by Dan Helms
Illustrated by Soo Lee
A puff of orange-blossom awakened Soon Jae-won, and a squeaky-sweet female voice breathed, “Good morning, master!” The screen centimeters above his eyes flashed the date and time: the sixth hour of the morning of the twenty-seventh day of Shiwol, in the ninety-first year of the Anjeongyeok Era. Naturally, it was a Friday.
A flush of anticipation suffused him, and he smiled in the dark, plush privacy of his room: Today he would meet his bride!
Distracted, he forgot to turn off his alarm clock, and a second puff caught him by surprise, making him sneeze. The powerful stimulant in the puff made his heart race, and he signed his initials on the screen with furious swipes of his finger. The alarm winked off, replaced on the screen by his dayplan and bulletins.
He scanned the Hangeul characters. Today was a Moon Curse day. He memorized his dayplan, unplugged the drip line from his wrist socket, adjusted his pajamas, and opened the door.
As the only son, Jae-won’s bedroom was prestigiously low on the wall, a coffin-sized, enclosed shelf a meter and a half above the floor in which he could lay comfortably but not sit upright. His parent’s rooms were just beneath his, and his sisters’ above; Grandmother and Grandfather shared the floor-level nook. As usual, he was nearly the last to awaken. His mother and eldest sister typically arose in the third hour. They lit the ondol to warm the icy floors, tidied up the mess left by the thoughtless Mog-oil-guk, the Thursdays. They ironed and set out clothes for the men. By the fourth hour, the younger girls would also be up, helping to start breakfast. Jae-won’s father usually woke before the fifth hour; he enjoyed rising earlier than etiquette and tradition demanded, undaunted by the clatter of the working females. It would be another fifteen minutes until Grandfather and Grandmother emerged, last of all as befitted their rank. The other six families slept in their neatly stacked rooms to the left of the Soon bedrooms.
As Jae-won unfolded himself from his dark cubby, he squinted at the glaring ceiling, savoring the delicious breakfast smells. He returned his family’s bows and “Good mornings” before closing his room and stepping into the shower.
The Soon family home boasted nearly fifteen square meters of floor space; the bathroom nook took up only one. The girls had long finished their ablutions, so the nook was free. Jae-won signed for his ration and let the hot water flow, stinging his skin awake for twenty full seconds. The steam softened his sparse whiskers, easing his morning shave. The water went tepid as his hot ration expired; he left it running even as he lowered the convenience seat and relieved himself. He preferred leaving the shower on; with only a blue plastic curtain screening the bathroom from the rest of the household, it was more polite. He washed thoroughly, scrubbing with salted sand, though the water temperature had become frigid. His youngest sister, Hee-young, passed him first a hot towel, then his cleaned, pressed, and warmed ensemble for the day. Jae-won dressed briskly.
“Happy Wedding Day!” Hee-young shrilled, embracing him.
“Stupid girl,” Mother corrected her, “the wedding is not until tomorrow-week. They just meet today, that’s all.”
Hee-young, unchastened, asked “Are you nervous?”
Jae-won tousled her hair fondly, wiping down the convenience seat and shower walls for the next users, and accepted a cup of hot barley tea from eldest sister Hwa-young. “No, dear,” he answered, blowing on the tea before sipping. “I’m very happy to meet my bride. It’s not scary.”
Mother caught Hwa-young’s gaze and rolled her eyes, murmuring, “We’ll see,” under her breath.
The door to the lowest cubby chirped and folded down, and Grandmother and Grandfather crawled awkwardly out. As usual, Jae-won helped them both up, embracing and kissing them before bowing formally and wishing them “Good morning” in chorus with the rest of the family. The two bowed back sleepily and shuffled to the bathroom together. Jae-won wrinkled his nose at the sounds of the convenience in use, but his grandparents valued their water rations over modesty. Mother obligingly clattered her cookware, and the hissing of steam and rattling of hot metal pans lasted until the convenience flushed and the shower turned on. Hee-young warmed towels and robes, and set down a pair of soft slippers for Grandmother.
The seven sat down to breakfast, swiping their initials to acknowledge their daily rations: Today, Jae-won’s fee was outrageous—almost five thousand joules! But this was a special day. It was an exceptionally fine breakfast this morning, Jae-won noted approvingly: hot mushroom soup, radish kimchi, spicy octopus, crunchy kelp, and grilled short ribs—galbi—that Mother finished crisping on the hot surface of the cooking stone in the center of the family table. A dozen banchan dishes offered additional tastes: bean sprout rice, boiled egg slices, cabbage kimchi, stewed fish, and even sautéed tofu.
“What a feast!” Father exclaimed. “Is it my birthday already?” Mother flicked his ear playfully as the girls laughed.
“Today is a big day for Jae-won,” she beamed. “I made him a good meal to start off the day. I suppose you can have some, too.”
Jae-won smiled and bowed. He knew the whole family had saved or borrowed rations enough for several meals to support such a feast. Even more splendid would be the welcoming dinner for his new bride, and then the wedding feast itself—a huge expense in rations. It was humbling, but it would be churlish to not enjoy it. “Thank you very much, Ama, Aba,” he said, nodding politely to his parents.
Grandfather grunted sardonically and muttered, “It’s all just pressed algae, you know. None of it’s real food.” He shook his head sadly.
Mother glared at the old man, and Grandmother elbowed him, chuckling. “Eat quickly,” she said. “Moon Curse today.”
The family set to, eating loudly. Rushing such a meal was disagreeable, but there was no shirking a Moon Curse, especially on such a significant and auspicious day for Jae-won. It would not do to jinx it with a bad start. They left the dishes for the girls to clean up later. Jae-won felt more full than he could remember as they filed out and assembled on the balcony.
Stars shone down in the dark indigo, frosty in the autumn morning chill, but the eastern horizon was a paler blue. The Soon family ordered themselves, oldest to youngest, shuffling along the narrow balcony, white fog puffing from their lips. Around them, Jae-won could hear a discordant chorus of raised voices as numberless families performed the Moon Curse.
by Charles Q. Choi
The funeral began when the temple clock tolled at sunset, crimson and lavender and gold clouds against a violet sky. Or an artificial version of nightfall—day changing to night on the video screens tiling the walls and ceiling of the giant cavern that cocooned the city of Nightingale.
At the funeral, the foretellers donned the swan feather cloaks and black robes of mourning. As they chanted, they danced in stately circles in the temple courtyard, swinging their arms out with wide sweeping motions like symbolic wings. A ritual performed in the hope that, in spite of what happened, Harrow’s soul could find rest amongst the stars.
Harrow was killed by an invisible knife in his back. He was the last person in all the worlds who cared whether I was dead or alive.
The funeral was small—just the foretellers and myself and the other wards of the temple, and a few old men I had seen Harrow gripe and joke with over the years. I stood behind everyone else due to my cursed status. They likely only allowed me to attend because they knew there was little chance of keeping me away.
If Harrow could have seen the funeral, he would have grumbled about the cut-rate rotgut the foretellers offered the gods in his name. Ornery fossil.
Harrow was groundskeeper at the Temple of the Third Eye, the Church of Foresight’s outpost in Nightingale. He had a habit of swatting me with a bamboo switch whenever I made a mistake. He disappeared for days at a time on mysterious errands. He taught me everything important I now know and was the closest thing I had left to family.
My parents died in space; I was told a stray meteoroid destroyed their spaceship. At their funeral, they and the other victims didn’t receive any ceremonies from foretellers to shepherd them to the afterlife. The way they died meant they, and I, were “starcrossed”—struck down by divine wrath.
At the end of the funeral, the foretellers took prayers the other wards and I wrote and burned them in large bronze braziers to send them to the next world. As I watched the smoke rise and disappear, I thought about how nothing really tied me to Nightingale anymore. I could go see what life was like elsewhere in the galaxy, where my people had encountered our distant kin. Perhaps the Duchy of Helium and its floating cities; or the giant moon Halidam-Sidereal and its dizzying menagerie of Chimerics. Worlds where I wasn’t considered better off dead.
But too much about Harrow’s death, and life, remained a mystery to me. The police were so certain they had answers about Harrow’s death that they’d stopped bothering to look for any others, but all my leftover questions kept me up at night.
It would have been easy to do nothing about Harrow’s death.
It would have been impossible to do nothing about Harrow’s death.
* * *
I was ten when my parents died. The only thing I have left of them is their astromantic watch, a clockwork version of the worlds around our home star designed for the extraordinary task of helping one predict the future. It was the kind of gift any parent might wish for their child—the suggestion of a future one could look forward to.
Closest to the watch’s central gold disc and symbol for our sun circled a half-pearl, half-obsidian bead for tiny Scrithel. Past that wound a blue-green turquoise stone for our homeworld Pell with two ivory dots for its moons. After that, a black tourmaline represented dark tarry Atred, a red-banded agate stood in for giant, ringed Overest, gold-speckled lapis lazuli was stormy Procellous, and a grey moonstone embodied icy Requietory. Underneath all this spun gold clock hands resembling shafts of sunlight, with rings on the rim of the watch’s dial marking away the moments, days, months, and astrological houses. Added dials marked the years since the founding of Harbinger, the City of Omens, the heart of the Church of Foresight.
Arcs of silver on the watch’s face mark the orbits of the three dozen or so meteoroid swarms that regularly strike Pell. Outworlders call our homeworld Fallingstar for the many shooting stars that bombard it. Myths called them volleys of flaming arrows that gods launched at Pell as tests of their mettle, honing their skills to better combat the monsters of the dark. Rains of fire largely taken for granted on a world I’ve never seen.
I was told a speck of rock too small to show on the astromantic watch killed my parents. We lived in one of the few dozen spinworlds near Pell. My mother and father helped build glittering solar-powered orbital laser arrays used to steer asteroids and propel lightjammers across the void. Their passenger flight was destroyed on the way back from work, their countless pieces scattered throughout space. A hundred or so other people died with them.
Afterward, I stayed at an orphanage the astronautics guilds set up. They sold nearly all my family’s belongings. They used my inheritance funds to pay for my upbringing and lure in potential foster parents.
But no one came to adopt me. Nobody wanted to take a bandy-legged starcrossed boy into their homes to tempt fate. I became adrift and alone, a wandering star myself. Just another piece of debris from the aftermath of my parents’ deaths.
As the years passed, my inheritance dwindled away—to pay for meals, for water, for a roof, for a bed, for clothes, for teachers, for doctors, for the air that we and everybody else breathed in the spinning hollowed-out asteroid where the orphanage was housed. Until I was adopted when I was thirteen to begin my apprenticeship at a temple devoted to seeing the future.
The temple sent Harrow to pick me up from the orphanage. He arrived in a faded jumpsuit I later found he wore all the time both on and off work, whose long sleeves covered his old tattoos.
“You’re Hap, right?” He eyed me up and down, unimpressed. “Look like any other dumb kid.”
He looked at the bag I slung over my shoulder. “That all you have?”
He didn’t say anything else to me for the rest of the journey sunward to the city of Nightingale, which lay buried within Scrithel.