The Heart of Cygnus
by Ljubo Popovich
Thirty years ago, my mother landed on Planet 7, a rock so barren they didn’t even give it a proper name. No one comes here for a reason; people only end up here. She was another refugee, trying to outrun poverty and war, and the Seventh Heaven Children’s Home was where she left me, maybe planning to come back one day. Or maybe not.
I forgave her only because I didn’t know her. But every so often resentment bubbled from a deep vein within me. In childhood, the universe is composed of abstractions; people and places are too complex to fathom, concepts are stitched into memory minute by minute, but the resulting tapestry is full of holes...
Back then, the caretaker named me Grace, I was told, because a copy of the ancient hymn, Amazing Grace, hung in a silver frame above the fireplace.
I kept the song close to my heart, as I watched brothers and sisters get taken away like dolls from a toy store shelf. Every time a bunk became vacant, I wondered if I’d be the next to disappear.
In the center of the constellation Cygnus, which is called the Great Swan, Planet 7 orbits the star Sadr. First established as a refueling port, it quickly became a mining colony.
The aspect of space, forever poised in the night sky, always filled me with the terror of loneliness. The small orphanage was lonely enough. It was simply too much to think about the soulless vacuum of the universe as a whole.
Whenever I saw children gazing past the radiation shield at the roving dust storms beyond, I reminded them that love could grow in the most inhospitable places. I envied the young ones. They had time to hope for a bright future. The older ones waited for the military to take them and, after serving a term, they could venture into space, searching for a home among the divergent cultures of the stars.
How many brave orphans dreamed beneath orphan skies? How many scattered families will come in derelict cruisers and deposit the stray unwanted?
* * *
The sunset erupted into towering clouds. I drew the curtains. Worries receded behind my weary eyelids.
The enormous house groaned and settled into cool night shadows before bathing in moonlight.
There were still messes to clean and children to tuck in as my body wound down. With numb hands I swept the corners where dust mustered and waited for wind.
At dusk, the windows became projectors, flooding the corridors and gilding the cracks beneath closed doors.
I watched the quiet arrangement of bodies in the family room. A dozen kids with sleepy eyes sprawled in front of the television.
The infant I held in my arms was too small to realize I was not her mother. As long as she was in my arms though, with the warm bottle tucked in her mouth, I embraced the role.
In that moment, I forgave myself for throwing away precious years, as if Time would grow more bountiful the longer I waited.
I thought I’d found a cure for loneliness in working my hands to the bone. But endless work only subtracts a factor of time and adds a factor of loss to the equation.
As the children flash by, bare feet slapping the worn, weathered floors, the years seem to stream off them, like molted ethereal husks.
* * *
The only relationships I’d known were with the children I grew up with and raised. The concept of permanence seemed at odds with human nature. I’d belonged to nobody my entire life, and permanence was a difficult thing to imagine.
Lieutenant Everett was kind, fatherly and, unlike every other customer, leisurely. He had a single gap in his left hand: “A souvenir from the war,” he remarked with a wave.
He’d passed plenty of way stations, from one end of the galaxy to the other. One lonely, glinting orb is much the same as another, he said.
There were always restless gentlemen passing through on leave, vacation, or some unspoken mission, but when the glinting orbs of his eyes bore into me, it was as if a dark crust around my heart was burned away.
He spoke frankly, his good teeth gleaming with a smile that flitted from one corner of his mouth to the other. More than anything he was humble, stopping my hand as I tidied up the guest room for him.
“How many children do you have here, Grace?” he asked, taking the feather duster from me. I blushed.
“Fifty,” I said.
“How do you manage?” he asked, sweeping the windowsill. “No proper school, no amusement parks or movie theaters...”
“I remember what it was like for me and try to make it easier for them. The basic networks are hooked up via satellite, with educational programs...”
“You work too hard.” He stared at me seriously. “I’ve had fifty men under my command before. If only those reckless fools had been as innocent as your orphans... The war is an awful thing, but old men like me... I don’t know what we’d do if the war didn’t keep us chasing our tails.”
“War is part of our culture now,” I said absently, leaning against the warm window. It creates the future.” Behind the glinting heat shield sunlight blared down, lifting a constant steam from the rocky soil.
“That’s a cold sentiment,” he said, standing up. I noticed how lean he was, with a straightness that betrayed he was not as old as he pretended to be. “But you’re right, of course.”
The universe is a Tower of Babel, Lieutenant Everett and I agreed and, without the Great War to stitch it all together, neither love nor hate could carry us through the emptiness. Our progeny would founder in the immensity, spread as thinly over the body of the universe like drifting comets racing toward destruction.
“The war is a major manufacturer of orphans,” the lieutenant mused. It was hard to imagine the cadence of his life. Only on untamed Planet 7 was it possible to forget briefly about the war.
It was like a contagion that infected progress. The more populous a region was, the more trade and tourism it had, the more likely it was to feel the constant strain of the war.
Space was littered with many humble civilizations that opposed our ceaseless ambitions. But distance was no obstacle to conflict, and neither was time, as successive generations could attest. As the distance between allies increased, it got more difficult to tell them from enemies.
“It wears a body down,” he grumbled, “all the traveling.” He lifted his feet onto the hearth, his black boots scintillating in the firelight. “There’re a trillion stars out there, no problem hopping from one to another, but we just can’t stop killing each other over who’s in charge of what.”
No matter how fast the human race expands, space expands faster.
“I admire you,” he said. “You’ve been on the same patch of ground your whole life.”
“It’s a blessing and a curse.” The words didn’t sound right when they were out of my mouth. If I struck out now, my heart wouldn’t span the gap between planets, I thought. I’ve staked my fate to this forsaken place.
Yet, was it too late to hope the future held something in store?
* * *
A chain of supply trucks screeched on the rails behind the house. Dry rations were shuffled off the side, dumped roughly onto the ragged mound of grass I’d planted years ago.
Lieutenant Everett liked to pitch in, so he dragged some boxes inside, then stood against the fluctuating film of the radiation shield and stared out at the blasted landscape, watching the truck disappear behind the shimmering heat waves in the distance.
“How far does that guy have to drive to get here?” he asked.
“Most of the suppliers live off-world,” I replied. “The factories are operated by drones. The supervisory staff commutes to the planet once or twice a month. Since we’re right above one of the mines, the owner delivers our supplies when he makes his rounds.”
“Why would any intelligent species ever settle on such a godforsaken dust heap?” He sighed.
“There’s a lot of resources under the surface and even frozen water,” I said defensively. “The only thing it lacks is organic life.”
“Do many people come to this lifeless planet to adopt a child?” he asked.
“Sometimes, though not many stay as long as you have.”
He smiled. “I never told you I was going to take one of your kids.”
“Why else would you be here?”
He flashed another smile. “Well, I guess there’s no use hiding it. I could’ve taken a vacation anywhere.”
“I can tell you anything you want to know about any of the children.”
“There’s no rush. Since I never had any kids of my own, I don’t exactly know what to look for.”
“Why didn’t you ever have kids?” Perhaps the question was too bold, because he raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe I just never met the right person.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich