The Sandbirds of Mirelle

by on Aug 4, 2014 in Short Fiction | 1 comment

2700 Words

This is my truth:

In the autumn of 2309 I crossed from one lonely star to another and took a tour to the sandbird tracks of Mirelle. The only other passengers were a married couple, and our guide was a priest in training. I was eighteen, and it was my first assassination.

We met in silence, but as the crawler rumbled off the landing field, the man looked up and said, “So, how easy will it be to find the sandbirds?” He had a broad face and hands with flat, manicured fingernails. A thermal regulator pulsed on his shoulder.

“God will guide us, Mr. Lightway,” the priest said.

“You really believe that?”

The priest laughed. “In this case He won’t have to. The birds hatch in the same place every year.”

“You believe the birds are holy, don’t you?” the woman said. She wore a soft white blouse and her long blonde hair curled as it flowed over her shoulders.

“Not in the slightest, Mrs. Lightway.”

“Please, call me Catherine. I thought you worshipped them?”

“We don’t worship anything, Catherine. We meditate on the patterns they make as they hatch.”

I stared at the priest, then dismissed him. He was short and old, and unlikely to pose a threat to my mission. “Why are you taking tourists out?” I said.

“To make sure the sandbirds are protected, and because the First Step of Faith is to teach others.”

“Well, I’m very grateful,” Catherine said.

I pulled myself against her seat–back and touched her shoulder.

“You’re an artist, aren’t you?”

“A holographic sculptor, yes.”

“I saw your ritual masks in the gallery of Talos–4.”

She smiled. “They took weeks. Feathers are such a nightmare.”

“You must be very religious, to do so many holy symbols.”

“Not really. But I do think it’s the job of an artist to pick through other people’s feelings.”

“She’s a professional vulture,” Mr. Lightway said. He was in the seat facing her, and looking over her shoulder at me.

Catherine looked sharply at him, then back to smile at me. She twisted in her seat, curling her legs and tucking her head against the leather so she ended up facing the dunes. The movement put her back to Mr. Lightway and myself.

He shrugged. “What do you do, boy?”

“I’m an emissary.”

“Who for?”

“That’s a company secret.”

He laughed. “You remind me of me when I was starting out.”

He held out his hand. His grip was alarmingly firm, and it didn’t take me long to realise he was stronger than me. To hide my emotions I, too, turned to look out of the crawler window. When it happened, I would have to take him by surprise.

Four hours later, I was still wondering how to arrange the hit when the priest said, “All out for our first and only rest.”

I sought him out as we left the crawler. Behind us I could hear Catherine and her husband beginning an argument.

“Is it hot enough for you?” the priest said.

“Easily. I’m not used to two suns.”

He nodded, and led me to a rock which offered some shade.

“You mentioned the Steps of Faith?” I said.

“They’re the three way–markers on the road to salvation.” He ticked them off on his fingers — “You need to guide someone, pass on your truth, and die fearlessly.”

“What was your truth?”

“I haven’t found it yet.”

“But you’re meant to guide us spiritually, yes?”

He smiled, bit a biscuit, and offered me one. It was dark and tasted of cinnamon and dates.

“What’s the real question you want to ask?” he said.

As he waited for my reply, I tried to size him up. He was smaller than me, and far thinner. I knew monks weren’t about vanity, but his hair was missing and he had wrinkles beside his mouth. He was the first person I’d met who hadn’t taken rejuvenation.

“Everyone’s afraid of death, aren’t they?” I said at last.

“Most people.”

“Are you?”

He patted me on the shoulder. “Study the tracks; then we’ll talk.”

§

Our crawler rolled on, and we came at last to that long stretch of desert I’d read about, where the sand spread for miles under the blade of the horizon. I watched the hours pass through the window, then returned my attention to the others.

“What do you want from your journey?” the priest asked Catherine.

“I’m going to capture sandbird tracks,” she said.

“Why?”

“It’s what I do, I suppose.”

“You won’t find it easy.”

“Because they’re delicate?”

“Because they’re fleeting. The point is that they vanish and never return.”

“If I get that right, you’ll see it in my hologram.”

The priest shook his head. “I don’t understand how.”

§

When we arrived, I took my knife and followed the others. It had been given to me on Talos–4 and was copy of one in the inner vestry. Whether I succeeded or not, it would biodegrade in a week.

The heat was astonishing, and sweat covered me in seconds.

“You won’t sunburn because the suns are low in UV,” the priest said, “but it’ll feel like you have. Carry lots of water and you’ll be fine.” He raised his voice. “Sandbirds are everywhere, though it might take them a while, so find a place to stand and please be patient. The heat has to penetrate down to the eggs before anything happens. I’ll be praying, but you can reach me on this.” He handed a hand–alarm and tracker to everyone, then returned to the crawler.

Catherine pointed. She had on a broad white hat and dark glasses.

“I’m climbing that ridge. See you later.”

As she walked away, Mr. Lightway frowned. “She gets self–important when she’s working. She doesn’t like people anywhere near her.”

I watched her climb a dune, thought of her art, and wondered how anyone could fail to appreciate her talent.

“Would you like company?” I said.

“Sure. This way looks interesting,” he said, striding in the opposite direction from his wife.

“I can’t believe how many rocks there are in the desert,” I said.

He shrugged. “Rocks aren’t interesting.”

“It reminds me of what my astronomy teacher once said: wherever you look, there’s stars.”

“And what did you learn from that?”

“That it’s very hard to be special.”

Mr. Lightway shrugged, pulled at a rock and broke off a small piece. “It’s not so difficult, son. Hard work and dedication — that’s all you need.”

We walked for fifteen minutes, then stood in the shade of an enormous rock. Mr. Lightway was dry but I was sweating, and not just from the suns. This was my opportunity, and I could feel events rush toward me.

Then a bird broke free. It was long and green and rose from far underground before skimming the crust in a wide arc. At least that’s how it seems now, after so many years. I saw the trailing filaments of its wings and its corkscrewed path through the sand — but instead of falling, the ground twisted and broke into a thousand channels and lattices. There were curls under and over, crystals mixing with the surface in swirls of red, green, yellow, and blue, all freezing into nets of light.

The bird’s trail glittered like a diamond before shivering back into the sand, though the bird itself kept rising.

Mr. Lightway gasped and fell to his knees. He reached out a trembling hand toward where the bird had been, and just as he touched the track, I stabbed him.

My blow went high and caught on his collarbone. Like an idiot, I spent more time pulling it out than sizing up my next shot, and it was only when he fell, his suit filled with blood and his face contorted, that I realised I’d done real damage.

“Why?” he said.

“It’s my job.”

I kept my distance, still afraid of his strong hands though I was now sure he would die. When he yelled for help, the sound died into nothing, and I opened my other hand and showed him the ring.

“It’s a dampener. No–one can hear you.”

“I knew you’d come.”

“Who?”

“You. The Garazin Zaibatsu.” He tried to sit up and failed. His right hand clutched his shoulder without stopping the blood.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.

“It does.” His voice trembled with anger and pain. “I sabotaged trade talks for you. Why now?”

“It’ll soon be over.”

He coughed, and blood spilled down his face as he held out a silver cube. “I’ve had a counter–offer ready for years. If you bring me the crawler’s med–kit, I’ll make you rich.”

“I’m sorry.”

He looked astonished, then incredibly old.

“Why?”

I remembered the way he’d talked about Catherine, and told him the truth.

“I’ve never heard of the Zaibatsu.”

“Then it’s my own company. You bastards.”

“No.”

“I… have so many rivals.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lightway, but I have no orders to kill you at all.”

“You can’t be here for the preacher?”

“Your wife, sir. You’re just in the way.”

His body shook, and it took him a moment to catch his breath. “But I’m the important one. Why?”

“Because the people I work for ask it. Because one day I intend to be the greatest assassin who ever lived, but that work has to start here, today.”

“Don’t you know who I am?”

“I don’t care.”

“One day you will,” he said.

He shivered and closed his eyes, so I knelt and felt his pulse. Although he wasn’t dead, his whole body was covered in blood and he had only a few minutes left. He’d dropped the cube, but his right hand was still clenched and when I unfurled its fingers I saw the alarm beacon had been activated.

I grabbed it and headed for the crawler, though I barely got ten steps before the priest sprinted past a boulder. With a body at my feet and a knife in my hand, the conclusion must have been obvious.

“Murderer,” he screamed, leaping for my throat. I thrust the knife, but he blocked it and elbowed me in the face, then kicked me as I fell.

I rolled, scuffing sand like a bird, and though I made enough distance to rise I had no time to prepare because he was on me immediately. I punched, but I may as well have been striking air. From nowhere, his fist struck my forehead and drove me to my knees.

I moved instinctively, grabbing him round the waist and driving up so he fell back and I landed on top. It was difficult, but I managed to work my way along his body. I tried to bring the knife to bear twice, but each time something blocked it — first his belt, then a hand grasping my wrist so tightly I could hardly believe it.

I struggled astride him, but he rolled and ended on top. The knife twisted point down, and as he leaned on it I felt its tip cut my shirt and then my skin.

“How did you get so strong?” I gasped.

“By not being afraid of death,” he said.

I remember to this day the feel of that knife entering my skin and being unable to do anything about it. Above me, the old man’s face took on the aspect of a skull, and though I panicked, I could not shift him.

Then a bird thundered below us and the ground turned to crystal. We were suspended with a thousand tiny blades along my back and one at my front before I was rolling away from the bird–track and spinning across the desert floor.

As the knife pulled free, I twisted it and pushed and screamed — and landed just as the priest’s grip slipped. The knife went into his solar plexus. I wanted to pull away, but his hands held me.

“This is my truth,” he said. “If you want to kill people, you’re going to learn what it feels like.”

I thrashed and screamed, but he forced me to watch the life slowly fade from his eyes. By the time I managed to pull away, I was shaking in terror and covered in blood.

I crawled for a distance, threw up, then staggered back to the crawler.

Blood lingered, whatever I did, and even the priest’s shampoo didn’t help. Eventually I gave up trying, put on new clothes, and limped toward Catherine.

I found her working cross–legged on the ridge surrounded by pages of sketches and her completed work, a holographic evolution of a sand–track. As I stood there, it built to a glittering finale and then faded back to the bare plate.

Catherine was looking away, but I kept my distance and watched her make hundreds of tiny adjustments to the drawing board across her knees, each movement adding another crystal to the explosion of colour.

I’d never seen anyone create before, and her beauty caught my throat. This was real glory, I thought. Not the pointless sand–tracks, but the curve of her neck, the fire in her hair and each tiny movement of her arm.

When she finished, she did not sign the piece but turned instead and looked directly at me.

“What do you want?”

“I’m here to kill you, Ma’am. This knife is from Talos–4. They believe you stole their gods when you made the masks.”

“Your shoes are covered in blood.”

“Your husband and the priest.”

She put her hand to her mouth, dropped it again, closed her eyes, and swayed. When she opened them, she said, “I’m afraid.”

“Everyone is. The priest said he wasn’t, but he was lying.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he wouldn’t die alone.”

Catherine turned, tucked her legs under herself, and placed her trembling hands in her lap like a supplicant.

“Didn’t my husband offer you money?”

“Have you seen the stars, Ma’am?”

“They’re beautiful.”

“They’re uncaring. There’s so many and they’re all the same. On every planet, billions of people live in identical houses and do identical things.”

“There’s nothing special about killing me. Anyone can manage it.”

“But only once. Whoever does it is the only person who can ever do it.”

Catherine looked down at the sculpture, and for a moment her hat shaded her face. When she looked up again, she seemed resigned.

“It’s something you’ll never be able to undo.”

“Why would I want to?”

“Just suppose.”

I laughed. “I’m doing something that will live forever.”

“You’re very young to be so sure.”

“Old enough to kill a priest.”

A bird trembled past, and I let the sound fade before walking closer.

“I’d like it quick,” she said, her eyes holding a mixture of trust and alarm.

“Do you want to sign the artwork?”

“So you can sell it?”

“So everyone can know you made it.”

She paused a moment, then said, “Damn you.”

As she activated the control board, her shirt billowed out in a sudden breeze and her hat lifted to expose the nape of her neck. In all the years that followed, I never saw anything lovelier than that one moment during which Catherine’s name built itself up in crystal letters that rose and fell with the sand tracks themselves. My truth is that moment, and the knowledge it can never be restored.

“Done,” she said.

As she lifted her chin, I struck once. Then I sat with her body for a long time, crying without understanding why.

Afterwards, I picked up the sand–sculpture and walked back to the crawler. Just before I got there, one last bird struggled out of the earth — cawing and screaming and flapping its rainbow wings for all it was worth. I stood and watched it fly silently into the afternoon sky. Unlike the others, it rose vertically and seemed to leave no track at all.


More from John Moran:

image019John Moran has been a nuclear physicist, a computer programmer, and the owner of an art gallery. He responded to the global meltdown by moving into finance, on the basis that banks could hardly fail so badly a second time. He enjoys sailing, gardening, and tinkering with computers. His stories can also be found at Escape PodPenumbra, and Nature, amongst others.

1 Comment

  1. Love it. 🙂

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