Stars, Part 2
by Liberty Gilmore (5/1/13)
For three days I sat before the fountain. I learned its secrets as Gran had. It only started with the stars.
‘Stars are large gaseous orbs that produce light, heat and other forms of radiation through a process of nuclear fusion. They go through several distinct life stages, and through a process known as going ‘supernova’ are responsible for the production of all the natural elements in the universe.
‘Would you like to learn more about bodies in space?’
I stared at it. Another member of the village might have run away screaming, but though the temptation was strong, another question bubbled to the front of my tongue.
‘What’s the universe?’
‘The universe is the space which contains everything that exists: planets, stars, galaxies and all energy and matter. There is some debate amongst physicists as to the exact nature of the universe, but it is widely agreed that it is infinite and expanding.
‘Would you like to hear about the multiple universe theory, or Einstein’s work on defining the universe?’
I sat down, where Gran must have sat all those years before me.
‘What’s a physicist?’
A need for food drove me out. I trekked back to a river I’d passed on my way here, spearing a few fish as I’d been taught by the experts in the village. I pulled up some roots to go with them, picking the berries that wouldn’t poison me, too. I was distracted, though, mind reeling with everything I’d learned.
I’d been through space and physicists to history. Ancient history first, starting from the beginning. I’d watched civilisations grow and fall on this planet known as Earth. I’d just watched a terrible war devastate them.
I thought of my own village, tiny compared to the cities of this alien world. In all our long history, there had never been disagreement on the scale I’d seen in the Fountain. We argued sometimes about who owned what lands, and whose responsibility it was to do certain jobs, but arguments were always settled by the Meis and we trusted in their absolute authority. Once a Mei had spoken, her decision was never questioned.
There were those who elected to live their lives as outsiders – on their own in the wilderness. Sometimes this was a spiritual choice, but that was rare. The Meis encouraged participation in village life as the highest form of spiritual enlightenment. Pilgrimages were meant to remind us of that, of the benefits of the community – time spent without so we could see what we were missing – but some people chose the solitude.
There were others, outcasts, sent away from their villages because they’d done something to damage the village. The stories were told to us like those of ghosts and monsters and other unreal things – meant to scare and frighten, to keep naughty children in line. I grew to know that the stories were true, but collected over many generations. Outcasts were as rare as those who chose to leave.
The thought of war was too horrific. I could barely comprehend it.
I had enough to feed myself comfortably for a while, but to save making the trip out again in a few days, I wandered further up the river, hoping to find a few more roots and berries. I was so absorbed in my search, I didn’t notice the soft growl of a predator until it was so close, I could almost feel the creature’s breath on my skin.
I took the knife in my hand, switching the grip from the digging hold to an offensive grip. My fingers sweated, my heart racing in my chest as I turned to face the wolf beside me. It snarled at me through bloody teeth, creeping forwards. It was thin, ribs jutting through its patchy fur. Desperate enough to take a chance on me.
Its legs bunched, ready to pounce. I raised my knife, standing still and ready, as I’d been trained. As the wolf leapt forwards, I slashed at it, stepping out of its reach. With a soft whimper, it landed a little behind me, favouring one leg at the front, licking the other. I readied myself again as it sized me up, but it decided I wasn’t worth the risk, and limped off.
Quickly, I checked the nearby area, in case there were any others. I did not want to be trailed back to the cave, to be set upon in my sleep. We’re taught from a young age to respect animals, and to never underestimate their intelligence or instincts.
I find nothing to suggest the wolf is not just a lone wanderer, driven far from its usual hunting grounds by hunger, but a little further up the river I find the reason for the blood on its teeth.
A boy, lying in the shallow water, his rich red lifeblood tangling with the currents.
I splashed through the shallows to his side, dropping to my knees as I examined him. He was breathing, short, sharp breaths that spoke of pain, but didn’t open his eyes when I touched his face. A glance down his abdomen revealed the reason why – a deep bite into his side, another on his leg. I look around and spot a trail of blood through the trees. He must have run, injured – probably the leg wound – for some time, before succumbing to pain and blood loss. The bite on his side looked worse, deeper, and I knew without aid, he would not survive.
I was not trained in the art of medicine, my knowledge only what tidbits my mother and grandmother passed to me. Alone, it would be hard to get him back to the cave.
But I could not leave him to die.
The journey back to the cave seemed twice the distance it had been in the other direction. The boy was slight, perhaps a little taller than me, and his weight made my arm muscles burn with the effort of carrying him.
Occasionally, he came to just enough to help me along a little. He mumbled a few words, nothing I could make sense of, but he took his own weight for a few moments, before succumbing to his pain again. I was grateful for these moments of reprieve. I doubt I would have made it all the way without them.
Back at the fountain, I laid him down, set my travelling cloak over him, a roll of clothes beneath his head. His skin had turned a grey colour at some point on our journey, and the blood stain at his side had spread.
I turned to the fountain.
‘Tell me how to help him!’
The face swam to the surface of the glass. ‘What would you like to know?’
‘Tell me how to help him!’
The first night, I sat up by his side, cooling his forehead as the fever burned through him. The fountain had taught me how to wrap a wound, but I knew nothing of the penicillin it wanted me to administer.
I removed the boy’s top, noticing for the first time the strange material and design, but not dwelling on it – the tear in his flesh taking up my attention. But through the night I had plenty of time to ponder his strange clothes, the way his hair was short, the way his beard was a short, rough growth on his face, unlike any I’d ever seen before. I guessed him to be my age from his face, but his hands were smooth, unmarked by work like a child’s.
As I watched him fight for his life, tending to him the only way I knew how, I wondered about who he was.
The second night, I risked a little sleep, exhaustion catching up with me, despite my fear. In my sleep I dreamed the boy was an outcast, having committed a crime against his people. The dream lingered in my mind when I woke, and I wondered if it was the wrong thing, to save him.
The third night, I felt comfortable enough to sleep through.
The fourth night, he stirred.
He told me his name was Simon.
‘What sort of a name is that?’ I asked.
He’d pushed himself to a sort of sitting position, wincing as did so. I brought over a small bowl of broth, helped him eat some. The food brought a little colour back to his face, gave him the energy to talk.
‘You saved my life,’ he said, ignoring my question.
I dipped my head, not able to hold his grateful gaze. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d survive. I’m not a healer.’
‘Whatever you did, it helped,’ he said. ‘I know I would have died if you hadn’t found me.’
He slept on and off for another two days, each time he woke a little healthier, a little stronger. At first he merely ate when he was awake, attending to his other needs as they arose, and few words passed between us, but as he grew in strength, he started to take more of an interest in conversation.
‘Do you live here?’ he asked.
‘No, I am on my pilgrimage.’
He didn’t seem to understand.
‘It’s dangerous out here,’ he said.
I glanced at the dressing on his wound. ‘I know.’
‘Shouldn’t you be with someone else?’
‘I trained for this,’ I said, which wasn’t quite true. I’d trained for something. But it wasn’t this.
After a few days, I had to head out again. Simon’s appetite grew with his strength, and it was up to me to feed us both. I caught a few more fish and set a couple of traps for next time. When I returned, Simon was sat up by the fountain. He’d put his bloodied shirt on again, his hair mussed by a week of lying about. I paused in the entrance a moment, watching him. His shirt hung loose on his frame, now even thinner than it had been, despite his returning appetite. Every so often, he touched a hand to his face, running it over his chin, as if he was not used to the hair that grew there.
‘What do you want to know?’ the fountain asked him.
‘Status update, four-zero-two-four.’
‘Error,’ said the fountain, ‘no entry for that date.’
‘Status update, three-nine-nine-nine.’
‘Error, no entry for that date.’
He kept trying as I entered, not noticing me approach.
‘Status update, three-four-zero-zero.’
‘Error, no entry for that date.’
Simon made a noise of frustration and looked away from the fountain.
‘You have to ask it a question,’ I said.
Simon looked at me, surprised by my appearance at his side. ‘You’ve used it?’
I put the food to one side. ‘My grandmother discovered it on her pilgrimage. She told me stories. I asked it about the stars.’
‘The stars?’ Simon raised an eyebrow.
‘I know, you might think they don’t exist. They might not appear in our skies, but this machine has records of them, along with the history of some other world, a planet called Earth.’
Simon frowned then, staring at me with confusion. ‘Sunia, this is Earth,’ he said.