Short fiction – Star song

This is a short piece I wrote for Birmingham Writers’ Group last week. They provided me with some really useful feedback and I’ve rewritten a couple of sections to tighten it up. Thanks, guys!

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‘Go and fetch it, Keaton. Take it back to them. Show’s over.’

‘Mistress, it wasn’t made for such as us to touch,’ Keaton said, staring through the glass of the viewing room. ‘And it’s so big.’

Mistress snapped her fingers under Keaton’s nose. ‘Do it,’ she said, voice as clipped as the click of her heels. She stared through the viewing room, lower lip pinned between her teeth. Hungry for it. Afraid of it. Afraid, so she sent Keaton in her place.

Keaton swallowed and looked back into the viewing room that had been Mistress’s greatest success. Pieces of art from history, from different colonies, mingled with ancient artefacts and new installations, the whole both jarring and soothing against the glass and metal backdrop of the viewing room and the plain, cold utility of the corridor and, as Mistress had pointed out, the colder, deeper, blacker infinity of space outside the hull.

‘Mistress,’ Keaton tried one last time. ‘It’s dangerous.’

‘It’s a piece of art. Take it back to its owners; they’re leaving in a few hours, after one of their … ceremonies.’ The word was respectful; Mistress’s pronunciation was not. Keaton didn’t know the word “xenophobe”, but she understood its application well enough.

She wiped her palms against the translucent swell of her jumpsuit, with its ridiculous billowing sleeves Mistress insisted she waft with every movement, like she was part of the exhibition. From the looks of some of the guests, she had been, and almost sold too. Despite Mistress’s frown, she pulled up the sleeves, twisting and tucking until they were above her elbows, then she palmed open the art room and made her way in.

Sounds and scents washed over her, a sudden flaring of flutes and purring of strings and flourishes of applewood and rain. It tore at her, stumbling her feet and she faltered as the door hissed shut. Did some of the viewers have senses keen enough to appreciate the bloom of noise and smell through a sealed room? How everyday life must torture them if that were the case. Keaton wondered what she must smell like, sound like, to them, and shuddered.

Breathing through her mouth, she approached the artefact. Earlier, viewers had gathered on the other side of the glass to coo and marvel over it, babbling excitedly, nearly swooning with pleasure. It was ivory-cream, as long as her forearm, and it sat on a plinth of chestnut wood, unpolished. It was… it was a lump of clay or dough or icing. It didn’t move, it didn’t twinkle, it didn’t give off sound or scent or electromagnetic or electrostatic pulses. It didn’t sing. It just sat there. A lump of dough.

Keaton crouched and looked along its length for a glimmer or a glisten, something that might indicate it transfixed those with better eyesight than hers. Nothing. Grunting, she straightened and focused on the practicalities. It was big and it looked heavy. Worse than that, the way it was positioned among the other pieces meant she’d need to lift it from above, working her fingers beneath the wooden plinth and lifting, bringing the skin of her palms close – too close – to its rounded, boring, surface.

And though it looked so innocuous as to be in the exhibition by mistake, it was dangerous. She was a little hazy on its effects, but there was a reason it was inside a sealed room and it wasn’t just its astronomical price.

Keaton glanced up through the fall of her hair to the window. Mistress had her arms folded across her narrow chest, crimson lips pursed in that way that meant disdain. Keaton wiped her palms quite deliberately down the front of her jumpsuit, pulling the material taut over her breasts and leaving stains on the pale rose. Mistress’s nostrils flared.

Keaton put her out of mind. She tried to move a piece of statuary but it was heavier than it looked even in the light gravity, and she could only shift it a few mils. Not enough to slide the artefact to the edge of the table and pick it up from there. Scalp prickling and the sounds of water rushing in her ears, she wedged the tips of her fingers under one edge of the plinth, then the other. She leant forward over the table, arms cocked at awkward angles, trying to lift vertically, muscles in her back quivering.

The artefact came off the table and one edge of the wood clipped a vase of succulents, tilting the load. Keaton lowered her left hand a fraction, trying to level the piece, over-corrected, and her skin grazed the edge of the doughy loaf. It was cool, like the sea on Enceladus, and where she’d touched it it crumbled immediately into powder. Keaton hissed through her teeth, squinting at it, waiting for it to blow up or liquefy or in some other way be destroyed and, in so doing, destroy her. But it just sat there.

Gently, she lifted it clear of the other pieces and adjusted her grip. She turned for the door and the weight of it shifted, abrupt and wriggling, as though it were a child stirring in sleep. The web between thumb and finger on the other hand touched it, and a little bit more crumbled under her heat or sweat or whatever. Keaton’s eyes slid up to the window; Mistress hadn’t noticed. Maybe. As she stepped forward into the hatch, she blew the crumbs off the wood and they scattered past her knuckles and wrists to be sucked into the air filters.

Mistress palmed the door. ‘Hurry up, hurry up, their Eminences will be leaving soon. Take it to D Deck and present it to them with my compliments and the hope they will grace us with their presence again soon. Go. Wait.’ She wrestled with Keaton’s sleeves as Keaton juggled the artefact and this time as Mistress jerked her arm, the piece touched the exposed skin of her chest. It wasn’t cool this time, like it had been on her hands. It was warm like the touch of a lover, a hard palm caressing her breastbone, needful breath on her skin. She shivered.

‘Go, fool. And be quick about it.’

Mistress’s voice was the harsh cawing of crows on Earth, the rumble of icefalls on Europa, the whine of siroccos on Mars. Keaton winced. She passed Mistress and the overbearing scent of her skin and breath and hair oil and slunk out of the gallery into the space lift, hard plex-glass walls exposing her to the hiss and song of the stars as she travelled down the outside of the ship to D Deck.

She could feel the stars watching her, crooning to her, but she didn’t understand their language, though she felt their kisses on the back of her neck. Keaton shook her head. The lift stopped with a bump that made her gasp, and the powder from her chest skimming the loaf swirled up and into her mouth, her throat, her lungs. She sagged, dizzy with the taste of roses and ice and tongue and stardust, and the door slid open.

Keaton looked up, hazy, glazed, into the face of one of the visitors. His eyes widened when he saw what she carried, then narrowed when the crumbled, less-than-perfect edges where she’d touched it came into the light.

‘My lady,’ he said in a voice of autumn leaves and fox fur. ‘You really should not have. It might have killed you. You took a terrible risk.’

‘Mistress told me to bring it,’ Keaton said. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s heavy, I tried…’

‘You’re a server?’ the man asked. He stepped into the lift but made no move to take the piece. ‘This was an accident?’

‘What was an accident?’ Keaton asked.

‘I am Lindon. I will be your guide and tutor. Tell me your name.’

‘Keaton.’

Lindon’s eyelids fluttered when she spoke her name and he inhaled deeply. ‘Crackles and firelight and starlight and wolf,’ he said. His eyes opened. ‘You will do well if you don’t lose yourself. Your complexities will meld well with ours.’ He touched the skin beneath her jaw. ‘Soft and musical, blue with strength, with the sound of a harp string.’ He smiled. ‘You will do very well indeed.’

‘I don’t understand.’ The guests had spoken like this among themselves throughout the viewing party, imbuing inanimate objects with life and the properties of other inanimate objects, colours and scents that did not match them. A confusing jumble of sounds and words she’d taken for elitist arrogance.

‘It’s heavy,’ she whispered.

‘And I cannot take it from you until the process is complete. You must see the inner circle.’ Lindon’s hand on her spine prickled like pine needles and spread warmth like a slow fire. He steered her out of the lift, the stars falling silent, and down a corridor to the airlock where the guests’ ship was docked. He cycled the lock and pushed her through the irising door into heat and scent of lemon and chocolate. Keaton inhaled and felt a smile tug the corners of her mouth.

‘The artefact did not wait for us to return home. It has chosen our new blue-lover. She is Keaton, and she takes her place among us though she knows not our ways and has not prepared for how she will change. She will need all our aid.’

Faces turned up to them, eyes wide with surprise and growing delight. Immediate acceptance like hot silk across her skin.

Lindon snagged her attention with a fingertip on her arm. ‘Tell me, what happened when you entered the room? What did you see, hear, smell?’

‘Flutes and strings, apple smoke and rain. It was … beautiful. Could you hear it from outside?’

‘No. It was the sound of your acceptance by the Changing Stone. It plays only to the newly-chosen, but it played well for you, Keaton.’ He indicated the object still pulling at her grip. ‘We are the Synesthetic Collect, and you are our new blue-lover. Your confusion is a jagged note, your dawning fear a cold water on my soul. You have no reason to be afraid. The Changing Stone is making you like us, opening you to the music of the stars, the scents of curiosity and the touches of emotion. You will hear in colour and smell in noise and your senses will understand more of this universe than you ever thought possible. The Stone kills those it does not accept; your Mistress risked your life to see what would happen, but now she has lost you to us and to a world she can never dance inside.’

Lindon’s voice was caramel and razorblades and it wrapped around her in tendrils, like creeping vine. She didn’t know whether it would strangle her or not, but its embrace was irresistible. When he pressed his cheek to hers, the Changing Stone cradled between them, she felt green and his breath came on a slow note of a trumpet against her skin.

‘Give me the Stone,’ said an older woman with tiny pink jewels in the skin above her eyebrows, ‘and tell me where you touched it.’

Keaton passed it over, arms bereft of its weight, and held out her hands. ‘Palms,’ she said, marvelling at the timbre of her voice, ‘and here,’ she pointed to the smooth skin visible through the neckline of her jumpsuit.

‘I am Eloise, jewel-maker,’ said the woman, pulling a box from her pocket. ‘You are blue-lover, the colour you have been chosen for. Strength and curiosity. Turn over your hands.’

Keaton presented the backs of her hands to Eloise, Lindon’s heartbeat shivering through her frame like a steady drum, and Eloise pushed tiny blue jewels into the skin beneath her knuckles. There was a pop as they pierced the skin, and pain like hot ice and a taste of bitter ginger in her mouth. Eloise created a second pattern of jewels in Keaton’s chest, and as each one seated itself in her skin and soul, Keaton’s senses grew.

‘I heard the stars,’ she said and Eloise smiled like a piccolo’s trill.

‘And we will take you back into them, closer than you’ve ever been. Their symphony will swell your heart.’

‘And Mistress?’ Keaton asked, the word a twang of charcoal that twisted her lips as she spoke it.

‘You are mistress now, Keaton. You are blue-lover, and the galaxy waits to sing with you.’

Lindon took her face in his palms as the others gathered around, each stretching out to touch. Each hand upon her was a taste and a scent as well as a feeling, each smile and glance of the eyes a whisper of music. ‘Are you happy to come with us, Keaton blue-lover? Daughter of wolf and starlight?’

Keaton closed her eyes as the symphony began in her soul. When she opened them again, they wore the faces of animals as like to their souls as their human visages. The song swelled and she didn’t need to speak. She was a thread in their music now, and a melody all her own, weaving and dancing among theirs, her jagged off-key fear smoothing into joyous acceptance.

Behind them, the airlock cycled and the ship detached from the station. Far above, at a cold, round porthole in an infinity of silence, Mistress watched them leave with pursed and sneering lips.

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