Day 7 of the Jo Fletcher Books Christmas Advent is here and behind the door today is . . . the first chapter of Karen Lord’s upcoming The Galaxy Game. Enjoy.
The only cure for a sleepless night was to lie in bed and watch the constellations projected on his ceiling. He knew them by heart, had known them since his boy-days on Cygnus Beta when he would climb the homestead water tower to stargaze (and escape his father). Then, they were a distant dream, an ancient tale that he could only trust was true. Now they were the dirt on his boots, the dust in his lungs and a constant pang of care and concern that he carried in his heart. He was homesick for everywhere, for scattered friends and family and colleagues, each with a claim on his attention.
He whispered names in soothing ritual. The First Four, crafted worlds found already seeded with life – Ntshune, Sadira, Zhinu and Terra. Then there were the colonies, bioformed planets shaped and settled by emigrants – Punartam, Ain, Tolimán and more. The Terran system was nearest to his Cygnian heritage, but the Punartam system was closest in travel time and galactic rank. Its sole habitable planet, a first-wave colony almost as prominent as the First Four, was reputed to be the first fully bioformed world, a point still debated by the Academes. Was Cygnus Beta a crafted world that had failed and been restored by human or non-human effort, or a bioforming experiment unrecorded in human history? Punartam could prove its origins; Cygnus Beta could not. Punartam was, of course, the Cygnian name (from a Terran language, like so many other Cygnian names). In Terran stellar nomenclature it was β Geminorum, and Galactic Standard offered a collection of syllables that told the full story of the star’s location, age, luminosity and life-bearing potential. The name they used for themselves was in Simplified Ntshune and it meant the same thing as in Galactic Standard – behold! we are here, we have been here long, see how brightly we shine, we are we.
The founders of Punartam traced their origin to the system called the Mother of humanity. Cygnian name: Ntshune (also from a Terran language). Terran name: α Piscis Austrini. True name: a delicate and yearning melodic phrase in Traditional Ntshune. But there was another claim to Eldest – Sadira. Terran name: ε Eridani. Sadiri name: something unpronounceable (the Sadiri language, even in the simplified standard form, was still a challenge for him to speak). Former leader of the galaxy . . . or at least policeman and judge and occasional executioner. Not much liked though rarely hated, and now occasionally pitied. Sadira was dead, or almost dead, its biosphere locked in toxic regeneration for centuries to come. The seat of government had moved to New Sadira, formerly known to Cygnians as Tolimán. Survivors had settled throughout the colonies, mainly Punartam and Cygnus Beta, but not Ain. Certainly not Ain.
Next in rank. Cygnian name: Zhinu. Terran name: α Lyrae. Most Zhinuvians used the Galactic Standard name, but there were variations of that. In spite of several layers of modern tech and some extreme bioforming, the origin planet of the system had begun as a crafted world. Then there was Terra, Earth. Source of most of the settlers on Cygnus Beta (Terran stellar nomenclature: the unmelodious 16 Cygni B). Youngest of the First Four and most in need of protection. Zhinu, an example of long-term, well-intentioned meddling from both Ntshune and Sadira, was now playing the role of delinquent middle child while the two elder siblings tried to shield Terra from outside influences.
With eyes still fixed on the stars, he reached towards a bowl of datacharms on his bedside table and brushed a familiar piece with the tip of a finger. A woman’s voice filled the room and he sank back onto his pillows with a sigh of comfort.
‘In the beginning, God created human beings, which is to say God put the ingredients together, embedded the instructions for building on the template and put it all into four separate eggs marked “Some Assembly Required”.
‘One egg was thrown down to Sadira. There humanity grew to revere and develop the powers of the mind. Another egg was sent to Ntshune, and the humans who arose there became adept at dealing with matters of the heart. A third egg arrived at Zhinu, and there the focus was on the body, both natural and man-made. The last egg came to Terra, and these humans were unmatched in spirit. Strong in belief, they developed minds to speculate and debate, hearts to deplore and adore, and bodies to craft and adapt. Such were their minds, hearts and bodies that they soon began to rival their elder siblings.
‘When the Caretakers saw the Terrans and their many ways of being human, they were both impressed and appalled. Some declared, “See how they combine the four aspects of humanness! Through Terra, all will be transformed – Sadira, Ntshune and Zhinu – into one harmonious whole.” Others predicted, “How can any group survive such fragmentation? They will kill each other,and the rest of humanity will remain forever incomplete.”
‘After some discussion, the Caretakers decided to seal off Terra from the rest of the galaxy until Terran civilisation reached full maturity. They also decided to periodically save them from themselves by placing endangered Terrans on Cygnus Beta, where they could flourish and begin to mix with other humans.’
The voice chuckled and concluded, ‘And that, my dear, is five creation myths for the price of one.’
He smiled. ‘Love you,’ he murmured to the recording. He would see the owner of the voice soon enough. Reaching out once more, he stirred inside the bowl with a finger . . . and frowned. The weight, the chime and the texture of the contents – something was off. He immediately sat up and turned on the lights. Grabbing the bowl, he sifted through the charms with one hand and glared at every trinket and token that rose to the surface. Finally, he turned the bowl upside down, dumping everything into his lap. He scanned the spread of charms on the bed-sheets, counting and cataloguing, although he already knew what was missing.
He looked up, furious. There was only one person who could have taken them, and only one place they could be.