Four stories of ordinary survival in extraordinary circumstances.
As the Pax Imperium rises and falls, it is the ordinary citizens who suffer the most. Their lives are destroyed by crusades in which they had little say. Now they are left to find renewed hope as they pick up the pieces. Unconquered tells four stories of hope lost and reborn, giving readers a intimate glimpse into a future where humans are flung far and wide across the galaxy. Unconquered combines three of Erik’s published short stories, Brody: Hope Unconquered, He Dug the Grave Himself, and Taylor’s Watch and adds to them a new story Rena’s song.
Rena’ s Song
This story is part of the Pax Imperium short story collection Unconquered.
First Published in The United States of America
Copyright © 2013
Erik R. Wecks
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be circulated in writing of any publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
September 6, 322
My father didn’t woo my mother with flowers, chocolates, or declarations of his sexual prowess, like other men; he went straight to her soul. He wooed her with art.
I still have the intraspace chip he gave her that day at Skamania State. I’ve never entered it. To do so would feel too much like sacrilege. It was meant for her—a love letter. It should always be theirs alone. My father engraved the title of his art piece on the chip. In flowing script it says:Rena’s Song.
I’ve often wondered if it truly contains music. I’ve never known my father to compose music. Music was my mother’s art. But it would be just like my father when wooing a musician. Ever daring, ever arrogant, always vulnerable to rejection by his peers, at the very core of his being, he was designed to reach for the stars, to stretch beyond his limits. He was an explorer, a pioneer.
I see so much of him in you, my dear… Sometimes I wonder if the two of you share a soul.
You’ve asked me to explain my indecision—and this seems as good a place to start as any, my friend. It explains so much of the nature of their relationship—he the visionary, she following in the wake of his inspiration. I worry it would be the same for you and me. I worry that your plans to skip the present and take a starship to the future might prove futile. Who is to say that whatever comes after will be any better? More than that, I worry that no matter how shortened our journey, we might arrive unhappy with each other.
To understand my fears, you must understand my parents. Already, you know so much. In the few weeks you were with my father, you were as a light in the darkness. You became a young sapling who ministered to the rotted and bitter core of an old soul.
Without you, none of this would have happened, and even as I write, my heart is torn between the grief of bitter loss and sweet gratefulness for the life you gave to them both. For a brief moment when all seemed consumed by void and darkness, your presence renewed them. For just a moment, the weight on their shoulders lifted, and the truth of who they were spilled out and flooded the world around them.
How could I not love you?
And yet, I fear that mundane reality would ruin it all. I’m afraid, Abby. Will you love me when I am not like my father? Will you still care for me when I wake up in the morning with spittle on my pillow and the perfume of last night’s dinner on my lips? I am afraid that this unsullied moment we shared would be ruined by the day-to-day of normal life.
You saw my parents at their best, Abby. I know them at their worst. To understand why I hesitate, you need to know their story as I know it. You need to understand the before, not just the after, which you helped bring about.
But already, such ‘minutiae’ about my father quickly fades as his stature in the imagination of the people grows. In just these last few weeks, his shadow has become so large that all those who knew him have been occluded by its thick, impenetrable darkness.
Like a child leaving home, it returns to us after only a few weeks, now unrecognizable, distinct. You and I must concede ownership of the myth of my father. It belongs to the people. It is theirs to cherish; theirs to idolize and abuse.
But perhaps those of us who knew her can still own the memory of my mother. Perhaps something of her person can remain behind unspoilt. But I want you to know her in truth, not just the pieces of her that you saw at the end, so I am writing down something of the things I remember of her. Other things I have researched, and the gaps I have filled in with educated guesses.
Remember, writing something about them was originally your suggestion, but I doubt this is what you had in mind. I doubt you would have suggested it at all if you had known that in the telling of their story I would be telling you about my doubts, but so it is, my love.
Before I was born, my Father once said that grief is the salve that soothes the soul, and I would like to believe some kernel of truth resides in his words, but right now, as tears stream freely down my cheeks, I am not so sure. I just know that you and I will be better for the hearing of their story—me as the storyteller and you as the listener.
I love you too much to be less than what I have been with you, Abby. Know that—know that I love you enough to let you go. I would never let pretense get between us or the moment we shared. I owe you that and much, much more.
With all my heart and soul,
The boy sat across from Rena Kerslake in a plain, brown corduroy jacket with felted patches at the elbows, fiddling with the straw in his drink. The army of curly hair atop his head had already started a slow withdrawal from his now expanding forehead. Rena prized authenticity, and the boy’s refusal to treat his oncoming baldness—that small rebellion against propriety—caused Rena to wish even more that she had something fascinating to say.
The hard, wood-backed chair in the campus pub dug into her spine. Vulnerable to fits of insecurity and their attendant distrust, Rena wondered how had she gotten herself into this. How was it that someone like Bertrand Langsam had asked her out? Why had she said yes?
Then she remembered the gift he had given her—the wide-eyed authenticity and the innocence it displayed—and she tried to relax. Her instincts told her this was no wolf in sheep’s clothing, but her mind still kept its vigilant watch.
The silence between them lingered, neither of them finding the means to break it.
Finally Bertrand spoke. “Your concert was amazing. I fell in love that night.” Having taken the risk, he looked up at her with ice-blue eyes.
This didn’t help Rena; she didn’t know how to respond. Since her recital six days ago, her life on campus had been turned upside down. Before that night, she was already well respected in the music department. Somehow the word about her recital had spread, and after tickets sold out in only ten minutes, the concert was moved to Bauman Hall. That had sold out as well. She had performed for over four thousand students, plus faculty, members of the public, and apparently a couple of important record producers, as well.
She tried to come up with something witty to say in return, to appear coy and interesting. “You know, I had to look up your name in the campus directory to find out who you were.” Mortified, Rena thought, Well, that didn’t come out right! But what am I supposed to say when someone tells me they’ve fallen in love with me?
It wasn’t the response she anticipated.
“That’s fantastic! Really? Oh, that makes me very happy.”
“Well, I’m so vocal in all the campus debates about the purpose of art that it’s nice to go out with someone who doesn’t already have an opinion formed about me or my tribe.”
Still a little mortified at her previous comment, Rena nodded. “I try to stay out of those debates. I spend most of my time buried in the music hall.”
“So if my reputation had not preceded me, why did you agree to meet me?”
Rena shrugged. Until six days ago, Rena Bo Kerslake had never imagined herself to be particularly attractive. Perhaps it might be better to say Rena had never considered herself to be the object of someone else’s attraction. In her own mind, she was always just Rena the musician, daughter of Bartholomew and Francine Kerslake, the poor wildcat miners from the Wy’east system. Rena felt heat creep over her cheeks. “I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone else likes you.”
She couldn’t yet admit to herself, let alone Bertrand, that she found herself attracted to him as well.
Bertrand looked at her with a furrowed brow and a twinkle in his eye, undeterred by Rena’s apparent gaffs. “You do at least understand that your recital is an event that will be talked about for years to come.”
“That’s what the agent who called me this morning said.”
Bertrand looked at her in surprise. “You got a call from an agent?”
Rena nodded. “Five, actually, and you’re not the only one who has professed their love for me since my concert.”
The confidence retreated from the ice blues across the table. “I’m not?”
Rena didn’t feel like putting it back right away. She was still too terrified by all the changes taking place to offer comfort. “No.”
“Well, then, I ask again, why did you go out with me?”
Rena reached into her pocket and pulled out an intraspace chip with the words Rena’s Song scribed on the cover. She held it out in the space between them. “This. This is why I came out with you. No one else did this.” Rena’s well-nurtured cynicism intervened. “Did you mean it, or do you do that for every girl you’re trying to bed?” She regretted the words as soon as she said them. Some part of her was trying to push away from a situation which seemed too good to be true.
The corner of Bertrand’s lips went up in a grin. He looked her in the eye and took the hand holding up the intraspace chip, placing it in his own. “I meant every word, and I’ve never done that before in my life, Rena.”
“Well, I guess that’s the last of your things.” Bertrand smiled at Rena.
Rena just nodded and watched as the small, anti-grav pallet drifted across the floor and into the corner with the others, then shimmied as it settled down on the ground. It reminded Rena of a hen settling down on her brood of chicks. Ever a woman for efficiency, her mother used to keep Earth chickens around for protein. The metaphor would have been lost on Bertrand, and although he would have been fascinated if she had explained, it seemed too much effort for such a small thing.
Bertrand turned to manage something on one of the pallets, leaving Rena with a moment’s peace.
As she looked around the empty space of the brown-walled industrial studio they were to share, Rena Kerslake wondered if she was making a huge mistake. It wasn’t the first time she had worried about her decision. Bertie certainly loved her—he almost beamed whenever she entered the room—but she wasn’t sure there would ever be room for her in a heart already given to his work.
She stepped over to the high bank of windows on the far end of the room and pushed open the door leading to the damp balcony. The clouds filtered light from one of Loowit’s moons. The lights from the nearby business district sparkled in the moist, humid air. Even at this great height, the smells of humanity on the streets below reached Rena’s nostrils. Without conscious thought, Rena put on her ever-present headphones, canceling out the intrusive city noise, allowing herself to melt away into a world of chords and beats. Swept up in the eternal flow, Rena relaxed.
Gently placing a hand on the railing, she stared out at the distant sea and the buildings which surrounded her. Further off, many of the larger buildings measured over a kilometer. Closer in, they diminished to only a few hundred meters, all of them colored metallic grey and black. The half-built luxury towers of Skamania’s dock district had recently been commandeered by young intellectuals, bohemians, and artists.
When they decided, or rather, when she accepted his suggestion that they move in together, Bertrand had made it his mission—their mission—to find the perfect jewel among the varied living areas in the artists’ quarter.
Rena turned to look back at their studio. Located in the top third of a building in just the right location, it was one of the few which didn’t have all the natural light blocked by the tall commercial towers that encircled the district. The room felt warm and inviting compared to so many in the area. When she had lost count of the number of apartments they had toured, she remembered Bertrand cursing under his breath as he muttered, “Who puts an arts district where there’s no light?”
When they had finally picked one, the rent ended up being about twice as much as they had budgeted. Things were going to be tight, but if her album sold as well as the production manager had promised, they would be all right.
Now as she looked at him bustling around inside the warmly lit room, she smiled. Taking off her headphones, she stepped back inside and asked a question. “Why do you wear a jacket all the time?”
Bertrand stood up and looked at her, grinning. As he often did, he didn’t answer directly but instead threw a question back at her. “Why do you ask?”
Bertie had this way of getting her to talk about herself that few others had. It was one of the things that attracted her to him. First of all, he didn’t take no for an answer. If she tried to avoid conversation, he persisted, but more than that, he was interested.
Bertie liked people. He studied human beings, looking for the ripples on the surface that revealed the unplumbed depths below.
He also asked questions so that he didn’t have to talk about himself.
Rena deferred. Shrugging, she said, “I don’t know. I just wondered.”
Bertie persisted. “Yes, but why did you wonder? You could have just as easily wondered why I wear an old-fashioned, white, button-down dress shirt, but you didn’t. You wondered about my jacket. Why?”
Irritated at his sudden dissection of her motives, an unexpected stubbornness came over Rena. “Perhaps I wondered about both, and you’re avoiding the question.”
Hearing in her tone a spark of frustration, Bertie changed his heading and answered. “It’s a uniform, I guess. A statement of ideals like any other thing we do as humans.”
“So what are you trying to communicate?”
Now questioned in his turn, Bertrand just laughed. “Come now, we both were raised in passive-aggressive households. You’re breaking the rules.”
Rena shook her head, letting her mouth go up in a piece of a grin. “What rules?”
“Don’t talk about the dead space in the room. Just slide right over it and keep moving.”
“I guess I’m not feeling very passive-aggressive tonight, and you still didn’t answer the second question.”
“Well, I am, and, no, I didn’t answer your question.”
Rena playfully cocked an eyebrow and put one hand on her hip. Something about the way he was skirting the issue made her want to push. It felt nice to turn the tables for once. She didn’t say anything.
Eventually Bertie withered. “I’m a hypocrite, all right? I say that I’m all about vulnerability in my work—that I seek true authenticity, but then I put on the jacket with patches on the sleeves to be taken seriously by others. I try and look the part, to play the intellectual.” He looked at her with mock fear and horror. “I’m sorry? Can you forgive me? Should we call the whole thing off?”
Much later, Rena had almost fallen asleep in their now-dark apartment when Bertie spoke. He lay draped across her, with his head between her naked breasts. “You’re right, you know.”
“You’re right about my clothes.”
“I hide behind them. How can I be the artist of authenticity when I hide behind clothes? I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore.”
Amused, Rena wondered what had brought all of this about. She responded sleepily. “You presume too much. I just wondered why you wore the jacket. I thought you might be warm. That’s all.”