the Sky Is Waiting to Be Told
Daniel I. Clark
“If there were aliens here,” said Hess, “there’d
The alley ring was overgrown with weeds and clotted by refuse but
remained passable on foot, as Ovve had said it would be.
“There’s people here,” said Ovve.
Rising in the distance over the shell’s boundary wall, the peaks
Range 4 glowed red against the dusty blue of a late-afternoon sky, but in the
valley below them, evening had already arrived. Ovve picked his way cautiously
over the cracked pavement between heaps of brush and debris. Hess followed
To their left, in the direction of Bridge 4’s outer limits, was
abandoned production ring where ag blisters had long ago been allowed to
subside, leaving row upon row of empty sockets—like a jawbone, Hess thought, with
all its teeth missing. To their right was a residential circuit. Perhaps a
third of its buildings were still tenanted. The rest were open to the wind and
“You know what I mean,” said Hess. “4 was booming
just a few
decades back, there was going to be a Bridge 5, maybe even a 6.”
“Right, all the same to you,” said Hess, “but I’m
getting out. The tutor
personality says I’ve got good odds if I keep to my studies.”
Hess ought to have been studying right then, but Ovve had promised
him half a shift wage in exchange for his company. Worth the trouble of a hike,
even if it led nowhere.
“Another thing,” said Hess. “If there were aliens
on Das, there’d
be people who work with aliens specifically. Bio-translators,
research-diplomats. People like that.”
“What, you’re not up to the job?” said Ovve. “I
was sure you’d have
read everything there was on the subject and would tell me all about it. Come
on, it’s not much farther and we’re losing the light.”
Hess didn’t particularly care what Ovve thought of him—at
center, they were allies only out of convenience—but he bristled at Ovve’s
“You’re the one telling me you found something,”
said Hess, “and
then you won’t describe it to me. So, what the hell
do you need me for?”
help me figure out what to do with it,” said Ovve, “and where
to take it.” He looked at Hess shrewdly, then whispered: “How much credit the thing could net, maybe?”
“On Das?” Hess snorted. “Who’s going to pay
you? Ovve, how would
you even contact the authorities who might be presumed to have an interest?”
“Look,” said Ovve, “we can figure that out afterwards.
Just come with
me. The shift wage, plus I’ll cut you in... twenty percent?”
“Fifty.” Hess raised an eyebrow. “But you know they
did surveys of
the flora and fauna after landing—”
“Is that right?” said Ovve. “Surveyed the flora
did they? Yeah, you’re passing no problem. First from Bridge 4 to earn his
Abiturium in decades, like it was nothing. Remember me when you’re off-world!”
Ovve laughed, and Hess shoved him hard.
They hushed as a shout came over the fence from their right.
Standing motionless, breathing slowly, they waited for a minute
without hearing the voice again. Bad stim, maybe, or an argument over rations.
No threat to them.
On they went, though less companionably than before.
The Abiturium was not a fit subject for humor as far as Hess was
concerned. It’s still the only chance bridge workers have got, down in the dust
and mud, if they want to see more of the galaxy than they can from whichever bush
planet bought their birth contracts; but back then, to most people, it was a
joke. Something Equals used either to taunt their inferiors or to assuage their
own guilt. Both, in all likelihood—the left hand
knows not what the right hand does—and anyhow, what use could a Sequal really be
to the powers that moved suns and birthed moons?
Hess was conceited enough to imagine he’d prove the exception,
was only a few years away from aging out and his confidence was slipping.
Eduprograms weren’t moving the needle anymore. Soft and hard intellect multipliers
were the obvious next step. They’re risky and involve considerable expense, but
that's true of any investment in the future, and for a few lucky Sequals, the
Abiturium does pay off: salaried employment with an
Hess had to go the distance. The alternative was eating recycled
food in a run-down shell at the ragged edge of nothing and nowhere. Ovve could
be blithe about it if he wanted. That was probably best for him, since he was
grass anyways, perfectly common. Hess needed space to grow.
They had walked the slow curve of the alley ring in silence for
several minutes more when the buzzing sound of small-cell generators filled the
air. Then there came a series of distant clicks and pops as glow rigs and
personal defense screens powered up for the night.
“We’re still going to be able to find this thing?”
asked Hess. “I
didn’t bring a flashlight.”
Ovve pointed at a derelict structure some thirty yards ahead:
“Behind that place.”
Hess squinted into the darkness.
“And you’re not going to tell me anything about
what it is?”
“You need to see it first,” answered Ovve. “Or not
see it, really,
just touch it. Then you’ll understand why you needed to come along.”
He turned away from Hess hastily, as though he had said more than
“The hell I’m touching anything,” said Hess,
lead on. Clearly, you have found something, or you wouldn’t be acting so
suspiciously. No, don’t bother protesting. As long as you give me that
half-wage, I don’t care that you think you’re being clever about trapping me.
Look, I’m the one prepping for the Abiturium, I already know there’s no
non-standard vegetation and no higher life on Das except what people always
bring with them, cats and dogs and livestock. So I admit to being a little
curious as to what you found. Maybe it's a bird? I hear they had a bird in
Bridge 3 once. To the average worker, I suppose they’d look pretty alien."
Ovve said nothing, and he did not slow.
“Or maybe you’re stemmed already, maybe that’s what
it is,” said
Hess, hurrying to catch up with him. “Don't worry, pal of mine, I’ll buy us some
more stim out of that half-wage you owe me, we can both cash before the lights
“Forget it,” said Ovve. “We’re here.”
They stood before a house that once had been three stories tall.
The tissues of the house had fallen away above the first floor, but the frame’s
material fields had held, and what remained had the appearance of an enormous
cage. A gravel drive led to a backyard littered with scrap.
Hess looked around: the region was utterly deserted.
He had been foolish to follow Ovve out so far—but would Ovve
foolish as to try something? For what? Hess wasn’t carrying any valuables. He
might have gotten a laugh or two out of their shift mates at Ovve’s
expense—Ovve made it all too easy—but that wasn’t the sort of thing that got a
Ovve pulled a rotten tarp away from a cellar door.
“There. Open it.”
Hess stepped forward, grasped the handle, and swung the cellar door
back on its rusted hinges. It landed on the dry hard ground with the clang of a
bell. A shape was revealed.
It was small, delicate in form but not in substance. It was rooted
to the stairs but climbing up from within itself, growing and moving and
resolving out of sight without ever fully departing. A blossoming orifice
extruded a soft and gemlike tongue of fruit.
Hess bent down and took the fruit, now an eye and an egg, then spat
on his palm and rubbed the spit into the seed and handed it to Ovve, who put it
in his mouth and swallowed.
“I’m not sure I understood that last part,” said
the young man
sitting across from Hess. His drink was nearly empty, and he pushed the ice
around with his fingers. “He ate the thing after you—I mean, why? What was it?
What happened to him?”
“He didn’t get sick, nothing like that.” Hess ordered
drinks with a gesture, and they arrived swiftly. The larger drink he slid across
the table, and the smaller he kept for himself. “He changed, though, certainly.
Started reading all the time. Paid me to use one of my tablets, which I never
got back, because he left Bridge 4 soon afterwards, and it wasn’t until many
years later—quite recently, in fact—that I saw him again.”
Hess smiled ruefully, finished his first drink, and began to sip on
“It changed me, too. Just... not enough. I haven’t had
so much as a
headache since that day. Ask anyone who knows me, I’ve hardly aged a
day.” Hess shrugged. “But as you see, I never did pass the Abiturium.” He waved
his hand at the sparkling decor of the stim lounge. “I don’t ever think of
leaving anymore. Look what we have now on Das! Such luxury.”
The room was small, and the faces were all familiar to Hess, though
he had never taken the trouble to learn their names. Postures and attitudes
alone, to an experienced eye, disclosed much: recreational mode, relative
“Das is a backwater,” said the young man. “Always
has been. I’d
kill to get out of here, honestly.”
“I thought you might feel that way,” said Hess. “But
would you kill
yourself to get out of here? That’s the question.”
“What? I didn’t catch that.”
“Never mind. How’s your drink?”
“It’s strong. But hang on, changed how? How did he change?”
Glancing quickly at his reflection in a
polished surface, Hess ran a hand through his thinning hair.
“It was Ovve who passed the Abiturium that year,” said
from Bridge 4 in decades.”
“He made it off-world!” The young man leaned forward. “Where?”
“A real tour, up and down the arms of the galaxy,” said
picked him up as an agent on the strength of his test results alone, sent him
to dozens of planets as a liaison on one or another of their grand projects,
and of course he enjoyed all the perquisites of certified Status: reproductive
rights, real banking, top-shelf entertainments, and so on.”
Hess took the rest of his drink in a single draft. That he was a
cell—a servant—a reflex action endowed with self-consciousness—in no way
diminished the burden of resentment Hess carried still. He raised his empty
glass in a kind of salute and winked at the young man.
“Just the sort of life I always imagined for myself, in other
Hess coughed and cleared his throat. “But then there are monks and there are
missionaries, and I was never the hardiest specimen. Ovve was small but tough
as a bastard. I would have chosen him over me too. It’s why I’m telling you all
Hess laid his hands flat on the table before him and looked
squarely at the young man.
“You’re young and well-fed, and you’re ambitious
enough to take the
ad I posted seriously and meet me here,” said Hess. “But you’re never getting
off Das on your own. I don’t say this to be cruel. You already know it
yourself. Even the newer augments won’t get you over the bar. They raise the
pass/fail cutoff every year. With my help, though... we can help you, if
The young man gave no sign of having heard the offer, but he did
not rise to leave. Hess was encouraged.
“After Ovve received its gift,” said Hess, “it vanished.
withered into shreds that blew away with the wind. Then Ovve sailed off. And I
stayed. For twenty years, while I walked in circles, Ovve had everything—and
in exchange? A pittance, really: all he had to do was leave part of himself
behind everywhere he went.”
The young man sat back in his seat. Hess hurried to his conclusion.
“But no, I won’t lie to you. Ovve didn’t have
any other way
to shift me, whereas I can tell you so you’ll
understand. The truth is that carrying what he did cost him a lot—but consider
the stone in a drupe! Would you be so crass as to call it ugly?”
Hess’s eyes shone.
“Last month Ovve came back. He knocked on my door thirty minutes
after landing, knew where to find me without asking, just as I had known his
work was almost done and mine finally to begin. I made him as comfortable as I
could. There wasn’t much he could do anymore but talk, so I listened while he
told me what he saw and learned and what he was given to do—all the things it
would be your privilege to experience as well. And he was grateful at
the end! Even as he was coming apart, molting what remained of him who was Ovve.
‘The seed and the soil are inseparable,’ he said to me. Fine last words! A
fitting capstone to his undertaking! And after he was gone, I made my own modest
contribution—a little something of myself, as a kind of fertilizer—and left it
to take root, and now, there in the bed—on my word—it’s growing again!”
Hess reached across the table and took the young man’s hand.
“Don’t you see? Long lives are for gardeners like me—but
will bloom. Come home with me. I’ll introduce you.”
Daniel I. Clark is a teacher and
musician. Somehow he mixed up
the papers, and his wife and three children are at home, or they have gone out,
and he is running behind; but when he is not reading, he is writing; and when
not speaking, singing.