In May 2012 I, as I have done every month for the last two and a bit years, wrote a story. It was called Starwatcher. It was an attempt at pulpy sci-fi with a slightly alien feel to it. Though I do quite like it, in of itself, it is nothing special. The piece originally had a brief epilogue to it that was perhaps no more than twenty or thirty words. In the end I got rid of it. It felt tacked on, superfluous, unnecessary. Over the intervening year and a half, that expunged epilogue sat in the back of my mind dormant and unmoving. Then one day it sprouted and grew and then flowered into something beyond my wildest expectations. This now completed epilogue is longer than the original and has been a labour of love. Writing it and the subsequent re-readings caused me to be almost overwhelmed by “Feels.”
During its composition I reflected quite a lot on love, friendship, relationships and what exactly they meant. How they define people, how it changes who the are. This quickly became an act of self-reflection as I thought about the most important relationships in my life. My life has been remarkably free from romantic entanglements, the relationships which have dominated my life are those between myself and my friends. By the metrics of television and film my life should be lonely, empty and unfulfilled. But it’s not. My life is rich, richer than I often realise. So I dedicate “The Watcher of Stars” not to any individual or great romantic love past or lost, but to the relationships which have really mattered to me. The ones without which I would be less than I am. I dedicate it to my friends.
This story is for Sam and Tonks, for being there despite not being able to be there; for Sarah and Pinaz, for sharing a house with me and living to tell the tale; for Gareth and Chelle, for visiting and being so insufferably sweet together; for the two Davids, for their internet shenanigans and good natured treachery; for Andy and JP, for knowing me as long as they have and still not hating me for it; for James and Neil, for scaring my mind in ways which will never truly heal; For Amy and Vicki, for risking social suicide by agreeing to be seen in public with me; for Mick and Steve, for proving to me that I am not the worst human being in existence; and for Marc and for Jess, for always teaching me something new, and for being so singularly interesting that I could just listen to them talk for hours. And a final thanks to the ensemble cast of my life, you are legion, beyond counting and beyond importance.
Even if I have never said it before or never say it again: You people matter to me in ways I cannot quite put into words. Without you I would just be a husk of gradually expiring meat. With you, I still am a husk of gradually expiring meat, but you make me feel not so bad about the fact.
Wherever you may find yourself, in love, in life and in space; I wish you all a Happy New Year. May this coming year be filled with not that which you want, but that which you need.
Here it begins…
The Watcher of Stars
This is not a story about something as tawdry and hollow as love and lust. This is a story about something deeper and more abiding, it is about a connection that transcends a simple, meaty humanity. The most meaningful relationships need not be romantic or sexual. Sometimes just being there is enough.
There is a Japanese phrase “Ichariba Chode” it means “though we meet but once, even by chance, we are friends for life.” This is what this story is about.
The night had a cut glass feel to it. Sharp, clear, almost transparent, and possessing the ever lingering feeling that it could be quite dangerous if not handled properly. But it was mostly that sharp, clear feeling that resonated through the night. Though it had to it a quality of coldness, it was not quite as brittle as ice, and far more permanent. It was something that, despite its fragility, could last longer than a generally sane mind might expect.
The twin moons stood stark against a sky coloured somewhere between navy blue and night black. The Hotel Verona was filled with quietly milling masses. Polite enough to acknowledge the existence of each other but still possessed of enough unease as to not wish to engage one another in conversation. It was New Year’s Eve and there was a party going on and the only thing that held the people here was their corporate obligation.
Executives stand in morose queues before a Heliosian Brazier. One by one they drop antique coins onto the slow bubbling surface of a pit of lava. Gradually they soften, first at the edges, then the melt eats away to the centre, until all that is left is a spreading dot of shimmering alloys. It seeps into the fabric of the lava and is lost. Votive offerings to a dead king: something old destroyed, to bring something new. Be it luck, love or success. It doesn’t matter. It is Heliosian tradition. Everyone does it, even if it doesn’t work. It is expected. It brings comfort. Delegating the human aspects of fate to something “other.” Dead kings are as good as anything here in the inner system.
Almund Skeete sits alone at the bar. The necessary pageantry before the senior staff is gone and done. Now all that is left is the arduous slog towards the end of the night and the New Year. Waiting out the party and hoping against hope that he can steer clear of the machinations and politics of his myriad of co-workers. The barstool upon which he sits is made from the wood of the wandering trees of Aiya’niss deep within the Europan forests; It smells a bit like cedar. The carpet is woven out of an exotic fibre from somewhere out near the Orion nebula. Threaded and treated such as it is, it gives a fabric of such astounding durability that it will likely outlast the planet; it smells like old tarpaulin that’s been left outside for too long.
The Hotel Verona is a place of exquisite elegance and refined taste. The shear decadence of its fittings and upholstery would be enough to make the greatest kings of the dawn ages weep. It is the pinnacle of the business and social world. Almund hates it. It reminds him of places which are elsewhere. Everything here is a corruption of something which can be found in a purer form on far distant worlds. So he sits alone, amidst the hustle and the bustle, thinks of nothing in particular and drinks away the night.
Almund quickly grew tired of the weak beer that was provided without cost to the party guests and decided to move on to something, anything, that wasn’t the piss-thin swill he’d been nursing. Something hopefully a little bit different. What the bar-droid brought him sits in a vessel so flat and shallow that it is more bowl than tumbler. The glass is as clear and sharp as the night itself and the liquid within is tinged with just the barest hint of green. Cradling the bowl with both hands he sipped at the cool liquid within. The subtle scent of pine washed alcohol snaked its way up his nose and into his lungs, burning with slight and icy cold. It flung Almund back six years, to a horizon of battleship grey; to the range of the Eleven Shattered Fists; to a mountain lashed with rain; to a hastily erected bivouac in the lee of a pine far older than most of civilisation. A smile creased his face. That had been a hellish night, a night which had almost killed him. But it hadn’t. And now, through the lens of years Almund realised just how much fun it had been. Off on his big adventure, never before or since, had he felt so vital, so thoroughly and unequivocally alive.
More or less everything in this accurséd hotel reminded Almund of something, the colour of the bar-droids waistcoats, the glimmer on the wainscoting in the foyer. Everything triggered a memory, but especially the smells. Smells get right inside your head and spark off something you thought long since forgotten. He could tell which of his co-workers were passing behind him, just from the scent that followed in their wake.
Rabhani Yaamkuuzzuhalamma: Senior accounts executive. A man who drips with the crisp, wintry smell of night cooled sweat and the spiced fire of liniment oil. It was a smell that sang in Almund’s mind; a song of clandestine brutality and shadowy elegance; a song of the pitiless honour of the underground fighting pits of the Old Viet clans of Phnom Canesta.
The air had been heavy with a wet heat and his mind had been swaddled in the woolly embrace of caustic pepper beer. Something had compelled him to take a little risk. And then it had all spiralled out of control. The pebble that sets loose an avalanche. A 10 florin bet on the white-eyed Trog to beat the three-fold champion. The ravenous assault of that drug-crazed half-man; the riot that followed the champion’s quick and messy death; the damp spatter of lofted viscera; a rain of pale yellow notes caught in the updraught, drifting slowly out across the methane sea. A serenity lost amongst the clamour of murder and the undulating howl of the victor.
Then another smell, one that hit the senses like hammer made of lightning. Gone as quickly as it had appeared. A smell of unidentifiable flowers, strong and sickly, the sort of smell that swallows you whole and drags you down into the depths, and beneath it an acrid tang of metal: Ariadne Kwon-Keng: Lead marketing director for the spinward sphere. It brought back flashes of a near suicidal flight across the spine of a black market greenhouse belonging to a refugee cabal of Bavarian horticulturists (with a particular emphasis on the cult.) Across rusting gangways and collapsing gantries, a gaggle of tulip crazed zealots wielding sickles. All because he’d had the bare-faced temerity to sleep in their boiler shed.
A staccato drum beat that haunted his desperate escape; a clanging of butcher’s steel; the unearthly chant of empty voices, cries of Semper Augustus, Absalon and Neo-tulipae. The sudden interruption of gently falling glass. As knives and terracotta pots sailed overhead and through centuries old panes of the finest West-Nile Soda-Lime. The final, desperate swan dive through the stained glass oculus and into the freezing night air. Then the plummet to the turbid green waters of the canal. All exposed skin seared with the sting of its petrollic burn.
A pair of scents, an intertwined melody, drifted past him like a gentle wind. The smell of lovers, or at the very least a dead and hollow simulacrum thereof. A combination of strained urgency, damp cotton, fresh and still hot sweat, all built on a foundation of oil. It was the trademark aroma of Zabium MacTavish and Kachiri Lamphier a duo from HR with titles the likes of which no sane human can remember or comprehend. There was, in Almund’s opinion, nothing else that came close to matching the odours of the Vermilion Textile Markets of the Xcothil and it’s thousand bazaars. The hawking, the grasping, the endless close pressed throngs of flesh and cloth.
A Merchant’s restrained desperation, his willingness to do almost anything to make Almund buy his last bolt of black jute. The sudden parting of the crowd at the flash of steel, like a shoal of panicked fish, a knife now within the merchant’s hand. He cuts deep into the flesh of his own arm, he swears upon the lives of his children and his ancestors that this is the finest jute Almund will ever see. Blood flows freely from the wound and spatters into the red dust like rain. Almund caves. There is a reluctant exchange of three copper ha’pennies for the jute. But mainly it’s just to make him stop. As Almund trudges away with the rolled jute over his shoulder, the fabric rubbing slightly against his skin, he realises something. It is the realisation that the merchant wasn’t lying.
Through the sea of memories there came a scent Almund did not recognise. It sashayed into the bar as if it owned the place and all other smells stepped away or realised they really needed to be somewhere else. It was a singular and esoteric thing. It seemed to put everyone else slightly on edge, all except Almund. It enveloped him in a warm embrace, it draped itself over him like an old friend.
The smell of cardamom cigarettes, hand rolled in old Italian grease paper. It licked at the senses, a burning hiss in the air. Then surging behind it came a wave, a wave of ginger and electric motors. It gave the air an ozone sharpness and made you feel like someone nearby was making a really big cake.
For the first time that night Almund took an interest in the people around him. He placed his bowl on the bar-top and turned to look behind him. Standing in the doorway was a woman. Dressed in a gown of Tahitian mirror cloth with its thousands of hand buffed segments and bedecked in jewels of shattered colour-glass. Her skin was the rich, browned tan of the traveller. Her hair cascaded in ringlets of sandy blonde that seemed to defy the generally accepted laws of gravity and was further accentuated by an army of bright yellow ping-pong balls depicting a bewildering array and facial expressions. Her name was Gayane Al-Taftazânî and if she were anyone else she would have looked ridiculous. But ridicule was something that just slid off Gayane Al-Taftazânî, it always had and it always would. She just didn’t give a damn what you thought.
Al’s heart leapt, he was on his feet without even thinking. Staring right at her, all slack-jawed and dewy eyed. Their gaze met across the room and she made her way towards him.
“I do not like suit, it makes you look like…” Gayane began.
“A th’n’lk-chuu’p.” Finished Al. “And you were right, it doesn’t translate and it’s very rude.”
The two of them stood in silence, merely looking at on another.
“It’s been over five years Gayane. Where have you been? How did you even find me?”
“Well Mister so called Almund Skeete, you should note that Gayane never said which new year” she replied “As to how I found you? I am resourceful, I know things. This much you should remember.”
“All I remember Gayane, is meeting a woman at a bus stop in the middle of ass-backward nowhere and talking to her for a couple of hours before she vanished off into a blasted desert wilderness.”
“Then she must have left quite an impression on you no?” Gayane smiled.
“She certainly did.” Al smiled back.
“So Mister Almund Skeete…”
“So Miss Gayane Al-Taftazânî…”
“I do not like this place. You do not like this place. I have heard stories about you and your travels my friend. I know place. Nearby. Much more your speed. We should leave yes?” The tone which Gayane used made it sound like anything but a question. It sounded like a fact.
“Yes. We should” replied Al.
Gayane clapped her hands together with delight and took Al’s arm in her own. Together they left the Hotel Verona and the Great and the Good behind. In the vacuous expanse of the void above their heads a hundred Kaiser-san whizz-bangs detonated. Electrically ionised spheres of superheated metal salts filled the night with colours that humanity lacks the words to adequately describe. And with them, suddenly, the night was not long enough for Al. He wanted it to last forever. One thought above all else rose out of the seething froth of his mind.
“I’ve still got the hat you know” he said.
“I know” Gayane replied “I have seen the daguerreotypes”