THE SKY PEOPLE by Alex Hardison

Sep 07 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Lily’s playing with my hand again, tugging and twisting at the fingers. I don’t mind, because it keeps her near, though I try to stop her from putting the tips of them in her mouth. The metal is supposed to be safe, and I’ve had no ill effects since my original hand was replaced, but when it comes to her health I tend towards the overprotective.

“Do the thing, Daddy! Make it do the thing!” She doesn’t look at me as she makes her demand, but takes ahold of my wrist and starts to shake it back and forth. She’s been sitting in my lap watching me stare out the window for too long, and she’s bored.

“Okay button, I’m sorry, I’ll make it go. But first you have to let go of it, okay?”

Lily releases my finger, making a great show of placing both hands behind her back. I put my hand on the arm of my chair and let the fingers unlatch, all four extending outwards, black segments snapping outwards and revealing the narrow linking bands within. I wiggle them, showing off their flexibility and range, and Lily giggles gratifyingly. She starts running her fingers carefully over each extended section, humming happily under her breath. Every time we’ve done this I’ve told her to be careful, and she tries her best, but it’s not long before she gets overexcited and forgets.

“Careful button, don’t touch the connectors, they’re delicate.”

Lily makes a face at me, but she does as she’s told. She turns her attention to her favourite part, tugging upwards on the middle finger and giggling happily as it pulls back further than any living finger could and snaps into place. I explained to her the first time she did this that it was only Daddy’s hand that did that, that she mustn’t try it with anybody else, but I still found myself paying for some poor boy’s wrenched finger a few days later.

The advertising wall to our right is playing an episode of her favourite show, but she doesn’t look around, still immersed in her examination of my mechanical hand. I watch it idly over her head, glancing down from time to time to make sure that she isn’t doing anything that she isn’t supposed to. The fuzzy creatures that populate the hypercolour island are learning an important lesson about manners and waiting your turn while queuing up for rations, and as usual the blue one gets in trouble for not doing what the law officers tell him to. He’s Lily’s favourite, though she struggles to articulate why. It’s not long before he finds himself placed in a hovercell made of cardboard tubes and carted away, much to the consternation of his little friends, though I’m sure that he’ll be back for the next episode.

I look down in time to see Lily snap the back of my wrist open and peer eagerly inside. There’s a small compartment inside, and she gets her face as close as possible to the tools within without actually touching them. She loves to test exactly how close she can come to breaking a rule before she gets in trouble. “Can I?” she asks, without looking up.

“Carefully, honey. Handles only.” I can’t deny her anything. Given what’s coming, I don’t see why I would. I glance towards the window again, but there’s still nothing to see, just the wide white roofs of the other hives spreading out towards the horizon. It’s not a real window, of course, we’re far too deep in the hive for that. I don’t think that Lily can tell the difference; in fact, I’m not sure that she’s even seen a window made of glass

Her clever fingers work their way into the compartment, and she carefully tugs the first device out. I’ve only let her do this a few times, and I keep a close eye after the time she managed to singe both hands with the element calibrator. She goes for that one first, of course. My brave little girl. She has to use both hands to work it out, and as I watch I’m suddenly struck with the thought of how little she is, of how everything in the world is too large for her. I glance across at the news feed on the left wall, but it’s not time yet. I don’t have to explain to her how much large the world really is. Not just yet.

Lily waves the calibrator back and forth, chuckling gnomically, then suddenly becomes bored and thrusts it into my free hand. She digs out a second and holds it up. “What’s this one?” she demands, eyes crossing slightly as she examines it. The device she’s holding is a bioluminescent merger, a delicate scalpel with a growing green tip that’s used for painting pheromones into organic matter. Her finger slips up towards the sharp end and I carefully slip it out of her fingers. She looks as though she’s considering fighting me, but consents to have it taken from her.

“That’s a merger, honey. It’s used to make things…like each other. Make them connect.”

Disinterested now that her ownership has been usurped, Lily is reaching back into the compartment. I juggle the two devices that I find myself holding, trying to keep my artificial hand still while she explores it. “What’s this one?” If she presses the stud on the end of the long implement she’s suddenly holding, the head will blossom outwards into a ridged globe, loaded with the reactants necessary for stimulating asexual reproduction in artificial lifeforms. Once again, I slip it out of her hand, and it rattles against the other two. Perhaps this was a bad idea.

“Why don’t you play with your toys, honey? They’re a lot more fun than mine.” Lily makes a face at me; she’s smart enough to know the difference between a genuine suggestion and a dismissal. We try to stare each other down, and I feel one of her black moods building in the air. My own state of mind is fragile enough today, and I find it hard to believe that I would have had it in me to calm her. Finally she relents, slipping off my knee and chirruping happily as she tips her blocks out onto the ground and goes to work.

Lily’s show is finishing up, the closing tune blaring cheerily out despite our disregard. The wall has gone through a lot of changes in time that I’ve lived here. When I was a young man it was pure pornography, sweaty bodies of every shape and form heaving and pouring over one another. Then I grew older and it gave way to technical programs, blueprints and schematics and engineering conferences broadcast day and night. Finally that slowed as well, as all the sciences came together in their one final project, a marvel of engineering and biotechnology that demanded everything from every available mind and set of hands. After that, it all just…tapered off. We were done. It horrified me to think about it; an entire world’s scientific exploration, complete. No, not complete. Abandoned. Taken as far as it could be, certainly, but when I was young we believed that the journey would be endless. Lily will never know that feeling. Her world, whatever shape it takes, will always be limited.

I glance across at the time as I slot my tools back into their compartment. I wonder if I will ever take them out again. I stand and wander restlessly towards the window. Less than an hour now. Nothing will come to a halt today. Indeed, it will be more beginning than end. I’ve even got a new job lined up, a consulting role at one of the last remaining engineering corporations. Before long I’ll be teaching, I suppose, and after that whatever I can find. I wonder if there will be a role for a historian at the end of history. I look down at Lily, playing blithely with her blocks, and I wonder what sort of a life she will have. The domes should keep us safe long enough for her to grow into old age. Middle age, at least. Older than I am now. But what sort of life will it be? What sort of ennui will her generation suffer, knowing that everything that can be done already has been?

Suddenly Lily abandons her project and scampers over to me. She crouches at my feet, eyes big and wild like an animal’s. Behind her, the blocks are arranged in a long network of intersecting crosses. It’s the same pattern that she always makes with them. I don’t know where she got the idea from, or why she doesn’t experiment further – I’ve certainly encouraged her to. She just seems to think that that’s how blocks are supposed to go. Before I can say anything, she scrambles up my leg and into my arms, tiny fingers and feet digging mercilessly into my hip and ribs. She ignores my laughing grunt of pain as she hauls herself up by my shirt and wraps her legs around my side. I catch her, as she knows that I always will. Her eyes are still wild, and I wonder what she sees. I lift her above my head, shaking her and making her scream like a wild thing. She writhes around up there, shaking out whatever badness briefly had her in its grip. If only it were so simple for me.

“Kick the blocks!” Her grin is as mischievous as it is infectious.

“Are you sure button? You put them all together so carefully!”

She favours me with a look of deepest contempt. “Kick, Daddy! Be the monster!”

Still holding her in my arms, I swing my legs in long outwards strokes, knocking her blocks to the far sides of the room while she claps and squirms in delight. She has little to no interest in her creations once they’re complete. The point for her, I think, is to build them. Being a parent is the opposite. Making her was the easy part – it’s everything that comes afterwards that takes a toll. At least some part of her will survive into the future. I’ve made sure of that.

It’s time, or close enough. I carry Lily over to the window and we look out towards the horizon, towards the facility that has been my life for the last five years. My role there is done, and while at first I was frustrated that I would be sitting out the actual launch, I find myself glad to be home with Lily instead. There are some things that should be shared with those closest to you, even if they don’t understand their meaning at the time. When I was a boy my father woke me in the middle of the night and insisted that I look into the telescope that he had erected in our back yard. That was just a few years before living under the open air became untenable. Through the lens I saw little more than a dot among dots, but he insisted that it was a comet, that in years to come I would be able to tell people that I had seen the last passing of Halley’s comet. I didn’t fully grasp the significance, but I felt the enthusiasm radiating off him, and I treasured the moment we shared beneath the stars.

“Look Lily, do you see that?”

I have to point a few times before I get her attention long enough to make her look. She glances out towards the horizon, then looks away again, bored. I watch for us both. In the distance – almost too far to be seen, even with the window’s enhancements all the way up – a glow begins to build. I can’t tear my eyes from it, and before long Lily stops her squirming as well, watching it as well. She likes bright things. “Is it a bomb?” she asks, her tone more curious than afraid.

“No honey, it’s a launch.”

“Like when you went into space?”

I smile, thinking of the exhilarating rush of liftoff, excitement and terror boiling through my guts as the earth fell away. My one and only trip beyond the poisoned atmosphere of our world. Today’s launch will be nothing like that. The passengers will be completely serene, their minds controlled and clear. They will only need our clumsy boosters for the first part of their voyage, to claw their way up and out of the gravity well, the prison into which they were born. After that they will travel under their own power, and I do not imagine that they will look back.

“These are special people, my little button. Men and women that have been worked on by scientists, including your old Dad. I helped build the systems that tell them how to build things.”

Lily thinks about this. “Like how the advertising wall tells us things?”

“Not really. They’ll just know. More like…you remember the birds in the documentary that we watched? Like how they just knew how to build a nest.”

“What are the sky people going to build?” She’s watching the glow intently now, as though she might make out the tiny figures being propelled skywards.

I smile at her choice of words. Sky people. The future will still need poets, I suppose. “Well, their homes, to start with.”

She looks sceptical. “They don’t have homes?”

“They do. They did, I mean. They lived at the facility, where I used to work. But they’re going to go out into space and find new homes.”

Lily tugs absently at my hair while she thinks about this. This is the conversation that I’ve been dreading, the one that I’ve played out so many times in my head without a satisfying resolution. How much to explain to her? How much of the truth will she understand, and how upset will she be by it? There are no good answers to these questions, I know, and a million years of parenting has failed to come up with any sure means of resolving them. I have promised her, silently, a thousand times, that I will never lie to her. I cannot yet tell if I will be strong enough to keep that promise.

“Will they be cold out there? In space?” Lily’s questions are never the questions that I have prepared an answer for.

“Well, no. Their skin isn’t like ours. It’s double shielded, requiring to external warmth, and they can even turn their pain receptors on and off.”

Lily is leaning out towards the window again, reaching towards it will her grubby little hand. What has she been touching to get so dirty? I take a step closer, letting her push against the window until she satisfies herself that she cannot reach the sky people. “Are they going to come back?”

I shake my head. The truth is that the sky people cannot survive for long in our atmosphere. They are too tall and heavy for our gravity, and their delicate senses are at constant risk of being overwhelmed by the telecommunication storm that blankets our world. They have huge grey eyes and jet black skin and their wingspan is like an angel’s. Most of all, though, they have no need for us. It has become painfully clear that since the commencement of the final stage of their transformation they no longer feel any kinship for we mortals. We made them better than ourselves, able to live in conditions that would destroy our fragile forms, and some days I think they hate us for it.

“Then why did we make them?”

Now it all comes out. I could have easily come up with a different answer, one that was safe and not technically untrue, but I find that I can no longer restrain myself. “This planet doesn’t have much time left, Lily. A hundred years, they think, at the most. There’s too much damage done. There isn’t anything more that they can do.” I search her face for the fear that I have been expecting. “A hundred years is a long time honey. A very long time. But after that there won’t be anything more. No more of…of us.”

I watch her carefully, trying to see the information sink in. Her eyes change, and I cannot tell if she is about to cry, if she understands what I’ve said at all. “But they’ll still be there?”

“You mean the sky people?” She nods. “Yes button. They can live where we can’t, and after we’re gone they’ll still be around.” She thinks about this for a while, chewing her lip and kicking her feet absently against my ribs. “Is there anything else that you want to ask?” My heart is sick with the burden I have lain on her, the knowledge that her world’s time is cut short, her generation’s potential limited and fragile.

“Can we have curry for dinner?” The question is delivered in the same tone as any other that she has asked me this afternoon.

“Yes button. Anything you want.”

“And can I go play now?”

Not sure what to do with her calm response, I nod and place her back on her feet. Suddenly joyous, she scrambles through my legs and sets to work reassembling her network of blocks. I turn back to the window, the clicking of her toys a comfort of sorts as I peer out at the blast of distant light, trying just as Lily did to make out the tiny figures that hurtle skywards, never to return. I ache at their loss, at the conclusion of the final stage of our world’s development. All our science, our music, our poetry and history goes with them. In a thousand years, their history will record us as their incubators; our only purpose their creation. I cannot quite bring myself to hate them for it, but when I look at Lily it is a close thing indeed.

Finally, I smile. I have, in my small way, put a piece of myself inside them. More than I was supposed to. Not a piece of myself, I correct myself: a piece of my world. A piece of Lily. They will never know her name, but she will live on through them, become an intrinsic part of their world. I will, in my insignificant way, have had my revenge on the cruelty of destiny.

Then I turn my back on the light, on my betters, and crouch down on the ground beside Lily. She hands me some blocks and tells me where to place them, and we play until it is time for dinner.

* * *

Theta One glides in low over the asteroid. His vision flicks rapidly through the spectrums of the solar radiation pulsing outwards from the nearby star. The project to link the asteroid to the adjoining five is going well, and they should be ready to link it to the orbital wing in less than a hundred years. He drops towards it, eyes picking out the tiny grey buildings from which his kind work. The hardest part of the process was smoothing out sufficient space on the rocky surface, but now that it is complete, the colony can truly flourish.

He has been flying long enough for the local planet to have rotated half the way around the sun, and he is beginning to tire. His companions will be waiting for him in their home. Theta Eight will have prepared sustenance for all, and with luck Gamma Nine will once more share his bed. Their life here is good, their work rewarding. He looks outwards at the stars, already wondering where they will travel next.

The colony is clearly visible now. Theta One descends towards the long network of intersecting crosses, the same pattern that emerges in everything they build. He closes his enormous eyes for a long, sweet moment as he falls, thinking of his companions, of his mission and of himself. From time to time he feels a strange stab of melancholy for those who came before them; their mysterious builders, now lost to time and distance. He wonders what they would think of their construction. He hopes, distantly, that it would please them. Then he puts the thought aside and opens his eyes, allowing the artificial gravity to guide him down into his world.

Alex Hardison is an aspiring science fiction writer, comics and video game enthusiast and all around Batman expert living in Australia with girlfriend and cat. He writes about comics at http://notesfromcrimealley.blogspot.com.au/ and has previously been published in Flurb.

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