Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 2


I'm presenting here Chapter 2 of my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars." It's a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of "The Termite Queen"). I already posted the Prologue to that book, which you can read here, and Chapter 1, available here.  At that latter link, you can see my drawing of Capt. Nikalishin.
       Chapter 2 is a flashback, taking us through the birth and early childhood of the Captain.  Personally, I think it's one of my more effective pieces of writing, much better than Chapter 1, which was totally devoted to exposition -- presenting backstory. (However, if I were actually publishing the book, I would probably do some more revision first.) One of the problems with Chapter 1 was that I didn't know the characters yet.  I knew where I was going in the plot, obviously, but the characters were still skeletal, still improvisational.  However, I've had 50 page views on Chapter 1, so maybe somebody read it.  I promise you'll like Chapter 2 even more.

Chapter 2: How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name

(November 2737, 80 km from Bell Horizon,
Barsilia Section, South Ammerik)
       Roberto Haysus Vargas was born in Mount Vid Precinct in Arentina on the 31st of October in the year 2729.  His father, a pampas-raised Arentine named Manual Vargas, was an agrobiologist with QuadGov, specializing in the rehabilitation of worn-out lands.  So it happened that when his son was four months old, Vargas was dispatched to Barsilia Section to help run an experimental plantation of fruit palms, with the purpose of replacing old maize and soy plantations with something friendlier to Barsilia’s environment.  Thus the boy never formed any attachment to the place of his birth.

       His mother bore the name of Sterling Nikalishin.  Her ancestors had come from Russa, migrating into Western Uropia during the time of the Techno-Warlords, then fleeing to Britan when the bombs that had wiped out the Franco-Jerman Federation began to fall.  That had been over 300 years ago and the Nikalishin lineage had become stoutly British, although the family had resisted the pressure to “anglify” its name during the 27th century’s Campaign of Cultural Unification. 

       Upon completing prep, Sterling attended a tech school, studying Spainish and information technology with the intent of becoming an interpreter and transcriptionist.  She hungered for an adventure in a far-away place and hoped to get a posting in an overseas installation.  The Earth Unification Charter was less than forty years old at that time, and the implementation of a Pan-Global government remained a work in progress.  Segments of the Earth such as Britan and Midammerik that prided themselves on possessing an unusually enlightened heritage had not quite lost their distrust for the less homogenized lands in other sectors of the Earth and still maintained delegations in those parts to keep an eye on their interests there.  Sterling had gazed in fascination at the llamas and scarlet macaws in the Lunden Zoological Park and became infatuated with the prospect of visiting them on their home turf.

       When she received her assignment, however, she found herself nowhere near llamas and parrots, but in Bunair in Arentina Section, the capital of the Southwest Quadrisphere, a cosmopolitan city with a decent climate.  She ventured on a couple of excursions to the Andean West and the tropical North and quickly became disillusioned and quite relieved to return to a comfortable city life.  She was put to work as a translator in QuadGov’s Agribusiness Division and planned to return to Britan in a year when her contract expired.  Then she met Manual Vargas.

       He was a rough-talking, sexy outdoorsman, quite different from any man she had ever known, and before she could fully understand what was happening, she was pregnant.  She made a fuss and Manual gave in and signed a nuptial contract with her.  He had family living in Mount Vid and so, when the baby was born, they were waiting in that precinct for Manual’s next assignment to come through.

       And so Sterling found herself transplanted to that tropical North that she found disagreeable, dwelling in a village complex prosaically called Plantação das Palmas, número dois, or simply Dois Palmas, some two hours by rail from Bell Horizon.  Fortunately, Vargas was a supervisor and so the young family was allocated a cottage to themselves and was spared the need to live in the communal barracks with the native field workers and overseers.

       The plantation had been purposely located at no great distance from the Devastation Zone of Regioneiro so as to study the effects of slightly contaminated soil and water on the crops.  During the Apocalyptical the city of Regioneiro itself had been pelted by so many radiant bombs that 350 years later it still remained too “hot” for rehabilitation.  All the food and water necessary for human consumption was transported into Dois Palmas; the surrounding environment had been certified safe for habitation, but a good deal of controversy still lingered about that.  Half the population of Bell Horizon had died during the Wars even though the city itself had escaped a direct attack, and the entire surrounding Prefecture continued to suffer a cancer rate three times higher than normal.  The local population was impoverished and poorly educated, speaking little Inge and only the pidgin dialect of Spainish native to Barsilia, which Sterling could hardly understand.  Hatred for the situation in which she had trapped herself soon began to smolder within her.
*          *          *
       When Robbie Vargas was five years old, some of the village children made fun of his mother’s given name, calling it meaningless.  He bloodied a couple of noses and had his own bloodied in return.  “What does that mean – ‘Sterling’?” he asked his mother as she cleaned him up.
       She told him it was another word for "silver" and he looked up at her tall, slender form and said, “I like that.  You look just like that.”
       She only laughed and didn’t take him seriously.  But he meant it seriously; she almost always wore white or pale gray or creamy beige – an absence of color that glimmered in the dark when she would bend over to kiss him and tuck him up at night.  Her hair was a fine pale blonde and it would be hanging loose when she came to him, brushing his face like spun moonbeams.  Even her eyes were gray, and they seemed to carry glimmers in them, like tiny facets cut in stainless steel.  There was not a great deal of beauty in the place where they lived, and the boy thought his mother was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, or ever would.
*          *          *
       Robbie had two principal memories of his father.  One of them was positive:  it was Vargas who first introduced him to the stars. 
       When Robbie was five, they flew to Mount Vid for a visit and while they were there, Manual took his family on an excursion into Patagon.  Sterling loathed every minute of it, saying, “We live in a wilderness all the time – why would we want to waste our time tramping around in an even worse one?  Bunair has music and nice restaurants and stage shows – why can’t we enjoy some civilized pleasures?”  But she would not have considered allowing Manual to take Robbie off alone and so she was forced to go along.
       Afterward, the boy retained vague memories of guanacos and maras and sitting on a rock beside a real fire, but the thing that remained with an etched clarity in his mind was the vast and black night sky and his father holding him on his knee and pointing out the stars.  And then the naming of them – the Southern Cross, Majelan’s Galaxies, the Centaur, with Alpha Centauri twinkling in its heel … “That one is the nearest star to Earth, Roberto, and it is a lot like our sun.”
       “Do people live there?” asked Robbie breathlessly.
       “They don’t think so.  But if they did, our sun would be the eighth brightest star in their sky.”
       “I’m going to go there, Papá.”
       Vargas laughed.  “That would be a good trick!  So far, nobody’s figured out how to do it.”
       After that, Robbie wanted to do nothing but look at the night sky.  He had just discovered that something else as beautiful and untouchable as his mother did exist …
       When they returned to Dois Palmas, Sterling printed off some sky charts from the Ed Base for him, and he would go out at night with a little electric torch and his plastipaper charts to the far edge of their cottage’s yard and lie on his back and study the sky.  The exterior lighting was turned off early in the village to conserve power, so it was velvety dark in the clearing among the palm trees and the sky looked like a big game field on a port, with markers on it so thick that the pointer would never be able to pick them all out.  The stars were different here from what he had seen in Patagon, but he soon learned to love this version of the sky.  He was particularly drawn to the wandering River – the Eridanus constellation.  It, too, had a star that was not so far from Earth, called Epsilon Eridani.  The information his mother had printed out for him said that it had planets around it.  He lay and stared and made up stories about what it would be like to walk on one of those planets and talk to the alien people who lived there.
*          *          *
       The negative thing that Robbie remembered about his father was to have an equal effect on his life.  Manual Vargas was a rough man with a harsh temper, one of those men in whom alcohol induces violent behavior.  And he drank more than was smart; he wasn’t happy with his job, where he was the third supervisor, serving under a couple of women with less education than he had and whom he didn’t respect.  And he wasn’t happy with the married life; his consort believed that a contract meant he ought to behave like a proper husband and be faithful to her.  But her ethereal beauty never ceased to fascinate him and he wasn’t about to let go of her.
       These frustrations sometimes boiled over and he would take them out on his elegant, sterling silver Brit.  Robbie never forgot the first time he came home from school to find his mother with a large bruise on the side of her face.  She didn’t tell him what had happened, but it scared him, because he was pretty sure he knew the cause.
       While physical fights between Manual and Sterling were not all that common, verbal ones were a constant.  Sometimes, lying out under the stars, the boy would hear the voices of his parents through the open windows of the cottage, the deep bellow of his father, the swelling stridency of his mother, the tones rising and falling like the voices of wild animals in the night.  Then he would crush his face between his hands and stick his thumbs into his ears to deafen himself to the harsh realities of Earth, and he would stare at the stars and name them to himself.  “Beteljewz … Rigel … Achernar – that’s Alpha Eridani … Cursa – that’s Beta Eridani … Zaurak – that’s Gamma Eridani … Acamar – that’s Theta Eridani … and the one that doesn’t have a special name – Epsilon Eridani, where the aliens live … ”
       One night while he was doing this, he didn’t hear his father calling to him to come in.  All he knew was that suddenly the big man was there, towering over him, yelling at him, jerking him off the ground, pitching him across the yard.  The next thing he knew he was lying on an examining table at the village clinic, with a bad pain in his head and his silvery mother standing there in the midst of MedTechs who wore garish green tunics.  She was holding his hand and whispering his name.
       All his limbs convulsed, but the Techs pushed him back gently.  “Lie still, hijo, you may have a concussion.  Do you see this light?  Can you follow it with your eyes?”
       “What happened, Mummy?” he said, clutching at her hand.
       “Your father did this.  He threw you across the yard and you landed on a rake,” she said in a low, quivering voice, not caring who heard her.
       “Are you going to press charges, Ms. Vargas?” asked one of the doctors.  “Do you want us to send Security out to your compound?’
       “No,” said Sterling, “Don’t send them.  I’m not going to press charges.”
       To his dying day, Robbie carried the scar of his father’s intemperance above his left ear, although when his hair grew full, it was hidden from view.
       They kept him at the clinic overnight, and the next day Sterling took him home.  “He hurts you, too, doesn’t he, Mummy?” Robbie said, feeling very shaky.  “Is he going to be there?  If he is, I’m going to beat him up.” 
       “No, you aren’t,” his mother said sharply.  “You’re going to be very quiet and do exactly what I tell you to do.  I told him … I told him I could stand anything myself, but if he ever laid a hand on … ”  And then she fell silent, and Robbie never said another word.
       Vargas stayed in the fields all that day, perhaps afraid to face what he had done.  In the afternoon, Sterling left Robbie locked up in the stifling house and went down to the native village for a while.  She came back with a little packet in her hands and Robbie didn’t ask what it was.  He still felt woozy and was perfectly content to remain in his room lying on the bed.
       He had fallen asleep when Sterling came in and woke him.  “I want you to come out and have some supper.”
       “It’s late for supper,” Robbie said, rubbing his eyes.  “How come we didn’t have it earlier?”
       “Just do as I tell you.”
       So he did.  As he tried to eat his maize mush and soymilk, his mother fussed about in the bedroom she shared with her consort.  He got up and went to the door, and realized with a sort of thudding shock that his father was lying on the bed.  Robbie had approached him before Sterling realized he was there.  Manual Vargas was lying on his back with his mouth gaping open and one arm hanging off the bed.
       Hearing Robbie’s caught breath, Sterling jumped over, seized his arm, and dragged him out of the room.
       “Mummy, is he dead?  He looks dead … ”
       “Of course he’s not dead.  Couldn’t you see him breathing?  What do you think – your mother’s an idiot?  You think I want to spend the rest of my life in some rotten South Ammeriken prison?  It’s just a drug – a sleeping compound I got from the natives.  It’ll keep him unconscious probably till noon tomorrow, at least.”
       “And then what?” asked Robbie, staring at her.
       “And then we’ll be gone.”  She took him by the shoulders and steered him toward his room, jamming a small valise into his hands.  “Robbie, I want you to fill this with some clothes – all your socks and underwear, a pair of closed shoes, three shirts, and a couple of pairs of long pants … yes, long pants!  Where we’re going, it’s not going to be as warm as here.  And pick one toy to take.  That’s all you can take – there’s not room for any more.  Just one, understand?  Come out when you’re done.”
      “Mummy, where are we going?”
       But she was already off doing other things.
       So Robbie filled the suitcase, then stood looking at his toys.  He was only eight years old and they represented his whole life.  “Mummy, do the star-charts count?”
       She didn’t hear him, so he slipped them under the clothes at the bottom of the bag.  Surely they could be counted as schoolwork and not as toys.  Then he picked up the stuffed animal he still slept with.  It was meant to be a replica of the extinct spectacled bear.
       Something caught his eye – a glint from the top of the dresser.  It was a star, mounted at the tip of a thin metallic rod that projected from the nose of a space plane.  The nose pointed upward, as if it were flying toward the star.  The rod was so thin that it looked as if the star hung there without support.
       He stared at the plane and he stared at the bear.
       Sterling called, “Robbie, are you nearly ready?”
       “Coming.”  Hastily, he chucked the bear under the bed, grabbed the plane, detached the rod and the star, and placed the three pieces of the toy in the valise.  It wouldn’t close, so he threw half the socks after the bear and latched the valise.  Then he turned his back on his childhood.
*          *          *
       They walked fast through the darkness, each carrying a valise.  Robbie’s seemed awfully heavy; the taped gash on the side of his head throbbed and he felt a little dizzy.  He stumbled and his mother’s hand gripped his shoulder.
       “You all right, Robbie?  I’d carry you if I could, but I just can’t manage … ”
       “I’m all right.  I’m too big to be carried, anyway.”  He half wished she would hold his hand, but he would have died before he asked her.  But she continued to grip his shoulder and that helped. 
       “Where’s your bear?” she said.
       He swallowed.  “You said, only one toy.  I brought the space plane.”
       “Oh …  Robbie, I really didn’t mean to include Specky in that.  I just expected you would carry him with you.  He’s sort of a part of you.”
        Robbie said nothing, clutching his suitcase, breathing hard.
       After a bit, she said, “I’ll get you another bear, an even nicer one.”
       “It’s all right.  I’m going to give up all that baby stuff.”
       Then he asked, “Where are we going?”
      “To the rail terminal.”
       “And then where are we going?”
       “To Bell Horizon, to the flight port.
       “Oh.  Are we going to Mount Vid?”
       And she replied, “No.  We’re not going to Mount Vid.  We’re going to Britan.”
       He felt a kind of shock in his stomach.  “Britan … that’s where you were born.”  It seemed as far away to him as Epsilon Eridani – both places where silver people came from.
       “Right.  The grandparents that you’ve never met live there.”
      He trudged along digesting this information.  “They don’t speak Spainish there, do they?”
       “No.  You’ll never speak anything but Inge after tonight.”
       They were approaching the lights of the rail terminal, and Sterling stopped suddenly and crouched down before Robbie, taking him by the shoulders and looking into his face.  “You’re going to have a new name now, too, my little son.”
       “A new name?” he repeated, feeling as though his whole world were heaving and dropping under his feet.
       “From now on, you won’t be Roberto Vargas any longer.  You’ll be Robbin Nikalishin.”
       “Oh …  Can I still be Robbie?”
       “Of course.  Robbie is an even better nickname for Robbin than for Roberto.”
       “And Nikalishin … that’s your name.”
       “That’s right.”
       Breathlessly, he said, “What about my middle name?  What about Haysus?”
       She hesitated.  “You ought to keep that, maybe.  It’s the name of that headless god that stands on the hill over the harbor at Regioneiro.  I suppose it couldn’t hurt for you to carry the name of a god.”
       She stood up and they set off into the environs of the terminal.  “Robbin Haysus Nikalishin,” he mumbled, and as Sterling arranged for the ticket and they took seats on the waiting platform, he continued to mutter at intervals, “I’m Robbin Haysus Nikalishin.”
Presently, the train pulled in and they boarded – the silver woman and the boy surnamed for a god.
Coming next: 
Chapter 3: The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment


  1. Manual sounds like a nasty piece of work; I'm glad they left him. What a beautiful description you've given of Sterling, she sounds so elegant! Your writing is very evocative, Lorinda, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    1. Wonderful! I've always liked this chapter. Did you read Chapter 1? This should take you to it: http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2012/09/relief-from-serious-tone-of-last-few.html
      I'm using a flashback technique, and I'm not fond of Chapter 1 as an opening chapter. Too much telling and not showing, especially when we get to Wilda's conversation with Ravi. But how else are you going to summarize briefly the Captain's current situation?

    2. Darn - the comments don't seem to pick up active URLs. But you can paste it in or just look for Man Who Found Birds among the Stars in the Labels.

  2. Good read Lorinda. The first couple of paragraphs were a little clinical but you soon switched to a story telling mode which was more colourful. Enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks so much! As I said in the comment above, I've always liked this chapter. It is a WIP so I'll keep any criticisms in mind.