Friday, December 7, 2012

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch.4


Here is yet another installment of my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," 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, as well as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3. In keeping with my method of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 4 chronologically follows Chapter 2.  Robbie's mother has just left his abusive father (in Barsilia) and moved herself and her 8-year-old son to Lunden.  In this chapter we make the connection between Robbie and the events of the Prologue. 
Chapter 4: School Days at Epping Academy
(2740, Lunden; Epping Science Academy)
       After their return to Britan, Sterling Nikalishin and her son stayed for a few months with her parents.  It was a difficult transition; the ten years that had passed since Sterling left for Arentina had changed her so much that she and her parents no longer understood each other.  So she found work for herself as quickly as she could, proofreading Spainish documents for the Government Linguistic Office.  It was not a high-paying job, but it allowed her to rent a fourth-floor walk-up in Lunden’s Brickston District, with a living room/kitchen combo, one bedroom, and a large walk-in storage closet that she converted into a snug bedroom for Robbie.  It wasn’t luxurious, but the neighborhood was respectable and it was near a Gov school that Robbie could walk to, sparing them the expense of public transportation.
       At first the boy found his new life pretty daunting, although he would never have admitted it.  He had barely gotten used to the school near his grandparents’ dwelling before he had to transfer to the Brickston institution.  He had been accustomed to the ragtag assortment of children in Dois Palmas’s automated school, where a single tech-trained teacher simply presented canned lessons on a portscreen and tried to answer questions.  There he had been the star pupil in his age group; here he lagged behind in everything.  It was humiliating, but it drove him to work extra hard and to put up a tough façade.  He was always getting into fights over some insult; the children made fun of his accented Inge, of his ignorance of British customs, of his less-than-stylish clothes.  The wardrobe problem was quickly rectified – his grandparents made sure of that.  He supposed grandparents could be useful after all, for more than simply carping on your behavior.
       And the other difficulties – the accent, the academic lag – those quickly took care of themselves.  In a couple of years, he was in the top quarter of his class and was speaking Inge and deporting himself like a true Brit.  The tough front and chip on the shoulder, however, were qualities that he made no attempt to shed.  His name turned up with some frequency on the disciplinary list.
       It was during this period that Sterling introduced Robbie to the Lunden Zoological Park.  A viral infection had killed all the macaws, but the llamas were still there, and the zoo nurtured a wealth of other exotic animals that were sure to fascinate a small boy.  The area around Dois Palmas had been pretty much sterilized during the Radiant Wars; every last amphibian and a lot of the arthropods had been wiped out, and it had been necessary to reintroduce the insects and birds required for the pollination of palm tree plantations.  The only large avians that Robbie had ever seen were a pair of soaring condors during the excursion to Patagon.  The sight had taken his breath away and reinforced his yearning to fly.
       So it was at the Lunden Zoo that he first experienced raptors – falcons, goshawks, golden eagles, bald eagles from Northwest Quad, and even a martial eagle from Afrik.  The martial eagle was in a high-sided enclosure that was open to the sky.  The bird crouched on a snag just above ground level, spreading its two-meter wingspan and snaking its head, its daunting beak agape.  Its fierce golden eyes refused to acknowledge its imprisonment, daring the humans outside its bars to pity it.
       Mesmerized with awe, Robbie said, “There’s no roof on the cage.  Why doesn’t he fly away?”
       Sterling read the informational placard.  “It says the bird’s name is Survivor.  It’s from Southern Afrik.  It was being shipped to Britan to take part in a breeding program and it got loose and started preying on newborn lambs down in Kent.  A farmer talked the local Security contingent into shooting it.  Oh, Robbie, isn’t that terrible!  It says both its wings were broken and the tip of the left one had to be amputated.  See how the right wing droops crooked?  It says here it’s unable to fly now.”
       This vision of an eagle named Survivor who couldn’t fly bit into Robbie’s soul and remained with him all his life.  And that visit to the Zoo left him with a bird obsession; every species fascinated him, but he was particularly drawn to birds of prey.  Secretly, he wished that he was named not for a little red-breasted thrush, but for a falcon perhaps, or an eagle; Peregrine or Martial would have been lovely.
       When Robbie was ten, the school administrators asked Sterling to come for a conference.  She complied with some alarm; Robbie didn’t always tell her everything, and she was certain that they would say he was going to be expelled for fighting and insolence, or exiled to a disciplinary institution.  But instead the Chief Administrator said to her, “Your son’s performance is above average in every academic subject, but were you aware that he approaches the genius level in mathematics?”
       Sterling was astounded.  She knew that Robbie liked math and had no difficulty wrapping his mind around it, but it was not something for which she herself had any aptitude and she had had no idea that at the age of ten he was on the verge of mastering advanced algebra.
       “When you ask him what he wants to do with his life,” the Administrator said, “he invariably says he wants to fly space planes and usually adds that he means to fly to a star one day … ha, ha!  What fantasies children come up with!  He is just a little boy, after all.  But he really does have the aptitude to become a theoretical or applied mathematician or a physicist … or this interest in stars and flying could lead to a career in astrophysics or engineering.  Certainly, he needs to be steered in those directions – to have special training in the physical sciences.  Consequently, we would like to recommend him for a tuition scholarship at Epping Science Academy – have you ever been there?  Beautiful place!  It’s a preparatory school with both basic and advanced Forms, located on the fringes of the Epping Forest Conservation Area – great for studying the natural sciences, don’t you know?  But the school is equally renowned for excellence in the physical sciences.  Not only will they be able to actualize Robbin’s academic potential – they will also have time to give him individual attention and deal with this – ah – independent streak that he exhibits on occasion …  The application of the right kind of discipline will mold him into a better adult. 
       “Attending a private school of that caliber, however, carries some financial burden for the family.  There are expenses over and above tuition – things like uniforms and  room and board – it’s a residential school – and Epping plays in a top football conference, so there could be athletic fees.  Robbie is a sturdy little boy and I’m sure they’d welcome him on the playing field.  Do you think you can handle that much additional expense?”
       And so the world was turned upside down all over again, for Sterling as well as for Robbie.  She felt an urgent obligation to nurture her son’s emerging talents and ensure a successful future for him, and so she quit her job and moved them to Scholastic Village, a town built to accommodate people associated with the Academy when it was founded some fifty years before.  Robbie would still be required to reside in the dormitories, but Sterling would be nearby and they would save the costs of Off-Day transportation to and from Lunden.  She found a job as a com clerk and transcriptionist with the Village administration; it paid even less than her old position and she had to beg a loan from her parents to get their lives started.  She said nothing to Robbie about their precarious financial situation.
       He resisted the move at first, especially after the school administrator told him he would not only learn academic subjects but also acquire the discipline to grow into a fine human being.  “You’ll be expected to follow a great many rules,” he said.  “Do you think you can do that, Robbin?”
       “I doubt it,” he said bluntly.
       “Well, I think you should give it a try.  It’s a great sacrifice your mother is willing to make for you, you know – you should make an extra big effort to help in the process.  I assure you, after you grow up, you’ll be glad you did.”
       Afterward, Robbie said to Sterling, “I don’t want to go there, Mum.  I don’t like rules.  I want to do things my own way.”
       “And just how will you know what your own way is if you don’t have an education?” she said.  “It takes an education to understand life, and getting one takes discipline and some sacrifice.  If I’d had the sense to go to university instead of that tech school, my life might have been a lot different.”
       Robbie looked at her and said, “You wouldn’t have had me if you had.  Would that be better?”
       She returned his gaze, and then knelt down and took his face delicately between her fingertips.  “When you put it like that, son, I guess it was the right thing for me to do.  But, Robbie, everybody has to learn discipline, especially self-discipline.  You have no idea how much discipline is involved in flying one of those spaceships you love so much.  And just look at your father.  See where a lack of self-discipline got him.  Do you want to be like that?”
       He wriggled away from her, his face twisting into a distressed frown.  “No.  No, I don’t want to be like him.”
       And so he acquiesced.  In fact, he wasn’t that sorry to escape the tedium of a Gov school, where the program tended to be geared for the lowest common denominator.  Besides, he would get to live near unpopulated land again, where there might be wild birds.  And he was hoping he would be able to get a good view of the British stars, something hard to do in Lunden even with the restrictions on nighttime lighting. 
       However, the youngsters who attend such expensive private institutions tend to be a rather elite group, and Sterling was a little afraid that her son would find himself in over his head socially.  The Unification Charter had outlawed class distinctions worldwide, but anyone who had grown up in the Islands knew they were bred in Brits’ bones, even with the nobility and the monarchy barely a memory.  But she didn’t tell him that either.
       And Sterling was right to be concerned.  Robbie immediately sensed that he wasn’t fitting in, and while he had superficially accepted the need for discipline, putting that into practice was another matter.  His non-conformist streak was stubborn; adhering to schedules galled him and he resented being judged on how he made his bed and how he held his fork at breakfast.  Furthermore, some of his peers baited him as an outsider.  He especially resented being named a Mummy’s boy because he invariably left the dormitory on Saturday nights and spent the Off-Day with Sterling in the Village.  But such baiting only stiffened his resolve to be himself; his attitude was “I won’t change what I am for any bastard!”  The first six months of his tenure were rough, with predictable episodes of scuffling and rule infractions and numerous sessions with the Disciplinary Officer. 
       However, stubborn as Robbie was, he was also a pragmatist, and he decided on his own that the benefits of being where he was outweighed his reluctance to alter his behavior.  He grew into, if not a model Epping cub, at least an acceptable one.  And he soon became socially toughened as well; the difficulty with his peers amounted to not so much open warfare as subtle shunning – not legions of bullies but cliques of backbiters.  He soon began to use his raggers’ own methods against them, learning to be as arrogant as anyone, with a gift for an ironic turn of phrase that few could match – a tactic that he employed only toward those who were arrogant with him.  There were other social outsiders like himself, and he never showed that kind of attitude to them; he won their friendship by displaying the natural charm and sense of fairness that formed another facet of his character.  Before long he was their leader.  He tried not to let them know that he needed them as much as they needed him.
       Then there were the girls, who in the basic forms tended to form coteries of their own, scorned and harassed by the boys, who relished flaunting their convictions about male superiority.  Robbie never behaved like that; he was too young to be interested in the sexual aspects of female associations, but he always treated the girls civilly and had no objection to eating lunch at the same table with them or working on projects where girls happened to be in the majority.  He was discovering that running the show was pretty easy for him, and therefore he had no need to practice dominance by being a bully.
       Academically Robbie adapted well; any difficulties he had came from spending too much time on his math and science assignments and skimping on the humane subjects.  Epping was a science academy, but its administration strongly believed that a broader education was essential to mold a complete person.  And it was not that Robbie disliked subjects like literature and history; he enjoyed reading and the story of the planet’s recent Dark Age affected him profoundly.  He had an introspective streak and he realized that the classes where Mythmaker concepts were analyzed and debated were just the edge of what was to be discovered in the realm of moral philosophy.  Nevertheless, he understood that math and physics were the subjects that would get him where he wanted to go, although the natural sciences, and especially ornithology, also had their attractions for him.
       Robbie quickly made a best friend – another outsider: a boy from Eira.  His name was Kolm MaGilligoody, and his talent was also for math and physics, although his inclination was towards applications rather than theory, and he planned to become some kind of engineer.  They hit it off from their first encounter, when they found themselves side by side combating taunts about their difficult names.  Kolm’s home across Sainjorge’s Channel was just a little too far away to visit except during major holidays, so the Eirish boy often spent the Off-Days with Robbie and his mother.
       On one of these visits, Robbie introduced his new friend to the stars.  Robbie had been thrilled to discover that here in Britan he was still able to pick out the constellation of Eridanus, along with many unfamiliar stars.  With electric torch and new star-charts in hand, he and Kolm would go up to the roof terrace of the building, where they had a view of the whole horizon.  There, they would lie on their backs bundled up in anoraks and blankets against the autumn chill while Robbie pointed out celestial bodies and named them. 
       “Holy cry, ye say those names like they’re a bit religious,” whispered Kolm.
       “Hell, no, I’m not religious,” said Robbie.
       “What makes that one there so extra-special?  It’s nothin’ as bright as those other two … what’d ye call ’em?”
      “That’s Rigel and that’s Beteljewz.  Those two are both first magnitudes and Rigel is the 7th brightest star in the sky.”
       “Ye said the wee one ye like so much doesn’t have a fancy name, even.”
      “It’s just Epsilon Eridani.  If they haven’t got an ancient descriptive name, they call them by the constellation name plus a letter of the Griek alphabet.  Remember when Ms. Pitcock taught us about the Griek alphabet?  I never knew what ‘epsilon’ and ‘alpha’ and all those words meant before that.  Anyway, Epsilon Eridani is the nearest star that they know for sure has planets around it.  They probably aren’t like Earth, but just the same …  And it’s only 10.5 light years away.”
       “Ye know how horrible far a light year is, Robbie?”
       “Of course I do, but still, 10.5 is close when you think Rigel is 775 and Beteljewz is maybe 500.  Besides … ”  Robbie lowered his voice mysteriously.  “You know what?  I think there are aliens on those planets.”
       “Ye’re raggin’ me!  What do ye think they look like?”
       “I think they’re tall and thin, with small heads and long silver hair, and they wear shimmery, silver robes, and have powers that you can’t imagine.”
       “Just that?  That’s not soundin’ so scary.”
       “Why do aliens have to be scary?” said Robbie in disgust.  “You’ve watched too many space-bug stories on the links, Kolm.  I think they’re benevolent.  And I’m going there someday and find out.  Why don’t you come with me?”
       “Holy cry.  Now ye are raggin’ me.”
       “No, I mean it.  I’ll pilot the ship … ”
       “A ship like that grand little flyer with the star on his nose that ye have in yer room?”
       “Just like that.  You can be … let’s see, what would the pilot of a star-ship need?  Oh, I know, an engineer – that’s the sort of work you like.  Why don’t you go to Flight Academy with me?  You can keep the engines working and I’ll fly the ship.”
       “What sort of engines will the thing have?” said Kolm.
       “I don’t know.  Some kind of ultra-super physics thing based on an application of Iven Herinen’s quantum temporal equations.  I don’t think it’s been invented yet.”
       “Oh, well, then, it’s tomorrow we’ll be goin’, or the next day at the latest!  Robbie lad, we’ll both be doddery old men afore we can go.  Ye got to be just about the most impractical pup ever whelped in the world.”  And he jumped up and pretended to stagger around with an imaginary cane.  Robbie joined him and soon they were both tromping around the rooftop laughing uproariously, causing the tenant of the flat below to pop out of the stairwell and shake his fist at them.
       Then they descended again to the warm reality of Sterling’s flat and Robbie’s mother made hot chocolate for them.
Coming next:
Chapter 5: The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet

No comments:

Post a Comment