Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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One With The Stars

by Steele Tyler Filipek


A meteor passed by overhead, sending trails of hair cascading down Cowrie's blouse. The young girl looked up from her book to catch sight of the comet's tail as it wound its purple course through the galaxy. Her watery and wide blue eyes reflected the thousands of stars that twinkled overhead.

The shooting star triggered something in Cowrie's memory. Cowrie tugged at a long--forgotten face, dredging up the features of someone she hadn't seen since she was young. But then Cowrie saw something else in the sky, and the memory drifted away.

A planetoid had appeared from behind the rings of the moon Prometheus. It drifted down out of the heavens, and in an instant, Auger appeared from within the sphere's depths, smiling. Cowrie beamed.

"Grandpa! Grandpa!" Cowrie yelled. She dropped her book onto the ground, waving her arms.

Auger's smile -- smooth, soft, and lined only a bit with age -- ran warm on the ethereal breeze. He waved back, only in greeting, though his granddaughter took it as an invitation.

Cowrie jumped up as hard as she could and floated back down to the ground. With another leap, she broke free from Nauta's gravity and flew out to her grandfather in a lazy arc.

"Careful! Careful!" Auger said, leaning out of the pilot's seat. The old man caught Cowrie in his arms, a laugh rumbling up and out. Auger spun his granddaughter above him, the field of stars twirling around and around before his muscles finally tired. Auger placed Cowrie down and kissed her forehead.

"I've missed you so much!" Cowrie said.

"Oh, I've missed you more," Auger replied. "You've grown! I haven't seen you since your birthday!"

"Not my last birthday." Cowrie's face dropped in mock admonishment.

Auger nodded with due solemnity, admitting to his absence. But that only lasted a second. "Care to help me rig this gal down?" he asked.

Cowrie smirked, nodded. Auger winked, and the two began.

It didn't take long. Cowrie circled Auger's small planetoid in a little more than a minute, unlatching anchors and tightening bolts. Auger, meanwhile, stayed busy beneath the surface, twisting valves so he could settle the orb down onto Nauta's surface.

Cowrie slid across the last few feet of the sphere's brass surface, landing next to her grandfather in a pile of maps. The whole planetoid purred.

"Ah, Urla likes you," Auger said.

Cowrie hid her smile, pretending to look at the dozens of aging star--charts that festooned Auger's helm. She brushed a large telescope that hung hooked to the top of the awning. "Do you ever get lonely on her?" Cowrie asked.

Auger shrugged. "She may be small, but she's a great conversationalist."

"Conver... what?"

Auger peered down at Cowrie over his spectacles, then placed the gears into an automatic landing pattern. "Listen," he whispered as he placed an arm around his granddaughter.

At first, Cowrie didn't hear anything but the hiss of gas. Weights shot out and landed onto the grass that rapidly approached below. Urla came in to land, a million of her gadgets activating so as to slow the descent.

But then the sounds came into focus. Underneath the loud crashes tinkled keys of music. Crystals clinked. Something hummed, off--tune. A pulse of life grew louder the longer Cowrie sat still, listening.

"Wow," Cowrie said. Auger nodded.

"Hello up there!"

Cowrie bounded to the railing. Her father, Ibscal, stood in front of the house with his arms happily folded across his chest.

"Daddy! Grandpa's here!" Cowrie shouted.

"I see, I see," Ibscal said. Auger picked up Cowrie in his arms and leapt out. Cowrie giggled as they drifted down to Nauta's surface. Just as Urla docked herself, Cowrie's feet touched the ground. She pulled Auger by the hand to greet Ibscal.

"It's good to see you," Ibscal said. The two men shook hands, slapping each other on the back and immediately fell into talking as if no time had passed at all.

Cowrie ignored most of their conversation. Even when her mother, Myida, appeared from the the side of the house, the girl remained quiet. The adults talked mostly about things that she wasn't interested in: fashion, politics, old stories. Anything besides that which sat heavy on all of their minds. Cowrie knew why her grandfather had come. Her parents had talked to her about it a month before. Cowrie's joy at seeing Auger quickly turned bittersweet.

Finally, the topic couldn't be avoided anymore. "All the preparations have been made, Auger," Myida said. She wiped her hands on her apron. "We picked up enough food and wine to feed an army the last time we passed near Urchin's."

"Do we know who's all coming?" Auger asked.

"Not yet," Ibscal said. "Some of the invitations were apparently lost in the post." He shook his head. "Really... what century are we even in?"

"A black hole is a black hole," Myida said. "People will be here."

"It'll be nice to see everyone one last time," Auger said. His expression mellowed a bit as he turned to Cowrie, remembering that she stood only a few inches away from him.

"Grandpa?" Cowrie said. "Are you really going to leave forever?"

"Hush," Myida told her daughter. She pulled Cowrie close and fussed over her child's hair. "Let's go inside. Your grandfather is probably exhausted from his journey."

"I won't deny that," Auger said. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off of his brow. The four walked inside: Ibscal and Myida, with Cowrie pulling away from her mother's embrace to walk next to Auger.

As she entered into the warm confines of the farmhouse, Cowrie tugged at her grandfather's hand. He looked down at her in the firelight, but put a finger to Cowrie's lips, silencing her. Cowrie pouted as Auger departed, following Ibscal to the guest bedroom that sat behind the library.

"Come on, Cowrie," Myida said. She beckoned for her daughter to follow her up the spiral staircase that jutted from the center of the floor. "Time for bed."

But Cowrie couldn't sleep that night. She tossed for hours beneath her quilts. Visions of Auger drifting endlessly through the stars haunted Cowrie every time she closed her eyes. The dull light of the cosmos filtered in from the window above, casting everything in a sapphire light, and finally, Cowrie couldn't take it anymore. So instead of sleeping like a good girl, Cowrie climbed out of her window and lay on the slates of the roof, watching the universe unfold before her.

Cowrie's senses stood awash in the scene before her. From her perch, she could see dozens of moons and planets disappear beyond the trees that dotted the extreme curvature of Nauta's small horizon. Combined with the smell of the hay from the nearby barn, the coolness of the stone underneath her calves, the chirps of the birds that roosted above the chimney -- Cowrie found some semblance of peace.

Because of that, she didn't immediately notice the smell of bourbon in air. Cowrie had assumed she remained the only one in the household awake; the garbled mumbles from the adults had died minutes after Cowrie had settled under her covers. But then she saw something move in the shadows as a leathery voice floated out of the night.

"Mind if I join you?" Auger asked.

Her grandfather slipped down from the gloom of the garret window. After Cowrie shrugged, Auger settled down beside her, his joints almost audibly creaking. "It's nice out here, isn't it?" Auger asked.

Cowrie mumbled something akin to a "yes".

"There," Auger pointed. A constellation that Cowrie had never noticed before suddenly became apparent next to her grandfather's bony finger. "I traveled there once... the second star in, that is. A water-planetoid. Strange folk, there. Gills and webbed--feet and all."

Cowrie didn't say anything.

Auger sighed. He went up on his elbows, looking around, as if the perfect words would be found inscribed under some forgotten nook. When his search turned up fruitless, he turned back to Cowrie. "You haven't heard word from your uncle Ark, have you?"

"No," Cowrie said. Her mind dumped a galaxy full of cobwebs out and spun. That had been what she had been trying to think of before she'd seen her grandfather. Ark. "No. I haven't seen him. For a while."

"I hope he comes," Auger said. "We didn't part on the best of terms."

Cowrie didn't nod or shake her head or do much of anything. Ark's transient ways and the anger that followed him made his name forbidden on Nauta. Cowrie's uncle came and went with ease, ceaselessly searching for something just beyond sight of his cobalt eyes. In truth, he grew into a man not unlike Auger, though Auger had the decency to stay in touch with those who loved him.

Auger felt the same things as Cowrie, or at least showed enough decency to feign it. He pulled out a flask and halted right before he took a nip.

"You won't tell your father that I'm drinking, will you?" he asked.

"No," Cowrie said.

Auger took that in with his spirits. "He still worries about my heart."

"I guess it won't matter in a bit," Cowrie said.

The words caught Auger off-guard. He snuffed. "Too true. You're smarter than most children your age, you know..."

But Cowrie interrupted him. She wrapped her arms around him and held tight against the leather jacket that her grandfather wore, tears already streaming down her face.

"Grandpa, don't go. I don't want you to leave," Cowrie said through her tears. "I don't want to have to say goodbye again."

"Cowrie, it's all right," Auger said.

"But this time its for good! I'm never going to see you again."

"Sh sh sh," Auger whispered. "Everybody has to join the stars sometime."

"But why?"

Auger's tongue tripped over itself. His eyebrows rolled. "It's the Law. Well, it's the way things are done," he admitted. "I can't stick around forever."

"Why can't you?" Cowrie said. "You're already a thousand years old. What's another year or two matter?"

"Well, because..." Auger started, but he stopped. "Because. That's just the way it is."

Cowrie held on, silent. Auger played with her hair, watching the sky overhead. His lips parted several times to speak before he finally found the right words.

"I've been around a long time, Cowrie," Auger said. He sighed. "I've seen most of the galaxy, met a lot of people, lived life. But my time is up. I can feel it in here." Auger tapped his chest.

He paused at that, and Cowrie thought her grandfather had finished. But then Auger continued, "We are all born out of stars, and after a while, we have to return to them. Imagine if nobody did. There wouldn't be space on all of the planetoids."

Cowrie snuffled. She wiped her eyes on her arms.

Auger sighed. "Did I ever tell you about the Roda Dingo?" he asked. "It all happened about two centuries ago on a night very much like this one..."

Auger pulled out some of his old adventure stories -- the ones that Cowrie liked best -- and soon the girl grew quiet. Treks across the Caminsci Clouds, bandit raids near the edge of known space, the Great War; they were all familiar and as comforting to Cowrie as a campfire. Within a short time, she fell asleep in Auger's arms.

Cowrie awoke lying back in her bed, her covers swathed around her. She wiped the sleep and last bits of dried tears out of her eyes, but only watched the sunrise for a few moments. The scents of bacon and eggs wafted up to greet her, and before Cowrie knew it, the day had begun.

Ibscal and Myida didn't want to waste any bit of daylight. The house needed to be cleaned from cellar to loft. The barn needed to be raked to make room for some of the festivities. The animals in the field needed to be tended to. The water needed to be drawn. Cowrie, sweating in the heat of the day, found that she didn't even have time to worry about Auger.

By the time night set in, Cowrie nearly collapsed from exhaustion. She collapsed at the kitchen table, covered in dried sweat. Her mother always made fantastic food and though the scallops in saffron that Myida set before the four of them that night were no different, Cowrie found she could barely taste her meal.

"I want you to get to bed as soon as you finish dinner," Ibscal said to his daughter. "There's going to be even more work tomorrow."

"Daddy!" Cowrie whimpered. She stifled back a yawn. "I'm not tired."

"Maybe she could help me unpack some of my things from Urla," Auger offered, wiping his lips on his napkin. "There's a lot that needs to be catalogued."

"Please?" Cowrie begged.

"No, Cowrie, and that's the end of it," Myida said. Cowrie played with her food a minute more before taking the plates over to the sink to wash. Rather than walking back to her room, however, Cowrie strayed close to the kitchen to eavesdrop.

"She's taking this awfully hard," she heard Auger said.

"Children always do," Myida said. "When my aunt went when I was a girl, I didn't let her go without some crying."

"I didn't know what to say," Ibscal said. "It's not like I'm happy about this..."

"Ibscal..." Auger started.

But Ibscal continued "...though I understand that it's your decision to make. Cowrie will understand when she's older. We all do."

"Too true," Auger said. "There is one thing I want to discuss with you about Cowrie, though."

Shallow whispering replaced their conversational tone. Cowrie pressed her ear as close to the door as she dared. She could almost make out the words. Almost. When chairs scraped against the stone floor, Cowrie leapt up the stairs. Cowrie planned to question Auger that night on the roof, but found that her body would have none of it. She was out within seconds of her head hitting the pillow.

The week passed by in much the same fashion. Chores piled upon chores while Cowrie despaired of ever spending any sort of time with her grandfather before he had to take his leap. Every time it seemed like the two would get a chance to talk, her parents would find another task for her. Cowrie stuck through it, but each day brought more and more anxiety.

Finally, the day of the celebration arrived. The morning passed like any other, but Auger went missing at breakfast. Cowrie asked about him from her parents, but they ignored her. Instead, Myida scooped her daughter up before Cowrie had a chance to protest and spent the better part of the morning washing and dressing Cowrie and herself.

Cowrie couldn't find the heart to look happy, however, despite the work her mother put in. The lilies in their hair were situated just so, framing their faces, while Cowrie's azure dress flowed behind her like a brook. Myida herself looked stunning in her own crimson gown -- both motherly and effervescent -- but had words only for her daughter.

"You look more and more like a young woman every day," Myida said. It was true. But it wasn't enough.

A roar of engines erupted outside. Both Myida and Cowrie jumped at the commotion, then rushed out to meet the first of the day's guests.

An older woman, looking more like a turkey in finery, descended from the heavens via mechanical balloons. "I am Duchess Astartida, daughter of the Count di Notte. I have come to see off Auger."

Cowrie sat stunned at the sight. Myida simply rolled her eyes as Astartida hopped down, flesh rolling amongst her many, many jewels. "I believe I have the address correct," the duchess said. "Well, where is the old man, anyway?"

"In the den!" Ibscal shouted from somewhere indeterminate.

"Thank you," Astartida said, exasperation flowing through her words. "Now, would someone be so kind as to let me know where that exactly IS on this rock?"

"I'll take you, ma'am," Cowrie said.

"Remember your manners with this one," Myida whispered to her daughter.

Cowrie curtsied and led the woman inside. The duchess applied makeup to her already caked visage the entire way, mumbling to herself. When Cowrie opened the door to the den, Astartida strode into the dusty air, brushing past the child as if she wasn't there. Inside, Cowrie saw Auger stand up from a pile of notes and books.

"My Lady Astartida," Auger said. Cowrie couldn't make out what kind of expression Auger wore. Astartida's intent couldn't have been anymore obvious.

"Ah, there you are," the woman said. She shuffled in, swaying her bosom and rump as much as she could, planting a sloppy kiss on Auger's cheek. "I don't travel a dozen light-years to be treated like this. But for you, I'll make an exception."

"As always, you are the pinnacle of grace," Auger replied.

Astartida chuckled, whipping out a hand--fan. "Is that other lout of a son here? I have a good mind to tell him off for those comments he made to me the last time I stood in his company."

"No, no," Auger said. "I don't think he's coming."

"A pity." Astartida grunted, fanning the waddling flesh on her neck. "I wish you would have stopped by last year while you were passing through my system."

With that, Astartida slammed the door with her bottom. Cowrie, stunned, could hear muffled conversation from behind the door, but then another guest arrived, and she reluctantly set out to attend to him.

The floodgates had been opened. As if the stars had aligned, guests poured in like rainwater. There were military men with chests full of medals, light-skinned shamans wearing no more than an overcoat and a loincloth, and many, many, many more. All asked for Auger as a man in a desert asks for water.

Snippets of conversation wove around Cowrie as she pretended not to notice the ticking clock that hung above the hearth. Cowrie didn't understand most of it because she moved too quickly through the deafening mob.

"...he and I served back in the service together, longer ago than I care to..."

"...and I said, if he doesn't propose to me, then he might as well..."

"...going to miss that guy. He was the one who gave me this scar..."

Auger found his way out of Astartida's company just in time to be inundated by his thousand other friends, all eager for the adventurer's attention. Cowrie fought her way through the sea of people, but kept getting bustled by her parents or guests for random bits of hospitality.

Finally, Cowrie pulled at her grandfather's cuff as he walked by, but before he could say anything to her, a burly man in a pelt overcoat charged in and wrapped Auger up so tightly in his massive arms that Cowrie lost sight of her grandfather in the mounds of thick fur.

"Auger! It's been far too long!" the man yelled.

"Moule!" Auger wheezed. "Moule... you're breaking my spine..."

Moule dropped Auger to the ground, not embarrassed in the slightest. The brute looked at Auger as if he were a long--forgotten treasure. "Always a pleasure, good sir. You remember my sister, Mossalen?"

A heavy-set woman entered, pearls dangling from her eyebrows, ears, and hair down to her pendulous breasts, prompting Auger to bend low and kiss her hand. "How could I forget," he said. "Has that wormhole re-opened?"

"No, no. You did a fine job," Mossalen said. Her voice rang husky and sultry. She fixed her gaze on Auger with a look that had become all to familiar to Cowrie.

The child coughed, perturbed. With that, Mossalen turned her beaming face down to the young girl. "And this must be the illustrious Cowrie."

"Ah yes," Moule boomed. "Your grandfather is always talking about you, child."

"I... uh... I guess..." Cowrie's arms fell behind her back.

"Oh, she's shy," Mossalen said. "You look almost exactly like your mother."

"You're grandfather helped me out of a bind a long while back," Moule said. "Remember that, with the Star Dancer? Near Rura Penthe? The wishes and all that?"

Auger waved him away. "Please, no talk of that tonight..."

Moule ignored him, grabbed a skin of wine off of a make-shift service station and proceded to slosh down its contents in one gulp. "Ah, yes, the Star Dancer. Some thought her to be a myth, but we proved them wrong, huh? Huh?"

Auger rolled his eyes -- not unkindly -- and leaned down. "Cowrie, could you be a dear and watch after Moule for me. He can be a bit rambunctious."

"That's one word for it," Mossalen said.

"...this was, of course, back in the days when your grandfather and I were charting courses for the Solarial Port Company." Moule took another wine skin, then stuffed two more into his coat. "Treacherous business, that..."

Cowrie, scared and disappointed, looked at the beastly man that towered over her. "Grandpa, I..."

Auger held Cowrie's hand. "I'll talk to you later. I promise."

"Come on, girlie," Mossalen said. "Show us around this planet of yours."

Cowrie reluctantly left the party behind. Evening set in as she pointed out the various landmarks on Nauta to Mossalen and Moule. Moule staggered behind, lost in his own world, but Mossalen made polite conversation and comments.

Cresting a rise, Cowrie pointed through the trees at the water shimmering in the cool air. "That's the pond," Cowrie said.

"Good fishing?" Moule asked.

"I guess," Cowrie said.

"It's all very beautiful here," Mossalen said. "Your father must be very proud to have such a lovely home and family."

Cowrie shrugged.

Mossalen looked down at her, then set down on a moss--covered log that hung precariously over the water. She patted on a bare patch beside her, motioning for Cowrie to sit herself.

"I know this isn't the way you'd thought you'd say goodbye to your grandfather," Mossalen said. "But he is a good man. He has a lot of people who want to say goodbye."

"I wish he never had to say goodbye," Cowrie said. She stared off into the willows.

"Don't we all," Mossalen said.

"I just don't understand. And no one is giving me any answers." Cowrie picked up a stone and hurled it into the waters. It gave a satisfying plunk, the splash rippling out to the water's edge in less than a minute.

"Nobody can. It's the way of the universe," Mossalen said.

"The Star Dancer could. That's what I was just talking about," Moule said. He burped and almost fell into the water. Then he frowned upon finding his last wine skin completely drained. "I could use her, come to think of it. She grants wishes, you know."

"Moule," Mossalen said. "That Star Dancer story is such a load of..."

"Wait," Cowrie said. "Really?"

"Oh yeah!" Moule slurred. "She can do ANYTHING. She is this... well, I'm not even sure if she's a she, really. But me and ol' Augie found her way back when. Just followed this chart he had toward the... where was it again?"

"Don't listen to him," Mossalen said. "He's drunk."

"I am not!" Moule shot up, far quicker than Cowrie thought a man of his size could. "I may have had a few, but never have truer words ever been uttered from this mouth!"

Mossalen had enough. She hopped off the log and pounded her finger into Moule's chest. "You're filling that girl up with false hope! Now stop it before I have to beat some sense into you!"

"You can't do nothin' of the sort, woman!" Moule sucked in his gut and hefted his chest into his sister's face.

"Who are you callin' WOMAN, you dundering jackass!" Mossalen bounced her stomach into her brother and the two set to arguing.

Cowrie snuck away into the thicket. She knew what she needed to do, and she only needed one thing to get on her way. It was a long shot by any stretch, but if Cowrie wanted to keep her grandfather from leaving, the Star Dancer seemed to be her only chance.

The party continued to churn with raucous laughter as Cowrie slipped through the shadows towards Urla. The girl climbed up the chains into the helm, then set about waking the planetoid as quietly as possible.

"Come on, Urla," Cowrie said. Urla hummed quizzically. "We have to go see the Star Dancer."

In a minute, Cowrie (with a little help) had all of the systems as a go. Whenever Cowrie thought she didn't know what she was doing, she would go quiet and listen to Urla. Within seconds, she would know what gear to turn, and so in no time, Cowrie found the coordinates to the Star Dancer's field deep within the navigational charts in Urla's memory banks.

"The Nursery Nebula," Cowrie whispered. She traced her fingers along the brightened course set into Urla's display. The nebula appeared as a smudge of violet against the black background, some distance away. "We have to make it," Cowrie said to Urla.

"Cowrie?" Auger called into the night. Cowrie's blood froze. It took all of her willpower not to respond. "Cowrie, are you out there?"

Cowrie hid behind a map fluttering in the breeze. No one could see her. Or she thought no one could. She waited, just to be sure, and soon, Auger's voice died on the wind. She quickly finished the final preparations and detached the last anchor.

In a minute, Cowrie soared with Urla through the cosmos. She found that Urla did most of the flying. Cowrie only needed to take the wheel when the ether grew a bit unstable, or when the directions became unclear. The brass gadgets whirled around her head, creating a euphonious whir, but after the initial adrenaline drained from her system, Cowrie found herself unable to enjoy the flight into deep space.

Time passed as hundreds of star systems disappeared in Urla's wake. Cowrie knew most of the regions near Nauta well, but within minutes of leaving her home's gravity, she found few recognizable landmarks. Cowrie trusted Urla to take her where she needed to go, but the unfamiliar space didn't do anything to settle her nerves. Just when Cowrie thought that they had become lost for good, Urla rounded a star, and there sat the nebula.

Its lavender clouds did not look very impressive, even as on approach, though that did not make it any less worrying. Cowrie could see a dozen newborn stars twinkling in its mists. Everything else within remained hidden.

Urla hovered at the edge of the vapor. Cowrie herself found her heart racing. She bit her lip and steeled herself against the railing. Slowly, Urla regained her momentum and floated into the haze.

Eerie silence permeated through the nebula's drifting clouds. Cracks of soundless lightning rippled as atomic particles danced in a ballet that would one day produce new stars. Even Urla's humming quieted down as she brushed through the translucent whisps. Cowrie rubbed Urla's hull.

"I know," Cowrie said. "I'm scared, too."

Cowrie had no idea where to turn. The navigational gyros spun helplessly without helmstars to guide them. The nebula looked the same in every direction. Cowrie and Urla drifted in the unending twilight. The smell of ozone hung heavy, and soon, Cowrie felt like she was suffocating.

A sudden gust of ethereal wind pounded the planetoid. Cowrie ducked her head against the gale, losing sight of their course. Urla groaned, twisting and turning. Cowrie jumped to the spinning wheel at the helm and held it straight. Every muscle ached in her arms as she forced Urla in a straight path, but in an instant, the pressure ended.

Cowrie collapsed on the deck, exhausted. Through labored breaths, she realized that both the silence of the nebula and the deafening roar of the storm had left. Instead, she opened her eyes and found a neutron star pulsating in front of her amidst a cove of empty space within the nebula.

"Hello?" Cowrie called.

The crucible undulated. Urla backed up, not waiting for Cowrie's directions. Then, a massive hand erupted from the blazing light, stretching out and grasping the planetoid in one swoop of its palm.

Cowrie screamed. She blocked the blinding light with her arms, thrashing out. But when Cowrie looked out again, she was alive. And alone.

Cowrie floated through a sea of wrinkled light, her hair and dress rippling behind her. Stars winked in and out of existence as unseen things swam in the translucent current. Cowrie twisted around and around, searching for Urla, before finally coming face to face with a figure that strode out of the light as if the radiance were a curtain.

"I... I..." Cowrie said.

The Star Dancer did not look like what Cowrie had expected. She was intensely beautiful, with features that Cowrie knew would haunt her forever. The deity's skin mixed in a kaleidoscope of colors. Each step brought something new and previously unseen into focus: jade eyes that faded to black at the rim; long, snowy hair that bonded without ridge into the being's scalp; fingers that melded and unmelded together. Cowrie stood overwhelmed as the goddess stopped before her.

"Why have you come?" the Star Dancer asked. Her lips did not move, but her voice echoed endlessly.

Cowrie's lips opened and closed. Her knees quaked. Her mind went blank. And then the words burst out of the dam in Cowrie's soul.

"My grandfather is to become one with the stars."

The star dancer didn't move. She didn't even blink.

"I don't want him to go," Cowrie continued. The words sounded selfish -- childish -- now that she said them out loud. "It doesn't seem right. I barely even got to know him. All of these other people have spent such a long time with him."

"Your grandfather is an honorable man," the star dancer said. "He is doing what all humans must do. I look forward to the day that he also becomes one with me."

"You... how..." A thousand questions raged in a maelstrom that spun through Cowrie's mind, but only the stupidest one escaped her lips; "You know him?"

"I know All," the star dancer said. She traced a finger, and a doorway opened to elsewhere. A million galaxies passed by in the split second that the star dancer kept the gate opened. Then, with a flick of her wrist, it closed. "Time. Space. Being. These are not barriers to me, but paths. You would not understand."

Cowrie's face dropped. A single tear rolled down her face as she stared at the immortal creature in front of her. The impossibility of her request then seemed absolute. There was nothing she could do.

"I'm sorry that I wasted your time," Cowrie said. "I just... I don't want to say goodbye."

When she looked up, the star dancer had turned to walk away. Instantly, a near-deafening roar caused Cowrie to cover her ears.

"Wait... wait! There is something else!"

The tempest that crashed around Cowrie swallowed her request. The girl knew she said the words, but whether the star dancer heard them couldn't be determined. Cowrie's vocal cords couldn't compete with the re-establishment of existence.

Then Cowrie found she was back in Urla, as if nothing had happened. She didn't remember how or when it had occurred, but in front of her, where the neutron star had once been, sat nothing but the haze of the nebula.

Slowly, Cowrie came to realize that something cawed out in the nebula. It started out as a mumble, muted somewhat by the ever-shifting vapor. Then, it became a human voice. And finally, the words took shape.

"Cowrie! Cowrie! Cowrie!"

Urla whirled around, recognizing the face. She darted forward, until finally, a massive sphere burst from the clouds above. On its forested surface stood Mossalen, Moule, and Auger, theirs hands cupped at their mouths.

"Cowrie!"

Urla rose to meet her pilot, but Cowrie hid her face in shame. She did not want to face her grandfather. Not like this.

"Cowrie! Is that you?" Moule called out.

"Oh, thank the Lord," Mossalen said.

Auger ignored them and leapt over the railing, seizing Cowrie in his hands. "Don't ever do that again!" he yelled. "You had your parents and I worried sick! Imagine running off like that!"

"I'm... I'm sorry grandpa," Cowrie managed to get out.

Auger released her, looking around Urla. "I can't believe you found this place. Why were you here, anyway?"

"Well, erm," Moule started, his face red.

"I heard that the Star Dancer granted wishes," Cowrie interrupted. "I wanted..."

But Auger cut her off. "If this is because I wouldn't talk to you at the party... Cowrie, there are better ways to get my attention." He hugged her. Moule wiped a tear from his eye.

"Come on. Let's get you all home," Mossalen said.

Within an hour of silent flight, the two planetoids returned to Nauta. A fanfare of voices arose as Urla settled down once again to the surface. Ibscal and Myida pushed through the crowd and held Cowrie tight between themselves.

"Thank you, Auger," Myida said. "I can't think of... thank you."

"One last bit of excitement before I'm off, I guess," Auger said. He rubbed his spectacles on his shirt.

"I'm sorry I ruined your party, grandpa," Cowrie said from beneath her parents' embrace.

"Cowrie..." Auger started, but then stopped. He smiled. "It's fine. I'm sure your parents will think of a suitable punishment for you soon enough, but I'm just glad everything turned out all right."

Astartida, sipping her martini, looked down at Cowrie from amidst the guests. "It seems there's some spunk to you after all." She winked. "Why didn't I think of the Star Dancer..."

A dozen guests rushed at Auger for a few words, but the old man brushed them away with nothing more than pleasantries. He checked the cylindrical time-piece that hung at his side and sighed.

"Well, I wish I could stay longer, but the tide is changing. I won't be able to leave for another decade if I don't do it now."

The crowd died down at that. A few whispers drifted through the throng, but Auger looked confident. The guests drifted away, disappointed.

"Very well," Ibscal said. It was all he could manage. He walked up and shook his father's hand. Everyone did, in turn. A few people had to hold back their tears, but it went quickly and quietly nonetheless. Only Moule broke social decorum and bawled as he wrapped Auger in yet another bear hug, but Auger's smile soothed even the most shocked expressions.

No one said goodbyes. They weren't proper, and they weren't needed.

"I guess that's it," Auger said. The military man and Moule brought out the long metal plank. Placing it on a tree stump, they bent it into a warped curve that led directly up into the stars.

Everybody went silent. Auger breathed in heavily. Cowrie went to say one final thing, but a strange look crossed her mother's face.

"Wait," Myida said. "Is that..."

The whole party followed her raised arm; nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The rings of Prometheus spun in their golden light, while a thousand jeweled stars twinkled in the folded robes of the nebulae. But then something shifted across the plane. One speck in the heavens drifted right, then came roaring down in a flash.

"Wait! Wait!" yelled someone atop the shooting star.

The comet hurtled downward and crashed into Nauta, sending up a cloud of earth. The guests dove out of the way, screaming, but the path of the asteroid came well short of the farmhouse. The mass of people coughed from the dust, but no one yelled in pain.

A cowboy stepped out of the murk. He stood tall and thin, though his legs were bowed from riding comets across the galaxy. When he removed his hat, however, familiar milky blue eyes looked back.

"Father," Ark said.

"Ark? Is that you?" Auger asked. He ran to his prodigal son. They hugged and whispered things that no one save themselves could hear. "I thought you were halfway across the galaxy," Auger finally said aloud.

"It's a long story," Ark said. He pulled out a singed and mildewed invitation. "There was a black hole, and a meteor shower in the Lagoon Province... and it doesn't matter. I'm here. I couldn't let you leave without saying I'm sorry," Ark said.

Auger turned to Cowrie. His granddaughter's cheeks were covered in tears, reflecting the shine of the golden rays. Her grandfather didn't say anything. Instead, he knelt and beckoned Cowrie into his arms. In an instant, the two hugged for one last time.

"Thank you," he said.

"I'll miss you, grandpa," Cowrie said.

"I'll miss you, too," Auger said.

Auger let go at last. Cowrie forced her hands down to her sides as her grandfather turned toward the plank. Auger placed his spectacles on the ground, looked up at his projected path to the heavens: final preparations. Then he took a running start, feet pounding into the ground, then the grass, then the pliant metal, until with one final bounce at the lip of space, he soared into the heavens.

Cowrie watched as her grandfather rocketed into the universe. In only seconds, she couldn't make out his features. In a minute, he had become just another twinkling diamond in the sky. And just a bit after that, he was gone. Forever.

No one said anything for a minute. Finally, Moule's stuttered sobs broke the silence, and people resumed talking, more soberly than before.

Ark walked up and shook hands with his brother, and slowly, each party guest came to share words of condolence and reminiscence with the family. Mossalen and Moule stayed longer than most, but once Cowrie assured them that she was okay, they left with a promise that Cowrie would finish their tour later in the night.

When all had finished, Ark remained standing next to Ibscal, Myida, and Cowrie. Unease settled into the air before Myida nudged her husband in the ribs.

"There is one thing," Ibscal said. He pulled out a letter from his breast pocket and handed it to Cowrie. He smiled at his daughter's confusion.

"What is it?" Cowrie asked.

"Why don't you open it, dear," Myida said.

Cowrie looked down at the envelope, addressed only to "Cowrie". She tore the wax seal at the back and pulled out the papers, tracing the familiar whirls of her father's handwriting.

There was a lot to follow. Three of the pages were a long letter that Ibscal instructed Cowrie to finish on her own time. A dozen or so pictographs were attached, as well. The treasure trove of memories nearly undid all of Cowrie's hard work at remaining strong.

A final sheet slipped out, twisting in the air. As Cowrie caught it, she saw that it was something else entirely, though she couldn't decipher the legal and spiritual directions that crossed the yellowed parchment.

"It's a deed," Myida said. But Cowrie still didn't understand.

"Your grandfather has left you Urla," Ibscal said. "He said that she ‘chose you,' whatever that means."

"She chose me?" Cowrie said. She looked overhead to the humming planetoid.

"She can stay in orbit around us until you're older," Myida said. Cowrie didn't answer, and so her mother turned to Ark and motioned into the house. "You'll stay for dinner, at least." It wasn't a request.

Ark tipped his ten-gallon hat. "Who am I to deny a lady?"

With that, the three adults returned to the party to give Cowrie some time to digest all that had happened. Ibscal looked out at his daughter from the entryway, something like worry on his face, but the somber laughter eventually drew him inside.

Cowrie stood there a moment more before releasing the anchors of Urla into the dusk. Urla blipped and blooped back at her. Cowrie smiled in return. Her grandfather's planetoid -- now her own -- went into a low-flying orbit. Cowrie watched Urla make several revolutions, and then headed back.

On her way, she noticed something shiny in the grass. Auger's spectacles lay in the bedewed grass, a bit smudged but still reflecting a transparent mirror-image of the young woman that looked down at them. Cowrie picked them up and placed them in her pocket for safekeeping. Then she went and joined the party.

THE END


© 2009 Steele Tyler Filipek

Bio: Steele Filipek's stories "The Hills Behind the House" and "The Aquarium'' have appeared in Fantasy Gazetteer, each winning contests there. He has also recently had a children’s book published (Race Car Drivers: Start Your Engines), as well as having worked on such franchises as Halo and Prince of Persia in his role as a transmedia writer and consultant. Mr. Filipek has also published a children's reader (Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Operation Huttlet), and several other short stories and plays that have appeared across the United States and in England. In the non-fiction category, he authored the young adult biography "Back-to-Back: Super Bowl Champions Peyton and Eli Manning: An Unauthorized Biography" (writing as Hugh Hudson).

E-mail: Steele Tyler Filipek

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