Actions

Work Header

Pilgrim

Work Text:

A hulk of patched iron drifted through the void, slowly nearing the single point of light in an otherwise featureless expanse of space. Small jets of blue fire spat from its sides, fine-tuning its approach—and as it neared, that single point splits into the many viewports of a lonely space station.

 

*

 

"A whole star just popping out of existence? Gosh, Yaretta, that sounds awful!"

"Speaking of popping out—is Jeremy not back yet? I wouldn't think it would take too long to re-shut the docking mechanism."

Burt's eyes widened, taking up a few more pixels of screen space on the copier's display. "Do you—do you think he's having trouble down there?"

"Hmm. Well, we don't know how it got open, and I suppose it is the closest point on the station to the vacuum of space. Icy, uncompromising—"

"Agh! Yaretta, we've got to check on him! Or, well—"

"I have to check on him."

"Because I can't—"

"Move, yes. This comes up more often than I really thought it would." Yaretta stood, pocketing her portable sun-lamp with one green hand while she arranged her dorsal branches with the other.

Burt's pupils began to dart side-to-side. "What if, y'know, it left the break room and went around the outsi—"

The studio door slid aside as Jeremy stepped into the room, leading a small, stooped figure by the hand. The little figure tottered—occasionally treading on the hem of their thick, dusk-tone robe—as they stepped in. They then turned to Jeremy, and in a reedy, dusty voice said, "My thanks to you, oh great Facilitator; with truth indeed did the Talent speak of your professionalism!"

Jeremy nodded and returned to his booth, scratching the back of his head. The figure gathered up their robes about them, and bowed while lowering their knees to the tile floor.

"Esteemed Broadcasters! I, a humble pilgrim from a distant world, have tracked your wondrous Signal across a dozen systems and sought through the darkest doldrums of space—and all that I might be granted an audience with you!"

Burt looked to Jeremy, then Yaretta, and finally to the Pilgrim. "I ... guess?"

Yaretta sat back down, put her hands on her knees, and leant forward with a smile. "Oh, ab-so-lute-ly."

The figure stood straight, a relieved smile filling their face .

"You have my gratitude—and that of every soul on the world of Taslimore! For it is your words which have transformed our world; you Exemplars of Potential and Experience, of Youth and Age—" 

Yaretta's head cocked to the side slightly, a frown tugging at her face.

"—In whose works we have found wisdom, sought strength, and set the course of our history—"

"Wait, wait, history? Yaretta hasn't even been here a full year!"

"Yes, for you it has been a matter of months—but on Taslimore, it has been an age! Almost a century has passed since our radio-scientists first happened on the Signal, teasing out a pattern of incredible noise from the cosmic static. If you had not broadcast the sound of your Mechanism—your Paper Feed, your Drive Servo, your Top Mouth—into the cosmos, we may well never have discovered the larger universe. Indeed, there are to this day many who revere above all else The Time of His Clattering Solitude!"

"Revere? Me? Wow! Did you hear that, Yaretta? Think of how many friends I could make on Taslimore!"

"I mean, they would just want to hear you make printer noises..."

"Sure, but that's, like, a nice restful nap for me! And I bet you'd have fans on Taslimore too—new ones, I mean!"

The Pilgrim clasped their hands, smiling. "Why, yes, my own father was a devotee of The Cult of the Failed Actress!"

Yaretta's training proved itself in a subtle and convincing performance of gracious emotional neutrality. "I'm sure I'm flattered."

Jeremy tapped on the glass of the booth, then pointed at the stack of news print-outs by Yaretta's side.

"Aw, do we have to go back to the news?" whined Burt, "This is exciting!"

Yaretta lifted the next sheet from the pile. "We are under contract. I'm sure a committed fan like our friend here would just love the chance to see us perform—after all, he came so far..."

The Pilgrim nodded, and then shuffled in place. "Might I—might I join you in singing the Chimes of Mindfulness?"

Burt beamed. "I have no clue what you mean, but go ahead!"

The Pilgrim took a deep breath, and sang in round tones a recognizable cover of the next-story interstitial theme, smiling broadly with the dewy eyes of a long-held dream accomplished. Burt joined in, albeit with noticeable lag and compression, while Yaretta looked over the print-out with evident intensity.

 

*

 

"So she won't do another signing for..." An hourglass spun on Burt's screen for a few seconds before he spoke. "78 years?"

"The trip from Tellus-1 to Tellus-5 was always a long one, and I always travelled by FTL flight—pretty cruel of her publisher not to spring for that." Yaretta drew herself up, and put a thin, noble smile on her green face. "Perhaps she'll have a chance to finish her novel, as I did to hone my craft."

"Maybe! She'll have," another hourglass, "Two months. Is that enough time to write a novel?"

"Ah. Relativity. Right. I would guess not, then."

"The thought of opportunities proffered by a long journey," began their visitor, "Helped sustain me during my Thankful Pilgrimage! Indeed, while I was stranded for some weeks on a nebula bank, I viewed it as a provident time to commit the Transcripts to mine own memory. I must admit, the sixth transmission was a Test indeed! Why, the tonal complexity of your horrified screams—"

Yaretta cleared her throat. "It's about time we played the ad read, isn't it?"

"Ah, the Task of the Unseen Masters! Might we speak freely while the microphones lay dormant, untrammeled by the programming schedule?"

"Actually," Yaretta said, pausing to choose her words with care, "We usually tend to our own business during the ad break—perhaps you could do the same? Don't you agree, Burt?" Yaretta pointed a sharp look over at Burt.

"That's right, Yaretta! Plus, did you really wanna come all this way and not listen to the show the way it's supposed to be listened to? I bet Jeremy would let you tour the booth while you listen to the ad—would ya do that for me, Jeremy?"

Jeremy threw a thumbs-up, and beckoned the Pilgrim to join him. Bowing deeply, they walked backwards towards the door.

Burt winked at the Pilgrim as they left the room. "We'll be back with more news—and more from our special visitor!—after this message from our sponsors!"

The door slid shut behind the Pilgrim. Touching a few buttons on the console, Jeremy threw another thumbs-up before taking off his headphones and welcoming them into the booth.

Burt's rasterized eyes snapped shut in relief, his mouth a wide black oval. "AahhhhthankyousomuchYarettaIthoughthey'dneverleave!"

"Burt, I—to be honest, I thought you were enjoying their attention?"

"I mean, at first, yeah! But it's just way too much pressure, I suddenly feel like I've got to say smart, deep stuff all the time and I just don't think I can!"

Yaretta's shoulders heaved down as she sighed. "No, that's not really your style, is it?"

"It really isn't! I mean, I try sometimes, but mostly I just want to spend time with my good good friends Jeremy and Yaretta!"

"That's very sweet, Burt."

"Well I mean it! I'd spend time with Jeremy anyway, on account of how he's my"—a contented smile flickered on Burt's screen—"boyfriend, but it's the show that still brings you and me together to talk about stuff, Yaretta!"

"I suppose I do enjoy our little chats."

"Aw, Yaretta!" Burt paused a moment, then quizzically shifted up his eyebrows. "Wait, did you want them gone too? But you say so much wise stuff! About so many things, like life, and romance, and especially acting!"

"That's true," Yaretta admitted, "But do you know how a person gets wise?"

"I mean, I was just saying how I don't know things, so no?"

"They make mistakes." Yaretta's gaze drifted down. "I've made—well—a number over the years. I think you know—or suspect, at least—that people don't sign contracts to hold down radio shows on isolated space stations when everything in their life is unfolding just right. Yaretta paused a moment, then added, "Whatever memories they happen to have lost."  She pointed an accusatory finger at the booth, shielding it with a leaf from their view. "Frankly, it seems like they're less interested in my work as a storyteller, and more in stories about me." Yaretta leant back. "Also, they're very overly-familiar for someone who docked just an hour ago!"

"I guess listening to mostly just us for years and years'll do that to ya." Burt, not noticing that Yaretta was now staring at the studio door, continued, "I just wish they'd come here to talk about the news or—"

She turned his webcam to face the door in time to see the Pilgrim bow slowly and unsteadily before stepping into the room. "My sincerest apologies," they said, "I let anticipation and excitement get the better of me!"

Burt's eyes slid side-to-side, a worried look facing away from the Pilgrim. "Uhhh—it's good to see—how long—did the break end? I didn't see Jeremy—"

"No, no! You have time. Jeremy accidentally switched on the monitor and we listened for a time." Jeremy looked in through the glass and shrugged. "My apologies for that as well. I fear my exuberant misbehavior paints all of Taslimore poorly. Long past, the Elders told of me the Heresy of Presumèd Companionship, how it plagued—"

"Could you perhaps skip forward to the part where you paint Taslimore well?"

"Apolo—yes, I should. As you are isolated by empty space and contractual obligation, so too are we by the time dilation that encompasses our world—a world we thought alone until we found the signal. Then we heard voices, voices reckoning with that isolation and working to build something inside it—an edifice of amity and good humor! Inspired, we sought to create what you had." The Pilgrim pondered a moment. "I meant that metaphorically, but we also built a great many radio stations."

"So I don't just have fans"—Burt brightened—"I have colleagues!"

"So you weren't sent here to—?"

"Yes, I was not sent to bask, but to thank you all for that inspiration." They pulled a bag from a deep pocket of their robe, and removed from it a glittering model radio, adorned on the front with images of a boxy machine, a broad-leafed plant, and some sort of fleshy creature. "I would not be opposed to signatures on my travelogue—if you didn't mind!—but I came here to deliver this to you. From one band contemning against a distant, inscrutable universe to another."

Yaretta took it into her hand, turning it over. "Thank you, Pilgrim, for your acknowledgment of our work." It was inscribed:

 

A Symbol Of Our Thanks

For Illuming The Void

With Merriment And Industry

From This Planet Tartarus

Of Spiral System 216

 

Burt blinked slowly and deliberately. "Yaretta, could you—do you still have that story we were reading before Pilgrim showed up?"

"Oh yes, I've got it right ... here ..." Yaretta's voice trailed off as her eyes scanned down the page and saw: While temporal interference prevented contact, prominent xenobiologists suspect that several planets of the central star of Spiral System 216 could have supported life prior to the star's disappearance.

Jeremy tapped on the glass, holding up a countdown.

Yaretta nodded at Burt. "Um," he wavered, "You're prolly gonna want to lie down on something comfy, 'cuz we might have some just real bad news."

Yaretta composed herself. "Welcome back. We may have a follow-up to a story from earlier in this broadcast. We have a citizen of Spiral System 216 here in the studio with us—"

 

*

 

Jeremy finished strapping down a cart full of Tartarus Station knick-knacks—mugs, branded pens, t-shirts, flowerpots, packing material—inside the tight bay of the Pilgrim's vessel, and came back out onto the dock. He nodded to Yaretta and the Pilgrim, then gave a little wave to Yaretta's phone before heading back off into the station proper.

The phone crackled. "Got everything? It's a long walk back from Taslimore!"

The Pilgrim patted their robe. "There are recordings, updated star-maps, my travelogue—thank you, by the by—yes, I believe I am full equipped for my journey."

"How about my walking joke? Did that work?"

Yaretta nodded without enthusiasm. "Yes, Burt. Got it in one." She turned to the Pilgrim. "Are you sure you're emotionally up to the trip? It's—I mean, I can't imagine—all that time—"

"I knew many things would change when I applied for this honor!

"The sun going away is a pretty big change."

They looked dejected for a moment, then: "Well. It's awfully dark around Tartarus, too."

Yaretta chuckled. "More alike than ever."

The Pilgrim bowed and walked into their ship, punching codes into a panel by the hatch. "I return to maintain what we have built on Taslimore. My gratitude upon you for your kindness and your honesty!"

The aperture in front of Yaretta began to close. "Goodbye and farewell!"

"Tell your folks to send us some tapes when you get back!" shouted Burt.

The docking mechanism shut. In moments, the Pilgrim's homey mess of iron was lost to the quiet dark, and the Space Station Tartarus would be alone again until its next broadcast.

 

*

 

The preceding was an adaptation of an archived broadcast of Cosmic Call, first received by high-powered NASA radio receivers in 1993 and re-worked as derivative short fiction in 2017 with the express permission of the United States Government and Intergalactic Radio Holdings, LPLC. Visit audioentropy.com to listen to select recordings of Cosmic Call and other fine programs.