Tor.com is honored to reprint “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages, as featured in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9—publishing May 12th from Solaris.
Distant worlds, time travel, epic adventure, unseen wonders, and much more! The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume nine, and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents.
It was still dark when Corry woke, no lights on in the neighbors’ houses, just a yellow glow from the streetlight on the other side of the elm. Through her open window, the early summer breeze brushed across her coverlet like silk.
Corry dressed silently, trying not to see the empty walls, the boxes piled in a corner. She pulled on a shirt and shorts, looping the laces of her shoes around her neck and climbed from bed to sill and out the window with only a whisper of fabric against the worn wood. Then she was outside.
The grass was chill and damp beneath her bare feet. She let them rest on it for a minute, the freshly-mowed blades tickling her toes, her heels sinking into the springy-sponginess of the dirt. She breathed deep, to catch it all—the cool and the green and the stillness—holding it in for as long as she could before slipping on her shoes.
A morning to remember. Every little detail.
She walked across the lawn, stepping over the ridge of clippings along the verge, onto the sidewalk. Theirs was a corner lot. In a minute, she would be out of sight. For once, she was up before her practical, morning-people parents. The engineer and the physicist did not believe in sleeping in, but Corry could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in her eleven years that she had seen the dawn.
No one else was on the street. It felt solemn and private, as if she had stepped out of time, so quiet she could hear the wind ruffle the wide canopy of trees, an owl hooting from somewhere behind her, the diesel chug of the all-night bus two blocks away. She crossed Branson St. and turned down the alley that ran behind the houses.
A dandelion’s spiky leaves pushed through a crack in the cement. Corry squatted, touching it with a finger, tracing the jagged outline, memorizing its contours. A weed. No one planted it or planned it. She smiled and stood up, her hand against a wooden fence, feeling the grain beneath her palm, the crackling web of old paint, and continued on. The alley stretched ahead for several blocks, the pavement a narrowing pale V.
She paused a minute later to watch a cat prowl stealthily along the base of another fence, hunting or slinking home. It looked up, saw her, and sped into a purposeful thousand-leg trot before disappearing into a yard. She thought of her own cat, Mr. Bumble, who now belonged to a neighbor, and wiped at the edge of her eye. She distracted herself by peering into backyards at random bits of other people’s lives—lawn chairs, an overturned tricycle, a metal barbecue grill, its lid open.
Barbecue. She hadn’t thought to add that to her list. She’d like to have one more whiff of charcoal, lit with lighter fluid, smoking and wafting across the yards, smelling like summer. Too late now. No one barbecued their breakfast.
She walked on, past Remington Rd. She brushed her fingers over a rosebush—velvet petals, leathery leaves; pressed a hand against the oft-stapled roughness of a telephone pole, fringed with remnants of garage-sale flyers; stood on tiptoe to trace the red octagon of a stop sign. She stepped from sidewalk to grass to asphalt and back, tasting the textures with her feet, noting the cracks and holes and bumps, the faded paint on the curb near a fire hydrant.
“Fire hydrant,” she said softly, checking it off in her mind. “Rain gutter. Lawn mower. Mailbox.”
The sky was just beginning to purple in the east when she reached Anna’s back gate. She knew it as well as her own. They’d been best friends since first grade, had been in and out of each other’s houses practically every day. Corry tapped on the frame of the porch’s screen door with one knuckle.
A moment later, Anna came out. “Hi, Spunk,” she whispered.
“Hi, Spork,” Corry answered. She waited while Anna eased the door closed so it wouldn’t bang, sat on the steps, put on her shoes.
Their bikes leaned against the side of the garage. Corry had told her mom that she had given her bike to Anna’s sister Pat. And she would, in an hour or two. So it hadn’t really been a lie, just the wrong tense.
They walked their bikes through the gate. In the alley, Corry threw a leg over and settled onto the vinyl seat, its shape molded to hers over the years. Her bike. Her steed. Her hands fit themselves around the rubber grips of the handlebars and she pushed off with one foot. Anna was a few feet behind, then beside her. They rode abreast down to the mouth of the alley and away.
The slight grade of Thompson St. was perfect for coasting, the wind on their faces, blowing Corry’s short dark hair off her forehead, rippling Anna’s ponytail. At the bottom of the hill, Corry stood tall on her pedals, pumping hard, the muscles in her calves a good ache as the chain rattled and whirred as fast and constant as a train.
“Trains!” she yelled into the wind. Another item from her list.
“Train whistles!” Anna yelled back.
They leaned into a curve. Corry felt gravity pull at her, pumped harder, in control. They turned a corner and a moment later, Anna said, “Look.”
Corry slowed, looked up, then braked to a stop. The crescent moon hung above a gap in the trees, a thin sliver of blue-white light.
Anna began the lullaby her mother used to sing when Corry first slept over. On the second line, Corry joined in.
I see the moon, and the moon sees me.
The moon sees somebody I want to see.
The sound of their voices was liquid in the stillness, sweet and smooth. Anna reached out and held Corry’s hand across the space between their bikes.
God bless the moon, and God bless me,
And God bless the somebody I want to see.
They stood for a minute, feet on the ground, still holding hands. Corry gave a squeeze and let go. “Thanks,” she said.
“Any time,” said Anna, and bit her lip.
“I know,” Corry said. Because it wouldn’t be. She pointed. The sky was lighter now, palest blue at the end of the street shading to indigo directly above. “Let’s get to the park before the sun comes up.”
No traffic, no cars. It felt like they were the only people in the world. They headed east, riding down the middle of the street, chasing the shadows of their bikes from streetlight to streetlight, never quite catching them. The houses on both sides were dark, only one light in a kitchen window making a yellow rectangle on a driveway. As they passed it, they smelled bacon frying, heard a fragment of music.
The light at 38th St. was red. They stopped, toes on the ground, waiting. A raccoon scuttled from under a hedge, hump-backed and quick, disappearing behind a parked car. In the hush, Corry heard the metallic tick from the light box before she saw it change from red to green.
Three blocks up Ralston Hill. The sky looked magic now, the edges wiped with pastels, peach and lavender and a blush of orange. Corry pedaled as hard as she could, felt her breath ragged in her throat, a trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades. Under the arched entrance to the park, into the broad, grassy picnic area that sloped down to the creek.
They abandoned their bikes to the grass, and walked to a low stone wall. Corry sat, cross-legged, her best friend beside her, and waited for the sun to rise for the last time.
She knew it didn’t actually rise, that it wasn’t moving. They were, rotating a quarter mile every second, coming all the way around once every twenty-four hours, exposing themselves once again to the star they called the sun, and naming that moment morning. But it was the last time she’d get to watch.
“There it is,” Anna said. Golden light pierced the spaces between the trunks of the trees, casting long thin shadows across the grass. They leaned against each other and watched as the sky brightened to its familiar blue, and color returned: green leaves, pink bicycles, yellow shorts. Behind them lights began to come on in houses and a dog barked.
By the time the sun touched the tops of the distant trees, the backs of their legs were pebbled with the pattern of the wall, and it was daytime.
Corry sat, listening to the world waking up and going about its ordinary business: cars starting, birds chirping, a mother calling out, “Jimmy! Breakfast!” She felt as if her whole body was aware, making all of this a part of her.
Over by the playground, geese waddled on the grass, pecking for bugs. One goose climbed onto the end of the teeter-totter and sat, as if waiting for a playmate. Corry laughed out loud. She would never have thought to put that on her list. “What’s next?” Anna asked.
“The creek, before anyone else is there.”
They walked single file down the steep railroad-tie steps, flanked by tall oaks and thick undergrowth dotted with wildflowers. “Wild,” Corry said softly.
When they reached the bank they took off their shoes and climbed over boulders until they were surrounded by rushing water. The air smelled fresh, full of minerals, the sound of the water both constant and never-the-same as it poured over rocks and rills, eddied around logs.
They sat down on the biggest, flattest rock and eased their bare feet into the creek, watching goosebumps rise up their legs. Corry felt the current swirl around her. She watched the speckles of light dance on the water, the darkness under the bank, ten thousand shades of green and brown everywhere she looked. Sun on her face, wind in her hair, water at her feet, rock beneath her.
“How much of your list did you get to do?” asked Anna.
“A lot of it. It kept getting longer. I’d check one thing off, and it’d remind me of something else. I got to most of the everyday ones, ’cause I could walk, or ride my bike. Mom was too busy packing and giving stuff away and checking off her own lists to take me to the aquarium, or to the zoo, so I didn’t see the jellies or the elephants and the bears.”
Anna nodded. “My mom was like that too, when we were moving here from Indianapolis.”
“At least you knew where you were going. We’re heading off into the great unknown, my dad says. Boldly going where nobody’s gone before.”
“Like that old TV show.”
“Yeah, except we’re not going to get anywhere. At least not me, or my mom or my dad. The Goddard is a generation ship. The planet it’s heading for is five light years away, and even with solar sails and stuff, the trip’s going to take a couple hundred years.”
“Yeah. It won’t land until my great-great—I don’t know, add about five more greats to that—grandchildren are around. I’ll be old—like thirty—before we even get out of the solar system. Dad keeps saying that it’s the adventure of a lifetime, and we’re achieving humankind’s greatest dream, and blah, blah, blah. But it’s his dream.” She picked at a piece of lichen on the rock.
“Does your mom want to go?”
“Uh-huh. She’s all excited about the experiments she can do in zero-g. She says it’s an honor that we were chosen and I should be proud to be a pioneer.”
“Will you be in history books?”
Corry shrugged. “Maybe. There are around four thousand people going, from all over the world, so I’d be in tiny, tiny print. But maybe.”
“Four thousand?” Anna whistled. “How big a rocket is it?”
“Big. Bigger than big.” Corry pulled her feet up, hugging her arms around her knees. “Remember that humongous cruise ship we saw when we went to Miami?”
“Sure. It looked like a skyscraper, lying on its side.”
“That’s what this ship is like, only bigger. And rounder. My mom keeps saying it’ll be just like a cruise—any food anytime I want, games to play, all the movies and books and music ever made—after school, of course. Except people on cruise ships stop at ports and get off and explore. Once we board tonight, we’re never getting off. I’m going to spend the rest of my whole entire life in a big tin can.”
“Tell me about it.” Corry reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper, scribbles covering both sides. She smoothed it out on her knee. “I’ve got another list.” She cleared her throat and began to read:
Twenty Reasons Why Being on a Generation Ship Sucks,
by Corrine Garcia-Kelly
- I will never go away to college.
- I will never see blue sky again, except in pictures.
- There will never be a new kid in my class.
- I will never meet anyone my parents don’t already know.
I will never have anything new that isn’t
manhuman-made. Manufactured or processed or grown in a lab.
- Once I get my ID chip, my parents will always know exactly where I am.
- I will never get to drive my Aunt Frieda’s convertible, even though she promised I could when I turned sixteen.
- I will never see the ocean again.
- I will never go to Paris.
- I will never meet a tall, dark stranger, dangerous or not.
- I will never move away from home.
- I will never get to make the rules for my own life.
- I will never ride my bike to a new neighborhood and find a store I haven’t seen before.
- I will never ride my bikeagain.
- I will never go outsideagain.
- I will never take a walk to anywhere that isn’t planned and mapped and numbered.
- I will never see another thunderstorm. Or lightning bugs. Or fireworks.
- I will never buy an old house and fix it up.
- I will never eat another Whopper.
- I will never go to the state fair and win a stuffed animal.
She stopped. “I was getting kind of sleepy toward the end.”
“I could tell.” Anna slipped her arm around Corry’s waist. “What will you miss most?”
“You.” Corry pulled Anna closer.
“Me, too.” Anna settled her head on her friend’s shoulder. “I can’t believe I’ll never see you again.”
“I know.” Corry sighed. “I like Earth. I like that there are parts that no one made, and that there are always surprises.” She shifted her arm a little. “Maybe I don’t want to be a pioneer. I mean, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Mom’s always said I could be anything I wanted to be, but now? The Peace Corps is out. So is being a coal miner or a deep-sea diver or a park ranger. Or an antique dealer.”
“You like old things.”
“I do. They’re from the past, so everything has a story.”
“I thought so.” Anna reached into her pocket with her free hand. “I used the metals kit from my dad’s printer, and made you something.” She pulled out a tissue paper-wrapped lump and put it in Corry’s lap.
Corry tore off the paper. Inside was a silver disk, about five centimeters across. In raised letters around the edge it said SPUNK-CORRY-ANNA-SPORK-2065. Etched in the center was a photo of the two of them, arm in arm, wearing tall pointed hats with stars, taken at Anna’s last birthday party. Corry turned it over. The back said: Optimae amicae aeternum. “What does that mean?”
“‘Best friends forever.’ At least that’s what Translator said.”
“It’s great. Thanks. I’ll keep it with me, all the time.”
“You’d better. It’s an artifact.”
“It is really nice.”
“I’m serious. Isn’t your space ship going off to another planet with a whole library of Earth’s art and culture and all?”
“But by the time it lands, that’ll be ancient history and tales. No one alive will ever have been on Earth, right?”
“So your mission—if you choose to accept it—is to preserve this artifact from your home planet.” Anna shrugged. “It isn’t old now, but it will be. You can tell your kids stories about it—about us. It’ll be an heirloom. Then they’ll tell their kids, and—”
“—and their kids, and on down for umpity generations.” Corry nodded, turning the disc over in her hands. “By then it’ll be a relic. There’ll be legends about it.” She rolled it across her palm, silver winking in the sun “How’d you think of that?”
“Well, you said you’re only allowed to take ten kilos of personal stuff with you, and that’s all you’ll ever have from Earth. Which is why you made your list and have been going around saying goodbye to squirrels and stop signs and Snickers bars and all.”
“Ten kilos isn’t much. My mom said the ship is so well-stocked I won’t need much, but it’s hard. I had to pick between my bear and my jewelry box.”
“I know. And in twenty years, I’ll probably have a house full of clothes and furniture and junk. But the thing is, when I’m old and I die, my kids’ll get rid of most of it, like we did with my Gramma. Maybe they’ll keep some pictures. But then their kids will do the same thing. So in a couple hundred years, there won’t be any trace of me here—”
“—but you’ll be part of the legend.”
“Okay, then. I accept the mission.” Corry turned and kissed Anna on the cheek.
“You’ll take us to the stars?”
“You bet.” She slipped the disc into her pocket. “It’s getting late.”
She stood up and reached to help Anna to her feet. “C’mon. Let’s ride.”
“Amicae Aeternum” copyright © Ellen Klages, 2014
Ellen Klages is the author of two acclaimed YA historical novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell Award, the New Mexico Book Award, and the Lopez Award; and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book Awards. Her story, “Caligo Lane,” also appears in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Nine.