped her head, not even bothering with preambles any more.
I was already there, waiting for her, linked well enough to the streams of ship’s data that I simply breathed information. With a nearly palpable twist of effort, Kayleen caught up to me, suffering as I drilled her quickly on ship speed and gravity, on water supplies and nearby stars. Creator was fast – just under lightspeed – so our place in the starscape changed regularly. Marcus had taught me that even though Creator did the daily course charts, a real pilot would know these things. If nothing else, it kept me linked to the physical world.
Pilots went crazy even more often than other Wind Readers. Kayleen knew.
“Are you ready?” I asked her.
Agreement. Something I felt as much as saw.
We matched our breath. I led, slowing her, slowing us both. She did this part easily now. It made me think of Marcus, who had taught me to match breath with him. Much like I was teaching Kayleen now.
She and I folded our virtual selves nearly inside of each other, and plunged into the ship’s library. We started in familiar places – the history of the Five Worlds, which had started as three and, through dissent, become five. As usual, she lingered near the Islas Autocracy, where the Star Mercenaries who had nearly killed her came from. But also as usual, she went on to Silver’s Home. Someday, she would learn the heart of her enemies, but I was no Marcus – I didn’t know how to push her emotionally.
I could push her technically. I began to bombard her with questions.
She twisted her hands absently in her hair, a habit from early childhood that she’d never lost, and which she did now even while in a near-trance. “A family of economic and other interest.”
“What is the Port Authority?”
“A power that hates you.” That came from her conscious self, not the data. I waited for her to get it right. “Regulator of space travel and thus commerce for Silver’s Home.”
“What are the Makers?”
Her answers came fast. She hated this. I knew because the way we saw each other raw and unfiltered inside the data meant we were, in some ways, naked to each other. At least her fists weren’t clenched today. “A term loosely applied to Wind readers who create new living things. Also means the Affinity Group that created the Silver Eyes, the island chain that you left from.”
And where we were returning. “What is Lopali?”
“Home of the fliers.”
“What are the fliers?”
“Humans who can fly.”
“What are the Swimmers?”
“Humans who live under the sea. There are not many of them.”
A long silence fell. Some of the other questions she’d answered before, but every time I asked some new ones, probed deeper. She’d have to figure out how to find this out. So much time passed that I worried she’d become lost. Eventually, she said, “When Creator left, there were fifty-two, but three were starting the de-sculpting and won’t count.”
Very good. I had the strength to open my eyes and watch her, even though she was so disconnected from her body that if she felt her heart beat, she’d probably drop most of the data threads she held now. The cadence of her answers and the breaks between words made clues, but it was even easier to see the autonomic responses as emotions flitted across her face. The small muscles in her jaw and neck tightened, relaxed, tightened, even as her answers remained perfect. But I couldn’t make this easy for her, I owed her better than that. “Where is Caro right now?”
I wanted to scream triumph when she didn’t skip a beat. “In the nursery with Liam.” That meant she went up to ship’s data from the library seamlessly. Harder than it sounded. And her hand hadn’t even twitched.
“What is the condition of the carrots in the garden?”
Hesitation. “We can harvest a few more this evening.”
Good. “What is the best school for Wind Readers on Silver’s Home?”She’d need to go back into the library. I waited.
She didn’t quite make it, her hand pulling away from mine, her presence gone from the nets. I caught her as she jerked up and back, so her head nestled against my arm, the long fall of her hair nearly brushing the ground. A light breeze from the air recirculation systems blew the loosest strands lightly, as if a true wind touched her, and her jaw quivered and tightened before she snapped her eyes open and sat up. “It’s always so hard to be back.” She lifted her hands and clenched and unclenched her fists, then stood and shook her oversized feet. “I forget I have a body at all.”
At least she wasn’t mad at me. Three days ago she’d emerged screaming that I was too hard on her. I wasn’t. She had always been more fragile than me. I had needed to hide for months on Silver’s Home, adapting and learning, lest the flood of data leave me a trembling idiot. After Kayleen had trouble in a place as simple as Fremont, it was all the more important for me to drive her to succeed. I was being far kinder than the impartial data streams of a full economy. They would not care about her.
A klaxon went off, and the data that I still breathed like air thrummed with warning so sharp my fingers jerked involuntarily and my spine stiffened.
Something man-made approached us.
stream created August 29th, 231.