It's a Big Universe Pt.4
"Think about it like a video game." Terran taps the screen in front of Jace to swing the picture around. "This is a simulation."
"But it's not a simulation," Jace grumbles, clearly not actually upset. He's bouncing in his seat, eager to start. "Do you do this manually?"
"Not usually. Only when the surface I'm landing on is fluxuating and it's tricky for the ship's sensors to pick up the exact shape of the surroundings."
Jace's face is screwed up in concentration. "How am I supposed to do all of this by myself? I've never landed a spaceship before!"
Terran chuckles, sitting beside him and flipping switches as the ship descended through the atmosphere of Alpha One. "You're not going to do it by yourself. I'll do the special stuff. You just have to navigate and maneuver."
"Oh, just that." Jace shakes his head. "I guess it is a little bit like a video game. I don't remember all these panels and buttons being here before, and not the joysticks."
"They come and go," Terran answers, turning a dial. "There's a lot that's part of this ship that doesn't appear all the time. Like the extra rooms or the observatory deck or all the buttons and switches."
Jace grips the joysticks a little bit more firmly. "Where do they go when they're not here?"
"Just into the base matter of the ship."
"Just into the base matter of the ship," Jace says incredulously, glancing at Terran with that same disbelief in his voice as when he met the guy. "Right."
"Uh huh. Now, we're going here," Terran points at the screen, "and we're currently here. So, change the degrees."
Jace tentatively turns a dial of his own and punches in some numbers on a keypad. The ship on the screen changes course slightly and is moving towards where Terran's finger is pointing. "This isn't so hard."
"Yeah, 'cause I'm doing the hard stuff." Terran grins at Jace's downcast face. "Don't worry. We'll have you trained up in no time."
Sticking his tongue out of the side of his mouth, Jace carefully maneuvers the ship towards the spot Terran has marked. "How many times are you planning on making me do this? I'm barely awake and you're saying, "come land the ship!" and I can't believe I'm even doing this," Jace reaches out with one had to jam a couple of buttons, seemingly unaware of his competence in piloting a spaceship. "Next you're gonna be making me pilot through the Maelstrom Nebula."
"What? Are you kidding? Nobody goes in there! I'm not stupid enough to make you do that. Also, you know about the Maelstron Nebula?"
Jace glanced sideways again as Terran sets the docking levels. "I was just joking. So, it's not a myth?"
Terran shakes his head. "What else do you think is a myth?"
"Uh," Jace releases the joysticks and sits back, expelling a long breath. "The red seas of Cimbrilia? They're so hot you can't swim in them."
"Real. You shouldn't land a spaceship in them either. Freaks the whole thing out. What else?" Terran gets up and examines the current weather on the planet.
"Real, but extinct. Witchatan has been barren for decades. And the whole planet is sticky."
"Sticky?" Jace leans over to peek at the screen. "Is it nighttime here?"
"Not exactly." Terran beckons for Jace to follow him. "There are two seasons here: summer and winter. The changeover is today, and it's so pretty. The sky is blue all winter and then pink all summer. Even the scent of the air changes. You can almost taste it. I haven't been here in a while." He opens the hatch and watches as Jace takes tentative steps forward.
He follows and closes the hatch, stepping down onto the azure ground of the planet. The surface reflected the sky; the rocks shimmered in shades of turquoise and cobalt. The terrain being mostly rock and little plant life, it was no wonder nobody lived on the planet. Terran thinks it's inherently tranquill.
"It's pretty." Jace says it half-whispered, like he doesn't want to disturb the scene with his voice. "What is this place called?"
"How many Alphas are there? Is it like the Centuries?"
"No." Terran sets off toward a little hill and Jace follows him. "These planets were serially colonized. Some had native inhabitants, some didn't have any and still don't - like this one - and some have civilations established now, but they're not flourishing. Each Alpha is different, not just by whether it's inhabited or not. Each atmosphere is different, the sizes are different and they all look different too. The Centuries are all the same size and same appearance."
"Oh," Jace murmurs. "Wait, you didn't say how many there are."
"Seventeen?" Jace repeats. "Hang on, this is part of the Alpha system?"
"I thought they were all destroyed or something."
"Yep." Terran grinned. "But the outermost seven are banned."
Jace tilted his head. "Banned by who?"
"The only Alpha with a semi-stable government is Four, and they semi-regulate, ah, tourism to the other Alphas. The outermost seven aren't friendly for most species, so nobody goes there. Some are simply without anything nice to see and some are actually toxix," Terran adds, preemptively answering Jace's next question.
"Do people come here? If the season change is so pretty, why don't people come and watch it?"
"Because it's cold." Terran says it offhandedly, like it's obvious.
Jace shoots him a glance. "But I'm not cold."
"Yeah, 'cause of the nanomist and those nice clothes I got for you. But even so, we shouldn't stay here for more than twelve hours."
"But isn't it changing to summer?"
"Winter is cold, summer is hot."
"Very extreme seasons, then," Jace realizes. "Don't other people have, um, nanomist and good clothes?"
"Depends. The kind I have is extremely advanced and last a long time, and the more you're exposed to it the more you're not affected by new air types and temperatures. Or gravities, also, to a lesser extent. Nanomist isn't cheap and even if most Trainsports have it, it's not as good as mine. My spaceship is well outfitted."
"Huh." Jace continues to walk beside Terran, taking in the multicolored surface of Alpha One. "Wait, Trainsports?"
Terran rolls his eyes. "Some meta-human thought he was clever. Nobody bothered to rename it once he died, since it'd already been a hundred year in existence."
"So much to know," Jace remarks softly.
"You don't have to know all of it, or even most or some. You can choose what you want to learn."
"How many places are we gonna go, though, and I'll have to learn about each one, right?" Jace muses and as he puts his arms out to balance on a tricky bit of rock.
Terran doesn't answer that question.
Jace doesn't seem to notice, being too busy staring at his surroundings and making appreciative sounds like a little kid. It's cute, Terran realizes, and he feels himself swelling with a strange emotion that he believes is affection, but it's so foreign and strange that he dismisses it immediately and focuses on climbing the hill. Affection isn't something that someone like him deserves or ought to feel. Jace isn't his to keep. He'll go back to Mari and that'll be the end of this odd companionship.
Which is really too bad. Terran has enjoyed this whole adventure immensely. He thinks he has, anyway. He's not too sure what exactly qualifies as enjoyment anymore, but this probably counts. If something brings a smile to his face, it must be good. Since, well, not many things can do that. He'll be reasonably content when he's wandering through Oblivion or sitting with Yoongi or passing through a nebula in real time. But this experience has by far been the most fun he's ever had.
Watching Jace's face light up and his eyes grow wide fills Terran with a range of emotions he doesn't remember feeling before, and even if it's confusing, he most definitely likes them. He feels like…what does he feel like? Like he's going somewhere. But that'll end when he goes back to Earth the Second. That'll be the end of the journey and all those emotions he doesn't have names for. Ah well. Everything ends.
"Terran, what's that?"
Looking past Jace's pointing finger, Terran sees the first pulse of a star ready to fall. Of course, it wasn't really a star, but it was close enough. "It's starting, Jace. This is good enough. Just sit anywhere. The rocks will mold for you."
Jace sits gingerly on the rainbow-streaked rock and yelps quietly when it shifts underneath him to create a bowl for him to recline comfortably in. "How can rock suddenly change shape? It's not sentient or something, is it? I don't want to sit on a rock with feelings."
Terran laughs at that, still a strained sound, since he's not used to making it. "No, it's just highly sensitive. It's like," he searches for a good illustration that Jace can understand, "like magma, shifting and changing, except that it doesn't burn you."
"Wouldn't it be lava? Magma is the stuff underground."
"I know that," Terran says almost crossly. "But it's more like magma than lava. But it's not really like magma either. It's just moveable molecules, dictated by force and space."
"That doesn't really make sense." Jace runs his hands over the rock, tracing patterns with his fingers.
"Lots of things don't make sense, but they still happen." Terran pointed to the sky. "Now be quiet and watch."
Jace seems to bite back a comment and obediently looks up just in time to see the first of the little lights streak across the sky. A little gasping sound escapes his mouth as more and more curve across the deep blue of Alpha One's atmosphere, painting it with light and wonder.
As the meteors are falling, the space between the lights slowly starts to shift in color, from the horizon up. It starts as a deep, dark indigo and then ever so slowly changes to violet and phases through lavender, lilac, orchid, magenta, and finally settles into a peachy rose. The meteors keep falling until it seems like all the stars have fallen from the sky, but really the dawn has happened and the closest of the stars has drowned out the light of the rest of them. Alpha One's sun burns up the pink around it as it rises in the sky, a fiery ball of tangerine to make the pink seem even brighter.
"Woah," Jace says softly when the meteors have stopped falling and everything has settled into summer. "That was…" he shakes his head, "amazing, but I could say that about everything I ever saw and it'd be true. I think I should just not say anything."
Terran feels his mouth lifting up into an unused smile. "You don't have to say anything. Come over this way. I want to show you one more thing."
"Okay." Jace rises and, eyes still flitting upward to the drastically different sky from a couple of hours ago, follows Terran as he meanders down the little hill.
"You should have something to take home with you," Terran mentions as he leads them with purpose toward a valley.
"I'll have a lot of memories. Stories. I'll dream about these things," Jace responds.
"Something physical," Terran insists. "Something like a fallen star?" He glances back to see Jace's eyebrows shoot up. "See there? All the glowing pieces are what fell from the sky."
Jace opens and closes his mouth so fast that Terran thinks he might have bitten his tongue. "You-, I can take home a fallen star?"
"They're not really stars." Terran walks over to the nearest one, about as big as a fist, still glowing red from the heat of burning up through the atmosphere. "The unique thing about these meteors is that when they first fall, they freeze before they burn. I don't have the answers to everything," he amends quickly, "so don't bother asking me for an explanation. I just know that the immediate change from cold to heat and the unique elements in this atmosphere does something to the rock and it's really pretty."
Terran nudges the rock with his boot. It rolls a little and changes color, from red to blue. "It should be cool now. Pick it up and see."
Jace bends down, crouching beside the rock and reaching out with a single finger. When he isn't burned, he slowly grasps the now cooled meteor in his hand.
"Pull it open."
"What?" Jace looks from the rock to Terran and back again. He holds it in both hands and, making a very concentrated face, pulls at it like he was opening a book. The rock pulls open like is a book, revealing multicolored facets inside, constantly changing color and swirling like ripples in a puddle. "Woah." He says it again, pure awe echoed in his face.
Terran picks up his own meteor and tosses it from hand to hand. "Pretty, right?"
Jace just nods, still staring at the stone in his hand. "What even is this?"
"A mystery," Terran answers simply, playing with the colors on his rock, pulling them this way and that. "You can mold that however you want. It'll become used to your hands. You can do whatever you want with it."
Terran is getting the idea that Jace's brain is exploding slightly, so he stops himself from mentioning other facts about the planet or the seasonal changes. Clearly just seeing the meteor shower and holding one in his hands was enough to make Jace very happy and that was all Terran wanted, really.
"Want to go back?" Terran lets the rest of the question linger in the air without saying it out loud.
Jace stands up and looks at Terran. Really looks. Looks at him like he's trying to read him but the letters are all upside down and it doesn't really matter, because Jace knows he couldn't understand anyway. But he's trying, because he wants to and Terran doesn't get that. There's nothing to understand. He was a fact and you didn't have to understand something to know it. Why couldn't Jace just know him? They both stand there for a rather long moment, not even blinking.
But then Jace blinks and looks away. "Yeah," he says, reminding Terran that he'd asked a question.
"Alright," he responds lightly, moving to take the lead. "What will you do with your meteor?"
"Give it to Mari." Jace answers immediately, like he expected the question. "Where are we going now?"
Terran thinks that Jace already knows the answer to that, if the expression on his face is anything to go by. It's confusing, because doesn't Jace want to see Mari? Doesn't he miss her?
"Mari must've missed you."
"Of course she did. She misses me when I'm gone for a few hours." Jace says it fondly, a small smile hovering about his mouth. "She is very attached. I'm all she's got, you know. It's crazy that she wanted me to come with you. I know that she thinks I'd given up my dreams for him, but she's all I've got too. My dreams don't push her out. She's in there too."
Terran digests this. "So you missed her too?"
Jace hums a little. "I think I forgot to, until now. I was so caught up in it all. The excitement of being away from Earth and the unknowns that I was getting to know. Bits of history I never would have encountered. My mind was full. But it's calmed down now and I can feel it, in my heart. I miss her so much." Jace's voice is considerably sadder now and Terran does not like the sound of it.
"We'll be back in no time," he reassures him. "I can spatial-switch, if you want. Though, you've only been out in space for a couple of days, it might mess with your head a little."
Jace hums again. "I mean, I want to get back as fast as I can, but at the same time, I want to take my time. It's been incredible, being out here. I've loved it."
"Alright," Terran repeats. "I can push Hyper-X, but we can drift back in. You can land the ship, if you want."
"I can't believe you made me do that." Jace laughs a little. "You're crazy."
Terran just grins, believing that to be a compliment, hoping that it is.
"Will it be easier this time?"
"You've already done it once and took to it like a natural. You did splendidly."
"You did splendidly. I know you were doing stuff for me."
"It's a very personalized ship," Terran defends himself. "She just responds to me a little better, that's all. You can still land her yourself."
Jace shakes his head as they arrive at the ship and Terran opens the hatch. "Only if you're right next to me."
"Where else would I be?" Terran closes the hatch after them and watches Jace walk down the hall for a moment before following. "Where else would I be?" He murmurs again. "Nowhere. And anywhere. But anywhere is nowhere for me."
Terran shakes off the uncomfortable feeling that has started to gnaw at his gut. He still has Jace on board for another few hours. He's going to make the most of it.
He jogs to catch up with Jace. "Want to turn off the gravity?"
A grin spreads over Jace's face.
That's a yes.
"This feels different from the zero gravity in the Earth ships."
"That's because the air adjusts to your personal comfort zone of weightlessness. You know, a little lighter, a little heavier. Some species need something a little thinner to move through."
"Because of the way they breathe."
"I don't understand."
"I don't have all the answers. I know things, but that doesn't mean I can explain them."
"What the good of knowing something you can't explain?"
"What's the good of seeing something that you can't explain to someone else? It's still an experience for you. Not everything has to be shared or explained to be or to be strange and wondrous."
"I guess." Jace pulls at the air and a current moves him forward. "It's like even the air on your ship has a mind."
"No, that's just the ship itself."
"Wait." Jace stops moving and looks at Terran. "Your ship has a mind? It's sentient?"
"No. It's just remarkably well-adjustable."
Jace screws up his face. "What."
Terran shrugs. "I didn't design it. I've personalized it some over the years, but most of it came that way. I didn't have to put in the hidden doors or the nanomist or the spatial fluxes that add more rooms or the encyclopedia. I just played with the controls that already existed and it's memorized my preferred settings at this point."
"Set as default," Terran corrects. "It's not sentient!"
"It's something." Terran can agree with that. "It's not any kind of alive. But it's different."
"Yeah." Jace doesn't press the issue. "How long to get home?"
"Another couple of hours. Are you sure you don't want to spatial-switch? I mean, we could go transient. That's, um, an experience."
"I've heard of transient, but I never understood what it meant." Jace drums on his knees as he sits cross-legged in the air.
Terran swivels so that he's facing Jace. "It's using the wall of this dimension to skip reality and choose what you see or don't see."
Jace still does not understand.
"You phase out a little, like you're going into a different plane, but also like you're about to spatial-switch, so that you're not completely here but you're not completely there. You're just skimming."
Jace absolutely does not understand. Terran barely understands it himself and that's only because he's actually done it. There's really no way to explain this. "So, there's a place, that's not really a place, where reality changes from one to another. When you fly along that line, you can go anywhere or nowhere, depending on how much you're in reality at any given moment."
Jace blinks several times. "You could explain all you want but I don't think I'll ever understand."
"I didn't understand either until I did it."
"But you do understand?"
"I understand my experience; the principle of it. I don't understand it."
"Oh good. I feel considerably less stupid now."
Terran smiles crookedly. "Nobody really understands it, even the people who discovered it. They know how to make it happen, not why or how it works. And really, trying to understand just makes my brain hurt."
"Mine too." Jace puts his hands on his head with a pained expression. "Let's not do transient."
"Okay. What do you want to do in the next two hours?"
"Tell me something. Or lots of things. You must know so much. Tell me something curious and amazing and strange." Jace leans back so that he's lying on nothing and folds his arms, eyes closing.
"Are you going to sleep?"
"No. I'm waiting for a story."
"Oh." Terran fidgets with his hands and tries to think of a story.
"Don't think so hard. Just tell me something." Jace's voice sounds amused.
Terran sighs, settling against the ceiling. "Well," he starts, "I could tell you the legend of Calypso."
"Isn't that an Earth story?"
"Is it? Calypso that rode through the Maelstrom Nebula to rescue her lover?"
"Alright. So, Calypso was a great and mighty being, a goddess, if you will, who sailed through the stars like a river, a strange and wondrous river through space. She was very beautiful. Anyone who had caught a glimpse of her proclaimed her to be the most beautiful creature they had ever seen. But everyone was wary of her because one you had seen Calypso, you could never think anything else was beautiful. You could never stay in one place, either. You needed to travel, to wander through the stars just like Calypso did. And nothing could satisfy you. Only Calypso could sat your hunger for beauty.
"One day, a man named Taliman witnessed Calypso swimming through the great oceans of Erstruden, where everything is inside out."
"That's how the legend goes."
"Is Ertruden a real place?"
"Yes, but things aren't inside out. Apparently they were, once."
"I have no way of confirming that."
"Is there any place where things are inside out? And how would that even work?"
"Do you want me to continue the story?"
"So, when Taliman saw Calypso, like everyone else, he instantly fell madly in love."
"I don't think that's the way love words. You mean he was infatuated."
"Who exactly is telling the story? That's what I thought. So, when Taliman saw that Calypso was within reach, he immediately went down to her and proclaimed his love. But Calypso knew that his love was not real. So she told him to leave her. That's what would make her happy. However, instead of leaving, Taliman stayed. He wanted to prove his love.
"He followed her throughout the universe, sailing after her among the stars, until Calypso finally told him once again to leave. This time, Taliman wanted to make sure she knew that he did love her. So he sailed straight into the Maelstrom Nebula, where no one had ever come back from without tearing apart and disintegrating. He felt his ship being battered and tossed by the strange winds of space and just as he was about to be ejected into space himself, arms wrapped around him and pulled him to safety.
"At this, Calypso knew the depth of his affection and accepted hi love, giving her own in return. She blessed him and gave him long life like hers, so that he could forever stay by her side. To this day, they float among the stars side by side, but you wouldn't know them by sight. Calypso is beautiful and noticeable only to Taliman, and he to her, so that the two of them may forever be together and untouched."
"You tell a story, then."
"I don't know any stories."
"Everybody knows stories."
"I don't know any stories that compare to the universal scale of yours."
Terran sighs. "Stories don't need scale. They just need meaning."
Jace doesn't answer for a while. "I always wanted my story to have meaning. I always thought it did, because of Mari. Is that true, though?"
Terran doesn't answer for a while. "I think it is. When there are two people that mean a great deal to each other, the bond of them together has meaning. You stay together, you hold on to each other. There's meaning in being there."
Jace seems to release a pent up breath. "But I'm not there."
"You're going to be." Terran says it firmly. "And that will mean something too."
"Yeah," Jace whispers. "I guess."
"Look out the window."
Jace uncurls himself and begins to smile. He floats over to the window and presses up against the glass, his reflection showing the fondness and relief in his eyes. The planet below them is bright and round, ordinary to the traveler's eye, but everything to someone like Jace, who is smiling happily.