Sunday, November 29, 2009

Common Words #9: Tranquility's Prologue

Tomorrow, National Novel Writing Month comes to an end, and today, there are doubtless thousands of people racing to slam out those last few hundred or few thousand words before the clock strikes 23:59. I participated in NaNo in 2006 and was one of those writers that brushed up against the deadline. My story, "Tranquility," was incomplete and got steadily worse, in my opinion, the further it went from the beginning. Some fragments of it are, however, serviceable - I've already posted one, a couple of months ago.

Today, what I'm posting is the first scene of the story, about 4,000 words that I wrote in the space of a day. At the time, it was extremely energizing. I don't think I ever hit that peak again. Also - I wouldn't describe Luna as having "jagged" terrain anymore.

Tranquility's Prologue
by Andrew Barton

Kyoko Kuznetsova felt the dusty regolith crunch beneath her boots as she kneeled to pray. The silence was unbroken, the tranquility perfect, and she let her words flow like a rushing river in a thirsty valley. Above her the stars painted constellations of unbroken splendor, and no matter how often she saw the sight she knew that it would never cease to fill her with awe.

The view around her was equally inspiring. To her left and right fellow shrinekeepers knelt in quiet reflection, and a phalanx of a congregation stood on the smoothed-out rocks behind her. The moment of personal prayer would be the only time during the service that she didn't face them. They were all in uniform vaccsuits, though none rivalled the degree of artistry with which Kyoko had decorated her own.

Only a handful, Kyoko thought. Nothing next to the crowds on Landing Day. Then again, society expected people to pay their respects on the anniversary. Only the diehards and true believers made the trip out to the shrine when there wasn't any special significance to the date.

Beyond them, the rugged, rambling landscape of Luna stretched all around. Jagged hills and cyclopean boulders cast shadows that might have been reflections of the sky, from the depths of their blackness. The hard, grey eminence of the land was not troubled by the works of civilization. The shrine itself was half an hour's walk distant, and even that seemed too close an intrusion on the sacredness of the place.

When she finished whispering her prayers, her body was lighter and her soul was energized, eager to face whatever challenges would come. Before she turned her attention back to the congregation, her gaze lingered on the spindly, spider-like legs and gold-foil body of the lander. It had been perfectly preserved since coming to rest so long before, first by the endless serenity of the land and later by Kyoko and her fellow shrinekeepers.

She couldn't ignore that it was incomplete. She had seen the old photographs time and again from the corridors of Krasnaya to the cloisters of the chapel, and what had been left behind was far lesser than the majesty of the whole. The frozen flag nearby stood as tall and proud as the day it had first been planted, but Kyoko often wondered if Tranquility Base was the only place where men and women still venerated that star-spangled banner.

"Men and women of Luna," Kyoko said, turning to the congregation. As the senior shrinekeeper present, and an accomplished student of the rites besides, the honor and duty of leading the service fell to her. "On this day, we are gathered here to pay our respects to those who came before us, to those who labored so that we can today remember their deeds."

The sea of faces was downcast, eyes fixed firmly on the lunar soil. None were tapping their heads, relieving the spectre of a recalcitrant radio from her thoughts. She'd found few things that could destroy the sacred atmosphere of Tranquility Base like an ill-timed malfunction.

"We have been through much anguish together, yet through the experience of our shared adversity we have been forged into greater examples of our kind," Kyoko continued, her arms spread wide. "Humanity is vital and strong. Luna has taught us strength, and fortified with that strength we find ourselves imbued with the wisdom of the universe and its architects."

In the past, some pilgrims had expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Tranquility Base services were conducted. In Kyoko's view, there was no room for a shrinekeeper to name heavenly names. Most of the Christian churches were under a united roof now, but the people of Luna did not bend their knees to the Holy Trinity alone. Tranquility Base, as far as she was concerned, was a place where every man and woman could find their own path to enlightenment.

"We must remember that this place is more than just a shrine, and that this lander is more than a simple machine," Kyoko said, motioning towards the silent descent stage of the Lunar Module. "This place is where the gap was bridged for the first time, and this lander was the ark that made it so. Just as Noah and Utnapishtim and Deucalion survived the floods that drowned all that they knew, so too have we survived."

She cast a glance upward, and the congregation followed her eyes. Blue, cloud-wreathed, silent Earth hung half in shadow, its night side scarcely brighter than the endless depths of space. From where she stood the planet seemed frozen in the firmament. For a moment she was again that little girl brought out on the surface for the first time, and the whole of that blue world seemed like something she could pluck out of the sky like a fruit from a low-hanging branch.

There's so much we don't know, Kyoko thought. The same thoughts rang throughout the corridors of her mind every time her eyes fell upon Earth. So much we've lost. If only we could hear something, just one word, even. Eighty years of silence is almost too much to bear.

Fortunately, Kyoko only entertained those thoughts when she had an opportunity to really think, to ponder outside the usual limits of her attention. In her day-to-day life, as it was for most of her fellow Loonies, Earth was just the world above. The ones like her, who had been born in Luna, could sometimes forget that men and women had once laughed and prayed and sung under its blue skies, and that it had been a home for all humanity.

Forty days and forty nights, she mused. At least those animals had warm air above and solid ground below. Sometimes I wonder if the waters will ever recede.

"Today, we stand strong, and today we stand free," Kyoko said. "Your sacrifices have made that strength and freedom possible. Keep that in your thoughts, and our people will remain an example of the best that humanity can achieve. God be with the Republic, and God be with you all."

The congregation applauded at that, and though there was no sound Kyoko drank down the feelings of adulation regardless. Appeals to patriotism always won the crowd, and with the Directorate rattling its sabre over the Imbrium question again, Kyoko wasn't inclined to shy away from an opportunity to boil some blood.

She turned and prostrated herself before the lander for a moment before returning to her appointed place with the rest of the shrinekeepers. Julian Nyariki, one of the new reverends from Krasnaya, stepped in to take her place in front of the lander. He was a tall, lanky reed of a man, and though his ancestors had come from Africa he had the same coffee-toned skin that had become predominant among Loonies. Earthbound ethnicities were little more than curiosities to Kyoko's generation.

Kyoko was thankful for her own aged-papyrus shade, just different enough that she didn't completely blend in with the rest. The prospect of vanishing within a crowd had never been comforting to her. She supposed that was why she'd been so eager to follow her dreams at Tranquility Cathedral.

Nyariki spoke at length about living a virtuous life. Kyoko had heard the sentiment enough that she didn't need to listen to the words, and they flowed smoothly around her as if she was a rock in the middle of a calm river. She dialed the radio speaker's volume down so that Nyariki's words were barely more than a buzzing in her ears, closed her eyes and communed with the universal symphony.

Even on a dead world like Luna she could feel the pulse of life. Three hundred thousand souls from horizon to horizon left a mark in the aether that she couldn't ignore. Though it was comforting to feel its presence, she couldn't shake the thought that the currents of lunar magic were nothing but streams compared to what had been. On Earth there had been billions of people and a green and thriving biosphere, but in Luna there was only that which men and women had carved from the rocks.

When the time came for the congregation to break and return to Tranquility Cathedral, Kyoko almost rocked back on her heels, scarcely aware of how she could have lost track of time. The hike back typically drove the pilgrims to grouse, but Kyoko revelled in it. It was a time for her thoughts to wander unencumbered by the concerns of day-to-day reality. There was only her and the starlit peace.

"Hey, Kyoko," said a voice crackling through her speaker. It was Pyotr, one of the newer shrinekeepers, a young, sallow-faced fellow from New Luna City who'd latched onto her like an unsuited man in a decompressed airlock. "I just wanted to say that I thought your benediction was great. Really something awesome to hear."

"Thank you for that, Pyotr," Kyoko said, making sure that they were on an independent channel. She wasn't a fan of broadcasting every word she spoke for the world to hear. "I try to find the words that'll hit the hardest. Otherwise there's not much point in doing it."

"No, no there's not," Pyotr said. He was silent for a moment, in what Kyoko took to be a moment of reflection. "That's the most important thing, it is. Getting across the significance of something. Everything happens for a reason."

"I used to believe that," Kyoko said. She shifted into a matronly schoolteacher's tone almost unconsciously, but she couldn't ignore that Pyotr's education wasn't quite complete, the way she saw things. "I can understand how it's comforting, but it just doesn't ring true for me anymore. Not after I've seen what I can see from here."

Pyotr's eyes went up to Earth without any further prompting. She could tell that he didn't see it the same way she did. Too many Loonies looked at Earth without really considering it, dismissing it like endless earthbound generations must have dismissed Luna throughout history. It wasn't really real to them, and the way some of them spoke, it might has well have been a painting hung from the constellations.

"It's too much to think about," Pyotr said, finally bringing his eyes back to the world again. "Too much to really consider. It's the kind of thinking that seems like it'd drive you to madness if you give it half a chance."

"It would indeed, Pyotr," Kyoko said. "But it's the kind of madness that's necessary. If we allowed ourselves to forget what happened, things would be far worse. Without the touchstones and remembrances, what do we have?"

She kneeled down and scooped up a handful of dust. Though the surface itself was solid, meteoroid impacts and, more recently, civilized agents had helped kick up a loose layer of dust that clung to the surface. It was black against the bright white of her vaccsuit, as dark as she imagined the void between the galaxies must be.

"We're more than this dust, Pyotr," Kyoko said, speaking in a soft but firm tone that was meant to bring the lesson home. "We can't forget that we have a duty beyond us, beyond Luna. We owe it to those who will come ahead of us and those who went behind to work towards a greater humanity, and we can't do that if we lose sight of what we have lost and will one day regain."

"That's... interesting," Pyotr said with a whistle. She ventured an unspoken guess that he'd never had the situation explained so directly. "Have you ever considered using that as one of your benedictions?"

"Pyotr, Pyotr," Kyoko said with a smile, "what do you think my benedictions are, if anything other than to figure out how to say the same thing in a hundred different ways? That's the real challenge of being a shrinekeeper. I'm surprised they didn't tell you about it in so many words."

They probably didn't want to scare him away, Kyoko thought. Pyotr had something of a natural timidity about him, and she wondered if it came from spending a life in the great urban warrens, seeing the sky about as often as a medieval noble had bathed. Tranquility might be a desirable state of affairs in theory, but in practice it seemed as if it bred fears where none had been before.

Kyoko lifted her eyes to the sky. Sometimes she worried for the future.


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