Present Pieces

Present Pieces

A Beginning

In the darkness, someone inhaled audibly; a faint speck of red flared, just for a moment, some twenty feet away. There was a pause and then a long, sharp exhalation from the shadows near the wall. The smell of tobacco grew strong in the air. A pause, another drag.

Abruptly, the smoker started coughing, quietly at first, but growing louder and harder, a grating crescendo in the yard’s murky, almost artificial silence. Amid gasping attempts to catch his breath, the man muttered a few unintelligible words.

From the tone, Chieran thought none of the words were fit for young ears.

"Sounds bad. You might consider having that looked at," he interjected, voice carefully measured, neutral but friendly.

The smoker paused only for a moment, biting back his next cough, before replying. "You figure there's any way I could not be looked at in this place?" The response was bitter, but not overtly hostile. He swallowed another cough. "I'm sure there's some nurse watching us with multispecs from one of those windows up there right now. Big needle in her hand, probably, just waiting for me to go back inside. Or a bloody bonesaw, more likely."

His smirk hidden by the darkness, Chieran forced out a short laugh. "You the fellow from 216-B? The one they brought down from the LTT the other day?"

"Might be." The coughing man's voice was suddenly tight. He was young, much younger than Chieran had first thought. Barely out of his teens. The young man took another drag of his cigarette. "Why?" he asked sharply. And then he started coughing again.

Chieran waited for the spasm to pass, and then there was another silence as each man waited for the other to resume. After a few long seconds, the lit stub of a cigarette launched itself in a spinning arc through the darkness, flaring into a tiny explosion when it hit the ground.

Chieran spoke again. "I'm in 219, across the way. That's all. Just wondering."

There was another silence, this one considerably shorter. "Yeah, well, I don’t remember being brought in there. Don't remember much till last night, actually. Guess the drugs wore off by then. Couldn't sleep. And I didn't much feel like coming out here for a smoke until now. Smoke and a little peace and quiet."

"Well, the peace and quiet's good. Not so much the smoking. But I won't tell anyone." He paused deliberately for comic effect. "Besides, the nurse with the 'specs already knows anyway."

"Shit," the stranger replied, a faint hint of laughter in his voice as he choked out the word, stifling yet another cough.

"Well, listen," Chieran said, assuming that the other man did not want company. "I'm sure you need your rest. I know I do. And besides, it's a bit chilly out here. Perhaps I'll see you again tomorrow." And without waiting for a reply, he turned and reached for the door handle.

***

An Earlier Beginning

"Chieran― Dr. Kenitawri… you really need to see this. I think― I have― I've found something interesting. Quite interesting." The image on Chieran's desk shuddered for a moment as Dr. Merial Akalayan, his senior assistant, shifted her holocam downward and expanded the view to include two objects, each filling half of a large table. "This piece was recently brought back from a wormhole in Akora. This piece," she said, pointing to the second object, "was found in the archive. Labeled, probably by some idiotic student, as 'detritus.' It was retrieved from a very old excavation site on Matari Prime ― Matar, I mean ― sometime during the last century. Never properly dated."

At a glance, the two items seemed vaguely similar in shape, but without examining them more closely, Chieran could not judge accurately.

"Yes, and what is it that's so interesting?" Chieran asked.

"Well, several things," the younger scientist replied, her voice speeding up. "First, the age. I ran some tests, and the first object dates back roughly fourteen to fifteen thousand years; the second, this one here, only about slightly less, probably within less than a thousand years of the other."

Chieran's slightly raised eyebrow gave away his sudden interest. "So late Yan Jung Era or shortly thereafter."

"Yes. Precisely. Yes, and also, there's the matter of these smaller sections here." She gestured to a series of protrusions on both objects, both worn with rust but still easily visible. "On both, these nodes appear in the same pattern, which was what first lead me to look more closely." She paused again, breathing deeply, and her voice, when she continued, was shaking with excitement. "Chieran, I think these… I am almost certain, but I need to run some more tests, naturally. But I think― well, and of course I'd want you to have a look at―"

Chieran smiled as he interrupted. "Merial, please. I trust your judgment. For now, just tell me what you're thinking."

Merial laughed nervously. "Yes, yes, I'm sorry. I just… well, you know. Chieran, this is big. I mean potentially incredibly huge. And I just don’t want to make any mistakes." She drew a deep breath and started again. "Okay, so, these patterns of nodes on both of them ― Chieran, they're essentially just like big fractal acceleration shell capacitors. I've triple-checked the alignments." She breathed deeply again, obviously agitated. "I think these things, both of them, they're some kind of old acceleration shell equalizers. But it's the size! I mean, with equalizers this big, the engines themselves would have to have been, well, absolutely enormous. I mean, a ship that could house an engine this size must have been…  Well, no modern dreadnought could even compare!"

Chieran felt a chill down his spine. The hands of fate, he sensed, very firmly gripped his shoulders. He was not entirely surprised, and he could feel the goosebumps spreading down his arms. Something had told him, when he asked his most trusted researcher to spend weeks going through virtually abandoned archives ― a job far beneath her place, and for which she had not initially been at all grateful ― that there was a good reason.

"Okay, not a word of this to anyone. Does anyone else know?" Merial shook her head. "Alright, I mean it, not anyone. I will take the redline chute and be there in 5 minutes." She met his gaze through the holo conference, still seeming unsure of herself. Chieran was reassuring. "And Merial...? Good work. I'll see you in a minute."

Before he had finished his last words, the desktop holo was already fading, the connection at his end flipped with a hurried gesture. He could not walk quickly enough. This accidental discovery might just be the missing connection to the very research in which he had invested the past twenty-nine years of his life.

He had always known this honor would come to him. Everything, everything he knew, happened for a reason.

***

Present Company

Chieran knocked lightly on the doorframe, his grizzled face already peeking around to inspect the room. "Well, I see you're awake."

"Uh, yeah. I'm up. What…? Are you a doctor?" the young man responded. Without the surrounding shadows of the dusky courtyard, he looked as young as his voice had made him sound the night before.

"Ha! Insightful question! Yes, I am, in fact, a doctor. Although I'm not a medical doctor. I'm not your doctor, if that's what you're asking."

"I see. Well, what… I mean, why are you here, then?"

"Can I ask your name, if you don't mind? It does make conversing so much easier, I've always found." There was a certain joyous mischief about Chieran, both in his voice and his expression.

The young man took a few breaths, bemused despite himself, before answering. "It's Kestor."

"Good to meet you, Kestor. I am Chieran, and it is a pleasure to meet you. Again, that is."

"You're the guy from last night in the courtyard. I kind of thought I had dreamt that, to be honest. So if you're not a doctor ― I mean, if you're not an M.D. ― then why are you here?" A sudden thought occurred to him. "You some kind of psych or something?"

"Oh, my goodness, most certainly not," Chieran replied with a short laugh. "How tedious that would be. The things in some people's heads are interesting, but I most certainly wouldn't want to see everything in everyone's head. Dreadful. No, I prefer conversation to behavior modification."

"So why are you here, then?"

"As I said, I enjoy conversation. And the ceiling in my room is not entirely forthcoming, despite my many efforts to persuade it."

"No, I mean, why are you in this hospital?" Kestor asked, not entirely sure how to react to the odd old man.

"Oh, it's nothing, I assure you. Just a minor problem with blood pressure that they assure me they have now repaired. I assume I'll be out in a few days, once they've had a chance to observe me a bit longer."

"But if they repaired it, you’re fine, right? I mean… why would they need to observe you at all? You are talking gene therapy?"

"Yes, and that would be the case normally. But it seems that I am important enough to bear watching. Just in case there might have been some problem with the procedure. And so I am here, chatting with you. For a short time, at least."

Kestor pondered this, keeping his eyes locked on Chieran, trying to read the truth of his words.

"So, what happened to you, may I ask? Zipper crash?" Chieran asked.

Kestor decided that the old man seemed relatively harmless, and his answer came more quickly this time. Quickly ― and more harshly than he had intended. "Oh, no. No accident. I had some words with a couple of Dropheads that always set up near the new Arts Center, where my sister goes to school. They said we aren't local enough and were giving her a hard time. When I told them to back off, they, uh… they put the damned boots to me."

"I see. That's terrible. I'm sorry. Your sister, is she alright?"

"She's fine. She was in earlier to visit, actually. For a little while, at least. She doesn’t like…" He paused for just an instant, glancing off to one side before going on. "Uh, doesn't like hospitals that much. Anyway, they ran off after they beat me up, I guess, afraid someone would catch them."

Chieran sensed that there was more to the story, perhaps, but that Kestor was reticent to talk about it. He changed subjects. "So what does that mean? Not 'local enough'? You moved here recently?"

"No, I've lived here my whole life." The young man's face shifted to a sneer as he continued, quite unconsciously. "My dad's a Godlover. Even wears those stupid robes all the time." The anger Chieran sensed the previous night had returned to Kestor's voice, and he twitched involuntarily, shaking the holo control in his hand.

Chieran absorbed the change in Kestor's demeanor. "I see. And, how did he…? Is he Nefantar, your father?" he asked, somewhat puzzled.

"Nefantar?" the young man snorted. "No. That'd be easier. No, my grand-dad was a slave on some Amarr bastard's mining colony in Ammatar space up till just after my dad was born. Born a slave, but he was set free by some amazing battleship captain who came in and tore the place up." The scorn in his voice was thick. "Well, grand-dad must have learned his slave lessons real well, 'cause even after he was set free, he raised my dad to be a Godlover too."

"I take it you don't care much for your grandfather?"

"You kidding? He was―" He broke off in a bitter laugh. "No, I did not care much for my grandfather. He was a miserable old bastard. I'm glad he's dead. And my dad's not much better."

***

In Pieces

Ziather sighed, reaching down to pick up the last few pieces of sheerite lying at his feet. The transparent glasslike surface of the broken nano-alloy bits, much harder than normal glass, glittered almost warmly in the soft morning light. As he bent, his back creaked ominously, and he had to suppress a shudder at the idea of undergoing another spinal treatment. A wealthier man might have had new cells injected to rejuvenate the tissue, but people who lived in the pidouk could not afford such luxuries.

Don't dwell on what you do not have, he recited for perhaps the fourth time since waking. It was a belief so deeply part of him, a kind of passive contentment bordering on ontological dejection, that a complete stranger could have read it from his posture alone. I have a home and I am a free man, and that should be enough, he thought.

Just then, Cliemne called from the back room, "I'm going, papa." The sound of the door closing behind her should have pre-empted any response. The door was not shut gently.

"Always in such a hurry," Ziather spoke aloud. Even when she was small, always so hurried. Always running off somewhere.

He turned to throw the broken bits of sheerite into the waste unit, still moving slowly, as always, but then bit back a curse. In spite of his careful grip, a razor-sharp bit of the hardened polymer had jabbed his hand, and he looked down to see a tiny spot of blood growing in the soft flesh between his middle two fingers. The old man ― he really wasn't terribly old, but that's how he thought of himself ― grew even more contemplative at the sight of the blood, as if entranced by the dance of an open flame or the gleam of sunlight on the sea.

The argument had started, as they always did, when Ziather had made an innocent comment about his son's behavior at school having improved this past semester. Kestor was strong-minded, as Ziather's father had been, and his moods were as mercurial as the weather here in Shishaan. And like his grandfather, Kestor nettled at any accusation of wrongdoing, past or present. But this morning Ziather had made the mistake of pointing that similarity out.

Before Kestor stormed out, he had snatched up the holopic of his grandfather and smashed it three times against the stone counter until it shattered.

He stared at the blood on his palm, now a rich red pearl, and drifted deeper into thought.

What is it that we see in our loved ones that we hate? Is it the things we fail to see in ourselves? Or what we do see?

Yes, Father was hard. Bitter. He was a cold man. But he had to be. What a life, the life of a slave. Yet he loved Kestor more fiercely than he ever felt about anything, I think. About me, even. Yes, that is true. We were never kindred spirits. But those two, they are so much alike. They were so much alike. When Kestor smashed the holopic, I thought, Stop! Stop, you are only breaking yourself open. But I cannot stop him. I just do not know. I don’t know my son.

Even darling Clem sees it. She tries to make Kestor understand, to help him see that our lives are precious, not to be wasted. What sort of a father am I?  How can I let this happen again and again? And Cliemne, just staring down silently as her brother and I shout at each other? So beautiful, she is. Like a jewel, a brilliant, dancing jewel. Just like her mother, God bless her.

But Kestor… he is… well, he is too like his grandfather. I do not know him.

What am I to do? My son, so bright, so talented, and he does nothing but throw it away with those friends of his, all worthless. No futures, no plans. He hates me and my faith, but he thrashes about like a drowning man. Crying out for meaning, but silently, not even knowing he cries. Wanting love, the divine love, more surely than anyone I have known. The more I try to calm him, to reassure him ― to teach him ― the farther he draws away. And for all my faith, I have no answers.

I have no answers.

Ziather sat down at the table and stared absently at the plate his daughter had left on the table. He noticed just then that her meal was untouched. A silent tear gathered in his eye.

My God, give me the answers.

***

Moving Forward

Chieran, not wanting to open old wounds any further, but wanting to get Kestor to talk more, changed the subject once again. It was a disarming tactic he had found eminently useful both in the workplace and elsewhere. "The ones who beat you up, were they taken in?"

"I have no idea. I just remember somebody hitting me, and then I was on the ground, and there was a pair of feet, and then everything was black. Next thing I know, I wake up in my bed here. And Clem just said they ran away. She didn't say if they were caught."

"I see. Well, at least you're in one piece, now, more or less. The doctors here really are among the best. We must always be thankful for something."

"Oh, yeah, I'm so thankful." The young man's voice was a study in sarcasm. "Yes. I'm really thankful those pricks didn't have someplace else to be. Yeah, I just have so much to be thankful for."

Chieran, always sensitive to moods, tried to calm Kestor with reason. It had always worked for himself, a safe retreat when emotions ran high. That and humor.

"Listen, Kestor, you have every right to be angry. I understand that. I'd be angry, too, in your place. But I am thankful you're alive, as I'm sure your family is too. And I'm also glad that, unlike your great grandfather, you are here, living among your own people ― even if not everyone here feels the same way I do, like the young men who attacked you." He deliberated carefully before speaking his next words. "There is purpose in everything."

"Oh, hell. Now you sound just like my dad." Kestor's legs slithered against the bed coverings as he shifted, getting ready to stand up.

"Well, perhaps your father is wiser than you realize. I'm sure he's thankful that you're alive. How could he not? The father's place is in caring for the son."

"Okay, what are you, some kind of priest? Seriously. Doctor of religion or something?"

"A priest?" Chieran chuckled. "No, I'm a scientist, actually. But I like to think the two are quite close, to be honest. If you really want to know, I work for Starship Research and Development at Core Complexion, specializing in ancient technologies research."

Kestor’s attitude changed to awed curiosity almost as quickly as he had grown angry earlier. "Seriously? That's… whoa, that's pretty damned cool." A sudden thought came to him. "But don't you guys have your own special hospitals and stuff? With, like, the best specialist doctors and, you know, super-advanced AIMEDs and stuff?"

"Where do you think you are right now, young man? You hadn't wondered at the speed of your recovery? Two days, and nearly back to yourself. Your attack was politically quite significant, you know. The son of a former slave, returned to Matar, and yet the victim of such a crime in one of our greatest cities? Nearly killed by his own people? Important people are sparing no expense to make sure you recover unblemished."

Kestor was stunned. "You… Really? Wow. I―" For the first time since they had met, Kestor was at a loss for words.

***

 Dancing

The bioturb sliced through the east side of Uptown, all movement almost indiscernible to its passengers as it hummed along several inches above its single fine rail. Inertial gyrodiffusers shimmered hazily in the morning light, giving the elongated car what seemed an otherworldly gleam to anyone not accustomed to planetside life in a place as advanced as Sivaralad.

Inside, Cliemne sat with her bag resting almost carelessly on her knees. However, her arms, drawn protectively around it, gave the lie to her seeming unconcern. Inside the bag were her school books and her lunch, but more importantly ― far more importantly ― her shoes. In those shoes, she would dance into a new life.

Ever since the new government, under Shakor, had introduced the arts scholarships and ordered the construction of new arts centers and programs through the Republic, Cliemne had known that she would have a place. For as long as she could recall, dance had been her one passion, the one place she could go to find beauty and tranquility, whatever her mood when she first got to class. And since she had won the scholarship, the old dreams had returned, but they were in vivid color now. It was, she knew, a sign.

When she was small and the dreams came, they had always been nightmares, colorless vistas, her floating away into a cold, gray sky. And always, when she awoke, pale and sweating, she had felt a tremendous sense of loss and terror. She had never spoken of them. But the dreams gradually went away as she got older; suddenly, in just the past few months, they had returned. Yet they were joyful things now, bright and warm, filled with a sense of soaring off, to a happier place, one where she would be welcomed into loving arms. Into the arms of a mother she had never known.

So far, she had to admit, the dream had not taken her that far. The welcoming arms were always just beyond the horizon. But Clem knew, with the single-minded certainty of youth, that she would reach them soon.  And by some intuition, she knew that the dream and the dance were intricately connected.

The Shishaan Center for the Performing Arts, now that its construction was complete, represented the beginning of a new life for Clem, away from her father and her brother and their endless bickering. Even in appearance, the Center stood in stark contrast to her home. Its massive, high towers with their peaked summits, made almost entirely of glimmering sheerite, with the brightly waving banners, the happy laughter of the students ― these could not have been more different than the endless smelly, dirty streets and alleys of the pidouk, the Drop-dealers and the gangs and the prostitutes and the endless procession of drunks and dead-eyed, miserable wanderers.

If, as her father said, there was a hell, then the pidouk was part of it.            

But Cliemne was on her way to a new world, both here in Shishaan and in her dreams. And soon, so very soon now that she could taste the moment, she would fly away from her godforsaken old life and land somewhere else, a place where the beauty and the tranquility would always be with her. Where she would never have to listen to father and Kestor fight again. Never have to see the squalor and the pain or listen to the shouts and curses. Where she and her mother and the dream would become one.

***

 Reification

Kestor was due to be released this afternoon. It was more than welcome. Even just a few days in bed were wearing on him. But Chieran had proven pleasant company, making Kestor laugh more than he could remember having laughed in a long time. At least with anyone other than his friends. And, with them, there was always an ugly sense of competition in their jokes, and a kind of cruelty. Chieran, though, simply seemed to enjoy laughing and making others laugh. There was no dark underside to it.

They were coming to the end of what would likely be their last conversation, searching for things to say, when Chieran suddenly became serious.

"Kestor, I happen to believe that everything happens for a reason. Each of us has a part to play in something much bigger than we can see." Kestor remained silent. "There is a reason we're having this conversation right now. A reason we found ourselves here in this place at the same time."

"Whoa. Are you trying to hit on me now? Man, I have to admit, I didn’t see that one coming."

Chieran's laugh was generous. "My friend, the doctors here have done a remarkable job of rebuilding you from the broken pieces, so, given that I'm not feeling any attraction of the sort, I'm afraid you just must not have been that handsome to begin with.

"No," he continued, again growing uncharacteristically serious, given his manner of the past days. "But I'm trying to say that it is not coincidence, perhaps, that we were both brought here at the same time and placed across the hall from each other." Kestor snorted, still looking skeptical. "Please, let me finish. You've talked about your studies, and it’s obvious to me that, despite your scorn for the institution, you have a quick mind."

"So you think that you're supposed to become my teacher or something?" Kestor was having fun now, but at Chieron's expense.

"Be quiet and let me finish." The older man had grown so stern suddenly, so authoritative, that Kestor could not have spoken if he had wanted to. It was almost unnatural, the change.

Chieron nodded, satisfied that Kestor was suitably cowed. "I am saying that, if you keep hating your life and your father and everything else around you, keep holding yourself down instead of working to improve things, you will never be happy. And that maybe I'm here to help you understand that. Your future does not have to be constrained by your past, Kestor."

Kestor thought for a long moment. His face was impassive, but Chieron could see the turmoil in his eyes.

"And you think it's that easy? I just walk out of here, and magically everything changes for me?"

"Nothing comes easily, but you have a good mind. With work and discipline, yes, everything changes."

"Because everything has a reason, you think? It's just too easy. It's like my dad thinking everything will work out because 'god' says it will. According to you, too, just like him, there must be a reason he was born a captive to some sadistic bastards. Who brainwashed him into believing in a god who supports the slavery of entire races? That kind of 'reason'?"

"I choose to believe so, yes. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I believe it. Not in a god, but in a greater purpose." Chieran's gaze was steely, but kind. "And as for your father, whatever his beliefs, he is a product of his environment, just as you and I are. Remember that. His religion may have been imposed, but he has eyes to see the world around him. Hate the environment that created him, but don't hate the man himself."

"Well, I do hate him!" Kestpor screamed. "And the ones who did that to him, who made him so, so… so pliable, and weak, and stupid. I just wish I could kill those bastards. Every last one of them. Women, children. Fucking slaughter them all."

"Kestor, who would be the monsters if we did that? Do you really think there are no people in all of Amarr who are troubled by what their religion has sewn? Just as there are those among our own people who question the decrees of the Sanmatar's tribal council, or who questioned Midular's policies?"

Sensing the young man's vulnerability, Chieran pressed on. "Or what about those who would harm their countrymen because they seem different, the way you were hurt, despite the fact that we, as a nation, pride ourselves on accepting and maintaining the differences between the Seven Tribes? Good and bad, wrong and right, we don't have any monopolies. But we can have faith that it will change."

Kestor was distraught, fighting back tears, red-faced, angry and yet not wanting to fight. He was seeking answers, an answer, any answer. "And so I'm supposed to do what? What are you saying I should do?"

"Kestor, I cannot tell you what you should do. But please, please, do not waste your gifts. And do not lose sight of the fact that it doesn't matter what your grandfather thought, or what his masters thought. It doesn't matter if your ancestors were Krusual, Sebiestor, Thukker, even Ammatar… it just doesn't matter, none of it! We are the Seven Tribes, but we are also the Minmatar Nation. Seven and yet one.

"All that matters is what we think, now. What you and I think together, here, in this room, and the others in this hospital ― what they think matters too, maybe. And the other free thinkers in this city, on this planet, in this star system. In all of Minmatar. The people who aren't stuck in the mud, but who are looking up, and around. But mostly looking inside.

"What I am saying, Kestor, is just this: look inside. That is where you will find the man who can give you the answers you need."

***

 Where the Pieces Come Together

Just a few hundred meters out, the shuttle swung around a landing bay on the surface of the massive, unmoving vessel. Only a tiny portion of the behemoth was visible in the forward visor.

"Well? As you can see, the construction is nearing completion. I would say another thirteen, fourteen ― maybe sixteen months at the outside, and she will be fully operational." The Chief Gravometrics Engineer for Project Skymother was a precise man, but on a project of this magnitude, one had to be willing to be somewhat flexible.

"She is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. My goodness."  The man's voice was still strong, not the faded fluting of many others his age, but today there was a certain childish joy in his tone that the Chief had not heard for some time. "I… it's only been a few months since I saw her last, and already she is so much more… together. I guess? I suppose that's the right word?

"I've seen some remarkable things in my life. Shining Amarr ships breaking up near the small moon of Bairshir IV, at the Battle of Halitt. Pulse beams cutting through the dark near the Bosboger gate in Lulm. But all of those moments are so tiny now, so distant. And this… this makes them all seem so insignificant. My goodness." The old man's eyes were glistening.

The engineer watched the old man closely, giving him a moment to control his emotions. To lose water from the eyes would have meant embarrassment for them both. But when he spoke, he too was fighting back a lump in his throat. "Yes, I suppose she is coming together. Internal crews are already running tests on sublight systems. The jump drives have a little way to go, but I would say, assuming the new tech from Six Kin meets your specs ― and believe me, I don't doubt you for a second ― well, let's say three months for that. Four, maybe. You'll have to come back then, of course."

"Well, I certainly hope so, my old friend. I wouldn't want to miss that. After all, I have spent a lifetime working toward this."

"I know it, Chieran. I know. How could I forget? Let's dock, shall we, and see if we can't find something to eat? I have some virgin roe I stashed away against your next visit. I trust you're still a fan?"

Chief Gravometrics Engineer Kestor Thevistos reached forward to tap the controls of the shuttle. Chieran reached forward to get one last look at the surface of the great ship beside them before they swung about to dock, and as he did so, he caught his weight with a hand on Kestor's shoulder. His flesh was so frail now, so pale and spotted.

Kestor smiled, the lump still in his throat, and brought the shuttle around.


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