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Forward By Torchlight, Guided By Stars

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The Cord of five years ago, Cord thinks, would never have dreamed that one day she’d find herself sitting in the cold dirt with her long-gone sib, halfway across the world from Edhar, under a sky so dark that the stars shine in it thick as swarf on a shop floor.  But here she is, shoulder to shoulder with Raz under the still-barely-familiar Orithenan stars, sitting on the tail of his bolt to keep her trousers dry.  They’re drinking new wine, sour and a little fizzy, and looking down from the vineyards into the crater.  It’s been a festive day, the intersection of some Mathic rite that Cord was a little fuzzy on even before the drinking started and a local Saecular after-harvest feast that one of the Orithenan survivors had informed her, in academically formal Fluccish, was “probably originally contrived as an excuse to eat all the foods which had not been preserved quite correctly before they spoiled,” but which also involved a lot of fire because of something symbolic having to do with the shortening of the days and also the traditional burning-over of the fields before they would traditionally have been sown with cover crops for the winter.  Or something like that.  Cord helped Rogo homegrow some blithe one time, and that’s about the extent of her agricultural knowledge.  Anyway, there has been a lot of food, and a lot of wine, and a lot of singing and some dancing and the kinds of games which, sober, seem conceptually like you’d have to be isolated from the rest of the world for ten or a hundred years at a stretch to be bored enough to enjoy, but which are actually a roaring good time after enough drinks.

(Ex-avout being what they are, i.e. vocational overthinkers, the runup to the day itself was a well-attended symposium, run by the Lorites, on the topic of comparative harvest- and solstice-related festival traditions across the five known worlds, complete with exhaustive analysis of the origins and theoric-symbolic significance of specific aspects of the observances.  Cord didn’t go to any of the sessions; she was busy talking shop with the ex-Ita of the Tredegarh delegation, who had apparently maintained their own machining facilities on the grounds of the math itself rather than contracting out, and had a lot of valuable information about the anticipated machining needs of a large quasi-mathic community, and anyway, the whole thing was too self-consciously meta for her tastes.)

The grounds below are lit up and twinkling.  Traditionally, apparently, all the walls and doors and windows would have been lit up, and every wall and door and window which actually exists has been, but the in charge of planning had deemed this unsatisfying due to the modest number of completed structures, and had scaled up to putting a torch on every third stake of every planned wall and building, and roving bands of not-quite-fids and local saecular youth are going to circulate all night long to keep them fueled as a transparent excuse to stay up all night carousing.  It’s a beautiful effect from up here, though, the perpetual construction site picked out in lights so you can see the whole shape of it at once, a blueprint laid out in fire.  Also, the torches have so far prevented anyone from drunkenly stumbling into a half-dug foundation, so that’s a nice fringe benefit.  Ostensibly, they came up to the vineyards because Raz wanted to see the view, though Cord knows - and by now Raz should know that Cord knows - that the vineyards are where he goes to feel melancholy, usually when he’s thinking of Fraa Orolo.  Cord tagged along because honestly, she needed a break from the festivities herself, and because Raz doesn’t actually like being alone even when he thinks he wants to, and because the view really is spectacular, but she hadn’t planned on getting maudlin drunk up here.  Whoops.  At least it’s not just her.

Tomorrow, they’ll all sleep off their hangovers, and the next day they’ll stare blankly at whatever they were working on before festival preparations overrode their regular projects and try to remember what they were doing, and day or two after that they’ll be back to the regular round.  Cord is on, what, five different committees and workgroups, somehow, in addition to her ongoing work on the clock, and one of them is doing feasibility studies for using syndev-driven machining to make molds of mathematically-perfect forms for structural and ornamental cement castings, and she’s thinking vaguely about lamps or lanterns, or maybe braziers, something that could be built into the corners of the tiled rooves they’re planning for most of the first round of mid-to-long-term construction, into the parapets of the walls, maybe a freestanding version that could be placed around the grounds.  Something with a fuel reservoir, but not too big, so there would still be a reason to go around refilling them –

“Do you remember when you took me to the Autumn Parade?” Raz says, out of nowhere, and Cord blinks.

She does remember that.  She was probably ten or eleven, and it was pretty stupid, weather hot and muggy because the climate had shifted over time but whatever Bazian sect originally celebrated the festival never adjusted their calendar because it was divinely ordained, even though it made no sense to be preaching about preparing for the spiritual trials and scarcity of the cold season when it was still baking hot and anyway hardly anybody ever starved anymore and if they did it didn’t have anything to do with agriculture or the weather.  It was mostly just a street fair anyway, a crush of people turned out to eat cheesburgs and buy and sell cheap souvenirs and gamble, too-loud music that it was too hot to want to dance to throbbing out of tents and canteens and deols yelling through loudspeakers, preaching to the indifferent crowd, and a parade that was mostly just a string of decorated fetches and musical groups from various arks straining to be heard over the dance music.

As Cord remembers it, Poppa and Raz’s – well, Vit’s then – mama took them both; Vit’s mama’s idea, when she was on one of her kicks about doing more “family stuff”.  They were going to all go find the kids’ fair that was supposedly in the park near Vit’s mim’s sib’s work, but then Poppa wanted to dance and Vit’s mim wanted to find a place to sit down, and then Cord and Vit got bored and Vit’s mim gave Cord some coupons and said to go ahead without them, and they walked for, just, a really long time, but they never found the children’s fair.  Eventually they gave up and found a vendor who would take Cord’s coupons in exchange for a bag of fried miniburgs, and then a different vendor gave them a big slush-drink for free, green-and-pink flavor, and let them sit down in the shade under her freeze-tanks while they ate and drank.  And then Vit got sick from too many fryburgs, and then they tried to call his mama but she didn’t answer and neither did Poppa, so they had to find their way back to the house by asking people where they were and guessing which direction to walk.  They got really lost, and when they finally got home they were sweaty and thirsty and sunburned, and Vit had stopped talking and Cord felt like crying but somehow couldn’t.  And then Poppa and Vit’s mim and Gart weren’t there and neither was anybody else, so Cord pried the poly pane out of the back window, and the alarm went off but the security bill hadn’t been paid in ages so nobody came, and they just sat there in the kids’ room and held pillows over their ears until it stopped screeching.  When Gart finally came home because the security system pinged his jeejah, he heated up some soup for them and put on a really sloppy holiday speely and went and got gel for their sunburns and let them fall asleep on the big sett even though they were getting burn gel all over it.  When Poppa and Vit’s mim got home Gart yelled at them, and Cord and Vit went back to the kids’ room while the olds all argued and turned up the speel-screen to drown out the noise, and they eventually fell asleep again with the Edtime Fun stream blaring some baby-level thing about colors and shapes that even Vit was too old for.

“Yeah,” Cord says, when Raz nudges her and she realizes she’s been lost in thought for an awkwardly long time.  “Yeah, I remember that.”

“That was really terrible, wasn’t it?” Raz says, in this weird soft musing tone.  “Just, objectively, it was really bad, right?”

“Yeah,” Cord says, and that old feeling curls faintly under her ribs, a ghost of how sick she felt when she stayed late one night instead of going back to Rilly’s and Poppa wanted to chat, and Poppa just casually mentioned that, oh, he didn’t know she had gone up to see the clock too, he didn’t see her around the day they took Vit up there and left him.

“The stabil admin said he was a good candidate,” Poppa had said, sounding proud, like he didn’t even know that what that really meant was that the instructors thought Vit wasn’t getting enough care and attention from his family, and Cord couldn’t actually have argued with that, but it had made some part of her feel embarrassed and guilty and sad to think of Vit’s instructors looking at her family and judging them, and deciding that it would be better if Vit went away to live with the fraas and suurs with their strange slow serious speech and their drab brown bolts all alike, trapped under the weight of all that stone and time and attention for ten years in a row while the whole rest of the world went on outside.  It had made her angry, too, then, made her wonder – if she had been around more often, if she had been a little younger or a little older, if she didn’t go to Rilly’s all the time, if Poppa noticed her more, would he have sent her to the Clock too?

“I mean, I’m pretty sure we both got heat exhaustion, and you must have been really scared, and I’m probably blocking a lot of it out?” Raz goes on, voice tipping up like a question, a speech pattern Cord remembers being trendy when she was a kid, something Raz would’ve picked up before he went to the clock and never had the opportunity to outgrow.  He only does that in Fluccish; he sounds different in Orth, more decisive, even when he’s uncertain.  “But I don’t remember being too worried, because every time I asked you a question, you had, just, some sensible answer for it?  And I remember being, just, so impressed, when I asked how we were going to get in and you very calmly said ‘I’m going to break the window.’  It was like a speely.”

“I probably saw that in a speely,” Cord says, around the ache in her throat.  “I’m pretty sure that’s how I knew how the frame would be easier to crack than the pane.”

“That was really tough for you, huh?” Raz says.  “That day, and, just, also, in general?  Being around – the house, and stuff?”

“Yeah,” Cord croaks.  “I mean, I should’ve.  Been there more.  Nobody else was.  I could have come around more often.  I could’ve – walked you to stabil and back, or just hung there with you more, or.  Something.”

Raz is quiet for a long time, long enough for Cord to feel like she should maybe keep talking, but then Raz speaks before she can decide what to say.

“When I was twelve, there were probably half a dozen fraas and suurs whose specific responsibility it was to pay attention to me and my agemates,” Raz says.  “Any time any of us needed anything, there was always someone who we knew we could go and find, who would put down what they were doing right then and help, and then a bunch more who would do that even though it wasn’t their actual job.  I mean, we were adolescents and we liked to pretend like we were all practically growns and could take care of ourselves, but.  I mean.  There were people who would come and find us if they hadn’t seen us yet that day, and back then it was annoying, but thinking about it now – they were making sure we were okay, whether we thought we were or not.”

“I’m glad you had that,” Cord says.  “I wish – I wish I had done that.  Made sure you were okay.”

Cord,” Raz says.  “You’re older than me, but you were a kid too.  And, I mean.  I wasn’t okay, but you couldn’t have somehow magically made me okay, and you weren’t – I mean, I’m guessing, but I’m pretty sure that you weren’t okay either?”

“I really wasn’t,” Cord manages.  “I thought I was, but.  People who are okay probably don’t spend that much time actively avoiding their family, right?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Raz says, rueful.

“I’m gonna have a kid,” Cord blurts.  “I mean, sometime, not like I’m-pregnant-right-now.  I want to have a kid, but.  I don’t know how?  What if Yul and I have a kid because, just, it seems like a good idea, and then we both turn out to be terrible at being parents, and I, just, spend all my time on the clock and the shop and the cement-casting and, just, stuff, I don’t know, and Yul spends all his time getting into weird new kinds of carpentry or fermentation or whatever, because I don’t know how not to ignore a kid and Yul is afraid of paying too much attention to a kid, and the kid ends up really unhappy?”

Beside her, in the dark, Raz takes a deep breath.

“You know there are kids growing up here, right now?  Who have, collectively, dozens if not hundreds of fraas and suurs who make sure they are all safe and fed and educated and paid-attention-to?”


“You know that as long as you’re here, any kid of yours is going to have at minimum five intensely-invested uncles and aunties above and beyond everyone else whose specific job it is to take care of them?”

“Yeah, but.”

“You know that if you had a kid and then decided that you shouldn’t have, that kid would still grow up as a cherished and respected member of this community, whether you were acting as a parent or not?”

“I know, Raz.  I just.  I don’t want to be bad at it?  That sounds so selfish.  But, just.”  Cord takes a deep breath, drinks more wine, and then lets Raz fill her cup again before she speaks.  “My mimma tried really hard,” she says, eventually.  “I know she did, between every assignment she would come back and get a room close by and stay as long as she could, spend as much time with me as possible.  And then she would get a new assignment, and we’d try to do, just, speelycalls or vox or even memos, whatever, and then we’d both be busy and the time difference would be too much and we’d stop until her next furlough.  And eventually I wished she’d stop trying so hard when she came back, because it was just reminding me to miss her while she was gone, and it was so weird having her there when she usually wasn’t.  And I remember thinking that I was gonna do it differently if I had a kid, that my kid would never have to wait for me like that.  But I don’t know how to pay attention to a kid every day, I don’t know how to treat a kid at all, and it’s, just.  I know my mimma tried hard, okay, and I loved her then and I love her now but I still ended up all sad about her too, so.  I could try really hard, and still end up doing it wrong no matter what I did.”

“I don’t think anyone knows how to do it right, really,” Raz says, eventually.  “They just kind of trial-and-error it as they go.  And kids are hard anyway, they’re all different and all of them are weird.”

“Everyone you know is weird, Raz,” Cord says, more joking than anything else, but Raz nods earnestly.

“Exactly!  That’s the thing about maths.  Anyone who ended up in one voluntarily is by definition weird enough to want to be there, and anyone who ended up in one any other way is either weird enough that somebody else thought they should go, or becomes weird because they’re surrounded by weird people.  And everybody had to learn to get along with each other’s weirdness, because you’re, um.  Stuck with them sounds bad, but.  Yeah.  And now the gates are open, but I think that’s still true.”  He shrugs.  “And anyway, you’re the way you are, and I’m how I am, and Jesry and Arsibalt and Barb and Tulia are all how they are, and we all ended up being our own kinds of weird.  And Yul and Gnel have the same parents and grew up together, and they’re completely different kinds of weird from each other but they’re both weird, and we all have stuff we’re sad about.”

“So that’s your unified theory of parenting?  Everybody ends up weird and sad no matter what you do?”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t matter,” Raz says, earnestly.  Of course it matters, it’s taking care of tiny vulnerable people, it matters a lot.  But if you do the best you can, and let other people do the best they can, kids mostly turn out okay, and a certain amount of weirdness and sadness is normal and expected, it doesn’t mean that you did a terrible job and ruined their life forever.”

“Huh,” Cord says, and takes a drink.  There’s water in her cup.  Raz must have put it there.  Raz can be sneaky when he wants to be.  “Huh,” she says again, about the water this time, and about Raz’s sneakiness.  “I have to think about that.”

“Also you could spend some time with the kids, do some empirical observations,” Raz offers.  “You know, if you’re concerned.”

“Ugh, you’re right, aren’t you,” Cord mutters, after a moment.  She walked right into that helpful suggestion.  Come to think of it, that’s exactly how she ended up on five committees, too.

“If you think so,” Raz says, so noncommittal that it can’t be anything but smugness, and Cord exercises her elder-sib’s prerogative and shoves him, gently, and he squawks and bats at her, and after that there’s some more shoving and a lot of giggling.

“No more wine,” Raz says, when they’ve subsided.

“I’m not drunk,” Cord says, which means that she absolutely is drunk and she knows it.

“No, I mean, the wine is gone, we drank it all,” Raz says, sounding a little glum.  “And it’s getting cold, and my bolt is all twisted up because you’re mean.”

You’re drunk,” Cord says.

“Am not,” Raz huffs, and stands up, and only sways a little.

As it turns out, they are both just drunk enough to make the path down into the crater a little more precarious than usual, and they part ways at the clock site when Raz is more or less bodily abducted by Lio, apparently at Ala’s behest.  Cord intends to go find Yul, but gets drawn into conversation by the Ex-Ita Isat and Esten, and Fraa Ebenard and his not-fid Rada, who are entertaining themselves with yet another round of describing qthe praxic implementations of things Ebenard only knows the fundamental theoric basis of, and then she runs into Besri from the casting workgroup and mentions the lanterns, and in the end it’s much, much later when she finally crawls into bed.

Yul’s already there, dozy but not quite asleep, and he hums and curls around her when she slides under the covers, unerringly finding her cold feet and pressing his shins against them.  Cord sighs and nestles back against the familiar warm bulk of him, settling into the familiar dip in the terrible mattress.

“Good night?” Yul mumbles into her hair, and Cord nods.

“You?” she mumbles back, and she feels Yul’s smile against the back of her neck.

“Better now,” he says, and then drapes an arm over her and settles himself, and drops off just like that, like Cord was the one thing he was missing.

They should talk again soon, maybe, Cord thinks, muzzily.  About kids.  In general, again, before they even get hypothetical.  About when they were kids, too, that’s important.  They should do that.  Sometime.  But there’s no rush.  Better to take the time to think it out, do it with care and forethought and a healthy measure of best-guessing. Like building a wall, or a community, or a future. Like they're all doing here, every day, armed with sticks and rocks and syndevs and endless bickering, digging in the mud, aiming toward some higher and more abstract goal. Fumbling forward by torchlight, but guided by stars.

Cord rucks up the blanket around her ears, and pulls Yul’s arm to a more comfortable angle, and sleeps.