Old Friends and New

Epilogue

My name is Martin Fisher King Swift Stream Uriel, trained under the tutelage of the Lady Unspoken, most notorious and elegant of the paladins in the current era, alongside my comrades and lovers in the Moonlit Blade, now shattered. Disgraced and forbidden to see my other selves ever again, I came to the City of Tears looking for death. While I search, I have the honor of being a Gardener for the Graceful Presence from the West. The butterflies, having short lives and thus a thirst for urgency in their speech, call it the Elven Consulate, the city Seattle, and myself Swift. I have no name that matters and one is as good as another. I have no story to tell worthy of the words, not anymore. This is not my story. This is not your story. This is a story. Listen.

Meadhbh arrived in the City not long ago and is now sitting in the garden teasing the leaves with riddle-games. She's pleasantly tall and slender with long fingers to comb through red-tinted silver hair falling across honey-velvet skin. Sparkling golden eyes that see more than she lets on. She has the longlegged clumsiness of a new colt, and the same sense of fresh wonder in everything she does.

I interrupt her laughter with a polite rustle of leaves. "You have a visitor." With a last set of giggles she bids the leaves goodbye and follows me to the room her visitor waits in. As we enter I whisper to her "Shout if there is a problem and I will deal with it." In the Presence our ways take precedence over the butterflies' excuse for laws. I wait outside. Of course I eavesdrop, wouldn't you?

Have you ever seen glass made by a craftsman? He'll take a molten blob of glass on the end of an iron pipe and swing it, so that it stretches and narrows. Now imagine a small slim woman of molten glass done just so, winding up half again as tall as even our kind but thinner still, with tight muscles oddly bunched beneath an electric blue jumpsuit. Give her skin the color of sun-bleached redwood, very pale blond hair marbled with streaks of grey, and eyes burning with alert intelligence in a face lined by exhaustion.

She bows to Meadhbh, bobs back up with an uncertain look. After an awkward pause she begins to speak. Her voice is soft but crisp, the words chopped off cleanly with an odd rhythm. She talks the same way she moves, with precision but a cautious unfamiliarity.

"I understand that you ... excuse me. I do not understand. I am told this is the way of it; I claim no understanding that I should not." She looks faintly upset, as though she had not meant to start this way. "May I sit down? Thank you." She settles carefully on one pile of cushions, Meadhbh on another. She seems unaccustomed to sitting but relieved at the same time.

"Perhaps I should tell you a story, if you will permit? Thank you."

"Once upon a time, there was an ambitious man. He was born in 1970, just over 70 years ago, in what was then Brasilia. He was brilliant, meticulous, innovative, ruthless, all of these things and more. He was a visionary. By the time he was 20 he had a prestigious degree and his first million dollars. By 30 he had his first billion, and his fortunes expanded rapidly from there. Where lesser men saw obstacles he saw opportunity, and where better men saw opportunity he put obstacles."

"At the turn of the century he devoted a considerable portion of his vast fortune into establishing a foothold in space. His company was called First Step Out, and it was one of many private enterprises that joined the gold rush to space about that time, but more successful than many. His first station was called Foothold, and from that was built Bootstrap. There were many who shared his vision. There were deaths, accepted as the cost of doing business in that area. Bootstrap was the model for the much larger First Step, which in turn was wildly expensive but even more profitable. You understand, perhaps, that there were nations that were much more amenable to speculative ventures, that allowed corners to be cut and red tape to be trimmed in return for a share of the proceeds? He settled in one of these, and based many of his operations from there, particularly for high-grade pharmaceuticals and genetech that could be brought to market much faster with a sympathetic medical review system."

"His driving motivation behind all these efforts was so that he could someday go into space himself. Ever since he had been a child on the streets that's all he wanted, all he dreamed about. But by the time things were advanced enough, stable enough, to support a non-working passage to high orbit, he was too old, his health too precarious, and his board of directors too unwilling to risk his life on the trip. He would spend the rest of his life chained to the earth, denied the fruit of his own labors. Can you imagine it?"

She closes her eyes. "It's called irony." Eyes still tightly shut, she continues more softly.

"She danced beneath the stars in the circle of stones as they were being raised, in times so ancient the circle's builders are mere legend now. And long before that, she had watched the stars in endless fascination, and spoken about them to the people, and travelled far and wide to see and speak. The first Astronomer. When her people left for the lands of eternal twilight she went with them most reluctantly. She missed her friends in the night sky and was one of the first to return."

"I can't describe her amazement when she discovered that in her absence the methods of watching stars had grown vastly. She was never able to describe her astonishment at how much the builders had discovered with their tools, at how wise they'd grown while she was away. She found real astronomy endlessly delightful, was awed that the builders were made from the hearts of dead stars. After she understood how much the atmosphere interfered with viewing, she lived for nothing else than to escape its veil and see the stars firsthand."

She opens her eyes again, continues in a more normal tone.

"It would be inevitable that two such driven personalities should meet. There were things she could do that he needed done; in exchange he promised her the stars. How much of his success was due to immortal favor? I couldn't say. No doubt he would have succeeded regardless, being that sort of man, but she was certainly helpful. Perhaps they were friends, perhaps more. I couldn't say. Certainly she was closer to him than anyone else I've ever heard of."

"Not so long ago, she finally got her chance to travel out of the well. She adapted quickly to living on First Step and marveled at how much clearer the stars were, but wanted more."

She looks directly at Meadhbh, then lowers her eyes. "I wouldn't believe this next part at all, except it was told to me by someone who saw it themselves, someone I trust more than I'd trust myself. She stepped out of an airlock into empty space, without anything between her and hard vacuum. Only for a matter of seconds; then she ducked back in and repressurized. I don't know how she convinced someone to let her do that, but I've never known anyone who could resist her wishes in any matter important to her." She shakes her head. "Except one."

"As far as I know, she's the only person, ever, who's seen the stars directly, with nothing at all between them and her. She recovered fully from the exposure but not, I think, from the sight."

She pauses slightly with a wistful sigh.

"In recent years the President of First Step Enterprises has turned away from seeing our habitat as a needed colony on the pathway to space and more as a cash cow. More and more was demanded of us to boost profits, with less and less devoted for research into ways of extending our environment. Even basic long-term maintenaince was being bled dry. Please understand, First Step is our lives. We have nowhere else to go. Most have crossed over and returning to earth would be lethal; they've adapted too successfully, especially the children. But we couldn't hope to become self-sufficient while all our efforts were being forced into developing new products for export downside. We weren't in immediate peril, but the margins are too thin in space to keep putting things off like we had to. It became all too clear that he no longer cared if what he had built survived him, because it wouldn't do him any good. Our founder. Our destroyer."

She pauses thoughtfully, then continues, picking her words carefully. "I'm not exactly sure what happened next. After she returned to earth we heard that she'd had some kind of confrontation with the Board of Directors, that she'd stormed out of the executive session. That harsh words had been exchanged with the President. She dropped out of sight. They were very nervous. The fair folk can be slow to anger but their wrath is tremendous. Then.... then we heard that she'd been killed, but no body recovered." She looks at Meadhbh again, tentatively.

She continues, "Then nothing for more than a year. A year of increasing desperation. Until last week when we saw the newsflash that the President of First Step Enterprises had disappeared. Some reports claimed he had died or been killed, others claimed he had fled to any of a dozen places, with or without looting his companies first. All is mass confusion, and the various heirs and companies and directors and officers are going to spend the next ten years trying to follow the tangle of companies and shells he set up. Maybe twenty years, by the time the various lawsuits and motions and corporate actions finish. In the meantime that's breathing room for us. We're far away, and no one groundside at FSE has a tenth his understanding of how things operate upstairs. By the time they puzzle out what we're up to we'll have enough of a head-start towards self-sufficiency that even if they try to shut us down, we'll survive. It'll be rough, but for the first time in years we have hope. We have a chance now."

"Not just for ourselves, but for our children as well. Hope not just for life, but for freedom."

She unfolds as she stands up and takes a deep breath. "I don't claim to understand just what happened, or why, what I do understand is that we've been saved. We'll remember. We'll tell our children, and they theirs, and in turn theirs, ever after." She looks Meadhbh in the eyes, and for a moment the weariness clears from her face and she looks terribly young, no more than Meadhbh's age. "I do not understand why our saviour chooses not to use the name we knew her by, but that is the name we will use when we tell her story, Touch-The-Stars."

Her gaze drops, and she whispers "Thank you for hearing me." Then she turns and runs out of the room.

-- Swift
(as told to Carl Rigney)

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Epilogue: Old Friends and New / Gretchen / Flick / © Copyright 1992 Carl Rigney
Last modified: April 23, 1997 / gretchen@flick.com