Quantum Stills of a Thin-Spun Life

Part 1

Quantum Stills of a Thin-Spun Life


quantum:

~noun (pl. quanta)

1. Physics: the smallest amount of many forms of energy (such as light)

2. a share or portion (each person possesses only a quantum of sympathy)

~modifier: sudden, spectacular, significant, or vitally important


still:

~noun

deep silence and calm; the still of the night

2. an ordinary static photograph as opposed to video


~adverb

devoid of or abstaining from motion

Poetry: always


* *

We are a long way from home, coming and going.

* *

The sky strip broke at the height of the High Summer Festival. For uncounted minutes Governor-Presumptive Naela couldn’t differentiate between the terrified screams and the excited shrieks of the c-ball gamers. She grabbed three children within reach and tethered them and herself to an emergency clutch post. People scooped up their families and ran for staked shelter, for anything to anchor themselves. Green hair ribbons plaited through nearly every little girl’s hair fluttered toward the visible crack close to the starboard passage that led from Homeland to the immense forests of Mechanical. The farm strip closest to the break rose in a cloud, shifting sideways in a long, blurred stream, blowing away like smoke. Flower petals wrenched from their stems whirled in the unnatural gusts of air. A meter from her clutch post, Naela saw a thin maple sapling uprooted, scattering clods of soil as it sailed toward the hole in the world.

She held on with both hands to her tether, watching the panicked people, the wailing children, the helpless ag-techs.

Was this the way the world ended?

Were the monads right, that all the work and effort, the prayers and caring for the world and for each other — all that was for nothing? That it would all end in unnatural winds and destruction and death?

She couldn’t believe that. She wouldn’t believe that.

And as she thought it, she saw movement. Something moved on the other side of the world. Not the distant glow of a star or nebulae that one sometimes saw through a sky strip. This was deliberate, conscious.

Her heart skipped and thumped hard inside her chest. So it was true.

Whatever it was, however it got there, it fixed the hole. The air resumed its normal flow. Things stopped whirling frantically. Flower petals fluttered softly to the disturbed ground.

Somewhere one of the dogs whined its confusion as it dropped with a thud.

Naera felt a sympathetic echo within and found it difficult to detach herself from the security of the tether. She wasn’t the only one. But she saw people were injured and afraid and she was the Governor-Presumptive.

So she stopped thinking of her own fears and confusion and began helping others deal with theirs.

* *

Weaving with the ease of practice through the angled struts of the front torus and the long body of the massive ark ship, Outbound, the shuttle Hyecho flew into the bay, landing with a feather touch in its designated slot on the deck. The pilot, Commander Zennor, was still grinning smugly when he disembarked, followed by Lt. Noguerra.

Captain Parke was waiting for them, his young face lined prematurely with the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders. He stood, arms at his sides, frowning slightly.

Noguerra saluted. “Sir."

Zennor took up a less disciplined stance, but he also saluted. “The Hyecho reporting that external repairs were made successfully.”

Relaxing visibly, Parke returned the two men’s salutes. “Excellent. Could you tell if it was the work of monads?”

Noguerra and Zennor exchanged a quick look between them. It was Zennor who answered. “In my opinion, Captain, it had to have been done purposely. That sort of structural support has extra strengths built into it, not less. We were on the comm with the machiners the whole time. You heard them. They were furious and insistent that it had to be sabotage, not any kind of structural stress.”

Parke knew it. He nodded, the crease between his brows deepening. “I’ve seen the Core reports streaming non-stop about injuries. No data indicates deaths. No one actually . . . left the ship, did they?” He was always reluctant to talk about possible or actual harm to the general population of colonists.

“No, sir,” Noguerra said quickly. “We got it patched fast. We didn’t lose anybody.”

The hereditary captain of the ship sighed with profound relief. His officers mirrored his relief, glad to be able to give him better news than he was expecting. “Good,” Parke said and reached out to pat each shoulder once. It wasn’t regulation, but it was his habit. He also gave them both a brief, and rare, smile, before turning away. He crossed the wide expanse of deck in the bay, headed for the access hatch to the main body of the ship and from there forward toward the bow and the command center.

* *

The Infirmary overflowed with injured people. Doc Quy, with her Master’s gold on the braided red-and-white tie around her neck, stayed busy setting bones, the worst injury she’d seen so far, apart from the psychological wounds. Her assistants scurried around her, fetching supplies, directing triage in firm tones in spite of the anger of some of the more vocal of the ag-techs.

Outside the Infirmary, in fact, a Master Ag-tech, Se-Kim, took hold of his braided green-and-white tie with its band of gold, and thrust it into the face of the small girl who remained resolutely in his path. Her tie, while red-and-white and impressive on one so young in such a challenging vocation, nevertheless displayed the clear band designating an apprentice.

“Do you know who I am, you misbegotten child?” Se-Kim demanded, the knuckles of his work-worn hand nearly touching the apprentice’s nose.

Xie, lips pressed tightly together, nodded. But she stood her ground.

“Then let me pass,” Se-Kim said in a deceptively pleasant voice that fooled no one.

“No, sir,” Xie said. And as the Master Ag-tech opened his mouth to berate her, she added: “You’re not injured enough to enter at this time and you know it.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. He had a puffed-up estimation of his own consequence, but he was no fool. If he managed to get past Xie, which he’d have to put hands on her to do, he’d face Doc Quy and then he’d have to answer for his action before he was treated. He held out his left arm, pushed up the sleeve to reveal a deep gouge. “Then you treat it.”

As bad as it was, it could have been treated by a nurse-assistant rather than a doctor-apprentice, but Xie knew a compromise when she saw it. She gave a small nod and gestured for the Master Ag-tech to sit on the bench to her right. She didn’t smile when she had to hurt him slightly in the cleaning of the wound, she clearly found nothing amusing in such a thing. When at her task of healing, she was focused and serious, revealing to Se-Kim as much to anyone else, why she was an apprentice to Doc Quy. The Master Ag-tech repressed a smile.

* *

Camlen knelt in the front row of the seats in the Temple and bowed his head over his folded hands. A clear bandage covered a wide scratch and abrasion on his left hand. He had bruises all along his left side, received when he’d lost his footing and been sucked upward into the lower limbs of the arch in the Trader Village. He even had a cut and bruise on the left side of his face, covered mostly by his long, dark brown hair.

He knew he appeared to be praying for others. That was his job as Minister First, master of the clerics. Severe inner discipline kept him from touching the gold band on his braided tie of black-and-white. He’d worked so hard, repressed all of his base desires, learned to be what was expected of the man he so wanted to be. And he’d made it. He’d become a religious apprentice at the age of twelve-T and studied, bowed and submitted to every rule, appeased the former Master Lon at every opportunity, kept himself chaste and clean . . .

Well, that wasn’t true, but only one person knew about that. He hadn’t been able to help himself and who could blame him? Because he was so good otherwise, he really deserved what he’d worked for and it wouldn’t be right if one mistake took all of that away.

His brother had been Governor. Rohan had been the real thing, a good and caring man, an excellent leader who could make difficult decisions and still be compassionate. People loved him. They still mourned his loss. Camlen admitted he missed his brother, too, but only because he knew how to reflect himself by Rohan’s brilliance. It was harder to find his way now.

The fact that Rohan died while his daughter was not quite eighteen-T was just splendid timing in Camlen’s opinion.

Someone entered the Temple. The footsteps stopped.

“Minister First? Sir?” It was Wen, his senior apprentice, a good, earnest boy.

Camlen lifted his head in the slow, dignified manner he’d copied directly from Rohan. “Yes, what is it, Wen?”

“Sir, the prayer circle is about to begin. You said you wanted me to let you know.”

With a nod, Camlen rose to his feet. He turned and allowed himself a smile as he walked to where Wen stood. Put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Yes, I did. Thank you, Wen. Lead the way.”

Wen, slim and energetic, smiled, a flush darkening his cheeks. “Yes, Minister First.” He did indeed lead the way, getting several steps ahead in his eagerness to please. He went through the open doorway of the large meeting room that served both the Temple and the Council, announced Camlen with a nice bit of fanfare, stepping aside as Camlen entered behind him.

People stood respectfully. Camlen felt them eyeing his visible hurts, felt them embrace him as one of them which so often he did not, and his heart swelled. Yes! This was what he wanted, what he craved! His lifted his arms in dignified blessing, smiling at them all.

And to think he’d wished any of them dead today!

* *

Fehed sat on an old alloy crate bolted to the floor, idly kicking at the droplets of water that floated in the air in front of him. The movement jerked him gently in his harness, but he knew exactly how much push would exert pressure in proportion to the attachment and never exceeded his own comfort level. Sometimes a round glob of dirty water floated near enough to his face for him to blow at it. He liked to watch it spin slowly, its oily surface iridescent, muted in the flickering and failing lights of the habs. The water itself was an indication that something was very wrong here, but no one bothered much anymore. The machiners had gotten tired of the physical and verbal harassment offered by the people illegally in residence in the habs and so left them to wallow in the water leaks and all that came with it, not to mention bad filters and sanitation facilities that mostly didn’t work and those that did were guarded by goons and nihilist monads who’d just as soon as blow everybody up no matter who they were. If you didn’t have the right kind of payment, you couldn’t use the sanitation rooms and most people in the habs just surrendered and used whatever private corner they could find.

They didn’t have to plug into the Library to know that the stench and general disgusting conditions of public sewage wasn’t the main problem -- diseases and vermin inevitably showed up, had already claimed entire families.

Fehed slowly lifted his left hand and poked at a water glob with calculating force and watched it ping off at exactly the angle he’d wanted. He smiled. And then sighed. He was supposed to be looking for food in a place where there wasn’t any to be found. And he wasn’t supposed to go into the farms among the Others, although it was far more dangerous to stay in the habs as far as he could tell. No one ever bothered him much on the farms. They always handed him baskets of food, offered him water and baths, even clothes. He’d kept some of the clothes, but dirtied them up so his mom wouldn’t suspect where he’d gotten them. He’d grown out of what he’d had in their hab. Truth was, he’d grown out of his niche in his family’s hab—he just didn’t belong there anymore. The bad thing about going into the farmlands was the coming back and seeing the difference, seeing how bad it was here. And no amount of scary sky with its sometimes stars and radya could make him think that the habs were better.

He knew, even if everybody else fooled themselves, that people weren’t meant to live in the habs. The machiners told them so, again and again, said the habs were for storing stuff, stuff long gone now, and Fehed could see that the metallic habs might have been closets or something like that. Some of them still had locks on their doors, not that the locks worked any more either, but it kind of made sense if the machiners were right. And he had to think that the machiners, who knew more than any of the hab people because they had to keep the whole wide world working, right? were telling the truth. Why would they lie? His mom and all the habers said that the machiners and the farmers lied, that they wanted the habers to live where it was dangerous and not natural.

He figured maybe the habers were all a little crazy. If they weren’t born crazy, they made themselves crazy with all the stuff they believed about the world and the sky and everything.

His stomach rumbled. He carefully unclipped the ends of his harness from the loops in the wall, skillfully wrapped his arms around his body and gently whirled himself up and toward the closed doorway that led from the habs to the bright world of the farms. He put his palm on the textured panel embedded in the wall beside the doorway, watched the scrolling of blue light and heard the reassuring thunk that meant the door unlocked. A moment later it slid open.

Fehed felt the light and warmth hit him in a tangible wave. He eased himself through, barely noticed the door closing solidly behind him. Immediately he felt his body take on weight, but he liked that. It made him feel more real.

He stopped. It was different. It looked like a huge hand had come through and slapped everything around, scattering trees and plants and dirt, even structures.

And people. He saw some of the farmers limping, wearing arm slings, bits of tape on their faces. Looking around wildly, he tried to see what had happened from the evidence and remembered there’d been a bit of alarm even in the habs, but he hadn’t paid any attention to it because they were always getting scared about something or other. But this was something that happened to the farms. He didn’t know exactly why, but that felt worse.

A man with a green-and-white braided tie and a silver band to indicate he was a journeyman, walked close by.

Fehed stepped toward the man, inwardly proud that he kept his balance. “Sir, what happened?”

The man eyed him with some surprise, took in the ragged clothes (and smell). “You in the habs the whole time?” When Fehed nodded, the man turned his head and pointed anspin toward the starboard passage. “Hole opened up.”

Fehed felt his heart skip a beat in his chest, causing an uncomfortable smothering sensation, but he ignored it as he gazed up with fascinated horror to where the farmer pointed. “A hole? How?”

The man shrugged, grinned sideways. “Don’t know. It got fixed.” He gave Fehed a critical look. “They think the monads did it, made the hole.”

Fehed shook his head. Crazy. To put a hole in the world itself? “That’s terrible.”

“Yeah.” The farmer took in a deep breath. “You want some work? I could use some help picking up and mending things. I’ll feed you after.”

“I’ll do whatever you need,” Fehed said.

The farmer nodded and held out his hand so that Fehed touched it, palm-to-palm, making the deal. The farmer took a braided green-and-white tie that went around the wrist rather than the neck, designating a temporary situation. Fehed took it and slipped it on over his hand, tightening it slightly on his thin wrist.

“I’m Kestors,” the farmer said.

“Fehed.”

“Let’s get to it.”

* *

Lt. Algon found Parke in the Command Center, sitting, not in the command direct chair where he could wire into the entire ship through the Core now that he had Captain’s privilege, but to one side, in one of the navigation seats. As if there was anywhere to navigate to, but she kept that thought to herself.

“Captain?”

He lifted his right hand and waved it at her without turning from the monitor.

Algon frowned slightly. It wasn’t like him, especially here, to be less than formal, but then he’d never been as formal and unbending as his father. She wasn’t sure she liked it. It rattled her, put her off-balance even though she’d welcomed the change of command as enthusiastically as the rest of the crew. She walked over to stand near enough to see over his shoulder.

The screen was active.

She felt a curious, little thrill in her gut. She’d never seen any of the monitors active. She took a step closer, peered with acute interest.

“It’s a star chart,” she breathed, found to her horror that her voice was nearly a squeak, resisting the impulse to finger trace the glowing lines on the screen.

Parke said in a tense voice, “Yes.” He was clearly excited and now that she looked at him, she realized that he fairly vibrated with excitement, nearly thrummed with a vibrancy that added music to this room that had always been silent.

“What does it mean?” She should know, but she had no experience, none, and training from childhood that she’d never used.

Parke hesitated before answering. “I’m not sure, but I think it means we need to pay attention.”

“To what?”

He waved his hand again, this time in a wide gesture that seemed to indicate the room, but which Algon knew meant the space outside.

Outside.

It wasn’t protocol, but she sat down in the nearest chair, felt it conform to her body, hugging her safe. But she didn’t feel safe. She felt the opposite of safe. She didn’t like change and this changed everything.

*.  *

Theresa McGarry

Astronomy buff, NASA fan, I began writing science fiction at age eleven.  I sold two science fiction stories and was a Finalist in the Writers of the Future.  I was an award-winning scriptwriter for the audio Star Trek fan series, Defiant.

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