As I mentioned last week, I’ll be posting chapters of my short story, The Stars That Sing, every Tuesday. If you missed the initial chapters, you can find them in the Recent Posts section in the right-hand menu, or by clicking here.
The Stars That Sing
If the man was surprised by Samara’s appearance, he hid it well. He shrugged, the motion barely visible. “Someone I used to know, a very long time ago. But that is neither here nor there, I suppose. Well met, young lady. I’m William.”
“Samara.” Sammie nodded over her shoulder. “And that’s Cornelius James back there. You’re not supposed to be here, you know. The Hill is a no-go zone.”
“Is it now? Says who?”
“Ah.” William leaned against the table, drumming his fingers on its wooden surface. His hands were gnarled and crooked, like the tree roots they’d climbed over on their way up the Hill. “Did he say why?”
CJ frowned. Since when did Lord Legion give anyone his reasons for anything?
“I thought not.” William’s smile was wide and bright even in the half-lit room. “Did you know this used to be a school?”
“What’s a school?”
“What’s a—?” The man shook his head, muttering something under his breath. “A school is a place where people go to study and learn about the world.”
“This whole building was for learning?” To CJ, it seemed like a waste of space, but Samara sounded impressed.
“Not just this one building, Samara. Every building on the hill. They called it a university.” William carried his light source from the shelf to the table, then fiddled with one of the dials at the device’s base. The captured flame doubled in size, widening the circle of light that it cast. For the first time, he came fully into view.
Cornelius James gasped. “What’s wrong with your face?”
“CJ!” hissed Samara. “Be nice!”
William was the blackest man either of them had ever seen—darker than Samara… darker even than CJ, who Mr. Greenwood had often joked was seventy-percent shadow—but it wasn’t the color of his skin that had prompted CJ’s reaction. Nor was it the lack of hair or the thick black bushy eyebrows that jutted out over warm brown eyes. Instead, it was the thick network of lines that creased the man’s face. Horizontal indentations crossed his forehead and nose, while thinner lines branched out like spider webs from the corners of his eyes and mouth.
It was as if someone had crumpled his skin into a ball, baked it on a hot plate, and then pasted it back onto his skull.
“My face?” William shook his head, confused.
“All the lines.” CJ frowned.
The man ran a hand across his face, fingertips tracing its contours. “Have neither of you ever seen wrinkles before?”
“No.” His momentary fear forgotten, CJ leaned past Samara to get a closer look. “Are they some kind of tattoo?”
The man shook his head. “You know tattoos, but you’ve never heard of wrinkles.”
“Mr. Greenwood had a tattoo,” said Cornelius James. “Something about sleep…”
“And miles to go before I sleep,” said Samara. “Whatever that means.”
“It means your Mr. Greenwood is a learned man. I’d love to speak with him sometime.”
“You’re a few years too late for that.” CJ frowned. “He went away and now we’re stuck with Ms. Stevenson as our pod leader. She smells like onions.”
“I see.” William frowned, as if dissatisfied with the answer, then shrugged. “Wrinkles are not tattoos. They’re just something that happens to people with time and age.” He glanced from CJ to Samara. “If you think I’ve got a lot of them, you should have seen my grandmother.”
For the first time all morning, Sammie’s confidence deserted her. She shuffled uneasily to the side. “What’s a grandmother?”
“My mother’s mother?” As the two children continued to stare at him in confusion, William seemed to deflate. “You… don’t know what a mother is either, do you?”
“Is it like a pod leader?”
“I… maybe?” The old man shook his head and dropped into one of the chairs at the table, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “It’s only been forty years. How can so much have changed?”
“Forty-two and change,” said William, “yet somehow only the geography of the city remains the same.”
“You’ve been to Old Baltimore before?” asked Samara.
“Been here? I was born here.”
“You were really born in Old Baltimore?” Without being asked, Samara had taken a seat in one of the other chairs. As she studied the old man across the table, CJ couldn’t decide whether she was excited or disappointed.
“That’s right,” said William. “Not long after the Break.” He paused. “You two do know about the Break, right?”
“Everyone knows about the Break,” answered CJ. “And the killing that followed it here—”
“Not just here. Near as I can tell, it was damn near the whole world,” murmured William.
“—until Lord Legion rose to power and restored order.”
The old man paused and cocked his head. “That’s… one interpretation, I suppose.”
“What pod were you part of?” Sammie wanted to know.
“I don’t know what a pod is.”
CJ and Samara shared puzzled frowns. “It’s the people you’re raised with,” explained Sammie. “Fifty pods in Old Baltimore, each with a leader and twenty to forty members.” She tapped the patch on her chest proudly. “CJ and I are part of Pod 23.”
“And you stay with this pod all of your lives?”
Samara shook her head slowly. “Just until adulthood. Then—”
“Then you go on to serve Lord Legion or become a pod leader yourself,” finished CJ, peering at the old man suspiciously. “Wouldn’t you know all of this, if you really used to live here?”
“Like I said, Cornelius, it has been decades, and many things have changed. I left the city not long after your Lord Legion took power.”
“My name is Cornelius James. Not Cornelius. Cornelius James. Or CJ.” He scowled and turned to Samara. “We should go, Sammie. It’s almost time for afternoon rations.”
“I’m not hungry,” Sammie shot back. “You can go if you want.”
Cornelius James loved Samara with every ounce of his heart, but there were times he was convinced she’d been put on the planet just to cause him grief. “You can stay and risk getting spotted by an Eye if you want. Just don’t think I’m going to come and save you or anything.”
William raised an eyebrow. “An Eye?”
“One of Lord Legion’s creations,” answered Samara. “They watch over the city for him.”
“And the other machines, the larger ones that patrol the streets?”
“His Hands.” Sammie shivered. “If the Eyes are his spies, the Hands are his soldiers. Them and the human guards, I guess.”
“And you fear these creatures, Samara?”
“Only because she knows we shouldn’t be here,” said CJ. “Lord Legion’s army keeps order.”
“A laudable goal,” said William, “and I admit that Old Baltimore is far better off than some of the cities I’ve seen in my travels.” He patted one of the thick objects he’d piled on the table. “Of course, Rousseau would say it takes more than just order to make a fair and just government.”
“Rousseau. The author of this book.” He pulled down the object, and peeled back a leather-bound cover to reveal sheets of paper within, far less shiny than the pamphlets Lord Legion printed his edicts on.
After a moment’s pause, William frowned. “You’ve never heard of books either?”
“Heard of them,” admitted Samara, “but that’s the first one we’ve ever seen.”
“The… social… contract…?” puzzled out CJ.
“You’ve never seen a book, but you can read?”
“All of Lord Legion’s citizens are taught to read,” said CJ absently, trying to puzzle out the next few words. What did Jacques mean? “Being able to read his orders means we have no excuse for not following them.” He glanced from the heavy book in the old man’s hands to the other objects on the table. “Are all of these books? I didn’t know there were this many books in the whole world!”
“This?” William shook his head, crooked teeth flashing white against his night-black skin. “This is nothing, young man. The room we are currently in was once one of the administrative offices of the Milton S. Eisenhower library. Do either of you know what a library is?”
Sammie and CJ shook their heads.
“It’s a place built to hold books,” grinned the old man. “There are four other floors to this library, all of them underground, most of them intact, and every single one of them full of books.”
“Books like that one?”
“Philosophy and ethics?” William nodded. “Math and science and history too. There’s even a section for the classics of fiction.”
“Lost kingdoms. Buried treasures. Ancient evils.” William’s smile widened, warm and slow as apple-flavored nutripaste on flatbread. “Even pirates.”
And that was when CJ knew, despite the very real concerns he’d just voiced to Sammie, that he would be coming back.