Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2009

Out Of The Blue

by Lavie Tidhar

Beyond the desolate barrier of deep space a galaxy explodes.

It does so in silence. As sun after sun go nova the outflow of radiation and gas increases, creating a vast particle stream that flows out into surrounding space like a concentrated wave: a superwind.

Racked by stellar explosions the galaxy burns, petals of hydrogen flying away for thousands of light-years in every direction, like a flowering hibiscus; and strange anomalies begin to coalesce, like damage wrought by fruit flies, inside the maelstrom that was the galaxy.

Ten thousand light years away, the superwind suddenly tapers off, its spearhead disappearing from telescopic view as if swallowed by a dark singularity.

 

#

 

In Orbit Around Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar Space
2241 Common Era / 6001 Hebrew Calendar

The ship orbited the kibbutz arcology like a praying mantis over a nest of ants, an image that had stuck persistently in the Rabbi’s mind. He looked around him, at the small, enclosed synagogue – really nothing more than a converted storage room, dull grey and functional – and sighed.

He had just finished Ma’ariv, the evening prayers, and was busy folding away his Talit and ensuring that the prayer books were all stored away. An old-fashioned clock attached to the wall, half melted into the plastic and metal coating, lent the scene a surreal feel, as if it were an uncompleted sketch made hastily by Dali. It showed ship time and was roughly equivalent to the hour experienced over two light years away, in Eretz Yisrael on Earth.

His movements stopped abruptly as he caught sight of a familiar face observing him silently from the doorway. Premonition filled him with dread.

‘Which one?’ he said, his voice resonating like a jarred note in the quiet room.

‘Miriam.’ As if there was ever a doubt.

The silence stretched. The Rabbi felt as if his heart was filling slowly with human ash, like the mounds of burnt men and women he remembered so vividly from the preserved death camps he had once visited in Poland, on Earth.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Thank you. Michael.’ Language was a tapestry of platitudes, its strands rotting. The Captain’s name, seldom used, had an unfamiliar taste in his mouth.

The young Captain did not approach the Rabbi. He waited in the doorway, his posture unsure. ‘Dr. Aharon Ben-Eliezer of the Mitnagdim contacted us in person,’ he said. ‘He is waiting to talk to you.’

‘Thank you.’ The Rabbi said again, needlessly. Broken syllables from the Kaddish came and went in his head, off-key and disturbing.

He followed the younger man, feeling like a ghost as they traversed the narrow corridors of the ship and reached the confines of the communications centre.

At a word from the Captain the two men working at the panels of hardware stood up and filed past the Rabbi and his escort, murmuring meaningless words of consolation.

‘Thank you.’ He said. And again. ‘Thank you.’

It was a small room. A half-moon of monitoring equipment, with chairs for two, and the empty centre where the images rose like the hollow ghosts of the long-departed.

‘I’ll just establish a connection,’ The Captain said. The Rabbi waited, two beats of his heart, and then an image materialized behind the monitors, of an elderly man, his hair cropped short, his trimmed beard silver. For all the signs of age his posture was assured and heavy, as if used to a more demanding gravity. The picture was grainy, in the black and white of a faded celluloid photograph.

‘Low bandwidth,’ the Captain murmured. ‘the system won’t accept anything data-intensive from one of their sources.’ As if realizing the irrelevance of his comment the Captain rose from his seat. ‘I’ll leave you alone.’ He put his hand on the Rabbi’s shoulder in a brief gesture of sympathy and was gone.

‘Moshe.’ The man’s voice rasped, out of tune with his blurry image. ‘It’s been a while.’

‘Aharon.’ He regarded the man, his expression unreadable.

And then he asked the question that has been burning inside him from the moment the Captain’s face loomed, like a hangman’s shadow, at the door of the synagogue.

‘How did my daughter die?’

 

#

 

The Negev Desert, Earth
2203 CE / 5963 HC

The two Yeshiva students gazed at the skies, fascinated. To every side of them the Negev desert spread, dark and still, but for the two boys nothing existed by skies and stars.

‘Come on, Mosh,’ one of the boys said impatiently. ‘Get the program sorted out.’

‘Relax.’ Moshe’s fingers danced on the small keyboard. ‘It should be ready about… now.’ On cue the telescope moved, ponderously slow, tracking something unseen in the skies.

‘I can see it!’ Aharon’s voice rang loudly in the small chamber.

‘Let me see!’ He was pushed aside as the other boy pressed himself to the telescope’s eye. A long second passed, then Moshe exhaled deeply. ‘It’s magnificent,’ he said.

Through the telescope the ship could be clearly seen, a dark object moving across a background of stars, light glinting off its shell in bursts of illumination. The boys spent long minutes staring through the telescope, silent as the ship moved majestically away from the moon’s orbit and into dark space, on its way to Mars.

The telescope, guided by the small ship-gazing program, tracked it mechanically.

It was early morning when they finally made to leave, the desert awaking like a lizard in the sun. The light painted hues of yellows and reds on the sand, as if it were a vast canvas, on which a painting was coming slowly into life.

‘What do you think it was carrying?’ Aharon asked, an envious note in his voice.

His friend shrugged. ‘The program said it was a general purpose transport vehicle,’ he said, ‘so they could have been carrying anything. Food, machines… people.’

‘When I’m a rabbi, I am going to ask for a community on Mars,’ Moshe said with a confidence he didn’t quite feel. His friend smiled, and nudged him with his elbow.

‘You can come visit me on the moon, sometimes.’

They walked through vistas of sand, their slow footsteps leaving deep marks in the sand, a trail of humanity across an alien terrain that disappeared into the horizon.

 

#

 

In Orbit Around Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar space
2241 CE / 6001 HC

‘She tried to step into the Blue.’

For the first time the Rabbi’s emotions manifested externally.

‘What does that mean?’ his voice was loud, almost shouting. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’

The ghostly figure raised its hands in a calming gesture. ‘Miri was on the Albert Einstein.’ His paused. ‘We wanted to talk to the aliens.’

The Rabbi’s voice grated. ‘There are no aliens.’

In the centre of the room the projection of Aharon Ben-Eliezer was pacing in and out of camera range. ‘Miri told me what she’d seen,’ he said. ‘she told me about your precious, stolen Ark of Covenant.’ His voice was angry, his tone accusing. ‘So don’t tell me there are no aliens, not when you and your faction of lunatics keep their dead bodies like an item of worship.’

A spasm of something that could have been pain passed across the Rabbi’s face.

‘I don’t know what Miri told you,’ he said at last, levelly. ‘She was very young, and at that age children don’t always see what is really there.’

 

#

 

Blue Orbit, Interstellar Space
2241 CE / 6001 HC

Aharon sighed. He turned his head away from the image of his friend and gazed out, his fingers interlaced, resting on his knees. He hated this. We should not be fighting, he thought. Not again. Not now. Moshe had never forgiven him, he thought, gazing out onto the vista of the Blue. It was a tear in the fabric of space, opened in the vast empty space between the solar system and Alpha Centauri: he watched the flood of debris that pulsed out of that rent in the universe, and inwardly cursed. Moshe had never forgiven him, he thought again, for taking a different route, for going to the side of reason, of science. For abandoning mysticism. Damn him.

He had tried, at first, to turn Moshe to the cause. Why could he not understand that the world was not less beautiful, no less awe-inspiring and magnificent, even without belief? That it could be, needed to be, quantified, measured, probed until it was understood, and that understanding, founded on reason, was every way as glorious and as true – oh, so much truer! – than mere blind, ignorant belief?

He gazed out of the porthole at the oncoming flood. Somewhere in there, he thought, were the remains of the Albert Einstein, torn into molecules. It was a foolish, dangerous thing to do, to approach the Blue, to try and find a way into its naked singularity. But he could not – entirely – condone it. He wished, for a moment, it was him on that ship, instead of Miriam.

He turned his head back to Moshe’s grainy image. His faction had called them Mitnagdim, opponents, but it was not them who were the opposition; it was the other way around.

‘No?’ he said, unable to hide the bitterness he felt even after all those years, ‘So what did she see, Moshe?’ and he watched the pain on his old friend’s face and felt regret, mixed with a feeling he could not control, a twang of wild satisfaction.

 

#

 

Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar Space
2223 CE / 5983 HC

Miri ran, laughing, through the spacious stone tunnels of the asteroid. The voices of the other children gradually grew faint behind her and she spread her arms wide as she ran, enjoying the rare sense of freedom, of being alone, pretending as she ran that she was the fighter pilot of an old, terrestrial plane.

When she finally slowed down she had to lean against the rough wall of the tunnel, taking deep mouthfuls of air as her breathing slowly returned to normal.

It was some time, therefore, before she realised to her surprise that she was lost.

She walked further down the tunnels, feeling the texture of the walls, taking in the surprisingly fresh air, her eyes gradually adjusting to the diminishing light.

After what seemed like an hour Miri began to feel anxious, and her pace increased as she began to hurry through the seemingly-endless tunnels, searching for a way back to the familiar. Father would miss her soon.

Her attention was caught by a sudden sound. Without knowing quite why, Miri flattened herself to the wall and edged toward the noise carefully.

Out here, so far from the centre, gravity was nearly that of Earth (so she has been told). Her body felt heavy, muscles straining from running and from the strange, unaccustomed-to pull of the asteroid.

The voices fell quiet, and for a moment Miri worried that she had only imagined hearing them. Then a voice rang out and Miri recognised it with joy: it was her father, singing!

Thinking to surprise him, she moved cautiously until reaching the near bend in the tunnel, behind which her father’s voice was coming. She peered behind the wall. Her father was praying.

Miri recognised some of the Hebrew words, but not the prayer. This was nothing she had heard before. Her father, flanked by soldiers, was rocking backwards and forwards in front of a narrow door cut into the stone itself: it was invisible at first, just a patch of wall, but suddenly it opened, smoothly and in silence, and revealed an opening in the wall.

Then, still singing, her father stepped through the door in the rock, and the sound died.

Thinking to surprise him, Miri darted across the bend and, before the soldiers could react, followed him through the rock.

 

#

 

In Orbit Around Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar space
2241 CE / 6001 HC

In the small communication room a man and the image of a man argued, a habit made bitter by experience, yet comforting in its familiarity.

‘Moshe, we grew to accept whole galaxies exploding,’ Aharon said. ‘without ever thinking of God as a part of the design. Then, suddenly, we discover the Blue, and immediately the explosion becomes a divine act?’

‘It was an act of covenant.’ The Rabbi said. His voice was sharp. ‘Not that I intend to discuss the finer points of metaphysics with you.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘There was a time you would have been the first to agree with me,’ he said, weariness suddenly weighing him down.

And still he went on, doggedly labouring a point that needed, he sometimes thought, to be left alone, lest it grew poisonous and grow, infected and diseased, to cause more harm than good. Which is, he admitted to himself, exactly what had happened.

‘It was an act of covenant,’ he repeated. ‘the pouring out of the broken remains of a new flood, and with it the coming of a new ark. An ark of Covenant. A sign of God’s will.’

His opponent coughed, a chesty cough that spread yet seemed unable to escape the wiry frame that produced it. ‘I am tired, Moshe,’ he said at last, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. ‘Tired of the division between our people, the division in our people. Let me tell you something: the discovery of the Blue – the expedition to Alpha Centauri, all the work, the science that let us come here, in ships, in your converted asteroids, all of that – it was done by our side. Not yours. We discovered it, while your side sat in the yeshivas and studied the Torah. And now you dare come out here, to the place that could mean the difference to all of us, and meddle. Who knows what will come out of the Blue? Who knows what already has, and we didn’t pick up? Or what had already come out, and was kept away from us?’

That last question stood between them for a long moment, an unreachable wall. Then, ‘I am sorry for your loss,’ Aharon said stiffly. ‘It is my loss as well.’

 

And his image shuddered once, and disappeared.

#

 

Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar Space
2223 CE / 5983 HC

The thing in the wooden ark had been long dead. Miri had a moment in which to stare in wonder at the alien, its small body like that of a deformed child. Was that what he prayed to, she wondered suddenly, was that, that mummified corpse, the object of all their prayers?

‘Miri!’ Her father turned and held her tightly, his face pale. ‘What are you doing here?’

She didn’t even seem to blink, yet suddenly the small room filled with the soldiers from outside. They looked anxious, uncertain what to do.

‘You shouldn’t be here.’

‘Why?’ Miri demanded. ‘Did you lie to us, dad?’ She struggled against his hands and he released her, so that she stood in front of him, glaring up. Then the fight was gone from her. ‘Oh, dad,’ she said, and he picked her up and rocked her in his arms as Miri cried into his shirt.

The soldiers made way for them as he carried her outside, and down the corridors that would lead back home, away from the innocence that was lost.

How could he tell her? He thought as he walked her home, knowing that the battle was already lost for him, that for his daughter words were no longer enough, and that what she saw would turn her away from him.

Could he tell her?

 

#

 

In Orbit Around Kibbutz Shomer, Interstellar space
2241 CE / 6001 HC

For a long moment the Rabbi stared at the place where Aharon had been. He turned away from the empty space and left the room. The Captain waited for him outside.

‘I would like,’ the Rabbi said, ‘to return to the kibbutz.’

The Captain nodded. ‘I have already arranged for it,’ he said.

The Rabbi looked at him, noticed the lines of worry around the young man’s eyes. He smiled, though it cost him, and put his hand lightly on the Captain’s shoulder. ‘Thank you.’

The small craft took him from the ship to the kibbutz. He had shook, awkwardly, the hands of the friends who welcomed him there, but had left alone. He did not wish to speak again.

He walked through the asteroid’s maze of corridors, and he was not disturbed. The air turned cooler, and the gravity increased, slowing him down.

At last he reached the door in the rock. The words to open it rose in his mind, and he sang them: they were worn and familiar, like old friends who have aged alongside him.

He stepped through the opening. The alien cadaver was still there, and the Rabbi smiled at it almost fondly, though mixed in that was the sadness, as always, now, it would remain. Then, as the door closed behind him, he put his palm against the wall of the room, and the words came again, and the second, hidden door opened, and he went through it.

The children welcomed him. He looked at them, at those bright, happy, extraordinary eyes that seemed to him always to shine with an inner knowledge, with a true soul, a neshama, startling and unexpected. And he thought, I must do everything in my power to protect them, until they can leave to find their own way back into the world. They were a precious ward, as pure and as holy as if they were God’s own messengers, an innocence lost. The others, he thought, would want to study you, examine you, dissect you: the way they had done to all things, until they had reduced life and the universe into an equation, a footnote in a journal, a line of computer code.

He should have told Miri, but he couldn’t. She was too young. And by the time he could tell her… it was too late.

They were not alien. They were as known, as wondrous, as familiar as the words God had set down for his people. They were his ward, the covenant that he had made with God, all those years ago when they came, out of the Blue, one last, lonely ark drifting in the waters of a great flood.

They were all his children.

__________

Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas An Occupation of Angels (2005), Cloud Permutations (2009) and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). His first novel, The Bookman, will be published by HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint in spring 2010, and will be followed by two more.

  





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