Big Echo

Critical SF

When I See The Skylark Rise

by A. J. Hammer

Elodie falls into trance. We watch her, knowing that the closed eyes can see more than any of ours. Her fingers clench on the armrests of her chair, the nails digging into the velvet. Outside the window the stars are watching, cold and distant. Ortyon waits for us somewhere below.

She screams. “No!” she cries, and “No!” again. She thrashes in her seat, her eyes still closed, her unbound hair lashing across her cheek.

The doctor, Morique, calmly comes up behind her and smoothly empties the contents of the emergency syringe into her arm.

Elodie’s eyes open slowly. She looks at us as though it is the first time she is seeing us.

“No!” She speaks as though she is still in trance, despite the 100ccs of Xypnin Dr. Morique had pumped into her.

I step forward, touching her shoulder gently. “Do you recognize me?” I ask. It’s not a bad question. If a trance goes wrong, the dreamer can be trapped in the dream forever.

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, Captain. I know where I am.”

“What did you see?” I ask. It’s not the proper procedure, but we don’t have time for the elaborate game of question and answer that is supposed to get the Captain the needed information.

“I...” She trails off.

I kneel in front of her chair, looking at the stars outside and then at her sweaty face. “Please, Elodie,” I say. “You know how important this is.”

“You can’t land on Ortyon.”

Just that. Standing up, I look around the command center. “This doesn’t get out into the ship,” I say. The officers and Dr. Morique nod.

“Mr. Herin,” I tell the flightmaster, “stall the ship.” He salutes and leaves.

I give all the officers except Dr. Morique and Quintz, my second-in-command, their orders. Elodie lolls in the velvet chair, her hair in disarray, still breathing hard.

I kneel again. “Tell us everything you saw, Elodie. We need to know.”

“I saw so many things, Captain.” Her voice is dull and even and her fingers still grip the armrests.

This time I don’t rush her. She’s seen horrors before, guided us past disaster more times than I can count. I wait for her to speak. We are like a still from a film, she stiff and pale and dark in the red velvet chair, me kneeling before her, my hair regulation-short, my uniform crisp and perfect. This should have been a routine landing. The trance was only a formality – should have been only a formality. What had she seen?

I feel the ship, my beloved Lauzeta, stall in space.

At last, Elodie speaks. “I saw so many futures,” she says. “And in all of them everything went wrong. We can’t land. I saw fire. I saw plague. I saw death in every form – for everyone. The whole planet. The whole planet, Captain. We cannot land.”

“What goes wrong, Elodie?” I ask. “What are we carrying on the ship?”

“I don’t know!” Her voices rises, peaks, breaks. “I wish I could tell you. All I know is that if we land on Ortyon, the whole world will die.”

The Lauzeta is a small ship. It doesn’t take long, though the command team tries to keep it quiet, for the truth to run through her corridors.

I have to talk to them. I don’t know how to talk to them. What do you tell people you’ve sailed with, some of them for fifteen years, when they’re about to die? They know what our position means. They know how much food we have – just enough for the routine trip from Resrir to Ortyon. They know how long the air and water will last.

I pace the captain’s cabin, alone. The captain is always alone, my trainer said. I didn’t know how right he was until this moment. I lean my head against the wall of the cabin, my eyes closed. I feel that I can feel the life of the Lauzeta ebbing away as I touch her, as though I can see the hourglass that measures the time until she will be just another hulk, floating in space.

At 00:00 I call my crew together. The command team is, as I’ve ordered them to be, pristine and perfect. So am I. It’s not hard to have a robot brush your uniform or to run a comb through your hair, noticing as you do so a little more gray.

“So,” I say. “You’ve heard. It’s not good news. Our Seer has seen disaster. Well, that’s why we have one.” I pick out Elodie, hiding in the back of the room; she has a trick of being near-invisible when she wants to be. “So it’s either them or us.” A susurration rises in the room. I hold up my hand. “There’s no choice here. It’s us.” I pause. My crew has been trained well; no one speaks. “Twenty lives against twenty billion.” I don’t have to keep going now, but I do. “We won’t have a memorial, except the ship, floating in space forever. But we’ll have done the right thing.” I look around the room, and somehow manage to keep the lump in my throat from dulling the crispness of my “Dismissed.”

Quintz paces to think, as I do. I pace like a exhausted animal in a zoo; he paces like a furious one. “Maybe we picked something up on Resrir,” he says. “Let’s search the ship. It’s not that big. If the K’theri are trying to destroy Ortyon, a supply ship like ours would be just the thing. No one would suspect it, no one would try to stop it. I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for Seers.”

Elodie isn’t there. She shouldn’t be; she’s a civilian. I still feel the pricking of anger on her behalf. Prejudice against Seers should have been eradicated by their obvious necessity centuries ago, but Quintz is an Old Believer. The ship and her pilot are good enough for him.

We don’t know how the Seers see. But every time, I mean every time a captain has disregarded a Seer’s recommendation, there’s been a disaster. It’s usually just that the ship crashes. This time it’s much worse.

Dr. Morique shrugs. “Then we search the ship,” they say. I don’t think we’ll find anything, Dr. Morique doesn’t say. There must be something we can do in the face of death, some way that we can stand in front of whatever there is to come and say we tried, we did not lie down for our deaths.

We search the ship. We find nothing.

Discipline relaxes. I don’t have the heart to enforce watches or meal protocol or proper maintenance of uniforms. Romances, if you can can call them that, blossom: Quintz and Dr. Morique are the first, then some of the crew, and at last, Elodie catches me and says, formally, “Captain Theris, I ask permission to kiss you.”

“Permission granted,” I say. And she does, gently, a simple touch of her lips to mine.

I take my Seer’s hand in my own and lead her to my quarters.

It is later. We are lying a few centimeters apart, one hand falling asleep under her body, the other free.

“What is it like?” I ask, as I trace the long line of Elodie’s arm.

“What is what like?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know. She stays cold under my gentle fingers.

My fingers rest in the crook of her elbow. “Seeing.”

“Why now?” Elodie curls into me.

“Because we are going to die,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it in so many words, though the thought has been screaming through my mind ever since Elodie’s vision.

It will be fine, she doesn’t say. We’ll be saved, she doesn’t say. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt,” she says. “Like your mind is a frozen stream, and the vision is a sudden summer. A golden glory. A shaft of light, falling hard and yet gentle in your brain. For a second you see everything, every possible future, the ones where the landing is perfect and the ones where it fails, where you bring life and where you bring death. And then something guides you to the single right one, all the others falling away. And all of this happens in a single second. I wish – I wish, Serin, I could give it to you.”

She turns to me, the waterfall of her dark hair trailing over my naked breasts and arm. “I give you what I can,” she says, and kisses me.

“Let me try,” Elodie says. “You’ve all tried to save us and failed. Just because I’ve seen it doesn’t mean I want it to happen.”

For the first day we tried to conceal ourselves from the crew. Captain Serin Theris, known across the stars for her adherence to discipline and protocol, sleeping with her Seer! but we both knew no one cared, not now. So Elodie was in the council room, with the stars behind the panes of glass, with the rest of the command team, her hand resting on my arm.

“What do you mean by ‘try?’” Quintz asks.

“I’m sure the trance can be used for other things besides landings,” Elodie says. “I always feel something outside the perimeter of the trance, a curious presence, like a big cat watching outside the window of a house in the savannah.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Dr. Morique says. Their voice is dry but not without the hint of a waver.

Elodie turns to look at them, fixing them with her grey-green eyes. “More dangerous than dying of starvation?” she says.

Dr. Morique shrugs. “Go for it, then.” They prepare two vials of Xypnin.

“No,” Elodie says, seeing them, “if I don’t wake up, don’t wake me. I would rather die in trance than linger, starving.”

And who wouldn’t, if the trance was like what she told me it was like? If we have to die, isn’t it better to be swept out to sea on a wave of gold, to drown in warm depths, than to face the cold of the void?

Elodie settles into the velvet chair.

“Seer,” I say, falling into formality, because the moment seems to demand it, “it is on your shoulders to bring us safely into port. Are you prepared?”

She nods, and then says, “Captain, I am.” Her eyes close, and my heart contracts to think that it might be the last time I see them open.

We wait a long time. At the beginning Elodie is absolutely still, calm as though this were a normal trance, a normal landing. After some time, her fingers clutch the arms of the Seer’s seat. There is no other change.

Silently, Quintz slips out.

Elodie’s face takes on a look of deep concentration. She looks, incongruously, like a student with a test question they cannot answer. We keep waiting. It’s longer than anyone has been in trance, longer than anyone should be in trance. But I won’t leave her, though Dr. Morique does, squeezing my hand as they leave.

Now she is tense in the seat, her arms and legs locked. I wait. She begins to toss and turn in the seat.

And then, all of a sudden, she’s sitting in the chair calmly, as though this were all routine. Her arms are relaxed, resting on the armrests of the chair; she seems tired, but no more tired than if she had entered a normal trance.

Her eyes open.

They’re a deep gold now, pupiless, but still hers. I fall to the floor of the room, and release the tension I’ve been holding in a storm of tears.

“Rejoice, Serin,” she says, in a slightly metallic voice, and something about the use of the old-fashioned word and my first name makes me shudder. “Rejoice,” she says again. “We are saved.”

She stands up, her movements slightly jerky, as though she were being controlled from outside.

“Look outside.”

I do. The stars are gone. I turn to her, about to scream.

“Do not be afraid,” she says.

Outside, the darkness moves. I see variations in the darkness, a deep purple, a blue darker than any blue I’ve ever seen – and then an eye, a huge eye. The same pupiless gold as Elodie’s are now.

“These – these are what give us the Seers?” I say.

Elodie nods. “Do not be afraid,” she says again. “They will save us. We are saved.”

I watch the titanic forms, each one bigger than the Lauzeta, twist and dance outside in the void of space. It is beautiful. It is terrifying.

“Why have they agreed to save us?” I ask Elodie.

When she speaks, it’s still in a dreamer’s voice. “Because I asked,” she says.

They’re not angels. They’re not gods. They’re just Other. They watch. Sometimes they save. More often they don’t. This time they will. I don’t know why. Elodie says nothing about what they are. This is what she does say, still in trance, her eyes full of the golden glory she tried to give me:

“One by one we will all rise. They will give us wings. We will step out of the Lauzeta, and when we do we will breathe, somehow, the void of space. The stars will swing below us, and we will glide down to the world that bore us, soft as dandelion seeds, gentle as the first rains of spring. We will alight, and do no harm, and we will bring with us the cure and not the poison.”

She turns to me, though in trance she shouldn’t know where I am. “Serin,” she says, “we will live. The world will allow it to happen. It is not a miracle. It is their doing.”

I feel the presence of the enormous watchers, their unbearable indifference. “Go on,” I say.

She swallows. “That is all. They have chosen us for their compassion. We can do nothing but accept it.”

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