Cavalcade of Rejection: That Last Quiet Stretch

Welcome back to the Cavalcade. It's an odd time for an update, coming as it does in that intermediary time between Christmas and New Year's, but I have a bunch of belated presents for you. But first, I'd like to leave a shout-out to my Chinese readers:

你好!谢谢你阅读!我喜欢注释!

Now, a few related points before today's story. First, the Cavalcade of Rejection ebook is having another free period from Friday, December 27th to Sunday, December 29th. It would really help me out if you could download a copy and leave a review - and remember that the ebook contains stories not featured here, so if you like this series, you can get even more of it.

Second, I'd like to remind everyone that the serial All the Stars Within Our Grasp is still going strong. It's up to Chapter 6 as of this writing, and you can subscribe for free to get updates as they are released.

That second one is important because today's reject is based in the ATSWOG universe. I mentioned in a previous post that I had hoped to expand the universe with short stories, novellas, and possibly even other full novels, both as a promotional device and just for fun. The ebook collection contains three stories in the ATSWOG universe - "Diplomatic Etiquette and the Alien Menace," "Acts of Creation" and "Unbroken Waters" - and today's offering is a fourth. This one is set in the Agolgan colonies, a location mentioned in passing in the novel which is home to one of the major non-human species of the Stretch. This one's a bit moodier than the novel, but I find it touching. Shame no one else did, but what's new there, huh?

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That Last Quiet Stretch

Mr. Harker built that stitched-together scrap pile of a rocket ship to put distance between him and the pains of a lost and tragic love, or at least that's what the old fools kicking around Agolga always said. They're wrong, but I get why they think that. Sure, Mr. Harker had taken a man-sized portion of loss for himself, and the tears were no secret in these parts. Plus, one look at that misbegotten vehicle, that cylinder of scrap iron and explosives all held together with nothing more than reclaimed wire and sodder and prayers and well-wishes, and you'd wonder if the bastard climbing into it just didn't care if he lived or died. Maybe you reach a new horizon beyond that which man dares to glimpse, or maybe you explode and wind up strewn across ten billion cubic miles of the void - either way, the heartache is well forgotten.

It's a lot of garbage, though, just the idle tongue-wags of a bunch of bored nitwits looking to have a little fun at the expense of a man with dreams. If anything, Mr. Harker was looking for love - not the love of those people who fed him big fancy lies and then turned to specters when the going got tough, but his first love, his childhood love. Mr. Harker was going back to the source of it all, going back to that moment when he turned his peepers to the skies and wondered what was up there, spinning around all those little lights. He was going back to those smooth days when a boy was free to ask himself if there wasn't something more to existence than his little piece of paradise in the habitation zone.

People forget that he was born into this colony. The rest of them were adventurous souls, or at least adventurous souls of that type that will fly to the edge of space just so long as they wind up someplace with a respectable eatery and a comfy place to sleep. Not adventurers as much as exceptionally, deeply intense tourists - just the type that the wise men in Exterra want for their colony worlds, otherwise boring people with a taste for a cheap moment of glory. It wasn't an easy thrill for Mr. Harker, though. He was carried here by his parents who, not long ago, ended up departing this universe of ours for good and all. The Agolgan colony is all he's ever known, and that's pretty terrible if you think about it. What's there to see on this withered little rock, anyway? How many times can you take a day trip around the whole sphere before it sheds that adventurous charm?

How long did it take before I lost my taste for the place? Maybe a year, two, couldn't have even been three. My own rationale for coming to this craggy stone vanished a long time ago, blown back into space. I'm sure that I told people some poetically courageous nonsense about pushing back the boundaries of human understanding into the infinite horizon as we continue our mastery of the great beyond. The real reason? Couldn't tell you anymore. I'm comfortable, though, as much as anyone is here, and I'm not bound to leave. Sometimes I wish I was more like Mr. Harker, with a little more of that steel in me; other times, I'm grateful that I don't have that ache.

Mr. Harker has had a bad run, thats for sure, but if those gossips really want to find his lost love, they should gander up to the north after the amber sunlight fades into the night. There's this smear of starlight up there, starting a few degrees east and continuing until it almost touches the crest of the planet - the Exterran Stretch, the new homeland beyond the void. I know what people here think about the Stretch, that place they abandoned for the colony worlds. Its no place to be - a corrupt hollow, or a sprawling slum, or a battlefield not yet stained with blood, or maybe just another dumping ground for bad memories. Well, those are just their opinions. For another type, the Stretch is hope. It is people not yet met, cultures not yet experienced, and - yes - loves not yet sundered. Above all of that, though, is his desire to reunite with the love that he forgot, the one stolen by the relentless grind of life and the myth of maturity. He was always an explorer at heart but a real one, a hardy and nomadic soul, not a dilettante like the rest of us.

The tragic part of this love story is that Mr. Harker won't make it to the Stretch, or anywhere close. I gave his ship the once-over myself - my honor as one of the few old nimrods who didnt mock him too much. Yes, his ship works in some technical sense, and it has the means to support its passenger for quite a while. It has ample power to twist out of gravity's strong hands and emerge into the black expanse. What it lacks is certainty. One math error, a stray fleck of ice, an unexpectedly breezy launch day and that flying trash can of his will go back to being scrap, its pilot only a meaty ballast. I begged Mr. Harker to give up on the ship and just pay a mercenary pilot to give him a lift - he has the money, and I'd be willing to chip in for a good cause. No, he said, the trip itself is also important. Better to get there by my own wits than by some crazy flyboy wholl fleece me in the end and snatch all the glory. Better to make it myself, or fail by myself, and know that it was me.

You know, I could leave this place if I wanted, I have the money for one of those crazy flyboys – why do I stay? Why don't I take off if the magic's gone? Fear? No, it's nothing as effortless as that. There's nothing back in the Stretch I haven't seen, other than a few new faces and the usual fads. So why do I stay here and let a loon like Mr. Harker and his starborn spirit mock me like this? I do still have something to lose, that's part of it, but maybe it's that I let the world beat that spirit out of me. If I lost everything or gave it all up, could I turn into that? Maybe that's the real fear, that I'd have to throw away the cozy certainty to get that feeling and I know I never will.

I don't know, maybe I'm reading way too much into this. Maybe Mr. Harker really does have a death wish and this is his way of concealing an extremely elaborate exit from life. Maybe I'm the fool to buy into some romantic vision of the spirit of exploration which, in the end, is just another breed of madness. It's not like I'll ever know, and no matte what happens I don't see Mr. Harker returning to the colony. Dead or alive, he succeeded at what he set out to do, and maybe that was enough in the end.

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