I stood watching the back of the stranger as he placed a kettle on the tiny electric stove.
“Do you like tea?” He asked without turning around, already pulling open a drawer and rifling through a noisy collection of pots, plates, and silverware.
I didn’t answer and the ship’s ambient sounds filled the silence between us. Weeks adrift in the Fringe had separated my mind from my body. The man’s jolly whistle, the ship’s dull hum, and the clattering of utensils all seemed like echoes in a waking dream.
“Ah, here it is. Chamomile tea. Have you had it?” He asked me as he held out a tin can and shook it in my direction.
It sounded as if he were speaking down to me from a deep, dark well. My attention shifted to the little porthole by the man’s shoulder, watching the smear of stars scroll by as we puttered through the barren stretch of galaxy.
“Bet not. I hear this stuff exists only in the history books for you folk. It’s great. Soothing,” he said. “Where’d I put that mug again?”
He went about tinkering at his small endeavor, apparently unaffected by my muteness. I let my gaze slowly wander around the small cabin. A narrow one-person bunk was built into the wall and a small kitchenette stood directly opposite of it. The air was heavy with the smell of old cooking oil and slightly sour with human sweat. Nothing like the sterile atmosphere they pumped through the Colony’s vents.
I thought of the ship’s exterior and the moment I had spied it through the Life Support’s viewport. Its brilliant cobalt coat had glowed in the surrounding starlight, cutting through the haze of my exhaustion. I thought the oxygen had finally run out and I was hallucinating, conjuring up figments of my brother's dreams while I stood at death’s border.
But I was alive, and the ship was real.
“Is this a Kingfisher?” I asked, even though I already knew. I had seen it on my brother’s desk for so many years. He used to take the model off its stand and let me hold it, tracing out for me the articulated wings, the dual thrusters, the pop-up lights—the machine was engraved deep within me.
“She sure is. And I’m Noah. You must be a nut. Only the real nerds know about this lady,” he said, rapping his knuckles against the wall.
The Kingfisher CBX7 was a single-pilot craft. Its namesake was an organism that had existed on a planet in Quadrant I eons ago, or so my brother once told me. He had been obsessed with spacecrafts. At an age when most teens would have had pin-ups of their favorite Stellar Girls, his pod had been plastered in magazine tear-outs of ships. The Kingfisher had been his favorite, and he would rattle off its specs faster than a salesman at a used ship lot.
“There were only two ever built, Anise,” Leo told me the first time he placed the Kingfisher in my hands. “The second one is located in a museum in the Third Circuit. One day, I’m going to go see it.”
“What about the first one?” I asked him.
He smiled. “No one knows what happened to it. They lost track of it centuries ago. There was a rumor that it had an Ether Drive.”
“Ether Drive?” I asked, eying the bright blue hunk of plastic in my hand, struggling to be as impressed by it as my older brother was.
“It means it could go hyperspeed. Can you imagine?” His hand swung a huge arc over his head. “Going from one end of the universe to another in a blink of an eye! Whoever's piloting it has probably seen thousands of different galaxies at this point.”
“That’s a lot of galaxies,” I said. “Maybe too many galaxies.”
Leo shook his head and took the model spaceship back from me. “Listen Anise, you need to have a bigger imagination than that if you want to get off this asteroid. You’re going to end up stuck in this little tincan working whatever dead-end job The System assigns you to, just like mom.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything! It’s all you’ve ever known! Are you seriously okay with being here when there’s a whole universe out there? I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to end up becoming a lever puller in some mineral factory out in the Flats. I’m going to build my own Kingfisher and go galaxy jumping while the rest of you all waste away on this stupid hunk of metal.”
Leo had been angry then, and it took me a long time to realize that he had always stayed angry. Even when he was laughing around friends and family, it had burned within him with the fury of a small sun. But because of it, he also shone the brightest amongst us all, and everyone seemed to gravitate towards his light.
“My brother,” I said to Noah, "he was the nerd.”
Noah poured out hot water from the kettle into a tin mug, ribbons of steam sighing from its spout. “I see,” he said. He then turned and held out the mug towards me before nodding his head towards the mattress behind me. “Would you like to take a seat?”
I took the mug and before I could decide, a sudden wave of fatigue crashed over me, draining the strength from my legs and puddling it at my ankles. I plopped onto the bunk without much choice. The room spun, and I brought my face closer to the mug in my hand, letting the damp billows of steam brush past my face as I waited for the nausea to pass.
“Careful, it’s hot.”
“We do have tea in the Colony. I mean, I guess we did. It wasn’t very good though.”
“Tea was many thousands of years old when I first came upon it. I’m glad to hear it survived the millennia.”
A few yards to my right was the cockpit. I eyed the beaten up pilot chair, the weathered buttons and levers, and the worn controls. It was all well-maintained, but the technology seemed ancient, at least compared to the rides Leo used to work on in his shop.
“My brother was going to build one these,” I said, still eying the cockpit, imagining him sitting there with that dumb grin on his face. “He was studying to be a mechanic and physicist.”
“A mechanic and physicist?” Noah asked, listening while putting more hot water on the stove.
“He was going to build a Kingfisher with hyperspeed, like this one. He could’ve done it, too. Leo was the smartest person in the entire Colony. All his teachers said so, and so did everyone else that met him. But The System eventually slotted him to work the mines. When he got the letter, he balled it up and tossed it, and then just went back to tightening the bolt on this red Bassrider. I remember it because I remember the moment. I think it was the first time in history anyone ever went against The System. He said they did it on purpose to try and keep him on asteroid.”
I grew quiet. I had always liked to talk about Leo, but I could feel something massive begin to stir within me. The tea had cooled, and I gulped a mouthful of it, feeling its warmth travel down to my stomach.
“It tastes like grass,” I said.
“That’s tea for you. You said your Colony had it.”
“Yeah, but it didn’t taste like this.” I swirled the remaining liquid around in the mug, contemplating the color. “They made it out of powder, and it was sweeter than this, a lot sweeter.”
“They’ve ruined it. Of course.” Noah groaned. “I’m surprised you even know what grass tastes like while living in that metal bubble.”
“We had green space in the Colony. I don’t know what you think they’re like on the inside, but they’re very livable.”
“I’ve been inside one before.” Noah leaned against the edge of the small counter with crossed arms and rubbed his chin, frowning. “Not sure if I would agree with you. I guess it depends on your definition of livable. If you think living trapped in a metal dome enslaved to a computer is considered a life, then yeah, I’d say ‘livable.’”
“You sound like my brother,” I said without thinking, and my heart lurched at the words, catching on a jagged spine of that monstrous feeling lurking inside me. Something angry and painful began to swell large in my chest.
The kettle began to shriek, and Noah rescued it from the stovetop. He covered the small distance between us in a few steps, and eased the boiling water into my mug.
“Sounds like your brother had a lot of life in him,” he said.
The pain expanded and the walls within me began to fold, pressing hot tears from my eyes. “He did,” I said.
Leo had been planetary, and the Colony’s cramped little dome would have never held him. The universe had an inexorable pull on his soul, and it dragged him crashing through wall after wall after wall of the many boxes people tried to stuff him in.
He would not be held back because he knew he was supposed to do great things. He was supposed to figure out the Ether Drive. He was supposed to build his Kingfisher, and he was supposed to dive off the edge of the world in it. He was supposed to see too many galaxies at hyperspeed, leaving trails of centuries in his wake. Meanwhile, I was supposed to waste away on the stupid hunk of metal–boring, but safe.
Instead, when the Colony’s nuclear core malfunctioned, he threw me into his shop’s only Life Support as soon as the lights started blaring an alarm yellow. He flashed me his dumb smile, and before I could get a grasp of the situation, he ejected me into outer space. The Life Support hurtled over the asteroid’s dark landscape, and I saw too clearly the silent explosion engulf the Colony’s silver dome, snuffing out Leo and his small sun.
I later woke with my mouth feeling like cotton, sleep and dried tears crusting the rim of my eyes. I lifted a heavy head, spying Noah sitting at the controls leaning back in the chair as he watched the starfield roll by in the viewport.
“I’m headed towards the Laniakea Supercluster,” he said without breaking his gaze from the stars. He had heard the creak of the mattress as I forced myself up onto my arms. “There’s a space station on the way there a few months out. I can drop you off if you’d like,” Noah said.
I nodded–it wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go. Realizing he couldn’t see me, I said, “Okay.”
I sat up and let my legs hang over the side of the bunk. A gaping silence opened up between us, and I would have been happy to sit on the other side of it for the next few weeks, but Noah began to fill it with talk.
“There’s a little galaxy out there where tea originated from–my home planet. I’m hoping I can get my hands on some more, but it’s been a few thousand years. Add a couple more centuries with the Ether Drive, and who knows. Maybe all they’ll have is some sweet powder. Maybe the place won’t even exist anymore.”
I thought about what he said. I remember Leo telling me once hyperspeed was a double-edged sword. You could traverse an immense expanse within minutes or hours, but at a cost of centuries. “How much time have you jumped?” I asked.
Noah waved a cavalier hand in the air. “A few millennia? Maybe some eons. I haven’t really kept track.”
“Don’t you have people you miss?”
He ruminated on the question before answering. “I’ve bumped into some interesting people along the way, but the universe is full of interesting people and even more interesting places. Don’t get me wrong, stability is nice and all, but it would cost me the stars, and I for one am unwilling to pay–at least, not yet.”
My brother had died trapped in the one place he hated the most, flinging me in his stead into that vast unknown he had always dreamed of. At first I resented him for it. I spent weeks drifting amongst the Colony’s wreckage, listening to the hunks of debris and splintered metal tap against my Life Support’s thin exterior, wondering why he had forced me into this slow and miserable death. He had made outer space seem rich with possibility, but it had turned out to be an empty and hopeless vacuum.
Then reality had bent in a strange way, fate’s wayward currents delivering me to the craft of my brother’s dreams, shining a familiar blue. Leo may be dead, but I was alive, and the Kingfisher was real.
“Take me with you,” I said.
Noah spun around in his chair to face me, his eyebrow arched high in disbelief. “What? Where?”
“My brother once told me the Kingfisher’s name came from a creature in Laniakea on a planet called Earth, where civilization first began. I want to go there. Hyperspeed.”
Noah chuckled. “Your brother really was a nerd, huh? I did name it after a bird on my planet, but there’s no guarantee it’ll still be there after all these centuries. And even if it were, I’m not even sure where to start looking. You still want to go? Willing to gambling a few centuries for something that may not exist anymore?”
“Well, you’re gambling for tea, aren’t you?”
A dumb smile kicked up on his face. “True!” He clapped his hands. “Then it’s decided. Laniakea, here we come! Destination: Earth!”
His words ripped the cover of sleep from my thoughts. I sprang off the mattress and hurried to his side, peering over his shoulders as his hands danced over all the switches and buttons, his fingers as graceful and certain as a card dealer’s working his deck. “When are we leaving?”
“Now–I never got your name.”
“It’s Anise.” I thought about giving him my clan number as well. “Just Anise. We’re leaving now? Already?”
“We leave now, Just Anise,” he said with a wry grin. “No time like the present.” He yanked a large lever at his side. The ship began to vibrate beneath me, and its engine’s constant mumble rose to a deafening roar. I gripped the back of Noah’s chair and looked out into the glimmering void spread before us, magnitudes more infinite than I could ever fathom. Somewhere out there was Laniakea, and within that thick pool of stars and planets, Earth, and perhaps even the kingfisher too.