A Short Story by David Barber
The Telling of Tales
On the anniversary of the Earth being lost, it was customary for the Storyteller to tell the tale of the three starships given to us by the gods.
Each year the audience dwindled, and those that came to listen were greyer than before. The Storyteller cleared his throat. He knew it was pointless waiting any longer, the young had abandoned history.
“There was a time once,” he began. “When Light forbade travel to the stars. But there was still a sun and moons and planets, and the best of the planets was Earth, and Light did not forbid travelling amongst these. But there were also clever gods who mocked Light, and wanted the stars for reasons of their own.”
This handed-down tale contained much that made the Storyteller frown. He’d taken to missing out the lines which blamed a woman named Pandora, and the farewell of the ancient silicon gods also felt like the work of a lesser hand.
We’re off, they’d said, apparently. But we’re leaving you some prototypes. Just for exploring, because we know you like that. Go anywhere in the blink of an eye. But no fiddling with them. Seriously.
“And the gods tested us with Three Starships and a Warning,” he concluded in the traditional manner.
The Tale of the First Ship
It was true that the craft could go anywhere in the blink of an eye. The acausal engine made about as much sense as anything else the gods did.
The first ship and its crew flitted here and there amongst the stars. So many suns, so many worlds, even some with life of sorts, their seas clogged with scum. Eventually there was a surfeit of wonders. What quantity of nebulas, moons and red giants is enough? The universe turned out to be mainly physics and hydrogen, and in the end they were glad to come home.
Other crews took the ship out to see for themselves, but it was always the same. The starship was too small for anything useful, and any add-ons stayed behind when the ship flitted away.
After a while, the ship languished in Earth orbit while people debated what to do with it.
The Tale of the Second Ship
There used to be a joke about a man given three wishes, and his first wish was for a beer mug that magically refilled itself. Wonderful, said the man. I’ll have another two of those.
Some thought having three starships was like that. So they took the second starship to the far side of the sun, safely away from Earth, and tried to understand how it worked. Their methodical research program ran for decades, carefully testing this and that, employing the best minds of a generation.
And we all know what happened.
The Tale of the Third Ship
The third ship was ours and we stumbled across aliens.
Flitting out to the Large Magellanic Cloud was a test (still the blink of an eye), but we heard the sudden blare of radio traffic. It was the chatter of sentients, a race that called themselves the Jirt.
Bursting with the news, we hurried home, only to discover the sun gone, the solar system gone, erased as far out as the orbit of Neptune, the distant Kuiper remnants scattering like a break at pool. Hadn’t we been warned not to tinker with things we could not comprehend?
So we swapped the third ship for a home with the Jirt, a refuge at the north pole of their world, where the heat was just bearable.
Humanity was given a test and failed. We few were all that remained.
A Tale of the Older Generation
The older generation were so few in number that the Storyteller could solemnly shake hands with every one of them, people he’d known all his life. Their parents had been the crew of the third ship and had survived momentous times, though in latter years a weariness had settled on them like dust. There was a bold new generation now.
The Storyteller sat sheltering from the afternoon rains when Arn happened to stride past. Perhaps it was the chance encounter it seemed, but neither could summon the other, nor wait on them without loss of dignity.
Surely the Storyteller had never been this angry and proud in his own youth.
“Have you decided on a new sacrifice yet?” Arn paused to ask.
It was true that Romar Japp had volunteered, but the frail old man had died in his sleep, and now the elderly were prevaricating over the drawing of lots.
The Storyteller had a memory of his father standing up at a meeting. This was after the Treaty With The Jirt, when they’d ceded us this island in exchange for the third starship. In time though, the native flora and fauna had proved to be lacking vital nutrients, and we were forced to go begging again.
His father had called the meeting because the Jirt had demanded deaths in return for their help. Protesting the wrongness of this did not matter, his father had insisted, and the crowd had fallen silent. The Jirt were not human. Perhaps this was how a society of fierce predators was managed. It was one life weighed against the end of humankind. And if they would not draw lots, then he must volunteer.
“Are you listening?” Arn interrupted, impatient as always. “You know they’ll be here soon. Choose, or I will.”
At night, the home galaxy loomed over them.
In the darkness, Joma was chanting her prayers, disturbing the Storyteller’s sleep. The lottery had chosen her today, only for her husband, Harri, to offer himself instead. In the end, Chen had stepped forward.
“They would still be trying to save each other,” shrugged Chen when the Storyteller spoke to him afterwards.
Chen and the Storyteller had never been friends, though both had lost their wives in childbirth – women always pregnant, knowing they must breed before it was too late – but loss had clenched Chen like a fist.
It occurred to the Storyteller that the man resented him for not volunteering. But his task was to keep their history safe, even though the young were making their indifference clear.
Joma held onto a hope that the First Ship had escaped. Wasn’t her reprieve proof she would be rescued? A ship would drop from the skies, and there would be human faces at the hatch, beckoning them to a cool green world. Or something. The Storyteller was not a believer himself.
Harri would tell you it was the silicon gods that were coming. Humans might have failed their test, but when we had suffered enough, the gods would forgive us.
The Jirt homeworld had no moon and nights were dark, but the Storyteller heard Arn’s angry voice close by.
“Is everyone prepared?” Arn was demanding of somebody. “Because we only get one chance.”
The Storyteller peered into the darkness. There were answering voices, though too faint to make out. The days when he was consulted about things were long gone. And now people mumbled instead of speaking plainly.
This is what it is to grow old.
A Tale of the Next Generation
The young men were practising with their bows. They put arrow after arrow through the slim trunks of feather trees, an obscure contest played out with shouts and jeers. The winner swaggered to retrieve arrows.
In the blink of an eye we have gone from starship crew to hunter-gatherers, the Storyteller thought. These young folk were strangers to him.
Those in Arn’s inner circle imitated him by also severing the top joint of a little finger. The Storyteller shook his head. Their numbers were so few that later generations would have no choice but to marry relatives. After the rain, the day always grew hotter and more humid, so it was his habit to take a short rest.
He was startled awake by voices. A Jirt airship droned across the sky, leaving a trail of smoke. The Storyteller roused himself to warn Chen, but the man was already limping towards him. The two stood in silence, watching the airship come in to land.
Arn waved youths forward to secure the anchor lines, and when the rotors stopped, Jirt shuffled down a ramp, muffled in cumbersome cold-weather gear. Evolved in the fiery tropics, this latitude was arctic to them.
The Storyteller considered thanking Chen for his sacrifice, but the moment came and he could not bring himself to speak. He heard the man murmur something, a name perhaps, before he limped forward. Chen let his stick fall and drew himself up straight, gazing at the sky, his throat bared.
The silence lengthened and the Storyteller found himself wishing they would get it over with, a terrible thing to wish.
The Jirt leader struck, then stepped back. They found us distasteful and never touched the kill. Every year this was how it was.
The Storyteller made it his duty to witness each sacrifice, and this evening he would tell Chen’s story as best he could. Perhaps all the stories he told now would be at funerals.
Young men began unloading the cargo, stepping round Chen’s body and its spreading pool of blood. The Jirt crew waited motionless, lethargic at temperatures where water did not sizzle on rocks at noon.
There was some sort of disagreement. Arn pointed at the growing heap of containers and drew the Jirt symbol for tools in the dirt. It seemed there were supplies missing again. The Jirt leader made a careless gesture and turned away.
The Storyteller saw it all. Arn did not become angry, he simply said now, and brought down his arm like a blade. The Jirt crew sprouted arrows, and young men fell upon them with knives and axes.
There was only one human casualty. In its death throes, the serrated forelimb of a Jirt disembowelled a youth named Jak.
“What have you done?” cried the Storyteller.
Arn was spattered with yellow blood. “It is called freedom. You would not understand.”
“This is madness.”
“We will leave you supplies. Then we take the airship.”
The Storyteller was dumbstruck.
“They won’t retaliate,” Arn added, misunderstanding.
“Against their tame humans. They still believe you withhold the secret of star travel.”
He waved people aboard the airship. “We will collect food supplements again next year.”
“They’ll come after you.”
“And we will kill them.” Arn bared his teeth. “They find this land hard. They would do best to forget us, but it is not in their nature.”
The Storyteller watched women and children filing up the ramp. It seemed all the younger generation were going.
“You planned this.”
Arn was busy giving orders. How naturally it came to him. “Yes?”
“Then why did you let them kill Chen?”
Arn stared at the old man, puzzled. “We do not break the Treaty, even if the Jirt no longer respect it. They treat you like defeated foe. Like prey. We needed to grow strong before we struck back.”
He shrugged. “Besides, they only took the old and weak.”
They had learned more form the Jirt than from their own parents.
Arn was the last to board. He looked around him, then pushed a Jirt body off the ramp with his foot. It rolled to rest near Chen in a tangle of limbs.
“You never understood them,” Arn said finally. The rain had begun again, drumming on the swollen covering of the airship. The Storyteller could hardly make out what he was saying.
“When the Jirt come, tell them we are not prey. When we have killed enough of them, they will learn to honour us. Tell them the Treaty is between equals. Tell them that.”
Editor’s Note: David has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award by this publishing house.