The plague is coming. It spreads on the whispering tongues of the tavern-folk and on a breath of dry wind over dead grass.
I sit at my table in the Bureau. Sunlight pierces the narrow windows on either side, illuminating the books in front of me. Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest—the building blocks of an ordered but sterile world. Shelves full of leather-bound volumes surround me like a scaffold, smothering me in their eternal solitude.
I grab the desk with spindly birdlike fingers and push myself up on squat legs. From the window to my right, I can see smoke rising from the chimneys of Frampton-on-Severn. That is the human village, where Beta like myself are not welcome. The humans don’t trust our long tongues, our mottled papery skin, and the round holes just above our foreheads. But the plague kills us just the same. Out the window on my left, the Beta colony sits beyond the river Severn and the rolling hills. That is where I grew up, but I will never be at home there. It has been a long time since I could believe my people’s myths.
Instead, I am caught in between the village and the colony. So I stay at the Bureau, collecting books and waiting for the plague.
My earliest memory is of my third birthday. Father put me on his shoulders like he had seen the human fathers do, and took me outside. He pointed to a star, and touched his long tongue to mine. I heard his voice in my mind, which is what happens when we Beta touch tongues. I shivered, even though the night was warm. Kev, he was saying, do you see that star, just to the left of the crescent moon? See how it shines brighter than the rest? Well, that is where we came from. Someday, to there we will return.
Oh, to have come from a distant star! At nights I would lie awake, dreaming of the sky and its limitless possibilities. But every year, when Father took me outside, he pointed to a different star. So Father doesn’t really know what star we came from, I thought. Maybe we didn’t come from the stars at all.
Eventually, I stopped believing him. So I didn’t complain when I got too big to ride on his shoulders and we didn’t go out anymore on my birthday.
Thrita shows me maps. “Wotton-under-Edge,” he says in his sonorous voice. He points at the map with a long, oily tongue. “That’s where it was first reported. I reckon it’s coming due north. Dursley is next in its path. Then it will reach Frampton-on-Severn, then perhaps the colony.”
I nod numbly, pretending not to care. From reading Galen I learned that disease spreads because of bad air, or miasma. That’s why it tends to fester in the cramped quarters of cities and towns. We are out in the country. Perhaps we are safe. I tell that to Thrita.
He stares at me with those pale lamp-like Beta eyes. Thrita has unusually oily hair which grows only in sparse patches and tufts. “The Beta are never safe,” he says.
Thrita knows that better than anyone. As an orphaned child, he often went hungry. One night, a human patrol found him outside the colony after curfew, foraging for food. The Baron’s men ordered him put in the stocks for two days. They warned him that if he broke the curfew again, they would have him hanged as an example. Zelhorn found Thrita while he was still in the stocks, dying of thirst. Thrita had one very important skill most Beta didn’t have—someone, somehow, had taught him to read. So Zelhorn convinced the Baron’s men to free Thrita on the condition that he work for the Bureau. The humans like Zelhorn’s Bureau for the Societal and Literary Advancement of the Beta. They allow us to collect taxes and to help enforce the King’s Law. Perhaps they think we keep the Beta out of trouble. Also, the humans like Zelhorn because he worships the Christian god.
“We always die,” Thrita was saying, in that slow, mellow voice of his. “Either the plague takes us, or the humans think we were spared because of some witchcraft. Then they kill us anyway.”
I don’t say anything, because I know Thrita is right.
Once a month, my family went to see the relics. They were housed in the tallest building in the colony, a gaunt structure capped by a solitary spire twisted like the horn of a unicorn. The relics, sixteen metal pieces arranged on both sides of an aisle, were viewed silently and in single file. Father went first, then Mother, then me.
The unmarked metal coiled in strange, skeletal shapes. Some relics were dark as obsidian; others shone like pale steel. Mother instructed me not to touch them. She told me that old Bilus had touched a relic, gone mad, and died within three weeks. I wasn’t sure I had ever needed any convincing on the matter, and I certainly didn’t after her story. Still, Mother held her arm out behind her and squeezed my hand when we passed between the relics. Her hand trembled, and I wondered who was really holding who. Sometimes she cried when we got home.
Father told me that the humans once tried to destroy the relics. Although they ruined the building, they couldn’t even dent the metal.
“Why did they want to destroy the relics?” I asked.
“They called them heathen idolatry.”
I didn’t understand what that meant, but there was little about the humans that I understood. “What are the relics anyway?” I asked.
“I’ve told you before.”
“Tell me again.”
“They are fragments of a great vessel that sailed the stars. They are pieces of the ship that brought us here.”
“Why do we have to look at them? The ship is broken. It can’t sail anymore.”
“The past is important.”
“Then why does Mother cry?”
Father looked troubled for a moment. I think he wasn’t quite sure of the answer. “Do you know those woodcuts of Mother’s parents that I made for her?”
“Yes.” Mother often gazed at them in the flickering light of the fire after she put me to bed. I never fell asleep that quickly.
“Their pictures are only carved in wood, but the likeness reminds her of what she’s lost. I figure the relics are much the same.”
I thought back to the stars. “Sometimes,” I said, “I think we pretend to remember things that we are not sure we ever had. And that’s why Mother cries—because she doesn’t know if there ever was a ship, or if we came from the stars.”
Father looked at me sadly and said nothing.
Zelhorn approaches. I am still in my library, cataloguing books, inscribing them, constructing a meaningless shrine to eternity. I know it is Zelhorn without turning around. The stench of rosewater and charcoal follows him everywhere.
“Kev,” he says, “I need a favor.”
I face him. He is wizened and old; his braided white beard hangs in strands knotted with jade beads. He wears a cross, and he taps incessantly with a stick. Today, he bears strange parcels: tan masks with dull glass eyepieces and tapered conical fronts that look like beaks of implausible birds. I worry that he has devised yet another experiment.
Zelhorn continues: “I need some things from Frampton-on-Severn. Lavender, camphor, mint, maybe a touch of cloves. No rose petals—I have too many here already. But do make sure we have a good deal of straw.”
Now I’m certain this experiment concerns alchemy. No matter, Thrita and I do all of Zelhorn’s real work for him anyway. Still, I eye him suspiciously. “What for?”
“For the doctors of course! Bubonic plague spreads by miasma. To prevent the doctors from contracting plague, the incense goes in the front of the beak and the straw serves as a filter.”
“For Wotton-under-Edge. The town needs doctors, but its own are either stricken or fled. I think some of the Beta might be interested.”
“The Beta are not doctors.” They can’t even read.
Zelhorn waves his tongue dismissively. “It matters little. We can teach them the procedure. Make a poultice. Lance the buboes. Avoid breathing the foul air.”
“Avoid breathing the air—how?”
Zelhorn comes so close that the stench of rosewater is overpowering. His beads and cross jangle in my face. “The costumes will mitigate the miasma, of course. And behind these masks, humans and Beta look the same. So Beta can be doctors without the humans knowing. Humans will let Beta doctors treat them. The plague will be contained, and the Beta doctors will be paid. Change, not plague, will soon be in the air. This is, after all, the Bureau for the Societal and Literary Advancement of the Beta!”
I draw back. It is just like Zelhorn to try to find some silver lining in the plague. To use it to our supposed advantage. “I suppose the Beta will die quicker this way,” I say. “But perhaps it is for the best. There won’t be any witch trials afterwards.”
Zelhorn’s eyes are like smoky lamps. “In all your time here, what have you actually done to help our people?”
“You are not helping them either. These doctors will die.”
“Only without the proper precautions. That is why I need the herbs. The sweet smell in the nose—” he taps the bird mask— “dispels the miasma.”
I make no acknowledgment.
“Do what you wish,” he says eventually. He hangs the bird masks on my shelves. “I will send Thrita instead.”
I think back to a time when I trusted Zelhorn. When it seemed that he alone taught a truth of which others were afraid to speak. Perhaps he is right. I have done nothing at the Bureau. My literacy project is a failure. The Beta have no interest in learning to read. Going to Frampton-on-Severn couldn’t be any worse than remaining here. “No, I will go,” I say.
Zelhorn looks at me approvingly. “Good.”
I will go, I tell myself. But this will not stop the plague.
It was night. I awoke to the familiar sound of distant tapping. I crept silently from my bed and lay at the foot of the crafting table, watching wax drip between its slats and wood shavings flutter down to meet the sticky mass forming underneath.
When I raised my head, there was Father, a candle clenched tightly in the hole above his forehead. His tongue was taut as a bowstring and glistened silver in the half-light. An iron nib quivered on its edge. Tap. Tap. Ta-Tap. Father chipped away at the wooden block on the table, creating delicate patterns with the nib attached to his tongue.
Father was a block cutter. He said that each block of wood was full of stories waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, the wood yielded valleys and the rivers that ran through them; other times, I saw great mountain ranges with waterfalls tumbling into canyon-beds far below. Often I imagined dragons wheeling upon the peaks, scorching the mighty mountainside with flame. Yet this time, there were no dragons or mountains. Instead, all I saw were scratches, marks that curved and curled in an unknown dance.
“What are they?” I asked.
“Words,” he replied.
“I like dragons better.”
“Words can become whatever you want them to be, even dragons.” Father offered me his hand. “Come, let me take you back to bed,” he said.
Later, Father explained to me that these woodcuts were templates that could be smeared with ink and pressed onto parchment. This was how books were made.
I became fascinated by books of all kinds. Words were an intricate wonder, but since I couldn’t read, I could only pretend their meaning. Father must be a master of words, I thought. So I begged Father to teach me.
It was quite a shock when I learned that Father couldn’t read either.
“He has a strong tongue,” said Mother, “and an eye for copying the strokes. But he doesn’t understand what he copies.”
“The Beta don’t need books,” Father said, “when we have our stories.”
I was crestfallen. Unlike my parents, I knew the world was changing, and that books would be more important than old stories. And if I could read, maybe I could find the truth about the Beta and where we came from.
So I insisted on learning to read. Father made me what he called an alphabet primer. Each letter of the alphabet was carved in a flowery script and inlaid with what looked like silver. The whole alphabet was encircled by reliefs of dragons and unicorns painted scarlet and amber. It was beautiful.
But who could teach me?
It is a long time since I have been to Frampton-on-Severn. The marketplace is awash in smells of manure, salted fish, and a peppery stew. It is still better than the hushed and stale air in the Bureau. I see a human with a shrill voice; his wooden leg drags across the pavement. He yells “caps for sale!” and waves the caps in the air. Other humans mill around near shabby stalls. After all these years, I am still fascinated by the way they drink. They tilt back clay bottles or cups held directly to their lips. It seems so much easier just to use my tongue.
But then again, I am Beta.
I once accompanied Father to this market in a horse-drawn cart, surrounded by his woodcuts and crates of pears and apples that smelled sickly sweet. As we reached the square, he placed a hand on my shoulder, gently but with a determination that made me wonder if I should be afraid, and told me to stay close, for we were among humans.
I ought to heed his advice still.
I seek out Zelhorn’s supplies. I find camphor in little glass bottles. Near the stall selling dried lavender, two men whisper urgently. Apparently, the plague is still spreading north. It has reached Dursley. It comes closer.
When I have bought most of what I need, two rough-looking men approach. They leer at me with unshaven faces. “A Beta,” they say.
I wonder if I should answer them. I back away. “My name is Kev.”
They come close. I can feel their hot breath. “You don’t belong here.”
They are right. I don’t belong anywhere. “My pardon. I am running an errand for the Bureau—” I don’t want to mention anything about the plague. What if Thrita is right? What if they think we are witches?
I don’t think these men have heard of the Bureau.
One of them grabs my neck and tightens his fingers.
My throat constricts. I cannot breathe. “Medicine!” I squeak. That’s what I was getting.
I flail about, waving my birdlike arms helplessly. With my fading sight, I see muscles rippling in the human’s arm.
I see a flash of metal. Please, not a sword, I whisper wordlessly.
Not a sword. A blunt metal pipe. In the haze, it could have been a relic.
I am on my knees. My head is throbbing. Dark blood runs down my face.
The metal pipe rattles like old bones.
Then I black out.
A traveling alchemist came to our colony twice a year and put on a show for the children. We sat cross-legged on the grass as he waved his arms and his twirling and shifting fountains of colored smoke enveloped the sky. The scent of sulfur hung heavy in the air.
The alchemist always asked us what we wanted to see. I wanted him to conjure a golden dragon spouting crimson fire and with a tail like a thunderbolt. But someone else had already asked him for a dragon that night. So instead I asked for a great ship.
“To sail the seas?” the alchemist asked.
“No,” I said. “To go to the stars. A ship large enough to take all the Beta home.”
He leaned closer to me, and I caught a whiff of rosewater and charcoal. The strands of his white beard were braided with jade-green beads. “No one can sail the stars,” he said. So instead he made a sailing ship, its prow dipping and rising on a glassy blue sea.
But I knew the ship was only an illusion. I thought: if this alchemist, with all his magic, can’t take us to the stars, then no one can. We never came from the stars, and we will never return there.
When the show ended, I asked the alchemist if he would teach me how to read. His name was Zelhorn, and he agreed.
Zelhorn and Thrita tend to my injuries.
“It could have been much worse,” Zelhorn says gently. “Two broken ribs. You lost a lot of blood. Your nose was smashed. It will never look quite the same. But you will live.”
Until the plague takes us all, I think.
That night, I take a candle and creep down the winding stair to the library. I put on a bird mask and its matching dark cloak; then I quietly descend the stair again. The disguise covers my disfigured face. I will wear it, but I will not be a doctor. Instead, I will run far from the humans and from the plague.
At the bottom of the stair, I see Zelhorn sitting in the dark by glass bottles of medicine under a torn canvas. His eyes are closed. He is rocking back and forth slowly; perhaps he is praying. He does not appear to notice me.
What does Zelhorn pray for anyway? I wonder. What good could it do? No god will save me. I must save myself. That’s why I must run away.
I reach the threshold. I touch the door.
“Where are you going Kev?” Zelhorn asks.
My hand jumps in surprise. I do not answer him.
He eyes my cloak and mask. “While I admire your desire to treat the stricken, you are still too weak. I must insist you return to bed.”
I ignore him, and open the door. The scent of rhododendron and rotting hay fills the night air.
“Kev,” says Zelhorn again.
I waver on the threshold. I think of all that Zelhorn has done for me, and the truths he has taught me. I think of my parents in the colony who still need my help, even though they do not want it and no longer trust me.
I close the door. I remove the mask and hurl it at the wall. The bird nose crumples in ruin and the glass eyepieces shatter.
“Do you know what I think about the doctors?” I say. “It’s a farce. A carefully choreographed tribal dance. No town wants to seem like it is giving up on its own. So it hires medicine men for a show with elaborate rituals that signify nothing. Everyone dies anyway, but they die with a clear conscience, thinking that they tried.”
Zelhorn sighs. He does not sound angry, even though those masks must have been expensive. “You may be right. But the towns are desperate to try anything, and becoming doctors gives the Beta a chance to fit in. We need such a chance. Maybe then, the humans will stop hating us.”
“The humans detest us because of who we are, no matter what we try to become,” I say. “They fear our birdlike appendages, our lizard tongues, the ghastly nooks above our foreheads, our pale faces. Those are things we cannot change.”
“Kev my boy, on this sphere, everything is subject to generation and corruption. We were born under the sky and stars, just like the humans. Change will come, in God’s own time.”
I care not for whether there is a God. I think only of the unchanging stars, from which we did not come, and to which we can never return. “Under the sky and stars,” I reply, “there is no hope and there are no gods. Not at least for the Beta.”
Zelhorn crosses himself. “Spare me your heresies,” he mutters, “and please go back to bed.”
The night before I left to become Zelhorn’s apprentice, Mother told me that she had touched the stars.
It was late, but I couldn’t sleep. I was practicing my reading with one of the texts that Father had copied. Mother approached quietly with a candle above her forehead and her knitting still in hand. She touched her tongue to mine before I could withdraw. The Beta need their traditions as much as they need the new learning, she was saying.
I tried to resist her; I wanted to shut her out of my mind. But I could not. Such is the strength of the bond between mother and child. “Talk to me,” I insisted. “Use words. Why must we always be different?”
Because we are different. I know so. I have touched the stars. I have heard their song. Someday I hope you will understand.
I just stared at her twisting tongue, her shaking hands, and the candle clenched above her forehead. She was alien to me.
Never forget, she pleaded, that we were once of the sky.
Yet how could I remember, when long ago we had forgotten what it meant?
Mother’s tongue retreated, her face a mask of calm. “Good night, Kev,” she said. “I love you always.”
I said nothing as she left.
When I was sure my parents were asleep, I slipped outside. I needed to be alone with the relics. I needed to touch them, to know the truth.
So I sat all that night in the cool darkness of the reliquary. In the dark, the relics did look otherworldly, like ancient dragons. As it grew later, their serpentine faces dripped with the blue light of the predawn. Perhaps in my excitement I even imagined a faint, tingling hum coursing through the cool flagstones.
But then the sun rose, as it always does. Light cascaded off the tall spire and glittered among the drab metal parts. The dragons breathed no fire. The relics were just old broken metal and no more.
I got up. My joints were stiff and numb. I reached out and patted a relic shaped like a trident. Nothing happened of course. Mother had been wrong. There was no way to touch the stars. “Goodbye,” I said aloud, perhaps to the relic. “I doubt we will meet again.”
Then I went home.
Scores of Beta flock from the colony to the Bureau—a sorry lot of rolling tongues and babbling voices.
“Adjust your mask like this,” says Zelhorn, helping a small female Beta with the strap.
“Burn the straw just so,” says Thrita, lighting a match.
The Beta listen attentively. They are learning how to be plague doctors.
I can stand it no more. I groan and sink to the floor, holding my tongue rigid in the air. “And then die like everyone else,” I say.
Silence. Everyone turns to me.
I get up and dust myself off. “Bubonic plague has no victors,” I explain. “Especially not its doctors. It spreads silently in the foul air. Few of you will survive, if any.”
Zelhorn and Thrita stare at me but say nothing to contradict me.
I ascend the winding stair. No one stops me.
But no one heeds me either. In three days, we give away seventeen costumes.
And the plague is still coming.
It took some time before I finally had the courage to tell my parents the truth about the stars.
I showed them the Almagest.
“What’s that?” asked Mother, eyeing the figures and diagrams suspiciously.
“It’s about the celestial spheres,” I replied.
Neither of my parents’ expressions gave any hint of recognition.
“It’s the structure of the heavens,” I explained. “We live on the terrestrial sphere. That’s the only sphere subject to generation and corruption—which means birth and death, being created and destroyed. Above our sphere is that of the moon. Then there’s a sphere for each of the planets, and one for the sun. Last is the sphere of the fixed stars. All of the spheres rotate, driven endlessly by the Prime Mover. The Christians call him God.”
“There’s no birth and death among the stars?” Mother asked.
“No,” I replied. “There can’t be. The stars aren’t made of matter—what we call the four elements. They are ethereal, made of quintessence.”
“Then how did we come from the stars?” she asked.
“The stars are not made of matter,” I repeated. “Imperfect terrestrial beings can’t exist in that sphere.”
“So the Beta never sailed the stars?” asked Mother, her voice quavering a little.
“Of course not,” I said.
Father started tending the fire with a poker even though it didn’t need tending. The years had been unkind to him. Gutenberg’s movable type had replaced relief printing. There was no more demand for woodcuts. Sometimes he sat alone in the shadows, caressing old woodcuts with his tongue as if feeling out the shape of the letters somehow helped him understand. “If we never came from the stars,” Father asked, “what are the relics?”
“Every Christian village has a relic, be it a fragment of the True Cross or a lock of Mary’s hair. They want tangible proof. It helps them keep the faith. Our relics are much the same.”
“I don’t think it’s the same,” said Father. “But I suppose you won’t believe anything unless it’s written in a book.”
Perhaps Father was right. I looked down at the Almagest again. Perhaps it was just like a relic to me. Yet unlike the Beta relics, I knew it told the truth.
Someone is knocking at the Bureau door. I am upstairs, stacking crates of ripe apples and tins of salted pork. We are not expecting any visitors this evening. “A minute,” I say as I descend the winding stair.
It is a Beta from the colony. He sells food. I think his name is Mika.
“Sorry Mika, we don’t need anything today,” I tell him.
But something is wrong. Mika just stands there. Then I notice that he is shaking.
“What is it Mika?” I ask.
He tries to answer, but he coughs, and blood dribbles from his mouth. He holds out his fingers. The tips are black and flaky. They smell of death.
Then I know that the plague has reached the colony.
I draw back behind the door and finger the handle. “I’m sorry Mika,” I say, almost in a whisper. “But the colony will need us more than ever when the plague is over. We must be here to render aid to the living.”
Zelhorn and Thrita stand beside me now, nodding sagely. I feel a twinge of anger. It is Zelhorn who brought the plague. Zelhorn and his schemes; Zelhorn with his bird doctors. But then I sag, and all the anger sails away. The time for recriminations has passed. I know that the plague would have come anyway.
Mika does not move.
I shut the door anyway. I think I can hear Mika clawing at it with his blackened fingers.
I hold my head in my hands.
“You must teach me to read,” said Father. “Perhaps I can work in the printing press.” Outside, gossamer dew glistened from new spring leaves.
In the shed, I found my alphabet primer, the one with the dragons and unicorns. Paint peeled from it in chunks of scarlet and amber.
“Are there truly dragons?” Father asked when he saw it.
“Far to the east,” I replied. “Marco Polo says so. But not here.” I paused. “But I wish there were.” Somehow I could not imagine that the Beta would suffer so in a world of dragons.
“Me too.” A shadow momentarily fell across Father’s face. Then he laughed. “But what am I saying? I have my family and my faith, and that is all I really need.”
Father hugged me awkwardly, and I wished that family and faith was all I really needed too.
“We are leaving, Lawyn and I,” Thrita tells me. His things are all packed. The bedroom we shared looks bare.
The rain had come at the end of summer, washing away the withered grass, drowning the plague and its miasma, banishing life and death together. Lawyn is one of the survivors who came to the Bureau after the plague. The plague made her an orphan. Thrita spends a lot of time with her now, even though she is half his age. I see them walking in the small herb garden, holding hands, touching tongues, laughing at private jokes.
“Where will you go?” I ask. I have forgotten there is a world beyond the Bureau.
“The others talk of founding a new colony further east, near Ruscombe. Lawyn and I are going with them.”
“I guess you will need to discover some new relics.”
Thrita laughs. I have never heard him laugh before. It is a throaty, scratchy sort of sound. “You know I don’t believe in all that. I’ll leave it to the others to carry on with the worship and the stories.”
Then how can you go with them? I say with my eyes. How can you go if you don’t believe?
Thrita is serious again. He puts a thin hand on my shoulder. He is worried about me. I can see it in his eyes. “Kev,” he says, “come with us. There is nothing left for you here.”
“I must wait for my parents,” I lie. By now I am sure they are not coming. I too am an orphan.
I hear Zelhorn muttering from the other room. “A mixture of mercury, horse manure, pearl, white alum, sulfur, clay, hair, and a couple of eggs,” he says. “What will I get?” Then he pauses, and I hear him clap his hands. “A good silver! But one can never be quite sure.”
He has been going mad for some time. “If I go,” I ask, inclining my head toward Zelhorn’s door, “who will take care of him?”
Thrita looks at me sadly. “He is beyond help.”
I know Thrita speaks the truth.
“We need to live our lives,” he adds.
I am sure he is thinking about Lawyn. She is his life now.
“Kev,” he says, “you need to live too.”
I think instead about the Almagest. Ptolemy and Aristotle are hard masters and bitter lovers. But they are right. The stars do not move. “My life is here,” I tell Thrita. But what do I have left to live for?
I watch them and the others depart, a drone of voices against an autumn-washed sky. There are strains of music—a flute, and a mandolin. Some Beta bear parcels wrapped in fine cloth. I think they are relics—meaningless relics of a past that never was.
Father never found a job at the printing press. I regularly sent my parents money from my earnings at the Bureau. But it never seemed to go very far.
Then I found the bottles under Mother’s bed, jumbled among the woodcuts of her parents.
Father just stood there, rolling his tongue from side to side helplessly.
“How come you never told me?” I accused.
“I didn’t want to upset you.”
“But it’s my money!”
“It’s also your fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“You killed her hope, Kev. She lived for the stars.”
“So she turned to human poison.” The irony was potent.
Father made a resigned motion with his hands. “We live among humans.”
Mother entered. She stood at a distance. I clenched my hands.
“Father’s wrong,” she said. “I never lost hope.” Then she smiled. “The stars still sing. I hear them all the time.”
She came close and put her hand against my cheek. I could smell the whiskey on her breath.
“They tell of broken promises. They call to me from beyond a wall of glass. Don’t they call to you too?”
I unclenched my hand, and reached upward to lay it on hers. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
She took my hand. “You are learned. Tell me, what does Beta mean?”
I didn’t understand. “It’s our name.”
“No my child. The word. Where does it come from?”
“It is the second letter of the Greek alphabet.”
Mother gave me drugged smile. “See? We don’t even have our own name anymore.”
I said nothing.
I find Zelhorn in bed and unfinished alchemy on his table. His beard and beads are askew. He is perspiring, and his face is contorted in pain.
“Water,” he gasps.
I give him water to drink. He sucks it out with his tongue, now nothing more than a yellowish-gray lump.
He grabs my arm. His grip is strong, but his fingers shake. “It’s time to go home,” he says, and he points toward the sky.
When he dies, I close his eyes.
I don’t know whether it was the plague that took Zelhorn. As a precaution, I decide burn his body anyway; it is the only sure way to stop the spread of the miasma.
I wrap his body in a musty sheet and take it outside. I cannot find kindling, but I need something that will burn.
I gather several books from my shelves and arrange a funeral pyre. I place Ptolemy’s Almagest on top. Then I light it. I sigh just once as the flames take hold. I think I will not be able to watch, but somehow I stand transfixed as flesh and paper alike singe, blacken, and blow to ashes beneath the autumn sky.
Thrita was right. I also need to live.
I do not weep for Zelhorn, or for my parents, who I am certain are dead. Instead I turn my mind to the immediate issue of survival. Supplies are running low. Perhaps I can scavenge something from the colony. In any event, I cannot stay at the Bureau now that Thrita is gone and Zelhorn is dead. Now my books are gone too. The emptiness will drive me mad. So I take a large sack and set off for the colony, for what used to be my home.
“We need a plan,” I told Father.
Mother had been getting worse. Her eyes always shone with the fire of drink.
When Father didn’t reply, I continued, “Zelhorn is an alchemist. He must have some remedy that will help her.”
Father’s tongue shook, and he pounded his fist on the wax stained table scored by years of making woodcuts. “I will not have that Beta in my home! I should never have let you study with him. His teachings have brought nothing but grief.”
“But his medicine might heal Mother.”
“Unless alchemy can set the course of the stars and mold the shape of the heavens, it will be of no help to her.”
“There is still a chance.”
Father turned to me. “Not this time, Kev.” I saw the despair and rage in his eyes. “You cannot undo what you have told us. So go! You do not belong here.”
I was stung by his words. “I will go,” I said quietly.
I did not return. I never saw my parents again.
The colony burns. Even as I approach, I can see the smoke beyond the line of trees. The humans have scoured the countryside, sacking and burning in their rage. With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I see that the colony did not escape their wrath.
I enter by the rotted gate. I lurch upon the charred cobblestones as the stench of putrefied flesh threatens to overtake me. Smoke rises like dark curtains, and steam erupts from fetid pools. A once gaudy sign reading “Provisions” flaps unhinged in the breathless wind. I crawl upon the hot ground, collecting what few supplies are left.
I find my parents’ home. It is warped and tilted, blackened and broken. I try to locate the bodies of my parents—or what is left of them. But I cannot. My insides revolt and I vomit on the pavement.
Then I cry out to whatever deity will have me.
My nausea passes. I make my way to what is left of the reliquary. Its unicorn-like spire has toppled and crushed the roof, and thatch and straw burn red-orange amid the ruined cobblestones. Then I see a piece of metal shaped like a trident, burning a sorcerous green.
I find a sliver of driftwood and push the metal from the fire. It must be one of the relics. Remarkably, it is still as pale as ever, burned but not consumed. It is covered with strange markings that I have never seen before. I cannot read them.
I put out my hand to touch the relic, but I hesitate, held back momentarily by the old superstitions. Banishing such thoughts, I feel the relic gingerly with my hand. It is the same as before. Nothing happens.
Then without thinking, I insert my tongue into the groove of one of the markings and let it run the length of the crevice.
There are a thousand voices pounding inside my head. Or is it more—tens of thousands, even millions? Each one is different, yet all are the same. It seems like they are chattering across a great distance. Frightened, I try to lift my tongue, but I cannot. I feel like I am being drawn upward through a great fissure—as if the sublunar sphere has cracked and I am ascending to the moon or beyond. I try to concentrate, or to breathe, but there is no way to focus.
The pounding grows tolerable. I breathe normally again. The voices. I cannot isolate them because they do not belong to individuals, but to a chorus. To understand them, I must make out the whole song. I concentrate. I note patterns, I discern harmonies. I think they are talking to me.
Images populate my mind. At first they are just a blur, appearing all at once, washing over me like a wave. Then the voices grow quieter, slower, almost melodious. The images flicker and still. I am drawn toward them.
Contact. I am standing on firm ground. The first things I notice are the trees—like alders, but full of dark fruit as heavy as eggplants. I look up. The sun is a deep, fiery crimson, dominating the entire sky. I know it is dying. We had to go, the voices say, it was time.
The picture changes. A fleet of silver ships adrift in inky blackness. Ten thousand vessels sailing in different directions, each headed for a different star. I hear the voices whispering: it was a splintering, a fracture. Most fell victim to the void. Only some made their way to other worlds.
I understand now. The voices are those of my people, but they are somewhere else, far away.
Where are you? I ask.
Scattered. We are of many worlds. What is your world?
Earth, I reply. They call us Beta.
We are always searching. The pieces of each ship still carry traces of our collective entity. We find each other by linking minds. But why have so few of you made contact?
We were afraid, I respond.
There is nothing to fear.
Will you come find us? I ask.
Now, there is no path. There are no more ships. But someday, we will come.
Then contact is terminated. I lift my shaking tongue and collapse on the burnt earth.
I writhe in and out of waking dreams. I ride a silver dragon through the ruined Aristotelian universe, darting in and out of shattered celestial spheres. Epicycles elongate and pulsate; planets are flung from their orbits like projectiles. The fixed stars escape into darkness; the Prime Mover travels backward and evaporates. I say a lament for the Almagest and its lies.
Then I am a block cutter. I chisel away at my greatest creation, only to discover when I am done that it is Father’s face jutting from the wood. “Tell me about the great ships and stars,” I beg of him, but the wooden face is mute. I ride on past, grasping vainly at nothingness.
Mother is here too. “Mother,” I say breathlessly, “I too touched the stars. I heard their voices. We share a great secret. We need not be afraid.” I want to touch my tongue to hers, to share secrets like we once did. But Mother does not listen. She weaves a thread so long that it could rein in the moon, and she hangs herself upon it. While her body dangles from the very heavens, her tongue grows long and dark and fat, then flies away on crystal wings.
Zelhorn’s face appears out of the gloom. “Kev, my boy, we were wrong. Alchemy was the answer all along. Its masters teach us that nothing is immutable, and no substance is as it seems. With the proper reagents, we can even remake the stars. Everything is subject to generation and corruption, both in this sphere and beyond.” His face begins to shift and dissipate, pulled apart by an unseen vortex. “See, even I am immaterial, subject to the winds of an ever-shifting fate.” As Zelhorn fades to nothingness, I hear him shout, “You must have faith in the future, although it is yet unseen.”
I try to follow, but I do not know where I am going. Instead I hear music, and I ride toward it. The Beta are singing among the remnants of the spheres. It is a great chorus that transcends distance and time, encompassing all the generations. I sing with them too, my voice rising and falling with the shattered stars. I think Mother, Father, and Zelhorn sing as well. Perhaps a part of them grazed the tip of the beyond and joined the mighty chorus. I do not know for sure, but I must have faith. For the first time, I feel like I belong.
I come to in the ruins of the colony. The day is ending; the red sun shines a path through smoky haze. As I sit among the dead and their ghosts, I finally allow myself to cry. I shed bitter tears upon what might be the ashes of my parents, until the tears and soot are mingled as one.
I clutch the relic to my breast, and voices rustle in my mind. Here of all places, amidst the dead, I have found new life. The relic carries with it a future yet to come, and I will be part of it.
I wrap the relic in the folds of my cloak. I pack water skins, salted meat, and pickled vegetables that I recovered from the colony. As I prepare to return to the Bureau, I look up at the sky. Twilight reigns in purplish grandeur. Then slowly the stars come out, like a carpet unfolding. I shoulder my pack and do not look behind, for the stars are all that I have left, and they will have to be enough.