the star pit
Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down. They put it out on the sand.
There was a mud puddle against one wall so you could see what was going on underwater. Sometimes segment worms crawling through the reddish earth hit the side so their tunnels were visible for a few inches. In hot weather the inside of the plastic got coated with mist and droplets. The small round leaves on the litmus vines changed from blue to pink, blue to pink as clouds coursed the sky and the pH of the photosensitive soil shifted slightly.
The kids would run out before dawn and belly down naked in the cool sand with their chins on the backs of their hands and stare in the half-dark till the red mill wheel of Sigma lifted over the bloody sea. The sand was maroon then, and the flowers of the crystal plants looked like rubies in the dim light of the giant sun. Up the beach the jungle would begin to whisper while somewhere an ani-wort would start warbling. The kids would giggle and poke each other and crowd closer.
Then Sigma-prime, the second member of the binary, would flare like thermite on the water, and crimson clouds would bleach from coral, through peach, to foam. The kids, half on top of each other now, lay like a pile of copper ingots with sun streaks in their hair--even on little Antoni, my oldest, whose hair was black and curly like bubbling oil (like his mother's), the down on the small of his two-year-old back was a white haze across the copper if you looked that close to see.
More children came to squat and lean on their knees, or kneel with their noses an inch from the walls, to watch, like young magicians, as things were born, grew, matured, and other things were born. Enchanted at their own construction, they stared at the miracle in their live museum.
A small, red seed lay camouflaged in the silt by the lake/puddle. One evening as white Sigma-prime left the sky violet, it broke open into a brown larva as long and of the same color as the first joint of Antoni's thumb. It flipped and swirled in the mud a couple of days, then crawled to the first branch of the nearest crystal plant to hang, exhausted, head down, from the tip. The brown flesh hardened, thickened, grew shiny, black. Then one morning the children saw the onyx chrysalis crack, and by second dawn there was an emerald-eyed flying lizard buzzing at the plastic panels.
"Oh, look, Da!" they called to me. "It's trying to get out!"
The speed-hazed creature butted at the corner for a few days, then settled at last to crawling around the broad leaves of the miniature shade palms.
When the season grew cool and there was the annual debate over whether the kids should put tunics on--they never stayed in them more than twenty minutes anyway--the jewels of the crystal plant misted, their facets coarsened, and they fell like gravel.
There were little four-cupped sloths, too, big as a six-year-old's fist. Most of the time they pressed their velvety bodies against the walls and stared longingly across the sand with their retractable eye-clusters. Then two of them swelled for about three weeks. We thought at first it was some bloating infection. But one evening we saw a couple of litters of white velvet balls half hidden by the low leaves of the shade palms. The parents were occupied now and didn't pine to get out.
There was a rock half in and half out of the puddle, I remember, covered with what I'd always called mustard-moss when I saw it in the wild. Once it put out a brush of white hairs. Then, one afternoon, the children ran to collect all the adults they could drag over. "Look! Oh, Da! Da, Ma, look!" The hairs had detached themselves and were walking around the water's edge, turning end over end along the soft soil.
I had to leave for work in a few minutes and haul some spare drive parts out to Tau Ceti. But when I got back five days later, the hairs had taken root, thickened and were already putting out the small round leaves of litmus vines. Among the new shoots, lying on her back, claws curled over her wrinkled belly, eyes cataracted like the foggy jewels of the crystal plant--she'd dropped her wings like cellophane days ago--was the flying lizard. Her pearl throat still pulsed, but as I watched, it stopped. Before she died, however, she had managed to deposit, nearly camouflaged in the silt by the puddle, a scattering of red seeds.
I remember getting home from another job where I'd been doing the maintenance on the shuttle-boats for a crew putting up a ring station to circle a planet itself circling Aldebaran. I was gone a long time on that one. When I left the landing complex and wandered out toward the tall weeds at the edge of the beach, I still didn't see anybody.
Which was just as well because the night before I'd put on a real winner with the crew to celebrate the completion of the station. That morning I'd taken a couple more drinks at the landing bar to undo last night's damage. Never works.
The swish of frond on frond was like clashed rasps. Sun on the sand reached out fingers of pure glare and tried to gouge my eyes. I was glad the home-compound was deserted because the kids would have asked questions I didn't want to answer; the adults wouldn't ask anything, which was even harder.
Then, down by the ecologarium, a child screeched. And screeched again. Then Antoni came hurtling toward me, half running, half on all fours, and flung himself on my leg. "Oh, Da! Da! Why, oh why, Da?"
I'd kicked my boots off and shrugged my shirt back at the compound porch, but I still had my overalls on. Antoni had two fists full of my pants leg and wouldn't let go. "Hey, kid-boy, what's the matter?"
When I finally got him on my shoulder, he butted his blubber wet face against my collarbone. "Oh, Da! Da! It's crazy, it's all craaaa-zy!" His voice rose to lose itself in sobs.
"What's crazy, kid-boy? Tell Da."
Antoni held my ear and cried while I walked down to the plastic enclosure.
They'd put a small door in one transparent wall with a two-number combination lock that was supposed to keep this sort of thing from happening. I guess Antoni learned the combination from watching the older kids; or maybe he just figured it out.
One of the young sloths had climbed over and wandered across the sand about three feet.
"See, Da! It crazy, it bit me. Bit me, Da!" Sobs became sniffles as he showed me a puffy, bluish place on his wrist centered on which was a tiny crescent of pinpricks. Then he pointed jerkily to the creature.
It was shivering, and bloody froth spluttered from its lip flaps. All the while it was digging futilely at the sand with its clumsy cups, eyes retracted. Now it fell over, kicked, tried to right itself, breath going like a flutter valve. "It can't take the heat," I explained, reaching down to pick it up.
It snapped at me, and I jerked back. "Sunstroke, kid-boy. Yeah, it is crazy."
Suddenly it opened its mouth wide, let out all its air, and didn't take in any more.
"It's all right now," I said.
Two more of the baby sloths were at the door, front cups over the sill, staring with bright, black eyes. I pushed them back with a piece of seashell and closed the door.
Antoni kept looking at the white fur ball on the sand. "Not crazy now?"
"It's dead," I told him.
"Dead because it went outside, Da?"
"And crazy?" He made a fist and ground something already soft and wet around his upper lip.
I decided to change the subject, which was already too close to something I didn't like to think about. "Who's been taking care of you, anyway?" I asked. "You're a mess, kid-boy. Let's go and fix up that arm. They shouldn't leave a fellow your age all by himself." We started back to the compound. Those bites infect easily, and this one was swelling.
"Why it go crazy? Why it die when it go outside, Da?"
"Can't take the light," I said as we reached the jungle. "They're animals that live in shadow most of the time. The plastic cuts out the ultraviolet rays, just like the leaves that shade them when they run loose in the jungle. Sigma-prime's high on ultraviolet. That's why you're so good-looking, kid-boy. I think your ma told me their nervous systems are on the surface, all that fuzz. Under the ultraviolet, the enzymes break down so quickly that--does this mean anything to you at all?"
"Uh-uh." Antoni shook his head. Then he came out with, "Wouldn't it be nice, Da--" he admired his bite while we walked "--if some of them could go outside, just a few?"
That stopped me. There were sunspots on his blue-black hair. Fronds reflected faint green on his brown cheek. He was grinning, little, and wonderful. Something that had been anger in me a lot of times momentarily melted to raging tenderness, whirling about him like the dust in the light striking down at my shoulders, raging to protect my son. "I don't know about that, kid-boy."
"It might be pretty bad for the ones who had to stay inside," I told him. "I mean after a while."
I started walking again. "Come on, let's fix your arm and get you cleaned up."
I washed the wet stuff off his face, and scraped the dry stuff from beneath it, which had been there at least two days. Then I got some antibiotic into him.
"You smell funny, Da."
"Never mind how I smell. Let's go outside again." I put down a cup of black coffee too fast. It and my hangover had a fight in my stomach. I tried to ignore it and do a little looking around. But I still couldn't find anybody. That got me mad. I mean he's independent, sure: he's mine. But he's only two.
Back on the beach we buried the dead sloth in sand; then, through the ecologarium's fogged and dripping walls, I pointed out the new, glittering stalks of the tiny crystal plants. At the bottom of the pond, in the jellied mass of ani-wort eggs, you could see the tadpole forms quivering already. An orange-fringed shelf fungus had sprouted nearly eight inches since it had been just a few black spores on a pile of dead leaves two weeks back.
"Grow up," Antoni chirped, with nose and fists against the plastic. "Everything grow up, and up."
He grinned at me. "I grow!"
"You sure as hell do."
"You grow?" Then he shook his head, twice: once to say no, and the second time because he got a kick from shaking his hair around--there was a lot of it. "You don't grow. You don't get any bigger. Why don't you grow?"
"I do too," I said indignantly. "Just very slowly."
Antoni turned around, leaned on the plastic and moved one toe at a time in the sand--I can't do that--watching me.
"You have to grow all the time," I said. "Not necessarily get bigger. But inside your head you have to grow, kid-boy. For us human-type people that's what's important. And that kind of growing never stops. At least it shouldn't. You can grow, kid-boy; or you can die. That's the choice you've got, and it goes on all of your life."
He looked back over his shoulder. "Grow up, all the time, even if they can't get out."
"Yeah," I said. And was uncomfortable all over again. I started pulling off my overalls for something to do. "Even--" The zipper got stuck. "Goddamn it--if you can't get out." Rnrnrnrnrn--it came loose.
The rest got back that evening. They'd been on a group trip around the foot of the mountain. I did a little shouting to make sure my point got across about leaving Antoni alone. Didn't do much good. You know those family arguments:
He didn't want to come. We weren't going to force--
So what. He's got to learn to do things he doesn't want--
Like some other people I could mention!
It's a healthy group. Don't you want him to grow up a healthy--
I'll be happy if he just grows up period. No food, no medical--
But the server was chock full of food. He knows how to use it--
Look, when I got home the kid's arm was swollen all the way up to his elbow!
And so on and so forth, with Antoni sitting in the middle looking confused. When he got confused enough, he ended it all by announcing matter-of-factly: "Da smell funny when he came home."
Everyone got quiet. Then someone said, "Oh, Vyme, you didn't come home that way again! I mean, in front of the children . . ."
I said a couple of things I was sorry for later and stalked off down the beach--on a four-mile hike.
Times I got home from work? The ecologarium? I guess I'm just leading up to this one.
The particular job had taken me a hectic week to get. It was putting back together a battleship that was gutted somewhere off Aurigae. Only when I got there, I found I'd already been laid off. That particular war was over--they're real quick now. So I scraped and lied and browned my way into a repair gang that was servicing a traveling replacement station, generally had to humiliate myself to get the job because every other drive mechanic from the battleship fiasco was after it too. Then I got canned the first day because I came to work . . . smelling funny. It took me another week to hitch a ride back to Sigma. Didn't even have enough to pay passage, but I made a deal with the pilot I'd do half the driving for him.
We were an hour out, and I was at the controls when something I'd never heard of happening happened. We came this close to ramming another ship. Consider how much empty space there is; the chances are infinitesimal. On top of that, every ship should be broadcasting an identification beam at all times.
Excerpted from Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 2003 by Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.