by Dustin J Monk
You don't know what it's like to watch your house burn. You feel like a cliché. You think about it going up a like matchstick. The windows bursting from the flames, the paint curdling like spoiled milk, the heat, the beautiful heat. You think ironically: my god, I'd like to light a cigarette. You're watching your house go up, rolling smoke, everything you own, everything you know, ashes in the wind, the whole mess, you know, and all you're thinking about the entire time, the thing on your mind is, hands desperately searching pockets, is, where are my goddamn cigarettes.
That's it. That's what it's like to watch your house burn.
Forget the firesquad and ambulances. The spider webbed hoses. The water shooting, spraying in your front door and broken windows like fountains from the time of oldearth's fashioning. Anyway, it's wild. You can't believe anything like it is happening, but it is, because you're standing on your front lawn with your father and mother and she's cradling your tiny brother in her arms, all of you in your oxy-suits, the black ice storm twenty kilometers away like locusts in the sky; or like a harbinger of things to come, hovering on the periphery.
I'm twelve or thirteen oldearth years and this was our home on Galilee.
There's so much ash in the sky.
The firechief spoke with us shortly. His facemask was blackened with soot. He opened a comm.-link on the arm of his oxy-suit to my father, but it was a public channel so we could all listen in. He told us the most obvious thing in the world in the most obvious way. The firechief said, "There's nothing left to save. I'm sorry."
This was during the Sensation Riots. Six years before the entire colony -- or what was left of it anyway -- was abandoned, the straggling survivors hauling ass to other points in the galaxy, the whole world quickly forgotten, back to the solar system where it's safe, where it's, at the least, a desolation you know, a destruction not so alien, not so unheard of. Where undearth waited with her basking artificial sunlight and her romantic holomoon. Yes, back to oldearth, back to underearth, back to the commonality of man!
Well. That was my father's speech paraphrased. I remember him, fist raised in the air hilariously, speaking to my mother with such a passion it was impossible, even during my angst-riddled pre-teen smoke-em-if-you-got-em oldearth years, not to feel exhilarated by the sheer force of it. My father, this man of middling height and thinned of hair, eyes glowing from the burning house, said he would make some calls and purchase us tickets for an outbound flight to oldearth, said Galilee was no place for a family, said he was tired of scraping, spoke of the wealth still abundant despite the ashlands, despite the lawlessness and chaos, the dissolution of any form of government. My father said, with a vigor I'd never known him to possess, the kind of thing legends are made of, "We will go home to live."
I couldn't help peeking over my shoulder at the massive black ice storm.
The next day I scanned the e-paper. There was no specific mention of our house burning to the ground because there had been, as you may have heard, having probably scanned the e-papers yourself on that particular day, too many to name. Seemed the rioters had set fire to one-third of the capital, burning state buildings and memorials, tearing the train tracks to shreds and derailing trains, setting off bombs in peaceful neighborhoods, turning streets into fire and blood and shock.
It was, by oldearth years, May 27th, 2478. A full hundred years before I'd see the hollow sun and then the holosun of oldearth.
I showed my father the e-paper. We were standing in the longest queue I'd ever witnessed for outbound flights. Six years before the Galileans packed up for good, before the colony would become less than a memory, an iced-over fortress of black buildings, seemed everyone was already trying to get the hell out of dodge. My father said no worries, but I could see the fear in his eyes. There was no house fire to hide it this time.
My mother was a wild-haired woman with a mole on the side of her nose. She was scared for her parents, lost in the neighborhood fires. She shook my little brother and patted his back nonstop. Was getting kind of crazy. I asked to hold him a bit. He was tiny in my arms. His e-nerves hadn't even kicked in yet. I wondered what it would be like to live without the instant gratification. I didn't want to find out.
I said to my brother, whose name was Lawrence, "Good thing you're too little to understand what you're missing out on." I ran my middle finger down the length of his tiny spine where the e-nerves were embedded and he grunted.
We found a room in the spaceport. It was old and junky and full of creeps. An old man kept washing his hands in the green-stained sink. Another family, hungry-eyed, watched us and I felt sorry for them, you know, and wanted to ask their little boy if he wanted to play airwaves, but my mother said -- holding Lawrence close to her breasts and looking frantic and licking her lips constantly -- she said, "Don't talk to anyone."
My father returned a few hours later. He sat on the dirty little mattress he'd secured for us to sleep on. He chatted us on our family channel. "Good news is," he said, "we're going to underearth."
"What's the bad news?" I said. It's one of those memories people talk about: the crystal clear kind. My father chatting the good news and me chatting back, what's the bad news. The man washing his hands in the sink. He had spots all over his bald head. The mattress was really thin.
"The bad news," my father chatted, "is we don't leave for five days."
"Galilean or oldeaerth?" My mother never looked so pale, so full of helplessness.
My father sighed in the real world. "Galilean," he said out loud.
That's when my mother started crying and then my little brother, sensing her discontent, her longing, breathing in her bosom, started crying too. I leaned against the wall for whatever reason. A Galilean day was one hundred eighty oldearth hours approximately.
After most of the strangers had fallen asleep or were floating away listlessly on e-nerves, my mother whispered to me, a tiny thing, a hollow oh in the middle of the wet night, the sound of sewer pipes pumping, jangling, clanking, she said, "Tommy, will you sing me a song like you used to?"
I told her I was too old for singing. She said there was no such thing as too old. I said my voice cracked. I chatted, ever heard of puberty, mom? But, of course, it wasn't really true. I was judging myself by oldearth years. Things were different. I could sing. I just didn't want to. I wanted a smoke.
My mother said, "Tommy." It was the saddest thing I'd ever heard. Think about that please. My own name, spoken by my mother, was the saddest thing I'd ever heard.
My father was snoring lightly on the edge of the mattress, my brother enclosed in his big arms. Seemed to me then as it seems to me now the whole world had let us be for a moment like a long sigh before the rain. It wouldn't last, or, as they say in the black mountains: the night won't get any colder until it does. Of course I sang her a song. It was a Galilean song and even now I cannot remember the tune.
There were these great big windows on the sky decks of the spaceport. A lot of people spent time looking out of them. I was one of them, just a kid, with my nose pressed against the glass. The city burned. Columns of smoke like pillars of a dying dream rose through the orange sky, a sky until a few oldearth days before I'd called my own, a sky I'd looked up into and watched the whitebirds winging, a sky that had witnessed my birth and my brother's, a deep orange sky of promises.
The trains were mangled on the eastern edge of the city, twisted and heaped, the carcass of a beast. Saw fires glowing: the entire Wesley neighborhood, from Fifth to Clarke, looked like the coals from a campfire. You could see to the horizon, the countryside as tinder, burning, ashen. The black ice storm hovered over everything still, waiting for its time to ruin the world. Sometimes, my father said, pointing to the tumorous mass in the sky, it takes a Galilean week for the storm to hit.
"You think it'll really sock it to us, dad?" I said.
"This ice storm?" he said, his eye on the prize. "Oh yes. It'll sock it to us." Put his hand lightly on my shoulder. "Be long gone by then, Tommy. No worries."
The next night my mother asked if I could sing a song again. I did.
It was this way each night we waited for our transport from the only world we'd ever truly known, in that dank wet cramped space with the dirty mattress and the stinking folk: after my father had closed his eyes and pretended to sleep, my brother cradled in his arms, and, after the strangers we did not so much as say hello to, wandered off to dreams or whatever, my mother would ask me to sing. I sang quietly, my voice light and airy, as soft as butterfly wings, though, you know, in truth, I'd never seen a butterfly but had read about them in entomological books from oldearth, from before the ashlands. I sang all kinds of songs: popular songs, black mountains songs, traditional songs, arias from oldearth, bawdy songs my mother would laugh at or clap her hands quietly to; in short, everything I knew by heart, which, as it turned out, you may have guessed, was a lot. And in the morning I'd have my face plastered to the windows, watching my world burn to the ground, more pillars of smoke, more mangled trains, another city block toasted, and some people remarked how it reminded them of the ashlands of oldearth. Made me think where we were going was going to be no better. My heart was sinking except for at night when I sang.
Seven hundred and twenty hours. From the moment my father came to us that first night with the good news and the bad news and told us we had five Galilean days of waiting, the astute reader and mathematician or the reader prepared with a calculator may take notice, what we really had was seven hundred and twenty oldearth hours. For the less prepared of you and those who dare not add, subtract, multiply or divide, have no fear: I'll spill the beans.
Seven hundred and twenty oldearth hours isn't five Galilean days, no way no how, it is four Galilean days approximately. No, my father hadn't lied to us about the length of time: our tickets were for transport in five Galilean days. But something happened on the fourth day.
That's when the man put the blast-pistol in my father's face.
There'd been threats and rumors of threats throughout the spaceport. Of rioters cutting off inbound/outbound flights; Hydra Station had been compromised and was currently floating free in orbit, unmanned; the hard-scrabbled men of the black mountains had descended and were raping and pillaging the burning countryside; there'd been no word from oldearth on any evacuation attempts, and everyone thought the home government had completely disintegrated, there would be nothing waiting for us but more death and bloodshed and, let's not forget, the ashlands where we'd done this kind of thing once before but with much more force and accuracy and will of destruction. People were growing desperate.
I was desperate too and lonely. Both of my parents were asleep, cuddled up with Lawrence. The boy I wasn't allowed to say hello to was reading a book in the corner.
"What kind of story is it?" I said.
The boy looked up. Had a heavy-angled chin and dark eyes. "Story about a guy."
"Sounds boring," I said.
"You'd be wrong," he said. "The guy does something really wrong and he gets sent into outer space in a ship that looks like a straightjacket but it's a straightjacket that contains his mind. He hurtles through space unable to take part in all the fascinating things he sees like the birth and death of stars and a caravan of aliens being pulled into a black hole and the girl he loves growing old without him and his son growing up without him and all he can do is float around and not participate. He's like this philosopher or whatever and he starts philosophizing on how if he'd just not done the bad thing he would get to go grocery shopping or drink beer in a tap and ride a hoverbike and bask in sunlight and shit like that. So he starts figuring a way out of the straightjacket-shaped ship. He's a pretty bright guy and, as it happens, his dad was a magician, one of the last of his kind, and used to show the guy all these card tricks and how to hide a rabbit in your hat and a bouquet of flowers up your sleeve and so the guy figures it out. He untangles himself from the straightjacket. But guess what?" The kid raised his eyebrows. "El duderino untangled the hull of the ship so instead of freeing himself like he thought, all he does is open up to the vacuum of space and he freezes and dies."
"Like I said. Sounds boring." I slumped beside him.
That's when the man with the spots on his bald head sat up timorously. He was watching something moving. My eyes followed the path of his. The kid was watching too. There was a man stalking along the wall. He had something in his hand. I didn't know what it was then, not at first, but of course I know it now, I recognize the shape, you know, I feel its heavy shadowy substance in my dreams, as large and black as the ice storm: a blast-pistol.
I don't know what would've happened had I cried out as my body wished me to. I opened up our family channel, to be sure, on my e-nerves. I quivered. I could say nothing. The kid could say nothing. The old man with spots on his bald head could say nothing while the man with the blast-pistol in his hand silently, cautiously, precariously, sneaked toward the mattress my parents and tiny brother slept on.
I wanted to chat my father, peanut butter, because that was our family's password for danger. Wanted to sing it along my e-nerves a hundred times, peanut butter peanut butter peanut butter, but I couldn't make it happen. To shout, to chat, to make the difference between what was going to happen and what might've happened: things outside of my adolescent powers.
The man put the blast-pistol in my father's face and it woke him up. I heard my father say, the most helpless and common thing to say, you can imagine, he said, "No."
The man replied with one word as well. He said, blast-pistol point-blank, "Tickets."
My father shook his head sadly. His eyes found mine. There wasn't anything anybody could do. He handed over the tickets. Handed over our getaway. Our salvation, our hope, our last chance.
The man with the blast-pistol did something much worse then. He pulled the trigger and my father's face exploded. This man of middling height and thinning hair, of the impassioned speeches, fell from everything, blood and bits of brain and skin slicking the wall and mattress and my tiny brother and mother.
Then everybody started screaming and running and the kid reading the book grabbed my hand and led me to a darker part of the room. The man with the spots on his bald head went to the sink and washed his hands and I tried to find him on my e-nerves to tell him he was a retard but I couldn't find him.
Wasn't anything to do but wait out the screaming and yelling and not think about how I'd never get off this heaping hellhole now.
Not that I'd wanted to, really, up to this point. Despite the Sensation Riots, the burning and looting, the desolation resembling the ashlands of oldearth, I was content here. Galilee made me happy. Or, at least, once upon a time, it had. I saw my father's face go up in red flames like our house, the windows of his eyes smashed, and suddenly I knew I hated this place, particularly this room, this moment, the man with the blast-pistol, and the goddamned kid, with his shitty story who was trying to chat me, who wouldn't let go of my hand.
The thought crossed, vague as a ghost: Where is my mother? I didn't know if she had made it out or if the lunatic with the blast-pistol, revved from the recent, you know, murder of my father, bloodlust singing in his veins, had done her in too. I can't imagine it. I think about my brother. Poor Lawrence, I think. Try to chat them but Galilee's signals' are like scrambled eggs suddenly.
I'm dying for a smoke. The spaceport is wild. My eyes are all e-nerves glazed. I feel like a science fiction jerk. I don't where I'm going, where I'm being led. The boy is yanking. He's looking at me, at my glazed-over eyes. There's no signal. There's nothing.
Now he's pointing. The boy is pointing. At the big bay windows. The ice storm. In the distance you can see it: white nuggets falling from an inked-out sky.
Then somebody shoves me over and I'm lost in the crowd. I'm yelling at the top of my lungs. For my mother. For the boy. For my father. I'm chatting it all caps along my e-nerves. It's two words: HELP ME. No one does.
My face plastered against the big bay windows almost comically, the ice storm a dark thing on the horizon, never quite reaching. I had been running; I was being pulled by the boy. His sweaty palm clasped in mine. Outside the spaceport fires and plumes of smoke spilled across the sky. Galilee was consumed by revolution. The ice storm glowed on the horizon like pure black glass. The last real thing I remember? The boy's slick palm, the soft way flesh feels against flesh.
© 2010 Dustin J Monk
Bio: Dustin J Monk graduated from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale where he was fiction editor of Grassroots: an Undergraduate Literary Magazine in 2005. He is attending 2010 Clarion Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers’ Workshop – San Diego this summer. This is his first published story.
E-mail: Dustin J Monk
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