Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story

1.

The Insect has never been in love.

The Astronomer has never been alive.

It is important that you understand this.

2.

The Insect paces his office, allowing the tips of his forelegs, the ooze and suck of the pulvilli between his tiny, delicate claws, to graze against the stacks of books, the stacks of papers, the stuff and rustle of a life dedicated to learning and study and endless pontification. He has been, until now, and in his own estimation, a grand professor and a great scholar. Until now. Shed scales, he thinks. It is only shed scales. And abandoned husks. The remnants of word and lecture and useless thinking. He listens to his lower feet as they scuttle against the old stone floor—a thin, cold, lonely sound.

The Hon. Professor Pycanis Educatus—called the Insect, or the Pyca, or the Bug-in-Spats, or the Insectus Insuferablilis, or the Hon. Doctor Please-Swat-Me Creepy-Crawlie, by his students and former students and current colleagues—was one of only nine of his kind when he was born. Now, he is the only one. At one time the Pycanum bellus gigantis were numerous in this part of the world—and widely known for their devotion to the Arts and Sciences, as well as the noble pursuits of Athleticism, Skepticism, Gnosticism, and Algorithmic Recalculations. Not anymore. They are gone now. All, all gone. And he is alone.

If it is wrong for Man to be alone, the Insect muses in the solitude of his room, must it not also be wrong for Insect? If I share the Intellect and Soul of Man, should I not also share in his joy?

There must be a logical answer, he tells himself. A proof for the theorem. And so the Professor puts his brain to work.

The Insect, in his way, has always sought solutions in the study of opposites. Does not Light, he asks, counter Darkness? Does not Plenty vanquish Want? Contraria contrariis curantur[1], he reasons silently. Hypocrates, as dependable as the rising sun, provides the answer, as always. Surely his loneliness must have an antidote. Surely if the fact of himself has been the source of his terrible singularity, the cure would be found in one as wholly unlike himself to become himself. It is, he feels, astonishingly obvious, and he sits down with his notes and his ledgers and scratches out the beginning of his next Treatise—one of many that he will never complete.

Later that night, the Insect dreams of the Astronomer. He wakes in a sweat.

That same night, in a far-away country, the Astronomer dreams of the Insect. He wakes with a shiver and a cry, and, as usual, consults the stars. He does not breathe (he never does); he does not blink (how can he? He has no tears). The stars, as usual, are silent. The Astronomer watches without moving.

The Insect and the Astronomer have never met.

But they will. The Insect is sure of it.

3.

It has been many years since the Bug-In-Spats last set foot in Vingus Country—land of his birth, land whereby he received his extensive and thorough Education (by the hand of one Professor Ignatius Pedantare, at whose name the Pyca clasps his delicate tarsus to his brightly clothed thorax and sighs prodigiously), and land, in his more nostalgic moments, that he still refers to as his home. He had thought at one time that he would never return. Indeed, he swore that he would not.

Still, as he traverses the land where the green of the hills begins to lighten and sparkle, where it finally, thinly protesting, gives way to endless hills of yellow and yellow and yellow—the glow of his country, the shimmer of home— the Insect feels his soul begin to shudder and shake. He feels his bound wings begin tremble and moan. He raises his curled fingers to his enormous black eyes, and discovers a hidden reservoir of tears.

“How odd,” he thinks. He brings a single tear to his mouth and tastes the salt on his long, prehensile tongue. It tastes, he knows, ever so much like an ocean, though he has never seen an ocean, nor tasted it for comparison. He knows there are oceans somewhere, just as there is an ocean inside himself, inextricably linked to his heart.

The heart breaks and an ocean flows; this is the way of things.

Abyssus abyssum invocat[2],” he whispers out loud. And he believes it, too. The abyss of his soul has pulled him here, on this path, toward the one who ponders the abyss of the sky.

The Astronomer, his dreams have told him. The Astronomer will know what to do.

The Insect brought little for the journey. Only a flutter of hope in his heart. And something else, in the regions beyond his heart. A quiet something that he could not identify or name. But it was heavy, and dark, and alive.

The journey has been long and his feet are tired. He sees no one on his first day home. Still. It is home. And that flutter in his heart feels like an ocean’s gale. And the salt lingers on his tongue.

4.

The moment that the Insect crossed into Vingus Country, the Astronomer froze in his tracks. The people in the village saw him halfway up the yellow hillside where his terrible tower stood. His left foot hovered over the ground in an aborted step. His right hand was nearly to his mouth. His lips were parted, as though he was about to smile. Or speak. Or cry out.

The village folk saw this, but they did not venture up the hill to investigate. They did not offer to help. They shielded their eyes from the sun and squinted at the Astronomer.

His chest don’t rise and it don’t fall, the people whispered.

There’s not a thing on that hill what’s alive, they grumbled.

It’s not natural. All that star-looking and planet tracking. It’s not natural with his infernal machines. It’s not natural at all. They seethed and seethed and seethed. Every day they watched the Astronomer turn the keys in his tower and mind the gears in his automatons and polish his instruments until they gleamed. They knew that he used neither an iota of magic nor a whiff of witchcraft. What he used was something else. And they didn’t trust it.

As the sun set, one of his automatons hoisted the Astronomer onto its back and hauled him inside. By the next day, he was back to normal.

Or mostly normal.

The village noticed that a smile played on the Astronomer’s lips. One that had not been there before. It was fixed into his face as though with paste or paint or solder. And what’s worse, he started muttering.

“Wings,” the Astronomer whispered over and over again. “Wings, wings, wings. Thorax and segment and luminous eye. But, oh! Wings!”

Sunup to sundown did that cursed man whisper.

And the villagers began to worry.

5.

The Bug saw no one on the road in his first day in Vingus Country, and the loneliness of the journey began to take its toll. Now, on the second day, when he sees the figure of a man moving in the same direction that he, himself, is travelling, the Insect increases his speed, his long legs bounding down the road in great, leaping strides. He adjusts his five pince-nez on his long snout and smoothes his finely tailored waistcoat. He ignores the itching of his tightly bound wings. He clears his throat. He knows the value of a good first impression.

Tempora mutantur et nos mutantur in illis[3],” the Insect says to the man—a farmer, by the look of him. He dearly hopes that the man is impressed by this greeting. Indeed, it is terribly impressive, as well as being profoundly true. Has not the Pyca been changed by his time away? Has not his home country been changed as well?

It is nearly noon, and the Hon. Professor is feeling peckish and overly warm. He would not mind an invitation to lunch on a blanket in the shade, or, even more desirable, lunch in a farmhouse with cold milk and cold ale and a highly solicitous farmwife. He waves to the farmer and uncurls the final segment of his right arm to shake the man’s hand. With his left, he adjusts the two final pince-nez at the end of his impressively long proboscis and gives what he is sure must be a winning smile.

(The winning smile is important. After all, did Professor Pedantare not implore his students over and over the same sagely proclamation: Ut amaris, amabilis esto[4]? Surely, after all this time, the lesson still stands.)

“Come again?” The farmer says. He is an aged fellow. His face is deeply creased and his back is bent. The Insect, in possession of a sensitive heart and a loving soul, is moved to pity. He reaches into his pack and pulls out a brightly colored parasol and hands it toward the farmer with a flourish. The farmer, assuming he is about to be attacked, jumps backward and screams. “Attack an old man will you?”

“Pardon?”

“I have no money, if that’s what yer asking.”

The Pyca peers at the parasol, its bright point gleaming dangerously in the mid-day sun and understands. “My apologies,” the Bug says. He remembers that, while in the Capital City—a cosmopolitan, forward-thinking place—his appearance is, while unusual, rarely commented on. No one finds him particularly dangerous. Why would they? The Hon. Professor spent his career cultivating his knowledge, his erudition and his appearance. To see an insect standing eye to eye with some of the tallest men around must surely be a surprise for the uninitiated, but seeing him decked in perfectly tailored waistcoats of the finest brocade and three-buttoned morning jackets of a fine, heavy silk and top hats imported from the Lands Beyond the Sea—well. Clearly the man is in shock. The Pyca decides to try a different route.

“My good man,” he says, “it occurs to me that my appearance alarms you. Fear not. I seek education and nothing more. As the scholars tell us, scientia potentia est[5]. Have we not found such pearls of wisdom to be more than true? And if not, who are we to argue with scholars?”

“Yer lookin’ for the Astronomer?”

The Insect raises his eyebrows, though the farmer does not notice. His large black eyes shine like two dark pools. When people see the Pyca, they stop seeing the overly-large Insect: they see their own reflection instead.

“My good man,” says the Pyca. “That is exactly who I seek. Quaere verum[6], my good professor once said to me. If I am to seek the truth, I believe the truth must rest in the hands of the man who watches the stars.”

“Hmph,” the farmer grunts. “Astra inclinant, sed non obligant[7].”

So startled is the professor, that all five of his pince-nez fly from his nose and tumble to the ground. One shatters irrevocably. “Why,” he sputters, “my dear sir! You are a scholar!”

“No,” the farmer says darkly. “That’s what we call that man. If you can call him a man.” He pauses, rubs his hand over the gnarl of his face, expels his breath through pursed lips. “It is rude, I know, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I won’t share the road with you, Mister . . . whatever you are. I’ll not invite you to my home, nor to my table, neither, but you’re welcome to the lunch my good wife packed for me in this sack.” He lets his sack fall to the ground, and he backs away. “This road’ll take you right to where you want to go. Walk ’til you find that infernal tower. It’s unnatural, is what it is. Stars. The Astronomer. All of it. Unnatural. And I’ll bid you good day.”

And the farmer turns on his heel and walks down the road in the direction he had come. The Bug does not call out to him, nor does he beg him to return. He simply says, “A strange sort of fellow,” and pulls a hunk of meat from the satchel. He eats it slowly and continues on his way, pressing onward through the shimmering hills.

(His heart beating out yellow, yellow, yellow, with each blessed breath.)

6.

The Astronomer lives alone. He has always lived alone.

The Astronomer, it is generally thought, first came to Vingus Country four decades ago. Or, perhaps it was four years. Or maybe a month. No one knows for sure. When the Vingare try to puzzle it out, when they try to count the years on their fingers and toes and hash out the months on bits of paper, or perhaps a wall, they find themselves drawing a blank. Their eyes lose their focus and their minds turn to thoughts of far-away dust clouds, the bright accretion of swirling nebulae, of planets made of water or ice or storm, and quietly pulsing stars. Their eyes gaze skyward and they forget why they questioned in the first place.

The Astronomer has always been here.

The Astronomer has just arrived.

Both are true.

Even now, no one knows where he had travelled from, nor his country of origin, and he has never told. His accent is obscure, his clothes unusual, and his many trunks of fragile equipment unsettlingly strange.

The Vingare asked him when he arrived—as they watched him carefully remove item after item from his line of trunks, inspecting each one for damage and wear—what his many tools were for, but he simply smiled vaguely and gave a delicate wave of his small, pale hand. “Oh, you know,” he said, over and over again, “work, work, work.” And then he would say nothing.

The Vingare were unused to obscure answers. They are a concrete people. And so they became suspicious of the Astronomer.

They remain suspicious, even now. The Astronomer finds this charming.

Still, it became clear to the Vingare that the new resident was not like them, did not belong, and should probably leave their country, so they did their best to give him the cold shoulder. Or, as best they could. The Vingare are a welcoming people by nature, and not prone to open confrontation. They opted for subtle hints. Therefore, they did not line his walkway with rose petals, as was their custom, opting instead for a measly bundle of wildflowers (surely they would wilt soon) tied up in a ribbon that was not new, and presented in a vase. They thought certainly the Astronomer would feel the depths of their non-welcome, but he did not. He thanked them profusely for their kindness and declared the flowers the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life.

The Vingare grumbled as best they could, but as they were unused to grumbling, it sounded more like a happy sigh.

Apparently, they decided, more drastic measures were needed. They brought him no meat pies—nor sugared fruits nor brightly colored jellies to show him welcome—opting instead for common foods like bread and cheese and wine. He did not take the hint. He declared that Vingus bread was better than the finest pastries in the Capital City, and that Vingus cheese and wine would rival the sundries produced in the most gastronomically famous cities in the Lands Beyond the Sea. The Vingare were flummoxed. They had never met so dense a fellow. They then threw no banquet in his honor, gave him not a single key to any city—high, low, or middling—and neglected to organize a welcoming parade. He refused to notice these slights as well.

It was infuriating.

Meanwhile, the Astronomer told anyone who would listen how much he admired the Vingus people, and how much he desired to become one of them. To that end, he altered his appearance to fit in with his adopted countrymen (his hair, his dress, even the color of his eyes and skin). He mimicked their mannerisms, their habits, their way of walking, and tried desperately to integrate the linguistic oddities, peculiar to that region, into his patterns of speech, but the results were disastrous. The more he tried to assimilate, the more strange he became to his neighbors. They did not invite him to their homes, nor did they welcome him into their families. He was never invited to weddings—indeed, the very mention of his name in the course of any celebration was considered to be an omen of ill fortune, and thus avoided.

He never gave up his desire to become as near-to-like his chosen kinsmen as he could, however. And while he would never be Vingus, he would have to settle for Vingus-non-Vingus, and that would be that. And he would be alone.

And in time, the Astronomer was—if not accepted—at least tolerated. The Vingare ceased their grumbling. He was to them like a rare bird, flown into their region by mistake, and too lost to find another way home. Not of them, nor even with them, but near them. And the Astronomer had to content himself with that.

When the Astronomer arrived, he contracted fifteen Vingus laborers, five Vingus draftsmen, nineteen ironworkers, twenty-two tinsmiths, three surveyors, two engineers, and one overseer, and told them all to report to work in one week’s time. He set up a small tent—(There were stars inside, people said. Real stars that rose and set in tandem with the actual stars they represented.)—on the top of a hill and marked out a shape on the ground. Before work began, it was said that he sat for hours in the center of that shape, staring at the sky.

It took nearly five years to build the tower. (Or was it ten? Or twenty? No one can remember.) The Astronomer set up a second tent where matters of business and construction could be discussed. It was filled with drafting tables and chalkboards and narrow-drawered cabinets to accommodate and organize his meticulously drafted—and entirely inscrutable—plans.

The Vingare soon realized that it didn’t matter how much they failed to understand the instructions laid out for them. The Tower had a mind of its own.

The hill upon which the Tower slowly grew was tall and bald—a knob of rock in the center of a broad, flat yellow prairie. As a result, most Vingare were able to watch the Tower as it progressed, floor by shining floor. They watched the silvery skeleton of each story uncurl from the struts below and hook together like a web. They watched as the substrate of machinery grew like lichen from the base below.

They held their hands to their open mouths. It was beautiful—but not in a way that they could name. It was a beauty that stopped their voices in their throats and held them silent.

The Tower had hollow walls with a complicated network of steam pipes and humming engines, tiny levers, and delicate gears. There were dumb waiters and smart waiters and waiters of unknowable intelligence. There were automatic ottomans that rolled toward any visitor who looked tired and clearly needed to get their feet up for a moment or two. On each floor were copper-plated mechanized arms, each with four elbows and nine fingers. These were placed at the four corners of each room, each one with a different function. One arm set the desks and work tables each morning with razor-sharp precision, one saw to the dust, one fetched things (books, pencils, napkins, drafting tools, toothpicks) moments before one actually felt the need for it, and one took hats and coats and shook the hands of weary travelers.

In addition to the mechanical arms on the inside, there were also three more on the outside, and these would lift materials and supplies to the laborers on the upper floors, as well as fetch lunchboxes, jugs of water, afternoon tea, notes from home, and would—if a particular laborer looked as though she needed encouragement or that he was, perhaps, simply having a bad day—offer a sympathetic pat on the back.

The Vingus laborers went home each evening, their mouths heavy with stories they could not tell. Not that they were forbidden—the Astronomer had no secrets that he didn’t mind sharing and no aspects of his Tower that he’d rather keep hidden, and told them all as much from the beginning. No, they simply had no words. And so their husbands and wives and children and neighbors pestered them with questions that they lacked the language to answer.

“What is in that tower?” their loved ones said. “What is he building?” they needled.

“Nothing,” said the laborers. “Everything,” they countered.

Both were true.

7.

The Insect lies on his curved, shining back and rests his head upon the torso of a fallen tree. He tilts his head toward the domed sky and watches the clockwork machinations of the glinting stars. He had grown accustomed to the decadence afforded to him at the University, but he does not miss it now. No featherbeds or scented sheets here. Still he is not uncomfortable. The Vingus soil gives way to the ease of his back, and the Vingus winds blow gentle and warm on his skin. He is more comfortable than he can remember being.

There are no more hills; they have flattened into prairie. He is so close. Perhaps, mid-day tomorrow he will see the singular bluff standing alone in a sea of yellow and yellow and yellow, and the tower that has, for months now, infected his dreams.

Go to Vingus Country, his dreams told him. Find the Astronomer. You’ll understand when you arrive.

Now that he is this close, the Bug-in-Spats is not so sure. Certainly, the philosophers said in somnis veritas[8], so surely his dreams would speak truly to him if the philosophers claimed it so. Why would a philosopher lie?

Still, after his decision to leave his post at the Royal College of Athletic and Alchemical Arts, he has never wavered in the veritas of his dreams and the truthfulness of his inexplicable inclinations.

The Astronomer will know, he told himself. The Astronomer will understand. And lay there the rest of the night, awake and open, his great black eyes reflecting the endless glitter of endless stars.

8.

The Astronomer built nineteen automatons—all named Angel—who roamed the Tower and the grounds, and even explored the depths of Vingus Country, and did the Astronomer’s bidding. Angel #11 was the one who haggled at the flea markets and book dealers for rare volumes. Angel #9 went to the forests to find specific herbs and fungi. Angel #4 was sent into the schoolrooms to give lectures on the wonders of the stars.

The children covered their ears. They closed their eyes. The automaton had no mouth. Its eyes were painted on like a doll. It was so terribly wrong, that the children wept silently and hid their faces until it finished its programmed speech and stuttered out of the room.

Not all of the Astronomer’s automatic creatures walk on two legs, however. The tower itself is an automaton of sorts. The windows and the doors are in possession of a delicate and precise gear work, both internal and external, that anticipate their use by a second or more, and open and close with the gentlest of whirring to let in the day or to keep out the wind—depending on the perceived need. There are light boxes that show the images of the stars and screens that display maps of places that no one had ever heard of and books in languages that do not exist. Each floor turned on a central axis, at differing speeds and obscure directionalities. There is one floor that makes a full turn every hour and another floor that turns so slowly that a person standing by the window would have no knowledge of their movement, until he realized that his window faced North, when it had surely faced South earlier in the day. There were floors whose windows followed the sun and floors whose windows feared it.

The Astronomer does not call his automatons by their names, even though each one has his name welded to his metal lapel. He calls each one “brother.” He calls the tower “brother” as well.

The books, on the other hand, are “father” and “mother.” He holds them with trembling hands. He clutches them to his chest—just over where his heart should be.

The Mayor of the township of Lin, during his yearly Visit of Friendship with the Astronomer—a ghastly, tedious affair, in which both parties consume foodstuffs that they do not care for, and engage in topics of conversation that do not interest them, all in the name of Cooperation—once asked, in a rare moment of frank candor (one that has not been repeated since), “Can you tell me the reason for the intricacies of the tower?”

Immediately upon asking, the Mayor found himself choking on a particularly insipid piece of pastry. What was he thinking?

The Astronomer, for his part, was so stunned that he forgot to drink the foul-smelling liquor that was so typically served at that wretched function with any kind of relish or gratitude, and instead allowed himself to grimace. The Mayor noticed the grimace, took it as an indication of a shared moment of honesty, and carried on.

“I mean to say,” he said, “that I mean no harm. I simply notice that your work—from my point of view—requires no special equipment. Indeed, it seems to me that your work only needs your two flesh eyes and your one living brain and your own beating heart.”

The Astronomer looked at his companion in surprise.

“My dear sir!” he said. “But surely you know I possess none of these. I never have! My machines serve only to lure the one who might lend me his flesh eyes, his living brain, his own beating heart. My machines are my beacon of hope.”

“What?”

“D-did I . . .” the Astronomer faltered. “I m-mean to s-say.” But he said nothing after that. His eyes flickered and dimmed. His fingers pressed to his painted mouth and stuck tight. He did not move for the rest of the luncheon.

The Mayor, not wanting to be rude, but certainly not knowing how to respond, said nothing. He took his liquor. He ate his food. He left without another word.

He never returned to the table at the Astronomer’s tower. His eyes and brain and beating heart hurt just at the thought of it.

9.

The Insect agrees to stay the night at the home of an aged couple in the village that sits in the shadow of the Astronomer’s tower. They are extraordinarily kind. They have tender smiles and searching hands and glittering eyes. The Insect loves them. Their house is cozy and warm. Their food makes him sleepy.

He has never been so sleepy.

He takes another drink of wine. The room swims.

“Look at you,” the old woman says, her hand resting on the fourth segment of the Insect’s arm. “As light as a feather. And after such a long journey and all! Do you see him, my love? Do you see the state that he is in?”

There is a rumble in the ground. A squeak of gears. A scuttle of metallic legs. The Insect does not notice. The old man and old woman do not notice either. The man sharpens his knife. The woman checks the heat in the oven.

“Is someone coming?” he asks.

“Only you, my dear,” the old woman says. “And you have already arrived. Lucky us.”

He curls his fingers around berries and breads, he pours tea and milk and ale and wine into his open throat. The old woman fills his goblet. The old man cuts his meat.

“Thank you. My heart thanks you. Cor ad cor loquitur[9].

The old man puts another slab of cheese on the Insect’s plate. “I don’t know what from cors, but you’re in a sorry state, my friend. A sorry state is what,” the old man says. “They work you too hard in that there city. All those buildings! All those people! That’s no way to live. And you just a young bug.”

“Not so young,” the Pycanum bellus gigantis says sleepily.

“Young and supple,” the old woman says. She smells his skin and smells his head and smells each of his hands. The Insect assumes this must be some sort of custom. “Did you see the shine on him, darling?” She asks her husband. “Did you see?” And to the Insect: “Eat. You must recover your strength. And your vigor. Your journey has sapped you dry.”

The Insect, it’s true, is starving. Starving. He feels he will never be full. His tongue lolls and his head rolls back. “Propino tibi salutem[10],” he garbles. He can hardly get the words out. “Abyssus somethingus probiscus,” he yawns. “Slurpus, durpus, interpus.”

“Of course, dear,” the old woman says.

She turns to her husband. “You did sharpen my needle, didn’t you, darling?”

“As you said, precious,” the old man replies.

Vescere bracis meis[11],” the Insect yawns. He is not making any sense. His words are bubbles and dry leaves and loam. They are wind and stars and the vacuum of space.

In his mind’s eye the Astronomer’s tower stands against the night sky like a beacon. At its pinnacle, the Astronomer himself balances on the needle spire and calls his name.

Come to me, the Astronomer calls into the gale. Come to me.

There are salt tears in the Insect’s eyes. An ocean surges in his heart.

Provehito in altum[12],” he whispers to the tower in his dreaming.

“Come now and eat,” the old woman soothes. She pulls a measuring tape from her apron pocket and measures the breadth of his abdomen. She peers into his mouth to scan for disease.

There are butterflies lining the walls, each one pierced at the thorax and preserved under glass. There are bright purple billie-bugs, too. And occulaflies and snankets and whirlibeetles, and three-headed crickets and trupalapods. Swamp moths and apple moths and moths-of-paradise and moths defying description or name. And they are beautiful. And they are everywhere.

“Your collection . . .” The Insect begins.

There are no Pycanum bellus gigantis that he can see. He can only see the others. The old woman moves in closely.

“I’ve caught other genus of the Acanthosomatidae for years. A fine suborder. One to be proud of, dear,” she says. “Bright, beautiful things. But I’ve never seen such a fine fellow as you.” The Insect notices the delicate beading on the woman’s blouse. He notices the whispers of the fragile husks that ring her wrists.

“Are they wings?” he asks. “Do you have wings?”

“You are . . . so lovely,” she whispers.

“Around your wrists.” The marching is closer. Metal on stone. Metal on dirt. Metal on damp gravel. Doors slam and shutters rattle and people shriek in alleyways. “Are they wings?”

“We all have wings, my darling. Mine are invisible. Yours are under your waistcoat. How I long to see them!”

A scramble of gears. A moan of rust. He hears a rocky hillside giving up its scree, the scree tearing up its soil, the soil submerging its trees, and tumbling into an avalanche.

“More wine?” she asks.

The Insect woozes and burps. He can hardly keep his eyes open. He blinks and blinks and blinks again. The old man and the old woman see their reflections in his inky, shining eyes. They see as their shoulders hunch, their arms raise, their features loom.

The hill is there. It waits in the darkness. It is calling him home.

The old man holds the shine of the knife next to the Pyca’s throat. He pauses, gazes into the bug’s large eyes and smiles.

“It won’t take but a second. If we thought we could trust you to stay put under the glass, we’d do that. We don’t want you wandering off.”

“I’ll get the needle,” the old woman says. “Mind you don’t muss up his waistcoat. We can make use of it later. Such a fine fellow. A fine, fine fellow.”

His eyes roll back.

The ceiling, he realizes has a curious sheen. It flutters and shines like wings.

There is salt in his mouth.

There is salt in his eyes.

The old woman screams and the old man shouts I’m armed, and the Insect says armed, armas, armat, armamus. Armaments. Arm-and-a-leg. Men-of-arms. Armies. Amis. Amigo. Amante.

The Pycanum bellus gigantis says Amo. Amat. Amamus.

There are arms and legs and arms and legs. There is metal and flesh—muscle and exoskeleton and snapping bones. There is the shine of a needle in the hand of the woman on the top of a tower on a lonely, windswept hill with the Astronomer balanced atop it like a flag.

Amo. Amas. Amamus. Amant.

I love. You love. We love. They love.

I am coming for you, the Astronomer says. I am coming for you. I am already here.

In his dream, the Insect lifts into the air on a cloud of metal and dust and speed. In his dream, he arcs around a burning star again and again and again. What is time to a planet? What is time to a star? Does the light from the star love the darkness? Does the darkness love the light?

Both darkness and light thunder and thunder and thunder inside the head of Pycanum bellus gigantis. And he is gone.

10.

When the Insect awakens, he is on the roof of the tower. His eyes are open. He feels the glint of each star like a needle. He is pinned in place.

He is terribly cognizant of his wings. This has been a growing problem. He has kept his wings bound by his vest and morning coat for so long that he can hardly remember the sensation of the sun warming the membranous shimmer of his forewings and mesothorax. There was a time, before his Education, that he went without clothing—a round-hulled marvel of color and light. How strange it seems to him now! How foreign! His wings itch. They ache. They long to be free.

The Astronomer lies next to him, his hand as close as possible to the Insect’s fingers to almost-touch without touching. There is no heat from the Astronomer’s hand. His chest does not rise and fall.

“Are you alive?” the Insect says.

“Are you?” the Astronomer counters.

“I eat and I breathe and I rest. I yearn and I ache and I wonder. I rage and lust and feast. I imagine and fear and mourn and journey. I am very much alive, thank you very much.” He says this a trifle sniffier than he had intended. Embarrassed, he clears his throat.

The Astronomer turns his face to the sky. “Pulvis et umbra sumus, [13] he says.

Quaecumque sunt vera[14],” the Insect counters.

The Astronomer laughs. “May I take your hand?” he asks.

“You may,” the Pycanum bellus gigantis says primly. As he had assumed, the Astronomer’s hand gave off no heat. But it was not cold. It felt like a stone that had been warmed by the sun all day and was only just starting to cool—pleasant to touch; pleasant to hold. Cooler than the body, but guilty of no chill. The Astronomer’s skin had a similar elasticity as the Insect’s own wings. He rarely displayed his wings—he was, after all, terribly modest. And shy. And when he undressed at night in the privacy of his room and let his delicate fingers run down the length of his glittering wings, he would shiver with pleasure.

As he shivers now.

You called to me, the Insect thinks. And I came.

I loved you, the Astronomer thinks in reply. And you loved me in return. Rare bird yearns for rare bird. Things that have no opposite. Each to each.

“The question still stands: Are you alive?” the Insect asks.

“Whoever made the stars,” the Astronomer says, “imbued them with the life of a machine. They follow their courses. They implement their programs. They operate as they were designed to do. They are made of dust and return to dust and remake themselves from dust again. They recuperate, reincarnate, regenerate. Their gears do not rust. Their steps do not stumble. Their workings intersect and dialogue with the workings of their billions of brothers and sisters burning their way through courses of their own. To watch the sky is to watch the most intricate of clockworks, the most perfect of machines. They are unalive. And yet. They are terribly alive.”

“So?”

“That’s all there is.”

“You did not answer my question.”

“You want to know too much.”

“I want to know everything.”

Qui totem cult totem perdit[15].”

“You don’t mean that.”

The Astronomer laughs ruefully. “You’re right. I don’t.”

“Did you call me here?”

“I did.”

“Why?”

“I needed your eyes so that I may see the reflection of the stars that I love in the eyes that I love. I needed your hands to steady my hands and your mind to temper my mind.” The Astronomer closes his eyes. He does not breathe. He does not swallow. The Pycanum bellus gigantis can hear the whirl of his gears. He can hear the pulse of the bellows and the tine of the spring and the click of each finely jeweled tooth into its delicate grooves. “A heart burns like a star—perfectly, patiently, selflessly. It lights the sky and it invigorates the land and it asks nothing in return. I have no heart. But I love yours. Is that enough?”

The Insect does not blink. He does not move. He is shadow. He is dust. He is bound by stars. He is particle hooking to particle hooking to particle. He is accretion and convection and radiation. He is heat and light and heat and light. He is sky and wind and deep, deep sea. There is salt in his mouth. There is an ocean in his eyes. There is an abyss in his heart and an abyss overhead. An abyss teaming with stars moving like clockwork across the deep, deep sky.

His waistcoat buckles and splits. Its perfectly-tailored seams rip wide open.

“Wings,” the Astronomer says. “Wings, wings, wings.”

“Yes,” the Insect says. “Wings.” And it is true enough.

The stars say nothing in return.

© 2013 by Kelly Barnhill.


FOOTNOTES

1. Opposite is cured by opposite. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

2. Deep calleth unto deep; or – Sea calls to sea. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

3. The times are changed, and we are changed in them. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

4. Be amiable, then you’ll be loved. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

5. Knowledge is power. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

6. Seek the truth. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

7. The stars incline us, but do not bind us. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

8. In dreams there is truth. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

9. Speaking heart to heart. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

10. Cheers. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

11. Eat my shorts. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

12. Launch forward into the deep. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

13. We are dust and shadow. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

14. Teach me whatever is true. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

15. He who wants everything loses everything. [RETURN TO FOOTNOTE]

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Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Barnhill writes short stories for grown-ups and novels for children. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Sun, Tor.com, Postscripts and other journals, and several anthologies. Her novels, The Mostly True Story of Jack, Iron Hearted Violet, and The Witch’s Boy, have garnered several starred reviews. She has received the Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and has been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Recently, she received a McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature. Her novella “The Unlicensed Magician” won the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Her middle-grade novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the Newbery Medal and an animated movie based on it is in development.