The Sound of Useless Wings

In this prequel to Tin Star, we meet Heckleck, the Hort alien who befriends Tula Bane on the space station Yertina Feray in her fight for survival. In his modest beginnings, Heckleck is raised to understand that breeding and propagating his own kind is the sole reason for living. When he is called upon to settle on a new planet, he meets the daughter of a politician, Goglu, with whom he falls helplessly in love, and is determined to win over. But nothing is easy in love and space exploration, and when his plans become thwarted, he must find a new way of life.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Connie Hsu.

I try to ignore my brothers and sisters as I do my work under the hot twin suns. They call me names. They call me dreamer. They call me innocent. They call me ridiculous.

All the while, I herd the rodents into the pen. I collect animal droppings and scatter them in the garden. I chew what long grass I can find and spit it out into the buckets so my mother can make the doughy bread that is a staple of the Hort diet.

When I am done with my chores, I look up at the sky. I have long looked up at the sky and thought of the possibilities.

“Heckleck!” my mother screams when she catches me studying or staring at the landscape. “Get back in from the field with your brothers and sisters!”

My brothers and sisters are identical to me; we come from the same brood. After chores they always push past me with their heavy bodies. As I dream, they get to the table first. They feed and fill themselves and when I finally tear myself away from the night stars and make my way inside, I always find that there is little left for me eat. As a result, I’ve grown up small for my kind.

Every time my family and I go to town to trade, the aliens who visit our planet catch my attention. The Per with their four long arms and thinness. The Loor with their antennae and impossibly straight posture. The Brahar. The Nurlok. The Gej. There are so many kinds. I cannot stop looking at them. They are so strange. My brothers and sisters don’t look at the species that they think hold the Hort back. But I stare.

On my planet, Patra, there is a crisis. We see it on the vid screens. We see it in the papers. We see it plastered on the walls. We are once again overpopulated and some of us must leave. The League of Worlds has finally given us a planet to populate. There have been six exoduses before this one. We watch to see which brood numbers are called up to leave home.

My brothers and sisters hope our number is not called.

I feel differently about leaving here than they do.

When our number is called, I rejoice. The other Hort in my lottery take to the streets and riot in one last explosion of revelry and revolt. But it will change nothing. We are leaving this planet. We are going somewhere else.

I march with my brothers and sisters. We march in rows of eight. The twin suns beat down on us. The dust kicks up. We are leaving this planet in waves.

Our parents shout in grief along with the others as they watch us parade by. One of my brothers starts to rub his little useless wings together and music fills the air. Soon the others all join in. Wing music calms all fears.

I do not rub my wings. I never do. I do not want to numb myself to life.

I march toward the ship but I am out of step with the others. I am walking faster. I am walking toward my future.

“Stay in line, Heckleck,” my sister hisses as she rubs, the music flowing from her back. They are afraid. They do not want to go, but I am glad. I was meant to leave my planet. I was meant for adventure. I was meant for the stars.

“Why must we go?” my brother Jencle asks as we strap in. The officers, space weary, show us all how to work the complicated restraints. I understand it right away, and help my brothers and sisters. Jencle has the hardest time of it. He nips at me as I help him. He is always the first to push me. Everything I do makes him hate me.

Once settled in their seats, my brothers and sisters can no longer rub their wings for comfort as we blast off. They open their mouths and yell. Some pass out. I stare out of the window and watch my home planet fall away. It is yellow. Impossibly yellow. And then it becomes smaller and smaller until I can no longer tell it from another star in the sky.

“It’s beautiful,” a voice near me says.

I turn my head in my harness and see her. The most beautiful Hort I’ve ever seen. Her skin slicked olive. Moist and hard. Her exoskeleton strong and muscled. Her black eyes wide with wonder.

Once we are in deep space, when we undo our harnesses and are able to wander the ship, I seek her out.

As the others complain, she and I talk.

Her name is Goglu and she hails from the capital city. She is the daughter of a politician and grew up far away from the famine and the dust. Her family is small and I envy her that she does not know the burden of a mother who bore so many broods.

“You could have stayed,” I say. Politicians are known to help keep their kin if their brood number is called.

“Why would I when there is so much more to see than Patra and so many more species than Hort?”

I do what any Hort would do. When we are alone in a storage locker, away from the others’ eyes, I pull my wing and open my back plate and I show her my tiny beating heart.

I am in love.

“It’s so small,” she says.

“It will grow,” I say.

When we arrive at our new home it is shocking to see only one sun in the sky. The first days the gravity weighs heavy on us. Mostly we can only sleep. Once we are able to move, and the world stops spinning, we are assigned roles. Goglu is a leader, while I labor. She is out of my league.

Once again, my brothers and sisters laugh at me.

How is it that we are of the same brood and yet my brain seems to see the whole galaxy differently than they do? I see the possibilities. The lines that lead from here to there. The threads that you can pull to get this or that. I can see the future like a map. I can see the moves needed to get there.

“You’re just a drone,” my brothers and sisters yell. “She could be a queen!”

It certainly seems that Goglu is destined for a higher purpose than I am on our new planet. But I can see a path that leads to her. I can count the moves it will take.

If I want to be with her, I will have to be cunning. I will have to woo her like all the other Hort of a certain status.

I know what to do. I start small, trading my spitting services. Or by collecting the maggots that this planet has in abundance, which are so sweet to my kind. I trade favors with my brothers and sisters. I do their work. I become stronger. I learn quickly. I deal with the aliens who no one else wants to mingle with when they visit our planet to check on us or to negotiate. I curry favor. I save until I have enough for trinkets and foodstuffs. I save until I have enough to move me along and to pay for status when the time comes. I save until I can go to the town center and sing the songs of companionship.

And all the while I think I see signs of encouragement from Goglu. After all, doesn’t she look at me longer than the others? Doesn’t she bring me water when I finish running from the fields to town? Doesn’t she tell the powerful Hort that I am to be trusted to trade with? There is no other Hort for her.

Her black eyes glisten and while she has never lifted her wing and back plate to show me the size of her heart, I know that her heart is mine.

The next step is harder. I have to work on a nest so that when I ask her to mate with me we will have a place to birth a brood. Making a nest releases the hormones I need to spin my code. And it is the only way to grow my heart bigger. I climb high on the mountain behind the house where I live with my brothers and sisters. In the high ground, I find a cave where the sky invites wonder. I begin the laborious process of spinning my code into a small ball. When my ball is done, I think of how amazing it is that soon I will hold my DNA in my mouth.

Goglu’s encouragement has stimulated my transition from youth to adult. My brothers and sisters sense that I am up to something. They won’t leave me alone.

“What are you doing, brother?” they ask, one by one.

“Leave me alone,” I say. It is not their business. I hardly know them. I make my way up the path to my cave. I am full of hopes and dreams. I am full with thoughts of the future.

“What are you doing?” Jencle asks at the entrance of the cave.

He has followed me. It is surprising. I have never known a brother or sister to stray from one another. That is my quirk. Usually they run in a pack. We Hort generally do not like to be alone. Jencle pushes past my small stature into the cave and sees the nest. In it, he sees all the treasures I’ve accumulated with my trading. He sees my ambition.

His eyes flash. And I see something in my brother Jencle I’ve never seen before.

Jealousy.

He turns, as though I am poisoned with something terrible, and scrambles back down the mountain.

He knows my secret.

The rest of our siblings take no notice. I wonder which one of us, he or I, will make the first move.

The horns finally sound. It is the day of declaration for all young Horts to find a mate. My siblings do not care about the declaration. They are still in their primary stage. I have already shed my first skin and their hearts have not turned or grown as mine has. I rub my new skin as best I can with oils, and I gather my code in my mouth and head toward town. I leave them behind.

The roads on this planet are not dusty. They are green with foliage that in a few generations will be gone. We will eat this planet raw. Still, I am halfway to town when I hear the noise behind me.

I turn and I see Jencle.

I should have noticed that he was oiled up, too. I notice that he too has shed his first skin. I should have realized that it was not just my heart that had matured.

He comes around and stands in front of me. Blocking the road.

I push forward. But Jencle stands in my way.

He is so strong. So big. I am so thin and weak.

Why, in my youth, had I spent so much time looking up, instead of eating? Why had I spent so much time bartering with aliens or in my cave instead of laboring in the field to develop muscles and strength? Why had I spent so much time cultivating my mind when I knew from my studies that the fit usually win in fights?

He could take me down easily with one swing of his appendage.

I look at my brother, questioning him with my eyes. I cannot open my mouth or I will lose my ball of code. I only see hatred in him. He hates me. He has always hated me. They all have.

He shoves me off the road and pins me to a tree in a way that crushes my back. He flips me over with ease and then I feel him lift up my little wing and pry open my back plate. I imagine that he wants to confirm that my heart has grown. I do not imagine that he will stab me there. But he does.

He stabs my heart with his tongue. He stabs and stabs at it until I cannot breathe. He stabs until I can do nothing but cry and spit out my piece of code. It rolls out onto the ground. And when it does Jencle lets me go and I collapse. I watch as he scuttles to it and licks it clean. And that’s when I see it. How had I never seen this in Jencle? When he flaps his wings, one of them unfolds awkwardly. I see now that his wing is deformed in such a way that I know his heart could never grow. He would never be able to spin his own code. He steals one last look at me and puts my code into his own mouth.

I know what he will do. He will present my code. He will show my nest. And no one will know any differently because our DNA is the same. We are brood brothers, after all.

I push myself up off the ground. I am most likely dying. But I take some leaves from the tree that shades me and stuff them under my back plate. I hope that this will hold enough of my heart together so that it will keep beating.

I get to my feet and drag myself to town.

I watch, exhausted and hidden in the back, as Jencle presents my ball of code to a female I do not know.

I watch, in pain, as Goglu scans the crowd. I hope she is searching for me. I shrink into the shadows. It will take me too long to grow my heart again, if I even can. If I even live. It is her time and she has declared, she must choose now. I watch in despair as she picks a mate who is not me. Her face betrays no disappointment; she is too excited by the ceremony. I wonder if I ever really had her heart.

All of my dreams and plots and plans are shattered.

The crowd pushes by me, ready to celebrate. They all feel joy. The couples will go to their nests and exchange their codes. Broods will come in 240 days. I do not want to be here. I start to head out of town, but I realize that I cannot go home.

I wander in town aimlessly. I enter an alien bar and I imbibe. I make a few trades but with no purpose. I watch as the lone sun rises and I realize I do not want to be here.

 

There is only one place to go. The stars.

I drag myself to the spaceport to try to find a ship. Any ship.

“Where are you going?” a Per says to me. “I’m looking for workers.”

Then she notices the blood.

“You look injured,” she says.

I lift up my wing and show her how the blood is staunched. The Per nods. She knows Hort well enough to know that to be stabbed in a heart is to never be able to spin code again. She knows I am disgraced and that I cannot stay here with any dignity. She knows I must run. She must have run at some point herself, because instead of shooing me away, she motions me toward her.

“We have a med bay on board. Report there first,” she says.

I make my way onto the ship and am patched up and injected with nanites. Aliens of all kinds are there. Nurlok with their tiny babies. Human wanderers with strange tattoos and their voices that hurt my senses. There are Pranko. Lettes. Zocco. And others I cannot name.

“Where are we heading?” I ask the others as we leave.

The other aliens shrug.

For years I travel. For years I collect things from each place I go. I work hard, migrating from planet to planet. But every time I see a Hort, I check my heart, still small, and avoid them from shame. My heart never does grow in size again and I know I can never go back and join my people and truly be one of them. To be Hort is to breed and I can never do that.

 

More years rush by. And I have seen a hundred planets and a score of ships. This one is Brahar, the captain closer to pirate than trader. Not that it matters. I have hurt and killed. I have stolen and plundered. I have blood on my soul that will not wash away.

The ship approaches a space station. I watch it grow as we swing past the planet. I know that we all look like stars in the sky. The planet below is rumored to be full of ore and many think of the riches to be made.

For some reason, this time, I am restless to leave the ship. I step onto the docking bay. I see desperate aliens begging for work or for a ride down to the planet below crowd the area.

“Do me a favor,” a Nurlok pulls on my appendage. “Hold my spot while I go run an errand.”

“And what will you give me for it?” I ask.

“A favor,” she says.

I nod and take the Nurlok’s space in line. Then a crazed Brahar comes to me and asks me to hold a package. I am his last hope as everyone else has shooed him away. I gain a currency chit. Which I trade for a piece of spaceworthy fabric. Which I trade for expensive bottles of water. Which I trade and trade and trade. I go back onto the ship only to get my bag in order to trade more.

By the time the captain comes back to the ship to depart for the planet, I have increased my wealth a thousandfold. I feel calmer than I have in the years of moving from planet to planet, from ship to ship.

“All aboard,” the Captain says. And my mates rush to board. But I stay in place.

My traveling has made me hungry for a home. By doing these small favors for the desperate, I feel less desperate myself. These small useless favors have me feeling like my young self. After all, it has been years on the run.

I am too tired to move any more. Too tired for cruelty.

“Leave me on this station,” I say to the Captain.

“Once we leave the Yertina Feray space station to go to the planet Quint below, we won’t come back to get you. You’ll be on your own.”

I nod. I calculate the odds for my new future. One week. One month. One year. Five years. Ten. The future looks interesting. More interesting than the darkness of travel.

“I hear you have a timer. I can trade you that timer for a bin in the gutter,” a Gej pulls at my appendage to get my attention.

I look at the Captain. I look at the Gej. I make a choice. I nod at the Gej and hand him the timer from my bag.

“Goodbye, Captain,” I say.

The Captain shakes his head and boards the ship, which leaves without me.

My life aboard this space station begins.

But as the docking bay closes, I feel a pain. It is my heart. It flutters. I swear it grows.

And for the first time in my life, I rub my little useless wings for comfort.

 

“The Sound of Useless Wings” copyright © 2015 by Cecil Castellucci

Art copyright © 2015 by Dominick Saponaro

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