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It started with a few brave words … Picture the scene: A quill pen being tapped on the side of an inkwell … gliding across a heavy page. ‘… these truths … self-evident … all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator … with unalienable rights … Life, Liberty … the pursuit of Happiness …’ See the scene shift: The sounds of drums and the puff of gunsmoke … A ragged and starry banner in the twilight of either a rising or a setting sun … Little boats crossing an icy river in snow and darkness, to keep the flame burning bright …
But of course, it’s easy to forget, after a time, that legends were once real. Or at least, true enough.
Here again, picture the scene: Little wooden ships braving the guns of an enormous Armada, sent to conquer them for refusing to bow to tyrants …
Look back further: The dragon-headed longships appearing over the horizon … A man in exile in the Wessex marshes, and he just takes his eye off the cakes over the crackling fire for only a moment …
Further: A horseman riding through a land falling into darkness … dismounting by a lost and lonely lake … from which emerges, shining with an inner light that is all her own, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen, with a sword and a warning …
Yes, it’s easy to forget that legends were once real …
Now step back, or rather, forward, and see a rickety little space-port just this side of the Moon. Look closer … See the little ships (little by the standards of what followed), held together by spit and hope …
See their journey across the stars … See the discovery of new worlds beyond … See the passage of time swirling past … Though perhaps not so far into the future as you might think …
See a planet far away … A city, its streets new and yet strangely familiar … See the girl – a young lady, really, her eyes bright and curious as the world goes on around her …
She was watching him out of the corner of her eye as she sat at a table outside the wharf-front café, sitting just out of the cold glow of the streetlights. The neon sign behind her flashed the name Grumble’s, and below it, in defiance of available evidence, Quality Refreshments.
Something about him, she thought, something unusual. Something that … piqued her interest, made a part of her brain that she wasn’t usually aware of sit up and take notice – and she was wondering why that would be.
She rested her chin in her hand and absent-mindedly sipped at what passed for coffee. She didn’t actually like coffee, but then Grumble’s didn’t exactly serve it, so it could be worse.
He was young and looked out of place, and yet he sort of blended in. Longish hair – it was bothering him and he needed a haircut – clothes very worn, but about as clean as you’d expect around the spaceport …
Something about his eyes, she decided. A faint glimmering of a sparkle somewhere behind them that, to her, stood out amid the people wandering zombie-like through the strange lights and glaring screens that were suddenly everywhere around the place. Was that it, she wondered … someone who was still awake in spite of all, someone who still seemed human …
She drained the cup and wished she hadn’t, dropping some coins on the table. Before she’d finished standing up, the café owner was there scooping them up. ‘Thanks, Grumble. That was almost drinkable.’
The big paunchy man sneered, but like his heart wasn’t in it. Really, she suspected it was because he was approaching halfway honest and they were both glad of someone to pretend not to talk to.
When she looked back, the boy with the spark in his eyes was gone.
He tried to avoid the screens as he walked. And the strange new streetlights that were suddenly everywhere. The darkness somehow felt like it had more real light in it than they did.
He couldn’t remember the last time he ate. He had a feeling this should be bothering him more than it seemed to. In his pocket were the last few wrappered bars of fleet-surplus high-energy rations – so far past their use-by date that even the scoundrel who sold them to him hardly had the heart to feed them to his crew. The crackle of the wrappers sounded too much like “lawsuit”. He’d still taken the last of his money, though.
He didn’t mind them so much. But after a while you got awfully tired of stale long-distance space rations. He still had three-quarters of the previous one wrapped up in another pocket.
The bigger problem was that it was getting colder, and it was hard to find honest work, so it had been a long time since he’d had the money for a place to stay. The money for the space-rations had come from selling his overcoat. He was just starting to miss it now. It hadn’t been a very good overcoat – but it had been his. There weren’t very many things left that he could call his. And almost all of them were falling apart.
Which was about what the mouldering, abandoned section of town, where they hadn’t gotten round to swapping out the old lights for the new ones, was doing. It had seen better days, and better years.
Which was when the old streetlamp in front him chose that moment to fail and flicker out. There were only a few of them still working here. For a moment, his vision went blurry and the remaining streetlights sparkled, as if an angel was about to appear under one of them and tell him it was all right, or he could wake up now. His head started to spin and black and white spirals faded past his eyes. He clutched on to the now dead streetlight for support and tried not to throw up.
He didn’t need anyone thinking her was sick – whether because it marked him out as easy prey or because the last thing you needed out here was anyone thinking you were carrying anything contagious. It was a little too easy to leap to the wrong conclusions if you got all your information from the newsies and the screens. And if you were constantly zonked out from whatever those strange new lights did to you.
So it was perhaps understandable that the genteel cough from a little way away made him whirl round in surprise.
He missed his footing, went over, and hit his head on something. Great, now he had double-vision, too …
Two young ladies leaned over him and asked if he was all right with one voice.
‘Zzt.’ He said. He had a feeling he was mumbling incoherently. He wasn’t sure if the two young ladies were picking his pockets, to leave him for the cold, or … or … He felt things going numb and black …
Someone touched his neck. He felt like he was being moved.
After all this, what a stupid way to die …
… No, actually, it probably about fitted, at that …
So cold … Everything was so cold suddenly … And dark …
Funny, the thoughts that pass before your mind at times like that. He was thinking: I wish I’d been able to make it all mean something. I wish I’d been able to make a difference after all— …
He felt the rush of winds over infinite distances, the glare of stars in strange colours, and stumbled to a standstill in the twinkling void – though apparently solid beneath his feet.
There was someone in front of him, only he almost couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing:
The space-angel looked at him over the old-fashioned desk and adjusted her spectacles. The spectacles were old-fashioned like the desk, and made her look a lot older. She was holding a big swoopy quill pen and was tapping it against the side of a bottle of ink.
She scribbled something and then looked up at him again. She scratched behind her ear with the tip of the quill, adjust her halo some, and took a sip from a teacup which set down again with a clink. ‘It’s all right,’ she muttered, ‘take your time. It isn’t as if I’ve got anywhere else to be.’
He tried to speak, but found he couldn’t. And then, at last, as if the years were all catching up with him at once, he started to cry.
This seemed to surprise the space-angel. She blinked at him over those ridiculous half-moon spectacles, then she put her pen down, and stepped out from behind the desk.
He thought he was in trouble. That he was going to be blasted down to the bad place for annoying a district recording angel.
The angel strode towards him. It struck him as he was about to die – all over again – that she had a nice face, and, light-headedly, that she was really quite pretty, in her way. He wasn’t sure this was a thought you were supposed to think. And then he saw the tears beading the edge of her eyes behind the spectacles, and she gave him a hug.
Maybe it was being a disembodied spirit – or maybe it was because he’d always been a bit that way – but there was only one word to describe that hug: Beautiful.
It made him feel for the first time in too long that someone cared. Cared about him, and what happened to him.
It seemed to last a long moment, and he wasn’t even aware that it was over, until he noticed the angel looking at him, mouth hanging slightly open. She’d taken off her spectacles and was peering into his eyes.
He could feel things: the halo’s warmth as it glowed bright and gold; the still greater warmth behind those bright, blue eyes and the sad half-smile beneath them.
The angel looked away, face contorted into a frown as if debating something inwardly. Then she nodded, and turned back with a big, bright smile. As if to say, after all, we’re a long way from anywhere, and what’s the harm in it …
He was aware of the air blurring. The angel was still standing their, shining bright and white – but it was like an outline, silver-blue and brighter still, reached out from within her, circling round through time and space with a kind of sidewise glance just in case anybody happened to be watching. He looked down and saw that his arms seemed to echo half ethereal, half silvery-blue too. And he felt a touch, light as a feather’s breath, somewhere about where his heart would be – then another, somewhere about where his mind should be – then another still, right where his soul should be …
He felt himself wrapped around with gold and white … “light” of a sort, shimmering and shining and glowing, whispering round him gentler than the softest breeze. The clank of armour solidifying into place around him, burnished and golden.
The angel in front of him seemed brighter still, and yet different somehow. As if he was seeing through layers and layers of outer forms, to something like an inner self. And from within, she smiled at him, brushed away a teardrop, and winked. He saw her lips move in a whisper, ‘Fare well – and good luck …’
He felt himself fading backwards, through the stars, past planets and galaxies and a thousand splendid suns, and all the while on the space-winds, a last lingering echo keeping him company on the way: ‘Come see me again, if ever you’re passing …’
He couldn’t quite make sense of it, but somehow he had a feeling that he’d made a friend …
He woke up feeling like death warmed up. Oddly cold and sick and as if he’d feel better maybe if he was dead – but overlying it a faint echo of something else …
He opened his eyes with an effort and tried to fight down the urge to throw up that all that muscle-movement induced.
Those two girls – young ladies, rather – from before were back, looking blurrily down at him. The two blurs seemed to solidify into one somehow more confused blur, and a voice seemed to echo down at him from a long way away. It didn’t make much sense.
It seemed kind, though. There was that. It carried a kind feeling with it. Which seemed to rule out several more unpleasant possibilities, at least.
He tried to turn his head and regretted it. As the blurring subsided again, though, he thought he might be in a doctor’s office. One of the old-fashioned kind that operated, just about, here and there still, on a handshake and whatever you could afford, be it chickens and potatoes or cash of the folding-money kind.
He was surprised. He didn’t know any of them were still around round here. Assuming he still was round here.
He caught a glimpse of a kindly looking man in a flannel suit, with a stethoscope hanging from his neck, sitting behind a battered but pleasant-looking wooden desk. There were a few shelves of books about the place. He missed books.
And on the air he caught the undertones of a whispered conversation – that or his hearing had gone funny again – though he caught the odd phrase or word … ‘Best get him out of here … No place for him … Why, yes, splendid idea … Do him the power of good … might just … saving … life … Uberalis, you say? … Good luck to you, young lady, and God speed … ’
He must have drifted off for a few minutes after that, because when he opened his eyes again he started to feel more capable of movement. He heaved himself up and sat on the edge of the examination table.
The young lady from before was back, standing in front of him in the little old-fashioned office. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and said, brightly, ‘Mister, am I glad I found you …’ She paused, as if thinking how to explain it to him. ‘See, I have this spaceship and – no, that’s not quite it. Look at it like this,’ she said, ‘I’ve got to go on an adventure, and I need someone I can trust – and I was hoping you might care to come along …’
He kind of blinked at that. This didn’t seem real, almost.
‘It’s just, well, I’d deem it a favour if you could see your way to coming along – the fate of the universe might hinge on it …’
He didn’t quite know why, but he found himself trusting her. ‘Okay,’ said his mouth before his brain had time to intervene.
‘Great,’ she said with a grin, offering him her hand. ‘I’m Rosella.’
‘Ace,’ he said, as he shook it blearily, with the unaccountable feeling that some strange and cosmic bargain had just clicked into place.
‘Pleased to meetcha, Ace. Let me just settle up with the doc and we’ll be on our way.’
He shook his head to clear it a little. What had he just gotten himself into …
See the ship sailing through the star-spangled darkness. See the cosmos stretch out beneath it like some infinite far sea. Deep and dreamless, far-off and yet, somehow, home.
The ship is like a refugee from an old Earth space program – the nineteenth century kind. It’s been built, sort of, on the kind of lines that an old ocean-going liner would be – if an ocean liner were small and space-going and had gone through some kind of strange redesign. On its side someone has painted with some care the words Bee Skeddler, along with a couple of twinkly four-pointed stars on the end.
Behind it is a planet. Not a very important one as planets go, but it’s got the odd little city-sized stretch that’s habitable and glows here and there with the lights of what out here passes for civilization. It was from here that the Bee Skeddler drifted off out of orbit, in an aimless kind of way.
Ships, of course, don’t have feelings or personalities, as any rational scientist will tell you, whether you ask him or not. All the same, the Bee Skeddler, glad as it was to be leaving the dismal-looking planet beneath behind it, didn’t seem keen about where it was going, and had a suggestion about it as if it were trying to warn its pilot somehow of what lay ahead.
If she heard it, she gave no sign.
The ship sighed. See what happens when people don’t listen?
To Be Continued …
 Which were really more of a public news-sance, aha-ha-ha. What, don’t look at me like that.Published in