on whims of vengeful starlight (short SF)

Night stars are benevolent, unlike the pitiless lord of the day. Under the moon's placid gaze, Sesylie can pull off her goggles and drink in as much ultraviolet as the heavens will grant her. Lest her absence become contested, she resists the urge to wander and sprawl on the chalky jigsaw flats of the Barren. The last time she did, the crisp air tempted her to sleep and she woke to Nyria raising Sol in search of her. If she stays close to the mottled obsidian guarding the mouth of the launch cave, she can trawl the waters of her mind in peace.

As she samples the wavelengths, she considers their source. Any one of these gentle lights might contain a dying moan of radiation that would end the world once and for all. But she can't hold it against them. Though her upbringing was steeped in Berai superstition, she doubts stars have will beyond a desire to burn bright as they can with what they've been given. In that, she has sympathy for the little sun, not hot or dense enough in life to become explosive or exotic in death. No wonder it lashes her people with its tongue of fire, its withering light. It feels the sting of not measuring up.

Maybe sympathy isn't the word for what Sesylie feels. Empathy might be more like it. Yes, though it will take everyone she loves from her--has already taken everyone she loves, in a way--she feels a kinship with the sun above all stars. She knows all too well what it's like to question your place in the cosmos.

#

Inside the crystal-lined cave, the humid air is thick with anticipation. Sesylie sinks into the embrace of the vessel as Meroan explains yet again what she can expect of her journey. 

"I wish we'd been able to build in a readout, a control panel, something in here so you'd know if you were going off course," he says. He picks at the vessel's acrylicine walls, his dark eyes narrow. "This thing is a piece of fesh. Should have spent more time digging around the Domes for parts."

"It's fine, Mero," she says. "It will work. You risked enough getting what you did."

"Under any other star..." Meroan shakes his head and stops before he finishes the adage. "Anyway, I know, I know we've gone over this--but you have to stay focused when the engines are on. You get sucked into one of your spirals and there's no telling where you'll end up. Or when."

"Mmm," she says, gazing over his smooth brown head at the amethyst formation on the wall. It's amethyst in name only now. Just the palest hint of blotchy lavender distinguishes it from clear quartz. Another casualty of the sun.

"Sesylie, are you paying attention?"

She wasn't, but the uptick in Meroan's baritone purr on the -shun pulls her back. "Yes."

"Blazing Sol, Sess. I really think this is a bad idea. You're already daydreaming."

Before Sesylie can respond, Yrita of the Many appears at his elbow, seemingly out of thin air. The sorceress' hooded eyes flash like bleached turquoise against her crisp brown skin. Meroan's mouth twitches.

"There is no mistake," Yrita says, her Berai heavily accented. "She must make the voyage. It has been foretold." 

"By who," he mutters. "There's no One left." Sesylie detects more than a little irritation in his tone. Poor Mero, she thinks. It's got to be distasteful for a physicist to work under a council of mystics. Such an odd coalition we are.

"The Many act as the One," Yrita says. "And we have seen the path. You are aware of this." Chills travel down Sesylie's spine as she watches her slink back to the other side of the cave with her robe floating behind her. The Many can be terrifying or comforting, sometimes at once.

"You know, Mero, it's not like I don't have expertise beyond magical appointment," Sesylie says. "I know how you feel about anything that isn't forces and particles, but I'd say a sociohistorian is better suited to solicit aid from aliens without causing offense than, say, you." She grins, hoping he doesn't notice the doubt in her voice. She's not sure herself that she's the best candidate for this mission, but she needs to say it.

"Bah," he says. "I didn't want to go. I just don't want this to fail. But you're right, I'm sure you'll do fine if you make it there. That's what I'm worried about." His full lips purse.

"Okay then. Finish telling me about the engines."

"I've told you a thousand times already. You know. I won't waste either of our time any longer." He sighs and fastens the harness around her. "Now, if we could just get the last monitor up..."

Nyria crawls out from behind one of the computers, spiderwebs congregating in the divot of her bun. "It's up. You can initiate anytime." She wipes a smudge of black off the flat bridge of her nose and pushes up her visor.

Sesylie nods at Nyria and turns to watch Meroan input his final instructions for the vessel's AI. A hollow forms in her chest--envy. No matter what she says aloud, she still wishes she'd spent her precious time at the Infomarium integrating a hard science like the two of them did. Microbiological agriculture or astrochemistry, something that would have practical applications for the rebellion. She picks at the peeling iron buckles of the harness. 

"It is time," Yrita calls from the other side of the cave. The rest of the Many mill around petrified benches, arranging crystals and fossils into their proper configurations, smudging with fragrant resin. All energies must be aligned if this is to work, Sesylie knows. She also knows the Many are formidable sorcerers, but that doesn't seem enough to convince her now flip-flopping stomach.

On Yrita's cue, the group begins to chant, a mix of deep ululations and high-pitched groans. Sesylie smiles at Meroan's grimace as he folds the nanocrystal flaps shut over her and seals them with magnetic tape.

She closes her eyes and focuses her thoughts on bringing the systems online. First life support, which she thankfully doesn't have to worry about again once it's up. Next the shielding and sensors, two more self-sustaining systems. Finally, she tackles navigation-propulsion. This system requires all her attention, she can never expect to give it less. Her success depends on her ability to focus.

The acrylicine walls of the vessel quiver as the engines shimmer into being. Sesylie feels her concentration drifting to the vibrations, the fluctuating tone of the chants, the smell of the smoke. It's so hard to keep her thoughts centered.

Meroan's voice is barely audible through the chanting. "Sess, now!"

She refocuses, extending her mind towards the cosmos. The craft lifts and rocks, lolling between here and there, now and then. Right before it plunges into the twisting rapids of space-time, she glimpses the pale dot of her home, blue spackled with Barren brown. A memory bubbles to the surface, of a holo her mother used to keep around their trailer as an object lesson. Earthrise. The ghost of a paradise she never knew.

For a second--a split second, even--she tastes bitter regret.

#

The vessel lurches end over end, tunneling through space and time like a river carves rock. Inside, thin curlicues of ultraviolet are perceptible through the shield. Sesylie's temples buzz--her solariae going haywire. She's never been one to get sunsick, but this is a whole different experience than riding in a blackout buggy. If she wasn't focused so intently on finding a place to land, she'd be screaming.

Her thoughts screech to a halt when a body appears within range of the vessel's sensors. Class V, sentient. 71% water. N-O-A, global O~450 DU. Divert? She confirms, nudging the vessel with a twitch of her closed eyes. It shudders and careens towards the planet.

Her mind drifts to what will happen when she lands, what the people will be like--will they be like us? More important, will they help us? 

She snatches her focus back. Landing with her attention divided might prove deadly.

The vessel convulses and groans, the flashes of light intensifying. Heat shield be damned, she thinks as beads of sweat drip onto her eyelid. She refocuses again, ignores the faint smell of burning plastic. Just as she does the vessel pitches wildly. Something hard and sharp pierces her concentration. All movement stops.

Her head swims as she clings to consciousness. She finally lets go, drifting into a dreamless sleep.

#

When she wakes there's someone outside the vessel. Humming. Sesylie reaches with her mind for a status check. 

You okay?

System failure: shielding. All other systems nominal. Begin repair?

How long will repairs take?

Estimated repair time: 21 hours, 35 minutes, 23 seconds. Proceed?

Confirmed. Lower shielding.

She opens her eyes again. The humming is quieter, further. There's a rustling now. She detaches the harness and pushes hard against the flaps to release the tape. Starlight streams into her solariae. She opens her eyes wider to get a better sample of the wavelengths. The sensors weren't wrong. There's no UVC at all down here. 

Blinking, she takes in her surroundings. If she didn't know better, she'd say she was inside a Dome. She's standing along a desolate strip of asphalt lined in plaster structures with paned windows. Scraggly trees poke out of the concrete at regular intervals. She hears the chugging of motors in the distance. What convinces her she's not inside a Dome--other than the unobstructed view of the morning sun--are the people. The few in her vicinity have skin like hers: melanin-rich, absorbing ultraviolet like a sponge. 

Well, it's good that she didn't crash-land inside a Dome. But it's bad that she didn't crash-land on an alien planet. If she had to crash, she'd at least like to accomplish her mission in the process.

A short man wearing dirty layers of clothing--not too dissimilar from her thin plasticized Barren gear--shuffles towards her, eying the vessel. She catches his gaze and smiles at him. No reason not to be polite.

He looks her up and down and sighs. "Spare some change?"

"Spare some change." She tilts her head, sorting the language. English, Silicon Age. Her next words trickle out of her mouth as she translates from Berai. "No. I seek change. My people--"

He dismisses her with a wave of his hand and continues shuffling down the street. 

"I'm sorry, might you be able to tell me when it is?"

He grunts without missing a scuff.

Savage stars. She might have oversold her skills just a speck. These people are human and she can't relate to them. 

She closes her eyes and reaches out to scan the archive for some tidbit of information that would identify when she's landed. Records from any Age before the advent of neuroquantum storage are spotty, but there might be something she can use.

The vessel pings her, shutting her out of the archive. Access denied. Energy spike recorded in navigation-propulsion system at timestamp 12:32:22. Archives currently inaccessible for evaluation.

Energy spike in navigation? Before landing?

Confirmed. Energy spike occurred shortly after launch. 

Blazing Sol, she thinks, echoing Meroan. My irradiated focus.

Clarify?

No. She opens her eyes. She knows precisely what she's done. One split second of regret. 

#

Sesylie stalks the asphalt trying to burn off her distress. She's angry with herself--for failing, for proving Meroan right, for letting her people down--and she's not sure she has the wherewithal to fix things. Maybe she can't stay focused long enough to make this mission a success. Maybe Mero should have gone, or Nyri. What do the Many know, anyway?

A whole blazing lot. She shakes her head at her impudence. Despite the uneasy relationship the Many have with her and the scientists who built the vessel, they've never been wrong on any important point. Choosing the Emissary would certainly qualify. There's a reason they wanted her to go. Though she may not understand it, she has to believe in it. She wants to believe in it.

She slips her hand under layers of plastic and touches the chain slung around her waist, following it until she finds the fossil talisman suspended at one end. Unlike Mero, she's happily embraced the accoutrements of working with sorcerers.

The sun dips its belly into the horizon, taking its warmth with it. She shivers a little and crinkles her layers tighter. Maybe she should get back to the vessel, see if she can access the archives yet.

She turns the corner onto the street where she landed, the pearled silver rectangle of the vessel in her sights. Behind it, a weathered brown box leans on one of the stone poles that jut from the concrete at regular intervals. As she gets closer she spots a woman with dark skin and wooly black hair sleeping curled up inside. The woman stirs as she approaches. 

She nods at the woman and closes her eyes.

Status report.

Repairs proceeding as expected. Estimated time to completion: 9 hours, 2 minutes, 36 seconds.

What about the archives?

Archives currently undergoing maintenance in tandem with repairs.

Anything interesting happen while I was gone?

Several individuals attempted to obtain shelter within me. I deterred them.

Deterred? She's suddenly struck by how little she knows of the vessel AI's inner workings. What did you do?

I emitted an odor I determined their genetic type would find unappealing.

And did-- 

A nearby commotion spurs her eyes open. She sees the woman struggling with a tall pale man over an object. Her Barren survival instincts kick in.

"Aiiiie!" She releases a battle cry and lunges for the man with her teeth bared. He looks startled and drops the object. The woman grabs it, hugging it close. 

"What the he--" He puts his hands up to block her attack. Guttural howls rise from her throat as she gnashes and swipes at him until he takes off running down the street.

She puts her hands on her knees, taking ragged breaths. The woman crawls out from her hiding place under the box and squints in the direction the man went.

"What is your business?" Sesylie asks after she catches her breath. "Are you lifting info? Tech?" 

"Say what?" The woman looks at her with a puzzled expression. "I ain't lifting shit. He was jacking me."

"I see," she says. She really doesn't see. This woman might be the next best thing she has to the archive, though, so she needs to keep the conversation going.

"Those some moves you got there. Where you stay at? This yours?" The woman considers the vessel, running her hands just above its surface. 

"Yes, and it would be better for you not to touch it," she says. "I'm to understand it repelled a few of your people earlier with a foul smell, so if you'd like to avoid that..."

"My people?" The woman snorts. "I don't know if you seen yourself lately, but you and me 'bout the same color. Just 'cause you been to school don't mean you can't get shot like the rest of us."

Sesylie grimaces internally. She's feshing this up for sure. Might as well come out and ask what she needs to know before this woman stops responding.

"I apologize for the offense. I need assistance. My vessel is repairing, but I must know how far off course I've come. Can you share when it is, now?" She smiles a little too wide for her own comfort.

"When it is?" The woman holds up her wrist. "I ain't got a watch. And I sure ain't got a phone," she says, gesturing to her box. "You ain't got one in that vessel of yours?"

She blinks and reconsiders her words. "The year. What year is it?"

"Baby girl, it's 2022. What strain you been smoking you can't even remember the year and you be thinking that box is a ship?" The woman hoots. "'Cause Lord knows I need to get me some of that."

She sinks to the ground, head in her hands. Savage stars. She's farther off-course than she thought. If only I'd kept my mind in the present during launch. Doubt tickles the back of her neck like a specter's breath. She balls her fists and presses them into the sides of her skull. No. I have to resist. It's not the end of the world--yet. After the repairs are done, I'll strap myself in and try again. 

When she finally looks up, the woman has retreated into her box. She's chewing something. 

"You good? Looks like you crashing." The woman smiles and holds out a fist, knuckles up. "Have some." She opens her hand for Sesylie to examine.

She sniffs the air. "Food? I appreciate it, but I have no need. I prenourished for the journey. At least, for the estimated journey. I might need to obtain nutrition towards the tail end after all."

The woman shakes her head. "Whatever you say, hon." She tosses the food in her mouth.

Sesylie curls up closer to the vessel, hoping to draw warmth from it. She closes her eyes. 

Mission summary.

The Meretseger project was conceived by Meroan Falane and Nyria Dro, under the supervision of the Many-- 

Skip to purpose of the Emissary.

Sesylie Aloa is the individual divined to possess the qualities necessary to ensure a successful mission. The Emissary shall contact advanced sentient species, argue our case, and request assistance with reclamation and restoration activities.

Divined to possess the qualities necessary. Sesylie sighs. She still hasn't told anyone why she's been so eager to take up the practices the Many prescribe. Her mother's eerie spirituality. How she used to wrap herself and Sesylie in black and venture into the wind-whipped desert to appease the angry sun. Their dusty trailer lined with altars of achromatized crystal and petrified bone, wisps of amber smoke rising from the crucible bored into its center. When she was alive, Sesylie promised her that she'd never abandon their ways. After the inevitable cancer claimed her, she was eager to forget. And now...

She fingers the talisman through her clothing. Now, she's counting on them.

#

Tendrils of sunlight rouse Sesylie from a deep sleep. She blinks, realizing she must have found her way into the vessel sometime in the night. She wouldn't be surprised if it found its way around her, either. It's a strange creature, this enchanted makeshift space-time machine.

Her head aches. Her solariae still haven't adjusted to the lack of UVC. It's beginning to wear on her. She rubs her temples and steps out of the vessel into the morning sun, reaching.

Status report.

All systems operational.

Status of archive?

Access permitted.

Sesylie lets out her breath. 

How long before we can depart?

Countdown can commence immediately. Proceed?

Hold.

Sesylie pokes her head out to look up and down the street. The woman and her box are gone. She hears vehicles in the distance, but none seem to be approaching. The large windowed buildings behind her and the street they face lay silent. She closes her eyes again. 

Proceed with countdown.

Leaning back, she fastens the harness. She pulls the nanocrystal flaps over her, applies magnetic tape to the inside--making sure to reverse it so she's not attracting stray electrons--and concentrates on activating systems. Her mind wanders a bit, and she allows this. No reason to be a stickler with the self-sustaining parts.

When she gets to navigation-propulsion, she starts repeating Yrita's mantra. Space and Time are one, do not consider them apart. Move always forward, never back, towards a more forgiving star.

The vessel spasms as it slips into the rapids. Sesylie girds her focus while she watches the pale blue dot fade into the ancient past.

#

Warning: Shields failing. Total shutdown in 60 seconds. 

Sweat pours down Sesylie's brow. I guessed that. Can you reroute? The vessel thrashes, tossing her against the acrylicine walls. She feels stomach acid searing the back of her throat. She'd swear her mind didn't wander this time--well, except for that flicker of homesick when the UV got especially intense--but other than that, she clamped down on her thoughts like a vice.

Reroute impossible. Shutdown imminent. Landing necessary. Nearest body: Class V, sentient. 71% water. N-O-A, global O~30 DU. Divert?

Home. Yes, divert. Sesylie's heart sinks. Savage stars. Meroan will never let her hear the end of this. Technically, she didn't even make it off the planet.

The heat is punishing, her solariae tingly numb from the cosmic rays. Her consciousness starts to wane. Status rep...

Forward motion comes to a crashing halt just as she falls into another dreamless sleep.

#

Sesylie wakes atop something soft. A bed. Not the stuffed plastic mats of the Barren, but an actual bed. Made from something once alive. Animal skin tanned and treated until it feels like flocked acrylicine--except softer. She's never felt anything like it. 

Where? 

She rubs her temples to get the blood flowing to her solariae. The vessel is nowhere to be seen. She's inside a dark, sterile-feeling room without windows. A silver cabinet sits in the corner, next to a large mirror and a small table. The walls are a matte silvery gray, broken occasionally by a darker gray vertical line. No ultraviolet in here, so wherever she is, she's inside enough building to block it.

As soon as she thinks this the wall begins to yawn open. A sliver of starlight slices the dark of the room and expands into a sheet that reveals the city below. 

Sesylie opens her eyes wide. No UVC here, either. She walks to the window and cranes her neck to look up. Far above, a faint hexagonal pattern staggers and slightly reddens the light.

A Dome. She inhales sharply. How did I get here? They must have intercepted us somehow. Or-- She looks down for the first time and her thoughts scatter.

On the city streets below, people wear the same head-to-toe clothing as those of the Barren. But we're inside an intact Dome. Where people walk bareskin and the streets are lined with trees... There are no trees here, either.

The wall behind her makes a clicking noise and then beeps softly. She turns around to see it sliding open. A tall dark-skinned man in flowing robes strides through the door flanked by two pale men wearing black uniforms and vacant expressions.

"Meroan!"

The man smiles. "My name is Ryel Falane. And you are Sesylie Aloa. Your vessel told me much about you."

Sesylie blinks. He speaks Berai at least, if he's not Meroan. But he looks and sounds like his twin. The same smooth brown skin and round eyes, the same purring baritone. "Who are you?"

"An amalgam of a few people," he says. "Who I am will change eventually--if you're successful--so I'd rather not waste time on specifics. I'm here to escort you back to the vessel safely."

"Escort me safely? How did I end up here at all?"

"Follow me and I'll tell you," he says, pulling her through the door into the hall. The guards follow, their movement wooden.

#

The path forward is long and circuitous, lined with round white lights on either side. Sesylie nearly falls ill with the twists and turns of the route and the accompanying story. 

Mero--Ryel--is explaining how her detour to the past altered their present. Where she landed was indeed where she launched, but now the shattered Dome the cave inhabited is much less so. At least it was until six months ago, when Nyria died leading a bomb attack that nullified the electroplating on the outer glass of the Dome. 

Her cell of Berai rebels are on the run from an emboldened anti-terrorism squad. The Many are in hiding too, with Yrita missing and feared dead. Ryel, a rebel himself, has been tasked with getting her to the vessel safely--and quickly. The guards escorting them are only enchanted for a short time.

The gist of his speech, in Sesylie's mind, is a screaming litany of all the reasons why she's wrong for this mission. If only she hadn't insisted to Meroan that she could do this; if only she had stood up to Yrita, challenged the Many. What qualities do I have that will ensure the success of this mission? So far I've done nothing but make things worse. The low background hum of her insecurity builds to an all-encompassing crescendo, nearly knocking her off-stride. She grasps for a memory to steady herself.

Her mother used to tell her she was meant for something special, destined to help redeem the world. She once thought this was just another form of what all Berai parents tell their children--what they must tell their children--to build up them strong enough to withstand the hatred of the world. Sure, she's intelligent--clever, even, at times. She's compassionate and good-natured, with an assortment of traits any well-raised person might claim to possess. Nothing magical or paradigm-shifting.

But when Yrita thundered her name during the divination ceremony, the sound of her mother's words echoed. Maybe she was right, she thought at the time, a reversal of her practiced academic skepticism. Sometimes magical thinking is the only antidote to a poisoning brought on by self-doubt. 

Now, mired in anxiety, she holds on to those words like a lifeline. She is destined for something special. She will help redeem the world. Even if she has to fesh it up a bit first.

Insecurity banished, indecision quashed, she squares her shoulders and scurries to catch Ryel as he enters the bay where her vessel waits.

It lights up as she approaches. Sesylie flutters her eyes.

You okay?

All systems nominal. Countdown can commence immediately. 

That's about as much of an I missed you as I'm going to get, she thinks.

She looks at Ryel. "What will you do? What will I do, more importantly? Should I go back and try to figure out what I disturbed?"

"You must continue the mission. Find those who would help us. If you succeed, all will be made right again." He reaches for her waist and slides his hand under the layers of crinkled plastic. She blushes hot as his breath tickles her forehead. She's always found Meroan attractive, but he doesn't fold that way. At least not for her. 

"Remember," Ryel says, fingering the talisman. His dark eyes flash. "You were not chosen capriciously."

Sesylie nods slowly, willing her gathering tears dry. He looks so much like Mero that she can't help but trust him. And there's a part of her, a small but tender part, that aches with the wish that he'd told her this in the beginning.

She turns back to the vessel, detaches the tape, opens the flaps. Strapping herself in, she closes her eyes tight. Not even through the self-sustaining systems will she grant her mind the freedom to roam. She has to believe in herself. She has to believe she can do this.

Commence countdown.

As she watches the blue-Barren dot dissolve into the wind, her focus is hot and sharp like solar wire. This time, she will not falter.

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