Friday, April 5, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 8 (Pt. 1)

Here is the newest 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).

A list of the previous posts, with links:
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
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions
Chapter 7 An Old Love and Another Assignment
In keeping with my method of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 8 chronologically follows Chapter 6.  Chapter 8 is rather long, so I'm splitting it into two posts.  In Pt. 1, we learn more of the vicissitudes of Robbie's adolescence at Epping Science Academy, including his first sexual encounter. 


(2741-2745, Epping Science Academy)
The discipline meted out to Robbie Nikalishin for deserting the football team and leaving campus without permission was stern enough; for a month he was restricted to dormitory and study rooms except for class attendance and meals, and he was not allowed in the Village even on Off-Days.  He had to undergo a series of rigorous counseling sessions on the importance of reliability and responsible behavior.  He lost his entire accumulation of merit points.  But the thing that he found the most chastening was explaining to his best friend Kolm MaGilligoody why he had done what he had done.
When Kolm came to the big island, he brought with him a level head and a profound and uncomplicated instinct for right and wrong.  He came from a family of farmers.  Private land ownership still existed in Eira (and persists to this day), and in many cases, a single family had held the same hundred acres for a century or more, growing vegetables or oats or perhaps one of the new, high-protein hybrid grains, or cultivating orchard crops, livestock, or even flowers.  Such farmers frequently banded together with their neighbors in cooperatives, forming social as well as economic bonds.  Nobody in these loose organizations got rich, but they developed a strong sense of loyalty to the common good that the evolving governmental structure of the time sometimes had trouble stimulating in parts of the world with different traditions.  That, coupled with vestiges of ancient customs and snippets of a language that had faded as a viable means of communication, had molded Kolm into a type of boy who differed from the norm at Epping Academy. 
Kolm simply could not fathom how Robbie could have done what he did.  “Ye don’t just go runnin’ off, lad, because ye suddenly decide ye don’t want to do the thing ye agreed to do!  Ye just don’t do that!  Ye got to keep yer promises!”
“Don’t you start haranguing me, too, Goody!” Robbie shot back irritably.  “Friends are supposed to support each other.”
“Friends can tell each other when they do somethin’ stupid!  It’s … it’s obligatory, even!”
“All right, so you’ve told me I did something stupid!  Just try to look at it from my side, will you?  I made a mistake about playing football – I’m not suited for it.  I didn’t realize how dangerous it could be.  Now I do.  I’m not going to jeopardize my life, Kolm, for some goofy game.”
“And I think it’s right ye’ve learned that!  I never meself liked any sport where the more ye get hurt, the more glory ye get – that’s why I’m doin’ track.  But there were only three more games to play in the season – five if we made the tournament.  Sure, ye could have finished it out without gettin’ yeself killed.  I mean, how many football teamers do get killed, when it’s all said and done?”
And then Robbie admitted something that he might never have admitted to anyone but Kolm MaGilligoody at that point of his young life.  “Kolm, I was … I guess I was – scared.”
Kolm just looked at his defensively scowling friend.  “Oh.  Well.  I suppose I can understand that.  It’s hard to go to yer coach and admit that ye’ve gotten too scared to play, isn’t it, now?”
“I know I couldn’t do it,” said Robbie.  “Kolm, don’t tell anybody.”
“Ye know ye can always count on me, man, to keep yer secrets.”
“Yes.  I know that.  And you can count on me, too, Kolm.  It’s not likely you’ll ever get into a real scrape, but if you do, I’ll be there for you, too.”
“Shall we swear our friendship and our carin’, Robbie?  I’ve got a gods’ image we can do it on.”
“You and your superstitions!  We don’t need some old god to make us friends forever, do we?”
Kolm had pulled a chain out of his shirt.  A medal hung from it, stamped out of some silver-colored alloy.  “Some people have really old ones of these, made of real silver or gold even, but this is just a copy like they give to children.  This one here – she’s called Mairin, and that’s her son Jaysus.  The tales say they lived a long time ago far away from here and that her son was a special kind of god, and after he died his followers invented the Romish religion and tried to make Earth a better place.  But it didn’t work, so during the Dark Age everybody gave up on him.  But another story says that Jaysus and his mother were aliens, come to try to rescue us from our bad ways.  It could be true because she gave birth to him without a father, and that’s not the human way it’s done, so far as I’ve ever been told.”
Robbie was staring at the depiction on the medal – a tall, slender woman in flowing robes, with hair hanging loose around her shoulders.  She was resting her hand on the head of a small boy who hugged her knees.  “Kolm, what did you say the son’s name was?”
“Jaysus.  I’ve seen it spelled Jeesus, but in Eira we say Jaysus and spell it that way.”
“I’m named after that god, Goody.”
“In Spainish it’s Haysus, only Mum says, in correct old Spainish, you spell it
J-e-s-u-s.  That’s my middle name.”
“Holy cry.  I never did know what the H stood for.  Ye don’t use it much.”
  “Only when it’s something official.  It’s how I’m listed on the registration role.”  Robbie was staring intently at the image of the woman and her son.  “Maybe you’re right, Kolm – maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to swear our friendship on this thing.”
*          *          *
In some ways, Robbie Nikalishin’s adolescence was quite ordinary.  He was never to grow taller than 177 centimeters, but he showed the potential for developing a brawny set of muscles, particularly in the upper body.  He tried out for Kolm’s sprint club, but he lacked physical agility, and plodding in last in every race hardly suited his competitive nature.  Then he took up squash and enjoyed it to a degree, especially in doubles with Kolm, but he never really excelled in that sport, either.  So he generally stuck to weight training and simple jogging, things that would improve his physique and keep him physically fit, a necessity if his dream of entering the Old Heathero Flight Academy were to be fulfilled.
His relationship with the Epping faculty was mixed.  Whenever he happened to encounter the unforgiving Coach Barnwell, he would always be careful to greet him with a brisk “Good morning, sir!” but the Coach never once returned the greeting, simply striding on with eyes fixed grimly ahead.  As the sting of his punishment faded into the past, Robbie began to take secret satisfaction from this battle of wills with the coach.  No one could accuse the boy of the slightest insolence, but the coach certainly understood the impudent intent.
However, other faculty members were watching the progress of Robbie Nikalishin with a more favorable eye, and two of them in particular became his mentors.  Alise Doone was one of only three faculty members at Epping Academy who had earned a Professorship in university.  She was a Specialist in the Mythmaker Canon, out of the Glasgoe Consortium; she taught history and moral philosophy in the upper forms and oversaw the Academy’s humanities curriculum.  The second teacher who took an interest in Robbie was Prf. Ramzi Quinston out of Oxkam, who taught physics.  Both of them were always ready to counsel their students informally, whether on academics or on personal matters, and he felt comfortable with them.  He had never had a reason to seek their advice on how he should run his life, but he understood that they were always available if the need arose.
Shortly before his fifteenth birthday Robbie said tentatively to his mother, in the cracked tone of an adolescent whose voice is struggling to deepen an octave, “Do you suppose I could have a shaver for my birthday?”
Sterling inspected his baby-smooth cheeks with admirable gravity.  “I don’t see why not.  Are you feeling the need for one?”
“Well … ”  Tentatively he fingered his chops.  “I don’t suppose so.  But it can’t hurt, can it? … to be ready.”
“It can’t hurt a thing.”
“I don’t want one of those starter ones, for soft beards.  I want a real man’s shaver.”
Her lips quirked then.  “I’ll remember that.”
“Oh, unless … unless it costs too much.  Sorry, Mum, I wasn’t thinking … ”
“No, it’s all right.  I’ve got enough money for a grown-up shaver.  Don’t you fret.”
Robbie glanced at her.  It seemed there always was enough money these days.  Sterling had told him that she was bringing work home in the evenings and getting paid extra for it.  Since he was hardly ever there except on Saturday nights and Sundays, he saw no reason not to believe what she said, and he simply accepted with relief that their financial problems had been resolved.
Not long after that, as Robbie was brushing his teeth, he thought he saw a smudge of dirt on his upper lip.  Annoyed, he was scrubbing his face with a cloth when he realized that what he saw wasn’t dirt.  It seemed that the need for the shaver had arrived at last.  No one could have been more thrilled, and when he saw Kolm at breakfast, he said, “You notice something different about me today, Goody?”
Kolm looked him up and down.  “Is that a new uniform shirt?  Ye’d never know it.”
“No, you nit!  Look harder!  Right here!”
Kolm stared.  “Well, I’ll be!  It’s a mustache you’re growin’!  Gonna be black as your hair, too!”
“Well, I should hope so!  Otherwise, I’d look like a Pied Piper!”
“Ye better use that fancy shaver on it, friend of mine.  They frown on face hair at Epping.  Or is it some matter of pride that ye can’t do that?”
“No, I’m dying to use it.  But I just wanted you to see it first.  And as soon as I get out in the world where they don’t tell you how to dress and deport yourself, I’m going to grow a full beard.  Hide this damn baby dimple in my chin.”
“Man, you’re plannin’ on goin’ to a military academy.  They tell ye plenty how to dress and deport in places like that.”
“But they let you have a beard after you make it through Third Rank.  God almighty, it’s going to be so exciting!  You are going with me, aren’t you?”
Kolm cocked his head philosophically.  “Can’t say yet, Robbie.  Holy cry, we’re only fifteen years old.  I haven’t even started growin’ me own mustache yet.  It’s forever before we go off to do anythin’!”
*          *          *
Robbie Nikalishin’s adolescence also contained some turbulent moments.  Not long after his first flirtation with facial hair, he got a new roommate, a transfer from a science academy in York Precinct.  This youth, named Rink Handley, was a cocky sort who felt decidedly superior to these southern barbarians, and in particular to his new roommate, as soon as he learned Robbie wasn’t a native Brit.  They could barely tolerate each other, and it took all Kolm’s diplomacy to keep the two from each other’s throats. 
“Robbie,” Kolm would say, “don’t let that smart-ass get to ye.  Just turn the other cheek to ’im when he taunts.”
“What do you mean, ‘turn the other cheek’?”
“It’s just somethin’ we say in Eira.  It means, don’t answer back or hit back, and let ’em stew it out because ye won’t retaliate.”
“I’m not good at that sort of thing, Kolm.  It’s not Robbie Nikalishin’s style.”
“And that style of yours may be the death of me,” said Kolm, rolling his eyes.
One day Robbie entered his dormitory room after class to find his space plane missing.  Cursing loud enough to be heard all the way to the end of the hall, he rampaged around the room throwing Rink’s belongings in every direction.  Then he rushed out into the hall, only to collide with the Yorker.  Robbie caught the youth with a solid right hook to the jaw.  Rink dropped like a slaughtered ox, whereupon Robbie fell on top of him, his hands around his throat.  “Where’s my plane, you bastard?  If you’ve done something to it, I swear to gods, I’ll kill you!  I swear it to gods!”
A number of boys had rushed out of their rooms, including Kolm, who grabbed Robbie around the neck and tried to pull him off.  “Mairin and Jaysus, Robbie, what are ye doing?  Get offa him – let him up!  What are ye doing to yeself?”
“It’s him I’m doing something to!” shouted Robbie, but he let Kolm drag him back.  Some of the other boys hoisted Handley to his feet, where he stood panting and holding his jaw and mocking his assailant. 
“Look at the big man – bawling over a lost toy!  Did the little baby lose his toy?  Well, maybe he ought to look under his own sweet little baby bed!”
And then Robbie realized how this was playing out.  The dominant male of a certain portion of the student body had shown himself to be vulnerable – because of a child’s toy that he kept sitting on his chest of drawers.  Kolm was looking at him with a hint of despair in his eyes.  Robbie could feel himself turning red and suddenly he felt dizzy.
He spun around and retreated into his room, slamming the door.  Behind him, Rink was shouting, “I’m reporting this to Security, Nikalishin – you can be bloody sure of that!  Since when do you get off sucker-punching your roommate?  You could have just asked me nicely if you thought I stole your goddam little tin flyer!”
Kolm had tailed Robbie into his room, to find his friend holding the plane, which he had pulled from under his own bed where Rink had hidden it.  The star had come loose and he was trying to reattach it but not having much luck because his hands were shaking. 
Kolm gripped his shoulder.  “Robbie, what’s with that plane?  I know it sort of represents what ye want to do in yer life, but is there some other meanin’ that it has?”
Robbie sat down on the bed.  “It’s … everything I had … before I came to Britan.  We left Barsilia of a sudden, you know … ”  He was rubbing a place above his ear, as if his head were sore there.  “ … and we could take only one suitcase apiece, and so I could only bring one – toy.  And I brought this plane, instead of ...  And so it’s everything I had … ”
“Well, so!  Friend of mine, I think I have a wee bit more understandin’ now.”
Robbie jumped up and paced around the room.  “You may, but I understand, too – what this looks like.  Sometimes it takes the foolery of a pissing son-of-a-bitch to make you see yourself.  I’m going to get rid of this … ”
“Now, Robbie, I don’t think ye should do that,” said Kolm in alarm.
“I mean, take it home, to Mum’s place.  Leave it there.  I wouldn’t throw it away, Kolm – I wouldn’t want to lose it for anything.  But it’ll have to wait till I’m older.  Right now, it just makes me look weak.  When I’m older, then it won’t matter.  Then the world can be damned.  Then Robbin Haysus Nikalishin will do just as he pleases.”
*          *          *
It seemed it was Robbie’s fate to never accumulate any merit points.  But one positive thing came out of the fracas over the plane – he gained Kolm as a roommate.  The Eirish youth himself went discreetly to the Dormitory Master and suggested that if he and his volatile friend roomed together, life might proceed more smoothly for everyone.  Kolm was universally respected for his even temper and peacemaking abilities, and so this struck the administration as a first-rate idea.  They made it so.
But the next crisis in Robbie’s life was a more serious one, producing consequences that even his friend Kolm MaGilligoody could not ameliorate.
The Academy considered social interaction between the sexes to be a necessary part of growing up.  They were careful not to promote indiscretion; none of the dormitories was coed, parties and off-campus jaunts were carefully supervised, and the school made sure that their charges knew all the essentials to ensure safe passage through the perilous adolescent years.  However, plenty of opportunities existed for contact between male and female members of the student body.
And so the time came when girls began to look differently at Robbie Nikalishin and Robbie Nikalishin began to look differently at girls.  He and they began to hang out together.  A couple of them in particular began to flirt with him and he couldn’t help liking it.  The Student Organization sponsored dances once a month, so he asked Sterling to teach him how to dance.  It was a hilarious experience, from which his mother emerged with bruised insteps.  He was catching up to her in height, but somehow she still seemed tall to him.  Later Robbie was to remember those moments as some of the most light-hearted he and his silver mother were ever to spend together.
The first time he went to a dance, he asked a girl named Sharlina Graves, mainly because he liked her name.  They started meeting for evening get-togethers in the campus “pub,” where fruit drinks and snacks were served and they could listen to the latest music.  When the next dance came around, he asked her a second time.  He was really enjoying her company; her eyelashes fascinated him.  She was an average student, but she liked the life sciences and was fond of birds, so he was able to show off his ornithological knowledge.  And she used a perfume that really stimulated him.  His mother wore perfume sometimes, but only a touch of a delicate and indefinable flower scent.  This one had a musky quality that really went to his head, to say nothing of other anatomical parts.
One night he was walking her back to her dormitory when they passed a grove of apple trees.  It was spring and the trees were blooming.  “Let’s walk through there,” he said.  “Maybe we’ll hear some nightingales.”
They did so and under the apple boughs they kissed.  And on the ground, among the fallen blossoms, they made love.
Five weeks later, Sharlina grabbed onto Robbie after a literature class.  “Robbie, I’ve got to talk to you.”
Flattered by her urgency, he said, “Sure.  Want to take a walk?  Get something to drink?”
“I just want to go some place private.”
So they sat on a bench in a corner of the quadrangle and she whispered to him that she thought she was pregnant because her last menstrual period hadn’t happened and she’d been feeling sick at her stomach. 
He sat stunned, staring at her.  “Sharlina … you mean … because we … you and I … you’re going to … a baby, you mean?”
“It was so spontaneous, Robbie.  We shouldn’t have done it like that.  We didn’t use a condom.  I didn’t take any pills or shots.  We didn’t do anything.  I thought I had the timing down, but I guess I got it wrong.”
Then it hit Robbie that in spite of the sex-ed classes, he didn’t know anything.
She was saying, “I should have gone to the clinic the next day and gotten a pill, but I didn’t.  I couldn’t believe that something like this could happen.”
“Sharlina … ”  His voice cracked and he had to clear his throat.  “Has there been anyone else?  Maybe it wasn’t me.”
“No, there hasn’t been anyone else!  Just that one time!  What kind of girl do you think I am?  That I go around having sex with every boy on campus?  You seemed special at the time, Robbie!”
He rubbed his face, trying to think, feeling paralyzed.
“It’s your baby, Robbie!  Aren’t you even interested in it?”
And he wasn’t, really – he just wanted to escape the situation with as little damage as possible.
 “What do you intend to do, Sharlina?”
“I have to tell people.  It’s not something you can hide.  I have to tell my parents.”  She started to snuffle into her handkerchief.  “My father’s going to pop a valve.  His only daughter lets herself get pregnant at fifteen.  Oh, Robbie, I’m positive he’ll make me abort.”
Abort.  Yes, that was it.  She could abort.
But then he felt a certain horror.  If a life had been created, was it right to take it away like that?  “You could have the baby and let somebody else adopt it, Sharlina.”
She cried harder.  “That’s even worse, to go through all that and then have it taken away.  I’d have to drop out of school, ’cause if I stayed here and was pregnant, I’d be ragged all the time for having no sense, and so would you.  It’s horrible, but it’s better to keep it all quiet and abort.”
He said, “I guess it’s your decision.”
“You’re so cold about it, Robbie.  I’d like to see how you would feel if you had to decide to kill a baby.”
He flinched.  “This is all so sudden, Sharlina.  I don’t even know what I’m thinking.  Dammit, why do you use all that perfume?  Why did you have to let this happen?”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, sitting back from him.  “So now it’s all my fault!  Who wanted to go under the apple trees and listen to the nightingales?  Who kissed first?  Who pulled down my underwear?  You can’t get out of this as easy as that!”
He squeezed his eyes shut.  “I’m sorry, Sharlina.  It’s just that … bloody hell, I don’t need any more trouble.”
“They won’t do anything to you, except smirk at you for being an ignoramus.  Hell, I wish I was a man and there weren’t any consequences!  I’m the one who has to have the abortion!”
He groaned.  “God, I’ll never have sex again.”
“Oh, of course you will!  You’re a man, aren’t you?  Or are going to be one!  My mother was right – men are all alike.”  And she got up and started to walk off.
But then she stopped, stood a minute with her shoulders hunched, and came back.  “I think I’ve got to tell my parents first.  And I’m not going to say who the boy was.  There is really no reason to say.  I’m not vindictive.  You didn’t force me – you seemed special and I wanted to do it.  There’s no reason for you to suffer for it.”
He thought that was the most generous thing he had ever heard and he grasped at it, even while he felt vaguely that it wouldn’t do.  “Would you really do that?  God almighty, I’d be eternally grateful.”
She stared at him like he was some kind of slimy bug.  “You may be going to be a man, Robbie Nikalishin, but you sure haven’t got the courage of one right now.”  And she turned around again and departed.
Robbie sat there befuddled at her mood shifts, with those final words ringing in his ears.  He didn’t have the courage of a man … 
Robbie didn’t go to the dining room; instead he crashed into the Preserve and walked and ran as hard as he could, as if physical activity could turn back the clock and delete this catastrophe.  But it didn’t, and late in the day he returned to campus.  He had cut chemistry lab and another class – Prf. Doone’s class.
Prf. Doone … she taught moral philosophy … she always told her students that if they found themselves in a predicament, they could come see her any time.  She had told him that personally once.
He sure as hell didn’t want to go to the Counseling Center – he’d had enough of that self-righteous bunch of prunes.  But Prf. Doone wasn’t like that.
The Professor’s office had a little window in the door and Robbie could see her sitting at her desk with a study lamp behind her that left the periphery of the room dimly lit.  He worked up the nerve to knock and she said, “Come!”
She was a slightly stout woman with a round face, thick brown hair cut short, and a pleasant Scotts accent, and when she saw who it was, she looked him in the eye.  “Well, Mr. Nikalishin, where were you this afternoon?”
Feeling like bolting, Robbie poised in the doorway.  Then he took refuge in levity.  “Having a crisis.”
“Is that so?” she said, not missing a beat.  “Do you want to sit down there and tell me about it?”
To be continued ...
Robbie gets a lesson in Mythmaker philosophy

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