Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 10

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).

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]
Chapter 8 (Pt.2) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.2]
Chapter 9 Aboard the Ore Freighter Hell's Gate
       Still employing the usual flash-back/flash-forward format, Chapter 10 follows Chapter 8.  This is one of the most important chapters in the book, describing an incident that was a painful turning point in Robbie's life, affecting his entire future. As I read it over, I'm not sure it's well enough written considering the impact it was to have.  I'm not sure I prepared the way sufficiently for this to have the impact that I want it to have.

January, 2646
The year following the incident with Sharlina passed peaceably enough in the life of Robbie Nikalishin.  His first sexual encounter was not his last during his Epping years, but he had learned the importance of caution and there were no more disasters.
Kolm was almost as astute in math and physics as Robbie was.  By the time the two of them were Second Formers, they were both studying advanced classical quantum mechanics and 11-dimensional string theory with Prf. Quinston.  The lessons were on a tutorial basis, because no other students had reached that level.  Around the school, Kolm and Robbie had become known as the Physics Twins, even though anatomically they could not have been more different; Robbie possessed the swarthy skin and black hair and eyes of his Spainish heritage, while Kolm had blue eyes and a fair complexion, with red, cow-licked hair that always stuck out in a dozen directions no matter how short he cut it.  His build was slender and wiry and he was a good 5 centimeters shorter than his friend.  His shortness had worried Robbie; the minimum height for Flight Academy Cadets was 173 centimeters and for a while it looked as if Kolm wouldn’t make it.
Early in 2646, Prf. Quinston called the pair into his office and handed each of them an info key.  “Here are some application forms to fill out,” he said.  “I’d appreciate your getting them back to me as quickly as possible.”
They looked at the unmarked keys and Robbie said, “Applications for what, sir?”
The Professor grinned broadly.  “Do you want to spend your First Year as an Oxkam Adjunct or not?”
Robbie sucked a breath and Kolm’s eyes bugged as he exclaimed, “Aliluya!  It came through!”
“You really got it?” said Robbie.  “The Permission to Apply?  We’re actually going?”
“Well, you’ve been given Permission to Apply, just as you said.  But I don’t think there’ll be any problem with the admission, for either one of you.”
“Oh, god almighty, that’s wonderful!” said Robbie.  “Thank you, sir!  I’ll be in your debt for the rest of my life!”
“You did the work – all I did was steer you along.  But nevertheless I take a great deal of satisfaction out of this.  I’m an Oxkam Old Boy myself, you know, and I take a lot of pleasure in delivering my best students to my old department.  You understand what this means, don’t you?  Next year you’ll be actually living in one of the Adjunct Houses on the campus, just a hop and bobble up the rail from here.  Then you’ll come back down to Epping in the spring to join the rest of your class for your Closing Ceremony.  You’ll be associating with some of the brightest young people in Britan – in the world, really, because students from all over the Earth apply for this program.  They won’t all be working in your area of interest – likely hardly any other Adjuncts will be studying Temporal Quantum Applications and Alternate Dimensional Temporal Analysis – but they will all be the elite of their own fields … ”
“Going to be pretty nice hobnobbing with the elite, what, Goody?” said Robbie, with a king-sized grin.
“It’s gonna be scary, is what!” said Kolm.
“It makes sense for you to go this route,” said Prf. Quinston.  “I’ve taught you about all I can; I couldn’t begin to indoctrinate you adequately in anything more arcane than 11-D strings.  And if you should choose to apply for regular admission to Oxkam’s pregrad program after next year, a successful completion of the Adjunct Program will guarantee your entry and probably a scholarship.”
“No, it’s going to be the Old Heathero Flight Academy for me,” said Robbie.  “Kolm, too.”
“Maybe,” said Kolm.  “Robbie, it might just be that I’ll decide to become a mechanical engineer and stay here on Earth and build the ships and the engines, instead of goin’ off to fly ’em.”
“Tell him that’s a lot of nonsense, Prf. Quinston,” said Robbie.  “Tell him what he said is a stodgy dodge.  There’s no thrill in building starships – the awesome thing is the flying of them.”
“Well, ye forget they haven’t even been invented yet,” said Kolm.  “Prf. Quinston, this one has ever had his head stuck off in a black hole somewhere.”
Quinston was chuckling, but he said, “Actually, Earth Gov has some rather hush-hush programs in the pipeline – something called the SkyPiercer Project.”
“I’ve read a bit about that,” said Robbie.  “They’re trying to make an engine that can go faster than light.  See, that’s what I want you to learn about, Kolm.”
“Well, then, ye should just work on it, too, maybe!  Ye’ve got the same knowledge as I have – maybe better!  Ye could be just as good an engineer as me.”
“Oh, sure, Goody, all thumbs the way I am?  Remember when I tried to fix my mother’s water pipe?”
Kolm hooted and said to Prf. Quinston, “This pipe started leakin’, see, on an Off-Day when Robbie was to home, and by the time he was done, he had rusty water shootin’ at the ceilin’!  Ye can still see the stain, even with new paint.”
“Imagine me trying to repair an engine, Kolm,” said Robbie.  “I’d cut off somebody’s finger with a laser drill!  Humanity will be a lot safer if I stick to flying ships instead of maintaining them!”
The three of them laughed together … scholarly comrades, ready to engage the triumphant future that appeared tantalizingly close.
*          *          *
Before he left Prf. Quinston’s office, Robbie said, “I’d love to go down to the Village and give my Mum the news about this Oxkam deal.  I know it’s the middle of the week, but do you suppose you could get me permission to spend the night with her, Professor?”
“I think it can be arranged,” Quinston said.  “Check the posting link in your room in a couple of hours.”
The permission came through, and after dinner Robbie headed out to visit his mother.  It was winter and pitch dark at 2000h, with a temperature of about 7 degrees and fog hanging in the dimly lit concourse of Scholastic Village.  He wore a heavy jacket but had forgotten his gloves, so he hastened along with his hands thrust into his armpits for warmth.
Then he stopped suddenly in the darkness between lampposts.  Someone was coming toward him from the direction of the rail terminal.  There was nothing unusual about that; a number of people were walking in the street.  But this was a couple – a man dressed in a fine overcoat, with one of the flattish hats that were fashionable at that time, and a woman who was tall and slender, wearing a white surrofur tunic-coat and some pale headgear that wrapped her neck and chin.  She glimmered in the darkness, like silver …
Robbie knew it was his mother – his mother and … who?  A man.  A man was walking late in the evening with his mother, with his arm around her waist and his head bent to murmur to her.  He heard her soft voice reply, and her soft, whispery laugh.
He stood frozen by something more than the chill air around him.
The couple had reached the place opposite the door of Sterling’s building.  They ran up the steps, did something with a key card, and vanished within.
Robbie stood and stared at the vacant space of the doorframe, as if so looking could roll back what had just happened.  His mother, late in the evening, had just allowed a man to go up with her to the flat.
Then, with a sense of relief so profound that it was like a pain jabbing his vitals, he thought, It must be one of the men she works with.  She said she brings work home.  They’re probably going to work on some of her records together …
But in the next moment he knew that was not true.  Nobody who meant to work on official records at home would be snuggling together like that, or wearing that sort of clothes ...  Those were the kinds of clothes that one wore to a theater, or to a nice dining establishment …
He hadn’t even known his mother owned clothes like that …
It was one of the men she worked with, all right.  She was certainly bringing work home.  But it wasn’t official records they were working on … it was …
Robbie stumbled into the bushes near the door and lost the dinner he had just consumed.  For a minute he stood panting, scrubbing his hand across his mouth.  Then he started toward the steps.  He would go up there – go up there and confront them …
Then he stopped.  I’ll kill him if I go up there, he thought.  Maybe I’ll kill her.  A cold wind, colder than the swirling fog, cut through him.  He turned and half ran back down the street, toward the campus.  But then he turned yet again.  I can’t go back to school.  Everybody will ask me why I came back.  Kolm … Kolm will get it out of me … He didn’t want Kolm to know – to know his mother was a …
He could see that the lights had gone on in Sterling’s flat and he retched again.  Then he crawled behind the bushes and hunkered down against the wall, wrapping his arms around his chest, his hands thrust in his pockets.  He would wait and see what happened – see if the man left.  If he left in just a minute or two, it would be all right.  His mother had the right to date somebody, didn’t she?  Even if she didn’t tell him?  He didn’t tell her everything he did.  Maybe they were just having coffee, or some wine.  Then the man would leave, and Robbie would go up and ask his mother about the intentions of this man who was spending time with her …
Miserable, he rocked back and forth.  The man didn’t leave.  He waited and he waited, until his feet and fingers were numb, but the man didn’t leave. 
The core of his soul was icier than the extremities of his body.
At some point he fell into a doze and dreamed about the baby, only this time when he took it in his hands, it instantly turned into a block of ice.  Jerking awake, he stared around in a fright, caught his wits together, and looked up at the door …
… just in time to see it open and the man come out.  Robbie drew a harsh breath, but the man didn’t hear it.  He hastened down the steps and vanished into the fog, heading for the rail terminal.
 Robbie could see the position of the blurred moon in the sky, and he knew it was after midnight.  With a whimper, he mounted the steps and let himself in with his own key card.  The warmth inside stuck into him like a knife.  He took the lift to the third floor, got out, and stumbled toward the door of the flat.  By this time, he was beside himself.
He unlocked the door and flung it open with a bang, then crashed it closed behind him.  From the bedroom, his mother let out a shriek of alarm at the noise.  He staggered a short way into the room.  “Mum!  Come out here!  Come out here!”
She appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, clutching a pale gray negligee to her chest.  Under it she was wearing a nightgown – a lavender nightgown with some glittering lace on it.  Her hair flowed over her shoulders and her arms were bare.  She almost always wore long sleeves, but now her long, white, slender arms were bare, glimmering in the light.
“Robbie!” she said.  “You scared the wits out of me!  Whatever are you doing here in the middle of the night?  Is something wrong?”
He was starting to shake from the effect of the cold, and he gestured flutteringly at her with both hands.  “Mum, who was that man?  What was he doing here?”
She just looked at him, her lips parted, her eyes wide like a frightened hare’s.
“I saw you come in with him … I waited … I saw him leave …  What were you doing up here with him?”
“You’re not my watchdog, Robbie!  What were you doing here spying on me?”
“I came to tell you … something … ”  In his stress, he couldn’t remember what it was.  “ … but I saw that … man ….  Is this the work you bring home in the evening?  Is that where the money comes from?”
“Robbie, calm down and let me talk to you … ”
But he was past talking.  “It is, isn’t it?  You’ve … sold yourself … You’re a … whore … a whore … My mother … is … a whore … ”  The word came out over and over, like a groan.
The confrontation had drawn them nearer to each other, and now something seemed to snap in Sterling.  She sprang forward and slapped her son backwards and forward across the face – she who had never laid a hand to him.  He reeled back, going as white as she was.
“You’re right, I’m your mother,” she said through clenched teeth, her cut-steel eyes blazing, “and I won’t tolerate you talking to me like that!  It may be true, what you called me, but if it is, I did it for you, you ungrateful little bigoted whelp!”
Her ferocity cowed and appalled him.  In complete shock, he waved his arms wildly.  “I’ll go away!  I swear, I’ll never come back here again!”
“The little man makes a threat!” she snarled.  “And you expect that to make me get down on my knees and beg you to forgive me for what you see as iniquity?  Where do you get off being so self-righteous?  I did it for you, so you could get your damned education … fly your planes … reach your goddam stars.  Every credit I’ve earned above our daily needs has gone into a trust for your future schooling.  I’ve got nothing for myself out of this humiliation – all I’ll have when I’m old is my Gov pension.  I’ve done it all for you and now that you’ve found out, all I get is arrogance and insults.  Somebody needs to teach you humility!  You’re taller than I am now – what’s next?  Are you going to beat me into submission, Roberto Vargas?”
Robbie crumbled then, bending over, his hands imploring.  “No, Mum ... don’t  … don’t call me that …  You took that name away from me – you gave me your own … don’t, Mum, I’m sorry … I’m sorry I called you what I did … don’t change me again … ”  He was doing something he had not done since before they had fled into the darkness that night when he was eight:  He was crying.  He sank down on a hassock and held his head in his hands and sobbed.  His heart was broken; his silver mother had become forever tarnished in his eyes.
And no matter what evil words had been spoken, his tears could only soften her mother’s heart.  She sat down on the lounge across from him and reached out a tentative hand, but he shuddered away from her.  “Oh, Robbie, I realize …  I can understand … how this must have been a shock to you.  I should have told you, son, but how can a mother tell her child that she’s prostituted herself for his sake?  I just couldn’t tell you, Robbie.”
He was snuffling, rubbing his eyes and nose on his sleeve.  “Who is he, Mum?  Who is that man?”
“A very nice man, Robbie.  I’m not any kind of streetwalker – I would never sink that low.  I like to think of myself as – an elite courtesan.  When I couldn’t see any way to get enough money to keep you in school, I went to a restaurant in Lunden that I had heard of, where upscale people go and sometimes men looking for – mistresses … men who’ll pay well for beautiful women to consort with.  I’m a beautiful woman, Robbie – you’ve probably never noticed … ”
“I’ve noticed,” he said, but she paid no heed to his words, intent on trying to make him understand.
“That was how I met both of them … ”
“Both of them!” he groaned.  “There’s more than one?”
“Yes, there are two – both are wealthy, older men who take me out for dinner and dancing and maybe to the theatre or a concert, and then we come back here and … ”
“How can the whole village not know?”
“Our present-day society is tolerant, Robbie.  People look the other way when such things happen.”
“What if one finds out about the other?”
“They each know about the other already – I’ve tried to keep everything very open ...  Don’t snort like that, boy – I just can’t tolerate contempt from you … ”
He said nothing, and in a moment Sterling continued, “So I take care of one of them on Tuesday and Wednesday and the other on Thursday and Friday.  They pay very well.  They know why I’m doing it.  They understand that I’ll never see them on weekends, because that’s when my son comes to stay with me.  They are not bad men, Robbie.  They’re considerate and generous, and they never hurt me.  I’m quite fond of both of them.”
“You like it,” he said through clenched teeth.  “You actually like what you’re doing.”
“I like the reason I’m doing it.  Or I did like it, up to now … ”
He shivered.  “If they’re such damned good studs and care so much about you, why doesn’t one of them make you his consort – make it all legal?”
“Oh, Robbie, you have a lot to learn about sexual relationships.  They can’t contract with me because they have consorts already, and there are reasons why they can’t part from them.  But they don’t find those women … very compatible … they need something different.”
Robbie hunched over convulsively, feeling like vomiting again. 
“As young as you are, son, you’re already having casual sexual relationships.  Our society doesn’t look on that as any great transgression.  You don’t think less of your partners for it, do you?  How are my actions different from theirs and yours?”
“But … ”  And this was the crux of it.  “ … but you’re my mother … ”
And she could find no answer for that, and it seemed to defeat her.  So in a moment she only said, “Why did you come down here tonight?”
Robbie struggled to remember.  “Oh … the Permission to Apply came through for Oxkam.  I … was pretty happy about it.  I thought I wanted to share it with you.  That’s all.”
“Oh, well … I’m glad about that … ”
“I guess there’ll be plenty of money for it.”
She flinched, but he had his eyes fixed on the floor and didn’t see it.  Then he said, “So … can I keep the same name … your name?”
“Oh, Robbie, I’m sorry I said that.  I’m sorry I struck you and called you those bad things.  Of course you can keep your name.  You’ll never be anybody but Robbin Haysus Nikalishin.”
He stayed the night, huddling fully dressed on the couch, because he had no other place to go, but he didn’t sleep.  And after he returned to school, he went about silent and distracted.  His grim mood puzzled Kolm, but the Eirish boy was too empathic not to understand that it was unwise to press his friend about it.
Robbie and Sterling had said things to each other that night that were going to leave scars no matter how many times they might utter the words, “I’m sorry.”  They tried to bring things back to normal – to continue as if nothing had happened – but it was as if a chasm had opened between them, and while there was still a bridge across it, it was such a fragile and shaky bridge that neither was willing to tread on it for fear it might collapse.  Sterling never seemed tall to her son again, but her mysteriousness had only intensified; whenever he looked at her, he seemed to see a bubble around her, an aura like the fog of that disastrous night that he couldn’t pierce.  Shame permeated his soul – shame for her and shame for himself.  Yet secretly he was not totally ashamed of having called his mother a whore, and that very lack of shame shamed him especially.
But most of all, he was ashamed that he himself had been responsible for what she had done.  Because, as she had said more than once, she had done it for him.
As for Sterling herself, she had discovered how even one she loved more than life itself could turn against her, and it was almost too much for her to bear.
Coming next:
Chapter 11:  The Ore Freighter Hell's Gate Returns to Earth


  1. there weren't any links on the chapters at the top - just saying! - still haven't got to read this chapter yet - I want some quiet time to enjoy!


    1. The links show up on my screen - just move the pointer under the Chapter designation (e.g. Chaptter 6) and the little hand will appear, along with underlining on the words. Then click. For some reason the underlining or the different color doesn't show up - I think it might be because I copied everything over from an earlier post. If you still don't get a link, let me know.
      I'll be interested in your opinion on this chapter, on two points. Did I prepare the reader for this to happen and for Robbie's reaction to it? And is Robbie's reaction - particularly his word choice - too archaic and stilted? I think I should have invented a new "bad" word, but then the connotations might be lost on the reader. Oh, I think I have an idea for a way to revise it, but that will have to wait. Remember, this is a WIP and subject to change.

  2. Yes, you're right - the links are there! - sorry.

    Finally found some quiet time to settle into this chapter!, but not sure what to make of it. It felt somehow out of context, it wasn't in keeping with the work so far. I didn't find Robbie's reaction credible - he seemed to jump to conclusions without any evidence. And he was too quick to assume the worst. Or maybe I was just out of kilter. And it seemed like too much information - I felt I didn't need to know any of this! Maybe if the narrator described a scene where it was obvious how Sterling was making the extra money, and didn't involve the revelation to Robbie, I would have been more comfortable. Or maybe I can't see the need for any of this revelation - it doesn't seem relevant to the overall story - but I don't know what's coming up!

    I guess I'm less interested in Sterling's private life, and more interested in the adventure! Ha! - can't wait for the next installment though!

  3. Glad you were able to read it finally! When I was getting this chapter ready to post, I didn't like it as well as I remembered I had. Note what I said at the top: "This is one of the most important chapters in the book, describing an incident that was a painful turning point in Robbie's life, affecting his entire future. As I read it over, I'm not sure it's well enough written considering the impact it was to have. I'm not sure I prepared the way sufficiently for this to have the impact that I want it to have."
    It really is a turning-point chapter - what happens here is going to affect his whole life. To Robbie, his mother is a goddess on a pedestal, above reproach, something to be adored and worshiped, a silver alien not of this Earth. Now suddenly he sees she is only a woman, no different than the girls he is involved with. He can never forgive her for this, and he can never forgive himself for being the reason she fell from her pedestal. But I think maybe the whole tone is too Victorian - I need a different word than "whore." It doesn't sound like something a kid would say, either today or in the 28th century. Sigh. And I probably don't make the evidence strong enough, as you said. Probably the modern sensibility is saying, so what? His mother is sleeping around - why does it matter? But it does if you think the person is a goddess, the Virgin Mary, a being beyond reproach. Anyway, I think probably before I ever publish it, this chapter will get a vigorous rewrite. And I should say, the adventure is there, but underlying it all, this is a character study, like most of my books. Believe me, the need for the revelation IS there!

  4. Ha! - so there's more to it than meets the eye? I guess I was also disappointed in Robbie - even angry, at his reaction. Sterling was making a sacrifice for him, and he was too ignorant to see that - my opinion of him fell through the floor! But overall it wasn't important and I was thinking maybe I'll skip this chapter! - not good!

    "A goddess, the Virgin Mary, a being beyond reproach ..." - don't encourage me Lorinda!!

    1. Well, you see, Robbie's reaction is quite complex. I think probably if you were reading the published book and not the chapters spread out over time, the situation would be clearer. It would also be clearer without the flash-back method. How has Robbie viewed his mother? As a small child, he saw her as this beautiful, tall, willowy vision coming in the night, brushing him with her silvery hair as she kissed him goodnight. When he began to speculate about aliens on other planets, he modeled them on his vision of his mother. And when they left Barsilia, she told him his middle name was the name of the headless god that stood above the harbor at Regionero. Then he learns from Kolm, who is a remnant Romisher, about Mairin, the mother of the god Haysus, whom he equates with himself (not necessarily that he views himself as a god, but that he shares something in common with a god - a name). And now he discovers his mother could do something very un-goddess-like in his naive view (he doesn't know much about Greek mythology!) - she prostituted herself. He understands all too well that she did it for him, but he can't get past the other part. He's not very analytical by nature, and he's only 16 years old, without much experience of the world. I want the reader to feel sympathy for Sterling - she's made a big sacrifice so her son can have the means to do something wonderful with his life - and you're not supposed to say, yay for Robbie and his upsurge of uritannical prudery! But the psychology behind this is quite complex (there is an element of sexual jealousy, too - it's HIS mother, his silver goddess, and he doesn't want any other male encroaching on his female. That aspect of it is submerged in his subconscious at the moment, of course.)
      The problem here is, of course, the author shouldn't have to explain the book to the reader (although it's a lot of fun!) But I think if the book is read more rapidly and in sequence, the point would come through better. And of course the story of Robbie and Sterling is far from over.

    2. Yes, I sensed the slightly unhealthy relationship from previous chapters but had managed to blot it out until this chapter. To be reminded in this chapter made me uncomfortable. And who doesn't place their mother on a pedestal? But Robbie seems to lack perspective in these things. He doesn't seem as credible as a character in this chapter. But these things are so subjective - what does everyone else think?.


  5. Nobody else comments! I get page views but no remarks! So I don't know what anybody else thinks. I had hoped to get more opinions by posting these samples, but I haven't, alas! And Robbie does lack perspective. He's really young and callow, but in fact naivete is going to be one of his qualities (failings?) during his whole life, especially in his relations with women. So you'll have to stay tuned ...

  6. Don't worry!, I'm on tenderhooks!