The Valley of the Speaking Flames

“The Valley of the Speaking Flames”

by B. Pladek

“The first thing I will do is name the sparks,” I say.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mara tells me as we hang in orbit over the planet, looking down through a view screen in her office. She is my commander but also my friend, which is why her caution comes as advice rather than a direct counter-order. “They don’t use names for each other, apart from the color of their flames. Why name them?”

“It will help me get to know them,” I argue.

“But they’re not individuals, Rena.”

I shift in my chair. “Not that we know.” Onscreen, I look down to where lines of sparks streak the morning planet, brightness on brightness like stars beading the sun.

In the hard light Mara’s face looks tired. “You can’t get to care for them,” she says. “There are so many, and they die so soon.” The light shifts beside me and I feel her hand touch my shoulder.

“I’ll be fine,” I say shortly. “It’s been two years.” I stare harder at the screen.

“Even if they keep dying around you?”

Shrugging off her hand, I get up and turn from the window in silence. Mara cuts the image from the screen, leaving a wall of night in its place.

She says softly, “Rena, this mission isn’t your penance.”

“No,” I agree, as I step by her to exit for the lander. “Missions end.”

When I first heard of the spark planet, no one was sure whether the sparks were alive.

They are not, swore the chemists. The sparks were made, not born, struck from their planet’s magmic core like fire from flint. They had no names, no kin relations, no identities. They disappeared after two years.

They are, swore the exographers. The sparks did not have names, but they did have culture–language, and stories. They had meaning, and meaning was life.

I was still on bed-rest when I learned about the mission. Like all researchers who were frequently on-planet, exographers were allowed only one child each, and in their first year of parenthood could not leave the ship and risk contamination. So when Mara came to my quarters to give me the latest project briefs, it was more for friendship than duty. Newborn Rose’s body nestled in my lap, dense with life.

“They want an exo to go back to the spark planet,” Mara laughed. “Can you believe it? Some rich old artsy types must be backing it, otherwise I can’t see why Central would approve. Three years with the sparks! What a pointless mission.”

Below my chin, Rose gave a tiny yawn. “Pointless, Mar?”

“We’ve got everything an exo could need already.” Mara leaned up against the wall beside me, arms crossed. “The sparks tell stories, but they can’t really communicate.”

I laughed, then gently hoisted Rose above the bed. She gurgled with pleasure as she caught sight of the tiny circle of space through my port window. I said, “It doesn’t seem like Ro is communicating. But she likes the stars. See?” Rose’s head turned, and her eyes tracked the distant lights. 

Mara smiled. “Rose is a person.”

“And the sparks aren’t?” Frowning slightly, I tucked Rose back into her soft blanket.

“No, they’re–” Mara paused. Then she said slowly, “You know, all the other exos declined this mission.”

I turned to look at her in surprise. “What? Why?”

Her eyes were troubled. “Rena, have you accessed the audio files? Have you heard the sparks… communicating?”

I straightened in bed. Against my chest Rose’s breathing came softly, rhythmically.

“Tell me,” I said.

Can I tell you a story, honey?

She burns and burns, but does not answer.

In the beginning there were words, and the words were fire. The words filled the sky above and the land below, and where their burnings met, there we were (you know who, Ro): voices of flame in blue, orange, red, and green.

Below us lies the dreaming fire, the endless story from which we all come and to which we all return. Above us lies the sky called speech, the air where words burn.

Look above you (look up, honey, are you looking?). There in the sky are your words, aflame forever. When you have told your all, when you return to the dreaming fire, these will remain. 

The end. Did you like that? Rose, please answer me. 

She burns.

The sparks come in four colors: blue, always largest, orange, red, and green, always smallest. From the window of my lander I watch them drift over the hot, alien plain, teardrops of color studding the smoke. Over them hangs the gauze of their whispery speech, like steam over goblets of opaque flame.

They do not notice me, nor will they, unless I speak to them in their language. But while I can mimic their speech with mechanical aid, I do not. Like all exographers of the great generation ships, my directions are to listen, and observe.

After choosing a base site, I transform my lander into a camp slowly and methodically, unpacking supplies, equipment, and the entirety of my personal effects–one small, locked box. I place the latter on my bed, and let my hand linger on its lid. Then, stiffening, I slip on my fireproof gear. Carefully I walk out over the burning plain, towards the landing site where I’ll retrieve my year’s worth of supplies from the ship’s parachute drops.

As I walk, I weave between the sparks, whose stories crackle the air around me. The landscape, floored with flame as far as I can see, reminds me again of the poem I recalled when I first accessed the mission’s image files–the poem about hell whose human author, five thousand years ago, imagined a vale of murmuring fires. In the poem, it is a punishment for deception: for those who lied in life, in death, their words burn.

But here in valley of the speaking flames, though I brush against the fiery bodies, nothing catches. I decide the supplies can wait: I am too eager to begin my research.

After an hour’s search, I choose two sparks for my subjects. The blue and green hang away from their fellows, alone in the shadow of a low cliff.

I am not choosing them because I fear losing them amid the others, I tell myself.

The blue spark is larger, and older. The green spark is newborn, a child, hissed yesterday from a red crevasse. Both are speaking as the sparks do, the little green’s voice muffled as it attends to its elder:

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE…

I recognize the blue spark’s tale. It is the beginning of the myth-cycle, and it will continue uninterrupted for a month, until the little green can repeat it back in her–its–own voice.

The two sparks ignore me as I set up my recording equipment.

…FILLED THE SKY ABOVE AND THE LAND BELOW, AND WHERE THERE BURNINGS MET…

“Tell me your stories,” I say, and flick the switch.

“Not that there’s anyone you can really contact,” said my colleague Lupa when I finally applied for the mission, which was still open, three years later. We were standing in the ship’s pediatric ward, where I had brought Rose for her yearly shots. Lupa’s twelve-year-old son, in for a physical before going off-ship, sat in a corner ignoring us. From her perch in my arms, Rose stared up at a nurse, whose cheerful scrubs were spangled with stars.

“The other exos couldn’t tell the sparks apart and you can’t either,” Lupa continued with a sneer.

Frowning, I hitched Rose up on one hip. “‘You can’t tell them apart’ has a pretty poor history as an exographic judgment,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. Gurgling, Ro caught her small, dark fingers in my hair.

“Well, we can’t,” Lupa insisted. “They don’t even have personalities.”

I lowered my voice, infusing it with as much ire as I could without upsetting Rose. “Only as far as we know. They’ve certainly got meaning, stories.” During my study of the sparks’ language I had learned them by heart, a myth-cycle passed between generations like the wheels of a sun’s corona turning infinitely back on itself.

“Yeah, dull stories,” Lupa said bluntly. “We transcribed them all, remember?”

“I know. I’ve read them.” Trying to end the conversation, I turned away and pretended to watch the nurse bustling to and fro across the ward. But Lupa only raised her voice.

“So you already know they never change. What sort of culture never changes?”

Face still averted, I growled, “We can’t assume–”

“The chemists don’t even think they’re alive,” she cut me off. Across the room, I saw her son watching us.

Ro’s tight curls brushed against my cheek. I tried to swallow my anger. Turning back to Lupa, I said, very quietly, “Stories are life.”

“Sure, sure,” she laughed, winking. “The old exo platitude. But seriously, what do you think you’re going to find down there–playmates for Ro?”

She ended her question with a snort, and looked at Rose, who was gazing longingly at the stars on the retreating nurse’s smock.

My lips thinned into a hard line. Though I could not see my own face, I knew that color was draining from it like the sea before a tsunami. “You know very well,” I said, “that she can’t go offship until she’s fifteen, when her immunities have developed.”

“Right, shipborn,” said Lupa carelessly. “I always forget that Rose isn’t like my Finori. He’s got friends on so many planets, right, Fini?” Behind us, I saw her son sink in his chair.

Somewhere inside me, something began to smolder. In my arms Ro fidgeted, feeling me tense.

“Such a pity,” Lupa continued. “It’s our job as exos to educate children like yours in different cultures, but they can’t even visit the planets we study.”

“How dare you–” But before I could continue, the nurse arrived with Rose’s shots. As I steadied Rose and tried to calm my breathing, I saw Lupa return to her son. Her smile was cold.

Rose was squirming beneath my chin. To distract her, I pointed to the silvery stars on the nurse’s uniform. “Look at the stars, sweetie. Just like the ones outside.”

Rose stilled, and her dark eyes widened. Squealing with delight, she grabbed for the sky scattered on the dark cotton scrubs.

“She’ll be a traveler, that one,” the nurse chuckled. With a swift, professional pinch, she dipped the needle into Rose’s thigh.

Rose didn’t even notice. Entranced, she reached for the stars, over and over again.

The big blue spark drifts closer to its newborn companion. LOOK ABOVE YOU. THERE IN THE SKY ARE YOUR WORDS, AFLAME FOREVER. AND YOU, LITTLE GREEN, WHOSE FIRE BURNS BRIGHTEST…

Though the big blue addresses the little green directly, I know the words are formulaic: all new green sparks hear them, just as all blue sparks are told of their strength, and all red sparks of their hardiness.

This is not a family, I remind myself. Not a mother, not a child, not a bedtime story.

The little green flutters like a small chest breathing.

So that I cannot think of them as a mother and child, I call the blue Lucio, and the green, Lucia.

“Why have you started telling those stories to Ro?” asked Mara. Above us the ship’s greenhouse sky hung like blue drapery, heavy and artificial. One-year-old Rose wallowed in the imported soil.

“She likes them,” I said. Ro was staring at the leaves, which quivered about her in the vented breeze like a sea of tiny green flames.

Mara smiled. “Your daughter’s got more of a literary sense than I do. I’ve read some of the spark-myths and can’t get the hang of them. Dreaming fires? The sky called speech? Beautiful, but too abstract.”

“Not to Ro.” The windows of the greenhouse peered down into the heart of the ship, where crewmembers dashed between sunless bulkheads. I thought about the nursery of shipborn children farther within, all raised in cheery cleanliness like sleek pigs on a metal farm. I said, “The spark-myths make more sense than every fairy tale I’ve ever told her. How can you understand mermaids if you’ve never seen an ocean? But the dreaming fires–those she understands. She sees the stars every night.”

Rose hummed in concentration, raking the dark soil into peaks. Within them glinted specks of mica. Rose caught at them with chubby fingers.

Mara frowned. “She really can’t picture what a mermaid is?” 

“It’s not that she can’t picture them. It’s–how do I explain it?” I paused, and looked up to where the artificial sky closed like a lid above our heads.  “Mar, I’ve lived most of my life on generation ships. But I was raised on-planet, near the sea. So on my last mission”–I lowered my voice–“on my last mission I smuggled back a little stone from the shore to give to Ro, so she could smell the brine.”

Mara’s eyes widened, and with a wince I remembered that she was my commanding officer. Quickly I added, “I know, I know, the quarantine regs. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. But do you know what she did?”

Mara’s voice was terse. “Rena, you know I can’t approve–”

“Do you know what she did?” I insisted.

She sighed. “Well, what?”

My chest tightened, and it had nothing to do with confessing that I’d violated regulations. “She sniffed it, then threw it away. The sea means nothing to her. Nothing.”

My voice shook. Watching me, Mara’s childless eyes filled with an earnest but bewildered sympathy. She said slowly, “So even though the spark stories are all about words and fires, they mean something to her. They’re true for her–like they are for the sparks.”

“Yes.” I tried to smooth the worry from my voice, knowing that Rose was close by, listening. “For what truth is worth, anyway.”

Mara’s brow creased for a moment, as if deciding whether to return to the subject of my violation. The moment passed. She asked, “What do you mean?”

I swallowed gratefully. “Well, I’m not sure that the sparks think about stories as true or false. They are their stories, somehow. I don’t understand it.”

Behind me I heard Rose growl with frustration as she screwed her fingers into the soil, trying to catch the glittering mica. Kneeling down, I brushed her dark hair back. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” 

 Mara remained standing, her face pensive. “Maybe that’s why the stories never change,” she mused. “They’re like a city of ghosts, or a recording on an endless loop. No individuals. Just words.”

I shook my head. “No, that’s not it.”

“How do you know?”

Rose squealed, and instinctively my arms went out to hold her. But she twisted away, battering the mica-flecked heaps of soil with a wail of confused defeat. Her eyes quivered with longing.

“Ro, Ro,” I whispered, leaning down to scoop up her trembling body. “My love, there are no stars in the dirt.”

The education of Lucia, my little green flame, finishes in a month. One month of stories, day and night, transmitted without interruption or suspense. Each day I stay as long as I can, but I cannot hear them all; I must sleep. Each morning I return to see if any change has occurred: if the stories, in telling, have deepened Lucio’s blue or Lucia’s green, as they did when I told them to Rose and she awoke the next morning brighter.

Nothing. There is always nothing.

Then one morning, having relayed to her all the spark myths there are, Lucio drifts away. Lucia bobs behind, alone and small. The sweet curl of her flame shivers in the wind, like an eyelid fluttering awake.

Clutching my recorder, I advance eagerly. In Lucio’s absence I will hear Lucia speak her versions of the spark myths, and in them I will read her, Lucia, like a signature etched in air.

As Lucio recedes, Lu’s thin flame hums. Her voice warbles up:

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE…

I listen for an hour; two; three. Lucia’s words, though her voice is different, are exactly the same as Lucio’s: in sequence, in style, and even in the brief sizzling pauses that the sparks use for emphasis.

“Lucia,” I murmur in my own language so she will not understand, “tell me what your stories mean.”

She burns and burns, but does not answer.

Another hour passes. “Say something different, Lu,” I urge. My hand flickers towards the device that will allow me to speak the sparks’ language. “Show me you’re alive. I know you’re alive.”

She burns.

“There is a poem about hell,” I told Mara when she came to see me on the third night in the room where my daughter’s fever burned the walls like fire. “There is a poem about hell that is like the spark planet.”

“Rena–”

“It is in the eighth circle of hell. I remember it: the valley of the speaking flames. Each flame by itself, condemned to speak forever. It’s their punishment for deception.” Beside me on the hospital bed, Rose’s breath came in rasps.

I felt Mara’s hand on my shoulder. “Rena, let me take her for a little bit, or one of the nurses. You’re killing yourself.”

I ignored her. “In life the flames were deceptive, so in hell their words burn. They speak forever, but they can never hear one another. They’re alone.”

“This isn’t your fault.” Her voice sounded worried, and very far away. “Please. Let us help you.”

I did not look up. Beneath my hand, Rose was burning. “The flames are alone, but if you ask them, they’ll tell you their story. But you have to be careful.”

Mara must have given up, because I felt the bed shift as she sat down beside me. “Why?”

“Because the flames lie.”

As the planet’s reddish sun sinks below the horizon, its light catches Lucia’s tiny body. Her green flame glows more brightly in the gloom.

I take down my recording equipment and prepare to return to my lonely camp for the night. Behind me, the stories still sigh out of Lucia like an eternal exhalation, always the same, exactly the same.  

Such beauty is not mechanical, I think. It cannot be. Stories are not mechanical. They live. So many beautiful things do not live, but stories do.

“Good night, Lu,” I say.

She burns.

Back at camp, I record the day’s findings. Then, as always, I take the small locked box from the shelf and cradle it in my lap. As always, in the silence, the memories come.

“I’m so sorry, Rena. They’re so vulnerable at three years. And she was raised on-ship, so she didn’t have many immunities yet. Please, don’t blame yourself. There’s nothing you could have done.”

My hands move over the lid, warm from the heat of the day.

“We thought maybe in a year or so, if you took something of hers with you to the spark planet, it might be a comfort. Like a book, or a toy.”

My finger hovers on the latch.

“Are you sure that’s what you want? Isn’t that a little morbid, Rena? …well, all right. We can have them do it tomorrow.”

I do not open it.

In the morning I flick a switch, and from my translation torch a flame whistles up.

In Lucia’s language, I say, LITTLE GREEN.

I do not have the words for her name; no names exist in the sparks’ language. Why I am doing this?, some distant part of me asks. My directions were to listen, and observe.

LET ME TELL YOU A STORY, I say. IT IS THE FIRST STORY. YOU’VE HEARD IT BEFORE.

Only slowly does Lucia’s hissing speech subside enough for her to hear me. My words must sound strange to her, artificial–but she listens.

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE. THE WORDS FILLED THE SKY ABOVE AND THE LAND BELOW, AND WHERE THEIR BURNINGS MET, THERE YOU WERE, LITTLE GREEN. THERE YOU WERE.

There you were, and you were beloved.

You were beloved, yes. It is not a lie. Oh my Rose–though you never left the ship, touched real earth, saw a sky that was not airless with stars. Though I could not save you, when the fever came, you were beloved. Oh my Lu–though you have no mother and no family, though the chemists don’t even think you’re alive. You, too, are beloved.

I say to Lucia, BELOW YOU LIES THE DREAMING FIRE. BUT AROUND YOU ARE THE SPEAKING FLAMES. YOU ARE OURS. WE KNOW YOU, LITTLE GREEN. AND WHEN YOU RETURN AS WE ALL DO TO THE DREAMING FIRE, YOU WILL BE MISSED. YOU.

 I pause and listen to Lucia’s murmur, try to catch, in her alien voice, the circle I have drawn around her absence.

But in return I hear only, dimly, in familiar terrible tones: IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE…

“They are their stories, somehow,” I told Mara. “I don’t understand it.”

ANSWER ME, I beg Lu. ANSWER ME, love–I do not know their word for love–ANSWER ME. Please.

You have to be careful, because the flames lie.

Lucia dies the next day. From my lander I watch it happen. A dust storm claws up out of the plains and rakes its long fingernails over the ground. She flickers for a second in the hot dust, and then she is gone.

No other sparks seem to notice.

“I’m sorry,” said the quarantine doctor. I had just returned from my first mission after giving birth, an on-planet survey of only two days. During those days Rose’s absence had throbbed like a wound in my chest. Returning to the ship, I had shoved eagerly through the airlock, only to be herded towards the quarantine deck.

“Two weeks in isolation?” I snapped. I had to stop myself from swinging at the doctor’s placid face. “But Rose is still nursing, and by now she’ll be out of milk–”

“So we’ll get you a pump and sterilize it for her,” the doctor replied testily. Their fingers drummed the quarantine glass. “Two weeks’ quarantine is standard procedure. You’re an exo. You know the rules.”

“But she needs me,” I pleaded. “It was my first mission away from her! And I took such a short trip to the planet.”

“We can’t make exceptions. There are other shipborn children besides Rose, you know. If you’re contaminated, you’re a danger to them, too.”

“But Ro is only one year old.” I knew that my voice had pitched into a whine, and that I probably looked ridiculous. I did not care.

Again the doctor shook their head. “I’m sorry.”

I’m so sorry, Lu.

Across the plain, the sparks float like funeral candles, chanting their endless, impersonal dirge. Somewhere far up, the smoke of Lucia’s death scatters like a hand of dirt dashed on the stars.

When the sand has settled into the craters and the wind dies to a sob, I go out. I return to the space where Lu last flickered, knowing I must mark it somehow, must sign her death with difference so I can know she was really alive.

Behind me, watching, Rose’s box seems to glow like an ember.

As I reach the cliff where Lucia last fluttered, my heart stops.

There, trembling, is a little green: small, familiar, bright as new leaves. “Lu?” I cry, unbelieving, and then fumbling with my translation torch, LITTLE GREEN! LITTLE GREEN–YOU ARE ALIVE!

Hearing another’s voice, the spark muffles her own, but before she does I catch its familiar echo: THE WORDS FILLED THE SKY ABOVE…

“Oh, Lu!” I dash forward before remembering I cannot embrace her.

“They won’t let you see your kid?” asked the chemist as I paced the quarantine deck.

“Yes,” I said. I did not look at her.

“Think you might be contaminated?”

“Obviously,” I snapped. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“You’re an exographer?”

“Why are you asking me all these questions?”

Because I have stopped speaking, Lucia bobs away towards a wider group of sparks. In an ecstasy of gratitude I follow.

“You should go to the spark planet,” the chemist said. Her dark skin was violet with decontaminants, and she spoke easily: she’d been through quarantine many times. “There’s no life there, barely even bacteria.”

I stopped pacing, and turned to face her. “Is that so?”

“Sure,” she said. “The sparks aren’t alive–just these fires that stand around telling stories to each other like chatty gas leaks. No biology, no mess. Just culture.”

In the valley of the speaking flames, the air burns with words. I look out and up, to where the heat rises from a thousand stories, from one story, rising to blur the stars.

“Just culture, and sterile enough for a goddamn baby. You’d love it,” she added.

“Is that so.”

When I look back, Lucia is gone.

No--my heart collapses, and then, a moment later, breathes–she is not gone. The floating constellations still glow before me, humming in unison, IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS…

Somewhere among those hundred little greens is Lucia. On the ship, when I looked out over the nursery, among the hundreds of children Rose’s face blossomed at once, beautiful, unmistakable. But here the little greens are curled like tight buds whose flowers are unknown. They are all the same. My heart trembles. They are all the same.

I cannot tell the difference between them.

And if I cannot tell now, I could not tell then, when Lu–or who I thought was Lu–

Somewhere in me something catches, flares.

“There’s a poem about hell,” I told the chemist. “It’s like the spark planet. In the eighth level of hell is the valley of the speaking flames. In life they were deceptive, so in death they are alone. They lie to themselves, forever.”

“About what?” she asked. “Aren’t they already in hell?”

Before me the sparks float, a field of fallen stars.

“All right,” said the doctor. “You’re clear to go, so long as you follow the normal sterilization procedures.”

“Thank you.” I did not look at them. My hand curled tight around the pebble hidden in my pocket.

“And as long as you haven’t brought anything from the planet with you.”

In my mind I could smell the sea.

“Of course,” I said.

Three weeks later, she burned.

On the spark planet, time seems to circle. The next week the windstorm comes again. Then, a week later, another. Many sparks die. Many I have named. I name them and they die and they are reborn–precisely, inevitably, the same.

If I name them all Rose, will she die again forever? Or live?

Some time later–I do not know exactly when–I gaze out the heat-resistant window of my lander, which I have maneuvered–though I do not remember how–to overlook the burning plain. Below me, at the bottom of the valley, the sparks wink in and out like fireflies in a summer field.

As haze hides the color of the stars, so at night the heat of the sparks’ speech dulls their rainbows to beige. At night, they all look like Lucia: not just the greens, but every spark, reduced to uniformity by distance, like identical petals of an infinite rose.

As I watch the sparks dance in the night, I can only marvel at how many there are: how many alive, and how many dead, and how I cannot mourn those whom death has undone, for they are all the same. Their deaths are as much a lie as their lives, which are only stories, after all.

On my lap sits Rose’s box, filled with her ashes. If I scattered them on the ground and looked away, would I be able to tell where Rose ended and earth began?

Would it matter?

“You have to understand, stars are always dying.” Long before her captaincy, long before Rose, Mara had been a cosmographer. I once tried to explain to her what we did as exographers. I tried to tell her that understanding culture is like mapping the stars. But she shook her head.

 “Thousands of stars die every day,” she said. “If we notice, they go off the maps, and if we don’t, it’s like they never existed in the first place. But don’t exographers care when their subjects die?”

“Of course,” I said, stung. “I guess we do differ, then. I’m interested in the ‘stars’ for their own sake–in people, I mean.”

She looked at me hard. “For their sake, and not ours?”

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE.

Rose’s hands plunged through the dark soil. Her veins were already full of the flame that would kill her.

I stared back. “For both, Mara. Exographers study the meaning made by people who aren’t us, because meaning is relative. Why else would we bother?”

As lights flicker in the valley of the speaking flames, I suddenly see how wrong I was. Meaning is relative, yes, which means that by itself it is nothing–like by themselves Rose’s ashes are merely dust, and the sparks’ myths merely smoke. Relative things are surface things, false.

But below them, below us, runs the dreaming fire, a molten truth. Looking in on this deep from above is like looking into a well. All I see is my own reflection: the memory of Rose’s death in fever, a fever I brought to her in a stone. Shouting down this well, trying to speak to the sparks, will return nothing but echoes, the same story told over and over again.

I must go below.

Lifting Rose’s box, I walk down the valley. I leave all but my suit behind. I must abandon such surfaces, as light must abandon its shine in order to grow solid and true at the center of a black hole. You must have known this, Rose, Lucia, dying out of your false selves. My loves, if only I had known, I would have followed you sooner.

Around me, the sparks part like spirits.

At the edge of a crevasse I stop and look down, through the boiling split in the earth where the rocks grind their bones together. The dreaming fire: it rolls in its sleep, sighing out stories, which are neither living or dead, right or wrong–only true.

“Can I tell you a story, honey?” I whisper, lifting the latch.

Rose’s ashes sigh out and disappear into the crevasse, into the endless tale.  

I follow.

Epilogue

After a month of no reports, the commander of the great generation ship sent a small recovery team to the spark planet. When they arrived, they found two things.

First was a brief note explaining the exographer’s hypothesis: that the sparks were simply manifestations of a larger, planet-wide intelligence that could not be contacted through the sparks themselves, but only directly–though it did not specify what this meant. The note did not account for all the facts, grumbled the chemists, who were piqued because they had already ruled out this hypothesis.

Second, and more startling, was a new color of spark. Frail and golden, these wavered in lesser numbers near the edge of the crevasse, where the recovery team’s tracking indicated the exographer had disappeared. Even more incredible, these new sparks told a different story:

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WERE WORDS, AND THE WORDS WERE FIRE. BUT AT FIRST, MY LITTLE ONE, YOU WERE IMPRISONED, LOCKED AWAY FROM LAND AND AIR, SUNDERED FROM THE DREAMING FIRE AND THE SKY CALLED SPEECH.

AND SO, MY LITTLE ONE, I BROUGHT YOU FIRE FROM A STONE AND FREED YOU FROM YOUR PRISON. YOU RETURNED TO THE DREAMING FIRE, THE ENDLESS STORY FROM WHICH WE ALL COME AND TO WHICH WE ALL RETURN.

I LOVE YOU.

Perplexed, the team decided to monitor the new sparks.

And slowly, imperceptibly, over the next two years the story changed. Word by word, references to stones and prisons and love fell out. As the numbers of golden sparks grew, their stories decayed back into the same tale all the others told. Finally, all that remained of the golden sparks’ distinction was a new color in the story. This crept into the sparks’ formulaic epithets for one another, so that to the strong blues, hardy reds, hot oranges, and bright greens was added one more, the true golds.

Not knowing what to make of this, the chemists and exographers simply shrugged and moved on. They paid little attention to the theory of their commander, who insisted that the gold sparks had something to do with the brief, cryptic message that been found near the bottom of the exographer’s note. The words were scrawled in haste, like a warning, or a signature:

You have to be careful, because the flames lie.

_______________

B. Pladek is a literature professor and writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She’s a graduate of Clarion West 2018 and has published in PodCastle, Flash Fiction Online, Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere.

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