More info and context found in the Author's Note at the bottom.
Scattered Amongst the Stars
Alfred is six. It was his birthday last Tuesday and he got to have a really big party and it was really really cool, but the coolest thing ever was that he got an e-tab from his Ma. Everyone at school already has an e-tab -as a July baby he's one of the youngest- so now he can finally join in with the special classes that they have and play all of those games at lunch time.
Alfred doesn't like feeling left out. It's not nice, Ma says, when you don't include people, so that means that the people who play games on their e-tabs when they know he doesn't have one are being mean on purpose and that really hurts. Except now, now he can join in and be their friend again and won't have to sit alone at his table when it's interactive e-tab time.
It's not real learning, Pa says. He didn't want Alfred to have one, says that it rots your brains and makes you lazy, and says that the e-tab time is just 'enrichment', it's not part of the curriculum because they're not learning anything, just downloading and watching stuff. Still, Ma must have talked him around because on Tuesday Alfred opened the box and there it was, all for him. There's some games on it, from Grandpa, and Ma had uploaded some of his favourite movies for him to watch as soon as he'd synced his mind up. Pa got there too, he must have done, because there's also some files on 'Earth History', 'The Fall', and one about extinct animals which Alfred really doesn't wanna read but Pa's been mentioning at least one of them every dinner since so he probably should.
He goes into school and begins to chatter happily to his friend Ben as soon as he sees him about 'Zip Blast', the current school-yard fad, and about how he can't wait to sync up and play because he'd been practising over the weekend and he thinks he's kinda good now.
Ben looks uncomfortable. 'Oh, I don't think we're playing that one any more.'
'Huh? But...' Alfred stops and looks at Ben in disbelief, 'but Friday you said it was the best ever!'
'Well it was,' Ben concedes, reluctantly, 'but now there's the new 'Rock-ite' out so we played that over the weekend.'
Alfred's heart sinks. 'We?'
His friend has the grace to look as apologetic as a six year old can look about these matters but nothing more than that and at recess Alfred is alone once more. He tells himself it's okay, he doesn't care anyway but it's a half-hearted lie at best and he doesn't try to kid himself for too long. Instead, he decides he may as well sync up one of those stuffy files Pa put on the e-tab to pass the time and nibbles a cookie to keep himself entertained.
His teacher finds him gormless, ten minutes later. His eyes are glazed as he stares unblinkingly at the wall and his cookie, one chunk missing, lies forlorn on the table next to his slack left hand but his brain is more full and awake than it's ever been. Information about a long dead planet far far away pound and crash in his head and as soon as the data file has been properly synced he reaches out for his tab and loads up another.
At eight, Alfred has become that kid. No matter what conversation he gets into or who he talks to, if there is an opening or an opportunity he will bring up Earth and once that's accomplished he can go on and on for hours. He's downloaded every possible data file he can find about the entire subject: life before the Fall, the Fall itself, and the human race's desperate escape across the stars and for him it's still never enough. There's always another e-file to sync: about ancient nations, about old sciences and religions, about old wars and songs and dances and food; every second he can spare he gives over to tales of the past woven from the binary of today.
They are a scattered people, he likes to tell his listeners, there are hundreds of us, strewn across galaxies and planets and ships and no one knows how many of us there are any more because the Fall ripped apart alliances and histories so we don't even know who else is out there to find. Everything was lost, everything; the history, the stories, the places, the-
At this point, someone usually either changes the topic of conversation or he realises that they've walked away and left him babbling to himself, his eyes shut as he imagines the flight to freedom that happened too long before he was born. Adults are usually nicer and listen for longer, but they don't mean it either and by pretending to be interested in what he has to say they only serve to hurt him more.
He just can't understand, why does no one else find this interesting? Why does no one else dream of where they as a species came from and long to see it for themselves? Alfred would do anything to feel the wind on his face, to have breeze in his hair and the sun touch his skin because although he could play in a holo-room or go on a special holo-holiday it's not real and Alfred longs to just feel it. The sun on his planet is strong but the dense material of the domes blocks it from actually reaching him; he can't feel the warmth. At school he's learnt that it's too hot out there anyway and he'd die, but according to his data files the sun should be warm and gentle and fill up summer days and spring afternoons, so he can't quite feel the danger as much as he probably should. There's no air outside the domes either and what's the point of feeling the sun without a breeze, so he's not as sad as he could have been. It wouldn't ever compare to mankind's old sun, the sun in the stories he's growing up on.
He sometimes spends his recess and lunch at school rushing about as fast as his legs can carry him. Trying to get his own wind in such space is hard, but not impossible and if he focuses hard enough on his self-made breeze he can imagine that he's running over rocks and cliffs and weaving in and out of long gone animals that only the sky can remember. If this doesn't work, he syncs with his e-files to learn about something else, he's started to get into the people recently and likes the stories about normal stuff the most. Food, clothes, toys. Relatable things that he can see in his own home and use to imagine that he's been transported back through time and space.
There are often pictures of houses and Alfred marvels as how big they are and how much stuff those people must have had, collected form all the many places they must have seen. You can't get wood any more, but maybe if he asks Pa nicely he can get him some of that building material they use for making the new domes and he can practise making his own, just to see if he can.
He spends his weekends tinkering in his room with old bits of plastic, metal and cables and every now and again he plugs in a new circuit board to the plug sockets in his room and sees if he can make the lights turn on or off from somewhere else. Last weekend he built a fan and managed to make it blow. He can sync up a sound file from Earth and imagine that he's in a town somewhere way back when and there's a breeze on his face and there's someone who wants to talk to him.
Alfred is fifteen and is the best engineer in his school. He specialised early -he'd always had a knack for building things and he's good with numbers- and now this is what he's known for. Alfred can look at a electrical hub or a circuit board and immediately he can see either what's wrong or how to improve it and this makes him valuable. He's been building and fiddling with this sort of stuff in his room for ages but now it's finally cool, people actually want him to do that now. He sees it as a lucky thing, that he was bullied so much for it previously, because now he can see how much bullshit people like to throw when they want you to do something, how much an opinion of someone can change depending on their age and talent. Too good too young: weird and a nerd, you're wasting your time. Then you hit the right age and suddenly you're very experimental, very mature, it's good to know what you want in life. But ah, still young enough not to know your worth, you'll fix this for me for free, yes? If he wasn't as good as he is, he thinks, how valuable would they think I am? The answer scares him because he knows what it is and knows how thin the line he treads is; there are others like him, don't forget.
What even is he, without the skills of his hands?
He is seventeen. Alfred hates it, but Ma could use the help and Pa's not getting any younger, so he accepted an offer not too long ago for a entry level job in the government engineering department. It is an amazing offer for someone so young and fresh out of school, he knows that, but as much as he enjoys what he does the days wear him out and he spends less time listening to his e-files and more time building the dreams of others far more affluent than he.
He thinks he's doing okay for a while. The days whittle by easily and he starts to build up a nice savings pile that he uses to help out his parents every now and again. But he's nothing special. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of kids just like him on this planet who have been fed on a diet of strict, specialised schooling meant to produce only the best and Alfred knows that the only thing which sets him apart from the many many many others is his ability to just keep going. There is no safety in what he does at his age, no net to catch him if he slips up, so he begins to take on private jobs at the weekend to build up his CV further and get his name out there, making the chance of falling just that bit smaller. Before he realises it it's been a month since he last had the time set aside to listen to an e-file and that hits him, hard. He'd never had to set aside time before. Hell, he can't remember when he'd last done anything other than go to work, come home to sleep, and repeat.
He's struck by the monotony of it all. He can't see a difference between his life and that of his dad's, or his dad's friends, or anyone he knows, for that matter. Is this all there is? Is this all anyone does? When is there ever a break? Then, he gets it. There won't be a break. As soon as you can't keep up in this crazy race he's in, you're worthless. He's kind of been kidding himself, almost, that there'd be an end to it all, like a video game where you complete the level and then suddenly it's free play. You work hard to get a reward of, of something, or at least you can stop worrying and panicking about being left behind. There is no free play, he realises, it just keeps on going until you can't play any more because life has ground out your energy and sucked the vitality from your bones.
He goes running; pounding his feet on the treadmill he sucks in the humid air around him and imagines than he's running through an old Earthen jungle, dodging trees and leaping over crags in the forest floor. But there's no wind, and Earth refuses to come alive.
Alfred is eighteen. A message came through from Earth, old true Earth, that a new colony there is doing well and he hasn't been able to stop thinking about it since, thinking and dreaming about what he'd do if he ever went there, if he ever set up his life there instead of here. He could...no. There is no safety in history, he knows. There is no definite chance that anyone would want him to do that. Besides, there's no potential for definite growth, no stable career plan because you can't guarantee a career on digging up the scanty past of a long dead planet. But no matter how big of a safety net he could make for himself in engineering he feels no passion about any of it and the idea of spending his days encapsulated in this metal world of domes and tunnels makes him feel cold.
There's something that calls him in his dreams and whispers over the wind in his mind and this builds and builds in his feet until he can't keep them still any longer. One more look out of the window and up at the stars and he's gonna blow, he needs to get out and go go go because if he doesn't then he's gonna sink in this place.
Before he can stop himself he's bought a ticket and finds himself packing hurriedly late at night when his parents are asleep, stuffing clothes into the only bag he only which is far too small for this sort of thing but who the fuck travels anywhere these days? He hasn't got time to be better at this so he crouches under his bed and reaches in, all the way back until his hand scrapes the wall and he finds his old fan that he built when he was eight. He puts it on his bed, places his e-tab next to it with a message of what he's done and that's that.
He slips out without waking his parents, because saying goodbye would only be too hard and he knows that he'd end up changing his mind if they spoke even one word to him, so he says his farewells in silence and disappears.
Peter is five and he sits upon his mother's knee, playing with the buttons on her shirt. She's with other adults and they're all talking about something that he doesn't really understand but they all sound sad and the air feels heavy so he keeps quiet like a good boy should and thinks about other things to keep himself busy. He thinks about the e-book his nanny got him last Christmas, the one with the pretty pictures, and thinks that it would be nice to live inside that book, with the greens of grass that he's never touched before. He wonders if grass is hard or soft and he spends so long thinking of this that that night, when he is sleeping, he dreams that he is running on grass and it is prickly, tickling his feet.
There is a voice in the dream, singing him the story but it is not Nanny's voice, nor Mummy's or Daddy's, but another man's and the lilt of his voice sings a language Peter doesn't know but it is a good voice for story telling and so the dream is vivid and touchable. He flies through the grass, feet pounding at earth instead of metal and the voice chuckles, deep and throaty. It makes him feel safe.
He wakes up because his Mummy is stroking his hair and forgets; school teaches him about how the air system in his dome works. Grass isn't as important as breathing.
He is eight and they are learning about the old Earthen languages. There used to be many, his teachers says, and each language held a culture, a history and a soul of a people and there used to be hundreds of them on Earth before it Fell. The teacher is old; his words are flat and there is no passion in his tone, but a thrill runs up Peter's arms as he imagines so much more. From the nothing he is given his brain decides to give those dead languages life and all of a sudden there are bursts of sound echoing inside his head. The teacher moves on, the class sits bored, but Peter can hear consonants clash against teeth and tongue and fricatives slip between breathy vowels. There are phonemes which glide between dipthongs and tripthongs to bound and fall out of the hundreds of mouths of hundreds of people; whispers of a past no one can hear tell stories long forgotten.
There is a clap very close to his head which scares all of the sounds away. His teacher looms over him, frowning in exasperation.
'Again, Peter?' he says, 'Stop daydreaming, boy. I asked you a question.'
'Er...' his classmates snicker and he feels his ears go red. 'I'm sorry, sir, I wasn't listening.'
'That much was obvious.'
Peter's cheeks burn hotter and he stares at his e-tab, focusing on the light of the screen to stop him from crying.
Before too long the lesson changes, then the day ends and he's allowed to go home. He walks alone through the corridors and exits the school dome, coming into the shuttle bus bay. He's a big boy now, he can take the shuttle bus all by himself and he has a special card to prove it. Weaving in and out of the other children, he hurries to where his bus is docked and scrambles inside to rush to his favourite seat, hopping up and placing his bag on the seat beside him. He likes to sit alone, because then he can stare out of the window and dream for as long as the journey will let him without worrying about talking to someone. Not that anyone wants to anyway, the other children say he's not got a brain because he would rather focus on the story in his head than on their silly games.
Nanny doesn't mind, she says it's good for people to dream and says that he goes off to somewhere called 'Neverland' whilst she pinches his cheeks and calls him her little Peter Pan. But when he gets home Nanny isn't there, Mummy and Daddy are and they're huddled in front of the large e-screen in the sitting room, faces pinched in worry.
He drops his bag by the kitchen table and goes to join them. There is a man on the screen speaking about their air ventilation system and a 'catastrophic degradation' and about some big numbers with a scientist nodding seriously to his left.
'What do we do now?' His mother's voice is hushed, fragile.
His father raises his eyes to her and shakes his head slowly. 'Debbie... you heard what he said. The planet's no longer viable.' His eyes flick towards Peter, suddenly aware that he's there too, and he smiles although it doesn't reach his eyes. 'Hey Pete. Do you mind doing your homework in your room today?'
Peter could ask why, but he sees that his Daddy doesn't want him to and Mummy looks like she's going to cry, so he glances once more at the screen and nods. He leaves them with the scary looking numbers and tips his books onto his bed. That night he dreams of waves crashing against his legs and he tastes the salt on his lip when he wakes.
At nine, there's some breaking news. Earth, of all things Earth, is habitable once more and it can't come at a better time. Peter sits on his favourite sofa at Nan's house, with his father having lunch, when the planet-wide intercom coughs its way to life and briefly deafens them all before the sound adjusts ever so slightly.
'ATTENTION ALL. PRIMARY SUPPORT SYSTEMS FOR THE SOUTH SIDE HAVE SUFFERED AN IRREPERABLE MALFUNCTION. BACKUP SYSTEMS WILL HOLD FOR APPROXIMATLY 3 HOURS AND 45 MINUTES. THIS IS NOT A DRILL; MAKE YOUR WAY TO YOUR EVACUATION POINTS.'
Then, it falls silent once more.
South side, that's them. Peter immediately feels as though he's going to be sick and by the look on his dad's face he's not alone. Once one half of the planet goes the other will surely follow. It's something they've all been expecting and planning for for years, but it's far, far too soon, they should have more time than this; they're not ready to go and the government's not even started the evacuation programme yet. His Nan shoots a look at his father from where she's sat in her armchair. It's a look Peter can't really read because there's something there that he subconsciously doesn't want to acknowledge.
'Earth?' Her voice is a thin whisper.
His father nods gravely. 'We got them Mum, the tickets came yesterday.' Peter's heart briefly lifts at the prospect, a longing that's deep and euphoric but then it crashes quickly. 'But...'
His Nan smiles but it doesn't reach her eyes. 'I know.'
Slowly, with growing horror, Peter understands. 'Wait,' he whips his head back and forth between the two of them, 'Nanny, where-'
'Don't worry, Peter,' she gets up and goes to kneel in front of where he's frozen in his chair, hands digging nails into the old material, 'I'll get on one of the other evacuation ships.'
'But you're not-,' his eyes burn and his voice is breaking but he doesn't look away, 'but you're not with us, why aren't you coming with us.'
'Oh Peter, my little Peter Pan,' she hugs him tight, pulling him in to her chest and he grips his hands in her shirt and tries to take in as much of her as he can.
'Mum we- we have to go.' Dad doesn't sound much better and before Peter can register much his Dad is hugging his Nan with a funny tight look on his face, then he's being pulled by the arm and out of the door, stumbling over his feet as he tries to keep up.
A terse shuttle bus later they get home to his mother already throwing their things into cases and boxes, haphazardly grabbing at e-frames and e-tabs to squash them and their memories safe under piles of their clothes. Peter could help, should help, but all he can do it sit numbly on the floor and cry whilst his life is collected and contained into a few measly bags. The rest will be left.
It doesn't take too long, thankfully, as Peter doesn't know what's worse, wanting to get this over with as fast as possible or wanting to stay and cling to the remnants of the only life he's ever known. As they make their way to the loading bays for the Earth-bound travellers he blearily finds himself thinking about what classes he'll miss in school tomorrow, but then he remembers Nanny and the ordeal starts anew as reality sets back in.
His parents are focused on more practical things.
They stand in line, their few pieces on luggage already being loaded on, and wait to board the ship they were assigned to only yesterday. His mother speaks under her breath, as if she is afraid to talk too loudly for fear of jinxing something. 'The Earth ships aren't even ready. They won't have enough food let alone rooms.'
His father shakes his head and slips his hand down to intertwine with hers. 'They must have known something like this could happen at any time, they've been predicting it for years. If anything, the rooms may not be ready but the agricultural sections will be.' He looks determinedly at the back of the head of the man in front of them and swallows. 'They only give out tickets if there's room. We'll be fine.'
Peter's mother glances his way meaningfully, and then back to his father.
'Jo, there're not enough ships; no one was ready in time. They can't have planned for everyone.' She bites the inside of her cheek, one hand on Peter's shoulder. Her fingers dig in, hard, but he doesn't try to shrug her off. He can barely feel it.
His father understands. 'She'll call us when she can.' Then, the line moves and they lurch forward together, huddled close.
Just before the door, where the tickets are being checked and where the din of the engines roaring into life starts to become uncomfortable, his father takes one last desperate look at out of the window at the distant domes of their colony, nestled in the dust. He taps an impatient rhythm against the tiled floor. 'She'll call.'
She never does.
Francis is three and his daddy has just left Mummy.
'He went to fight,' she says as she strokes his hair. This confuses him because fighting is bad and you're only allowed to fight if someone tries to fight you first and no one has been nasty to Daddy that he's seen.
Mummy doesn't answer but continues to stroke his hair, humming softly a tune she sings to him every night before bed that sounds old and sad and sleepy, so he just nods and rests his head heavily against her chest.
He doesn't see his Daddy again.
He is ten when he realises that there never was any war. The notion strikes him dumb one day in the kitchen as he distantly listens to the news playing through the announcer when he helps wash up after dinner. The announcer is speaking about something banal, a fashion show maybe, but Francis is staring out of the window and up at the sky, up at the stars that push through the daytime's thin atmosphere. He doesn't know what caused him to start this train of thought, but once it's started his brain quickly pieces together the puzzle that it has ignored all of this time.
At school they were taught about wars, about age old battles with guns and swords and metal where blood was spilt over land and the wealth it contained. But, there hasn't been any fighting here. He scrubs a glass, sponge squeaking against the side. And even if there was fighting somewhere far away, his dad would surely still be able to write or visit, or come back after all this time. And more importantly, if there was a war going on now then surely he would have learnt about it at school, rather than learning about age old political struggles on the human-ruined home world.
His mother takes the glass from his slack grip. 'Daydreaming?'
He shakes himself to and looks at her. Turned away and out of the window her face is suddenly older and oddly clearer than he remembers it being, she looks like a person rather than just his mother and that's a scary thought. It's as though the wash of childhood has momentarily slipped away and he's now aware of both it and the harsh brushstrokes of reality. She's a person and feels things, just like he does. So it hurts, that she lied, and it will hurt him for a long time because he doesn't know why but cannot for the life of him bring himself to ask her. Francis is good at reading people and he knows that this isn't something he should ask about, so turns back to the dirty dishes and doesn't.
When Francis is fifteen there is a war, of sorts. The planet nearest to them, the one they rely on the most for trade, switches governmental policies and refuses to continue their current agreements. This results in a breakdown of communication and heightened tension between the two colonies, each bristling angrily at the offence yet unwilling to be the first to initiate anything rash. There is minor rationing imposed upon Francis' planet until trade is re-established as well as a draft of specialisation training implemented, just in case. He's unaffected by the rationing; the draft is a different story. Just in case this trade block becomes permanent, his planet needs to be prepared to become fully self sufficient in everything from science, to food, to art, to the army.
The block stays in place and tensions rise. Against his wishes, Francis is assigned a scientific draft. He is now seventeen and knows he needs to be given something but he'd prefer agriculture or education to research, if he could have the choice, or the arts if he's allowed to dream. He isn't. He brain is good, his grades are high and thus he is far more useful to the cause working on the advancement of his planet than working to help feed it.
A few days after his birthday and a month after his posting letter arrives, his mother rides with him on a shuttle to his boarding station. He will try out four different areas: mechanics, medicine, biology, and physics, then he will be assigned to what he works with best, where he can produce the best work possible. But Francis can't think of anything worse than being stuck in a lab all day, shutters drawn and devoid of all personality. Even worse, he's heard the rumours that have managed to float back from those who have graduated and knows that once he boards this ship there's no escaping the life he'll be moulded into. The programme is four years long and then he will be placed into a job where he will stay until he dies. At twenty one he will have no other skills for work other than what he will acquire at the science facility, there is no swapping careers afterwards. He wants to do so much, there is so much that he loves to do, and with each passing shuttle stop his heart grows more frantic, fighting his brain which has accepted the inevitable.
He gets physics. He calls his mother to howl down the phone once, just once, before he realises the futility of doing so; nothing can or will change. Accept it.
At twenty, a year before his training would end, there is finally a truce. Trade resumes and Francis finally tastes sugar after five years but now, after so long, the taste is too much. Not fully qualified yet too old to be automatically accepted into another programme, Francis is in limbo. There isn't much point in him continuing his training, there are more than enough specialists now and not enough jobs to give them, so there isn't anything for him to do. It's odd, now that there is nothing to work towards he feels empty but at the same time everything is just too much. He returns home and his mother fusses and tries to talk to him, tries to get him to come out of his room and sit with her and he did, at first, but the longer he's home the shorter his resistance is and the longer the 'breaks' are in his room.
Emotions seem to be harder to process without a goal, that or he never had many to begin with and without something to distract him from that notion he's finally noticing how few he has. Either way, other people are small insignificant creatures who worry about such useless, banal things. Who did what, with who and where. Did you know, her son the doctor? Well, he's a you know what now and- ugh. Francis can no longer take it.
He doesn't really see this as a problem. He feels as though he's risen above other people and finally understands that such things are not worth his time; why worry, after all, about what job to get. Why worry about whether or not someone likes you. Every day, regardless of what they do, the planet will spin and the domes will reflect the same bleak, churning sky and Francis realises that he's trapped here, by this life and that his life means nothing. None of their lives do, it's all the same; nowhere new to go, nothing new to do. Pick a job, do the job. Come home, go back. Retire. Die.
So he sits in his room, because if he talks to his mother or to anyone else he is reminded that somehow he's supposed to care about it, that life here is supposed to matter to him just as it matters to everyone else. His mother will mention this or that and he'll have to either fake the responses she wants, or not and upset her and neither option sounds pleasing to him.
After years of monotony and training suddenly he is permitted to express again and it's like he's forgotten how, the parts rusty after all the disuse. There are too many emotions and he finds himself forgetting to use them or using the wrong ones because he can't do them automatically any more, for some reason, and reactions that call for an understanding of nuance are just lost to him. Very quickly everything is too much. Food, heat, depth, people, concepts, everything.
He hides away but then they stop becoming too much and they shrink and shrivel up and become nothing at all he can feel how empty he is. Nothing can fill the void he's got because he doesn't even know why it's there and he can scarcely tell that there's a problem in the first place. He does knows he's got a problem though, really, knows how serious it is by the way his mother watches him with fearful eyes and baleful glances. She tiptoes tentatively around the house, carefully softening her words and her gentleness feels like a pressure cooker slowly but surely building something that's going to get bigger and hotter and harder to make go away. She avoids talking about it, about how Francis feels or doesn't, and by doing so the problem is allowed to grow, unchecked. Francis doesn't have to act any more, doesn't have to pretend, and so the feelings of apathy grow and grow until they swallow him whole and all he can bring himself to do is sit and stare and the sky, a dark choking yellow.
It feels heavy to look at, like a lid covering everything in his life, all potential, all future, all growth. It just festers and sinks lower and lower still and he sits and watches it for days before he's realised he's done so.
When Francis is twenty-two, his mother breaks. Not that she herself breaks, but her patience does.
'I can't do this any more.' she says. There are tears on her face and Francis watches one slide off and fall onto her collar. 'You need to go.'
Francis appraises her properly, meeting her eyes. She flinches at his gaze but remains resolute in her decision, though her bottom lip quivers. 'There's nothing for you here, we both know that. You don't want to be here, so you need to go.'
'I don't want to be anywhere.' he replies.
She gives him a watery smile. 'I know. That's why, you might as well see if you can want to be somewhere else.' She lifts up her arm and shows him her e-tab, the translucent screen showing a brightly coloured ticket. 'I've bought you a flight. It's Earth, it was declared habitable a few weeks ago.'
Francis knows he should feel something, this is one of those instances when he knows that he should be feeling something but he can't quite imagine what emotion he should give her.
She doesn't seem to expect one. 'It's one way. And this, this is all of my savings, Francis.' Her eyes are wide and her face is suddenly so very very old. 'If you don't want to be any more, at least make that decision once you've seen this. You can't go without seeing this, after all. See this, see it for me and then you can decide, okay?'
Suddenly she looks shocked and runs forward to embrace him, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck and knocking her e-tab into his face. The garish purple of the ticket burns his eyes. 'Oh Francis.' She sobs into his shoulder and clutches tightly into his shirt. 'Oh Francis it's okay, you can cry if you want to.'
Ludwig is six, and is sick again. The doctors don't know what's wrong with him; they know what's causing it at least but they have no idea why. He can't keep food down and every time he tries to stand the world pitches and swims and he can't keep his balance so he never manages to stay up for long before he bonelessly falls to the floor, where he feels no better.
It's the gravity, the doctors say, for some reason he's affected by the gravity. The artificial gravity that he's known all his life; it's as if he's just climbed aboard and his body suffers from relapses where it just can't acclimatise. Where it suddenly realises that something's not quite right and rebels against him for a week or so. This his family already knows, but his mother isn't satisfied with such a lacklustre answer so she takes him to a different doctor every time he suffers another attack just in case one of them is even marginally more competent than the last. These 'episodes', as his mother likes to call them, don't happen all that often, but he seems to have one every ten months or so and they are regular enough to annoy his mother to no end. Ludwig doesn't really know if she's annoyed that no one can fix him or with him himself, Gilbert won't say and normally his big brother talks to pretend that he knows something so his silence worries Ludwig the most.
Mother is a very important person with a very important job: she's a governor of the space station upon which they live and it is very important that Ludwig remembers this. So, when he's laying in bed clutching at his belly and desperately clenching his eyes shut to minimise the swaying, his friends at school think that he is away for a special training academy. Because can you just imagine, the governor of a space station's son being space sick?
His father doesn't like to call it that because he thinks it's degrading so his mother doesn't, when she thinks Ludwig can't hear, anyway, but Ludwig knows that's what the kids at school would say so he happily keeps mum because it's easier than lying. They don't talk to him much besides, they find him too cold and distant but that's because he's so scared of disgracing his mother further that he can't quite relax fully.
When Ludwig is thirteen his mother, after exhausting all doctors aboard their large floating colony, finally accepts that it's unlikely that this small problem of his is going to go away. Her way of dealing with it is to pretend that it just doesn't happen; during an attack Ludwig is sent to his room where he stays painfully alone with only his books for company whilst she busies herself with her new campaigns. She's running for director now, aiming as high as she can go and there's no room for weak, feeble Ludwig all the way up there.
His brother tries his best to keep him entertained and happy during these times, but Gilbert is healthy, strong, smart; he's everything that Ludwig should also be able to grow up to be and their parents have sent him off to expensive schools which means that he's more often away from home than not. Sometimes Ludwig wonders if they've sent him away because they want Gilbert to be the all around best he can be, or if it's to distance him as much as they can from Ludwig. It's almost as if they're worried that Ludwig will taint him, or that maybe Gilbert will grow too attached to him and distract himself from what's really important. That Ludwig will anchor him down.
At five years older it's highly unlikely that Ludwig will be the one doing the influencing, but his brother, despite hardly seeing each other and such a large age difference, does seem to genuinely care for him. During one particular attack, when Ludwig is eighteen, Gilbert is home from university; it is almost Christmas and his family are preparing to travel to where his grandparents live on the other side of the space station, where they'll spend the holiday. Of course, it is now that his body decides to betray him.
He, his parents, and his brother are gathered around the large dining room table finishing off dinner. It is tense. Mostly it is Gilbert who talks because despite their mother's cool demeanour and their father's lack of interest he seems to always have something to say to fill the silence and speaks easily. Even with the response he gets, or lack of it, he seems honestly unperturbed and remains cheerful, somehow managing to both eat and speak without seeming impolite. As much as he loves his brother, Ludwig is also supremely jealous.
He stares at his fork, contemplating which point in the evening would be best to ask if he could slip away, when his body decides for him. His stomach swoops, his ears pop and the table tilts alarmingly. He clenches the edge in panic to remain upright and the noise alerts his mother, who looks up from her dessert in irritation.
'Ludwig, we are going away tomorrow.'
His mother sighs and looks at his father, who sharply stares back. 'Dear?'
His father grunts and spears another forkful of fruit pie. 'They're expecting him to come.'
'But the photographers-'
'What do you want me to do, Hilda?'
Meanwhile, Ludwig has still not been dismissed and cannot now seem to find the words to ask for permission himself without spewing all over the fancy silverware. He doubts that that will make the situation better, somehow. Gilbert notices and stands, attracting his parents' attention.
'I'll take Luddy to his room.'
'Darling...' their mother tries to say something, but it's what she's trying not to say that comes across the loudest.
Gilbert ignores her and walks around the table, slowly helping Ludwig to his feet, then away from the table and swiftly towards a bathroom. They make it just in time. Gilbert pats him comfortingly on the back and rubs soothing circles into his shoulders until he's finished, then hands him a glass of water.
'So, they're still arseholes, huh?'
Ludwig snaps his head up in horror, but this is a bad idea because the image of Gilbert swims before him and he has to shut his eyes.
'Don't call them that.' He finally manages, weakly.
Gilbert tuts. 'What the fuck did they feed you with in order to churn your personality out.'
Ludwig lays his head on the cool tiles of the floor and groans inwardly at how nice the feeling is. 'They're not arseholes.'
'Yeah, and my name's Shirley.'
Ludwig cracks open an eye, but Gilbert's not joking. He is, for once, deadly serious. 'How'd you put up with them Lud?'
Ludwig shrugs and gives a small shake of his head. 'They're our parents, Gil. They still care for me. Besides, I'm not exactly making it easy for them.'
Gilbert looks disgusted. 'You're their fucking son, arsehole. They're supposed to take care of you. They ain't even doing that right are they?' Gilbert runs a hand through his shock of white hair and bits his bottom lip whilst he shakes his head. 'Look at how they treat you versus me.'
'Yes, but I'm not exactly-'
'But nothing!' Gilbert raises his voice slightly and swallows. When he speaks again, he's much quieter, back under control. 'Have they got you in a university programme yet?'
Ludwig's silence is answer enough and Gilbert sighs deeply before brushing back Ludwig's sweaty fringe. 'There's nothing wrong with you Lud.' His brother sounds so very sad. 'Fuck, there's nothing wrong with you at all. They know full well that if they put you on a planet rather than this floating heap of rust that you'll probably be alright. And have they? Have they fuck.'
Ludwig wants to argue against him, wants to say something to stand up for himself if not for their parents but his eyes are suddenly burning and his throat is choked up. He knew a long time ago that his parents had given up on him, but to hear it from someone else hurts more sharply than anything he tells himself.
There's an odd companionable silence for a while; Ludwig lays still with his face against the floor and his brother's hand carding through his hair so he almost misses what Gilbert says next.
'I was gonna wait till Boxing Day, but I've got us tickets for Earth.'
Ludwig tenses and holds his breath. Gilbert continues. 'I was gonna wake you up on the 26th and take you away with me, but I want to tell you now instead, cause you look like shit. We're gonna get out of here Luddy; I've always wanted to take you to a planet and what better one is there than the original, huh?'
'You, I- you can't- what about your studies? The internship you've got?' Ludwig manages to stammer out, opening his eyes.
Gilbert brushes his concerns aside. 'I never liked medicine, really. I've always wanted to go to a planet, so I'm mega up for it.'
Ludwig knows he should say no, knows that he shouldn't take up the offer. He'd be denying his brother so much, he'd be exactly what their parents worried he'd be because he'll only drag Gilbert down and down and down like a heavy lead weight and ruin all of his chances at a good life.
But Ludwig wants to be selfish. He reaches out and clasps onto Gilbert's hand, squeezing it tightly. 'Gil...'
Gilbert flashes him a grin and winks. 'I know, right? How awesome am I?'
I really can't do short, can I? This was going to be a one shot, it really really was, but then as I started writing it grew into this monster that now is looking to at least be three chapters long, if not four. Sci-Fi, why do I love thee so?
Before I get into the context, thank you very much for reading! I don't really have much context planned out in detail for this as to how the earth collapsed, but many centuries ago the human race fled their dying planet and scattered themselves amongst the stars in space ships, each one bound for somewhere different in the hope than even one of them would be able to find somewhere to stay.
Once the planet is ready for them the remains of the old nations return with their people in dribs and drabs. This story will focus on the four main characters of America, Sealand, Germany, and France and their journeys, each of whom have side characters to interact with as well.
I found Ludwig the hardest to write. Or, at first I did. I had his story clearly outlined in my head but getting around to writing him was so much more difficult. This is also the first time I've written him (which probably explains it), and it was definitely a challenge compared to the other characters. So I left him till last, wrote him all in one go and, lo' and behold, I fell in love with him and now I love his background the most. The writing also now seems a lot more relatable with a better flow to it too in comparision to Alfred, who I wrote first, but I hope that that's not too obvious.
Phew! I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it, and thank you for reading this far. The next chapters are in the editing stage, and so will be up soon!
Please do let me know what you thought, I would love to hear any sort of feedback for this.
See you soon!