Star of wonder, p.10

Star of Wonder, page 10


Star of Wonder

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  “Tell us again, Starsong!” pleaded little Winterfur, latching onto the older girl with both hands and staring pleadingly up at her with eyes as blue as the simulated sky above them. “Tell us again about how it’s different living here on the Wild Rover than it was where you grew up!”

  “I tell you that story at least once a week!” Starsong laughed, working Winterfur’s white fingers loose from her tanned arm. “Haven’t you heard it enough yet?”

  “No!” chorused Winterfur and her usual crew, Starsong’s younger brother Shadowcrest and the rest of the clan’s children between their ages of seven (Shadowcrest) and four (Winterfur). “Again, please, again!” “We like that story!” “Especially the part where—”

  “All right, all right!” Starsong held up her hands for quiet. “But you’ll have to settle for the short version. I’m due on the bridge pretty soon for my lesson. So show me how you listen, everyone.”

  Five seconds later, she had a seated, attentive audience, with six pairs of slit-pupiled eyes turned raptly upon her. “Very good,” she said, sitting down herself on a handy rock. “Now, then. Once upon a time, there was a girl named Carol Fuhrman, who lived with her aunt and uncle and cousin on a mining planet called Moria, where people hated music and had laws against it. But one Christmastime when Carol was eleven, a starship came to Moria, a starship called the Rover, which said it was a ship full of quasi-humans, animals that look a lot like human beings but really aren’t, with a man named Mr. Xiao as their caretaker…”

  The tale of Carol Fuhrman, who had exposed her own illegal love of music to try to help the entirely human (if rather feline in appearance) inhabitants of the Rover, was an easy one for Starsong to tell, if occasionally hard for her to believe. Her life had changed so dramatically with that single decision, and in such a different way than the one she’d expected, that moments of shivering delight and disbelief still overtook her from time to time as she walked the corridors of the Wild Rover, lay in her bunk beside Sundance at night, or learned her new family’s business in the simulation of open space and air made possible by the ship’s enormous, sealed-off cargo bay.

  I thought I was going to get sent to one of the Morian reformatories. To get punished over and over, until they made the music stop inside me, one way or another. And instead I got a family, a real family, the kind I hadn’t had since my parents died—a father and a mother who love me just as much as my born ones did, and an aunt and an uncle who only gripe about how much trouble I am to tease me, and a twin sister and a little brother, even if he is an awful pest sometimes—

  “And best of all,” she continued aloud, “Carol found music aboard the Wild Rover. Music like she’d never dreamed there could be, music for every hour of the day and every season of the year. Music that sang along with the music she’d heard inside her own mind and heart, every day of her entire life, and shared itself with the people who came aboard to watch and listen. So she agreed to stay on board the ship, and be part of her new family, and she took a name like the people all around her, the Aelur, a name that meant the new person she was. One part of that name said where she lived now, and one part described what filled up her heart every day that she looked around at her new home. And all of it meant her, and that name was—”

  “Starsong!” the little ones chorused with her, and bounced and wiggled in their places, cheering for the happy ending of the story.

  “But what about the people back on Moria?” asked Winterfur doubtfully when she could next be heard. “Wouldn’t they be angry because somebody took Carol away from them?”

  “They didn’t want her,” said Shadowcrest with certainty. “They were going to send her away to a re—to a reforma—” He scowled, then brightened. “To a bad place. Where they wouldn’t have to be ‘bothered’ with her anymore.”

  “No!” Winterfur scooted rapidly across the grass and latched onto Starsong’s leg with one arm and both her own legs. “My Starsong! Nobody gets to send her to a bad place!” Baring her teeth and the claws on her free hand, she hissed ferociously, making the other children shrink back.

  “My brave protector.” Starsong bent down and hugged the littler girl, her dark hair tumbling around Winterfur’s silver-blonde locks, then tapped the clutching hand. “But you have to let go now, or I’ll be late and Killdeer will scold me.”

  Winterfur released her at once. “Run as you please,” she said politely, stretching upwards to kiss Starsong on the cheek.

  “Keep the key,” Starsong answered, squeezing Winterfur with one arm and opening her other one to accept hugs from the rest of the children, including her brother. The requirements of Aelur farewells thus fulfilled, she loped easily towards a particularly lush grove of trees. Sliding between trunks, she stopped in front of the thickest one of all, used her left hand to scoop up a bird’s nest from a forking branch which extended past her, and laid her right palm against the square of smooth ceramic thus revealed.

  With a musical ping and a near-silent swoosh of air, the halves of the tree trunk parted, revealing a standard shipside corridor beyond.

  Starsong set the bird’s nest back atop the palm plate and stepped through the door, feeling as always a slight sense of relief. The Free Sky clan had adjusted surprisingly well to modern life in the greater galaxy—indeed, Sundance and her agemates had grown up in full knowledge of both sides of their life, and could set a snare for a rabbit as readily as they could research a computer’s database—but her own childhood as Carol, in the underground corridors and cave-cities of Moria, hadn’t prepared her for the reality of open spaces, even simulated ones such as the cargo bay. At the same time that she loved it, it unsettled her on a level too deep for rational thinking.

  But most of the time when I’m there, I’m not looking up, or out, unless I want to be. I’m looking at, either at the people I love or at the music I love almost as much. Or at some of the handicrafts that an Aelur woman ought to know, even if she is going to live most of her life in the greater galaxy. She smiled to herself, breaking into a trot in order to arrive at her lesson on time. We’re so far past the days when women had to know how to work with thread, just so their families would have any clothing at all, that now we can make money doing those things, because there are people who will pay a lot to have things that are really and truly handmade!

  And once a young woman was past her earliest training in such crafts, she could set her fingers to doing them while her eyes and her mind were somewhere else altogether. Starsong wasn’t quite there with spinning or sewing yet, and weaving required a loom, but knitting and its cousin crochet had come to her as easily as if she’d been born with needles or hook in her hands.

  Maybe I was, or sort of. I was too little when my born parents died to really remember what my mother did with her free time, other than music. She might have known some threadwork. Or my father might, if he needed something to relax him. Who knows?

  Coming up to the doors which led onto the bridge, she laid her hand against another palm plate, sensing more than hearing the hum of the scanner. A differently-toned chime announced her presence to the person on the other side of the doors, and they opened with a louder swoosh than the doors from the cargo bay (which had been specially calibrated to introduce as little extraneous sound into the transplanted natural world the Aelur maintained there as possible).

  “Right on time, I see,” said Starsong’s aunt Killdeer, the owner of the Wild Rover, looking around with a warm smile. “Good girl. How’d you get away from the raging horde?”

  “I had to peel one of them off me, but they were really very good today.” Starsong went to one of the small cubbies which had been installed in an unobtrusive corner of the bridge shortly after the ship had become Killdeer’s and plucked her workbag out of the one labeled with a five-pointed star and a musical note. The bag was mostly plain canvas so far, as she and Sundance were taking their time designing the embroidery for its outside. Among the Aelur, a woman
s workbag and her clothing, like a man’s tool chest and the walls of his home, served as a silent testament to her abilities.

  “Someday you’ll have to teach me how you do that.” Killdeer sighed, raking back her brown hair and clipping it into place with an old-fashioned metal barrette. “It’s not just because Nightsinger and I are always here, there, and everywhere, arranging the Rover’s performance schedule, that we’ve held off having children for so long, you know. I’m still not sure what kind of mother I’d make, and I’d rather be auntie to the rest of the clan forever than bring children into this world without knowing I could do a decent job of it.”

  Starsong sneaked a glance at her aunt’s carved pendant of womanstone, lying in its usual place against the pale-gold skin of her chest which her folded-back coverall exposed. It was starting to shade out of violet into red in some places.

  Which means her body is about to give her its every-month reminder that she is a woman, and can have children, even if she isn’t.

  She wasn’t looking forward to that process on her own behalf, though thankfully her mother had given her and Sundance a far clearer explanation of what would go on when it did begin, and all topics related to that area of life, than Carol’s Aunt Taisha had ever managed to do for her unwanted niece. Still, it wasn’t the sort of thing one could avoid, and modern medicine could help ease the pain even as modern hygienic products dealt with the mess.

  I only wish there were some way to handle the way it plays around with your moods—well, there is, but Aelur don’t believe in using those drugs unless someone’s so badly hurt inside their mind that they can’t be helped any other way, or they’re dangerous to themselves or to other people. And I am Aelur now, even if I wasn’t born one. Neither was Killdeer, or my own father, and nobody would ever say they don’t belong.

  So she would practice the mood-balancing exercises her parents and the other elders of the clan taught her, and work on keeping her temper as hundreds of years of her mothers and grandmothers (spiritual, if not physical) had done before her, by thinking about joyful things.

  Like Christmas. Sitting down in the designated learner’s chair, Starsong pulled her bright copper hook out of the ball of red yarn and looped it around her fingers, going to work on a patch which would be sewn with a lot of others like itself into a blanket, folded up neatly, and wrapped in colorful paper to be set under a certain tree with her little brother’s name written on it. My first Christmas with my new family—well, second, but the first one I was so dazed by having a family again that I hardly noticed anything else going on around me.

  This time, I get to see it all.

  But that’s more than a month away still. Right now, I need to concentrate on my lesson.

  “What am I learning today?” she asked, her fingers darting in, out, and around in their work without supervision from eyes or mind.

  “Today, we’re going over scanners.” Killdeer ran her own fingers expertly across the touch-sensitive panels before her, bringing up a bewildering array of gauges, screens, and graphs. “Here’s the settings for all ship’s systems—pick out the ones that have to do with scanners, and tell me what and where they scan.”

  Starsong quelled her first feeling of panic, reminding herself that she had to learn to think clearly even when she felt overwhelmed. Starting in the top left corner, she worked her way along, identifying each display and either eliminating it as not a scanning system or tagging it for further study. Finally she used her chin to point out her six choices.

  “Outside visual scanners, for when we get close to a star or planet in normal space and want to see it,” she said, indicating a field of solid gray. “Outside radio pulse scanners, for finding solid things farther out than we can see. And outside shift wall scanners, for getting information faster than the radio pulse, though they won’t tell us about anything smaller than a ship. And then over here are the inside vid cameras, for security when we have audiences aboard the Rover or when we want to film a vid and the audi-recorders to go with, and then the climate scanners to make sure we have air and heat everywhere we should.”

  “Very good.” Killdeer nodded. “And why are all the outside scanners disabled right now?”

  “Because we’re in the middle of a skip, and there’s nothing to see in shiftspace…” Starsong’s eye was caught by a blinking light on another display. “Except we’re not in the middle of a skip anymore,” she said, tying off the last loop of her current patch and reaching into her bag for her scissors. “We’re about to come out of one, for our three-hour skim along the interface. That’ll send our ship’s profile rippling back through shiftspace and attract any message probes anyone’s sent us, so we can pick them up and read our mail, and get the latest news.”

  “Excellent!” Killdeer applauded softly. “It won’t be long before you’re ready to stand a watch by yourself. With plenty of help nearby, of course,” she added swiftly as Starsong felt her eyes widen. “But yes, you’re getting better that quickly. Does it surprise you?”

  “It does and it doesn’t.” Starsong slid the completed patch back into her bag, tucking her hook into the ball of yarn once more. “It does because I never really liked computers back on Moria, but this isn’t Moria.” She laughed, winding a few twists of the bold red yarn around her finger, comparing it to the rusty shade of her skirt and the mellow gold of her blouse. “This really isn’t Moria. And because it isn’t, I want to learn everything, as fast as I can. Because the Rover is my home, now, and taking care of my home is the same as taking care of my family.”

  “And with an attitude like that, is it any wonder Suncrest grabbed you up the moment he had the chance?” Killdeer slid an arm around her niece for a hug. “You were wasted there, love, as wasted as I ever was cooped up here. This old ship wasn’t any kind of a home for me, not until I got the help I needed to finish growing up and claim my rights—but you know that story, and here we go—”

  The crossing between shiftspace and normal, as always, brought a moment of blurring to Starsong’s eyes, a feeling in her ears as though the floor had suddenly bucked or bounced beneath her, but then it was over. She knew that she was lucky, that some people reacted much worse to the beginnings and ends of the skips which were the method by which modern starships traveled faster than the speed of light, that even some of her own adoptive clan were unwilling to leave their homeworld because of those feelings, but she still didn’t like it much.

  But if it’s a choice between feeling that way twice a day during one of our travel days, once for ending yesterday’s skip and once for beginning today’s, or going back to Moria and being trapped there again—I’d have that feeling twice an hour if it meant I’d stay free, out here among the stars, with my family and my music and my life. And I am staying free, because no one on Moria has any idea what our ship is really called or what it does, so they can’t find us, and I never have to go back there—

  “Let’s see here,” Killdeer murmured as her fingers, furless as Starsong’s own, flashed across the panels. “Three commercial news service probes, yes, those are ours—two queries about possible performances, route those to Nightsinger—a bunch of ad-blast probes, send those to the funny box, you and your friends can check them out for entertainment value—and what’s this?”

  “What’s what?” Starsong looked around, struck by the sudden, brittle note in her aunt’s voice. “Is something wrong?”

  “Not wrong, exactly. Just…odd.” Killdeer frowned, tapping three times on one of the displays Starsong had picked out earlier, zooming in her outside cameras on the catchbasin into which the message probes had been drawn by the ship’s attractor. “Look there, right behind the probe from Intergalactic News Central—do you see it? That’s not a proper probe at all.”

  Starsong turned her head back and forth, trying to get the half-seen item to come into better focus. She’d studied something with this shape recently, in another of her shipside lessons—

ctor!” she blurted out. “It’s a solar collector, the kind ships throw out to gather power from stars!”

  “So it is.” Killdeer relaxed. “Not a design I’ve seen in use before, which accounts for my not recognizing it, but that’s what it is. Someone wasn’t careful about policing theirs up when they started their skip out of here, it seems.” She swirled her finger against the pad, and a robotic hand moved out from the side of the catchbasin and picked up the solar collector, turning it back and forth to expose its various surfaces to the camera. “That’s an awfully old design, isn’t it? Almost antique by now. What ship is it from, I wonder?”

  As if in answer, a series of letters engraved along the collector’s side came into the camera’s line of sight at that very moment.

  Starsong distinctly felt her throat squeeze shut as her past reached out for her once again.

  “Balrog,” she whispered. “It’s Morian.”
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