The Man Who Watched the Stars’, Carol Holland March

Illustrations © 2014 Cécile Matthey



 [ Arrival of Paris, © 2014 Cécile Matthey ] A silver ship rose straight up from beyond Alamogordo toward the upper atmosphere. I watched it from my kitchen window. Only a few Tenarian ships were stationed at the base across the desert and it was rare to see one take off. I turned to tell Josh, but he had gone outside and was standing at the railing of the deck. Out of uniform, he looked like an ordinary man, tall and stocky, still handsome even with the deep lines around his mouth. I went out to join him. From the way he held his shoulders, I knew he wasn’t ready to sit down.

“How long since you talked to him?”

He shaded his eyes and squinted. “How long have I been here?”

“Since yesterday.” After getting his frantic call as I was packing to join Karl in Switzerland, I took the flyer and picked him up in the California desert near his base. What else can you do when the father of your only child tells you he’s in trouble?

On our way back to New Mexico, we passed Zabriskie Point where we had camped when we were first married. Where we made love in a tent and nearly froze. Our eyes met as we flew over it, so I knew he remembered, but it seemed like at least a thousand years ago. When we got back to my house, he fell asleep on my couch and didn’t move for sixteen hours.

He tried to smile. “Two days ago, they put me under house arrest until I signed the papers letting them off the hook.”

“He’ll contact you.”

“If he can. This silence is worse than all the crap the brass threw at me.”

“Josh, has it occurred to you that they’ve had time to figure out where you are? It’s no secret that we’re friends. You. Me. Karl.” None of us were low profile. Karl was a senior aerospace engineer with the Terran Exploration Service. I met Josh when I was assigned as his co-pilot on the Luna run.

“You don’t think they’re looking.” He sounded bleak.

“I’m easy to find. So is everyone else you know.”

“The threats could have been a bluff. They’re scared I’ll go public with the big secret about what the jump does to pilots.”

“I can’t believe they’d put you in jail.” Not the most famous astronaut on the planet, the one who had made the first jump out of the solar system.

“Not jail. A hospital. Very private.”

It was hard to take in. Josh a prisoner because he’d survived the first hyperspace jump as co-pilot with a Tenarian. With all that now implied.

“Have you talked to Karl?”

“He calls. I haven’t told him anything.”

“Paris knows I’d come here if I could. I gave him the coordinates.”

“He’ll find you.”

He bit his lip.

“Why don’t you go for a walk? Work off some of that tension.”

He looked out at the sand and mesquite stretching to the horizon. Nothing moved in the late afternoon heat. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

“You have your phone.”

He closed his eyes. “I expected him to…”

“Fly in?” I was joking, but as his face tightened, I realized that was exactly what he did expect. “I didn’t know he had a ship that small.”

“A shuttle. He could land it here.”

When I put my arm around his waist, he tensed. “He’ll contact you,” I said and hoped that I wasn’t lying.

He pressed his lips against my temple. “I'll try that walk. Did you know Tenara is a desert planet?” Then he was gone, down the long flight of wooden stairs that led to the graveled area in back of the house.

As I rattled around fixing dinner, I knew he was hiking out of sight of the house so he could watch the first stars appear. On Earth, he always watched the stars. When we were first married, we lived in a tiny house in Palmdale, and every night we sat in the backyard and watched the stars blink on. When we made love on our tiny patch of grass that I had to water every day to keep alive, I felt that distant light drawing him away from me. It was one of the things we fought about. He was gone a long time, and when he re-appeared, he looked as lost as a person can who is still walking and talking.

“You have to eat,” I said after he sat staring at his food for about five minutes. “I thought you liked Thai.”

He stabbed at a piece of chicken. “I do. It’s good. When did you learn to cook?”

“After we broke up. Michael didn’t appreciate a mother who couldn’t make cupcakes for his class.”

“I haven’t heard from him in months. I was hoping he might be somewhere close.”

“He’s in Kenya. He went back to the clinic. He left when you were off-planet.”

“I’ve been a lousy father. I want you to know I’m aware of that.”

“Michael adores you. He just doesn’t know what to make of you.”

“No one does.” He looked over my head toward the window. “Listen, Tess, if they arrest me, there will be plenty of time to explain this to him, but if they don’t, things are going to move fast.”

I had never seen him so vulnerable, but all the same, my anger rose. “You have to tell me, Josh.”

He pushed away from the table and went out to the deck. I finished my wine and joined him. We sat on the old Adirondack chairs and looked up at the stars the way we used to.

His hand found mine. “It happened on the first trip. It was a test run. No passengers. Just Paris and me in the command section. You’ve seen the pictures.”

I nodded, remembering the media coverage of the first flight out of the solar system. A the time, it had seemed like a circus.

“You know how much I wanted to make the jump. When the Tenarians offered us the technology, I was the first guy in line. It’s what I was born to do, I always knew that, so I never asked about the consequences. Only, how does it work? And I saw Tenara. Briefly.” In the moonlight, he looked like his famous pictures.

“You never said what it was like.”

“I didn’t see much. We orbited for a few hours. Tenara is pretty empty, but there’s an inland sea surrounded by thick forests. That didn’t get much press. I guess the image of a desert planet is more exotic. They’ve engineered how to use the water they have, and they’re not overpopulated, so it works. I saw cities. Three or four, although Paris said there are more. The buildings looked like white domes arranged in concentric circles around green areas that he said were parks.”

“And that’s where you want to be?”

He laughed, an unpleasant sound. “I’d like to see it up close. Do I want to live there? Not really. There’s plenty of things I’d rather do if I had a choice.”

“What if you went back to piloting the Luna route?” As soon as the words were out, I knew I had overstepped.

His lips compressed. “You mean, if I behave myself, maybe they’ll forgive me for being the first guy to jump out of the solar system?” He rose and stalked to the other side of the deck.

I took a chance. “I don’t want to lose you.” When he didn't respond, I looked over my shoulder. He was leaning on the wooden railing, looking up.

“You and me, Tess, we’re alike.” His voice was hoarse. “We’re scientists. We solve problems, like we were trained to do. That’s what we’re good at. This is something else.”

“Tell me what it is.”

“The jump changed me. I told you about Paris, and you’re the only one who hasn’t had some damned judgment to make. Not that I’ve told that many people.” He exhaled as he came and sat beside me. Now I was staring at the stars.

“I thought it was a fluke at first. Some kind of buried impulse. Which would have been fine. But after the same thing happened to two other teams, we knew it was the jump that was doing it. They huddled about it for over a month. Then, last week, they fired us all. Ordered all three Tenarian pilots off Earth. When they jump again, I’d bet real money only women will be in the co-pilot seats. At least until Tenara sends us some female pilots.”

“That’s ridiculous. We’re not living in the dark ages.”

“Tessa.”

“What?” I was crying and furious.

“You remember what the military’s like. You’ve seen the Tenarians.”

I had. On the vids. “What’s the difference? Your feelings are real. I can’t believe something couldn’t be worked out.”

He shook his head. “Astronauts in love. It doesn’t play.”

“When does Paris have to leave?”

He swallowed. “Soon. The Tenarians don’t like conflict. They will comply.”

“What about the other co-pilots?”

“I can’t reach them.”

“You’re worried.”

He rose and started to pace. “Of course I’m worried. About Michael. About you. But the truth is, and God help me for saying it, mostly I think about what will happen if he doesn’t show up.”

I knew then that he was lost to me.

All the hope that had bloomed on Earth with the strange, friendly aliens who claimed to be long-lost relatives offering us technology we had only dreamed about came down to this. Josh and Michael and me. Two of us sitting on my deck in the middle of the night. One of us expecting to be arrested.

The Tenarians had been with us for three years, and it had taken much of that time for them to learn our languages, for not enough of us could learn their telepathy. I remembered how many psychics had volunteered to try to communicate with them. I supposed a few had been successful, for all the active astronauts were tested for telepathy when the Tenarians said they were ready to show us the drive. Even so, from what had transpired, it seemed the nuances of human speech had eluded them.

Josh and I looked at each other across endless space.

“He’ll come.”

“You don’t hate me?”

“Never. But I would like to hear about that jump.”

He looked pale in the moonlight. I thought he was going to stay silent, but then he started talking, without looking at me. “They shield the passenger compartments of their ships with an insulating material from Tenara that blocks the effects of the jump so only the pilots experience it. That’s how pervasive it is.” He sighed. “As soon as the Tenarian drive kicked in and we went into hyperspace…” He stopped, remembering. “It’s funny, I knew from the first moment that my old life had ended. It was that intense. The mistake everyone made was thinking the drive was the key, but the real skill is with the pilots. The Tenarian drive bends space, just like we thought, but without the pilot's input, we’d end up who knows where? The Tenarians are amazing navigators. They do it all with their minds.”

“Do you know how?”

He shook his head. “I did, but now it’s faded. Then, during the jump, all the signs that told me who I was, vanished. It was like dissolving. And we—Paris and I—we became one person. Somehow, we blended together. Our atoms interpenetrated, which doesn’t make any sense, but I swear it happened. I could see through his eyes. I saw the cosmic gates the Tenarians use to navigate. I saw the huge complexity of space that our human minds can’t perceive. For those few moments, we became something else. And that’s what the jump is. That’s what nobody understood. It was like riding on a huge ocean wave.

“When Paris found the right gate, he did something with his mind, and the wave crashed. I don’t know how, but I guided the ship through. It felt like I held the whole damned ship in my arms. Like everything was inside me. And then we were through the gate and circling Tenara, just like we orbit Luna or Mars.”

He looked to the east where the first hint of dawn would light the mountain ridge. “It was humbling.”

The reverence in his voice didn’t sound like him.

“When we separated, I remembered what it was like to be him, and he remembered what it was like to be me. When he told me the change was permanent, I didn't care.” He shrugged. “Didn’t even object. I’ve never felt anything that came close to it. We can’t, as long as we’re stuck in our separate bodies. It was… well… I guess I don’t have the words.”

I reached for his hand. “It sounds perfect.”

“You do get it.” He sounded relieved.

“Maybe a little.”

“Thanks, Tess.” He yawned and slid down in his chair. I didn’t say anything else. He had never told me how his bond with Paris had happened, and it was a lot to take in. I looked at him and saw that he was falling asleep. When his eyes closed, I left him there and went to bed. When I came downstairs the next morning, he was sprawled on Karl’s big chaise.

I started the coffee, and was thinking about making an omelet, when Josh called out with an urgency in his voice that propelled me to the door with a dishtowel in my hand. He stood at the railing, still and rigid, staring up at the pale blue sky.

“Something’s coming.”

I dropped the towel and opened the door. A black speck was descending from the south. It could be anything. A chopper from the base or a medical evac shuttle. Josh’s right arm closed around my shoulders. His gaze didn’t waver from the black speck. When it resolved into an elliptical shape without a propeller, his nails dug into my arm.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“It has an internal engine. Very light. Only good for short distances.”

The craft was constructed of a dark blue material that sparkled in the sun as it landed on the sand a hundred yards away. Josh’s breathing was audible. The door to the craft opened. A tall, dark-clad, hooded figure emerged. Josh grabbed the wooden railing with both hands.

This was it. I had never met a Tenarian. I had never greeted an alien who was my ex-husband’s lover. Then I got a taste of Tenarian telepathy as a gentle whisper settled into my mind. A greeting.

“Is that Paris?” Such an odd name, but all the Tenarians had chosen names from Earth’s literature when they realized humans could not pronounce their language. Their primary spokesperson called himself Cyrano.

Josh flashed me the familiar grin I remembered from our youth. “I’ll go down.”

I raised a hand to answer the greeting. “Does he like coffee?”

Josh hadn’t heard my question. He ran down the stairs and across the graveled area onto the sand. The dark figure stood still. When Josh reached him, they faced each other. Josh must have mastered telepathy, for neither of them seemed to speak. The Tenarian was so much taller, Josh looked like a child beside him. When he raised a hand and pushed back the hood, revealing his long narrow face, translucent white skin, and frizzy white hair hanging past his shoulders, I inhaled.

 [ Arrival of Paris, © 2014 Cécile Matthey ] Whenever I saw a Tenarian’s face on a vid, it surprised me. Humanoid, the media said. Besides the fact that Tenarians had two arms, two legs and the same external sensory organs we do, they do not look like relatives. Yet when they speak, they sound like very formal humans.

After Paris removed his hood, Josh moved closer. The Tenarian lowered his head. Josh raised his. Their foreheads met in a gesture so intimate that I turned away to check on the coffee I didn’t think anyone would want.

Paris had to duck to enter the house. He extended his six-fingered hand. It felt cold. I noticed the long, dark-silver fingernails, the etched gold rings on every finger.

“Thank you for helping Joshua,” he said in that slow, formal speech.

“Please sit down. What can I offer you to drink?”

He looked at me with huge yellow eyes that made me shiver. “I have grown accustomed to your coffee.”

I brought the cups, and we all sat at the kitchen table. Josh and Paris were looking at each other so intently I could almost hear the words passing between them.

“We were concerned about you,” I said.

Paris turned his yellow eyes on me. “I have made a…” He looked at Josh.

“Bargain,” Josh supplied. “He refused to leave until they agreed to let me choose,” he said to me.

My hands were trembling. “I believe in choice.”

“My family thanks you,” Paris said.

“Your family?”

Paris nodded. “On Tenara, we live in family units. When a permanent partnership is created, the family… rejoices.” He closed his eyes as he translated his thoughts. “When I came here, I did not pilot the ship because I was not yet attached. We hoped that partnership between humans and Tenarians would renew the ancient bond. We… diverged from you long ago, but never… forgot. It was… joy to find your species again.” He looked down at the red tablecloth. “Dissension was not intended.”

“Of course not.” The Tenarians were, by all accounts, a peaceful and collaborative race. “But I have wondered if you knew what would happen when you accepted humans as co-pilots.”

Paris bowed his head. “We did not comprehend your culture or language enough to… predict the… concerns. To us, it is normal.”

“The word translated as ‘partner’ was the problem,” Josh added.

The force between them was palpable. I went to the window. The little blue ship sparkled in the sunlight. When I looked back, they were staring at each other again.

“I will miss him. As will our son.”

With a visible effort, Paris looked away from Josh. “A solution… is possible. I offer you and your son passage to Tenara. The ship leaves tomorrow but there is time to find your son. There would be no danger. The jump affects the two pilots only. I would be… honored by your presence. You would be… esteemed members of my family.”

His words ricocheted in my head. Michael loved being a doctor. He had never left Earth. He had never even taken a shuttle to Luna. I thought of Karl and the life we had built together. It wasn’t passionate, the way Josh and I had been, but it was real. When tears gathered in my eyes, I ran out the door onto the deck.

The screen door had barely slammed when Josh’s arms enfolded me. I buried my face in his shirt.

“It’s a lot to take in. And there isn’t much time, but if you came it would be…”

“What are you saying? You want me to climb into a space ship and go live on another planet so you don’t have to feel bad about leaving?”

“That’s not why.”

“Oh, shut up, Josh. This is hard enough.”

I pulled away and stood at the railing that faced north so I couldn’t see the shuttle. I didn’t have to look to know that Paris was at the door. When my breathing slowed, I faced Josh. “I love you. I always have. But I have a life. A career. A husband. And Michael loves his work. He would never leave Earth.” I turned to Paris. “I appreciate the gesture, but we cannot come.”

He nodded and retreated into the kitchen.

Josh took my hands. “I didn’t know passengers were an option. It was more likely that he wouldn’t come at all.”

“I realize that, Josh.”

“Tess?” He was asking for something. Forgiveness. Absolution. Damn you, I thought. But it was all I had to give.

“Why don’t you call Michael? Let him hear your voice before you go.”

His face cleared. “I’ll do it now.” He sat on the chaise and dialed the number. I watched a jackrabbit elude a hawk. Then Josh was touching my shoulder. “He’s traveling to another clinic. No way to reach him until tomorrow.”

I turned to face him. “I can’t explain all this myself. Go inside and make a recording. I’ll call him and then I’ll send it to him.”

He looked relieved again. “Thank you.”

“If there’s any way to let us know you’re okay, you will, right?”

“Promise. If I can’t use the regular channels, I’ll find a way to contact Karl.”

I smiled at the thought of Karl explaining to the Secretary why he was getting private communications from Tenara. “Go out the front. I’m going to stay here.”

He embraced me. His chest was hard against my face, his scent strong. “This isn’t good-bye. When the fuss dies down, I’ll come for a visit. Maybe you’ll come to Tenara.”

“Sure. I love to travel.”

He kissed me once, hard, like he used to. Then I was alone. The door slammed.

I leaned against the rough textured outer wall and closed my eyes.

The screen door creaked.

Paris was there. Did I imagine that the yellow eyes were sad?

He extended his cool white hand. “Thank you.”

“Be careful. He is the father of my son.”

“He is… beloved.”

“Of course. But be careful.”

“I guard him with my life.”

“Godspeed. To both of you.”

He made the odd stilted bow that seemed to signify deep feeling among the Tenarians. Then they were both gone. The silent house felt suddenly alien.

When the blue shuttle rose straight up into the clear desert morning, I watched as it climbed into the cloudless sky and headed south. After it arrived at its destination, a silver ship would carry them to a place I would probably never see. I watched the shuttle until it was just a black speck in the vast sky, and even after it disappeared, I watched a little longer.


© 2014, Carol Holland March

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