Supernal Void: A Summer Night

Well, since the rejection email came in for this story, I figured I'd share it here. Please enjoy.
- Darzoni

Grandfather had said that when he was a boy, his grandfather had told stories about what came before, in the summer nights of Grandfather’s youth.  Byth thought about this, with the grace of an eight-year old.  On his fingers he counted. One, two, three.  That meant Great Great Grandfather had been alive when the stars disappeared- four centuries ago according to Mrs. Guilleux’s history lessons.  He frowned, thinking it was a warm summer evening and that Grandfather was late coming home for the season.  He was always home before the void whales came to sing and the big festival to celebrate the whales’ migration through the Gulug system, when the riotous colors of spring fields began turning a somber gold.

But this year, Grandfather was not here to tell him stories of other worlds in the galaxy.  This year, it was simply his boring mother and father saddling him with chores and math problems.  The festival had come and went, Byth was still here where his Grandfather wasn’t.  He looked out across the town below, lights and people stretching out to the shoreline of the sea.  The salty breeze carried the chorus of seabirds to him while the ruddy sun set on the horizon, and the sky cooled from red wine to deep indigo.

The child climbed the stumpy, gnarled tree as he did every evening when waiting for his grandfather to come home, the rough bark chafing his small hands.  There, he settled on the thick branch, and pulled out a small softly glowing sliver of stone on a fine silver chain.  This, Grandfather had told him, was a starshard from this very sun.  There were many starshards from many different suns, he had said, and all of them were used to guide voidships.  He watched as the starshard’s glow dimmed from the dying sunset, last bits of red sunlight fleeing the sky.

Byth held the shard up, letting it dangle by the chain, listening to its celestial harmony in silence.  He knew by heart where the point of the starshard would end up; it always pointed directly at the sun.  He knew that somewhere, Grandfather was consulting his own starshard, letting it point the way home.  He watched as a thin finger of stars stabbed across the empty blackness, the edge of the only galaxy left in the night sky.  Somewhere in those stars was Grandfather, he thought.

Once, Grandfather had said, the sky was full of stars.  They had been beyond counting (which suited Byth fine as he disliked arithmetic).  He said that there had been other galaxies of stars, with people and worlds as finite as the human imagination.  He had described the immense ring out at the edge of the sun’s light, big enough to fit a fleet of voidships through, how it was blackened iron and tarnished gold with inscrutable diamond-inlaid runes, how it pointed out towards the gaping maw of darkness.  A now silent portal to the missing realms of the universe, or so the story goes.

Grandfather had said that the Deltanas of Gulug had been voidfarers since before the sky was ripped asunder, and that one day Byth would follow in his footsteps and sail the void with him (even though his mother had seen fit to marry an accountant, the old man would always add).  But first, Byth had to work hard at his studies and only then, his grandfather had said, would Byth’s mother allow him to apprentice as a ship’s navigator.  He spun the starshard, the stone inevitably coming to a rest with the point towards the sun, now below the horizon.  This was a navigator’s compass, and used to be his grandfather’s when he was only an apprentice on a voidship.

But what he really dreamed of was being a captain of his own voidship in the Imperial Navy.  Hunting pirates and heretics, seeing wonders beyond this lonely part of the galaxy, and adventuring!  He had the idea though, that only girls were allowed to be captains.  He had asked his mother why all of Aunt Opaline’s voidships are captained by girls and got some vague answer about women being more protective of their crew.  Girls, it seemed to him, ran the Empire.  It was headed by an Empress, her Grand Martial of the Legions was a girl, the Empress’ heirs were girls.  It seemed rather unfair that he was born a boy and not supposed to do certain things because of that.  Somewhere in the recesses of his young mind was the inkling of a thought that he was a disappointment to his mother’s family because he’d been a boy rather than a girl.

Knowing that his mother would be looking for him soon now that it was dark, he hopped down from the stout branch, landing with an oomph in the waist high bluegrass.  Clutching the delicate silver chain with all his might, he ran for the flickering lights of the home fire.  As he reached the rough cobblestone path that wound its way through the modest country estate, his sandal caught one of the rocks, spilling him across the path.

The scrapes and cuts and bruises hurt, but that’s not why he started crying. The starshard.  He had lost his grandfather’s starshard when he fell.  It was somewhere in the grass and it wasn’t going to glow until the sunlight hit wherever it was.  He couldn’t hear its soft crystal notes either.  But Byth cried because he realized that he was very worried about Grandfather not coming back at all.  That maybe all he would have is his memories of summer stories on the porch and the starshard his grandfather had given him.

He didn’t notice his mother pick him up from the ground.

“Byth, what’s wrong?” She wiped his face clean with her handkerchief, her familiar scent calming the child down some.

“I lost Grandfather’s compass.”  He sounded fragile and broken.

His mother kept wiping some of the dirtier scrapes from Byth, and said “Well... those glow when the right star’s light strikes them.  It’s from here, right?  We can get up at sunrise and look for it.”

“But it was Grandfather’s.  What if we don’t find it?”

“Then I guess we’ll have to ask Grandfather for a new one.”  This did little to allay Byth’s fears for his mother’s father.  He was sullen as she guided him back to the house and put him to bed.

*    *    *

Later, how much later Byth didn’t know, his father woke him up.  It startled him to see his father’s thin face lit by a flickering candle, giving the man a sinister cast in that moment before sleepy eyes focused and he realized it was his father’s face.

His father’s thin face smiled. “Sorry Byth.  Didn’t mean to scare you. I...”  The man was never good at talking with Byth, he was rarely home in the day.  He stopped for a moment and fished out a thin silver chain from the front pocket of his waistcoat, Byth’s face lighting up with delight as his father pulled out Grandfather’s compass, hearing its soft crystal tones measuring out the music of the spheres.

“I found this when coming home.  It was on the path and, well, your mother said you were worried sick about it...” His father took Byth’s hand and placed the necklace in it. The child immediately put it up to his ear and listened to it.

His father continued. “We know you’re worried about your grandfather, Byth.  Your mom is worried too, I mean, it’s her own father.” The man fidgeted with his pocket watch, trying to find the words to say to his son.  “Your grandpa- I mean my father, was a voidsman too.  An Imperial Marine, actually.” He finally said.  “... and he died when I was a little older than you.”

Byth’s curiosity was piqued, because he never heard about his father’s family. “How did Grandpa die?”

His father continued to fuss with the pocketwatch, absently talking.  “Heretics.  We didn’t hear about it for months because we were traveling from Aurora Australis to here.  I remember some very nice Imperial officers presenting Grandma with his effects- medals, letters that never got sent, his aegis armor and lightning lancet.  Grandma still has all of that, if we ever visit her out on Glengarry.”  He stopped suddenly and took a deep breath.

“Byth, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes voidsmen don’t come back.  I know it’s not an easy thing to face for you, or your mother.  But your grandfather’s ship is two months overdue and we haven’t heard a thing.”

“But he always came back before.  Why’s this year different?” Byth demanded.

His father shrugged. “Wish I knew, son.  Maybe there was a storm, maybe there were pirates or heretics.  People just get lost sometimes.”  His father sighed and adjusted his spectacles, looking at Byth’s glum face.  “Now, I know I’m not your Grandfather.  I mean, being an accountant is boring and I’ve got no interesting stories about being one.  But when I was younger, I read all about the early days of the Empire and its battles against the Transenlightenment Heretics and the rogue nobility.  If you want, I can try getting home before your bedtime and tell you about those days.  How about it, Byth?”

Byth, on the one hand, was deeply terrified at the idea that his beloved Grandfather wasn’t coming home, but on the other hand he knew that he didn’t know a lot about his father.  The boy nodded slowly, his curiosity overcoming his fears.  Hearing stories about brave adventurers fighting heretics and pirates was just fine by him.

His father smiled again, rustling Byth’s hair with a hand. “Your Grandfather’s promise still stands though.  Do well at your studies and your mother will find you a good apprenticeship as a voidship navigator.  Probably on one of your aunt’s voidships.”

Byth nodded eagerly.

“Now get to sleep, son.” His father said, tucking him in. “Tomorrow Mrs. Guilleux will have you working on geometry again.  And math’s very important if you want to be a navigator.”  His father’s hand mussed his hair again. “Goodnight Byth.”  His father left the room, carrying the candle with him, leaving Byth to contemplate the end of another summer night.
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