Bright night, Collier sleeps on the dark slope of Malapert, the thrush sings. Under an ethereal oak tree, he watches his ankles slip into the white waves of the sand. The shaking branches push the winged from its perch. “When ours come for me once again,” whistles the thrush before flight, “let them stay, leave me not to fruitless stars.” And Collier wakes.
A twinkling piano sings in the early imitation of morning. Through the lonely station’s windows and up the darkened slope, the ever-lit domes of Malapert City crown the anthill tunnels of the people. As Collier composes himself, he watches the city upon the white hill. A thin metal line between them greedily eats to fuel the music. He hums along.
White lines crawling on black screens read off reports through the steam of morning coffee, pungent from a strange mix of genes that let the drink be grown, let it feast on the rich soil brought down from asteroids above them and thrive in the weak pull of the moon. Five great beasts rest in Collier’s port, crouching on the black-shadowed dust, waiting for him to tend to their aching jaws and bellies. Five are eager to leave, and he sends them to go crawl their slow laps, to gnaw away at the earth, crush and burn with their bowels, store away water, press and lay bricks of empty rubble, making way for the far hills over which Earth hangs low.
In the kitchen he makes another glass of strong coffee and bites into the hard fruit which could survive the trials of Luna. He once visited an orchard while delivering water to some small place which could not afford the asteroids and their kings. He was allowed to wander the domed gardens under watch as his tanks unloaded. The small narrow trees hugged each other close under the glow of ceaseless day, their low green branches intertwined, fruit ripening in even rows. Bees sung as they flitted between the leaves, their fuzzy, plump bodies weightless. New air smelled crystalline with the pollen. Wiping the juice from his lips, Collier goes to the port.
Slipping through a narrow hole into a second skin, he floats his way to where the half-fleet nests, each backed up to the frame, hooked up and slowly surrendering their harvest to the series of processers and tanks which squat to the side. All is in the endless shadow, lit like sunken relics by the lamps which feed from the city. The sky is a bed of stars like the lures of glowing fish. Collier unhooks the first beast and orders it to move out of the crowd. It obeys and sits patiently, barking out electric request now and then as its owner fusses over the length of its body. As Collier tends to each beast in turn, the hours roll by. Malapert City shines on and Earth watches in silence. Pale sands in the dark rest quiet. Time is marked but by the occasional reports of the beasts out in the crater proclaiming they are all alright. By the time he has cared for each in port, cared for the lines of machines by their side, the venturing half-fleet is almost home. He backs himself up to the station and slips inside, takes care of the business and chatter from the light on the mountain, and ducks once more outside to welcome his family home and tuck them all in for the night.
Collier cooks a sliver of meat for dinner, promising to go see their near-orchard scaffolds over the next order from such a client as he had avoided times before. He showers in the recycled greywater, searing and soothing, and he undresses for bed. The ritual ends with another long chapter of the book he’s been reading, nestled in down covers and sipping a warm drink. Through one window of the bedroom is the city on the hill, and through the other is Earth. And Collier sleeps.
Limbs of the tree of the white sands sag under a half-feathered form with a gaping beak and grasping wings. The gnarled, stretching limbs sway around and reach far but the form holds fast, jaw dropped almost unhinged. Pale growths, the eyes, are cast to the horizon, and it sings as an owl. “Ours recall the verdancy. Let him be Icarus descending.” And the form turns to Collier, ever-gaping with hunger and thirst. Its voice now emerges like a symphony from behind Collier ankle-deep in the sand. “Ours sees it all once more. Does he not miss the touch? Waves, wind, the calling of the forests and of home? Does he not wish for the melting of wax?” And Collier wakes.
Morning is lit by soft brass notes tripping over one another in ecstasy. Collier takes his time making coffee and toast, he chews slowly. He flicks the crust around while eating, trying to recall the name of the music from the spiraling library of childhood lessons. It brings a smile like a memory of dawn, and the energy to get up and clean away the small disarray of human activity. He goes to tend to his flock.
The tired half-fleet rests in port, and Collier gets quick to work with his hands. Soon there is heavy breath in his helmet, and it reeks stale and damp. Soon he is daydreaming of the orchard again. Bees buzz around his itching eyes as his lungs fill up with purity of air just born, gulping it down to the most hidden parts of his body. And then he is daydreaming rain, which pounds around him and turns the white soil to mud. To see a haze over Malapert’s crest, to feel the scent of coming storm, to bath in the dew on the vines.
Watching the stream of memories flow past his dreaming mind, Collier tries to make out the images in the rippling current; visions from a child’s eyes. There is a forest which would blot out the sun beside the tide of the ocean, on an opposite shore there was a drizzling that could just be made out through the branches. He stood under the canopy and watched. And there was a tent and a fire and the roasting of marshmallows. Images dark and grainy, like the space outside the lamplight he is soaking in, like the skin of the wet white sand.
By earthly time there would be sun at the zenith, when in the unlit crater there is a whining from a machine. One of the distant beasts voicing its concern. Collier rushes to pull himself inside to the screens and reports. Low water. The beast can talk to its brethren and see they are full, and it can talk to the ground and see it is wet, yet it thirsts and its belly is light. Collier stares at the crawling lines with a furrowed brow, slowly pushing in keys to dismiss the matter and have the half-fleet go finish their laps. Some theft, the likes of which have been reported monthly by other miners in the darkness. When the phantom-sun sets on the ever-black sky, the beasts all return home and he hurries to settle them in. The thirsty one is as light as it claims, like a runt with the others, and it might have hung its head were it not a creature of metal. Their master marks down the number of the beast, and which one will follow its lap in the morning. When inside, he writes reminders on a small paper scrap and leaves it under a coffee cup for the morning.
Blankets hold Collier in the dark like a child. His eyes are open. The trickling stream of recollection is reaching the flow it had before noon, and the reflections are bright, if scattered. Boarding a rocket crouched before flight, he had looked out and waved, smiled, eager. The sky that day stretched out to eternity and its very veins could have been seen. A final blue sky to say farewell. On the bottom of the bookshelf there is an album of aging photographs, tightly shut for the safely of the pictures and the heart, just below the fantasies of kings and queens in fertile lands. Through one window of the shelter is the dark desert slope, and through the other is the marble of Earth. And Collier sleeps.
Narrow arms whip around and sunder the air. Collier almost makes out a voice among the shattered wind. But before comprehension, he is tugged through the land, unmoving, brought into the dunes of the sands where the tree is almost unheard. There is the once-thrush, now man or man-shaped, lithe and covered in pale eyes, gaunt with a hungry maw. The jaw moves, voice quiet and mountain-moving, “He sees the land once more. So long since. And what is there now to feed on?” And the symphonic buzzing in the rear of Collier’s head, “These ought to be sandbars, not hills. So long now, but we will not starve longer. Do you remember the forest? Remember the oceans?” In his mind’s eye the river of images grows rapid and white-watered. Sings the creature, “So long now since we have breathed fresh air, touched a living thing and felt it fully. Speak.” Collier opens his mouth and croaks, unused chords raw without practice, unheard by the halls of the home in the bottom of Malapert crater, unheard by the city on the hill. And Collier wakes.
Morning is lit by strings. A high violin ripples and twists through the recycled air, and Collier’s throat is sore. He boils tea, thickens it with honey, feels it coat his throat as the music coats his skin. The note on the table brings a sigh to his lips, and he collects up food to sustain his voyage. At the far end of the pressured port, past the hole in the wall to his second skin, there is a hardened door to a ship parked outside, waiting patiently on tensed wheels and eager to run out into the dark. Music is transferred after the packing. Then the refilling of drink, and the sending-off of the half-fleet. In the cramped quarters of the ship, crawling through the dark in watchful pursuit of the beast robbed the day before, Collier closes his eyes and taps his fingers to the gentle pulse of a flute, drifting aimless through the expanse of fantasy and light.
The stars burn above the darkness of the crater. Earth hangs among them, white marks swirling and trembling, against the everlasting glow of long-dead suns. Beyond the cloud cover of the planet three days distant, surely there must be a soul listening to the same orchestra. Collier thinks of whom they might be, which part of the marble they are on, whether they are looking out a window to sunlit foliage or to rain. He understands there might instead be sprawling desert or towers or some other less beautiful growth, but a stranger of the same taste would be more inclined to flee from sights such as those and their painful kind.
Forests creep back into Collier’s mind. Through the canopy was starlight, a fire was dying beside him. A hand on his shoulder pulled him in. “Daddy,” he said, “how many stars are there?” And a deep voice like rusting leaves or the crackling of the campfire, “Let’s count.” The younger self fell asleep in those arms.
When the beast Collier tails passes by where its predecessor gave alert, he gets up. He tells the beast to stop and to wait, to sit full of water and enticing, and the others go on without worry. The crater is in ink, and all is invisible in the cloak. Colored screens show Collier the scene in heat, painted in blues and reds, but nothing lurks nearby. He frowns.
Collier sets the machines on alert, he tells them to make sure the painting stays still. He opens a can of tough fruit and eats it delicately. He sips on recycled greywater and feels the ice cold liquid trickle down to his stomach. The ship is far from the beast, the bait, but he powers most of the craft down as not to be seen. It is dark, quiet, cold. Out the rear window is a point of eternal light and of life, and out the fore is the same. And Collier sleeps.
Madly spiraling, the thread-like branches shred apart the world. The limbs all become one in a buzzing haze, and the center is lost among them, and Collier is lost among them rooted fast in the sand. Ravaged air whispers to him. “And you,” it says with its voice shivering and warm as a fire, “have waited so long to be here.” Collier looks on into the limbs, the cloud, the airwaves of a dream-made world. “You miss it all, you miss them, you miss me. I know. I know.” A thin limb brushes his face. A finger, a vine, a drop of rain. “How you must wish to be touched again, to speak again, oh, to feel the grace of life again. But how can we go there now?” Collier reaches up a hand into the mist, into the river, into waves and the recollections riding them into eternity. He wants to ask how many arms there are. He wants to ask how many stars are in the sky. And Collier wakes.
Malapert is dark, the hour is lost, and the beasts of metal are all quiet. Collier stands to face the window to the distant mountain, so close now, and Earth sitting half above. And there is something under the clouds, under the rain and over the life, over the seas and the forests and the cities, some image of revelation. Labyrinthian, a growth creeping vine-like over the marble of Earth. It shoots its children out to the stars on delicate seeds. Collier feels its gentle touch. He feels a tendril tracing its way back to the seed on the hill. It is growing, thriving, spreading through the new soil and weak gravity, feeding on the captured water and the eternal sun.
The painted screen barely makes out the shapes that shift on the edge of his vision, and he flicks on the lamplight and sees them. Dozens of naked, tall, and solid people surrounding the ship in the darkness. Mortal bodies willingly altered. They walk free, exposed to infinity and unharmed, begging the universe for its touch. No need for breath, to be tied to the rains and the forests, they creep out, reaching. With Collier they watch the Earth. A hand floats up to the door, and it is Collier’s own but it is beyond his control now. So close to the people, so close to life.
Says Daedalus in pride to his child, “Fly on, my son, and higher.”
Author Bio: Benjamin Miller is a student of the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies aerospace engineer. He has been published in The Wild Hunt magazine, and can be found on twitter @B_G_Miller.