Chapter 1 The Captain Eats Crow
Chapter 2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
Chapter 3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
When the Midwinter Holidays came round, Robbie’s old demon reared its head again and he had no idea what to do with himself. He woke Kolm up one night with the dream about the baby, although he didn’t reveal the nature of the nightmare to his friend.
Kolm said to him, “It’s goin’ home that’s worrying ye again, isn’t it? Now, I’m not askin’ ye for any explanations, so don’t get huffy or jump up and paste me in the side of the head – just hear me out. I was wonderin’ if ye’d like to come home to Eira with me for the holidays. There’ll be a passel of great food, and some traditions that may be new to ye.”
So Robbie rang up Sterling and actually caught her at home. When she heard his plans, she was silent for a minute and then said, “I haven’t seen you, Robbie, since before you went birding last summer."
This irritated him because it made him feel guilty, and he really didn’t think she had any right to make him feel guilty. “Why do you want to see me? Is there any real reason, Mum? You must be busy, particularly at this holiday season.”
“Of course there’s no reason,’ she said, her voice grating. “I’m being rather silly, aren’t I? There should be a logical reason for everything we do; that’s quite obvious.”
A silence hung between them. Then Sterling said, “Go to Eira, Robbin. Kolm is a fine boy and it will be a useful experience for you. You have your mother’s blessing.”
It was with great relief that Robbie shut down the com, although he had no idea as to whether that “blessing” remark was sarcastic or sincere.
So he went home with Kolm to his family’s farm not far inland from Wicklo Precinct and the experience was a revelation equal to the birding trip. He learned at last what it was like to be raised in a traditional family, with your roots growing from a piece of ground you called your own. Kolm’s mother and father, Joanna and Mat, and his two sisters, nine-year-old Aideen and fifteen-year-old Fiona, all lived in a rambling, inefficient house of concrete and fieldstone that predated the Union by a hundred years. Kolm’s widowed grandmother lived with them as well, a lively, good-natured old lady who made a lamb stew worth dying for. Kolm’s mother baked wonderful soda bread, served with honey from the family’s own bees. Robbie got stung examining the hives, much to the merriment of Fiona and Aideen. The fifteen-year-old flirted mercilessly with Robbie, who carefully reined in his responses, because Kolm made some threats that struck him as only half-humorous.
Robbie met domestic animals for the first time; there had been dogs at Dois Palmas, but they were big, brutish guard dogs, intimidating to a small boy. Here there were not only dogs, but cats, goats, sheep, chickens, geese, and a couple of equines. The equines were mere ponies, kept mainly for the entertainment of the family’s and the neighbors’ children, but Robbie found them unnerving. He was goaded into mounting one and promptly fell off into a pile of manure. Kolm teased him. “Here, the big star-flyin’ man can’t even keep his seat on a little mare pony! That doesn’t bode so well for the future of Earth’s space program, now, does it?”
“A space plane’s got bulkheads, you nit,” responded Robbie good-humoredly as he pelted his friend with manure, “and restraint belts on the seats. This monster’s got no safety mechanisms – and no guidance system! It’s like riding on the outside of the hull!”
Of all the animals, Robbie found the chickens and geese the most fascinating, to the perplexity of Kolm’s family, who looked upon them matter-of-factly as a source of eggs and meat. When one of the geese hissed and pecked at Robbie, he simply stood his ground and honked at it, and strangely enough the bird backed off with what seemed like a puzzled mien. And the roosters fascinated him, with their strut and their raucous crowing, their proud combs and flocks of adoring hens. He told Kolm that obviously these gamecocks knew how to please their women.
The Eirish Midwinter festivity was different from anything Robbie had ever heard of. It was celebrated on the solstice, but Kolm’s father explained that it incorporated elements from what ancient Romish worshipers had called Krismess. Robbie’s knowledge of the Romish religion came solely from a brief exposition in one of Prf. Doone’s classes, so he was interested to see what it entailed.
The MaGilligoodys set up something they called a “kraytch” – a little array of figurines in a cave-like setting. There was a woman in a blue gown with silvery trim on it, a baby lying in a cradle, and a man standing beside them. From the top of the cave projected a wire with a star on it, something like the star on Robbie’s space plane. There were sheep and donkeys arrayed around, and (mystifyingly) a camel, and winged fairies stuck up on the wall behind. Facing this tableau were two men dressed in bright robes, holding out a box and a vial.
Kolm said, “There are supposed to be three of those, but last year one of ’em disappeared. I think maybe one of the cats got holt of it and carried it off.”
“What’s it represent?” asked Robbie, watching Kolm’s Grammy lighting fat beeswax candles at each end of the scene.
“It’s the birth of that god-man Jaysus that’s on me medal,” said Kolm. “That’s his mother Mairin watchin’ over him. He was supposed to have been born this time of the year – that’s what we’re celebratin’.”
“Who’s the man? I thought you said he didn’t have a father.
“It’s his foster father, name of Josef. Mairin was married to him, ’cause that was back in the days when women had to have men to look after them."
"What’s the star for?”
“They say it burst out bright in the sky at Jaysus’s birth. Probably a supernova, you know, if it ever really happened a-tall. And the family was so poor that the babby was birthed in a barn, and yet this star set up right atop it. Those chaps in the robes – they call ’em Wise Men – Professors, most likely … they got its coordinates and brought fancy gifts to Jaysus to show they recognized he was a god. It’s supposed to have happened somewhere at the east end of the Mediterrian, where it’s all a Devastation Zone now. A pretty tale, it is.”
“And you Eirish really worship this god?” asked Robbie, looking at Kolm’s father.
“Oh, I don’t know that I’d call it worship, lad,” Mat MaGilligoody said. “But we Eirish tend to be a superstitious lot. If it’s not gods, it’s fairies, ye know. Two of those even got hooked up in this tale, ye can see there. It’s just part of our tradition to do these here things at Midwinter – a nice, peaceful way of celebratin’.”
Robbie found it totally bizarre, but nevertheless he stood looking at the baby and at the mother and at the star, unable to interpret the emotions that were weltering within him.
On that day of solstice they had a big feast … the main course was goose, which made Robbie a little uncomfortable, afraid he was eating the one whose acquaintance he had made … and then they sang traditional songs. Some were in an ancient tongue that even the MaGilligoodys didn’t know the meaning of, but one was in an ancient dialect of Inge.
Silent night, holy night ...
All is calm, and all is bright
Around the vergin mother and child --
Holy infant, all tender, all mild ...
May the cleep in a haven of peace ...
Sleep in a haven of peace ...
Robbie thought he had never heard a song so tranquil and so moving. “That mother and child – that’s your Mairin and Jaysus?” he asked.
“Right. The same as is in the kraytch,” said Mat.
“I can’t help being a little surprised. I thought all the ancient religions were supposed to be violent and evil. This doesn’t seem that way.”
And Kolm’s mother said, “I’ve an idea, friend of me son, that none of them was violent in its heart. I think it’s the hearts of humans that misunderstood the Right Way and made ’em so.”
Later in the evening, Kolm played a tin whistle, a talent that Robbie hadn’t known he possessed, and Kolm’s father played a grotesque musical instrument where the air was forced through a bag. They told ancient Eirish stories about vanishing cities and wandering lights and they drank mulled ale; it was not Robbie’s first taste of alcohol, but it was his first time to drink a little more than was wise. The next morning he was privileged to experience his first hangover.
When the time came to return to school, the boys splurged by taking an excursion boat across Sainjorge’s Channel instead of catching a wing hopper. The craft was operated by Gwidian Tours, the enterprise of an old family of seafarers from Kardif. It was yet another first for Robbie – his first time to bob on the waters of the sea. He got a bit queasy, but it excited him tremendously, and he hated to see the trip end.
“Ye’re kinda quiet, lad,” said Kolm, as they neared the harbor. “What are ye thinking about?”
“I’m thinking that I envy you, Goody,” Robbie replied. “I didn’t know – couldn’t have realized – how happy people … a family like yours … could be … ”
Kolm clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, ye do seem to have had a bit of a rough time in yer life, friend of mine. But ye’re welcome in my family. Ye’re welcome to come back and soil yer boots in the goose shit as often as ye like!”
“I’m really gratified to hear that, sir. Prf. Eiginsh sometimes makes me feel like a mental flea. He’s awfully good at tearing apart what I think are perfectly cogent pieces of reasoning.”
Flournoi chuckled. “He is that. Not very verbally adept, though, is he?”
“Oh, did he tell you about the name thing, sir? We have this on-going battle.”
“Don’t let him get to you. I’ve known him some fifteen years now, and to this day my name sometimes comes out of his mouth as ‘Foolroi’ or ‘Flower-boy.’”
They laughed together. Then the Professor said abruptly, “Mr. Nikalishin, I want you to apply for regular admission to Oxkam next year. I can almost guarantee you a scholarship.”
Robbie looked at him. “Oh! Well, I appreciate your faith in me, Prf. Flournoi, but I really don’t think I want to do that. I plan to attend the Flight Academy at Old Heathero. I’ve already got the Permission to Apply in hand and I was just on the verge of asking you if you could be so kind as to write a recommendation for me.”
Flournoi was clucking and shaking his head. ”Your mind will be wasted in the military. You have the potential to do great things in either the theoretical or applied fields of temporal quantum physics. Do you realize how rare your kind of intellectual ability is? Why do you think it took over six centuries from the discovery of quantum mechanics and superstrings to come up with temporal quantum theory?”
“I always thought it was because the Dark Age got in the way.”
“Well, that can’t have helped, but my point is, it takes an intellect of rare and eccentric brilliance like Iven Herinen’s to achieve such a breakthrough. You might – you aren’t quite there yet, but you might – just have such a mind. And you want to throw it all away on some space-pilot hero riff.” Flournoi shook his head.
Robbie was getting a little irritated. “I’m not all that sure I do have that kind of mind, Professor, and I’m not sure I have the dedication for it. I wanted to become competent in this branch of physics because I believe it’s the foundation of an interstellar drive and I know that understanding something of the science behind your engines can make you a better pilot and – a better Captain, if I should ever be so fortunate. You shouldn’t just punch buttons – you should know what happens when you punch them, and why. But the flying has always come first with me. It’s my motivation. Without that, I might just throw over the whole thing and become … ” He cast about for an example. “ … a bird counter. Or a farmer in Eira.”
Flournoi gave a rather startled laugh at that, not fully understanding what prompted those examples. “Well, I’m not going to lay off you about this, Robbie. And I’m not going to agree to write your recommendation yet, either. Let’s wait awhile. Think it over; don’t act rashly. And then maybe … ”
“It’s not rash,” said Robbie. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
He talked all this over with Kolm, who said, “A rare opportunity it is, Robbie – to have some of the most learned men on Earth beggin’ ye to attend one of the greatest universities on Earth. Ye might even get a chance to work on the SkyPiercer Project.”
“I am going to work on the SkyPiercer Project,” exploded Robbie. “I’m going to fly one of the first ships with a TQ drive that is ever constructed. And you are going to be the Engineer on it. Kolm, you know I want us to be a team – to go into space together!”
“I know ye do, lad, but … ” Kolm chewed his lip. His Permission to Apply for the Flight Academy also reposed in a drawer of his desk. “Ye’re not the only one they asked to stay here, ye know. They didn’t prime me up quite as full as they did you, but they were a fair bit flatterin’. And me parents … well, I’d be the first person in me family to get into a high and mighty school like this. The best anyone did afore me was me Mum, who spent a year at the MaCrory Technical College up in Dublen.”
Robbie shoved his fingers through his hair. “Kolm, you stubborn nit, I want you with me at Old Heathero.”
“Robbie, why is it so important to ye that I go with you? We can’t be together our whole life, man. We’ll both marry us a woman someday and settle down and raise a family. We can’t stay together forever.”
“See, I don’t see that in my future. I want … ”
“I know. You want to be a space hero.”
“Well, yes, juvenile as that sounds. And every hero needs a companion – somebody to share his adventures with him. Can’t you be that for me? … Besides, I need you, Kolm.”
The last words seemed wrenched out of him, and Kolm frowned. “Ah, lad … ”
“You keep me stable, Goody. You know that. I … Sometimes I think something terrible would go wrong with my life if you weren’t a part of it.”
Robbie was scowling and scrubbing the back of his neck, looking up defensively at Kolm. The young Eirishman sat down beside him. “Now, Robbie, boy. That’s touchin’ to me. Lemme think about it a wee bit more. It is a great draw – this takin’ care of the fancy newfangled light-time engine of an interstellar ship. Maybe I could even get to be a tiny hero in me own right.”
Robbie laughed shakily. “I have no doubt whatsoever of it. Come on, Goody, don’t let me down.”
The upshot of it all, of course, was that Professors Flournoi and Eiginsh regretfully relented and wrote the recommendations, and Robbin Nikalishin and Kolm MaGilligoody went down to the Old Heathero Flight Academy together in the fall term of 2747 – an event that was indeed to have consequences for the history of the modern world.
You'll have to wait ... and wait ... and wait ...
till the first volume of The Man Who Found Birds is published.