My grandfather coughs violently and wipes away the bloody phlegm with the back of his hand.
"Remember," he says, "to honor the traditions."
My family is gathered for the Passing of Truth, which means they have given up hope of my grandfather's recovery. They are here to listen to what will officially be recorded as his last words, despite however long he might still live.
My mother grips my hand. She dares not cry at this moment. To make a sound would be to interrupt my grandfather.
"The world is changing. The islands are changing. But we, the People, do not change." He strikes his chest to add emphasis to his words, but in his voice I hear the wheezing characteristic of Lowgod's Lung. He has spent too many years working in the refineries. My father, too, has already begun to show the early signs, though he has many years before he reaches my grandfather's state.
"You find yourself wealthy now. Wealthier than the islands have ever known before, but you do not forget who you are, where you come from." My grandfather smiles, his huge, white teeth flashing. He makes eye contact with me, and I can't help smiling, too. His personality has always been infectious. "Even as some of us are ready to venture out where the People have never been."
In his hands he grips a small medallion on a string he keeps looped around his wrist. I can't see it from where I stand, but I know the image upon its wooden surface. I know it very well. It is a carving of the Lucia bird, a holy creature among our people. My grandfather grips it tightly as he tells us his words of wisdom with a grand smile on his face and blood on his lips.
Legends say that the Lucia bird was born from the fires of our sun once it had created the twelve worlds of our system. Indeed, their feathers shine with the same vibrant gold and white of our star, and their call signals the coming of the dawn. They are treated as a sign of fortune, and my people take great pride in the flocks that live on our islands and feed from our water.
There is a superstition that your earliest memory of the bird will determine who you become as an adult. My grandfather has often told me of his own memory. When he was boy, maybe six or seven years old, he would help his mother make seacakes—little biscuits made from grain with seaweed for flavor and color—for the men and women who would go to work in the morning. On occasion, when his mother was pretending not to look, my grandfather would toss a handful of grain out the window and watch the Lucia birds gather to eat. This was typically met with chastisement from his mother, but to him it was worth it. With that smile on his face, he would tell me how beautiful it was to see the early morning sunlight reflect off of their wings as they danced about the yard.
You must understand that to interact with the Lucia bird is taboo. My mother taught me that they are the will of the divine. It is good fortune for one to come to you, but it must do so on its own—you may not entice it with food. Just as well, you are not allowed to treat one if it is injured. It is the highest sin to kill a Lucia bird.
Still, my grandfather would accept the stern swat from his mother in stride. Then, when she turned her back again, he would toss another handful of grain and laugh as the birds fluttered in the dawning light.
I used to go fishing with my grandfather once or twice a month when I was very young. The other fisherman often made fun of him since fishing was a male activity, but he had no grandson to go with, and I leapt at every opportunity to do boy things. He never seemed to mind, so we would fill a bag with seacakes and take a small boat out on the water to while away the day.
I never caught very much. In fact, neither of us did. I don't think that was the point of those trips. For my grandfather it was simply the joy of sitting on a boat, munching on seacakes, drinking beer, and being free from all cares until the sun dipped low in the sky. Once, on a rare day when the fish seemed more eager to bite than usual, my grandfather even began to throw them back. "If I actually wanted fish, I'd work on one of those trollers they send out with all that fancy imaging and tracking equipment," he said, and winked at me. "But don't tell your mother I said that or she'd serve me for supper instead!"
I got a different enjoyment out of these trips than he did. When we were alone, and my grandfather was feeling a buzz from the alcohol and freedom, he would tell me about our history. For a girl who was still too young to learn such things in school, this was magical.
"Our people came to Dandel on the first colony ships, over two thousand years ago," he taught me. "We settled here in the Shatra Isles with the intention to keep life simple. The colonization treaty guaranteed us our right to be independent, and we've done just that for two thousand years."
I didn't understand what he meant by keeping life simple. We still used solar-powered electric vehicles, had hospitals, and used the bio-generation technology for our crops. When I asked him about this he said, "Simplicity is a mindset, a way of life. Those are old technologies, but they're all anyone really needs. You see, mankind reached a point long ago when there was nothing more we could possibly want, but we just kept on going anyway. The People have managed to find that state of balance. We are free from disease, free from hunger, and, thanks to the colonization treaty, free from the politics. Most of all, we are able to preserve our traditions and religion. We are the People."
I was too young to ask about the tourists who visited frequently, or the wealthy foreigners who retired to small houses on our beaches. And I was too young to understand that only our apparent lack of resources and a fear of violating the colonization treaty kept us free from the conflicts that plagued the rest of Dandel.
"The world fights its wars, and the People remain the People," my grandfather said.
When we are born we are baptized by the salt of the ocean. We enter the world on land, but we draw life from the water, and when we die our body returns to the water. The People live unconnected to the AnsNet. We work beneath the sun during the day, and watch the moons rise at night.
And while we live, we live free.
I would not learn a different version of the truth until I met Mr. Kangor, a foreigner who had come to the islands to teach. He was the first person I ever saw with an AnsNet implant. It was not uncommon for me to enter the room to find him sitting there with his eyes closed as he accessed some piece of information, or talked with a friend back on the continent. The concept seemed like magic at the time.
Mr. Kangor told me that twenty years ago, nearly two years before I was born, a geologist discovered a massive amount of platinum in the oceans beneath our islands. Shortly afterward we were approached by a corporation which offered to pay many times more money than the People had ever seen before, and the resultant mining and refinement facilities would open up a whole new wave of jobs.
I still don't know why we took the offer back then. Maybe it had something to do with an error in the bio-gen crops which threatened our food supply that year, or a breakdown of medical equipment we could no longer replace. I never could get an answer from anyone.
My grandfather was one of the first to take the new jobs offered in the offshore refineries. My father held out for almost five years before he realized the money was simply too good to pass up.
Another memory from my childhood: every once in a while a bunch of us children would run out to the beach to watch the great transportation ships descend from orbit. They often brought a large shipment of Salamanders, those bulky amphibious vehicles that were used to transport material from island to island, which they released into the water all at once. We would watch a hundred of them creep across the ocean simultaneously, like an army of red, chitinous beetles. To a child who never saw a building higher than two stories, or a plane that fit more than six passengers, this was a thrilling sight.
To this day I don't think that my grandfather knows what the refineries are actually used for, even as he lies on his deathbed. He never seemed to care about such things. It was true that platinum was valuable enough on its own, but it was not the metal by itself that held such worth.
Mr. Kangor taught me that certain physicist, Louis Lowgod, had recently developed a process for refining a material called hyradite which had become key in developing new energy technologies. More importantly, hyradite was the substance that could finally allow the development of true faster-than-light travel, and platinum was necessary in its manufacture. Even now I can't really understand the physics behind it, but I do understand the significance.
The People did not know it, but control of hyradite refining technology was the reason for the new outbreak of war on Dandel.
My grandfather finishes his Passing of Truth and relaxes on the bed. The ritual is old and formulaic. The idea is that one should pass on his accumulated wisdom before death, but there is little variation in the words that are recorded. The dying tell you to be kind, to remember that family is important, to honor the traditions. They say what people expect to hear, and my grandfather is no different.
He gestures for people to clear the room. Still holding back tears, my mother moves through the door, my father resting a gentle hand on her shoulder. My aunts and uncles follow, as does my little sister, but when I try to leave my grandfather motions for me to wait. He wants to talk to me alone.
"You leave in just one week, yes?" he says. He gives his familiar smile and takes my hand as we talk. I try as hard as possible not to let him notice my pained expression. I cannot bear to see him this way. The grandfather I remember is strong and quick to laugh. This man before me is barely more than a ghost beneath the sheets. I almost cannot feel his touch, it has become so weak. The doctors say there is nothing they can do.
"That's right. I've already begun packing my things."
"My granddaughter, the universe traveler!" He says it in a mocking voice, but I can see how happy the words make him. "It's been two thousand years since any of us have left this world."
"Well, I guess one of us had to do it sometime." I try to keep smiling, just for him.
"I knew you were meant for more. You were always so curious. Living on the islands could never have been enough for you, but Stizon? Another planet? I never would have guessed!"
"Anafel University is one of the best universities in the nearest twenty worlds, grandfather."
"I know, child, I know." He gives me a mischievous grin. "You will have to come back to visit and tell me how it is."
I can't muster a response. I just grip his hand a little tighter.
It is difficult for me to recall my own earliest memory of the Lucia bird. I am sure I have seen them from the day I was born since they are all over the islands. However, there is one particular event that sticks in my mind. . .
I was nine years old. A new family had just moved into the neighborhood. They were foreigners, technicians brought in to operate and service industrial equipment required for the mining. I can remember them clearly: a mother and father with three children—an older brother and two sisters. The sisters were twins. I recall being jealous of their long, white-blonde hair, so rare among the People.
One evening, the father was driving a Salamander on one of the transport roads that went by our house when he clipped a Lucia bird. I don't know why the bird did not move out of the way. Maybe it was sick, or maybe the driver was traveling too fast for safety. Either way, the driver did not realize the significance of what he had done and continued on without stopping.
The neighborhood went into an uproar. I don't think it was just hitting the bird that was the problem. It may have been passed off as a tragic accident in other circumstances, but what created such a whirlwind of anger was the driver's apparent ignorance of what he had done, and his refusal to show remorse.
"It was just a stupid bird," he said, later that night. "If I looked outside right now I'd see a hundred of 'em."
He and his family may have been seriously injured if my grandfather had not convinced them to stay somewhere else that night. My grandfather even drove them and paid for the hotel room to show the sincerity of his concern. The next morning the two front windows of the family's house were smashed, and somebody had taken a club to their electric car. The driver of the Salamander very quickly received a transfer to another island. I did not see them again.
The thing is, the bird wasn't killed by the impact. After I heard about the accident I went out to where it happened and found the Lucia bird laying on the side of the road, injured. The white and gold feathers seemed duller than usual. Many were pointing in the wrong directions, and its breaths came in little, strained gasps as it tried to use its smashed wing.
The worst part was the sound. The Lucia bird tried to call out, but the melodic cry which filled the early mornings had been twisted into a sad, painful wail. It broke my heart to hear it. And every time it tried to push itself up only to fall back to the ground, broken, I could feel something tearing at me deep inside my chest.
Everyone ignored it. Nobody tried to help it, or move it. That was not allowed by the customs of the People, so the bird was simply left there on its own.
When I went to bed at night I could hear its pained call in the distance. I fell asleep thinking about the Lucia bird lying there, cold, dying, and alone.
I'm not sure when my restlessness began. I think it was during my early teenage years when I started reading the world news on the AnsNet. Mr. Kangor had a portable access console that he would let students use. I would read about the development of the war and see what region of Dandel the fighting had moved to, or what colonies on the outer planets had become involved. My family had no interest in such things. Once, when an entire city of four hundred thousand was wiped out by a single weapon, I tried to tell my parents about it.
"They have always fought on the mainland. What they do has nothing to do with the People," was all my mother had to say.
My studies in school were also a contributing factor to my growing unease, or perhaps it was my unease that made me study so hard.
Education on the islands was not compulsory. Boys and girls frequently went to school until around age twelve or thirteen when they would drop out and begin an apprenticeship, or undergo technical training in a specific field. Most of the technology we used was still two thousand years old. There was little need for research or theoretical knowledge. As long as a person knew how to use the equipment necessary for a job, then that was enough. Even our doctors only knew enough to operate the computerized equipment with a vague understanding on how it worked.
That is why it was so unusual for me, a girl, to continue going to school well up to the age of eighteen. On days when my mother was too busy, my grandfather would get up extra early to take me to class. He supported my curiosity more than anyone. There were times when I even heard him arguing with my mother about it.
"The girl spends too much time in her books. She should be doing something more useful by now!" my mother would complain.
"You do not stop a fish from swimming, do you?" he would reply. "And I will not stop that girl from her learning!"
I loved school. I was able to learn about life on over a hundred worlds, and I felt special knowing things that my family did not. I doubt anyone else in the Shatra Isles knew that the people on Dodaras genetically programmed trees to grow into shapes they used for houses, or that the flying lizards on Bokon never aged, and could theoretically live forever.
But my education did not always bring me happiness. I also learned about much darker things. Mr. Kangor taught me about the refinement of hyradite.
"Hyradite itself isn't radioactive," he told me, "but the manufacturing process produces a fine, corrosive dust that can cause scarring and the formation of cysts on the cilia in the lungs if inhaled over a long period. I wouldn't worry too much, though. They install protective shielding in the refineries. As long as safety precautions are followed, there's no risk."
And so the restlessness began. I would study my books, learning about history, biology, and math, and I would log into the AnsNet to watch the news.
Confederation forces landed in Shiazua, 48,000 killed in fighting.
Corporation PMC forces took Daifel, a region rich in mineral deposits, 12,000 killed.
A three day fleet battle off of Dandel's second moon, 89,000 killed.
All along I couldn't help thinking about the fact that hyradite, the very substance the rest of the planet was willing to kill for, was being produced right here in our tiny islands, unnoticed.
In the midst of all this, I remember how elated I was the day that Mr. Kangor pulled me aside to tell me that I had received an opportunity to study at Anafel University. I was going to leave the islands and see another world. Nobody else was more excited about the news than my grandfather.
"You are the child of my child! I always knew someone in our family was destined for greatness!" he said.
My grandfather erupts into a coughing fit, the worst one that I have ever seen. Blood stains his white sheets, and he contorts himself into nightmarish positions trying to take a breath that his body will not let him have.
My mother comes running back into the room, tears streaming down her cheeks, quickly followed by the medical technician we kept on standby. My father tries to hold my grandfather down as he struggles, and my sister calls out to give him air. My mother is in hysterics. She watches the man who raised her dying painfully on the bed as chaos erupts in the room.
The medical technician holds a device against my grandfather's chest and presses a button, but he can only step back and shake his head. Lowgod's Lung is a new disease, one his ancient tools have never seen before, and he is not equipped to deal with it. There is nothing that anyone on the islands can do.
As his body is wracked by spasms my grandfather drops the small medallion with the carving of the Lucia bird, and I see it land on the carpet.
I cannot stand to be here anymore. I leave and run up the stairs to my bedroom where I slam the door behind me and collapse on the bed.
I don't want anyone to see me as I bury my face in the pillow and cry.
Two years ago, when I was sixteen, my grandfather and I sat outside to watch the stars. Both of my parents were already asleep, so my grandfather decided to let me try beer for the first time. The taste was disgusting, but I got to see him laugh every time I took a drink. I finished four bottles.
It was a clear night on the islands, and we could see the orbital cannons glisten like stars. Every once in a while there would be a brief sparkle as a warhead found its mark, and then everything would return to an eerie, shimmering beauty.
"The sky is feisty tonight," my grandfather commented.
I tried to explain to him then about why the people were fighting. I tried to tell him about hyradite, about why he worked in the refinery and why what we produced here in the islands was so important to the rest of the world.
But my words were muddled by alcohol, and my grandfather was a stubborn old man. "The People are not a part of the rest of the world," he said. "If we are so important to them, then so be it. They might fight their wars, but we, the People, will not be affected." Then he smiled, always smiled, and took a drink from his beer.
The Lucia bird did not die for a long time.
The first day, it still had the strength to struggle. It would flap its broken wing and try to stand, but it only succeeded in flopping around in a circle on the ground. No matter how hard it tried it could not move more than a short distance before it ran out of energy and fell again.
Its cries were the loudest that day.
The second day, it did not move. At first I thought it might have died, but when I approached to check on it the Lucia bird began calling out again. The sound had become softer, weaker, but it was still filled with pain.
On the third day, it barely made any sound at all. The noise was only a raspy squeak, but even when I was in my house I thought I could hear it, and it was all I thought about at school.
All this time, people went about their lives and left the bird there by the side of the road. I tried to tell my mother, to ask her to do something, but she told me to put such thoughts aside. You do not interact with the Lucia bird.
That night, once I was sure everyone else was asleep, I went out to the road. I had not been able to fall asleep that day. I could not stop thinking about the Lucia bird. To leave it there, broken, in agony, could not have been the right thing to do.
Slowly, I raised my foot above the tiny gold and white body.
I could see the unnatural bend of the wing, and the place where the bone pressed against the skin. Its breathing was rapid, the chest rising and falling as it struggled for every breath. It could barely make a sound to cry out anymore. To kill it would be mercy. All I had to do was bring my foot down and feel the brief crunch of bone and feather.
But I couldn't do it. In my mind all I could hear was my mother's voice.
"The Lucia bird was born from a star, just like we came from a star, long ago," she told me. "That's why the People and the Lucia bird live together. We respect each other because we understand each other. We share our history, and we share our freedom. The People and the Lucia bird do not change. Never forget that. And never forget who we are."
The injured bird stared up at me. I do not pretend to understand the emotions of animals. I may have imagined it pleading with me, or maybe it was fear that I saw in its eyes. It might be that birds don't feel any of those things, but I do know that the memory of that broken shape, staring up at me with those dark eyes in the night, has stuck with me more than any other.
What did I do then? The only thing I could. I lowered my raised foot and turned to walk away.
The funeral procession of the People is a morbidly beautiful sight.
Local residents, along with friends and family from neighboring islands, light countless candles that form a path from the deceased's house to the edge of the water. In the middle of the night, with only the glow of the candles and the light of the stars, the dead is carried to the water's edge and enclosed in a boat designed to sink along with its contents once it reaches the deep ocean.
The body is returned to the water, but the spirit remains on land. A stone is placed in a location appropriate to the deceased bearing his final wisdom.
Tonight is a grand procession. Hundreds walk in silence, following a wagon that transports a beloved cargo, led on by a thousand tiny yellow points of light. It is one of the largest processions seen in some time.
And in the morning, a small stone is placed next to a dock with an old fishing boat, engraved with an inscription that begins Remember to honor the traditions. . .
I stand at the space port, preparing to board the shuttle that will take me to a transport waiting in orbit. I find it a little funny that the ship I will be taking is one of the new commercial vessels equipped with a first generation Lowgod engine. It is because of Louis Lowgod that I am able to attend a university on another world. The six hundred light year trip to Stizon will only take me three weeks. Hyradite technology has already changed interstellar relations.
I pull out a seacake from my bag to eat while I wait. My family already saw me off at the ferry I took to the mainland. My mother was still crying. After all, I, too, am leaving her.
I had a nightmare last night. It is one I have had with increasing recurrence lately. I dreamt that the war had reached the Shatra Isles, and that everything was engulfed in a giant flash that stretched out towards the sun. In the dream we became a star, just as we came from the stars.
But I know that this is just a dream. The world fights its wars, and the People remain the People.
I believed that, once.
A chime sounds and a female voice tells me that it is time to board. I shake off the remnants of the dream and finish my seacake. As I climb onto the shuttle, I grip a small object in my hand. It is a tiny wooden medallion on string looped around my wrist, carved with a picture of the Lucia Bird.