Chapter 3: Closer to the Stars

Chapter 3: Closer to the Stars

An explosive roar tore through the night, shredding the silence. Ears still ringing with the echoes, she awoke to find herself standing in the central concourse. A statue of the sea goddess, Milara, toppled sideways beside her. The angry sound returned, louder and closer. Serenity gave way to madness. As she watched, eyes wide with horror, the Central Council Chambers exploded, walls crumbling to dust. A hundred thousand windows shattered. Glass rained down on the city streets, ringing like a million broken bells as the shards slammed into the ground.

Flames exploded around her. Fire burned everywhere, angry red talons clawing at the night. Columns of smoke wound their way to the sky, dark, sinister serpents. The acrid air choked her lungs, burned her throat and stung her eyes. Ash fell thick as snow, blanketing the city in a new kind of darkness.

There was nowhere to run. Everything burned. Everything shattered. There were explosions everywhere, ripping, tearing, rending. From the rubble and flames came the cries of the city’s inhabitants, screaming, coughing, sobbing… dying. Death was everywhere.

As she stood, frozen in terror, she was seized by icy fingers. Certain this was death come to claim her, she tried to scream, tried to make her legs move so she could flee, but found she was paralyzed, unable to make a sound in protest. Her vision dimmed. The horror and destruction grew distant.

She felt a gentle tugging and her feet left the ground. The city shrank as she was lifted high above it. The fires became bright lights on the horizon, the smoke spreading inkblots, the roaring faint echoes like distant memories. The destruction did not end, but she left it behind.

Higher and higher she floated, pulled by some invisible hand, until the sky closed around her. She lifted her head to behold a velvet, star-studded blanket, beautiful in the wake of the recent carnage, cool after the terrible heat of the flames. Glittering in the distance, the stars were dim but welcoming. There was nothing to fear here.

Her journey continued. She drifted, until the ground was a distant curve, until the planet was a tiny blue marble she could fit in the palm of her hand. She turned away to behold the stars, racing toward her from across the void. One of those dim pinpricks grew until it filled the whole of her vision.

The star burned, but not the way the city had. Here the fire danced, hypnotic, benevolent. The coronal flames swirled and shifted until they appeared as a hand, reaching out in greeting. She raised her arm and stretched as far as she could, straining. The star was so close now. It was almost as though she could reach out and…

~ ~ ~ ~

Anten came awake suddenly. Sitting up, he squinted through the darkness, trying to locate his wife. She should have been in bed beside him. As his eyes adjusted to the dim moon-and-lantern-light filtering through the curtains, he realized his wife was missing, her half of the blankets left in disarray.

He dimly recalled a flutter beside him. Alrayia must have tossed severely before she abandoned their bed. He was a sound sleeper. It would have taken several minutes for him to notice her thrashing. It was her absence which finally roused him. He laid his hand against her pillow, noting it was still warm. She hasn't been gone long.

Tossing his blankets aside, Anten slid out of bed and shivered as his feet touched the cold stone floor. Why do I get the feeling I keep forgetting to buy rugs for beside the bed? I should mention it to Alrayia. She won't forget. He pulled a robe over his shoulders and grabbed a loose blanket from the bed before he left the room.

I don't understand why she doesn't just wake me when she has these nightmares. It wasn't the only strange, irrational behavior his wife exhibited, but it baffled him most. What purpose does it serve to make me search for her? Perhaps she thought if he followed, it was his choice, while if she woke him she was intruding.

The question is, where has she run off to? Their house was large. It took time to search room by room.

His wife seemed to prefer the same havens he did. She fled often to the desk in his study. She liked to curl into his armchair in the living room next to fireplace. When she wanted to view the city, she would choose the rooms with the largest windows.

I'll start with the study. It has an entire wall of windows; she's twice as likely to go there.

He was pleased when he turned the corner and found the door half-open. He always closed the door of his study when he left. He nudged it open the rest of the way, expecting to find his wife half-asleep in his desk chair. Instead she was pressed flat against the window, cheek laid against the transparent surface, arms stretched over her head as if she were trying to climb the wall.

Astonished, he hurried across the room to peel her away from the glass. She hadn't bothered to don her robe. It was cool enough outside, a fine mist had formed where the chill mingled with the warmth of her body. I know she likes to see the city lit by the lanterns but this... she's never done anything like this!

With dismay, he noted Alrayia's skin was cool to the touch. He hurried to wrap the blanket around her shoulders.

"Come away from there!" he commanded, pressing a hand to her forehead, checking for signs of fever. "You'll catch your death of cold!"

Alrayia didn't answer. She pulled away, trying to return to her previous position. Anten interposed himself between her and the window. She seemed content to cling to his chest instead. He held her close, laying his cheek atop her head, hoping to infuse her with his warmth.

She doesn't have a fever. What nightmare drove her to act this way?

"Alrayia, what's wrong?" he asked. "What are you doing?"

"I wanted to see them!" she cried, her voice high-pitched, almost hysteric. "I wanted to be closer to them!"

"See what, Alrayia?" He gave her a gentle shake, in case she was still half-asleep. "Why are you so upset? If you want to see the lanterns then we'll go outside-"

"No!" she screeched, slamming her fist feebly against his chest.

Anten sighed. What else can I do? Alrayia buried her head in his chest and sobbed like a broken child. He held her, stroked her back, but he couldn't get her to move away from the window. This is eccentric, even for her.

"Not the lanterns," she said, her voice muffled, just as his patience began to wear thin. She lifted her tear-streaked face to look at him. "The stars."

"The stars?" Anten glanced out the window. "If you want to see the stars up close, Alrayia, I will take you to the observatory tomor-"

"No," she insisted, shaking her head, the edge of hysteria gone from her voice. "It's not enough just to see them, Anten. I want to go to them." She tugged against his embrace, trying to get to the window again, but he kept her close. She settled for pressing her hand against the glass. "I want to see them blazing bright as our sun. I want to reach out and touch it..."

Anten stared at his wife, stunned by her request. She'd demanded strange things of him before, and he'd acquiesced. He took her places in the dead of night. He hunted rare books or bizarre ingredients for her, along with a number of other requests which made no sense until he fulfilled them. This is outlandish. No one can give her what she wants.

"Alrayia..." He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "What you ask is impossible. You know we have no ships that can take us to the stars. What troubles you? Why do you desire this journey?" "You can find a way, can't you?" she pleaded, ignoring his questions.

He opened his mouth to deny her but the desolation in her wide, tearful blue eyes melted his heart. What does she want from me? Does she expect me to conjure magic for her? No Caltaran alive can grant her this.

"Alrayia, I..." He shook his head. He didn't know what to say.

"Please!" she begged, her lower lip quivering. "You always found ways before! I know you can do this Anten. I know it!"

"I... this is not something I can produce for you overnight."

She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek to his chest. "I know, Anten. I know. I do. But there must be a way. There has to be a way. You can find a way, can't you Anten? Please? Promise. Please?"

"Alrayia... I ca-"

"Promise! Please!"

Anten sighed. He always gave into her. He was careful when he made promises, particularly when they were made to his wife. When he gave his word, he usually intended to follow through with it; a rare trait in a politician. How I could grant her this, I cannot fathom.

"Very well," he said, choosing his words carefully. "If this is the only way to make you hap-"

"Say it!" she insisted, grabbing the sides of his robe, attempting to shake him. He was sturdier than her strength. "Say that you promise!"

Gods be damned... She knew him too well. She knew he would interpret the words he said literally. Anten felt no qualms leaving a task unfulfilled if he never said the words I promise, or I vow. It may have made him a cunning politician, but now he was trapped. If he gave his wife his word, she'd hold the promise over his head if he tried to wriggle out of it. She's not going to relent, but how in the world am I going to follow through with this pledge?

"I promise," he said, "I will try to find a way to get you closer to the stars."

Despite his stress of the word try, his frantic wife finally calmed. She breathed a sigh of relief and went limp in his arms. He caught her and bore her back to bed, trying hard not to wonder what he'd just gotten himself into.

~ ~ ~ ~

It took weeks of searching through half-forgotten databases before Anten Larath discovered a way to fulfill his promise. If we still used a paper filing system, this would have been in the bottom drawer of a cabinet at the far end of a cellar covered in dust. He hadn't anticipated this level of success. This isn't just possible, it's a good idea.

The project he wished to revive wasn't so old he couldn't remember its first trip through the Council. In its infancy when the war with the Ruvalli began, the Constellation Project had the misfortune of being deemed expendable as the war bogged them down. Like many other projects labeled luxury, Constellation was discontinued, its assets diverted, and the completed construction stored to await the end of the war.

Conceived at the Caltaran Empire's scientific peak, the project's intended purpose was not only to travel the stars, but to find planets beyond their solar system which could be colonized for resources. Councilors had dreamed of expensive retreats to exotic tropical planets. Scientists had dreamed of filling the void with scientific research stations. It had been a grand undertaking, and a foolish one. The project had been beyond their means, especially where planetary vacations were concerned. But I'm not sure why we scrapped the whole thing. Parts of it had merit. We could certainly use the surplus resources. The drive to develop more efficient weapons and defensive capabilities overshadowed all other scientific endeavors. There was a time we thought we could win this war quickly.

Years later, they were still mired in war. Though the Caltaran Empire continued to have the technological upper hand, the Ruvalli were relentless. I have to wonder if we've grown complacent. Are we really trying to reestablish peace? If so, why do we keep recalling Kantis for another round of celebrations while the Ruvalli pound at our border defenses?

They hadn't the resources for luxury getaways, but he could hear Kantis's voice saying no soldier ever chose a battleground devoid of escape routes. A colonization project focused on establishing a single outpost makes good, solid sense. Not only would it provide us with valuable war supplies, it would offer a chance of evacuation should the war take a turn for the worst.

He poured hours into the proposal, locking himself in his study every night for a week while he sifted through timetables, budgets, resource requirements, and manpower projections. No one ever accused him of being a passionate man, but he did occasionally throw himself into his work.

Anten never went before the Council without being thoroughly prepared. It wasn’t just his ready answers for the opposition which assisted him in defending his proposals, every member of the Council was aware of how seriously he took his sanctions. He never adopted a cause without logical reason. When he spoke, all ears would be alert, every man's curiosity would be piqued, and he would have everyone's undivided attention. It made them more likely to give the proposal due consideration rather than a cursory scan.

When called to speak, Anten stood, at ease under the intense scrutiny of the entire Council. Without hesitation, he announced, "I want to revive the Constellation Project." He detailed his reasons, presented his outlines and went over his projections. Halfway through his presentation, he started catching nods and the occasional murmur of agreement. When he opened the floor for questions, he was satisfied he already had supporters.

There was a murmur of conversation before the first dissenter stood. "The Constellation project is ancient, Anten." The voice belonged to Councilor Hindel, who was too young to have heard the original proposal. "We don't have the time or energy to waste on foolish old dreams. Those resources would be better spent on the war effort."

Hindel sat down to calls of support. Anten waited for them to quiet before he spoke again.

"So many of our assets pour into this war, I fear we begin to stagnate. Can we build something other than weapons? We accuse the Ruvalli of being aggressive, yet we pursue nothing but war. Have we become like that we so revile?"

The buzz of ascent following his words was louder than the last.

"What Anten proposes makes sense." Anten recognized the new speaker as Keld, an older, highly respected member of the Council. "His goal is less lofty than the original project. No one can claim the technology beyond us. With the advances we've made, it would be well within our means to produce a small scale colonization fleet."

"An undertaking of this kind would relieve many frustrations," another councilor added as Keld took his seat. "It would raise morale for the citizens to have news of something other than the war to look forward to."

"Those are all well and good," another dissenter stole the floor. This time it was Councilor Quenal, whom Anten always found disagreeable. Quenal's face contorted with rage. "But do we have the supplies and manpower to spare for something, just to make people happier? Shouldn't we be concentrating on keeping our people safe?"

"I thought giving our people an escape route, in the event of an overwhelming attack, would protect them," Anten responded. There was no hint of humor or sarcasm on his face, yet a ripple of laughter passed through the chamber. Quenal's face turned bright red as he retreated back to his chair.

Anten cleared his throat to reclaim the Council's attention. "As I have already outlined, most of the resources originally devoted to this project are sitting in store houses gathering dust. They have no practical application elsewhere. Making use of them will not detract from the war effort."

No one else claimed the floor. Anten was surprised to find the discussion winding down. Council decisions aren't usually so swift. I think I have most of the civilians on my side. The final obstacle is the military.

The lord high generals, who served as both councilors and military leaders, had a great deal of power during times of war. In fact they get more powerful the longer the war lasts. I wouldn't be surprised if they've gotten used to that power. Anything which detracts from the war detracts from their influence and is therefore a threat. They huddled together, whispering among themselves. If they could muster a reasonable argument, they may be able to sway the Council against him.

Aware of the possibility, Anten had prepared a defense.

One member of the military did not participate in the hushed discussion, Anten's brother-in-law, Kantis Isrical. He sat among the other generals, a frown making his dusky features darker, his blue eyes perplexed. It was strange to see the tall, muscular Kantis outside the group as if he were an outcast. He hadn’t braided his long, black hair for the Council meeting, perhaps because he didn’t expect any combat. He wore his hair unusually long for a soldier, halfway down his back. At the moment, it was bound at the nape of his neck, keeping it out of his face. He was not a regular member of the Council, but he was often invited to attend when the military wished to discuss tactics they expected him to command.

The named rank Kantis comes with so many honors, he could have a full seat on the Council if he wanted it. He already has Voice and even Vote whenever he's present. One of the perks of bearing the rank associated with the greatest warrior of our generation. The rank Kantis replaced the man's original name several years ago, shortly before he and Salis were wed. His face and exploits would have to pass out of conscious memory before the title would be granted again. I don't envy him the fame. There are those who truly believe he was touched by the god of war in his youth.

Most people outside the military had never met Kantis personally but, as his brother-in-law, Anten spent enough time with the man to get a sense of him. Unlike most men of his considerable rank, he wasn't interested in power or politics. He devoted himself to the work of a soldier. And he's damned skilled at it. It's the former, as well as the latter, that makes him worthy of bearing the rank. He was a reasonable, practical man. When he spoke, people listened. Anten had waited for a day he knew Kantis would be in attendance to present his proposal.

Before Kantis worked through whatever puzzled him, the chosen representative of the military stood. Anten didn't recognize him. One of the new Eldats, I think. The soldier looked as outraged as Quenal. "What you suggest, Anten," he declared, "is nothing less than surrender and retreat!"

This is their brilliant argument? Anten resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He snorted instead; it was the closest he'd come to an emotional display. "That's absurd. I have suggested no such thing."

The soldier was caught off guard by Anten's calm response and for a moment his rage-filled facade cracked. "That is exactly what you propose! You suggest finding a way to leave our home. Should we abandon this world to the Ruvalli? Would you have us begin again elsewhere?"

"Hardly," Anten replied with the same cool candor. "I'm not suggesting we relocate our entire civilization. That would be a gross overreaction, considering the tide of war has recently turned in our favor. I simply believe it behooves us to extend our options. Developing space travel technology which makes it viable to cross the stars in the future, allows us the opportunity of escape should it prove necessary. Is it not better to perfect the technology before we have need of it?"

Before the gathering could devolve into a seething debate, Kantis cleared his throat. Silence descended immediately. He must have worked through whatever puzzled him.

"Forgive me," Kantis said, "I know I'm not a full member of this Council, so I may have no right to speak-"

"Nonsense!" the standing soldier declared, offended at the idea of dismissing Kantis. "You could be one of us if you wished. No man here would deny your right to speak."

There was a general murmur of ascent from the room. Anten nodded to indicate his agreement.

Kantis looked uncomfortable, but nodded. "Thank you," he said, allowing his gaze to encompass the room. "Pardon me if I speak in ignorance, but I don't understand why there's an argument at all. Anten's suggestion makes perfect sense to me. Every good commander has an escape plan when he steps onto the battlefield."

The military councilors looked at each other as if realizing something profound. Anten would never have allowed his good humor to show, but he felt a small surge of triumph. Kantis had done in a few moments what would have taken Anten hours; he had silenced the opposition and sealed the proposal's victory.

~ ~ ~ ~

With Kantis's favor, Anten's motion passed unanimously. There was so much enthusiasm for the project, they accomplished more in a week than most projects achieved in their first month. Anten attributed the success to the fact that this was the first major undertaking unrelated to the war to receive backing from the Council.

Much to the chagrin of the men who'd headed the original project, Anten was placed in charge. No one could argue Constellation would have remained idle without him. He kept them as consultants, though he kept a close eye on them, ensuring they put the project ahead of their personal gain.

Even Anten felt rejuvenated by the effort, though he couldn't spend every day at the project site. He refused to shirk his duties as a councilor. Knowing the previous project leaders would be eager to assert their control in his absence, his first act was to appoint an assistant he could trust to tend matters in his absence.

His chosen right hand was a shrewd young engineer who always spoke her mind and had no patience for laziness or bad attitudes. Anten neither liked nor trusted many people, but he liked Maribel from moment he caught her telling off a man twice her size for faulty computer programming. She was a no-nonsense, logical woman, who kept everyone on task. With Maribel at the reins, no individual grew more important than the project, not even Anten.

Having an assistant he could trust, allowed Anten to split his time between the Council and the project. Most days he spent in Council sessions and most evenings he spent at the warehouse overseeing construction. His busy schedule didn't leave him much time to spend with his wife.

Alrayia didn't complain. She sat up into the night waiting for him to return home. When they spoke of the project, she responded with enthusiasm and encouragement. She never asked him to come home earlier. She never demanded more of his time for herself. Anten got the impression she felt a sense of urgency over the project and wondered if she was still haunted by the nightmare. He was glad to fulfill his promise, but he felt his wife's absence keenly.

In an attempt to fill the growing void he felt at Alrayia's absence, Anten convinced his wife to accompany him to the warehouse in the evenings. It wasn't unusual for councilors to bring their wives when they oversaw Council projects, though there was little for Alrayia to do on site. She hovered nearby while he spoke with Maribel or chatted with the science team. She pretended not to listen when he argued with other councilors. He took her on tours of the project sites, showing her the workshop where the engineers developed the engines that would power their ships.

Anten had already arranged for the two of them to undertake the journey when it departed. Anten would abdicate his Council seat to captain the small fleet for the duration of the mission. He knew it meant abandoning his responsibilities, but Alrayia was desperate to make the trip and he couldn't bear to be parted from her. I married her because she meant more to me than anything else. Besides, I'll be doing other important work that will benefit our people. One task is worth leaving behind for the other.

When assembly progressed far enough, Anten took his wife on a tour of the construction site, showing her the ships that would eventually fulfill her wish. Her favorable reactions to the hulking skeletons pleased him. She spent an hour questioning the lead engineer about various ship functions.

She seemed satisfied, but not as excited as he expected her to be. He knew his wife as well as she knew him. During the tour she seemed subdued, not a word he often used to describe his wife. He was frustrated his efforts failed to relieve her anxiety.

When the engineer finished showing them around, he departed but Anten lingered with his wife. Alrayia laid a hand on the cold steel shell of the nearest ship.

"Don't you like them?" he asked, concerned.

"They're beautiful," Alrayia answered, but she seemed sad. He took her arm and pulled her gently away from the steel frame, shocked when he saw unshed tears shining in her eyes. Wasn't this what she wanted?

Before he could ask what troubled her, Alrayia threw herself into his arms and hugged him fiercely. He could think of nothing to do but return her embrace.

"Build them quickly, my love," she pleaded. Then she laid a kiss on his cheek and fled, not just his embrace, but the warehouse, leaving him staring at her retreating form.

No matter how he enticed her, Alrayia refused to return with him to the project site after that night and Anten could not fathom why.

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