Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 8 (Pt. 2)

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).

It's hard to believe I put up the first half of this chapter on April 5.  It's about time I finished it.  This chapter also fits with my series on the Mythmakers, since we see Robbin Nikalishin getting a lesson on Mythmaker ethics.

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
Chapter 8 (Pt.1) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.1]

In Pt. 1 of Chapter 8, we learned more of the vicissitudes of Robbie's adolescence at Epping Science Academy, including his first sexual encounter.   In Pt. 2, Robbie has to deal with the repercussions of his escapade and he gets a lesson in Mythmaker ethics from his moral philosophy teacher, Prf. Alise Doone. 


(2745, Epping Science Academy)
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?”
He did so, rubbing his palm across his nose and mouth, clearing his throat.  “It’s just that … something happened … and I just don’t know what to do … how to react … how I ought to react to it.”
“Do you want to be a little more specific, Mr. Nikalishin?”
In a rush, he said, “It looks like I’ve gotten a girl pregnant.”  And he ducked his head, waiting for the onslaught.
But all she did was blink.  “That’s specific, all right.”
He looked up at her furtively.  “Do I have to say who it is?”
“Not if you’re not ready.  But, uh … it’s pretty well known whom you’ve been dating.  Now, that does not necessarily mean … ”
“No.  You got it right, Professor,” he said, dropping his eyes again.
Alise Doone leaned forward a little, folding her hands on her desk.  He sat with enough light on his face to let her see him plainly but in sufficient shadow to give him a feeling of shelter.  There was nothing threatening or judgmental about her level regard, but Robbie rather wished that she would look somewhere else.
“Where was your mind during your sex education classes, Robbie?”
“I don’t know.  I guess it was off in outer space somewhere, Professor.”  Now that she had dropped the formal “Mr. Nikalishin,” she seemed a little less severe.
She smiled slightly, and he said, “I’ve been trying to stay out of trouble – hell, I thought I was doing pretty good.  And she said … she said she wouldn’t tell anyone … she wouldn’t tell her parents – who the father was ….  That was a relief, I can tell you.  But … then she said … that I wasn’t a man … didn’t have the courage of a man … like she wanted me to say … I ought to tell her to tell … ”  He stopped, hopelessly mired in his own syntax.
“You know, Robbie, in our culture you aren’t supposed to be a man at 15 years of age.  But you are supposed to learn from the experiences you have at that age.  So let’s see what you can learn from this one.  Obviously, you feel something is wrong in your willingness to accept her self-sacrifice.  For that’s what it is.  Her parents … and I happen to know them – her mother is a Professor of Historical Studies at Oxkam and her father is a senior industrial chemist for UnionGov … I can tell you he will be more irate over what’s happened than Sharlina’s mother will … ”
Bloody hell, Robbie thought miserably, I didn’t know all that.  I would pick one of the elite-elites to knock up ...
“… and he will certainly make an effort to find out who was responsible for their daughter’s situation.  It won’t be difficult – I’m hardly the only one who knows the identity of Sharlina’s boyfriend.  But should that compel you to make a clean breach of this circumstance?  Not necessarily.  There are much more fundamental reasons for you to be open about this than that you will be found out anyway.”
Robbie sat with his forearms on his knees, his hands dangling, looking up at Prf. Doone.  “I’ll be leaving her to take the brunt of everything alone, won’t I?  If I do come forward, it will make it easier for her, and the consequences won’t be all that bad for me, anyway.”
“Very good.  You know, in 28th-century society the sexes are supposed to be strictly equal and receive equal treatment.  But that can never be, because no matter how you construe it, males and females aren’t alike.  They evolved for different purposes – they each have a different set of hormones that drive a different outlook on life.  They are certainly equally capable in intellect, and every human is entitled to the same dignities of justice and the same chance to survive, but men and women are physically and emotionally different.  And when a man gets a woman pregnant, no trace is left behind for him except what his conscience tells him ought to remain, while she has a changed body, and the physical child to raise, or give away, or kill.”
Robbie realized that, while these statements were not that new to him, he had never before fully grappled with their implications. 
“When you were in Basic Forms, Robbie, you had the reputation of treating the girls more courteously than the general run of boys did.  Is that going to change now that you have the ability to dominate them sexually?”
He looked at her, a little shocked.  “I hope not!”
“Do you think it’s right to make a woman suffer because you are more physically powerful than she is and because your needs are different from hers?”
He sat bolt upright, as if she had jabbed a hot poker in his midsection.  “No!  Bloody hell, no!  I don’t ever want to make women suffer!  That’s a terrible thing to accuse me of, Prf. Doone!”
She regarded him speculatively, as if she sensed some personal experience behind the unexpected vehemence of his reaction.  But she did not press the point, saying merely, “If I were to make the following statement, how would you feel about it?  It’s cruel and irresponsible – and cowardly – to let Sharlina face this revelation alone, without any support.”
He had collapsed again.  “I’d agree with it.  I don’t want to be cruel, Prf. Doone, and I don’t think I’m a cruel person.  So … what do I have to do – go with her when she confronts her parents?”
“I believe you aspire to be a hero someday, Robbie.  This act would be a good start.”
“Oh … What I want to be is a space hero – fly to the stars – be famous and have everybody know my name … ”
“There are a great many other ways to be a hero, Robbie Nikalishin, besides gaining fame for performing some difficult or original feat.  Some of the greatest heroes never left a single record of themselves in the histories.  Look at the Mythmakers.  Not a trace of the name of even one of them exists, and yet their writings have changed the Earth – spurred our culture toward the hopeful place it is today.  Isn’t that a heroic act?”
“I couldn’t have done it that way,” said Robbie.  “Written all those plays and tales without setting my name to them.  What good is it if you do something wonderful, but nobody knows about it?”
“Well … there’s a place for the public hero, certainly – I wouldn’t deny you that.  Robbie, you’ve read a number of Mythmaker works over the last few years – some of them in my classes.  Which is your favorite?”
He thought they were getting off the point, but he said, “Oh, I suppose … Well, I still like The Heath of Angus  I know it’s a child’s story.”
“That’s all right – it’s one of my favorites, too.”  She grinned.  “You didn’t pick that one just because it’s laid in Scottlend and you figured that would please a Scottswoman like myself, now, did you?”
He returned the smile, a little wanly.  “No, I swear.  It really is one I like.”  In a rush he continued, “I also like the novel we just finished – The Seven Idols.”
“Good.  It’s fairly straightforward in its implications.  That’s why I give it to Third Formers.”
“And I’ve never forgotten The Valley of the White Bear, even though I know we read it only in a prose condensation.”
“You’ll get the original dramatic version next year.  I always take my class to a production of The White Bear when we read it – there’s always one playing somewhere ’round.  Let me see, I believe next year it will be at the Lunden Consortium.  That drama is considered one of the most profound and moving of any Mythmaker work, and I agree with that opinion; it epitomizes the philosophy enunciated in the Precepts better than any other single piece.  Do you remember your Precepts?”
Alarmed, he said, “I don’t know that I can recite them right off, without any review.”
“Relax, Robbie, this isn’t a test.  I’m sure you know the gist of their meaning, though.”
“Of course,” he said, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
“And yet I wonder if you really do.  I get the feeling during class discussions that you regard poems and moral aphorisms rather like a mathematical formula – something fascinating but clinical, whose meaning can be worked out to its logical conclusion and then ignored.  Life isn’t like that, Robbie.  Life is messy and chaotic, and you can never solve for all the unknowns.”
Now he was beginning to see where this discussion was going.
“Can you summarize the first five of the Precepts?”
He squirmed a little, racking his brain – that brain that would one day be able to juggle temporal quantum factors with no trouble but forever found moral concepts daunting.  “Those are the ones about the existence of god.  About how we can’t know whether a god exists.  That we shouldn’t depend on a god to tell us how to act but look within ourselves for the truth.  That we must take responsibility for our own behavior – that’s Number 4 … I’ve heard plenty about that one in the Counseling Center, I can tell you!  And the Fifth is …we may never succeed in all that, but we have to keep trying.”
“Yes, striving for right action is its own purpose.  Well, that’s a decent enough summary.  I’m going to cudgel you again with Number 4 because it’s the crux of all Mythmaker thinking: Humans must take responsibility for their own behavior, not seeking to put blame on imposed rules (of deity or human) or on fate, chance, or the intervention or willfulness of deity.  So … what do the unimposed rules of your own conscience tell you?  Do you think your initial reaction in this affair with Sharlina exhibited a willingness to take responsibility for your own actions?”
He swallowed and shook his head, then, to shift the subject, he said, “Why did the Mythmakers put so much emphasis on gods?”
“You tell me.”
“I suppose … because god-worship divided humanity and brought on the Second Dark Age.”
“Well, that oversimplifies the situation a good deal.  The worship of gods, or more correctly, the ferocious fanaticism of dogmatic organized religions, played a major role in dividing humanity and precipitating the Second Dark Age.  Precepts 10 and 11 treat of this in particular, although they have broader implications – The Right Way is universal; the Truth is parochial and divisive … 
“Now, the Precept you’re probably finding most interesting at this moment of your life is Number 14, about making vows of love in the music of the bedchamber, not with empty words.  
”It was under the apple trees,” mumbled Robbie.
Prf. Doone made a little throat noise as if she were attempting to laugh, or trying not to.  “The important word there is vows.  Did you and Sharlina make any vows?”
“No,” he said somewhat disgustedly.  “We just … did it.  There were a few empty words, though.  More like grunts.”
Prf. Doone appeared to be strangling again.  “The point of that Precept is that ceremonial words or contracts can’t make a union holy.  When two people can achieve a truly holy union, it’s a highly intangible and fragile thing, spiritually blessed and very personal and unique.  That state can be called marriage, whether there is a ceremony or not.”
“That never happened,” he said.  “I’m not sure that sort of thing exists.”
Again she regarded him thoughtfully.  “The final five Precepts make up the so-called environmental or biological set, except for number 18, which is sort of thrown in illogically at that point.  But buried in their midst is the one that in my opinion epitomizes everything that the Mythmakers were trying to say.  Which do you think it is?”
Robbie took a deep breath, desperately dredging his brain.  “The one about how humans share a genetic heritage with every other organism on Earth?”
“Well, that awareness is central to the survival of our Planet, of course.  But I was thinking of Number 17 – There are creatures on this planet who speak, form symbols, and share emotions; these may be called human.  The entire thrust of the Mythmaker philosophy is about what it means to be human.  Keep that in your mind, Robbie.  It may not mean so much to you right now, but possibly it may at some later point of your life.”
There was a moment of silence.  Robbie was feeling a little light-headed; he had skipped lunch and now the opportunity to get supper was rapidly slipping away.  “So … I should go to Sharlina and tell her I’ll go with her when she tells her parents.”
“Is that what you think you should do?”
He looked up at her.  “Yes.”
“I can arrange permission for the two of you to leave campus.  I’d be glad to talk to Sharlina, but if she doesn’t want to see me, that’s all right, too.  But, Robbie, there’s something else you have to do.”
“What?” he asked, frowning.
“You have to tell your own mother.  She’ll wonder why we let you go off roaming around the countryside, for one thing.  Besides, it’s the right thing to do.”
“Damn.”  He hadn’t even thought of that.  “Why do I have to get myself into these messes, Prf. Doone?”
“Well, Robbie,” she said, “heroes are noted for being audacious and perhaps a bit over-impulsive.”
He looked at her and then they both laughed.  He stood up.  “I guess I’d better go to Commons before it’s too late to get supper.  Can you … well, could you put in a good word for me to Mr. Tirkle?  I skipped chemistry lab, too.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
At the door Robbie turned back.  “Thanks so much, Professor.  You helped a lot, even though I never can get out of one of these scrapes without having to do a lot of things I don’t want to do.  But – can I ask you one more thing?”
“Shoot!” she said.
“How can you take all this so calmly?  You never twitched a muscle when I said … you know.”
Alise Doone laughed.  “Robbie, I’ve been teaching moral philosophy here at Epping for twenty years – longer than your lifetime.  There’s nothing new anybody can dump on me!  Now, get yourself some supper.  And if you need to talk again, you know where to find me.”
*          *          *
Robbie went to his mother with his heart in his throat, but to his surprise she didn’t react as adversely as he had expected.  She only stood looking at him with an expression that seemed slightly sad and slightly quizzical, and then she said, “I hadn’t realized.  I hadn’t realized how grown up you were getting.”
“Not all that grown up, according to Sharlina and Prf. Doone.”
Sterling smiled transiently.  “So you’re going up to Oxkam and face the girl’s parents with her?  That’s pretty grown up, Robbie.”
“Well, like Prf. Doone said … maybe it’s a step.”
He went away puzzled as to why Sterling’s reaction had been so subdued, but he forgot it in the pressure of traveling up to Lewton, the upscale precinct where most of Oxkam’s senior faculty lived.
Throughout history, the insular lands of Britan had mostly managed to escape invasion, and the period of the Second Dark Age was no exception.  The kind of devastation that had descended on Uropia and on the vast metropolises of the east and west coasts of North Ammerik had been inflicted on only two areas of the British Isles.  Radiant bombing had totally obliterated the ancient central City of Lunden; and the University called Kambridge, where significant scientific research into defensive weaponry had been taking place, suffered several direct hits and was destroyed.  In the years when Robbie Nikalishin was an adolescent, the center of Lunden had already been neutralized and the archaeological work had commenced that would lead to some of the restorations that can be seen in our time.  There had been no work done at Kambridge; it was still a walled-off Devastation Zone, too radiant to be entered.
That was not to say that Britan had escaped other types of Dark Age catastrophes; poison rain, natural plagues, famine, and biowarfare had reduced the population by about half, the same as in most parts of the world.  Hence, even though Old Oxferd had escaped direct bombing, no resources were available to maintain and restore it until about the year 2600.  By that time the buildings had deteriorated so badly that it was considered best to found a new university and create the Historical Preserve of Oxferd and the Old Oxferd Living Museum out of what was left.  That was still an on-going project in Robbie Nikalishin’s youth; parts of the old town and campus were already enclosed in a protective dome, and the Bodley Library was being examined book by fragile book. 
Britan was fortunate in that most of its major libraries had survived, whereas in Northwest Quad, the great national and civic libraries located on the east Ammeriken coast had been reduced to piles of charred rubble.  Thus, for a knowledge of its past Britan was not quite so dependent as the rest of the world on the preservation caches of the Underground Archivists, which were at that time being pulled from their hiding places all over Earth in an exciting game of cultural hide and seek.
The new Oxferd was named Oxkam in order to honor its deceased companion, and all its Colleges were renamed to incorporate a corresponding College of Kambridge.  Oxkam was located halfway between the two ancient sites; its construction was also an ongoing project and is to this day.  The original buildings – utilitarian, bunker-like hulks – were being replaced by structures designed in the ancient architectural styles of Britan.  It made for a delightful milieu, like stepping back into the past but with all the amenities of the New Space Age.
The visit to Lewton was the first time that Robbie Nikalishin had ever been “up,” but he hardly had his mind on architectural grace.  He only knew that the Graves family lived in the grandest house that he had ever entered, except maybe the Headmaster’s residence at Epping.  The Graves’ house was freestanding, with seven rooms and the plushest of upholstered furnishings; and the living area and kitchen were separate rooms.  There was even a dining room, and a little entry hall that was a total waste of space as far as he could tell, as he stood jigging about in that enclosure waiting for Sharlina to call him in.  She had wanted to go in alone at first and talk to her parents privately.
He could hear her father begin to bellow and he felt inclined to renege on his promise and run away, but he did not.  When he was finally called in, Sharlina was crying and Robbie had to endure a tongue-lashing from Mr. Graves that would have withered the apple blossoms on the trees where the ill-starred liaison had occurred. 
Robbie suffered the barrage in silence until the irate father erupted, “You ought to at least pay for your victim’s abortion!  I’ll drag your family into legals if you won’t!”
Panic surged over Robbie and he quavered, “Sir, don’t do that!  There’s no money … I don’t have any money … ”
To that point, Prf. Graves had been sitting there with her chin on her hand and her lips compressed, saying nothing.  But now she stirred.  “Come on, Brayford, ease up!  Look at the poor boy – he’s just standing there enduring everything you throw at him, and his face is red as a geranium!  He comes down here to take his lumps like a man, and all you can do is denounce him as a reprobate and a degenerate Barsilian bastard and threaten him with legals.  Why don’t you shut up for a minute?”
“That’s right!” cried Sharlina, taking courage from her mother’s support.  “I’m trying to tell you it’s my fault as much as Robbie’s!  I wanted to do it as much as he did!  Let’s just get on with whatever it is I’m going to have to do and get it over with!”
And so Robbie escaped, looking much cleaner than he felt, with a minimum amount of damage to his life.  Sharlina had her abortion, her father pulled her out of Epping and sent her to a school in Bath, and that evening in Lewton was the last time Robbie saw her.
The episode left two lasting effects.  Robbie never forgot the conversation in Prf. Doone’s shadowy office that day; it had brought the guiding precepts of the new Earth to life for him and he always tried to live by the ethics of the Mythmakers, even if, as the Fifth Precept stated, humans will never succeed absolutely in achieving these goals.
The other lasting effect was a particular recurrent nightmare that Robbie was never to escape, although as he aged, it plagued him less frequently.  In this dream he stood by a bed where Sharlina was giving birth.  After the baby had emerged, an attendant laid it in his hands, saying in a highly pleased tone, “Here’s your son, Robbin Nikalishin.  Would you like to cut the cord?”
And he took the scissors in his hand and cut, then took the remnants of the cord, twisted it around the infant’s neck, and strangled it to death.
 At that point he always woke up with a yell, drenched in a cold sweat, so he never knew what happened to him in the dream after that.  He was always glad that he woke up, because he felt no desire to discover what the consequences of so dire an act might have been.
Next installment:
Chapter 9
Capt. Nikalishin Takes Command of the Ore Freighter Hell's Gate



  1. Interesting story! I'll come back and read more.

    1. Wonderful! And thanks for leaving a comment! I rarely get any comments on these chapter posts, so even though I know they get page views, I never know if anybody ever actually reads them!