This story is by Gavin Ritchie and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Miki watches students fight their way out of the lecture hall. One poor kid, a pretty boy, is holding his belly and groaning. He looks at his hand and limps on, bent over; he presses his belly again. There’s something black in his hand. The street is loud and dark, but Miki’s safe, crouched in a shadow against the wall of a closed café.
When she’s certain the last student has left the lecture theatre, she crosses the street and slips inside.
It is silent, inside, and dim except for the riser light bathing the lectern. Light pours down on Avery and Nat like a long silver sword, held at the hilt by a single hair. They’re conjoined in sibilant conference. Behind them, the screen glows; outside is a kind of growl, something near but muffled.
Miki lopes down the stairs. When Nat looks up, his face wide with juvenile guilt, Avery’s whispering stops.
‘Hear me out,’ Miki says. She holds up the bottle she’s brought and the tin cups, holds them up in supplication. Nat and Avery, caught, both clear their throats.
‘I need,’ Nat says, ‘to go,’ and he leaves, but not before kissing Avery, hard.
Outside, sirens cycle.
Just before disappearing through a side door, Nat looks back, mouthing something to Avery.
‘Here we are,’ Avery says, turning.
‘It’s hot here. I didn’t think it would be so hot.’
‘And you’ve brought drinks,’ Avery shakes his large head. His blonde mien is full of light from the surface.
Miki gives Avery a cup, sets the third on the lectern. They both look at it.
‘He’ll be back,’ Avery says.
‘He will. What’s the drink?’
‘They call it whisky,’ Miki says, holding up the ancient bottle.
‘I guess we’re allowed.’
‘We’ve been so blind. Don’t you think we’ve been blind?’
‘You of all people, Miki, you should have known.’
Miki pours the whisky. It makes a gentle sound against the tin of the cups but its smell is strong.
‘Woah,’ Avery pulls his face back from the fumes. His face is usually full with sleep. It’s his eye lids. They hang over his eyes, hang down like hammocks. ‘How are we meant to drink this?’
‘You sip it.’
‘We’ve been damned angry with you,’ Avery says. ‘Now, it’s as if nothing matters. The students, when we told them, it was close to chaos.’
‘I saw them.’
‘Monsters. We’re monsters, not gods.’ His torn sleeve falls from his straw-thin arm when he wipes his face. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Leave her out of it, Ave. She didn’t ask for it.’
Avery throws back a knock of his drink. He screws his eyes, shivers.
Miki looks around the lecture theatre, remembers the times she slumped in the front row, watching Avery’s feet, well before SinSin chose her.
‘Idols, gods, money,’ Avery takes the bottle. ‘Why did we ever bring them back?’
‘We couldn’t live without difference, or aspiration.’ Miki’s stomach lurches. Her skin prickles.
‘Today’s lecture,’ Avery turns with a flourish to the screen. ‘Words,’ he says, ‘from the Journal of a Godhead.’
The words on the screen fade out and are replaced by SinSin’s scriptor: ‘… I lay my hands on the things we shan’t be taking with us … I chased Miki into the garden, and I touched the Node case, again and again.’
Avery study’s Miki’s reaction.
Miki knows they’re dismembering her wife’s words.
‘You’re being careful?’ Miki says.
‘We’re in no danger now.’
‘Maybe not now, but… You could have months before…’
‘Are you ready for Gliese?’ Avery’s eyes, though bloody, are tranquil.
‘I don’t want to die,’ Miki’s voice shrills in the lecture hall. Avery scans the doors. ‘Of course, I don’t,’ Miki says, softer, ‘It’s why I’m here.’ The walls shimmer; she takes a panic breath.
‘Our time’s gone,’ Avery says. He gazes off.
‘It’s just,’ Miki leans up to Avery’s ear, the way she’s done a thousand times. Her fingers land on his neck, the way they still can, ‘There were accidents.’
The power crashes for a moment. The air stops. A sucking noise comes to a closed off pop.
‘You don’t have to die here,’ Miki’s voice hangs in the great space.
‘I didn’t even get to see the planet.’ Avery drains his cup and hits the lectern with it. His mouth looks tough and screwed. ‘So, possession is more important than people, now?’
‘Know what it means to scrape a living? Count all the houses there have ever been in the world. All those houses,’ Avery says, ‘and inside them, trillions of lives.’
Miki puts her cup down. Glances up at SinSin’s words. SinSin touches her telescope a lot.
‘How many people scrape a living? Utter lifelong struggle. For what?’
Miki’s life on the surface is privileged. She can see that.
‘There’s a way I can save you.’
‘By giving up your seat on the Anabas?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Avery says, ‘I’m being foolish.’
The screen above Avery changes. ‘Who is Node?’ it says.
There is a fecund pause.
‘We believe your wife is taking a third on the Anabas.’
‘She isn’t,’ Miki’s impulse is to stand up for SinSin. She’ll be an inspiration for the Pilgrims when they reach their new home on Gliese. Besides, Miki can’t take her name off the manifest. Avery is right: the time for choosing has passed.
‘That’s why I’m here. If I can get you on the manifest…?’
Avery’s eyes fill with tears and his mouth drops open. He falls into Miki, lifts her onto her toes.
‘We’re a breath away from the end,’ Miki says, holding on, ‘but there’s a chance to save you.’
Everyone knows, now, the last shuttles are on their way.
In the garden, at sunset last night, Miki twisted her body up from beneath her armour to look at the sky. The atmosphere was farther away. Everything tallied. The falling night temperatures, the scorched earth: the end, she realised, it’s really coming.
‘It’s more than just a sun storm, this time, isn’t it?’ Avery says.
‘The Anabas comes in twenty minutes,’ Miki, swallows hard. ‘You said it was no miracle I got on, well…’
‘They still happen, my friend,’ Avery sniffs. He has a warm salty smell.
From beneath the riser, Miki looks up into the light pouring down from the surface. Five hundred metres of optics. It feels warm.
The screen changes, this time to a pulsing script. ‘Miki. Where is Miki?’ it reads.
‘New script, Miki,’ Avery says, ‘You’d better go.’
The theatre doors open and some students peer in. They are bewitched by the scriptor.
The chute home to the surface makes Miki sick. She slumps on the ground, the life pouring out of her. SinSin is lying in her Volther Corona lounge chair; around her, the house clicks and wheezes within its membrane. The world outside, the world of the surface is louder than it has ever been, thrumming like a heartbeat. SinSin’s interfacing her scriptor; she’s in her own orbit, blind, mute, and deaf.
Her dress is period, sunrise brown. There are jewels laced through it, twisting from amber through gold to studio blue.
She stops writing, sees Miki, and smiles.
‘I need to ask you something,’ Miki says.
‘Come…Ow!’ SinSin winces, ‘Let’s look at the Mayflower.’ Holding her head, she pads over to the viewing deck.
‘Like being stabbed. Like I’m an old, old clock.’
Miki hobbles over to her, massages her scalp.
‘We want to save as many people as we can, don’t we?’
‘Look at the Mayflower, go on.’ SinSin puts her hand on the telescope’s amber casing. Miki genuflects before it. ‘I’ll miss my telescope.’ SinSin had it rendered in ancient jade, carbon dated to the stone age.
‘You know my friends Avery and Nat,’ Miki says, adjusting to Jupiter’s glow through the lens.
‘We’ve been through this,’ SinSin says, sighing fumes.
Jupiter has the shyness of a man who always finds the corner of the room, of a man who doesn’t want to be noticed but is so cumbersome, so strange, and so beautiful people can’t help staring.
The flotilla hangs there, in suspension, on Jupiter’s shoulder. It looks like a child’s mobile, a gyroscope of ships all turning gently in time, their silver masts unfurling. ‘They’re preparing the sails,’ Miki says, standing again.
SinSin fidgets with the jewels of her dress. It rustles and clacks. When Miki refocuses, SinSin is holding a small tan case with a Mayflower logo.
‘They believe I got my place because of you, Sin.’
‘You did. We deserve to survive.’
‘But they’ve such brilliant minds…’
‘You are a psychologist,’ SinSin huffs. Miki’s vision starts to sparkle and the outside world sounds hot and sore. ‘And theology’s such a stupid subject.’
SinSin steps into her travel suit. She points her all too human toes and does a knee bend to zip it around her.
Outside, the cicadas’ thrum is seared with pain. The tan Mayflower case looks cool and safe, privileged.
‘Space is going to be cold,’ SinSin says, ‘Especially on the flotilla.’
‘We’re going to have the life frozen out of us,’ Miki says, ‘Isn’t that the point?’
The cicadas’ brutal, undulating dissonance rumbles in the compound.
‘When did we last see blue sky?’ Miki says.
‘We’ll see it on Gliese.’
Miki moves close to SinSin, enough to feel her breath. SinSin’s skin is so white and delicate. She has a blue vein like river water on the side of her jaw.
SinSin’s face burns pink the way it does and Miki pulls her close, holds her skull, her short black hair.
‘Who’s Node?’ Outside, the haze thrums, screaming. It swells and swells, over and over.
‘We’re not alone,’ SinSin says, kissing Miki’s neck. ‘I’m bringing a child.’
‘The third seat,’ Miki says. Realising she’s trembling, she kisses SinSin’s temple.
‘Here,’ SinSin says, giving Miki her travel meds, ‘We swallow together.’ She stands back and fills her eyes with Miki’s face.
‘I have to ask you,’ Miki says, and all her despairs coalesce, turn black and seed her belly.
‘There’s no room for anyone else,’ SinSin says, ‘Node has to come.’
They fill up on their gazes.
SinSin blushes and streams with a kind of light. Her cheeks are taut and rosy, her lips, dewy, trembling. All Godhead. All Muse. All Joy.
Something light inside gets lighter; something blackened cracks.
Miki swallows her pills, but she has to squeeze them down, her throat is so hard.
She was told once, time was an arrow, that it had already left its bow string. ‘I feel so helpless.’
SinSin eases out from Miki’s crush, ‘There’s a well in the English desert,’ she says, ‘Daddy laughed when he showed me, made me look in. God, the reek. I dropped in my bracelet. Down, down. No one saw me, and I never said anything about it. Miki,’ she searches Miki’s eyes, ‘things never come back.’
The Anabas lands just inside the compound. Its pulses thump the earth, and the house windows flicker, flashing raw sunlight like lightning balls. SinSin screams and her little hands go up. Miki holds her fast. ‘It’s okay,’ she says, cupping SinSin’s face in her hands, ‘Look at me.’ She kisses her, ‘Don’t leave without me; I’ll make it back.’
The lecture theatre is full. Miki takes the stairs two and three at a time.
‘Nat,’ she says, ‘Avery. Let’s go.’
But their faces are streaked with fear, and they can’t be moved.
‘Avery, come on.’
Nat howls something. Avery pulls Miki to the lectern.
‘The scriptor,’ he says. ‘It’s her last.’
Miki reads the screen’s pulsing words.
‘The jewels in my dress, burned when we took off. I am thinking of Miki. Stop… From the Anabas, Earth is frozen in time and I am alone with Node. I will call her Amber… I hide Earth behind a fingertip, but when I take my finger away, it’s still there. Still miserable, still small.’