Down In The Wreck Of The Promise by Sarah Jackson

Kerfan picked his way through chunks of rubble tufted with patches of pale purple moss, and tried to ignore the sighs and groans of the ship’s ancient hull as it shifted uncomfortably, like an elder trying to settle in bed. Most of the outer coating had been picked clean long ago, along with the interior panels. The vast metal frame was webbed with blackened wires, crumbling networks of tubes and shreds of silvery insulation sheeting. To either side of him, the structural support beams curved high into the air like the ribs of a giant carcass.

They called it “the ship,” but it’s name was The Promise. It had carried his ancestors through the galaxy for 214 years before they reached this planet, which they had named Drela. Looking at it now, that seemed hard to believe. The whole front half had collapsed around a decade ago. He remembered the day, the exact moment. He was in school, and the crash was so loud the classroom windows rattled. Of course they’d all leapt up and rushed to look out despite the teacher’s cries. For a few minutes they couldn’t see anything except yellow clouds of dusty earth and birds, scattered and wheeling indignantly. When the air cleared, they’d seen the blank space where the ship’s nose had been. He remembered how they all fell quiet, seeing the familiar gray bulk, the backdrop to their entire lives, so mutilated.

He’d looked up at the teacher and been shocked to see tears in his eyes. In that moment, a gulf had opened between them as he understood for the first time their different origins. Kerfan had been born here, on the ground. But Mr. Triol had been born among the stars. And the rusting mountain at the edge of their town had been his home.

Kerfan had watched Mr. Triol as the tears rolled silently behind his glasses and dripped on his cardigan, blending with the sauce stain that was waiting there, unseen. He’d thought of the ship moving silently through black, empty space, watched indifferently by the glittering stars. He thought of Mr. Triol, floating in endless, cold dark, and felt frightened. He’d whimpered and Mr. Triol had looked down with his kind crinkled face and said, “It’s all right. She had to go one day.” Then he gave Kerfan’s small shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

Mr. Triol had finally retired this year, the same year that Kerfan had begun Tending, as a trainee. It wasn’t his childhood dream, exactly. He’d wanted to be an engineer, but then who didn’t? But gradually he had been drawn to it. He wanted to understand people. He found that he liked to listen, found that he was good at it. And by the time he told his parents he wanted to learn to Tend they’d simply smiled, as if they’d known all along that’s what his path would be. Perhaps they had. This trip to The Promise was part of his training, an essential part of his duty to Tend to people at all points on the circle. The living, and the dying. And the dead.

As he clambered over the mossy humps and planes he tried to picture the ship as it had been, or at least how he imagined it. Sleek, gleaming, everything clean and dazzling white. He tried to imagine Mr. Triol as a little boy, running down one of its eternal corridors, eating his recycled meal, looking out at the endless stars. Or his grandmother, playing in the arboretum. She used to tell him stories about how she would hide from tigers in that sterile jungle.

It was difficult to map those dreams onto the creaking wreck he was navigating now. The structure beams reached up on either side of him like tree trunks, knotted with creeping plants which were gradually tearing apart the frame they grew on. The pepper scent of the moss had grown strong in the afternoon sun, but underneath it he could smell damp, dirt, and rust. A flock of yellow birds had nested on one side of this open section. They trilled in a jittery chorus and watched his progress with shiny red eyes. He wondered what else they saw in this lonely place.

“Kerfan. Here!”

He looked up to see Alise waving at him from the shadows ahead, beside a yawning gap on the ground level. Above her hung the ragged edge of all the upper decks. Bare rooms and corridors bitten open onto tangled nothingness. He felt his fear flutter in his stomach and placed his hand there as he had been trained. “I see you,” he thought, and took a deep breath. “It’s all right.” Then he waved back and climbed a little faster toward Alise’s stout, patient frame.

Alise was the town’s most experienced Tendant, and she was training Kerfan along with two others, a few years older than him. He’d known her all his life of course. It was Alise who had carried him three times around the town square to welcome him when he was only five days old, although of course he didn’t remember that. It was Alise who had Tended to his grandmother when she grew ill and began to fade. Had kept the vigil with them when she passed. That he remembered.

Alise was planet-born, like him. One of the first. But he knew The Promise was still a special place for her, and he was glad to be here with someone who loved it. He hoped that would make him less afraid.

“I think we’re all right to go in today,” Alise said cheerfully as he reached her, and patted the  edge of the entryway she had found. “I think she will hold a little longer for us.”

Kerfan smiled weakly but no words came. The hole looked very dark. He wanted to sit with the sun on his face for a while, as if he could carry it into the wreck with him.

“There’s no shame in turning back if today’s not the right day for you, though,” Alise said gently. He shook his head and puffed his chest out.

“I’m ready. Scared, but ready.”

Alise laughed, and switched on her head lamp. “All right, then. In we go!”

Inside the ship it was easier to move, although the air was cooler and the damp smell was stronger. The opening Alise had found led directly into one of the long corridors which ran the length of the ship like xylem in a plant stalk. Once it would have teemed with people going to work at their appointed tasks, or going to school, or to one of the canteens, but now the cavernous space was gloomy and silent, save for their echoing footsteps and occasional whispers. Back in town as they’d been packing up the equipment, Alise had explained it was best to speak quietly and tread softly once they were inside. It was a question of respect. “Remember we’re guests here,” she said. “We must be very polite. If they want us to leave, we’ll go, no arguments.”

“How will we know if they want us to leave?”

“Oh they’ll make it clear, don’t worry,” was all she said, which had worried him.

They continued along the corridor until it was pitch black, save for the circles of blue-white light shining from their headlamps. They went slowly, as the range of the torches was so short they found shapes loomed at them out of the darkness before revealing themselves to be a chair thrown on its side, or a pile of torn boxes. At one point Kerfan stopped and looked longingly over his shoulder at the tiny square of sunlight behind them. As he watched, a shadow darted across it. A cry froze in his throat and a strange muffled noise was all that came out. He felt Alise’s hand on his arm.

“It’s all right, love. They’re just watching us. They won’t do us any harm. Remember they’re kin. Just like your grandma.”

He nodded and his pool of lamplight shivered alarmingly.

“Let’s go on a little further and find a nice space to set up, hm?” she said, and as he stumbled ahead he realized he was trembling.

When they came to a door which was slightly ajar, Alise pushed it until it swung wide and they stepped inside. The room had been stripped bare when the ship came to ground, and without furniture or furnishings it was impossible to tell what it had once been. A classroom, a bedroom, a laboratory perhaps. Now it was just a space, square and empty.

“This’ll do. Let’s get the gear out.”

They unpacked everything, and Kerfan set out a large ring of small electric lamps, until the room filled with a low pinkish glow. They switched off their headlamps and Alise set two mats beside each other on the edge of the circle. She handed Kerfan a heavy black velvet bag covered with elaborate embroidered patterns, and he went around the ring again, stopping at each lamp to reach into the bag and pull out a small stone, placing it carefully in between the lights. In the center of the ring, Alise arranged five thin red tree branches—stripped of their prickly leaves—in a star shape. In its center, she placed a handful of yellow soil, then sat down cross-legged on the mat beside Kerfan.

“Now, we wait,” she said softly.

His fear had subsided when his hands were busy, but now as the silence grew loud he felt panic tickling in his belly. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting the silence and the fear wash through him. Within the silence he could hear the yawning rumble of the ship’s minute shifting. He could hear his own breath, and Alise’s, rolling and breaking quiet as the shore of a lake. He felt calmer. When he opened his eyes he saw Alise was watching him.

“Good work,” she said, and smiled.

They waited.

“Why do they stay here?” he whispered. Alise looked down at her hands, thoughtfully.

“They’re confused, I think. I believe they’re the ones who were born on The Promise and died here too, before we arrived. The middle generations.” She looked around the room. “This is the only world they ever knew.”

“And after, do they go… where we go?”

“That I can’t say, love. I hope so.”

“And… where is that?”

“Ha! That’s a big question to discuss in small voices. Probably best to save it ’til after we’re done here.” She straightened her back and waggled her shoulders. “Which hopefully won’t be too long now.”

They sat together in silence for a few minutes more, and then Kerfan felt the air turn chill. He looked over at Alise who nodded. The hairs on his arms and his neck prickled, and he tried to breathe into his dread to soften it, as they kept their eyes fixed on the circle. A shadow flickered to his right but when he turned he saw nothing but the blank walls.

Then, in the center of the circle, the air rippled and glowed as a pale shape appeared slowly. It reminded him of swimming in the lake with his sister Maika, watching her dive and then rise to the surface through the clear green water. Beginning just as a shape and gradually becoming a person, and finally, Maika. Except the ghost never broke through the surface. It hung in front of them, shifting and liquid as smoke, blurred shadows in place of its eyes and mouth. It was beautiful, but Kerfan still felt sick watching it lilt and twist, alive and not alive.

Alise cleared her throat.

“Hello love,” she said and the ghost shimmered. “Thank you for letting us come to see you. We’ve come from the settlement that was made when The Promise came to ground. We found a home, thanks to you, and all the others who carried us here. We call it Drela. We’re all of us your kin, you see.”

The ghost flickered, and Kerfan thought he saw it tilt its head. Alise smiled.

“We’d like to invite you to come home with us. If you’d like.” She paused. “You see these pebbles in the circle? Those are from our fields, from the land of this planet. Everyone, all our neighbors and friends, picked one and gave it to us to bring here. Because they all want you to come back to us.”

The ghost faded for a moment and then reappeared a little brighter.

“We’ll leave a trail of pebbles behind us so that you can follow us. If you want to. We hope you will.”

Alise folded her hands and fell silent, and Kerfan copied her. After a few moments, the ghost grew dim, and then disappeared. Slowly the air in the room grew warmer and Kerfan breathed out a long sigh. His fear had flowed out of him and left a silt-like sadness.

“Wow,” was all he could say.

Alise laughed. “You’re not wrong.”

They stood up. He felt light-headed, and leaned against the wall for a few moments while Alise stretched. She watched him. “Time to head home ourselves,” she said softly, and started gathering the lamps.

They didn’t speak much on their way back. Alise walked ahead carrying the lamps and the bundle of branches. Kerfan followed, laying a pebble behind them every 30 paces. Gradually the fingernail-sized square of light at the end of the corridor grew larger and larger until he could smell fresh air and the sweet, peppery moss and hear the trills and chirps of the birds. Then he was standing outside among the metal struts which reached into the sky above them like the fingers of an enormous open hand.

To his surprise, it was almost sunset. The fading light had shone like a beacon in the belly of the ship but now all around them the day was growing dim. As they climbed the path through the tall grass meadow back to the town, Kerfan continued to leave the stones along the way. As he stooped, he saw pebbles already placed at similar intervals, from Alise’s previous visits. He thought about the spirits that had passed along them.

“How will we know if they come?” he asked.

“We won’t,” Alise said. “Not for sure.”

He stopped. “Then why do it at all? Maybe none of them come.”

Alise kept walking. “Everyone wants to know they belong. Why should that change after death? Besides, we do it for us as well as for them.”

He realized the conversation was over, for now, and placed another smooth pebble on the ground.

They reached the edge of town as dusk fell, and Alise stopped in front of the house where she lived with her partners. When he drew level with her she reached up—he was a head taller than her these days—and squeezed his shoulder, smiling.

“Well done, Kerfan. Thank you for your help today. Can you do the last stretch yourself?”

He continued laying stones until he reached the graveyard, and the old tree in the center of it. As he put the last pebble between the thick red roots he thought about Mr. Triol again. About Mr. Triol’s grandparents, about his own great grandparents. The ones who had carried them here even though they knew they’d never see it. All those lost spirits. He straightened, and watched the stars come out in the deepening sky, so close and so distant at once.

Sarah Jackson (she/they) writes gently unsettling stories and poems. Her work is upcoming in Strange Horizons, and has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge and Electric Spec. She’s a member of SFWA and co-editor of The Fantastic Other magazine. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Find out more at her website.